Monday, March 30, 2020

Reconciling Materialism

Everything is weird. It's strange to see so many people panicking about having to live the way my family and I have been living anyway. It's not without its challenges, sure. Coexisting in a home can be difficult at times, and sharing the workload is one of the major challenges. My own generation has some odd issues in that regard. We grew up in bedroom communities - in houses which were largely vacant during the workweek, so it's hard for us modern folks to know how to relate to our families during that time. It's one of the challenges families face when they first begin to homeschool.

I remember when growing up, we were all tired in the evenings. My dad had a job he really enjoyed, thankfully, but my mom worked for the school district and as terribly underpaid office staff, a person who had to interface with "the public." I had a lot of homework, but not the amount the kids have now. As my sister and I grew older, it was difficult to feel the togetherness we had as a family when we were younger. We all became a lot more independent, and so to foster togetherness, and take some pressure off my mom, we ate out a lot. We had a small kitchen, so it wasn't practical for everyone to help cook. But if we went to a restaurant, we could talk about what was happening in our lives as a family and reconnect somewhat.

We weren't big vacationers in my family when I was growing up. I know people now who fill every single federal holiday and school vacation with exotic trips, and I think about how hard they work to earn money to maintain a home that they never really want to be in. Maybe these people will be finding out right now, during quarantine, why they haven't wanted to be in their homes. Hopefully they are really little reasons that can be addressed easily!

I confess, I did my fair share of running around, until the Universe put a halt to it. I got sick from it! I actually needed to stay at home to get better. And in that time, I was able to gain a new appreciation for the home I had made, and care for it and myself better.

Our house is probably too big. When I was looking for it, I was looking for a home in our budget that would provide space for solitude for each family member, and also space for creation. I didn't want the yard to be too big, but we wanted privacy. The yard we have isn't too big, and grass is relatively easy to care for, but mowing in general is a waste of resources. I feel like I actually chose pretty well, even though because we have all this space, I have the tendency to forget what we already have and hoard things. So, after I rested and recovered enough last summer, I started tackling my overabundance of stuff. Over time, as I went through the various rooms in my house, I realized that I was essentially reconciling my relationship to the material world.

My mom was raised by her grandmother, who was born in 1901 and lived through The Great Depression. My impression of my mother's childhood is that she didn't have a lot. Her "mom" was a bookbinder, and her "dad" was a house painter (there were a couple house painters in the family, actually). When she has spoken of this time, she tells me that she did not have her own bedroom. She slept on a convertible sofa in the living room. I know at one point, she had a turtle named Tippy, and she also had a small teddy bear, and she has also mentioned quite a few times that she had a Toni doll, which she would sew clothes for. Sewing was an important part of her childhood - a skill she learned from her great-grandmother, who was a constant presence. It sounds like it was a pretty simple, non-dramatic childhood, and they didn't have an overabundance of things. They never owned their home.

My dad's parents were born in the 1910's, so they also lived through The Great Depression. I get the sense that his family had a lot of ingenuity. His father spent time as a brick layer, an electrician, and a house painter, depending on the era. I don't know if he had his own bedroom or if he had many toys. I am sure they had a lot of tools around, and I know my Mom's dad did, too, because we inherited a lot of them. My dad said he spent a lot of time at the library. His parents actually did purchase a house, and it sounds like it may have been pretty large for the time, but was in a small town with not a lot of work, so his father was away quite a bit.

So all of that is to say that sewing and tools have always had importance in my mind, and that making things, without some of the difficulties I had growing up in our smaller inner city home, was important to me when I was purchasing this house. The kinds of things I collected in abundance over the years were largely books and art supplies, and I was a bit of a clothes horse because my weight can change so drastically. There's too much stuff in the kitchen, and a lot of that was gifted to us.

I have a hard time throwing broken things away, because I imagine some day I might make something with them. When life isn't going at the speed of light, sometimes we even fix things! Some people might see this as a problem, but what with all this apocalypse stuff, I'm seeing a lot of my trash as treasure, again.

When I was growing up, the spaces we had for making things were the partially unfinished basement where my mother keeps her kiln and wheel for throwing pottery, the small area at the end of the basement stairs where she keeps the sewing machine, and the small one-car detached garage which back in the day was storage for a lot of things that might otherwise walk off in an urban setting. That meant that some of my dad's projects were done in places my mother really didn't like, but they were usually projects that were improving our lives somehow, so she learned to deal with it, and now he has an old wooden picnic bench he can work on and a clean garage.

Our accommodations for making things in my house are a lot more elaborate, and we still don't use them as we could, because up until now, we always had too much stuff, and not enough time.


I don't really know where all the time went. I spend a lot of time wondering about that, actually.

I'm currently smack dab in the middle of my 40's, and something kind of frustrating is happening. I am losing a lot of days to hormonal issues, and my doctors haven't been a lot of help. In retrospect, I think this has been going on for quite a while, but because I was so socially active and had lots of distractions, I didn't see it. When one's life gets pared down to its basic components, suddenly, one becomes acutely aware of how one is feeling.

Take, for example, the certainty I felt that I was coming down with coronavirus the other day. Saturday, I started getting a headache, and then by the evening, body aches had set in. And then I got a sore throat and felt feverish. In the past, I have described how I feel around ovulation and the end of my menstrual cycle like I am getting the flu. Also, I have allergies to some things that are popular to grow in Colorado yards, and it's that time of year again. I have been largely home bound for quite a while, and frankly haven't been exposed to many people. None in the last two weeks, from the onset of my symptoms, in fact. Everyone else in our house seems okay so far.

My hormonal symptoms can vary a lot, and when we're not in the midst of an apocalypse, I have a pretty good handle on them. During my isolation, I was actually able to figure out some significant factors which make them worse. Stress is a big factor. I have PTSD and a brain injury, so sometimes little things can stress me out, particularly if I am dealing with other larger stressors not under my control. And, I generated a whole bunch of karma by getting married and having children, so larger stressors not under my control are occasionally a part of my life.

Right now, there's obviously a lot more stressors. We all have a lot more stressors, now! As if there weren't enough before! Right now my family is trying to stretch our food further, and that causes metabolic stress. It's harder to think straight, which means it is harder to feel confident. I'm having to learn new ways just to go to the toilet because of the "toilet paperpocalypse." I'm having to get more creative with feeding us. For example, I knew people would balk if I fed us tuna sandwiches again, so I cut up the dregs of the celery and rescued a turning cucumber to make a tuna salad instead, and served it with toast points and some fruit that really needed to be eaten the day before. Ordinarily I am not good at catching food before it is too far gone. But when I was growing up, we ate a lot of stuff that was "going bad," because since we ate out at restaurants so much, it was a thing that was always happening somewhere in the refrigerator.

I do cut the mold off cheese, and apparently my daughter did not know that this is okay. A lot of things I have done over the years in the name of sustainability, I didn't make obvious to the kids, so this is going to be a real learning experience for them.

On the financial front, it has been a little scary. Our revenue stream comes from Southeast Asia. But our customers went to a work from home model, suspended travel early on, and have otherwise encouraged their employees to be safe, so that is encouraging. My partner was supposed to travel, but that got canceled, which was a great relief to him and us.

This situation is easier for one kid than it is for the other. My son had been attending a local University, but was struggling with his health because of the food on campus. So we had already discussed with the University what we could do if for some reason he couldn't live on campus anymore, before this whole coronavirus thing happened. And now all 30,000 students can finish the semester online, anyway! So now he's having to do college amidst all the distractions we have here, but he has some practice with that because he already has his Associate's Degree.

My daughter, however, has been sitting tight for a long time while my son was getting his 2 year degree, and was ready to start taking classes this summer. She was ready to not be at home all the time, so I really feel for her. We were hoping she could get out and meet some new people. That's what you're supposed to do as a young person, right?

Other than my health issues and trying to keep the house supplied with whatever we might need, my biggest challenge is our insurance. It is a policy I found before the Affordable Care Act, which got grandfathered in. I kept it for a long time because although it is high deductible, the deductible for a single person is the same deductible as for the family, and after that, 100% is covered. The only hitch is that mail order prescriptions aren't covered, which I felt was an okay compromise when I chose the plan, but during this pandemic it is proving to be a real hassle. I would really like to be able to get my prescriptions by mail right now, or at least only have to go to the pharmacy once every 90 days, rather than once every 30 days. When I call my insurance company, the person I talk to on the phone is just the messenger, not the person in control of the terms of my policy. At least they decided to cover COVID-19 testing.

Sometimes I wonder if it would be better if we made a lot less money so that we could have socialized medicine, because my friends who are less economically privileged have a lot less stress about seeing the doctor than we do. A doctor's visit used to cost us $172USD, without any tests or prescriptions. We don't get compensated for benefits like a traditional employee does, so there's no Social Security, disability, health insurance, pension or 401k matching. We do have an odd situation where we get time off, but that's been really difficult to quantify and use effectively the way the arrangement works. I read somewhere that these benefits are about $40,000USD per year, so if we actually purchased these things ourselves, it would be like we made $40,000USD less. Our health insurance cost actually went up a lot last year, despite the fact that we have avoided going to the doctor for many years, and the plan hasn't improved.

What this means is that I had an exceptional amount of pressure on me as a mother to also be a healer, and that we also have to take extra care not to get injured in order to save us money, so that maybe, someday, we can retire. Talk about stress! This takes a lot more time than one would think, especially in this day and age, because one has to be fully educated about the risks to health that exist in every day life. This cuts into my time and energy for creativity and friendship.


There's a great article in the Atlantic, written by Rebecca J. Rosen, Money-Rich and Time-Poor: Life in Two-Income Households covering a 2015 Pew Study of division of labor in families with children. My very favorite part is the end where she references a 2013 article about tranquilizer use in the 1950's by housewives, which has been taken down, but can still be accessed using The Way Back Machine. I find it particularly interesting, given my observation early in parenting that most of my stay-at-home mom counterparts were on some sort of antidepressant, and I have struggled with depression off and on for most of my life, and more recently, anxiety. Betty Friedan wrote about educated women who lost their minds in the 1950's while trying to stay at home in her epic work The Feminine Mystique, which was quite eye-opening.

But anyway, along the lines of Rosen's article, it became pretty apparent to me early on that my role as a stay-at-home parent was to essentially "patch holes in the ship." The special benefit of me staying at home was saving us both time, and money. Over the years, through observation, I became more aware of where the biggest holes were. They were medical costs, car repairs, and overdone birthdays and holidays. (Should it cost $500USD to barbecue for extended family at a child's party? This happened more than once). Beyond that, we got a lot of our furniture used, and don't remodel or move much, and that saved a tremendous amount of money. We never got involved in club sports, and for many years didn't use much in the way of cosmetics, so that saved more money. I cut the boys' hair for many years, until I decided I wanted a break and that it would be good for my son to get used to someone else touching his hair, because we were so isolated from the touch of others. For a little while I made my own cleaning products from things like baking soda, borax, vinegar, club soda, and "natural" liquid soaps, and used simple alternatives for things like shampoo (baking soda wash, vinegar rinse) and lotion (coconut oil).

Elizabeth Warren made a compelling argument for single income households, or at the very least basing a family's spending on just one income rather than two, so that if there is job loss, the effects are less disastrous. While my income after staying at home for 18 years may never approach that of my husband, we have tried to live such that if I had to go to work, I could make enough to support us, albeit more meagerly. At this point, if we sold our newer car and got a roommate, I feel like we could weather whatever happens to the US economically with mindful use of our resources. We all have marketable talents, too.

I am not a coupon clipper. I feel like coupons are inhumane, and I don't like to play inhumane games with my intellect. I feel like couponing in general has a sexist history, and is used to market products to people (specifically women) which may not even be good for them. I feel like wealthy people who play into the game are hurting us all, to boot, by creating demand for things there might not otherwise be demand for. Coupons, in my mind, feed the green-eyed monster.

Someone may have asked me once if I was a prepper. I really was just trying to get the best bang for my buck, so I bought things like grain in bulk, and even used to have a grain mill, until I discovered that I have big problems with whole wheat (not celiac). I gardened for a few years, but had a lot of frustrations with it, and ultimately decided that for the number of calories I was expending on the garden, I wasn't getting enough in return. In the face of this pandemic, I am re-evaluating that, and am considering planting more root vegetables for their nutrient and caloric content, as well as their ease of storage.

The only low-calorie things I am considering gardening are peppers (because I have had tremendously good luck growing them hydroponically) and herbs, because they make everything taste better. If I plant squash, there is a good chance I may be murdered in my sleep, but I haven't had good luck with these anyway, and I suspect there will be an overabundance, as there always is, on both the COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 local gardening trade markets, since gardeners in general seem to plant way more of this awful stuff than they actually want to eat. Okay, I don't think it's that awful, especially if it is in a nice muffin. But weeks on end of sauteed squash at the hottest part of the year is... yeah. No thanks. That's one of the things I would like to leave behind on the Old Earth.

There is just a lot about domesticity that feels kind of hellish to me, like a never-ending Groundhog Day. I really don't know how some people do it.


A wonderful article by Dr. Raymond Peat about the Dark Side of Stress and learned helplessness, offers a timeless look at how forced boredom and busyness affects us on a neurobiological level. It is an argument for enriched environments and autonomy, and I feel, important in the context of the above discussion on the frustrations of being a stay-at-home parent, but also existing, as we all do, in an increasingly institutionalized society. An excerpt:

"Geneticists used to say that 'genes determine our limits,' but this experiment shows that an environment can provide both limitations and opportunities for expanding the inherited potential. If our environment restricts our choices, our becoming human is thwarted, the way rats' potentials weren't discovered when they were kept in the standard little laboratory boxes. An opportunity to be complexly involved in a complex environment lets us become more of what we are, more humanly differentiated."

Besides collecting a lot of books, art supplies and tools, we also collected a lot of media over the years. We got the game consoles, and many of the games for both those consoles, and the PC. I collected a small number of our favorite movies, too. There is always something to do. Despite having collected many books, I haven't read a lot of them. In my mind, it's a really luscious collection, a complex environment of its own. When I was growing up, the most interesting people I knew were makers who had cluttered environments. I have trouble relating to people who don't read and who aren't interested in creating things. It seems like discussions with these people tend to circle around discussing purchases and politics, and I prefer a different kind of show and tell.

Relating this back to being stuck at home and the use of substances, I'd like to bring up the work of Bruce K. Alexander who did the famous "Rat Park" experiments on addiction. For those not familiar with his work, he also raised animals in either standard laboratory conditions or enriched environments, and found that animals raised in enriched environments were much less likely to self-administer addictive substances. For those who like cartoons, here is the famous cartoon explanation of his work.

As a side note, the majority of animals used in experiments for behavioral and medical studies are not in enriched environments, so the validity of such studies as they apply to a human being with free will is debatable. They may be more applicable to potatoes.

Anyway, the whole point of this is that staying home with kids, or even being stuck at home can be a real challenge for mental health if our environments are too sterile. So moms, you might want to take that Real Simple magazine with a grain of salt, and embrace a little weird.