Archive for August, 2009

Independence Days Update – The Marathon

Sharon August 31st, 2009

Eric and the boys went away last Wednesday for five days of visiting Grandma in New York City, leaving me and the goats to tend the farm.  He also left me with four bushels of tomatoes, 1 of cucumbers, 1 bushel of peaches, 9 quarts of raspberries and assorted miscellaneous stuff.  So you can guess what I did on my summer vacation.

I actually don’t like it when Eric and the boys go away – I would think I would – I get peace and quiet, extended periods of silence, and to make my own schedule, at least around the milking and the other chores.  But there’s definitely a “quiet, too quiet” feel to it – I think it may be a form of Stockholm Syndrome – I have gotten to the point where I prefer my life noisy, filthy and chaotic. 

Because we are a one car family, when Eric and the boys go away, my world shortens to the distance I am willing to walk or bike.  I did walk to the library one day (3 1/2 miles each way), but mostly I stayed home, worked, walked in the woods and farmed.  It was peaceful.

And it was productive – I haven’t quite filled every Mason jar in the house, but I’ve gotten to the point of digging in the attic around for boxes I haven’t needed in past years. I don’t really know how many jars I have – above 500 I suspect, all collected at yard sales and junk shops, usually for a dollar or two a box.  My favorites are the very old ones – the zinc lids that can only be used for storing grains and beans, or the old blue ones with the jar rubbers, or the ones that say only “Atlas Strong Shouldered Mason.”  I find myself enjoying looking at them as I fill them.

Selene could kid any time after next week, and we have no idea when Maia will kid (she was in with a buck for 2 months, and she’s smaller than Selene and not yet bagged up, so we’re guess later), so we’re focused on goat babies right now, and getting everything ready.  We’re also planning our breeding schedule for next year – it is odd to think that by spring, we’ll have to sell goats.

It was a quiet, peaceful time last week, and is back to the normal chaos now – more, since Eric’s semester begins today, the kids’ homeschool begins today, Eli is still on vacation until next week, and much is new.  The temperatures fell down to the forties, and there’s a real touch of autumn in the air, so it is a good time to think ahead to winter.

I’ve still got more to go on the marathon – I want to put up much more salsa, ketchup and tomato sauce for winter, a few more pickles, and I haven’t had room in the freezer (the chickens are going to their winter homes on Friday) to make pesto or freeze extra eggs or greens.  I’ve been dehydrating some greens, though, and have enough dried tomatoes to fill six jars – they are a popular snack here.

Oh, and then there’s the corn – every year, I put up 200 ears of sweet corn, and that’s a job I loathe – by the end there’s corn everywhere and it is a royal pain, but it is worth it to eat sweet corn chowder all winter long and have dried sweet corn on chili and succotash.  That will be the weekend’s project.

Finally, it is time to cycle the clothes around, and dig out some nice new things for the kids to wear in the Jewish new year – it is traditional to begin the year with new clothes.  I usually buy them new kippot (yarmulkes) since by the end of the year, the old ones may have disappeared, or at least are usually showing wear. 

Plant something: Three ginko trees into my ginko nursery, spinach, arugula.

Harvest something: Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beets, carrots, feverfew, peppermint, lemon balm, lettuce, arugula, pea shoots, green beans, turnips, zucchini, summer squash, pears, kale, chard, catnip, motherwort, yarrow, nettle seeds.

Preserve something; Roasted tomato puree, ketchup, barbecue sauce, salsa, pickled hot peppers, peach-amaretto jam, dried peaches, dried tomatoes, raspberry jam, lemon pickles, spicy pickles, regular dill pickles, pickled carrots, dried green beans, pickled green beans, dried chard, dried peppermint, catnip, yarrow, nettle seeds, feverfew, anise-hyssop.

Waste Not: Fed every scrap to something, or made something out of it ;-) .  Didn’t make much waste by myself.  Started a scrap quilt to be finished, oh, probably 2018, knowing me.  Sorted out 4 bags of clothes and shoes for Goodwill.  Cut up old clothes for said quilt.

Want Not: Filled up on baking soda, pickling salt and defined acidity vinegar.  Made note to pick up more regular mouth canning lids, but did nothing about it. 

Eat the Food -  I don’t really cook for myself, so unless you could 700 variations of “Salad” “Baked sweet potatoes” and “Spread goat cheese on toast and covered with sliced tomatoes” nothing.  But we’ll be getting more adventurous as it cools off.

Build community food systems – Heck, I didn’t even see any people for five days – unless it involved communing with the goats, sheep or poultry it didn’t happen ;-).

 How about you?


Back to School

Sharon August 31st, 2009

On my lap, I’ve got a set of school books that date from the 1850s to the 1890s.  They belonged to various of my father’s family – my great-uncle, George Hume, who died long before I was born and studied Eaton’s Common School Arithmetic in Amesbury, MA in the late 19th century, not 20 miles from where I would go to school 100 years later.  The majority belonged to my great-grandfather, Edgar White, who studied latin and algebra in Jonesboro, Maine, and later went on to teach school in Cheshire, Connecticut, using the same books.  My grandfather’s books were mostly published in the 1860s, right after the civil war, and bear the names of previous owners – he got most of his books from Winnie Smith Biddeford, whoever she was.  A note from my grandmother, who passed these books to my father in the 1960s, notes that Winnie was still alive, a friend of the family, now named Winnie Lewis and living in S. Portland. 

Two of the books belong to some family connection now faded into obscurity – the Academy Songbook and Walton’s Written Arithmetic both belonged to A. B. Hollingsworth.  But who he or she may have been, and how they are tied to my family, I cannot tell you. 

I write about this for two reasons - first, I think it is worth observing that my 100-160 year old schoolbooks are still being used by my children.  The books are faded and falling apart, and I don’t allow the kids to actually touch them. But I do sometimes copy problems out of them, because I suspect their value will increase in the coming years.  

I would hate to see lost, for example, the following math problem:

“A farmer raised in one field 21 bush. 3pk. 7 qt. 1pt. of wheat; in another 48 bush. 2pk, 1pt; in another 28 bush. 6 qt.; and in another 75 bush. 1 pk., 5qt., 1 pt..”
In the margin of the book, next to the 75 bushel measure, by great-grandfather (presumably) pencilled – “not in Maine he didn’t.”  I laughed out loud, appreciating the joke even some 110 years after it was made.

But besides fondness for the old New England part of my heritage, and the stories within, I find them valuable because they demonstrate to precisely what degree our education prepares us for a particular kind of life, and to be particular kinds of people.  It is easy to observe this, of course, but a contrast between the schoolbooks of yesterday and today makes it particularly striking.

 Inside the arithmetics and grammars are a record of a way of life lost.  For example, a math problem lists the 1850 population of New York City as 515,547 and the US President’s salary at 25,000 dollars, has children estimate how many fruit trees can be grafted with how much rootstock, calculate how many men not gone to soldier will be available to bring in a harvest, and how many pieces of cloth will be needed to make a quilt of a particular size.  The emphasis is manifestly on preparing children for everyday agrarian life – how to calculate the interest a bank will pay you, how to write a letter to the editor of the local paper, teach your children, build a barn, not get cheated, make a dress, measure flour and then in the evening, stand up and recite at the public recitations that provide entertainment, or get together to discuss the issue of the day at the Grange or the Women’s Society.

Like all school books, they reveal the limitations of a society, and offer plenty that’s merely anachronistic to entertain you.  For those of us who are not Friends, for example, will probably not require a discussion of how to grammatically use the term “Thou” and “Thine,” and I think few people still use, even at their most formal, the ”th” endings that are mandated after “he” or “she” as in “She hath property.” or “He teacheth well.”  The books were all published in New York or Boston at the end of the Civil War, and all evince hostility to southerners, their grammar and history; and the usual stream of contempt for Irish, Italian and “Negro.”  Nor is it likely that any modern text would offer the model of “That the soul is immortal is believed by all nations.” as a statement of certainty, and illustration of a substantive clause.

But my own children’s schoolbooks reveal equal limitations, and assumptions that are equally problematic.  A great deal of bad stuff has been eliminated over the years – I’m grateful that my children don’t get the assumed Christianity and racism of the earlier books.  But rather inevitably, it has been replaced by some bad and some anachronistic (or rather, perfectly in tune with a rapidly departing present) that will look just as odd soon.  For example, many of my son’s math problems involve weight limits on planes, times of departure and check in times. I wonder whether my grandchildren, looking back at their father’s 3rd grade reader will be struck by the ubiquitous assumption that even small children travel on planes. 

For handling money, the calculation of interest provided by banks has been completely ignored, but shopping is very carefully explained.  While we have a curriculum that is fairly anti-consumerist, they still encourage us to cut product advertisements out of magazines and send children shopping with a limited budget to figure out how long their money will last.  The assumption is that children will have enough money to eat in restaurants and buy ice cream regularly.  The presumption of affluence runs deeply through these texts.

I’m pleased to see, in my son’s math book, that Pam and Jeanne made pies to sell at the fair and are having the problem of cutting them into the correct number of slices, and that the president loves jelly beans, so factory workers decided to send her some, divided into the correct number of boxes.   It is good to know that we have to divide up people into the right number of participants in each first aid class (told ya we got this book for a purpose ;-) ), but I’m a little mystified at how 20 peacocks ate 893 sacks of grain (were they very small sacks or peacocks the size of elephants?) and troubled by the environmental studies curriculum, which discusses the efficiency of cars, but not their relative inefficiency compared to bicycles; and while presumes that private cars are forever in a whole host of ways. 

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect my children’s academic examples to live in a perfect agrarian world – but I do think it is important to note the way that our children are subtly schooled to understand the world we live in as normal.  Even the best curricula assume a great deal – the one we use, Oak Meadow, has a slightly precious feel to it in modern day context – its conscious attempt is to bring back an old-fashioned childhood.  In some ways this suits us, but there is a measure of artificiality to it, best perceived in contrast to the actual texts that educated actual agrarian children.

With the exception, prehaps of a few romanticized junior transcendentalists, the actual 19th agrarian childhood that emerges may have had imagined fairies in it, they listened, at night, to the stories told by grandmothers at fireside, but there is no romance in the schoolbooks.  They are more practical, training young farmers for a future of hard work, careful use of money, moral behavior and practical daily life – and to live that life in close concert with extended family, friends and neighbors.  My great-grandfather’s schoolbooks, for example, have many stories of grandmothers – they inevitably live with the children in the stories, or very near.  Ben and Meg, however, the two archetypical Oak Meadow children (from a book every bit as pedantic and moralistic as any 19th century tale), drive to visit granny and to the local orchard.

For my great-grandfather, the books themselves were precious – not precious in the sense of being self-consciously nostalgic, but literally expensive.  One of them has been marked “$3 – a vast sum in a region where cash was used only to pay the taxes.  They may have been drier than modern school texts (although actually, I’m not sure that’s true), but they were carefully tended and treasured.  We have all but my grandfather’s 7th and 3rd reader, all his arithmetic books, his first and second latin (I have no idea if he went further) .  My great-grandfather was manifestly not the first owner – if Winnie was alive in 1967 when the Latin grammar was bestowed upon my father, she cannot have been much older than my grandfather.  But Winnie was not the first user either.  Kerl’s Common School Grammar has three other names in it, none of them ones I recognize.  They are pencilled through, and I can read only “Venus Castle” and “Stevie Beebhill” - by the time my grandfather was using them in the 1890s. Fom his pencil notes one can tell he then would go on to use the books to teach school in the early 1900s, until they were finally replaced – the last teaching year mentioned is 1911, but when he received them, the books were already 30 years old or more.  

Whatever old New England’s faults, the literacy and educational rates were extremely high – in north coastal Maine, there was not much money to be had for books.  Education was valued highly, enough that my great-great grandfather took out his first-ever debt ( and debt is not a word that New England farmers speak lightly)  to send my great-grandfather to what was then the State Teacher’s College at Machias.   My great-grandfather grew to manhood at the cusp of higher education requirements for teachers – it was no longer quite enough to simply have finished the last reader to teach. 

You could see how education was valued  in the care given to the books my great-grandfather stewarded – they passed through other hands, and six generations after publication, are still in use.  My father wrote his own name in them, neatly below the names tracking back for generations.  My own name is below my father’s, dated 1993.

For quite some years, I taught college composition and literature at various colleges, many of them filled with the affluent children of affluent parents, who went college mostly because college was what one did.  Some of the students truly appreciated their education, some of them didn’t – but many of them had a deeply different sense of education than past generations did. Now it was certainly true when my great-grandfather went to school, that plenty of students cared little for their schooling.  There were dropouts and cutups, lazy students and disciplined ones even then.  In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s _Farmer Boy_ for example, there are older boys who come each year only to disrupt school and assault the teacher.  It would be needlessly sentimental to imply that education was always equally valued.

But overall, the weight of the culture’s preoccupation with an education that was mostly for its own sake tells its story.  The care of the books, or the pressure one sees in later volumes to introduce advanced studies so that students leaving school after eighth grade to farm full time will have the full advantage of a good education.   For example, Greenleaf’s Geometry and Trigonometry, two subjects that in these days are generally introduced in 10th and 11th grade, notes that the book was added to the standard curriculum because modern (ie, 1870s or so) schools “have enabled pupils to complete their arithmetical studies at a comparatively young age; and in consequnece, a demand has arisen for a more advanced trigonometric course to follow the eighth grade.” 

We are also told that the quadratic equations and rationalization have been included, so that students may proceed immediately from completion of the book to college, and a guide for those studying alone, with no teacher is included, with the observation that many young scholars have mastered these skills at the end of a workday, and a rousing reference to Lincoln.  I admit, I would have had trouble mastering trigonometry at home, late at night, before the candle and after milking – but the book was written, at least, with this in mind.

In Jonesboro, Maine, where these books were used, school took place for older children only during the winters.  The rest of the time, older boys were needed on the farm – it was a cold, harsh and rocky place to practice agriculture, and that my great-great-grandfather managed to save enough to send one of his sons to college is remarkable in many ways.  The school, according to my grandmother’s notes, was some 4 miles from their farm, and my great-grandfather walked each day 8 miles round trip, often in weather well below zero F.  Studying was done after school, after the walk home, after milking the cows, after doing the chores, after supper, by kerosene lamp, before rising to milk again at 5 am.  I realize this sounds very much like “I walked to school 25 miles uphill each way in 30 feet of snow.” But I think it is worth thinking about – the deep commitment required of parents to send their children to school when they lived so economically close to the margin, on poor land, and could have used their labor.  And about the deep commitment of children to education when it demanded so much of them.  Why did they do it?  The students certainly may have been grateful to get away from the chores, but what motivated their parents?

We still live in that world of education at high cost in some ways – for all the affluent students sent to college as a placeholder, there are the students who work for it – who hold down multiple jobs and sit up late at night, who care for their children by day so that they can go to night-school and better themselves, the first-generation college students who worked their way through for a dream of a better life.

What has changed is not the kind of people we are, so much as the assumption of what an education is for.  Although my grandfather went to college and became a schoolteacher, most of his peers and siblings didn’t see their education as potentially remunerative, except in the sense of enabling them to have a better agricultural and community life.  It was necessary that they figure interest and master the selling of oats and corn, that they have enough literacy to read contracts and such.  But for farmers, education beyond that was not directly relevant, even though it was common. 

 My great-grandfather would give up the farm, but his brother stayed, and went to school just as long, working his way through Geometry, Latin poetry and grammar not to improve his economic lot, but to improve his community, and himself.  In fact, it isn’t at all clear to me that my great-grandfather or his father thought that teaching would be an improvement on farming – teachers were not well paid, and if you didn’t have to hay in 90 degree heat or milk cows at 5 below, well, you often had trouble supporting a family – my great-grandfather got into money trouble more than once along the way, I’m told.  The reason they sent him to college was simply that he loved to learn, and they wanted to give him the best chance to do what he loved.

While I’m sure this is true of some of the workers and strivers of the present, the overwhelming justification for education at every level is that you will need it to get a job – education will cost you now in loans, time spent doing activities that look good on college applications, tutors, SAT prep, etc…. but it will return to you your investment many times over.  The problem of course, is that as education’s costs have risen, this has become less and less true for most people.  I think I attended college in the 1990s at the break-even point.  Now, as students come out of their degrees with little hope of making enough money to pay their loans, that promise of education, and the merits of education, are lost.

Why did Winnie and George and Edgar and Venus and Stevie go to school?  Winnie and Venus might have taught school for a few years (although who knows), but with marriage the only widely available career for women, they certainly didn’t go to get rich.  Stevie was probably headed back to the farm.  George was going into the factories, where no education is required, and Edgar was the only one who actually needed the education he got.  And yet, if they learned what was in their books, they came out of their schools with a fine liberal education – able to recite bits of Virgil, diagram sentences, write political essays, quote Emerson, with enough algebra to build a barn and enough trigonometry to go to college.  And for the most part, it got them nothing – indeed, it cost their parents days of desperately needed labor.

Except, that it didn’t get them nothing – the benefits were not remunerative, but communal.  They were competent citizens.  Quoting Virgil may have been of no actual use to a farmwife in rural Maine except this – that she knew she could, that she could teach Latin to her children were she to go west, far from schools, that she would have in her head forever the story of the founding of Rome, alongside Emerson on “Compensation,” “Barbara Freitchie” and the history of the rulers of England.  We can quibble with what she knew – suggest that the history she learned might have better included different stories, that there are better poems.  She would live her life in a community that had, if it had nothing else, a library, able to read fluently and enjoy when she had a few minutes alone.  What we cannot argue with, I think is the value that communities found in education in these times was that education had value for its own sake, in creating educated citizens. 

Despite the fact that that education cost people something, they went on providing it, because it was right, because farmwives who read poetry and fishermen who knew algebra made farmwives who wrote letters to the editor and gathered for literary gatherings and community theatricals, and fishermen who recited poetry to themselves as they drew in their lines, recited them to their children at bedtime, and stood for town council at the end of the day.  We should not over-romanticize the role of education in ordinary, work-filled daily lives.  Nor, however, should we understate how remarkable it was.

As the cost of education continues to outstrip the economic value of education, it becomes more and more imperative that we return to valuing education in proportion to its goods – these are vast.  I, the product of a liberal education, give enormous credit to mine.  But I had the good fortune to have a college education much like the one my great-grandfather had, one not expected to get me much.  I was a scholarship student, without parental expectations, or parents investing much of their capital into educating me.  My friends were told that they could minor in theater but had to major in computer science or economics or something that would get them a good job, because after, all, the parents were not paying 20,000 dollars a year to let them major in the humanities.  Since my parents were paying very little, and I came from this inheritance of valuing education mostly for its own sake, my desire to study poetry and history was never questioned.  Since I mostly got my education from scholarships, I didn’t have to pay off vast student loans, so there was nothing stopping me from going to graduate school in English, poor as the odds were that I’d ever get a professorship (the first year I went on the academic market there were 5 candidates for every job).

Even in the early 1990s, I realized how incredibly unusual and fortunate I was to be able to learn simply for its own sake.  Now, I think at the college level, there are almost certainly as few people learning simply for their own sake, without worries about the job they will get, as when my great-grandfather was encouraged by the school superintendent in Jonesboro to apply to the teacher’s college. 

At the lower levels, the emphasis is still on the economic value of education – but we are assured at every step that free public education has no value – you *must* go on to community college, to college, to graduate school, often at stunning cost (and the not-stunning costs are rising, as states cut subsidies to education).  You must do these things because a free education cannot get you a job – simply having a high school degree is nothing.  And we are so caught up in the economic value of education – and in the necessity of training students for higher education or blue-collar slavery, that we’ve entirely forgotten the value of education outside the economy – of education as a way of making people. 

This old-fashioned value, as arcane as my great-grandfather’s school books, however, will be back.  Because if we have to live locally again, live mostly with the people around us, education for citizenship, for self-improvement, so you have some poems and stories and ideas in your head, so you can talk to others, argue, write a letter, stand for council or congress, or even simply build a barn, this is what school should teach us – and why it will persist.


Water Conflicts

Sharon August 28th, 2009

I’m having computer programs and heading offline for the Sabbath shortly, but I thought I’d leave you with this brilliant site to peruse – they do a lovely job of illustrating the scale of our world water crisis. Not cheery, but awfully important to understand, and well worth a look.



Thinking Differently About Heating and Cooling

Sharon August 27th, 2009

Note: This is a re-run from last year, but I think it bears repeating – we’ve been talking about these issues in the AIP class and what always emerges is that at least as important as temperature itself is our attitude towards it.  As long as we believe we have to live in a particular way, at temperatures that simply haven’t been typical for most human beings through most of history, we will justify almost anything – including the burning of the very last forest to keep us warm, or the burning of the last scrap of coal to cool our bodies and heat the planet.  We’ve got to start thinking about this differently.

Today’s posts will focus on heating and cooling and how to deal with these issues.  If you live in the north, heating is probably a growing anxiety for you, because of the rapid rise in cost of nearly every method of heating.  When I wrote this piece last year, oil prices were now effectively prohibitive for poor and working families – with 100 or 125 gallon minimum deliveries and no credit extended, many households that rely on heating oil (disproportionately in the Northeast) were terrified they would not be able to afford to heat their houses at all with conventional methods. The collapse in oil prices came at a good time, but the problem isn’t over.  Meanwhile,  Gas prices are expected to rise steadily, and besides the rising cost of electricity, there’s the question of whether heavy reliance on electric space heaters to replace other heating methods may actualy result in power outages, leaving even more people in the cold.

And if you live where summer temperatures are regularly above 100 degrees, and every summer seems hotter than the last you are probably deeply concerned about what happens as the price of electricity spikes and air conditioning becomes prohibitive – or is shut off.  What do we do, short of abandon our homes?

 I’m going to talk about strategies for both of these things – first of all, how not to die from heat or cold – how to live without any heating or cooling, even in very cold or hot places, and then also how to cool and heat your house using fewer fossil fuels, but before we go there, I want to talk about how we *think* about heating and cooling overall.  Because that has at least as deep an effect on how we approach this as the actual method we use.

Now we all know that people have lived in very cold and very hot places in the world for most of human history, and most of them still have no central heating and no central air conditioning – and no one, not even the richest folks – had them until the last century or so.  So any discussion of heating or cooling has to begin from the recognition that our sense that we “have to” have certain temperatures, barring a few medical conditions – is really cultural, not physiological.  Human beings would not have survived in Northern climates, living in houses heated only by an open fire (and most of the heat goes up the fireplace) in uninsulated houses - or in more portable dwellings - for thousands of years if human beings couldn’t tolerate temperatures below 65 degrees inside. 

I realize this probably won’t make me anyone’s best friend, but the truth is that except for the ill, very elderly and underweight, you can regulate your body temperature in a house that is in the 40s or 50s – you won’t like it, but you can live that way  – in fact, you probably evolved to live that way.  If you dress very warmly, in layers, and move around a lot and have enough blankets, you will be fine – period. If you have an infant, the best strategy is to keep them against your body all the time – and they will be just fine. 

What is true is that people lived differently – they slept with another person, spent their days mostly together in the heated areas, or moving around and being active.  They often slept a lot more in the winter, and spent a lot of time when they were not being active in bed. 

The same is true of extremely high temperatures – while the world is manifestly warmer than it once was, it is also true that human beings have lived in very, very hot places for much of human history, and mostly lived.  But again, they lived differently – activity ceased in the heat of the day, life moved more into the night times, people spent more time in and near water - for example, in some parts of Southeast Asia, a shower (a bucket with holes in it) is a basic part of hospitality.

 It is true that most of us are physiologically better adapted to one kind of temperature than another – if you are from a hot place and move to a cold one, you will feel the cold more, and vice versa.  People raised in warm places actually do have more sweat glands, for example, than people from cold climates.  That said, however, our bodies also can adapt individually – someone who spends a lot of time working outdoors in a hot climate will build sweat glands, and someone who doesn’t over heat their house and goes out will acclimate to colder and colder temperatures.  The process of acclimation and adapting our lives is probably the most basic thing we can do to deal with heat and cold – and up until now, we’ve been using tools (central heating and cooling) that prevent acclimation – that is, we spend half our day in air conditioning, so our bodies don’t adapt to the heat.  Everyone who has ever worked outside on a bitterly cold day knows how *hot* even a lightly heated house feels when you go in.  This is acclimation, and we have to use it more than we have.

Now the odds are good our bosses probably won’t let us start siestaing, or give us the winter off to hibernate, and that we can’t totally change our lives to adapt to temperature.  But we can change our lives, and our ways of thinking to adapt to the weather, and we can work on acclimation.

One of the things that shifts in an era of cheap energy is the relationship we have to the idea of central heating or cooling.  When energy is cheap and widely available and perceived as having no major environmental consequences, we can afford to keep the whole house at a comfortable temperature – and central heating and cooling seem to have the advantage.  When costs go up and impact matters, central heating and cooling don’t work very well – the temperature your house is at goes up above what is comfortable or down below it, and localized heat or cooling starts to have the advantage.

 Why?  Well, we tend to think of heating or cooling as “keeping the house” at some temperature, but localized heating or cooling simply doesn’t work that way – over by my woodstove, there’s a spot that is often nearly 80 degrees – it feels great if I’ve been sitting at the computer in my 49 degree office, but far too hot to sit there all the time.  Out a bit further away, is an optimal temperature, and that’s where everyone will read or hang out.  Further still, it gets cooler, and the sleeping spaces (where we are warmed by heavy blankets and body heat) are the coolest of all).  Elderly people, or those who have been ill, or new babies can have the spot next to the fire, and be warm.  Those who need it less can have periods of comfort for quiet work, and less heat when they are up and moving.  And the same is true of cooling – if you need air conditioning, localizing it to the most urgent spot – perhaps the bedroom or living room- gives you comfortable sleep or a place to congregate and do your work.  This is less costly than trying to cool a whole house, but it also gets you adequate cooling in a localized space.  If you don’t use a/c, perhaps moving your bedroom to the shady north side of the house where the cross breeze comes, putting your mattress on the floor for summer, or sleeping outside (which is what people used to do) will be sufficient.

The most localized heating and cooling of all is the heating or cooling of your body – this could be as simple as dressing warmly, wearing a hat indoors, holding a cup of tea or coffee or even hot water, using a hot water bottle in bed or on the back of your chair, and putting your feet on a hot brick or other heated substance.  As I’ve mentioned, my office last year hovered in the high 40s, and I wrote a book that way, rather cozily, actually, with my fingerless gloves, my tea, my hot bricks and a bathrobe over my clothes.   For cooling, soaking a bandana or freezing it and putting it under your hat or over your hair, drinking copiously and sticking your feet in cool water are good strategies – it isn’t always necessary to cool your environment, just your body.

Heating and cooling are going to be serious strains on our society – we may first experience an “energy crisis” in a real sense this winter or in a coming one.  We’re going to have change our way of thinking – to start from acclimatization, and localized heat sources, rather than begin from the assumption that we all must live in 68 degrees.


Is It Home Yet?

Sharon August 26th, 2009

Apparently a cynical new ad campaign, funded by home improvement and furnishings companies is about to begin, trying to get you to spend your money on a new sofa or wing chair, since, after all, you haven’t been foreclosed on…yet.  The advertising slogan is “is it home yet?”

According to the New York Times:

“With such dreams of sudden wealth having gone the way of Dow 14,000, Americans may be getting used to the idea that they will be living in their current homes or apartments for a while longer. And if they are staying home more, because they cannot afford to take vacation trips or dine out as much as during the boom times, thoughts may be turning to refurnishing, refurbishing and generally sprucing up.

Those are the underpinnings of an ambitious campaign, with a budget estimated at $20 million, that is scheduled to begin on Monday. The campaign, by agencies that are part of the North American operations of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, a division of WPP, seeks to persuade consumers to start shopping again for furniture and home furnishings.

Needless to say, such discretionary merchandise has been particularly hard hit by the buying strike that has affected marketers during the recession in almost every category except, perhaps, groceries and gasoline. Sales of home furnishings fell 0.9 percent in July from June, according to the Commerce Department, and declined 12.9 percent last month compared with July 2008.

The campaign carries the upbeat theme “Is it home yet?,” which will be featured on a logo depicting the phrase embossed across a welcome mat. The theme evokes schmaltzy television commercials from decades ago for Lipton instant soup mix, in which hungry children asked their mothers, “Is it soup yet?”

The campaign will include print, outdoor and online advertising; search engine marketing; and promotions and materials in stores. There will also be a celebration of September as “National Home Furnishings Month” as well as a special Web site (

“For the last 10 or 15 years, you looked at your home as a financial investment, but the return on this investment is actually emotional,” said Robert Maricich, president and chief executive at the World Market Center Las Vegas, a showroom, exhibition space and design center for the furniture industry that was opened in 2005.”

Yup, you can’t afford to move, you are already 3 payments overdue, but definitely put some new drapes and wing chairs on the credit card.  You can’t get any money out, and the payments are impoverishing you, but the emotional return, is, like the credit card company says, “priceless.”  After all, who could put a price on the feeling wall-to-wall carpet gives.

This, of course, is the commercial version of home is where the heart is.  It is also, of course, complete bullshit.  Later in the story, a furniture executive observes that buying that new sofa isn’t discretionary – after all, “try sleeping on the floor, sitting on the floor, dining on the floor.”  Besides noting that all over the world, the vast majority of people do precisely those things, it might be worth noting the ridiculousness of the duality set up here – if you don’t buy a new sofa, you’ll have to sit on the floor.  Ok, everyone who doesn’t have anything to sit on, but internet acccess or who buys Elle Decor and has no sofa, raise your hand?  Anyone who can’t find a perfectly nice sofa down at the local Salvation Army, raise your hand.

Now advertising is like this, and there’s really no point in getting heated up, except for this – they’ve gotten very close to something we do need to know about our homes – that it is possible to tranform the into a place that can be home in the long term.  This is what Adapting in Place is about.  But for most of us the tools for this are precisely the opposite of those being sold by consumer culture – not the new sofa, but the ability to retrofit the old one or make do with something else; not the ability to purchase, but the ability not to, not “home as expression of one’s consumer taste” but “home as workshop and workplace, as a place that makes it easier for you to go on.” 

The more we are taught that home is made by our purchases, the harder it is for us to fundamentally transform our relationship with home, and make it a place that gives back to us, rather than absorbs the contents of our pocketbooks, until, of course, the day they are emptied, and the repo guy comes to take the sofa, and the house, back.


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