Thursday, June 30, 2011

Servant and Master

I wrote this long financial post, but it didn't sit well with me afterwards, so I was left with the cliche, which pretty much sums up the post:
Money makes a good servant but a bad master
Can I suggest that, for people trying to be frugal (myself included), money might subtly shift from servant to master? A life that's focused on saving might be seeking the same end as one that's consumed by things- security.  Neither is secure.

Tithing or giving away significant amounts of money to achieve something for someone else is one good guard against this. I've never missed money I've given away, even when I was concerned we didn't have enough. I wish I could be brave more often.  I'm also inspired by women who choose (there are those who are pressured to, that is a different discussion) to give up their work, because they feel called to take care of their young kids. I'm inspired by my high school classmates who seem to be without debt and travel and work all around the world.

So, it's a cliche that's proved important and true to me-- may I be brave and generous more often, even if only to keep money in the better role-- that of servant.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Visit to Cape Cod

We wore black to Cape Cod (this was my only shirt for the weekend).  Not sure why.  Someone, thinking Eug was a waiter, asked him for a Pepsi.

The Korean memorial in Cape Cod is good for rolling down, if you're little.

Or you could just point and squeak.

A certain member of the family ate a lot of sand.

And wanted to wade in a river, across from The Mansion.

Monday, June 27, 2011

A Beginner's Bike Diary

I've just started biking to work. It's 4.5 miles, from near Boston University to the Arnold Arboretum in JP. I'm slow and unfit, and I got my bike in 2007, second hand from a Wellesley student, at a grand cost of $40. But riding to work is incredibly fun. I wanted to try it because I thought "why not?!", but having actually started, I'm amazed by how it restructures my day. The two segments of "dead" commuting time have new life on the days that I bike.

What makes it fun?

1. I wear wool, so I don't really have to worry about smelling.

2. I ride slowly. I'm stronger than I expected (that comes from saving Noah as he leaps off various things), but I haven't exercised properly in a long, long time.

3. I ride to work very early in the morning (5am) before any traffic. My commute home is harder, because it's hot and there are school buses everywhere.

4. I feel super cool and hippy-like for riding (let's not talk about the greenhouse gases from all the flights I've taken).

All good things.

As an aside, weaning my hair off shampoo has actually been key in being able to ride to work and not look greasy and smelly all day. My hair is generally not as oily, so I'm able to just put it up when I get to work, whereas before a little sweat and my hair would look like I hadn't bathed in weeks. I use a small amount of baking soda as deodorant when I get to work.

1. Do you wear a helmet?
Of course.

2. Do you bike on bike paths/lanes?
Where possible. I have new anger issues related to cars double parked in the bike lane, but they're minor. I'm trying out different routes to work to see which route has the fewest hills.

3. Do you obey traffic rules?
Is it 5am or 2:30pm?
The temptation to go through the red light is too great.
I want to live. I also don't want cars to be angry at cyclists.

P.S. I've put up a Facebook page link on the right.  If you click 'like', I won't e-mail you or anything creepy, I'll just be putting up links to pages. I'm really interested in how one creates an online learning community, and I wanted to connect more with you, as I'm starting to think more about what is useful for you to read.  Thank you!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Homemade Ginger Beer

My mom and aunt used to make ginger beer for special occasions in Durban, and at the time I longed for something mass-produced and less weird. I find it so interesting that what I consider revolutionary and counter-cultural, my mom, aunt and grandmother did so long ago.

This summer I'm feeling more and more drawn to soda when I was out and about, so I thought back to the ginger beer that we had growing up. Not least because I bought a couple of bottles from Trader Joe's and Whole Foods for Eug and my date nights. The fancy organic bottles of ginger beer are expensive and have quite a few ingredients. Which is not to say they're not awesome.

I used this recipe over at Down To Earth (which is very close to the recipe we used growing up). Rhonda did a great job of explaining how to grow the culture and mix the bottles, which just leaves me answer questions you might have:

Is it hard to keep the culture alive?

Does the ginger beer taste like the one from Whole Foods?
A little bit.

Trader Joe's?
A little bit.

Is it a lot of work?

Will I like the taste?
I think so.

Will I be stuck making ginger beer forever because I've grown attached to the culture?
It depends. Maybe. I'll ask YOU a question: Is making ginger beer forever something you're ok with? If yes, just keep making ginger beer. If no, best to find some friends to adopt your culture.

It turned out I was far less attached to the culture than I expected. It doesn't seem as alive after you drain the liquid to make your ginger beer. But the ginger beer is GOOD. Next time I'll use less sugar than the recipe calls for, because it tasted a little too sweet for us. Otherwise, it was perfect. We had three 2L soda bottles, which matured at different rates. The different rates of maturing worked well, because we'd finish one bottle and the next would be ready.  I'd use smaller bottles next time, because the ginger beer becomes flat very quickly after you open it.

Let me know if you try/would like to try it.  If you're in Boston, I'd be happy to give you a head start with some culture.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Imagining Change

Our upcoming move to South Africa has offered an opportunity for pause, reflection and re-evaluation. For example, this blog has always been defined in part by my being a South African away from home. And over time, it has become less about "Social Responsibility in Context" and more about, well, figuring out life.

The time has come for some changes to the blog! yay! As things change, you can check out the If You're New tab to look back and look forward. This is my vision:
Concrete Gardener is a space where I share my experience of living consciously and simply. While this is not primarily a "Christian themed" blog, I'm trying to follow Jesus and I'm encouraged and inspired by two verses: 
I've come that you may have life, and have it abundantly
And what does the Lord Require of you? To act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with your God
I believe that we're much more than consumers, and that being frugal and living simply will enable us to: 
1. Enjoy learning to take care of ourselves and be happy with less. 
2. Be extraordinarily generous with the money we do have. 
3. Be better stewards of the earth's resources and 
4. Not be driven by any kind of scarcity (financial or time poverty), but be driven by grace.
I'd like listen to you and build the blog into something inspiring, exciting, and helpful to you. To this end, I'm going to be setting up a (n anonymous) survey for you to fill out, to help guide the look and feel of the blog and evolving community.  I'll send it out in July, and also have it available on the site itself.

About 18 months ago, Eug and I had the idea of a free, online magazine. That vision became Conferre Magazine. The goal of the magazine is to "profile men and women from around the world who are seeking innovative solutions to social and economic problems and helping us imagine change."

We think that our generation (or is it just young adults in general?) can be jaded and worn out. Many of us are busy and maybe we feel as though our dreams of changing the world didn't pan out. Perhaps we feel like we're working in jobs we dislike just to make ends meet. Eug and I felt as though hearing about individuals doing big things in small ways might offer the inspiration we need to mutually inspire one another. We may be dealing with dirty diapers or paperwork most of our day (and there's something to dealing with the diapers and the paperwork, too), but it's not all we are. We can be generous, we can start a small organization, or grow food in our garden, or do our grocery shopping by bike, or learn how to resolve conflict, or...

This said, we've found that doing this in magazine format isn't working as well as we'd like. So we're going to switch tactics. There's a long gap between issues, so our readers may forget, and being tied to themes makes it difficult to get a steady stream of people to interview. So we're considering using a more flexible format- a weekly interview to start your week. I encourage you to check out our Conferre facebook page to give feedback, check out past issues and stay updated. Over the course of several months, we'll identify and write about common themes among change makers.

Finally, inspiration for today
As you may know, I've been wearing Thirty Items for Three Months. I'm really enjoying it, and was inspired by this TED talk:

What stuck with me-- as someone who keeps clothing for a long time "just in case"-- is that letting go (of baby clothes, of a favorite dress I haven't worn in years) can be an act of faith: that in the future, there WILL be provision. I don't need to hang on for fear that one day I won't have enough.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

This Year's Concrete Garden

This year's garden is muted but hopeful. Thanks to the generosity of friends, I have 5 tomato plants, 1 mint, some basil, and a bell pepper plant. They're all doing well. Here's the evidence:

In South Africa, we have a piece of concrete in front of our house, and a piece of concrete in the back. So I'll still be gardening on concrete, and learning to make use of that space. We will consider removing the concrete, particularly if we are likely to stay in the house for many years to come. Either way, space will be scarce. I'm thinking about learning to grow a couple of fruit trees in the Espalier style, so that they don't produce too much shade. I think we can also grow potatoes in tires, grow tomatoes, strawberries, herbs, peppers... I'd dreaming up a forest as I write!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Simplicity in Eritrea

I lived with my parents in Asmara in 2003. It was perhaps the most unique, out of character family experience we've had to date. I'm writing this on Father's Day, and I remember thinking at that time that my dad is "big in the big things", and that I want to be, too. This is because my dad dealt with a barrage of fairly serious, intractable bureaucracy the entire time they were in Eritrea. And did well.

There were many things about our lives in Eritrea that I'd like to remember and build on. Eritrea is not an easy place for most Eritreans to live, while I'm not going to talk politics here, I did want to acknowledge this with one story: A colleague of mine at the archives disappeared for a few days. He returned looking gaunt and tired. He had been in the countryside; his niece was gravely ill. She set herself on fire after she heard that her brother had been killed in the 1998 border war (which followed the tentative and hopeful peace of 1991-1998). However she, like many others, had only heard about her loved one's death in 2003, when the names of the war dead were posted on cafe windows. She would have lived-- her burns were not untreatable-- but she set herself on fire on a weekend, when there were no hospitals open.

There's no easy way to segway from that story-- and the many others like it-- to "Eritrea was awesome", but I wanted to hold a tension between forced simplicity and simplicity that is chosen. They are very different. What made Eritrea a blessing was that it was a piece of my life, not my whole life.

Our lives in Eritrea did not involve a lot of choice. Some days I'd spend the morning looking around (like a mouse) for cheese: had it arrived from Holland? If it had, we'd buy as much as we possibly could. If not, well, spinach again! Even a life of perfect simplicity cannot be without cheese, I think. Unfortunately, there was no ice-cream in Eritrea (and I didn't know how to make sorbet, nor did we have a freezer), otherwise I'd probably say the same for ice-cream. Apparently one can do without it, if one has to.

I would bicycle about 30-45 minutes to either the university or the archives in the morning (often with my dad) then bicycle 30-45 minutes back for lunch. If I felt brave, I'd do it again in the afternoon. Or I'd wander around the city or visit the family of an Eritrean academic. At night, I'd read or watch movies. There was very little internet, and the university library was stocked mainly with classics and some big journals. My time in Eritrea allowed me to read broadly and deeply-- I read all the great anti-colonial writers, for myself and not for anyone's approval. And while I can't quote them much, their ideas seeped deeply into me, informing my ideas about the world and my understanding of history. I read every current issue (and many back issues) of Scientific American, Nature, Science, and The Economist cover to cover, and I think that shaped me, also.

I'd like to reclaim some of that focus, the beauty of our two brief trips to untouristy Eritrean coral reefs near Massawa, effortless superwoman fitness, and a very healthy diet during the week (followed by a huge buffet every Saturday morning). Day-to-day life in Eritrea was very good to me, despite being close- at least physically- to people experiencing the very worst things, which makes me very hopeful that life anywhere can be very good.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Realizing a Dream

So, for our big news-- those who know us have likely heard about our plans ad nauseum, but for those of you who haven't: We're moving to South Africa! Our hope is to arrive in Cape Town in December. We'll leave Boston in mid-October, visit Eug's dad in Arizona, hang out with Lia (and Anna and Sarah and Yesica and Ray and Angie?), and then take a boat from Genoa to Cape Town.

We have a tree?!
Closer to Great-granny and great grandpa
We've been considering a move to South Africa ever since I moved back to the U.S. five years ago to marry Eug. The five years of waiting have been important. I remember someone told me once that if I wasn't content here then I wouldn't be content anywhere. That was helpful and not helpful: helpful in that it was probably true.  Unhelpful in that, feeling guilty about the restlessness I felt, I probably faked contentment for a while. And then real contentment slipped up on me.

So our upcoming move is bittersweet: We're very happy in Boston, we love our friends and our church. But the past few years felt like preparation for something. Over the past couple of years, we've begun to feel the timing on the move was right: doors (physical and metaphorical) opened in South Africa, and doors here (Eug's job, my job having a clear timeline) seemed ready to close. We were also financially ready.  Which I'm not saying to discourage people from taking leaps of faith, but for us, it would have been impossible to pay off US debt with South African rand, so getting financially ready felt like a spiritual discipline.

The physical door that opened...

By the time we return, it'll have been about eleven years that I've lived outside SA: in the UK, USA, and Eritrea, with visits to many other exciting places. Eug will have lived in Massachusetts for about 12 years (1997-present, with two years in Japan).

Noah already has his SA rugby gear (or wait, I guess he outgrew it...)
We're not totally sure what our overarching purpose will be in South Africa (or if we need one-- perhaps being and growing is enough), but it seems like a big deal just to be saying yes to returning when a lot of people have been leaving. That's not to say the move is a sacrifice- far from it- but that it's ok if the transition is not totally smooth. Or maybe I'm just giving myself permission to grumble at SARS and SA Home Affairs.

Getting rid of stuff
We've already moved twice since Noah was born, but this move will be much more radical in getting rid of stuff, because of the cost of shipping. I liked what Baker did over at ManvsDebt to keep tabs on their family's stuff. I may try something like that on Concrete Gardener, if only to have a strong sense of why we're keeping what we're keeping.

Figuring out paperwork
We've entered a season of passports and visas as we get residence (temporary then permanent) for Eug, South African citizenship for Noah, and for me, getting U.S. citizenship and applying to retain South African citizenship. We're also figuring tax laws and money transfer. It's complicated, but we'll be well-poised to share what we've learned, should anyone need support in their own move. Our experience as a tri-continental family is that immigration status has been a fairly constant annoyance but never something that threatened to split up our family for any length of time.

The Logistics of Working from a Different Location
When we arrive in SA, our house will still be rented out and so we're still deciding where we'll stay (or travel) in the month before it becomes available. But as we travel and settle in SA, we'll be figuring out stuff like internet and working remotely. Eug already has practice at this: He's worked for his Boston clients while in South Africa, Korea, and Mexico. It'll be new for me, I'll be doing some work for my U.S. employer, while starting a PhD and doing some work in South Africa. And, uh, taking care of Noah.

As we prepare for our move and I continue the blog from South Africa, I'd love to hear from you (by e-mail concretegardenerblog (at) gmail (dot) com-- or via the comments section, whatever you're more comfortable with) what's been most helpful about the blog, and what's been less helpful, and what you'd like more of.

Thanks for all your support, either here in Boston, in South Africa, or from afar. We're so excited to see what's in store for us next.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Doing without a Cell Phone

One of the changes we made when we were trying to cut costs (on our second run of Lazarus at the Gate) was ending our cell phone service. I read a post over at Rowdy Kittens about ditching her cell phone, and it made me think of our journey to doing the same.

We don't have any phone contracts whatsoever. Eliminating our cell contract cut about $100/month from our budget. We talk to family and friends using skype and google talk, and Eug uses his Google number for most things. He uses a pay-as-you-go cell for when he's out and about. I have a work cell which makes me accessible in emergencies.

There are still some costs involved in being reachable, but we immediately save at least $1200/year of what we had assumed to be a necessary part of our budgets.

For me, the challenge that remains is to reconnect and have occasional long conversations by phone, which I used to really like as a means of catching up with people. I'd like to be available and present in other people's lives, so I need to be more deliberately reaching out, because I'm not easily reachable for a chat by phone.

Internet has totally transformed our need for cell phones, and it's one good example of a place where cutting a monthly bill allowed us to be more generous and pay off debt.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

If They Don't Let You Go to Wales, Go Here Instead.

Cancun isn't a place I'd ever go to in real life. We got to have that once-in-a-lifetime experience of saying "anyplace but here" last week. It doesn't measure up to seeing so many of my favourite people in Wales, but it was still a beautiful, amazing place (with a million tourists). It was so unplanned that we had no expectations, we just went and hung out.

Our view from the plane
Noah's favourite place in Cancun
Noah's second most favourite place in Cancun

Although random trips out of country are not really my style, my hope for myself is that I be open to gifts that come my way, and not be too mathematical in my measuring of joy vs. sustainability. Trending towards frugality and sustainability, but finding joy (and not freaking out) at the unexpected.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The End of An Era: No More Pumping

I stopped pumping this week, and have my lunch breaks back. Woohoo! It just felt like the right time. And I really want to try biking the 4.5 miles to work, which is near impossible when pumping. If anyone needs moral support in pumping or figuring out pumping logistics, I'm available.

It never became comfortable to say to a colleague "uhh...sorry I need to go and pump" [pause][awkward silence][blank look] "uhh... breast milk." I felt like I was drawing attention to the fact that I had breasts. But pumping also helped me become a lot more assertive, because I had what I considered a responsibility to Noah, which trumped politeness. I was also fairly public about pumping because I work in public health and feel that if any profession should lead the way in supporting lactating moms, it's mine.

I never thought of the food implications of women returning to work before I had Noah, but I now think a lot about it. The choice is much more complex when I consider the importance of breastmilk in a baby's life. I wonder if the importance of breastmilk reflects the importance of presence and all these other things that first year (or two). Pumping is hard. For our family, it works to divide labor the way we do, and that involves me working full time right now. But I also mourned that I had to pump for all those months. It felt like a loss, and given the choice, I'd like to help support our family while staying close to my baby, if we get to do this again someday.

Now, to stop nursing Noah to sleep. Maybe when he's three...

And inspiration for those who don't feel served by conversation about pumping breastmilk:

We always need a little Michael Franti, right?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

On (not) Going to Reunion

I had started to write a post about how much I loved AC, which I planned on finishing after reunion. Although we didn't get to go, I thought I'd still post something in hono(u)r of you all.

We got to the airport and I wasn't allowed to board because the special category of South Africans I thought I belonged to wasn't really special at all. And the agents on the U.S. side are crazy strict. They would not budge, even though I felt pretty sure that they would let me in at Heathrow. It felt silly that Noah-- who is me in the best sense of the word-- was free to travel with his blue passport, while I, with my green one, was not. Anyway. I'll leave my whining about borders and everyone living together as one for another post.

I had been gearing up for reunion for what seemed like forever: first, building up courage to ask Eug what he thought about going, particularly considering our year of crazy travel with Noah (14 flights so far--without hesitation, Eug said "sure!"). Second, finding the money to go. Third, finding the courage to request yet more time off work, and fourth, imagining seeing all the people I'd missed so much in the preceding years. Seriously, the last few months I sometimes just sat and thought of you. Embarrassing. I know you have your own stories of how you did or didn't get to go to reunion, too, so I don't mean to be over-dramatic.

I was looking forward to that atmosphere when we're all together as much as anything. When we're all together, I feel totally accepted, by those who knew me during my most ambitious and religious season.

I missed out on some years with my classmates because we are spread out and spending time together inevitably involves international travel. I got married early, got a job, and lived far from my family- meaning vacation time has always been spent visiting home. I also went through a phase where I felt pressure to turn every encounter into a religious experience for the person with me, which I have since found makes relationships feel forced and uncomfortable, and had me constantly trying to show that I have things a bit more figured out than my neighbor. So, that phase (hopefully) behind me, I was looking forward to just hearing how things were going for everyone- to laughing a lot and to reminiscing.

As we plan our move to South Africa in the coming months, I'm hoping it'll mean more visits (Cape Town is wonderful), and even if I don't see you, my life is still informed by our two years together, in big (knowing each of you, not working for large corporations or for money) and small (knowing quirky facts about friends' countries) ways.

I'll write soon about our trip to Cancun, where we went after it was clear that Wales would not happen. Yes. Cancun. Strange times.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Wearing 30 items for 3 months: An Update

Just a quick update on how wearing thirty items for three months is going. I think if weather in Boston were more predictable, this would actually be a perfectly large wardrobe. It's more of a stretch because I have to have some slightly warmer weather things, some cooler weather things in there.

But all in all, I love it. Every day I wake up, head over to Eug's office (where I have my closet) and open it up. Based on what's clean, it's immediately obvious what I will wear, I put it on, go to work, done.

My underwear is probably going to have to go through a similar discipline, as right now Noah pulls all my underwear and socks out of my plastic drawers pretty much every day. Eug turns to write a quick e-mail, hears happy squeeking, turns around and my son has removed all my underwear from the drawer. Even the embarrassing maternity underwear that I haven't been able to figure out what to do with. And when I put it back, I throw it in however I can. So it usually takes longer to find my underwear when I'm getting dressed in the morning.

All to say, I'm hooked. Even if it means having more clothes as security tucked away somewhere, the simplicity of just having thirty items front and center has been a transition with no downside.

Friday, June 3, 2011

On Diet Philosophies and The Food Bandwagon

I read this article over at Zen Habits about soy, and I was thinking about food bandwagons and how one finds oneself on one. Now I am not a big consumer of soy, but I have read about the Weston A. Price Foundation, and I think some of my thoughts on meat and raw milk and such have been impacted by the Price Foundation. I'm naturally legalistic and even when I try to break the rules, I'll usually try to find new rules to follow. Which is a strange thing for someone wanting to be a good steward.

Anyway, all to say I can be swayed like a reed in the wind.

So it's good I went to public health school and read a lot of journal articles, because they ground me, at least some of the time, in at least some good science. After two years of research, I'm starting to spend my days writing journal articles, and it's surprising to me how subjective even science can be. So this calls for a heavy dose of common sense when it comes to thinking about food. Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food (aff. link) probably came the closest in helping me develop a food philosophy.

It seems obvious that things we cannot recognize as food are probably not great, because, well, they're not food! So that much is agreed upon.

There seems to be a strong argument not to eat a ton of red meat, mostly because it's completely unsustainable and likely bad for you, if you're long-lived, at least.

But beyond that, there are plenty of muddy waters. I eat what I eat not just because of health; I'm also thinking about sustainability, food miles, relative cost, whether I like the taste, how long it takes to prepare, giving and receiving hospitality, and so on and so on. After a week of eating great, simple, relatively healthy food in Korea I'm embarrassed to say that I NEEDED pizza. So there's all this cultural stuff going on, too.

Today, eating can seem like a political or social statement, and it is. But I can get carried away in the social statement instead of being focused on the reality of what tastes good, is cheap, local, and workable in my life. So I feel challenged to stay off at least some food bandwagons, and continue to weigh these competing motivations of sustainability, cost, taste etc on my very own.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Series of Little Choices

I recently encountered an article that described small, everyday choices as draining. What to eat for lunch, what to wear, etc. The flipside in this story was that, when people DIDN'T have many small decisions to make throughout the day, they were much more creative. Since I'm not citing the article, I guess I'm just asking myself (and you) what choices are draining which are not.

There's also a field of study that describes people as having a limited well of self-control. So if I'm self-controlled all day, it'll be harder to be so by nightfall. Maybe this is why diet plans often have "eat-whatever-you-want-days" as an outlet for our desire to, well, eat whatever we want.

These two things, together with this post from a few days, had me thinking about how to be a more creative person. If we keep working on sustainability, generosity, simplicity, our efforts likely shouldn't fall into the category of "self-control" or "daily choices", because both are ultimately draining. Rather, some choices should be automated and if we really don't like to eat x or do x exercise, we probably shouldn't.

After simplifying our lives for the past three years, we're left with the question: what shall we do now that we have a lot less pressure to earn money? That is, we still need to earn money, but most jobs-- jobs we even love!- will cover our needs. The usual excuses for doing draining stuff just for the money is (temporarily) being taken away, and I'm not sure where that leaves us. We'll finally get the next issue of Conferre magazine out, perhaps!


We're on the road again, this time for a very short trip, and I have some reservations, as Noah's still pretty out of sync after our last trip. But I'm hoping he'll just be totally blown away by the gardens and the ocean, and by my amazing high school classmates (they really are amazing).

I went to Atlantic College (AC) for the last two years of high school. We were all together just two years, but they came at such an important time that the two years were as transformational as anything I've experienced since. As Eug, Noah and I travel to St Donat's castle in South Wales, I'll be thinking about the last ten years, and the ways in which it's differed from my expectations. As I visit the place that marked my leaving South Africa, I'll be thinking of our planned move back home, and all that's happened in the intervening years.

This year is a marker of change, reflection, and moving on, so I'm super grateful that I get to share it with you. Thanks.