Friday, February 26, 2010

Nobody Needs a Job

There's a lot of hand-wringing going on right now about unemployment. The story is that we need more jobs and without more jobs the economy cannot recover. But I'm not buying it. We have more than enough jobs to go around. Across this country, schools, parks and hospitals are understaffed. We have hungry people to feed, infrastructure to rebuild and countless problems to solve. There is no lack for jobs.

What we lack is clarity. We don't say what we mean and that makes it difficult to get to the truth. In the case of employment, most people are not telling the whole truth when they say, "I need a job." Many of them don't actually want a job, they want money. And the proof of that statement is the fact that so many jobs are going begging. If they don't come with a paycheck, people don't want them.

The truth is this - nobody needs a job, but everybody needs an income.

Think about that for a minute. You do not need a job. You need an income. You might have a reflexive argument with this statement. You might say, well, yes, I need an income. But in order to have an income, I have to have a job. But really? Is that true?

No, it isn't. There are many sources of income besides a regular, full time job. Remember that there's no law stating that all of your income has to come from a single source. Your total income can just as easily come from a combination of sources. Here are some of the possibilities:
  • Interest income
  • Commissions from internet sales via a website or blog
  • Dividend income
  • Partnership distributions
  • Income from renting real estate, storage spaces or equipment
  • Income from franchising a business you have built
  • Income from buying and managing a franchise of someone else's business
  • Licensing something you have developed and/or patented, which could include inventions, software or other intellectual property
  • Collecting royalties on something you have created, such as music, film or photography
You might say that you couldn't do most of these things because you don't know anything about them. But it's not like you can't learn. You've been encouraged all your life to look for income in only one place, a job, and that's where you've invested all your energy and talent. Think of how much time you spent getting an education preparing for a job, applying for jobs, interviewing for jobs, working at a job, commuting to a job, learning new skills for a job. If you had spent a fraction of that time learning about other income possibilities, you might easily have found a few things that could work for you.

It is possible that if you were to change the way you think about money, work, and income, you might start to focus on what you really want and from there, make a fresh start. You might still have a job, but you would be less dependent on it. If your job accounted for less than 50% of your income, it would still hurt to lose the job, but it wouldn't be as devastating as it is when your job is all you have. When you think about it, having just "a" job is a pretty wobbly foundation for your life. It's like standing on one leg. Wouldn't it be more secure to have support from two, three or more sources?

It is amazing to me that people in the United States, who are so proud of their freedom and individuality, are so willing to give themselves over to such a singular vision of what life should be: go to school, graduate, go to work full time, stay there 30 years, retire. That doesn't sound like freedom. It sounds like a sentence.

Imagine a life with much broader horizons than a single job. One in which you work part time at something you enjoy, perhaps teaching. You love music and have written a few songs that are used commercially, bringing you royalties. Your spouse has built a small business that turned out to be easy to replicate and turn into a franchise, which provides a steady income. Your spouse also has an auto racing hobby and created a couple of after-market parts that solve common problems for racers. You sell those parts on the internet - sales happen, literally, while you are sleeping. You and your spouse decided to rent your old house when you bought the one you live in now. The rent you collect pays your mortgage and expenses while you enjoy asset appreciation. You inherited a house and sold it to someone on contract - meaning that you act as the bank and payments, with interest, come to you each month. Put all of that together and you can have an interesting, diversified, relatively secure, financial portfolio. And because none of these activities involves full time work, you have time to explore other work, paid or unpaid, that adds to the quality of your life and that of your community.

This recession gives us the opportunity to rethink the way we do things and make our lives better. The best way I know of to do that is to start telling ourselves the truth. Nobody needs a job. What everybody needs is an income. This narrow focus on jobs is limiting. A broader focus on income is liberating. Let's concentrate there, and see what's possible.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Trees and Mudslides

There was a mudslide in our neighborhood about a month ago. Seattle is a hilly city and after heavy rains, there's a good possibility that one of these will happen. This isn't a very big slide, compared to those I've seen in the 20 years I've lived here. Fortunately, mudslides are less frequent these days, partly because we're  better at managing slopes and partly because the most precarious ones have already given way.

Since this happened, I've heard the usual grousing from people claiming that slides are caused by cutting down trees on slopes. There's a widespread belief that trees preserve slopes, and at one time, I believed that myself. But as a horticulturalist, I have learned that the relationship between trees and slopes is more complicated than that.

When I completed my degree in environmental horticulture and landscape design and began my consulting practice here, the consensus was that, next to water, development was the greatest enemy of slopes. It was also believed that the best way to prevent erosion and mudslides was to leave slopes covered in native vegetation (which at the time included, ironically, a large immigrant population, i.e., English ivy, Scotch broom and Himalayan blackberry). To keep slide activity to a minimum, the city enacted strict building codes which applied to all development in slide prone areas. On top of that, the city went a step further, buying up land in some of the steepest slope areas to assure that they would remain in a "natural" state and, thus, be unlikely to slide.

It seemed like things were under control. And then came the winter of 1996-97, when we had nearly double the amount of our usual rainfall, resulting in dozens of mudslides. You can read the USGS report here. For those of us in the horticulture business, one of the most disconcerting observations about these slides was that so many of them happened in those natural areas that we believed would be less likely to erode than those with new construction. In event after event, we saw mountains of vegetation, including big trees, whose root systems we thought would stabilize the slopes, slide away, taking huge swaths of hillside with them. We were left to wonder, what happened here?

To get answers, the city commissioned the Seattle Landslide Study, a detailed report that covers the geology of the area, individual slide prone areas, specific landslide events and their causes, and improvement recommendations. (If you are considering buying property in Seattle near a slope, you might want to review this report first.) Although most of the report focuses on water and geology, it has this to say about vegetation and tree problems on slopes. Along with the city's efforts, the landscape industry also stepped up its efforts to understand the relationship between vegetation and slopes and offer continuing education to keep professionals up to date.

So what have we learned about trees and mudslides? First of all, we know now that tree roots do not bind layers of soil together, as we once believed. They stay in that first or outer layer of soil and do not penetrate into the clay under that.

Trees do not grow, as we were taught in grade school, like "dumbells" with the root system a mirror image of the canopy. Mature trees do not have tap roots. Tree roots are shallow, usually only about 6" to 24" deep, and they run much further than the dripline: root systems extend as wide as 2-6 times the height of the tree.

On a slope, tree roots will grow up, down and side to side just under the surface of the soil, creating a mass of material that acts like netting. As long as the slope is relatively dry, the roots help hold the soil particles together. But when the soil becomes saturated with water and takes on the consistency of a smoothie, these root systems, which are not anchored to the clay below, have nothing to hold onto. And so they slide, as we have seen over and over, taking with them a wide swath of hillside caught up in their roots.

Sometimes the slope moves just a little bit, not enough to fully slough off, but just enough to tip some of the trees forward. If the slope remains stable for some time after that, the trees will turn and grow upward toward the sun, giving their trunks a characteristic curve, as you see on the right in this photo. These "pistol butt" trees or "trees with knees" are a clue that a slope has a history of movement - good to know if you plan to live near there.

In some cases, trees can cause a wobbly slope to slide.

I shot this photo standing in the middle of a road that runs between two steep slopes. Look at the way the trees are leaning. If you remember that their roots are shallow, it's easy to see how top heavy they are. If the soil starts to get soft, the weight of their trunks and branches will pull them right over and their root systems will pull  big chunks of the hillside down along with them.

So you see, the relationship between trees and slopes is a bit complicated. Trees can help to stabilize slopes, except for when they don't. In general, if trees are standing nice and upright, they are part of the solution. If they are leaning, they are part of the problem. And that neighbor of yours who cut down trees on his slope? Well, he might actually have protected the slope from sliding in the near future, provided that he left the stump and roots intact.

Friday, February 19, 2010


My Dad used to make up words. It was just part of his whacky, Scots-Irish sense of humor. Until recently, I thought the word  "Slumgullion" was one of his creations. It was the word he used to describe the kind of dinner you make when you look in the refrigerator, grab some left overs, brown some hamburger, chop some vegetables, combine them all in a pot and hope for the best.

The ingredient list varied, except for one thing. There was always ground beef in the Slumgullion. Sometimes it was pretty good and sometimes it was just something to eat. What it always was, was quick and easy.

This week I decided to make a version of Slumgullion, partly because I was in the mood for it and partly because I was thinking of Dad. He would have been 95 this week. While "dinner" was simmering, I decided, on a whim, to google the word "Slumgullion." I was astonished to find that Daddy didn't make this dish, or the name, up! Here's a list of recipes.

In the version shown above, I have the usual ground beef, plus garlic, onions, carrots, red bell pepper, lots of celery, a dash of yellow mustard, tomato sauce, salt and pepper. Topped with some grated cheddar - it's dinner. But you certainly don't have to stick with those ingredients. If you check out other people's recipes, you'll find that just about anything goes. Some people use lamb instead of beef. Some people include corn, green beans, peas, green pepper and other vegetables - which I do, too, at times, depending on what's in the fridge. Some people add starches, like macaroni or mashed potatoes.

This isn't anything special. It's just ordinary comfort food. But it has its place at the table. Thanks, Dad. Even if you weren't the guy who invented the name, Slumgullion, I still love you.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Red Soup

I have a new toy. It's called an immersion blender. I have been using it for batches of soup the past couple of weeks and I have to tell you, it's not the best thing since sliced bread. It's BETTER.
At least for now. The brand I bought at Target apparently gets terrible reviews on Amazon, leading me to think I may soon need to replace the one I have. When I do, this Cuisinart model will be next on my list.)

I can't believe it has taken me so long to get one of these. For a long time, I've avoided making soups that need to be pureed. I just didn't want to deal with juggling hot soup and the mess of cleaning a blender or food processor.

Well, those days are over. Now I just plug in the hand blender, poke the little blade down into my pot of soup and let the puree begin. Beautiful! When I'm finished, the blade-stick detaches from the motor easily and cleaning is a breeze. Life is good.

This soup recipe doesn't require pureeing necessarily. But using the blender means that I can get by with coarse chopping the vegetables, which saves time. Plus, the blending seems to distribute the seasonings more evenly.

I've made many batches of this soup, no two alike. I vary the ingredients depending on what I have on hand. The only thing that is consistent is that it is red. Sometimes, I substitute a cup of milk for some of the water toward the end of cooking to make a cream soup. Floating a few freshly made croutons or my yummy crostini on top makes a nice addition when serving. As always, fresh organic vegetables are best.

The Red Soup
3/4 c. chopped shallot
1 red pepper chopped
2-3 cloves garlic chopped
olive oil for sauteing
2 c. chicken broth
1-2 c. water
2 carrots finely grated
1 beet finely grated
2 10 oz cans tomato sauce
Dried basil flakes, sea salt and pepper (white or cayenne) to taste

Saute the shallot, red pepper and garlic in the olive oil.
When the vegetables are soft, add the chicken broth, grated carrots, beet and tomato sauce.
Add water as needed to bring to "soup like" consistency.
Simmer a few minutes.
Add basil and pepper and simmer another 10 minutes or so.
Taste to see if there's enough seasoning. Adjust as needed.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Olympic Athletes as Spiritual Teachers

I am not a sports fan, but I love the Olympics. The ceremonies, the spectacle, the excitement; I love it all. But more than that, the reason I watch these Games is to be inspired.
I love hearing athletes describe their process of "thinking from the end." They talk about seeing themselves doing a tricky gymnastics move, or shaving a few seconds off their time in the last race. They focus on what they want to have happen, and let that vision draw them through to success. They don't let themselves get sucked into blaming and complaining. They are aware of their competition, but their attention is on their own performance and being the best version of themselves they can be. In fact, many seem to be competing with themselves more than anyone else. 

The physical and mental training necessary to be able to perform at this level brings with it self-mastery. I believe that's what Apolo Ohno meant when he said in an interview yesterday (and I am paraphrasing here) that, among other things, his training helps him deal with distractions so he can face and overcome his fears. 

To me, this kind of mental discipline is what spiritual practice is. It is a matter of holding to the vision of what can be and allowing the energy of "all that is" flow to it, regardless of the task at hand. As the Buddhist saying goes, "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood and carry water."

It has been said that every thought we think is a prayer. I am grateful for being reminded of this as I watch these young athletes.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Now What?

I've always been good at setting goals, accomplishing them, and then asking myself, "Now what?"  All my life, it seemed like there was so much to choose from. I'd look around, identify a new goal, and set about accomplishing the next thing. Again and again.

This system has produced a pretty good life. I've done most of what I set out to do. I have been married, raised children, enjoyed multiple careers, remodeled houses and gardens, built friendships, traveled, laughed, cried and everything in between. And now, having recently passed my landmark 60th birthday, I find myself asking again, "Now what?"

Only this time, I have no answer. I don't know what is coming next.

Initially, I felt uncomfortable without some focus to define me. I'm an American, after all, and we DO things. But now I am beginning to make my peace with this awkward goal-less place. More and more, I am beginning to enjoy just being, as I've titled this blog, "Where I Am Now."

I don't plan to write about any particular subject. I expect my posts to be simply what occurs to me at the time, in those future "Now" moments. I am looking forward to seeing what I will be inspired to write.