Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Home Economy’ Category

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

 

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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!

- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –  – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –  -

**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

Read Full Post »

Thursday’s post on Fair Trade was a soap box, no two ways around it. This whole Quiet Riot is going to involve a lot of soap boxing. Worse, because we are (most of us) inescapably consumers, a lot of living more responsibly involves spending more money. Let me assure you, as a born cheap-skate, it seriously disturbs my soul to be up here, looking down beneficently at my gathered crowd, telling you all to go out and spend more money.

A woman commented on the Bank Transfer post the other day wondering how to choose priorities from the endlessly long list of things a person really ought to do. Especially when responsible choices often cost more and, in the real world of limited incomes, conflict with her highest priority of staying home to raise her kids.

I can word out a few seemingly sensible soap box responses to this, like– ‘well, what kind of world do you want to be left for those children to live in’ and ‘don’t you want to set the example to your children that you do the right thing, no matter how hard?’ Etc, etc. But as convenient as that kind of black and white thinking is, I know full well about the incredible gulf of gray between.

I suspect everyone reading this blog cares deeply and honestly about the future of our world, and is doing what they can. But the devil is in the details, ‘doing what we can’ is a tricky statement. We could all do more, no doubt. We could probably survive with less sleep, spending those precious kid-less hours gardening by headlamp. We could certainly do with quite a lot less food and more ruthless austerity. We could… And those of us with overactive guilt complexes instilled by Catholic/Jewish/Baptist/privilegedwhitepeople backgrounds are sometimes consumed by that needling ‘could.’

But what value do we place on living a joyful life as a part of our particular community of humans? How much margin do we allow ourselves in that ongoing effort to be a part of our world, while also trying to change that world for the better?

Fair trade is a perfect set for this confusion. All jokes aside, coffee, tea and chocolate are far from necessary to our actual survival. A person could afford to buy ethical luxury items simply by treating them as luxuries, which is to say reserving them for special occasions. You can have a chocolate cake on your birthday, the other 364 days of the year you can eat a second helping of locally grown vegetables for desert. And haven’t you heard of roasting the dandelion roots you weed out of your garden for a local, sustainable coffee substitute?

I lived that way for a handful of years in my rugged youth. We ate plain oatmeal for breakfast, beans, rice and foraged greens for dinner. No sweeteners, no butter, and hell no coffee. We were austere, in the first degree. After a year or so, I started finding reason to go visit our neighbors strangely often. Who, coincidentally, would always offer me a cup of coffee. And, if I was lucky, a piece of pie. I am quite certain that better people than me are capable of maintaining a hard core rebellion against the western world’s interpretation of luxury as standard, without becoming neighbor junkies. Those years proved that I am not.

This is a theme I want to explore over the course of this Riot. How to keep doing the hard thing when everyone around you does the easy thing. How to maintain a poverty standard in a world of flagrant excess. How to feel okay about holding your children to that ethic. Not that I have any answers, understand, only a sticky ball of questions and personal failures.

After accepting that I didn’t have what it takes to live the ascetic life, it boiled down to a matter of priorities and consequently compromise. Which is the quagmire I have been slogging in ever since. To get back to that original comment– how do we choose the most important things to do with our limited energy, time and funds? How do we balance ethical (read: expensive) consumption with our decidedly low family incomes? I think the answer is intensely personal. I don’t mean personal as in emotionally yours, though that is also true, but so completely based on every particular situation and family that there’s hardly any generalized objective truth.

It seems to me that we mostly choose our battles based on what we’re good at and what we want to do anyway. And when you think about it, isn’t that the best way after all? We all have our inborn talents, our callings in life. We will work hardest, most passionately, most effectively doing what we are drawn to do. Hopefully the community at large will cover the rest, right? Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean, and so between the all of us, we’ll lick the platter clean.

As you all know, my calling in life is food. I work very hard at it, and if I may say so myself, have fair natural talent. I’m also really good with systems, which I think is an extraordinarily helpful skill to keeping a home. I do hope that this blog lends a hand with some specifics of Sustainable Housewifery on the Cheap, because if we can’t do it on the cheap then most of us simply can’t do it.

Which leads me to the elephant in the room.

Privilege.

Privilege comes in all sizes and shapes, but for now let’s talk about economic privilege. Neither My Man or I were born into money, but his folks have made a goodly stash in their mature years, and are very generous with us. Sometimes so generous that my teeth hurt. Many years ago they took out the mortgage for us on our house back in Alaska. We are slowly buying it from them as they buy it from the bank. All very convuluded, more than you can even imagine. At present, they are loaning us more than half of the money we burn through here in New Orleans, while I stay sweetly home to watch my angels grow up and nobly shop at Whole Foods (the other half is student loans, we didn’t have any savings at all). They also loaned us their car to use during our 3 year stint here, so we do not have car payments. They gift us big, nice, useful presents at Christmas and birthdays. Just about everything we own either came off the side of the road or was given us by My Man’s folks. It’s a motley collection.

Admitting this all, in print, to the wide world, is nothing short of excruciating for me. I grew up with hippie parents who scraped together $12-15,000 year, total. We lived extremely frugally and always by the skin of our teeth. I was endowed with a fierce spirit of individualist pride. Doing it yourself. Never accepting, or even deigning to need, help from anyone.

I have come around, intellectually, as an adult. Even before I married accidentally into money (hey, he was living in a moldy plywood tipi at the time, how could I have known?) I was beginning to realize the importance of interdependence, of accepting help and yes, even needing each other. I see now that family is meant to help. Our situation looks new and fancy, but the bones of it are ancient– parents establishing themselves, passing on what they can to their kids as they take out into the world.

Another important kind of privilege is less tangible– knowledge, attitude and expectations. I didn’t get any economic privilege growing up, but those anti-materialist DIY hippie parents gave me all kinds of essential mental tools to pursue this life. They also encouraged me to skip college and debt, and I spent those formative years instead learning more specific homesteading skills, living without butter, and hanging out in moldy tipis with suspect young men.

I don’t reference tv much and I’m not about to start a regular thing of it, but I did see a good Michael Moore interview on the Colbert Report a few months back. Colbert had quipped something about him “making bank” and that his sweat pants and ball cap didn’t fool us. Moore blushed deeply but countered with, “Yeah, you’re right. And that’s exactly why I think it’s our responsibility to do something with ourselves.”

I certainly wouldn’t say My Man and I have made bank– we live on about $40,000/year. We are very frugal in some ways. I rarely buy clothes at all, and always second hand. I don’t buy any kind of lady potions, handbags, or other female paraphernalia. We don’t drive much, so save quite a lot on gas. My money sink is food, both quality and ethics. On one hand you could say I make it my priority, I scrimp in other ways to pay for better groceries. I make everything I can at home, I work hard in the kitchen. I brew my fair trade coffee one cup at a time so that none is ever wasted, and I drink one or two perfect cups a day instead of a whole pot of mediocre cheap coffee.

On the other hand, I know plenty of you do the same and still can’t afford to spend $16/lb on goddamned coffee. I know I am lucky, very lucky to be able to be home with my kids and spend my few spare hours blathering on about responsible consumerism. It is a privilege to be able to ponder what is right, a privilege to be able to do it.

We all know we shouldn’t compare ourselves to one another. Do what you’re passionate about, push yourself as often as you can, ease up when you need to. Feel good. But in case that old dog comparison creeps around in the dark of night– don’t ever forget that, for the most part, those of us standing around on soap boxes had a boost up.

Related Posts: 
Is Your Sustainable Life Sustainable?
Why We Do What We Do
Master of Fine (Homemaking) Arts

Read Full Post »

For some reason fair trade has always been the ugly step-sister of the glamorous organic movement. My Man and I have noticed that people are a lot more likely to care about the environment than human rights. It seems so backwards, but I think it’s precisely because we are humans ourselves. We can maintain an emotional distance from clear-cuts and pesticides, but millions of people, even children, across the globe working in slave-like conditions in order to provide us our high standard of living? It’s uncomfortable.

The purpose of fair trade is pretty self-explanatory: a fair wage to farmers and honest economic support of their communities. We all know dark things go on behind closed doors, but it’s important to note that the luxury items in our world– coffee, tea and chocolate in particular– come from countries with especially heavy doors.

Perhaps the most egregious human rights violations occur in the chocolate industry. It’s not even just like slavery, there are ongoing cases of actual child slavery, particularly along the Ivory Coast. Perhaps again because this hits so close to our hearts, it has really not made news much at all. Many otherwise informed people have never heard of chocolate slavery. While coffee is the commonly thought of fair-trade item, chocolate is my number one.

Prepared chocolate products are practically impossible to find fair trade, apart from those $4 chocolate bars that no one can afford, so I generally make my own chocolatey goodness when the craving hits. You can usually make your own treats with ethical ingredients for about the same price as buying the decent quality pre-prepared version. (The caveat is the looming pile of dishes left at the end of a day of DIY food for a family of four. Yikes.)

If you can’t find fair trade cocoa powder or chocolate chips locally, here’s a decent price on bulk mail-order from Sweet Earth Chocolates. Their cocoa powder is $11/lb and the dark choc chips are $9/lb. Of course, the shipping is what gets you. See if you can’t go in on a big order with friends.

As part of my food month, I recently looked into buying fair trade coffee direct from the farmer online. My Man and I traveled in Central America several years ago and I was remembering a man in Guatemala who was trying to set up a website for selling the local farmers’ coffee. I guess I had some hopes I would find him. Of course, I didn’t. But I did find Coffee CSA, a 100% farmer owned cooperative which sends you 2 or 5 lbs monthly in a subscription. You can choose your farmer (literally, they have photographs and geographical locations); sign up for a “coffee tour” and get a different single origin coffee each month; or choose a roast type. I signed up for a monthly delivery of 2 lbs of French roast. Including shipping it works out to almost $16/lb. Ouch. I had been paying $13/lb for Whole Foods’ fair trade, which already seemed steep. But coffee shouldn’t be so cheap in the first place– I have to keep reminding myself of that. Even at $32/month, plus about as much more for the organic half-and-half, that’s still only $2/day! That’s 50 cents per cup! And, pivotally important for coffee snobs like me, their roaster does a good job– it’s a delicious cup.

If you are a tea drinker, Arbor Tea is a nice family run company I’ve ordered from before with decent prices for loose leaf. For general sourcing, Fair Trade USA just launched a Finder App on Faceb**k, to help locate local stores which carry fair trade products.

Lastly, I have a very wordy post brewing on how and even whether to afford such noble pursuits as fair trade, organic, sustainable, ethically produced, etc, etc. [post script: here's the link to that post, Priorities, Compromise and the Privilege of Doing Good] Meanwhile– understand that I ain’t no saint, and have bought many, many a carton of industry chocolate ice cream, as well as gleeful coffees out on the town. It’s a minefield these days. We do what we can.

Read Full Post »

I am sorry not to have written about this sooner, Bank Transfer Day is just two days off, November 5th. The idea is to close your account with Big Evil Bank and move your money (meager though it may be) to a local credit union. There are 37,000 “likes” on the Facebook Page, and I read somewhere that 68,000 are planning to switch.

I heard on the news yesterday that both Bank of America and Wells Fargo have withdrawn their threat of monthly debit card fees, which apparently is what started all this. Although it’s undoubtedly exciting that the People spoke and the Man listened, I myself am disappointed that this has become all about the fee issue. I hope those 68,000 people do the switch anyway. The real problem is not the fees, but the underlying greed and overwhelming power, right?

Credit unions are non-profit, cooperative financial institutions, functioning at a local level. Sounds perfect. I’m not sure what the catch is, except that local means you can only go to your bank to make a deposit when in your hometown. They appear to have ATM and debit cards available so you can spend money everywhere, just like the big boys.

Strangely, the woman who started this set the date for a Saturday, apparently in connection with the date that Guy Fawkes was captured. Cool but, seriously? I guess the idea is that November 5th is supposed to be the deadline, not the change day. I am hoping to get the deed done tomorrow. It’s always helpful to have a deadline, but of course this is just a good thing to do, any day you can find the time. We have one account with Wells Fargo and one with an Alaskan bank. Our hometown of Cordova, which we will be returning to in May, doesn’t have a credit union so we are going to have to hold onto the Alaskan bank. But WF can go.

Honestly, this whole bank thing has been very difficult for me to grasp. I am still functioning on the apparently antiquated idea that corporations are The Man. What, banks are The Man now? When did this happen? And how will I ever, ever be able to understand it???? The whole Wall Street business is so far over my head. I have tried, on numerous occasions to get even a glimmer of what the hell goes on there, and every time it’s like sliding down a steep slope. I get just a lick of possible understanding, then whoosh!

Of course, that’s how it works, why it works. If we can’t understand it, we feel like we have no right to fight it. Certainly no way to fight it. Corporations were too obvious, too easy I guess. Too intellectually tackle-able by your average person. The Man had to get a new rig.

We watched Inside Job recently, and it did help. Mostly I felt that same old sliding feeling, but I did come away with a bit of understanding. Primarily that it’s even more straight forward than I’d thought how all the money made on Wall Street, and the ever rising arrow, are stolen from everyone else.

How do you fight something too big too understand? You camp out on the lawn. You say, “I don’t know what the fuck you are doing, but stop it.” You remember that, backwards as it may seem, you are holding the cards.

You and 5 billion other people.

Read Full Post »

I’m starting off my Quiet Riot this month with a (very approximate) home audit. If you feel remotely inclined, I do recommend taking a look into your own household’s economics. It’s enlightening, though perhaps not exactly the kind of brain-warp I wanted to spend (several of) the Babe’s naps sucked into.

The Riot for Austerity identifies 7 categories– electricity, gas, other fuel (such as natural gas, propane, etc), water, food, consumer purchases and garbage. Sharon lists out average consumption for each category, though I have to say, I found her numbers confusing. Then I did a little research and found some very reputable sites with statistics drastically different than Sharon’s. I had been hoping to funnel my few months of numbers into a clean little formula, and spit out my family’s ‘percentage of the American average.’ But, as usual in real life, it doesn’t turn out to be so clear cut.

Instead of getting my knickers in a bunch about numbers, I decided to keep it simple. As I said before, this Quiet Riot is about intent. I did an extremely informal tally of the receipts and random bills I could find just to get a basic idea of where we are at. I offer up Sharon’s statistics  (as best I could understand them) as well as the differing statistics I found.

Here’s my semi-random collection of household numbers. I considered making a bigger effort to look more complete and organized. But I thought maybe the reality of my haphazard attempts might, in a backward way, inspire others to give it a try. If you’re participating in any way in this lil’ Riot and feel up to a bit of number crunching, leave a comment here and I will email you these fun forms to print out and fill in! These will also be useful for keeping (better) track over the next few months of course. Please note that my computer skills are extremely patchy. These aren’t anything special, just some tables on Word. But hey, I do know how to put them into a .pdf and email them. I’ve come a long way, baby.

Sharon lists the avg home electricity use as 2,000kWh/person/year, which would be 167/person/month. This is quite different from the US Energy Information Association page I found that lists the per household use at 908/month. Hmm. Make what you will of that. Furthermore, they list the monthly average in Louisiana as 1,273– quite a bit higher because of our tropical climate and more than 6 months/year of AC use (if you want to see your state’s avg, go to the page linked to above, scroll down and click on Avg Monthly Residential Use, under Consumption and Price.) At 657 kWh, our household ranks at half of that state average, and this for the summer months. Sadly, if I follow Sharon’s stat, we are using almost 100% of the average.

Water found me at another big canyon-gap. Sharon says the avg household (2.6 people) uses 130 gallons/day, equaling 50 gal/person/day. The EPA says “a family of four can use 400 gallons of water per day,” fully double Sharon’s number (though they do say “can.”)  At 4,030 gal/month, we fall somewhere between 34 and 67%. Not so bad as I had feared.

I couldn’t find any statistic for natural gas usage. But, even if I could, since most natural gas in homes is used for heating, and none of the months I recorded included any heating, a national average wouldn’t really be that helpful or relevant.

Gas is the big blank column. This summer My Man was working across the river. He spent at least one hour/day driving. We weren’t keeping any receipts, but it doesn’t really matter because that job has finished and he’s back in school, a pleasant 20 minute bike ride away. If I had our gas numbers for the summer, and compared the next three months to the summer use, it would make it appear that we had really kicked ass to get our consumption down, when really, the circumstances just changed.

Sharon describes the consumer goods category as “non-essential, luxury items” and says that “The average American spends $11,000 per year on items that don’t include food, insurance, energy, housing and other necessities.” I’m not sure I believe that, considering the Census’ Bureau listed the median income for 2009 at just under $50,000, how can people spend more than a fifth of their income on “luxuries?” But, then again, I am completely naive to credit card debt.

At any rate, that’s about $900/person/month. I had a few months of receipts, but no particular reason to believe they were complete. Certainly these totals only includes my spending, none of My Man’s. But, assuming my receipts were somewhere near complete, I spent an average of $293/month. Say that covers two people, half my household, that’s $147/person,  a mere 16% of average. But, unless I had kept careful track for a year, this category seems too variable to be worth considering at all. This list does include one month where I made a big purchase (new bike trailer) and our daughter’s birthday. But it doesn’t include any of our vacation costs.

I’m hoping over the next 6 months I can get a more accurate measure.

Trash was an absolute estimate. We don’t even own a scale. Should I go out and buy one just for my Riot? Seems counterproductive. I take the trash out once every few days, when it has filled up our approximately 5 gal trash can. I am estimating each bag weighs somewhere between 5 and 10 lbs, though I’m pretty certain it’s closer to five. So, say 15 lbs/week. Following Sharon’s numbers, the average American household produces 40 pounds/week, meaning we weigh in at 38%.

I’m going to continue the saga with my Food Audit in the next post. My brain feels positively fuzzy. Yours?

Read Full Post »

First of all I want to make one thing perfectly clear. My kids have hit a little bit of a stride lately. I find my mothering job getting– not easy by any stretch, the 4yo has re-entered screaming fit territory– but easier. Enough that I sometimes catch myself feeling kind of… bored. The immediacy of survival mode, which usurped me for some year and a half, has abated. I need a project.

The Riot found me at just the right moment. I wanted it, needed it. I needed a way to reinvest myself, to assess where I am at with this punk housewife gig and determine how to proceed. A bi-yearly review if you will. I love nothing, nothing so much as devising a system, and a system for a 6-month household economy audit sounded perfect. As is perhaps always the case with us humans, I had the desire first and then found an explanation.

I don’t know that this fundamentally self-serving motive undermines my project, so long as we keep it in perspective. I have a very active (hampster wheel) brainy brain, I have to use it for something. Why not optimizing the efficiency and ethics of my household?

But let’s just bear in mind that this project is for anyone else who feels similarly available, ready to tackle something new. Not for those of you who are already working at capacity and battling burn-out (that means you Dixie…) Also note that if my own household slips back down into survival mode, all bets are off babe.

That said, there won’t be any contracts for this Quiet Riot. No rules except those you choose for your own family, no catchy emblems for your sidebar, no number competitions. I encourage anyone who feels they have just a little bit of time, energy and desire to throw it in the hat! If want to sign yourself up, in your own mind or here in the comments, that’s fine. Verbalized commitment is a huge help-mate. But if even committing puts you off, or as some of you said in the last comments, you are already at work on a Quiet Riot of your own, you can just dip in here and there over the next 6 months. Take what works.

It’s worth mentioning that spousal involvement is optional in this most basic of challenges. At our house, this sort of thing is all me. My Man is patently not the type of person who enjoys saving receipts or making rules for himself. Correspondingly I am not the type of person who enjoys guilt tripping, nagging, pressuring or any other kind of spousal manipulation. I read on someone’s blog that she was ‘quite over following her family around the house reminding them to turn off the lights.’ I’m not interested in even starting. I already battle martyrdom at the dinner table, and that’s perfectly enough.

I have taken a look into our bills already, and I can tell you, it is not encouraging. Which is revealing. Here I am, doing what I consider quite a bit, given my circumstances, and still barely managing to keep my consumption to 80% of the American average. The big Riot’s goal of 10% is truly outrageous. Like I said in my first post, I think that’s awesome. I love outrageous. They will be able to make a very real political statement with 10%. Nevertheless, I do think that goal is only achievable for people who

  1. have already started on the path (ie: are already operating at a lower consumption rate, going from 50% to 10% is quite a bit different than 90% to 10%)
  2. own their own home
  3. have the monetary resources necessary to buy new energy saving appliances
  4. have either no small kids, or family support nearby to help with childcare

Of course, on one hand, it’s just a line-up of excuses. If My Man and I really believe in change, maybe we should move to Spokane where grandparents could provide that childcare and we could own acreage in a hospitable climate for farming. I won’t say we haven’t thought about it. But, we’re not moving to Spokane. When we finish here in New Orleans, we’ll be moving (quite gleefully!) back to Alaska, where we own our own home in a walking friendly town, with abundant wild fish, game and firewood resources, but no grandparents, laughable farming conditions, and a jet flight away from anywhere else.

[In Spokane we would have help with childcare and great farming possibilities but My Man would have to commute at least one hour per day to get to work. Which is the eternal rural vs. urban debate. Unless you are prepared to largely extricate yourself from your culture/community, rural living = driving.]

But back to the task at hand! Haven’t I already defended myself against imagined attacks on my soft-core riot? Time to quit bitching and get to work!

After my audit I’ll set some goals. I’m not sure if I will set percentage reduction goals. I know that can be useful, but it seems like one of those ‘rules made for breaking’ things. I won’t drive to my friend’s house across town, forcing her to drive to me instead, so I can meet my gas goal? Or do I just quit seeing them altogether and lose out on one of my best friends who coincidentally has two kids, just the ages of mine, who are not in “school” like everyone else, who my kids equally adore? No, not an option.

I’m thinking my goals will be more of the general ‘try harder’ and specific project kind. Establish better habits for turning lights and computers off, something I’d gotten much too lax about. Put more concentrated effort into garden efficiency and production. Stop buying crap cheese (my last industrial dairy hold-out) and start buying the good stuff from the farmer’s market, at (gulp) $12/pound. Turn my kids’ little plastic pool into a DIY fountain, so that I don’t have to make them stop playing with running water (one of the great joys in the world!) but can recapture at least most of it– our water bill is truly outrageous.

I want to spend each month focusing on two of the big Riot’s categories. I’ll list out the ways I am already working towards lowering our consumption, offer up ideas, links and resources and tackle special projects. My calendar will look something like this–

September. Home economy/consumption audit. Identify weakest links and highest return projects. Goal setting.

October. Electricity, Heating Fuel and Water. Get those good habits going! Weatherize (for me this is against heat, yes still in October, but for y’all this would be against cold) Make the kids’ fountain.

November. Food and Cooking Fuel. This is the biggest month for me. From gardening to grocery shopping to cooking, there’s a lot to think about. I want to start this month out with an Austerity Fast, cutting my luxury foods out completely (except coffee, god help me!) for two weeks. I don’t expect that anyone else will want to do this, but I have a terrible sweet/fat tooth and indulge much more than I ought to. Cookies after lunch and ice cream after the kids go to bed? Every day. Add in a trip or two/week to the bakery for chocolate croissants. Ahem.

December. Take a break. For others this might be a perfect time to tackle the Stuff and Waste categories, but I already have enough stomach-clenching angst at Christmas. I do my best, and that’s that. I’m not willing to give up family or make everyone else’s holiday miserable just to impress my ideals.

January. Here’s where I will take on Stuff and Waste, after those damning holidays. A month long Stuff fast. Also, prepare yourselves for some shit talking and finally, finally! I swear to you, I will write a tutorial for the waxed cloth produce bags I made two years ago.

February. Transportation. This one is relatively easy for me, as I’ve explained before, we are set up for foot power. I do drive, once or twice a week, and I’m not likely to give up those two trips (see ‘friend’ caveat above). But there’s always room to shave a little off, surely. I’ll finish out the Riot with a special focus on how to keep up doing things the hard way, when everyone around you does them the easy way.

Even if you don’t want to participate directly, don’t think you get let off the hook! I’ll expect advice and tips from all of you every month as well. Cough it up, folks!

Read Full Post »

I ran across Sharon Astyk’s Riot for Austerity the other day. For some reason, though I had come across Sharon’s name dozens of times, and looked carefully at both her books on Amaz*n, something refused to click, and I just hadn’t read any of her work yet. Dixiebelle tipped me off about the Riot and, intrigued by the name, I checked it out.

Apparently the first Riot for Austerity was in 2008. As Sharon describes it,

“We set two goals. First, we would spend a year trying to get our emissions down by 90% over the American average. Second, we’d use this as part of a larger public strategy to point out that it can be done – that we don’t have to wait for political action – indeed, that we can’t wait.”

Sharon is all about peak oil and climate change. Although I do absolutely believe both are occurring (My Man is in school to be an environmental maritime lawyer, partly so that he can work on climate change issues back in Alaska), they have both become such glamorous catch phrases that my renegade back arches when I hear them. I hate to get caught in a fad without an umbrella, if you know what I mean.

It’s a shame that I let that such an aesthetic style point get between me and some great work. Sharon’s website looks fantastic (her tongue in cheek post 12 Books is hilarious! And here I thought she took herself too seriously!) and I will be inter-library loaning her books as soon as I can get to the library.

In the meantime, I continue to be intrigued by her second Riot for Austerity, which is just now getting off the ground. My Man and I often despair that solutions to environmental problems always end up reduced to one or another ‘alternative’– paper cups instead of styrofoam, corn instead of plastic, coal instead of petroleum. No big campaigns ever promotes just using less, where the money in that? And no one likes to think that they might have to sacrifice something to make change in the world. Just like the endless parade of eat-what-you-want diets, get-rich-quick schemes and deoderant which promises to get you laid, we so desperately want to believe that there is a magic formula which will effortlessly fix everything. How did we get so damn lazy?! How did we come to loathe effort and struggle, both of which make life worthwhile?

Austerity is just the thing, really. “Morally strict, ascetic; markedly simple or unadorned.” But there is a political aspect to the word as well, “In economics, austerity is a policy of deficit-cutting, lower spending, and a reduction in the amount of benefits and public services provided.” (Wiki) Which of course makes perfect sense, when the government decides it’s time to tighten the belt, they always start with someone else’s belt. Apparently austerity measures have been the cause of protests and even riots in the past, which puts an interesting spin on Sharon’s Riot.

I love the astonishing goal of living off of 10% of the American average. I love that there are people in the world who can and do lead the way with such ballsy confidence. I love the attitude that our private lives can and should direct politics. I have always admired hard-core radicals, and even was one myself for some years. I lived on $2-3,000/year in my hey-day, using no petroleum products directly except kerosene for our lamps, and eating beans, rice and wild plants.

My own Austere Years required plenty of effort, but there was no strife, no hardship. They were a great joy, in fact, a highlight. That’s what I wanted and needed to be doing at that time. I truly feel like each stage of life is different, and each person’s life overall is different as well. Some people are born with just the right mix of character, and blessed with the tools and community necessary to keep up such impressive standards throughout their entire life. Other people, like myself, get a shining 15 minutes of fame before returning to the implicit compromise of the masses. Yet others tow the line of consistent small virtues throughout their entire lives.

I used to harshly think that only the hard-core radicals mattered (when I was one. Ha). As I’ve gotten older and come face to face with the limitations of sharing one’s life with spouse and children, family and community, and trying to lovingly balance out everyone’s needs/desires, I’ve softened quite a bit. I see the use in the middle road now. We need all those types of people, we need everyone who earnestly tries to do good in their life, each has something important to offer.

There’s no way my family could get anywhere near to the Riot for Austerity’s 10% goal right now. Living a fairly typical American life in a rented house in a big city, far from our Alaskan home environment, with a 1 and 4 year old makes in completely impossible. I have just barely begun to emerge from the tunnel of second-baby-survival-mode to where I could imagine cutting anything. But here is where the possibilities of the middle road open up.

I read that there were some thousands of people participating in the first Riot, worldwide. Which is a lot, but also, hardly any. The vast majority of people in the first world will read about the Riot as pure entertainment (if they read about it at all). The idea that their own family would participate in it would be ridiculous. Even, I suspect, most of you Apron Stringz readers will feel that the Riot is for ‘better’ people than us.

It’s impressiveness is it’s downfall, in a way. Not because of the Riot itself, or any fault of it’s creators. The extremity of the Riot is fantastic, perfect. The downfall is our own. Our black and white thinking, with which I am so intimately familiar. Either kick serious ass or step down, I say to myself. Or, used to say. Extreme radicalism makes us uncomfortable, there is an implicit mandate that we feel embarrassed to fall short of. And so the whole of responsible action can become closed to people, reg’lar folk, who feel entirely too intimidated to join in.

But what a bullshit way to proceed with life! Hallelujah for those righteous radicals who keep this big oil tanker just shy of the rocks. We don’t have to be them, or hate them, or anything. A goodly dose of mutual respect, and self respect, is in order. Rejoice in their way, and make your own way. Responsible action is accessible to anyone, to everyone! Start where you are, and do your best from there. If 10% of the American average is an impenetrable goal, don’t let that crush your desire to participate. Make your own damn goal! Don’t use this as a ticket to sloth and indolence, rather determine what you feel comfortable with, then push it one little step farther. Challenging yourself just beyond what you think you are capable of is inspiring.

And so, without further ado, let me introduce my Quiet Riot. In solidarity with the righteously awesome Riot for Austerity, I am going to do a 6 month ‘little riot.’ I won’t be publicizing this anywhere but here, I don’t want to water down the force of their statement. I don’t delude myself into thinking my Quiet Riot will be influencing carbon emissions policy. No, this is just for myself, and for any of you readers who would like join in.

If you feel even remotely inclined to join up with the real thing, oh my, please do! For your sake, for my sake, not to mention saving the world. But if you feel entirely too intimidated by the big riot, you can start here, in good company.

My Quiet Riot will begin with an audit of our home’s consumption, using the Big Riot’s seven categories (I have already taken a quick look and I can assure you, much to my dismay, we hit almost the full American average for electricity and water and probably somewhere around 50-80 percent for everything else). From those numbers I’ll set some rough goals for myself, probably different for each category. I’m thinking more along the lines of cutting 10% off of our current use, rather than cutting down to 10% of average.

After the audit month, I’ll get to work. I’m going to try to make little cuts everywhere, but with special focus on two categories per month, with a break for December. (Need I explain?)

If anyone is interested in joining in, I could run things with a bit of structure, offering audit guidelines, detailing ideas for cutting consumption, hosting discussion, etc. I imagine everyone would set their own goals based on their family’s current situation. This will be much more intention than rule based. Rules can be cheated on, but your intention is always true. Only you will know if you have ‘succeeded.’ And for this Quiet Riot, that’s what counts.

It’s a fine line between challenge and overwhelm. Between excuses and the limitations of real life. I feel that everyone needs to hear something different. The polished ladies who smuggly shop at Whole Foods after yoga class might need a good ass kicking, but I know many sensitive, earnest souls like myself who can become completely debilitated by guilt. Which is not remotely helpful, of course. Sometimes I feel like this blog and my writing style have grown up together to be almost like motivational speaking. My ‘calling’ seems to be a sort of cheerleading for those of us who’s heart and dreams sometimes outpace our ability and the confines of our very real lives.

Not that I don’t benefit from a good ass-kicking now and then. Thanks Sharon.

Read Full Post »

Each of us enters into this world of punk DIY housewifery from different angles. It’s easy enough to look down the street (or more likely, through the screen) at Ms. Jones’ new chicken coop, the handsewn banners in her window, the pie cooling on the sill, and compare straight across to our own shamble-stead. Assuming we ought to be even.

But there’s no reason whatsoever we should be ‘even.’ Everyone started in a different place, and took a different road in. People say this all the time. Start where you are. But I feel like we don’t give this fundamental truth the credence it deserves.

Adult jobs require training. Some jobs require years of schooling. Why is it we think we should be able to just step right into the kick-ass housewife role? Why do we think we should be able to cast off 20 years of academic schooling and suddenly, without training, become a super-hero urban homesteader? It’s yet another sign of how we devalue the work.

I feel incredibly lucky to have been, perhaps uniquely, well trained for this job. I grew up with hippie parents who fixed rather than bought, valued healthy food, believed in responsible action. They started me out with the values and the basic skills of the DIY lifestyle. When I left home, instead of going to college, I spent 3 years traveling around in rural areas, doing interesting, unusual and eminently practical work, and generally learning everything I could about the possibility of a more simple life. I spent the next 4 years with my partner on a friend’s land, building a sort of practice homestead, testing out everything we had learned. In the world of DIY/homesteading I am, I think, unusually well educated for this day and age. As far as more the classically ‘domestic’ skills go, I grew up in a restaurant and as an adult have cooked in professional kitchens where speed and efficiency rule. Cleaning and kids were my big blank spots (very big, very blank), the rest I had pretty well covered.

I don’t mean to gloat about it, but rather to say, look– I’ve had all the training a person could hope for considering the times, and I still think this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, still feel like I’m falling short every day. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you mamas who are just getting into all this stuff. I know the excitement of first love is heady, and hopefully it will carry you through, but damn you must feel overwhelmed! I just want to remind you to consider your training, or lack of it, and give yourself a break.

If you went to college and then spent your twenties working an office job, and now you are home with two kids trying to change the world one household at a time, you have just weathered an abrupt career change! Think of it as if you had lost your entire field of work and had to find and train for something radically different. Maybe you knew nothing about this new job. Maybe your family growing up rarely cooked, and a housekeeper scrubbed the bathtub. Gardening meant watering the rhodedendron. Maybe you hadn’t been around kids since you were one.

This is no small matter to brush carelessly aside, this is the crux of it really, because we have lost vast stores of knowledge about how to run an efficient, thrifty, coordinated home. It used to be that girls would learn this stuff before it was their responsibility, they would leave their parents home into their own new home having ‘apprenticed’ with their mothers and grandmothers. Not that those old days were so glorious, and I surely don’t want to be mistaken for saying women shouldn’t go to college, but what would it look like if an education in homemaking were a respected choice? Or perhaps available as a double major? Anything beyond a laughable elective in high school would help.

We have run in such panic from our past that now that we consider homemaking knowledge non-less, demeaning or even hateful. The cruel irony is that many women nevertheless continue to bear children, keep a home, run a budget and even cook for their families! But instead of proceeding with the confidence and success of training, we have to plunge in clueless. Without any real idea how to go about these jobs we all have to re-invent the wheel. What a waste of our (limited) energy! It’s sad, and as anyone reading this blog can identify with, it’s damn hard!

Several months ago, Harriet Fasenfest asked what we would look for in a “nuts and bolts” book about householding. The question has revisited me many times, partly because it was the bug in my rug before I had ever even heard of Harriet. What is it that would make our training? What exactly do we need to know? Is it the practical skills of cooking, preserving, cleaning and gardening? Or the less tangible skills of budgeting, time management and community building? But recently it hit me that whatever the knowledge base, information is only a part of training. Reading books and watching experts is valuable, but at some point everyone just has to dive in and get their hands dirty.

At the Foxfire Museum, on our trip to mountains last week, we got to watch the resident fiber artist for a while. She asked my girl how old she was, and then went on to explain which part of the process would have been her job at that age. “At four girls started carding, at five they made rolags, six they learned to spin, by seven they were using the loom.”

The beauty of a traditional “education” in homemaking arts was that it took place over ten or more years, under the direct tutelage of one’s instructor, and involved every day practice of a skill set which built on itself. How frustrating not to be able to use the loom till you’d put in three full years of fiber arts, but then again, how comforting really. Imagine if all the basic housewifing/homesteading skills were so viscerally ingrained in us. Imagine what we could accomplish!

My Man and I had a good long conversation on the train back from our trip. I am so envious of his ability to be flexible. He started out chaining himself to trees, and yet feels no regret about the way his life has changed since, no regret about his new vocation of paper-wrencher. He has this fantastic way of taking a distance perspective.

“It’s not a revolution right now. I wish it were, but it’s not. All we can do in a single generation is work for some degree of change in the right direction, and then trust that our work will be carried on by the next generation. Trust that eventually it will add up to something significant… Or just see us through until real revolution comes.” He added with a grin.

So, if you started your path in a mainstream, consumer household, spent years in the career world and are just now carving yourself some kind of responsible homemade life, take heart. Start small. Remember you are training on the job, with probably no teacher. Give your kids the values of thrift, simplicity, respect, conscientious living. Do what you can, as much as you can. Then trust that the next generation will continue our work.

Or start praying for revolution.

Read Full Post »

I always thought I would grow up to be a kick-ass Alaskan homesteader. By age 15 I had dreamed out in incredible detail how I would build my log cabin, milk goats that survived on willow scrub, tend a garden carved out of the wild bush, hunt, fish, can berries for the long winter. I made countless graph paper sketches of cabin and garden layouts, lists of the groceries my family would need for one year in our bush homestead home.

Oh yes, my future kick-ass self was always a mama. In the fantasies, they blended so seamlessly– homesteading and mothering. Fantasies are lovely that way. In my ‘pre-enactments,’ the kids were perennially about 10 and 12. They did chores and homeschooled. They more or less took care of themselves, Swiss Family Robinson style. I don’t remember ever washing their dishes or doing their laundry (by hand in the creek?) I was busy kicking ass, right?

After the reality of kids, and just life in general, my homesteading vision was tamed down a bit to this punk housewife gig. Lately, in addition to rocking the garden and kitchen, in addition to raising up two gorgeous kiddos, I want to be able to write. A lot, apparently. A friend recently suggested that maybe I’m not meant to be a full time mama. Maybe I should just bite the bullet and sign my kids up for day care. But I don’t want to have to give up being with my kids to write. I don’t want to give up punking my household for either. I want everything I want. I want it all.

Because I’m worth it.**

I am always so profoundly disturbed when I dig deep, deeper within my psyche and unearth– the advertising industry.

Fuck me.

Under everything, all my intellectualizing, my earnest desire to affect change, my renegade claim, my hippie upbringing, my alternative education– under all that self that should know better is a solid foundation of good old American free enterprise. Which has underwritten me with the belief that I can and should have it all.

Capitalism wants you to think that you’re “worth it,” so that you will buy it. Corporations profit hugely off of an infinite desire for more, and a faith in the god of ‘having it all.’ If they can keep us believing that ‘all’ is possible, we will keep spending until we get it.

And they can keep us believing. They have the big bucks to spend on the top pyschologists in the world, to determine exactly how to shape us all into perfect consumers. I hate to venture into conspiracy theory territory here, but if there is a ‘they,’ it’s the ad industry. They have the tools, the brains, the money and the motive to control the entire modern world. Because who is safe from media these days? No one I know, and I know some contenders, believe me.

Media is everywhere. Big Brother had nothing on us. Look around you right now and count corporate logos. How many electronic devices are within reach, how many of them are on? How often do you look at something designed by corporate advertising?

If I think too hard about it, I get completely creeped out. Horror movie style. They are in me! No one is safe!

My Man always laughs at conspiracy theorists. He thinks the government’s too stupid to pull anything like that off. Bumbling idiots, he calls them. And maybe the ad industry is too. Maybe they’re not even trying to rule the world. But no one can argue that they are trying to make the maximum possible profit. And nothing ensures profit like a captive audience with an insatiable appetite.

How does this fit together? The ad industry’s evil plan to take over the world and my worn out “lost dream” story?

Well, here I stand at the ready, insatiable appetite for coffee, chocolate, heirloom seeds, and self-images. I want to be all and everything. I think I deserve to be everything. Wholesome mama, passionate wife, punk urban homesteader, and now respected writer on top of everything else. Who the hell do I think I am?

This is such a big subject, I hesitated to tackle it at all. To plumb the depths of this one would take far, far more time than I have. But let me ask you this? Why do we think we can have it all? Why do we think we are worth it when people all over the world, throughout history have had to be just plain old whatever-their-families-needed-them-to-be in order to put food on the table? Why do we all think we can accomplish so much more in our small lifetimes than anyone else?

And why, oh why, is this even more prevalent among us ‘alternative’ folk? We think we’ve circumvented The Man and his evil plans. We think we’ve banished the rampant consumer instinct, the materialistic desire for moremoremore, when in fact, we just moved it over 6 inches. We want moremoremore life, moremoremore accomplishment.

When My Man and I got together, at some point as courting couples often do, I asked him what he wanted from life. Among other things, he said he wanted to be ‘great.’ I remember scorning him a little, his egotistical desire to make history. Many years later I have finally realized that I wanted to be ‘great’ too, I wanted to accomplish what so many people before me have failed to do, to succeed exceptionally in many things at once.

Everyone I know, same story more or less. We start out thinking we can have it all. When the natural limitations of life start to sink in, typically in the 30s, and we realize we are not going to get it all, we feel disillusioned. We start throwing blame. If we have a family, we blame it on being tied down. If we’re single, we blame it on loneliness. If nothing else, we can always blame it on our parents!

If we could just wipe that slate clean. Stop blaming, stop expecting to be superheros, stop thinking we’re so extra special.

If I could do that.

Oh how my life would be easier! If I could just vanquish the ads.

Because I am worth it. I’m worth not feeling perpetually dissatisfied because I can’t accomplish every single goddamn thing I ever dreamed up. I’m worth feeling worthy without the right mascara/handbag/woodswoman image. I am worth just being me, whatever shape that may take over the course of my lifetime. Homesteader, mother, writer, wife, frumpy stinky me washing my 659th load of dishes in a plain old sink with running water and Joy soap, like every other American housewife. No accessories, no glory. Just me.

We’re all worth it.

**For any overseas readers or folks who grew up under a rock, “Because I’m Worth It” was a slogan created for L’Oreal in 1973 to sell their higher priced hair products. According to AdSlogans: “The message was all about what the woman thought. It was about her self-confidence, her decision, her style. Over time, “Because I’m Worth It” has become part of our social fabric and today an astonishing 80% of women recognize and respond to this positive phrase and powerful sentiment.”

Read Full Post »

Much to my blushing surprise, Harriet Fasenfest joined both the new Apron Stringz groups. Harriet is the author of The Householder’s Guide to the Universe (I wrote a short review in January, scroll down, it’s at the bottom-ish of the post). She’s stewing over her next book and left a comment and question over at Homegrown which I think is really fascinating.

Here’s what she said,

Oh but that I could call myself a punk housewife.  I’m more your crusty ex-pat N.Y. still-talking-about-woodstock householder with grown kids and a husband who can’t figure out why I do all this stuff (interminally slow learner).  But I’m digging what’s happening and I’d love to know more about how all this really works for you.

You know, I know, that you know, that there was the first book. Now I’m thinking about the workbook ’cause I know going backwards and taking on all the skills and trades to make this work is hard when added to all our other commitments and lures of modernity.

So past the vision and the narratives are the real tools of home-ec.  The budgets, the timelines, the storage, the meal planning.  In essence, the nuts and bolts of a functioning home economy.  So where do you get stuck.  I’m wondering.  I got some ideas.

We’ve started a little discussion over there, and could use input from all of you kind readers, if you feel like joining in. I think I may have led the conversation a bit astray right at first there with some pretty heavy socialogical/psychological mind tripping, though what exactly are the ‘nuts and bolt’s might just be personal.

I think Harriet’s trying to examine the system of a working household, more than the individual tasks. Which is the part that I always find most challenging and interesting.

What do you all see as the real tools of the trade? How do you get shit done? How do you walk the line, day to day, between your DIY lifestyle and the “lures of modernity?” What trips you up? Where do you get confused?

Anyone with a little extra time and a penchant for endless philosophical blather about home life should come on over!

Read Full Post »

There’s been lots of buzz about menu planning on all the cool, frugal blogs. A bit of rebellion has been on my list for ages. But, when Gina at Clutterpunk started despairing her own troubles with the concept, I was finally spurred into action.

My friends, without judgement or malice, I have to say that there are two kinds of cooks in the world—menu planners and not menu planners. There is surely nothing wrong with menu planning, in fact it is a useful tool for many of the righteous homemaker babes I so admire. Whatever helps you get a thrifty, nutritious yet savory dinner on the table in a reasonable amount of time, I’m all for.

But, for any of you out there who are thinking, like Gina did, how many extra hours the menu planning will take and isn’t there any other way, I feel compelled to assure you—there is!

I have been cooking every day of my life since I was seventeen (that adds up to 16 years btw). It might be a little hard to suss out exactly how I don’t menu plan, because I suspect it’s all wrapped up in my essential Way of Cooking. This might get involved.

One of the things I really wanted to do when I first started this blog was try to share for anyone new to revolutionary housewifery, just how to be a home cook. I’ve never seen a cookbook on the subject. No one ever really talks about it. I guess everybody figures it out in their own way eventually, but many of us did not grow up in a home with a home cook, and it seems unnecessary that we should all have to reinvent the wheel.

Home cookery for the revolutionary housewife is only partly about knowing how to cook. The rest is a balancing act. Between being frugal and upholding your values, between cooking healthy and cooking delicious, between respecting your families preferences and keeping the diet varied and inspired. The skills you need are far beyond the scope of how to poach an egg and make a béchamel sauce. You truly are conducting the economy, social structure and artistry of your home. Although housewifery involves plenty of other work, food is central. We eat three times a day (unless we’re toddlers, then it’s five), and keeping up with all that home-cooked food is a complex endeavor.

But, back to not menu planning. I’ve been trying to dissect my Way to figure out what exactly it is that allows me to cook efficiently and with almost no waste without ever planning dinner beyond 24 hours in advance (and usually not until I start to feel hungry). I think it might have something to do with being an Alaskan. People in any rural place are completely used to not having a store around the corner. There are three important principles that I’ve picked out so far. Stocking up, doing without and thinking creatively.

Like all rural people, I always have a large stockpile of food. Whenever some natural disaster sparks the media to advise people to keep 2 weeks of food on hand, Alaskans look at one another with disbelief. Any Alaskan worth their salt always has at least two months of food in the pantry, and probably could survive for a full year if all hell really broke loose. I am not exaggerating.

Even though I’ve lived within walking or quick driving distance of a store for all but five years of my life, I still grew up with this principle in action, and have even far surpassed the stockpiling of my childhood.

I am a hoarder.

When you have all your staples on hand, you don’t need to plan out at the start of the week what exactly you’re going to cook in order to do your grocery shopping. Instead you keep a list, mental or tangible, of what you’re low on to get next trip to the store.

You can’t keep everything you might ever want in your cupboard at all times, so this must necessarily be followed by the principles of Doing Without and the subsequent Thinking Creatively.

This is a catch 22. On the one hand, I can’t follow a recipe to save my life. On the other hand, I can successfully cook a hundred different and distinct meals out of the same 12 ingredients*. I can (and have!) substituted fish for chicken, cabbage for eggplant, carrots for red pepper and onions for almost anything.

[*Here’s my top twelve: potatoes, pasta, meat, fish, onions, canned tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, lentils, butter, cheese, eggs.]

Leaving something out of a recipe is straightforward. But bringing in a new ingredient instead takes a certain kind of culinary courage. Fight back the cultural taboos that tell you what does and does not go together! Experiment! Tasting of many different cultures’ cuisines will help. Ever had B’stilla? It’s a Moroccan “pie” that rocked my worldview. Phyllo dough layered with: shredded chicken spiced with sweet spices like cinnamon and cardamom; ground almonds and powdered sugar; and scrambled eggs.

Sounds horrid, but I have never seen anyone biting into their first B’stilla exhibit anything but wide eyed, ecstatic marvel.

So, play around. Occasionally you’ll make a dud, and your husband will quietly raise his eyebrows across the table and politely refuse seconds. Once in a great while you might even have to throw food away. But far more often, you will be shocked with delight.

When it’s time to make dinner, I don’t consult a menu plan (though as I said, nothing against ‘em. We all find our own way), I consult my fridge. I have a mental list of staples on hand, and as I peruse what needs using up from the fridge, I make test combinations in my head.

Me: “Oh, right, that smoked salmon’s getting old. Better make something with it. Ummm…. Salmon cakes? Too much work, I’m tired. Macaroni and cheesenfishnpeas? Na, we just had that. Hmmm… alfredo? Too rich, I’m not in the mood. Well, there is that half can of corn. Something Tex-Mex sounds good. No tortillas though. Cornbread and….? What if I put the fish in the cornbread? Hmmm…. That’s weird. But… I like it. And the corn, and some cheese? Maybe with half an onion chopped up? Say, that sounds pretty good! I’ve got a little a chunk of lime, I’ll make some Mexican slaw to go with it.

Dinner!

How do you manage the daily dinner routine?

Read Full Post »

When I woke up this morning my first thought was that the No-Frills Week starts today! But we haven’t had our regular out to dinner in two weeks! I wanna go out…(whine). And I didn’t go grocery shopping. And fuck, did I really say only one cuppa coffee a day? What was I thinking? Oh, this morning will be my only cup, better make it last. And no sweets for a week? It sounded so short, now a week seems enormously long.

Happily, I checked the calendar, counted back, and the last seven days in March starts tomorrow.

Phew! I’m gonna party like it’s 1999!

(Actually 1999 was one of my ascetic years. 2002 was my splurgiest year.)

So, I’ve created quite an uproar with the “no homemade treat” concept. I wasn’t trying to be sensational or overly hard-core, just trying to challenge myself “where it hurts” so to speak.

I cook a lot. I mean, a lot. Cooking for me is not just a heroic effort to get good, wholesome food on the table. Food is my vice. And I know you’re all thinking, ‘geez, come on…’ but I don’t think vice is overstating it. I think about food all the time. It’s my incentive system, my reward for a good deed, my pick-me-up after a hard day, my preferred indulgence on a daily basis. I use treats for every possible outcome. To relax, to energize, to soothe, to cheer. Predictably, sugar is the primary form.

Because I’m thrifty, and my standards are high, I make treats at home. Scones, muffins, cookies, cake, pie, brownies… That’s all well and good. But I mean, all the time. We usually have some homemade treat on hand, and often two. I might have five cookies to lift my afternoon slump (in addition to my afternoon coffee), and then pie to relax after the kiddos are asleep. It’s a lot of sugar, but what bothers me more than the health effects (they are usually half whole wheat, and less sugar than called for) is the addiction of it. Living treat to treat might be normal in our culture, but that doesn’t make it okay.

That said, it’s not like I’m swearing off sugary treats for ever after. Just one week. To give my body a break. Seems reasonable enough to me.

One thing that seems sad to me about humans is that we have to loathe one another’s achievements. I do this all the time. I don’t want to see someone else succeed where I have struggled. If a friend is trying to do something I wasn’t able to do, or having an easy go at something I found hard, my first (internal) response is to ridicule them. Neither do I want to see someone do something I worry I ought to do. This is partly an “offense is your first defense” method, because we fear they are judging us. And, even more sadly, often it’s true. We all judge each other like crazy! I used to be among the worst, during those ascetic treehouse days, and I still struggle with it all the time. But I made a friend some years back who was genuinely proud of her friend’s achievements and she inspired me. What a beautiful thing to try for.

Anyone reading this blog is doubtlessly doing whatever they can. Only each one of us can know our own strengths and weaknesses and where we need to put our energies. Treats are my Achiles’ Heel. So it seems a logical place for me to concentrate whatever energy I have for self-limitation and discovery.

And tomorrow my friends, let the games begin!

Read Full Post »

I didn’t post about it, but yes, I did do my No-Frills Five in February. And the end of March is approaching, so it’s time again. This month, Consumption Rebellion is kicking my ass from five to seven. Which necessarily will include a weekend. This will make it much more challenging for me, which is good, right? That’s the point.

Including a weekend means, for one, I have to tell My Man about it. Yes, I did the last two fivers without even telling him. He’s in class all week, so it was easy to keep my little limitations to myself. I still won’t ask him to join me, I believe to each their own. But I can’t be letting him pay for dinner, and call that a challenge. So, no family spending anyway. And weekends are of course when we usually do something fun like go out to dinner or ice cream. Mostly I don’t want to deprive myself of this weekly indulgence. For lots of reasons I feel it’s justified at this point in my life. But, just once, wouldn’t it be good to take a picnic to the park instead?

This month I will be going a step farther in the No-Frills spirit. No consumption of homemade frills either. That means I can’t make my own brownies instead of going to the bakery for a treat. No treat. Get it? I will also nix my afternoon cuppa, and you know how I feel about that. Not the morning cuppa though. That one’s till death do us part.

And I’ve got my caveats, but I’m not gonna list every damn one. I’ll break my vows if I feel I need to. It’s my own damn challenge to my own damn self, thank you very much.

If anyone cares to join me in any way, whatever you can muster, make up your own soft-core challenge. Write your own rules. Decide to give up just one thing. Be small and proud.

Read Full Post »

On my way home from a big stock up trip to the store yesterday, new double stroller loaded down with fifty pounds of groceries, I had the idea that it’d be fun to give y’all a Peeping Tom view of my actual real life consumer habits and compromises.

This is the bottom cargo area of our new stroller. Purty roomy, eh? I also had a big bag slung over the handlebar.

Even though I was already half an hour late with dinner, I spread my plunder out on the table for y’all to peep. Keep in mind this was a Whole Foods trip. I do also shop at the Winn-Dixie occassionally for onions, yeast, and a few other things which just aren’t worth getting at WF. Also important to note is the fact that we are meat eaters, but notice no meat in the pile? That’s because we brought all our own fish and wild game with us from Alaska. Not that that’s the ecologically sound thing to do, better would be to source local good meat and fish. But, that’s what we did. And I don’t regret it. Anyway, it means that our grocery bill is significantly lower than if we had to buy responsible meat.

This represents $121 worth of food. I’ve been spending about $400/month on groceries, to give you an idea. We do eat out about once a week, plus a stop or two at the bakery. About $200 for those luxuries. Makes a total of $600/month for food. Not too bad really, for a family of three (or four if you count my nursing appetite!) eating mostly organic, free range and fair trade. But you’ll notice almost no pre-prepared foods in my grocery haul. That’s an essential factor. To answer the original question (although we do buy ice cream frequently here because the little fridge freezer doesn’t get cold enough to use the ice cream maker), we can afford to eat organic because instead of buying the organic pre-prepared thing, I buy the raw ingredients and make it at home.

So here it is, a typical trip to the store:

From the back left corner we have,

  • milk Organic Valley. I had been buying the local dairy milk, but although it’s surely better than regular commercial milk, it’s not any little family farm, it’s a big company, not organic and though they say they pasture their cows “when the weather is appropriate,” who’s to know? I’m torn on this one. A toss up. The Organic Valley milk does say it’s from “Southwest Pastures.”
  • whole wheat pastry flour organic because that’s my only choice. It is pretty expensive compared to the other wheat flour, but if you’ve ever used pastry flour, you know you can’t go back.
  • plain whole wheat flour non-organic. $3.50 if I remember right. That’s one of my compromises. I did try the King Arthur wheat flour, and it made a better bread, but I’m going to try just adding a bit more gluten and see if it makes this cheaper flour as good.
  • sugar ouy vey! I have gone back and forth and back and forth (literally) between the “dried” cane sugar in the bulk bins which is not fair-trade or even organic but a much more whole, healthy food than this cheaper but fair trade but bleached white sugar. What’s a girl to do?! They do have a fair trade “dried” sugar, but it’s in a teeny little bag and four times as expensive! I think I might continue to put the healthy stuff in the granola because it’s the Toddler who mostly eats that. Then use the responsible, nutritional disaster sugar for the desserts that mostly us big already fucked bodies consume…
  • just to the right and in front of that sugar is a big jar of molasses (FT and OG) which I am thinking I can add back into the white sugar in hopes of recovering a trace of nutrition.
  • coffee we’ve been getting the bulk Whole Foods brand of coffee. Fair trade of course. It’s $10/lb, which is quite a lot compared to the big Costco bags we used to get, also fair trade. But doubtlessly more responsible, right? Maybe? Oooo, they just started having “coffee cards” and when you buy five pounds of bulk, you get a pound free! That there is my fifth pound! Woo hoo! Next one’s on them! Hey, $10 is $10.
  • honey non-OG, but…. this is as far as I know, a great place to compromise.
  • maple syrup. From their bulk barrel. Always expensive, but so, so good. And good for you!
  • a can of enchilada sauce. There were two, but one went straight into dinner. We have a lot of home canned meat. A great quick meal for us is canned meat mixed with enchilada sauce and layered between corn tortillas. Takes about ten minutes to throw together, then while it bakes I make up a Mexican slaw with cabbage, onion, grated carrot and cilantro if I happen to have some. Dress with lemon or lime, white balsamic vinegar, olive oil and salt. Oh, so yummy!
  • that big mysterious bag dead center is cornmeal, organic. When I can remember I bring my own bags for bulk stuff. This bulk cornmeal was way cheaper than the prepackaged stuff, but make sure to check prices ‘cuz this is definitely not always the case. I’ve got to write this out for myself, because I always end up traipsing back and forth from the bulk bins to the baking products side, comparing prices.
  • salsa. Not organic. Not much to say about that.
  • cheese. Not organic. I mentioned my cheese conundrum earlier.
  • butter, yes, organic. And I even resisted the Horizon brand which was on sale for $4 (this OG Valley was $6) because of the previously mentioned Cornucopia Dairy Review.
  • Bengal Spice tea. The Toddler’s latest thing is tea parties. I let her pick her own box, and not surprisingly she chose the Tiger Tea.
  • spring mix. Organic. Spring mix is one of my fairly frequent treats to myself. I’d just as soon not eat a regular lettuce salad, even if it’s decent leaf lettuce. There needs to be some flavor to those leaves! Fortunately, WF sells it bulk, by the pound. Unfortunately, this probably means they throw a shit ton away.
  • golden beets, apples and oranges. When I go grocery shopping, I usually have “vegetables and fruit” on my list. Doesn’t matter so much what kind, I like almost all of ‘em. I look to see what’s on sale. If it’s cheap it’s probably in season, or they ordered too much and are trying to get rid of it so they have to throw less away. Either way, I’ll take it. When you compare prices, consider how much of the thing is actually edible. For example, these beets are almost entirely edible, whereas asparagus you throw about 1/3 the weight (therefore cost) into your compost bin. The apples are one thing I buy almost exclusively organic. The oranges were non, but they are lower on the list, plus you peel them. They were also on sale, for $1/lb…

(If you’re wondering why the proportion of veggies in my pile of food is small, it’s partly because we get veggies at the farmer’s market often, and also because I use a lot of frozen veggies. Frozen veggies are ever so gauche, but in my renegade way, I like to champion their cause. Consider this:

  1. For your health, the veggies are frozen relatively quickly after picking, unlike the “fresh” veggies which could have suffered weeks or even months of sitting around. Vegetables aspirate (breathe) and lose nutrients the longer they sit. Of course, something is lost with the freezing too, but it probably about equals out.
  2. For your pocketbook, they are usually about between $1 and $3/lb, depending if they’re organic or non. This sounds like fresh veggie prices, but since there is no waste, they are actually cheaper. Some things like spinach are lots cheaper.
  3. For your time, there is nothing quicker and easier than dumping a bag of frozen veggies into the pan. And when you’re a mama, there happens a lot of Moments where it’s all you can do to get food on the table, and if the vegetable kingdom is present, in any form, you get a gold star.)

Now, back to the conversation at hand.

  • just to the left of the apples is a bag of hard red wheat berries. I adore that Ezekiel sprouted grain bread, even though it’s always stale and dry from the store. I’ve long envisioned what a fresh loaf would taste like. A few months ago I made my first attempt (failed at 100% sprouted, but made some great, nubby 10%) and then life got a little crazy, and I had to table to idea. Well, I’m ready to try again, and I will keep you updated.
  • to the right we have a very long story, that I just don’t have time for right now. Whole wheat pasta. Suffice to say, if you hate the stuff like I did, don’t give up! Keep trying different brands. It apparently does not have to be mushy, pasty and otherwise disgusting!
  • Lastly we have eggs. I try to get farmers market eggs whenever I can, though they’ve often sold out by the time I get there. With eggs there’s less to guess at. Just taste ‘em. If the yolks are pale and the flavor mild, they’re penned up. If the yolk are deep yellow and the flavor good, they’re decently kept. If the yolks are orange, and the flavor so rich it’s almost meaty, you’ve got some happy hens. The “free-range” certification by the way does get them out of cages they can’t even turn around in, but it doesn’t exactly give them free range by any normal person’s standards. But, if all you’ve got for eggs is the store, it’s the best you can do.

Okay! Holy Crapporama! This post took me three days to finish. I’m ready to move on.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »