Monday, January 23, 2012

Life, Plus or Minus Plastic

I'm no great fan of plastic. The primary reason for this is because of the role it has played in eliminating the craftsman from the manufacturing process, but also because it promotes the idea of disposability, put another way, waste. Despite this there are some arguments to me made for plastic as a material: There are some jobs for which is plastic is well-suited, and there's just so much of it around - to eliminate it entirely, or to reject it completely is to commit the sin of waste in a different way. The solution, as with so many other issues of technology, is to use plastic wisely and responsibly.

I came at this issue initially intending to eliminate plastic completely. Like many other eco-minded Americans, I started by amassing several canvas bags to use in place of plastic grocery store bags. This led to the surprising discovery that I really depended on platic bags, and had used them in numerous applications from ad hoc waterproofing material, to pipe patches, to well... bags for carrying all sorts of things. In fact, I found that of all the platic items I encountered in modern American life, those ubiquitous and scandalous plastic bags were one of the items I was most likely to reuse and repurpose. So I've struck a compromise: I try to reduce the number of plastic bags I consume, but rather than suffer a guilt attack everytime I end up with one, I save them as a precious resource, and re-use them.

Lately I've been shopping around alot for household items, and stocking up a pantry. As much as possible, I look for non-platic solutions to my household needs. Still, I find plastic is everywhere, and trying to boycott plastic is even harder than trying to boycott Chinese-made goods. At this point, I'm not even sure that it can actually be done. Still, I believe that just because I can't do everything doesn't mean I can't do anything at all. Just because I can't eliminate plastic doesn't mean that I can't reduce the amount that I use, and that I can't use it responsibly when I do.

A simple example will suffice I think. Water bottles. Water is my beverage of choice when I'm not drinking coffee or tea. When purchasing bottled water, plastic is almost always involved. Generally speaking, I don't buy bottled water, more because it's simply filtered tap-water, and thuse represents a near 100% profit margin for the bottlers. Instead, I have one of those water pitchers with the filter, and have a selection of permanent water bottles made from a variety of materials - some are stainless steel, and others are nalgene plastic - but even the stainless water bottles aren't plastic free, because the tops are made of plastic. The water pitcher and the filter assembly are... made of plastic.

Whether I like it or not, plastic is, and, for the immediate future, will remain part of my life.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Still in a holding pattern...

... and will be for another three weeks or so. If you think it gets old reading about it, try living it.

The Potholder Saga

I mentioned last week that I attempted to make a potholder with one of those loopy looms but that my inner 5 year-old abandoned me at the end. Not one to give up easily, I put my thinking cap on and decided to salvage the thing. The solution I came up with was to take a piece of coat hanger wire and bend a stop on one end and a loop on the other. I then transfered all of the remaining loops onto this piece of wire (bending it as needed at the corner) and pulled off one loop at a time as I was ready to deal with it. I'm now the proud owner of one ugly potholder.

As I mentioned before, the technique doesn't really seem worth the trouble, except for the fact that I have a daughter who turns six tomorrow and she thinks making potholders out of little loopy things is a fabulous idea. I'm putting the whole thing aside until the next rainy weekend, at which time we'll let her have a go at it.

A cool website

Makezine recently featured a spot on their website about a knockdown backyard pizza oven. The source of the idea was wich turns out to be a really cool site, with lots of advice and ideas on green living. They have some good looking dogs too.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Tough Week

There's real content coming, I promise. This week has kept me moving to the point of exhaustion though. I had to drive down to Charlottesville, Va (nice town, by the way) for a second opinion from a doctor. I got one, alright, in direct contradiction to my regular doctor. So what do I do now? Get a third opinion and hope it breaks the tie?

I decided though, since despite the difference of opinions, and because regardless of which one is right, the recommended treatment is exactly the same - and of course my symptoms don't change because the diagnosis did, that I'm just not going to worry about it. Too many other things going on right now.

An attempt at craftiness

I thought I would get crafty and try making a potholder with those loop thingies - you know, the kind you made in art class when you were 5. It starts out pretty easy, but gets a little tricky at the end. Approximately half-way through the process of getting the finished potholder off, the tension on the loom had relaxed so much that the remaining loops just poped off. Since nothing was holding them together, the edges started to unweave. It is salvage-able, but it doesn't make me want to make more potholders this way. I can't really recommend the method at this point to anyone who isn't 5.

This was really just a whim, inspired by the realization that I'm going to be needing my own potholders soon. My grandmother crocheted her potholders, and I though homemade potholders would be very much in keeping with my vision of life, so I picked up the loom at the local craft store. Considering I don't have a viable source of making loops of my own, and refuse to depend on having to buy the materials (and the colors are kind of funky anyway), I don't think this is really a viable means of production. The loom is made of metal, so I'll be looking for a way to use it for something else.

A good cooking blog

I've lived in Virginia for very nearly 10 years now, and frankly I don't want to live anywhere else. I'm still a Texan at heart though, and one of the things I miss most is the food. Honestly, recreating the food here in the land of country ham is the main reason I set about learning to cook. Recently I found a great blog by another displaced Texan who has made it her mission. She recently published a cookbook The Homesick Texan which I heartily recommend. Her recipes and mine don't necessarily match, but she's ventured out a lot further than I have and I'll be looking to her blog and her book for inspiration a lot.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Plans, plans, plans

Winter is still holding us fast in its grip here in the northern Shenandoah Valley. Outdoor activity is tough due to radical fluctuations in temperature, there's nothing to plant, nothing to water, and most of my indoor activities are limited due to the flux going on in my domestic life. Everybody is prone to anger, and the most innocent of comments or gestures can have dramatic, long term effects. My coping strategy is to be 'small', to take up as little space as possible, and hold out for the physical separation which is still a few weeks away.

What I can do, however, is plan for the future. It's not exactly a bright, shining future, but neither is it exactly dark and dreary. There will be serious financial challenges since the bulk of my income is going to child support and spousal support, but I'm no stranger to poverty or limited means. Despite the fact that my income is effectively rolling back about 15 years, there are certain advantages that I've never had before:

First, I no longer define my self by a material yardstick. Who I am and what I can do is much more important to me. It's only because I've been both places before: abject poverty and material success that I can fully appreciate that the new state of my life will be neither, but also include some of both, and I work at it without allowing myself to be seduced by the siren call of modern you-are-what-you-can-buy, the potential for a pretty good life awaits me.

Second, I have a home now. It's not the perfect home, and it's not what I make my first choice, but it is mine, and it's sustainable. I also have the freedom now to develop it in the way that I see fit without the constraint of someone else's expectations or trying to present an image that has no basis in reality.

Third, I possess now the gifts of knowledge and some small understanding of what is is truly important, including the knowledge of how to turn small resources into greater ones. I can plant seeds and harvest crops, preserve those crops and make food from them; I understand that to throw away anything of the smallest value is to commit the sin of waste. I can, with my own hands and the sweat of my brow craft much of what I need to sustain life, if only I resolve to do so and persevere.


I'm not starting entirely from scratch, but there's a lot of work to be done to convert my home from a mediocre palace of consumption to a homestead of production. To accomplish this, I have to build infrastructure, establish new habits, and actually do a lot of things that up to this point have only been idle fantasies or intermittent pastimes.

First in order of importance is food production. Gardening will be the deciding factor on whether I subsist on the dreg of the industrial food system, or feast on the healthy provenance of God and Nature. I live in a suburb of a small city, in a house designed to exploit the 'Grid' and not to be self-sustaining. My lot is a little less than an acre. It won't every fully nourish me and my children, but it can make a significant contribution. I have several projects in the works to move towards this end:

  • Edible Landscaping: Once spring emerges, I'll be replacing ornamentals with edibles. The permanent flower bed between my house and driveway is going to be devoted entirely to kitchen herbs and a few perennial vegetables. I already have established fruit trees, and will be planting more. I'll post pictures and commentary on the process as it develops

  • Above-Ground Gardening: The soil here is rocky and not prone to draining well. I've already built one permanent garden bed measuring 12' x 4', and I'll be building several more as time, materials, and other resources allow. I expect to have as many as 10 by the end of the year, at which time I'll evaluate the need and space requirements for more.

  • Container Gardening: This serves multiple purposes - it allows other wise unusable space to be productive; being portable, it allows one to extend the growing season by starting plants earlier, maintaining them later into the season, and creating the specials conditions needed for plants that would otherwise not be viable in one's local climate.

Crops themselves are only one step in the process of food production. Crops aren't exactly food yet, until they're actually on your plate. They also don't last forever and have to be stored or preserved. Then there's actually cooking them, which is not really that small a task, particularly when dealing with whole, raw ingredients. Some plans in this area which I'll be documenting are:

  • Canning: I've helped others with the canning process, but never actually done it by myself before, and then only the water bath method. I've watched other cook with a pressure cooker before, but I'm only vaguely familiar with the process of pressure canning. This will be a real adventure, and I'm looking forward to it.

  • Pickling and Fermentation: I've made pickles before, and I know people who regularly make their own Kimchi and Sauerkraut. These and other dishes can be a great and healthy addition to anyone's diet.

  • Cooking From Scratch: This is one area where I'm really pretty comfortable. I enjoy cooking as much as I enjoy eating. I've always shied away from pre-made options anyway, but I have to admit that quite often I've succumbed to the temptation of convenience. Now I have a financial incentive to avoid the industrial alternative.

It takes more than food to live a happy and fulfilled life, and there's more than gardening to living sustainably, lightly, and responsibly. My home is going to need furnishings, tools, textiles and other items, many of which I can manufature myself in whole or in part. There's also free time to account for, kids to entertain and instruct, maintenance and home-improvement. Plans in this area include:

  • Music: I play guitar and tin-whistle. My daughter is learning the violin, and both my son and daughter are aspiring harmonica players. We already enjoy making noise together, and are developing a repetoire of songs we can play. Making your own music is fun, enriching experience that improves the mind, the body, and the spirit.

  • Woodworking: This is another area that I'm really comfortable with. I don't have every tool in the catalog, but I learned a while back that skill makes up for not having all the fancy gadgets, and that skill only requires practice and dedication. A lot of the furniture that's 'mine' is already stuff I made myself. I'll be making a lot more in the future and posting the results here.

  • General Tinkering: Something I've always done, and a skill that's paid many dividends, both monetarily and in a sense of satisfaction. I like to make things and I like to fix things, from small engines to metal fabrication to electronic gadgets to household fixtures.

  • Sewing and Needlecraft: This is generally considered a male past time, or a skill set that men are encouraged to pursue, but it remains vital. Clothes need mending or alterations; knitting and crocheting are simple, productive activities that can be done while talking, watching television, or simply relaxing. I've also always been fascinated by the art of weaving fabric and spinning fiber into thread and yarn that can then be woven.

Finally, there's the Luddite Philosophy of living responsibly and sustainably, using tools rather being used by tools against one's own enlightened self interest - of being able to sustain one's own life without relying on others for basic needs.

  • Waste not, want not: Also known as 'Reduce, Reuse, Recycle'. This includes lowering energy dependence, composting, repurposing, and not falling into the traps of convenience and responsibility. Creativity can play a large role here, and is something I plan to explore in great detail.

  • Community Development: This means helping neighbors, strangers, and nature itself. It means getting to know people, being ready to lend a helping hand, and being proactive about the problems and potential problems in the world around us.

Well, that's all for now, but there's plenty more to come. Having written this, I'm actually looking forward to the future.