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-d├ęcor (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).