The Sweet Pursuit

Former Associate editor Margret Aldrich on the hunt for happiness, community, and how humans thrive

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Venice canal 

“Don’t take too many pictures,” my father advised before my first trip to Europe, encouraging me to get out from behind the camera and engage with what was in front of it. The truth is, I had a ten-mile list of things to see and pictures to take on the three-week five-country trip that would exhaust my savings and me—Paris: Eiffel Tower; London: Tower Bridge; Venice: St. Mark’s. Check, check, check.

This kind of breakneck travel is an unfortunate trend, says BootsnAll, a site that bills itself as the one-stop indie travel guide. “So much of modern culture pushes us at a frenetic pace,” they write, and continue:

Americans seem to be the worst of the bunch, with 30% of people not taking their allotted vacation time and 37% not taking more than a week a year. For the rest, a sad 33%, we tend to vacation the same way we live: at warp speed with emphasis on performance and “box checking.” Hence, the proliferation of tours that cram three countries and five cities into two weeks and keep travelers moving on an itinerary that feels like anything but vacation. Sure, they get home with a lot of nice pictures, but have they accumulated much else in terms of experience, depth or personal growth?

BootsnAll—and a blooming slow travel movement—reminds us that traveling is not a contest and gives us several points to consider when embarking on mindful travel: Be present. Realize that true understanding takes time. And go deep instead of wide—rather than filling your vacation with three different cities, pick one and get to know the people and culture as well as the sites, whether they’re a country away or two towns over.

Several years after my first jam-packed venture overseas, I went back to Venice with my partner. It was a misty November and the floating city was mostly devoid of tourists, with tides that flooded the streets until 11 in the morning. We stayed in bed late, frequented the same osteria until the owners knew us, and sunk into the magic of the place.

One night, on a late walk, we stumbled upon a soup supper outside a church and were invited to join in. Chords from a guitar drifted across the cobblestone streets, and an old woman hiked her skirt above her ankles to dance an impromptu solo. While we clapped along with the small crowd, all of us huddling closer to beat the chill, the man tending the pot of soup motioned me over to refill my bowl. That simple, unexpected night remains one of my favorite travel memories. And a picture wouldn’t do it justice.

Source: BootsnAll 

Image by Frank Kovalchek, licensed under Creative Commons.




Free sign 

What’s thriftier than a thrift store? In Baltimore, Portland, San Francisco, and other cities scattered across the United States and Europe, free stores—shops that offer goods at no cost—are a practical protest of consumer culture.

The concept is simple: People bring in good-quality items they no longer want or need (toasters, air mattresses, artwork, clothing); and people who want or need those items take them home, free of charge, explains Victoria Kreha in Green American.

“From a box on a street corner to an open-air market to an actual brick and mortar store, free stores can take many forms,” Kreha writes, but their primary philosophies are consistent. Bonnie Nordvedt, administrator of the Baltimore Free Store says, “The purpose of a free store is for everyone to rethink their shopping habits, spending habits, and general addiction to ‘newer-bigger-better.’”

While free stores are especially helpful to low-income members of the community, Nordvedt explains that they are for everyone, regardless of economic standing:

We have seen a lot of people who think the free items are just for those who can’t otherwise afford them. While that is definitely a part of why we do this, it is not the main reason. We want to bring people together, not continue to segregate them into the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Every single person should be reusing, repurposing, giving, and taking. 

Interested in starting up a free store or market in your city? Check out the tips offered by Green American and the Really Really Free Market for finding a location, attracting volunteers, and gathering items to give away.

Source: Green American 

Image by inggmartinez, licensed under Creative Commons.




I have vivid childhood memories of the swing that hung from my grandmother’s massive cottonwood tree. Under the shimmering leaves in early summer, I would perch on the wooden plank of a seat, grab onto the thick, rough rope tied to a branch twenty feet above, and pump my legs until I was kicking the clouds. The simple swing offered pure, easy happiness.

Artist Jeff Waldman is spreading that youthful joy around. According to The Huffington Post and funder The Awesome Foundation, he and his friends have installed public wood-and-rope swings in San Francisco, the Marshall Islands, Panama, and, most recently, Los Angeles. Waldman explains the enthusiam for his guerilla swing project:

What started last year as a conversation about the simplistic pleasures of swings has launched into a multi-city experiment in unexpected joy and cerebral happiness. Via contact info we left on the wooden seats, we’ve received notes from those that used them, talking about the surprising smiles that were left on their faces…. The joy felt and the urge to spread it was contagious. 

Next up on their quest to spread the bliss of swinging: Bolivia. The country was chosen for the project because of its poverty level and the age of its population (49 percent of Bolivians are under 20), among other factors. “Essentially Bolivia is a country largely populated by children, few of whom ever get to enjoy that childhood,” Waldman writes on his Kickstarter fundraising page. “If ever there was a place in need of a return to innocence and a reminder of the distilled joys in life, this is it.”

Watch an uplifting video documenting Waldman’s work so far and his vision for Bolivia. I guarantee you’ll want to start swinging.


Sources: Huffington Post, The Awesome Foundation, Kickstarter 

Image courtesy of Jeff Waldman.



Fashion sketch 

It’s the last day of New York Fashion Week, where celebrities and the industry elite flank runways to catch the first glimpses of new lines from high-end designers like Marchesa and Alexander McQueen. For the average U.S. consumer, though, fast fashion—cheap clothing produced quick and dirty—hangs in the closet.

Fast fashion’s formula, known as the “quick-response method,” keeps up with ever-changing trends promoted at events like Fashion Week by speeding up every aspect of the clothing-production process: design, manufacturing, distribution, and marketing. In order to keep the pace lively, workers’ conditions and the environment suffer.

A recent study by Iowa State University professor Elena Karpova and grad student Juyoung (Jill) Lee, however, finds that fast fashion doesn’t fly in certain markets, reports Aaron M. Cohen in The Futurist (Sept.-Oct. 2011), offering hope that we don’t have to stay on the current industry treadmill. Cohen writes:

Japanese consumers are willing to pay more for domestically made products with higher price tags, which has resulted in fewer purchases of less-expensive imports. The Japanese apparel industry’s emphasis on more expensive, higher quality goods distinguishes them from foreign competitors in a positive way. Marketing efforts help drive these trends…. Clothing stores in Japan target older consumers, who are likely to be more interested in long-lasting quality than keeping up with the latest styles, while American advertising targets younger consumers interested in just the opposite.

Responsible clothing options in the states and elsewhere are increasingly easy to find, tracked by blogs like Eco-Chick and Eco Fashion World and spearheaded by green designers such as 2010 Utne Visionary Natalia Allen. And, Cohen says, some in the high-fashion industry are recommitting to artisan craftsmanship, with houses like Hermès beginning to emphasize “slow fashion.”

While we in the Utne Reader office certainly don’t claim to be fashion plates, perhaps we’re ahead of the trends on this one: I’ve had my favorite pair of jeans for nearly a decade and our hipster office manager owns a loon-emblazoned sweatshirt (with red, built-in cuffs and collar) that’s older than he is. Slow fashion, we’re ready for you.

Source: The Futurist (membership required) 

Image by Noemi Manalang, licensed under Creative Commons.


Fish HookEver feel like we’ve just totally screwed ourselves with the oceans? I’m not even talking about BP’s gushing well: It’s this recent report from the Telegraph that U.K. nutritionists are now advising pregnant women to eat more fish.

Fish, of course, contains mercury, a heavy metal pollutant that comes from human industry (and, to be fair, from some natural sources like volcano eruptions). Pregnant women, children, the elderly—nutritional convention has been to watch how much you eat. Except seafood also is a rich source of omega-3s, and nutritionists now say that the fatty-acid benefits, especially for pregnant women, could outweigh the heavy-metal risks.

What benefits, you say? The star of the omega-3 cast is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and as The Economist tidily explains:

DHA is a component of brains, particularly the synaptic junctions between nerve cells, and its displacement from modern diets by the omega-6 acids in cooking oils such as soya, maize and rape is a cause of worry.

Many researchers think this shift—and the change in brain chemistry that it causes—explains the growth in recent times of depression, manic-depression, memory loss, schizophrenia and attention-deficit disorder. It may also be responsible for rising levels of obesity and thus the heart disease which often accompanies being overweight.

Stateside nutritionists are also changing their minds. A group has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to adjust its stance on pregnant women’s diets, and the Department of Defense plans to launch a program to augment soldiers’ diets with omega-3s, The Economist reports. Low levels of DHA are a suicide risk factor for people in the service.

So here’s the positive take-away, if there is one: Should you wish to get more fish-based omega-3s into your diet, eating lower on the fish food chain is the best way to make that happen, keep mercury levels low, and, oh yeah, stop straining the ocean’s ecosystems by gobbling up big predators like tuna, swordfish, and grouper. (For what it's worth, there are also plant-based sources of omega-3s, although there have been studies that shed doubt on whether they are as beneficial as the fish-based ones.)

For some excellent reading about eating lower on the fish food chain, follow the link to an excerpt from Taras Grescoe’s book Bottomfeeder, which is one of the most illuminating studies I’ve read on how to eat fish ethically. (And he’s a big fan of the omega-3s.)

Sources: Telegraph, The Economist, Bottomfeeder

Image by L. Marie, licensed under Creative Commons.


cowsAccording to the USDA’s new organic standards (released in February), organic dairy cows must get at least 30 percent of their dry matter intake from pasture. No exceptions. Producers of organic beef cattle, however, can put their animals in feedlots for the last four months of their lives. You know, standing on concrete, eating grain, packing on the pounds. I have a word for this, and it is lame.

Luckily, the Cornucopia Institute is on the case and in their signature thorough style, the nonprofit has done far more than just point out the fuzzy logic in the USDA’s organic regulations: It surveyed organic beef cattle producers across the United States. The organization found that 80 percent of organic beef producers never confine their animals to feedlots. (Most never give their cattle any grain at all; only a quarter supplement with small amounts.) The remaining 20 percent of farmers and ranchers that are finishing animals in feedlots, however, “likely produce a majority of the nation’s organic meet supply.”

Here’s the good news: The USDA is accepting comments on the pasture exemption for beef cattle until April 19th. The Cornucopia Institute provides instructions toward the bottom of the page I linked to above. It is proposing a three-tiered labeling system:

1. “Organic – Grain Finished” – For meat from animals that needed the exemption from pasture during the last 120 days (might include finishing in feedlots).

2. “Organic – Pasture/Grain Finished” – For meat from animals that were maintained on pasture until slaughter, obtained at least 30% of their feed intake from pasture during the grazing season but received small amounts of grain supplementation at some point.

3. “Organic – 100% Grass Fed” – For meat from animals that were 100% grass-fed, never receiving any grain in their diet.

Food for thought, as they say.

Source: Cornucopia Institute 



How short does a woman’s skirt need to be to justify rape? It sounds like an idiotic question, but victims of sexual assault are regularly asked what they were wearing, what time of night they were walking home, and if they had been drinking. Now protest marches called SlutWalks are bringing attention to an epidemic of victim blaming.

The first SlutWalk took place in Toronto in April, in response to a police officer who told the audience at a safety talk, “I’ve been told I shouldn’t say this, [but] women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” The Toronto march drew 3,000 women and men, outraged at the culture of blame perpetuated by their local precinct. Since April, there have been more than 120 SlutWalks around the world—in Singapore, Mexico, India, Australia, Germany, Hong Kong, Brazil, South Africa, and more—with tens of thousands of participants.

Much of the media surrounding SlutWalk focuses on the fishnets and deliberately saucy outfits some participants wear and the divisiveness that using the term “slut” has caused within the feminist movement. But Heather Jarvis—cofounder, with Sonya JF Barnett, of the first SlutWalk—believes using the term highlights the importance of language in the fight against sexual violence. In an interview, she said:

One thing that I think has been missing from conversations about rape culture and victim blaming for a long time has been language. People wouldn’t be blamed and shamed as much as they are without the language people use against each other. We really need to look at that. Whether it’s “she asked for it,” or name calling, or degrading ideas about who deserves what and what you’re worth. So, we wanted to put language front and center and talk about it.

SlutWalk came to our hometown of Minneapolis on October 1, with the battle cry “No means no, yes means yes!” following marchers across the Mississippi River. To me, it wasn’t the provocative clothes that stood out, and the word “slut” wasn’t distracting. Most powerful were the signs carried by the survivors of sexual violence—some just kids when they were assaulted—and the fierce, unified support of their fellow walkers.







Images by Alan Wilfahrt, licensed under Creative Commons.



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