Tuesday, February 28, 2012

It's Not Just About a Pretty Smile

Health care has been an off and on topic of conversation on my blog for a long time. I was pretty clear about my opinion of the health care bill that passed several years ago, and nothing, so far, has changed my opinion.

In fact, it seems like the things that are heppening reinforced my statements about it being a mistake - that it would only line the pockets of the insurance companies, and that there would be no improvement in overall health care, especially for the demographic the bill was designed to assist - i.e. the 10% who were uninsured and (supposedly) had no access to health care.

In speaking of health care, a recent headline caught my eye. It said Dental Visits to ERs are on the Rise. The gist of the article is that, as the economy continues to worsen, States are being forced to cut expenses, and one of the first things that are being cut are dental benefits for those receiving State-funded medical assistance.

The irony in this is that good preventative care is far less expensive than fixing a problem once it's become an emergency. This is true of just about everything from the leaky roof to our bodies. In fact, there is significant research available to suggest a strong link between poor oral hygiene and cardiovascular disease. In short, people who practice good oral hygiene and have access to preventative dental care, may be at a lower risk of heart disease. It's a lot cheaper to give folks a toothbrush and let them get a couple of cleanings per year than it is to do open heart surgery.

In Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs, I discuss need for good dental care, but we should be doing it now, and not when we have an abscessed tooth.

Benjamin Franklin is attributed with saying: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, which is to say, that keeping our mouths clean (DAILY flossing, brushing, and rinsing with vinegar or saltwater) can really make a huge difference in our overall health.

And, frankly, in a world turned upside-down, I can't imagine anything worse than having a toothache and no access to antibiotics ... or nitrous oxide when that tooth has to be pulled.

Making "soft drinks" ... at home ... without High Fructose Corn Syrup

I have some very strange things brewing in my kitchen.

Ever since reading Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz, I've had this (almost) overwhelming urge to ferment things. Luckily, Deus Ex Machina is also into fermenting, and so when I said I wanted to make Kombucha, he was very supportive - and even bought me a starter kit from Urban Farm Fermentory.

I've made several batches with varying degrees of success - with regard to taste. The goal is to find a blend that my daughters will really like, and that they'll find an adequate substitute for store-bought beverages.

I haven't found *the* one, yet, and I think there are a combinations of things that will make the beverage appealing to them. They like sodas, most of which I will not allow them to drink, and I think it's a combination of the bubbly water and the sweetness.

Kombucha is slightly effervescent and slightly sweet, but until today's batch, my kombucha hasn't been overwhelmingly either.

I had the most wonderful surprise this morning while I was bottling my latest batch of kombucha.

It was FIZZY - like soda.

I'm having a blast experimenting with different "tea" flavors. This latest batch is a peppermint blend, and that seems to be one of the family favorites - so far.

My next batch is a chaga/lavender blend. It should be interesting. I hope it fizzes, too ;).

Monday, February 27, 2012

100 Items - Making Power

I have an on-again/off-again series of posts I've been doing over at my other blog that's based on the list of 100 Items to Disappear First.

In my latest post, I explore the whole myth that we "need" electricity.

On a different/related note, my friend sent me a link to this Independent Lens project called "World Without Oil." The synopsis of the project states In May 2007, over 1,800 people combined imagination with insight to create World Without Oil (WWO), a realistic simulation of the first 32 weeks of a global oil shortage chronicled in 1,500 personal blog posts, videos, images and voicemails.

It is believed that the US peaked in oil production in the 1970s and that the world peaked in oil production in 2005, or so. Whether or not we believe that Peak Oil is a reality, it is true that the cost of oil per barrel has been increasing, and it seems that many of the top oil-producing countries have decreased the amount of oil they are extracting. Moreover many of these countries are employing extraction techniques, like pumping wells full of sea water, that suggest their wells aren't as prolific as they once were.

There's always the possibility that the information we're receiving is trumped up or flat-out lies. And it could go either way - the lie. The oil-producing countries may be lying about how much oil they really have, or those who are feeding us stories about those countries' peaks may be lying to us about the coming shortages.

But whether we're being manipulated or lied to really doesn't matter. What matters is what are we going to do about it?

I can't change the lies.

But I can change my life so that their lies don't hurt me or my family, and the first step is to change my attitude from one of fearing the loss of my privileged life to one empowering myself to live comfortably with or without all of these things we, Westerners, have been convinced we need.

In short, we can live so that we don't just survive, but instead thrive.

Happy Dance!

It looks like I might actually be getting the outdoor kitchen I've been nagging asking Deus Ex Machina to build for eternity a few years. Boiling sap this year, I guess, finally convinced him of how great it would be to have a permanent set-up outside for cooking. As much as we love our fire pit with the tri-pod, it's just not as useful for the sorts of cooking we need/want to do outside.

In addition to boiling sap, we're hoping to put the outdoor kitchen to use for canning during the summer. It will save on eletricity, which is, actually, one of the key reasons I want an outdoor kitchen at all.

Lowering our electric bill has been an ongoing pet project of mine, and I sing the Limbo song every month when we get our electric bill. On our last bill, our daily usage (10 kwh/day) was about the same as the previous month's usage , but we'd used less overall (281 kwh/month). My goal is to get it down to 6 kwh/day. The less we use, the more affordable an off-grid system will be for us, and, ultimately, my goal is to be off-grid ... in the suburbs ;).

Monday, February 20, 2012

How I Spent My Winter Vacation

We could be of two minds about the state of my yard this time of year.

We could say it looks like the worst of the worst in stereotypical "white trash."

Or we could say here are some people who are really living - as much in concert with the earth as suburbia will allow.

It was a perfect, sunny day for boiling sap and hanging out laundry. My only concern is that the smoke from the sugaring fire will make this small load of laundry smell like a campfire ... although, maybe that won't be such a bad thing. I can think of worse things to smell like ;).

Updated to add:

Since it was such a beautiful day, I decided to do a second load of laundry. I had the clothes all sorted by color, and I pondered out loud, "Should I do a load of white clothes or a load of non-white clothes?" To which Big Little Sister quipped, "You should do a load of all purple clothes ... because it would look cool on the line."

I love that girl :)!

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Art of Thrifting

I'm not a good thrift shopper - at least by comparison to other people who really make some awesome finds at yard sales and thrift stores. I'll never be the one who finds the original Davinci at some estate sale or discovers a pure silver tea set used by Martha Washington to serve the Adamses.

My finds are always a lot more mundane, and the first time I visited a thrift store, not only was I completely overwhelmed, but I came out with a bunch of junk I should never have brought home and only did so, because, well, it was cheap, right?

All of the original release Disney movies on VHS for (only) a $1 each?!? Score! Not!

Over the years, I've become much more careful and discerning when it comes to shopping at thrift stores, and while I may never really be good at it, I've discovered a few things that have helped me navigate through the aisles and not end up with someone else's cast-offs that will only be a future cast-off for me.

1. The first, and most important, art to thrifting is to know what one needs. It's okay to go in and browse (in fact, that's #2), but one can easily get overwhelmed and end up with a much higher total at the cash register than was intended, because the prices are $1 here and $1 there.

I have a list of things that I'm always on the look-out for, and a pretty good idea of the kinds of things I want brought into my house. Just about anything that's a non-electric kitchen hand tool, for instance, will go on the "consideration" list. I will pick up candles most of the time, when I see them, and I like to find interesting candle holders. Regular taper candles at the store cost between $1.50 and $2 each ... yes, for candles, and then, people turn around and donate them to Goodwill, where I get them for half price. But all candles are not created equal, and it's not "candles in general", but specific candles. I won't waste my money on tea lights or scented candles, but taper candles are a good deal ... and I even found two 100% bees wax candles once. It pays to look around a bit and take some time to pick up things and really look at them.

2. Which is point #2: Take time. When it comes to thrift store shopping, the mantra is "I'm just looking." Browsing is the key to good thrifting. When I know I'm going to go to Goodwill, I know I'm going to spend at least an hour just looking around, even if I go in for something specific. The last time I bought a new pair of jeans for myself was four or so years ago. I like a particular brand of jeans (Levis), and I need "long" ones, because I like them to hang below the tops of my shoes. It's a personal preference, but because I'm so particular, buying jeans at the thrift store is tough. I look, occasionally, but don't have much luck finding Levi's jeans in decent shape (I found the perfect pair once but they were stained, and I figure if I'm going to have stained jeans, I'd like to be the one to soil them ;). Unfortunately, I only have three pairs of jeans, and I wear them anytime I go out (when I'm home, I wear sweatpants), and so even with the limited wear, my jeans are starting to look a little threadbare in places, and one pair even has a little hole in the leg - great if one is a twenty-something college student - not so great for this *not* twenty year old, graying Grandmother :).

I spent forty-five minutes the other day looking at jeans and came home with two pairs, for which I paid half what it would have cost me for one new pair. With a couple of key strokes and ten minutes (and a couple of days of waiting), I could have had, delivered to my house, a new pair of Levi's in the exact color, exact style, and exact size that I need, but, because I'm willing to take the time to go to Goodwill and look, I saved a lot of money.

3. We occasionally go to Goodwill to "look", but most of the time, when we go, we have something specific in mind to buy. Not specific like, I'm going to find a pair of Levi's, but specific like we need a gray sweatshirt for a dance costume. On those times when we're there for something specific, we've occasionally been disappointed to find that they don't have what we're looking for. Usually our wants are generic enough that we can find something to serve the purpose, but sometimes, there's just no alternative, and at those times, we have to be willing to walk away empty handed. Being an impulse shopper at the thrift store is just as bad as impulse shopping at any other store, which is why #1 is know what you need.

4. Which is the final point, plan ahead. Being a thrift shopper means that finding that very particular item in a pinch may not happen, which means that one needs to plan a head just a little bit. I don't wait until the ice storm knocks out my power and I need candles. I buy them when I find them and keep them stored in a drawer for when I need them. Likewise, when I found the black wool pea coat in June of last year, I bought it, because I've always loved that style of coat, and I knew, living in Maine, winter would come back at some point, and I'd want a coat. I paid $7. Until now, I only like the coat, because I like that style, and I've never thought much about name brands. Mine is a Mario De Pinto, which is made in the USA, and while I can't find much online, it looks like it's a "vintage" coat and retails, new, for more than 10x what I paid, and used on Etsy for 3x what I paid. If I had waited until winter to buy a coat, I would have been limited by time, and the selection would have been a bit more limited, too. By knowing what I need, now and, especially, in the future, I was able to get a very good deal on something that has served me well, and is, as it turns out, a pretty good find.

I don't really like shopping, in general, and shopping as a hobby is not ever going to be a past-time that I relish. I'm not a yard sale kind of person, and the one time I went to an estate sale, the only things we came out with were candles and yarn ;). I've never been antiqueing, and most antique thing I own is probably my dual cassette player, which was a crappy, low-end item when I bought in the 1980s, but which has accompanied me across the continent and around the world and still plays ... or maybe the 1970s sewing machine that was given to me used, as a gift, and is still going strong (although the bobbin winder doesn't work, and I think it just needs a good cleaning/overhaul).

Thrift shopping, especially at a company like Goodwill, appeals to me on so many levels, though. Goodwill, at its foundation, is a service organization - providing jobs for people who might, otherwise, have a hard time finding paid work. In addition, most of the items (and to be clear, I don't buy the "new" remaindered items that Goodwill also carries) are donated, used items that might otherwise end up in a landfill.

It is among those items that I find most of my treasures: Levi's jeans for $8, used picture frames for a buck, a sherpa-lined suede coat for $8, 100% beeswax candles 2/$1, books for $1 each, hand-operated coffee grinder $4.99, flannel fabric $4.99 for more than six yards, a cheese bell complete with the original wooden plate for $4.99, 100% cashmere sweater (because my friend, Margaret, says every woman should have one) for $4.99, the 75% wool Mario De Pinto black pea coat for $7.99 ... and many other items that are useful for someone interested in thriving in a low-energy future.

It's no secret - because I'll tell anyone who will listen - that I don't shop at Wal-Mart, neither would I buy Wal-Mart brands second-hand at my local thrift store. The appeal of shopping at Wal-Mart is that the sticker price makes us feel "rich" - like we can afford to have several of this one item (like who needs ten pairs of jeans?!?), and the result is that by being surrounded with all of our "stuff" we can believe ourselves wealthy.

I think most of us have a lot more than we need, and the full shelves at Goodwill speak volumes about our over-cluttered lives. If there are so many people getting rid of so much, even in - especially in - this economy, we have a long way to go before we're truly destitute. In spite of assertions to the contrary, we don't need to shop at Wal-Mart to save money. There is a great deal of money to be saved by shopping second-hand.

It is a choice - one we all have the opportunity to make, even those of us who feel like we're limited by our financial situation or our geographical location -, and I've chosen to be a conscious shopper. When it's new, it's usually from a local vendor, and when it's not a local vendor, it's usually not new.

In the end, buying second-hand is not just good for our wallets, it's also good for the planet.

And by saving lots of money on things like clothes and other "clutter-making" household items, I have a lot more money to spend on good, local food ... which I do ;).

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Is Fact Stranger than Fiction?

When I was in college, my favorite literary genre was Modernism, and my favorite time period was early 20th Century fiction: William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Theodor Dreiser, Kate Chopin, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Their stories were real, and dark, brooding, and biting. It was life at its best, and worst, gritty and raw ... and real.

The Joads could have been real people, and the life Steinbeck described was, indeed, the life that history, now, tells us is accurate. There were agricultural refugees and their life was hard and bitter, and there was significant suffering.

The decay of the Southern aristocracy was palpable in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. It was a real phenomenon as the surviving member of the families of the pre-Civil War Southern land owners found themselves struggling to maintain their former identities in a changed world.

They were real stories about not-real people, but we knew, in reading them, that it could be the life of our next door neighbor that was being described. It's still my favorite kind of book, and in fact, many of the non-fiction/memoir-style books that I enjoy are very similar to the modernist fiction.

When I started reading Into the Forest by Jean Hegland, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but it didn't take long to figure it out.

From page 16: The government's deficit had been snowballing for a quarter of a century. We had been in an oil crisis for at least two generations. There were holes in the ozone, our forests were vanishing, our farmlands were demanding more and more fertilizers and pesticides to yield increasingly less - and more poisonous - food. There was an appalling unemployment rate, an overloaded welfare system ....

I was beginning to think I was reading the newspaper from the last four years. With the events in the book so closely mirroring our present reality, I had to check the publication date ... 1996. It was published in 1996.

Which made me wonder, where have we all been that this book could have been published so LONG ago, and not made waves? I'd never heard of it, until it ended up at my house - one in a bag of second-hand books someone had gifted me.

Why haven't we been listening? How could Jean Hegland have plucked the headlines out of our current newspapers sixteen years before they were published?

The real question we should be asking is: will our "fact" be stranger (worse) than this "fiction"?

All I know is, if it is, hang onto your hat, because you'll definitely want that hat, when it becomes really difficult to find a replacement.

And if you want to hear music in a low energy world - learn to play an instrument, or make sure you have a solar charger for your iPod or CD player ;).

Friday, February 10, 2012

Interview With A Rabbit Wrangler

I was asked a few questions, recently, about my personal experiences with raising rabbits, and although I do cover our experience, in a general way in Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs, I thought it might be helpful to answer some of the specific questions.

I've chosen to organize this post in an "interview" format.

So, here goes. The scenario is fiction. The questions - and answers - are real.

By Caria Scat

Several weeks ago, I was invited for a tour of Thrivalist, Wendy Brown's, suburban homestead. We strolled through her gardens, which were alive with colorful edibles, and literally, crawling with pollinators, most of which ignored us - even the hive of busy bees (yes, cliches are often accurate) she showed me in the backyard.

Next to the Top-Bar hive, Wendy and her husband, Deus Ex Machina, had constructed, what they call, the "chicken yard." It's large fenced area that is bookended by two plastic enclosed, wire-covered, wood framed structures that serve as both a coop (to keep the chickens out of the weather, especially in the winter) and a greenhouse.

Also, in the backyard, I noted the bunny hutches, and asked Wendy about her experiences raising rabbits.

And so began the incredibly fascinating tutorial on the life of a Rabbit Wrangler.

Caria: I'm interested in raising rabbits, and I'm curious what a day in the life of Wendy's rabbits is like.

Wendy: (laughs, huskily) How much time do you have? Seriously, let's grab a couple of spruce beers and go take a sit by the fire pit and chat.

Comfortably ensconsed in our sling-back camp chairs, sipping a cold brew, Wendy chatted with a comfortable familiarity about her rabbit companions.

Wendy: I think the biggest misconception is that because we eat our rabbits we don't have feelings about them, and nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I'd bet that I know as much (maybe more) about rabbit behavior and attitudes than some people who've had pet rabbits for years.

Caria: Like?

Wendy: Like, an unneutered male will seriously injure another male, if a female rabbit is nearby. A female mother will attack a much larger animal to protect her babies. In fact, we've been bitten and scratched by bunny mothers, who had previously been completely submissive and docile. I've even seen an unneutered male rabbit attack a male cat. It looks like playing and we all laugh and exclaim how cute, but the reality is that the male rabbit was trying to (and succeeding in, truth be told) assert his dominance. They do have a hierarchy, like most animals, and both male and female rabbits will mount the lesser members of their warrens.

Caria: So, they're not exactly the cute and cuddly creatures people want to believe they are.

Wendy: They are certainly amazing animals, and very worthy of our respect and admiration, but they are not helpless, and they can do a great deal of damage.

Caria: So, how do you keep the peace?

Wendy: We house males and females separately. Same-gender siblings who are housed together won't fight. It's only when the other gender is added to the mix that there's trouble, and if there is more than one male housed with any number of females, there's going to be a fight.

More importantly, once the rabbits reach sexual maturity, there's a strong drive to reproduce. Any available bunny is fine, irrespective of the lineage. Since our goal is not to have a bunny mill, we keep all of the boys separate from the girls, until we're ready for baby bunnies.

Caria: Since we're on the subject, talk to me a little bit about bunny fertility. Like how often do they mate?

Wendy: A doe is fertile almost as soon as she kindles, which means, in reality, a female rabbit could have eleven litters per year, but the survival rate of the babies and the health of the doe would be seriously compromised. I wouldn't recommend breeding more often than four times per year. Gestation is four to six weeks, depending on the breed (about thirty-one days is average), and the kits are weaned at around five weeks, which means there's a ten week turnaround from fertilization to harvest. While the rabbit may not care, I like to give her a rest period when she's doing neither, carrying nor nursing.

Caria: So, what about food? What do you feed your rabbits? What does it cost, and is it cost effective to raise rabbits over some other animals? And do you have to make any special considerations for water, especially during the winter?

Wendy: Okay, well, that's a bunch of different, perhaps, long questions, but to start, we use a commercially available rabbit feed from a local New England company called Poulin. It's not "certified" organic, but reading the ingredients, I feel comfortable that it's not full of crap I would not want my rabbits to eat. We've also used other, similar feeds, and stuff from the pet store, which is incredibly expensive, and not healthy at all (like eating McDonald's every day, essentially), and our rabbits neither enjoyed the food, nor thrived on it.

Rabbit pellet feed comes in two grades: #16 and #18. Sixteen is a general purpose feed and is sufficient for all bunnies. Eighteen is specifically designed for pregnant and nursing female rabbits. It has more calcium in it, and I wouldn't feed it to my male bunnies for fear of causing some urinary tract issues. We feed all of our bunnies #16, and we supplement, especially during the summer, with foraged and cultivated greens. The rabbits especially love comfrey, clover, raspberry leaf, and dandelion greens.

And hay. Hay is a very important part of the rabbit's diet, and so we make sure they always have access to hay.

The price of feed has been fluctuating wildly for the past four years, but on average, we pay $12 per fifty pound bag, and with our breeder pair and the three other does (which are mostly pets), we go through about a bag a month.

Our doe has had as many as eight kits. More often it's five, which means she gives us twenty babies each year. At harvest, they weigh around five pounds, which is three pounds or so of an incredibly lean, incredibly high in protein meat. On the market, rabbit meat is incredibly expensive, selling for as much as $10/pound. As such, if we sold one rabbit from each litter, that would keep us in rabbit feed for a whole year, and we'd still have enough meat to enjoy at least on meal per month. For the record, though, we do not sell our rabbit meat. My daughters will sell live rabbits, as pets or for breeding ;).

There are a lot of options for heated waterers, but we haven't tried any of those. We just make sure they have water every day, and on really cold days, we make sure to thaw out their water a couple of times a day.

Caria: I think the beer is going to my head a little.

Wendy: It's pretty potent stuff.

Caria: You've certainly given me a lot to think about. I guess my only other question is why you don't keep the rabbits inside during the winter. It seems a little ... I don't know ... harsh, to leave them out in the cold.

Wendy: Well, to be quite frank, rabbits fare better in the cold than they do in the heat. A rabbit's only way to cool itself is through its ears. Heat stroke is a real concern for rabbits when the weather gets hot. So, we use a hutch that has a wire area to allow air flow, but it also has an enclosed area that allows the rabbits to get out of the "weather." During the winter, we make sure they have plenty of water and plenty of hay, which they use both for bedding and to eat.

In the summer, their hutches are in the shade, but we also let them out into a tractor so that they can dig down in the dirt a bit and cool themselves against the earth - but we have to keep an eye on them, because they will dig out and under the tractor and be hopping around the yard.

Of course, rabbits are very territorial, and so they don't go very far, and we can usually get them back into the hutch to protect them from predators, which we do have, even here in the suburbs.

In the winter, when the deciduous trees shed their leaves, the hutches are warmed by the sun during the day.

I appreciated Wendy's candor and willingness to talk about a practice that, in this country, isn't very popular and has had some breeders butting heads with animal rights' activists. Wendy even mentioned that she'd been subject to some pretty harsh criticisms based solely on the fact that she raised rabbits for meat, but that the most rabidly outspoken of her opponents had never even bothered to meet with Wendy, or better, to meet Wendy's rabbits, who looked healthy and contented to this interviewer.

In the end, while I'm not, necessarily going to run out and pick up a breeder pair and start the process myself (we didn't talk about what Wendy so gently referred to as the
harvest, but for anyone considering rabbit raising, that must be part of the dialogue, better sooner than later), I was thankful that there are mindful people out in the world who are willing to put their necks on the proverbial chopping block to preserve a practice that might well be what saves our lives in this changing world.

As Wendy expressed, we need to take charge of our own food production. We simply can not depend on a system that is failing. Too much of our world is food insecure, which means there are a significant number of people who don't know where their next meal is coming from ... or even if there will be a next meal.

And worse, many of those people aren't in some Third World country living in a refugee camp. Many of them are our neighbors, who have a nice house and a big backyard and plenty of room to grow something other than annoyed at the system.

Rabbits don't take up a lot of space, don't cost a lot to raise, and provide an incredibly healthy alternative for those who choose to eat meat. For the person who is trying to provide most of his/her calories with a very limited space, rabbits are the best choice for meat production.

But Wendy says she's learned a lot from her rabbits, and they're more than just a meal. They are an integral part of the diverse landscape on which she is raising her family and building her life.

*Thanks to Steve for starting the dialogue. I hope I answered your questions :).

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Date Night - "Thrivalist" style

For years I've listened to other parents talk about their date nights with what might be considered a twinge of envy, but at the same time with the realization that Deus Ex Machina and I have never really participated in that cultural practice of date night for the married-with-children sect. Really, we've never felt the need to.

In fact, when we were "dating", we didn't "date" in the sense that we'd get dressed up and go out on the town, just the two of us, for a champagne dinner and a show. In fact, in those days, when we did go out, it was usually with a group of friends. When it was just the two of us, our usual date entailed walking (hand-in-hand) to the PX (eight miles - round trip) to get roast chicken and rent a VHS movie, and then, heading back to the barracks for our modified version of dinner and a movie. Eight miles is a long time to learn what a person is all about, and I'd wager that, by the time Deus Ex Machina and I decided to get married, we'd learned more about each other in those eight-mile walks than most people learn in all of the dinners of a life-time.

Deus Ex Machina has never been a flowers and champagne kind of guy, which has always been okay with me, because I'm not the kind of gal who enjoys empty displays or gradiose gestures which are usually more an attempt to butter me up in the hopes of some ROI (Return on Investment) than any real desire to make me feel special. With Deus Ex Machina there never seemed to be that underlying message of I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine.

Deus Ex Machina has always been who he is - nothing more and nothing less, but always completely real.

All of that said, if there's one thing I've learned in my life it's not to get too comfortable with my strong opinions, because at some point that opinion will be challenged - such is my assertion that Deus Ex Machina and I don't have date night.

If the purpose of date night is for parents to spend time together - away from the responsibility of being parents - and take an opportunity to renew their couple-hood, then Deus Ex Machina and I have date nights all of the time. It's just that, unlike many couples, our dates don't involve low-lighting and empty romantic gestures.

When we were on our way home the other evening, chatting amicably in the car - as we often do-, we realized that we'd just been on our version of date night.

Deus Ex Machina and I had the amazing opportunity to spend the evening with Dan Agro (and David and Gretchen at Urban Farm Fermentory) learning about medicinal and edible mushrooms with an emphasis on Reishi.

So much wonderful information!

Studying medicinal and edible plants is a big part of what Deus Ex Machina and I do, and just like Dan said last night, we like to use medicinal plants as tea (rather than tinctures), which is both soothing and healthy.

In my epiphany during that quiet ride home, I realized that when Deus Ex Machina and I go on a date, it's usually our opportunity to share in a learning experience, and those types of dates really do make our union stronger, because gaining this knowledge makes us, as individuals, stronger and the sharing of a common interest makes us, as a couple, stronger.

The next muschroom class is on a Sunday afternoon, and I'm thinking it won't be a "date" this time, as I'd like to talk to the instructor about having the girls there, too.

But I'll certainly be keeping my eyes open for the next opportunity to steal away on a date with Deus Ex Machina and learn something exciting and interesting ... and on the way home holding hands and chatting in the quiet car, we can be reminded that this is what it's all about.

I wanted to remind everyone that Deus Ex Machina is doing a giveaway on his blog of my Aunt Connie's book "A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants." If you're not able to make it to classes, like the one we attended, this book is a great place to start learning about plants and their various uses.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Cooking ... with Bennies

I have to make a confession. I love camping gear. I like camping, too, mostly, but mostly I think running off into the woods for a weekend and living in a tent is a lot of work, and I'd rather stay home and take walk into the woods and then come back to my house and cook dinner on the woodstove or out on the fire pit, and sleeping in a sleeping bag can be fun, but, frankly, snuggling with Deus Ex Machina is fun no matter where we are. In addition, since we heat exclusively with wood, the temperature in our bedroom can get pretty nippy, and there have been some days when it feels like we're in an uninsulated tent anyway. In short, I don't need tent living to experience the "rustic fun" of what most modern folks call "camping."

But I love camping gear, and those times when we've had extended power outages, I was very happy that we've been camping gear hoarders.

So imagine my giddiness when I saw this BioLite campstove. It's a rocket stove with a little electricity generator (a USB adapter for charging small elecrical gadgets like our LED lantern).

The manufacturers are promoting it as a "campstove", but I think it could be used for just every day cooking - especially in the summer time, when cooking indoors isn't as much fun - or in parts of the country where it would be comfortable cooking outside at any time of the year. It makes more sense than a gas grill, and uses a lot less energy ... while generating electricity. Score!

For those who would never use a campstove for just every day cooking, it would make an incredible little tool to add to the prep pile. And here in Maine, where using solar panels is not necessarily the absolute best option for generating electricity in a low-energy world (the reasons of which I discuss in my book), being able to create, even only small amounts of electricity using only twigs, while also cooking dinner or heating water for tea, is a huge benefit.

We've been planning to build an outdoor kitchen for a couple of years, but the project keeps getting put on the back burner - as it were. Now, I'm thinking, if we could reproduce this technology in our outdoor kitchen, we could have electricity out there ... maybe even enough to power some LED lights, which means, during sugaring season, we could stay outside longer, because we'd have light ... and I'll bet this little rocketstove would be great for boiling sap.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Sometimes Worth Isn't Defined by Money

I realized the other day that I've been a work-at-home Mom (WAHM) for over fourteen years. January marked the fourteenth anniversary of my home-based business. Incredible. That saying about time flying really is true.

It’s not always been an easy road. As a typical, suburban American, I was taught that those who are doing something worthwhile are also making money, and those who don't make money are, obviously, wasting time. I’ve never made a lot of money as a WAHM, and my primary reason for being home at all was to be a care provider for my children. So, even though I didn't always consciously acknowledge it, the work part has always been secondary to the at home Mom part of my title.

That said, when I first arrived at my own doorstep with the understanding that this is where I’d be, my first obstacle was my own personal prejudices. Like most college-educated, career-oriented women, the idea that I’d ever be a homemaker was so foreign to me as to not even be a consideration. In fact, working anywhere – at all – for any salary – was a better option than not working.

So, I decided I’d start a home-based business. And I did. And I actually managed to land a few clients.

original cartoon by Wendy Brown based on Brandy Chastain’s 1999 Women’s World Cup win

At the same time, I was meeting other women who were staying home with their children. While we always expressed how much we loved being home, there was always the undercurrent of belief that we weren’t really contributing, and so I heard that question how did you get your job? a lot.

In response, I started doing a lot of research into the home-based business industry (which in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s was the fastest growing industry in the US, not just for parents, but for everyone – both men and women – and with more people wanting to work from home being supported by the new Internet technology, the “dot.com” industry was born). As a result, I came in contact with a couple of the more prolific writers of all things related to being a work-at-home parent and/or a home-based entrepreneur, and I even filled out a survey that landed me mention in one of the books written for work-at-home parents (I'm quoted on page 380 in the book The Entrepreneurial Parent: How to Earn Your Living and Still Enjoy Your Family, Your Work and Your Life.

Those early days were terribly exciting, and fun, too. It’s like finding a new religion, and I was so enthusiastic about the whole concept of working from home and helping other Moms find the joy that I’d discovered that I wrote a “work from home” workbook (which never got published) and started an online niche bookstore that sold work-from-home books and provided information and resources for WAH parents, and those who wished to be.

In fact, the original purpose of this blog was to publish articles related to working from home.

Initially, I put a lot of emphasis on the work part of the WAHM title, at least in my mind, but my day-to-day activities really forced me more into the “at-home Mom” part of the title, and while I’ve always enjoyed my “work”, the most important part of what I do is being a Mom.

Back then, I remember reading an article about a study that had been done to show the market value of a homemaker, if her family had to pay someone else to do the jobs she did without pay. Apparently, it’s a pretty hot topic, and the study was done again with the results being discussed in this recent article from the Washington Post.

In an online discussion about the article, those of us who were applauding the study were lambasted for even considering that we should be paid for what we do. The argument was that those who ruminated on the idea of being compensated for taking care of their children either had some undeserved sense of entitlement or were in an unsatisfying relationship.

I said, perhaps, it was neither, but maybe it was relief that someone else, someone outside in the money-centric world, had recognized our worth, and while they chose to assign a dollar value to a job that money can’t really buy, the fact is that we live in a world in which people who make money are valued and those who do not make money have very little worth.

My point was that we, WAHMs/SAHMs, aren’t asking to be paid, but the fact that someone has recognized the value of our contribution is encouraging.

And through the course of the conversation, I realized, too, that the article has it wrong. It’s not what a stay-at-home parent could “earn” if those functions were given a marketplace value, but rather what the stay-at-home parent saves by doing those tasks herself.

In short, it’s not about making money, but rather saving money, and by being home, full-time, with my children, and doing things like cooking our meals, raising chickens, growing a garden, line-drying clothes, mending socks, not commuting, not paying for childcare … my family saves a lot of money.

One of the most important exercises in my work-from-home workbook is the section in which the reader is asked to calculate the cost of working outside the home. I think most people don’t realize that there is a cost to having a job, and for working parents, too often the cost of having the second job exceeds the amount of extra income. With some very minor home economics, they could easily afford to live on one income, but it takes a little thought and a lot of action to pull it off.

The bottom line, though, is the more I do myself for my family, the more independent we become, and the less the fluctuations of a fickle marketplace will negatively affect our lives.

The more I do myself for my family, the less dependent we are on paying others to provide for our daily needs.

The less money we need for our day-to-day expenses, the more money we have to spend on reducing our dependence.

The more independent we become, the less we need an outside job.

And, if all goes well, at some point, both Deus Ex Machina and I will be home full-time, working on our subsistence suburban homestead, maybe, earning a few coins at some part-time endeavors - for fun - and otherwise following the sound wisdom of Henry David Thoreau to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.

I wonder what our “value” will be then.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Beginning the Harvest Season

If the goal is self-sufficiency, we need to grow (and forage) and harvest as much as we can. The reality of our modern life, in the suburbs, is that there are things we will pay for, until those things are no longer available to us, and if we're lucky (or smart), we'll be able to continue to afford those things, even after they're no longer around.

Being self-sufficient, doesn't mean that we do everything for ourselves, but rather that those fluctuations - price, availability - won't have a negative impact on our lives. It's not about doing it all by ourselves, but about having that sense of independence from a system over which we have no control and/or being able to roll with the proverbial punches. In short, a huge part of self-sufficiency entails being flexible.

It also requires that we take advantage of what we're given. That is, when it's an "apple year", we harvest as many apples as we can find, and preserve them - either as juice or cider or apple sauce or dried apples - but we preserve them, because next year, we won't know what kind of year it will be until next apple season gets here, and in nature there are absolutely no guarantees, except that, there are no guarantees.

Such has been our experience with sugaring - every year is different, and our only course of action is to listen to our gut, because the calendar is a very poor predictor of when things should happen, and even with all of their fancy equipment, modern meterologists often get things wrong. Like apple season, we won't know what kind of sugaring season we're going to have until we've had it, and the only thing we can do is look at the signs and act according to our very limited experience.

Deus Ex Machina believes that he tapped too early, given that the sap isn't flowing as freely he had hoped it would be. The fact that it's flowing at all leads me to believe that his gut feeling was correct, and it was time. It certainly wasn't too early, as, if it had been, there wouldn't be anything in the buckets.

All of that said, there does seem to be a little bit of maple sugaring season still left for those who are interested in exploring this incredibly enjoyable project. Not only does it give one a huge sense of empowerment to realize that anyone can make "maple syrup" with a tap, a bucket, and a fire, but it can also save a great deal of money ... and frankly, those pseudo-syrup products on the market can't hold a candle to the real thing - not only are they not food, but they just aren't good for our bodies.

Joe, at TapMyTrees.com, approached Deus Ex Machina about doing a giveaway, and he's generously offered a "starter kit" to one person. If you're interested in trying out maple sugaring, leave a comment on Deus Ex Machina's blog.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Waking Up the Homestead

We've had a mild, rather warm, winter here in southern Maine. In fact, if the groundhog legend is true, spring has arrived. And even if there is no basis in reality for the shadow-seeing rodent's ability to predict the future, Deus Ex Machina and I have noted many other signs of spring - in particular that the time seemed ripe for sugaring.

This time of year is also when we start planning for the garden, and yesterday I spent a small portion of the afternoon writing out our seed order. We'd already gone through the Johnny Seed catalog, circling our choices and marking the pages, and it was just a matter of writing it out on the form.

Every year, Big Little Sister plans a themed garden. Last year, it was a Plants vs. Zombies garden based on the computer game of the same name. The plants in her little garden bed grew okay, even though they were horribly neglected, except by the golden finches, who harvested all of the sunflower seeds for her ;).

This year, she's planning an "animal themed" garden, in which all of the plants she is going to grow have "animal" names - like deer tongue lettuce and snow leopard melons.

Little Fire Faery is getting into the fun, as well. She was gifted a Kidzherbs seed pack, and she also picked out a couple of packets of seeds - in particular sun flowers and, her favorite, nasturtiums - that she wants to try to grow.

Looking at our seed order, I'm realizing that we don't have enough garden space, and I'm already planning for lots of containers filled with compost and seeds this year. We never dug out the compost pile last year, which means it's most likely full of amazing soil. From the looks of it, we have several yards of soil in the compost bin right now, which should fill a few buckets ;), but I'm planning to fill anything that will hold soil.

We even joked about an old toilet ... in which we could grow peas.