Saturday, December 29, 2012

Do You Have Basic Survival Skills?

What is your basic needs skill set?  Can you make a shelter? Get potable water? Find or grow food? Make a fire? Put OUT a fire? Can you cook?  Over the past few years, I've been asking myself a lot of these questions and then when I find a gap in my basic skills knowledge, I try to fill it.

Can you cut wood for heat?  Can you fell a tree?  Cook over a fire?

Now a lot of people will say that having basic skills is not necessary today.  After all, we have central heating and air-conditioning, the stores always have food, and safe drinking water is practically free at the tap.  More chime in with knowing how to do things, like growing food, is a waste of their valuable time.  They don't camp or hike, why should they know how to make a basic shelter or build a fire?  That's for outdoorsy granola types, not for sophisticated urban and suburbanites.Wrong.  Look at what Sandy did to the people of the East Coast.  Look at what any large or small disaster does to the people in it's path. 

If you had 30 minutes and only the contents of your kitchen, could you cook a meal from scratch?  If not, why not?

I don't possess and keep gathering basic skills knowledge because I'm worried about some crazy ass disaster causing civilization as we know it to cease.  I do it to stay part of the world.  I am not some artificial, climate controlled, plastic person content to eat boxed food and watch the latest reality show.  I don't go outside only to get into my car or go for a daily run.  I like to be connected to others, the land, and what I put into my body.  It matters.  If you don't stay connected, you get sick.

Can you sew on a button?  Do you have a basic sewing kit?  If not, why not? 

I visited a friend in DC a few years back.  While touring Mount Vernon, I pointed out the peach trees in the orchard.  My friend, a corporate attorney, mused, "I didn't know peaches grew on trees."  Before you feel too superior, ask yourself if you know how to make butter or bread? Do you know how your food grows?  If not, why not?

Can you cut wood for heat?  Can you fell a tree?  Cook over a fire?

Can you use all the parts of a chicken?

Can you shovel dirt or snow without hurting your back?

Do you know what different clouds mean? 

Do you have First Aid/CPR training?

I'm in the process of cataloging my basic survival skills set and then I'll make another list of skills I'd like to learn in the new year.  I have no idea how to make soap.  I know I need lye (which I vaguely  know is made by dripping water through ash).  I have minimal knowledge of herbs beyond cooking uses.  I plan to remedy my lack of knowledge in both of these areas in the new year. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

My Happy Goddess Gardens Vision

I want to have a place in the country that people will want to visit because it brings them comfort or peace or solitude, a retreat of sorts.  I am rejuvenated after a day in nature: no computers, TV, or city noise.  I'd like to have a place that could do that for me as well as others.  If I do ever have the pleasure of tending a piece of land like that and people paid me to stay there, well that would be even more fantastic. 

I like where I live now: the suburbs. Being here means everything is very close and I'm lucky enough to be within walking distance of everything I need and be able to walk in a very large park/natural area that is next to my house.  However, there is a trade-off for having everything so close;  I don't get to see meteor showers because of light pollution, there is very little privacy outdoors, and my city limits what I can do in my yard (no chickens).

I'd build a couple of those tiny houses that fit everything in 200 square feet for visitors.  I'd make a meditation labyrinth.  Everything would be landscaped to look like those wild Irish gardens I saw when I traveled there a few years ago.

This time of year is always a tough time for me.  The garden is buried under a couple of feet of snow and temperature highs are below freezing every day.  The seed catalogs that I have bring a bit of lightness to my days, but spring seems so far away right now.  The holidays are just about over and I've had enough of family drama to last for forever.  The "fight or flight" part of my brain is on alert after family drama which means my sympathetic nervous system is beating up my parasympathetic system and wants me to MOVE VERY FAR AWAY. 

This is why a little quiet place, in the country, is so very attractive to me in Winter.  Instead, I do these stress busters and hang out in a room of my own almost daily. It's important to have goals and dreams, but even more important to live in the present and make the best of what you have right now.
The small room I retreat to during the day where I paint, sew, meditate, or read.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Preparing for the First Winter Storm of the Season

The weathermen are predicting that my area will get anywhere from 12-21 inches of snow in the next 24-36 hours with wind gusts of 40-50mph.  Definite white-out conditions.  We will have a White Christmas; we've had brown ones the past few years.

Roads are likely to be dangerous tomorrow for most of the day.  I teach Mondays through Wednesdays, so this is not an issue for me, and my husband will most likely be working from home.  For those that "have" to commute, you should have at minimum in your car: a half-tank of gas, a shovel, a blanket, a flashlight, water, sand or kitty litter, some granola bars and anything else that might help you wait out a blizzard if you get stuck in your car.  A few years back, the interstate here was shut down for 8-12 hours with trapped motorists on it during a blizzard.  That didn't look like fun at all. 

Make sure you have fuel for your alternative heating source.  I don't have an alternative heating source, but I do have ways to keep us warm in an unheated house if necessary.  See #3 on this post

My oldest daughter and I just got back from the grocery store.  I keep a full-pantry filled with staples like rice, beans, and pasta; and I have stored water, but we still needed things.  Since I do not know how long we'll stay housebound, I wanted to have a few days of fresh fruit and dairy products in the house. Since it's winter, if we did lose power, my garage can act as a giant refrigerator/freezer. Now is a good time to make sure you have enough toilet paper and food.  No one wants to have to drive to get those things in a bad storm.

The snow-blower is ready to be moved into the garage.  The shovels are in place.  Salt is ready to be spread on the front walk and driveway if necessary. 

I checked on my cold frame-that will have to be shovelled off a few times during the storm so the weight of the snow doesn't break it (I'm anal that way).  That means I'll be shovelling a path to my cold frame.

I'll also make sure my kids, who most likely will not have school, will have something to do beside veg out in front of the TV or computer.  Board games usually come out during blizzards and even teenagers like a big family day of game playing.

So those are the most obvious things I do when a storm is headed our way in the winter.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

5 Ways to Manage Holiday Stress

I walk on this path almost daily, regardless of the weather.
Most of us experience some stress during the holiday season. Financial worries, family dynamics, and unreasonable personal expectations are some of the many reasons we find ourselves angry, anxious, or frazzled; sometimes we feel all of this in one day.  This constant stress on our nervous systems is not healthy for us.  Unfortunately, most of the time we have no control over external pressure and stress.  However, we do have control over how we react to stress and how we cope with it.

1.  Don't spend more on gifts, parties, and food than you can afford.  This requires you to do some deep personal work.  What is important to you?  What do you look forward to the most over the holiday season?  If you look forward to having lots of gifts and you have a tight budget, you can either adjust your attitude, or you can find other means of cash flow without going into debt.  If spending time with others is most important, then think about hosting a potluck, a movie night or a sledding party.  Give a gift of a day of baking with a small child (and send them home with an apron or their own measuring cups/spoons).  Arrange to give a "homemade dinner of the month" to an older relative or a new parent. 

2.  Exercise daily.  It doesn't matter if all you do is march in place during the commercials of "Big Bang Theory"; that is still allowing your body to rid itself of stress in an appropriate way.  I walk almost every day for at least 30 minutes, outdoors, regardless of the weather.  Being outside has been shown to lower blood pressure and make you relax.  Turn the music up super loud and shake your booty.  Run up and down your stairs.  Do yoga.  Jog.  Just do something.

3. Eat healthier than you usually do and drink more water.  Try to have a piece of fruit or a serving of vegetables at every meal.  That's only 3 servings, but that's 3 servings more than most of us have in a day.  Cut down on junk food and sweets; indulge only when at parties.  If you indulge, indulge well.  Make it something you don't normally get to have (Norwegian krumkakas for me).

4.  Take a bath before bed.  Light candles, put on some soothing music, pour in bubbles and just soak.  Hot water is soothing to tense muscles.  Stress causes us to tighten up our necks, backs and hips.  Soak out the tension.  Try not to think; just lie back and feel the warmth spread throughout your body.  You'll sleep better, too.

5.  Have reasonable expectations.  Does your uncle always comment on your employment status?  Does your sister-in-law constantly have a dead animal up her ass?  Does your mother-in-law gossip about people you don't even know? Don't pretend that their personalities will change.  Chances are they are also feeling stress so know you will have to deal with their normal personalities, magnified.  Think about how the visit will probably go.  Make a plan for how to avoid certain people or how to excuse yourself from them when you get overwhelmed.  Worse comes to worse, don't go to the big family event.  See the people you want to see on a different day or host them at your home.  You do have control over who you choose to be with during the holidays. Read my in-law post here.

There is no magic pill to experience a Norman Rockwell holiday.  Perfect holidays don't exist because perfect people don't exist.  Sit back, observe, and try to see the humor in the stress.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Passive Solar Gain

When we bought our home almost nine years ago, we were not thinking about energy efficiency.  We were simply looking for a home that would fit 5 people and still be affordable.  The house we found was a 1980s ranch-style home. It is around 950 square feet above ground with another finished 600 square feet below ground, which is mostly a family room and a half bathroom. Our previous home, two hours away, had also been a ranch home, but a lot bigger.  Unfortunately, homes where we live now, cost 50% more, so we found the best fit for us.  Little did I know how good our decision would be.

My home faces north and is located on an East-West axis with no shade trees.  That means it gets full direct sunlight all day long. This is a real problem in the summer.  My south-facing deck is routinely 15-20 degrees warmer than the lawn on sunny summer days.  This summer we had many days with temperatures in the 90s.  You do the math.  We rigged up a removable awning to make the deck usable and to save my container plants from baking to death.

In the winter, though, this direct sunlight is an incredible boon.  We replaced our old screen door to our deck with one that was all glass about four years ago (because of our kitchen layout, we cannot have a patio door).  Now when I open the solid door to the south, the sun comes in that glass door and heats up the kitchen and living room to a warm 71 degrees.  My furnace only runs when the sun is not shining or if the temperature is below zero. 

I would encourage anyone who has a south-facing door to look into replacing any solid screen doors with full glass ones.  Mine has paid for itself several times over since the redo. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Celebrate the Winter Solstice

The Winter Solstice is Friday, December 21st, this year (summer solstice for those of you living below the equator): the shortest day and the longest night. It may have achieved such great importance in early societies because people did not always live through the winter.  January through April have often been called the "famine months".  In December, once it grew cold, livestock were often slaughtered as feeding them was difficult, which resulted in a plethora of fresh meat.  Then, as now, a bounty of food from crop harvest, or livestock slaughter, was cause for celebration.  Wine and beer made from the summer and fall harvests were also ready to drink. 

My family has celebrated the Winter solstice for years.  Celebrating the natural cycles of the earth is important to us and to impart this on our children, we make sure to recognize and celebrate the changing of the seasons.  Appreciating the light returning is a highlight of the end of the year for us.

In the days leading up to the solstice, I collect and take inventory of all of my candles.  I deep clean the house to purify it.

On the morning of the solstice, I do my sun salutations and meditate.  I smudge sage and burn incense for purification.  On the solstice, we do not use any regular artificial light, except for fairy lights, so as the afternoon gets dark, I light candles around the house.  These will be the only lights for the night.

The table is dressed in a white tablecloth and set with candles and pretty dishes.  Our meal the last few years has been Beef Carbonnade.  The meal is made of local and homegrown ingredients; the desserts, not as it's hard to find local chocolate in Wisconsin!  This year we will have our home-brewed beer and hard apple cider ready (and regular cider for our girls).

After our meal, we open our gifts.  We live a few hours from family, so celebrating on this night makes planning so much easier and more relaxed for us.  For us, the solstice is about enjoying the quiet night by candlelight, and being glad that the days will grow longer once again.

Happily for us, friends of ours also celebrate the solstice and on the next night, we will join them and about 50 other people for local food, drinks, and laughter, in their 100+ year old home lit only by candles and fairy lights.

The internet is full of the history and cultural celebrations of the solstice.  Find what appeals to you and works for your family, and let me know how you celebrated.

Blessed Yule!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Avoiding In-Law Drama

First, I have to say I love all of my in-laws, but I don't like all of them.  I adore one of my brother-in-law's and his wife.  Adore them.  Love my mother-in-law.  I love the people that helped shape my husband into the man he is today.

This post was going to be about why I no longer celebrate holidays or go to family gatherings with my in-laws.  I decided the specific reasons are really not important to anyone other than myself.  My husband and children still attend these events.  I simply choose to not put myself through the two months of anxiety.

My anxiety and panic attacks would start around Halloween because I know Thanksgiving is approaching, followed by Christmas.  At any family gathering, since we started dating way back in 1991, a sibling or girlfriend (later the wife) of a sibling would have at least one caustic remark for me.  If I took offense, I was told I needed to learn to take a joke.  Trying to be a good sport, I tried in the first few years to "joke" back, but then the sibling would be offended and pissy at me.

Gradually, over the years, I learned who to avoid; however, this gave me a reputation for being stuck up and lazy and slowly, the "teasing" became outright insults, culminating in one rather mean email to me from his sister's boyfriend that basically made it clear that they thought I was stuck-up, over educated, and self-centered. This "trying to imitate the tormentors" was the same ineffective strategy I used in junior high when the popular kids would pick on me.  FYI: still doesn't work.

At this same time, my oldest child had just been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder I.  I was beyond stressed out, having just quit my job teaching preschool and resigned my position as our local library board president so that I could focus on getting her healthy again.  I did not need adults in the family acting like junior high school girls, mad at me because I had taken their brother from them and changed him. I was done.

For years I had "played nice", overlooking the fact that I had never been welcomed by some.  I had always tried to laugh off the hurtful comments (again, failed junior high strategy).  I didn't want to ruin my husband's or children's visit with family by telling them they hurt me or to knock it off. My oldest, however, asked me, "Why do they treat you like that?" and I knew I had to do something.

It wasn't until recently that I realized I don't need to feel ashamed for other people's behavior or even worry about what they think of me.  That's none of my business anyway.  We continue to invite my in-laws to visit and most of them come, though not the ones who don't like me and I just remove myself from situations where I don't feel welcome.  I'm not bitter, though I was for a long time, instead I'm confused because I know I'm worthy of their love and respect.  I really think my sibling-in-laws are good at the core and since they love my children and they love my husband, for now, that will have to be good enough. When I do my lovingkindness meditations, I include them.

When you become part of another family, adjustment is normal.  Hurt feelings will happen as everyone readjusts to everyone's new roles.  Traditions change.   Gradually, though, adults need to realize that when they disrespect or are downright mean to their sibling's spouse, through being unwelcoming, gossiping, and insults, they are hurting their own sibling in the process.  

In my own situation, I don't know why a few siblings dislike me so blatantly but I think it boils down to one thing: my husband has always been very different than the rest of his family and they don't understand him.  So instead of trying to see him and accept him for who he is, I think I became the convenient scapegoat.  If his siblings understood him, they'd know my husband does not do anything he doesn't damn well want to do. Seriously.  If he doesn't want cake, he won't eat it.  If he doesn't want to be at your house at Thanksgiving, he will not go.

While me staying home while the rest go celebrate for the holidays may seem unfair, it has worked out pretty well.  Less stress, means fewer panic attacks, which makes me happier and my family happier and that's what we all really want over the holidays: less stress!

I hope your holidays are joyful and drama-free!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Buy Nothing Day

For most of my life, I have not set foot in a store on Black Friday, except when I was working retail.  When you work in the service industry, you get an interesting window into people's souls and most customers are great, but on Black Friday the bad ones are really bad. In 1989, as a 17 year old sporting goods salesperson, I had a woman my mom's age, scream at me because we'd sold out of the pocket knife she wanted that was $2.  Really?  THAT is a screamable offense? This was before a worker got trampled to death in 2008.  Death because people are so focused on getting a flat screen TV for $300 or the latest gaming system? 

So I avoid stores the Friday after Thanksgiving.  I don't even buy milk at the grocery store.  There is nothing I need to buy that I need to be around that frenzied energy and I will never understand people who thrive on it.  You can tell me it's how you bond with your friends, it's tradition, or whatever.  I simply choose differently.

This year, many stores are open on Thanksgiving!  How sad and yet how utterly American.  No longer do companies and corporations consider the workers because workers are expendable.  Large companies are now only concerned with getting their shareholders more money.  Employees used to be able to count on having off Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day.  Most of these workers aren't making more than minimum wage and many of them are working more than one job, so to be able to have a few days to spend with their families is precious.  Now stores are open on Easter, and this year, they're open on Thanksgiving.  How long before after Christmas sales begin on Christmas night?

While I'd like to blame the faceless corporations for being "mean", I can't.  It's the customer's fault.  They wouldn't be open on Thanksgiving if we didn't ask for it.  They wouldn't be open if we called to complain.  They wouldn't be open if no one showed up to shop. 

In my opinion, most of this consumerism is just to distract ourselves from ourselves.  It's easier to shop and buy things for people than to actually BE with ourselves and other people.  Our priorities are messed up.

So this year, like every other year, I will be celebrating Buy Nothing Day.  Instead of shopping and spending money on things we don't need, I'll spend the day with my family, which is worth more than the latest tech gadget and I hope the rest of you, if you do shop, decide to skip the Thursday sales.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Holiday Baking and Making

So this is the time of year that I attempt to plan out all of my holiday baking and holiday making.  Grocery stores have their best sales of the year on baking items right now so I stock up, hoping to make things last throughout the year.  Nuts are expensive, so I make sure to buy enough to last me throughout the year.  They'll go rancid in the cupboard after a while, so I have always mine stored in the freezer and they've not turned bad on me yet. 

I have an acquaintance who goes through her kid's Halloween candy and pulls out candy to use for holiday baking.  I may be frugal, but I'm not cheap and I'm not about to pimp my kid out on Halloween just so I don't have to spend money on a Snickers bar (unless of course the kid doesn't like the candy you need, then go for it).  Instead, I watch for sales and clip coupons for that stuff.

For most food I try very hard to use organic and local ingredients or at the very least, make my food from scratch.  However, for the holiday treats that we have only once a year, I am not that anal.  I happen to like the snickers brownies my mom made for years and I feel no remorse in eating them, even knowing those candy bars are not healthy or organic.  I try to be flexible, not rigid, at the holidays.

This is also the time of year when I am scouring the Internet looking for ideas of what to make my girls for a gift.  They each get three gifts and I like one to be handmade/homemade.  This year, like every year before, I'm a bit stumped.  However, two of my girls are Dr. Who fans, so I think I may focus on what I can make with that theme.  Since they read my blog, I can't go into further details (I already know what I'm going to try to do) but I'll let you all know after the Solstice.

I have about a dozen students that I give a small gift to each year.  Usually it's a coffee mug with a candy cane, a packet of hot cocoa and some candies.  Girl Scout leaders usually get some of my preserves and some baked goods.  I like to give special consumable goods to the important adults in my girls' lives because not everyone likes a candle or scented lotion, but everyone eats.

Let me know what some of your favorite gifts to bake and make are for the holidays.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Turning a box into a display vase

I've wanted one of those large floor vases for awhile now, but in no way did I want to pay $30 or more for something I'll use to display twigs.  Being the master of repurposing regular household items, I came up with this free way to make a container.

First I found a box the right size and height.  My youngest daughter is in the middle of selling Girl Scout cookies, so I had boxes.  I taped up the open long side and then cut away one of the square ends with a razor blade.

Next I used my glue gun and a couple of skeins of yarn that I had on hand and glued and wound yarn around the box and voila-30 minutes later I have a floor vase.

Not bad for free.

*Update 11/12/2012:  In case it isn't obvious, you can also spray paint, decoupage, or cover the box with fabric.  I used yarn because it was what I had on hand that was abundant.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Walking My City

I don't drive much.

Actually, I don't even like to drive.  If I know I need to run errands with a car, my first thought is, "Can I get my husband/kids/anyone to do it?" I live in a city and if I cannot walk there, I don't want to go. 

This could be because I really am a hermit at heart.  I'm one of those "friendly" introverts. It's not an oxymoron, it's a personality trait. Once I'm around people, I'll talk to them. A LOT.  I really really really talk A LOT.  I like people.  Except when I don't.  Then I stay home.

I like walking around town, seeing how people's mostly ugly yards (okay, so I'm a smidge judgmental about beauty in yards) change throughout the year. There's a few homes in a pricey neighborhood blocks away that have shrubs and trees 12 inches from the foundation.  If you can afford a $500,000 house, hire a landscaper because clearly you have no flipping idea what you are doing (and you belong in a condo). 

 I make up stories about different neighbors as I regularly walk past their homes.  I told my husband that the neighbors a block over are in the witness protection program.  This is based on their ownership of two large guard dogs that go batsh*t crazy whenever I walk past the house, the fact that I've never seen the husband, and lastly because they moved to the suburbs in Wisconsin, where they have no family, from NYC.  Witness protection makes the most sense. 

I'd never come up with these Sherlock type deductions if I drove past these homes.  You're welcome.

Canning Jar Band Pumpkin

I saw this on the internet somewhere and had to do it.  Finally a reuse for those rusty jar bands that I can't use in canning anymore.  The stem are a bunch of purple plum twigs I got from my yard. The lids are strung together and tied with some yarn.  Cute, right?

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Making Frugal Christmas Gifts

In previous posts, I have talked about how many of my holiday gifts are handmade/homemade.  My favorite gifts to receive have also been homemade.  I enjoy giving them because I enjoy creating items that are useful or delicious and because it is a more frugal alternative to the obscene amount of money most Americans spend on gift giving.  If cutting back on your holiday spending is something you are interested in, I recommend reading Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson and Jean Cappock Staeheli or Hundred Dollar Holiday by Bill McKibben.

Most of my gift giving involves food: jars of preserves or baked goods.  My husband's grandmother gets a large container of homemade cookies and candy to put out for visitors from us.  This year I will be repurposing my saved shortening containers for cookie containers.  They're plastic and recyclable where I live, but I still like to reuse even recyclable items.  I'll cover the white containers with fabric scraps so that the container itself will also be a gift-much nicer than those gift bags and more durable.

My sister moved across country this summer, so I'll be sending a package of homemade preserves for her family, though I did pick up some inexpensive items for my niece and nephew (children don't seem to like a jar of pickles for Christmas). In past years, I have sewn doll clothes, doll blankets, and knitted hats and scarves. 

I cross-stitched stockings and filled them for my husband's parents one Christmas and sewed napkins for another. They also get a box of "canned goodness" as I like to call it: jellies, salsa, and baked goods each year.  I will admit that these homemade gifts do not seem as appreciated as store bought ones by my husband's family and if that's the case in your own family, you'll either have to purchase an acceptable gift, or just deal with the fact that not everyone places the same value on the same things.

My parents do not like to receive store bought presents for the holidays.  They simply want to visit with family and friends.  They also receive an assortment of canned preserves from my garden, along with some baked goods, and sometimes some home brewed beer.  This year, they may be lucky enough to get some hard apple cider.

One year I sewed bed quilts for my daughters and an entire collection of doll clothes.  Last year I knitted a Slytherin scarf and hat for my oldest daughter.  Not sure what I'll make for them this year. (Update 12/22/12: I made my oldest daughter, a "Dr. Who" fan, this weeping angel from an old Barbie Doll.)

Don't blink.

I've bought terracotta pots and painted them to look like Santas, filled them with treats and given those away to teachers.  Potted herbs and plants from seeds and cuttings make great gifts, as well.  I've taken 2L soda containers, cut a vertical slit in the side, and slipped in goodies for an unusual gift container.  I've also saved potato chip bags, cut them open, washed them and used the shiny silver inside as gift wrapping and bows.

Because I enjoy making things, the gifts and sometimes the wrappings satisfy my creative urge and produce a beautiful item for someone else to enjoy.  I also like knowing that I am not contributing to the continued consumerism and commercialization of a holiday that has become more about showing everyone how you bought your child a laptop, than about family and friends.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

My fall/winter garden

Cold frame in back and chard in front.

One of my favorite reasons to grow food year round is the ability to have something fresh with supper.  Once late fall arrives, that fresh produce may only be a few times a week, but it becomes a treat. Last year I had salad greens growing in my cold frame throughout winter, for the first time ever due to a mild winter.

This morning, I harvested salad greens (buttercrunch lettuce, black seeded simpson, and rainbow chard) out of my cold frame-I planted the seeds in September.  I'm making pasta with dried tomatoes in an alfredo sauce for tonight's supper and the salad greens will make a nice addition to that heavy meal (along with some carrots, fresh bread, and wine). Normally I would wait until just before the meal to pick greens, but the weather is blustery and stormy and I didn't want to be wrestling with my cold frame lid-it turns into a sail in the wind.

Once winter gets here, my veggies will stop growing, but they don't die in the cold frame.   Instead they sort of hibernate until the temps warm up a bit and then they start growing once again.  The large rainbow chard plant in the front garden of the picture is two years old this fall.  It went to seed this year and I saved them and planted some in the cold frame bed and saved some more to plant in February as the temps inside the cold frame will make the soil warm enough for growth.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

My Updated Suburban Homestead Reading List

Some of the books in my personal library.

Peak Oil Survival by Aric McKay.  Info on Obtaining water, treating water, bathroom issues, keeping food cool, Heating food, and a smallish section on Lighting and Heat.

Collapse by Jared Diamond.  History refresher on how and why past societies have collapsed.

Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin.  Originally written in 1981, this is a book about living in balance and stories of those who have adopted this lifestyle.

Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen. The essential guide to becoming a producer, not a consumer.

Food Security for the Faint of Heart by Robin Wheeler.  Simple techniques for securing your food supply in an insecure world.

The Urban Homestead Kelly Coyne and Eric Knutzen.  A guide to self-sufficient living in the city.

Toolbox for Sustainable City Living by Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew. How to build and grow your homestead with cheap, salvaged, and recycled materials.

The backyard Homestead  edited by Carleen Madigan.  A Storey book helping you learn how to produce all the food you need on just 1/4 of an acre.

Little House in the Suburbs by Deanna Caswell and Daisy Siskin. Two friends share their knowledge of backyard farming and home skills for self-sufficient living.

Four Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman.  Excellent, easy information on growing vegetables in your home garden all year long.  My gardening bible.

Storey's Basic Country Skills John and Martha Storey.  Almost everything you need to know about everything to become self-reliant.

The Encyclopedia of Country Living by Carla Emery.  The original maunal for living off the land and doing it yourself.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Living a Simple Life from Scratch

In 1986, I was in eighth grade and my sister in 2nd grade when my mom went to work full-time.  I remember that first year we got a lot of new things: new car, our first microwave, a color television, a VCR, and a clothes dryer.  I was super excited for all of these things. No longer did I have to cringe when my friends came over and had to watch one of our FIVE black and white TVs (we had five, because grandparents kept giving us their old ones and my parents hung onto all of them). Mostly, though, I was excited for the dryer.  I hated hanging up laundry outside.  It was my job and it took so long and at fourteen I had lots of other important things to do like...moping around and irritating the rest of the household.

The car, a Mercury Lynx, was an awesome little red station wagon until I got my license two years later.  That crappy car liked to shut off just as I was making a left turn off of busy roads.  Seems it only ever happened to me so my mom blamed me for doing something to it.  After about the twelfth time, it happened to her or my dad and the speed control module (or something) was shorting out. They gave me that car when I got married.  We traded it in a year later.  Was a crappy piece of...

The microwave was an experiment in bad cooking.  Mom bought frozen microwavable french fries and hamburgers that claimed to taste just like fast food (they didn't).  We bought the microwavable cakes, cookies, and brownies that cooked inside some sort of aseptic plastic tray (always turned out disgusting). I'm not sure how many things were cooked too long and became hard as rocks.  After a few months, I abandoned it as a cooking tool altogether.

The color television was fantastic.  All 19 inches of it. Add to it the VCR and I could watch the only movie we owned (E.T.) all I wanted, which was never.  We didn't have cable so I would take blank tapes to my babysitting gigs, tape MTV (back when they actually played videos all day) and then come home and freeze frame George Michael's butt in his "Faith" video.  What a cultural step forward!

Interesting then, that as an adult, I've come to not care for any of those things my parents bought that first year.  I rarely use a microwave, I hardly ever watch television, and I LOVE hanging laundry.

There's just something very satisfying about using my own hands to do things and produce things.  We own an electric mixer, restaurant quality, that I never use.  My husband will use it on the rare occasions that he makes bread (no hand kneading) or makes cookies (no stirring).  I love to knead bread and stir dough.  I have control over the texture and thickness and frankly, it tastes better.

I think making things with my own hands gives me a sense of accomplishment that I wouldn't get otherwise.  It's why I have never held an office job.  Most of those have nothing tangible for me to look at at the end of the day and say, "Look at what I did/made!"  A day of baking yields a lot of tasty tangibles.  Neither is better than the other, but the latter is better for me.

Many people see handmade or homemade items as something only those who are very cheap or have lots of free time, do.  I'm often surprised at how many people look down their noses at me over my choice to make things from scratch (food, quilts, clothes, art) rather than buying them and having a full-time job away from my home.

I think creating things, whether that creation is a meal, a quilt, or a flower garden, is an innate human need.  Having something tangible to show after a few hours of work means "I matter" and that your life has purpose beyond earning a paycheck.  It's hard to be anything other than satisfied and proud when you've cooked a meal for folks and they sincerely thank you.
I think if we all spent a little more time creating and a little less time shopping and watching television, we'd be a happier, more content nation. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Frugal and Low-Carbon Suburban Living

Finding new ways to reduce my carbon footprint and spending is something I am constantly searching in books and on the Internet.  Over the weekend I read Cooler Smarter by the Union of Concerned Scientists, hoping to get some more ideas. The good news is also the bad news for me and my family: we're already doing almost everything they suggest.

I line dry all of my clothes.

The great thing about living a low-carbon lifestyle is that you spend less money. Line drying my clothes means I don't buy fabric softener sheets, I don't pay to use a dryer, and my clothes don't wear out as fast.

Making my own laundry detergent and household cleaners saves BIG BUCKS and is healthier for everyone in my home.  Vinegar, baking soda, soap, and borax don't cost much and do not take much time to make.

Growing most of our produce saves money and gas and is free exercise.  I do not belong to a gym.  I use the "earth gym".  Raking, hoeing, and digging in my garden.  Walking and running in my neighborhood.  I have my parents' old Walk-Fit Nordic Track that is self-powered and on an incline for when the weather doesn't cooperate. No membership fees and no electricity to power equipment.

Meals are almost always from scratch and are always better than what I can get in a restaurant anyway. The ingredients are cheaper and I know what they are and except for grains, are mostly local.  Using time constraints as an excuse to eat prepackaged food is dishonest.  Even when I was in school full-time, working full-time, and had a toddler, I still made most of our meals from scratch.  Takes preplanning.  If you have time to watch TV, you have time to plan meals and make them.  Period. Be honest and say you don't want to cook from scratch, don't tell me you don't have time.

I hate to drive if I can walk or bike somewhere.  My kids walk home from school every day (about 2 miles).  That isn't far and it's good exercise. My most expensive hobby is yoga.  I pay $10/week for 2 classes.  Those 2 yoga classes have helped keep my joints healthy and mostly injury free so that I can be as active as I want doing other things.

Travel is paid for by combining my husband's work trips with credit card rewards, and I pay our credit card bill off each month. The only debt we have is our mortgage and my oldest daughter's student loans.

Clothes are bought on clearance or at rummage sales. I have three daughters and they wear hand-me-downs. When their clothes are too worn out to use, I will cut them apart for quilts, use them as rags, and sometimes unravel the sweaters for yarn or turn them into mittens.

We rarely use the air-conditioning except for hot, high pollen summer evenings.  My home is East-West oriented (we have since moved, but still have solar gain) and is able to capture a lot of solar heat in the winter; so much so that my furnace rarely runs on sunny winter days.  The thermostat is set at 64F when everyone is home and at 60F at night. I have thermal curtains on the windows in the north facing bedrooms to keep the heat in during the evenings.

I've been doing these cost-saving and low carbon things for years now, they've become second nature to me. Other people's homes with their Keurigs, Glade plug-ins, and disposable plates/napkins shock and sadden me because of how wasteful it is. That is a lot of garbage and energy to toss away every day. We should all use less and be more conscious of what we use because our resources are finite.  The skills and ways of living that are dying with our grandparents may become a necessity in the future.

Monday, October 1, 2012


Park next to my home.

Autumn is my favorite season.  The growing season is coming to an end and I've harvested almost everything that was growing in my large gardens, except for a few tomatoes that are slowly trying to turn orange.  My 4' by 8' cold frame has onions, carrots, and tiny salad greens growing that I will be able to collect for the next few months.

This is a resting time for me after 2 seasons of hard work.  Autumn is sunny and warm enough for me to get out and enjoy nature for nature's sake without the work of growing food.  I take lots of walks around my neighborhood and through the park above, almost daily, feeling the crunch of newly fallen leaves and deeply inhaling the smell of their decomposition.  With a park like this, it's almost criminal NOT to get out and enjoy it but there are plenty of neighbors who barely touch the outdoors, preferring the climate controlled air of their homes.  Amazing how quickly we've forgotten that we are nature, too, but I think Autumn reminds us in a way no other season can that we are part of nature (even if some of us are inside our houses).

Monday, September 24, 2012

Living in the Suburbs

I live in a city of about 30,000 people, 12 miles from our state capitol and a Big Ten university.  Most of the time I'd rather live in the actual city or out in the country.  Lucky for me, our house and yard are next to a 150 acre park, so I can see woods and farmland. Since this is where I am right now, and I like to live in the present, not in the past, nor dreaming about the future, then this is where I have to "bloom".

Luckily, my city didn't start out as a suburb.  It simply grew from a small town into a city because of it's proximity to the university and government.  Also, because it had more affordable housing than similar communities nearby.  My house is somewhat centrally located, meaning our family can walk to the schools, library, pool, parks, post office, grocery store, restaurants, and numerous chain stores. We can bike to our doctor and dentist if we want (about 3 miles).  There is no safe way to bike into the city-we have to navigate around a shopping mall without bike paths and the roads are NOT bike friendly.

I am limited in what I can do in my yard. My neighbor can have a barking crapping dog the size of a pony, but I cannot have 3 quiet chickens.  I'm sure it's for "health and safety reasons" but my city doesn't seem to care that people let their cats roam around free and the city doesn't enforce it's leash laws for dogs, so if you're a runner or walker be prepared to have dogs barking and jumping up on you with an idiot owner saying "He wont hurt you, he's just friendly".  So if my husband sees some guy walking past our house, my husband can run up and jump and lick the stranger and I can say "He won't hurt you, he's just friendly."

It's not as difficult living a sustainable life in the suburbs as you might think.  I walk to do a lot of my errands and I teach piano out of my home, so I don't use a car much.  That also means I don't have to buy a gym membership (or drive to one).  Our house sits on an East-West axis and on sunny days, passive solar gain heats the inside up into the 70s.  We don't have to run our furnace much.  We also keep our thermostat set at 60F at night and 65F during the day.  I save baking for cold days and wear layers in the winter. 

We have a pie-shaped lot on a cul-de-sac with a tiny front yard that faces north and a large backyard that faces south where my gardens are.  Our deck is always about 20 degrees warmer than the yard which means I have a variety of micro-climates AND get to be outside longer than my neighbors.  In the summer heat, we have an awning that we put up to keep the sun's rays off the deck and the house.  It cost less than $100 to make. 

I grow most of our produce and then preserve it for winter and early spring eating.  I also make most of the gifts we give (food, quilts, paintings...).  Almost every meal we make is from scratch, though not every ingredient is locally sourced or organic. 

I'm an introvert and homebody at heart, so going out to mingle in large groups of people is not on my to-do list.  I'm most content working in my yard or doing home "work".  I like people to come to me. I love to make food and host people in my home and I think I've made a nice, cozy comfortable place for people to relax and want to visit.  At least I hope so!

Moving into the city, would be great for my husband's commute to his position at the university, but I'd lose my gardens.  Moving to the country would be great as I could finally get chickens and get a wood stove...but that would mean a much longer commute for work and school.  So for now, I'm doing my best to embrace where I am, honing my crafts and skills for when I may actually need to rely on that knowledge on a daily basis out of necessity.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Happy Autumnal Equinox! Blessed Mabon!

In our family, we pay attention to the earth and the passing of the seasons.  Like most people, I have my favorite time of year and that is Fall, which begins on September 22nd this year.  On this day (as with the Spring Equinox), Day and Night are equally divided.

I'm an earth mother.  My life calling is to nurture my children, other people, and the soil.  I pay attention to the changes in people and in my environment and celebrate and acknowledge them.  By celebrating the changing of the seasons, I reinforce my own awareness of the earth and my place in it.

As Mabon approaches this week, I will be fall cleaning in preparation for the coming cold and dark months when my family, along with the plants, will be resting, waiting for the days to become long again.  I'll decorate my home in the gorgeous reds, golds, and browns of fall.

The Autumnal Equinox is not a formal celebration here.  I'll make a meal of mostly local food, much of which will have come from my own gardens and drink our home brewed beer made from our own grain and hops.  Mabon is a celebration of the harvest and a time to show gratitude to all that we've been given during the growing season. Now would be an excellent time for me (and you) to donate food to your local food pantry.

As the light and dark will be in balance, so I will also try to be in balance through my daily meditation and yoga.  Now is an excellent time to start a gratitude journal.

Now is also a good time to take inventory of your food pantry.  Make a list of what needs replenishing and visit your farmer's market before the season is over.  Embrace the coming dark and cold by airing out your home, putting warm blankets and flannels on your bed, and going through your closets to bring out your warm clothes (and to donate what no longer fits).

Instead of grumbling about the coming cold weather, try living in the present and breathing in the smells of the decaying leaves and let your eyes be delighted with the riot of color that the trees produce and know that as the days begin to shorten, and the nights lengthen, this is just an opportunity to embrace the beauty of another season of nature.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Be Prepared for Economic, Climate, and Energy Uncertainty

We need to make changes to our way of life.  Politicians like to go on about how the American way of life in "nonnegotiable" and I agree.  We have to STOP our way of life if we want to leave anything for future generations that even closely resembles "the good life".  We don't save enough money (I know I don't), we eat too much "tan" food that consists of sugar and fat, we want it all and we want it NOW.  Like Veruca Salt in "Willy Wonka" , things aren't going to end well for us if we continue.

Change is best done in small steps.  Going cold turkey on your carbon heavy way of life is noble, but unreasonable and unattainable for 99% of us.  Small changes work best when trying to change any type of behavior.  Losing weight is easier if you simply start logging meals, then adding in some exercise a few weeks later, eating one more fruit or vegetable a day, etc.  The same goes for living a more ecologically conservative lifestyle.  Small steps lead to big leaps and changes in thought processes.

I just finished reading Sharon Astyk's book Making Home: Adapting Our Homes and Our Lives to Settle in Place .  It's about improving our lives with the resources we already have, becoming more resilient, and transforming our lives in the face of economic, climate, and energy uncertainty.  It is by no means a "doomsday" book.  It's more of a "pull your head out of your ass and be prepared" book.  My grandparents' generation seems to be last to do this as a matter of course.  My parents' boomer generation, the "disposable generation", as a whole, did not raise my generation (the Xers) to be planners or prepare.  My mom rarely had more than a few days worth of food on hand.  Not because we were poor, but because she just didn't.  To her, much of that way of thinking reminded her too much of how poor she was growing up in WV Coal country.

We need to rethink what is necessary in life.  We do not all need to live in big houses with cathedral ceilings, media rooms, 3.5 baths, 3 car garages, AC or heat going all the time, and stainless steel appliances we don't cook on. We don't even need to have multiple bathrooms.  Needs and wants are different.

My house is 985 sq feet above ground.  That includes 3 small bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen and big enough living room for my piano and a television.  Our full basement is finished with a large family room, a half-bath, and my 8 x8 foot yoga/meditation/art studio. Five of us live in this house with about 1500 finished square feet. Luckily, our basement could be turned into a small apartment if any of our three girls ever had to move in with us with a family.  People lived in much smaller quarters and with more people for most of human history. If you are lucky enough to own a home, take stock of how you could change it to allow for relatives to move in if there comes a time, or think about downsizing.  Those cathedral ceilings are a serious waste of space and heat.

We need to get away from thinking that bigger is better.  We need to become more community centered and accept that in the coming years, we may not get the affluent lifestyle our parents or grandparents enjoyed with travel and a house all to our own.  We may go back to multigenerations living under one roof.  The era of selfishness has to end or we're all doomed.

Meet your neighbors.  Walk around your neighborhood and say hello to people. Take neighbors baked goods at Christmas time or invite them over for a beer on a hot summer day.  Hang out in your front yard once in awhile so that you can see what's going on, instead of just hiding in your house or on your deck.  I have excellent neighbors.  They're outside with their kids, we get together on a regular basis for informal bonfires or winter card games.  A few neighbors keep to themselves, but because most of us are outside so much, everyone at least recognizes one another. We've all helped each other with various yard or home projects and know each others' kids.  It's time for everyone to begin building that sort of community where they live. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Homemade Cake Doughnuts


I'm a firm believer in making my own junk food. There may be a lot of fat in frying food, but at least I can pronounce the ingredients!  These doughnuts taste much better than anything you'll get at a grocery store and remind me of going to visit my grandparents on their farm-my grandma always had homemade doughnuts on hand to dunk in her coffee.

3 1/4 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
2 beaten eggs
2/3 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2/3 cup milk
1/4 butter, melted

Stir together the first 5 ingredients.  In large bowl, combine eggs, sugar and vanilla and beat until thick.  Combine milk and butter.  Add the flour mixture and milk mixture alternately to the egg mixture;  beat just until blended after each addition.  cover and chill for about 2 hours (it's a sticky dough).

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough to about 1/2 inch.  Cut with doughnut cutter.  I get about 16 doughnuts and holes out of one batch.

Fry in deep, hot fat (the only thing I use our Fry Daddy for) about 1 minute each side or until golden.  Drain on cooling racks with dishtowels underneath.  While warm, shake in sugar or cool and dip in a glaze (I whisk a bit of milk into powdered sugar).

*to flavor the glaze, I'll use 2-3 Tablespoons of whatever juice or thinned down jelly I have on hand in place of milk.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Adapting in Place

Let me be absolutely clear:  I like to move. I have never felt compelled to put down roots anywhere. I moved a lot as a child until age 9 due to my father's job (the only way, at that time, to get promoted in the Federal government was by moving).  We settled in Appleton, Wisconsin which after having spent 4 years living outside of DC, I thought it was the whitest place in America where the people had an unusually high regard for cheese and sausage (two things I still don't really like).  I don't know if I like moving because I did so much as a small child, or if it's because that's the American culture, or if I simply have gypsy blood in me.  What I do know is that after 3-4 years in one place, I get itchy feet and start grumbling, wanting an adventure.  My husband and I had always moved every couple of years (cheaper rent, better rental, first house, newer house...) and then we moved outside of Madison eight years ago.

I love this area.  Madison is the state capitol and has a Big Ten university so this city of 200,000+ people plays like a much bigger city.  Drive 10 minutes out of the city and you're in rolling farmland.  I love being outdoors and the number of county and state parks to hike in and canoe in are great.  People don't look at me funny when I say I grow most of our vegetables and fruits for the year, that I don't eat much meat or that I like food called quinoa.

But still, even with all of this that I love about this area, a big part of me is ready to move on.  I'd like to live somewhere, again, where it isn't so damn flat and familiar.  When I travel to different parts of the country, with different landscapes, I get teary when my car crosses back into Wisconsin.  Not because I miss the state I live in, but because I miss the changing and sometimes angry landscapes of elsewhere.

My friend Todd's lake, that I painted.
I doubt that I'll have the opportunity to live and absorb another part of the country and I grieve that every so often.  Oftentimes, I end up going into my studio and painting the landscape I want to wake up and see and that helps.  It's easy to get caught up on what I don't have, can't have and forget to appreciate what I do have and what I can have. 

Southwest Wisconsin has rolling hills that often remind me of the Appalachians where my aunts, uncles, and cousins live.  In a few years, I'd like to buy some land in SW Wisconsin and build a small cabin.  If not to live in permanently, then to at least use as an escape.  I get overwhelmed by groups of people and I absorb others emotions which exhausts me and can put me into a downward spiral if I let it.  Here in the city, I escape to my studio to paint, meditate, or practice yoga.  It is understood by everyone in my home that unless there is blood, I am never to be disturbed in my "room".

So I work hard to adapt to this place, trying not to be resentful, and turn my home and yard into, if not my perfect place, my place. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Harvest Time is Here!

Small part of the harvest, early on.
 Late August into October is the busiest time of year for my gardens.  All of the work that I put into planning my gardens, starting seeds, planting and weeding has finally produced the bounty.  I grow food year round in my Wisconsin yard with the help of coldframes and hoophouses, but the amount of fruits and vegetables that ripen in the fall will never cease to boggle my mind.  Every fall, in about October, I swear I'm going to plant less next year.  Every January that garden porn comes in the mail and I'm lusting over seed packets for heirloom tomatoes, purple carrots, and weird looking squash. I grow enough in all of my gardens that we have homegrown produce until April or March in the freezer, dried in the cupboard, or in canning jars in the pantry.

Pressured canned veggies

 My mother-in-law bought me a pressure canner for Christmas several years ago.  The best present she's ever gotten me.  I confuse the hell out of my in-laws, which was always apparent in the bizarre gifts I'd get each year (a Snuggie?  Really?).  My gifts of canned "goodness" confused them even more.  My Holly Hobbie ways can be a bit hard to understand if you think supermarket produce actually tastes good...

More canned veg.

Right now I have about 30 pounds of tomatoes waiting to be skinned (unskinned? deskinned?).  It's an easy enough process of boiling the tomatoes for about 60 seconds and immediately plunging them into ice cold water.  Skin peels right off!  I'll start working on that this afternoon and freeze them until I have time to can them whole and make a lot into salsa.

So for the next month, I'll be frazzled and entertaining for those around me to watch as I try to get in all of the fruits and vegetables and process them during the first month of the school year (I teach piano in the afternoons).  By the time mid-October rolls around I am looking forward to snow!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

"Over"parenting Our Kids

I usually use this blog to write about gardening and self-sufficiency, but I just got back from taking my youngest child to 8th grade registration. It's a new school this year and she is excited to start.

When I was in school 20+ years ago, we didn't have registration each year.  On the first day of school, we got handed a stack of papers in homeroom to take home to have our parents sign along with bills for fees.  My children's school district has the kids come in a few weeks before the start of the year.  Everything gets done at once and the kids familiarize themselves with locker combinations, class schedules and see old friends.

At registration, I hang back and let my kids do most of the talking.  When staff look at me and ask for a name, I have my daughter answer.  SHE takes the papers and holds them for safekeeping.  SHE then asks where to go (sometimes with a prompt from me).  I do this at doctor's offices, as well.  If it is their appointment, then I have them check in.  I do not answer questions for them.  I want to raise kids who are empowered and comfortable speaking to adults and conveying and asking for information. 

I'm amazed at how many parents, in doctor's offices and at school registration (or anywhere), do everything for their kids.  By the time your kids are teenagers, they should be able to handle registration with you as the observer, not them.  Too many kids I saw were following their moms around while the mom held their schedule and told them where everything was.  Their kids looked distant and bored. Of course they were.  Why should they even try to take charge, clearly their parent thought they were incapable of it.  Kids become what we tell them and show them they are.

The kids who held their schedule and were taking charge were engaged in conversations with their peers and their parents (and usually they were with Dad).  I had to tell my child to slow down a few times because she was reading the map (on her own) and racing ahead to find classrooms.  Sometimes she went the wrong way and got stumped.  She'd then take out the map, get her bearings, and then tell me which way to go.

Let your kids stumble and fail during these things.  What is the worst that will happen?  They'll lose a paper?  Their hair will look weird in their school picture?  That you might have to call school later to find out where the bus stop is?  She'll get lost in a new school?

When my oldest was in high school softball, I never went to her practices, only to her games.  I was the minority.  Most parents were at every practice.  WHY?  The coaches don't need you there and your child certainly doesn't want you there.  I know this from teaching piano.  I do not mind parents sitting in on an occasional lesson, BUT every time a parent does sit in on one, EVERY TIME, their child does more poorly, is more self-conscious, and oftentimes misbehaves. Stop hovering.

I think we've become so concerned with protecting our children from failure and striving for perfection, that we're creating future adults who think failing is bad and perfection is good.  Neither is true.  Frankly, it's the opposite.

Let your children be their own advocate in this small stuff as they get older.  The more experience they have with taking control of their own schooling, health, etc., the more likely that when a big problem arises, they will have some skill in knowing how to deal with it and how to ask for help.

We all love our kids and there's no one-size-fits-all manual.  I just wish more parents would let their kids do more things on their own.  Stumbling is normal.  It's our job as parent's to help kids learn how to get back up after a fall, big or small.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Adapting Your Home for Climate Change

A warming world doesn't sound so bad.  What's 2 degrees?  Except 2 degrees is the global average.  Most of us will not just have a slightly warmer winter.  Rising global temperatures will mean that climates across the globe will change.  The climate where you live will become less calm and extremes in heat and cold, drought and floods, will become more common.  I am pessimistic that our political leaders will be able to accomplish anything to prevent the world from warming more, so my focus has turned from changing minds to preparing my home, yard, and family for weather extremes.

In my climate (5a/5b) in the Midwest, we can normally range from low 90's for a few days each summer to temperatures of 30-40 below zero in the winter.  Droughts and floods happen.  More recently though, each year we seem to experience one extreme: lots of heavy rains resulting in floods, no rain resulting in crop loss and an explosion of insects, prolonged and frequent heat waves, warmer winters without a deep frost to kill insects or snow pack to replenish groundwater, or 100 inches of snow in a winter.  There is no "normal" year around here anymore. 

I keep asking myself what I can do to adapt to this new normal.  Some prepper websites and blogs will say to move to the hills and set up a rural homestead.  That only makes sense to me if you have a working knowledge of rural life and/or have very close family/friends who would help.  Also, we all still need money to buy things and access to health care and insurance.  My oldest daughter has bipolar disorder so being close to medical facilities/doctors and having insurance is very important. My husband also works in the city, at a job he likes, so a rural homestead isn't practical for us.  I am not an alarmist by nature, but I do need security and preparing as best as I can for possible events seems the intelligent thing to do. 

So this is what I am doing and have done to adapt the house we live in to deal with extreme weather:

 Replaced all of our crappy builder grade windows with high quality energy efficient windows (Anderson).  We lose a lot less heat in the winter and the house stays a lot cooler in the summer. On hot days I keep the windows on the East and South side of our home closed and the blinds and curtains drawn to keep out heat.  I put up an awning on our south facing deck to shade and cool down the deck so as to not radiate heat into the closed up house.  At night, we place window fans in our windows to draw the heat out of the house and the cool air into the bedrooms, reducing our need for air conditioning. 

I began container gardening on our deck to learn to grow more food in a small space but also to help cool down the south side of the house which is mostly decking and stone.  Wonderful in winter but blistering hot in summer.  We've also planted numerous deciduous trees that will help shade us in the future.

We have a finished basement: drywall, wall-to-wall carpeting.  If frequent heavy flooding is in our future, the kind that our city's storm water system cannot handle, we'll have to replace the drywall and carpet with materials that are more suited for a damp environment.  Tiled floor or painting the concrete and removing some of the drywall may be the wisest action. Raising furnaces, water heaters, etc may also be prudent.

Installing swails in our yard or landscaping with berms to prevent flood waters from creeping toward our home (we live at the bottom of a steep hill) may be in our future.

An alternative source of cooking and heating will be important if we lose consistent electricity due to weather.  I'd like to get a woodstove for my living room and build an outdoor bread/pizza oven.

What's important is paying attention to what significant, extreme weather events happen to your area over the next few years and changing your home to make living in it during the most common events, better and reducing the weather's impact on your home. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Bottling our Homebrew

My husband began brewing his own beer about 16 years ago, when I was pregnant with our second daughter.  The smell of that first batch added to the nausea I already felt from morning sickness and for years afterwards, I would feel sick whenever he'd brew up a new batch.  Thankfully, that is no longer the case and I like the smell of the wort

The ESB ready to ferment.

After 16 years, I still don't understand the whole brewing process, nor how to set up the siphon.  I tell people it's because science was difficult for me and my husband minored in Chemistry at University, but the real reason is I just don't really want to know how to do it, just in case that would become another one of my jobs around here.  I don't know how to use our gas grill for the same reason: I just don't want to have to do it.  

The siphoning process, yes, I know it's easy and I don't care.

I do know how to do the bottling part. I push the thingie down in the bottom of the bottle and it fills with beer.  Voila!
Here my husband is capping the bottles.  I like to use the capper in the forefront when I cap.

Here our oldest wipes off the bottles and puts them in the cases to sit for a month.
When she was 7, during "show and tell" at school she told the teacher and her classmates that she got to brew beer over the weekend.  We live in Wisconsin with a drinking culture and a large German population that likes beer, but that did raise some eyebrows.  Whatever.  

My favorite part of brewing: the tasting.  It was good, even before carbonation.

We'll be tasting the new ESB over Labor Day weekend.  If you're in the Madison area, come and sample. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Homemade Liquid Laundry Soap

I like to use basic, homemade cleaners for my home.  Not only are they MUCH cheaper, they're safer and I actually know what's going into them.  This is a recipe for liquid laundry soap that I found on Twitter (I can't remember from whom, sorry!) that I just began using. It takes 10 minutes and costs less than 25 cents to make!

You will need:

1/2 bar of grated soap (I used basic DIAL; try to use an unscented or lightly scented bar of soap)
1/2 cup of Borax
1/2 cup of Washing Soda

You may have to hunt for the borax and washing soda.  I found the Borax at Target and the Washing Soda at Woodmans (a grocery store).

Grate half of a bar of soap.

Then, in a large pot that holds at least 2 gallons (32 cups), heat 4 cups of water and add the grated soap, stirring until the soap completely melts.

Add 1/2 cup of Borax and 1/2 cup of Washing soda to the soap mixture.

Stir until everything is dissolved.

Add 2 cups of HOT water to the soap mixture, while stirring.  Then top the container with cold water and mix well. 

Pour the mixture into saved laundry detergent containers and you have liquid laundry soap for less than a quarter!  By the way, use about 1/2 cup per load.
I used old laundry containers that my daughter found at college.

I found the Borax and Washing soda for less than $4 each and the soap was about 20 cents a bar.  You could add a couple of drops of essential oil to your mixture if you like a particular scent.  I like "plain" scent. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Why I'm Thankful for Social Media

A lot of people rant about how we're all addicted to social media.  Usually in a holier-than-thou voice dripping with derision about how they have better things to do and they're much too busy to post status updates, tweet, and blog.  For me, social media has helped me stay sane when my world has been in chaos.  I've reconnected with friends who have helped me in many ways, whether they realized it or not.

In the spring of 2010, I began to experience painful uterine polyps and fibroids which resulted in me becoming borderline anemic, which then led to my previously very active life becoming a very sedentary life-it wasn't unusual for me to stay in bed all day or to have to sit down in the middle of the aisle at the grocery store and cry because of pain.  I crave physical activity for my own mental well-being and without my almost daily runs, I ate more.  Thirty pounds goes on fast when you go from logging 30 miles a week down to ZERO.  I've now lost 25 of that 30 pound weight gain, since surgery in November and am running again.

At the same time as my physical problems began, my oldest daughter's mental health began to spiral out of control.  She'd been diagnosed with Depression years earlier but this behavior was something new and not normal.  I quit my day job to focus on getting her well.  We'd dealt with past suicide attempts and cutting but now she was not responding to rules or structure or meds.  By May she had a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder 1.  It seemed as if every week from April until August she or I had at least one doctor's appointment, if not more.  It also became apparent that even psychiatrists don't know a lot about bipolar disorder, which meant I read EVERYTHING I could get my hands on about it.  My coping mechanism tends to be to study obsessively.

Thank god for social media.  I learned I have a lot of former high school friends who have severe mental illnesses that they don't ever mention.  They were a great support for navigating the system and for letting me know what was normal and what was not. Others had gone through the same uterine issues and surgeries (yep, plural) I had and gave me lots of helpful information.

I don't candy coat my life on the Internet. I don't pretend I have the smartest, happiest kids/husband/life.  I try to be real without being too depressing, though there have been times where I have been very low dealing with daily stress.  Every time, someone reaches out and it helps.

There'd be no Cougar Camp if there were no Facebook.  Those weekends are something that I and the rest of my group of friends look forward to several times each year. Thanks ladies!

Some of you have changed how I approach life.  For example, I'm crazy for yoga now.  Up until May of 2011, I did yoga sporadically, mostly from DVDs.  My friend, Todd, pushed me into a regular practice.  He would not shut up about yoga in our emails.  He was having himself a yoga love fest in New Hampshire and blathering on about time "on the mat" and how you apply "what you learn on the mat to life off the mat", blah, blah, blah.  Except, he got me thinking that maybe if I tried just "one more class" I'd click with the teacher.  Damned if I didn't.  I practice almost every day now.  Yoga (and now meditation) have become my medicine. 

I decided to write this blog post while I was running this morning.  I'm in the middle of a 30 day gratitude challenge to myself and when I run (a moving meditation) and my mind goes blank, that's when I have clarity.  I began to think about those people who have helped me in big ways and in small over the past couple of years and wanted to say "Thank You".

So thank you friends, for the tweets, comments, and messages that have helped me get through some tough days.  I am forever grateful and hope that when and if you need anything from me, that I can do the same for you.