Poorer But Happier

February 27, 2014  
Filed under Sustainable Living


The National Opinion Research Council tries to quantify how happy Americans are with a yearly poll. Since 1950, the number of Americans responding that they were “very happy” has steadily declined. Between 1970 and 1994, it dropped five full points, indicating that less than a third of Americans were “very happy.” In 2006, our happiness level was at a new low in spite of a healthy economy and record amounts of consumption per capita.

1991 was a time plenty for average Americans. We owned twice as many cars, drove twice as far, used twenty-one times more plastic and traveled 25 times farther by air than did the average family in 1951, according to environmentalist Alan Durning. Our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per person has tripled since the 1950s. So did the square footage of the average house and the circumference around our waists. However, homelessness increased, alcoholism and drug abuse statistics rose and divorce rates doubled.

Surveys have found virtually the same level of happiness between the very rich individuals on the Forbes 400 and the impoverished Maasai herdsman of East Africa. In contrast, Bhutan, a small Himalayan country, recently decided to stop measuring GDP, and replaced it with a “happiness index.” Citizens of Bhutan are no longer measured by how productive they are at work, instead, they are measured by how happy they are in life.

“There is no necessary relationship between the level of possession and the level of well-being,” said Thakur S. Powdyel, a Bhutanese official to the New York Times. As a result, household incomes in Bhutan are among the poorest in the world, but life expectancy has increased by 19 years, and government funding is spent on education, health care and the environment.

In the U.S., with a recession raging, we can still communicate with people all over the world instantly, eat fresh foods from the other side of the planet and watch over 100 channels of TV anytime of the day or night. We have mountains of stuff crammed into mountain-sized houses, which hold smaller families who report they are still “not happy.” Clearly it is not money or the stuff that makes us happy. So what does?

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied dozens of human activities to see what made Americans happy. He found that volunteer work of all kinds generated “high levels of joy, exceeded only by dancing.” Why volunteer work? The most common answer is that “you make new friends” and “it gets me out of myself.” For others it was “doing something meaningful” and “building a sense of community.” In human society, relationships trumps money.

In his book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community,” Robert Putnam notes that as our incomes have climbed, our civic participation has dramatically decreased. This decrease takes the form of lower attendance in churches, civic groups and volunteer organizations, as well as reduced involvement in local government.

Putnam notes, “Each generation … since the 1950s has been less engaged in community affairs than their immediate predecessor.” People born before 1945 and after 1964 both see family, friends and co-workers as providing a sense of belonging. However, these two generations disagree that neighbors, churches, local communities and organizations prove a sense of community. The fabric of communities is woven by volunteers, and recently, it has begun to unravel.


Localization Instead of Globalization

February 13, 2014  
Filed under Sustainable Living


Recently, we have seen the effects of globalization. As local jobs are increasingly outsourced and recessions continue to loom, we should realize that it just isn’t working. Economist and author Michael Shuman notes, “About 42 percent of our economy is ‘place based’ or created through small, locally owned businesses.” This means that almost half our economy depends upon small independent businesses that make up the backbone of our hometowns.

These small businesses are what give our towns local color and local flavor. They are what differentiate us from every other exit on the highway that has the same six chain stores. Local businesses are also committed to their hometowns and support the local economy through hiring people in the area, donations to little leagues and volunteer ambulance and fire service, and paying local taxes.

The key to economic recovery is localization, reversing globalization. Shuman estimates that we could expand our national economy to be 70 percent local or more by incorporating these ten simple steps that will also save you money.

– Localize your home. The biggest expense most of us have is our mortgage. Actually, 60 percent of our annual expenses go to shelter. By renting from a local landlord or buying your own home with a mortgage from a local bank, you can localize this expense. Local banks and credit unions typically have the best rates anyway, possibly saving you money in the process.

– Drive less. According to Shuman, Americans spend one out of every five dollars on transportation. That amounts to almost $5,000 per year! Until we can start replacing imported oil with locally produced biofuels, our best bet is to drive less.

– Using mass transit, bicycling or walking is highest on the list, but not very easy for us rural folks. Use the car sparingly, buy gas from an independent gas station if you can find one and use a local repair shop you trust.

– Eat independently. Households spend about $2300 per year on restaurants; unfortunately, it’s mostly fast-food chains. This one is a simple matter of choice. It takes very little effort to find a wonderful independently owned restaurant.

– Support local arts and entertainment. Most people opt for a movie at a corporate multiplex at the mall. Enjoy homegrown talent! Visit the small repertory theater to see a real play instead of a movie. Visit an art show, buy art from local artists and buy music directly from the bands.

– Localize your health care. Get your meds from an independent pharmacy, preferably one that also uses local suppliers

– Buy locally grown food. Eating locally, meaning buying fresh vegetables, meats and dairy from local farms reduces transportation costs and vitamin loss. The closer you eat to home, the more you improve your health, your view and your local economy.

– Localize electricity. You could save thousands per year just by increasing your energy efficiency.

– Give locally! More than 6 percent of the U.S. economy is nonprofit, according to Shuman. Most of these nonprofits are in the forms of hospitals, universities and churches, but locally we also have arts organizations, environmental groups and many others.

– Buy local! In the time it has taken you to read this, Americans have collectively spent $23 million. Shuman says that $16 million of this figure could be spent in small locally owned stores. How far would $16 million go in your hometown today?


Behind the Scenes at ‘Downton Abbey’

February 7, 2014  
Filed under Travel

As the set for the PBS series "Downton Abbey," England's Highclere Castle has become the country's best-known stately home. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Whitley Larsen)

By Sharon Whitley Larsen

When the lovely, statuesque young woman opened the door and greeted me with a warm smile and handshake, I momentarily thought she was a public relations assistant. It took me a few seconds to realize that this was Laura Carmichael, who plays Lady Edith Crawley — the middle of three daughters in a well-to-do family — in the wildly popular PBS series, “Downton Abbey.”

Only if you’ve been unconscious for the past three years do you have an excuse for not knowing about this British period drama, which begins with the sinking of the Titanic and includes women’s rights, World War I, inheritance laws, politics, fashion, and the trials of love and life both upstairs and down in a luxurious estate called Downton Abbey.

In real life it’s Highclere Castle in the Berkshire countryside, which has been the ancestral home to the Carnarvon family for more than 300 years. Coincidentally, Julian Fellowes, the screenwriter for the series, is friends of the present Carnarvon couple — the eighth Earl and Countess of Carnarvon — and hence draws his script ideas from the real-life dramas of the family’s previous generations. Art imitates life.

Season four recently aired in the United States, and season five begins filming soon in Britain.

I was lucky enough to interview Carmichael, 27, and Lesley Nichol, 60, who plays the flustered but lovable Mrs. Patmore, the cook. She doesn’t look like Mrs. Patmore in person (she’s younger and thinner), yet her distinctive voice gives her away.

Charming and relaxed, the two actors sat on small sofas in a Southern California hotel suite as they chatted about their roles in this high-class soap opera, which airs in more than 100 countries. Carmichael discussed her role as poor Edith, the daughter who is rather plain (and, until recently, unlucky in love) compared to her suave, beautiful older sister Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery).

“Edith has evolved a lot,” she observed. “She’s had a lot of hard knocks (like abruptly getting left at the altar). “Some she brought on herself, some were brought on by life being cruel. I think she would have been the most conventional of the three daughters. (Younger sister Sibyl died during season three.)

“Edith wasn’t going to sit back and let life pass her by” after these heartaches, she added. “She has ambition, conflict with Mary, she’s a fighter. Playing a lady is really fun — she has the confidence of being an aristocrat.”

“They are feisty women,” interjects Nichol of the characters in the series, which also includes Elizabeth McGovern as the girls’ American mother and Dame Maggie Smith as their witty paternal grandmother.

What was the most challenging scene they have faced so far?

“It was after Sybil died, the scene with (Tom) Branson (Sybil’s widower) and Mary,” recalled Carmichael. “It was such a complicated scene.”

It took eight hours to film.

“We couldn’t speak afterward, we were crying so much,” Carmichael explained, noting that since both she and Dockery have sisters, they could really relate to the grief that would follow the sudden death of a sibling — in this case one who had just given birth. “That was probably the toughest …

“Then we went to the pub!” she said with a smile.

Since Jessica Brown Findlay (Sybil) was leaving the cast — and it couldn’t yet be announced to the public — they had banners displayed in the pub that said “Happy Birthday” instead of “Goodbye, We’ll Miss You!”

“Since we were still in tears, the patrons looked at us like we were crazy,” recalled Carmichael. “Like, it’s only a birthday, why are you so sad?”

Both Carmichael and Nichol express amazement and respect at the tremendous attention to authentic period detail apparent on the set, the work of costume designer Caroline McCall and historic adviser Alastair Bruce.

“Like putting our hands on hips — he doesn’t like that,” said Carmichael, grinning.

Nichol added that “the kitchen is Mrs. Patmore’s domain — I’m king of my little world!”

Diehard “Downton” fans can make the pilgrimage to Highclere Castle, which is about an hour southwest of London and is where the “upstairs” scenes — the great hall and staircase, the library, drawing room, dining room and some bedrooms — are filmed. (The downstairs kitchen scenes, as well as bedroom replicas, are filmed at Ealing Studios in London.)

My husband Carl and I visited Highclere in April 2011, two days before the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, who are fans of the series. In fact, the queen (who is also said to be a “Downton” fan) had just visited Highclere two weekends earlier. After all, she’s the godmother of the current Earl of Carnarvon (whose mother is American) and was a close friend of his late father. There’s a framed photo of her in one room.

Carl and I took the train down from Yorkshire (coincidentally the venue of “Downton Abbey”) to Highclere. Since we didn’t have a rental car, we hopped a taxi at the Newbury station, then took a 15-minute ride to the Carnarvon Arms Hotel (a former coaching house near Highclere, where the cast stays). We were planning to spend the night at the charming, 23-room hotel, which is within walking distance of Highclere. (Since public transportation is sporadic in this remote area, we asked that the taxi driver pick us up at Highclere the next day at 3 p.m. so we could retrieve our luggage from the hotel, then be driven back to the train station.)

The next morning we walked for about 40 minutes down a two-lane highway, then around the winding, gorgeous drive on the peaceful, scenic grounds of Highclere, past tall trees, green meadows and grazing sheep, to the front door (no, Carson wasn’t there to greet us). After touring inside as well as viewing the King Tut exhibit in the basement (the fifth Earl of Carnarvon bankrolled its 1922 discovery), we then had tea with Fiona, Countess Carnarvon, who was casually dressed and very down-to-earth.

The tea wasn’t held in the 5,000-book library with the famed red velvet sofas as I had hoped it would be. Since tourists were traipsing through the rooms, we sat with the countess for 45 minutes at the little outdoor cafe area, where no one recognized her. An accountant and book author, she was charming, gracious and enthusiastic about “Downton Abbey” being filmed here. It’s obvious that she and her husband have much pride in the property, which was in serious disrepair before filming began.

“I don’t want to present a museum,” she pointed out. “I want people to know that we reside here. It’s a living history.”

After chatting with her, we toured the exquisite gardens and inside rooms again. Since the tour buses had departed, we had the place to ourselves except for the guides posted in each room who patiently answered our questions. The family resides here most of the time, and we could check out their reading material and medicine bottles on the master bedroom nightstand.

Promptly at 3 p.m. our taxi arrived and we reluctantly departed.

Who would have guessed that three years later Highclere Castle would remain such a huge tourist draw, becoming England’s best-known stately home, and that “Downton Abbey” would continue to be such a huge hit?

As Nichol summed up the cast: “We’re like a family — we know each other well, we’re fond of each other.”

Then she and Carmichael posed for a photo, warmly hugging each other, and that said it all.


For information on summer 2014 tours, visit the Highclere Castle website at www.highclerecastle.co.uk. For 2014 PBS summer tours to Highclere Castle, visit www.vegaspbs.org/specials/highclere or www.kpbs.org/events/2014/aug/12/22855.

For other “Downton Abbey” tours, visit www.britmovietours.com.

For Viking River Cruises tour of Highclere Castle: www.vikingrivercruises.com/extensions/oxford-highclere-castle.aspx?refsrcprg=vrc&vardc=highclere

We stayed at the Carnarvon Arms Hotel: www.thecarnarvonarmshotel.com. For additional information, visit www.visitbritain.com, www.visitengland.com and www.britrail.com.  – CNS

Red Hot Gift Guide

February 7, 2014  
Filed under Blogs

Wrap your Valentine up in a luxurious silk floral robe from Soffia B.

By Sharon Moseley

Take heart. Valentine’s Day is almost here, and there are plenty of ways to say “I love you” with gifts for anyone on your list. Instead of the traditional chocolate and roses, get a little creative. Here are some ways to up the style factor:

Go for luxury lingerie. She’s probably been living in those cozy flannel pajamas for the last few months, but that doesn’t mean she won’t appreciate some luxurious silk. You can go the Victoria’s Secret route, but check out the gorgeous goods at websites like SoffiaB.com. Or try a local store such as Aristelle in Burlington. Who wouldn’t want to lounge around in a beautiful floral robe inspired by the Old World bedrooms of the British gentry? Downton Abbey anyone?

And if you prefer a girlier gift, Piperlime (Piperlime.com) has pink patent pumps with black and white striped heels — perfect for spring days ahead. There are also plenty of local shoe stores with a wide range of fun styles and colors including New Balance, Lenny’s and Stella Mae. As for me, flip-flops are always a great gift. The Daisy Duck thongs at Havaianas are perfect for the young at heart.

Love those Tees. Who doesn’t love receiving fun tops emblazoned with hearts and roses? Big lips dominate the T-shirts at Aeropostale (Aeropostale.com); hearts at Old Navy (OldNavy.com) and “Amore” shirts at bebe (bebe.com). Add a pair of red hot boxer shorts and you’ve got a winning duo. “Make Love Not War” is the message on Haute Hippie’s T-shirt at NeimanMarcus.com.

Sparkle with jewelry. Another V-day winner. You can always add to someone’s collection. For Pandora (Pandora.com) fans, there is a whole new collection available just in time for Valentine’s Day. Or if you prefer something a little different, check out the X’s and O’s at KrisNations.com. The stud earrings make a great gift. And if the love of your life has a penchant for red, then the jewelry at Ippolita.com will be sure to impress her. Local stores with beautiful options include Argento Laraine Fine Jewelry in Williston and numerous stores in downtown Burlington including Tick Tock Jewelers, Designers Circle and Tradewinds.

Smell the marshmallows. This is one for the guys and girls on your list. Everyone loves a new fragrance … whether it’s a gunpowder green tea candle from OnassisClothing.com for him or the latest Poppy Freesia Blossom scent from Coach (kohls.com). For something local, try Vermontage from Shelburne Country Store.

One of my favorites this year: Smile Lip Balms. These scented moisturizers come in pear, orange blossom and mint flavors complete with Shea butter, apricot seed oil and marshmallow extract. Yum! Originating in the gardens of botanist monks in the South of France, these lip balms are the bomb for only $11 (usa.lecouventdesminimes.com and Ulta Beauty stores). Local options include Mirror Mirror in Burlington and you can also find Autumn Harp lip balms – made right in Essex Junction — at various local stores. – CNS

Vermont Symphony Orchestra ‘Grand Tour’ in March

February 7, 2014  
Filed under Arts & Entertainment

The VSO performs with Jaime Laredo. (courtesy photo by Kathleen Landwehrle)

The Vermont Symphony Orchestra will present a Masterworks program titled, “Grand Tour,” at the Flynn Center in Burlington on March 8 at 8 p.m., Paramount Theatre in Rutland on March 9 at 3 p.m. and at the Bellows Falls Opera House on March 10 beginning at 7:30 p.m.The VSO’s musical journey includes stops in Italy for an overture from one of Rossini’s comic operas, and in Norway for a delightful miniature by Grieg. Vaughan Williams’ native England is next, for a virtuoso performance of the most popular tuba concerto in the literature. The VSO’s principle tuba, Takatsugu Hagiwara, will be the soloist. Then the orchestra hops back across the channel to Germany to enjoy a full-orchestra version of “Death and the Maiden.” Schubert’s beloved string quartet has been arranged by Andy Stein of Prairie Home Companion fame.
Again this year, the VSO will collect food items at its concerts in Burlington, Rutland and Bellows Falls as part of the national “Orchestras Feeding America” project. Audience members and the public may bring a non-perishable food items to the concert. The project is also accepting cash donations.  ll food and cash contributions collected will be donated directly to the local branch of the Vermont Foodbank and donors will receive “Classical Cash,” good for a discount on a future VSO ticket purchase.


March 8, Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, Burlington: 802-86-FLYNN or flynntix.org

March 9, Paramount Theatre, Rutland: 802-775-0903 or paramountlive.org

March 10, Bellows Falls Opera House: Village Square Booksellers, Bellows Falls, Misty Valley Books in Chester and online through either BrattleboroTix.com or FlynnTix.org. Tickets are general admission within seating sections, and priced at $35, $25, and $15, with a $9 student ticket.

The Vermont Symphony Orchestra is the only professional statewide orchestra that provides live musical experiences for listeners in Vermont. It is a state-supported non-profit institution founded in 1935 and exists for the purpose of fostering and encouraging the appreciation of music in all its various forms, with emphasis on orchestral, choral and chamber music.

Precautionary Principle

February 6, 2014  
Filed under Sustainable Living


“When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” — Wingspread

That is the Precautionary Principle. It stems from the German word “Vorsorgeprinzip,” which literally means “fore-caring.” It is a willingness to take action in advance of scientific proof or hard evidence on the grounds that further delay would prove to be too costly to society, nature and future generations.

Sometimes if we wait for scientific certainty, it is too late, and the damage is irreversible. Think back to the link between smoking and lung cancer. In the 20-year gap between when scientists first began to suspect smoking as a cause of lung cancer and when they were finally able to link it to lung cancer scientifically, millions of healthy people developed cancer and died. Some people realized the risk and stopped smoking without waiting for doctors’ orders. These people wisely exercised the Precautionary Principle.

Another part of the Precautionary Principle is, “The proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.” That is the opposite of most of our environmental policies. Policymakers assume that ecosystems can absorb a certain amount of contamination and allow polluters free rein to pollute until scientists prove that damage is done and protective action needs to be taken.

“Instead of asking the basic risk-assessment question — ‘How much harm is allowable?’ — the precautionary approach asks, ‘How little harm is possible?’” notes Peter Montague in “The Precautionary Principle in the Real World.”

If we were to adopt the Precautionary Principle as a basis of environmental legislation in our country, it would shift the burden of proof to the shoulders of those who profit from pollution. For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District adopted the Precautionary Principle to limit pesticide use in schools, citing possible damage to children’s development. Many other school districts across the nation have followed suit. They are not waiting for scientists to establish a link between pesticide use and neurotoxins’ inhibiting brain development. They are taking preventive action now as stewards of the next generation.

Other countries have adopted the Precautionary Principle as a guideline for environmental policy. The European Union has incorporated the Precautionary Principle and is requiring all chemicals to be tested for their effects on health and the environment. It would put the burden on chemical manufacturers to demonstrate that their products are safe. And it would give government immediate authority to regulate substances that show problems.

Even major corporations are beginning to adopt the principle voluntarily in an effort to avoid harm. In 2001, Verizon Wireless sent a brochure to its U.S. cell phone customers describing the potential harm to children from radio frequencies emitted by the phones. Verizon suggested that parents adopt the Precautionary Principle and limit children’s use of cell phones.

So, how can we apply the Precautionary Principle to our own communities?

Carolyn Raffensperger, in “Environmental Vision and Action in Municipalities,” suggests that you start with a vision for your community. For example, “What would it take to make this the best place to mature?”

Then look at the threats. For example, two environmental health reports on threats to healthy aging found that asthma, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease all have environmental contributors. “Local action,” Raffensperger writes, “such as increasing the walkability of a town or guaranteeing access to nature has the enormous potential to help people live healthier lives and cut down on the costs to society and families of sick people, particularly the elderly.” Applying the Precautionary Principle to the town’s master plan would result in adding more sidewalks to encourage walkability, creating more green spaces and parks, limiting emissions of idling vehicles, and rerouting heavy trucks away from populated areas.

Raffensperger points out that many of the problems we face in our communities are interrelated. For example, the absence of sidewalks contributes to obesity and increases the use of cars, consequently increasing air pollution and the likelihood of climate change. Applying the Precautionary Principle to our decision-making process at a governmental level would address multiple problems with a common solution.

To incorporate the Precautionary Principle approach to decision-making, we need to adopt these theories, which the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has adopted:

“1. Anticipatory Action: There is a duty to take action to prevent harm. …

“2. Right to Know: The community has a right to know complete and accurate information on potential human health and environmental (threats). … The burden to supply this information lies with the proponent, not with the general public.

“3. Alternatives Assessment: An obligation exists to examine a full range of alternatives and select the alternative with the least potential impact on human health and the environment including the alternative of doing nothing.

“4. Full Cost Accounting:” We must consider all costs, including those that will be paid by future generations.

“5. Participatory Decision Process: Decisions applying the Precautionary Principle must be” democratic and engage all affected parties.