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All articles here are written by Melinda Briana Epler (that's me!) unless otherwise noted. I'm a documentary filmmaker, writer, and brand experience designer - I've dedicated my life to living a sustainable lifestyle and helping others do the same. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or thoughts for articles. Welcome!

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Me & The Weight Of The World

Me in Oakland with Raggedy Ann


Rob has tagged me for a meme.  (Thank you, Rob.)  I’m not a big fan of memes, though.  So I was thinking about ways to honor his recognition and interest in finding out some things about me, and I thought I’d delve into how I came find who I am and what I care about.


With the economy continuing on its downward path, and climate change now looking to be somewhat irreversible, there is a lot to be down about.  Sometimes reflection helps remind us who we are, and why….  Here goes!


(Note:  as always, mouse over the pictures for more information.)


Me Licking the Beater on My First Birthday


I was born in a lower-middle class family.  My mother was a first grade teacher when she was pregnant with me.  During those days (the early 70s) she was lucky to have a job, and she literally hid her pregnancy as long as she could so she wouldn’t lose her job.  But finally she could no longer hide her pregnancy and became unemployed.  


My father was in the Peace Corps in the 60s, and searched for a job where he could support his family but still do good for the world.  He settled into a government job, working for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  He stayed there until retirement – long after the HUD scandals of the 80s, and after he came to the realization that as a government worker he was working a lot more with red tape than actually helping people.  This all made his life quite frustrating for him, which carried into our family life.


Shivering young me.  We still have this towel, now used as a “dog blanket”!


We lived in Oakland, CA, where a drought in the 70s forced us to take infrequent baths, all four of us bathing consecutively to reuse the water (taking turns being the last one, as that was always the coldest!).  The bath water was then used to flush the toilet. 


I can remember having a friend of the family over for dinner once.  He was staying in a hotel in San Francisco, and was surprised to hear that there was a drought.  He said he’d taken a 20 minute shower that day, not knowing about the drought.  We were all utterly horrified… and a wee bit jealous at the same time.  (Sometimes I think of this today, when I see others being frivolous with precious resources as I continue to work on reducing my impact.)


My sister (2 years younger) and I holding a doll my grandmother made for me for Christmas. It was my favorite doll for a long time.


While we were rationing water, we were also rationing gas due to the energy crises (and here).  I remember sitting in lines at the gas station for hours, my mom fretting that the gas station would run out of gas before we got to the front of the line.  We had to plan very carefully, because we could only buy on odd-numbered days and gas became very expensive for our family.


Me as a Brownie, Marching in a Community Parade


We almost missed the parade because we ran out of gas on the way there.  I was very sad that I didn’t get a chance to make a sign : ( .


But just so you don’t get totally depressed, we did have a good time during those days! I just discovered this photo of my parents, which I think is hilarious:


My 70s parents.  The hair, the clothes, the Michelob...


And then it all changed in the 80s.  We moved from the Bay Area to Seattle, to be closer to my grandparents.  I believe you’ve met this guy:


My grandfather at his 50th wedding anniversary, wearing a gift from my father (golden shoes for their gold anniversary, I believe).  That’s his Cadillac in the background, btw.


We moved to a house with a pool (that we never used), 


Our Seattle Pool


and we did a lot of traveling.  Life was good in the 80s… For us, anyway…


My grandfather went to Hawaii for a business trip, and he took us all with him. (From left to right: my grandmother, mom, me, my sister, and my grandfather.)


My life change considerably on two separate trips my family took.  The first was a train ride to the middle of Mexico, in Baranca del Cobre (“Copper Canyon”):


Fleeting Views From the Train: People Living in Old Box Cars Deep Within The Canyon

Girls Younger Than I, Selling Baskets


The second was a trip around the US in a tiny borrowed trailer we slept in.  Not only did we get to all sorts of tourist spots, like historic Williamsburg (that’s my sister in the guillotine, below):


Lori In Williamsburg Guillotine


…But we also stayed in trailer parks, rode public transportation through Washington DC, and drove through miles and miles of farmland.  I’d never seen severe poverty in the US, massive industrial agriculture, nor the many historic battlegrounds where we fought Native Americans, British, and each other.  (Interestingly, I have no pictures of those things that made the biggest impression!)


We also did crazy things occasionally, like learn how to build an igloo (we stayed one night inside – amazingly easy and warm!).


I’m in black on the left (in a “different“ phase of my life), standing next to my sister.


I think there’s a lot I can learn from my own history, and my own experiences, as we look forward toward an uncertain future.  I’m seeing cycles of economy, I’m realizing I’ve learned some useful skills to adapt to changing circumstances.  And somehow looking back at history grounds me within a wider scope of reality.


Things are not perfect right now.  Not by a long shot.  But we can – and must – work hard.  We have new and useful technologies that we can bring together with the skills we’ve had for decades!  We can adapt, but we can also improve as we move forward….


Now, that was only the first half of my life.  You’ll get the second half whenever I get another meme (no encouragement here!!).  Let me dissuade you with this lovely, lovely, 80s photo:


High School In The 80s


And now I turn it over to you:  is there anything you can remember from your past that would be useful in the current state of our world?


Finding Longevity

My Grandfather and His Second Wife, Sipping Lemonade

 

As the calendars turn to a new year in our lives, longevity is often on our minds. A year ago, my grandfather was in the hospital with a blocked coronary artery – it was the first time he had ever been a patient in a hospital!

 

Next to a man who has lived 97 extremely healthy years, one can’t help thinking about the nature of longevity. As I wait to hear more about your thoughts for our site in 2009, I wanted to share with you what I wrote as I sat by his side in the hospital, a year ago…

 

Longevity


A nurse came in to see my grandfather just before his surgery, looked at his chart (born in 1911), and marveled at his age. She asked him how he lived so long. He thought for a moment and said, “Well, I suppose it’s because I always loved what I was doing.” Then he asked her, “Do you love what you’re doing?” She paused, looked down, and said, “You caught me – I don’t.”


My grandfather had several careers – he switched probably once every ten years on average. Every time he had learned all he could, and taken that business as far as he could go, he moved on. And he was able to get through the time “in between” jobs because he was smart with his money: investing wisely (and conservatively), minimizing debt, and not buying things he didn’t need.


What did my grandfather do? Well, I’m sure I’ll miss about half of his jobs, but from what I remember, he: worked in a grocery store, owned one of the first self-serve hardware stores, was a fireman and helped create the first aid car in Seattle, was a private detective for small businesses, was a pilot in the Marines in World War II, was a business consultant, and was hired to gracefully take several businesses out of business. After all that, he started up a Savings and Loan with two others who didn’t know anything about banking either, and brought it to such success that he was flying his own Cessna to other areas where they were set up franchises. He retired at the bank when he was 65 (about ten years before the S & L scandals in the 80s). After retiring he consulted with several businesses, and spent about five years bringing profit to three of my cousins’ businesses.


My grandfather is still working, even here in the hospital. He’s not overworking, but he still participates in several different charity organizations, all of whom rely on his input and expertise. It makes him feel needed, it keeps him mentally sharp, it gives the people he works with some continuity as he has often been with the organization for 50 or 75 years, and he is able to do something good for other people.


Essentially, he has surrounded himself by good, interesting people. So he has always had lots of people to live for – both family and friends. He has worked hard but has always liked what he did. And he has taken good care of his health, by eating fresh fruits and vegetables from his gardens, getting lots of exercise (walking and working in the garden), regularly visiting a doctor for check-ups, and nurturing himself when ill. He’s also never smoked nor over-consumed alcohol.

 

In the hospital there is a great deal of emphasis on being in touch with your pain, and reducing it whenever possible. When your body has pain, it is generally an indicator that something is wrong. Pain also puts your body through a lot of stress – not just physical pain, but also emotional pain. By contrast, happiness and contentedness are indicators of good health – both emotional and physical. Not only are they related to longevity, but they are related to quality of life. And so we must focus on emotional and physical health.


We often forget that when a close loved one takes good care of himself, we all benefit by his quality of life and longevity. I’ve spent so many wonderful hours with my grandfather (you may find that obvious by now!). My second cousin will be having a baby in January. That baby will be my grandfather’s great great grandson. Five living generations. Can you imagine bouncing a great great grandchild on your knee? Or watching your great granddaughter marry the man she loves? Or having a life-changing conversation with your granddaughter? All as you pass on your memories to all of them. These are good motivations to live well and happily throughout our lives.

 

 

Update:  My grandfather’s heart was fixed with a relatively simple procedure, and while the time in the hospital took a while to recover from fully, now he is doing well.  Since we moved to Seattle, I have had lunch with him once a week, and we have had such a wonderful time.  Oh, and that great, great grandson was born last January.  Here they are this Christmas – spanning 97 years and 5 generations!

 

Grandpa, Marion, & their Great, Great Grandson

 

How Was Your Holiday Celebration Different This Year?

The youngest, opening his first Christmas presents

The youngest, opening his first Christmas present


The hazardous snowy conditions, combined with precarious economic situations, remarkably altered the tone of our family’s holiday celebrations this year. There were fewer gifts and more hugs. There was more caring, more homemade food, more focus on the children and more emphasis on good conversation.


The snow brought us all together, as we phoned each other all morning trying to figure out whether each of us could make it, and who was picking up whom to minimize cars on the perilous roads. When we finally made it, the Frangelico-infused coffee warmed our tummies as we watched the snow fall from the skies and coat the earth. All of the food served was homemade. All of the gifts given were filled with extra thought and care.


Family Christmas Celebration


One of my relatives only had $200 for gifts this year, so she gave half to each of her two favorite local charities, saying, “we’re all so lucky that we have everything we need.” My grandfather, who often gives each person in the family a check for Christmas, kept most of his money in his dwindling investments this year and instead gave a bit of cash to each of the youngest kids for their savings accounts.


There was far less wrapping paper and plastic wrap in the trash this year. Because there were fewer gifts, but also because my mom wrapped each gift she gave in a reusable grocery bag. Matt and I wrapped in reused paper and cloth bags – or we didn’t wrap at all.


We kept most of our traditions, but sometimes they were switched a bit due to the snow. For instance, we didn’t gather on Christmas Eve because the roads were too icy – so we read ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas on Christmas night, with my sister and her husband participating via speaker phone. But these switches actually made the holiday even more meaningful.


Grandpa, Marion, and their Great, Great Grandson


These are difficult economic times for many of us, and the snow made our streets unsafe, but there sure were some wonderful side effects to both of these elements this holiday season. Did you have a similar experience?


How Was Your Holiday Celebration Different This Year?


Were there fewer gifts, more hand- or home-made? Was there a greater sense of togetherness?


“What Would My Grandfather Do?”

In The Garden

In The Garden of Their Retirement Home


Every Wednesday I take my grandfather and his wife out to lunch. “Wait – his wife? Isn’t that your grandmother?” you ask. Well no, she’s his second wife. On Sunday the whole family got together to celebrate their 10th anniversary. They’re 97 years old.


Yes, when they were 87, they called both families together, paid for a lovely dinner, and then at the end of a wonderfully eloquent speech about the family and how much they loved each of us, they said in unison, “… But, we wanted to let you know that we’re spending your inheritance!” And for the next five years they literally traveled around the world together.


She now has Alzheimer’s, so she has good days and bad. Her quality of life is pretty good, though, because she has him. And my grandfather? He is still smart as a whip.


Yesterday we went down on the waterfront and had lunch composed of mostly local food: seafood and salad with berries. It was a beautiful day, we sat and watched the water and discussed how to change the world. Surprised you, didn’t I? Yes, every week there is a new topic to tackle, a new problem to solve. It has ranged from homelessness to climate change to the recession to our problems of garbage (Seattle ships garbage to Portland… long story). Last week it was peak oil. Yes, peak oil. He knows about it, and understands it, and tries to figure out how to solve it. Of course he doesn’t know the term, but who cares about the term – it’s just a term and it can be misleading anyway.


Yesterday’s topic was the bank crises. My grandfather built a couple of savings and loans from the ground up in the 70s and 80s. And he knew when to get out, too – a few years before the savings and loan crisis, he sold all of his shares and retired, because he saw it coming. Anyway, my grandfather mentored a guy named Kerry Killinger – gave him his first start and taught him everything he knew. He’s now the CEO of Washington Mutual. My grandfather says, with the shake of his head, “he knew better than to take those risks.” But that’s another topic. I want to get to the title of this post!


On Finding a Check Register


So, the other day I took my grandfather to buy a check register. It’s #12. The same one he’s used for 50 years. And he’s bought it from the same guy for 50 years. So we drove to his old neighborhood in Ballard, turned down a few side streets and then an alley and finally pulled behind a tiny run-down building where the guy’s shop was. It was closed, so my grandfather walked around and talked to the other businesses there to find out if the guy was still around. It was like walking through another era. In this little building there were three small businesses, all had been around forever, were run by the business owners themselves, and had people coming in as they had been coming in for years.


Well, the business owners said the man who sold the registers had retired, but it turns out one of the shop owners was the son of an old friend, so the two chatted for some time. Then the guy pointed my grandfather to Office Depot, where we did find the register. It was weird for my grandfather to go into that place, sterile and all, asking questions of people who worked there who weren’t invested in the store at all. But they had the register! I leafed through its pages: the design, shape, style – all have remained the same for at least 100 years. And it fits into the same leather cover my grandfather has had for 50 years, and it lasts for about 10 years: “It will last longer than me!” my grandfather said.


And that got me thinking on the way home. I realized that over the past year or two, since I’ve really been thinking about living sustainably, I’ve found myself asking on several occasions, “What would my grandfather do?”


My Grandfather, His Grandson, and His Great Great Grand Son

My Grandfather, His Grandson, and His Great Great Grandson

 

What Would My Grandfather Do?


I can’t decide which item to buy: the inexpensive one or the nice one. What would my grandfather do? He’d first decide if he really needed it by making sure he didn’t already have one, and then figuring out if he could make do with something he already has. If he still needed to buy it, he’d buy the one that will last forever.


I have a family member who is hard on his luck right now. What would my grandfather do? He’d help him get back on his feet, any way he could.


I have a friend who is ill. What would my grandfather do? He’d go visit, and he’d bring some nice home-cooked food for the family.


I need to write something down. What would my grandfather do? He’d take an old envelope from a bill and write on the back of it. (He wrote our wedding toast on the back of a card we’d sent him months before – he liked that it was so pretty and thought it added extra meaning to the toast. Then he gave it to us after the toast as a keepsake.)


I don’t need these dishes any more. What would my grandfather do? He’d give them to someone who really does need them.


Should I go out to eat or stay in? What would my grandfather do? Stay in, unless it’s a special occasion. And going out to lunch once a week with a granddaughter who has been out of town for 15 years is a special occasion.


The economy is going south. What would my grandfather do? Stop spending, plant more food in the garden, make sure all of his money is insured and in no-risk cds, and check to be sure everyone in the family is doing ok. If they’re not, he’d help them. After all that, he’d try to figure out in his head how to turn around the economy, and how to help others in need. Then he’d put any extra money into programs that help others in need, and he’d bring up those problems to fellow board members at Kiwanis and other boards on which he serves.


It’s big things, and small things. I don’t know if these qualities come from growing up in the Depression, being a hard working man, not growing up in the computer age, or just learning to be a good person. But for my grandfather, every decision matters, to ourselves, our family, our friends, our communities, and the world as a whole.


Supporting small businesses, bringing family and friends together and being there for them – without fail, living a frugal and conscientious lifestyle, making himself aware of what is going on in the local and national economy and political arenas, and enjoying life to its fullest… These are things he does well. And for all of these reasons I often ask myself, “What would my grandfather do?”


Toast At Our Wedding

Toasting At Our Wedding


What do you think?


Do you have someone in your life like this? Do you think about the “old ways” of doing things? Am I too nostalgic for a time when these things mattered to most people? Will we all live this way again: deliberately, happily, frugally, sustainably?