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I won a book yesterday.

It’s called Confessions of a Part-time Sorceress: A Girl’s Guide to the D&D Game by Shelly Mazzanoble.  I don’t play D&D, or any other pen and paper role playing games, but my husband and some of the kids do.

Don’t get me wrong, I am glad to be a nerd.  In fact, I am proud to be part of a Geek Family.  My daughter is blossoming and proud to be a geek as well, even choosing “geek” as one of her spelling words.

We went to the library yesterday for an introduction to Dungeons and Dragons.  Partially to try to win tickets to GenCon-loved it last year- and partially to see if there were some other kids to help my stepson or my daughter to get a gaming group together.

Someone had sent a nasty letter to the editor, regarding residual misconceptions from the ’80s.  D&D doesn’t promote Satanism, anymore than playing Mario Brothers will make you think that you can float around in bubbles, or drive funny little cars.

The best part of D&D is the face-to-face socialization of friends in the same tribe.

Everyone is looking for ways to connect with one another.  Women make up excuses to get together under the guise of selling plastic ware, kitchen gadgets, or makeup.  Men schedule tee times and poker nights.  Do women really want to buy a bunch of junk and do men really want to chase a ball around a field and sand traps?

Nah, it’s not about that.

It’s about building community.

That’s what gaming does for my husband and his friends.

It used to be, that people would get together to share in the labor of harvest, building, preserving, etc.  During that time, folks would build community, learn to trust one another, and create close friendships.

Now that most of those activities have been streamlined or hired out, games give us an excuse to come together, solve problems, and bond.

I don’t play role playing games, mostly because they continue from week-to-week, and take a good chunk of time in one sitting-time I never feel like I have (I have issues with time passage-but that’s another post).

I do, however, love board and card games.

Jeremy is poking the eye of the Beholder at GenCon 2010.

My husband loves them too.  He has been playing all kinds of games for years and years, and I am but a novice.  I got really frustrated at the beginning of our relationship because he beat me at every game we played.  I never had a chance against his skill.  I wanted to play, but I got frustrated.  He is not one to throw a game just to make you feel better.  In fact, he smirks when he is winning and I want to wipe that smirk right off his face.

Then we started playing backgammon before bed.  It was a game that he was just learning.  At first, he won more games than me, but now we are evenly matched.  I win about the same amount as he does.

Game playing feels intimate.  Playing games together helps to fill up my love tank, and relax from my stressful day at school.  That’s because it’s time spent together, laughing, talking, and “grrr”ing when he sends my backgammon guy to the bar…again.

Since Christmas we’ve been playing a card game called, Dominion.  I didn’t want anything to do with it because it looked confusing, and hard.  You have to build decks of cards that will get you the victory points for the win.  I played my first round at GenCon, thought it was kind of fun.  At Christmas we cracked it out, got all of the expansions, and have since been playing 1-3 games a night after the kids go to bed.  It’s a great way to relax, spend time together, solve problems, and bond.

Last night we tried a new game, Race for the Galaxy.  I liked the game, lost all of the four games we played, and then I ranted on and on for about an hour about how I hated the icons and trying to keep them straight while I played.  Jeremy listened patiently while I ranted.  I listened, without patience while he explained the virtues of the game.

Our addiction to games has done one positive thing for us.  We very seldom spend our evenings anymore, looking up the latest LOLcats and clicking on Reddit.  We’re spending time together filling up one another’s love tanks with time well spent.

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Trying to live more simply is my journey of the last seven years.

The road began with reading up on small scale agriculture.  I loved gardening and animals, had studied farming in college, and was just beginning to hear the buzz about sustainable farming.  I had filled my small city lot with flowers, lettuce, and tomatoes.  There was not an inch left for any more beds.  I was longing for the country and I was trying to plan for my future eco-friendly farm.

One of my Diet Cokes and Miss “X”
(okay so it’s Lisa, but she’s given up DC for good.)

A couple of years after the quest to find out about sustainable agriculture began, I was afforded the opportunity to work for an environmental learning center which would change my life forever.  I knew very little about nature when I started.  Now I am eco-nature-geek and it’s all their fault!

As I’ve mentioned before, Diet Coke is one of my biggest vices, less now than three years ago though.  I would stop by the gas station and buy 44 ounces of pop, and bring it in to work.  I didn’t eat vegetables, and I ate a lot of meals from a tin can.  My new ecofriends would scold me (in an encouraging way of course).

No one ever bopped me on the head or called me any bad names; none that I can remember anyway.

Mostly, they led by example.  My friends…

  • carefully sorted their garbage into: recycling, worm bin, and throw it into the woods for the raccoons.
  • never used paper plates or plastic forks, even when we had a big party for our volunteers, we washed dishes.
  • always jumped in because there was work to be done.
  • were diligent about carpooling or riding bikes to work.
  • carried their water bottles and encouraged me to get one too.
  • carefully shopped for their new purchases, making sure the fabrics were sustainably produced and fairly traded.
  • found joy in a walk on a sunny day, even in the winter.
  • convinced me that winter could be fun (well, at least less awful), if you learned to dress for the weather.
  • had me order the more expensive coffee because it was shade grown and the farmers were paid a fair wage.
  • showed me how to like snakes.
  • applauded my efforts at learning about small agriculture, and encouraged me to bring in fresh eggs and extra tomato plants.

My friends led by example. Not in a preachy way, but in a “This is how we live our life way.”

I drank Diet Coke from styrofoam cups until the day I left.  I never once ate Thai food willingly while at work, never tried the fair trade coffee, and secretly used paper plates at home sometimes.

But, I can now drink coffee, drink way less pop, carry my water bottle, cook my food from scratch, wash my own plate at school-even when there are paper plates and plastic forks out.  I now eat curry on purpose without whining.  I pick up snakes on my hikes with my students.  My family of six only throws out about one or two small trash bags per week.  We compost most waste and feed our worms and chickens.  And I’m much more willing to jump in and help than I used to be.

I learned a lot from my friends.  They have changed the way that I live my life.  I was going through life without really thinking about the price of my actions.  I love them for being my teachers and mentors.  I hope that I can be the same sort of teacher and mentor that they are to me for someone else.  Not in a preachy way, but by example.

A “This is how I live my life” kind of way.

Thank you Jane, Dana, Lisa, Paul, Carol, Jennifer, and Luke for making such a difference in my life.

My Eco-buddies trying to show me that winter can be fun, while playing broomball.

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I didn’t get any writing done over the Christmas holiday.

For whatever reasons, I was uninspired to do anything creative at all.  I took only a few Christmas photos of the kids, didn’t do any writing, and only painted one room.  Maybe it’s the duldrums of winter.  I’ve also been a bit uninspired about adding more noise to the world of blogging.

I think part of it was me feeling lonely.  I moved to my new town about a year and a half ago.  My husband has lived here for over 20 years, but I’m still getting to know people.  I do have two friends of my own from this town, but both of them were gone visiting family all break.

I have 44 facebook friends that live in my town.  Most of them are folks that I met through my husband.  All super-wonderful-great people.  But I feel like I’m at the “just getting to know you” level of friendship level – not yet at the “my house is a mess and I haven’t showered yet, but come over and have coffee anyway” level.  After a year-and-a-half, I would have thought that I would have some deeper friendships by now.  I am painfully shy, but once I feel comfortable, I open up and let my full-blown geek out to play.

Yesterday I had a revelation.

One of my good friends recently dropped her cable, internet, and land line to save a few bucks.  She was lamenting the other day at lunch that she didn’t realize how much she relied on the internet to check maps, weather, look up recipes, and check her email and facebook.

Yesterday she called me to ask for a recipe for chocolate syrup.

I can’t remember the last time I called someone to ask for a recipe, or that someone called me to ask for help.  I cannot recall the last time I called to ask for directions, or to borrow something from a friend.

The internet is a wonder.  I love it, I spend a lot of time frittering my life away on it.

This is the first time period in my life in which I am trying to create friendships and Facebook is a huge part of everyone’s life.

But what are we giving up in exchange?  Are we giving up the opportunity to interact and share in a more meaningful way by having the world’s information at our fingertips?

I am grateful that my friend called yesterday.

It reminded me that the best friendships develop face-to-face, not facebook-to-facebook.

And that recipe:

1/2 c. cocoa power

1 c. sugar

1 c. water

1 tsp vanilla

dash of salt

combine cocoa, sugar, salt in a saucepan.  Add water and mix until smooth.  Boil for one minute, but don’t overboil.  Take it off the heat, when it cools add vanilla.

We’ve made lots of variations in my house including: marachino cherry juice and almond extract; or cinnamon and nutmeg

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After reading Katy’s response to my blog post, I feel really bad.  I in no way intended to insult her.  I completely related to her story, and wanted to offer her support when I saw that people were slamming her.  I read and reread my post until I was sure that I was offering support in the form of my story, but I guess I wasn’t making myself very clear.

I was trying to relate my reality and journey from blind consumerism, and I didn’t do this very well.  My stance is that we should understand what our own values are so we can use those values to make informed and conscious decisions about our purchases.

I have struggled a lot the last few years with my values of frugality and doing what is best for the environment and socially.  I am about as cheap as they come and I can pinch pennies until they bleed. The intent of my post was to offer support as we learn how to best do this.

I’m not going to pretend that I am perfect.  No Way!  I still lust over Diet Coke, have too much junk on my counter, and buy veggies from the farmer’s market that don’t always get eaten.  I drink coffee every morning, and my hubby and I are chocovores.

Here are the points that I was trying to make, in a nutshell.  I’m going to break these down with facts, figures, research, and real experts over the next week or so.  If you’re interested, stay tuned…

1. We are all in this together, and should offer one another support and encouragement.

2. There are many food injustices. There is not a shortage of food on the planet, but a problem with the distribution of the food in the form of availability and access by price.  This includes people here in the United States, not just in developing nations.

3. Even choices that seem reasonable, may be greenwashed. Just because a label says cage free eggs, or a natural product doesn’t mean that it is what we assume it is.  And veggies that look good in the store may have traveled from Chile or some other far off place, all the while losing nutrients.

4. GMOs are in almost everything we eat that has Corn, Soy, or Canola in it. The only way to avoid it is to buy organic.  GMO’s have the DNA of other organisms in it which have a built in pesticide or resistance to a pesticide.  We eat this stuff.

5. CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) raise animals in a non-sustainable way. Animals like cows and sheep are fed grain to fatten them up.  They were not designed to eat like this, and it can cause health problems, in addition to the environmental problems CAFOs can create.

6. High Fructose Corn Syrup is made from GMO corn.

7. I don’t shop at designer food stores either, but there are other ways to get our hands on foods that are raised sustainably and ethically.

8.  This is the most important one.

Our food is too cheap.

It is subsidized so that we are not paying the actual cost of production.  The actual cost of production is more in line with the organic foods at the grocery.  We may save money by buying chicken raised in cramped barns, bread made from over-processed GMO grains, and veggies that were shipped in from somewhere else (losing most of the nutrients along the way).

But we ultimately pay for it with our tax dollars, livelihoods, health and biodiversity.

I wish I didn’t know all of the stuff that I know about agriculture and the injustice and greed of big agribusinesses.  It would make going to the grocery a lot easier.  These agribusinesses are trading our health and health of our planet for their financial gain.

Tonight I went to hear Wes Jackson of the Land Institute talk about the future of sustainable agriculture.  His plan focuses on perennial grains.  Grains make up 75% of U.S crops.  I will be discussing what I learned over the course of the next week also.

Again, I want Katy to know that I was in no way trying to make her feel bad.  I think she’s doing a lot of great things.  She’s also right, I’ve only been reading her blog for about 6 weeks now, and I do highly recommend it, she has lots of great things to say.

Below are a couple of my posts that may relate what I was trying to say about values, and my concern over food choices, better than how I said it yesterday.

values-are-worthless
big-ag-threatened-by-extremists-a-k-a-educated-eaters
lets-get-ready-to-rumble
how-to-shop-beyond-green

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This post is in response to Katy Wolk-Stanley’s blog post on The NonConsumer Advocate, “Why I Love New Seasons, but Why I’ll Keep Shopping at Safeway.”  Please stop reading my blog for a second and go read this post so the rest of this makes sense!

I love her blog, and read all of her posts.  Today, there was one post that really struck a chord with me.  It did so, because this post was totally me after my daughter was first born.  It makes me see how all of the teeny tiny changes along the way, have completely transformed the way I eat.  There was no way I would have believed that I could afford the good food that I have on my table now.

Katy,

Wow, it seems like this has sparked a lot of debate and strong feelings!  I am totally with you on wanting to save money, and I was right there with you using coupons and buying food from Save-a-lot and other groceries using my double coupons.

Ten years ago, my family was eating cheap food, and not necessarily what was healthiest for us.  I remember watching a Dr. Phil where he blasted a family for not buying fruits and veggies, that they were cheap.  He was wrong.  Veggies and fruit can be expensive, and not everyone has access to healthy foods.  There is a lot of inequality in our food system.

Here is what has changed for me over the last few years, and I hope this doesn’t make me sound like a food snob.

I started by raising my own chickens.  Most eggs from the grocery are from chickens that live in dark, smelly barns, in cramped cages.  Even most of the cage free chickens rarely if ever see the light of day.  When I sold my first flock of chickens, I bought my eggs from local farmers.  They were more expensive, but I ate less because I just couldn’t justify eating eggs from factory farms anymore.

I stopped using coupons to save money.  I know that sounds ridiculous, but I took the advice that a lot of weight loss experts give, just shop the outer perimeter of the store.  We buy cereal and the occassional frozen pizza.  Other than that, everything comes from the produce and dairy section.  In fact, I only do heavy duty grocery shopping about every six weeks.  Buy not using coupons, I wasn’t tempted to buy food I didn’t need, especially the prepackaged stuff that’s full of high fructose corn syrup, all kinds of preservatives, and GMOs.

I stopped buying meat at the grocery.  We buy lamb from a farmer, have it butchered and frozen.  For about $400 we have about 6-8 months of burger, roasts, and chops.

We raise a lot of our own food in raised beds out back.  I blanch the veggies and throw them in the freezer as they ripen.  We made a ton of salsa this summer that we canned.

Before we had raised beds, we bought just what we needed for the week from the farmer’s market.  By buying in season, we got organic produce at a reasonable price.  I buy seasoning, spices, flour, baking soda, etc. in bulk.  It costs WAY less this way.  I never buy those little taco and chili seasoning packets.  There is a lot of MSG, and other nasties in there.  Plus, by mixing my own as I go, it costs about 15 cents per meal vs. 75 cents to a dollar.  I have found a couple of family owned stores that sell in bulk.  I can even get organic whole wheat flour, and organic spelt flour for a very reasonable price, and avoid GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) junk-most of the corn and soy we eat is GMO unless it is organically grown.

My family of six averages about $350 for our food purchases for the month, including the meat. That is about what I spent when I had a family of three and was a coupon shopper.

I want to give you encouragement because I know how hard it is to balance finding good prices, feeding your family healthy foods, and doing what is ethical and a part of your value system.

For myself, I can no longer buy meat from CAFO’s.  I can’t buy eggs anymore that aren’t from chickens that don’t eat bugs and see the sun.  I avoid products made with GMO corn, canola, and soy.  I don’t buy products with High Fructose Corn Syrup if I remember to check the label.  All of the things that I avoid are for reasons relating to my value system as much as they are related to my family’s health.

The reason these stores are populated with “yoga moms” and “beautiful people” is two-fold.  One, they are educated consumers.  They understand parts of our food system that make them want to buy within their set of values.  These stores are usually more expensive though.  Here is the secret, those of us with average income and average to below average looks, find other sources for healthy foods like co-ops, dented can and overrun stores, farmer’s markets, CSA’s, home gardens, buying clubs, bartering, and buying direct from the farmer.

One last note.  Food in the United States is cheap for a reason.  But we all pay sooner or later.  The farmer pays by only getting pennies on our food dollar, the tax payers pay to subsidize corn, we pay with our health when we buy products that cause cancer and lead to obesity.  My journey started out with saving money, but it has become a journey of finding value and values in my food.

Somedays, I wish I was still in the dark about the realities of our food system.  But I’m not so this is how I’m living.  Katy (and the rest of y’all), please be encouraged, and if you need some advice on where to start, let me know.

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On Sunday, I went to see the author of one of my favorite books of all time called, Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology.

I was really geeked out to see Eric Brende speak in person.  For me it was the equivelant of meeting Yoda or Mr. Miyagi – someone that can set you on a new way of looking at the world.  This is the guy that got me on the path of thinking more closely about the value of community, working together, and working with our hands in real work.

My pen couldn’t write fast enough as I tried to jot down all of his bits of wisdom.  It was fantastic, and I left charged up and ready to face the world.

Then the week happened.

Our house has been hectic and school has been tiring.  On Monday I sent two students to the office for throwing around  the F-word.  I sent another to the office for constant disruptions (I counted 7 disruptions in about four minutes).  Last night, we needed an impromptu family meeting.  I am just plum wore out by the end of the day.

It’s no wonder that the life that Eric Brende speaks about is so appealing.  Brende, an average Joe, went to live with an Anabaptist community (even stricter than the Amish we have around here), for 18 months. He liked what the community had to offer, so he and his young bride stayed for three more years.  He currently lives simply in St. Louis.  He makes a living selling soap and running a rickshaw service.

My friend Julie D. and her daughter at a historical reenactment event

The two messages that I took away from the book were that community is essential for us to function as functional human beings, and that work without shortcuts can bring joy and harmony to our lives.

I read his book back in 2006, shortly after it came out and have consciously and subconsciously taken many of the truths to heart.

I’ll break what I learned from his lecture, and how it is meaningful, into a couple of posts, as I’m still digesting it.

There are a couple of communities in which I am a part of.  One of my favorites is the spinning community.  When I first moved into the country, anyone that found out where I lived and that I wanted to raise sheep kept asking, “Have you met Julie D.?”  My answer was always no, but it was really weird how many people asked me this.

Finally about nine months into my country living journey I met this mysterious woman.  Julie is a treasured  friend.

Julie raises Angora goats, a few sheep, bunches of cats, chickens and ducks.  She lives in a gigantic pole barn that was retrofitted to serve as a house, with a massive great room, and a loft that goes around the edges of the upstairs.  Julie introduced me to spinning (wool, not the bicycling exercise), like a pusher offering drugs.

When she sat down to teach me to spin, I offered to pay for the roving I was using, “Oh, no,” she said, “I’ve got plenty.”  I was hooked.  At the time I wasn’t teaching, so my evenings were pretty stress-free.  I bought my own wheel, and spent my evenings spinning lumpy yarns.  Which also meant, that I needed to learn to crochet.

One of the best parts about meeting Julie is her ability to make friends and invite them into her home.  Several times a year, she invites her friends and friends-of-friends, to bring their spinning wheels, crochet hooks, and knitting needles to spend the day at her house working on projects.  Everyone is working, talking, making new friends, and of course eating yummy potluck food.  The day flies by, and new friends are always made.

This past Saturday was the latest spin-in as they are called.  My daughter has learned to love these days, as the kids gather to go hike trails, hold kittens, or sled down a fabulous hill only to warm up by the wood stove with hot cocoa.

Julie's daughter (in green) is the pied piper of the younger children. They flock to her.

It’s a community.

On Saturday, I saw women that I hadn’t seen since I sold my old home.  I enjoyed the company of others.  I wish that there were more times for me to connect with others.  It would have been fantastic to have a friend or two to can with this summer.  To get into the rhythm of cutting, stirring, cooking, and boiling for a whole day, with the melody of friends’ stories and laughter.

Just a few of the women from the spin in last weekend

If only there were time to slow down and do real work, instead of playing wack-a-mole all day long.

Brende talked about the natural rhythm of our lives, and how we are playing each part of the orchestra separately these days.  In days past, we would have exercised, cooked, eaten, socialized, and learned as part of our daily routines.  Today, we have compartmentalized everything.  We can’t enjoy life because we can’t hear how it plays together.

Finding a community that complements our tune is a good place to start on our journey of putting our selves back together.

When do you feel in rhythm with your life and the life of others?

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but tossing and turning instead because my brain won’t turn off.

As I was lying in bed last night, I was thinking about yesterday’s post and how complicated my life really is. Today, on Facebook, three of my friends were lamenting Monday, and realizing that somewhere along the way, we have forgotten how to live.

The  joy has been sucked out of our lives with busyness: long commutes, needless paperwork, unpaid overtime, too many papers coming home from school, soccer games, and lawn mowing.  Even 13th Century peasants had 80 holidays per year, and slowed down in the winter long enough to mend their socks and make babies.

Some people are lucky enough to be in the financial situation to be able to do what they want, and others of us, are treading water, trying to get the bills paid. I know some will say, “follow your bliss”, “quit your job and do what makes you happy”, “sell your house and your car and everything will be okay”.

Some of us are just not in the financial position to do that.  I’ve been reading a lot of blogs about simplicity, and there are  a lot of hardcore, all or nothing types.  Either you sell your t.v. and your car, or you might as well give up your quest for a simpler life.  That’s just not possible for all everyone.  Some of us have child support to pay;  a significant other in school; are under or unemployed; have houses that won’t sell in this market; or are up to their eyeballs in student loans and credit card debt.  Maybe we live in places that have no public transportation and eight-year-olds that can’t ride their bikes 10 miles to town and back. What about us?  I am hopelessly optimistic.  I just think we will have to be ultra creative to figure this all out.

What do those of us that want a simpler life now do? In our minds we see how we want our lives to be, but aren’t sure how to get there.  Maybe we don’t even know how we want our lives to look yet, so we can’t even begin to make a change.

Eight years ago, I knew that something wasn’t quite right in my life. I really felt stale and stagnant.

So I took the following steps to make some changes. I…

  • learned to oil paint. I had always wanted to learn to paint, so when my daughter was just about a year old, I took an oil painting class.
  • threw pots on a wheel at a pottery studio. Let me tell you, pottery can be therapeutic. The other major and maybe the most life transforming thing that I learned was: Don’t be afraid to look like an idiot and ask questions. People want to help you.
  • came to terms with the thought that I wasn’t crazy, just creative. I saw a counselor for a while, but I think anyone could have filled the role of letting me know that I wasn’t crazy, just different from the mainstream. Who wants to be like everyone else anyway?
  • tried every thing I could think of to save my marriage. I didn’t bolt, and suffered for a while, but I wanted to make sure every step had been overturned before I left.
  • found people in my tribe. This included people from age 21-76. Age doesn’t matter, heart does.
  • made a plan. I went back and got my teaching certificate for High School science so I could find a job with a paycheck that could support myself.
  • finally learned how to use my camera which is by far the most fun I’ve had so far.
  • met a great friend that shares my lust for learning, so I married him.
  • really started evaluating what I eat, buy and otherwise consume, and have started making some difficult choices in my behaviors to match up with my values.

So, that’s what I’ve done so far, not all at the same time mind you-over the course of the last eight years. I’m not there yet, far from it. I still feel like there is a lot more for me to learn.

The last ten years have beat me up in a lot of ways, but I wouldn’t trade them because I learned too much about myself. If I hadn’t have had troubles along the way, I would still be stupid 26 year-old Jenny, and not mildly jaded 36 year-old Jenny.

So friends, what are we going to do to find the simplicity and connectedness in our lives that we want?

Step One: We have to evaluate what our values truly are. What do we hold dearest to us in our lives?  How can we better show through our lives what is most important to us? And then, this is the kicker…we have to prioritize those values. Put them in 1,2,3 order with one being the most important to you.

I’m going to sleep on this one tonight, and post more about this tomorrow. If you are courageous, post your values in order in the comment section on the blog, and maybe we can help each other out.

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