Book report

For a long time, reading was one of my great pleasures.  I was constantly reading when I was younger – on weekends and after school, on vacation, at recess, and even late into the night when I’d sneak into the bathroom and read by the nightlight my parents kept there.  I could devour a book in a few days.  I never seemed to bring enough reading material on vacation that there wasn’t a point where we’d have to visit a book store to tide me over until we got home.

Sadly, this isn’t a pleasure that I’ve really kept up with.  Partly, I think it’s a case of having spent so much of my grad school life reading that it’s become more work than relaxation to me.  No matter how many interesting, intriguing, or thought-provoking texts I read, there was always an element of work attached to it.  The materials needed to be understood, evaluated, retained, and applied in very important ways.  This seems to make reading more of a high-pressure activity for me than the time to unwind that I’d like it to be.

On top of that, I had so little time for reading for pleasure that I also put a lot of pressure on myself to choose the perfect book for the limited time that I had.  I constantly felt like I wanted to be reading the “right” book, one that would entertain, enlighten, inspire, fit my mood, and allow me to relax all at the same time – a very tall order (too tall, in fact).  Unfortunately, the desire to choose the most ideal book out of the many that I have waiting to be read often means that I’d dither and debate so long that I’d rarely get to read very much at all, even to this day.

My hope this year is that I can get myself reading for pleasure again on a much more regular basis.  Practically speaking, reading is an inexpensive, engaging, mind-opening hobby that can be done almost anywhere.  But even more than that, I want to cry at sad books, laugh at happy ones, and rant at those that anger me.  I’d like to lose Saturday afternoons engrossed in reading a book on the couch and stay up until 2 am flipping through the pages of something that I couldn’t possibly put down.

In an effort to keep track of what I’ve been reading and buying, I’m going to try to do a monthly book report here.  I’m hoping that it will be further incentive to read more and to eventually relax into reading without the associations of work and the pressure to choose that are all to common these days.

During February, I read:

  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman
  • Auguries of Innocence – William Blake
  • Five Little Pigs – Agatha Christie
  • The ABC Murders – Agatha Christie
  • After the Funeral – Agatha Christie
  • You Can Buy Happiness (And It’s Cheap) – Tammy Strobel

I also bought (all used):

  • The Forest of Hours – Kerstin Ekman
  • What Are People For? – Wendell Berry
  • The Owl Pen – Kenneth Wells
  • The Morte D’Arthur – Thomas Mallory
  • Short Novels – John Steinbeck
  • The Winter Queen – Boris Akunin
  • Middlemarch – George Eliot
  • Dharma Bums – Jack Kerouac
  • The Golem and the Jinni – Helene Wecker

Looking at these lists, it also strikes me that one of my aims should probably be to read at least as many books in a month as I bring home.  Books are a weakness for me – actually, it could probably be argued that they’re my greatest vice – and the fact that I can buy them very inexpensively very close to home has resulted in a vast surplus of reading material.  I’d like to make my way through more of what I have, keep what I love, pass along what I don’t, and build a collection of books that I really love.

Resolutions, habits, and goals, oh my

Although the new year is really just a completely arbitrary date, I often find myself wanting to set goals as a reminder to myself of the things that I think are important that I want to work towards.  Having a solid sense of what I want to accomplish still helps me to move forward, and also makes it all the easier to get back to the important things when I lapse or fall of the wagon.  I’m aiming a bit big here, but for the most part, these tend to be also things that I’m already working towards.  This usually means that my goals for the year aren’t really a huge stretch, really just a bit of a formalization of the things that I think are good to focus on.  I also see these things much more as goals to work on and habits to be developed, rather than strict resolutions.  To me, this feels like a gentler approach, which is nice because I don’t really feel inclined to beat myself up over fitting in only one yoga session in a week rather than two.

A lot of my goals are focused on different measures of health – it seems to be the theme for my plans for the year.  After a year of feeling off balance and unhealthy in a number of different ways, I’d like to start nudging things back on track a bit more.  This includes physical and mental health, but also bolstering my financial health, improving my position at work, and an ever-increasing focus on self-reliance.  My hope is that all of these points will feed into each other and help to support a life that’s healthier generally.

Health

  • Meditation – 15 minutes twice per day
  • Cardio – 30 minutes five times per week
  • Strength training – 30 minutes five times per week
  • Yoga – 45 minutes twice per week
  • Water – eight glasses a day
  • Veggies – five servings a day
  • Fruit – two servings a day

Financial

  • Have 20 no-spend days per month
  • Save $3000 towards my emergency fund
  • Save $3000 towards a house or land down payment
  • Save $3000 towards retirement
  • Save $1000 for self-reliance related purchases
  • Open a discount brokerage account
  • Switch health insurance to a better plan

Work

  • Submit two papers for publication
  • Present at one conference
  • Read one new article per week
  • Read one new book per month
  • Write 30 minutes per day

Personal

  • Donate to the food bank once per month
  • Have lunch with a friend once per month
  • Have tea with a friend once per week
  • Try two new recipes per month
  • Have one date night per month
  • Read 12 novels
  • Declutter one thing per day

Self-reliance

  • Do the Riot for Austerity again
  • Grow (and use) one jar of sprouts per week
  • Grow another container garden
  • Bake bread once per week
  • Ferment three different things
  • Learn to make yogurt
  • Can five different things
  • Knit a wearable article of clothing
  • Read at least one book each on peak oil, seed saving, breadmaking, fermentation, food systems, permaculture, and urban agriculture
  • Buy one self-reliance related item that I’ve been holding off on (pressure canner, dehydrator, grain mill, water filter, or garden tools)

Food storage solutions

It pains me to admit this, but today I threw out a relatively large amount of food.  I originally set out to start cleaning, rearranging, and decluttering the kitchen.  I soon realised that in addition to a nice assortment of veggies decomposing in the fridge, I also had a selection of nuts and whole grain rice that were well past their expiration dates, in some cases by years.  Being uninterested in the stomach issues that typically arise from eating mouldy or rancid food, I disposed of the lot.  Some went to my worms and some to the garbage.  As I got rid of it, I realised that I need to make some changes.  I’m good at the accumulating, but not so good at the management.  I tend to bring home a good range of tasty and nutritious food, but I don’t always get the best use of it.

We have a few things working against us.  We have limited space, so things get stuffed onto shelves and wedged into corners in various locations.  It becomes really easy to forget what’s stored where and how much of something we have on hand.  I also have a tendency to get excited about food and buy a lot of new things to try which has resulted in the acquisition of such things as 15 kinds of beans, eight kinds of rice, and dozens of different nuts, seeds, mushrooms, sauces, and seaweeds.  At the same time, we typically cook a lot of different kinds of food which usually leaves us with a lot of different kinds of ingredients and leftover bits and pieces from trying out new recipes or tweaking old ones.

I loathe tossing food, a problem that Wasted Food has a lot of good information on.  Throwing away stuff that once was perfectly good was hard to do.  Shameful is a good word to describe the feeling.  But as awful as actually throwing it was, I’m grateful that it forced me to think through how we store and use food around and to reconsider our current system (okay, okay…our lack thereof).  And so, when I needed a break this afternoon I sat down and drafted a loose five-part plan.

Part one is to use up what we already have. I’d like to not waste any more food if I can avoid it, so I’m going to figure out some recipes to make with the odds and ends and bits and pieces.  Tonight, that meant a dinner of spiced split mung beans and spinach.  The mung beans were the last of the bag and the spinach needed to be eaten before the holidays.

Part two is to figure out what we eat regularly.  The things we stock up on and keep on hand should be the things that we use a lot.  We seem to be doing well with things like rice, cornmeal, oatmeal, flour, lentils, pasta, tomatoes, broth, and sugar, but we still have a bunch of other things that don’t get used all that often.  Focusing on the things that we use a lot of makes the most sense, particularly given out limited storage space.

Part three is to try some new meals.  I need recipes for about ten of those different kinds of beans that I have kicking around, plus a whole bunch of other things (seaweed, I’m looking at you since I’m pretty regularly at a loss on this one).  While I’d like to stick with what we eat regularly, I’d also like to expand our repertoire of recipes that are really healthy and made from ingredients that I know store well.

Part four is to plan for new purchases.  Buying a bunch of food because it’s new and interesting isn’t all that useful if its just going to sit in the closet.  This doesn’t mean we won’t try new things or put them into the regular rotation.  It just means that I have to know exactly what we’ll be using something for before I put it in my grocery cart.

Part five is somewhat longer-term and involves setting up a database of foods that we have on hand.  It’s hard to know how much of everything we have stored, so a system where we can note what’s coming in, what’s going out, and what’s located where would be helpful.  I’m also hoping this will help me rotate food more effectively so we don’t keep opening new bags of beans or rice when there are older ones sitting in the closet – sadly, it seems that good rice doesn’t age quite the same way that good wine does.

This is pretty preliminary and I’ll probably need to tweak it as I go.  However, I’m hopeful that we can establish a system to reduce food waste.  Given the many different social justice issues throughout the world, I find it unconscionable to waste food.  It’s well past time that I find ways to better manage our food resources.

Outfitting a village

I’m generally against rampant consumerism, but these days I find myself thinking about buying things a good deal more than I usually do.  Apart from periods where I put myself on no spend challenges, I do tend to accumulate stuff.  I bring in books, canning jars, kitchen gadgets, yarn, clothing, tools, bedding, and quite a few other things that have proven to be useful as I try to live a bit more sustainably.  However, I also have a wish list as long as my arm that includes a variety of far more expensive items that are not so easily found secondhand: garden tools, clothes drying rack, pressure canner, grain mill, dehydrator, water filter, camp stove, and sun oven.

Lately, I’ve been feeling that I should use the resources that I have to go ahead and make these kind of purchases. The biggest one on my list is still some land – this is feeling like an increasingly pressing concern, but I’m not yet sure where or how given that my job status is somewhat up in the air and we’re not exactly settled.  But for now, I also feel as though I should purchase some of the tools that will hopefully help to make life a bit more sustainable and a bit more secure both here in our little apartment and hopefully in the future when we have our own place.

The real driving thought, though, is that I don’t just want this for me.  I see what I’m doing as acquiring resources at least for my family, if not for a village (as it were).  My parents don’t really share many of my fears about where the world is headed, and my mother actively seeks to get rid of as much as possible.  My husband is more understanding of my concerns, although doesn’t necessarily share them to the same degree.  Many of my friends share similar concerns, but very few are actively making changes in their own lives.  So when I buy reference books, canning jars, garden tools, or a pressure canner, I feel like I’m doing it not just for me, but for them as well.  Knowing that they aren’t taking any steps on their own makes me feel that one of the most important things I can do is plan to help take care of them as best I can.

To be clear, I don’t think stuff is going to save us, and its certainly not going to do so on its own.  I think we need community and knowledge far more than we need more things, but tools can help a lot, and good quality tools can be shared and used to do a lot of good for quite a few people.  While there are certainly times when I just want to save every bit of money I possibly can, it seems to me that if I have the resources to buy tools that may prove to be helpful to a range of people it might just be worth spending a bit of money after all and taking up some of the space in my apartment to store them.

I also see these purchases as a way to hopefully become more self-reliant and to save a bit of money.  A well-made clothes drying rack may be $100, but will save me $2.50 a load, plus the environmental costs.  A pressure canner may approach $400, but if I can buy and can food when it’s inexpensive and have easy meals ready to go, that saves a lot of money on food and possibly even some time at dinner time.  Good gardening tools aren’t that cheap, but they open up more opportunities for feeding ourselves and cutting down on grocery bills.  And, the more money I save, the more there will be left to purchase more tools, or just to help others.  While I want to do as much as possible for myself, I also want to be sure that I can take care of those I care about the most and help to foster the community and resilience that I suspect will become even more important in the future.

No spend November wrap-up

With November over, I’ve had a chance to have a look at the results of my no-spend month. I’ve spent about $150 less than I have for the past few months.  I think this is pretty good, particularly since that also includes the fact that I overspent a bit stocking up on food and toiletries, had two planned meals out with friends, and that we fostered a stray cat for a few weeks and had to buy a few supplies for her.  If I could do this most months, it would certainly add up over the course of the year.

Although the money is a nice reward and marker of success (such as it is is) the focus of the no spending challenge was to really consider my consumption habits a bit more broadly.  Although I don’t generally consume a lot, I’m continually trying to be aware of my shopping and cut back wherever possible.  I’ve dealt with a lot of the low hanging fruit already, so any other places where I can cut back a bit more are welcome.  Doing a no spend challenge every so often is a good way to consider what exactly I’m spending money on and to highlight where I can cut back even further.

With this in mind, one thing I was very aware of was the importance of not just putting off spending until a new month just so it wouldn’t count for November. I wanted to be aware of my spending and cut back more generally.  Putting it off to the future – and possibly spending more or even going over budget another month – just to preserve the illusion of being successful at the challenge wasn’t something I was interested in. It would be a false representation of my spending and would have defeated the purpose of the challenge.  If I needed something – actually needed something, and not just wanted it – I went ahead and bought it.  Unsurprisingly, I didn’t really need that much.

My real weakness for the month was secondhand sales, which also wasn’t much of a surprise.  There were two in November – one that I forgot was happening and one that I didn’t know about until a week in advance – and they account for the remainder of my unanticipated spending that wasn’t toilet paper or vast quantities of rice and tinned tomatoes.  I spent $22 at a bazaar at the start of the month to buy some kitchen items, candle holders, books, and refillable pens.  There was also a thrift store sale at the end of the month. I spent another $19 on half-price books, most of them reference books for things like home repair, quilting, and sewing.  Did I need any of it?  No, not really, and I’m a little embarrassed by these transgressions.  I’m inclined to allow myself a bit of leeway on secondhand sales, though, and I got some great useful things for very little money.

I plan to keep this up as much as possible.  Expenses will always come up, of course, and I can’t say I won’t buy anything unnecessary ever again.  It’s pretty remarkable how effective this kind of awareness is, though.  Knowing that I was doing the challenge did have a positive effect on my spending for the month.  Even with a few secondhand sales, meals out, and extra food and household items, I still managed to spend a good bit less than usual.  Could I be better?  Of course, and that’s something I’m working towards.  For now, I’m pleased with the results of the challenge and looking forward to seeing if I can keep to my new and improved awareness going forward.

Small savings

In an effort to eventually be financially independent, I try to save as much money as I can.  Conventional personal finance wisdom holds that there are two main ways to save. One is to make more money.  The other is to cut back on expenses. I’ve considered both, but a lot of my focus right now is largely on the latter.

Right now, if I wanted to make more money, I’d need to get a different job (which I’m looking into) or work more.  I’m somewhat disinclined to take on a great deal more work, though.  I already work a lot – possibly more than I should, many days – and I think adding to that just to put more money in the bank wouldn’t be healthy and would likely turn me into a very unhappy person.  Given that we’re currently able to live within our means, I probably won’t be going this route in the foreseeable future.

The other way to save is to cut expenses.  We’ve already made most of the major recommended cuts.   We’ve dropped the landline and signed up for a less expensive Internet.  I’ve never owned a car or had cable TV or a cell phone plan.  Other than for groceries and the odd medication, we do little shopping, and what shopping I do tends to be secondhand.  The rent is inexpensive, I have reasonable rates for our tenant and extended health insurance, and our cell phones are rarely used and pay-as-you go.    Other than that, we don’t really have a lot of ongoing expenses.

This means that the things I have left to focus on in terms of saving money are fairly minor, but I enjoy the challenge of seeing how much I can save in a month just by making what appear to be very small changes to how we live.  I can save two dollars each time I walk or bike to campus instead of taking the bus.   We conserve energy at night by turning off the microwave, TV, and computers which are all plugged into power bars.  I stock up on dried beans, canned tomatoes, and anything else we use regularly when they’re on sale.  Growing veggies and sprouting beans cuts back on the amount of produce that we need to buy.  I round up all of my purchases to the next dollar and save the change.

These are all very small things, but they do add up.  I figure that even if I only save twenty or thirty dollars per month, that’s a few hundred dollars a year extra that I can put away.  In November, walking instead of taking the bus has saved me over $40.  The electric bill’s down a few dollars.  Buying on sale has saved us $24 on toilet paper, plus a few dollars each on dried beans, canned tomatoes, and other staples.  I’ve probably gained another $5 or $10 by rounding up purchases.  This may seem awfully detail-oriented or too small to bother with, but to my mind, it makes enough of a different that it’s worth doing and it hardly takes any time once you’re in the practice of doing it.  As the old saying says, “save the pennies and the pounds will follow”.

What should I do with my life?

A few days ago, Eric at Root Simple wrote a post called How to Answer the Question, “What Should I Do With My Life?” talking about looking at our bookshelves to figure out what it is that we really want to do.  A few other blogs seem to have picked it up as well, so I decided to have a look at my own shelves to see what they say about my current values and priorities.

Most of my book purchases over the last few years have been focused on greater self reliance and, in particular, food.  Even my academic books – once focused largely on technology and assorted digital things – have made way for more books critiquing consumerism and looking at modern food issues in our society (there are actually some rather compelling links between the two, which is what I’m currently working on).

Books 2Apart from my academic life, I’ve also bought a large number of books that are focused on food in a few different ways.  Some of them deal with the social and cultural implications of food and the issues with our current food system.  I’m interested in everything from critical perspectives on what’s not working through to books about the history of food.  On top of this, I’ve also acquired quite a lot of books on producing, cooking, and preserving food – everything from seed saving and gardening to cooking dinner from scratch and making jam.  Beyond food, I also have a selection of books on skills including knitting, crochet, sewing, weaving, bush craft, basket making, natural dyeing, soap making, root cellaring, house construction, bee keeping, livestock care and feeding, and herbalism.

Books 3As for the rest of them, I have a bookcase devoted to fiction and another with sections devoted to a range of topics: folklore, naturalism, graphic novels, communication and cultural theory, children’s literature, poetry, music, fitness, history, anthropology, finances, and social issues.  I suppose it’s also worth noting that I have a fairly large selection of books on things like happiness, mindfulness meditation, and compassion.  These are fairly recent additions to the shelf, and I think they illustrate my desire for a life that is not only more resilient, but hopefully also happier and more mindful.

Books 1Here’s a selection of a few of my current favourites:

  • The Urban Homestead
  • Living Seasonally
  • Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
  • Forgotten Skills of Cooking
  • The River Cottage Cookbook
  • The Art of Simple Food
  • Tassajara Bread Book
  • Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day
  • The Art of Fermentation
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved
  • Square Foot Gardening
  • The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible
  • Four-Season Harvest
  • The Year Round Vegetable Gardener
  • The One Straw Revolution
  • Shop Class as Soulcraft
  • Your Money or Your Life
  • Less if More: The Art of Voluntary Poverty
  • Living More With Less
  • Mindfulness in Plain English
  • The Places that Scare You

I’ve always had varied interests, which are pretty well represented here.  But the large selection of books that are focused on skills makes it pretty clear to me that I’m looking to do more with my life than just think.  I want to be active and productive and find ways to be more self-reliant.  With that in mind, I’m going to get up from looking at my books and actually get down to making something this afternoon – I’m thinking some whole wheat bread might be in order, and perhaps a bit of knitting.