Friday, September 27, 2013

A Working Issue

Punchin' that time clock

Work -- what constitutes it, and how much it is valued by society, is something that all of us grapple with at one time or another.  People tell us to "do what we love" when it comes to a career choice, but paying the bills, having decent health care, and earning enough to provide a semi-comfortable lifestyle also all factor into the mix.

When I was younger, I worked at a couple of jobs in the city where my work space was a cubicle.  At one job, my cubicle had no view whatsoever, and in the other, I had a window which overlooked the employee parking lot and the city beyond it.  Both jobs were miserable for me, however, because I am simply not a cubicle person.  I vividly remember sitting in my cube and staring out that window one Christmas Eve afternoon, in tears, realizing that, once again, my son would be the last child picked up at day care.  I vowed to get out of cubicle work at that moment, moving towards a life where I had more independence and didn't have to punch such an unforgiving time clock. I eventually made good on that promise by getting hired as a substitute teacher, and going back to school and getting a full teaching credential.

But I know people who are not bothered a bit by working in cubicles.  They stick pictures of their latest vacations, of their kids, and of scenic vistas they hope to visit someday on their walls, along with the sticky notes about upcoming meetings and people to call back.  And they keep their heads down and put in their time, almost happily, it seems. Almost.

Cubicle Land would never be a place that worked for me, and I was lucky to realize, eventually, that anything requiring 8 hours a day of your one and only LIFE should be done in a place you either find beautiful or at least exciting.  And so I left the cube forever. The jobs I was happiest at where always the ones where I could be outdoors for at least part of the day, anyway. As a teacher, I had the freedom to take my students outdoors on nice days and sit under a shady tree to read our library books, and when there was a thunderstorm I relocated them to the cafeteria, where the windows were big and they could watch nature's light show safely.  

But to be in a cubicle, where the sunny days and thunderstorms passed unnoticed?  That was no life, in my book.

And honestly, if teaching had not been an option, I would have become a minimum wage gardener rather than remaining in a cubicle as a highly paid office-type person.

But what exactly is Work?  Homesteading is work -- hard work, too. But no one I know is able to actually make living at it.  You need to be doing something else: consulting from home, writing bestselling books about Peak Oil, or living off a spouse who has a good job outside the home in order to make successful homesteading happen.  

Our great-grandparents discovered the same thing; it was what led them to take jobs in town while still doing a little farming on the side.  The old joke my great-grandfather told about farming turns out to be true:  Q: What does it take to be a successful farmer?  A: A wife with a good job in town.

And so it's been with some trepidation that I've cautiously returned to work -- work with a small "w." No all-consuming career for me at this point in my life, please.  And not too early, either. I absolutely hate getting up before the sun does and I hate making a dawn commute, rushing into town with everyone else so we can all get wherever we are going by 8 a.m. sharp, only emerging from our little cubicles as the sun is going down and another day is over, forever. I will be the first person to tell you I'm lucky to have a spouse who happens to love his job and loves putting in the long hours it takes to do it, and luckier still that his job pays well.  Because I'm just not an 8 - 5 gal, and probably never will be.  I'd be a teacher again, or a gardener, or a freelance writer.  But I can't live in a cubicle.

And so, work outside the home has become an afternoon occupation...I work at the winery, which I love, and other afternoons I substitute teach, which I also love.  And that leaves my mornings for caring for livestock, watering crops, hanging wash and processing tomatoes.  

Sometimes it's not one, all consuming full-time job we need, but rather a series of small, part-time ones, where we are doing something different every day.  And when you're working your land and living simply, what you do at home matters enough to count as a job, albeit one where there are no cubicles and no windows; just the wind in your hair and the sun on your face.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Make it or buy it?

This is a question homesteaders often ask themselves, and how hard core a homesteader you are, how much money you have to spend on groceries, also how much free time you have will often determine the answer.

This morning, for instance, I processed about 20 pounds of tomatoes for tomato paste. I've never made my own tomato paste before, and since a) my tomatoes are still producing like gangbusters and b) I've already canned the amount, plus a little extra, of regular tomatoes  I will need for the coming food year, I decided to take a stab at making my own paste.

Out of 20 pounds of tomatoes, blanched, skinned, de-seeded, stemmed, and strained well, this is what I ended up with. By the way, I left the Mason jar with kitchen compost in the frame so you can get the general size of the bowl.

It was about 3 hours of hard work, for one half bowl of paste.  And this isn't even the end of the processing.  Tomorrow, I will need to cook this down, reducing it even more, before it can really be called paste. And then it will need to be canned in a water-bath canner.

So regarding whether it's easier and/or more financially worthwhile to make it vs. buy it, I am guessing it's probably easier and more cost-effective to buy small cans of organic tomato paste at the supermarket, and use all your tomatoes for canning.  After all, regular, old home-preserved tomatoes are great for making spaghetti sauce, in stews and chili, and you could even make tomato paste out of your own preserved tomatoes, real-time, if you wished.

Along a similar line, there is a fantastic book out there I just finished called, "Make the Bread, Buy the Butter," by Jennifer Reese, which talks about this exact subject.  Part cookbook, part autobiography, part short story collection, it's a wonderful look at what things are better made at home, and what things may just not be worth it.  Tomato paste comes to mind.

Monday, September 16, 2013

DIY Backsplash

So we're at the end of our kitchen remodel, short on the patience necessary to deal with even more contractors (as well as cash!) so we decided to rely on ourselves to do the kitchen backsplash instead of hiring the job out, saving us hundreds of dollars.

Doing your own backsplash is not hard at all; placing the tiles is a cinch, and even though the hardest parts were grouting and caulking, both get easier once you get the hang of them. So my advice (for anyone re-doing any tile in any room) is to start someplace inconspicuous and work your skill level up as you work your way into the more noticeable areas of your work space.

I'm pleased with the job I did and how the kitchen looks now.... we could have gone with a simple, granite backsplash, but I really wanted to add some drama and individuality to our kitchen.  And although I went through every swear word in the book yesterday when trying to get the hang of caulking smoothly, I can honestly say that the money we saved as well as the relatively small amount of time it took to do all this was totally worth it.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Some Kitchen Pics

So we still have not installed the backsplash yet, but I wanted to share some "in progress" cabinet/countertop pics with you.  I will do another post detailing the extreme practicality of this kitchen, but for now I just want to show off the beautiful cabinets, countertops and farm sink, all installed and functional.  Backsplash will probably be done later this week!




Sunday, September 8, 2013

The home stretch

Well, the majority of the kitchen is now finished, with the exception of a small DIY backsplash and the addition of some door panels to our peninsula.  The end, as was the case with the rest of this kitchen remodel, was not without a certain rollercoaster-ish, high drama even and up to the very last day of contracted work. But it all got done in the end. 

And so now that the majority of the work is done, it's time to sit down and reflect on the whole, 4-month process.  Was it worth it? Yes.  I didn't realize how much I avoided our old kitchen, even averting my vision whenever I passed by it, until the new one began to take shape.  I didn't like looking at it, didn't like being in it, and didn't like trying to work in it.  I knew the kitchen was dysfunctional as soon as I moved in last year, but had not realized the extent of my dissociation with it until now.  That's because now,  I take every chance I get to look into the kitchen, stand in it, work in it.  The cupboards and shelving design makes sense for storage and finding things easily whilst cooking, the colors are soothing, not grating, and everything is easy to clean and actually looks clean when you're done.  

When anything in your life reaches the point where you can't work in it, can't love it, and can't function around it, something must be done.  And so it was.

Was it painful?  Yes.  Was it maddening?  Yes.  But we learned ways to cope and, in doing so, proved to ourselves that we're more inventive and tolerant than we had originally thought.  And now we have a place where we want to be, and which works for us.  

Which, it seems to me, is what home should be all about.

This week I will be installing the backsplash, DIY, and so once that it done I will post pictures.  Until then, I will be cooking, baking and preserving in a functional and pleasing environment.  What a blessing!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

First Day

Today is the first day of the Jewish New Year, and it certainly feels like a new year to me.  I much prefer the idea of starting the new year in September instead of January 1.  It just makes so much more sense.

To start with, I think it's practical to begin the new year with the start of a new season, not right in the middle of one. The beginning of September marks the start of fall everywhere in the northern hemisphere (and spring in the southern hemisphere!).  To me, fall and spring are critical seasons, when things truly change.  Let's face it, summer is just the fulfillment of spring's promises, and winter is just an outright manifestation of old Mother Nature finally falling deeply into a sleep after she started nodding off on the sofa throughout most of September/October.  But spring and fall are where it all begins.

I also like the idea that here on the northern part of the planet,  we begin the new year with a period of dormancy, observed in the darkness of longer nights and shorter days.  It's just like mammalian life itself, which begins in the womb and develops, unseen, in the darkness and watery quiet of the womb, over several months.  The heart, the spine, and fingers and toes of embryonic life all develop inside a mother's body before she may even know she is carrying a child. Plants likewise germinate and grow most at night, when temperatures are lower and stresses are less.  Even our plans and projects usually start with a mental planning phase, where you noodle on several ideas until one makes its way forward, out of the dark recesses of your consciousness and into reality.

And so it is with the new year.  We enter a period of rest, reflection and rejuvenation, so that once winter's freeze finally leaves us, we are ready to begin anew, active, alive and exploding with visible growth.

And so... here we go, into the new year, and into the gathering darkness and cold, where life lies dormant, but developing, and where we gather ourselves by the fire, keep warm, and formulate our plans for what is to come.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


So it's looking like tomorrow will be Granite Day here at the homestead.  The guys are supposed to show up in the morning to do the install, then our contractor should return on Friday to hook up the faucets, sink, and garbage disposal.  

Look for pictures sometime this weekend!

It seems appropriate that we finally get the majority of the kitchen finished as Rosh Hashana is beginning.  New Year, new kitchen.

L' Shana Tova everyone.  Happy New Year!  And Happy Granite Day, too!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Sunsets and pumpkins

On the drive home from the winery 
The late-summer thunderclouds have arrived and along with them the gorgeous fall skies (good) and more humid weather (not-so-good).  There are aphids, whiteflies and powdery mildew on the squash, but at this point we're all pretty done with squash so it's not necessarily a bad thing.  The pumpkin patch is going strong, and the tomatoes just keep coming and coming.

One thing I am considering is something Big Ag recommended regarding my tomatoes.  Instead of letting them continue on indefinitely until the first frost, I'm going to pull water on them soon, so they all ripen at the same time.  It's true that I won't have tomatoes for Thanksgiving salads, but on the other hand, with the entire crop getting ripe at once, it will help with canning chores.  And since one of my tomato beds is going to have carrots planted in it, it will also allow me to get those in the ground without having to wait too long.  Nights will be getting colder soon, and they'll need a little time to get started before it turns really cold.

I love the fact that the seasons are turning once again at this point, being stuck in the height of any one season is never my favorite thing.  Unless, of course, it's fall.  As much as we love living in wine country, I still think it would be amazing to live in a place with a true fall, which lasted for a few months instead of weeks.  But does it?  So many of my friends who live in cold-weather climes complain that fall there ends too abruptly as well, especially when they get an early snowfall.

Perhaps fall is loved more than the other seasons because of its brevity.  That's certainly true for me.