Monday, May 22, 2017

Planning for a Future in Place

I'm not getting younger. 

I know right?  I was surprised, too! 

If the average lifespan of an American woman is 77, I'm well beyond middle-aged, and pushing hard against retirement.  I'm still "young", relatively, but this years birthday is a milestone one.  I've been around for a while, and I still have some time to go, but ... I'm not getting any younger.

I actually love that there's a real job called Certified Aging in Place Specialist.  Specifically, the job of a CAPS is to assist older people with remodeling their homes to accommodate their changing needs - like making the space wheelchair/walker-friendly and making bathrooms more easily accessible to people with limited mobility. 

A few years ago, a friend of mine was remodeling her kitchen.  Like me, she's already planned that her home is where she will live until she dies.  She's cautioned her children that putting her in an Assisted Living Facility should be done so at their peril.  She's told them that the child who takes care of her in her twilight years will be the ONE who reaps the benefits of her estate.

I've told my children something similar. 

This friend designed her new kitchen keeping in mind the possibility that she may be in a wheelchair later in life.  I thought her plan was a stroke of genius.

And as often happens to me, in one of those serendipitous moments, I recently read an article regarding staying put rather than purchasing a new home.  This article was geared toward people much younger than I am and was from the standpoint of pointing out the cost savings of staying in one's home rather than purchasing something new. 

Different audience - same message ... ish ... that I've been preaching with my bug-out in place mantra. 

I completely agree with the advice to stay where one is, especially for financial reasons.  Moving is expensive, always.  With the exception of people who are moving long distances for whatever reason, the only time one financially benefits from selling one's house and buying another is if one is in a too big, too expensive house, and one does some serious downsizing.  Unless one's circumstances make it impossible to stay, staying put is always a better idea.  Moving because one is tired of one's old house is just silly and frivolous ... and seriously, are there really people who do that? 

Over the years, Deus Ex Machina and I have looked at a lot of houses with the goal of moving.  Our reasons to move have included: the desire to be closer to those places we spent most of our time to cut back on driving (I hate driving); the wish for more land so that we could be more self-sufficient; the need to have a house with an apartment addition and more land so that we could have a place for our older children. 

Always, after a frenzied search for this better place, we realized that what we have is just exactly what we need, and while those other things would be nice, we find more and more that our current home is where we should be.  Like, if we had moved closer to those activities our daughters were doing back in those days to cut back on how much I was driving, we would be further away from some of the activities/opportunities they are enjoying today - including further away from Deus Ex Machina's job.   

More land is more work.  It would have been nice to have had five or more acres when my children were younger and to have raised all of our own meat and vegetables, but as they've gotten older and moved out, I'm realizing that the smaller space will be perfect for me and Deus Ex Machina in those years when our daughters are off on their adventures and it's just the two of us. 

One 4'x4' garden bed can feed an adult two vegetables per day through the entire growing season.  We have lots of 4'x4' garden beds.  Six chickens is more than enough to give the two of us all of the eggs we'll need.  One whole meat chicken will feed just the two of us for a week.  We have plenty of land for just the two of us to raise all of our own vegetables for the spring, summer and fall (with some extra for storage), and to get an adequate supply of protein.

If we'd had been able to find the more perfect house ten years ago, when our children were young, then it might have been a good move.  But now ... it just wouldn't make a lot of sense.

Both articles made me start thinking about some of the things that I would change about my current house to make it more future-friendly - both in terms of my aging body, but also, in making it more eco-friendly in a world that will more likely than not be experiencing resource depletion.  Those articles also reminded me that, perhaps subconsciously, Deus Ex Machina and I have been making some pretty wise upgrades to our home. 

My remodeling plans are not, necessarily, just for me, though.  My goal is actually to build a legacy for my children (or the child who takes me up on my offer of caring for me in exchange for this house) to inherit when I pass - a place they can live that is low-energy and comfortable.

In the second article, one of the reasons cited that people will move is for a "newer, shinier home."  I love new and shiny.  Getting something new actually does make me feel a little happy, at least while that new thing is still new.  But as the article points out (and as most of us already know, intuitively), those feelings of euphoria are very short-lived, and it doesn't make a lot of sense to spend thousands of dollars moving to a new place when there are some quick and easy fixes that will give one that happy-boost, while at the same time begin the process of transitioning one's home to accommodate an elderly resident.

One of the expenses listed in the second article for making a home more old-folk friendly is door handles.  The estimated expense for a new door handle is around $60.  From my experience, that's pretty accurate, but WOW!  what a difference it can make!  Plus, there are lots and lots of options for creating a super-special and unique look.  Twist handles are tough to use for someone who has achy hands ... or hands full of groceries.  When Deus Ex Machina and I changed our front door handles, we bought the lever ones, rather than the twisty ones.  I love the new handles.  They change the whole look of our door.  Seriously.  It's pretty incredible what a difference that one, little thing can make.

Another issue inside the house has to do with doors.  Regular doors that swing into a room can be tough for someone in a wheelchair, which makes the fact that the current barn-style sliding door fad all the more interesting ... and wonderful for those who are looking to adapt their home to make it more age-friendly.  A sliding door takes up a lot less space than a door that must swing open.  Plus, a sliding door is a fun place for chalkboards or hanging that collection of signed posters from all of the plays we've been in/to.

I'm a little in love with this sliding shutter window-dressing.  In addition to the cool aesthetic, it's also pretty brilliant for adding insulative properties AND privacy.  So, as a quick aside, sliding shutters inside a room (as in the picture) provides an extra surface hanging pictures, looks really cool, and would help insulate older windows, which means saving money on the cost of heating/cooling AND there would be no need to replace those old windows!  Cost savings is a huge concern for seniors on a fixed income.  This design would be a perfect solution for the window on the north-facing side of my house. 

Of course, as the linked article points out, many of these modifications are also beneficial to other people.  When I'm taking the laundry outside to hang on the line, and I'm holding a basket of clothes, opening the door to get out is awkward and cumbersome.  Plus, it allows my dogs to sneak outside, which can turn into a wild chase around the neighborhood if our big male chow is feeling particularly feisty.  A sliding door is a little easier to open and close when I have full hands. 

We've also looked into changing our refrigerator from the standard upright with doors to a drawer model, which would be more easily accessible for someone in a wheelchair, but is also more eco-friendly than a standard refrigerator. 

There's another bonus to using an under-the-counter refrigerator - for us.  It would allow us to expand our counter space, because the refrigerator would be under a counter, instead of this free-standing hulk.  We have an upright freezer already, and so we don't need both a refrigerator/freezer AND our upright freezer.  A smaller refrigerator unit under a counter would work so much better in our tiny, galley-style kitchen, and it would give us some much needed added work space. 

Even better, for us, would be a cold closet (which uses no electricity). 

In addition to those concerns above, there are other design choices that have been made in our modern housing that make those homes less friendly for our aging populations.  Wall-to-wall carpeting, which was all the rage following World War II and is still the most popular flooring choice (probably because of the cost involved - carpet is so much cheaper than the longer-lasting, more eco-friendly, and healthier wood and tile options), is difficult for people who shuffle with a walker or cane, or need to move a wheeled vehicle. 

Deus Ex Machina and I have been in our house for two decades.  Most carpeting has a fifteen year lifespan.  So, as you can imagine, we've had to replace the flooring in a few rooms.  We have always chosen wood or tile for the new floors.  Both options have a much longer lifespan than carpeting AND are easier for those with limited mobility.

An estimated 80% of older people own their own homes.  The statistic is much smaller for young people, who are more likely to be renters.  Traditionally, our elderly lived with younger people, usually relatives, and mostly, it was a mutually beneficial relationship. 

As we get deeper into resource depletion, it will start to make more sense for young people to live with their older relatives for so many reasons, the least of which being that we won't be able to afford to not share - for environmental and economic reasons. 

It makes sense to start designing newer homes to be more old-age friendly, and for those of us in older homes from which we aren't likely to move, to transition those homes so that everyone can live more comfortably.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Raising Meat Birds

It's that time of year again - chicken season.

Every year for almost a decade, now, here at Chez Brown we have raised meat chickens.  Our breed of choice is Cornish cross, because they grow quickly and provide a lot of meat.  From brooder to butcher takes eight to twelve weeks.  Ten weeks is the optimum for getting a tender bird at a good weight so that hiring someone else to butcher them for us makes good financial sense.

Marjorie Wildcraft has made a movie on raising chickens.  I linked there to the trailer.  Marjorie has a lot more land than I have, and the way she and her group raised the chickens is more in keeping with the way most people do it - sort of as a meat share.  That is, they order a large number of chicks (and note that they are also raising the Cornish cross breed) as a group.   One person with a lot of land does the daily work of keeping the chicks alive until they're ready to harvest, and then, the entire group pitches in on the designated day to send the grown chickens to freezer camp.  The group will, then, split up the harvested birds.

Here at Chez Brown, we have always raised our birds exclusively for our personal consumption.  We also don't raise a huge flock all at one time.  While everything else is probably the same as what Marjorie does, we do things on a much smaller scale.

The Brooder

Back in 2007, my daughters and I stopped by the feed store for some rabbit feed.  They had baby chicks.  My young daughters were completely smitten.  Having more money than sense, and having discussed it with Deus Ex Machina on several occasions (with no decision made whether we would or wouldn't), I decided to take the plunge and buy three chicks, one for each of my daughters. 

The young man at the store helped me get outfitted.  He suggested a standard small animal cage with a wire bottom and a pull out tray.  Then, he added a heat lamp, a feeder, a waterer, and some chick starter feed.  For less than $100, we were set-up.

When we decided to start raising meat chickens, we used the same set-up.  It comfortably fits twelve chicks until they feather out enough to go outside. 

The Tractor

Once the chicks have feathered out, we move them outside into a tractor.  They live in the tractor for a couple of weeks until they get big enough that a hawk can't carry them off, and then, we just put them in the tractor at night to protect them from nocturnal predators.  During the day, they have free-run of our backyard, where they enjoy eating bugs, nibbling grass, and sleeping among the raspberry brambles. 

There are a lot of ways to make a chicken tractor.  Ours is made from PVC pipe that we wrapped in 1/2" gauge hardwire cloth - the sides and top.  The bottom is open to the ground.  It's 25 square feet inside the tractor, which is plenty of room for the smaller chickens and enough room for the big ones when they're sleeping. 

The only issue we've had is that with a wire top, we need to cover the tractor with a tarp when it rains, which can get cumbersome.  So our plan is to use the same clear plastic corrugated roofing material we used on the hen coops and woodshed to cover the tractor.  We'll be making that adjustment this year.

The Flock

We raise Cornish cross chickens.  They are the same hybrid (not "genetically modified") used by the meat industry.  The key difference is quantity of birds and how they are raised.  In the meat industry, they pack thousands of birds into a marginallypoorly ventilated building where the birds have no access to grass or sunlight. 

We raise our birds in tiny flocks of not more than a dozen at a time, and they spend their entire lives (after they're out of the brooder) outside, in the sunshine, being chickens - eating grass and bugs, chasing humans who have food, and pecking the nose of our massive chow-chow. 

Over the course of the summer, we will raise a years' worth of chicken (a total of 48 birds which allows us to eat just under one whole chicken per week for the entire year).  Each chicken gives us about three meals and allows Deus Ex Machina to take home-raised, home-cooked chicken to lunch a couple of times a week.  We can also get a few quarts of broth with the left over bones and parts we don't eat.  The broth from our home-raised chickens is rich and hearty - not the insipid watery stuff one buys from the grocery store.

The thing is that anyone who has a little land could raise a few birds.  They are often for sale at a minimum of six at Tractor Supply or other suburban feed stores.  Six meat birds, for someone just starting out, would be plenty. 

I guess the point is that it doesn't take any particular skill or knowledge to raise one's own meat.  It really only takes the willingness to step outside of one's comfort zone. 

It's also not expensive, and for the most part, we all know that DIY is much cheaper than having someone do it for us.

A baby chick costs $2.50 (six of them would be $18).  A 50 lb bag of feed is $12.  Our butcher charges $4.50 per bird to process.  We calculated it, once.  It costs us $1.89 per pound to raise our own meat birds.  Sure, you can get chicken for less than that at the grocery store, but you can not get free-range, organically raised chicken for $1.89/lb. 

In the end the best reward is realizing that one can.

And each one of those small steps we take toward realizing that we can is one step closer to self-sufficiency.  That's not a bad thing.

Friday, May 12, 2017

When the Prepper Meets the Greenie

I was looking for some information on my blog, and I was referred to this list of non-traditional prepping items. 

In that blog post, I discuss the items suggested on the list (to which I linked in my post).  The one item that I found very clever and potentially useful was sandbags, which the author used for building. 

I'd never considered sandbags a building material, but when I read this list, that light went off.  Of course!  Duh!

I never did find a source for sandbags, but as I was reading that post recently, I realized that I, actually, have something better ... and free (ish)!  And it turned into one of those moments when I realized that the universe was looking out for us.

I purchase all of my feed from a local feed store.  We've been patronizing these folks for decades.  They used to just a few miles from my house, but moved to a different town.  When we started raising rabbits, we bought our feed from them, and when we decided to get into suburban chickens, we went there. 

They stock feed from a Vermont company.  It's good feed, at least we seem to have healthy animals (not true of some of our friends who were feeding their livestock a different brand, and switched at our recommendation), and at first, it came in paper bags, which was cool, because we used the bags as weed block in the garden.

Then, they switched to using a plastic bag.  At first I was incredibly annoyed, because the paper bags were useful, and the plastic bags were just waste.  But then, one time, it rained on the feed bag, and I was happy that the feed was protected.

Of course, the plastic bags were still waste, and we ended up with a bunch of them just lying around the yard.  Which is when Deus Ex Machina came up with the first way to reuse them:  sliced in half, long-ways, we stapled to them to the top of our wood pile to keep most of the rain and snow off the wood. 

My original plan for this year was to grow potatoes in strawbales, but strawbales cost money we don't have to spend right now.  What I do have, however, are lots of feed bags ... and compost!  So, that's what I'm using.  Et voila! Potato planters.


But the final epiphany came to me when I was rereading that post about sandbags.  If I can use those bags as potato planters, I could also use them as sand bags. 

Guess I'll be storing up those feed bags instead of tossing them.  Maybe I'll end up with a feed-bag root cellar afterall. 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017


I've written some about our crazy lifestyle.  The unfortunate fact of my life is that we tend to eat very late, because of our various activities. It would be really easy to rely on fast food, which is cheap and easy, but because I'm me, nothing is ever that simple.  Desiring to consume GMO-free foods that are mostly locally sourced means that fast food is, kind of, not a possibility. 

Add to that, the fact that here at Chez Brown, we no longer eat wheat.  Corn remains a big part of our diet, but other grains are limited.  In the beginning, we made the transition without visiting the gluten-free aisle (that is, we didn't substitute gluten-free bread for regular bread, but just cut out bread altogether) and were flour-free for a long time, too, before re-adding Buckwheat (gluten-free and Maine grown).   We also stayed away from most grains for those first few months, but we've added rice and mixed grain pastas back into our diet as an occasional supplement.

As such most quick and easy meal options aren't an option for us.  Sometimes, on very busy, stressful and energy-zapping days, adhering to our rather rigid dietary choices can be tough. 

The other day I was reading some information about "poor people's diets", and I realized that we, sort of, eat that way - out of necessity.

I don't mean the Spam-on-white-bread kind of meal, because ... well, ewww!  But also because neither Spam nor most white bread is locally sourced. 

What I mean is that a basic meal for us is some meat, some vegetable, and then an assortment of pickled foods.    For dessert, we might have what we call "Half Cake" (which is really a Chocolate Delirium Torte - and it sounds like a decadent dessert, but because we have our own eggs, it's incredibly cheap to make.  It's really rich, and so one only needs a tiny slice to satisfy). 

Or just fruit.

Or we might share a bar of fair-trade, GMO-free dark chocolate.

The point is that having a busy life doesn't mean that one has to sacrifice one's budget and health to the convenience of fast food.  Frying up a hamburger patty seasoned with garlic, onion, salt, pepper, and cumin (from locally sourced beef) and then serving it on a bed of fresh greens and accompanying it with cheese slices, pickled-vegetables, boiled eggs, and olives is just incredibly delicious and super fast.  In fact, it takes longer to drive to the fast food place and pick up a burger and some fries than it does to form the hamburger patties and fry them.  Plus, while the hamburgers are cooking, one can do other things around the house, like put away all of that laundry :). 

I'm a decent enough cook, and I can make some fancy stuff ... but my best work in the kitchen is making the simple things taste better, and that doesn't require a lot of money - but rather just a bit of imagination and the willingness to pair spices. 

For those who are looking at stocking up for hard times, my best advice is to not store up 5 gallon buckets of wheat berries, but rather to stock up on spices (or better, yet, grow them), because with the right spice, even roadkill can taste good.

And if times get truly tough, roadkill might be what's for dinner.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

I Did a Thing

I have a young adult daughter.  She's one of those "Millennials" people talk about, but I think she's smart and capable and super awesome.  I read articles criticizing Millennials, but honestly, I think they have it more figured out than I did when I was that age. 

Anyway, she's smart enough to take things slow and really try to figure out what it is that SHE wants rather than what society tells her she should want.  My generation didn't do that.  I'm glad hers is.

The title of this post is in deference to her generation who give themselves accolades for "adulting."  When she (or her generation) accomplishes a task for which they felt inadequately prepared - and it turns out good - they say, "I did a thing."  I like that.  My generation never gives ourselves credit for doing things we didn't really think we could do.  I'm glad hers does.

I did a thing.  Actually, I did a few things, of which I am very proud, because we all know I'm not a handy person.   My home improvement attempts usually aren't.

But this week, with spring in the air and the too long waiting for someone else to get 'er done, I decided that the someone had to be me.  Good or bad, I intended to do a few things.

While Precious and Little Fire Faery were painting Precious' new bedroom, I grouted the tile that's needed to be grouted for a long time.  I am very proud of how awesome it looks!  It was both much easier and much more difficult than I expected it to be. 

And while I was in the building spirit, I went outside and sorted through some of the piles of pallets and such that we have, and I made a deck off the back of the house.  We've been here almost twenty years, and we've been planning to do something all of that time.  Now seemed like a good time to finally do it.  I would have loved something bigger or fancier, but I'm very pleased with how it turned out - given that I'm the one who did it.  I have a long narrow planter to the right of the deck.  I'm planning to put some pole beans in that planter (probably scarlet runner beans), and perhaps some smaller planters in the front - although I have to be careful, because the dogs and chickens will probably kill anything I try to grow.  :(

So the deck is in the back, and there's a nice spot in the front that could use a patio.  As luck would have it, we have a billion bricks and broken up pieces of cinderblock.  I started building a patio.  It will be a much longer process than the deck.  I figure if I build one 2' x 2' spot every couple of weeks, by the end of the summer, I'll have something awesome.  Here's the beginning.  It appeals to my quirky aesthetic.  
Since my home renovations have mostly been free because we're using reclaimed materials, I can accept a lot less than the $425 price tag Nordstroms is asking for their "mud-stained" jeans.  I'd take $50 for these, paint stained jeans.   Women's size 12 long.  I'll even wash them with homemade laundry soap and line dry them so that they'll smell real. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

Food or Medicine? It's Both!

Many years ago I happened upon a diet theory by this doctor who wrote a book that detailed the perfect diet based on one's blood type.  It makes sense that people with different blood types would have a different body chemistry ... or at least that they would react differently to different foods. 

Whether or not his theory is correct is not my point here.

What is my point is that we all know that what we put into our bodies affects us.  Some people, for instance, can tolerate large amounts of coffee with no discernible ill effects.  I drink a pot ... or two ... per day.  Yep - somewhere in the neighborhood of five cups, usually before noon.  Then, I switch to tea for the rest of the day. 

Don't judge me.

Coffee got a bad rap back in the early part of the 20th Century, thanks to cereal magnate C.W. Post, who lied about coffee so that people would buy his breakfast drink

Thankfully the greedy, fear-mongering, liar was not successful in his bid to rid the world of coffee, and in fact, coffee has been completely redeemed.  There are even studies that show that there are health benefits to drinking coffee.

Post was wrong about coffee, but he wasn't wrong about food, in general.  What we eat can do very good things for our bodies - or very bad things.

The good news is that we have control, even down to, we can grow some of our own food/medicine. 

I love growing perennial herbs.  Usually, I just find the herb, drop it in the ground, and forget about it, until I'm in the kitchen cooking, and I want to add some flavor to my food.   Back when Deus Ex Machina and I first purchased our home and started landscaping our blank canvas, the rule was that the plants had to be either food or medicine.  I was strongly discouraged from planting anything that was just pretty.  What I found was that a lot of really pretty plants (including flowers) are edible, and most herbs are useful in both the medicine cabinet AND the pantry.

Over the years, we've mostly moved our medicine cabinet into the kitchen, because many of our health remedies also end up seasoning our food.

One herb I didn't know much about until recently was oregano, and I discovered the benefits of this herb when I was looking for a remedy for candida.  Dr. Mercola talks about the health benefits of  Oregano.  Like many herbs, oregano has a plethora of positive health effects, but it's also yummy and it smells divine.

In a separate article, Dr. Mercola shares the benefits of peppers, which come in a huge variety of types and sizes.  I LOVE hot peppers, and I eat them on as many things as I can sneak them into, but I usually add them after, because my family doesn't love hot peppers as much as I do.

Gardening season is upon us.  If you're planning your garden, consider adding some plants that are both delicious and medicinal.  Herbs are a simple, easy-to-grow choice for adding both aesthetics and functionality to one's landscape - and many of them are perennial, which is a huge bonus!  Plant once, and enjoy for years.

And if one has some time, annuals, like peppers, can add some interest and zing to one's summer diet, while also imparting some positive health benefits.  I'm planning to put a few pepper plants in the strawbale garden (with the tomatoes), and a little container garden with some herbs is never a bad thing.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

How's the Weather Up There?

The maple sugaring season is over.  For the first time since we started sugaring, we actually missed the season.  Not entirely.  We were able to harvest enough sap for a couple of pints of syrup, but we're too keenly aware that if we depended on maple syrup as our only sweetener for the whole year, it would have been a long, bitter wait for next years' sugaring season. 

Someone told me that the season was in January this year, and we did have a really warm spell, but  then, it started to snow, again, and it snowed, a lot. 

And then, it warmed up and the snow melted, and the season was over.  We ended up procuring (through barter) a couple of quarts from a farmer friend.  Hooray for farmer friends!  As it turns out, I do have something I can trade with a farmer.

So, the snow is mostly melted, except in those few places where it was piled up by the plows in shady spots that the sun can't reach.  The other day, temps were in the 70s, and we took our dogs for a long walk.  We found some snow. 


I was reading this article this morning.  I pulled this quote from it: Virtually every growing environmental and health problem can be traced back to modern food production.

According to the article, in my children's lifetime, we will no longer be able to farm the land.  The topsoil will be sterile or gone.

I have a quarter of an acre, and I know that I don't produce 100% of the food my family eats - not even close. 

But I also don't work full-time (or even part-time) at it.  If my broccoli is overrun by weeds; if I miss the sugaring season, because we're hip-deep in dance competition season; if I drop an egg on my way in from the coop; if a squirrel eats most of my apples; if the birds get most of the hazel nuts; if ... if ... if ... it doesn't matter, because I can go to the grocery store and buy food. 

And I know all of this. 

But I also know that nothing is a given, and I still work at planting a garden and raising chickens and tapping our maple trees so that we have syrup, because I need these skills - just in case. 

And if just in case doesn't happen, so what? 

I planted a whole seed packet of peas and carrots yesterday - in containers, because I'm saving the garden beds for cabbage and broccoli, and the straw bales for potatoes and tomatoes.  The garlic is calf high already and the fruit trees and nut bushes have buds. 

My annual vegetable garden this year is only going to have a very few varieties - things we eat a lot of, that are easy to cook in single pots on the woodstove, and which I can preserve in some way - peas, carrots, cabbage, potatoes and tomatoes. 

The summer is already looking like it will be very busy with lots of traveling for Deus Ex Machina and our girls.  I, on the other hand, plan to spend a lot of time outside, in the garden, growing food.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Signs of Spring

Baby Chicks


Sunny, warm(ish) days spent in work boots and torn jeans

Deus Ex Machina and I were chatting yesterday about weather stuff.  We laughed at how in the fall, when the temps dip into the 50s, we're wondering when we should start lighting the stove, but this time of year, when the temperatures climb into the 50s, we're opening the windows to invite in the warm breeze.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Gift of the Maple

Many years ago, Deus Ex Machina and I were in a hardware store.  I don't remember what we were getting.  There on the counter were maple sugaring spiles.  We knew we had some maple trees on our property.

So, I held the spile up to Deus Ex Machina and asked if he wanted to get some.  He was skeptical, but game.  Not wanting to appear too naïve (i.e. ignorant), we carefully inquired about what else we would need to tap our trees.  The list was pretty short.

**  We'd need one spile per tree we planned to tap. 
**  We'd need a 5/8" drill bit to drill the hole (and we only needed that particular size, because that's the size most commercial spiles are made). 
**  We'd need something to catch the sap in - any food grade bucket or container will work. 
**  We'd probably want to cover the bucket or container to keep out debris and rain. 
**  We'd need a way to attach the container to the spile.

The hardware store employees outfitted us with three spiles with the little hooks for the buckets, one 5/8" drill bit, and three food grade buckets.

And we tapped our trees.

We used plastic bags from the grocery store to cover the buckets. 

That first year, we boiled the sap on our propane grill.  It took a long time, and being an engineer-type, Deus Ex Machina studied the problem.  He told me that to get maximum efficiency during the boil-down phase, it was a surface area to blah-tee, blah, and my eyes glazed over or something.

What he meant, I discovered, was that the sap will boil the best and most efficiently if more of the pan is on the heat surface - shallower, wider pans work best.

A decade later, and we have almost twenty taps with buckets and lids.  We also have two 5" deep pans that are approximately 24" square.  We usually boil outside over a wood fire.  We end up with a really dark, smoky-flavored syrup.  It's good, and we like it.

There's not a very big learning curve for boiling sap to syrup.  Once the tree is tapped and the sap collected, all that's, really, required is a pan to hold the sap while it boils and a heating surface.  We use wood.  Some people use a fancy evaporator.  We've used our propane grill.  We've also used a propane turkey fryer.  My friend boils her sap in her kitchen on her electric stove (she has a direct vent to the outside to keep the steam from soaking her kitchen).

Today, I am boiling sap on my woodstove.  It will also take a turn on the electric stove, but while I have the woodstove hot enough to boil water, I'm using that surface to save on my electric bill. 

It will probably take longer to boil it that way, because I'm using a big, deep kettle, instead of a shallow pan, but it's okay, because I don't have anywhere else that I need to be.  It's a slow, rain-chilled day, perfect for a slow, warming activity, like boiling sap to syrup.

I made a cup of tea earlier, using the hot sap rather than water.  I didn't need to add any extra sugar.  It was sweet enough to be wonderful.

I know that I consume too much sugar. We all do.  I also know that if my family could cut our sugar consumption that with our twenty taps, even in a bad year, we could make enough maple syrup to satisfy our sugar need for the whole year.

There's so much that's possible.  Usually, it's just a matter of deciding that it needs to be done ... and then, just doing it.


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

No, It's Not Your Imagination. We Are All Completely Crazy!

I am completely overwhelmed right now.  It's like when I first started hearing about GMOs.  I just knew that I had to do something.  As it turns out my something was completely inadequate, and while I've managed to minimize the GMOs that my family consumes, it doesn't matter.  Most people don't think anything about it. 

We have no idea what the long-term consequences will be of genetically modifying seeds and then planting those seeds outside where they can be open pollinated and the seeds can be allowed to disperse on the summer breezes.  We know what happens when alien species are loosed on fragile environments.  We know about invasive species and the resultant species loss.  You'd think that we'd be more cautious and concerned about these, not only alien, but also unnatural, seeds being allowed free-rein. 

But GMOs are cheaper at the grocery store, and cheaper wins.  Always.  And we're okay with that.

We're okay with that.

The other day I saw this meme on Facebook.  There were two pictures. 

The top picture was titled, "1950s" and showed a woman on the phone speaking in hushed posture.  The caption read, "I don't want to say out loud.  They might be wiretapping my phone." 

The bottom picture was titled, "2016" and showed a woman in her kitchen holding a cellphone.  The caption said, "Hey, wiretap.  Do you have a recipe for (something - I don't recall)?"

If we think about it - I mean REALLY think about it - it's chilling how far we've slid into this kind of apathy when it comes to external control and monitoring of our lives.  Back in the 1950s, the idea of  Big Brother watching our every move was horrifying.  These days, we have a whole TV genre devoted to people living in conditions in which they know their every move is being taped, watched, and scrutinized ... and we're okay with that.

We're okay with that.

There's this BBC television series called Black Mirror.  It's available on Netflix, and a friend told Deus Ex Machina that we should check it out.  It's the most disturbing thing I think I've ever seen. 

It's similar to the Twilight Zone, a television series from back in the 1950s and early 1960s in which, as they describe it, "ordinary people find themselves in extraordinarily astounding situations."  There was the one episode about the guy with the nagging wife.  All he wanted to do was read, and she just nagged, nagged, nagged all of the time.  Then, one day, there was an atomic explosion, and his wife was killed.  He found himself in a library with all the books he could read for the rest of his life.  Then, he leaned over and broke his glasses.

The television show, Black Mirror, is similar-ish, because it takes these situations that are extraordinary, but completely plausible - based on where we are heading as a society.  Many of the episodes we have seen deal with our increasing dependence on technology, especially social media.  In one episode society revolves around one's popularity on social media, and everyone is rated every day based on personal interactions with others.  Rudeness to a server will result in a downgrade.  Smiling kindly at a stranger could result in an uptick.  The goal is to achieve a 4.5 or higher rating, because people in that category receive all sorts of social perks, like discounts on trendy, high end apartments.  People with lower popularity scores find that they are ineligible for certain amenities, like renting a newer model car. 

But it's just like with money in our society.  Those who have it, somehow always find a way to get more of it.  Those who don't have it, struggle every day, just to have enough to get by.  It's a constant battle.

Essentially, it's just exactly what we have in our society right now with regard to economics, but with social media ratings.  People who are lower on the socio-economic ladder have fewer social perks than people who make more money.  And please note that even our word for one's "level" is social-economic, because our social status is very much entwined with our ability to pay.

The law in the United States was specifically written in an attempt to eliminate an aristocracy, but somehow we've still managed to cultivate this, sort of, class society.  Poor people are the lowest class (don't we even call them upper class and lower class?) with the least ability to move freely about society.  The upper class can, essentially, do whatever they want - cheat, steal, destroy, perpetuate violent crimes, even murder, and get away with it, because they have the ability to purchase away their crimes.

The BBC show was a lot like Wall-E - a very blatant criticism of our social structure.

The question is, what are we going to do about it?

People at the top aren't interested in what happens to the people at the bottom, and in fact, will continue to simply live their lives as they have been for centuries - with little regard for others as long as they remain comfortable.  Let them eat cake!  Oh, but then, pass an ordinance that prohibits baking so that they have to purchase the cake that they will eat ... or they have to go hungry. 

The sad, sad fact is that even people at the bottom, as they try climbing that social ladder, will show these same sorts of apathy toward others.  We have all sorts of clichéd statements to describe the phenomenon of stepping on others as we try to increase/improve our own social standing.

The fact is that all of the jobs that we do to maintain our way of life are extremely important.  Don't think so?  Try figuring out what to do when the garbage is overflowing and no one is taking it away.   Why do we think garbage men are less important than CEOs? 

I imagine that in a completely uncivilized life system, the organisms involved don't have these sorts of personal conflicts where their importance is questioned by someone higher on the food chain.  They are all important.  They all do a job that is necessary.  If one organism fails to do his job, everyone suffers.  Even the lowly fly larvae serve a very valuable and necessary function.

I watch these shows, and I'm terrified for us, as a culture.  We're heading down a very slippery slope.  Fiction writers have been warning us against it for decades, and instead of heeding those warnings, we're happily grabbing all of the amenities that our culture is giving us, thinking, "Oh, that makes life BETTER!"

But we're sicker, and we're sadder. 

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Seems we might be a bit insane, as well.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Yes, America, Climate Change WILL Affect You, Too

I was reading this article yesterday.  For those who don't want to click-through, it's about the perception of "climate change" by the American public.  The gist is that most Americans believe that Climate Change is a real thing - that is, that the climate is changing, and it could be a problem that, maybe, someone should do something about.

As the article points out, however, that problem is that, while most Americans recognize the fact of Climate Change, most of them don't believe it will really affect them.  I mean, we all know that those of us living on the coasts might end up having to move, because our houses will get flooded when the oceans rise, but what-evs, right?  We live in a mobile, disposable society.  Who cares if we have to move off the beach and further up the hill?

Unfortunately, it's really not that simple.  There are, actually, deeper concerns than just ocean rise that WILL affect us.

I read this article a few weeks ago.  It's been in the back of my head to say something about it, but I didn't know what to say, until I saw that report about the common view of how climate change will affect us. 

For those who don't want to click through, the article is entitled "The Five Big Mass Extinctions", and according to the article, around 251 million years ago, there was an eruption near Siberia that sent massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, and "methanogenic bacteria responded by belching out methane (a greenhouse gas)."  The combination of the two events caused a warming of the planet and an acidification of the oceans, resulting in a 96% species loss.  In short, life on Earth was nearly wiped out.

CO2?  Greenhouse gasses?  Global warming?  Acidifying oceans?  Sound familiar?

The end of the world is all too scary and catastrophic for the average, chick-flick-loving American to think too much about, and so we tend to bury our heads in the proverbial sands and just go about our day.  But the reality is that there are less apocalyptic events than the end of life on Earth that ARE occurring and that DO affect us.

First there is the issue of species migration.  When Deus Ex Machina was a kid, there was no such thing as opossum living in Maine.  I see them here all of the time, now.  They've migrated north with the warming of the overall temperatures. 

Opossum going north?  So what, you say?  Yeah, it's probably a good thing, actually, because opossum eat ticks.  Ticks are the main, known vector for Lyme disease.  In the last forty years, since it was first discovered, Lyme disease has proven to be a lot worse than was originally thought.  In fact, in a recent article Dr. Mercola states that Lyme will "plague America."  Most of us living in the northeast know someone who has had or does have Lyme.  It's a real issue. 

Ticks aren't the only disease vectors, and insects who carry potentially fatal diseases are moving into areas where they weren't normally found, because the environment for them has become more hospitable.  Tropical diseases, like West Nile, are finding their way into places as far north as New York City.  Zika?  Yep, on it's way up

Of course, that's no big deal, right, because they'll spray the mosquitoes, and we can just avoid ticks by staying out of the woods, or we can use a bug spray to protect ourselves.  Ignore that pesky evolution thing, you know, that allows species to mutate and develop immunities.

There are other issues that will, at least, marginally affect all of us.

One of the most concerning has to do with growing food.  Most of the produce we Americans find in our grocery stores is grown in California - an area that is being plagued by a decades-long drought.  There are places in southern California where their water supplies have completely dried out.  Changing climate patterns are going to exacerbate the drought conditions.  How much longer we will be able to depend on that area for our food production? 

Or, worse, when will they start to transport water, the way we transport oil, from water-rich places to those agricultural centers?  When will they start to take Maine's water to hydrate the fields in California?

Water wars are already happening in other parts of the world.  Lake Chad sits on the border between Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon on the African continent.  Over the past several decades, it has been shrinking.  The millions of people who have depended on the lake for their water are finding themselves in dire straits, with each country claiming the rights of access to that water for its citizens.  Imagine if Lake Superior started getting smaller, and the people of Michigan started to feel like the Canadians were taking more than their share of the water, but water is life, and we all need it to exist.  Both the Americans and the Canadians would fight for the right to access that water.  That's what's happening with Lake Chad.   As the lake recedes, there's less water, but there are the same number of people needing that water.

Another issue has to do with rising temperatures, and I know, this time of year, especially here in Maine, where I look out my window and I see snow still blanketing everything, summer heat seems a distant promise, but there are parts of the US where they may experience more than just heat.

I lived in the southeast US for most of my childhood and early adulthood.  I spent my elementary and junior high school years in Georgia and Alabama.  I lived in Kentucky as a teenager.  After I graduated from college, I moved to Florida for a little bit.  After I joined the military, I spent just over two years in South Carolina, Alabama and Texas.

The one commonality of all of those places was the astronomical summer temperatures combined with oppressive humidity (yes, even in Texas the humidity was oppressive).  I used to joke that we had to have gills to live there. 

It was only half of a joke, actually, and there is a term that is used to measure the combined heat and humidity.  It's called "wet bulb."  I actually experienced what wet bulb can do to a body when I was living in the south.  The gist is when the temperature rises, the human physiological response is to sweat.  When the sweat evaporates, it cools our skin and keeps our core temperature from rising.

The problem is that when the air is already too heavy with water (humidity), it can't evaporate our sweat off our skin, and we end up just dripping, but not cooling.  As a youngster, I suffered heat exhaustion when my body couldn't cool itself. 

One of the results of climate change will be an increase in the wet bulb phenomenon in the US southeast, and at some point, those places where I lived as a youth in Alabama, Georgia and the panhandle of Florida, may no longer be habitable by humans during the summer.

This year, we experienced a very long "January thaw", and we tapped our maples.  Unfortunately, for us, the weather turned cold and snowy again, and we haven't, really, harvested enough sap to boil.  We may or may not have any syrup this year.

The maple sugaring industry here in Maine has been hard hit for the past several years, thanks to some really weird weather.  Most of the last five years of sugaring have been short seasons for us.  For the sap to run, the nights have to be below freezing, and the days have to be above freezing.  We haven't had long enough stretches of that occurring for the last few years for commercial sugar houses to make what they used to make.  When sugarers get less sap, but still have to do the same amount of work to get the syrup, the price of the syrup increases.

Maybe most folks don't care about *real* maple syrup, but for those of us who do, it is a real-life example of how climate change is personally affecting us. 

Look around you.  There is something similar happening in your world - an insect or animal that wasn't in your town a few years ago but has suddenly appeared on the landscape; a plant that used to thrive in your climate that no longer grows well; a plant that your climate couldn't sustain that is suddenly thriving; more water in places where there used to be none; streams or lakes drying up; birds that used to migrate that have become year round residents. 

Climate change is real, and it's a real threat to life as we know it.  We probably can't stop it, now that it's already happening, but being aware can at least allow us to make some changes in our own lives that will help us weather the effects. 

I don't know how many more years we'll have maple syrup, but as a hedge, I could start planting other tap-able trees that were not cold hardy enough for our past climate.  Chances are, they'll do fine now, as my hardiness zone grows warmer.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Frugalista ProTip: Rewards Programs

I'm not usually one to promote spending.  The idea is to not spend money, and rewards programs are decidedly pro-consumerism. 

Like, the other day, I received a credit card offer, but it wasn't a usual offer.  The offer was framed in a way that made it sound like I was getting the better end of the deal, because they were going to give me "miles."  Basically, for every dollar I would spend on travel (let's ignore, for a second, that I don't do a lot of traveling), I should add two zeroes for the number of miles I would have to earn for them to pay.  The offer is that I would earn 1.25 miles for every $1 I spent.  So, if my flight costs $210, I'd need 21,000 miles to pay for it. 

Did you do the math?  That's $16,800 I would have to spend to save $210 on travel costs.  No, actually, I did not apply for the card ... but I did put the offer in the fire, and it helped to warm my house for a few seconds.  So, it was useful.

So, the idea that I'm actually going to discuss rewards programs - in the positive - is a little alien, even to me.

The point here is that if one is going to patronize that establishment, anyway, it actually does pay to join their rewards program.  For instance, I am in the middle of what has turned into a years' long renovation.  We're almost to the painting phase, and so I needed to buy paint. 

Back many years ago, when we first bought our house, our remodeling budget was, basically, $0.00, but I could, occasionally, purchase some paint.  And so, I did.  I remember it being really cheap.

Since then, I've had occasion to purchase paint, and it's not as cheap as I remember.

At some point, in time, I joined the rewards program for our locally owned/national chain Ace Hardware.  It's a home improvement franchise, which means the brand is national, but the owner is local.  It's a little more "local" than the Big Box stores. 

Anyway, I have this rewards card, and I let them scan it every time I go into the store to get something:  clover seed, garden tools, canning jars, screen for my rain barrels, nails and screws, hinges, clothes line, clothes pins - you know, hardware store stuff.

I don't think much about it, when I'm not in the store, but recently, I received some dollar-off coupons from them, and since I'm planning to paint anyway, I thought I'd stop by and see what they had for paint.

I actually lucked out.  I had decided that I was going to look at the paint mistakes rack.  This is where the gallons of paint that were mixed, but that the customer decided he/she didn't want, end up being sold for bargain prices.  I bought two cans of a beige/off white/coffee-like indoor wall paint for $9 each ... with a $5 off coupon.  Plus, the guy threw in a free can of this awesome blue color ... just because I smiled really big and babbled a lot - or it was sitting unused, and he just wanted to get rid of it.  One of those.

I have enough paint to do the whole room, plus probably some extra, for $13 ... all because I'm a rewards member.

I'm also a rewards member at a local coffee shop (it's a long story, but we get coffee every week before music and bring our music teacher a coffee).  For every 12 cups of coffee I purchase, we get a free one.  I get a free coffee at least once a month.  It's not a bad deal.  I save them up so that when I don't have the extra cash, we can still get coffee ;). 

Then, there's the music store credits/rewards. We can sell back used movies, CDs and books for either cash or store credit at this regional chain.  We also get points for every dollar we spend.  At the end of the year, that's how I buy holiday gifts for our annual Jolabokafloo (book flood).  We save up all year, and by the holiday season, I have enough points and credits for nearly everyone on the list.

I'm not a consumerism advocate, but since many of us do still purchase much of what we use, it is frugal to use our purchasing power to get some of it back.

What Rewards programs do you belong to?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Things to Do When the Power Goes Out

Tuesday, March 14, 2017, a big snowstorm "ripped" through the Northeast, "pounding" the New England states with more than a foot of snow.

Sounds pretty serious, right?

I'll tell you a secret.  Big snowstorms, in Maine, during the winter, aren't a novelty.  It happens.  In my two decades of living in here, it's happened more times than I can count.  I've stopped taking pictures of the snow, because as beautiful as each storm is in its own right, my computer, phone, camera SD card, and Facebook page are full of snow pictures.  They all look, mostly, the same.  It's snow.  It's white.  It's piled up around stuff.  Most of the time, I'm only taking a picture to record the sheer volume of the white stuff for those who don't believe that we got a lot of snow.  We measure it in feet.  When my southern friends talk about their three inches of snow, I laugh.  Three inches?   I don't even bother shoveling.

I'm not making fun.  It's just that, like really hot weather down south (and go ahead and laugh at us here in the northeast when we complain out our 90° days - you've earned it), snow is a normal event here. 

But I love the news stories that paint this - and every. other. snowstorm. in. every. other. winter - as something that's remarkable and new and different ... and newsworthy. 

I mean, yes, tell me about it.  Yes, cancel schools and close businesses, because driving in snowstorms, like the one we had Tuesday, is dangerous.  Yes, encourage us to stay home and enjoy some peaceful, quality time with our families. 

I guess it's actually pretty awesome that nothing else was going on yesterday that the purveyors of news had nothing else to tell us.  That's good, right?

What's more funny, though, was the news article about the woman who lost her power.  Instead of using candles or a flashlight, she used a headlamp.  Umm ... pretty sure a headlamp IS a flashlight, but whatever.

What was sad (other than that this was considered a "newsworthy" story) was this comment she made: "There's not much going on really, no TV, can't do anything."

So, for people who are looking for something to do during a power outage, I thought I'd make a list.

1.  Make a meal.

But how can I cook without electricity?  You ask.  There are dozens of ways.  I cook on my woodstove, but I realize that having a woodstove is the exception rather than the rule - even here in the northeast where winters are cold and long, and the electricity does go out ... a lot. 

A few years ago, my daughter was given a dessert fondue set as a birthday gift.  It was one of the most creative and fun "toys" she was ever given, and I completely fell in love with the whole low-impact aspect of it.  The ceramic bowl holds chocolate that is melted using a tea light candle.  It really works.  The chocolate really melts, and it really does get hot. 

I imagine that we could melt butter using this fondue pot.  We could, then, gently sauté some vegetables in the butter - things that are best served still slightly crispy - like broccoli - or that cook fast - like greens.  If we have leftover or canned meat, we can add that to the sauté.

It's also possible to roast marshmallows and toast bread using just the heat from a candle. 

2.  Play games. 

Like having a woodstove, I might be an anomaly when it comes to the collection of board games my family has, but given the huge success of game-making companies, like Milton-Bradley, I'm guessing I'm not.

But even if one doesn't have the assortment of factory-made games that I have, that should not preclude one from enjoying games.  Making a checkers board is so simple, even I can do it.  In fact, I did!  And it turned out pretty awesome - if I do say so myself

And the bonus of making the game board is that it will also take up a bit of time.  Making the board and playing the game could fill up an entire evening.

3.  Read a book.

This one can actually be a lot of fun for the whole family with everyone taking a turn reading, or the adults reading and the littles listening ... or the littles reading and the adults listening.  Pick a book everyone likes and make an evening of it.

Trust me ... it's WAY better than TV.

4.  Weave a basket out of plastic bags. 

Although I have never made a basket from plastic bags, I have made baskets out of barn rope.  Imagine the conversation piece when you're done. 

Friend:  Hey, that's a cool basket.  Where did you get it?
You:  I made it.
Friend:  What?  When?
You:  Remember that winter storm, Stella?  We lost power, and I made a basket, because there was no television.

5.  Play music.

Many years ago, I read the dystopian novel, "Dies the Fire."  In it, one of the groups of survivors headed by an ex-military type, meets up with a different group of survivors headed up by a Wiccan matriarch.  The paramilitary group is impressed when the Wiccan clan brings out their instruments and begins entertaining the group with songs and dance.  The military guy admits that he's missed music.  It was completely alien to me that no one in his group was the least bit musically inclined.  I mean, not even any a capella?

Okay, again, my family is weird.  We have a whole band's worth of musical instruments from simple recorders to an acoustic bass.  We could spend hours playing music together with each of us playing two or three different instruments - depending on the song.  I know not everyone is like us - although to be honest, we're not exceptionally talented.  It's just that we made this sort of thing a priority in our lives.  We like music, and how better to appreciate it than to learn to make it?

Not having a houseful of instruments shouldn't stop anyone from creating music, though. 

The other day my very talented daughter, who skillfully plays five different instruments, asked for a kazoo.  Um, okay.  We went to the dollar store in search of one, but the dollar store didn't have them.  What?  So, I found a tutorial on making kazoos from a toilet paper roll. 

It's easy.  Wrap wax paper on the end of a toilet paper roll. Hold wax paper in place with a rubber band.  Using a pencil, poke some small holes in the wax paper.  Hum into the open end of the cardboard tube. 

And, like the example of making a game board above, making the instrument will take a little bit of time. 

Don't stop at a kazoo.  There are dozens of musical instruments that can be made from stuff we just have lying around the house.   

6.  Make sock puppets.

One year we were trying to decide what to do for my daughter's birthday.  Initially, she asked for an ice cream party, and we thought we had booked the space at a local ice cream shop.  Her birthday was late in the year, and this seasonal shop was closing before her birthday arrived.  She was  so bummed!  Two weeks before her birthday, we were scrambling for something else to do with all of these kids who'd been invited.  We decided to move the party to our house, have an ice cream bar here, and also make sock creatures. 

We bought a book to help give us patterns and ideas, but I'm sure we could have used our imaginations to make them, also.  At the end of the party, all of the kids had a belly full of ice cream, and they got to take home a toy that they had made themselves.  It was fun. 

There are certainly adults reading this who are thinking, "What do I need with a sock creature?" and the answer is nothing, really, but there are places where one can donate toys - some of which may be tax deductible.

Or better, if one does not wish to make toys to donate to humans, how about toys to donate to shelter animals?  There are lots of options for making pet toys from stuff that's just collecting dust around the house.  I, personally, have several vases full of wine corks.  I should probably get busy repurposing those into cat toys.   

7.  Write a letter.

Admit it - you like getting snail mail.  So does everyone else, but no one ever writes letters anymore.  It's just too easy to sit down and type up an email message or send a quickie text message.  We're all guilty. 

Several years ago, before Deus Ex Machina and I were married, but after we had announced our engagement, his mother sent a card to me.  It was the middle of April.  The card was a Father's Day  card.  Okay.  I wasn't a father, nor was it Father's Day.  She explained that she and her friends had started a Crazy Card Club.  The goal was just to send cards, the crazier the better, because people like getting mail, but no one ever sends mail anymore (sending mail was more usual back in those days, because we didn't have email, yet, but phone calling had replaced letter writing). 

What better way to spend a day without electricity than starting up a crazy card club ... and it's something that can be done when one has electricity, too.  It's also a lot more fun to read a card from a friend than it is to watch some putz "lose" a million dollars on some ridiculous prime time game show. 

8.  Draw or make a picture.

When my daughter was eight, she sat down one day and started cutting shapes out of construction paper.  The result was this amazing picture.

I loved the pockets on the person's jeans.  The detail was just spectacular. 

If one was looking for something to do, because there's no television, drawing, cutting out shapes and taping or gluing them to paper, making a collage from magazine pictures, or just coloring in a book using colored pencils or crayons, can be therapeutic ... and certainly is something to do. 

We don't have a television, but we do watch stuff using our computers.  I'll also admit to spending a goodly portion of my day on the computer.  My children spend a lot of time on their computers, too. 

But when the power goes out, we don't lament not having Facebook or YouTube.  We do something else.  It's not a big deal, and we enjoy our day without electricity as much as we enjoy our days with electricity.

How about you?  What do you do when the power goes out? 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Hurry Up ... and Wait

This time of year is one of my favorites.  It's also a time of impatient waiting.  In my Army days, this would be the "hurry up and wait" phase. 

It's spring.  Yes, even in spite of the snow squalls the other day and the frigid temperatures for the past three, it's spring.  The snow banks are shrinking.  The sky is sapphire blue and clear.  The sap is running.  The chickens are starting to lay more eggs each day.  The wild birds are checking out the birdhouses to see if they'll make a suitable nesting place.  We even saw a Robin the other day. 

But it's still too early (and too cold, and there's still too much snow on the ground) to really start our spring chores, and so we're waiting, but also planning.

I submitted my chick order to the feed store this weekend.  We're planning to raise a few dozen meat birds this season and I've ordered four more laying hens (two Easter Eggers and two Buckeyes - which will be a new breed for us). 

It's also time to start planning my garden for the year. 

The last two summers my garden has really suffered.  Let's just say that my gardening duties were stretched too thin by a commitment I allowed myself to accept, and the result was that I ended up neglecting ALL of my gardens - even the ones right outside my door. 

One of my problems, always, is that I make a plan, and then, I allow myself to deviate from the plan - for lots of reasons.  I love garden volunteers, but they're also a problem, because when they're small enough to control, I often don't know what it is, and by the time I figure it out, the volunteer is not something I would have planted, because I don't know how to fully utilize it, but it's dominating my very limited garden space. 

So, that's actually part of my plan this year - eliminate volunteers in my vegetable garden spaces (they will be freely accepted and embraced throughout the rest of the yard). 

The second big switch in my plan this year is that I will only grow a very finite variety of plants - things that can be stored and that we eat a lot of throughout the winter.  While I would love to have a garden full of color and variety, the fact is that I have a very limited space, and I have, yet, to make the best use of it.  This year I am shooting for the biggest ROI that I can get by narrowing the number of crops I will plant.

The short list is:  potatoes (grown in strawbales); tomatoes (grown in strawbales); peppers (grown in strawbales); cabbage (in raised beds); garlic (already in the ground); carrots (in containers); beets (in containers); and lettuces (in containers). 

I'll also grow lots of herbs, as usual, and I want to add some more flowers.  The herbs and flowers are good companions (like calendula and nasturtiums grow well with tomatoes; rosemary and thyme grow well with cabbage; and marigolds grow well with potatoes).

I'll seed some summer squash and some zucchini in the front rock bed where the mint has taken over, and perhaps under the Granny Smith apple tree ... also where the mint has taken over.  I'll be happy if some grows, but not disappointed if the crop fails, because my primary focus will be on the seven plants listed above. 

I have several different companion charts saved to my computer and in books I have, but I think I like this one best for its simplicity.  All of the foods I'm planning to grow are listed - along with other plants that make them happy, and it will be a huge help to me when I go plant and seed shopping. 

In fact, I think I'll put a copy of it in my bag so that on those, occasional, times when we're out and we decide, on a whim, to stop at the nursery, I can keep myself focused on what I want to grow rather than being overwhelmed and dazzled by all of the awesome plants available (and bringing home lots of plants I have no space or time for).

We have half a dozen projects out in the yard this summer, including new rabbit hutches that will need to be built, finishing the woodshed Deus Ex Machina started in the fall, hopefully building a tiny greenhouse/glorified cold frame out of reclaimed doors and windows, a new compost bin, and repairing/replacing the fence.

It's going to be a busy summer.  Good busy.

Now, I just need to hurry up and wait for the snow to melt and the fun to commence.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Accomplishing Goals

In my dance mom post the other day, I forgot to talk about my success.

At the beginning of the year, I resolved to not purchase bottled water.  I already don't/didn't buy bottled water, for the most part, but sometimes it's just such an easy thing to do - you know, purchase water in a plastic bottle when we're out and about at functions like dance competitions.  The girls have to stay hydrated, after all, and the dry air in those auditoriums is migraine-inducing for Deus Ex Machina.   

Fact is that it's a costly convenience - even more costly than we allow ourselves to consider.

I am very pleased to note that we did not purchase any bottled water at this recent competition.  It was available, of course (at $3/bottle from a vending machine ... or at the store a block from the venue). 

Instead, I had brought with me one of my canning-jar to-go cups.  It's just a reused canning jar with a reused black plastic lid with a hole drilled in it (the lid was from a glass salad dressing jar - and we saved the jars, too) and a reusable straw (one of those that comes with the plastic reusable drinking cups that are all the rage these days - but which don't last as long as the straws last). 

I know - still a lot of plastic, but all of it, we reuse, which means we don't buy more.

Home-brewed iced tea - to go

Anyway, I had it with me, and then, I found that rare treat - a water fountain (also called a "bubbler"), and I just refilled it when we wanted water. 

It was free ... and probably the same kind of water that's in those expensive plastic bottles.

Most of us uber frugalistas understand that our saving $$ is also saving the planet.  Win/win.  Right? 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Waiting for the Perfect Match

We live in an instant-gratification culture.  We want what we see, and we want it now.  It's that attitude that has fueled the Rent-A-Center market of furniture acquisition ... and so many other consumer-centric aspects of our culture.

In fact, it's exactly that attitude that has fueled this Walmart mentality we all have, because Walt's initial mission was to ensure that everyone could afford the same stuff.  It's the attitude that has cultivated our entitlement culture, our belief that we, not only, need to be able to get what we want when we want it, but that we deserve it.

I had a conversation with my sister a couple of weeks ago.  We were discussing our household furnishings.  Many years ago, she and her husband were a young, newly married, military couple with no household goods.  Apparently, there's a whole industry in military towns for just the purpose of helping these families furnish their new apartments.  Back in those days (the late 80s), for $1200 (with credit available, of course), one can get an entire household of *new* furniture.  Sounds like a good deal, until one sees the quality of the furniture.  Still.

When Deus Ex Machina and I got our first apartment, we had a few things - some bookshelves and electronics, and a couch my parents gave us.  We bought an air mattress, which we used for our bed for six months, or so, and then, we bought a bed from a second-hand furniture store (also very prevalent in those military towns). 

When we bought our house, we discovered that we didn't have enough furniture to fill the space, and so we started finding odds and ends pieces.  We bought a table from Goodwill.  It was ugly, and I never liked it.  The chairs were crappy, pasted together pieces that fell apart (with one even breaking when a friend sat in it!).  We needed a bed for the kids, and we ended up purchasing a second-hand bunkbed - a double bed on bottom and a twin bed on top - when our neighbors offered it to us in advance of their move.  It sounded like a good idea, but it didn't fit in our space.  A friend gave us her beat-up sectional couch when she was moving out West.  Everyone's old dressers ended up in our house. 

In the early days, as we furnished our new home, too much money went to the purchase of things we needed right then that were poor quality and not very attractive (money, ultimately, wasted), and we also ended up with way too many pieces of other people's cast-offs that didn't match anything else we had. 

My sister and I had a good laugh about the many ways we have furnished our homes over the years.  I told her that my design scheme was shabby-shabby in a play on the popular Shabby Chic style, but my style isn't really style at all.  It's an eclectic combining of pieces that were not found or purchased with an eye for what would work in our space, but rather selected on the fly, because we needed something right then to fill an empty space.

For the past several years, we've had to live in the mess we created.  It was at that time that we started fixing the roof, and we had to figure out how to fit a whole room's worth of furniture (and a whole closet-full of stuff we were "storing") into the other rooms of our house - rooms that were already completely furnished.   

At first, there was barely even room to move, and we still have stuff piled into corners and stacked to the ceilings in some places.

But the overall result has actually been rather positive, because we are learning how to pare things down to what we need, to what is useful to us, and to what works in the space we have.

And I'm starting to envision what will actually work better and make the best use of our space.

The ideal would be if I could afford to commission someone to come into my house and design and craft furniture tailored to our space.  See, our house is non-conforming.  What that means is that nothing is standard.  The rooms are long and narrow or there are unusual archways or the doors are placed in strange configurations.  I know a little about the history of my house, and, yeah, it actually was a thrown-together as it looks on close inspection. 

But it's fun, and it's eclectic.  We actually had a friend, who knows us to be quirky and non-conforming individuals, who asked us if we built our house ourselves.  It was meant as a compliment. 

Because our house is so unique, the art of finding furniture for it, has actually become an art, and it requires a vast amount of patience and fore-thought.

After we moved our living room/dining room around and tiled what had been a carpeted floor, I started looking for more seating options for our living room.  The problem is that it is a very narrow room.  In fact, our couch is a bit too wide for the space, but at the moment, it's what we have, and we'll keep it.

Because the room is so narrow, there isn't a lot of room for additional chairs, and I knew that it would require something specific.   I knew that it needed to have clean lines, and that it should probably have legs rather than a solid base.  After looking for months at different chair designs, I finally settled on the winged-back chair design.

And, then, I started looking.  A new, leather one (my preference) would have cost in the neighborhood of $3000.  I couldn't imagine spending that much money on a piece of furniture.  Who does that? 

I waited and watched.

Finally, someone had one for sale on a FB yard sale site.  She wanted $30 for it. 

This chair fits perfectly in my space. 

And there was an added bonus to getting this chair - in order to make it really fit, I had to move a bookshelf that was across from the couch.  I've been planning to do it for a while, but just hadn't gotten around to doing it.  Bringing the chair into the house required me to take action on my plan. 

Moving the bookshelf into the office/bedroom helped to organize and clean up the office, AND it made the living room appear less cluttered. 

I really like the new chair, but what I like even more is that I took my time finding exactly (almost exactly) what I wanted, rather than feeling like I needed to get it NOW.  There's something to be said for patience.  Apparently, it's a virtue, but it also feels good to know I waited for something I wanted, rather than impulsively purchasing the first thing that came available. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Confession - I am a Dance Mom

There, I said it.  It's out. 

Of course, I'm pretty sure that it wasn't a secret, especially not after my very long-winded discussion of our trip to Las Vegas for a dance competition (where we actually met and competed against some of the "real" Dance Moms cast members).

My daughters have been dancing most of their lives.  Big Little Sister signed up for her first dance class on September 11, 2001 (yep, that day).  She joined the Competition Dance Team four years later, and it didn't take long for her sisters to follow her lead.  For several years, I had three dancers on the Team.  Any time anyone wanted to complain about the fees for their one dancer, I gave them the stink eye.  

Sometimes I feel a little disingenuous dispensing advice about being frugal and self-sufficient when I realize how much money we spend allowing our daughters to continue fueling their passion for dance.  It's one of those things we started, though, before I became as interested in simple living as we have become, and, at least in the beginning, frugal living is my passion, not theirs (as dance is their passion, not mine).  We decided that we needed to figure out how to live with both of these, almost contradictory, lifestyle choices.

It's not always easy, honestly.  Costumes, tights, leotards, shoes, make-up, hair supplies ... in endless, expensive rotation.  With three dancers, it can feel like we hemorrhage a small fortune every year, and it's any wonder that we manage to keep our heads above the red line. 

We've managed to stay pretty frugal in a lot of ways with regard to our daughters' dancing.  I made  garment bags for them instead of purchasing expensive luggage (like these that are a common sight at most competitions).  We found a tri-pod clothing rack that we purchased second-hand for $5.  It works well for hanging their costumes in the dressing room backstage at competitions.  For a lot of years, we used a camera bag for their make-up and hair supplies (most of their teammates have ones like this). Our camera case, which fit everything they needed, plus a few things they didn't know they needed, until they did, was free. We hoard bobby pins like they're gold, and we've learned some tricks over time so that we can minimize the use of costly hair products (like hairspray and gel, which my daughters hate). 

This past weekend marked the beginning of our dance competition season.  The team decided on three regional competitions this year - two of which are more than an hour's drive from our home.  Living in Maine, driving is just part of what we do.  Most of the people I know commute from some rural community where housing is affordable, like Buxton or Standish, to "the city" (Portland) to work - a drive which can take as long as forty-five minutes.  In fact, many of us dance parents, willingly, drive a half hour or more, one-way, so that our children can take classes at their dance school.  So, an hour drive doesn't scare us, and most of us don't think, much, about how much it costs us to drive. 

Competition weekends are very long and stressful.  The competition starts at 4:00 PM on Friday evening.  The Friday awards' ceremony can be as late as 11:00 PM (it's been later).  The next day, dancing starts at 8:00 AM (which means dancers need to be in costume with hair and make-up done and warmed up by 8:00 AM - not that they arrive at 8:00 AM and start getting ready).  Most dancers are in multiple numbers, in the same age/skill level, and sometimes even in the same category.  We've been at dance competitions where there was not more than an hour between each of my daughters' dances for the whole day.  That can be rough.

On Saturday, dancing lasts from 8:00 AM until 3:00 PM when they have their first awards ceremony.  The second half of the day starts at 5:00 PM ending some time between darkest night and the wee hours.  It's a long day for adults.  By the end of that day, many of the kids are Zombified.  Sunday can either be another day of dancing on stage or a day of taking Master classes (which is the best reason to do competition, actually - the chance to take classes taught by professional dancers and choreographers). 

When the first day ends at 11:00 PM and the next begins at 7:30 AM, and there are three hours worth of driving in between (an hour and a half home and an hour and a half back), most parents decide to find overnight lodging.

For us, it wasn't an option.  The frugalista kicked in, and we decided that we were driving back and forth.  Gasoline is cheaper (at the moment) than staying two nights in a hotel (plus, none of our daughters' dance numbers were scheduled before 9:00 AM, and so we had a bit more time). 

Hotels are expensive, and so is food, and since we're already under a lot of pressure to remember costumes and all of the accessories, it can be almost impossible to even start thinking about what we're going to eat in the middle of those pressure-packed days.

The problem is that if we don't, we either end up eating crap (like vending machine fare) or spending a lot of money eating restaurant food.

This competition, we got smart and actually thought ahead.  We packed a grocery sack full of snacks, like apple slices with peanut butter, cheese and pepperonis, carrot sticks, protein bars, cheese crackers, clementine oranges, and bananas. 

We also made sure to get up early enough that each morning, we filled travel mugs with coffee from home, and I made everyone a breakfast sandwich, which we enjoyed on the road on the way to the competition.

I won't say that we didn't spend any money on eating out while at the competition.  We bought a second cup of coffee both Saturday and Sunday, and we had lunch at this sweet, little locally-owned hamburger joint (with my sister and her husband who were able to come to their first dance competition ... ever! and see their very talented nieces perform).

Between the savings from driving rather than lodging and only eating one meal out, we saved, in the neighborhood, of $350. 

Next time, maybe we could get really smart, and maybe pack some mason jar meals.  While most of the non-salad choices require some way to heat the food, not all of them do.  Of course, we could probably bring our electric teapot and find an outlet to plug it into so that we could heat up water for one of the noodle jars.  Even if I had to purchase a 12-pack of wide-mouth canning jars, it would be  cheaper (and healthier) than most fast-food meals, and since we are dietary-restricted (no gluten) anyway, packing our own food means we don't, accidentally, end up eating something we shouldn't, and we don't have to spend extra $$ paying someone else to prepare food for us that won't make us sick.

Dance Competitions may not be a very frugal pastime, but there are ways that us frugalistas can make things a little more kind for our wallets.