My family has always been politically divided. My parents used to joke about “canceling out each other's votes,” as my mom entered the voting booth a Democrat and my dad a staunch Republican. I remember how much I loved being at my mom’s side in the voting booth, peeking out under the stiff curtains while she made her choices. She would let me pull the lever that both registered her vote and sprang open the rough, pleated fabric shroud, and we would step out into the brightness of the crowded gymnasium and go about our day.
I remember a lot of arguments as a kid between my parents, but they were almost never about politics. They left that topic alone, as they knew they wouldn’t agree. My brother and I have adopted the same tactic over time, and that has allowed us to explore some interesting conversational territory. As most who know me or follow my circus of a Facebook page know, I’m about as far left as a progressive can get, while my older brother took after our dad, and grew up to be a self-described “very conservative,” devout Christian Republican with strong independent leanings (the latter being the only trait all three siblings seem to share).
We’ve had our disagreements over the years, but love and respect have trumped our differences and we have developed a complicated conversational dance that allows us to focus on the areas of agreement rather than attempt to persuade each other to switch positions...most of the time, anyway. On a recent visit to McAllen, Texas, for my niece’s wedding, we managed to successfully find areas of agreement during wide-ranging discussions on topics as diverse (and potentially explosive) as gun control, Monsanto and even electoral politics — something I’ve had difficulty doing with friends whose positions are closer to my own.
At its heart, this is the point of the Mayday Experiment: to engender respectful, face-to-face conversations that explore what we can agree upon. In that, the project is solution-based. I have no desire to argue about whether or not climate change exists, but instead to focus on what we can do to live in a way that is thriftier, easier on the planet and cleaner for future generations. Focusing on sustainability sidesteps the science that some might find confusing or even divisive, avoids the political traps of discussing why people believe what they believe. It’s hard to argue, for example, that a dirty river is better than a clean one, or that anyone should want toxic smoke billowing into their back yard.
A lifetime of conversations with my politically diverse brothers has prepared me for this task — and it’s surprising how close we are in terms of our solutions, despite our disagreements on the need for them. Though my conservative brother doesn’t believe in climate change, he does believe in getting off-grid, having a cleaner environment and organic gardening, something that might surprise many who buy into the left/right stereotype. He uses no pesticides in his family's organic garden (which grows the best figs I’ve ever tasted in my life), is working on inventing a way to harvest water from the air without electricity, and is building a solar array for his home.
My brother Richard, also a writer and an inveterate tinkerer, spent fifteen years as a professional engineer and was always a bit of a nerd, even managing the local Radio Shack in high school. Now he makes his living in part by writing articles for “Preppers” – the segment of the off-grid community concerned about preparing for a catastrophe, just not necessarily a climate-related one.
It’s always been interesting to me how the “far left” and the “far right” sometimes come full circle and meet in the middle. For instance, in the 1980s, feminist writer Andrea Dworkin found herself unlikely allies with the Reverend Jerry Falwell in their anti-pornography crusades. Similarly, environmentalists and survivalists have shared overlapping interests in recent years. To me, this illustrates how artificial the divide of “left” and “right” truly is, bolstered by a two-party system and a media that loves to oversimplify. In the end, some things are simply common sense: Whether you are looking to save money or save the world, it’s hard to argue that, when energy is free for the taking from the sky, you shouldn't use it — especially if it is cleaner than other methods of producing energy. When we find ourselves in a political season where those on the left are accusing each other of aligning with Karl Rove and those on the right find Trump “too liberal,” is it possible that we are no longer served by these rigid categories...and maybe never were?
Another thing my brother and I share is a desire to show people that getting off-grid is possible to do yourself. He has a far better skill set than I do for this task, and his inventiveness and ingenuity is hands-on in his garage workshop, attached to the house, but sweltering in the Texas sun. We often trade links online and chat via Facebook about sustainability and new developments in solar, brainstorming about materials to use for projects and sharing information…even though we occasionally poke each other on hot topics like Islam or systemic racism.
I was excited for this visit because not only would I see my beautiful niece marry her beloved, but because Richard had started on a surprise for me: a wind turbine for the tiny house! Created from random parts and a store-purchased fan, I found it half-built in his sweltering workshop when I sneaked away from wedding preparations to ooh and ahh over it. The week after I got back, he performed a test, mounting it to the top of his 1996 Pontiac Sunfire and driving around at 40 or 45 miles per hour, a speed at which it tested at 400 watts when moving. So merely being on the road, moving from point A to point B, Tiny will generate electricity – in fact, even better than solar. Since the typical solar panel is rated at 80 watts, according to my brother it would take "five to match the output of this. And that would cost much more than this did.”
Of course, wind turbines are commercially available at any big-box store, but they range in price from $400 to $2,500. My brother estimates his costs at about $100: some of the materials were things laying around his workshop, but the major expenditures were the fan at $39.96 and the motor for $36.99, plus about six hours of tinkering. The next steps will be to remove the mounting brackets and build new ones that will hold it about a foot from the front of the tiny house, where it will catch the most wind while on the road.
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At this point, all the wind turbine will need is a small solar charge controller, easily obtained for $10 on eBay, as well as lead-acid deep cycle batteries, also known as “marine batteries." Add a voltage inverter, and it will be ready to generate electricity, aiding my solar panels by producing electricity every time Tiny and I hit the road.
The political winds will blow where they may, but no matter their direction, those winds will now help power the tiny house.
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging out her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here or here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.