Why office jobs are better than homesteading

Interesting story behind this post – I saw a link to it on my dashboard and thought “Hey, that sounds like a great article – I’ll go read that” only to discover it was the “Drafts” section of my dashboard. I wrote this two and a half years ago, and every word of it still rings true to me. So here it is!


 

 

I’d like to poke a stick at a rather sacred (grass-fed, heirloom breed) cow for a minute: the assumption that anyone who’s interested in growing food, living a low-energy lifestyle, and/or being a “citizen” rather than a “consumer” also secretly wants to escape the misery of their office job that sap their creativity, kills their souls, and pays a pittance when you take into account all the work clothes, makeup, lunches out, and commuting fees. We start to consider our profession our primary identity, and come home from the job each day brain-dead, unable or unwilling to interact with our families, and we turn on the TV for escape. and we never know when our job might simply evaporate. But what we all really want, the myth goes, is to be our own bosses, to raise all our own food, and thus to be “free.”

Honestly, that myth is -shall we say – material for my compost pile.

I’ve worked for others, and I’ve worked for myself. I went back to work for others because when my husband went to grad school, we needed a more reliable source of income. And I’ve stayed working for others* for a number of very good reasons.

  1. Job security. Sure, my day job might be terminated with little notice – but honestly, I am pretty sure I’ll get paid for the rest of this fiscal year, at least. When I worked for myself, I had a mix of project work and retainer work. A couple of my long-term clients paid me a discounted hourly rate for a set number of hours a month – usually about 5 – and those contracts were generally good for 6 months or a year. Projects usually lasted 2-6 weeks and paid 1/3 up front, 1/3 halfway through, and 1/3 upon completion. Then they were gone, and I had to find other work. Let me tell you – a year of job security looks really damn good compared to two weeks.
  2. Pay for 40 hours a week, no matter what. I confess, I am occasionally bored in my office job. Usually happens when I’m waiting for someone to get back to me so I can do the next step of whatever it is I’m doing. But you know what? I’m paid for those hours that I spend waiting – I just find something else to do, even if it’s reading trade journals or experimenting with a new technology. When you work for yourself, you get paid for exactly the hours you work. If you’re bored, you’re also incredibly stressed, because it means you might not be able to pay our own salary this month. And I’m not likely to lose a year’s income to a late frost, a freak hailstorm, or a plague of locusts.
  3. I get paid well. Working for myself, I charged $60-75/hr. Project work often amounted to much more than that – one project effectively paid $385/hr, because they paid a lump sum and I was able to finish the work quickly and well. Working for others, I am paid about a third of my old hourly rate…but I take home a whole lot more money in a year because I get paid 40 hours every week. Plus health insurance and retirement benefits. I have lived on as little as $12/hr, and I can do it. Not a lot of fun money to throw around, but certainly livable. But making more is definitely nicer. “Money can’t buy happiness,” but it sure can buy comfort, and relief from the stress of “how am I going to pay the bills this month?” or “what if I get sick and have to pay for a doctor?”
  4. I get to leave it at the office. I was actually pretty good about not letting my self-employment take over every waking moment, and I’m very good about working hard during my 40 hours so I only have to work 40 hours a week. And, since I get to leave the office and come home to a different environment and different set of activities, it’s easy to have multiple facets to my identity. I’m an instructional designer, yes, but I’m also a gardener, teacher, spouse, friend, and homebody. I don’t know that I’d like having my day job and my avocation overlap entirely – because then what would I do in my “off” time? More of the same thing I do at work?
  5. I’m doing work I like. I really like my field, and I really like the work tasks I do day-to-day. Working for myself, project work was the fun work – that’s where I got to be creative, do problem-solving, and make shiny new toys for appreciative people. But it was highly irregular. My dependable income – retainer work – was godawful dull.
  6. Collegiality. It’s hard to express how much I appreciate having colleagues to bounce ideas off of, or to share a project with. My colleagues are experts, and when we each work on the part of a project that suits our expertise, the end product is much better than anything I could do on my own.
  7. There’s always a new project. When I finish a project, all I have to do is say to my boss, “I’m done – what’s next?” and before long, there’s a new project to work on. Sometimes the projects are not super-interesting to me, but most of the time they are. Boredom is miserable for me. If I don’t have useful work to do, I start creating useless problems to solve.
  8. This is my craft. Each new project spurs me to be creative and to create solutions that are elegant, useful, practical, and sustainable. I take as much pride in my work as any farmer, woodworker, potter, or other artisan.

These are the reasons I keep working my job. Yes, I need to keep a good-paying job to pay my mortgage – but if you know me, you know that my home is the center of my life and the basis of my health, sanity, and joy. A wonderful home is worth a lot of money to me – and not because it “looks good to the Joneses.” Yes, I identify with my career. What’s so bad about that? It doesn’t hamper my ability to have relationships with people outside of work. I don’t feel like I’m being taken advantage of in terms of salary or what’s asked of me at work. And to be frank: I enjoy the money. I like being able to afford this house. I like having a grocery budget of $350/mo instead of $100/mo. I like being able to say, “Hey, we really need a good heavy-duty mat inside the front door” and just buying it instead of having to save up for two or three months (during which time the floors are getting damaged and dirt is being tracked all over the house).

I know not everybody has this kind of relationship with their work. I know some people do hate their day job and resent that they have to kowtow to an awful boss for just enough money to scrape by. But I’m tired of this presumed divide between “fat cats,” “wage slaves,” and “independent homesteaders” with no room for people who work, like it, and haven’t “sold out.” That message – that of course you want to be your own boss and grow all your own food – is about as useful as the ones that say I have to be 22, blonde, and 38-22-34 to be happy.

So for the record: my day job and my big garden, root cellar, and garden work together quite nicely. And should a time come when they don’t, I’ll change something. But in the meantime, quit trying to tell me that I’m deluded because I think I like my job.

* I have a master’s degree in education and I work for a university helping implement curriculum changes and educational technologies

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Em’s food rules

Well, not really rules. More like guidelines.

Givens:

  1. Food serves biological, emotional, and cultural purposes.
  2. People have different biological, emotional, and cultural needs; therefore, there is no one “right way to eat” for everyone – even people in the same region, family, blood type, or other grouping.
  3. An individual’s food choices have an impact on others beyond the self: the beings one is eating, the environment in which those beings live and die, the ongoing health of the land and its ability to feed future beings.
  4. Generally speaking, the edibles of a place provide appropriate nutrition to survive and thrive in that place. Keep in mind the “edibles of a place” may include things you are not accustomed to thinking of as food: weeds, insects, blood, acorns, etc.
  5. Disasters happen: crops fail, vermin populations boom, warehouses burn, gardeners break arms.
  6. “Waste” is a human construct; in nature, all outputs are inputs somewhere else. Human choices can direct waste to benefit human endeavors.

Actions:

  1. Each person gets to decide her/his “right” way to eat. But please, folks, let that be a decision and not a default.
  2. The food economy needs to be both drastically more localized than it currently is, and needs to retain the ability to trade easily between regions in case of crop failure, destruction of stores, or other supply disasters.
  3. Food waste (at all stages of production) needs to be eliminated. And not just by feeding leftover coq au vin to the pigs.

Staying changed

So, in my last post, I talked about how I’ve made some changes in my life, and how resuming my old routine didn’t quite “fit” anymore.

I have been waiting for this for the better part of a year. Heck, maybe two.  I’ve known that I needed to rest, to move houses, to recuperate, and at some point, I’d feel like I’d rested enough.  Well, I think I’ve turned that corner. Here are some of the signs I’m noticing:

  • I concede that there may actually be things outside of my own house that are worth my time and attention.
  • I’m wanting to see people.
  • I’m wanting to create things, try new things, learn things, build things.
  • I’m fretting about things that aren’t actually a problem and probably won’t become a problem. For example, money. We have plenty right now, and relatively good job security. We have several very large expenses coming up (residing the house this spring, a new car in a couple years) but given how far inside our means we live, we should be able to save for those things and we might not even need to take out loans for them.  And if we do need to take out loans, we should have no problem getting approved, and we’ll probably pay them off well ahead of schedule. There is nothing here to worry about, but I find myself poking at the numbers repeatedly to see if I can make them more firm or for the savings to happen faster. This tendency to make mountains out of molehills is one I see in myself a lot, and in smart, bored beings in general. SAHM’s with a now-empty nest, people of extraordinary privilege, and zoo animals all show this tendency – they’re problem-solvers with no problems to solve. So we create problems.
  • A friend recently announced a huge life shake-up. It reminded me that things that seem like they’ll always be the same can still change. It also helped me see that I’ve been focusing on smaller and smaller things lately. Instead of “I need to turn my brain off tonight, or I’m going to have a nervous breakdown,” I’m at the “I’m not feeling completely centered at the end of every single day” point. This, my friends, is pretty much the definition of “being well.” It is time for me to move forward again.

Ok, so, clearly, time to move on. But on to what?

That has been surprisingly hard to answer, and I can see that I am reflexively trying to fill that space with whatever’s at hand, or whatever filled that space before. Work. Chores. Concern for my own well-being. Fears related to any number of old bugaboos. Busy-ness. One dog I’m  not letting back on the bed right now is the desire to save/fix/help the world at large. Not sure if that one is going to come back, but it sure needs a lot more energy than I’m willing to give it at the moment. Maybe ever, because I’m more and more thinking it’s too late, anyway. Coping, not fixing are more the order of the days ahead. So – I don’t want to just refill the spaces with the same old junk. At least I can see that I’m trying to do that, and able to say, “Um, no, I don’t think so.”

But what do I want to fill that space with? The answers – and I’m sure there are more than one – are coming slowly.  One thing I did this weekend was to cook some Indian food.  After years of flirting with Ayurveda, occasionally fascinated and occasionally repulsed, I finally bought an Ayurvedic cookbook over break and I’ve been reading through it and dog-earing recipes. Since mindful, nutritious cooking is one of the things I’d like to have more of in my life, when I found myself with a Sunday mostly free for whatever I wanted to do, I decided that instead of stripping the shower tile in prep to re-seal it, I would go ahead and take the time to choose a couple recipes and make a complete meal from this cookbook.  I’ve not done much Indian cooking, and it doesn’t come easily to me.  Add to that the seeming fussiness of Ayurvedic cooking: the actual measurements of seasonings and sometimes over-involved cooking methods – and this adds up to a pot of beans and rice that took almost two hours for me to complete.

But it felt good to take that time: to give a task my attention, to learn, to have the cooking be the activity, to tie food actively to my body and soul. And it was tasty, too. 🙂

So I think I need to make myself a list of specific things I can do when I feel like I have time on my hands, to make it easier to move forward toward my list of “things I want in my life” instead of just bringing the old crap back in.  The specificity helps: instead of just saying “Yoga,” I list “Try a new yoga routine from my Christmas DVDs.” Instead of “make some lunches for the freezer” (an old chore), I list “try a new vata-soothing recipe” (which could also result in leftovers for lunch).

I still don’t know where this path is going, but I do feel like there is now a path, and I am starting to move down it.

Making changes

So I’ve known for a while that I’ve wanted to change some things about the overall shape of my life. I was fried too much of the time. I was accomplishing a lot but never felt at ease or rested. I had pulled back some from 2011’s two speeds of “dead run” and “asleep,” but I still wasn’t feeling like I could ever get out from under a “must-do list” longer than my lifespan.

The first helpful thing I did was to phrase this in terms of things I wanted – not just things I was running away from. I don’t think I ever wrote this down (though maybe it’s in a journal or on a scrap of paper somewhere), but it was along the lines of:

  • Reclaim my time from the obligations of my job, and the obligations I’ve imposed upon myself
  • Feel tranquility around me and within myself
  • Re-find and occupy my center, so I can move deliberately when I choose to do so

These things were, by and large, things I wanted to feel, not things I wanted to do.  Though I did want to feel like doing certain things, too:

  • Feel like cooking is a pleasure and a conscious act of nourishment, not just “preventing hunger”
  • Feel like I can do things because I want to do them – “leisure activities” instead of “work” (including work at home)
  • Feel like engaging with other people, not just hiding from them because interacting takes so much energy
  • Feel like exercising – not forcing myself, but actually wanting to do it

And there were some things I wanted: this house, fittings for the house, and now gardens and fruit trees. (Can you believe I went an entire year when the idea of putting plants in the ground didn’t excite me? Or even felt like “just another duty”? Yeah, I was that wiped out.) Even just admitting that I wanted things and that it’s ok for me to want things was kind of a leap.

So…I feel like I’ve done a lot of this stuff. I’m “over the hump” at work, and each subsequent hump will be smaller than the ones before. We bought and settled into the house, and over break I was able to draw a line around “enough” in terms of what the house needs to be functional and “done” for now. And then we also finished those things – the smoke detectors, the superfluous but very pretty heat register covers, etc.

Now I’m past the vacation, and going back to work. And the interesting thing is how I am watching myself heading right back to my accustomed way of doing things. Those customs don’t actually fit anymore.  I no longer have to spend disproportionate amounts of my energy at work – but I have to remember how to move more slowly, and with less dire urgency.  As that energy has returned, just coming home, making dinner, and reading all evening doesn’t feel like enough to be doing each night. Before, it was fine, because each evening, I was also trying to replenish my depleted stores of rest and energy. But now, I can tell I’ve got some energy left, and some inclination to use it for…something.  That’s a big change.

And that’s the topic for another post.

What I did on my winter vacation

I had a marvelous holiday break. We went to see family the first few days, and after a “stressful but could have been worse” return home (I wasn’t feeling well and we were flying into a big snowstorm), we had twelve blissful days of being home with no real agenda. We took one day trip (musical instrument store and zoo), went to one gathering (New Year’s Eve – came home at 11pm) and that was pretty much it. I slept a lot, did a fair amount of yoga (but nothing crazy), and worked on some sort of project almost every day. Except the days I didn’t feel like it, in which case I read most of the day.

It was heavenly. The projects were things I’d been wanting to do for quite a while. Some were fun (spend my Christmas money on yoga DVDs and a 6′ square mat), and some were tedious (finish hanging smoke detectors). I actually did a fair bit of canning – I’d received a big box of grapefruit from a colleague, and I had a bunch of chicken and beef I wanted to turn into stock and beef tips. (Twenty-four quarts of stock/meat plus half a dozen jars of citrus – the pantry is groaning!)

I actually had goals for this stay-at-home break. Without some idea of what I want by the end of the break, I tend to fritter away time, become a couch potato, and I generally feel like a slug after four or five days. So, each day, I tried to:

  1. Rest – sleep enough, but don’t lay slugabed past 8:30 or 9.
  2. Feel tranquility and appreciation. Serenity is a presence, not just an absence of stress. I now live in a place that oozes tranquility from the earth, the trees, the very air. And I realized that I’d not been noticing that nearly so much now that it’s gotten colder and I’m in moderately high gear at work again. So: take time and notice the peacefulness each day.
  3. Go outside. I didn’t actually do so well on this one – several days, I was only outside to get wood from the garage.
  4. Do some slow, deliberate movement. Yoga or qigong fit that bill.
  5. Do some project work. This ended up not being the same amount each day, and some days I didn’t do much at all.
  6. Vigorous exercise 5 times over the break. This was things like running on the elliptical, taking long hikes, or more vigorous vinyasa yoga at the gym or home.

This worked really well, and it was one of the best vacations I’ve ever had. I went back to work on the 7th and found I not only had energy to do the work (and wow, it was a “hit the ground running” return to work…), I wasn’t fried by the end of the day. And that continued through the whole week. Now it’s Sunday, and I didn’t really feel like I *needed* the down time of the weekend. Which should mean I’m not depleting myself, and going to wind up in exactly the same spot a few weeks down the road.

I feel like I’m actively changing the shape of my life right now. I’ve had a fair few thoughts on this process…more on those later.

Grateful for water

If you’re in the mood for gratitude today, go appreciate a nice drink of clean water.

Thursday night

Sweetie. Woodstove. Kimchi pizza. Cider. Books (He: philosophy of religion; she: historical novel about the San Franciso earthquake).

It doesn’t get much better than this.

Where I’ve been

We moved here in June:

Fen Ridge House Fen Ridge House
Obviously, I’ve not been blogging. I also didn’t really garden this year, or do many Preserving Traditions events. I’ve not gone on many trips, or gone out with friends.

So what have I done?

The new hearth and stove I’ve been reveling in the astonishing beauty of this place, the tranquility of the land, recovering from an insanely stressful work project, and largely reclaiming my self as a healthy, rested forest creature. We sold the old house in September to some wonderful folks who will take good care of it. The big must-fix items (wood stove; insulation) have been taken care of. First garden bed I’ve made a good dent in the honeysuckle, autumn olive, ailanthus, and buckthorn, and put in one garden bed which may or may not get enough sun. (We’ll see.) We’ve had family and friends to share the joy of this place, and to our delight, it makes them happy, too. I’ve slept, rested, done yoga, read books, and looked my sweetie in the eye every single day and we have together given thanks for this move.

And now I’m almost ready to start sharing some of the interesting aspects and puzzling questions about this house with the rest of the world.  It’s a passive solar house, and I’d like to share with you some of the things about it that do work, don’t work, and might work. There’s so much passive solar theory out there – did you ever wonder how well it actually works? Well…I’ll try to live out loud a bit here to share that with you.

But I tell you – if that sunbeam calls me, you might not get posts for weeks at a time. And I won’t regret it.papasan sunbeam

Homemade convenience foods

Dinner tonight was accomplished in about 15 minutes, largely by opening cans and jars. Honestly – it feels like cheating. But it’s all good stuff: tomato sauce (commercial, but local from small farms), home canned diced tomatoes and smoked pork, and hominy (no idea where from, but it’s just corn – no weird ingredients). Oh, and a huge double handful of fresh spinach from the garden, and some chili powder and cumin. Bring to a boil, drop in the thermal pot sleeve, and let “steep” for ten minutes. Way yummy – and basically instant.

I’ve been thinking a lot about instant food lately, sparked largely by my tour of the Jiffy Mix factory in nearby Chelsea, MI. It’s an awesome tour – I highly recommend it if you like seeing how things are made. (Coolest factoid of the tour, for me: they build the box around the paper liner!) I also couldn’t resist buying the “Tour sampler pack” of 24 little blue boxes of mix. Muffins, cakes, cornbread, biscuits, pizza dough – all for 50 cents a box. I made the cornbread a couple nights ago as a snack – good gravy, that stuff is addictive! Light, sweet, with an amazing crackly crust because I baked it in cast iron. And it was so easy to make: dump in bowl, add an egg and a sploosh of milk, stir, bake for 10 minutes.

And it hit me: no wonder people buy this stuff. It’s so easy.

But…it’s sweet and airy because the flour is white, the corn degerminated, and a fair dose of sugar added. Seriously overpackaged. The muffins, especially, are full of artificial flavor and color – things I would rather not eat at all.

I think a lot of us homesteader types value work and time-on-task because difficulty stands as a proxy for other values, like anti-commercialism, quality, and “homemade-ness.” But if I think about tonight’s dinner, I wonder, where is the balance between arduous doing-it-yourself and convenience?  Tonight’s dinner was not a lot of work…tonight. There was plenty of work that went in at other times, though: when I canned the tomatoes, when I stewed the pork. But you know what? It’s worth it. It’s not money in the bank; it’s time in the pantry. Sealed in a jar and banked for use on a night when I desperately need wholesome, high-quality food with a minimum expenditure of energy.

And that’s got me thinking about my own Jiffy mixes. Measure corn meal, flour, baking soda, salt, and maybe buttermilk powder into a pint jar…just add an egg and water and bake! Or vegan gingerbread: flour, brown sugar, spices, baking soda…just add oil and soy milk. You could whip up half a dozen jars in the time it takes to make the recipe once…and then you’d have it there and ready to go. No recipe, no thought, no measuring…and no artificial ingredients, white flour, or other things best left on the “treat” menu.

Lackawanna; or, is this garden burnout permanent?

There’s an exit off I-90 in western New York for “Lackawanna,” and it’s always sounded to me like an extreme case of lethargy – “wanna” being the desire to do, be, or obtain anything. I’ve definitely been feeling some lackawanna lately, largely due to the pilot roll-out of a monumental, complex, and difficult year-long project at work. Add to that the ongoing (or stagnant) effort to buy a particularly wonderful house in the woods (a process which started over six months ago), and I tell ya: I’m tired, physically and emotionally.

The rollout was April 3, and I keep waiting for my wanna to come back. It’s taking its own sweet time, I tell ya. Several weekends have gone by with absolutely no desire to garden, cook, see people, talk with friends, or anything else fun – let alone not-fun stuff like cleaning the house, sorting out closets, or doing the taxes.

This is such a strange feeling. Think of the thing you most like. Chocolate? Sex? Watching your kids play? Now imagine absolutely not caring if you ever experienced that thing again. It’s like waking up in somebody else’s body. You hardly recognize yourself. I think it’s only hit me the last couple weeks because the previous few months, I’ve been so busy and tired that my entire emotional range was “muscle through work,” “come home and hide,” and “asleep.”

But now I know I’m starting to get back to the place I like to live my life. How do I know?

Friday, I didn’t want or need ten hours of sleep – for the first time in at least a month.

Saturday, I stuck my digging fork into the compost pile, unearthed wriggling knots of happy earthworms, and smiled that I had helped make that compost happen.

Sunday, I ran my fingers through the dirt of my garden, and thought it might be nice to put some seeds into it.

Yesterday, I decided I wanted to see some pansies blooming at the front of the house.

Today, along with the pansies, I couldn’t resist buying onion plants and poking them into the ground. And the avocados I bought over the weekend are ripe, and making guacamole sounds like fun, not a chore.

My physical stamina is still low – an hour of slow puttering in the garden feels like an aerobic workout – but that should return quickly now that the major source of stress is gone.

So maybe it’s time to leave Lackawanna and head back to my usual homestead!

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