Mom, Will this Chicken Give Me Man Boobs? My Confused, Guilt-Ridden, and Stressful Struggle to Raise a Green Family

From “Keeping Up with the Greens”

We’d only been living in Kitsilano for a few months when my children sought out the most environmentally conscious family in the known universe and made them their best friends. I will call this family “The Greens” because they are the pinnacle of greenness, against which all other families are measured. The Queen of Green (let’s call her Valerie) is a single mother of three children. Now, if I were in her shoes, I would cut myself some slack. I’d probably feed my kids a lot of frozen pizza and send them to school with those prepackaged Lunchables. Okay, maybe I wouldn’t go that far, but I would be tempted to cut a few environmental corners.

But Valerie Green is committed to doing her best for the earth, and she’s not taking the easy way out. Most significantly, the Greens do not own a car. Valerie does all the grocery shopping (organic, of course) using a bike and trailer. All three kids play two musical instruments each and have a number of lessons throughout the week. Valerie shuttles the children and instruments to their lessons via bike and trailer or, in extremely inclement weather (like a blizzard), by bus. Did I mention that one of those instruments is a cello? Yes, a cello.

While I become exhausted just watching her, Valerie never complains. She hauls her kids to eight am dentist appointments by bike. To birthday parties and crosstown dance classes. In the rain! At night! She broke her foot last year and still, she never asked anyone for a ride. She never took a cab!

And the Greens eat all organic food. I’m not just talking about meat and vegetables here. I’m talking organic flour, organic spices, and even organic dairy (which costs about the same as Beluga caviar). Most of their diet is locally grown, too. Valerie has personal relationships with many of the farmers in the area.

The Greens are socially conscious, as well. The children know a lot about supporting local industry and farming practices and fair-trade goods. Frankly, I don’t think it’s normal for children that young to be that well-informed, but maybe that’s just me. My daughter had the Green girls over one day and was showing them the new shirt we’d bought for the start of the school year.

“I got this new shirt for school,” Tegan said cheerfully. “It has stripes and I really like stripes.”

The Green girls stared at the garment in silence. Finally, one of them said, “That shirt was made by child labor.”

As my daughter’s face fell, I had to intervene. “No, it wasn’t,” I soothed, while secretly wondering: Was it? It was awfully cheap. Was some five-year-old being paid ten cents a day to sew Tegan’s cute striped shirt? But could I afford to buy clothes that were made by an adult? A wave of guilt washed over me. Why hadn’t I done some research into the store’s manufacturing practices? I didn’t deserve to live in this neighborhood. On this planet!

While I’m making a valiant attempt to be green, I can’t help but feel inadequate when I compare myself to Valerie. Last summer, John and I went to the Superstore while our kids were having a play date at the Green house. “Don’t tell Valerie that we were at the Superstore,” I said as we drove to retrieve our children.

“Why not?” he asked.

“Well, because . . . we drove all that way just to get a hand blender. That’s bad for the environment. Plus, we bought a bunch of other stuff that we don’t even need, which is really consumerist. I don’t know . . . I just don’t want her to know.”

“Okay . . .” he said, like I’d asked him to lie and say we’d been volunteering to read stories to blind kids.

Valerie Green is far too nice to overtly judge me, but I know I’m not living up to her standards. And she is not the only one. Despite my best efforts, Kitsilano is crawling with people who are so committed to the earth that they make me feel like a property developer in comparison. We live near Broadway, a beautiful street lined with vegetable markets, Greek bakeries, and old, leafy trees. Unfortunately, because of poor sidewalk construction the sprawling roots of these old leafy trees were buckling the pavement. The Broadway sidewalks had become like some kind of treacherous urban mountain range. One day, I’d seen an elderly woman trip on a jutting piece of concrete and fall to the ground. Another time, a woman who dared to wear a bit of a heel on her shoe was felled, as well.

“Damn sidewalks,” she muttered, as she scrambled to her feet. “They really need to be fixed.” Eventually, when hospital emergency rooms were overflowing with victims of the Broadway sidewalks, the city got involved. They decided that the sidewalks had to be repaved. Unfortunately, they felt the easiest solution was to cut down all of the old, leafy trees.

I was walking my children home from school one chilly, rainy, miserable day when I was approached by a neighbor. “Are you coming to the rally to save the trees on Broadway?” she asked.

I huddled deeper into my raincoat, trying to ignore the biting wind whipping my face. “Uh . . . when is it?”

“Tomorrow morning at nine,” she said brightly. I could not think of anything I wanted to do less than stand around in the cold and rain chanting “Save the Trees” at nine o’clock on a Saturday morning. I did want the trees to be saved, of course I did. It would be a terrible shame if they were cut down. But was there possibly a warmer, drier way to save them?

“Do you think the weather will be like this tomorrow?” I ventured to ask.

“That’s what the forecast says.”

“It’s just that I have a bit of a sore throat.” I coughed lamely. “And I’ve got a lot of work to do so . . . I don’t want to get sick.” She gave me a look that said: I can’t believe you’d let a little rain and a sore throat keep you from saving the life of a beautiful, carbon-replenishing maple tree.

She was right. I was selfish to put my comfort above the lives of my neighborhood trees. I felt bad. I felt guilty. But I also felt cold and wet and I had a bit of a sore throat.

Thankfully, Kitsilano is full of people with bigger hearts and tougher constitutions than mine. They weren’t going to let a little rain or the sniffles keep them from making a point. The city was not going to harm a leaf on those trees without getting a fight. And it worked! The Broadway trees were saved (except for six that weren’t healthy and had to come down anyway).

It was on yet another rainy November day when my environmentally conscious neighbor, Melanie, left me a voice message.

“Just thought I’d let you know that it’s ‘Buy Nothing Day,’” she said.

“Buy Nothing Day.” Well, it was already two in the afternoon and I hadn’t spent a dime. This wasn’t going to be a problem. I would unite with my green friends and neighbors and take a stand against capitalism. I’d recently read an article by Adriana Barton in Granville magazine talking about the whole “green marketing” phenomenon. Some ad campaigns seemed determined to make us believe that buying up a bunch of “green” products was saving the environment. Really, the most sustainable thing to do was to buy nothing at all. And that’s what I was going to do . . . today, anyway.

But when I was cooking dinner that night (wild salmon patties with, organic, olive-oil-and-rosemary frozen French fries), I realized we were out of ketchup. I can’t eat organic olive-oil-and- rosemary French fries without ketchup. (Because they’re so natural and healthy, they’re also rather dry.) But did condiments count on “Buy Nothing Day”? Of course they didn’t.

“Buy Nothing Day” was probably more about people buying TVs and computer systems and Jet Skis. I sent John off to the corner store for a bottle of ketchup.

The next morning, I dropped the kids off at school and met Melanie on the playground. “Don’t forget,” she said. “It’s ‘Buy Nothing Day’ today.”

“Today?” I cried, “I thought it was yesterday!”

“No, it’s today,” she explained, “Friday, November 23.”

“Well, I bought nothing yesterday,” I said. (I didn’t think the ketchup was worth mentioning.) “And I haven’t bought anything today either,” I continued, “though I need to get some wine for tonight.”

Melanie looked at me. “It’s ‘Buy Nothing Day.’” “But consumables don’t count.”

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She gave a shrug that clearly said “They actually do.”

Damn it! I was really looking forward to a glass of wine that night. It was Friday, after all. It was November. It had been a long week. Melanie noticed my crestfallen demeanor.

“What could you do so you don’t have to buy wine?”

“If you’re going to say meditate,” I snapped, “don’t bother.”

She chuckled. “No, I’m just wondering if you had anything on hand that could relax you?”

I thought about the near-empty bottle of gin in my freezer. I could drink that, but I’d still have to buy tonic. If I was going to buy tonic, I may as well buy wine, right?

“I don’t know,” I sulked. “I think I have some valerian left over from my last nervous breakdown. I could take a bunch of that and just lie around on the couch drooling all night.”

Again with the laughter! She wasn’t taking my quandary seriously.

When John got home, he was able to allay my concerns. “Yeah, consumables don’t count,” he said breezily. “I’ll go to the liquor store.” As he was about to walk out the door, he made a suggestion. “Should we order Chinese food tonight?”

It was tempting. As I said, it had been a long week. “But it’s ‘Buy Nothing Day.’”

“We just decided consumables don’t count.”

True, but Melanie lived right around the corner. She clearly thought that consumables did count. What if she happened to walk by just as the delivery guy was coming up the front steps with six styrofoam containers full of ginger beef and lemon chicken? And John was returning home from the liquor store with a bottle of wine and a six-pack? What would she think of me then? She was expecting me to be lying drooling on the couch, not drinking wine and ordering takeout!

And I knew that, as North Americans, we already consume too much of everything: food, wood, energy . . . If the whole world lived like us, we’d need twenty Earths or something like that. So surely I could go without Chinese food on “Buy Nothing Day”?

“No, I’ll cook.”

John laughed. He was used to my guilty conscience.

“But still,” I said, “go get the wine.”

Yes, I sometimes feel the need to lie to my super-green friends, but it’s not because they’re overtly judgmental. The Kitsilano greenies don’t mean to be exclusive. In fact, they’re actually a very welcoming bunch. One Sunday, Tegan and I walked to the local farmers’ market, our reusable shopping bags swinging jauntily from our hands. As we entered the bustling scene, I was approached by a pleasant, middle-aged woman who handed me a flier.

“Come join us at the Global Warming Caf鬦#8221; she invited, smiling warmly.

I looked at the piece of paper. The caf頷as a place where people from the neighborhood could get together to share ideas and strategies to protect the environment. What a great concept! And it was being held at the community center only a few blocks from my house. I would attend next Sunday.

I kept the Global Warming Caf頦lier on my desk all week and marked the date on my calendar. This was going to be great. I was really becoming a part of the green community. And I was really going to make a contribution to the planet. The URL was featured prominently on the flyer, so I decided to check out their Web site beforehand.

“Click here to see photos of previous Global Warming Caf鳬” the site invited me. So I clicked. As I stared at the photos, I suddenly realized I couldn’t go. Everyone looked so knowledgeable and passionate and deep, dark, forest green. They were all wearing clothes from Mountain Equipment Co-op. There were several women there with long gray hair in braids. I didn’t belong. I wouldn’t fit in. I wasn’t green enough.

They would take one look at me and they would know. I had highlights! Obviously, someone who would choose to put harsh chemicals into her hair and, subsequently, down the drain, didn’t really care about the planet. Someone too vain and superficial to let her hair go gray naturally would have nothing to contribute regarding the environment. And what would I wear? I owned no mec threads, no hemp or soy or thrift-shop finds. Yes, I had a vegan purse, but how far would that get me? My coat was probably made by a nine-year-old in Bangladesh. No, as soon as I walked through the door they’d recognize my type: the type who says she cares about the environment, but owns too many pairs of shoes and won’t take the bus and drives all the way to the Superstore just to get a hand blender!

I love living in Kitsilano. And I’m really thankful for the residents who put up signs, hand out fliers, and organize mailings and protest rallies. Every time I walk along Broadway, admiring the way the leaves dapple the sidewalk with their shadows and rustle gently in the breeze, I am grateful to my neighborhood rabble-rousers. But, much like riding the bus, I just can’t bring myself to their level of activism. This realization makes me worry a bit. Do I really fit in here? Or am I just too selfish and lazy to live up to my neighborhood’s green standards?