Bringing the Riot Home

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!

The Quiet Riot: Navigating Between Challenge and Overwhelm

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.

Frillery and Summer Plans

I never did extend my No-Frills 5 to 7, weekend included. Too hard to give up our weekend spending treats. Too hard to even want to.

But we’ll have plenty of time for weekends full of wholesome, creative, money-less activities this summer. Because, have I mentioned? We’re going home! We’ll be in our little coastal (read: cold and rainy) Alaskan town from mid-May through August.

I’ll be working part time, cooking at a local lodge. My Man will be working part time doing the same paper-wrenching he did before law school came along. We’ll split the parenting, which is always how I prefer it.

We do have a house back home, that we’ve been renting out, but we won’t be staying there. We’ll be living in an old broken down school bus! In the same hippie squat where we first lived together in My Man’s homemade tipi. Some folks might consider this going backwards, but we’re excited about it. It’s a great place to be, especially in the summer. It’s only a mile from town, and right off the road, so not bush living by any stretch. We can still go to the library whenever we want. And with a little community of good folks, and woods, marsh and a pond, it’s an awesome place for kids.

Although I haven’t been homesick really at all this winter, now that summer at home is approaching, I’m getting a yearning for mountains, wilderness, moss, dumpster diving, and especially friends who know me well. I’ve really made quite a few good friends here since my poor, lonesome me post. But there’s nothing like people who’ve known you for years… And especially having a community of friends. Pot-luck dinners, music jams, bonfires, “a pack of hippies” as we jokingly call ourselves to go berry picking, plant gathering, and adventuring. I’m sure I’m romanticizing, a lot of my good friends don’t even actually live there anymore, but nevertheless, I’m excited.

Every now and then My Man will get a restless look on his face and say, “Let’s do something fun tonight.” It’s interesting to compare what “something fun” ends up being in these two disparate locales. At home in Alaska, the only “fun” (which really means out of the regular routine) thing I can ever think to do is go for a hike. I had really imagined that here in New Orleans there would be so many exciting things to do at any given time. But in fact, with a toddler and a baby, “something fun” almost invariably means going out to dinner. There’s a few other things we do here, but they pretty much all involve money and consumption. We do walk or ride bikes in the park a lot, or go wandering around in the French Quarter, but even those often lead up to a purchase and frankly feel somewhat unsatisfying without one.

It’s the culture I guess. Here the culture is spending money. And don’t get me wrong, I am definitely enjoying it! I feel like a kid at the candy store with all the incredible food to be had here. (We just ate dinner at a Thai restaurant the other night that was divine. Scallops in a spicy basil sauce. Oh god, so good. But– there was a $52 bill at the end.) Still and yet, I do occasionally have a feeling of weariness about it all. And a sort of gladness that our time here is limited. I know myself, and my weaknesses, and although it’s fine for three years, it would be hard to balance in the long term.

So a little dose of home is in order. Where there are no scallops in spicy basil sauce, no chocolate croissants, no berry brioche, no 100 year old Italian gelato shops to tempt my weak self. Just good friends, fantastic pot-lucks, craggy mountains and wild rivers. Here we come!