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Turns out, I miss this place. I went on for many months quite happily without the computer. Working on my farm projects. Summer was banner this year, and my plate was manically full. But somewhere around July, I started to itch for writing. A place and a way to express my thoughts, to communicate all the stuff that crowds my head. Ears who care to listen.

Now, don’t go creaming yer panties, I’m not coming back here on a regular basis. But, maybe just a quickie now and then, in the laundry room.

Besides, I have some important addendums to the inherent subject matter of Apron Stringz. My life as a ‘mama who likes to get shit done’ continues to evolve, and it seems wrong to leave off when new discoveries are being made.

Not that I have come to any conclusions. As usual the farther I get into it, the more confusled I become. Certainly nothing has become clear to me, in my absence from blogging. I have not come back to share brilliant epiphanies. But that’s why you love me right? For laying bare the absolute bewilderment of life and loving?

I do have one particular thing to say, the thing that has made me come back, an admission.

For the record– it didn’t work.

This whole ‘yielding to motherhood and the inglorious work of housewifery’ thing, it didn’t work. I mean, I guess it worked for a while, gave me some peace when I needed it most. Allowed me to survive a period of intensity that otherwise might have destroyed me. I still recommend it, wholeheartedly. If you can manage it, submitting to the humble task of motherhood is a strangely liberating experience.

I just want to make sure you understand the further evolution of that story. Although I cultivated it successfully for a few years, as soon as the life-or-death necessity for submission had worn off, I abandoned it like a leaky rubber boot. I went straight back to my old ways– taking on way too much for someone with small children, trying to do it all, wanting it all with an almost debilitating lust, then beating myself up for failing on all accounts.

Part of that is just summer in Alaska. It all happens so fast. It’s winter and winter and winter, and then all of a sudden– BAM. It’s summer and it’s going to be over before you can finish even half the projects on your list, so hurry the fuck up!

But I can’t just blame summer. There’s more to the story.

Six years ago now, we had our first baby. I slowly and painfully began to set aside my own projects and passions for the all-encompassing work of motherhood. Two years into it, we moved to New Orleans, My Man went to law school, and we had our second baby. Enter the Submission Phase, blah, blah, blah. I gave up on accomplishing anything of consequence, outside of raising up two beautiful new souls. I didn’t submit easily, in fact it was emotionally akin to amputating both legs. But I did it– I put my own, separate, non-mama path on hold for a few years. I relegated my passions and what I consider my real work to ‘charming hobby’ status.

Then My Man finished school. Moving back to Alaska was something of an anti-climax because even though I was back in my own home turf, surrounded by my previous years’ work on our little property, My Man was studying harder than ever for the Bar. Time and energy were still too tight for me to take back up those passions in any meaningful capacity. So, I squelched them back down and screwed the lid on once again.

Our little backyard homestead lay in a state of dormancy, fertile soil covered in a dense blanket of weeds. It would have to wait.

My mind lay similarly neglected. After years of fighting for each little scrap, I had acquired a resident apathy. I could hardly remember what I might care to do with myself, should I ever have time to do anything in. As someone who had been vehemently motivated to do cool stuff, before I had kids, the apathy was perhaps the most disturbing thing of all.

But, here we were– back home in my chosen context, with all the things I claimed to care about around me. And that is when my greatest fear of all surfaced. What if I had just changed? What if I didn’t care about homesteading and wilderness and harvesting anymore? What then? What would I care about if not that?

This is the identity crisis which I alluded to in my few posts last summer, but never had the guts to write about. I was terrified. I had built my entire life around this homesteader dream, the possibility of it’s loss was haunting.

Our girl started kindergarten that fall. Suddenly I had just one kid again, for half of every day. The desperation of mothering two littles began to ease. I had finally settled back into Alaska. My Man passed the Bar, and started working. At long last, the 3YO began to sleep through the night and into the morning, allowing me a good night’s sleep and an hour or two of quiet solitude at the beginning of each day. I took a deep, wonderful breath.

My mind opened tentatively into that extra space, like a hermit crab poking out of it’s shell. Is it safe? Is there really room for me again?

It was at that moment in time, serendipitously, that I discovered permaculture. I was ripe and ready, it was exactly what I needed. Knowledge! Learning! Permaculture was the next step to everything I had done before I had kids– an advanced course in gardening and homesteading. I was consumed, like a hot, teenage crush. It was so exciting to be excited again. Even now, when I hear the intro song to Thomas the Train (which allowed me many an hour to sit around learning) I feel a wave of giddy joy.

And that is when I realized that I had not changed at all. I had not lost my love for all things which grow from the soil, and a life which relates to wild nature. Rather, my lust for learning had just been squashed by too many loads of laundry, I had had too many attempts to try something new crushed into the ground by a screaming toddler. I had given up.

I had tried for graceful submission, but in the end had settled into apathetic resignation. Not towards my life as a whole, but certainly towards my personal passions and ambitions.

I still believe that graceful submission would be a beautiful thing. I did hit it for small moments, and they were good and sweet. I don’t begrudge the resignation either, it is acceptable to me on a short term basis. It served me well when I needed it.

I was so thrilled to find my own spark still alive, so relieved that it was (conveniently) still flaring in the same general direction, that I hardly cared whether it had been submission or resignation or what. I flung my painstakingly acquired good mom habits out the window and set right into ignoring my kids in the name of backyard homesteading.

I weeded out three years’ worth of creeping buttercups and planted all my old garden beds. I started teaching classes, something I had always wanted to, in bread making, gardening and wild plants. I butchered, packaged and froze two black bears given me by a local guide. I started making herbal medicine. I picked gallons of wild blueberries. But, most significantly, before summer had even begun, I ordered fifty chicks and ducklings thereby turning my nice little gardens into a full fledged small farm.

I ordered the birds while there was still snow on the ground. I had spent the winter drawing up a totally awesome permaculture design for our property, and had convinced myself on paper that I could build an addition to my coop which would quadruple it’s size, before the chicks grew out of their brooder.

I had forgotten that I was in fact still a mama! You can throw the ole’ submission idea out the window, but the kids don’t seem to notice. Well, I’m sure they noticed something. Like the fact that I had stopped taking them to kid activities around town, stopped doing crafts with them, stopped reading stories in the middle of the day, and started a hell of a lot more yelling.

It wasn’t all bad. There were some absolutely amazing days, the kind of days I imagined motherhood would be– working outside building the coop, or digging in the garden; a little pack of kids ranging around between our yard and our neighbors, happily playing in the sunshine with sticks. Brilliant days, which I did have the good sense to stop and appreciate, recognizing these moments as the best of the best, what I had always hoped my life would be like.

I don’t regret my regression back into project-land. Mamas busy with projects are a good thing. But there’s busy and then there’s too busy. I do regret ordering fifty birds. What the fuck was I thinking? I could have simply doubled my flock, like a normal person, just dabbled in raising meat birds; but no, I needed to quintuple my flock so that I could put a year’s worth of birds in the freezer, and still have several different laying breeds left to trial.

The stress of all those animals under my care, inadequately housed (barely better off than factory farmed birds for a while there) gave me actual belly cramps during the month of June. I just couldn’t build fast enough. It seemed like I managed to nail up about two boards/day.

At any rate, here I am now, at the end of it. A nice big pack of roasters in my freezer, and a beautiful flock of laying hens and ducks. I am learning new things, evolving my homesteading skills, moving forward on my path again.

Occasionally I miss those days when I just let taking the kids on an outing, doing laundry and making dinner be enough. I am still often jealous of the mamas who can sustain that kind of devotion. But I am not that mama. For me, submission was a temporary helpmate.

And for you other mamas out there who used to like to get shit done, who now feel your own passions numbed by motherhood, understand that you can submit for a few years and still resurface intact at the end of it. It might take some time to wake your mind and passions back up, but don’t be frightened by a little apathy. When the time comes, your spark will reignite.

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Despite my absence here for the last month and a half, I have not been master goddess of my domestic realm. I am always surprised when I take a break from blogging, I mean you’d think that the extra 1-2 hours per day would get me something. And of course it does, it gets me a slower pace of life, a calm that I do appreciate when I can manage to acknowledge it. But it does not get me a cleaner house or happier children. At this very moment (and most others) the kitchen is a mess, the table is stacked with four loads of clean laundry waiting to be put away, the floors are disgusting, and I have no idea what I’m cooking for dinner. I feel that depthless falling feeling lately. The list, by which I mean The List, is miles long and filled with projects like “replace linoleum in the kitchen,” “put up the year’s worth of salmon,” “rebuild collapsed woodshed roof,” and subsequently “cut and stack five cords of firewood for the winter.”

And I can’t even get the fucking laundry put away.

The disappointment of times like this always starts me to grasping for a cure, and lately my obsession has been the Waldorf concept of Rhythm. The idea is that a flexible but regular schedule is essential for children; that knowing, generally, how their days will unfold gives them a sense of peace and stability.

Duh.

One of the things I hate about parenting dogmas is how impervious they are to differences in personality. Although I think a predictable schedule is generally agreed to be good for kids, I suspect there are kids who will never adapt to a schedule and furthermore don’t need to, as well as kids who’s lives could be turned around by a strong rhythm. Those are the kids who thrive on Waldorf, and “prove” the success of the ideology.

What I am realizing lately is that I was one of those kids, who’s need for a predictable, peaceful and quiet daily routine was never satisfied as a child. And as happens in a developing brain when a need is unmet, I am consequently malformed.

I have always had a near obsession with routine and yet an inability to actually execute it to any satisfying degree. I need it because I didn’t get it as a child, but I don’t know how to do it, because I didn’t get it as a child. My journals are always studded with multiple attempts to corral the chaos of my days. Literally,

“Summer Schedule
6:00 wake up, coffee
7:00 breakfast
7:30 walk
9:00 outside chores”
etc, etc.

I write it all out, earnestly believing every time that the mere act of writing will create the calm rhythm and self disciplined schedule I crave. Later I am convinced that it hasn’t worked because I just haven’t gotten it right, haven’t divined the Perfect Schedule. Inviting yet another attempt.

That’s me– forever believing that there is a formula for perfection. Not universal, but personal to me. If only I could figure it out.

Having kids of my own I have only stepped up this madness. Desperate for a handle on life, I feel sure that I am just missing something. If I could just get the kids to eat right, they wouldn’t have these stubborn screaming fits. If I could just get the house clean and stay on top of it, we would all feel so much more calm and relaxed. If the 2yo would just consistently sleep enough at night. If I got the kids enough exercise and peer play every day. If… If….

And then the kingpin– If only I could get us on a schedule, then I would (magically) have time to fit all this in to every single day.

Then, then! Life would be all soft watercolors and silk scarves. Hallelujah.

Looking around online for Waldorf rhythm is excessively discouraging. The blogshine that I always rail against is rampant in the Waldorf crowd. One that I read this morning went on for an entire post about their morning ritual of waking softly, lighting candles and singing morning songs and how sweet and perfect it all was. Well, perfect pink wool felting mothers of the world, damn you if you’re lying, and damn you more if you’re not.

I started this post weeks ago, in the midst of an obsession. Now as I come back to finish what seems worth finishing, I am trying to divine the lesson. Did I learn something? I do in fact feel like in the last few weeks I created some kind of order in my universe– the house is clean, the laundry is caught up, the kids are happy. But as usual, in retrospect, I find myself wondering if I created that order and peace, or if it created itself.

Do I follow a pattern of sinking to the bottom and then pulling myself up by the bootstraps? Or does life follow a pattern of chaos and hard times, which lead inevitably to a relative peace and better times? Or is it (more likely) both? Do we feed off of each other, me and life, and oh– don’t forget the kids, in their own two separate cycles.

Waldorf appeals to my depressed self because it is based on the premise that if you do everything “right” (and they’ll tell you how) your life and your children will be sweet and quiet. It taps directly into my innate compulsion to believe that there is a Perfect Way, I just have to figure out what it is. It feeds heavily on my propensity for mama-guilt, because if my life is not so perfectly sweet and quiet, it is my own fault. I have failed myself and my family.

Like any religion, it takes a human being in their weakened state of sad, disappointed confusion, and props them up on the idea that there is a prescribed way out. Just follow the master plan, and it will all be taken care of. The idea that there is in fact an underlying order, a secret to life, is so incredibly seductive to us. We want so desperately to believe, to be Believers.

For whatever cosmic reason, me and the kids were at a real low. I was desperate, I was vulnerable. I delved into the ‘rhythm as panacea’ concept, even started doing a Waldorf circle time with the kids every afternoon. I summoned my will and attempted to implement a stronger routine than what we already had. I checked out Over the Rainbow Bridge from the library. I berated myself appropriately over their movie watching, the overflow of plastic toys and my own yelling mad self. (This last one works wonders– beat yourself up about being a mean mom. Just see how sweet it makes you. Wow. It was from this place of yelling at myself for yelling at the kids that I told them I wanted to chain them up so I could just please fucking carry the fucking groceries the two blocks up the fucking hill to our house.)

The problem, for me at least, is that feeding the belief in achievable order interferes with the work I really need to be doing. Accepting the chaos.

Submitting.

Shit, there it is again. Not submitting to motherhood this time. But submitting to life. The universe. Everything. The greater-than-me. The things I can never know, and never understand. The mystery. Submitting to the fact that I am not ruler of this world, or even my world. There is no plan so perfect that it will tame my wild children. Thank god! My life is not reducible to a calm, clean, quiet procession of handcrafts. It is an uproarious mess of bewilderment and kitchen projects. My kids are LOUD because they are full of piss and vinegar, they run around the house breaking shit because they are full of nearly explosive curiosity for how the world works.

We are movers and shakers, a whole fam damily of them. Our life together is bound to be complex.

I’m not altogether done with the rhythm concept, or Waldorf in general. Of course, just because they have not created The Master Plan doesn’t mean there isn’t some valuable takeaway. Just because a solid rhythm would not singlehandedly create peace on earth, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t help create a bit more peace in our own household. Or at the very least, in my own brain.

As usual, I walk a weird line between wholesome organic crafty mama and ranting punk bitch, and it’s sometimes hard to know quite where to set my bags down. I guess my real work in this life is to just be without need to label, to search without need to find, to try without need to master, to take what comes as it comes. Chaos, order, chaos.

That’s not too much to ask, right?

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Do you ever buy onions or citrus in plastic mesh bags like these? Do you hoard them under the sink like I do?

More than a year ago now I figured out how to turn a pile of these into a scrubbie and I have been washing dishes with one ever since. I finally gave up the nasty *dish sponge* and I have not missed it. In fact, I still have to keep sponges around for the occasions when My Man washes up, and I am not even tempted to use them anymore. What a gross and unnecessary invention, that nevertheless took me many years to figure an alternative to that I liked using.

(Many people use a wash cloth and like them just fine, but I found them too flappy aroundy. I did eventually find some terry cloth diaper inserts that are a good size for dish washing, and I use them often, but this scrubbie fits perfectly in my hand and has the full force of scratchy nubs to clean the dishes!)

So, to turn your pile of bags into a scrubbie:

Step 1: Cut off all the end closures so you have just plain sleeves of mesh.

Step 2: Starting with one, curl the ends around itself so that it rolls up into a circular sausage.

Step 3: Repeat with each sleeve until you have a big fat wad, much bigger than you think it should be (it will get scrunched up).

Step 4: Reserve you longest, nubbiest one for the last. Instead of rolling it in like the others, tie a knot in one end to reform the bag, turn it inside out (so the knot is on the inside bottom of the bag) then insert your sausage roll. Work the knot up into the center of the roll. Scrunch the wad up inside the bag until it feels like a good scrubbie size and density, then tie up the top of the bag, fold the top back under and tie again so that your outside bag is wrapped twice around the whole shebang. Tie again, but this time attempt to not pull the end all the way through the knot so that the scratchy ends are not pointing up into your hand.

Scrunch the knot down flat and then use with the knotted side cradled in your palm.

 

Didn’t I say it was perfect?

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The last two months have been packed with three different batches of visitors, totalling seven adults and two kids. It’s been a lot of fun, but my desire to get on top of the house really fell away from me, round about visitor #1. Although everyone was very helpful and the basics of clean up were maintained just fine, the behinds and underneaths have really suffered.

oh look, kids! a buried treasure! lucky me!

These next few weeks I really need to take the house in hand. I need to be on top of my game, because My Man has finals starting at the end of the month and next month will be a manic wave of packing and moving, we leave here May 18th! A mere 42 days away!!! Holy fuckorama!

Several people have said that if we’re leaving so soon, why bother cleaning now? But when you have two little kids and a man finishing up his law degree, you simply cannot wait till the last week to start the massive cleaning and packing project that is a family move.

Tackling a really filthy house can be daunting, especially at first. Especially with two littles underfoot.

I take it one room at a time, making a first pass over the house where I do a basic picking up of everything, including all corners and underneaths, clearing of stacks on shelves and tables, and a good thorough sweep. This takes at least a week at the pace I can uphold with kids. When I finish that I make another pass (of course having to pick up a week’s worth of detritus first) giving everything a good thorough wiping/moping/scrubbing/dusting– the sort of stuff I usually almost never get to.

This week I have started the ball rolling with a first pass. I have five rooms done, hallelujah! Here’s my tactic for picking up a ridiculously messy room: I put several boxes or baskets in the middle of the room– one for dirty laundry, one for stuff that needs to be put away in other rooms (if your room is really truly ridiculous you might want a basket for each destination, ie: bedroom, kids room, kitchen, etc), one for give away, and a trash can. Then I make my way around the perimeter, on my hands and knees, methodically chucking shit into the respective boxes. I find this much easier than picking things up one at a time and dealing with them, and the chucking is quite satisfying.

caution: this is a frustrating job to do while the kids are in the room, they will pilfer your carefully organized boxes. but, what else are you gonna do? use your precious kid-free time to clean the house?

When I get done picking every single thing up, I take the baskets and put stuff away, then come back for what is usually some epic sweeping.

Ahhh, now doesn’t that look good? It makes me feel literally lighter. Whenever I clean my house like this, I enjoy it so much it makes me wonder why I don’t keep it like this all the time.

Oh, right. Now I remember. Because this serenity lasted all of three hours, and that only because I took the kids out for a walk. By the next day, you couldn’t tell I’d done a damn thing.

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Every little piece of plastic saved adds up right? So instead of covering the little bit of leftover tuna with plastic wrap, use a wide-mouth canning jar lid!

I know we’re not supposed to keep the tuna in the can at all (or even buy tuna in cans in the first place), but I don’t need any extra dishes in my sink thank you very much. I open the can, drain the water out, mix the mayo in right there in the can, apply to sandwiches and, if there’s any leftover at all, snap a lid on and put it in the fridge. It gets eaten up so soon that I have decided not to worry about it.

The wide-mouth lids fit so perfectly they seem like they were made for tuna cans.

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I think often about those of you who are new to this work. I myself feel so blessed to have been raised by hippies and given a good education in DIY homemaking. The values and the habits of green, ethical, DIY living are second nature to me. I wonder what it must be like to jump, feet first, out of mainstream America and into such unknown territory. I think about those of you who read and identified with Why Are We Doing This? but who are still at the outset. Why is a good question, a vital question. But moving forward from there, how do you do it? Especially for those of you who are parents and whose time and energy are so acutely limited.

I have wanted to write directly to you for some time, to give you my two cents of advice on your monumental task. But I wasn’t sure what I could say. What kind of advice is really useful anyway in this world of vastly distinct personalities and situations?

In my experience the psychological aspects of this kind of work are the biggest hurdles. Learning to execute the tangible skills takes time and energy, no doubt. But learning to maintain a lifestyle which is considerably more difficult, more time consuming, more physically sapping and certainly more austere than the standard is very challenging. We could probably all list out the skills we need or want for our DIY homemaking, the skills we aspire to– cook from scratch, grow a garden, keep chickens, fix stuff, build stuff, make stuff. But what are the qualities that enable people to incorporate all those skills into an every day real live life? And to keep on doing it for the long haul?

These psychological qualities are much harder to lay your hands on. I have thought quite a lot about what these might be and, although I have no doubt there are many more, I offer up this small list: thrift, efficiency, organization, creativity, generousness, flexibility, courage, perseverance, wonder, and the ability to take pleasure in simple things. These basic virtues are fundamental to everything else. And although you cannot change who you are– you cannot learn to be organized like you can learn to make yogurt– you can work to become more organized. You can identify that organization is a weakness, acknowledge that yogurt making will function better if you stay organized, and consider it an opportunity for improvement. (Ahem. This is an entirely theoretical example.)

I feel that the tangible skills of DIY are quite adequately represented in books and blogs, but people rarely talk about these fundamental homesteader qualities– perhaps because they are considered inherent to our personalities, immutable. Nevertheless I think it’s important to recognize them, to give them the credit that they so absolutely deserve. Because although change on this level is hard and slow, it is also real and lasting.

Furthermore, what I want to say today is that these psychological building blocks are a perfect place to start. right. now.

Whether you live on your dream homestead or in a studio apartment, whether you grow all your own food or eat frozen pizza every night, you can work on the virtues necessary for the lifestyle you aspire to. No space is too small! No budget or investment necessary! It’s the ultimate ‘start where you are’ opportunity.

But how? How do you change such fundamental personality characteristics? This is where we circle in to the meat of this post. The only tool I have yet identified to effect change in myself. The incredible power of habit.

Although this well might not be true for others, for me habit is what brings it all together. I can sit around bullshitting all day (oh my can I!) and pine away for change all night, but the only thing that really makes it happen is the slow incorporation into my daily life of habitual thought and action.

What got me started on this post idea was eating vegetables. I was lamenting yet another bag of my good garden veggies languishing in the fridge and composing a post in my head about how the deceptively simple habit of eating more vegetables is an essential first step toward a more sustainable life. Growing a garden is great, and if you have the dirt I encourage you to give it a try. But I can tell you one of the biggest and most common gardening challenges, it’s one they basically never discuss in gardening books– Eating what you grow.

Most of us were raised on a very meat and dairy based diet. Even myself, although I adore veggies, I have never gotten my head around planning dinner (let alone any other meal) based on the veggies. They remain an afterthought and therefore if anything rots in my fridge, it’s usually green. So if I were going to recommend a first step to aspiring gardeners, it would be simply incorporating veggies into your daily belly-filling consciousness.

The more I thought about that post, the bigger the idea grew. Thinking about the habit of eating vegetables led me to the habit of wondering what’s in the fridge to eat rather than wondering what you want to eat and going to buy it; which led me to the habit of making do rather than buying something.

Doing without or creatively making what you already have work are absolutely habits. They are thought patterns that you lay down in your mind. It takes time, first you have to rip up the old one (buy whatever you want, whenever you want it), one pesky brick at a time. Then you have to lay down the new one, one pesky brick at a time. But once you are going on it, it gets easier. You gain momentum. Actually what you gain is habit. The habit of making a habit. The habit of being conscientious.

I warn you, it can get annoying. After a while it will be ingrained in you to think about everything you throw into any trash can anywhere. You will size it up and add it mentally to everything else in the trash can, and every other trash can on the block and feel a pervasive, occasionally engulfing guilt. But all those thinking moments will start to leak into other moments, and eventually you will find yourself rewired.

Eventually. It can take years. A lifetime really, a work in progress. Have you ever heard the Redbird song, Patience? “I spent all day yesterday watching the grass grow. What I learned is that grass really grows slow.”

Yes, ma’am. Slow. But darned if it doesn’t grow in the end. And grow and grow and grow.

How to Become a Punk Ass DIY Housewife

  1. Start small.
  2. Establish conscientious habits.
  3. Have patience.
  4. Take joy in small pleasures.
  5. Keep at it.

 

 

 

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And what to do with it?

Why, put it on an upturned yogurt lid of course! Though it took me years to figure that out.

Save a baggie and still keep your fridge from smelling like an onion sandwich.

This also works brilliantly for lemon and apples.

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These few years in New Orleans have been really great, this place is as good as a city gets– charming old architecture steeped in history, a vitally important music and art scene, fabulous restaurants, a very un-American lack of prudishness, and whole seasons of jasmine and magnolia flowers. But, I am not a city girl. As our return to Alaska approaches I’m getting quite eager for our sleepy little hole in the wilderness where a Saturday drive ‘out the road’ yields adventures like this:

Just as much as the place, I am really yearning to be back in Our Own Home. This rental stuff is fine, but I have been realizing just how much my ‘work’ and my homeplace are intrinsically bonded. I can shop at the farmers’ market and grow a small garden anywhere, but that’s just treading water. To really move forward with the lifework I aim for, to climb the rungs of my chosen ‘career’ ladder, I need to stay in one place. One home which I can continually make more efficient, one chunk of land which I can build up towards my edible Eden, one particular ecosystem which I can come ever closer to knowing.

I have felt it here, the loss. The landscape so unfamiliar, the weather patterns confounding, the flora an almost complete blank (I am a wild plant buff in my home territory). Even eating confused me for a while– a responsible local diet here consists of things I had rarely let myself buy at home and didn’t know how to turn into mainstay meals; let alone that cooking itself is all wrong as a way to approach dinner when it’s 95 degrees in your kitchen. And unlike when I was young and resilient with energy to burn, I found it hard to rally myself for re-learning and re-building everything.

This homesteady lifestyle is all about investment and return. And I’m not talking metaphor. I have put 4 years of hard labor and hundreds of dollars worth of soil amendments into my Alaska garden. I built it up from a sorry looking lawn over a bare inch of topsoil with gravel fill substrate, to 160 square feet of luscious dirt in raised beds. In a town where you cannot, no matter how much you are willing to pay, order a truckload of dirt, those garden beds are pure gold. And they are only going to get better! After the very large up-front investment there is only so much work necessary every year to maintain the beds and build up fertility, but the return will continue to grow.

The garden is the best example, but really my entire lifework is wrapped around sticking to one place. Back in this now proverbial Home, I had also built a tight little chicken coop, put in a 20 foot long raspberry hedge to close off our yard, and spent years setting up an efficient kitchen (not to be underestimated!) Beyond the tangible accrual of humus and building projects, the knowledge of the area and the skills for using local resources grow slowly, over time. I had several years under my belt of ‘local university,’ learning which varieties of vegetables did best in our ridiculously rainy climate, how to process 35 whole sockeye salmon in two days, and creating an internal map of where all the best berries, wild mushrooms and edible plants grew in proliferation.

Very few of you have such an intensely localized tie to one place. Down here in rest of the 48 states, the most green responsible lifestyles are based of farming– whether you do it yourself or support someone else’s effort– and farming is at least recognizably similar throughout the temperate world. Even moving across country doesn’t shake everything you’ve ever known to the ground. Nevertheless, I think we all underestimate the profit to be realized from staying put.

The books always stress that “even renters can grow a garden,” and while that is true, I have built up and left behind a few times now, and I can tell you it is a certain kind of heartbreak. You don’t get to take your equity with you. No one else will recognize the value of your hard work, or care about the money you spent. When you leave, you leave it all behind.

I don’t mean to discourage those of you who do not own your own place, but rather to remind those of you who do how much it means. Don’t take your investments of time and money for granted. Just like in business, the ‘profit’ goes right back in as further investment for many years, which makes it hard to see. But so long as you manage to stay in place (a feat these days), you are building up for future dividends.

I can hardly wait to get back to my own double lot homestead and do some re-investing. My garden beds have been cover cropped for three years and I have a chicken coop full of aged manure. I’ll know what to plant, and when to do it. Times are going to be good.

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There are some things that are just too handy not to keep in small portions in your freezer, no matter how Betty Crocker it makes you feel. Two such things are chicken stock and chopped tomatoes. I make my own stock and put it into pint size or bigger jars for the freezer, but there are many times when you just want a little stock, like for cooking collards or adding into a sauce. I also always buy the 28 oz cans of chopped tomatoes, but often don’t need the whole thing. So I put the rest in the freezer for soups, rice, or again, collards. I do love me some greens stewed with fried onions, tomatoes and a splash of good chicken stock.

 

Ice cube trays are the classic container for small frozen portions, but they’re much too small for my purposes. I used to use a collection of plastic containers– yogurt tubs and tupperware– and just half fill them. But then one day, oh fraptuous joy, I happened to buy this silicone muffin pan at a garage sale, in a box with several other silicone baking items. I don’t like actually baking in silicone, I bought the pack to use as soap molds. But this muffin pan has turned out to be one of my better spent $2 solely for the purpose of freezing small portions.

Once frozen, the little half cup portions just pop right out of that wiggly silicone and I put them into a big quart sized zip lock. I keep both the stock and tomatoes in the same bag, it’s easy enough to see which is which.

You can throw the frozen hunk right into whatever you are cooking, it melts pretty quick.

Also good candidates for small freezer portions are pesto and pureed beets for pink pancakes.

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A few months ago I solved a small problem in my own head. It was gratifying. Now everyone who comes over can say, “Why the F do you have two bags in there, what am I supposed to do with that?”

I had always wanted to use old shopping bags for garbage because, despite my best intentions, they do pile up in our house. But I was too afraid of the occasional leak making the bin gross and stinky. Then it suddenly occurred to me I could just keep a backup liner in there. Of course.

This only works because all my wet stuff goes in my various (4 different!) compost/chicken bins. The only wet thing I really put into the trash anymore is boiled bones, leftover from stock making. For this, I keep any still sound plastic packaging in that space between the back of the paper bag and the plastic liner. I haven’t had a paper bag bust out on the way to the outdoor can yet, though it seems like it might happen eventually. And I only have to change the liner every month or more.

If you are way too cool to ever bring home disposable shopping bags, no worries! Just pilfer the ‘bag recycling’ bin outside the store. I’ve done this myself, many times. Of course, you could argue that those bags would be better off recycled than turned into default garbage, even if they save the world from one extra garbage bag. But, especially with the paper bags, I feel pretty confident this is a better end.

Now, the big break through trick? To keep the bag from sliding down in there, attach to the lip of the bin with office clips like so:

The only catch to this system is it turns you irrevocably into One of Those People. Not even your damn garbage is normal. People will be confused and you will have to explain. You will not sound awesome, you will just sound weird. But considering you probably already have to explain your garbage system (‘recycling under the sink, egg shells in the old flour bag, coffee grounds in the tub by the faucet, chicken scraps straight out the window into the run, and onion skins and citrus in the old coffee bag’) this will be the least of your worries.

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Before I move on from January’s Quiet Riot focus of electricity, water and garbage, I want to review a great energy book– The Carbon Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Reduce the Fossil Fuel Habit by Stephen and Rebekah Hren. I had looked past this book several times, something seemed too fad-ish about the cover and I expected the projects to be along the lines of ‘replacing your incandescents with CFLs’ and ‘setting up a recycling system.’

But when I finally bit the proverbial bullet and got it out from the library, I realized I had been duped by a good cover designer to think it was fashionable. When in fact it’s a meaty book with loads of substantive projects! The authors are approachable and honest, clear and thorough. I liked it so much, I ordered my own copy.

The book includes a full range of projects– from insulating your fridge to installing solar heating tubes. Each project has a list of stats including the approximate cost, time and potential energy savings. Some are appropriate for renters, though I think the book is much more useful for homeowners who can really re-cap their investment over time. The small to medium sized projects are the stars of the book, in my view– the low to no cost things that most folks could do if they set aside a weekend for set up. The more complex projects would require considerably more information, but this book provides an overview of what’s involved as well as just plain inspiration for things like masonry stoves (yummy).

I look forward to outfitting our own home back in Alaska when we return. I never wanted to live in town, in a real sheetrock and plumbing house (I was going to build a log cabin in the woods), but over time as I’ve come around. I’ve realized the usefulness of it, given the way things actually are. I’ve re-written my goal to owning this modern system, knowing how my plumbing works and how to fix it, and eventually how to divert it into gray water garden irrigation! This book is not just empty inspiration for beginners though, as these books can sometimes be, it’s got real meat.

If you are thinking about putting a little time into the energy efficiency of your home, this would be a great place to start.

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Listen up, y’all. That big ole’ flagrant housewifey propoganda has been a bit of a thorn in my side. I labored over writing it, feeling a continually growing discomfort that it was exclusionary. I tried to re-work it several times, attempting to include everyone, but it just didn’t work. Dilution made it weak when I wanted it to be strong. So I settled on just saying it out straight how I myself needed to hear it and hoped that in the context of the rest of this blog, and the usually very inclusive nature of my writing, it would work out.

When the overwhelming response started rolling in I was flattered into complacency. Perhaps I had alienated some of my readers who do not for whatever reason fit the punk housewife mold I so strenuously extolled, but I had certainly attracted more. It all comes out in the wash right?

Blogs are a wonderful and slightly dangerous medium. I write one post at a time, you read one post at a time. But each post is only one tiny slice of me and whatever it is I believe. Longtime readers have gotten a much more whole picture, but I wonder if even they can keep it in perspective when they read a particular strongly worded post.

Fortunately Trish at Little Eco Footprints left a (very respectfully phrased) reminder in the comments about working mamas who “outsource” some of the domestic duties. She wrote a post about it in fact, on her own blog. I really appreciate that she commented though, because I suspect she spoke for many other working mamas who wonder where their place is in this so called revolution.

Then I got a long email from a very dear friend asking more or less the same question. She is considering going back to school, and thereafter back to work, and considering the possibilities of paying someone to do the jobs she’s been doing for years now. I know her email was mostly talking to herself, she and I often act as sounding boards for one another, but there was a small implied question of what I thought. Based on my very ballsy post, would I still respect her if she payed someone to hang her laundry. Could she still respect herself?

And I thought, holy fuck, what have I done?

I want first of all to say that those who work outside of the home and “outsource” some of the domestic jobs do of course have a place in the choir! Believe me, there’s room for anybody who cares to join in.

Independence, almost a moral commandment in this country, was the goal of the 1970’s back-to-the-landers. But I like to think our generation has learned the essentiality of inter-dependence. I have certainly been learning it. The central point of inter-dependence is that everyone has their special inborn talent, their calling, and if everyone does their special job then– taken as a whole– we can cover all the bases in the most effective manner. One person or even one family trying to do it all is absurdly inefficient. Especially in these modern times when we are learning all these skills from scratch! As if that were not enough to expect from ourselves we are also, audaciously, trying to do all that and continue to live as a part of the society around us. And most of us are doing it without any young girlslaves or elderly granbabysitters. Jesus H.

I honestly do not feel that I have some higher moral ground to preach from. I want to create a space to validate what I do, what many of us do because, yes, I believe it’s good. And I want you to stand up on your soap box too and feel proud of what you do, whatever that is.

I linked to it in both the original post and the after-post, but here it is again– if you have not read Why We Do What We Do, go read it next, please. Although the two posts were written many months apart, they are more or less inseparable volumes.

I wanted to say all of that, but there’s something else. Something more. I have been trying to formulate a post on this ephemeral topic for months and I just can’t pick it out. It’s a thing I have felt ever since I started parading my own ideals and achievements around here in the ethernet. A particular discomfort.

Writing is very hard. There is only one clear way to do it, one formula– set the scene, present the obstacle, overcome the obstacle, summarize the moral. There is no space in writing for the incredible, insurmountable complexity of life. No matter how hard I tried, I could not write in seven directions at once. Well that’s not quite accurate, I can write that way, but it is not good writing. No one would want to read it, me least of all. The way to decent, coherent writing is to set out with a single concept and illustrate your linear path to the conclusion.

As I have, dare I say, become a writer, this has been a continual sticking point for me. The deeper I delve into it, the more I have discovered that the original sin lies in our thinking. We are so heavily moralistic, so thoroughly black vs. white, good vs. evil, that my brain almost cannot escape. I feel like I am stretching up on tiptoes just to wonder if there is another way to see the world. What would that even mean? What if me doing things my way and believing it was good in no way implied that your way was wrong?

That my friends would be revolutionary.

Because in addition to including the working mothers who cook down farmer’s market fruit into jam on the weekends, I also want to include those mamas who don’t want to do any of it. The mamas who are passionately working for social justice and buying prepackaged food. The mamas who are stuck in a job they hate for a corporation they despise just so they can pay the bills. The mamas who don’t have to work outside the home, but nevertheless can’t summon the energy or desire to do all this crazy shit after they’ve finally gotten the baby down for a nap.

As Bill Staines says, “All God’s critter’s got a place in the choir. Some sing low, some sing higher. Some sing out loud on the telephone wire. And some just clap their hands, or paws, or anything they got now.”

The bigger the choir, the louder the song.

 

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Well, hello there new readers! That last post apparently hit a vein. After a small interval of cyber-sharing, we had a banner day here at Apron Stringz with 1,491 views! Holy mama!

I feel I must take a moment to introduce myself. I wrote that post with my regulars in mind, knowing that they know me and would fill in the other half of the story. Because that post alone could sound awfully high and mighty, and I usually do my damndest around here to keep it down.

First, full disclosure. I am a woman of many and varied sensibilities. I am married, happily, to a man of many different sensibilities. Our two firecracker kidlets are making their own marks on our family life, and this all adds up to a household that might surprise you new readers with it’s multitude of transgressions. I fear you might have been accidentally led to believe I am some kind of punk goddess, rocking the home like it’s 1999. I thought a bit of reality was in order.

As I mentioned afterwards in the comments, I spent days gestating and then birthing that post. For those days (and many other unrelated days in my life) I completely neglected those righteous homemaking duties for the more glorious job of writing about them. On the day I finally set pen to paper, as it were, I plugged my kids into dvds all morning and then left them with Papa all afternoon while I drove our car to the coffee shop to write. As I was doing the last edit in a rush at 5:15, My Man took the kids to Wendy’s for dinner. To unwind after our long half-sick day, we watched a dumb movie in one room while the kids watched another in the other room.

I would like to say such activities are rare.

I can’t.

I’m telling you all this because– if this ruins it for you, you might as well leave now. I understand the inspiration of voyeuristic perfection, I have imbibed myself on many occasions. But there is another kind of inspiration, much more subtle and possibly longer lasting. This is the inspiration of other real people, just like you. Fucked up and wonderful, just like you. Generally confused with bright moments of epiphany. Succeeding sometimes, failing often, but keeping at it.

With this blog I do my best to champion that radical punk housewifery I wrote about in Why Are We Doing This; to describe the mechanics as well as the psychology of my own particular trip. But my highest aim is the uniting of all of us. The kick-ass radical punk bitches, the harried just-trying-to-survive-two-kids-under-the-age-of-3 moms, the homesteader grandmas who remember and support us. I can jive with just about anyone who tries to make a change in this life, no matter where they started or how far they’ve come, no matter what canvas they work on. It’s that heart-binding intent that I believe in.

So, welcome you. Welcome to the sideshow. Take a seat and introduce yourself to your neighbor. We’re making this show up as we go along.

A selection of introductory posts for you new readers:
Why We Do What We Do -- the important other half of the question
Hello You Shy, Confused Feminist Housewife, You
Priorities, Compromise and the Privilege of Doing Good
Master of Fine (Homemaking) Arts
Is Your Sustainable Life Sustainable?

 

 

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As you know, I finished my small but satisfying zine recently. Despite it’s slender finished appearance I spent many, many hours writing and thinking about it. The subject, you may remember, is Getting Shit Done (With Kids). To clarify, the shit I’m referring to is all the same ‘sustainable home’ shit that I generally write and obsess about. Growing some of your own food, responsibly sourcing the rest, cooking everything at home, consuming a minimum of our world’s resources, finding the smaller and simpler pleasures in life– all in the context of homemaking.

After finally getting the zine all laid out, I spent a few hours at Kinkos printing it (it always takes hours, even when I think it will only take 30 minutes.) While I stood there at my personally designated copier with a 3 foot square of countertop to lay out my piles of pages, I felt myself and my work laid naked before the world. There it was for any passerby to glance at– the Apron Stringz cover page. What at home had seemed clever and spunky suddenly seemed trivial and indulgent. Embarrassing. I felt a tiny crash in my heart.

I’m so excited? I wrote a zine about being a housewife?

Here, in this corner of cyberspace, we are together. All of us strange people who value home work. We come here to remind each other that we are important, to take shelter in one another. But out in the big world, people still think housewifery is for women who can’t get a job. People don’t understand what we might be doing all day, at home, and even if we explained what we were doing they wouldn’t understand why. Why go to so much trouble to make something you can buy at the store for $1.99?

As much as I want to believe that I am this strident renegade who doesn’t give a damn what the world thinks, it’s not true. Of course I care, everyone worth anything does. It’s destructive and beautiful, but absolutely human– our pack mentality, our sensitivity to others.

So I go along, carrying my secret work in my heart, brandishing my beliefs occasionally in public too loudly and with too much passion. Confusing well meaning relatives, alienating myself and consequently those who try to be close to me. It’s a hard row to hoe, and I would be lying if I claimed to never have had a breach of faith.

Having kids is hard work. You know. Unbelievably, previously unimaginably hard work. Sometimes I find myself wondering why on earth I try to do anything else. Why do I spend so much time and energy with this whole punk housewife thing? Is it really so important? Isn’t the “revolutionary” tagline in my header just tongue-in-cheek? Who do I think I am that what I do matters so very much. What precociousness!

My lonesome Kinkos moment was just me, out in the real world. Remembering that I am a freak. Questioning my self, my motives, my outcomes. Not feeling at all sure of the answers.

It was somehow much easier to keep a grip on the import of my ‘work’ when we lived in Alaska. My daily activities just seemed more revolutionary– even after having a kid reduced my efforts to the household realm, at least I was making stock out of deer bones. We drank wild salmonberry juice and picked chantrelles out of the mossy forest. Whenever I needed a good jolt of ‘why’ I had the big wild mountain right there out the window.

Here in the city, the sustainable lifestyle looks less radical. I make my stock out of plain old chicken, even if it is from the farmer’s market. We buy organic juice concentrate from Whole Foods, and locally grown shitakes that come in a plastic box. Is this revolution? Really?

Maybe not revolution exactly, but inglorious though it may be, this work needs to be done. Figuring out how to live happily in a thriving wilderness ecosystem will not save humanity at this point (though it well might be our salvation in the future). Right now we need to figure out how to sustainably keep large populations happy and healthy in cities where their concentration is most efficient, we need to come down off of the drug of convenience slowly and explore the genuine possibility of change. There is much work to be done to turn cities and urban homes into sustainable working systems, and it is helpful to have someone actually in the home to do the work.

Wendell Berry is, arguably, the grandfather of the now very fashionable ‘local’ movement. He writes about farming primarily, about staying in place and owning up to land use, but he always honors the home itself as the nucleus of everything. His monumental book, The Unsettling of America was the first place I ever read the word housewife used without malice. It is obvious that he reveres the traditional rural housewife, but– perhaps because he himself is the farmer and not the farmer’s wife– he doesn’t focus much on the role.

Wendell and the local food movement broke ground, but Shannon Hayes was the first public voice I heard with the balls to say, without mincing any words, that choosing not to have a paying job, and instead staying home to care for yourself and your family is radical political action and will effect significant change, change that we desperately need.

Shannon’s book Radical Homemakers, gave us some real meat to chew, a fat gleam of pride. But like Wendell, she lives rurally. Although some of the people in her book live in the city, the overall effect is the feeling that if you’re going to quit your job, you’d better move to the country and start raising your own grass-fed beef.

Then came Harriet Fasenfest with The Householder’s Guide to the Universe. Dramatically less academic and achingly more intimate, Harriet lays out her own struggle to turn the farmer’s ethic of thrifty, hard working, conscientious living into an urban reality. She uses the genderless word ‘householder’ to describe this more tightly focused work. Harriet started right where she was, with what she had, and there is great inspiration in that. But Harriet’s kids are mostly grown and she has has been able to give incredible energy to the task.

I feel that there is a great untapped labor force– people like me, and maybe you– stuck in the city, partner working full time, little kids providing the greatest motivation for positive change that mankind has ever known and simultaneously carving our time and energy down to within an inch of it’s life. We can’t get anything very big and impressive done, but there are so many of us. Our actions might be small, but our potential is big.

This post is not meant to be a declaration, an imperative or a manifesto. Purely an explanation, to myself above all. Because, although it is absolutely true that I do what I do because I love doing it, it’s also true that I often don’t love it at all. Sometimes it’s a downright shit job, a literal shit job, and I do it anyway (mostly). DIY punk housewifery as described herein is dirty, tedious, time consuming and, after the inital high of aquiring the skills, often flat out boring. Today I need to remind myself, and any of you who haven’t had a good pep talk lately, why we do this thing.

Let’s be frank.

I believe the world is fucked up. We have ravaged the wilderness into near oblivion, sucked the life out of every arable piece of land, bombed and enslaved our fellow humans, all in order to provide for our extremely decadent first-world lifestyle. I know I can’t change things to any significant degree, but neither can I turn aside and pretend I haven’t noticed. I cannot, in good conscience and healthy mental condition, proceed at full speed. Over time I have accepted that I can’t and don’t want to withdraw from my countrymen into the wilderness. In fact, since having kids I find that I am drawn more and more back from the fray. I am guilty of participation at every level, but I cannot reconcile a life that does not at least try for something better. If I am weary with effort, I will know I am doing what I can do.

And here’s what I can do.

If I believe that massive-scale agriculture is defiling our land, and corporate food products are defiling our bodies, I can base our diet instead on whole foods from local farms.

If I believe that using fossil fuels supports global bullying and violence, not to mention environmental degradation, I can make the time to walk and bike whenever possible.

If I believe that the immense resources sucked down and shit out for every piece of plastic crap we think we deserve is inexcusable, I can mend broken things, reuse materials, buy second hand, do without.

But you know damn well those choices are not so simple, and that is where the skill and craft and countless hours of housewifery become meaningful. After the romance of changing the world has subsided, it all comes down to the number of hours in a day and the number of dollars in your bank account. In case you’ve never been to a farmer’s market let me tell you that local, sustainable food is enormously more expensive. If I want to be able to afford the luxury of responsible purchases, I need to defray costs by cooking everything from scratch. Creativity in the kitchen is worth money– stretching that costly ethical meat by picking every last shred off of last night’s roast chicken and cooking the bones into stock; planning ahead for variety and convenience so that we are less tempted by the many corporate foods surrounding us on a daily basis; and ‘adding value’ at home by making our own jams, yogurt, granola, and bread.

Although cooking tends to monopolize my own housewifery, cleaning up after everything is a law, like gravity. It has to be done, and someone has to do it. The infinitely humble task of washing dishes is radical political action, because after cooking your ethically and sustainably raised chicken into stock to make a second or third meal out of it so that you can afford to keep supporting that righteous local farmer, there is a pile of greasy dishes to be done. If a=b and b=c, than a=c. In other realms, it doesn’t take very complicated math to realize that eschewing 2-3 years’ worth of disposable diapers, per kid, has radical environmental impact.

And if you want to quit your job so that you can be home to do all this radical chicken cooking and diaper washing that means that you probably can’t afford day care for your filthy little angels, which means you will be involved in the now political act of picking up the floor on a more or less continuous basis.

Welcome to my world.

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So. I know you’re all wondering. Have I been busily crossing important things off of my list? Reigning our filthy house into order and keeping my precious babes’ eyes from dvd-vegetation? Reinstating yoga and atheist prayer practice?

Nope. Yet another sick bug hit our house last week, even though the kids were still coughing like old smokers from the last doozy. What is it about this time of year? Everyone I know is either sick or recovering from being sick, literally! And it was exactly the same story last winter at this same time. I know the line about how everyone stays inside more in the winter and breathes everyone else’s stale air, but here in the tropics we do the exact same thing in the summer. And we hardly get sick at all in the summer! So? What is it?

I shouldn’t say I failed completely in crossing things off the list. I did get a little quality time in my kitchen with a shaker of baking soda and an old rag, on two separate occassions. I didn’t make it all the way around, only 2/3 before I got sick. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s to accept change in small quantities– that’s the only way it ever comes.

do i need to explain the significance of a clean cabinet?

Besides those shimmery beacons of 2/3 joy right up there, guess what else I made the time for? (Quite predictably.)

Yup, I used my Saturday afternoon off to put together my very first punk homemaker’s journal. I was going to compile my specific arrangement of papers and take it to Kink*s to have it spiral bound, but then I accidentally found a Miraclebind notebook. I’m not sure I’m prepared to rave about it yet, but if it holds up I will. It’s a spiral notebook with good stiff covers, folds nicely in half for couch cozy-ing, and each piece of paper has slits behind the holes so that you can take the paper out, move it to a different spot and put it back in. They call it a “miracle” and say it “self-heals,” but really there’s nothing miraculous going on– the paper pulls out because it’s not really in there very good to begin with. They claim you can re-position each piece of paper several times, but honestly I will be surprised if it holds up all year.

The notebook was just plain lined paper and I had to gussy it up quite a bit. I printed out calendar sheets on heavy paper (so that they would hold up better), double sided– January on one side, February on the other– then punched holes along one edge, using a piece of the notebook’s original paper as a guide. I snipped the edge of each hole so that I could stick the page into the spiral binding. Then I put one calendar sheet, one lined sheet, calendar, lined, etc so that each month faces a lined page for notes.

Then I used some cheap pocket folders to divide the remainder of the book into Kitchen, Garden and Home. The folders were hard to punch holes in, but worth it because they provide plenty of space for sticking random stuff in. A very important feature, me thinks.

The Kitchen section is just plain lined paper for keeping track of recipes and experiments. The Garden and Home sections have alternating one piece of lined with one piece of graph paper (added in), so that I can sketch out garden layouts or my latest wood butchering project and write notes opposite. I considered adding calendar pages to my garden section, but decided it’s just as easy to use a piece of lined paper– each line = one week, four lines/month means you can schedule quite a lot on a single piece of paper. Note that I don’t ever, ever follow my planting schedules, but my oh my I do enjoy making them.

As described thoroughly in the comments on the original post, this journal/planner is an extremely individual thing. Everyone has different stuff to keep track of. Some of you would want menu planning pages, knitting paper, homeschool project sheets. An infinite number of subjects. I kind of wish my journal had ended up a bit more… more, but the notebook I started with could only fit so many add-ins. There’s just barely enough room in the spine left for turning the pages. If I had it to do over, I might go with the original plan to have Kink*s bind my perfect layout. But really, this one is fine. Lots of space in there for whatever hair-brained schemes I might imagine in a year.

Such as this sneak-peak. Because did you know Mardi Gras is approaching fast? And did you remember that I am in love with it? And had you realized furthermore that this would be my last Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and if ever I was going to go all out baby, it would be now!

My sister, my ex (our costuming days go way, way back) and another very close friend are all coming to visit and we are pulling out all the stops. My original idea was a hot air balloon, but alas that one was too big even for me. We settled instead on a Chinese junk. Are you familiar with these awesome old-school sailboats still in use today? But we can’t just take a thing straight on, we like to give it flavor, perversion. Our theme is ‘post-apocalypse,’ an old favorite because you can blend primitive, vintage and post-industrial all together. So my style.

The boat is going to be 16 feet long from bowsprit to stern, made out of pvc pipe and tarpaper, mobilized by a pair of jogging strollers. This may seem completely insane to you, but people do this sort of thing here at Mardi Gras. A lot of people. It is awesome.

My brain does feel very fuzzy though. What with the boat plans, quiet riot, cloth diaper post, packing and mailing zines, house scouring, movie stopping,  mucus congestion and wow–! Thank dog I have a place to write it all down.

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I have not forgotten my Quiet Riot. But it has, errr, slipped under the rug a bit. This month was supposed to be all about electricity, garbage and water, remember? But first let’s have a little update on the project in general.

I spent almost two hours yesterday looking over bills, totaling receipts and entering numbers in my charts for the last two months. And you know what I think? I think I don’t care. I care about making changes, I do not care about recording them in detail. It would be fun if I had unlimited time, but as you know, I don’t. It’s a shit ton of work to keep track of all those numbers, and since I am not 100% consistent about keeping receipts, the numbers are patchy and therefore possibly worthless anyway. For example I have a little card in my wallet for purchases that don’t come with a receipt, but I didn’t record any money spent at the farmer’s market for December. I remember going at least twice, but it is so hard for me to remember to jot down each purchase as I traipse from booth to booth with 40 lbs of groceries and 60 lbs of kid hanging off of my arms and legs.

The utilities vary so much seasonally that keeping track wouldn’t tell you much unless you tracked an entire year. Although our electric and water bills have fallen like rocks, this has mostly to do with the fact that it’s not 95 degrees anymore.

As I said in the beginning, I don’t believe that the numbers are not a necessary indicator of change unless you are trying to prove something to the world, as the real Riot for Austerity is trying to do, bless their better organized souls. Myself, with my quiet exploits, I am just trying to draw my own focus back towards things that are hard to stay focused on. Try a little harder, remember that each small change adds up.

By the measure of my own estimation, I think I’m doing good. Without needing to keep track of and tally receipts, I can see my small successes marked by the specific changes I’ve made.

My eating local week went pretty well and throughout November I pushed more decidedly toward the farmer’s market. I had been allowing myself to buy brown basmati rice at Whole Foods because I just like the flavor of basmati better, but I locked myself into local with a 25 lb sack of perfectly tasty brown jasmine (for only $25! Steal!) I am lucky to be able to buy a locally grown grain here, and I’d better take advantage of it. I also switched to the local cheddar cheese, even though it costs $12/lb and we go through a pound a week. A new farm started selling milk in glass bottles, oh joy of my heart, for only $3.50/half gallon, so I dutifully added huge heavy bottles to my farmer’s market pile in the pantry– bags, coolers, egg cartons and strawberry baskets to return. Geesh.

December could be viewed either way, a huge Stuff transgression, or a concerted effort to navigate the line between my own values and participating in cultural tradition. I did think very hard about Stuff for almost an entire month, which prompted more advance planning than usual and planning is always helpful at Christmas. My own gift range was all over the board, from thrifted goodies for the kids, to hand blended organic spice mixes and local art for relatives, to a remote controlled helicopter for My Man (if we can’t play with battery operated toys, we don’t want to be part of your revolution.)

Although I haven’t been focusing on the Riot this month as much as I would like, I started tightening the belt on electricity, water and waste as soon as this whole Riot idea spawned back in August. I’ve been turning off lights and computers and faucets everywhere I go, and thinking about each item I put into the trash can. Which is largely my point here anyway– I had gotten so lazy, I would see a light on and just feel that I couldn’t be bothered to reach that far. So, a little practice leaning was in order.

Specific projects for this month were to test every appliance with the Watts Up, insulate the refrigerator and build the kids play fountain. One down! Awesome.

I did have a few blog posts in mind that I haven’t gotten to– cloth diapering, line drying, and a lazy man’s compost bin. Any requests?

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Yes, I did get a good chance to climb back out of the hole I was in. I got time to be creative, finish a project, have dates with friends, and generally re-connect with myself as a grown-up. As I’d hoped, the break mellowed me back into a much better, more joyful and more appreciative mama. Thank goodness for the power of renewal!

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but I did have a line-up of goals for ‘after the break’ when I would be a repaired and re-energized person. I have fallen into some serious sloth and indolence over the last few months, at every level, and I feel ready to do something about it. I know it’s not a good idea to take on too many goals at once, but what if they are all things that you had managed to do in the past and just need to re-instate? Doesn’t that make it a bit more realistic?

Number One on my list is screentime. I’m feeling okay about mine, but the explosive quantity of movie time for the kiddos over the last four months has been bothering me to the point of soul-destruction. I am sure that I over worry about it– plenty of kids watch 3, 4, 5 or even 6 hours of actual commercial-laden television every day and live to tell therapists about it. My kids watch 1-4 hours/day, 2-3 hours on average, of relatively good quality dvds. You have no idea how much it kills me to admit to that ‘4.’ Granted, four is a bad day, but nevertheless, jesus christ, how has this happened?!?!? We have gone in and out of better and worse phases, but I feel the kids themselves are on a better phase right now, and I need to catch onto their coat tails.

Because, don’t you know, getting them to shave down their movie watching isn’t so hard as getting me to shave down on my time to get shit done without someone hanging on my leg! I’m the one in need of weaning here. Mornings are the critical time too, the time when I most hate to see their beautiful wide eyes get sluggish with movie-hypnosis. The time when I most sharply want (need!) 40 minutes of relative peace to get my brain in order! (And then, since they’re plugged in anyway, another 20 minutes to get breakfast made and our bag packed with snacks, water and diapers for out morning outing. Oh god, it’s glorious to just be able to go about this simple task!)

But, it’s no good I say. I have called a pretty complete halt to the first-thing-upon-waking movie watching, and I am making an effort to cut out some from the rest of the day too. Although many of the mothers I most respect manage to do their job with no movies at all, I feel like if my kids averaged an hour and a half per day I would feel good.

Next on the list, and don’t ask me how I plan to accomplish both of these at the same time, is cleaning the goddamned house! This place has really fallen from grace. It’s not nearly so bad as it was this time last year, but I think I am ready to re-new a similarly intensive cleaning standard. For those of you who have asked, and I’m sorry it took me so long to respond, I did not keep up that 1 room/day schedule for more than a few months. But that doesn’t bother me. Turn’s out it’s a lot of work to keep your house that clean, and I am not a clean house person– I don’t feel the need to live in constant cleanliness. I just don’t like utter filth and oblivion. The massive overhaul of last January helped me to reign in a house that was completely out of control, and the following 1 room/day schedule re-programmed my brain to an expectation of relative cleanliness which carried me through most of the rest of the year. I was very grateful for it.

Now, it’s time to push that re-set button again.

Those are the two main things. Then of course there’s the perennial desire to get more exercize, do 10 minutes of yoga every day, resume my atheist prayer practice which fell completely off the radar a couple of months ago, and oh yeah… relax and enjoy my kids.

Wow. How to achieve so many things at once? Of course the answer is that I can’t. A thorough post on accepting limitation and setting priorities is brewing in my mind, but in the meantime there is only one thing that can possibly even nudge everything in the right direction at once, and that is being more organized and efficient.

I do love to make a plan. In some ways, sitting around planning to do is ridiculous. But for me it helps to have a spark, an inspired motivation. And if that takes a little time “wasted” with pencils and paper at the outset, that’s okay.

So when my friend explained the concept of a Homemaking Journal the other day, I was snared. Have you heard of them? I’m not sure what they really are, I did a quick g**gle search which was immediately co-opted by a religious, pink ribbons and needlepoint kind of homemaking. But my vision, formed by the description my friend gave me and built upon over the last few days, is a giant notebook where the specifics of everything I do in my day, all the kinds of things I write about here, are laid out in an organized and comprehensive manner. My friend had made one out of a 3 ring binder, which is of course what makes sense. Take papers out, add more in, move around. But, is it just me? I hate 3 ring binders. They are no pleasure at all to write in, and what good is a giant Life Planner if you can’t curl up on the couch and make lists in it?

As much as I should be using the time to actually do the stuff, I can’t resist this opportunity. I am designing my perfect Journal/Planner and it is going to be awesome. Lined paper, graph paper, calendar sheets and pocket dividers all in a spiral binding so I can get snugly with it. And I thought y’all might have some advice before I do this thing. Here’s my ideas so far:

The front section will be a weekly planner/calendar, followed by some lined pages for general notes, to-do lists, books I want to read, websites, inspiration, ideas, etc. The kinds of things I usually write on little scraps of paper and lose immediately.

Then a Kitchen section, with a pocket for snipped out recipes to try (even though I almost never actually do), lined pages for recipes I make up as I’m cooking (which I do actually do, a lot), notes on how things work, kitchen ideas, grocery lists, etc.

The Garden section will have graph paper for sketching layouts, as well as blank calendar pages for figuring out crop timing. Also lined paper for assorted notes, seed lists, etc.

Then, bane of my life, the Cleaning section. A slim little volume with lined paper to write out my various soap and laundry detergent recipes, and imagine more good cleaning schedules not to follow.

What do you think? What would you add? What are the things you like and need to keep track of in your life?

Since I am going to buy the paper and figure it out and do the binding (at Kinkos) anyway, I am incredibly tempted to make extras for y’all.  Wouldn’t that be a cool project! The annual Apron Stringz Punk Homemakers Journal. Ooo, I like it.

I’m afraid that zine-making was entirely too addictive.

 

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Do you remember how I said I was building my daughter a dollhouse for Christmas? Back at the beginning of the month I carefully planned it out on graph paper, borrowed a friend’s power saw, cut the pieces and stacked them in the garage.

Then on my last Saturday afternoon off before My Man’s crazy test weeks, instead of diligently working on the dollhouse, I met a friend downtown to check out the New Orleans Fringe Fest. In between shows, we were wandering around the ridiculously charming art/punk part of town and got swallowed into the looming maw of an enormous junk shop. There were a few pieces of furniture for the 4yo’s dollhouse I wasn’t sure how I was going to make, so I asked at the front if they had any. Another wanderer overheard and practically accosted me, “Are you looking for a dollhouse? We still have my daughter’s up in the attic, it’s got a ton of furniture. I’d love to get rid of it.” He pressed his card at me.

I was still convinced I had enough time to make my own– hell, I’d already started! So I gave him an incredibly non-comittal answer and went about my day. A few days later, beginning to accept my oncoming fate of two weeks of 24/7 parenting, and listing in my mind all the things I would still need to do to make this dollhouse (let alone any other Christmas presents) I dug out the card. Maybe I’d just see how much he wanted for it.

The end of this story is evident, right? $75 dollars and a trip across town later, I had the 4yo’s present all taken care of and stashed in the back of the closet. No impending work, no need to borrow a jig saw, no tiny furniture to figure out. All done.

I was so sad I almost cried.

Perhaps you need some background for this story. You already know about my die-hard desire (unfulfilled) to make everything at home and by hand. You can probably guess at my dislike for the relatively low quality construction of the house I bought, and the two boxes of furniture and tiny accessories that came with it which will be strewn across the floor of our entire house by this time next week.

But what you are not likely to understand is that I adore dollhouses, and miniatures in general. I loved them far beyond girlhood, as evidenced by Dumpster Diver Barbie (yes, those are tiny bagels in that tiny plastic bag). In fact I have been waiting until my daughter was old enough, fantasizing about this moment when I would make her the perfect, sweet, old fashioned dollhouse. I’ve been cutting and sanding little chunks of 2×4 in my mind, and adding batting and squares of fabric to make tiny beds. No joke!

But in a heavy duty consumer world, where people buy more new crap all the time and consequently clean out their closets regularly to “pare down and simplify,” buying what you need second-hand is always easier, and usually cheaper than making it yourself.

Consider my dollhouse. I was going to use scavenged wood, beautiful 3/4 inch oak faced plywood that I found on the side of the road for free. That’s well and good, saved me at least $40, and I could borrow the tools I needed. But, I wanted to make this dollhouse a little bit fancy, since my girl is getting old enough to care now. I was going to buy scrapbook paper to “wallpaper” the walls and paint for the outside– an easy $10, probably more. And there were a few pieces of furniture I wanted to buy, mainly a toilet and bathtub– $20 right there. Then if I fell for the cast iron wood cookstove I ran across when I was looking online for the bathroom stuff, another $15. I could easily see myself spending $75 by the time it was said and done. And purchasing and consuming new materials, as far as that goes.

This lesson has been driven through my mind at least 94 times since I became an adult, and it’s still only half lodged. It’s why knitting never took for me. Spending $30 for yarn when I could buy a perfectly serviceable hat at the thrift store for $3? Why on earth would I do that? But apart from knitting, I am still hopelessly stuck in my youthful fantasies of almost anthropolgic handcrafting. Particularly once I started mothering, those fantasies blossomed with a whole new meaning. I would be that mother, the one who’s well mannered children are always wearing hand sewn clothing and playing with hand carved wooden toys.

Wow. Motherhood. If nothing else, parenting will lay bare your ardent (and often completely unrealistic) expectations for How the World Ought to Be. And then rip them to shreds.

Every project is different, don’t think I’m knocking DIY unilaterally. But of course it makes no sense whatsoever to spend 3 hours sewing my kid pants from $5 of purchased new material when I can buy good quality pants second-hand for $4. No sense at all to spend hours on handmade wooden toys that will just get shoved under the couch to make room for the plethora of brightly colored plastic toys that seem to breed on their own.

No sense at all. Unless I enjoy the making.

Because, all else being equal, it comes down to how we want to spend our time. When you are a mama, with the implicit drastic limitations on your time, it often distills quite clearly. Do I enjoy my DIY projects more than I enjoy say, an afternoon at the coffee shop to write? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

There are other important reasons that I believe we should keep doing this stuff. All kinds of handcrafting traditions are being lost, and anyone who can keep hold of one is a kind of living time capsule, an asset to humankind. And certainly all those handcrafted items offer a superior sensory experience. Even though a hat from the thrift store costs a tenth as much, it is vastly inferior to one hand knitted by someone who knows what they’re doing.

But moralizing aside, it’s still a matter of doing what makes sense for the time and place we’re really in. Letting go of my wholesome handmade mama image has been painful, but I find more and more often it just makes more sense to B.U.Y.

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Kyce from Old Recipe for a New World (she doesn’t write often, but always wonderful) wrote a great post a few weeks back called Letting Go: The Christmas Edition. Oh honey, don’t I know it!

I (love)(hate) Christmas. I really do. I’ve written about it every year since I began blogging [here, here and here], and lord knows I don’t want to repeat myself. Suffice it to say, I seem to be finally catching on that this infernal holiday of compromised values begins in November. It’s taken me a full 34 years to get my head around that. I am determined to be prepared this year, thinking ahead for quality gifts in order to avoid getting caught by the last minute Icky Gifting.

I want to share my few ideas, and get your ideas. If we pool mental resources here, maybe we can pull this off without too much heartbreak. Well, it gives us something to hope for. I’m putting it on my list anyway,

Dear Santa,

This Christmas, please just let me relax and enjoy the generosity of loved ones without too much ethical compromise, personal angst, or familial alienation.

Yours,

CJ

We are spending our Christmas at home this year, with my mom coming. That will help right off the bat. My in-laws, godbless’em, have too much money to restrain at the holidays. My mom would probably go as crazy as them if old-hippie poverty didn’t keep her in check.

For whatever reason, Christmases with my mom are always much smaller than with the in-laws. In fact, it’s one of the best times of year for our otherwise very strained relationship, at least we can bond about Christmas and how it ought to be.

Which is sparkly lights, the smell of evergreen and cinnamon, whispered secrets and The Animals’ Merry Christmas.

My list of secrets so far looks like this:

For the 4yo– a dollhouse. She wrote her first ever letter to Santa asking for one. I am making it myself of course, more on this soon as I realize how in over my head I am.

For the 2yo– a train table. He already has a nice wooden train set, just needs a table and a way to semi-permanently attach the track to it.

For My Man– Oops, tut-tut, he might be reading….

For my mom, sister, MIL and sister-in-law– freshly ground and personally mixed organic spice set. I’m pretty excited about this idea. If you’ve never smelled or used freshly ground spices, it’s an epiphanal moment. It makes you want to sweep your arm through your (inevitably stale) spice cabinet, straight into the trash. All these ladies like to cook, but don’t get to do that much complicated cooking, and I think will appreciate really kick-ass, unique spice blends. I’m going to do a Mexican mole, Moroccan ras al hanout (unbelievable! the smell makes me swoon!) and a not-your-average-Italian blend with juniper berries and fennel. All these are fantastic with meat, but can also rock a pot of beans. I even ordered a pound of fancy Hawaiian finishing salt. Part of reason I’m excited about this idea is because I’ll get a share too! I never order fresh spices for myself because replacing a whole collection is expensive, and I don’t use that much over the course of the year. Fresh spices make much more sense for a group of people than for just me in my lonesome kitchen. I spent almost $80 on organic, fair trade spices, which sounds like a lot (feels like a lot!!!) but then I have four of my important gifts covered, plus plenty leftover for my own pantry.**

The father and brother-in-law I think My Man will cover. Hopefully at the local artisan market, lots of awesome stuff there.

Grandparents get the standard (they love it) calendar of cute kid photos.

I made a batch of homemade soap (it’s gotta cure for 3 weeks, so do it now!) and some lip balm for those last minute little gift moments. It’s good to have tricks up your sleeve. The lip balm takes all of 3 minutes once you secure the beeswax.

That leaves a 4yo cousin and a 12yo half-sister. Any ideas?

I will be filling you in more about all the above gifts over the course of the month. I have lots of Riot-y ‘stuff’ subjects to cover, as well as lots of good Christmas ideas, like the adorable songbird tree ornaments me and the kids made this morning out of tag-board and poster paint! In fact I’ve been feeling inspired to do a series, “Christmas– It Doesn’t Have to Suck Ass.”

Please leave your favorite homemade gift ideas in the comments, especially for children. If you have posted anything on your own blog, leave a link. We can all use some extra inspiration this time of year!

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**If anyone else thinks this spice mix idea is brilliant and wants to tag along, I ordered from Mountain Rose Herbs. you would think organic spice would be more expensive, but the Mountain Rose prices averaged around $3.50/4oz, which is quite good. I ordered the spices whole in 4oz bags (the smallest size available), I’ll grind them in our coffee grinder and package them in 1/2 cup (the really tiny size) canning jars. This wouldn’t be worth it for less than 4 or 5 gift recipients, and I think could cover more like 6 or 7. I will give y’all the recipes when I get to that point, but if you want to follow along, here’s what you’ll need to order:

  • allspice berries 4oz
  • black peppercorns 8oz
  • whole chile peppers, or red pepper flakes 4oz
  • cinnamon sticks 8oz
  • whole cloves 4oz
  • cumin seed 8oz
  • ginger, ground 4oz
  • juniper berries 4oz
  • whole nutmeg 4oz
  • fennel seed 4oz
  • thyme 4oz
  • rosemary 4oz
  • sage 4oz

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November is more than half over. What do I have to show for it? I have been putting some time and focus into my Quiet Riot’s food month, but predictably not as much as I’d hoped. Like many of you, my time is very limited and I seem to put any spare change I have into this addictive blogging endeavor!

I have made the switch to farmer’s market cheese as well as the newly available milk in glass bottles (hooray!) And that good ole’ $16/lb coffee. But since food is my overarching life focus, there weren’t too many changes to make. I mean, there’s always more changes a person could make, but I was doing more or less what I am comfortable doing and can afford. I already buy almost entirely ethically raised meat and dairy, grow a large portion of our vegetables, keep chickens, cook seasonally and efficiently, and minimize waste in the kitchen with Type A fervor. I go the extra mile. Spend the extra (5) dollars.

Only one thing left to do.

Drat.

Self-limitation.

Enter my week-long Austerity Fast, beginning this Saturday. The Fast will be a reigning in of all excess for me. We have such a warped standard these days, it’s hard to figure out what is and isn’t luxury. But since this is just a week long exercise, I want to draw a pretty hard line, this will be the corporate boycott (of one) I wrote about last month. No buying anything except locally produced groceries from the market. Furthermore, I’m not even going to use those Whole Foods groceries which are always well-stocked in my pantry. This means a week of eating entirely local food, which is a little intimidating and also a little exciting. **Note: Coffee is exempt from this and all other challenges. Otherwise I simply would never do it.** We are lucky to have local brown rice available, as well as squash and potatoes, so we won’t go starch-less, plus all meat and dairy, and a great selection of vegetables this time of year. Eggs of course from our home coop. This adds up to pretty plush for a supposedly “austere” diet.

Most notably cut from my week will be sugar, variety and convenience. I am a sugar fiend. I make most of my sweet-tooth-satisfying treats at home with top quality ingredients, nevertheless I know it isn’t right to eat rich, sweet foods once or twice every day. I hope to write a penetrating post about luxury as standard this weekend, in the midst of my sugar withdrawl.

Variety is taken for granted these days too, I’m sure we’ll be sick of rice by the end of the week. But perhaps most critically for this particular time frame, as My Man’s finals are bearing down on us, will be the loss of convenience. Nix the belovedly quick and easy whole wheat noodles from Whole Foods. Nix the uber-quick snacks of bread, sandwiches and granola– wheat, wheat and oats from afar.

And now, aren’t you wondering how I’ve roped my family into this? I think a lot of concerned mamas face this dilemma. You’ve determined the ethical thing to do, and you are willing to pony up the extra 40 minutes/day to make it happen, but your family’s not remotely on board.

Here’s my tactic, it may or may not be ‘right,’ but I think it’s relevant–

I haven’t roped my family into it, this Quiet Riot and the upcoming Fast are all me. I may accomplish less, true, but it will be without coercion of any kind. For one thing, coercion doesn’t work. Difficult things like self-limitation need to be chosen of one’s own free will. (And no, guilt from behind does not count as free will.)

But more importantly, who am I to say what anyone else should do? Everyone has their own unique thing to offer the world. My Man works on a different plane. We intersect, and that’s awesome. We have lots to offer each other. As Ani DiFranco said, “I know there is strength in the difference between us, and I know there is comfort where we overlap.” And who’s to say this little exercise is even useful anyway? It’s useful to me, and that’s why I’m doing it. But is it really useful to the world at large?

Fortunately, I am queen in the kitchen. Although I am not prepared to refuse my 4yo granola if she insists on it, I hope that by planning ahead and providing rice porridge with cream and honey for breakfast, the entire conflict can be avoided. The burden will lie solely on me, where it belongs, since this is my crazy idea. I hope that, again– with good planning, I can have local meals ready for My Man to take to school so that he doesn’t need to buy a Big Ag lunch out.

That is how women have influenced the world throughout history– covertly, from the kitchen. They’ll never know what hit ‘em.

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