Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Turkey Story

A couple of weeks ago, Sharon suggested a new challenge. She based it on her friend's (Pat Meadows) Theory of Anyway, which states, basically, that if we hope to survive the changing world in which we live, we will need to revise how we do things, and adopt a lifestyle that models the way we should be living "anyway."

I loved the idea, and really, we all know I'm a jump on the challenge wagon kind of person. I find these challenges to be very helpful, because I respond well to deadlines and to having to answer to other people. It keeps me on track, and even though, we're already living, pretty much, the Anyway life, I wanted to sign-up. So, I told Deus Ex Machina about the challenge and ask, "Do you want to join?", and he said, without hesitation, "No."

Deus Ex Machina has this particular way of saying "no" to certain propositions that I just think is hilarious, and sometimes I'll ask him a question, which I know will elicit that particular "no" response just so I can hear in his voice and see in his face the "no" punctuated by his expression with an unspoken "obviously".

Anyone who studies body language would find Deus Ex Machina fascinating, as he can say volumes with a simple gesture or facial expression.

Ahh! I love that man.

So, *we* decided not to "officially" joined the challenge, but when I was reading over the suggested inclusions for each category, I realized that I had a great story for the household economy section.


Once upon a time there was this highly consumeristic couple who lived in the suburbs of southern Maine. They were always looking for the best way to do a thing, and usually, their idea of the best way entailed buying something that had been designed specifically for that task.

For years, they were happy with their compost pile that was in the corner of the yard against the fence, but the woman often lamented that it wasn't pretty, and she was all about making things look pretty. Give her a break, okay? She was a suburban housewife. But for all her wanting to make things pretty, she was more practical than skilled, and often things were utilitarian, and not terribly attractive, much to her chagrin.

After a few failed attempts at repurposing things like pallets to make the compost pile look, if not pretty, at least neat (and to her credit she never, once, considered doing away with the compost pile), the couple finally broke down and bought a very expensive, super-duper, fancy-smancy tumble composter.

Unfortunately, it never worked very well for them, and after a couple of seasons, they realized that it was actually more trouble than it was worth ... and really, it wasn't all that pretty either.

Fast forward a couple of years. Their lives are changing and they're moving away from a highly consumer mind-set to one of simplicity. They start clearing their house and yard of the too many "toys" they'd accumulated over the years (except for books, and there's always room for more books!), and they decided that the composter was just taking up space. They decided to give it away.

A friend of the family ended up being the happy recipient of the piece of equipment. He came over one day and hauled it away, and everyone was happy.

Then, he called, and told them, "Hey, I want to give you something for that composter", and the couple replied, "Not necessary. We were going to give it away anyway." But he insisted, telling them that he was raising turkeys and would like to give them one ... for Thanksgiving.

Oh, they thought. Sounds like a good deal. "Okay," they told him. "We'd love a turkey."

Through the growing season, they heard sporadic reports of the turkey's growth. They were told the turkeys were getting pretty big.

On the day of the harvest, the friend calls and states that the butcher was asking if it was okay to cut the turkey in half. It was too big to fit in a regular residential oven, they were told.

A few hours later, the friend drops off the freshly butchered turkey halves. One half of the turkey weighed 18 lbs. The other half weighed 20 ... pounds. All total the couple ended up with a 38 lb turkey ... for a composter they were giving away.

In the end, everyone was very happy.

And the couple has turkey ... for turkey pie, turkey stew, turkey stir-fry, turkey jerky, smoked turkey, turkey hash, turkey broth ....


If we were participating in the Anyway Project (which we're not *wink* *wink*), the goals for December would be:

Household Economy - home made gifts for everyone on the list.

Resource Consumption - reduce the electric bill by another 40 kWh (and find a new home for all of that video viewing equipment that is collecting dust).

Cottage Industry/Subsistence - patch the several pairs of Deus Ex Machina's jeans that are torn and no longer suitable for work, but with a patch or two would be great for working in the yard ... and darn all of those wool socks I have that just need a repair or two to be wearable (of course if I manage the first goal, I may not have time to concentrate on this one ;).

In the area of Family/Community for November, my adult daughter and I have reconciled, I have a new granddaughter, who is beautiful, and Deus Ex Machina, Precious and I have all been cast in a Christmas play at our local, community theatre.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Energy Efficiency

Everyone knows that a full freezer is more efficient than an empty one, which has nothing to hold the cold. An efficient freezer not only prolongs the life of the compressor and the fridge itself – but also saves energy.

Right now our freezer is very full. We still have half the chickens we raised this summer (which is good, because the winter is only half over, and we raised enough chicken to, hopefully, do us a whole year :) and a good amount of the quarter of a pig we bought from a local farmer. Plus, there's half of a 38 lbs turkey (I think Deus Ex Machina might be planning to discuss that one ;). We're expecting our dairy farmer friend to call us about the quarter cow we're planning to buy any time now.

So, there's plenty in there, and we're not worried about our freezer not being full enough to be a huge energy draw.

But we do worry - a great deal - about the amount of electricity we use. I've written about our eletricity usage many times over the past few years, and because it is something on which we place a great deal of emphasis, we have managed to take our numbers down, down, down over the past few years.

Back in June of this year, our average usage was over 500 kWh per month. the last two months, it's been under 400 kWh. In fact, for the month of November, we used 368 kWh, but the reduction in our usage during the month of November was a direct result of a conscious effort on our part to control the amount of electricity we consume.

At the end of October, I challenged Deus Ex Machina and the girls to keep the television, DVD player and VCR all turned off for one month (and they were *mostly* kept off for the month), and instead, if they wanted to watch movies, they were to do so on one of our computers (we have more than one laptop ;). In addition, I purchased a 21" LED computer monitor that uses about 4W of power (or something ridiculously small like that :). Then, I moved around some furniture so that we could watch movies as a family using the bigger LED screen hooked up to one of the laptop computers.

I said, if it didn't lower our electric bill for the month of no television/DVD/VCR, then I would stop talking about getting rid of the television.

Guess what? I'm still talking about getting rid of the television, as our usage went from 390 kWh in October to 368 kWh in November, and the only change we made was to keep the television (mostly) off for the month.

Personally, I think that's significant. The television, DVD player and VCR were using 40 kWh of electricity per month with very limited use (maybe two hours per day, because we don't have any television reception and when the television is on, it's being used in conjunction with one of the video players). That's over 1000 watts per day. Per day just so that we could watch television (!).

I mean, if it were doing something like keeping our food cold so that it would be safe to eat for longer periods of time, then, perhaps, I wouldn't have been pushing so hard to get it out the door, but it's just a television, and really, with all of the computers on which we can watch movies (DVDs and Netflix) and live streamed coverage of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, of what value is the television, really? Certainly, it isn't worth the money it cost us to purchase the electricity to keep it running.

Now that we've seen how much of an energy suck the television is, I'm hoping that it's time occupying space in my house has come to an end, because I'm fairly certain that I can find another, much more useful and aesthetically pleasing, way to use the gorgeous armoire in which we have been hiding ... storing ... our television.

Back to the freezer, though. Ours is currently full, but when it wasn't full of meat or other wonderful (locally purchased, in season and then frozen) foods, I still kept it full. When I didn't have food to keep it full, I filled the freezer with gallon jugs of water. I found that it served two purposes:

1. Kept the freezer full so that it was more energy efficient;
2. Gave me a place to store the gallons of water everyone should have just in case.

Only, now, the freezer is full of meat, and I have no where to put all of those gallons of water.

I'll bet they would look nice hidden stored inside the armoire.

***I just discovered that the Riot4Austerity site is no longer in service, which means the calculator I used to use to compare my family's energy consumption to what the "average" American uses is also gone. In June 2010, when my usage was over 500 kWh per month, we were using 45% of the electricity used by the average American (with almost half of that being from renewable energy sources, like hydro). With our usage down by 25%, I guess we're using about a third of what the average American uses.

I'm still not convinced we've gone as low as we can get before we start to feel uncomfortable, and frankly, I haven't (and neither has my family, really) begun to feel any deprivation, whatsoever, in the reductions we've made. We haven't even begun to get to the point where we're rationing electricity, and we still use as much electricity as we feel we need. With only a few modifications in our lifestyle, we've gone from, an average, of 700 kWh per month to 368 kWh per month.

I think there are some other things we could do to bring our numbers down even more, and actually that's the goal, because with every kWh that we don't use, we get closer to being able to afford a system to generate all of our own power.

A $60 electric bill is pretty damned nice, but wouldn't having no electric bill be pretty grand?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Taking "Reuse" Too Far?

I hate buying things that I know are going to break. I just hate spending the money. It seems like such a waste to always be replacing things. It's especially difficult for me, feeling like I do, that our cushy, soft lives are going to become much harder in the not-too-distant future, and that we will need to be a lot more creative and learn to make-do, or do-without - neither of which are very popular choices for most "entitled" Americans.

It wasn't always this way, though. Americans didn't always have this sense of entitlement that seems so disappointingly prevalent these days.

I'm reading Margaret Mitchell's masterpiece Gone With the Wind, and while I loved the movie (still do), I believe that movie-makers often do books a great disservice, because there are things that just can not be portrayed on the screen with the same degree of intensity as can be shown in words. When I first started reading the book, Deus Ex Machina commented, "You're reading a romance?" I think a lot of people feel this book is about Scarlet O'Hara and Rhett Butler, which is what turns them off of reading it (because they have Vivien Lee and Clark Gable in their heads), but it is so much more than just a story about an empty headed cupie doll and a dashing, but dangerous, rogue.

As Ashley Wilkes tells his wife, it's about the end of the world as all Southerns knew it. And we could learn some lessons.

What's most interesting to me, where I am in the book, is the descriptions of scarcity to the extreme. During the Civil War, the North's superior Navy effectively cut the South off from the rest of the "civilized" world. Southern ships could not leave southern ports en route to Europe for trade without being attacked, and so the South, which had cotton, but no textile mills, found they had no cloth. They had no cattle, and thus, no beef or leather for shoes. They had no wheat fields, and thus no flour for bread, cake, or pie ;). Everything was scarce, including things as simple as buttons and hair pins, because the South didn't have any manufacturing infrastructure.

This is where we should start getting a little concerned about our own survival. Like the South, the US no longer has a manufacturing infrastructure. What happens when ...?

What's cool, though, is reading about how innovative the southerners were when it came to solving the problems of meeting their daily needs. No buttons? They made them out of acorn caps wrapped in cloth. No leather for shoes? They made them out of old pieces of carpeting attached to wooden soles.

It's this type of creativity and innovation that we should be striving to immulate.

We could learn a lot from war survivors. Indeed, this same sort of adaptibility is what got the Europeans through two horrific and devastating, back-to-back wars, and I've often posted a link to this list of 100 Items to Disappear First, as an example of things we will either have to stock up on or learn to do without (and eventually, depending on the circumstrances, if it's a consummable, regardless of how much we stock up, we'll more likely than not end up having to do without at some point). As bad as the recent wars have been for our military personnel, I think we, Americans, have no idea how bad war can be, and how much is lost and sacrificed ... and not just lives.

So, today, when one of the (cheap, plastic, made-to-be-replaced) rabbit water bottles broke, and we were thinking about how we'd have to buy another one, but I wasn't in a position to run off to the store this morning, but we couldn't leave the rabbit out there with no water all morning until Deus Ex Machina came home for lunch, I improvised a solution.

What you see here is a bottle that originally held lemon juice and was in the recycling. It has been repurposed to hold water for our rabbit. The opening was the perfect size for the drip spout.

We may, yet, decide to replace his broken water bottle, or when the other bottles break, we may just continue repurpose other plastic bottles as long as we can find a bottle that the drip spout fits.

So, if I were to add a bit of sugar to the rabbit's water, would this be an example of making lemonade when given lemons (juice)?

Friday, November 19, 2010

{this moment}

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

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bucket Garden

I was so disappointed with my very sad corn crop this year. I attributed it to the weird weather ... or to the fact that I grew the crop in buckets, and perhaps the corn just didn't like the buckets.

When I chose seeds for my space, I intentionally picked a seed that would bear several, smaller ears per stalk, and I intentionally picked a seed that would produce "field" corn as opposed to "sweet" corn. Sweet corn is that stuff with which we are all familiar that's so yummy on the cob dripping with butter. Field corn, by contrast, is not meant to be eaten on the cob, but rather is grown to be processed into corn meal or popped, like popcorn.

The problem is that I've never seen "field" corn, and so when I harvested my tiny ears of blue corn, I just figured it was another bust year. The kernels were minuscule, and I figured, not properly formed. I harvested them, but I didn't have any idea what I was going to do with them.

This weekend, Gar came over and we were chatting about the birds in her yard. She was telling us how the blue jays love the corn she sets out, and so I thought that I would shuck the corn I harvested and that's been sitting in a 1/2 bushel basket drying since mid-October, and then, I would put it outside for the birds. After I took off the dried shucks, I thought, why not see if I can get the kernels off.

Oh, wow! The tiny dried kernels looked just like popcorn!

And so I did ... pop it!

And if you've never had fresh - like really, REALLY FRESH - popcorn, it's so totally worth finding some. It's WAY better than movie popcorn, and cooked in oil with just a little added salt, it didn't even need butter.

So, now I know, and next year, we'll continue the three-sisters experiment ... more blue corn, more blue squash, and ... does anyone know of a blue pole bean?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Green in the Winter

Deus Ex Machina and I were walking through the woods the other day. I've been on a quest for the elusive, but amazing Chaga mushroom, which, when it forms on the birch trees, contains some curative properties (I'm all about "natural medicine").

Peeking out of the leaf cover was this sweet, tiny green plant, and I asked Deus Ex Machina what it was. He didn't know.

Through all of the observations and lessons that we've learned on plant identification, I know that plants that hold their color through winter are often used by wild life (and in days of yore, humans) as a winter food source.

I said, "I'll bet it some sort of winter green."

To which Deus Ex Machina replied, "Wintergreen? You think?", and he bent over and plucked one of the little leaves.

And I clarified, "Not wintergreen, but a plant that is edible and eaten as a green during the winter."

He broke the leaf in half and sniffed it, and then, held it under my nose, asking, "What do you think now?"

Sure, enough, it is wintergreen. We harvested a bunch, brought it home, and enjoyed some wintergreen tea. Yum!

It was such an incredible experience ... at a moment when I really needed a good thing to happen!

I love positively indentifying a plant ... accidentally :).

The next day Deus Ex Machina went for a short walk back through the woods near our house. He says he found a HUGE patch of wintergreen back there. So.very.cool!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Staying Warm in a Modern Home

The other day at our outdoor skills class, we were talking about the issue of power outages. Several of the families had been affected by the recent storms here in Maine that knocked out power to a not insignificant number of homes. Our hostess, Mama Bear, mentioned the Ice Storm of '98.

Back when it happened, Deus Ex Machina and I had been in Maine for less than a year, and we'd only just moved into our house the month before. We were woefully unprepared for living without electricity, but a woodstove had been on our wishlist for whatever house we ended up buying, and this house had one. So, even though we had only candles for light, we still had heat.

It was a pretty severe storm. We lost power for about eighteen hours, all total, but there were a lot of people in the western part of the state who were without electricty for weeks. Some people died from hypothermia, because they didn't know how to stay warm without their electricity, and more than one person succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning from operating things like generators and kerosene heaters inside their homes without adequate ventilation.

Because I live in a cold climate, heat is a real concern, and so I started looking into some ideas for off-grid heating. The woodstove, of course, is my favorite solution, and I was thrilled a couple of weeks ago when I noticed that my neighbors have a chimney now, and they've (finally) installed the woodstove they've been talking about getting for two years, now. They are already very pleased with their choice, and I'm just tickled pink for them. Did I mention that I love my woodstove?

Unfortunately, installing a woodstove isn't an option for everyone, and if you happen to be one of those people who live in a cold climate, but don't have a back-up heat source in the event of power outage, there are some things that can be done.

The first bit of advice is to get smaller. That is, move your living area into a much smaller space.

In our outdoor skills class, we spend a lot of time talking about the importance of adequate shelter. Fatal hypothermia can happen incredibly quickly, and after only a couple of hours of being too cold, one's thoughts become erratic, the ability to think soundly and logically is lost, and even as simple a task as lighting a match becomes next to impossible. When we learned about building debris huts, we were told that they needed to be small (about the size of the person who will be occupying the structure), because a properly built debris hut can be warmed with just one's body heat.

If we reduce our goal from one of heating our entire house, to one of heating only one or two rooms, it becomes a lot easier to find solutions. If I didn't have a woodstove, therefore, the first thing I would do is to move everyone into my bedroom. It's on the south-facing side of my house so that we could take advantage of what little solar-passive heating we would get.

Next, I would take thick blankets (or even the mattresses, perhaps, depending on if I were planning for this to be a long-term or short-term solution) and hang them against the walls as an extra insulative layer. I happen to know that this room is not very well insulated. I'd also hang a blanket over the doorway, as an extra insulative layer, and after the sun when down, I'd put quilts over the windows.

Then, I'd devise a non-electric heater.

My favorite small-space heater is the Japanese kotatsu. Basically, it's a low table (kind of like a coffee table) with a heater in the middle. A blanket is draped over the top, and on top of the blanket is a glass or wooden table top on which food can be placed. The family sits around the table with their feet under the blanket and in that way stay warm.

Modern kotatsu uses an electric heater, but if we're looking at heating alternatives during power outages, we need something else.

My solution would be a large coffee can filled with hot rocks, and I'd get the hot rocks by firing up my grill outside and making the rocks hot by placing them in the grill fire. *Note: I would not bring smoldering charcoal embers into the house for this use because of concerns regarding carbon monoxide, and the space would not be well-ventilated.

And while the grill was hot, I'd grill some hamburgers for dinner and heat up a pot of water for tea, and then, we could all go inside the "warm" room, sit around the kotatsu, listen to the next installment in the The Wheel of Time series on our wind-up iPod speaker/charger, and have a nice dinner ... and the tea would stay warm on the top of our kotatsu.

Later, when we were ready for bed, we'd transfer the hot rocks to the bed warmer, and everyone could sleep nice and cozy in her own bed.

Not having electricity does not have to be a tragedy. I mean, heck, our ancestors did it for millions of years ... and some of them lived in very large, very drafty old castles. Surely we, with our well-insulated, modern homes can do, at least, as well.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Did You Know ...?

I'm fascinated by history. It's not so much that I think we can learn from history and avoid the same mistakes, but that it's fascinating to kind of step outside of the picture and start noticing the trends.

I've been doing the twenty-first equivalent of clipping news articles for the past two years (i.e. printing articles from online news sources and keeping them in a notebook), and the similarities to the 1920s and 1930s are stark. Worse, though, is the repetitive nature of the headlines. One month we're coming out of the Recession and the next there are massive job losses. In 2008 the headlines were "Oil over $80 per barrel!", which promised to devastate an already teetering economy, and, yet, today the price per barrel is $86, but no one seems worried.

The problem is that we seem to have such short memories, and we're so easily distracted. Sunday evening, due to a very intense storm, thousands of Mainers were without electricity. Some may still be. I was speaking with another homeschooling parent yesterday, who had lost power during the storm, and saying that we had oil lamps and "stuff" so that when the power goes out, for us, it's no big deal. And, I didn't say, in so many words, but the reason we have all of these things is because the power grid is unreliable. Her response was just about what I've come to expect, and basically it was something like knowing that she and her family should do some preparing, but .... This time the power was out for a few hours. A few years ago, we lost power for a few days. In 1998 there were a lot of Mainers who lost power for a couple of weeks.

I'm not making this stuff up just to scare you. (Sh)It happens, and the question is, do we learn from our mistakes, or do we keep reinforcing Einstein's definition of insanity.

In 1945 President Roosevelt warned that we had become a nation dependent on oil. It was he who pioneered our foreign policy based on oil, and he who first began negotiating with the Princes of the House of Saud of the Arabian peninsula (in the Islamic country we know as Saudi Arabia).

He was the first to warn us that we were growing too dependent on oil.

And we didn't listen in 1945, because we were too distracted and in a state of ecstasy after having just "won" World War II.

He hasn't been the last to express concern.

Nixon warned us in his 1974 State of the Union Address that we were in the midst of an energy crisis.

We didn't listen.

His successor, Gerald Ford, told us that we needed to achieve "energy independence."

And a few years later, the much maligned James Earl "Jimmy" Carter warned us that we were heading down a slippery slope with regard to our dependence on oil, and because he was the first US President to tell us, without mincing words, that we needed to wake up and smell the gas fumes, because they might not be around much longer, his whole Presidency was deemed a dismal failure. He told us what we didn't want, but very much needed, to hear. He even went so far as to install a solar hot water system on the White House, in an attempt to be a leader and show us what is possible, to lead the way down the path of energy dependence by, not just speaking the words, but doing the deeds.

And, even Reagan, who failed to take the same leadership stance as Carter (and actually removed the solar hot water system Carter had had installed - boo!), spoke the need to gain independence from our addiction to foreign oil.

Both of the Bush oil Barons and Clinton, whose Presidency they bookended, reiterated the message of the need to decrease our dependence on foreign oil. And, like Carter, Bush the Second (sort of) led by example in building his off-the-grid ranch in Crawford, Texas (although it wasn't terribly well-publicized, and he, apparently, didn't do it as an example to the rest of America, but in response to what he knew was happening and in hopes that he could mitigate the ill-effects of resource depletion for himself and his family).

And, now, once again, we're being told by our current President that we need to stop depending on foreign oil.

I had a very interesting conversation with a family member a few days ago. He asked about my book, which is about ways to lower one's energy dependence based on the supposition that we have twenty-one days to prepare for a single TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it) event that will destroy the "grid", and our conversation took some interesting twists and turns as we discussed current events and possible solutions.

I, of course, don't believe there is a single magic bullet that will solve all of our problems, and what I mean is that I don't believe that any one of the proposed energy-generating solutions will take the place of oil and allow us to continue living the way we are living.

For me, the key is that we can not continue living the way we are living, and if we hope to retain some modicum of our modern lives, we will need to voluntarily change how we live, because voluntarily making those changes is so much easier and so much more rewarding than having those changes forced on us by a world with finite resources that are quickly being gobbled up by our PacMan mentality. We can make changes to how we live now and learn to really appreciate how fortunate we are, or we can wait until the sh*t truly hits the fan and get caught up in the whirlwind of resource grabbing that will inevitably ensue. At that point, it will be a scramble to see who can live the longest, and a lot of people are going to lose.

For the past four decades every single President has warned us that we needed to stop our dependence on foreign oil. Every.single.one.

And we have, yet, to listen.

In his show this past summer, Jon Stewart provided us a short history lesson. As Jon quips, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me eight times ...."


Monday, November 8, 2010

Unschooling Leads to Unjobs

I was working on a post last night with a storm raging outside. The sustained gusts of wind were so intense at times that the house rattled. Around 2330 with the wind raging, the rain blowing, and nary a car moving on the road, the power blipped off - everything, inside and out, including the streetlights, went dark. Usually, there's a squeal from a UPS or a squeak from a smoke alarm, but this time, nothing. One minute there was the constant, underlying hum of electrical equipment, and the next minute the only noise was the storm outside, and I was plunged into darkness.

I sat for a moment with my hand on the mouse, trying to figure out what happened - one very brief and slightly bizarre moment when all of my worst fantasies converged and I found myself contemplating what my next step would be if, indeed, this were the beginning of the Apocalypse about which I often write in such a cavalier fashion.

Like a cat who has finally succeeded in killing its toy, I let go the computer mouse, lying lifeless and dark under my hand. I stood up and found some matches, and lit the oil lamp wall sconce.

It's bright (comparatively) light flooded the room, and I found myself enjoying the soft amber glow of a non-electric light. It wasn't nearly as bright as its hardwired counterpart, but it was adequate for doing things like darning socks or piecing a quilt or knitting ... or playing a quick game of Scrabble on the laptop. It is enough light to beat back the darkness.

I went to bed shortly after the electricity went out, and as I drifted off to sleep, I pondered how my day would develop if I didn't start it with a morning tea, email and the Internet.

Alas, the power came back on (for us) around 0500.

It's a bit of a disappointment.

It would have been nice if Deus Ex Machina could have had an unexpected day off ... like a snow day. It would have been nice if we could have had a day when things just slowed down and anything on the calendar had to be postponed or canceled. It would have been nice to have had a taste of what life could be (will be??) if we were really living the "un" life.

The post I was working on when the lights went out was about unjobbing. I had been reading an article on Yahoo! Finance entitled 6 Careers You Can Do From Home. Most people know that I work from home. My job title is "Virtual Assistant" (number five in the article), but I also do some web design (number four), and as a certified teacher, I serve as a resource teacher/tutor (number six) for the homeschool community.

I loved the last paragraph of the article which asserts these six careers are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to at-home careers, and it's true - absolutely. In fact, back in its heyday (the late 90s just before the DotCom bust), the home-based business was the fastest growing industry in the US. Books about working from home and being a home-based entrepreneur (in particular a Work-From-Home Mom, or WAHM) flooded the bookstore shelves.

Today, those of us who opt to work from home aren't anything as glamorous-sounding as yesterday's WAHMs, and in fact, there are likely many more work-from-home Dads (WAHDs?) and work-from-home single people (WAHSPs?) than there are WAHMs. Today the term is "unjobbers", and the folks who are creating these sorts of unjobs are the people who grew up when working moms were having their epiphanies and coming home to work and be with their children, too (having and eating the proverbial cake ... which explains why our butts are so big). These are the people who grew up knowing that the traditional 9-to-5 work life does not offer the types of freedoms (in particular financial) that the previous generations had been promised.

Further, with the economy shedding jobs for the past two years like my chow-chow losing her winter coat, people (in particular the fresh-out-of-college generation and the over 45 crowd who've lost jobs, but still need to work) have been looking for other options.

What interests me most, though is the knowledge that unjobbing is probably the perfect solution for those of us in the suburbs - designing and creating our own jobs, which will allow us to live and work where we are, rather than needing to commute. In short, unjobbing helps us get more local, which will be the only way we can continue to thrive in a lower energy world.

In an article about unjobbing, the author states that unjobbing is a natural extension of unschooling. I thought that was pretty interesting, and the fact is that Deus Ex Machina and I don't just "unschool" our girls. We are also "unschooling" ourselves ... and in what we hope will be the very near future, both of us will (finally) be unjobbing, as well.

In the meantime, I'll just have to keep hoping for a power outage so that Deus Ex Machina can get a free day off.

Several years ago, I began collecting books about working from home (many of which I found at Book Closeouts.com). These are some that I found particularly useful. Some of them are out-of-print, but copies might still be found at your local library, on Paperbackswap, at a locally owned bookstore, or even at Goodwill.

**Finding Your Perfect Work: The New Career Guide to Making a Living, Creating a Life

**The Entrepreneurial Parent: How to Earn Your Living and Still Enjoy Your Family, Your Work and Your Life

**The Work-At-Home Mom's Guide to Home Business: Stay at Home and Make Money With Wahm.com

**Mompreneurs: A Mother's Practical Step by Step Guide to Work at Home Success

There are dozens of others, but these are ones that I actually had and read.

Friday, November 5, 2010

{this moment}

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

Thursday, November 4, 2010

And the Winner Is ...

Survival Mom

Congratulations! You've won your very own copy of Jenna Woginrich's Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life

Please leave a comment with your address. Comments are moderated, and I will not publish it.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Changing the Corporate Mindset

Central Maine Power company, the corporation that owns the power lines all across Maine (i.e. they own the equipment that delivers electricity to my house, but they do not generate any electricity themselves), has decided that they are going to streamline their operation.

I recently discovered (through my homeschool e-list, no less - those homeschoolers are so smart and connected :) that CMP has decided to change all of our meters to SmartMeters.

For the person who posted the news to the homeschooling list, the issue centers around the SmartMeters' potential health risks. Apparently, the meters emit some amount of radiation, and the suggestion is that it's in excess of what similar electronic equipment emits and potentially hazardous to the health of those within a close proximity to the meters, especially children.

CMP argues that things like cell-phones, WiFis, televisions, laptop computers, and microwave ovens also emit radiation, but the opponents suggest that the amount emitted by the SmartMeters exceeds what these other, commonly used, devices emit.

The other concern is with regard to information security. The SmartMeters are kind of like little computers that send information back to CMP through radio transmitters (and are a bit like wireless Internets in this case), and that our personal information can be, therefore, compromised by someone who has the knowledge to hack into the system. An additional consideration with regard to the way the meters work is that with not a lot of effort, a hacker can disable the entire system.

Personally, I'm more concerned about the security issue than I am about the health issue, especially since Identity Theft seems so prolific these days and can take years to repair the damage done from one thief with a single credit card. As for the health concerns that have been raised, the fact is that we are pretty much surrounded by radiation emitting equipment on a daily basis whether *we* personally use them or not. I don’t have a cellphone, but nearly every one every where I go does, and so, it’s likely that I’m being negatively affected by those other people’s decision to have one. The same is true of wireless Internet connections. Even if I didn’t have one in my house, my neighbors do, and nearly everywhere we go these days, there is a WiFi.

Still, I can limit my exposure by being careful about where I go, and at the moment, I still have the freedom to pick and choose the establishments I patronize. It’s kind of like second-hand smoke, and until we outlaw all radiation emitting electronic devices from public places, we’ll be exposed to some lesser or greater degree. And as for identity theft, there are small ways we can protect ourselves there, too. We can choose not to use credit cards or electronic banking (although that's still no guarantee of our financial safety), and we can be sure that credit card offers we receive in the mail are shredded or burned. We can carefully guard our social security numbers, and we can refuse to give sensitive information over the phone, and we can make sure we have spyware and antivirus software on our computers, and we can not shop online and pay cash for other purchases. Simple things, like that.

But really, it's not the health issue or the security issue that gets my hackles up. What really prickles me is the whole changing of the customer/service provider relationship, and what seems to be CMP's belief that the service they provide is essential to my life and well-being, and that they can, therefore, do whatever they wish without regard to how I feel about it.

What bothers me most about this case is that *we* have not been given a choice. In fact, until someone posted it on my homeschool e-list, I didn’t even know that, as far as CMP is concerned, it’s a done deal. They've already purchased SmartMeters to replace all of the meters in their service area.

... And they are replacing the meters for every one of their customers, without ever having given us a choice as to whether or not we wanted to accept the change.

So, in essence, they are telling me that they have the right to come onto my property and alter my house without my permission or consent (my electric meter is permanently affixed to the side of my house).

At very least, there should have been a work-order sent out to all CMP customers that needed to be signed by the homeowners to give permission for CMP to come onto the property and make changes. I neither saw nor signed any such order. In short, I shouldn’t have to “opt-out”; instead, we should have been given the opportunity of “opting-in.”

CMP has grossly overstepped its bounds, and they have changed the nature of our relationship from one of me, the customer who is paying the bills, and therefore is in “charge”, to one of them taking charge and telling me what they will provide and how they will provide it. In short, they seem to feel as if the service they are providing is one that I need, and that without my life will be significantly and negatively impacted. It's like I'm a crack-addict and CMP is my supplier, and without their product, I might curl up in a ball and just waste away.

The irony is that because their service has been fairly shoddy and not very reliable, they’ve made me realize that I can live, quite comfortably, without the electricity they supply – or at very least with a great deal less than they think I need. To be very clear, I like having electricity in my house, but I don't need it.

What's more is that the whole impetus behind this change has been to save money, and I think we, the customers, the ones who are supporting these corporations, should be fighting back, as this seems like another case of corporate greed to me. We should be letting CMP know that they don’t own us, and that we aren’t desperately in need of what they’re giving and willing, at all costs, to keep paying, regardless of what they do.

CMP has chosen to replace the meters to *save money* on man hours, which means that guy who drives around in the orange truck to read our meters each month will likely be unemployed once the meters are installed. How many of those guys are there here in Maine? In this economy, can we afford to support companies who are working so diligently to cut jobs just to save a few bucks (so that their bottom line is bigger)? Don’t think for one second that by saving money CMP wuold lower our electricity rates (which are some of the highest in the country!). Nope. It’s all about their bottom line, and as the mayor in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs says, All I heard was "Blah, Blah, science, science, BIGGER!" and bigger means better! The bigger their bottom line, the better, no matter the ultimate cost to us, the customers, to their employees, or to the state in which they operate.

We have a choice, and it doesn't have to just be to accept the SmartMeter or not, because ultimately, CMP is going to install all of these meters in which they have invested all of this money. It's not a matter of *if*, but when. Like our government, corporations have come to see us as so many pawns whom they can move around the chessboard, as they wish, and sacrifice in order to protect their kings (i.e. the CEOs, upper management, Board members, and stockholders ... i.e. the guys with the money).

We have a choice - be pawns or opt out of the game.

I'm really tired of being manipulated. Off-grid living is looking pretty good.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Growing Food in Unexpected Places

I talk a lot about my girls' dance school. It's a huge part of our lives, because it's an integral part of our community, and dance is very important to my girls.

The owner and head teacher of the school is a much older woman who spent many years as a professional dancer herself. She's been a dance teacher in Maine for three decades and had a dance school in another state before moving here. She has had an amazing life, and I just love to listen to her stories.

Among many wonderful traits is her (almost innate) frugality. Dance is not cheap, and she, more than anyone, understands this. Just the shoes, alone, are enough to break the bank, especially with three growing girls. The dance apparel can get a little crazy, too, especially as the girls advance to higher level classes and their needs change. For example, as it is now getting colder, the girls have taken to wearing long-sleeved shirts and light-weight zippered jackets during warm-ups, which would be fine if they were in intro classes (perhaps), but they aren't, and as the teacher needs to be able to see their body lines to ensure that they are positioned correctly so that they don't injure themselves, they can't be wearing these hip-length clothes. As such, our teacher has shown us some very cool tricks for altering clothes to make acceptable dance wear. This past weekend, she showed us how to make a "warm-up wrap" out of an old pair of tights.

She is pretty amazing and has such a wealth of knowledge and experience. She grew up poor, and as a professional dancer and dance teacher, is a shining example of doing what one loves rather than what can make the most money. From what I have been able to glean about her life, it's never been about the money. It has always been about the art (she's also a sculpture - with clay - and with some fabric, a pair of scissors and a sewing machine, she can make some pretty amazing costumes).

She's all about the Three R's, because she knows that this is what works.

But just because one recycles and reuses, does not mean that aesthetics can not be an integral part of the whole. In fact, as an artist and a dancer, she understands about creating and presenting beauty. This year, she (and one of the dance parents who has connections to a local greenhouse), planted window boxes around the dance school. In full bloom, they were beautiful and really spruced up the overall "curb appeal" of the school.

One of the plants she decided to add to the window box was, what she thought, was a purely ornamental sweet potato slip. Recently, when she was clipping back some of the dead foliage, she discovered a rather large bulbous thing in the window box, and realized it was a potato. So, she checked the other boxes. Out of five window boxes measuring approximately 24" x 6", she harvested eleven sweet potatoes - which is enough for her (a single woman who lives alone) to have half a month's worth of food ... from five window boxes ... half a month's worth of food.


Our dance teacher's window boxes just lend credence to the idea that food can be grown in the most unexpected of places. In this country, there are too many of us who believe that there is (or should be) a difference between an ornamental garden and a food garden, but that idea is simply ridiculous. Those sweet potato slips the teacher planted were not intended as food and were planted exclusively for their lovely foliage, but as it turns out, they are both.

With the goal being beauty and a harvestable crop, what other things could she have put in those boxes? What other things could gardeners across the country substitute for the purely ornamental plants they are currently growing? If we take it a step further, what could we be planting in our suburban lawnscapes that would both feed us and keep the HOA landscaping committees happy?

Or, better, what "purely ornamental plants" already established in our gardens are also food?

As for our very frugal-minded dance teacher, yes, she is totally taking those sweet potato tubers home to eat.

... which is exactly what I would expect from someone who can make a pair of tights into a shirt to wear during dance warm-ups ;).