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A lazy shade of green

Being thrifty yields a smaller carbon footprint.

July 12, 2008|Susan Straight | Susan Straight's most recent novel is "A Million Nightingales." She teaches creative writing at UC Riverside.

IT'S HIGH SUMMER, so my three teenage daughters and I have heaved the yard couch off the big porch of our 1910 Craftsman bungalow here in Riverside and onto the front lawn under the Raywood ash tree, where this couch -- now 10 years old -- will remain in state until the first rains in November.

The yard couch is dark blue with multicolored flowers that have no known match in nature.

I bought it when my girls were small, and dark colors seemed like a good idea in case of stains. They loved that soft couch with a passion, and countless children and teens have slept on it, sat on it, hung out on it. So when I bought a new white couch two Junes ago, my girls and their friends protested vehemently. When they said, "Can we just keep the old one outside for a week -- it's summer!" I gave in, and I'm still giving in.

It's so embarrassing. After all, the ads for upscale outdoor furniture are relentless. These days, it's not enough to have plastic-strap gliders and metal chaise lounges with puffy oilcloth cushions, though that's what I grew up with. (No feeling like peeling your sweaty legs from oilcloth.) Now it's elaborate curtained gazebos, wicker and teak coffee tables and rattan rugs. We are meant to create elegant "outdoor living spaces."

We have a nice living room inside, with the new couch. But outside, we have a weathered redwood love seat and chairs sold to me by a Gypsy family. We have the redwood picnic table and benches my mother handed down to me 20 years ago. She bought them in 1958, for her first patio when she was a young married woman in Fontana. (My mother hates the fact that the couch is outside for the third year, and all that it portends.) But we don't have an outdoor room. We have a frontyard.

We throw about six parties every summer in the frontyard. Three birthdays, Fourth of July and various no-reason-at-all celebrations that feature foosball and pingpong. Food on the picnic table. Sodas in an old green-plastic turtle sandbox filled with ice. A boombox on the porch. (The stereo system? Set up on the porch? So much trouble.) Under the tree, the couch with five or six kids crowded on.

The week before my eldest turned 19, the week before we celebrated her birthday with a frontyard party, she went to a backyard party where the newly elaborate decor and landscaping included a copper fire pit that blazed on top of a fountain (which I find hard to visualize) surrounded by formal furniture and rugs, a manicured putting green, a volleyball court and a new saltwater pool.

The next morning, she described it to her sisters and me while I made pancakes. "All the work it would take to do that," I said. "And all the concrete and material from the old yard in a landfill. All that new stuff."

"We're so green," my youngest said, kind of smug because we were eating eggs from our chickens and blackberries from our yard, and we weren't filling up a landfill.

But I realized suddenly why our carbon footprint is so small: "That's because I'm way too lazy to renovate," I said.

"We are incredible slackers," my eldest agreed.

"Wait," she added. "It's not that we're lazy, we're like the Marches, in 'Little Women.' We think this is OK, to not care. We think this is a good thing."

"I guess," I said, stirring. "I guess we're kind of transcendentalist."

"Wait," she said again. "It's not just that. Look at what I'm wearing." She was wearing a red-checked sundress I'd seen all last year on her friend. They'd traded.

"Look at your bowl." The mixing bowl holding pancake batter was bought for me by my mother, when I was a newly married 22. I wish it appeared heirloom-like -- the burnt-orange color, wheat motif and Kmart origin make that impossible. I use it almost every day, even though I don't like it. "That's why we're green. We have absolutely no pride. We just don't care enough."

My ex-husband and I survived the poverty of parents and grandparents who survived the Depression, war, race riots, prejudice and near starvation. And now our own three daughters have survived our thrift, college poverty and general unwillingness to change our style, which includes making use of furniture found on the discard piles near sidewalks. (My ex-husband and I began this long ago. Last week, he came by and showed off three ladders and a 1970s-era drawer freezer he'd picked up, and the girls rolled their eyes and said, "Oh my God, Dad, you don't have to tell us where you found them." They're good metal ladders. He'll probably drop one off for me when the girls aren't here to be ashamed. I turned down the freezer.)

Our eldest daughter is right. We practice a sort of a weird Southern California transcendentalism that doesn't fit in at all with American upward mobility, increasing our equity or impressing our friends.

But this absence of pride is also tempered by nostalgia, which I must keep hidden or risk awful teenage ridicule.

I love that picnic table because my brothers and I used to eat there, and one of my brothers is gone now. I love that couch because of all those teenagers who have slept on it in my living room, their faces for once at rest from the studying and arguing and worrying and belittling at which they excel; I love seeing them now, sprawled and laughing, their faces aglow from the new strand of lights hung on the Raywood ash with leftover kite string I found tangled in a drawer, wrapped around a Popsicle stick, waiting for resurrection.

If this is how you get really, really green, I'm OK with it. I recommend it. I watch the warm breeze move their hair. I have maybe one more summer with my teenagers and their friends, the lacy shade of branches across their faces, reminding me of what true comfort and freedom, and an absolute inability to care, are all about.

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