Sunday, July 26, 2009

Independence Challenge - July '09

Whew. Mom spent another week in the hospital after a string of "episodes" that culminated in what looked like a big TIA in the doorway of her doctor's office. After a lot of testing, they basically don't know what is wrong, but it's probably not more TIAs. It might just be the blood pressure meds they had her on after the first June TIA. She has a history of sensitivity to medication, and she hasn't had another episode since she stopped taking the Vasotec.

It did delay our move by two weeks - the landlord agreed to give us an extension. I was spending a lot of time at the hospital and we were not getting packed.

There is another factor influencing my preparedness - harder to wrap my head around. With DH gone at grad school, and my self-employment dissolved, I have no income while I care for Mom. I've had to apply for food stamps, Medical Assistance, and welfare. I don't like it, but it does help quite a bit. It's the first time I've had medical coverage since DD12 was born - I hardly know where to start.

We get $529/month in food stamps, far more than I expected - and far more than we spent on food with our own cash. But we don't eat like a lot of families do, and I have food storage. My mother technically does not live with us, but I also feed her from our food stamp budget. Several effects on our food patterns:
  • We eat in more variety. We can afford more than the cheapest protein. I can afford some fish, organic chicken, organic store-brand milk. We can afford more fresh fruit and vegetable variety. I can take advantage of seasonal sales on a more efficient scale. I can't be a spend-thrift, and we still eat a lot of rice, beans, oatmeal, eggs, and potatoes.

  • I can re-build our storage. I didn't have enough money to replenish what we were using, which was worrisome. Summer should be the time we stock up, not eat down.

  • We eat far less locally. Almost no vendors at the large farmer's markets take food stamp cards - none of the produce vendors. None of the orchards or producer markets take the cards at all. Not only are we unable to spend our food stamp largess locally, the local vendors are missing that whole market of clients. So, we cannot buy local milk, produce, meat, seeds, or baked goods (except the stuff that makes it into the grocery stores). We do shop at the most-locally-focused grocery stores, Weis and Redner's. I really miss the producer markets and the pick-your-own orchards.
It's been hard to get much done regarding the Independence Challenge. I've been trying to wait until we get fully moved and organized at Mom's house. But I did mange to get a few things done:

Planted: I bought a slicing tomato start on clearance and put it in a big pot on Mom's front walk. It's got a number of tomatoes. I am planting at least basil, cabbage, peas, and carrots for a fall garden.

Harvested: Mint for tea. My chocolate mint died over the winter, so the mint is my less-favorite spearmint. It dries poorly, I discovered last year - almost no flavor from dried leaves. We also used the dill from a small volunteer plant in the backyard. Mom has peppermint and apple teas in her yard, so I look forward to experimenting.

Preserved: Not so much. I hope to make pickles, pesto, and more jam in August.

Reduced Waste: Oh, not. The problem is my Mom's house. Her approach to reducing waste was to simply save it. And to bring in hundreds of cardboard boxes to organize it. And now years of paper, plastic, metal, cardboard, and glass must go, in one extended outpouring. We recycle as much as we can, with the municipal program and at various scrap buyers. We will also have yard sales, freecycling, and ebaying. But still, we have been putting out 16 large bags of trash each week, plus a bulk item.

We are have much stuff for the county's fall hazardous waste collection. Decades of expired medication, nail polish, mercury thermometers, old oil-based paint, batteries, pesticides, herbicides, anti-freeze and motor oil. I have a pick-up truckload of metal scrap, and am hiring someone hourly just to flatten cardboard for a truckload delivery.

On the positive side, Mom has an established composting area that we will expand. There are some elderly canned goods that we will eventually empty into the compost stream when I get more worms. Some, I will just flush or dump in the sink. For instance - she had a dozen cans of Hawaiian Punch from the 70s. Apparently, it can eat through metal, because the contents leaked from some of them. The rest must be full of dissolved metallic elements - I am dumping that into the sewer system.

We could compost some of her paper and cardboard, but not most of it - it would exceed the capacity of her 1/3-acre yard. We put out 20 bags of paper for the recycling pick-up this past Monday alone. I am looking for a place to take wood scrap - maybe a biomass generator. There are lots of wooden odds and ends that I won't burn in a home fireplace - painted, varnished, poly-coated, particle board, soft wood, etc. A biomass generator will have a scrubber stack.

We did a bunch of plumbing work - new hot water heater, new bathroom sink/faucet, toilet guts, and a pressure-reducing value. Mom's split-level was built in the 50's and the builder was cheap with plumbing and electrical work. My parents did almost nothing to improve on that. By simply adding a pressure-reducing value, we have already solved years of plumbing fixture abuse, wasted water, and wasted water-heating energy. We couldn't have a tankless heater without seriously upgrading her natural gas lines, so we just went with a more efficient heater.

Electrical work is next - new 200 amp service (she has a 60-amp fusebox), more lines for outlets in the basement, and GFI outlets for bath and kitchen. I need to be able to plug in my freezer safely. I realize now that Dad spent his whole garage workshop life using only an extension cord plugged into an outlet screwed into the ceiling fixture. WTF, Dad? He was not nearly as handy as I thought he was when I was a kid.

We are also planning a DIY kitchen upgrade that starts with stock base cabinets, surplus counter, and maybe a vintage cast iron sink. We need to stretch Mom's funds to cover as much renovation as we can, so we will do the kitchen in stages. I hope to post photos after we have done enough clean-up not to embarrass Mom. The girls are old enough to learn to use tools, and I have a lot of renovation experience. My hands are wrecked, but I can instruct and demo, and they can be the hands.

Preparation and Storage: I stocked a case of assorted canned beans, canned tomatoes, peanut butter, bulk popcorn and split peas we stored in juice bottles. These food stamp benefits will run out, maybe within 6 months, so I hope to do a lot more stocking by then.

I am still skimming Craigslist out of habit, and I saw a pressure canner go by. I just had to email, and I got it! Only used a few times, for $20. I am planning to start by canning some chicken stock as soon as we get settled.

We have also found more things at Mom's. Old comforters that can become window quilts, lots of fabric for quilting, Lots of kitchenware, even more canning jars. I will have to buy new rings and lids by the case. I also found a few older organic gardening books that I had intended to buy. Mom must have gotten them years ago, with good intentions, but never really grasped what "organic" meant, judging by the amount of commercial fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide in the garage. She saved a billion articles about using vinegar and baking soda, but still bought dozens of chemical cleaners. We will help her get back on the greener path.

Build Community Food Systems: No. But I am collecting ideas for future activism. My food stamp experience alone gives me ideas for things that need changing. If food stamps are our society's temporary family safety net, they need to be spendable in the local food economy, not shut people out of it.

Eat the Food: We were eating too much convenience food at first. We were working for 8-10 hours a day at Mom's house, and cooking just seemed impossible. But we have now fallen into better patterns. We make oatmeal, yogurt, and fruit for breakfast, then spend the mornings doing email and phone work, or packing at our old house. We have lunch, often soup and sandwiches, and leave to work at the house for 4-5 hours. Then we come home and make dinner. Mom usually naps at home with one of the girls in the evening, and I take the other one back to work at the house for another 2-3 hours, usually leaving around 9:30pm. I try to go to bed by 10:30, and get up at about 7:30.

Having Mom around does keep us on more of a schedule than usual. She has had a loss of appetite, so she doesn't ask for food, although she will eat and enjoy it if I bring it. I have to remember to feed her so she can take her medications on time (and not get loopy from lack of food). I'm not used to that - if the kids are hungry they either demand a meal or go rustle up their own food. We usually only ate dinner together. Now, I am preparing three meals a day.

I gave up making yogurt, for now, but we do make crockpots of soup, and often something else for sandwiches, like roast turkey or meatloaf. Dinner is usually some form of boneless chicken with vegetable, salad, or side dish. DD16 might make chicken curry with green beans over rice. Or I might make chicken Caesar salad. There is often fresh fruit at every meal. The four of us can go through most of a watermelon in a day, a whole cantaloupe or pineapple in one meal. Cereal, bananas, and leftovers fill in the gaps.

By my next Independence Challenge report, I hope to be able to say I have my new pantry set up, my kitchen renovation underway, and our composting expanded.

Monday, July 13, 2009

An Update from the Trenches

I've been quiet, blog-wise, for a long time, but busy "off screen."

This week, we are in the final push to move into Mom's house by July 21st (which is when we've told our landlord we will be out). The house is not quite ready, so I am a bit nervous about whether the plumber will have the essential work done in time. And by "ready" I mean just able to physically accommodate me, the girls, and our bare necessities. We need to be able to sleep, cook, use a bathroom, hook up a computer, have room to sit down. It will take many months for the house to be fully re-organized and repaired.

On top of her cognitive issues, Mom had a mini-stroke in June. She has recovered well, but now takes a lot more medications than she once did. Her license to drive has been taken, and her independence much reduced. It is a sad time for her. We now think she does not have Alzheimer's, but that she may have had a number of small strokes that were not recognized. That is both good and bad news. I feel even more sharply the urgency of writing down more of her stories.

Once we are moved in, I hope to start blogging again, as we begin to completely reorganize a house filled to the brim with stuff, some useful, some not. It raises interesting questions of what needs stocking up for an uncertain future, and how much is enough. My mother's OCD/hoarding tendencies made her stockpiling ritualistic and excessive, but her urges are very similar to the things we talk about wanting to accomplish with our Independence challenges and our various prepping activities.

Jars, for instance. We've recycled vast amounts of saved glass and plastic jars. Possibly thousands, in carloads to the township recycling center. We've kept the canning jars (maybe 150), freezer containers, the larger glass jars with intact lids. We've recycled the rest - too many different sizes, all with different lids. I want to have only 2-3 lid sizes to manage.

There are still dozens of jars of hardware to look through - many dating back to my father's workshop days - but he's been gone for 27 years. Some will end up with the metal scrap. There is a huge metal scrap pile in the backyard, along with a large wood scrap pile, and a mountain of cardboard to be flattened - all bound for various recycling destinations. Hundreds of cans of old oil-based paint and house/garden chemicals will go to a hazardous waste collection event in the fall. There are also many 4-5 gallon plastic food buckets with lids, round and square. My mom used them ineffectively, but I am keeping them for now - future food storage.

Some things were more of an artifact of her hoarding disorder. Onions skins, for instance. Bags, bottles, and boxes tucked in everywhere. Long ago (40 years?), she did a craft project that involved dying eggs with onions skins. She's been saving them since, wanting to do more of that, but not able to do anything at all in her disordered house. The phrase "disordered house" is so apt in this situation. Onion skins can be useful, but there is no danger we will run out, since we grow onions.

Lest it all seem grim, we have also found many interesting things, some of which will be blogged later. My teen daughters were fascinated by a pile of Seventeen magazines from the 70's. I kept some Boys Life to give to my brother. Funny lists I made when I was in 7th grade. My mother's wedding shoes. Negatives from my father's darkroom. Jars full of seashells from our beach trips. Things my father and grandfather brought back from WWII.

There are also useful things. Lots of tools, books, lumber, plastic sheeting, fire wood. The many buckets and canning jars. (Oddly, I never recall my mother canning - I think she stopped when I was very young). A vintage croquet set and other games. Clothing, sheets, towels. Envelopes, stationary, wrapping paper. Hundreds of gloves (another item of obsessive focus for Mom). No need to go to yard sales this year!

And... we have only done the very-densely-packed cellar, garage, hallway, part of the living room. We still have the rest of the LR, a dining room, most of the kitchen, 4 bedrooms, 2 attic spaces, an enclosed back porch, and a crawl space. There is a collapsing garden shed to be emptied and torn down. We've been putting out 8 bags of trash twice a week, plus bulk items, and trips to the recycling center. We already have a very large "yard sale" department growing in the garage.

We have been using a rented storage unit to pack up our old household until there is room at Mom's. We got rid of a lot of our own stuff. Mom's situation has lead us all to examine our own habits of acquisition and disposal. I wonder if DD16 will now ever keep anything she cannot make digital.

A few weeks ago, I did manage to make small batch of strawberry jelly at our house. Two pints plus a half-pint. Nothing like the 18-24 pints I had intended to make, as DD12 will only eat strawberry. But, better than nothing. I suspect I will be doing few of the things I really want to be doing, until the major sorting effort is done.

Much more to tell another day. We canceled most of our TV cable and are making media adaptations. DH is off at grad school, working hard in a completely different way. DD12 is adapting badly to the changes in our life and we are seeking family counseling with her. DD16 is making choices about how to do high school. We are all facing a possible move to a new city when DH comes out of grad school next fall.

What a whirlwind we live in, right now.