Saturday, 19 April 2014

Learning to live with less

Sorry for not posting more lately; we’ve had a few technical problems, as our internet connection fades in and out according to the day and time of day. Also, I’ve been writing some larger articles for a couple of magazines, and will tell you more about which ones and when as they become solid. Finally, I’ve been working a lot at my day job in Dublin, leaving me a few hours to spend with The Girl in the evenings, but not much else.

Easter Sunday is tomorrow, which means a great deal to us for many reasons – but for purely selfish ones, as I’m looking forward to having my first cup of coffee in weeks. The Girl and I shook hands on a Lenten deal: she would give up television if I gave up coffee.

Most readers are probably not Catholic and some might not be religious, but some variant of Lent would be useful to us all. This blog, my writings and The Girl’s training all focus on living a more traditional life, and that means making do with less. Learning to do without – going for some weeks without driving, or using electricity, or some other modern convenience, gives our soul a workout. It forces us to learn different habits, until by the end of the period using less feels normal. It helps us understand the ancestors – and billions in the world today – not as fortunate as ourselves.

It helps us prepare for a future where modern comforts might be even less evenly distributed, and we stop being the lucky ones. It gives us the strength to teach others to do the same. It reminds us that what feeds our habits leaves our soul empty, and vice versa.

Happy Easter.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Good night, John Boy

The Girl walked out into the darkness, carrying her torch, to close up the chicken run against foxes. As I listened at the door, I heard her say brightly:  

“Good night Sooty."

“Cluck!” a chicken responded.

“Good night PS,” she told another chicken. “Buck,” one responded.

“Goodnight Cloudy.” “BWAAK!”

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Signs of spring

Ireland is finally entering a proper spring, with daylight stretching across the hours and the hillsides erupting with daffodils. We have to use the last of our beetroot and celeriac that lasted us through the winter, so when I take the bus to Dublin for my day job, I’m bringing plastic containers of borscht or whatever dish I made the night before.

We are also getting the first salads and herbs of the year, although the chickens like them as much as we do. We are also seeing the first of Ireland’s spring crop of nettles and dandelions, and when we have a spare hour or two, in the evenings or on weekends, The Girl helps me gather them – nettles for soup and beer, dandelions for fritters and wine.  We also found the first edible mushrooms of the year, which also became my lunch the next day.

The hawthorn trees’ confused tangles are sprouting green shoots, perfect for salads. The blackthorns are usually difficult to pick out in the hedgerow amid all the other trees, but now – for a couple of spectacular weeks – a confetti of small white flowers marks them clearly amid the largely bare trees around them. The Girl and I need to travel a few miles down the canal this weekend and mark each blossoming tree – how far it is from a landmark and in which direction – in order to remember their location and gather their sloes this autumn. 

Top photo: Bluebell woods. 
Bottom photo: Borscht with celeriac, carrot, dill, sour cream and chorizo sausage.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

One night of victory

The Girl took part in a school quiz tonight for this part of the Bog of Allen – each village around us has a small school for children, and each small school brought their students to our town hall for the event. While letting The Girl find her classmates in an auditorium of raucous children, I greeted another parent – she’s the mother of one of The Girl’s classmates and wife of a friend of mine.   

“It’s just you tonight?” I said smiling. “Your husband gets some time to himself?”

“Ah, go on,” she said, using the local dismissive phrase. “He’s home paintin’. I don’t leave him unattended without work to keep him out of trouble.”

. . . . .

The children divided into groups of four, all from the same school, per table. On a stage, a bald and avuncular neighbour read off questions like “What mountain range in Africa shares its name with a geography book?” or “What Irish hero died a thousand years ago this Sunday?” Each question was followed by hundreds of children whispering excitedly among themselves, and scribbling down answers.  

Finally, they announced the winning group – The Girl’s table, out of the dozens that were there. The four girls at the table screamed and ran onstage to get a brass cup that all four held up together, and were promptly surrounded by cheering classmates – I thought for a moment they would lift them on their shoulders.  

I let her have her moment with friends, jumping and squealing together. As The Girl found me waiting by the door, we hugged and she said, “Daddy, can you do anything for hypothermia?”

I thought a moment and said, Hyperventilating?

“Yes, that’s it.” Just give yourself a moment, I told her – you’ll be fine.

                                                                  . . . . .

We came home hours ago, and just now The Girl knocked gently on my door. You're still awake? I said, smiling.

"I just now settled down enough that I can go to sleep," she said.

Good, I said. Now remember, tomorrow you'll see all the girls that didn't win, so be gracious -- don't bring it up unless they do, and then be modest.

"I'll try to remember," she said.

Did you take my advice? I asked -- what I recommended you do if you were too excited to sleep?

"I did, Daddy," she said. "I wrote myself a letter about how I felt tonight. I addressed it to Future Me."

I'm glad, I said -- you'll have that letter all your life, and it will stay with you when a lot of other things have faded.

"Do you write things down to keep track of your life?" she asked.

Not just mine, I said.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Time for a cuppa

 This mobile tea house was a big hit at this year's St. Patrick's Day parade.The tea-serving staff are shown below. Taken with permission.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Mustard seeds

Every night The Girl and I turn out the electricity, light a candle and do a lesson – things I would like to see kids everywhere learn, but that she won’t be taught in school. Sunday night we do practical skills, like first aid. Monday Night is history – we’re on prehistory now, and moving toward agriculture. Tuesday night is biology. Wednesday night we talk about some abstract principle – exponential growth, the tragedy of the commons, positive and negative feedback, and so on. I try to make these lessons as fun as possible, using some kind of tangible demonstration – cards, games, chemistry experiments, whatever.

And on some nights, I try to tie some old strands together. Tonight, I said, I want to talk about exponential growth.

“We’ve talked about exponential growth before, Daddy,” she said. “I hate it – it runs into big numbers really quickly.”

It can easily go out of control, I said, in a positive feedback loop. But it never lasts long – what stops it?

“Negative feedback?” she said, remembering the lesson.

Right, I said. I’ve told you the basics of exponential growth, and now I wanted to talk about some of the ways it affects the world. For example: I’m going to make beer this summer, and I do that by cooking grain and mixing it with yeast. Cooking turns the starch to sugar, the yeast eat the sugar, and they multiply exponentially. They turn the sugar to alcohol, and when the food is used up, they die and the beer’s done.  You got it so far?

She nodded – we’d been through this before.

Let’s say the yeast double every hour, I said –

“So two yeast, then four, then eight,” The Girl said, trying not to sound too bored. “Exponential growth.”

Right, I said. Let’s say they take 100 hours before they’re done – before the saturation reaches 100 per cent. So here’s my question: at what point is the vat half done? When is it 50-per-cent saturated?

The Girl started to say “fifty,” but then stopped. “Wait – that would be regular growth.”

She thought a moment, trying to winkle out the trick. “Ninety hours?”

You’re on the right track, I said – very good. It’s 99 hours – one hour before it’s done, it’s only half full.

“Toward the end, it starts growing much more quickly,” she said. “That’s how you know it’s exponential.”

Right, I said -- the rate doesn’t change, but the amount does. So here’s the next question: what if the growth is something very small, like one per cent a year?

The Girl smiled. “You can’t fool me, Daddy,” she said. “It’s still exponential. If it’s just one per cent a year, it … “ She paused, struggling to find the words. “Pretty soon it’s double what it was, and then double that, and so on.”

Very good, I said – I’m proud of you. Things like this will be important when you’re older and handling money – you know those adverts on the telly, for quick loans?

“I’ve seen them,” she said.

They’ll lend you money, I said, but you have to pay it back plus seven per cent – that means that in ten years, you owe twice as much. In 20 years you’ll owe four times as much, in 30 years eight times, and so on.  

“That’s huge!” she said. “Well, depending on how much it was originally.”

Well, that’s why you shouldn’t borrow money unless you have to, and then pay it back right away, I said.

“Am I going to see a lot of exponential growth when I’m a grownup?” she asked. “’Cause I’m really hating exponential growth more all the time.”

I’m afraid you will, I said – but that’s why I tell you these things, so you’ll know it when you see it. Remember the lesson about carbon in the air? That’s been increasing exponentially. A few weeks ago I told you about how a lot of the things around us are powered by petroleum -- our petroleum use has doubled every 20 years or so. A lot of things are growing exponentially.

She looked at me gloomily. “But those are all terrible things,” she said.

I know, I said gently – they’re all in positive feedback. They all started small, and grew before anyone realised what was happening. But there are people making things better, and they’re growing exponentially too --- remember the parable of the mustard seed?

She looked puzzled for a moment, before calling up the memory. “It starts small, but…”

I smiled. What stops positive feedback? I asked her.

“Negative feedback,” she said, her expression brightening.

Right, I said – if people learn how to cope with the changes, and they teach others, and they teach others …

“It’s a positive feedback too,” she said. Yes, I said – but in the other direction, to make things better. They’re mustard seeds.

“Are we those people?” she said. “We’re not teaching anyone else.”

I am, I said, right now – and she smiled. And other people are teaching me, and you’ll teach others.

After we curled up and read together --- one of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books – I kissed her goodnight and asked her: what did you learn tonight?

“How to make myself beer,” she said slyly.