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.

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.