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Sharon August 26th, 2007

Hi Folks -

New posts coming, I promise. In the meantime, I’m catching up on a whole host of things. Here’s a link to an old one to tide you over. This was one of the most fun posts I’ve ever written. At the time I wrote it, I was a knitting novice and a new sock knitter. But I still think it is important - the reality is that socks are the one thing you’ll always need more of. And even if it doesn’t become an emergency, homemade socks are way nicer than boughten.



52 Weeks Down - Week 17 - Toys R Not US

Sharon August 20th, 2007

It was a parable, but I didn’t listen. My neighbor and her husband gave her two boys a big Thomas the Tank Engine train set for Christmas. It had miles of track, a lot of trains, trees, buildings, bridges, you name it - and it had its own table to set the track up on, and a drawer to store it in. This was no small piece of furniture, either. Bigger than a coffee table, it was a substantial thing. And on Christmas morning, a half hour after providing everything a train-obsessed child could ever want, my neighbor came into see that her children had taken the trains away from the track, and were running them along the living room floor, and up over the “mountains” of the couch pillows. The track, the buildings, the bridges were all left behind as the two boys happily raced two small wooden trains around the room.

I should have listened. But a year later, when Grandma wanted to get my children a big gift for Chanukah, she proposed a train set, complete with table. My husband and I were excited - we had forgotten the lesson above. They could set up whole villages, we thought! It would be welcoming, exciting for any child who comes to visit. The kids would spend hours playing with it! And they did, for a little while. But half the time, they were racing the trains over the floors, or making up stories about the trains crossing bridges - not the premade wooden bridges that came with the set, but blocks. It turned out that the person who spent the most time playing with the trains, setting them up and arranging them “just so” was my husband. The kids didn’t care about just so - they just wanted to play train. The box it came in, the table, the track and the accessories make clutter in my house. And what my kids really wanted - four little two inch wooden trains - could have provided the same amount of pleasure for 1/100th the waste. With a little practice, Daddy could have made them.

The thing was, the people who wanted the toys were us. Oh, the kids envied their neighbors the train set and loved to play with it when we went over there. But their wanting was innocent - they weren’t supposed to notice that the neighbor kids only played with the trains when the guests were excited about them. And, of course, the trains themselves were the more wonderful and fascinating for living at someone else’s house. It was Daddy and Mommy and Grandma and Grandpa who wanted the children to have the trains. We had a fantasy of what pleasure the trains would give. We had a dream of providing them with something wonderful. And how often is that true about the toys we give our kids and grandkids, nieces and nephews? How often is it that we want to give them, more than the children themselves really want the toys?

If you are like a lot of parents, the last few weeks you’ve been going through your kids’ toyboxes and either throwing things out or heaving a sigh of relief when you find that you don’t have any lead contaminated toys. If you haven’t done it, or kept track of all the increasing number of recalls, here are some places to check;

We got off easy - we don’t own any of the relevant toys. But, of course, that doesn’t mean there are no lead contaminated older toys in our house. And while we’ve already purged pthalates, we know that they aren’t the only endocrine disrupting plastics out there. For those of us who want our kids to grow up healthy and safe, this is troubling stuff.

Now a lot of people are made at Chinese toy manufacturers. How, we ask in outrage, could they do this to our kids. May I suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, such anger is misplaced. Here’s the thing. All of the relevant toys were cheap plastic crap, manufactured in a developing country, with lax standards on environmental, child and worker safety. They were being manufactured in a comparatively unregulated economy by people making tiny wages, often in poor working conditions on a contract given to the lowest bidder. The average action figure that retails for 10.99 was actually cost far less than a dollar to produce. And every single parent and grandparent who bought one *KNEW THIS* or could have if they stopped to think for 2 seconds about where the toys came from. We either didn’t bother to think, or we trusted that other people, far away and with no incentive would care more about our kids than we care about theirs.

I’m not blaming anyone here - I’m as guilty as anyone of this. I buy my toys at yard sales, but it was just luck that got us off the hook. But that’s the reality - we buy cheap toys without thinking about it. And because we think our kids need a million toys, we need them to be cheap. That way everyone who knows them can afford
to buy them a ton of stuff for Christmas, their birthdays, and whenever Grandpa comes to visit. They can have gift bags at every birthday party, a toy in every Happy Meal, a bunch of cheap crap for every occasion. And they can have toyboxes full, closets full, houses that look like stores full of things.

Meanwhile, the people who make the toys often didn’t have many growing up. And for all the lead paint on Elmo’s face is dangerous for our kids, it is worse for them. They are the ones who work 12 hours a day with lead paint - many of them young women at the beginning of their reproductive years. Cheap toys aren’t just bad for our kids, they are bad all around. The factories emit greenhouse gasses that warm the planet, and use up limited supplies of petroleum for what - for a toy that will be broken in a matter of days or hours because the toy itself is made of cheap materials and the child has so many toys she cannot fully understand the need to preserve them.

What’s the solution? Fewer toys. Many fewer, and better ones. Toys made of natural materials, that are demonstrably nontoxic. Toys you make yourself, or toys your children make. Toys made from non-dangerous recycled things. But most of all, fewer of them. Not fifty dolls, but four. Not 100 stuffed animals, but 10, or 5 or 2. A set of blocks. Some scarves and old clothes for dress up. Pots and pans and empty cans and boxes for playing store. A blackboard and chalk. Some crayons and the backs of paper. A few balls. A bat. A glove. A few games. Lots of books. Perhaps one big thing - a dollhouse or a battle cruiser or some trains and track. Legos. But not everything under the sun, not even if it is educational. Nothing with batteries, as little made of plastic as possible. Nothing cheap - we have to pay the people who make them enough to live on and have a powerful incentive to keep our kids safe. Better fewer toys then more cheap ones. And greater generosity on our part, so that those who can’t afford to pay well for toys can still have some good ones, that won’t poison them or deplete their future.

I have a doll that my grandmother bought when I was a little girl. It was my favorite through my whole childhood, so much so that “Big One” went through 3 cloth bodies, each one replaced when they wore out by mother or grandmother. My youngest sister loved her too - by the time she got her the doll was bald, with only a fuzz of her remaining hair, and had permanent gouges in her cheeks. My sister loved the doll for her childhood. After she was done with it, my mother cleaned it up, replaced her body again and dressed the doll in the dress I wore home from the hospital when I was born. For a decade and more, she sat on shelf in my closet, until, one day, I brought her down and showed her to my youngest son. To him, she is “baby” and he holds her as he nurses to sleep each night. And she accompanies him to his bed each night. I suspect that I will have to replace “Baby’s” body again - and I wouldn’t be surprised if someday, my son sits over a needle the thread and does so for one of his children.

And if we’re honest about our motivations for giving our children toys, I think we’ll find that this is what we’re seeking - the child inside us who loved a particular toy, or a few particular toys, and felt powerfully about them. We give our kids toys because we want them to have that magical and imaginary space in their lives with a toy that feels real to them. So we give and give and hope that the next one will be the one. But the reality is that it is more likely that we will create magical experiences for our children and grandchildren if they have fewer toys, rather than more. If they have more incentive to imagine and thus don’t have a toy to fill every imaginary gap. If they receive things that last and last and outlast their own youth, and are still there to look at fondly as they grow up.


The Brother in Law on Your Couch Vision of the Apocalypse

Sharon August 19th, 2007

Note: I’d been meaning to write about consolidating housing for a while, and BoysMom gave me the push I needed. Thanks for getting me moving. I’ve divided this into two sections - the first is about getting the idea of living together going, about organizing and planning for it. The second will be about the actual, day to day realities of living with other people.

Ok, it isn’t the apocalypse, but whenever I point out to people that to a large degree hard times means consolidating housing, living with family and friends and taking in refugees you happen to be related to (by biology or friendship), I get a great deal of resistance. I suspect some of us are better prepared to deal with purple-haired mutants invading our neighborhoods than we are prepared to deal with the basic reality that hard times often look like your brother in law, his kids and spouse sleeping on your living room couch for three years. And I get the frequent impression many of us would rather face the mutants, given the choice.

The coming decades bring with them a whole host of reasons why the old system of everyone in their vast houses, isolated from one another, will probably not be able to continue. The first reason is simple demographics. The aging baby boomers will increasingly require help getting along, and the cost of that care will increasingly be shifted onto a smaller working population, particularly since most boomers have comparatively little saved for retirement (The average personal savings was just over $10,000 as of 2004). Most of their wealth is in housing at this stage, and that wealth could easily evaporate entirely during the course of a recession.

Meanwhile the cost of providing elder support will quickly overwhelm existing structures. The annual cost of alzheimers care alone for the baby boomers will consume 98% of Medicare’s entire present annual budget, according to this month’s Harper’s Index. That leaves virtually no money for anything else. While we will certainly expand the amount we pay into the system, it is also true that Medicare will probably get stingier and more limited over time, the nursing homes they will pay for will be worse, the resources fewer. Assisted living is generally purchased with one’s house - again, a very unstable resource, and people who live longer than their resources are evicted from assisted living, either into nursing homes or onto families. The simple reality is that more and more of us will be taking in our parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles - or we will be passing their care and needs off onto increasingly strained and inadequate resources. I know many of us find our relatives annoying, or unlikeable (and yes, I know some people genuinely have reasons not to be able to be around their families), but you’d have to dislike a family member quite a lot to voluntarily pass them off to a bad nursing home - I worked in nursing homes for years, and know just how bad that could be.

The next factor would be climate change. For almost half a milion people, Hurricane Katrina was an experience in shared housing, among other things, and we can expect similar disasters to increase in frequency. The simple reality is that as more and more disasters wrought by climate change occur, and more and more people are dislocated, they will seek out family and friends to provide either transitional or permanent housing. As Thomas Homer-Dixon put it in _The Upside of Down_, “this won’t be the last time we walk out of our cities.” And, of course, in just this decade we’ve seen people walking out of NYC twice (Sept. 11 and the 2004 blackout), attempting to walk out of New Orleans and being turned back by their own military pointing guns at them (Hurricane Katrina), and we will see it again…and probably again and again. Where will the denizens of Las Vegas go as the water dries up (a recent article suggests that this could be within this decade)? Or the residents of Miami, as their fresh water is replaced by sea water? Where will the victims of the next disaster go? Or rather, let us not say “they” - let us say “we.” Because while all of us are not equally vulnerable, any one of us is a potential victim of flood and fire, hurricane and tornado, earthquake and tsunami. We will go to our family, to our friends - and that is as it should be. And those of us who are the hosts and those of us who are the victims will share the common problem of living together in a society of people increasingly unaccustomed to doing so.

Next there’s economic crisis and peak oil. I speak of these two together because it is virtually impossible to seperate out their effects. As energy prices rise, the economic consequences will increase, and as economic consequences expand, energy availability becomes smaller. The simplest reality is that we are presently on the verge of a recession - I daily get an inbox full of news about financial matters, and while at first it was cutting edge sources who were predicting recession (them and Greenspan), now almost everyone is doing so. Whether this is a short term problem or the beginning of a hole we can’t dig ourselves out of, I don’t claim to know, but there is no question that the consequences of both mean greater poverty, more foreclosures, more choices between paying the rent and buying food for the kids, more trouble finding the money to get to work from far away, more need for Grandma or brother to do daycare, because you can’t afford the sitter, more houses that require not just two income earners to pay the mortgage but three.

As energy prices rise and availability falls, some housing will be simply untenable - if you are too far away for resources, if you bought expensive, energy inefficient housing at the peak of the market, if you can no longer heat or cool your house, you may need to leave it. I’ve written before about how to keep your house here: But if you can’t, and can’t buy a replacement house, the next step is to share housing with someone. As interest rates rise, more and more people will lose their houses entirely, and while the government may again provide us with Hoovervilles, most people will prefer to live with friends and family. And less and less able to make ends meet, the unnatural subdivisions that are our lives will consolidate again, and living with your aunt and cousin will be, if difficult, better than the alternatives.

The forces driving us out of our houses and into consolidation are about to become powerful, but we’ve also been driven by powerful forces encouraging us *not* to live together. I think this is a really important point. It is important to remember how deeply our own sense of privacy, like everything else about is is shaped not in isolation by our inner selves, but by outside forces - particularly the marketplace, and the social mores it creates. That is, one of the reasons for the housing boom is that we’ve been consistently told we need bigger houses, more space, and that we shouldn’t live together. American culture is unusually solitary, with a heavy emphasis on individualism, privacy and not sharing things - and it is no accident that these tend to be characteristics that the growth economy encourages. If we don’t share much, we need more things. If we believe it would be an intolerable burden upon our privacy to share space with a family member, we will buy or rent seperate housing. The only way the present housing boom, which some economists estimate may have resulted in the manufacture of more than 750,000 more homes than the market will support could work was with a combination of population growth, but also cultural pressure to move into ever bigger houses, in ever smaller family units.

I am not saying your relatives and friends aren’t awful and annoying and impossible to live with (some of mine are - but I’m certain that none of the awful ones are the relatives who read this blog ;-). I’m not saying that need for privacy isn’t real. But the reality is that to some degree our terrifically acute need for isolation from one another is neither natural or personal, but culturally created by our economy and the needs of our marketplace. Some of us won’t be able to live with our parents or siblings, for real and serious reasons. But they can live with friends, or more distant family. There are few, if any of us, who cannot accomodate others when the need arises.

Pat Murphy over at The Community Solution observes that over a 50 year period, we went from averaging 250 square feet per person to almost 800. And we also grew our housing stock per person. Where a family might once have moved in with parents to save money, rented longer or taken in a lodger, now they live in seperate, privately mortgaged homes from comparatively early on. Elders who might have moved in with a sister or friend after widowing now have their own seperate homes. The number of families with second homes also rose dramatically - now comfort was a giant home where Mom and Dad each had their own office, plus their shared bedroom, the kids each had their own bedroom, hypothetical guests also had their own space, and everyone had their own bathrooms. And, if living together in spaces where you need never see one another was too stressful, you could get away from it (them) all at a beach house.

I’ve written before about the tremendous economic costs of moving all if the services traditional provided by family resources out of the home and into the marketplace here: I think it is important to remember the collective individual price we pay for our solitary habits. Now this is the money that fueled the boom, of course, but it is also money that you are not saving for retirement, putting towards your credit card bill, or simply not needing to earn. Instead of families sharing resources, everyone strugggles to pay for all their own needs in the marketplace. I’ve written before about the personal economic costs, but I’d also like to point out that this has psychological costs as well - we begin to naturalize isolation from one another, and the possibility of crossing those boundaries and sharing space becomes unthinkable, terrifying.

We saw this when my husband and I bought this house with my husband’s grandparents. The responses of Eric’s grandparents and their friends of their own age, accustomed to such family consolidation was uniformly positive. But the reaction of many of our family members and our parent’s generation was naked horror that we would do such a thing. We were too newly married, we were told, it would take away time we needed for our children, we would find it too hard, we would have to give up all our privacy. When I mentioned this disparity, I was told by several people “well, of course, *they’d* like the arrangement” - implying that all the benefits of the arrangement fell on the side of Eric’s grandparents. But that simply wasn’t true - we benefitted in a whole host of ways, from the financial (they helped us buy the farm) to the practical (I could run out and leave the baby with Grandma for a few minutes) to the emotional (I had supportive, loving company at home during the day, my children had an intensely loving relationship with their beloved great-grandparents).

Now I don’t mean to suggest it was always idyllic (it wasn’t, and some times it was damned hard, such as during the periods right before and after their deaths), and I freely acknowledge that grandparents are often easier than parents and siblings, and long-planned and prepared for arrangements are easier than those suddenly thrust upon us. But I like to think that there are some strategies we might use to make this easier, and that for most of us, it won’t be as bad as we thought. If I can prevent a single axe murder, fratricide or poisoning within our extended families, I will consider my time on this essay well spent ;-). So here are my rules for advance planning for living with family - biological or chosen.

Rule #1 - Plan, plan, plan, especially for those who can anticipate a need for help.

We spent several *years* negotiating things with Eric’s grandparents, settling details, building an addition. We could have done things more quickly, but the time was well used in helping them adapt to the transition (transitions are tough for all of us, but especially children, the elderly and the sick), and our one regret was that we didn’t discuss it with them sooner, since before the precipitating event that caused us to broach the subject with them, my husband and I had talked for some years about what we would do when they could no longer live on their own.

If you have elderly or disabled family members, or if you are an older or disabled person, start talking now with your family about what the long term future might look like. If someone is likely to come to live with you (or you with them), my personal opinion is that it is vastly easier to make the change if you do it before a crisis comes. I’m not saying that healthy 50 year olds should give up independence, just that the worst time to do this (and it is only going to get worse with rising energy costs and less transport available) is when someone is in the hospital after a fall, after the sudden death of a spouse, etc… It is terrifically hard for people to give up their privacy or face the reality that they can’t manage on their own, but I believe that it is always better to do this before you really can’t manage - that a crisis relocation is bound to be difficult for everyone. And if you can’t move in together in advance of the crisis, at least make long term plans, negotiate intentions and rules. Knowing what is going to happen can be tremendously comforting - and not just for the elderly, disabled and vulnerable. Helping kids realize “If we can’t live here because Daddy lost his job, we could always live with Aunti Lucy and Uncle David” can be a big relief for anxieties they can’t fully express.

Opening this subject can be particularly difficult for the person who may require care - outside of societies where the expectation still exists that you will care for your elderly family members, it is very hard to initiate this discussion. Which is another reason why you might consider consolidating housing while you are still in good health - because instead of saying “Ok, will you take care of me” you can offer something in exchange - help with the mortgage and the grandchildren, a chance for your sister to take a trip while you care for the dogs, etc… Everyone on earth can contribute something to a household, no matter how elderly, ill or disabled - Eric’s grandmother could rock a baby like nobody’s business, even when she couldn’t chase a toddler. Eric’s grandfather was at the end of his life, but he could and did still tell stories to my sons that were infinitely valuable to us. Figure out what you have to offer, and offer it. Even if you aren’t prepared to move in together yet, you might begin to arrange your life to suit such a set up - moving nearer family, or buying a house that could readily be adapted to sharing.

And this need not be a traditional “young people with older people” arrangement - two older widows might move in together, or siblings might consolidate housing to provide mutual support. A disabled woman might bring in a roommate with another complementary disability, or an able bodied college student who can help out in exchange for reduced rent. An older widower with a house on some land might bestow the property and housing after his death on a younger couple who want to farm the land, and will allow him to stay in his house. But I would argue that the best thing you can do is think in advance about what your choices are.

I strongly recommend intergenerational living even for people who don’t *have* to do it - I think it tends to combine the best of several possible worlds for everyone. Wealth is heavily concentrated in our society among people in their forties and above, while vigor and energy, hardly limited to younger people, tend to be abundant among people in their 20s and 30s. I think the lives of children are enormously enriched by growing up with older people in their lives. Right now, there are millions of seniors who are wondering what they will do, and whose dream is to live comfortably in their own homes. There are also millions of young people who long for a little land - a small farm or even a good sized suburban yard, and a chance to get ahead. These two groups have every reason to combine their interests and their futures. I recognize that this potentially comes with some difficulties as well, and there is potential for abuse on both sides, but the rewards are so great that I’d hope that others would consider it.

My personal feeling is that the best way to start discussions about these issues is to be upfront and honest. We have been accustomed to a society in which older people are expected to deal with their aging themselves until a crisis point is reached. This system will no longer work (it didn’t work that well to begin with), and adapting will have challenges. The best way to go into this is for everyone to benefit in some way - to recognize that this is not simply an experience of burden for one, and extra work for another, but part of a natural cycle of relationships that the younger person will then enact later themselves.

Rule #2 - Even when you can’t anticipate, plan, plan, plan!

While some of our consolidations can be anticipated, there are plenty of reasons why people who expect consolidation might not be able to make changes now, and reasons why many, probably most of our housing arrangements will be brought on suddenly. Whether a private crisis like a job loss, fire or foreclosure causes our problems or whether whole regions are on the move, many of us should anticipate family coming to us suddenly, unpredictably, and we should anticipate the same for ourselves. In some cases, people might only have minutes to get out, or they may arrive having endured terrible trauma, ill, injured or otherwise in bad shape. But there are still ways we can prepare to deal with all this.

Each of us should plan in two ways. First, we should imagine the situation with ourselves as refugees of some crisis and requiring the help of family. The second is that we should imagine ourselves as hosts, and prepare for an influx. If we’ve been preparing for peak oil and climate change, many of us may be more likely to end up as the hosts, but it is really important to remember that all sorts of things can happen, and, as Robert Burns said, “the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.” If things can gang aft agley, they will ;-)

So start looking around you and imagining scenarios. Start thinking - what would you need if a large number of family members arrived suddenly on your doorstep? Or where would you go if a forest fire or a chemical leak required you to leave your house in minutes? Do you know where vital personal documents are? Do you have bug-out bags - that is a backpack or other kit full of basic items - toothbrush, change of clothes, food, water, a supply of needed medications and maps so that if it takes a day or more to get where you are going you’ll be ok? Do you have stored, stabilized gasoline, enough to get you there without stops - remember, during both Hurricane Katrina and Rita, gas was largely unavailable. Do you have enough food to feed family in a crisis? Basic medical supplies so that you can treat minor problems like muscle injuries, mild dehydration, etc… at home if emergency rooms are overflowing? Are you set up for babies, young children, pregnant women, the elderly, disabled or medically fragile?

Think about the people you know. Who could you go to? There are some people who we all know would welcome us without question, but if there are questions, perhaps it would be wise to ask them ahead of time. Begin with “In the event of a natural disaster, would it be ok if Mom and I came here?” Find out whether you can bring your pets or livestock. If not, what will you do with/for them? Think about who might see your home as a potential refuge, and what issues might they have. Can you bring this up with them, perhaps in a non-threatening way, by saying “since Hurricane Katrina, I’ve been thinking it might be useful to have a plan for an emergency…” The more you think ahead on these issues, the better off you will be.

One of the few virtues of the events of the last few years is that all of us have seen a concrete example of what can happen. The uses of things like stored food and emergency transportation plans are no longer the province of survivalists. All of us need to make these preparations and plans.

Rule #3 - Issue invitations and write it down

One thing I’ve done is write a letter (which I have yet to mail - this essay is a good kick in the pants) to people I love and care for, inviting them to come here if they ever need to, and offering them information I think they might need. This would include back road and highway directions (remember, if there is a large scale evacuation, main routes are likely to be packed), suggestions for what to bring and what not to, how to handle pets and additional family and friends (remember, the people you love best also have other people they love best and may not want to leave behind), and a *gentle* explanation of what kind of situation they might find (”…we may have up to X number of additional people, so you can expect to…”) and any really important rules. Personally, I do not think that this letter is the time to articulate your expectations of other people, for several reasons. First of all, you don’t know what circumstances people will arrive in, and second of all, if they really need you, you don’t want family and friends to be reluctant to come to you. The idea is to have your sister in law come to you before the children are suffering from malnutrition, not after. Yes, at some point, you’ll have to iterate some rules. But you might as well wait until they are here - if your BIL arrives with a broken leg and your 92 year old mother, your rules about how many hours a day everyone has to work to eat might not apply right away anyhow. Be flexible!

The same questions you are answering in the letter should be answered by you for anywhere you might go. How would you get there in an emergency? What would you bring? What would you do with pets or livestock? What kind of facilities might you find? Assuming that you didn’t have to leave in a rush, with only the things in your bug out bag, what might be useful to bring? You might want to designate one or two possible central family members as not only meeting locations, but people to collect messages - remember, after the hurricanes, how long people struggled to find one another.

Crises don’t always occur when we’re all at home together. Make plans now for how you would gather together - who would get the children at school, or stay behind to pack things up? If you were evacuated suddenly, where would you go? Who would you meet? How might you connect? If things get suddenly dangerous, you should have a plan, for example, for gathering children from school or spouses from jobs, who gets who and where you meet up in the end. Have backup communications plans - cell phones might not work, the internet connection might be down. Leaving message with a centrally located family member, or even one out of the country might make sense.

Rule #4 - Think hard about who you are planning for, and prepare accordingly.

To some degree, you may not know. A sudden crisis might leave an old college roommate on your doorstep, when you thought he was in Punjab. But most of us can guess who is likely to need us. Those who are aging or medically fragile. The family members who live closest to the edge financially. The family and friends who live close to coasts, natural disaster prone areas, or in regions already in crisis. The family who don’t have a lot of other supports. People in densely populated, resources stressed urban areas. People near potential military and terrorist targets.

Now let me be clear - everyone is at risk of something, as far as I know. If you live near the Pacific Coast, you’ve got tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanoes, in the southwest, drought and hurricanes at the Gulf. Gulf Coast, we all know about. West Central - drought, flood and blizzards. Southeast, heatwaves, drought, hurricanes, ice storms, floods. Midwest earthquakes (the biggest earthquake in US history was centered around Missouri), tornadoes, floods and blizzards. Northeast blizzards, ice storms, floods and Godzilla getting lose from New York ;-). Plus, there are potential human created disasters everywhere. No one gets off free, although Akron is probably less likely to be a terrorist target than Washington DC, and Caribou Maine is comparatively low on Volcanoes.

I’m going to guess that many of us can expect more people than we think if there’s a large scale disaster. It is common for us to say “Oh, My mother, my brother and his wife, and my aunt and cousin.” But remember, these people also have family *they* can’t leave behind. Your brother’s wife has an aging mother, and a divorced sister with three kids. She can no more leave them behind in a disaster than you could leave your sister - and if they don’t have any better options, they’ll be coming to you. After all, you are * family * And realistically, most of us will probably be the only ones in our own families who are prepared. Everyone knows this. So even if your second cousin only sees you at weddings and funerals, he may be thinking of you as his contingency plan. And heck, if this cousin has a well stocked place in a comparatively safe area, you might be thinking of him.

In a large scale, long term crisis, you may have to limit who you can take in. In the short term, we can all endure a few nights crammed on the floor together. And frankly, if the stakes are high enough and you care enough about the people involved, you can live that way a very long time. But if there are other alternatives, you may at some point have to say no to people. Think hard about this one. Think hard about what the price they’ll pay is, and what the stakes are for you. In novels, you always can tell when the food is going to run out - that is, you can sit there and do the math and say ‘nope, sorry, we can’t take care of you.” But in real life, the situation isn’t always static - if you give your last crust to a hungry child, you might starve your own. Or there might be a little more for your kids tomorrow, and you might save a life. The world isn’t black and white, and neither is real life. My personal preference is generally to err on the side of offering care and protection to as many people as possible.

Now I often hear people who have been preparing for peak oil for a while say that they won’t take anyone in, because, after all, they told their families and they didn’t bother preparing themselves. For most people, I think that is, to be blunt, simple posturing. That is, you may say now, “Uncle George and Aunt Lydia and my college roommate Steve will pay for laughing at me about peak oil.” But unless you are a much tougher person than most people are, when Uncle George and Aunt Lydia, Steve, his wife Ki, and his daughter need a place at 2 am, you’ll be opening the door up wide. Because sometimes things are more important than being petty. And even if you don’t think you can feed them forever, you may also be able to provide a period of rest, a temporary solution, while you begin to think ahead. So I’d lose the “nobody but the wife and me” bullhockey right away, and start planning.

Rule #5 - Shop Now

Now not everyone will be able to do this, and we haven’t yet, but my basic feeling is that the ideal situation for most people would be enough stored food for double the numbers in your family for two years. Now don’t panic when you hear that - you may think I’m nuts, that having six months worth of basic foods for your family even now seems beyond you. And I understand that. Remember, I’m not there yet either. Food for 12 for 2 years is a A LOT of food, and storing and managing that much food is work. It also costs money to accumulate it. We do it by buying a little extra every time we go to the coop or bulk store. 25 lbs of black beans or 50 of whole wheat really don’t cost that much, and are well worth it for the security they provide. During the fall, we buy extra potatoes and onions and grow extra as well, and store them. We can give them to the food pantry if we don’t use them - in fact, one of the most important reasons we store food is that it allows us to be generous, to give away to charity even when things are tight for us. And for those of us who may have to rely on others, it can either delay the time of consolidation of housing by cutting down on our need to buy food after a job loss or other crisis, or at least it can allow us to arrive with something in hand.

At a minimum, I would plan on six months worth of food for your family, and a lot of practice making meals out of that food. The sudden arrival of five or ten hungry, desperate and now poor family members will make the wisdom of having a large supply of basic staples around.
If you haven’t begun thinking about food storage at all, I’d start with Alan Hagan’s _Prudent Food Storage FAQ_, one of the very best resources on this. Alan comments here, and has done an amazing job on this My own personal minimum list of foods to store is this. The above assumes that you are buying most of your food at a grocery store or coop, in small quantities. There are plans that use fewer items, and plans that use more and different ones, but this is my own personal suggestion. You don’t need all of these things, and you should adapt to your own family’s preferences, but if I had to store only a few items, but didn’t have to go for absolute minimums, I’d choose these.

Whole Wheat
White Rice
Whole corn
Pinto Beans
Black Soybeans
Canned Pumpkin (1 can per person, per week)
Canned Tunafish (enough for 1 can per person per week)
Powdered Milk
peanut butter
Alfalfa seeds for sprouting
Canned mustard greens
Dried Cranberries
canned tomatoes
Olive oil
cider vinegar (unpasteurized)
iodized salt (very important!)

From this very basic mix of foods, you can make quite a few tasty meals. Beans and rice, with a salad of sprouts and dried cranberries. You could make bread (sourdough), and add a little tenderness and nutrition with canned pumpkin, and have that for breakfast. Or have it for lunch in a peanut butter and honey sandwich. With a few spices, you could make a great chili with two beans and tomatoes, and serve it with cornbread and mustard greens. You can make pasta and serve it with tomato sauce and olive oil, or make a cold rice salad with rice, greens, cold cooked beans, sprouts, olive oil and vinegar. You get the point. In fact, I actually think it is better, whenever possible, to store local foods - what is grown near you, but if you had to work only with a few supermarket options, these would be my choices.

Mostly, the rule is store what you eat, and eat what you store. That means learning to eat and use basic food that can be stored dry, dehydrated or canned - cooking from staples like grains, beans, etc… If you don’t eat this way, you should - here are some cookbook suggestions for how to learn:

I do store two things that I don’t usually eat. The first is canned shortening. The reason I do this is that it lasts forever and is cheap. The reason I don’t eat it is that transfats are unbelievably awful for you. My feeling is that shortening is a survival food only - but other oils are good for a much shorter time. The other thing I store is infant formula. Every couple of years I buy a 1 year supply of the cheapest possible generic infant formula. I do this because I’ve seen and heard of too many cases where in a crisis, either a mother was seperated from her infant, or died, or lost her milk or something, and formula is one of those things that can’t be had for love or money in an emergency. I’m a breastfeeding Mom myself, and I don’t have a baby who requires either formula or breastmilk, but I store infant formula just in case - so that no woman I know should ever be desperate for something to feed her infant. The best option, obviously, would be wet nursing. But if that’s not possible, an emergency supply is better than nothing. A few months before the formula expires, I donate the whole shebang to the local food pantry (which is usually pathetically grateful, because they desperately need formula), and buy another year’s supply. I consider it a hedge against a certain evil.

Beyond food, I pick up extra bedding whenever I can, especially blankets at yard sales. Living in upstate NY, and recognizing that if times were hard, we might not be able to provide much heat, storing extra blankets just makes sense. I also have bought a few older futons, in good condition. They can be folded up and stored in a closet to be used if necessary for extra beds. My (crazy-huge) house can currently sleep 10 additional people (beyond us) on beds, plus we have two cribs. But when I was a kid, and my mother ran a daycare, she made up pallets for napping children to sleep on out of old carpet remnents, and so I save these, on the theory that children and younger adults could eventually be kicked onto the carpet, so to speak, if things got really tight.

I believe strongly in having enough dishes, but then again, I love to have people over and cook for a crowd. You can obviously eat in shifts, but yard sales are again a great source of some cheap dishes to stick in a box somewhere. Same with silverwear. A couple of spare sweatshirts and sweatpants in different sizes, if you can afford them, will give people who never had a chance to get anything out of their homes something to wear. Extra soap, toothbrushes and toilet paper will be useful as well. If there are children in your extended family, but none in your home, you might also at yard sales pick up a few ten cent children’s books and toys to put in the same box - it will be much easier for traumatized, exhausted children to do something other than dismember your house and scream if you have a few appropriate things for them - some blocks, a ball, a copy of Harry Potter…whatever.

In terms of medical supplies, first of all, get a good first aid book and read it now. One of the most important things you can do is know when you need a doctor. But if the emergency rooms are closed, or flooded with patients (or water), or you can’t get there, you need to be able to take care of an emergency yourself. Learn CPR, including infant and child, and learn how to tend basic injuries and get along without making things worse. Keep a stack of bandages, peroxide or alchohol, painkillers, and other basics in your house.

Also be ready to leave the house in an emergency. Have a “bug out bag” with light food (dehydrated food, ramen, food bars), a couple of blankets, some water, a change of clothes, baby supplies for babies, basic hygeine items, a few toys and books for older kids, an emergency medical kit and some basic tools (pocket knife, waterproof matches, rope), flashlight (either with extra batteries or a hand charged one), phone numbers, contact information, cell phone and manual phone charger, maps of your area and anywhere you might be going, and photocopies of id and important documents. Mine personally includes a disk of important pictures of my kids.

You should have one bag for each person, and that includes kids. Even if they only carry a few of their most precious things, they can participate in putting the bag together, and you can practice getting out of the house and grabbing it in an emergency. Store extra blankets, water, and a larger first aid kit in your car. Keep stabilized extra gas in your garage so that you can get where you need to go even if the pumps aren’t running. Just in case leaving an area by car is infeasible, you might also wish to have bicycles to help you get out of an area quickly. This might be particularly important for urban dwellers - many cities, such as Manhattan, have no realistic evacuation plan. The reality is that it is simply impossible to get that many people out of a small space in less than four days. So a bicycle gives you a real advantage if you need to travel quickly and over long distance, but can’t rely on public transport or a car being available or usable.

Even if these supplies are never of any use to you, they can always be resold at yard sales, donated to charity or made use of yourself over time. Given that we are in an inflationary cycle, things you buy now will likely serve you better than waiting, so if you can, plan ahead.

Rule #6 - Get your head in order.

Now that we’re through the logistics of physical prep, there’s mental prep. One of the first things we all need to do is take a few deep breaths and relax our preconceived notions about what this will be like. Some of us may be anticipating family members moving in with a great deal of enthusiasm, but others with considerably less. But whatever we’re thinking (and obviously a positive attitude is preferrable to a bad one), we should try and let some of our expectations go, and face things as they come.

The reality is that if we’re the hosts, the people coming to live with us may be coming enthusiastically, or miserably. They may be arriving after lots of planning and fun negotiations, or after incredible trauma and horror. They may drive us crazy because they are like that, or because they are depressed, suffering from illnesses or post-traumatic stress disorder. They may feel like failures because they lost their house or couldn’t keep their family safe, or they may feel like this is the change they need. And this may turn out to be terrible, or it might be much better than any of us ever expected. And if we’re the guests, we may be coming feeling terrible, ashamed. Or we may be hoping for a better future, but unsure of our place with new rules, new family, new arrangements. We won’t know until it happens.

For me, the most important things to remember (and I didn’t always remember them when Eric’s grandparents were alive - something I regret) is that the people whose home you are, or who are home to you (home is the place, when you go there, they have to take you in) are the people who share, for all their imperfections, ties that matter, that are worthy of honor and respect. No matter how maddening they are, no matter how frustrated you are, no matter how difficult moving in together is, no matter how close the quarters or stressful the situation, these people are your tribe. It is in some ways easy not to love and appreciate the people who are always there, especially when you sometimes wish they would be elsewhere, but it is also worth noting that the world is not full of people who will share their homes with you, add water to the soup so your husband can eat, rock your child through a nightmare to let you sleep, give you the coat from their backs and the bread from their table, and say, in a thousand words and gestures, “you are one of us.”

The more we can go into this possibility with the recognition that it is fraught, it is difficult, and it is *possible* the better off we’ll be. By all means let us joke and compare notes about this awful relative and that one. But remember, the jokes are just jokes - they are part of being a family (biological and non) - but at the root, underneath the joke, there is a good deal more. Don’t forget what’s at the root.

I will write much more about this subject, the daily realities of living together in a future post, whenever I get to it (not this week - I’m out of town). I have much more to say about privacy, and accomodation, and practical ways we might get along.



Update and a Couple of Shameless Plugs

Sharon August 17th, 2007

I’ve been slowing down on the posts lately, as work on the book picks up and the harvest season enters full swing. DH returns to work in a week and a half, and that will mean a bit less time still for the blog. And for most of next week I’ll be out of town. All of which means that the pickins will be slim around here. I’m still trying to get that post on moving in with family together before I go, though, and who knows, maybe inspiration will strike.

In the meantime, I’m going to be shameless in several ways. The first way that I’m going to be shameless is that instead of writing new posts for y’all, when I start getting embarassed that the blog is so empty, I’m going to link to an old post that you might not have seen that I liked. We’ll make it sound good - we’ll call it recycling. My apologies to those who’ve seen it before.

The second shameless plug is for the Community Solutions Conference in Yellow Springs Ohio, at which I’ll be speaking. I had an amazing time and learned a lot last year, and I’m looking forward to my trip this year (by amtrak, carpool and mule ;-). One of the best things about it was that I met the most amazing people last year. I’m hoping that I get to meet a few of the people who read this blog when I’m there this year. Here’s the link to the conference

Final shameless plug - if you check out the website, you’ll see the title of my first book listed under my name. _Depletion and Abundance_ (I’m still looking for a better title - I’ll take suggestions!) will be coming out next fall from New Society. Its focus is on helping families adapt to peak oil, climate change and the coming economic crisis, and it provides a blueprint for how to do things like adapt existing homes to living with little energy, feed yourself and start local economies. The second book, _A Nation of Farmers_ co-written with the amazing Aaron Newton, describes how we might get “theah from heah” (as they say where I’m from) - away from an industrial food system, to a sustainable one that could feed the world in the coming hard times. That one will come out in the Spring of 2009, also from New Society Publishing.

I admit, I’m pretty excited to actually get to put the forthcoming books up with my name as a real, grownup (sorta) author!

Anyway, here’s my first bit of recycling - and I promise, new posts soon. But here’s one you might not have seen recently, describing how people might adapt an existing suburban house to hard times:

Cheers, and thanks for putting up with this!


I Wish I Had Her Gifts…

Sharon August 17th, 2007

If you are Rioting for Austerity (or if you aren’t but are interested in what we do), or if you are interested in conservation, you should check out the lovely, lovely images that Miranda, my partner in Riot has created. She’s planning on producing 365 of them, and they visually encapsulate the changes we need to make. Like everything Miranda does, it is graceful, beautiful and elegant. Can you tell I want to be her when I grow up?

I particularly love the laundry hanging image.

Sharon in upstate NY

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