Friday, October 31, 2008

Independence Challenge - Six Month Anniversary

These self-sown petunias just keep blooming through the freezing nights.
Happy anniversary to me! I can't believe it has been six months since I started the Independence Challenge! What a difference it made. The world has changed, too - or at least, the problems that worried us have now become more visible to everyone.
- We have more than 3 months of food stored, and we had none 6 months ago.
- We shop differently, buying bulk, locally where possible, to save money and control the quality of our food.
- We grew a lot of herbs and some of our vegetables.
- We cook and eat differently. We always cooked from scratch more than most people, and I am particularly hooked on making my own stock. But now we also make yogurt and bread regularly, eat smaller meat portions, and buy little prepared food.
- We preserve more, canning jam and pickles, drying herbs and fruit, cellaring root veggies. We bought a freezer to enable us to buy meat and freeze veggies in bulk.
- We reduced our trash and recycling output, and started worm composting.
- Our house is more energy efficient, and we are prepared to be frugally chilly.
- We have a plan to combine households with my mother over the next year or two, starting with her living with us over the winter.
- We have a plan to adapt this rented house, and later my mother's house to lower energy use.
-I made a lot of contacts in the local food and farm community, with an intent to do something to increase connectivity between producers and city residents.
- DH and I have a much more shared mindset about how the future may roll out, and how we will respond. We are certainly concerned about climate change, peak oil, and the economic downturn, but we feel confident about our ability to adapt.
We're far from perfect. We are still attracted to fast food. Our showers are still too long, and we often forget to turn off computers at night. We haven't established ourselves in sustainable jobs or businesses that will allow us to ride out a depression. We need to get better at planning meals out of storage, remembering to defrost things, and soaking beans overnight. We could grow more vegetables.

But we are doing, not just talking or just worrying, and I think that is what this Challenge is about. Six months of daily baby steps adds up to a lot of action. Imagine where we could be after a year.

Planted: My spinach in fish boxes has not sprouted. I don't know if the dirt is too cold, or the seeds were too old, or what. I think I may consider myself done gardening until spring, so I can focus on getting this house ready for Mom to stay with us - and then there is endless work to do on her house.

Harvested: Local produce from the market included sweet potatoes, No. 10 apples, Goldrush apples, Bartlett pears, sage, thyme, oregano, and eggs. Only two more weeks of that market left until next May. Boo hoo! I hate to go back to commercial eggs for the winter.

Preserved: Dried schnitz (PA Dutch talk for dried apple slices).

Cooked: Fall is definitely my time to get better at cooking out of storage. I want to bake, and make soup, and put things in the crockpot all the time. I am starting to queue the recipes I want to try.

I love making yogurt, just so I can mix in some of that plum jam I made a few weeks ago. It's like eating perfume. (In a good way, not a toxic alcoholic way.) I love to mix it with fruit and oatmeal. Yesterday, I ate a bowl of yogurt, pears, and nutty granola for lunch. I read a tip about making a separate little jar of yogurt to put aside as the starter for the next batch, so I make a half-pint jarful when I make the quart. Works great.

Stored: I am trying to focus now non-food supplies. I reserved a little of our food storage budget for later, as I cook more and discover what I forgot to store. Q-tips, toothpaste, lotion, 40# clay cat litter, laundry detergent. Cheddar cheese blocks on sale for less than $3/lb. Ten canisters of rolled oats, and 6 jars of applesauce at a dollar sale. A roll of duct tape for the bug-out bag.

But I couldn't resist stopping into the grocery liquidator when another errand took me past it: 6 boxes washing soda at $1.25, borax, toilet paper, yet more rolled oats, three bags of cereal, 2 big bottles of 100% fruit juice, 4 boxes of hot cereal, jello, 6 boxes of the granola bars DD12 likes to eat on the way to school, a few more cans of tomatoes and greens. Six more bags of chocolate chips for .65 each. Favorite score of the week: A #10 can full of bay leaves for $3.49. They don't expire until 2011, and I may still be using them!

I really like that store for trying out things I would not try at full-price: kosher barley soup mix (good), organic mushroom soup in aseptic boxes (good), Italian pesto in a tube (good), organic fat-free ramen noodles (yuck). If we like the samples, I buy more for the pantry.

Prepped: DH bought clothes for the new retail job. They want jeans, khakis, plain t-shirts and polo shirts, and he got a lot of new socks. (He likes black socks, and we discovered that hanging them outside turns them into gray socks and seems to weaken them - so now they will be dried inside.) He had a 20% discount coupon for everything. His clothes last for years, and all of this stuff can be worn for any occasion, even if he gets a different job, so it felt like "stocking up."

DH is taking over the development of our bug-out bags. He bought us a solar lantern that also comes with an AC/DC charger and a car cigarette lighter charger. He is a former private investigator that gets police and military supply catalogs in the mail, so I am not surprised. He already bought LED flashlights and multi-tools for everyone. I keep mine in my purse and find that I use them all the time. You have to be careful if you go into a courthouse or other government building; the knife on the multi-tool means you may have to check it as a weapon. (But I find that they usually miss it in the bag check- the profile on the Xray looks like a pliers, not a knife.)

We are developing a personal bug-out bag for each of us, and a family box or bucket with more food and tools that would evacuate to the car. We will also work on assembling all of our personal data and scans of important documents on a flash drive, with hard copies for the bags. Gotta remember to add my mom to the bug-out plan and develop her bag, too. DH is working on local maps with marked routes to rendezvous points, in case we are separated. We'll have bug-out drills, like we have family fire drills. In theory, once we get the kits together we will rotate the clothes and food every 6 months.

I stop at the Goodwill at least once a week, since it is very close to DD15's job. This week I found another plastic colander, a big jar, a plastic organizer basket for my jar lids, a nice cotton blanket for DH, and a roll of bright orange labels that say "biohazard" for DD15 to entertain herself.

I got three 5-gallon plastic oil vessels via Freecycle. A local family restaurant gets the oil direct from a relative's farm in Lebanon, and rebottles it to sell at their Middle Eastern restaurant. I met the wife-half of the couple on the Freecycle list, and she told me how to make yogurt in a crockpot - I like her. The oil jugs have screw tops and are stackable. The oil seems odorless (not rancid or used oil that would leave a smell in the plastic), so if I can get them clean enough, they will be great for water storage. I will have to wash and fill them in the bathtub.

Pursuing our media plan, DH reports that we will be able to use his Xbox 360 as an internet appliance to watch Netflix movie downloads. He already arranged the Xbox account, and we just need a Netflix account, when we are ready. The service launches Nov 19th.

Managed: I worked on finding more storage containers this week. The big blue bins with lids get too heavy to move around, which makes the stacks hard to use. Buckets will be more managable for most bulk food, and the bins can be converted to storing other things.

The Giant grocery bakeries say they don't save or give out buckets because it was "too hard to manage" and apparently people were fighting over them. But the smaller Weis store nearby will save buckets for me. I got 7 buckets this week, but only five lids that matched up. They were rinsed, so washing wasn't too bad (unlike one that I wheedled from a Giant, still smeared with frosting). I dried them with a towel and then further air-dried them for a day. The ingredient labels on the bakery buckets are horrifying. In no way are grocery store baked goods "natural."

I decanted sugar, oats, and cat food, so far. I haven't done anything with mylar bags or oxygen absorbers, yet, but this is a step up from sacks and cardboard boxes. A 25-lb sack of sugar fits in a 4-gallon frosting bucket quite nicely. The 4-gallon buckets hold about 12 pounds of rolled oats - I have two buckets of oats, and probably enough canisters to fill another. A 20-lb bag of cat food barely fits into a 5 gallon bucket.

The bakery lids do not look like they really seal once they are opened. I want to get some Gamma lids and see how they fit on the various bakery buckets. At more than $6/each, they aren't cheap. But I like the idea of a lid I can open and reseal easily.

Reduced, Reused, Recycled: I found a big masonry nail to anchor the end of the clothes drying rack, so we are back in business with that. I will only using the dryer for towels and sheets that are too big and heavy to hang indoors with out current set-up.

After two days that didn't break 50F outside, and nights below freezing, we finally broke down and turned on the oil-filled radiator in the living room. We all sit in chairs working at computers for long periods, and we were too chilled. It's about 64-66F in the living room during the day. The electric baseboard heater in our bedroom is set to low, just enough take off the chill. Part of our room overhangs the front porch, and there is no insulation in the floor. I need to find some carpet padding and scrap carpet to insulate that.

Local/Family: I actually used some of my stored water for a real emergency! My mom is having trouble with a bad pipe leak, and she turned off her water until we figure out what to do. I took her jugged water to tide her over, and she can sh0wer at my house or my brother's. The Universe is conspiring to move her toward our house.

Our City Council of elected idiots is seriously considering closing the library as a cost-cutting measure, to meet a budget short-fall. I plan to get involved in that discussion. I am organizing attendance at a City Council meeting, a letter-writing campaign, and a response from DD12's middle school. Perhaps an afterschool rally on the steps of the main library branch.

Learned: Found that Weaver's Orchard has cold-pasteurized cider, which is what I want for making hard cider. I am picking some up this weekend. Cold pasteurization uses UV light, instead of heating to kill bacteria, leaving the desirable yeast bodies alive. I am also tracking down a report of a roadside stand with "wild" cider that is completely unpasteurized. I may start two buckets of it.

Read an interesting post on La Vida Locavore, about how to lobby your Congressman about a food issue, or any issue. I do write letters and email my to my elected state and federal officials regularly, but this gave me a lot more ideas for how to make it count more. She also has an informative article abut Tim Holden (D), a local Congressman that is the vice-chair of the House Agriculture Committee. I'm not interested in blogging about politics - I don't feel qualified - but I am trying to learn more about the people that are going to decide whether we starve in the next decade or so.

Library: I realized this week that it has been a year since I started cataloging recipes on the website. I now have over 550 recipes entered and tagged with keywords. I am their biggest, and probably most frequent, user. I stop in almost every day and add a receipe or print our a hardcopy of something I want to make. I keep the hard copies in a binder, building a family print cookbook. I really like this site.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Semi-Recycled Halloween

We are having a semi-recycled Halloween. We have always liked making our own costumes out of bits and pieces. All year long we watch for potential costume pieces at yard sales.

Last year, DD12 wore a Gone-With-the-Wind gown I found for $1 at a church rummage - a lovely pale yellow dotted-swiss gown from someone's long-ago. Then she found a broad straw hat and white gloves, and her sister bought her a vintage parasol to complete the ensemble. She looked like she was an extra in a movie.

DD12 decided to be a doctor this year, using a lab coat at a yard sale. I often buy oddball pieces of clothing for future costumes. We got scrubs at the Goodwill for $6.

The stethoscope was an issue. I couldn't find a toy one anywhere I looked. The Halloween accessory aisles in stores have very limited supplies. Apparently, no matter what your age or gender, you can only be a Sexy Vampire, a Sexy Witch, a Sexy Pirate, or a Monster. You cannot be a doctor, a lawyer, or a Native American Tribal Leader.

We ended up buying a real stethoscop at a drug store, with a blood pressure cuff for $17. I am sorta justifying that as an addition to our medical supplies. Now someone has to learn how to take blood pressure readings!

DD12 wore the costume to a birthday costume part for a soccer teammate last weekend, and will wear it to trick-or-treat on Friday. Sunday, it will be re-used by a small-framed boy at chruch for the Haunted Basement. Not bad, in terms of costume mileage.

DD15 bought fangs at the dollar store and is making fake blood. Vampires in casual street clothes are very popular with teens. We are going trick-or-treating at a friend's house, as we have for the past few years - we parents sit in their driveway and give out candy, while the kids go around the neighborhood together. It's an area with lots of kids, so lots of families give out candy; I combine my bags of candy with our friends' bags, saving us both money. DD12 is thinking of this as her last trick-or-treat year. Darn! Now I have to buy my own Mary Janes, instead of snitching them from the kids.

Not a lot houses do candy in our own neighborhood - some people consider it too pagan, and I think it has become too expensive for some families. I find the "Harvest Festival" they do at school to be far more pagan-themed than costumes and candy were, which are merely commercial. Apparently, the evangelical Christian parents that pressured the school board to stop celebrating Halloween, just don't realize that Harvest worship is the oldest pagan theme there is. Tee hee!

On Sunday,
we will have a Day of the Dead celebration at church, and remember our loved ones that have died. I think I will take a photo of my grandmother. Our city has lots of Hispanic families that celebrate Dia De los Muertos on All Souls' Day, so our annual service feels nicely connected to that. Then we have a bake sale Haunted Basement fundraiser afterward at Coffee Hour, to benefit UNICEF. The teen group puts on the haunted basement each year, and they have a lot of fun with it. This year's theme is Bedlam (the London insane asylum of yore).

It will be interesting to see how the celebration of Halloween progresses over the next decade or so, as the economy, energy crisis, and climate change take us all for a ride.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Independence Challenge - Week 25

Witchhazel blooming along a road on the
wooded mountain above our city neighborhood.

I'm feeling good, at least about food storage. I'm not done, but I have a really healthy supply now. Crowded shelves and a nearly-full freezer. Some odds and ends left to get, and I need to organize a re-stocking routine. Water storage still needs more work. We'll have more time to catch up after soccer season ends in November, and we have the attic insulated.

I like the LDS/Mormon-style preparedness plan I've been reading about, where families have a 72-hour kit for bugging out, then a 3-month food supply for immediate use, then a year of long-term storage of major staples like wheat, beans, oats, and rice. I have most of the bug-out bags, and the 3-month supply. I found a local wheat source, but I need to find more barrels and buckets before I start on the long-term stuff. I may not subscribe to the LDS religious beliefs, but I surely do believe in their food storage plan.

Nothing new, but we are planning to finish a spinach cold frame and a worm composting farm next week. My ginger root is sprouting - does that count?

Harvested: We had our first freeze predicted Tuesday night, so I harvested everything tender from the yard - 10 green peppers I laid out to ripen, three heads of celery, two parsley plants. Also picked a small head of cabbage. The outside leaves were pretty chewed up by beetles, but the inside was lovely.

Preserved: Dried lots of celery and minced parsley. I use celery almost exclusively for stock-making, so I dry the whole stalk and all the leaves in hanging bunches. My home-grown celery stalks are much thinner and leafier than grocery-store celery, but it's the taste I am after anyway. I also dried celeriac leaves, which taste like celery.

Made a pint of sauerkraut with the little head of cabbage. Used my vintage potato chip slicer, since it was such a small head. Packed the salted cabbage in a quart mason jar - my favorite old cast iron potato masher fits in there perfectly to squoosh it down. It juiced right up. I cut a circle out of a plastic lid and put a bottle of juice inside the jar to weigh it all down, I put it on a shelf over the cellar steps, to wait out the 2 weeks of initial fermentation. I set an email reminder, so I don't forget to check it every few days.

I have about 8 more small heads of cabbage still out in the garden, so if this works out nicely, I will make more. DH and my mother are our only kraut-eaters, so I don't want to get carried away.

Blanched and froze another 2 giants heads each of cauliflower and broccoli - about 10 meal-sized quart bags. One of the cauliflowers was deep purple - turns a pretty lavender color when you blanch it. I hope it doesn't lose much more color when I cook it later - it would turn gray, which is unappetizing.
The last pint of bread-n-butter pickles from the summer got opened, and I found Kirby cukes on sale, so it was pretty quick to slice them and boil some syrup for 2 quarts of refrigerator pickles.

Cooked: Made a huge batch of broccoli-cauliflower-cheddar soup, and froze a quart before the ravening hordes sucked down the rest. Made the first parsnip cake of the season -I love that stuff, this time with craisins and walnuts.

Grilled the corn from the market, and cut off the kernels, then made corn cob stock from the cobs. The corn went into a Cuban-Inspired Pork Chili I tried for the first time. The stock went into a new cornbread recipe. Then the cobs went to compost bucket for the worms. I used the hell out of those last four ears of fresh corn!

I'm getting better with the seasonal cooking from the pantry. Now, if only I could stay in the bread-making groove. I just keep forgetting to put it in.

Managed: Found a big popcorn tin for all my baking chocolate. Mom says she has more tins for other things that come in soft packaging. Tins are really common at yard sales, too, but I usuallly ignore them. I labeled the storage jars I've added lately - DH notices if I don't and asks what is in every jar. Updated the list of what's in the freezer.

Checked the potatoes and squash I stored a few weeks ago, and everything looks okay. It hasn't been really chilly in the cellar yet, so I am a little worried things will start to spoil. I still need to get more onions, potatoes, and sweet potatoes, but I don't think the cellar is cold enough yet.

We have hard water that leaves soap scum and lime scale in the tub and toilet. I've tried all the combos of vinegar, salt, and baking soda cleanser that I can stand, and I am going back to chemicals for now, until we are out of this rented hovel, with its bathroom mold problem. The scum and scale provide a foothold for the mold that regularly creeps out from behind the poorly-intalled plastic shower walls to climb the walls and climbs the shower curtain. I feel guilty about the chemicals, but I can't stand the mold. I hate when people visit and have to see our bathroom. Ugh.

Prepped: At the Goodwill, I found a large black metal picture frame that gave me a holiday gift idea. Found a package of Graco stroller netting intended to protect babies in strollers from mosquitoes, but I am going to use it to protect containerized plants from bugs next summer.

Fabulous Freecycle Find: I got a very large cast iron griddle. The brand is Texsport, and appears to sell online for $35-40. I've wanted a griddle for a long time. This one is 24" deep, almost 27" with the handles, and is actually too big for my current stove. It would be great on a commercial stove with cast iron burners. It would also work ourdoors over a fire or a charcoal grill. I'm dying to be able to make more than one pancake at a time. The flip side has a ridged grilling surface.

Stored: DH brought home 4 cartons of grits (6#). When I looked surprised, he said, "I don't know why you are always so surprised when you ask me to get something and I actually come home with it." He's right; I don't give him credit for being a good shopper. And he really is 100% behind our efforts to stock up, even if he and I disagree on where the economic crisis will ultimately take us. He also brought two big boxes of decaf tea bags and two canisters of hot cocoa mix when he saw them listed on our shopping white board.

Made a last large food run (about $250), shopping the sales at various places. I remember a line from someone's blog, something like this: "I never need anything from the store. I shop to restock, taking a advantage of loss-leader sales. If you don't need something, you can always wait for the best price." That's my goal, and I am almost there. I only need milk, eggs, cheese, a little produce (like bananas), a few bread and cracker products. I am not making enough bread and rolls yet. We also buy a few treats, but not from need.
Redner's had a 40% off sale on store-brand fresh chicken, so I bought about $20 worth and froze 10 meal-sized packages: 4 bags chicken breast, 2 bags boneless thighs, 2 bags whole thighs, 2 bags drumsticks. Also got 4 canisters of bread crumbs, and 4# of margarine for baking, to freeze.

Price-Rite was good for 12 assorted cans of beans, 10 cans of albacore tuna, a gallon of white vinegar, 2# of brown sugar, cat litter, boullion cubes, pound bags of candied ginger and dried pineapple (only $1.49!), 4# box of dry milk, and pork ribs for the chili. For the freezer, I got 3# of shrimp, 3# of hot dogs, a pound of bacon, two bags of bagels, 2# of meatloaf mix, and 2 pints of heavy cream. They also had cheap garlic and kirby pickles. It's a great place to buy Hispanic seasonings, and I got dried chipotle peppers that I jarred up.

Big Lots did not impress me. Their prices on odd lots of canned goods are not much better than regular grocery sales. I like the Buy-Rite liquidator much more. I did buy 15 cans of Campbell's soup, a 7oz bottle of vanilla extract, a 2# can of peanuts (for granola), 3# of whole grain pasta, and 3 canisters of raisins. Cleaning products were cheap, so I got steel wool, cleanser, toilet cleaner for hard water, and citrus cleaner.

I cherry-picked the Giant specials: 30# of King Arthur white whole wheat flour for $3.20 per 5# bag (regularly 4.49) was my favorite deal. Lots of Buy-One-Get-One-Free: kielbasi, bacon, split chicken breast, frozen ravioli, Bagel Bites for DD12. Half price center-cut pork chops. Good sale on ricotta and mozzarella - can't freeze them, but they will stay good unopened in the fridge for several months. Also picked up some Fels Naptha soap, washing soda, baby wipes, natural dish soap.

Aldi rounded out the freezer: Bratwurst, chicken nuggets, five 1# rolls of frozen ground turkey, a 12# ham, and 4# of butter. Also got more dandruff shampoo, oats, ziplock bags, lemon juice, chunk light tuna, sugar, peanut butter, pancake syrup, rice crispies, saltines, a stash of fig newtons, and extra toothbrushes.
Reduced, Reused, Recycled: Still haven't turned on any heat. The residual daytime heat is still enough carry us through the night, even when it hits freezing. It's about 64-67 in here during the day, a little warmer near one of the two south-facing windows. Sweatshirts and slipper-socks are enough to be warm, with lap blankets when we sit still. We closed the storm windows throughout the house. DH needs to get another blanket on his side of the bed; his feather comforter is getting old and a little thin. We each have our own layer of bedcovers to roll up in, allowing each of us the right coverage for our own internal thermostats. Like two giant larvae snuggled together.

We are doing badly at not using the dryer. I haven't found a masonry nail that will hold up the clothes rod, and we run out of indoor clothesline fast. The windy weather has landed some laundry in the neighbor's muddy yard, and that wastes water on rewashing. I need to do some exploring of laundry aids at Home Depot or maybe Tractor Supply.

Local/Family: I bought local produce at the West Reading market: celeriac, baby bok choy, apples, carrots, eggs, 4 ears of the last sweet corn of the season, and 2 pecks of organic sweet potatoes to store. Some of what I bought at the more commercial Fairgrounds market was from a 100-mile radius. Erica from the B&H organic farm gave me a sample of the hard red wheat they have siloed; I plan to buy 50# from her, and encouraged her to grow spelt again, too.

Spent last weekend with DD15 at a youth retreat in Towson, Maryland. There is another in November in Annapolis, and I am scheduled for youth leader training in Philadelphia. Note to self: figure out how to tie the youth stuff into the food security stuff. Maybe develop an awareness workshop that presents basic info and makes suggestions for action - sorta like An Inconvenient Truth, but for food.

Learned: Checked with my chef-friend Rosella, who used to own a fresh pasta business. I wanted recommendations for a pasta machine. She said that most of the all-metal manual pasta makers are fine and cost less than $20 on eBay. That was a relief, after pricing water filters and grain mills that run $250-300, and the $200 Squeezo fruit mill. I will ask Rosella for a pasta-making lesson for the girls and I. We can also try making crackers.

DH found a great article at PlanetGreen about Green Sex. We both thought the bamboo sheets sounded good. Lots of resources listed there, as well as discussion about phthalates in sex toys and condoms. You'd think sex was already a pretty green activity, wouldn't you?

Library: Stopped at a used book store in Maryland last weekend, and bought some fiction. Looked at the garden and food books, but didn't find anything I really wanted. The gardening books were almost all about ornamentals, which once would have made me happy. Now, I want books about growing and preserving food.

DH and I each have a large collection of winter reading - I suspect we will run out of winter before we run out of books. I can't begin to express how much I love having a reading partner, after several oldbad relationships with people who were jealous of the booktime. DH and I even often like the same stuff; we've expanded each other's reading horizons. I can face any apocalypse, if I just have enough books and right person with whom to share them.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Thoughts about the future

This post is in two parts, intended to preserve some ramblings I posted on an Adaptation discussion list, a place where we talk about adapting to a low-energy low-cash future. My blog here is public, but also a journal for me - when I come back in a year or five, I want to remember what I was thinking about, what I was planning, what I was working on.

~~~~~ PART ONE

My family would probably be nearly as unprepared as everyone else, if I had not stumbled on Sharon's blog this past spring.

I was a gardener - but I grew flowers and a couple herbs. From someone's garden blog, I was led to Sharon's blog. Shortly after, she issued her Independence Challenge. I've been doing that challenge now for almost 6 months, and been working hard at it.

Part of that time was spent floundering around and wrapping my head around the changes we'd have to make. Finding resources, reading things, talking to my family, figuring our what parts of our plans might have to be abandoned.

I feel sorry for the folks that will not have the "adjustment" time before they are forced to make major changes in lifestyle, with far fewer resources. It's gonna be tough to catch up - impossible for many.

I get to go to auctions and yard sales while there is still little competition for useful items. I get look for good deals on food without standing in lines. I get to buy a grain mill and a water filter and a pasta machine before they are out of reach. I have an education and some financial resources.

It's easy to feel "holier than thou" when we watch the oblivious masses continue to shop. But they are oblivious because the media and the government are both telling them that things are going to be OK. And because it's hard to imagine the decline of the US as a wealthy superpower, let alone the decline of our own expectations. Most of us have been drilled all of our lives to measure our happiness by our possessions and our socio-economic status.

This past weekend, I was at a youth retreat in Towson, MD, with my daughter. On the way down, my car started acting funny, so on Saturday I hunted down a car service joint (Firestone) to hook up for a computer diagnosis. While I waited the 2 hours, I walked down the street to a Panera Bread and had lunch - iced chai, a pannini, and a scone. Tasty, but I spent $10 that felt wasted. The place was packed, as were the shopping centers around me.

I had a book to read - the 4th in the post-apocalyptic "Change" series by SM Stirling. There I sat, surrounded by real people in a consumer wonderland, reading about fictional people in a post-consumerist agrarian future, feeling unhappy about how much I love Panera's Orange Scones. The world is just full of cognitive dissonance, lately.

I was able to drive the car the 95 miles home, but it will probably need major service. We can't be without a car yet, but we can't afford to upgrade the 2000 Jeep Cherokee to a more efficient car.

Losing a car can mean losing a lot more. I've been carless in the past, and not in a good way - unable to get to better jobs, cheaper food sources. I live in an area with poor public transit - if we didn't have some savings to pay for repairs, losing this car would mean my DH losing the little seasonal retail job he just found, and DD15 losing her job. It is already hard for DH to face working in a Bed Bath & Beyond after spending three years working for his degree. But the savings are a finite resource that have to get us to our "adapting place," and he is a practical guy.

But at least we have that savings cushion, for now. A lot of people are a lot closer to the edge than they realize.

~~~~~ PART TWO

Some pretty good news: DH got a job at Bed Bath & Beyond. They start everyone part-time, up to 35 hours/week. Just short of the 36 where they would be required to offer some benefits. It pays $10.50/hr, slightly more than we expected. We don't know what his schedule will look like.

He doesn't feel good at all about finishing his degree and then working in retail. But it's certainly better than no work at all. It will be an easy job to leave, if something better comes along.

The big point is that it will enable us to pay all our current living expenses out of income, not take the rent out of savings, as we have been doing for 6 months. That's a huge plus for us.

Once we get him settled in, we will find a new job for DD15. The coffee shop she works at cut everyone's hours and will probably go out of business. It's barely worth driving her back and forth. There is a caterer that has a production kitchen within walking distance of us. If they are going to need more help, it is going to be during the holiday party season.

We are putting a second car on the road. Sounds counter-productive, but if we don't, everyone's life will rotate around DH's BBB schedule. He has a 1994 Jeep Wrangler garaged, that needs a transmission. It gets good mileage, and he will use it to commute. The 2000 Jeep Cherokee that gets worse mileage will stay home for me to use sporadically. I go out foraging about once or twice a week, and I usually do fill the whole vehicle. There are soccer practices, and DD15's job until she gets another. And, I need to be able to get to my mother's house (3 miles) if I am going to keep her moving along.

Feels like we are going backward, but we need to do what is necessary to fund the longer-term plan. Everyone will produce income while we can, to pay for the changes we need to make for a different future lifestyle.

We've made excellent progress on our food storage preparedness, which feels great. Our house is mostly ready for winter. The conversion of the unheated attic to living space (by insulating and paneling) has not begun, but I have two months left until my self-imposed deadline. Then my mother will come to stay through the end of March.

With the (rather large) exception of DH not being able to find a professional job, the economic downturn has not directly impacted us much, yet. We did move our savings from a large bank to a small local credit union. Gas prices went down (for now), and we are able to find lots of cheap food. The lifestyle changes we have made were our own decisions, not forced by changes in the economy. So far.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Support your neighborhood restaurant

On a local list, there was shock at the closing of a favorite restaurant, the Crab Barn. I have heard that the Chat-a-While Inn, Maxie's on Carsonia Avenue, and Anthony's Trattoria (the old Charlie's Valley Inn near the Antietam pool) also closed. That's just in my mother's Pennside/Mt Penn area.

We are going to see a lot of this. Food and energy costs are up for restaurants, just as they are for us. People are not going out to eat. Older people and well-to-do people who are losing money in the stock market and 401K plans are especially not going out - and they are the bread-and-butter of better restaurants. If they do go, they now go to cheap buffets and eat fast food with coupons. Or they cook organic/gourmet at home - food gardening and cookbook sales are WAY up.

My advice to the group: eat at your favorite neighborhood eatery. Don't eat at chains or mall places - they are also threatened, and local support means nothing in their corporate board rooms. But it does mean something at an independent local restaurant.

You can keep a local place open by supporting it. Eat there, and ask your neighbors to eat there. If they have catering services, and you need event catering, hire them. Concentrate most of your eating-out dollars on one nearby place, and it may stay available for you when the chains close and gas gets too expensive to go driving around. Try for one in walking distance.

Get involved in this place that you like - meet the owner and chef. Tell them (nicely) what you like and don't like, so they can offer food you want to eat. Tell them how much you like seasonal food, or organic ingredients, or choices with no gluten. Offer suggestions about portion size and pricing: is the entree too big to finish and you would rather pay less for a smaller portion? Encourage them to buy local produce and meat, so their supply chain stays strong if national suppliers collapse or there are trucking strikes. Tip nicely, so the staff can afford to work there.

Don't forget to support local pizza. Pizza is in trouble. The price of dough flour is way up, and sometimes in limited supply. Instead of ordering from a coupon-driven chain, order from a family-run local place.

The national food supply is in trouble, and that means local restaurant owners are in trouble. If you still dine out or order out, make your dollar count locally.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Independence Challenge - Week 23

Sorry - no photos this week - having trouble with the stupid
camera battery. And the stupid printer. Stupid technology. Grrr.

Another big week in food storage. Good news: I think I could comfortably feed us for three months on what I have now. Some stuff will last a year; some things still need more stocking. I feel much more secure, foodwise.

Made a fascinating trip to the Kutztown Produce Auction on Thursday. It's a big pavilion out in the middle of the corn fields, with a parking lot full of farm trucks and buggies. Mennonite owned, it is has been in operation since around 1950 when a group of Old Order farm families bought farms near Fleetwood. I saw an egg auction, nursery stock auction, a lot of produce (local and not), and tons of potted fall mums. Most things come in very large lots - like 6 bushels of green peppers that might go for $4/box, but you have to take all 6. But some lots are smaller. I can see this being a fabulous resource when I am set up to do some serious canning, or to supply a community co-op or event cooking project. Most of the bidders appeared to own restaurants, farm stands, garden centers, large institutions, or food processors. It runs Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday of every week, year-round. Saturday sales include straw and hay (by the ton), and firewood.

DD15 was with me. "OMG, Mom! You brought me out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by miles of corn, to watch old men sell vegetables for hours, and my cell phone is running out of charge, so I can't even text people. I'll be in the car reading if you want me to load anything you buy." Maybe she isn't quite ready for grid-crash, eh?

I spent most of my time watching and listening to three simultaneous auctioneers. I saw squash I couldn't even identify, gorgeous Chinese cabbages, tons of hot and sweet peppers, and cauliflower bigger than basketballs. Watched Macoun apples go up to $24/bushel in hot bidding, when other varieties were going for $8-10/bu. Eventually, I registered for a number and bought two boxes of those pluots I like so much. That was 56 pounds of pluots - for $9. They take cash, checks, debit and credit cards, and provide a computer print-out of your purchases.

I plan to go back at least once this fall, to buy apples, onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and root veggies. I wonder if they auction cider.

Although this would be a fabulous place for corner stores and large families to buy produce, I noticed there was not a single non-white face at the auction. DD15 said she saw one man that looked Hispanic helping load a truck. More than 40,000 Hispanic people living 30 minutes away, many working in nearby Blandon mushroom houses, and none of them buying deeply discounted bulk food. The only people not speaking English were speaking Pennsylvania Dutch.

Planted spinach in three fish boxes, to try making a cold frame for it through the winter.

Harvested: A single Black Beauty eggplant, the whole summer's harvest from that single plant. The "Little Fingers" plant did only slightly better, and I pulled it up weeks ago. Last year was a great eggplant year; I was giving them away right and left. This year, not.

Saved seeds from garlic chives, cinnamon basil, stella d'oro lilies, snapdragon. I'm going to participate in a round robin seed swap, so I need to get them cleaned, bagged up and labeled properly.

On Craigslist, I found a family that had a yard full of fallen black walnuts. We gathered four big plastic shopping bags full, and they still had lots more. I have only ever used these to dye fabric or to antique wood, not to shell them for eating. Hulling and shelling them looks like it will be an adventure, and may require finding some new equipment, like a 4" bench vise. Came home to find a squirrel eating them off our porch, so now they are in a galvanized wash tub covered with a board, until I get time to hull them.

Preserved: I took another stab at banana chips , following instructions from a woman that sells them for school snacks. I had high hopes that thicker slices dipped in pineapple juice would be the charm, and I did better at rotating the trays. But I think my cheap single-temperature dehydrator is too hot. The finished product was still unpleasant and over-cooked. I've lived my life so far without banana slices, so I think I will just give up and keep eating fresh bananas. I can always mash and freeze them for baking.

I got frustrated and told DH I was throwing away my $3 yard sale dehydrator. I said we had lived without home-dried food all this time, and would survive without it. He surprised me by saying he thought I was giving up too easily. I didn't think he would do more than give me a glazed-over look. I don't give him enough credit for paying attention to my food storage efforts.

He did agree to stop with the bananas! But he is right about not giving up on dehydrating. I had slipped in a tray of apple slices dipped in the pineapple juice, with the banana experiment. The apples came out OK. I will try the old-fashioned method of hanging them on a string, for comparison. The apple season has only just begun to rock, so I have plenty of time to experiment with apples.

Made 7 half-pints of plum jam with no pectin and reduced sugar. Nice balance of sweet and tart. Since I had 20+ pounds of pluots to use, I experimented and made 2 pints of plum-ginger jam by cooking in a cup of diced candied ginger. Yummy! Then I made "plum butter" in the crockpot.

Froze 3 bags of cauliflower in soup-recipe-sized portions. These heads had partly frozen in my fridge, which got turned up too high. Then I froze 2 half-head bags of blanched cauliflower for meals, along with 4 bags of blanched broccoli. And 2 half-pound bags of blanched green beans.

Cooked: Another episode in the search for perfect Banana Bread. I tried a recipe from the new whole grain cookbook I got last week, and I like it, even though I slightly under-baked it. Not too sweet, nice chewy texture from the whole wheat flour and wheat germ. Lots of banana, easy to make. Good with butter, cream cheese, peanut butter, or alone. I think we have a strong contender! It would be perfect if DD15 liked it - she wanted it a bit sweeter. She and I are the only ones that eat it.

I got some Asian pears and Macoun apples to try at the Sunday grower market. Also got the usual eggs, three bunches of carrots, a white eggplant, a celeriac, the season's last basil, and another butternut squash. Got a pound bag of homegrown kidney beans from the Reigel family stand - the first time I have seen dried beans at a market stand. All that is for immediate use, not preserving.

The four of us discussed a Family Eating Plan to develop our eating-from-storage skills. We'll see how that goes when we start "walking the talk."

Mom stopped by last night, and I fed her homemade soup, toast with some of the new plum jam, and an Asian pear. I gave her a ripe Bartlett pear to take home for her oatmeal in the morning. It's kind of like feeding a stray cat. Eventually, she will learn to come here for food, and then stay for the winter. LOL

Stored: Time to start working on buying meat. We tend to eat chicken, turkey, and pork. We like various sausages, bacon, and a little scrapple. Our beef tends to be the occasional pot roast and some burgers. We seldom eat steak, since we can't afford anything worth eating. I buy cheap beef cuts like shin to make stock. I'll have to look for some meatloaf mix (beef, pork, and lamb). The holidays are coming up, so I expect to see some good sales. This is also butchering season, so there should be a lot of choice out there. I hope to find a good deal on shrimp, and some fish for DD15 and I. The only finfish that DH eats is albacore tuna, and I have a can/week laid in for him (more would be a mercury risk).

Shopped at the Fairgrounds Market with an eye to freezing recipe-sized meat portions. Bought 2 pieces of smoked ham end, a big smoked ham shank, and a pound of smoked sausage. Can you tell I like me some smoked pork in my bean soup? This market has an on-site smoker that is hard to resist. I also got 3 kinds of fresh sausage, 18 big chicken thighs bagged in sixes for soup, a few beef short ribs, and some turkey thighs. That's about 8 weeks of soup and sauce meat.

Went to a farm stand and bought giant heads of broccoli and cauliflower, three large butternut squash, two other winter squash, about 8 large sweet potatoes, and a couple pounds of green beans.

DH bought huge bottles of 750 ibuprofen and 500 multi-vitamins at BJs. I also sent him to get a case of canned chicken noodle soup for DD12, 6 jugs of laundry detergent, 3 canisters of grated parmesan cheese, two 10-gallon totes to make a worm farm, and a 32-gal trash barrel for storing clothing. I have been under-using him as a shopper - he is very efficient at shopping from a list, not straying off into impulse buying or letting the kids wheedle things out of him.

Made another trip to the BRL grocery liquidator. Got another 48 double rolls of toilet paper for less than $20. I want to start using some cloth wipes, but we just aren't there yet. Some of my other good deals: 40-oz cans of black beans for .49, bags of Nestle chocolate chips for .65, 3-oz of whole allspice for under $2, Barilla whole grain spaghetti for .50/box. Weird stuff: a food service-sized bag of country gravy mix that makes a whole gallon of gravy with just hot water, for $1.49 - I'll re-portion that. Also bought: granola bars, chai tea mix, boxed whole grain cereal (like Total) for the people that won't eat oatmeal like I do, band-aides, canned soup, baking chocolate, ramen, pectin, pasta.

Scored 30# of Gold Medal stoneground whole wheat flour for .75 per 5-lb bag, and it wasn't expired yet. Popped it right into the freezer to make sure it is free of bugs. I love my freezer so much!

We now have enough canned tomato products to make 24 meals worth of pasta sauce, with the average large can costing less than 50 cents. I can make a pasta dinner for four, with garlic bread, for under $1.50 - at that rate, I can afford to put meat in that sauce. :-)

Now, I mostly watching for deals on dry milk, powdered eggs, canned tuna, and butter.

Prepped: Got a big basket at the Goodwill, to use for squash storage. Three large skeins of rusty-red yarn at the Salvation Army store, along with a couple of canning jars.

Did well at the yard sales last weekend, including a wrought iron pot rack, a new Foodsaver for only $10, and a nice set of flannel sheets.

Managed: Stored the squash and sweet potatoes in the cellar, in big baskets I got at the Goodwill. Laid out the 20# of potatoes in one layer on newspaper in a big shallow oak drawer I use for drying things. Rotated the oats and rice out of the freezer after 3 days, and most of the flour into it. Sorted things left in the small freezer over the fridge, and gave it a good scrubbing.

Did more thinking about how manage to manage our water needs. Sticking with the slow recycled milk jug storage for now: 8 gallons stored. Our monthly water bill dropped from $98 to $77 last month. Not sure if that is just seasonal, or because we are being more careful.

Reduced, Reused, Recycled: Helped out at the church's fall work day, and trash-picked the discard pile. Got a quarter sheet of nice thin plywood, and two large pieces of foil-backed insulation that I can use to seal off the back cellar door. Also took a discarded play kitchen and put it out at our curb - it was adopted to a new home in less than an hour.

Replaced the power strip in the kitchen with one that has a shut-off switch, so we can turn off all the power-vampire chargers. Harbor Freight has a sale on 4-outlet surge protectors for $2.99.

I have been using a lot of gasoline on these wild stock-up trips. Happily, gas fell to $2.99/gal this week. I know it won't stay there, but I'm glad it fell while I have to use it. Once I get the basic stock-up done, I will develop a more moderate pattern of driving for food. I can say that I have not wasted the miles - I always come back with a loaded car.

Bought $8.58 worth of red wiggler worms at Petsmart (about 100 worms). They sell them for lizard food. I have not been able to find them at bait stores, and I didn't want to spend shipping money online. I will just start slowly until they reproduce. I hope to have worm composting news and photos blogged later this week. DH is a little squicked by the worm containers in the fridge.

Local/Family: All those pluots I bought? I gave a whole 28# box away in bagfuls to neighbors and friends. One had given me iris plants, and another gave me a big bag of cookies - "seconds" from the Pepperidge Farm factory where her husband works. One bag to a lady across the street that just always waves at me.

A woman at church has a family cow that produces more milk than they drink. We might talk about setting up a very small cow share. I am doing some research about how to set that up.

Most of the talk at the church work day was talking about food and recipes. It's time to start some kind of food group there. Part of me wants to share all this local food knowledge I'm gathering, but part of me doesn't want so many people to know I store food. And I am not sure I want everyone competing with my foraging. I am sure that's part of what's wrong with the world - we fear that someone will take our stuff, so we don't collaborate. My blog is pretty anonymous - my church is not.

DH has asked the girls and I not to tell people we store food, because he also envisions people knocking and asking. There would need to be a big pay-off for him to change his mind, not just the warm fuzziness of helping other people prepare. Maybe a co-op buying would do it. Bulk buying is not working with the Neighbor Club - everyone has different cash-flow patterns, and few of them use what I would buy. Some depend on food stamps, some get paychecks.

Learned: Researched a bunch of things: cowshare management, bokashi buckets, worm farms, black walnut harvesting, and the many things to make out of too-many-plums.

Library: Found copy of the Audubon Society's Eastern Forests guide for 99 cents at the Goodwill. Nice bark and leaf ID photos for trees. Ordered McMahon's American Gardener, a reproduction of a 19th-century garden guide, at the recommendation of a listmate from one of my discussion groups.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Household Water Planning

On one of my preparedness lists, we've been talking about storing water. Someone posted a link to this WaterBob, a 100-gallon collapsible plastic tank that fits in your bathtub to store water for an emergency, for $20. Sounds like a fabulous idea for people that live in places that get hurricane warnings and know they may not have clean water after a storm.

But in my city, we don't have many natural disasters. Maybe some summer storm flooding, or a snow/ice storm that takes out power. But I can't ever recall either us or my mother just losing our municipal water supply.

It's hard to imagine circumstances, at least in the near future, when our city water supply would suddenly become unavailable. It happens in places that flood, and people frequently lose water in the winter in more rural areas they rely on wells with electric pumps. The power goes out and the pump won't run. But in the city, I can only think of a water main break, which would affect a limited area.

There have definitely been times when we lose *drinkable* water with no warning, due to contamination. When the health department issues a boil-water order, or there is some other contamination issue, you can still bathe, launder, and flush, but not drink without boiling, if at all.

One neighborhood near us is contaminated with lead (from a battery manufacturer), another with some other chemical from an industry. One small town has had bottled water delivered by truck for FIVE years while the EPA forces the contaminating industry to provide a new permanent water supply.

A waterbob won't help in those circumstances. You wouldn't be able to fill it with anything drinkable. A broken water main or a pump station failure would hurt us, at the top of the hill. Earlier this summer, an old Victorian house burned because the fire hydrant pressure was insufficient at the top of the hill. But again, if that happened, we could not fill the waterbob.

I have issues with our tap water in general:
  • It is fluoridated, which aggravates thyroid problems (like mine).
  • Both our water and my mom's test positive for elevated levels of nitrates from agricultural run-off in our region.
  • Most municipal water supplies have pharmaceuticals in them, and are not required to tell us the results of testing.
  • And I simply don't trust the water quality reports.
For instance, look at this article about a 15-milllion gallon tank that is part of the water system about a mile from my house. Gross! The water in that tank has been stagnant for SEVENTY years, since it was built in 1936. They are finally renovating it, but I have been drinking the water that flows through that tank all this time. Did any "official" water test sample from a point near that tank? Yuck!

Would I know if the city started failing to get tests done? Or started failing the tests? Here is an article from this August, warning us not to drink the water, and I didn't know about until after it happened. Apparently, you need to read the paper every day to be sure you can drink the water.

I bought bottled water for a while, but it gets expensive, and I am really bothered by the empty bottles it generates, even if we do recycle them. Solutions in my pipeline (pun intended):
  • I am building a water barrel system at my Mom's house, and will try to slowly turn that into the house supply for everything, in the future. It will be easy to use it for gardening and laundry almost immediately.
  • I am campaigning DH to buy a Berkey or Berkfield filter for us to use regularly for drinking and cooking water.
  • I might get a waterbob to store wash water in an emergency. It seems like an inexpensive precaution for what would likely be a rare occurrence here.
  • But for now, I am storing tap water in milk jugs, at a rate of about 3-4 gallons per week. It's a short-term emergency supply, for water crisis that probably will not occur here in the near future.
  • I also have the 45 gallons in the hot water heater, as long as it is not contaminated.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Family Eating Plan

Scored some fresh basil this weekend, so I can make more
of this oven-roasted tomato, pepper, onion and basil
that works so nicely for pasta and sandwiches.

The four of us have been talking about how we want to eat this fall. Eating from storage requires more planning and practice. We decided we will work from this plan:
  • Everyone will generally get their own breakfast during the week.
  • Revive the weekly family brunch on a weekend day. We used to eat brunch and watch a movie together on Sunday afternoons.
  • Have more stuff on hand for informal eating - muffins, soup, sandwich fillings, spreads.
  • Get more consistent about making bread and yogurt. I want to get started learning to make biscuits, too.
  • DH, DD15, and I will try to have heartier lunches together when DD12 is at school, since we eat more variety than she.
  • DD12 has lunch at school, but wants to start packing some days.
  • Plan lighter weeknight dinners around the interruptions of soccer and DD15's job.
  • Go back to taking turns cooking, including DD12, who has an expanding repertoire. I am the primary food shopper and planner, and I produce ingredients like stock and pesto, but I am not always the actual meal-time cook.
Basically, we are switching the functions of our lunch and dinner times, making the midday meal the largest. Our schedule was pushing us into a pattern of eating too heavy a meal late in the evening. Light dinner means that DD12 can cook without trying to produce several courses.

We tentatively outlined a pasta night, a rice night, a bean night, and a potato night. I am considering trying homemade pizza night, if I can produce decent dough, and the other night is likely to be "Fend For Yourself Night," which uses up leftovers nicely.

This is a departure for us, the focus on grain. Previously, the nights were labeled chicken, pork, beef, seafood, sandwich, and takeout. Now we are planning from the grain component, not the meat. We will never be vegetarian, but we are reducing our overall meat consumption. There will still be favorites like meatloaf, roast chicken, and pot roast - as long as we can afford to get them.

We set some ground rules for DD12, who is our picky eater. She knows she will slowly have to start eating differently, too. She is not allowed to open more than one box of cereal per week, nor more than one can of Spaghetti-O's or chicken noodle soup. That will encourage her to find other food, as will taking a turn at cooking. She should like pizza night.

When my mom comes to stay with us this winter, we will adjust again, to let her have a hand in the kitchen, and make sure we include her favorite foods. I'm going to ask her to empty her fridge and cabinets into our pantry, so we can get rid of the old stuff. I know that her baking cabinet has the same little McCormick spice cans I used as a kid - and I'm 47 now! She also has a juicer, and I know she likes to make carrot juice, so we can start keeping some in the fridge for her. Theoretically.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Rockin' Birthday

Last Thursday was DD11's birthday, and she became DD12. But she was got sick the night before her birthday, poor thing. A fever of 101.5, so no school or soccer or birthday festivities on her actual birthday. We did give her some gifts, primarily a pay-as-you-go cell phone (now that she walks to school alone), and an MP3 player from DD15.

She felt much better by Saturday, so we went ahead with her little party at the local rock-climbing gym on Saturday. I have so much trouble feeling OK about wasting money on over-priced kids' birthday party plans, which seem to run $10-15 a head. I look at $100 and see food I could buy. But our house is too small, and she really wanted to go to Reading Rocks.

This one turned out pretty well. We took our 2 girls and 3 others, along with another pair of parents to help the climbers. Each kid was expertly harnessed and we all got safety training. Each climber has an adult belayer at the other end of their ropes for safety. DH, the other dad, and DD15 did most of the belaying. All the girls did great, all of them first-time climbers, going up to 30' off the floor.

Both my girls seem to have amazing calf muscles, which is pretty much all you can see when you are looking up at them from the floor. I forgot to the put the storage chip in the darned camera, so I got photos from the other mom. The attendants are actual climbers, not bored teen-aged employees, so the girls had good climbing coaches available. The party itself was basically three hours of athletic climbing fun, with no cartoon mascots or plastic party favors. They don't sell any kind of food, so we were free to bring our own food, drinks, and DD12's favorite cheesecake. I can't help but wonder how long this sort of birthday partying will still be available for most families, but I would take a group of kids to this gym again.

I suspect DD15 will want her March birthday there. They also have a rappelling tower and a ropes course that is a good youth team-building activity. All-in-all, a better party experience than I expected.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Independence Challenge - Week 22

My preciousssss....

I got my freezer Tuesday! DD15 and I picked it up at Sears, and then I carefully drove down the unpaved back alley. DH and DD15 wrestled it out of the Cherokee, through the yard, and out of its box. That was the easy part.

I opened the cellar doors for the first time in 5 years, and had to do a lot of spiderweb clearing in order for either DD15 or DH to agree to go further. Getting it the last few feet down the cellar stairs and through the door required removing some door trim and a little bit of knuckle skin. The ceiling is very low and DH whacked his poor head several times. But we saved the $65 delivery charge.

Came down these steps and through a low, narrow door we never use.

I let it sit overnight to settle the coolant, and plugged it in this morning. I've put in all my oats and rice to freeze any bug eggs they might be harboring, and I will do all the flour next. There is lots of meat on sale right now, and the holidays will bring sales on butter, nuts, and spices. I need to do some research on how I can stock up on cheese. Oooo, I am so excited.

Planted: Frost is on the horizon, so I took more cuttings to root over the winter: coleus, begonias, false indigo, salvia.

Harvested: Only some peppers, cabbage and broccoli are left and not quite ready. Not much harvesting will happen from now on, aside from the winter-hardy thyme I use in making stock. I still visit farmers and markets for local produce.

Preserved: Tried drying a few sweet peppers on a tray, but they got moldy. Better use the dehydrator next time. I would help if I stopped piling things on top of it.

Bought 10 pounds of Gala apples, part to dry and part to try storing in the basement. I plan to get some other varieties to try storing. I want to buy local, but the prices are 3x the supermarket price for Washington State apples. Even u-pick costs more. I need the volume right now. I've been trying to accumulate 10-15# of dried fruit, but the kids don't like raisins much. I have raisins, prunes, apricots, currants, and craisins. I need to flesh that out with dried bananas and apples.

Cooked: Shrimp curry and some pasta dishes came completely from storage. All of our baking does, too. We still need to shop for meat, eggs, and dairy, but more meals are coming from storage. Need to work harder on having "stuff" in the fridge for casual eating, without someone needing to cook a whole meal. Reheatables, and things for sandwiches and munching.

Not quite cooking, but we used some gourds to make Gourd Birds with black-eyed peas for eyes. I might put some skewer legs on them and put a few out front.

Stored: Starting to store tap water in recycled milk jugs. Six gallons, so far (plus the 45 gallons always in the water heater). I am planning to salvage jugs at church. They empty a few jugs of tea or punch every week at coffee hour. DD15 will also bring home the ones she empties and washes at her coffee shop job.

I studied the grocery store ads carefully, and shopped the sales from a list on Friday. Not a lot of extra driving. I mostly avoided impulse buying - just a bag of grapes, a big Rubbermaid canister for bread flour, a bag of my fav Goya soup bean mix, and a can of white hominy to try.
Redner's: whole chickens .68/lb, 2lb blocks of cheddar for 2.98/lb, Italian sausage for 2.18, and a pkg of beef shin to make stock. We ate some stuff from the little freezer, so I had room to cram in the chickens and meat.

Giant: 6 bags of pot pie noodles, 6 boxes of cake mix for doctoring up, 2 bottles of Hershey's syrup, 10# of unbleached flour, 4 boxes of Red Zinger tea (triple coupons), 6 jars of peanut butter, 10# apples, 2 quarts shampoo and 4 of conditioner, 4 boxes of jar lids.

Save-a-Lot: 5lb bags of white potatoes for $1, along with bananas at 3#/$1. Twenty pounds of taters for $4 is a good price to see how long they last in my cellar. Also got 6 cans of pineapple, bleach, band-aids, dandruff shampoo, garlic, 4# of brown sugar.

Found 2 large canisters of Sunmaid raisins for $5, at Rite-Aid. Drug store food is usually over-priced, but when they want to move old stock, they really mark it down. I had to go to Wal-mart to pick up a $4 Rx, so I snagged some ibuprofen, more allergy meds, and some toothbrushes.
Prepped: Installed bamboo pole to dry clothes, and bought more plastic hangers. Washed BR windows to prepare for bubble wrap and insulating curtains later this month. Heart-breakingly, the bamboo pole did not hold up under use. Back to the drawing board. I am going to try huge drywall screws right into joists.

This week's rummage sale loot included a roasting rack, 2 pair of gloves, three glass measuring cups, some sweaters for DD15, a few books. I've told each kid to expect the winter to be long and cold. They need to start doing their own rummaging for warm clothes at sales. Sweatshirts, bathrobes, socks and gloves, etc. Socks are often only a dime at sales - people think that "used" socks are icky, but I often find like-new socks for almost nothing. If nothing else, they make good dust cloths.

Got two unappealing paintings via Freecycle, so we can reuse the canvas. My kids are both good artists, and canvas is expensive. A few months ago, I was talking to an artist that went to the local Disney store when they had a going-out-of-business sale. He bought a huge number of printed canvas Disney poster for $1 each, to reuse the canvas. I have been keeping that in mind ever since.

Managed: Continued to re-organize the kitchen, now that so much food moved downstairs. Put away lots of pots, and jarred up the nuts and dried fruit. Still no good place for the stack of cast iron. I want a pot rack pretty badly, but I am afraid of damaging the (rental house) acoustic tile ceiling while poking around for a joist, and then being charged for damage when we leave.

I asked about 5-gal buckets at the Giant bakery department. They said they no longer save them for anyone, because it is too hard to manage with 3 shifts of bakery workers that don't communicate well. Apparently there was drama. I don't see how that stopped her from giving the empties immediately on hand to someone standing right in front of her, but it did. I will try some other stores.

Reduced Reused, Recycled: We had already replaced most of our incandescent light bulbs, but not the ones in our ceiling fan fixtures, which require a different shape. We found 5-packs of them at BJ's for $15 each. Pretty expensive for 10 light bulbs, when I can buy 40-watt chandelier bulbs for $2/6-pack. I hope to make up the difference in fewer bulbs and less energy used. We used to have to replace the bulbs pretty frequently, although we don't use those lights very often. The three fans (BR, LR, and kitchen) are in rooms that all have other light sources. I only turn them on to clean, when I want to see all the dirt. (No one wants to see it otherwise!) The new bulbs have a 2 year warranty, so I taped the receipt to the empty package and stashed it.
-->> Isn't it ironic that CFL bulbs come in huge hard plastic packages that cannot be recycled, and the old-fashioned bulbs come in recyclable paper and cardboard?
Got some free pallets from the playground construction project up the street. I am going to see what else I can scavenge. Posted a curb-alert to Freecycle so other people can get pallets. It so pays to have a sturdy teenager to haul your pallets down the block.

Local/Family: Getting ready to start a major effort at my Mom's house. I want to pack up the front and back porches, the living room, the kitchen and the hall. I hope to put a lot of it in the dining room, in numbered inventoried stacks of boxes, donating the tired old furniture. My goals are to make the outside of the house look tidy and to make room for a plumber to fix her pipes and fixtures. All of her bath/kitchen fixtures and hot water heater need replacing, along with the kitchen counter top. Long-dead washer and dryer need to be removed.

I dread it. There is so much stuff, and each item has emotional significance. Each piece of paper represents something she meant to do. It's like ripping off band-aid after band-aid. Getting rid of some moldering item she saved for 15 years represents a failure to keep something from the landfill, a failure to carry out a plan, and an acknowledgment that she has simply run out of time. I am getting professional support for her, but it will still be very upsetting. There is no choice - no matter how the future pans out for her, she needs to be able to tap the value of her house in order to live.

Learned: Signed up for a free self-study course online, about canning, through the National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia. I want to start pressure canning soup and other non-acid food, and I want to make sure not to poison us all.

Library: Found Tarot Made Easy at a sale. Thought it might be fun over the winter. We have a tarot deck in a drawer somewhere.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Media Independence Plan

I spend a lot of time thinking about food independence, but I have been ignoring the elephant in the room. I am a media slave! All of my family are indentured to Comcast. It controls what we watch, whether we get email, how fast we connect to the Internet, and how much we spend on all of that. I buy manual cooking tools, but up until now we haven't given organized thought to all the media tools that require electricity. DH and I talked about it this week.

No one in my family can imagine an appealing future without media - we are huge readers, film-watchers, magazine subscribers, Internet users, and TV-watchers. Our music is digital. DD15 goes to an online charter school. We are selective, and control our TV with a DVR. We don't spend all our time in front of a screen. We allow only one TV that everyone watches, so family members have to negotiate to watch favorite shows. No TVs or computers in kids' rooms. Each person tracks different shows they think are worth watching, and DH generally manages the DVR recording and reminds us to watch our saved shows.

But we have a $150+ monthly Comcast bill, of which $48 is high speed Internet. The rest is basic cable, a required digital package, DVR rental, and HBO, along with fees and taxes. One or two pay-per-view movies a month. We also see one or two movies per month at theater matinees. DH and I like to have the occasional Friday afternoon date, with a movie and Cajun food.

We don't have landline phones, only cell phones with pay-as-you-go plans, so we are already Phone Independent (as far as one can be). But no landline means no DSL through a phone company, which is cheaper Internet. On the other hand, Verizon is also moving toward more expensive options (FIOS) for the speeds needed to support media streaming.

We could survive without cable TV and Internet. We very much enjoy reading. But we wouldn't like losing the connections, the information, the news, my blog! The Internet is more than entertainment. It has become essential for business, and to connect services with people who are otherwise isolated by distance, disability, or poverty. Most job hunting is now done online. In Pennsylvania, cable companies negotiate individual long-term franchise contracts with municipalities, making cable a patchwork of providers for users who have no group identity or power. I anticipate that the price of Internet service will rise as customers leave cable TV - either because they switch to Internet programming, or because they choose food and rent over cable.

These are the possible scenarios I see for us in the next few years:

Best Case: We remain able to afford electricity, cable TV, and high speed Internet. Over the next 5 years, as more and more TV programming becomes available online, we will invest in a High Definition monitor, and hook up a computer to stream our programming from the Internet, eliminating our cable subscription. We could get a 32" HD TV for under $800, maybe much less if we buy one at a store liquidation or bankruptcy sale. A computer with a large hard-drive would come in under another $1000. Alternative energy sources will develop over the next 5-10 years, and our electricity needs may be met off-grid.

Middle Road: We may be forced to cut our spending dramatically in the next 2-3 years. Cable TV would go first, to preserve our funds for Internet and electricity. We think that about half of the programming we watch is available online now. We could get a digital Netflix subscription, but would lose the original HBO prgramming that we like, until HBO starts offering the predicted digital subscriptions. We would also stop going to theaters, and would give up our magazines, new books (using only the library), and other forms of paid media in order to keep the Internet.

Worst Case: If the economy goes downhill very quickly, I would consider organizing a "community media center." We would not be the only ones jonesing for TV and Internet (not to mention light, heat, and a meal). We could start a community-supported TV and Internet Cafe, spreading the power and connection costs across a larger number of people. I hope to see this kind of thing start up in any future. Movies were popular and inexpensive during the Depression, a distraction from hunger and worry. TV could be more of a positive experience if it came with community and discussion, instead of isolation. Group watching could also make tedious tasks entertaining - bean shelling, needlework, and other handcrafts.

Bug-Out Media Plan: This is a short-term plan for unexpected local emergencies. We have extra phone chargers. I have a biometric flash drive with our essential data and passwords. We would take our phones and DH's laptop. Everyone but me has an MP3 player, flash drives loaded with music, and DS-Lite game systems. (I prefer reading.) We are shopping for solar chargers and rechargeable batteries. We need to be able to keep our phones and a laptop up in an emergency. The music and games could pass the time if we had to evacuate-n-wait at a shelter. We also have a shelf of waiting-to-be-read books, that we could easily grab on the way out the door, and three of us carry Moleskine notebooks and sketchbooks.

What's your Media Plan look like? How will you make sure you can keep reading my blog? :-)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

If You Give a Mom a Hammer...

If you are a parent, perhaps you have read the book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. In it, a boy gives a mouse a cookie, which results in a huge chain reaction of exhausting events.

This sounds like a simple task, doesn't it? "Hammer in hooks for laundry pole." I wanted to hang a 7-foot bamboo pole across a niche in our bedroom to use for drying laundry indoors. All I have to do is pound in two hammer-in hooks for the pole. I have hooks; I have a hammer. DD15 can climb on the footboard of the bed to do this.

Want to know why I have such a long list of simple tasks?

Hmm... maybe we better dust the ceiling fan, or it will throw dust on the laundry. But first we better cover the bed with a drop cloth, since fan cleaning inevitably drops chunks of dust. We'll need to lug the big vacuum cleaner upstairs, to vacuuming loose dust off the fan blades. Then we need the ladder to climb up and manually take off the rest. Ugh, the glass light fixture needs a wash.

I love ceiling fans, but they get really dirty in the city with the windows open all summer. A ring of dust develops on the walls at fan level, so DD15 and I will also have to dust all the walls and woodwork. Then all the furniture and lampshades will need dusting. And the humidifier still on the floor from last winter needs a good cleaning.

DH has to help sort all the treasure on his bureau, which lives in the bottom part of the niche. The broken X-Box must be ceremoniously removed, dusty martial arts gear sent to launder, unidentified cables that "might come in handy" taken to the bin where such things are kept. The pile of old X-Box games will have to be taken downstairs to list on eBay. While we are ripping apart the room, it will seems like a good time to wash the windows, so they will be ready for bubble wrap and the heavy drapes (a separate item on the to-do list). Then I will have to deal with the pile of "this doesn't belong in our bedroom" junk that needs a new home.

That pile includes a stack of summer clothes that I can put in the plastic trash barrels we use to store off-season clothing in the cellar. But first I need to go through the winter barrels to make room. Uh oh, the barrels are covered in kitchen trash bags full of clothes I told the kids to "take to the barrels" all summer as we bought them at yard sales. It all needs sorting.

I can use the top of the washing machine to sort clothes. But first I better empty it. It's raining, so the stuff can't hang outside to dry. Oh! I can hang it on the new laundry pole! Crap, there aren't enough extra hangers. Have to find the box of extra hangers. I bet they are in the attic. Oh dear, the attic steps are full of stuff that was supposed to go up there for storage...

But first, I need a nap under the drop cloth.