Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Autodidact Alternative: Best Practices

I believe that education is a life long process, and that attending college shouldn't be. Education empowers us. The more we know, the better decisions we can make. The more we know, the more enjoyment we get out of the world.

Every moment of every day should be devoted to either enjoying your life or improving it.That means education is essential. When we can afford to have other people teach us, we have to teach ourselves.

Here are some best practices to help make that happen:

  • It is more important to listen than it is to talk. Make a point of shutting up and give your attention to what other people have to say regularly. If you actually listen to what's being said around you, you can learn an amazing amount of stuff.
  • Take steps to remember what you've learned. When you learn something new, tell someone else about it. Write it down in a journal. Blog about it. Think about it when you go for a walk or work out. Turn the idea over in your head. We don't necessarily remember things automatically. It takes effort, repetition and time spent with a new concept for it to 'sink in'.
  • It takes time to learn stuff. Give yourself time. We live in an instant-access world, where every bit of information available is just a click away. We have developed very unhealthy expectations of instant comprehension and instant understanding. People think very, very fast - but I'm not sure that thinking fast necessarily equals thinking well. Practice developing your attention span.
  • Let your interests be your guide. It is easier to educate yourself when the pursuit is fun. If you're slogging through something because you feel like you have to, there's a layer of resentment and frustration built in that's not helping you. This is your life. Focus on learning the stuff you personally find fascinating.
  • Question everything. When you're reading a book, research the author. Are they well-regarded? There are different schools of thought within every discipline. Don't just latch on to the first one you encounter and regard that as the absolute truth: try to familiarize yourself with many different voices to expand your understanding. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

5 Tips For Walking Around Safely in a Rural Area After a Flood

If you are in a rural area that has just been through a significant flood event, you may find yourself in a spot where you need to walk to where you want to be rather than driving to get there. Here are five tips you can use to keep yourself as safe as possible in that scenario:

1. Wear Sensible Footwear

If you are at home and have the ability to choose what footwear you'll use for your journey, take advantage of that opportunity. Choose your shoes carefully. You want shoes that have really good traction and are easy to walk in. Thick soles are better than thin soles: sharp objects, broken glass, and other hazards are common in a post-flood environment even in the countryside. Rubber soles are good in the event that you encounter downed power lines. Pick shoes that protect your feet as much as possible. Boots are probably best, with sneakers a second-choice. If you can at all help it, don't try walking out in flip-flops or barefooted.

2. Bring Bottled Water With You

It may seem ridiculous to be carrying a bottle of water with you when the whole landscape is flooded, but you need to take steps to prevent dehydration while you're on your journey. Never, ever, ever drink flood water! It is not safe. If you don't have bottled water with you, bring what you do have- soda, juice, etc. This is especially important if you know you are going to be walking many miles.

3. Carry A Big Stick

It is a good idea to bring a long stick with you - think a broom handle or something similar. There are a few reasons for this. You can use the stick to help you balance, you can use the stick to test the landscape, you can use the stick to ward off unfriendly dogs. It is much better to have a stick and not need it than it is to need a stick and not have it.

4. Be Careful Around Any Dogs You See

Even dogs that are normally loving and friendly can be freaked out by a natural disaster. This could lead them to act in hostile and aggressive ways. Dogs that are injured may lash out at you: if you see a wounded dog and you're not someone who already has vet rescue skills and knows  how to deal with hurt, scared animals, leave the dog alone. It will be hard, but the last thing you need to do right now is add being bitten by a dog to your list of problems. Be very careful around any dogs or other animals you see while you're on the road.

5. Test The Terrain and Choose Your Footing Carefully

As you go walking along, you're going to need to pay a lot of attention to the path you're choosing. Avoid, as much as possible, debris and rubble. Treat any downed power lines you may see as if they were totally lethal to the touch, because they very well may be. Stay out of the water as much as possible, especially moving water.

Use your stick to test the terrain - is the ground firm and secure, or does it seem likely to collapse under your feet at any second? Choose the firmest footing you can find. As much as possible, try to stay to the center of roadways, away from edges that may be crumbled or weakened. When you come to bridges, before you cross that bridge, take the time to look it over and ascertain to the best of your ability whether or not that bridge is secure before you trust it with your life.

Be aware of the landscape around you. Landslides can happen after a flood event. Make sure you're looking uphill and down as you walk along: be aware of your surroundings. If the road has been completely washed away, you have to be very strategic about how you're going to proceed. Bear in mind that if you need rescue, rescue units will be looking where houses and roadways were FIRST, if you're way off in the woods somewhere, it may make it harder for search and rescue units to find them. Trust and use your judgement!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Every Purchase Is Political

There is some argument about the exact numbers. Some economists say that consumer spending is responsible for 70% of the US economy; others put the numbers closer to slightly more than half. Either way, one inarguable fact remains: it is our purchases, mine and yours, from the morning cup of coffee to buying a new vehicle or even a house, that drives this country.

We're paying for all of it, directly through taxes and indirectly through participation in the marketplace. We pay for the roads; we pay for the schools; we pay to shore up all kinds of industries, from agriculture to energy to transportation. We pay for the military. We pay for what the military does.

We pay for what the military does in so many ways. We can't have this conversation without stopping to consider, to pause and actually imagine what it would be like to be one of the so many young wounded veterans, men and women who in many cases aren't even 40!, who have lost their arms or legs or eyesight or mobility or ability to think clearly or enjoy peace of mind. Who then come back to medical care and financial support that is without a doubt less than they deserve. We're told that there's no money to provide better.

But there is money, apparently, to start another expensive conflict in Syria. I stand here before you and tell you that I have no idea whether that would be money well spent or not. I see the videos of people suffering from gas attacks, and it seems to me impossible that we stand by and do nothing while these atrocities go on. At the same time, it seems as if the whole world (including people inside of Syria) thinks that the US military taking action would only make things worse for everyone.

It's too bad we don't have the equivalent of Special Forces in diplomacy - elite negotiators who could strategically and tactically create peace with the speed and enthusiasm with which we wage war.  With all the money we're spending in this country, why aren't we funding efforts to create peace?  To train people to understand and resolve conflicts, to help create a world without want and suffering?

But I digress. There's no sense in talking about what we could be doing with our collective money. We need to focus our attention on what is being done with our collective money right now. And we need to decide whether or not we're comfortable continuing to contribute to those decisions with our financial support.

You have to pay your taxes. There's no way around that legal and I believe moral obligation. However, we can and should be talking with our representatives about those taxes regularly. I think we've completely lost sight of exactly what we're paying for. I know I have. Informing yourself about what is being done with your money seems like a sensible idea.

The other side of the equation is consumer spending. Our country started with a demonstration of personal economic power creating political change. Today, boycotts are a tool used with some degree of success by both the Right and the Left.

I think it's time to remember that every purchase we make is political. Every dollar we spend contributes to the government and the actions it is taking. If you like what the government is doing, you should spend enthusiastically. If you don't like what the government is doing, maybe you don't want to buy as much stuff.

It's your decision. Just be aware that you're making it.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Before the Frost: Gathering Wild Apples

It's all about buying less and doing more.

Yesterday our region was under the first frost watch of the season. It's early - more than a week early - and our garden is nowhere near done. So there was scrambling going on: I picked the few tomatoes that had started to turn color, and harvested all of the cucumbers. 

I never grew birdhouse gourds before, so I had to research what needed to be done about them due to the approaching frost. (Turns out there's not much I could do at this point but cross my fingers and hope for the best!)

We covered the tomatoes that were still green with sheets of plastic, braced up on an impromptu framework of scrap wood, pvc pipe, and a metal tipped pole.

That took care of everything I'd put in the ground. It was time to take a look at what Mother Nature provides.

Foraging: Gathering Wild Apples

I have a great interest in wild foods and foraging - a passion that I must admit is not shared by my husband, who remains perpetually wary that I'm going to poison everyone. If you know anyone like this, I have to recommend wild apples as a great 'gateway food' - berries are of course the top choice, for I've never met anyone who can resist  woodland strawberries.

On the edge of our property is a big old apple tree that isn't wild as much as it is feral. I'm sure someone planted it once upon a time, but it hasn't had a lot of regular attention since then. This year, we've had a lot of rain, and the apples got huge.

Wearing my trusty boots - the apple tree is on the edge of a bog, and did I mention we have had a lot of rain - I went out and gathered as many apples that looked to be of decent quality as I could reach. You'd be surprised how an apple tree that was completely untended could produce so many apples!

They're not store perfect, but you have to let go of the idea that any wild food you pick is going to be store perfect. In real life, free from any human 'help', apples grow in a wide array of sizes and shapes; they're not all perfectly 'apple shaped'. Some had lots of spots and wind burn; others were clearly the home for hungry bugs - those I left alone!  Even passing those by, in about half an hour, I picked the two bowls of apples you see in the picture - more than enough for an apple crisp and some apple sauce for the family. They have some small spots, but nothing you can't easily cut out with a knife.

I made the apple crisp last night. It was delicious :-) If I'd had to buy those apples, it'd cost me about $8. Instead, they were free for the harvesting, and it was a nice way to enjoy a sunny - if surprisingly cold! - September afternoon.

Gather Ye Roses While Ye May

When I got back to the house, I discovered that my husband made one last minute before the frost happened. You can see the bouquet of yellow roses (my absolute favorite!) in the pic.

Sometimes the simple life is a really good one.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Three Thoughts About Technology

On Morning Joe this morning, it was reported that there's now inpatient treatment available for internet addiction. Wikipedia tells us that internet addiction is excessive computer use that interferes with daily life. Joe seems to think that this is a problem largely for children and grandchildren, but I'd argue that some parents and grandparents are struggling with this issue as well. People don't know what to do if they're not online.

One of the stats I use a lot at work is that more than  half of us have added checking Facebook to our daily routine. Even before we have our coffee, we're going online to see what has happened in our family & friend's lives. It's so important to observe other people's lives - when do we have time to live our own?

Thought number two: there was a tremendous rainstorm here last night, with thunder and lightning and torrential rain for a short period of time. Our power stayed on. But it made me think about the amount of knowledge we all store on electronic devices. Books work when the power goes out. The computer doesn't.

Obviously, the ultimate place to store knowledge is inside your head. That's portable, always accessible, and doesn't take up storage space. But we all have limited capacity. I certainly don't remember everything I need to remember to maintain our household on a typical day. It's smart to have a low-tech copy of all vital information, in case the power does go out.

Third. The first thing I saw on the TV this morning was Feed The Children's infomercial, raising money to provide for American children living in poverty. Later on, on the news, I saw a story about the millions of Syrian refugees, including the unprecedented level of children, who are living in camps. 
So much of survivalist philosophy & education is centered in a hunker-down mentality; I wonder if there's not a need to prepare yourself to live as well as possible if you have to take your family on the road and flee whatever bad thing has happened. We need to have a conversation about moving away from warfare, natural disasters, even economic dead zones.

Technology can help us access economic resources no matter where we are (assuming one can access the web) so I'm no Luddite - there's no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater - but we need to use tech to lift us out of poverty & improve our circumstances; not saddle us with addictions and keep us from being successful.

Monday, September 2, 2013

How To Count Your Blessings

Part of the reason we feel compelled to buy so much stuff, all of the time, is that we've lost the ability to be content with what we have. In fact, many of us don't even know what we have! Our closets are packed, our basements are piled high with boxes we haven't opened in years, we rent so much storage space for our stuff that self-storage is now a $22 billion dollar industry in the US.

Imaging what we could do, individually and collectively, with that $22 billion dollars. Would we have as much debt? Could we fund better schools for our kids? Would it be easier to help make sure our neighbors don't go hungry or senior citizens don't freeze to death?

Cultivating The Art of Contentment

An essential element of deciding when and how we're going to spend our money is learning how to be content with what we actually have. Frankly, I don't think most of us are very aware of what we have: we're too busy working to accumulate more, more, more to pay attention to the items we interact with every day.

But we can change this. Our parents & grandparents talked about 'counting your blessings' - and even today you see lots of people who are really into gratitude. They keep gratitude journals listing three things they're thankful for every day, for example, or make a point of telling someone that's made a difference in their life how much they matter.

I think these are great practices. They're just not enough if we want to enjoy life more and buy less stuff. For that, we've got to focus in on the tangible world, intensely and often.

This is how it works. As often as possible, when you're using an object or item, say out loud one of the benefits you can identify about it. For example:

Boy, this pen writes nicely!

I love how well the brakes on my car work.

This shirt is really comfortable.

This toothpaste tastes good.

I can fit everything I need to into my tote bag!

You might feel a little silly at first when you start this practice, but over time, a funny thing will happen. As you get in the habit of recognizing and articulating what you like about the possessions you have, the drive to replace them drops off significantly.

In fact, you might even wind up a little happier. I've found this happens especially with items I use all of the time. Let's take the coffee maker. Trust me, the coffee maker in this house gets a lot of use! And I think I've found every way to praise the coffee maker that there is. It's easy to use. It works fast. It makes good coffee. The coffee stays hot for a long time. There's a friendly little beep that lets me know when the warming unit is shutting off. It's easy to clean. The coffee pot is a little focal point of goodness in my life, and when I engage with it, I'm happier as a result.

It's not a spectacular coffee maker, mind you. It doesn't make espresso or lattes or wash my windows or anything like that. But it's a good coffee maker that does what its supposed to do, consistently, and recognizing and maintaining some level of awareness of this fact creates a bright point in my day.

You might be surprised how many bright points are waiting to be recognized in your day. Enjoying what we have reduces our desire to acquire more. That's essential if we want to get our lives back under control. It all begins with counting your blessings.