Self-sufficiency in a World of Automated Doors

Last night I taught my daughter how to sew. I wish I could write that sentence without a snort of derision. In 8th grade, I had a home economics teacher who was more concerned about being popular with the cool kids than whether or not she taught me. She held my shirt project up in front of the class and they all had a good laugh. One sleeve was two inches shorter than the other. From that point on, I believed that I could not sew.

canstockphoto2020194The women in my family do not cook. Basic dishes can be made under duress –Β  like four hungry children and a state mandate that they should be fed. I believed also that I could not cook. I did know, under the tutelage of parental OCD, how to clean the hell out of things. My hands look like a sharecropper’s, from the many hours spent dipping into scrub buckets of hot, soapy water. Cleaning was cheap and manageable and gave some semblance of control in a world of government cheese and subsistence living.

These days, I am middle class living below my means, but unlike gun enthusiasts, my apocalyptic preparations involve learning basic skills – how to grow my own food, cook meals from basic ingredients, sew and fix things. Sure, none of it will mean anything when the starving gun enthusiast steals all my stuff at gunpoint, but we share a similar institutional paranoia. The government has some ‘splainin’ to do about how it has manipulated our food supplies, set up regulatory entities that don’t regulate and allowed us to become so dependent on corporations that we can hardly open doors on our own.

Paranoia aside, there is something personally gratifying about knowing how to do things on your own. I am self-taught on just about anything domestic and it seems more important now that I have a child. In an age of information, you can find directions on how to do just about anything, but I want her to remember what her mother taught her – how to Google. Barely kidding. My daughter will know how to cook and sew for herself, though. She will know that she is capable of growing food. She will know what homemade means.

Last week, while getting a class on art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, I was amazed at the intricate and beautiful beadwork done by the Ojibwe Native Americans. No machines, no YouTube videos, no prepackaged kit – hand sewn and woven. The time and effort required must have been intense. And that is what it boils down to – time. We say we don’t have time for anything, but that’s rarely true. We have plenty of time, but the many ways in which we can spend it, diverts it into tiny fragments, the moment, the now.

I taught myself to bake bread. I found a recipe on the internet. After a few practice rounds, I modified the recipe more to my liking. It’s time-consuming, but only requires basic ingredients and an oven. I don’t bake our bread all the time, but enough so that I know the recipe by heart and my daughter will have images of her childhood that include a mother baking bread. It is weirdly important to me that she remembers more than mommy surfing the internet.

canstockphoto3932201This spring, we will plant another garden. We’ve experimented over the years and have learned the hard way about growing things organically (damn you, squash bugs!). Our suburban yard is not a vast acreage, but every time growing season comes around, it seems like miles, as it teems with a wide variety of foods. We have a cherry tree, raspberries, blackberries, and Concord grapes that grow on the border of our vegetable garden. Each year we try new things. My daughter has, over the years, stood in the middle of it, alternately eating green beans and raspberries straight off the plants.

In an age when we barely have to climb stairs or pick our own food or sew our clothes, we become further removed from the making of the goods we use, wear and eat. I feel uncomfortable with that. A vision of a gigantic urban over-pampered baby comes to mind. Helpless, waiting for someone, dependent on whatever we are given. It’s unlikely I’ll be living “off the grid” any time soon, but even maintaining the slightest self-sufficiency makes me imagine that if I had to, I could.

Kirsten Whyte wrote yesterday that she’d like to un-invent automated doors, which got me thinking about self-sufficiency. Thanks for the inspiration, Kirsten!

50 Comments on “Self-sufficiency in a World of Automated Doors

  1. When a like just won’t do…LOVE this post Michelle, just the right amount of reality, humor and sarcasm for a Tuesday. Excellent points on self-sufficiency!

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    • Thanks, Stephanie! It was an experience at the art museum last week. While I am glad of the many technological advancements (thank you washer and dryer), we lose skills in the transition. I feel gratitude for those people who maintain skills to teach others – all the seamstresses and master gardeners and bakers! Thank goodness they post on the internet, too!

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  2. And she’s back! Great piece.
    Your comment about your terrible teacher makes me count my blessings once again about how wonderful (most of) mine were.

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    • Thanks, Ross. I was fortunate to have had some great teachers along the way, too, but that home economics teacher will always be on my shit list. She really had fun when we started baking. On the other hand, I had an awesome 5th & 6th grade teacher who encouraged me to write, so there’s that.

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  3. I agree that it’s important for children to know how to do things! I was lucky, my school home economics class was quite well rounded. We were taught to sew by hand and with machines, as well as basic cooking. My grandma taught me how to bake cakes and desserts, and how to garden, growing our own leeks. My uncle is a chef and regularly slips me recipes. My mother taught me first aid – being a nurse, how to use the mysterious washing machine and oven, how to do all the basic things a child needs to learn (obviously I was only upgraded to oven user when she was confident I wouldn’t burn the house down). And in between all that if I need to do something and I don’t know how, I will look it up and do it myself. I love DIY, there’s nothing more satisfying than having fixed/painted/made something on your own.
    But some people at uni still struggle with all this stuff…and I wonder if it was a hunger for knowledge on my part, sheer dumb luck that I was – and still am – surrounded by people willing to teach me, or a mix of both.
    That big rant was all just a really long ‘I agree’, basically. I think its cool that you taught your daughter how to sew πŸ˜€

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    • One of the real joys of teaching my daughter is that she is so incredibly enthusiastic about the most mundane tasks that I find myself more engaged as well. It’s nice to have a different perspective and to liven up everyday activities.

      I agree with the satisfaction one gains from doing things by one’s self. There’s really nothing like finding out what one is capable of and being able to enjoy your own work.

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      • Its lovely how children can give you a new way of seeing things! When I taught karate it was amazing how excited the kids got by mastering them ost basic move, and that would make me excited about it all over again…kinda gives you a new pair of eyes…
        And exactly. Although for the more complex stuff I do call in the big guns…I’m lucky in having a family very adept in DIY and everyone has their niches. I haven’t found mine yet, right now I’m usually the assistant, jack of all trades – master of none and all that!!

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  4. Wonderful post full of sentiments that I share wholeheartedly! I take advantage of many of today’s conveniences but not to the point of being helpless without a credit card. Youth scare me. Lack of self-sufficiency scares me. Generations are populating this world who believe that food really does come prewashed and wrapped in plastic. I shudder when people say, with a laugh, that they can’t cook. That’s not a badge of honor. And simple, basic sewing skills are helpful. Not everything can be velcro-ed! I hope there are lots more parents like you out there who want to bring self-sufficient adults into this world.

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    • I remember my mother darning socks (out of necessity) and it reminds me that we’ve become such a disposable-oriented society. I will easily turn holey socks into rags without a second thought and on occasion, it embarrasses me. I didn’t really start teaching myself to cook until my late 20s, when I became a little more health conscious and I feel like now it’s part of my job to send my daughter out the door with a full skill set. Plus, I do not want to do her laundry on visits from college. There’s some long term planning involved!

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  5. Fabulous post! You are teaching your daughter to be independent, self-sufficient. And you’re giving her confidence. What gifts!! Good for you. She’s a very lucky girl.

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    • Thanks, Fransi. I’m a lucky mom – she’s taught me more than I’ll ever teach her. Like the fact that a shitty-looking pillowcase is a point of pride for an 8 year old.

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      • As it should be. We (grown ups) are way too hard on ourselves. We should learn to celebrate the accomplishments. And making the pillowcase IS an accomplishment. True success is trying.

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  6. “It is weirdly important to me that she remembers more than mommy surfing the internet.” Probably MUCH more important than you know, and I applaud you!

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    • Thanks – sometimes I’m embarrassed at the number of times I have to be interrupted while at the computer. Trying to limit it to working hours, but you know how that goes.

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  7. I had some crappy home economics teachers. Then, in 8th grade, a teacher actually taught me how to sew. People are amazed that I possess this skill.

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  8. Absolutely love this post! You are a woman after my own heart. I too am grateful for the generosity of others. Just about everything I know I’ve learned from Google. Crying shame. I am pretty much self taught as well and want to pass what little I’ve learned to my growing girl. I started sewing about two years ago and am currently working on a summer wardrobe for my daughter. Recently learned how to bake bread and make biscuits. Always learning how to clean. My husband can cleans circles around me. Why I went into all of that I don’t know. Maybe because I get you. Thanks for the realness of this post and the humor used to deliver it.

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    • Wow – you’re much more advanced on the sewing front than I. I am almost learning along with my 8 year old, but I can handle the basics. Baking bread was a surprise to me – my family prefers it now to store bought. Baking always seemed like such a mystery, but I’ve had good luck so far. The internet is amazing for finding information on anything you want to learn. Thanks for reading and for your kind words!

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  9. Great post, I’m so proud to have inspired it! πŸ™‚ It is so important that skills like these are passed down and not forgotten. We rely on technology / machinery too much and forget how to do things for ourselves. Even if you only sew / bake etc recreationally, it is better than not doing it at all. I worked with someone once who said she needed to buy a new winter coat even though she really liked the one she had, it still fit and there were no gaping holes / tears. I asked her why she was getting rid of it then. She replied – “because two of the buttons have fallen off”. I think I sat there open mouthed for about 5 minutes before telling her to bring it in and I would sew the buttons back on. Kind of says it all really.

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    • As I mentioned to one of the commenters earlier, I’ve really bought into the disposable consumer mentality and I’m trying to unlearn it by repairing, improving or re-purposing items. You just don’t realize how bad it is until your child says “it doesn’t matter, we can buy a new one” when she’s careless with something.
      We’re turning the tide in our family culture, but it is astonishing when someone doesn’t know how to sew on a button or literally, how to make something as simple as pasta. I think, though, it is a function of our upbringing, which brings me back to why I feel compelled to learn and to teach those skills to my daughter.

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  10. So good. I find this refreshing and simultaneously a little convicting. While I completely agree with quite honestly all the concepts and even paranoia’s you have identified, I find myself supporting the system anyway. I grew up on a farm, but have always been a city girl at heart and took off to the biggest city I could think of as soon as I turned 18. The thought of taking the time to plant a garden just sounds miserable to me even though I watched my parents do it year after year and always appreciated the fruit of their labor. And while I can hardly bring myself to want to do these kinds of things, I really, REALLY want to want it… does that make sense? πŸ˜›

    Thanks for the post. My boyfriend has a small plot of space behind his house and while he’s too busy with medical school to plant this year, he gave me full reins over the backyard if I wanted it… I’m thinking I just might take him up on it after all… thanks for the inspiration!

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    • Believe me, there are days where I definitely don’t want to be doing the back breaking work of gardening, but I want to do it enough that I keep at it. For me, it tends to be a bit of meditative zen labor.
      I know it’s not everyone’s bag or even something they might have access to, though. Self-sufficiency comes in all shapes and sizes. I think it’s a concept to keep in mind. If anything, it will give a greater appreciation to the benefits to modern living! If you do decide to do a garden, I wish you great success!

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      • I agree. I think it would be good for me though, most certainly. Thanks for the encouragement and warm wishes πŸ™‚

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  11. I’ve started reading Barbara Kingsolver’s memoir “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” about the year that her family decides to be self-sufficient on a farm, for better or worse. It’s well written (of course!) and fascinating. I think you’d like it. I love the points you made here, and I’m feeling somewhat more inspired to get my hands dirty this spring…:)

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    • I read that a few years ago and I love reading Barbara Kingsolver’s work. That’s one of those cases where you might not be able to do most of what she tried, but there are some good takeaway thoughts and ideas. I like the approach of starting where you’re at – sometimes people’s enthusiasm for off the grid living intimidates me.

      Dig in – there’s so much to gain from helping things grow -from the exercise to fresh air to a stronger connection with the natural world. My enthusiasm for gardening is very high in the spring! Mid-summer is a different story…

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  12. Haha, Michelle, your idea of gigantic over-pampered babies reminded me of the adult humans in Wall-E. I totally agree with your ideas about being self-reliant. I used to live off the grid, and it was some of the most peaceful days of my life. It is surprising how much time one has in a day when they don’t have access to the internet, cell phones, and television. {{{Hugs}}} Kozo

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    • I completely forgot about that movie, but that is probably where the image came from! I want to be better about time even with all those things and I think the best approach for me might be limiting and scheduling when I’m “interactive”. I haven’t figured it out completely, but I remain optimistic that I can find more time in my day!

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  13. I whole-heartedly agree with everything you have said and think it is just wonderful you are teaching your daughter useful skills!

    But out of the whole post, the one thing I am left with is seething jealousy that you can cook your own bread! I’ve tried and failed a couple of times and now have a total bread-making aversion, even though I love fresh baked bread.

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    • Here’s the link to the bread recipe that I recommend to everyone. Seriously, I’ve tried really hard to mess it up and practically every time it comes out wonderfully. The key is always patience – allowing time for it to rise in between each roll out. I know you might need to do some conversions, but I’ve used this as a base to make cinnamon bread and Italian-seasoned bread. I rave about it, because for a beginning baker, it is a nice surprise. Sometimes I bake it just to make the house smell good!
      I just bought The Bread Baker’s Apprentice and hope to get a little bolder over the next year.

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  14. Over the years, I’ve taught myself to do a few things which I initially knew little or nothing about, such as cooking, basic construction and auto repair. Sadly, the auto repair part has gone by the wayside as the cars I’ve had to work on have become increasingly user un-friendly. There is great value in learning how to do things, irrespective of how we learn. My kids have occasionally shown an interest in learning how to do things as well. They’re older, but hopefully…

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    • I used to know something about cars before they had computers. My husband often mourns the loss of his old pickup truck for that very reason.

      Basic skills can be learned no matter what age, especially as costs to have someone else do it gets more expensive. I’m convinced our house will eventually collapse with all the patches, fixes, “it still works” solutions!

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  15. Good for you for teaching your daughter to be self sufficient. I work in High School and sometimes I am shocked at what the kids cannot do anymore. I’ve come across kids who can’t tell time if the clock is not digital, some don’t even know their full address. It’s shocking and sad.

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    • I feel like it’s part of my job as a parent not to launch a grown up toddler into the world. I want odds in her favor for thriving in the world with confidence. I, too, am often amazed by even the adults I’ve met who seems to lack basic skills and common sense. It makes life so much harder.

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  16. Just watched the movie The Lorax this week and also I like Wall-E for many of the reasons you point out in your essay. We have become too detached from the process of making and growing and the repercussions are troubling. The image of your daughter snacking from the garden is delightful and I need to include something edible in my garden plans this year.

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    • Watching her out in the garden, smelling flowers and snacking away is one of my favorite memories and I hope someday, it will be one of hers.
      I think there have been enough “incidents” and recalls with food in this country to indicate we need to pay better attention to our food sources. I grew up watching movies like “Soylent Green”, so I’m inherently suspicious!
      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  17. Great post! Wasn’t automation, computers and tech, supposed to save time to give us more time for leisure? I covet those days when you can just focus on doing something outside the virtual world. Living in the woods takes me back to that. I don’t garden, but I have to cut down trees and move rocks and mow acres and burn stuff – much more physically demanding than my postage stamp sized lawn in Ohio. I really enjoy working on my piece of the earth. It’s an escape from my work like of pixels and keyboards.

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    • I am so grateful for my suburban yard. While I’d prefer to be in a less densely populated place, the yard is big enough to get physical labor in and have multiple gardens. My neighbors all do the pesticide green lawn deal – we are the wild bunch by comparison – lots of rambling plants and critters!

      There are so many technological time-wasting activities and I’m just as guilty as blowing time that way. I’m working to cut back and be more active again (blame it on winter), but also to get re-inspired. I’m a freak with the exercise and hard labor – it really keeps the wheels turning upstairs!

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      • I try to spend one of my weekend days away from tech. Last weekend I kayaked and that was just so refreshing to the soul. I didn’t even take my camera. There are so many obligations these days – everything is so scheduled. It’s great to just break away from it all.

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    • It does – although I just made my gardening chore list. It also hurts, burns, aches and sweats. It will probably welcome after this long winter that has completely overstayed its welcome!

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      • Yeah,… everything has a cost doesn’t it. (I was sure my contract said something about a “free ride” or a “free lunch” but I can’t find it in the fine print now. I think the sales person lied to me when I bought this life. :))

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