Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Switching Power Outlets

Today's headline:

Germany to Phase Out Nuclear Power.

According to the article, Germany is the fourth largest economy in the world, and it's the largest economy in Europe. For whatever reason (safety, health, economic), they've discovered that nuclear power is *not* the best option, for them, and they're phasing it out in favor of renewable energy.

I lived in Germany, and I have several German friends (both here in the US and still in Germany). They are the most frugal people I know. Walking is a way of life, not "exercise." Their goods are manufactured for longevity (anyone ever own a pair of German-made Birkenstocks? I still have a pair I've been wearing for more than five years ... in 1984, my Dad sold the Mercedes Benz he bought in Germany in 1971 ... the leather furniture my parents bought in 1974 was handed down to me in still usable condition in 1996). Nothing is wasted, including energy, because they've learned, the hard way, to be conservative.

I hope we'll take a lesson from them and consider phasing out our dependence on unsustainable energy sources.



**Don't forget to check out the New Society Publisher's new Book Forum. I hear there might be some special guest appearances ;).

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Home is ...

Through the years, I've read a lot of great books. There are two that stand out as being key to my stance regarding staying put, which is do what you have to do to save your home - even (especially) if it's in the suburbs, because if you have a place to live, everything else comes a little more easily.

The first eye-opening book was The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, which relates the (fictitious) story of the Joad family from Oklahoma who lose their home (to bank foreclosure) in the 1930s and, like a good many of their neighbors, travel to California in the hopes of finding work. They don't find much work, and worse, they find a lot of contempt and some wicked hard times.

The second book was Tell Them Who I Am: The Lives of Homeless Women by Eliot Liebow, which is a look into the lives of several homeless women who frequented the shelters in the Washington D.C. area. As Liebow says, they are homeless because they don't have a place to live, but not for any of the other *reasons* that are often given.

And Liebow's assertions are echoed by Brianna Karp, who, in 2008, after finding herself unemployed (like a lot of people in this country), ended up living in a trailer in a Wal-Mart parking lot. She talks about the kinds of people she has met, most of whom don't fit the stereotype that the rest of us like to assume of those who wear the albatross called homeless. Ms. Karp has written a memoir about her life as a homeless person entitled The Girl's Guide to Homelessness. I'm thinking it might be a good addition to the home library (... and I have a birthday coming up ;).

In the USNews article written about Ms. Karp, she talks about how difficult it is to be homeless - and for things that we might not really consider such an issue. In particular, she talks about how hard it was to maintain a healthy diet. And think about it. If she's, essentially, living on the streets and has no place to store whole ingredients and no place, really, to cook food, what are her options for eating? Mostly fast-food or processed food. The fact that she couldn't, reasonably, expect to have a garden compounds the problem, and the end result is that those who are homeless are even more dependent on the industrial machine than those of us who have our homes in the suburbs (or wherever).

If I own my home, in the suburbs, I have considerably more options, including, if I I find myself unemployed, I have the space to consider starting a home-based busienss so that I can have some income, and I have the space for a garden, so that I can grow some of my own food, and I have the storage space to buy food at the cheaper, bulk rate, rather than spending 40% of my income buying single-serve, nutritionally poor, snack packs.

I actually have a lot of respect for Ms. Karp, for her resilience, her ingenuity, and her strength. I hope that her book becomes a best-seller, or at very least, that she'll make enough money to purchase a small plot of land where she can (legally and permanently) park her little trailer, and then, perhaps, she can add some solar panels (for free electricity), and plant a small garden so that she can grow her own food, and since she's in California, maybe she can build an outdoor kitchen where she can cook some great stuff to eat rather than depending on Wonder for her daily bread.

She says her book doesn't have a "happy ending", but I submit that her story is just beginning (she's only twenty-four), and perhaps she's a little luckier than the rest of us to have had this happen to her now, when she's young enough to learn the lessons and apply them to the rest of her life.

She's learned the value of having a place to call "home", and she's learned the value of "home" lies, not in how many digits follow the dollar sign, but rather, in stability.

As I say in my book, the bottom line is, if one has shelter, everything else comes little more easily.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Transformers

I've had a lot of jobs in my day from high school English teacher to restaurant manager to executive secretary to home-based entrepreneur. Many years ago, when Deus Ex Machina and I returned to Maine to settle down and raise our family, we brought with us a little baby girl. Even though I had always worked at an outside job, we knew, when we bought our house and got settled, that one of us would be a full-time, stay-at-home parent to our children.

We'd also made some other choices as parents, one of which was breast-feeding, and so the decision about who would be the one to stay home seemed pretty obvious - it would be me.

The thing is, I had no intention of being a SAHM (stay-at-home Mom). What I decided is that I would be a WAHM (work-at-home Mom).

And so I did.

I saw an advertisement for couple of books on "How to start a home-based typing service." I figured I could type, so why not. We bought the books (but if you're reading this, and you've seen those ads, DON'T buy those books. It's a scam, and I can give you some resources where you'll get the same, or better, information for free or at least considerably cheaper ... anyway - lesson learned, right?), and I started reading. I guess maybe "scam" is too harsh a word, because it's not exactly a scam. The "how-to" book did have some good information, but the accompanying "customer database" book was, essentially, a list of local businesses that was taken straight from my local yellow pages, which I could get for free (grr!), but paid a lot of money for. The two books cost in excess of $100, and while it wasn't, exactly, a scam, it was definitely a rip-off. Someone made some money. I hope that person worked from home, at least.

Anyway, I bought and read the books, and then got to work sending out letters letting people know I was in business, which was actually pretty costly, even back then when postage was cheaper (postage, envelopes, paper, printer ink). I also made flyers, which we put up around the college, and I put an advertisement in the local "free" paper.

Getting my first customers took some time, but eventually, I found one full-time (25 hours/week) client, and worked for him for two years. Then, I found another, similar client, and worked for her for two years, and when she decided to close her business, I bought one of her contracts, and I've been working for that client ever since. I've also had many, many smaller, short-term jobs, and I've done everything from web design, to general typing, to database design and data entry, to transcription - of all sorts. I've been self-employed for more than a decade, and I've had the good fortune to have "clients" who were willing to provide me with a lot of very valuable OJT (on the job training).

Between 1998 and 2002, I spent a lot of time researching the "home-based business" phenomenon. During that time, one statistic I saw stated that the home-based business was the "fastest growing industry" in the US, but it wasn't just business owners working from home. Telecommuting and freelance work were also becoming very popular and one statistic estimated four million people were working from home.

In 2000, Lisa Roberts (who founded En-Parent.com) and Paul and Sarah Edwards (touted as the "self-employment experts") co-authored a book entitled The Entrepreneurial Parent: How to Earn Your Living and Still Enjoy Your Family, Your Work and Your Life. I filled out a questionnaire for the book, but as one of more than a 100 virtual assistants, they opted not to use my profile, but I still received an honorable mention and am quoted on page 380 (talking about how my son helped me when writing marketing materials).

The book lists 101 "family-friendly home-based businesses and careers", and it's not just computer-related/administrative types of work or craft projects either. One job that sounded really interesting was the "American Indian Art Dealer."

The thing is that with the exception of purely service-oriented jobs (retail, food service), some types of manufacturing jobs, and ... mining ... nearly any job could be adapted to, at least, part-time work-from-home. Okay, probably not "sea captain", but a taxi driver, for instance, could have a home-based job, if he were a sole-proprietor, right?

In my vision of our future suburbs, we'll all be working from home. In fact, there was a time when working from home was the norm and having a job outside of the home was the anomaly. I see us returning to that sort of arrangement, especially in the suburbs, because I predict, as gasoline prices continue to wildly fluctuate and slowly creep; as people continue to lose their jobs but still need some income, even a small one; as it becomes unfeasible to move, but commuting long distances is simply not an option, we'll need to be able to support ourselves - whether by working for money or for food - and we'll need to do it close to where we live.

I know most people think it's not possible. There's no way they can make the money they make from their "job" working for themselves at home, but like a good many things we're led to believe, that's a lie. It can be done.

The next problem most people have is trying to figure out what to do. For me, the computer/administrative work was kind of a no-brainer. I bought the books, because for three of the previous four years I had worked as an admin assistant/personnel clerk, and it just seemed like a natural segue. Before that, though, I'd been a restaurant manager, and the question is how to make that sort of job a "home-based business" (caterer, would be one possibility). It would, certainly, have taken some careful thought. So, when I was doing all of my research and compiling of information, I came up with a list of possible home-based careers. Not all of them translate to a low-energy future home-based job, but many of them did, and here are a few:

Breeder
Basket Weaver
Clinician/doctor/nurse practitioner
Child Care Provider/Elderly Care Provider
Electronics Repairer
Auto mechanic
Bicycle mechanic
Freelance Writer
Hair Stylist
Herbal Consultant
Fiber artist (knitter, spinner)
Massage Therapist
Doula/Midwife
Foreign Language Teacher
Handyman
Herb Grower/Supplier
Herbal Products Maker (soap, cosmetics)
Tutor/teacher
Custom Costume Designer/Seamstress
Custom Toy Maker
Custom Furniture Maker
Landscaper/Permaculture Designer
Quilter
Publisher
Printer
Potter
Cobbler
Legal Consultant
Portrait Painter
Yard Sale/Garage-Thrift Store Operator
Newspaper Deliveries
Butcher
Brewer

All of those jobs could be done from a garage, a basement, or a spare room. Some of them could even be done from a tiny corner of a back bedroom.

Deus Ex Machina and I have been simplifying our lives for the past several years in the hopes that he will feel comfortable enough to quit his commute and come work (with me) from home. He probaly won't be doing the same job he does now. He will, likely, not even be doing the same sort of work.

I bet, though, if he had to choose from the above list, he could find happiness in a career as a basket weaver. And we happen to know where we can get some free basket making material.

Monday, May 23, 2011

It's Time to Plant the Corn

In February, Deus Ex Machina and I began watching the maple trees for signs that it was time to tap. We knew they would tell us, and they did, and the result was four gallons of stored maple syrup.

Likewise, I've been watching the oak trees. Native American's taught that when the oak leaves got to be about the size of a squirrel's back foot, it was time to plant the corn. Here, in my part of the country, that time is now.

I'll be planting corn in a community garden with my friends at our local library this weekend, and hopefully, if the rain lets up this week, I'll be planting corn in my own garden before that.

Watching nature for signs is, often, a much better indicator of when it's time to plant than watching the calendar.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Bringing the Discussion to Light*

A Mr. Dave Johnson of New Hampshire, who is commenting as "anonymous", has voiced some concerns regarding some of the information I write about in Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs. He left a review of my book (which he gave three stars) on Amazon.com in which he expresses his concerns regarding things I say specifically about solar energy and health care. After he posted his review, he posted a comment here on my blog to let me know that he'd posted a review.

So, I went to Amazon.com and read the review, and then, I commented here on my blog, to thank Mr. Johnson for his comments and his review. I liked the review, overall, because he says my book is "useful" and "well-written."

About the solar energy question, he says that my nervousness about becoming dependent upon solar energy technology does not appear ... to be well-founded. His criticism is that I only discuss solar photo-voltaic technology, and in fact, this is not true. There is a chapter in which I discuss different options for generating electricity. One of the options I mention is solar PV systems, but I say that solar power generation may not be the best option for everyone, and that there are, perhaps, some better options. He accuses me of ignoring solar thermal technology, like cooking and passive heating using the sun, but that's not true, either. I mention solar ovens in the cooking chapter, and on page forty, I say solar passive heating ... should be considered and add that the Internet is rife with DIY plans for solar window heaters. I don't mention them in the chapter in which I discuss solar PV systems, because solar thermal collection for heating and cooking is not relevant to a discussion of different ways to make electricity.

The chapter that really seems to bother Mr. Johnson, however, is the chapter on health care, and he makes some pretty harsh accusations.

For the record, I do not provide medical advice in my book. I list ten common herbs (jewel weed, garlic, lavendar, sage, comfrey, dill, peppermint, tarragon, thyme, and chives) and some health conditions they might be used for. What I say in my book, at worst, falls into the category of "medical information" *which is the relation of facts* and is considered a fundamental free speech right and is not considered medical advice.

The real problem, though, is that Mr. Johnson seemed to miss the point of the book, which is that it's a HYPOTHETICAL scenario based on the premise that we have twenty-one days until some catastrophic event happens, which will completely change the world as we know it.

He states: "all through your book you talk about The End Of The World As We Know It as though you expect it to happen at any moment, but now you say the book is just an exercise in hypothetical thinking. So which is it? Thought experiment or serious preparation for TEOTWAWKI?"

The Preface of my book says: ... our survival is dependent on an incredibly unreliable and fragile system [but] most of us do not think there is anything we can do. But there is. And the first step is to pretend that we know the event that changes our modern lives forever is going to happen in 21 days. (11)

The book is a thought-exercise on the kinds of things we could be doing right now to simplify our lives and become more self-sufficient so that we are not dependent on the systems that routinely fail us. So, in answer to the question, it’s both.

The point of my book is to empower people to take control of their lives – including their own health.

I think it's important that we have these discussions. What's not helpful, however, is what has been happening. From the very beginning, Mr. Johnson's comments were argumentative and provocative. I understood from his Amazon review where he was coming from, and I recognized - from the beginning - that no matter what I said, he would hold fast to his belief that in my book I am:
  • irresponsibly dispensing medical advice, which I’m not;
  • and unqualified to provide easily verifiable information about some common herbs.
I chose not to engage in my first reply, which he decided was proof of the veracity of his arguments against me, and so I tried to give him the answers he wanted, knowing that nothing I said would satisfy him, which has proven to be the case.

The information in the health care section of my book is not "medical advice". It is information. That's all.

The premise of my book is that we have twenty-one days to prepare for some catastrophic event. The situation is hypothetical, and the book is a thought-exercise on the kinds of things we could be doing right now to simplify our lives, and as Mr. Johnson wisely observes, if we adopted this thrifty, environment-friendly lifestyle, we might well avoid the sort of wholesale collapse of the industrial economy that is being foretold in many peak everything circles.

I'm hopeful that we can avoid the scenario of total collapse, but I'm not terribly confident, without some real changes in our lifestyles and behaviors, that we will.

The question is if we don't avoid the scenario, then, what? That's what my book attempts to answer - the "then, what?"

Maybe nothing happens ....

But maybe something does, and on that issue, at least, Mr. Johnson and I agree that it is wise to plan [and prepare] for such a possibility.





*Post edited by author

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Skyscrapers Going Green

Big Little Sister had her braces taken off yesterday. Yes, we are very much like every other regular suburban family, complete with kids who have braces. Now, you know.

While she was having the metal taken out of her mouth, I was in the waiting area, and I picked up a copy of Time magazine and started flipping through. I read I couple of articles that I don't remember, and then came to one with the title Greening the Skyline: The world's tallest buildings look modern by have old-school energy bills. Enter the new age of eco-upgrades for skyscrapers by Anita Hamilton (Time. April 18, 2011. p. Business 4). I asked the receptionist if she could make a photocopy of the article for me, because there were some things in the article that I wanted to remember.

The first is how exciting it is for me to hear that people are even thinking about making skyscrapers more "energy efficient." Built in a time when heating with oil or coal was dirt cheap, no one cared to consider how much energy and money might be needed to just keep the buildings warm, but those times are gone. Yes, despite what the naysayers want us to believe, those times of cheap energy and easy money do, indeed, seem to be gone, and if nothing else in this world will make us see that truth in that, an article discussing "greening skyscrapers" should do it.

According to the article, the owner of the Empire State Building is investing $13 million in eco-retrofitting for his building, which he says will pay for itself in three years. Among the changes that have been done is having the over 6000 windows "insulated" rather than replaced at a cost savings of $1800. Imagine. Instead of trashing 6000 windows, which would have, undoubtedly, ended up in the waste stream, Tony Malkin had a company (Serious Materials) come in and clean and insulate the windows.

Of course, Mr. Malkin has come under fire for some of his other eco-changes as well, which are described in the article as being "downright ordinary." Things like caulking, using spray foam insulation, and installing a system to better regulate the temperature of the heating/cooling system - all of this to save a few bucks on energy costs.

When asked why they didn't, instead, invest in an alternative energy system to produce their own eletricity and reap the cost savings that way, the manager who oversaw the Empire State Building retrofits stated, "it doesn't make business sense. It makes much more sense to lower energy use."

What a novel idea.

And in three years, they estimate a cost savings of over $13 million dollars - just from cleaning and insulating windows, filling in air holes, and making their heating system more efficient.

If the average suburbanite could take a lesson from the skyscraper retrofit, we might not save $13 million, but we would save a lot more over time than we invested - just like the owners of the Empire State Building.

Another very interesting observation from the article states that many feel greening older structures is more difficult, but according to those who were quoted in the article, this isn't wholly true. Older buildings are made from more insulative materials - like stone - as opposed to the more contemporary glass and steel buildings that are out there. Perhaps our (fore) fathers did know best??

It was such a positive article, and so exciting to see some of the more simple and efficient (and sustainable) ideas that have been passing through the green movement being put into practice - not because they're "green" (in fact, one building owner is quoted as saying the changes to his building weren't motivated by a desire to be eco-friendly, but rather by pure economics), but because they make sense.

And it does make very good sense, from an eco-friendly standpoint AND from an economic standpoint, to use less.

John Michael Greer, who seems to have an above-average amount of common sense, has been writing about the Green Wizard movement on his blog for almost a year. What I love most about his blog is that he doesn't just tell us what's wrong with the world and leave it to us to figure out how to fix it. He gives good, common sense advice about the kinds of actions we can take now, as the world contracts, and we get poorer. He's a true child of the sixties, and lived through the last great "greening" movement. His solutions are simple and time-tested.

I wonder if Mr. Greer saw the Time magazine article, and what he thinks about their very "Green Wizard" approach to Greening the Skyline?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Imagine Possibilities

I often say "don't focus on limitations, imagine possibilities!" It's important, because the way things are is not the way things have to be. We can have our cake and eat it, too. We may not have cake every single day, but to me, having some cake, on special occasions, is way better than gorging today, and then, having none for the rest of my life.

With that philosophy in mind, my advice is always to cut back, and then, figure out what one absolutely needs. So, continuing with the cake analogy, there are five people in my family. At very least, we would want cake five times per year (on birthdays), and perhaps, if we're very careful, we could extend our cake-eating to a couple of significant holidays. We'd still have cake, just not every time we want it, and in my opinion it would make the having of it that much more special.

If we switch that analogy to other things that we, here in America, have more than enough of, we'd find that we could significantly reduce our usage, and still not feel deprived. The average person, through almost no effort at all, could easily reduce his/her electricity usage by at least half, and then, with a little more thought and a bit more action, could take it down even further.

Once we get the numbers down, we'd discover that we're not so dependent on things over which we have no control. If we're only using as much electricity as we can produce ourselves, for instance, then, it doesn't matter if the grid goes down.

I've mentioned on more than one occasion that a good choice for small-scale electricity generation (especially in colder, more densely forested climates, like mine) is biomass gassification, but it's not a new idea, and it certainly isn't my brain-child.

In fact, in the 1970s Jean Pain, a Frenchman, pioneered a way of turning composting wood chips into energy for hot water and electricity.

Energy depletion doesn't have to mean that we give up everything and revert back to the Dark Ages. We still have the time to attend the wedding between our modern amenities and more simple, older technologies. But before the nuptials can take place, we need to introduce the couple.

I'm sure it will be love at first sight ;).

Monday, May 16, 2011

Eating the Lawn

The other day while Deus Ex Machina was burning cooking a chicken on the grill, I went out with my kitchen shears and started harvesting some greens for dinner.

At this point, my garden is still a little ... erm ... sparse, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of things around my yard that we can eat with our (home-grown) chicken.



Just FYI: batter-fried dandelion flowers are all that ... and way better than a bag of chips!

My recipe:

1 c fully opened dandelion flowers
1/4 c corn meal flour
2 eggs
salt/pepper to taste
oil or lard to about 1/2" deep in pan (the flowers will need to be at least half immersed in the hot oil to "deep fry")

Wash and drain dandelion flowers and pick off any of the stem. Mix corn flour, eggs, and seasonings in a bowl to make a thick batter. Dredge flower heads in the batter giving them a very thick coating. Drop in hot oil. Turn, if necessary, to cook on other side. Serve 'em while they're hot ;).

I had batter left over, and I fried it plain. I could have added some diced onion to the mix, too, to give it a more southern (as in hush puppies) flair, but it was good as it was.

We had the greens sauted with chives and butter. Oh ... my ... can I just say, YUM!

The good part about eating dandelions is that they are a quick, easy, and delicious side dish.

The better part is that they are chock full of of healthy stuff, and even with the butter and the batter, are still a high-powered vitamin and mineral punch.

The best part? They're free, and so prolific that they can be found just about every where one looks.

Enjoy!

And if you see a few seed heads forming, don't forget to share the wealth ... your neighbors will appreciate your efforts in planting next spring's crop ... and if they don't, you can offer to come and dig that pesky weed for them, and then, invite them to dinner - sauted dandelion greens in scrambled eggs, fried corn cakes with maple syrup, and batter-fried dandelion heads.

Edited to add: Many thanks to Pappy, from the Kentucky Preppers, for the great review of my book. I'm really glad you found something useful to you ;).

And also to Barefoot in the Garden, who won a copy during my Twenty-One Day giveaway.

And speaking of, with one exception (Sorry, Mrs. D, your oil lamp is on its way soon - promise - there's a matter of finding the proper packaging ;), if you entered a comment during the Twenty-one days and were chosen as a winner, but you haven't received your item, it's either on its way to you or not sent, because I didn't get your address. Please check to see if you were a winner and leave a comment with your contact information. I won't publish any comments with personal information.

If anyone is interested in ordering a copy of my book from me, I still have a few copies available. Use the PayPal link on the side bar.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Blogger Ate My Post, But As Best As I Can Remember ...

Every Wednesday night, the Courier, our local (free) paper is delivered to my house. In a recent post (that was subsequently eaten by Blogger when they were trying to "fix" some issues), I talked about one of the articles that appeared in this week's edition of the paper.

The article is about a local family of homeschoolers - and it was because the headline contained the word "homeschool" that I even looked at that paper at all - who have started, what is essentially, a home-based business. The parents purchased an old feed store and remodeled it into their home, but left the original store-front intact with the intention of using it as an office for the dad's business.

Instead, however, the parents decided to teach their children some business skills, and they opened a penny candy store in the old retail space. The kids were involved in every aspect of the business from going to the town to apply for a business license/permit, to designing the layout of the store (including finishing reclaimed boards to be used as shelves), to ordering and pricing the items they planned to sell.

What was so amazing to me about the article, and what (I believe) I tried to convey in my original post (that Blogger ate) was how impressive I thought this venture was. Unlike most of today's youth, these kids are getting a real education, and by the time they are adults, after having operated this store for as many years as it takes to earn a college degree, the oldest of the two (at fifteen) will have more knowledge and more practical business education than a college grad - with no student loans.

In the original article, I said (and thanks to my friend and fellow homeschooler *TJ* for saving at least this one paragraph): Conventional wisdom advises parents to start saving for their children's future in the form of a college savings account. Thirty years ago when the employment prospects were slightly better for college grads, when prices on everything from gasoline to groceries were more stable, and when the value of the dollar wasn't in serious danger of destabilizing making those savings worthless, I would have agreed with that advice, but today I think parents would be better advised to focus on non-conventional ways of securing their children's futures.

The point of my original post was that we spend a lot of time training our kids to do things that have very little value (except in dollars), and we spend a lot of energy moving them in a direction that is (proving to be) a dead end. We would do better taking the example of the parents who gave their kids a candy store, which is a livlihood that could, potentially, see them through some tough times.

Maybe as our economy continues to contract, those two kids will expand on their inventory and become more a general store, just like the famed "Way-Way Store" (an iconic stop on Route 112 in S. Maine) to which they compare themselves in the article I read.

What's certain is that they probably won't become millionnaires, but they will be small business owners, and perhaps have a little more security than the average person has today.

I applaud their parents, who are definitely forward-thinking, and I hope I can find some way to model their example by giving my kids some very important something that will see them through the tough times ahead - something that a mere college education may promise, but can never fulfill.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Teaching Children Real Lessons

We have several small newspapers in my area - bascially each community has a little "rag" all of which are published by a newspaper conglomerate. the papers are free (wholly advertiser supported), and a copy of my community's paper is delivered to my house each week. But like a good portion of the community, I rarely read it. It often goes from the driveway straight into the recycling bin. In fact, some of the people in my neighborhood get annoyed with the paper owners and have even asked (and been ignored) *not* to have the paper delivered to them. It's funny to see the pulpy remains of last Fall's paper sitting on the edge of my neighbor's driveway after the snow melts.

Occasionally, however, there's a front page headline that catches my eye. This week it was the word *homeschool* in the title of one of the headlines, and so I read the article ... and I was impressed - not with the article itself, but with the parents of the two homeschoolers who were featured in the article.

The story was about a local family who purchased an old feed store building and remodeled it into a home. During the renovations, they left the store front intact with the intention of making it an office for the dad's business. Instead these forward-thinking parents decided to give their two children, ages 15 and 12, a future by turning the storefront into ... well, a store - a penny candy store to be exact. According to the article, the kids have been involved in every aspect of the store from attending planning meetings for obtaining a business permit to designing the interior of the store (and the 15 year old even helped build the shelves out of reclaimed wood) to ordering and pricing merchandise.

In these days of increasing unemployment and ballooning college debt (that graduates can barely hope to repay, because the only jobs many can find are jobs that barely feed and house them), these parents have given their children a future by teaching them some valuable skills and also by giving them this store to run, and perhaps, in the future, take over the operation of.

Conventional wisdom advises parents to start saving for their children's future in the form of a college savings account. Thirty years ago when the employment prospects were slightly better for college grads, when prices on everything from gasoline to groceries were more stable, and when the value of the dollar wasn't in serious danger of destabilizing making those savings worthless, I would have agreed with that advice, but today I think parents would be better advised to focus on non-conventional ways of securing their children's futures.

Instead of opening a college savings account, for instance, how about investing in a piece of land so that the child can build a home and have a place to live - rent free? If that house is off-grid with a working well and a small alternative energy system, even better.

Or, do as the parents featured in the above mentioned article and help the children set-up a business. By the time those kids become adults, they wiil have a better business education than a new college graduate, and also, unlike that college graduate, the kids in the article will already have what is very likely to be a profitable career.

We're heading into a new order of things - not new in the sense that it's never been done, but "new" in the sense that most of us in this country have only minimally experienced the kinds of lifestyle changes we'll be forced to make in the not distant future. Those people who learn to change with the times will successfully weather the storm. Those who cling to the old ways of doing things will, eventually, go down with the ship.

The family featured in that article will be among the lucky ones who sail smoothly along while the storm rages around them.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Dual Purpose Breeds

I spend a lot of time here on my blog and in my book talking about different breeds of suburban livestock, and why we have chosen the breeds we've chosen. For most of our animals, the type and breed were a conscious decision. Our pets are the exception. We have two dogs and a cat, and all three of them were given to us by another person or family who found that they could no longer keep the animal, for whatever reason.

What's interesting, though, is how well suited each of those animals are to our family dynamic, and how well, despite the seemingly random acquisition, they each fit in. If I were to be in the market to get a dog, for instance, I would never not in a million years have chosen a beagle as our breed of choice. He's made a place in our home, though, and he fits well.

Similarly, if I had researched and sought the perfect breed for my family to purchase from a breeder, I would never have chosen chow-chow (which is our other dog). Our chow could be considered a "rescue" dog, although we can't be credited with the rescue. What happened was like - the guy who had her, wanted a dog, until he got a girlfriend, and then the dog was simply too much to bother with, and so a mutual friend told him that either he would take care of the dog or she would find a new home for it. He liked the idea of not having to be responsible - either for the dog or for finding her a new home. And she found us.

It wasn't until after we had given her a home and had moved halfway across the country, that we started hearing bad stories about chow-chows, and how aggressive or ill-tempered they are. We never had that experience with our chow, who has always been an amazing companion and completely loyal to us. Other dogs beware, but people? She loves people.

We've had her for more than a dozen years, and in that time, we've realized that we couldn't have found a better companion for our family. Not only has she proven an excellent watch dog. She's just large enough that many people, both young and old, are a little intimidated by her. I used to feel just a tad bit more comfortable when we had repair people come to the house, because she would position herself between me and them or between the girls and other people. She wasn't threatening, exactly, but it was pretty apparent what she was doing.

She's also a fantastic "farm" dog, in that she keeps a really close watch on her "flock" - the rabbits, the ducks and the chickens, and she will be and has been aggressive with other animals that come into her yard. She also warns the cat and the beagle to stay away from her flock and will get between the chickens and the beagle if she thinks he might be plotting mischief.

Interestingly, the chow was a better mouser than our cat. She can catch mice who venture too far out, because she's just fast enough - or was when she was younger. Unfortuntely, she's also pretty big and can't fit into small spaces, which really seems to annoy her, because she'd very much like to catch mice ;).

Although she's too old now, there was a time when we were teaching her to pull a wagon, and when the girls were younger, they traveled by dog-drawn cart on a couple of occasions :).

Best though, is the use for which not many people think her suitable. Deux Ex Machina has a friend who enjoys spinning yarn. For almost two years, she's been asking him to bring her some of our dog's fur so that she can try spinning it, and as far as I knew, he still hadn't. On Mother's Day, my daughter presented me with a scarf - this gorgeous, chocolate-brown, very fuzzy scarf, and Deus Ex Machina told me that his friend had carded and spun the dog's fur into yarn, which he brought home and all stealth-like gave to Big Little Sister, who, in the wee hours of the night, when she was supposed to be sleeping, was knitting a scarf for me out of dog-fur yarn.

What an incredible gift from all three (four if you count Deus Ex Machina's friend) of them!

And now, I know, that if we ever decide to get another dog, it will be a chow, because they are a very versatile breed, and when one has a limited amount of space to accommodate family, house, garden, and animals, one must have all things serving more thn one purpose. Chow-chows fit that need very well ;).

It's the Dough, Joe

Headline: Maine to get money for tsunami evacuation signs.

Makes me wonder what "they" know that I don't know.

Then, I shake my head to clear out the little voices and chastise myself for being silly with my concerns about conspiracy theories, and I start to wonder why, all of a sudden, "they" think there needs to be an evacuation plan in the (very unlikely) event that Maine is hit by a tsunami. Maine (and the whole Atlantic Coast) aren't like Japan, which has long been an earthquake prone area, and in such an area, tsunamis are also a concern, but that's not been the case here. On the one hand, I agree with being proactive, but on the other hand, it seems silly to: 1. spread the fear of an unlikely event occuring by putting up signs that read Tsunami evacuation route; and 2. spend the money to put up the signs.

And then, suddenly, it makes sense. Money. Because our State and Federal governments, and indeed, "We, the People" have so much of it to waste spend on signage for an event that's so highly unlikely that it would make good disaster movie fodder.

I wonder if Yellowstone and the surrounding towns in a hundred mile radius have put up "Caldera Evacuation Route" signs just in case the volcano blows.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Slick Ad Campaigns That Spread Half-Truths

In the comments section of a recent post, PatriciaLynn posted this link. The link is a graphic that attempts to answer the question of how much land a family of four needs to be self-sufficient. Let me say, from the get-go, that despite the graphic's claims, the family in this scenario is *not* self-sufficient. Obviously, given the very abbreviated nature of the presentation, the producers couldn't account for everything a family might need (like, er, um ... water), but overall they gave a decent of idea of the sorts of things one might want to consider.

Okay, no they didn't. Well, they did - give a decent idea of the sorts of things one might want to consider, but the problem I had with their presentation was the final analysis that seemed so finite. Their claim is that it takes a minimum of two and a half acres (89,000 square feet) to be self-sufficient, according to their figures. The problem is two-fold: one, the family is not self-sufficent, and two, their numbers are all wonky.

The first number is the electricity usage. They say that the average US family uses 1000 kwh/per month, and I won't disagree, as this is actually true. My concern lies in the fact that Americans use a great deal more electricity than anyone else in the world, which means we, more likely than not, use a great deal more than is necessary to live a comfortable and satisfying life. I would suggest that instead of trying to build a power generation system to accommodate all of our current usage, that we, in our pursuit of self-sufficiency, concentrate more fully on the first of the three R's and reduce. Then, when we've halved (or better) our average usage, we start looking at being self-sufficient in our energy production.

The fact that the graphic includes electricity (as a "necessity"??), but not water or waste removal is interesting to me, and says a lot of not so very positive things about our cultural mindset. If one is hooked up to the water company and the sewer system, what's different about being hooked up to grid electricity, and why would the makers of that graphic consider their family "self-sufficient" if they didn't provide a way for the family to get water or to safely dispose of waste (including garbage)?

Just seems to me that their priorities are a bit skewed, but perhaps, solving the issue of generating electricity is easier than trying to figure out how to draw a picture of a humanure composting facility and a lovable loo.

I just wonder why they didn't think about a methane digester, which could, theoretically, kill two birds with one stone and would also add some very beneficial inputs to the gardens they discuss.

I didn't waste much time deciding that their electricity requirements were flawed, which almost made me decide to just discount the rest of what they said, but I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, and so I looked a little further into what they said was "required" for self-sufficiency and came to the discussion of the minimum land requirements.

According to the graphic, to maintain a 2300 calorie per day vegetarian diet for a family of four, almost 77,000 square feet of garden space is necessary. That's just for fruits and vegetables. An additional 12000 square feet of space is needed for wheat production. So, a minimum of two acres (one acre = 40,000 square feet) is needed for garden space to feed a family of four.

First off, I think this number has been proven wrong, as there are enough people out there who are growing a substantial amount of food on less than an eighth of the land this graphic claims is necessary. Certainly the one food group that is not produced on most urban/suburban homesteads is grains, but I've seen figures as high as 80% of the diet being grown on less than a quarter of an acre (less than 10,000 square feet). If grains comprise the other 20% of the small-space homesteader's diet (which is logical), then the graphic is off by 70,000 square feet, already.

Of course, the whole 2300 calories per day seems a little excessive. A moderately active, forty-plus year old woman who weighs between 130 and 140 pounds needs a daily intake of around 1700 calories to maintain that weight. That's maintenance. If there's a desired weight loss, the number of calories will be need to be decreased by about 200 calories. If there's a significant weight loss needed/desired (as would be the case for at least 50% of the American population), the number of calories will be a lot fewer. For my family of five, our average daily caloric need is 2000 calories. Deus Ex Machina needs more. Precious, who is a slender little girl, needs less.

I don't know where they got their number for average calories (what ages and genders are in their family, for instance), but like most of the graphic, it's excessive. While we are at reducing the amount of electricity we use, we'd be much better off as a nation to also reduce the number of calories we believe we need to consume.

With regard to food production, they make some other assumptions that aren't true in practice, either. Specifically, they say, "much more land is required" for growing certain vegetables, "including potatoes and cucumbers." This is true, *if* we're all growing in rows, but potatoes don't have to be grown in rows, and cucumbers don't have to spread along the ground and take up a lot of space. Likewise, trees and bushes can be trained to take up a lot less space than is conventionally accepted. As with so much of life, there's more than one way to accomplish a task, but the graphic seems to imply that "this plant needs this much space", which is doing a great disservice, I think, to those who don't have the space.

The whole discussion about wheat production, I think, is incredibly misleading. While it may be true that the average person eats 1.5 lbs of wheat per week, I think that number represents choice and not necessity. Every where I go, I meet someone who has either a gluten or a dairy sensitivity - or worst case, both. I'm even meeting very young children who have such exotic-sounding diseases like Coeliac, which is not curable, and the only treatment is to avoid - forever - wheat and wheat-based products. In our culture the use of wheat or gluten-containing substances as additives in processed food is so pervasive that the only way to completely avoid gluten is to completely avoid any processed foods - including such innocuous food stuffs as soy sauce and Twizzlers.

In short, there seems to be a growing number of people who've given up wheat, out of necessity, and those people are actually living healthier lives than those of us who don't have a debilitating disease. All of which makes me question the "necessity" of having wheat as part of one's diet, and certainly the wisdom of devoting significant growing space to a low-yield, nutritionally and calorie sparse food is questionable, especially when one realizes that there are a lot better foods to give that space to.

When it comes to independence in our food production, we'd be much smarter (and healthier) devoting land to growing nut trees in place of trying to grow enough wheat for our daily bread. And nuts are much more versatile than wheat. They can be eaten raw, sprouted and roasted, made into a nut butter, pressed into a milk-like drink, and even ground into flour. If I had my choice, it would be to grow nuts - almonds and hazelnuts would be my first choices, because those are my favorites (and would have the best chance of surviving my climate), and hazelnuts, for instance, are bushes, not trees, and make a really nice understory for a forest garden or a great privacy hedge.

I found it quite amusing, also, that they included information about raising animals for meat, after providing the figures for a "vegetarian" diet. The problem is that they didn't provide two final numbers - one that shows the amount of land needed for a vegetarian diet, and one that shows the amount of land needed if animals are part of the diet. The amount of land needed if animals are part of the diet is, perhaps, less than that needed for growing vegetables. According to the graphic, the animals only need about 400 square feet for their housing needs, and only 2000 square feet is needed to grow food for them (although I would question whether feed corn is actually the best choice for the animals). Meat, milk and eggs can provide a substantial portion of the required caloric intake. In short, in the space of about 2500 square feet (the average-sized American home), one could raise enough meat, eggs, and milk for an entire year.

I would be remiss if I didn't say a few things about their livestock choices. First, chickens take up a lot less space than pigs, and while three pigs will provide a decent amount of meat, 48 meat chickens take about four months to raise in increments of 12 at a time (and take up less than 50 square feet of space, compared to the 200 square feet for three pigs). From my personal experience, one chicken can provide three meals for a family of five, which means that our forty-eight chickens provide almost as much meat as three pigs. Add rabbits, which take up a LOT less space, and it's possible to have four meals with meat per week in the same amount of space that is required to raise three pigs.

We should also talk about egg production, and I think their numbers are pretty far off the mark. Even in the depths of winter, our eight chickens give us two eggs/day. During the warmer months (from March to November), they average five eggs per day. Our ducks will not lay at all in January and February, but the rest of the year, each of our ducks lays one egg per day every day without fail, just like clockwork. If I were interested in egg production alone, I would choose Khaki Campbell ducks, and with four ducks, I could count on 100 dozen eggs per year (which works out to about two dozen eggs per week - plenty for the average family even if eggs are a staple in the diet).

The other question that I kept pondering was, if this is supposed to be a "self-sufficient" life, where did the pigs come from? And how do their goats continue to lactate without a male? Without closing the circle, that is, having both males and females, the two acre farmstead they represent would not be self-sufficient.

I don't know how to convert their hypothetical numbers to real numbers, but I do konw that, in practice, what they assert is not exactly true, and that by stating that one *needs* a minimum of two-plus acres to be self-sufficient, they are doing a great disservice to those of us who have less land. The biggest irony is that they imply they're representing a truly self-sufficient lifestyle in their numbers, but they've left out some pretty important necessities, and they've made some assumptions that aren't exactly true.

There's one final thing that really bothered Deus Ex Machina, especially, and that is that the chart neglects another source of food that is available to even the average person - even a person living in the middle of a city. A great deal of wonderfully, nutritious food is available through wild foraging. Everything from fruits and nuts to greens can be foraged. If we add hunting and fishing, and for those who live near oceans, seafood (like clams), then there is a whole variety of food stuff that doesn't require any land, and only requires a minimum of energy to find and collect. We could argue that someone who wild forages isn't "self-sufficient", but I wonder how we would describe those who grow 65% of their food on less than an acre, forage another 15%, and purchase the remaining 20%?

If that purchased 20% represents the extra calories needed to meet the 2300 calorie minimum, perhaps we could still grant the urban/suburban homesteader who fits the above description the title of "self-sufficient", because if they no longer have access to that 20% of purchased food, their caloric intake would only be reduced by 460 calories, and at a more realistic 1800 calorie diet, they'd still be surviving ... nay, thriving.

And isn't that, really, what self-sufficiency is all about?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

All About Local

Today, for lunch, I made Pita. Let me just say that I love Pita. It's easy (although it takes a little bit more time than, say, a loaf of French bread), but it's pretty foolproof for me. I mean what could be easier than flat bread that can either be fried or baked, but is always cooked in the middle ;)?

In addition the Pita, I boiled some eggs (from our chickens), and Precious went out and harvested dandelion greens and chives, which I sauteed in a bit of butter. I stuffed one half of the Pita with sliced, boiled eggs and the sauteed greens. For the other half, I made egg salad to which I added home-canned pickles and chives, and a bit of mayonnaise.

If the bread is half the meal, the other half was all foraged and locally cultivated (eggs, foraged greens, home-canned pickles).

I used to spend a lot of time on this blog talking about our local diet, and I've moved out of that habit, because, at this point, it's not a surprise that a significant portion of each meal is local, but PatriciaLynn posted a link in the comments section of a recent post.

According to the link, the minimum sized lot that will allow some degree of self-sufficiency is two acres. I'm sure Patricia shared that link with me, because she figured I'd have something to say about it ... and I do ... and it's that I don't agree with their assertion ... and I believe their "findings" do a great disservice to those of us who live in the suburbs and implies a bunch of facts that aren't wholly true.

I'm planning a post about that graphic, which will, hopefully, be up in the next few days.

In the meantime, I'll leave you to ponder this - my partially raised on my quarter acre, partially foraged and partially imported meal.

Local Theatre: Whodunit?

What an amazing evening! Have I ever mentioned how much I love the theatre? I mean, movies are okay, and it's cool to see the broad scope that movies can provide, but theatre is just so much ... more. It's like the difference between listening to recorded music and going to see a live band - and I'm not talking about a huge mega-production band, either, but a small, intimate gathering where you can actually see the band members up on the stage - and they can see you, too. There's just something more personal, and, indeed, more engaging about seeing a live production in which the audience becomes part of the show, instead of just a passive observer, and it engages our minds in ways that electronic forms of entertainment never does, nor can.

Last night my family and I went to see Deus Ex Machina's niece in a school play. Ah, and before anyone groans, as with all things, it's better to reserve judgment. The kids, themselves, commented, both in the program and on stage, that this was not "high theater", and so perhaps some degree of oh, gawd, a school play is warranted, but, really, not so much, because it was actually quite a fun show.

Even better though was that this play was written, directed, and acted by the kids, and that, alone, is pretty impressive. But the rest of it was just a lot of fun.

Personally, I had a blast with the premise, which was, that the students had planned to put on a performance of Shakespeare's Mac ..., er, that Scottish play, but at the beginning of the play one of the faculty members (the school principal) invoked the play's infamous curse. So, throughout the production, as the kids are trying their best to allow the show to go on, horrible things keep happening, culminating in the real death by stabbing of the young actor who was playing King Duncan.

The audience is challenged to try to figure out if the play is really cursed or if someone is sabotaging the play. During the intermission, cast members sell additional clues to audience members who are given ballots on which they cast their votes as to who (or what) they think is responsible for the tragic events that seem to be haunting the performance, i.e. is it the curse, or is something else rotten in Denmark (oh, oops, wrong play :)?

The second act reveals the culprit, and in true Shakespearean fashion, the ending is uplifting so that, as the young writer informs us, the audience wouldn't riot.

The show is a part of an annual Murder Mystery "Dessert" Theatre series and is a collaboration between the several arts departments: Drama, Visual Arts, and Culinary Arts (who made a delicious pie a la mode ;). I was very impressed with the depth of knowledge these kids had about the play, and the curse, and even about the particulars of Medieval theatre. Even better, though, was that the "accidents" that kept happening were the sorts of things that had happened when the curse was invoked in previous shows (like the curtains catching on fire as a parody of Charlton Heston's pants catching fire when he played the ill-fated title character :).

I had a wonderful time, and I just wanted to encourage others, if you have a school (or small community theatre) nearby, find out what and when they are performing. It may not be "high theatre", but I will guarantee that it will be entertaining, and best yet, by going to these productions, we're supporting our community arts programs.

I feel incredibly blessed in my community, because I know, even in the face of oil depletion and a lower energy life, we'll still have these talented young people, and at very least, we'll laugh and have fun.

Thank you, E-Niece, for the invitation to see the show ;). I really did have a lot of fun - you were marvelous!

... and Duncan did it ;).

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Streamlining

In yesterday's post, I talked about why Deus Ex Machina and I have chosen to use hand-tools in most cases rather than gasoline-powered tools. For us, having used both, the hand-tools are easier to use. That's not true for everyone, and I wanted to reiterate what I've said many times, I'm not saying do what I do, because it's the only way. I share the details of my family's lifestyle as an example of a lower impact life, but not as the only way, and I only suggest that we all be mindful of our choices. If *you* choose to use gas-powered tools or your dryer, that's fine. I won't (and don't) judge, but it should be a choice, one that you've thought about, and not simply something you do because you believe it is *the* way it's done. There's that saying about cats and skinning them, and that there's more than one way. Such is true with most things.

I also wanted to reiterate one more point that I make in yesterday's post, because it's an important one, and I wouldn't want it to get lost in the words.

It is inevitable that what we're doing today be compared to the 1970s back-to-the-land movement, and that's okay. I think there are a lot of us who are looking to the Earth and asking, what can we do better. We're also wishing for some degree of self-sufficiency, and many of us are hoping to step outside of the bonds of the money-economy, in that we would like to work for ourselves, at our own pace, and not just to earn money. The new term is 'unjobbing'. Basically, what we want is what the 1970s back-to-the-landers wanted, and that's freedom.

But there's a difference, and that difference is key to how we're approaching this transition. With the back-to-the-landers, the ideal was to move out of "civilization" to some remote piece of rural paradise and build a self-sufficient community. The members of these communes agreed to give up everything about modern culture to live a subsistence life. In fact, I mentioned Stephen Gaskin, who was the founder of the Farm, a commune in Tennessee, and one of the requirements of the people who lived on their 1500 acre spread was that they take a vow of poverty. The goal, I think, was to make everyone equal, at least economically, and to eschew the accouterments of the capitalistic society from which they were trying to escape.

But they got to the land in their vans, and then, wanted more permanent homes, and so they started building houses. They wanted hot water for baths, and so they set up a bath house and used propane to heat the water. They boot-legged a phone connection and electricity by tapping into the lines that ran along the roads near their property. They had radios, and, even, eventually, brought in a television. In short, for as much as they tried to leave society, they worked really hard to bring it back, and the more they accepted modern amenities back into their peaceful existence, the more it began to fray.

I'm not criticizing what they did, because, for more than two decades, they were completely successful in their endeavors. More than a thousand people moved in and out of the Farm, and it stands, today, as an example of a large-scale, completely organic farm.

In addition, Ina May Gaskin, the founder's wife, was a midwife, and her amazing book, Spiritual Midwifery, is a valuable tool for those who believe that the words "birth" and "industry" should never go into the same sentence when we're talking about living, breathing things being born, but the fact is that our society has created an "industry" for everything, including birth. The astounding success rate of Ina May and her fellow midwives of safely assisting the women of the Farm in childbirth is both enlightening and heartening ... and proof that the assumption we "need" hospitals or doctors to give birth safely is just another lie told by the establishment in an attempt to enslave us in fear.

What I am saying, though, is that for the bulk of American society, the very lofty goals and ideals of such great experiments as the Farm are too rigid and extreme, and that we need to start smaller and work our way back. We need to be able to take two steps forward, but have the ability to step back, once and a while to catch our balance. We need to have the freedom from guilt that was stripped away with everything else for those who chose to live on cooperatives, like the Farm, because it wasn't about the individual, it was about the group. We need to be able to make individual choices in our individual households and see what works for us, and what doesn't.

So, for most of us, instead of leaving everything and working to rebuild, I think a better option is to start where we are with all we have and work backwards, figuring out what we really need and just what we have that's shiny.

And ask the question: Do I need the shiny thing? And if not, chuck it out the door.

I have complete respect for the 1970s back-to-the-landers. Without them, I'm not sure that I would even have thought to do what I'm doing, and really, I think on the very bottom of it all that we have a very similar philosophy. They, like I, were sick of the inequities of our modern capitalistic society. They, like I, were tired of being fed lies from the tablecloth*. They, like I, wanted to find a better way to live that didn't strip the Earth of her treasures. They, like I, were sick of being manipulated and patronized, and when neither of those things worked, threatened through fear-mongering tactics to do was we were (are) being told.

For me, the goal is to streamline, to pare down, to take the best of what our modern society has to offer, to slough off those things that are actually impediments rather than assests to a good life, to give up what bogs me down and build up what enriches me. In short, my goal is to make very conscious choices about how I choose to live, and to try to find the balance that is enough, because all research shows that there is too little and there is too much, and to find happiness (and as Deus Ex Machina continually points out virtue) we have to find that middle - **In Medio stat Virtus**

Are we both guilty of being over-sanctimonius in our views and recommendations? Perhaps, and if so, like them, I will eventually give up my quest for self-sufficiency, and I will find myself right back where I started so many years ago - looking forward to Thursday night so that I can watch Survivor.

I wonder if Jeff Probst will still be the host.





*From the song B.Y.O.B. by System of a Down.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Eating Cake in the Suburbs

I've been fascinated by the back-to-the-land movement, because it was the first widespread indication that people were getting fed-up with the over-consumptive lifestyle the dawn of the oil age allowed us to embrace. I'm fascinated by why they chose that lifestyle, but even more importantly, I'm eager to discover why most of them left.

Jean Hay-Bright's story, Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life, about living next door to both the infamous Nearings and the, now, equally famous Eliot Coleman, is a wonderful peek into that movement, and why, ultimately, it failed for most people.

The problem, for Hay-Bright and for some of those who traveled across the continent from California to Tennessee following Stephen Gaskin to the Farm, was that they had an idealized view of the simple life with very little experience in doing things like growing and preserving food, working with hand tools (like a shovel), or even doing laundry without machines. I think what they didn't realize is that living a more simple life is not about finding paradise. It is about empowerment and freedom. Or maybe they really did understand the freedom and empowerment, but didn't realize how much and how difficult was the work involved. Doing things by hand is hard ... yes, it certainly can be.

I know that some people who aren't really reading my book, or who skim my blog posts, or who only hear every other word of what I'm saying might be led to believe that I'm telling people that we should eschew all technology and embrace a completely handmade life, but that's not really true. It's not what I believe, and in fact, it's not even what I say. There is a whole day/chapter in my book that is devoted to electricity and ways that we can provide some for ourselves and even reasons why we should be investing in some sort of personal alternative energy system. I don't think that we should simply give up what we've worked so hard to gain, but neither should we have this sense that we're entitled to it ... or that we can't survive without it. Neither is true.

What I am saying is that we should not allow ourselves to be dependent on a system that WILL fail us. So, instead of advocating for the build-out of the nuclear power industry that generates gigawatts of electricity and could keep us all in lights and cold beers for decades, but creates a radioactive waste product that can not be safely stored or disposed of, I recommend that we reduce our consumption to what we could generate ourselves - and maybe we use a more primitive form of lights and keep our beers cold in a nearby stream so that we can save our electricity for other applications. My family went from 1000 kwh per month to 350 kwh per month by making some very simple changes to what we power and how we use electricity. We're still using a lot, but at one-third our former use, we are a lot closer to being able to afford a system that will allow us to generate some or all of the electricity we want/need.

I've also been accused of encouraging people to work "harder" rather than "smarter", and that too is unfair. I don't think using powered appliances or tools is necessarily the "smarter" way to work. In fact, there is significant research that shows the invention of things like vacuum cleaners actually make more work than using a broom. In general, carpeting requires a lot more attention and care than a wood floor. Even with the best vacuum cleaners, carpets will hold dust and dirt. They are easily stained, and to really clean them uses a great deal of water. They also wear out, which means they must be replaced, and worse, disposed of. By contrast, a wood floor might need painting, occasionally, and can be kept clean with a broom and a damp cloth. It is not harder, nor does it take longer, to sweep a floor than it does to vacuum a carpet, and it takes a whole lot LESS time to mop than it does to steam clean the carpets. And mopping and sweeping require a good deal less energy than their powered counterparts.

Of course, the specific criticism had to do with my discussion in my book about my family's decision not to use a gas-powered log-splitter, but rather to split the wood by hand. The critic claims that we're adding to our work load by splitting all of our wood over time, rather than devoting one day to doing it, but let's look at that for a minute.

What this critic believes is that my family should simply take some money and rent a log-splitter (and having failed to READ what I wrote, incorrectly assumes that we would have some family members share in the cost of the rental and the work of splitting the wood - neither of which is true), and then spend a WHOLE DAY chopping wood, rather than taking a few hours here and a few hours there to split a little as we have time.

There are two problems with that. First, the critic assumes that we have the money to rent a splitter - which wouldn't be incorrect, but the question is, do we want to spend our money that way? Further, there's the fact that to have money to rent a splitter means we have to have a job, and a job takes time. So, essentially, the critic believes that I should spend my time working so that I can make money so that I can pay to rent a splitter so that I can split my firewood more quickly, and to the critic, this is an example working "smarter" rather than "harder." But I still have to do both jobs, and in the end, I spend all of my time working.

The second problem is that the critic assumes that devoting a WHOLE DAY to splitting and stacking wood is possible for us - and really, it's kind of not. We simply do not have a WHOLE DAY to devote to one project. There are a lot of demands on our time, both around our homestead and with outside commitments and projects (including jobs to make money).

We don't have a whole day, but we do have a few hours, spread over the course of the summer, to split wood. If we were to use the splitter within the time frame that we have, at only an hour a day (taking off ten minutes on each end of the hour for setting up and taking down the splitter - so really, it would only be forty minutes of actual wood splitting time), we'd need to rent the splitter for a couple of weeks, and then, we'd need to commit that hour each day to splitting wood for that entire several weeks, because the clock would be ticking and the rental bill would be mounting.

In the end, using the wood splitter instead of a maul results in a severe restriction in how we use both our time and our money, because we'd be committed to giving the owner of the woodsplitter a certain amount of money for each day that we had the woodsplitter, and we'd want to get the job done as quickly as possible to save money, which means we might have to choose between splitting wood and another activity we might wish or might need to do. Having the woodsplitter would actually be pretty stressful, if one understands the entire story, rather than making assumptions and passing judgments.

So, what was the benefit of the woodsplitter again? Oh, yeah, working "smarter" instead of "harder."

In the interest of full disclosure, I should reveal that we have used a woodsplitter before, and so, our decision to NOT use one is not based on some luddite fantasies about working by hand, but rather on our real-life experience of having been there, and done that. For us, doing the job of splitting wood by hand is better - and it's not due to any quasi-sanctimonious idealism, but a result of actual life experiences. I am, afterall, not an idealistic teenager who believes she knows best, but a mature adult woman who has had a variety of experiences, is very well-read, is fairly well-traveled, has a higher-than-average educational level, and has carefully thought through these changes and recommendations.

Using the splitter, as my critic suggests, would be a great idea IF we had a WHOLE DAY just to split and stack wood, but that's not our reality. Instead, after work, after a particularly stressful day, or just a day when Deus Ex Machina is feeling a little stiff and tight, he grabs the maul, and heads over to the to be split wood pile, and chops up a few logs, which he, then, stacks by the fence. After an hour, he has split about a third of a cord, and he's relaxed and enjoying those endorphins, and ready to come into the house for a nice dinner, which I was free to cook, because I wasn't busy outside helping him stack the wood.

I realize that I'm being a bit facetious, but the reality is that we, as a society, are so limited in our views of what is good, what is best, and so tied into the oil-economy, that we can't imagine why someone would not want to make use of all of these machines.

Contrary to the accusation, I am not a luddite. I enjoy technology. In fact, in many ways, I'm as dependent on it as the next person - for my job, for my comfort, for my well-being. But I believe that we should make the best use of the technologies we have available. I don't believe that ALL machines are superior to hand tools, and I think we need to be very clear about WHY we are choosing the ones we choose to use. I also don't think we should believe that we are entitled to use them all, just because they are available, and we really should pick those machines that most enrich our lives.

For the critic, it's a gasoline-powered woodsplitter, and I say, have at it! I won't (and don't) judge. For Deus Ex Machina and me, it's a maul. On the other hand, I have no interest or desire to hand wash all of my family's clothes. I have the tools to do it, but that I'm still using my electric washing machine should say something. What's that old saying about actions speaking with more volume than words? :) I've chosen the washing machine over the other option, because machine washing the clothes really does add value to my life, and it frees me to do other things. I can wash clothes AND sweep the floors. By contrast, using the woodsplitter would not free-up Deus Ex Machina to do something else. It would, in fact, tie him to the project with as sturdy a cord as using the maul.

If we're going to choose the best machines, the ones that will make our lives more enriched and easier, then we should pick the ones that will lighten our load, which is really the definition of working "smarter" rather than "harder."

The critic claims to have read my book, but some of the things she says about what she thinks I'm advocating really show that the reading was cursory, at best, with no real understanding of what I'm saying. I think she probably skipped the preface, which explains, among other things, that the book is based on a hypothetical situation in which we know something is going to happen in twenty-one days, something that will forever alter the very fabric of our society.

The book is hypothetical, but the reality is that our world is changing, and we are all going to be affected by those changes on some level. Unemployment is still pretty high and, depending on whose figures one believes, is currently between 8% and 20%. Gasoline prices are right at $4/gallon. The cost may go back down again, but I don't think we'll ever see sub-$1/gallon prices again ... or if we do, things will be so bad that even at that rate, most people won't be able to afford it. Our goverment is over a TRILLION DOLLARS in debt, which means the easy credit cash flow that has gotten us out of this same sort of mess in the past (the 1930's depression, the 1970's oil crisis, the 1980's recession - all resolved with 'stimulus money') is not going to save us this time. So, perhaps, my critic is correct that there will always be fuel available to operate small machinery, but perhaps, her assumption that I could afford or wish to invest my few dollars into that machinery when doing it by hand works just as well, is misguided.

I don't think we should all follow the Nearings and the Colemans and Stephen Gaskin into the wilderness, give up everything that is "modern", take a vow of poverty, and live a vegetarian lifestyle completely off the land. For most of us, that's not a reasonable or even a desirable lifestyle. What I do believe, though, is that whether we want to do so or not, we're going to be forced into a less consumptive lifestyle, either because we end up without a job, or because the cost of goods and services becomes too expensive for the average person to afford, or because the value of our money is degraded to the point of worthlessness. Any one of those can (and will more likely than not) happen.

I think we have the opportunity, right now, to make changes that will ensure when one or all of those things come to pass, we won't be so negatively impacted. That's the point of my silly little book - not to say that we should adopt an austere philosophy and do it all by hand, but rather that for too many of us, we will have no choice.

Right now, though, we do have a choice. We can choose to continue to cling to the remnants of our society as it falters and dies around us, or we can loosen our grip on life as we know it and make some different choices for ourselves.

For my family, the choice (after having experienced both ways) is to handsplit firewood for our woodstove that we use as our sole heat source, rather than using a gas-powered machine. For you, it may be something different. The point is to make the choice, make it consciously rather than doing it by rote because that's the way it's done, and know why you're making that choice.

Unlike the Nearings and the Colemans and the commune people, I'm not suggesting that we give it all up and start from scratch. That's the sort of mindset that causes the problems we have now - the idea that we have to "build" from the ground up, that development, that "progress" is measured in terms of physical gains. For those of us in the suburbs, we already have all of the tools we need to survive the rest of our lives, either stored in the dark corners of our homes or at the storage facility down the road. The challenge is to learn to use or to learn to repurpose these things that we have. We're not starting from a position of poverty and hoping for abundance. We're starting from a position of abundance, and we don't have to sink into impoverishment (which is more about our state of mind than it is our state of being). Rather than an up-down motion, I say we can have a side-ways motion, and continue to live a life of abundance ... just, perhaps, with a slightly modified definition of what "abundance" means.

I guess, in the end, what I hope we can all discover is that simplifying one's life is not about "giving up" anything. My family still has all of the things your family has. We still eat great food - and as much of it as we want. We still enjoy music and movies. We still have clean clothes and hot showers. We still have very modern and active lives that include all of the things that we modern folk believe makes life good. We just have them different. Our food is mostly local. Our music and movies are on the computer rather than a television (or music we're playing ourselves or live plays we're often acting in). Our clothes are machine washed, but line-dried, and for hot showers our water is from an on-demand, less energy consuming system rather than the typical tank heater.

My family hasn't given up anything, but we have made very conscious choices, and in a worst case scenario, when the price of oil skyrockets or the cost of food leaves a gaping hole in the roof or the electricity goes out for a day or a week or a month, we'll still have most of those things. That's the ultimate in self-sufficiency, the realization that life as we know it, will mostly go on, as we know it - regardless of what happens in the wider world.

And, maybe I'm misguided, but I like to imagine that, perhaps, when people were rushing back-to-the-land, what they really wanted was their cake and a fork to eat it. Here in my home, where we split wood by hand and line-dry our clothes and don't have a television set, we still have time for baking ... and I could even supply a fork and a plate for that cake.