The Right Responses

Ok, I’d like more of a discussion on this one.  I don’t think I have many readers yet, but I hope I have enough to start a thoughtful discussion.

So, this year, people have asked us how our Christmas is going.  Those that aren’t running the checkout line, those that know both our first and last names, ask with a bit more intent.  And, if they’re already running on their merry ways, the most fabulous answer to give is, “Great!  Thanks…” fading into the distance.

With a little more intent comes the question, “Are you ready for Christmas?”  This involves a moment of thought, in which you’re allowed to give the asking party a grimace, a brilliant smile, or a look of pain, by means of avoiding the full answer.

And then there’s the doozy, coming from the very well-intentioned friend who is one genetic code away from being a sister.  She sets her hand on your shoulder, checks for eavesdroppers, then asks, “How are you doing for Christmas.”  Emphasis on “you.”  If you have a family, that emphasis encompasses them as well.

"Maren, Be Cheerful and Brave," painting by Julie Rogers

My first instinct is to give the, “Great!  Thanks” response, then I realize that she really does want to know, and really is ready to help.  If she didn’t want to help, she would not have asked in such an intimate manner.

And my response of, “Great!  Thanks!” becomes a very pregnant pause.  Then I nod my head and say, “We’re learning a lot this year.  We’re really small-scale and I am so impressed with my kids and their gratitude over whatever they get.  You know, I have a friend who is a lot worse off than I am.”

She eyed me for a moment and pursed her lips.  “But do you need anything?”

Well… I mentally shuffle through the list that I had written just a day ago.  At least $70 worth of seeds to plant this spring.  Some 2×4 framing beams for the larger chicken house, the hardware to construct it, then a few more baby chicks to house in there.  A new set of athletic shoes for both me and my husband, as we try to keep him away from a recurrent heart attack.  Rubbermaid bins so I can construct a graywater recycling system so I can have more garden in this evil desert.  Hmmm… NEED anything?  We pay $350 per month for heat, $150 power, $150 phone, $50 water, $1,300 a month rent (which I will defend til my last breath, since my amazing landlady lets me have gardens and chickens, and once let a homeless friend sleep on my floor for months.)  A little bit in savings to pay for the licenses and fees that go along with owning my own business…  Yeah, savings would be nice.

Oh, and there are food costs, clothing costs, and school fees.  All of this is a LOT cheaper in the summer, when we’re eating our landscaping, stitching up old clothes to work in the garden, and not paying any school fees for a few months.  But, honestly, I don’t count food, clothing, and school fees in the monthly budget.  Because, by the time the mandatory bills are figured in, there is NOTHING LEFT for food, clothing, and school fees.  We catch these when we can, when a client gives me a gracious tip or someone buys a bulk order of soap, then I run straight to the store for a package of gluten-free bread mix.

But do we need anything?  I really have a hard time answering that one.  I’m not the type of person to say, “Yes, money would help.” or to even detail the problems, since that might make the asking party feel responsible for any of them.  My problems are my problems, and I believe cultivating habits of taking care of our problems has gotten us into an existence where we CAN grow/butcher/cook our own food, sew our own clothes, and survive a zombie apocalypse if we had to.

In addition, who am I to cry my needs when I have one friend who is homeless, along with her daughters.  Another friend rents a home, but is extremely lonely and can’t quite figure out how to crawl himself out of that loneliness.  A sister who just bought a home, but who is battling multiple health crisis with herself, her daughters, and boyfriend.  And more… enough to take up pages!  So who am I to sob about what is tough in our lives, if those resources can go to someone who needs them more.

"Sisters in Zion" painting by Julie Rogers

So, instead of answering, I usually give that knowing grimace that affirms her question.  And she understands.  And she makes things happen… more things than would have happened if I had just said, “Great!  Thanks!” but fewer than if I detailed the worst of these problems.  But that’s not my style.

Recognizing that all of our styles are different, that shyness to someone is audacity to another, I’d like to hear how YOU would have answered.  And why.  And maybe give me some stories if something similar happened to you.

What’s Wrong with Just Being Happy?

In May of 2012, it will be three years since we told the cable company that we did NOT want to continue service as we moved to a different house.  The salesperson argued with me, trying to make deals.

“Is the service unsatisfactory?” he asked.

“No,” I said.  “It’s always been great.”

“Can we offer you a deal on the price?  We can waive the transfer fee to…”

We actually didn’t pay for cable, due to a promotional special when I signed up for internet service through the same company.

Bewildered, he asked, “Then why do you want to cancel?”

“We don’t want it,” I replied.

A moment of silence on the other end indicated that this argument hadn’t been covered in the training manual.

“Whenever I turn off the TV, my kids have fits,” I said.  “My husband and I stay up past midnight to watch tv, when we could be getting up early to exercise together.  We haven’t enjoyed any real hobbies in a long time.  I do not want TV stations.

We had NO stations coming into the house, since this was shortly after the digital conversion and our television was pre-digital.  And I missed it… for a short time.  Then we started to fill the evenings with walks.  I started painting again.  We went to bed at a decent hour.

Sure, we still had a television.  We rented from Netflix, but we made every dvd count, looking for the next movie or series in the mail so we could watch it together.

People didn’t seem to understand.  Really, why would you want to be without tv?  Is money that tight, that you have to get rid of such a basic joy?  And though we did save money without cable service, the rewards were far greater.

And the biggest, most giddy reward of all?  NO COMMERCIALS!  I have no media invading my house, telling my family that we’re not supposed to be happy unless we fulfill the middle-class style of living that it represents.

Three years… that was when the economy really started to slide downhill, and businesses freaked out.  The December before our anti-cable move, I remember Kmart’s slogan, “Kmart Saves Christmas!

Had they really resorted to something that we had been warned against, every Christmas season, since childhood?  Equating stuff with happiness?  Walmart’s current slogan, though not seasonal, reflects a similar attitude.  “Save money.  Live better.”  Does this imply that affording more stuff makes a better life?

Three years ago… that was a landmark year for us.  Beginning that year, I started my own business.  My husband, a linguistic anthropologist with a Master’s degree, a man who speaks ten languages, recently lost the contract that had given us a modest but comfortable income.  His second job became his only job.  But he had a job, unlike a huge portion of Reno.

Now, with my new business, I had a chance to take some of the load from him.

In March, I got the call from my doctor.  “Please come into the office to discuss your test results.”  Doctors don’t make you come in so they can tell you good news.  Four biopsies later, with each result worse than the last, I faced surgery to get rid of the cancer.

We barely made the bills when I worked a full schedule.  How could we possibly make it if I had to be out for two months post-surgery?  And what if the surgery didn’t fix the problem?

And though this was one of our hardest years, it was one of our happiest.

No, really.  It was.

At that same time, our car broke down and we couldn’t afford to fix it for over four months.  We went grocery shopping with backpacks.  We found out that my husband’s office was only an hour and a half away if you walked at a good clip.  A lot of meaningful conversations can happen in an hour and a half.

Friends came up to us, trying to sympathize.  “Oh, you poor thing.  How can you live without a vehicle?” or “Your husband just needs to work harder, then you’ll be doing great.”

They honestly did not understand how happy we were.

Those television-free evenings allowed for family time as we walked down to the river.  We experienced the joy of supplementing our food from the garden, which was the start of a new obsession for me.  A friend found herself homeless.  She and her little girls slept on my floor for three months, and we realized that food stretches much further when you’re sharing it with someone worse off than you.

I had my surgery at the end of November.  I came home Thanksgiving Day.  The hospital had required a hefty copay. I couldn’t work until after the end of the year, and my husband took several weeks off so he could care for me.

Christmas shopping was not going to happen.  All of those things that people trample each other for on Black Friday?  Nope.  No standing in long, cranky lines at the mall.  No stressing over whether the people on my wishlist would just return what I had bought.  As soon as I could sit up straight, I started to crochet.

If any of my friends are reading this, and you received something crocheted for Christmas that year, then you’re priceless to me.

Two weeks after the surgery, the final pathology came back.  I was cancer free.  It was then that we told the kids why I had been sick, and why I had been in the hospital, and why the tree was very bare.  They didn’t freak out about the illness or the lack of presents.  They just gave me a big hug and told me that they were glad I was better.

They cherished their hats and scarves.  There were no video games, no designer jeans.  No dolls, no Legos.  Not even a cheesy manicure set, the kind designed for last-minute emergency shopping, that nobody ever uses.

We had hats, scarves, and a cancer-free mom.

Don’t tell us that we’re not supposed to be happy with our simple existence.  Our house is too small, our clothes are worn, our touchscreen electronic devices are nonexistent.  At the end of the paid workday, we start unpaid work to fill in the gaps.  But, if we can cut out all of the voices that tell us we’re NOT supposed to be happy, then we can hear the truth:

It’s ok to find joy in simple things.  It’s ok to rejoice in your loved ones, and in laboring together to provide for each other.  It’s ok to enjoy hard work, even if you’re still in debt after the work is done. 

It’s ok to just be happy.  


Backyard Chickens: They’ve Started!

When I got my first egg last week, I snapped a cell phone picture and flashed it around to my friends.  They called me amazing.  Though it was a great ego boost, I wasn’t the one that laid the egg.  Now THAT would have been amazing.

Don't worry... they get bigger.

My 6-month-old pullets had started laying.  It was a tiny egg, compared to a white storebought egg, but it was only the first.  The hens aren’t even fully grown yet.

Four days later, a second hen laid her first egg.  Today, I got three eggs.  One hen left to go.  Right now, I’m averaging about an 18-pack of eggs per week.

The breakfast lineup, 3 from today and 1 leftover from yesterday.

Backyard chicken farming is growing in popularity, as people realize how easy and rewarding it is.  Cheaper?  Well, that depends on what you look for in your eggs.  If you normally buy the white, mass-produced eggs from the cheapest grocery store possible, you’re pretty much going to break even.  But if you look for a little more from your food, you’re going to win by raising your own.

See? It's my duty.

The USDA released this poster in the 1920s, back when people were encouraged to work more to provide for their families, rather than pay into the economy to do it.  (Sorry, that was a rather biased opinion.  But we’re currently using that bias to help us survive in this economy.)

In the coming weeks, I’ll add a couple more blog posts dealing with how you can raise your own chickens, especially in an urban environment.  For now, I’ll focus on the nutritional value of the eggs themselves.

I’ve already received offers from several of my clients, asking to buy my extra eggs.  As one client said, “I pay over $5 a dozen for free-range eggs, and I can’t always guarantee that they’re really free-range.”  To that client, something like this is important to her:

4 months old, enjoying a grass salad.

Or this…

Mmmmm... overripe tomatoes!

(She’s in her Halloween costume.  We’re not quite so earthy that my children run around in medieval costumes on a regular basis.)

Why do people choose free-range eggs over regular eggs?

First of all, let me clarify something.  “Cage-free” means “not kept in a cage.”  It doesn’t mean that the chicken is out playing in the sunshine, or that it has any more allotted space in the barn.  Cage-free chickens may still live in a cramped and filthy environment, wading through feces, unable to really exercise.  “Free-range” means the coop has access to the outdoors.  It doesn’t guarantee how often the chickens get to actually go outdoors, or the quality of the outdoor environment.

To really know how your eggs were produced, you need to research the supplier.  The most credible suppliers will show pictures of their farms, guaranteeing the environment of the animals.  The most credible suppliers are also the most expensive.  Just saying.

So there’s our first reason: humane living.  Now, chickens are simple animals which don’t require a lot of fancy accommodations.  They need to be clean, they need access to healthy food and water, and they need exercise.

Is humane living important to you?  What qualifies humane?  Does it matter to you that the chicken is allowed to eat its natural omnivorous diet, which includes greens and bugs?  (A “vegetarian” diet is NOT a chicken’s natural diet.  Bugs are one of their favorite snacks.)  And are you willing to justify the cost of your food by these criteria?

How about a second reason?  Nutrition.  Now, there are several differing opinions on this.

This article says there is no nutritional difference.  (I have to note that this author is also a naysayer to the natural-foods industry in general.)  This article also doesn’t define what kind of “free-range” environment the chickens in the study lived in.

This article from Mother Earth News lists several nutritional components that the previous article doesn’t even go into, including omega-3s, vitamin D, saturated fat, and cholesterol.

I’ll give you a third source of information…

One of these eggs is not like the others...

When I felt the shells, they were smooth and glossy, not textured like hardened leather.  (A leathery shell, which will later harden, indicates a calcium deficiency in the chicken.)  While cracking the eggs, I noticed that the shells were twice as thick.  And here you see a much darker yolk color, compared to a conventional egg… orange coloring in foods usually indicates increased levels of beta carotene, vitamin E, and/or iron.

And how about another reason to raise your own chickens…

Fresh eggs on homemade 7-grain bread.

Mmmmmm… what a spoiled husband I have.

Update Long Overdue

Hi, everyone.

After the encouragement of friends, I started this blog.  After a few weeks of blogging, life hit us hard.  We fought through it and didn’t give up… but we also picked our battles, and blogging wasn’t one of them.

If you look at the date of my last post… that was on April 15th.  On April 20th, my 37-year-old husband entered the hospital complaining of chest pain, and didn’t leave for three days.  His right coronary artery had been 100% occluded with plaque, causing him to have multiple… MULTIPLE! heart attacks for the past two weeks.

Now, I could begin my novel right here.  Chapter one, why this happened, because people seem to think you can’t have a heart attack unless you chase your bacon with a lard smoothie.  Chapter two, what we should do about it, because people who have never dealt with it are the best tomes of advice you can come across.  Chapter three, why all the changes we made are wrong, because our practices edge upon the morally sensitive (read: vegetarianism.)

So here are the Cliff’s Notes:

Why this happened: genetics, pure and simple.  The last time we had eaten red meat was over a week before the heart attack.  Most of our meals are vegetarian, and my husband exercises regularly.  In fact, the doctor said that exercise saved him.  The cardio had strengthened extra vessels in his heart, which had taken up the work when the big one failed.  As for a second reason why he didn’t die, that delves into our personal testimonies of our Heavenly Father and the plans he has for our lives.

What we did about it:  First of all, I doubled the garden and bought some baby chicks.  Let’s take trials and compound them with extra work, right?  And it was EXHAUSTING!  (I’m planning to sleep in when January rolls around.)  But we knew that the easiest, cheapest way to prevent a recurrence was to replace every single animal-based food source with a plant-based food.  So why the chicks?  Because though they’re animal-based, eggs are a super-cheap way to add a lot of protein to a mostly plant-based meal.  My husband referred to them as living food storage.  Their names are Original, Extra Crispy, Rotisserie, Barbeque, and El Pollo Loco.

They're only cute for a short time.

What else we did about it:  We thickened our skin.  This conversation actually happened on the day my husband and I returned to church after his hospitalization:

“You’ve lost weight, what are you doing?”

“Just extra work.  My husband had a heart attack so I’m taking the load for a little while.”

“Well, stop eating red meat, then!”

“Actually, we haven’t had red meat in over a month-”

“Well, stop it!  You’re going to kill him!”

And this was from a well-intentioned person.  People are going to preach what they want to preach, often without thinking about what they’re saying.  Imagine what we got from busybodies who barely even knew us.  And, as I said earlier, most people who are educated solely by the media (Cheerios will save your life!) believe that you cannot have a heart attack unless you’re eating Baconators for dessert.

And what a summer it has been since then!  Here’s the general timeline:

April: Heart attack.  Oh yeah, as I mentioned, and we doubled the garden and got chickens.  My husband’s heart medications cost $100 a month AFTER insurance pays their share, and one of my weekly clients just moved out of town.  We’re now down $350 per month.  My husband puts aside all job prospects he has been looking into, because we can’t afford to be without insurance, and nobody in his right mind would approve “heart attack at 37 years old” as a pre-existing condition.

May: Our “last frost” of May 15th didn’t occur until after June 1st, so each night I hauled the seedlings inside to keep them nice and cozy.  And my side-business of professional artist got put on hold because gardening and cooking from scratch took up all the extra time.

June: At 3am, we woke to our dogs going crazy.  Apparently someone had crawled over the back fence, stomped through the garden, and come into the yard.  The dogs chased them off, but one of the dogs got into the garden and the gate closed behind her.  In her attempts to get out of the fence (she is very obese and couldn’t jump) she finished off what the intruder had left behind.  Massive damage, over a thousand plants destroyed if you count every corn seedling and pea plant.  What did we do?  Replanted, of course.  What else could we do?

Two months of onion growth, with carrot seedlings in between, and peas along the fence. Gone.

July: HOT and DRY!  We haven’t seen rain since the first week of June!  We place buckets under the shower, and recycle our dishwashing water.  We put up a very ugly shadecloth to keep the blackberries from dehydrating on the vine.

Saving the antioxidants. Apparently, 3 watering days a week isn't enough for the lawn in this weather.

August: My husband’s cardiologist wants him to lose 20 pounds by the end of the year, and 50 pounds within a year.  I take that as a personal challenge, and I start engineering every single thing he eats.  Poor guy.  Thankfully, I know how to cook.  Thankfully again, we now have fresh food coming out of the garden.  He eats homemade yogurt with homegrown blackberries, tomato/cucumber salad with balsamic vinegar, 1-2 servings of whole grains a day, and only lean proteins.  And since it’s not fair that he has to do this while I sit and eat bonbons, I follow the same diet/exercise program I expect him to follow.  If it wasn’t summer, this would have gotten really expensive.  But we ate mostly from the garden, made the yogurt, and used legumes and egg whites for most of our proteins.

One day's harvest. The work starts to pay off.

September: It’s canning season, and the yard is bountiful!  20 hours of work produced 9 gallons of grape juice.  12 hours of work made about 8 gallons of plum puree.  One gallon of blackberries for jam, enough tomatillos for two dozen jars of salsa verde.  The boxes of canning sit five feet high in a corner of the dining room.  I even managed to snag two friends for slave labor.  (They said they wanted to learn how to do it… they thought it would be fun.  Ha!  Actually, it was fun, but they didn’t expect 20 hours of work for just grape jelly.)

A friend told me, "Don't real women squish grapes with their feet?" Yeah, well... I'll think of a comeback for that . Just give me time.

October: It still hasn’t frozen yet!  The zucchini are still straggling along, and green beans slowly appear on the vines.  We got our first monthly fill of fuel oil for heating.  Only $300.  A client invites us to take all of her apples that we can pick, so we give her 20 gallons of the best ones and take… 80 gallons?? of them for ourselves.  I also prepare for a craft fair at the end of the month, where I hope to sell my home canning and my soaps to fund our winter heating habit.

"Organic" means "Prepare to cut out a few worms."

By the end of the month, the garden will freeze.  We’re ready.  The potatoes are in, and most of our peppers are in portable containers.  Bring it on.  We’re finishing up with the applesauce this weekend, then making pounds of soap to fill Christmas orders.

Mother Nature was gracious this year. The garden finished producing before the frost.

Did I mention I’m going to get a LOT of sleep in January?