October 31, 2009

Thrift Shop Zombie Horror Story

Teaching elementary school provided a fun venue for dressing up for Halloween. The year after I dressed as the Mathemagician from Norton Juster's "Phantom Tollbooth", I decided to go less academic and more... horror. I went to a local thrift shop and picked up an old suit for a few dollars. I never gave a thought to its former owner, and looked forward to getting it home and zombificating it.

Once home I attacked the suit with scissors and knife, greasy sticks of makeup, dirt, lipstick, and strategic rips, shreds and tears. On Halloween day I put the shredded, disfigured suit on. I rubbed makeup on all exposed skin and in my hair. I blackened a tooth or two. Mr. Zombie was ready to go to school.

At my small school there was a Halloween Parade in which all grades stood in the long hallway and did a walk through to share and view all the costumes. Mr. Zombie must have been convincing because some of the kindergarten and grade one kids either bumped each other trying to get by me, or started crying. I also noticed one of the staff giving me a scrutinizing glance.

At lunch time in the staff room the woman that gave me the inquiring look during the parade sat next to me. All the staff were streaming in and many were commenting on my ghoulish getup, and whether or not I made their students cry. Everyone laughed when I told them that it was the first suit I had ever bought.

Mrs. Q. said, "I could have given you a three piece suit. I just donated all my late husbands clothes to charity."

I told her I picked up the suit at Value Village, a local thrift shop.

She reached over and looked at the inside of the jacket. Distinguishing marks allowed her to identify it.

"My husband got married in that suit," she stated.

We didn't know if we should gasp in horror, or laugh at the transient nature of life, and our possessions. Since she had already released her husbands clothing to the thriftosphere she had come to terms with this difficult process. She enjoyed the fact that I could use the suit to provide entertainment for all the kids, and appreciated it's theatrical value.

Mr. Zombie went on, with Mrs. Q's endorsement to entertain trick-or-treaters later that night. We have never given out less treats because all the short, early crowd ran away as soon as I opened the door and they saw me. Unless they stood at the base of my steps petrified and crying. It scared me.

Enjoy Halloween and your thrift shop costumes.

October 26, 2009

What Will The Post-Consumer Future Look Like?

A recent thought-provoking comment from a reader provided the opportunity for the following post in which I would like to tap into the wisdom of all those who pass by this humble blog. The comment was in response to my recent post on desires, consumer culture, and advertising. What will happen if many of us decide to not buy anything? What if it becomes a way of life, not just a temporary setback before resuming borrowing and spending? What will a post-consumer culture look like?

During the last two decades, the percentage of the U.S. economy devoted to consumer spending went up and up and up - from 67% of GDP to 72%, a huge increase.

We can't all not buy anything and expect our world to remain the same. But you know the trend has begun when economists like David Rosenberg are talking about a "new frugality" cutting into consumer spending.
Now, with credit tight, wages flat-lining and unemployment steadily ticking higher, consumers are strapped. Personal spending in the second quarter was $195 billion below the figure for the same period last year. That 1.9% drop is significant — over the 20 years that ended in 2006, consumer spending reliably increased at an annual 3.3% rate.
We are cutting back and thinking twice about our discretionary spending. Many of us are deciding not to buy anything, or at least not as much as before. We are re-evaluating our role as consumers. The Jones' have left the neighborhood, and we ain't lookin' over the fence any more.

And now, to the comment:
This has been on my mind for some time now as well. My current financial situation has created a huge obstacle in my old habits of consumerism. My families survival needs are met, and we have found contentment within our purchasing restraints.

I find myself wondering what it is that I would actually want, if I had extra money to go around? At the same time, however, I wonder what would happen to all the billions of people on this planet if even just 5% decided that they no longer desired material objects.

How many jobs would be lost? What would people do to earn an income if they weren't needed in jobs that support consumerism? How would science advance? What would drive our economy so that we could still share resources and knowledge if the motivation of earning an income was extinguished?

I believe that there are major philosophical and political issues/implications that would arise as a result of millions of people changing thier outlook on capitalism. I am personally not a fan, but I wonder if some people would even know what to do with themselves if they didn't want to work to buy stuff, or go to the bar afterwards. And finally, how could this effect you or I in the long term?
Thank you to Pzeffan for his comment. I would like to do a bit of future visioning of my own.

The murky view in my crystal ball reveals that cooperatives will be a larger part of the solution in the future. The cooperative movement began in Europe in the 19th century in response to rapid industrialization. There are thriving housing cooperatives around the world. I lived in one quite contentedly for a decade. There are also retail cooperatives like MEC in Canada, and REI in the U.S. Worker cooperatives in developing nations are realizing great success. In these endeavours all members benefit, not just a small elite at the top. The membership shares in control of the venture, and in the benefits that flow from it.

I see a frugal future where we humbly come together in communities in order to help support one another, and realize the benefits of our cooperative efforts. It is already happening, with about 800 million members globally participating in the cooperative movement.

The current crisis of greed yields an opportunity to try a different model, and a better way of life. My vision sees the dark, polluted fumes of excess and luxury clearing, and a brighter, more cooperative future for all just over the horizon.

What do you see in the post-consumer future? How will we overcome the challenges inherent in the continuing shift toward a less individual, competitive, materialistic culture?

October 23, 2009

Bake Your Own Local Loaves

Baking your own daily bread is something you can do with a minimum of equipment, ingredients and knowledge. Doing so will improve your diet, and your life. It a wondrous tactile experience making it, and an odoriferous delight baking it. Kneading a warm blob of dough for 5 meditative minutes is the antidote for a busy world, and fresh loaves on the counter are better than dollars in the bank.

No wonder 'dough' and 'bread' have been slang for money. Bread's importance as a food staple over thousands of years makes a comparison with cash warranted. It is as important a part of our diet today as it ever was, and is referred to as 'the staff of life' for good reasons.

This staff sustained millions of poor through the Middle Ages, caused riots and uprisings, and has been mentioned repeatedly in writings across the ages. Having our daily bread means we are able to work on improving ourselves and the world around us. Without our 'bread' we are reduced to survival. Providing this basic food source for yourself and your family has the potential to be a powerfully satisfying activity.

Baking your own bread fits with the trend toward eating as locally as possible. If you are lucky enough to have a nearby source of wheat your baking becomes a sustainable activity that will eliminate problems associated with buying industrial bread transported from away.

Seven years ago I decided to try my hand at baking bread. I was not satisfied with dollar per loaf bread, and the more substantial loaves I liked were expensive. They also had ingredients I would never add myself, such as glucose-fructose, calcium propionate, diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono and diglycerides, vegetable monoglycerides, sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate, and the list goes on, and on, and on.

Some of the additives used in industrial bakeries allow a faster baking time and the use of lower grade flours. Other additives make sure the bread does not go bad during shipping. It won't do that until you buy it and take it home. I bought my first 10kg (20lb) bag of flour, and started channelling my grandmother's legendary baking skills.

When I was a child, my grandparent's visits were anticipated for a variety of reasons. Prime among them was that a visit meant shortly after arrival, our kitchen would be covered from top to bottom with a bounty of baked goods. Grandma would whip into our kitchen and take over. She assembled equipment and managed ingredients with military precision. "She doesn't even need any recipes," I marveled as I looked on through a flurry of flour and activity.

I watched her pummel large heaps of dough. It looked like the folds of skin that swung gently from her strong arms, in time with her kneading. She may of been attacking the dough with vigor, but her demeanor was calm, and she hummed quietly to herself as she worked and created her magic. She was content and relaxed, and smiled a little smile. It was cold outside. The kitchen was warm.

Before long baking odors would be eliciting generous amounts of drool in little mouths. Our eyes would be as big as plates as we viewed the sugar-encrusted donuts, bread, dinner rolls, cinnamon rolls, cakes and pies scattered over every available surface. Twisted donut creations, the name and recipe of which grandma may have taken to the big bakery in the sky when she 'rose' to that lofty position, were family favourites. My personal preference was the bread, though. Puffy, golden crust, white, moist crumb (the inside bits). Before long a loaf would be sliced open, steamy, yeasty, and fresh. We would mix butter and honey in equal parts and spread that on the still warm slices.

I have since learned that the basics of bread making are easy to learn. Flatbreads, like chapati or tortillas, are simply flour and water. You may already make pancakes, another of my favourite bread products. Add a bit of yeast, oil, sugar, salt, and water to flour and you can make beautiful, basic loaves. A slightly different mix, a few tablespoons of olive oil and you have an amazing pizza crust. Pita bread, raisin bread, cinnamon rolls, biscuits, burger buns... Once the basics are learned anything is possible. With wholesome ingredients you can't go wrong.

I have not had a failure in seven years. I have had a few projects that needed to be re-branded, though. For example, a heavy bread that didn't rise as much as anticipated became 'bagel bread'. Tasted great. After a few times you can begin to play and add your own creative touches. It is easy to feel child-like with your hands deep in dough.

Kids love baking bread, and since it is very straight forward activity, they can participate fully. There is the promise of a yummy food at the end, plus the rewards of doing it yourself. This promise holds whether you are a kid, or a kid at heart.

Does baking your own bread save money? Short answer - yes. I have not done a detailed accounting because I firmly believe that time spent baking is not deducted from your lifetime total. It may even prolong your lifespan, and that is just for the baking part. If you are baking whole wheat bread there are added benefits in the eating. The fiber is like a roto-rooter for you digestive tract, and healthy inside means healthy outside.

The following lists everything I made with one of my recent bags of flour (10kg):
  • 13 loaves bread
  • 24 green onion cakes
  • 38 tortillas
  • 36 pancakes
  • 36 spice cookies
  • 2 pizza crusts
  • 1 chocolate cake
  • 12 chapatis
  • 13 samosas
A quick and rough estimate of how much it would cost to purchase these products pre-made came to about $170.00 dollars.

Before the global economic crisis a bag of flour cost me about $5.00 dollars. During food riot time that same bag was $12.00. That was about a year ago, and for some reason the baking area of my grocery store often looked like there had been a riot just before I got there. I grabbed my flour and ran. Things appear to have settled down since then and now a bag of whole wheat flour is about $6.00 and I can walk to the till. But even at the most expensive, it still looks to me like a bargain. And you can't put a price on the enjoyment of manipulating ingredients to create a staple, wholesome, life-sustaining food such as your daily bread.

My basic whole wheat bread recipe (makes 3 loaves):

3 cups lukewarm water 750ml
1 tsp sugar 5 ml
2 tbsp dry yeast 25ml
1/2 cup vegetable oil 125ml
1/2 cup sugar 125ml
1 tbsp salt 15ml
9 cups whole wheat flour

  1. In a mixing bowl pour in 1 cup lukewarm water; sprinkle with 1 tsp sugar and the yeast. Let proof for 10 minutes in a warm place.
  2. Whisk in the remaining water, oil, sugar and salt. Stir in flour 1/2 cup at a time to make a stiff dough.
  3. Knead for 4 or 5 minutes or until smooth, satiny, elastic and bounces back when pressed lightly with a finger. Consistency of an earlobe.
  4. Wipe bowl lightly with oil, drop in dough and turn to coat. Cover with a cloth and allow to rise in warm location (oven with light on works well) till doubled, 1-1 1/2 hours.
  5. Punch dough down, divide into three, and shape into loaves. Put loaves in lightly greased pans, cover, and return to oven for another hour.
  6. Remove loaves, keep covered, and pre-heat oven to 400 F. (200 C). Put bread in for 15 minutes at 400, then 15 more minutes at 375. Remove and turn loaves out on to counter/cooling rack.
  7. Pat self on back. Wait for loaves to cool a bit, then slice and enjoy.
All in all I spend about 20 minutes from start to first dough rising. Punching down, forming loaves, greasing pans and back in oven for second rising takes about another 20 minutes. By this point the bulk of work is done. After the second rising all that is left is the baking, the cooling, and the eating. Clean up is wiping the bread pans lightly with a damp, warm cloth, letting them dry and putting them away.

Good luck, and have fun. May you find enjoyment in the meditative pace that a day of baking provides. Learn with your kids. What a wonderful skill to pass on to them. Eat better, and reduce your impact at the same time. Learn to bake your own daily bread. Your ancestors did it. You can do it.

October 17, 2009

Extreme Frugal Living: The Ultimate Household Budget

Most people hate budgeting. It forces us to limit ourselves and we have been programmed to believe and act as if everything exists in infinite abundance, and we ought to have it now, if not sooner.  But look at where that has gotten us.

I propose a very simple, easy to implement budget.

The Ultimate Household Budget has two categories:

  1. What you need to survive, and
  2. Everything else.

Category 1 consists of the basics, things every human ought to have. Healthy food, safe, secure, affordable shelter, clothing adequate for the climate, clean drinking water, systems to deal with waste, and access to learning experiences.

Without these basics, many die every day. Every human ought to have them, and in a sane world every one would. If you have them, you are doing better than about one billion people on the planet.

Category 2 consists of extras. Wants. Desires. Luxury. Extra. Expendable. Can live without. Contrary to popular belief, we will not die without the things in this category.

This budget has one step: give up everything in category 2.

Don't worry. You can start slowly. You can take months or years, if you have that luxury. But category 2 spending has to go if you have a shortage of cash, or wish to help the ailing planet. Everything you take out of category 2 helps you get out of debt, and stay out of debt, if that is your goal.

And it lowers your ecological footprint dramatically.

But won't it be boring? How can I live without (fill in the blank)? Humans are amazingly adaptable creatures. "Have much, be confused," Lao Tzu said, and if he is correct, then having less is the way to go. Couldn't we all benefit from less confusion in our lives?

Is eliminating all category 2 spending unrealistic for you? Start by taking one thing off your list. Then remove a couple more items. When you realize you don't miss them, you will be motivated to cut more. Give the ultimate household budget and extreme frugal living a try. You will be amazed at what you can live happily without. Good luck.

October 5, 2009

Capitalism: I Tried It, I'm Just Not Good At It

When still in high school I entered the dark world of capitalism. It was my first foray into using money to make more money, rather than using my labour or ideas. I was a lazy teenager, and I had great expectations for this road to riches. Extreme wealth was inevitable. Why not? The capitalist system had been making individuals wealthy since the Middle ages.

For my initial business investment of $750.00 I reaped exactly nothing in profit. Never mind profit, I could not even get my initial investment back. After waiting several long, disappointing days, I swung a new deal. In the end I settled for a car that I hoped was worth at least the money I was owed.

The car was a well-used 1969 Mustang coupe with faded paint and a motor that sounded like a tractor. Dreams of a lucrative business venture quashed, I began to make lemonade out of my lemon. I drove the Mustang for thirteen years, then sold it for $750. I had salvaged something from my first attempt at commerce, and learned that the world of business was strictly survival of the fittest. Wealth would have to wait.

My saddest exploration of the underbelly of greed and wealth accumulation occurred when I brushed up against a millionaire in my home town. He was known to my family and was a respected man about town and at church. Mr. Money had a huge house complete with indoor swimming pool. Surely he would take me under his wing and share his secret to wealth. At the time I was employed in a job I did not like, and looked forward to quitting once the riches began to roll in.

This was Mr. Money's business plan:
I was to steal from my employer, then deliver the goods to his house for his home renovation project. Since I would get the materials for free, he would be able to purchase them from me at a great discount. It was, he explained, a win-win situation.
Except of course, for my employer, the actual owner of the goods in question. And my conscience.

I was puzzled. Why would a man, already swimming in money, propose such a devious, unethical, and illegal plan? Then it dawned on me. This is how capitalism worked. You get things as cheaply as possible, then sell them for as much as possible. This millionaire did not steal because he was rich, he was rich because he was willing to steal. He would do anything to minimize his output and maximize his bottom line, even if it meant theft.

I filled the trunk of my Mustang and drove off to complete my second business venture. I finished with a pocket full of cash, but was unable to enjoy it. My guilt overwhelming, I started serving my sentence immediately. So much for business venture number two. "If this is how people get ahead", I thought to myself, "then I am willing to fall behind."

Today I am mildly repulsed by the world of business. There are good business practitioners out there, but throw money into a pit anywhere and you are going to see a fight. Capitalism will bring out the worst in all involved. Show me big money and I will show you criminal activity. Lottery frauds are one small example. The recent global economic meltdown is another.

The capitalist system is just as bereft of workable solutions as the Soviet system once was. The best system will be a balanced blend of the two. In that regard income redistribution would be the best case scenario for both those that do not have enough, and for those who have too much. Robert Anton Wilson recommended a guaranteed annual income, saying:
A system that is less expensive than welfare and also less debasing to the poor, it seems to me, should not be objectionable to anybody but hardcore sadists.
Where's the exit? I'm out. I would rather give things away than sell them. Commerce makes me feel dirty. I can hear the little suited guy on my shoulder whispering sweet schemings in my ear. It does not feel right. I don't want to buy, and I don't want to sell. I am a failed capitalist.

October 2, 2009

Gimme, Gimme, Gimme: How Do We Know What To Desire?

I was watching an episode of Star Trek: Next Generation the other day. "Deja Q" involved an omniscient alien that had been kicked out of the Q Continuum, a guild for the all-powerful beings of his race. The Continuum was punishing Q for being naughty, and his punishment was to be confined to a physical body for a period of time. Q chose to take the form of a human being on the Enterprise. He had gone from an all-powerful and immortal entity to a puny human. He needed to be consoled.

An obliging crew member took Q to 10-Forward, a crew lounge. At the bar the crew member told Q that he could have anything he desired. Q, being new to his human form, pimples, desires and all, asked, "How do I know what to desire?" That got me to thinking about one of my favourite videos.

I think it was on America's Funniest Home Videos (aging self now). In it a small boy unwrapped a large present with great gusto. He ripped the decorative paper off revealing plain cardboard beneath, then stepped back and yelled, "A box! A box!" He jumped up and down joyously in response to this amazing gift. Like Q, he didn't know what to desire.

Witnesses to the child's open-minded reaction would chuckle, then gently (or not so gently), show the child that he is suppose to desire the object IN the box, not the box itself. Indeed, the box will quickly be shuffled out of the living room and into the recycling, its destiny fulfilled.

The video was only a few seconds long, so it did not show the boy's reaction afterward. But I could just picture him clutching some unimaginative, garishly coloured plastic toy while his time machine, castle turret, go cart, and tollbooth disguised as a cardboard box was carried off to the garbage. He is learning what to desire.

We are trained what to desire by our culture and its agents, including parents and friends. In addition to such forces, and perhaps dwarfing such forces, is the global advertising business. It spends about half a trillion dollars a year training you in what to desire. By comparison, total global government spending on education is about 2 trillion dollars.

That $500 000 000 000 advertising budget is spent to train us to desire what is most profitable. Such desires will not include clean air and water. Or love, generosity, cooperation, independence, self-reliance, or "do it yourself".

Then we have to add in money spent on public relations. The Public Relations Society of America reports:

U.S. spending on public relations increased 12 percent to $4.27 billion in 2007, as companies sought improved methods of promoting their products and services in a perpetual news cycle. This marked the industry’s fourth straight year of double-digit growth.

I am questioning what I desire, and why I desire it. I am questioning who gains from the fulfillment of my desires. I want to find value in the box, rather than the expensive, shiny, soon-to-be-ignored bauble inside. Let's climb into that cardboard box and use our imaginations to whisk us off to the world that we desire, rather than some slick, fake world that someone is trying to sell us.