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121118-gingerbread-house-plus-garage

Today I’m posting recent photos, including a few gingerbread pictures that really get me into the spirit of the season.

The first is of a gingerbread house that two of my grandchildren decorated. You can see that they also made a garage from some extra pieces of gingerbread.

Next there’s one of my shadow pictures, followed by the random donkey that graces the yard at Boston’s old city hall.

Background for the photo after that: About a week ago all four grandchildren were at a Christmas crafts workshop where grownups in elf hats made everything run smoothly. The next day I found elf hats on parking meters around town.

Next are several gingerbread creations at annual displays in town. The tree house, hobbit house, Victorian advertisement for the Gentleman Handyman, and the Acton Dental house with Santa inside in the dentist chair are all at the Colonial Inn. The last gingerbread house is in the library and is created every year by a local physician who starts to work weeks in advance.

Finally, what’s this? Another shadow picture. A Christmas-y one this time.

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Photos: A Ride Home
When you get out of prison, you’re often on your own. That’s where A Ride Home comes in.

The other day, I was reiterating for a couple grandchildren the basics of the Christmas story. When you get down to essentials, the life of the grownup Baby Jesus, as told to us, was all about teaching kindness and going among the poor and outcast to comfort them.

I told the kids that “when Herod the King heard [about a new ‘Governor’], he was troubled” because he didn’t know the baby would not grow up to be the kind of leader that would take Herod’s throne and soldiers and money but instead would teach people about being good to one another.

Although we aren’t regular churchgoers, the kids like the annual Christmas pageant, and I wanted to go over the setting and roles a bit.

That’s a long intro to saying that Christmas is a particularly good time to consider how much the poor and outcast — and those who provide compassion to them — can benefit when we adhere to what is really the essence of all religions.

I recently learned about a great example of compassion for the outcast — a program for ex-offenders called “A Ride Home.” WNYC radio interviewed the people behind it.

“People released from prisons face all kinds of barriers as they transition back into the outside world, whether it’s finding jobs or housing.

“But beyond these large challenges, there are all kinds of small things the formerly incarcerated have to re-learn on the outside world — from opening doors, ordering from a menu, to choosing what kind of shampoo to buy.

“The Ride Home program helps people with those first few hours when they get out of prisons in California. …

“Carlos Cervantes is one of the program’s drivers, who is formerly incarcerated, and now picks people up, takes them for coffee and food, buys them new clothes and is with them in those first moments. He remembers the moments leading up to his own release back in 2011.

” ‘You feel nervous, asking, “What’s on the other side? How does the other side look like.” For me having spent 10 years 8 months, it’s kind of like this picture that like you can only imagine,’ he said.”

You can listen to WNYC’s podcast about the compassionate program via iTunesTuneInStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

What I especially like is that former offenders want to help out by volunteering with the program. A Ride Home can make a person’s first post-prison emotion one of gratitude. And we all know what good things a feeling of gratitude can work in the world.

More at WNYC, here. Check out some really nice photos at the Ride Home website, here.

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Photo: CBSLocal
New York City hopes that donating reusable water bottles to high school students will make some advocates for reducing waste. The campaign is part of the city’s ultimate goal of sending zero waste to landfills by the year 2030.

After reading an inspiring book called Climate Justice, I signed up at the website 1 Million Women to get ideas for reducing my carbon footprint. One thing the site suggests is to boycott fruits and vegetables that have unnecessary packaging. You know, like those Japanese pears in plastic foam holders. Such gestures are small, but they add up if a lot of people pursue them.

In New York, meanwhile, schools are trying to wean students from plastic water bottles by giving them nice reusable ones.

CBSLocal reports, “After a recent push to ban plastic bags, straws, and bottles in New York, some local leaders are working to get the city’s high school students involved. …

” ‘When you think about it, you’re not gonna be wasting all that plastic,’ [student] Daisy Palaguachi said.

“More than 320,000 bottles made by S’well were donated to all New York City high schools throughout all five boroughs [in September].

” ‘The goal is really to extend our mission to rid the world of plastic bottles and we couldn’t help but think the best way to do that is to tap into the city’s future leaders,’ S’well Vice President Kendra Peavy said.

“The company partnered with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Sustainability for the new ‘Bring It’ campaign. They’re asking students to ditch the plastic and spread the word to their families and friends.

“ ‘To empower them with actual tools that they can bring and take to make better and more informed decisions,’ Mark Chambers, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, said.

“The city says its goal in doing this is to try and get rid of 54 million single-use plastic bottles.

“ ‘About 167 water bottles are used by the average American every year, and so it’s important to say by using a reusable water bottle we could displace that many from going into the waste stream every year,’ Chambers said. …

“ ‘Knowing that you’re making a small change can turn into something bigger in the future,’ student Alexandra Capistran said. ‘You don’t have to spend all your money buying water bottles every day.’

“Sunset Park High School now also has a newly installed water bottle filler for that very purpose. … The bottles donated [would have cost] $19 to $35, and the campaign is part of the city’s ultimate goal of sending zero waste to landfills by the year 2030.”

More at CBS, here.

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Photo: William Raynard/Essex County Sheriff’s Department
From left, Sheriff Kevin Coppinger and department director of food services Kathy Lawrence meet with program director Kate Benashski, Carlos Zagada, and Josiel Cabrera from Haven From Hunger on the farm at the Essex County Pre-Release Center in Lawrence.

Most of my posts about people helping people must seem like a drop in the bucket to readers: the problems of this world are so enormous. But I like to think about what can be accomplished by, say, one person whose better nature is released by a program like the one for ex-offenders described here. And I like to think of the way many such efforts can accumulate to improve the world.

Morgan Hughes writes at the Boston Globe, “Drive around the back of the Essex County Pre-release and Re-Entry center in Lawrence, and you’ll find 6 acres of pumpkins, corn, tomatoes, peppers, and gourds.

“Inmates at the center run the farm, which yields about 50,000 pounds of produce each season to feed others who are incarcerated and the wider community. Located just behind Interstate 495, the farm is fertile ground for personal growth.

“ ‘We’re giving jobs to the inmates, we use the crops, but it’s also an opportunity to give back to the community,’ Sheriff Kevin F. Coppinger said.

“At the moment, the farm has about seven inmates who volunteer to plant, maintain, and harvest the produce. They feed not only the roughly 200 inmates at the pre-release center, but those at the Middleton House of Correction and Women in Transition, a women’s pre-release center in Salisbury.

“The facility purchases meals from a third-party food vendor, but the kitchen incorporates the fresh produce into the menu whenever possible.

“ ‘They live there, so they can really see the fruits of their labor,’ Coppinger said.

“About 30,000 pounds go to food pantries and homeless shelters in the Merrimack Valley and throughout the North Shore, said Kathy Lawrence, director of food services for the sheriff’s department. …

“She said, ‘What we can do sometimes is either incorporate [our produce] into the menu and serve it in addition to what’s being prepared, or we can substitute in ratatouille instead of giving them frozen green beans.’

“But even when the harvest is over and the ground begins to freeze, these hyperlocal vegetables are used throughout the year, Lawrence said. Bell and Italian peppers are frozen to use in casserole dishes. The butternut squash is also kept in the freezer and saved for special holiday meals.

“Heather Bonanno-Baker is manager of both Pleasant Valley Gardens in Methuen and the farm at the pre-release center. She took over duties from her father, who helped inmates run the farm for at least 15 years.

“She said she teaches inmates how to plant and water the crops, manage pests, and harvest at the end of the season. She shows them what a vegetable looks like when it’s ready to be picked, and how to wash it before it goes to a kitchen.

“ ‘I’m big into teaching the public about agriculture, growing your own food, and where it comes from,’ Bonanno-Baker said. …

“When Lawrence collected some feedback from the farm workers, she said some common themes were ‘a sense of pride in what they’ve grown’ and feeling rewarded to be able to give back to the community. One told her: ‘Hard work leads to positive results.’

“Lawrence teaches ServSafe to inmates working in the kitchen, a certification in food safety necessary for many jobs in the food industry. Coppinger said working on the farm provides another skill they could use to find a job when they are released.

“ ‘From the minute you arrive at intake in Middleton, to when you are about to be released at the pre-release center is trying to get them in better shape to get out of here and not come back,’ he said.

‘I always like to say, “Thanks for coming, but don’t come back.” ‘

More at the Boston Globe, here.

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Photo: Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
The tomb of Mehu opened for the public near the Saqqara necropolis, in Giza, Egypt, on Sept. 8, 2018.

I have never been to Egypt, but members of my extended family grew up there. My experience of visiting an Egyptian tomb is pretty much limited to the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

But it seems new tombs keep being discovered, and after getting thoroughly studied, are being opened to the public. The tomb of Mehu, a top official under King Pepi I, was found in 1940 but was only opened to the general public in September of this year.

Josh K. Elliott writes at Canada’s GlobalNews, “Egypt has opened the doors of an ornate 4,000-year-old tomb to the public. … The Tomb of Mehu, in the Saqqara necropolis near Giza, features dozens of vibrant paintings from Egypt’s sixth dynasty, dating back approximately four millennia. …

” ‘Mehu, a top official under King Pepi I, … was a vizier, the chief of the judges and the director of the palace at the time of King Pepi, the first king of the sixth dynasty,’ archeologist and Egyptologist Zahi Hawass told [Reuters].

“The tomb includes two chambers with wall inscriptions that depict Mehu hunting, gathering a bountiful harvest and dancing acrobatically. It also lists Mehu’s 48 titles as pictures on the walls

“Hawass says the tomb contains several unique images from the sixth dynasty, including a portrait of two crocodiles getting married.

“The Tomb of Mehu was first discovered by Egyptologist Zaki Saad in 1940, but remained off-limits to the public until this month. …

“ ‘We opened this previously discovered tomb to invite ambassadors and show the media that Egypt is safe,’ he told Reuters in Arabic. …

“Egypt’s tourism industry has struggled in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising in 2011. … Tourism numbers rebounded in 2017, when they jumped up to 8.2 million foreign tourist arrivals, the UNTWO [UN World Tourism Organization] data shows. …

“Archeologists have found several high-profile sites in Egypt recently, including a massive, sealed sarcophagus, an ancient village and a giant statue of Ramses II.”

More at the GlobalNews, here.

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Photo: Patrik Jonsson/Christian Science Monitor
At Swan Quarter, North Carolina, shrimp boats cluster on the shore ahead of hurricane Florence in September. The town’s protective dike represents cooperation among practical people, who put aside politics to solve a serious problem.

Even when people believe global warming is only a cyclical blip, they can find common cause with others to solve a problem that affects everyone. Residents of a small town in North Carolina did just that after years of dangerous floods.

From the Christian Science Monitor: “As staff writer Patrik Jonsson began traveling the Carolinas after hurricane Florence, he came across a town that put aside its differences over politics and global warming to find a solution to chronic flooding. …

“Neighbors J.W. Raburn and Henry Williams are political polar opposites. … But the two lifelong friends – along with about 300 or so other North Carolinians who call Swan Quarter home – stood united [in September] against hurricane Florence.

“Nearby Oriental, New Bern, and large parts of central North Carolina were devastated when up to 40 inches of rain fell. … Tens of thousands of residents were displaced, and at least 23 people died.

” ‘There is no doubt that dike has saved us. It gives us a little bit of hope,’ says Raburn. His friend nods.

“The dike, completed in 2010, is a piece of political pragmatism that has gained stature as it held up well against during hurricanes Irene and Matthew, superstorm Sandy. …

“There is also growing evidence that mounting property losses, declines in property values, and threatened historical landmarks are wearing away resistance to preparedness. That common purpose might sometimes be hard to see on the national stage. But locally, people are putting aside politics in favor of practical solutions.

” ‘Working in Swan Quarter, flooding is not an ideological issue there. It is a way of life. Same with sea level rise. People have watched it happen within that lived environment. If you watch forests turn to marshland and the roads flood, the politics fade away,’ says Jason Evans, an environmentalist from Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., who worked on the dike project.

“Raburn and Williams, former bandmates, show the human side of the debate. Raburn believes that finding solutions to manmade climate change is vital. Williams, a farmer and volunteer firefighter, does not believe that humans are altering the temperature of the planet, calling it ‘a phase we are going through.’ But he is the one who cares for and maintains the dike – a job he takes very seriously. …

“In Swan Quarter, local taxes are likely to go up. The county needs to purchase pumps to help clear water that seeps through the dike. Across the sound on Ocracoke Island, county leaders are working on bolstering dunes. …

“At the same time, the dike played a role in the county investing millions in a new courthouse and fire station. The state credit union has felt confident enough in the dike to build a new branch. A critical ferry service runs from the docks to the Ocracoke Island. Inside the local gas station, a line drawn at head level shows the height of Isabel’s surge. Thus far, Florence has left no mark at all.

“The size of the town and the lean budgets mean, ‘the kind of interventions that can be done there and how we think about it is much different than thinking about New York City or Miami,’ says Evans. ‘Hyde County is a hardscrabble place trying to build a dike. Nothing solves anything forever. … But it clearly has helped with certain floods. I wouldn’t want to be in Swan Quarter during a big hurricane event without that dike being there. …

‘Whatever legislators want to do, whatever presidents want to do, it’s in the end not relevant in terms of trying to work through the facts. We have scientific understanding that can apply to all these places,’ says Evans. ‘But I have also seen over and over again – whether in the Florida Keys or in Swan Quarter – that within areas facing substantial problems, all the political stuff that we all get drawn into fades away.’ ”

Speaking of political stuff fading away, I want to do a post sometime on the fact that the divisions among us may make lively and urgent headlines but aren’t always replicated on the ground. Don’t we all interact regularly with people whose politics we know differ from ours? Would love to hear your examples to add to my own.

More at the Christian Science Monitor, here.

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Photo: Gemeente Zwolle
The plastic bicycle path in Zwolle, the Netherlands, is a test for building roads from plastic waste in the future.

I don’t know if it’s because, historically, they’ve had to protect their land from the encroaching sea, but the Dutch seem to be repeat innovators. This blog has covered a lot of new ideas from the Netherlands. (3-D printed houses, anyone? Wind power for trains?) Today’s post is on a possible use for discarded plastic bottles.

Daniel Boffey writes at the Guardian, “The world’s first plastic bicycle path made of recycled bottles, cups and packaging has opened in the Netherlands, as part of a pilot that could see similar roads open up across the country.

“The 30-metre path, made of recycled plastic equivalent to more than 218,000 plastic cups, is expected to be three times as durable as an asphalt alternative. It also contains sensors to monitor the road’s performance, including its temperature, the number of bikes that pass over it and its ability to cope with the traffic.

“The prefabricated sections of cycle path are light and hollow making them easy to transport and 70% quicker to install. Cables and utility pipes are able to be easily fitted inside, and the path is designed to drain off rainwater. … It is believed that many of the benefits of the paths will apply to plastic roads.

“The path’s inventors, Anne Koudstaal and Simon Jorritsma, said: ‘This first pilot is a big step towards a sustainable and future-proof road made of recycled plastic waste. When we invented the concept, we didn’t know how to build a plastic road, now we know.’

“Asphalt concrete is responsible for 1.5m tonnes of CO2 emissions a year, equivalent to 2% of global road transport emissions. …

“Earlier this year the EU [European Union] launched an urgent plan to clean up Europe’s act on plastic waste and ensure that every piece of packaging on the continent is reusable or recyclable by 2030. … Each year, 25m tonnes of plastic waste is generated by Europeans, but less than 30% is collected for recycling.”

The idea has real possibilities, but the concerns of groups hoping to end the use of plastics altogether need to be addressed. “Plastic Soup has warned that small particles of the plastic could find their way into the living environment due to heat, wear and run-off.” More at the Guardian, here.

I’m just glad people are trying to find solutions to some of the damage that human activity has done to the planet. The issues are in the news right now as both great powers and small, climate-impacted countries are meeting in Katowice, Poland, to improve on the Paris Agreement.

By the way, if you are on twitter, do follow Sweden’s 15-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg), who is speaking truth to power in Poland: “I will not beg the world leaders to care for our future. I will instead let them know change is coming whether they like it or not.” I just read that Venice is likely to succumb of sea-level rise. Greta’s urgency is warranted. Young people give me hope.

And read a wonderful, inspiring book by former president of Ireland Mary Robinson called Climate Justice, which connects human rights and poverty to the effects of global warming and offers hope in the shape of brave, ordinary people.

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