Wednesday 28 November 2012

A Budget Primer for the Ignorant

Much of the conversation about the federal budget negotiations displays substantial ignorance of the expenditures and revenue streams that comprise it.  The most egregious vein of ignorance seems to concern appropriations versus entitlements.

An appropriation is a specific amount of money that Congress allocates to be spent on a certain agency or program.  NASA, for example, gets a lump sum of money that can go up or down each year as priorities change; it can be adjusted by Congress at will.  If Congress decides to build more highways, it has to appropriate a specific sum of money in the budget for this project.  Make sense so far?  Entitlements work differently because they are tied to eligibility for certain benefits.  For example, everyone over 65 is entitled to Medicare. Congress cannot appropriate a limited amount of money for Medicare; the amount that is spent depends upon how many eligible citizens use its services.  The same applies to Social Security.  Together, social insurance programs account for 2/3 of the federal budget.
Take a moment to let that figure sink in.  Two-fucking-thirds.  This means that when Congress and the president are dickering over the budget, they are only affecting 1/3 of it.  Actually, even less than that; they are only tinkering at the margins, as I will explain momentarily.  But back to social insurance.  There is one way that Congress can affect the amount of money that goes to these programs, but it is indirect:  Congress can change the laws that determine eligibility and benefit levels of these entitlements.  The age to receive Medicare could be raised from 65 to 70, for example.  But changes to these entitlements are always difficult politically because citizens over 65 make up the largest voting block, so Congressmen are unlikely to pass laws that will alienate senior voters.  Pissing off the people that employ you is rarely a good idea.

You also must understand that Social Security and Medicare are not funded out of general revenues.  Each has its own funding stream, a specific withholding on your paycheque.  The money withheld from current workers pays current beneficiaries.  When you are old enough to receive benefits, the money will come from younger people who are working when you are retired.  It's a closed system and—listen very carefully—has NO impact on the deficit.  You have probably heard that both these programs are going to run out of money in the next decades.  It is absolutely true that, when Social Security started, there were about 50 workers supporting each retiree, whereas now there are about 3.  People are living longer, and the birthrate has fallen.  But the various methods of solving this particular problem have absolutely NO impact on the rest of the budget.  So, do me a favour:  The next time someone comes up to you and says that we have this huge budget deficit because Social Security is going broke, tell them that they are talking out of their arse.

The next biggest piece of the federal pie is defence spending, which accounts for about 1/5 of the budget.  Back in the days of the Cold War it accounted for over half, so it has declined considerably.  Much of this segment is not negotiable either because we have prior commitments that must be honoured, such as veterans' benefits (pensions, health care, education, etc.).  It wouldn't exactly go over well for Congress to decide to cut expenses by ending health care for veterans.  Much of the military budget goes to procurement, i.e, buying new toys for killing.  Cutting contracts with private companies in the military-industrial complex means cutting jobs and pissing off powerful people, which Congress has always shown a great reluctance to do.  And, by the way, all of this egregious spending on killing machines can be seen online.  Here is the DoD's budget for 2013.  You have the right to know how every penny of your tax money is spent so every agency's budget is public.

And let's not forget interest on the national debt, which accounts for about 7% of the budget.  That isn't optional spending.

Compared to social insurance and defence, the whole rest of the budget combined—education, environmental protection, transportation, etc.—is small potatoes.  New-potatoes-in-the-spring-with-barely-any-skins-on-them small.  Congressmen can grandstand about cuts to programs like PBS or the National Science Foundation but they aren't going to make a damn bit of difference to national debt or deficit.
The truth about the deficit is that it has been largely created over the last decade by tax cuts and defence spending, and the recession sure as hell didn't help.  The only way to cut the deficit is to run a budget surplus for years to pay it off.  The federal budget is about $3.8 trillion and the debt is around $17.5 trillion.  (Yup, that's trillion with a "T".)  We cannot possibly cut spending enough to make a dent in the deficit or debt.  The only option is to raise taxes.  Before you start to whinge that lower taxes stimulate the economy, remember that taxes have been cut as the deficit has grown and we ended up with a recession and economic stagnation, not growth.  Also remember that you cannot have something for nothing.  Americans are notorious for rewarding their Congressmen with re-election when they bring home pork barrel projects and other government largess for their states and districts and punishing them when they raise taxes to pay for it.  Tax cuts are popular with voters.  Spending is popular with voters.  That doesn't add up.  And voters don't know or care about deficits unless politicians bring them to their attention.  A large deficit is held up by proponents of small government (they're not really; it's a ruse) as a reason to cut spending.  The dirty secret of supposed small government proponents is that they like and need deficits.  With a balanced budget or a surplus, they cannot as easily make the argument that programs must be gutted.

The fact is that government spending grows because the voters demand it.  Congress is responding to that demand when it appropriates money to pay for what the public demands.  But the voters are disinclined to man up and pay for their shit.

Saturday 21 July 2012

Pro-Abortion V. Pro-Choice

I referred to myself as "pro-abortion" the other day and someone asked if I meant "pro-choice."  Yes, and no.

I am pro-choice in the sense that I am aware that abortion is the pregnant woman's choice and no-one else's.  There is no-one who has the right to gainsay her if she chooses to continue a pregnancy or abort—not the father, not medical staff, not family or friends or 'society', not anyone.  It is 100% her choice whether or not to allow her body to be used as an incubator.  A society in which a woman could be forced to have an abortion or to continue a pregnancy against her will is not a society in which women can ever be equal citizens.  It is a totalitarian society.

But I am pro-abortion because I think that, in most circumstances where a woman is contemplating an abortion, abortion is the wiser choice.  If there were no social or moral stigma against abortion—and opposing that stigma is one reason I adopt the label "pro-abortion" for myself—then more women would choose abortion.  Think about it:  How many are making the choice to continue their pregnancies because they really want to and how many are doing so because it has been drilled into their heads that abortion is wrong, that it is murder, that they will regret it or go to hell?

A few more points on abortion that I did not make in my last post:

Remember, the reason that religions have a taboo on abortion is not due to any "sanctity of life."  That is the line they use to control the flock, which the flock buys hook, line, and sinker.  The real reason is to increase the number of members of that faith, and hence its power.

It is pointless and counterproductive to accuse someone who calls themself "pro-life" of being a hypocrite because they support the death penalty.  This argument should be retired, and replaced with the argument I made in my last post on the subject:  That so-called pro-lifers are valuing the life of the mother less than the life of the embryo.  That is a valid argument because it is blatantly true.  Call them on that, make them defend that.  But do not bring up the death penalty because you have to remember that in their mentality a newly fertilised egg is a baby as much as your 3-month-old niece or nephew.  You have to wrap your head around that and never forget it for a second in order to make any headway in an argument with them.  In their mind, this 'baby' is innocent but a criminal who has murdered is not.  The criminal has abused his gift of life, has forfeited it, but the 'baby' has done nothing to deserve the death penalty.  So, you may disagree with their stance but it is internally consistent.  If someone genuinely views an embryo or foetus as a baby with equal rights to an adult, they are not being hypocritical to oppose abortion and support the death penalty.  In fact, it is perfectly valid for them to view pro-abortion, anti-death penalty people as hypocritical for being willing to kill an innocent 'baby' but not a vicious murderer.

It is also a non-starter to argue that they care only for foetuses, but not for babies and mothers.  Remember, their stance on abortion is not a prescription for social policy; it is a moral stance on one issue.  Their worldview includes no sex outside of marriage so to them having social services for unwed mothers is like allowing abortion: it is aiding and abetting behaviour that, in their view, should not happen in their society.  This is why you will never make any headway trying to tell them to help lower abortion rates with sex education and birth control.  To them, that is simply encouraging sex outside of marriage, which they do not think should happen.  Of course you should continue to fight for sex education and availability of birth control, just don't use it as a point of argument with anti-abortion people.

If you are going to argue with the anti-abortion crowd, you need to get inside their heads and make an argument that is consistent with their internal logic, not yours.  You are not trying to convince yourself; you are trying to persuade someone whose perspective is extremely different.  You need to understand their perspective, and approach them with arguments consistent with it.  The best argument I have found so far is to stress the value of the woman's life over the fertilised egg, and that choosing the life of an embryo over the life of a grown woman is morally wrong.

Friday 20 July 2012

A Crick in Time

Alert readers will notice that this post is backdated to Friday but did not actually appear until Tuesday.  On Friday, I hurt my back whilst gardening, resulting in the delay in posting.

I don't know exactly what happened, but I am pretty sure it starts with my futon.  I purchased it in the UK, in September 1997, and it has moved around with me for the last 15 years.  It is 100% untreated organic cotton—no foam, no wool, no springs, no rubber, no nothing except cotton.  It was always a firm futon, and I kept it on the floor until I got a frame 10 years ago, but in recent years the cotton has become so compressed that it is little better than sleeping on concrete.  This bothered City Boy a few years ago and he borrowed a feather mattress topper, which didn't seem to help a great deal.  Lately, I have been waking up with sore, stiff hips and lower back and finding it uncomfortable to turn from side to side at night.  Whenever I would spend the night elsewhere, my back wasn't sore or stiff when I woke up, although I didn't notice this very often since one usually does not note the absence of discomfort.

Since the futon never used to bother me at all, I attributed it to me getting fatter and more out of shape.  (City Boy has been losing weight and improving his fitness and now he finds the futon bothers him less.)  The physics are not in my favour: I have wide hips and sleep on my side.  Since the futon doesn't give at all, my back has to.  This has led to increasing tenderness but nothing I regarded as serious.  A new futon was first on my long list of deferred purchases to make once I get a job, but it would have to wait until then.

On Friday, I was bent over pulling weeds for a few hours then went into the garage to get the weed whacker.  When I turned it on and leant over slightly to apply it to some weeds along the edge of the garden, I suddenly found that I could not stand up.  I figured it was just a temporary cramp, from being bent over weeding, and stretched a bit to shake it off.  Since I could bend over, I figured I could just continue weeding by hand in that position until it went away.  But I realized in about 10 seconds that this was serious.  I made my very slow way back to the house and left a message for my chiropractor.  After a long, hot shower, letting the hot water aim at the muscle spasm, I felt a lot better.  I drove myself to the chiro and he did what he could but warned me it would probably get worse before it got better.  I tried to sit at my computer for awhile, but I seemed to feel worse unless I kept moving.  If I sat still, my lower back would stiffen up again.  Hence, no blog post.  I could have tried to type on my phone but, no, sorry, there are limits and typing an entire blog post on my iPhone's tiny virtual keypad is one of them.

I debated sleeping on the futon sofabed in the living room, which is softer, but decided that was unnecessary.  I could not have been more mistaken.  I awoke at around 5am unable to move.  Literally, I was stuck like a turtle on its back. I could not get up to go to the loo or anywhere.  Eventually, I made it to the sofabed, but I could not walk without holding onto something, and I was bent over so far my nose was nearly scraping the floor.  Once at the sofabed, which City Boy obligingly let down for me, I could not lie down on it.  I tried approaching it from various angles, but there was no way.  Eventually, I knelt in child's pose but could not roll onto either side.  I was stuck like that.  Although normally a stiff-upper-lip WASP type, at this point I lost it.  Being essentially frozen, paralysed, unable to get away if necessary, was terrifying.  I kept imagining if there was a fire or an intruder.  I can't bear the idea of being restrained or immobilised in any way, shape or form.  So, even though I knew nothing was broken or permanently damaged, I could not deal with being stuck.  City Boy was bewildered, thinking the problem was the pain, and he kept making cracks about me having a low tolerance for pain.  That's not true at all; it was not the pain but the disability that was upsetting me. I have to be in control at all times and not being able to move is about as far out of control as one can get.

Since Saturday morning my back has been getting incrementally better each day but I am frustrated by how long it is taking.  I told my chiro on Friday that I was planning to go to yoga on Saturday morning.  Ha.  It's Tuesday and I can sort of walk slowly.  I am a loooong way from getting on my bike or doing yoga.  I had to ask City Boy, much to my chagrin and humiliation, to pick up layer pellets for the Piranha Chickens as I cannot lift the 50lb bags right now.  It took me until this morning to shift a case of glass bottles that needed to be moved.  Normally, I move these heavy cases around without giving it any thought but it was quite a job to do it now.

About that futon:  I realized that I could not sleep on it again so I bought a new one on Saturday.  City Boy carried it for me and slung it right on top of the old one.  Now, instead of having a low modern futon bed, we have what looks like a high old-fashioned bed, so high we have to climb up into it.  It is a huge improvement, although I had to get a cheap one since this was not a purchase I could afford at this juncture.

I am going to have to backdate posts, and write more than one per day, to catch up.   I imagine that once I get a job, many of my posts will be brief, perhaps just photos or links with an accompanying sentence or two, in order to keep up with posting every day.  I'll cross that bridge when I actually find a job—it will be a good problem to have.

Thursday 19 July 2012

Homeschooling Should Be Illegal

As I read more about the latest back-to-the-land resurgence, I see certain features crop up repeatedly.  Making rather than buying, producing your own food organically, keeping chickens and bees, bartering, community involvement, and homeschooling.  All of these are positive developments except that last one.  Opting out of the corporate economy for environmental and health reasons, for quality of life and better use of limited time, those are all necessary directions we need to move in to repair the earth, our health, and our sanity.  But I draw the line at DIY and self-sufficiency when it comes to education.

I have two main objections to homeschooling.  The first is because most (before the flames rise, I am aware that this does not apply to all) homeschoolers are religious and they are not trying to educate their children so much as prevent their education.  They want them taught myth and superstition in place of fact in some areas, and they want them kept completely ignorant in others.  I just watched the movie "Tangled" for the first time this week.  The evil 'mother' keeps Rapunzel imprisoned in the tower by brainwashing her to believe that the outside world is too evil, selfish, and dangerous for Rapunzel to handle.  She keeps assuring her that what she is doing is for her own good.  When Rapunzel eventually escapes, she realizes she was being misled to serve the selfish ends of her kidnapper.  Religious homeschoolers are aware that their children will learn that the superstitions they are being forcefed to control them are bullshit if they are ever exposed to any competing information.  The brainwashing can only be effective if development of critical and analytical thinking skills is repressed, and if ignorance is maintained.  It is much harder to control people who are educated.  Think about it:  A girl being taught that she must remain at home until her father chooses a husband for her, that she must go from obeying her father to obeying her spouse, that she must have no ambition beyond being a SAHM, and that higher education and working outside the home are both wrong for women, must be kept away from girls who are being taught that men and women are equal, that she can marry whomever she chooses, or not marry at all, that she can go to college and graduate school and have any career under the sun.  If she is not kept isolated and ignorant, how can she be kept down?

We have all heard about the United States falling behind in math and science and no wonder when increasing numbers of kids are being taught that the earth is 6,000 years old.  The purpose of education is to dispel ignorance, to replace superstition with factual knowledge.  As a society, we require parents to keep their children in school until at least the age of 16.  Parents have some rights but forcing or allowing their children to remain ignorant (and possibly become liabilities to society) is not one of them.  There is a movement afoot to raise the age to 18 (or until a high school diploma is obtained) and about time, too.  But as long as homeschooling parents meet minimal state requirements for attendance, there is virtually no oversight of what, if anything, they are teaching their children.  This is appalling and completely unacceptable.  We cannot stop parents from indoctrinating their offspring into their religion of choice (although we should be able to prevent them from performing permanent mutilation on them), but we should be able to prevent religious indoctrination from taking the place of education.

My second objection to homeschooling is how it denigrates the value of knowledge and the role of educated, trained, and skilled teachers in imparting that knowledge.  No parent is qualified to teach every subject through the high school level.  I will concede that, at the elementary level, there are certainly some parents who could teach their children the very basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, and even some other subjects.  But no parent is equipped to teach all subjects at the high school or even middle school level.  The Internet is making it easier for parents to get around this problem.  If they do not speak a foreign language, they can sign the kid up for online classes, and the same for other subjects.  But online courses are no substitute for a proper classroom environment with a flesh-and-blood teacher in front of you, and other learners beside you struggling to master the same material.  By claiming that they can educate their children through high school at home, parents are showing disgusting arrogance, hubris, and ignorance of the importance of proper education.

Now, I am aware of the growing horror show that is our public education system.  I know that some parents have good reason to fear that their children would not learn anything at school because the teachers are too busy breaking up knife fights in the hallways.  Concerns about the quality of teachers, the unequal distribution of resources in wealthy and poor school districts, the length of the commute for some students to get to and from school, and the weakness of a curriculum that is increasingly dictated by sponsoring corporations and standardized tests are all legitimate.  But the solution to these problems is not to opt out of the education system.  Home schooling provides an escape valve that should not exist, so that parents can retreat from these problems instead of tackling them head on.  We need secular parents fighting the introduction of creationism into the curriculum, not withdrawing their children to avoid it.

Notice that I did not make the argument that homeschooled students are under-socialized.  On the contrary, since homeschooling has increased in popularity, there are many groups they can join, and local schools often let them participate in sports and extracurricular activities.  They can volunteer, hold part-time jobs, and otherwise get plenty of socialization.  My argument is with the curriculum itself, not extracurricular activities.

I don't believe that homeschooling will ever be outlawed.  As public schools deteriorate, and the Internet offers more curricular options, more parents, both secular and religious, are embracing it.  I am just recording here that I think this is a bad idea.  It is taking DIY a bit too far.  Fix the schools, don't abandon them.

Wednesday 18 July 2012


No new post today.  I had insomnia last night & didn't get to sleep until after 5:30am.  The sun was up. I was awakened by the sound of the weed whacker outside my window at 10:30am and of course couldn't go back to sleep that late in the morning.  So, I got less than 5 hours sleep.  I need 8 but I can function on 7.  I cannot function on less than 7, under any circumstances.  So, that means this entire day is shot.  I won't be able to tackle anything on my "to do" list today, which is frustrating.  Even worse is that I was intending to go to yoga at 7:30am and of course could not do that.  If I try to exercise or really do much of anything without a bare minimum of 7 hours sleep, it makes me ill and aggravates my arrhythmia.  I should be doing so many things, not the least of which is applying for jobs, so, I am not in a good mood today.

Worst insomnia ever.  I know the root cause is anxiety about money and it may have been exacerbated by the weather.  I love hot weather; heat doesn't bother me but, supposedly, our bodies sleep better in cool rooms and it was 99F yesterday and didn't cool down much overnight.  My house usually remains cool all summer—too cool, in fact, as I have had to put the heat on occasionally in cold, damp summers past—but I still wouldn't have an air conditioner even if it didn't.  I hate them.  I'd much rather be hot than cold, although apparently my sleep is affected even if I prefer being warm.

To add insult to injury, the landlady's grandson ran over some of my flowers when he mowed the lawn.  I had carefully nurtured nasturtiums from seed, protected them from the local rabbits, kept them watered during the current drought, and he mowed them down right to the soil.  They had just started to bud yesterday.  He knew I was angry but I couldn't say anything as I can't afford to pay my rent.  Besides, he is the landlady's grandson.  It's not like I dare rip him a new one in any situation.

I hate not having my own farm!  I need my own place, where I can have as many animals as I want, and plant whatever I want, where I want, and restore everything with the best quality materials available.  Neither of my parents has ever owned property so you'd think I'd be used to rentals but I am not the renting type.  I crave control and I am extremely picky about taste and quality and historic preservation and environmental responsibility.  I spend a fair amount of time for a broke person with no house of my own looking at top-of-the-line appliances, retro-styled of course, and countertops and jetted tubs and natural-filtration pools and fantasizing about everything I am going to put in my house when money is no longer an object.  I just wish that day would come yesterday.  I am tired of renting and waiting to be rich.  I don't want a job; I just want money.  If I had money, I'd be too busy to work.  I would be working on my farm and breeding and training my horses, traveling, raising a family, growing my own food.  I'd even learn to sew and make my own clothes if I were rich enough.  I'd write fiction and cookbooks and design knitting patterns, because I'd never be distracted by worries about money.  I'd finish my PhD and publish in my discipline because I wouldn't be too run down from work to focus on it.  I'd study voice again and finally have the leisure to practice and really try to make it as an opera singer, see how far my talents and accelerated study of vocal technique would take me.  I should have been born into a wealthy family, then I could have done all this by now.  Aristocratic and titled would be ideal.  I'd love to be "Lady" or "Her Royal Highness."  Well, wouldn't you?  C'mon.

I think I made a mistake when I was younger.  I vowed never to get married, never to have children, never to be financially dependent upon anyone, and to be with someone only for love.  What I should have realized is that financial stability is the most important thing in life and that someday, when it was too late, I would want a family of my own.  I should have found the richest guy available and married him, regardless of considerations like love or compatibility.  Then I'd have my horse farm, my friesians, my animal rescue, my restored historic house, and even children, perhaps.  Thinking I could earn enough to purchase these things on my own (er, not the children) was foolhardy, na├»ve in the extreme.  My mother struggled to raise me as a single mom, working long hours at a job she hated to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table by herself.  She always warned me never to become financially dependent upon anyone and never to have children since they are such a financial burden.  I took that message to heart and I still don't believe it is ever a good idea to be financially dependent upon someone else, but the missing piece is that you can't make it on your own.  The world is simply too expensive.  You can't start out poor and claw your way up to being rich on your own.  You need family money to help you start or you need to marry money.  Or you need to get very lucky, making it big in some lucrative field, but that is a fairy tale for a fortunate few.  No, for most of us, to make money you have to start out with money, and lots of it.  The farm I dream of will cost a bundle, and it isn't possible for me to earn enough money to buy it.  I don't think winning the lottery is a good financial plan so, what to do?  All I want is money.  When you don't have it, nothing else matters.
This is not my desired style of house; it just amuses me that the horse is in the dining room.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Plying 'Possum

From this...

I saw some yarn today that was 30% opossum. I shit you not. Yes, we knitters have always been an adventurous lot but it seems that we have finally reached the point where, in an increasingly desperate quest for novelty, we will spin the fibre of any creature with hair. No longer limiting ourselves to mammals, we have moved on to marsupials. Forget wool and mohair and cashmere, even angora is old hat (itchy hat, in my book). Now for a yarn to be considered exotic it must be at least bison or malamute or, apparently, 'possum. Even alpaca, llama, yak, and camel are too common now to warrant comment. Just for the hell of it, I Googled to see what else I'd find and discovered this 50% cashmere/50% combed mink yarn from Inner Mongolia.

(The 'possum yarn is from Down Under, where they specialise in marsupials, and the above picture is an American opossum, but you get the idea. The Kiwi variety just looks a bit more like a miniature kangaroo.  Speaking of which, I expect the next yarn from Oz to be part kangaroo or, perhaps, koala.) this

Monday 16 July 2012

Honour Boxes

Beginning with the first asparagus of spring and ending with pumpkins and wreaths, my neighbourhood boasts miniature farm stands in front of many houses.  Some are as small as a bucket on a chair, some as fancy as large wooden carts with shelves and an awning.  They all have two features in common: 1) What is being sold was grown in their own garden and 2) There is a small box with a slit in the top to insert your money, next to a hand-lettered sign listing prices.

When I first moved here, I was shocked that anyone would leave a box of money unattended all day.  As a city person, I am used to keeping a close eye on all of my possessions, especially my wallet, and knowing that anything you turn your back on will disappear before you can blink.  In fact, the way to get rid of anything you don't want in the city is to put it outside on the street.  It will be gone the next day, whether it is as small as an ugly coffee mug or as large as a sofa.  Locking doors and windows is second nature, and it's only half the job with your car, for which you need to remove the radio (and arial, if it is the detachable sort), hide anything of value that is visible in the interior, club the steering wheel, and push in the wing mirror so it doesn't get sideswiped off.

When I moved to my current abode, the landlady did not give me a key to the front door.  I had to press her on this point and she seemed to think it an unnecessary bother for her to find one for me.  No-one around her, she said, ever locks their doors.  When I was searching for my first car (a luxury I never had in the city), I answered a local ad on Craig's List and the shocked and bewildered owner of the car told me that it no longer had a radio because someone had stolen it the night before.  I asked him why he hadn't locked the car and he said that no-one around here ever did.

That experience proves, of course, that theft does occur in the country.  The next town over is a college town with a very high rate of home invasion in off-campus housing, with electronics the most stolen item.  There are also items in the local police blotter each week of cars broken into at the shopping mall when valuables are left visible on the seats.  Yet, despite these crimes, the general attitude around here is much more cavalier than in the city.  I would never leave my house or car unlocked—I am a paranoid city person at heart—but the sight of the honour boxes does somewhat restore my tarnished faith in humanity.

Below is a photo of flowers that I bought from a little red wagon parked in a driveway down the street. I put my $4 in the honour box and chose this bouquet.  Not only is it cheaper and fresher than one from the store but it is more environmentally responsible.  The flowers were not flown in from a distant nursery; they were grown right here on the block, and lovingly arranged by the grower.  They are inexpensive as there is no packaging, transport cost, or middleman.  They currently grace the sideboard in my dining room and cheer me up each time I see them.

Sunday 15 July 2012

Why Did I Start This Blog?

The main reason that I began this blog was that I needed a forum for venting, as The New York Times hasn't yet seen fit to hire me to write Op-Eds.  I have registered a few domains and started several blogs on specific interests (knitting, wine, books) and I had been meaning to create a baking blog and a political blog, a vintage blog and a country-living blog, etc.  Of course, I realised that maintaining dozens of individual blogs is not feasible so I decided to make a one-stop blog where I could vent about anything, where nothing would be off-topic.  I so often see comments on other blogs where readers complain that they came to the blog for knitting or yoga or recipes, not to hear the blogger's views on politics or their rant about their boss.  So, I wanted a catch-all blog, where I could be myself and vent about whatever was making my blood boil that day.

Additional reasons include, in order of importance:

1) A way for friends and family not on Facebook to keep up with what is going on in my life.  I post updates and pictures, humour and political news, and educational tidbits on Facebook every day, but most of my friends and family scorn Facebook so they don't see this stuff.  I spend so much time posting on Facebook that I can't be bothered to send the same info in individual emails.  This blog partially solves that problem and should ameliorate some of the guilt I feel for not writing to friends and family more often.

2) A way for people who know me in only one sphere to learn more about me.  I have many acquaintances in the horse world, the dog rescue world, the vintage world, the knitting world, from past jobs, etc., that only know me as an equestrian or animal rescuer or knitter or office drone.  They have no clue about my politics.  They may know that Friesian horses are my favourite breed but they have no idea that I am a militant atheist or that I am opposed to genital mutilation, and there is no way to casually bring that up.  By reading my blog, people who see only one facet of me can get to know me more fully.

3) A way to start writing again.  I have been too depressed, anxious, and OCD in recent years to do much writing.  The blog is a no-pressure way to discipline myself to write every day again.

4) A way to build up writing samples.  Since I am trying to make my living as a freelance writer and editor, I need some writing samples to send to potential employers.  Obviously, I have to be very careful what I would choose from this blog, which is deliberately anonymous so potential employers can't reject me on the basis of my political, religious, or any other views, but there will eventually be a stash of posts that could serve as writing samples.

5) A way to educate people.  I am generally of the view that people who do not agree with me are ignorant and not in possession of all the facts.  As I often say, you can have your own opinion but you cannot have your own facts.  I believe that people in possession of the same facts would not hold such widely divergent opinions.  For example, no-one who knows the accurate history of the creation of the world's religions could believe in any of them and no-one who knows the facts about genital mutilation could condone it.  One of my many purposes with this blog is to educate the ignorant; I am a natural-born teacher and love teaching.

6) A way to build new expertise of my own.  By writing about baking or sheep farming or the ramifications of the Affordable Care Act, I have to learn more about each subject myself, so it provides a more focused way to do research on topics that interest me.

7) A way to build material to spin-off future subject blogs.  I do not have time to maintain separate blogs for each of my many diverse interests but, eventually, I should build up enough posts on individual topics, such as baking, that I will be able to give them a blog of their own and, more importantly, interest potential employers in having me write as an expert on the topic for their website or even garner a book contract.

8) A way to earn a living.  If this blog attracts enough readers, I should be able to earn money from it somehow.  I am not sure how, as I am not, at this point, willing to host ads.  But there are well-known political bloggers who earn a living both from their own blogs and from being invited to write and speak as experts on various topics.  I do not have a concrete plan but I see this blog as the first step in making my living as a writer.

Saturday 14 July 2012

Horrible Guilt

This morning on the way to yoga I hit one of the kamikaze chipmunks that dart across the bike path.  I feel so horribly guilty I don't know how people live with this kind of guilt.  I should have been paying closer attention.  Normally, I see them coming out of the corner of my eye & break in time for them to squeak by before my wheel touches them.  This time, I wasn't fast enough breaking or the chipmunk wasn't fast enough darting.  I simply could not believe that I hadn't missed him.  I felt the bump and was in horrified shock.  I stopped and put my bike down and ran back.  He wasn't dead but was clearly too seriously injured to live.  I picked him up gently on a large leaf and moved him to the side of the bike path so he wouldn't be hit again.  I see dead chipmunks each year; they get hit often.  He appeared to be in shock and pain.  He was twitching but couldn't straighten his back.  I assume his spine was injured, as well as many internal injuries.  There was no blood.  I watched him for a long time, racking my brains for any wildlife rehabilitator to phone.  I once found a little dying bird by the bike racks at Whole Foods.  It had clearly collided with a car and was stunned and struggling.  I called local vets asking if anyone dealt with birds/wildlife, and none of the vets around here do.  I tried to Google and phone wildlife rehabilitators within a radius of several hundred miles and got nowhere, left a lot of messages.  The little bird died whilst I was making the phone calls.  A woman came up on her bike and offered to take the bird home and bury it, which was kind.  I felt terrible that I couldn't save that bird but at least I hadn't been responsible for killing it.

This time, I didn't even try to make phone calls.  The chipmunk, in his frantic struggles or spasms eventually slid down the steep embankment and I could no longer see him in the undergrowth.  Several people stopped to ask me if I'd lost something and one jogger said she was always terrified of stepping on them when she was out running.  I, too, have nearly squished them when running.  But, until today, I had always managed to avoid hitting one.

On the way home, I stopped again at the accident site to look in the undergrowth down the embankment.  I wasn't expecting to see him and I didn't.  I'd like to believe that he recovered and went on his way but I know better; he was too seriously injured to live, and it is all my fault.  I don't know how other people cope with doing terrible things like this.  He was so cute, so innocent, going about his day.  What if he had a family?  When I see roadkill in the spring, I always wonder if there is a nest of babies at home waiting to be fed, who will die slow, horrible deaths from starvation since their mother is dead, whatever the species.

Five years ago, I saw a tiny bird fly in front of my car from the left but not exit on the right.  When I got to work, I found a little dead bird stuck to the grille.  I have never forgotten this and feel awful whenever I think about it.  We, as humans, have no right to kill wildlife with our big, unnatural machines that animals do not understand how to avoid.

Years ago, my first dog (the great love of my life) was killed by a car.  It was entirely my fault; I did not have a good grip on the leash and it was rush hour and a busy street.  But I have always blamed the driver and wished him ill.  I have spent a lot of time thinking about that driver and hoping fervently that he has a miserable rest of his life.  For my role in my dog's death, as well as the little bird and now the chipmunk, I am racking up an awful lot of guilt.  If I believed in the concept of karma, I'd call it bad karma.  I realise that life is not fair, and the bad are not punished nor the good rewarded but, for killing this poor chipmunk, I do not deserve anything good to happen to me.  I don't see how other people cope with the guilt of being responsible for an animal's death.  It is one of the most horrendous acts, even if totally accidental.

I know that in some countries, such as my favourite country, Sweden, they teach drivers to give animals that they have hit a coup de grace to put them out of their misery.  They say to break its neck.  I could and would never do anything like that.  Where there is life, there is hope.  I do not believe in euthanasia under any circumstances, and I will not violate that.  Yet, I feel guilty that I could not get the chipmunk medical treatment.  I knew it wouldn't survive my taking it home and I didn't want to hurt it or scare it more by handling it.  I just have to live with the guilt, and be miserable about it forever.

Friday 13 July 2012

To Those Who Think Buying Health Insurance Should Be A Choice:

What happens if someone chooses not to buy insurance and they suffer an illness or get into an accident? They may be young and healthy and consider themselves at low risk, but what if they find themselves in need of health care unexpectedly? An accident can happen no matter your age or state of health, as can cancer. What do you propose should happen then? I just want to be absolutely clear on what you think the solution is.

Let me give you some options:

1) They receive no care.
2) They have to rely on private charity and they receive only whatever care is donated.
3) They go to a public hospital and receive care on the taxpayer's dime, i.e., you pay for it.
4) They receive some care by paying out of pocket but become financially destitute, losing their job, home, and any semblance of a normal life.

Which of these options is your preferred outcome? Or do you have another option in mind?

Wednesday 11 July 2012

A Question of Human Rights & Human Wrongs

So my Fundie Friend commented on one of my Intactivist postings on Facebook that it is hypocritical of me to be opposed to genital mutilation but in favour of abortion.  Killing the whole baby, he said, is far worse than amputating a normal, healthy part of his body.

This assertion of hypocrisy is leveled at pro-abortion intactivists frequently, so I am not breaking any new ground answering it here.  It comes down to a fundamental disagreement about whose life is more important, the woman's or the foetus's.

You probably expected me to say, "it comes down to a fundamental disagreement about when life begins."  But that is not how I am approaching the argument.  Abortion opponents believe that human life begins at conception, even before implantation.  As soon as sperm meets egg, boom, in their estimation, a human life is formed that is worthy of all human rights.  Nothing is going to change their perspective on that point.  You could explain that, prior to viability outside the womb, the fetus should not be thought of as a separate entity, with rights of its own, but the age of viability keeps getting younger as technology advances.  So that line of reasoning is a non-starter.  Any discussion of where to draw the line presupposes that a line should be drawn, but, if it can be drawn, it can be changed; it's a slippery slope.  The approach I propose is to consider whose life is more important, the fetus or the woman.  I believe that the value of the woman's life exceeds that of the foetus's.  Her rights trump any rights accorded to the fetus because she has to gestate it and she has to raise it or put it up for adoption and live with the physical and mental consequences of the pregnancy.

No, I am not going to waste time arguing that life begins at viability or birth or at any particular point in gestational development because such a viewpoint carries no weight with those opposed to abortion.  The essence of their stance is that you have two human beings and the rights of the fetal human exceed those of the woman human.  My view is simply the inverse of that: The rights of the woman predominate.

I was not always so firmly pro-abortion.  My conception was very much an accident and to say that I was unwanted would be an understatement.  Both my father and maternal grandfather gave my mother money for an abortion—illegal & dangerous in pre-Roe days.  No-one thought that it was wise for a clinically-depressed 20-year-old attending an Ivy League school on merit scholarship to have this "ooops" baby.  My mother was actually on the bus, on the way to get an abortion, when she changed her mind and couldn't go through with it.  Throughout my childhood, I was conscious of how close I came to not existing, and I value my existence above all else.  For years, I could not separate the idea of abortion in general from the idea of me not existing, so I was opposed to it.  To add insult to injury, for four of my most impressionable adolescent years I attended an ultra-conservative Opus Dei school, where "Silent Scream" was considered appropriate lunchtime viewing and picketing abortion clinics was a supported extracurricular activity.

But when I became sexually active in my teens, I knew—calmly, unequivocably, and without guilt—that I would terminate the pregnancy post haste if I ever conceived accidentally.  (I didn't, and now that I am older and want children, I am infertile, so I never had to face that situation.)  The realization that there was no question whatsoever of hosting an unwanted parasite in my body for nine months, of having my body permanently altered from the rigours of pregnancy, of either changing my life to raise a child or going for the rest of my life knowing that my child was out there, being raised by strangers, completely changed my perspective on abortion.  The idea that anyone could try to stop me terminating a pregnancy, that they could make it difficult or dangerous or expensive or punishable by law, was enraging.  No-one has the right to make a woman play host to an unwanted fetus.  No-one.  This is not negotiable or open for discussion.  Even if you believe the ofetus should have full human rights from the moment of conception, you have no right to force another human to incubate it and birth it.  No right whatsoever, and no moral justification to do so.

When I became much older and finally wanted children I also knew, again with calm certainly and no guilt, that I would abort a disabled foetus if I ever carried one.  The idea of giving birth and raising a disabled child is anathema to me; it defeats the entire purpose of having children.  So, again, the idea that someone could force a woman to bear a disabled child is completely unconscionable.  I am aware that some women choose not to avail themselves of prenatal testing, and that others who find out they are carrying a disabled child choose to have it anyway.  That is their choice, and I would never propose forcing them to get unwanted tests or have an abortion against their will, although I don't think they should be able to use tax money to support children with disabilities that can be detected in utero.  But no-one has the right to say that the rights of a disabled foetus to grow to term and be born are superior to the rights of a woman not to gestate in her body and birth this foetus.

And the idea that abortion opponents wanted to make victims of rape and incest carry those foetuses to term was even more appalling to me.  It is, though, consistent with their viewpoint.  They firmly believe that the rights of the foetus trump the rights of the woman carrying it, and that is especially evident in cases where the woman will die if she does not abort.  The Catholic Church makes no exception in such cases; they take a consistent line on this:  The rights of the foetus trump the rights of the mother.  Even in cases where the foetus will die with the mother and has no chance of survival, they chalk it up to "God's will".  They will allow medical intervention to try and save the life of the foetus regardless of its effect on the mother, but they forbid any treatment for the mother that would endanger the foetus.  It's all about the foetus, women be damned.

My position is neither inconsistent nor hypocritical.  It is always the woman's choice whether her body can be used to incubate another human being and her choice alone.  Not even the biological father has a legitimate say because he does not have to bear the physical burden of pregnancy and childbirth.  If a woman decides that she will incubate and give birth, once the baby emerges and the cord is cut, it is a unique, independent human being, with the basic human right to bodily integrity.

A Fundamental Disagreement

I have remained friends with a former colleague who is a fundamentalist Christian.  We simply agree to disagree about, well, pretty much everything.  I have a morbid fascination with his bizarre beliefs because they are so irrational that it simply beggars the imagination how he could have attended an Ivy League school and yet hold to some of his nuttier views.  His father is a prominent Creationist so, despite his education, he believes the earth is 6,000 years old.  One time he came over for dinner and lamented, in all earnestness and with genuine sadness in his voice, that I and my then boyfriend were such nice people that it pained him that we would be going to hell for all eternity because we were living in sin.  He also explained that he and his then fiancee had only ever hugged and kissed on the cheek because anything more, such as a kiss on the lips, would be "defrauding".  I got the whole scoop on this fun fundie concept from him:  The deal is that, in their view, the only legitimate expression of sexuality is within marriage, so looking at attractive people or engaging in any activity that might lead to sexual arousal is "defrauding" because it cannot lead at that time to its natural conclusion, i.e., sex within marriage.  This, of course, means that masturbation is an absolute no-no.  My Fundie Friend made the critical error of vouchsafing that, although he was not perfect in resisting, despite much prayer, he had gone nine whole months without succumbing.

Well, you can guess what happened next.  Every time I saw him, I'd ask, "Still holding out?"  "How about now?"  I thought this was hilarious.  Still do.  But I am sure he regretted letting that slip even though he knew my teasing was all in good fun.

The thing is, he and his fiancee split up and he remains unmarried in his 40s.  According to the tenets of his religion, if he never marries, then he is expected to never have sex in his entire life.  Not only to die a virgin, but to never even have an orgasm.  I doubt anyone actually follows these rules for life but imagine how pathetic it would be if someone did really deny himself any form of sexual pleasure for his entire life in a misguided quest to avoid going to a fictional hell.  Their only orgasms would be from wet dreams in their adolescence—the one form of sexual release that even the fundamentalists must accept is beyond the individual's control.  Scary and sad, isn't it?  This is the only life we get, and you only live once.  There are no do-overs if you miss out on life experiences.  Everyone has to decide what is important to them, what fits their values, but allowing superstition to deprive you is such a waste.

Another frightening point he made was saying to me that he didn't understand how I could be such a moral person, have such strong ethics, without religion.  In his view, all morality, all sense of right and wrong, comes from his god.  He said that without this external moral compass guiding him, he could go crazy and rape and murder and steal, what would stop him doing whatever he felt like doing?  What he doesn't get, of course, is that morality precedes religion.  Since humans wrote the holy books of all the world's religions, with their prescriptions for good and bad behaviour, humans must have already had those concepts prior to developing and codifying various religions.  But since he believes the Christian Bible was divinely inspired, he doesn't believe that right and wrong existed in human consciousness before being revealed by his god.  The belief that religious people hold that they would lack a moral compass without their religion is one of the most frightening aspects of religious belief.

His religion also forbids the consumption of alcohol.  It does allow birth control, although it cannot be abortifacient.  He does think for himself in a few respects, which is his redeeming feature and why we can remain friends.  He surprised me one time by stating bitterly that he wished other abortion opponents would be a bit more concerned with babies after they are born.  More recently, when his boss, Pat Robertson, stated that it was ok for spouses to divorce if one contracts Alzheimer's, my Fundie Friend spoke out vehemently in disagreement, maintaining that his Bible says marriage is for life, in sickness and in health, no exceptions.  He is not the only Evangelical to distance himself from that particular Robertson pronouncement, but the guy is actually his boss.

Through observing my Fundie Friend, I also learned something about the power of community and socialization in preserving religion.  I would be willing to bet any amount of money that, if he became an atheist, if he stopped believing in every last bit of that superstitious drivel, he would never admit it, perhaps not even to himself, but certainly not publicly.  Think about it:  His entire family is fundie, and his family life is extremely important to him.  He has a large, close knit family that he sees as often as he can.  Why would he mess that up?  He has no family of his own.  He is also gainfully employed in a secure job, which he would lose if he failed to tow the party line in any respect, ex cathedra statements from Robertson notwithstanding.  And how would he even be exposed to other ideas in that milieu?  But the strongest hold is not even from his family or his job, but from the sense of community he gets from being part of a relatively homogeneous group.  He has moved around a lot, both domestically and internationally, and he told me that, wherever he goes, all he has to do is find the Evangelicals and he is instantly welcomed, immediately at home, enveloped in the warmth of a like-minded community.  What, to him, could be worth losing that?  When I think of the pernicious influence of religion, how I want its sexism and control to be eradicated in the world, I always remember that people crave boundaries, rules to live by, and community.  If people are to stop believing in superstition, those needs must be met in some other way.  Even as a hardcore atheist, I appreciate the role that churches can play in creating a sense of community in an increasingly atomised world.  The Anglican church is the only church for any good atheist to belong to.  You have the bells and smells, the "thee's" and "thy's", all of the pomp, circumstance and ritual that you could desire, but no-one is expected to believe anything.  I grew up singing in an Episcopal church choir and I am quite certain that our rectors were atheists, along with about three quarters of the congregation.  Lack of belief wasn't an impediment to becoming an Episcopal priest, or being active in the church.  We had great fun, and community.  I particularly loved the hand bell choir, and Xmas caroling.

But I digress.  My point in mentioning my Fundie Friend is that he asked me a provocative question on Facebook the other day and I will answer it here tomorrow.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Kamikaze Chipmunks & Other Hazards of Country Living

On the way back from yoga this morning, I saw a few people stopped ahead of me on the bike path.  I slowed down as I approached & saw the hold-up:  A doe and her well-grown fawn leisurely crossing the bike path.  They stopped to look at us calmly with their gentle, liquid eyes and then proceeded down the steep embankment, so well camouflaged in the undergrowth that they completely disappeared when they were only a few feet away.

In the decade I have lived here and used this bike path, I had never seen deer on it before.  The Rail Trail, as it's known locally, was made by paving over derelict railroad tracks.  There is a thin margin of trees on either side of the embankment but no real woods except at the extreme northern end, where bears have been sighted.  This particular section was near a town and the deer appeared to be heading into someone's backyard.  Since most of the Valley has long-since been cleared for agriculture, I didn't think there were any deer until you went up into the surrounding hills.

It is amazing how gentle and serene they looked.  As crepuscular animals, I wouldn't expect them to be out at midday.  They didn't seem afraid of us at all, although they should be afraid of humans.  Not us bikers in particular—I don't think anyone was packing a hunting rifle in their panniers—but humans in general.  They're only common deer—I see them virtually every time I drive on the Interstate—but for some reason seeing the doe and fawn up close seemed to cast a spell over the whole day, as if I had seen something magical.

I once saw a fisher on the bike path, and a beaver so fat I don't know how it caught fish, unless it lay in the shallows and waited for them to swim into its mouth.  Today as I got closer to home, I saw a large hawk soaring in circles over a house on the next block and I immediately knew why:  There is one woman on that block who keeps chickens.  This minor fact was apparently very interesting to the hawk.  Raptors are a common sight around here—there is a bald eagle that I sometimes see in a tree by the river—but I never tire of admiring their flying skill.

Later, I was returning from some errands in my car and had to swerve around an enormous turkey vulture that was lunching on some roadkill.  I took the back way home so I could see how the local haying was coming along and pass a horse farm where they are building a beautiful, well-organized garden with raised beds.  I also pass a sheep farm that way and the sheep and adorable lambs were out grazing on a hillside.  I can't wait until I have my own farm and can get sheep.  City Boy wants goats, but I don't.  Goats are a pain in the arse; sheep are easy, and I can spin and knit their fleece.

A daily hazard on the bike path is the many (many, many) chipmunks who dart across just in front of one's bike.  You have to keep a sharp eye for them and swerve and break to avoid crushing them under your wheels.  Sadly, I see a few flattened ones every year.  The squirrels seem less likely to choose the exact moment when a bike is passing to cross the path but they often stand up on their hind legs in the middle and don't get out of the way until you are practically on top of them.  They are usually arguing with the cardinals and robins, but seem to also have frequent disagreements with the thrushes and sparrows.  I always appreciate a cardinal sighting; I love their cheerful colouring.  Rabbits are a daily feature around here, too.  The number of baby bunnies I see along the bike path is extraordinary this year.  I mean, I know they breed like, well, you know, but perhaps the mild winter made them especially fertile this year or there are too few predators left to keep the numbers down.

Not all encounters with wildlife are pleasant:  My yoga teacher reported that she had to take her dog to the vet last night to have 26 porcupine quills removed from his nose.  She hopes that satisfied his curiosity about porcupines.  I told her I hope he doesn't move on to skunks.

Monday 9 July 2012

Quitting the Rat Race Too Soon

Unsurprisingly, for some years now I have been obsessed with stories of city people who decide one day to ditch the rat race and move to the country.  I love the stories of the culture shock and the mistakes they make as they learn farming and animal husbandry.  Two of my favourites are "Fifty Acres and a Poodle" and "It Takes a Village Idiot".  I also enjoyed "Hit by a Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn".

These stories all share some common traits.  The protagonist is fed up with running the rat race in the concrete jungle.  Tired of being consumers, they want to be producers, to make the necessities of life for themselves instead of working for someone else to obtain the money to buy them.  They want space and tranquility, a view, a slower pace of life.  They don't want to work less hard, just differently.  They would rather get up at dawn to see the frost on the fields than to beat rush hour traffic on the Interstate.

For me, this same decision was not a lightning bolt revelation but a slower process.  Having grown up in a city apartment, with the world at my doorstep, I was worried that I would feel bored and isolated in the country.  I had no connection to the earth, to growing things, to seeing stars at night, to country sights, sounds, and smells, to fresh-picked fruits and vegetables, to local food, to planting and weeding, fertilizing and canning.  Farm machinery scared me (it still does, to be honest).  One of the most daunting aspects of country life was the fact that I didn't even have a driver's license.  You can't keep a car in the city unless you are filthy rich, so my mother didn't have one.  I grew up a block away from a main station for buses and trains, so who needed a car anyway?  People who lived in the suburbs had cars, and that soulless Metro Land repelled me.  I associated the 'burbs with bourgeois conformity and mind-numbing consumerism.  Actually, I still do, but I understand the compromise that people who work in the city but want a little green space, a few stars, a rose bush or two, make by living in the suburbs.  It ain't the country, but they have grass and trees and they can still have their Habitrail connection to their rat race job.

But the suburbs were never for me because I have always loved horses.  It was horses that ignited my country dream.  I always wanted a horse farm of my own, with lots of acreage for pastures, a cross-country course, indoor and outdoor arenas, paddocks and barns.  Horseback riding as a child involved a series of bus rides from the city out into the suburbs and then a long walk or bike ride into a rural area beyond the reach of public transportation.  There were a few barns left in the city and suburbs (now long gone), but they were prohibitively expensive, offering riding instruction only for the children of the very well-to-do.  So, I had a horse farm dream before I had a country dream per se.  It was more that I needed to be in the country to have the horse farm than that I wanted to live in the country to grow my own food and retain my sanity.  Obviously, my thinking evolved.  As I became more familiar with the rewards of country living—got a driver's license and a car, planted a garden, got chickens, bought local foods in season, etc., my appreciation for country life grew.  I began to dread my visits to the city, to find my former habitat claustrophobic, crowded, and stressful.  And the country lifestyle jibes with my environmental views.  Not to mention the fact that I knew I wanted my future children to grow up in the country,  not the city.  Having experienced both worlds, there was no question which one was healthier, mentally and physically.

The question is how to make it work financially.  You see, there is one more common feature to all of those stories about city people bumbling into country life:  They all had money.  When they took off their little numbered rat jerseys and stepped off the rat race track, they took the proceeds from the sale of their city apartments, their savings, their retirement plans and family money, and bought themselves a farm of their own.  They renovated and restored their farms, bought farm equipment and animals.  Money seems to flow like water in these stories, with no mention of the well ever running dry.  I, on the other hand, have no money.  Not only can't I buy my own farm, I can't even afford the one I am renting.  Some of these protagonists were able to keep their city jobs, at least at first, by telecommuting. Technology is making the country life more feasible that way.  Telecommuting is my goal but I have not succeeded yet in part because employers usually want to establish a relationship before they allow the corporate tether to stretch so far.  I cannot afford to rent an apartment in the city, close to a well-paying city job, so I need a situation where I can telecommute from the start.  I have an excellent home office, with a view of the sugar maples in the front yard.  I can breathe here but I can also work here.

Another difference is that these stories never mention any preexisting debt.  Homesteading guides gleefully detail how you can live on a fraction of your city income when you grow your own food and make your own clothes, when you cook from scratch instead of eating out and play musical instruments and board games with your family instead of going to movies or paying for cable TV.  That's all well and good but what if you are starting country life with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt that does not include a mortgage?  I have not one, not two, but three graduate degrees.  I have no job to show for them but I do have over $300K in federal student loans.  I have also been underemployed for so much of my life that I have mostly lived on credit, which has to be paid back, with interest.  I also have a lot of deferred household and personal purchases and maintenance that need attending to asap, not to mention deferred travel to see friends and family in far off places.

In order to leave the rat race, you have to have paid your dues as a rat.   These people who said "so long" to the other rats and left to go raise sheep somewhere in outerbumblefuck had a rat's nest to sell, and a rat's hoard of savings to live on.  If I had no debt and no major purchases to make, I could live on a low-paying local job but I am in the unique position of needing city wages in the country.  I am placing my hopes on getting a telecommuting gig but if that fails I don't know what I'll do.

Sunday 8 July 2012

Fertilizing the Present with the Manure of the Past

(My city friends will find that an unappetising post title but we talk manure a lot in the country.  When we say nothing gets wasted, we mean nothing.  Yesterday's chicken feed becomes tomorrow's vegetable garden fertiliser.  The circle of poo.)

Yesterday I explained how some women are becoming so disillusioned with life in the 21st century that they are leaving the workforce and becoming traditional housewives.  In some cases, it is the man who becomes the homemaker but the vast majority of the time it is the woman.  I talked about the impetus for this trend as well as why it is dangerous for women's rights if we go backward and embrace traditional gender roles.  Today I begin parsing out exactly what we are nostalgic for and how we can recapture it without women losing the right to vote or own property.

We miss:  Salespeople who are polite, friendly, helpful and actually know their business and their merchandise.
How we can bring it back today:  Avoid big box stores and shop at independent businesses and farmers' markets whenever possible.  Before supermarkets and other chains took over, and town centres became vacant, shoppers walked to the green grocer, the butcher, the baker, the florist, the dry goods store, the milliner, the dressmaker, the tailor, etc.  Each merchant knew his or her business, and shop assistants were taught it before they were allowed to interact with customers.
Why it is challenging:  Many Main Streets are lined with vacant store fronts, chains in strip malls on the outskirts of town having driven them out of business.  Some people live in suburbs that are purely bedroom communities, with no proper town centre at all and no stores other than chains.  These suburbs often lack sidewalks, making it impossible to walk safely to the shops.  Also, independent businesses tend to close earlier than chains and have shorter weekend hours, making it difficult for working people to get there.  The biggest challenge, of course, is cost.  With the economies of scale enjoyed by chains, independent merchants cannot offer such obscenely low prices on goods and services.  Which brings us to the next point....

We miss:  Quality goods that last, emblematic of a less disposable culture.
How we can bring it back today:  Buy less!  Mend and repair and make do.  Instead of paying less for an item that will wear out shortly, pay more for a better quality one that will last.  Think of each household purchase as permanent, an investment in an item that you will maintain for the rest of your life.  Look for items that are made locally, where you can contact the manufacturer for parts and repair. Look for items made by independent businesses, where the maker of the item is likely to take some pride in their work.  Look for items made under humane working conditions, where the workers are likely to care more about doing a good job.  Take pride in making items last rather than in having the latest and greatest.  If something breaks, try to repair it before replacing it.  If it cannot be salvaged, do research before buying a new one.  Find the sturdiest one available, utilising reviews and recommendations from unbiased sources.  Don't buy things you know you will only use once or that are meant to be disposable (e.g. disposable cameras, faddish toys, party items).  If you want to explore a new hobby or cooking technique, try to borrow or rent the equipment before buying something that may gather dust in your cupboards.  Think of the health and environmental implications of EVERY purchase.  Ask yourself:  Do I need this?  Why do I want this?  How long will this last?
Why it is challenging:  They really don't make things like they used to.  Most items manufactured today have a planned obsolescence; they are made to be disposable, so it can be difficult to repair them or prevent them wearing out.  Few items are made locally or even in the West.  Even if you are willing and able to pay more for a higher quality item, you may not be able to find it.  Do your best.  If no-one buys cheap crap, stores will no longer sell it.

We miss:  Home-cooked meals, eaten together at leisure and without distraction
How we can bring it back today:  The number one benefit cited by couples where one spouse is a full-time homemaker is meals taken together.  The rush for both spouses to get to work, get in a run or other morning work-out, and, if you have kids, to get them to school, precludes a sit-down breakfast for most modern families.  But breakfast together allows families to connect, to confirm plans for the day, and to start the day with proper nutrition and hydration.  Lunch is trickier to eat as a family.  Men used to come home for lunch if they worked close enough, and children sometimes came home from school, but this meal was the most likely to be eaten separately before the family came back together for dinner, to re-connect and recount their day for one another and eat a balanced, healthy meal without interruptions or distractions.

Of all the suggestions on this list, this one is the easiest to implement.  It takes commitment, and a desire to make it work, from each member of the household.  There may be resistance at first but, once each family member reaps the benefits and the new schedule becomes routine, it will become second nature. First, agree upon who will cook breakfast, set the table, and clean up—it may be the same partner each day or it may vary with work schedules or individual preferences.  Agree on a time when all family members can be present with enough time to sit and eat before they must be on their way to work or school.  This will mean getting up and going to bed at an earlier time.  For family members who work out in the morning, they may have to start their run in the dark, but play with your morning routine and see what works for your family.  Next, banish all electronic devices from the table—no TV, mobiles, eReaders, etc.  The only exception may be a hard copy of the newspaper, if your family still subscribes offline, as the news of the day can be a legitimate topic of breakfast table conversation.  Dress for meals—no coming down to breakfast in pyjamas or dinner in sweatpants.  Instill in your family the idea that meals are a time for conversation and interaction, to pay attention to their food and to one another.  Finally, make the meal worthy of your family's attention.  Put nothing on the table in its original container, and nothing in plastic—e.g., pour milk into a jug, don't set the carton on the table.  Put fresh flowers in the center of the tablecloth, use cloth napkins, and cook from scratch.  Eat local foods in season, growing as much of your own produce as possible.
Why it is challenging:  Getting everyone on the same schedule, with long commutes, shift work, extracurricular activities, etc., can feel overwhelming.  It is easier with kids because as the parent, you make the rules, and you can require them to be present at meals.  Not as easy to wheedle a spouse who would rather warm something up in the microwave and play video games in his precious free time after work.  Start with insisting that the family gather for one proper meal together per day, and add on from there.  If it is difficult to coordinate schedules, relax the rule about dress to maximise the opportunity for family members to be present at the table at the appointed time.  The effort required to cook and clean up meals before and after a long day at work is the biggest impediment to the two-income family from enjoying the traditional sit-down meal together.  The only shortcuts here are to alternate which partner takes on this duty, get older children involved in helping, and to plan meals in advance, cooking things at the weekend that can be reheated on the night.  I realise this won't help two-lawyer families where both spouses are trying to make partner and working 12 hour days but there are no perfect solutions here.  Either one spouse is a full-time homemaker or they split these duties, each shouldering some of them in addition to their paying job.

We miss:  People who take pride in their appearance and do not look sloppy.
How we can bring it back today:  Just like dining together as a family, this is another change that requires time and discipline to implement.  If you are feeling nostalgic for an era when men wore hats and well-pressed bespoke suits, with polished shoes, and women were always perfectly coiffed and turned out, with lipstick, hats, gloves, and stockings, then take advantage of all of the information available on retro hair, make-up, and wardrobes.  People used to own far fewer items of clothing, which they mended to extend their life.  Ignore the cheap, trendy clothing in the chain stores; invest in fewer, higher quality pieces.  Make older children save up for some of their own clothing to encourage them to think carefully before they buy.  Find and build a relationship with a tailor or seamstress.  Have clothing made, or at least altered, to fit you well.  You will feel more confident in clothing that fits you better and flatters.  Unless you are at that moment engaged in exercise, banish sweat clothing and trainers from your wardrobe.  Wear nothing "distressed" or with holes, rips, and tears, no matter how strategically placed.  Wear nothing shapeless or baggy.  Keep your shoes polished.  Choose a flattering, classic cut for your hair that does not take too long to style in the morning.  Shave, wax, pluck, exfoliate and moisturise—this goes for both sexes!  Update your make-up seasonally and don't go down to breakfast without it.  Dress with self-respect and take pride in being well-turned-out every day.  Look for hats, gloves, scarves, and incorporate them into your daily outfits.  Carry handkerchiefs instead of paper tissues, and a beautiful refillable pen instead of disposable ballpoints.  Put these into a clean, structured bag, not a shapeless sack.  Carry a full-size umbrella, not a telescoping one.  Plan a week's worth of outfits in advance, with accessories, so you do not have to worry about what to put on each morning.  At the very least, have your closet and accessories well-organized so you can choose your outfit quickly and without stress in the morning.  If you have children, insist that they dress well.  You do not have to indulge their desire to wear sloppy, casual or trendy clothes.  Reclaim your authority as a parent!
Why it is challenging: Everyone dresses so casually these days, even at events that used to require a bit of effort to dress up (I cry when I see people in jeans at the opera, and just try to tell myself that at least they are there), that you may feel self-conscious, and attract comments, when you are better dressed.  Ignore the comments.  Smile serenely and thank people for compliments.  If they ask you why you are so dressed up, tell them it makes you more confident and makes the world a more pleasant place.  Tell them it is a sign of respect, for yourself, for them, and for the occasion.  I know that bespoke clothing and footwear, and quality ready-to-wear items that will not be out of fashion next season, are expensive.  If you cannot afford to replace a casual wardrobe all at once, invest in new pieces as you can afford them, with an eye towards wearing them as long as possible, not discarding them when fashions change.  Or learn to sew and make clothing for yourself and your family.

We miss:  Fewer choices.  No, really!  Hear me out.  I do not mean fewer life choices based on sex or race, nor fewer choices in health care, nutrition, education, or anything like that.  What I mean is that the choices we face in everyday life are so overwhelming that people are starting to implement self-imposed limitations in order to bring back a sense of control and reduce stress.  It is one reason that people fall prey to organised religion and fad diets—they provide an externally-imposed list of rules that creates boundaries, limitations that help filter the overwhelming number of choices we face every day.
How we can bring it back today:  Since it is not the actual number of choices that we want to limit, but the stress that they cause, set your own rules to filter choices.  I find the handiest filters are health and environment.  If you only buy goods produced in an environmentally-sound manner, that automatically rules out much of the crap that is for sale.  Buy nothing produced in a sweatshop or by child labour.  Likewise, if you decide that your family will eat nothing with artificial colours, flavours, sweeteners, or preservatives, you will look at the grocery store in a whole new way.  Instead of a bewildering array of choices, there will be very little that you can eat.  Limiting your food choices to what is locally-produced and seasonal takes that a step further.  If you decide, as I did many years ago, not to use toothpaste with artificial sweeteners or colouring, suddenly there will be only a few brands that you can choose amongst rather than fifty.  If you only buy clothing made with natural fibres or linens dyed with non-toxic dyes, you will find your options for clothing and bedding reduced dramatically.  If you decide that your next car must get over 40mpg, that eliminates most vehicles on the market.  If you decide to only use native plants in your garden, selecting annuals and perennials from the nursery is suddenly a much less overwhelming task.  Try it.  Remember, you are not limiting your choices based upon arbitrary rules, or rules imposed externally by superstition but, rather, looking after your own and your family's health, and the environment.
Why it is challenging:  We are bombarded with advertisements and coupons, urging us to try new products or choose what is on sale, regardless of whether it meets our health and ethical criteria.  Even with our self-imposed restrictions, it can still be overwhelming to look at a shelf of 100 different deodorants and have to read all the labels, and research online, to find the ones without toxic ingredients.  But it gets easier.  I know now that there are only a handful of items sold by a conventional supermarket or chemist that are natural enough to fit my health and environment criteria, so I don't see the choices that are on the shelves as choices anymore.  They simply don't exist for me.

If you implement all of the foregoing suggestions, you will be able to recapture some of what we are nostalgic for in an earlier era, without becoming a full-time homemaker and risking your financial independence.