Monday, October 21, 2013

Pin-Ups ... of the Cloth Kind

I always hang shirts upside-down on the clothes line, and never by the shoulders.

Why? You ask.

Because when you hang the shirts by the shoulders, it leaves a little clothespin divot, and then, when you wear the shirt, it looks like you have a bump on your shoulder.

What? These aren't thoughts everyone has?

What Money Can't Buy

When my son was in junior high and I met his friend's mother for the first time, she asked that question. It's nearly the first question any adult is asked when meeting another adult, "What do you do?" In fact, I know that I've written this article before, and I know that I've even cited that same incident on many occasions. I still get asked that question, but I like to remember that particular incident, because, at that time, I was still new to being a stay-at-home mom, and I hadn't quite worked it all out in my head.

"What do you do?" she asked, standing next to her shiny, black, new SUV, which she could afford, because she had a full-time job.

I hesitated. What did I do?

"She's a writer," my son blurted.

And it was true. I did write, and I wrote a lot. This was before blogging, and way before Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs was conceived, written, and published, but I have been writing since I was twelve years old - poetry, short stories, novellas, and a couple of novels that still need to be fleshed out.

I was also working on getting my home business off the ground.

But neither of those things was what I did, in the sense that she meant. I didn't make any money from either of them, yet, and that's what she meant. What did I do to earn money, to make a living. The fact was that I didn't make a living. What I did was stay home with my kids. My two oldest kids were school-aged, and my, now, teenager had not reached her first birthday. My two youngest weren't born.

What I did, and what I was, was a stay-at-home mom.

The late 70's/early 80's was a banner time for women's independence. We were (finally) given choices that weren't, necessarily, afforded to our mothers and grandmothers. We were encouraged, perhaps even goaded, into believing that in order to be a strong, independent, *real* woman, we needed to have an education and a career. As the perfume commercial back in those days claimed, a woman should be able to "... bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never ... let him forget he's a man." As I reached adulthood, I knew that I would go to college. I knew that I would work. I figured, eventually, I would get married and have children, and I'd ... bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and be a wife/mother/full-time professional, and pull it all off ... with aplomb!

This is not a commentary on working moms or non-working moms. This is my story. My story is that I was a full-time working mom, but it felt like someone was getting cheated. My kids spent too much time with people who didn't really care about their well-being, and it hurt every time I had to leave them with an apathetic care giver. I hated having to convince myself that I was doing my best, and those times when I was in-between jobs or on vacation (like when I was teaching and had the summer off), and I was able to be a full-time stay-at-home mom, I knew that's what I wanted.

Of course, when I finally got to that place, I had a very hard time reconciling the fact that I didn't have a job. I wasn't making any money, and per society's opinion, I was, therefore, worthless. And, lest, you think that I was just being supersensitive and egocentric, I have had people validate this idea, in not so many words. The life insurance rep, for instance, basically, told me that I could only be a rider on Deus Ex Machina's insurance policy with a payout that was 5% of the coverage we had on him. He had a job, he earned all of the money for support of our household, and since there would be a lag between the time my youngest child turned 18 and I turned 65, during which social security would not pay me, it was much more important - for me he insisted - that we have a large payout for Deus Ex Machina. The implication was that my death would cause no financial strain on my family and also that, because I was a full-time stay-at-home mom, I'd need the life insurance money to support myself, because I had no marketable skills as a stay-at-home mom. In short, we could have life insurance on me, but the policy would only pay for funeral arrangements.

What that insurance company failed to understand was the true value of what I do, and the fact is that, without me, my husband and my children would not be able to have the lifestyle we have, because they couldn't afford it, without me.

In the years that I've been home full-time, I've seen several studies, like the one discussed in this article, which attempt to put a monetary value on the work stay-at-home moms do. The numbers and how they are derived are really interesting, and I don't dispute the fact that we, stay-at-home moms do valuable work.

I am concerned, however, that we're still trying to monetize what we do. I hate the fact that, as a society, if there's no dollar value, there's no value. We bandy about ideologies like how the best things in life are free, but at the same time, we try very hard to justify our time spent by showing how much money we've earned ... or saved.

I disagree with the final number given in the above linked article, because I think some of the jobs they list overlap. I also don't think that the average stay-at-home mom could, even in her wildest dreams, command the compensation that would be due a private chef for such culinary masterpieces as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches - unless said sandwich is made with home-canned preserves and hand ground peanuts slathered on homemade bread. Most moms don't go to those lengths. I'm not saying that we, moms, can't cook, because a good many of us can, and do, create what could be described as gourmet meals, but if we're looking at apples and apples, the average mom is not a private chef.

I know it sounds like I'm contradicting myself. I bristle at the insurance agent who tells me I'm only worth what it would cost to bury me, but I insist that being a stay-at-home mom does not qualify me to command the salary of a private chef. Mostly, it's because I know I'm still conflicted. We live in a society in which only money matters, and the fact that I am at home, available to my daughters for whatever they need, that my husband usually has clean clothes to wear, that my family eats a lot of pretty wholesome food, that if things were to get really bad for us we would be okay, because I have worked over the years to help us be more self-sufficient, but if I had had a full-time job, those things would not be our reality. My worth is in what I do, not what I earn, but society doesn't value action that can't be fit into a neat little dollar sign.

I guess, for me, the bottom line has to be no bottom line. I have to stop allowing myself and others to think that they need to give my work value. As stay-at-home moms, I know we like to see articles like the one linked above, because it, somehow, lends more credence to what we do, but we have to stop these people from doing those studies and from minimizing what we do by comparing it to jobs people do for money.

It has to be true that there are some things money can't buy. Relationships should be one of those things, and there is simply no monetary value for who I am to my children, who I am to Deus Ex Machina ... and who all of them are to me.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

My First ... and Second ... Zinger

It was bound to happen sooner or later. One can't do things the way we do without, occasionally, having a mishap.

It started out good. The day was a gorgeous and warm. They were a lot more active than we anticipated given the time of year - which in this case was not such a good thing. The plan was to move five bars from one side of the hive to the other. We talked it out for several minutes before we decided on our plan of action, and then we got to work.

The cover off, we pried the first bar and a cloud burst around us. Deus Ex Machina ducked and ran, an angry welt swelling on his inner arm just above his elbow.

After a minute to allow everything to calm down, we stepped back in. This time my hair became a trap, but after a few minutes we were able to free her with no mishaps, but next thing we knew, Deus Ex Machina is being followed, aggressively. I was shouting, "Stop running!", because I could see each landing, and my intent was that he stand still, I spray a leaf or a twig with the sugar water we use to calm them, and use that as bait.

He couldn't stand still, and his shirt turned into a trap. The neighbor enjoyed the strip show in the middle of road, and even opened her window to encourage him not to stop there. We laughed. Ha! Ha! Ha!

And tried to continue laughing, but they weren't settling down, and by this time, Deus Ex Machina was too freaked out.

I said, I'd do it. Inhale. Exhale. Slowly.

I moved the next bar, safe. No worries. Inhale. Exhale. Slowly move away.

My damn hair is just like a freakin' spider web, and buzz, buzz overhead and snatch, and she was stuck. Only this time, she was not trying to get loose. She was in combat mode, and as soon as she realized there was scalp close to her butt ... zing! OUCH!

It was my first sting. My second was on my belly, and the bee stung me right through my shirt.

We got the hive back together and decided to leave them to settle.

Beekeeping without protective gear is certainly exciting.

Friday, October 11, 2013


The leaves are littering the yard. The garden is not quite sure it's done, but it's definitely waning. The bees have slowed, even on the sunny days, which haven't been much warmer than 70° for the last few.

The nights have been chilly and condensation is on every window almost as soon as the sun sets each evening. The temperature hasn't dropped below freezing, yet, and we're trying to see if we can hold out until then to start the woodstove, which hasn't, yet, had it's first fire of the season.

We have a couple of extra comforters on the beds, and my wool socks and sweaters have come out of the drawer.

Soup is what's for dinner ... and baking? Why, yes, please, because it warms up the house, which is a good thing this time of year.

My favorite part of this time of year is the color - the brilliant oranges and reds ... and I LOVE the pumpkins. Every time I stop at the farm stand, I buy another one. I envision lots of pumpkin bread and pumpkin soup and baked pumpkin with apples drowning in butter and maple syrup, and if my daughter has her way, we'll have pumpkin pie in there somewhere, too. For a snack, a few pumpkin seeds, drizzled in olive oil and roasted and salted. Yum!

I don't have a favorite time of year. What I love is when the change has happened, and we realize that we are fully in that new season.

The leaves are littering the yard, and bright orange pumpkins are starting to accumulate wherever there is space for them.

Welcome, Autumn. Stay a while?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Strategies for Dealing with HOAs

When I talk with people about my experiences being a suburban homesteader, one of the first and most oft asked questions has to do with HOAs or Home Owners Associations. I have to admit that the neighborhood I live in is a very old suburb. In fact, my road is one of the oldest roads on this side of town, and it was, originally, a driveway. There is a draft of a subdivision plan that was submitted way back, probably around the same time that the Saco Drive-In theatre was being built (it celebrated its 75th anniversary this year), but it was never approved, because the road was never improved.

In short, my neighborhood is really too old to be one of those kinds of suburbs, although there is a subdivision across the main road, and they do have some form of HOA. There's another subdivision closer to town that has an HOA, also. In both cases, the HOA was formed for one, very simple, purpose - to ensure that the roads stayed plowed and maintained, and so the HOA exists only collect an annual fee for things like road plowing, or when culvert work needs to be done, or things like that. As far as dictating to the homeowners any rigid standards, neither neighborhood covenant seems to do that.

Since I don't live in an HOA, but that's a question I get asked a lot, I started doing some research and discussing with other people their experiences in HOA neighborhoods. What I've found is that some HOAs (like the one in the suburb across the road from my little dead-end street) exist not to tell people how to live, but to accomplish a very practical need and to ensure that every homeowner pays his/her fair share.

Others, while more restrictive aren't, necessarily, evil incarnate, and while I would not want to live in some of the HOA neighborhoods I've come across, the rules were set for reasons that the first property owners felt were necessary.

One of the most oft restrictions has to do with clotheslines, and those living in HOA communities seem to really take issue with the clothesline. I guess I understand. My own clothesline is framed by my very lush garden, and personally, I think both look beautiful, but I do understand that clothes hanging outside on a sagging line can look sloppy and unappealing - from an aesthetic point-of-view. Perhaps there is also the class issue (one of the reasons the suburbs exist at all, in fact) with the idea that people who can afford to live in the suburbs can also afford to either have someone else do their laundry, or have that laundry cleaned and dried by machine - out of view (and mind) of their neighbors. I don't have to agree to understand the thought process behind it. Clotheslines strung between buildings in alleyways of poorer urban neighborhoods does, kind of, look unkempt, and if I were the kind of person who really cared what my neighbors' homes look like, it might bother me to have their laundry airing where we all can see it.

Other restrictions and guidelines were, likely, framed for similar reasons. I read one person discussing HOAs who said, in effect, that she didn't wish to live in a neighborhood where abutting yards looked like something out of the 1970s hit comedy Sanford and Son (for those who don't know the reference, Sanford was a junkyard owner). The thought might be that those homes reduce the property values, or it could be the notion that junk sitting in a yard attracts animals like rats and skunks, or it could just be that people don't want to look at that when they look out their windows. In a local neighborhood, where there are no HOA restrictions, a woman (classified as a "hoarder") was ordered by the city to clean up her yard, as her collection was deemed a safety hazard and a fire trap. It's very likely that people who buy into these well manicured neighborhoods do so in an effort not to live next door to that person.

While people are very quick to malign suburban HOAs as all bad, the fact is that some communities have laws and ordinances that are just as restrictive. I live on a quarter acre, but the minimum size for a residential lot on my side of town is a half acre. My lot is grandfathered, because it was as it is before the law was passed. Unfortunately, I am still limited by the set-backs, which require 25 feet from property lines and 50 feet from roads. My entire lot has road frontage on one side, and at its widest, my lot is only 50' wide. Which means, basically, that I can't build anything - including a storage shed - because I wouldn't meet the minimum set back requirements.

And most of us have heard of Julie Bass, who was ordered by her community to raze her urban garden, because somebody in the planning department decided it violated some building or use code. There have been several others, too, who've ended up in court battling their town or city governments for the right to have a garden. The good news is that, for the most part, they are winning the right to have their gardens and even livestock.

In short, HOAs don't have a monopoly on being anti-homesteading for those who live in non-rural areas. It's a pain, but we're learning to do what we can with what we have where we are.

Which brings me to the point: what does one do if one lives in one of those kinds of neighborhoods, where the rules limit and/or restrict certain activities?

Based on talking with other people and doing some reading up on HOAs, I have a few guidelines.
  • 1. If there are no rules specifically prohibiting an action, and I mean in writing, not just anecdotal, then it's not against the rules. Don't ask if it's okay. When we first looked into getting chickens, I couldn't find any rules restricting them in my town. There were ordinances that governed agriculture-based businesses, but I had (and still have) no intention of selling my eggs or my chickens. I'm not a business. So, the rules that my town does have governing having chickens, do not apply to my situation. I didn't ask if it was okay for me to have chickens. I asked what the ordinance said, and since it didn't say no, I have them.
  • 2. Be willing to look for alternatives. If there is a restriction regarding chickens, don't assume that means you can't have any birds. There are a lot more options than just chickens. In fact, someone at my presentation in Pennsylvania said that her neighborhood prohibited chickens, but not ducks, and there are even quackless ducks, which are actually quite large and can be dual purpose - eggs and meat. Quail can also be an option. They take up very little space, especially as compared to chickens, they're very quiet, and with right male/female ratio, they are self-perpetuating - that is, the purchase of new chicks each spring becomes unnecessary, because they can be bred to keep a continual supply of both meat and eggs.

  • 3. Compromise. If the rules say no clotheslines, comply, but comply with exactly what it says. If it says no clotheslines consider that a drying rack on your back patio isn't the same thing as a clothesline. If the rules say that you can have gardens that are x, y, or z, considering filling those gardens with edibles instead of ornamentals. Often the edibles, especially perennial edibles, are just as pretty and will serve the same function as the ornamentals, but they have the added bonus that you can eat them. If the rules say nothing can be planted in the ground, except grass, don't plant your garden on the ground. Use containers. If you put the containers in a wagon, you can even move them around the yard, and back into your garage at night, which would have the added benefit of giving you some season extension (because the plants would be inside when the temps dropped below freezing at night, and you could put them back outside during the day). A food garden doesn't have to be rows of food or even raised beds. It can look just like a landscaped bed. It's not the style of the garden, but what's in it that matters.
  • 4. Get involved. If there are rules you don't like and that you simply can not live with, join the Board. If you're on the Board, you will be in a position to change the rules. Maybe you'll be successful, and maybe you won't, but doing nothing is a form of failure.

The bottom line is that we really can have what we want, if we're willing to look differently at how to attain our goals. We can homestead, even on a quarter of an acre, even when the rules try to limit what we want to do, if we're willing to look at creative solutions.

If all else fails, as Deus Ex Machina has said on several occasions, it's easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission. If you don't ask, they can't tell you no, but if you do ask, and they say no, and you do it anyway, you will get into trouble. Better to not ask, do what you want, and then, make corrections, if necessary.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Rainy Morning Visitors

They saw me trying to take their picture. I was inside the house and the window is closed.

After watching them for the past few years, I think Benjamin Franklin had it right. Turkeys are pretty amazing, and they should have been our national bird.

Friday, October 4, 2013

By Hand

Over the years we've made an effort to transition from dependence on energy-reliant appliances to manual ones. Certainly not in everything, and we definitely have a long way to go, but we've found some pretty cool gadgets that could easily take the place of powered things.

Some of my gadgets are little more than conversation pieces - like the laundry wringer I have. I've used it during a power outage, but for the most part, it's not something I use every day. It's a just in case - like the generator we bought many years ago, and still have new ... in the box.

On a side note: I'd like to sell the generator and use the money toward the purchase of some marine batteries and an RV-sized windmill. Whatever we could get for the generator wouldn't totally cover the costs of those things, and neither would an RV-sized windmill give us the same amount of electricity as the generator, but in an extreme situation, the only reason we need electricity is to keep the freezer cold. Everything else is a luxury or we have alternative ways of satisfying those needs.

Back to the point, I've prided myself on how much we've managed to shave off our usage, and how easy the transition was from all electric stuff to mostly manual tools once we committed to the change. My favorite change has been in how we make coffee. To brew the coffee, we use a French Press, which requires only that we add hot water. During the winter we heat water on the woodstove. Since we're already heating the house, keeping tea kettle of water uses nothing extra. In the summer, we, currently, use an electric teapot, which I know seems to contradict the assertion that we're reducing, because we're still using electricity, but the little electric teapot uses significantly less electricity to heat water than using the stove top does. It's a very small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

I read an article a couple of weeks ago that talked about how to prepare the perfect cup of coffee, and the article said the perfect cup of coffee was brewed in a French press (score one for me!). We bought the press, originally, because it allowed us to brew coffee quickly and easily and all we needed to was hot water (and French presses can also be used to brew loose-leaf tea). The longer we use it, though, the more I appreciate it. The only draw back is that it doesn't keep the coffee hot, but we can put it in a thermos - and problem solved. Or we just let it go cold, and then, have iced coffee.

The second part to the perfect cup of coffee has to do with the beans, and according to the article, the best coffee is fresh ground. We had some fair-trade coffee beans we bought at some point, probably by accident thinking we were getting the ground stuff. For the week or two before our trip, we tried to use up all of our consumables, because we didn't know what our farm sitter would want for food or drinks, and we didn't want to come home to a refrigerator full of science experiments. We used the last of the ground coffee the weekend we got back and didn't get any more.

Luckily, we've found some very cool manual gadgets at the thrift store over the years, including: a very cool coffee grinder.

The result is that, this week, we've been enjoying the "perfect" cup of coffee - fresh ground, brewed in a coffee press, and lightened with real cream.

And this little coffee grinder, including working really well, is also a very nice conversation piece.