Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Staying Cool


The last two days here in Maine were pretty hot, and while I know it's all relative, when one lives in a place where the average high temperature during the summer is in the 70s, and the mercury rises above 90°, it's hot. 

It got me thinking that I've spent a lot of time here talking about ways to stay warm, but I've neglected to address - in a post all by itself - how to stay cool.

For us, here at Chez Brown, it's opposite sides of the same coin.  We don't have central heat, which means we can't simply set our thermostat to keep our house at a regular 68°F during the winter.  We also don't have central air conditioning (or any artificial cooling for that matter), and so we can't set our thermostat to 78° during the summer.

In fact, while we do have a thermostat attached to our furnace, those who read here regularly know that it's just a thermometer.  The furnace hasn't been used since 2008.  We heat with wood, and so there's no thermostat. 

Most of the tips we use to stay warm during the winter can be used, in reverse, to stay cool in the summer.

Shade is your friend. 

Many years ago my family participated in a class where we learned all sorts of awesome outdoor "survival" skills.  The class wasn't about survival, though.  It was about reintroducing skills that our ancestors knew and used on a daily basis and helping us find ways to incorporate those skills back into our lives.

On one particularly hot day, our instructor moved us to the side of a granite-bedded stream in an area that was thickly shaded by deciduous trees.  Beside the stream bed in the deep shade of those lovely oaks and maples, we made birch bark baskets, staying cool and comfortable.

As modern folks, we've forgotten how to use shade to our advantage.

Inside my house - even without any artificial cooling - stays 5° to 10° cooler than the outside, and it's because we've learned to take advantage of the sun.

At night, we open the windows and turn on the window fans to draw in the cool, night air.  It's wonderful, because not only do we have this lovely cool air blowing over us at night while we sleep, but the white noise also drowns out the sounds of traffic on the road outside.

In the morning, when the sun is on the easterly side of the house, we close the heavy drapes and turn off the fan. 

As the sun moves around the house, we close and open windows and blinds or curtains, taking advantage of the shady sides of the house to help keep things cool.

Nothing Like Water.

One of the best ways for your body to regulate its own temperature is adequate hydration.  During the summer, we drink a lot of water and iced tea.  Yes, I do actually sweat a lot, but sweating is a good thing, as it's our body's natural cooling mechanism. 

Water is excellent for drinking, but it's also amazing for keeping us cool in other ways. 

Back to that class, we were sitting next to a stream, and we were able to put our feet in the stream.  One of the best ways I've found to cool myself quickly is to splash water on my feet and ankles, hands and forearms and face.  It's actually pretty amazing how much better I feel just from that very simple act.  

It's even better if I'm in an area where I can get a cool breeze and let the draft dry me.  It's like sweating, only without all of the salt. 

Cooling herbs.

One summer, we had a really awful hot day, and our power went out.  Not that it mattered to me, much, because having electricity didn't change the temperature inside my house. 

My neighbors, however, were an elderly couple and not having power WAS an issue for them.  I had ice packs in my freezer, which we put around their shoulders and neck to help them keep their bodies cooler.

I also filled a pan with cool water and added a few drops of peppermint essential oil. 

Several years ago, I switched to using Dr. Bonner's soaps, and one of the first flavors that we purchased was peppermint.  The first time I took a shower with it, my whole body tingled ... and felt cool. 

One day, I decided to take a bath, and I was using this soap.  It's hard to describe the feeling, but here I sat in this tub of warm water, but my body felt chilled, because of the soap.  That's when I discovered the power of peppermint to cool.

So, by the time my neighbors' power went out on that scorching day, I already knew how to help them stay cool, and putting their bare feet into a pan of peppermint water did the trick ... and the smell was lovely.

There's a reason those Southerners invented a mint-based drink for their summer cocktails - and it wasn't just an opportunity to showcase their Kentucky Bourbon.

Ice, Ice Baby

After living her entire life with a mom who is kind of over-the-top about creating a lower-energy lifestyle, Precious has learned a few tricks on staying cool when the mercury fills the thermometer.

The other day, when it was super hot here, I saw her walking around the house with a rice pack around her shoulders. 

We call them cold things and they stay in our freezer - all of the time.  When my children were younger, and they suffered a bump or bruise, they used the cold thing.  It's almost more effective than a kiss-to-make-it-better. 

In our non-AC home, we know that cooling off with a cold thing works.  So, she was putting the cold thing around her shoulders.  When I was still doing transcription, I would put a cold thing in my lap or at my feet while I typed.  On particularly sultry nights, someone is usually sleeping with a cold thing.


None of this is secret knowledge.  Most of what I know or have learned about staying warm or cool, I discovered by observing animals in nature.  When it's hot, the animals hunker down, usually in the shade.  A dog will dig a little shallow in the cool dirt and lay with his belly against the ground.  The chipmunk will dig a little burrow where he stays in the heat of the day.  A moose will find a nice stream or pond and get into the water.  The animals' techniques for staying cool work for us, too.

Humans have managed to survive and thrive in every climate on the earth for tens of thousands of years.  It's only been in the last hundred that we can no longer manage even the slightest fluctuation in our comfortable temperature range.

But if we learned to work with nature, instead of against her, our lives can be a whole lot more comfortable - even without all of our modern conveniences. 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

T-Shirt to Skirt



The older I get, the more I realize my Grandmother had the right idea.  She didn't go clothes shopping.  I guess she did some mail-order for undergarments and socks, but for her outerwear, she had this pattern for a dress, and she made them herself.  Depending on what the dress was to be used for, she might add a fancy lace collar or some big apron-style pockets. 

When I was little, I never really noticed it.  It's only after thinking about all of her dresses (and she had a lot of them) that I realized they were all the same ... except for some small embellishments.

And she used different fabrics for different times of year.  Like she had this really, lovely, heavy polyester dress with a color and gold buttons that she wore to church in the winter.  She had a very light weight cotton in a pastel stripped pattern that she wore at home on her farm during the summer.   She snapped a lot of peas in that dress.

In my quest to find my style I've gone through a lot of clothes - most of which are ill-fitting and not terribly flattering.  I just don't have the body type that today's clothes are made for. 

A few years ago, I stumbled upon the Little Brown Dress project.  A Seattle woman (Alex Martin) made a brown dress, which she wore for an entire year.  That's it.  The Brown Dress was her uniform for that entire year (she actually had two dresses ... maybe more ... but that brown dress, paired with sweaters, leggings, and other accessories, was all she wore).  I guess some people would get twitchy thinking about wearing the same thing every. single. day, but I was intrigued. 

How simple would it be to get up every day and just grab your clothes, without having to worry about what one is going to wear?  It's always the same ... with, perhaps, a few embellishments. 

While I haven't (and won't) take it to the extreme that Alex Martin did, I do really like the idea of having just a very few articles of clothing that fit well, are flattering to my shape and size, and are comfortable.

I bought this pattern two years ago.  I actually bought it for the pants, because I was looking for something that would be flowing and comfortable, and this pattern looked easy enough for my limited sewing skill. It took me almost two months to finally make something.  I decided on the skirt, which I loved, but it was a bit more snug than I liked.  The cotton fabric doesn't have any give.

Then, I decided to make a second skirt out a couple of my old shirts.  Upcycling ... you know?  

I love that skirt.  I dyed it (poorly), and it ended up being this crazy-looking batik pattern.  It also developed these little holes, which polo-style shirts will do with age. 

I wear it as a work-around-the-house skirt.  It's comfortable and flowing. 

I made a third skirt with that same pattern not long ago.  This one is my favorite, AND I can wear it places.  I've gotten a few complements on it and more than one request to make one for someone else. 

Today, it's hot here.  My work-at-home skirt is in the wash.  I try not to wear my go-out-in-public clothes when I might be in the garden or just lounging around the house. 

I don't wear shorts.  It's too hot for jeans or sweatpants.

So, I decided to pull out my pattern and dig through my old clothes and scrap material box and see what I could make.  

I found this extra large men's shirt.  I'm not sure where it came from, but since it was in the bin, I figured it probably wasn't something Deus Ex Machina had been missing from his closet.    





 
 
 
I cut off the arms, and then, using my skirt pattern as a guide, I cut across the shirt using the bottom half (from the pectoral area and down) for the skirt body.  The sleeves are the waistband.  The leftovers (and there wasn't much) are in the rag-bag.  If I end up making enough of these skirts, I might start saving the excess for reusable menstrual pads - although at risk of sharing a little too much, I shouldn't need them much longer ;)). 
 
If I get really ambitious, maybe I could make the scraps into a rug, or a bowl, or a quilt.  The possibilities are only limited by my own imagination ... and whether or not my family can be convinced to use cloth wipes instead of toilet paper.
 
What's really cool about having used this t-shirt is that I didn't have to do any hemming, and so from start to finish (including taking a shower), it took about an hour. 

It's a cute little skirt.  It's one of those pieces of clothing that can be appropriate at any function depending on the shirt and shoes.  With just my camisole and a pair of flip-flops, it's good for working in the yard or lounging in the hammock.  Paired with some leggings and a fitted tee-shirt, it's a nice casual wear for shopping or hanging out with my daughters.  If I wanted to be fancier, I could add a suit coat or a nice cardigan.  It's just one of those styles that can be dressed up or down.

And to think, only a few short hours ago, it was a red t-shirt, hiding in the bottom of my scrap material bin.

I'm thinking, maybe, I should go find some more men's t-shirts.  Extra large.  With no logos.   

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Serenade

 
 
Deus Ex Machina entertains me (and the cat, apparently) while I'm preparing dinner. 
 

Just a day in the life here at Chez Brown.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Increasing the Skill Set



I was going to call this post "I did a Thing", but I already have a post with that title.  These days, doing a thing seems to be my mode d'emploi.

I guess that's good.

Most of you don't know it, but I play the clarinet.  It's a long story, but the gist is that my family was poor, I wanted to be in the band, my older sister had two clarinets, and so that's the instrument I ended up playing.

I started in the sixth grade and played through high school, when I stopped.  In retrospect, I wish that I had kept playing - maybe joined the band in college, or better, joined the Army Band when I enlisted.  How cool would THAT have been?!?  Back then, though, I didn't see the value in music, and I didn't even realize that being in the band was something I could do as a soldier.  So, I didn't.

Turns out that playing an instrument is like riding a bike.  There's some degree of muscle memory that never really goes away, and it's just a matter of practicing to remind oneself of what one knows.

Anyway, fast forward a few decades, and my children are taking music lessons.  For the last several years at the music recital, we've participated as the Brown Family Band - playing one group number that we work on as a family.  Last year we performed the classic bluegrass tune, Rocky Top, which Deus Ex Machina arranged in a three-part harmony. 

This year's recital theme is the 80's.  After a few weeks of hashing it out, we finally decided that our family tune was going to be Careless Whisper - both as a tribute to the late George Michaels and because we all just like that song.

But also, because the sax part sounds really awesome on the clarinet.  We decided that I'd dust off my clarinet and give it a whirl. 

Unfortunately, a week before the recital, it happened.  The cork on the bottom piece that connects the bell broke off.

So, we ordered a repair kit.

And I did a thing. 



 
And it works! 
 
So, in a few days, when we have our recital, I'll be whispering, carelessly into my clarinet ....
 
Who says one can't teach an old dog new tricks?
 
Look out world!  I'm still learning.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Forget the Park ... Grow the Food

 
This graphic is bothersome. 
 
 



I don't know if it's true or not - the part about Russia, I mean, because I've never been to Russia.  But the part about the USA is probably true. 

What's bothersome is that I often hear laments about how we can't eat "good" food and how food is so expensive, and lots of other commentaries about the state of our food security in the US; and, then, I see graphics like that one ... and I look at the yards surrounding all of these homes while I'm passing through my local communities.  

What I see are a lot of wide open spaces with neatly mowed grass and a few non-fruiting trees.   Most of the time the yards are so big that they have to be mowed with a riding mower.   I always imagine what that big, old, grassy field would look like with a garden. 

While I'm all for aesthetics, it just seems a little more important, to me, especially in light of the conversations I hear as mentioned above (high cost of food; inability to eat "organic" because of the cost; the high cost of health care; the high incidence of diet-related health issues), to put aside the desire to have a manicured grassy field in favor of growing something one's family can eat.   Frankly, unless one has grazing animals, there's not a lot of need for a big field of grassy yard.  It's actually, kind of, cumbersome and difficult to manage.

I know I've mentioned a few times that I don't have a lawn mower, and that I "manage" what little grass there is in my yard using a weed-whacker with a very limited battery life.  My yard almost never looks neat.  I would apologize to my neighbors, but honestly, I'm not sorry.  My goal is not to have a park-like landscape, but rather to grow something that will sustain my family.

So, what I have looks more like this:
 
 
Potatoes growing in old feed bags

 
Carrots (need to be thinned and weeded :))

 
Peas! 

 
My "forest garden" with an understory of herbs (mostly mint and lemon balm), a shrub layer of hazel nut, an apple tree for the middle story, and the old maple cluster for the upper story. 
Herbs for seasoning and teas; hazel nuts; apples; and maple syrup!
The entire garden from the ground up is edible.

 
Garlic!

 
One of my 4'x 8' beds - this one with broccoli (it's still early in the season :)). 
My plan is to grow cucumbers on the trellis between the beds. 

 
Strawbale garden.  It's still early.  I have tomatoes and will also be planting peppers.

 
One of my several herb gardens. 
The plant in the back right is catmint.  My cat sleeps in this garden bed.
In the background is the Jerusalem artichoke bed, that needs to be thinned a little.

 
My front porch container garden. 
 
 
My yard isn't all that pretty - at least compared to a carefully manicured and landscaped English Garden - but it is very green with a lot of things growing, and it also does something more positive for my mental health and well-being. 
 
Aside from the fact that gardening is a very health-promoting hobby, it can also provide peace of mind.  During war times in the mid-2oth Century, people planted Victory Gardens - which gave them some control over their available calories, because in some places rationing meant certain foods were scarce.  During the Great Depression of the 1930s, those who fared best were the ones who were growing food.  They didn't have money, but they did eat.
 
In 2008, we experienced a small, short-lived economic crisis here in the US.  It was worse overseas.  Some European countries, like Greece, suffered a complete economic collapse.  Russia, Argentina, and Cuba went through a similar crisis in the 1990s.  Venezuela is in the midst of their own economic crisis right now.
 
In reading accounts from these places written by the survivors, the one common thread is that people who fare the best are the ones who could provide some of their own sustenance - i.e. those who had a garden. 
 
There are so many reasons to have a food garden ... and so few to have a lawn. 
 
Now, if you'll excuse me, I should go outside.  It's a lovely day ... and those peppers aren't going to plant themselves.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Speaking of Being a Producer ...


I came across this cute cartoon today.  




Anyone who has ever raised rabbits knows how true this is - and also knows how tricky it can be to accurately determine the gender of a pre-pubescent male ... and what happens when the rabbit sex-change fairy arrives. 

I usually get it right, but not always, which is why we currently have eight baby buns.  To combat my potential for error, we usually just keep the rabbits separated. 

If we weren't raising rabbits for that specific purpose, the fact that our doe kindled would be a problem.  I mean, what would we *do* with eight mutt rabbit babies?  

But since it is our stated purpose to raise rabbits for our table, that we have eight more is not a problem.  It's a blessing.



This poster is from the WWII era (I believe).  It is a really good illustration of the benefits of raising rabbits.  They don't take up a lot of space.  They're quiet.  And as long as their housing is kept clean, they don't smell bad. 

And they produce an incredible amount of low-fat, high protein meat.

Although, contrary to what the poster implies, you would need two rabbits - one of each gender ;).

And then, there's this. 


 
 
 
Raising rabbits is also pretty cost effective - as meat animals go.
 
Here at Chez Brown, we feed ours, mostly, a diet of commercially produced feed pellets and hay, but in a pinch, we could rely on our ability to forage for our rabbits.   Our rabbits love the garden weeds, the leftover watermelon rinds, maple leaves, and grass clippings.  Since our yard is all organic (no sprays used, ever), we feel comfortable feeding them just about anything we pull.  They even like the Jerusalem artichoke stalks.
 
If you're cramped for space, and you're looking for a way to add a meat animal to your food production, you can't do better than a rabbit - and most communities (including HOAs) don't, yet, have anti-rabbit ordinances. 

But if they do, you could be like Dolly Freed and raise them in your basement.  No one need be the wiser. 
 
As a bonus, rabbits produce the most amazing fertilizer, and it can be used as a top dressing on tender plants, because it doesn't burn the plants.  It also doesn't have to be composted first. 

Raising meat chickens is easier and faster, but for long-term food sovereignty, rabbits are the best choice.  


Sunday, June 4, 2017

Become a Producer, Not a Consumer

 
 
This picture has been making the rounds on Facebook recently.
 


I shared it, because we do all of those things ... well, except bake bread, but that's because we don't eat bread (we're gluten-free these days).  We also don't have a goat or a cow, because we don't have a large enough piece of land, but we do have chickens and rabbits (and we used to have bees).  We don't generate electricity, but we save a lot of energy.  Deus Ex Machina hunts.  I do a lot of cooking.  We grow a lot of herbs, fruits, berries and vegetables.  Recently, I posted pictures of the skirt I made.  It took about two hours from start to finish. 

I was saddened by some comments I saw made by people who were offended by the list.  One person commented about living in an urban setting, where this person claimed that doing many of those things wasn't possible.  This person seemed to imply that lists, like this one, serve only to divide us against each other - the "producers" versus the "consumers."

But that's really not the point.  The point is to encourage us all to do what we can with what we have where we are. 

As I said, I'm not going to be milking my cow anytime soon.  I don't have a cow.  As long as I live here, in the suburbs, I will never have a cow.  But, I can purchase raw milk from a local farmer, and I can make my own cheese, if I wanted to. 

Or I can make my own skirt rather than purchasing one.  If I want to be really creative, I can make a skirt from a couple of old t-shirts.  I've done that, too.  One doesn't need a lot of land or a large house to sew clothes.

I've also salvaged stained shirts by dying them rather than tossing them in the trash.  That, too, is being a "producer" rather than a "consumer."

I'm not much of a knitter.  I still haven't progressed beyond making squares, and really, because I knit so slow, I don't have the patience to do much more than just a smallish square.  I used to knit squares with the intention of some day sewing them all together into a blanket, but then, a few times, I stopped paying attention to how long my square was, until it wasn't square anymore.  It was too short for a scarf, but too long for a blanket square.  And that's when I found a new use for them.  I use them as dish cloths.  It takes me a few hours to make one, if I have nothing else to do.  If I'm doing other stuff, it can take a few weeks.  But in the end, I have this knitted cloth I can use to wash dishes. 



That's also being a producer rather than a consumer.  I make my own dish cloths. 

The point is to do as much as we can for ourselves rather than relying on others for so much.  Each of those things that we do for ourselves means one less thing that we have to pay someone else to do for us.  The more we produce for ourselves, the less we consume. 

We don't have to do all of those things on that list.  In fact, maybe we do a bunch of different sorts of things (like make new furniture out of reclaimed pallets ... or knit rectangles to make dish cloths ... and make guitar picks out of old gift cards) that aren't on that list, but that are just as much about being producers as any of those examples. 

There is no perfect life, except the one in which we are all doing what we can with what we have where we are.