Oct 15th 2012
10/15/2007 10:44:00 PM | Author: baloghblog


I just renewed our lease on our apartment for another year, at a 15% increase. Demand for quality rental property, inflation, and my unwillingness to start a relationship with a new (and possibly shady) landlord made the decision to re-sign easier. I am hoping that my efforts to help our landlord renovate the home and bring up its energy efficiency will pay off in defrayed costs. Jim and I replaced the dinosaur of a boiler in the basement last fall, after I talked him into a pellet/biomass boiler with the capability to burn wood pellets, corn, or recycled paper. Jim had to move back in to his rental property after he could no longer hold on to his mortgage on his primary residence. Given the property tax increases we've faced to keep the schools running, I'm not sure that my monthly rent will help defer even half of his current payments on the 2 family house - so, again, I don't begrudge him the bump in the rent. Another 15% next year, and we'll be considering "consolidated housing" ourselves. Many of our friends and family have had to do the same, moving in together, or back in with family to help keep a roof over their heads.

It's amazing how quickly public perception can change. After the "consolidated housing" meme hit the cover of Time and Newsweek eight months ago, the stigma was lifted, and what was a terrible housing market became even worse as a flood of young professionals, families, and struggling friends gave up their homes and moved in together. Aging baby-boomers welcomed their families back in with open arms, as their meager retirement savings are now a shell of their former selves. (A good number of privileged people are also a "shell of their former selves" as well, as dreams of 5 day a week golf and winters in Florida have faded...)

Our winter preps are nearly complete, many of the changes pragmatic rather than aesthetic. Windows with no appreciable solar gain have been taped off, packed with old newspapers and draped with heavy blankets. We keep at least one window in each room uncovered for natural light, but keep furniture and beds against inside walls to fend off the cold. We could afford to heat the home to 68 degrees all winter, but we decided as a household that daytime heating would be keep at 65 degrees and nighttime temps allowed to drop to 62. The little things like sealing out all drafts, additional insulation on the windows, and our project this winter to seal around all pipes and insulate electrical outlets will allow our house to hold onto that heat longer and reduce the heating portion of our budget. We also fill large bladders of hot water at night and keep them below (and sometimes in) our beds to stay toasty at night.

Our back hallway was left uninsulated, and now has been converted with shelves to a cold locker for food storage. A few more nights in the 40's and we'll be able to unplug the refrigerator for the winter. A few old beer coolers help keep food and drinks just above freezing, rather than their prior function of keeping things cold. Why spend nearly half our electricity bill on a refrigerator fighting against the warmth of our house, when the temperatures outside supply plenty of cold dry air. We've also commandeered a small section of the attic to hang our curing meats. Italian and Hungarian sausage, and cured hams hang from the rafters - our great grandparents would be proud (but not necessarily surprised) that we've rekindled the practice. An ultra-efficient freezer hums quietly in our friends' basement, holding pre-packaged cuts of beef from our fall purchase of a locally raised, grass-fed cow that we were able to split amongst four families.

We've also put our small backyard garden to bed for the winter. I picked the last of the winter squash, putting it up in the basement for a few weeks worth of meals. I kept a small bed of greens and beans at our apartment, getting quite a bit out of the 80 square feet that used to be a decorative flower garden along the side yard. Not knowing if we'd spend the summer here, I didn't want to invest too much in to our rented plot. The fresh green beans and seemingly endless supply of kale helped add plenty of green to our dinners.

Our main garden was grown at my parents home, with my father, his neighbor (a surgeon), and I, getting our hands dirty and expanding our "farmlet" to nearly a 1/3 acre. I suggested adding a long mounded row of potatoes, and an extra plot of beans to dry, and the fruits of our added labor included 150 lbs of potatoes, and a fairly impressive sack of dried kidney and navy beans which should store nicely for the winter. And, when mixed with the corn we've purchased from the farmer's market should provide us with a good source of protein. If I were living there we'd add a chicken coop for our own fresh eggs and meat, but I don't want to add any additional chores to my father's list, especially a daily trudge out in the cold to feed and water them. Besides, with the number of people skirting the "backyard chicken law" - there is a surplus of fresh eggs in the community.

School's been back in session for the past month and a half, and the kids seem to be adjusting to the changes. After 3 consecutive increases in property taxes to pay for the additional cost of heating the schools, and fueling the fleet of yellow buses, the school board voted to combine elementary and middle school bus trips, and increase "winter break" from 1 week to 1 month. There had been talk of going to a 4 day school week, but so far, the 5 day a week tradition has held. All after-school and extra-curricular activities have been canceled, including nearly all sports. Parents have volunteered for transportation to keep some teams like soccer, basketball, and baseball going. Football programs were cut at all but the larger schools, or those that could raise the funds to purchase equipment. Austerity budgets also cut many of the art and music programs, and many are even cutting foreign language classes. Unfortunately, many schools' curricula have contracted to lifeless "teach-to-the-test" programs designed to keep the federal aid coming in. Many parents have pulled their kids from school, preferring to homeschool them and provide a well rounded education. "Tag-schooling" also developed as a way for kids to socialize while being taught at home. This "you're it" style of rotating students to different homes, allows kids to stay with a group of friends - while not overwhelming a single parent to do so. Mothers and fathers take turns hosting classes, and split up teaching time during the day, pooling the educational background of the parents as well as reducing the individual burden. Who knows if this will just be a fad, or will hold promise as an alternative method of teaching.

With no kids of school-age yet, I participate in education by heading up the "Johnny and Janey Appleseed" program at the elementary and middle schools in my immediate neighborhood. We pool together money each spring and fall to purchase bulk orders of vegetable seeds and fruit cuttings to distribute to each family. I spend one weekend with a group of parents to divvy up the seeds in to family size packets, print out planting brochures, and instructions on how to compost and maintain soil. We hand them out in a informational meeting that we hold each Tuesday night in April, where we give a short presentation on the amount of food that each family is capable of growing. For those families that can't make the meetings I do a last ditch round of in-class education for all grades K-6 on how to plant a seed, keep plants free from weeds, and when to harvest. Then I tell them the story of Johnny Appleseed, and turn them loose to plant the seeds in any patch of dirt they can find in their yard. I noticed that this year's meetings were nearly double the size of last year's, filled with new parents who were shocked when they were able to harvest tomatoes, zucchini, and beans from seeds they didn't even realize their kids had planted.

It's strange, things are grim, and people have a real sense of insecurity about the future. Gas is expensive, but not yet unaffordable. There haven't been any real shortages of fuel, demand destruction has been stronger than expected. The job market is drying up, and there are many more out of work than even a few years ago. People have less "work", but more work to do feeding their families. Families and community have grown stronger. Crime is up. Morale is down. Government is inept. The ramifications of peak oil have begun to permeate our community. There are large defeats and small victories each day. Food is more expensive, less available - yet more people care about making sure every child gets fed than when our cup overfloweth. Leaders emerge out of people who never thought they had it in them. The elderly are in many cases neglected, in others revered for their knowledge of frugal practices. Things are worse than many expected, better than others thought. We haven't collapsed (yet), we haven't persevered either. We're floating down shit creek with a few paddles. A few less than we need to turn this ship around. I am both happier and sadder than I have ever been in my life.

Life goes on. Although it's rough, I feel more alive than ever.