Monday, August 30, 2010

Almost More Than We Know What To Do With

Lately, I've been carpooling with a colleague several days a week. It's working out pretty nicely - each of us saves tolls and parking costs at least 1 day a week, as we take turns driving in, and having company in the car passes the commute time.

On Mondays, the obvious conversation point is what we did with our weekends. This weekend, we went to visit my sister on her farm.. Visits to the farm are always relaxing, as my sister and brother-in-law are great cooks, and it's a peaceful, unhurried place to spend time. My daughter loves the animals- in addition to the usual flock of chickens and other animals, this time there were 10 baby goats to pet and chase.

Almost everything except gas is cheaper in upstate New York. In particular, it's a big farming area - Schoharie County was the breadbasket of the American Revolution . So when we go, we always come home with something. This time it was lots and lots of food. I mean lots.

One of our favorite places to visit out there is The Carrot Barn, a farm with a great shop full of local goods, produce and meat, a greenhouse, and a little cafe. This time of year our trip had purpose - to buy fruits and vegetables in large quantities, for the express purpose of preserving them.

But first we went raspberry picking at another farm. The fall raspberries were just starting to come in, but 90 minutes or so worth of effort netted us 3 quarts. We also picked up some peaches and a butternut squash (the latter being $1, it was hard to resist). Total spent at Boringer's: $15.75.

Then on to The Carrot Barn for lunch and shopping. And we came home with:
1 bushel (52 ears) of sweet corn, complete with burlap sack
1/2 bushel of sweet yellow tomatoes
1/2 bushel of paste tomatoes
1/2 peck of cippolini onions (about 1/4 bushel)
1/2 bushel red peppers
1 1/2 bushels of broccoli
Total: $73.70

In addition, there was a giant bunch of dill my husband plans to dry, and 3 dozen eggs from Sharon's chickens.

To give you an idea of how much food this is, I drive a Subaru Outback. And we had a tough time fitting our small bags of clothes for the weekend in the car once all the food was in there.

And there is still more to come. We have bulk organic flour coming in a couple weeks, and next time my Mom heads out to my sister's, we'll have her lug back more broccoli, more onions, and some butternut squash. Food preservation is serious business in my family.

It's hard to estimate how many meals or servings we're going to get out of this stuff right now, but I'm going to conservatively estimate that the total we spent, $89.45, would be about $250 worth of food in a grocery store, so wholesale is quite a bit less than 50% of retail.. I'll have, and will post, better numbers after we've preserved it all.

So last night once our daughter was in bed, Sander and I hit the kitchen. I made bread, which needed to be made anyway. And then we started chopping, blanching and freezing. By the end of the evening the raspberries (3 quart bags) and broccoli (15 quart bags in total) were in the freezer, and dinner for tonight was prepped and in the crockpot (italian pot roast), and the basement was still overflowing with vegetables. Tonight we have to start on the corn and tomatoes. The next 3-4 days are going to be spent almost exclusively in the kitchen, as we're in a race against time to get all the food preserved before it rots.

I'll take some pictures and post them later. This is something you have to see.

I love to preserve food. Much of it goes in the freezer, but we'll probably can the tomatoes as sauce - there is nothing that is better in the cold months than pulling out some home-jarred tomato sauce. It tastes like summer.

Now, when asked about my weekend by a fellow consultant, I wasn't sure quite what to say.. But I went for it, and told Scott exactly what I did with my weekend. And cheerfully
acknowledged it sounded a little loony. And yet, I'm fairly certain that instead of utterly weirded out, he was interested. Much of the car ride was a discussion of how to preserve the various foods, and ended with a discussion of the appeal of downshifting to farmlife.

People surprise you sometimes. I tend to think that most people I interact with on a day-to-day basis probably think I'm a little odd when I say things like "I have to be home tonight because I need to make some bread - we're out". I mean, most people go to the grocery store. But a lot more people than I expect are surprisingly interested in that sort of thing, and I spend a lot of time sending the link for Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day around to various people (note: you don't need a pizza stone, baking sheets work fine, and the best mix of flours I've come up with so far is 1/2 cup whole wheat, 1/4 cup bread flour, 1/4 cup oat flour, 5 1/2 cups white).

So I need to remember to keep a more open mind about my various oddities when talking to others. And it confirmed that the carpool thing is working out.

How to blanch broccoli:
Cut broccoli heads off the stems. If you like the stems, chop them and blanch separately.

Boil a big pot of water. Drop in the heads for 60 seconds. Fish them out (if only have 1 pot worth, dump it and drain them, but otherwise the water is reusable) and drain in a colander, immediately soaking in cold water so that they stop cooking.

Put in freezer bags in meal-sized servings, and press as much air out as possible. Freeze. Lasts about 4-5 months.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Around the World in 180 Days

Unemployment sends people into crisis mode. And one of the side effects of being in crisis mode, is that looking long term becomes difficult-to-impossible. It's hard to make long term plans when you don't know what's going to happen next week or next month.

But oddly, even as our own unemployment crisis goes on, my husband and I have started to make some long term plans. Not about retirement, not yet anyway. Not even about saving for college. Nope, this is revisiting an idea from a long time ago...a trip around the world.

When I met my husband, I was in the planning stages of a year-long sabbatical from work to backpack around the world. Having spent years spending long hours and working 6 and 7-day weeks doing systems implementations, I was burnt out, and in need of a change. I had planned my route, was pricing out airfare with specialty providers, and saving up. This was by no means going to be luxury travel, more like camping and hostels. Still, I was mesmerized by the idea. I still have the route penned in to my atlas.

But then I met my husband, and eventually other plans took the place of the backpacking trip that was supposed to start in Singapore and end in Norway. We've done some traveling, but not like that.

But recently, I started thinking about that trip. Not for now, not yet. But maybe, just maybe, a 6-month sabbatical when our daughter is 12 or so. It's become a topic of discussion - what would we need to save up? Where exactly would we go?

It's become a fun way to spend an hour, here and there. We're not quite serious yet, but I put it at over 50% probability that we'll reach a point where 'Wouldn't it be nice....' becomes 'Okay, when should we leave?' We know it wouldn't be before the adorable one is 10, so we've got a ways.

But when the time comes, I just might be blogging from India or Kilimanjiro. Life is just too short not to.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Stupid Things People Say

I've been sitting on a comment made back in July for a while. Here it is, from an anonymous poster:

I am in the process of looking for a house, and most of the subdivisions in my area do not allow vegatable gardens. Can you believe it!? It is acceptable for the white house lawn to contain vegatables but not in your precious subdivision. People need to open their eyes and see the bigger picture!

Unfortunately, I can totally believe it, Oh Anonymous One. I can. It never ceases to amaze me how shortsighted we all can be. My advice? Skip the HOA. Buy where you actually aren't going to be policed by neighbors without enough to do.

But this is not, by far, the most unbelievable thing I've heard in the last few years. As a matter of fact, it's pretty low on the list. Here's a bunch of things that might make even Anonymous think she or he has fallen down the rabbit hole. Well, okay, it's my top 5 for tonight Even more unbelievably, Sarah Palin didn't say most of them. Hey, there are other dumb people too.

(I'm in a mood today. Can you tell?)

5. "Throw the bums out" of Washington.
Originally a comment by Lee Iacocca many many moons before the great recession, this statement has been latched onto by Tea Partiers and the media alike.
While turnover in Congress is good, note that approximately 11,000ish congressional and other government staffers would not join the elected representatives in the exodus. And honestly, who do you think gets more done, the freshman congressman, or his staffer with the rolodex? Yeppers. So while I'm all for a little congressional turnover - I'm a very democratic-leaning independent, but can we start with Chris Dodd? He's just an asshole - I don't think this is going to solve the problems.

4. "Although macroeconomic forecasting is fraught with hazards, I would not interpret the currently very flat yield curve as indicating a significant economic slowdown to come"
The worst part of this quote is that it's by someone whose intellect and Great Depression research I greatly admire, but whose judgement I've come to question. Yeah, I'm talking to you, Ben Bernanke, quoting your comment of March 2006. Sigh.

3. "If anything, continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work."
That gem is from the absolute prince of a Senator, Jon Kyl, of Arizona. Personally, I think we should vote Jonny out of office, and send him to stand in line at the unemployment office.

2. "We're all Arizonans now."
Well you knew on a stupid things people say list Ms. Palin was going to end up on there somewhere, right? This is in response to Arizona's new exercise in legal bigotry that the lovely and ever-open minded Jan Brewer signed back in April. I don't know which one of those two is worse, to be honest, but Sarah does win on stupid thing-saying.

1. "I'm doing God's work."
Taking the top spot in my list of stupid things people say is Lloyd Blankfein, who has earned a special place of scorn in my heart. Lloyd, if you don't know the name, is in charge of Goldman Sachs. Apparently God's work means helping screw 8.5 million people out of jobs and countless numbers out of their homes by bilking the market, then paying oneself uncountable sums of money, and buying your way through Congress.

Huh. I don't remember that one from Sunday School. Something about camels and needles, but not that one. Unfortunately, I think we're all just going to have to wait for the Karma Bus to come get ol' Lloyd. Let's just hope it hurries up.

Kentucky Windage

I'm spending a lot of time thinking about the way I see the world lately. But of course, just as I reached a point of peace and comfort with my life choices, approach to work and so on, events made me wonder whether I should be quite so comfortable and content.

So there I was back to feeling unsure of myself. Goody.

Ah, it's so fun to be a woman sometimes.

Years ago, I took a 2-day leadership course through my then-employer. In the late '90s, these were all the rage. I don't remember learning much at the conference, which was heavy on bonding with people I'd never see again, and 'visualization' instead of actual tools and methodologies, but it was a nice 2 days in a Newport, RI hotel, so as these things go, it wasn't too bad.

The one thing I do remember is a 1-page leaflet in the back of the binder of handouts. The title, interestingly, was Kentucky Windage. I was bored. I was former military. The story was about sharpshooters. And so I started reading.

The gist of the story is this: back in the post-Civil War era, as our approach to military policy began to solidify under a single unified banner of the United States, how to integrate soldiers from the North and South took up a lot of time and mental energy. When you boil it down, the North didn't win because it had better soldiers, for the most part, the South had the really good ones. The North won because it had superior firepower, numbers and resources. Oh, and it was on the right side of the conflict, and there is something to be said for winning hearts and minds by being on the moral high ground.

How to leverage the sheer skill of southern soldiers into a northern-led army was the name of the game for a while. And one of the things the north wanted to leverage was the skill of the Kentucky Sharpshooters and those like them, who had made quite a name for themselves as having no peer in the expertise of their shooting.

Let me clarify, we're talking about Kentucky hill boys here, some who joined up with a gun and no shoes. Little education - and probably fewer teeth - amongst the lot of them. Picture this: barefoot, poorly spoken, illiterate, wearing the proverbial coon-skin caps. And outshooting the highly-trained, deeply formal, beautifully uniformed officers out of West Point wasn't exactly something that made them popular. And yet, they did, every time.

In Kentucky, a methodology of sorts had been developed to the point of becoming instinctual for hitting a target. Here's one description:

"Hitting a target in the real world (not on the blackboard) means compensating for variables, such as natural, varying winds and elevation, speed of the target and speed of the shooter.If a target is moving one direction, the shooter (and the firearm) are moving a different direction, the wind is blowing (at 500 meters, the wind can be blowing three or four different directions and different speeds) and you're shooting up a hill, it takes some savvy to launch a successful shot. "

This is about the most counterintuitive approach you can take to a rifle shot, or at least it can look that way at first. Moving away from the shot in order to better make the shot? And yet, when you think about it, it makes sense. It's complex geometry combined with a bit of chaos theory with some understanding of weather and acceleration combined. This is stuff that mathematicians study and figure out. Except that these guys didn't know mathematical theory.

Or at least, they didn't know they did.

These guys figured out how to shoot so well because the success of their one shot up a hill with the wind blowing in 3 directions was the difference between feeding their families or not. It's amazing how good you get at something when it's a necessary and fundamental part of your needs.

We often underestimate, especially in this day and age, what we know, and our capacity to have learned outside of the classroom. If it wasn't the result of a test or a credential, we doubt it.

And yet, throughout history, refined knowledge about important things pops up in the most unlikely places. Like the Dogon's detailed knowledge of Sirius B long before a telescope was capable of finding it. Or a neurology intern named Michael Burry knowing exactly when and how the subprime mortgage was going to collapse, when even the folks that were packaging up the securities that led to it's downfall didn't.

Why do I tell you all this? Because when I start to doubt myself, I start to think about Kentucky Windage. And the Dogons. And Mike Burry. I'm not saying I know what they know. But ultimately, each of those examples became successful because they trusted their instincts.

So while I'm wrong a lot, and I'm okay with that, sometimes I just have to trust that my gut is going to lead me in the right direction. And it allows me to push back both at myself when I doubt, and at others.

So here's my point: Trust yourself. When you know you are on the right path, even if everyone around you is scratching their heads, keep going. Because if the Dogons could be certain of the existence of a star they had never seen, and some Kentucky hill boy could hit a target in an elevated position at a distance while compensating for wind and moving in the opposite direction, and Mike Burry could know what all the brain trust on Wall Street missed, you probably know something too.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

An Eventful Week

This week has been one of those weeks. You know the ones, where it's a roller-coaster of highs and lows, and every time you think you have your footing back on level ground, there you go again. It was a good week work-wise, and in many ways. But of course, there was the downside.

Our daycare situation, family-based, unravelled rather swiftly and abruptly. We had been trying to keep my daughter in my sister's care part-time so that she continued to have her routine, got to see her cousins, and so that when Sander returns to work it would not be a huge shock to return to a daycare schedule. For a variety of reasons, it stopped working. We'd had some inklings that the situation was headed towards it's end, but the suddenness threw us both for a loop.

As a result, the 'big dig' in the backyard didn't get done, and we were unable to make that area safe in time for a planned cookout this weekend, so we ended up postponing. It wasn't ideal to do so, but it was the best decision - with multiple kids invited to the party, and an unsafe backyard, it was easier to call it off than to expect parents to spend all their time corralling their kids.

The backyard project has been a source of stress to both of us - it will be great when it is done, but it's over budget and over schedule, and that's never pleasant, especially with my husband being unemployed. He's doing a great job though, and I'm looking forward to the result. Still, being unable to finish it was a hard blow for him.

Top all of this with the transitions that we've been through - him to primary caregiver of an ever-moving toddler, us to dealing with what feels like a never-ending list of things that decided to cost more than expected or have to be put off altogether, his unemployment claim denial until the end of October, which means we're burning through savings (because his previous employer refused to follow the policy they themselves laid out) and then the daycare situation, and the fact that neither Sander nor myself has taken to hiding in bed with the covers over our heads is, I think, kind of impressive.

Then yesterday, just as we were starting to relax, a smell started emanating from the kitchen. At first, it smelled a bit like burnt popcorn...except no one was making any. Then it turned acrid and stronger.

The refrigerator had decided to die an ignoble death. Now let me just say that were it not for the poor timing of the expense, my husband and I would have been thrilled - I didn't think it was possible to hate a refrigerator before I moved into our house. But we did. Cheap piece of crap does not even begin to describe it.

So yesterday afternoon, off we went to find a new one. We needed the expense like we needed a hole in the head. Really. But it's not the sort of thing you can just let go. If the dishwasher dies - and I fully expect it to soon - we'll just wash by hand until the time is right, which is not a big deal to me. The trash compacter? Who cares - I've never quite understood why a trash can should have a motor to begin with (something tells that trash compactors were a male invention, along the lines of "hmm I have this small motor, what to do, what to do...I know!! Let's add a motor to the trash can - it doesn't have one yet!!") . But refrigeration isn't something we plan to do without, and since it's August, it was an imminent need.

Fortunately, Lowes had a floor model on sale that met the need at a very affordable price, with free delivery within 24 hours. And, another upside, the old one was overdue for a good cleaning, and now we can just skip that. :-)

The only catch was the width. Our current fridge is 32" wide. The new one - which would save us quite a bit over other available-in-24-hours models - is 32.5" wide. The way our kitchen is constructed, a very constricted space was framed out to contain the fridge. We came home and well...uh-oh. 1/2 inch short.

Then my-ever creative husband peeked around the frame, and realized that he could plane down about 3/4 of an inch of the wooden frame that the refrigerator sits in without putting the frame at any risk.

So he is now planing and sanding down the frame in order to be ready when the fridge is delivered between 3 and 5 pm. The kitchen floor is half-covered in wood shavings,

Oh, and did I mention we're having dinner guests for my birthday at 4 today?

At this point, I just have to laugh. It's not worth being stressed over any of this. Right now, our normally ideal life is a little out of control. But we're still so very blessed and lucky. I can tell you that the events of this week rocked us, but I don't feel like I can complain today, on my 37th birthday. It is, in fact, a wonderful life I have.

Especially since I got on the scale this morning and I weigh less today than I have since before I got pregnant, which makes it hard not to be cheerful.

So, happy birthday to me.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

How Does My Garden Grow 2010

Even though I got multiple requests to blog my garden this year, I have been reluctant to do so. Over the last two years, our plans for our garden have been significantly downscaled due to other demands. The 8 garden beds have stayed 3 for that time.

This year, all that we've gotten is some asparagus, rhubarb, chard, basil, tomatoes, a few peppers, and one resiliant melon. We may have some onions as well, we're about to dig them up and find out.

The strawberry plants are thriving, but haven't produced yet. The raspberries have offered just enough fruit for my daughter to pick and eat every couple days - a handful, but nothing significant, and we've lost some of them, along with an apple tree, which we have to replace so it's still-surviving companion tree will pollinate. In any case, it will be a couple years before we see fruit on any of our fruit trees, including the cherry tree, which is thriving.

We didn't start any seedlings this winter, as the grow lights went up late and the table was covered in doors we've been refinishing. So we relied on the bounty of seedlings from my sister and parents.

For the last two years, the refrain has been 'next year'. Then next year comes, and we're deep in other projects, and the garden gets pushed to the wayside.

This time we mean it though. We've decided that we'll schedule ourselves at home every other weekend from next May-September in order to make this work, and put Sander to work on the garden beds starting in April. This may require rescheduling some other projects, but that's okay. The garden is finally at the top of the heap, priority-wise.

We've talked about some redesign of the garden beds as well. Right now, they are about 8 feet long and 2.5 feet wide. As we've begun to use them, we've realized a more grid-style layout would probably serve our purposes better, and maximize space.

One hesistation we've had in building out more beds - aside from the time factor - is that sometime, probably in about 5 years, our septic system will need to be replaced. And of course, the garden is right above where they would be digging.

Right now, that only affects the two perennials in the garden, asparagus and rhubarb, which would need to be replanted. The strawberries are elsewhere, as are the fruit trees. After a lot of discussion, we've settled that we'll probably wait the full five years to replace the septic, since the need isn't imminent, and it's a very expensive undertaking. So we'll be building out the garden in a way that maximizes space, but is easily dismantled for when the time comes to dig up the front yard.

We'll also probably add more fruit trees and other perennials - maybe some blackberries and blueberries, a couple peach trees, and some more apple trees. This time, we'll invest in some older trees that will bear fruit earlier. In keeping with my love of all things colonial, I also really want to plant Bayberry, Hops for home brewing and some grapevines. Sander and I are taking a wine-making class this fall, which was a birthday gift. MoneyPenny Manor wines has a nice ring to it, at least I think so.

We already grow plenty of dandelions, although not by choice, but we figure that learning how to turn them into wine maybe beats spraying them with lawn chemicals.

And next year, if all goes well, is also a chicken year.

So the smallish, .66 acre plot of land will continue to be turned into a very tiny homestead, one plant and tree at a time. More playing in the dirt to come.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Developing a Backup Plan

Sander and I have recently started having some tough conversations related to his layoff. No, I'm not nagging him. This is about what happens if we become one of those statistics - you know, the people who still can't find a job after a year, or two, or more.

My husband is a really smart guy. Couple degrees. MIT on the resume. Can build or fix anything to boot. I have faith in him. It's the economy I worry about, and the total lack of jobs.

But this is not about him. It's about a house. Our house.

As I've mentioned before, our house is a rather old and demanding one. I'm fairly sure the previous owner sold after 30 years in residence (Fun fact: we're only the 3rd owners of our 1933 colonial. People tend to stay around in our neighborhood) because things were starting to need the kind of maintenance that gets expensive quickly. Like new wiring, that sort of thing.

But as much as I complain about it, I love our house. I mean, I really love our house. There's something rather magical about the setting, with the giant old oak trees whose leaves and branches spread over the road like a mantle. And when I look out my front door, I overlook a Christmas tree farm. Around me are farmers and gardeners and even a raiser of miniature horses. Each Christmas since we've been there, we've walked down to the neighbors house with hot apple cider in our travel mugs, paid our tree fee, and carried the chosen tree over the stone wall.

And then there's the house itself. It's a pain in the butt, maintenance wise. It's poorly insulated, and oil heated, which gets expensive. But we've spent the last 3 1/2 years making it our own. It's the place we brought our daughter home to on a cold, snow-dusted day last February. And to someone who grew up in mostly apartments, a home of my own has always been at the top of every 'what do I want out of life' list. Always.

So there's that.

But it's an expensive place to own. Our mortgage, despite our large downpayment, is a touch over 50% of my net. And then of course are the heating and electric bills, and all the other bills and maintenance that come with homeownership.

And our income is down by a bit over 1/3. When Sander was working, the house wasn't even a bit of a stretch, it was a very comfortable amount, so much so that we've been on track to pay it off a good bit early.

But he's not, and while I have no doubt he'll find the right thing, we had to start conversations about our backup plans, because the house is probably - probably- untenable on just my salary. I say probably because we could make it work, but I'm not sure it would be a very happy arrangement for the long term. The house needs some things, and I'm not quite ready to give up some things small and large, like opening a bottle of wine in front of the woodstove fire on Friday nights, like taking the adorable one to StoryLand next year, or someday trekking the Lycian Way . We will if we have to. But we're trying not to have to. For the short term, sure. Forever? Not so crazy about the idea.

So "What do we do if..." has been the opener to a lot of discussions lately.

We could move. We still have equity, at least we're pretty sure we do. And given the location, I think we could sell - it's a very desirable place to be. But there's the economy, and uncertainty is the name of the game. We'd probably lose much of what we put in to the house, but we would come out clean.

But then there's the "Where would we go if...?" part of the conversation. Back to renting? Buy another house? Neither of those options seem particularly appealing. We're in a good place in our house. We're happy.

I don't know that there's a single right decision. Normally, I'm a planner, and I want to be ahead of the game, knowing my next move - and having several backup moves - before I have to make it. But this time, I almost feel like I'm going to let events unfold for a while. Sure, that's how lots of other homeowners have gotten into messes, but I'm not them, and our situation is solely ours, even if it has similiarities to that of others out there.

So I'm playing a bit of educated russian roulette. I may be making a mistake with that, by not getting out in front of the situation. It's possible.

But I also believe that sometimes when you reach the end of your rope, the best thing to do is tie a knot and hang on. So that's the plan, at least for now.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Diary of a Working Mom: Finding Yourself

With the movie version of Eat, Pray, Love being advertised on billboards everywhere, and my husband's job transition (along with 8 million of his closest friends), finding oneself is a big thing these days. And my father in law recently pointed me to a NY Times article on The Case for Working With Your Hands, which I think was a very insightful look at some of the costs of office life.

I'm way too practical to chuck my life to go off and find myself. I do someday want to backpack my way around the world, but that's not so much to find myself as to do some neat stuff. I'm never been clear on the connection between plane tickets and self-awareness. Except perhaps as a sales pitch for the travel industry.

But I digress.

That said, there is something to knowing who and what you are. I'm an eternal admirer of those who, like my sister, figure out early where they fit, and make their world fit to them. I, on the other hand, sort of fell into my career path, and, finding it to be reasonably lucrative and not too hard - long hours, but not hard, as well as pretty enjoyable, grew in that direction. Over time, my life grew up around my career location - I met my husband at work, we chose a community that provided us both a rural-ish lifestyle and a decent commute, etc. Work - the work I sort of fell into - has been a bit of the centrifuge that my life fell into place around.

I have realized that much of my talk of downshift and exploration of alternate ways of living was my thinking about taking the reins, so to speak. Instead of flowing my life around work, I found in myself a need to choose my path. I still don't exactly, precisely know what this means, but I'm working on it. Because me choosing is something that's become really, really important to me.

Last year I found myself in a new place. I joined a small consulting firm, full of folks that I had worked with at my current client over the years. I liked these guys (and when I say guys, I mean it - I was the first woman in my office in a long while, although now I am one of 3.). I knew they were top notch in their fields, I trusted them, and they had been trying to recruit me for a while. The timing was right, and so I jumped in - probably headfirst, at least holding my nose and stepping off the cliff without really knowing what was beneath. New company, returning to work as a working Mom....I had no idea what I was in for. Clueless is an understatement.

As a consultant, I'd always been an independent. Okay, as an everything, I'd always been an independent, but in consulting, that means that your client is the only set of needs you need to meet, the only demands you have to flex around.

As part of a company, you have to learn the culture, and participate. As well as meeting the client needs. And that of your family. For a long time, I was exhausted by all the demands. I loved parts of it - the mindshare with others, the social factor, being part of a company viewed as the best, but I struggled with other parts. Especially the demands on my time, and the thinking that was sometimes so different from my own - in a small company, the culture matters. I was being forced to see things, and act, very differently than I was used to.

That was hard. I was going through two transitions at once, to working motherhood, and to being part of a team, responsible for delivering to my client, and delivering to my company. I often felt like I was being drawn and quartered. Which isn't pleasant under the best of circumstances.

And I resented the hell out of it.

I was tired, sometimes so tired I wanted to cry when the alarm went off. My project was difficult, and I was working long hours. My daughter didn't start sleeping through the night for 7 months after I returned to work, until she was almost a year old. We have an old, rather demanding house. On weekends, between cooking, cleaning and running errands, I barely got outside to my beloved garden, which grew into a pile of weeds.

The hardest part of it all? I stopped trusting myself. Trusting my judgement, both at work, and with my outside life. I started worrying often that I was doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing, and never meeting the right set of needs at the right time. If my daughter was sick, I was frantic because I had some work deliverable. If work was demanding, I was worried my family would stop needing me, or that they would resent me for being otherwise occupied.

But a few things have happened over the last few months that have changed my outlook. I became the sole breadwinner, and while I worry about money, and I know it won't go on forever, I've discovered that it's a role that fits me pretty well. I don't quite know how to describe it, but on a lot of levels, it's led me to make peace with my role as a working parent, and my role in our household. I'm not saying it's all puppies and rainbows, but there it is. A different project made my hours shorter, which is nice too, although I imagine the demands would be easier now, a year in - not because my family demands are less, but because I've figured out how to juggle better. The transition is over - I've adapted.

I've realized my child is happy and well adjusted, my husband is happier than before he left his previous employer, and while it's not bump-free, that's pretty good.

And a few work-related things happened that made me start trusting myself and my input again. Much of my struggle with my new company was with whether I fit in the culture, and where I fit in the organization. I guess I realized that whether I fit the culture was somewhat irrelevant - I was part of the culture because I was part of the company. My client was happy. I was providing value. I may not be developing business on the golf course, but I'm providing intellectual capital my company can use to build a strategy for solving particular problems with those clients. And it's damn good shit. If I do say so myself.

And I do.

In short, I figured out that I wasn't so far off base after all. Is that finding yourself? Oh, I don't know. Maybe a version of it. I can't say it was cheaper than a plane ticket. And I certainly don't have it all figured out. Heck, I don't even know what I'm having for dinner. But I've figured out that I'm good enough at my job, at motherhood, and at my life. And that's not small.

For now, for today, I know where I fit. Now if I could only find my keys...

"Whatever you are, be a good one." - Abraham Lincoln

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Local on a Shoestring Project

I've decided that my next big project is how to eat and play locally on a shoestring. Over the next couple months, I'll be posting updates on how we've managed to eat well and have a good time cheaply while supporting our local economy.

I'd challenge others to join me, and send me updates, which I will post. Tell me how you are doing things locally and cheaply. Tweet this, too - send me your friends. There may even be free stuff for you involved.

Here's the rules of my game:

1. Local for diet means as close to home as possible, but let's say the outer range is driveable in a day - 300 miles, in my world. That encompasses the local beef from Lancaster County, PA that we invested in, as well as the farm stand 4.7 miles away.

2. Local for fun means within a few hours drive. It can and should include picnics, beaches where applicable, camping, zoos, parks, and so on. Bonus points if it's a really neat thing that is local only to you, or if it takes less than a gallon of gas to get there. Triple word score if you walk or bike to it.

3. It should be something you or your kids or your friends want to do. Don't send me your local newspaper's calendar. Send me what you did this weekend.

4. Free is better than not free.

5. This is not a crafter's challenge. It's totally cool that you built a Taj Mahal replica for your chickens this weekend. But that's not the intent of this project. This is something that you are doing or eating in your neck of the woods.


Summer is a Good Time to Escape

Over the last couple weeks, I took a break from all things financial. I got very tired of the news, all conflicting and all bad, and the cost overruns from our own 'Big Dig' - in which a new set of deck stairs became a new 2nd deck and backyard setup.

Don't misunderstand, I'm proud of my husband and what he's doing, it's just a little overwhelming, what with the unemployment situation. But this is something he needs to do - a little backyard construction, a little internal construction. I think it's good for him.

Still, I got weary of working and re-working the budget to try and get our outgo down to just my income. And the surprise expenses. It made my head hurt, and when that happens, it's time to just take a break. Besides, I was adding to the MoneyPenny deficit, as my daughter conveniently chose the last week or so to have a growth spurt and outgrow her shoes, a good chunk of her clothes, and I prepared to equip her for fall.

Sometimes it's nice just to not pay attention for a while. Laser-like focus on certain things is great, but it gets tiresome after a while. And I had a few life-related things to work on, like an article for my employer, and cleaning up the house for our annual summer BBQ, which we, in my 'Oh, f-it' frame of mind, decided is still on.

This weekend, while my husband and brother in law were building things in my backyard, my daughter and I went up to Maine to spend the weekend with my inlaws. I'm blessed with the best inlaws in the universe. So I spent the weekend getting pampered and watching my daughter be doted on. It was like a mini-vacation. With no cooking, cleaning or errand-running responsibilities, I was able to simply enjoy my daughter. Her grandparents got to read to her, take her to the beach and enjoy her, and my husband got uninterrupted time to work on his projects.

Aside from gas and tolls, I spent a total of $6.35 on italian ice. Not bad for a weekend break.

I've blogged before about how I feel the occasional bout of escapism is good. Sometimes the best work on something is done while doing something else, and that thing is on the back burner. It clears the mind, resets the body, and opens up possibilities. A bit like meditation, except that I have an issue sitting still for more than a few minutes at a time. I'm a champion fidgeter.

I'll tell you a not-so-secret secret: I like my husband being home. Were it not for the financial implications, I'd be happy to have him home forever. He and my daughter like it too.

So we've started looking for what I'm calling 'what's behind door #3' in our lives. In our current life, finances will make an otherwise good thing stressful. Chucking it all isn't a current option we're considering. So we're trying to find a 3rd path, one that gives us the sanity of a slower life, but without the financial limitations of the current situation.

No idea what that looks like. Maybe I should go back to the beach for a few more days?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Peak Oil and Us (You, Me, Everyone) Part V.II - The Beginning

So what happens after we enter a period of oil decline? Is it predictable?

Well, some things are. But a lot isn't. A classic lesson is how Cuba survived the US oil embargo after the collapse of the Soviet Union. is a fascinating documentary and potential lesson on how we might address similar shortages. That said, I have my doubts that our completely polarized 2-party system has either the will or the foresight to enact policies that would help average citizens improve their chances. They are too busy pointing fingers at each other, and the Cold War dinosaurs still in political power seem to ignore Sun Tzu's most basic lesson: know thy enemy.

I could debate whether Cuba is an actual enemy, but the premise remains that our leaders - and many of our citizens - have a blind side when it comes from learning from other political models. The risk of seeing yourself as the best of something is unwillingness to continue to improve and learn from those who are less successful. It's a dangerous path to take, to assume that there's nothing to learn there, but it's one that our political leadership has embraced.

So if there's no political will, how will we as a society adapt? I think this one is going to be grass roots, by individuals and by smaller, agile organizations both in the business and nonprofit worlds.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, organizations that can help businesses adapt before things get bad are good places to be in and join. Helping large companies institute greener practices, remote work models, and manage risk is going to be an ever-growing arena.

Developing skills to actually produce one's own goods and services - from raising a food garden to knitting to animal husbandry to wine and beer making is both fun and a potential source of income in the long run.

Broadening horizons - such as medical professionals developing proficiencies in battlefield medicine, herbal remedies and historical medical practices (spiderwebs, anyone) is never a bad thing.

Knowing your community is the ultimate protection. In our small town alone, are experts of all shapes and sizes, and resources for all kinds of goods and services. Support local community and expertise so that it doesn't get lost. And besides, often making friends is an excellent byproduct.

Eating local helps in reducing food miles, supports local farms and keeps knowledge in the community. It can be a bit of a challenge to learn to eat locally and in season, but there are many resources on canning and preserving and eating in season and from the garden and farmers markets.

Involve your whole family. We recently picked up a copy of Roots, Boots, Buckets and Shoots: Gardening Together With Children, and we can't wait to plant next year's pizza garden.

The best part of this is that this process can be enjoyable. Peak oil does not have to equal a life of bleak deprivation and drudgery. Maybe, just maybe, it will help us with priortizing what is important in our lives.

And that's something most of us could use a little more of.

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Tale of Two Lives

Yesterday I got together with a friend of mine from high school. It had been about 18 years since we'd last gotten together. It was great to reconnect. I'd always liked and admired J, but never so much as I did after yesterday.

Our lives have taken drastically different paths over the last 20 years. Hers has been marked by tragedy - multiple miscarriages, the loss one of her children in infancy, and most recently, long-term unemployment. Her husband's, that is. A skilled pipefitter, his employment went the way of the Dodo when demand for this type of manufacturing work dissapeared in the wake of the seemingly-endless recession.

Despite extended unemployment, her work doing medical transcription, and some overnight work he has managed to pick up, the current economic conditions have left their life in question. Savings depleted. 401ks raided. And now, they just don't know what comes next. All of this to very nice people who have never lived beyond their means. Never been to a Caribbean Island. No giant McMansion, just a patio, an inflatable pool and a grill in the backyard.

Our conversation left me wondering when they were going to get a break. Because I think they've had enough, quite frankly.

But it also made me realize how close we were. As much as we want it to work out, in our current home, 1 income won't cut it forever. Sure, we can go a long time, but eventually our financial trajectory is the same as theirs. It may take far longer - years maybe - , and hopefully by the time we get to that point the problem will have been solved, but there it is.

So far apart, so much the same.

I listen to the political harping of Democrat to Republican and I think - these people can't solve this. There's no will to solve problems in Congress now, everyone is too busy playing the get re-elected game, and pandering to whatever they think likely voters want to hear.

Big business is too busy sitting on piles of cash, something that the titans of Wall Street applaud them for (think about that the next time you laud what Warren Buffett has to say, mmkay?) instead of hiring people and creating jobs. Banks aren't lending. States and towns are broke.

It makes my head hurt. It really does. Because people like J - hardworking, gentle people - are getting screwed. Really, really screwed. Because everyone who has the power to make changes is working very hard to ensure the status quo doesn't get disrupted.

I wonder what Thomas Jefferson would have thought, were he to see what has happened.

I have hope for our economy, for J's husband and mine, for some recovery. What I've lost hope about is that the people who have paid the price for this economic disaster will ever recover fully. I think they'll never see the world with the hope and optimism they did before, and will always have a fear of loss. It happened once. It can again.

I'd like to get that hope back for J and I.