Friday, August 31

A Year Without "Made in China"

I pretty much knew as soon as I saw the title that I'd have to read this book.  What I found was a deceptively simple masterpiece that should give all of us serious pause.

Two days after Christmas in 2004, Sara Bongiorni sat in her Gulf Coast living room feeling overwhelmed and smothered by the avalanche of cheap Chinese junk overflowing from under the tree. With her husband's dubious support, the family embarked on a year-long experiment with very simple rules: no buying anything that came from China. Gifts were allowed, as was anything already in the house, but no new Chinese purchases.

What resulted was a crash course in globalism, occasional panic attacks, and tremendous insight in the dynamics of modern America.

Bongiorni's voice is simple and sincere; she doesn't pretend to have it all together, and is candid about her emotions and ideas whether laudable or laughable. Her assessments are poignant in their focus on what truly matters, such as recognizing the selfless love her husband showed in agreeing the boycott for no other reason than that he loved her (even if he did torment her along the way).

Perhaps the best part of the book, however, are the things she doesn't have to say directly because her story so clearly illustrates them on every page. The warped perceptions of American adults who actually believe children are deprived if they aren't showered with cheap plastic toys whenever they lust for them. Companies that actually require customers to submit written requests for information to the company lawyer before they'll reveal where their products are made. The reams of products that simply are not produced in the U.S. in any form any more (from children's shoes to lamp components to printer toner). The sheer volume of stuff that moves through an American household in a year - and how quickly most of it meets its demise or loses its luster.

The implications and realities of these realizations are loud and stark, and may make your head spin. The author's light touch wisely lets them speak for themselves. The book is an easy read, and you may breeze through it, but its ideas and lessons will linger in your mind for much, much longer.

Wednesday, August 29

52 Little Lessons from "It's a Wonderful Life"

When it first debuted, critics either loved it or hated It's a Wonderful Life, and it quickly fell from the charts. Since a revival in the 70's, however, it has risen to become one of the most loved Christmas movies of all time.

Author Bob Welch mines this famous movie for simple but valuable life lessons. Each lesson has it's own short chapter (average three pages) and is clearly stated in the chapter title (It's Wise to Seek Counsel, You Matter to the World). Each chapter opens with a quote from the movie, and then the author relates a scene and its lesson, often with interesting tidbits of background or filming trivia worked in.

It's quite straight forward, but nicely put together. If you love the movie, you'll decidedly enjoy this book. If you plan to watch the movie with your kids, this would be a great guide to character-building talking points. Many will also appreciate the informed eye with which the author highlights filming and acting points that create the magic we so often take for granted.

When You Come Home

One of the best things about the Kindle my husband surprised me with for my birthday has been the free books available through Amazon. Hidden amongst the many cheap romances are beautiful gems of all genres that I most likely would never have stumbled on elsewhere.

When You Come Home was one of those surprise treasures. The deceptively simple story of a young soldier and his war bride, trying to love and live as much as they can in the short time before he is shipped overseas, it is beautiful, poignant and powerful.

If you know what it is to be apart from someone you love, your heart will break for them as they try to stay strong in their separations. The faith and support of their families is touching, and the strong moral fiber that used to bind every corner of our country will give you pause to think about and pray for our modern world.

Whether you usually read WWII books or not, I encourage you to check out When You Come Home. It's a pretty quick read, but it will stay with you long after you turn the last page.

Monday, August 27

Menu Idea Monday: Smothered Beef Burritos

Photo from the Food Pusher blog
It's been a long time since I've been to a really good Mexican restaurant. (Honestly, most of the restaurants out here are seriously lacking.) But we like good Mexican food, so I decided to try a very simple but yummy looking recipe off The Food Pusher blog.

I saw the recipe on Pinterest labeled Smothered Beef Burritos but they're listed as Chili Colorado Burritos on the blog.

Whatever you choose to call them, I highly recommend making them!

This was a great recipe - incredibly easy and different than anything else in my cookbook. I liked that it used stew beef; it was cheap but tasted rich and satisfying after simmering in a crockpot of enchilada sauce all day. (As an added bonus, the house smelled great!)

This took no time to throw in the crockpot in the morning and only a couple minutes to assemble and broil up at dinner time. It would be a fantastic meal for long, busy fall or winter days and can just as easily be made for one or two as for a crowd. I will definitely be keeping this and making it again!

My Modifications:
I made my own tortillas and enchilada sauce (can't buy either around here that aren't full of junk), and skipped the beef bullion in the crockpot because my sauce recipe is plenty rich enough already. Otherwise, I followed the recipe as directed.

Dietary Mod Friendly?
This is a pretty flexible recipe. If you don't eat beef you could sub in any meat you wanted and it would work out well. Gluten free tortillas would also be an easy sub-in, or you could skip the tortillas altogether and just pour the meat and sauce over rice. Other than that, there aren't any objectionable ingredients in here so dig in and enjoy!

Friday, August 24

The End of Summer List

Smoothing my hand over the largely blank pages of my new planner, I know the endless time and opportunity they suggest are an illusion. In short order my new work schedule will begin to fill the little blocks. Projects around the house and property will crowd into the weekends and weeknights, jostling museum events for places on the page. Very soon I'll find myself having to search for places to write in visits with friends and will stare at the lists of places to be and wonder where mundane tasks like vacuuming and essentials like making dinner are supposed to fit.

But I am a smart girl, and I learn my experiences. So this year, I'm taking the proactive approach. I've pulled out my lists - Reflections on Summer & Must Not Miss This Fall. I've flipped forward to next summer and written in the things we loved most about this summer so they won't be forgotten or lost in the shuffle – hunting for wild apples and hickory nuts in woods with our neighbors, the Warrior Dash, Sunday afternoons spent with friends at a BBQ or a wine tasting.

I've weighed the weeks this fall, and begun to annotate them with the delights of the season too important to be missed - a trip to the cider mill I've heard so much about, pumpkin spice lattes with a friend, crisp fall hikes with my husband and a wildly happy border collie. Already I've started to draw lines in the sand, precluding the automatic guilt- or habit- induced responses of “sure I can do that” when chances to take on more than I can reasonably do come up in the next few weeks/ months.

Most importantly, I'm building in breathing room. Did you know that it's perfectly acceptable to block out down time in your planner (and your life)? Your health, your life and your relationships are important -make time for them first! Don't run panting and exhausted through the holidays and into next year. Decide right now to give yourself the time and permission to enjoy this fall. 

After all, if the Mayans were correct it could be the last fall we have, right? Just kidding... everyone knows they were only counting down to the Hobbit movie!  (Thank you for that nugget, Pinterest.)

Joking aside, your time is your own and you are responsible for how you spent it. So grab your bucket list, your phone and you calendar and spend a little time this weekend making sure that the really important things make it onto your schedule this fall!

Wednesday, August 22

Finding a Planner that Works

Around this time of year I start to get frustrated with my planner. As we head into fall, sticky notes start to pile up at the end with reminders of things coming up next year that need to be written on pages I don't have.

So when I sat down to buy a new planner last week, I made the decision to get an 18 month planner this time - it will take me through December of next year and avoid the sticky note overload! Note to companies selling planners: why are planners sortable by color, but not by the number of months they cover or their format? 

As I poked around online, trying to find exactly what I needed, I was reminded of the many things I've learned the hard way about choosing a planner. I've decided to share them here in hopes they will save you time, money and headaches!

Hints & Tips on Selecting a Planner

1. Plan ahead... way ahead. Never leave buying a planner until yours is in its last days - it's a recipe for a rushed purchase you won't be happy with! If you don't have an 18 month planner, start looking for a new one no later than about July; once fall hits you're certain to start scheduling appointments and events into the new year. Don't waste time by writing them down and then having to transfer them later - just start writing them in directly on your new calendar!

2. Pick something that works for you. Calendars and planners come in a myriad of shapes, sizes and formats. One that fits your lifestyle and the way your brain works is worth it's weight in gold. If you really don't know what works for you, a little trial and error may be in order and that's okay. Ask around or read reviews online and see what other people like best/least about their planners; see what resonates with you and use it as a starting point. Don't invest lots of money in anything until you find what's comfortable. When you DO find what you want, though, don't settle for anything less! Note: life changes. While our personalities and brain patterns stay the same, what we're planning for on a daily basis may change. So if your planner system stops working, it's okay to look for something else better suited to this season of your life.

3. Colors count. If you use a planner/calendar that you carry around with you, I highly recommend buying something in a color that makes it stand out so you can quickly and easily find it! I also use colored paper clips or tabs (love those!) to make it easy to flip to specific points in the planner that I know I'll use often (addresses, the current week, reminders page, etc.).

4. Know what's worth paying for. There are scores of planner pages and calendar formats online that you can customize and print for free. Pinterest abounds with cute ideas for do-it-yourself alternatives to the big, (expensive) laminated wall calendars. You can buy planners that are undated and start wherever you are this minute. While cheap, and usually cute, most require serious time investment in looking up holidays, labeling pages and headings, printing, whole punching, etc. Know what your priorities are; count the hidden costs of time investment and inefficiency. It can feel wasteful to pay good money for a planner, but investing in the features and formats best for you will pay worthwhile dividends all year!

What kind of planner do you use?

Monday, August 20

Menu Idea Monday: Pure Simple Cooking

Today's Menu Idea isn't a recipe - it's a whole book of recipes!

If you haven't read Diana Henry's Pure Simple Cooking, snag yourself a copy this week!

Diana searched for recipes that sit squarely at the intersection of simple and hearty. She picked recipes that stick to real, healthy ingredients (no cream-of-anything soup here), and that are simple enough for a busy weeknight dinner.

What I liked best about this book was the uniqueness of the dishes. Nothing was strange or something you'd worry about your family eating, but it wasn't your run-of-the-mill, in-every-cookbook-I've-already-got kind of fare. If you're looking for something different to do at dinner time but have a limited amount of time and energy to invest, check this out. You'll love it.

Friday, August 17

Inspiration Cruises: A Word of Caution

I was blessed to be raised by parents who modeled positive life behaviors for me long before I understood what they were or why they were important. As a teenager, I rolled my eyes when my mother listened to teachings aired on Christian radio while she cleaned or did dishes. I mean, how boring can you get, right? (It wasn't until years later that I realized she was employing the principle of keeping your head full of good things and wise teaching.)

These days, she's more likely to listen to Dr. David Jeremiah than Focus on the Family, but the good habit persists. Imagine my parents' surprise when, after patiently saving up for and scheduling their first Alaskan cruise, they heard that Dr. Jeremiah (from Turning Point, I believe) and company were going to be on the exact same cruise ship they were booked on two weeks later! Seeing a once in a lifetime opportunity, they called their travel agent and asked if it was possible to just swap their bookings for that week. Everyone was wonderful and in no time they were all set.

Then they called Inspiration Cruises (the company who runs almost all major Christian cruise programs) and the headaches began. The customer service agents were uniformly rude and unhelpful. My parents were informed they had to completely cancel their current plans (thereby cheating their very sweet and helpful travel agent out of any commission, despite all the work she'd already done for them) and rebook with Inspiration – paying hundreds of dollars more for the exact same thing!

Turning Point staff, when contacted, were extremely concerned and apologetic, but ultimately helpless. Inspiration controlled all decisions and refused to budge. My parents ultimately decided not to deal with the nonsense and stopped pursuing it. They were able to attend one Sunday chapel service on the ship at which Dr. Jeremiah spoke, but that was it.

As someone who has spent years in business, I was appalled.

First of all, there is never any excuse for customer service reps to be rude. Ever.

Secondly, this company handles cruises for Christian organizations. Whether or not they are Christian themselves, their behavior directly reflects on the Christian companies they represent. Bad press can be devastating to any company; being held to higher than average standards, faith-based companies should be particularly conscious of and conscientious about their image and the choices that shape it.

Third, the entire situation could have been avoided with proper management in the first place. No mention is made on the website or in literature for the cruise about the restrictions of booking only through Inspiration at higher prices. Travel agents are unaware of the restrictions, making them unable to offer relevant counsel. Every company gets to set its own rules, but if yours don't uniformly align with common sense then the onus is on you to make sure they're consistently and clearly stated to prevent confusion, frustration and waste.

I close with two words of caution. To potential cruise-goers: tread carefully with Inspiration. To Christian companies: choose your partners carefully – their conduct reflects on you! In the world of Twitter and Facebook, you will never catch up with or smooth over all the bad publicity a poorly chosen partner can churn up.

Wednesday, August 15

Blue Star Museums

I had a “duh” moment recently when my husband and I went to the Farmer's Museum in Cooperstown. I love living history museums, and they were running a special Blacksmithing weekend that my husband was interested in checking out, so we made time to drive over. (Great museum, by the way; definitely recommend checking it out if you're ever in the area!)

When we got to the gate, my husband pulled out his military ID card since most museums have a military discount. The very nice lady behind the counter informed us that they're part of the Blue Star Museum program and we both got in for free! The irony, of course, is that the museum I volunteer at also is part of the BSM program and I should have known we'd qualify for free entry. Since I completely spaced it, I wanted to offer a reminder to anyone else out there who might qualify and not be aware!

The Blue Star Museum program is a collection of museums nationwide that offer free admission to active military and up to 5 family members from Memorial Day to Labor Day annually. Anyone in active duty, the Reserves, or National Guard qualifies. (You need a military ID or dependent card to show at the gate.) A list of participating museums and additional details can be found here.

Personally, I think this is a fantastic program that doesn't get nearly the press it should. Many military families aren't aware of it at all. I know it's the middle of August already, but the program runs every year. Will you consider passing the word along?

If you know anyone in the military, please forward them the website so they know. if you go to a museum and see that they participate, will you thank them? All museums appreciate feedback, especially when it's positive!

If you are military and haven't heard about this, shoot an email to your base PR person or whoever is in charge of sending out base-wide emails with a request that they circulate the info. Then stick a note on your calendar for next summer so you'll remember – unlike me!

Monday, August 13

Mud. Sweat. Beer.

It was pouring rain with rolling thunder when we got to Windham Mountain last weekend, and it couldn't have been more perfect for an event whose tag-line is Mud. Sweat. Beer.!

The Warrior Dash is a 5k obstacle run that specializes in mud. Over 1 million people participate annually, many of them in costume. Anything warrior is fair game – I saw everything from Xena to Han Solo to Civil War soldiers! A new cadre of runners lines up every half hour to take to the course under a burst of flame. Up hill, through troughs of mud, over walls, across ropes and through tunnels they run, laugh, slide... and get filthy. 

They cross the finish line to steins of beer (or Gatorade), music, Ren Faire style turkey legs and assorted high-adrenaline rides. By the time my husband and his friend crossed the finish line the sun had come out and it was gorgeous. We've already got the event on the calendar for next year... and next time I'll be running instead of watching.

Interested? Here are couple things to know before you go that don't show up on the website:
  1. Dogs are allowed. The website says they're not, but there were a ton of dogs there. Be forewarned, however that they too will be crazy mudballs before you leave.

  2. Don't bring your kids. There were plenty of kids there, but I pretty much thought the parents were nuts. There were people wearing some pretty skimpy things to run in, and the food choices were geared towards adults. There were rides for kids, but they were $20 a pop. There also wasn't a lot of shade, and kids don't handle hot or wet nearly as well as adults. Get a sitter – it will be worth every penny.

  3. Wear sufficient clothing. Costumes are fun and welcome, but you'll be slogging through mud and sliding over rocks – wear something that can offer protection!

  4. Get there early. You have to use tickets to buy food, and tickets have to be purchased in cash at the exchange counter. So bring plenty of cash and then stop at the counter when you arrive to stock up on tickets – otherwise you wind up spending a lot of time waiting in line later, just to wait in line again at the food tent!

  5. Get there early (seriously)! You need time to park, turn in your waiver, get your shirt (and free hat!) and then either drop your gear at the gear check or run it back out to your car. Line-up for each wave starts as soon as the last wave is out of the gate (a new wave goes every half hour). Give yourself lots of time!

  6. Bring a change of clothes. You do not want to be driving home in the same clothes you raced in. (Trust me.) Also, bring plastic bags to transport the muddy clothes you'll be taking off.

  7. Sign up for an early time slot. With new waves of runners every half hour, you can have three or even four different waves of people on the course at a time, depending on participants' speed and capabilities. That can mean backlogs at some obstacles. The later in the day you run, the more people there are hanging around from earlier runs at the food tents and rides as well. If you love a crowd, come late. If you're not a fan of waiting around, come early.

Are you a Warrior?

Friday, August 10

You Be Sweet by Patsy Caldwell

Food is irrevocably intertwined with life and love; taste memories and traditions pass from generation to generation and circle through communities. Cooking school founder Patsy Caldwell and writer Amy Wilson have gathered together a collection of recipes that mean the most the them and short, sweet stories of the community and love those recipes represent, and share them with lucky readers in You Be Sweet. Drinks, desserts and yummy snacks spill out of these pages in a delightful sugar rush that makes your fingers itch to start baking.

The instant you pick up this book, you know it was put together by someone who knows what they're doing. Thick glossy pages, recipes in easy-to-read formats and fonts, and photos that are professional without being pretentious.

Typical of most Southern-inspired cookbooks, it is heavy on peaches, lemons, pecans and other ingredients that may be less readily available (or significantly more expensive) outside the South. It makes no apologies for it's ingredient lists – sugar, butter, heavy cream, and sour cream are staples. Whipped topping, jello packets, cake mixes, marshmallow fluff and corn syrup make appearances as well. That said, the recipes were user friendly and many could be adapted by/for those of us whose kitchens don't allow for sugar, processed foods, etc. I look forward to working my way through it!

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book for free in return for my honest opinion. If you check out my other reviews, you'll see that I have no problem honestly saying when I hated something; I just happened to genuinely enjoy this one!

Career Advice

I've noticed a common theme appearing in the most diverse and curious places: a resistance to traditional college degrees. While the institutions of education push harder than ever to get every child to go to college, thinking people across America are pushing back:
  • A blogger I have great respect for shared her home-schooled daughter's desire to become a nanny after graduation, and how they researched what top placement agencies want in candidates. They found college degrees weren't nearly as sought after as literacy skills and fluency in multiple languages. Based on their discussions with intake staff, they've mapped out a plan for the next several years that will provide everything she needs to walk into a job without ever stepping foot in college.

  • A young college graduate at a workshop I attended was already finding the need to supplement her degree with outside education to get the skills employers are really seeking.

  • Before taking my current job, I seriously considered going back to school for a nutrition degree. I found that largely- online certifications such as Nutritional Therapy Practitioner are infinitely cheaper and more practical for most people who want to actually help others rather than play the what-will-insurance-pay-for game.

  • The stay-at-home daughter movement argues that many women whose primary plans include staying home to raise children or partnering with their husbands in business are vastly better served by self-education or targeted training in non-college environments. They'll get the knowledge and skills they need without wracking up crippling debt or wasting time on politically mandated classes they don't need or want.

  • Sir Ken Robinson pointed out in his latest book that when only about 20% of the population got college degrees they were the primary sifting tool for employers. Now that they have become so common, their power has seriously eroded.
Certainly college degrees are not worthless; even more obscure degrees can prove to be a gateway to a great career and in some cases they serve as the minimum standard for entry. For some students the simple fact of being in a new place, with new people and fully responsible for themselves for the first time can be a vital (and steep) learning curve they need to tackle to be prepared for later success.

But did you notice the one thing that stood out in all the examples I listed? Research. 

The key to being successful now is doing your homework. Asking the questions - not of guidance counselors or college reps, but of the people doing the hiring and the ones working in the field right now. No matter what you (or your child) wants to do, give yourself time to do the research. You might be surprised by what you find - and you might save yourself a couple years and thousands of dollars in the process!

Wednesday, August 8

The Extreme Backwardness of Housing Policy

A recent run-in with our insurance company, coupled with my work on housing grants, has made me seriously question the craziness of America's current policies on housing.

For example, the current methods for establishing the value of a house:
  • Don't reflect what the house can actually be sold for or what it would cost to restore the property in the event of a disaster
  • Don't reflect the investments that went into a property to make it what it is
  • Take no account of the intangibles that are an inextricable part of the value of a home
  • Place undue weight on variables that often don't apply to homeowners at all
When you consider the deplorable state of America's infrastructure, and remember the truism that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, it seems that the government could get a lot more bang for it's buck with a few simple revisions to policy.

Currently we dump millions of dollars into government programs that rebuild (or replace) derelict housing for low income families. Though well intentioned, they cause problems to be left until they are at their most unsafe and most expensive before fixing. They give houses to people who will be no more capable of maintaining the new structure than they were the last one, and see hundreds of thousands of dollars get eaten up by administrative costs - fees, filings, etc. 

Meanwhile, in addition to no assistance in making unglamourous but absolutely vital repairs and upgrades, hard-working homeowners living within their means are often penalized with higher property taxes for their efforts!

It's mind-boggling to think what a few simple revisions to policy could accomplish.
  • Reducing the administrative and filing fees involved in purchasing, maintaining or upgrading property would free up hundreds of thousands of dollars annually that could be applied directly to projects that increase the value and safety of existing housing stock. (And could be easily accomplished. Eliminate unnecessary restrictions, and track crucial information through a simple online processing tool.)
  • Instead of trading iPods for guns, trade unsafe, outdated housing systems for new ones. An old water heater for an energy-efficient tank-less one. An electricity guzzling washer/dryer for a new energy star model. Bought in bulk or surplus, safer and more efficient appliances could be cheaply obtained. Increased efficiency will free up homeowner funds for other improvements, and the government will benefit from reductions in pressure on energy grids, pollution and public safety risks.
  • Encourage homeowners' insurance providers to run their own incentive and reduced-cost upgrade programs. They will immediately benefit (safer homes are less likely to have catastrophic incidents forcing giant pay-outs), and see returns over the long term as improvements to general housing stock will raise real property values. 
That's the end of my rant for now. I have no action steps for how to replace the current boondoggle on policy nonsense with practical, forward-thinking legislation, so I'll just say this: keep your eyes open. As the Wizard's Second Rule warns us, the worst of consequences can come from the best of intentions. Cheer on every smart, practical program you can find to improve America's housing stock and don't get suckered into supporting bad programs just because they good intentions.

Monday, August 6

The First Rule of Homesteading

Since I first read it, I have appreciated the wisdom of Titus 2 and wondered why it does not feature more prominently in the church. I didn't actually hear the verse until I was an adult and reading about homesteading. The reason I ran into there, I've found, is because it speaks to the very soul of the independent, self-sufficient lifestyle.

The first rule of homesteading is to share what wisdom you know generously and receive wisdom from others with thankfulness and modesty.

I believe this is why so many homesteaders, though up to their eyeballs in their own projects, are compelled to blog – to pass along what they've learned the hard way so others don't have to. It is why I am tremendously grateful to have neighbors down the road (who have kids my age) that have taken us under their wings.

We spent three hours yesterday morning tramping around in state forests, being introduced to orchards, deer trails, old quarries and berry patches. It's a bad year for apples here, unfortunately, but the black cap berries are ripening and a handful of hickory nuts are already dropping from the trees. We're learning to look for and identify these precious resources and scoop up what we can. God willing, next year we'll be able to skip buying bushels of apples and pints of berries, collecting them free from land no one else bothers with. It will save us hundreds of dollars – money that can be invested in garden infrastructure and other essentials.

We'll only know how because our self-taught neighbor took it upon himself to offer his valuable knowledge to the next generation. To others of the same mind, with the same values. And because we were willing to listen.

We are doing no favors to the current generation of children coming up through school with collaborative learning techniques and find-it-yourself teaching methodologies. We rob them of the understanding that their elders have accumulated wisdom from which they could learn if only they'd respect it, look for it and ask.

In the era of youtube and google, there's something startlingly wonderful about being able to walk beside another human being, seeing and touching the object you're learning about, asking questions and getting answers to your specific situation in real time. The longing for that personal touch echoes through the blogosphere, whether you read about homesteading, crafting, parenting or anything else.

We are all good at something, have lived through something or are passionate about something that someone else is trying to learn. We still have nearly a month before summer gives way to fall, school starts back up and the pace of life increases again (if it ever slowed down)... Will you consider looking around for opportunities to share what you know? Whether by blogging, inviting someone over for tea, or signing up to teach a course through your local extension/ continuing ed program, consider sharing what you know. Someone out there desperately wants to learn and would be so blessed.

(Note: Did you know that you don't have to have a degree in something to teach an extension/ continuing ed course? Usually a passion for your subject and a reasonable course outline is all it takes!)

Saturday, August 4

Windshield Surveys or Why You Need Trees

Recently, while reading about housing grants, I ran across the term Windshield Survey. As I had with so many other unfamiliar terms that morning, I googled it. What I found left me so incredulous that I ran it past someone I know who has been writing housing grants for years. She confirmed it: a Windshield Survey is when government representatives (usually County level or below) drive around, taking pictures and notes of what they see.

Typically they're looking for evidence of substandard or out-of-code buildings, gathering evidence to support their petitions for funding or for potential participants in rehabilitation programs. While I appreciate their good intentions, this idea seriously creeps me out... because the information rarely stops with them.

Once government (at any level) has information, it begins to travel. Reports on out-of-code housing work their way to the ears of code enforcement officials, leading to citations and demands for costly clean up or repair work. They reach social works in the school system who start paying attention to your kids, looking for other evidence that things may not be well and opening up entirely new cans of worms.

"Higher income" homeowners find their properties being reevaluated to make sure they're paying enough in taxes and that recent improvements to the property were properly cleared with the local government and inspected, sometimes leading to extensive fees, fines and even forced replacement of or changes to finished work for the most inane of things - unapproved fence styles, expansion of a deck a single foot further than allowed, etc.

The good news is that government officials of any kind are not allowed on your property unless you invite them. Which means that a simple privacy fence or hedge can dramatically reduce their visual access to your domain.

Because its summer, our property is almost entirely invisible from the road. When winter comes, however, the foliage will die back and we'll be much more visible. Although where we live is unlikely to experience windshield surveys, we're discussing the possibility of putting evergreens in along the roadway to eliminate the need to worry about such things altogether.

I know that not everyone is as possessive about their privacy as I am. I understand that extroverts often highly value visually open property and the possibilities it opens up for unplanned interaction and easy-flowing parties. But I believe everyone has the right to know that this kind of thing goes on and to protect themselves if they so desire.

Oh, and while you're at it, think about putting a gate across your driveway... Now that we've experienced having one, I'll never be without one again!