Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Cheap Ways to Stay Warm When It's WICKED Cold

When I heard about the Polar Vortex, my first thought was to post some comments about staying warm, but I was pretty sure that I'd covered the topic on my blog in the past.  There have been numerous occasions when Deus Ex Machina and I have had to stay warm in our house when there was no electricity, and over the years, we've developed the infrastructure that allows us to not worry when the electricity goes out - regardless of the time of year.  As I've said here before, also, the only real concern when we lose electricity is the stuff in our freezer. 

On Facebook, I belong to a group where we chat a lot about ways to live more frugally.  Today, one of the other members posted a query asking folks to comment on "cheap" ways to stay warm when the heat is out.  The poster didn't clarify whether or not there was electricity, but just that there was no heat. 

Comments ranged from the silly (sex!) to inane ("set your partner on fire") with a few decent ideas tucked in the middle.

There were the usual recommendations to layer one's clothes, wear heavy socks (or several pairs), don a hat and a scarf, cover doors and windows with heavy blankets, use sleeping bags, snuggle with pets and/or loved ones, and drink hot fluids.  Several people talked about using fireplaces, but unless one already has the fireplace, this is not a "cheap" option when other heat sources aren't available.

There were several recommendations for flower pot heaters.  Unfortunately, while it would be so amazing if it really worked like some YouTubers claim it will work, those heaters will only work in a very small and very well insulated space.  If one is expecting to heat more than a large closet with four tea lights, one will be very disappointed, and cold.  Although, moving into an interior walk-in closet and closing the doors is not a bad idea, come to think of it. 

I was more surprised by the ideas that weren't offered, though.  I guess frugal folks aren't, necessarily, prepper minded. 

The "cheap" heating solution that I recommended was a Kotatsu.

Kotatsu originated in Japan, but the technique is not specific to southeast Asia.  There are a lot of cultures that have something similar.  This was just one of the only that still seemed to be in widespread use, and so I could learn more about it than the other similar heaters from other cultures.

From what I've read, homes in Japan are not well insulated (although my sources may be lying to me) nor are they heated - at least not like our homes in the United States are heated, with a central heating system that keeps the entire house at (roughly) the same ambient temperature.  According to articles, like this one, space heating is the most common way to keep out the winter chill in Japan, and the most energy efficient heating option is the Kotatsu.

Basically, a Kotatsu is a coffee table covered with a very thick blanket.  A heater (these days it's usually electric, but in the past it was a brazier) is under the table, and one sits at the coffee table with one's lower half under the blanket.  It sounds very cozy, and if I didn't have a woodstove, and I were facing a few days without heat, I would be trying to figure out how to make a Kotatsu for my house using some of my iron cookware and some hot bricks.

Another cheap way to stay warm that I was surprised hadn't been mentioned was using a tent.  

While going out and buying a tent just to stay warm when the heat goes out isn't cheap or frugal, if one already has a tent, setting it up in the house and sleeping in it or watching Netflix curled up in sleeping bag is not a bad way to spend an evening. 

Suppose one doesn't own a tent?  The same thing can still be accomplished by stringing a rope across the room and draping a blanket over the rope.

In many cultures with cold winters, having a drapes around one's bed was common.  Since we live in a time in which our homes are centrally cooled and heated, we rarely see canopy beds with drapes, except in magazines where the effect is supposed to evoke some feelings of fancy that will encourage us to purchase a vacation or some bed linens.  As a cheap way to stay warmer in a cold house, we could harken back to those days and put curtains around our beds.

There's actually a company that makes bed tents, which are being marketed to people who have anxiety. 

While a lot of folks talked about moving into one room, the usual commentary centered around moving into the room with the wood stove or fireplace.  For those who don't have a wood-burning heat source, moving into a small room is still not a bad idea.  If there is still electricity (assuming the loss of heat is not due to a power outage), moving into a room with heat-producing appliances could be comfortable with just the heat from those.  It's actually pretty amazing how much heat appliances like a refrigerator or a freezer give off. 

Even televisions and computers give off heat, and several years ago, there was a television show in which participates roasted a chicken using a 100w incandescent bulb. 

Finally, given the usual answers from folks in the group, I was surprised that no one suggested baking as an option.  Taking the recommendation to move into one room, and adding baking, one could move into the kitchen, drape any windows and doors with heavy blankets, bake some pumpkin bread, a few potatoes, maybe a roasted chicken, and end the day with a satisfying hot meal and a warm room.

No one asked the original poster if she had a basement, but with no heat in the rest of the house, moving underground, if possible, would be the best solution.  Many years ago, we had a neighborhood-wide power outage that lasted several days.  Our neighbor moved into her basement for the duration of the outage.  It wasn't toasty, but she was warm enough not to freeze to death.  The temperature underground stays at around 55°.  If she had employed some of the suggestions above, she might have been even warmer.

It can be very scary to lose one's heat source - especially if one is currently living in one of the areas in the path of the Polar Vortex.  None of the suggestions above are long-term suggestions for people who live in areas with bitterly cold winters, but any one of those ideas would work in the short-term, or for people who live where the winters rarely get below freezing and where snow is still a surprise. 

What are some cheap solutions you have for staying warm in a house with no heat?

Sunday, January 13, 2019

It's not Trash. It's Treasure.

There is, apparently, a new television show starring author and home organizing expert, Marie Kondo.  For those who don't know, Marie Kondo wrote a book a few years ago called "The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up" and then, she authored a bunch of follow-up books to that one, including an illustrated version called, "The Life Changing Manga of Tidying Up."

Six years after the publication of her best-selling book, Marie Kondo is now the star of her own Netflix series, based on her book, in which she will give other folks advice on how to bring more joy to their lives by getting rid of the clutter in their homes.

For the record:  I have neither read Marie Kondo's books nor watched her television show, and so any opinion I have of the content of both is based on blurbs and summaries I've read online.  I completely understand if that admission results in your complete dismissal of my opinion and the following commentary. 

I had the unfortunate audacity to share some graphics about KonMari (the title given to the organizational techniques encouraged by Marie Kondo) on my personal Facebook wall.  One was Marie's - alleged - comment regarding the number of books one should own.  According to the meme, her recommendation is "not more than 30."  My comment on that meme was "some people just don't appreciate the finer things in life." 

Anyone who knows me knows that I consider myself a bibliophile.  I love books.  I buy books.  I probably could be accurately accused of hoarding books - some books by some authors.  I have half a bookcase with just hardcover Stephen King books.  I also tend to really like to collect how-to books.  I have five or six different books on how-to be more thrifty (including the complete Tightwad Gazette AND all three of the volumes - yes, that means I have the three individual compilations of the Tightwad Gazette AND the big book that contains the whole set.  I know.  That's overkill.).  Being thrifty is not something that I was raised to be, exactly, and so I like to read as many different opinions as I can find.  I do that with a lot of subjects - try to find as many different opinions as I can find - so that I get a better overall understanding of the topic.  I dozens of gardening books.  Lots of books on ways to preserve food.  And I even have a few books on organizing and decluttering a home. 

From what I understand of Marie Kondo's approach, one should sort through everything one owns, and then, handle each item to determine if that item gives one "joy" or not.  If not, one should discard it. 

Let's be honest.  While books do, dishes do not give me joy.  At least not most of the dishes I own, and I own a LOT of dishes.  I'm sure you'll ask, "Wendy, if these items don't give you joy, why then do you, not only hold onto them, allowing them to clutter your space and suck the life out of your soul, but also purchase more of them?"

And it is because I abhor waste more than I dislike the clutter of my dishes. 

Are you asking, how hoarding dishes keeps me from creating waste?

Well, in several ways:

The first is that having kitchen tools allows me to cook at home.  Cooking means I'm not wasting money by purchasing the more expensive convenience foods with a lot of packaging, and by choosing less packaging, I am putting less garbage in landfills.  I can even make the choice to purchase some items that have no packaging. 

Several years ago, we transitioned our diet to sourcing as many locally produced foods as possible.  Eating locally means we waste a lot fewer resources, because it takes less energy to get apples from Buxton, Maine to me than it does to get apples from Washington State to me, but most of the foods I can purchase locally require that I have some tools to process them.  We can eat apples fresh off the tree, but if we want local applesauce, I need to the tools to make and preserve those apples.  My canning jars don't bring ... wait, they do bring me joy.  Scratch that.  Although, at this point, I have a LOT of canning jars, and they are, kind of, turning into clutter.

A second way having dishes is useful to me is that I can entertain with less waste.

A few years ago, I was privileged to host my son and his bride.  They traveled to Maine to have me perform their wedding ceremony and allowed me the honor of planning their reception.  It was early summer, and the plan was to hold the wedding ceremony on the beach and to have the reception in my front yard.  I rented a canopy, tables, and chairs.  I purchased dishes and table linens from the thrift store.  My goal was to not use disposables, and in that endeavor, I was successful. 

I probably could have rented some really nice (matching) dishes from the same place I rented the canopy, etc., but the cost of purchasing the dishes and linens was significantly less than renting them.  But also, since that time, I have had many other opportunities to use those dishes and table linens for other parties and gatherings at my house.  In addition, when my daughter moved out and started setting up her own household, I had enough dishes to share so that she didn't have to purchase any.  The fact that I could give her dishes saved her money so that she could afford stuff like, oh, I don't know ... rent and food.

Following Marie Kondo's advice, I would have jettisoned those dishes a long time ago.  I don't even like half of them, and most of the time, they just take up space.  But when I have friends or family over and I can give them a meal on a real plate, I appreciate those dishes.

Speaking of dishes, though, let's be brutally honest.  I hate washing dishes, and it must be a genetic thing, because NO ONE in my house likes doing dishes.  Unfortunately, that means that we end up with a perennial sink-full of dirty dishes.

Yes, I do have a dishwasher, which brings me to another issue with the Marie Kondo method. 

Precious was my fifth child.  Her four older siblings still lived at home when she was born, which means there were seven people living in this smaller-than-average house - two adults, two teenagers, and three children younger than six.   Deus Ex Machina worked long hours and had a long commute.  I worked from home and had two babies (one newborn and one not-quite-two year old).  The dishes never got done back then, either, and so I talked Deus Ex Machina into getting a dishwasher. 

Our kitchen wouldn't accommodate a built-in dishwasher without some major changes, and not only did we not have the money for that, but we just couldn't spare our kitchen long enough to have the work done.  So, we opted for an apartment-sized portable dishwasher - one that we rolled over to the sink and attached to the faucet. 

We used it, happily (mostly) for many years.  Our teenagers became adults and moved out.  Our babies became school-aged kids and were able to, at least, empty the dishwasher.

Then, I started reading about resource depletion, Peak Oil, and climate change (this was ten or fifteen YEARS ago - yep, I'm that old).  I started calculating our footprint, and my goal became to reduce our overall electrical usage enough that we could afford to generate our own electricity.  Anything that used electricity was evaluated. 

At first, we just stopped using the dishwasher.  I did the dishes by hand.  The dishwasher got a little musty from non-use.  It was taking up space that I really wanted to use for something else, and so I gave it away.

Fast-forward several years, we still have a sink full of dirty dishes and those dishes are also covering the counters now.  No one is washing the dishes.  I tried all sorts of things to reduce the number of dirty dishes.  We all have an assigned plate, bowl, and coffee mug.  I only have one skillet and one sauce pan.  Fancy tools are kept to a minimum.  I don't have a fancy mandolin or a vegetable peeler.  I have a knife.  Things are mixed using a spoon.  My hands are my best kitchen tool for most things.  Still, some how or other, that sink and that counter always seem to be full of dishes that need to be cleaned. 

Tired of always having a messy kitchen, Deus Ex Machina and I decided it was time to consider having a dishwasher again.  *sigh*  Yes, I was kicking myself for getting rid of the one we had because it no longer gave me joy

We no longer had room for the same sort of dishwasher we'd had before, and we still couldn't have a built-in.  So, we did some research on what would be the best option and ended up purchasing (second-hand from Craigslist) a counter-top dishwasher with a rolling cart.  It uses about 4 gallons of water per load, and to be honest, we haven't notice any significant increase in our electrical or water usage. 

The point of that very long story is that I had what I needed, and I got rid of it, because it no longer "gave me joy", and then I realized (after I had discarded my thing) that I needed it, even if I didn't particularly like it.

That's just one example of something I had that I decided I no longer wanted, but then realized - too late - that it was something that actually was useful.

What surprised me was the number of folks who commented on my KonMari posts defending Marie Kondo, and basically, chastising me for sharing the memes.  In one post, I called KonMari "the latest fad", and I was told that the best-selling books were several years old.  In short, she's been around a while and she's helped a LOT of people, and so this isn't a fad. 


Fad: n.  an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something.

The books have been around for several years, true, and she's had a following on social media.  Since her Netflix show premiered on New Year's Day, and her following more than doubled.  That is, kind of, the definition of a fad.  Her show is the fad.  Her technique of tossing items that don't give us pleasure is a fad, and people will lose interest, eventually, when the next new and shiny comes along.

To be clear (and I said as much on the post), I am not criticizing what she's doing.  I shared the first meme, because of the comments about having no more than 30 books.  It was a joke, that I, as a bibliophile, found incredibly funny.  I have six floor to ceiling bookcases - all full of books and most of the shelves have more than 30 books.  Those aren't the only book cases I have.  There are books in every room in my house ... including the bathroom.  Less than 30 books?  Yeah, right!  There are more than 30 books in my to-be-read (TBR) pile. 

Then, I found a couple of other (funny-to-me) memes and a few articles about her wildly successful television premier, and I started looking a bit closer. 

I'm a prepper, but let's face it, the Prepping "fad" has come and gone.  There are still a lot of us who are still writing about and talking about and making a living at preparedness, but those folks who made the news a few years ago with their bunkers and their 50lb buckets of wheat berries - you know, in case the SHTF - are either underground now, or have moved on to something else ... maybe they're decluttering their prepper supplies with the KonMari method. 

Back in the day, there were dozens of blogs and forums and books and articles and a huge following for folks, like me, who just wanted people to be thinking about and preparing for the possibilities.

Unfortunately, when the S did not HTF quickly enough, the mainstream lost interest.

And, now, we're on to the next "new" thing.

But is it new?

Back when I had a television (before I was a Blogger, even), I loved to watch those reality home-makeover shows on TLC, HGTV, and the Discovery Channel.  One of the ones I loved to hate was Clean Sweep.  In this show, an "expert" would arrive at some cluttered house and help the homeowner declutter and remodel a couple of rooms.  I loved the show, because who doesn't love seeing a brand new room, rising like a Phoenix out of the clutter?  I also hated the show, because those "experts" just made snap judgments (in my opinion) about what was necessary and what wasn't.  How did they know what those homeowners needed?  One expert even made the homeowner get rid of *gasp* books!   I probably cried a little during that show.

In many ways, the whole "clearing the clutter" ideology is antithetical to the prepper lifestyle.  Not that preppers are hoarders, but the fact is that many of us have stuff that we know will be useful if/when the grid goes down.  Quite frankly, I have some things that I almost never use, except every couple of years when the power is out for three or four days, and then, that thing that is usually just clutter and doesn't "bring me joy", suddenly makes me VERY happy.  That's also when I most appreciate the fact that I have a TBR pile of books that's taller than I am.

I have a 12 quart cast iron Dutch oven.  It has a permanent home under my woodstove where it's getting very dusty and a little rusty.  I never use it.  Frankly, it's just too big for regular use.  It's heavy and cumbersome, and it doesn't, quite, fit on the woodstove.  I could use it to cook outside on the fire pit (and I have used it for that), but then, I have to clean it.  Have you ever cleaned a pot that was used on an open fire?  It's a pretty dirty job. 

As such, using that huge Dutch oven is inconvenient in a way that my "normal" life doesn't have to be inconvenient.  I have a normal-sized ceramic-coated cast iron Dutch oven that I can use on the woodstove.  I can also use the smaller one on my electric glass-top stove in the kitchen.  Does the 12 quart Dutch oven bring me joy?  No, not really.  Am I going to give it a way?  Not a chance.

Because the moment I do, I will have a need for it.  We'll have that week-long power outage, and I'll be able to bake a pie on the woodstove, because I have this massive Dutch oven. 

Back to the meme posts, there was one comment that, actually, prompted this blog post, and my friend, essentially, said that this fixation on minimalism is a "privilege."  While I usually bristle at that word - privilege -, because I think it creates divisions where divisions don't really exist, I think, in this case, she is right. 

Folks who aren't worried about how to replace items that are worn out, are often the same folks who are flocking to these minimalist ideals.  The point that my friend was making is that, for too many people in this world, stuff acquisition comes at a great cost and getting rid of stuff can really create a hardship. 

To paraphrase her, minimalism only really works for people who know that they have the financial security to replace those items they've gotten rid of.   In short, it's easy to give up something that doesn't give one joy, if one knows that the item can be easily replaced should it be truly missed.

The whole decluttering thing is not "new."  It's not a fad.  It's been the message for a lot of years - a LONG time before Marie Kondo unveiled her way of dealing with stuff.  Before her there were television shows and books and The Story of Stuff - a short film that debuted in 2009 with the message that we were accumulating too much, which meant we tended to waste a lot more than we should. 

Her method, however, IS a fad, and her ideas around the spirituality of owning things ....  It's interesting, but really?  Does anyone remember The Secret?  That was only ten years ago. 

Yes, decluttering is and can be an incredibly uplifting experience.  I know this to be a fact.  When Deus Ex Machina and I were remodeling our bedroom and sleeping in the den hemmed in by enough stuff to fill two rooms, it was terrible, and we started paring things down and making some very conscious choices about what to keep and what to give away, sell, or toss.   It felt great to open up the space, and there were a lot of times I wondered why we'd kept that odd bit of flotsam.  There were other times when I knew we just needed to make room.

My grandparents' generation didn't easily give up stuff, and they cherished the stuff they had, because they couldn't afford to just go out and get a new one. 

That's the message, I think, that we need to be sharing. 

That's the show that should be on Netflix - how NOT to fill our homes with "stuff" that we will, someday, have to decide whether or not it gives us pleasure. 

We should be having anti-consumerist classes, and rather than encouraging all of us to sort through our stuff and get rid of what doesn't give us joy, perhaps, teach us to see those things differently.  Maybe an episode that deals with not impulse buying so that we don't have a bunch of junk to begin with.  Another episode could focus on finding ways to make our junk useful rather than just throwing it away (making it someone else's problem). 

It's not an old tee-shirt, it's a skirt, or a future quilt, or rags to replace paper products (double bonus points for reducing paper waste and repurposing what might have become garbage). 

It's not a bunch of old pallets, it's firewood or a wood floor (double bonus points for saving money and resources by not having to manufacture or transport flooring and repurposing what might have become garbage). 

It's not a bunch of old fence pieces, it's bookshelves or beehives. 

It's not a holey sheet, it's a pair of pajama pants or curtains.

It's not a disposable jar, it's a drinking glass.

Re-imagining things takes a little more creativity, but honestly, Pinterest was created for and by people who do that sort of thing all of the time - people who see something more than just garbage and are able to find a way to make junk into something more than clutter, like making an old t-shirt into a skirt. 

I don't disagree that decluttering is good.  I completely believe the research on clutter and depression.  Anecdotally, when Deus Ex Machina and I were remodeling our bedroom and had our bed in the den, it was difficult, psychologically, on both of us ... and really on our whole family. 

Our bedroom, though.  That room!  It took three years for us to finish it, but the floor is reclaimed wood pallets that would have ended up in a landfill.  We had those pallets in our yard for a long time before they ended up as our floor.  It was clutter, and it did not bring me joy.  It does now, though.  I love that floor.

For me, that's the way things can be.  Maybe we don't have to keep everything that we should discard, but there are dozens of examples in my own home of things that we could have thrown away, but we didn't, and we ended up being able to reuse them for something that, ultimately, enriched our lives.

That's the story of MY life.  Often those things that feel useless end up being something I can use, and having those things saves me money, and it keeps excess waste from ending up in a landfill, because I didn't buy something new and I didn't throw away something that was useful.  Win for me. Win for the environment. 

Kudos to Marie Kondo for both her best-selling book and her TV show, and more power to those people who decide to adopt minimalism.

For the rest of us, being more mindful of what we decide to bring into our homes in the first place is a good first step, and then, adopting a use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without mentality will go a lot further toward making us happier and reducing the negative human impact on our world.

As for the psychology of decluttering being linked to happiness, there is a way to be both happy and keep some of the stuff that doesn't necessarily give you peace and harmony all of the time.  If a cluttered house makes you depressed, research has shown that nature is the remedy. 

I recommend gardening.

And the bonus is that you get food ... package free ... but you'll have to cook it ... but only if you don't get rid of all of those dishes that are cluttering up the counter.