Living Lean

13 04 2009

I know I promised to stay away until Tuesday. I would like to apologize to all three of my readers for continuing to ramble on about nothing in particular:)

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts I have never been privy to wealth or luxury. Even when I made decent money I preferred to wear vintage clothing and stock my home with thrift store and garage sale finds. For a period in the early to mid 1990s this was an acceptable if not admirable approach. The trends of frugality predictably correlate with periods of economic distress. Although frugality waned during the recent time of economic “prosperity” I see a resurgence on the horizon.

Growing up poor endowed me with a wealth of skills and advantages, many of which I am only just beginning to appreciate. Once you realize that not having Adidas brand shoes or Gloria Vanderbilt jeans will not kill you, a certain feeling of liberation takes over. I won’t deny that I have suffered a lot of shame and embarrassment, especially when I didn’t have the money to repay others who had treated me with hospitality of gifts; but have recently come into a greater understanding of how we became a nation of conspicuous consumers.

I’m going to tell you right now that if you were planning to read the rest of this post and (I wish) other posts in my blog I’d suggest you stop and dedicate your time to reading this article, instead: The Gospel of Consumption by Jeffrey Kaplan

Are you still here? OK, I hope you checked out that article because it describes my philosophy and understanding of consumerism better than I will ever do.

In my quest to “Question Everything” I have uncovered some nasty truths about the things we are being sold. Most of them we don’t need at all and many are actually poisoning us. The question I always ask is “How did we get by before X was invented?”. Granted, many modern discoveries have drastically improved our quality of life. Penicillin comes to mind. But for just about every product or food we think we must use there is a natural and healthy alternative. For the longest time I resisted even thinking about these things, because giving up what I was used to seemed like so much trouble. Funny how being broke helps change one’s perspective.

My Aunt Melanie & Uncle Pete were way ahead of the curve on this subject and have been giving things like natural cleaners and homemade, organic spice mixes for Christmas for many years. Although I am a bit slow on the uptake I am gradually coming around. I believe the key to this is to take small steps. Giving up everything can be a bit of a shock, and it is too easy to revert to the old habits.

To give you some examples I will share the changes I have made in my life, as well as the underlying motivators.

  • No more deodorant. This you might find most shocking, but bear with me. Deodorant is toxic. Check out this article for a brief and easy to understand explanation of what is in deodorant and how it is linked to cancer. Now, I’m guessing you are thinking “I can’t give up deodorant and antiperspirant, I sweat too much.” Well, I used to sweat too much too; and it seemed like no amount of deodorant could stem the tide. Remarkably, after a few weeks of eschewing antiperspirant I realized that I didn’t sweat much at all any more, and when I did it evaporated rapidly. This makes perfect sense. When you fight against your body’s natural activities, it will try that much harder to compensate. Once I stopped forcing my body to sweat it stopped sweating excessively on its own. Of course there is the risk of being stinky. In a society where smelling chemically fresh is of social importance I don’t recommend letting yourself go stinky; although I have known plenty of people who use deodorant and still get a bit of funk every now and then. I try to keep clean and splash my armpits with alcohol once in a while, but since I stopped using deodorant I don’t seem to have any complaints (and I do believe that AJ would say something).

  • No more toothpaste. The safety of fluoride is one of the greatest lies peddled to the masses. If you find yourself thinking our government is trustworthy then just ask why they allow aluminum manufacturers to dispose of their toxic waste in our drinking water and oral hygiene products. The FDA and the corporations involved are quite aware of how toxic this manufacturing byproduct is, yet they have managed to pass it off not only as safe, but as good for you! Don’t take my word for it, research it on your own. I don’t use toothpaste with fluoride. Right now I brush my teeth with a brush dipped in non-fluoride mouthwash and baking soda. Unfortunately, baking soda is also loaded with aluminum, and as soon as I can get some I plan to switch to aluminum free baking soda such as Bob’s Red Mill. One thing at a time.

  • Organic food as much as possible. I heard an anecdote about an organic produce salesman who made his point by holding up a tomato, spraying it with Raid, wiping it off and then asking “Would you buy this?”. The obvious answer is “no”, but the truth is we do it all the time. We like our produce colorful and blemish free, but that perfection comes with a toxic price tag. Ideally, I would never eat commercially grown produce again; however I am doing the best I can by growing as much as my garden will supply and choosing organic whenever I am able.

  • More natural cleaning, personal care and pest killing products. Most of what I used to use around the house has been replaced with baking soda, vinegar, alcohol, olive oil and boric acid. I still use Dawn dish soap, but dilute it heavily with water. I also cut my regular laundry detergent with Borax. Last year we had an intrusion of roaches and ants. Expensive bug killers seemed to have no effect. Then I bought an inexpensive container of boric acid powder, and within a few days of using it there were no roaches to be seen. The ants are a constant battle, but the boric acid has made a drastic improvement.

  • Cutting out most processed food and condiments. My rule of thumb in the kitchen is to ask myself “Can I make this myself from better ingredients?” or “Can I do without it?”. If I answer “Yes” to either question I try to eliminate the processed product with its chemicals, chance of contamination and heavy packaging from my shopping list.

  • Composting. This one is a work in progress. I envy the serious composters who really have a good composting system. Tomorrow promises to be a good day for my pathetic compost heap. I rescued a bag of leaves from a neighbor who raked today; and we should have enough leftover topsoil to give the heap a jump start. One of these days I also plan to pick up some free horse manure and add that in, too.

  • Barter and Free sharing. I belong to a group called freecycle.org. This is a great one for picking up all sorts of things you can use, as well as for passing along things you might otherwise send to the landfill. Today I joined a local community called Fruit Swap of Brevard. This looks like a promising opportunity to trade some of my surplus garden produce for things I am not able to grow here. And don’t forget craigslist.org. They have a barter and free sections where you can find all sorts of interesting things. I plan to look into a local bartering network to trade some things I have sitting around. But again, one thing at a time.

There are certainly more examples, such as how I can’t pass a dumpster or pile of discards without checking for interesting stuff, or how I do my damndest not to drink bottled water; but I think this is enough for one post. The best part about living lean is the challenge of finding creative solutions. I have always gotten a thrill out of getting something for free or making something from scratch. I challenge each of you to inventory your own life and see if there is something you can do to cut costs, waste and pollution. You might surprise yourself.

And P.S. If I start to stink, please let me know. I’ll do the same for you:)

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Life is Good in the Trailer Park

11 04 2009

It’s 10:28 am on Saturday, April 11.  The windows are open. The thermometer says 77 °, yet it feels like the AC is running. The sweet smell of jasmine is wafting in on a gentle west breeze.  As I sit here with my first cup of coffee (slept in until 9:45) I think about my quality of life and can’t help but conclude that life is good.

Coffee

I grew up in trailers. We were usually broke, and I started working at 12 years old to buy my own clothes, much of my own food and any luxuries I wanted, such as record albums and video game tokens.  I always swore that I would escape the stigma of poverty and rise above the “pay as you go” lifestyle in which I was raised. I did this to some degree. I moved to Florida to live with my mother and stepfather when I was 15. They were working hard, had two cars and were buying a house. They also had these magical pieces of plastic in their wallets that bought them things even when they had no cash. Wow, this was the life I wanted to live!

I graduated from high school and started working my way through college. My father and stepmother were hardworking, but they were not wealthy. I found a good-looking man who was in the Air Force, we moved in together,  started a business and we decided to buy a house. In order to get a VA loan we had to be married.  Chugging right on down the rails of the American Dream Express we shrugged our shoulders and said “What the heck”.

Young and cocky I watched the stock market and fancied myself knowledgeable about economics and human nature. Phrases like “A home is the best investment you can make.” and “The market is cyclical and based on speculation.” were prone to pepper my conversations. In truth I really knew nothing about what makes the world go round. Little did I know that my world was about to shift poles.

Within a matter of weeks my business had fizzled, my husband came out of the closet and I could no longer pay my mortgage. Luckily we had worked out an owner finance lease purchase option, so I didn’t have to default on a bank loan.  In shock because of my radical transition I began engaging in risky behavior and ended up letting a sociopath move in with me. We tried to pay the $500.00 mortgage for a short while and I soon realized that I couldn’t do this and support him (which is what it amounted to). I let the house go and moved to a cheaper place. I started delivering pizzas and waiting tables. College was now out of the picture for me, I was busting my ass just to cover my car payment and credit card bills. Due to a mis-communication with the bank my car was repossessed. Fortunately my restaurant job was two blocks away and I could easily walk to work. I picked up another table waiting job half a mile down the road and saved up to buy a bike. Since my father was a cosigner on my auto loan, he rescued the car from the bank and used it for his daily driver.

I spent a good many years partying too much and not taking life seriously. All the while my friends were getting degrees and/or starting families. I paid off thousands of dollars in credit card debt only to get new cards to start the cycle again. I lost count of the jobs I’ve held at somewhere around 30. Most of the time I had two at once and most of them I left out of boredom or frustration, but always on good terms.

Eight years ago I met AJ. We celebrated 5 years of marriage in February. We hopped on his father’s wagon and moved to East central Florida to restart his construction business. Finally, a career where I could make as much money as I liked without having to go to college. AJ and I worked together and his father was ready to sponsor him for his own contractor’s license. We stayed in a small RV while we scoped out the area for a house. I was back in a trailer park, although trailer parks in that area are quite different than the ones where I grew up. The majority of units were RVs and the park was full of transitory residents and part-time snowbirds.

I spoke to my mother and stepfather who had now bought a trailer in their park out in Colorado. Now an “expert” in the booming real-estate and construction market I told them that property values were skyrocketing and that they should buy a house. “I like living in a trailer.” replied my stepfather.  This statement confounded me. Why would anyone like living in a trailer? He elaborated “No mortgage, no property tax, no home owner’s insurance. If a tornado hits you just get another trailer and start over. I don’t owe anybody anything.”

My stepfather, for all of his laid-back tendencies is a hard working, level-headed guy and probably about as sane as anyone you will meet. When the hurricanes hit our area, right after we got the building business started, I learned an important lesson: A person’s home and their sanity are closely tied; and when they lose one, they often lose the other.

Suddenly, we saw the value in inexpensive, portable housing. For the next few years we moved around rebuilding storm damaged houses. We dealt with a number of people who appeared to have lost their marbles when their houses were damaged. Because a number of contractors engaged in criminal behavior we were suddenly the bad guys, despite the fact that all we did was help them get their insurance settlements and rebuild their homes to the highest of standards. We had to deal with people who threatened to sue us because they didn’t like the color of carpet they selected or because we discovered pre-existing conditions not covered by their insurance policy. Being treated like a crook really took its toll on my psyche and I soon began to wonder if the money made in construction was worth the stress. This dilemma quickly became a non-issue as the building bubble burst with a deafening “Pop!”.

We had lived off of savings and credit cards when we first moved down here. The money we made in construction afforded us to finance a large, used Travel Supreme fifth-wheel, a Dodge 35oo dually to pull it, an old Volvo sedan, a small Boston Whaler boat and a couple of kayaks. AJ is adamant about getting bills paid and we had the credit cards down to a manageable level. When our last rebuild customer turned out to be insane (partially due to toxic mold exposure) we spent a year trying to get her to co-operate and let us finish her house. She held our last payment and we had to initiate legal action to get a few thousand dollars. In the meantime we ended up living off of our credit cards again while we started up another business.

We saw the writing on the wall and got out of our truck payment. We actually sold the truck for a profit and paid cash for a smaller, less expensive truck.  This was a lucky break, because within a few months the roadsides were lined with trucks and humvees that the contractors had bought and could no longer afford. We sold the kayaks and kept the boat and car, since they were paid for. We have found a new, recession-resistant career and are again making a decent income.

My paradigm has shifted gradually over the past few years. Although I have never had an interest in the trappings of wealth I had always imagined that there was an “Arrival Point” at which one becomes safe and comfortable with no more financial worries. This was my ultimate goal and I bought into the lie that it is a fact of life for any smart person who works hard and makes the right decisions. In a short span we have all watched the mythical ball of yarn unravel. And at the center of that ball is reality. Through my journey of understanding and acceptance I have been called such things as a “Conspiracy Theorist” and a “Survivalist”, as though these are derogatory titles. I find it interesting to watch those, who so carelessly threw these terms around, slowly come into the realization that reality is much different than they once believed.

Your home is not necessarily your greatest investment. The government does not have your best interest in mind. There is no such thing as “guaranteed retirement”. The list goes on.

The Jasmine. Our bedroom window is visible in the background.
Jasmine

I wish I could say that I have come to my reality through wise practices and good judgment. Unfortunately, that was not the case. When all of my friends hopped into the economic hamster wheel and started running I found the latch to the cage and wandered around the house. I don’t especially recommend this. There is a big mean cat out there! But now I have returned to the cage with an understanding of what the greater environment holds while many of my peers are exhausted and still running towards that invisible goal. The difference is that that living the way we do can be frightening to so many people. They can’t imagine life without having things and giving things to their children. Many of them are dependent upon their high paying jobs while the “Layoff Monster” lurks just beyond the doors of their heavily mortgaged homes.

How can I live in a trailer? Well, it’s not even a trailer really, it’s a fifth-wheel; and it’s designed for economical comfort and utilizes every inch of space for storage and function. It is energy efficient and uses a fraction of the water wasted in most homes. It is also portable and when a hurricane looms we can pull out within an hour or two and carry ourselves and our meager belongings to safety.

No, we don’t own it outright. We are on a 15 year payment plan, but our payments are less than the taxes and insurance on an average home. Our entire income is less than most of my friends pay for their mortgage! Now that housing prices are adjusting they all realize that they are losing equity in their homes. “Equity” there’s another big lie for you. File that one right next to “Job Security”.

Over the past few years I have slowly come to realize that we can safely assume nothing about our world. We cannot trust the leaders we believe we have “put in place”. We cannot depend upon our homes, jobs or even our food to be there when we need them.

When a survival situation arrives all that anyone really needs is their health, survival skills and a community of like-minded people. Houses, cars and all the other trappings of “success” suddenly become a non-issue, if not a liability.

Speaking of community. As I was writing this post a neighbor deposited this gift in our yard. He picks up free paints and chemicals from the dump transfer station and brought us things we might use for our upcoming projects.
Gift

Wealth is nothing but an illusion. It falls into the lap of some, and they die never knowing how fortunate they were. For too many people it is a carrot that remains just out of reach. For the remainder it is something they work hard to acquire, so that they may retire to a trailer park in Florida where they can sleep until mid-morning, awaken to drink fresh ground coffee and enjoy the sweet scent of jasmine blowing through the open windows on a cool April breeze.

This is the illusion I choose until extreme survival mode sets in.





The Gravel Project: Part 3

29 03 2009

Friday was a looooong day. By sundown the project was completed and we were exhausted.

Here are some shots of our handiwork:

Gravel11
Gravel12

Here is a closeup of the succulent garden.

Gravel3

Gravel2

Here’s the driveway with the car parked in it.

Gravel4

The containers are the beginnings of “The Oasis 2” More pickle buckets and a polyethylene barrel cut into 1/3rds. It contained a soy based liquid used in spray foam insulation. The MSDS states that it is only dangerous when inhaled. The liquid has solidified and I believe the containers will be fine for garden beds.

AJ filled in the gap behind the banana trees on Saturday. It looks even better now.

Gravel6

Gravel5

Here is The Oasis from the other side. The edges look rough in the photo, but in real life it looks nice. I was thrilled to have enough gravel to expand beyond the banana trees and devil’s backbone. It really feels like a beachy desert island.

Gravel13

Gravel7

Oasis032909

Gravel1