Saturday, December 1, 2007

In Which I Buy Something I Don't Need

Rare is the occasion when I go into a store and spontaneously purchase something that I didn't plan and don't need... except in the sense that I don't really need potato chips. But today I saw a product that stopped me in my tracks. It was made in China from 100% polypropylene, and it smells funny. But that's okay (sort of) because it's a reusable shopping bag with the IGA logo printed on it, which means they're finally getting on board with bringing your own bags, instead of looking at me like I'm a space alien and punishing me by making me pack my own groceries while the conveyor belt runs relentlessly beneath.

I had heard such newfangled trends as reusable store bags were catching on in conventional supermarkets elsewhere, but around here I'd thought it was a coop-only phenomenon. The IGA, where I did most of my shopping in my seriously impoverished days, is by no means an upscale grocery. I was thrilled, really thrilled (and surprised) to see a rack of those bags displayed in a prominent location near the express checkout. $1.49 apiece. I was only at the store to buy a single item, so would normally have used no bag at all, but I took one in support of their nascent effort. I'll be using it again, after all. And will probably end up buying two or three more.

The bags looked really tiny, hanging folded up, but I will also vouch for the fact that they expand beautifully into a square tote only slightly smaller than a paper grocery sack, they appear to be strong, and they have the distinct advantage of that store endorsement, giving people confidence that they're not weirdos for using them. Their boxiness also, I dare say, makes them much easier to pack than your standard shapeless tote, reducing annoyance on the part of those doing the bagging.

So, hooray! And... I'm sure the smell will dissipate in time.

If you go to, you can see a running tally (at the top of the page) of disposable plastic bags consumed this year. Just watch it for a second.

Then, if your grocery is offering reusables, make sure you register your appreciation, both verbally and by actually purchasing and using them! This is one trend that needs, badly, to catch on.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Where'd My Tires Go?

Monday I replaced the tires on my car. They were all-weather tires that had come with the car from the factory in the summer of 2002, and were going bald and cracked. Since my car's a four-wheel-drive, I replaced all four.

But as my daughter and I had walked by the open garage, piled high with tires, she'd marvelled. Look at all those. Yeah, there were a lot, but I've seen more simply dumped in piles here and there across the landscape. My biggest reluctance in tire replacement was not price, it was waste. What the hell was going to happen to my, and everybody's, old tires? If there are miles-long rafts of plastic bags floating in the Pacific Ocean, are there tire buttes, mountains, jetties? The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) says that industry and EPA estimates suggest an average of one waste tire per year generated by each person in the U.S.. Seriously, where are they gonna go?

So I asked. I made a pretense of linking my query to understanding the bill: so there's a $2.00 disposal fee for each tire? Uh-huh. So... what happens to them?

"I have no idea," said the young guy taking my check, in a conversation that was beginning to turn familiar.

Surely he must have some idea. He works there, for god’s sake. “Like, do they just get landfilled? Do they get recycled somehow?”

“They go to a tire disposal place up in Polson. I have no idea what they do with them after that.”

Well, okay. That’s someplace to start.

Here’s what a little research was able to turn up regarding the tire disposal place up in Polson and what they might do there. They don’t have their own website, so this is a sketchy description cobbled from a number of sources.

First of all, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) gives some general information about what happens to waste tires in the state (emphases mine).

Montana does not ban tires from landfills or require that tires be cut up before disposal. Economics result in the majority of Montana's waste tires being disposed of in landfills. Long travel distances to waste tire markets means landfilling is usually less expensive than alternatives.

[…] The Rasmussen Tire site near Kalispell, Tires for Reclamation near Silesia (Billings), and The Tire Depot near Polson are privately operated Class 3 monofills (tires only) and these operators are required to keep records of tires buried or recycled.

The 1998 Environmental Quality Council's 'Status of and Alternatives for the Management of Waste Tires in Montana: Report to the 56th Legislature', reported that those three monofill sites alone accounted for a total of 174,497 or nearly 51% of the waste tires reported to the DEQ as having been disposed of or recycled in 1997.

From a table in the DEQ’s 1998 report mentioned above, I learn that Tire Depot Recovery, the Polson one, accepted 45,500 tires for disposal in 1997. 19,500 were accepted for recycling.

And what does “recycling” mean, for the minority of tires (perhaps a larger proportion these nine years later) that are actually recycled, up in Polson? It’s certainly a reassuring word, and the Polson facility has been praised highly over the past years, for instance, by our local opposition to a proposed tire incineration plant from Swiss corporation Holcim. Don’t burn the tires and send all kinds of nasty toxins into our air! Send them to Polson!

Montana does have a tire recycler that converts tires into useful products: Vern Reum of Polson, MT. Reum’s operation shreds tires and produces products with several different uses. He is in the process of qualifying for a low-cost economic development loan to buy a tire crumber so that he can expand his business.

In October 2003, though, Vern Reum had testified to the Montana Environmental Quality Council that not enough tires were being recycled in Montana to make recycling economically feasible, so at that time they were sending tires to Canada to be shredded, after which the product was shipped back to Montana for sale. He talked about plans to build a local plant to do this, a process which involves freezing the tires with nitrogen and then pulverizing them. Has that plant been built? I’ve had trouble telling. I found no reports of it; yet the 2006 article quoted just above says he “shreds tires” and the MT 2005 Guide for Buying Recycled Products lists the Tire Depot: “Shreds used tires to produce steel-free fill material. Can also provide crumb-rubber overs for horse arenas and playgrounds.”

So, the actual recycling (=shredding) process either takes place in Canada or has newly begun to occur right on site in Polson. The recycled product is basically… shredded-up rubber. With its many uses. Like fill.

There are some problems even with posing the above plan as an alternative to incineration: Vern Reum’s operation once caught fire in 2001, causing a fairly serious air- and water-quality crisis.

The business has been operating at the location for 14 years, he said. The plant shreds used tires to be recycled as road base, construction backfill and other uses. […]

The fire was contained to an enormous pit where the tires were shredded and stored.* Fire personnel estimated the size of the pit at approximately 400 yards wide and long. It was filled with tires and shredded tires to a depth of at least 40 to 50 feet, they said.

"Millions of tires," said Glenn Reum, Vern Reum's brother. "There are millions of tires in there. He's been hauling them from tire shops all over Washington, Oregon and Idaho. He's the only licensed tire recycler in the state of Montana."

*(Yes, this is a 2001 story, before the Tire Depot apparently had the capacity to shred its own tires. Sigh.)

None of this is to say that I oppose tire recycling, nor that I’m in favor of Holcim’s nasty incinerator, potentially only twenty minutes’ drive away. But there’s no simple, feel-good way to dispose of these big, heavy, flammable objects, of which we Americans produce hundreds of millions per year. Knowing this may help us consider our choices better: buy higher-quality, longer-lasting tires, for instance. Remember to rotate them. Drive less.

It took an awful lot of work for me to figure out even this much about what happened to my tires after I paid some men to take them off my car, then paid two dollars extra, per tire, for them to conveniently disappear. Even the men I paid didn’t know what became of them thereafter. Imagine the difference between this culture of invisible supply/invisible waste (who knows where our meat comes from or where tires go to die?) and a culture in which the whole material chain, from origin to waste disposal, could be transparent—in which business workers and customers might regularly discuss the histories of products prior to sale and their ultimate post-use fates. The repercussions would be huge, and much of the difference might simply rest on which questions are perceived as weird to ask.

I’m shy; it’s hard for me to ask weird questions and get funny looks from strangers. But I’m doing it anyway; the alternative is tacit acceptance of this unnatural universe of disconnected phenomena, where the objects I use appear out of nowhere and go back into nowhere when I’m through with them. I eat anonymous beef and don’t know how my city’s water treatment plant works; I drive on anonymous rubber which can be replaced, for money, without my ever seeing what’s been discarded. There were tires on my car when I dropped it off (one flat); there were different tires on it when I picked it up, none flat. Transaction accomplished. Snap-your-fingers magic.

The thing is, times are coming—or already here—when we need to make major changes to our supply chains and waste management to survive. This kind of magic is exactly what will render us helpless to save ourselves. Witnessing such sleights of hand every day, we expect miracles.

Time to start feeling around inside the magician's hat.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Senate Farm Bill Update and Action

OrangeClouds115 writes a very similar farm bill digest to the one I was reluctantly gearing up for; now I don’t have to. (Mine wouldn't have had such a provocative title, though.)

We can be pleased that the Senate Agricultural Committee bill contains a pretty good livestock/competition title (read OC’s diary for more details), as well as some other victories for conservation and community-minded farmers and eaters. A few problems, however, to keep our eyes on:

The committee’s version raises EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) payment limits from $240,000 to $450,000 over 5 years. Payments in these kinds of giant chunks help large CAFOs build and manage manure lagoons while depleting funds that could otherwise be available to smaller farms.

The livestock title, though I’m really grateful that it contains so many provisions to help small producers compete against giant ones, is still missing Captive Supply Reform, which would “restore competition in the market for livestock contracts by requiring a fixed base price on contracts and marketing agreements [and] requiring trading of contracts in open, public markets to which all buyers and sellers have access.” Sen. Enzi (R-WY) is expected to offer an amendment re-introducing Captive Supply Reform.

Small livestock owners and small farm advocates are upset (as previously noted) by mentions of NAIS (National Animal ID System) in the committee’s bill. While the bill does not make NAIS mandatory (phew!), it still contains a provision (sec. 10305) that gives implicit approval and support to the “voluntary” USDA program. Section 10305 amends the Animal Health Protection Act to 1) define NAIS, and 2) exempt certain information collected under NAIS from the Freedom of Information Act.

The Farm Bill will probably go to the Senate floor next week (week of Nov. 5), so this is the time to ask your senators to:

  • support Sen. Enzi’s Captive Supply Reform amendment
  • strike sec. 10305, which brings NAIS one step closer to entrenched ubiquity.
  • oppose raising EQIP payment limits if there is an opportunity to do so.

Monday, October 29, 2007

From the first sentence you just know

I finally had the opportunity to start Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. And-- here's the thing-- it's fantastic. If you haven't read it yet, go read it now. If you're not moved to tears within, oh, four pages, by sheer amazement at how good this book is, I'm not sure if you're someone I can know.

On eating and drinking in Tucson:
Like many other modern U.S. cities, it might as well be a space station where human sustenance is concerned. Virtually every unit of food consumed there moves into town in a refrigerated module from somewhere far away. Every ounce of the city's drinking, washing, and goldfish-bowl-filling water is pumped from a nonrenewable source-- a fossil aquifer that is dropping so fast, sometimes the ground crumbles. In a more recent development, some city water now arrives via a three-hundred-mile-long open canal across the desert from the Colorado River, which-- owing to our thirsts-- is a river that no longer reaches the ocean, but peters out in a sand flat near the Mexican border.

If it crosses your mind that water running through hundreds of miles of open ditch in a desert will evaporate and end up full of concentrated salts and muck, then let me just tell you, that kind of negative thinking will never get you elected to public office in the state of Arizona.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

New to Me

American Dippers

and a whole covey of
gray partridges!

Neither of these birds are in the least rare, but I've never encountered either before (that I was aware of at the time)-- and then it was both in one morning. There were two dippers working the stream that runs beneath a bridge where I was running. There were 6 or 8 partridges bobbing around right near my lab on the university campus. Yes, it was a Sunday, no, not a central location, but still this seemed rather brazen.

"But look at the detailing!"

CTLiberal at DailyKos diaries more horrific sweatshop abuses perpetrated by contractors for the Gap in Delhi.

For those of us involved in this issue only as consumers, I'd call your attention to the following passage from the Observer article.
"Professor Sheotaj Singh, co-founder of the DSV, or Dayanand Shilpa Vidyalaya, a Delhi-based rehabilitation centre and school for rescued child workers, said he believed that as long as cut-price embroidered goods were sold in stores across Britain, America, continental Europe and elsewhere in the West, there would be a problem with unscrupulous subcontractors using children."
Please think about that (I am). We don't need to wait for the practices of the Gap, or any other company, to be "exposed" by the media. If we find a garment that has elaborate handwork (embroidery, beading, all the details that are in fashion now), and its price does not seem to reflect the labor involved, we have to assume that it wasn't made by someone being paid a fair wage.

Of course, the people who run the Gap aren't stupid either; they're experts who should certainly come to the same realization instead of hiding their heads in the sand. Even if they "didn't know," they knew, and they bear responsibility. But we bear responsibility too, when purchasing, to assess: am I paying a fair price for this item? If I'm not, what are the probable implications?

I'm accustomed to going through that thought process when purchasing food. Now I'll think harder about clothing. Especially the kind with all that ornamentation.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Something Old

A wonderful Barbara Kingsolver piece, featuring the marvelous Vandana Shiva, appeared in the September 30th Washington Post-- since this was the day my grandfather died, I missed it. A particularly startling assertion made by Shiva and new to me:
"Most of those who have moved off of farms are still working in the industry of creating food and bringing it to consumers: as cashiers, truck drivers, even the oil-rig workers who generate the fuels to run the trucks. Those jobs are all necessary to a travel-dependent, highly mechanized food system. And many of those jobs are menial, life-taking work, instead of the life-giving work of farming on the land. The analyses we have done show that no matter what, whether the system is highly technological or much more simple, about 50 to 60 percent of a population has to be involved in the work of feeding that population. Industrial agriculture did not 'save' anyone from that work, it only shifted people into other forms of food service."
Huh, really? Take the poll I just put up above-- I'm curious. And think carefully: for instance, no, of course I don't work in any kind of food-related job, I work in a fisheries laboratory. Then I thought about it a little more. Our lab has been mostly dedicated to addressing whirling disease, a pathogen that's been decimating trout populations throughout the West. Why, indeed, do we care about trout populations? Partly because of concern for ecological ramifications, or love of sport fishing. But also because trout are a wild food resource still widely exploited by Westerners. Are we so removed from the idea that wild food is real "food" that trout don't count, whereas if I worked with a cattle disease I'd certainly have a consciousness of my role in feeding the country's population? So, yes, okay, I'm (still) in food service.

Other food-service jobs I've held: bakery assistant. Grocery cashier. If you take "feeding the population" literally, nursing home aide. Grill cook. Prep cook. Waitress. Hostess. The past seven years in fisheries. Plus substantial unpaid cooking and gardening. Shiva is right. How about you, dear reader?

My grandpa, by the way, was born to a farm family. Later he grew up and "moved off the farm" (though still a farm-owner), becoming a small-town independent banker and politician. Oh, except the money coming in to the bank was that of local farmers, and plenty of the voters and constituents were farmers too. He was still in food service.

Friday, October 26, 2007

News and Links, 10/26/07

FEMA briefs itself on its handling of California wildfires. More discussion and links at UncommonSense's Daily Kos diary.

The Senate Agriculture Committee has agreed on a Farm Bill which will now go to the Senate floor. Food and Water Watch has come up with a simple list of victories and "needs-work" areas and has an email form to let your Senators know which provisions you want them to fight for.

The current Senate version contains several good things we should hang onto hard, including steps forward on country-of-origin labelling (COOL) and a real competition title (.pdf).

Another persisting problem in addition to the ones Food and Water Watch mentions: the National Animal ID System (NAIS) received tacit approval in Section 10305. NAIS is not
appropriate for small farmers selling locally, and its costs make small producers even less competitive against livestock giants. Please ask your Senators to support stripping this section from the bill.

Desmogblog demonstrates the "edits" that the White House made to CDC Director Julie Gerberding's Congressional testimony on the impacts of climate change. Said press secretary Dana Perino:
The CDC testimony "was not watered down in terms of its science (or) ... in terms of the concerns that climate change raises for public health."
You decide.

The Anti-Consumerist Child

I went to the mall this week with my 6-year-old daughter, to search for components to this year's Halloween costume. She's going to be a carrot.

The things we were looking for were: orange pants. An orange or green knit cap. Orange face paint. Green pipe cleaners and some type of big green paper or something, to make fronds out of.

We purchased the last two craft items and the face paint right away, and were left cruising the department stores, hoping to happen upon orange pants or hats. My daughter saw a display of fuzzy animal slippers, cute frogs and bunnies and puppies, and pointed them out.

"Uh-huh," I said warily.

"But I don't need any slippers!" she cheerfully went on. "I've already got two pairs!"

Wow, okay. She stole my line. We went on into the children's department at Macy's, which had a display of gorgeous fancy dresses. Not pink ruffles and lace, but sophisticated, truly beautiful (and expensive) full-length satins in red-and-white patterns, or black, or sage green (my personal weakness). My daughter loves fancy dresses, and picks up a lot of them at yard sales with her dad. I stopped to admire them, ready with my explanation that, while they were beautiful, we would have nowhere to wear something so formal.

But my daughter moved purposefully right past me and the dresses, into the recesses of the children's department to search for orange pants. "Mooommm," she said impatiently. I was wasting time, looking at and touching stuff we obviously weren't going to buy.

She didn't even want a snack at the food court. "No, I can wait," she said.

Later, at another shopping center (orange pants are tough to find), she consented when I suggested stopping to refuel on a couple of tacos; and later still she spent $1.99 of her own money on a Halloween trick-or-treat bag at Kmart and asked for a quarter for the gumball machines. She's not an abnormal child.

We still didn't have all our costume components, so another trip was in the works. But... when did my kid become such a joy to shop with? I remember when, at about age four, Store Lust suddenly hit. Everything we passed-- toys, shoes, towels, can openers-- became an object of intense desire. She didn't throw tantrums, but every shopping expedition became an exhausting odyssey of rational explanation. We don't need that. We can't buy everything. We don't have the money for anything except what's on our list. They're just saying that thing is great because they want to get you to buy it, so their company can make more money. We don't need one of those.

But somehow, somewhere, all that must have sunk in. The presumption of not-buying has overtaken the drive to possess or consume. On that day and the one following (during which we still couldn’t find orange pants, but settled for orange shorts and very long orange socks), we bought only the items we were specifically looking for, plus a very few small treats (on the second day, she bought herself a 50-cent lollipop).

It’s a wonderful thing. Except she wants Heelys.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

New Footprint Game

There's a new "calculate-your-footprint" interactive game out from American Public Media. (Others were previously blogged here.)

As a calculator, it's pretty standard (and, indeed, I got what's more or less my standard result: If everyone lived like you, we would need 2.5 Earths...). It's far more high-tech and visual than most, though (you even make an entirely irrelevant avatar!). It also collects some demographic data, and allows you to compare your scores, not only with U.S. and world averages, but with various subgroups of your choice (I use a little more electricity than most low-income people, but drive far less than most Democrats).

As usual, I'm surprised by how minimally things like transportation and garbage figure in to my lower-than-average-but-still-too-high score. Those are the elements we're accustomed to thinking about, to feeling guilty about and adjusting. But if I took the bus everywhere and recycled every bit of my garbage (man, I miss composting), it wouldn't change the fact that housing and food are my main problems. This despite the fact that I live in a small apartment in a 30-unit building, and eat a diet that is majority local and/or organic with only a little bit (I estimated 2%) of meat.

Electricity (I'm running, mainly, the usual fridge and electric range, a laptop, a handful of light bulbs-- some of which are fluorescent). Food. When these are one's most serious sources of wastefulness, despite real moderation, it serves as a reminder that large structural changes (in power generation, in food production and distribution) can be far more effective in reducing one's "footprint" than adjusting one's personal habits. Of course, the latter is essential too.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Getting Back to the Farm Bill...

Finally! I admit the August recess (and yes, I'm aware it's September 25) caused me to take my eye off this ball. It's time for a whirlwind reorientation:

First of all, timing. A lot of other things have been on the Senate’s plate this month, including the post-surge Iraq assessment. Poor Tom Harkin and his farm bill have been put off, again. Since the 2002 farm bill expires on September 30, a 30-day extension will be sought (for the time being, though further short-term extensions are certainly possible). Harkin still says he intends for the Agriculture Committee to take up the farm bill in the first week of October, before the Columbus day break. It’s unclear to me how likely that actually is.

Another thing that’s unclear is whether a major personnel shift will cause delays or change dynamics. Mike Johanns stepped down last week as Secretary of Agriculture in order to run for Sen. Chuck Hagel’s seat in Nebraska, and will be replaced by deputy secretary Chuck Conner. Some feel the timing of Johanns’ move is unprofessional:

‘‘For the secretary to walk away in the middle of a farm bill borders on irresponsible,’’ said Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee. His remarks were echoed by Democratic Sens. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.”

However, Tom Harkin complimented Johanns’ past work, and Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), the House Agriculture Committee chairman so influential in the House version of the farm bill passed in July, expressed doubt that the replacement would matter much.

‘‘Chuck Conner has been running the show behind the scenes on the USDA’s farm bill agenda, so not much will change now that he’s been named acting secretary,’’ Peterson said.

I kind of hate the idea of the acting secretary of agriculture being a past president of the Corn Refiners Association (member companies: Archer Daniels Midland! Cargill! National Starch and Chemical Company! and more!), but there’s no reason I should be surprised. Read their most recent annual corn publication, Corn - Part of a Sustainable Environment. …Seriously, browse the site. It’ll make you as queasy as a Big Gulp full of high-fructose corn syrup.

This is what’s “running the show behind the scenes.”

Another key behind-the-scenes drama is unfolding over funding. Of course, the limited funding available for food and farm programs constrains what is possible: we can’t have farm subsidies at current levels, and strengthen food stamp benefits, and fund every desirable conservation program, and invest in community food programs, and create new departments at the USDA, and provide insurance and disaster relief for farmers, and so on. Well, we can’t unless we, for instance, get out of Iraq; that might free up some funds. But, for the time being, we can’t do everything we want to do.

So Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT—that would be my guy), who’s on the Agriculture Committee but is also chair of the Finance Committee, has pledged to find an additional $10 billion or so in funding for farm bill programs. The hitch is, this situation gives Baucus a tremendous amount of power to determine how that extra money is spent. While Harkin is looking to locate funding for existing conservation programs snubbed by the House bill, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) is pushing for the discretionary funds allocated to Community Food Projects to be made mandatory, and anti-poverty advocates still hunger for a stronger Nutrition Title… Baucus has different priorities. Along with Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA, and incidentally ranking Republican member of the Finance Committee), Baucus would like to spend at least half that extra money for a permanent USDA-run disaster relief program to protect farmers against losses from drought, floods, and storms.

An excellent article on Harkin’s, Conrad’s, and Baucus’ role in these proceedings, by Steve Kopperud of Brownfield, is here.

Enter emerging co-star Sen. Max Baucus (D, MT), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, who plays the role of the money man in this drama. As when House Ways & Means Committee Chair Charlie Rangel (D, NY) had to conjure up over $4 billion to pay for Speaker Pelosi's desire to expand the food stamp program, all Senators with Farm Bill plans and programs are seeking an audience with Baucus, many on bended knee, in hopes of an offset to pay for their programs.

Baucus is playing it shrewdly, however, and unlike Rangel, he's already said he won't go for tax increases, which means the House scheme to tax the U.S. subsidiaries of foreign-owned companies is pretty much dead. However, he's putting conditions on his largesse. He's known to be putting together an offset package for Farm Bill spending that reports say will "add billions to farm spending." But he'll likely dictate where that money will go and he's a big supporter of the really big permanent disaster program. This does not bode well for Harkin's effort to get an extra $6 billion for conservation, nutrition and specialty crop programs.

Also see this Sept. 6 article from Congressional Quarterly.

Now, besides the obvious problem of trade-offs, a disaster relief program is a good thing in and of itself, right? Who could oppose funds to aid those betrayed by the vagaries of weather? Apparently, however, the question is more complicated than that. The Des Moines Register notes that “Harkin has resisted establishing a disaster program. Critics of disaster aid argue that it encourages farmers to grow crops such as corn in marginal areas.” In fact, the GAO has just issued a report (.pdf summary here) concluding “that crop insurance, in particular, is motivating conversion by greatly limiting the risk of producing crops in areas that are marginal as cropland.” So, for example, a conservation program that compensated farmers for leaving marginal land as wildlife habitat would, in a sense, contradict on principle a program compensating farmers who elected to farm that marginal land and suffered financial loss as a consequence. It is difficult to consider these simply two complementary approaches.

But, from the same Des Moines Register article:

Grassley said earlier Tuesday that he would side with Baucus and favor funding the disaster program[…] Harkin is ‘going to have to make the choice: either less money, or do it the way we want it done,’ Grassley said.

Lovely; here’s hoping Iowa’s two senators are the best of friends.

Whatever happens, funding-wise, we can suspect that the Senate will not be following the House’s lead in trying to pay for stuff by closing corporate tax loopholes or any of that funny business. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), ranking Republican member of the Agriculture Committee, drafted a letter with five other senators warning against such erratic behavior. The Senate Agriculture Committee’s press release quotes the letter:

‘Since the Senate Finance Committee is the likely source of additional revenue, we wish to express our concern that any provisions to offset spending be carefully vetted and discussed with all members of the Agriculture Committee prior to markup…We wish to avoid a situation such as that occurred in the House which brought forth an unfortunate series of events, straining the farm bill’s long tradition of bipartisan and multi-regional support.'


A few other specific farm bill issues you might be following:

From Agriculture Online, Grassley expresses confidence that lower caps for farm payments, a source of controversy in the House bill, will fare better in the Senate.

An editorial from AgriNews champions Tom Harkin’s Livestock Title (often referred to as the “Competition Title,” because it is a series of reforms designed to break the economic stranglehold of a handful of corporate meat companies over family farmers and ranchers). These reforms include defending farmers against mandatory arbitration contract provisions; passing the Captive Supply Reform Act S. 1017, which would “restore fair market competition for livestock contracts by requiring marketing contracts to have a fixed base price negotiated in an open public market”; and banning meatpacker ownership of livestock, as trends toward corporate-owned, vertically-integrated enterprises are pushing small producers right out of the industry.

I’m not usually someone with much to say on energy, but it sounds as though there may be some unexpected energy-related developments in the Senate farm bill, again due to Max Baucus’ influence. The Community Food Security Coalition cites CongressDaily of Sept. 18 (the latter is subscription-only) as reporting:

Sen. Baucus is reportedly planning on shifting some renewable energy and fuels production tax incentives from the Energy Bill to the Farm Bill. Sen. Baucus said that the agriculture tax package would include provisions to help farmers and ranchers by including tax incentives for the production of wind and other means of alternative energy. Also, Sen. Baucus announced that there would be tax incentives to encourage farmers to grow crops that are used to make ethanol, biodiesel, and other biofuels. Both the oil and renewable energy industries said that they are in the dark about whether the tax incentives affecting them would be in the Energy or Farm Bill and what exactly the incentives will look like.

Stay tuned, I guess.


h/ts due, as usual, to some other blogs for pre-digestion of sources: in particular, More Deliberate Every Day, and the indispensably amazing digests by Keith Good at

Monday, September 24, 2007

"It Comes on the Truck... Then the Guys Cut it"

Want to throw the employees of your local conventional supermarket into confusion? Ask them if they know where the meat comes from. Like this:

Do you happen to know where your meat comes from?

Today I had occasion to buy some stew beef-- I wanted to make a borscht with some big beets from the CSA farm-- and it was (sorry, purists) more convenient to stop at my neighborhood market than to hit the coop for the good stuff. It's a pretty small, locally-owned place with its own butcher, so I thought there was a reasonable chance of finding Montana beef for sale there; I looked at the labels on the packages and the signage at the meat counter, but saw no indication of the beef's provenance. No matter; I was going to buy it anyway, and I did.

As the young checker wrapped up my beef in an extra plastic bag to prevent leakage, insisting on giving me excellent service whether I wanted it or not, I asked her, as diffidently as I could: "Do you happen to know where your meat comes from?"

"No!," she said, with an air of thoughtful surprise. "No, actually, I've never even thought about that before." Despite clearly finding the question odd, she also seemed intrigued. "Do you want me to ask for you?"

"That's all right, I was just curious," I said. "You can ask later, if you want, just to find out for yourself..."

She turned to another woman who was stocking shelves, a middle-aged person who's worked there for years. "Do you know where our meat comes from?"

It was this woman-- I will add, a woman I like and respect fine-- who gave the answer, "It comes from the truck."

"Sorry?" I said. "It comes from the truck?" I wasn't sure if I'd heard right.

"Yeah, it comes on the truck... then the guys cut it. I have no idea where it comes from."

"That's okay, I was just curious," I said again. "Thanks." And I went out. I didn't want to cause more consternation.

So, if you don't mind feeling a bit like a space alien, I think it is not bad to raise this question. It plants a seed, even if you don't get an answer; the girl who said she'd never even thought about it before has now thought about it. Both these women may, at slow moments of the shift, idly ask a fellow employee: "hey, this lady came in and she asked me where our meat came from... do you know where it comes from?" Until maybe, someday, somebody will turn out to know.

Please, though, be kind to the grocery workers. It's not their fault our food system is fucked.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Serious Amusements

Via Virtual Farmgirl, Cinema Botanica (trailer here) offers a little something to keep your plants, er, entertained. Read the press release about conceptual artist Jonathon Keats' films for non-human species.
Mr. Keats came to appreciate the potential impact of arts and entertainment on non-human audiences while choreographing ballet for honeybees at Chico State University last year.
Well, huh.


In the “things that remind me of my fish” department: Hunter of Daily Kos’s post on the care and feeding of Congress.


I've been working-- semi-working-- for three days on a post summarizing the current status of the farm bill. You wouldn't think it would be that hard. I hereby make a promise (!) that it'll be up tomorrow, provided I don't get all agitated about anything in the interim. Sigh.

Happy first day of fall, everybody. Count me one who's not grieving over the unleaving.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Farm Reads

At Daily Kos, two interesting farming-related diaries of this week:

OrangeClouds115 puts into simple, convincing terms the argument against allocating EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) funds to help factory farms build manure lagoons.

And A. Siegel provides an introduction to the idea of vertical farming, ranging from rooftop gardens to diversified agricultural enterprises housed in skyscrapers.

Me, I'm excited, because no more waiting at the library for Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle-- a friend awaited me at my daughter's school this morning bearing a copy for me to borrow. Hooray!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

"Each Animal Responds to Grass Differently"

I don't mind being used as an advertising conduit for my friends-of-friends' (I've never met them) ranch (more about Alderspring's grass-fed beef). Here's an interview on with ranchers Glenn and Caryl Elzinga about their background, philosophy, and methods.

There's an excellent discussion of so-far-failed USDA attempts to define and regulate the term "grass-fed"; for those new to the terminology, it's important to realize that these words alone mean little. As Glenn Elzinga says, "if they want to know how the beef is actually raised, they will have to do a bit of investigating."

In the same vein, Elzinga repeatedly emphasizes the importance of keeping the business small enough to cultivate diversity and attention to detail. The corporate "grass-fed beef" that may take advantage of the trend will not be the same product:
...the implementation of the system is very unlike finishing cattle in a feedlot. For example, sometimes we move our cattle 3 times a day—other times we move them once every three days. It all depends on weather, grass quality, and the condition of the animals. Excellent grass fed beef is truly an artisanal product. Every two weeks, we handpick several head as ‘ready’ from our yearling herd, carefully evaluating each steer for the right amount of finish. The genetic diversity of our herd prevents us from categorically shipping a large number of animals off to the processor at any one time. Each animal responds to grass differently. One animal may finish in 14 months, another may take as long as 20. In the industrial model of the feedlot, it is important to strive for uniformity, both through genetics and feeding regimes, so that animals grow very rapidly and entire pens of cattle finish at the same time, often in 13 to 15 months.


What most large grass fed producers have done is put their cattle in a feedlot, feeding them a consistent forage-based ration during the last 60 days of life to eliminate the inconsistency of their products. This feedlot-finishing, however, creates many of the same problems that are associated with the current system of finishing animals in confinement on a grain-based diet. Most people interested in organics are interested in the whole picture of how their food is produced, a picture that includes humane treatment of animals, elimination of concentrations of waste that cause pollution problems, reduction of E.coli contamination, and support of small family farms.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Farming the Parking Garage

There was a superb article on urban farming a few weeks ago from In These Times. Thank you to OrangeClouds115 for bringing it to my attention. I maintain that the only sensible long-term land-use strategy is to cultivate our living spaces-- empty lots, rooftops, and lawns-- for food production; and, for those inhabiting "food deserts," justice demands equitable access to health and nutrition, green growing spaces... and pleasure in food.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Two Great Losses

Via Devilstower at Daily Kos, Alex the parrot, subject of a fascinating body of animal cognition and language research, has died. More about Alex's great work here and here. Memorial gifts may be made here in support of further parrot research.

[update]: A couple of links for cornfed and anyone else.
Pepperberg's 2002 book, The Alex Studies
Alex with Irene and Alan Alda on PBS' Scientific American Frontiers

Madeleine L'Engle also died last week. A real obituary will likely come later, as I owe her many thanks. For now, I'll just say that Mr. Jenkins One is one of the great characters of modern literature. And goodbye, to one of the most fearless persons we've had the privilege to know.

Something to Read

I just wanted to post a quick link to a diary Farm Bill Girl wrote last night on Daily Kos entitled "Don't Blame the Farmer for your Food Bill." In her usual passionate style, FBG explains why high corn prices and ethanol subsidies are not the true culprits in rising food costs, and does what she does best: placing the blame squarely on corporate agribusiness. And she does it without supporting ethanol as an alternative energy source, which adds a bit of balance to the argument. The comment thread's worth a read too.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Kids' Book Thread

Like the regular book thread, this can serve as a long-term comment repository (linked at right sidebar) even after it's scrolled down; this one is for anybody who wants to talk kids' lit with us.

My daughter and I have both been very excited to discover the American Girl books. My much younger half-sister had been a fan of the series as a child, but I'd always been skeptical: they were, after all, associated with the sale of some very expensive dolls and other products, and I didn't have very high expectations for the quality of the books themselves. (There are eight individual series of six books; each series focuses on a fictional little girl representative of a particular time period and cultural group in American history.) My daughter, however, chose to check one out of the public library (it was the first book about Addy, a little girl who escapes from slavery and begins life in the North during the Civil War), and we were both instantly hooked.

The fact is, the Addy books are extremely well-written and emotionally gripping; and they're furthermore highly informative historically. For a six-year-old girl with little sense of American history and virtually no sense of our country's legacy of racial injustice, they've introduced a number of new topics of thinking and questioning: about war, about slavery, about prejudice, about class, about how culture changes over time. Kids this age have a keen sense of justice, and it's a perfect time to expand their concern for playground and at-home fairness into an awareness of imbalances in the wider world. At the same time, the stories communicate historical themes mainly through the daily life of a single girl, stirring kid empathy by focusing on familiar commonalities: feelings about family members, school experiences and social frustrations, games and meals.

We've finished the Addy stories and moved on to Felicity,
a Revolutionary-War-era girl living in Williamsburg, Virginia. Because the themes in the Felicity books-- so far, anyway-- are not so urgently life-or-death, I don't find them quite as absorbing. In the first Addy book, Addy leaves three family members behind and risks her own life trying to escape north with her mother. In the first Felicity book, Felicity rescues a horse from an abusive owner. I guess that was pretty life-or-death for the horse.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Another wrong number...

This thing just gets more and more embarrassing, doesn't it?

Book Thread

Just for the heck of it (and to remind me to read as well as blog), I've added a new little sidebar item ("What I'm Reading"). The idea is, if you too are reading the same thing(s), or have recently read them, or want to read them... etc.... you can click the link and it will bring you to this book thread to discuss. (Of course, at the moment this post is at the top of the page, but it will ultimately scroll away.)

Sy Montgomery's The Good Good Pig

I've only just begun this, so no comment yet.


I've been reading Barack Obama's book for the past... almost two months, perhaps. I'm not sure why I'm finding it so difficult to get through, since it is extremely well-written for this type of political memoir/policy outline. Plus, he's funny. My favorite bit is still this, from the second chapter, where Obama describes meeting President Bush at a social gathering on the day of his swearing in to the U.S. Senate (just after hungrily stuffing his face with hors d'oeuvres) :
"Obama!" the President said, shaking my hand. "Come here and meet Laura. Laura, you remember Obama. We saw him on TV during election night. Beautiful family. And that wife of yours-- that's one impressive lady."

"We both got better than we deserve, Mr. President," I said, shaking the First Lady's hand and hoping that I'd wiped any crumbs off my face. The President turned to an aide nearby, who squirted a big dollop of hand sanitizer in the President's hand.

"Want some?" the President asked. "Good stuff. Keeps you from getting colds."

Not wanting to seem unhygienic, I took a squirt.
That's really what I like best about Obama: that quiet irreverence that sees the humanity in everybody regardless of position.

[Update]: And the way he talks about his wife is so sweet you'll have tears in your eyes. After reading the section on foreign policy, though... I'm finally starting to accept that he may not be my primary candidate. Damn.

[Update 2]: He wants to be president... but can he handle the goody bags?
It is left to Michelle to coordinate all the children's activities, which she does with a general's efficiency. When I can, I volunteer to help, which Michelle appreciates, although she is careful to limit my responsibilities. The day before Sasha's birthday party this past June, I was told to procure twenty balloons, enough cheese pizza to feed twenty kids, and ice. This seemed manageable, so when Michelle told me that she was going to get goody bags to hand out at the end of the party, I suggested that I do that as well. She laughed.

"You can't handle goody bags," she said. "Let me explain the goody bag thing. You have to go into the party store and choose the bags. Then you have to choose what to put in the bags, and what is in the boys' bags has to be different from what is in the girls' bags. You'd walk in there and wander around the aisles for an hour, and then your head would explode."
My dearly cherished hope is that my
next book will be Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle... if only everybody else would hurry up with it at the public library.

Monday, September 3, 2007

A Piece of Luck: We get to do Farm to School!

My daughter's elementary school will be a pilot school this year in the Farm to School program: a collaborative effort of the Center for Food and Justice and the Community Food Security Coalition which assists local organizations in forging ties between school lunch programs and area food producers. Missoula's schools have been trying out this venture for the past couple of years.

The benefits of the Farm to School concept are many:
  • The school system becomes a reliable market for local farm products, providing some measure of security to existing growers and increasing overall demand for agricultural activity locally.
  • The school, in turn, has reliable sources of healthy, nutritious, top-quality foods with which to feed kids, reducing reliance on prepackaged items and junk foods, allowing the inclusion of more fresh fruits and vegetables, minimizing dependence on USDA commodity foods (largely beef and dairy), and arriving at a more appetizing result.
  • The children eat healthier, learn better nutrition habits in the long term, and often spend time learning about local and sustainable agriculture. The program can simply introduce the idea that it's possible-- even interesting-- to know where your lunch comes from.
  • As with all local, seasonal eating, the environmental benefits of all that food not grown according to a giant corporate model, and not shipped across the continent or further, are substantial.
Given how many are served by the national school lunch program each day, a widespread Farm to School mentality could have a very significant impact on local agriculture, ecosystems, and public health.

There'll be more to say on this topic later; I can attest, however, that my daughter absolutely raved about the lunch on the first day of school. Besides the Farm to School effort, the school is also making general changes to the menu in order to apply for a Gold Award in the USDA HealthierUS School challenge, changes that include:
  • more fruits and vegetables
  • more whole-grain foods and fiber
  • low-fat dairy items
  • more homemade entrees
Here's a map to help you find a Farm to School program near you.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Feliz, continued.

Surprisingly many persons, behind the blogscenes, have expressed a desire to hear an update on our female betta, Feliz. Some have already heard the answer in detail, and I apologize to these people for the redundancy. But here's the scoop:

Per my previously-expressed intention to enhance Feliz's happiness via some more natural perks, my daughter and I did two things. First, we went to Petsmart and bought a real plant (a java fern) to replace the more unpleasant of the two plastic ones. Feliz instantly loved the plant; she was tremendously curious to explore it, sidling through all its nooks and crannies, and grazing its leaves with her body. Clearly this was an appreciated improvement.

Second, we took another kid friend and a little net and went out to the creek-- the same one they'd dammed last month-- to catch live food for Feliz. It was quite an outing, involving multiple pickle jars-- we got into catching and looking at stuff for fun, and ended up with somewhat more than a small fish could comfortably consume in a couple of days (which turned out to be the longest our stream creatures could survive in a room temperature, low-dissolved-oxygen pickle jar). Nevertheless, Feliz seemed to enjoy the wriggling treats: midge larvae being popular, as well as a very small leech which was slurped into her upturned mouth with apparent gusto.

I felt a little funny about the leech-- was that good for her?-- but she seemed to like it so much that I was reassured.

A couple of days later, Feliz started to languish. First she hovered, fairly still, near the water surface all day long, leading me to imagine her water needed changing (I try to pay attention to signs of reduced activity). I changed it. She got worse. Soon she was lying on the bottom of the tank, on her side, just gilling, not wanting to eat or to swim. Since my answer to everything is more internet research, I searched large numbers of betta care sites (there are surprisingly many) for clues. The results of my quest: 1) Feliz probably had an impaired swim bladder. If you don't know what a swim bladder is, here is a link. (I tried to explain it to my mother and she thought I had bought a little external flotation device to attach to my fish. Hi mom.) In any case, without good buoyancy control, swimming had become a lot more work for Feliz. 2) The most likely reason for the impairment was...constipation. Oh, dear. Was this my fault? The sites said this turn of events could be fatal. All my good intentions, and maybe I'd killed her.

I imagined that little shape-changing leech stretching itself out in her gut, blocking all passage.

The betta fanciers recommended feeding the fish bits of green pea as a therapy for this condition, and I resolved to secure a bag of frozen peas as soon as possible.

But by the time I'd arrived home that evening with the peas, Feliz had miraculously recovered. "She must have pooped!" my daughter and I exclaimed in wonder and delight. The degree of relief I felt was beyond what I ever would have expected a few weeks before. I love this damn fish. It's just a freaking fish. And I work with fish in my job, and they die routinely, and I, most of the time, hardly care.

Feliz has been full of energy and personality ever since; she's fine, though I'm looking into buying her a tiny lamp to heat her bowl as the weather cools. The newest development is that she'll literally eat out of our hands. But no more leeches; it's prefab betta pellets she's seizing off my finger with her funny mouth.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Everybody Loves CSAs! You Would Too!

eph89 at Daily Kos writes about discovering Community-Supported Agriculture (CSAs). I too am a huge fan of this model, and am enjoying my second season of weekly vegetable boxes from Matt and Jacy Rothschiller's farm.

By way of example, I fronted something like $360 or $380 (I forget exactly) back in March; in exchange, I get a big box of goodies, plenty for me to use plus freeze a little and share a little, every week from mid-June to mid-October. That represents a southwest Montana growing season; many places it would be longer. This week my box contained:

  • 1 bunch of cilantro
  • a considerable bag of baby lettuce mix (perfectly fresh, little need to sort through it like the supermarket stuff)
  • 2 yellow and 1 green summer squash
  • 2 ugly-but-tasty tomatoes
  • 3 red onions
  • a bunch of small carrots, mixed purple, orange, and yellow ones
  • 2 long, curvy cucumbers
  • a “SunJewel” melon (yellow and oblong, tastes like honeydew)

Other parts of the season I’ll get different things: lots of greens and herbs the first couple of weeks, tons of my beloved beets in June and July, winter squashes as the autumn progresses. Every week is somewhat different, and I get to have absolutely fresh, good-quality produce that supports a local farm family, is grown according to sustainable techniques, and requires little fuel to transport it to the pick-up spot. Every week I am excited to get my box and look inside, and to right away go home and make myself the biggest, most luxurious salad I can put together.

There is also an option, in my CSA, to trade half a day of farm labor per week during the growing season for a reduced-price subscription; while doing so is not sensible or efficient from an hourly-wage point of view (it comes out to about $3/hour), I’m considering trying it next summer for the experience.

If you want to know more about CSAs and their benefits, do check out eph89’s great diary.

Friday, August 31, 2007

A Ranch Worth Checking Out

A friend of mine directed me to the Alderspring Ranch web site: the proprietors are friends of hers, and she wanted to share their philosophy (and maybe some of their products) with me. Don't let the somewhat primitive-looking layout fool you; this is a wonderfully-informative site with many original pages as well as links to outside resources. I liked, first off the bat, the ranchers' focus on the centrality of grass to their beef production.
"We believe we live in the best grass-fed beef producing area in the country. The cold summer nights and high soil mineral levels of our mountain pastures grows grass like nowhere else, and results in a uniquely flavorful beef."
I'd thought, of course, about the effects of different feed inputs on the taste of beef, but I hadn't quite thought before about the effects of different soil and weather inputs on the flavor of grass, and how those in turn might subtly influence the meat's ultimate flavor.

Not only that, says rancher Glenn Elzinga, but "there are slight seasonal variations in the flavor balance due to a dynamic sward of grass and the various plant stages that define it at a particular point in the growing season."

The site has particularly good discussions of routine antibiotic use in the livestock industry, translating labels on meat, and how to cook grass-fed steaks.

From their page on environmental benefits, the Elzingas briefly describe their own efforts to improve the ecological working of their ranch:
"Water pollution from feedlot-raised beef is a growing concern. At Alderspring Ranch, we are careful about keeping the water that flows through our ranch clean. We have fenced cattle away from streams and riparian areas. We do everything we can to keep the valuable nutrients in cattle manure on our pastures rather than allowing it to escape and become water pollutants. We use a permaculture system of pasture maintenance. We do not plow and seed annual forages. We improve pastures through grazing management and hand seeding. This approach eliminates soil erosion, and works to build the organic matter and fertility of soil.

Finally, we avoid monocultures. We rejoice in our brushy fenced breaks that are home to deer, nesting birds and small mammals. We try to encourage the growth of cottonwoods along our ditches to supply shade for our cattle, and habitat for raptors that then reduce our rodent populations. We allow the wetter areas of our ranch to grow native sedge meadows, and graze these carefully to avoid hummocking."
You can read more about their production protocols here.

Er... Hello Again

A funny thing to be the first post in three weeks... but, in acknowledgment of our major regional political news:

From Left in the West (and featured by kos): Montana state senator Dave Lewis (R) of Helena thinks pervs like Idaho Sen. Larry Craig deserve the Islamic fundamentalist treatment.

Make that Idaho ex-Senator Larry Craig.

If only we could throw the crooks out for their actual crookery, and not their sad and sordid personal struggles. Senator Craig, for the record, I don't care what you did in the restroom; I care what you did in the halls of power.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Bill Kennedy or at least some Democrat for Congress '08!

Did I mention Montana only has one Republican politician left on the national level?

Bill Kennedy, Yellowstone County commissioner (that's Billings), plans to run against Rehberg in '08. Probably other Democrats will run in the June primary too. Why am I mentioning Kennedy today?

Because the very first issue Kennedy addresses on his "Issues" page is country-of-origin labelling (COOL).
Agriculture: Montana’s Industry
Family ranches and farms are a critical component to our state economy and I will fight for them. I support country-of-origin labeling that gives consumers the opportunity to support Montana-grown products. Spending the past 14 years working with farmers and ranchers, I've listened and understand the critical role that federal farm policy plays in the lives of everyday Montanans. Given a fair chance, Montana's farmers and ranchers can compete with anyone, but we need a level playing field.

I'm liking your priorities, Bill.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

I Never Knew It Could Betta Like This

My kid was begging for a guinea pig. Our apartment building does not allow pets; and I was enjoying our fur-free existence after living seven years with a two cats, a dog, and a husband with selective cat-vomit blindness. When we split up, he kept the pets (they were his to begin with), bodily secretions and all. I try really hard when I go over there not to point out the vomit streaks.

I think a guinea pig is too big, I said.

How about a lizard?, she said. Or a snake?

I like reptiles, but my childhood experience suggests they're difficult to keep healthy. Lizards are hard, I said. Snakes have to eat mice.

I had a feeling things weren't going to end up the way I wanted. I steeled myself to consent to a hamster. Could we have a hamster? The cage might kind of smell bad. I was enjoying my house not smelling bad. For once.

How about a fish?, she said. Really? Was I off the hook? A fish?, I said. Well, maybe. Give me the weekend to think about it.

Come Monday, I thought a fish was a pretty good idea. An easy fish. My daughter had already killed off several bettas at her dad's, though I knew they were supposed to be the hardiest. I suggested a nice goldfish. But she wanted another betta.

Well, I am supposed to be a fish expert of sorts. I've been caring for laboratory fish for the past 7 years, since before my daughter was even conceived. I had hopes that I could be successful where my ex-husband had, inexplicably, failed. We went to PetSmart and picked out a nice female (A. prefers simpatica over showy).

I took care over the set-up: a bigger bowl than strictly necessary, with a wide opening. Not one but two plastic cover plants. A stick-on thermometer, since I suspected the string of previous bettas-- tropical creatures-- had perished of chill in my ex's wintry Montana basement apartment. Some further conferring with the salesgirl over the best way to keep the bowl warm when the seasons change (I'm not keeping my apartment 75 degrees in the winter for a fish). A. picked out the brightest multicolor gravel, and of course we needed food, and water conditioner, and a scrub brush, and a little net. I ended up spending about $30-- twice what I would have for the little pre-fab betta kit.

We took our fish home, carefully prepared her bowl, and waited for the water to come to room temperature to avoid shocking her with cold (had my ex- done this?). While the betta sat patiently in the cup, my daughter named her. She looks like she's smiling, she said. How about "Smiler"? I made a noncommittal grunt. A. took note of my lack of enthusiasm. Or what about "Happy"?, she said. I know!: "Feliz!"

Feliz was a perfect name. She's a pretty little fish, pale in front with a pinky-violet iridescence towards the tail, and plum-colored fins. Delicate-looking. After we put her into her bowl, I was sure we'd find her belly-up any moment.

At first, Feliz was shy. She lingered towards the back of the bowl and declined to feed until we'd moved away and didn't seem to be looking at her. But, within a day or two, she began swimming up towards us when she saw us approach. A fast learner for such a little fish; a lot smarter, frankly, than the trout I work with. It was strangely gratifying to get up in the morning and say, "hello, Feliz!," and have her actually come to me. I'm just like a six-year-old. Do you think she likes me?

Now, less than a week later, Feliz perks up when I come home from work. Her bowl is on my desk; if I stop typing and address myself to her, like now, she swims over and looks me in the eye, no doubt to assess my feeding-related intentions. Sorry, Feliz, only twice a day. I am well and truly hooked.

I want Feliz to be happy, and not only because of her name. Plastic plants and a roomy, warm-enough, clean bowl are good, but could I do better? Do fish play?, asked my daughter. I don't think so. Maybe I'll have to track down some live food, and real plants. I remember my freshman English teacher, a friend to this day, who asked the class after reading Hemingway's"Big Two-Hearted River": Are the fish happy in this story?

I want the fish to be happy in this story.