Home page: https://sites.google.com/view/risabear.
Soto Zen service and sitting, very informal, 7:15 pm PST most Sundays through Thursdays, available on Zoom.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Your mileage may vary. Ours often did.

We were both raised to garden on a fairly large scale.

My dad grew up in a half-starved sharecropper family; he had, and imparted, a wide range of homesteading skills and what could be called “hunter-gatherer” skills as well. He always reviewed anything he saw on television or in the newspapers as to how it was or was not of any use according to his subsistence yardstick, and was acerbic in his references to what others called “civilization.” We thought his approach had a lot to recommend it, and from 1977 to the present have tried to live his ideals.

Capital-intensive industrial society consists of brittle gestures toward “efficiency” but true efficiency is in the realm of robots. We here have instead focused on “resiliency:” flexible, low tech, high redundancy subsistence, on the theory that if abandoned by the “system” we could flourish, at least enough not to be a burden to our neighbors.

We held Permaculture principles and no-dig as appropriate models but sometimes had to diverge a bit to meet our food goals, because there was never quite enough organic matter in the labor or money budgets to do it to others' standards.

The quality and quantity of our efforts faded after 2016, as we entered our mid-sixties. Health concerns mounted. Therein lies a tale.

If you want to try this life, whether on the lawn or patio or balcony, there are plenty of resources in print and online, or in the reminiscences of relatives, etc.

For those interested, here are the online folders of eleven years of microfarming at Stony Run “Farm.” They are offered in case they contain any ideas worthy of emulation.

But remember: your mileage may vary. Ours often did.





















Monday, March 23, 2020

Brutal times

Us? Treading water. Bubbles on the stream.

We've inventoried the supplies and can stay put for some time. How much? Depends, huh?

Beloved stirs some beans

Risa sets up pea and bean trellises
 There's a shortage of dandelions this year for some reason but lots of nipplewort, deadnettle, cleavers, and English daisies. With some holdover beet leaves and such, I'm able to dry quite a bit of veg powder.

Daughter, a front line health worker, quarantined us weeks ago. She keeps us supplied with necessaries, from a distance. We Zoom sometimes. There's a lot of laughter, but it does have an edge to it.

No, that's paper towels. And they were already on hand.
I decided to re-start the lower garden, which I'd given up several years ago, due to "age." First, I rearranged the fences to keep the ducks out.

The fence ram is the best tool on the premises.
Got out the ancient gas mower, which we generally have tried to avoid using, and gave to the lower garden a severe haircut. Did the same to much of the rest of the place, putting all clippings on the lower garden.

Located and tested my dad's vintage electric cultivator, then showed it the job to be done. "Oh, no! not ... not plowing?" Yes. This once. Because I don't have enough materials to do a proper no-dig out there.

 Four days later, between the cultivator and the five-tined fork (for heavier sods), we have fifty by fifty feet ready to line off for potatoes and winter squash. It will have to sit under black plastic for two weeks, otherwise the bindweed and Queen-Anne's lace will come after me.

These methods are brutal, but these are brutal times.

She turned up the weeds without pity, spreading
their roots before the sun. Most of them died,
though a few tenacious grasses rolled over

when she was not looking, and sucked earth
till she found them skulking about, and banished them
to the heap with the egg shells and old tea leaves.

Returning to the scene of the massacre, she placed
a five tined fork before her, pointed toward
the earth's core. On its step she placed her boot's

sole, and drove its teeth home, tearing living soil.
She did this many times, and in her hearing,
the dark loam whispered in protest. But what

was she to do? One must eat, and the white seeds
in their packet were waiting for the sun.
She carried a blue denim bag at her side,

zippered it open, feeling about in its depths
like the housewife at the station platform
seeking her ticket for the last train--

Seizing her prize, she held it in a soiled palm,
reading the runes of inscription:
"Date of last frost"; "zone three," "days

to maturity." How many days now to her own
maturity? Not to be thought of. Her hand
trembled. Tearing the thin paper rind,

she tipped out contents: a shirtfront
of buttons. Five seeds to a hill she counted,
pinching their graves over them: three hills.

And on to other tasks. The rainmaker
whispered over hilled earth all
the zone's days to maturity, and the date

of first frost held true. Almost forgotten in the rush
of gathering in others: beans and corn, tomatoes--
she sought them last in October, the golden

fruits of that planting. Her other crops
talk to her; the Hubbards never do. (What are they
dreaming at, over there? She brings out the knife.)

Now it is March, she remembers having gathered
the silent, sulking Hubbards. How are they faring?
A look into the pantry reveals them,

dour and uncommunicative, all
huddled like bollards on the high shelf.
She chooses one to halve on the kitchen block.

Scooping out seeds to dry and roast later,
she bakes the halves till soft, slipping off skins
per Rombauer and Becker. "Dice them,

and in a mixing bowl add butter, brown sugar,
salt, ginger, and move the lot to the mixer,
remembering to add milk." With a bowl

of silent Hubbard thus richly dressed,
she goes to the living room, asking blessing
of the gods of the steel fork and the weeds,

the rainmaker, the packet of white seeds,
booted foot and blue denim bag
and the longtime summer sun, eating,

listening to a fugue by J. S. Bach.

Saturday, March 07, 2020

The not-so-hungry time

If I recall correctly (always the caveat with me nowadays), traditionally, this has been the time of year in the Northern latitudes for stored food to run out and new crops to not yet be available, so it was called the Hunger Gap or, where I grew up, The Hungry Time.

I've seldom found it so as there seem to be so many options, even in March. It's true my family has stored grains in better times and "put things by" as well, but here I'm talking about what is there outside, right now, at 44° North, that can be brought in and made use of, or even put by?

Our strong son has been here and cleaned out the barn, so the garden looks a bit spiffier than it did in January and February.

True, there's nothing doing in the strawberries, but there is still kohlrabi and kale from the fall plantings.

In the long bed by the entryway there is a bit more variety: yet more kale, elephant garlic, red onion, white onions, leeks, carrots, beets, and walking onions.

Solids -- beets, kohlrabi, carrots, stems of chard, garlic, leeks, the odd potato from volunteers and the like are chopped and put, in a bowl, inside the Dutch oven suspended from a chain above the wood stove top, and roasted rather slowly.

From top left: rinse water, dish water, tea water, lunch. Set oven on stove for High, on the lower hook for Medium, and the upper hook for Low (or, really, Warm).

Around the place we're finding young nettles, deadnettles, nipplewort, dandelion greens (the roots are good right now too), bittercress, dove's-foot geraniums, cleavers, English daisies and more. I take my time gathering as columbines are coming on early and are mixed in with everyone, and those we do not eat.

Sorry for the shaky cam image here -- we can expect more of this -- but here we have deadnettles, elephant garlic leaves, an early leek scape, and a dandelion.

Greens are chopped and added to the mix in the Dutch oven in the last little while -- enough to darken them up a bit, and we call it done when it seems to us done.

Surprisingly, or not so surprisingly, there's enough heat in the sun already that we have been putting excess forage greens in the little solar dehydrator. When they are at 10 percent or less of water content, we dry blend and store as powder, and this is used a pinch at a time on everything -- as tea, as a condiment/seasoning, or soup or bread ingredient.

You'd maybe be amazed at the things that can go into the foliage powder. I do include lavender, thyme, oregano, rosemary, sage, dill, wild garlic, mulberry leaves, mallow, plantain, dock, chicory, cats-ears (false dandelion), linden leaves, maple bracts, pussy willow leaves. I even include a fabulous plant, much loved by gardeners for composting or making compost tea, that I'll not name here -- very high in protein and minerals -- the older variety of which can still be grown from seed and is low in that alkaloid that has given the plant a bad name since my day. My liver is old enough not to care. Your mileage may vary.

The trick is to get to know what grows through the winter, and also the wild edibles that grow, where you are (local example here); when they are best to use, and so on, along with being able to spot the no-no's. There is no poison oak in my salad, for example.

Many of the things I'm using can be found in vacant lots or alleyways in many of our cities. Added to that stored rice, they can be a bit of a lifesaver, should one find oneself in a long lockdown. While waiting for the authorities to figure out what to do with us, we can play cards, read and sing to one another, and remember that "the last wish of good food is to be eaten" ... in, hopefully, may it be, a not-so-hungry time.


Sometimes we pull up the sprouts of chugaya flowers, gather peach moss, pull up rice bran, or pick Japanese parsley. Sometimes walking in the fields at the foot of the mountain we may also glean heads of grain. If the weather is nice, we may climb to the summit of the mountain and look out over Kobatayama ... 
--Hojoki, by Chomei

Sunday, March 01, 2020

On bumps in the road

[This is a repost of a thing written when the financial markets seemed to be tanking in 2008 (they faked up enough ones and zeroes to pull the rich out of that one). It's happening again but this time feels maybe different, perhaps because COVID19 has a lot of container ships wondering where to dock. Most of us want to live, so some may want to hear who've thought about resiliency. I've thought about it (and acted on it) over the years, but am rapidly aging out of the skills, the skills to communicate about the skills, and the motivation. So here's this old post, frantically but rather poorly updated, some of which may be bad advice in a very fluid situation, one more time. Remember, Your Mileage May Vary.]

Ready for the open road -- we thought.
Back when our family was living a nomadic lifestyle that revolved around tree-planting contracts on mostly federal lands, we pulled a small travel trailer behind an International Travelall with most of our worldly goods in the one or the other.

And one day we left home to go to a contract five hundred miles away, and in ten miles came to a brand-new sign that said, “BUMP.” As in, “the county road crew has removed the top four inches of asphalt from the bridge fifty yards ahead, with a vertical drop at each end, and if you hit it at any speed between five miles an hour and the posted speed of fifty-five at which you are now traveling, well, have we got a surprise for you.”

We saw what was coming, but with three second’s worth of brake time, there was not much to do but grin and bear it.

It took days to sort out our windshield and flour and beans and lamp chimneys and toe-in and trailer tongue and so on, and we lost some work. Fortunately no one was hurt.

All that was, was a bump in the road. But suppose it had been a cliff?


"Civilization" has, since about 1973, seemed to me to be nearing a cliff, so (while younger) I did what I could about it. If you might wish to do the same, read on for some glimpses of doomer hobbies you might take up.

Our solutions were low-tech, and for reasons.

You can do nifty technological solutions to keep comfy. But for that it helps to be well-heeled, with stable surroundings. In other words, it helps to be a colonizer, so give that a good ethical look before going all in. There might be worse things than being the last one standing. 

The very, very revealing "American Progress" John Gast, 1872
When in doubt, be good to your neighbors. Yes, those too, but I mean the ones you maybe weren't expecting to have to be good to. This planet is only 7,917.5 miles in diameter.


We're on the right. Sustainable, where we were for some millions of years up until twelve thousand years ago, is on the left. Can't get there from here. So, we may want to just relax.

I’ve picked Zen meditation and Bodhisattva precepts as my outgoing hobby -- cheap and portable. Something else may work better for others.

May we and ours be ever more thoughtful, wise, resourceful, just, and kind in all our dealings than we have been hitherto. 

And may we live in peace and unafraid.


*Contact while traveling or attending events is becoming a problem as I repost, I'm sure you've heard the reports -- developments too fast to blog. Do due diligence and look for decent knowledge and recommendations. Rumors are not our friend.

Friday, February 28, 2020


"I hid from the practice for years." Yes,
same same, and then, "well, I have tried
everything else, how about I just

back into this corner and sit it out?"
So, did that, and the blackberries
crawled up the windows like triffids,

mice ran over my numbed feet, spiders
nested in my green flute, and it was all good
because no me ... and then, surprise surprise,

Venus had swung round the setting and also
rising sun, and hovered over dawn like a thing.
Didn't that guy, you know, backed into a corner,

sitting under a tree, look at this and smile?
The hell did he think was so funny? This light
in my tired eyes is not the photons

he saw, or you see, or I will see in so much
as a microsecond, but there it is anyway.
Shining. Redeemed by all that has been left


Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The Middle Way

Entropy. Cartilage has vanished from between
long leg bones, and I have become
dependent; may I have some help please
with these pants, these socks, this clacking

knee brace, this burgeoning heaped skunkish
laundry full of everything that leapt from
the spoon onto my clothing, this tea welling up
somehow from my cup's brim to spread across

the tidal flat of my shaking hand and fill
the sea cave of my sleeve? Ah, and if
last night's frost has subsided enough,
perhaps even with such a day's beginning

I can hope to step into these two unmatched
clogs and shamble on, past undone chores,
gathering up my left-hand stick and my right-
hand stick, and walk the dog. There is no dog;

what he left behind lies there: that small
basaltic stupa, littered with seasonal
offerings -- lately, deadnettles that wilt
in such hurry. But I call to him anyway;

he loved these walks so, that I feel obliged,
knee brace and all, to retrace our kinhin route
each weekday Armageddon fails to materialize.
Oaks throw shade; in summer I seek them,

in winter avoid. This is a ritual. As when I sit,
as when I chant, I know, even when tongue tied,
or falling asleep, or feeling my knee brace loosen and drop
just as I stagger into the ditch to avoid a truck,

that ritual is a kind of living being, made up of
my life and also the lives of all who participate
in some way, such as: "are you going to 'walk
the dog?'" Yes. "Have you got some water and

your phone?" Yes. "Okay; if you're not back
in an hour, I'll come looking for you." I bobbled
the Heart Sutra this morning, as I always do,
but this little exchange of hearts is itself

the Middle Way. Along the road, taking tiny
steps, tinier every year, I stop
to watch a robin angling for its worm.
The little dog that isn't there

wags his universe of tail.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The bullying ticket

Okay, so January -- I just wrote a blog post, my longest one ever, and then put it aside for now -- analyzing how civilization maybe organizes around the invention of granaries and how granaries tend to attract bullies, and how bullies attract henchmen with sharp objects, and you get the whole multi-level marketing scheme that has privatized food, water, heat, travel, etc. called class. That a dollar bill is a promissory note that could be called a bullying ticket -- with a dollar (or any currency) you get to bump somebody out of line just because they don't have one.

Hence the interest that some teachers, such as Jesus, Shakyamuni, Francis, Merton, Tolstoy, Gandhi, etc. had in voluntary poverty. Staying, to the extent possible, away from money helps one back away from directly supporting the world-building delusions of authoritarians.

This analysis is obviously not helpful to those living in their cars right now against their will, and maybe some effort put into regulation -- low-income housing, say -- will be helpful in the short run, but there it is: the nonprofits and agencies doing that work are swimming upstream in the stomach acids of the beast.

So you see how thinking about things like food and water can get really "political" in a social-media hurry. Everything is political, but there is no faster way to have those who might need to hear a thing cover up their ears than to sit down across from them and start talking current events and policy issues -- who is getting to bully whom just now, and how that came about, and ways to mitigate perceived abuses.

Which your unwilling audience knows is a time-waster to listen to, because ain't gonna happen any time soon.

So I've tossed that voluminous, extensively thought out and heavily annotated screed, at least for now, and will just make this suggestion: look into democratically managed cooperatives. They're not a magic bullet but they can be hard on the plans teflon-coated bullies may have for you. Also if you can give away something someone might otherwise be forced to buy, please do consider it.


I like to eat off the neighborhood fence lines and the home place to the extent possible, given my cranky body and the deteriorating weather patterns. What do we have here right now?

Lettuce has flourished right through the darkest part of our Northern Hemisphere year. But we didn't put in all that much of it, so we have reserved it as treats for the guard goose, Suannah, who is now twelve years old and walks with a bit of a list, like I do.

Most kale has gone to the chickens, but there's still enough for substantial additions to soups and stews.

We could have fall-planted more chard than we did, but we're not complaining.

Beets have held up well, but I think we direct planted them too close and neglected to thin. I think we do a little better with them in four inch pots, one plant to the pot, set out at six inch intervals.

The red onions bulbed up fine but they are not my thing -- I react to them, but I do okay with just the greens.

To me the star of winter in the beds is the leeks. 

While I for one could sort of take or leave the flavor, I appreciate how they vanish into whatever I'm doing with roots and grains and so on, and it's good to be able to have fresh alliums in the winter, I think.

Winter stuff looks a little ragged when you bring it in, and has to be washed and picked at a bit before it's ready for consumption. But I find it rewarding just to be able, even for one meal, this one morning, to go on strike against the bullying ticket.

Do not arouse disdainful mind when you prepare a broth of wild grasses; do not arouse joyful mind when you prepare a fine cream soup. Where there is no discrimination, how can there be distaste?

— Dogen (tr. Tanahashi)

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Also it is no less

Lest anyone practicing other practices be concerned, I don't, or I hope I don't, push Zen as a religious faith. I like facts. There seems to me to be some facts around Zen. So I'm looking into them. I think of myself as kind of an investigative reporter.

I'm of the notion that the present moment is all-inclusively authentic, and can be made to appear to be inauthentic only through delusion, or the will to inauthenticity (which takes place within authenticity -- a form of self-abnegation, if you will).

A flower is a flower, you are you, but also you, beholding a flower, are both you and the flower (also not you and not the flower but that gets needlessly complicated for a blog post).

If you bow to the flower in a ceremonial way, in this moment the bow is authentic and alive, like (and inclusive of) you and the flower. That's my provisional ontology, subject to revision or refutation as evidence arises.

And as there is (IMHO) only ever the present, there's no way you can bow to the flower without the whole universe also doing so, for the universe has a different shape than it would have, were you not bowing, and this is true in both directions: the universe at its inception is the one in which you (will) bow, and at its end is the one in which you bow(ed).

Here's the thing: pick a religious observance, such as the Christian communion. The glass (perhaps containing port, or Welch's grape juice -- I grew up with the latter) is raised, the pastor or priest or whomever quotes "drink this in remembrance of Me" and, well, down the hatch.

This too is a living gesture in the present that has no beginning and no end, and includes you, the other communicants present, all other communicants, the street on which the church building is placed, and the homeless person in the alley behind the church. It transcends (tricky word but let's go with it) what we call time, such that we are present at the original Last Supper, and also at the last Last Supper.

So, that's part of my current take on why I am attracted to interpath dialogue.

But also (again IMHO), secularity is no escape from this ontology; some of us woo-woo types sometimes say things to the effect is "nothing is sacred and everything is sacred" -- often with a little laugh, perhaps hoping not to be burned at the stake -- but, though we may fervently apply Occam's Razor to our fullest Hitchensian extent, a flower may be no more than a flower, but also it is no less.

この法は、人々の分上にゆたかにそなわれりといえども、いまだ修せざるにはあらはれず、証せざ るにはうるこ となし

"This Dharma is abundantly present in each human being, but if we do not practice it, it does not manifest itself, and if we do not experience it, it cannot be realized." (Dogen, Bendowa tr. Nishijima and Cross)

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

The unlimited accumulation of wealth

Guest post by Plato (428-438 BCE approx., The Republic, Book II, Jowett tr. Emphases added).

[Socrates] .... let us then consider, first of all, what will be their way of life, now that we have thus established them. Will they not produce corn, and wine, and clothes, and shoes, and build houses for themselves? And when they are housed, they will work, in summer, commonly, stripped and barefoot, but in winter substantially clothed and shod. They will feed on barley-meal and flour of wheat, baking and kneading them, making noble cakes and loaves; these they will serve up on a mat of reeds or on clean leaves, themselves reclining the while upon beds strewn with yew or myrtle. And they and their children will feast, drinking of the wine which they have made, wearing garlands on their heads, and hymning the praises of the gods, in happy converse with one another. And they will take care that their families do not exceed their means ....

[Glaucon] Yes, Socrates, he said, and if you were providing for a city of pigs, how else would you feed the beasts?

But what would you have, Glaucon? I replied.

Why, he said, you should give them the ordinary conveniences of life. People who are to be comfortable are accustomed to lie on sofas, and dine off tables, and they should have sauces and sweets in the modern style.

Yes, I said, now I understand: the question which you would have me consider is, not only how a State, but how a luxurious State is created; and possibly there is no harm in this, for in such a State we shall be more likely to see how justice and injustice originate. In my opinion the true and healthy constitution of the State is the one which I have described. But if you wish also to see a State at fever heat, I have no objection. For I suspect that many will not be satisfied with the simpler way. They will be for adding sofas, and tables, and other furniture; also dainties, and perfumes, and incense, and courtesans, and cakes, all these not of one sort only, but in every variety; we must go beyond the necessaries of which I was at first speaking, such as houses, and clothes, and shoes: the arts of the painter and the embroiderer will have to be set in motion, and gold and ivory and all sorts of materials must be procured.

True, he said.

Then we must enlarge our borders; for the original healthy State is no longer sufficient. Now will the city have to fill and swell with a multitude of callings which are not required by any natural want; such as the whole tribe of hunters and actors, of whom one large class have to do with forms and colours; another will be the votaries of music --poets and their attendant train of rhapsodists, players, dancers, contractors; also makers of divers kinds of articles, including women's dresses. And we shall want more servants. Will not tutors be also in request, and nurses wet and dry, tirewomen and barbers, as well as confectioners and cooks; and swineherds, too, who were not needed and therefore had no place in the former edition of our State, but are needed now? They must not be forgotten: and there will be animals of many other kinds, if people eat them.


And living in this way we shall have much greater need of physicians than before?

Much greater.

And the country which was enough to support the original inhabitants will be too small now, and not enough?

Quite true.

Then a slice of our neighbours' land will be wanted by us for pasture and tillage, and they will want a slice of ours, if, like ourselves, they exceed the limit of necessity, and give themselves up to the unlimited accumulation of wealth?

That, Socrates, will be inevitable.

And so we shall go to war, Glaucon. Shall we not?


This year’s crop isn’t ripe yet.
Last year’s grain’s all gone.
So out I go to beg a peck;
outside the gate, I was on one foot, then the other.
The husband came out and said, “Best ask my wife.”
The wife came out and said, “Ask the old man.”
Hearts hard as that . . .
Wealth itself is a great misfortune.

-- Han Shan (Cold Mountain, Tr. Seaton)

Sunday, January 05, 2020

And perhaps even find yourself happy

This repost is not about economic inequity. It may serve however to alleviate some symptoms of it for some.

I recognize there are compelling reasons why nine out of ten of us are still in town and that's not likely to change much ("Lord knows, I tried," weeps the country blogista), so let's talk about urban simplicity.

Let's assume that you have work. Big assumption right now, I know. If you're running out of unemployment, it might be time to think about making some work. Grab a copy of Small Time Operator and start selling something you can make or do. Because rule one in spending less than your income is have an income. Even if you're a vegetarian selling hot dogs.

Aside from disasters (and you've done your minimum preps for those, right?), debt is likely to be your big issue. It's what's holding you back from heading for the country, if that's what you wanted, or from living the "American Dream," whatever that is. A shortage of disposable income and freedom because of, you know, the student loan, the car loan, the mortgage, and the credit cards. And you're not as happy as you thought you were going to be.

There are lots of strategies for debt reduction. Seek and ye shall find. We've used doubled mortgage payments ourselves, effectively. To make such things work, though, the first thing to do is bring outgo below income. Bring frivolous outgo to a halt and you are on your way.

"Voluntary simplicity" is touted as a proper response to modern malaise, but John Michael Greer's analysis suggests this is what people talk about when they're afraid to take the real plunge and go for the gold: voluntary poverty. Maybe it's anything but voluntary, letting that word "poverty" slip in there, but if your goal is to rise up from slavery (and debt is exactly that), it can be necessary to redirect our pride.

In the reality we've been brought up to, validated not by our own good sense but by a lifetime barrage of television and other advertising, we're supposed to aspire to "more" -- a shinier house, a shinier car, bigger and brassier parties, endless gadgets, and smarter and smarter phones, all of which which we're dumber and dumber to get in hock for. The trick is to voluntarily take pride in, not these ultimately empty and unsatisfactory acquisitions, but the opposite: de-acquisition.

If there are more than one of you, it might take a very, very serious "family meeting" to all get on the same page, but it can be very focusing to open the meeting with, "here's one thousand dollars a month we can count on for the time being; how do we get by on nine hundred?"

Sounds unrealistic, I know. Maybe your line in the sand is three times that, or more. Goodness knows, a buck is not a buck anymore. But that's going to get worse, so ... well, here's a story.

When I had my mid-life crisis awhile back, I moved (with family permission) temporarily to town for over a year. They depended on my income, so I got a budget of four hundred a month (in 1998 dollars). Here's how it was done.

First, we did research on rent. The best deal (cheapest housing) was, as it happened, two blocks from my university library job. It was what is known as a quad: a room with a vanity sink corner, sharing, from a tiny common hallway, a bathroom and kitchen with three other such rooms. They are intended for students who can't afford an apartment but don't want to live in the dorms. With heat, electric and dumpster fees, a set of shelves, a bed, two chairs, and a table, it was under three hundred a month. So I moved in.

I took with me about ten changes of clothes (good ones in which to do library reference work, mostly), a coat, a box of bathroom-y/personal hygiene-y things, a bedside clock-radio, two boxes of good books, a lamp, a couple of bowls and mugs, utensils, a good kitchen knife, a sharpening stone, and a rice steamer. You can get all these at a thrift store. Some of them I did. I also brought along a stout leftover of plywood for a chopping block.

I also took along a bicycle with a rear rack and pannier baskets. I had found the bike, a decent old ten-speed that still knew where six of its speeds were, leaning against a driveway fence with a sign taped to it: "Free. Take me." Best bike I ever had. With it I brought along my bike helmet, cable, padlock, and key, which I put on a keyring with my quad key.

On the bike I rode to the discount grocery store, stopping to top up the air pressure in the tires at a filling station along the way.

Inside the store I grabbed a shopping cart and sought out a twenty-five pound sack of white beans, another sack, same size, of long-grain rice, a ten pound sack of yellow onions, a ten pound bag of russety Idaho potatoes, a pound can of salt, and a family-sized jar of Italian seasoning. I also splurged for some rolled oats and a head of bok choi.

You might think all this would not go home on the bike in one trip, but it can.

I now had more than a month's food, purchased for under fifty dollars, rolling home beside me as I gripped the handlebars.

Sure, people looked at me funny. So? In most places, it's how you roll.

Back at the apartment I set up the steamer on the "dining room" table, near the wall, and loaded it with water. This was a little Sunbeam with a forty-five minute timer -- much better ones are available, but as Goodwill steamers go, it was not bad. Its plastic rice dish was long gone, but I could put a cup of rice or beans or diced potatoes and dandelion greens in one of the bowls, add the appropriate amount of water and some salt and Italian spices, set the timer, and, by and by, take out the bowl and there was dinner -- or breakfast, or lunch.

Waitaminnit! says the careful reader. Surely not rice for breakfast!

Why not? And without coffee or tea, usually. Didn't miss them at all.

Reader: But -- but --

Or beans. Or potatoes. Usually with a few wild onions. And a glass of tap water.

Reader: But you couldn't --

Yes, I could. For months on end. I lost a little weight, but in my case, that was a good thing. None of this required refrigerating, if managed carefully, and though I was charged for it, I never haunted the communal kitchen, which was a howling disaster area non-maintained by my three unmet student roomies. There was no need.

 I should mention our town seems to have a good supply of unattended cherry, apple, pear, plum, and Asian pear trees and no end of blackberries, dandelions, lamb's quarters and such free for the picking, for all of which the bike baskets came in handy. And over time I got to learn how to ask grocers what they were about to throw out. When company came, I felt I was in a position to be generous.

Wind in the Willows. Arthur Rackham. Children's Imaginative Illustrations

Reader: And the rest of your time -- ?

No problem. I slept, or bathed, or ate, or thought, or went for walks or bike rides. Of course, if you are at all like me, it helps immensely to do this sort of thing in a university town. A university town has, in effect, a functional commons. I went to town meetings, galleries, museums, free concerts, free plays, and lectures. I read many books; all those on hand several times and all I could carry back from the library. I spent long evenings in that library, which closed in those days at eleven p.m. (it was only two blocks from home, remember). I had access there to not only books but music, videos if I wanted them (I generally didn't, and kept no television at home), magazines, newspapers, and of course the Internet. I worked on my volunteer project, at my own desk after my colleagues had gone home for the day, and produced first drafts of thisthisthis, and this. I was also in school (full-time employees could take classes for next to nothing), and when I could I would take the bus and go do a stint of parenting and farm upkeep.

Reader [weakly]: On -- on $400 a month?

Yes, with change left over. One family goal was to pay off the country place ASAP. I couldn't spend too much on my mid-life crisis because we were making double payments. It was a twenty year mortgage and the idea was to clear it in less than fifteen. Which we did.

And I want to emphasize that I am telling you this because if you think things through, and have a bit of luck to go with it (I had no major illness during that time), you can live on far, far less than you may currently think you will need, and perhaps even find yourself happy.

ぬすっとに とりのこされし まどのつき

The thief left it behind:
the moon
at my window. 

-- Ryokan (Stephen Mitchell, tr.)