Monday, October 9, 2017

Five Ways to Save for Retirement ... That Don't Include Money

Let's face it. Most of us don't do a good job of saving money. We all know we need to save money for retirement, but for those of us without an automatic pension plan or a 401K option we started at the beginning of our careers – before we ended up needing a certain level of income to maintain our current lifestyle – starting the practice of regularly putting a little aside is difficult.  It becomes even worse the longer we wait, and if we have children or suffer job/income losses, saving for retirement can become all-but out of reach. 

In 1997, Deus Ex Machina and I moved to Maine. He found an entry-level job, and I started my career as a stay-at-home Mom. In 1998, I started a home-based business and have been self-employed ever since.  Over the last two decades Deus Ex Machina has worked at several different companies, only two of which had a 401k program. If we wanted to save money for retirement, we would have needed to have opened our own, personal, retirement savings account.

Living on one and a half incomes is a challenge, and without an employer sponsored retirement program, retirement savings ends up being one of those things one is going to do in the future. Unfortunately, sometimes, the future comes more quickly than planned.

According to this article, almost one-fifth of the senior population here in the US depends solely on the federal social security system for financial support. It's usually not enough, as the article points out, and (too) many seniors, these days, are taking low-wage jobs just to make ends meet.

Articles, like the one referenced above and this one, are full of great advice on how and how much we should be saving toward retirement. According to the second article, if one earns an annual salary of $74,000, one would need to have saved $1.3 million for retirement, which works out to over $900/month or $11,000 per year in savings. Putting that kind of money into a savings account and still keeping a roof over our heads and food in our mouths just isn't possible. The article advises starting early.

Yeah … well, that ship sailed without us.

The fact is that it becomes even more difficult to START saving the older one gets, and when one is my age, if one doesn't already have some savings, whatever one is able to save from this point forward isn't going to go very far anyway. Sometimes any little bit doesn't really help. What's that saying, rob Peter to pay Paul? That's how starting to save at my age can feel.

Suppose that I was able to find some stray $11,000 a year to put into a non-interest bearing savings account. When I retired, I'd only have $165,000 in the bank. That's a nice savings. I could pay off my house.  It's true that I wouldn't have a non-interest bearing account.  If those funds are invested well, I could be looking at twice that amount, or more.  Certainly, I'd be no where near the $1.3 million, but I could be sitting on a quarter of a million, or slightly more, when I retire.  

The problem - for me, anyway - is that those funds are rarely secure.  In fact the first article I linked to above has a heart-breaking story about a woman who invested in a 401k only to be robbed of her entire savings just when she needed it most.  So, I could be putting my money into a savings account and trusting that we won't end up with another 2008 too-big-to-fail situation but with the banks not being bailed out by the government.  I could be putting my money into US Treasury bonds and trusting that we won't follow Venezuela into economic collapse.  I could be investing in the Stock Market and hoping that we don't end up with 1930s style Market crash.  

Or, instead of scrimping and saving now, so that I can live on a tiny fixed income as a senior citizen, I could be investing in my future in very real ways that will make my future more secure and more comfortable.

Here are five ways Preppers (or anyone) could be investing that don't involve risking our hard-earned dollars.

Pay off the mortgage

I think the absolute best thing one can do to prepare for retirement is to make sure that one is debt-free when one enters those golden years.

And by debt-free, I also mean free from a mortgage. In the first article referenced above, the writer states that social security is less than what a person can make working a full-time minimum wage job. If that's true, a senior citizen who only has social security will be subsisting on about $1200 per month. If one has to pay rent or a mortgage out of that amount of money, it might not actually be possible to subsist on only that. As such, paying off the house and living rent/mortgage free would be a huge step in the right direction.

I could invest in a retirement savings, or I could pay off my house. The latter is, in my opinion, a much better choice.

The best thing I can do for Old Wendy is to make sure that she has a place to live.

Reduce the cost of one's utilities

Going hand-in-hand with paying off the mortgage is reducing/eliminating one's other bills. We already don't live with and don't want or need cable television. I would completely cut all television-related expenses, if I could convince my family, which means no Netflix, either. Granted, cable television isn't a utility, as the heading implies, but cutting the proverbial cord is a step toward the necessary independence to keep Old Wendy more financially secure.

Reducing one's overall footprint with regard to electricity usage and water usage will also be valuable to Old Wendy. The less one has to pay for those basic things, the less money one needs to live comfortably.

So, instead of spending $900/month on a retirement account, one could put those funds toward setting up an alternative energy system.  For less than a half a year's worth of savings, we could be generating enough electricity to power some small electronics (laptops, phones, some LED bulbs) and our freezer.  By the time I'm ready to retire, we could have a whole-house system with enough capability to run whatever we plug into it (including the power-hungry electric stove), that was completely paid off and we'd be generating electricity for free.  

Setting water barrels for watering the garden and giving the animals water (and for use in an emergency) will reduce the water bill, which will also translate into a huge savings.  Algae-free, filtered rainwater can also be used for washing clothes and dishes, which would reduce the water bill even more. 

And for a small, one time investment, the toilets (which are the biggest user of clean water in the average US household) could be replaced with composting toilets.  

With just those small changes (at a cost of less than three months of the recommended $900 of retirement investment), one could cut one's water bill in half.  We don't pay a lot for water, but our water company recently announced an increase in our water rates for infrastructure repairs we didn't ask for or authorize, but for which we will be paying.  If we were on a fixed income, increases, like that, might just be more than we could afford.  

With only a year's worth of the recommended retirement savings, we could take our house completely off-grid, which would save thousands over the years leading up to retirement, and leave us in a pretty happy position when we transition into those golden years. 

Learn to grow one's own food

One of the biggest problems that I hear for the elderly is having enough food. In the first referenced article, the author advises his readers to visit the food pantries. I agree that the service the food pantries provide is invaluable to a lot of people. Speaking only with regard to the food pantry where I volunteered, pantries provide supplemental food and keep edible food out of the garbage. It's a good thing.

The problem is that there is absolutely no continuity of food choice at the pantry. One week might yield a refrigerator full of salads, fresh eggs and gourmet cheese, a freezer full of organic meat, shelves brimming with long-grain rice, BPA-free cans of refried beans, gluten-free cereal, and all-you-can-pack-in-a-grocery-sack of day-old produce and bread. The next visit will yield mealy apples and Wonder bread, a freezer full of ice cream and frozen pizzas (not gluten-free), shelves of canned tomato soup and boxes of fruit roll-ups, and a refrigerator containing cans of off-brand diet soda. It can be a good supplement, sometimes, but more often than not, this discarded food is stuff that other people don't want to eat. It's the donated stuff from the backs of people's cabinets or the bottom of the grocer's produce bin. The best thing our pantry offered was a steady supply of quality breads (none of which I can eat, because I don't eat bread) and a lot of still-edible produce, most of which needed to be used much sooner than later, because most of it was right on the edge.

Over the past decade, I have been learning to grow my own food. Some years are better than others, but I'm finally figuring a few things out. Potatoes grow really well in bags. Actual seed potatoes are much better than trying to reuse those grocery store potatoes that grow long and spindly in the cabinets. Diatomaceous Earth is awesome. I never plant enough garlic. Raised beds, strawbale gardens*, and container gardening is really the only way I should do things.

Which actually works to my point. Those methods of growing are easier and yield more for me, but they are also easier for older people. Raised beds and strawbale gardens don't require the kind of bending, stooping and tending that a regular garden with rows will require.

But also, having a garden is a very cheap way to supplement one's food supply. When I was volunteering at the pantry, we had a couple of elderly clients who also had a plot at our local community garden. We didn't see those patrons for most of the summer, because they were able to grow what they needed to supplement their diets. With a slightly bigger plot and the ability to preserve some of their harvest, those patrons might not have needed to use the pantry at all.

One 4'x4' garden bed can feed one adult two vegetables per day for the growing season. That's the statistic I've heard over and over again. 

 I have much more space than just two 4'x4' garden beds, which means that, depending on the crops I choose, I could grow enough vegetables to feed us for three-quarters of the year. If Deus Ex Machina builds some cold frames or that greenhouse I want, we could have vegetables year round.  

If we keep raising chickens and the rabbits and it's just the two of us, I could raise enough protein (between meat and eggs) for the whole year. If we forage the wild apples and berries we find and add them to the grapes, apples, peaches, and raspberries we have growing on our property, we have plenty of fruit. If we include maple syrup, we have completely rounded out our diet and the only thing we aren't raising is dairy and grains. 

 But we're already gluten-free and mostly grain-free. By the time we're retired, we could be completely grain-free and with just two mouths to feed, could be supplying nearly everything we need to have a calorie-rich, healthy, organic diet with just what we produce here, supplemented by our local dairy farmers.

Cultivate self-sufficiency skills

Deus Ex Machina is fond of saying one either has time or money, but rarely both. Money allows us to pay someone else to do the things we would/could do for ourselves, if we had the time. In retirement, the one thing most people have is time, but it's best to begin learning those skills before they become a necessity.

Skills like: cooking from scratch, canning/preserving, butchering animals, darning socks, mending/making clothes, changing a bicycle tire (and riding a bicycle, if that's not something one learned as a child), sharpening a knife, cutting one's hair, cooking without electricity or gas, building a fire, turning tree sap into syrup, making soap from rendered animal fat and lye, turning wood ash into lye water for soap making, tincturing herbs for medicine, fermenting vegetables (for preservation and healthier food), making cheese and yogurt from milk (to prevent spoilage and waste), and doing small home repairs (like painting the house, changing filters, repairing a faucet, patching a hole in the wall).

None of the above skills require great physical strength or are particularly difficult to do, but knowing how to do them, and more importantly, doing them, could save a great deal of money.

For instance, we all know that cooking at home costs far less than eating out, but cooking from whole ingredients rather than buying the prepared foods from the freezer section, also saves a ton of money.

If it's just the two of us, and I still cook like I do now, one day of cooking will give us three or four meals. The leftovers can be packaged and put into the freezer,or, depending on the food, put into jars and pressure canned for meals at some much later date. Get stocked up enough, and we wouldn't even have to go grocery shopping regularly, which would save us a lot of money by preventing those inevitable impulse purchases, and also save us in the cost of gasoline to get to the store.

Stay Physically Fit

A few years ago I was having a conversation with a friend. I said, “If my house is paid for and I don't have any debt, and I am growing my own food and making my own electricity, what do I need money for?” She said, without hesitation, "Medical expenses."

As someone who hasn't had very many medical issues, I wouldn't have thought of that one, but the general notion in our culture seems to be that age is equal to poor health. In fact, according to this website 75% of people in my age bracket are taking prescription medications. I guess I'm in the minority among half-centenarians. But I approach health differently, I guess.

I went to the doctor a few weeks ago and had a blood test. Nothing on my blood test worried my new doctor, except the low iron, and he recommended a stool test. I asked him why I needed a stool test, and was told it was to check for bleeding. I told him that my blood tests have showed anemia since I was in my twenties, and if it was a bleeding issue, then I've been bleeding for thirty years. Seems like there would have been some other symptoms in all of that time. I declined the stool sample.

But what I saw for the blood sugar levels bothered me, even though they didn't seem to worry the doctor. As such, being a proactive participant in my personal health maintenance, my response was to cut out sugar and alcohol.  The goal is to be sugar-free for at least a month, and then, to go back to have my blood test done again.

Or maybe I'll just cut sugar as a regular part of my diet.  It's not a necessary part of a healthy diet, anyway, and the occasional maple syrup as a treat is both healthier ... and cheaper, because we make it ourselves.  See how this works?  I save money by cutting out sugar, AND I get healthier.  

The other thing that alarmed me, but didn't phase my doctor was my weight, and I seemed to have put on a lot more of it than I had realized. I don't have a scale at home. I knew that I was porking up, but because I didn't have a way to test it, I could pretend I didn't know.

So, I started a regular walking program. I've lost three pounds in two weeks – which is about a pound and half a week. That is a very respectable and safe weight loss regimen. If I can keep it up, I'll be down to something closer to where I want to be by Christmas, and maybe Santa will leave some new clothes for me under the tree, because my pants are already getting a bit too loose.

None of the above is medical advice. It is simply what I did when I was confronted with medical issues. I could have done nothing, continued to gain weight, continued to enjoy sugary drinks and snacks, tested positive for diabetes and been prescribed a diabetes medication when I reach those twilight years.  

And maybe I'm still destined to be diabetic.  My grandmother was diagnosed with diabetes when she was my age, and she controlled hers with diet only for most of her late adult life.  She was in her 80s before she needed medication.   

Maybe none of my changes will stop me from developing diabetes, but if it does, I've saved future Wendy thousands of dollars in medication expenses. Not spending my social security money on medication is cash in my pocket, and not needing medications, means that I can survive on less cash.

All of the above ways of preparing for retirement are cumulative. That is, once one starts doing them, the savings start to pile up, both the savings in actual dollars, but also the savings in stress and worry from not having an adequate bank account.

If my house is paid off, I don't need money for housing, and I can live without the worry of being homeless and elderly.

If I have a garden and some suburban livestock, I don't need as much money for food and I reduce  the worry and pain of hunger.

If I make my own electricity, I don't have to pay an electric bill and I eliminate the concerns of having my electricity turned off when I can't pay my bill.

If I can mend my clothes, I don't have to purchase new ones as often.

Certainly, there will be things for which we will still need money, but I've run the numbers, for us. Without a mortgage or electric bill, absent a payment for classes and cars, reducing everything else to what it would be with only two people, and allowing for $400 a month “just because”, Deus Ex Machina and I will need about $1100 per month of income, which is about what I will get from social security.

I've read everything Paolo Bacigalupi has written, so far. I'm very excited about Tool of War, which is being released tomorrow! It is a sequel (of sorts, in that it has one of the characters that appeared in two of his other YA novels, The Drowned Cities and Ship Breaker).

If you're into dystopian fiction, these are great novels to read. They're set in the US and depict a future in which our government has collapsed, the US has become a “third world” country, climate change is wreaking havoc on the coast, and genetic engineering has resulted in some pretty horrifying creatures.  Bacigalupi talks about a Category 5 hurricane in Ship Breaker, a storm whose magnitude was not heard of when he wrote the book, but which came close to being a reality with the recent Hurricane Harvey.

Bacigalupi's two adult novels: Wind-upGirl and Water-Knife are equally chilling in their potential accuracy. Water-Knife is set in the American southwest and predicts water wars – a reality that is too chilling in possibility.

All of them are great stories.

* For those with small spaces who are interested in strawbale gardening, I can't recommend strongly enough the book Strawbale Gardening by Joel Karsten.  I borrowed a copy from the library and liked it so much as a resource, that I bought my own copy.  

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Some Things I Like

A few years ago, I was approached by an author friend who was writing a magazine article that would discuss tools that we, homesteaders, felt were invaluable. 

I have two.

The first is a good pair of gloves.  I prefer leather gloves, as they are sturdier for the kinds of work that I have to do around my homestead.  I had a pair similar to these, and given that they were very thin and unlined, I was surprised at how warm they were.  The gloves fit my hand like a second skin and kept the cold wind from touching me.

Gloves are essential for things like working with firewood.  Splinters hurt.  So does burning my fingers when I get too close to the flame in the woodstove. 

Back when I was typing, full-time, for a living, protecting my hands was even more important than it is now, but I still appreciate a good pair of gloves.

It's also important to have a good pair of shoes.  Deus Ex Machina loves the Carhartt brand.  When he was prepping for his trip on the Appalachian Trail, he found that Carhartt had a pretty good selection of super lightweight, moisture-wicking clothing, but they also offer some great boot options, like these.   The composite toe protects his feet from accidents like dropping a log. 

What?  That's never happened. 

What are your favorite tools around the homestead?

Repair, instead of Replace

I've talked before about the unfortunate, mostly, negative opinion society seems to have toward stay-at-home moms.  Because we don't earn money, our contribution to society is not valued as necessary and worthwhile.  What do stay-at-home moms do that we couldn't pay someone else to do for us?  And why would we want to be stuck at home washing our husband's dirty skivvies, anyway?   

When I was a youngster, I was told that my goal should be to have a job.  A job would give me prestige and success. 

A job would allow me to buy things.  Lots and lots of things.  More and more things.  All the things. 

But the stuff breaks or wears out, which is why I need to have a job, because I need to be able to replace my stuff when it gets worn out.

And so we must work to earn money to purchase and/or replace our stuff, which we can't even enjoy, because we spend most of our time working to pay for all of the stuff we want.

It's a pretty vicious cycle. 

One of the coolest things about being a stay-at-home mom is that I get to break out of that cycle.  I can sew clothes out of old tee-shirts, which means that I'm not only not purchasing something new, I'm also repurposing something that might otherwise have just been thrown out.

I can also refurbish things that might otherwise just get replaced.

We bought our couch second-hand more than twelve years ago.  It's a lovely couch - super comfy.    The frame broke at one point, and we had a furniture repair guy fix it for us.  It cost about $100, which is considerably cheaper than buying a new couch.  And, because I am a stay-at-home Mom, I could be here for the appointment without having to miss any work. 

It's a bonded leather, which means it has a look similar to leather, but without the high quality and higher price tag. 

Between age and use (we have a lot of dogs, and we never wanted to train them to stay off the furniture), the couch cushions were starting to look a little worn. 

Since the couch is bonded leather, I didn't really think there was much hope for it.  So, I did a little research and I found that the spots where our cats have ripped the faux leather can be patched (the hardest part is matching the color) and the worn couch cushions can be spruced up.

I knew that leather could be cleaned and oiled so that it would last longer, but what I found out was that bonded leather furniture can be treated in the same way.

I planned to try it ... someday ..., but it was one of those things that would never be at the top of the priority list, until it was, but likely it just wouldn't until that very rare of days when I had nothing else to do, but nap, and I wasn't tired (very rare!). 

Then, we started cleaning up and rearranging and decluttering, and part of that process was getting rid of those pieces of furniture and decor that no longer fit.  The carpet in the living room no longer fit.  It's gone.

Pulling up the rug opened up the space in a way that was a beautiful surprise, and I decided I wanted a winged back chair.  I found three on a local buy/sell Facebook page.  My daughters each have one in their rooms, and there's one for the living room. 

We needed more seating space in the living room, but it's a narrow, long space.  Whatever we decided on, needed to be a very particular something.  I thought that a large ottoman would have the right look and feel.

And then, we found one of those, with a storage compartment, on Craigslist.

It was so perfect, it even matched our couch.

Except that the ottoman is in "like-new" ottoman.  Our couch, not so much, and when we put the ottoman next to the couch, it was pretty obvious that it was old and nearly worn out. 

So, I fixed it.

This is the before picture - the worn out sofa cushion.

I've oiled the right side and one can see the difference between the two sides of the cushion. 

This is the finished product.  It looks really different and not so old and dumpy. 

It was really easy to do.  I just rubbed coconut oil into the cushion, and then, using a soft cloth, wiped off any excess.  

It didn't take long, and it wasn't a difficult project.  Even if I had a job, it's something I probably could have done, but the sad fact is that if both Deus Ex Machina and I worked full-time, refurbing this old sofa so that we can get a few more years out of it wouldn't be worth what little time I had off work.  We would, like most people, opt to just get a new one.

Which is silly, because, clearly, it still works. 

If you're a stay-at-home mom, what things are you able to do that you wouldn't have time to do if you worked? 

If you work, what are some things you buy that you might not purchase, if you could do it for yourself?  

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Finally, a Place for the Sewing Machine

It finally has its own table.  We're all pretty psyched.

Homestead Happenings

Many years ago ... way before "Survive the Suburbs" was conceived, before we called our quarter acre a "homestead" and a "nanofarm", before we had chickens, even before we had much of a garden ..., Deus Ex Machina and I went to a flower show up in Bangor.

Bangor is a long drive from my house, but we used to do things like that - hop in the car and drive three hours, because gas was cheap, and we could.

It actually ended up being a hugely positive experience for me, and for my future farm.  Among other things, I was given a packet of seeds so that I could "Plant-a-row", which was my first contact with a food pantry, and I saw this amazing landscaping display that stressed the importance of using natural landscaping materials, particularly, using what nature gives us, free for the taking, for mulching.

I saw an advertisement today about bagging leaves, and I thought, "I've never bagged my leaves."

Those first couple of years, we raked all of the leaves into our own compost pile. 

Then, after that amazing flower show, I started using my leaves for mulch, and I just never have enough of them these days. 

First, I rake them into my forest garden.  Then, I push them under the apple tree and peach tree, which are neighbors.  Then, I dump as many as I can find into the herb bed under the office window.  The herb garden next to the driveway is the next recipient, and lately, that particular bed is getting a little too light on the mulch. 

If there are ever any leftover, I put them in my raised garden beds to keep weeds from taking over in the early spring - before the beds get planted.

I need more leaves! 

Bark mulch looks nice, but I actually prefer the more rustic (and natural) appearance of the leaves as mulch.


I was finally able to make a space to set-up my sewing machine.  For the first time, ever, I have a "sewing nook."  It is nice to get the sewing off the dining room table and to have a place where I can leave a more involved project.  

I hear, from my family, that there's a quilting project out there somewhere, that was intended for me.  I would love to get it and finish it.  Now, I have the space. 

I have a picture, but I can't load it.  So, that will be a future post. 


We spend every weekend gathering firewood.  We're about three-quarters of the way to having enough to get us through the winter.  Most of this year's wood supply is pine.  We like burning pine, during the day when we're home, but for overnight, or when we gone most of the day, we really prefer to have some hardwood, which burns more slowly.  Guess we'll have to make a bigger effort to be home more. 

Oh, darn.  


What's happening in your neck-of-the-woods?  

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Five Ways Preppers Do It Right

I am probably dwelling a bit too long and too much on that anti-Prepper article.  I mean, first of all it was published in 2015.  Two years ago.  Maybe the author has changed his stance since then.

But also, I don't know him.  I've never even heard of the organization (Pique) that pays him to write his (inflammatory and misguided) opinion pieces.  His feelings about Preppers have no bearing on my life.

All of that is true, but I can't stop just thinking about the need to put it out there - that contrary to his close-minded attitude, those in the Prepping community are not some Neanderthal caricature figure who salivates every time another disaster hits, hoping THIS time, it's the real deal.

We all know all of the ways that Preppers do things right, when it comes to natural disasters and other large scale emergencies.  Mr. Anthony asserts that Preppers do well in these events, because they have situated themselves in those areas that are prone to natural disasters - his passive-aggressive suggestion that Preppers are masochistic, gluttons for punishment.  He says, in short, that Preppers tend to live in trailer parks in places like Oklahoma, where tornadoes are an ever-present threat.  I submit that a lot of people, many of whom aren't Preppers, live in trailers in Oklahoma and one thing has nothing to do with the other.

As I discussed in my previous post, NONE of us are immune to disaster, and just when we think it won't happen to us, it does.

But the fact is that Preppers aren't just ready for disaster.  Real Preppers are ever-ready for whatever life throws their way.  It's not just the big emergencies that we handle - with aplomb - but also those every day little hiccups that send the non-prepared running for the stores and hoping to get there before they close for the day.

Here are five ways that Preppers Do It Right, Every Day.

1.  Dinner's On Us.

It's 9:00 PM on a Tuesday.  You've just finished cleaning up from dinner.  The kids are getting ready for bed.  You're thinking about that glass of wine and some mind-numbing time in front of the tube.

"Mom, I told my teacher you'd make cookies for the bake sale," your fourth grader tells you.

"Okay.  When is the bake sale?"

She spits toothpaste in the sink.  "Tomorrow."

As a Prepper, we will, definitely, grumble about having to, now, spend the next hour baking cookies, but we don't panic, because ... ah!  There they are ... the chocolate chips.  There's the flour and the butter and the eggs.  There's plenty of baking powder and baking soda (especially baking soda, because you buy this by the pallet, since it's used, not only in your kitchen, for baking, but also in your laundry soap, your deodorant, and most of your cleaning solutions around the house).  Oh, and sugar!  Of course!

You even have some some raisins you dehydrated from grapes you grew in your yard.  Oatmeal, peanut butter, almond extract, an assortment of jellies.  What kind of cookies did you want?

Last minute is no sweat.  For a prepper.

It could just be the southern girl in me.  Deus Ex Machina says I must be part Italian, because I always make too much food.  Whether it's some weird genetic anomaly associated with food or my Prepper instincts, if you show up, and it's dinner time, I can plan and prepare a quick meal and have enough food to accommodate an extra guest or two.

And there would probably even be leftovers.

It goes further, though.

Several years ago, I was blessed with the opportunity to host my son's wedding.  It was a small affair with only a couple dozen guests.  No one had a lot of money to spend, and thankfully, we didn't need a lot.  We rented a canopy and some tables, but everything else, I pretty much had on hand, including the food.

We served a three course meal that included Leg of Lamb with herbed potatoes as the main course. And we shared our homemade Strawberry wine, which was a HUGE hit.   We were able to give them a memorable and fun celebration without breaking the bank, because we prep.

2.  Party at the Prepper's House!

Have you ever spent weeks planning for an event, only to hit the inevitable SNAFU and have to rearrange your plans?

For my daughter's tenth birthday, she wanted an ice cream birthday party at a local candy shop.  A few weeks before her birthday, we'd inquired about it, with no set dates or reservations made.  We told them what we were thinking and when the party would be, and we were assured that everything could happen, just like we said.

Two weeks before her birthday, it was time to make the reservation and pay deposits, etc.  Sometime between having our discussion with the store owner about the party idea and our actual trying to reserve the space, they started doing some renovations.  They were going to be closed that day!

I won't lie.  I was annoyed.  My daughter was horribly disappointed, which annoyed me even more.  I boycotted that candy store for several years - not that they noticed, because they're seasonal anyway, and they don't care about us Townies.

We changed plans, organized a party here at our house where we made Stupid Sock Creatures.  We already had all of the supplies we needed, including the book.

What was great about the birthday is that we had a fun and creative project for all of the kids, and each guest went home with the thing he/she had created.  So, we had party favors, too - without spending a bunch of money on plastic crap from the dollar store.

We also have other really cool things - like glow sticks (which are good for when the electricity goes out).  So when our children's friends come over for an impromptu sleepover, we don't have to run out to the store to buy things for them to do.  We already have all of that stuff, tucked away, and usually purchased on sale at the end of a season - which means we also saved money.

Don't worry, adults.  We got you covered, too.  As Preppers, we usually have a stash ... for medicinal purposes, you know.  Since I'm always making tinctures, I keep a supply on hand of various alcohols, and what I'm not buying, we're making.  There's often something fermenting on the counter and something fermented in the fridge.
That's what happens, though, when you're a Prepper.  You have things stored for those emergencies that make other not-so-emergency emergencies easier on your psyche and easier on your wallet.

By the way, other party favors are good prepping tools, too.  Balloons are great as airlocks for fermenting, for example.  Thinking outside the box is the hallmark of the prepper brain.

3.  Preppers Make Things.

Another thing that Preppers do really well is giving gifts.  Having all of those stored supplies means that when a special occasion sneaks up on the Prepper (who is often elbow deep in some other project, and not intentionally forgetful, but momentarily distracted), she is ready to throw together the perfect gift from her stored supplies.

I'm a huge fan of Handmade for the Holidays, and anyone who reads here regularly will have seen my gift posts.  One of my favorites is the clothe game board I made with materials I had on hand.

But it's not just gifts.  There have been many times when I have had to assemble costumes - for Halloween, for Dance Recitals.  Having the materials I need to be able to make some great costumes.
In 2010, at the last minute, I was asked to help out with some props for the annual dance recital.  I was going to be onstage for the dance number, and it was suggested that I do so in an appropriate attire.  It was a hippie-themed number.   So, I went home, and I made a costume using materials I had on hand.

4.  Preppers can Do It.

So, yes, it's true, Preppers tend to have a lot of stuff on hand.  Tools, extra food, supplies, novelty items.  We like stuff, but most of it is stuff that we actually use.  There certainly are Preppers who have things on hand that they will rarely (or never) use, like gas-masks, but even if they never use them for a real emergency, those gas masks can make a great Dr. Who Themed costume for the Cosplay Ball.  There's a use for them.  

More important than the tools, however, is the fact that most preppers are skilled.  I can cook dinner for two people or forty.  I can sew both costumes and real every day clothes.  I know how to butcher a rabbit and a chicken.  I can grow food.  I can knit a square.  I can darn a sock.  I can make candles and soap and guanciale.  I can preserve food.  I can forage.  I can make fermented pickles and sauerkraut.  I can make wine and beer.  I can start a fire.  

What I don't already know how to do, I probably have a how-to book for in my home library.  

Real Preppers aren't just hoarding supplies.  They are out there learning how to do things, by hand, that other folks don't think they will ever need to know how to do, because ... well, you know, they are impervious to disaster.  

5.  Preppers Save the Animals

The first four were, somewhat, related.  This last one isn't, but it is.

One of the main criticisms of Preppers has to do with their focus on security.  There's the image of the armed-to-the-teeth prepper, and certainly, most preppers will fight for their Right to Bear Arms. Most preppers understand, however, that the Right to Bear Arms is not about arming themselves against their neighbors or against the roaming hoards of non-preppers when the SHTF and those jerks who failed to prepare are trying to take our stuff, but rather against a tyrannical government.

The thing is our own government is a greater threat to our freedom and safety - if history is to be our witness - than the Mad Maxes.  We don't have to look very far back to see tyrannical governments killing people.  It's happening RIGHT NOW in Myanmar.  The Rohingya have no choice, but to run. We have a choice.

But it's not guns that are the primary focus when it comes to prepping.  On the list of 100 Items to Disappear First, number forty is "Big Dogs."

When I was a volunteer dog walker at the animal shelter, there were a lot of big dogs, who spent a long time waiting for their forever families.  There were several weeks in a row where I walked the same big dog.  I got to know them, and it was a little bittersweet when they, finally, got adopted.  The thing is that regular people don't want those BIG dogs, because ... well, they're big.  They take up a lot of space, and they can be kind of scary.

For a prepper, however, that's what makes them perfect.  They take up a lot of space, and they're scary.   In nearly every article about home security, burglars confess that they will avoid homes where there's a dog, especially if it's a big dog.  Big dogs are a strong deterrent for those who have ill-intentions.

Say what you will about Preppers, but their desire to improve their home security means that those big dogs ... that no one wants ... find a home - a home where they will be seen as not just a pet, but as a valuable asset.

Cats, too.  Preppers understand the need to have vermin control without a reliance on poison (which can be dangerous for the Preppers' home security systems (dogs), and if the Prepper also has livestock, like chickens, could result in lost food if the chicken gets a hold of the poison either before or after the mouse).

The animal shelters are often over-burdened with unwanted pets.  We, preppers, want them.  We want the ones that no else wants, because we know the big dogs have a value beyond just being a companion (although, that's good, too), and the cats aren't just lap warmers (although that works, also).

It's fun to criticize people who have different values and beliefs, but it's not really a very worthy use of one's time.  Better would be to learn about the people one might think to ridicule, and in that opening of one's mind gain some valuable insight and knowledge about a lifestyle that might just be something deeper than what one sees on the surface.

In his final paragraphs, Mr. Anthony advises his readers to "neuter" us Preppers.  Joking or not, a call to violence against someone with differing beliefs has been defined as a hate crime.  I wonder if he realizes the irony in that call to action coming from someone who pretends to be more civilized and cultured than the group he is maligning.

Monday, September 18, 2017

I'm a Prepper

I'm accustomed to that suspicious, sideways glance from people who learn that I'm a Prepper.  I'm accustomed to being judged for writing about the very real possibility that some catastrophic, life-changing event will happen in my lifetime - what we preppers like to call TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it) or when the SHTF (shit hits the fan).

What I haven't gotten used to, however, is being openly ridiculed, called names like "mouth breather", labeled a luddite, or accused of having only a 5th grade education, simply because of my certainty that our way of life is neither sustainable nor non-negotiable, and because I refuse to become a victim, but rather choose to be proactive, and yes, prepared.  

In 2015, Canadian writer, Leslie Anthony, who clearly believes himself to be of a superior stock, wrote exactly those things about the Prepper community.  In what was little more than a insult-laced, lazily researched essay full of nothing more than degrading epithets meant to characterize anyone who believes that things might be going to shit, Mr. Anthony derided an entire group of people - people who run the gamut from, as he calls them "meth-fueled, neo-Christian, anarchist bow-hunters" to professionals in all fields from accountants and teachers to doctors and engineers.  I'd also like to point out that some of the folks in the latter group are also bow-hunters ... and some in the former are also college-educated professionals.  

Former President G.W. Bush owns an off-grid ranch in Texas that includes a 25,000 gallon cistern for storing water.  I'd call him a prepper.  

Yours truly is just shy of a graduate degree (significantly more than a 5th grade education) and is married to an engineer with a degree from an Ivy League college.  I feel like Mr. Anthony doesn't really know what a prepper is, in spite of his insistence that he has a full understanding of what that term means and the kinds of people who wear the label. 

So, let's discuss who preppers really are, and why more people should strive to be like us. 

First let's start with the definition from the Oxford English Dictionary, which Mr. Anthony refers to as "that most authoritative tome."  The definition of a prepper, as published by Mr. Anthony, from the OED is:  "a person who believes a catastrophic disaster or emergency is likely to occur in the future and makes active preparations for it, typically by stockpiling food, ammunition, and other supplies."

I don't disagree with that definition, and I would also like to point out that no where, in that definition, is a prepper defined as someone with no education who hopes for disaster.  Rather, by definition, a prepper is someone who is pretty sure that something bad is going to happen, and strives to be ready for it ... whatever the *it* is. 

So, let's talk about some of the "its" that have occurred recently.

Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas causing severe flooding and massive damage, and Hurricane Irma, after thoroughly thrashing all of the islands in that area of the world where the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean meet, descended on the southern Florida with a fury only matched by a little league parent who is certain the referee has slighted his little star.

Both of those events could be described as "catastrophic disasters."  Prepping in the sense of stockpiling goods might not have done many people in the path of those hurricanes a lot of good, but Mr. Anthony also pokes fun at the "Bug-Out Bag", which is, usually a backpack filled with provisions and ready to be grabbed as one runs out the door.  

There were many areas in Florida that were under mandatory evacuation.  So, you tell me, when is it better to plan for an evacuation - when you're being shouted at by the police to leave the area, or now, when you're sitting, calmly, in your living room reading this article?  When are you more likely to be able to think, rationally, about what you might need in the event of an emergency?

When I was in college, the university provided low-cost housing to students who were married and/or had children.  It was a trailer park, and I lived there.  One evening when I was home alone with my two children, the police rolled through my neighborhood telling all of us that we needed to get out ... now!  A tornado had touched down nearby.  We were being evacuated.   I grabbed my kids, shoved a couple of diapers and a quick snack in my purse, and snatched up a ball - as something for my kids to play with.  It was a warm late spring day when we evacuated to the basement of a nearby building.  Inside the building on the cold, marble floors, it was cold.  My children and I weren't dressed for the chill of the cold floor in the air conditioned building.  I didn't have a blanket.  I didn't have extra clothes for any of us.  Heck, my daughter didn't even have on shoes or socks (she was still a baby).  I didn't have water.  I didn't have any money.  

The list of what I didn't have was pretty long, and thankfully, after two hours, we were sent back to our homes.  Nothing happened.  We were fine.  The house was still intact.  I hadn't lost anything except two hours of study time.  

It could have been worse, though.  It could have been a lot worse.  That tornado could have destroyed my home, and I and my children could have been left with nothing more than the clothes on our backs, and the few silly things I hastily grabbed on my way out the door.  I didn't even have any identification for them, and I certainly didn't have any of my important papers.  

If back then, I'd had a bug-out bag, we would have had everything we needed, plus a lot more, and those other people who were stuck in that cold basement would have been really grateful when I pulled out blankets and snacks.    

Later in my life, I experienced other SHTF events.  These, like the tornado evacuation, were always short-lived, but the fact that I was prepared those times made my life a heck of a lot easier.

In 2008, much of the northeast was hit with a significant ice storm.  It was the second such storm I'd experienced since I'd moved to Maine a decade eariler.  The worst part of this storm, for my family, was that we were without electricity for a few days.  So, imagine.  It's the middle of winter.  There is no electricity in your house.  Quick!  What do you do?

Can you heat your house?  Can you cook meals?  Do you have candles, flashlights, or oil lamps? Would you even be able to stay in your house for the duration of the event?  Would your pipes freeze? Would you be able to care for your pets or, like too many people did during the recent hurricane emergencies, would you be forced to abandon them?

Some folks ended up in a hotel or a motel ... if they could find one that still had power and vacancies.

We stayed home.

We played games.

We read books.

We even rigged up the FM transmitter that we keep in our car (and is usually powered by the car lighter) so that we could listen to the audiobook through the solar-powered radio.

On day two of our power outage, Deus Ex Machina's nephew came over to our house to spend the day, because there was no school.  He asked us what we did all day with no television, and so my daughters showed him.  They played some games.  They made origami animals.  They colored.  They danced and sang.  

I made lunch on the wood stove.

In the morning, I heated water on the wood stove.  We had hot baths.  We had coffee.  We were able to wash dishes.

In the evenings, we had plenty of light with my stockpile of candles, oil lamps, and flashlights.  Dinner, including fresh baked bread, was cooked on the wood stove.

On day three of our power outage, Deus Ex Machina went to work in the morning, just like usual, and I hooked my computer and transcriber up to our car-charger and did my job, too.

The day the crews came to my neighborhood to restore our electric service, I was hanging my freshly laundered clothes on the line outside.  

Not much about our lives changed significantly ... because we are prepared.  We don't have a generator, but we know for a fact that we can survive without electricity without any hardship at all.

And without scrambling to buy a generator or running to the store for supplies, because, thanks to our prepper mind-set, we usually have most of what we need.

There are some Prepper scenarios that are a little far-fetched - more likely in a Sci-Fi novel than in real life.  All sorts of novels cover the possibility of a solar flare or an EMP attack that completely destroys all electronics, or a viral plague that wipes out 90% of the human race. Mostly those events are fiction, but both of them can happen, and have-ish.

To wit:  a solar storm (CME) known as the Carrington Event knocked out telegraph transmissions in 1859.  If a similar event occurred in the US today, it could destroy significant parts of the electrical grid, and knock out power in some parts of the country for months ... maybe longer.  Such an event could happen and would be catastrophic.  It probably won't, though.  And, while an EMP, which would have a similar effect, can be accomplished by detonating a nuclear bomb up in the stratosphere (or, you know, up in the clouds, up there someplace), it probably won't happen, either.  You know, it's not like North Korea has nuclear bombs or anything.

As for plagues, those have also happened.  In the Middle Ages, the Bubonic Plague wiped out much of Europe (although some research is also suggesting that it wasn't just the Black Plague, but a combination of pestilence, including bacillus anthracis, or Anthrax).  Of course, that was a very long time ago, and we have a vaccinations these days.  But ...

Ebola is pretty awful.  There's no vaccine.  It probably won't spread to the rest of the world, but from 2014 to 2016, several West African countries fought to keep the disease from spreading. People were ordered to quarantine themselves in their homes.  So, imagine that you can't leave your house.  Can you feed yourself?  Do you have water?  Can you cook your food?  Can you heat your home?  Ebola probably won't happen HERE, where I live, but it did happen somewhere.  The Preppers in West Africa were living well in their quarantined, well-stocked homes.

Let's talk about some other possibilities that are not just crazy, "out there" ideas that are just never going to happen here, but rather some real scenarios that really could happen, over which we would have absolutely NO control, but for which we could be somewhat prepared.

In the 1990s, the USSR collapsed.  The USSR, or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was a massive entity in Eurasia that was formed just after World War I.   Land wise, it was huge.  We collectively referred to them as the Soviet Union, and most of us here in America thought they were all "Russians", but the USSR was actually made up of 15 different countries with several more countries, sort of, being controlled by the government in Moscow.

So, when the USSR collapsed, it was pretty catastrophic for a lot of people.  The Russians retreated back to Russia where there were shortages of everything.  Dmitry Orlov, who grew up in the US, but visited family in the USSR, tells great stories about what he saw during his visits behind the curtain of how the people were dealing with the financial collapse.

Argentina, Cuba, Greece, and Venezuela have all recently experienced their own financial collapses, and lest you think it can't happen here, please note that Venezuela is one of the top oil producing countries in this world.  They should have plenty of money to sustain their economy.  Unlike Venezuela, the US does not have its own supply of oil.  If, by some crazy happenstance (oh, I don't know, like the 1970s OPEC-led oil embargo against the US), we lose our oil suppliers, things would be very bad.

If you want a very small glimpse of how it might look to have less oil available, and at a much higher price, do some research on what happened to Cuba when Russia stopped supplying the Cubans with oil.  

Or, perhaps, just harken back to 2008, right here in the good ole US of A, when the price of gasoline skyrocketed, almost overnight, and everyone freaked out.  Truckers went on strike in protest of the high prices.  Goods weren't delivered.  It wasn't too bad, but it could have been.

One of the most popular lists for preppers is the 100 items list.  It was originally compiled by a survivor of the Sarajevo siege.  Bosnia, while not a member of the Soviet Union, was one of those countries that was, kind of, under its control.  When the USSR collapsed, it left a lot of people in a lot of countries pretty vulnerable.

In 1992, Sarajevo was a beautiful, modern city.  It is the capital of Bosnia and hosted the 1984 Olympics.  That year (1992) opposing military factions laid siege to the city, trapping civilians inside the urban confines. The Siege has the distinction of being the longest in the history of modern warfare and lasted almost four years.

Thirteen years ago, I found this graphic novel, Fax from Sarajevo, at my library.  I had no idea what I was borrowing.   The story was horrifying in its harrowing details.  The civilians who lived in the city were constantly being shot at.  These were just regular people.  A man and his wife and their children, struggling not to get killed as these two military groups fought each other.  If that wasn't bad enough, they also needed stuff to stay alive, like food and clean water.  No supplies came in.  No one got out. Those cartoon images stayed with me.  

It is unlikely that southern Maine will end up in a siege.  But ... I'm almost positive that if I found Doc Emmett Brown and bartered a ride in his Delorean back to 1984, and I was able to buy a ticket to the Olympics and visit Sarajevo, and talk to the people who lived there, not one of them would express the belief that their beautiful city would be torn asunder by war in eight years.  They'd probably laugh at me.  Loudly.  And point and jeer.

Kind of like Mr. Anthony did in 2015 in his nasty little anti-prepper diatribe.

But the reality - for a lot of people in this world - is that the shit hits the fan all of the time.  War happens, and usually, it happens in places and to people who aren't thinking it could ever happen to them, like most of us living in the US.  War doesn't happen here, right?  In 1991, that is exactly what they were saying in Sarajevo.

I'm also pretty sure that in 2014 no one Sierra Leone expected that their country would be home to more than 14,000 cases of a deadly and virulent hemorrhagic fever.

And if I could go back to a 4th of July party in Houston, not one of my fellow party-goers would believe me if I tried to warn them that they would be under a three-day siege from a Hurricane named after an actor from the Carol Burnett comedy show.

Our mantra as humans is "It won't happen to me."

The difference the Mr. Anthonys of this world and the Preppers he derides is that we, Preppers, DO believe it can (and probably will) happen to us, and instead of throwing up our hands in defeat, we decide to do something about it.

He can laugh, if he wants, but come winter, if Maine experiences another electricity stealing ice storm, I'll be living life, pretty much, as usual.

A final word:

There are a lot of SHTF scenarios.  Some are huge events that are devastating to a lot of people, like most of the ones I mentioned.  All of the ones I mentioned HAVE happened, and millions of people were adversely affected by them.  With the exception of the catastrophic CME, all of them have happened somewhere in the world in MY lifetime.  I've been a witness, peripherally, to most of the catastrophic events that we, preppers, are hedging against.

But there's one more, and every one of us is likely to experience that SHTF scenario.  The last one is a job loss or some significant financially devastating event (like an illness).

Deus Ex Machina and I went through the job loss event this summer.  It wasn't bad for us, because we have a prepper mindset, because we are always aware that this modern way of life is not sustainable and not non-negotiable, and because we know that things can change on a dime, and do.

Deus Ex Machina found a job.   We didn't lose our home.  No one starved.  We didn't have to sell our kidneys ... or our children.   We didn't sell our cars or our furniture or our clothes to make ends meet. We didn't have to rehome our pets because we couldn't feed them.  We didn't have to take out loans or end up with credit card debt.  We're still happily married and happily together.

In fact, with the exception of having an awesome summer together with no one having to get up early every day to go to work, our lives didn't change all that much.

Honestly, the whole tone of Leslie Anthony's article was condescending, and yes, as a Prepper, I was deeply insulted.  I guess, I just think, as a highly educated "scientist" kind of guy, we should expect  more from him than just a nine paragraph rant about a demographic he clearly doesn't care to understand.

Maybe, instead of just trolling through a couple of Prepper websites, Mr. Anthony should have done some real research ... you know, like an actual scientist or journalist should be doing ... and gone out and actually met some of the real people in the Prepper world.  If he had done his due diligence, I'm certain his article would have had a very different tone.

But then, if he'd met some real preppers, he would have had to hop down off his soap box and admit that real-life Preppers are more than a reality show caricature.

Five Reasons to Keep a Coin Cache Stash

I was reading an article the other day about having a cash cache as part of one's preps.

While I certainly agree that having cash on hand is a good idea, I don't agree with the author of that article that cash in the form of dollar bills is preferable to coins.  The author suggested that paper money is better, mostly, because the same amount of coins is heavy, which is absolutely true, but also, as I'll share in a bit, the weight of the coins versus the paper money could mean the difference between keeping your money and having it taken from you.

I suggest that having coins as one's cache is a better option than keeping an equal amount of paper money.

1.  Coins are more disaster proof than paper money. 

A few years ago, I read this article about this guy who had been given this windfall of cash - all in bills - which he had stored in his car.  Then, his car caught fire.  Everything, literally, went up in smoke.  I know it's silly, because what are the chances, but at the same time, paper money burns. Coin money doesn't.

Keeping coins is a little more secure from disaster than paper money, and fire isn't the only worry. Water can also damage paper money.  If I really wanted to secure my cash stash, I could bury my coins in a tin can in the garden under a painted rock.  If the lid of my container is broken or otherwise compromised and the coins get all wet, no worry.  I just dig them up, drop them in some vinegar to clean them up, and take them to the bank.  In fact, there have been coins recovered from shipwrecks that were still usable.  Not true of paper money.

2.  Coins have value beyond the denomination on its face.

When I was in elementary school we lived down south, and my grandmother, who was working on our family history came to visit.  During this visit, we went on a family field trip to visit Andersonville Prison, where she was certain she would find the name of one of my great-great uncles, who had fought as a Union soldier during the Civil War, had been taken prisoner by the Confederates, and had died at Andersonville.  She did find his name.

As a kid, I wasn't adequately impressed enough with what Andersonville represented and what it meant that my great-great uncle had been imprisoned there.  What I was impressed with was the replica Confederate currency, and my parents bought for me a package of about $100 in Confederate money for about $5 US currency.

The money weren't real Confederate bills, but even if it had been, they wouldn't have been worth much.  When I lived in Germany, I went to the Oktoberfest in Munich, and I found a 1000 lire note on the ground.  It was worth about $2 US.  Today it's worth nothing, because Italy joined the rest of Europe in adopting the Euro as their national currency.  Like the Confederate money, the lire note is valueless as a currency, because the nation which printed it no longer uses that money.

Neither of those two examples prove that keeping coins is better than keeping paper money, except that I have German pfennings that are worthless, as currency, but they still have value.  They are metal, and metal can be melted down and made into something else.  And that Lire note?  In an emergency situation, where I don't want a keepsake, because who needs more clutter, the best use for that money is next to the toilet.

The coin can be traded as metal, at very least, and that has value.

3.   Coins hold their value.

A few years ago, Argentina suffered an economic collapse.  The cause was a combination of many things, including government corruption and excessive government spending, but the result was that their currency wasn't worth as much as it had been.

I followed a blog written by a man who was living in Argentina at the time.  He was eye-witness to what it's like to live through such an event, and I learned a lot from him.  One of the big take-aways, for me, was the use of currency.

He said that there came a time when the paper money was all, but worthless, and some businesses stopped taking it as currency.  The coins, however, held their value, and if one had cash in the form of a coin, one could be assured of getting service.

When I think of emergency cash, for me, coins are the better choice, because if the shit really does hit that fan, chances are good that our paper money isn't going to be worth as much as that jar of pennies.

When I was a kid, my uncle gave me an 1800s silver dollar.  It was real silver, and it was worth a lot more than a dollar.

And that's the other part.  Dollar bills stay in circulation for a few months.  Coins stay in circulation ... well, forever, right?  I can still find wheat pennies, and still use wheat pennies as currency.  They stopped minting them in 1958.  Some of them (the 1944 one, for instance) are worth more than a mere penny.  In good condition, that penny, sold to a collector, can command $6.  So, $6 doesn't seem like a lot of money, but hold up - $6 for a PENNY is a lot of money.

4.   Some coins are spendable in other countries.

The other day I was sorting some coins.  Mixed in with my nickles and dimes were several pieces of Canadian currency.  The thing is that I can use my US dimes in Quebec just like I use my US dimes in Portland, and if I'm shopping in Portland, there's a good chance that the cashier will give me a Canadian dime in change.

While some stores in other countries will accept currency from the US, it's not a given that I can spend my dollar bills without exchanging them at a bank, first.  With coins, it's a little easier.

5.  Coins are more burglar proof. 

Like most people I have a change caddy in my car - a place where I drop loose coins when I go through the drive-thru.

Knock wood - my car has never been broken into so that someone could get to that visible stash of coins.

The thing is, coins aren't really seen as valuable.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  It's a great story about these two kids who run away from home and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  One of the kids gets money by taking it from the fountain every night when the museum is closed.

We just, literally, throw coins away, like they aren't worth anything.

There have been lots of articles written by former burglars to help us regular people understand how to better protect ourselves.  In one article, the burglar says that his goals were to:  1. steal money and valuables, and 2. get out of the house as quickly as possible with these goods.  

Coins are heavy, and if we have several containers of them, stashed throughout the house (including in the kids' rooms, which are the last place most thieves look for valuables), the thief is unlikely to find them all.

True, we can stash bills, too, but those look like money, and they're easier to carry out of the house than a gallon-sized jar of assorted coins.

A cash stash is really important, especially for those who are in the path of natural disasters.  Things like hurricanes can interrupt power for days, which means that the ATMs won't work.  Having some cash to be able to purchase a few essentials can be really important.

But also, we live in a volatile world economy.  It might feel good to have a neat stack of $20 bills hidden between the pages of your favorite books, but the reality is that paper money might seem more secure, but history proves otherwise.

The form in which one chooses to stash that cash could be just as important, and depending on the emergency, having coins rather than paper money might be a life-saver.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Freedom From ...

I feel almost giddy.  It's weird.

Everything feels so brand new, almost like we're in a new house.

Or, like, we finally finished the remodel, moved things into a place where they can actually stay - not "for now", but for always -, and are (slowly) reclaiming our space.  There are still things to do, but I finally feel like I can breath and not just make plans, but accomplish goals.

It's actually pretty amazing - this feeling of being freed.  

I think, most of us in this consumer-driven society, don't really understand what a HUGE burden clutter is.  There have been plenty of articles written and studies done that tell us it's true, but I think, when we're in the midst of it, we don't really get it.

I also think that's why people like vacation.  It gets them away from the clutter of their lives, and there's nothing quite like sinking into a clean tub and just relaxing in the pristine austerity that is the typical hotel bath.

Speaking of baths, there's a great story about our house-hunting adventure twenty-some years ago.

Deus Ex Machina and I were staying with his mom while we looked for a house to purchase, but we were limited in our housing choices by our income (he was starting his new career as an electrical engineer, and I was starting my new career as a SAHM, which means we only had one income) and by our size requirements (we had Big Little Sister and her two older, half siblings).  Of course, we'd also compiled a list of other amenities we hoped our new home would have, including land size.  We wanted at least an acre.

In a local newspaper, there was an ad for a house.  Deus Ex Machina said, "Look!  It has a Jacuzzi!!" It was a three bedroom (which was the minimum we hoped to find), two-bath house in the upper end of our price range, but it was on a tiny lot (a quarter of an acre), and when we drove by it, it looked tiny and dark.  There was absolutely no color to the house - not even green grass.  The yard was, kind of, bare, actually.  It had so little curb-appeal, in fact, that I didn't even want to walk through it.

Over the next four months, Deus Ex Machina and I drove by dozens and dozens of houses and walked through about half as many.  Nothing worked.  That house needed too much work.  That house  was just out of our price range.  That one was too far from Deus Ex Machina's job (and we only had one car).  That one went under contract the day after we walked through it.

We kept seeing ads for that one house, though, and we kept discounting it.  It actually became somewhat of a joke.  Deus Ex Machina would tease me and act like a Jacuzzi tub was something he wanted, but, to me, a Jacuzzi tub was the epitome of wanton wastefulness, and I wanted nothing to do with that house.

In October, it snowed.  We had arrived in Maine at the end of July with not much more than the clothes on our backs - summer clothes appropriate for a Texas summer, but wholly inadequate for a Maine winter.  Although she was ever the gracious host, I started to feel that we had outstayed our welcome at my MIL's house.  In addition, with the holidays looming, we were in a bit of a rush to get into our own home so that my older two children could come up for a visit.  With so few other options, we decided to walk through the Jacuzzi house.

Twenty years later, we're still in that house, and I've never fully appreciated that Jacuzzi tub.  We used it.  In fact, one of our children was born in that tub, but it's really too big to be comfortable for daily use.  It really is a luxury fixture.

Then, when we started trying to lower our footprint, water usage and electricity usage became concerns, which meant that filling the massive tub and running the jets just didn't fit with our new, life goals.

When we started the renovation, the bathtub was turned into a storage area. I put a bar on one side so that we could hang up the clothes I relocated from the bedroom closet.  It ended up as a catchall for things we had no other place to store.

It started to look a lot like a little, dark cave.  The tub, itself looked and felt grungy.  The best plan, in my mind, was to just rip it out and put something else there.

Unfortunately, my life mantra is "do what you can with what you have where you are" - a philosophy that, kind of, goes contrary to ripping out things that are still usable, even if they aren't exactly perfect.  Rather, it encourages re-imagining how one can make use of the things one already has.

And that's what I did with that Jacuzzi.

During the renovation, it's value was as place to store things.

After the renovation, it was renewed to its original purpose.

I took the clothes bar down.

I relocated all of the tools and other assorted flotsam and jetsam that was being stored in the tub.

I gave away and/or discarded the long-outgrown tub toys.

I painted the wall and the ceiling.

I gave the tub a good scrub and sanitized the whole thing.

It still uses too much water and too much electricity, but I'm realizing it is actually quite useful - as a tub.

First, it's a Jacuzzi with jets, which means it has some therapeutic value.  When Deus Ex Machina has been standing on a concrete floor for three days in a row and his back is sore, there's the tub.  When my dancer daughters have just spent a week in a ballet workshop and their whole bodies are achy and every muscle screams with use, there's the tub.  When I've been outside in the early spring chill digging and planting the just barely thawed earth and I have to peel off my clothes, slowly, because it hurts to move, there's the tub.

But, also, there is a huge value in having a spa-like space in one's own home.  It's a place where we can go, light a candle, sip a little wine, and just relax.  It can be an every day vacation.

From a preparedness standpoint that tub also has value. I know you think I'm going to say fill it with water for storage, but I'm not.  The stopper-thingy has a slow leak, and so we can't fill it for emergency water storage.  That's what we have rain barrels for.

What I am going to say is that our homes should be our primary focus for preparing for an uncertain future, and that we should be making them into exactly what we want.  Deus Ex Machina and I spent five months looking for a perfect home, and we settled for something that would do for now.  Then, we spent the next ten years in what we always felt was a temporary living situation.

If I could go back to younger Wendy, I would tell her that the Jacuzzi house was exactly what she needed - or that, at least, it could become exactly what she needed.  What I needed to do was just step back and see MY house, and imagine how I could make it my ideal.

Twenty years later, we're doing just that.

And that tub?

I'm looking forward enjoying a bit of freedom from the worry of my every day in a mini-vacation in my very own paradise.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

TEOTWAWKI - Good for a Change

A week ago, today, was the start of our personal TEOTWAWKI.  Last Wednesday was the day that our income would end, and we would be plunged into financial dire straits.

Only, it wasn't.

Yes, Wednesday was the last day of Deus Ex Machina's severance and vacation pay, and going forward in the world without a steady income scares the beejeesus out of a lot of people.

I wasn't scared.

Not even for a second.

It was actually, at least for me, an overall positive experience.

I very much enjoy Deus Ex Machina's company, and I really enjoy just spending time with him.  We spent a lot of - quality - time together when he wasn't stressed out about stuff that was happening at work.  It was really nice.

Positive #1 of the job loss was that Deus Ex Machina and I reconnected.

But he also had the time, and more importantly, the energy, to finish our bedroom, and we (finally!) moved our bed out of our office and back into our room.

I took my friend on a tour of our house after we'd moved some things around, and she (like I) marveled at how much space we have. We have some big rooms in our house - when they aren't so cluttered.

Positive #2 of the job loss was that we decluttered our living space.

I've actually read a lot about the psychological impact of too much clutter, and these past few years have validated what I knew.  There were some significant and profound negatives to our too cluttered space.  I don't know if you all noticed or not, but I haven't really been able to write much for the past several years.  I'm blaming it on the clutter, because now that my office isn't filled to the ceiling with stuff, I'm finding it easier to sit down and fill this white space.  That's huge.

As a further bonus, Deus Ex Machina was able to really spend some time IN our house.  Over the last twenty years, he's been here, of course.  He lives here.  But like most working adults, one's home is where one houses one's stuff while one is at work.  In fact, if one excludes the time one is sleeping, the average working adult spends more time at work than at home.

Positive #3 was that Deus Ex Machina was able to spend some quality time here in HIS home - time he'd never had before - and the result was that all of these projects I've been suggesting over the years were things he was able to see as being both good ideas and necessary improvements.  We haven't tackled them all, but, at least, he was willing to discuss them without cringing at the thought of another agonizingly involved project that would dishevel our entire household for YEARS.

He also learned that there are some home improvement tasks that I'm actually good at - like grouting tile.  It's something I do well.  We have an area that needs tiling, and we have all of the materials, except grout and tile adhesive.  I think he'll trust me enough, now, to tackle the project, because he knows that if he starts the work, I have his back in making sure it gets finished.

In the end, Deus Ex Machina found another job, but what's better is that he was able to work on some very cool side projects about which he is pretty excited.  In time those side projects might work into something bigger.  

Positive #4 was that Deus Ex Machina had some time to explore what he really wants to be when he grows up.

I know it sounds silly to say that losing one's job was a positive for us, because for most people it's an incredibly stress-inducing experience, but for Deus Ex Machina and me, it was more positive than negative.

We were able to make some improvements on the way things were and make choices about where we want to go from here.

In the end, TEOTWAWKI isn't, necessarily, a negative thing.  It's just change, and not all change is bad.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Suburban Livestock: Rabbits vs. Chickens

Almost since the day we bought our house, Deus Ex Machina and I have raised rabbits for meat. 

I guess not, really, since the day, but about a year after we purchased our house, a friend of the family, who knew that we hoped to be more self-sufficient, had some rabbits she was looking to rehome.  She knew that we intended to raise rabbits for meat, and she just said she didn't want to know what happened to them.

We had no idea what gender our new rabbits were or really anything about how to care for rabbits.  What we knew was that there were three of them. 

We built a hutch out of old pallets and some hardware cloth. 

They over wintered in their new hutch.

In the spring we discovered we had two males and a female ... and a litter of kits (baby rabbits).

Two months later, we had twenty-two rabbits. 

We built a couple more hutches.

We learned that butchering rabbits is hard.

Fast forward eight years, and I'm at the feed store buying rabbit feed.  It's spring, and they have baby chicks.  I'm not sure exactly what happened.  It's kind of a blur, actually, but when I got home, there was a cage with a heat light, a chick waterer and feeder, some chick starter feed, and three little fluffy chicks of undetermined breed in my office. 

My daughters were completely smitten.

Deus Ex Machina was not quite so enthralled.

Five years later, after much learning and very conscious decision making,  each spring, I fill out three or four order forms for a dozen straight-run Cornish Cross meat birds to be picked up at two to four week intervals over the course of the summer.

We've been raising both rabbits and chickens for a very long time, and both definitely have their merits and draw-backs.

Raising Rabbits

Rabbits are quiet, don't take up a lot of space, and are pretty easy to care for. 

In fact, they are pretty ideally suited for a small space protein production animal.  One doe can produce four litters a year, although depending on one's set-up and where one lives, there will be certain times of the year when one might not want to breed one's doe. 

In Maine in the winter, if not properly housed, newborn kits can freeze to death, but only if the mom doesn't provide them a proper nest.  I've had rabbits kindle in the bitterest of cold days, and the babies were just fine, because the mom had a good nesting area filled with hay and she made an awesome nest with fur she pulled. 

In the south, the risk of losing rabbits due to overheating is a real issue. 

Optimally, the doe will produce two litters per year - one in the spring and one in the fall.

A rabbit's gestation is about four weeks (and just like human gestation, this will vary by doe).    The average sized litter is five.  The best time to butcher a rabbit is between eight and twelve weeks. 

One of the first questions most people ask when it comes to breeding rabbits for meat is "Do I need a particular breed of rabbit?"

For me, the answer was no.  All rabbits are edible, but it's like the difference between Cornish Game Hens and a standard sized chicken.  There's a desired ROI when it comes to just about everything, and the larger the breed, the more meat.

That said, a larger breed requires more maintenance (more feed, larger housing).   We tried raising a meat breed (New Zealand Reds), but we didn't have better luck with the meat rabbits than we did with just what some breeders call "meat mutts."

For us, the best rabbit is a medium to large rabbit of a non-specified breed (make sure the doe is larger than the buck, though, or she may have trouble kindling).  These rabbits will weigh around 3 lbs. 

In short, a single doe, bred twice a year, with an average of five babies each time will yield 30 lbs. of meat per year.  Five does can provide enough meat for one person for a year.

I won't include a bunch of nutritional information about rabbit meat which can easily be found with a quick google search, but I will say that it is the best meat with regard to overall nutritional value.  There is some concern regarding "rabbit starvation", but it actually would never be an issue for us suburban homesteaders.  Rabbit starvation occurs when rabbit is the primary or only source of nutrition, and the excess of protein consumed in the absence of fat and other nutrients can, literally, starve the body.  As long as one is eating other things (vegetables from the garden, olive oil bought in bulk from the grocery store, etc.), rabbit starvation is not an issue.

The hardest part about raising rabbits is making sure they have a proper diet.  We feed our rabbits a diet of mostly commercial pellets (#16) and hay.  Their diet is supplemented with kitchen scraps and some foraged greens from around our yard.  Rabbits love clover, maple leaves, raspberry leaf, dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichoke stalk, and  a number of other leafy greens. 

It is possible to forage all of your rabbits' food.  It's also possible to feed one's rabbits using kitchen scraps, and we've even given our rabbits whole grain bread (in VERY limited quantities, and mostly just as a "treat").  In short, depending on one's circumstances, after the initial purchase, rabbits can also be a really cheap livestock. 

Extra benefits of raising rabbits

Rabbits have the absolute BEST manure.  It can go straight from the hutch to the garden with no composting necessary.  Chicken manure, which is very high in nitrogen, can burn tender plants if it isn't composted first. 

Rabbits have fur.  Raising rabbits opens up a potential income source.  If one raises any one of the several long-haired (or Angora) breeds, there is the potential to spin the fur into yarn.  Angora fur is amazingly soft, and it's waterproof.  The yarn can be used to make any knit items. 

In addition, regular old meat mutts also have hides that can be tanned and sold.  A good tanned rabbit hide sells for between $5 and $12 depending on the venue.  For the crafty, the hides can be turned into mittens, hats, blankets, slippers, and muk luks for babies (rabbit hides are very thin and wouldn't hold up well as moccasins for people who need sturdy foot coverings).  The link is to a hat on Amazon (yes, it's an affiliate link, but it's just to show what can be done and what the value of such a product would be).  Check out this DIY rabbit fur hat. We have a few tanned hides that need a purpose.  I love these hats. 

Rabbit's feet can be easily preserved (by soaking in rubbing alcohol, rinsing, and then soaking in a Borax solution) and made into key rings or other novelty items. 

Rabbits can be sold as pets.  While it wouldn't be optimum for one to be selling one's food as someone else's pet, sometimes when there was a particularly large litter, or a few of the babies end up with some really cool genetic traits (finer hair, nice coloring), those rabbits might make a nice addition to someone else's family.  I don't sell pet rabbits, but other backyard rabbit enthusiasts do.

In short:

1.  Rabbits are quiet.  In a suburban setting, one could have dozens of rabbits and the neighbors need never know. 

2.  Rabbits don't need a lot of space.  In her book, Possum Living, Dolly Freed shares that she and her father raised rabbits in their basement.  Setting up something similar in a garage or basement would be easy.

3.  Rabbits are a nutritionally dense meat.

4.  Rabbits don't cost a lot to maintain. 

4.  Rabbits offer some value-added benefits, like amazing fertilizer for the garden.

5.  Rabbits can provide an additional source of income without cutting into one's food supply (i.e. one can make money from raising rabbits without having to sell rabbits as food).

6.  AND, rabbits are a self-sustaining meat source.  That is, they make their own babies.

The one, major, drawback for raising rabbits for meat is almost wholly cultural.  In this country, we are conditioned to see rabbits as pets.  In fact, in many circles rabbits are equal to dogs and cats.  No one is about to suggest that we start raising dogs for food.  That would be barbaric!

It is important to be well aware of that when one considers raising rabbits for food.  Caution when discussing one's choice of livestock with new acquaintances and even some old friends  is well-advised.

Raising Meat Chickens

Raising backyard chickens for eggs has been gaining momentum like an avalanche on Mt. Everest.  It's all the rage these days - so much so, in fact, that I read an article cautioning suburbanites from growing too enamored of their backyard flocks.  The message was that chickens carry salmonella.  Don't kiss them or you might get sick. 

Um ... okay??

I'm going to be completely honest.  I love my chickens, but I'm not gonna kiss them.  Seriously.  Eww!

But they are pretty awesome.  They're quirky and silly.  They have great personalities,  and every single one of them is completely unique in her own right.  There's nothing quite so amusing as going out into the backyard carrying the compost bucket and having the chickens run up to us to find out what treat we have for them.

Everyone knows that chickens for eggs = good. 

The question I was asked to explore, however, was the benefits of raising chickens for meat versus raising rabbits for meat, and so, while I could spend many pages discussing the amazing world of backyard laying hens, I will defer that discussion to another day and focus mainly on raising chicken for meat.

There are dozens and dozens of chicken breeds.  Some breeds are specifically geared toward egg production (Rhode Island Reds, for instance, is a popular laying hen for people who live in Maine).  Some breeds are considered "multi-purpose."  Buff Orpingtons are a heavier breed that has a decent egg production, but is also meaty enough for a meal or two.  There are also some heritage breeds of chicken that were specifically bred for meat, like the Freedom Ranger. 

The most popular meat breed, however is the Cornish Cross.  It's the breed that we raise here at Chez Brown.  It's also the breed that is used in factory farms that supply chicken to the grocery stores. 

The Cornish Cross breed is much maligned.  There are some pretty serious and tragic health issues with Cornish Cross chickens.  They were bred to have very large breasts, which means that sometimes, they get so top-heavy that their legs can support them, and they end up with splayed legs and can't walk.  Resting on their heavy breasts can cause asphyxiation. 

But contrary to popular opinion and in my experience having done this for almost a decade, the Cornish Cross chickens are not completely stupid.  A common term for them is "meat blobs", and the general consensus is that they just lay around all day eating and pooping. 

In a commercial growing facility (a.k.a. factory farm), these chickens are sickly, both because of the way they were bred, but also because of they way they live - with thousands of birds housed in an inadequate space with little air flow and no access to the outside.

By contrast, my meat birds have full access to my entire back yard, which isn't big, but it's big enough for the birds to forage on grass and weeds, chase bugs, take dirt baths, and hide in the Jerusalem Artichoke forest.   In short, because there are only a dozen of them out there at a time, they get to live like chickens. 

And they ARE chickens.  We had one rooster who liked to drink out of the water hose.  This summer, we had one hen who could fly.  They aren't supposed to be able to fly.  We kept her and named her Echappee, which means "escape" in French, because that's what she did - literally, when she flew out of the tractor on butchering day, and then again when we decided to keep her and she "escaped" the visit to Freezer Camp.  At first when we put her in with the other hens, who relentlessly attacked her, we second-guessed our decision, but she's starting to integrate, and she should start laying eggs in a month or two.  I don't even know what color of egg Cornish Cross chickens lay.  Most of the time they never make it that far. 

What's super awesome about raising chickens is the ROI. 

1.  From brooder to butcher takes about ten weeks - eight if we're in a hurry and don't mind them being smaller; twelve if we forget to call and schedule an appointment with the butcher.  We try not to go beyond twelve weeks, though, because the meat can be a little tougher on the older birds, especially if the roosters are starting to get "mature" (and we know that it's happening when they start crowing).

2.  A dozen ten-week old chickens puts between 45 lbs and 80 lbs of meat in our freezer.

3.  One chicken is three meals - or more of we stretch it.  That's three, FULL meals for my family of four.  A sample menu might look like:   

Day 1:  Roast chicken.  Chicken is seasoned with salt, pepper, cumin, Thyme, and garlic powder (maybe some other stuff or different stuff).  I stuff the cavity with fresh herbs and garlic and then add about a 1/4 c. of cooking wine. 

Day 2:  Chicken tacos or fried rice with chicken.  We pick the chicken off the bones and mix it seasonings for tacos or add it to a pan with egg, sautéed vegetables and rice

Day 3:  Soup.  Boil the bones for broth.  Add potatoes or other vegetables.  Pick any chicken left on the bones and add it to the soup. 

Depending on the size of the breasts and/or how much meat we want to eat at each meal, a single chicken could make four or five meals. 

Plus, Deus Ex Machina will take at least one lunch featuring the chicken to work. 

Basically, one chicken can be as many as 20 servings. 

Unlike rabbits, there really aren't any side benefits to meat birds.  We don't save the feathers, and in fact, Cornish Cross chickens don't really have a lot of feathers.  The feet and offal can be saved, too, and used for food, but there's no equivalent to rabbit hides for money-making opportunities.  We could save and resell the feathers, but the customer base for chicken feathers is probably pretty small. 

Chicken manure can be used as a wonderful fertilizer, but it has to be composted first.  So, it's not as great as rabbit manure in that regard.

The one benefit of chicken over rabbit is purely cultural and that is that no one except staunch non-meat eaters will criticize raising chicken for meat.

An additional benefit, for us, is that we have a local butcher who will take care of the meat chickens for us at a cost of $5 per bird.  We take live birds to him and go back the next day to pick up frozen chicken.

That option was not available to us for our rabbits, necessitating our learning to butcher them ourselves.

And that's the last point.  The learning curve for keeping chickens versus keeping rabbits was a bit steeper for the latter, because when we were given those first three rabbits all of those years ago, we didn't know how to humanely kill a rabbit.  I had never skinned or eviscerated an animal.  I'd never scraped and tanned a hide.  I didn't know the first thing about preserving the rabbits' feet (and we made a lot of really smelly mistakes on that one).  Heck, I didn't even know how to cook rabbit.

I didn't know how to do most of those things with chickens, either (I did know how to cook chicken), but the point is, in the beginning, I didn't have to know for the chickens, because someone else did know and did it for me. 

Finally, rabbits excel in one final area where the chickens will fall short, and that's with regard to sustainability.  Rabbits breed like, well, rabbits!  All you need is one of each gender, and voila!  Babies.  Boy rabbits are just as quiet as girl rabbits. 

By contrast, roosters are not quiet.  For that matter, neither are the hens, and every morning, my neighbors know when one of my hens has laid her daily egg.  She's very proud of it, and like Walt Whitman, she wishes to " ... sound her Barbaric YAWP ... " or cackle or whatever it's called. 

It's loud. 

But not as loud as a rooster, I guess. 

Anyway, I don't have roosters.

So, I don't have baby chickens.

I have both male and female rabbits, and so I can have baby rabbits.

From a sustainability point of view and from an economic point of view, rabbits are the better choice for suburban meat production. 

The only drawback, as I've already said, is our cultural bias against eating certain kinds of meat.  If one can get beyond that, rabbits are absolutely the better of the two.