Saturday, September 25, 2010

Turkeys, Boltholes, and Self-Sustainability

I live in a typical New England suburb: tall trees, a smattering of ranch houses, a few grand Colonials, a Cape or two. Yet, we still have our share of wild creatures, like the flock of turkeys I startled while walking my dogs, about a dozen prehistoric looking birds with gray wattles, brown feathers and clownishly large clawed feet.
As always, the turkeys proved to be as silly and indecisive as a flock of teenagers at the mall. As one started to dash across the road, two more followed. The others looked on anxiously, hesitant to make a run for it. This caused the three initially brave turkeys to question their own moxie and turn back partway, just as the first group decided to go for the gold and cross the road. Within a few seconds, all of the turkeys were milling around in the middle of the road, gobbling in distress.
The dogs and I finally moved forward. Turkeys scattered. As I watched them scramble up a bank, I thought about the book I'm reading, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. It's a great read, funny and edgy and informative. The author, Novella Carpenter, describes how she created a garden in the middle of downtown Oakland, California on an abandoned patch of scrubby land. A central part of the narrative describes her decision to raise her own meat poultry. The first bird destined for the chopping block is a turkey named Harold, who she fattens up in anticipation of Thanksgiving dinner. I left off reading just as she was gathering Harold in her arms to bring him upstairs to the chopping block.
Seeing the turkeys this morning led me to wonder whether I could kill my own meat, and to ask myself why my family isn't more self-sufficient. I have a yard, enough land to grow vegetables, and there's no zoning in my neighborhood against raising chickens. Why don't I raise my own carrots and tomatoes? I could even have a stand of corn. And, if I'm willing to eat meat, shouldn't I also be willing to kill my own?
Thus far, I've rationalized my decision to buy every morsel I consume with this PC mantra: “I'm a busy working mom; I buy local; I recycle; I eat organic foods where it makes sense; I try not to eat much red meat;” etc. Hey, what more could any green-thinking progressive do?
I could raise my own food, that's what. I've been like Rip Van Winkle, sleepwalking my way through life. Yes, I drive a Honda with 155,600 miles on it and try to cook everything we eat instead of relying on packaged foods, but I'm newly awake and aware that I've become a lazy domestic animal accustomed to choosing from 514 brands of cereal on the grocery store shelves.
We've become a country where most of us take it for granted that food arrives on the table, as long as we can make the money to buy it. But making that money leads to lifestyles so far removed from the land that we never think about how much effort and energy it takes to produce what we eat.
This month, my husband and I made an offer on a small fixer-upper farmhouse with an acre of land and two barns on Prince Edward Island, Canada. We made the offer on a whim after seeing the house from the road and peering in its windows. The house has been abandoned for years; we're going up for a home inspection on Columbus Day weekend to see if the house will stand up until we can funnel the time and energy into it to make it a year-round home again.
PEI is a place where everything is about the weather, since the bulk of the Island's revenue comes from tourism and farming. Behind our house is a sheep farm, and across the street and on either side, the farmers raise wheat and potatoes.
Prince Edward Island is famous for its potatoes; the island produces over 20,000 pounds of potatoes each year, and over one-half of the island's total farm receipts came from potatoes alone in 2006 ( The island even has a potato museum
What could we grow on the island? Potatoes, surely. I'm guessing that an acre of land would be plenty for carrots and broccoli, tomatoes and chickens, fruit trees and whatever else we needed to sustain our own family, too.
My mother says this is crazy talk. She's thrilled to pay someone else to grow her food. She and my father lived through the depression; Mom's dad raised rabbits and chickens to get them through, and even when her parents came to live with us on the gerbil farm (, Grandfather insisted on having a half-acre vegetable garden, geese, sheep, and a flock of chickens. He and my grandmother froze, preserved, or canned everything we didn't eat over the summer and fall. He even made his own dandelion and apple wines.
“You never know when the world is going to end,” Grandfather joked, but of course to him it wasn't a joke.
It isn't a joke to us any more, either. The economists say that the recession ended a year ago. Ha! I don't know about you, but I must have slept through that, too. After walking the dogs and scaring the turkeys, I hopped in my car to drive to the gym. There was a bankruptcy notice on the gym door. A house down the road from us just went into foreclosure, and three other businesses in town have shuttered their doors. Several of my friends have been out of work for months. This is only small potatoes, so to speak, compared to what the midwest has faced; I drove through Ohio and Michigan last summer to visit my husband's family, and nearly every small town we drove through was a ghost town.
Yeah, I know I'm late, jumping on the self-sustainability bandwagon. I had college friends who were determined to go organic, get back to the land, dumpster dive, whatever. I made total fun of them. But now I think it's time for us to imagine a different life for ourselves.
What if? What if we could be more independent? What if we found a bolthole – Prince Edward Island, in our case – and figured out how to put food on the table ourselves? If Novella Carpenter can do it in Oakland, surely I can do it in rural Canada. I just need to quit being like those indecisive turkeys gobbling in the middle of the road.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Survivor's Guide to Watching The American

I'm no girly girl when it comes to movies. I like action – Broken Arrow still ranks as one of my all-time favorite movies – and nothing saves a rainy day like Austin Powers. So I went with great expectations to see George Clooney in The American. I love seeing Mr. Clooney, shirtless and spaniel-eyed, acting his heart out with those minimalist jaw twitches that pass for deep angst. Having just gobbled down The Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo, I was eager to view Clooney tromping around a snowy Swedish landscape. I was also looking forward to the Italian setting without having to suffer through Julia Roberts eating her heart out in Eat, Pray, Love to reach a size 6 on a fat day.
However, I'm sorry to report that I drifted into sleep mode halfway through The American. I had to let my mind roam to get my money's worth and make it to the end. Here are some of the questions that kept me awake that night:

Why do Swedish assassins look like Saturday Night Live comics?
Where did all of the people in that cute Italian hilltop town go while Clooney endlessly wandered their curvy stone streets?
Is it really a rule that hookers don't kiss their clients on the mouth? Also, if a john gives a hooker oral sex, as Clooney's character Jack apparently does with the prostitute Clara (Violante Placido), is the hooker then so grateful that she kisses him anyway? Most women I know would rather kiss on the mouth before oral sex.
In the scene where they swim by the river, was Clara's thong arranged deliberately to ride up one beautiful butt cheek? Or does she have the same problem with thongs that most women do, which is why we're always backing into corners to pluck them free?
Just how did Jack make that gun out of car parts? There are endless scenes of him machining parts that could rival CSI: Miami's porno lab sequences, but there are some steps missing here. Like, a hundred. It looked to me like he bought a perfectly serviceable gun to begin with. And is it really that profitable to handcraft a gun and sell it on the black market?
Do they sell that wash-and-wear color that lets ace sniper Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) change her hair color every day? There could be a big profit in that. Maybe more than in guns.
Obviously, director Anton Corbijn is paying homage to the Spaghetti Western here – a movie typically made by Italians, starring Italian actors and one American, as in Clint Eastwood movies. There's even a meta movie moment here, where a Spaghetti Western is playing on the little TV in the bar where Clooney takes his lonely self every night. But why remake them at all?
Couldn't Corbijn have come up with a friskier music score? The relentless drilling of the dirge-like background music here made my teeth ache.
Clooney is cast as a sensitive, regretful assassin. You know, good at his job, but guilty about his sins, yadda yadda. In case we don't get that on our own, we have the wise priest in this movie (Paolo Bonacelli, who has the world's most photogenic face) tell us this in a series of cliches. If we're still too thick to understand that Jack is a real human, not a cartoon, he has a butterfly tattoo and reads butterfly books! He even knows which species are endangered! And – spoiler alert – in his final tragic scene, as the hooker with the heart of gold and the pink thong gets Jack's gobs of cash, we get to see one of those little endangered fellas fly away. What are we to conclude from this? That movies like this are endangered?
Maybe there's a happy ending to The American after all.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Do College Costs + Retirement = Canada?

“So how long do you plan to keep working?” asked a friend recently, after he'd waxed poetic about his own crafty retirement plan (take his pension at 65, sell his Massachusetts house and move to Florida, play tennis year-round, live happily ever after).
“Um. Forever?” I suggested. “I plan to die at my keyboard.”
I wasn't joking. Between the economic free fall and putting kids through college, my husband and I will be working for the rest of our lives.
That's why we made an offer on a house in Canada yesterday.
Why Canada? I've loved Prince Edward Island, Canada, ever since I started vacationing there some fifteen years ago. The island is gorgeous (see photos at, laid back, friendly, green-minded, and there's fiddle music everywhere you go. It felt like home the first moment I hiked the red dirt roads between flowering potato fields.
“Yes, that's fine, but what about the winter?” various friends countered, so I tried traveling to PEI then, too, and found other things to love, like the ice fishing shacks stacked like bright Legos along Malpeque Bay and the snow tornadoes rising like long-skirted fairies in the fields.
But I digress. We made an offer on a house located in the remote eastern corner of PEI because there's no way that my husband and I can afford to retire here in the U.S. We haven't seen the inside of the house – there was no realtor around, and we had to leave the next day – but we peered into the windows from the rotted deck, and we'd seen the listing sheet online. We know that this farmhouse supposedly has five bedrooms and two bathrooms.
We also know that the house is being sold “as is.” That's a little scary, because Canadian realtors tend to be honest to a fault. When I surf with these simple criteria: “Prince Edward Island, $25,000 to $75,000 price range, two bedrooms or more,” I regularly read descriptions like these: “This house has been neglected. Needs a strong arm.” Or, “Small country home that has been left vacant for a few years. Needs a real clean up. The property has no source of heat. Had a wood stove and previous owner took it.”
With this particular house, the phrase that struck me was this one: “Being sold with furnishings and other items too numerous to mention.” What happened to the owner, I wondered, that he would flee or fade away without emptying his house?
Finally, I called our realtor, Anne. She's a trim, no-nonsense woman who used to make her living fishing for lobster; last summer, she showed me a few houses while wearing knee-high green rubber boots. “I don't know where the old fella went that lived there,” she said, “but I can call his nephew down the road and find out more if you're interested.”
That's how the island works: if you know one person, you know six, without any degrees of separation. When Anne called back, though, she couldn't tell me much. Apparently this was an estate sale, someone's children selling it for someone who had died. The “old fella,” presumably.
“What about the septic system?” I asked.
“Doubt anybody knows much about that,” Anne said.
“How do I know if I'd have to replace it?”
“Guess you'd have to just dig it up,” she said. “But I wouldn't recommend it. You might want to leave it be.”
“You mean we'd just buy the house, and hope for the best?” I asked.
“That's about the size of things,” she said. “If it fails, you'd know it.”
This did not sound promising. On the other hand, if the old fella hadn't been using the septic system in a while, everything probably had time to drain.
So we made the offer, and now we're waiting to see if it was accepted. We'll find out this Friday. Meanwhile, I'm biting my nails.
Despite the fact that we love PEI – and this house, in particular, with its charming century-old architecture, peaceful farmland views, and proximity to our favorite beach – I know that this plan is more whimsical than logical. For starters, we have no money. Like so many people, we were nearly flattened by the economic downturn. My husband was laid off twice and two of the start-up companies he joined went under. We struggled to stay afloat as our oldest child started college and we paid health care costs out of pocket for one year, then a second. We finally decided to sell our house and buy a smaller one.
That's when the real estate market crashed. Our first buyer pulled a runner after we'd gotten locked into buying that smaller house, so we ended up with a bridge loan for a year, until we found another buyer. Goodbye, savings. Hello, credit cards.
With no spare cash under our mattress, we'll now have to dip into our retirement funds to finance the purchase of this house. Yet another bad idea: Why take a 10 percent hit, rather than wait until we're old enough to pull the money out without having to pay taxes on it?
Our only arguments in favor of doing so are admittedly weak: our retirement funds are stagnating with the limp stock market, making us think real estate can't be worse, and the PEI house we want to buy is one that we can easily imagine loving full-time. Plus, it's for sale right now at an asking price that's half of its assessed value.
“Prince Edward Island is too far away,” another friend complains. “Why can't you find a retirement spot closer to home?”
Where could we go? Ohio? Pennsylvania? Tennessee? Even those states are more expensive. We're not alone in thinking that Canada is the answer. Far from it: the number of U.S. citizens choosing to live in Canada hit a 30-year high recently (
The last time Canada saw such an enormous influx of U.S. citizens was during the political turmoil of the Vietnam war. Now, many are choosing Canada both for economic and political reasons. Our own reasons are simple: we love Canada, and the cost of living in the U.S. has killed us. Once our kids are grown, we imagine eventually selling this house in New England, which is about the same size as the one on PEI but worth ten times more. We'll have red dirt roads and fiddle music, potato fields and freshly steamed mussels to keep us happy. We'll still be working until we drop to pay back our debts. But we can freelance remotely for the same U.S. companies from Canada – my husband as a software engineer, me as a writer – while we make goat cheese, have a few hens of our own, and grow our own vegetables, all without a crippling mortgage and punishing health care costs.
It's a crazy dream. But it's less of a fiscal nightmare than what we've experienced here.
Or am I missing something? Should we back out of this house deal now, while there's still time to be sensible?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Is the Grass Greener in Canada?

I was vacationing in Prince Edward Island, Canada this summer when I came across this article in The Globe and Mail: “The World Would Love to Be Canadian” ( The writer, Joe Friesen, cites this startling statistic: “Given the choice, 53 percent of adults in the world's 24 leading economies said they would immigrate to Canada.”
I'm teetering on the edge of joining them.
This isn't a whimsical decision on my part. It's been brewing since 1974, when my father took our family on our one and only camping trip. He rented an RV and we headed north from Massachusetts to Prince Edward Island, which he described as “a peaceful emerald isle of enchantment, where the sands are red and the waters sparkle silver.” Dad had never read Anne of Green Gables (, but he made PEI sound tantalizing, like the Land of Oz without the Wicked Witch and her horrible flying monkeys.
Sadly, my mother did not take to camping. “Just more chores for me!” she declared, and forced us to turn around in Maine after driving a grand total of four hours. My parents were divorced soon after that.
Fast forward to my own divorce. When my first husband and I split up, I had two young children; I was dead set on giving them a family vacation, man or no man. Affording a beach vacation in New England was impossible on my single-parent salary, so I convinced a friend and her kids to join us on a week-long trip to Prince Edward Island after spotting an ad for a cottage there that rented for just $400 a week.
We drove twelve hours north from Massachusetts with our kids making more noise in that van than most rock concerts. Between the various stops to pee and feed them all, it was midnight by the time we reached the island. (In those days, the only way to get to PEI was the ferry.) The cottage was on a rutted red dirt road (still plenty of those up there, for all of you Anne of Green Gables fans). I was shaking with fatigue by the time we arrived. It was pitch black all around us, but the sky was a bowl of stars and we could smell the sea.
We woke the next morning to the sound of fiddle music. I sat up and looked out my window at Rustico Bay, where great blue herons dotted the shore. Tall purple and pink lupins waved like some Disney cartoon animation; I half expected the flowers to sing. Across the bay was a tall white church, and that's where the fiddle music was coming from: a festival that we attended that very afternoon. I was hooked on PEI from that moment on.
I've gone back to Prince Edward Island every summer for the past 14 years, and sometimes in the fall or even winter, when the snow blows across the potato fields and the roads disappear out from under you. There is never a time when I don't love it.
Yes, there are certainly moments while driving up Route 95 through Maine (where the State motto should be “Maine, the Infinite State”) when I think, “This is so not worth it.” Even in New Brunswick, where I've come to love the Bay of Fundy's rocky shoreline and the long stretches of farmland with their big brown loaves of hay and spotted cows, I sometimes think, “Why can't I find a closer place to love?” Then I cross the Confederation Bridge from the mainland to Prince Edward Island and fall in love with the place all over again. The colors seem brighter and the air is clearer here than anywhere else on earth.
The Globe and Mail article reports that more than three-quarters of those surveyed in China said they'd prefer to live in Canada, followed by Mexico and India at nearly 70 percent. Most respondents perceived Canada as a place where rights and freedoms are respected on a deeper level than anywhere else.
Is this true? By now, I've explored most parts of Canada, including many of its cities, from Vancouver to Ottawa, from Montreal to St. John. There is urban blight, as there is in the U.S., and visible evidence of unemployment – the Canadian unemployment rate is just over 8 percent overall. Certainly Canada isn't free of crime or substance abuse. The last time I was in St. John with my mother, one drunken spacey fellow stepped onto the escalator behind Mom and rested his chin on her shoulder, passing out for a second until she barked at him to back off.
Yet, wherever I've been in Canada, there is an overall feeling of goodwill from most people – my husband calls most Canadians “pathologically friendly” because of their willingness to chat you up – and generosity abounds. Most recently, I was staying at a friend's house on PEI when another friend brought her bike over for my husband to pump up the tire. Within minutes, we were joined by two other neighbors, both asking if we needed help. They stayed for an hour.
Three years ago, my brother and I went in on a small summer cottage on PEI. It's a typical cottage, mostly porch, overlooking Malpeque Bay. I bought it online, sight unseen, and we've camped out in it happily every summer, renting out empty weeks to help sustain the costs of having an extra house. This summer, I spotted the perfect year-round house for sale in the more remote eastern part of the island, near our favorite beach. Now we're trying to decide whether to buy that one as well. This sounds luxurious, even decadent, this idea of having second homes – but neither costs more than most new cars here.
If we bought the farmhouse, I imagine one day retiring there with my second husband, or living there half of every year after the last of our five kids is off to college. I dream of raising alpacas and selling the wool; my husband is arguing on behalf of goats and cheese-making. Both are pipe dreams at this point. Sensibly, we'd probably do better just doing what we do now: writing and software engineering. But it's the simplicity of having a ramshackle farmhouse on Prince Edward Island that lures us – and the good neighbors I know we'd find there.
Should we, or shouldn't we, go for this dream? Am I fooling myself about Canada because the news headlines here are so awful (think war, oil spills, harsh immigration legislation)? Is it a purely escapist impulse, the kind we all have when fantasizing about living in our favorite vacation spots, that makes me want to flee north of the border? Or is Canada really a better place to live?