And Now a Word About Food…

Monday, September 26, 2011

Thanks to my friend fivecats for sending me a tip about this weekend’s op-ed by Mark Bittman in the New York Times. I think might agree with it 100% — that doesn’t happen too often around these parts.

I think I could excerpt every paragraph and say that’s what I’ve been saying for years. Here’s one:

The alternative to soda is water, and the alternative to junk food is not grass-fed beef and greens from a trendy farmers’ market, but anything other than junk food: rice, grains, pasta, beans, fresh vegetables, canned vegetables, frozen vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, bread, peanut butter, a thousand other things cooked at home — in almost every case a far superior alternative.

Here’s another:

The smart campaign is not to get McDonald’s to serve better food but to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden, or at least as part of a normal life.


(And speaking of food, and amens, here’s an interesting project that’s getting ready to move into the building where The Scrap Exchange lives: Feed My Sheep / Bull City Urban Market. (And they’re in the Pepsi Challenge if anyone wants to go vote for them. It sounds like a great project.)

Scrap Story #10: Money

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Last one!

I’m sure you’ll miss me when I’m gone.

Given that this is a fundraiser, and I am the Treasurer for The Scrap Exchange, I decided to write this last story about money.

The Scrap Exchange is on a calendar year fiscal year. The way our budget process works is that Ann and I get together in the fall, late October or early November, and she tells me what she wants. Generally it’s more of everything, but mostly more staff so we can do more work and higher wages so people can work without feeling like they’re indentured servants.

I lowball what we’re likely to bring in and give Ann everything she asks for. Then I see how far off those are. Usually it’s about $40,000. (Out of a budget that has gone from $180,000 in 2005 to over $300,000 last year.)

We get together and talk about it and she says I think we’ll do more outreach than that and I think we’ll get another grant somewhere and I think the store will do better. We up the income. Then I bring expenses down by taking out some of the wish list items and adjusting some of the cushion I’d put in for utilities and gas for the vans and things like that.

Usually we get the gap down to ten or fifteen thousand dollars. And Ann doesn’t want to take anything else out, she says leave it like that, we’ll find the money.

I call that Jesus Money — the money we’ll get when Jesus walks in the door and gives us ten thousand dollars.

In 2005, I was not yet on the board of The Scrap Exchange and was mightily resisting all entreaties to join. I said I liked being involved at the level I was involved at, working and giving support but staying out of everything else. (It had a pretty complicated setup in those days; it wasn’t something I wanted to be in the middle of.)

It was November. Things were not so great with finances, they were way under budget for the year. I was talking to Ann about it. I said well budgets are funny, sometimes things seem worse than they are. I’ll take a look.

I looked. It was bad.

Ann’s friend Erica had convinced her millionaire boyfriend to donate his almost-new pickup truck to The Scrap Exchange instead of trading it in when he bought a new vehicle. Ann had planned on selling it, but had had it for a while and had been having trouble getting what she thought it was worth; there had been a couple of offers but they were low and the sales process had lost steam.

After I looked at the numbers, I told Ann she had to sell the truck — maybe she wasn’t going to get top dollar for it but she had to so something.

A week or two later, she sold the truck for $12,000.

They came out ahead for the year.

A couple of years later — when I actually was the Treasurer and was responsible for the numbers, not just someone looking at them to see what I thought — we were coming up to the end of the year and it was touch and go, didn’t look like we were going to make budget for the year. We got a call in mid-December from a foundation run by the family of one of our good friends and former volunteers. They wanted our address, they were sending us a check for $10,000.

We came out ahead for the year.

Jesus money.

The tracking portion of the fundraiser ended yesterday. We made around $22,000, which is not $60,000 but is $22,000 more than we had last month. This is some of our Jesus money for this year.

(And just to put things into perspective, that’s four or five times more than we normally make from individual donors in a year. We’re usually about ninety per cent self-sustaining through mission-driven earned income and fee-for-service programming. The other ten per cent is generally grants we get for specific projects or for general operating support. Income from individual donations is usually budgeted at around five thousand dollars.)

Also we have some procrastinators who never managed to send out their appeals and who say they’re going to do them now, so hopefully that number will edge up a little bit in coming weeks. As I said on the website and in the message I sent out to the Scrap Exchange mailing list, the tracking portion of the fundraiser is over, but the need for support is ongoing.

We will continue to work hard and do what we can and adjust what we have to in order to get through this. I didn’t see any way we could be self-sustaining this year with such a large increase in expenses in such a short time frame, but we know we want to get back to that as soon as possible. And hopefully we’ll figure out a way to pay for some upfit to our new space, heating and better electricity and a bunch of other things we need. But we’ll do what we’ve always done, work with what we’ve got and do the best we can. We’re a pretty resourceful organization.

Ann enjoys telling people that the organization’s treasurer was profiled in People magazine for eating for a dollar a day. She says who else would you want managing your money than someone who can eat for a dollar a day?

She has a point.

Thank you to everyone who made donations and replied with comments about the stories and sent me your good wishes. It was nice to know that people were reading and enjoying them.

And the next time you’re in Durham, stop by The Scrap Exchange. I promise it will be worth the trip.

Scrap Story #9: Trophies

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

This was going to be a story about trophies, but then I found out that the Scrap Exchange website was showing a weird “Your Website” default page instead of the site, so it almost turned into a story about how I tracked down the person who is supposedly providing web hosting for us and throttled him. But then he fixed it so I did not have to track him down and throttle him and now it’s a story about trophies again.

Trophies are one of those things that you get a lot of when you’re young, and some of them are meaningful when you get them and some of them aren’t, but generally they’re not something you need to have in your life forever. Especially the eighth place ones, no one really needs a shelf full of those.

And they’re one of those things that you don’t really know what to do with once you’re done having them on your shelf. Though my friend Molly told me about a neighbor of hers who used them as yard art, she buried the bottom part so just the shiny figures were sticking out. Molly said it looked pretty great with the sunlight glinting off them.

So burying them in your garden is definitely an option, but if you live in Durham, you can also bring them to The Scrap Exchange.

And then what happens to them?

Well, if they’re lucky, they might be picked to star in a movie. (Phoebe and Daniel are making a film involving a variety of Scrap materials, and Daniel’s Scrapamals, and a trophy. I would love to describe it in more detail but I haven’t actually seen it yet.)

Or they might get remade into a fabulous set of new trophies, like the ones the staff made to give to winners of the Iron Crafter competition.

Iron Crafter Trophies

(Iron Crafter is the Scrap Exchange version of Iron Chef, where contestants are challenged to make something in a set time period using specific materials, including one “secret ingredient.” We held the first one at the holiday party in December 2009 and did it again at last year’s holiday party. It was fascinating, and wildly popular.)

Shortly after the first Iron Crafter competition I was out with some folks from another organization  I work with that does nonprofit technology work (PIN, Inc./RTPnet/NCTech4Good). We were getting ready for a conference in the spring, and wanted to honor the founder of the organization, Judy Hallman. It was the organization’s 20th anniversary and they were talking about what they could do for her that would be special.

I said, “Hey, we could give her a trophy from The Scrap Exchange!” I was thinking of the fabulous Iron Crafter trophies.

They were like Zoe and Beth’s friend Megan when I said we were going to make palm trees — they were like uh, okay, maybe we could do that. But we should do something else too, something real.

I said okay whatever.

I’m talking to Ann later, I said we were trying to figure out what to do to honor someone for twenty years of amazing work, I suggested making a trophy from The Scrap Exchange but they wanted to do something real. Ann rolled her eyes. She said, “C’mon now. What’s more real than a trophy from The Scrap Exchange?”

So we made plans for the reception and figured things out but between one thing and another, a few loose ends didn’t quite get tied up. I said that’s okay, I’ll make the trophy.

So I go to The Scrap Exchange and of course there are no trophies anywhere on the shelves.

(This is one of the problems with things at The Scrap Exchange, it’s not like we can order more if something runs out — what we have is what we have and when it’s gone it’s gone. I always tell people if you see something you like, you should get it because it might not be there tomorrow.)

We looked around the backstock area to see if there were any stragglers hiding out anywhere but didn’t see anything . Then the person working at the checkout desk finds one behind the counter. She says, “Oh look! There is one.”

So I take it home and I’m thinking about what I’m going to do to it and then it occurs to me that maybe it was behind the counter for a reason. So I call the store and leave a message and say I have this trophy, let me know if you actually were saving that.

I get a call from Phoebe the next day who says yes, we were saving that, it’s the star of our Scrapamals movie. We’ve shot part of it already but aren’t done yet, we really need her back. But we have the top of a trophy with no base that we can trade you for.

So I take the trophy back and get the top part and am trying to figure out what I’m going to do for the rest of it when I have a revelation.

Among the things my mom brought me a few years ago were all of my tennis and soccer trophies from growing up. I didn’t necessarily want them, but I hadn’t gotten rid of them yet either, I’d just tossed them in a bin and put them up in the attic.

I realize that I don’t actually need a trophy from The Scrap Exchange, I just need a trophy, I can use one of my old trophies.

So I go up into the attic and bring down the bin of trophies. It turns out that trophies are mix-and-match, and you can put different bases with different stems and different figures. So I put two stems together to make it taller and added the winged victory figurine that Phoebe had given me. Then I attached pieces of a deconstructed computer to it and découpaged cutouts from old computer instruction manuals around the upper part of the base and wrote “RTPNet” in sparkly paper cut-out letters on the lower part of the base.

It looked very special.

We had the reception. We presented Judy with the trophy. She loved it.

It was definitely real.

So the next time you want to do something special for someone, I recommend making them a trophy out of … a trophy. They’ll love it. I promise.


Help! The Scrap Exchange Needs YOU!

Visit the Scrap Exchange website for full details on our fundraiser, or to make a tax-deductible, online donation through PayPal or Network for Good.

Rather go old school? Checks can be made payable to The Scrap Exchange and mailed to 923 Franklin St, Bay 1, Durham, NC 27701.

Technical Difficulties

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

UPDATE: The technical difficulties appear to have been resolved. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that the site stays up.


Okay so we appear to be having technical difficulties at the main Scrap Exchange website ( The website is down, with a weird generic page in its place. This is a problem given that we are one day away from the end of our fundraiser.

I think God hates us.

We’ve called our web host and sent emails and are hoping the situation is resolved quickly, but it’s been like this for a few hours already so it’s clearly not being resolved as quickly as we’d like.

For anyone looking to make an online donation, here is the link to Network for Good. If you’d like to make a Paypal donation, the button is available in the sidebar of the Scrap Exchange blog at

And I would say we should sack the IT people but I am the IT people and if I get sacked there will be no website at all, which hardly seems like an improvement.

Scrap Story #8: DIY

Monday, September 19, 2011

I’m talking to Ann today, I say I have three more stories to write, I know what two are, I don’t know what to do about the third. What should I write about?

She throws out a couple of suggestions, none of which I remember because they all sounded either completely unworkable or not very interesting. It was like when I was little and I would say I was bored and my mom would say things I could do and I would say no, no, no, I don’t feel like doing that.

She said, “Write about your class.” I said, “What’s the point of that? How does it have anything to do with bigger picture stuff, why The Scrap Exchange is important?”

She said, “Because it’s about teaching people how to do things differently, how to use less resources, how to work with what they have. It spreads knowledge. It helps people. That’s what we do.”

Okay, I’ll write about my class.

I bought my house in September 1999 and shortly after moving in was at The Regulator bookshop looking through books on home-type stuff and saw the book Better Basics for the Home by Annie Berthold-Bond. It had recipes for pretty much everything you could ever imagine needing or wanting around the house, including cleaning products, personal care products, hobby items, and more — from grout and whitewash to toothpaste and deodorant to finger paints and play dough.

It looked intriguing but I didn’t buy it because that’s not what I was there to get and I wasn’t sure I would actually make anything out of it. It didn’t seem like a good expenditure at that moment.

A few weeks later hurricane Floyd came through town and flooded the entire eastern half of the state of North Carolina. The Raleigh News & Observer printed an absolutely stunning aerial photograph of the aftermath that showed our state’s beautiful coastline covered by a vast rainbow of chemicals — every cleaner and pesticide that every person in eastern North Carolina had ever bought and left in their garage or under their sink had washed out of the garage or kitchen and into the ocean.

I was in a new house that didn’t have dozens of bottles of leftover things in the kitchen or garage; I decided I should try to keep it that way. I went back to The Regulator and bought Better Basics for the Home.

I don’t actually remember what I started with, but after a small amount of trial and error, I ended up with a repertoire of cleaning products that did pretty much everything I needed them to, and that were very simple — and extraordinarily cheap — to make.

I do a lot of things that other people aren’t going to do. I’m aware of that, and I generally try to keep my mouth shut about them. Most of my friends are gainfully employed, they are not interested in figuring out how to eat for less than $100 a month, they do not want to know which approaches to making toothpaste work better than others. Nearly all of the very interesting things I’ve learned in my life are of no consequence to them.

In spring 2004, when I was working at an event in Asheville with Ann, we had some Americorps volunteers helping us. They were totally great. Americorps volunteers get almost nothing to live on — they have a stipend of a few hundred dollars a month.

I was talking with them about some of the things I’ve learned, the type of things that I don’t even bother to discuss with my friends, and they were fascinated by it, they were totally hanging on every word. They were like “Wait! Let me go get my notebook so I can write this down!”

It was nice for a change.

On the drive back, Ann said, “You should teach a class on that at The Scrap Exchange.” It didn’t seem like such a good idea and I wasn’t sure how I would work it, but as I thought about it more, I decided that teaching a class on making cleaning products was self-contained enough that I could come up with something that made sense.

So I started teaching the class in the fall of 2004 and have taught it on and off ever since. (This session is off; I’m overloaded right now, need to cut out what I can.)

And it’s actually been very rewarding to teach the class and to be able to talk to people who are interested in learning about it and who find it valuable. Last year, I taught the class to a group of employees from the Environmental Protection Agency; someone who worked there had taken it when I first started giving it and thought her colleagues would find it useful. That was especially rewarding.

The main point of the class is to teach people how to make cleaning products so they don’t have to buy them, but a more important point is to teach people that there are other ways to do things that they might not have thought of before. And that’s really the point of The Scrap Exchange in general.

What do you need? How else could you do that? What could you use instead?

That’s why we’re here.


Help! The Scrap Exchange Needs YOU!

Visit the Scrap Exchange website for full details on our fundraiser, or to make a tax-deductible, online donation through PayPal or Network for Good.

Rather go old school? Checks can be made payable to The Scrap Exchange and mailed to 923 Franklin St, Bay 1, Durham, NC 27701.

Scrap Story #7: V’s Fire Truck

Saturday, September 17, 2011

My friend Victor

Me and my friend

In 2008, my friends Cathy and Jenny came down for a quick visit over the holidays. Cath brought her son Victor, who was two-and-a-half  at the time, with them. Despite the fact that he had never been here before, being able to go to The Scrap Exchange was a big selling point for getting him excited about the trip.

“We’re going to go to North Carolina and go to The Scrap Exchange and make a fire engine. Doesn’t that sound like fun?” (They lived around the corner from a fire station and Victor was in a huge fire engine phase at that point in his life.)

Along with being in a fire engine phase, he was also in a “No” phase. Like most two-and-a-half year olds, he would get in moods where he would say no to everything, it didn’t matter what you asked him. Do you want to walk? No. Do you want to ride in your stroller? No. Do you want to eat ice cream? No.

Are you two? No.

No. No. No.

So Jen and Cath and Victor drove down and got here in the afternoon and we hung out for a little bit and then decided to keep things moving and go over to The Scrap Exchange. Cath said, “Victor, do you want to go to The Scrap Exchange?”

Victor said, “Yes.”

Jen said, “That’s funny, that’s the first thing he’s said yes to all day.”

So we go over to The Scrap Exchange and figure out what we can do about making a fire truck. We go through the barrels in the Make-N-Take room and pull stuff out and Cath tries to realize her fire engine vision and she gets something put together and we give it to Victor to test out and he goes “Vrooom” and runs it across the floor and three of the four wheels fall off.

Back to the drawing board.

We rethink the engineering and shore things up and have him take it for another spin and after a series of tweaks we ended up with something that seemed like it would hold up.

Victor's Fire Truck

Victor loved that fire truck and proceeded to play with it more or less continuously for the rest of their visit. We went out to brunch the next day and Victor took the truck in to the restaurant with him. It got its fair share of admiring stares.

One of the things that’s interesting about making playthings from Scrap Exchange materials is that they have a completely different value from store-bought toys. This is something people don’t necessarily see if they’ve never done it.

One of the criticisms I heard about The Scrap Exchange when I first started getting involved was from people who felt that the organization wasn’t really saving anything, that these materials that had been deferred from the landfill were taken and made into projects that were then thrown away. Big deal.

There are a couple of responses to that.

One is the “process not product” response: the importance is not the end result but the process of thinking of something and putting it together.

One is the fact that pretty much everything gets thrown away eventually; making something out of materials that were going to be thrown away anyway is still better than buying things made in China and throwing them away in a week or two when they break.

But the most important, I think, is that I’ve talked to many, many people over the years who have told me about projects they made that were really meaningful to them and that they kept for years.

I remember working at an event in Kingsport, Tennessee, there was a kid who was working on a fairly elaborate project and while he was working he told me all about the project his brother, who was now in the Marines, had made a number of years earlier. Then his mom came up and told me all about that same project. Clearly, this was an important project in the life of that family.

Things you make yourself are inherently special; they have a magic about them that transcends their form or function.

They might not look like much to an outsider, and they might not hold up to kid abuse for long, but they’ll always be special.

Like Victor’s fire truck.


Help! The Scrap Exchange Needs YOU!

Visit the Scrap Exchange website for full details on our fundraiser, or to make a tax-deductible, online donation through PayPal or Network for Good.

Rather go old school? Checks can be made payable to The Scrap Exchange and mailed to 923 Franklin St, Bay 1, Durham, NC 27701.

Scrap Story #6: I’m Not Creative

Friday, September 16, 2011

At every event I work at, at least one person will come up and say, “Oh, this looks great, but I can’t do anything here, I’m not creative at all.” Or they’ll ask us to help their kid make something because they’re not creative enough to be useful.

We try not to let people get away with that.

When someone says, “I’m not creative,” usually I say, “Well this is the perfect place for you then, because it can look like anything and it’s impossible to do it wrong.”

Often we’re able to get people to start with something simple and work their way in that way, though sometimes they just won’t budge.

One of the things I love is when people come with their kids and are initially completely overwhelmed by everything, they have no idea where to start, and we tell them how we like to start — we start by looking in the barrels to see what’s there. Do you see anything you like? Do you see anything that looks interesting? Do you have any ideas?

Kids almost always will get an idea by about the third barrel they’ve looked in. And most of the time, that’s all they need, they’re off and running and need very little assistance after that.

Parents tend to over think things, they think they need to do something huge and elaborate when really, simple is best.

I’ve worked at Merlefest a couple of times and The Scrap Exchange at Merlefest is a complete madhouse for three straight days. There tend to be lots of 12-year-old boys running around which can get problematic; that age group really gravitates towards weaponry.

I remember one year working at Merlefest when the weapon thing was getting totally out of hand, we had to cut people off — we had one too many people come up and say, “Is this the place where you make guns?” Uh, no. It is not.

In the midst of that, however, someone came up and said, “Is this the place where you make baby dolls?”

It was a man and woman and their daughter, who was probably 4 or 5 years old. I said, “Yes, you can make baby dolls here. Or you could make something else, you can make whatever you want. Except guns. You can’t make those.”

The mom definitely seemed overwhelmed by the idea of making anything you want, she seemed not even quite sure she’d be able to handle the baby doll thing. Thankfully, she did not seem interested in making a gun.

She said, “Well, I’m not creative at all. Can you help me?”

I was working with Rowan, who runs the Outreach program and has worked at a lot of events and is much better than I am at helping people.

I said, “Rowan, can you help these people make a baby doll?”

So they started by looking in the barrels and talking about what they needed for their baby doll. Rowan said, “Let’s see, you need something for the body, right? Let’s look in the barrels and see what we might be able to use.”

So they started looking in the barrels and then the man said, “Wait, we could use this!” and he held out his empty plastic water bottle.

Rowan said, “Perfect! Let’s use that!”

So they went through the barrels and boxes and found some things to use for clothes, hair, decorations. And Rowan left them to their own devices and about an hour or so later they came up to thank us and to show us what they’d made and it was just amazing, it was the greatest baby doll you’ve ever seen. And they were so happy about it and their daughter loved it.

And these were the people who said they weren’t creative.

After being involved with The Scrap Exchange, I firmly believe that creativity is not a talent — something you are born with — but a skill — something you learn. Everyone with a brain is creative. Everyone is capable of coming up with creative ideas. Even people who say, “I’m not creative.”

Maybe even especially those people.


Help! The Scrap Exchange Needs YOU!

Visit the Scrap Exchange website for full details on our fundraiser, or to make a tax-deductible, online donation through PayPal or Network for Good.

Rather go old school? Checks can be made payable to The Scrap Exchange and mailed to 923 Franklin St, Bay 1, Durham, NC 27701.