Diamond-Cut Life

How To Be Rich In What Matters

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Fourteen Ways To Add Value To Any Situation, Part I

July 20th, 2014 by Alison · diamond-cut life

Whenever we add value to a situation, we become richer in what matters. And so do those around us. Adding value means adding little crystals of integrity, connectedness, productivity, vitality and sustainability. 

Do the hard thing you’ve been avoiding. The tough conversation about why your project isn’t succeeding . . .  responding to that troubling feedback . . .  figuring out how much debt you have, and how you’re going to repay it. Here are tips for doing hard things.

Do hard tasks first thing in the day, before distractions can derail you. Many hard things get done in increments. So you add value in this moment by doing the first increment, i.e. setting up a meeting for that tough conversation, or setting up a spreadsheet in which to total up your debt-load. Tomorrow you add value by taking the next step. Best practice is to set aside a whole morning or afternoon to do the hard thing, if that’s what it will take. Generally the harder the thing, the more value we add by engaging with it.

Conserve valuable resources. If dollars are currently scarce in your workplace or household, add value by conserving dollars. If time is the scarcest commodity, add value by eliminating unnecessary steps or becoming more efficient.

Keep in mind that clean water, fossil fuels and protein foods, while abundant in most parts of the first world, are typically scarce, valuable resources in the developing world. Let’s each act like a citizen of the planet, beyond being an employee in a workplace. See the first two sections of this page for ways to conserve valuable resources.

Use wiser words, rather than more words. Last year I finally figured out how to get my husband to change. Hint: it wasn’t by voicing more of my opinions to him. But then, I am an extrovert who expresses herself easily. The mainstream communication style wasn’t designed for introverts, despite introverts being a significant portion of the population. Here is how to relate better to introverts. Communicating more skillfully adds value to any situation.

Pause before responding if there is tension in the air or a lot at stake. The pause adds the value. Knee-jerk reactions make troubled situations worse. Those too-fast blurts will bleach value out of situations like dribbled Clorox burning pale spots into your best black pants.

Sometimes the pause that adds value is the seven seconds in which you regain your temper. Or the pause could last seven weeks, during which you gain a lot more information, and you finally figure out whether yes or no is the right answer to that big question.

Find a technique to create the crucial pause. My husband and I ring The Bell whenever we start to get into an argument. Either one of us can ring it, and once it’s rung, we both stay quiet and take deep breaths for as long as the sound stays in the air. The anger, and the fight, generally dissolve as a result of the pause. Pausing before responding will add value in any tense situation.

Prepare for what you’d rather not think about, like natural disaster. Preparing for disaster and hardship arguably adds more value to a situation than anything else on this list. But it’s long-term value, not immediate value. That’s what makes it harder for most of us — we get hooked on the short term. Here are tips on preparing for a power outage, just for one example. Are your computer files being backed up every night? 

Apologize.  Saying we’re sorry or that we were wrong is like doing a chiropractic adjustment to a situation. Things click back into alignment. Trust and energy start flowing again. Work can move forward. Value has been added.

I apologized yesterday to my colleague Larissa, in front of Ivan, another colleague. “I’m sorry I was snarky to you in our meeting. I will do better in future!”  I said.  Larisa accepted my apology, and ended up apologizing for her own part of the problem. But even if she hadn’t, I added value by owning that I can and should behave better than I had. Apologizing in front of Ivan added more accountability. Holding ourselves accountable is another way to add value.

Ask: “What do you need from me that you’re not getting?”  Then listen closely. Listen patiently, because people may need time to figure out what they need from you.

The person’s answer, if they are being honest, will tell us exactly how we can add value to the situation or relationship. They might need us to stop interrupting them so much. Maybe they need help with a project we’d imagined was easy. Prepare to be surprised by what people need from you. I suspect that most people who’ve been successful in their careers and in their marriages have been learning about and steadily addressing the needs of those around them.

This question is especially effective with bosses, customers/clients and those who report to us, and with our spouses or partners. But asking this question of an adolescent child might not work, since they hope to need nothing from their parents, especially not boundaries, when boundaries are exactly what they need.

So! How to set healthy boundaries is the first thing I’ll address in Part II next Sunday of Fourteen Ways To Add Value To Any Situation.

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Best Wedding Practices, Or, I’ve Gained A Sister!

July 13th, 2014 by Alison · diamond-cut life

Jen Zhou, my beloved new sister, with my brother Jeff Wiley.

Jen Zhou, my beloved new sister, with my brother Jeff Wiley.

My sense of feeling rich in what matters hit a new height last night when I gained a new sister, the vivacious and loving Jen Zhou. My brother Jeff was wise enough to marry her. I’ve also gained a niece and nephew, Michelle and Allen. I’m elated!

Here are just a few “best wedding practices” if our goal is to be rich in what matters, gleaned from Jeff and Jen’s wedding and elsewhere.

Keep your focus on relationships and community and the joining of two families. My new sister-in-law Jen is passionate about family and community, like me. Her extended family came over from China for the wedding (Jen is Chinese). 

Reconsider the idea of a wedding gift registry. Maybe reject it.  Jeff and Jen did, for the above reason, and the reason I outline below. “We have everything we need,” Jen told me when I asked last month what to give them. This isn’t about getting more stuff. It’s about family. We will never all be together again like this.” 

I’m convinced gift registries were  invented for young couples leaving their parents’ home for the first time, setting up their first household ever. These couples need virtually everything. That’s a far cry from a bride and groom in mid-life who have long owned all the household items they need.

What gift did we give Jeff and Jen, in keeping with their focus on family? The airfare for our new niece Michelle, age 14, to come visit us later this summer. More connectedness.

Consider holding the event in a home – your own, or a friend’s or family member’s home. Jen and Jeff held their wedding and reception in their home/patio/backyard. This drew all of us into the very heart of their lives. It felt very different than being in a rented venue. It was soft, personal, intimate. It made us closer to them.  

Of course, not all people’s homes are big enough to hold an event. I once attended a wedding held in the large backyard of friends of the groom. He worked for  Focus The Nation, a nonprofit that addressed climate change, and he didn’t earn the kind of money that conventional weddings cost. His various friends stepped up, from hosting the event to making the food, mixing the drinks, etc. It was a wonderful wedding that put nobody into debt.   

Have just a small number of bridesmaids and groomsmen – or step outside that box altogether. Small numbers simplify many of the logistics that make weddings so complicated, i.e. renting the same tuxedos, deciding on the style and color of bridesmaids dresses, running the wedding rehearsal, organizing and paying for photographs of large numbers of people standing together in different combinations.

Last night there were just two bridesmaids and two groomsmen – Jeff and Jen each have one brother and one sister. Simple. Focused. When Thor and I got married ten years ago, we didn’t have any bridesmaids or groomsmen. Nobody seemed to have any problem with this. In my earlier marriage, there were three of each, but they wore their own clothes. That saved a lot of money and stress. Sure, the photos looked less wedding-like, but the in-person experience was a good one.

Embrace all ages, ethnicities, income and ability levels at your wedding.  Last night’s wedding had people ages 10 to 90, from two continents, many non-English speakers, a young man with profound disabilities (Jen’s beautiful son Allen), etc. A diverse community makes us richer and more whole.  

Give and receive lots of help. If you are the bride or groom, your job is to receive help. If you are anyone else, your job is to give them help. The people getting married are like the king and queen. The rest of us are their courtiers, paying homage to them. This works especially well when the king and queen are as gracious as Jen and Jeff.

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Bathing In A Bowl Of Water

July 6th, 2014 by Alison · diamond-cut life

Did you know you can bathe in a bowl of water?

A key way to be rich in what matters is to do something you love for a living. Most of us know that intuitively.

Something less widely known is that living simply greatly expands our choice of livelihood. Think about it. More income flexibility means greater job flexibility.

Many people do work they dislike to finance fancy cars, large houses, etc. Sometimes, the more they  dislike their work, the more they compensate themselves for it with costly lifestyles, toys and hobbies. This can be a vicious circle.

A diamond-cut life circumvents that circle with a wider array of choices and skills.

For five years of my youth I lived in a narrow, one-room loft (I’m counting my 30’s as part of my youth). I was a self-employed artist, and my art design and production all happened out of this room in Portland’s Central Eastside Industrial District — along with the rest of my life.

My bathroom in those years was a toilet and sink down the hall that all six of us loft-renters shared. I had no shower or bathtub. So I learned to bathe in a bowl of water.

I took a washcloth, soaked it in the water, squeezed it til it stopped dripping, and rubbed myself all over. I resoaked and resqueezed the washcloth until all of me was scrubbed clean. I didn’t need or use soap unless I’d gotten greasy. My hair got washed in the sink. It did take a lot more than a bowl of water to wash my hair :).

I stayed clean this way. I was quite happy in those years, despite being dollar-poor and quite cold in the winter (there was very little heat). I told myself I was doing urban camping in service to my art.

Fast forward to this Fourth of July weekend, which I’ve spent mostly gardening, getting good and sweaty. I’ve bathed only with a washcloth and a bowl of water. I am clean as I write. No cooties have accumulated. My husband still wants to touch me and kiss me.

Let me clarify: I’m not saying that you should bathe in a bowl of water, nor live in a tiny artist’s loft (the main problem with the latter was that it was illegal. I made amends to the landlord long ago). And these days I often bathe in a big bathtub.

But I’d like you to know that you can bathe in a bowl of water if you need to. Beyond giving us a wider array of life-choices, low-consumption skills make us resilient in the face of natural disasters, and the dislocations that will come as climate change progresses. Practicing these skills give us insight into how people in the developing world live, and not by choice. These skills make us more self-sufficient, and appreciative of whatever abundance we have.

Last year my husband Thor and I had reason to think our income would get slashed. I can honestly say I felt unafraid to live on two-thirds less income than we’ve been living on. We’ve lived below our means the whole 12 years we’ve been together, saving aggressively by doing things like being a one-car household.

It turned out our income didn’t take a dive. But the lack of fear was due to the presence of skills, such as how to live successfully with others, cook tasty simple meals, conserve electricity, and do challenging things in general.

What is your favorite equivalent of bathing from a bowl of water? That is, what resiliency skill do you have that you enjoy using?

Next weekend I’ll be writing about community, because July 12th I’ll help my brother Jeff celebrate his marriage to the vivacious, lovely and loving Jen Zhou. I’m gaining a cool niece as well, Michelle, age 15! My new family members are making me way richer in what matters.

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Happy Fourth! Getting Past Independence-Worship

June 29th, 2014 by Alison · diamond-cut life

Happy Fourth of July! Those of us in the U.S. have a three-day weekend coming up — how shall we celebrate our nation’s birthday? Ideas below, but first a couple of thoughts on independence.

Why not celebrate the interdependence of all nations on the Fourth?

Given that the U.S. is now 238 years old, I think we are old enough to move past the glorification of independence. Teenagers, also known as adolescents,  are obsessed with independence — including me back when I was a teenager. Heaven only knows how my parents put up with me.

It’s a normal stage of development, for both people and nations. The downside of independence-worship is that it’s self-centered. The focus of independence is all on self, with no awareness of how you impact others. Hence the epic suffering of parents of teenagers.

On the international level, hence the epic suffering induced by climate change, which is driven by fossil-fueled overconsumption.   We in the U.S. are 4% of the world’s population, consuming 25% of its resources. 

Teenagers who grow up move on from independence, which focuses on self, to interdependence, which focuses on all concerned,  without neglecting the self. I’d love to see our nation move from the developmental stage of independence on to interdependence. If we understood we are interdependent, we’d address climate change by consuming less and controlling our emissions. 

We can all be leaders via our choices. Here are ideas for celebrating the 4th of July weekend, based on the idea of interdepence, i.e. we all impact each other and the world with everything we do.

Earth Flag by Anke Hartmanns of Germany

1. Embrace the outdoors, letting go of TV and electronic entertainment. Summer weather is too precious to be sitting indoors. Get outdoors, instead: walk and bike, throw Frisbees and softballs around, run through sprinklers; take nature hikes; play volleyball, soccer or croquet. Besides, no TV constitutes a great diet.

2. Have people over. Don’t be perfectionistic about what this looks like. People need our interest and our warmth, not our shiny surfaces. See top ten tips for hosting people. The single biggest predictor of happiness is the quality of our relationships with others. The fourth of July weekend is a good time to build our relationships.

3. Read a good book, and talk about it with others. The founding fathers who wrote the Declaration of Independence and Constitution read a lot of good books. Let’s emulate them. Use the library if needed: your taxpayer dollars at work. Two of my favorite reads are Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer and Eric Brende’s Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology. These books show people living rich, joyful lives of interdependence.

4. Go to church. The beauty of worship, to me, is in getting past details of dogma and simply being part of something much greater than ourselves, a Creation guided by love. Another great thing about church is that people of all ages come together, from inf inter-generational community it fosters. If you’re on the political left, don’t reject religion just because the political right has made it appear conservative. Take a look at my Confession: I Love Church.

5. Make your own food instead of buying pre-packaged food. Sure, it takes more time, but that’s what three-day weekends give us a rich supply of. Apple pies are American, so bake one. If you are pie-crust-challenged like me, make a fruit cobbler (sweetly forgiving by nature).

6. Better yet, grow your own food: get out in the garden. It’s highly patriotic to nurture the land we’re living on, and to not just depend on corporate agriculture to feed us. As I write, our blueberries need to be picked again, and if you were to show up at my front door, I would have blueberries from our bushes to share with you. If I’m not home, feel free to pick some for yourself. Remember that working in the front garden makes us available for some great chats with neighbors.

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Gasping For Air

June 22nd, 2014 by Alison · diamond-cut life


Atop Mt. McLoughlin on summer solstice, with Colleen Kaleda (on right). Human accordion on left.

Being out there in wild nature is a prime way to be rich in what matters. And in my view, the longer the daylight, the better, which is why I love summer solstice.

My friend Colleen and I celebrated the solstice yesterday by climbing Mt. McLoughlin, the highest peak in Southern Oregon. This was a lungs-heaving, gasping-for-oxygen experience for me, in contrast to when we climbed Mt. St. Helens in 2012, or South Sister last year.

New life-lesson: your experience can change, even if the external circumstances haven’t changed. The altitude was no higher than in my prior climbs, and the amount I trained was no less. But my body responded dramatically differently to thin air than it did before.

I had to stop again and again to rest and gulp air before climbing some more. Interrupting my breathing for two seconds to drink water or blow my nose made my lungs heave harder than ever. I felt like a crawling accordion that was being played to a breathlessly fast song that I could not hear.

DSCN2201All of that was on the ascent. Half of a  climb, of course, is the descent. On the descent I fortunately dropped my accordion identity and became a normally breathing human being again. Karen and John Poole, the very experienced and gracious people hiking with us, told me that how people respond to altitude can change from day to day, depending on dehydration, stress and other unpredictable factors.

I hadn’t known that. There are hundreds of things about interacting with nature that I have yet to learn. I won’t learn all of them in this lifetime, but continuing to stay connected to nature will keep on making me richer in what matters.

If I emulate the Pooles and help other people at every opportunity, I will become richer still.

photos courtesy of Karen Poole

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Breaking The Trance

June 15th, 2014 by Alison · diamond-cut life

Being rich in what matters means thinking for ourselves rather than swallowing the Koolaid of the consumption culture. 

I’ve often seen a glazed, vacant look on people’s faces as they shop in malls,  watch TV, surf the internet, operate the slot machines in casinos, etc. They look as if they’re in a trance, and not a particularly happy trance.

The Koolaid trance is driven by a set of  cultural notions. Sometimes I even buy into some of these notions. Then I wake back up from the trance with a little start. Here are some of the consumption-Koolaid-driven notions I’ve identified. Feel free to name others in a comment.

The notion that who we are can be accurately expressed by the brands we buy.

The notion that whatever new electronic gadget hits the stores will necessarily make our lives better.

The notion that we don’t have time to be helpful to each other, make real food or [name a worthwhile activity] — despite all of us having 168 hours in every week. (Here’s how we can have more time.)

The notion that we can and should become wealthy without working.

The notion that being steadily entertained during non-working hours is a need, rather than a want. (Consider the joyful, low-cost art of self-entertaining.)

The notion that climate change is happening to other people, not to us, if it is happening at all.

The notion that what happens to people in the “bleeds-it-leads” evening news has any probability at all of happening to us.

Related to that – the notion we should live in fear and not walk anywhere or let our children walk anywhere.

The notion that we ought to look like the people in movies and magazines, i.e. way younger  and thinner than we are. (Are you familiar with the very best diet? Or how I dealt with the heart-stopping trauma of a kid calling me a grandma?)

The notion that we need vehicles 22 times our body weight to transport us from place to place. (Did you know that 40% of trips made in the U.S. are two miles or less?)

The notion that we are human doings, rather than human beings.

Next Saturday — summer solstice — I plan to climb and summit Mt. McLoughlin, the highest peak in Southern Oregon, with my friend Colleen. That’s if  enough snow has melted and the weather gods are smiling on us. Here are the life-lessons I’ve gotten from my past two mountain climbs . . . funny, but they seem to apply to doing any hard thing.

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How To Make Happy Purchases, Part II of II

June 8th, 2014 by Alison · diamond-cut life

I write this blog because I love life and human beings, but reject the hyper-materialism of mainstream culture. It hurts our finances — we spend billions annually on credit-card interest and storing our excess stuff. And it hurts our relationships, our planet and our climate.

While we do need “stuff” in order to live, the joy and juiciness of life — being rich in what matters — doesn’t stem from our possessions. It stems from our relationships, our integrity, our health and physicality, doing work we believe in, our connection to nature, community and the God of our understanding.

Just for the record, a big body of research on human happiness supports those principles.

All that said, I struggle with excess stuff, just like almost everyone in our culture. While my husband Thor and I have only one car between us, we have never been able to put that car into our two-car garage. Too much stuff in it. I pay a smart lady named Kari Myers to periodically help me get organized, cull stuff for Goodwill, etc. I highly recommend her.

Last week in Part I of How To Make Happy Purchases we looked at how our needs are always the drivers of our purchases.  We buy things because we need to be fed, entertained, clothed, sheltered, to go places, to express our identity, etc. The more aware we are of our needs, the better the choices we can make.

This week, I’m suggesting that before we go out and buy new things, let’s consider the whole range of ways that our needs can get met. Below are some strategies to meet our needs in a variety of situations.

Borrowa good strategy for items we rarely use, especially high-cost ones. In the years I owned a small pickup truck, I let friends borrow it when they were moving so they didn’t have to rent one (I often borrowed their car for the day they used my truck, so my transportation needs also got met). Probably all of us have had both good and not-good experiences with lending and borrowing. For me, the good has been far greater. Always return borrowed items in the promised time-frame, in the condition you found them — or be up-front that you expect this of the friend borrowing from you. Borrowing is . . .

  • good for high-cost items we use only occasionally, like power tools, camping equipment, lawn mowers, pickup trucks, etc.
  • good for one-time-use items, like DVD’s, books, Halloween costumes, prom dresses and other fancy clothes

Buy useda good strategy when we need

  • long-lived, costly items like beds, bicycles, furniture, wedding rings, etc.
  • items that are easy to find used. For example, Goodwill stores  are full of towels, T shirts, jeans, plates, mugs, curtains and costume jewelry. But I have never found a couch or camping tent I would care to own in a Goodwill
  • when we don’t necessarily need high quality. In cars, good to know the background, i.e. a single owner that took good care of it.
  • when our timeline is flexible (it can take time to find the desired item used, rather than new).

Barter – exchanging goods or services for other goods or services. Bartering is a good strategy . . .

  • when we have a number of nearby people interested in bartering
  • when trust levels are fairly high (i.e. that a promised service or favor will indeed happen in the future)
  • when we have skills that others need (cooking, carpentry, haircuts and gardening are some commonly needed services)
  • when our timeline is flexible (it can take time to put a good barter together)

Rent –  a good strategy for high-end items we need rarely and can’t easily borrow. Examples are party equipment, power tools, tuxedos, a truck for moving or for hauling yard debris or large items to the dump. 

Buy new. This strategy makes sense . . . 

  • when we’ll need and use it for a long time
  • when it’s so rare we’d never find it used (in my case, size 9 narrow-width shoes)
  • when we need it right now (actually, we usually just want things right now — it’s good to be honest about that :)

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How To Make Good Purchases — Part I of II

June 1st, 2014 by Alison · diamond-cut life

My new dress: bike-worthy! Work-worthy! No ironing! It meets all my needs.

When we buy a new item – whether a skirt, a couch or a car – we have a lot of choices, sometimes an overwhelming number of them.

We think that our choices are along the lines of price, style, color, size, accessories and so forth.But happy purchases don’t ride on the details of the objects we are buying.

Happy purchases ride on our understanding of our needs, and how we intend to meet those needs.

Today’s post is the first of a two-part series on how to ensure happy purchases. Incidentally, to find out which Diamond-Cut Life subscriber won my giveaway of a signed hardback copy of “David And Goliath”, see here.

What’s our need that’s driving our purchase?  Warmth? Entertainment?  Higher social status? Transportation? To feel attractive? To feed ourselves? To overcome Sitting Disease?

The more aware we are of our needs, the happier we will be with the purchases we make.

Yesterday I set out to buy a dress to wear to the Green Empowerment event here in Portland. I needed something I could stay cool in all summer.  Some of you will empathize that I wanted something a bit like my favorite halter dress that I lost on a bike ride last month. It needed to be bike-worthy, since bicycling is much of my summer transportation. The new dress should be work-worthy, if I add a sweater, and not be needy, itself, of irritating things like ironing. And like any woman, I needed to feel pretty in the dress.

Lots of needs, I admit. I only had 1 1/4 hours to shop once I got to the store, but I kept my focus on what I needed, and I found my dress. It’s wash and wear rayon, halter-ish and is bike-worthy with leggings. A cardigan sweater will make it fine for work. I may not buy another dress for years. That makes me very happy.

The bigger the purchase, the more crucial it is to be clear on our needs. In 2008, Thor and I decided to buy a new car, to replace our Nissan Sentra that was well into its teens.

Since we care about sustainability, we needed high miles per gallon. Since we’re not mechanically gifted (I verge on being a car abuser), we needed low maintenance. Since we’re  thrifty and we live below our means, we wanted a reasonably low price.

What did we not need from our new car?  We didn’t need it to be big. We didn’t need it to haul a boat or a trailer, so we only needed four cylinders. We didn’t need it to entertain or thrill us by going fast. We didn’t need our car to enhance our social status.

Naming our non-needs made our choice easier, by shortening the way-too-long list of cars that are out there.

Since we’re a one-car household, my husband and I needed our new car to meet both of our car needs — but not all of our transportation needs. Which leads to Part 2, which I’ll post next Sunday.

Here is the car we chose, after much research. It has worked out pretty well for the six years we’ve had it. We’ll probably keep it for ten years total, until 2018. Every month we put aside money for our car’s eventual replacement. We extend its life by using it sparingly — we bike and carpool to work, for example.

Valuable, little-known information: a car sitting in the driveway (because you are using transportation options) can be a secret watchdog that leads robbers to bypass your house, because they think you are home. And are you aware of the ways in which a car is like a condom, i.e. why public transit is such a pleasurable choice?

Wow, I got kind of carried away there. You can tell I work in transportation. OK: the main takeaway of Part I is that when we get crystal-clear on our needs, we make good, happy purchases. 

In Part II next Sunday I’ll post on how to find the best strategy to meet our needs (sometimes it’s a purchase, but sometimes it’s not). To receive that post and my weekly posts in general, subscribe here. 

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The Joy of Eating Locally

May 25th, 2014 by Alison · diamond-cut life

The U.S. has more than 8,000 farmers markets in which growers sell directly to customers.

Arguably, nothing makes us richer in what matters than eating well, in good company. And eating locally makes us and our community richer on multiple levels. So, “The Joy of Eating Locally” is the topic of Thor’s and my next Potluck Supper & Salon here in Southeast Portland on Sunday, June 1st at 4 p.m. If you’d like to come, let me know.

Salal berries, kind of a fibrous blueberry. Lots of these in my front yard; once a Native American staple here in the Pacific Northwest.

Eating locally pours our food dollars into our local economies, rather than into the coffers of multinational corporations. We are [Read more →]

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How To Stay Cool Without Air Conditioning

May 18th, 2014 by Alison · diamond-cut life

When we’re rich in what matters we’re resilient. We create fun and comfort in ways that are sustainable.

We’ve heard this will be a doozy of a hot summer. This week’s post is on how to stay cool without using air conditioning, which burns lots of the fossil fuels that drive climate change. These self-cooling skills don’t just create comfort and fun. They create safety. Why?

Far more people will die in the U.S. this summer of heat-related causes than died in the entire past year from hurricanes and tornadoes combined. The latter frighten us more, with their telegenic violence, but as with many things in modern life, fears do not reflect facts. Among [Read more →]

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