Friday, December 28, 2018

A Christmas Story

Tilda ran along the creek bank behind her grandmother. Oma was carrying two five-gallon buckets, each only half full. It was easier that way, she said. Her back wasn't getting any younger.  

That smile. 

Oma had the best smile. Her whole face seemed to catch a sparkle when she smiled, like the sun blazing through a break in the clouds on a dreary, gray day. Tilda lived for that smile.

The muddy banks were crusted with snow and ice, and all along, a few feet back from the edge, were junipers. Oma took her sharp knife out of its sheath and easily sliced through some of the branches. Most of them had berries, too. Oma cautioned Tilda that those were berries, but that they weren't to eat, like the sweet blueberries they occasionally found. These were for medicine and decoration.

Oma tucked the juniper cuttings into her bag. The long strap wrapped around her neck and the bag hung loosely at her hip. Once upon a time that bag was probably Oma's purse and held all of the stuff she would need during the day when she was out at a job or shopping: keys, a wallet, assorted writing utensils. Oma joked that her bag also had much of the stuff that could be used in an emergency situation: a pocketknife, matches and tinder for starting fires, carabiners, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, packets of sugar, a tea bag, and an assortment of first aid supplies, like women's hygiene products. Tilda had asked once, what a women's hygiene product was. Oma tried to explain, but Tilda was too young still to understand about the body she had been born into and the miracles it could create. Time, Oma told her, would reveal all.

Oma said that sometimes she'd carried snacks, but mostly not, as she also wished to keep the bag lighter, and since it was for emergencies, those snacks tended to get all crumbly and not good, over time. Oma disliked throwing things away. So, she stopped carrying snacks.

“There's always somewhere to get a bite,” she had told Tilda, and as proof, they stopped under an apple tree. The fruit was small and tart, but edible, and it quieted a rumbling belly. “That's all we need, my dear.”

The bag style was called a messenger bag. Tilda liked to imagine what sort of message one would carry in such a vessel. Oma smiled. That smile. 

“We'll carry messages of health and well being, my dear. Would you like to carry the bag?”

Tilda reached eagerly her fingers opening and closing like lobster claws as Oma set the strap around her neck, adjusting the length so that Tilda wouldn't trip when she walked. The bag dangled in front of her, and she clasped a hand on each side to keep it from swaying as she walked.

Oma stopped, setting the two heavy buckets on the ground on either side of her, stood, and stretched her back. The brook whispered against its bank, and as they stood there, not speaking or moving, Tilda could hear the sounds of others around them. The birds chittering to each other, warning of the two, two-legged visitors to their home. The cold wind licked its icy tongue against the naked tree trunks and branches, which protested loudly in creaks and shudders.

Tilda pulled her arms more tightly against her sides, gripping the messenger bag in her knotted fists.

Taking her knife again, Oma slashed some mushrooms from a rotted stump. She handed the spores to Tilda, and then, trekked off a few feet to a small pine. In one smooth motion, she slashed the thumb-sized trunk. She tucked the tiny tree under her arm, grabbed her buckets, and continued the hike back to home.

Tilda and her parents lived with Oma and Opa in their small house. Well, Oma kept saying it was small, but it was big enough that everyone could go to a separate room for some quiet time and not speak for a whole … ever, if they wanted.

There were two rooms that Oma always called “bathrooms”, but there was only one bath tub. The other room had a plastic enclosure with a glass door. They called it a shower, but Tilda had never seen anyone use it for anything more than washing clothes in the metal tub on the floor of the shower and hanging clothes to dry in the winter – ones that were too heavy to wring out well enough to put on the rack in front of the woodstove. The bathroom with the shower had a wooden seat with a hole and bucket underneath. Oma called it the potty.

She said when she was a little girl, her grandma had an outhouse. That was before indoor plumbing, Oma said. Oma said they were now in the after of indoor plumbing.

Oma liked to share stories about what life was like when she was growing up. Her stories were funny, and she always told them with that smile, like she was remembering a happy time.

Her grandmother's outhouse was a lot like their potty, she told Tilda, only it was a little house outside that had a hole in the ground that they peed and pooped into. It was not nice having to go into that that house, because it was dark, and there were big spiders, and it smelled bad.

Tilda had learned to make sure that she put a scoop of sawdust into the potty after every time she pooped, so that their potty wouldn't smell bad, and she was always very careful to put her used wipe in the wash bucket. They all had their own wipes, all different colors, and there was also a spray bottle. Tilda didn't use the spray bottle, because spraying cold water on her bum didn't feel good.

Every night before they went to bed, Opa or Papa would take the potty bucket outside and dump it into a hole in the ground. Oma told Tilda that it was a septic tank, explaining that it was a big concrete box buried in the ground, and one time, long in the past, when they went potty, it was into a bowl with water, and they would push a lever that would open a valve and all of the poop and pee would whoosh down a pipe and into the septic tank.

“Why did you poop in a bowl of water, Oma?”

“She's gotcha there, Wendy,” Opa roared laughter.

That smile. Oh, that smile. And the laugh, like the little wind chimes dancing happily in a summer breeze. Oma had the best laugh.

“That's a very good question, my dear. I guess, back then, we did a lot of silly things. We weren't as smart as we are now.”

Tilda opened the front door for Oma. They entered the warm house. A fire danced in the woodstove, casting moving shadows on the floor in front of the glass door.  Strings of twinkling lights lined the room interspersed with bows of assorted evergreens adorning the empty spaces between the lights in the crook between the top of the wall and the ceiling. Mama had been busy.

“Hello, Sweet Pea,” Oma said to Mama. Her name wasn't Sweet Pea. It was Penelope. Oma had nicknames for everyone.

“Hi, Mom,” Penelope waddled over to give her mother a kiss on one frosty cheek. “And you! Are you carrying the medicine bag for Oma? That's a huge responsibility! You're such a big girl!”

Tilda beamed! Mama had noticed that Oma had given her the care of the bag. She felt she might actually burst with pride and gratitude for the trust Oma had placed in her. The bag was important, because Oma used it for gathering herbs, and it was the only one she had. Things just weren't as disposable as they once were, Oma told her.

“We have to care for the things we have.”

Tilda hugged the bag against herself.

Her mother reached for the strap around Tilda's neck.

“I can take that from you, Sweetie. You take off your coat and shoes. Friends will be here soon.”

Oma shrugged out of her coat, hanging it next to the door on hooks attached to the heavy wooden Armoire cabinet. Mama said that when she was a young girl, younger than Tilda is now, that used to be a TV cabinet. Tilda didn't know what a TV was. They tried to explain, but it just never made much sense.

“It's like the laptop, kind of. You could see a movie or a television show on the screen, but it was big, and the shows changed all of the time.”

The laptop they could use every now and then to watch DVDs. They didn't get to watch it much, because it had to be powered. That's how they said it. Powered. It took a long time to power it, too, because Opa said the battery was old and had a hard time keeping a charge. On a sunny day, they could hook it straight up to the solar panel they had and watch a DVD, but sunny days were usually busy doing stuff outside, and there wasn't a lot of time to sit around watching DVDs. So, they would try to charge the battery, and some nights, when there was enough of a charge, they might watch a DVD after it was dark, and they'd had dinner.

They had a bunch of DVDs, some of which Tilda wasn't allowed to watch. There was a set of a DVDs that Mama told her was from a used-to-be television show called the Muppets. Oma said that The Muppet show had been new when she was a little girl.

“Wow! It's an old show, then, huh?” Tilda had asked in wonder.

Oma laughed, her twinkling happy laugh and her face sparkled like the bright stars at night.

“Yes, my dear. It is a very old show. They certainly don't make them like that anymore.” Everyone laughed at that. Tilda laughed, too, but she wasn't sure why it was so funny.

The TV cabinet was full of coats and sweaters, now. The bottom half of the cabinet had hats, gloves, and scarves. Tilda was always sure to put her hats, gloves, and scarves back into the cabinet when she came inside … unless they were wet, and then, she put them on the pins on the bookshelves across from the woodstove so that they could dry. Then, she put them in the cabinet, unless she was going back outside.

Oma liked things to be orderly, and she said it was important that they take great care of their things, because making them took time, and it was always better to take care of something than it was to have to replace it.

Oma picked up her buckets and carried them into the kitchen. She poured them both into the big barrel. During the warmer months, the barrel was outside and would fill with rainwater. The water ran through a screen, through a filtering system made up of layers of small rocks, pebbles, sand, old cotton tee-shirts, and charcoal.

Last time Opa had changed the filter, he'd shown Tilda how to do the layers right. He said it would filter out almost anything that might make them sick. When it was rainwater, they weren't as worried about the water being dirty, but that creek water Oma lugged into the house was a bigger concern.

It was unlikely that it was contaminated with tiny animals that could make them sick since it was a running creek.

“Be careful with still water, Tilda. It could have bad germs.”

But without doctors, they couldn't afford to get sick from something as silly as drinking dirty water.

After she dumped the water into the barrel, Oma went over the stove and transferred the boiled water from the pan to a tea kettle, as much as would fit. The rest she poured into glass jars and set out on the porch to get cool. When the pan was empty, she refilled it with filtered water from the barrel and set it on the stove to boil.

Then, she and Mama looked in the messenger bag. Oma pulled out the Turkey Tails.

“We'll make a turkey tail soup to go with dinner. Can you grab the sauce pan?”

She dumped the juniper on the counter.

“We'll put these out as decorations so that the berries can dry. Once they're dry, we can put them in jars to save for if anyone gets the sniffles.”

Oma opened the front door and grabbed the small pine she'd left on the porch.

“Oh, Mom! You got a tree!” Mama exclaimed.

Oma smiled.

“Make me a stand?” Oma asked Mama.

Mama grabbed a plant pot from the room off the kitchen and filled it with sand. Oma stripped the lowest branches from the little tree, saving these aside. She pushed the stem into the sand, and it stood.

“Would you like to decorate, my dear?”

Oma disappeared into the room she shared with Opa. Tilda wasn't allowed to spend much time in that room. Oma said it was her sanctuary, and her private space must be respected, but also, the room was filled from floor to ceiling with all of the tools and assorted flotsam and jetsam they'd collected over the years, and which, ultimately, proved valuable.

“There's just too much clutter, my dear. I wouldn't want some to fall on you.”

She returned with a plastic bin that held all sorts of sparkling treasures. “Ornaments,” she called them. They made an appearance once a year, at this time, and then, they were packed back away until the next time. Mama handed Tilda the decorations, which she carefully placed on the tree, mostly on one side.

“Careful you don't make one side too heavy, my dear. The tree might fall over,” Oma cautioned. The next ornament, Tilda was careful to put on the other side.

The Bourgeois-Langs arrived first. Missy. Bourgeois-Lang was almost as old as Oma. She laughed a deep-in-her-belly laugh and had sparkling blue eyes – like Oma. She was one of Tilda's favorite friends.

She and Oma hugged like bears, and she handed Oma a brown paper wrapped package tied with a bright cotton string.

“For later,” she winked.

Her daughter was Mama's best friend, Aunt Tee. She had long yellow hair and deep dimples that pitted her cheeks when she smiled. Her husband was a skinny fellow named Jack. He had shocking red hair and deep brown eyes, that told stories Tilda was too young to hear.

“He was in the Great War, my dear,” they tried to explain to Tilda when she asked about Uncle Jack's sad eyes.

The Great War had been way down South, Oma said. It started in some place that was once called Virginia. Oma said that Virginia was one of the original 13 colonies and had been named after some Queen of England. England was across the ocean in a faraway place called You're Up.

Mama had some history books and an old book of maps. She showed Tilda the maps, pointing to where they were on the map in a place that was once called Maine, and where Virginia was. It didn't look that far away, which made Tilda nervous. She didn't know what a great war meant, but if it had been what gave Uncle Jack his shadowed stare, she knew it wasn't something she ever wanted to know.

“It's not there anymore,” Oma explained. “None of what was, is.”

Uncle Jack had gone, just like most folks, both men and women. “Boys and girls, really,” Oma had said. “But that's always the way with war.”

Uncle Jack smiled at Tilda. He had a happy face around his sad eyes. Tilda focused on his smile, a white-toothed grin that broke across his face like a warm wave on the beach. She liked that smile. He had pretty teeth.

Mama showed Aunt Tee the tree, and they both squealed with delight. Aunt Tee hugged Tilda tight.

“Tell me, Tilda, are you the artist who so expertly adorned this lovely tree?” Tilda beamed, her head bouncing in an enthusiastic nod. “It's beautiful! And so are you!”

Aunt Tee put her hand on Mama's belly. It was swollen with what Tilda was told would be her baby brother or sister.

“Oh!” Aunt Tee exclaimed. “He kicked me!”

Bright bursts of laughter exploded from the entire group.

Ms. Meeks arrived next. She lived across the way. Her husband had died from the Big C, a disease Tilda had heard the adults whisper as if by speaking it full might infect the rest of them. Oma scoffed and said that his condition was a result of government irresponsibility and corporate greed. He'd been poisoned, she said, in another awful war. Oma's papa had also been in that war. Tilda had never met Mr. Meeks, or Oma's papa. Oma wasn't sure if her papa was still alive.

That wall had gone up. That wall. Only it was so many thousands of miles north and east of where it had been planned, and now, what was is no longer. Oma's eyes got sad, like Uncle Jack's, when she spoke of such things.

Tilda would make a silly face and do a little wiggly dance when Oma got sad. It made her smile. Tilda liked when Oma smiled.

Kami and John came next. Kami was Mama's sister. Mama had a lot of sisters, and a brother, too. Her brother had lived near Oma's Mama and Papa. They didn't know if he was still there, on that other side of the wall. Oma gnashed her teeth and wrung her hands when she said the wall.

“Look Oma!” Tilda called, and turned upside and down and rolled over and the jumped up on her chubby legs and and said, “Ta da!”

They all clapped and laughed.

“Lovely, my dear!” Oma smiled.

Faleen and Andy came next. Oma held them tight. Faleen was a dancer, before. She'd been gone when the Great War started, but she'd come back. Oma's heart skipped a happy step every time she saw Faleen, because she had been so afraid that she was gone.

But there she was, all sleek and beautiful with her gorgeous white smile and her eyes the color a forest in the deep summer.

Faleen handed Oma a package. She opened it, and inside was a painting of a little girl with wings like the fairies Oma says live in the trees and a crown made of flowers and a skirt made of maple leaves.

“Tilda, look! Aunt Faleen has caught you!”

More neighbors filled their small home. Patty from around the corner. Oma hadn't liked Patty in the beginning, back before, because Patty lived in a McMansion where Oma's blueberry field used to be. Tilda couldn't understand why Oma let Patty build her house there. Oma tried to explain that it wasn't her blueberry field, but that she had picked wild berries there in the before there were houses there. In that before, houses were always being built in places where things like blueberries used to be. Oma's face would cloud when she thought of that before.

Tilda liked blueberries, and as it turned out Patty's house wasn't, exactly, on top of the blueberries. It was more beside the blueberries. Or the blueberries just moved over, because they couldn't grow under the house. Even Tilda knew they wouldn't get enough sun there.

Oma took Tilda to pick blueberries last summer, and then, they came home and made buckwheat pancakes with blueberries. Oma said that they should enjoy them, because she wasn't sure if she'd be able to get anymore buckwheat flour. Tilda said she had very much enjoyed them, especially, with a little bit of that maple syrup that Oma and Opa had made in the spring.

There was always a lot of making, and especially, this time of year. Oma had an old sewing machine that Opa had made to run with a foot pedal and a really long belt. Oma had closed herself up in her bedroom for hours at a time, and Tilda could hear the soft whirr of the needle going up and down.

Oma had told Mama that she was happy she had been a pack-rat all of those years, but that she was running low on thread. If she couldn't get more from somewhere, she might not be doing much sewing. She'd been very careful with her needles, as she was pretty certain she'd never find any of those again.

Welcome Friends!” Opa said, raising his glass. “Join us in celebrating the return of the light! Here's to us. The survivors. The pioneers of this new world. May our labor be light and our days be productive. May we find abundance in the less. May these interesting times leave us without want.”

Mama gave Tilda a glass. It was the same wine as everyone else, but mixed with two-thirds water. It was sweet, but also strong.

This dandelion wine is nice,” John told Opa.

We used the last bit of our sugar to make it. It might be a little sweeter than we'd intended. I'm not sure the yeast was strong enough.”

Well, I like it,” Aunt Tee said.

The sky reddened as the sun began its descent to sleep and pushed its light into the room through the uncovered windows. Oma had once-upon-a-time painted the walls in the front room yellow, because she said that the yellow walls caught the light and made the room glow. It seemed to be true.

The twinkling solar lights paled in the waning sunlight, and then, as the lady of the day winked her eye good night, Oma pulled the chimneys off the oil lamps and lit the wicks. The twinkling solar lights, the dancing flames visible through the glass on the woodstove, and the orange fire from the oil lamps gave the room a soft warmth.

Gifts!” Oma said after everyone had enjoyed a meal.

She handed a clothe-wrapped bundle to each. Aunt Tee and Uncle Jack opened a bundle that had two rabbit fur-lined trapper hats. The outside looked like blue jeans. Aunt Tee smooshed hers on her head and squealed. “It fits!” There were two pairs of matching mittens, too – both fur lined.

Kami and John opened a box that held a couple of jars and one bottle. Strawberry jam and strawberry wine. John beamed. It was his favorite.

Faleen and Andy opened their package. Inside was a feather-filled quilt, but it was more than that. When Faleen was a young girl, back before the Great War, she had taken classes at a dance school and every time they did a show, they were given a commemorative tee-shirt. Oma had saved all of those tee-shirts. She cut off the sleeves of the shirts, sewed one side closed, filled it with feathers from an old feather bed she'd been given some years ago, and sewed the other side shut. She, then, sewed the little pillows together.

That should keep you warm in that drafty old house of yours,” Faleen smiled and hugged Oma, tight, like a bear.

Thanks, Mom,” she whispered through her tears.

I love you, baby.”

Opa went into the other room and came back with a big, bulky bag, which he handed to Mama and Papa.

Mama gasped when she pulled the drawstring and peered into the sack.

Oh, Daddy! It's too much!”

She carefully eased the item out of the bag. It was a wooden cradle. Oma handed them a small package.

Papa opened it and found a tiny quilt made with soft fleece.

At last Oma handed Tilda a package.

She carefully untied the bow and unfolded the material. Half a face peered out at her from the folds of the cloth. She pulled the other half of the cloth away, and there in her lap lay a beautiful cloth doll. The face was made from Oma's coveted muslin. The body was made from the tee-shirt sleeves, and Oma had even made her have hair, braided cords of old tee-shirt. The dress was maple-shaped leaves made from one of either Oma's or Opa's old camouflage uniforms, and she had wings, like a fairy, made from some filmy fabric Tilda had never seen wrapped around a wire frame.

She was beautiful. Tilda carefully lifted her from the wrapping, and slowly embraced her.

Can I call her Wendy?” She asked.

Oma smiled.

Of course, my dear. Of course.”

Old Boot, New Boot*

A couple of years ago I bought a new pair of boots.  I'd spent a lot of time looking for the perfect pair, and these were as close to perfect as I was going to get without designing and making my own.

Last year, I wore them every day of the winter, and I grew to love these sweet, little boots.  They were super comfortable, soft leather uppers with a rubber sole that didn't have me slipping and sliding on the ice, which I can tell you, is pretty awesome.

Then, the lining inside one of the boots ripped. 

I could still wear them, but getting them on was a pain, because if I didn't put my foot in the boot, just right, I pushed the liner down all crumbled up under my foot and that's what I walked on all day.  Not comfortable.

A few weeks ago, the lining in the other boot began to tear.

So, Deus Ex Machina and I looked for a new pair of boots for me, and I received a pair for Christmas.  Only they were too small, and we had to send them back.  At first the plan was to exchange the new boots, but they didn't have my size in that style.  So, I looked at their selection to see if I could find another pair that I thought I could wear.  I spent two hours looking and couldn't find anything that matched the quality and style of the ones I already have. 

I don't like having to replace clothes or shoes.  Once I find something I like, I just want it to last forever, and I just really like these boots.  The fact is that I have this awesome pair of boots that fit exactly right, are completely broken in, and with the exception of the lining, are in perfect condition. 

The solution, for me, is to repair rather than replace. 

Today, we dropped the boots off at the cobbler.  I'm sure I've mentioned this place before.  I have a pair of twelve year old birkenstock clogs that he's resoled at least twice.  I have a pair of ten year old birkenstock sandals that he's resoled once. 

He told me what he planned to do with them.  Warned me that there may be some lumps around the ankle that might feel weird, and then, quoted me a price that I couldn't refuse.  The cost to fix them is half the cost of a new pair, and if I can get another three years of wear out of those boots ... well, I win.

One week and I'll have my boots back.  In the meantime, I'll just wear my clogs, and since we're on vacation until after the first of the year, it all works out. 

I tell ya, fixing things beats the heck out of trying to find a replacement for something I'm not ready to give up, yet. 

*The title of the post is a nod to the Berenstain Bears' story Old Hat, New Hat, in which Papa bear goes into the hat shop for a new hat, but after trying on all of the hats, he realizes that the one he wants is the one he has.  That's exactly how I feel about my boots. 

Friday, October 12, 2018

The Next Industrial Revolution (?)

Deus Ex Machina came home from work the other day and asked me if I'd heard of Industry 4.0.  

I hadn't.  

According to Google, Industry 4.0 is a name given to the current trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies. It includes cyber-physical systems, the Internet of things, cloud computing and cognitive computing. Industry 4.0 is commonly referred to as the fourth industrial revolution.

It's more than that, though.  

The belief that American manufacturing jobs left the US for cheaper, overseas markets is only half true.  It's true that some manufacturing companies shuttered their factories here in the US in favor of cheaper labor markets in developing countries, but the real culprit, the real elephant in the room that took American jobs was automation.  Yes, the robots supplanted us.  More jobs have been lost in the last three decades to machines than to overseas cheap labor markets.  

Let that sink in.

Then take a look around at the other jobs that are currently being replaced by machines, because the replacing of humans with machines for those unskilled labor jobs is only going to increase.

Any one remember the joke about the Liberal Arts grad?  Back when I went to college, we were strongly encouraged to select a course of study that would net us a future career.  I chose teaching, but I had a friend who was a non-teaching Art History major with a minor in philosophy.  I heard more than one person who advised her to learn the phrase, "Do you want fries with that?" for her future career.

The problem is that machines are taking that job, too.  So, my friend, who has a degree in Art, won't even be able to work at McDonalds.

I have another friend who has a degree in Library Science.  I met her when she was a Children's Librarian, and when she left that job (which isn't a great paying job, either), she ended up at a home improvement store.  In general, I'm not a fan of big box stores, but every now and then, when we're working on a project at our house, we end up there.  We started going to Lowe's, thinking it the lesser-of-two-evils, but over the last couple of years, something happened at Lowe's.  I've resolved not to shop there anymore, as a result.  

They have been trying to replace their cashiers with self-check outs, and while I don't have a problem, necessarily, with self-check outs, that's the only option ... and half the time they don't work properly.  So, the store may be saving a bundle on labor costs, but because their machines are inferior to a human, who can see that I have paid for the item that was just scanned, or figure out how to scan an item that I'm holding in my hand, they are losing sales.  I tried to purchase an item the other day - a gift for a friend on impulse - but it wouldn't scan.  So, I didn't buy it.  Take that Lowe's.  Lost a sale, because you decided not to employ humans.  

Unfortunately, the "unskilled" labor sector aren't the only ones who have to worry.  Loss of jobs to machines will only increase as Industry 4.0 continues to take hold.

Self driving cars will replace taxi cab drivers (I shudder, remembering that scene from Total Recall when the animatron cab driver turns to Arnold Schwarzenegger's character and introduces himself as "Johnny Cab"), bus drivers, and long-haul truckers.  The last one will be a significant loss, as truck driving as a career has surpassed nearly all other careers as the top job in twenty-nine states.  Transportation accounts for 3% of the jobs in the US.  

Millions of people out of work, because someone thinks a machine can do it better.

Here's the thing.  I like my washing machine, and I know that there was a time when the job of "washer woman" was the only way a single mother or a poor, Irish housewife could feed her children.  Creating a mechanical washer women took jobs away from hundreds of women.  

I'm thankful that I don't have to pay someone to do my laundry, but I'm more thankful that I don't have to put my hands into hot water infused with caustic laundry detergent, scrub my family's clothes on a board, and then wring them out - as best I can - and hang them on the line, where they may or may not dry this time of year.  The nice thing about machine washing is that the machine is able to get out a lot more of the water than hand-wringing does.

But, for me, and maybe I am the Luddite I've been accused of being, I believe that there are some jobs that should not be handled by machines.  Maybe driver-less cars would cut down on traffic jams and accidents, but maybe having both driver-less cars and humans on the roads at the same time will cause a lot more injury and devastation.   

The top 5 industries in Maine are:  healthcare, retail, tourism, education, and construction.  Every. Single. One. of those jobs can be replaced with a robot.  

A video I watched on Industry 4.0 explained that healthcare workers are already at risk of losing their jobs to machines.  It's not the CNAs, though, that will be losing their jobs.  It's the higher paid, more technical jobs, like surgeons and radiologists.  Look out, Dr. McDreamy.  Johnny-5 is coming for your job. 

Technology isn't bad, necessarily, and there are a lot of things I like about living in this very luxury-centric world, but there are many more very negative things about living a life that is so wholly dependent on technology and computers .... 

... not the least of which is that technology is wholly dependent on a working grid and that grid needs a lot of power and that power, mostly, still comes from fossil fuels, and while too many people don't want to admit it, the use of fossil fuels may be the culprit in our current climate anomalies.  

Even if the latter isn't true, and we could still burn fossil fuels like there's no tomorrow, fossil fuels are a limited resource, and we already know that we have surpassed Peak Oil - which means that there's only half as much as there was when we started AND what's left is harder and more costly to get.

So, while other folks are wiring their houses to sync up with Rosie ... or Siri ... or Alexa ... or whatever the name of the robot that's going to connect all of the appliances and thermostats and whatnot, I'm collecting oil lamps and tapping into those old-timey, mostly forgotten skills, because we aren't ready for Industry 4.0.  Power outages still happen.  Computers malfunction (almost as often as they work correctly), and as we become more dependent on systems that are completely imperfect, things are going to get a lot ugly.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

I Had a Blogger Friend Who Lived by the FAR* Philosophy - *Forget About Retirement

I was a stay-at-home Mom for twenty years.  During that time, I was fortunate to be able to also run a home-based business, serve as a volunteer with several non-profits (and even sat on a couple of Boards), write two books, and build a homestead.  

I didn't save any money, though, and by "save" money, what I mean is to put cash in an investment account for retirement.  I have always joked that I have five kids, and THEY are my retirement plan.  One of them will have to stay in my house and take care of me when I get old.

While that is definitely a possibility, and would be my favorite option, I know that my children may, eventually, want to move out of my house and make a home of their own.  It may well be that they have spouses who don't wish to live with the in-laws, or maybe my children will have careers that take them away from southern Maine.  

As such, the second half of my retirement plan is to tailor my life so that when (if) I reach retirement age, I won't really need a lot of money anyway.  The goal is to be, for the most part, off-grid and self-sufficient. 
In short, the goal is to plan NOW, how we can survive on a much smaller income, because we won't have millions of dollars when we retire.  We may not even have the hundreds of thousands that the experts say we should have.   Further, we may not be able to depend on Social Security.

On one of my FB groups, there is a discussion about stay-at-home parents and the fact that stay-at-home parents (mostly women) end up sacrificing their careers to be home with the kids and maintain the home.  The person who wrote the comment pointed out that it's not just the career advancement opportunities that are being forfeited by the folks who are classified as "homemakers", but they are also giving up future social security benefits by not working and paying into the system.  

As this article points out, homemakers are a particularly vulnerable demographic.  As stay-at-home parents, who are not earning an income, they are dependent on their spouses, and sometimes this ends up being a really bad deal for them.  We hear all sorts of horror stories about women (especially) who were homemakers for decades while their husbands climbed the corporate ladder, and then, after years of marriage and raising a family, the homemaker is given her pink-slip and the husband walks away, leaving her with very few options.  

The exact comment on the Facebook group was:

" ... people will say they have one spouse at home because daycare costs so much.  But, do people take into consideration the lost Social Security contributions and the loss of career momentum? Perhaps there is a mechanism for addressing these issues that I’ve missed.  I’d love to know what people think on this."

First, I don't know very many adults, even stay-at-home parents, who never worked.  So, while there is a potential loss of SS benefits, there's still the likelihood that the person will have some SS benefit.  The way social security works is to take the highest 35 years of wages, add them all together, divide by the number of months, and get an average monthly income.  The payment will be a percentage of that number.  A person only has to work for 10 years to be eligible for Social Security.  If a person works less than 35 years, but more than 10, the years between will be calculated as a zero.

I responded to the Facebook query.  My answer was that I worked from home, which put money into my social security fund, but I also stated that my ultimate goal is to tailor my life so that I don't need as much money when I retire.

The fact is, when Deus Ex Machina and I do retire, our budget will look very different than it does today.  In fact, in a few short years, it will look very different.  I think that's true of most married couples who have children.  Once the kids are grown, the way the money is spent changes drastically. 

In less than five years, all of our children will be adults, and many of the things that we are currently paying for them will no longer be our responsibility.  We will no longer be paying for their medical, dental, and orthodontic expenses.  Our phone bill will be reduced by over half.  Our grocery budget should be much lower, because we will only be feeding the two of us.  
We will no longer be paying for our children's clothes, shoes, school supplies, music lessons, dance classes, and all of the other assorted expenses that come with raising kids. 

With only two people in the house, we should be able to lower our electric bill even further.  We will use less overall water, and less HOT water, which means both our water bill AND our propane bill will decrease.

We will be driving less, because we won't need to drive our daughters to their lessons or other events.  So, we'll be saving on gasoline, and we will be saving on wear-and-tear to our vehicles, which means we will spend less on maintaining, repairing, and replacing our automobiles. 

In fact, we could probably reduce the number of vehicles to one, and Deus Ex Machina and I could share a car, which means that we would lower our bills even that much more.

I've run the numbers before, and when we take all of those expenses out of our budget, Deus Ex Machina and I could live, rather comfortably, on less than what a full-time minimum wage earner makes ... if we have made a few adjustments - like paying off our house and having no revolving debt (like loans and credit cards).  

Knowing this makes me feel really comfortable with regard to my golden years.  If social security is still a thing, and if Deus Ex Machina and I don't drastically change our spending habits after we retire, we could live on just what *I* would earn with social security.  His would be gravy.

I sensed a lot of fear in that comment, which made me kind of sad.  The reality is that we should be concerned about our future finances, sure, but it's also a fact that kids who have a full-time at-home parent benefit in so many ways, and, as a society, we should work harder to enable more families to survive on one-income, especially when they have small children.

I didn't stay at home with my kids because day care was too expensive.  I stayed home with my kids, because I wanted the opportunity to be with them, and I am so thankful that I was able to make that choice.  The fact that we saved THOUSANDS of dollars on day care expenses is just a bonus, and the loss of social security benefits and retirement income is totally worth every single second I got to be home.

We can hope for a future in which our society will do more to help stay-at-home parents as they near retirement, but in the meantime, we have millions of men and women who aren't financially secure, who are nearing retirement, and who "worked" for most of their lives caring for their families.  What about these folks?

I reference my grandma a lot, here on my blog and in my other writing.  She was a remarkable woman.  Born around the time of World War I, she survived the Great Depression, four "wars" (WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War), the Civil Rights Movement, and the fight to unionize the mines where she lived in southeastern Kentucky.  She raised eleven children, all of whom graduated from high school (which is pretty remarkable for the time and place where they were raised), and several who graduated from college, mostly by herself while her husband (my grandfather) worked out of state in a factory in Ohio.  

She never had a job.  She never even had a driver's license, but she worked her whole life.

When she reached that "golden age", when we all quit our jobs and settle on the couch to watch television until we die, she owned her home, she had her deceased husband's social security for income, and she had a couple of kids (my uncles) still living and working the old homestead with her.  

Hers is the idyllic situation, I think, for us homemakers.  She had lived her entire life frugally, and as a result, in her old age, she wanted for nothing.  And she died in the house that she had helped to build.

Most of us won't be that fortunate, but there are some things that we could do to help ourselves when we get old.

1.  Secure your housing.  On average, the elderly spend 23% of their income on housing.  The fact is that retired people aren't going to have the same income they had when they were working, even folks who were savvy retirement savers.  One's income will be less, and so it really just makes sense to plan for having less money by needing less money.  Eliminating a house payment, therefore, is smart.  I happen to live in one of the top five states for home ownership in the US.  Over 70% of Mainers own their homes.  Owning a house is a big deal for us Mainers, but I think that should be true for everyone.  Buying a house and paying it off before retirement will ensure that when we retire, we, at least, have a place to live.   

2.  Capitalize on your assets.  Even beyond just having a place to live, if we own our homes, and we stay in our homes, there are things we can do to help us fund our retirement.  That is, owning a house carries benefits beyond having a free place to live.

The design and layout of my house lends itself perfectly to the possibility that I could rent a portion of my house to a young couple or perhaps some college students.  I could live in the one half of the house and have a couple of rooms to myself, my tenants could have a private suite on the other side of the house, and the kitchen, living room and dining room could be shared living space.   My tenant's rent payment would pay my living expenses.

It's possible, however, that I don't really want any strangers moving into my house.  Luckily, for me, I have alternatives.  

3.  Bank on your skills.  As a stay-at-home Mom, I spent years learning homemaking and homesteading skills.  In retirement, with less need for a larger income, I could easily turn those skills into income.  I can sew, and I have a stash of old fabrics that would make quilters swoon.  Making baby quilts is fast and easy and could provide me with a nice income.  Because I can sew, I could also offer my services to people who are looking for costumes or custom-made clothes.

With my garden, I could sell excess produce.  In addition, Maine permits cottage industries, like baking and canning, and I could spend the summer harvesting berries for assorted jams and cucumbers for pickles, and spend the fall picking apples for applesauce.  Then, I could sell these goods at the local farmer's market along with loaves of home-made bread.  

I could reopen my home-based office service and offer typing or graphic design (like making posters and signs, which I'm pretty good at).

I can teach classes on everything from writing to making strawberry jam.

I can tan rabbit hides and make hats to sell.

In a pinch, I suppose I could cook meals (maybe even for other retired folks) and offer a home-made meal delivery service.

I've been very fortunate over the last 20 years to learn and cultivate dozens of marketable skills.

And I don't think my story is unique.  I think there are a lot of homemakers who've learned some great skills they can use to improve their incomes, before and after they retire.  We, stay-at-home parents, just need to reframe how we think about what we do, and understand that if we have full-time outside-the-home employment, we're often paying someone else to do many of things homemakers do, which means that someone would be willing to pay us to do them, when we no longer need to be doing them full-time for our families.

For me, the key to a secure and comfortable retirement is not to have a huge savings, but rather to reduce my expenses and pay off debt, and then the rest of it will be easier to manage.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Climate Change and Building our Community

Bad weather is becoming our new normal.  An article published by a government emergency management agency stated just exactly what most of us, preppers, have been warning for years.  In an emergency situation, we can't count on someone else to take care of us.  We need to be ready to weather the storm and its aftermath without waiting for help.  Help may not come, or it may take the help a lot longer to arrive than we expected.

The article gave all of the standard advice on things we should have on hand.

Stock up on water and non-perishable food

Be sure to have any prescription medications filled.

Secure important documents.

Have batteries for flashlights, etc.

The usual stuff.

Preppers who live in areas with bad weather (you know, places where flooding and hurricanes happen pretty regularly) give additional advice.

Do the laundry, because if the power goes out, it's more difficult to wash clothes.

Charge anything that needs charging (phones, computers).

Gas up the cars and have an additional filled gas can to run a generator (or, if you don't have a generator, to give to the neighbors who can fill up their generator, and as a thank you, will allow you charge your devices).

I actually like that advice.

As those who read my blog and/or my book know, I've long recommended community building as a survival strategy.  There are a lot of good reasons to meet one's neighbors.  In the best of circumstances, it's just nice to know who will be coming in and out of one's neighborhood.  If we know our neighbors, we also know our not-neighbors, which is a safety measure.  If some strange person is lurking around the neighborhood, we'll know.

If we know our neighbors and we need something, it's easier to ask someone with whom we have already established a relationship.  For instance, if we have to go out of town for a few days and we already know the young couple living down the road, it's easy enough to ask them to pick up our mail while we're gone.  Which is also a safety measure, because everyone knows that mail piling up is one of those things that burglars look for when scouting out targets. 

In a worst case scenario, knowing our neighbors means that we can work together so that everyone's needs are met.  If I know my neighbor stocks up on bird seed, and then, something catastrophic happens, I can barter with my neighbor for that bird seed to feed my chickens and offer to supply the neighbor with eggs in return. 

The other day these two young girls came to the door.  They are college students who are renting the house across the road from us, and they were just out meeting their neighbors.

As someone who has always recommended meeting the neighbors, I was so excited to see someone who was actually doing it.

And the wholly positive thing about the experience is that, this winter, when things get bad for us, Mainers, we will know there's someone living over there, a few college kids, who may not have a shovel or have planned for snow-plowing, and we can keep an eye out to make sure they're okay.

What's all that got to do with Prepping for a hurricane?

Having a community means that not all of us have to have everything. 

I don't have a generator, but I do have an on-demand hot water heater and municipal water and a woodstove I can cook on.  If the power goes out, we can jumpstart our water heater and have a hot shower, and I can cook an awesome chicken stew on the woodstove.  So, maybe our neighbor let's us use his generator to keep the food in my freezer (the quarter cow we bought and all of those chickens we raised) from thawing, we give them dinner and a hot shower.

It's always a good idea to be (as) self-sufficient (as one can be).  In emergency situations the basic preparations should cover shelter, water, and food.  It's also nice to have some creature comforts, like clean clothes and a good book to read.

But as humans are social animals, it's also great to know we have a tribe ... or at least some neighbors who are - at least - as prepared as we are so that we can help keep each other safe and alive when the weather gets bad.

As this hurricane (ironically named after one of the most famous care givers in history!) nears the coast, we'll be keeping our southern neighbors in our thoughts. 

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Plan, Don't Panic

This summer, Deus Ex Machina and I traveled up to Baxter State Park with Big Little Sister and a group of her friends.  We've made this same drive for the last three years in a row.  In 2016, I dropped off Deus Ex Machina and Big Little Sister at the Abol Bridge entrance to the Appalachian Trail.  In 2017, Deus Ex Machina met Big Little Sister and Matches at Abol Camp Ground and the three of them started at that same trail head on the Appalachian Trail. 

This year, 2018, I stayed with them.  We camped in Baxter State Park Wednesday night, and on Thursday morning, we went to the mouth of the Chimney Pond trail that goes up Mt. Katahdin, climbed the mountain, had a wedding, and climbed back down.  Just for the curious, coming down the mountain is significantly more difficult that going up ... and going up wasn't easy.  At my age, I never considered that climbing the mountain would be something I would be doing.  It wasn't on my bucket list.

But it was an amazing experience, and I am so honored that my daughter and her fiance (now her husband) chose me to perform the ceremony. 

The past three summers have been really instructional with regard to prepping. 

First, just let me say that most back packers would never consider themselves preppers.  They aren't trying to live for the rest of their lives on what they can carry, but they are trying to survive - at least for a few days, as is the case for those traveling the 100 mile wilderness section of the AT here in Maine. 

It took us eleven hours of nearly continuous walking (there were a few short rest breaks along the trail, a half hour stop at Chimney Pond, and a half hour or so at the top for the wedding, but mostly, I was moving for the entire eleven hours on the trail) to get from the bottom to the top and back down again.  It was five and a half miles up and five and a half miles down.  We walked about a mile per hour.

On a straight and level path, I can walk four miles per hour, comfortably, and maintain that pace for a few hours.

The AT, here in Maine, is not a straight and level path.  There are sections of the trail that are considered "scrambles."  When Deus Ex Machina came home in 2016, he tried to explain it to me.  I didn't know what he meant, until I'd saw it for myself. 

Imagine you have a storage unit in which you have packed all of your belongings in nice, sturdy boxes that you can walk across, but it was packed quickly, and so nothing is at the same level, and then, there's an earthquake and your storage unit is tilted at about a 30° angle with the back of the unit at the top, and then, you need something that's at the back of the unit, and you can't unpack the whole thing, because this is my scenario and I make the rules. 

Instead, you have to climb over everything.  Sometimes you can walk from one piece of furniture to a box next to it.  Sometimes you have to crawl up.  It's step up, step across, climb over, step across, step up, step up, step up, step up, crawl across, step across, crawl across, step up, step across, step across, step up ... ah, a dirt path ... step up, crawl across, crawl across, pull yourself up using some tree roots and branches, get bitten by a horsefly, wipe sweat out of your eyes, step up, step up, look up and see the path is just a bunch of boulders for as far as you can see, stop for two minutes to cry, crawl up, crawl up, step across ... for four and a half hours. 

It was hard.  Every step was torture, and yes, there were actual tears of exhaustion and resignation.  I couldn't go another step.  I couldn't stop.  Holy shit!  I have to come back down!!  Will this f#&%^ng trail ever end???

On the way down the trail, I realized that I had chosen to leave my water filter at the campsite ... down at the bottom of the mountain ... where we had gallons of fresh water we'd carried in.  Basically, where I didn't really need it, because we also had pots and matches and firewood.  We could purify any water by boiling it.

What I carried up the mountain was a camelback filled with water, and I guess I never considered that I might run out.  I did.  Deus Ex Machina is smarter than I am.  He's also more experienced, and he had the foresight to bring his Sawyer filter.   Midway down, we stopped at a stream, and he filtered a liter of water for each of us.  I didn't want to completely fill my bladder, because I just wanted to get off that damned mountain (and kill that pesky horsefly that had already bitten me once, and wouldn't leave me the *eff* alone.  He managed a second nibble.  He'll never get a third - not from anyone).

So, after our water stop, after we'd walked for another hour or two, after I had drained my bladder for the second time, I realized that, if Deus Ex Machina and I got separated, I could not get water. 

It was horrifying, although not terrifying (and they're two different things, I'll explain).  I was horrified that *I* was so woefully unprepared, given that I live my life as someone who pretends to always be prepared for the worst.

But I wasn't afraid, because the absolute only way that Deus Ex Machina and I would have gotten separated would have been if HE had fallen and gotten hurt, and I had gone ahead to get help, but got lost. 

The thing is, though, I would not have left him, because we were registered with the Game Wardens, and if we hadn't returned by nightfall, they would have come to find us. 

Fortunately, for most of us, most preparedness scenarios are like that one.  Most of the time, there is a fail safe: someone will come and rescue us. 

Unfortunately, sometimes that's not the case, and we can do much better, most of us, at not needing to be rescued.

In the case of us climbing the mountain, I resolved not to need rescuing by taking my time, setting MY pace (which was slower than the rest of our group), and taking each step with a great deal of care so that I didn't get injured.  Deus Ex Machina was behind me on the way down.  He let me set the pace, which was slower than he would have gone, which means he was also taking care.

Knowing one's limits, not panicking, and just taking one moment at a time are essential in an emergency situation. 

That I had no water and no way to filter wasn't a panic-inducing moment.  It was just a realization that flitted into my head, and then, I started a mental inventory of what I had in my pack, and what I could use, if the worst case (we got separated) happened.

It was all good.  I had a bush hat on my head, a cotton bandanna in my pack, and a cotton tee-shirt on my back.   There was plenty of sand and gravel on the trail.  I could probably build a mostly safe filter.  Ta-da.  Problem solved.

That's the key, though, right?  To think about solutions without worrying about what we don't have, and concentrating on what we do have.  In a preparedness scenario, what do we have that we could use to make the things we need?

The other day, when I was making dinner, I used the last of my White Wine Vinegar, and I had this cute, little glass bottle.  I almost put it in the recycling ... you know, because it's glass. 

But, then, I took a closer look at it, and I thought, "I could put a hole in the top of that lid, add one of my lamp wicks, and fill it with some of that mosquito repellent oil and put it on the table outside.

I didn't fill it with the anti-mosquito oil.  Instead, I decided to save it and fill it with lamp oil ... in case we lose power this winter, which if the Farmer's Almanac is correct, is going to be a really tough winter here in New England. 

Storms will happen, which means that power outages will probably happen, too. 

And, we'll have light.

And I also have my water filter ... you know, because ....

Sunday, September 2, 2018

I Climbed a Mountain

A friend told me that a friend of hers, who is not on Facebook, but who was a reader of this blog was concerned, because I hadn't posted much recently.

There are reasons - of course ;).

In January this year, for the first time in two decades, I started working at a job outside my home.  I am the office manager of a local community theater, and yes, it is as cool as it sounds.  I wasn't looking for a job when I found out that the Theater was looking to fill the position.  As a long-time volunteer at this theater and as someone who worked (for a very long time) as an administrative assistant, the job was a perfect fit.  Plus, I get (paid) to hang out at the Theater all day.  There's not downside ...

... except that having a job outside the home makes it a little more of a challenge to live this lifestyle that we've been cultivating for over a decade now.  Just doing laundry requires a little more planning than before, and with no clothes dryer, doing laundry already required planning. 

I guess other people, the prepper-set who were already juggling a home/work balance, can laugh a little at me, now.  Go ahead.  I'll wait.

Here, look at some picture of my other "summer adventure" while you're laughing. 

Yes, I climbed a mountain, but not just any, old mountain.  I climbed the tallest mountain in the State of Maine, where I officiated over my daughter's wedding ... in July.  It was hard, but it was also incredible.  I'm so honored and humbled that she chose me to perform the ceremony, and also that, not once, during the 5 hours it took me to summit, did she ever wonder if I was going to make it.  She just always trusted that I could.  I am humbled by her faith in me, because there were many times during that climb that I questioned whether or not I was going to make. 

 At the Summit.  Mt. Katahdin, Maine.

About half-way there.  

What's interesting about the job, though, is that having more of an income, and especially, being away from home so many hours a day, has strengthened my resolve to be prepared. 

As the summer was coming to an end for us, and we were planning our fall schedule, there were so many more things I needed to think about than just the transportation issue (although that was a big one, actually - without the Mom Taxi, it's harder to juggle schedules). 

For one, there's the issue of heat.  We heat with wood, and usually, there has been someone home for very extended periods during the day.  I've been here to, literally, keep the home fires burning.  If I have to be at work, that will be more difficult. 

Luckily, however, my job hours are still pretty flexible, and my teenagers are still homeschooling.  So, there won't be too many really long stretches of time (more than five hours) when there won't be anyone home.

Of course, there's a second concern regarding heating, and that's the issue of firewood acquisition. In the late spring, Deus Ex Machina injured his elbow, and he can't, really, operate a chainsaw.   As such, gathering firewood has been on hold.  For the first time in a lot of years, we're going to have to purchase firewood. 

The super positive about having a job, for me, was actually quite surprising.  One of my biggest concerns was that, after working all day, I wouldn't have the stamina or desire to cook, and that we'd be eating out more often, or relying on processed foods.

Neither of those things really happened.  In fact, we eat out less now that I'm not home all day (weird, I know), and this summer has been especially hot here in Maine, which means that I am loath to turn on the oven to heat up freezer foods, like frozen pizza (not that we would do too much frozen pizza anyway).

Other than the fact that my job doesn't drain me, because I work in a Theater and it's awesome, we had two things going for us.

First, we've spent the better part of the last decade localizing our diets, which means there isn't a lot of prepared food, or even restaurant food, that we can eat - and still be mostly local.  In the past, we've allowed non-local ingredients if the restaurant was locally owned, and/or if the food was ethically sourced (like Chipotle's pledge to serve ethically sourced ingredients - not local, but still in keeping with our overall goal of making good food choices)  ....

But, and this is the second thing, a couple of years ago, Deus Ex Machina eliminated gluten from our diet.  So, the reality is that there aren't a lot of places we can get food anyway.  And, too often, when we do eat out, we end up "accidentally" getting gluten, and we feel it, unfortunately.  We used to go to this locally owned pizza place, because they had a gluten-free crust, but we found out that their cheese is NOT GF.  Ugh!  Why would someone put flour in CHEESE?!?


I also had one of the best gardens I've had in YEARS.  Go figure.  I think part of it was that I didn't try to buy a bunch of seeds and plant more than I could tend.  The plants I purchased were purchased from a local organic farm rather than from the local nursery (not sure where they source their vegetables).  Also, we had a lot of rain, which helped, because I didn't take much time to water.

It's been an amazing summer - very busy, but in all good ways - and moreover, we've been super productive.

In addition to the usual garden, raising meat birds, and just life stuff, we also replaced the old, worn linoleum in the kitchen and hallway.

My only complaint is that I didn't get to beach, not once, this whole HOT summer, and I didn't get to spend nearly enough time in my hammock.

Other than that, things are good here at Chez Brown. 

And I'll try to post some of the other projects we're working on (including something with solar ... :).

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Problem with Doomer Fiction

I'm a huge fan of Doomer Fiction. 

Well, mostly.

Sometimes, though, it's depressing, because it feels like most of the authors of this genre don't have much faith in their fellow man.  Most of the time in these novels the central plot involves a lot of people being really awful to each other.

I guess my experience is different.  Not that I've lived through TEOTWAWKI, but that, in an emergency situation, I've found people to be kind and helpful more often than people who are self-serving individualists.

I also believe that everyone has something to bring to the table.  We just don't always know what that thing is until we start to ask.  I mean, that person may not even know what he/she has until WE tell him/her.  

For example imagine that it is a TEOTWAWKI situation, and you have this neighbor you know by name, but you're not close.  Your lives run down different paths.  Her house looks like something out of the magazine Better Homes & Gardens.  All summer long, while you're breaking your back out in the woods gathering fuel to heat your home during the winter, she's vacationing in Aruba, or she's hanging out down at the beach - a place you never have time to go, because when you aren't working your soul-sucking 9 to 5 job, you're raising food or gathering firewood.   

She doesn't even do her own yard work.  During the summer, some guy stops by once a week to mow her lawn and weed her landscaping, none of which is edible.  She was, at least, accommodating when you asked her to switch her landscaper to someone who didn't use poisons that would waft over into your organic garden.  Probably, the fresh peach pie from your fruit tree helped to convince her.  She's not unreasonable - mostly. 

But she did make some disparaging remarks about your clothesline making the neighborhood look like an Irish slum, and that really nasty letter she wrote about your chicken coop being an eyesore and giving you three weeks to spruce up or she would go to the town, is still, kind of, stuck in your craw.

Then, the SHTF, and she's over at YOUR house asking for YOUR wood and YOUR supplies.  And acting as if YOU should help her, because .... Well, because you're neighbors. 

YOU know that the shit has hit the fan.  She doesn't know it, and she's acting like a little brat, because her house is cold and her power is out.

Do you tell her to go home and huddle in her cold, dark house, because you think she's pretty useless and she has nothing of value to offer?

Or do you invite her into your warm home (because you have a woodstove and fuel for it), give her a cup of coffee (because you gave up an electric coffee pot YEARS ago in favor of a French Press - which makes better coffee anyway - and with the woodstove you have a constant supply of hot water), explain what you believe is happening (because you've kept abreast of the latest news and know that the rest of the world is pretty well sick of us arrogant Americans), and ask her to tell you a little about her life?

It's possible that she grew up on an island and helped her father build their off-grid house.  It's possible that she visited Costa Rica as a youth missionary and learned to make sandals out of old tires.  It's possible that her hand sewn stitches are straighter and neater than a machine stitch, because she learned to do cross stitch and embroidery as a child as a way to cope with a neglectful mother and an alcoholic father.

Those are some pretty valuable skills.  Without machines to sew clothes, for instance, we'll need to be able to sew by hand.  It's a tedious task, and if it's not done properly, clothes fall apart.  Someone who can sit for hours hand stitching a flower on a napkin as an ornament, can surely piece together a pair of pants or a nice dress shirt.  She might even have some really nice sheets in that fancy-smancy house that she would be willing to use to make said shirt - which she'd happily make for you in exchange for some firewood and a jar of peaches.  

But if you slam your door shut, you'll never know these things, and maybe you can't see the immediate value of what she has to bring to the table, but when/if the shit-hits-the-fan for real, we can't possibly know what skills will be valuable.  If we end up in a powered-down world, people who can sew will be valuable.  

It's not just about food.

But what if it is all about food?

You have no idea what treasures might be hiding in her kitchen.  For instance, maybe she's a food snob and gourmet chef who only eats organic vegetables.  She has a massive spice cabinet that includes a lot of salt (are you getting it yet?) and several dozen varieties of fancy vinegars (light bulb, yet?).   She has an impressive wine cellar in her basement.  Originally, she was doing to have it climate controlled with electricity, but her contractor talked her into building it so that it took advantage of the natural temperature and humidity controls underground. 

Do you see what I'm saying?  SHE has a real, suburban ROOT CELLAR!  That's got to be worth something, right?

Plus, she a food snob, and so she has a refrigerator full of organic vegetables.  

You could help her save those vegetables from total ruin by teaching her to ferment.  And then, you could save the seeds so that, in the spring, you would all be able to plant MORE food, from ORGANIC seeds (which means the seeds will most likely NOT be sterile).

See, I know, as  Preppers, we have these fantasies about how prepared we are.  We think we have  covered all of our bases, but there's a really good chance that there's something we're missing, and you know why? Because none of us have ever been completely self-sufficient.  

None of us have.

And so we can be as prepared as we can be, but there is no single Prepper I know who doesn't find some weak spot in his/her preps every time there's a power outage or other event.

The fact is that, most of the time, we don't have to worry about it, because we know the emergency is short-term, and we can run to the store to get that milk or that replacement pair of jeans or a new pair of glasses.

But if we can't, then we will be forced to be dependent on people we may think are useless.
And that's what I hate about Doomer Fiction - the cavalier way that the characters, who believe themselves superior to their neighbors, because they've prepped and their neighbors haven't, can just dismiss other people.

I don't believe anyone is totally useless.  At very least, even if they don't have a lot of food or any stored water, they will have other stuff that can be valuable to the group.  If we just dismiss them out of hand, we could be digging our own graves.

I guess I just feel like, if the shit ever really does hit the fan, that it will be an amazing opportunity for us to build community and to teach and learn the skills we need to survive.  Maybe between all of us, if we're willing to share what we have with each other, we can build a life.  

In essence, as a group, we won't Just Survive.  We'll Thrive!