Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Book Review - Money Secrets of the Amish

A while ago I bought Money Secrets of the Amish, hoping that the author would have some fantastic insights about Amish life, come to a new appreciation of Plain living, and would explain how they started doing a lot of things to pare down their excess and start working with their hands more.


The author lives somewhere along 283 in Lancaster County - I could tell, because I used to live along that corridor too, and I recognized the thrift stores she mentioned hitting during her "Amish shopping experiment".

Apparently she's rather well-to-do, upper middle class. She shops new (though sometimes at outlets), and mentions Talbots and Ann Taylor Loft as favorite shops for birthday splurges. Her kids play hockey (not a cheap activity), though she mentions her car is the shabbiest looking one in the parking lot. And she was confused about how the Amish manage to pay cash for nearly everything.

Anyone who knows about the Amish will tell you a few basic principles about how they manage to afford their lifestyle and pay cash for most things, and she does hit on these here. One, they follow the dictum "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without". There's a certain amount of self-denial of desires involved in Amish living! Two, the social pressures and expectations are different for Plain people - there's a Keeping DOWN with the Stolzfuses rather than a Keeping UP with the Joneses mentality. Three, they value hard work and honor it as a virtue.

But there's something that the author didn't understand when she interviewed an Amish farmer who had just succeeded in buying a farm in Lancaster County (acreage is getting very expensive there). She cooed "So, I heard you were able to buy your own farm!" and he humbly replied "Ja, we were lucky enough to do that.". She then went off about how it seemed like a strange Amish trait to downplay all the hard work and discipline that went into saving for the farm, and called it luck instead.

It's not that they're downplaying the hard work and discipline - those are baseline traits for a good Amish person, after all - but that they're acknowledging that a run of bad luck could have set them back decades. A farmer understands that better than anybody - you can plant, cultivate, and water for months, all to have your whole crop ruined by a freak storm or infestation. A good crop is not guaranteed.

Likewise, a bad run of luck can wipe out years of hard work and savings for the "English" (non-Amish), but it usually has less to do with crops and storms, and more with layoffs, medical problems, an unexpected pregnancy, and other things beyond our control. Like when Jake was without work or income for 9 straight months - thank goodness we had savings in place, but we were down to our last $600 when he finally found work. And due to one thing and another, we still haven't rebuilt our savings to their previous level. Now, we should be completely out of debt (again) by the end of the year, but our cash reserves won't be back up for a long time. We're hoping to sell our house and move to a better school district next year, but that's going to take a huge amount of finishing old household projects before we can list.

Ideally, we would be able to get everything finished in a few months of weekend work... but sometimes things happen. Like Cathy being hospitalized again, like she was for 18 days in May, in a hospital an hour away from home. Like Jake getting a mammoth migraine the one day that he would be able to block out the time for woodworking. Like the little kids getting a stomach bug, new teeth, head lice, or anything that would cause me to lose a solid two or three days in sheer management efforts and sleep loss.

She also assumed that the Amish would make things rather than buy them, simply because homemade is better. Not always! She mentioned marshmallows as something that an Amish housewife might make up from sugar and gelatin, and moaned about her own failed homemade marshmallow experiments. Do you know what Amish women do when they want marshmallows? They pay 89 cents a bag for store bought. They save their efforts on homemade things for the stuff that makes sense - shoo-fly pie is cheap to make, expensive to buy. Marshmallows are cheap to buy, expensive and difficult to make. Save the energy for the hard stuff.

She didn't seem like she learned all that much in that regard - she did find out that it's easier to make many pies at once than one at a time. Which makes sense - make one mess to clean up, get out all the supplies once, get a rhythm going. She took herself on a thrift store expedition instead of her usual Talbots/Ann Taylor $100 birthday spree, and was delighted to find that you can get lovely, useable clothes for grownups at thrift stores.

All in all, it seemed like a book for those who are fairly well-off and who see the Amish as "quaint". Not too much in the way of heavy insight, it's more of a beginner's personal finance book. Then again, I wrote "Hard Core Poor"!

Monday, June 19, 2017


Yes! We got this beauty from Alicia Every in Seattle, who got it from someone who got it from someone who used to live in Japan, and brought it back with them. God bless her, she shipped it all the way to Harrisburg because I wanted it so much (and I paid her, so...).

As a cargo biker who has only ever ridden a trike with kids, this bike with pedal assist feels incredibly light and nimble by comparison. Even though it's about 65 pounds. The assist is a wild sensation when you're used to using a throttle powered assist - it kicks in naturally, like little angels lifting your feet along.  :D We've taken it for a few 10 mile rides, no issues other than needing to downscale the assist level so the battery would last all the way home. I could ride without it, but it's so nice to have that boost at the end of a long ride.

It has the awesome kickstand, a rear wheel lock for quick stops, a front wheel "deflopilator", the two baby seats, a saddle that I hadn't even noticed the first 5 rides or so because it was so comfy as to be invisible, power assist, and an integrated front light with a solar powered/activated rear light. It has so many built in goodies it's almost embarrassing to look at my kids second hand bikes and realize that they don't even have fenders or chain guards! The one thing it lacks while the kids are on board is storage, so Alicia threw in a pannier bag that hooks onto the back baby seat. She also threw in wonderful rain covers for the kid seats - they're made to fit right over the seat, baby and all, and keeps them out of the wind and rain. It's like putting a poncho with a vinyl window over them, but more breathable and fitted.

I love these bikes, and I wish I could import them, but I've come to a point where I've accepted that it's not for me to do right now. I have enough on my plate with 4 kids! If anyone is interested in importing used mamacharis to fix and sell, email me and I'll pass along my research and contacts.

Meanwhile, I've discovered that our local Commuter Services offers some very nice incentives to bike/walk/carpool/vanpool/bus to work. If you get stuck or have an emergency, they'll reimburse you for your ride home! (They call it a free ride home, but that sounds like they'll pay your Uber driver for you on the spot, and that's not quite it.) I requested a beginner bike commuter pack, and they sent a huge envelope of information, a bumper sticker, and a set of cheap but bright blinky lights! They went right on Catherine's bike, since she's riding to a friend's house almost daily now, and I want her to be safe in bad weather.

Friday, April 14, 2017

New ideas about EC (elimination communication), mamacharis (?) and importing (????)

Hey all!

So, baby Charlotte is a mobile little dynamo. She can't walk... yet... but she's 3 days shy of 10 months. Cruising really well on furniture, and here's a clip of her climbing the stairs!

In honor of the Ringling Bros/Barnum and Bailey Circus going out of business, we managed to score tickets to the nearest location, which was Wilkes-Barre - about a 80 minute drive from Harrisburg. I had never seen it before, though I had seen some smaller circuses with less impressive acts. This was top shelf, though my mother-in-law said that it used to be much more exciting when the elephants were still part of the show.

But the clowns were fun!

Even if Daniel was a little freaked out by them and wouldn't crack a smile.

So, I've been doing EC (elimination communication) with little Charlotte lately. Not full-bore gung-ho "we don't use diapers because I watch my baby's signals" EC, but most of the poops have been going in the potty, which is always nicer than having to wipe it off a bum and scrape it out of a diaper. And sometimes we get pees in the potty too,

One of the tricky things for ECing a baby is the fine line between easy potty access clothing and the desire for clean floors and keeping private bits private. The Chinese tend to swing to the easy access end with "split pants", but children then pee wherever, and their little bits are very visible. Here, everything is geared toward keeping the surroundings clean, but fast, easy access is not a high priority. Snap crotch shirts spring to mind immediately, and a lot of cloth diapers are very fiddly to take off and put back on unless the baby is lying down.

So, while browsing a Japanese website, I discovered these diaper covers that are recommended for preschoolers learning to use the potty. Since Charlotte is probably the same size as a Japanese preschooler, I ordered them, and I'm charmed! This is how they work -

The velcro belt wraps around the tummy, you tuck an absorbent pad or prefold in the cover, making sure it's held up in the back by the belt part, and bring the front tabs up to anchor it in place. The front pulls away easily enough and reattaches without fuss, making potty visits pretty easy.

I like them, but they're hard to find in this style in the US. I did find a few wholesale suppliers on, but I'm not sure if I would get much interest from the EC community, since they tend to also be very big on local, sustainable, fair trade, etc, and it's hard to confirm conditions via alibaba. And I am NOT going to start sewing them again. No. I may look into this a little further to see if I can find a reputable supplier, though - I think if I got a decent brand with an ethical supplier, they could sell here.

And on the idea that "if they were here, I bet they would sell" - Meet the Mamachari!


This bike is freaking EVERYWHERE in Japan. Look at the structure on those child seats, and how the front one is built into the handlebars! When those kids fall asleep on a long ride, they're not going to need anything special to keep them from flopping over - in fact, the front seat even RECLINES. BTW, both of those seats are designed to function as baskets when the kids aren't in them. What's more, all the mamacharis are designed with heavy duty kickstands, front wheel "de-flopilators" to keep the front end rigid when parked, dynamo lights, chain guards, and skirt guards. They tend to be single or three-speeds, but many of them come equipped with electric pedal assist.

And do you think you can buy them in the US? HECK NO! Not new, anyway. The entire mamachari market outside Japan is based on people who went there, bought one, moved away, and are finally selling it because their kids grew up.

But. I have found a used Japanese bicycle seller that will sell a 20' shipping container of 100 USED mamacharis - some of which would even have electric assist. Typically these shipping container bikes are sold to 3rd world countries, but since these are so unusual and interesting, I think there's a possibility that they could be refurbished and sold here at a decent profit. The trick would be raising the initial capital.

So, tell me - if you saw a bike like that on craigslist or eBay for, say, $400 plus shipping, or $600 plus shipping with pedal assist, would you consider buying it? The front child seat would be on there already, the rear seat might not come with it (but they're fairly easy to find here). Bike shipping within the continental US is usually in the ballpark of $150.

Let's hear it - what are your questions about the mamachari?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Adjusting with a new baby

Well, the new baby isn't so new anymore - she 7 months old and thisclose to crawling! But when something (or several things) changes so dramatically, it can take a little while to find your feet again.

For example, sweet little Charlotte was born in June. Having a breastfed baby along for things isn't so bad, but it does reduce available hands.

Instead of regular homeschooling this year, I switched Daniel to a public cyber charter school, because at the 6th grade level I was beginning to feel unequal to teaching all his subjects. We went with Commonwealth Cyber Academy (CCA), and they provide a laptop, curriculum, and teachers free of charge, and send an internet reimbursement check quarterly. However, there's a learning curve with any new software, and a further curve when you've been freewheeling for three years and now there's daily accountability checks. Good, but new challenges.

Catherine started the year in the local public high school, but due to the depression, self harm urges, and anxiety she's been fighting, she came to me and asked to transfer to the cyber school as well. She explained that while she loves being around friends, she really needed me to be present to monitor her behavior for now. God bless her for being mature enough to make that call! And she has been doing much better recently, for all those wondering - medications, therapy, prayer, and support are all clearly helping. I love having all the kids at home, but having them home and having to get them through their work while figuring out how to keep the house from being a pit? You guessed it - another challenge.

Daniel got his official autism diagnosis three months ago. We weren't surprised, but it's nice to have the diagnosis, because now we qualify for so much in the way of programs and help. We've enrolled him in an after-school program Tuesdays and Thursdays (they feed him dinner and provide transportation, thank goodness) to help him with processing problems and social skills.

Because Cathy is home full time but remains a social creature, we've had to step up our extra-curriculars. She participates in drama club at the high school on Tuesdays, we've added a Tuesday morning karate class with other homeschoolers, she gets academic help at a drop-in center in Midtown Harrisburg through the week, and meets with a teen social support group on Wednesday evenings.

Thanks to Gram, little Tristan (who's 4 now!) goes to preschool on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the afternoon. With Daniel in the after school program, Tristan in preschool, Daniel and Cathy in karate, and Cathy in her programs, Tuesdays are my day where I feel like we just spin our wheels and get nothing accomplished. Thankfully Gram often drives Tristan to and from preschool, or I'd just buy a wi-fi hotspot and a microwave for the van and we would live there on Tuesdays. Also thankfully, our therapy team for Catherine comes to us at home when we have time, which saves my patootie.
When we finish this level of therapy I think we're going to get a case management worker for one or both of the older kids - a CM can help with setting and transporting to appointments and making sure the paperwork is kept up so nothing falls through the cracks. I wish I had one of these just to keep me on track!

Naturally, Charlotte goes everywhere and does everything with us, which up till now has been pretty easy. But since she'll be mobile in the next few months, everything is going to have to be re-calibrated again. She's been so easy - arm babies just smile, eat, and need diaper changes - mobile babies and toddlers need to be entertained, exercised, and naps may not just "happen" anymore.

Jake just got a new job that pays a bit better and will guarantee daytime hours instead of moving him to a night shift! It also means he works a M-F 8 hour day schedule now, whereas before he worked Wed - Sat, 10 hour days. It's nice to have him on the guaranteed schedule, but I used to schedule my appointments on Monday because he was home, and Tuesdays were a little easier because we could divide and conquer with the kids. Now I rely on Gram for the Tuesday help more than ever!

Clearly if I would take some time and plan my week out along with meals, I would fare a lot better. But up until lately I've been in survival mode, getting through each day with the help of God, relatives, Jake, and stress-relievers like novels and red wine (I'll admit it). No, it's not ideal, but survival mode doesn't lend itself well to logic and good planning. And even the Outlander series doesn't last forever, so the stress relief has to change.

So, enter the bullet journal. I'm going to TRY to get a loose menu plan going, see what activities can be shifted to other days, and start re-baby-proofing the house. And Daniel's new bedroom should be done in a month (Cathy's is done, finally, and we moved her in right around Christmas). Reliving the crowding in the boys lives will help all of us mentally, and we'll be that much closer to getting the house ready to list so we can move to a nicer school district.

Oh, moving? That's another post. I have enough other baby steps before I worry about that.  ;)