Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Guess What We Did Last Summer

This summer, like the rest of my life, was busy, but as always, in good ways. 

It was also a milestone summer for my newly adult, formerly-homeschooled daughter, whom you all have come to know as "Big Little Sister." 

She graduated from our homeschool last May, and with no plans to go to college, she found a full-time, summer job.  Then, she found a full-time year-round job at a newly opened Rock Climbing gym.  She was one of their first employees.  A year and a half later, she is a manager in charge of their children's programs. 

While much of her youth was spent learning outdoor skills, she never really seemed to like it all that much.  She didn't complain, exactly.  That's not her style.  She would just not be interested.  So, we stopped forcing those types of classes.

Imagine our surprise then, when she applies for a job in an industry that promotes outdoorsmanship. 

But not only that, when she begins telling us her plans to hike the Appalachian Trail.  What?  The what? 

Can't get her outside on a beautiful sunny day to walk the dog ... plans to through-hike the Appalachian Trail by herself ... with her dog.

Aside:  Oh, did I mention that we adopted another dog?  She was small when we adopted her.  She's the second largest dog we have now.  If you're keeping count, the dog total is up to four.  That's almost one dog (all of which weigh over 40 lbs) per person. 
That's over 200 lbs. of dog I'm holding with one hand

And, then, she did!

Not all of it and not alone. 

Being fussy and nervous parents, we thought it would be best to encourage our daughter to do a test hike, before she committed to doing the entire Trail ... alone with her dog.  Plus, her dog sustained a pretty serious injury that resulted in surgery in the late spring, and it wouldn't have been good for her to be alone, with the dog, if the dog wasn't able to walk.  So, Deus Ex Machina took a couple of days off work and planned to go with her. 

In August, I drove with my family four hours north to Millinocket, Maine. Millinocket has the distinction of being in the vicinity of Baxter State Park, which is home to Mt. Katahdin, which is the end (or beginning, depending on one's starting point) of the Appalachian Trail.
Mt. Katahdin from the Abol Bridge
For Deus Ex Machina and Big Little Sister, it marked the beginning of their trek through what is, arguably, the most difficult section of the Appalachian Trail.  The terrain is pretty hardcore - even for seasoned hikers.  Most people start out down south, where the going is a bit easier and work their way up to this tough part.  My daughter says that 25% of northbound (NOBO) through-hikers finish.  Only 23% of southbound (SOBO) through-hikers finish.  But four times as many people start down in Georgia and come north.  I met a couple of NOBOs on the Abol Bridge when I was walking back to my car.  They shared some interesting information with me.   

It's not just the walking that's tough for the SOBO's, though.  Not only is the terrain up here in Maine challenging, but this section of the trail near Mt. Katahdin has been dubbed "The Hundred Mile Wilderness", because there is nothing - no towns, no shops, no lodging (mostly, more on that later), no resources for 100 miles.  In fact, signs caution hikers that they need to have with them 10 days worth of provisions.  Deus Ex Machina and Big Little Sister heeded that warning.  Their pack weight, combined, weighed more than she does.  

Starting at the Abol Bridge, they began walking south toward Monson, Maine.  The plan was for me to pick them up in Monson, which is the end of the 100 mile wilderness. 

A few things struck me as interesting in the fifteen minutes I stood at the trail head with them.

It's a busy place. In just that fifteen minutes, we met three other hikers.

As much as this sign (not the one we saw, because this is posted at the southern end of the 100 mile wilderness) cautions that there is no resupply, when we came up on the trail, we knew it was the beginning, because there was a couple sitting there with their truck. We didn't know why they were there, and it wasn't until after I spoke with the NOBO hikers I met on the Abol Bridge that I learned about "Trail Magic" (more on that later).

The point where Deus Ex Machina and Big Little Sister entered the Trail had no warning (although Deus Ex Machina told me that he saw the warning sign further down the trail). 

Sign near the Abol Bridge where I left DEM and BLS

Ready to go!
I was, at once, jealous, because they were getting to practice all of those survival skills we've been learning all of these years, and thankful that I didn't have to carry one-third of my weight on my back for 100 miles. 

I was also really excited for them.  What an adventure!

We were tracking them via a GPS tracking device, which turned out to be pretty interesting.  That part of Maine is both mountainous and very wet with lots of lakes and marshy areas that need to be walked around. 

In three days, they hiked thirty miles of the trail (which was about 10 miles "as the crow flies").

Then, the dog started limping, pretty badly.  Big Little Sister made the difficult call to leave the trail.

As luck would have it, there actually are some resources that the guide books don't tell you about.

One is called "Trail Magic", and basically, it's people who sit at areas where the trail crosses logging roads. They will have food and water - often hot meals - or comfort food items. 

So, wait ... the "Trail" crosses roads?!?  

When we envisioned the "100 Mile Wilderness", just the name evokes some secluded pathway through deep woods, barely seen by human eyes.  Make no mistake.  It's not a leisurely afternoon stroll.  It's tough going in many sections of the trail (especially with the equivalent weight of a first grader on your back), but the notion that there's nothing and no one for 100 miles is more mystique than reality.

Some other things  "they" don't tell you:

1.  During the summer, there is a steady flow of foot traffic, i.e. other hikers.  Deus Ex Machina and Big Little Sister ran into a lot of hikers and never spent one night alone at a campsite. 

2.  That part of Maine is a web of private logging roads.  Yes, it would be wicked easy for a person in a car to get pretty lost on those logging roads (yes, yes, I did), but for someone who is from the area, they're just like the roads I travel every day.  Those places become familiar. 

"They" also don't tell you that there are points where the trail is accessible from campgrounds.  Deus Ex Machina and Big Little Sister met an older couple who had walked from their campground to the Trail and were just taking a leisurely day hike (!?!). 

"They" also never mention that smack-dab in the middle of all that wilderness is a sweet, little, off-grid resort on a lake where hikers can get hot meals, take hot showers, and spend the night sleeping in a real bed.  This gem is called Whitehouse Landing, and that's where Deus Ex Machina and Big Little Sister decided to leave the trail - and where I picked them up after a Stephen King-worthy drive down winding, too-narrow, rutted dirt roads (road is a kind, if not entirely accurate, description) and a mile hike through woods, unsure if we were even going in the right direction. 

So, in the end, Deus Ex Machina, Big Little Sister, and the dog completed 32 miles of the 100 Mile Wilderness.

They learned lots of what-to-do and what-not-to-do, and even more about what to take ... and the extreme importance of weight limits *(which has translated into a very careful review of our "Bug Out Bag" lists).

They're planning to attempt it again next summer, and then, after they finish the 100 miles, Deus Ex Machina will come back home and Big Little Sister will continue on her way to Georgia. 

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Where I've Been

I haven't been around here much. 

But, even if I'm not writing about it like I used to, we're still doing the same old things we used to do, and about which I used to write a lot more prolifically than I am these days.  We're still trying to live frugally.  I still don't buy paper towels, although I still haven't convinced the family to switch to cloth toilet wipes ;).  I still use a clothesline, because I don't have a clothes dryer.  We still don't have a television and no cable TV (although we have the Internet, several lap top computers, and a subscription to Netflix).  We still have our chickens and our rabbits.  We still make maple syrup every year.  We still heat with wood and haven't had an oil delivery since 2008. 

Other things have waxed and waned.  I stopped making my own laundry soap for a while, because it was easier to just buy it.  The other day, we ran out of the store-bought stuff, and we made our own again.  It wasn't that much work.  Next time we run out, I'll make more. 

I had also stopped making my own deodorant, because the plastic container I had been using broke, and I bought a new deodorant, which I needed to use.  But then, I ended up having a reaction to the store-bought stuff.  I stopped using the store-bought stuff.  I'm back to making my own. 
We still have a garden, but it's been a little pitiful for the past two summers.  I still do some canning, but not nearly enough, and not nearly as much as I was. 

What I've learned over the past several years is that those Tiny House people have the right idea ... sort of.  The point of Tiny House living is to declutter one's life with the school-of-thought being that  living in cluttered surroundings hampers one's ability to function at his/her best. 

I've found this to be absolutely true.

A few years ago, during a particularly brutal winter wind storm, part of our roof blew off, and in the process of getting it repaired, we had to move out of one of the largest rooms in our house.  Our house wasn't big to begin with - 1500 sq ft, which is about 500 sq ft smaller than is average for a family the size of mine.  We have no basement, no garage, no attic and no outside storage building. 

When we were forced to move ourselves and all of our belongings out of that room, we didn't have the time or the stamina to organize and sort through things as we moved.  Instead, we just stuffed ourselves and our stuff into the remaining rooms, creating these mountains of belongings that just had no place.  It was supposed to be a very short-term thing.  You know.  A couple of weeks.

A few weeks have turned into a few years. 

The good news is that, since we moved into a smaller space, we've been a lot more stingy with what we're willing to bring into the house ... but we've also been a lot more selective of what we've chosen to keep.

The other unforeseen consequence has been that we've gotten a lot more organized. 

Previously, I had a tendency to fill  baskets and boxes with "stuff" that didn't have a real home and put them on shelves or in corners or on shelves in corners, and then forget they were there.  The other day, I decided to clean off a shelf, and I found several baskets full of odds and ends - game pieces, feathers, rocks,  plastic thingys the use of which I have long forgotten.  I found four containers with just crayons, pens, pencils, and markers, including a carousel-thing that I bought just for that purpose when my daughters were really young and used to like sitting at the table and coloring. 

We used to love going to the office supply store and getting "school supplies" every September - just like every other household.  The difference is that, kids in school take their school supplies to school, where they will get borrowed or broken or forgotten/lost Here at the Wyvern Academy (the name we gave our homeschool), things get broken and forgotten, but never, truly lost, and definitely not borrowed.  Most of what comes into the house stays in the house. 

One time, we had a whole drawer that was FULL of crayons.  Yes, we recycled our crayons by melting them, pouring them into molds, and making new crayons.  One can only do that so many times.  And when one is talking about POUNDS of broken crayons, sometimes the only thing to do with them is find someone else who wants them. 

The renovation wasn't supposed to take years, but we're trying to stay out of debt.  When one is DIYing it, trying to source free/reclaimed materials, and paying cash out-of-pocket, it tends to take longer. 

So, we're finally starting to get more organized.  Sorting things.  Getting rid of stuff we know we're not going to use (like the bazillion crayons).  Consolidating and paring down things we want to keep (like having ONE container with pens, pencils and makers with a designated place on the top of a bookshelf rather than nineteen baskets in various locations).  If it doesn't fit in our lives and it's still usable, it gets donated.  If it can be repaired, we fix it.  If it can be repurposed, we turn it into something else.  Some things just go into our garbage can.  Such is the way of life. 

For the last few years, I've been paralyzingly and frustratingly disorganized and cluttered, BOTH in my home and in my head. 

As we get closer to being able to move back into that room, we're also straightening, cleaning and organizing the rest of the house, and it's starting to look more open and more like a home rather than a storage unit. 

Hopefully, as we get less cluttered, I'll be better able to get back to doing some things I love ... like blogging about my amazing life as a homeschooling, homesteading, home-based Mom. 

I have some great stories to share about what life is like living in a "small house" with five people, four (big) dogs and three cats.  Fostering dogs.  Some further thoughts about stocking up on in ingredients rather than premade stuff.  Books I've been reading.  Maybe I can share some stories about our latest plays or what it's like being in a homeschool co-operative. 

As they say, life goes on ... and so it has. 

Monday, December 5, 2016


Fluffy, flakes falling
like icy puffs of cotton
the world purified.


I know I'm in the minority, but I actually like snow ... not because I'm into winter sports.  I don't, actually, like being cold, and it always takes me too long to remember how to dress appropriately for the weather.  So, I spend a few very uncomfortable weeks while I get it right in my head, and remember where I stashed all of my sweaters last spring (and replace the ones that went into storage a little too threadbare to continue wearing in public).

Growing up down south, I always longed for snow, which almost never came.  When it did, it was like a gift, and usually we got a "snow day."   

Or it was just pretty.  When I was in high school, I lived deep in the Appalachian mountains in a coal-mining community.  During the spring and summer, everything was green, and the trees were all leafed-out.  We never noticed the grit and perpetual dust-cover over everything.  Then, Fall happened, and the gray, bare trees coupled with the layer of gray coal dust made the world look bleak, stark, dirty ... and cold.  It was always cold.

Then, it would snow, and there's no error or irony in calling the snow a "blanket."  The snow covers the world in this pristine, whiteness that is solid and clean, making hard edges soft.  It's cozy ... and yes, warm. 

Having moved north, I have a greater appreciation for the snow than even I had back in those days. 

When it snows, the ground freezes, which means that my dogs don't track mud into the house.  For a few blessed months, the white linoleum in my kitchen and hall is actually white, and there's just less dirt, in general.  I like having to struggle less for my house to look neater. 

The snow, literally, provides a blanket for my home.  The snow piled up around the foundation of my house provides an insulative layer, which means it takes less energy to heat my house.  Since we heat with wood, it's really nice when we use less of it, because gathering wood for the winter is a lot of work.

And speaking of wood, most of ours is stored against the fence that separates our property from our neighbor's.  It's uncovered.  With the snow comes a very dry air, which keeps the wood dry, and everyone knows that dry wood burns more efficiently (and hotter) than damp wood.

The dry air also makes doing laundry easier.  We have no clothes dryer.  On nice days, year round, we put the laundry outside, but when it's cool and humid (like most of our Fall days here in swampy, southern Maine), clothes don't dry very quickly.  Even inside on the drying rack, if it's damp, the clothes won't dry.  The worst time of year for us is in the early fall when it isn't, quite, cool enough to have the fire going (which helps to dry the clothes), but the days are too short and too damp to dry the clothes fully outside. 

The only thing I don't like about the snow is driving on it, but as a Stay-at-home, homeschooling Mom, I have the flexibility to call my own "snow days."

Making Money

If you were to ask me what I do, I would tell you that I'm a stay-at-home Mom (SAHM).  I *do* a lot of things.  I'm a volunteer for several non-profit organizations and work about 600 hours per year for those groups.  I have published two books.  I work as a resource teacher for the homeschooling community.  Oh, and I homeschool my daughters, too, and teach classes to other homeschoolers.  I am a Notary Public.  I write fiction.  I blog. 

But when people ask that question, what they typically want to know is what is my job.  My job is being a stay-at-home Mom, and having done a lot of other kinds of jobs, I can honestly say that it's the best job I've ever had - certainly the one of which I am the most proud.   

I wasn't always a SAHM.  From 1985 until 1990, I was a married-with-children college student (both as an undergrad and a graduate student) and had a job outside the home.  From 1991 until 1997, I was a full-time working Mom.  From 1998 until April 2016, I was a work-at-home Mom (WAHM).  I've done most of the possible combinations of working and parenting. 

Because I've had so many varied experiences, it surprises me when I'm criticized for my current life choices.  Having been there and done that, I know what works best for me, and while I don't ever tell other people they should do it my way, I do share stories about my amazing life, and it IS an amazing life. 

Unfortunately, not everyone wants to hear about it, apparently.  A few weeks ago, I posted three articles about being a SAHM on Facebook.  The first was a Facebook memory from last year that was a link to an article written by someone else who asserted that having one full-time parent at home was a luxury, for the other parent.  Having been a full-time at-home parent for two decades, and having (personally) experienced the social prejudices against parents who don't earn an income outside the home, I posted the article, because it was all true, and it is a very rare occurrence that someone writes a piece that supports the notion that SAH parents are not only *not* a financial drain on our economy, but also an asset to their families. 

The other two posts were links to my personal blog discussing my personal experiences as a SAHM. 

None of the things I posted, in any way, criticized working parents.  None of what I (or the other author) wrote implied that parents were bad for choosing working over staying home, nor that staying home was an inherently better choice.  The point was to ask that society stop vilifying SAH parents as being lazy and worthless, and to consider that there might be some really positive benefits to having a stay-at-home parent.

Because I am a SAHM, and because I chose to share that fact on my Facebook wall, a twenty-something year old woman, whom I know through some of my volunteer work, who does not have children and who was raised by two working parents, unfriended me, after we had a brief disagreement regarding the issue.   

She said that it was her opinion that society discourages women from working.  I told her that my thirty-plus years of experience both as a working mother and a stay-at-home mother said differently and asked her to give me an example of how mothers are encouraged not to work by our society.

She said that mothers (especially low-income parents) are told how bad daycare is, and then, because they need to work to support their families, are made to feel like horrible parents when they send their children to these awful daycare environments. 

Um ... okay?  And that is demeaning working parents exactly how?   

First, no one is forcing parents to use day care.   I agree that day care gets a (perhaps, well-deserved) bad rap.  Kids get sick too much, because daycare centers are breeding grounds for disease.  There is, often, too high a child to teacher ratio.  In too many cases (with one being too many), predatory people end up being care providers.  Day care workers are often paid low wages, and there is a lot of turnover, which means that there is rarely a consistent care provider for children at an age when they are developing trust bonds and need to know that someone will take care of them.

However, being discouraged to use a daycare center is not equal to discouraging mothers not to work.

In fact, parents have options.  When I was a poor college student with children,  I couldn't afford to send my kids to a full-time daycare center.  I only needed a few hours of childcare per week, and so I thought a private care provider would be my best option.  I went through a series of terrible babysitters (one who ignored my children, and left my son in a shitty, wet diaper all day, because he "wouldn't let her change him"; one who stole from me; one who neglected my daughter's diaper which resulted in a very painful and very serious yeast infection). 

So, we did what I call "tag-team parenting."  That is, we parents worked our schedules so that someone was always home.  It's actually a lot easier than one would imagine, especially when one works the kinds of jobs that the typical low-income person works (fast-food, retail), which have multiple options for work hours.    With two-parent families, it is possible to have two jobs and not need daycare.  As such, to assert that our society discourages parents from working based on the argument that day care is bad is, well, wrong. 

And, second, the real problem with her argument is the assumption that one needs a job in the first place.  I will admit that some amount of steady income is necessary in our money-centric culture, but there is a very strong propensity in our society to believe that one needs a good deal more money than is absolutely necessary. 

Between 1998 and 2005, I spent a lot of time researching and writing about being a work-at-home parent.  With the rise of the Internet age, parents found a golden opportunity to leave the workforce and imagine life as a telecommuter or home-based entrepreneur.  Dozens of websites and half a dozen books were written on the topic prior to the dot.com bubble bursting, but even after the dot.com bust, there were still plenty of opportunities for people who wished to combine the work/home life.  Websites like Guru.com were developed during that era and are still being used today by freelance workers.  There are also brick-and-mortar companies who allow some employees to telecommute, because the Internet allows remote workers for many positions, and research during those early years proved that companies who employ telecommuting employees can save a great deal of money on infrastructure alone (i.e. cubicle/office space, desks, computers, etc.).   When I first started my home-based secretarial service, my motto was "I can do anything from my remote location that I could do in your office ... except file!" 

The articles I posted and to which my former FB friend reacted were not about working from home.  They were about being a SAH parent, but I mention all of that stuff about working from home, because during those early years, one of exercises I encouraged working parents to do when they began contemplating quitting their 9-to-5 and going home was to calculate the cost of them having a job.  It's an important first step toward understanding how much (or little, as the case may be) that we are actually bringing home when we work outside the home.

If a parent works 40 hours a week at $10/hour, s/he earns $360 after taxes, which works out to about $18,000 per year.  The average cost for daycare, in Maine, is around $10,000/year, which leaves a working parent around $8,000 for living expenses.

Most jobs require job-appropriate clothing - some of which is supplied by the employer, but most of the time the employee must provide some or all of his/her work-uniform.  If we use the US Army clothing allowance as a guideline for what we might spend on work clothes, the total for our wardrobe is $350 per year, leaving our working parent $7,650 of take-home pay. 

With the exception of people who are lucky enough to live in a walkable community, getting to and from work requires some form of transportation.  For the average person, this means a car of some sort.  As a collective, Americans owe billions in automobile loans, the average payment is $479/month, but we'll assume that our $10/hour parent is paying only half that. 

Of course, a car payment is only part of the cost of owning a car.  In addition, there are just the basic costs, including: regular maintenance, like oil changes and tire rotations; gasoline, which is absolutely necessary if one wishes to use the car; car insurance (which is required now in all 50 states) and registration (also required annually in all 50 states).  Even if we just assume the very basic needs of our cars (gasoline, insurance, and registration), the cost will be around $1600 annually ($500 for gasoline, assuming 24 mpg with a 12 mile per day commute, which is average for Maine;  $900 for auto insurance; and $100 for car registration), plus the $2874 for the car payment.  Our working parent is bringing home $3176 of income for the entire year.

"But wait!  There's more."

Working parents work hard and long, and it is very easy in our culture to succumb to the temptation of convenience.  Convenience is costly.  The average working American spends $2746 on lunch.

Which, at the end of the year, leaves our working parent a whopping $430 to live on - or about $35/month to pay for everything else - you know, rent, food, heat .... 

When I did this exercise with working parents, the point was to show them that, sometimes, their job is actually costing them MORE than not working would.  If all I needed to earn was the $35 month, I could be an Amazon.com Marketplace seller, or better, I could collect and return soda bottles.

The point of doing this cost analysis early in my SAH parent career was to illustrate that having two incomes isn't, necessarily, better, and that, sometimes, the job costs more than not working. 

These are the thoughts that were spinning around in my head when this young woman attacked me for my comments about the value of having a stay-at-home parent, and her insistence my lifestyle is a privilege most Americans can not enjoy.  

I thought about that.  Most??  And then, I did some looking up of numbers.  According to this calculator, the middle-class income range in southern Maine, where I (and this woman) live is between $36,000 to $110,000.  The average income in Maine is $51,000, which means MOST of us are middle class.  Her assertion that most people here can't have my lifestyle was wrong.  A few, perhaps, but not most. 

The problem is not how much (or little) that we make, but rather that we are constantly bombarded with the message of MORE.  It doesn't matter how much we make.  It's never enough - if we believe what our society tells us.

Deus Ex Machina is an electrical engineer.  Many years ago, he worked for a company that developed automation equipment, specifically for the CD manufacturing industry.  This was back when CDs were still kind of new, and DVDs were just starting to enter the market.  It was cutting-edge stuff and was very exciting. 

He'd invited us to the facility on a few occasions, and with great pride, showed us the machines, which were, in fact, pretty nifty. 

One day, after we'd been to his facility a couple of times, he asked our, then, four year old daughter, "What does Daddy make at work?" 

She replied, without hesitation, "Money." 

Out of the mouths of babes. 

I know a few folks who find their jobs incredibly fulfilling and life-affirming.  These people are the exception, rather than the rule, however, because most of us work to make money, and how very sad that is. 

My goal in posting the articles about being a stay-at-home mom was just to share the fact that I am not less of a person just because I don't "make money."  My "job" is to be a mother to my children and to create a comfortable, warm, safe home for my family.  No one pays me, in dollars, to do this job, but it is the most life-affirming and fulfilling work I have ever done.  I posted those articles in the hopes that, as a culture, maybe we could stop placing value on people based solely on how much money they make.

That I was criticized for that stance was deeply troubling.

But for that woman, I hope that, if she ever does become a parent and chooses to continue working, she does so because she loves her job, and that it is fulfilling and life-affirming, rather than a necessary evil so that she can "make money." 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

May You Live in Interesting Times

Having buckets of seed in the closet is like storing cordwood in the shed, food in the freezer, and rice in the pantry; it's a small insurance policy and a good way to keep food costs manageable. ~ Peter Burke, Year-Round Indoor Salad Gardening, p. 55. (Chelsey Green Publishing, 2015)

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day. As conversations often do these days, it drifted onto the topic of the upcoming Presidential election.

While I'm not entirely convinced that we have the worst candidates ever, I've seen some very pessimistic prophesies that predict a very rocky next four years regardless of which of the two candidates gets elected.

In the early days of our country, two individuals would vie for the position of POTUS. There was a winner and a runner up. The runner up became the Vice President. It seems that the practice was discontinued during Thomas Jefferson's presidency. Imagine if that were still the practice today: Reagan/Carter; Bush/Gore; Obama/McCain; Clinton/Trump.

So, my friend and I were discussing the election, and I related the story of this very pessimistic prophecy, stating that it's going to be interesting (like the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times"), and he said, "So, I should start stocking up."

We chuckled, and I observed that he had some good storage areas - garage, basement.

Then, I told him that, maybe, he didn't want to store up canned foods, but rather seeds, and maybe he should consider planting some apple trees on his expansive (suburban) lawn.

When I got home, I saw the above quote, posted by my friend on Facebook.

Store seeds.

Today, we went to our garden plot and found overripe tomatoes and some beans that would be better left to dry on the stalk, as they'd reached that stage of too tough for steaming or eating "green." The seed saving has begun.

My friend didn't dislike the idea of saving seeds, but he also commented that he'd be storing rum. Between our two families, we'll probably be in good shape ;).

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Wanton Consumption ... A Birth Right?

Every now and then, I hear something or read something in which the entitlement attitude is so strong that my entire body has an intensely negative reaction, and I have to remove myself from the situation lest violence ensue.

Not really. I wouldn't get violent, but I do want to yell at the speaker until he/she recants the statement and begs forgiveness from the non-human, unrepresented masses who suffer immeasurably from those very privileged and entitled feelings and sentiments. Or from the humans who have and still do suffer across the globe so that we, pampered citizens of the United States, can continue to bask comfortably in our artificially sustained, climate controlled environments.

My oldest and his family were visiting recently. He has been waiting until his son was old enough to take his family to the Boston Museum of Science, which he very much enjoyed seeing as a youth. So, we all went.

The museum is dynamic with the exhibits changing frequently, and most of the exhibits are interactive, allowing visitors to actually work on problems and find solutions, or just to learn through doing rather than just seeing. Last time we went, there was an exhibit on Ancient Egypt. This time, there was a pretty amazing exhibit on spiders. I also loved the living wall - three stories high and planted with nine different plants - most of which are typical household potted plants, and several I recognized as being good for cleaning indoor air.

One of my favorite exhibits, not surprisingly, is the one on energy, which talks specifically about renewable and low impact choices. There's an interactive display in which one is given six magnetic pucks and five energy choices: fossil fuels, solar power, hydro power, nuclear, and wind. The object is to choose the best combination to light up the city of Boston with the least environmental impact. We played with it for a while, and I was finally able to light up Boston using a combination of hydro, wind and fossil fuels. I was disappointed that in order to power itself, Boston still required fossil fuels.

Which is probably why, after coming home at the end of a wonderful, very educational day, and seeing this very entitled comment, I reacted so negatively. I had just come from playing with an exhibit that shows, at our current level of usage, there's not much chance that we, as a population, will ever be able to release ourselves from our dependence on fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas), and the more we insist on our own, personal comfort, the more we destroy this place on which we are wholly dependent for our lives.

I grew up in the coal fields, and witnessed, first hand, the destruction of not just the beautiful land, but also of the communities. I saw how the coal industry kills, not just the environment, but also the people, who become bent and broken and old before they reach my age. They live in perennial poverty and constant deprivation. It's heart-breaking.

We all know the destruction drilling for oil wreaks on the environment, especially when it's deep water drilling, which is, really, the only untapped oil fields we have left to pump dry. How many coral reefs and sensitive coastal habitats do we need to destroy before we say, "Enough! I'll learn other ways to stay cool during the summer."?

The environmental nightmare caused by fracking for natural gas is all over the news. Fracking has resulted in the contamination of huge areas of ground water. Here in Maine, we are currently in a severe drought. Out West, they've been experiencing a severe drought for the past ten years. Can we REALLY afford to poison anymore of our water so that we don't sweat during the summer?

In short, we are killing our world so that we can live with a year-round, indoor temperature of 75°.

The comment that put my knickers in a twist was a person railing against her electricity provider's recommendation that she set her air conditioner to 78° to save money on her electric bill, and her assertion that she was not going to die of heat stroke in her apartment by having the AC set so high. I'm pretty sure if one is just sitting, watching television, that 78° is not hot enough to result in heat stroke (but to that, maybe if one turns off the television - and all other heat producing appliances in the apartment, 78° wouldn't feel so hot ... just a thought).

And I thought of that display, and all of the coal it takes to keep her apartment cool enough for her (below 78°, presumably).

And I thought of the fact that I've given up a lot of convenience to save money on my electric bill and have a lower impact on the environment. I don't have an air conditioner. I don't have a clothes dryer. I don't have a television or a VCR or a DVD player or a stereo with a CD player. There's no microwave in my kitchen, or kitchen-aid, or toaster oven, and my dishwasher is a counter-top model made for a single person who lives in a tiny home. I don't have a gas-powered lawn mower. In fact, I don't even have a lawn mower. What little lawn I do have is cut using a battery-powered weed-whacker. It takes a week to "mow" my lawn, because each of the two batteries only has about 15 minutes of charge, and I only have one charger, and it takes a whole day to recharge the battery. Fifteen minutes a day, for a week = lawn mowed. Wash, rinse, repeat. For the whole summer.

I don't say any of that to pat myself on the back, but rather to contrast attitudes. I don't think I'm a paragon of virtue, but when it comes to energy usage, I don't carry the attitude that I deserve to be cooler simply because I exist.

Recently, I stumbled across an article about an Eco-cooler. It is made from discarded plastic bottles (hooray for repurposing!), and it works to cool a very small, indoor space. It was developed in Bangledesh, where the average temperature during the summer hovers somewhere around the level required to smelt iron. It's hot. It's humid. And people live in tin huts. Even in the hottest places here in the US, we have dozens and dozens of opportunities and methods of getting cool that people who live in places like Bangledesh don't have. Talk about privilege. At very least, we have unlimited access to clean, drinkable water that's often cool as it comes out of the pipes that nearly every American apartment has as a necessity, not a luxury.

I posted the link to the cooler on my FB wall, because I thought it was very cool - you know, recycled materials, non-electric climate control device. A friend posted a rebuttal she had received from her friend about how it doesn't work. Well, excuse me, but for what it was designed to do ... and WHERE ... it does work.

For that little entitled Princess, who complained about 78° being too hot, it wouldn't work.

Which is why Boston will never be wholly powered by the hydro dam that runs across the Charles River, and on which the Museum of Science was built, or even by a combination of wind power and the dozens and dozens of solar powered homes I saw as we were leaving the city.

People don't want to give up their conveniences, because we live in a country in which we believe we work hard for what we have and we deserve to be happy and comfortable, and I wonder why a laborer in southeast Asia, who toils 60 hours a week under a baking sun in 110° temperatures with no reprieve from the heat ... often, not even a cool drink of water ... deserves less than I do.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Growng Food

I have a small yard. It's average-sized for a suburban yard, which are usually right around a quarter of an acre (or 10,000 sq feet-ish), but for where I live (Maine) and for what we're trying to do (be self-sufficient), it's a small space.

As such, I'm always on the look out for ways to grow food that don't take up a lot of space, but will give me the biggest bang for my buck.

I love growing things in containers. They're super easy to use, because they can be moved, they don't need a lot of soil, they don't (usually) need a lot of weeding, and crop rotation doesn't require much energy or planning. Depending on what one puts into the pot, there could even be several plantings of different things throughout a season. We had radishes in one container, they were harvested, and now we have carrots in that same container.

I also love repurposing and reusing materials, and I know that anything that can hold dirt, can be a garden.

This year I went a little overboard with that philosophy, and decided to try something I haven't really seen anywhere else, yet. I planted lettuce in a cardboard box.

And it's doing really well.

I've already harvested three salads for my family of five from this box, and it's still thriving. I have a few more banana boxes lying around. Perhaps it's time to plant a few more of these phenomenal "containers.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

You Are What You Eat

I was walking through the stacks at the library the other day ... just strolling down the aisles ... when a book title jumped out at me. Genetically Engineered Food was what I saw out of the corner of my eye, and I had to stop, back-up and look a little more closely.

Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers by Ronnie Cummins and Ben Lilliston is the complete title.

I decided to check it out. Given the huge controversy around GE foods and foods grown from GMOs, I thought it was a new book, and I just wanted a closer look.

It was published in 2000 (!!!).

I remember the huge scare when Bt corn was "accidentally" leaked into the human food stream through some tainted taco shells. Those companies that had the contaminated taco shells (and yes, contaminated is exactly the right word, because that's how everyone felt at the time - that our food had been contaminated) voluntarily recalled them, refunding money and releasing a statement about the taco shells and apologizing for the egregious error.

Fast forward many years, and suddenly, more than 90% of the soy in this country is from genetically engineered seed. More than 80% of the corn grown in this country is from GE seed (and was originally only grown for animal feed, but is now in all corn-based products that aren't specifically labeled "organic" or "GMO-free"). And sugar? If it's not labeled "cane sugar", it's from GMO beets. Everything that has added sweetener in this country contains GMOs.

Chew on that for a second.

Or, just chew on the fact that in 2000, there was a book written and published about how to protect oneself from genetically engineered foods, and sixteen years later, we are still FIGHTING, uselessly, to get companies (the very same ones listed in the book as either openly and proudly admitting that they use GMOs or excusing themselves by saying everyone else is, too) to label their products that are GMO - since we know they aren't going to not use them.

Back in 2000, FritoLay stated: We have no plans to market or advertise any claim of "Genetically Modifed-Free" products ... Since we are also a large buyer of agricultural commodities, and more than a quarter of the North Amiercan crop is derived from biotechnology, just like other food companies, we could have biotechnology ingredients in our products. Translation: Yeah, we use them, because everyone does.

Coca-Cola company stated that *if* there are genetically modified ingredients in their products they "are destroyed in the processing." What? That makes no sense to me. If the ingredient is destroyed in the process, why bother using it at all?

Nestle, who also believes that water is a commodity that should be bought, sold, and controlled, stated, in effect, in places where consumers don't want GMO foods, they won't use GMOs, but as long as GMOs are legal to use and consumers don't care, they will include them. I have a friend who likes Haagen Daaz, because she has severe food sensitivities. Nestle owns Haagen Daaz. I wonder how safe that ice cream really is.

Kellogg company just flipped off the entire American public, stating, in effect, that their grain is American grown and all of the farmers are growing GMOs. So, they're using the GMOs, and we can just suck it.

General Mills says that "some of their products may contain ingredients that have been improved through biotechnology." Of course, we are now learning that GMO crops are not better than organic crops, not for the environment, not for farmer productivity, not for those who eat them ... although this knowledge does not, yet, seem to be common.

Quaker Oats says that they can't be bothered to worry about whether or not their products contain GE foods, because "there is no system in place to separate these foods."

Hormel says that "... developments in plant genetics ... have significantly improved crop productivity and food quality," and therefore, they will "continue to support the crop and vegetable industries' efforts to provide the safest and highest quality products available." Translation: GMOs are good. The science is sound. Scientists are GODS! Anyone who disagrees is an idiot luddite.

These are but a few of the companies that use GMOs without apology. Many of them, however, will not use GMO products in Europe, where the feeling about GMOs is a bit different. European farmers haven't been brainwashed into using these patented seeds only to become dependent on them, even though they are not better or more productive than conventional seeds.

Since 2000, there has been a marked increase in the number of cases of Type II diabetes in young people (Type II diabetes used to be an old person disease), a sudden outbreak of food sensitivities (especially to gluten), and an epidemic of childhood obesity. While correlation is not causation, it's also true that no one is seriously looking at whether or not these GMO foods might be a cause. Not in this country. Not in our part of the world where companies that are responsible for some of the most poisonous chemicals known to man are now making our food.

Vermont tried, unsuccessfully it seems, to get companies to label products which they knew to contain GMO ingredients, but it appears that our Federal Government is, once again, bowing to corporate pressure. A new resolution is going through Congress now to disallow States from passing bills that will require labeling of GMO-ingredients.

In short, our corporate controlled Federal government won't force these companies to state, exactly, what's in that package of cookies. No one wants us to know ... and apparently, given how prolific GMO ingredients now are in our food supply, and that fact that many companies have willingly bowed to consumer pressure in other countries, too few of us who eat really care enough to have demanded it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Too Hot to Cook Inside

I know all of my friends down in the south are laughing at my title. I live in Maine. Too hot isn't a thing, right? It's like when your thermometer dips down to 40°F, and we're up here digging out after the latest snowstorm dumped another two feet of snow on us, and the mercury hasn't managed to push us into double digits above 0°F in a month, and the wind is so cold it slices off pieces of one's face when it blows ... and then, you folks down south complain about being cold.

We laugh.

I'm sorry, but it's true. Forty degrees isn't even below freezing, and if one had to spend the night outside, one of those cheap sleeping bags from Target that kids use for sleepovers would be enough to keep one from freezing to death. That first 40°F day up here, after a long winter, feels like a heat wave. It's short-sleeved weather.

But let that mercury turn our thermometer red, pushing up toward those triple digits, and we'll whine with the best of 'em. We're just not equipped for hot weather up here, because hot in Maine is roughly equivalent to your comfortable weather.

It's in the upper 70's today, and it's a nice reprieve from the upper 80/lower 90 temps we've been getting for the past week.

Mainers are a bit like coconut oil. We melt above 80°F.

So, it's been hot up here. I don't have AC in my house, and so when the temperatures exceed a certain level, there's just no way I'm putting more heat in my house by turning on the oven. Couldn't pay me, in fact.

It's okay, though, because trying to live a lower impact life has taught us a few tricks about cooking without depending on electricity.

I've wanted to build an outdoor kitchen for a while. It hasn't happened, exactly, but we do have a really keen gas grill with a side burner, and so, that's where we're cooking. It's actually pretty incredible the number of things that one can cook ... not just grill ... on a grill.

Like, did you know that you can cook eggs in the shell on a grill? Just put the eggs on the grate over a low heat, close the lid, and leave for about fifteen minutes. Peel and eat the egg. They're like boiled eggs, without the water. Cool, right?

A grill with a lid works a lot like an oven, and so it's possible to bake on a grill, too.

Quiche on the grill comes out more beautiful than when I cook it in the oven.

Honestly, I don't think we really appreciate the versatility and usefulness of our grills. We all have them, but the grill is one of the most under-utilized appliances in our American homes. Sure, we all love a good BBQ. Hamburgers and hot dogs are summer staples across this great country, but there's so much more one can do with that grill.

Baked eggs, quiche ... heck, we even baked muffins on our grill a few years ago when there was a power-outage.

This week while the rest of my family was off at rehearsals at our local community theater (two of my daughters have been cast in West Side Story, and Deus Ex Machina is stage crew for the show), Precious and I were making pizza and corn on the cob on our grill. Both were delicious.

And tonight, our grilled dinner will be a little more normal, maybe. The plan is for spatchcocked, roasted chicken and grilled squash. Maybe I'll put that side-burner to use and boil some new potatoes from the farm stand.

All local food, low-impact cooking, and no added heat to my house. I call that a win.

End of an Era

When we purchased our house many years ago (almost 20, in fact), there was a garden center a couple of houses down from ours, which was good, because our new yard was a barren landscape, which I hoped to fill with all sorts of edibles. We became regular customers, and when my son (who is now an adult with kids of his own) was a youngster, his first paying job was at the garden center, moving plants around and watering.

The people who owned the garden center also owned the woods behind our house. For the first few years, most of the folks in the neighborhood used that land as a kind of commons. There were walking trails back there and blueberry fields. If one walked back through the trails and around, it came out at a gravel pit.

At some point during all of these years, the owner of the land filed a subdivision plan. The plan was for 20+ acre-sized house lots, which would destroy the entire woods, eliminate the walking trails and raze the blueberry fields. One entrance to the subdivision is less than a half mile down the main road from where my house is, and the other means of egress from the neighborhood was planned to go through the garden center. Yes, that is right through the center of the building that used to house the retail portion of their business (plant pots, garden bobbles, seeds, et cetera). The land was his retirement, he said.

Back then, it seemed he would never retire, which was fine by me.

Unfortunately, he wasn't well, and so he and his wife closed the garden center and attempted to sell their holdings in one big piece - 25+ acres with their house and the garden center, but the price was really much higher than anyone could afford, and so they weren't able to find a buyer. Then, he passed away, and she was left holding this big piece of land. She was not interested in developing it herself, and after a few years, she finally found a buyer who bought the 25 acres of woods.

The new owner didn't waste any time making that plan a reality. He has been cutting a swath through the woods for the past year. Half a dozen houses have been built and a few sold. I have a friend in real estate photography who has been down here taking pictures of the homes that are for sale. The houses are pretty in a kind of flashy fragility that doesn't look like they'll survive a Maine winter without copious fossil-fuel inputs and hard wishing for a gentle season.

Last week, I heard the heavy equipment moving through the woods behind my neighbor's house and chainsaws cutting trees. Today, they were tearing down the old garden center building.

When I was putting my clothes on the line today and listening to the destruction of that building that's been here for longer than I have, I thought about those houses that they're putting in over there - those houses that are selling for more than a quarter of a million dollars. The types of people who buy houses in those kinds of neighborhoods don't usually want food gardens or clotheslines.

And I wondered what, about my life, might change now that I'm like the old man from Up, finding myself surrounded by a shiny, new suburb.

I know that they can't take away my clothesline. Maine law does not allow municipalities to pass laws that would prohibit the use of outdoor clothes drying. I don't know if there is a Home Owners Association over there, but since my house and road are not part of their subdivision, even though their neighborhood horseshoes around mine, there's really not much they can do to force me to make my yard look like theirs.

Still, in the interest of being a good neighbor, I may have to step up the aesthetics a little and build a fancy outdoor living space. Perhaps a space with a little more curb appeal to ... you know ... boil down all of that sap in the spring.

*Picture Credit

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Carpe Diem

Usually my days are heavily scheduled. Just this month we've had rehearsals four times a week for the upcoming production of West Side Story at our local community theater. My two youngest attended a week-long music intensive for which I chaperoned. Their older sister flew overseas for a week. We had a music festival this weekend at which my youngest performed. We're planning and rehearsing for a fundraiser Murder Mystery Dinner for one of the non-profits at which we volunteer. That's just the extra stuff and doesn't even include our regular commitments. We have so much going on - all of the time - it can be difficult to have any spontaneity.

Occasionally we get lucky, and we're able to carpe diem. Today was one of those days.

Several weeks ago, I brought home the latest batch of frozen chickens from the butcher, and as I pushed and shoved and rearranged the items in my freezer to make room for these new poultry, I thought, "I need to do something with this stuff we're not going to eat." What we're not going to eat are the bits and parts of the chickens that I always get with our order thinking, either we'll feed it to our dogs (someday we're going to make our own dog food with our chicken pieces), or we'll eat it (this time), or I can give it to some of my friends whom I know enjoy things like chicken livers.

And then, none of that happens, and next year, when we butcher our chickens, I add one more bag of livers and one more bag of hearts and one more bag of necks (in my defense, we do use the necks, occasionally, for broth) to the already too full freezer.

A few weeks ago I found this animal sanctuary online. More specifically, it's a wolf sanctuary. My daughter has loved wolves for as long as I can remember, and I had no idea that this place existed so close to us. I looked through their wish list of items, which included raw meat. Then, all of the pieces aligned, and I contacted them to ask if they could use this chicken I had.

I received a call today, and the owner said, "Yes! We can use it!"

And then, she offered to let me meet the wolves when I dropped off the meat.

And I asked if I could bring my daughters.

And she said yes.

And we drove two hours, round-trip, to meet wolves.

It was an amazing day! I'm so thankful that I had a free afternoon to be able to have that experience and give that experience to my daughters.

Because sometimes it's just so very nice to be able to do something very cool without having to put it on the calendar weeks in advance.

How often does one get the opportunity to meet a wolf hybrid, up close and personal?

Monday, July 18, 2016


I'm one of those people who likes graveyards. I wasn't, when I was younger. Graveyards freaked me out, because death was this horrible, fear-filled thing to be avoided at all costs.

I'm a volunteer at a local animal shelter where I walk dogs once a week. There used to be a walking trail at the shelter, but they're expanding, and so we dogwalkers have to walk somewhere else. Instead of the walking trail, we've been going over to the cemetery. There's a road that goes between the two sections of the cemetery. It's about a half-hour walk, if we're enjoying the scenery.

That's what's great about dogs. For them, it is a journey and not a destination. They don't care where we're going, as long as we're going. They just love the process.

So, once a week, I take one dog at a time, until all of the dogs have been walked, and we head over to the graveyard, and stroll down the road. They sniff where the other dogs have clearly been (and those dogs' owners didn't clean up after).

And I look at headstones and calculate ages. Most of the headstones along the fence where I'm walking the dogs are old, dating back to the late 1800s or early 1900's. what's interesting, though, is how old most of those people were when they died. MOST of them lived to be older than 50. The life expectancy back in those days was right around 45, but not because adults were all dying before they got to that half-century mark, but rather because there were so many very young children dying.

In the book, "A Life of Her Own", about growing up in France at the turn of the century, Emilie Carles talks about how country people didn't really consider a child a person until he was five, because most children didn't reach the age of five, and it was just too hard to mourn so much. Or something along those lines. As such, our general notion about life-expectancies has been very wrong. People back in those days had a very good chance of living a very long life, if they could make it into adulthood.

As I was walking through the graveyard and reading headstones, I found a couple that were very peculiar and concerning, and I'm thinking, perhaps, I have proof that vampires do exist ... or that there are some REALLY old people running around that the Guinness Book of World Records has missed.

This one, disturbingly, has a birth date but no date of death. If Mabel is still with us, she's 135 years old. Maybe she's changed her last name to Cullen.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

I Is Edjumicated.

I am a homeschooler and a State certified teacher. Surprisingly, these two selves are not in conflict, and I don't believe that homeschoolers and traditional schoolers need to be adversaries. We're all hoping for the same thing - to give our children the best educational experience possible.

Education is a funny animal. Yes, we need an educated population. People, in our society, need to be able to read and do basic math. It would be nice if they had some basic scientific knowledge - at least enough to know the life cycle or the water cycle, or why trees lose their leaves and regrow them every year. It would be good if they can communicate, effectively, and mostly grammatically correct, in writing, especially with as prolific as social media and Internet communication has become. It's too easy for people who don't understand nuances of language to misconstrue what's being said and lash out. It's good to have a basic understanding of our history, because a failure to understand history dooms one to repeat it - or so they say.

Learning is important.

But education in this country ... indeed, in our world ... has been touted as the single most effective tool for raising oneself out of poverty. At least we are being told that this is true. It's not just that educated people can command better jobs, but that educated people are more worthy of our money. At least that's the message that we are giving our young people. We all, firmly, believe that to be successful, we must have an education, and that education must extend beyond the twelve years of free, compulsory education into costly four-year and beyond degrees. We've been fed this lie for my entire lifetime, and I'm certain that it's been the believed truth for much longer than that. We have been taught that we must all go to college.

The result has been that the number of college educated individuals has increased from about 25% with Bachelor's degrees in the 1990s to almost 40% in 2015. So, yay! We're a more educated country ... except having that Bachelor's degree has done nothing to ensure that we're all working. In fact, millennials (those who are under the age of 35) have more degrees, but their unemployment rate is much higher at 14% than even the national average, which is just over 5%.

What's worse is that young adults are graduating from college with degrees they can't use that landed them tens of thousands of dollars in debt. According to a twenty-something year old Master's degreed woman who was interviewed for this article, "There are enough people with master’s degrees that they can require them.” She's a waitress. She went to school for six years, spent between $30,000 and $120,000 to earn her degree, and works at a job that someone without even a high school diploma is qualified to do.

Statistically, 84% of college grads are employed compared to 72% of high school grads in the same age group. I find those numbers remarkable, because there's not a very large unemployment gap between those who have a degree and those who never went to college. The statistic does not allow for any other variables, but the fact is that someone who has a college degree with accompanying student loans has no choice, but to have a job, and someone who has no student loans, has a bit more freedom to work at a low-wage job, because he doesn't have a student loan debt, or to not work at all and be working on building his own business or whatever.

I'm not making an argument against going to college. I loved college, and the career I thought I wanted to do required (and still requires) a college degree. For those who want a career that requires that piece of paper, I say, go for it! College can be an amazing experience.

For everyone else, there are other options, and as parents, especially as homeschooling parents, we should be helping our children explore some of those options rather than getting sucked into the belief that a secure, successful career requires a debt-load that is higher than the mortgage most people carry. No twenty-five year old, single adult should owe more money than his parent's owe for their house.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Buy Me a House

I have an adult teen daughter. When I was her age, I was in college, already married, and a mom to a bouncing-baby-boy.

Things were different back then. It was right at the beginning of the push for everyone to go to college, which meant lots of lots of debt acquisition over the next forty years.

My generation grew up with debt as a given. In fact, we welcomed it, like it was some sort of positive character assessment to be deemed worthy of having a company extend credit to us. Some of our favorite credit was credit cards, which gave us an amazing buying power, and rent-to-own furniture, which allowed us to feel wealthy and successful with our shiny, new home-décor (the shabby-chic movement had not, yet, made its debut, and this was well before Martha Stewart was turning old desks into new buffets with a coat of paint, some new drawer pulls and some shelves in place of drawers).

Over the years, I've realized this great lie that I was told. Debt is not good. The credit card company has not bestowed some special trust in me by giving me a credit card. I am not a better person, because I have a good credit rating. It took me a lot of years to get over the idea that credit-worthiness is equal to self-worth.

My teen daughter is not planning to go to college. At the moment, she has a good job and big plans for some awesome adventures, and she's going to be able to pay for these adventures, because she still lives, for free, here at Chez Brown with Mom and Dad. It is a mutually desired circumstance, and none of us wish to change it.

I've been encouraging her to buy a house. Today, she says to me, "Why should I buy a house?"

I thought I had explained it to her, but apparently, I didn't. So, I told her.

I told her that having a house could, theoretically, fund her great adventures. As an example, I mentioned a particular house that is in a desirable location, but which we know to be in very poor condition. I told her, that if she were to buy that house, and fix it up, she could rent it out. The rent would pay for the mortgage, but it could also finance her trips. Or if she decides, in the future, the rent payments could pay her college tuition.

Or, worst case (because I hate house-flipping), she could fix up the house and resell it, easily, for more than one and a half times what she paid, which would give her cash in the bank, and depending on how and where she chose to live, she could have a large enough savings that she could afford to take some career risks.

I live in a tourist town. Even on my side of town, which is suburban, mostly year-round, residents, I could rent my house during the summer for $1000/week. I could earn $14,000 a summer just from renting my house. That would pay the mortgage-plus for the entire year. Basically, if I had a free place to live during the summer, I could live "free" in my house the rest of the year.

And that's what I told her. She lives with her parents, and if she bought a house, it would not mean that she would have to move into that house. If she rented out the space, she could have a passive income.

Those are the practical "normal people" reasons, but there are just as equally practical TEOTWAWKI reasons.

How many times have I said, "In an extreme survival situation, shelter is the first thing one needs." In his great book, Tell Them Who I Am: Lives of Homeless Women, which I often reference, Eliot Liebow states that homeless people are homeless, because they don't have a home. If she were to purchase a house now, when she's still a young adult, has a full time job, has no expenses, and still lives with Mom and Dad, it would be paid off by the time she reaches my age. She would own, outright, a house in what is currently, a desirable location, where she could live, rent and mortgage-free. If she loses her job or ends up divorced or whatever, she would, at least, have a place to live.

That's not a bad risk to take. The thing is, if she went to college, she would be investing tens of thousands of dollars on the hope that she would be able to get some return on her investment in the form of a "good job." I know too many people who aren't working or are working below their educational level, doing jobs that she is doing right now, for the same pay, and she's debt-free.

If she buys a house, for the same amount of money, she is investing in a tangible, transferrable object. She may never want to live in that house, and that's okay, because someone will want to live there. It can be a good house.

The house I was telling her about has about an acre of land and is zoned for mixed-use, including allowing things like chickens. She isn't interested (right now) in following in her mother's suburban homesteading muck boots (or flip-flops as it actually is), but she might in the future. Wouldn't it be awesome to own a place where she could do that? Or better, maybe her future tenant is looking to do some suburban homesteading. Options open up the doors to a wider variety of opportunities.

Our culture has been telling our children for decades that education is the only way to get ahead, but I'm looking at the people in our country who are the wealthiest, and most of them aren't the most educated. They are the people who invested in real stuff early in their lives and then were lucky enough to live long enough to enjoy the benefits of their fore-sightedness.

Room Update

So for those of you who have been wondering about our back room - no it's still not finished. Yes, Deus Ex Machina and I are still using our office as a bedroom. At this point, we may be getting too comfortable with the current arrangements ...

... no, not really.

The drywall is up. We found some free tiles on Craigslist and found reclaimed boards that will be the flooring. We don't have a ceiling, yet, and all of that storage space we wanted, we ended up having to drywall over, in hopes we could get the project completed faster. You see how that's worked out for us ;).

Anyway, at the moment, I can proudly declare that I live in a "tiny house." The difference between me and people who actually live in tiny houses is that my house wasn't designed to be a tiny house, and so there are none of those really cool little nooks and crannies for storing stuff, and I never intended to live in a tiny house. It just happened.

The benefit, however, is exactly the same. We've been forced to look at our belongings and make those tough choices. It's an ongoing process, but what I've found is that each thing we let go is like a release, a exhalation of stagnant air that was keeping us from thriving.

When we finally finish the room, I'm pretty certain that it will look nothing like we originally planned, but I'm also certain that it will function exactly as we need it to function.

And I'm also certain that when we start moving the furniture and stuff around, we'll discover that we, actually, have a pretty big house (although at only 1500 sq ft with no garage, basement or attic, it's small by American standards).

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Foraging Sundays

We intended to start our 2nd Annual Foraging Sundays on Memorial Day Weekend, but our crazy life interfered, and so we had to put it off for a week. We almost decided not to start this last week, either, because we can really only count a half day, as we had breakfast with my daughter and her family.

In the end, we decided that we just needed to start so that we could get our minds around doing the project, and so, even with only counting it a half-day of foraging only, our Sunday evening meal was all foraged ... and all delicious.

We've been very blessed to have some amazing friends who are always willing to help us with our crazy ideas. As such, a friend gifted us wild-caught rainbow trout. Deus Ex Machina lightly seasoned the fish, put some pats of butter inside it, wrapped it in foil, and put it on the grill on the lowest setting. To accompany the fish, we had sautéed mushrooms and wild greens.

It was incredibly delicious, and our very adventurous Precious joined us. I've discovered that I really love rainbow trout, and that I'm incredibly thankful (and impressed) that Deus Ex Machina is a very good high-speed forager.

Rules for Foraging Sundays:
1. We can only eat what we can forage for the entire day.
2. Beverages (tea, coffee, alcohol) are exempted.
3. We have allowed use of cooking fats and spices.

If you're interested in joining us, please publish your meals (in the comments section here on my blog, on your own blog with a link in the comments, or on your FB page again with a link), and please let us know. You can use our rules or make up your own. You can even decide that it's not "foraging only" for you, but rather "foraging also", which is what we did the first year we decided to really try to focus on adding foraged foods to our diet. That year (which is detailed in our book, Browsing Nature's Aisles: a Year of Foraging for Wild Food in the Suburbs) our goal was, simply, to add a wild food/ingredient to one meal each week.

It's amazing how much food is out there - free for the taking - when one starts to look.

Happy foraging! We'd love to hear what you're eating.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Misleading Headlines

I'm laughing at myself.

I saw a headline today, Fed just amassing ammo for next recession with summer hike.

At first blush, it seemed to be saying that the federal government was stockpiling ammunition in preparation for an inevitable recession. I further read it to say that the feds were expecting a recession this summer!

That's not what the article meant, though. The article was an explanation as to why the Federal Reserve is increasing interest rates right now, and according to the article, it is to prepare, in the event, that there is another recession in the near future. It's a precautionary move on the Feds' part, according to the article.

What I take from the article is that:
  • The government is expecting a recession ... this summer!
  • The interest hikes now are so that when (not if) the recession hits, the Fed can, then, lower interest rates

There are a lot of really noteworthy events happening these days with regard to our country's economic health, and while they will tell us that we've recovered from the 2008 Recession, I don't see it. I don't see that anything has improved, and in fact, what I see is the frog in the pot syndrome, where we're just becoming accustomed to the new norm - which is that we're making more money than ever and getting poorer at the same time. Our dollars just don't stretch very far these days.

The fact is that when stores like, Walmart, are doing mass lay-offs, we know that it's bad out there. Walmart used to be the place to get a job when all other job opportunities were dried up.

We're heading into the summer tourist season here in my part of the world, but local Inn keepers are already worried that this will be a bad year for them.

The Feds (probably) aren't stockpiling ammunition for the expected recession, but they are getting ready for what might be a bumpy financial future.

I don't like being a Debbie-Downer with only ever sharing bad news, but I think it is important that we don't look at these headlines and events in fear, but rather as the proverbial canary in the coal mine. If they are accurate and something is coming soon, we have the opportunity, now, to better prepare ourselves for economic upheaval.

But even if nothing happens, being prepared is never a bad idea.

Gas in the News

Ten years ago there was a lot of talk in certain circles about Peak Oil. At the time the rest of the world ignored the whispers, because life was just so damned good! It was very much similar to the Climate Change debates. A group of people who were heavily invested in the lifestyles that copious use of fossil fuels created wanted to hear nothing about resource depletion or environmental destruction (potentially) wrought by our continued use and dependence on fossil fuels.

Having grown up in a coal mining part of the world, I saw, first hand, how destructive using coal is. It doesn't just kill the environment. It also kills the people and the communities who depend on coal as an economic base. The only people who get rich in the coal industry are the people who own the mineral rights to the coal. The people who actually work in the industry are struggling to just make ends meet while their health continually deteriorates. Many end up broken and disabled before they turn 50.

For many decades the oil industry boomed. We had a glut of the black gold and a lot of people got very rich. We've known now for many years that the oil industry in the US is waning, and we also know (at least those of us who'll admit it) that the oil industry is waning worldwide.

In the 1950s, geologists discovered the Bakken Tar Sands. Nothing was done for more than half a century to attempt to extract that oil, because it wasn't profitable to do so. When the price-per-barrel for oil topped $80, investors suddenly became very interested, and fracking the tar sands started. It was a boom for the communities around the tar sands ... for a couple of years.

The problem with tar sands oil, other than it being difficult and costly to extract, is that it's not sweet and light, like oil from a well.

In response to the tar sands mining, oil rich countries, like Saudi Arabia, began flooding the market with their oil, and the prices went down. The price of gasoline at our pumps here in the US dropped ...

... and everyone gave a big cheer.

But, perhaps, that cheer was misplaced, and a thoughtless return to our gluttony was irresponsible, because it won't last.

According to this article, Shell is cutting over two thousand jobs because of weak oil prices.

What does that mean, you ask?

As Saudi Arabia continues to pump more and more oil out of their wells, they are depleting what they have, and it is only a matter of time before their well is dry. There are only so many oil wells out there, and once we've used up what's available, we either learn to live without it or we end up like curs fighting over the scraps out in the dirt yard.

Here at Chez Brown, the peas are a couple of inches high. Baby lettuce is ready to harvest. The apple trees are in full bloom and beautiful, promising a bumper crop this year. The first batch of ten broiler hens is ready to pick-up at the butcher, and we have two dozen more growing out in the yard.

The other day a friend was laughing, incredulously, as I recounted the story of my shirt. "It used to be yellow," I said. "Then, I washed it, and it ended up with a red splotch, and so I dyed it blue. Now, it's starting to fade, because I dry it on the line." She said, "You get a lot of wear out of your clothes, don't you?"

Life would be tough, if the economy buckles. The world won't just go away, and there will still be things we have to pay for, but because we have food, because I know how to get a lot of wear out of my clothes, because we're learning to be more frugal with everything - including our Internet usage (more on that another day :)) - we might be able to stay somewhat comfortable - even on our tiny quarter-of-an-acre.

In another post, my friend, Contrary Goddess reminded me that people are often limited more by what they perceive as limits than actual physical restrictions. There's a lot we can do, where we are, with what we have. The key is to see the possibilities rather than the limits.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Tips and Tricks on Saving Money

Mavis over at One Hundred Dollars a Month challenged her readers to share their tips on how they save money. She had twelve questions and asked that participants answer five to seven of them.

I decided to take the challenge, but as I said in my response, "most of the time we don’t feel like we’re saving any money. Most of the time, it feels like we’re right on the edge, and so I don’t, often, feel like I have any great how-to advice when it comes to pinching pennies, but when I read articles on money-saving tips, I realize that my family also does a lot of the things that other people do, and in some ways, we go a step beyond. So, I thought I would give it a shot."

This links to my full response.

Here's a sneak preview of part of one of my answers.

Tip #2: How do you save money on entertainment costs without ending up like a shut-in?

My answer: We volunteer! It's a great way to become involved with our local community, get out and meet people, AND see a show. I love my community theatre and becoming a volunteer there was probably one of the smartest moves I've made.

My daughter as the door-greeter (one of the usher staff) at our local theater

It was a lot of fun doing the exercise. I know a lot of my readers have some great habits for simple living, which often results in money saved. Let me know if you decide to submit your savings story. I'd love to read it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

What If You Could Only Choose Five ...

The best vegetables to grow in any area are the ones that thrive in that particular hardiness zone. My hardiness zone is 5, but there are parts of Maine that are zone 3 – much colder. While that allows for a wide range of possible food plants, a very short, often very cool, growing season means that many types of food plants have to be abandoned, or require special equipment (like heated greenhouses) at the beginning and/or end of the growing season.

But let’s make the situation even more tenuous. Let’s imagine that the gardener has a very small space in which to garden, but desires to grow most of the food her family will eat. A short, cool growing season plus a tiny piece of land could mean that the gardener would just be SOL for having a good food crop, but it doesn’t have to.

For gardeners in cold climates with limited space, the solution is to pick plants that have a short growing season, have a long storage life, produce a lot of food per square foot, are calorie dense, and contain a lot of nutrients. There are many plants that might satisfy all of these criteria, but the top five are: beets, potatoes, garlic, pumpkins and beans.

The chickens love hanging out under the squash vines

Short Growing Season

My growing season in Maine is, roughly, from the end of May to October. That said, plants have different quirks and so while the general rule of thumb for gardeners in Maine is to wait until Memorial Day to plant the bulk of the garden, there is some wiggle room. Garlic seed can be put into the ground in the fall and harvested in the summer. Beets can be sown as soon as the soil can be tilled, and for the savvy gardener, the beets aren’t just the red part underground. In addition, to their energy-packed roots, which are ready for harvest about sixty days from planting, they also provide tasty greens. Potatoes, pumpkins and beans prefer to spend most of their growing time in warmer temps, and they won’t be ready for harvest until the fall, but they have no problems producing prodigious amounts of food in the few short months they have to develop.

Long Storage life

With such a short growing season, it is important to have vegetables that can be stored for a very long time. Potatoes and pumpkins, properly stored, will last until the next spring, and beans and garlic can both be dried for long-term storage, as well. Beets can be stored, like carrots, in cool, dry areas, but they can also be pickled, and the greens can be dried to add a nutritional boost to winter meals.

Lots of nutritionally and calorie dense food on this one ... AND it stores for months

A Lot of Food in a Little Space

One clove of garlic can produce a fist-sized bulb. One pound of seed potatoes will produce about five pounds of spuds. Beets do not need a lot of space to grow and because they like cold weather and can be planted early, they will provide two or more crops per season with subsequent plantings. One pumpkin vine, depending on the variety, will produce three small or two large pumpkins. Pole beans can be grown vertically on trellises, thus saving ground space for other plants, and one plant will continue to flower and produce bean pods from early summer until the first frost. In addition, pumpkins and beans can be paired in a much smaller planting area with corn (which provides a trellis for the beans) in a companion gardening technique often referred to as the “Three Sisters.” The corn stalk provides a support for the beans, the squash/pumpkin vine provides shade and weed control for the beans and corn, and the beans fix nitrogen in the soil, which feeds the other two plants. It’s one of the most popular companion planting techniques, especially in the northeast, but knowing what grows well with your intended crops can be both beneficial to the success of the garden and to one’s food storage endeavors.

Dried beans have a long storage life

Calorie Dense

According to the Positive Health Steps website kidney beans, which are an easy to grow, pole bean, have 100 calories per 100g, four slices of beetroot contains 30 calories, 1 clove of garlic provides 5 calories, one baked potato boasts 175 calories, and 100g of baked pumpkin provides 120 calories. With the exception of garlic, which is best grown for its health and flavor benefits, there are very few other vegetables that provide the power-packed punch and do well in the cooler climes of the northeast gardens. As such, if one is growing a garden with the intent of providing most of one’s food, giving space to beans, pumpkins, beets, and potatoes is a good investment.

Nutritional Value

Of the eleven essential minerals listed at this website, nine of them are found in one or more of the vegetables listed. Additionally, seven of the twelve important vitamins listed on the same website are found in one or more of the vegetables that grow well in the northeast. Of the other five vitamins, vegetables are not a good source for three of them, and perhaps adding a few meat animals to the garden space would be beneficial for all of the reasons above (calories, nutrition), but also because animal manure provides a powerful source of nutrients for any garden.

Garlic can also be used to stop a cold in its tracks

In my many years of gardening small spaces with the goal of self-sufficiency, I have found that the best vegetables to grow in my area are ones that have a short growing season, have a long storage life, can be grown in small spaces, are calorie dense, and have a high nutritional value. After considerable trial and error, I have found that the best five plants to grow so that I can feed my family without depending on too many outside food sources are: potatoes, pumpkins, beans, beets, and garlic.

If you could only choose five vegetables to grow in your small garden, what would they be ... and why?