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.