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."