Wednesday, November 30, 2011

NaNoWriMo - FAIL!

As with most things, when I decided to - once again - embark on the NaNoWriMo 2011 adventure, I did so hoping for the best, expecting the worst, and also, as with mos things, I grandly exceeded my expectations ;). That is, I barely made a dent in the 50,000 word requirement. Sure, I have the rest of the day, but I also have some "real" work to do, and, unless I mimic "Jack" in The Shining, there's not much chance I can reach the goal.

Instead of writing for the month, I've been reading, and I finished four or five books this month - which is a personal record ;).

Now that the pressure's off, I might actually finish my novel ... not the one I'm reading, rather the one I'm writing. Yesterday, I finally wrote out my outline ;). Perhaps I should have done that first ... at very least, it would have increased my word count :).

Friday, November 25, 2011

Black Friday

As I do too often, I posted a scathing comment regarding shopping on Black Friday on my Facebook page. Basically, it said, I don't shop on Black Friday, because there is nothing I would want to buy badly enough to kill someone to get the cheapest price. My comment was in reference to the 2008 death of a Wal-Mart employee who was trampled while trying to open the doors as the throng of shoppers attempted to push their way into the store. It was a tragedy, and not a usual occurence, but at the same time, it spoke volumes to me.

I have, personally, chosen to have no part of it.

Unfortunately, a lot of my friends and family members do enjoy shopping, and like to check out the Black Friday deals. I am not judging. *For me*, shopping on Black Friday would be an unnecessarily uncomfortable ordeal, but I recognize that not all people in this world feel the way I do about things, and that's okay. My opinion about Black Friday was not meant as a character assessment of those who enjoy the excitement of the day.

The fact is that I don't really like to shop, but even if I did, I wouldn't shop on Black Friday, because I hate crowds and I hate standing in lines (not my idea of fun, even if I think I'm getting a good deal).

But more than that, I don't think the deals are really so great.

A couple of years ago, I was talking with a friend of mine who worked in retail for years. She was very open (too open, perhaps) about the kinds of things retailers do to attract customers, and to encourage people who are unwitting enough to get caught in their web to spend more money. In grocery stores, for instance, higher priced, "luxury" items are placed at eye level and in eye-catching places in eye-catching displays. The price tags will be bright and visually appealing, and even if it isn't a "sale" item, it will look like a good deal, because we have been programmed to view items placed in certain areas or in certain configurations as "deals."

It's not paranoia to think that we're constantly being manipulated to spend more money. Most companies have done long-term marketing studies on how to motivate people to spend money - and they're getting better at it all of the time. Ever wondered why so many resturants seem to have the same color scheme? It's not a coincidence.

In retail, they place certain items strategically and in eye-catching displays, and most people will pick up the item as an impulse buy. We all do it. All of us. Even those of us with lists will, occasionally, pick up that impulse item.

Impulse items are not deals and are often marked up beyond the normal mark-up, because they are the high profit items. When I worked in the food industry, our high profit item was the drinks. The mark-up for beverages was as much as 80% above the cost of that item. Eighty-percent. Crazy! But we pay it, because we think we're getting a deal.

Make no mistake. On those "shopping holidays", the retailer is going to make its money. After all, it *is* all about making money, and they are not doing us any favors by offering these "great deals." If there wasn't something in it for them, they wouldn't do it. A few items might, actually, be marked down (but never below the cost), but often those items are in "limited quantities" and would be gone before most people are even able to get into the store. One year, for example, a major retailer offered a highly desirable electronics item at a ridiculously low price. The advertisement flyer said (in a very, very tiny font) "limited quantities", but who reads the small print, and who could have imagined how "limited" those quantities would actually be?. Each of the 100-plus stores had FIVE.

As such, the best idea is to understand when the best time to buy things is, and there are certain times of the year when the cost of certain items is significantly lower than at other times. In fact, according to this list, right now is a good time to buy aluminum foil, and according to this list, aluminum foil is a good thing to have around the house.

It's not that I don't like getting a good deal, and it's not that I would deny any other person the joy of finding a bargain. It is that this "shopping holiday" is just one more way for retailers to wrest the few dollars we've managed to keep hold of out of our collective fingers, and if we think they're doing us any favors, we're deluding ourselves. Their goal is to make money, and they'll do nearly anything to achieve that goal - even if it means trickery and deceit - two traits most retailers have in spades.

The wiki-history of Black Friday is both funny and a little sad.

All the more reason I choose not to participate.

And in this season in which thanks should be ever on our lips, I'm thankful that there has never been a Black Friday deal so compelling that I risk my life or that of another to shop on this day.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Storing Food

In her excellent book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich points out that one of the biggest problems for the working poor, when it comes to food and nutrition, is that many of them have no place to store surplus food, even if they can afford to purchase it. I won't disagree. I lived in what can only be described as "transient" housing while I was in the military, and while my situation was significantly different and slightly more stable than someone who lives in a motel room, with regard to storing food, it wasn't much better.

Of course, being who I am, I can't simply accept that as the final answer, and I think, for those who look deeper, there are solutions.

One of my favorite, all-time, television shows, and, indeed, the one that got me started on this path to suburban self-sufficiency and homesteading, is the 1970s BBC classic, Good Neighbors. The story is about a man who reaches his forty-second birthday and, suddenly, realizes that nothing he does is meaningful. He gets up in the morning, goes to his job where he is a (top) designer for the plastic toys that end up in cereal boxes, and then, he comes home at night to his lovely wife, has dinner, and the next morning, wash/ rinse/repeat.

He decides he wants more from his life, and so the show begins.

In one episode Tom (the protagonist) goes fishing with his buddy and next door neighbor, Jerry (the foil - sort of). Tom is fishing for sustenance, and everything he catches will feed him and his wife, Barbara. Jerry is fishing, because it's relaxing and a nice departure from his high-stress job as a corporate executive. Tom has a good day at the pond, and he brings his fish home, where he cleans them, and then, stores them in the freezer (which is powered by a methane digester, which is fueled by pig-waste). Unfortunately, Tom has some mechanical problems with his generator, and his fish is in danger of thawing. So, he runs next door to ask Jerry if he can store his catch in their freezer, but Jerry informs Tom that the grid is down. Thus, the episode ends with rotting fish.

What I loved about that particular episode from my "doomer" perspective was that it was a reminder that dependence on modern, electrified conveniences could be very bad - even if we believe we can power those things ourselves. Tom had his own, home-made methane digester to provide some electricity for his home - specifically, to power the freezer in which they planned to store much of their food (including the pig, who provided the fuel for the digester ;). He believed himself to be independent of the grid, but when his home-made generator failed him, he realized he needed the very thing he'd eschewed on principle.

If he had thought beyond the obvious, Tom would have realized that he had other options - other than freezing the fish, or watching it rot when he couldn't use his neighbor's freezer.

Several weeks ago, my daughters and I went to the Old York Museum, which is a living history museum in southern Maine, where I discovered salt-dried fish. I came home, resolved to try it for myself, and after my successful attempt at salt-drying fish, Deus Ex Machina bought the book Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning ..., which I have been skimming.

And it got me thinking about people who are living on a very fixed income in very small quarters and who don't have space to store traditionally preserved foods. They don't have a huge freezer (grid-powered or otherwise). They don't have a root cellar, and often not even an extra room that's in a cooler part of the house. They don't have lots of cabinets or a food pantry.

Further, they don't have the cooking facilities to can 2 dozen jars of applesauce.

So, what's the option?

And that's when I had my Aha! moment, when all of the pieces clicked together, and I thought, if I could suggest one thing to people who might be in a position where they needed to have some food stores, but simply did not have the space or the facilities to preserve them, I would tell them to get a food dehydrator.

This year, Deus Ex Machina and I harvested almost 100 lbs of "wild apples." We made cider out of most of them, but they could easily have been peeled, thinly sliced, and put in the food dehydrator.

In the past, we've bought cheap cuts of meat, sliced it very thin, marinated it in a seasoned brine, and then, dehydrated it.

A few years ago, a local farm store had 50 lb bags of potatoes for $15. Yes, that's right. FIFTY pounds of potatoes for FIFTEEN DOLLARS! If I had no way to store or cook 50 lbs of potatoes, a good alternative would be to thinly slice the spuds and dehydrate them. My family and I might get sick of potato soup, but we wouldn't be hungry.

What's funny is that most of us never think about dehydrating our fresh food, but most of us, in this processed food generation, regularly cook with and eat dehydrated foods. Instant potato flakes, "just add boiling water" soups, flavored instant oatmeal ... raisins.

There's nothing mysterious about dehydrating foods, and when it comes to preservation methods, dehydrating can, actually, be the cheapest way to process the food we want to keep. When Deus Ex Machina and I bought our dehydrator over a decade ago, we bought the cheapest model available. It's not a heavy-duty commercial quality, but it does the job, and we paid less than $40 for it. From the bit of sleuthing I did, it looks like similar models are still available at a similar price :).

The food dehydrator Deus Ex Machina and I have is electric, but it takes far less energy - even with the dehydrator running full out for the two days it takes to dry meat - to dry four trays of meat than it does to store it for months in the freezer. The dried meat also takes up less space than an equal amount of fresh meat, and if it's kept in an air-tight container, it will last for months (maybe years) - even through a power outage :).

We use an electric food dehydrator, and for people living in a motel or a small apartment, an electric dehydrator is probably the best answer, but dehydrating food does not require electricity - just so you know.

Unlike canning, which requires monitoring through the whole process, most of the process of dehydrating requires no effort on our part. There was a commercial a few years ago for some "As Seen On TV" Ronco product in which they declared "Set it and Forget it!" That's how preserving food by dehydrating works - for the most part.

Dehydrated food can be rehydrated and cooked, as we all know from our days of eating "just add boiling water" soup packets, but it can also be eaten as is, which makes dehydrating food, probably, one of the best methods of preserving.

As for Tom Good, I wish I could tell him about my salt-dried fish. It was delicious in chowder, and salt-drying or even smoke drying his fish would have saved the all of that food he caught.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Stu, the Rooster

Dance of the Adolescent Male

Too full of the rooster swagger
To see the lonely hen,
Patiently nesting in far corner,
Her feathers drooped.

Strut, Strut, and Crow!
Bellow, Baby!
For all the world to hear
Your cock’s glory.

You know someday that strut
Will be a shuffle
And the Cock-a-doodle-doodling
A muffle,
In the hands of the axeman.

Then, your crazy strutting body
Will run wild
Through the barnyard,
And the hen will be roosting while you’re roasting -
Sunday Dinner.


A couple of weeks ago I got a note from a long-time Internet friend of mine. She was the first person I met online that lived local to me, but it's taken us thirteen years to actually meet in person.

But, let me back up a bit ...

Several years ago my friend moved from her "city" apartment out to the country, and little-by-little, she and her partner have set-up a little farm. Recently, they added chickens, for eggs, to their farm, but when they got their first batch of, what was supposed to be hens, they discovered a couple of roosters. They want no roosters.

Although we've never met, we have kept up an email/Internet/Facebook connection all of these years, and we've "talked" on a fairly regular basis. She knows that we have chickens and that we raise meat animals. So, she emailed me to ask if we wanted this hen-turned-rooster. We can not have a rooster here in the suburbs, which is what we told her, but I said I'd ask around to see if anyone wanted a juvenile Aracuna rooster, which I did. Seems no one is currently in the market for a live rooster.

So, she offered him to us for the "pot."

I almost made the title of this post "stew", but that would have given away the ending of my story, which is, my friend brought her rooster to us today, and Deus Ex Machina and I butchered our first chicken.

The hardest part, for us, was the killing part (but that's always the most troublesome). In fact, I almost decided to just let him live and assimilate into our flock, but he kept crowing, and I knew that it would become a problem for my neighbors.

I was concerned that plucking the chicken would be very difficult (because one always hears stories), but it was actually pretty easy and went a lot faster than I expected.

We already know that we're going to cull the flock in the Spring. We're talking about what breeds we want, and I'm thinking, now, we might consider a straight run of dual purpose chicks next year and save a few pennies over the cost of ordering just hens. Now that the mystery has been taken out of the process, and we know we can do what needs to be done, having a rooster or two wouldn't be a problem for us.

It was really nice to, finally, meet my friend in person, and I owe her much thanks for the gift. I promised I wouldn't take pictures of the process, but this is the end result.

Some homemade egg noodles added to the broth made a nice Sunday Dinner.

Friday, November 11, 2011

{this moment}

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

But if you want an explanation of what it is ... ;).

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Occupy Your Life

Although I haven't blogged about the Occupy Wall Street protests, I have been following the news - both the mass media (mostly owned by the "greedy corporations" - irony??) and the individual tidbits that people have posted on Facebook, blogs, podcasts, and YouTube. My favorite article, to date, is this one, about the bicycle generators they've acquired to replace the gas generators that were confiscated by the police.

What I see is this deepening rift between people who believe the protesters are all "welfare brats" and the people on the street who are railing against everything from student loans (largely their own) to global warming. The rift between these two factions is becoming very deep and very well defined. While it's always been there in the shadows, that *thing* that no one wants to talk about, it is, now, no longer merely a shadow, but has been pulled right out into the sun in all its horror and glory.

Maybe that's a good thing.

The problem is, at least initially, that there are protests, but there hasn't been much cohesiveness of purpose. We all know what the problems are (hiding in the shadows). We've known intuitively that "things" can't continue like they are, but most of us have been hardpressed to come up with solutions, and that's the only place I see where the OWS protesters will fall short, if the movement fails. It does little good to point out a problem without also providing a solution.

I wouldn't be talking about the protests today, either, if it hadn't been for an article in (of all places) the Wall Street Journal. According to the article, one of the issues facing protesters is the influx of homeless people who are drawn to the safety and comfort of the protester encampments.

What prompted me to discuss the protests was a quote at the end of the article by one of the homeless, who said, "It's nice for them to come out like this but they don't know what it's like. [They]'re out of [their] homes for a month. We're here all the time. Some people look at [us] and it's like 'eeew, stay away'. And what they don't know is that [they]'re just a paycheck away from this."

And, of course, that statement, for me, tied it all together. This man has hit the proverbial nail right on the head. We are all, all of us, just one paycheck away from living the life he has fallen into due to unemployment. We're all living in a corporate-run, money-centric world, and when the money stops rolling in and we no longer have any buying power, the world will have no use for us.

Is there anything more sad than our whole worth as living, breathing, thinking, spiritual entities being assigned a value based on some system of imagined wealth? If we don't have money, we are worthless.

When it all boils down, isn't that what the protesters are railing against? This supposition that they are worthless if they don't have jobs and money to spend? Aren't they just trying to get someone to see them, to acknowledge their value as something more than a wallet?

The theme of my blog and of my book is preparedness - more specifically, transitioning our lives so that when sh*t happens ... and it will ... we won't suffer as a result.

If we're not dependent for our very lives on having grid-provided electricity, when the power goes out, it won't hurt us.

If we're not dependent on the grocery stores for all of our food, when we have a short month and can't afford to buy groceries, we won't go to bed hungry.

If we're not dependent on that paycheck for every single thing we need, then it won't hurt us as much when the paycheck stops coming.

My family and I may never be completely self-sufficient or wholly independent, but that's not the point of what we're doing. The further we can remove ourselves from the money economy, the more we can do for ourselves, the less we will be negatively affected by what's happening in the money world.

I support and admire what the Occupy Wall Street protesters are trying to accomplish. My hope is that the underlying message - one that tells us not to rely on the "crooks" who are in control of our world economy - will be the one that is finally heard and heeded.

I'm reading The Education of Little Tree right now. The book is about a young boy who is raised by his Cherokee grandparents in the appalachian mountains after his parents die and the considerable lessons on self-reliance that he learns from them.

The story is set in the 1930s, and the grandfather has neither a job nor a pension nor cash savings, and there was no such thing as Social Security. They live in a little cabin on the side of a mountain and raise a corn crop, which they turn into whiskey. Once a month or so, they make eleven gallons of whiskey. They keep two gallons, and the other nine are sold at the local store for $2 a gallon. In 2011 dollars, that means that they subsist on $229.37 a month.

But here's the caveat: they own their property (no mortgage); they have no debt; they hunt, raise or forage about 90% of what they eat (they buy sugar and coffee at the store); the grandmother makes most of their clothes, including their footwear - mostly from the animal hides; they don't own a car; and they don't watch television. They read a lot - books borrowed from the library in the "settlement."

They are dependent on their community for "community", but for the most part, they are independent and can satisfy their needs themselves, but they live very simply and have very few needs.

And that's the point, right?

I support the OWS protesters, because they are correct in the belief that things can not continue, and something needs to be done. I say that we all have control - each of us as individuals - to make those changes happen, maybe not in exactly the way the OWS protesters envision.

I hope the lesson that we, ultimately, learn is that we can live quite comfortably and quite happily with a lot less than what we think we need, and most of those "needs" we can satisfy ourselves. I hope we learn that working together as a community takes some of the burden off of the individual to do it all.

Individual self-sufficiency supported by a strong community - that's where we need to be moving. I hope the OWS protesters will help us get there.