Wants versus Needs

When we started this project four years ago, we envisioned our Thanks for Nothing Month as a period of reflection – a time to think about each and every item we are consuming.  And, of course, it does work.  Sort of like walking up a steep hill, all the time reminding yourself how good the exercise is for you.

For some reason the experience keeps reminding me of that old routine by George Carlin when he talks about “stuff.”  You go on a trip and only take some of your stuff.  Then you go on a day trip and take even less stuff – only the stuff you really, really need, and so on.

Conscious consumption has brought on thoughts of things I need, rather than things I have or want.  What are the things I am very aware of consuming when I limit consumption.  Here is a brief list...
  1. Firewood.  Seems that in the middle of January, when the outside temperatures hit minus 5 degrees, I seem to need some heat.  This is an actual honest to goodness need.  Not a “want” pretending to be a need.  
  2. Water.  We don't need a bunch of this – but the goats and llamas and dogs and cats seem to get very irritated if we don't keep fetching and carrying water to them.  They just can't seem to get in the spirit of Thanks for Nothing Month (especially the cats).
  3. Blankets.  I feel like this is a borderline item, but there is nothing quite so nourishing as to get below a pile of blankets on a warm, soft bed as the world freezes solid outside.
I think everything else really falls into the “want” category, although if I didn't have them, I would probably be able to summon enough rationalizations to push them up a notch to “need.”  I speak of course of...
  1. Food.  I could probably stand to go a fair time without it, but wouldn't want to.  This month, however, I find that we are eating less and less.  Perhaps it is because we have worked our way down through all the “goodies” and are well into bags of frozen chicken broth and rice.  Still good and all that, but just fine in moderation.
  2. Light.  I could be flip and simply say that when the sun goes down, just climb under the blankets.  But a bit of light in the evening is cheerful.  But it is amazing how little light you actually need.  We have been discussing personal light rather than abundant light. No need to light the whole room (or house) when you can simply light the place you are looking at.  
  3. Coffee.  I thought about putting this under the “need” list.  It seems to motivate me more than heat to get up in the middle of the night and fill the wood stove (so that hot water is waiting for me when I climb out from under the blankets).
  4. Clean hair.  I always figured that if I was captured by terrorists (or the CIA), all they would need to do is not let me wash my hair and then touch it.  I would chatter away like Joe Biden.  
So that's about it when it is pared down to the basics.  So why do I have all this other stuff around the house?  Under which list does the Chia Pet go?

Blowing up Inverters – Sort of

I now know what I didn't know.  I know what I know.  I don't know what I don't know I don't know.  And I don't care that I don't know what I didn't know but now I know but could get by just fine not knowing.
750-watt inverter working happily after the connection was fixed.  Now on lighter "office duty."
750-watt inverter working happily after the connection was fixed. Now on lighter “office duty.”
The learning curve continues.  

Perhaps I'll have that carved on my headstone.  Seems rather profound without being actually profound (a bit like Donald Rumsfeld).  But I digress.

I have managed to blow up one of the inverters on one of my solar generators.  Not blow up as in it lies in pieces at my feet – but blow up as now when I push the button, nothing happens.  I know why this happened, which is helpful.  My mistake was believing the literature.  The inverter was plenty big enough to handle the job, except that it wasn't.

The information on the internet was wrong (imagine that).  The manufacturer was apparently mistaken – asserting that limited power could handle the problem (why does this all keep reminding me of Donald Rumsfeld?)  

I have fixed the problem by installing an inverter that is rated to handle ten times the power requirements of the refrigerator.  Colin Powell would be proud.

Postscript:  Turns out I didn't know what I knew.  I went to replace the bad inverter – but it turned out to be a bad connection.  The smaller inverter still won't power the refrigerator, but at least it didn't meet its maker... yet.  

Tweaking the Solar Generators

The first full day of Thanks for Nothing has come and gone – and we have once again survived without some of the conveniences of a modern society.  Amazing. 
Annie enjoying dinner by candle light in front of the wood fire.
Annie enjoying dinner by candle light in front of the wood fire.
My role on the first day was largely technical.  As mentioned, we are trying out our solar generators – trying to test them and push them to their limits.  Well, right off the bat we found some limits.

We built three units.  The small unit, complete with a 400 watt inverter, a 35 amp-hour battery and all the other bits and bobs that make it work seems to be doing its assigned job just fine. In fact, I am connected to it as I write this.  For more than a day it has managed to supply power to my laptop, printer, cordless telephone and lamp (see, a complete office if your office consists only of a laptop, printer, telephone and lamp).  

We used the laptop all day – plus watched two movies on it during the evening (actually documentaries – so we are still pure and righteous).  We have also been listening to the radio over the internet on the laptop.   Some day we might actually stream music and join the modern world more completely.  As I type this, the unit just gave out a squawk that it was at the end of its juice.  So 24-hours seems to be the limit on this unit.  That will probably get you through most power outages.

The middle unit is, as you would imagine, a bit bigger.  It has a 750 watt inverter and a 110 amp-hour battery.  We determined to use this for the refrigerator, as our LG fridge only draws about 165 watts when running, I figured this would be more than enough.  But we have learned something about inverters (and motors).  

When the refrigerator kicks on (and this applies to any appliance with a motor), it draws a bit more energy in the first few seconds of operation (a surge).  Our inverter is supposed to handle this, rated to up to 1500 watts for a few seconds, but happier if only providing 750 watts or less on a continuous basis.  

We found that when the refrigerator tried to kick on, the inverter would indicate it was overloaded (even though it was well below its rated limit).  It would do this four or five times, then chug away happy as could be.  I worried that all this might be putting a strain on our refrigerator – so we moved the bigger unit in to take over.

The large unit has a 2,000 watt inverter and a 225 amp-hour battery bank.  The refrigerator is really happy with this unit.  We need to do a bit more testing, but it looks like there needs to be a lot of headroom in inverter capacity when working with motors – much more than the rated watts of the unit might suggest.

So we are off and running, settling into the slower pace of Thanks for Nothing month.  Dinner must be anticipated well in advance and cooked on the wood stove.  It is eaten by candlelight, which is never a bad thing.

The First World Problems of Thanks for Nothing Month

Okay, after my rant against Wall Street, the Media and American politics (in the last post), let's get down to some of the practical aspects of living during Thanks for Nothing month.  Here is the plan...

As mentioned earlier, we don't spend money during this month, which is to say (of course) that we still spend some money.
Solar Generator
Renie monitoring the solar generator. This unit powers the refrigerator/freezer. Note the laundry drying in the background (domestic chores continue).
What I mean by this is that we still have some ongoing expenses that happen whether we want them to or not.  For example, we will still accumulate 1/12th of our real estate taxes this month.  We will still get a phone bill (which is automatically paid from our bank account), and our insurances (ah, that's another topic for another rant) will still get paid automatically. 

So money is still spent – but we don't do any of the spending ourselves.  We don't purchase anything, such as food, household stuff, etc.  This year we extended this part of the experiment to three months (December, January and February).  No new stuff forces us to make due with what we already have.  And to be honest, most of us already have way too much stuff.  We just can't find it because it is tucked away under other stuff.  After a month of no shopping, it seems we have barely made a dent in the freezer.  I've managed to get by with the socks I already owned (go figure).  

As for transportation, if the car runs out of gasoline during the month – we simply don't go anywhere.  So conscious consumption of stuff grinds to a halt and exits our minds.

Energy is a bit more problematic.  Here at Blue Rock Station, our heat is provided through thermal mass (rammed earth tires and earth berming), passive solar (light and heat coming in through windows), and a small wood stove.  Our water is from rain, our waste is all, for the most part, composted.  In past years during Thanks for Nothing month, electricity has always been the issue.  

This year we installed a solar array for electricity.  So we could cheat and simply say (to ourselves) that we are only using what the sun provides each day.  But we want to push ourselves a bit.  We are currently writing a book on making your own solar generators – so we figured this month would be a great time to test their limits.

We have built three solar generators.  One is hooked up to the water pump (so we will have water – although the water heater is turned off, so we will have to rely on the wood stove for hot water).  Another solar generator is hooked up to the refrigerator/freezer.  The other is a mobile unit which we will use for our computers, lights,  phones and the like.

In the evening we intend to rely on lanterns for light (and not the solar generator).   Cooking will rely on the wood stove.  So dems the rules..  

So far, only a couple of problems.  As in past years, I miss my coffee maker already.  That friendly little appliance each morning has a pot of hot coffee waiting for me when I get up.  At 6:30 each morning it goes to work.  About 10 minutes later, one of the miracles of modern living... hot coffee awaits.

Today the little coffee maker sits unplugged and unloved.  The wood stove had to be lit, water placed in pots, and then... wait.  After waiting a full hour, I tried some of the water in a French press filled with several scoops of grounds.  The result, rather tepid coffee (although better than nothing for the true addict).  It wasn't until another hour had passed before the water and coffee properly got their act together.  

The other problem is that I broke the shoelace on one of my work boots.  Unlike Imelda Marcos, I only have one pair of work boots (although to be fair, she probably didn't own any pairs of work boots).   So this could be a problem.  I guess I can tie two smaller shoe laces together...

Ah, first world problems (lukewarm coffee and a broken shoe lace).  I figure I'll survive.  

Thanks for Nothing Month Begins – 2015

Today we embark on what has become our annual “Thanks for Nothing” month.  

For the past four years (this being the forth), we here at Blue Rock Station (meaning Annie, myself, the two dogs, and way too many cats) turn off the electricity for the month of January and also commit ourselves to spending no money (zero, nada) for the month.

We started this project for a number of reasons.  It was first motivated by listening to NPR (brought to you by America's Natural Gas Alliance) as they dutifully recited the daily stock market report.  It is a pet peeve of mine that nearly every media outlet reports the stock market numbers each and every day (and on days the market is closed, they remind us that it is closed).

Yet who gives a flying rip about those numbers.  They are completely meaningless to anyone and everyone.  You might as well report that the number 16 came up more times than any other number on the roulette tables in Vegas on any particular day.  Those numbers don't indicate economic well being.   They don't indicate a fundamental change in the way companies do business.  They just indicate whether some speculators will pay more or less on a particular day for stock in a very few companies.  

And anyone wanting to trade stocks will certainly not rely on NPR or the Zanesville Times Recorder for their information about the stock market.  That's why Micheal Bloomberg so rich.  Once again I repeat.  This information is of no value to anyone hearing it!  Yet they report it each and every day.  Why is this?

If I were skeptical about the growing corporate influence within American politics as well as within the media, I might wonder if it is not simply the daily financial “Our Father” - recited dutifully each day to remind us that some hidden and very important force is guiding our lives unseen.  The high priests of Wall Street have been busy sacrificing lambs at their alters and all is well with the world.

Having attended (and actually graduated – imagine that) from one of the most prestigious journalism schools in the nation, I suspect it is more about laziness (at least if myself and my fellow students are any guide).  The numbers are handed out like Halloween candy.  No work is involved (except to randomly pick some event to explain why they went up or down... “The Dow fell 36 points today on news that Pluto is no longer considered a planet...” or some such nonsense).  Journalists are essentially lazy bystanders, who want to be where the action is without being responsible for the action.  

Anyway... I rant.  The point is, we wondered what would happen if everyone took a break from consumerism.  Thirty days each year of not spending, shopping or consuming.  How would that change our collective perspectives?

We thought, at first, it would be a chore.  As it turned out, January has become a month of rest and reflection.  Every major religion sets aside a month where you must be conscious of what you consume (Lent, Ramadan, etc).  It seems necessary for humans to periodically break their cycles of consumption.  

This year we are trying a few variations on the theme.  I will do my best to keep you informed of the insights, trials, successes and failures as we once again give thanks for nothing.

Day #4 THANKS FOR NOTHING Month

Day #4 THANKS FOR NOTHING Month            Sunny/Cold

“Just for today I will take five minutes to think about how I can increase the Happiness Factor in my life.”
Chefs Nans & Jay
Mornings at Blue Rock Station are the best, even when there’s no hot water for a proper cup of tea.  Jay and I settle into our rocking chairs to listen to National Public Radio (NPR) on the hand crank radio, and wait for the water to heat.  Both of us seem to find ourselves arguing with different news reports, especially the stock market report.

In fact, it’s the stock market report that got us thinking about creating an annual THANKS FOR NOTHING Month.

Fall 2011…One winter day, as Jay and I were driving along Highway 60 into town, I was once again arguing with the radio about how silly the Stock Market Report seemed to be.  It simply has nothing to do with our everyday lives.  In fact, I would argue, it has nothing to do with anyone’s life.  What difference do the numbers going up and down really make – unless you were one of the incredibly small number that were just about to sell or buy a stock – and then I don’t think you would rely on NPR for your up-to-the-minute information.

“Wouldn’t it be grand if we could hear a Happiness Factor Report on our own community?” one of us said (I don’t recall which one of us had this brilliant idea). “The Happiness Factor in Ohio went up 13 points yesterday because the Cleveland Browns finally won a game…” or something to that effect.  Seems to make more sense than “The Dow Jones fell 45 points on profit taking and fear of the Fed easing on monetary blah, blah, blah.”

I’m sure it was Jay who then suggested that we should try to spend some time living without money.  I instantly wanted to try.

At some point we decided on the month of January for our experiment. January is a slow month for us, with snow and cold winds…a time to “hunker down.”

In October 2011, I included our “THANKS FOR NOTHING” (the name we gave our January time) announcement in our regular Blue Rock Station newsletter to let folks know what we were thinking.  Almost immediately I had a note from Nans Thomassey, one of our former French engineering student interns.  He wanted to participate.

Nans and I had a grand time sharing ideas about how he and his partner Fanny  could live without money, and then he suggested we should include energy in the formula.  He wanted to focus on living with the rhythms of the earth and making sure that the lights would be out at sundown.  That conversation helped us to begin to create a format for the month that was going to “push” each of us to examine many things in our lives…I could never have imagined the outcome.

After our planning session I began to feel a little “pinched” by the thought of not using energy, and that made me realize that I was about to be on an amazing journey that would turn me at least 90 degrees and re-shape a portion of my life.

How was I going to cook?  Do Laundry?  Get to Jeanette’s party (I’d promised the year before that I’d be there)?  And, more importantly, how was Jay going to get by without his daily shower?

Fast forward to January 2014 and THANKS FOR NOTHING Month #3.  It seems like we find new ways to challenge ourselves each January, and 2014 is no exception.  We find now that we look forward to January – an excuse to slow down a bit – take a breath.

And with the frigid weather drifting down from the Arctic, it is strange to find that the electricity might go out – and we will not notice.  There will be no pipes bursting and no plants dying or no mad rush into the harsh winds, bundling pets into the car to go in search of a place where coal burned miles away helps keep us from freezing at night.

It will simply be another night.  Minus 10 degrees outside, 68 degrees inside.  The cats and dogs sleeping in front of the wood stove.  Us humans will be feeling very sleepy by 8 pm because it has been dark for nearly three hours.  We will blow out the kerosene lantern and head to bed, warm under the comforters.  And give thanks for the nothing…that is everything.

Menu
Breakfast:
Fresh fruit with greek yogurt

Lunch:
Fresh baked oat bread (gluten free)
Fried white fish
Salad greens
Peach crisp

Day #3 Thanks for Nothing Month

Day #3 THANKS FOR NOTHING Month            Sunny/Frigid

“Just for today I will cross off one thing from my to do list, and think about how good it feels to do nothing about it.”

Earthship in Winter
The sun was bright all day – such a gift on a bitterly cold day.  The house was warm even though we let the wood stove get down to only hot coals.  The beauty of a home that uses thermal mass coupled with passive solar for the basis of heating is that sunshine bumps up the warmth inside.

We spent the day with an Amish farmer and one of the “English” he works with – his goal in coming to us for consulting was to learn more about our building methods so he can utilize some of our ideas in a new retail shop he wants to build for his poultry business, plus he and his English partner want to create new Websites for their businesses.

They were looking for marketing advice, and we had a grand day of sharing ideas and “pushing the envelope” with how to use the Internet more efficiently.  After six hours we had shared stories, laughed more then we

in an “ordinary” business meeting, eaten a simple meal warmed on the wood stove while we met, and given both of them a push forward with their own ideas.  This is our idea of doing business – making friends, giving everything we have to the moment, and then staying in touch to see how it all unfolds.  I believe this is the new business model for our culture.

Ralphie is mesmerized by the morning fire.

During evening chores a young guy I had talked to about re-homing the chickens I’d taken in from Capital City Animal Shelter drove up at the barn to “adopt” one of the beautiful roosters that I’d decided were too healthy to butcher.  He was worried about how to introduce the rooster to his small flock of hens.  We discussed how a new rooster with hens wasn’t a problem – all he needed to do was put the rooster in with the flock after dark, and the next morning all of them will be excited and happy to get acquainted.  It doesn’t work so smoothly when introducing a new hen, and that’s what he was worried about.

When I returned to the house Jay was waiting with the oil lamp lit on the kitchen table.  It’s really nice to open the door and see the glow from the lamp.  The US weather service says sun down is at 5:15 PM in this part of Ohio so we abide by that if we’re using the computer – turning it off like clockwork…No technology whether powered by renewable energy or not after dark.

The evening was spent returning fun phone calls to friends.  Sometimes I feel like I have forgotten the art of talking on the phone for fun, but last night those women on the other end of “the line” reminded me of how much joy comes from reconnecting with just our voices.During evening chores a young guy I had talked to about re-homing the chickens I’d taken in from Capital City Animal Shelter drove up at the barn to “adopt” one of the beautiful roosters that I’d decided were too healthy to butcher.  He was worried about how to introduce the rooster to his small flock of hens.  We discussed how a new rooster with hens wasn’t a problem – all he needed to do was put the rooster in with the flock after dark, and the next morning all of them will be excited and happy to get acquainted.  It doesn’t work so smoothly when introducing a new hen, and that’s what he was worried about.might have in an “ordinary” business meeting, eaten a simple meal warmed on the wood stove while we met, and given both of them a push forward with their own ideas.  This is our idea of doing business – making friends, giving everything we have to the moment, and then staying in touch to see how it all unfolds.  I believe this is the new business model for our culture.

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When I returned to the house Jay was waiting with the oil lamp lit on the kitchen table.  It’s really nice to open the door and see the glow from the lamp.  The US weather service says sun down is at 5:15 PM in this part of Ohio so we abide by that if we’re using the computer – turning it off like clockwork…No technology whether powered by renewable energy or not after dark.

The rest of the evening was spent eating stew warmed on the wood stove, and watching a DVD on the charged laptop.  Bedtime is usually around 9:30 PM but we watched the film longer then usual.  The living room was warm and I was working up my courage to get into bed under the cold covers in the cold bedroom.

Menu

Breakfast:  Fresh fruit with yogurt

Lunch:
Left over butternut squash/potato soup
Rye bread with butter
Fresh hot pepper raw milk goat cheese