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The Creativity Interviews

I wanted to show that creativity can show up in unexpected places in one’s life. So I interviewed 3 people I know who I think are exceptionally creative. They come from different age levels, occupations, and backgrounds. I could write a bit more but the interviews came out so well I’ll just let them speak for themselves.

Interview 1: Georgia Barberi-my mother, age 46. Spent 10 years as a homemaker, raising me and my sister and keeping a vegetable garden to save money. She practices many handicrafts, including sewing, knitting, beading, felting, drawing, painting, printing, baking, and basically literally anything else you can think of. Her budget was tight, but she found creative ways to squeeze the most out of it, and my sister and I never knew, as we benefitted every year from homemade Christmas presents, school clothing made to our preferences, and lavish theme birthday parties (until, parish the thought, we got old enough to think that was dorky.) Throughout her life, she has also worked at various occupations, including cleaning offices, writing for a women’s newspaper, and as a companion helper for new mothers, before starting her own organic flower farm. She sells jams, preserves, flowers, produce and homemade household items like potholders and aprons at several farm markets.

Georgia’s First Flower Farm

What you define creativity as? What would you define art as?

Art is a branch of creativity. To me creativity is any time you use your own knowledge and inspiration to bring something to be that wasn’t there before.

So where does art branch off?

I think art is non-utilitarian, and should make feelings arise in other people. Whereas creativity can be used to solve everyday problems, make something visually appealing to you, or be an expression of your own that doesn’t have to reach anyone else.

Where do you get to be most creative in your life?

Everywhere. In a larger sense, how I spend my time in the course of a day-everything from how I schedule myself and how much of my time I’m willing to give to someone else scheduling me. But in terms of actually creating something…I guess I feel most classically creative when I’m writing.

Describe any significant effect getting to express yourself and ideas that are unique to you, has had on your life.

I would not be myself if I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t feel any meaning in life.

Has creativity gotten you through any difficult times in your life? If so, how?

It has, because it’s given me practical things like knitting or canning or something that kept me excited beyond the immediate circumstances…or at least kept my hands busy.  And my brain.

Where/what/who gives you your ideas? In what kind of form do they occur to you?

It depends on which kind of creativity I’m doing. With writing, I guess I’ll see something that piques my interest, and a lot of the time I’ll get a little vision…a what-if situation. Or I’ll suddenly think that two things that don’t seem connected, are connected. So it comes from thin air, I guess. But if I’m feeling uninspired, I go to Barnes and Noble (bookstore) and sit in the craft department and read ALL the books.

 

Interview 2: Margot Douillet-my sister-age 15. A student at Bard Academy, Margot enjoys studying statistics and baseball. She’s combined her two fascinations into a massive baseball statistics project that combines masses of data and historical records in an attempt to find a formula for a winning team. She also draws, writes, sews, cooks, and does embroidery. She has written on an almost daily basis since age ten or eleven, and was working on parts of a fantasy novel by the time she was twelve. At this age, her pride and joy was the flock of chickens she kept in my mother’s backyard.  She now aspires to be the General Manager of the Boston Red Sox.

 

I wanted to interview you because I think your baseball stats project is an unconventional form of creativity. How would you define creativity? Would you agree with me about the project?

I would say that creativity is coming up with your own ideas and thoughts that are new and original. I don’t think that other people would agree that it’s a form of creativity, because a lot of people have analyzed baseball stats, and there’s only a certain amount of analysis you can do. But what it all comes down to is that me and everyone else who’s analyzing baseball stats…we’re all just trying to figure out what the formula is to win more games. But the creative aspect of that is how we form all our different theories about that.

Would you say that creativity is manifested in the game of baseball? If so, in what ways?

I would say that creativity is present in baseball, and I don’t think that it’s as present as it should be. I think that baseball is one of those things where you have to follow conventional wisdom–otherwise you’re seen as foolish. I mean, if you think about it, all the managers have their different things that they do to make their team win, but almost all of those are the same. And I think that also with general managers in the front office, they almost always follow the same pattern. So I think that there’s more room to be creative.

You use statistics as the backbone of your project, and a lot of it is about seeing patterns in numbers. Would you say there is a creative side to math, or that math and creativity can coexist in one project?

Yeah, I definitely think that math can be creative. A lot of it has to do with how you’re applying math, and what you’re trying to figure out by applying the math.

You also practice other art forms like embroidery, writing and drawing. Would you say there is a mathematical component to art?

Yes. I mean, obviously with geometry because there’s shapes and things—I think that math is a form of art. I look at a graph of something and I think it’s beautiful. I don’t think a handwritten graph is different from a painting-they’re both beautiful. With a graph, you’re trying to express an idea, same as [with]any other form of art.

 

Do you have the same kinds of thought processes while working on fantasy baseball/stats as when doing something like a sewing project?

Yes. With both things, part of what it is, is that I’m trying to figure out something that hasn’t been done before, that I’m curious about, and that I want to try.

Interview 3-Dominic Fanelli, 26-totally awesome friend who hooked me up with a great living situation.  Dominic originally went to school to study production management and audio engineering. He designed and built an 9-room recording studio for the school he attended, only to be forced to abandon it over a pay dispute. He also does web design and plays a vast variety of musical instruments, and is a student of various disciplines of Eastern medicine and philosophy. He enjoys composing and playing music, and uses it as an outlet for work stress. “I’ve been playing music for such a long time,” he says, “I don’t want to do simple stuff. Give me some polka-rap-metal-jazz-fusion, that’s the good stuff!” He can also frequently be found staring into the guts of a disemboweled laptop, performing arcane rites by the light of the full moon and/or a desk lamp.

Pursuit of Happiness

 

 

What would you define creativity as? What would you define art as? What is the relationship of art to creativity?

I would say that creativity is a process-a process that can be used for many, many different things. And art is an existential manifestation of creativity. And I don’t think it’s a two-directional relationship; art can’t exist without creativity, creativity can exist without art. An example of that is how someone would need to use creativity to survive a desperate situation. That doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with art. And I think the end definition for me of creativity is any process that leads to creativity. So I feel like artists and builders share the same form of creativity that musicians do.

What role does creativity play in your life? What is the relationship between various applications of creativity in your life?

I feel creativity plays two major roles. One is in the context of it actually helping me overcome dramatically technical obstacles at work. Sometimes I come up against basically impossible situations and I have to use creativity to solve them. The second role is a purely artistic role. That is the way that I balance the various energies, mostly negative, that get built up from my workplace environment. Art and being able to create an existential expression of art is the most perfect means of sublimating the negative energy I have to absorb dealing with everyone else’s problems all the time, on a technical level. Because of the nature of my work, I have to deal with a lot of insane, chaotic situations.

As someone who has done a lot of work on Pursuit of Happiness[a website dedicated to teaching happiness and wellness techniques] would you say creative expression is an essential part of human life? If so, in what way?

Creativity is an essential part of being human actually. I think creativity and its linkage with the vast depths of the unconscious human mind is critical to making us who we are as humans. The dividing line between us and other organisms on this planet is that we have advanced creativity and can literally change the world around us to take on forms we imagine. No other creature has that capability.

Does web design require a different kind of creativity than music composition? Do you ever use inspiration from the same source for different things?

Shockingly, it’s a very similar creativity that gets applied. A lot of the creativity in music is problem solving, with music theory. Those same graceful methods of problem solving creatively are applied to both applications. Maybe that’s just me personally. I don’t know if other people share the same utilization of creativity but I wouldn’t doubt it if most people were tapping into that part of the human imagination to deal with some of the biggest problems the world faces. That’s why some of the best engineers and mechanical thinkers have also been natural artists and musicians, like Da Vinci and Tesla.

 

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The Money Thing

Money, so they say/is the root of all evil today.

Cash rules everything around me, C.R.E.A.M. get the money, dollar dollar bill y’all….

 

Yes it’s true, one of the biggest sticking points for many folks who want to start their own tiny house venture or other off-grid endeavour, is a lack of start up cash. According to the Federal Reserve Board, 47% of americans have less than $500 in savings, so this is you, you’re not alone. I was fortunate enough to have supportive parents and a decently paid job, so I saved quite a bit between age 16-19. Still, I ended up spending most of the money I had saved for college on the tiny house project, deciding that having a warm, safe place to sleep no matter where I went was more important than a degree that might end up being useless and loading me with debt in an uncertain world.

In light of this, it’s incredibly important to figure out how to get the most bang for your limited buck. So I’m going to lay out a few strategies I used to complete my project on a limited budget.

THE TRAILER:

A brand-new cargo trailer from Wells Cargo, the top-of-the-line trailer maker, costs approximately $3600 for a basic 6×12. After shopping around, this seemed to be the going rate with other companies, including smaller local trailer sellers. However, I’ve seen listings on Craigslist for used Wells Cargo trailers of the same size for $1400-$2000; mine was $2000. That’s a savings of $1500 right out of the gate. When buying a used trailer, make sure to check for a valid VIN number (stamped into the frame), working brake lights and turn signals; avoid trailers with frame rust of other frame damage. If you have more time, ambition, and carpentry skills, you can buy a flat bed utility trailer like this for around $1100; however, you will have to frame out the structure of the house, and this will require more time and more costly materials-not to mention more skill. But it will give you more options as to insulation and the shape and structure of the house. Weigh your options and priorities and choose accordingly.

THE TOOLS

Yes, we know your neighbor is a total tool, but you can’t use him to build a house with, as much as you’d like to use his face to pound in nails. You’re going to need a decent set of hand tools, if you don’t have those already, and a couple power tools. Here’s a list of what I ended up using in my pretty basic tiny house build:

Adjustable wrench, 16-oz claw hammer, cordless drill (this is the same one I had-never did me wrong through the whole project), screwdriver set with a couple different sizes of both flat-tipped and Phillip’s head screwdrivers, small and large flat bar, small handheld disc sander, several sizes of paintbrush (from 1″ to 3″), paint roller and tray, 7″ circular saw (also called a Skil saw, although when I use it, we call it an Unskilled Saw), chalk line, 25′ measuring tape, small Japanese hand saw (really helpful for smaller stuff), hacksaw (for cutting bolts), 1/2″ and 1″ chisels, table saw (with the right jigs, clamps, and work surface, you can forgo this and just use a circular saw), adjustable dado cutter (pretty sure it can be used with a circular saw-for several joint types used in furniture making), 1/2″ and 1″ spade bits, assorted drill bits (lots and lots. If you don’t want to blow half your budget on drill bits, make sure you get ones designed to use with metal if you have to drill holes in metal.), small cross cut saw, assorted rasps and files, assorted sand paper (60 to 100 grit, and discs for the sander), utility knife and extra blades, nail set

I’m probably forgetting quite a few, and there’s a couple things I wish I’d had, like a miter box for cutting perfect 45 degree angles. But this gives you a good idea of what you’ll need to start out. Tools can be pretty expensive, but there’s a few ways around this. If you’re buying hand tools, Harbor Freight has a wide selection for low prices. Although they don’t have the best reputation for quality, they do have a tool replacement policy on hand tools-if a tool you bought there breaks, they’ll replace it for free, according to my friend James (and hey, if you can’t trust a guy who keeps a giant snake as a pet, who can you trust?) Also, look into finding a tool library in your area, for anything large, expensive, or difficult to find. Your local Habitat for Humanity store will often carry gently used tools as well as building materials, appliances, and furniture; also, check out yard sales. If you know anyone in a trade who is retiring, ask if they are interested in selling any of their tools. Or if you have an older family member who has lots of tools but doesn’t use them anymore, offer to clean and organize their garage, workshop or attic in return for taking some tools home.

MATERIALS

I spent about $1500 on materials. Some of this cost definitely could be reduced by better planning and knowledge; I did end up with a few things I didn’t need, especially parts for the solar shower. Proper planning and measuring are the first line of defense when saving costs on materials. Figure out exactly how much square footage/length/whatever of something (plywood, flooring planks, paint, etc) you will need and purchase accordingly. Accurate measurements are VERY important here! If you have the exact measurements for each piece of a project, you can even figure out in the store how you will be able to cut the pieces from the material with the least amount of waste. Or, figure out the standard sizes for the materials you will use, then plan accordingly, using graph paper to plan out the layout of the cut pieces. For example, a standard piece of plywood is 4’x 8′. For other resources on low-cost building materials, see my post on scrap and reclaimed building materials.

TOW VEHICLE

What you use as a tow vehicle will depend on how much, what distance, an over what terrain you plan to tow the tiny house. For starters, get a good idea of the total weight of the trailer so you can choose a vehicle with a proper towing capacity. Some junk yards may have a truck scale that you can drive your trailer onto and have it weighed; this will have the most accurate results, so it doesn’t hurt to ask around. Then, think about where you’ll be towing the trailer. Will you be towing it short distances, over back roads, or very level terrain? If so, you can go fairly close to your vehicle’s max tow capacity. But if you want to tow long distances, on busy highways, or over hilly terrain, you want to make sure your vehicle has enough power to accelerate fast enough to merge and climb hills. In this situation, also consider getting a truck or SUV with a special towing package (this includes features like towing mirrors, electrical connector, tow hitch, and transmission cooler.) Research the tow capacity of various vehicles, and choose one that fits your needs. If you’re towing your trailer a short distance only, don’t go overboard. For example, a four-cylinder Toyota Tacoma has a tow capacity of 3500 lbs, more than enough for a small house trailer. Choosing a smaller vehicle will ultimately save you money both on purchase and fuel costs. Keep in mind, however, that a truck or truck-based SUV can tow more than a car with equivalent engine displacement due to features like a heavier-duty frame. If you have your vehicle choice narrowed down to a few models, you can often find vehicle-specific discussion forums where people share their experiences with towing and answer questions. As for getting a tow hitch installed, shop around and compare quotes; Uhaul locations are nearly everywhere and offer affordable tow hitch installations. Mine ran to a little under $300 for the hitch receiver, hitch, ball mount, pin, and wiring harness. I would not trust a used tow hitch-don’t take a risk on your house and belongings just to save a buck.

Anyway, good luck, thanks for reading, and, uh, happy budgeting.

 

 

What is dignity (and do I have any anymore?)

I recognize that I’ve been a wicked, naughty blogger and haven’t posted anything in quite a while. Lucky for you, not only am I posting once again, but I’m also going to explain in this very post why I haven’t been posting anything.

I’ve been doing way too much navel-gazing lately, way more than is healthy, and I’ve been thinking over one thing in particular: what is dignity, and do I have any of it? Does spending a large amount of time being pretty undignified make me someone with no dignity? I guess that’s a little like the age-old question of whether doing bad things makes you a bad person. I fall somewhat into the school of thought that says doing bad things makes you a bad person. After all, if, for example, you incite a massive genocide thinking it will improve the society you live in, you still are evil, even though you did it with the best intentions. But this definition can be slippery too. There should definitely be a consideration of motives when we try to decide whether something or someone is good or bad. Dignity is kind of similar, and brings up similar questions; lately, I feel like I’ve been losing mine, and I wonder if I had any to begin with.

Dignity, according to the dictionary, has several definitions: 1. “the state or quality of being worthy of honor and respect,” 2. “a composed or serious manner or style”,  and 3. “a sense of pride in oneself, or self-respect.” All three of these definitions are something I want to live my life by (maybe 2 less so…) but lately I seem to be falling down on all counts. And it all centers around my behavior regarding the love of my life, and the fact that he broke my heart.

2 years ago, I met the love of my life inexplicably through an ad I posted on Craigslist. I had just broken up with my first boyfriend ever, and having no experience outside a very serious and somewhat stifling relationship with a man over twice my age, I decided to try and experience more of what the world had to offer in that department. So I posted an ad on Craigslist personals looking for “a casual hookup” (Yup, directly contrary to Definition 2!) As we shall see, what resulted was much more than A Casual Hookup but still much less than an official relationship. Anyway, out of the 400+ spammy, scammy, poorly spelled, and occasionally scary responses I received, one really stood out: one guy claiming that he was also a baker, but was probably too old for me, and just wanted to talk. So we started talking, and found out we had a lot in common. We agreed to meet up at the bakery where he worked. He then offered to show me his house, located on a huge historic property where he was caretaker. He later said he had just planned to show me around the property and send me home with a lecture about not meeting strangers from the internet, but conveniently enough, the house happened to contain a big soft bed, and Sex Happened (as it tends to in such situations) without a lot of forethought on the part of both parties. After, we sat around listening to the fireworks being set off at Tanglewood, a few miles away. So you could say literal fireworks went off when we met. Pyrotechnic displays of patriotism aside, I was basically hooked from Day 1. Whenever I was around him, I got really, really, really stupid. Like a bunny rabbit caught raiding the lettuce patch, I was so transfixed by my obsession with, uh…tasty lettuce, that when the proverbial lettuce farmer came along and discovered me munching, all I could do was sit there shaking, awaiting my fate, too dumb to run while I could. We saw each other on and off for about a year and a half, punctuated by epic arguments (he wanted to be left alone, I felt rejected, etc.) until finally the day came when I was expelled from the lettuce patch for good, my little bunny rabbit spine snapped, my little rabbit heart broken. He said there was no way anything could happen between us again, and then a month later he announced he was back together with the woman he had a relationship with before he met me. “I’m lucky that she gave me a second chance,” he said. “She’s the love of my life-don’t try to compare yourself to her, because what I had with you is NOTHING like what I have with her.” This is where I proceeded to lose my little remaining dignity. Have you ever heard the expression “being floored” by something? I was quite literally floored by my loss. I would spend hours crawling around on the floor sobbing loudly whenever I had the house to myself, crawling into corners and trying to disappear. I went on epic benders, getting stoned half the day and drunk the other half, saying about two words to an actual human being. I cut myself and tried to pass off the angry red lines as gardening injuries. The worst was the emails and texts I would send to him, begging for a second chance, beating myself up over what happened, saying I would do anything, ANYTHING, for him to change my mind, saying I wished I could die and come back as Her, the Girlfriend (Official Version).

And what was the worst part? Certainly not the pain I went through. The worst part was the brief glimpses of objective reality I had, where I could see I was blowing the whole thing way out of proportion and airing my dirty laundry in front of my friends, family and co-workers, some of whom had expressed respect and admiration of me. Worse than getting my heart broken was allowing my dignity to slip away. I was falling down on all three definitions of dignity, but the worst was the third: I could see my ridiculous behavior that even my loved ones couldn’t-the drinking, the cutting, the crying and sniveling-and lost all respect for myself.

Maybe that’s a bigger part of what the trailer is: trying to regain some of my lost dignity by building something new, something I can respect myself for. It’s also a reminder of the most fundamental truth about dignity: if I can’t respect myself, then who can respect me? Thinking of my accomplishments on the trailer project helps me hold on to my dignity in times when I can feel it slipping away. I can respect the Lia who built her own bed and cabinetry, not the one who rolls around on the floor in 3-day unwashed clothes holding a half empty bottle of Jack and weeping and moping over her ex-whateverthehellhewas. I remind myself that dignity is just a transient state of being, that both are the same person, and that I should just try to hang on to my dignity and not give up if I lose it for a little while.

 

Plus, I can’t write while I’m hating myself.

 

Thanks for reading! Sorry this seems super off topic, I promise you’ll get more trailer stuff soon. I’m working on a solar water heater right now, will try to get some pictures but no promises. I’ll at least post build details on that.

The trailer by the numbers: living in the Mothership

I was introduced to “tiny living” when I worked for an Americorps trail crew in Vermont. We lived in tents at a remote campsite where we had to canoe in with all our gear. Personal belongings were limited to what could fit in 2 backpacks, and sleeping space was a 3 person tent shared with a co-worker and her gear. We all cooked and ate communally, and most evenings were spent sitting around a campfire. Definitely a different arrangement than living alone in a trailer, but it introduced me to living on less, in a small space, with the trees as my walls and the stars as my roof. I had to be more conscious about water use, and washing, and not leaving leftovers when I ate-among many other things. In some ways it was harder to live on less, but in other ways it was very freeing: not constantly worrying about paying bills and rent (and having great hiking and swimming less than 50 feet from where I slept) made up for bug bites and occasional wet feet. I’ve decided to take that philosophy a step further and live in my own more permanent dwelling, a 6×12” cargo trailer converted into a living space.

 

WHAT IS THE MOTHERSHIP?

The Mothership is a completely self-contained, off-grid tiny house built in a converted 6×12 cargo trailer. That’s the short answer. The long answer is-it’s been a long, crazy adventure of almost  4 months, an  extensive construction project, and a journey of self-discovery and learning.

 

WHAT MAKES IT SUSTAINABLE?

 

Off-Grid: The Mothership needs no utility hookups. Light is provided by solar-powered LED lanterns and natural daylight, water can be filtered on-site, and heat is provided by a tiny stove that burns scrap wood and small branches. I’m also planning to install solar panels for another source of electricity.

Reused materials: An estimated 25-40% of solid waste generated in the US comes from construction debris; much of this can be re-used. About 80% of the materials in the Mothership are scrap or reclaimed. I’ve sourced materials from barns, attics, secondhand stores, junkyards, dumpsters and abandoned buildings. I also tried to plan the construction based on the materials at hand, rather than making a rigid plan and buying materials to fit that. This construction method minimized the amount of waste/scrap material the project generated.  

Small Size: the house’s tiny dimensions mean it’s less resource-intensive even without trying! It takes less wood to heat, less electricity to light, less water for cleaning and other tasks…

Can be parked anywhere with a decent view (or not!): No need to clear land to build a house; the tiny footprint of the trailer means it can fit in just about any corner of the world, and it’s fully mobile. That also means I can park it somewhere that will minimize my commute to work, friends’ houses, stores, etc.

Less Stuff: The lack of space in the house means I have to be very conscious about owning and acquiring possessions, and not own any more than the minimum of what I need.

 

WHERE CAN IT BE PARKED?

Any flat area with enough room for a 6×12’ trailer, truck, and room to turn the truck around. Preferably somewhere with sunlight, as the solar water heater needs it to make hot water for showers.

 

WHAT ARE ITS NEEDS FOR WATER, TRASH DISPOSAL, ETC?

Water: I don’t anticipate using more than 10 gallons of water on any given day. The solar water heater has a capacity of 7.5 gallons, and daily cooking, cleaning, washing and drinking needs shouldn’t exceed 2.5-3 gallons. The sink has a water storage tank with a 5-gallon capacity and a grey water storage tank with the same capacity, so unless I’m showering a lot, I shouldn’t have to get water a lot, so it’s OK if I’m not immediately next to a water source. My grey water should be safe to dump in a sump hole or even use to water plants, as I plan to use only nontoxic and biodegradable cleaners and not dump anything down my sink like paint, glues, solvents, etc.

Electricity: I don’t need an electric hookup; my lighting is provided by natural daylight and solar-powered LED lights. Eventually I plan to install a rooftop solar array with battery storage for other electricity needs, which will be minimal-maybe a power source for my laptop and a small fan for ventilation. I don’t have refrigeration, and any foods I need to keep cool will be stored in a small cooler with ice. However I’ve found it’s surprisingly easy to live without refrigeration if you are careful about food preparation and consumption. Eating mostly vegetarian food helps. Produce can be stored at room temperature for 5-7 days, eggs and cultured dairy products for 3-4 days, and butter and many condiments for even longer.

Laundry: I plan to use whatever local laundromat is closest, and I’ll try to air-dry my clothes when weather and space allow. 

Toilet and shower facilities: I have a solar water heater on top of the camper with a shower attachment; the black plastic pipe soaks up heat from the sun, warms the water, and gives me a way to enjoy a nice warm low-flow gravity fed shower outdoors (so it would probably be best that I parked a little out of the way…) If the weather gets cold, I can also use the shower at the gym where  I’m a member. As for toilet facilities, I didn’t have room to put a composting toilet in the trailer, so I figured I would just use the bathroom at work or any other nearby facility, and in an emergency, I’d resort to the old strategy of peeing behind an out-of-the-way tree.

Cooking: I have a 2-burner camp stove to do my cooking on, and a small sink with gravity-fed running water from a tank. Grey water storage is below the sink.

Trash, recycle, and compost: I compost food scraps, and would be happy to contribute my compost to any gardening going on wherever I park, especially if it’s something like pumpkins, which love compost. I have 2 bins for recycles (plastic/metal and paper/cardboard) and would not produce more than a few pounds of each type of recycle per week; I also generate very little trash (due to re-using plastic bags and avoiding packaged food or any item with lots of packaging). My total output of trash and recycles would be about 5 lbs/week, probably less. Compost might be a little more due to high water content.

Heating: For heat, I’m installing a small tent stove designed to heat an 80 square foot space with minimal insulation. This stove is made by the Three Dog Stove company and is a clean-burn, airtight stove. It can burn wood from downed trees, brush, or unfinished, untreated scrap wood. I don’t think it would get cold enough in summer to need it, but I would want access to a supply of scrap wood/firewood just in case.

Storage: Everything I own is going in the trailer, no exceptions! (except maybe a lawn chair and a couple potted plants.)

A Lone Woman Wandering In The Woods

Where’s all the other mountain mamas?

Seriously. In a survey of through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, only 23% were female. When I worked on a trail crew in Vermont, there was only two other women besides me on my 9-person crew (one was the awesome crew leader…) and I noticed a similar imbalance on the other crews from the conservation corps. When I tagged along on a class backpacking trip from my former high school as a chaperone, I noticed an even more dramatic gender distribution: I was the only woman on the trip! And earlier this year, I was talking with my aunt about my interest in taking some classes at a primitive skills school, only to be startled when she told me that the instructors have a reputation for trying to put the moves on any young, attractive female students that come their way. Great-that’s really comforting.

So where’s all the other women exploring the great outdoors? I know there’s more of us out there, but we’re few and far between, or so it seems. It’s not as if we can’t do it. Before the walling off of the world and the rise of civilization, as humanity spread to all corners of the earth, women survived in the same harsh conditions and endured the same dangers that men did-and sometimes carrying a baby on their back or in their belly, too. Many mystical traditions see nature as female, and women by extension as having some sort of mysterious connection with nature. As women are so closely associated and involved with the creation and nurturing of life (even for those of you who can’t have children or don’t want to-there’s some ancient deep part of your consciousness that knows) we also have a deeper concept of our mortality and the fragility of life. Nature is very cyclical and death and life are closely intertwined. Because of its ability to create, destroy, then re-create in cycles, nature is associated with female-ness. I could agree with this; I feel pulled along by the mysterious cycles and currents of the natural world.  Yes, Nature is a mother, but she can be one mean mama.

Partly I think it’s because our view of nature has changed. In a way, even perceiving nature as something separate and removed from us is a great change from when it was simply…home, mother, whatever-an entity that could both give and take, create and destroy. Now nature is seen as an adversary, something to be conquered rather than feared, respected, thanked for our daily existence. And conquering is not thought of as something women do. There’s also a pervasive stereotype of the lone wolf isolated badass woodsman type. I seem to see this a lot in the backpacking/nomadic/bushcraft community. Guys just want to play caveman and grow a beard and get some nature-related tattoos and stomp around in the woods feeling all badass. Not that there’s anything wrong with that in itself. But for those of us with neither the capacity for beard-growing or lone wolfiness can feel a little put off and feel like we don’t have what it takes to survive in the great outdoors. Also, on the whole solitude thing: humans are not solitary animals. In fact, in modern studies of hunter-gatherer groups living in remote areas, people tended to value companionship and cooperation, and formed close social bonds with their small group. There’s many reasons for this, not the least of which is that an extra set of eyes and ears helps alert you to dangers you might not otherwise notice, and a second pair of hands helps deal with danger when it arises. And human contact and human voices are essential for the health of the mind and emotions, just as good clean food and water are essential for the health of the body. In fact, it’s good to take your friends and family into the wild with you; you will develop a closer connection sharing space and time and conversation with them uninterrupted by the noise of industrial civilization (which is good for many things, like the invention of antibiotics and hot showers, but not conducive to deep social bonding.)

There’s also a message that women get fed from a very young age, whether unintentionally or intentionally: You are weak, you are especially vulnerable, you should not go out on your own somewhere. The world is out to get you and exploit your weaknesses, you should be very much afraid and ever vigilant because you’re a woman! Eventually your gender can start to feel like a liability or something. But don’t listen; channel the spirit of your ancient ancient ancestresses. Get outside. Have fun. If you’re really concerned, bring a friend, as mentioned before: an extra set of eyes, ears, and hands.

 

Fellow mountain mamas, I’ll see you on the other side of the hill!

Slash your Trash-the 2nd minimalist challenge

Humans produce way, way too much trash. and when I say humans, I’m definitely including myself. This really struck home when I opened the door of my new (OK,  used, 14 year old) Tacoma to find the cab cluttered with paper cups, receipts, and all manner of detritus. When I think about the enormous amount of energy that went into cutting and pulping the trees, making paper, pressing it into cups and  rolls, printing my receipts, drilling for the oil that became the plastic bottle holding my juice, etc. etc. it just boggles my mind. The amount of energy used today to make things that will be used once and thrown out is staggering. And there’s also the problem of things that won’t biodegrade, like most plastics. In fact, plastic items have an annoying tendency to blow away and end up in the ocean where they get eaten by all manner of critters, from sea turtles to shore birds-none of whom can digest plastic. In fact, by 2050, scientists predict there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans. Obviously this is not an ideal situation, unless you have some kind of rare mutation that allows you to munch on a plastic water bottle like it’s a grilled cheese sandwich.  So you and I need to find ways to reduce our trash output.

Which leads to this: the Slash your Trash challenge, or, how to cut your trash output down to a minimum. I’m going to try to follow the steps in this challenge over the next month too, because I’m starting to notice a pile-up of trash in my life resulting from ‘trashy’ habits.

THE CHALLENGE

  1. Stop using disposable napkins, dishes and silverware (or plastic ware, I should say.) This is a huge problem for me, as someone with a spotty schedule, a commute that takes me far from home base, and a weakness for two-eggs-on-wheat and a monstrous morning coffee. You can reduce your to-go ware output by several methods. One is to cut back on takeout, probably the easiest way in theory. Buy food like dried fruit and nuts that’s easy to carry around in reusable containers for unexpected attacks of munchies. Or start packing your own lunch if that’s applicable. Another way is to eat more sit-down meals, but I understand that’s not practical for some (or, hey, let’s be honest, most of) us. Another strategy is to have a designated fork, travel mug, and cloth napkin that you can carry around in your car, bag or backpack. Then you can use your mug for to-go hot beverages and you won’t need to ask for napkins or forks when you get takeout.
  2. Implement strategies to reduce food waste. A staggering amount of food in the world gets wasted. If you’re an average American, almost almost a quarter of the food in your fridge will end up getting thrown out (curse you, slimy greens and overripe avocado!) If you’re into in cataloging and quantifying everything, there’s apps available to track your food purchases and remind you before they expire; some are mentioned in the linked article. Alternatively for a low-tech solution you could split your grocery shopping for perishable items into several smaller trips during the week, increasing the chance you’ll eat rather than forget your purchases. Sticking to a planned menu and buying ingredients specifically for it also helps. If you are a restaurant owner, the EPA has published a guide to reducing food waste in your business, including resources such as a food waste tracker.

3. Eat food with less packaging in general. You’ll notice this forces you to eat a lot healthier, unless you’re really into home baking…in which case, bake your heart out. Homemade cookies can be whipped up in 20 minutes and taste way better than the kind that come hermetically sealed in 6 layers of plastic. Also, consider bulk-buying options for ingredients like sugar and flour to reduce packaging even further.

4. Carry a reusable bag around with you so stores don’t constantly try to foist plastic scraps of crap on you. This company sells bags  that fold up tiny enough to fit in your pocket, and you can also order stuff from them customized with a logo/words. (Warning: cheesy, buzzword-packed website.)

5. Why the heck would you throw out your perfectly good lawn trimmings and buy garden mulch? I have occasionally wondered myself. According to the EPA, 13.5% of waste in landfills is…lawn trimmings! You can use these to mulch around plants in your garden, I’ve tried it on my kale and it seems to keep the weeds down and protects the soil from drying out. Grass clippings also generate heat while decaying, and you can use their heat to heat a mini greenhouse in spring. Put pots with germinating seeds on top of a good layer of grass clippings, and their heat will warm the soil. My mom does this at her flower farm.

6. And since paper makes up another 27% of waste, it helps to be vigilant about recycling…and using both sides of the paper…and using the backs of one-sided printouts for scrap paper.

7. Finally, planned obsolescence is an actual conspiracy happening right under our noses, so buy things built to last if you can at all afford it.

And that concludes my trash challenge! I’ll try it myself and report back.

A Lousy Bed Post (haha!) With Almost No Pictures

I ended up making my bed high enough to double as a table, and to store a rolling shelf with clothes and books underneath. Building the bed was probably one of the most fun parts of building the trailer. I smashed my thumbs a lot making the mortise and tenon joints, because I’m a woodworking masochist. The only way I was going to be able to fit all the other crap in my trailer with the bed was to fit my bed across the width of the trailer, meaning I would barely have room to lie down (I’m 5’4″ tall, the trailer is 5’9″ wide inside.) I decided it would be more comfortable to make the bed extra wide so I could sleep diagonally. Honestly I probably could have built a basic bed frame by slapping some 2 x 4’s from Home Depot together with screws, but my weirdo woodworking compulsions weren’t going to let me off that easy. I decided I would make the bed  with 4 corner posts, the long sides joined by boards that fit into a mortise and tenon joint in the corner post. The short ends of the bed would be joined by diagonal braces lapped over the posts and over each other to form an “x” on each end. The frame would be braced in place with brackets attached to the wood floor. I would sleep on top of a 2″ foam mattress pad supported by a sheet of 1/2″ plywood nailed over slats that ran between the two sides of them bed.

The pieces of 2 x 3 maple I used for the corner posts were another find from my grandmother’s garage. I cut them each to 30″, about the standard height of a table. I planned to be able to use the bed as a table if I removed the bedding. I also measured 4″ down from the top of each, and placed a mark directly in the center of the pieces; this is where I started the mortises for the mortise and tenon joints. A tenon is supposed to be no less than 1/3 of the thickness of the stock it’s cut from, so I drilled holes centered on the marks I made with a 1″ spade bit-the perfect start for 1″ square mortises. I also marked off the 1 x 3s I was using for the side rails to make 1″ tenons on each end, each as long as the thickness of the corner posts. The tenon is a square peg, and the mortise is basically a square hole that the tenon slots neatly and snugly into-at least that’s the intention. (Don’t let anyone tell you woodworking can’t be sexy.) If done right, it’s one of the most stable and secure joints you can make, but it’s also challenging, and this was my first time making them.

After drilling the holes for the mortises, I used a straight edge to mark out where the edges of the square hole should be, but actually chiseling out the square holes was far easier said than done. Eventually I got extremely frustrated with my slow and splintery progress and switched to using a sabre saw, which worked only marginally better. The thin blade really didn’t like cutting through the hard maple, so I could only trim off little bits at a time. Eventually, it was easier to just chisel away and file down the tenons until they became small enough to fit through the mortises (with a little help from a few hammer taps on the bed post.) Before the final fitting of the mortises and tenons, I made the ends of the bed. I decided on diagonal bracing for the ends because I vaguely remembered hearing somewhere that diagonals offered extra strength and stability. Due to my shaky grasp of measurements and geometry (hey, it’s been a long time since I was dozing off in year 10 math) I had to lay out the end pieces in a pretty funky way. First I placed 2 posts on the ground 4 feet apart, mortises facing inward, using a straight edge and a square to make sure they were even. Then I measured 1″ down from each mortise and drew a line. I lined a board up with the top of the board just under the line and the bottom of the board just reaching the bottom corner of the opposite bedpost. I traced where the board overlapped the post with a pencil, then did the same for the opposite diagonal. I then cut half-lap joints in the posts, cutting along the diagonals I had traced and then making many small closely spaced kerfs between the pencil lines. I knocked out the scraps of wood between them and cleaned up the surface with a small chisel and hammer. The lap joints were cut to the same depth as the diagonal boards were thick, so once the boards were nailed in, the lap joints held them snugly in place and flush with the surface of the posts. I also had to lap the two diagonals over each other; I did a different kind of half-lap joint for this, cutting through half the thickness of each board. I eyeballed it more than I should have; if you could see my bed, you could see that on one end, the diagonals don’t overlap seamlessly.

The process of fitting the tenons on the side rails into the mortises on the posts was a huge pain in the ass, but also the most rewarding when I finally finished it. Like I said, if the halves of your mortise and tenon joint are experiencing second thoughts about joining together, encourage them by placing a block of scrap wood over the back of the mortise side, holding on the side behind the tenon, and tapping on the scrap block with a hammer until the tenon fits comfortably in the mortise. (p.s. you can also cut mortises with a router if you have one and aren’t a masochist like me.) If you’re like me and cutting out the mortise is a struggle, you can shave down the tenon bit by bit until it fits, using a rasp, file and sandpaper. Don’t make it too much less than 1/3 the width of the material or it won’t have sufficient strength. Finally, I got my bed frame assembled to check the fit of the pieces. Thankfully it was reasonably level. I mean, a marble would probably roll off it, but it’s not something I would notice when I come home from work at 10 PM and park my tired carcass on top of it.Then I had to disassemble it and haul the pieces upstairs to reassemble it in my trailer. As planned, I attached it to the wood floor with 4 large shelf brackets, 1 in each corner, which were subtle but offered good structural support. I nailed 6 slats across the bed between the side rails. For the slats, I just used random boards that were between 3/4″ and 1″ thick and cut them to 4′ long  so they spanned the distance between side rails. I figured with 6 slats, each slat would only have to support ~22 pounds of my weight, even less once the plywood distributed the weight further. Next came the plywood layer, which I caved in and bought at Home Depot rather than hoping for a dumpster/garage find. I bought a sheet of 1/2″ plywood that had to be cut in half to fit in the Civic. Unfortunately when I got home, I discovered that either my bed or the cut in the plywood (my pride will say it’s the plywood) was slightly off square, requiring another 20 minutes of shifting, measuring, cutting and fussing. After screwing down the plywood layer, I climbed on top of the bed and reflected. There had been someone in my past who had built himself a bed I greatly admired, so building my own definitely felt like a Serious Lifetime Accomplishment(tm). I know that’s kind of stupid, and I also knew from the way the bed wobbled that there was no was it would stand up to the kind of activities that took place on his bed. To make it look nicer, I decided to cover up where the side rail met the cross piece slats on the inside side of the bed. I used a piece of 1/2″ thick x 3″ wide maple that had been part of the same stash as the bed posts. I cut a couple swoops in the edge of it with the saber saw, then drilled out a decorative pattern of holes in it (you can see it here in my tiny house tour!) After coating it and the side rail with a couple coats of tung oil, it didn’t look half bad. Especially with bedding on it. I’ve been sleeping in it for almost a month, and it’s a pretty comfortable accommodation for a short person like me; a firmer surface is better for your back while sleeping. My only complaint is that I goofed up locating the window by where my feet go; every time I stretch on a warm morning, I risk putting my feet through the screen. 20160517_124156

(Good morning!)

 

P.S. if you’re a more experienced woodworker and you have any more suggestions on what I could have done to make the bed a little more stable, I’d be interested to hear what you have to say.