Housing for the Working Poor

September 18,2011
It’s Monday of my second week in Louisiana, my fifth day in NOLA proper., since Peter brought me over here last Wednesday night. I have only two more days here, and two nights. I’m leaving Wednesday morning from the Amtrak station in NOLA. Actually of course I’m leaving from here on the bus I always take, the 94, which stops under the oak tree right across the street. I know how to connect to the Amtrak station bus to the Airport, for $2. That’s the Jefferson Parish bus line, and to get half-price fare for seniors, you have to go to some hard-to-find office. Not worth it for one trip.

The NOLA bus system is much better about that. It’s only 40 cents for a trip including transfer, if you are a senior and show your ID proving age over 65. I feel sorry for the poor people I see paying $1.25 plus 25 cents for a transfer, but there’s not much I can do about it. Last night I gave away my transfer when I realized I’d rather go back on the same line I came on than see another part of town on Sunday night when it was dark and everyone was saying how they’d been waiting an hour since so few buses were running. I hadn’t planned that, and even now that I think about it, anyone who needs a transfer has probably bought it already. But I’ll keep my eyes open to see if I can help anyone else.

That woman I gave the transfer to had the most pathetic life story, which she told to a young guy who came along to wait for the bus after getting off his shift at Wendy’s. She asked him how much Wendy’s paid, he said $7.25 per hour, and she was off to tell how she had been disabled since the 1980s and had not had a job since then. He said that was before he was born, since he was 31. I looked at him and he looked younger than that, and I thought what is a 31-year-old doing working at Wendy’s. He seemed smart and was very polite and personable. Maybe some people just need to do some financial planning here. I graduated from law school when I was 31. It wasn’t that easy to do that, or even to decide to do it. I remember saying maybe I would be too old to just be strating as a lawyer so I shouldn’t go back to school after teaching for five years as I had done, and my sister Phyllis saying, “Brenda, how old will you be in four years if you don’t go to law school?” Smart.

Back to the disabled woman. She said she had had two strokes and a nervous breakdown and then couldn’t work anymore, and then she told us her son had broken into her house and beat her up last year—for which he went to jail for eight months, where he still is—so she lost her $60 per month house she rented a few blocks from where we were, by the Gentilly Winn-Dixie. She had asked me for $2 for bus fare when I first came up, and I’d given her 50 cents, then later had given her my transfer. She said the 50 cents got her through what she needed for today, and she had appointments she had to go to Tuesday and Wednesday so she’d have to get that money somehow. I hope the transfer got her one trip on Tuesday.

Anyway, she had had Section 8, she said, but was disqualified for some reason—probably her son beating her up and trashing the house—so she had to go to an interview and try to get back on. I listened to her telling the young guy her story and I thought my gosh, why doesn’t she disappear away from that son. I know I would. It wouldn’t be easy, but people really do need to plan and execute the plan for decent lives for themselves. I wouldn’t make much of a social worker or therapist because I’d think this is hopeless, face it, and move on. It’s that easy, and if you don’t look at things that way, you’re stuck.

Then I started thinking about the claim against the City of Santa Monica and the Rent Control Board about eliminating 109 low-rent housing spaces (for people who bought their own mobile homes and rent the spaces, covered by rent control. Michael and I decided to do that so we’d have something permanent to salvage from my getting divorced from Floyd and having to sell our mansion in the Hollywood Hills. We therefore bought that trailer with $16,500 from the proceeds of my half of the sale 25 years ago. Is doing that claim the same kind of losing proposition this disabled woman was describing? Should I just move on instead?

It’s true that we’ve had a great benefit from having that space for 25 years. Maybe we should be grateful we had it and look forward rather than trying to keep what we have.

We’ve had $300 per month rent in a place where other people had to pay $1,500 per month for studio apartments.

We’ve had our wonderful yard. (Peter texted me last night that there are chayote squashes growing, finally, on the plants. They have had enormous leaves, bigger than two hands each, and vines of hundreds of those leaves spreading from the NE back corner of the house all the way along the N side of the roof edge to the NW edge, in three or four rows Peter trained along bamboo poles with rope and wire to catch tendrils to. There are so many of them they have hidden our patio chairs on the roof from view. Those vines had grown about half that big and that much when I planted another chayote I got at the Mexican market, since the lack of fruit might mean they needed pollinating from another plant. I don’t know if that is what has made them have squashes or not. Maybe they just had to grow 1,000 leaves before they grew a squash. That’s the disadvantage of just planting things and seeing what happens the way we do. Sometimes you don’t know how to interpret what you see happen. Anyway, it’s great to be having chayotes.) We’ve had fresh tomatoes and peppers and herbs, and strawberries and potatoes we haven’t had much success with yet, growing in burlap bags, and now we’ve planted artichokes, two out of four of which appear to be going to make it. We don’t have enough sun because of the ficus tree from Gail’s yard next door, but we are going to trim all the limbs on our side this fall and do better.

We’ve had great privacy, no connecting walls with any neighbors and then this year, high fences hiding the views from front and back at ground level, and keeping people from walking under our windows as they had started doing since the owners stopped renting spaces out when people moved.

We’ve had great neighbors, some we’ve known for 10-15 years. Michael has known some of the older men for 25 years.

We’ve had permanence someplace, even as we moved our main residences to Arizona and Nevada and then to the California desert near Palm Springs and then to the high desert 25 miles from there, in Joshua Tree. Then we had a residence to move to when Autumn needed to go to school to play CIF basketball.

All of that is what rent control gave us.

But no matter how great it has been, we are entitled under the law to have in the future as well as the past what we bargained for 25 years ago. Rent control still exists in Santa Monica, so we are entitled to the same protection from having our homes taken away that every other tenant in town—even City Council and Rent Control Board members, if they were tenants—would be entitled to have. Which they are not, so that’s the rub. It’s a class thing, pure and simple, and the difference between fighting a losing battle to keep living where your mentally ill son can keep coming to wreck your life, and fighting for legal rights you and everyone like you are entitled to, is the difference between how that poor woman has just fallen into a sad life, and how and why I went to law school.

The rights of the working poor—which is what even a former lawyer like me becomes when she becomes older and not fully employed, when her husband becomes disabled, when life changes in ways we didn’t plan for whether or not we could—are entitled to be defended. That’s what Home Grown Food Network is about, and that’s what my whole life has been about. It’s right to do this claim, and it is right to win at it, as we will, against all odds. My life has shown me you can fight City Hall and win, so I have no doubt this next fight is the right one for us.

Brenda Barnes, President
Home Grown Food Network, Inc.


Living the Good Life Traveling in New Orleans, Louisiana

Blog on Miscellaneous Topics, Mainly Life and Shelter, from NOLA
September 18, 2011
Peter and I came to see my parents across Lake Pontchatrain from here in Covington, with my brother Will for five days (Will) to a week (Peter—who then got Southwest Airlines to extend it two days more for no cost, after he realized taking my mom to tea twice was not enough, on what might be our last time seeing her alive). My niece Kristin had told us this year they were deteriorating fast and we should come ASAP to be sure to have them competent at all to see us.

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love to travel. Even they, however, sounded surprised when I said I was going to fill in the time from 9/14 to 10/6, after ANSWER, Code Pink, Courage to Change, AFL-CIO, and a lot of other progressive organizations announced they would be occupying Freedom Plaza in Wash DC starting then, to protest the 10th anniversary of the US occupying Afghanistan. Adding a week for the Plaza occupation would make my trip five weeks. A few days into last week I realized everyone was right—I can’t do that. Since everything else was set already when I realized that, even though the occupation had been the reason for extending the trip to start with, that is what I had to cut. So I changed the trip home to be from NY instead, a week earlier. However, it’s still four weeks, and I have realized I am not as young as I was the last time I backpacked for four weeks, across Europe sleeping on trains when I was 27, 41 years ago. Today, though, my right knee got better and I thought maybe taking buses, climbing stairs, walking from place to place was just what I needed to do to start feeling as young as I did then.

Seeing my parents in their late 80s and unable to do many things for themselves made me really aware how important it is to live every day we can as fully as we can. Cliché, but sayings become cliches because they are basically true. Maybe overstated, but at base true. We were happy to hear when we got there and saw Momma and Daddy really deteriorated, that my brother Dave and his wife my wonderful sister-in-law Dr. Patricia S. Braley had already decided to move my parents to a place with more care than where they have been. That is just assisted living, but they need more now, especially my mom, who has Alzheimer’s so bad that if my dad has to go to the hospital she thinks he’s cheating on her because she sees him with all the women there—the nurses. So sad. Now they need hourly care, not just someone there and preparing meals, which was enough a few years ago.

What are we all going to do when we are that age???

Segue to new subject: This week I am in NOLA by myself, to stay actually here and do nothing but enjoy it. All other times I’ve been here I had jobs to do and/or people to visit across the Lake and/or the AAU nationals girls’ basketball tournament my granddaughter Autumn was in when she was 11 to attend in Kenner. So I never got to spend more than a little time actually in this wonderful city, but it was enough for me to know how much I like it, so I wanted to immerse myself in it this week.

The first two days were true bathos, even for something I–known for biting off more than a whale could chew and then feeling like a failure when I can’t–would do. Peter almost cried when he saw where and how I was having him leave me here. I had made reservations in a campground—gated, a Good Sam Park, nice in website pictures, five miles from the French Quarter, on a bus line. It was only $150 for the whole week, so that saved the money I needed for the whole trip. However, this is where I made my big mistake. Since the space I reserved was a tent space, I decided it would do to make a “tent” out of two sheets sewed together and draped from two garden stakes in the middle. We added a tarp and a canvas drop cloth attached with clothespins.

The air mattress bed I bought went up with the pump in three minutes, and the bed was actually fine, covered with two more sheets. I had brought my own pillow from home, so I was fine, I thought.

However, the first night was awful. I heard trains and motorcycles and sirens all night long. I slept, kind of, a few hours on and off, at most.

That, however, was nothing compared to the second night. By then mosquitoes had increased since Tropical Storm Lee came through last week. The word must have gone out that there was fresh California flesh to be had here. By morning I was covered with huge red welts, and the ones on my ankles, wrists, and upper arms were so itchy I could hardly bear it. Nonetheless, birds and people got me up early and at first I was just putting things up to be ready to come back that night. Then it came to me that I couldn’t do the same routine again. Next I thought I’d have to find someplace to stay inside, the YWCA or wherever. Then an hour or so later I thought it probably wouldn’t cost that much to buy a real tent, and then I’d be safe from the bugs, so I’d be OK. The noise had not bothered me at all the second night, so I thought I’d be OK if I could avoid West Nile Lyme disease or malaria or just itching to death.

So I went to buy a tent. It took me like five hours, since of course I don’t know how to get anywhere, and I went to Bridge House first, my favorite thrift store ever, which I found when we were here for Autumn’s AAU Nationals. I had to buy a few gifts there, new great things they had, so with the tent I had a lot to carry and was walking very slowly. When I got back here to the Park the owner’s son Kevin came out to help me carry things in and then the owner Kevin helped me put up the tent. He asked me if his wife Marla, the other owner, had told me they had a room for rent for only $13 a day more than I paid for the campsite. Next thing I knew Marla was there and said I was coming to stay in the room and it was on the house, no more than I had already paid.

Wow! What a difference! I have air conditioning—well, first off, electricity! My phone is charging all the time and my computer is attached to the Internet just as though I were at home! And most of all, I am not being eaten by mosquitoes or anything else. It’s just a great bonus that I have a lock on the door so I don’t have to carry my computer around with me all the time. The last two days have been heavenly.

So this makes me think what shelter is. It’s so little difference from no shelter, but so much difference, too. And yet I am staying happily in only maybe 200 square feet with a shared bathroom and a microwave and tiny fridge. I would be fine in half as much space, since that much of the floor is just empty. Similarly, here they still have many of those tiny tiny tiny square wood houses, which were everywhere in the 1940s. This is part of the poor South, where little houses like that have not been torn down and replaced with newer styles. I heard a woman say today she had rented, something like 100 square feet, 10 built on an ordinary city lot, like a courtyard of playhouses, for $60 a month. Minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, which is about $1,100 a month, so if your rent were that little, you could have a decent life on one minimum wage job, or even a half-time one. If you had a full-time job, you could afford $350 a month and still cover bus fares (where, like here, there is really good public transportation), food (especially with food stamps, which you would qualify for), and health care covered by Medicaid. It’s not so bad, as long as it is minimally decent.

I learned in two days it’s just totally impossible, and not even shelter, if it is not minimally decent.

Brenda Barnes, President
Home Grown Food Network, Inc.

Energy Uses and Savings in the Under-$20,000 Home

Stephanie commented on my recent blog about how you go about planning to build your Under $20,000 home that when you put all your storage in separate rooms you don’t have to heat and cool those rooms the way they would be if they were inside a traditional home. This is such a good point, and as usual, once someone comments, I remember stuff for a whole new blog. I love it…

For the storage rooms, if you want light, you can put up those Tap-It things that run on batteries. I’ve found it isn’t that often I want to get something out in the dark, but if I do, it’s annoying not to be able to, or to have to take a flashlight, so I love those Tap-Its. The batteries last for years if you don’t use the light much, which it turns out you don’t. And of course you use rechargeable batteries hooked up to a solar panel. Someone gave me four Tap-Its for Christmas once, or I don’t think I ever would have thought to try them and find out they are as useful as they are. They attach with velcro anywhere, or you can use screws. Peter also found some battery-powered lights you put on your head, attached with elastic, so your hands are free. They’re called work lights. Useful for going to get something out of storage. That reminds me also, you can attach a motion detector to a regular light, but then you have to jump up every once in awhile to get the light to go on again. Oh well, good exercise. Maybe makes God laugh, too.

For the rooms you use actively often, separate little solar and wind systems are made for RVs (and purchased easiest at RV suppliers) for as little as $25 up to a few hundred dollars. When you separate each room’s power needs, you see you don’t need much for some of them–e.g., lamps take very little power. If all you’re going to do in a room is read–why not have a separate library? With this way of building, you can build like a rich person!–the little $25 solar panel from the RV place is enough, and you can put in skylights with retractable covers that let in only light, not heat, or the amount of heat you want, and solatubes that bring light from one place on the roof to another inside and magnify it. Of course you can live like a chicken–go to bed at dusk and get up at dawn–and need less energy, but there is no reason you can’t live like a modern person too.

Another very interesting thing I found when I started figuring out how much power each item in a house needs is it is so much cheaper and easier to use propane gas for cooking that I don’t want to use a lot of the electric appliances I was used to having in my kitchen. We also live in the desert, and outdoor cooking is so fun and possible 360 days of the year and every night if the space is covered, that we don’t need much of an indoor kitchen. Most of the cooking is outdoors, so all we need are shade and a breeze—the first easy to provide, the second often too available here—to make our cooking heavenly, not just pleasant, with no air-conditioning needed. (There was a California cheese producers billboard I saw once that said, “California Cheese—It’s why the people in Palm Springs put up with 5 days of rain a year!” I love it—not the cheese, the 360 days of sunshine.)

However, if I am producing my own electricity in a green way I don’t have to feel guilty, no matter how much electricity I use. We use solar and wind power in the desert, where one works when the other doesn’t—the wind comes up at dusk, when the sun goes down. So I don’t even have to have batteries unless my energy needs are really immediate, such as in the computer room, where I want it to work 24/7 and where the emergency webphone is. And if I’m worried about the mercury in CFLs (compact fluorescent lights) I can use regular bulbs, which are so much cheaper. The result of all this for me is I make conscious choices all along the way.

The principle here in how to decide on what kind of and how much energy to use for the various parts of the house is to separate and combine uses in logical ways, the same principle I was discussing in how to plan the building itself. Interestingly enough, I found when I was checking on getting solar power for a whole house that the costs of the system increase because first of all you have to have the highest amount produced that you might need for the highest use area, to cover 90% of your energy uses. Actually, you don’t need all of those at once, of course, so if you produce them when and where you need them, you need less overall. Also, you can save on the costs of transmission. Traditionally, you put enough photovoltaic panels and/or windmills in one or two places to cover the whole house, and then you have to transmit that to locations all over the house. On a small scale the problem of transmission for such a traditional house is the same as the one faced by huge solar power factories out in the desert having to go across miles and miles of neighborhoods with high-voltage lines: the high costs of transmission to get the power from where it is generated to where it is used. When you are putting up small systems to produce only what is needed in one small room, you are down to about as local as you can get, with virtually no transportation or transmission costs.

In planning the building, you can plan those rooms that need lots of electricity—the computer room, the indoor kitchen—to be where there is the most solar energy and wind power, which in our area would be facing north and northwest. In those places you won’t have big trees planted that will grow to shade the roofs. You need the coolest rooms and the places where you are going to grow food to be sited facing south and southwest here. (Opposite in Australia and New Zealand.) So planning makes it easier and cheaper, too, to accomplish what you really want to do, which is live well and lightly on the Earth. Once again, also, as with any other decision you make about this kind of building, if you make a mistake it is a small one. When you find out what you have built doesn’t work for what you thought it would, it is easy enough to change the uses around, or even move the room. What a good life!

How to Build an Under-$20,000 Home: Buying Housing Plans—Not!

Brenda Barnes, President, Home Grown Food Network Inc.
Santa Monica, California
August 13, 2010

In reply to a blog I wrote on the under-$20,000 house, someone asked me for plans for a two bedroom, 1 ½ bath house. We are not allowed to give or sell people house plans. We are a charity to promote and educate about ultra low-cost housing, as well as edible landscaping and renewable energy. Even if we were allowed to, though, I don’t think we would, since the plans are not the problem, the solution, or the key to keeping costs down. They are the easiest piece of the puzzle.

What you need to do in most places is build small, which it sounded like the woman wanted to do anyway, but also build in some kind of configuration that in the jurisdiction where the land is, the building is considered something outside the planning and zoning requirements. In one county where we own land, the buildings we are building have to be below 80 square feet to qualify to be built without a permit. In another they have to be 100 and another 120 square feet. They also have to have 3′ walkways between these small rooms. Don’t think of a house as a house. Think of it as a collection of rooms. Then you will be able to figure out how to come within the restrictions and have what you need for a house. We build rooms that are in that size, with covered walkways between them. There is no prohibition on covering or closing the walkways, so what we end up with is very similar to how houses were built in my childhood, with rooms with hallways in between them. There is no restriction on how high the rooms can be either, so we build with 16′ high ceilings and put in lofts for sleeping, working, storage, whatever we need in the particular room.

One place we had a cabin built as a homestead cabin, which had electricity and water added sometime later. It was just a tiny wooden room, about 10′ x 6′. I think homesteaders had to build something 55 square feet to keep their homestead, so all over the desert in the Southwest you see these tiny little wood buildings, often totally derelict by now but with the shell standing. Ours was in good shape, but it was just a tiny room. Since we don’t actually live anywhere (another key to not needing to follow single-family residence zoning requirements anywhere), we stored an RV and a van there while we owned that land, and when a group of up to 10 people visited, we had a shower, bathroom and kitchen, plus the surrounding fenced five acres we owned with the cabin. If we had wanted to stay there more or less all the time, we could have qualified that land as agricultural, a permitted use in the zone, by planting and watering ten trees, and then we could have built a 1000′ agricultural building there without a permit. If we had done that, the first thing we would have done is put up an impenetrable wall to protect our crops. A side benefit is no one could snoop and see whether we actually lived there or not. As it was, we could add on 500′ per year without paying the school fees, which doubled the fees otherwise due. So the keys here were easy to see, once we started looking for them.

Also, don’t think of even a room as you are used to doing. For example, a bedroom is not somewhere to sleep and leave your clothes in a closet and get dressed and put your underwear and pajamas in bureaus and your makeup things in a dresser. Instead, think of all the things you do in that room, and how they could be done instead in the kind of rooms you have to build to get under your jurisdiction’s requirements for their approval. Never do anything illegal, but figure out how to avoid the problems others have with doing building legally and traditionally.

One key is thinking of separating uses. Almost anywhere, storage buildings are outside building, planning and zoning requirements. How many things in a house really are storage? Food, clothes, books, sporting goods, bicycles, cars, trucks—lots of things we use more or less often are just stored most of the time at our houses. If we organize that storage into rooms that are located close to where we use those things when we do use them, but separately from the other things we do in rooms, we may have an even more efficient home than the ones we are used to. There is no reason carved in stone for makeup items to be stored in the same room as pajamas and underwear, or if they are in the same room, to be in the same room as a bed. These things are not even used at the same time.

In addition, it will be a less expensive home because all that storage will not have to be subject to permit fees, preinspection fees, plan checks with delays and fees, inspections also with delays and fees, school surcharges, park surcharges, road fees, development fees, fire plan approval fees, and all the other fees for building, with rights to disapprove what you are building, that jurisdictions have taken upon themselves in the past 150 years. It is so bad now that in some counties in California, the fees for building are almost $100,000 for a single-family residence, without one shovel of earth being moved or one board being provided. In addition, after the storage buildings are put in, unlike storage that is part of a house, they do not add to property value for property tax purposes.

What we get for all that regulation is “uniform” codes adapted by the local jurisdictions, which do not halfway cover the actual risks of the particular area, but over-regulate for risks the area does not have. Everywhere we build for 4.0 earthquakes, which are not a problem anywhere. Everywhere we build for 30 mile per hour winds, which also are not a problem anywhere. Nowhere do we properly build for 8.0 earthquakes and 120 mile per hour winds.

When Peter and I build, we cover the actual usual reasonable risks of the area where we are, and no others. If there hasn’t been a flood for 50 years and canals have been built around the valley we’re in since the last flood, to take the water from the mountains to the other side of the valley, we don’t build for flooding. Only an idiot would, but if we followed the local building code, we would have to, which would make the cost of building on our site prohibitive, as well as inviting triple fees and inspections. Moreover, the filling that would have to be done to supposedly cover that risk is atrocious in its environmental costs. I could go on and on about how ugly the levee is the city made a developer build there, when the last flood was 50 years ago and the entire area has canals in it built since then, but I won’t. Instead let me say, if there is a flood we will rebuild our $20,000 house or whatever part of it is hurt by the flooding. We won’t have to cry about losing our life savings in that flood.

So back to that bedroom and the other uses you make of it besides storage. If you sleep in the same place where you put your makeup on or read a book, you have to have it dark some of the time and light other times. Why not have a dark sleeping room, period? And a light place to bathe and put on your makeup, lit by sunlight and solar tubes? Separating uses into logical categories makes buildings much better than the traditional ones, anyway.

How about security needs in a house? And privacy? Combining those needs makes us build high, impenetrable fences around our properties and then need no security or privacy at all inside them. We can garden in the nude if we want to (and some people do).

Some jurisdictions have different restrictions or allowances from just limiting size. For instance, if the building is “temporary” in some places, it does not have to go through planning and zoning. The “temporary” quonset huts built in World War II are still there in lots of those places, and working well. In others, if it is an “agricultural building,” it does not need to be approved and inspected even if it is up to 1000 square feet. Whatever brings us under the radar of the building and planning authorities is what we do.

Once we get past the restrictions , then we build in whatever way we want to. We have experimented with straw bale housing, earth housing, shipping container housing, continuous plastic bags with earth-concrete-water mixtures put in them and formed into a dome with barbed wire fencing in between the layers to keep them from falling apart while the water in the earth and concrete mixture is drying out, papercrete, tires filled with earth, building with logs from trees on the site (not common in the desert parts of California, Arizona, and Nevada, which is where we have done this experimenting), building a series of lean-tos onto RVs, building greenhouses from old windows and/or greenhouse plastic and then covering them with shade cloth and using them for growing people as well as plants, and building with both new and reused and recycled conventional building materials.

What all those kinds of building have taught us is for the most part they are just differences in framing. They each have pluses and minuses depending on the site. Pick what you like, and pick what is best for your site. However, they do not constitute the difference in cost between the kind of building we are promoting and the traditional kinds in America for the last 150 years. The latter have just become expensive because of over-regulation and improper regulation by more and more layers of intrusive government. That is it, pure and simple. (My brother, a licensed clinical psychologist, says you have to realize that in America if something doesn’t work, we do more of it.) So to build an ultra-low cost house, you have to build outside the restrictions of all those governments. If you build far enough away in some places, there are no governments regulating you yet. However, if you want to build in a populated area, in order to keep the costs down you have to build outside the norm, outside the restrictions of the governments involved.

This is not as difficult as it sounds, and you will not get much help other than encouragement and tips on how to do it from the Internet. That is not to discount how important these are. I have told you how to start. Go to the website of your jurisdiction and read the building and planning code for the zone the site is in. If you have not bought land yet, look at all the possible zones where housing of any kind is allowed, and figure out what would be the best kind of land to own for your purposes. Then make a drawing on a napkin of how you could build rooms that would give you what you need and come within the restrictions. It’s easy once you see what the real problems are. We built an 8′ x 10′ room literally for $40 this summer, mostly from free materials we found in alleys. You will become so creative and have lots of fun, as well as saving up to several fortunes on housing expenses.

– 30 —

Gardening as Therapy

Brenda Barnes,President, Home Grown Food Network, Inc.
Santa Monica, California
August 5, 2010

My husband and co-founder of Home Grown Food Network Peter has been very ill lately. For the past four months he has off and on become more and more unable to eat. Lately it got to where he could not even drink anything. He has lost 40 pounds, when he was thin anyway (we’re like Mr. and Mrs. Jack Spratt!), so he was looking gaunt and depressed. It has been getting scarier and scarier.

Two months ago he was hospitalized with chest pains, but after finding out his heart was fine, he was discharged and told (since we don’t have health insurance) to get an appointment at a free clinic to find out what the problem was. It took another two months to do that. When he finally saw a doctor, fortunately he was good and dedicated enough to have Peter hospitalized at the County UCLA teaching hospital immediately.

Peter has seen a total of six doctors and many bunches of people coming by to do rounds on him in the past five days since then—he said he feels like he’s at Seattle Grace on Grey’s Anatomy. He has had two hours-long exotic tests of his digestive system, enough to know he has a bleeding ulcer blocking the passage to his large intestine, so food and drink was just piling up and escaping to wrong places, causing him to throw it up. They don’t know yet if the tissue they took out is cancerous, but Peter already knows more about cancer, just in case, than we ever wanted to know. A million people a year in the U.S. Are diagnosed with cancer each year, he told me, and there are 15 million survivors of cancer in the U.S., so it is not a death sentence to have cancer. Today he was scheduled for another test. Yesterday they started treating the ulcer with a drug called omnio something.

I’ve been home in the dark, figuratively, in danger of worrying myself ill. Instead, I gardened and worked. Gardening made it possible for me to work, which has always been my addiction of choice. So I’m coping well.

About the gardening. I had projects to do this summer based in Santa Monica, so I’ve been staying in a single-wide trailer with a single-wide built-on, in a Park 29 blocks from the beach. I bought this trailer for my son when he was 16. It’s been in our family ever since, almost 25 years, with various combinations and permutations of people staying in it, or just being empty waiting for guests. The result of all that for the yard was total neglect.

When I got here in April the yard was covered with crab grass, and it had been so long since it was watered that even the crab grass was spindly. I started weeding in the front—where I saw it the most often so the terrible appearance bothered me the most. I covered that space with mulch so I wouldn’t have to weed again, and then took time to build a gate from recycled materials I found in the alleys and paint it with acrylic paints. That gate isn’t finished yet, but every time my grandson Aiden (age 9) and I feel like talking a break we paint it some more. Last week we painted the backgrounds on the “signs” I had made on it yellow. That improved it. Everything we do improves something. I hope I can do this blog well enough without Peter to upload the picture of that. It’s a great gate,
and the signs are in the theme of the Welcome to Paradise painted in red at the top. The one I like best says, “Santa Monica is Chumash for Heaven.” (zoom in) All the neighbors stopped by to talk about the gate and meet us, so it was an unexpected icebreaker.

I noticed the soil smelled like manure while I was weeding. I mentioned it to my son, and he said the sewer backed up on the ground every year or so, so we should not plant any food in that soil. That was a real heartbreaker for me. All I wanted to plant was food in that soil.

Then Home Depot had a sale on gallon containers of tomatoes and peppers, for 99 cents each. Aiden and I picked out the best two of each variety, and a strawberry gallon that wasn’t on sale, for $4, plus a flower plant for his mother. Total cost: $17. We came home and arranged all of them except one Early Girl tomato we planted Topsy-Turvy style (“as seen on TV,” Aiden said) in a 5-gallon pickle bucket we got from Bristol Farms. Peter drilled the planting hole in it, and we guessed how to do it, pretty well, as it turned out.

Then I decided a tree growing in back of the trailer was blocking the sun too much on the plants, so I pruned it day after day. Finally I asked Peter to get on the roof and cut it down. (This was before he got sick.) Our neighbor John saw him doing it and said he had much better saws. In about ten minutes he had the whole tree cut down. The entire yard was covered with limbs, some of them 30 feet long. No wonder that tree blocked the sun! So I thought I would be weeks separating the small limbs into tiny ones that could be mulch as they were for the rest of the yard (no more weeding!), and limbs that we could use for something. It turned out, though, that it took only three days, and a bonus was John and I put up an “engineering marvel” V-shaped entryway to the side yard, which crosses a good 20 feet in the air. By that time I also had so many trunk-size limbs that I put them across the side entry and made it an impassable fence. I love it, since we had also blocked off the whole back yard so our garden would be safe, and from then on no people cut through our yard, as they had been doing.

About that time I got to moving the compost pile we had made out of all the tree-trimmings that had fallen on the roof and naturally composted there. That is when I saw open sewer pipes and squishy black soil. Ugh!! I called the health department, and the man there told me our lives were in danger, to get out of the yard, take off the shoes I had worn there, have the inside of the house cleaned professionally, etc. He cited the landlord and plumbers came that afternoon and got roots they said looked to be ten years’ growth out of the pipes. No wonder the sewer backs up. They said some landlords have pipes cleaned out every three months! This one—every ten years, after we call the Health Department. So I was glad I had already mentioned the soil was toxic in the decrease petition I filed with the Rent Control Board. I didn’t know at the time how toxic, but to have to garden in containers when we have a yard is bad enough, I think.

That put our gardening back about a week. No one could walk in the yard until we were sure the sewage had dried up. I watered the area every day as the plumbers told me to to help it percolate down, but how disgusting!. I also begged for more mulch from my neighbors, and ended up with a good five inches everywhere.

The next week we planted and watered in wildflower seeds on the side I had weeded, a California mixture. It said guaranteed to grow, but I didn’t believe it, so now we have one plant every half-inch on the entire bed!

As you can see from the images, (click to enlarge), everything is happily growing and growing…

That is going to need some major thinning. Also, there is hardly any sun there, so the plants are growing very slowly. We probably should have planted a shade mixture instead. I see nasturtiums, sweet peas, and California poppies, plus six or seven other plants I don’t recognize. It will be fun identifying them when they grow big enough.

It’s been about six weeks since then, and I still haven’t got all the tomatoes and peppers transplanted. It is a lot of work to mix potting soil and compost for five gallons. I don’t like to give unpleasant jobs to Aiden. I’ve talked to too many people turned off to gardening by having to weed. So I’m just keeping at it. We’ve had 10 beautiful tomatoes, 10 Anaheim chiles (I made chile rellenos I thought were the best ever one day for lunch—that’s how it is to grow things yourself), and about 20 jalapenos. Six bell peppers are almost big enough to eat, but some critters ate about two dozen strawberries. After that we bought and put out squirrel repellant and bird netting. This week I bought little mixed lettuce plants and planted them in a topsy-turvy.

more pictures here

We’ll see how that grows.

So this has been such good therapy for me. I am too busy to worry. Whether we ever get any more food out of it or not, that is enough to make it well worth doing.

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On Being Authentic Desert Gardeners

Brenda Barnes, President
Home Grown Food Network, Inc.
July 25, 2010

Peter and I are in Santa Monica. He came for a few days a week ago last Thursday and got sick here, with an illness he’s had for the past four or five months that comes and goes, so he is staying until he gets well enough to go back to Joshua Tree.

I just now opened my home page on the computer which is the HGFN home page (www.home-grown.org), and it has a function on it that tells the temperature live, in any place you want. It is almost 1 p.m., and it was 107 degrees in North Palm Springs, the charity’s home, the default setting. I put in Joshua Tree, and it was 104. Then I put in Santa Monica, and it was 68. I couldn’t do that two-place with a zero and carrying subtraction in my head, had to write down the numbers to figure out what the difference was—36 degrees between Joshua Tree and here! That started me wondering if I am an authentic desert gardener, as I always thought I was. How can I be, if I had to escape the heat to a place that is 36 degrees cooler than where I supposedly am gardening?

Before I confronted this, I got off onto how many years I have put up with the heat all summer. It’s been 12 before this one, but the first one I was still driving back and forth working in LA, so I didn’t get the effects. Every summer after the next one, though, when I really stayed in the desert all summer, I told everyone, mainly myself, that I couldn’t take another summer like that, I was going to travel this year. And every summer–except the one when we went for two weeks to the National AAU Under 11 Play-Offs outside New Orleans, because my granddaughter Autumn’s team made the finals, and we stayed in a wonderful timeshare my son traded one of his for, in the Garden District—I’ve been in the desert all summer.

This year I had 10 projects to complete this summer, and four of them were in Santa Monica, so I forgave myself for coming here, and I really did pack up and come, instead of just saying I would. However, for the past 12 years while I’ve been gone I have paid a third of the rent on the space for the mobile home I bought here in 1986, sharing the rent with my son and his father, while I’ve hardly used it, and this year his father died in March, so there wasn’t any reason I could not use the house. Three straight months here would make up for a lot of those 12 years, I told myself. I am going into how I thought to get you to see how hard this is for me. Having started HGFN about desert living over 10 years ago now, I felt obligated to really live in the desert in order to be authentic in demonstrating how it is.

However, Peter is really sick, and I had bad knees I thought I was going to have to have replaced, but they have gotten so much better since I’ve been gardening here, that I think now that maybe I just needed a break from the heat, just as I thought every summer. So now I’m beginning to think this pushing myself to be real was a made-up silly handicap I put on myself, and instead, what I should be real about is how hard it is to live where all summer long it is 104-7 in the shade at 1 p.m. Maybe Peter got as sick as he is, with this recurring intestinal illness that makes him throw up everything he eats, from staying too long and continuing to work in that heat. It’s been that way since mid-May this year, so that’s already over two months, and when you are in the desert, you dread August. Sometimes September is even bad, so at this point of the summer, there seems to be no end in sight. One summer it didn’t get hot until the middle of June, and then cooled off the very day after Labor Day. We all felt so refreshed, the whole year seemed easy.

In the Park where the mobile home is in Santa Monica, there are at least 163 mature trees on 3.3 acres a little over two miles from the beach. Peter and I counted them one day as part of one of the projects I was here to do. We counted until our eyes crossed. There are so many you get confused about which one you already counted. Sitting out in the beautiful back yard we’ve made “sittable” this summer since I’ve been here and Peter has come to help me, I’ve noticed the only birds in the trees are starlings and crows. All the beautiful birds that are here in the winter have gone north or south, east or west, for the summer. Why do I expect myself, a human animal, to be any different? We should go where we thrive, and that is not, for me and Peter at least, where it is 104 in the shade at 1 p.m.

Then there are the plants. To grow mature trees that have fruits like the ones here do, in Joshua Tree, we are going to need to coddle them through four or five summers each. We can do that. Cover them with shade cloth and put them on a timed watering system. Protect them from the indigenous wildlife that doesn’t leave—desert rats and chipmunks, mainly—that would eat them down to nothing in a summer. Those plants would not grow over the summer. They would just be kept alive to flourish and mature over several winters.

So I think I’ll let the birds and plants show me what is authentic about growing in the desert. You do what you can do, and don’t fret about having to go somewhere else for awhile when you can’t keep growing in the desert.

And look forward to when you can be grateful on a December cold rainy day in Santa Monica, that you can see the blue skies and feel the mild desert breezes in Joshua Tree or North Palm Springs. And thrive, along with the beautiful birds and fruitful plants.

Work, Food, Housing, Schooling, Health, Love, and Happiness—What Else Do We Need? Nothing. Except–Maybe Someday–a Fair Government

Brenda Barnes, President
Home Grown Food Network, Inc.
July 11, 2010
Living the Good Life Beating the Heat in Santa Monica

Today is 7-11. A lucky—double lucky, in fact—day. The following became a blog when I posted it as a comment and it was too long for that, to yet another article about how bad the economy is and how terrible the Republicans are for not extending unemployment benefits. I’m sick of those articles, and I think reading them is sickening, toxic. Don’t get me wrong. I think the article was totally right, I’m not disputing that, but what point is there to saying how bad and unfair everything is? How’s that bitchin thing workin for ya? Does it really inspire you to get up and go out there and slay another dragon? If so, fine, but it doesn’t work for me.

This is my take on now:

I have a job and I am over the full retirement age, so I still get Social Security even with whatever else I make. However, I was self-employed and paid expenses and other people’s salaries before I paid myself all my life, so none of it is that much (like $400 per month for Soc Sec and gas money from my job, which is at a start-up I hope will work out and really pay me someday). That latter is the only idea I can offer about work. I can understand if you think it’s more of my inveterate giving my work away, but it works out for me.

I would hire someone to help me if I were convinced s/he was really competent and had a good attitude–not easy to find, either way. Even if someone works for free, s/he has got to be better than no one to have around pretty darn soon or I’ll do the work myself. I can’t believe the number of people out there supposedly looking for work where I live near Palm Springs in California who think they are God’s gift to employers and should be paid minimum wage to get trained for no telling how long, but they’re more trouble than they’re worth from the beginning and never, ever, get better. And on top of it, s/he would have to work the same way I am, betting on the come that someday it would work out, and if not, it’s been a great learning experience in an industry I was not qualified to get a “real” job in b/4 I did this for three years.

That attitude along with the skills is really hard to find in anyone else, and to tell the truth, it’s hard to maintain myself sometimes. In fact, maybe once a week for a few minutes until I pull myself out of the doldrums where I’m feeling sorry for myself b/c I used to be a professional and eat lunch on Rodeo Drive.

But the employer also needs me to live on-site and be on call 24/7, so lately I negotiated free housing, if you want to put it that way. I work for it. I’m valuable. I bring in money for the company every day, so I know my value, but start-ups are hard.

The other ideas I have on other things besides work are, first b/c there is so little real money coming in, in spite of in-kind housing and Soc Sec paying for Medicare, if you like me make little money, you are entitled to food stamps. They are great. In addition, there are Pell grants for going to school, $5,500 per yr if you go full-time, and you are entitled to them if you get food stamps or any other kind of govt assistance. They are grants. You are supposed to use them to live on as well as to pay tuition and books, and here we have virtually free schooling, $26 per unit at the local junior college, which also gives free bus rides any time any line with a student ID. The state also gives exemptions from most of that tuition for people who get food stamps, so the $5,500 is mostly to live on, other than books. If you’re in a state that doesn’t do all this, I’d say go to a better state. It’s easy to do, so settle down to the task, do your best where you are, and kwityerbitchin if you don’t choose to move somewhere better.

Finally, I am Pres of a 501 c (3) charity that encourages people to build their own ultra low-cost housing, grow their own food, and produce their own renewable energy. When you think about it, what else do you need?

I think we can take advantage of this horrible economy to do what our parents and their parents did during the Depression and the Dust Bowl–move wherever conditions are best for people who have nothing–in our case this was California from Arkansas, which wasn’t the Land of Opportunity for my parents, and for me in my own life this meant moving 125 miles from high-priced LA to the high desert where, yes, it is hot as H*** in the summer, but land is cheap and you can build something you can live in in the climate there for $40 plus all the recycled building materials that are abundant in Santa Monica and even in the desert if you look. I’m not kidding. We’ve done it.

Then you can plant the seeds left from the peppers and tomatoes and melons you bought with food stamps–and once you get creative about it, the cuttings from trees and berry bushes people will give you–and water the plants you grow in the shade house you made with the $40, using free water they give away to campers—or anyone else who comes and gets it, like me with my lifetime national park pass I bought for $10 four years ago–at the National Park five miles away. It’s a very nice life.

I wonder why it took me so long to discover it. Thinking I had the keys to happiness or at least soon would have, when actually I used to be so miserable in the ratrace, reminds me of the joke I heard a long time ago about a native American (those days the teller really said “Indian”) man telling a white man, “B/4 you came the women stayed home, raised the kids, did all the farming and cleaning, went after water, and did all the other work around here. All us guys had to do was hunt and fish, and then they waited on us and told us how great we were when we came home whenever we wanted to at night and let them clean and cook and feed us what we caught. Then you came. You thought you had a better idea.”

A friend even gave us three wonderful egg-laying chickens, and my husband Peter built a moveable chicken coop for $10 with PVC pipes and chicken wire and reused building materials we found for the perches and egg nests, so we have 2-3 eggs a day, more than the two of us want to eat, so we give them away. The hens eat weeds that grow free in the yard, and greens produce guys at the grocery store give us, trimmings off the outside of produce they sell. The hens stop laying in the winter, but then many things grow in the nice warmth of the desert.

We also keep track of our efforts and have agreements in writing with both our employers and the charity to pay us the amount we bill, if and when they are able. We traded some of the amount the charity owes Peter for its original application and shepherding it through, and website design and maintenance he did for almost 10 years now, for some land with an RV on it, and we are going to get the $8,000 First Time Home Buyers Credit too. I researched the $50,000 tax credit for solar and other renewable energy production by businesses, and the next thing we do may be to start one of those and get that. None of this is a handout (and I’m not suggesting welfare fraud or anything else illegal, even if it would work, which it probably wouldn’t anyway—working and using one’s brains legally are actually easier than crime, it looks like to me, from how drug dealers always live with their mothers, as the Freakonomist says). However, neither is it nothing. There is a lot available to have a good life with, if we just take advantage of every opportunity. The government stimulus to the economy, for example, is meant to be taken and spent stimulating the economy. I am doing my part.

I also seem forced by what life throws at me to do a lawsuit every year or so. I call myself the stealth plaintiff these days. Cross me and you will wake up to your worst nightmare: one of the best lawyers ever (I did, after all, graduate in the top 10% at UCLA School of Law in 1975, then a Top 10 school, so I guess that puts me in the top 1%, right? And I’ve just gotten better, like aging good wine); with nothing to do but file one case against you, beat the tar out of you, and collect $40,000 as I pass Go, tax-free and not counted as income for any purpose, including getting court filing fee waivers the next time someone makes the mistake of crossing me. I enjoy spending that $40,000 doing fun things like going on vacation and staying in nice hotels with spas and great restaurants, buying gifts, and just hanging out for awhile, resting. It’s gone soon, but what would I want to have money in the bank for, so some creditor with a judgment against me could take it, or some investment banker could bet on derivatives with my money? No, I like it my way. This is what I call fun. Not for anything would I trade back for the life of a Beverly Hills lawyer, when I had to do 100 cases to try to pay my $20,000/month overhead and make a living, so I never did any case as well as I can do my one-at-a-time.

Peter and I do just fine, thank you very much, hunting for building and decorating materials and chicken feed and garden mulch in our 1986 Toyota pickup that gets 20 mi to a gal and is so simple we can fix anything that goes wrong ourselves. (We are regulars at AutoZone.)

Americans were for centuries masters at self-reliance and ingenuity. We can be again. And it looks like we’ll have to be to survive the totally bought-off Senate and the ridiculous Supreme Court. (I can’t comment right now on my man Obama, since I am a card-carrying Obama Groupie. It’s on my Facebook profile. I’m patient, so I’ll wait until I can say something good about him. I’m sure it will happen, he will lead us out of the wilderness, which just goes to show I probably really am Pollyanna reincarnated.)

I don’t mean to imply all of us at the bottom of the 2010 screwed-up heap should just buck up and ignore all the rife, intentional, evil injustice. I sure don’t do that when someone violates a law and damages me to the tune of $40,000 in damages per year plus teaching another wrongdoer a lesson s/he won’t forget soon. Maybe someday we’ll also have our lives so together that we’ll have time to lead a new revolution that takes back our government to help us and the rest of the 95% at the bottom of this new hierarchical, allegedly trickle-down, actually give-it-all-up-to-the-rich society Reagan and his followers built. They seem bent on taking the few crumbs we have left to give to the rich along with the Bush-Tea Party tax cuts, so I’d be happy for a revolution if it would make things really better. In the meantime, maybe it’s bread and circuses and I’m deluded, but whatever it is, I’m happy. I’m going to look really hard at any better ideas b/4 I give up this nice life to try them out.

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