Monday, December 5, 2016

Snow

Fluffy, flakes falling
like icy puffs of cotton
the world purified.


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

I know I'm in the minority, but I actually like snow ... not because I'm into winter sports.  I don't, actually, like being cold, and it always takes me too long to remember how to dress appropriately for the weather.  So, I spend a few very uncomfortable weeks while I get it right in my head, and remember where I stashed all of my sweaters last spring (and replace the ones that went into storage a little too threadbare to continue wearing in public).

Growing up down south, I always longed for snow, which almost never came.  When it did, it was like a gift, and usually we got a "snow day."   

Or it was just pretty.  When I was in high school, I lived deep in the Appalachian mountains in a coal-mining community.  During the spring and summer, everything was green, and the trees were all leafed-out.  We never noticed the grit and perpetual dust-cover over everything.  Then, Fall happened, and the gray, bare trees coupled with the layer of gray coal dust made the world look bleak, stark, dirty ... and cold.  It was always cold.

Then, it would snow, and there's no error or irony in calling the snow a "blanket."  The snow covers the world in this pristine, whiteness that is solid and clean, making hard edges soft.  It's cozy ... and yes, warm. 

Having moved north, I have a greater appreciation for the snow than even I had back in those days. 

When it snows, the ground freezes, which means that my dogs don't track mud into the house.  For a few blessed months, the white linoleum in my kitchen and hall is actually white, and there's just less dirt, in general.  I like having to struggle less for my house to look neater. 

The snow, literally, provides a blanket for my home.  The snow piled up around the foundation of my house provides an insulative layer, which means it takes less energy to heat my house.  Since we heat with wood, it's really nice when we use less of it, because gathering wood for the winter is a lot of work.

And speaking of wood, most of ours is stored against the fence that separates our property from our neighbor's.  It's uncovered.  With the snow comes a very dry air, which keeps the wood dry, and everyone knows that dry wood burns more efficiently (and hotter) than damp wood.

The dry air also makes doing laundry easier.  We have no clothes dryer.  On nice days, year round, we put the laundry outside, but when it's cool and humid (like most of our Fall days here in swampy, southern Maine), clothes don't dry very quickly.  Even inside on the drying rack, if it's damp, the clothes won't dry.  The worst time of year for us is in the early fall when it isn't, quite, cool enough to have the fire going (which helps to dry the clothes), but the days are too short and too damp to dry the clothes fully outside. 

The only thing I don't like about the snow is driving on it, but as a Stay-at-home, homeschooling Mom, I have the flexibility to call my own "snow days."

Making Money

If you were to ask me what I do, I would tell you that I'm a stay-at-home Mom (SAHM).  I *do* a lot of things.  I'm a volunteer for several non-profit organizations and work about 600 hours per year for those groups.  I have published two books.  I work as a resource teacher for the homeschooling community.  Oh, and I homeschool my daughters, too, and teach classes to other homeschoolers.  I am a Notary Public.  I write fiction.  I blog. 

But when people ask that question, what they typically want to know is what is my job.  My job is being a stay-at-home Mom, and having done a lot of other kinds of jobs, I can honestly say that it's the best job I've ever had - certainly the one of which I am the most proud.   

I wasn't always a SAHM.  From 1985 until 1990, I was a married-with-children college student (both as an undergrad and a graduate student) and had a job outside the home.  From 1991 until 1997, I was a full-time working Mom.  From 1998 until April 2016, I was a work-at-home Mom (WAHM).  I've done most of the possible combinations of working and parenting. 

Because I've had so many varied experiences, it surprises me when I'm criticized for my current life choices.  Having been there and done that, I know what works best for me, and while I don't ever tell other people they should do it my way, I do share stories about my amazing life, and it IS an amazing life. 

Unfortunately, not everyone wants to hear about it, apparently.  A few weeks ago, I posted three articles about being a SAHM on Facebook.  The first was a Facebook memory from last year that was a link to an article written by someone else who asserted that having one full-time parent at home was a luxury, for the other parent.  Having been a full-time at-home parent for two decades, and having (personally) experienced the social prejudices against parents who don't earn an income outside the home, I posted the article, because it was all true, and it is a very rare occurrence that someone writes a piece that supports the notion that SAH parents are not only *not* a financial drain on our economy, but also an asset to their families. 

The other two posts were links to my personal blog discussing my personal experiences as a SAHM. 

None of the things I posted, in any way, criticized working parents.  None of what I (or the other author) wrote implied that parents were bad for choosing working over staying home, nor that staying home was an inherently better choice.  The point was to ask that society stop vilifying SAH parents as being lazy and worthless, and to consider that there might be some really positive benefits to having a stay-at-home parent.

Because I am a SAHM, and because I chose to share that fact on my Facebook wall, a twenty-something year old woman, whom I know through some of my volunteer work, who does not have children and who was raised by two working parents, unfriended me, after we had a brief disagreement regarding the issue.   

She said that it was her opinion that society discourages women from working.  I told her that my thirty-plus years of experience both as a working mother and a stay-at-home mother said differently and asked her to give me an example of how mothers are encouraged not to work by our society.

She said that mothers (especially low-income parents) are told how bad daycare is, and then, because they need to work to support their families, are made to feel like horrible parents when they send their children to these awful daycare environments. 

Um ... okay?  And that is demeaning working parents exactly how?   

First, no one is forcing parents to use day care.   I agree that day care gets a (perhaps, well-deserved) bad rap.  Kids get sick too much, because daycare centers are breeding grounds for disease.  There is, often, too high a child to teacher ratio.  In too many cases (with one being too many), predatory people end up being care providers.  Day care workers are often paid low wages, and there is a lot of turnover, which means that there is rarely a consistent care provider for children at an age when they are developing trust bonds and need to know that someone will take care of them.

However, being discouraged to use a daycare center is not equal to discouraging mothers not to work.

In fact, parents have options.  When I was a poor college student with children,  I couldn't afford to send my kids to a full-time daycare center.  I only needed a few hours of childcare per week, and so I thought a private care provider would be my best option.  I went through a series of terrible babysitters (one who ignored my children, and left my son in a shitty, wet diaper all day, because he "wouldn't let her change him"; one who stole from me; one who neglected my daughter's diaper which resulted in a very painful and very serious yeast infection). 

So, we did what I call "tag-team parenting."  That is, we parents worked our schedules so that someone was always home.  It's actually a lot easier than one would imagine, especially when one works the kinds of jobs that the typical low-income person works (fast-food, retail), which have multiple options for work hours.    With two-parent families, it is possible to have two jobs and not need daycare.  As such, to assert that our society discourages parents from working based on the argument that day care is bad is, well, wrong. 

And, second, the real problem with her argument is the assumption that one needs a job in the first place.  I will admit that some amount of steady income is necessary in our money-centric culture, but there is a very strong propensity in our society to believe that one needs a good deal more money than is absolutely necessary. 

Between 1998 and 2005, I spent a lot of time researching and writing about being a work-at-home parent.  With the rise of the Internet age, parents found a golden opportunity to leave the workforce and imagine life as a telecommuter or home-based entrepreneur.  Dozens of websites and half a dozen books were written on the topic prior to the dot.com bubble bursting, but even after the dot.com bust, there were still plenty of opportunities for people who wished to combine the work/home life.  Websites like Guru.com were developed during that era and are still being used today by freelance workers.  There are also brick-and-mortar companies who allow some employees to telecommute, because the Internet allows remote workers for many positions, and research during those early years proved that companies who employ telecommuting employees can save a great deal of money on infrastructure alone (i.e. cubicle/office space, desks, computers, etc.).   When I first started my home-based secretarial service, my motto was "I can do anything from my remote location that I could do in your office ... except file!" 

The articles I posted and to which my former FB friend reacted were not about working from home.  They were about being a SAH parent, but I mention all of that stuff about working from home, because during those early years, one of exercises I encouraged working parents to do when they began contemplating quitting their 9-to-5 and going home was to calculate the cost of them having a job.  It's an important first step toward understanding how much (or little, as the case may be) that we are actually bringing home when we work outside the home.

If a parent works 40 hours a week at $10/hour, s/he earns $360 after taxes, which works out to about $18,000 per year.  The average cost for daycare, in Maine, is around $10,000/year, which leaves a working parent around $8,000 for living expenses.

Most jobs require job-appropriate clothing - some of which is supplied by the employer, but most of the time the employee must provide some or all of his/her work-uniform.  If we use the US Army clothing allowance as a guideline for what we might spend on work clothes, the total for our wardrobe is $350 per year, leaving our working parent $7,650 of take-home pay. 

With the exception of people who are lucky enough to live in a walkable community, getting to and from work requires some form of transportation.  For the average person, this means a car of some sort.  As a collective, Americans owe billions in automobile loans, the average payment is $479/month, but we'll assume that our $10/hour parent is paying only half that. 

Of course, a car payment is only part of the cost of owning a car.  In addition, there are just the basic costs, including: regular maintenance, like oil changes and tire rotations; gasoline, which is absolutely necessary if one wishes to use the car; car insurance (which is required now in all 50 states) and registration (also required annually in all 50 states).  Even if we just assume the very basic needs of our cars (gasoline, insurance, and registration), the cost will be around $1600 annually ($500 for gasoline, assuming 24 mpg with a 12 mile per day commute, which is average for Maine;  $900 for auto insurance; and $100 for car registration), plus the $2874 for the car payment.  Our working parent is bringing home $3176 of income for the entire year.

"But wait!  There's more."

Working parents work hard and long, and it is very easy in our culture to succumb to the temptation of convenience.  Convenience is costly.  The average working American spends $2746 on lunch.

Which, at the end of the year, leaves our working parent a whopping $430 to live on - or about $35/month to pay for everything else - you know, rent, food, heat .... 

When I did this exercise with working parents, the point was to show them that, sometimes, their job is actually costing them MORE than not working would.  If all I needed to earn was the $35 month, I could be an Amazon.com Marketplace seller, or better, I could collect and return soda bottles.

The point of doing this cost analysis early in my SAH parent career was to illustrate that having two incomes isn't, necessarily, better, and that, sometimes, the job costs more than not working. 

These are the thoughts that were spinning around in my head when this young woman attacked me for my comments about the value of having a stay-at-home parent, and her insistence my lifestyle is a privilege most Americans can not enjoy.  

I thought about that.  Most??  And then, I did some looking up of numbers.  According to this calculator, the middle-class income range in southern Maine, where I (and this woman) live is between $36,000 to $110,000.  The average income in Maine is $51,000, which means MOST of us are middle class.  Her assertion that most people here can't have my lifestyle was wrong.  A few, perhaps, but not most. 

The problem is not how much (or little) that we make, but rather that we are constantly bombarded with the message of MORE.  It doesn't matter how much we make.  It's never enough - if we believe what our society tells us.

Deus Ex Machina is an electrical engineer.  Many years ago, he worked for a company that developed automation equipment, specifically for the CD manufacturing industry.  This was back when CDs were still kind of new, and DVDs were just starting to enter the market.  It was cutting-edge stuff and was very exciting. 

He'd invited us to the facility on a few occasions, and with great pride, showed us the machines, which were, in fact, pretty nifty. 

One day, after we'd been to his facility a couple of times, he asked our, then, four year old daughter, "What does Daddy make at work?" 

She replied, without hesitation, "Money." 

Out of the mouths of babes. 

I know a few folks who find their jobs incredibly fulfilling and life-affirming.  These people are the exception, rather than the rule, however, because most of us work to make money, and how very sad that is. 

My goal in posting the articles about being a stay-at-home mom was just to share the fact that I am not less of a person just because I don't "make money."  My "job" is to be a mother to my children and to create a comfortable, warm, safe home for my family.  No one pays me, in dollars, to do this job, but it is the most life-affirming and fulfilling work I have ever done.  I posted those articles in the hopes that, as a culture, maybe we could stop placing value on people based solely on how much money they make.

That I was criticized for that stance was deeply troubling.

But for that woman, I hope that, if she ever does become a parent and chooses to continue working, she does so because she loves her job, and that it is fulfilling and life-affirming, rather than a necessary evil so that she can "make money." 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

May You Live in Interesting Times


Having buckets of seed in the closet is like storing cordwood in the shed, food in the freezer, and rice in the pantry; it's a small insurance policy and a good way to keep food costs manageable. ~ Peter Burke, Year-Round Indoor Salad Gardening, p. 55. (Chelsey Green Publishing, 2015)

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day. As conversations often do these days, it drifted onto the topic of the upcoming Presidential election.

While I'm not entirely convinced that we have the worst candidates ever, I've seen some very pessimistic prophesies that predict a very rocky next four years regardless of which of the two candidates gets elected.

In the early days of our country, two individuals would vie for the position of POTUS. There was a winner and a runner up. The runner up became the Vice President. It seems that the practice was discontinued during Thomas Jefferson's presidency. Imagine if that were still the practice today: Reagan/Carter; Bush/Gore; Obama/McCain; Clinton/Trump.

So, my friend and I were discussing the election, and I related the story of this very pessimistic prophecy, stating that it's going to be interesting (like the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times"), and he said, "So, I should start stocking up."

We chuckled, and I observed that he had some good storage areas - garage, basement.

Then, I told him that, maybe, he didn't want to store up canned foods, but rather seeds, and maybe he should consider planting some apple trees on his expansive (suburban) lawn.

When I got home, I saw the above quote, posted by my friend on Facebook.

Store seeds.

Today, we went to our garden plot and found overripe tomatoes and some beans that would be better left to dry on the stalk, as they'd reached that stage of too tough for steaming or eating "green." The seed saving has begun.


My friend didn't dislike the idea of saving seeds, but he also commented that he'd be storing rum. Between our two families, we'll probably be in good shape ;).

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Wanton Consumption ... A Birth Right?

Every now and then, I hear something or read something in which the entitlement attitude is so strong that my entire body has an intensely negative reaction, and I have to remove myself from the situation lest violence ensue.

Not really. I wouldn't get violent, but I do want to yell at the speaker until he/she recants the statement and begs forgiveness from the non-human, unrepresented masses who suffer immeasurably from those very privileged and entitled feelings and sentiments. Or from the humans who have and still do suffer across the globe so that we, pampered citizens of the United States, can continue to bask comfortably in our artificially sustained, climate controlled environments.

My oldest and his family were visiting recently. He has been waiting until his son was old enough to take his family to the Boston Museum of Science, which he very much enjoyed seeing as a youth. So, we all went.

The museum is dynamic with the exhibits changing frequently, and most of the exhibits are interactive, allowing visitors to actually work on problems and find solutions, or just to learn through doing rather than just seeing. Last time we went, there was an exhibit on Ancient Egypt. This time, there was a pretty amazing exhibit on spiders. I also loved the living wall - three stories high and planted with nine different plants - most of which are typical household potted plants, and several I recognized as being good for cleaning indoor air.

One of my favorite exhibits, not surprisingly, is the one on energy, which talks specifically about renewable and low impact choices. There's an interactive display in which one is given six magnetic pucks and five energy choices: fossil fuels, solar power, hydro power, nuclear, and wind. The object is to choose the best combination to light up the city of Boston with the least environmental impact. We played with it for a while, and I was finally able to light up Boston using a combination of hydro, wind and fossil fuels. I was disappointed that in order to power itself, Boston still required fossil fuels.

Which is probably why, after coming home at the end of a wonderful, very educational day, and seeing this very entitled comment, I reacted so negatively. I had just come from playing with an exhibit that shows, at our current level of usage, there's not much chance that we, as a population, will ever be able to release ourselves from our dependence on fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas), and the more we insist on our own, personal comfort, the more we destroy this place on which we are wholly dependent for our lives.

I grew up in the coal fields, and witnessed, first hand, the destruction of not just the beautiful land, but also of the communities. I saw how the coal industry kills, not just the environment, but also the people, who become bent and broken and old before they reach my age. They live in perennial poverty and constant deprivation. It's heart-breaking.

We all know the destruction drilling for oil wreaks on the environment, especially when it's deep water drilling, which is, really, the only untapped oil fields we have left to pump dry. How many coral reefs and sensitive coastal habitats do we need to destroy before we say, "Enough! I'll learn other ways to stay cool during the summer."?

The environmental nightmare caused by fracking for natural gas is all over the news. Fracking has resulted in the contamination of huge areas of ground water. Here in Maine, we are currently in a severe drought. Out West, they've been experiencing a severe drought for the past ten years. Can we REALLY afford to poison anymore of our water so that we don't sweat during the summer?

In short, we are killing our world so that we can live with a year-round, indoor temperature of 75°.

The comment that put my knickers in a twist was a person railing against her electricity provider's recommendation that she set her air conditioner to 78° to save money on her electric bill, and her assertion that she was not going to die of heat stroke in her apartment by having the AC set so high. I'm pretty sure if one is just sitting, watching television, that 78° is not hot enough to result in heat stroke (but to that, maybe if one turns off the television - and all other heat producing appliances in the apartment, 78° wouldn't feel so hot ... just a thought).

And I thought of that display, and all of the coal it takes to keep her apartment cool enough for her (below 78°, presumably).

And I thought of the fact that I've given up a lot of convenience to save money on my electric bill and have a lower impact on the environment. I don't have an air conditioner. I don't have a clothes dryer. I don't have a television or a VCR or a DVD player or a stereo with a CD player. There's no microwave in my kitchen, or kitchen-aid, or toaster oven, and my dishwasher is a counter-top model made for a single person who lives in a tiny home. I don't have a gas-powered lawn mower. In fact, I don't even have a lawn mower. What little lawn I do have is cut using a battery-powered weed-whacker. It takes a week to "mow" my lawn, because each of the two batteries only has about 15 minutes of charge, and I only have one charger, and it takes a whole day to recharge the battery. Fifteen minutes a day, for a week = lawn mowed. Wash, rinse, repeat. For the whole summer.

I don't say any of that to pat myself on the back, but rather to contrast attitudes. I don't think I'm a paragon of virtue, but when it comes to energy usage, I don't carry the attitude that I deserve to be cooler simply because I exist.

Recently, I stumbled across an article about an Eco-cooler. It is made from discarded plastic bottles (hooray for repurposing!), and it works to cool a very small, indoor space. It was developed in Bangledesh, where the average temperature during the summer hovers somewhere around the level required to smelt iron. It's hot. It's humid. And people live in tin huts. Even in the hottest places here in the US, we have dozens and dozens of opportunities and methods of getting cool that people who live in places like Bangledesh don't have. Talk about privilege. At very least, we have unlimited access to clean, drinkable water that's often cool as it comes out of the pipes that nearly every American apartment has as a necessity, not a luxury.

I posted the link to the cooler on my FB wall, because I thought it was very cool - you know, recycled materials, non-electric climate control device. A friend posted a rebuttal she had received from her friend about how it doesn't work. Well, excuse me, but for what it was designed to do ... and WHERE ... it does work.

For that little entitled Princess, who complained about 78° being too hot, it wouldn't work.

Which is why Boston will never be wholly powered by the hydro dam that runs across the Charles River, and on which the Museum of Science was built, or even by a combination of wind power and the dozens and dozens of solar powered homes I saw as we were leaving the city.

People don't want to give up their conveniences, because we live in a country in which we believe we work hard for what we have and we deserve to be happy and comfortable, and I wonder why a laborer in southeast Asia, who toils 60 hours a week under a baking sun in 110° temperatures with no reprieve from the heat ... often, not even a cool drink of water ... deserves less than I do.


Monday, July 25, 2016

Growng Food

I have a small yard. It's average-sized for a suburban yard, which are usually right around a quarter of an acre (or 10,000 sq feet-ish), but for where I live (Maine) and for what we're trying to do (be self-sufficient), it's a small space.

As such, I'm always on the look out for ways to grow food that don't take up a lot of space, but will give me the biggest bang for my buck.

I love growing things in containers. They're super easy to use, because they can be moved, they don't need a lot of soil, they don't (usually) need a lot of weeding, and crop rotation doesn't require much energy or planning. Depending on what one puts into the pot, there could even be several plantings of different things throughout a season. We had radishes in one container, they were harvested, and now we have carrots in that same container.

I also love repurposing and reusing materials, and I know that anything that can hold dirt, can be a garden.

This year I went a little overboard with that philosophy, and decided to try something I haven't really seen anywhere else, yet. I planted lettuce in a cardboard box.

And it's doing really well.



I've already harvested three salads for my family of five from this box, and it's still thriving. I have a few more banana boxes lying around. Perhaps it's time to plant a few more of these phenomenal "containers.