Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Putting food by--how much?

Several days ago I had a useful thought about food storage and preservation, and I'm finally getting around to putting it down here. I'm sure it's not revolutionary or anything, but I hadn't heard it expressly articulated anywhere else, and it's really helping me think about things, so here it is.

Fruits and vegetables constitute the bulk of what we must put away in summer for winter, at least in most households. Most of us tend just to buy our dry goods, and dairy and eggs are more of a year-round proposition, at least with modern, relatively affluent farming practices that allow for, say, winter grain feeding and lighted chicken coops. So this thought is mostly about fruits and veggies, though the same thinking could of course be applied to other stuff if it were relevant to you. (If, for example, you were dependent on your own dairy or eggs--you lucky dog you--then of course there are ways of preserving milk and eggs).

The USDA (leaving aside any doubts we might have about the general validity of their dietary guidelines, let's assume this one's reasonable enough) recommends 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. I think it's reasonable to say that a seasonal diet would look more like five (or more) servings of fruits and vegetables during the growing season, and three servings the rest of the time. Simply put, then, for every day of summer, you need to average roughly 3 servings of fruits or vegetables per person in the household going into winter storage.

Another useful way of thinking about it would be to multiply 3 by the number of household members by seven to get your weekly average. Or whatever seems appropriate. For example, our household: if I calculate Evelyn in for one adult serving per day for now, and three each for Jacob and me, then in a given summer week we need to put up 49 servings of fruits and/or vegetables.

At first, that struck me as pretty intimidating, but later, as I sliced dozens and dozens of tomatoes for drying, it didn't seem so bad. After all, a lot of preserving projects work best on the large scale anyway, and a serving is not as big as we tend to imagine it. That round of tomatoes probably accounted for nearly our week's total. A quart of apple sauce is, say, five or six servings, and last year we put up twelve quarts: 72 servings. Sauerkraut is another project where you end up with a lot pretty quickly, and for relatively little effort, and of course this sort of thing is where root cellaring really shines--think of the food value:time ratio of properly storing a pumpkin or a few pounds of carrots.

Obviously there's a lot to be said for estimating on the high side--there are going to be losses both small and large (a few nutrients destroyed by heat or time here, a squash rotted before you caught it there), and you never know when you're going to end up feeding more than the usual number of people. One of the joys of a well-stocked pantry has always been being able to feed guests without worrying. And you could just as well estimate for 4 servings per day or whatever, depending on how you prefer to eat. It's just a simple, obvious way of thinking about the question of how much is enough.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The good news and the weird news

Well, I had my first dentist's appointment in six years or so this morning. I've been experiencing some pretty serious, quality-of-life-reducing jaw pain for quite a while now, and since at first some of it seemed to originate in a spot where I was once told I had a "soft spot" developing, I had assumed that I was looking at some pretty advanced tooth decay.

So the good news is no tooth decay. The weird news is that instead I have a disorder. Namely, bruxism, more commonly known as tooth grinding.

The first two people who heard the news said, "Well, that's good right? No root canals!" Fortunately for me, Jacob and I share a brain (I have been known to refer to "our head"), so he understands. Sure, it's nice to be able to say that I still haven't got a single cavity in my head despite, by conventional standards, abominable dental hygiene. But, well, when we thought it was cavities, I could just be knocked out for a while and someone would FIX IT. Now, though, the problem is just as serious as ever, but, not to be punny or anything, it's in my head. And it's going to be a journey to fix it, and not just a doctor's appointment.

The diagnosis completely blindsided me--I would not have suspected it at all. Now that I've read and thought a little more, I do have a few thoughts, though. First off, I'm pretty sure that I don't actually grind my teeth at all, not even in sleep...I'm pretty sure I'm clenching them, as I've caught myself doing it several times since the appointment and it felt pretty--well, normal. Which leads to my second observation, which is that I'm not at all convinced that the problem is entirely or even primarily nocturnal--in which case the dentist's recommended treatment (the standard treatment) of a night-guard won't really solve it. I also feel like I need to know more, to see to what extent the temporal-mandibular joint might be involved/affected, since I have had ear problems wrapped up with this too.

So far, what this really makes me want to do is hurry up and get an appointment with my mom's naturopath, which I wanted to anyway. I really trust her, and I feel like she could give me a better picture of the full range of options and treatments, plus helping me with other problems that I would really like to resolve.

Basically, I've been trying to clear up my health and get things straight because, well, for one there are obvious quality of life issues. Also, though, my next pregnancy can't afford to be like my first one, not with a toddler running around. There were entire months of my first pregnancy when I found sitting up exhausting and barely had the energy to read--and mind you, I had no actual medical problems. And last, but not least, there is nothing more worth investing in than one's health when it comes to preparing for an uncertain future. I cannot afford to be less than my best if things come to a crisis, and currently I'm a whole lot short of "my best", whatever that may be--I'm confident that I've never approached it even in childhood, actually, since I've always had pretty poor health.

Well, now is the time to end that. Evelyn needs a capable, awake mother and Jacob needs a functional mate. I need to be able to do things without the additional burdens of pain and malaise.

It's just frustrating, because I don't know how much I can realistically do to reduce stress...our life is about as simple as it could reasonably be, we don't take on a lot of commitments, and there's just not really ANYTHING that I feel could beneficially be cut from our schedule. The very few things we do go to outside the home are really important for our mental/emotional wellbeing, just by virtue of their being so rare. Evelyn is what she is and I can't change that any faster than it's changing, and that's the primary source of stress in my life now. And, well, the world is a scary place right now and I really don't think that not thinking about that is a safe or productive answer.


Friday, September 19, 2008

Criticism of Montessori

My stomach hurts and I can't sleep, so I might as well sit here and work out my Montessori gripes. Sitting in the dark in the middle of the night seems, somehow, like an appropriate time and place to do this, since as far as I can tell, critiquing Montessori is somehow taboo--internet searches on the subject yield pretty much two things--complaints about specific schools and articles about this one professor in the early days of Montessori who for some reason took major exception to the philosophy. Which is funny, because I feel like there's a lot more to say than that.

First of all, I want to make it clear that overall, I like Montessori. In my experience and judgment, there is no better system generally available to the American public for the intellectual development of children. It certainly beats the ever-livin' pants off public school, and public schools would be/have been improved in direct proportion to the number of Montessori concepts they employ. I went to part-day Montessori preschool for one session (my mother worked there as a janitor in order to afford it), and didn't learn anything new 'til second grade. One of my dear friends is a Montessori teacher.

All that said, I do have some significant complaints.

First of all, all I've read about Montessori attitudes and expectations in infancy is seriously flawed. Some examples:

  • Infants sleep best on their own, and are capable from birth of regulating themselves through the stages of sleep. No and no. This does not reflect either the most current research (infants need practice regulating their physical state during sleep transitions and can benefit significantly, even life-savingly from the presence of an attuned adult) or my personal experience ("Are you serious? AHAHAHAHAHAHA!")
  • Babies should be weaned from the breast at around one year of age, or they'll get an oral fixation. Uhmmm, NO. The scientific research shows that breastfeeding is beneficial for as long as it continues, and the anthropological research suggests that natural weaning age for humans is somewhere between three and five years old. As for whatever Freudian bullshit an oral fixation is supposed to be, it can't be too crippling, seeing as how the vast majority of humans ever have apparently had one. Personally, I can say that Evelyn now nurses at least as much as she ever did, it's a lifesaver when she's sick or teething, and it really takes a load off my mind to know that whatever solid food she eats, she's still getting good nutrition so long as I'm eating decently.
  • You should put a young baby on a rug or fleece on the floor so that s/he can watch what the rest of the family is doing and be interested. Yeah, this isn't going to happen with a lot of babies. Certainly not mine. She would not be put down, not even when asleep. My clear understanding is that this is quite common. I suppose this idea is intended as an alternative to sequestering the baby in a crib, though, in which case it's certainly an improvement. What would be far better, even for the easy-going baby who would lie calmly on the floor, would be to wear the baby so that s/he could actually be at the level of the action and in physical contact with a caregiver. The many benefits of babywearing are demonstrable both anthropologically and scientifically (as well as, believe me, experientially), but Montessori philosophy also disapproves of "too much" babywearing on the grounds that it limits physical exploration and hinders gross motor skills. The evidence suggests that this is totally unfounded, and that, indeed, babies who are worn extensively actually gain gross motor skills more easily and sometimes earlier than babies who are not.
  • Children are naturally ready for and interested in potty training between a year and 15 months or so. This one's funny, because it's one of the more frequently complained about tenets of Montessori, and usually people are complaining that it's just unrealistically early. I'm going to complain that it's just like the conventional opinion, only earlier. The Montessori attitude is that neurological and physical development doesn't allow for the voluntary control of the sphincters and other muscles involved until a year, whereas standard doctrine puts it at around 18 months. I have firsthand experience that this is utter bullshit, since my daughter has been voluntarily peeing and pooping at appropriate times and in set situations since she was, oh, two or three months old? She now often goes to the potty completely of her own volition if we leave her diaper off, and this morning she yelled at the bathroom door to be let into the potty when she had to pee. To any mama practicing Elimination Communication (by whatever name) this attitude is just as wrongheaded as the conventional take...maybe even a little more, since it is generally agreed in the ECing community that after your child becomes mobile it is more difficult to get him/her to sit on the potty.
There are other things. For example, while there are very valid reasons for avoiding plastic toys, the reasons generally given by proponents of Montessori generally sound disingenuous and more like a reflection of their own distaste for the material. It's "cold"--yes, well, so is metal, and my daughter loves to play with metal things and has from the start. "Natural materials are interestingly varied whereas plastic always feels the same"--well, no, actually. Plastic is a highly versatile material, and can be hard or soft, shiny, satiny, or bumpy, etc., and is usually brightly colored, which children love. "Children prefer natural materials"--well, I sincerely wish this were true, but my experience has not borne this out. I have quite a collection of lovely, carefully selected wooden toys, most of which have been played with very little, and a few plastic toys from yardsales, which see at least as much play, though frankly Evelyn can smell a phony from a mile away and largely ignores "toys" altogether. If you're going to choose not to buy your child plastic, do it because it leaches toxic chemicals and will sit in a landfill for hundreds of years before finally breaking down into millions of bits of persistent toxic pollution. That seems like a sufficient reason to me.

The next complaint I see as unfortunate, because I really think that modern Montessori is a privilege of the affluent, and after all it started out with inner city kids. Hand-crafted hardwood shelving units made in the US are wonderful, no doubt, but even we cannot afford to spend $300 on a single set of shelves, much less most of the world. Entire play areas, even rooms, set aside specifically for the child I disagree with in principle as well, because I feel like they create segregation, but they are also an impossibility for many apartment dwellers or people in small (read, reasonable-sized) houses. The focus on beautiful, carefully made toys and materials is laudable in some ways, but even for those of us who can afford an $80 shape sorter, we have to ask if this is actually a wise allocation of money in a world where millions of people don't even have safe drinking water. So no, I don't think that Montessori principles are accesible only to the affluent, but I do think that in practice, the world of Montessori has become populated almost entirely by people with significant disposable income. Certainly the tuition for Montessori schools, however much they might be a reasonable reflection of the schools' costs, is far beyond the reach of many if not most.

And lastly, damn, is it just me or is Montessori anal!? We must be calm, neat, tidy, organized, polite! Teach your child not to splash! Don't let the toys get spread all over the floor! Children love order! Well, yes, some children do have a fierce need for ritual and predictability...and some don't...but I think we should own our own needs and realize that, very often, kids don't give a damn if the house is a mess, and it's really our problem. Anyway, yeah, wow is Montessori ever anal. Like a lot.

Okay, it's no longer the middle of the night and I probably have better things to do than bitch. I would love to hear other people's thoughts, though, if anyone reading has experience with Montessori.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

One cubicle wall from disaster

That's about how I'm feeling right now. Right now, Jacob's company is still booming, and so long as he has his job, we have quite a comfortable cash-flow. We even have savings, which, as noted, is part of the problem, since our bank is among those on shaky footing. I actually have no idea (how sad is that?) what would happen to our money if Wachovia went under in any of the various possible (likely?) ways. But just as there are any number of possible events that could push the US/the world from "badly infected cut" to "systemic illness" status, there just isn't that much between us and a very scary situation.

Say Obama wins the election--an event we would welcome--and starts pulling back troops and decreasing defense spending. Or just say that the economy keeps worsening, which I think we can take for granted. Jacob is a versatile guy, but largely unappreciated, and far from the most senior engineer at work. We calculate that we need over $30K a year just to pay the bills in this, our very modest old house in farm country, with no cable, no cell phones, and old cars. Where is Jacob going to pick up another job with money like that? How far would he have to drive? We live fifteen minutes from the nearest grocery store and 25 from his job as it is. How on earth would I contribute? I might be able to leave the wee one with the neighbor--though it'd kill me to have to--but all I have on offer is an incomplete Associate's degree and a resumé of food and customer service jobs I despised. Not promising.

And yet we keep living like we always have, which is to say frugally but more or less normally (although plenty of people consider it pretty stinkin' abnormal for us to not have cellphones, I guess). Heck, we just spent all that on a kitchen remodel. And I don't regret it, but I do feel tense.

Jacob...I don't quite know how to explain Jacob, or to get through to him. I grew up very poor, so I started from the viewpoint that hard work and perseverance sometimes just get you walked all over (certainly the case for my mother), but Jacob grew up very middle class and I think part of him still believes that poor people are poor through lack of effort, etc., and that basically things will be as they always have been for him. Intellectually, he agrees that the system is fucked, but I don't think that he accepts that it's really, really FUCKED, and that he could be too. He agrees, at least superficially, with the things I read to him from various peak oil blogs and articles, and has started paying attention to the news more closely and so on, and he's a complete partner when it comes to homesteading, etc., but still there's a strong tendency to make a joke of everything and to resist any action that really commits us to the future I forsee as opposed to "normalcy".

For example, he was quite in agreement with me when we reduced his 401K contributions to a very low level, because we had more critical use for the money and considered it an extremely dubious investment anyway. But when I now say that I think it incredibly unlikely that any of that money would be there for us to retire on anyway, or that "retirement" will even have the same meaning by the time we're sixty, and that we might consider just taking the penalties and yanking our money while it's still there, he dismisses the idea. He's there with me most of the way, but he still holds back from full belief.

It's hard to complain...I know a lot of people have much larger disconnects with their spouses than this when it comes to their take on the future. But still...I'm feeling so tense and really wanting to commit to action, and he's hanging back and joking. Maybe I'm just being a whiny punk because wahhh wahhh he's minimizing my worries...but dammit, he IS.

Of course, part of the problem is that I can hardly believe in it at all, and it takes active effort to "live the reality" of what's happening to our world. Mostly I fail. Witness the kitchen: $2K to make the kitchen work better? Sure, totally worthwhile. A few hundred to make sure we have access to the well in case of a power outage? I dunnoh....

Well, anyway, small crabby infant calls.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Money makes me feel stupid

I have been striving off and on to reach a better understanding of how money works. And it's amazing how hard this is given that I'm a fairly highly intelligent person. I'm not bothered by my initial state of ignorance, or rather, not on a personal level, because we're basically all profoundly ignorant on the subject, and there really are vested interests that wish to keep us that way. THAT is, needless to say, extremely bothersome, but at least it's not because I'm a dumbass or because I snoozed through civics (I did). It does make me feel stupid, though, when I'm actively seeking to understand things--like, say, my mortgage--and am completely boondoggled.

Actually, I think this is because basically I can't bring myself to believe the bullshit that makes the system run. I come from a few thousand years worth of farmers, same as pretty much anyone else, and have the basic agrarian distrust for merchants and money. In feudal Japan merchants were considered the lowest class of people--parasites who created nothing useful. Other cultures, certainly my own, have held similar attitudes. Now, mind, I'm not saying that these attitudes are appropriate--actually, I think they're about as ignorant and counterproductive as the current habit of believing that the people handling our money are basically trustworthy and benevolent and we don't need to worry so long as we play by the rules. What I'm saying is that probably my problem is that I keep expecting this stuff to make sense, and by my sights, it just doesn't. That is, it really is smoke and mirrors without substance.

I keep persevering, though, and I'm making some progress. I feel like I need to, because we still need to make the money system as it exists work for us so long as it does exist. Very little of what we're trying to do around here will matter at all if we can't keep our home, and that, for the forseeable future, means paying our mortgage, which means money and banks.

Right now, I'm finding this video to be enormously helpful. Watch it.

Monday, September 15, 2008


Pretty low on posts here, coming into the toddler years I'm spending more time standing behind my daughter as she goes up and down (and up and down and upanddownupdownup) the stairs than I am read and writing (and thinking). I just really needed to purge a little angst though, because DEAR GOD things are getting scary. Climate is turning nasty in a big way and financial markets are--well, teetering would be a nice way to put it, no?--and I begin to feel like Jacob and I are in a three-legged race against professional sprinters who aren't actually tied. We move at a snail's pace (upanddownandupanddown the stairs), and feel good if we manage to do one preserving project a week and zero other preparedness, and the world we still depend pretty heavily on to function is racing manically towards some invisible but certain tiger pit. Where? When? How long do we have?

We're still critically dependent on electricity for the basic functions of our house--heating, water, food storage, light. We're still fonged without Jacob's high-tech defense industry job. We're still shitty gardeners, as the garden attests too depressingly. Still no rainwater collection. Still no chicken coop. No sun oven, no rocket stove, shit, we haven't even got a solar wax melter slapped together, which is probably the easiest solar project short of a soda bottle on the dash board, and we have dozens of frames of used wax literally molding in the basement. Well, actually, a LOT of things are molding in the basement, including any vegetables we try to store there.

We did make progress this weekend, and good progress too, though as preparedness goes, it's sort of a move sideways, and a gamble on a few more years of relative normalcy and affluence. We bought (most) of the materials for a partial kitchen remodel, so that a) more stuff can be put away, out of the way of good cooking, inquisitive fingers, and weekday evening preserving, b) I can spend the time I would normally have to spend doing the dishes by hand instead making bread or hanging laundry (or standing on the stairs, but ya know). So we're ripping out some really space-wasting installments and an old leaky washing machine we couldn't use and replacing them with better-designed cabinets and a new washer. When we're done, the kitchen will still pretty much look like 1984, but it will be more organized and less cluttered (and, okay, I'm very happy about the oak coutertops), which will be a Good Thing.

For a long time I resisted getting a new dishwasher, because it seemed like a step in the wrong direction to buy a new electric appliance. I was finally persuaded (Jacob thought it was a good idea all along, and only hesitated on the point of repair or replacement) for a variety of reasons. First of all, we have no time and our lives feel out of control and something's got to give, and nothing gets done in the kitchen when first you have to clear every flat surface of dirty dishes. Second, I have a major mental block about washing dishes in still water--I grew up with washing dishes that way, but as soon as it was up to me I switched to running water and I can't seem to make myself do it any other way. I have to steel myself just to reach in and pull the plug on used water after someone else washes dishes...yuckyuckyuck! So anyway, that's the long way of saying that a dishwasher would almost certainly use less water than me. And last but not least, it's not as if turning the dishes over to a machine for now has any long-term repercussions...I'm not gonna forget how to do dishes. It presumably will use a bit more power than the current method, but we've only considered energy star washers, and, well, basically, the cost-benefit analysis came out in favor of the washer. The new washer instead of the repair is because, well, even if we could get it repaired reasonably, the one we have would still be builder-grade crap from 1984. It's been trash for years, and that isn't our fault...it just hasn't been thrown away.

There...is that enough justifications and rationalizations for not getting our butts in gear? Truly, we're trying, but sometimes the news makes me feel panicky that we're not trying hard enough or moving fast enough. And always it makes me hurt hurt hurt for all the people who no longer have our options and opportunities (or never did).