Spartan Existence

So, it’s been over a year since that comment in my last post about the renewed commitment to writing. I actually have been writing quite a lot, but only in my head where no one can read it. I don’t know whether I needed a new topic or whether it was the fear that no one ever reads my posts… I mean literally, not even my family.

What ever it was, I do have a new topic and so let’s see where it goes.

It has been a longtime dream of mine to own an Airstream, but new ones are expensive and old ones are scary. How would I know if I was getting a bargain or a nightmare? But still, I’ve looked at Craigslist ads every now and then for decades. So sometime, I think just over a year ago, I saw a Spartan Travel Trailer made in the 50s in Tulsa, Oklahoma I only found it because it was mis-advertised as an Airstream and it peaked my interest. So, I showed it to Russ and we were both bit. We looked and thought and learned. We looked some more. No, we’re not finished with the renovations on the house, not even close. We looked. We joined Facebook groups. We found great websites and lots of Facebook friendlies. For better or worse, we managed to neutralize the fear. We found an Avion. We went to Hilton Head to look at it. It was scary even for our new found bravery and we like Avions, but they aren’t Spartans and we didn’t think it was a price / condition match. We actually found several things we like. Boles Aero, Vagabond, M Class, and on and on. Trolley tops are really cool and there is some stuff out there that is just so awesome that I never knew existed. Each ad we saw represented a trade off between location, condition, price, brand and whether or not Russ could stand up in it. I had Craigslist alerts set up across the entire south east. Some how I couldn’t stop the Avion query from also giving me the frequent furniture ads by the same name.

I was up one night recently doing the late late night mucking about on the interwebs and I decided it had been some time since I had looked at actual Airstreams. I put in a search and there it was, an ad 15 minutes old for two local Airstreams, only 1 of them was a Spartan. The asking price was within reach and the wording said it was negotiable. This is the begining of something new and wonderful!

A Rollercoaster Named Overwhelmed

My writing has drifted out to sea in the rush to get the house ready for move in. For over a month, the floors have been a plague and we’ve had to go out of town twice for family funerals, one on each side of the family. We’ve also made other trips for other family obligations. “Hurry up and wait” has gone and any sense of order is just a lofty aspiration. Things bought for the house, the booth or the Etsy stores are scattered about the house like sprinkles poured on heavy by a child. As I am writing, I am thinking of the list of the things that we’ve done over the last month and I’m not really sure how we fit it all in, but I am sure why people are telling both of us we look a little short on sleep. This has been the year when people stopped telling me that I couldn’t possibly have children and a grandchild the ages of mine, and started asking if I qualified for the discount.

These are the times when I really question myself about how it is that I choose to do things, as in- never the easy way, but this time going about things the hard way wasn’t all in choice. A lot of the things that I thought would be the easy, low stress or expedient choices weren’t. It seemed reasonable to expect that buying a house would be less complicated, lower stress and a faster recovery than rebuilding the house we lost, but the housing market in our area is so strange now that it didn’t turn out that way.

There’s enough of a recovery going to keep prices fairly high. The recovery isn’t complete though and people have trouble qualifying for higher end houses they might have bought easily not long ago. That brings them down to my price range. My price range was always where I fit, but right now it’s also a fit for far too many other people. Since the fire, a house in my old neighborhood sold in week and another sold in days.

Almost everything has been just like that, longer, harder, more complicated…it’s really just a fairly standard renovation, with overdue maintenance and an unusually bad pet problem. The trips out of town have even actually helped. We have had time to assess how bad the problem is, how well different treatments have worked, do additional research and get some additional advice. If we had been left to do nothing but work on the house, we wouldn’t have done things as well as we have been able to. But, taking it all on at once has been pretty hard to swallow. It’s that we are trying to do as many things ourselves as we can combined with our little thrifty experiment.

Buying things second hand means getting them when you find them and storing them where you can. We are taking things over in small loads when we go to ease the moving burden, both in gas and in workload. Much of the stuff we have bought is “project” quality. We plan to transform it in some way before we use it. I’m pretty sure our new neighbors may be coming to think of us as the Clampett’s of Beverly Hills. First impressions being what they are… I’m joking of course. We’ve done a lot of yard work and they can tell that we are trying to take the worst house in the neighborhood and transform it into something better.

So there’s another day in the life… My goal for July: A house that we can move into, a writing schedule that’s regular, and enough aerobic exercise to keep my energy levels high and my stress levels low.

Diligence Due

Well, we’ve made it past due diligence and into the last stages of purchase on a house, but it sure was a coin toss for such an important and long awaited decision. I really appreciate fine workmanship. I respect time and old world craftsmanship, absent in the new standards construction and most other features of the house we’ve chosen. The positives are: a nice layout that’s good for short or long-term purposes, a good neighborhood, the right amount of space in mostly useful places and the right schools. It even has a beautiful (possibly solid mahogany) kitchen bar, but the house is covered in hard coat stucco that has cracks, messy old repairs and mismatched colors that show clearly, even in a low light photo.

There are decorator upgrades of personal taste, but widespread overdue maintenance indicating a total fail in the wise allocation of funds. With heavy pet allergens all the carpet will need to come out, and it won’t be fun for us as heavily committed DIYs. The house has potentially Money Pit qualities and it blew me away when due diligence exposed over 36K in unexpected expenses and repairs (those I didn’t allow for in the price), but the seller wouldn’t consider any price adjustment. I’ve had to consider the money I’d flush on 2 or more years renting to make myself move forward on this purchase.

And then there’s comparison to the home I lost. I like brick. It’s low maintenance (if it’s on all 4 sides) like mine was. That brick was straight and square and solid without any settling cracks. The old house had some irritating contractor short cuts. The original plumber had dropped the kitchen ceiling a foot and put the master bath vanity on a wall adjacent to the architect’s plan. I knew it didn’t belong there, and confirmed it when I stripped the wallpaper and saw the builder notes written on the wall underneath. The original plumber saved maybe $40 in copper pipe with these ugly modifications. I spent $5000.00 just getting a certified master plumber to restore the plumbing so I could then return the ceiling and vanity to the original plan. I despise these self centered short sighted short cuts, but the 1979 short cuts in that house were still less offensive than the newer short cuts that I’ll be fixing in this house.

As much as I want to be in a home that fits as many needs and wants as this new purchase, and to get on with normalizing life for my family, a feather could have changed my mind when the seller didn’t make any allowances for the problems exposed on inspection. None. Nada. Whether the seller already knew, or simply didn’t care, I remembered well why didn’t last in real estate.

I was offended, depressed and wrung out when I let the due diligence run out without the price adjustments that condition warranted. It may be the best decision I could make, given what I have to work with, but I rarely pay the wrong price for something and when I do I feel like I’ve been had. But, I was, I am, weary of the suspension of normal life and over ready to be getting on with things.

Friday night between midnight (when the due diligence ran out) and 3am or so when I finally made it to sleep, I was upset enough that I didn’t even want to sit across a closing table from the seller and I didn’t want to move our maple tree to the new yard. There’s a beautiful Tamukeyama weeping red maple that Russ planted in the old yard when we were dating. We’ve talked about moving it. He said it might take an entire weekend, given our equipment and making sure that it would live. It seems a lot of work to move a tree that’s been in the ground for 12 years, but I wanted the tree to move with us because Russ is the person who made me want to grow things again.

The part of this move that I’m struggling to get over is not that it unexpectedly became a seller’s market in my area just before I unexpectedly needed to buy. Life is a crap shoot and you take it as it comes. It’s not that I’m buying a fixer either. I wanted to restore something (if I can actually afford to restore this). I prefer to restore something old, solid and filled with grace. Not something that’s pretty new and only needs restoration because it’s been abused.

What’s bothering me is precisely that I’m tired of people getting away with having others clean up their mess. This seller bought a foreclosure at a fraction of market value, lived in it for over a decade (the decade that included the largest real estate meltdown in history), maintained it poorly and wanted sell for over 2.5 times the original purchase price. Neat trick if you can accomplish it right? Why shouldn’t anyone be happy about the same result?

But, consider this. If I am unable to make the purchase and repairs within the limits of a current market price, then the house isn’t worth what it costs me. If I pay more, I’m giving up future appreciation (that may or may not accrue). I’m giving my future to the seller, a seller who wants the big pay off regardless of having made decisions that don’t lead to that result, and regardless of who’s pocket it comes from. People who want others to pay their tab have always existed, but I think it is a disease, an epidemic drag on the economy and on our spirits that is reaching scarier heights with each passing day.

It’s the disease that killed my marriage. More importantly, it’s a disease that’s killing our country and I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic here. From building contractors to big banking, taxes to TV, environmental waste to drinking water, NIMBY’s to Pork Barrel Politics, people are maximizing small amounts of personal gain at a heavy and sometimes extreme cost to others, the exact opposite of Spock’s Law, rather than “The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few”, the accepted value sometimes seems to be “The wants of the one justify what ever you can get away with”.

It really seems like big business, big politics, big government and their marketing/campaign/”media”/”news” departments have been honing in on and amplifying the lowest common denominator in humanity for long enough to contribute significantly to debasing our society. The evolutionary brain’s survival technique of attempting to minimize effort while maximizing gain was pretty important when the challenge was to get enough calories to last the winter. Granted, it’s still pretty important now that we are living much higher on Maslow’s Hierarchy, but it needs to be channeled and enlightened. It is hard to overcome our baser selves when there are so many signals aimed at getting us to buy on impulse and maximize the rush, borrowing from tomorrow. When tomorrow comes the dopamine is depleted and it’s harder to get satisfaction.

Business, politicians and other entities constantly appeal to self-interest, they’re tapped in to the brain’s reward system and they use competition, salaciousness and tribalism to inflate the response of baser instincts. That makes us short sighted and easy to manipulate when we need take a long view and act with independent, conscientious thought. We need to be evolving in a changed world on crowded globe. Most of us, especially in the United States aren’t trying simply to survive anymore. We can afford ethics and balance, but too many of us have been worrying about how to get the next fix, anything from the newest cell phone, shoes, 3D TV, junk food, Facebook likes, extreme vacation or actual chemical drugs.

I’ve had a week to let my feelings about my new house and this national shedding of responsibility settle. The bigger, chronic problem is more troubling to me than my own personal run in with the latest reminder of the sickness, or even the one before that. I’ve been busy, so it’s been mulling around in the background, thankfully. Thinking about my own personal response to it all.

So, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to work on how I feel about the closing. I’m going to commit to this house. I’m going to make it the best I can with the resources I have and while it’s mine it will be maintained properly. I’m going to ask Russ to take that whole weekend and move that tree, out of the back from my old yard and into the front of my new yard. I’m going to combat the disease in my own way, in my own little space. And, if the time comes when I sell this house, I’m going to do my best to make sure it is a value.

A House, A House, My Kingdom for a House

That’s not exactly how the Bard wrote about King Richard III’s battleground predicament, but I’m feeling a bit of the same dilemma. Trying to find a home has certainly marked a winter of discontent (and rare winter storms). One of Shakespeare’s most misunderstood plays about one of the most controversial English regents seems a good thing to parody while I’m trying hard not to take myself or my situation too seriously.

Normally the decision to move comes at a natural break, a change in life or career that makes moving away or changing your home the natural thing to do. Mine came quietly in the wee hours of the morning with the sound of fire fighters who scarcely woke the neighbors while keeping the fire from spreading to their homes. My guiding change was only abrupt need.

A rush of decisions hit. First there’s triage, then there are bigger decisions. The decision about temporary housing had to be made before the long-term decisions. Conveniently staying near a major junction in interstates had advantages, but wasn’t convenient to the place I eventually decided was most important to find a home and, what turned out to be my primary goal and focus wasn’t anything I had even thought about before the fire. I knew that it would be hard to make decisions about small stuff before I made decisions about the big stuff, yet life moves on and the small decisions happen whether or not the big ones do.

I’m not so far from that time when many people downsize, and let’s face it. When you have just lost the house full of things you spent a lifetime collecting and inheriting, that does seem like a time to downsize. But I haven’t quite made the time when I can do that. My home needs to accommodate all the needs it currently fills. So, the house that fits this year, may not be the house I still want to keep in 3-5 years. I thought I really wanted a short sale or a foreclosure. The savings would help me to make up for the likelihood that I would be in the house for a short time and cancel out some of the extra expenses of a short-term ownership.

It’s a game for the big boys though. I’m looking for a home in Fulton County where those foreclosure auctions on the courthouse steps include the high value homes of Atlanta and its surrounds. Here, even a home that goes for pennies on the dollar can have way too many decimal places for me and even on the homes that do apply to me, the ruthless people who know what they are doing are competing for a decreasing commodity and they could swat me away with their little fingers.

My sweet spot would be getting a house that someone else got on the courthouse steps, but hadn’t remodeled yet. Something that still had room in the price for me to improve it and have a little reward for my work. I went to a meeting for investors who wholesale properties. I thought I might find someone who had a property for me. I wasn’t really comfortable there. There is a kind of respect that people are due and I couldn’t see it at this meeting.

It is true that people have to look out for themselves and their families. How one chooses to do that comes in every color, shape and size. I know a sales person who said “I looked at every sale that another man made as taking food from the mouths of my family.” He was successful, but in spite of how that sounds, he was also compassionate. People find their own ways to keep up the march and it is a struggle.

Some people have appetites that are never sated though. They lack appropriate respect for the resources they use. Some would take anything they can get and try to force a situation to squeeze out even more from people who are desperate and powerless. Do they need the win, the extreme TV or the power vacation? It’s about how ever they define superiority and superiority is not the hole I’m looking to fill.

The truth is that foreclosures are not distressed properties. They are the properties of distressed people and the choice to focus on the inanimate is just a means to help distance humanity. I want the good deal that helps to make up for some of my losses, both in the fire and in the future, but I want it to come from one of those careless people who doesn’t try and brought their trouble on themselves. I want it to come from the person who will never have anything because they go through life irresponsibly. I don’t want it to come from someone who lost their job through no fault of their own, or worse, lost their health. But I won’t get to choose and I may not know until their neighbors become mine. As much as I would like to take care of my own family in the best way possible, to find the best deal, to continue my march and fill our needs, I do understand that what I have been looking for could be heart wrenching if it actually comes my way and the search for any home at market or below continues as I weigh the prices and potential of what is available.

The housing market has changed since I was last paying attention. I’m seeing that trusted resources like Clark Howard recommend renting in the current market if you will be in a house for fewer than 10 years. I don’t like throwing money away on rent, but I’m not happy with my current options and I’m not expecting appreciation to make much headway over the short-term. If money is to be lost, loosing it without the additional risk of short-term market swings could be the lesser evil. Many of the houses that I can purchase have serious condition issues and the prices don’t seem to reflect that. I’ve drifted toward looking at homes that are far outside my budget to be ready if they become short sales, and kicked myself for missing it when a couple of them did. But, there’s no good way to know and my missing it was not through lack of effort.

This has been a winter of discontent, searching and storms, yet, I have still spent much of it grateful for the better than good bits and I continue to trudge through those other bits with faith that something will turn up.

Thrifting for a Day

One never knows what the day will bring when setting out in search of treasure. Many people look at fishing as a similar venture. My father was an extraordinary fisherman. People who went at it with less seriousness saw him as lucky, but I knew better. He had put in the time and effort to take luck out of the equation. When he was young he kept meticulous notebooks recording places time, weather, water quality, bait/lures and other things, and for the rest of his life he did mental editing. He knew when, where, with which tools and under what conditions the fish would bite. Like the younger brother who was described in “A River Runs Through It” my father on the other end of a fishing rod was an artist. He got there with practice, attention and perseverance.

In thrifting it’s the careful attention and plodding perseverance that are most useful. I’d like to think my good results can somehow be attributed to skill, and it is important to know your stuff, but a lot of it is just putting in the time. Some stores will have habits and knowing them is useful. But, they don’t always stick to their own habits, and they are dependent on sometimes unpredictable things, so going back again and again is the only way. It also works in their interest to make sure you have to set foot in the door, to be in impulse purchase mode, to find out if they have the thing you really want. We who love to thrift are particularly susceptible to impulse purchases. That’s how some of us become hoarders, and how others of us end up donating our purchases back to the place where we bought them to be resold again.

Wednesday, I made a big loop. It was about 15 stores, a tank of gas, a whole day and two meals out. So, maybe $300.00, nine hours and 100 or so miles were what it took to bring in my treasures of the day.

Here are some highlights.

Handmade Oak Craftsman floor lamp, needed a harp and a finial. Retails at $435 The harp and final requires a trip to a lamp store for a sturdy harp and a finial worthy of its lamp. That was an extra 2 hours and $20.00 cost added to acquisition. I gave the lamp to Russ for his Valentine’s present.

9 shortbread molds, sometimes I’ll go months without finding any of these at a price I’m willing to pay. These had sold prices on Ebay from $9-200. The more expensive ones had papers, and I’ve been throwing out my papers because I plan to use these in a bakery offering on Etsy. The larger one is still in the dishwasher. $120

A stainless steel double boiler style steamer for personal use. $15

A large heavy duty restaurant sifter well made $10

A Paula Deen ceramic tube pan retails for $40.

A handmade lazy Susan that the maker still sells for $70 needed a bit of steel wool and some new oil, or $5 more dollars and 30 min.

An assortment of vintage goodies that I will sell in my Etsy store or one of my booths. $150.00

So, I had a very good day. I built my household, my Etsy business and my local business, The gain was around $500, but there’s always a but. Only around $150 is in salable merchandise and there will be percentages as well as overhead (like booth rent) taken from that. Most of today’s finds will go toward the “How much of our household can we replace through thrifting” part of the equation. We got a really nice floor lamp that retails for about 4 times what we would have paid if we were buying a new household item and it was the showcase item of the day. I’m very happy with it and Russ is too. However, it is important to note that a large part of my gain comes from attributing retail value to that lamp, rather than valuing it at what I could ask for it if I were to sell it second hand. Much of my gain for the day is in having something nicer in my home than I could otherwise afford to buy.

Another big part of my success lies in the fact that I had several goals. That allows me to find more things that fit. If you’re looking for 20 different kinds of things it is more likely that you’ll find one of them when you go out.

Photos of some things will follow, but it’s time to publish, my technology is not playing nice today and I have appointments to keep.

Thrifty

Cookie Jars, LostBefore the fire, Russ and I were frequenting thrift stores and estate sales to find things to up-cycle, re-purpose or re-sell for our vintage and handmade business. Our treasures were available (and will be again) online at Etsy.com shops Six Degrees and Lost Vacation and in booths at local Antiques and Interiors stores. Woodstock Antiques and Queen of Hearts in Marietta
We love the manufacturing standards of older things as well as giving new life to things that might otherwise be lost forever. The treasure and bargains that you can find are amazing, especially in an affluent and densely populated area like the one we live in.

We also find things that friends and family are looking for. When I see something that makes me think of them, they may get a “Hey do you want..?” call, text or photo. Some of my stories of bargains sound great, just like those shows on cable. Sometimes I see a sofa or a trinket that I have… scratch that…had, or that my grandmother had. Finding those “usta haves” will be important now. But, it is a take what you find kind of pursuit. In a full price store, you know what to expect and have a reasonable idea whether or not the thing you want might be on the shelf. In a thrift store, you can find great bargains, but the stellar price may not be on the something that should take up space in your own life, business or hoarder home. So, how practical can it be to rely heavily on a commitment to thrift store purchases for replacing the must haves?

If you are up-cycling or reselling there’s a lot in knowing what things are and what they are currently worth. But it is hit or miss even then. Some thrift stores charge as much as some retail stores (I’ve even seen things priced as much as double retail), but they don’t offer returns or warranties, believing that dedication to their cause will get enough customers to buy their wares. And there is all of the time and gas involved.

After the fire, Russ and I wondered how much of our world we could put back together in thrift stores, estate sales and auctions. We’ve had some good finds, but are they good enough to justify the time and expenses as anything more than a hobby or an amusement? We were working on finding out if what was primarily my pursuit born of unemployment could grow into a realistic replacement career. We had built our stock and planned for a strong and busy holiday season that would boost this pursuit into a full fledged business, but it is not a metaphor to say that it all went up in smoke.

And then there is the time component of the up-cycles. It makes great entertainment to see a save on a show like Storage Wars when a cast member makes a great up-cycle from old junk into cool stuff, but they never talk about how much time that takes, especially if you don’t have a team of helpers to get it done on the filming schedule. Those shows give the numbers people want to consider, actual purchase price versus potential sales price without regard for time, gas, storage, marketing or other expenses. In other words, they ignore all of the inconvenient real costs for the camera. There are clear winners on the occasional miss in the pricing departments of most thrift stores, but do the bargains come often enough? That is our experiment. To call it a success, we believe that it has to justify the time spent, just like work. If I put a year into this and haven’t saved at least as much money as I would earn working at something else, then I would have been better off doing something else.

Few people have a fire sweep their lives, and adding up the real costs? That doesn’t make as good a show as just looking at the fun and interesting parts, so why would I put all of this time into writing a blog about this stuff? Even though a fire isn’t the most common thing, many people do have to start over for any number of reasons and when they do, it’s pretty daunting. So many decisions, and no time to make them be the best ever. So whether you are overloaded by a reboot, or just looking for some weekend project or entertainment, I hope that I can share something fun or interesting with you.

So that is what we will find out, that is what this blog is about now.

How much of our lives and our business can we recreate second hand through thrift stores, estate sales and any other source out there in three R land?

Soon we will have the name and look that my tech advisor recommended, but all the old content will still be in the background.

Gift Giving, The Lesson of the Aprons

By Karen

I write this as we move into what is, for many of us, the biggest gift giving season of the year. Some of us are approaching the season in “business as usual” mode, some are looking at gifts and consumption in a new minimalist light, while still others are economizing based on need to do so. But, all of us want the gifts that we give to be enjoyed and appreciated.

Everything I’ve done lately is marked by sentimentality and a sense of family. I’ve done a lot of looking back as Russ and I have been working to open our Six Degrees Store on Etsy. We’ve entirely rearranged the house, turning one bedroom into a studio, moving many things to the attic and making all of our spaces more artisan friendly. One thing I came across while turning my home upside down was a stack of my great grandmother’s aprons. We called her Grandma Pill. She wore an apron every day, all day. It was part of her uniform and she wasn’t dressed until she had it on.

When I was a child, I taught myself to sew making clothes for my dolls. One day my grandmother, we called her Mimi, got out the pattern to make her some new aprons for Grandma Pill. I decided that it was time to graduate to making gifts and I asked if I could sew Grandma Pill’s new aprons. Mimi granted my request, handed me the pattern and showed me some available fabric to choose from. The pattern was made of newspaper. It had evolved over time as Grandma Pill tweaked it now and then and it had been traced time and again as each new original became worn. It was plain, with just a little shape and one or two pockets.

I wanted my gift to be special. I pulled out some of the fancy patterns that I had my eye on out from underneath the large oak buffet and suggested that I might make one of them. Mimi said “Well, you can make one of those if you want to, but if you’re making an apron for mother, you need to use this pattern because this is what she wants.” I was disappointed. I was still in Barbie doll land and Barbie is a fashion doll. Plain was not really what a little girl who was hoping to make something special really wanted to think about, but Mimi had a very certain tone in her voice and I wanted to make the apron, so I did what she told me to. I made a plain, ordinary everyday apron, at least I conformed to one as plain and ordinary as I could force my child’s yearning heart to handle, and it was exactly what Grandma Pill wanted. She was delighted. I didn’t learn any significant new sewing skills that day when I moved beyond doll clothes, but I did learn a lot about gift giving.

Borrower’s Bookcase

By Karen

The first time my lodging came with a lending library I was in Turrialba, Costa Rica at a bed and breakfast. The bookcase was centrally located near the dining area. Don’t imagine a Victorian cottage when I say this, rather something elegantly rustic with open space, cool breezes, hammocks, tropical plants and a lot of fresh fruit on the menu. The large bookcase had a sign the said “Take one, Leave One”, permission for which I was grateful because I found a book that I couldn’t put down and didn’t have time to finish. Later I stayed at the lodge in Volcanoes National Park on the “big island” of Hawaii and there was a bookcase headboard. These books were hard bound and didn’t seem to offer themselves up the way the books in Costa Rica did, but I appreciated the more temporal loan none the less. I decided that staying in the kind of place that offered books was the ultimate luxury. Then I didn’t see it much anymore for a long time.

I remembered how much I enjoyed the loan of books while away from home when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. I was collecting donations from around my home. I was cash poor and beyond that, I don’t like to throw cash indiscriminately at a problem when I don’t know how it will be spent. I had been through hurricanes before. I knew what kind of things you need when your front porch is two blocks away and there’s a tire on your bed. I sent the obvious things. Linens, first aid supplies, air mattresses, extra travel toiletry kits that the airlines gave away on international flights, spare suitcases. I also went through all my bookcases and pulled out every book I was willing to part with, and a couple that I knew I would replace. They were books that I would enjoy reading if I were stuck in the Astrodome or some other shelter for an indefinite period of time.

I was reminded of these things on a recent trip to south Florida. We were camping in the Everglades without electricity, thus no radio. The sky was clear, but just as we were leaving a storm came quickly and we were caught in the rain, a cold wind driven rain leaving us soaked and shivering. (Now we have a wind-up solar radio with NOAA channels). Places to warm up and dry off are few and far between on the Tamiami Trail. When you do make it to civilization, you find yourself in the high rent district just as suddenly as that storm rose, and we drove north along the interstate for some time looking for a place to stay for a price we’d pay. Beyond tired and not quite dry, we finally stopped at a mid-level chain hotel. They had the standard free breakfast room adjacent to the lobby, and in the corner beside a built in bench seat was a book case. Seeing that unexpected bookcase was the emotional equivalent of a warm fire.

My love of a book borrowed probably started in childhood. My father had a particular book that he liked to share with anyone who seemed interested. We joked about how many copies he must have bought over time, and still I have no idea what that number might be, only were it was that we looked to see if a copy was currently residing in the bookcase. There has been a borrower’s bookcase at the YMCA where I work out for many years. I am seeing them in more and more places and they are filled with promise. The promise of a good story or idea shared, the promise of recycling, the promise of a little enlightenment or levity. The last book that I put into a borrowers bookcase was given to me by a roommate from Canada while I was traveling in Japan. Her other book went home with a Czech. It is not just a shared book, but a well traveled book. I wonder if the books in these cases were tracked like dollar bills on “Where’s George?” or a Geocoin if the story of how the book came to be in the bookcase might be as interesting as the book itself.

Here’s my suggestion. If you are in charge of a space where people linger, if there is space, even for a small book case, put one there. If you are on a low budget, get the bookcase at Goodwill and do a good deed while you’re doing a good deed. If you do not have books to share, you can get your seed books there too, or get them when the public library has its annual purge.

The Indoctrination of our Children

by Karen

I watched the Sunday Morning news program Face the Nation this Labor Day weekend and learned that there is a certain level of controversy and turmoil over the planned message of President Obama to be played for students at school with the expected message that education is important. There is apparently some concern that this represents indoctrination. I will totally set aside the fact that indoctrination and assimilation along with keeping children out of the workforce were among reasons stated for establishing a national public school system in the first place. This is not a historic commentary.

First, I am familiar with those ubiquitous television sets in the nation’s school systems that would allow such a a message to be played for the students. Many, were provided “gratis” by corporations, but they didn’t actually provide them for free, they provided them in exchange for access to your children. They require that an advertising message be played and this is commercial indoctrination in the form of advertising. I could spend an entire post on the belief that the benefit of providing televisions to schools is worth the cost to the corporation, but the benefit of receiving televisions on that basis is not worth the cost of the mind space to our children.

Second, there were altruistic attempts to indoctrinate my children while they were in school. Altruism, is not usually as well funded as commercials and not nearly so sophisticated in levels of persuasion or the ability to push psychic buttons. It starts pretty well, but it does not always stick. My children came home saying that smoking cigarettes was terrible and they repeated the indoctrination they received with the fervor of a religion. The one of my children that seemed most sincere and devout is also the same one that began to smoke in high school and has been addicted to cigarettes ever since, something that damages her health, strains her limited budget and makes me sad for the burden it puts on her.

Third, the school systems I have been involved with have always handled controversial messages as well as possible (not that I see where there should be controversy in an acting President taking the time to encourage children to excel in school and take ownership of their education). Sex education, for example, was something that the school system my children attended handled well. The films (one for boys and a separate on for girls) were available for parents to see ahead of time and each child had to have a signed permission slip in order to see the film. I did not personally go in to view the films, but a trusted friend did. She said, to abbreviate things, that the two different films reinforced male/female stereotypes and that made her angry, but that they were technically accurate and she wanted her daughters to see the see the film that was produced for them. Reinforcing stereotypes does not please me, but when special interest groups weigh in on a topic like this, the resulting product is rarely the best possible message, but the best possible compromise, not at all the same thing.

When one of my children showed up with the permission slip I asked “Do you know what this is about?” Answer: “yes”. I then asked ” Do you want to see the film?” Answer: “Not particularly, but I won’t know what all the jokes are about if I don’t”. The response was unexpected, but the point was important and I signed the paper. At first glance, knowing what the jokes are about may seem less than the important point, but jokes actually show a sophisticated understanding of a subject. Understanding them is part of being aware of what happens in the social environment you share. More importantly, you should be able to tell two things about those jokes. 1. Are they funny? and 2. Are they fair? Yes, these two things are different. I can appreciate the humour and irony in jokes that do not seem fair to me and are not based on the way I see the world. It is part of being able to appreciate points of view that I do not share, something that I think that we as a nation are loosing a grip on. I can also tell when a joke goes too far.

The ability to discern fairness is really the big issue here, whether you are actually talking about jokes or about comments and opinions. If a person never sees the original act, idea or information that is being criticized, how could that person possibly know if it is fair or have any way to access what is being said? One person makes a criticism to another and it travels like the famous Normal Rockwell painting “Gossip” so that the original comment is not even recognized by the time it gets back to it’s originator. The vast majority of media also exaggerates in the same way in an attempt to gain market share. And the special interest groups? Pound the drums, rally the cry, encourage donations and the gulf widens.

However, if the criticism is anchored to an original source with which everyone has familiarity, there is some basis for keeping the logarithmic exaggeration, at least in part, under control. Everyone benefits when there is some basis to approach the world from something similar to a realistic point of view. Real conversations minus the huffing and puffing can occur. If your positions hold water they will stand up and if they do not…

So what exactly am I saying? Indoctrination is pervasive, most dangerous in the forms that we don’t think about or recognize, and as often as not unsuccessful, regardless of the level of altruism behind the message. Children and school systems are smarter than we give them credit for, and our children should not just be given the opportunity to think for themselves, it should be encouraged. And the best part? When you teach your children to think for themselves they are a lot more interesting. They even come back after growing up and teach you things, good things, important things, from time to time.

So if you would like some original source material with which to base your opinion on this particular issue, it will be available today at http://www.whitehouse.gov/

Apollo 11: Looking Back, and Forward

Today I find myself remembering a particular visit home to grandma’s house. My grandmother, Mimi, we called her lived in Evergreen, Alabama and we lived in Nederland,Texas, so it had been a long drive for my small attention span. Are we there yet? My mother (in the wisdom that is ingrained in a mother’s DNA) told me to look for the big red clay hill and then I would know we were there. Magic, no more questions, but then jumping excitement when the big clay hill beside Baggett’s service station was spotted.

This was not my earliest memory, but it was the earliest memory that I can date specifically because it was the summer of Apollo 11. We had traveled all that distance in a white mustang to visit with my grandparents in their antebellum home with the high ceilings and the crystal chandeliers. These were the summers of homemade ice cream, watermelon seed fights and Papa’s dog Peanut howling at the horn when the freight train came through town.

Shortly after we arrived the lunar landing was aired on television. I remember the image of my grandfather and his reaction better than I remember the actual landing and my own reaction. It was many years before I understood the significance of the history that was taking place or to appreciate its place for him.

Papa sat on a round piano stool next to the upright piano. It was the kind of stool that had claw feet over glass casters and a wide wooden screw in the center underneath the seat allowing you to turn the seat to adjust the height. I rarely saw Papa without the business shirt he wore every day, but on this day he wore a sleeveless undershirt. When they landed, he scratched his head and said “Golee”, not nearly as exaggerated, but somewhat reminiscent of Gomer Pyle from the Andy Griffith show. I don’t remember that being a word he used often.

As I grew older I began to hear my grandfather speak about his life and the things that he had seen. One of the things Papa remembered was when the first person brought the first car to town. I was struck by how much technology had changed from the time he was a small boy until the time I was a small girl. I watched the lunar landing with a man who knew a life before automobiles came into his.

Changing technology is constant and I have seen my share. I remember large cell phones with larger batteries, life before the Internet and I also remember my daughter questioning me as though I had misspoken “What do you mean you didn’t have VCRs when you were a kid?” Still, I’ve never seen change like he saw change. Trying to put myself in my grandfather’s shoes is difficult. This person who often drove me to Sleepy’s Drive-In for a soft serve ice cream cone after dinner remembered when it was the cost of hay that fueled transportation rather than the cost of gas and I was with him while we watched men walking on the moon. He saw many more changes before he left us.

Today as we look back and marvel that many Americans carry more sophisticated technology in their pockets than the computing systems that took men to the moon, I can only wonder what changes I may see when I have seen as many years as my grandfather did. When my son was young, I subscribed to MIT Technology Review because I knew that he would read it if it was sitting around the house. Every once in a while I’d be half listening as he, who was also a Star Trek fan, would talk about something he had read and I would have to stop him to check and see if he was off in the imaginary world, or if it came out of MIT. I am reminded of Arthur C. Clark’s quotation “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” I look forward to seeing the magic that will be our future and I hope that we use it well.