Friday, March 7, 2014

Practical Resilience-Focused Activities in Arlington & Sterling

I started thinking about ‘resilient’ skills, attitudes, lifestyles, and communities pretty seriously in 2013. I recognized that by some measures I was resilient (reliable & well-paying work, loving family and friends, savings / no debt, good health), but by other measures I was not (no water/food stored up if power goes out, few practical skills outside of software development to take care of myself if needed for an extended period of time). 

Before making drastic changes like leaving my job, I decided to start becoming as resilient as I could given my location and the time available. This essay will be a list of all the things I did from January 2013-March 2014 in Sterling or Arlington, VA to try to become more resilient, including how and why. 

Please note: There are tons of ideas, caveats, etc associated with the descriptions below. If something doesn’t make sense, I'm happy to elaborate - get in touch.

Some core themes drove my thinking in selecting these activities:
  • Turn money into skills and relationships: I lose my savings' buying power to inflation and expected future financial system issues, so I invested a portion of my income into investments which can’t be taken away: investments in skills and relationships. Hence foraging, martial arts, etc.
  • Preparedness: I can’t predict the future, so my life should not depend on predicting it correctly. If you’re prepared, you don’t need to predict. If you aren’t prepared, your prediction of ‘everything will be fine’ had better be right. Thus supplies of long-lasting food, water, etc.
  • Reduce unnecessary dependencies: What institutions and physical resources do I depend on (i.e. fossil-fuels and long-distance supply chains)? How can I cease being dependent on fragile institutions, and what can I do while living in Arlington to make progress?
  • Practicing a resilient mindset: I'm moving from a life of paying others to work for me (i.e. home cleaning, buying new instead of mending) to doing the work myself. Is this something I actually want? Can I handle it? I wanted to practice this mindset.

I'll elaborate on some of these ideas in future essays, such as "What is resilience?" and "What kinds of dependencies do you mean?"


Charity Gardening
Katie and I joined Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC) which sends gardeners to unused space to garden. We worked on space a church volunteered, for example. The produce is sold at low or no cost to poor Arlington residents. The gardeners didn’t practice permaculture, but were wonderful people and it was a good chance to ask questions and get regular gardening time.

Guerilla Gardening / Permaculture Practice
“Guerilla gardening” means planting a garden in an unused public space without permission, for example in a traffic circle that only had grass previously. I bought a bunch of plants and put them on the edge of a field near my apartment, but a construction project that destroyed the public field without warning also ripped out my garden, so I didn’t get much time with this. 

I mostly stuck to identifying plants since I was so new and in a suburban area with car pollutants, but this was tons of fun. I highly recommend Sam Thayer’s books Nature’s Garden and The Forager’s Harvest. He signs the books if you buy direct from him. I’ll write a separate blog post about Thayer some day; he’s an impressive guy.

Permaculture Video Course
The Regenerative Leadership Institute posted a complete 2-week intro-to-permaculture course, and I put some on my phone so I could listen during my commute. The videos would be good to watch while doing something else like knitting or sewing.

Self-Defense / Martial Arts Classes
I signed up for Krav Maga and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes at the NovaMMA gym within walking distance of home. Krav Maga is not a martial art, it’s a combat/self-defense art, the main difference being that KM assumes there are no rules and BJJ assumes there are rules. KM was good for dealing with street-fighting or no-holds-barred fighting (chokes, surprises, big weight differentials, knives, etc), but we did not spar or fight (they began to spar just as I left), so BJJ was good for fighting at 100% intensity, albeit with limiting rules.

Purchased Long-term Food
'Long-term food' means food designed to be edible and nutritious despite being stored for 5, 10, or 30+ years. It was hard to gauge product quality here, and there was a lot to learn and tons of contradicting info with hard-to-gauge accuracy. I tried to go with reputable firms, but… I’m open to suggestions from people who’ve bought and used this kind of food over much longer time periods. I bought ~2 weeks’ worth of food and stored it in 2 locations. One was from Mountain House, the other I forget and don’t have the info on me.

Purchased Long-term Water Containers
I bought about 15 3.5 gallon BPA-free water containers. I also bought a spigot and water-preserver. Without preserver, the water should stay fresh 3-6 months; with it water should last 5 years. I followed up with the Water Brick company to ask about some gunk growing on the inside of the lid of the container after 6 months and he was helpful in diagnosing the issue. I moved some containers to my parents’ place 40 minutes away and kept the rest in my apartment.

Purchased Water Filter + Carbon Filter
I bought the Katadyn Pocket Water Microfilter w/activated carbon. It got very high reviews and an expected lifetime of 13K gallons (carbon filter: ~100 gallons). It was the most expensive of the ones I seriously considered, but the others had much shorter lifetimes - 100s or <2k gallons. Others also had inferior build quality, meaning they were easily breakable or wore out fast. I felt this one had the best value. 

Practiced Using the Long Term Food
I tried to eat some of the food we bought just to make sure I could do it. It’s easy if you can boil water, and unpleasant if you can’t (also you probably don’t get much nutrient value if you don’t cook it).

Withdrew Small Amount of Cash from Banks
Given what happened in Cyprus and the fragility and fraud in our own financial system, I withdraw a small amount of cash and stored it in save places. If ATMs ever rate-limit withdrawals here like they did in Europe (“Sure you still have your savings! But you can only have $10/day.”) then this will be good to have. Read more.

Spread Money Among Multiple Banks
Katie and I tried to find control-fraud resistant banks (i.e. banks which don't have executives looting them). We found one and had a good time doing it! I wrote about the process here. The presumption is that FDIC insurance may not pay out 100% if another systemic financial crisis hits.

Removed Money from Bank of America
Katie was still using Bank of America when we met. After a lot of conversations, I wrote this essay to help explain why it's a good idea to leave Bank of America. We left BoA and you should too!

Talked to friends and family
This was hard, but it got easier and easier over time. Talking a lot about my concerns and goals, and hearing others' thoughts, really helped me articulate myself better and see things from different perspectives.

Spoke With Others about Transitioning to Different Lifestyles
I met a naturalist who took Katie and me out foraging. He introduced me to a friend who’d been a commercial pilot before transitioning into a more earth-focused lifestyle - he now teaches earth skills at a Virginia school, and said my transition plan sounded similar to his. He gave me lots of good resources and encouragement which I hope to pass on.

Developed Frugal Budget for Prior-To-Leaving Kyrus and Post-Kyrus
Katie and I developed a frugal budget that allowed us to save a lot before I left my job. I also developed multiple post-employment budgets based on various scenarios to understand how far my savings could stretch, what extras I could afford, etc.

Did Monthly Budget Review With Katie
Katie and I reviewed our income and expenses at the end of every month and tracked everything on a spreadsheet. We made it a fun thing to do together - I actually look forward to it!

Developed Mental Map of Local Wild Foods in Arlington
I sought wild foods in Arlington, and learned where they were even if I didn’t harvest them. I found a website that gathers urban wild food locations here: It’s pretty sweet.

Bought Books As Long Term Investments
I stopped buying books I expected to read only once. I bought reference and intensive-learning books like the foraging books that I expect to keep forever, as these are very good investments that will only appreciate with time.

Attended Bike Repair Workshop
I learned basic bike repair and diagnosis at a 3-hour class at Velocity Bike Coop in Alexandria. They asked for a $30 donation which was cool. Being able to repair my own things is a core resilience concept. I wish I could have attended more, but it was hard to get to given the traffic.

(Began to) Learn Constellations
It took some driving, but I left the city a few times and learned some more constellations. Katie joined me and we had fun cuddling up on a blanket in a park late at night.  This is good for navigation and is just a beautiful thing to do.

(Began to) Learn Spanish
I decided as times get tough, being able to communicate with non-English speakers will be useful. I got free copies of the Pimsleur course at the library (highly recommended), kept vocab flash cards around at all times, and bought a decent workbook to go through (Practice Makes Perfect Complete Spanish All-In-One). Katie helped a lot too.

Made Concrete Plans for Addressing Concerns
When I realized I wanted to make a major life change, it was hard not having at least a tentative plan. It’s so easy to say, “well… I'll transition next year” and then put off necessary preparatory work. So based on our budget, the growing season, wedding date, tutoring issues, and other items, Katie and I set a transition date. The date moved many times, but just having a plan helped me feel like I was making progress toward a real goal. It also disciplined us to make the phone calls and trips, do the budgeting for the move, and other activities necessary to make the move.

Practiced Feeling Spiritual
I’ll explain the spiritual transition in another essay. Briefly: I’m still atheist in terms of not believing in supernatural powers, but I do feel a spiritual connection with the natural world and other people. My spiritual feelings would wax and wane over the weeks and months, and it was hard when I would go weeks without being away from cars and concrete. Mindfully practicing helped me build the spiritual feelings even then.

Bought Gun, Practiced Using It
I got a Glock 17 4th gen. I’d planned to get the Glock 19, which is slightly smaller, but a friend offered a like-new Glock 17 on short notice so I couldn’t pass it up. Reliability was a major deciding factor, so Glock was the way to go. I’ll practice and learn to maintain it in the future.

Visited Ecovillages & Organic Farms
Katie and I visited ecovillages and organic farms in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and Chile. This really helped us understand what we’d be getting into, what budget was reasonable, etc.

Learned to Sew
When some clothes and a backpack tore, I decided to learn to sew (manually). So far I’ve saved $70 of new purchases’ worth of gear!

Learned to Knit
So far I’ve only made a scarf. This is a great mindfulness activity and awesome thing to do while you need to intermittently pay attention, like when you’re watching a video of a speech or waiting for a train.

Learned to Play Harmonica
The harmonica’s light, mobile, super cheap, and makes great music. I picked up a set of 7 for $18, each for a different musical key. So far I’ve learned with free videos & lessons online and to find songs I like. I'm trying to develop my ear better and use the tabs less.

Bought Bitcoins
My friend Dave practically forced Bitcoins on me at ~$30/BTC. Thanks Dave.

(Almost) Took First Aid Course
I came very close to taking a weekend-long first aid course. Then I decided I wanted the week-long Wilderness First Aid course. THEN I decided I wanted to be a full EMT-B(asic) with Wilderness upgrade. Reason: in an emergency situation with unknown technology / medicine / power available, the EMT qualification would let me use the tech and the Wilderness upgrade would let me be useful without the tech. Plus with that certification I can work as an EMT for income. Most importantly, if someone I love gets hurt, I can help them rather than feel helpless. Clearly it’s not as medically useful as being a doctor, but the course for EMT+Wilderness training (WEMT) is 3 weeks long, so it’s a great value. Katie and I plan to take the WEMT course together sometime in 2014 or winter 2014-2015.

Became More Mindful of Health
I realized I must be careful to protect my health - more careful than I was being already. I cared for my teeth more intensively (brush/floss/mouth wash daily rather than merely brushing daily), for example. 

Learned to Meditate
I found a good resource on Vipasanna meditation and tried to implement the ideas.

Attended Gardening Talks At Library
The Central Library in Arlington had weekly garden talks that I sometimes attended. They covered plants, insects, all manner of things. This wasn’t as helpful as other activities because I couldn’t apply what I learned and I didn’t have the context to really grasp some of the lessons. For example, learning about 12 kinds of bugs and how exactly they eat your carrots was info overload for where I was as a gardener. But I learned about AFAC at one of these, so it was a great place to meet other gardeners and hear about other opportunities.

Fostered a Cat
Katie really wanted a pet, but the burden and cost of dealing with a cat during this transition seemed too much. We decided to foster a beautiful cat named Mariah. Bonus: the animal shelter paid all her costs, so it was free to us besides the stuff she scratched to pieces ;)

Bought Long-term Shaving Gear
I investigated electricity-free and long-lasting shaving equipment. I ended up buying a safety razor, pack of 100  blades, shaving brush, and shaving cream for ~$80. The pack of blades should last >=2 years and so I should only be buying $15 bowls of cream every few months. That seems like a good deal, although I have to relearn how to not cut myself shaving now…

Exploring Working With Habitat For Humanity
I worked with HFH a few years ago, and Katie and I have been exploring whether she can work with them while I’m at Earthaven. It’s quality, mentored home-building experience, and free except for transportation and food. 


I definitely took a shotgun-approach to learning this stuff. “Jack of all trades, master of none” applies. Still, in many ways the activities didn’t compete for time - I couldn’t forage in the winter, I could only charity garden Saturday mornings, etc. I wanted to try a lot of things with the goal of eventually focusing on a few to master, and I also wanted to see if I could handle this resilience mindset. Now that I’m at Earthaven and fully immersed in this lifestyle, I’m beginning to think and feel what I want to master, and it’s helpful to have a broad range of experience to draw on.