Monday, December 11, 2017

Homeless for the Holidays

The title of this post is the title of a movie Deus Ex Machina and I watched the other night.  We were looking for a holiday movie, and this one was available on Amazon Prime.  It sounded interesting.  Sometimes the synopsis is better than the movie. 

It's based on a true story, and many of the details remained true to the actual story (yes, I looked it up).  The gist is that this high level executive loses his job, and then, proceeds to continue living  as if he still has an income, all the while ignoring his ever increasing past due balances and calls from creditors.  For several months (movie time), he just waited and did nothing. 

And by nothing, I mean nothing.  He didn't look for another job.  His family didn't cut their cable, their cellphone bills, or their Internet service.  They didn't try to cut costs, at all, from what I could glean.  In fact, they even showed the faimly hosting a Thanksgiving dinner with friends, who, incidentally, had no clue that they were in financial dire straights with bill collectors calling every day.  In the Thanksgiving dinner scene, the cable stops working right at that critical moment when the guys are preparing to sit down to watch the football game after dinner. 

Their bills are mounting.  Creditors are hounding them (and they stop answering the phone).  The dad's car gets repossessed. 

The problem ends up being that the dad can't get a job in his field, but no one who is offering low-wage jobs will hire him, because 1) he's over-qualified; and 2) there's a nasty little bit about some work-related blunder the dad committed, which cost him his job (but it wasn't his doing.  Rather, he just took the fall for his boss). 

In desperation, the movie dad ends up working a minimum wage job at a hamburger joint.  To add insult to injury he's forced to wear a costume AND his former assistant shows up and starts taunting him. 

When he receives his first paycheck, it isn't enough to cover any of their overdue bills, and so, they go shopping.  Every event is a lesson in the way people without means are treated, and in the shopping scene, when the family is forced to ask the cashier to remove some items from their order, the store manager berates them.  I'm not defending the store manager, but when I have a finite amount of money to spend, I make very careful selections when shopping to avoid any possibility of that sort of thing happening.  The message in the film seems to be that this family were victims, but I guess I feel like there were a lot of choices they could have made that would have made some of their experiences very different.

At one point the wife applies for Food Stamps, but their application is denied, because they own their minivan, which is paid off, and the social worker recommends that they sell the minivan to pay down some of their debt, and then, they will be eligible for food stamps.  When the wife says they need the van so that the husband can go to work, the social worker tells her that they could apply for a bus voucher, but the caveat is if they end up "being a little too ambitious" and earn too much, they could be dropped from both the voucher program and the food stamp program.  This leads to a three-minute diatribe about the ills of the welfare system delivered by the wife to the social worker, who exclaims as the wife leaves in a huff, "They're not my rules!", and then, the social worker mutters, "I just have to follow them and stay on this side of the desk." 

In November, the electric company, tired of non-payment, disconnects their electric service.  Lucky, for them, they have a gas fireplace and so they still have heat (until the gas company also cuts their service due to non-payment). 

In fact, it seemed as if they weren't really paying any of their bills.  There was no income at all.  One wonders how they managed to stay fed and to put gasoline in the vehicles.  In the meantime, the primary focus seems to be the issue of the family being unable to afford Christmas presents.  Yes, it really did seem that the parents were more worried about not giving their children the standard commercialized Christmas experience, than that they had no electricity and couldn't buy groceries. 

Then, to top off this family's shit cake with a booger cherry, just in time for Christmas, the family's home goes into foreclosure, and they have seven days to move.  I'm pretty sure it doesn't happen that fast, but whatever.  It's fiction.  I suspended my disbelief for the sake of art.  The scene in which the family is vacating their home is narrated.  As we watch them exiting the house with plastic totes, we're told that they lived in their church for a few months until the weather warmed up, and then, they moved into a homeless encampment and lived in a tent. 

The moral of this semi-autobiographical tale is actually a moral, and the message of the film is religious in nature.  The film maker has reconciled what happened to him and believes that his trials were a message from his God about his lifestyle choices.  Everything seemed to be going great with regard to the writer's career and material wealth, but he states he was at a spiritual low.  When pursuit of wealth was no longer part of the equation, the narrative seems to be telling us, the man was forced to reconcile his personal relationships - with friends, with family, with the greater community, and with God.

Since it is a moral lesson, the following commentary on what this guy and his family could have done better to make their situation not so severe are probably not germane to this situation, but for those who find themselves in similar circumstances, but don't want to end up homeless, there are several things our protagonist could have done better.

As most of you know, my family went through nearly the same thing this summer - the loss of our sole income.  We were very lucky (or smart??) that things didn't go as poorly for us as they did for the people in the movie.  I mean, we're still in our house.  We weren't threatened with nasty letters from the utilities companies about disconnecting services.  Neither of our vehicles was repossessed.  I never had to apply for food stamps, or ask the grocery store clerk to delete some items from my order. 

As such, I have some advice for those folks, and others who might find themselves in the same spot.

1.  Immediately sit down with family members - all of them - and discuss the situation.  

In general, the advice I most often hear when it comes to children and family finances is that children don't need to know ... until they need to know.  As a kid, what this meant was that I had no clue about what my family's financial situation was, until there were things I needed as a growing child, but couldn't get, because we couldn't afford them.

We had a couple of bad years when I was in junior high school.  One time, my mother sent my sister and me into the store to get corn meal.  I don't remember exactly why she couldn't come with us, but I think it had something to do with our car and that if she turned it off, it might not start back up again.  So, she sat in the parking lot while we went into the store. 

She had given us just enough money for a 2lb bag of corn meal.  It was all the money she had until payday, and that corn meal was central to whatever her meal plan was until the check hit the bank.  Neither my sister nor I was very extroverted.  We were both timid little girls, and while we were old enough to shop, we weren't old enough to be practiced at it.  We went into the store, and when we came out and handed my mother the purchase, she exhaled in that deep, defeated sigh of someone who has nothing ... not even the corn meal that was just right in her reach.  We had purchased flour instead of corn meal.   We didn't read the words.  We just picked up the product that looked like the one our mother usually purchased.  It was awful.

I understand why parents think they need to keep these things secret from their children.  Money worries are tough for adults.  We don't want or need our children's youth and naivete spoiled by the same sorts of worrying that we adults have to deal with when it comes time to pay the bills, but the bill balance is larger than the bank balance. 

The problem is that, if kids aren't aware that things cost money, they won't learn to value that money.  Buying the wrong thing was upsetting - mostly, because we didn't realize how serious the situation was until we understood that there was no easy fix to our mistake.  It had never mattered before.  Parents who don't include their children in these conversations will have a hard time explaining what happened when they can no longer make their usual coffee shop stop for a Mocha Latte when they're out doing errands.   One day there's a Mocha Latte and without warning, suddenly, there isn't.  Most people's finances don't vary that wildly, and there's usually some events that lead up to the change. 

Keeping our kids informed about family expenses is a good idea, but if one hasn't been doing it all along, it will be imperative that one have a very frank discussion with one's entire family in the event of a job loss. 

Presentation is key, and it is possible to frame the discussion in a way that can be positive rather than negative.  For instance, instead of talking about all of the material things one will no longer be able to afford, one could talk about all of the adventures one now has time to do.  Children are incredibly adaptive and resilient, and if given the chance, they can even come up with some pretty creative solutions to problems that adults find overwhelming.

In addition, talking frankly with one's family members, at the beginning, makes getting them on board with the necessary changes easier.

2.  Cut all unnecessary spending.

It's important to have that initial conversation with one's family, because this part will be hard, especially if no one fully understands why it has to happen.

But cutting expenses is really important, as every little penny really can help. 

Start with the low-hanging fruit: magazine subscriptions; cable service; the second phone line (that is, if you have both a landline AND a cellphone, pick one and get rid of the other); subscription services, like Netflix; the Internet; any delivery services or cleaning services; lawn care; eating out; and coffee shoppe coffee (my personal Achilles heel, and the hardest change my family made). 

We love our conveniences, but when one has a loss of income, one will need to do those things for oneself.  Combined, those services can cost hundreds of dollars per month. 

But here's the thing: we can still have all of those things above, just different.  I can make my own coffee and bring it with me in a travel mug.  I have the tools and the ability.

The library, which is free to residents, is actually pretty amazing.  In addition to borrowing books (buying books was one of my Achilles' Heels, when it comes to cutting spending), one can also borrow magazines, CD's, and movies on VHS and DVD; use the internet; read newspapers; and take classes.  Some libraries even have tools to lend. 

There are other organizations that are designed to take the financial burden off of community members by combining resources.  For instance, imagine losing one's job, and among the services that have to be cut is lawn care, but one doesn't own a lawnmower (because the service has always provided the tools).  There is a Tool Library in my community, where I can access all sorts of tools from chainsaws and lawnmowers to pressure canners and sewing machines.  It's probably a good idea to look around for those sorts of organizations before there's an emergency, but it's never too late ... until it is.   The goal of this article is to make sure we wait until it's too late. 

Many of the services that we cut can be added back later, if things don't end up bad, but honestly, once they're gone, a lot of people don't miss them - like cable.  I know as many people who don't use cable as I know that do use cable.  It's not a death sentence to miss network Prime Time programming, and without the distraction of television, there's actually more time to do other cool things, like listen to audio books ... or play board games. 

The next tier is letting go of things that will be life-changing in some way.

Our daughters have been taking dance classes for most of their lives, and for us, cutting lessons would have been the absolute most difficult thing to do.  We were fortunate that the lay-off happened in the summer, when they aren't taking lessons.  If it had been at a different time of year, things would have been a lot more difficult, but it was a discussion we had, as a family.   

Other things that one must consider getting rid of include the second car (which will, hopefully, eliminate a costly car payment and lower one's car insurance bill).

Reducing one's other expenses will also be important.  Turning up or down the thermostat (and being hotter or colder) will save on fuel bills.  Eliminating the use of energy-sucking appliances, like the clothes dryer, will cut one's electricity bill.  I can borrow a meter that allows me to see exactly how much electricity each appliance in my home is using.   The tool is free from the library, but the savings can be enormous. 

Like with that important financial discussion, it's probably better to have done these sorts of things before the emergency, but making cuts after will help a great deal.  And it's never too late ... until it is.

3. Negotiate with Creditors on lowering or deferring payments

I was very disappointed that I never saw the family in the film doing this.  Probably, it's not as interesting as having the wife harp on her husband about the unpaid bills and then, throwing a stack of envelopes at him, but in the real world, when one is having money problems, being an ostrich about it is not the adult way.

Admitting that one has a problem and looking for solutions IS the adult way. 

While some creditors might not be willing to discuss lowered or deferred payments, some will, unless the issue has gotten out of hand already (too many unpaid months, for instance).

Some companies also offer an unemployment deferment, which can make things really helpful.  If we're able to defer even just one of our monthly obligations while unemployed, that could be hundreds of dollars in savings a month.  Those payments will be tacked onto the end of the loan - with interest (which I learned the hard way with regard to my student loans) - but sometimes a short-term solution gives us time to plan for a long-term fix. 

Also, one should have some understanding of the law with regard to creditors and collections agencies.  In the film, the family's electricity is cut in December.  Here in Maine it is illegal for the electric company to cut power during the winter.  Understanding one's rights could be helpful if one is being forced to cherry pick which bills are a priority. 

4.  Hone skills so that you can be a little more self-sufficient.

There was a television show when I was a kid called "Eight is Enough."  It was the story of a widower with eight children and their adventures as a family.  Most of the eight children were teenagers or young adults (still living at home).

One Christmas, their home was burglarized on Christmas Eve and the family woke on Christmas morning to an empty tree.  It was a little like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, especially in that the youngest child, Nicholas, suggested that they make Christmas, and the beauty of the story lies in the family members' efforts to make (on very short notice) things to share with their siblings and parents.  It was a heart-warming episode (and they caught the burglar in the end - a lonely, bitter, old man - and shared their Christmas with him), with the same message that all such programs seem to impart - Christmas doesn't come from a store ... yada, yada. 

It's not the religious side of the message that is important, to me.  It's the fact that the family in the program had the creativity ... and the ability! ... to make things on short notice rather than depending on someone else to make it for them.

For people facing a job loss or other income straining incidents, the ability to do things for oneself can be the thing that makes or breaks them. 

Being able to cook one's own food saves a bundle over what it costs to eat out.  Bonus points if one can grow the food, too! 

Being able to make and/or repair clothes, can save hundreds of dollars over the cost of replacing worn out items.  My Merino wool socks cost $9 per pair.  I learned to darn socks, because replacing them is costly, and if I don't have to, I'd prefer not to settle for cheaper socks. 

Cutting one's own hair (and that of family members) can be a huge savings.   A few years ago we bought a set of clippers.  It was a big investment at the time, but they've more than paid for themselves in what we've saved in haircuts for Deus Ex Machina.  Even the less expensive hair salons are still more costly than DIY hair cuts, plus there's the potential of getting a stylist who gets distracted and cuts too much from one side, leaving a significantly short (nearly bald) spot on one side of my head.  I still have to pay her for that ratty haircut.  The problem is that if I'm going to have to live with a bad haircut, I might as well do it myself.  It's easier to live with a bad haircut when it was free. 

Home repairs, home decorating, and remodeling are another area where we can DIY to save a bunch of money.  But there's an added bonus to tackling these things, at all.  It feels good when one's space is spruced up.  Decluttering, painting, putting down tile or reclaimed wood, or just moving decor items out of the closet and into a visible space to create a new look makes us feel better, and when our homes are in good repair, we feel less poor, regardless of our financial health. 

The bottom line is that if we can do it for ourselves, we don't have to pay someone else to do it, and the less we spend having other people take care of us, the less we need to earn, which brings me to the final point.

5.  Assume this is long-term ... or forever.  

There's a joke about how many poor people in America view themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.  I don't know if it's a uniquely American trait, or if it's true of other places, as well, but there seems to be a prevalence of individuals in our country who suffer financial insecurities, because they don't believe their bank statements. 

There are no guarantees when it comes to jobs and incomes, and even if we seem to be thriving at one point, history should be teaching us that *IT* could happen to any one of us, at any point in time, and when it does, things can be very bad ... or not.  It's really up to how we address the situation. 

When we have a good job, and we lose that job for whatever reason, there's no guarantee that we're going to find a comparable salary at a new job.  One of my favorite early 20th Century pieces of fiction is Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser.  The main character is Carrie, a young woman who ends up being manipulated into a kind of mistress situation.  Hurstwood, her amour, is a married man, and in order to keep her from leaving him for a younger, unmarried suitor, Hurstwood sweeps her away.  In the process, he leaves his wife and quits his job, and because he also steals from his employer, he needs to get as far away as he can. 

Hurstwood makes a lot of stupid blunders (like running off with another woman isn't bad enough, right?), but his stupidest mistake is his unwillingness to accept his plight and to work with what he has, rather than believing that he deserves what he so easily tossed away.  That is, he is an adulterer, a thief, and likely a wanted man, but his pride prevents him from taking gainful employment, which he believes is beneath him.   And so he slips into extreme poverty, losses Carrie, who leaves him because he won't even try to support himself,  and comes to a very sad end at one of those dreary rooming houses where people can stay a day or for a few hours.

The rest of us can look to Hurstwood and to the family in the movie as examples of what not to do.  When there's a loss of income, we have to make plans for a future that may not include a return to our former income level ... but you know what?  That's okay.  Living with less money is not a failure, and people who can be resilient enough to thrive on less when they had been earning more are the world's super-stars - not the people who start with nothing and rise to the top (and too often subsequently fall).  It's far easier to start with nothing and build something than it is to start with something and have to figure out how repair that something when it falls apart.

Which is actually a really great analogy, because there's this propensity in our world to believe that new is better.  The belief is that it's cheaper and easier to buy a new house (or car or pair of shoes) than it is to maintain the things we have.

And that's the final point:  learning to do what we can with what we have where we are is my personal mantra. 

The result of living that mantra was that this past summer, when Deus Ex Machina didn't have a job, and we had no idea of when or if that would change, we were able to thrive rather than sink into panic, because we had the desire, the knowledge, and the skill to do things for ourselves. 

We refinished our room ... and it looks AMAZING!  Did I mention that it really looks good and is super comfy and warm? 

We harvested wood for our winter's heat.

We planted, tended and harvested one of the best gardens we've had in years.

I made skirts out of Deus Ex Machina's old t-shirts.

Deus Ex Machina took some time to figure out what he wanted to do and started working toward making those things happen. 

The point is that we grabbed life by cojones and whispered, "Let's dance!"  Rather than sitting in the corner waiting for someone to swoop down and lead us to the floor.  Unlike the family in the above mentioned film, we took control of our own fate, and the result was fabulous!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

How to Eat Right

I've spent a lot of years exploring the ethics of eating.  I've read HUNDREDS of articles and books about the topic. 

There is a lot of back and forth regarding the best way to eat, and there have been some really strong voices on both sides of the argument. 

The founders of the 1970s back-to-the-land movement, Scott and Helen Nearing, were vegetarians, and they promoted a lifestyle that included no animal products, based on Helen's very vocal aversion to "keeping" animals.  The paradox, however, is that Helen had a pet (which seemed to contradict her very adamant attitude that animals should not be enslaved to humans), and the Nearings were also malnourished.  That is, they needed to be administered Vitamin B12 shots by a physician, because there was no plant-based product available to them that contained this essential vitamin.  Indeed the only commonly known plant-based source for B12 is seaweed (there are also some studies that show mushrooms might have some dietary B12 available). 

So that previous paragraph is all from memory of a study I read about vegetable sources for B12.  I don't have sources to cite.  My point is that I have done this research before, because I really do want to do what's best.

Unfortunately, people who eat non-meat based diets usually do so because of some professed ethical aversion to eating animals.  And that's fine.  I don't, actually, give a shit what other people eat, and I also don't care all that much why they've chosen that diet.  Don't eat anything with a face?  Good for you!  I won't feed you chicken, if you don't feed me GMOs. 

What I do give a shit about is being attacked because I have made different - well-researched and long-agonized-over - choices.  But I don't have the time or the energy or the desire (actually) to defend my dietary choices against an onslaught of misdirected accusations. 

As we know, though, I don't take this kind of thing lying down.  While I will often stop discussing it with the close-minded individual who accuses me of things I didn't say (because there are often other people in the conversation, too, but I get blamed for everything that's said) or just ignores what I am saying in favor of fueling his/her moral superiority about what they believe is my intent (without asking or without knowing anything more about me than a few words said about one topic), I don't stop thinking about it.

My goal, therefore, was to find a definitive answer to the question: What is the most ethical way to eat?

I was hoping that I could find a real study (not one sponsored by a vegan organization that says eating any animal-based product is bad or by the Cattle Association of America, which says we should eat more beef, because beef is good). 

We all already know all of the stories about how awful CAFOs are for the animals.  We know about the animal abuses in chicken houses in rural Georgia and how pigs are mistreated by Smithfield Farms.  No one, including me, is questioning whether or not we should continue to support these factory farms.  The answer is that we shouldn't, and the result of avoiding that industry, for my family, is that we eat a lot less meat, in general. 

There are a lot of articles that debunk the notion that a vegetarian diet is completely ethical.  There are also many articles that point out the fallacy in believing that a vegan diet is healthier.  Among the evidence is that 40% of the people living in India are vegetarian/vegan, but they have the same health issues that we, here in America, have. 

The two healthiest populations in the world are the French and the Japanese, neither of which follow a vegan or vegetarian diet.  In fact, anecdotal accounts of vegetarian tourists in Japan speak to the difficulty of finding foods that do not contain some animal product (usually fish sauce or the like). 

The French diet was dubbed a paradox, because the French have low rates of diet-related diseases and weigh less (compared to Americans), while eating a diet that seems to be rich in all of the foods that make Americans so sick.  Research seems to indicate that it isn't so much what the French eat, but rather how and how much (compared to Americans).

Health-wise a vegan diet is not superior, but neither is a vegan diet more environmentally pure.  This article lists eleven foods essential to a healthy vegan diet.  Things listed include: nuts (the almond industry in California uses a lot of water); soybean (first, more than 90% of the soybean crop is GMO, and second, soybeans are usually grown as a monocrop, which has been proven to be environmentally degrading); and lots of cereals and grains (which are also grown as monocrops).   The point is that while some vegans are taking this morally superior attitude about how horrible my diet is, theirs isn't more healthy or environmentally ethical, IF they eat the usual grocery-store purchased foods that everyone else purchases.

That's the caveat, though, isn't it? 

Maybe the bottom line has nothing to do with the individual components of our diets, but rather where we source those ingredients.

Researchers, like Michael Pollan, who wrote The Omnivore's Dilemma, puzzled over the question about what's the best way to eat, and that was his conclusion, as well.

If we're going to look for the best ways to eat with an eye on what's best for our bodies and what's best for the planet, we have to look at the entire package.  How was the food raised?  Where was the food raised?  How was the food processed?  How much packaging is required for that food?  How far did the food have to travel for it to get to me? 

All of those things are paramount to determining whether or not our diet is truly ethical, and if those factors are not taken into account, to take a superior stance regarding one's diet based solely on there being no animal-based products is arrogant, at best. 

After years of reading hundreds of books and articles, the definitive answer, for me, is that the only way to have a truly ethical diet is to eat food that is gathered from one's local environment by the person who will be eating it. 

I do not have a completely ethical diet, but neither have I claimed to, and neither do I fault other people for their choices. 

In the end, we can only live the best we can live, and my goal is to make conscious choices in my diet.  In my opinion, that's all anyone can ask of me.  At any rate, that's all they're going to get.

Friday, December 1, 2017

No, Honey, Eat Your Boots!

This picture is the topic of criticism today on Facebook.

The picture was posted with the comment: "Anti-Rich Democratic Socialist" protesting in a pair of $450 boots.

How dare she want to fight for greater income equality, since she is clearly not poor, and given the knowledge that she is at a Democratic Socialist rally, we can make all sorts of character assessments about her, about exactly what she means by that sign, about her obvious (based ONLY on that picture) sense of entitlement.  Clearly, she is just a lazy millenial who wants the world handed to her on a silver platter and through no effort of her own deserves to live in a big house and drive a Maserati.  

Such were the nature of the comments being made about the picture.   

There are a lot of assumptions being made about this woman and her plight.  What I said was that we can't make those assumptions, because we have no idea what her back story is.

The danger in focusing on the appearance of the woman in the above picture is that we miss the message, which, in my opinion, has to do with a lot more than just those very few words.  

Maybe there's something there that's too big and too complicated to put on a sign.  Maybe we should look deeper at that underlying issue, which isn't that she's wearing $450 shoes to a Democratic Socialist rally where she is protesting the super rich by saying, essentially, that if they won't feed the masses, the masses should eat them.  Maybe it's not about food, at all, or about poor people coveting the belongings of the rich, or desiring to have what those rich people have.  

Maybe the problem is not that we want all of the stuff that rich people have, but rather that we are being forced to maintain the same standard of living as rich people without the income to support that lifestyle.

In 2014 a widow named Robin Speronis made the news, because she was attempting to live off-grid in her urban home in Florida.   As with most things, there was probably a little more to the story than that the town just targeted this poor woman, but if we focus on what we know, the bottom line is that her house, which was completely safe and habitable, was condemned, because she had disconnected from public (and costly) utilities.  

She was collecting and filtering rainwater.  She was composting her humanure.  She had a garden in which she was growing most of her own food.  She was living this way, comfortably and safely, happy and healthy, but the Town said that she couldn't live that way.  It was illegal to *not* be connected to the city water supply and sewage lines.  When she refused to comply, her house was condemned, and she was forced to move.  

But understand that they didn't tell her how she was going to pay for these services on her fixed income, and they certainly weren't going to give her financial assistance.  She had devised a way that she could live her life without having to ask for handouts.  Unfortunately, her desire to be self-sufficient was deemed illegal.  

Her story seems radical and very specific to that one situation, and it is, but it isn't.  There are so many stories in which individuals are penalized because they can not afford (or do not desire to have) some amenity that our society has decided is required.

In many parts of this country, we are in a housing crisis.  There aren't places to live that people can afford, and so some people are trying to get creative.  This couple in Oregon built a tiny home in their parents' backyard.  A neighbor complained, which prompted the town to investigate.  The town decided that the house did not meet their codes.

The house was not an eyesore.  It wasn't in anyone's way.  It wasn't blocking the driveway or the ocean view.  The article doesn't say why the neighbor complained.

But that couple can no longer live in their parents' yard.  Where should they live?

What we are allowed to build on our land is highly regulated and subject to the whims of the people who are in control of our communities.  Houses must be a minimum square footage.  Most tiny homes don't meet the minimum, and so are illegal.  We are being forced to meet a minimum standard that ultimately costs more.

Not only do our houses have to be a minimum size, but they must also include sanitary waste disposal, water and electricity.  Get that?  In today's world, here in the US, one can not build and live in a house that is not wired for electricity.  It's in the standard building codes.  Either we connect to the grid or we purchase and install an alternative energy system, but not having electricity is not an option.

Unfortunately, it doesn't end with our houses.  The are also ordinances that govern what kind and if we can have animals on our property.  Want to raise chickens for eggs, because eggs are crazy expensive?  Better not live in a community where "farm animals" are illegal.

Those laws even extend to what plants can be grown.  This woman wasn't growing marijuana.  She was growing tomatoes.  Tomatoes.  According to the article, if she was convicted, she would have to serve 93 days.  Three months.  In Jail.  For growing tomatoes.

We can't raise our own food, because it's not legal, but in the same breath that they are denying our right to feed ourselves, they are blaming us for our diet-related health issues.  Damned if we do and damned if we don't.

In short, we are being forced to adhere to a set of standards that not all of us can afford, and then, we're being blamed for failing to meet those standards.  It's like the education model. We blame a fish for being unable to climb a tree.

We have poor people in this country, many of whom receive government aid - aid that is funded by our collective taxes.  Many of those people would be just as happy to NOT receive that government aid, but without it, they can't eat, because they can't grow their own food; they don't have a place to live, because it's illegal to live in a tent; they can't heat their homes, because the code requirements for low-cost heating options can be incredibly costly (and aren't always just about "safety" - although that's what they'll tell you).

Maybe we should stop giving both handouts and hand-ups.  Maybe we should stop pretending that one size has to fit all, and we should allow some people to live without electricity - if that's their choice.  We should allow young couples to live in tiny houses in their parents' backyards - as long as their tiny house doesn't impose on the neighbor's property (good fences make good neighbors).  Maybe we should not allow laws governing keeping animals - as long as those animals are well managed and given adequate room, shelter and food.  Maybe we shouldn't allow laws regarding what plants can be grown in our yards.

Maybe it's not the incomes that are the problem, but this idea that everyone needs to have all of the same stuff, and anything less is illegal.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Five Ways to Save Money on Shopping That Don't Include Black Friday

The holiday, Thanksgiving, has, kind of, a sordid history in this country.  It started out for our Puritan Ancestors (the self-titled "Pilgrims", who were kicked out of Europe, because they couldn't play nice with anyone, and resettled here in the New World where they hoped they could forge a more powerful bond between them and their god)  as a religious observation and a day of giving thanks for the bounty of their lives.  The fact that they were alive was, kind of, a miracle in itself. 

The story is that they were joined in a feast by the natives.  There are conflicting accounts of what, exactly, that feast involved and how it came about. 

Fast forward a hundred or so years, and the so-called Colonies have fought and won a War of Independence.  The first President of the United States of America, George Washington, declares a "Day of Thanksgiving."   Over the years, subsequent Presidents, more or less continue this tradition of declaring a day at the end of the harvest season to be the National Day of Thanksgiving.  It's not an annual holiday, yet, though.

In the 1930s, President Roosevelt made it an actual holiday, and he named "the fourth Thursday of the month" as the day it was to be observed.  The Wikipedia rationale behind his choice of days was that the month of November in that year had five Thursdays, and by setting the holiday on the fourth Thursday, people might get out and shop more in anticipation of the upcoming Christmas holiday.

In short, the day we celebrate Thanksgiving was, in deed, a calculated attempt to get us to shop more.

Of course this whole Black Friday phenomenon was not part of the original plan.  It was just a happy side effect - that is, happy for retailers.

What happened was that this National Holiday was declared and set for a specific day of the year - a Thursday - which meant that MOST people would have a four day weekend.  Schools would be out of session for the last two days of the week, and many businesses would be closed, which meant that after gorging themselves into a turkey coma on Thursday, everyone woke to find themselves with nothing to do on Friday.  Why not go shopping?!

Many people began using that day as an opportunity to get a leg-up on their Christmas shopping, because by the 1950s or so, Christmas was already completely commercialized.  Heck, probably sooner, right?  The movie, A Christmas Story (you know, "You'll shoot your eye out!"), is set during the 1940s, and we can see exactly how commercialized things already were (oh, thanks FDR for encouraging us all to just get out and spend money we don't have - debt be damned!  You only live once!! - says the millionaire politician, in direct defiance to the fact that debt overload is what caused the Great Depression to be so bad - spending got us there, and so, of course, spending can get us out).

So, by the middle of the 20th Century, people were already conditioned to spend like crazy in December, and in an attempt to get an early start, Americans would use that free vacation day to shop for Christmas.

Retailers took note.  In fact the name, "Black Friday" is a nod to their financial sheets.  Being in the Black, in financial terms, means seeing a profit.  Retailers noticed a significant increase in their bottom line on that Friday following Thanksgiving Thursday, and so they started promoting it as a "Shopping Holiday" (those two words together are the very definition of an oxymoron - unless one considers that shopping has become somewhat of a religious experience for the masses).

Retailers began encouraging MORE shopping by offering, what they claim, are one-time deals, offered only on that day.

Anti-consumerists have pushed back against this onslaught of commercialization, and adopted the above slogan and resolved to "Buy Nothing" on this day of shopping.

It should be no surprise to my regular readers that I'm fully on board with the anti-consumerists.  No, I do not shop on Black Friday.  In fact, I purposely plan an at-home day on that day.  This year, if things go as planned, Deus Ex Machina will be taking the daughters to their regular Friday music lesson and then to the library.  I will be staying home and grouting the tile we'll lay either Wednesday evening or Thursday evening. 

I work my hardest to go no where, so that I'm not even a little tempted to spend. 

Although I'd (sort of) like to go out this Friday, as an observer. I might buy a cup of coffee.  What I'd like to see is if the deals are really all that great, because I suspect that they aren't, based on what I know of how marketing works. 

For retailers the goal is to get shoppers into the store.  They will offer this amazing one-time-only deal.  Often this "deal" is on select items, but there isn't an unlimited supply of that thing.  One has to be first in line in order to get the good deal.  Once the item is sold out, what's left in the store is just all of the regular stuff that, pretty much, costs the same on Black Friday as it did on Wednesday before Thanksgiving and Saturday after.  In short, with the exception of a very few really good deals, there is no difference in price on most items. 

But they will make us think we're getting a bargain on other stuff, and their ultimate goal is to just get us into the store so that we'll buy a bunch of other, none sale, items.  Everyone does.  Don't feel bad if you do, too.  The store layout, lighting, smell, and sound are all designed to make us spend more money.  It's all very psychological, and someone makes a lot of money making sure we spend more of ours.

Here's where that saying really applies, A fool and his money are soon parted. 

So, what's a person to do? 

I'm not as thrifty as I would like, and yes, there are times when I, too, fall prey to the allure of all that shiny, new stuff.  The following are five ways I keep from being the fool.

1.  Avoid Stores

Seems simple enough.  The problem is that, as a culture, we have lost so much of our community.  In these modern times, hanging out at shopping venues is too often how we meet and socialize with other people.  Deus Ex Machina and I actually met an older lady for whom going to the grocery store was her "outing."  She brought her little dog, who sat in the child seat of the cart, and she used the shopping cart as a walker, of sorts.  She just walked around the store, slowly, and chatted with people who chatted with her.  I don't recall ever seeing anything in her cart, except, maybe, dog food. 

While she wasn't buying a whole lot of nothing she needed, that's not typical of most of us.  When we go to the Mall or other shopping venues as entertainment, spending money becomes our past-time, and we will all fall victim to spending what we don't have.  The only way to not spend is to not go.

There are a lot of other places we could go to get that same community feel for a lot less or no money:  the library, a local health and fitness club, a community support organization (like a food pantry), or community support events (like the community dinners, volunteering as an usher or other positions at the local community theater, etc.). 

There are lots of places and ways to meet people that don't include going shopping.

2.  Make a List.

This one, also, is a no-brainer, but it's also one of those things that we don't do or we only half do.  I know I'm guilty of it, and there have been too many times when I went to the store without a list and only a vague idea of what I wanted to purchase. 

At the grocery store, the result is coming home to find that I, now, have four jars of mayonnaise but no mustard - or some similar pantry imbalance.  It's frustrating, and it's also costly.  If I'm making something that needs mustard, for instance, then, I have to make a special trip to the grocery store ... which can be even more expensive, because no one goes to the grocery store and just gets that ONE thing.  Extra stuff always ends up on that conveyor belt at the register.  To wit:  the other day I ran into the store for pecans to make a dessert for Thanksgiving dinner.  I walked out of there with pecans AND two or three other things, including some sparkling water, because I was thirsty and I was going to be waiting for my daughters while they were in dance class. 

It's just too easy to pick up that extra thing, or two, since we're there anyway.  Right? 

Which is why Black Friday, especially, is so egregious.  They'll pull you in for a computer or an awesome deal on an iPhone, but once you get there, you'll see all of these other awesome things, too - probably not at a great price, but at an okay price (usually the regular price you would normally pay on any other day).

And the real kicker is that we'll walk out of those stores, having spent $300, and thinking we got such good deals.

3.  Keep an Ongoing List of Things You Need.

This idea stemmed from my love of shopping in Thrift Stores, and it serves me in several ways. 

The first is that it, pretty well, eliminates most impulse shopping.  Not all, but some.  Since I don't just go shopping for the heck of it, much anymore, I don't get out to stores very often, and so I have to keep a list of things we need so that when I'm out, I can pick it up.  Sometimes I forget ... for a very long time ... and sometimes, after a period of time has passed, I realize that I don't need or want that item, really, not any more.  Just like that, I've saved myself a bunch of money, because I didn't buy this thing I didn't need. 

Even better, I didn't rush right out when I first decided I needed it, and buy the thing, and probably a bunch of other stuff, at full price.  I waited until I could find it second-hand (at the thrift store or through the yard sale sites) or until it was on sale somewhere.

Some examples are my wing-backed chair, which has become plural (we have four), and I spent less than $120 for all of them. 

I have a very small, very long and narrow living and dining area.  I've spent YEARS trying to figure out what works best and is most aesthetically pleasing for the space.  I like my couch, and intend to keep it, but it wasn't enough seating.  I wanted a chair, but not just any chair would fit or look good.

We made do for a long, long time while I looked at different chair designs, and I finally decided that a wing-backed chair was what I needed and wanted.  I found a picture of the one and posted it on FB as this is what I want.  A few weeks after I posted the picture, I found one.  It wasn't exactly what I wanted (I would have preferred leather, but a new leather winged-back chair is $3000 - yeah.  That's not gonna happen), but it was a nice chair.  I bought it secondhand for $40. 

A few months later, a woman posted TWO wing-backed chairs for sale on the yard sale site for $70.  My daughter told me she wanted one for her room.  So, I replied that I was interested, and the lady sold them to me. 

So, we had one winged-back chair in the living room and one in each of my daughters' bedrooms. Life is good.

Then, some neighbors moved out down the road.  They posted a "curb alert" on the yard sale site.  We stopped by, and they had left a winged back chair.  Did I mention that it was free?  Now, every bedroom has a winged-back chair, and there's still one for the living room. 

That example is truthfully how it happened for me, and yes, four chairs is pretty much overkill, but I spent less on those FOUR chairs than I would have on one, if I had purchased it new ... even on Black Friday.  And all but one of them are in excellent condition. 

4.  Always Check the Clearance Section.

I used to own and operate a home business.  A few months before I officially dissolved my business, my inkjet printer started spewing ink all over the documents I was printing.  It was not okay, and my client was really not happy.  I needed a new printer.

So, I went to the office supply store, and I bought the cheapest inkjet printer I could find.  The printer that died was a four-in-one machine with printing, copying, scanning, and faxing capabilities.  I'd purchased it when my business was thriving, and it was worth every penny to me at the time of purchase.  The new machine was a printer.  Only a printer.  And not a very good printer, at that, AND it used a lot of ink, which was very expensive. 

One day I was in Staples for ink (again!), and I decided to take a look at their Clearance section.  There were a few laser jet printer/copier/scanners on the shelf, but there were no prices.  I whipped out my smartphone and started looking up the model numbers and stuff to see if I could figure out a price and some specs on the machines. 

An employee came over and asked if I needed help, and I asked if he could tell me how much the printers cost.  He looked it up.  They were $10.  Yes, they worked.  No, they were not returns.  What they were, were the display models, and so they weren't new, exactly.

Yes, I did walk out of there with a new(ish) printer.  The toner cartridge costs $100 to replace, but it will last four to six months (more or less depending on how much I'm printing).  The ink cartridges on that little, flimsy, cheap printer I purchased for $80 lasted two weeks, if I were doing a lot of printing, and maybe a month if I was doing a moderate amount of printing.  They might last two months these days, when I'm doing almost no printing, BUT they cost $25 each.  there are four of them.  You do the math.  Yes, I bought that laser jet.  No, I have no regrets.

But it wasn't on Black Friday.  The thing is, the Clearance section is always there, and there are occasionally some REALLY good deals - better than Black Friday deals. 

My other Clearance section win is the paint we used for our bedroom.  The paint was in the oopsy section at the hardware store.  There were four cans of it.  I didn't know, exactly, where I wanted to use it when I grabbed two gallons.  I needed to paint the bedroom and the hallway, and both of my daughters wanted their rooms painted.  Each gallon was $10.  The normal price for a gallon of paint is between $30 and $50 depending on the brand.  I saved $40.  My room is now a beautiful, warm, golden hue.  The paint color is "Golden Retriever."  Very apropos for this household of dog lovers.

5.  Know the Season for Sales.

I'm looking for solar lights.  I'd love a few around my yard, because we have some shadowy spots I'd like to illuminate, and solar lights are free lighting (after the purchase of the light).  Solar lights are also a great prepper item for emergency lighting when the power is out.

There are several seasons during which solar lights are offered, and if one is not picky about the motif of one's lights (wasn't there a country song about keeping the Christmas lights on all year long?), one can find such things very inexpensively. 

The same holds true for most items.  Lawn furniture, bathing suits, and seeds are best purchased in September or October.   Cold season annuals go on sale in July.  Winter coats go on sale in December.  Everything has a season and a best time to buy.  In fact, here's a whole article on when the best time to purchase common goods is.  None of those items are best purchased on Black Friday. 

Bonus:  Sign up for Rewards Programs and Receive Email Flyers/Coupons

So, the other day on the non-consumer FB page a woman posted a receipt from Victoria's Secret.  The title of her post was "Non-consumer Win!"  The story was that she had received a coupon flyer in the mail.  There were two coupons in her flyer.  One for a pair of free panties.  One for $10 off any purchase.  She went home with two pairs of Victoria's Secret panties for $0.75.  Yes, that is correct.  Her total cost for two pairs of panties - and please note that the panties were her only purchase - was less than a dollar. 

I receive rewards from several stores, and I don't always take advantage of them.  Purchasing something I don't need just because it's on sale and/or I have a coupon is just as egregious as shopping on Black Friday because I think I'm going to get a good deal, but if I know I'm going to need something, or if it's something like panties (which can be stored and used when the current pairs wear-out), why not spend the $0.75? 

Most of the time the only cost to you for receiving these deals is the sharing of your personal information with these stores (and, mind you, they WILL bombard you with offers - most of which I just delete or throw in the fire).  But it's a nice, money-saving tool when there is something I need. 

I don't shop as a form of entertainment, and I really only go into stores when I have a specific need.  I have my list of things I'm looking for.  I keep an eye on the yard sale sites.  When I go into stores, I always visit the clearance section.  I pay close attention to the seasons of things.

And, I've learned to be exceedingly patient.  Like with the chairs.  I could have settled for something I didn't really want, but by waiting, I got exactly what I want, and it looks AWESOME in my space.  I couldn't be happier.



My daughter had a list of things she wanted for her birthday.  She didn't get any of them, because the reality is that she doesn't need any of them.  We were buried in clutter for three years while we worked on the back room, and I am still clearing, sorting, and purging.  She is, too, and so the last thing we wanted to do was to get her more stuff she would need to find a space for.

Instead, we bought tickets to see Tartuffe in Boston, and we invited her friend to come with us.  It was a wonderful show.  She was introduced to a classic, French play, and we had a fun time, hanging out and driving down for the day. 

I guess if one really needs to purchase something on Black Friday, as a gift for friends or family for the holidays, perhaps consider an experience rather than a thing.  If you really need to go somewhere on Friday, consider visiting a local coffee shop, or a local farm store, or a local brew pub.  You will definitely get your money's worth, you might even meet some nice people, and you'll be building community.  There's no bad in that.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Five Everyday (Prepper) Gifts

The whole idea behind preparedness is that we be "prepared" in the event of some catastrophic, life-changing event.  Many of us in the prepper world imagine a future with limited resources in which we will be scrounging just to meet our daily needs.  That's the kind of future we are trying to avoid by being prepared - the scrounging part, that is.  We believe we'll be prepared, and everyone else will be scrounging.

The positive about being a prepper is that it is empowering.  We feel secure that we are ready - no matter what may come.

This past summer, Deus Ex Machina left his job, and we were in a position where our income was no longer sure.  Deus Ex Machina found another job before our situation became dire, but our situation is not the case for a lot of people.  A job loss could probably be defined as "life changing", and it certainly did change our lives - mostly for the better.

We were ready, as I told him (and anyone else who would listen).  We'd been getting ready for exactly that type of event for a very long time.

With the holidays right around the corner, and having come through our Summer of Scarcity, I am compiling a list of gifts that are both useful and practical from a prepping standpoint, and I think I have five really good items to get for the prepper (and non-prepper) in your life.

The thing that makes a good gift is something that you know your recipient will need/use, and that's where a lot of prepper kinds of gifts fall short.  Many of them are not things that people will use on a regular basis.  Like a solar shower.  I mean, YES!  During the recent power outage having a camp shower would have been a lot easier than my 4L shower, but the 4L shower is more practical - and it was free(ish).  So, win/win for me.

Other than being free, let's talk about why the 4L is a better alternative to a solar camp shower.

Unless one goes camping, that solar shower will get shoved into a corner and never see the light of day ... unless there's a power outage ... and then, it STILL may not make it out of that dark corner.  It depends on one's shower set-up.  We'd probably have to put a hook in the cedar tongue-and-groove boards in our bathroom, and given the expense and time we spent putting the wall up, it's very unlikely that I'd be able to talk Deus Ex Machina into putting a hole in it.

Chances are that most people are in the same predicament.  One gallon of water weighs 8lbs.  Five gallons of water (the usual size of a solar camp shower) weighs 40 lbs.  The average shower rod set-up won't hold 40lbs. 

I like gadgets.  Having a solar shower would be fun, just to say I have it, but I'm not sure it's something I would use very often.

So, when I think about gifts, I have to keep that in mind.  What will the people to whom I am giving those prepper gifts (whether or not they are preppers) most appreciate and most likely use regularly?  And it goes back to what I would use.

Here's a list of five things that can be considered Prepper Items, but that can and probably will be used more regularly.

1.  Jumpstarter Battery.

During our most recent two-day outage, we found that having this particular little gizmo was very useful.  We were able to plug things into it to charge them up - like all of our phones.  Several years ago, when I was still working as a Virtual Assistant, I was able to plug my transcriber into the jumpstarter and do some work.

It's really useful in a power outage as a back-up battery.  It's also useful in just general, daily use.  It's actual function is to jumpstart a car, and I don't know about you, but I started carrying jumper cables many years ago, because of how frequently I needed them.  Just this weekend, we were at a gas station, and our truck wouldn't start.  We know we need a new battery, but haven't had time to get one.  The cold weather is making the truck temperamental, and having the charger meant we didn't need to call a tow truck.

It also allows us to put air in our tires (including the bicycle tires) and it has a great work light.

In short, it's a very functional and very useful item to have hanging around.

2.  Food Dehydrator.

The hallmark of a good prepper is someone who has at least three months of stored food.  Most serious preppers have a lot more, and preppers who also have a homesteading bent will have a garden and a desire to store as much of that seasonal goodness as possible.

Canning is a good option for storing excess summer produce, but canned foods use a great deal of energy (all that boiling water and all), AND jars take up a lot of room.  Plus, there's the whole food spoilage worry.

Dehydrated foods are easy to prepare, don't require a lot of storage space, and depending on what the food item is, are generally safe for long-term storage.  Pemmican, which is a cake made with dehydrated meat, berries and fat, stores for a very long time.  It's touted as a survival food, and by all accounts, was used by the Indigenous people of North America as a winter food.

Another benefit to dehydrating foods is that most will retain their nutritional value (or even concentrate some vitamins and minerals) better than some other methods of preserving those foods.

We use our dehydrator and not just as a prepper tool, but as a tool for preserving our harvest.  Our favorite dehydrated foods are wild greens (like dandelion and plantain) and jerked meats.

3.  Outdoor solar lights.

Little Fire Faery has two obsessions currently:  plants (mostly succulents) and "fairy" lights.  She has several sets of different sizes around her room, and I have to admit that the look is growing on me.  I like the way the string lights look, but I don't like the amount of electricity they use.   As an alternative, these lights would be perfect.  She could put the charger in her window, and then, string these lights around her room.  

But the lights are useful in a lot of different spaces.  We have two skylights, and with these globe lights, we could put the charger in the skylight to charge the lights all day, and then, at night, even when we still have power, we could have "free" light in the hallway.  

And, of course, they add ambiance to outside spaces also.  

For the price (a lot less than purchasing, installing and running an electric light - even with LED bulbs), this lighting option can't really be beat, and for those who are serious about cost savings AND prepping, having solar lights instead of a bunch of electric lights all over the place, is a dream come true. 

Plus, we'd never have to listen to "Dad" tell us to turn off the lights (in my house the dad who is always complaining about all of the lights being left on is me - drives me crazy :)).

4.  Fondue Pot.

One of the reasons the recent power outage here in southern Maine was no big deal to my family was that we have a wood stove.  We had heat, and we were able to cook.   The problem, for us, is that if it's hot and the power goes out, we won't have the wood stove going.  Our options for low-energy cooking are limited.  We have a propane grill, but that requires that we have propane.  We can also start a fire outside and cook on an open fire, and since Deus Ex Machina and Big Little Sister are Trail Rats, we have a few a camp stoves - none of which can be used inside.  

So, if it's warm AND raining, we're very limited in our ability to make a meal. 

The first time I had fondue was when Deus Ex Machina and I were enlisted in the Army and in Germany.  As OCS candidates, we were invited to a very fancy, officers-only dinner with our German Partnership Unit.  Fondue was the appetizer.  I probably embarrassed myself, but I was cute and a very rare uniformed female (at that time, there weren't a lot of women in the German Army).  

That experience left an indelible mark on me.  The ability to cook, MEAT, of all things, in a little pot of oil on a table is actually pretty remarkable, and from a prepper standpoint, it's a really awesome tool.

But from any standpoint, having a fondue pot is useful ... and fun! 

Fondue is just fun food.  Making fondue can be a serious family bonding experience, and depending on the quality of the meats and cheeses, it can be a really healthy choice over most fast food.  In fact, instead of Pizza Fridays, maybe families could start doing Fondue Fridays.  Steamed vegetables, some gluten-free crackers or bread, and small chunks of meat.  With two fondue pots, one could have a meat cooking pot and a cheese melting pot.  

Plus, the fondue pot is a really good low-energy cooking source.  Our dessert fondue pot uses a tea light candle for fuel.  Then, there's this how-to article on making fondue gel.  

5.  Phone Charger.

It's probably true that no one needs a cellphone, and in a true powered-down scenario (like the feared EMP strike), all of our cellphones would be obsolete anyway.

But in an everyday world, we still use cellphones, and we still need to charge them.  I charge mine regularly.  Sometimes, I even need to charge mine when I'm someplace without a wall plug.

That's where this handy-dandy little charger can be exceedingly useful.  It can be charged with the sun or by plugging it into an outlet.  It holds the charge for a good long time and has enough power to fully charge a couple of devices.

Deus Ex Machina originally purchased it for the Trail, but my daughter uses it all of the time - even when we're not in the midst of a power outage. 

This one is a great gift, and a great item for everyday use.

The point of this post is not to encourage consumerism, but for those who are going to purchase gifts for friends and loved ones this season anyway, but who are also of a prepper mindset, all of the items listed are reasonably priced and are useful for everyday AND prepper applications.

Monday, November 13, 2017

New Toy

There's a story I like to tell about this time that Deus Ex Machina and I were hauling wood.  Our daughters were still very small (the youngest was, maybe, six), and so while they've always helped to the best of their ability, in those early days when we first started heating with wood full-time and worked to keep our costs low by sourcing free wood whenever we could, Deus Ex Machina and I did most of the work.  He did the cutting and chopping.  I did the carrying and stacking.

The story is about this one time that I tried to do the chopping, but I wasn't doing a very good job.  The maul is very heavy and awkward for me.  I'm just so terrified that I'm going to miss the log and hit my shin.  Anyway, without going into detail, he made fun of me.  I haven't tried to split wood since that time, and I certainly don't EVER split wood where he can see me.

The problem is that I have a lot more time than he has to do things, like split wood.  I just didn't have the tools. 

Last fall, Deus Ex Machina's dad invited us onto his 25 acre, mostly wooded property to glean the standing dead wood and to thin some trees from an area that was overcrowded.  His dad has a lot of toys and tools, including a gas-powered hydraulic woodsplitter, which both I and Precious learned to operate. 

Here she is working.

I was impressed by how easy it was for her.  I'm not comfortable with big, loud machines.  I don't even have a gas-powered lawn mower.  Not that I "can't" use them.  I just prefer - quieter - alternatives.       

The other issue is that to use the woodsplitter, we have to go over the in-laws' house, which is a half-hour drive.  No problem if we're there already, getting wood, and we're just splitting what we've taken from his woods.  But, occasionally, we are given wood from other sources, and this wood almost always needs to be split.  We just don't have the money or the storage space for a big, gas-powered splitter, and loading the wood onto the truck and driving it over to his dad's to split there is just not the most efficient way of doing things.

I've been asking Deus Ex Machina to get a manual woodsplitter for a few years.

And we, finally, have one.

Ours is very similar to this one on Amazon - and it works great!   

And now, I can tackle the cord or so of wood we have in the yard that still needs to split ... well, on a day when it's not spitting snow ;). 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Finding Purpose for My Stuff

With the back room finished, I've been working on improving the functionality of our home.  Decluttering is part of the process, and part of the decluttering process is sorting through boxes and baskets that have been filled with stuff and then tucked into a corner somewhere ... and mostly forgotten about.

The thing with my house, as I know I've said so many times, is that we don't have storage, and so everything is kind of out in the open, but not.  I have boxes of things on a shelf or baskets of whatever tucked next to a chair.  The stuff is usually things I don't want to throw away, but which I don't have a place for, and so those things just get stuffed.  My current goal is to unstuff the stuff, and if it's stuff I really do want to keep, to find a place for it.

Like my pair of wooden clogs.  My parents purchased them for me in Amsterdam when I was six.  They're real, hand-carved wooden clogs, and at this point, they're antiques.  Obviously, I can't wear them, but I also didn't want to just toss them away.  I knew I wanted to put them on the wall, but I wanted them to do more than just be empty vessels on a wall. 

Little Fire Faery loves plants, and she has a particular affinity for succulents.  The local garden center has a section that's primarily houseplants.  They're open year-round, and recently, they were having a sale on some of their plants.  She talked me into going over there, because she'd earned a few dollars dog-sitting and needed to spend her money on more plants.

I found some air plants and knew exactly what I wanted to do with those clogs. 

This is in my hallway, and this spot has always been bare.  I've been trying to figure out where to put that clock that Big Little Sister bought for Deus Ex Machina for Christmas last year, and that plaque was a gift from Deus Ex Machina's former boss. 

I like it, and it gives a place for all of those things that were just tucked in a corner not doing anyone any good.  Total cost for me was $6 for the plants. 

A few weeks ago, I found a storage ottoman that was perfect for our small living room.  It gives us extra seating and has a compartment for storage.  I haven't, really, put much in that storage compartment, yet, except some blankets and a yoga mat, which is perfect, because when I need a space for something, I'll have it.

The top is soft and pillowy, which is what we wanted for seating, but it's not great for a coffee table.  The solution is an ottoman tray, which can be purchased for many dollars.  I started looking for something at the thrift stores, because I just can't afford the "new" price.  Unfortunately it's not an item that people get rid of.  Then, I found this tray for a couple of dollars at the thrift store, and those handles for free behind a dumpster.

I already had some black paint, and yesterday, I had some time to put everything together.  

Here's my tray all fixed up and doing its job. 

Studies have shown a link between clutter and depression.  Anecdotally, from my personal experience, I can validate those studies from the perspective of how relieved and *not* depressed I feel after having cleared most of the clutter.  

My next project is to tackle the kitchen clutter.  That'll be fun.


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Low-Energy Lights

Many of my friends and acquaintances were without power this week.  As such, we've had a few chats (mostly on Facebook) about different solutions.

For lighting, one friend recommends these:

They're a solar LED light that can be super bright.  Last summer, when Deus Ex Machina was preparing for his second attempt with Big Little Sister of the 100 Mile Wilderness on the Appalachian Trail, we saw these lanterns at the Eastern Mountain Sports store.  

After spending two days without electricity, and now really motivated to get off-grid, I'm thinking these lights would be awesome as an alternative to electric-powered lights.  Sure, they're still an LED bulb, just like the ones in our fixtures, and sure, our LED lights don't use a lot of electricity, but imagine using NO electricity and getting the same amount/quality of light?

These don't cost much more than a good LED bulb.  

The first step to transitioning to an alt-energy system is to reduce.  The less electricity we use, the less we need to generate.  Win/win.   

Power-Free: Day Three

It's been just over 48 hours since the power blipped off here at Chez Brown.  The first two days, in addition to no electricity, we were also without cell service, which means no phone calls and no internet.  Our cell service was restored last night, and my daughters were ecstatic.  They are fine without electricity, as long as they can charge their devices (cellphones and laptops), but being cut-off from their friends and the world was frustrating for them. 

It was a little annoying for me, too, given that we made the conscious choice to cut our landline (which provided internet and phone service - even when the power was out ... as long as the phone lines were intact) for a mobile internet service through our cell phone provider.  To be paying for the service, but unable to access it, was a bit frustrating. 

Anyway, that's all fixed, but it looks like we might still be without electricity for a few more days.  Our neighbor stopped by a few minutes ago.  His family owns a local hotel, and he, his wife, and their children were staying there.  He offered to bring some ice to me so that I could keep the stuff in my refrigerator cold.  While he was here, he told me that the power company was saying we might have power back by Saturday.  Today is Wednesday.

Which has me thinking, quite a lot, about needs and wants. 

My daughters and I have had some very interesting and insightful discussions these last few days.  Most importantly, we've all recognized that our modern lives are heavily dependent on electricity.  The constant rumble of someone's heavy-duty generator is a testament to that fact.  I mean, to not even be able to do without electricity for a couple of days.  People lived without electricity for hundreds of thousands of years, and we modern folk can't even do without for a couple of days.  Heck, for some people, even a couple of hours is an emergency.

I guess my family and I are fortunate.  I mean, I've kind of built a lifestyle out of thinking about and preparing for this type of event, and really, the only issue that we haven't solved is how to keep our frozen stuff frozen. 

** And as I was sitting in my quiet house, listening to the neighbor's generator rumbling, and typing out this post, the electricity came back on. 

We were power-free for a total of fifty-one hours.  We didn't die.  I did dishes and laundry.  I mopped the floors.  I made coffee.  We enjoyed dinner by oil lamp with delicious hot meals prepared on the wood stove.  We stayed warm and clean.  Basically, we went about life as usual, with only a few modifications. 

Two days is not a long time to live without electricity, and as I said over the entire course of this (non) event, the only real worry was the stuff in the freezer.  In fact, that's the only thing for which we were ill-prepared.

When the power came back on, I opened the refrigerator.  It was still cool enough that I wasn't worried the food inside had spoiled.  The big freezer where all of the meat is kept is still frozen solid, which means we didn't lose anything in that freezer.  The freezer in the side-by-side did not fare as well, but most of what was in there was berries.  I emptied the smaller freezer and turned the temperature down as far as it would go. 

Today's task will be making Freezer Berry Jam. 

If the power outage had been longer, the big freezer might have thawed, too, and now that we know most of our other needs are met, even without electricity, the only worry now, is to do something about the freezer issue.

We have two choices:  1.  don't put things in the freezer (which means that we would lose the option of roasted chicken in the winter); 2. purchase an off-grid system to keep the freezer running when the grid is down. 

I'm hoping that Deus Ex Machina and I will make the commitment to the latter choice, and purchasing something like this Goal Zero Yeti 400 would rectify the one weak spot in our ability to be off-grid. 

And we already have a solar panel that should be enough to keep it charged. 

What's even better, though, is that the price of this power station, even if one adds a panel or two (and one doesn't have to have solar panels, as it can be charged on grid-power, and then just used as a back-up when the power goes out), is comparable to a gas-powered generator, at a much lower cost to operate.

These two days have been a great exercise for us, and the end result is that I can feel how close we are to truly being off-grid.  The freezer, the water heater, the washing machines (both dishes and clothes) and the "devices" use so little electricity that we could provide it ourselves.  It would take some organizing.  With only 400W of power, we wouldn't be able to run the washing machine(s) and the freezer at the same time, but the reality is that none of them NEED to be running at the same time. 

We live in a set it and forget it world, where we are do totally dependent that too many of us feel that life without the grid is unbearable, but we don't have to be that way.  We have choices.  So.  Many.  Choices.

And if it sounds like I'm admonishing us all - including me and my family - I am.  We are complacent, and yes, a little lazy.  We take things for granted, too much.  It's just too easy to glide through life, flipping switches, and being secure that when we do, something miraculous will happen. 

Electricity is magical.  But it's not a necessity.  

These last couple of days were a good reminder of that fact.  My goal, now, is to appreciate every second of grid power I have, while I work diligently to power my house down to the absolute necessities. 

Hmm ... maybe I'll turn off every outlet, except one, and practice plugging and unplugging things.


No power?  No problem.  Wood stove s'mores ... a great way to spend Halloween ;).