Sunday, January 29, 2012

It Was a Maple Syrup Sunday ... But That's Not Nearly As Sweet As It Sounds

We haven't had much of a winter around here. There were a couple of snowstorms, but nothing significant. In fact, the last snowstorm we had, dumped so little snow on us that we didn't even bother to shovel, and I think I've only shoveled twice - total - the whole winter ... which just.never.happens.

I kept thinking (for two months, now :) that, perhaps, this was just a teaser, and that winter would be here any day now, but the forecast for the next ten days has temps below freezing at night and above freezing during the day - typical spring weather for Maine.

And, maybe, we might allow ourselves to keep waiting and watching and believing that winter was still going to come our way, except for two things. First, the skunks are out. They are year-round here in Maine, but they are mostly sedentary during the winter, not venturing out, at least not too far, until the weather starts turning to spring. Second, the sap is running.

There are many aspects of the life Deus Ex Machina and I lead that are very seasonal. One of them is the sugaring season, and we keep a pretty close eye on the weather so that we know when to tap. Conventional wisdom will give a date - usually around late February - but it's been our unfortunate experience for the past two years that if we wait until the calendar says we should tap, we end up missing a few good weeks, and the season has been far too short for too many years recently.

We've never tapped this early, though, and if I didn't trust Deus Ex Machina's judgment about these things, then I would have cautioned us to wait ... until mid-February ... like we've always done ... and we would have, again, missed at least two weeks.

Interestingly, the USDA recently released a new hardiness zone map. In a disclaimer I saw in one place where the map was published, the USDA wanted to be sure that people understood this new map shouldn't be construed as proof of the global warming theory.

The last map, the one used extensively by most of us in the 1990's until now, was developed using data taken between 1974 and 1986. The new map uses data taken between 1976 and 2005. The new data used for the new map spans a significantly longer period, but also seems to show a definite up trend in temperatures. Where I live, in Maine, we've changed a whole hardiness zone from 5 to 6.

As they point out, it is important to note that there are other factors influencing what plants will thrive in a given area, including the amount of day light, but it is a little concerning to note that there really and truly has been a warming trend, and at this point, with the crazy, unsettled weather we've all been experiencing for the last decade, anyone who tries to deny that something has happened with our global climate is simply deluding himself and lying to the rest of us. It's like, Fletcher (Jim Carrey's character) in the movie Liar Liar, who, with his face covered in blue script, declares, "the ink is blue".

The "ink" is blue, and we simply can't deny it any longer by trying to pretend that it is red, because ink on our faces will be the least of our worries.

I love sugaring season, but I'm not terribly happy about it coming this early in the year. Winter is a time of rest, a time of inner contemplation, a time when we should be able to go inside - both figuratively and literally. The garden is under snow, and all of the plants are resting and waiting. Usually, January is a time to learn other kinds of skills or to plan for the next season, but mostly it's simple stuff, a break from the harvesting and preserving that dominates the rest of the year.

Last year, I was still in food preservation mode in November with my salt-dried fish, and we were still picking (and preserving into cider and sauce) apples in October.

With such a late canning season, I feel like I never really got the usual time off this year, and now, with maple sugaring season upon us, the whole cycle is beginning again. Soon, it will be time to start to turn the beds and start planting seeds. The question is, if our climate is changing, what do I plant?

Trying to figure out what will really thrive in my climate has always been an ongoing challenge for me. If it's that much of a challenge for me, in my limited space, I can't imagine how people who do this for a living will be able to make the adjustment.

Two years ago, we had an early warming spell followed by a killing frost. The result was that the apple trees were tricked into blooming early, and then, many orchards lost a significant amount of their crop when the blooms were killed in the frost.

When it comes to the whole global warming argument, there are too many people who are stuck in the blame game, and, personally, I think they're doing us all a great disservice. The problem is that if we agree that global warming is a direct result of something man has done (i.e. burning copious amounts of fossil fuels), then we agree that we need to stop doing that activity that caused the problem so that we don't make it worse. Right?

And any discussion about future action stops *right*there*, because no one wants to stop using fossil fuels. They're too much a part of the livestyles to which we, in the West, have made ourselves believe we are entitled.

The problem is that, as we remain impotent and inactive, wacky weather is wreaking havoc on our natural environment, and we have no plan for how to mitigate what could become quite a disaster.

Maybe the world won't mourn the loss of real maple syrup (and it's a real possibility that, if the earth continues this warming trend, that it will happen), but maple syrup is just one, tiny symptom of a systemic problem - the proverbial canary in the coal mine - and at some point, there will be some very valuable crop that is no longer available for human consumption, and then, maybe, we'll start paying attention.

But, by then, it might just be be too late to start making changes to mitigate the disasterous consequences of full-on crop failures.

In the meantime, as long as we're able, Deus Ex Machina and I will continue to tap our maples to make maple syrup, and maybe we'll put back a few of our preserved jars for the far future. Who knows, someday, maple syrup might be worth more than gold, and as the holders of the last quart of the real stuff, we'll be richer than kings ;).

Through some very good fortune, Deus Ex Machina and I recently acquired a (n extra) copy of the book The New York Times Field Guide to Medicinal Plants by Arnold and Connie Krochmal. Connie Krochmal is my aunt, and she co-wrote the book with her late husband back in the 1970s. She and my uncle were prolific writers and spent a lot of time studying plants and plant medicine. The book is an excellent resource for those who are interested in learning a bit more about plant medicine and identifying medicinal plants.

In recognition of surpassing 100 posts on his blog, Deus Ex Machina is giving away a copy of Connie and Arnold's book on his blog. If you're interested in being included in the drawing, please comment on his blog. The drawing will be February 29 - Leap Day :).

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Film on Schooling in America in the Twenty-first Century - RaceToNowhere

Whatever anyone thinks about my ideas for changing (and perhaps improving) our school system, the fact is that what we have is not only not working (especially financially), but there seems to be a very large body of evidence that it's hurting our children.

And it's not my research, and it's not my interpretation of things I've read, and it's not John Taylor Gatto's website, which has an excellent pictoral essay on the real power players behind the forming of our modern school system (hint: according to his essay, it's not Horace Mann or John Dewey, who did work to promote free education for all, but rather Andrew Carnegie, Rockefeller and Ford, who wished to start early with cultivating a consumerist mindset in the American people - knowing what we know about our education system and our modern culture, who do you think prevailed?). It's not something I conjured and decided to share.

What it is, is a stark and terrifying film about the real consequences of the kind of "education" and lifestyle choices we are forcing on our children.

But, please, don't take my word for it. See for yourself:

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The New School: Visions of a Future in Education

My idea of virtual school went over like a lead balloon - to borrow a favorite cliche. While it would save a significant amount of money, were it implemented correctly, there is a huge concern that there would be this throng of unsupervised children, and goodness knows we can't have that - although I suspect that it would be far less of a problem than those who've left comments believe it to be.

As an alternative for those parents who don't want their children at home three extra days per week, perhaps a low-cost childcare option could be set-up in one of the former school buildings. Parents would have to pay for those extra three days of school, and those parents who have an exceptional financial need could be given a tuition waiver.

But what is not being recognized in the comments is that having three days of "virtual school" would actually open up a whole new opportunity for "alt-education" facilities, like The Fiddlehead Center for the Arts (which already provides "afterschool" care and summer camps) or the Ferry Beach Ecology School, to flourish, which would mean all sorts of new jobs could be created, and children would be exposed to a plethora of ideas and resources that aren't available to them when they're in school six hours per day five days per week. It would also give them a little more freedom with their time to explore specific areas of interest, and for older students, individual self-study plans could lead to future careers.

And for those parents who do not have any disposable income to devote to paying extra for education, there are all sorts of financial assistance and scholarship programs. But those parents (or the students) would be responsible for finding those funds.

For the parents, it's not as easy as putting Little Johnny on the bus, but it is workable.

There are still other options to consider, as well. Things we could do that would save money on education, and, perhaps, actually improve the education we are offering our students here in the United States without decreasing the school week for all students at all levels.

The first thing we could do is to enforce current compulsory attendance laws, and I don't mean rounding up all of the law-breaking parents, but rather limiting free and open access to public schools to only those students who fall within the age range required by compulsory attendance laws.

In most of the states in the United States of America, Compulsory attendance laws require that children be in enrolled in an educational program from about age seven until the age of seventeen. In Pennsylvania, the age range is eight to seventeen. In Maryland it's five to sixteen. In Oklahoma and Virginia compulsory attendance is from five to eighteen and this idea would not work for them.

The point is that not all parents are required to send their children to school when they turn five. Truancy laws, at least here in Maine, only apply IF the child is over seven, but younger than seventeen, or IF the child who is under seven was previously enrolled in the public school system and has not been subsequently placed on an "equivalent" program or reenrolled (i.e. if the child was enrolled at the local school for kindergarten but not first grade, she will have to be a registered homeschooler OR have been enrolled in a private school).

Since most people don't know this fact, parents enroll their children in Kindergarten at the age of five, and most students stay in school until they are eighteen. What this means is that we are paying for an additional three years of schooling, per student, at an average cost of $10,000 per year.

What I propose is that we don't pay for those extra years with public funds. The savings would be in the millions of dollars. To wit: if we have 100 Kindergarteners and 100 first graders and 100 seventeen year olds, by *not* using public funds for these students, we could save, immediately, $3 mllion per year.

That doesn't mean that none of those kids could go to school. That just means it wouldn't be free. That is, parents who have children younger than seven and older than seventeen would be required to pay tuition if they wanted their children to attend the public school.

There is no evidence to support the idea that children who go to school at a younger age learn more or better. In fact, except in extreme cases, those students who went to preschool will eventually be performing at only the same level as those kids who didn't have formal education until later - and by extreme cases, I mean cases in which the students are developmentally delayed due to physical or mental handicaps or by extreme poverty. In all of those cases, early intervention proved to be paramount to the children's future academic success. But for the average kid from the average household there is no discernable difference in later years between kids who completed preschool and those who entered school when they were older.

There are already educational-assistance programs available for low-income families, and these programs could continue on a proven-need basis. That is, people who meet the financial hardship criteria could enroll their children in a public school program and receive a waiver for tuition fees. All other parents can pay to have their children in school.

Cutting one year of "free" high school would mean that most high school aged children wouldn't graduate. Therefore, it would be necessarily to adjust the graduation requirements. Right now, a good deal of what high school-aged students "study" is simple repetition. In English class, for example, the lessons are all based on a study of literature ... for FOUR years. There is some writing, but there's no instruction in grammar except as an adjunct to teaching writing techniques.

As an aside and as a former teacher, I think it's backwards. In the early grades, students should concentrate on developing a passion for the written word, which means studying literature for the pure beauty and poetry of our language and unfettered writing exercises without the constraints of grammar rules. In fact, I submit that children who are exposed early and often to QUALITY literature learn to spell and use accurate grammar by the simple process of being given examples of good spelling and accurate grammar (Hint: Junie B. Jones and Harry Potter, while fun stories, are not "quality" literature), and only when they've mastered expressing themselves on paper, should their written musings be red-inked and organized into Standard English prose. In short, elementary school teachers should teach reading, middle school teachers should teach literature, and high school teachers should teach grammar. Seems like a more natural progression to me, which is a natural segue to ...

... changing the things students study at the high school level - i.e. graduation credit requirements.

In some schools, there is an opportunity for students to gain some practical, marketable skillset while still in school and have those credits count toward graduation, but for most kids what they learn is basic, "trivia-based" knowledge.

What I mean is that most kids spend a lot of time in school memorizing stuff they promptly forget and rarely need to recall later - just so they can take a test, to pass a class, to earn a credit, to meet a graduation requirement. It's all meaningless, trivial information. As a high school student, I earned credits in all of the standard college-prep courses - very few of which helped me while I was actually in college. For what I do now for a living, only three of my high school classes are even relevant: typing, business math, and Home Ec. We might include anatomy and physiology and/or any of the biology classes I took, but in truth, I remember very little of what I "learned." Most of the knowledge I use day-to-day is stuff I've picked-up since I left school.

What I propose, then, is that for the high school level, instead of having a one-size-fits-all education plan for all students, that students be permitted to choose a career track based on interest AND ability level. Students who wish to go to college would be required to follow a course of study that is similar to what kids do today, i.e. trivia-based, memorization.

For all others, their studies would be more vocational-based, but that doesn't have to be limited to "shop" or "home-ec". A student interested in studying nursing could, conceivably, complete the prerequisites for a LPN certificate while still in high school, which include anatomy, physiology, psychology, and English. More advanced nursing courses could be part of the "early study" program.

The University of Maine system currently offers a program for high school students called "Early Study" or "Aspirations." The program pays for one class per semester for qualified students and offers a second class for half-price. If high school courses were accepted as "prerequisites" for LPN studies, a seventeen year old could "graduate" from high school as a certified LPN.

But it doesn't have to be all "book learning", either. What if, instead of requiring that all high school students spend six hours a day, five days a week taking classes at the local school, we sent some of those kids out into the community in a work-study or apprenticeship program?

We could reduce the size of the student body at the high school by at least 1/3 by allowing fifteen and sixteen year olds the opportunity to participate in an apprenticeship program (how about learning shoe repair?) instead of requiring that they be present at the school sitting through endless, useless classes which prepare them with no marketable job skills at the age of 18 when they are expected to enter the workforce as "educated" individuals. This is not the same as allowing sixteen year olds to get a job. This would be an apprenticeship program that be a collaboration between local business owners interested in teaching their skills and the local schools. Not only would it give students some marketable skils, but it would also build bridges between groups of community members that aren't currently there, and it would make our communities stronger.

In short, by eliminating the three non-compulsory grades, we'd save, immediately, $3 million dollars. By allowing students to earn graduation credits as apprentices or through a college early study program, we could save an additional $270,000, because fewer students who need to occupy physical space in the schools would mean that a smaller space would suffice, and classes could be consolidated into fewer buildings, which would result in saving money on the cost of maintaining facilities and would provide potential revenue for the town by renting out space in the abandoned schools.

If we also implement my original "virtual school" idea, but only on the high school level, we could further reduce the number of buildings we'd need.

It is true there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of how to fix our schools. In truth, what works in Maine won't necessarily work in Texas, and what works in Kentucky could devastate the public school programs in Alabama. The problem is our current system tries to be a one-size-fits-all, and so everything from the school year time line (school begins in the fall, there's a break at Christmas, there's a spring break, school ends in late spring and there's a three-month summer break) to the basic curriculum is homogenized, and our teachers here in Hollis, Maine try to teach our students the same things teachers in San Antonio, Texas are teaching, but guess what? Hollis, Maine is not San Antonio, Texas. Every.single.thing about those two communities is different from the natural environment to the clothes to the food they eat to the way they speak, and finally, given all of those environmental influences, to the way they view and interact with the world. And I've lived in or near BOTH of those communities - so I know of what I speak.

We need to, as communities, take a good hard look at our schools, and we need to make changes that will save us money and prepare our kids for what is shaping up to be a future where the majority of us have even less than we do now - and certainly less than most of our population believes it is entitled to have.

Based on my experiences with the public school system as a parent, as a teacher, and as a student, and my experience as a homeschooler, I have offered two possible solutions.

I'm sure there are other solutions I haven't thought of, and any or all of them could help solve the problems, but none of them will, if we don't act.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Pulling Schools into the Twenty-First Century May Mean Redefining the Term "School"

When I published my most recent post, I knew that I would come under fire. My stance on education is not a popular one. I'm not anti-school. I just think our school "system" is broken and needs a serious overhaul.

But for the record my ideas do not stem from some elitist ideals – like the fabled let them eat cake. In my time, I have been a poor working mother trying to support my family on minimum wage while I was also going to school full-time; a public school teacher struggling to work with students for whom the system clearly was not working, never had, and never would; and a parent of publicly schooled children, who were doing well, but could never be said to be “thriving” in that environment. We won’t get into my personal experiences in public school, but suffice it to say that I was a very good student, but never could one be so deluded as to think I “thrived” in spite of my academic and perceived social success. It was those combined experiences that resulted in my decision to home school my younger children.

My ideas are not based on some bourgeois position of entitlement, but rather from a very long history of experiences with the public school system and an intimate knowledge that the current “system” does not work for anyone – even those children who seem to be “thriving.”

One of the arguments against my idea was that an un-educated populace is the fastest way to societal decline. First, I would argue that our society is already in decline, but that’s beside the point, because the implication is that our current system “educates” our population. I disagree. One hundred percent of our children between the ages of 7 and 17 are enrolled in some sort of educational program. Under penalty of law, children can NOT be withdrawn from some sort of educational equivalency program until they exceed the maximum compulsory attendance age (between 15 and 17 depending on the State). As such, 100% of America’s children receive an education from Kindergarten through, at least, the 10th grade.

In 1992, the National Adult Literacy Survey found that 50% of adults tested at Level 2 or lower on a prose literacy scale. That doesn’t mean much, until we add that a number of national and state organizations … have identified Level 3 proficiency as a minimum standard for success in today's labor market . source

But it gets worse than that. According to this article 32 million Americans can’t even read. They are functionally illiterate … but that statistic is just the ones who can only read enough to go to the right bathroom. What about the ones who can do better, but only slightly? There are no statistics for them, but I’ve known them. What are their job prospects? Even the military requires that recruits have a minimum of an eighth grade reading level, and, believe it or not, I've actually known people who took the test, but couldn't meet the minimum educational standards required to enlist in the Army.

And I wasn’t going to, but I will mention those absurd “on the street” reports in which Americans are quizzed about trivial sorts of facts that should be common knowledge and invariably are not. Like, we’ve been at war in the Middle East since 2001, where is the Middle East? And respondents can’t place a pin even in the general area. Or, who’s the Vice President of the United States? Or any other fairly pertinent piece of fact that we should, as an “educated” population, know but don’t.

Arguing that transitioning away from the current system would result in MANY children falling through the cracks and that it would result in an uneducated populace is ridiculous, as many children fall through the current system, and we, arguably, have a fairly uneducated populace already. The current system, for all the money we pay toward "educating" our children, is not even providing them with any marketable skills, and invariably, if they want a "good" job, they have to do some sort of training program after they graduate. Hanging onto our current system has resulted in MANY children falling through the cracks (at least 10%) and an uneducated subset of adults who have little or no job prospects in the kind of service-oriented economy we have developed here in the US over the past several decades.

The fact is that our current system doesn’t train our population to do anything but sit and take orders – great if we’re all going to join the military, but *see above*.

I never suggested that everyone should be forced to home school. What I suggested was virtual school, which means that teachers wouldn’t be working part-time, rather they would be working full-time, but 3/5ths of their school week would be telecommuting in a virtual classroom.

Of course, there really does seem to be a huge misunderstanding about what telecommuting actually is.

I work from home and have done so for more than a decade, but I do not “telecommute.” I am self-employed and have a home-based business. I am a freelancer, an independent contractor. I have clients, but not an outside employer. Nobody gives me a W-2 at the end of the year.

I do recognize that not everyone can be self-employed. It requires a willingness to let go of the security of having someone else do the job of making sure there’s work for which one will be paid. I have no such assurances, and if I want to earn money, I have to find people who are willing to pay me. I have no safety net when it comes to my job – no vacation pay, no health insurance, no sick-pay, no tuition reimbursement, no 401K, no guaranteed paycheck, and no legal recourse if the person paying decides he no longer needs my services (i.e. no unemployment).

That said, there’s also very little over-sight, no micromanaging and no time clocks. I do the work, in the privacy of my home office, at my leisure, when it suits me. I get paid for a completed job, and while my clients always have an expected turn-around time, I am completely free to work when it pleases me and to sit on the couch and read all day if I decide I don’t feel like working. As long as I get the work done when they need it, they don’t care if I work from 9 to 5 or at midnight. If we wanted to apply the analogy to education, being self-employed is like home schooling.

The only real similarity between my home-based work life and telecommuting is that a telecommuter gets to work at home. Often, however, there are designated “work hours”, and many telecommuters will be connected to the home office via an intranet or the Internet during these work times. The telecommuter is an “employee” and must meet certain expectations with regard to accountability. That is, the employer will want to be assured that the employee is working the required number of hours.

The telecommuter has all of the perks the on-site full-time employees have, namely, the safety net of having an employer that includes set wages, vacation/sick pay, health insurance, and should there no longer be a job, the opportunity to apply for unemployment benefits.

The virtual school I proposed is like telecommuting. Students (and teachers) would be required to be, physically, at the school for a minimum of two days per week. The other three days, they would be telecommuting via the Internet to a virtual classroom, where the teacher would be available to help.

Our national education system is over-bloated and extremely costly, and it is a significant financial drain on our local economies. My community is required to pay 50% of its revenues to support the school, and even that isn’t enough. So, we drive on broken roads; make do with a public library that was built to accommodate 3000 residents in a community that’s grown to three times that size (and the community doesn't bat an eye about paying $10 million per year for schools, but balks at a request of $2 million to upgrade our library); and keep our fingers crossed that the out-dated and under-sized sewage treatment plant won’t explode, this year. Half of our town’s revenues go to support an educational system that doesn’t really educate, while our infrastructure is crumbling, because we can’t afford to fix it.

My community is not unique in that respect. It’s happening (has been happening) all of the country for a lot longer than this current “Recession”, and yet, no one wants to provide any solutions other than the same kinds of fixes that have been tried and failed and tried and failed, and the general consensus seems to be that if we just had more money for education or if we just had a shinier, newer building ....

All of the solutions proffered by anyone who is trying to come up with solutions are ways to make the current system do better, but it’s the SYSTEM that is flawed, and no amount of propping up with more money is going to make it work. It’s like we have this old car with a seized up engine, and rather than admitting that the engine – the part that makes the car actually *do* something – is dead, we put on new tires and get a new paint job. Our solutions to the problem with our schools continue to be cosmetic and never really address the fact that the model on which our system is structured is antiquated and doesn’t serve our modern needs.

Perhaps, telecommuting students isn’t the answer either, but at least, it would save a significant amount of money annually on building maintenance and upkeep. It’s far cheaper to supply 1200 kids with laptop computers and have them in a physical classroom for only two days a week than it is to pay for the general maintenance, heat, electricity and water for a school building. For just energy requirements for the average-sized school, it costs $270,000 per year. My community could save half a million dollars per year, if they would just close two of our three school buildings and have students use only the third building.

The bottom line is that our current system is not working, it's too expensive, and, as I say in Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs, it will fail. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, schools closed in record numbers, and in places where the schools stayed open, teachers worked for "vouchers" and not for pay. We're headed in that direction - where we will need to make very hard choices about what to keep and what to let go, as we and our communities become poorer.

Seems to me, instead of negating ideas because we can't concieve of how they might possibly work, we should be trying to imagine other solutions. Maybe home schooling isn't the univeral answer, but wouldn’t it be better to start doing something else, right now, to ensure that EVERYONE has some access to some kind of education, rather than trying, vainly, to hold onto the current system as it slips through our fingers like melted butter?

Having Our Cake ... and Baking It At Home

In the news recently was an uproar regarding some comments made by Maine Governor Paul LePage. Apparently, he has warned the Legislature that, if they do not present him with a reasonable budget, he will close schools on May 1. He stated that it was either cut the school year or cut the funds designated for social services.

Now, I'm not supporting or defending LePage. He's said some pretty inflammatory things in the past, and his stance on environmental issues (including his goal of reversing many of the hard-won, pretty hard-nosed, environmental policies that make doing business here, especially with regard to developing "wild" areas, very difficult) isn't going to win him any points with me, but on this one thing, I think I have to agree with him ... and one can't even begin to imagine how hard it is for me to say that!

It's not that he's trying to take things away from Maine's citizens, but when one figures that 80% of the State's budget goes to fund education and social services, it's a no-brainer that cuts are going to have to come from one of those two areas.

As LePage stated, there's no money, and unlike the Federal government, our state government "can't just print more" (which, of course, is just a silly, over-simplification of the issue, and similar such off-the-cuff comments will prove to be LePage's legacy, because the Feds can't really "just print more", either). His point, though, is valid: we can't simply keep funding things for which there is no money.

The problem is that no one wants to give up, even a tiny portion, of his piece of the pie. No one wants his program cut. So, my question for those who are railing against these proposed cuts is, Are *you* willing to pay more (in taxes) to fund those programs you insist must be funded?, and of course, the answer will always be no.

No one wants to let go of any of their programs, but no one wants to raise taxes to keep them funded, either.

A long time ago, Deus Ex Machina and I realized one thing when it comes to our finances: if we wanted to have more money, we could either work more to earn more money OR we could spend less money than we make. We have opted to cut expenses, and some of the ways we've done so, have raised a few eyebrows, because they are unconventional - like getting rid of the television and the clothes dryer.

The government equivalent would be to increase the tax burden or cut programs. Personally, I opt for cutting programs, and I don't think it would be so very difficult to do so. Some very simple changes could save thousands of dollars per year for our government.

We homeschool, and while it's not an option most folks are willing to explore, I submit that our state and our communities could save a significant amount of money by implementing a different sort of school day. The fastest and easiest way to start would be to reduce the amount of time children are physically *in* school to only one or two days a week. The other days the children could be doing lessons virtually. Think of it as telecommuting for kids.

Here in Maine, every eighth grade, publicly-schooled student (and I wanted to make the distinction so that people would understand that homeschooled children are not eligible for the laptop program - or many other supplementary educational programs offered to public school kids - even though homeschooling parents still pay their fair share of taxes to support public education) is given a laptop computer. It was one of the last programs Governor Angus King signed into law, and while I think it's a waste of money in its current incarnation, if the State were to take advantage of the program to implement a virtual school program, it would make providing those laptops useful for saving thousands of dollars per year paid out for education.

The most obvious savings would be in fuel costs. If kids were only bussed to school two days a week, for instance, it would save $100s in the cost of fuel to operate the busses.

And different grade levels could have different days off, or have staggered school times. So, maybe Monday and Tuesday would be elementary days, and Wednesday and Thursday would be junior high days, and Friday and Saturday would be high school days. They could all use the same building, instead of having three different building for each grade group. There would be a significant savings on building maintenance and upkeep.

Support staff would automatically be cut by one-third, which would save thousands in salary and benefits costs paid out.

It's true that no one wants to cut jobs, and I wouldn't want to be responsible for anyone losing his/her job, but if those extra school buildings ere repurposed for private use and then opened to the public, the "public school" employees might still be employed, but on a private level.

What if, for instance, the lunchroom was franchised by a restaurant chain and the lunchroom staff was hired to work in the restaurant?

What if those old buildings were turned into community centers (with a cafeteria??) where classroom space could be rented by the public?

As a homeschooler, one of our biggest challenges is finding a space to hold our classes. A community center would give us that space, but it would provide space for other groups, too. Right now, I'm working on securing space to have an out-of-state speaker come to Maine, but finding a place where he could speak will be a challenge.

And today, I received a call from a young woman who is looking for a person to officiate over her upcoming wedding. She wanted to know if I knew of any places to hold the ceremony. I don't, but if our former school buildings were still owned by the town and then repurposed into a community center with space that any citizen could rent, it would not only provide much needed space, but would also generate some income for the community without burdening those who don't benefit from those programs.

Or, maybe, we could repurpose the old school buildings into retail spaces. Imagine, the old high school turned into a shopping mall. What a hoot that would be! And, if the Town retains ownership of the property that would be revenue for the Town.

There is no evidence that requiring children to be physically present in a classroom for six hours a day, five days a week, 180 days a year results in a better educated populace. In fact, the opposite seems to be more true, as, statistically, homeschooled children out-perform their peers in almost every area from academics to arts and all of the categories in between.

In a society in which we are finding ourselves more financially pinched than ever, it makes sense to think up some real, cost-saving solutions. Reducing the size and scope of our education system just makes good sense, and changing from a requirement that everyone be physically present for x hours a year to allowing them to telecommute part-time would save thousands of dollars over the course of a school year.

I know that children don't require formal lessons or classrooms or even textbooks to learn. I know, because my children are learning - mostly without any of those things.

Today, they were doing math and writing.

No textbooks. No tests. No desks. No bells to change classes. No getting up before the sun to catch a bus on a cold, rainy morning.

And no extra burden to taxpayers to transport, house, feed, and educate 180 days a year.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Putting Those Decorative Pillows to Work

Some time ago, John Michael Greer was writing a series of blog posts about a movement he termed "Green Wizardry." The point of the series of posts was to illustrate the fact that with some very simple life-style changes the average person could drastically lower personal (and, subsequently, cultural) dependence on money and "cheap" non-renewable energy.

A lot of the things he suggested, my family is already doing, and of the things we hadn't yet considered, all were wholly practical ... and almost, invariably very simple (smack-your-forehead-DUH! simple in most cases) and low cost.

One of my favorite posts was about insulation, more specifically, about windows.

When we talk about insulation, the usual term is "r-value", and what that means, basically, is how much the air temperature is changed inside of a structure. The higher the r-value, the lower the rate of exchange. That is, if it's cold outside, your house will stay warmer with less heat produced if you have a higher r-value.

Since most heat is lost through the roof and through the floor, the best suggestion is to make sure the insulation in the ceilings and sub-floors is adequate, and really, if efficiency is our main concern, insulating those areas should be step number one.

Of course, in our typically Western fashion, too often when people are looking to make their homes more efficient, the first proprioty is often with changing doors and windows.

In his post on insulation, John Michael Greer points out that windows have an r-value of 0 (zero) - regardless of the number of panes and whether or not they have gas between the layers. Of course, windows aren't measured in "r-value." They are measured in "u-value", and people who sell windows will insist that a triple pane, argon-filled window manufactured by their supplier of choise are the absolute best windows ever made, and changing to those windows will save billions of dollars in energy costs over the lifetime of the house.

What they won't tell you, but they will express to each other in an online forum dedicated to building contractors is: Quite honestly it's just another extension of the tricks and gimicks [sic] that the window market is known for.

In short, if it's cold outside, no matter how "efficient" the windows are, there will be a huge heat loss through the windows *period.*

The other day, Deus Ex Machina and I discovered, quite by accident a very simple and relatively cheap way to insulate a window. Our office has a northeasterly facing window. It's a double window - the largest in the house (and yes, the fact that our largest window is on the north side of the house annoys me a bit, but does't surprise me given the wanton wastefulness and failure to plan for efficiency that's marked so much of our "American" lifestyles). When we first moved in, we installed a mini-blind, but it's a rather wide window opening, and the blinds that fit are too heavy and too cumbersome for that sized opening. We've also used two smaller blinds, but that leaves a gap in the middle of the window.

In the end, the mini-blinds didn't work for an entirely different reason that had to do with a four-legged house companion who wanted to go with us when we were walking to the library, but they have a no-dogs-allowed policy and so she had to stay home. She expressed her feelings about that plan by eating the blinds.

Over the years, we've had all sorts of coverings on that window - none of which I've been completely enamored of. Factor in that the arrangement of our furniture is often fluid, and sometimes furniture is placed in front of the window. Right now, there's a couch sitting in front of that window, which makes opening the curtains is a little awkward. And so, there's no covering over the window ... mostly.

Like most folks, the two throw pillows we actually purchased when we bought our house multiplied, and now we have 12 square feet of pillows (if we laid them all flat on the floor side-by-side. At one point, over the holidays, I was trying to straighten things up, and I put a row of throw pillows on the window sill between the couch back and the window.

The couch back is slightly taller than the bottom of the sill, which means that a good quarter of the window is blocked anyway. Putting the pillows there, blocked most of the bottom half of the window. I knew when I put them there, that they would add some insulative value to window, and perhaps, keep the room slightly warmer, but I was completely unprepared to realize how truly insulative something as simple as a few throw pillows can be.

The other day, I decided I wanted one of those pillows. I went to grab it from behind the couch, but found that it was frozen to the window.

Which got me thinking. In the lower-one's-impact circles, we have a lot of great ideas for ways to keep our homes comfortable with less energy, and of course, the topic of window coverings always comes up. Window quilts or blankets are always a great suggestion. To that, I would like to add "window pillows" :).

I don't know if my office is any warmer, but I haven't taken anything away from my comfort or enjoyment by having the pillows there, and I can still see out of the top half of the window. Seems to me, that shoving some pillows in the window frame at night would be a quick and easy way to add some r-value to a opening where there is none.

It's quick, it's simple, and it can be pretty cheap.

Of course, that's true of most of the lower-one's-impact solutions. The challenge is to get people to realize that simplifying our lives doesn't mean spending money on a lot of very complicated solutions, but really can be something as simple as a couple of throw pillows.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Old Mother Meets New "Mother"

Deus Ex Machina went to a mushroom cultivation class with his mom this weekend.

He brought home a surprise for me.

Guess what's brewing in our kitchen now ... :).

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Is White-Out a Tool of Oppression?

Without words, without writing and without books there would be no history, there could be no concept of humanity. Hermann Hesse

Some of you may have noticed that a few popular websites were blacked out yesterday. It was, actually, a minor annoyance for me, when I was doing some research and the websites I wanted to access were blacked out.

I suppose that was the point, though, to show us what it would be like, in reality, if the SOPA/PIPA bills were actually passed. Someone - other than us - would decide which websites were appropriate for us to access. It might mean no more YouTube, no more WikiPedia ... no more Surviving the Suburbs.

Maine's representatives in Congress are against the bills in their current form. In fact, yesterday, after I posted a note on Facebook that I was "blacking out" for the day in protest of these bills (and part of my above-mentioned research was an attempt to black out my blog for the day - which I didn't find, because those sites were blacked out ;), I received a missive from Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, stating that she was not in support of the House SOPA.

These Representatives are in support of the bill. Unforunately, the US is a country where the majority vote wins, so when those of us in Maine disagree with more densely populated States, we're going to lose. Eight of California's fifty-three representatives support SOPA. Did I mention that Maine has two - total - Representatives?

It would be a tragedy if the Internet were to be officially censored. For the first time in history, a significant portion of the world's population is literate - not just with the ability to read, but also with a worldview that transcends borders and culture. While some may not think this is important, or even relevant, the fact is, when our knowledge base is limited to that which someone else deems appropriate for us, it's easier to oppress us. In short, if we can't read, for ourselves, someone else will be more than happy to tell us what they think we should hear.

But it's not just that. The Internet allows us to have contact with people in places we are unlikely to ever visit. There are people we'd never meet were it not for the Internet. Were it not for the Internet, for instance, I would never have met Gavin Weber, from Australia, and chatted with him, via Skype, for a podcast interview.

Why is that important, you ask?

Well, because it's harder to vilify a culture, a religion or a group of people, if we can meet them, albeit only virtually, and have a real conversation with them. I'm not likely to ever visit Australia - it's just not in the budget ... timewise or financially ... and because of that, what I know about Australia, were it not for the Internet, would be limited by what someone else observed and the information they brought back to me. With only the myopic vision of some nature photographer, for instance, I wouldn't have a very complete picture of what Australia is like.

There's the story of the four blind men who encounter an elephant, but they are only given the opportunity to touch one side of the enormous creature. They each think they have the full picture, when none of them does. Such is a world without the kind of worldwide access to information we now have. If the four men sat down together and each described his portion, they might have an idea of what an elephant really looks like. With a bit of information about Australia from this source and bit from another source and a little from that place, I begin to have a better understanding of the people and the lifestyle ... and guess what? I start to realize that they really are a lot like me.

I oppose censorship on all levels from governments deciding what its citizens can read to individuals who take it upon themselves to white out offensive words and phrases in publicly owned books, because it would be too easy for it to get out of control.

Recently, I was at my local library with my family, and another library patron was checking out a book to read. The librarian flipped open the book and showed the patron a few of the pages, where a different borrower had whited-out certain words. She explained to the patron that they weren't certain who'd done it (the book had, likely, been returned in the book drop, and was checked in and reshelved and checked back out - perhaps more than once - before it was brought to their attention), but they decided that it would be best to tell everyone who checked out the book about the vandalism (yes, vandalism!) in case they were offended that someone had been offended by some of the words in the book.

This really bothered me on so many levels - not the disclaimer by the librarian, but the fact that a person had BORROWED a book from the PUBLIC library and had been so offended by a few of the words in that book that she/he had used White-Out to block out those words. The whole book. This person, pain-stakingly, went through the WHOLE BOOK and whited out every.single.instance of every word that was offensive to her/him.

There have been, in the history of publishing, some pretty horrific books promoting some pretty horrific ideas, and there have been attempts to censor those books - to take those books out of circulation - to destroy them so that clean, decent people wouldn't be infected by their vileness. The American Library Association keeps a record of attempts to censor/ban books, and each year, they devote a week to bringing to light attempts to ban books. In protest to censorship, I'd once planned to start a reading group in which we would read from the list of most frequently challenged classics. I've read sixteen of the top 20, and more than half of the top 100. In fact, many of the books that show up on the Top 100 Most Challenged Books, also appear on the 100 Best Contemporary Novels list - which makes me wonder what truths people are trying to hide from other people?

Hermann Hesse, who is the author of The Glass Bead Game, a futuristic novel that "questions" modern ideals, is attributed with saying that any culture that would burn books will eventually burn men. Through the Internet, we have access to the whole history of humankind, the whole sordid, awful, violent, bigoted, self-rigtheous history of people hurting people in the name of whatever they call good, and at the bottom of much of their holier-than-thou rhetoric is one goal - power.

If we allow censorship of this tool, the Internet, then we will be giving them power to rival the worst of the worst of oppressive societies ... and how long before some of the more dismal futures depicted in literature (1984, A Handmaid's Tale, The Hunger Games) become reality?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Food and Music ... Does It Get Any Better?

A week or so ago, I asked Deus Ex Machina if he could move a couple of chickens that had frozen *to* the freezer (defrosting is a good thing - I should do it more often). When he did, we discovered two roasts and a couple of steaks. One was a beef roast that was turned into a Yankee pot roast, slow cooked in the crock pot for a day and a half (yum!) with enough left over for two lunches and a couple of pots of soup.

The other roast was pork. It was a ham cut, but we opted to have it frozen fresh instead of cured with the intention of smoking it ourselves - without perservatives - but we never got around to it. This morning I put the pork roast in the crock pot with a bunch of spices and some apple cider.

When Deus Ex Machina got home from work, I started cooking the rest of what would become our evening meal: choice of oven roasted potatoes or hash browns and warm, fresh-cooked applesauce with pumpkin pie - prepared by Big Little Sister - for dessert.

The pork roast slow cooked in the crockpot for eight hours until the porkometer, a.k.a. meat thermometer, said it was well-done, and indeed, it was "well" done. So tender we could cut it with a fork, and delicious!

Deus Ex Machina and I cracked open one of the spruce beers, and everyone enjoyed the food.

The best part, though, came while I was making dinner. Little Fire Faery, Big Little Sister, and Deus Ex Machina pulled out their instruments and started strumming some tunes in the other room.

Good food, good music, good company. Who could ask for more?

And there's still pie ... or as Deus Ex Machina reminded us all during dinner, to our hilarity, every time we uttered the word - 3.14159265.

Friday, January 13, 2012

When We ASSume ...

Interspersed with the rosy news stories about how the economy is improving, the recession is over, and the stock market is on the rebound, more and more often are stories that contradict any glowing reports about how great things are.

As is pointed out in this article I read this morning, things are not so wonderful for a lot more people than is usually reported, and the numbers of down-and-out are growing.

What's more disturbing, though, is not the numbers of people who are seeking food assistance, but the demographic of people who are more frequently visiting food banks. In a survey cited in the article, the number of college-degreed people who were having trouble affording food had increased to 30%. That's one in three people who are at the food banks and have at least a Bachelor's degree.

This is the generation of people - my generation - who've been told that a college degree guarantees a better job with higher wages. Yes, that's what we were told - in not so many words, but that was definitely the implied promise, and these people, especially my generation (the 36 to 50 set), are finding that the job market isn't as interested in their degrees as they were told it would be.

What's worse than the facts presented in the article, though, are the comments following the article, in which readers make all sorts of assumptions and proclamations and offer half-assed, oversimplified solutions when they don't really know enough about the situations to offer advice.

The point of the article is to bring to light the fact that the typical food bank "customer" has changed drastically over the past four years, and so to contrast what they expect with what they're seeing, one of the food bank volunteers mentions some food bank visitors who were wearing designer clothes and driving Mercedes-Benz automobiles.

And, of course, there is the one person commenting, who knows only that the person in question drives a Mercedes-Benz and wears designer clothes. His solution is that the person ... should sell [the car], pay off as much of that loan as possible, and buy a $2,000 beater car. They'll have less in monthly car payments to make on the remaining Mercedes loan amounts, as opposed to continuing to make payments for much longer.

The assumption is that the driver of the car: 1. has a car loan; 2. could sell the car for enough to significantly reduce the amount owed AND refinance the remaining balance for lower payments and/or a shorter loan period; and 3. have enough cash out to purchase a car that didn't require extensive maintenance and upkeep costs.

Suppose, however, that the Mercedes driver doesn't owe anything on the Mercedes. If this were the case, what would the advice, then, be? What if the Mercedes had recently been overhauled with new tires, had a recent factory-authorized service, and wouldn't need any repairs or maintenance for at least year? Would the advice to buy a "beater" change?

Perhaps the taxes, licensing and insurance on a "beater" would be less than those things for a Mercedes, but perhaps not, and would the savings off-set the cost of potential repairs for the "beater"?

Without knowing any of the background regarding the car, it's pretty arrogant of us to assume that simply selling the luxury car would solve any problems. Better advice, if we're wont to give our ill-informed, holier-than-thou suggestions, would be to sell the car and go carless or to sell the car and buy a bicycle.

Deus Ex Machina and I have two cars, both of which are paid off. I talk, all the time, about selling one - to save money on taxes, licensing, insurance, and maintenance, but we don't know if those savings would be off-set by the additional (albeit rather small, since I rarely drive anywhere while Deus Ex Machina is at work) wear-and-tear on the remaining vehicle, and then, for us, the question is, do we keep the 22 mpg SUV or the 32 mpg Honda civic? And the answer isn't as simple as "keep the one with better gas mileage", because there are a lot of other things to factor into the equation - like the SUV can pull a trailer full of wood and the Honda can not.

The problem is that the answers rarely are "as simple as ...." Referring back to the article, one of the volunteers observes that some of the recent visitors to the food pantry are wearing designer clothes. The suggestion by one of the people commenting, who knows only that those people are wearing designer clothes, is to sell most of [the clothes] at consignment [shops] and buy replacements at the local Thrift store.

Again, an oversimplication of the issue.

But let's look at why those people wearing designer clothes should NOT consider giving up their designer threads for thrift store finds ... unless said person has a lot of time to shop and can find replacement designer items for less than what they might earn for the clothes on their backs at a consignment shop (of course, a better solution might be to actually keep one's clothes, go the thrift store and find designer duds and then sell those at the consignment shop - for a bit more than they paid at the Goodwill or Salvation Army store ;).

First of all there is the issue of quality. If I had the choice of buying Missoni knock-off at Target (for myself, because I'm not going to outgrow it) or the real-deal at a significantly higher price, I would buy the real deal. A "real" Missoni sweater is made from real wool. Properly cared for, real wool will last for a very long time - perhaps longer than I will. By contrast, the knock-off brands use a blend of synthetic fibers and the only thing similar between the two products is that funky pattern (which is what makes the Missoni appealing to the masses).

Let's be very clear, though. I'm not saying go out and buy designer clothes, but what I am saying is that if I already had the designer clothes, and I fell on hard times, selling my designer clothes so that I could have a bit of extra cash - even if it was to buy food - would be foolhardy.

I'm reading the novel "Andersonville" and for those who are not Civil War affocionados, Andersonville was a confederate prison located in Georgia in which captured Union soldiers were interned. It was a dreadful place. There was no clean water, no shelter, and no toilets. It was over crowded and unsanitary, and by the time the confederates thought to build the prison, they could barely feed and clothe themselves, never mind providing sustenance and raiment for their enemies.

In John Ransom's diary, an actual account of Andersonville, he attributes having a blanket when he was put in the stockade with his survival. If not for the quilt, he says, he would have not had any shelter from Georgia's blistering summer sun or its wicked harsh winter winds.

Those people who believe that designer clothes or luxury (well-built and long-lasting) cars are simply status symbols that should be liquidated in the event that the owners fall on hard times are missing a very important point. Those higher end items are higher priced, often, because they were manufactured using more expensive and longer lasting materials. Hanging onto those items, ESPECIALLY for people who have fallen on hard times and, likely, won't have money for replacements, is the smartest thing those people can do.

Buying a poorer quality merchandise just means having to replace it more often, which, in the long run, costs a lot more money than spending extra at the beginning to buy a better quality item, and then, taking care to maintain it.

Today, I picked up my five-year-old newly soled Birkenstock clogs from the shoe repair shop. I expect I'll get, at least, five more years wear out of those shoes. Ten years is a very long life for a pair of shoes. My mother gave my father a wool sweater when they first started dating. When I was in college, I was wearing that sweater. Twenty years is a very long life for a sweater.

I think, in the end, it's our responsiblity as buyers to stop planning for obsolescence and to demand a higher quality, longer lived product - but if we already have those higher quality products, and we end up in a position in which we should not be able to afford them, we should not allow other people's assumptions to make us do something short-sighted, like exchanging our quality clothes for those disposable items found in discount department stores, because other people assume it's better to have a little cash than to have good, warm, solidly constructed clothes.

As a very sage woman once told me, "When you assume, you make an ASS out of you and me."

Making the New Man

The reality is that most of us won't ever have to learn if we could survive entirely without any modern amenities. And what I mean is that most of us will have, at least, a shelter, and the sheer volume of manufactured clothing (at least in this country) will keep us clothed - even if the world turns upside-down. There is plenty of the flotsam and jetsam of the modern world to keep us housed, clothed and rich in utensils.

But as Naturalist, Arthur Haines, points out in this video, we have become something other than what our ancestors were - a weaker, more dependent version of a hominid species.

We don't know what we can eat without grocery stores and restaurants, and while we might recognize that all birds are edible, most of us wouldn't know the first thing about how to prepare the bird to be eaten, much less how to catch it so that we can eat it.

We don't know anything about plant lore and can't even identify the very things we eat on a daily basis, if they're not scrubbed clean and sitting on the shelf in the produce section of the store. In fact, there are probably hundreds of people who don't know that peanuts grow underground and coconuts grow in trees ... but neither grow in Maine.

Our teeth are weak from thousands of years of eating fire-cooked foods, and so, we need to cook our food before we can eat it. How many of us even know how to build a fire?

And speaking of fire, too many of us couldn't even keep warm, were it not for the power lines coming into our homes bringing us the spark that keeps things temperate and comfortable. And we're so fragile that we can't even stay cool (how many deaths are attributed to heat when the mercury climbs higher than is usual) without artificially cooled air.

Arthur Haines calls the modern man "domestica fragilis", but he points out that what we are is not what we have to be. We have a choice: domestica fragilis or neo aborginus.

Who do you want to be?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Question Du Jour

Like most people, I have a routine. Deus Ex Machina hops out of bed at some ungodly early hour - I swear a rooster wouldn't be up that early. Anyway, he gets out of bed, and then, I get to actually spread out AND have some covers, so I snuggle into the spot he vacated and get all comfortable and warm and just about when I start to snore softly, he wakes me up.

So, I, grudgingly, get out of bed and hurry to find something warm to put on, because it's freakin' cold back in my bedroom - the furthest room in the house from the woodstove - and I stumble out to the warm room where I stand in front of the woodstove trying not to fall over and burn myself.

Then, I have a cup of tea and wake up a bit and read the news on the computer.

Recently, I read an article from a European online news source, which first prompted this post, but after reading the article a little more thoroughly, I wasn't sure I agreed with everything it said, and I decided to rework the post.

The article was about the threatened sanctions against Iran, and the author of the article stated, basically, that sanctions were a silly idea that has never worked - for either party.

Perhaps true, but for my purposes in citing the article not relevant. The beginning of the article dealt with the possibility that the US and Europe, in imposing sanctions against Iran, might create for its citizens a repeat of the 1970s OPEC oil embargo. I remember that time. Wages were impossibly low. Unemployment was impossibly high (with the highest being in 1980 or so), and gasoline prices were about the same as they are today (but remember that incomes were significantly lower).

It, roughly, coincided with the end of the Vietnam War, soldiers were returning to the States and leaving the service, but they weren't finding jobs, because no one had any jobs.

News from the White House was all about austerity and reducing our dependence on foreign oil. And President Jimmy Carter, from Plains, Georgia, was completely honest (to the detriment of his polictical career), and he told us all that things were bad, but that we did have some control over what was happening. The answer was to reduce and begin investing in alternative energies. In attempting to lead by example, he installed a solar waterheater on the Presidential home.

There were gas shortages all over the place with rationing and gas lines. There was even a McDonald's commercial about the gas lines. Leave it to McDonald's to try to profit off of a miserable situation ;).

One video I found from 1979 or so showed that the price of gasoline was $3.58. Using this very cool inflation calculator, I discovered that if we were to be paying the equivalent today - that is, if gasoline prices rise to the levels we saw in 1979, one gallon of gasoline will cost $11.16. I think that will "curb" a lot of us.

One of the other results of the oil embargoes had to do with supply lines. In an oil-dependent society, diminished supplies means that things can't be transported as easily from one place to the next, and theree were shortages of basic grocery staples in some places.

So, my question du jour, after reading just the beginning of that article was, "Did those people living in the 70's have as much advance notice about impending oil shortages as we have?"

Which, I guess, needs to be followed up with the question of, what did the average person do about it, if they did suspect something might happen?

Or did they do nothing, because it wasn't the US news reporting the possibility of oil shortages in response to the sanctions we're proposing for Iran, but the European news, and how many Americans read foriegn news sources or even know what it might mean - in the greater scheme of things - if Iran decides to close down the Strait of Hormuz through which one-third of all of the crude oil in the world passes daily? Or considering that we've been playing chicken with China for just long enough that they're starting to get a wee-bit irritated with us, and guess who's Iran's new BFF? And guess who's our biggest competitor for oil reserves ...?

Obviously we, the average Joe, can't control what our "leaders" are doing. They are all loose cannons out there doing as much damage as they can do, unheeded, and certainly not concerned about what We, the People want.

But we can control what "We, the People" do, and we're in a very good place to make changes on a very small, very local, very personal level - changes that could, ultimately, mean the difference between weathering this latest potentiality and finding ourselves drowning with no Coast Guard in sight (because as much as we want to believe otherwise, it's unlikely that our government will be much help for us little guys).

So, what can we do (besides complain and gnash our teeth, because we're all doing that, too ;)?

While you can, scout your local area for bike and/or pedestrian-friendly paths and/or mass transit systems. How far are you from a bus or train line? Are you near a water way that might have boat transportation?

Start practicing conservation with driving. That is, if you tend to jump in the car to run to the store for even the smallest thing, learn to do without that small thing until you're driving for a few other reasons. If I don't have to drive, I don't, and I always combine trips.

Get ready to plant a garden, even if it's just a few plant pots on a patio or a sunny window with beet greens and arugula. You never know how valuable even the smallest bit of food might be.

Learn to fix things, reuse, make do and do without.

Start learning to live with less dependence on money. The less money you need, the less you will have to work, and the less you *have* to work, the less you *need* that car or that [fill in the blank]. What we *need* is a lot less complicated than what our modern society claims we need.

If you can afford it (and even if you don't think you can, because you don't want to spend any of that nest egg), consider installing even a very small alt-energy system and/or an alt-heat system (if your heat is at all dependent on oil, that is). Not having to pay for electricity and heat will significantly reduce one's dependence and expenses.

Of course, there is the possibility that nothing happens, and that we just keep muddling along. It's possible that someone in power will read that same article I read and realize that all of their chest-thumping bravado and threats and sanctions will do nothing more than hurt everyone, and so they'll find an alternative solution to address their differences.

But that doesn't really matter, because if we make changes to reduce our individual dependence, but nothing happens, the result will be that we've saved a LOT of money and we've freed up a lot of time we used to spend making money so that we can pursue other, more interesting, hobbies/activities.

And if we make changes and we end up with a repeat of the 1970s, those of us who aren't dependent on oil for our survival will be in a much better position.

Either way, it's a win/win situation for those who choose to act. Those who don't ... maybe there'll be a McDonald's near your gas station, too ... and maybe you'll even be able to afford to buy a Big Mac*.

*Yeah, knowing my family's eating habits, certainly not the best example, because we don't eat at McDonalds. In fact, my daughters were joking the other day, and Little Fire Faery said, in effect, that she wouldn't take her dog to McDonald's for lunch :). Smart girl.

Fun with Laundry in the Winter

Yes, I'm a geek, but I happen to think frozen jeans fresh off the line from outside are hilarious!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

New Life for Old Soles

In the winter of 2009, Big Little Sister was gifted a pair of the suede boots that were all the rage then (and are, at least up here, still relatively popular shoe-wear). I got to looking at her boots one day, and I thought, "I bet I can fit those." So, I tried them on, and I could.

After the initial surprise of realizing that my young teen wore the same size shoe as I wear, I decided two things. First, even though I could use a pair, new boots weren't in the picture for me. Between every day expenses, classes for our girls, and outfitting their growing bodies, new anything for me is rarely in the budget. Second was that she needed to outgrow those boots so that she could hand-them-down to me.

She didn't. Two winters later, she still wears the same size shoe, and two winters later, I was still without a pair of boots. Unfortunately, two winters later, she's worn out the soles of the boots that were supposed to be mine, and so, really, no one can wear them.

And she needs a new pair of boots, which she did, indeed, receive.

The problem is that we still have this other pair of boots that, save for the extensive wear-and-tear on the soles are in perfect condition. I mean, no marks, rips, or abrasions on the suede uppers.

The question became, what to do with them, and for many months, they simply occupied a space occupied by all of those shoes that we can't give away and we won't throw away (so wasteful).

At the same time, the sole on my six year old Birkenstock-knock-off clogs is starting to wear thin, especially around the toes, and I find that I'm walking on the leather at the tips and on the corks at the heels.

The shoes are six years old, and I've probably gotten as much (more, perhaps) wear out of them as anyone can expect from a pair of shoes, but these are my favorite (only) pair of winter shoes. I love these shoes - not only because they are incredibly comfortable, but also, because I coveted a pair for a long time, and a loved one heard my wish and gave them to me as a gift.

Besides, other than the sole, they're still in excellent shape, too. The suede is free of unsightly stains, rips and abrasions. I can't just throw them away, when they still have some wear in them.

What to do ...? What to do ...?

The answer, of course, was very simple and came in the form of a man named Ray who has a very unassuming little shop that is housed in a very unassuming little building that is kind of tucked off into a corner on the side of a very busy road along a route that I often travel. I've seen the shop. I pass by it six or seven times a week, but in all these years, I never stopped.

Last week, I did. Boots in hand, I went into his shop, and I asked him, "Can you fix these?"

He said he could, and then, he added, "But you could buy a pair of Bear Claws (another knock-off brand of the same style boot) for less than it would cost you to have me fix them."

"Yes," I agreed, "But this pair isn't Bear Claws, and to buy this pair, not on sale (even though it's a knock-off brand, too), would cost almost twice what you're charging to fix them."

We agreed on a price and a pick-up date, and I left ... but not before whipping the shoe off my foot and asking if he could fix those, also.

He said he could, and it would cost less than a new pair of Birks, and even less than a new pair of Birk knock-offs that weren't on sale ;).

I picked up my boots today, and they were exactly the price he listed on the ticket - no tax, no surcharges, no hidden fees. I gave him cash, took off my shoes, put on my newly-soled boots, and handed him the Birks.

The new soles actually look better than the originals, and he reinforced the toe area that Big Little Sister had worn off with a strip of leather. He told me that the suede used to make the knock-offs is a better quality than the suede they use for the designer brand. I think I'll be able to wear these boots for a few years without needing any repairs ... but even if I need repairs, I know that I can get them fixed for no more than a new pair would cost.

The best, though, is that repairing rather than replacing saves me the aggravation of having to go shopping!

On the way home from the shoe repair place, I started thinking about the future in a lower energy world, where getting new "designer" boots, originals or knock-offs, won't be an option for most people - not only because most of us won't be able to afford them, but also because most of that sort of product is manufactured far from where most of us live and as shipping those products to us becomes more cost prohibitive, we'll find fewer of those products available - at any price.

Having young daughters, who haven't yet entered, but may someday wish to enter the job market, I think a lot about the future of jobs in America. I had a conversation with a relative over the holiday, and, of course, the topic of my daughters' future education came up. The assumption is that my girls, like all good, middle-class, suburban girls, will go to college. In fact, that's the only option most people see.

Driving home today with my new soles, I wondered if there weren't another option. I wondered if Ray, the shoe-repair guy, wouldn't consider hiring a teenaged assistant/apprentice. Then, I wondered, if, perhaps, this apprentice might not find it valuable to visit second hand shops in search of high-end designer boots that had seen better days. And then, I wondered if this entrepreneurial-minded youngster might not take some of his/her gift cash and use it to purchase a few pairs of these boots, spiff them up, and then, resell them.

Maybe, once that youngster had completed a two-year apprenticeship program with Ray, s/he might have enough stock to open up a second-hand designer footwear store, where all of the shoes had been resoled ... thus, giving a chance at a new life to both, the shoe and the youth.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Book Review of Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs

Ever wonder what a hard-core-survivalist-doomer would think of the Pollyanna future depicted/suggested in Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs: The Thrivalist's Guide to Life Without Oil?

Wonder no more.

Steve Vose, The Rabid Outdoorsman, read the book and has written and published a review on his blog.

Thanks, Steve :).

Monday, January 2, 2012

Gazing into the Crystal Ball ... or Was That a Magic 8 Ball?

I love when news articles talk about the "end of the recession" or how the economy is "improving."

And, then, I flip to the next page (or turn to a different publication), and I find an article in which Robert Prince, co-chief investment officer at Bridgewater, the world's biggest hedge fund firm, is quoted as saying that he and his managers are preparing for at least a decade of slow growth and high unemployment for the big developed economies. Mr. Prince describes those economies — the U.S. and Europe, in particular —as "zombies" and says they will remain that way until they work through their mountains of debt.

And Sears Holdings, like so many companies over the past three years, is downsizing and closing several of their stores, to the tune of potentially 9600 jobs lost.

It's hard to know what to believe these days. The media seems to be contradicting itself. Even Ron Paul, whose philosophies on a great deal of things definitely don't match my own (in particular the environment and the origins of the species :), says that he believes the "Internet" (which would be blogs, like mine ;) before he believes the news media.

A couple of years ago, I participated in the flurry of blogger New Year's predictions. It was fun. I'm not good at it.

But I don't think one has to have any particularly powerful prophetic abilities to see what's happening and to take a guess at where these current events will lead us.

So, just for shits and giggles, here are my 2012 Forecasts:
  • We haven't heard the last of the OWSers, but I don't think they're going to be sitting as peacefully in protest as they were during this past fall. When they go back into the streets en masse in the spring, and as their voices are ignored through the summer (and as the election nears), they will become a little more insistent. I don't think it will be pretty.
  • The economy will continue to tumble. Mr. Prince states "slow growth." I think he's being optimistic. I think there will be no growth, but I think the numbers will continue to be reported as if growth is happening, i.e. the media will gloss over or ignore the first few months of the year when there will be no spending, except on the "bare necessities" - like heating oil and food. Then, during the summer months, there will seem to be some growth, as those who are still able to do such things, are taking their vacations. At the beginning of the school year, there will be the typical surge in spending for "school supplies", followed by several months of non-spending, followed by the usual, very likely more subdued than in the past, holiday spending orgy - which will be a whole lot less like an orgy and a whole lot more like a middle school round of spin-the-bottle. Something like 75% of our economy is consumer spending, and there will be a lot less of that, overall and compared to other years, but it will be spun to look as if good things are happening.
  • The price of oil will continue to bounce around the $90/per barrel range, but most people won't even realize it, because, unless there is some major civil unrest in the Middle East, decreased overall demand will keep prices relatively stable.
  • A lot more people will be jumping on the austerity wagon and looking for ways to cut the budget and live more frugally, but none of them will want to feel deprived. So, I predict that this will be a pivotal year for those writers and teachers whose focus is on low-impact living and skills. People are already looking for that sort of information and finding blogs, like mine. There's definitely room for more people with good advice on how to live better with less.
  • There will be no one, single, catastrophic event that pushes us into Armageddon ... except, maybe, the outcome of the 2012 US Presendential election ;).

I had a very nice discussion with a friend of mine. He asked me if I've always been a "happy" person, which considering I'm a doomer was kind of a funny question to be asked. The fact is, though, that I am happy, and I'm thankful for my amazing life, and I'm acutely aware of how good I have it.

I replied to him that I used to consider myself a pessimist with hope, but I think that's not true. I think I've never been either, optimistic nor pessimistic. Rather I've always been aware that I am in control of my happiness, and that, even during those periods of my life with things weren't going so well, I knew, at some level, that I could make things better by making different choices - not easier, mind you, but better - and just for clarity's sake, better - for me - doesn't necessarily equate to more of any particular thing.

In fact, I don't think more is the better life that any of us are going to realize - Robert Prince says for the next decade, I think for a lot longer. I'm pretty well convinced, based on what I'm seeing, that the civilizations we have built around unlimited growth and a belief that we can have infinite wealth in a limited and finite planet are doomed.

But I know, that if we're willing to make changes in our lifestyles, we won't suffer as the world around us goes crazy.

I'm also pretty convinced that if we don't willingly make changes, we'll be forced to do so anyway.

Change doesn't have to be a bad thing. It doesn't have to be uncomfortable or scary or painful, but just let me say that making changes, because we want to make changes is a LOT easier than making changes because we are left with only a very few choices. Then, it can be all three. We don't have to go there.

Traditionally, New Year's is a time when people will resolve to do some thing or other ... and usually, fail to keep that promise to themselves. Maybe this could be the year for all of us that we shed "old, tired traditions" and habits, and learn to live differently ... perhaps, better ;).

And speaking of promises, a few weeks ago I was honored as the featured blogger at In recognition of that honor, I offered a copy (or two ;) of Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs. So, using the highly technical method of writing names on slips of paper and having Deus Ex Machina draw them out of a hat, I'm pleased to offer copies to 4BushelFarmGal and Herbs 'N Chocolate. Please leave a comment with your name and contact info. Your comment will not be published :).

Thank you to everyone who commented and continues to comment. I love getting comments, and while I don't always reply, I love hearing your voices and am so thrilled that someone out there is not just interested in reading my ramblings, but also interested in sharing his/her own stories. I learn a lot from you all.