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Home Eco-nomics: Earnest

Some things are just meant to be. Or not. Case in point: the other day my partner and I were set up on a blind date with this really nice couple, the kind of people we automatically get along well with. We had so much in common, all of us lefty parents raising kids around the same age in the same eco-conscious community. Within minutes, I had developed a distaste for their company that quickly developed into full–blown nausea.

When we had finally escaped from their wool-carpeted, wooden-toy-strewn playroom, it took me a while to be able to articulate what it was about them that bothered me so much. After all, they were perfectly polite, nice people who served us organic fruit and crackers, provided our daughter with a non-plastic water bottle, and offered us all chemical-free sunscreen when the playdate went out into the yard. Finally, I came up with it. "They're just so earnest," I complained. What really bugged me about them was how hard they were trying to do everything right. They were learning Spanish so they could teach it to their kids. They tested their whole house for lead paint. They made sure their kids were dressed in only all-natural fibers. What bugged me was their belief that they could succeed at the job of parenting, that they could somehow do it "right," that there is such a thing as "right." And that they hadn't given up yet.

It was like looking in the mirror and seeing myself ten years younger, ten years more idealistic, more certain, ten years less cynical, and probably fifteen years less tired. Ten years ago, we didn't have any kids, just a lot of childrearing theories and the multitudinous judgments of the childless. The theories have fallen by the wayside and been picked up again over and over, and they now have the battered, time-worn appearance of almost everything else we own. The judgments have turned against us. Ten years ago, we thought we would raise our children to be perfectly happy, bilingual, non-violent, obedient, spotless prodigies-in-the-field-of-their-choice; they would never do whatever destructive, cacophonous, annoying thing that our friend's child happened to be doing at the time. Now, we settle for imperfectly happy, and we never say "never."

Of course, the joke's on me, that I should find cause for annoyance in earnestness. I am nothing if not earnest (most of the time). I try to rein myself in so that people won't find my serious-mindedness completely intolerable, but it's always there under the surface of pretended irony, my dire earnest self, waging my oxymoronic minivan-driven campaign for the salvation of the planet.

Maybe the real joke is on my partner, earnestly loyal despite the fact that I've recently become officially No Fun To Be Married To. For my fortieth birthday this year, she offered to take me to Hawaii, and even before the simple and obvious equation of "two mortgages = no trips to tropical islands" sprung up, I was already fretting about the carbon emissions of the plane flight. How can I justify the jetfuel, just so I can be embraced by the volcano goddess and lie on a warm, perfect beach?

I love Hawaii, having been there just once after a lifetime of anti-island snobbery, the Hawaii 5-0 reruns of my childhood and my grandmother's obsession with Magnum P.I. having stilted my sense of the island experience. Once I got there, I discovered that I love warm beaches where you can actually swim without the wet suit and the reckless (read: suicidal) abandon needed for the choppy Pacific waters twenty minutes from our home. I love tropical sunshine and tropical rainstorms and tropical rainbows arching over the wet, green tropical forests. I love plumeria blossoms, seeping their balmy fragrance into the tropical night air. But now, the sad truth is: as much as I would enjoy a tropical birthday, I'm just too earnest, and I wouldn't like myself in the morning.

What kind of freak says no to a trip to Hawaii on environmental grounds, I ask you? I think the technical term is "stick in the mud." I would say "party pooper" but then our two boys would whoop around the kitchen yelling over and over: "Mama said a bathroom word!" I've become the consummate party pooper, with my incessant yapping about compostable tableware and no-waste birthdays, my harping on thrift store re-use ethics and what car I should be driving.

I just want to reach a place of eco-integrity, of true sustainability; the trouble is, I find it inconvenient. Just like Al Gore said. I earnestly try to put a good face on it, and so in my vehemence, I shift the burden of feeling inconvenienced onto my long-suffering partner. I buy cloth napkins, handkerchiefs, dish towels, and she acquiesces to these waste-preventing items. But then the laundry gets behind, and not having any paper napkins is inconvenient. And then we have houseguests, and not having any tissues is inconvenient for them, especially since our guest room is the dander capital of our house, being the favorite room of the cats. And then the oldest cat vomits on the floor, and we discover that not having any paper towels is inconvenient, to say the least ("disgusting" was I think my partner's actual word choice).

My friend Selena recently introduced me to someone as "my friend Kenna—if you spend enough time around her you'll start to feel guilty for everything you do." Shit, and I thought my therapist was exaggerating when she warned me against turning into a fanatic. I instantly envisioned myself as a character in a Eudora Welty novel, hiking the back roads of society posting my "The End is Near" signs in hopes of converting all the non-believers. A caricature, howling into a sound-drowning wind.

The problem with me and most of the other eco-wannabes I know is that in our damnable earnestness, we can't ever really listen to what anyone else is talking about. Why wouldn't anyone want to do the Right Thing? Why wouldn't you make that small sacrifice for, um, the survival of the human race, for instance? Hmmm, maybe you just don't get it? So we try to educate you, with our graphs and scientific papers and explanations of projections and models.

We keep thinking that if we explain how bad it is, how the ice caps are melting faster than expected, how the rising sea levels will permanently flood highly populated areas, how much suffering massive displacements will cause, then people will just up and change. "Go green!" we cheerlead. And okay, maybe convincing people of the need for change may work in some cases, the ones who both need convincing and are ready to be convinced. But a lot of people aren't quite ready yet, and a lot of people are already convinced, but, like me, haven't yet given up their cars. Either way, when you push to hard, people shut down. Whether from disbelief, disinterest, or just plain guilt doesn't really matter. When you are shut down, you don't save the planet.

Now the sophisticates within the green movement are trying to get better at marketing, at insinuating green choices into real-life human psychology in a way that doesn't turn people away, with promises that the efficient light bulb "SAVES YOU MONEY (and the earth)." They're trying to push forward by backing away from the doom-and-gloom news reports. "Good luck with that marketing campaign," I earnestly urge. Finding the balance seems improbable, if not impossible. Not enough information, and it's easy to think there's no compelling reason to do anything. Too much information, and the scale of the problem pushes us past the point of despondence. Even someone as fervent as myself gets completely bogged down in the details, and in the guilt of my inability to change as quickly or as much as I think I should.

So, after the kids are finally in bed, quiet if not fully asleep, I'll sit at the table talking, like a puppy worrying one of those "bones" made of a rope tied into knots, thinking that if I can just tease out enough of the strings, I'll be able to take it apart and experience the revelation of the magic answer. I'll figure out how to get to that Right Thing, that realistically liveable, sustainable lifestyle. Because the truth is, I do believe there is a Right Thing, and I haven't really given up yet. But like the puppy, all I manage to do is get more and more tangled up. My partner looks across our table and pauses from her late-home-from-work solitary supper to say with true feeling: "I'm sorry you have to live in that brain." And I look back at her, and earnestly reply, "I'm sorry you have to live with it. Happy Valentine's Day, anyhow. Need me to look through the laundry for a clean napkin?"

column added on 2009-01-31 :: ::

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