Monday, June 28, 2010

A Good Way to Spend Six Minutes

If you don't already read The Automatic Earth ... you should.

But if you're saying the what Earth?, check out this great video, which was put together by one of their readers using the audio of an interview with Stoneleigh (one of the writers behind The Automatic Earth) and images that Stoneleigh and Illargi (the other half of the writing duo) use at the beginning of each of their posts.

It's a great video introduction to their message, which is hard-hitting, right-between-the-eyes, but still laced with the hope that enough people will hear and make the necessary changes so that the images depicted in the pictures they add to the beginning of each of their posts taken from the 1930's FSA photography project will not be repeated.

And on a different note, we had a food loss today. A significant loss, due to complacency.

My comment, when I realized that significant amount of food was trash, was that our refrigerator is too much like a bee-suit, which Deus Ex Machina has chosen not to wear. Like a bee-suit, the refrigerator gives us a false sense of security when it comes to food preservation. We put things in there, and then, we don't use them up quickly enough, and they go bad. Most of us never think twice about it, but we should. Food waste is awful, and in a lower energy world, where food becomes more scarce when the on-demand food system grinds to a halt, that stuff we threw away today, would likely, have represented full bellies for the next two days.

To me, it's just one more reason to lose the refrigerator so that we are forced to be more careful with our food, because as long as we have the ability to believe that our food will stay "fresh" for longer, it's too easy to fall into that trap of not thinking about it ... and the temptation to eat out instead of cooking the food in the refrigerator is too great.

If we didn't have a refrigerator, we'd have eaten the food the day we got it, instead of waiting a week, allowing it to spoil and end up in the trash.

What a waste!

Friday, June 25, 2010

{this moment}

A SouleMama Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment to pause, savor and remember.

Taking It Down

In the never-ending quest to bring our eletricity usage down, we've been trying to make some little changes. We've already eaten the low-hanging fruit: changed the lightbulbs, eliminated ghost loads, and stopped using the dryer, and those things have made a difference, but not enough of a difference.

Our electric bill has a comparison chart on the bottom of it that allows us to see what our usage has been over the past year. According to this calculator our 562 kWh/month (40% of which is hydro) is 43% of what the average American uses.

There are two appliances in my house that use an inexcusably large amount of electricity - the refrigerator and the stove. We know this, because we did a quick and dirty comparison of how fast the little wheel on our meter was running with these appliances operating and without them. We also noticed that our average usage is pretty constant. During the winter, we're using more lights, and so it seems like the summer bill should be smaller, but it's not, and we figured out why the other night.

It's me. I like to drink tea, and I drink it hot - all year long (give me a break, okay? I live in freakin' Maine, and hot up here is a cool spring day to you southern folks ;). During the winter, the teapot stays hot on the woodstove. During the summer, I heat up the tea pot, on average, seven times per day.

Deus Ex Machina suggested that, perhaps, I could use the thermos. So, as an experiment, I have been heating up the water, once, and making tea in the thermos. It gets me three or four cups of hot tea (and it's HOT for a LONG time!), before I have to make another pot.

My goal is to reduce our electrical usage to the point that it would make sense for us to purchase a small solar array, and for just around $1000 we could have a system that would generate 1.6 kWh/day with six hours of sunshine (which is what we average in my area). It would cost us a little bit more to purchase the storage equipment so that we could actually have electricity from our system when the sun isn't shining.

Unfortunately, as long as we're using the eletric stove, even with the reduced usage, and the refrigerator, because somebody isn't ready to give it up (sheesh, it's not like it's toilet paper or anything *grin*), we'll be consuming more electricity than we can afford to produce.

And we'll be stuck being dependent on someone else to deliver it to our door.

As such, I've thought of some solutions:

Refrigerator options:

Cheapest: unplug our side-by-side. One half could be used for storage. The other half would be the "refrigerator" and we'd use bottles of ice from the freezer (which we will keep, because we buy meat in bulk, which is the only way to get locally, raised beef on demand, and because we're limited in the space we have and raise all of the chicken we'll eat for the year during the summer - we don't have the space to keep meat birds "on the hoof", as it were) to keep the stuff cool - although not nearly as cold as it is right now.

Best: build a spring house out back over the brook or build a cold closet in the house, which uses geothermal principles to keep the food cool.

Compromise: convert a chest freezer to a refrigerator, which would still use electricity, but only uses 100 to 200 kWh per year.

Electric stove:

Cheapest: limit use and employ some passive cooking techniques, like haybox cookers and using the thermos to store hot water. This is the option we'll be using for now, but it's not likely to save a great deal.

Best: replace the electric stove with a gas stove that uses methane gas we produce ourselves. The nice thing about methane digesters is that they can create a closed system. We input "wastes" (things that would be composted, like kitchen wastes and animal dung) into the digester and create a slurry, which off-gases and produces methane that can be used as a gas for cooking and also for operating an engine to produce electricity. Unfortunately, this option requires quite a large investment in equipment, and it would require us to be very diligent in feeding our digester. The other wrench in the works to the whole plan is that methane digesters like what we'd need, while they are being manufactured, sold and used in some parts of the world, aren't yet available in the American market. The other aspect of this type of system that makes it a little tricky for us, is that the slurry needs to be kept at a certain temperature for the anaerobic action necessary to produce the gas to take place. It would be a good solution during the warmer months here in Maine, but we'd have to have a back-up during the winter ... like a woodstove ... or something.

Compromise: An outdoor kitchen, which would include a rocket stove and/or a propane burner - for heating up water for tea ;). The benefit of this particular option is that we could also use the kitchen for boiling maple sap, and if we were to use the plans for the all-in-one that were developed by Mother Earth News, we'd also have an oven that I could use to bake bread. It would be great during the summer on days like today, when I won't heat up the house to bake anything, which means we don't eat bread ;), and during the winter, we'd end up saving a wad of cash on our electric bill, because I'd be doing all of that baking outside instead of in the electric oven. I might even learn to plan a little better, because each baking session would require just a wee-bit more of a commitment from me than simply turning a knob ;).

Unfortunately, both the best option and the compromise require some amount of work and financial investment on our part, but if we're not willing/able to invest in our lower energy future now, while we have the cash and the choice, later, when we don't have much of either, we'll be hurting.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Reading Labels

Over the years I've had (too) many opportunities to contemplate the organic food versus local food question. In fact, just this past week, someone asked about local PYO strawberry farms. This person was looking specifically for organic farms, and I mentioned a place that my family often goes to pick, stating that I didn't know if it was organic or not, but it is a place where we've developed a kind of relationship with the people who work there. If I had thought that there was a question as to the safety of the strawberries at that farm, I would never have suggested it, and given the reaction I received after I did suggest it, I was sorry to have opened my big mouth, but the fact is that organic has never and will never be the most important label when it comes to the food I buy.

In fact, it surprises me to see people who are willing to purchase organic strawberries from the grocery store in December, but they won't go to a PYO place when strawberries are in season here in Maine if the strawberries aren't certified organic. To me, it is not better to buy organic for the sake of it being organic, especially when doing so means cross-country transport in refrigerator trucks, and then an abundance of energy to keep them fresh until they are purchased, and then, the additional energy needed to keep the berries from spoiling at the home of the purchaser until they are consumed.

We eat fresh strawberries when they are in season. And when they are not growing here in Maine, we eat strawberry jam.

There is an organic farm near my house. I happen to know these farmers - not on a totally personal level, and they probably don't know my name, but they know my face. I'm not a customer of theirs, but I'm at their farm often throughout the year, and I've even helped out in their fields on several occasions. I've had the opportunity to chat with them about stuff and about my little nanofarm, and one time the wife told me that she thought my "nanofarm" sounded idyllic, which is what I often think about her farm - it was funny how we both thought the other had the greener grass ;).

The farmers are young(ish) and very hip, and among other things, they have a blog. I receive email alerts when they post a new blog entry. Today's update was about strawberries. It's been a weird year for strawberries. With the really warm spring, the berries have ripened earlier than expected, but since it's been really dry (a sharp contrast to the last two years), picking has been really good. As such, they've had a lot of visitors to their field, and I happen to know that on the first day they opened, they were, pretty much, picked out until the green strawberries ripened.

Given that strawberries have been a big part of my days recently, I thought what they had to say in their blog post was interesting. The added emphasis is mine.

There has ... been a flurry of news stories about organic strawberries and the "dirty dozen" of conventional agriculture. Sunday morning our neighbor who came to pick told us of an NPR story about methyl iodide -- the soil fumigant used in some conventional production. This led us into a conversation about the erosion of trust in our society, and the motivator of fear for consumers.

Many folks came out this past week with strong support for our certified organic strawberries. That is wonderful to see, but I could not help but acknowledge the over simplification of the discussion. In many ways a Pick-Your-Own farm has less relevance to this "trust" issue. A label like "Organic" offers trust by proxy ... but wherever possible consumers should develop direct relationships with their producers -- as ask them, point-blank, how do the [farmers] grow the food [consumers] buy.


I have never been one of those people for whom the organic label is the end all and be all of what I will choose to purchase. In fact, local, non-organic will win out every time over organic, grown in California. The fact is that sometimes organic isn't the best choice. Sometimes organic spinach grown in a monoculture isn't any better than spinach grown locally on a diverse, small farm using conventional methods.

The strawberry farm where we pick is not small. They have acres and acres of strawberry fields surrounded by an incredibly diverse (mostly wooded) landscape. They're not "organic", and in fact, I was informed (rather rudely, I might add) that this one family who'd picked there one time ended up with chemical burns after their foray in the strawberry fields. I'm not saying it didn't happen. I'm not saying that they didn't end up with a rash. I'm not saying anything, but I do wonder if this person, who insists that the skin irritation was due to chemicals on the strawberry plants, bothered to ask the people at this PYO place what sorts of chemicals (if any) they used on the strawberry plants.

And, of course, that's what the organic farmer quoted above is saying, too. While he really appreciates that people have taken such a huge interest in what he and his wife are trying to accomplish in their organic farm, it should be about more than just the organic label. It should be about the fact that they are local, that they care about the community of which they are members, and that they care about being good stewards of the land they are farming and of the Earth in general. Yes, they are certified organic, but that is just a label, and unfortunately, that label has led people to make many, perhaps, not so wise choices when it comes to what we eat.

As for me, I will continue to grow what I can on my own property, without chemical fertilizers or pesticides, because the more I can grow myself, the less I have to worry about what might be going into my food.

But I will also continue to develop trusting relationships with my local farmers and growers, who may not wear that certified organic label on their shirts, but who care about what they do, and I know they care about what they do, because I talk to them, and I'm free to visit their farms whenever I want, without an invitation, and I can even take a look around, if I want to, because they don't have anything to hide, which makes me pretty comfortable about feeding that food to my family.

I wonder if those organic farms that sell their produce to supermarket chains all over the country have the same sort of open door policy?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What's For Dinner

The first batch of broilers came back from the butcher yesterday, and we had smoked chicken for dinner, accompanied by a green salad and some banana bread topped with strawberry jam ;).

The chicken and salad were produced right here on our nanofarm.

The strawberries were locally picked.

The bread was homemade using bananas purchased to be sold at the recital this past weekend. They were overly ripe and would have been thrown away. I took them and made six loaves of banana bread, four of which were donated and sold as baked goods in the concessions stand.

Lunch today is chicken soup (local potatoes and tomato; homegrown greens, onions and peas; and dried lentils) with homemade bread.

Eating local has become easier than ever, and it's always delicious.

We've significantly reduced our food miles, and even though I can't prove it, (because I haven't been keeping track), I know we've lowered the amount we spend on food, too.

Now, the challenge is to lower the cost of food preparation ... but that will take some drastic changes, and perhaps a small investment in time and money to build an outdoor kitchen ;).

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Retro

I was invited up onstage to be an extra in the Hair segment of the girls' recital this weekend. I've already fashioned a costume for Big Little Sister for her dance role in the piece. As an extra, they asked me to also come dressed as a hippie.

In fact, it was kind of issued as a challenge as in, "I can't wait to see what you come up with ..." (pause for pantomiming looking at wristwatch) "... in twelve hours." The invitation came Friday night. The recital was Saturday evening.

I actually had a little more than twelve hours, even if one subtracts time for sleep.

But even better than time, I had materials.

This:



Became this:



... in about an hour, and it didn't cost me a penny.

I've had the jeans for a decade. There's a repaired rip (which you can't see in the pictures) just below the right, back pocket (I know one of the prevalent fashions is to have a hole in the seat of one's pants, but I can't quite feel comfortable showing the world Victoria's Secret ... it is a secret, afterall). They've been cut-offs for a few summers, mostly for around-the-house kinds of days. The house dress was given to us by the neighbor, because she thought we might be able to use it. The lace was given to us by Gar (and was also used in Big Little Sister's Hair costume). I still have the top half of the house dress, and it may become a summer shirt for me or one of the girls. I haven't decided, yet, what to do with it.

I've had a blast making costumes for the girls' recital, and I had even more fun making some retro fashions for myself (I also made a skirt using a $2 piece of fabric and an old pair of jeans).

But more importantly than making the clothes, the process of recreating these styles has got me thinking about what their lives were like, and not just the clothes. The parallels between the much more elaborate 1920's costumes and our current way of life contrasted with the simplicity of the 1960's/1970's fashions is stark.

The Hippie Culture could teach us some valuable lessons, if we are willing to ignore some of the more socially unacceptable behaviors that seem to be the focus of so much of what the hippies stood for. They were also about frugality and non-materialism and living in and for the moment.

I'm reading through the stories in Ina May Gaskin's ground-breaking book Spiritual Midwifery, and she has some important things to say about life and birth and all of the things between when we arrive here on this plane, and when we leave it.

We're heading back to a time very similar to what the world was like when the Hippy Culture was a part of our society, and we would do very well to embrace their philosophies of frugality and non-materialism.

I've noticed a resurgence in interest in the fashion already. We may not be at that point where I'd be wearing a braided scrap-fabric headband or those pants pictured above, but the brown shirt I'm wearing in the picture ... that's mine ... and I wear it ;).

Friday, June 18, 2010

{this moment}

A SouleMama Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment to pause, savor and remember.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Straw ... Flapper ... de Lights

Today the PYO strawberry fields are open for the season.

We ran out of strawberry jam in the middle of the winter, and I am determined that the same won't happen this coming winter. I told the girls, "rain or shine" we were going berry picking today.



The rain held off just long enough for us to pick twenty-six pounds of strawberries.

We'll go back for more ... a LOT more.

But it was a good time.

After berry picking, we came home and I took this dress (we found at Goodwill, and of which I failed to take a picture) cut off the bottom and used the top (after I trimmed a bit from each side) to make a dress for Big Little Sister. Then, I cut the bottom half in half (it was pretty wide at the bottom) and made two more dresses.



The end result is three recital dresses for my girls for the Father-Daughter dance.







And then, we experimented with making oil lamps, but I let Deus Ex Machina share that cool experience ;).

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Truth About Your Food

That's the headline for this article on YahooNews this morning.

There were no surprises in it for me. The surprise is that it's taken SO LONG for this news to be ... well, news. It never ceases to amaze me how truly blind we allow ourselves to be.

For the past month or so, our diet has been pretty atrocious.

Between
  • trying to get my book finished up (I have less than a month to finish it before the first draft is due to the publisher),

  • wrapping up the school year and scheduling portfolio reviews (as a certified teacher here in Maine, I review homeschool portfolios)
  • ,
  • the dreaded Birthday Month (the end of May/beginning of June brings nine birthdays, two anniversaries and two nationally recognized holidays ... AND the beginning of tourist season,)

  • preparations for the end-of-the-year dance recital/production,

  • the beginning of gardening/farming season (with the addition of broilers, and this year, bees, to our homestead),

  • and

  • just the normal stuff related to our for-money work and our lives in general,
things like cleaning house and meal preparations have kind of fallen off the priority list. The laundry pile (due in part to the many days of rain we've had in the past two weeks - yay for rain!) is growing immense.

I'm both thankful for and disgusted by the ease and convenience with which we can obtain things to fill our empty bellies.

I'm both thankful for and disgusted by the speed at which I can travel a hundred and fifty miles ... and barely give it a thought.

But I do ... give it a thought, I mean. As I'm zooming along at the speed of light ... er, limit, I think about the fact that in a low energy world, getting to a dance rehearsal that is twenty miles from my house would be difficult, and I contemplate ways that it could be accomplished, because the fact is that dance is important to my girls. But more, dancing with that group of people is important to us, as a family. It's our "community."

I could (probably, but not entirely comfortably) bike twenty miles. It would take a few hours, and I'd be walking up a few hills (and there are quite a few hills on the route there), and my girls could bike that distance (probably more easily than I), but then, for them to spend three hours dancing after having ridden for twenty miles ... and then, to have to ride twenty miles back.

I know this is the "happy motoring" suburban mind-set against which James Kunstler continually rails. How many of us do think about how far we are going on a daily basis?

To make it worse, Deus Ex Machina and I are sharing one car. He goes to work in the morning and takes the car. At lunch, he comes home, and if I have anywhere to go before his day ends around 18:00, I'll take him back to work. Then, I have to pick him up.

For the past two days, I've been doing that. Only ... the girls have to be at dance rehearsals at 16:30, and so I drive twenty miles to the theatre and drop them off, and then, I drive twenty miles to pick-up Deus Ex Machina, and then, the two of us drive twenty miles back to the theatre to get the girls, and when they are finished, we drive twenty miles to get home. In one day, that's eighty miles just to the theatre and back. That doesn't even include from home to work for Deus Ex Machina (granted this isn't a usual state of affairs for my family, but how unusual is this for the average suburban American?).

If we were to walk that, it would take a couple of days. In our current world, in less time than it will take me to complete this post and publish it, we can drive eighty miles.

Which is why our diet has been so bad for the past couple of weeks. All of those things we're doing, coupled with all of that driving, means that I don't have much time to spend cooking meals in the kitchen. I did well yesterday. I made quiche for lunch (to use up a portion of the seven dozen eggs we currently have - yay for eggs!), but I also made pizza, and I made an extra pizza so that we could take it with us for dinner. I reused the pizza box from the night before to carry our home-made pizza. Reuse, right?

The irony is not lost on me.

We have this device (automobile) that will carry us hundreds of miles in a fraction of the time it takes to accomplish mundane every day tasks.

And, yet, because we choose to spend our time taking advantage of the ability to go great distances, we're giving up the freedom to make positive food choices. If I'm driving hundreds of miles per day and spending hours on the road, I don't have time to make homemade pizza, and we'll end up at Dominoes (yes, I did ... and please forgive me).

In the meantime, I have a beautiful, neglected, garden outside with lots of yummy food to eat, and I'm spending time away from here and money buying food that is killing me - slowly, but surely.

The age of oil is a catch-22. We have the ability to move great distances at great speed, but in doing so, we're giving up the freedom to have a meaningful life in which we are afforded the opportunity to make "real" choices.

We think giving up oil will be hard (and make no mistake, it will be), but what have we given up so that we could have it, and what will we gain back by turning our backs on this wonder liquid?

I'm thankful we have the ability to travel the distances we are so that my daughters can have this dance experience, and I worry about what will happen when we're no longer able to go out there. I worry that by taking the attitude that we'll keep going until we just can't anymore, that I'm adopting the same attitude everyone else has, as in "I'll give up oil when the last drop is pumped from the ground!"

The more I know about where we're headed as a country and a world, the harder it becomes for me to justify our lifestyle, and even with as much as we've given up as a family, I know that there are a lot more ways we could conserve, if we were just willing to admit that we can not continue living this way.

For my family, when it comes to making the transition to a lower energy lifestyle, the low hanging fruit is long gone, and we're starting to reach for that fruit way up in the branches. We've already given up the easy stuff. We're already using CFL bulbs, eating local, buying second-hand, and using power strips. The next steps are much harder and require much more thoughtful and difficult lifestyle changes.

The question is, will we reach upward and keep going, or will we decide we just don't want that fruit anyway?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Death Pledge

I wonder, if we had known that the title of the post is the original meaning of the debt burden we accept when we take out a home loan, or mortgage, would we have done it?

I think the answer is more than likely, yes, for most of us.

I was reading an article earlier about debt, and the author confided that despite all of her talk in the past about debt and budgeting and such, she still had debt. She didn't say what kind, but I know that the typical American response to debt is that things like a mortgage are not usually considered "debt." In fact, the money-management gurus will often ignore mortgage debt when discussing people's finances.

So, my question is, since Deus Ex Machina and I don't carry a credit card balance, and we don't have any car loans, and we don't have any personal or school loans, and the only revolving debt we have is our mortgage, are we in debt or debt-free?

Just wondering ....

Friday, June 11, 2010

{this moment}

A SouleMama Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment to pause, savor and remember.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Bonds the Bind

We had an election here yesterday. It was the Primary for the governor, and since I'm not registered with either party, I couldn't vote for one of the gubnatorial candidates, but I could vote on the other issues.

We were asked to approve or disapprove the recent tax reform that would put the greater burden of supporting our State government on those people who can afford to pay for specific goods and services (like hotels and restaurants, which function, mostly, as a service to visitors to our state, who are not, currently, responsible for supporting those services that are necessary to accommodate them - like the seasonal increases in our police force, which are paid for with our property and income taxes).

We were also asked to approve or disapprove of $108 MILLION dollars of bonds, which are basically loans taken out by the government to pay for programs that have no income generating potential, usually, but which the government (and apparently most of the people) believes we need.

While I may or may not agree with what they want to spend the money on, the fact is that when we borrow money for these projects, we need to have a very clear idea of how we are going to repay that money. It's like the time I wanted to put an addition on my house, and I went to the bank to get a construction loan. The addition would have increased the value of my house, but wouldn't have given me any money to pay for it, right? In order to cash in on the higher value of my house, I'd have had to sell the house, but then, having all of the extra space wouldn't have done me any good. See where it gets all confused and wrong? If I don't have a way to pay for the house, having done the infratructure improvements has done me no good, and may even result in my ulimately losing the house.

Mainers already pay 8.5% income tax, and some areas of the state pay pretty hefty property taxes, too. We don't want those taxes increased, but we continue to allow our government to borrow money. It's like taking a kid to the store. As long as we allow them to spend money, they will keep buying things. Someone has to be the adult and say no.

It looks like the bond issues will be approved, but the tax reform was not. Makes me wonder where people think the government will get the money? If the government can't charge more in goods and services taxes, they will raise our income and property taxes, and since the proerty tax cap proposal has been denied every time it comes to ballot, there's no restrictions on how much they could charge us for the privilege of owning a home here. In one community south of me, they adjusted the way they calculate property tax, and the greatest tax burden ended up being those people who were in the most "desirable" locations. That is, the people who lived closer to the ocean ended up having a higher tax. The result was that this little old lady, who'd lived in her house for thirty-plus years, and had bought it for a song and dance thirty years ago, ended up owing more on her taxes than she'd paid for the little rinky-dink house she lived in. And to be very clear, she wasn't living in some marble-floored mansion with beach frontage.

The money has to come from somewhere, though, and if we can't charge people to eat out, we'll charge them to own property. The next step is to sieze their property, and then start selling these properties to the out-of-state investors. That will be fun.

We were also asked to approve the proposed school budget, which includes over $6 MILLION for special education (thank you so much George Bush for the No Child Left Behind crap-of-a-wasteful-program), but not one penny for career and technical education.

It just makes me wonder what kind of future we are preparing our publicly schooled children for? Based on the experience of my son, the school seems to expect that every student will go to college, and in fact, many of them do. Unfortunately, while most eighteen year olds pack-up and head off to their chosen institution of higher learning, after only a few semesters, most of them end up back home. My son lasted one semester.

An estimated 75% of the population of the United States does not have a college degree. That's most people.

In looking for the statistics of college graduates in Maine (it depends on the location, e.g. 36% of Portland's population has at least a Bachelor's degree, but only 19% of Paris, Maine has a college degree), I found this recent article, which, basically, says, we have too many college grads and not enough jobs. At the same time, I found this article from 2006 that says what we all know, and as Syndrome, from the movie, The Incredibles observed, "When everyone is super ... no one will be. When everyone has a college degree, the degree becomes useless.

At the moment, college graduates are competing with their diplomaed peers, and with that college degree, they are more likely to get the low-wage, service industry job, and those people who really only had the choice of a low-wage, service industry job are left with nothing. The working poor become the unemployed poor ... cramming themselves and all their stuff in one small bedroom in their parents' houses, because they can't afford rent ... or worse, not even having that bedroom, because not everyone has a parent who is willing or able to take on the burden of supporting a displaced family.

We're in trouble, as a nation, and so far, we're not doing anything to make the necessary paradigm shift that will employ a greater number of our citizens. We talk about investing in our children's futures, but it's just bullshit talk. We're borrowing from our children's futures with continuing this wreckless consumerist lifestyle.

And by not funding programs that will give our high school grads a REAL chance of getting a REAL job, and continuing to support an educational model that assumes everyone will go to college (I mean, I think college is great, and I am a college grad, and I would have liked for my adult children to have chosen a college-related career path, but how many computer programmers, school teachers, doctors, lawyers, and engineers can a nation of retail and fastfood workers support?), we are perpetuating the Debt Nation model that resulted in the Great Depression of the 1930s (according to what I've been able to understand, the Great Depression was caused by widely available credit and investment speculation as the West was being settled) and what has caused our current economic woes.

We need to give our children REAL skills that will help them truly support themselves and their families, and the subjects which ALL of our students are being required to study will do nothing to prepare them for a contracting job market. As we continue to transition from a consumerist lifestyle, many of the jobs in which they were previously employed will no longer even be jobs.

So, what could our schools be doing? What kinds of jobs should we be training our fourteen to eighteen year olds to do right now?

Mechanic comes to mind. As we're buying fewer new cars, we will need people who can help us keep our old cars running. Or if they really wanted to specialize, they could follow in the footsteps of this man and build custom motorcyles ... or they could train to replace gasoline engines with electric engines in cars (and, please, don't get me wrong. I don't think that we'll be able to continue our "happy motoring" lifestyle, and I don't think that replacing gasoline engines with electric engines will solve our problems, but while we transition, it is a viable career option).

HVAC specialists. We will either be changing our systems or struggling to make the ones we have more efficient. There will be work for people who can make those systems function properly.

Insulation installers. Currently, most homes in the US are underinsulated and energy inefficient, and people who can both evaluate energy loss and fix the problem will be in high demand as we transition away from fossil fuel-heated homes.

... plumbers/septic system specialists
... bicycle repairers
... chimney sweeps
... woodstove installers
... small engine repairers
... appliance repair persons
... home electronics repairers
... watch/clock makers
... furniture makers/repairers/restorers
... flooring installers
... forestry specialists/arborists
... permaculture experts/landscapers
... small-space gardening experts
... backyard market gardeners
... clothing repairers
... cobblers
... tool repairers/blacksmiths
... suburban chicken coop designers/builders
... home-birth midwives/health clinic workers
... home food preservation specialists
... butchers (especially ones who provide services to small-time subsistence farmers, like me) ... bakers ... beeswax candlestick makers

I could probably go on. None of the above listed jobs require a college degree, but they are all specialty areas and do require either on-the-job training, like an apprenticeship, or some sort of vocational training.

Unfortunately, for the students of Maine's Regional School Unit #23, if those are the kinds of jobs they'd be interested in doing in the future, they'll have to find a teacher and then pay for the lessons themselves.

But the bonus is that they'll have read Shakespeare and Mark Twain ... and they might even remember.

Monday, June 7, 2010

When They Don't Know It's Algebra

Ju Ju Chang, an ABC news correspondent has been very busy for the past couple of months, interviewing families who homeschool, but not just homeschool. She's on the witchhunt for parents who are unschooling their children.

I have, now, seen two of her segments (and I will assume that there are only two, thus far), and I have to say, as an unschooler, I think she really misses the point. For instance, in the second segment, the mother mentions that she has forgotten a great deal of what she learned in school, to which Ju Ju Chang's holier-than-thou voice over quips, things her children may never have the chance to forget.

What's funny is that the reaction from the homeschooling/unschooling community is that Ms. Chang has just given the public school system a new tagline: "all the education we could ever forget."

Of course, the funniest comment I saw on my homeschool board had to do with the dietary choices of these radically unschooled children, which, according to the piece consisted of "nothing but noodles with peanut sauce", to which the homeschoolers in my group asked, "Have these people never heard of Thai food?!?"

I thought it was pretty funny, because I wasn't thinking about it being Thai food, but I was thinking, "why is noodles with peanut sauce bad?" Especially given some of the things children are fed in school lunchrooms.

What's sad, though, is that Chang really does miss the point, which is, there is no comparing going to school with unschooling. It's apples and oranges.

Traditional schooling is about providing instruction (usually in a lecture format) in specified subjects with goals and objectives which the children should achieve by a specified period of time (before we argue this point, please note that I have B.A. in English with a minor in education, and I taught high school English in the public school system). It's not about lifestyle choices. It's not about philosophies. It's not about belief systems or integrating life experiences and building the puzzle of who we are and what our purpose on this planet might be from the pieces we're given as we grow and mature. In fact, it's the opposite of those things, because our schools can not (and should not) delve into those topics. Can you imagine having a teacher ask the question, and then try to give the acceptable-by-school-standards, politically correct, generic answer, "why are we here?"

Unschooling is family-centric, and it is about lifestyle and philosophies and belief systems and integrating learning with living. For my family of unschoolers learning is an every minute every day activity, and we don't organize our blocks of time into this hour is learning math and this hour is reading and this hour is recess.

When my children want to read, they grab a book and do it, and when something in the book they're reading sparks a thought they'd like to share, they come and tell me about it.

When they want to go outside and play, they pull on their shoes and go, and while they're out there, they might learn about a caterpillar that only eats milkweed and becomes a Monarch butterfly, or they might observe the difference between a tree frog and a garden toad, or they might just hang upside down from the trapeze bar until all of the blood rushes to their heads and they feel dizzy.

My daughter received a Betta fish as a gift from her friend. She's decided she wants to breed Bettas. So, she started doing some research, found what appeared to be the most conclusive resource available on breeding the fish, and I purchased a copy of it for her. She read the entire book. She's learned about their natural habitat and how Betta fish differ from other types of freshwater fish that has enabled them to live in much shallower water than, for instance, the common gold fish. She's researched their habits and personality traits and what they need to be healthy in captivity and how to breed them and how many fish she could, potentially, get from a breeding pair during each "cycle." She wants to make a business of it, sell the baby fish back to the pet store, and earn a few dollars.

Today is June 8. She received the fish on May 29.

Ju Ju Chang is incredibly worried about what unschooled children don't know, but what she fails to see is the things that they do know. Like the eleven year old boy who bakes bread ... by himself, no less.

She mentions such important knowledge as cultural experiences, such as reading Shakespeare and Mark Twain, but my not-yet-high-school-aged children know about Shakespeare. In fact, they've seen his entire body of work, as performed by The Reduced Shakespeare Company.

But they've also seen Much Ado About Nothing, which is probably one of my favorites (gotta LOVE Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson ... and sweet, baby-faced Leonard ... and Keanu Reeves as the bad guy ... and we can't forget Michael Keaton as the village idiot. Too, too funny! And very well done!), and several others that we own (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet, etc.).

Maybe Chang would believe that my children didn't really get the full experience of Shakespeare, because they're not reading Shakespeare, but I would have to argue that point with her. See, when I was in graduate school studying for my M.A. in English, I had to take a British Literature course, and I chose Shakespeare, taught by a professor whose Dissertation had been on Shakespeare's work, and this professor told us on the first day of class, that as much as she enjoyed reading Shakespeare, Shakespeare was not meant to be read, it was meant to be watched. We, in the learned society that we are, treat some of our greatest dramatic works as if they are literature, and force our students to read something was not meant to be flat words on paper but grandiose gestures on stage.

My children, for all of their "not" getting an education like most of America believes children should, are experience Shakespeare the way it was meant to be experienced - as a dramatic work ... and, frankly, it's a lot more fun that way for me (who loves reading Shakespeare), too.

Chang was also pretty worried that unschooled kids won't learn more advanced math, and her favorite thing to do to those unschooled kids is to start quizzing them. Like with most things, there's more than one way to skin the proverbial cat. My daughter is learning algebra, only she doesn't know it. She's learning to solve equations like:

too+too+too+too=hot.

The letters represent numbers, and it is a math equation. So, 4o=t, which means that 4o+1=o (because no two letters will be the same number), and 4t=h ... but 4o will have to be a two digit number, and so will 4o+1=t. As such, 4t+1 will equal h.

See? Algebra.

And she figured it out, almost as quickly as I, who studied algebra, algebra II, geometry, trignometry, and analytical geometry in high school.

Today I asked her to solve this problem for me:

I am dehydrating greens for soup during the winter. I estimate that I will use 1/4c of greens per pot of soup, and that I will make one pot of soup per week for the thirty weeks of the non-growing season. How many cups of greens will I need to dehydrate?

The bonus question was: if I can get 1/2c of greens for each dehydrator load, how many loads of greens will I need to dehydrate?

I left her the questions and went about my day.

At some point, she solved the questions and wrote her answer on a piece of paper, which she folded in half, taped closed, wrote "Mommy" on the outside, and left beside my desk in front of the printer. I found it this evening.

She wrote: The answers to your questions are: you will need 7 1/2 cups of dried greens to last thirty weeks with one pot of soup a week. In order to dry that much, you will need to fill the dehydrator fifteen times.

No ... pencils
No ... books
No ... teacher's dirty looks

She's never been to school. She's had no formal education, and yet ....

Maybe we don't need school, as much as "school" needs us.

It Rained For Three Days ...

... and when the sun came out, I saw red ;).

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Edible Suburban Landscaping

With restrictive Home Owners Associations, many suburbanites are loath to embark on the edible landscaping journey for fear of bringing down the wrath of the powers that be on their fearpeaceful homes. While I make fun of HOA restrictions and talk about flouting the law, I do so kind of tongue-in-cheek, because I don't have to worry about any retribution for planting a blueberry bush in my front yard.

I also realize that, for (too) many people there is a real concern over losing their homes if they step outside that well-defined box. There have been cases where people have actually been fined tens of thousands of dollars by their HOAs for planting too many rose bushes (and to be clear, I don't know about the particular variety of rose bushes this homeowner planted, but if roses behave like other brambles, they are really difficult to "control", and once they're established, getting rid of them is a nightmare fit for Elm Street).

Personally, I wouldn't want to live in neighborhood like that, but when I purchased my house I wasn't worrying about things like HOAs (although I do recall that being able to plant a garden was on the list of requirements for any place we chose to live). If we could have afforded to buy a house in a more posh neighborhood, we might have. I guess in this instance being not-so well-off worked in our favor ;).

While I haven't ever been limited by rules against planting one thing or another, Deus Ex Machina has always forbiddenstrongly discouraged the growing of anything that wasn't edible or medicinal. I got away with planting things like irises and lilies, because they were given to me by his mom (thanks, Gar! The purple irises are thriving and blooming right now ... and they look gorgeous!).

In addition, the layout of my land (and my own ignorance) has hindered my choices of what could be planted. Specifically, a significant part of my yard is shaded through most of the summer. When I start looking for edible perennial plants that could survive in the sun-starved parts of my yard, I'm left with very few choices.

A comment by a fellow permaculturist in my local area led me on an Internet search, where I found a great deal of information (mostly anecdotal, but what the hell!) to confirm what this person said: apparently, hostas are edible.

You could just blow me away with a straw!

The best part about this news is that hostas are easy to find and widely available in my area. Everyone has hostas. Every garden center. Every yard. Until now, I always thought it was a bit short-sighted to devote so much garden space to a plant that had little value above being beautiful (and a healthy hosta is very beautiful).

Now, that I know I can eat them, Hostas will take a more prominent place in my garden ... and even if I don't eat them, I know (through bitter experience) that the ducks can ... and do - right down to the ground!

And if the ducks can eat them, perhaps, the rabbits can eat them, too ... and if I grow a huge patch of hostas and use them to feed the rabbits and ducks, then, I'm one step closer to being self-sufficient ;).

Friday, June 4, 2010

{this moment}

A SouleMama Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment to pause, savor and remember.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Good News ... And Bad News

The good news is that we're finally getting that much needed rain.

The bad news is that I neglected to take my clothes off the line last night, and now they're getting all wet.



My options are to:

1. Leave them out there until it stops raining and just let them get rinsed and then dry.

2. Take them down and hang them inside on the drying rack.

3. Take them down and put them in the dryer.

Option three is pretty much a non-option, because I feel like it's a waste of energy, and I'm really leaning toward option one, because it requires the least from me.

The rain is a good thing, though, and even with the rain-soaked clothes on the line, I'm not complaining ;). In fact, I'm hoping the rain barrels fill up.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Blooming Where You're Planted

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With thanks to 4Bushel Farmgal for turning me onto this project.

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I spend a lot of time trying to convince people to bloom where they're planted, especially people who bemoan the fact that they don't have enough land to have a garden. It's been my premise for a lot of years that it's not what you have, it's what you do with it, and the more I believe it, the more other people prove me right.

4Bushel Farmgal is a good example with her container garden. And Bezzie, over at Random Meanderings, is another great example of a really creative container gardener (seriously, one year, she grew flowers in a pair of socks. She's amazing!)

I've seen all sorts of gardens from the hydroponic window garden to Green Roofs and Living Walls to this one - a garden planted in a truck bed.

Of all of them, I think the truck farm excites me the most - not because I particularly like trucks, but if he were to modify a cap for his truck bed, he could, totally, grow food year round.

Now, I'm thinking I need to find an old truck with a cap so that I can have my four-season garden, and if we were to get rid of one of our cars, then we'd have space in the driveway for our "greenhouse" ... er, truck.

I'm thinking that our town planning board wouldn't be able to prohibit a truck greenhouse :).* And the cab would be a great place to store all of our tools ... or for use as a solar dehydrator ;).



*Per town ordinance, we're allowed to have one non-registered car parked in our yard. A candy apple red truck on yellow cinderblocks with a cap that was modified to allow for maximum light penetration ... sounds pretty snazzy to me ;).