Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Fighting the Good Fight

In 1984, I was in high school (yep.  Just dated myself).  It's significant, because the required reading list included the book, 1984 by George Orwell.

For those who don't know (not any of you, right?), 1984 depicts a dystopian future in which the government controls every aspect of people's lives, even moving into their living spaces via television (or some two-way version of it - computers with web cams, perhaps?  Or cellphones with cameras and microphones??  Are you shuddering, yet?), where they could spy on every movement. 

Winston, our protagonist, has learned to even control his facial expression, because there is a crime called "Facecrime", in which a person can be convicted and "vaporized" simply by having the wrong facial expression at the wrong time.  Winston works in an office at a job where he is responsible for, essentially, changing history.  

The three-fold party slogan is:  War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength. 

At the time that Orwell wrote 1984, the scenario was a little ridiculous, but he could see how it could become a reality.  He was staunchly anti-communist in his writings, and he feared the extreme application of those principals, which could be too easily implemented by someone with too much self-interest who was given too much sway over every day lives.

Today, we can't move in public without being recorded.  Airports.  Shopping Centers.  ATMs.  Drive-thru windows in restaurants.  Roadway intersections.  Highways.  Sidewalks.  Many private businesses now have video recording equipment, full color, pictures as clear as a carefully filmed and edited multi-million dollar movie.  That 1970s television show that told us to "Smile!  You're on Candid Camera!" has become our reality.  We are always on candid camera.

One would think that it would be enough to keep us from acting like assholes, because, well, someone is going to see your childish outburst at the grocery store.  It's going to be on film.  How long before someone makes a living from collecting video footage and turning it into a real-life Candid Camera reality TV show the simply features idiots caught on film doing idiot things? 

Who knows?  The next "Idiot" could be you.  Keep your face neutral.  Don't pick your nose.  Don't pull your panties out of your butt-crack.  Big Brother is always watching. 

So far we all believe it's for security reasons, and perhaps, there are enough examples of the "bad person" being caught on screen to justify this constant surveillance.  Personally, I find it a bit disconcerting.  I have a sticker over the camera lens on my laptop.  Sounds can go through, but not video.  I don't have a location finder set-up on my phone.  Google is not tracking me through my cellphone - at least not with my permission. 

Maybe it makes me paranoid, but having read 1984 thirty-two years ago, and then, watched, over the last  three decades as too much of what Orwell described has come true, I'm wary.  I'm watching.

I'm watching us all become completely complacent.

In the story, Winston, who is the anti-historian, recalls an event that happened yesterday, that was retold (the complete opposite) the next day, and no one questioned.  Indeed, no one even seemed to remember.  Later, in a speech during "Hate Week", the speaker is handed a slip of paper and without even stopping what he's saying, suddenly, he names a new enemy.  No one even bats an eye.  They go from hating the Eurasians to hating the East Asians in a split-second, never even acknowledging that something has changed. 

But, then, if they did remember, what could they do?  To disagree with the Party means certain death.  The Party is never wrong, and when they are, they alter the history so that they are right. 

So, Winston and his comrades muddled through life, always fearful that they might fall under the scrutiny of the Thought Police and found guilty, resulting in vaporization.  As my daughter used to say "The. Yend!"

But then, our Winston does the unthinkable.  He fights back in a way that is utterly and completely subversive, and yet, so passively non-threatening, but a complete and total threat to the way of life that his government demands.  He thinks - something other than the government tells him to think.  And he starts keeping a diary. 

There was a song I heard once.  The part that always sticks in my head went something like:  "Do you love me?  Will give me all you have to give?  Your heart, your mind, each word you say, and every thought you think each day?  Do you love me ... enough?" 

Those lyrics describe exactly what the government in the novel 1984 demands of its citizenry.  Every act.  Every word.  Every thought. 

I'm terrified by that prospect, and I already know that if it ever comes to that, I'll be one of the first to go.  I'm a subversive.  Deus Ex Machina and I are not super consumers.  I don't have a full-time, wage-earning job - so that we can afford more of the American Way of Life (that is non-negotiable, so says our leaders).  I stay home, where we homeschool, but not for religious reasons.  As such, we have failed to indoctrinate our daughters as patriotic consumers (you know, contributing to the GDP by shopping) and as religious zealots.

There are a lot of things we don't do, or that we do differently than is normal, and for those things, I would be marked, because I don't follow the herd - as it were. 

That, though, is how we really protest.  Big waves draw more attention, it's true.  The tsunami that hit the coast of Japan several years ago destroyed a nuclear power plant.  That was a pretty big deal. 

But small waves can also create incredible, long-lasting and spectacular change.

I see too many little traces of Big Brother in our world.  Too many little nuances of wresting of control from our fingertips.  Little snatches of power by our government - around the world, and not just here in the US. 

In the story, 1984, Julia (Winston's girlfriend - which is a total subversive act) doesn't believe in big, grandiose actions.  She says that they have to rebel, in secret, with private little acts.  These things chip away at the very fabric of the fa├žade of control.  I'm inclined to agree with her, that those little things which give us control, also give us power.  We can only change ourselves, right? 

So, I think about these things, and I wonder what little acts we can perform in our own lives that subvert the control that our government is continually imposing on us. 

What should we be doing, then? 

Taking control.

Grow our own food.  This is, actually, a fairly big subversive act in some places, where it is actually illegal to have certain types and certain heights of plants growing in one's yard.  One thing that I've learned over the years, though, is that food sometimes doesn't look like food.  The other day, my neighbor stopped to ask me about those HUGE yellow flowers I have growing in my yard.  The flowers aren't big, but the plants are.  They grow to 10' or more and then, in the fall have a tiny yellow flower at the top of that Jack-worthy stalk.  "It's Jerusalem artichoke," I told her, and quickly, added, "Also called sunchokes", when she nodded and said, "Artichoke."  I wanted to clarify that it's not the same plant as that green bulb we love, also called artichoke.  It grows in waste areas.  Wildlife love it (especially the birds).  It's a perennial.  It's edible.  Growing food that no one knows is food is pretty sneaky.

What about raising our own meat?  This, too, has become a subversive act.  Keeping farm animals in city and suburban lots has become against the law.  But we could keep some animals that look like pets.  Rabbits are the most well-known for small-space meat production.  There are also guinea pigs, quail, and certain types of fish that can be raised indoors in large aquariums (or in someone's backyard pool-turned-pond).  Snakes and frogs are also edible.  Just sayin'. 

Foraging is another of those subversive acts.  People have been arrested for picking dandelion greens.  Really?  We do a lot of "high-speed foraging", where we'll see something we know is edible (like blueberries or apples) growing wild in a waste area, and we'll stop, jump out of the car, pick as much as we can in five minutes or less, and then jump back in the car and take off again. 

I read an article the other day about a proposal to do away with the cash economy.  The rationale is the ease with which debit card or credit card transactions occur.  But, really, who benefits when we use a credit card or an ATM?  The merchant doesn't benefit from accepting credit cards.  Ask them.  Vendors incur a fee every time you use that card.  Most vendors absorb the fee, or pass it on to the customer in the form of higher prices.  Some businesses will give "cash discounts", that is, charge less for the same product or service for people using cash. 

So, who benefits from card transactions?  Why the banks, of course?   If we really want to get hyper-subversive, we can start a cash-only lifestyle.  If enough of us are still using cash, the transition to plastic currency can't happen.

The one, big thing, that Orwell points out in this novel is that the past has been erased, and the Party is continually changing the facts of what happened.  I actually see this happening today.  We forget so easily that it was warm that winter or that the price of gasoline has been steadily increasing since 2008.  Telling our stories, writing our stories, knowing history, reading books ... indeed, hoarding books ... is a subversive act that we can not afford to not engage in. 

Finally, just stepping outside, or at least moving to the fringes, of the consumer economy is the ultimate in subversion.  Refuse to purchase things one neither needs nor wants.  When possible, fix or reuse it, rather than buying a new one.  Do without it, if it's something one doesn't absolutely need.

Living intentionally is the ultimate in subversion.  If we're paying attention to what we're doing rather than just blindly following where others are trying to lead us, we can't be controlled.

And a citizenry that cannot be controlled is very dangerous.  Indeed. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Quiet Riot!

I miss the good old days - pre-Facebook - when bloggers got together and moved the world.  We were always doing projects and challenging each other to do more, to live better, to be better stewards.

Crunchy Chicken challenged us to "Freeze your buns off" - which was a winter-long challenge to lower our heating bills, and, more importantly, reduce our use of fossil fuels.  It was about that time that my family transitioned to using a woodstove as our sole heat source.  We didn't need to turn down our thermostat here at Chez Brown, because there's no thermostat on the woodstove.  When one is standing right next to the woodstove, depending on the type of wood we've put in it and some other stuff, the temperature ranges from the depths of Hell to summer in Hawaii.  The rest of the house is somewhere between summer in Maine and Antarctica.

We were challenged to eliminate plastic.  Many of us went through our homes and tossed out that old Tupperware our mothers hoarded like gold.  Nearly everything in my cabinets is either breakable or made of metal. 

I have amassed a huge collection of glass canning jars.  I have every size of canning jar available from the tiniest of jelly jars (perfect for bringing condiments, like salad dressing, for lunch) to gallon-sized jars.  I use the big ones for storing dried goods, like sugar, flour, and rice.  I also use them for fermenting - pickles, sauerkraut, Kombucha.  The half-gallon sized ones are great for making batches of sweet tea, smaller fermenting projects, getting raw milk, and storing dried goods.  The quarts fit perfectly in Deus Ex Machina's lunch box - filled with leftover soup.  I love the "salad in a jar" craze that I've seen around the Internet - and yes, it does work pretty nicely in a wide-mouth quart-sized jar.  We have a size of jar that's between a pint and a quart that is the perfect size for a to-go cup.  I have some lids that I've drilled holes in to fit a reusable straw.  Pints are great for juice glasses.  And did you know that the mason jars are measuring cups?  A quart jar is four cups.  A pint is two cups.  There are lines on all of the jars for measuring in milliliters, ounces and cups.  Why clutter one's kitchen with extra (usually plastic) measuring cups when canning jars do just as well? 

And, of course, nothing beats canning jars for storing food.  I have canning jars all over my kitchen.

Back in those days, we were challenged to eat local, and I joined the Dark Days of Winter eat local challenge, where once a week, during Maine's long winters, I had to prepare a meal comprised entirely of food I had sourced locally (we were allowed to exclude certain food items, like oils or sweeteners, if we chose).  My family was featured in a newspaper article for our all local Thanksgiving Dinner.  Eventually, eating local was just the way we ate. 

In the beginning of the eat local challenges, it really was a challenge to find local foods, but eventually, they heard us.  The big chain grocery store, which is, now, owned by an international conglomerate (but used to be locally owned), has a special sign throughout their store to show shoppers the products that are "Close to Home."  There are a lot of them - potato chips from Fox Family Farms; Buckwheat flour and Ployes from the Bouchard family in Fort Kent;  Maine Root and Eli's sodas (both made with sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup); lots of seasonal produce; cheese from Pineland; butter from Kate's.  There was even a cleaning supplies manufacturer selling her stuff at Hannaford for a while. 

I know it was a direct response to people like me, people who wanted local foods.

Which proves what Margaret Mead so famously said, Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

WE changed the world, in a very small, very profound way.  We changed the way people eat, by forcing a HUGE chain store to source more local foods - AND to let us know which foods were local. 

I believe WE can do more. 

My friend and fellow blogger, Jo, is restarting her own Riot For Austerity

By way of explanation, the riot For Austerity was a project that was conceived by two bloggers, Miranda Edel and Sharon Astyk.  Back in those days, we were still hearing about global warming, or later more accurately dubbed, "climate change."  Scientists knew that we were very close to the point at which humans could no longer reverse what was happening, and if we hoped to change the trend, we needed to ACT NOW! 

In response to those reports, Sharon and Miranda (and thousands of their followers) implemented this Riot for Austerity, the goal being to reduce one's foot print to 10% of what is normal for our Western world.  That is, if the average American uses 900 kWh per month of electricity, our goal would be to reduce our usage to 100 kWh of electricity per month.  I have mine down to a consistent 400 kWh/month.  We never, really, got it down much further.

It's worthwhile to note, though, that, as a country, the US has actually reduced its own usage over the past decade.  Back when I first joined the Riot, the average American was using 1200 kWh per month (which made my 400 kWh monthly usage look a lot more impressive :)).

According to this graph, we've also reduced the number of miles we travel as a nation. 

So, maybe, the Rioters helped effect positive change, just like the locavores did.

It's not enough, though.  Climate change is full upon us now.  I saw a headline recently that said every state in the continental US (except Florida) currently has snow on the ground.  I know that there are a lot of states with widely varying topographies.  Hawaii, for instance, is usually considered warm and tropical, but they regularly have snowfall on their mountain peaks.  New Mexico, also considered very warm, has areas where snowfall is a normal winter event.  But most of Texas is pretty flat (I lived in the Central Texas military town of Killeen).  My friend still lives in the Houston area.  She's been talking about the cold and snow.  They've been plagued with nutty weather over the past few years. 

Changes in weather patterns (more rain where it was mostly dry, too dry in normally wet areas); bigger, more bad-ass storms; coastal flooding; extremes in temperatures - these are all things that the scientists were warning us about a decade ago, when Sharon and Miranda conceived of this project.  If they had been successful in getting the rest of the world, instead of just a few thousand of us, to join, who knows where we'd be.

Perhaps the iconic marsh-level Italian restaurant might not be trying to sell their restaurant.  Maybe it's because they've been in business for three decades and the owners want to retire now.  Maybe it's because the owners have sickened of the too frequent flooding, and they're looking at a future that will include the annual flood-forced loss of business so that they can clean up the saturated first floor after the big spring storm surges.  I've lived here for twenty years, and I've been watching that marsh get higher every high tide.  I imagine that those restaurant owners have also been seeing the encroaching waters.

It's too late, from most of what we know, to change the climate disruption.  It's not too late to figure out how we're going to live in this new world.

Learning to live on 90% less (or even some percentage in between - like my 33% of average for electricity usage), isn't a bad idea.

As part of my "getting myself back on track", I'm going to be looking at my numbers and seeing where I can further reduce.  At very least, I want to live consciously, again, and not just mechanically going through my days.  So, if it's dinner time, and we want cheese on our mac, but we're out of cheese, we'll do something else.  Driving twelve miles (round trip) just to go to the store for a hunk of cheese is not an option. 

There's more though.  One neat, little perk about lowering our carbon footprint that the rabid Rioters don't, necessarily, mention (not because they don't know or don't care, but because their focus is elsewhere).  Using less = spending less.  Right?  I use less electricity, and so I have a lower electric bill.  I drive less, and so my car-related bills are less (fewer repairs, less spent on gasoline).  I buy fewer items at the store (the "consumer goods" category of the Riot), and so I save a lot of money. 

For the frugal-minded, living more lightly on the earth means saving a lot of cash.  The less we spend, the less we need to earn, which means the less we need to work, which means the more time we have to do other stuff - like garden, knit/sew, and cook, which leads to a less stressful life and healthier life habits, which means fewer doctor visits and less need for medication, which means spending less money.

See where we're going here?

It's a complete win/win, and back when I was actively practicing the lower-impact life, I was happier.

So, let's get back to it.  Let's riot!  Who's in?

Friday, January 13, 2017

Going Back

I've already blogged more in the first two weeks of this January than I had for the whole month of the past four Januarys.

I hope this is indicative of the way the rest of the year will go.

Blogging is good for my peace of mind.  It's contemplative, unlike other social media, which is fast-paced and instant.  I can spend hours drafting a blog post.  FB is two sentences, tapped out hastily ... and occasionally thoughtlessly.  Facebook and Twitter foster an impulsiveness that is dangerous and unhealthy.

It's funny how my personal use of social media reflected, so aptly, how I've been living my life.  Too much.  Too quick. 

Blogging is a lot like the movements it helped to spur in the early part of the 21st Century.  Things like urban/suburban homesteading, slow/local foods, and homemade for the holidays - were all topics that started with someone blogging.  They promote a slower-paced lifestyle - one that requires us to take time and think, make conscious choices, really live in our moment, rather than rushing to the next thing.  

Blogging is also more personal.  Occasionally, I'd have people who commented on my blog posts who were unkind, but mostly (and maybe I'm romanticizing it), people were civil, because we really got to know each other.  We came to blogs and stayed with bloggers who were like-minded.  We supported our blog-friends.  We stood up for them when they were attacked by trolls.

People tend to either be too personal on FB (I had a really bad bowel movement today) or very impersonal (here's another cat picture ... of a cat I don't own nor have ever met).  The "like" button is a substitute for really engaging.  It's too easy.  Just hit the button.  "Like."  That's all we need to say about that, right? 

When they do respond, it's often in the moment without any regard to what the reader of that statement might feel.  I've found FB to be an incredibly hostile environment - especially my "friends'" walls.  These are places where I, too often, find myself an unwelcome visitor - not because my friends don't want me there (they do, or they wouldn't have accepted or sent a "friend request") - but because they have friends (who are not my "friends", because they've never met me, and who only see this one, short sentence I have written TO MY FRIEND, but to which they feel a strong need to respond - I've been guilty of this also), who don't hesitate to bash something I've said.  Most of the time, I'm supporting the comment made by the person whose wall it is. 

Worse is when I post a comment, and one of my friends wants to argue with me on my wall, and then, because I don't back down and acquiesce to his/her opinion, that person decides to unfriend me.  True story.

At first, on FB, I was very excited to share my opinions - all of the time, with everyone.  I've grown very gun-shy.  I post a lot less.  My newsfeed is mostly real news, and I don't see a lot of stuff my "friends" post, because I've set my wall to see articles by actual news sites first (local television stations, CNN, BBC news, Yahoo news, Mother Earth news, etc.).  That way, I don't get in trouble by posting a comment that attempts to debunk the fake news article about the fallacy of climate change that my very conservative "friend" posted.  Or comment on the anti-homeschooling article or comment by someone who is not a parent, a pediatric specialist, nor an educator - but, of course, knows everything there is to know about child development and learning.

I haven't degenerated into a cat-picture Facebook user, but I'm pretty close.  Instead of cats, I find that book posts are safe and less likely to generate negative feedback.  Or I vague-book a lot.  Then, I delete those posts, because next year when Facebook wants me to share my "memory", I will have no idea what THAT was all about ;). 

So, I'm back on Blogger, which just feels ... right!  Fewer commercials.  Less intrusion (like the ever present concern that we're being tracked).  More of the ability to be as anonymous or as exposed as WE choose.  More quiet, contemplative moments. 

I'm looking forward to reconnecting with those people who found this space useful and relevant, and restarting our dialogue of living a more simple, if not easier, lifestyle.  Let's face it, heating with a woodstove is not easier than flipping a switch on the thermostat, but knowing how to make my house warm without the magic and mystery of outside inputs (especially, when those outside inputs fail us - like during power outages) is a more simple way of connecting to this world.

I'm really looking forward to renewing my relationship with my land (all one quarter acres of it :)) and setting up the hammock my family gave me as a gift this Christmas.  Of sugaring.  Of making soap.  Of repurposing that pile of old shirts (maybe into a quilt-top comforter cover).   

And of returning to the awesome dialogues we used to have here in the blogosphere before so many of us turned to FB and Twitter.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Repurposed End Table (#FrugalTips)

Seems like there was this time period that lasted a couple of years during which anytime anyone had some extra thing for which they were seeking a new home, that thing would find its way into my house.  Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I never said no.  I ended up with a lot of interesting stuff
My daughters were pretty passionate about fish keeping during this time (especially Big Little Sister who wanted to be a Marine Biologist), and one of the gifted items during the period was a lovely hexagonal fish tank with a wooden base. 
At one time, Big Little Sister had three fish tanks in her room.  Little Fire Faery had one.  They loved fish.  Big Little Sister spent countless hours researching tropical breeds and their habitat requirements.  So, we had this tank, but from her research, she realized that it wouldn't work for any of the fish she wanted to own.  It was too deep and too small for the shallow-water, wide-range fish she wanted.  We never set-up the tank in our house.
Instead, we offered it to a friend who was starting a new business - for his waiting area - but he moved offices and didn't need it in his new space.  So, it sat at our house, while we tried to figure out what to do with it.  Then, in a freak accident - too common here at Chez Brown - the tank bottom shattered.  We had to discard it. 
But we kept the base.  Because it was a fish tank base, it didn't have a top or bottom.  The "cabinet" is really just ornamental.  Some small things could fit inside, like a filter, but it's bottomless, so whatever is stored in there sits directly on the ground.  There are no shelves.  Essentially, it's a stop-sign shaped wooden tube. 
I didn't know what to do with it.  We moved it around from place to place, room to room, corner to corner.  It was, kind of, in the way.  We couldn't use it as a table, because it had no top, and I just kept looking at it and thinking I needed to get rid of it or figure out a way to use it.  
Then, somehow, we ended up with this piece of scrap plywood.  I have no idea where it came from - some silly project leftover, I'm sure.  But there it was.  This heavy, unfinished, rough, square piece of plywood.  It fit on the top.  Not evenly, of course (nothing's ever that simple, is it?).  I looked at it for a couple of months, with that piece of plywood on it, knowing that it could work as an end table.  It would just require some modifications.
So, I held the plywood in place, and traced the shape of the base into it.  Then, I asked Deus Ex Machina to cut it for me.  I sanded it, painted it black, and using finishing nails and wood glue, I affixed it to the top of the fish tank base.
Et voila!  It's an end table with some tiny storage.  We have ski boots in the storage space.  It fits nicely next to the door-side of our couch.
I'm not one of those Pinterest people.  I'm not terribly creative or skilled at furniture refinishing, and I'm not entirely sure that I like the way it looks, but it works for the purpose I have given it. 
Better, though, was that I took something that was really just clutter and turned it into something usable.  It's a really nice feeling. 


Also, when I was young and poor, I wish I'd had the ability to do things like this ... instead of heading over to the furniture store and financing a bunch of pretty, new, shiny stuff I couldn't afford.  This project cost about $5 for paint.  The rest was free.

Not bad for this born-again Frugalista.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Darn Socks (#FrugalTips)

You are all going to think that I just like expensive things.  That's not true ... exactly.  What I like is quality stuff - stuff that lasts - and what I've found is that there is absolute truth to the saying, "You get what you pay for."   If one buys cheap stuff, that's what one gets.
My favorite socks are 100% (or as close to 100 as I can get) Merino wool socks.  They're expensive, but they are warm, and while they don't last, they are amazing foot covers on cold, winter days in Maine, because they keep my feet not only warm, but also dry - which is actually a pretty important part of the whole staying "warm" thing. 
So, when the dogs come in the house, tracking snow down the hallways and all over, which leaves little puddles all over the place, which, of course, I step in, my feet don't get wet.  The wool just wicks that wet and keeps it away from my skin, and those socks dry really fast, even on my feet, in the desert-dry air of my wood-heated house. 
Merino wool socks cost a lot of money.  I can wear a pair for about a season before the hole is too big to keep wearing them. 
After a couple of years of buying three or so new pairs every season, I had a drawer-full of holey socks, and I figured it was time I did something about it.   
I learned to darn.
It's actually quite easy.  My first attempts weren't actual darning, at all.  Basically, using an embroidery needle and some yarn, I sewed a patch.  I started by sewing around the edge of the hole, and then, working my way around the hole, I added layers until the hole was completely filled in.  It worked, mostly. 
Then, I watched a video on YouTube about how to actually darn a sock.  Basically, it's a weaving process.  Sew across the hole in one direction, and then, from the other direction, weave the yarn through the first cross.
Et viola!  A fixed sock.
I could, probably, find a yarn that more closely matches the original sock color ... but then, how would anyone be able to admire my skill and frugality?
P.S.  I don't own a darning "mushroom".  I actually use an orange.  I used to use a plastic Poke-Ball, but I've since lost it.  Anything round will work.