Friday, February 5, 2010

Take Time to Learn New Skills for Greater Self-sufficiency

Stop by my home any given evening and you might find a two-year-old looking at web images of Volkswagen Beetles (the boy is obsessed) and two other children talking on their toy cell phones. It struck me the other night that so much has changed in a single generation that it’s almost mind-boggling.

I grew up in a rural home where we went to town just once a week when we weren’t in school. My parents had a large garden, and we hit u-pick fields to gather additional produce for canning. There was no such thing as pre-washed lettuce in bags, and I doubt we ever bought boneless, skinless chicken breasts in bulk. Home computers were still a luxury and cordless phones were all the rage.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better and more convenient, but it has also made us less self reliant. We’ve all become accustomed to getting things fast, and we often don’t mind paying a premium for it: think fast food and so-called “instant refunds,” for example. The unfortunate thing about this convenience is that it’s typically bad for our health and our wallets.

I’m not advocating for a back-to-the-land attitude about life, but I do think it’s significant that with each passing generation we’re losing a kind of wisdom in the name of progress. For years, I didn’t buy bone-in chicken breasts because I didn’t know how to remove the meat from the bone. In fact, the idea of dealing with a whole chicken breast kind of freaked me out. And forget about a whole fryer, where I would actually have to reach my hand inside the cavity of the bird to extract who knows what.

If you’re a generation ahead of me, you might be chuckling about my whole-bird phobia. The generation before that probably raised and slaughtered all their own chickens. As for my children, they tend to prefer chicken that comes in strips or nuggets.

The fact is that technology won’t stop changing, but you can if you want to. The pace of life isn’t apt to slow down, but you can. You don’t need to overhaul your life, but can you embrace a “slow approach” to some things? Or perhaps you can devote time to learning a new skill to help you become more self sufficient.

The slow approach for me means getting the beans out to soak overnight when I make soup. I make brown rice ahead of time and freeze it so that I don’t have to wait the agonizingly-long 45 minutes for it to cook when I need it. I plant and tend to a garden that gives me fresh produce well into the winter.

Technology and greater self sufficiency don’t have to be mutually exclusive, either. I recently watched a YouTube video to learn how to sharpen my knives. The slow cooker isn’t exactly a new invention, but it has revolutionized the way I prepare meals for my family. We just e-filed our taxes and are awaiting a direct-deposit into our savings account.

Next up, is finally getting our own chickens. There’s a brooder to arrange, breeds to pick, and a coop to build, all things which will require me to learn new things. I hope six months from now that I’ll be frying up my own farm fresh eggs. Don’t expect me to be frying up any of our own chickens, though.

Carey Denman

Monday, February 1, 2010

Simple and Inexpensive Gifts are Often the Best

Our first Valentine’s Day together, my husband was clearly nervous about what he had gotten me. So as to lessen any discomfort he might be feeling, I announced that as long as he hadn’t bought me teal-green pajama pants, there would be no problem. He must have been dying inside. When I tore away the paper and pulled back a layer of tissue paper, I saw a pair of teal-green pajama pants with a coordinating tank top. (What are the chances, right?)

Needless to say, it was an awkward moment. What made matters even worse is that he told me how much he had spent on the pajama set. I had already said that the gift was precisely what I didn’t want, and for two kids still in college, $60 wasn’t exactly pocket change. It seemed then that the sensible thing to do was to return the gift.

Amazingly, our marriage survived, and we were able to laugh about what had happened. For all its awkwardness, the situation gave us an opportunity to discuss how we would handle gift-giving in the future. We agreed that we didn’t want to exchange gifts out of compulsion and that we would never go into debt to give a gift, no mattered how coveted the item.

Over the years, this has meant that we sometimes haven’t exchanged gifts, even on birthdays and at Christmas. When we do give gifts to one another, they tend to be simple and inexpensive.

Still, it isn’t that we don’t value gifts or their power to express affection. The first spring we moved into a new house, my husband presented me with a hoe and a spade, a nod to my passion for gardening. Another year, I gave him a box of Twinkies and a paperback copy of the Iliad, because I give him a bad time about his love for those little, golden cakes and because he once told me he wanted to read more classic literature. Most recently, he gave me a copy of a CD that I had only mentioned in passing. It was a $10 gift that confirmed that he “gets me” and that he’s listening to me. It honestly made my heart skip a beat.

My sister and her husband have made gift giving into a sort of game. For years, they have been giving gifts to each other that must cost $5 or less. For Christmas this year, they upped the limit to $8. The gifts I’ve seen them exchange have been silly and creative, personal and sentimental. Not only that, but I would venture to say that these gifts have strengthened their relationship. Not a bad return on an $8 investment.

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. You (or your significant other) might not share our philosophy of non-compulsory gift giving or be able to sign onto to an $8-or-less gift exchange. But do think about giving gifts that depend more on careful thought and planning than on how much you will spend.

Carey Denman