Thursday, May 26, 2011

After Oprah, a Civic Soapbox essay by Mariflo Stephens

A woman I hadn't heard from in over 20 years sent me a Christmas card. After two decades of being out of touch, Debbie tracked me down. She’d seen me on Oprah one year earlier, in 1990. Then, my best friend from childhood, Jane, sent me a birthday card that read: "Now you're 40. Only 60 years until Willard Scott announces your birthday on T.V."

"After Oprah," she wrote, "I figure Willard's next".

After Oprah, I acquired an unearned fame, vague in scope. I say “vague” because some in Charlottesville can't quite remember the basis for my celebrity, though they remain convinced of it. "Look," a beaming woman once said to her daughter, pointing to me. "There's Mariflo. She’s the famous...uh, famous famous."
In the even smaller town where I grew up, in front of the courthouse and behind the fire station, there is a creek. I remember the lot surrounding the creek as uncleared and weedy, the kind of place that attracts broken bottles. But community activists turned it into a park and each year it is the site of an arts festival with everything from a literary contest to a doll show. In this town of 5,000, hundreds swarm the park every June. I try to go there almost every year myself for their now-annual Chatauqua festival, there in the town where I grew up.

The June I was on national television coincided with Wytheville’s Chatauqua festival. My older sister told me that someone walked the park, calling out, "Mariflo's on Oprah in 15 minutes," and the park cleared. She estimates that there were 100 video tapes made of the event.

The next year when I went to Chatauqua I caught a little, freckle-faced boy staring at me, staring in absolute wonder. I was the woman he'd seen on the T.V. And because I flashed on the screen of his television for fifteen minutes, I was more real to him than anything he'd ever experienced in his small town.

Most of us don't live where we grew up. The first thing we do to ourselves in this culture is leave. But because I went before an audience of 25 million, I reached people I hadn't seen in years: my old college suite mate, my childhood friend, a kissing cousin.

So how did I end up on Oprah?

The Oprah staff had plugged the "suppport group junkie" idea into their computer service and found my satire “I Was a Support Group Junkie” from The Washington Post. Then they asked me to appear with some real support group junkies. “We need a humorist,” they’d explained.

Not one bad thing has happened to from being on Oprah. Not one negative phrase has been uttered. No one has called me a wet blanket or a spoilsport for saying that I, myself, didn’t really believe in support groups. And after the show taped, Oprah’s people promised to ask me back.

Now this is Oprah’s last week and I’m mad, because that promise was never kept. So what’s the deal with those people? In 21 years, they never had another need for a humorist? I wonder if Ellen DeGeneres would be interested in one? Hmmm.
 --Mariflo Stephens is from Charlottesville. She teaches creative writing at Hollins University.
Oprah says goodbye

Thursday, May 19, 2011

7 Myths about Urban Chickens, a Civic Soapbox by Pat Foreman

There are many false beliefs and prejudices about keeping chickens, and the seven issues that routinely surface are:

  1. disease, 
  2. noise, 
  3. odor and flies,
  4. predators and rodents,
  5. property values,
  6. appearances, 
  7. what will the neighbors think?

Here’s the facts about each issue.

Myth 1:  Urban Chickens Carry Diseases. 
Fact: Small flocks have literally no risk of avian flu transmission to humans. The 2006 Grain Report states: “When it comes to bird flu, diverse small-scale poultry is the solution, not the problem.” Why? Because small flocks have better immune systems.
Myth 2. Chickens are Noisy. 
Fact: Laying hens — at their very loudest — have about the same decibel level as human conversation (65 decibels). Roosters make most of the noise and many times they're not allowed in urban areas.
Myth 3. Waste and Odor. 
Fact: a forty pound dog generates more doggie-do (about ¾  of a pound) then ten chickens (two-thirds of a pound of poo daily ).  Both poops are smelly. But the key is to keep the chicken manure from accumulating, and this is done by composing.Composted chicken manure is valuable as a high-nitrogen fertilizer.

Myth 4. Chickens Attract Predators, Pests and Rodents.
Fact: Predators and rodents are already living in urban areas. Wild bird feeders, pet food, gardens, fish ponds, bird baths, and trash waiting to be collected all attract raccoons, foxes, rodents and flies. Modern micro-flock coops, such as chicken tractors, elevated coops and fencing provide ways of keeping, and managing, family flocks that eliminate concerns about such pests. 
And about those pests, chickens are voracious carnivores and will seek and eat just about anything that moves including ticks (think Lyme disease), fleas, mosquitoes, grasshoppers, stink bugs, slugs, and even mice, baby rats and small snakes.
Myth 5. Property Values Will Decrease.
Fact: There is not one single documented case that I know about a family flock that has decreased the value of real estate.
Myth 6. Coops are Ugly.
Fact: Micro-flock coop designs can be totally charming, upscale and even whimsical.Common design features include blending in with the local architectural, matching the slope of the roof and complementing color schemes.
Myth 7. What Will Neighbors Think?
Fact: You can’t control what anyone thinks, much less your neighbor. But in my experience, once folks experience the advantages and charms of chickens, the prejudice and fear evaporates; especially when you share some heart-healthy, good-for-you eggs from your hens.
Often overlooked is the value of chickens as clucking civic bio-recyclers. They can divert tons of “waste” from the trash collection systems. Chickens will eat just about any kitchen “waste,” including “gone-by” leftovers that have seasoned in the refrigerator. Combine their manure with grass clippings and leaves to create compost and top soil.

My chickens are charming, amicable and entertaining beings that bring so many advantages to my home garden. They are truly “pets with benefits”.

May the flock be with you!
--Patricia Foreman has kept chickens for years in Rockbridge County

Friday, May 13, 2011

What You Miss by NOT Biking to Work, a Civic Soapbox essay by Tim Godshall

Tom Godshall's well-traveled bike
In 2002, I bought a new bike, hoping to ride it across the U.S. Although that trip never happened, my bike has logged more than enough commuting miles to reach the west coast.

At first, biking to work was an obvious choice. In Washington DC, it was the fastest and cheapest way to get to my office. But when my wife and I moved to Harrisonburg and I got a construction job, I questioned the feasibility of bicycle commuting in my new work situation -- hauling heavy tools to far-flung job sites in the hilly Shenandoah Valley. Even so, I gave it a try, and two years later, I’m still at it.

Here's how it works: I carry all my hand tools in saddle bags made from plastic buckets. My co-workers carry the power tools in their trucks. Most jobs are within 10 miles, but sometimes I catch a ride if we're working farther away. And occasionally, I drive our car. Yes, we own a car. So why not drive to work every day?

First, biking saves money – not only in fuel costs, but by allowing my wife and me to avoid the expense of buying and maintaining a second car.

Second, when biking, I feel more connected to my surroundings. There's nothing like the sunrise over the mountains on a cool morning ride. Even when weather makes riding unappealing, there’s something exhilarating about engaging the cold, heat, rain, or wind. I also gain a truer sense of distance between points, and a greater respect for hills that I would ignore in a car.

Third, bicycle commuting builds the health benefits of aerobic exercise into my week. Reaching work after a bike ride, I feel far more alert. Returning home, I feel the satisfaction of a good workout.

But isn't biking on the road dangerous? Like any form of transportation, cycling has risks. However, a recent study showed that transportation cycling increases life expectancy, through good health, far more than it lowers it through injuries. Freak accidents happen, but the overall benefits of bicycle commuting outweigh the risks. I also choose to focus on the risks of not cycling. What are the costs of a car-dependent society? What sort of world do I want my daughter to inherit?

Ultimately, I commute by bike as one small way to bring about the world I hope for. Each revolution of my pedals is one step toward paying the full cost of my transportation, rather than passing environmental debt to future generations. It's not enough, but it is a start.

And if this inspires you, there's no better time for you to start than the beautiful month of May. In fact, next Friday, May 20, is National Bike to Work Day. Look online to find events in your area. If nothing is organized in your town, don't let that stop you from peddling to work! You'll join tens of thousands of bicycle commuters across this country, and add your heart, soul and legs to this human-powered movement. It will enrich your life, and may just change the world as well.

 -- Tim Godshall lives in Harrisonburg.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Boomerang Boy, a Civic Soapbox Essay by Bobbi Snow

This year my twenty-four year old son came home to live with me. He finished college, lived with friends in a house, completed several rites of passage and then moved home. At first, there was something compelling about having some more time with this child I adore since I believed there were so many lessons I failed to teach him. Would this be my opportunity to make up for all the things I wished I had done earlier? Maybe he would learn to fold wash right from the dryer. Cook something healthy that took longer to cook than to eat. That would be nice. Perhaps he could learn to write a decent thank you note.

As time goes on, I realize we are just mother and son in real time. No going back to redo anything. Habits are set and, in fact, are even more pronounced when he slips into his old bedroom and old patterns. If I thought I ever had impact or control over his behavior, I was delusional anyway. It is clearer to me now that my son is his own person, on his own journey, and just happens to be my roommate. It is safe and comforting for him here. We have set up a routine of daily life as if he were a young dependent. But he is not so young. I did not mean to set this up; it just emerged.

I am an in-charge type of person and I took charge. I cook all the dinners. I feed his cats. I keep the calendar and assure we are responsible about appointments. I clean the house and make sure he helps by giving him his to-do list. I ask two or three times for the recycling bins to be brought back in without showing impatience or stress. This routine is just like when he was ten years old

I have always loved being Jake’s mother. I still do. But when is a good time for him to be more independent? According to the last census, 56 percent of men age 18 to 24 and 48 percent of women live with their parents. Certainly I never would have dreamed of moving in with my parents after college. I never would have expected any financial support or wanted any guidance, but then my parents did not know who I was. I kept myself hidden, had a superficial --but loving-- relationship of respect and distance. I took care of myself. In contrast, I know so much about my son Jake. My friends and relatives today know so much about their kids. We are in a different kind of culture than the one I am familiar with.
We are on speedial with our kids. They come to us for everything. Of course they want to live at home. We have worked hard to make a home that works for them. I see this glorious connection to our sons and daughters and wonder how they will ever become independent of us. How will they maneuver through the tough challenges of life outside the warm confines of the home? Are we coddling them into a connection of collusion that stunts their growth? Are they prepared to face the realities of the big world out there when we are defining the realities for them daily?

On this Mother’s Day I will celebrate how lucky I am to be Jake’s mother and will seriously consider whether I should propose that he and we might be better off if he had roommates closer to his own age. I am not sure how the conversation will go or if Jake will take me up on my suggestion but I do know I will reassure my “boomerang child” that he can stay as long as he needs to.

  --- Bobbi Snow is the co-founder of the Community Public Charter School in Albemarle County