Friday, February 27, 2009

Three Days in Bezerkley

I've just finished three days in Berkeley, visiting a nearly a dozen folks, and still had time for yoga and a hot tub—though not at the same time. (The hot tub was terrific for clearly out the nasal congestion I accumulated after three days of riding Amtrak with a head cold.)

Berkeley is one of my favorite cities for walking and I probably logged about 15 miles on foot—a great antidote after 60 hours of train travel. I never even used my BART card. Known mainly for its off-the-left-end-of-the-specturm politics, and as the main campus of the University of California (which are not unrelated), I appreciate Berkeley for it's surprises. Here's a taste of my last three days:

A. Restaurants
If you can't find an excellent example of your favorite ethnic cuisine in Berkeley, you haven't been trying hard enough. In my brief visit I enjoyed deep dish Chicago-style broccoli pizza at Zachary's on College, paella at an prix-fixe place on Solano, and a delicious wedge of ham&swiss quiche at Sweet Adeline's on, of course, Adeline. I also found time for visits to Saul's New York-style delicatessen, the Cheeseboard Collective, Kirala sushi, and the Triple Rock Brewery, all on Shattuck.

B. Flora
In Berkeley's Mediterranean climate, flowers bloom year round. Right now, one of my personal favorites was strutting its stuff: the bird of paradise. It has an impossible multi-colored flower that looks as if it were the head of a tropical bird, created in origami, using five different sheets of colored paper. I have absoultely no idea how natural selection could have concocted such a representational bloom. Luckily, I don't have to know. I can just pause, enjoy it, and shake my head in wonder whenever I find them in people's yards.

C. Diversity
In addition to being one of the most handicap-accessible places in the US, Berkeley also has an impressive array of bike lanes imbedded in their street grid. However, that's only the more obvious tip of their diversity iceberg.

Yesterday, for example, I came across the Berkeley Chinese Baptist Church, on the corner of Berkeley Way and Sacramento. Last month, if you'd asked if where I was most likely to find any Chinese Baptist church, I might have guessed Shanghai, Taipei, or perhaps Mars. I would not, however, have guessed Berkeley. As I reflected on the adjectives "Berkeley," "Chinese," and "Baptist," it occurred to me that one wouldn't automatically expect to hear any two of those names associated with the category "church", much less all three.

But that's Berkeley for you. You never know who or what you'll bump into.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Impatient Patient

For about a month now, people had been succumbing all around me to some virulent strain of what my father used to refer to as "the creeping crud" (a cold and flu combo deal) that was laying people low in droves. Michael—one of my fellow Sandhillians—was hit especially hard and was down for about a month. There was nothing about his experience that made me envious, and I was simply glad it wasn’t me. More commonly people had a hard week. Somehow though, I was escaping it—until Sunday.

Despite a steady diet of zinc lozenges (my standard prophylactic against colds), down I went. The good news was that it was a travel day (the sickness held off until I had completed my two days of workshops for the student groups in Kalamazoo and I wasn’t needed on stage again until the following Friday). Unfortunately, that was also the bad news. While I typically look forward to the rhythmic jostling of rail travel, it was not nearly as much fun with a stuffed head.

In Chicago for a couple hours around noon to change trains, I had just enough down time (and residual energy) to bang out the last blog in my series on Economic Leverage in Hard Times… and then I was done for the day. To compound my misery, I was shunted into a passenger car that offered no access to an electric plug and I was facing the prospect of a 54-hour journey without hope of pushing back the ever-rising tide of electrons that flood my In Box. It’s in moments like that that I can start to understand depression.

In the morning however, things got better. After sauntering over to the Tattered Cover (a local, thriving indie bookstore on the corner of 16th & Wynkoop, just catty corner from Union Station in downtown Denver) and stoking up on a triple latté (a person can only indulge in sickness so long), I purposefully strode back to the train and negotiated a change of seats into the next car, which had electric plugs at every seat. Sure I was still sick, but who’s got time for that shit?

While I was still not working at full speed, at least I was working. Intermingled with doing the Sunday New York Times Magazine crossword, reading chapters of Elizabeth Arthur’s Antarctic Navigation (a novel inspired by Robert Scott’s tragic and fateful march to the South Pole in 1912—a fair example of what Annie used to describe as my fetish with “freezing and starving” books), gnoshing on high-end delicacies secured at Zingerman’s world-class deli Friday morning en route to Kalamazoo, and indulging in the occasional nap, I started making a dent in my email traffic. And that’s almost as good a mood elevator as sex (though not quite).

The truth is, I make a terrible patient. I can handle it for about a day and then things had better change, or somebody is going to be sorry. My getting that seat with an electric was good for everyone on board. Not counting this blog entry (which I’m crafting as we pull out of Sacramento for the last two hours of the trip), I’ve banged out 24 emails since finding the Write Stuff yesterday morning, including four hours today spent editing minutes from a conference call Sat afternoon. Yeehah!

What will happen if I get really sick, and maybe have to cancel a consulting gig? I hope to never find out. And neither do you.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Economic Leverage in Hard Times: Part 6—Entertainment

This is the sixth and final installment of my series (started Feb 5) on how everyone can get more out of the life they want while at the same time spending less money to make it happen. My motivation is that most folks today need to be more careful about their economic choices, and I have some good news.

Through what's been learned about cooperation and sharing in community living, it's possible for most of us to continue to enhance the quality of our life while at the same time cut back on cash outlays. To be sure, my suggestions will require some lifestyle changes. Yet what I'm offering is meant to be widely accessible, and does not involve a change in personality or altering one's core values. In Part 1 I focused on Housing; in Part 2 I looked at Food; Part 3 was about Transportation; Part 4 spotlighted Energy; and Part 5 examined Health. Today I'll tackle Entertainment and Recreation.

• • •
The typical American family’s budget devotes 5% to Entertainment, yet there is another 7% that goes to the Three Legal Evils of alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine, and I'll include them in today's focus. What's more, you have to figure that a healthy chunk of the 17% used for Transportation is travel for the purpose of recreation (including both the accumulation of small trips to the movies—or Blockbusters—or the annual family vacation to the beach). So all together, this catchall category probably represents something in the 15% range, and is well worth a closer look.

Here are a half dozen suggestions for how to you can make a serious dent in your Entertainment expenses, without any sacrifice in enjoyment:

1. Celebration Cooking
This is one my favorites, and when done in season—relying mostly on local raw ingredient—you'd be amazed at how inexpensively you can produce a gourmet meal. Even if you decide to indulge in exotic ingredients, buying them raw (or at least less processed) will save substantially over the price you'd pay at a restaurant. What's more, if you cook with others, that can provide high-quality social time in addition to the camaraderie enjoyed in the eating. Kind of like double dipping.

One of the highlights of Sandhill's culinary calendar is the 10-day window in late-April/early May when we can wildcraft morel mushrooms in the neighboring woods (see my blog of May 7, 2008 for more about this). No one misses those meals, and the cost is simply the time it takes to walk in the woods with a bread sack. Even if you come back empty-handed (which happens), how bad can it be spending a couple hours amidst the transitory explosion of spring wildflowers, watching the trees buds unfurl from their winter doldrums? (Stan feels the same way bout deer huntign each fall: either you get some meat for the family table or you've had a lovely day in the woods. You can't lose.)

For a handful of years when I was growing up (in La Grange, a bedroom suburb on the west side of Chicago) my family would host an annual summer block party, where everyone on our street was invited to wheel their barbecue units into our backyard and cook a meal together. While families were mostly cooking their own food (rather than a potluck), my family would supply drinks for everyone, and the kids would race around while the adults schmoozed and grilled. It was terrific fun, with everyone contributing only what they were going to cook for dinner anyway, and there was no driving involved at all (except maybe to buy ice to keep the drinks cold).

Going back to 2005, I've been devoting the first Saturday night in Novermber to preparing and consuming a slow food dinner for 12-14 friends (see my blog of Nov 10, 2008 for more about this). The last three years I've been doing this with my partner, Ma'ikwe. We essentially start cooking as soon as we hit town (late Thursday or early Friday) and take about 12 hours to prepare a meal enjoyed over four hours. We do the cooking and the guests divvy up the bill for the ingredients. It's so much fun that Ma'ikwe and I have already begun reviewing recipes vying for a spot on the 2009 menu.

What if you're not a great cook? Find someone local who is, and volunteer to organize the dinner and help chop vegetables! Hell, everybody eats.

2. Salons
No, I'm not suggesting getting your hair done as a mood elevator. I'm talking about conversation salons. While you can set this up any way you want, I encourage you to pick a group of people (preferably local, to keep travel costs down—think bicycle, not automibile) who don't see the suggested theme of the conversation the same way. Rather than only having the liberals over to discuss Obama, think about inviting some thoughtful Republicans or Libertarians into the mix, and getting interested in the possibility that someone's mind might be changed (rather than existing views reinforced or defended) and that participants might discover new insights (read hope) about how to bridge between positions that are traditionally better bunkered than the Maginot Line. World peace has to start somewhere. Why not in your living room?

Another version of this is the book club, where everyone agrees to read a certain interesting title and then gets together (once a month?) to discuss what the reading stirred up for them. Perhaps a more contemporary version of this might be a movie club, where people agree to linger after a joint showing, to discuss what they just saw. Did you see Crash, the 2004 Best Picture? If you get the director's cut of this provocative film, John Waters explians that he was expressly trying to create a movie that viewers would want (need?) to talk about afterwards. Instead of trying to create escapist fluff or fantasy; he was aiming to get audiences to reflect on the complexities and incongruities of everyday life. I thought it was a terrific film, and every bit as thought provoking as Waters intended.

3. Walking
Under Point 1 I mentioned my once-a-year sojourns in the woods hunting morels. But that's only the exotic tip of the pedestrian iceberg. You can walk every day. In addition to accomplishing commuting
and errands—if you live close enough to where you work, or your kids go to school, or where you shop—walking can be both exercise and entertainment.

Sandhill is located on a ridge that drops off sharply to the southwest, affording us breathtaking views of the sunset. If the clouds are just right, an after-dinner walk along the ridge road on a June evening can be the highlight of the day. You can literally watch the sky run through its full range of palette options in 30 minutes. You can watch the barn swallows come out, and slash through the sky on their evening forage for the latest hatch of mosquitos. When the light drops too low for them to sight targets, the swallows abandoned the skies and are immediately succeeded by brown bats, who hunt by echolocation. Their flitting, darting movements are more abrupt and erratic, though no less beautiful or effective.

We had a couple living with us last year—Kevin & Ann— who were seriously contemplating moving in as next-door neighbors. Over the winter however, they decided they were not yet ready to settle in northeast Missouri. A major hestancy was around not having ready access to wilderness. In Flagstaff, where they had been living before launching their serach for community, they could literally walk from downtown into national forest, and that became precious to them.

Some people meditate; some practive Qigong; others walk. All offer a change of pace, reflective time, and a chance to unclench muscles cramped by sedentary confinement. All can be inexpensive elements of the Good Life, and cost next to nothing.

4. Reading
In addition to the book club idea mentioned in Point 2, reading can be immensely pleasurable, as well as edifying. For most of my adult life, I had been in the habit of reading about 25 books a year,
fiction and non-fiction in roughly equal amounts. Then, in my late 40s and 50s I started getting away from it, relying more on videos as entertainment and conversation (and email) for stimulation.

When I married Ma'ikwe in April 2007, we carved our five weeks for a honeymoon in Europe, and I made the decision to leave my laptop at home. (Yes, I occasioanlly got on the web at an internet cafe, but I never checked my email even once.) Instead, I brought books and rediscovered the joys of reading. While I wouldn't say it was the best part of the honeymoon, it was a happy mid-course correction. Now I'm back to reading 25+ books a year and more frequently closing my laptop before I'm exhausted. Now I'm apt to spend the last hour or two of the day curled up with a book instead of subjecting myself to one more stream of electrons.

Don't want to bust your budget on new books (or even used ones from Amazon)? Libraries still work.

5. Singing
Singing is one of the most distinctive human activities. While many of us were shamed as children about not being able to sing well enough to subject others to our attempts, I believe singing is a human birthright, and everyone should indulge themselves as much as they desire, so long as they're reasonably mindful of those around them. (For more on my personal journey with singing, see my blog of Feb 26, 2008.)

At the FIC's Celebration of Community in 1993, one of the keynote speakers was Kirkpatrick Sale, the noted independent scholar and environmentalist. As part of his talk he told the story of Ladakh, a remote mountainous province in northern India that had for centuries developed its culutre substantially uninfluenced by those around them. Among other traditions, the Ladakhi were proud singers and song was a common element of local celebrations, big and small. Then, when radio waves finally penetrated their remote region after Word War II, the Ladakhi learned what "good" singing was by hearing brodcasts from Delhi. in particular, they absorbed the message that their brand of singing wasn't good. Within a generation, Sale reported that the Ladakhi had mostly stopped singing. I get sad every time I tell this story, reflecting on the loss of culture, and the loss of joy.

At neighboring Dancing Rabbit, they have a weekly singing circle, and it's common to witness an a capella choral performance at high celebrations like Equinox and Land Day. At both communities we typically sing a song as part of the blessing before the evening meal, and it's not rare for everyone to break out the Rise Up Singing songbooks for an impromptu hootenanny after Tuesday potlucks.

Top Secret: while an ability to hit the notes and a proficiency at reading music are undoubtedly helpful, the key to enjoying singing is showing up energetically. If you put your heart into the attempt, you'll enjoy yourself, and (mostly) so will those around you. If nothing else, try singing along with CDs of your favorite vocalists while you're in the ktichen or cleaning windows.

It doesn't cost anything, and it's something you can do alone, or with others—whichever strikes your fancy.

6. DIY Drugs
This last piece is not an encouragement to establish your own meth lab in the basement as a way to provide tax-free supplemental income in a flagging economy. I'm talking about brewing your own beer, making your own wine, rolling your own cigarettes, and even roasting your own coffee. We've done all of these things at Sandhill over the years. In addition to forcing us to be more mindful about our consumption of these drugs (
legal though they are), the prepartion rituals create yet another social opportunity, substantially reduce costs, and enhance the pleasure of the consumption.

Today there are more home brewers than ever, and if the prospects seems overwhelming, think about trying to find someone else in the nieghborhood who's already doing it. If you like their product (be sure to drink a bottle first—all home brew is not created equal), consider apprenticing with them, or perhaps commissioning them to brew a batch for you. You'll still save money, and be bonding with the neighbors.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Economic Leverage in Hard Times: Part 5—Health

This is the fifth installment of my series on how everyone can get more out of the life they want while at the same time spending less money to make it happen. My motivation is that most folks today need to be more careful about their economic choices, and I have some good news.

Through what's been learned about cooperation and sharing in community living, it's possible for most of us to continue to enhance the quality of our life while at the same time cut back on cash outlays. To be sure, my suggestions will require some lifestyle changes. Yet what I'm offering is meant to be widely accessible, and does not involve a change in personality or altering one's core values. In Part 1 I focused on Housing; in Part 2 I looked at Food; Part 3 was about Transportation; Part 4 spotlight Energy. Today I'll tackle Health & Personal Care.

• • •
While Health & Personal Care comprise less than 10% of the typical American family’s budget, it occupies a larger space in people’s consciousness because of the spectre of illness (who doesn’t know heart-wrenching stories of people stricken in the prime of their life, incapacitated for months—or even years—with cancer, automobile accidents, or complications suffered from vicious falls?). It’s on our minds a lot.

For the purposes of this blog, I’m combining Health and Personal Care. While hospital fees for treating a ruptured appendix are light years different than outlays for mascara to look your best at the office Christmas party, I still want to talk about them at the same time. Before delving into my half dozen specific suggestions, I want to begin with some general prefatory comments.

When it comes to Health, there’s a lot of background anxiety about making the right choices. On the minor level, is it worth it to pay $2 for an organic orange, when it only cost $1 for one that's been conventionally-raised (isn’t that a nice euphemism for fruit grown on trees liberally hosed with organophosphates)? On the heavier end of the spectrum, should you pay $68,000 for a hip replacement performed in your home town hospital, or fly to The Netherlands and have the same operation done for $28,000? I know a woman who faced this very choice last year and opted for The Netherlands. While she was totally satisfied with her experience, it can be really tough price shopping for health care when you’re uncertain of the trade-offs. Under what circumstances, if any, are you willing to buy less than what you perceive to be the best (and isn’t there a little birdie inside your head constantly chirping the refrain: "The most expensive is probably the best")?

There’s a great story about this involving a gynecologist who was advancing in age and thinking ahead to his retirement. Not wanting to let down his steady patients, he decided on a strategy of doubling his rates. Given the law of downward sloping demand (that says demand will drop as price rises) he figured that the market place would winnow down his regular caseload while at the same time maintaining total income. Then, when he finally pulled the pin, fewer women would be inconvenienced with the need to shop for a new doctor.

However, it didn’t work that way. To his astonishment, he found that when he doubled his rates, his caseload increased! Apparently, his new clients figured that a doctor that expensive must be terrific, and everyone wanted the best when it came to personal health.

While there’s a certain coyness among health care providers about providing clear, up-front information about costs, problems in that regard are nothing compared with the challenge of obtaining reliable, neutral information about the quality of health care services. Mostly we’re making decisions with very imperfect information, and the higher the stakes, the scarier it is.

With Personal Care it tends to be a different picture, though perhaps no less muddy. First of all, where does basic hygiene drift into cosmetics and vanity? It’s a fuzzy line. In the same way that fashion is an exaggerated outgrowth (perversion?) of our genuine need to be clothed, a lot of what falls under the category of Personal Care is manufactured demand.

Take, for example, the expectation that women should shave their legs and armpits. You’re going to have to go a long way to convince me that this is anything other than a style choice and not a necessity (however much Madison Ave works to convince women that they’ll never get laid unless they’re hairless—in the right places). Still, it’s hard to fault a women functioning in public who makes the decision to shave, simply to avoid having her armpit and leg hair distract from what she really wants to accomplish. Who am I to get on their case for not tilting at that particular windmill?

And the issues are more confusing than that. While shaving is rarely a Health issue, how much do we need vitamin supplements, or sun screen? Vitamin deficiencies and skin cancer are real things, yet, at any given time, we're often engaging in so many would-be helpful practices that's it's hard to isolate the efficacy of each one.
Worse, it varies widely by person. In many cases, we simply start doing something because others around us are (or our parents did). For example, when I first entered puberty I automatically started using deodorant (didn't everyone?). It took me until I was 19 and half-way through college to question it. No one had told me I had offensive body odor; I was mostly using Right Guard because I didn't want to have someone tell me I had BO. Holding my breath, so to speak, I stop spraying my armpits and have never used deodorant since. How many more superfluous Personal Care practices do I engage in unwittingly? Hopefully, fewer all the time.

Finally, many products are more expensive because they are preparations that save the user time—even though it would be a relatively simple matter to concoct your own at a fraction of the cost.

OK, enough with the preamble. Here's today's half dozen specific suggestions for containing costs in the category of Health & Personal Care:

1. Toothpaste
This is a great example of a product that straddles the fence between Health and Personal Care. On the one hand, it’s fairly firmly established that brushing one’s teeth daily is a good Health practice. In addition to preventing decay, it’s also essential, along with flossing, in dislodging harmful plaque related to gum disease. Essentially if you want to keep your teeth, you need to brush.

However, brushing doesn’t necessary mean you need toothpaste. The health claims for the medicinal properties of toothpaste are less clearly established. Mostly, I think, it's used to freshen the breath, which starts to tilt things more in the direction of Personal Care choices and away from Health needs. While I'm all in favor of sweet breath, and halitosis is not much fun to be around, bad breath is neither contagious nor fatal.

In my early 20s I read The Tooth Trip (1972) by the renegade dentist, Tom McGuire. He thought the world of brushing regularly and using dental floss, but considered toothpaste an optional extravagance. For deacdes I ceased using toothpaste and never had a cavity. That's how much I needed Crest.

I'm using toothpaste as my first example to illuminate the issue of unexamined assumptions in how we relate to Health & Personal Care expenses—not because there is that much potential savings in expunging toothpaste from our household budget.

2. Do It Yourself
Let’s suppose that you don’t think it’s wise or are otherwise unwilling to do without a product or service. What are your options? In almost all cases, you can move in the direction of doing more yourself and foregoing convenience in exchange for savings in the pocketbook.

Take lawn mowing as an example. While I tried to convince you in an earlier blog (Feb 9) to take up gardening instead lawn care, let’s suppose I failed. Instead of hiring out the mowing to the neighbor’s teenager (or worse—from a community building perspective—a lawn care service) you could mow your own lawn. You’d be trading your time for dollars, and getting a bit of exercise into the bargain.

But don’t stop there, consider using a push mower instead of a power mower. It’ll lower your capital expense, be less noisy, eliminate the fuel costs, and now you’re starting to get some aerobic exercise—especially if you have any slope to your yard.

Wondering why I’m talking about lawn mowers in a blog about Health & Personal Care? First of all, exercise is definitely related to Health and in today’s sedentary lifestyle we can’t count on getting adequate exercise merely by doing life (as people could 100 years ago). Ours is a convenience world where not moving is considered the epitome of having “made it.” Thus, it takes conscious thought to reverse engines, and to start valuing physical exertion instead of hiring it out.

Further, because of the desire to “look good” mentioned in my rambling preamble, there will be even more resistance to going back to simpler ways—for fear it will appear to others that we’ve failed to "make it." There is probably nothing in the lifestyle we’ve created at Sandhill that encapsulates this better than our conscious choice to eschew flush toilets. Not only have we not built any into the three residences we’ve constructed in our 35 years, we’ve taken out the one we had in the original farmhouse.

Instead, we have two composting toilets, simultaneously saving on water usage and capturing the nutrients in our own shit, which we use to replenish the soil. Despite what I consider sound reasoning, it is highly challenging to many people's sensibilities that they won't have access to "normal" plumbing when visiting. There are folks (relatives, in particular) who will not visit us for more than 10 hours simply to avoid navigating the natural process of elimination without the comfort of seeing potable water whisk away the evidence at the touch of a handle. Talk about the power of conditioning!

We're talking about embodying what Duane Elgin styled Voluntary Simplicity into everyday life. The low tech solution is often healthier as well as cheaper—you just may look a bit odd in the practice.

3. Grow Your Own Herbs
This is a natural extension of my previous DIY example, spotlighting to how you can cut costs for both food (my next point) and many other health care products by establishing an herb garden—both for culinaries and medicinals.

Focusing here strictly on the Health side of things, at Sandhill we grow hypericum (St John's wort), calendula, and echinacea for making tinctures. We harvest borage, red clover blossom, raspberry leaf, and all manner of mints for teas. We also keep bees, which yields local honey (said to help with allergies), pollen, and propolis.

Most of these things are simple to grow (in fact, it's down right difficult to get rid of mint once it's established), and lovely to smell and look at.

4. High Quality Food
I wrote about gardening in a previous blog in this series, and now we're starting to see how these categories overlap with reinforcing suggestions. Look at the mutlplying benefits of gardening:
o You can't eat any healthier than when relying on fresh, local, minimally processed food.
o You're getting fresh air and sunshine (natural vitamin D—no need for the supplements) tending the garden, putting yourself more in touch with natural circadian rhythms (read you'll sleep better).
o You're getting some of that much-needed exercise I spoke about earlier—much superior to more time in front of ye olde keyboard.
o Sharing home-grown food is a terrific way to break the ice with neighbors (Warning: be careful not to overdo it with the zuchinis; they can get out of hand in a blink, and the neighbors may start to lock the door if you take this particular form of sharing-the-joy too far).

5. Trade Massages
How about exchanging massages with friends and neighbors—instead of just trading text messages. It's way cheaper than paying for a masseuse, and it's likely you won't have to schedule it so far in advance.

Sure, amateurs are not likely to be as skillful in finding just the right spot or applying just the right amount of pressure, yet touch itself is healing and it's getting to know one another in another way—kinesthetcially, not just intellectually or emotionally.

Taking this a step further, there is a wealth of low risk health practices you could do as a neighborhood or interest group: yoga, tai chi, qigong, or even fast walking. Heck, take up shuffleboard together. As long as it involves movement and doing it with others, you're on the right track and it's easy on the wallet.

6. Community
Homo sapiens is hard-wired as a species to be social. We crave our kind. While that doesn't (unfortunately) mean that we always behave well in the company of others, we're predisposed to want it. There are reputable studies which show that vibrant social connections are a definite aid in living longer and better. (In fact, we devoted Communities magazine issue #102 [spring 1999] to that premise.)

Taken in its broadest sense, this last suggestion is to look back over the previous five suggestions, and think how each provides the potential for synergistically boosting your Health yield by doing it with others. When you brush without toothpaste or tear out your flush toilet, it may not lead to a conversion, but it'll certainly lead to a conversation. Build on it!

DIY is not necessarily DIABY—Do It All By Yourself. You can do your own as a group or as a neighborhood. The same goes for the herb patch or the food garden. Maybe you can do the medicinals, the person on your right side can take on the culinaries, and the dude on your left side can grow tomatoes for everyone. Be creative!

Involve your friends, your neighbors, your housemates... anyone you're willing to play with. Emphasize relationship over control and owenrship. You'll live longer and can probably save money into the bargain.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Economic Leverage in Hard Times: Part 4—Energy

This is the fourth installment of my series on how everyone can get more of the life they want while at the same time spending less money to make it happen. My motivation is that most folks today need to be more careful about their economic choices, and I have some good news.

Through what's been learned about cooperation and sharing in community living, it's possible for most of us to continue to enhance the quality of our life while at the same time cut back on cash outlays. To be sure, my suggestions will require some lifestyle changes. Yet what I'm offering is meant to be widely accessible, and does not involve a change in personality or altering one's core values. In Part 1 I focused on Housing; in Part 2 I looked at Food; Part 3 was about Transportation. Today I'll spotlight Energy.

• • •
Energy costs in the typical American budget are embedded in both Transportation (gas) and Housing (utilities), which have been the subject of previous blogs. While I don't have a percentage for how much Energy represents in aggregate, I have figures for household energy costs: 49% is devoted to heating and cooling; 18% to heating water; 10% to lighting; and 6% to the washing and drying clothes (with a bunch of lesser categories making up the remainder). Here are a half dozen suggestions for how to realize some substantial savings in this segment of our lives: five relate to heating and cooling; and one relates to laundry.

1. Wood stoves
If you live in a part of the country with abundant trees (which we do in northeast Missouri), using wood stoves for space heating can save tremendously on the cost of warming the house. While this is not a practical option in some areas (such as the southern two-thirds of New Mexico & Arizona), and you need to be careful about air pollution (they banned wood stoves in Missoula MT—located smack in the midst of huge tracts of forest—because the temperature inversions that are common in winter there created an air quality that evoked Pittsburgh in the heyday of the steel industry), there are some amazingly efficient wood stoves on the market these days, and it's wonderful getting off the utility merry-go-round if you're currently using a propane/natural gas furnace or electric baseboard heaters.

In addition, wood heat warms thrice. First whe you cut the wood; second when you split and stack it; third when you actually burn it. Note: those first two tasks can be done in teams, providing yet another social opportunity (one of the themes of this blogger, in case you hadn't noticed).

To be sure, there are additional costs:

a) To get the most out of your wood, it's best to cut it and let it season for at least a year, and that requires planning ahead.

b) Because wood will burn better if it's dry, you're better off seasoning your wood in a storage shed. While this needn't be more elaborate than an open-sided pole building with a roof, that's still an investment.

c) Unless you can borrow your neighbor's
(or have forearms like Paul Bunyan and love wielding an axe & a crosscut saw), you'll need to own a chain saw and learn how to maintain it.

d) Wood heat tends to be messy (ashes, bark scraps, stray bugs attempting to overwinter in your kindling… ), requiring more frequent cleaning in and around the stove and the wood shed.

Still, I'd never go back to the propane furnace we had our first two years on the farm. Nudging the thermostat up and standing over the floor register is not nearly as satisfying as sitting on the couch on January mornings, sipping that first cup of coffee and basking in the radiant heat of our airtight stove.

2. Sweaters
Even simpler than locating a lower-cost heat source is figuring out low-tech ways to avoid losing the heat you're already generating. Instead of goosing up the thermostat (or putting another log on the fire), consider putting on more clothes. Wool sweaters work wonderfully for this purpose.

Depending on how far you want to take this, you could knit your own sweaters (knitting clubs constituting yet another social opportunity), and even raise your own sheep (for both wool and meat). But don't get overwhelmed. Even if you never learn to distinguish between knitting and crocheting—or between a wether and a ram—you'll be saving money simply by wearing more clothes in colder weather and allowing the ambient room temperature to drop into the 60s.

Most people prefer the strategy of dressing in several layers, each of which can be added or shed to fine-tune one's comfort throughout the day. You just have to remember where you put that black turtleneck when the sun came out from behind the clouds and you were suddenly too warm sitting next to the south window.

[You may think that adjusting room tempatures to mirror seasonal swings would be automatic as an energy conservation measure, but I had a lesson about this that I've never forgotten during my brief tenure as a junior bureaucrat with the federal government in the early '70s. I worked for the US Dept of Transportation in a 10-story office building that was shaped like a square doughnut. Half of the office spaces had exterior windows and half didn't. Being a junior bureaucrat, the offices I worked in never had an exterior window. In any event, none of the windows opened and the temperature of the entire bulding was centrally controlled. Because I noticed an odd pattern over the course of my two-year stint, I kept a thermometer in my room. In July, the building was cooled down to an average of 67 degrees; in January, it was heated to an average of 76 degrees. While that might make some sense if we worked in Buenos Aires, it was madness for North America (and helped explain the national debt). Adapting as best I could, I made sure to have a sweater or suit coat on hand in summer, and could typically work in shirtsleeves around Christmas time.]

3. Insulation
The next best thing to better insulating your body (my preceding point) is to better insulate your house. When we added a 16'x30' extension onto the existing farm house the first year we bought Sandhill (1974), it was somewhat exotic to make the stud walls out of 2x6s instead of 2x4s, for the purpose of placing more robust insulation in the walls. Yet there is no question it was worth it.

If you live in a climate that has any kind of cold winter weather, the best strategy is to buy the most insulation you can afford. The payback is almost always less than 10 years (energy savings versus the cost of purchase and installation), and often less than five. What's not to like?

And don't limit yourself to thinking about the walls and roof of your house. Think about insulating your hot water tank, hot water pipes, and warn air ducts (if I haven't convinved you to switch to a wood stove). Don't settle for curtains over your windows; consider insulated shutters.

If you don't have the money for these investments, consider simpler steps. We have a thermal shutter that is little more than laminated pieces of cardboard (salvaged from a large appliance store), covered with a piece of fabric. By carefully cutting the cardboard, there's a friction fit inside the window frame. No hardware needed.

Or build a hay box. All it takes is some scrap polystyrene insulation (blue board works fine), some cardboard, and alumnium foil. Ours was built in 1990 and we're still using it! When we cook rice, for example, we use 1/3 less water and only need to have the water boiling with the rice for five minutes. The hay box does the rest. We save a ton on propane.

4. Clotheslines
Sandhill's washing machine is an excellent example of the econmies of scale possible with community living. Though we average a year-round population of around 8-10 people—and generate plenty of dirty clothes living on an active farm—we accomplish all of our laundering with a single washing machine. To be sure, it's a good one. We have a low-water Bosch that's frontloading. All the hot water is flash heated on demand.

But the biggest energy savings we achieve in our laundry operations is with our dryer. We use the sun. I can still recall my sister visiting us about 30 years ago and not understanding why we'd choose to live like hillbillies (because we didn't have a dryer). Well, let's do the math. A typical clothes dryer is rated at about 4400 watts. Since we average at least one load of laundry a day, let's figure (conservatively) that we'd be running that clothes dryer an average of one hour per day. That would be 4.4 kWh/day. After 34 years, that would translate into 54,604 kWh. Since we pay about 7¢/kWh, that means we've saved nearly $4000 living like hillbillies. And that doesn't count the purchase, installation, or maintenance costs of the appliances (plural because you know we'd be using up more than one of those babies in 34 years). Clothes pins are way cheaper.

5. Attic fans & porches
I grew up in the '50s, when central air-conditioning was still a fairly expensive and unusual option. Though my father made good money, we didn't have air-conditioning. We had an attic fan instead. Today, at Sandhill, "air-conditioning" means opening the window to catch the breeze, or turning on the attic fan—yup, just like we did more than 50 years ago. While our attic fan doesn't lower the temperature like air-coniditoning does, it creates an air flow which feels cooler—and uses about 1/30th of the electricty to operate.

Growing up, I had the bedroom next to the attic door, and when the fan cranked up it felt like I was living next to an airport. Our attic fan at Sandhill is also fairly noisy, yet that irritation is mild compared with the blood pressure spike you get watching the electric meter spin when an air-conditoner is running full bore.

Our other main strategy for summer coling is living outside the house, on the screened-in front porch. While it mostly serves as firewood storage and as an unassuming mud room in the winter, from April until November our front porch is the social hangout space in the community. It faces east, which means it
catches the early morning warmth of the sun's rays in the spring and fall, while shedding the broiling afternoon sun in July and August. And there's nothing quite so lovely as listening to the drumbeat of a summer thundershower on the porch's metal roof, knowing that our garden is getting a thorough soaking.

6. Shade trees
Unlike my previous suggestions, this idea has a long-term payoff (unless you're buying or building a home this year). One of the factors in containing home energy costs is positioning your house relative to predominant winds and solar tragectories. In northeast MIssouri, for example, the summer winds are mostly out of the southwest (blowing toward the northeast) and the winter winds come mostly from the northwest. That means we can design our housing to take advantage of cooling breezes (by having openable windows face the southwest), while protecting ourselves from chilling winds (by having the rooflines slope down toward the northwest).

Last year, we made a decision to anticpate the eventual demise of a fast-growing (yet short-lived) Russian Elm located about 15 feet to the southwest of our main house. It was not a simple choice. That elm tree was something we inherited when we bought the farm a third of century ago, and it occupies perhaps the most crucial spot on the farm with respect to its impact on Sandhill's comfort: it provides summer shade from the late afternoon sun on the building most used in the community. We decided to plant the replacement sapling now (an ash)—while the elm tree was still healthy—in the hope that it will be big enough to start shading the house as soon as the elm meets its end.

Shade trees work at two levels. Not only do they block the suns rays from hitting the house directly, but they also transpire, releasing oxygen and moisture into the air immediately upwind of the house, cooling the air through evaporation.

As far as solar gain goes, your maximum benefit occurs when your windows and long side of the building face south. However, that turns out not to be ideal when you take into account that you want the sun's heat more quickly in the morning and would be willing to give up some of the afternoon's bounty to get it. In northeast Missouri, it turns out that pivoting your long face 15% to the east of south is a better trade-off. You still get more than 90% of the maximum solar gain (of a true south positioning), but now you're getting your heat more quickly each day—just when you want it.

By siting your buildings and landscaping intelligently, you can make substantial inroads on your energy costs.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Economic Leverage in Hard Times: Part 3—Transportation

This is the third installment of my series on how everyone can get more of the life they want while at the same time spending less money to make it happen. My motivation is that most folks today need to be more careful about their economic choices, and I have some good news.

Through what's been learned about cooperative sharing in community living, it''ll be possible for most of us to continue to enhance the quality of our life while at the same time cutting back on cash outlays. To be sure, my suggestions will require some lifestyle changes. Yet what I'm offering is meant to be widely accessible, and does not involve a change in personality or altering one's core values. In Part 1 I focused on Housing; in Part 2 I looked at Food. Today I'll discuss Transportation.

• • •
The "typical" American family spends about 17% of its budget on Transportation. While for most people these are the expenses related to owning and operating one or more private cars, it also includes expenditures on public transportation. In addition to the challenge of trying to cope with less money being available in general, Transportation faces a double whammy in that gasloine prices are certain to rise long term, as we slide along the downward sloping side of the Peak Oil bell curve. Here are a half dozen suggestions for how to realize some substantial savings in this segment of our lives:

1. Car Pooling
A year ago I had a meeting set up with a community on the south side of Atlanta on a Thursday evening. My host lived on the north side of town and drove me to the community. We were navigating a six-lane section of I-75 through downtown Atlanta at a snail's pace at 6 pm—which was ostensibly post rush hour—wondering if we'd make our 7 pm start time. Suddenly, access to the HOV lane opened up. We scooted in, immediately tripled our speed, and were just able to make our meeting on time

HOV, of course, stands for High Occupancy Vehicle. In the US it takes only two people to qualify. What a country! When HOV lanes were first established, the norm was that you needed at least three people in the car, but it quickly became apparent that these special lanes weren't being used enough with the bar set that high, and the number was subsequently reduced to two. So here I am in zipping by all these cars stuck bumper-to-bumper in the five lanes to my right, when it hits me that every damn one of those cars has only one person in them. Oil crisis anyone?

While it is undeniably convenient to be the only person in the car (so long as you don't mind doing all the driving), it is horribly inefficient and there are considerable savings possible by coordinating rides. Yes, it can be a logistical hassle (and potentially awkward agreeing on what station you can tune the radio to), yet there are social opportunities to compensate. I have friends, for example, where a reliable fraction of our quality conversations take place during long car rides (and the time just flies by).

Car co-ops are beginning to make inroads in this country (imported from Europe, where they are more established). I have two friends in Berkeley (where, wouldn't you know it, there are mutliple car co-ops available) who belong to one of the car co-ops and simply love it. While strcutured systems may be a long time reaching all parts of the country, why wait? Set something up informally with friends and neighbors now!

Among the three Rutledge communities (Sandhill, Dancing Rabbit, and Red Earth), we operate a web-based Rutledge Travel Calendar, whereby anyone proposing to make a trip to area destinations can post what they're doing and others can check there first to see if trips can be combined. It eliminates a gob of duplication.

While the immediate savings is gas, once you start to make a serious dent in the number trips that need to be made in your car, there is a point at which you can collectively do with one less vehicle, and then savings take a quantum leap (think parking, insurance, registration, depreciation, etc.)

2. Multi-tasking
In addition to adding more people to the same vehicle, consider running errands for others as well. Two weeks ago I needed to drive to south-central TN for two days of meetings for the FIC's Oversight Committee at Dunmire Hollow. I traveled alone both ways. However, since I was going anyway… here's all the other things that I did in addition to attending the meetings, to milk the most out of those "last hours of ancient sunlight":

o Dropped nine loads of Sandhill products off en route (five deliveries in Columbia MO & four in St Louis).
o Picked up two empty 5-gallon containers from a bakery (one of my deliveries) that could be washed and reused for future sorghum sales.
o Bought hard-to-find health care products at a natural food store (at one the delivery points in Columbia).
o Bought a birthday present at a bookstore located, within walking distance of one of my sorghum deliveries in St Louis.
o Picked up seven empty one-gallon apple juice jars at Dunmire Hollow, to be washed and reused for sorghum.
o After the meetings ended, I swung by The Farm—located just 30 miles down the road from Dunmire Hollow—and: a) bought shiitake spawn (four kilos for Sandhill and one for folks at Dancing Rabbit); b) collected a video camera to return to California on my trip there the end of the month (saving the postage); and c) picked up the last of Geoph Kozeny's effects at the house where he stayed while working on the Visions of Utopia video. I've cleaned up four different caches of possessions my peripatetic friend had left around the country when he died in October 2007, and this was the last of them, filling up all the remaining space in my car.

Not only was I multi-tasking, but at each stop I had a chance for a conversation and a connection. These were not merely economic exchanges; they were social exchanges as well.

3. Take the Train
I travel a lot. Both as a community networker and as a process consultant, I go all over the country and am on the road half the time. Wherever possible, I take the train. Because Amtrak only offers a skeleton of the rail passenger system we had in the US 50 years ago, the train doesn't always work. But I try.

I like the train because I don't have to drive (I can look out the window, read book, write, or even take a nap) and because it doesn't crowd one's psychic space like planes and buses do. The train proceeds at a human pace and with humane space.

However, the broadest version of this piece of advice is to consider public transportation as an alternative to using a private car, whether commuting or traveling long distance. If you do it enough, you might not even need a car. For exmaple, I relied solely on public transportation when I lived for two years in DC (1971-73) and worked a 9-5 M-F job for the US Dept of Transportation. Yes, I bought a lot of bus fares (and had to have three pairs of shoes resoled), yet that was a small price in exchange for no money spent on buying, maintaining, or parking a car in DC.

I saved thousands over the course of two years of not owning a car—
enough that I was able to contribute the bulk of the money needed to buy Sandhill's original 63 acres outright in 1974. What's more, it was a definite quality-of-life issue to not drive in DC rush hour traffic. I used to read regularly while taking buses (this was pre-Metro), and generally enjoyed the ride. In contrast, commuter driving has to be one of the most diabolical ways humans ever concocted to spend time. Studies have shown that heart surgeons typically register higher blood pressure readings while commuting than when performing open heart surgery (though you have to wonder about studies that would walk into an OR and strap the ol' sphygmomanometer onto the attending physician and pump 'er up for a reading while the patient waits… well, patiently, I guess). Commuting is yucky.

When Jamaica Plain Cohousing sited their community 10 years ago, they purposefully picked a site within easy walking distance of a stop on the Boston subway system. Though the city required the community to develop a certain number of parking spaces based on a formula that relates to the number of adults expected to live in the community, members have successfully reduced their car use to where they need less than 75% of the spaces to accommodate their own cars. Collectively, they own way less than one car per adult, while the national average is about 1.2 registered vehicles per licensed driver.

If you have good neighbors, how many cars do you really need?

4. Ride a Bike
For most people—especially urban dwellers—most trips are short distance. If your trip is 10 miles or less (and especially if under four miles) and the weather is decent, consider using a bike instead of a vehicle. Not only will you be pumping less gas, you'll be pumping less pollutants into the air, and more air into your lungs (read aerobic exercise).

To be sure, making this shift will require leaving earlier to keep appointments, and your hauling capacity will be sharply diminished. These limitations notwithstanding, there are a surprising number of trips routinely made by a single person in a car that travel only short distances and don't require much payload. I'm asking you to be more mindful about the possibilities—
and thereby more economically prudent and more healthful—and not just grab for the car keys every time without thinking.

Back in 2000 I spent two months living in Berkeley, and had a part-time job rennovating a house located about four miles away from where I was staying. Three times a week, I rode a bike to and from the job. I earned enough money to cover my expenses, didn't need to own a car, and enjoyed the exercise (even though it was during the winter rainy season and half the time I was dodging raindrops). I loved it.

5. Walk
Stripping down one more layer, how about walking? My wife, Ma'ikwe, lives at Dancing Rabbit, which is located three miles from Sandhill. During clement weather in the March-October range, I try to walk to see her as much as possible. It's reflective time (of which I never have too much) and offers low-impact exercise. Sometimes I pick up highway trash en route, and it doesn't tie up a community vehicle in case someone else needs it.

When I have errands in town and am driving, I try to park the car centrally and walk to different stores instead of changing parking spots to save a few steps.

On the farm, I'll often choose to get a job done with 2-3 trips with a Garden Way cart instead of firing up the pick-up.

Combining this with the points I rasied about Housing (see my Feb 5 blog),
if you select a place to live that's near enough to where you work or go to school (or your kids go to school), you may be able to bike or walk there and make do with one less vehicle.

6. Telecommuniting
The world of employment is changing substantially and it is now more possible than ever to deliver services without leaving home. An increasing number of employers offer options in telecommuting, where employees work from a computer terminal (or a phone) from home. "Commuting" in this sense is merely walking down the hall to the den. Often you egt to work your own hours, and you don't even have to get out of your pajamas.

When considering your job future, don't overlook the potential savings you might be able to realize if you're not required to physically appear at the office more than 2-3 days/week. Or consider flex-hours. If you work four 10-hour shifts instead of five 8-hour shifts per week you'll be putting in the same number of hours yet can save one round-trip commute every seven days, or 50 in a year. It adds up.

What's more, videoconferencing is just around the corner. In my line of work—as a process consultant—I'll need to be thinking about webinars and delivering live peformances from remote locations. While I may no longer be able to get away with working in my pajamas (depending on how careful I am with the camera), this has obvious savings potential when it comes to transportation costs. In the not-too-distant future, I expect at least some fraction of future FIC board meetings will be shifted to videoconferencing.

As Transportation costs sprial upward, we'll all need to get our needs met by being smarter about traveling.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Economic Leverage in Hard Times: Part 2—Food

This is the second installment of my series on how everyone can get more of the life they want while at the same time spending less money to make it happen. My motivation is that most folks today need to be more careful about their economic choices, and I have some good news. Through what's been learned about cooperative sharing in community, it''ll be possible for most of us to continue to enhance the quality of our life while at the same time cutting back on cash outlays. To be sure, my suggestions will require some lifestyle changes. Yet what I'm offering is meant to be widely accessible, and does not involve a change in personality or altering one's core values. In Part 1 (posted Feb 5) I focused on Housing. Today I'll tackle Food.

• • •
The "typical" American family spends about 14% of its budget on Food (which includes eating out). Here are a half dozen suggestions for how to realize some substantial savings:

1. Grow a Garden
While not everyone is drawn to the mysticism of fingernails made dirty by grubbing around in your own backyard, gardening offers a plethora of potential:

a) Food you grow is much cheaper than food you buy.

b) Food you grow is much fresher (and tastier) than food you buy (though if you get from a local growers, this difference may be minor). I never knew how delicious a lima bean could be until we grew our own and ate them fresh. And today (after living in a Missouri community for 35 years which has always gardened) I refuse to eat tomatoes that have been grown in Mexico or California and taste like cardboard. Puh-lease.

c) To the extent that you turn your yard into garden, there will be less yard work (though, of course, there will now be "garden work" instead).

d) You don't have to do this alone (or as a single family unit); you can participate in (or organize) a community or neighborhood garden (Hint: it's a terrific use of vacant lots and cities will often bless this: neighborhood gardens cut down on crime, reduce litter, and improve civic pride.). In addition to the social benefits, you can divvy up who grows what, specializing in the crops you do best or enjoy most; and it's possible to take turns watering, or watching crops for each other when people are away.

e) Think about the aphorism: You are what you eat. Wouldn't you rather have personal knowledge about the raw materials you are using to build and maintain your health and very being?

f) Gardening can provide relatively low-stress physical exercise and can be a productive and satisfying way to direct some of the extra time you have if you experience a drop in available paid work. (As they say in the current Radio Shack commercials, "Don't just buy stuff; do stuff!")

2. Eating in Season
Food is cheaper when it's in season (not to mention more nutritious and delicious). Somehow, our culture has gotten used to expecting fresh tomatoes and and little baskets of raspberries to be available all year round. While choice is a good thing, buying these products fresh in February is ridiculous. In MIssouri, those tomatoes have been picked green and were hauled at least 2000 miles to get to a store near us (even if they were grown organically, they still taste like cardboard). The raspberries are worse; God knows what they were sprayed with and they probably came from Chile by airplane.

3. Preservation Parties
Since not everyone lives in the Sun Belt, where food can more or less be grown year-round, it doesn't work to commit to eating food in season without a concept for how to eat in winter. While Sandhill is happy to have a greenhouse that provides a modest amount of much-appreciated fresh greens in winter, that's an occasional treat, and nowhere near enough to sustain body and soul. So we preserve food in times of abundance to have a full larder for winter.

The economics of this are fairly straight forward. Leaving aside the obvious cash benefits of growing your own food, you'll save gobs of money by purchasing surplus in times of plenty and preserving what you don't eat immediately for later use, when that crop is no longer in season.

At Sandhill we do this in a variety of ways: canning, freezing, drying, and pickling. We've gradually learned which methods work best for which crop (balancing nutrition, palatability, energy costs, and personal preferences) and take considerable pride in eating a diet that is 80% homegrown.

Similar to the point I made in Point 1d) above, don't overlook the potential of turning this work into a party. Instead of feeling overwhlemed by the prospect of processing six 5-gallon buckets of ready-to-ooze vine-ripened tomatoes all by yourself in the heat of August (you can hear Big Mama Thornton in the background, singing "…and it felt, just like a ball 'n' chain"), break out a case of home brew and invite the neighbors over for a tomato party! You'll have those Early Girls and Romas in the jars and sealed before you know it. The trick here is seeing the social potential in the preservation imperative, transforming obligation into opportunity. (It's not cheating, really, and the tomatoes won't taste any better if you suffered while putting them up.)

Make it from Scratch
When people characterize America as a Fast Food Nation, what they're referring to is our addiction to convenience (and sugar, salt, and fat). But can we afford it? Leaving aside the health analysis (if Morgan Spurlock's 2004 documentary Super Size Me didn't open you eyes to the health risks of fast food, I'm not sure anything can), it's just plain expensive to pay others to process your food. Every time you step back to more basic ingredients and do the measuring, mixing, and cooking yourself, you save money. (And in my view, pride in the effort is an attractve seaoning.)

5. Meal Sharing
One of the major reservations people wil have with my suggestions
above is that they take too much time. While you may have that time inadvertently if your company has folded or your job has been outsourced to Pakistan, what if you haven't? Here's a suggestion that will save you time as well as money:

Get together with local friends (maybe next-door neighbors) and start a meal co-op. To make it simple, suppose you had a group of seven couples who wanted to participate. If each of you cooked one dinner a week, that was large enough to feed everyone, you'd only have to cook once and the other six days others would do it for you. While there wouldn't necessarly be any savings in the total amount of food prepared, it takes far less time to cook one meal for 14 than it does to cook seven times for just two.

Obviously, this can be scaled in many ways, but the principle remains the same. The more meal sharing you do, the more time savings you can achieve. There's a lovely article in Communities magazine #139 (summer 2008) describing this concept: Cook One Meal and Eat for a Week by Joelle Novey.

Taking it a step further, you can also eat together (and clean up together), creating yet more social occasions. In addition, having someone else prepare your meal (which can be pretty fabulous of you've got some good cooks in the mix) can be a reasonable psychic substitute for the variety and relaxation that we often go to restaurants to find. To the extent that you can get the
eating out experience without leaving home, it can man substantal savings in your entertainment budget.

6. Celebration Cooking
As my last suggestion in this genre, I recommend you look for chances to combine some of the notions above and increase the frequency of homemade meals featuring local ingredients that are the centerpiece of rituals or celebrations (think seder and birthday parties).

Breaking bread together (matzos if it's a seder) is a social ritual that goes back as far as humanity. It doesn't take money to make a moment special; it takes love and attention. Food—especially that which has been grown, preserved, and cooked by the hands of the participants—provides a universal vehicle for delivery. Make the most of it.
• • •
Finally, a word about barter. There are a lot of people who won't be drawn to gardening, food preservation, or even cooking. Nonetheless, there are still ways you can take advantage of the advice in this blog. Think about offering skills and services you are more adept at (or enjoy more) in exchange for others providing food.

Maybe you could be part of the meal sharing group by agreeing to do all the dishes at the Sunday afternoon potluck. Maybe you could do someone's plumbing in exchange for a year's supply of pickles. Or do their taxes for tomatoes. How about back rubs for rutabagas? You get the idea. You're only limited by your imagination and a coincidence of needs. In the economic times we're entering, we'll need to be relying more on both our creativity and our neighbors. Why not get started now?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Economic Leverage in Hard Times: Part 1—Housing

On my trip to Tennessee last weekend I saw a bumper sticker I liked a lot:
The best things in life aren't things.

The bedrock of that aphorism, which I have built a life upon, is that one can enjoy a high quality of life without owning a lot of things. Basically, there are two strategies for breaking one's addiction to material acquisition (despite Madison Avenue's best efforts to keep us on the treadmill). First, you can value non-material things more (such as relationships, walks at sunset, yoga, hanging out with children… or even authoring a blog!). Second, you can switch your focus from ownership to access—which is much less expensive. Instead of owning a table saw, maybe you can borrow your neighbor's (and in return, s/he can borrow your extension ladder twice a year to clean gutters, or prune the tree branches looming over the roof).

Today I'm going to start a series of blogs on how you can maintain (or enhance) your quality of life in economic hard times, when discretionary money is at a premium. I'll lay out practicial ways you can increase your level of sharing or otherwise reduce outlays, while at the same time keeping you on track for The Good Life. This is, of course, something people living in intentional communities have deep experience with. Since I've lived in community for 34+ years, I figure I've got credentials for this topic.

That said, I'll be slanting my suggestions toward people not currently living in community—because there are a thousands of times more of them than there are communitarians in the US. Even though community is the place where you're likely to see the potential of sharing most fully in bloom, far more people will be willing to tinker with the life they already have, than are open to moving to an intentional community in order to better cope with the economic downturn. While most communities are happy to hear from prospective new members (see FIC's online Directory for the latest info) and I certainly don't mean to discourage you in any way from that search, in this series I'll be exploring options that can be considered anywhere.

• • •
In this opening installment, I'll focus on housing, which typically represents between one-fourth and one-third of a person's disposable income. That's a lot of money, and that means there's a lot of room to maneuver. Here are a half dozen ideas for how to you can either lower housing costs or make your housing dollar go further.

1. Take in a boarder
The income will immediately help defray your own housing costs, and may well be a bargain for the renter. While the degree of interaction with the renter can vary widely, there is considerable potential for ancillary benefits—such as increased safety, help with chores (taking out the garbage, raking leaves, shoveling snow), someone to talk with. On top of this, the renter may have skills and availability that can be used to benefit you and reduce their rent. Perhaps they can babysit for your kids; maybe they can do electrical work and will rewire the attic and repair old lamps; maybe they can do your taxes—be creative! So long as you're agreeing to a rent reduction in exchange for something you'd otherwise pay for, everyone's a winner.

If board is included in the deal, the renter may take turns cooking, giving you and your family one or two nights off. [I'll have more to say about shared meals in a subsequent blog.]

2. Homeschooling
When I was a kid, everyone I knew either went to public school or the private Catholic school down the road. Today's options are far more robust. While public school is free, if that isn't working for you then homeschooling will be far less expensive than a private school, and not just because of the cost of the education. It will also be less expensive from a housing standpoint if room and board are involved.

Keep in mind that this option extends for the duration of the parents' obligation to cover the costs of their children's education. That means college, too. I have a friend in Loveland CO who's son goes to school at nearby Colorado State University in Fort Collins. It's close enough that the son lives at home and that translates into much lower fees (and debt).

3. Work at Home
In today's world of telecommuting, it is increasingly permissible to spend one or more days of a regular 9-5 M-F job at home, zipping your output over to the workplace electronically. While this isn't be an option in all jobs, there can be some serious savings
if you can do it. First, you won't be driving to work, which saves, gas, parking fees, and wear and tear on the car—not to mention the need for fewer costumes to satisfy the dress code. Second, you can designate an office space in your home and deduct reasonable expenses related to maintaining that space for business purposes (and perhaps some portion of your home computer expenses).

4. Refinance
If you own your home and have a mortgage, now is a terrific time to refinance. Interest rates for mortgages are at historic lows. Be sure though, to negoitate a fixed-rate mortgage—stay away from that ARM (and a leg) roller coaster!

Further, there is now available an amazing program for accelerated debt retirement through smarter scheduling of payments. The company who originated this is called U First. If you have debt, this program will save you unbelievable amounts of interest payments.

5. Downsize
While this option is more accessible if you're renting, it may make sense to sell your current house and buy something smaller if the price is right. Here are factors to take into account when assessing the suitability of a new location:
o Is it closer to where you work or where your kids go to school (savings in commuting expenses—best if it's close enough to walk to your destination)?
o Do you need all the space you have in your current home (have your kids left the nest; do you really need both fondue sets or that Commodore 64K computer you bought in 1992)?
o Can you find an up-and-coming neighborhood that is both safe and less expensive? (Hint: investigate if your perspective new site has an active neighborhood association or other vibrant civic organizations—dynamic social fabric can more than compensate for a less prestigious address.) A side benefit here is that homes are likely to appreciate in value much more quickly in a neighborhood that's riding the Up escalator.

6. Do Your Own Yardwork
If you hire someone to cut the lawn or other landscaping chores, think about doing these things yourself. In addition to the immediate savings of out-of-pocket expenses, you'll get some exercise, have it done exactly the way you want it, be at home instead of spending money at a bar or on the golf course, and are much more likely to meet your neighbors (maybe you can own the lawn mower and the guy next door can own the snow blower—get the picture?).
• • •
OK, that's the upside. Now let's turn this around and have a peek at some of the challenges associated with sharing. It is more difficult than falling off a log (though easier than brain surgery). Here are three common pitfalls:

o Loss of control
If you own a thing entirely and don't share it, then it will always be there when you want it and in just as good a condition as you left it the last time you used it. Further, someone else may be using the thing (or have it reserved) when you want it and you'll have to wait. (Remember to breathe.)

o Bureacracy of Access
When two or more people want a shared thing simultaneously, you'll have to negotiate who'll get it first. In addition to the time it takes for that dialog (which may not be your idea of fun) at least some of the time you'll be expected to let the other person go first and defer your plans to use it. Further, you may be expected to follow a protocol for reserving the thing, or for reporting damage—which is bureaucracy you wouldn't need if you alone used the thing.

o Tragedy of the Commons
When owenership (or at least access) to a thing is shared, then users have a tendency to be somewhat less careful about how they take care of the thing and maintain it in good working order. If there are maintenance or repair needs, it may be unclear who will take responsibility for that, and their motivation to handle the task with alacrity and diligence may be somewhat diminished.

While all of these challenges can be surmounted (mainly through good communication and laying out clear expectations and agreements up front) I want you to approach this with your eyes open. Living in community most of my life, I have a deep respect for the power of sharing and reducing my impact on the environment. While it undoubtedly takes effort to make sharing work, I have happily chosen to invest more time in communication and less in money-making. [See my blog of Feb 11, 2008: My Journey with Money for more of my personal story on this.]

What I want you to get excited about it is that, unless your bottom line goal in life is material accumulation, almost all of us can simultaneously reduce our expenses and increase our quality of life. And in today's world, you are only a web search away from access to someone else's experience with trying almost anything you can think of to accomplish this. Give it a try!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Return of the Light

Merry Candlemas! (Or Brigid. Or Imbolc. Or Ground Hog's Day. Take your pick.)

It's a cross-quarter day in the pagan calendar, mid-way between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. While Candlemas has been Catholicized to signify the purification of the Virgin Mary 40 days after birthin' her famous baby, the Wiccan roots of this holiday are celebrating the Return of the Light (Brigid is the Celtic goddess of smithcraft, poetry, healing… and fire). While anyone outside today in the MIdwest would not mistake the weather for spring (Punxsatawney Phil apparently did see his shadow today presaging six more weeks of winter—which, conveniently, is exactly how long it is until equinox and the official change out to spring), the days are appreciably lengthening now and at Sandhill we're getting the collecting buckets ready for the maple sap which will soon be flowing.

Though the light hasn't returned very strongly yet (it's a bit early for shorts), you can feel that winter is starting to loosen its grip, which is as good a reason as any for a party.

• • •
I spent the day driving home from south central Tennessee, after devoting the weekend to attending two days of FIC Oversight Committee meetings at Dunmire Hollow—home of long-time FIC Board member and dear friend, Harvey Baker. My route went through Paris TN and Paducah KY, via Murray on US 641. In that thin part of western Kentucky local residents are celebrating the Return of the Lights (plural).

A nasty ice storm hit the area six days ago (Jan 27), wiping out power to more than 800,000 folks. When I drove down Friday evening—three days after the storm had passed—there was virtually no electricty between Paducah and Paris, a stretch of nearly 70 miles. It was eerie.

I was running low on gas when I entered the blackout area, and it was somewhat nerve-wracking not knowing if I'd find the other side before I ran out of petrol (I did, though barely). Retracing last Friday's route today, I traversed the afflicted area in daylight, and had a good look at the damage. It reminded me of South Carolina after Hugo had slammed into it as a category 5 hurricane in 1989. For miles, the top of every third tree had been snapped off. Amazingly, the ice storm did even more damage than Hugo had. There were stretches where there were no trees undamaged. It looked like a giant game of pick up sticks. Clearing the roads must have taken a herculean effort.

On the radio today, I learned that two-thirds of the affected homes have had their power restored, and that they were hauling emergency generators in from as far away as Huntsville AL—over 200 miles away. Though the Kentucky governor called it the worst natural disatser in Kentucky's history, this afternoon the sun was shining in Murray, most businesses were open, and the streets were packed. The ice had melted and people seemed in a pretty good mood, having survived a difficult time with minimal loss of life and gotten a taste of that particular brand of temporary community that magically manifests in the presence of crisis.

I imagine for most folks in western Kentucky today was best Candlemas they'd ever had.