Monday, March 30, 2009

Great Article

I was surprised (I don't know why, exactly, except that very few "mainstream" publications seem to have a clue as to what is really happening in the world ... although I'm not sure Ode magazine qualifies as "mainstream") to see this article in the most recent (print) addition of Ode magazine.

It would be nice if the President would heed the advice of some of the authors I've been reading, like the one who penned the above referenced article, and tell us, not what we want to hear, but what we need to hear.

I guess what's interesting in a morbid fascination, like watching ants-kill-a-grasshopper, kind of way is that more and more I've been running across articles that say the same thing, or something similar, to the things I've been reading on blogs for the better part of two years. Either *they* are just getting it, or (some of) the public is just now ready to hear it. Either way, it heartens me to realize that this kind of dialogue has become mainstream.

But, at the same time, I'm disturbed that it's taken so long, and while the public may be ready to hear, our leaders clearly aren't ready to say it. Unfortunately, it may just be the word from our leaders that forces the majority to start making those necessary changes.

More's the pity.

Disturbing Trends

In his essay (and blog) about his experiences surviving the economic and social collapse in Argentina, FarFel says that those with a small piece of land (on which to grow food or raise animals) and neighbors close by (for "group" protection) fared the best, i.e. those in the suburbs.

An article in yesterday's Portland Press Herald states that burgularies are on the rise here ... in Maine, of all places! The areas being hardest hit are described as "rural homes" specifically houses "separated from neighbors by woods that help conceal the crimes."

In the cities, police have noted no increase in home burgularies, but robberies (stealing from a person) seem to be on the rise.

Authorities are attributing this increase in crime to the hard times.

I think it's incredibly sad that when times get bad, some people decide it's okay to just take from others.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sugar, Da-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na, Aw, Honey, Honey ...

I mean, "syrup", not "honey."

Woolysheep asked for more information about our maple syrup-making experience.

Mostly, it's Deus Ex Machina's project. I do most (all) of the gardening and canning, and he does most (all) of the maple sugaring. So, I should let him tell the story, but as he doesn't like anything blog, I guess it's up to me :).

Even before the sugaring season began ... like last summer, actually ... we started planning and prepping for the project by asking our neighbors if we could tap their trees and identifying the sugar maples on their property and on ours.

The ideal time to set the taps is when the temperature is above freezing during the day, but below freezing at night. The sap flows the best when it's in the 40s during the day.

So, when the weather was right, Deus Ex Machina placed nine taps ....

And then, he went to Mexico on business for a week, where he worked inside the factory fifteen hours per day, and he says that the weather never changed (unlike here, where it's always changing). He adds, that while his co-workers grumbled about the food, he found nothing wrong with the Ham-Burger (the ground meat patty topped with a piece of fried ham). Further, he enjoyed the adventure of lunch every day, where the factory provided boxed lunches purchased out on the "economy", but as he doesn't speak Spanish, and the factory security guard didn't speak English, he couldn't ask what choices there were, and he just ended up with whatever the guard handed him. It was all very exciting, and different every day. Good thing he likes to eat.

Luckily, it was still early in the season when he left, and so all I had to do was empty a couple of buckets of sap into the 55 gal food grade drums we purchased for just that purpose.

With only nine taps, there really isn't enough sap to boil every day, and so we will store up sap until we get enough to boil a lot down at once - usually once a week. We keep it stored outside, where it's still cool enough (usually below freezing at night) so that the sap doesn't spoil.

We used plastic taps designed to hold a bucket and a lid. I posted a picture of our sap buckets a week or so ago. But for anyone who has ever seen tapping, they probably look familiar.

For the boiling, Deus Ex Machina found a really great pan. It's, roughly, two-foot squared and six inches deep. At first, the plan was to use our old woodstove and put the pan on the woodstove and boil it down that way. Unfortunately, after half a day of trying to get the sap to boil, Deus Ex Machina gave up on the woodstove, and instead, built a fire pit using some of the bricks we had just lying around.

The pit was, roughly, the same size as the pan, and so it worked a little like a rocket stove. The sap boiled fairly quickly, and to save on our firewood, Deus Ex Machina was burning the brush from the trees our neighbors cut down last summer (with their permission, of course). The brush burned really hot and fast, and so he kind of sat out there all day feeding the fire.

When the sap was boiled down to about four gallons (out of thirty-five), we transferred it to one of our large stainless steel kettles and brought it inside, where we finished boiling it on our electric stove top.

When it is "syrup", it will sheet off of a spatula, and it will be seven degrees above the boiling point of water, which here is 219°.

We, then, filtered it through a felt filter (which looks a little like my old Oktoberfest Hat ... and I'm not a little annoyed with myself that I gave the hat away, because I could have used it to filter syrup. Who knew?) and put it into canning jars. We immediately added the canning lids, and the hot syrup sealed the lids.

From thirty-five gallons of sap, we ended up with just short of a gallon of syrup.

Our syrup is not "Grade A." Syrup is classified for retail purposes based on its color, and the lighter the color, the more desirable for resale (although Deus Ex Machina found a study that showed people actually prefer the taste of the darker syrups ;). Our syrup is a Grade B and is really dark. It's the color of Guiness beer, if you're looking right at it, and if you hold it up to the light, you can see the reddish amber color. It's really sweet, though, and delicious.

We believe that ours is dark, because of the long processing time. It can take all day to boil down one gallon of syrup. But we're not positive that is what caused ours to be so dark.

One other interesting thing Deus Ex Machina observed is the fact that the sap doesn't flow as well (or at all, in a couple of cases here) in trees that still have snow around the roots. I thought it was neat that he figured that out. Old timers probably know that, but it's not something we've ever read in any of the "how to" books.

We still have enough sap stored for about two more gallons of syrup, and we believe the sugaring season is pretty much over, as the nights aren't getting below freezing, and the sap isn't flowing as freely as it was.

It's a very short season, which explains why we saw organic Grade A, Dark Amber (not the premium "light" amber) maple syrup for over $20 per quart today. Ours is organic, too, but is slightly darker than "dark amber."

Still it's pretty nice to know how valuable it is.

With maple syrup, gourmet mushrooms, meat rabbits, and duck eggs, we might actually be able to earn enough to pay our electric bill for the whole year ... and that's a start toward self-sufficiency on our quarter acre.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

While the Sap is Boiling

Making maple syrup takes a very long time ... which is why most people are willing to pay $18 per quart ... or instead of real maple syrup, willing to buy the sugar water Aunt Jemima syrup for $1.50 per bottle.

Not us.

I'm not a fan of pancakes for the most part, but I find them less replusive with real maple syrup, and maple syrup is a good sweetner in other recipes. So, we make our own.

And while the sap was boiling, and we were waiting for it to reach the syrup stage so that we could go to bed, I decided to watch a Netflix movie. I chose, for my viewing pleasure (not!), the film, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, and, of course, the film validated my very anti-Wal-Mart stance.

Last September, I was having some very interesting "conversations" in my comments section, and some of those ended up as blog posts. My last (re)post was one of those.

This one, originally published on September 17, 2008 was also one.

It was orginally titled:

Let's Talk About Con-Ser-Va-Tion

And from the look of it, one of my readers took issue with my insistence that the only way to mitigate our economic crisis, Peak Oil, and climate change is to use less - or to "conserve", if you prefer. I answered the points the commenter made to rebuke my assertions about "conservation" being the best choice.

In the six months since it was originally posted, things have worsened considerably, and many people are now doing what I suggested - using less - because they have no choice.

So, without further ado ... the post ...

Question: If your house has a growing crack in the frame, do you tear it down?

Answer: No. I fix it. I fix it using quality materials so that it doesn't break again in the very near future. Tearing it down is exactly the opposite of the "conserving" attitude I advocate. Tearing it down would follow the attitude that everything is disposable and nothing need be repaired that has gotten our country into the economic mess that we're in. Planned obsolescence has been the driving force of our economy for the past several decades. Make something cheaply so that it costs very little and so that it will break so that people will buy more.

I believe that's a very poor foundation for one's economy, because at some point, people will wake up and go, "Huh? Do I really need another whizzi-gidget? I mean, I never really like the whizzi-gidgets I've gotten in the past, and they always break. Maybe I can live without it." That's what's happening, and I don't see it as a bad thing. Buy what you need, use what you buy, and eschew the rest.

Point: We need to restore our economy.

I'm not sure *we* can restore our economy, and I'm not sure ....

Well, I'm not sure what that means, exactly. What part of the "economy" is it that we wish to "restore"? The part where everyone owns fourteen whizzi-gidgets, thirteen of which don't work, and none of which are even manufactured in the US? The part where the "good-paying", manufacturing jobs are outsourced overseas, because the company owners can't afford to pay Americans to make the whizzi-gidgets for the price Wal-Mart is willing to pay? Or the part where the best job in town is actually AT Wal-Mart, and many of the whizzi-gidgets for sale there are too expensive for the employees to even purchase?

I guess my problem with this is that I'm not sure who is benefitting from the sale of the whizzi-gidget. Certainly not the retail cashier, who might make minimum wage. Probably not the truck driver who delivers it to the store. Probably not the guy who unloads it at the docks when it arrives on the container ships. Maybe not even the sailors who travel across the ocean with it. Who, then? The Chinese teenager who sits in a factory for ten hours a day fitting the plastic parts together? Sure, they all have jobs, but shouldn't there be more to life than just working so that we can afford another whizzi-gidget?

There was a time when people did meaningful work for an honest day's wages. That's the "economy" I would like to restore. I think it's wrong to pay the lowest price we can find for something, just because it's the lowest price. I think it's wrong to pay less than something is worth, because someone somewhere in the world is willing to work for next to nothing just so I can have it.

When I made my cloth feminine hygiene products, it took me about a half hour to make each one. If I worked for the Federal minimum wage, each one would cost, in labor alone, $3. For one cycle, the average woman would need at least six, and that's assuming she launders them each time she changes her pad. The initial outlay, would then, be $18 - for just cutting the material and sewing all the pieces together. That doesn't even include the cost of materials, etc. Sure, they don't break, you don't throw them away, and you can use them over and over, but in our "throw away" economy, with "disposables" costing only $6 for TWENTY-FOUR napkins, who's going to pay $18 for just SIX?

If the solution to "restore the economy" means making everything so cheap (per price and per quality) that everyone has three, then I say, please don't restore the economy. Let it die, like it should, and we can be like the Phoenix and raise a "new economy" out of the ashes of the old. Yes, it will be painful and messy as we crash and burn, but it's going to happen whether we accept it or not, and instead of trying to revive the scorched bird, we could build something different, something that is based on something real and tangible rather than on empty promises of some "better place" to be had if only we believe enough and work hard enough.

It's time to pop the fantasy bubble and see the world for what it really is. Some people wear fancy clothes and some people don't. That's life. Our current economy has only made more clear the line between those who have the good clothes, and those who buy cheap imitations (every three months) from places like Wal-Mart.

If we could use our resources more wisely (and here I mean "personal" resources), then, maybe, we could afford to buy one or two of the "better quality" item. But instead, I know some people whose car barely passed inspection this year, but instead of saving for a new car (which they probably need for employment purposes as there is no mass transit system in place here), there's a 32" plasma television delivery and a satellite dish installation.

Unfortunately, I don't believe these people are acting differently than most Americans would in their situation.

Point: We can not all move to small farms and support ourselves.

True. We can not all move to small farms, and at this point, probably none of us can. I am, in no way, advocating we all move to the middle of nowhere and "live off the land." First, there isn't enough land, and second, most of us wouldn't survive the first winter.

Not too long ago, I wrote an entire series of posts discussing why we should not abandon our suburban homes (let's start here), but rather, turn our quarter acres into mini subsistence farms. It is possible to grow some portion of one's food on a very small piece of land, even in Maine. I'm growing/raising about 10% of what my family eats. I know that's not much, and if we had to depend on just what I grew here, either I would get really good really fast, or we'd be very hungry. But at the present time, I'm still only using about 25% of my yard for food production (including animal enclosures), and there is still a lot more I can do, but haven't been able to do, yet. I also have only recently planted a lot of the perennials (like asparagus, rhubarb, apples, and raspberries) that have not, yet, started to produce.

I also forage. This year we picked wild blueberries and blackberries. Deus Ex Machina has taken up bow-hunting and our woods are flush with deer. The other day, he walked outside and saw a flock of two dozen hen turkeys waddling down the road (it's not turkey season, yet).

Small space and urban subsistence gardening is nothing new or unique to my situation. There are even people who garden on condo decks. As for the "support ourselves" part, I'm not sure we can NOT do that, though we haven't, yet, tried. There is a family in California who actually do support themselves on less land than I have. They're gardeners, primarily, but they also have a couple of side businesses, including selling eggs.

Presently, Deus Ex Machina works at a regular, wage-earning (soul-sucking) corporate job. I am self-employed, and I work out of my home. There are a lot of income-stream possibilities for us that are not regular, wage-earning (soul-sucking) corporate jobs. We might have to stop eating take-out every week, and we might need to start rationing our electricity, or something, but we could live quite comfortably on about half what we bring in (less if I get a little less lazy with my garden ... and if we get a couple of goats for milk and cheese :).

I do not believe that any of us can step entirely outside of the money economy at this time, and fully "support" ourselves, but I do believe that we could all learn to live with very little need for money, if we were willing to reevaluate what we define as a "need" and what we define as a "want."

I realize the point was probably about being completely self-sufficient and not needing money at all, but as I pointed out several months ago, no one is truly self-sufficient and even people who live on a small farm, providing most of their basic needs, depend on others for a good deal of the supplies and services they use. Even in our pre-industrial societies when people lived mostly agrarian lifestyles, even then, farmers depended on the townsfolk for certain items they had neither the time nor the skill to produce.

Point: You would find yourself working as slaves.

Well ... we kind of are, right now. Aren't we? We're slaves to the money economy, because we've all accrued this incredible debt trying to get all of these THINGS. Even those of us who are debt-free are indentured to the money economy, because most of us don't have a clue as to how to "support" ourselves without access to Wal-Mart. I submit that the only way to free ourselves is to stop buying so much stuff, limit our purchases to those things we truly NEED, reduce the amount of gasoline we consume by using alternative transportation, reduce the amount of electricity we use by turning things off and not using appliances where lower energy alternatives are available (like clothes lines instead of dryers), reduce the amount of water we use ....

For those things that we must pay to have, we need to limit how much we use. That's what I mean by conserving. I mean, 'WE' individuals (not the government telling us, but by choice) need to reduce our consumption, until we've reduced our personal debt, and only then, can we be free, as citizens and not slaves to a diseased economy.

High prices for goods and services are only an issue if one believes one can not live without it, but I submit that people lived wonderful lives without a lot of the luxuries we take for granted (like flush toilets and tumble clothes dryers) for decades, even as we moved into industrialization. In fact, even today, there are millions of people living all over the world in all sorts of "modern-esque" communities where they need very little of our American gadgetry to live highly satisfying lives.

I lived in Germany for more than a year without a car to drive (although I did have friends with cars and hitched a ride to some places with them - but mostly, I walked), and I didn't suffer (in fact, I was in incredible shape). The price of a gallon of gasoline in Germany at that time (in the early 1990s) was $5. We're just now getting close to that price here, and now, in Germany, gasoline costs even more.

When I was in college, I didn't have a car for the first two years, and I walked every where I went. I didn't have a choice. I don't recall suffering greatly (except when it was raining or snowing, but I survived without any noticeable scars :).

The concern I'm hearing, however, is that the economy will suffer irreparably if everyone did as I am doing, and I disagree. If we cut our personal spending to those things that we truly need, we would have more available cash to spend on those things. If I'm not buying a 32" plasma television, then I can (eventually) afford a new car, when I need one, and if I'm not paying $100 a month for HDTV with TiVo, then I can afford gasoline for my car. Nobody needs television, and yet, nearly EVERY SINGLE American home I know has at least one, more often than not two, and I'm the only person I know who doesn't have digital cable television. We don't need a cellphone AND a land-line, but I know many, many people who have both, and often have these family plans where everyone in the family has his/her own cellphone, PLUS the home phone.

Why?

I didn't have a cellphone when I was growing up, and somehow I managed to make it to adulthood. There have been several times in my life when I didn't have a personal phone, not a cellphone or a "home" phone, and I used a payphone, or *gasp* I wrote letters.

If one lives in Maine, one does not NEED air conditioning. In the eleven years I have lived in this house, there was one day (one out of over 4000 days) that was hot enough that I sought out an air conditioned place. If I had been smart at that time, I would have found a better way to deal with the heat. If we, any of us, in any place in the world, needed air conditioning or an inside temperature above 65° in the winter to survive, the human race would be extinct.

Of course, if we stop using all of these modern services and buying all of the whizzi-gidgets, there may, well, be massive layoffs (not at all like the 25,000 projected layoffs by 2011 at Hewlett-Packard ... *or the hundreds of thousands of jobs that have been lost since this was written last September* ... no, not like that at all ... ).

But if we immersed ourselves in a need-based economy with an emphasis on "repair and reuse" rather than on "replace", a whole new set of jobs would open up. We'd need lots of repair people. We might see a resurgence of small manufacturing facilities for certain goods - quality goods made without lead paint or planned obsolescence. We'd certainly see lots of smaller, specialty retail operations opening.

Point: If you think this cancer of a government will leave you alone if you leave it alone you should talk to Randy Weaver or the survivors from Waco.

And here's where you kind of lost me ;).

I don't get the correlation between my desire to be self-sufficient and either Weaver or the Branch Davidians.

FYI: Contrary to the impression I may have inadvertently given, I am for very small government with the principle responsibility of the Federal government being the maintaining of the Armed Forces, foreign diplomacy, and the building and maintaining of a national transit system. I think everything else should be governed at the state or local level, including social welfare programs and education. But that's a whole other discussion.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Are We Paying Attention?

Has anyone noticed that the price of gasoline has been slowly increasing? Just a couple of weeks ago it was $1.89 per gallon. Today, when I passed by the gas station it was $2.05.

Has anyone noticed?

And speaking of gasoline, I found this post from last year interesting.

Originally posted on September 16, 2008, it was entitled:

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Lessons from History - What You Don't Learn from Books

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This was a reply in my comments section of yesterday's post, but, as you can see, I'm not a woman of few words, and so I decided to make it a post, instead.

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For the record, I hope I am wrong with regard to my comments about the impending economic collapse. I hope I'm wrong, and rather than facing economic collapse, this is just a "normal fluctuation" of the highs and lows of our market.

I hope Deus Ex Machina is right and that the price fluctuations we are seeing at the pump and in heating oil prices and in everything oil touches (which is everything) are something other than global production peaking. I hope things will bounce right back, and we can continue living our luxury lives after having "survived" this little hiccup.

During the 1970s US oil production peaked, and due to some political mis-stepping, OPEC cut us off from receiving foreign oil supplies, which is kind of what caused the "energy crisis." We couldn't produce enough of our own, and no one would give us any. At that time, Presidents Nixon, Ford (to a degree), and then, Carter tried to move us closer to energy independence. In his 1979 Crisis of Confidence speech, Carter tried to outline his plan to reduce dependence on foreign oil. People didn't like it. They didn't like being told that driving big, gas-guzzling cars was morally wrong. They didn't like the idea of gasoline rationing. They didn't want to conserve.

And, as it turns out, they didn't have to, because a year later, Ronald Reagan stepped in and saved the day, by borrowing against our future, and giving Americans just what they wanted - cheap gasoline for their BIG cars and cheap energy to heat/cool their too large homes.

During his two terms, Ronald Reagan actually imposed the bans on mining tar sands ... er, shale oil extraction ..., and cut all alternative energy programs, including removing the solar water heating system Carter had installed on the White House; thereby, forcing us to invest all of our time and dollars in foreign oil imports. In his 1979 speech, Carter revealed that the US imported HALF the oil it used. Today? We import more than 75%.

Now, as he threatened back in February, President Chavez IS cutting the US off (seems a little too reminiscent of the 1970s OPEC fiasco, don't you think?). We import 13 million barrels per day of foreign oil. Venezuela was one of our top five suppliers. We use something like 21 million barrels per day.

I hope I'm wrong. I hope things aren't as bad as they seem to be getting, but I don't believe it to be true.

I have always known that "fossil fuels" as a resource were FINITE. If their origin (from dinosaurs) is to be believed, it is impossible to reproduce, it is not renewable (because last time I looked, there haven't been dinosaurs here in, at least, the last 10,000 years of recorded history), and at some point, it will be gone. Based on what I've read, we're halfway to the "gone" point, and worse, we've used that first half over the last 100 years, AND the rate at which we use it today is considerably faster than those resources were used 100 years ago. So, we'll go through the second half much more quickly.

As for the economy, while I was around in the 1970s and I remember some of it, I wasn't an adult, and so much of what happened was really too complicated for me to understand. I remember gas lines and unemployment and lots of problems. My family even suffered a bit of a financial hiccup at the time. So, I was curious, because I thought maybe I was missing something, that maybe what's happening today isn't even a minor concern compared to the economic hardships of the 70s.

So I did some sleuthing.

The worst unemployment got in the 1970s was in 1975, when it hit 9%. If you think about what else was happening in 1975, it kind of makes sense."29 Apr 75 - ... the official American presence in Saigon ends when the last Americans are evacuated by helicopter from the US Embassy roof. Within hours the Saigon government surrenders to the VC".

Of course, there may actually be no direct correlation between the last days of the Vietnam War and the economic turmoil in the US during that time, or the fact that over the next four years, the Army began forcing soldiers out of service by whatever means, which meant that many young men (and some women) who had been "employed" by the US Armed Forces, were now unemployed veterans.

The irony is that for all the remembering of how bad the 70's were with regard to the economy, during the period from 1974 to 2007, the highest unemployment rates were actually in the mid-1980s - not in the 70's. It wasn't until 1997 that unemployment finally dropped below 5% for the first time in more than twenty years.

I think the big difference between the energy crisis of the 1970s and what’s happening now, is to be found on this site, which shows our national debt from then to now with a column that converts yesterday's dollars into today's dollars.

If the numbers (and there are LOTS of them) don't boggle your mind, the debt percentage to Gross Domestic Product (all of those things we manufacture here in the US that we export to other places ... oh, wait, we don't do that anymore, do we?) should give you pause.

In 1979, at the end of the Carter Era, the debt percentage to GDP was 33% - on the absolute high end, but still considered acceptable with regard to the ability to secure financing. During all, but two years, of the Clinton Reign, the trend was improving. In the nineteen years of leadership by Reagan-Bush-Bush, only three years showed an improved trend.

Today, it's 66.3%. It's doubled since 1979, and at that rate, we have MORE debt than not.

In personal terms, if I had a debt to income ratio of 33%, that means that 1/3 of my income goes to pay my bills - not living expenses, but revolving bills like credit cards, car loans, finance company loans, student loans, etc. And then, there's my daily living expenses, food, clothing, electricity, heat ... that I pay for with the other 2/3rds of my income.

Right now, 2/3rds of our government's income (50% of which is income tax) is going to pay off LOANS. That only leaves 1/3 for things like infrastructure needs, the military, paying social security, the bloated welfare system, government research grants, providing funds for educational programs, that Universal health care some of our candidates want, the President's salary ....

One-third.

No bank would lend me a dime if I had that debt to income ratio, and at this point, our government is, as the saying goes, Robbing Peter to pay Paul.

We like to mark the beginning of the Great Depression with the Stock Market Crash of 1929, but the ladder rungs leading up to that day were being fitted long before the Market bottomed out.

"Debt is seen as one of the causes of the Great Depression .... in the 1920s, American consumers and businesses relied on cheap credit, the former to purchase consumer goods such as automobiles and furniture, and the latter for capital investment to increase production. This fueled strong short-term growth but created consumer and commercial debt. People and businesses who were deeply in debt when price deflation occurred or demand for their product decreased often risked default. Many drastically cut current spending to keep up time payments, thus lowering demand for new products. Businesses began to fail as construction work and factory orders plunged."

From where I sit, it seems very much like what we see happening today: years of "cheap credit" to purchase coveted, but often unneccessary, consumer items, or for capital investment, resulting in excessive debt, both personal and business. Add to that our grossly inflated national debt (which was not an issue in the 1920s OR the 1970s), our almost total dependence on foreign (costly) oil supplies just to maintain our lifestyle (not even counting any new building we might want to do), massive job cuts, and a floundering banking system, and we have a rather volatile situation.

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That post was written six months ago, and it's only gotten worse.

I still hope I'm wrong about how bad it might get, but can any of us afford to "wait and see" anymore?

Oh, and the price of gasoline is beginning its steady creep upward ... just in time for this year's tourist season.

On June 23, 2008, I posted this: On May 17 [2008]... the price of gasoline was $3.72. Today, when I drove by the gas station, it was posted at $4.17.

It'll be interesting to see where it goes this time around.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Show Me the Money

The following article was originally posted on March 11, 2008.

This video that appeared on the Automatic Earth on March 20, 2009, made me go look to see what I had written on March 11, 2008.

What's interesting is that my post on March 11, 2008 was about money. You'll have to watch the video to see why I think that's interesting :).

Show Me the Money


I saw some celebrity profiling show not long ago in which Cuba Gooding Jr. was lamenting the fact that despite a whole body of work he has done since 1996, despite all of the roles he did before and since, he still has people coming up to him on the street exclaiming "Show me the money!"

It's all about the money.

We actually measure our self-worth by money. I received that wonderful document the Social Security people send out every year that tells me what my family would be entitled to for benefits if I died. The answer is not much.

I've worked for more than half my life, but my lifetime earned income, based on the wages I reported to the IRS, would barely pay the mortgage on the average suburban home.I have a college degree, but I've chosen to spend the last quarter of my life staying home and taking care of my children.

A nobel "profession" to be sure, but since I don't "earn" any money as a Mom, I'm worth nothing. Ask anyone who has a full-time job his opinion of a stay-at-home Mom. Hell, think about your own feelings of the value of a stay-at-home Mom, and if you are a stay-at-home Mom, ask yourself if you are ever considering going out and getting a job, and why? Is it because you really need the money so that your children don't starve and you don't lose your house? Or is it because once those kids go to school, you would like to have a paycheck?

Measuring my life in dollars certainly does make it feel as if I have no value, that what I do every day is pointless. And in truth, I don't get any recognition. I don't get much recognition for the job I do for my clients, either, but as Deus Ex Machina points out, the recognition is that they pay me. As a Mom, the recognition is ....

What?

It's rare that I even get a thank you. No one buys me flowers or sends me special gifts for a "job well done planning, organizing and hosting the princess-themed birthday party for fifteen four to eight year olds and their adult guardians complete with a homemade cake, homemade pizza and a marionette play specially written just for the occasion."

There's no Christmas bonus for "hand-writing, hand-addressing, stamping and sending thirty-five holiday cards, several for family members not related by blood and whom I've never met."

I'm not going to get a day off because I "worked" late nursing a baby with an earache.

I won't be in line for a promotion, because I successfully delivered my baby, without the help of a midwife or a doctor.

I'm not counting on a raise because I documented in photos and/or in writing, their early years.

I'll never be honored for "Teacher of the Year", even though I keep all of the records of my children's school activities, organize and teach classes in my home for my children and their friends, sign them up for outside classes, organize all extracurricular activities, provide all of the transportation to and from outside activities, provide resource materials including books, videos, pens, crayons, and paper, provide a healthful, usually hot, lunch and breakfast, and at the end of every year, spend several weeks writing, editing and publishing our school yearbook.

I'll never get "Employee of the Month", even though I'm the only one doing my job.

We just don't put any value on things that can't be quantified with dollars. It's all about the money.

People live and die for want of it, but it's a double-edged sword. If we have too much of it, and we don't share, we're greedy - like Scrooge. He was a businessman. He was in the business of loaning money, not giving charity. He loaned money, and he collected on those debts. And people hated him for it. He was like today's mortgage banks - taking people's houses when they have foolishly signed a note for a $250,000 three bedroom, two bath house on a quarter acre in an up and coming neighborhood. Why is it the bank's fault? Because they allowed these people to borrow money? Why is it Scrooge's fault? Because he gave these people what they wanted? They wanted money. He gave them money. They understood the consequences of borrowing from him, and, yet, they did it, and HE becomes the evil miser because he forces them to pay the debt they incurred when they borrowed the money. And we all hated him for that. All of us. And we laughed when he was visited by the three ghosts, and we cheered right along with the town's folk when he died, and we all sighed in relief when he turned over a new leaf, bought the Christmas goose and took it to Cratchet's house.

Why?

It was his money. Why should he be expected to share with us, who made different decisions - decisions, which, ultimately resulted in us being where we are? But that's the nature of money. When we have it, it's ours and ours alone, and woe to he who wants it, and when we don't have it we expect those who do to give it to us, because ..., because we're poor, and they're not, and they should be charitable, because they've been so fortunate.

Fortunate. Like Glenda the Good Witch came down in her bubble and waved her magic wand and gave them the money. It's not like they actually earned it or anything. I actually saw a comment on an article about housing foreclosures that said celebrities should give some of their money to people who are in danger of losing their houses as a thank you for the support we, the fans, have given them by seeing their movies and buying their recordings. That was one woman's opinion. Seriously. Her answer to the housing problem - let someone else, who has money, take care of it for us, who signed up for houses we knew we couldn't afford, but thought we deserved.

Money.

We want it. We covet it. We revere it. We worship it. It gets us up in the morning, to go work at jobs we hate, and sends us home at night drained of every bit of energy we have, so that we can pay to support a life that is dependent on having more and more and more of IT.

We live for it. We die for it.

The one thing we all seem to forget is that the formula $ = :) is false. Money does not equal happiness. If it did, Britney Spears wouldn't have lost custody of her children, Brooke Shields wouldn't have written a book about her severe bout with post-partum depression, and Kurt Cobain wouldn't have committed suicide. They were all rich. At least they all have money, and lots of it, lots more than most of the rest of us, and yet, by some strange quirk, they aren't completely happy. Why is that? How is that possible?

Because ... $$ ≠ :).

We recently watched the PBS program Frontier House.

I'm reading Your Money or Your Life.

As I've mentioned before, one of the most life-changing books I've ever read was Dolly Freed's Possum Living. Dolly and her father lived, what seemed, a rather enjoyable life on a 1/2 acre lot 40 miles from Philadelphia. They raised as much of their own food as they could - including chickens and rabbits. They did a lot of canning. They foraged a lot of other things, including wild game and fish and turtles and many different kinds of greens. What they couldn't raise or forage or hunt, they bought in bulk and stored, mostly grains.

They didn't own a car, and walked or biked everywhere they went. So, no car registration, taxes or insurance.

They didn't have health insurance, but instead engaged in "preventative" medicine by eating wholesome, healthful food and exercising.

For heat, they foraged wood or burned boxes or old crates they were given by local store owners, and fashioned a solar passive heating system (basically a south-facing window that they covered with a blackened board to absorb heat). It was ingenious. They also closed up rooms during the winter and slept in the room with the woodstove, and wore extra clothing to keep warm.

They had electricity, but used very little of it.

They didn't have a television.

And well, computers weren't, yet, invented, but I'd bet Dolly would have been very savvy on the Internet. For sure, she would have had a blog, and she would have regularly updated that blog ... at the library, on their "free" computers.

They bought clothing second-hand, and Dolly could sew. She could cook. She could garden. She could raise and butcher an animal. She could forage for food. Anything she didn't know, she knew she could find out ... at the library in a book, and since she didn't have to worry about going to a job, anytime she wasn't "working" to survive, was free time, and, once the garden is in, there's lots of free time - until it's time to can, and then, once the canning's done, there's more free time. She lived. She lived to live - not to survive, not to work, and not to earn money, but to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and ... put to rout all that was not life....**

She figured it out. Money does not equal happiness.

Deus Ex Machina thinks Dolly is a nutcase, and maybe he's right, but she had something. She and her father successfully lived for many years in the middle of, but outside of, the money economy.

What's interesting about the Frontier House experience was not watching what they all went through, although that was pretty interesting, too, but what was really fascinating was listening to them after they returned to their "modern" lives. They all described a sense of loss, a sense of not quite belonging, a sense of disconnectedness. The experience they had on their Montana homestead was real. In fact, one of the participants actually, sometimes, felt, almost believed, he was a 1890s homesteader. It was real. They had purpose.

They didn't have that when they got home, and they seemed at a loss of what to do with themselves.

Interestingly, authors Dominguez and Robin talk about "life energy", and the fact that in modern society, most of us are giving up our life energy for money.

It's all about the money.

And, yet, here we have all of these examples, this HISTORY of people who have survived and thrived with very little or no money. People who have LIVED deep and sucked the marrow out of life.

If money is the determining factor of worth, I am worthless. I have no money. I have no assets. I don't have a retirement account. I don't own any stocks. I don't have any savings. Any material possessions I have are mine by virtue of the fact that I am married to someone who earns more than average.

He's worth a great deal. But me, I'm worthless.

And I hope that's not true. I hope that my value can be quantified in ways that transcend money.

But I really hope that, someday, I can learn to live life without money and without the fear of not having it. I hope I can "suck the marrow out of life" and LIVE richly, without a dime to my name.

It can't be about the money, because if it really is, there's not much point to my life.

**From Walden, by Henry David Thoreau

==========================



What's interesting is that, now, a year after this post was originally published on my blog, the "hard times" have hit us. The company Deus Ex Machina works for has laid off everyone except him and one other employee, and both of them are working at reduced pay, but their pay is only guaranteed for the next four weeks, maybe, and benefits have stopped.

On March 11, 2008, I said, I really hope that, someday, I can learn to live life without money, and the irony is that I'm probably going to get my chance, much sooner than I expected.

The good news about all of this is that we have no debt, except our mortgage, and I said to Deus Ex Machina today that if we could find a little piece of land somewhere, we could pay cash (with what we have in savings), move onto the land and live in our tent. We would owe nothing to anyone, except our property taxes, which we could earn through the sale of honey from our bees, maple syrup, and gourmet mushrooms :).

Friday, March 20, 2009

Sign of the Times?

The snow is melting off the garden beds ...,




... and the bicycles.




The flowers are peeking out of the ground.




The sap is flowing.





Happy Spring, everyone!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Book Review: The Long Emergency

Originally posted: May 24, 2008

Children know things.

They listen and they see - things we, adults, miss, they don't. They may not have any idea of what they are seeing and probably lack the capacity to logically analyze what it is they've seen, but they know.

When I was a child in the 1970's, I knew that a thing could only get so big and then it couldn't get any bigger. I had observed the phenomenon in practice with balloons. You could only put so much water or air in a balloon before it would burst.

As a child, I applied that practical experience to real-life situations. I knew that the supply of oil was finite, because as we learned in school, it was made from dinosaurs, and so, logically, there was only so much of it.

I knew this.

And, since I was a child in the 70's, I knew that oil was running out for us. I could see. I could hear. I may not have been fully aware (and I'm still not sure about what is actual "memory" versus information I have gleaned since that I might be attributing to memory) of what was happening around me or what the implications of those events to my future were, but I knew that something was happening.

When I reached adulthood in the 80's, I, like most of America, forgot, and I jumped right on that consumer wagon. I went to college and graduated and entered the workforce (which during the mini-recession of the early 1990's wasn't as wide-open as I'd thought it would be for a recent college graduate) ... and started buying my happiness and that of my children.

Deus Ex Machina and I bought our house in 1997, and we were thrilled to discover a few short years later that the value had almost doubled (and we refinanced, cashed out the equity and paid off our out-of-control credit card balance).

A couple of years later, we discovered, again, that the value of our house had increased, and we opened a 2nd Mortgage, Home Equity Line of Credit, Adjustable Rate Mortgage with a really good interest rate. It was about this time that I started remembering what I had learned as a child during the tumultuous 1970's - the party always ends - sometimes badly, and a thing can only get so big before it explodes.

And I started getting really nervous. Two mortgages are bad. One mortgage that's an ARM - bad.

About a year after we opened the HELoC, we refinanced, again, rolling both mortgages into one 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. So, in essence, the house we'd purchased in 1997 on a 30-year mortgage, we now owed three times what we'd paid back then, AND we were still obligated for thirty years. Talk about lack of progress.

But then it happened. The balloon burst ... or as they're calling it the "Housing Bubble." The housing market bubble burst, and a lot of people have lost their homes. I always felt that it could only get so big. I always knew that the value of our house couldn't and wouldn't continue to increase indefinitely. I was pretty sure that our 1500 sq ft cottage-style ranch on a quarter acre would never be worth a million dollars.

According to Kunstler, it's just the beginning of what is going to be a very long process with a lot of weird fluctuations, of prices going up and down, but in a three steps up, one step back kind of way that will keep us believing, for a while, that things aren't as bad as they are.

In 1998, the price per gallon for heating oil was $0.899. Last time we had our tank filled, the cost per gallon was $3.629.But the price didn't rise steadily from under a dollar to almost four. It went up a lot, and fell a little, and went up a lot, and then fell a little, and then shot up, but dropped back down.

It's like with gasoline for our cars - the price goes up, and we all hold our breath, and then just when we start to resolve ourselves that the higher price is here to stay, the price drops down ... just a little ... but just enough to lull us into the belief that things are getting better.

I heard remarked today the belief that the price of heating oil would decrease next winter, because more people were transitioning away from oil to natural gas, electricity or wood, and as such, there would be a glut of oil.

And, maybe. Maybe the price of heating oil will drop a little - down to, say, $3 per gallon* from close to $4 today. That's a savings of a dollar per gallon, which compared to today, will look like a bargain.

But consider ...Maine has seen a 6% decrease in the consumption of gasoline over the last couple of months, but our prices haven't dropped - at all, and in fact, have steadily increased.

The fact is that as a world, we are using 85.6 MILLION barrels of oil per DAY. In short, the world is currently using as much oil as is produced each day. We've already tapped into Europe's Strategic Petroleum Reserves, and the US Congress recently voted to stop stockpiling oil so that more was available to the American public. Even if everyone in the northeast switched to burning wood for heat (and please don't, because our forests couldn't handle that), the demand for oil would still outpace the current and near future production capabilities.

Because it's not just gasoline for our cars or heating oil for our houses where we have a demand for the stuff. Look around you. Everything you see has been touched by oil.

Everything.

From the food you put into your body to make you not feel hungry (and I won't use the word "nourish", because the nutritional value of said "food" is questionable), to the plastic bottle you drink your Poland Spring water out of, to the computer screen you're looking at as you read my words. Food packaging, deodorant bottles, toothbrush handles, fleece material, fertilizers, pesticides, all non-electric motors, lawn mowers, the crisper drawer in the refrigerator, the bottles that hold the Tylenol capsules, indeed the little dissolving capsules that hold the medicine ... all of it - oil.

Every industry in the United States is DEPENDENT on cheap oil to operate.

Every.single.one.

This is the information I took away from reading The Long Emergency. I had a lot of sleepless nights, and many nights of fitful, restless sleep this month. I had quite a few nightmares, too.

The implications of the book are terrifying. The world as my parents and my peers (and me) knew it HAS come to an end. It's not "coming" to an end. The end is already here.

Kunstler provides a great deal of historical background and research - things I knew, but only in a child's way of knowing. And it angered me. It angered me, because we could have been a nation of people who were not dependent on oil for our very lives. We could have been developing the infrastructure to move us away from being an oil dependent nation. While we, literally, had oil to burn, we could have been developing new technologies to take the place of cheap oil. Now, it's too late. We no longer have excess oil to burn.

Our leaders have known for a very long time what was happening. Back in 1956, M. King Hubbert a geophysicist, employed by Shell, warned that at some point, the oil would run out. Even before I was born, someone knew that the oil would run out. That the great "party" would be over.

I was very skeptical when I first started reading Kunstler's book. I wasn't impressed with him after watching The End of Suburbia, but having read his tome, I am no longer able to simply discount his assertions, and I can no longer deny that building a national infrastructure around dependency on oil, especially when our political leaders KNEW, and have known for YEARS that oil supplies are not dependable, was a pretty short-sighted, and, yes, stupid thing to do.

The first few chapters of the book left me pretty terrified. I'm still a little worried, but that's because that's what I do. I worry. It's part of what Deus Ex Machina loves about me, and after thirteen years of him loving me for who I am, I'm not about to change ;).

I know, though, that there is very little I can do. I can try to stockpile resources and be comfortable for a little while longer, but at some point, those things will run out, too.

The thing I can do is to learn. I can learn to grow food. I can learn to save seeds. I can learn to mend my clothes. I can learn a new skill that could possibly provide some income for me.

Thing is, while I know that I will see things get bad, I suspect the worst of the transition will happen when I'm too old or just gone. I suspect that those people who will see the worst of "the end of oil" have yet to be born.

But that's where I have hope. Because those people will not have grown up on a diet of MTV, Little Debbie's Oatmeal Creme Pies and Mountain Dew, SUVs and CAFO meat. Those people will have been raised by people like my daughters, who are learning to grow their own food, and save seeds, and mend clothing, and knit, and conserve, and do without.

So, where do we go from here?

I can't answer that for anyone else, but as for me ...I'll be staying in my suburban home - two miles from the town center, five miles from Deus Ex Machina's job, six and a half miles from the grocery store, seven miles from my best paying client and twelve miles from my daughters' dance school - and homesteading my quarter acre.

We'll learn to be more self-sufficient and less dependent on oil for heat and transportation.

We'll not only enjoy an increasingly more local diet, but we'll also be patronizing more local, smaller, independent shops, where we'll pay higher prices, but the flip-side will be that we'll learn to live with less - which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

In short, we'll keep doing what was set in motion two years ago when I saw The Good Life for the first time, and that is moving toward a less "cluttered" life.

I do recommend this book. It didn't change my life, but it did convince me that my current path is the one best traveled ... for me.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Stick a Fork in It Already ...




I'm done.

Addendum:

I guess I owe an apology ... or at least an explanation. The first I offer wholeheartedly. I certainly never meant to upset anyone. As for the second ... .

I've been blogging for over three years. I started out in December 2005 with the thought of using this as a business marketing tool, but if you know that my "job" is a virtual secretary and you've read my blog, you know that the two are as different from each other as ... well, as different as my having a B.A. in English and training as an electronics technician in the military.

But that's me - I'm all over the place.

Which is why I'm done.

My focus for the past couple of years has been TEOTWAWKI and ways to survive it, but I'm not a "build a bomb shelter stocked with MREs, bottled water and an arsenal" kind of person, and I'm not really that good at telling other people what they should be doing.

My blog has been my way of, kind of, talking out loud about what I thought would work for my particular situation - which is a suburban lot in a small resort community on the outskirts of the largest metropolitan area in my state.

Of course, as has been pointed out to me, largest metropolitan area in my State is pretty atypical of urban areas in general, and not necessarily like other places that might share my definition. Maine is, afterall, a "rural" state and even the urban areas aren't urban like Boston or New York City are urban.

Neither is "my" particular suburban area the kind of suburban area that Kunstler rails against. It's actually much closer to what he wants to see more of - a small, fairly walkable community.

Still, I thought, maybe, my experiences adapting in suburbia could provide a sort of mental springboard to help others start thinking out loud, outside of the (big) box (stores).

Because, even though my town is only two miles away, from October to April, it's, essentially, a boarded-up, ghost town. We still have a grocery store (which, I discovered, to my delight, carries many of the same "local" brands that our bigger "chain" grocery store carries - at a comparable price :), a hardware store, a "dollar" store, a few take-out food joints, and a really cool toy store. Most things, though, we have to travel to find - at least six miles or more.

So, in that respect, I do live in a "suburb", like the ones Kunstler hates.

Lately, though, I've found as events in the world have more closely mirrored those I was warning against, I have less to say. Once the building is on fire, it's too late to tell people if they don't stop swinging those torches they're going to cause a fire. The only thing left to do is to get out of the building and save as much as you can.

So, when I said "I'm done", that's what I was doing - getting out of the building. I'm done. I don't have any more to say about what we should do.

I've already said:

** Plan to stay in your house, because moving is probably not going to be an option, and you should start NOW putting your money into your house to make it livable with fewer external inputs - instead of into "investments" or savings.

And,

** For heaven's sake, PAY THE MORTGAGE! In a survival situation, which the future may become, the order of necessity is: shelter, water, fire, food ... in that order! And anyone in a survival situation who has deviated from that order, has died. Shelter first.

I just don't know how many more ways I can make it clear that anyone who is in danger of losing his house and opts instead to buy food or clothing, pay the car payment, put gasoline in the car, buy a latte at Starbucks, purchase the latest CD, pay the electric bill/gas bill/cable bill, is swinging a torch. First the house payment, then, everything else, and if there's any money left over, make "improvements" on the house - add insulation or replace drafty windows or rip up carpeting and put down something that doesn't require electricity or large amounts of water to keep clean.

And don't feed me excuses like, but I have to have my car to get to my job so that I have money to pay the mortgage, because there are ways to get to work that don't involve YOUR car. They take more work and aren't as convenient, but they are there.

Or, keep the car, and live in it when you can't pay the mortgage.

I've already recommended:

** Set up an area for small livestock, like chickens and rabbits, and if they are prohibited in your area, work to change that ... or consider keeping them some place where they won't be seen, like in a basement or garage (whew! and boy did I get a lot of flack about that one!). I also suggested that, perhaps, we could redefine "livestock." Some animals we consider "pets", which aren't prohibited by any town or HOA ordinances, are considered food in other parts of the world, like guinea pigs ..., and pigeon or quail.

As I told a woman I was talking to the other day, the fact that we aren't all raising chickens in urban/suburban settings is a "recent" thing, only since the 40's or 50's, as most people until that time, had some animals in the backyard - yes, even in the suburbs ... especially in the suburbs.

I already admonished:

** Localize your diet, because if supply lines are interrupted or stopped, you'll want to know where you can find alternatives. It's tough to change food habits in an emergency, and better to know that you can live without diet soda than to try going through withdrawals when you're stressed out about other things.

I already warned:

** Utilities may not be available, but most of us are unlikely to be able to afford some elaborate solar power system. As such, the better idea is to power down, a la The Riot for Austerity (and I got a lot of flack about that one, too).

Recently, I read Dmitry Orlov's book Reinventing Collapse about Russia's collapse in the 1990s, and I read FerFal's account of his experiences surviving Argentina's economic and social collapse, and in both, they described lives that would have been made easier, if the people had been able to prepare by having a quarter acre suburban lot for a garden and a few chickens or rabbits, owning their homes, and being less dependent on the "grid."

Unlike Russia and Argentina, *we*, here in America, do have the opportunity to prepare ... at least, two years ago we had time to prepare, when I first started talking about it, and published my "Surviving the Apocalypse in Suburbia" series and last year when I joined Verde's "Twenty-one Days to Collapse" scenario.

*We* were forewarned.

And now, the building is on fire, and our government is serving as a great big Santa Ana wind, and rather than dousing the flames, they're breathing life into as it gets bigger and bigger, and more out of control.

I just don't have any more to say about it. Fact is, I can only talk about my clothesline (I just got a new one, by the way, as the retractable one broke one too many times ;) or my chickens so often before I start to sound like a broken record. Some of you may not remember trying to listen to LPs that were damaged. I do, and it was annoying.

Of course, I guess the real question is why I left without so much as a by your leave.

I needed to make a clean break from this blog, which is why I deleted all of the content, but at the same time, I didn't just want to disappear, which is why I brought it back with the fork. So that you would know it was a considered departure and not a blogger fluke.

If I'd left any content or just said, "be right back", there'd be too much of a temptation just to keep regurgitating the same message.

But I also didn't want to leave some long explanation about why I was leaving and where I was going, because, frankly, I don't know. I don't even know that I'm leaving.

I guess what I'm saying is that I need to leave Home Is ..., but I really enjoy writing. This blog has been a very important part of my life for a very long time, and I won't, likely, be going very far.

What I'm really thinking is that I'd like to dust off my old creative writing skills, and maybe do a series of life in the future posts, which was the subject of my NaNoWriMo novel.

So, that's where I am, and I'm very sorry to have caused a stir.

I owe a special comment to a couple of people:

Barefoot who said some really nice things about my blog on her blog. I appreciate it.

Bezzie , Rach and E4, who privately emailed me, concerned about my sudden departure.

Thanks, a lot, guys. It was nice to realize that someone actually noticed ... and cared enough to comment on it ;).

I'm still here, and I'll be back ... just, maybe, a little different. We'll see.