Saturday, November 29, 2008

Just putting something on here get the shoe post off the top.

So there are too many unspeakably bad things to post about at the moment. I just don't want to get into any of them right now. The news itself is enough. Maybe some other time.

I hope this doesn't come across as minimizing the various tragedies that have unfolded in the last several days, but I recently heard a man on the radio quoting his grandmother who said something along the lines of, "If you focus on the bad, you miss out on the good." And I need to focus on Good tonight.

So here are some Good Things. Or at least no worse than Neutral.

- I bought the ugly shoes. Man I hope they last. (But not on Black Friday. The only purchase we made yesterday was food. You couldn't pay me to participate in that "holiday".)

- Despite what our "official" total says on the sidebar, our daughter's service dog fundraising could be done as soon as next week. We may even overshoot our goal. We can't believe it. The generosity, despite what's been going on in the economy, has been heartwarming to say the least. We may have that dog as soon as May.

- One side effect of the above is that it's made me really want to contribute more to local charities. Nothing against the big and/or international organizations like the Red Cross or Heifer International. I'm all for them. But now that we've been on the receiving end of charity, I want to do the same for other people. And I want it to be as local and as direct as possible. (Tip: Food pantries in many communities are really struggling right now.)

- Speaking of making things more local and direct, we found a neighbor just a few miles from us who is living out much of what we were aiming for. They have a small farm growing fruits, veggies, and pastured poultry. They're actually doing it quite well (unlike us at this point!). We bought a turkey from them. (They were nice enough to throw in a chicken too.) They said we could use their plucker and other facilities if we ever wanted to, which is awesome because for me, plucking was my least favorite part of butchering. Okay, second least favorite part. Anyway, I offered to help them out any time they needed it, in hopes of learning a few things.

- Sourdough breadcrumbs make excellent breading for chicken. Also, brining a turkey works really well.

- We have nearly weaned ourselves off satellite TV channels, so it might just be time to ditch it.

- I found a very cool online American Sign Language course. I don't know exactly why, but I've been wanting to learn ASL for a while. So now I get to try.

So what are some Good Things in your life?


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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Great Shoe Quest

Shoes. It seems I am destined to quickly destroy every pair I ever buy. I haven't been able to make a pair of shoes survive more than a year for a very long time. I've tried cheap brands (Dr. Scholl's), name brands (Reebok, New Balance), pricey brands with decent reputations (Columbia, Timberland), and unusual brands (SWAT). I've gone to Mom & Pop shoe stores, sporting goods stores, big box stores, shoe chains, mail order, and thrift stores. (Actually almost my entire wardrobe is thrift at this point, but shoes are a tough one...)

Here's what I want:
- A comfortable "cross-trainer" type shoe with good arch support
- Something that will put up with some abuse and last a long time

Actually, that's it. That's the whole list.

I am willing to pay a premium for a good shoe, within reason. But when I have in the past, it hasn't panned out.

Today I found a fairly comfortable pair of shoes (Asics) that the proprietor swore was just the thing for me. But besides being butt-ugly, they were a hundred bucks. If I was sure they really were just the thing, I'd consider investing that kind of money in a shoe. But it feels like a gamble, especially when money is tight.

Then I tried another retailer in town (I should say "the other"), and while the lone employee wasn't especially helpful, I thought I found one (Reebok, I think?) that I'd be willing to try since it fit well and was under $40. Only, of course, they didn't have it in my size.

So I gave up and went home.

Got any recommendations?



Friday, November 14, 2008

The Bucket List

No, nothing like the movie. I'm talking about actual buckets. Five gallon food-grade buckets with gamma-seal lids, to be exact. Six of them.

Maybe you've heard of the concept of a bug-out bag. It's essentially the bag you grab to take with you when the hurricane is coming. Or the wildfires. Or the zombies. It's an emergency kit. But instead of a duffel bag, ours are in buckets. The bucket itself is pretty useful in an emergency, for anything from water storage to a stool or table to a makeshift toilet. Or even a drum, if you get bored enough. I often hear that after the initial rush, emergency situations can get unspeakably boring for those affected.

The bucket is also watertight, or very nearly so, and rigid, so the contents don't risk getting smushed. And you'll be amazed at how much can fit in one. The gamma seal lids make it wonderfully easy to get into the buckets without using any tools or four-letter words. The last thing you need in an emergency is to be wrestling with your bug out kit to get at its contents.

Why six buckets? We've got one for each family member (two adults, three kids), and one "communal" bucket with more general supplies. Overkill? Maybe. But there are all kinds of scenarios that could require us to leave at different times, or take two vehicles, or otherwise split up. Having one container per person makes it easy to make sure that spare glasses, medications, clothing, diapers, or comfort items stay with the person who might need them.

What kinds of emergencies are we trying to cover? Who knows. It's the old Boy Scout motto: Be prepared. The idea is to cover a wide range of possibilities. In an actual emergency, you may not have time or you may be too stressed to think of all the things you might need. By planning ahead, you are thinking and acting in a calm and rational state, so that if the worst happens, you only have to grab and go.

Does this sound like paranoia? Two words: Hurricane Katrina. Two more: September Eleventh. But really, bad things happen on a smaller scale all the time: Housefires, floods, chemical spills, tornadoes. Your odds are low, but don't assume they're zero. And with as crazy as things seem to be getting in the economy, where "biggest _____ since the Great Depression" is gradually getting replaced with "bigger _____ than the Great Depression", predictability is kind of going out the window.

Now I should say that not everything you might want in an emergency can fit in a bucket (sleeping bag), and for some things it's not practical to store them there (birth certificate). So I've also made a "Grab List" to be kept with the buckets. The Grab List is just sort of a brainstorming tool that you can scan during an actual emergency, to jog your memory. On it are anything from the practical (cooler, boots, water filter) to the sentimental (wedding photos, baby pictures) to the more frivolous (books, MP3 player, favorite toy). The list should be ordered from most important / most likely to be missed down to the trivial, so that if you only have a few minutes, you can just stop reading before the end of the list. And when making the list, remember that your future self may not be thinking clearly when reading it, so put things like "cell phone with charger" or "wedding album (top of bookshelf)."

The contents of the kids' buckets are much different than the adults'. They'll need less stuff to begin with, and less of their stuff is likely to be critical, so you can always throw in some extra goodies to get them through what is bound to be a stressful time. (Don't neglect the adults in this regard either, but remember the kids are just kids.) If you have kids, imagine the difference it might make to their mental state - and yours - if the scary emergency is suddenly a cross between a slumber party and a holiday.

By the same token, imagine the difference it might make for you in an emergency, to be calmly grabbing a few buckets rather than scampering around frantically trying to get your brain to figure out ten things at once.

In deciding what goes in the adults' buckets vs. the communal bucket, it often comes down to practicality. If it's cheap and / or easy to build in redundancy, go for it. Remember, we're trying to cover, at least to some extent, the possibility of having to split up, because you just never know. In some cases, I had the same item in both the adult buckets and the communal bucket because it was trivial to do so. That way you're not thinking, "So who gets the bucket with the toilet paper?"

Oh, and one thing not included is First Aid items. I have two pre-assembled First Aid kits stored with the buckets. I also included a very basic printed First Aid Booklet with each. On my Grab List is "Where There Is No Doctor", which can be purchased or downloaded for free here. or purchased new & used here.

So on to the actual lists. These are examples, and you can always adjust to suit your needs or the types of emergencies you feel susceptible to.

Kid's Bucket (Example):

Spare glasses
Children's Tylenol
Children's multivitamin
Bowl, Plate, Cup
Activity books
Pen & Paper
Towel / cloth
Sweatshirt / sweater
Underwear (x2) (or diapers / pullups)
Socks (x2)
Sports drink (for hydration)
Baby formula & bottles
Snacks (non-perishable)
Toys / Games

Adult's Bucket (Example):

Atlas & state map
Addresses, phone numbers, & directions to places you might need or want to go
Bowl & Plate
Thermal coffee mug
Multi-spice shaker
Bug spray
Can opener
Cash, including coins
All-purpose folding knife
Knife sharpener
Duct tape
Electrical tape
All-purpose glue
Super glue
Emergency blanket (mylar)
General purpose soap (like "camp soap")
Hand sanitizer
Cough drops
Dental floss
Toilet paper
Lip balm
Headlamp (or substitute flashlight, but I like the headlamps)
Nail clippers
Spare glasses
Pens & Paper
Towel / cloth
Sweatshirt / sweater
Underwear (x2)
Socks (x2)
Hat, Scarf, Gloves
Work Gloves
Water purification drops
Waterproof match case w/matches
Magnesium fire starter
"Girl stuff" (*)
Condoms (**)
A distracting paperback
Snacks (non-perishable)
Sports drink (for hydration)
Cash, including coins

(*) Menstrual pads can be used as emergency bandages.

(**) Besides their intended use, condoms have other uses in an emergency. If they are not lubricated or otherwise treated, they can hold water. You can also use them to waterproof something (like a bandage). Or there's always balloon animals.

Yes, it all fits. Tip: Put the clothes in first. You probably won't need them right away, and that way you can smash 'em down as much as you want without fear of crushing anything else. And pick compact snacks, or keep them in a separate bag for easier rotation.

You'll notice the clothing choices are kind of specific. Jeans are more durable than, say, sweats, and a sweater can go over a t-shirt when it's chilly, and be removed when it's warm. You'll also notice the snacks are not at all specific. Don't worry about nutrition. Worry about calories and comfort. Remember this is for short-term emergencies, not long-term.

Communal Bucket (Example):

AA batteries
AAA batteries
Emergency blanket (mylar)
Emergency radio (crank or similar)
Filtered water bottle
50-foot cord
Folding shovel
General purpose lotion (Curel)
Hand sanitizer
Cough drops
Anti-Diarrhea medicine
Anti-inflamatory / pain reliever(s) of choice
Camp shower
Pens & Paper
Folding mini-scissors
Duct tape
Sewing kit
Pliers (needlenose)
Pliers (slipjoint)
Screwdriver (with multiple tips, or else multiple screwdrivers)
Wrench (adjustable)
Zip ties
Cable saw
Trash bags (small)
Trash bags (large)
Clock (manual-wind)
Cash, including coins

I primarily used two books in putting this all together (The Crisis Preparedness Handbook, and When Technology Fails), though I did glance at a few other lists and add in my own ideas. Remember, this is not a definitive list: Feel free to add, omit, adjust, and rearrange as you see fit. If you have any suggestions for things that are missing, feel free to say so in the comments.

Compiling all this stuff can be spread out over time, and as budget allows. That's the advantage of advance planning. Now that ours are just about done, I have to say that I worry a little less about Bad Things. And that by itself is probably worth the money spent.



Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Not Investment Advice

I discovered something interesting yesterdayL There are mutual funds that are designed to do the opposite of the stock market. In other words, if the Dow goes down 3%, this fund might go up 3%. Or some will target double the difference. So if the Dow goes down 3% it goes up 6%. Of course this is dangerous, because if the Dow goes up 3%, you lose 6%.

They're called "inverse index funds," or sometimes just "bear funds".

I always assumed you had to be connected and rich to do this kind of stuff - you know, people who can afford to buy into hedge funds, or at least pay an expert stock broker to hook you up with margin accounts and derivatives and other investment voodoo. And all that incomprehensible stuff is what made the financial world such a mess in the first place. Turns out, it's not that complicated. In fact, it's as easy as putting money into a mutual fund. It is putting money into a mutual fund.

Of course all this assumes that the investment bank operating such a fund doesn't go belly up. One person I know lost more than most people get paid for a year's work, on a "safe, conservative" investment managed by the now defunct Lehman Brothers. Poof.

Truthfully, I wouldn't have any money in the market at all if I could help it right now. But I do have half a career's worth of retirement money, which cannot be withdrawn as long as I keep my job. I don't enjoy the idea of profiting from the misfortunes of others, but I also don't enjoy the idea of losing our house.

Though I can't withdraw the money from my retirement account, what I can do is part ways with the pre-packaged investment models ("aggressive", "moderate", "conservative") and even the pre-determined mutual fund list. I have the option to do something called a self-directed brokerage account with my 401k. "Ask about it at work!"

I'd still rather get out completely, but thanks to this small piece of luck (the self-directed brokerage account option), I can at least invest in any mutual fund or stock I want. Or cash. The vast majority of my account has been sitting in cash for more than a year now.

I did some homework, read some books, and was doing pretty well for most of the year - treading water if not coming out slightly ahead ... which is unusual given my poor history of investing. I worked for WorldCom. Nuff said.

Anyway, since right now everything is deflating in value, the fraction I had invested is getting beat up along with everybody and everything else. And I'm not an optimist when it comes to the financial markets. The Powers That Be are using the "kitchen sink" strategy, and things are getting worse instead of better. Auto behemoth General Motors has been given a price target of zero dollars per share by at least one ratings agency. The US Postal Service is about to have its first ever layoffs, to the tune of 40,000 people. Circuit City is praying for a Christmas Miracle to save themselves and all the malls they inhabit. The USA may lose its all-important 'AAA' credit rating, while other countries (entire countries) are on the brink of bankruptcy.

But then, you already knew I have some doomer tendencies.

I've had to accept the fact that I just can't be too attached my retirement funds at this point. But as long as they're held captive anyway, and as long as things look so bleak in the financial markets, let's just say that something called DXD is my friend.

Just remember: Don't ever, ever take stock market advice from a blogger. Or a stock broker. Invest in useful, durable stuff, garden tools, seeds, debt reduction, and family.



Thursday, November 06, 2008

A list - with baby pics

Foods Owen likes

Applesauce, bananas, apples, lima beans, black beans, pinto beans, green beans, corn, peas, rice, buttermilk biscuits, scrambled eggs, toast, cranberry sauce, tiny pieces of grape, Cheerios, Fruit Loops, pasta, peas, pretzels(!), tortilla chips(!), flour tortilla, ice cream, french fries, mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes, graham crackers, goldfish crackers, chocolate, guacamole, pudding (chocolate and butterscotch), yogurt (vanilla, blueberry, and apple), cooked carrots, cooked pumpkin, lentil soup... [ Lori, what am I forgetting? ]

Foods Owen dislikes

[ . . . ]

Not bad for someone with only two teeth. We have not bought a single jar of baby food, and we've barely even used our little hand-crank food mill.

It's also a good thing we turned our coffee table into a temporary fireplace barrier:

"Look what I can do!"



Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Just to expand on my comment from yesterday....

I am proud, not because we have elected an African-American for the first time. I am proud that his being the son of a black African and a white American didn't matter. Obama didn't win because of his race. He also didn't win in spite of his race. He truly won because of the race he ran rather than the race he belongs to.

People sometimes tried to bring race into it, but it never really stuck. And despite reports of "huge turnout by the African-American community," the percentage of black voters in this election was not drastically different from previous elections. And it was proportional to the population as a whole.

Obama won among blacks, but he also he won among Latinos. He won among those making less than $50,000 per year, but he also among those making more than $200,000 per year. He won in the so-called blue states, but he also won in red states. He won with more votes than any President in history. He won on the largest voter turnout in a hundred years. He won running against a very experienced, highly respected opponent with crossover appeal. He won despite a series of smear campaigns that lost his opponent a lot of that hard-earned respect. He won without resorting to a smear campaign of his own, as far as I can tell. He made his case based on real issues rather than side issues, or imaginary ones.

In the end, it didn't matter that he had skin of a different hue than all who came before him. It didn't matter that his father was a Muslim from Kenya or his preacher was radical or his middle name was Hussein. It mattered that he ran a better campaign, that he had better ideas, and that he won more respect, and inspired more people.

The day will come when we no longer feel the need to remark on these semi-arbitrary firsts - first black to do X, first woman to do Y, first Hispanic, first Jew, first gay Asian, first black Hispanic Jewish woman... When there have been dozens of black senators, it won't mean as much to be the first black senator from Ohio.

Race and heritage will always matter, but it will matter to families. It will matter for traditions and customs and holidays. It will matter in a different, more positive way. We will stop thinking of people who are six generations removed from Africa, as African-Americans - they'll just be Americans. We'll stop referring to those with some small fraction of their ancestry rooted in Africa as black people. They'll just be people.

And that was the real essence of Martin Luther King's Dream. Not that a black man could become President, but that a man's being black wouldn't even factor into it. In Dr. King's own words:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

We're not quite there yet. But yesterday, we took a giant leap in that direction.


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A brand new day

I have never been more proud of my country, nor less cynical, than I am right now.



Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Seeing into the future....

We live at the corner of two rural roads. They are not very busy, but they are right on the way to our local polling place.

So last night I was out removing campaign signs from the corner of our property. Again. I've got quite a collection of them now. There are several reason why I don't want these signs, including a basic agreement with Scott Adams that campaign signs are lame.

Now it so happens that all of the signs on our corner so far have been in support of Republican candidates. If you read this blog, you can probably guess my political affiliations, such as they are, but this isn't about partisan political bullshit. This is about people leaving their garbage in my yard.

So I called the county Republican headquarters to complain. The old man, er "gentleman" as he tried to insist, disavowed any responsibility by the party or its volunteers - anybody can go get signs - and then, without knowing anything more about me, proceeded to suggest that I was un-American for not wanting this fine Republican spam on my property. When I explained that I'd do the same if it were Democrats, he all but called me a coward for not standing up for something. He blathered on about "that Socialist," and what's wrong with this country, and how at 83 years old, he knew a lot more about the world than me. Apparently in all those 83 years he still hasn't learned his way out of being a rude, inconsiderate, unprofessional, disrespectful, condescending, selfish, petty, close-minded asshat.

But whatever. Rant over.

More signs this morning. They've been replaced by a new one that just says "PRIVATE PROPERTY - ALL CAMPAIGN SIGNS WILL BE REMOVED."

Anyway, it's ok, because I already know who wins the election. And if those school kids are wrong, I'll reference the Dilbert guy again and plan for The End of the Republic. Come to think of it, we might be halfway there already.

If you're feeling pissed off on my behalf, take a deep breath and go read this to have your faith in humanity fully restored.



Sunday, November 02, 2008

In the spirit of the season

Whoever invented daylight savings didn't have small children. But at least the extra hour gave me time to screw around with Photoshop:

Wish I'd started with a bigger base image. The fine print got a little small...



Saturday, November 01, 2008


Anybody else out there in a "swing state"? Are you getting called a dozen times a day by pre-recorded politicians and their minions? Does your voicemail have pleas from your county auditor, local party officials, pollsters, both presidential candidates, Arnold Schwarzenegger, LeBron James, and political causes you've never even heard of?

We've got the creeping crud moving through our house, including a slightly feverish and very clingy baby, and the last thing I want is to hear the phone ring every hour from sun up until after dark (and no, I'm not exaggerating). And you can't even pick up the receiver and give the robo-caller a piece of your mind.

Anybody who didn't see this coming when politicians excluded themselves from the do-not-call list, please raise your hand.

What? Nobody?

Maybe we'll just have to unplug our phone for the next few days...

And just to keep this from being an entirely whiny post, here's my Halloween costume for the office contest:

Bonus points if you can figure out which limbs are real and which are fake.

I haven't dressed up for Halloween in 15 or 20 years. I should do that more often. I even won a $40 gift card to Target. Of course I can't come up with anything at Target that I want or need, but it was cool to win a prize anyhow.


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