Thursday, December 31, 2009

Free Rice

We spent the month of December playing on

We "earned" 100340 grains of rice, which will feed one person for 5.23 days.

In the process, I learned that Franz Marc has a very distinctive painting style, that Degas often paints dancers, that J.M.W. Turner likes to paint boats on the water, that Jan Vermeer's paintings look almost like photographs, and that Albrect Durer did a painting entitled Young Hare that I would love to have a print of.

All three girls can pick out Franz Marc's paintings and a favorite is the Blue Horse.

I can correctly identify a Vincent Van Gogh painting with very few exceptions.

I also learned that I rock in English grammar and French vocabulary, and I'm not great at it, but that I actually like, basic math (which I couldn't or wouldn't have said mmph mmph mmph years ago when I was suffering through public school math).

I can pretty accurately name most of the countries in the Americas and Europe (except that I always mix up Norway, Sweden and Finland ... almost every time), but anything ending with ~stan, I will almost always miss on the first try. I always thought Saudi Arabia was the only country on the Arabian peninsula, but Oman and Yemen are below S.A. near the Arabian Sea ... now I know. And there are dozens of tiny little countries that are just specks on the map.

It was a lot of fun, taught us a few interesting things, and may have done some good for someone else.

Thanks to thissideofguady, who played along and earned 7000 grains of rice.

Happy New Year, everyone!

I'm a Prepper ... er, He's a Pepper

Not that I'm trying to promote drinking softdrinks (especially now that they contain High Fructose Corn Syrup as opposed to cane sugar - as they did back when this commercial was made), but I thought, unlike Woolysheep (who has just called me old *grin*), there might be a few folks who didn't get the title of my I'm a Prepper post ;).

So, for those who weren't around in 1977 to enjoy David Naughton's commercial success, I offer the following:

I'm a Prepper, He's a Prepper, She's a Prepper, We're a Prepper ... Wouldn't you like to be a Prepper, too?

Over at A Homesteading Neophyte Phelan had a link to this Newsweek article entitled "Survivalism Lite." Basically, the article brings to light the current "prepper" movement, of which, I guess, I am a part.

When I first started "prepping", it wasn't about getting ready, though. The goal was to reduce our cost of living so that we would have the freedom to choose our work ... or choose not to work at all (for money), if that's what we wanted. The goal was to create freedom through self-sufficiency, a la Dolly Freed and her father, the Old Fool.

What that meant was that we needed to be self-sufficient, at least to the degree that our living in the suburbs would allow. We would need to grow as much food as we could, generate as much of our own power as possible and/or reduce the amount of energy we use, and have our own water source. We would need to be as independent from the grid as we could afford to get. In doing so, we would reduce the amount of money we needed to survive. The goal was to change our lifestyle from being fully dependent on outside resources for our survival to providing for our own needs, and the way to do it was to simplify, conserve, recycle/reuse, and preserve - the exact kinds of things that today's preppers and yesterday's survivalists do.

Of course, then, I started reading about Peak Oil and climate change. And then, the economy started tanking and the housing market took a nose-dive, and the stock market has crashed more often than a test dummy over the last two years.

The movement, if that's what it really is, has reached the consciousness of the mainstream (I seem to recall that someone predicted the "survivalist movement" would go mainstream in 2010, but I don't remember who it was) thanks to the Newsweek article, and despite the fact that the comments were, almost overwhelmingly, negative and rude toward those with a survivalist mindset, there is a great deal of sense to doing, even a few small things, with preparedness in mind.

I have lived through several recessions in my lifetime, and twice there has been, not just a regional or national energy crisis, but a worldwide energy crisis - enough to get people worried and looking for alternatives. Back in the 70's, when it was not due to depletion, but politics, the goal was to become self-sufficient with regard to our energy needs as a nation so that we could avoid any future energy embargoes. If we didn't need their oil, they couldn't hold it over our heads.

But we seem to have rather short memories. Now, as then, almost as soon as the price of gasoline started dropping again, people went right back to their wasteful behaviors. It's like we took the Red Pill, but realized Reality Bites and decided to go back to our illusion, like Cypher.

The 1970's oil crisis started in 1972 as a political move by the OPEC nations, and in 1979 the political move seriously back-fired creating the oil glut of the 1980s. It was like this rollercoaster ride, and everything was really uncertain.

In this country we are heavily dependent on oil for everything from our day-to-day travel plans to thet food we put on the table (and make no mistake, if our diet includes anything from the grocery store except some local produce and dairy, our food is saturated with oil). Reducing the amount we, personally, drive or buying a car with better gas mileage or even heating our homes with alternative fuels won't insulate us from a future oil-related crisis.

Should our country's transportation network be crippled, we'd all be in a world of hurt, and there are a lot of things that can upset the transportation network ... things that have happened in the last decade.

Storms along the Gulf Coast have affected oil refineries and production, which caused some shortages in gasoline deliveries and runs on gas stations in the Atlanta area just last year.

Hurricane Gustav caused significant power outages in areas of Texas, where people had a hard time getting just basic supplies, like potable water.

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City closed down air transportation for three days.

Ice storms in 2008 and 2009 caused massive power outages across the northeast and all but crippled parts of Kentucky.

And the most consequential of all disasters is the economic collapse manifested in housing foreclosures, bank failures and rampant unemployment. If those people, who are today suffering under the weight of their massive debt, losing homes, and going to bed hungry, had been a little more of the "prepper", some of their problems would have been mitigated.

I can say this, because while we didn't lose our jobs, Deus Ex Machina and I did experience a significant reduction in pay during the first part of the year, but survived it, specifically because we were prepared.

And the December 2008 ice storm that hit the Northeast knocked out our power for four days, during which we stayed warm and cozy in our home with plenty of food and water. We even stayed clean and did the laundry. All of which was only possible, because we are prepared just in case.

It doesn't take TEOTWAWKI or the Apocalypse to create a "survival" situation. Nature and man are equally destructive and most of the time the things that happen we can not predict or control, but we can be ready, just in case.

It's not crazy, idiotic or weird to believe that life is often unpredictable. The power grid is fragile, and our food delivery system teeters on the brink of collapse all of the time (most people may not realize that the grocery store has to be restocked, constantly, and there's a maximum of three days of food available at any given time). Having a well with a hand-pump outside, a few chickens and rabbits in the backyard, a healthy garden, a generator in the garage, and a winter's supply of stored food just makes good sense.

We are a nation of Pioneers. Our ancestors prepared for the worst, prayed for the best, and they survived, because their priority was considering what might happen in an uncertain future and being ready for it.

The rest of us would do well to take their example.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2010 Predictions

All of the learned and scholarly bloggers out there will be making predictions for the coming year, and I couldn't miss out on the fun. The only problem is that, until it happens, I usually have no clue as to what is going to happen - other than some ambiguous and non-commital things are bad and will likely get worse (before it gets better) commentary. Even hypothetically, I can't completely commit.

But what I can do is predict how things might go for me, here at the Wyvern Heath, because I have more control over what we do here, and because I know the direction we're likely to go based on things that are happening right now.


I'm pretty sure that my family, like the rest of the world, will get poorer with regard to our disposable income. I think things will get more expensive, and that our dollars won't go as far. In particular, I think the price of gasoline and food will increase, but the changes will be so subtle that most of us won't even notice ... at first ... because we'll be so focused on something else (like the Health Care Reform, or the next season of Survivor). By the time tourist season comes around, with the usual increase in the cost of gasoline, we'll be wondering when the price per gallon got to $3 (and at $2.69 right now, it's not too far away).

I have some inside information about our future job status, and I think some big changes will be announced in the coming months with that regard. I believe that it will affect our overall income.

A big focus for us has been debt reduction and the adopting of a more frugal lifestyle. I believe we will be rewarded for our efforts, thus far, and that we will be able to pay off the most significant portion of our debt this year, which will enable to begin living the "possum life" or the "good life" or whatever euphemism one wishes to use that describes living self-sufficiently with only a small income.

Living Arrangements

Our living space will contract this year, probably in mid-winter or early spring. The overall square-foot-per-person will be significally reduced. The transition will be pretty rocky, as it was last time this sort of thing happened to us, but I think we'll adjust pretty quickly.

Low-Energy Updates

I predict that we will take some huge and more permanent steps to making our house more livable in a low-energy future. This will be the year that we move forward with adding some alternative energy generation equipment. We're looking at a few different options, and while our goal is not to generate all of the electricity that we are currently using, we do plan to continue powering down with the goal of having electricity only for those few things we feel are necessary, like the computers (for income potential), and a freezer for the meat.

In addition, this will be the year that we solve the water issue with something more than we'll fill buckets in the brook as our solution. Where I live the water table is close enough to the surface that it can be reached with a shovel. The goal is to dig a well with a simple hand-pump. The well water will be used to water the animals during the winter, and eventually, we will transition to using our well water for all of our drinking and cooking with the municipal water used solely for washing.


This will be the year that we focus more fully on wild foods. We, now, know where we can satisfy most of our dietary needs with locally produced food, but we still spend a great deal of money on the food we eat. We will continue to patronize our local farmers, grow a garden, and raise chickens, ducks and rabbits, but we will also collect and process more wild foods to increase our stored foods and expand our diet.

In addition, this will be the year that we (finally) break some deeply entrenched eating habits and reduce our dependence on the industrial food chain even further by breaking our addictions to certain food items, like cane sugar and wheat-based products.

Which brings us to the last prediction:


This will be the year that we add bees to our homestead. We will also begin harvesting mushrooms, and with the honey and the mushrooms as cash crops ... well, that will be for 2011 :).

Regardless of what happens, it's bound to be a fun ride in the next year, and my challenge will be to slow down and learn to enjoy the minute details of my life instead of hurrying to the next day so that I can evaluate what happened the day before.

Life is in the details, and no matter what happens, all I can really count on is today.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Planning for the Future

I had a wonderful conversation with a family member over the holiday. He just watched Food, Inc. and suggested that I watch it (*grin*). At which point I informed him that the subject of that movie has been the focus of my life for the past two years or more ;), and I offered to let him borrow Omnivore's Dilemma and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Apparently, he doesn't like to read, and so I may have to get him Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma for Kids: The Secrets Behind What You Eat :).

Encouraged by his excitement in finding someone who was informed about the topics the movie discussed, we talked about all sorts of things from how the industrial food chain treats the animals in their care to Monsanto and their underhanded antics, and I told him about the Safe Seed program of which Johnny Seed is a member.

When we got home and checked our mail, there was my catalog, and I exclaimed, "Merry Christmas to me!"

Right inside the front cover is Johnny's Safe Seed Pledge in which they state that they do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered or modified seeds or plants.

A few years ago I was a participant in a short debate, the gist of which was that one person said there was no way to know where the food came from unless we grow it all ourselves, and no one can possibly do that. I didn't agree then, and now I know better. We can know where our food comes from, and all it takes is just a little bit of conscious effort.

Of course, that's the bottom line, right? Consciousness, being aware, paying attention.

It was so amazing to have that conversation with my family member and to know that it's catching on. For every person I meet who still thinks buying the 40 pack of frozen hamburg at Sam's Club is a great deal, I meet another who wouldn't touch those burgers with someone else's hand.

The family member expressed concern about Big Business's deep pockets when it comes to manipulating and controlling where our food comes from, and I said, it's true, that, not only do they control the food supply chain, but they also control our government. Afterall, when our Secretary of Agriculture (Tom Vilsack from Iowa) has a vested interest in Agri-business, and our Secretary of Treasury is the former CEO for the Federal Reserve with a hand in the hip pockets of the likes of Goldman-Sacks, Lehman Bros., and other big banks, we little guys don't stand a chance.

We, little guys, have no voice, because we don't have the money to put where our mouth is like the big guys, and it's all about the money, right?

And that's where I said, he was wrong. We do have a voice. It's tiny and squeaky, and they can't really hear it in Washington (especially from Maine with only two Repersentatives in Congress, against the five from Iowa, Secretary Vilsack's home state, or the thirty-two from Texas).

We may not have very many dollars as individuals, but collectively we have a lot, and every dollar I take out of the industrial food chain and every dollar my family member takes out of the industrial food chain makes our voices just that much louder.

I told him that Big Business is like the wind - loud and blustery and hard to ignore.

Me? I'm like a little, steady trickle of water. No one may even realize I'm here, but eventually, I will do far more to erode away that mountain than the wind.

Margaret Mead says, "A small group of thoughtful people can change the world .... It's very cool when I meet others in my everyday life, who are quietly working that change.

A small group of thoughtful people can change the world ...

... indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Time Versus Money

It was an interesting holiday season this year.

For whatever reason, I was too busy or too focused on other things to realize how close we were to "the" day until it was only a few weeks away. A lot has happened over the past twelve months. The world has contracted on itself, almost perceptively, and in a lot of ways, I feel like many of us thrivalists and survivalists and doomers are sort of holding our breath, waiting for that proverbial hammer to fall.

This is the end of the world as we know it ... right? All of the signs are there, the economy is buckling (despite reports to the contrary regarding a recovery), oil production is diminishing, crops are failing ... all of the predictions of a catastrophic end are coming true.

And then, there's been the weather, which has just been really weird, especially this winter. I mean, I'm sitting here, it's December 27, and the temperature outside was 50° today. It's raining. Some of you are thinking, big deal, but I live in Maine, and it's supposed to be cold right now. Since it hasn't been cold (just for reference, this is our normal spring weather), it just never felt like we were getting close to Christmas. In fact, I clipped lettuce from my unprotected lettuce bed for Thanksgiving dinner, which just doesn't happen in Maine. All of my garden beds should have been under a 4" deep layer of mulch by the end of October, and under a 12" layer of snow by Christmas.

Plus, there's a local farm that is offering a winter farmer's market at their farm store. I can get fresh, local vegetables, now, in December, in Maine. Last time I was there, at the beginning of December, they had tomatoes. Tomatoes!

All of which made thinking about the holidays a little difficult, and as a result, at the beginning of December, I hadn't decided what I wanted to do with regard to what I wanted to give to my family members, and it was getting too late to make things for everyone.

In a perfect world, I make gifts for all of the people on my list. The gifts are specific to the person and planned out well a head of time. Like, last year, I decided I wanted to make a lap quilt for Deus Ex Machina's grandmother. I made it "for" her, with her in mind as I was cutting and fitting the pieces together. In fact, the fabric was chosen because it was her favorite color. I was very proud of my quilt, which included my very first attempt at making an actual quilt block. I used the North Star design, because I like it, and it wasn't too difficult to understand.

I also made a bunch of games for Deus Ex Machina's nephews and gave reversed applique t-shirts to his sister and brother-in-law.

I started thinking about what I wanted to give in October, and I started making gifts before Thanksgiving. By Christmas, I'd completed everything I'd planned to make, including pajama pants for Deus Ex Machina and the girls.

This year, though, I lost time, and I realized that we can have one or the other. In our society, in life in general even, we either have time or money. This year, I had only a little of both, and I was able to make some things I'd wanted to make (like the knitting needle holder for Grandma K and a pair of PJ pants for Deus Ex Machina :), but more of the things I gifted this year were bought than were made.

I don't mind, so much, buying things, but I rather prefer to make them, and frankly, I rather prefer receiving handmade gifts, because I know that the person who gave me the item really spent time thinking about what she wanted to give. It wasn't simply a matter of random selection at the store, which isn't to say that I believe all store-bought gifts are randomly selected (like the Merino wool Ragg socks Deus Ex Machina gave me, because he knows they are my favorite socks), but I just think that something handmade took a great deal more time and energy and thought to create than an item that was picked up on a last minute shopping spree on the last Saturday before Christmas.

The most interesting lesson from the holiday, for me, centers on the realization of what the phrase "time is money" means. We all know that it means our time is worth some arbitrary monetary value we have set on it, but it's really more than that, for me, now. It also explains how we got to where we are in the country.

I'm reading the Little House on the Prairie series now. I know I seem a little old to be reading these books for the first time, but what's good about having waited until now is the mature eye I can give to the story I'm reading. What I see are all of the little cost-saving measures Laura's family takes, how they make most of what they need from materials that are readily available in their local area - like the shelf that Pa makes for Ma's figurine.

And the figurine, too. It's a purposeless, frivilous item for which Pa spends countless hours carving an intricately ornate wooden shelf, and what I realized was that, even a lack of money did not prevent them from having beautiful things.

What Pa had, though, was time. Time to carve the wood into lots of little leaves and stars.

They had time to butcher the pig and salt it and hang it in the attic for the winter, and time to do all of the things they needed to do for sustenance through the long winter in the Big Woods.

When we, as a culture, gave up our subsistence lives and embraced industrial society in an attempt to become richer, we sold our time. We sold the one thing that would allow us to live richer, fuller lives so that we could have cash.

That fact was made crystal clear to me this year, as I rushed about in the last week before Christmas trying to be sure that I had a gift for everyone on my list. In our society we either have time or money. Rarely do we have both, and the way things are going, we may find that we have neither.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays!

May your season be filled with abundance ... whatever that means to you ;).

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Recycled Christmas

I haven't purchased wrapping paper or gift bags for years. I save and reuse them.

Best case people think I'm eccentric.

Worst case they think I'm cheap.

Either way, I don't care. I hate single-use items. They're such a waste, and any opportunity to use something again - even if it wasn't meant to be used more than once - is one I will take.

We've used all sorts of things to wrap presents in the past. My girls have grown accustomed to using colored paper to wrap gifts. It was something we started years go, and the wrapped package would, then, be decorated by the gifters. It was our way of personalizing the gift just a bit more.

It's just that colored paper is expensive, and using clean sheets of paper to wrap gifts, especially considering the paper will, then, just be discarded, is no less wasteful than buying a tube of gift wrap.

But I don't buy wrapping paper or gift bags. I reuse them - or get them from free from one of the many nature conservation groups I've donated to. Unfortunately, this year, my stash of recyled paper and bags is running low, and I needed a different solution.

I don't know why I never thought of it before.

Catalogs make great wrapping paper - free, readily available, recycled, and recyclable.

Next year, I'm going to allow Precious to indulge in her incessant collecting of free newspapers that usually end up in the recylcing bin. But instead of just tossing them, I'm going to save them for use as wrapping paper - free, readily available, recycled, and recyclable.

I'm finding the holiday to be an amazing opportunity to engage in some creative thought exercises ... and how much fun is that?!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Living with the cold

These guys make me feel a little like a wuss for insisting on the woodstove, but they are proof as to what I've been saying for a while now, and also what I've been reading of other people's adventures around the blogosphere for a long time:

1. The ambient temperature inside a building does not need to be summer-time warm for survival purposes. People have survived and even thrived with rooms where the temperature in the morning was cold enough to freeze water.

2. It is possible to live without an oil furnace.

Hey, honey ... ;).

When I was at the mall this weekend (another story I'm working on ;), there was a vendor for this heater (and the salesman dropped Bob Vila's name, as Vila apparently likes his EdenPure heater).

The heaters are electric and use about 1500w of power, which I think is a lot of electricity, which I said, and to which the salesman replied, "Well, that depends." And I said, it's a lot of power if one is off-the-grid and using solar panels, which we're not (yet), but strive to be.

While I think electric heaters are a better option (especially ones that are as efficient as these) than an oil or natural gas furnace, if the goal is to be off-the-grid, electric heat is definitely NOT the way to go.

Our woodstove is plenty, right now, and mostly, we don't need the furnace. If we make sure that the woodstove has a couple of pieces of hardwood in it before we go to bed, it will keep the house warm enough all night long.

Sometimes, though, if we're not home for a long time and it's really cold out, the furnace kicks on, which is good, because without the house kept above freezing, our pipes would freeze, and really, that would be a serious disaster in my house, where we don't have access to the pipes under the house.

I think an electric heater in the bathroom that was on a thermostat and set at 55° would be a better than trying to heat the whole house with the oil furnace when we're not here or when we're sleeping and the temperature in the house falls too low.

Both the furnace and the electric heater use electricity, but the furnace also uses oil, and my bet is that it doesn't use much less electricity than one of those electric heaters.

The best option, of course, is for us to just stay home so that we can feed the fire ... or to put in a second woodstove, back in the back bedroom, near the bathroom ... but then, I'd need to build a root cellar to store my potatoes.

What? You don't have potatoes in your bedroom?


Last night my family and I attended a Solstice celebration where we built a gratitude bundle.

Deus Ex Machina asked Little Fire Faery and Big Little Sister what they were thankful for, and both replied, "Everything."

I am thankful for them, because in everything they do and everything they are I am reminded that there is great good in this world ...

... and that's what gives me hope for the future of our species.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

So Sad!

A home without books is a body without soul. ~~Marcus Tullius Cicero

City of 230,000 is losing its only bookstore.

It just boggles my mind how a city that large doesn't have more than one bookstore. There aren't even any small, independent booksellers in the city. I don't believe I've ever lived in a city where there weren't multiple bookstores, most of which were small-timers.

When Deus Ex Machina had to travel for work this past year, he was staying in a similar community (southwestern border town). He went looking for a bookstore while he was there and told me that he had a hard time finding one. That surprised me at the time, and I'll admit that I was sketical, thinking he just didn't know where to look. Sometimes bookstores just don't have the biggest signs.

But ...

When we went on our honeymoon, we found no less than four independent bookstores within a reasonable driving distance of the hotel where we were staying.

And ...

In a 15-mile radius from my house, with a total population (in six communities) of just under 170,000 residents, we have seven independent bookstores that I can think of - one of which has a very niche audience and another that is only seasonal.

In fact, there's only one chain bookstore in my area (and it's thriving, too!).

It's just very sad to me, especially considering how I feel about books :).

The good news is that the city featured in the article, apparently, has a thriving public library system. I guess that's the silver lining.

It is books that are a key to the wide world. If you can't do anything else, read all that you can. ~~Jane Hamilton

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Scooping Water into a Sinking Boat

"The idea you can solve a problem of too much debt and too much consumption with more consumption and more debt defies belief. I cannot believe that grown-ups would stand there and say that." Jim Rogers, as quoted in an article that was referenced on The Automatic Earth.

We, simply, can not continue to spend money in an effort to fix the problems we've created over the past century, especially given that pursuit of money is what got us to this point in the first place.

Giving water to a drowning man will not save him.

So, what do *I* suggest? I suggest that we stop focusing on money, and, instead, provide the tools that encourage self-reliance.

What do we need?

Shelter. Give us our homes - free and clear; no debt.

Food. Do away with ordinances and rules that restrict gardening and animal husbandry.

Give us the tools and resources (not money) to take care of ourselves, because here's another fact, a child will never learn to walk, if he is never put on the floor and forced to do it.


I've been working on ways to make my home more livable in a low-energy world.

As we all know I don't use my clothes-dryer. I'll never tire of seeing my laundry blowing in the wind against a backdrop of snow. It amuses me. Right now, though, the air is pretty moist, and the clothes don't dry well outside, especially if I don't get them off the line before dark, which is about 3:30 in the afternoon right now. When I went to take this load off the line, several of the clothes had frozen to the line, and the jeans were stiff, like cardboard. It was pretty funny. Of course, the fact that I might be easily amused can not be overlooked :).

We're not, really, considering moving (although if we find a house on a larger piece of land that has an in-law apartment and is in a price-range we believe we can afford, we'd have to consider it so that we could combine our two households - MamaDaughter's with ours - to save money for all of us), but sometimes life happens in ways that one doesn't expect. We're not considering moving, but we are doing lots of things in our lives that might force a move upon us.

As such, I'm (a little) hesitant to invest the time and money on some of the changes I'd like to make to our house. Like, I want to get rid of the oil burning furnace that's taking up a huge chunk of space in what could be an amazing pantry and/or cold closet (with a little bit of tweaking). Outside, where the oil tank takes up space could be a great outdoor kitchen area.

But there's always the concern that if I do this thing, my house will be unmarketable. The truth is that nothing is unmarketable, but the fact is that without a "primary heat source" (which wood is not, according to the FHA), our house would be ineligible for a government-based loan. I spoke with my mortgage lender friend yesterday, and he told me that, right now, 99% of new mortgages are government-backed.

It doesn't have to be an oil furnace for the house to qualify, but changing to anything else, right now, would cost money.

I asked him about digging a well, which is next on my low-energy survival list, and he said that would not change the value for appraisal purposes, either up or down. He said in that case, it would really depend on the buyer, and, otherwise, would make no difference.

The bottom line, he told me, is that it is *my* house, and while some thought as to the resaleability might be wise, if it's a change that would make me more comfortable and more happy in *my* house, I should not let extraneous concerns stop me from making the changes. With the exception of the furnace, nothing I mentioned to him would have a negative impact on the market value of my house.

Solar panels on the roof? Score!

Replace carpeting with hardwood or ceramic tile? Bonus!

Cold closet? No problem.

Root cellar? Great storage option.

Hand-pump operated dug well (in addition to the city water)? Quaint and useful.

In short, having a home that is self-reliant would be a huge asset to me in reducing my dependence on outside resources, and it wouldn't hurt if, for some reason, we end up needing to find a buyer.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Gift of Giving

I married into a group of incredibly creative people.

When Deus Ex Machina and I were heading out the door on our way to Rockland for our honeymoon, his mom handed us a picnic basket. It was a long drive, and it didn't seem odd or abnormal. I figured she'd packed us a lunch ... although the drive wasn't that long, and we'd just eaten, and she had been with us for the past several hours (for our sunrise wedding followed by the breakfast reception at a local diner). I wondered, briefly, when she'd had time to pack it.

What I didn't realize was that it was a romantic picnic basket, and rather than food, it was filled with "honeymoon" stuff - lingerie, scented oils, some candles, some flourescent body paint ....

I didn't know his mother very well, and at first I was a little bit embarrassed, which was actually kind of funny. Both Deus Ex Machina and I were college-educated adults in our late twenties by the time we decided to tie the knot, and it was silly that I was being prudish.

Then, I understood that she saw me as an adult woman, a peer, who was marrying her son, whom she saw as not her "child", but as a mature, intelligent young man. I realized that her gift was a compliment. I was flattered.

We still have the picnic basket, although these days, when we use it, the contents is more of what one would expect. After a decade and a half of wedded bliss and a cross-country move, most of what was in the basket on that first day is no longer with us (although we still have the Tarzan and Jane underwear ;).

If I didn't want to keep the basket, it would be a fun "recycled" gift for our annual family Yankee swap.

But I'd probably not spice it up the way she did when she first gave it to us ;).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cake - Make Mine Chocolate, Please

The first line of today's article on The Automatic Earth is: He really said it. The nation must "continue to spend our way out of this recession".

The he referenced in the statement is President Obama.

I'm sure Ilargi has some wonderful arguments. I just want to, kind of, think out loud about that statement.

There's a law of finiteness. Everything on earth is finite. There's this much of everything we have. Some things seem to be in infinite supply, because they don't ever get used up, but in reality, those things are merely recycled, infinitely, like water. But there really is only as much water as there is, and then, there is no more. If we, humans, could figure out how to interrupt the watercycle, and somewhere in there, start consuming the water so that it couldn't be recycled (like we did with oil), then we'd learn about the law of finiteness, pretty damned quick.

But let's concentrate on that statement: we must "continue to spend our way out of this recession."

Who, does he suggest, do the spending? The fact is that Deus Ex Machina and I make XX dollars per year, divided up into weekly (or monthly, in my case) pay checks. A portion of that money is taken by the government to run its various programs. Some other sum goes to the insurance company so that we can be comforted by the idea that in the event of a catastrophic medical emergency, the cost of our care is covered (minus the deductible, of course). What's left is ours to spend at our discretion.

We pay a portion to the bank that holds our mortgage for the privilege of continuing to live in this house. We pay a portion to the grocery store for the foodstuff and other goods they purchase from manufacturers and stock in their stores. We pay a portion to CMP for delivering our electricity. We pay a portion to the gas company for delivering our propane so that we have hot water. We pay a portion to the phone company so that we have phone and Internet service.

Some of our money goes to local farmers for our food. In fact, we'll be paying for a quarter of a cow and the butchering fees sometime this week. Last weekend, I gave the farm store $85 for produce and apple cider (which is fermenting right now to make hard cider ... yum!).

Our dance school gets a portion each month for the girls' classes, and we give a bit to the music teachers for lessons.

Then there are things like maintenance and repairs on the cars and gasoline for getting around, and other little miscellaneous expenses we should track, but don't.

Whatever's left after we've done all of that is what we should be using to "spend our way out of the recession", but truth be told, after all of that, there isn't much left.

People, who are currently unemployed or who make less than what Deus Ex Machina and I make, are living at or below their means (that is, not buying on credit cards or taking out loans), and don't have that little bit of extra to spend their way "out of the recession." Almost all of what they make goes just to pay for the daily cost of living in this country - rent, food, gasoline, electricity ....

I think such a comment is ridiculous, and short-sighted, and misguided, and uninformed, and misleading. I think it's an idiotic comment to make, especially to a nation that is struggling just to not be hungry or cold. Ridiculous and naive. It's akin to Rousseau's princess exclaiming "Let them eat cake."

Ha! That's exactly what it is.

"But Sir, the people have no bread to eat."

Says Monsieur le Presidente, "Let them eat cake!"

Of course! Why didn't we think of that? Let's just "spend our way out of the recession." Gimme that damned credit card. I'm a-goin' to Wal-Mart to buy me a flat-screened tv so that I can watch Dancin' With the Stars!

And back in 2001, when the jets hit the World Trade Center, we were encouraged to continue going about our daily lives - go to the mall, go buy stuff. Retail therapy is strong medicine.

But at some point, we have to wake from our spending-induced coma and look around at where we really are.

If I have four oranges, and I eat four oranges, there are no more oranges until the tree produces next year. If it's a bad year, and something happens to the tree, I may not get any more oranges at all.

It's that simple. There is only as much as there is, and when it's gone, that's it. Even a child can understand that concept.

I wonder why our leaders in Washington can't seem to get it. We can't spend what we don't have.

School Food

I just finished reading an article entitled Fast Food Safer than School Cafeteria. The school lunch program is operated by the USDA, and according to the article was created so that farmers could unload food that they couldn't sell otherwise.

Does it not bother anyone else that the food our school-aged children are eating is, basically, garbage?

Well, at least that explains the smell in the school cafeteria.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Jack Frost ... the Little Beast

Around 1:30 the snow changed over to rain. The problem is that six inches of snow followed by a steady, driving rain results in three inches of heavy slush. It's a mess, and after dark, when the temperatures drop, the slush turns to ice.

Shoveling snow can be hard. Shoveling slush is incredibly difficult. Shoveling slush turned to ice is all, but, impossible.

I knew that I couldn't just wait until Deus Ex Machina got home. I had to shovel the drive-way and especially at then end where the snowplow had left the iceberg-sized blocks of snow. Gotta love that plow!

The wind was blowing outside, and although the little wooden weight that attaches to the string attached to the striker between the music tubes fell off last year, my wind chimes were singing whenever the wind gusted particularly fiercely. Hanging where they are just under the eaves, I figured they'd be silenced by ice today, but we haven't had enough snow on the roof yet to melt across the chimes and encase them in ice. Soon enough, I guess.

There's something about being outside on day like today. It's quiet. I live close to one of two major roads that go into my town, and so (especially during the summer) we get a fair amount of traffic. It's usually a pretty steady flow, and the noise has become a sort of under tone in the symphony of our lives. As such, it's absence is heard more than its presence.

On days like today, there is little traffic. Mainers know, when the weather is bad, stay home. The loudest sound was my shovel scraping the surface of the driveway and that forlorn song of the windchimes.

I never felt the rain, and it wasn't until the water from my drenched hair dripped down my nose that I realized I was getting wet. I was wearing one of my fatigue jackets from my enlisted days and a pair of unlined leather Army work gloves. I will say one thing about the military - they may pick the lowest bidder to manufacture the soldiers' clothing, but Army gear sure is rugged. I never felt the rain.

And I only knew the wind was blowing when the trees swished noisely around me, and the wind chime tinked over my head.

I cleared the driveway, as best I could. I had to leave something for Deus Ex Machina ... lest he start to take me for granted ;).

And I also unstuck my wash tub, which I'll bring inside in a day or two.

There's still snow on the ground, and if we don't have any more rain in the next sixteen days, even if the days are sunny and in the 40s, we'll have a white Christmas.

Chances are better, though, that we'll have a day or two more of precipitation in the form of snow. Maybe this time, winter is honest and truly here.

Or, maybe the Universe will melt what's out there, and I'll be given one-more-chance to pick up the toys and tools and store them away before the next "real" snowstorm blows through.

Oh, the weather outside ...

... is frightful.


But the fire is so delightful.

** As you can see, I still didn't take the reprieve nature gave me to clean up and "winterize" the yard. I think my wash tub might, actually, be frozen to the ground ;).

"Phenomenal Cosmic Power ... Itty, Bitty Living Space"

I used to be a huge fan of I Dream of Jeannie. I always thought it would be so very cool to be able to blink, and voila! anything I desired would be manifest in front of me.

I know that I wasn't alone in those feelings. In fact, the show addressed the issue of having so much power at one's command in one of the later episodes. In an attempt to prove that she could live without her powers for a day, Jeannie transfers her ability to Tony, who, in the face of having so much power, contemplates all of the good he can do.

Jeannie, having lived with this power her whole life, tells him that she understands how he feels, but warns him that what he does will have a ripple effect. Fixing a drought in one part of the world could create a devastating storm some place else. It's all well and good to want to fix the world, but, unfortunately, that's just not the way things work.

The message is that we can't *fix* the world, that things need to be able to work through their natural cycles. Sometimes life can be cruel, but that is part of living in this world where we live, and we can only do what little we can do in our little part of it.

That's what I was remembering this morning when I was reading the article Cash for Caulkers.

The idea is that by providing stimulus money to homeowners for energy updates, jobs will be provided.

I just wonder where the money is coming from. Who is going to pay for this "stimulus", and all of the other stimuli the government has given us? We think they're doing us some big favors, but consider where the government gets its money, and then, ask yourself if your pockets suddenly feel lighter.

... but I also wonder what the ripple effect will be.

I wish I could believe that it would be that simple, that there would be enough people out here in the real world (as opposed to the fantasy island that is Washington D.C., where for a small fee, Mr. Roarke will make all of their dreams come true) who could actually afford the energy updates, insulation, new appliances, and new windows to be able to take advantage of the (up to) $12,000 in rebates.

I wish I believed that there were enough people out here who are comfortable enough in their current circumstances to take advantage of some of these programs, but I don't believe it.

The thing that bothers me the most about the proposal, however, is that this type of program is already in place. We already have a program that provides rebates to homeowners who transition to more energy efficiency. If such a program were going to stimulate the economy and create new jobs, wouldn't it already have?

I just don't see how this new program will be different.

I also wonder about the broader effects, because with everything there is a ripple. Even my "Break the Chain" challenge has a ripple effect. If we all, suddenly, stopped shopping at Wal-Mart, *it* would fail, and the result would be the loss of thousands of jobs.

Personally, I think it's a small loss, to see the end of Wal-Mart, with huge, potential gains, but it would take months, if not years, to see any results.

And I guess that's what bothers me the most.

The current and recent past administrations are struggling so hard to find the quick fix, and there isn't one. Throwing money at it (and at us) isn't going to make it better. Making more policies, enforcing more government control, isn't going to make it better.

In times like this, we need *less* government, not more, because the government is expensive.

But I have some insulation left over from a project that I could lend to my neighbor. Neither of us would get any stimulation money for using the insulation, but it would give me some much-needed storage space and my neighbor a warmer house.

We have half a tank of oil sitting outside, but we don't heat with oil anymore. My neighbor has five cords of wood, but no woodstove.

We're doing a "Recycled Christmas" this year with our extended family, because no one has much extra cash for gifting.

In the movie, It's a Wonderful Life, the people, afraid of losing all of their savings, make a run on Bailey Building and Loan. He knows that they don't have the money in the vaults to give all of the account holders their complete balances. He says, "Your money is in his house and his money is in your store. So, how much do you need just to get by?"

That's where we all need to be, now. Big government isn't going to save us. The FDIC doesn't have the money to save the ailing banks, and Jeannie can't blink and make it all better.

But we can take just what we need to get by, and make sure our neighbor has just what he needs, too.

It's on the small scale, local, community level that "recovery" will happen, and nothing Washington tries to do will make it better.

This "Cash for Caulkers" program will be as successful as the "Cash for Clunkers" program was, which is to say, not much, and it will end up costing a lot more money than it generates for the working poor of this country.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Recycled Christmas

I have to say that for the first time, in a very long time, I'm actually looking forward to the extended family Christmas celebration :).

For a few years now, I've been doing a mostly homemade Christmas. Last year, I made several gifts including a couple of lap quilts, some games and puzzles for the kids, and some pajama pants. I like making things, but it's hard to do when I don't know how the recipient will react, and when I'm not sure if my homemade (read: time-consuming) gift will be something the recipient even enjoys.

This year, we received the invitation to the festivities, and I have to say that I'm really excited to see how it all pans out. The traditional Yankee Swap will be "recycled gifts" only. The instructions are to find something around one's house that one doesn't use and gift it. It's been a hard year for everyone, and so there is little extra cash for purchasing gifts. Most of us, however, have something back in the closet that's just taking up space. If there's one thing we, Americans, don't lack, it's stuff.

Certainly, there will be the usual assortment of things like scented body wash (that everyone loves to give and no one loves to get) and scented candles (which everyone seems to have an excess of regardless of how each person personally feels about them). There will probably be several other interesting gift packages that look great on the store shelf, but inevitably end up shoved in some nook or cranny until moving day (like the Sofa/Armchair Drink Holder Caddy).

I'm taking a different approach. I told my idea to Deus Ex Machina last night, and his response was "That's very clever."

I love him :). He knows just the right thing to say.

So, I'm very excited.

My favorite part of this holiday is gifting, and the more creative I can be with the gift, the more fun I have.

I think this year will be so much fun!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Food, Glorious Food!

One of the most discussed topics on my blog when I first started blogging regularly back in 2006 was our transition to local foods. I joined the One Local Summer local food challenge for two consecutive summers, and it changed our entire lives.

I was incredibly passionate about the local foods movement then, to the point that I annoyed a lot of friends and family members, but in November 2007, my passion for local foods resulted in my family being featured in a story in the local paper, and so I felt validated for what some people may have deemed rather overzealous behavior on my part.

I'm still quite passionate about local foods.

And I still annoy friends and family members.

But, mostly, I'm okay with their (sometimes not so) gentle ribbing of our food choices (like Deus Ex Machina's brother-in-law making fun of the fact that I won't buy a $20 butterball turkey, even though it's a great deal, because it's not "local").

Today, at the grocery store, there was a vendor from Cabot cheese. He started his spiel about how his display was sponsored by "Maine dairy farmers" (and I said to the girls, but loud so the guy could hear, "Like Mr. our local dairy farmer"), and how great their cheese is. Deus Ex Machina held up the two pound block of Cabot cheese we had in the cart to show the guy, "Hey, look. We're already buying the cheese", but the guy kept talking, which was fine, because he handed Deus Ex Machina a coupon for $1 off two items, and he was giving the girls bracelets and pencils and everyone free cheese samples.

So, we took the coupon, and I asked Deus Ex Machina, again loud enough for the guy to hear, "Do you want some sour cream (which we normally don't buy) or more cheese?" He shrugged. I went up the aisle to grab another two pound block of cheese (we freeze it and grate it later), and when I came back, the guy was still trying to sell us Cabot products.

I held up my hand and said, "Preachin' to the choir!"

Then, I felt bad for being rude. But, seriously. We had something like $20 worth of his sponsor's cheese in our cart and had told him that we always buy this brand. We were already sold! So, like, shut-up-already-no-offense.

Cabot cheese is local to me, and since we started our local diet, there are only three creameries from which we buy cheddar cheese: Cabot, Pineland Farms, and Silvery Moon Creamery. Of the three, Big Little Sister likes the Cabot cheese best, and so that's the one we get most often.

I wanted to tell the guy that all of our dairy is from "local" dairy farmers, and if he'd looked in our cart, in addition to the cheese, he would have seen the Kate's butter.

If he'd have looked in the cart, he would have seen a marked lack of fresh foods. No meat. No produce.

All of our meat is local.

All of our produce is local.

We don't buy either from the grocery store.

He'd have seen a pretty marked lack of processed foods, too.

Our "local" diet has resulted in our eating a lot of "whole" foods. That is, food that is as close to natural as we can get it, and much of which is purchased fresh and processed in our own kitchen, like cucumber pickles, applesauce and strawberry jam.

I found this website today, when I was looking for information to debunk the myth that butter fat is bad.

I liked this quote:

Don't be afraid to eat real food. The closer to nature, the better it is for you. Choose foods in their whole state. Do your best to avoid processed, prepackaged foods, especially those that are reduced-fat products.

When we started eating a local foods diet, the first thing we had to cut out was processed foods, because even though there are some processed foods that are manufactured here in Maine, I couldn't verify the origins of some of the individual ingredients.

In the beginning, our local meals were pretty simple, and I always felt like they were missing something, and they were - bread, pasta or rice. I grew up with the base of our meals being bread or pasta and meals without one or the other just seemed ... lacking. Unfortunately, with very few exceptions, grains just aren't grown in Maine.

We still eat a lot less bread than we used to eat, and now, instead of thinking that our meal of roasted chicken and salad is incomplete without some dinner rolls, it seems natural, and it's always filling (especially when the salad is topped with a homemade dressing made from real cream, mayonnaise, a splash of vinegar, garlic and herbs :).

The result of cutting out processed foods, because they weren't local, has been that we've become markedly healthier than we were five years ago, when we were eating a low fat diet, consisting of lots of processed foods, in an effort to control our weight.

Is it ironic that we were fatter when our diet had less fat? Deus Ex Machina, at his heaviest, weighed thirty pounds more than he does right now, and he lost all of his extra weight simply by changing his diet. He's at his ideal weight, now.

It may seem funny to people who talk to me about the way my family eats, and to hear my assertions, "Oh, we don't eat ...." It's probably odd that we don't eat at McDonalds, not because it's crap food, which it is, but because McDonalds isn't "local", or that we don't drink Pepsi or Coke, because neither is local (and because they both contain high fructose corn syrup, which we definitely don't eat, and wouldn't even if it were local!).

In the end, though, I feel comfortable with our choices. We're healthier for it, and our food tastes really good.

But there's another reason why I've so fully embraced the local foods movement, and that has to do with food security. If we change our diet now, while we still have a choice, and become accustomed to eating real foods from local farmers, when processed food because more scarce in a lower energy future, my family won't suffer from food fatigue or hunger.

We'll already know where to get our food, and if dinner consists only of smoked rabbit, roasted potatoes, and chunky, home-canned applesauce ... well, that would be no different than usual.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Winter Prep

It actually started snowing today. It wasn't surprising or unusual. This is Maine, afterall, and it is December.

But when one considers that it was almost 70° two days ago, this snow was a bit of a surprising, and, frankly, given the temperatures for the past four weeks, it does seem unusual. Most of the time the temperature progression for us is more gradual. It's warm, and then it gets cool, and then it gets cold ... and it stays cold ... for a while ... a long while ... and it snows ... a lot ... and then it's starts to warm up a bit, and the snow starts to melt, and we make maple syrup.

The summer this year, wasn't terribly warm, and the fall hasn't been exceptionally cool, either. As such, I've allowed myself to be rather complacent about the coming of winter. I didn't put up as much food as I should have, and I've put off doing a lot of the pre-winter outside chores. Toys and bikes still litter the yard and the summer funiture and patio umbrellas aren't tucked into their winter home, ready for their annual hibernation.

It's been a weird year with lots and lots of rain. I stopped by the farm store today for winter vegetables (a local farm is offering winter storage crops this year for the first time ever and will be open two weekends in December and two weekends in January). The owner was commenting that, because of the unusually warm November we had, they had a lot of things they would not ordinarily have ... like tomatoes - certainly from the greenhouse, but tomatoes, nonetheless, from a small-scale, local farm ... in December - unheard of!

As I was driving out there, I noted that I'm not alone in my complacency. I saw several outdoor patio umbrellas still shadowing the wrought iron patio sets, a few of which still had the chair cushions on them.

I don't know why I noticed these things, and really, until I got home and thought about it, it didn't occur to me that, until today, it didn't really seem like winter was here.

I hear we're supposed to get three inches or more, which really isn't a lot of snow, for us, and as the ground is still more muddy than frozen, I don't expect it will last very long.

My bigger concern is not the snow, but rather that on the heels of this snowstorm will be one of our notorious ice storms. They happen a lot, but unlike snow, the ice will usually cause a great deal of damage to trees and power lines. We'll lose power, because that's what happens when the heavy ice adheres to the not so resilient wires.

I think we still have time to clean up the yard and put things away, but I also think that time is running out, and I need to stop stalling, admit that winter really is here, and put that patio umbrella away.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Keep Manhattan, Just Give Me That Countryside

With a nod to the popular 1970s television show, the recent Wallstreet Journal article entitled Green Acres is the Place to Be was timely for me, given my stream-of-consciousness post about moving to the country.

The interesting truth is that I'm definitely not alone in my desire to be free and independent from the grid :).

I guess this is where the 1970s back-to-the-land movement meets the 1990s Tech Boom ;).

Don't miss this NYTimes video on the same topic.

I Learned

While answering German vocabulary questions today on, I learned that der Kunstler means "artist." So would Herr Kunstler fit the title Mr. Artist?

I thought it was pretty funny.

I'm probably easily amused.

But I will say that both my German and French vocabularies will be much improved by the end of this project ;), and I may even be able to identify countries in parts of the world other than Western Europe and North America.

Free Rice

As I mentioned before, Deus Ex Machina and I have challenged ourselves to feed the hungry this month using the website

Basically, you answer questions in a number of different categories (I kick ass in French vocabulary and English grammar, and Deus Ex Machina is becoming quite adept at identifying various famous artists) and for every correct answer, a specified number of grains of rice are donated to feed the hungry.

We don't have a daily goal, but we know that it takes just under twenty thousand grains of rice to feed one person for one day. Our current daily total averages out to about one meal per day for one person. It's not great, but it's something.

And every little bit helps, right?

Is anyone else doing the challenge?

How have you fared so far?

From Nothing to Less

A link from The Simple Dollar led me to this story. It's touted as being a good example of someone who is reduced to living paycheck-to-paycheck. I'm not sure that I agree that it is a very good example, though, because I think the author spends a lot of time blaming her partners for her financial decisions. While I don't disagree that one's partner plays a significant role in one's financial health, I don't think it's fair or prudent to blame our troubles on other people. We have to take responsibility for our actions.

In short, I don't think it's a typical living paycheck-to-paycheck type of story, and really, I don't think most people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck are doing so because of some catastrophic event in their lives (like a job loss or a medical emergency), but rather due to a series of bad choices and misunderstandings of how the system of offering credit really works.

So, here's what I think is a more typical living paycheck-to-paycheck story.

Back in the day, college freshmen and sophmores didn't have credit. Those first two years are, usually, pretty lean from a financial perspective, but living on campus and having a meal plan means that the basics are covered. Most college students have someone who's interested and willing to send the occasional care package with snack food and toiletries. So, really, there isn't much need for money.

For whatever reason, that changes during junior year when the credit card companies suddenly take an interest in the soon-to-be college graduate.

I got my first credit card at the beginning of the first semester of my junior year in college. I was preapproved, and I was so grateful that someone thought me worthy of such a risk that I gladly accepted the offer.

I promptly charged $500, which I thought was my limit, and when I reached the limit, I put the card away until I could pay down the balance. I thought I was being so responsible. I was preapproved for a $300 limit, but didn't read all of the fine print literature that came with my card. Oops!

What did I buy? Clothes, mostly. And stuff. Nothing of any significance, and mostly it was a couple dollars here and a couple of dollars there. But see? That's how it starts. It's only a couple of dollars, and it's easy to dismiss a $10 purchase, every few days, when it's on a credit card. It doesn't feel like "real" money ... until one has to start writing the check each month to pay down the balance.

I had trouble paying the minimum payment.

See, before I got the credit card, I was a poor college student with only the occasional spending cash. I worked work-study jobs and/or minimum wage jobs (back then minimum wage was $3.35/hour), and while at the time I got my first credit card I was working full-time, I was also not living in the dorms, and I had rent and other household expenses.

So ....

I did so well with my first Visa, that the oil companies started sending me their cards, and I gratefully accepted a Chevron gas card. It was awesome, because the card was not just for gas. If the Chevron station had a convenience store, too (which most of them do), I could get anything they sold there ... on my card. Gasoline, soda, milk, butter, ... hotdogs for dinner when the pantry was bare.

And then, American Express, which was a "charge" card, not a "credit" card back then, offered me one of their cards. A charge card is one where you can charge as much as you want, but the balance is due at the end of each thirty-day billing period. It's not a credit card, and they don't want you to carry a balance. It's a little like taking a cash advance. They give you the spending power now, but in thirty days, you have to pay it back - in full.

I didn't use that one much, at first.

As I started having access to all of this great "free" money, the desire for new and shiny started to build, and I decided that I needed some new furniture for my lovely apartment. I bought a gorgeous, glass-top, octagon shaped kitchen table with four chairs (from a discount department store which shall remain unnamed ;), and a very large entertainment center with a brand-new color television set on which to play the Nintendo games. The stereo with dual cassette and an AM/FM tuner was a very nice addition.

Those weren't the most expensive, though. The $400 (remember, back then, minimum wage was $3.35/hour) full-wave waterbed and the $600 contemporary plush couch were two rather pricey items, and rather than being credit card purchases, they were finance company purchases. I didn't think much about the 12% interest. What was a couple of extra dollars per month above the cost of the couch?

When I started college as a starry-eyed eighteen year old, I had $0 of accumulated debt. When I graduated as a financially immature twenty-two year old, I had accumulated $16,000 in student loans, $1200 in credit card debt, and $1000 in finance company debt.

Probably not bad, considering what some college grads leave college owing, but I didn't have any job prospects.

And I decided to move across the country. The bill for the moving van in which to transport all of my (not so) new and (no longer very) shiny furniture went on the American Express ...

... as did most of my living expenses for the next four months. I ended up taking a job working minimum wage at a convenience store/gas station, because even though I had a college degree, I was in a town with which I was unfamiliar, half my stuff was in storage, and I was staying with family members, who could only host me for a very short time (four weeks), I had to take the first job that came along. I had to find my own apartment, quick.

I made just enough to cover my rent and utilities. Groceries and gasoline were, mostly, paid for with the Chevron card, and the balance was not creeping up, but soaring, like an eagle on a santa ana wind.

I called my parents. "Please help me!"

They did. They came with a convoy of pick-up trucks to carry me and all my stuff back to their house. They paid off the American Express bill for me and helped me get my college transcripts (I'd graduated, but left the University owing a little money from my last semester) so that I could apply for a job doing something other than working at a convenience store.

They lived in a fairly depressed area of the country, and jobs for people with college degrees just weren't available. In fact, jobs for people without college degrees were few.

So, I did what any normal person would do. I went back to college to work on my Master's degree.

And I started to achieve some modicum of financial stability.

My college loans were deferred, because I was a full-time student. Financial aid paid for my tuition and books with a bit leftover to pay a couple of months' worth of rent, and I was lucky to secure a work-study job on campus as a Graduate Assistant, that actually paid about twice what I could have gotten working minimum wage.

The credit cards were gone and paid for. My parents gave me their old car, which was paid for (I only had to pay the insurance bill).

Things were looking up.

I bought some more furniture, and lots of other silly stuff.

Then, the school year ended. I was offered a job as an editor for a small-town newspaper in southeastern Kentucky, and I turned down a summer job on campus to take it. The job never happened, and so I was unemployed for the summer, I wasn't taking classes (and so no financial aid), and there was very little money for paying bills.

I got behind, again, and out of desparation, I ended up taking a job that I thought was exactly what I wanted, but ended up being nothing like I'd envisioned it would be. My income tax return for that year included about $3000 worth of "job related" expenses, and among the poor financial choices of that year included a $125 loan from my boss that was never repaid, a $75/month payroll deduction for some sort of insurance policy in case I ended up with cancer (there was also a regular insurance deduction), and about $200 worth of bad check charges. I lasted just under a year at that job before I had to find another job.

Moving twice in one year included moving expenses, like a U-Haul and apartment deposits and utilities deposits - none of which is cheap.

I landed a job as an assistant restaurant manager for about the same salary as I had been making at that other job, without all of the extra deductions, and I thought things would be great.

I had a nice apartment in a decent complex (with a pool and a "community room").

I hooked-up my phone ($50/month) and cable ($60/month). I bought a "new" car from a buy here/pay here lot, because my credit was still pretty shaky and I couldn't get a regular car loan ($150/week). There was the electric bill ($60/month) and rent ($450/month). Plus, the student loans (which were mostly deferred during this time, but I did make a couple of payments), a finance company bill ($177/month), and things like food (varies) and childcare expenses ($50/week).

The household income was about $2000/month. The monthly expenses (not including student loans or food) was over $1600/month.

When people talk about living paycheck-to-paycheck, that's the kind of lifestyle they have. It's not any different from what other people have. There were no extravagant purchases - just furniture and clothes and electronics and cars - regular stuff we all have and all want. None of it was top of the line, either, and most of it was bought at the not-to-be-named discount department stores on credit cards. I didn't have diamond rings or fur coats. I never had a tropical vacation. I was living the average, every day, American life - paycheck-to-paycheck, and sometimes I had to decide which bill would remain unpaid that month, and if I made the wrong choice, I would have to answer to the always really big and really intimidating repo man.

It's easy, too easy, to get into that sort of situation, especially when credit is so easy to come by. I was a college student with three dependents, earning $4000 per year at my minimum wage job, and when I applied for credit cards, car loans, and personal loans through finance companies, no one turned me down. I was naive and immature in my understanding of how credit works. I figured if they thought I could afford it, then it must be true.

It took me many years to understand that those companies don't really care if I can afford it, or not. They'll get their money - one way or another.

I think it's true that people who've never been in that sort of financial situation just don't understand how easy it is to get there.

I've been there. I don't forget.

I know, now, the key is to adopt that old fashioned idea of saving, and the antiquated notion if one doesn't have cash, one doesn't buy it.

How very simple.

How very wise.

How very much I wish I had known these things, back when I knew it all.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Over the Hill to a Tiny House in the Maine Woods

Some friends of ours often speak fondly of their someday farm. They live in a suburban/urban area, and in a lot of ways, their life is just like ours (except they don't have any chickens ... yet :). Right now, they are caretaking at a local farm while the farmers are away on vacation, and as I follow their adventure, I'm a little jealous (milking the cow and making all that cheese!), but having really thought about, and experienced in a very small way from my own suburban homestead, what a real farm might be like, I know that I don't really want to be a farmer (although I still very much want to be a self-sufficient homesteader).

The other day, I was roaming around on I do that occasionally. I'll pick a town, usually here in Maine, northeast or northwest of us, and I'll look to see what kinds of properties are available.

The other day I found one.

It's just exactly what we've always said we wanted - off-the-grid (solar powered, wood heat) home on eight acres, mostly wooded for a price we could totally afford. If we bought it, sold this house, and moved, we would reduce both the time on our loan and our mortgage payments by half what we owe on this house. In fact, if we could get what we believe our house is worth, with the equity we could just about pay off the other house.

Only, the house is a little smaller than the five of us would be comfortable living in - especially when we're stuck inside for so long during the winter. At just over 600 sq. ft of living space, it's less than half the size of our house. The kitchen was even more sparse than even my tiny kitchen having no cabinets instead of just the four like we have right now, and while I wouldn't mourn the loss of all of the stuff we'd have to give up to move to such a tiny house (except my books! Oh, not the books!), I would be sad to lose space for canning and storing all of the food we preserve. It has a basement, but from the pictures, the basement was small - and it was full of washing machine, the battery system for the solar array, and some odd-looking metal storage tank, neither Deus Ex Machina and I could deduce the function of from the pictures.

We could, definitely, have the life we've been saying we want. We'd be off-the-grid and our living expenses (and living space) would be a quarter of what we have. In fact, we could probably live off my small income ...,

... except that, if we bought that house and moved, I would lose my income, because I'd be too far from my client's office to be able to provide courier service three days a week, like I do now.

... and the girls would lose their dance classes, because we'd be too far to commute to their dance school twice a week for classes.

... and we'd be moving away from my daughter and her family, which means I wouldn't see my granddaughter very often. I definitely wouldn't be able to babysit (free) for them, which is important to all of us.

**(... and Deus Ex Machina would have to quit his job, which is, actually, a reason to consider the house ;)**

All of which got me to thinking about what it is I really want.

I, occasionally, dream of earning a living off my farm, but up there, I would have some serious competition, I'm afraid, and I'm not sure I could make a living with farming. I'd have to do something else to earn the small income we'd need to pay the few bills we'd still have.

Plus, I'm getting a little too old to pack it all up and move north to start farming, especially with my very limited knowledge and experience.

On the other hand, I'm also getting too old not to.

It's quite a conundrum. Hurry up ... no, wait!

I'm at the point in my life where I have just about as many years left to live as I have lived, but at this end of the life spectrum, time seems to move much more quickly than it did when I was younger.

It's like I've made it to the top of the hill, and the down side is exactly as long as the up side, but, I'm going downhill, and so the momentum carries me toward the bottom much faster than I was able to climb to the top.

From whence comes the analogy of being "over-the-hill", I guess ;).

I'm middle-aged, which is often considered a time for crises, especially among upwardly mobile men, who, at this point in their lives will decide to buy sportscars, order toupees and cheat on their wives with very young, buxom women, but I'm not sad that I've reached this mid-point in my life. It's almost, kind of, like I've come to that place Robert Frost made famous in his poem, The Road Not Taken, and I can decide to shuck it all and move north and have eight acres and freedom, and a lot of hard work, and maybe I end up in a worse situation than I'm in.

Or not.

I guess, at this point, I'm thinking I'm getting older. I see my neighbors across the street, who are empty-nesters. Their childern all live nearby and during the winter, one of the boys comes over and shovels, because neither of them have the physical strength to do it. They are as much older than I am as I am older than their sons.

I'm getting older, and there will come a time when I will need people around me to help me - to just survive.

I'm getting older, and the time that I may not be able to shovel my own driveway is not as far away as it was when Deus Ex Machina and I started dreaming our farm dreams.

There are some interesting things happening in our life right now, things that will be potentially life-changing, and we may, yet, decide that we're not as old as that gray hair and those crow's feet make me look, but we may decide that we are exactly where we want to be, and stay here, and continue to move our current house off-the-grid (the question remains, is it easier to take an on-grid house off or to put an off-grid house on?).

I'm envious of my friends with their down-on-the-farm vacation. I think how nice it would be to have a cow to milk twice a day and so much milk that I'm scrambling for ways to use it.

But I'm also pretty content on the Wyvern Heath with my chickens and ducks and rabbits ...

... and, maybe, someday, I'll convince Deus Ex Machina to get a couple of goats, which would mean fresh milk without all the work of having a cow :).


Like many people I've met in my travels around the blogosphere, I named my nanofarm. I call it Wyvern Heath, but only to myself. It's not official or anything.

I chose that particular name, because our homeschool is the Wyvern Academy. Why we chose to name our homeschool is a pretty involved story, but the gist is that we had one formerly publicly schooled "student" and wanted to give her a school identity (when one is thirteen, such things are important). We even ordered t-shirts, jackets and backpacks with our school logo, and at the end of each school year, our portfolio is, basically, a yearbook - very much like the ones school kids get. One year, we even had it professionally bound. It's a very nice keepsake - a kind of scrapbook of our life that year.

I chose *heath*, because it means a place on the outskirts of a town, and my suburban home seemed to fit the definition - maybe not literally, but in spirit, I felt ;).

I thought about having a lawn address plaque made with our nanofarm name. Most of the farms around here that have names have plaques. In fact, the farm where we go for our outdoor class has a very nice one on the corner with a sign stating that they want our leaves (for composting :).

I haven't decided, however, where I would put it, and whether it would be something that I would want staked in the yard, or an address plaque that I would mount to the side of the house.

For a long time, we didn't even have a number on our house - not because we didn't have a number. When we first bought our house, Deus Ex Machina's father and step-mom gave us a tiled number set for sticking to the house, but we never put it up. I couldn't figure out where I wanted the address plaque to go, and so it stayed in a cabinet.

And then, we just bought a small brass number to mount to the side of the house. Sometimes simplicity wins.

I'm still thinking about the plaque on the lawn with our nanofarm.

Of course, a lot of people might argue that a couple of garden beds, a few ducks and several chickens does not a farm make, and I have no business naming our quarter acre anything more than its mailing address.

Maybe I'll wait to get the plaque after I've talked Deus Ex Machina into getting the goats.

Still ... the Wyvern Heath. It has a nice ring. Don't you think?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Shifting Standards

I was reading this article today. This quote was disturbing:

"We are subjecting millions of people to a standard of living below that which they could achieve if the economy were at full capacity. Underemployment means that many more people who can't spend as much as they otherwise would."

First off, I don't know who the we is that he is referring to. Who is subjecting these people to a standard of living below that which they could achieve?

And second, why is it such a very bad thing that people can't spend as much money? I mean, I know all of the economic reasons, and how everything is inter-related - less spending=more layoffs=higher unemployment ... yada, yada ... but less spending means those companies who are manufacturing things outside of the US might be compelled to bring production back to the US, because they're paying more to ship the stuff here from overseas than they're making, and that would mean more jobs. It won't happen overnight, and things will get much worse before they get better, but wouldn't that be a wonderful goal to work toward?

Personally, I'd be willing to accept a lower standard of living (still not sure what that entails) and a reduced ability to buy all of the things I want if I knew the result would be to make our country more self-sufficient - like it used to be.

Of course, just the fact that we're griping about our standard of living, when, quite frankly, we have one of the highest standards of living in the world is incredulous. Everyone, who wants it, has access to electricity, and even in some of the most remote, desolate places of these United States. With only a very few exceptins, we all have access to clean drinking water, on tap. Eighty percent of Americans have access to the Internet - at home. That's a pretty significant number, and belies any argument that *we* are suffering.

One family featured in the article had their power disconnected when they were unable to pay the bill. They had their gas cut, too, and had to spend the summer cooking outside on the grill. Man, they had it so tough.

I joke, but seriously, what's bad about cooking on the grill for the summer? And even if it extends into the winter ... well, there are worst things.

What amused me, as I was reading the article, is all of this talk of deprivation for things like losing electricity for a short time or having to cook outside on the grill, while so many of us eco-freak-o bloggers are trying to reduce our consumption, and even going so far as to voluntarily cut our grid connections for a weekend to see how we'd do without the grid, and to patch any potential holes in our preparedness for a lower energy future.

We're all trying to figure out how to live without our gas and electricity, because we know we can't depend on unsustainable luxuries, like grid power, and while we're practicing our little scenarios, this guy is working his ass off, and not seeing his son, just so that he can maintain the grid connection.

The dad is hopeful that they'll have the gas back on soon. I wish I could encourage him to work less at trying to keep his family connected to the grid and a more at reducing their need for it.

We had our monthly outdoor skills class today. Among the many things my girls are learning in this class is to be comfortable and safe with using a knife. Today, they carved figurines to give as gifts.

And we gave our immune systems a hardy boost with hemlock tea, which is rich in vitamins A and C, and has been used for centuries for treating colds and flu symptoms - much better than the flu shot ... or tamiflu.

For us, it's about learning to live more simply. The class is part of it. Learning to tan hides is another part. Having smoked rabbit meat from rabbits we raised for our Thanksgiving feast is another.

We're slowly taking our house off the grid, and in a few years, we hope to be, mostly, self-sufficient.

I wonder what the author of the article, and the people featured in the article, would think about our standard of living.

We're warm. We're clothed. We're fed. We're healthy.

Can it get any higher than that?