Friday, December 26, 2014

Clean Air and Water ... Way More Important Than Electricity. Just sayin'.

It's interesting to me when I hear people complaining about the EPA, particularly in regard to the recent more strict air quality regulations, but when stuff like the events that resulted in this over 200 acre "superfund" site happen, people get angry if the EPA does nothing. Granted, the dumping that occurred on this site happened many years ago, but it also continued for decades during which open pits of harsh chemicals and heavy metals just sat, seeping into the ground water ... and, eventually, flowing into the very fragile eco-system that is the Scarborough Salt Marsh ... and then, out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Deus Ex Machina and I have a friend who worked for the water company a while back, and he said that tests of the ground water in my area (only a few miles from this site) tested positive for arsenic. I think he has been trying to discourage my talk of digging a "garden well", because, in his belief, the ground water isn't safe.

A few years ago, Deus Ex Machina and I were looking at purchasing a house that was a few miles inland and in another community. Ultimately, we opted out of purchasing the house, because the water test came back with higher-than-we-were-comfortable-with levels of arsenic in the well. I didn't, really, know what it all meant, except that I had just given birth to a beautiful little girl who'd spent a week in the NICU and two more weeks in the hospital on antibiotics, and I wasn't going to risk doing any damage to her fragile system with bad water.

This house was sitting on top of a granite bedrock, and we were told, at that time, that drilling for wells through the bedrock was what caused the higher than okay levels of that particular heavy metal.

The common belief is that the ground water in much of Maine has fairly high levels of arsenic, because of that bedrock, although fairly high may be somewhat subjective, as the acceptably safe number of parts-per-million keeps changing, perhaps in response to learning that higher levels aren't good.

That said, given what I've learned about the superfund site that is, essentially, in my neighborhood, I wonder how much of the problem with contaminants in the groundwater in my neighborhood is because of naturally occurring arsenic and how much of it is due to industrial pollutants that weren't properly disposed of.

The fact is that humans need air, and we need water - both of which have been significantly polluted thanks to our incessant quest for more advanced technologies. When we learn that some "evil empire", some "corporate thug", has been polluting our environment and causing cancer or birth defects, we get all pissy and moany and start clamoring for something to be done. We call Erin Brockovich and she swoops in with her litigation experience and sues those bad guys for millions (which is little more than a pesky gnat to a multi-billion dollar company), of which the real victims get piddly, and Ms. Brockovich gets famous.

But, then, the next day, we find out that the EPA is cracking down on polluters, which might mean rolling black outs and/or brown outs for some parts of the country. And, suddenly, we don't give a shit about whether that coal-burning power plant is sending carcinogenic particles into the air, or the process required to get the coal in the first place is resulting in toxic sludge pits that have contaminated the ground water in hundreds of communities that are unfortunate enough to be located in areas of the country that are rich in that particular mineral.

We want natural gas ... until natural gas is being fracked in our community and the water coming out of our tap is flammable.

We want the electricity generated by Maine Yankee, until there's a meltdown in Fukishima and we all freak out about what will happen when it happens here.

The EPA is monitoring that superfund site up the road from my house. So far, nothing is leaking ... we hope. I'm glad the EPA is there. I'm sure the farmer a few miles up the road and all of the suburbanites who've built their McMansions around the corner and down the road are, too.

And now, the EPA is being called all manner of bad names, because they're going to make it tougher for electricity producers to continue polluting our air (which also, eventually, pollutes soil and water).

We need clean water and clean air to survive as a species. And we need the biodiversity of other plants and animals to have clean air and clean water so that they can survive, because we're dependent on those species for the survival of our species.

We're all connected. We all live or die ... together.

I applaud the stricter regulations, because I don't want the air quality that many of the Chinese are having to breath these days. Unless it's fog, air so thick you can see it is not something I want going into my lungs.

I can deal with brown outs and rolling blackouts. I'd even be okay with regular, scheduled black outs (and I'd actually prefer it be scheduled so that I could be ready. You know?), if it meant that I could have clean water and clean air. I like my computer, and I like the Internet, and I like this blog, but I'd even give up electricity, if doing so would ensure I'd have clean water and clean air.

How about you? Would you give up unlimited access to electricity (from coal-fired, natural gas, and nuclear plants, in particular) to ensure clean drinking water and clean air?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Tomato Soup on Salad? Yep.

My daughters and I are volunteering once a week at the food pantry. It's been an incredible experience so far. I have some pretty amazing kids. Just sayin'.

The pantry is really neat, and I like the way they run things. There are certain items that are limited, and each person who comes into the pantry gets a set number of these. For instance, if it's a family of four, they are allowed to pick fourteen of these special grocery items. What's really neat is that the family is permitted to pick their own items, which probably cuts down on overall waste, as folks can pick what they know how to use and know they will eat. The pantry always has bread - lots and lots of bread. And in fact, while people are limited to twice monthly visits to the pantry for regular grocery items, they can come whenever they need to get bread.

The other item that's available in quantity that no one seems to want is tomato soup. What's that saying, we can't give the stuff away.

Last week, I thought, maybe people just don't want plain tomato soup, and so I found a bunch of simple recipes for using, mostly, items they could find at the pantry to add to tomato soup to make it more of a meal.

Today, at the pantry, along with the millions of cans of tomato soup (and bread), they also had been given bags and bags of precut lettuce and heads and heads of iceberg lettuce. I kept looking at that tomato soup and all that lettuce, and I figured there must be a recipe of some kind that uses tomato soup as an ingredient for salad dressing.

And so there are! Lots and lots of recipes, and from what I could find, it appeared that tomato soup based dressing is basically a French dressing.

This one was my favorite, because it used the soup can as a measuring cup, and the ingredient list was pretty simple.

Next week, I'm going to bring the recipe (it makes a quart) and maybe a case of wine vinegar to donate ... and I'm thinking I might even make some of the dressing myself as a sample.

I'm also thinking, some salad topped with tomato soup French Dressing and some toasted bread would be quite delicious for lunch.

Monday, December 22, 2014

It Did Happen!

There's a running joke in my family when someone makes a blunder that if there's no picture, it didn't happen.

I used to be very good about having a camera ready. I took it with me everywhere ... and I have the pictures to prove it. Back in those days, I would compile the pictures at the end of the year for our homeschool portfolio - which is very much like a yearbook one might get from school. It was a wonderful way to look back at the year and remember all of the awesome places we went and things we saw.

Then, we started using rechargeable batteries that had this way of always dying right when I was about to take the best picture. I think I missed a lot of moments.

So, when I see blogs of friends and virtual friends filled with the pictures of their lives, I'm a little envious, because, while I always seem to miss that perfect shot, we have so many of those same kinds of perfect moments. I just don't have any pictures to prove it.

Of our Solstice celebration, very few pictures were taken, but it did happen, and while we didn't record those memories in digital images, I hope that they are burned in our brains as a wonderful time of family togetherness ...

... Big Little Sister making dinner, which we ate (for the first time in a very long time) all together at the table (because our table has been covered with stuff since emptying the back room so that we could rebuild it - which is still happening).

... Decorating the Yule log with our thanks for the blessings of the year past and hopes for next year.

... Giving each other one special gift.

... Apples to Apples and Scrabble - and losing the games, but winning at spending quality time with my awesome family!

... Baking wish bread that ended up being breakfast, because by the time it was finished baking, half the family had gone to bed ;).

We had talked about staying up to greet the sun, but it didn't happen. Even on the Solstice, Deus Ex Machina prefers to adhere to the wisdom of Ben Franklin - early to bed ... and all that.

Sometimes, at least just for having something to share of our lives here on this blog, I wish that I were better at remembering to take pictures ...

... but then, if I always had my hands filled with a camera, I wouldn't be able to roll dough balls into wishes with Precious ... and she might enjoy the picture later, but I know she enjoyed making the wish bread now, and now is what matters ... now.

Wishing everyone a joyful abundance this Holiday season!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Little R&R

Working from home and homeschooling, I had hoped, would work more flexibility into our schedule, and sometimes, that's true. We have a few days of the week on which we don't, usually, have any scheduled activities, but there are days when we are very busy. The last three days of the week are usually packed with stuff.

Friday is our music, library, and volunteer day. We love all three activities - especially the library - and I don't think we've ever gone to the library and not come out with a bagful of books.

For the past two months, I've been busy with the assigned reading for the class I'm teaching. Yes, I've read all of the books I assigned, but I have to reread them or at least skim them, to make sure I remember some of the finer details - because the kids always ask about some obscure plot point, and I need to be able to discuss it. So, I haven't checked out any books for myself.

This past week, as my daughters scattered and ran looking for their literary treasures, I kind of meandered around, and then, I realized, "I can check out a book!" Suddenly, I was like a kid in a candy store, a fox in the henhouse ... a bibliophile in a bookstore with an unlimited credit card balance!

I made a beeline back to the 900s, where there are memoirs and biographies - real-life accounts of, well, life.

I love to read, and I usually have a book or two with a scrap of paper or a receipt marking the spot where I last lost myself in its depths.

The next two weeks, Deus Ex Machina is off from work and most of the girls' classes are on break until after the holidays. I'm hoping I will have some time to sit and just enjoy a little R&R ... Reading and relaxation :).

What's your favorite way to escape?

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Sleeping in Luxury

In his book, Field Guide to City and Suburban Survival, Tom Brown, Jr. talks about the many ways there are to stay warm inside of a building that is not heated. I think he might even mention using a tent inside a room.

I think it's a great idea. Would I do it? Absolutely!

We even have a small tent that is, roughly, the size of a double bed. In a worst case scenario, I might even pitch it over a box spring and set my mattress inside and leave it up all of the time.

The thing is, this isn't such a novel idea. People used to use bed curtains back before there was central heating. Bedrooms weren't heated, and people stayed warm by snuggling, by sleeping in small, curtained spaces, and by using thick quilts and comforters.

Since we started using our woodstove for heat, I've found that I sleep better in a cold room. Would I sleep in a tent if my house were cold? Yep.

But, then, maybe, I would redesign my sleeping area and put up some pretty curtains to surround my bed, because a tent would be cool, but waking up surrounded by luxury - even when the reason I have it is because money is tight - would be oh, so much more fun.

I could see having something like this in my bedroom. What about you?

Monday, December 15, 2014

Homemade for the Holidays - Sewing

Today was a real first for me, and I quietly thanked, several times, Mrs. Abraham, who was my Home Ec. sewing teacher in high school.

It's a bit of an interesting story - that one.

The story starts when my very middle class family moved from our three bedroom, two bath ranch-style L-shaped home on a quarter acre lot in a southern suburban neighborhood and moved to a rural small town in south eastern Kentucky. As a very middle class suburban girl I knew certain things. One was that I would, some day, go to college, which meant I would have a career and needing to cultivate certain skills (like anything to do with housekeeping) was most assuredly not on the priority list.

In my very progressive suburban school down south, courses like Home Ec., were electives - mostly for those girls who didn't have career aspirations. When we moved to rural Kentucky, we found that the rules were a bit different. Home Economics was a graduation requirement - for both boys and girls. What?

Most kids took Home Ec. the first year, presumably to get it over with. That first year, however, I had decided to take Geometry, and probably, I figured there was going to be some way I could weasel out of that requirement. Home Ec.? No. way!

My sophomore year, I signed up to take French II, but when I arrived on the first day of my sophomore year and discovered that the French teacher had retired, and her replacement stood at the front of the classroom speaking French with a very distinct southern Appalachian flavor, I decided not to take French II after all.

With no other choice, I ended up in Home Ec. II. It was an advanced sewing class (as opposed to the usual Home Ec. class where students were introduced to the basics of all of the Home Ec. subjects). My class was only sewing, and we wouldn't be piecing together some chintzy apron. All of the other girls had extensive sewing experience. This was an advanced elective course for them, kind of like Algebra II and advanced biology were my electives, and they were embarking on, what seemed to me, some pretty ambitious clothing projects. One of the most impressive was a prairie skirt complete with a ruffled blouse. I never will reach that girl's skill level.

But after a year under her tutelage, Mrs. Abraham did manage to teach me to read a pattern, and I can, now, make most things I try to make (I don't pick very complicated projects, usually). When I was a very poor and pregnant college student, I sewed most of my maternity clothes (a fact of which I was very proud), and I have been happy to sew many costumes for my daughters over the years.

I'm not terribly talented, but I am creative - or just very brave or stupid (or both). I've heard people talk about how difficult certain fabrics are to work with, and I'll pretend like I know what they mean, but I don't, and I've probably sewed those fabrics wrong. I don't, really, know what a selvage is. I'm notorious for using white thread for a whole piece of clothing - no matter the color of fabric.

Like with my knitting (I knit squares - and nothing else), when it comes to sewing, I've found the one thing that I'm really good at sewing: pants.

Today, I made a few pairs, and in keeping with my life's theme of reuse, repurpose, recycle, the material was repurposed. Someone is getting pants for Christmas.

I also made a pattern today, my first attempt at making a pattern and my first attempt at making this particular item. It's a very special, very secret, mystery gift, and I'm actually really proud of how this particular gift came out. Shhh! Don't tell if you can guess what it is ;).

I hope these fit, but since I can't measure the recipient, I just had to wing it.

And while I was busy at the sewing machine, my incredibly talented daughter was wrapping presents. For one gift, we had to use some of the rescued butcher paper we've had around the house for a while. It's plain white - not terribly festive for a gift wrap, but she used her artist's eye and talent to fix it.

Did I mention how much fun this year's Homemade for the Holidays is?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Homemade for the Holidays - Game Board

I love the challenge of making things with nothing more than a picture in my head. The way this particular gift came to be was pretty awesome. It was a family effort. First, I asked Deus Ex Machina to cut some pieces of wood for me. We had some discussions about the size of the pieces, and finally settled on some small birch rounds.

Then, we had some more discussions about how to decorate the game pieces. Deus Ex Machina researched "toy" appropriate paints and stains, and we ended up with pre-mixed tempura paint. We decided the painted sides would be a checkers game and the other side would be a memory game. The girls hand drew pictures - two of each picture.

My task was to create a game board/carrying case. I decided I wanted to make it out of cloth. Using material I had on hand - scraps for the checkerboard and a piece of recipient appropriate cloth for the back, pocket and handles - I cut and designed and sewed all at the same time.

It's not perfect, and my grandmother's friends would have thrown me out of the quilting Bee, but it was a lot of fun to make.

I sincerely hope the person who gets this gift enjoys it as much as I enjoyed creating it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Case for *not* Banning Books

I saw a post recently by a homeschooler about books she would not allow her children to read. Let me preface this commentary by stating that I don't have a problem with parents censoring what their children read. Not at all. And, in fact, I think all parents, every where, regardless of schooling choice, should know what their kids are reading. Parents should be reading the books their children read and not just leaving it up to someone else to decide - at very least so that if touchy subjects arise, the parents will be able to have an informed conversation, because the parent knows the context in which the events took place.

What bothered me about the post was not this parent's decision to outlaw certain books, but the fact that she posted the list of objectionable books without a commentary as to why she chose to ban them from her home. Her list was compiled by a teacher friend of hers from a very specific set of criteria, and she was, in turn, sharing the list with the group, but just the title of book that contained themes or scenes that were objectionable to her, but nothing about what those themes were and/or why they bothered her.

One of the books on the list was The Grapes of Wrath. Those who know my blog won't be surprised to note that I credit this book with being integral in leading me to my current path in life. I grew up in a middleclass, suburban family, and while I experienced tough times growing up (haven't we all?) and was very poor as a college student and post-grad/pre-job, I have never known true poverty - the kind of soul-sucking poverty experienced by the Joads in Steinbeck's timeless classic. Interestingly, there are some themes in that story that we often overlook when we discuss what the book is about and those themes are frighteningly applicable to our current time.

In her post to the homeschool community, the above-mentioned mother said that she was given a list of "better" books for studying the "Dust Bowl" - as if The Grapes of Wrath is about the dust bowl.

It's not (in fact, most of the story doesn't even take place in Oklahoma).

It's about a whole lot more than the storms of dust clouds that blanketed Oklahoma and the panhandle of Texas during the 1930s and forced a mass migration of homeless souls to the agricultural belt in California. It's about getting into debt one can't repay and losing one's home as a result. It's about being forced to take low-wage jobs that can't support one's family. It's about losing loved ones. It's about desperation and bitterness and betrayal and heart break. But it's also about hope and the strength and integrity of the human spirit. And it's about Mama Joads' failed attempts to keep her family intact against a tsunami of events that ultimately rip them apart. It's also about compassion, and the one scene that seems the most offensive and the most oft cited reason the book makes the banned list in too many years is that - in the end - after the Joads have lost everything one can lose, Rose suckles a dying man, giving him the milk she would have given to her stillborn child. It's a beautiful scene, but because this adult man is given breast milk straight from the breast, it's deemed obscene. So sad.

And in the overall context of the story, it's such a tiny portion of the whole that to outright exclude the entire novel for that one scene is just a little disappointing, in my opinion. I won't disagree that the age and maturity level of the readers really should be taken into account when recommending books, but to just outright ban it is a little extreme.

What also bothered me about the mother's posting of this list was the fact that she had, admittedly, not even read some of the books. She posted this list of books she was suggesting other parents might want to exclude from their children's required reading lists based entirely on the advice of the teacher who had compiled the list ... and then, sharing her list with the group, stating that she had received "warnings" about the titles with no clue given as to what those warnings were.

There are a lot of books I wouldn't recommend to my children, not because I object, necessarily, but because I'm not ready to have certain conversations with them. There are other books I wouldn't give my kids to read, because I haven't read them myself, and I'd like to read them before I have my kids read them.

All of the books on this person's list were "classics." Classics are labeled as such, because they contain themes that are timeless in the human experience. No, not all classics are appropriate for children. Nabokov's Lolita is a classic, but I wouldn't give it to my kids. The prose was absolutely stunningly beautiful and the word choices were lyrical - like a beautiful piece of music -, but the content was incredibly disturbing. In fact, I wouldn't, really, recommend it to anyone, based on the content. I wouldn't ban it, though. I just wouldn't recommend it, and if I were a teacher, I wouldn't assign it.

There are two issues here:
First is that our culture has the mistaken idea that all classics are always appropriate for our children to read, because, well, they're "classics"; and second is that banning books with themes to which we object, even if we've never read the book, is an appropriate way to protect our children.

In the second case, the reality is that, in the world we live in, even if we're very careful and we monitor everything our kids read and watch and listen to, they're going to learn these things. No, we don't have to give them the matches they use to burn themselves, but rather than trying to keep them away from fire (not going to happen), maybe a better response is to teach them how to be around fire without getting burned.

We should definitely be reading the classics, because these books are well-written prose with themes that are applicable even today. They teach us to speak better and to write better, because they are well-written, but they also give us insights into human behavior. The thing we tend to forget, however, is that most of these books were written for an ADULT audience, not children, and rather than an outright ban, perhaps, we should be ensuring that we are making the best age/maturity level choices for our children. What we should be teaching, therefore, is not "the classics", but rather a love of reading so that when our children are older and better able to handle some of the more adult-themes in these books, they will want to read them - not because the books are assigned reading, but because they are good books.

We need a well-read population of people, because people who don't read are more easily manipulated by those who may not have pure intentions. Please consider this when encouraging others to ban books. I haven't loved every book I've ever read, but I guarantee every single one of the thousands of books that I have consumed has made me think and many times challenged my core beliefs, which is, actually, a very good thing. If we never challenge what we think we believe, how can we know what's best?

Monday, December 8, 2014

Things are a Little Tight

The news is filled with optimistic messages about the improving economy. The stock market is up. Gas prices are down. The real estate market is holding its own.

Maybe, in other places, it's improving. Maybe it's improving here, but we're just slow to get the memo way up here at the tip of the country. I don't know.

What I do know is that more Americans are on food stamps than ever. The food pantries have more customers than they can serve. In spite of the mandatory insurance provision, people still can't afford to go to the doctor, and insurance companies are still wont to approve some treatment options - even when those treatments are prescribed by the physician who sees that individual. Almost half of the residents here in Maine are receiving some sort of Federal aid. Every time Deus Ex Machina and I go to the grocery store we're sideswiped by the increasingly higher cost of feeding our family. More than ever, I'm seeing charities in need. Everyone wants, but no one can give, because no one has anything.

Maybe it's just Maine. Maybe it's just my family. But I just don't see any improvement in the economy here - not in the overall economy, nor in our personal economy. Things are tight, and what I keep hearing - from everyone and everywhere - is that Christmas giving may be more lean than usual.

There was a time when making homemade Christmas gifts was simply not an option for me. I'm not terribly creative or very talented (I'm no Martha Stewart - and that's for sure!), and the kinds of things I could imagine making didn't seem to be very useful, actually. Further, the ideas for gifts to give were a long the lines of reusing baby food jars to make snow globes, which are fun, but not very useful.

Over the years, I've started saving websites that show ideas for gifts to make. Some of my favorite ideas are on Martha Stewart's website, but I've also been saving articles, like this one, that lists 25 Handmade Gifts Under $5. I won't, necessarily, choose to make any of the gifts listed, but it gives me some ideas, and at a time when I can feel overwhelmed, these kinds of very specific gift options help to focus me.

I love giving (and receiving) handmade gifts. It's fun, for me, to think about the people to whom I wish to give, and to think about what they might like, and then, to figure out a way to create that gift. It's even more fun when I can create that gift from things I have here at my house.

And as a hoarder, the kinds of things I have available for giving are pretty impressive.

We also have some very cool tools, like a bottle cutter so that we can make some upcycled gifts out of used wine bottles (the ones we don't refill with our homemade wine, that is :)). Or I might be able to spare one or two of my beloved canning jars to make one of the ideas on this list.

We will give a combination of bought things and homemade things this year, as usual. What I realized, though, is that too many of the things I've purchased over the years are things that I could have made - with a bit of imagination.

Things may be a little tight, but that doesn't have to mean that we can't enjoy the holiday season. In fact, since all of us are in the same boat, seems to me that it could be even more fun to see how creative we can all be.

Sneak preview:

There is always a lot of painting of wooden things here at this time of year ;).

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Enough with the Gadgets ... well, almost

I'm not usually a gadget kind of person. Don't get me wrong. I like gadgets. They're fun, and the first time I used an actual bread knife to cut a loaf of homemade bread rather than the steak knives I, pretty much, used for all cutting tasks, I realized the value in having the right tool for the job.

I've baked on top of my woodstove using inverted kettle, and yes, it worked, but I really like using the Dutch oven better. I think it's faster. I think it also gets hotter (although I haven't tested it). Both do the job, but it's a matter of, as above, the right tool for the job, which makes the job, easier, overall.

So, we have a lot of tools and a few gadgets, even. Like the several solar/dynamo radios - all of which also have USB ports for charging phones and/or iPods. One of our solar radios will even charge the Kindle (not that I'm a fan of e-readers, but there are other things we can do on it, like accessing email and watching Season 1 of Homeland while I was traveling last summer).

As such, when I saw the headline, Six Human-Powered Gadgets, I was intrigued and at the same time a little repelled.

I read the article anyway, and while I say "I'm not usually a gadget kind of person", I will admit that I swooned a little over some of them. I mean, a flashlight that works off body heat? I think my daughters need those.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Book Deals

For a limited time, Deus Ex Machina and I are offering a package deal on our books, Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs and Browsing Nature's Aisles. Get both books, autographed, for only $30 with free Priority shipping via the USPS anywhere in the US (sorry, no international shipping this time :( ).

We have a PayPal link set-up for your convenience, but please order earlier rather than later if you want to take advantage of this deal. We have a very limited supply of the books, and the offer ends on December 14.

Remember, books make a great gift, and there's nothing so wonderful as giving friends and family the gift of self-sufficiency.

Happy reading!

Click here to take advantage of this limited-time offer.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

It snowed

On Thanksgiving Eve much of the northeast was pummeled with a huge snowstorm. I say that with a bit of tongue-in-cheek, because only a few days before this, parts of Upstate New York really were pummeled with snow in a storm that put more snow on the ground than most people are tall. They had an emergency. With less than 12" in most places, we had a bit of inconvenience.

What made this snowstorm seemingly newsworthy was the fact that it was a very heavy, wet snow - which is actually kind of typical for this time in the season. The first few snowstorms and the last few snowstorms are always that heavy, wet stuff that no one likes to shovel, and it's the best snow for making snowmen and snowballs, because it's the kind of snow that really sticks together.

I heard, once, that the Inuit people had multiple words for snow, which makes sense, because snow has different characteristics depending on the time of year, the temperature, and the humidity in the air. But I digress.

On Wednesday night, our electricity blipped off. No one panicked, because, well, there's nothing to panic about. It's just electricity. It's not like the roof caved in.

We lit some candles, stoked up the woodstove, and pulled out the Scrabble board. No electricity? Family game night! Woot! After an exciting hour of word-smithing, I decided to see if I could get the mobile hotspot on my phone to work and was able to successfully connect my laptop to the Internet. I didn't stay on for very long, because I wanted to save my batteries.

Big Little Sister and Little Fire Faery treated us to some music. What's that commercial? Instruments = $$. Music lessons = X dollars per month. Private concert = priceless. Beautiful voices raised in song accompanied by an acoustic guitar with the fire in the woodstove crackling the background was perfect. It's exactly what every summer camping trip is all about - getting off the grid and just enjoying the moment.

Thanksgiving morning, we woke up and there was still no electricity. We made coffee and fed the dogs and cats. The girls went out and took care of the animals outside. I turned on my laptop and connected up to the Internet for a couple of minutes.

Then, I cut a squash in half, took out the seeds, put one half in the Dutch oven with a bit of water, and put it on the woodstove to cook. I took the cranberries out of the freezer, put them in a pan with a bit of water and some sugar and put it on the woodstove to cook.

Deus Ex Machina plugged our on-demand propane water heater into the jumpstarter (ours is similar to this one, but not this exact one), and we took hot showers.

Big Little Sister had volunteered to walk dogs at the animal shelter on the holiday, and so Little Fire Faery, Big Little Sister, and I hopped in the car and drove up to the animal shelter. We charged our phones on the drive up and back. While Big Little Sister walked dogs, Little Fire Faery and I sat in the multi-cat room and petted the cats.

While we were gone, Deus Ex Machina prepared the bacon-wrapped rabbit, which we planned to have for dinner. Also on the menu was the wild turkey Deus Ex Machina took with his bow back in October. We decided to spatchcock it and cook it on the grill. He got that ready while the girls and I were at the animal shelter.

The grandbabies showed up around dinner time. We lit the oil-lamp wall sconces in the living room and a table top oil-lamp in the dining room.

Plus, we had some candles, which I've been collecting and purchasing whenever I find them at Goodwill. Another item that I've been collecting, partly for situations just like this one, but also for when we have our family parties, are "glow sticks". I can usually find them on clearance right after Halloween, and I buy as many as I can find. They're a lot of fun for the kids when they're playing nighttime hide-and-seek (also called "Manhunt") during the summer or when we have power outages. I like to have them for use in the bathrooms rather than leaving an untended candle, and they put off a surprisingly bright light.

We had our Thanksgiving dinner and cleaned up the dishes using water we heated on the woodstove. The girls ate all of the ice cream in the freezer, because it was starting to get soft. The girls played some games and drew some pictures. I did some reading by oil lamp. We all went to bed early. The grandbabies stayed the night and really enjoyed their glow-stick bracelet night lights.

Friday morning we woke up without electricity. We made coffee and fed the dogs and cats. The girls took care of the animals outside. I put the cast iron skillet on the woodstove and made some breakfast sandwiches. We went to music lessons. We stopped by the library. We came home. The girls folded clothes. I swept the floors and cleaned up the kitchen.

The electricity came back on around 2:00 in the afternoon on Friday. We had been electricity-free for about thirty-nine hours.

And nothing, really, about our daily lives changed. There was no emergency, and we didn't sit, fearfully huddling in a cold house and waiting for someone to save us.

We joked with the librarians that, of course, this power outage wasn't an issue ... and since I wrote the book, if it were an issue, they would have to induct me into the Preppers Hall of Shame. The reality is, though, that even if I hadn't written the book (which is, really, just about how we live our lives anyway) that this power outage wouldn't have been any different for us than it was.

The power grid is fragile, and most of us have experienced a power outage at some point in our lives. Most of the time it's a blip and then the lights come right back on, but on more than one occasion, in the seventeen years I've lived here in Maine, the power has been off for more than twenty-four hours. For this reason, we have created a lifestyle that allows us to easily transition when the power goes out.

But it's not about having a 72 hour Bug Out Bag or emergency supplies. These things we have are things we use, and not *just* when the power goes out (except for the oil lamps, and pretty much, we only use those when there's no power). We heat with wood and during the winter, we often cook on the woodstove to save electricity. We use the jump starter battery to inflate our car and bicycle tires. We always use a French press for making coffee.

We have consciously moved away from complete dependence on the electric grid, because we have seen how fragile it is, and we wanted our home to be that safe place we could go to - no matter what.

It snowed on Wednesday, a typical, heavy, wet late fall snow that bowed the power lines and caused them to snap. We lived, our normal, every day lives, without electricity for thirty-nine hours.

And on the other side, with the exception of no longer rationing computer time, not much has changed.

**I linked to several products in this post - not as an advertisement, but to show those who might be curious what the things I mention look like. I am not an affiliate of any of the vendors to which I linked, and I will not get compensated if you choose to buy those products. If you're interested in purchasing any of them, I would recommend that you shop around your local area and find a local source ... barring that, find the best price you can ;).

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Best Survival Food ... ?

At the moment, we have five does and one buck. He's getting a bit long in the tooth, and so we're thinking, we might find a new buck in the spring and let EJ retire - the grand old father of many, many litters. Of our does, one is also retired. She had five or six litters (I forget) and was a good mama.

Overall, we've had a lot of luck with our rabbits. We just harvested our spring kits (we were a little later than we should have been), but the bonus of having waited was that they had much thicker hides, which makes tanning a little easier, and they were preparing for winter and had a really good store of fat. If we hadn't decided to jerky most of the meat, we could have made broth, as described in this blog post, and it would have been good with just refrigeration (or back in that unfinished room that is turning into our cold storage) for the entire winter.

There's a lot of talk these days about preserving and storing food. The prepper/survivalist groups have lots of advice about what to store. In the survival class I'm teaching at our homeschool co-op, there was a lesson about storing food. The recommendation is that there should be X pounds of food per person in each of several categories. There are also more abbreviated lists, like this one that lists the TEN BEST SURVIVAL FOODS.

I like reading the lists to see how well my family stocks up, and to be honest, sometimes I'm quite embarrassed to note that, if those figures are right, in a worst case scenario, my family would be in trouble.

Except that, we have never intended to be fully dependent on stored foods. Our goal is to have enough food to do us until the next growing season - so essentially, we need enough to get us through the winter. Every summer, we raise enough chicken for the year. Forty chickens at three meals per chicken for my family, will feed us for the entire winter, even if we only ate chicken, but that's not all we'd have.

A few years ago, we were gifted with several volunteer squash plants. I didn't know what they were, and so I just let the vines grow. By the end of the season, we had 180 lbs of Hubbard squash (which are a long storage winter squash with a texture and taste like very sweet pumpkin). Between the chicken and the Hubbard squash, if that's all we had, we would not have starved that winter.

Which is, pretty much, how we approach the whole storage thing. We try to store up enough stuff in season to get us through until the next season, and then, we supplement with treats from the grocery store.

The ten items to have is a good list, but when I see those lists, I always think, " ... and then, what?" What if those things are never available again, and once the items have been used up, they're gone? Then, what? If one has become dependent on that food item, and one can not replace it, then, what will one do?

My answer is to find replacements - things that I can use to replace the items that I may no longer be able to find in the grocery store.

Using the list provided, here are my 10 items to be able to grow or find in the wild:

1. Canned meat. The list recommends canned salmon, but since I don't live in Alaska, I would not have that as a staple on my list. Instead, we raise rabbits and chickens in the backyard. Instead of stockpiling cans of meat, I might be better served by stockpiling rabbit feed and hay so that I can feed my herd over the winter, and worst case scenario, I could put them out to pasture in the spring/summer and harvest winter feed for them while they're enjoying grazing. If I bred all five does in the spring, by fall, I could have - at least - twenty-five rabbits to harvest, which would be around 30 quarts of canned meat and, at least, twenty-five quarts of broth.

Instead: I don't recommend stockpiling foods that one can not readily replace without buying it. So, for me, stockpiling home-canned rabbit meat is a better option. That may not be the option other people take. My recommendation would be for you to look at what's in your area, and what you can, personally, procure in a worst case scenario. In addition to rabbit, living near the ocean means that we have access to a myriad of ocean creatures (including clams, which we learned to *correctly* harvest this year - and we have a great story in our book about the wrong way to harvest them :)). Use what you have.

2. Dried beans. Beans are cheap in the grocery store. Did you know that sometimes you can take those beans you get for $1/lb and plant them and make more beans? Try it. Take a bean from the package and put it in a plastic bag with a wet paper towel. If it's a viable seed, it should sprout. I do, actually, recommend beans, but better than stockpiling ones from the grocery store, is growing them. Black turtle beans are a bush variety, which means that they don't grow up a pole or need a trellis ... which means that even people who live in an apartment can grow them in a sunny window. One bean can yield as many as twenty pods of three to five beans each.

Instead: Don't just stockpile them. Grow them. Next to lettuce, beans are probably the easiest thing in the world to grow.

3. Brown Rice. I wouldn't stockpile rice, for a lot of reason. In particular, brown rice is not a long storage item, as it can go rancid. If one is planning to stockpile rice, white rice is a better option. Unfortunately, white rice has very little nutritional value, but it is good for bulking out a meal and it's incredibly versatile. I'm not saying don't have rice, but unless one lives where it can be grown (and there are, actually, some people who grow rice in Vermont, and so, "where it can be grown" could actually be amended to read "where people are actually growing it").

Instead: There are some grain options other than rice, and when determining what to stockpile, again, keep in mind your personal situation. Instead of rice, we stockpile (and grow) corn - not the sweet, corn-on-the-cob corn, but rather field corn or popcorn. This is the corn that's ground into Masa Harina and made into tortillas, or popped for eating with butter and salt.

4. Bulk nuts. I don't know how many times I have to say it. Here's the rub. I love almonds, especially roasted and salted. I also love pistachios, and pistachio is my favorite ice cream flavor. Unfortunately, neither of those nuts are particularly hardy where I live, and so, I don't stockpile them. They're good to have - for a while - but then, what?

Instead: I made a discovery, quite by accident, last fall. I discovered that black walnuts can grow and thrive in my climate. I discovered this, because the animal shelter, where my daughter volunteers as a dog walker had this tree I couldn't identify that was dropping these odd looking pods. As I am always on the lookout for wild foods, I took a bunch of pictures of the tree's leaves and picked up several of the fallen pods. As I walked around the tree, I found a few of the pods that had been broken open, and I realized it was black walnut! Very cool! We also have hazelnuts, and roasted hazelnuts, we discovered during our Starving Sundays ... er, Foraging Sundays ... last summer, are D.E.L.I.C.I.O.U.S.! Roasted hazelnuts turned out to be one of my favorite foods last summer, which is good, because we have a plethora of wild hazelnut bushes around our suburb, and we planted two in our yard.

5. Peanut Butter. Oh, what a messy can-of-worms! My daughter's favorite food is peanut butter. I love peanut butter, too, and it's a good food. Unfortunately, peanuts don't grow where I live, and so, we could buy dozens and dozens of jars of peanut butter, but ... well, you know.

Instead: There are some really great options for nut/seed butters. Two really excellent options are sunflower butter and pumpkin seed butter. Not only are both packed with vitamins and minerals, but they are also easy to grow in small spaces. Instead of stockpiling peanut butter, I'll grow a few Hubbard squash, and after I've saved a few of the seeds (from the biggest squash), I'll take the rest of them and either roast the seeds as a snack, or grind them up for a delicious alternative to peanut butter.

Oh, and pumpkins, while not native (exactly) to my area, grow well here and have a very, very long history as a food by the indigenous people of the northeast.

6. Trail mix. Actually, this one feels redundant to me. Most trail mixes I've seen are about 60% nuts and 40% dried fruit or other (chocolate candies are popular). If I'm already stockpiling bulk nuts, it doesn't make sense to stockpile trail mix, too.

Instead: While I wouldn't stockpile commercial trail mix, I would make my own, which means I would want dried fruit, but instead of buying a lot of dried fruit, I would dry it myself. Here in Maine, we have a huge wild blueberry crop, cranberries are native, and wild apples are just about everywhere we look. We can gather and dehydrate all of those for use later. Apples are also a long storage crop and depending on the variety can be kept fairly fresh for months. Other fruits can be pureed and dehydrated into fruit leathers or made into jams - like blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries.

7. Energy Bars and Chocolate Bars. I have no argument against storing chocolate except to say that chocolate bars are not really a long storage item. I know it's crazy, but I've actually had chocolate that is old in my house. Crazy, right? Who keeps chocolate bars around long enough for them to be considered old? It's still edible, but since aesthetics is a good percentage of our appetite, it's just not as good once the chocolate bar starts to bloom.

Instead: I like chocolate as much as the next person ... well, maybe. I like it, but I also recognize that it is a real luxury, and also that real cacao is nothing like that sweet confection we call "chocolate." In fact, historically chocolate was not a sweet, but a savory. Unfortunately, milk chocolate is a stable in the American diet, and it is one of those feel-good foods. Some people even claim to crave chocolate. Of course, food experts will tell us that a food craving usually doesn't mean we need that food, but rather that we are deficient in some vitamin or mineral. Chocolate cravings indicate a magnesium deficiency. Luckily, the "cure" for chocolate cravings will already be in your stores if you follow the other six items above, because you'll have: dried fruits, seeds and beans. So, while we might like to think we need chocolate in our stores, the reality is the "then, what?", because in most of the world, chocolate is not a native plant species, and we'd just be teasing ourselves having it around.

8. Beef jerky. Again, no argument, but I will take umbrage with the idea of buying commercially made jerky.

Instead: Buy a cow share or buy a large, reasonably priced roast and cut it into thin strips. Marinate it and then dehydrate it yourself. It's cheaper and infinitely healthier than buying commercial jerky. My favorite marinade is the Taj Mahal flavor from this site. As a side note, one can also safely jerk other meats, including rabbit.

9. Coffee/Instant Coffee. Um, yeah. If the world turns upside down and Dunkin' Donuts goes the way of the DoDo, Big Little Sister is going to be in a bad way. Me, too, actually. I like my coffee (not necessarily Dunkin's, but, you know, my French press coffee in the morning). Unfortunately ... yeah. Are you asking, what in the hell will grow in Maine?

Instead: You know what grows in Maine? Dandelions. Lots of dandelions, and not only does dandelion root tea really and truly taste like coffee (I wouldn't lie to you), it's actually much better for you. In fact, the whole dandelion plant can be used. The original article talks about coffee as a barter item, and I won't disagree, except that if I have coffee, I'm not trading it. I will suggest, however, that dandelion wine would also make a very good barter item, and I have also made dandelion Kahlua. Just sayin', coffee = good, but not as a long-term TEOTWAWKI storage item. Stick with what you can replenish.

10. Sea vegetables/Powdered Super Greens. I think most people wouldn't even know what to do with these if they did have them stored, but I will suggest that they be considered as a potential storage item with the caveat - DON'T GO OUT AND BUY THEM. Good grief! I could just gnash my teeth at all of the suggestions of things we need to buy for our food stores. The incredible bounty that is all around us ... often FREE for the taking ... is just astounding.

Instead: See, I'm not going to argue that dehydrated greens really are a super food, because gathering and storing greens is actually a regular part of our routine. We gather and dehydrate a lot of wild greens, but we also grow (or buy from local farmers) kale and chard and other greens that we dehydrate and then store in a jar. This is added to soups over the long winter. I'm not going to say don't have stored greens, but I am going to suggest not paying health food store prices for something one can easily produce in one's kitchen from harvesting dandelion greens, nettles, and kale right outside the door.

I highly recommend storing food. In fact, everyone should always have a minimum of three weeks of food - six months is better - not because the zombie apocalypse might happen tomorrow. Not even because we live in Maine and a snowstorm is predicted for tomorrow (although the 3" to 6" of snow won't even keep us housebound - not like the basketball-player height snowstorm in Buffalo recently). One should always have some stored food, because anything can happen, and does. There might be a snowstorm. There might be a riot. There might be a pandemic with mandatory quarantine. We might just find ourselves unemployed for a few months and unable to spend much at the grocery store. Or, we might just want to eat local food and the best way to keep our diet more interesting and most healthful is to learn to preserve and store food when it's in season.

The last one is the motivation I have for storing food, and it's always why I seldom recommend the buy-canned-food-by-the-case method of food storage. First, since my family doesn't eat canned foods, it doesn't make sense for us to store large quantities of it; and second, in a worst case scenario, once I use up all of those cans of Campbell's chicken soup, if I haven't figured out how to make my own (and an emergency is not a good time to start learning those skills. Just sayin'), things might get dicey.

When it comes to storing food my recommendations are:

1. Eat what you store and store ONLY what you ALREADY eat.
2. Store only what you can replace without having to depend on the grocery store.

It's that simple.

Now, excuse me while I go hide those chocolate bars ... just kidding. Maybe.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

5 Simple ways to reduce dependence on oil

I've been reading and listening to the Peak Oil Crowd for a very long time, but it's not just that I've been mislead by a group of doomsayers. I've also read reports by organizations, like, the Energy Commission and other reputable sources who talk about things like, the fact that worldwide oil reserves are decreasing.

One doesn't have to read those reports, however, to understand that our days of having an over abundance of this amazing stored energy are limited. Look at the great state of Texas and witness the vast numbers of dry oil wells. Witness the fact that our geologists found the Bakken Tar Sands in the Dakotas decades ago, but the cost of extracting oil from tar sands is too high to be profitable when oil is just gushing out of the ground and can be collected in mason jars.

There's no more oil gushing out of the ground and easily collected in anything that will hold a liquid. All of those vast reserves that made millionaires out of share-croppers and spawned such television classics as The Beverly Hillbillies and gave rise to the wish, "when I hit oil in my back yard", which was the yesteryear way of saying, "when I win the lottery", are used up now, burned up in our cars and consumed like candy on Halloween.


We can't get it back, and while the tar sands are providing a usable product, the extraction process is both more environmentally degrading and much more costly. In fact, in order for it to be profitable for the tar sands developers, the price of oil per barrel needs to stay around $60. The days of sub $1 per gallon for gasoline are very much long over, and in fact, if the tar sands developers have their way - which they will - the price for gasoline will go right back up to $3/gallon, $4/gallon or higher. As long as we are dependent on oil - either foreign or domestic sources - we will be at the mercy of those people who bring it to our door.

And the Keystone XL Pipeline will do nothing to reduce our cost for gasoline at the pump. The only ones who will benefit from the pipeline are the 50 people who will have full-time, permanent employment and the developers/owners of the tar sands operations - probably the same people. There will be, an estimated, 47,000 jobs available during the construction phase, after which, those 41,950 who aren't part of the group that gets to keep their jobs, will be out of work. Worse, communities through which the pipeline runs will have to provide support for the workers in the form of housing, retail outlets, education facilities, utilities, and other infrastructure. During the build-out, communities will grow exponentially, nearly overnight, as workers relocate to their new jobs, and almost as quickly all of the *new* put into place to support the increased population will be left to rot as the people move on.

I don't know about the rest of you, but I've lived in communities where finite resources were mined as if they would last forever, and where employment was always feast or famine - one has a job making $40,000 a year for three months, and then, the rest of the year, that person is on unemployment or other welfare benefits. The private companies do not cover the cost of those benefits. The community does. YOU do. Can we really afford to foist that Yo-Yo economy on those communities through which the pipeline will run?

Regardless of that, however, everyone knows that the oil supply is limited. We all know, and if we don't, we're being willfully ignorant of the facts of what oil is. There is a limited quantity, and when it's gone, it's gone ... kind of like my bank account balance. I can't spend what isn't there.

I am completely against the Keystone XL Pipeline, and not just because of the guaranteed environmental degradation. I'm against it, because it is simply one more Band-aid solution to a much greater problem. In proposing this pipeline, the proponents hope to continue this masquerade that our oil-centric lifestyle can simply continue indefinitely.

Or, they just don't care about the future, as long as their present is warm and cozy and they can keep driving wherever, whenever, they wish.

The Iroquois Nation followed the philosophy that what they did today would have a direct impact on seven generations into the future. Their actions were guided by this principle, and when they discussed building projects, they would keep that in mind.

How will this Keystone XL pipeline affect seven generations into the future? If we start with my generation, it might benefit us, the forty-somethings, by giving us a few more years of what James Kunstler calls "Happy Motoring." My children will see a very rapid decline in available resources (because we're already seeing it, now, if we're paying attention - and it's not just oil, but also water and arable land ... and even air, in some parts of the world). My grandchildren (and I already have four of them) might need to ride bicycles most places.

That's three generations, and while we will all, probably, more or less still be living much as we are, there will be less of everything, and there might be a lot more conflict over the fair division of what's there than we are seeing now. There are already resource wars being waged on the African continent, and while not (yet) violent, we are even having wars - of a sort - over water resources in the United States - and not just in the arid southwest.

Five generations from me, my grandchildren's grandchildren, will live in a very different world than we live in, and what we do today can make it much better, or much worse. It's up to us.

The first step is to reduce our dependence on finite resources, and perhaps funnel the use of those resources into something that will benefit the whole, rather than the few. Unfortunately, most of us average folks have very little control over what happens to those resources. We can't all change the world, but we can change our tiny piece of it, and one very simple start is to remodel our lives so that we use less.

Following are 5 steps for reducing our personal dependence on oil.

1. Grow more food. The agricultural industry uses an incredible amount of oil from use of petroleum-based fertilizers to needing to operate machinery to irrigating huge fields of monocrops. By having a garden, even a very small, container garden and composting kitchen wastes to build organic soil, we could eliminate half the fuel needed to operate these farms. Grow anything. It's easy, it's healthier, it's a lot of fun, and it's incredibly empowering.

Oh, and it increases one's food security, which is very comforting.

2. Drive less. The transportation industry here in the US (which also includes transportation of food and other goods from one corner of the continent to the other) accounts for more than 80% of the fuel we use in this country. Right now, Deus Ex Machina and I are sharing our one car between two drivers and five people. In the past, having two cars, meant that, if we just wanted to run to here or there, it was really easy and thoughtless. Having one car means our trips out need to be a lot more careful. We were able to cut back classes/events for our daughters to three days a week, which means that we have to take Deus Ex Machina to work on those days, but on the other days of the week, he takes our one car, and if we have to go somewhere, we have to walk or bike. We're still transitioning, but it's actually kind of exciting to figure out how to juggle our schedules to make it all work.

3. Buy Local . This goes with #2 above (and probably #1, too). By purchasing local goods - and I don't mean goods shipped to local vendors, but goods that are actually produced locally, we eliminate some portion of cost of transporting stuff. It may mean that we don't have as many choices, especially of food items (because certain things don't grow well in certain environments - folks down south will have fewer apples, and folks in the north won't have oranges - we'll all adjust), but really, not having oranges all year long, on a whim, is a very small sacrifice to make for my grandchildren's grandchildren.

4. Buy Less. Most of us have everything we will ever need for the rest of our lives with very few exceptions. Things do wear out and need to be replaced - even in the most sustainable traditions - but none of us need as much as we have. Especially this time of year, there is a huge temptation to purchase. more. stuff, but none of us need it. Instead of buying stuff, maybe we could make an effort to give memories in the form of experiences. Our local theater offers Flex Passes, which would make a wonderful gift. There are so many things people can do, instead of the things they can get, and I guarantee a ticket for some event the recipient loves is going to be a lot more cherished than another silk tie.

5. Reuse. We all have as much stuff as we will ever need, but too often we don't see the potential in an item we no longer feel has a use. The other day, I was preparing for a literature class I'm teaching. The pattern has been to discuss the book and do a project based on the book we read. In a recent book, the character's mother operated a small store where she sold handcrafted items made from repurposed or reused materials. For the project, I had the girls make friendship bracelets from an old pair of pajama pants I cut into strips. Just because they couldn't be pajama pants anymore doesn't mean they no longer had value.

Anything we can do to reduce our personal consumption is a step in the right direction, and the five actions above are really low-hanging fruit. There are dozens of other things one could do, that might take a bit more effort, to use less.

What's your favorite way to plan for the 7th Generation?

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Sustainable Kitchen

I read this article on 13 Kitchen Rules You're Probably Breaking. Sometimes the articles, like this, are almost condescending in their very simplistic recommendations. Sometimes, I wonder, who still lives like that.

That, and also, it seems like they're really stretching to get in more "rules." Like, sometimes, it seems like they could combine rules. #11 and #12 could just be "Check appliance filters." #8 just seems like fear-mongering. The problem cited in the article with dish towels and dish sponges was pretty much the same.

Based on the assumption that people might, really, be making these mistakes and in an attempt to make the suggestions more eco-friendly, I decided to write my own version, but, unfortunately, I don't have 13 items. I only have 9.

Here are my Nine Tips for Avoiding Common Kitchen Mistakes and Making One's Kitchen more Eco-Friendly.

1. Don't have a dishwasher (while there is still a debate about water usage in hand washing versus machine washing, the fact is that dishwashers still use more electricity than hand washing, which makes the latter more eco-friendly in the long run).

2. Eggs, actually, don't belong anywhere in the refrigerator - at least 'fresh' eggs don't. Eggs have a natural coating when they come out of the chicken's oviduct that keeps bacteria from getting into the egg, and it's only by washing them that the bacteria gains access. A newly laid, unwashed egg, will stay fresh on the counter for three weeks.

3. Toss the sponge and use a washcloth for dishes and general cleaning in the kitchen. Knitted ones from leftover yarn or from repurposed old t-shirts are both eco-friendly and sustainable.

4. Knives and every other dish should be hand washed in warm, soapy water ... and, actually, some kitchen tools should never be put into soap - like wood cutting boards and cast iron cookware. Wood does not harbor bacteria, and as long as the food is scraped off (under hot running water), there's no danger of contamination (but for the squeamish, it might be worthwhile to have TWO cutting boards - one for meat products and one for foods that will be eaten raw). Soap degrades cast iron.

5. While dish towels may harbor bacteria and washing them frequently is a good idea, seeing bacteria as our enemy is foolhardy. The fact is that there is such a thing as good bacteria, and contrary to what this article would like us to believe, eliminating all bacteria from our lives is not possible, and probably not advisable. In fact, we want some. We can minimize the risks associate with bad bacteria by making some smart choices. Air drying dishes is a good start. And just say no to bleach. Just. say. no.

7. The debate over the best way to brew coffee proved manual coffee brewing techniques to be superior to automatic coffee brewing methods. As such, how to clean the coffee maker is somewhat moot, and plus, a coffee press using water heated on the woodstove is far more eco-friendly than even the most efficient method of automatic coffee maker. If you want a good cup of coffee, hand brew it. You'll never put water in that automatic drip coffee maker again. Guaranteed.

8. Fix the leaky faucet, because it leaks and it's wasteful. Is there really need for a different reason?

9. In the interest of being sustainable and eco-friendly, maybe NOT using cleaning products at all is a better solution. Vinegar and baking soda are multipurpose, eco-friendly, and safe cleaning/sanitizing solutions.

If you were going to write an article about errors people make in the kitchen, what would you add/omit?

Gathering In

Even though we've had one snow event (a few flurries and some very light accumulation on grassy surfaces, already gone), it's not truly winter until the ground freezes hard. There is still much to do and still time to do it ... but we have to hurry.

We're looking forward to this quiet, contemplative time ... and hoping that things slow down a bit.

What is your favorite "getting ready for winter" chore?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Around the Homestead

The kitty is very happy that we started to woodstove.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Firsts for 2014

My blog often serves as a kind of public journal (and, actually, that's exactly what it is, right? A web log), and so many times over the years, since I started this journal, both Deus Ex Machina and I will scour one or the other of our blogs for information like, when we tapped the maples, how the garden did, or when we had our first fire.

I won't remember this information, and so I put it here.

The "first" fire is usually the day that we fire up the woodstove for the season. We've had a couple of fires this fall, on days when the house was damp and chilly, like when we had several days in a row of sub-50° and rain. It wasn't cold enough to start filling up the wood box, though, and mostly we've been burning scraps, foraged wood, or getting rid of the plethora of junk mail or documents we no longer needed to keep, but that should not just be thrown in the garbage.

This year has been odd, though. Usually, we'll hold out starting our first fire until right around the first frost. It's usually right about then that we need the fire regularly, because once the temperature dips, it usually stays low, for the most part.

Our first below freezing night was just a few days ago, and it wasn't terribly low even then, but since it's been raining for a few days, we filled the wood box and started the woodstove, and it's been burning since. We'll probably keep it going until spring.

We had our first snow of the season on November 2.

It's supposed to get back up into the 50's next week, which is good ... because I still need to finish painting the trim on my house.

And then, Jack Frost can move in until March ... with no complaint from me.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

I'd Like Change for my Dollar

Most people who've read my blog for any length of time know that I'm a stay-at-home mom. Well, actually, I guess technically, I'm a work-at-home mom.

A dozen years ago we called ourselves WAHMs. Lots of books were written about us, and we were considered the fastest growing industry in the country. I was even quoted in The Entrepreneurial Parent: How to Earn Your Living and Still Enjoy Your Family, Your Work, Your Life, and for a time, I had an online bookstore with a niche focus on offering information, articles and low-cost books that focused on working from home. It was one of my many home-based entrepreneurial projects.

I was so determined to stay home with my children that I worked really hard to earn, at least, what I would have earned, minus expenses (like childcare, transportation, extra food, clothing etc.) if I had an outside-the-home job. For the most part, at least for the last ten years, I've had a pretty steady income working from home, but even if I didn't, I would still be here, because over the years, we've developed a certain standard of living that is only possible because I am home full-time.

The problem with being home full-time, however, is that society often has a fairly negative view of us SAHMs/WAHMs. I've personally experienced the insurance industry's opinion when we applied for life insurance. I've written about it before, and we were able to find an insurance company that didn't care about my income, but was more than willing to take our monthly premiums and insure me at an amount that actually reflects our need.

It's not just the insurance industry, however. Last week, our President gave a speech to a group of Rhode Island college students in which he espoused those very ideas - that legislation should be passed to allow women to be "full and equal participants" in the economy, i.e. that women should not be penalized for being mothers (maternity leave), that wages should be more even between the genders, and that "quality, affordable daycare" should be made available so that women can get out there and make money without worrying about whether their children are receiving good care.

What bothers me most about the speech is that, whether intentional or not, President Obama is espousing the exact same mistaken idea that the insurance agent expressed - mothers who choose to stay home are not as valuable to our society as mothers who work.

This morning I found this article, and from the first few paragraphs, I began nodding my head, and by the time I was finished, I was nearly giving myself whiplash.

Yes! Yes! Yes!

All of the things that the author of the article cites as being beneficial to her family, but also more.

Because I'm home full-time, we were able to explore alternative lifestyles, like suburban homesteading. I was able to learn skills I would never have thought needed to be learned if I were working full-time, or even if I wanted to know those skills, I would have had less time to work at them. Soap making? Yeah, right.

My being home also improves our personal economy, because we can heat with wood, which would not be possible if we were gone for ten hours a day, five days a week. We would not be hanging the laundry on the line. I would not be cooking, from scratch, five nights a week, and our daughter, who cooks, from scratch, the other two nights, would never have learned that skill.

All of that aside, the problem is not really about my need to defend myself, but rather this continuing battle between those who work and those who don't. Having someone as influential as the President of the United States saying that we need more programs for working mothers (so that women can be "full and equal participants" in the economy) just encourages the idea that non-wage earners are less valuable.

More of the same old rhetoric of "more money will make everyone happier" is tiresome. As a veteran stay-a-home/work-at-home Mom, I know the value of having parents be home with their children, of finding a true work/life balance, of finding meaning and value in one's life outside of the need to make more money.

My being home may well be a luxury, for both me and Deus Ex Machina, but maybe, instead of wasting time trying to force legislation that makes more workers, we should be focusing on encouraging one-income families in which one parent stays home full-time (and it doesn't have to be the "mom". Dads can be awesome stay-at-home parents, too!). Maybe the answer isn't to put six million children in day care this year, but rather to find a way to allow six million parents to be home with their children.

Here's the video of President Obama's speech in Rhode Island.

For the record, this post isn't a defense of SAHMs or a criticism of working mothers, but rather a commentary on the fact that by placing all of our emphasis on the need to work, we are stripping ourselves of our independence and choice. Independence isn't having a job, an apartment and a car, but rather the ability to meet one's own needs, and I would never have cultivated the skills necessary to be truly independent, if I had worked a full-time job and put my kids in daycare.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Pumpkin is My Favorite Orange

This is the season of pumpkin, if you listen to advertisers. Everything is pumpkin. Go to a coffee shoppe and you can enjoy pumpkin muffins and coffee cake, and even pumpkin spice hot chocolate or coffee.

The other day I heard someone lament that there was no "pumpkin" in the pumpkin spice coffee from a popular national chain. Um, yeah, I'm huge fan of pumpkin, but, ew, not in my coffee. Further, they aren't advertising "pumpkin coffee." It's pumpkin spice, which means it's flavored to taste like our favorite pumpkin dish - pumpkin pie.

I told my daughter I could make her a pumpkin spice to go in her coffee at home - a little cinnamon, some ginger and a dash of nutmeg. If I'm feeling bold, I might sprinkle some cloves for a bit more kick.

It's not false advertising on their part, and the real criticism is not so much an absence of pumpkin, but rather the exorbitant calorie count when one includes all of the sugar, cream and whipped topping that accompanies that dessert in a cup pretending to be coffee.

I love pumpkin, but I'm not as enthusiastic about all of the pumpkin spice flavored things out there. Don't get me wrong. My favorite pie is pumpkin, especially if it's cold and has whipped cream on top. Yum!

But there are so many other ways to enjoy pumpkin, and I really love most of them as much as I like the pie ... and depending on the weather, maybe even more.

One of my favorite ways to enjoy pumpkin is in soup. I've recently discovered the spice, curry, and my favorite pumpkin soup would be curry pumpkin soup.

I also love pumpkin bread, especially canned. My daughters love it. The bread stays moist and fresh in the jars, and it travels well. It's become one of our favorite fall "fast foods" for those days when we're running from one class to another with errands in between.

I also like the cooked pumpkin, lightly mashed, drizzled with maple syrup and butter. Oh, my. It's a great side dish to spicy roast.

There are many ways we enjoy the pumpkin pulp, but we also value the seeds. Some of them, we'll save to plant next year, but most of them end up in the oven, roasted and eaten by the handful ... or tossed as a garnish on our pumpkin soup.

It's pumpkin season. What are you doing with this amazing fruit?

Easy Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

Seeds from one pumpkin or squash (for us Hubbard squash and pumpkin are interchangeable in most recipes)
Olive oil
Salt to taste*

1. Clean seeds of all stringy pulp.
2. Allow seeds to dry, not completely, but just so that they aren't sopping wet. You can use a towel to hasten this step, spread thinly on a screen for a bit, or even put them in the oven on a very low temperature for a few minutes.
3. Toss seeds with olive oil and salt.
4. Spread in single layer on a cookie sheet.
5. Roast at 350° for ten to fifteen minutes or until the seeds are golden brown.
6. Enjoy!

*Other seasonings can be added for a sweet or spicy flavor. Our favorite is just salted and roasted, but occasionally, we'll add a dash of cayenne for a fun zing.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Abolish Daylight Savings Time

In an industrialized society, nature is always wrong. Humans are always better at it than nature. We're so much smarter, in fact, that in 1895 some wicked smaht human in New Zealand decided that we could, in effect, outsmart nature to give ourselves more daylight hours than nature naturally provides.

And Daylight Savings Time was born.

Eventually, everyone in the world caught on to this amazing idea, and after decades of manually setting clocks backward and forward depending on whether we were springing forward or falling back, clock manufacturers and makers of electronic devices that included LED clocks (like VCR's - relics, right? - and microwave ovens) thought to make things easy for us by programming those devices to spring and fall for us.

Some humans are smart ... you know, like the one's who believe themselves to be in charge. The rest of us are so stupid, we can't even manage to program our own clocks. Thank goodness someone had that brilliant idea.

But, then, of course, so that we wouldn't get too complacent or think that we had any control over anything, in 2007 someone in authority decided to standardize Daylight Savings time so that it begins on the second Sunday in March and ends on the first Sunday in November.

What that means is that all of our pre-2007, pre-programmed clocks are wrong.

I woke up this morning already an hour behind, because my clock told me it was one time, but it was actually an hour later.

Thanks everyone.

And next week, we get to do it all again. Yippee!


Daylight Savings Time is an obsolete idea, and not only that, but there have been numerous studies showing the negative health effects caused by this unnatural interruption in our circadian rhythms.

At this point, it's a nuisance, but it can also be detrimental health-wise.

For reference here are a few articles that discuss the health aspect of Daylight Savings Time:

Daylight Savings Time Messes with Your Body Clock

Daylight Savings Time Disrupts Humans' Natural Circadian Rhythm

Daylight Savings Time May Increase Risk of Heart Attack

One of the reasons Daylight Savings Time was encouraged was the belief that more daylight hours would increase economic growth and human productivity. In this day of electric lights everywhere and online shopping, having longer store hours seems a little less necessary, and in fact, some recent studies suggest the opposite - that Daylight Savings Time actually has a negative impact on the economy.

Isn't it time we reevaluated this arcane practice and abolished this springing and falling each year? Seems like we have a lot more important stuff to worry about than whether or not we remembered to set our clock ... like urban farmers who are losing their right to grow sustainable food.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Alternative Energy

I've been fascinated by alternative energy options for a long time. My favorite alt energy system is the biogas digester, because it uses a fuel that is waste for most people (and, yes, the biogas digester can be fueled with humanure).

What's fascinating to me is that one of the complaints about our feedlot system is that there is no safe way to dispose of the copious amounts of waste, and I often wonder why they aren't using that waste to power the local community ... but that's another post.

My ideal solution for powering my home would be a combination of solar and wind to charge a battery bank for our electricity and biogas for water heating and cooking.

Ideally, we'd modify our existing septic system to be a biogas digester, but I'm actually told that's not possible, because the septic system is designed so that there isn't a gas build-up, and gas build-up is exactly what one wants with the biogas digester.

I've seen several videos on YouTube for DIY biogas digesters. Most of them are clumsy and messy looking, but this one was actually neat and tidy. What was also compelling about this design and model was that:
1. a woman assembled it; and
2. the woman filled it wearing a white shirt.

I think I could actually build one of these on my own. The set-up is pretty simple, and we, definitely have the fuel.

We couldn't use a biogas digester here in Maine for most of the year. In order for the microbes to work at breaking down the fuel and turning it into gas, the temperature needs to be around 64°F (or >18°C). Basically, I wouldn't be able to use it right now, because it's too cold - but given that my goal would be to use the biogas for cooking, primarily, it would actually work out perfectly for us. During the winter, I cook on the woodstove. During the summer, I cook inside on our electric stove, and we notice a marked increase in our electric bill during the summer.

The point is that I need an alternative cooking fuel more during the summer than during the winter, anyway. It would be worth it to have the digester for the free cooking fuel, even if we could only use it from May to September.

How about you? Would you build a digester? If not, what's your preferred alt energy?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Good Supplies to Have ... Another List

I frequently link to the 100 Items to Disappear First list. In fact, this post is the sixth post with the link. I'm probably posting it once a year, at this point.

The list was written by a war survivor, and it is things that they found became scarce quickly when supply lines are severed. I've always kept that list in mind when considering what things I want to have in my house.

There was a time when I would get really stressed out about what I didn't have, about gaps in my storing of the things on the list, and when that started happening with too great a frequency, I started to look at the list differently. Instead of trying to ensure that I have all of the things - in quantity - that are on the list, I started to think about alternatives. Like can openers. I have a can opener, even though I don't buy much canned food from the grocery store anymore, but I also have this handy little tool called a P-38. It's on my keychain. It's a manual can opener.

Other things I've just decided that I don't need, anyway, and I've learned to live without them. Like paper towels. I, actually, stopped using paper towels back before it became the "green" thing to do, because I hated the waste and the expense. We use cloth napkins at the dinner table, and we use cloth washcloths and towels in the kitchen. I repurpose old towels for rags that are used for wiping up spills and other cleaning tasks.

I also learned to make cloth feminine hygiene products, and I actually use them (I know, TMI. Sorry about that). We haven't made the leap into cloth toilet wipes, yet, but in a worst case scenario, we have plenty of old, too-stained-or-ripped-for-Goodwill clothes that can (and will) be repurposed.

I repost the 100 Items list frequently, but I also enjoy looking at other lists. This one of 50 Items You Forgot to Buy is a good, concise list. I like the explanation of why the author feels that each item should be stored. There are some pretty practical suggestions, several of which I also recommend in my book. Like books, games and musical instruments.

We have 37 of the 50 recommended items, but some of the items I just won't ever have.

I don't have, nor do I recommend, instant coffee. The reason the author recommends instant coffee is the possibility that the coffee maker won't work, but my family doesn't use a coffee maker. We use a French Press, and so, as long as I have hot water, I have brewed coffee.

My bigger concern would be not having coffee at all, because, where I live, coffee is always, and will always be, an import. Coffee beans don't grow in my climate.

Remember, I mentioned that these lists prompted me to think of alternatives? There is an alternative to coffee - at least with regard to taste - and it is available to me ... and most people that I know. Roasted dandelion root does, really, taste like coffee - without the caffeine. Dandelion is incredibly healthful, too, and if one is already drinking decaf coffee, switching will lose one none of the flavor, but will gain one all of the health boost.

The one thing I do like about the lists is that it's not just about prepping. Some of the recommendations are just good things to have on hand anyway, because they're things we often use on a regular basis. Getting an extra at the grocery store doesn't cost a lot and doesn't take up a lot of space.

From a preparedness point of view, I didn't actually understand the umbrella, but I don't really think it's a bad thing to have. Not really. It's practical and can be useful, and really, it doesn't take up much space. So, why not?

Eventually, we'll run out of the consumables on the lists, but things like the musical instruments, which my family already plays, the board games and the books - we won't, ever, use those up, and even without TEOTWAWKI, having them does make our life nicer.

I should also add that sometimes the alternative is not to change the thing, but rather to change how we acquire it. Like, maybe, it's not something one has to buy, but something one can make ... like the checkers board pictured above. I made the board using an old piece of plywood and a sharpie marker. The pieces are painted lids. No one ever said that we had to spend money on all of our supplies. Creativity is definitely welcome ... and encouraged :).

Based on the 50 Items list, how prepared are you?