Monday, January 23, 2012

Letting Go of Middleclass

Historic abnormality.  That's what one of my favorite bloggers calls the modern day middle class. Anthropologically speaking, how do societies organize? Labor at the bottom, with a ruling class at the top supported by the excesses generated by the laborers.  Modern man managed to tap in to a vast payload of ancient excess, enough to glut even the most ravenous of ruling classes, thus letting enough dribble through that a percentage of the laborers get to experience some of the perks of ruling class lifestyle. It's near impossible to convince any of those enjoying the experience that what they are living is an abnormality.  It's gone on for generations now, (at least in the global North) long enough to convince all of them of it's permanence. Like fruit flies, the memory span of the species is only so long. They've forgotten what is normal.  "Oh, those norms don't apply any more, for Pete's sake, we've been to the moon, there's nothing we can't do."  You know what we can't do? Make more oil.  I know what else we can't do. Run anything more than a fraction of our current lifestyle on renewables and muscle power. The math just doesn't work out. Not without a huge population die off, and that would create it's own problems. Math is hard to argue against, but of course the hopeful fruit flies still try. The Archdruid says it best, as usual.
"In 1929, America was still an expanding society, with an economy that was still producing something other than fiscal hallucinations, and a standard of living that had been moving raggedly upward for a good long time. ... Most Americans could reasonably expect that with hard work and prudence, they could expect to have a better standard of living in the future than they had in the past, and their children could expect to do better still.

Those days are long past. For the great majority of Americans, living standards have been declining since the early 1970s, upward mobility is increasingly a nostalgic dream, and it’s becoming harder even for government flacks to keep pretending that training people for jobs that don’t exist will make those jobs miraculously appear. Ours is a contracting society, and outside of the narrowing circle of privilege—itself facing, a little further down the road, a far more drastic form of downward mobility—most people realize that hard work and prudence, the road to a better future in past generations, are merely a slightly slower road to impoverishment than the one everyone else seems to be taking.
A great many Americans, for example, think that being hopeful in the face of the depletion of fossil fuels means assuming against all the evidence that some ample replacement will be found in time to allow us to keep our energy-intensive lifestyles running. A great many of us more generally think that being hopeful in the face of the limits to growth means trying to convince ourselves that those limits don’t apply to us, or that there will turn out to be some way around them, or that somebody or other will bail us out before our refusal to deal with those limits lands us in consequences harsher than we want to think about.
The only way out of the trap, as I’ve argued here rather more than once, is to accept a steep cut in your standard of living before it becomes necessary, as a deliberate choice, and to use the resources freed up by that choice to get rid of any debts you have, get settled in a location that has a fair chance of keeping a viable degree of community life going, and get the tools and learn the skills that you will need to manage a decent life in an age of spiraling decline. To those who cling to the idea that they can maintain their present lifestyles, admittedly, it’s hard to think of any advice less welcome, but the universe is in no way obligated to give us the future we want" - Archdruid
 The universe is in no way obligated to give us the future we want.  I can't get those words out of my head.  Most days are a battle against bitterness. Don't get me wrong, I'm a generally happy person, I love my family and all that jazz, but there's a kernel of bitterness that wasn't there a decade ago. I know why it's there. What I do for a living is not what I wanted to do with my life. I have a job, a good job. I don't discount the benefits that bestows on my life. My family eats good food, often, in a cozy house in a low crime neighborhood. I have all the securities of the ruling class, but none of the freedom. The engineering degree that was the ticket for my grandfather to live a stable life free of debt, has become a millstone around the neck, not only for me, but for most of my generation.  Our debts are rising far faster than our expected income gains. We are financial serfs. My private loans from college won't be paid off until I'm 50. You can imagine what that does for my ability to take risks and try new things. An entire generation, crippled by debt. There go your job creators. We're all so debt ridden we want only to occupy a job, and send large chunks of the pay towards the loan companies in a desperate attempt to deal with them. This is what it looks like when a historical abnormality is coming to a close.  You work as hard as you can, but there's not quite enough to satisfy the demands of the elite to be supported and to raise your own standard of living.

Middle class is no longer an option. The rich are getting richer. The poor are getting poorer.  Most days I feel like I'm doing alright if I'm managing our descent gracefully.  That's all I aim to do. I can no longer forget the historical abnormality. It stares at me in the face every day. I go to work and I make sure I have enough supplies to get home if today is the day it all collapses.  I don't plan on my kids going to college, I hope I can teach them enough to get them accepted as apprentices in a craft they can support themselves in. I don't plan to ever have my debts paid off, the most I aim for is to be somewhere safe when I can't pay them anymore. I highly doubt I'll ever have a retirement savings account to speak of. Perhaps I'll get some social security if that's still around in 50 years, perhaps not. At this point, the safe place to land includes a bit of land to grow food on since only 2% of our population is growing our food, and those guys are all approaching their 70's. (Another historical abnormality) I grow and can food now, not because I really have to, but because I want the practice for the time I know is coming, the time when it won't be an option.  I sew my clothing and diapers and blankets, we could afford to buy them, but I might as well get the practice now. I'm pretty sure my children will not have the excess energy to manufacture diapers and blankets or the money to ship them in from China. 

The work I do at home helps me deal with the dichotomy of going to my job everyday. I automate factories.  The very same automation in the very same factories that deep down inside I don't believe will be running in another 20 years. I don't believe we'll have the power grid to support it, I don't believe we'll have the distribution to sustain it. The economies of scaling up and centralizing and automating are all based on the excess energy and materials that we had back in the halcyon days of oil gushers and steel exports. Putting more holes in the ground and sticking more straws down them are not going to magically create more oil, no matter how much ground water we ruin with the latest technology. Creating demand for more iron is not going to make it come out of the ground.  I can already see the signs, the cracks.  Projects that get delayed because the iron has to come from China, and it takes twice as long to arrive as original estimates.  Parts and equipment with months of lead times (the time between ordering the part and arrival) because of components that use rare earth metals that are becoming harder and harder to source.  Plants that used to run full tilt 24/7, content with the knowledge that it didn't matter how much energy it took, product out the door always equaled profit, now have to scale back and monitor energy use and look at energy efficient ways of producing that same product, with materials that require more processing to get them up to snuff.

I can't really be the only one seeing the cracks. Some are much more obvious and not at all metaphorical. The American Society of Civil Engineers lists the total unpaid/undone infrastructure repairs in this country as around 2.2 Trillion. Not one single aspect of our infrastructure got higher than a C grade. I can't believe that these failing systems are going to support even a faint facsimile of the middle class lifestyle, that historical abnormality that so many think of as a permanent. I just can't.

Middle class is an endangered species. You can’t save yourself, nor can you return to it. Don’t try to hold on until the bitter end. Just let go while you have some control.
Lord Bison 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Homemade Toys

I love making toys for Rowen and Boy #2.  (No, we don't have a name chosen yet, and probably won't until he's actually breathing air, it's just the way we are.)  I love that I can use scraps and little bits of "trash" and come up with fun educational toys for them.
I'm not shy about my opinion that we're on the downside of Hubberts curve. As we progress down I think more and more of us are going to need to rediscover the lost art of making and crafting.
These toys were made from some trash cardboard, construction paper, left over yarn, and scraps of flannel left over from making crib sheets and butt wipes. The only things I really bought were the little plastic needles and the stuffing for the blocks, since I used up the last of what I had halfway through the big block.

I got the idea for the sewing cards from a blog I stumbled across.  I totally copied her design idea, but I just free-handed the 3 designs I liked onto the cardboard and cut them out. I traced the construction paper from those cardboard cutouts so they'd match, and the middles are the circumference of an oatmeal container.  Then I glued them together and drew some faces and details on.  I chose a thin cardboard, so my handheld hole punch was capable of punching through.  Then I threaded yarn through all the holes so I could guesstimate the length needed, and tied a bead on. The bead does double duty, it keeps the kids from having to knot anything, and it keeps the needle trapped on the yarn.  The yarn can be used for any of the 3 cards, without any rethreading of needles or picking apart knots. (Well, less picking apart of knots, I'm sure they'll manage to knot things somehow.)  The first evening of play went over well, Rowen's been begging to help with the sewing for a few weeks now.  He sees me quilting or sewing buttons or whatever, and he's sure he can help with that. Hopefully these will give him a way to channel that that doesn't slow me down as much.  He caught on to the holes and the needle and how those work, he didn't have a nice clean stitch when he ran out of yarn, but he got the gist and did 3 cards worth before I put things away for bed.   Not bad for a 2 year old.

The squishy stacking blocks came from an idea I had when Rowen was still gestating.  The large block got cut out but never sewn together, and was sitting in my WIP pile.  So, I finished it, stuffed it and made a second smaller block after I cut out a bunch of wipes this weekend.  One WIP finished, scraps used up, total win.

Of course,  doing-what-Daddy's-doing is still top of Rowen's list of fun.
And much fun is had.
Take that Angry Birds! I strike a blow for low-key entertainment.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Organizing and Getting Stuff Done

I had a huge push to get sewing projects done and out of my sewing room the past few weeks.  Some went as presents for Yule, others are hanging in my living room, yea, I'm looking at you big blue.  Others went straight on Rowen's butt.  hahahah

Show and tell time. :-D  First up were Becky's curtains. She loves purple, and fairies, so I used some Fairy Frost and Flower Fairy fabric.   Her window is large, so it was hard to get a good picture of this once it was done.   She really liked it though.

Next up was Willie's flag for his fort that Becky built in the backyard for him.  He requested a red and black flag with a spider on it.  So of course that's what he got.  I free-handed the whole thing in an afternoon.

While cleaning the sewing room I dug up some old projects that never got completed when Rowen was a newborn.  A couple of bibs made with some yellow terry cloth and blue fishes, and a green froggie bib that my mother started and only needed velcro attached to finish. Those are finished and will be put to good use I think.  Next to the bibs is a random Mama Pad that was cut out and ready to go. I think that green dot pattern was what I used for Sarah's set last X-mas.  I think I'll probably keep this random one, since I'd bet good money she's not used the pads.  It sewed up quickly, and reminded me that I need to find time to remake some postpartum pads.
Under the Mama Pad is the last of the prefolds that I finished up.  These were cut out during the sewing weekend with my mother back in Nov? Dec?  I made a set of 6 and I really liked how they turned out. Sadly, in spite of prewashing, the birds-eye fabric shrunk a lot more in the first few washes, so they are already a little small for Rowen.   Grrrr. So, memo to self, add a couple of inches to allow for that shrinkage when dealing with this nice birds-eye.   Another project started at that sewing weekend was a set of swaddle blankets.  Purple, Blue and Green, (chosen before I knew the gender on baby #2 lol) flannel with some cute jungle animals cut from a fat quarter and appliqued on to a corner for interest.  We really liked swaddling Rowen, and never seemed to have enough light weight blankets of the right size to do it.
Next up, and again, started at the sewing weekend, was a set of 4 fitted diapers for Rowen.  I have 2 done, and 2 left to complete, hopefully this week.  I used bamboo velour for the inner layer, with a soaker layer of hemp terry cloth (4 thick) and Ooga Booga cotton velour for the outer layer.  Velcro closures.  It took about half a diaper to remember the tricks of the elastic and such with these, so the left leg on the left diaper isn't as stretchy as it could be.  I'm a terrible seamstress and didn't rip it out and fix it. :-P

After getting all that goodness done, I spent some time returning the sewing room to a state of order. My spools of ribbon went up on the wall. There they are contained, easy to use, and out of reach of both babies and kitty. I threaded them onto a couple lengths of random yarn and ribbon and tied the ends to two tacks. I put some fabric on the mini-bolts that I bought at the quilting show in Des Moines.  I don't have nearly enough of those to put all my cotton interlock on them, but it is nice to have a few projects worth of the especially pretty stuff organized and out where I can enjoy them. The rest of my fabrics live in Rubbermaid totes and I went through those as well.  They are now organized by type of fabric, and LABELED so that if someone other than myself wanted to find something, they could conceivably do that.  All of my patterns got a going through, and they are organized in an old hanging shoe organizer. 

The last piece of organizing took the longest. I had put the mail sorting baskets in the sewing room, just due to lack of any other place. It was clearly  not well thought out. Mail was just piling up on the kitchen table. So, I dug it all out of the sewing room, and off the table, organized the 2011 mail and filed it away. Then I moved an unused TV hutch out of the sewing room and into the dining room where it now holds all the sorted mail from years past, and the mail sorting baskets for this coming year.  It looks much nicer, and gives me more room to work in the sewing room.
There's still a bit more work to do before I call it good.  My mother sent me some yarn that needs going through, and I need to rearrange now that the TV hutch is gone.   I'm pretty happy with the progress though.