Altering Depression

I’ve been paying attention to my mental and physical moods lately and I’ve noticed some trends I thought I would share. I’ve written a few posts here and there mentioning depression. In general I have felt better since making the decision to quit my job, and the week-plus since actually separating from it have been good. With exceptions.

Depression is there, but I’ve noticed some three clear factors.

Tea is better than coffee (for me). Two months in a row we ran out of coffee and I didn’t want to spend the money until the budget refreshed. Both months I felt great. It was a surprisingly clear demarcation. If you’re not aware, the ‘caffeine’ in tea isn’t caffeine, but rather a caffeine-analog. (This is also true of chocolate, which has yet another different caffeine-analog). I’m guessing I uptake tea differently, in such a way that my moods stay much more stable. There are soothing compounds even in the “strongest” tea that probably also have an effect.

Overeating is terrible for my mood. In my case, it’s overeating carbs (and what other food group is possible to overeat, I mean, have you ever tried to overeat fruit, veggies, or even meat?). Some carbs are critical for me, but if they escape the rough parameters put in place by the food ziggurat I go into total sad-sack mode until my body cleans up roughly 24 hours later. Again, much like the coffee–>tea transition, the demarcation between good diet and bad diet days are really clear now that I am paying attention.

Finding the right dose. I’m on a half-dose of my SSRI now, and mental clarity is definitely up, even on “down” days. In the past, this has emboldened me to do a full taper, but I think I’m going to be wiser and stick at this level for a few months and observe before deciding to go further. Since needing to be on medication, I’ve never stayed completely off for more than about a year.

Since I’ve talked about my depression before, I thought I would share the progress. My overall wellness is definitely up this year so far, between these observations about depression, my weighlifting regimen, and the psychological burden-lifting of freeing mental space devoted to wage slavery to completely focus on stewardship and parenting.

Adjusting to YNAB

A lot of folks in the personal finance and financial independence spheres are familiar with the program You Need a Budget (abbreviated to its acronym YNAB). I’ve pooh-poohed it for over a year, trusting my pen, paper, spreadsheet system but after a commenter on this piece pointed out that the program runs almost flawlessly in a WINE bottle* I figured I might as well try it out.

30 minutes later I was hooked. 2 hours later a purchase was all but assured.

This isn’t a formal review of the software. This is basically my reaction to the software, its methodology, and how all of that makes me feel as a steward.

YNAB’s methodology breaks down into 4 Rules:

  1. Give Every Dollar a Job. Because the budget system and 3-month forward view works so well, you can budget forward much more effectively. I have very good data for the past, but counting out future cashflows – even fixed expenses – was always something my system had a very hard time doing. So I had to leave buffers all over the place to account for this haziness. I’m letting things stay a bit hazy for now, but in the future YNAB will let us be more aggressive about debt repayment and post-tax investment contributions.
  2. Save for a Rainy Day. This is something we’ve always done, but YNAB’s way of segregating funds is more elegant.
  3. Roll with the Punches. Oh yeah. We’ve done this a lot. Readers from the beginning (18 months ago!) will know how much has changed.
  4. Live on Last Month’s Income. Previously I kept a Dave Ramsay-esque $1,000 general buffer because we are in debt repayment mode, but we’re going to work up to filling a full month buffer, as it helps YNAB’s system work better. Initially I thought we had this already, but then realized I’d made an error in handling how our primary credit card was imported. We may have the buffer by April, but for sure we will have it by May of this year, and then can resume more aggressive external savings.

How do I feel?

Honestly, a bit humbled and chastened. I realize that, while I’ve made a lot of progress, there’s a lot more I can learn about future planning. Two mornings in a row I’ve woken up earlier than planned, my sub-conscious having chewed on details during the sleep, and spent my first waking minutes correcting errors and tweaking our YNAB setup.

Hubris is a nasty little bugger. I think I’ve let myself get a bit too excited about sustainability initiatives and almost dropped the ball on taking care of the core family financial health. Taking extra care is doubly important now that we are on a single income. Then again, having the mental bandwidth to focus so hard on adjusting our budget system is a possibility space created by me being home. Like all things in life, growth occurs in many directions, and from many sources.

Do you YNAB?

*For non-Linux heads, YNAB lacks a native Linux version, so to run it on Linux you have to use WINE, which is essentially a Windows emulator.

It all comes from the sun

Note: I originally published this in August ’14, but with all of the thinking about sustainability I’ve been doing, I wanted to push this up to the front page again for those who may have missed it before.

Imagine a family with carefully built wealth. For four generations, the adults have worked hard, carefully managed and invested, leaving the next generation with more than they started with. Somehow, the latest generation doesn’t get it. A century’s worth of wealth gets squandered in mere decades.

Would anyone look upon that last generation kindly? No? I didn’t think so. For this reason, history will judge the petroleum era harshly.

All energy comes from the sun.* What we call “fossil fuels” is merely solar energy, captured and stored over millions of years. And we’ll squander it in a few centuries. Whether peak oil has happened or is yet to come, petroleum is a finite resource.

When it is gone, will we look up to the sun, look down at the earth beneath our feet, and wonder what the hell we were doing? The last generation of our imaginary family probably had fun, but when the bender was over, what then?

Think about it.

*This ignores the notable exception of fissionable minerals mined from the soil. Though, of course, even those had to be formed in the core of a star.

Terroir and Humanity

This is one of several natural springs which drain together to form the Danube.

This is one of several natural springs which drain together to form the Danube.

We’re doing a history unit on the pre-Roman Celts (a bit deep for 2nd and 3rd graders, I know) and what’s struck me about them is their powerful sense of place. Few things were sacred except places. The Celts first emerged as a distinct people in the headwaters of the Danube, in what is now the Black Forest of Germany. The Danube gets its name from Danu, the mother/water goddess whose waters flowed out from within the earth in the time of primordial chaos. Her waters nourished Bile, the sacred oak, from which sprang the gods and goddesses. From Dyaus, the bright-one, sprang (they believed) the Celts themselves.

In pre-modern times, situating a house relative to water was absolutely crucial. Ben Falk has a wonderful discussion of how do analyze a site’s hydrology before building in his The Resilient Farm and Homestead. Wherever humans went, they had to keep water close to hand. The Celts took it to another level.

Because of the importance of Danu, the primary river, stream, or spring of any place had sacred power. The chief of that tribe, before ascending, had to bathe in the waters as a form of ritual marriage with the divine. They might have believed all Celts were descended from Dyaus, but for the chiefs, a special connection with the divine was required. The water of a place is what made life possible. By wedding himself to that water, the chief became wedded to the land, and thus his people.

Few Americans in modern times are wedded to the land. Not the land they currently occupy, nor even land in a vague sense. We get food from the supermarket, not from the earth. We get water from the faucet and shit back into the same water supply.* Little is sacred.

Terroir is a French term for the way the entire mini cosmos of a farm affects the way plant genetics express themselves. From temperature to rainfall to the incredible web of microscopic soil creatures – everything plays a role in how the fruit forms and tastes. Take a true seed or a cloned cutting to a new climate and the plant may end up quite different. Change the place, and you change the thing born from it.

Epigenetics is a very new field that even the most advanced current science barely understands, but it proves to be very powerful. Nutrition has a powerful role in genetic expression. Nutrition comes from the earth and the waters, from the terroir we inhabit. We must return to having a concept of place as sacred, as important, as worthy of stewardship.

How can we survive as a species if we have no stake in the web of creatures which nourish us?

*Read The Humanure Handbook if you want an excellent discussion of the insanity of water-based sewage treatment. Changing this is something I would like to work on, but the Alchemist has vetoed it to date. We’ll see where it goes 🙂

Garden Quest 2015 #003 – Harvest


Mesclun awaiting the first cut. Background: spinach seedlings just getting first set of true leaves.

Mesclun awaiting the first cut. Background: spinach seedlings just getting first set of true leaves.


Let me tell you: it feels really, really weird to be harvesting something in February. Heck, if I took too long coming home from the store in the weather outside, any tender greens would be frostbitten.

Is it worth it? It’s too early to tell, but I doubt it will ever make true financial sense. Eyeballing what was in my salad spinner basket as enough for the Alchemist and I, I stopped cutting halfway through the tray at a net of 30 grams. Mesclun is designed to be a cut-and-come-again crop, so we’ll see what the total lifespan of the tray is over what time period.

Garden Quest 2015 003-02

But the most important question: how did it taste? I’ve nicked a delicious leaf here or there as the tray has grown in, so I’ve been cautiously excited about homegrown greens. I’m not sure if it’s because they were baby greens or the dry conditions of my basement, but the leaves were thin and feathery. They still had a crunch, but they were definitely lighter weight than lettuces I’ve had before. I’m no greens connoisseur, and often need to force myself to eat them, but I found them flavorfully bitter and they paired well with my simple 50:50 balsamic vinaigrette dressing.

More importantly, the nutrients in them made me feel quite good after eating the salad, and that’s the real reason we garden.

I am retired (ish)

freedom-from-chainsToday was my last day at my current former employer. Wow does it feel good to write those words. It feels even better to write the following: if everything goes to plan, I will never have to take another wage-slaved job ever again. I am now retired(ish).

Why the ‘ish’? We’re not FI, not by a long shot. The Alchemist will be working still, probably for about a decade more. But we’ve made so much progress in our budget that the extra money I earn working outside of the home – instead of the negabucks I generate at home – is not worth the cost in time apart as a couple and as a complete family. For nine-and-a-half years we’ve had complete days together only on holidays and vacations. That’s a ridiculously long time, folks. Every couple I’ve talked to that’s had a similar arrangement of weekday SAHP+weekend PT work is amazed we did it for that long. One of my best long-distance friends has been doing it for a couple years and is already tearing his hair out. Selling your life-energy to another creates all kinds of stress, but this particular combination seems to have some of the most unique stress, and my family is so happy it’s over.

May it never return.

What now? I’ll be busier than ever, but our schedule can flex much more now. If a project comes up during the week that cuts into schooling time, I can do a few lessons on the weekend to compensate. More importantly, the Alchemist and I have two whole days together every week for leisure time and project time. There are a lot of projects around the house that are very hard to do without either (a) two adult sets of hands or (b) one adult to run interference on the kids so the other adult can work. Our budget will be tighter than before, but with judicious stewardship I think we will make progress even faster despite the loss in raw dollars earned.

Like many folks doing actual early retirement, I’m less retiring from something, and more retiring to something. Homeschooling has been great for our goblins, and homesteading has been great for the whole family’s mental, spiritual, and physical health. Freeing up time for those pursuits by breaking the chains of employment is a huge win.

My last day of work was mostly enjoyable. I got to say goodbye to co-workers, many of whom I’ve known for almost a decade. At the same time, I can’t deny that it was a bit surreal seeing the various idiosyncrasies of my employer and saying (finally) ‘I can’t be bothered by this, because I’m free!’

Apex and Anthropogeny

Almost a year ago I wrote about how we need to embrace our status as the apex predator on planet Earth. On the surface, this sounds terrible. It carries all sorts of connotations about resource mining, planet raping, etc. That, of course, is not what I have in mind. Being a self-aware apex predator means embracing our role as the anthropogenic steward of nature. 

Stewardship is a powerful concept. As a former Catholic, I hate how the word has been reduced to a very base connotation of pleading for money and volunteer time (at least in America). That’s not what stewardship is. Stewardship is, at its core, guiding something (x) to reach its full potential (x-ness). Stewardship transforms, not by imposing a mold from without, but nourishing the spark from within.

I’ve written about being the steward of my house. I take that role very seriously. I want the Alchemist, myself, our three goblins, and even the small piece of the planet we own have mortgaged to live to their full potential, to flourish. In our urban environment this requires careful management of money and time, but we slowly expand our resources to things that are renewable – the soil web around us. Joel Salatin uses this wonderful image of living in harmony with the earth, the womb that nourishes us.

Conventional modern life is a terrible bifurcation. On the one hand, we have the rapists*. In the Humanure Handbook, the author likens humanity to a pathogen which expands so fast and so toxicly that it consumes its host (the earth). Humans who mine the earth, pollute it, and leave it a worse place than they found it are not apex predators. They are viruses – but where will these viruses find a new host body? Makes you think, doesn’t it?

On the other hand, we have the cowards. The ones who recoil from our apex status and insist only non-anthropogenic land is natural, and only natural is good. Wrong on many counts, but two major ones: we have no reliable historical account of ‘virgin’ land, because human beings have co-evolved with everything around us. While evolution has happened over a long time-scale, even in our brief few seconds in the earth-universe, we’ve shaped species succession incredibly. Moreover, where we have allowed the ‘natural’ to re-succeed, it is inferior in health in many ways. Most ecosystems can only sequester enough carbon and biomass to generate 1″ of soil in a century. A stewardship-oriented approach can do this in a year. Humans working with nature means healthier humans and healthier ecology. A tour of any permaculture-designed farm or homestead bears this out. The biodiversity is off the charts compared to ‘natural’ succession.

Stewardship requires loveSeek first to understand. Observe. How can we shape the land to give what it wants us to give? We are co-evolutionaries. Stewardship requires courageThen to be understood. We must pick up the shovel, saw, excavator, even fire. Yes, fire.

Succession in a health ecosystem requires disturbance. Often powerful disturbance. Only then can we break inertia and begin to shape, nurture. Then rest. Recovery. Growth. Gentler disturbance. We nudge, coax, coach. Together we reach a pinnacle of health not possible without cooperation.

Are you a rapist? A coward? Or a steward? Every choice has a ripple effect of consequences. Think on it.

*This is strong language, used intentionally. I can’t think of a better way to describe what’s happened in so many parts of the globe like the massive topsoil depletion in America, the rampant pollution in China, the collapse of water supplies everywhere, and the wars required to secure resources necessary for technological ‘progress’.