Sunday, December 28, 2008

on activism and the mystery of food

In trying to reduce the amount of plastic we use, I've also been reducing the number and kinds of convenience food we get. This extends to fast food and restaurant food -- we've partly been avoiding those from a financial standpoint, but from an environmental standpoint as well. I get a sick feeling in my stomach now when I see how much waste our (admittedly large) family creates with just one fast food meal, whereas before I knew about the Pacific garbage patches I didn't really think about it that much.

This is really a post with two parts. The first is about activism. The other night it was just four of us -- Will's kids were with their mom -- and it was late, and neither one of us really wanted to think about dinner, and there wasn't really anything to eat in the house anyway. (I'm sure all of you are so much more organized than I am and this never happens at your place, right?)

So the kids asked if we could get a take-out meal from a local fast food restaurant which shall remain anonymous. I told the boyz that the only way we could do it is if I went to pick it up, and if the people there were willing to pack our food in containers I brought instead of in the usual styrofoam. To make a long story short, they did, but JUST THIS ONCE and only after I telephoned the owner at home to ask. He said that he could get in BIG TROUBLE with the health department, and I promised not to tell anyone (which I'm really not, because you really don't have any idea which restaurant it is, right? Of course right!)

So the activism comes in where I march into the restaurant with a bag full of containers and make a big deal about the fact that I'm not willing to spend money there unless I can do it in a way that doesn't violate my core values. I wasn't at all obnoxious about it -- if anything I was very polite and apologetic -- but I was firm. And it worked this time, but JUST THIS ONCE, so tomorrow I'm going to write a letter to the health department about this stupid rule. I can understand that they don't want restaurants contaminated by the crazy germs that I'm carrying on my tupperware, but seriously, can't they just wipe down the counter after they give me my food? It takes quite a bit to embarrass me, so I'm willing to march in and see it through, but I know that most people aren't. In order to save the planet, we've got to make it easier for peeps to do the right thing.

And I keep running into this "rules" answer about why we have to do things a certain way. I had a very similar convo this morning with the pharmacy guy, when I asked him if he could refill my prescription in the same bottle they used last time. They're not allowed to, but he couldn't actually tell me who made that rule. Is it state? federal? he thought it might even be from the drug makers themselves, because of liability when the child-safe cap wears out? Soooo frustrating. I don't even know who to write to!

The huge exception in my life to this pervasive "rules trump conservation" mentality is Whole Foods. When I walk in there with all my containers, they happily weigh them and thank me for doing my part to reduce waste. So while I feel like they still sell way too much stuff in plastic, and way too much processed food, I'm gonna keep on spending way too much money there.

The good news, though, is that plastic avoidance (with a little frugality thrown in) is actually teaching me how to cook. Seriously, and this seems crazy when I think about it, until recently I had absolutely no idea that lots of packaged and restaurant food is totally replicable at home! I made this fantastic chocolate syrup (look ma, no plastic! Well, except the lid of the cocoa 'cuz I can't find that in bulk) thanks to the recipe Beth posted at Fake Plastic Fish.

(Doesn't Dante look grown up? Note the milk in a glass bottle!)

Tonight we had the most delish Thai curry with bamboo shoots, red peppers, zucchini, and pineapple -- seriously, I had been spending $9.50 for a plate of this at my favorite Asian place downtown. It was so freakin' easy to make, so yummy (both boyz cleaned their plates -- well, Sebastian didn't like the red peppers, but Dante ate them for him) and I fed all of us for about the same amount as it would have cost just me to go out. Next time I'm going to use broccoli and carrots, since Will loves broccoli and Dante thought carrots would be a good addition, and we'll skip the bamboo shoots, since they came in a can and didn't really add enough to the dish to justify the garbage or the cost. Look, I even have leftovers!

I've been doing more and more cooking, and food is becoming less and less of a mystery. Did you have any idea that those gourmet roasted red peppers that are so yummy and cost like $4.00 for a tiny little package can be made at home in under 20 minutes total? For just the cost of the peppers themselves plus a teeny bit of olive oil? Cheesecake? Made it from scratch! Indian potato cauliflower curry was a huge hit here, and all four kids ate all of their rasta pasta, made with pumpkin sauce from our CSA pumpkins.

The next step is mixing more of my own spices (why in the world are we still buying packets of taco sauce??) and learning how to do stuff like make butter and cream cheese.

I read lots of sustainability blogs, and it seems like so many people are so far ahead of me. They grow their own food, do tons of canning and freezing, and can feed themselves from their own labors all year. I call it a good week if I don't have to run to the grocery store every single day and sometimes twice. But the whole point of this blog was that anyone -- even people who work full time and have kids and have a life -- can make enough changes to make a difference, without having to completely go back to the land.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

gift guide part 3C: gifts for 3-5 year-olds

  • Wooden blocks
  • Wooden airplane or trucks
  • Scarves or playsilks
  • Red wagon
  • Flashlight
  • Writing kit -- A notebook or two, a hole punch, pencils (preferably made out of wood, newspaper, or old currency, not the ones coated in cute plastic designs!) and crayons, stamped envelopes (with your address on them!), looseleaf paper, a wood or metal ruler, a clipboard. This is a great opportunity to reuse/recycle office supplies you don't need any more. Put them in a box or tin, or make a fabric bag to hold them. My old gift guide recommended transparent tape and markers or highlighters, but if, like us, you are trying to cut down on plastic, here are some alternatives: a staple-less stapler, fancy paper photo corners, and watercolor pencils.
  • Felt board -- Staple black felt to a board, then cut out multicolored felt shapes.
  • Sewing cards -- You can buy these, or make them by cutting shapes out of cardboard (collage it if you want it to be pretty) and punching holes around the edges. Tie a shoelace on and you're good to go! Or if you want to get really fancy, get this one.
  • Jacob's Ladder
  • Wooden spinning top
  • Clothespins -- No joke! Give a kid a dozen clothespins, and it'll keep her busy for hours.
  • Tea set -- Collect mismatched but pretty pieces, put them in a nice box or individual velvet bags along with a promise to share tea together.
  • Organic canvas or leather pouches to store treasures in
  • Stick pony
  • Dress up box -- Go to a thrift store or two and collect wacky ties, jackets, scarves, shoes, hats
  • Playdough -- There are lots of good recipes for homemade dough. If you want to get really fancy, put a little dab of paste food coloring in the center of a plain ball of dough and seal the dough around it. As the child plays, the color will permeate what was formerly white/tan dough. Throw in some cookie cutters and it's the perfect gift.
  • Tool box -- The year he was three, we gave Dante a real red metal toolbox, with real hammer, wrench, screwdriver, plus nails, screws, nuts, bolts. We also wrapped up a couple of pieces of pine (about 8 inches square and 2 inches deep). You could use any soft wood. One of the pieces had predrilled holes for screws, the other was plain to hammer nails into. He loved it!
  • Magnet -- A big horseshoe magnet, or several smaller magnets, and a box of washers is a gift that's both educational and fun.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

gift guide part 3B: gifts for babies and toddlers

  • Wooden blocks
  • Wooden airplane or trucks
  • Small silverware set
  • Flashlight
  • Wooden pounding bench
  • Handmade books -- We have some that my mom made for me when I was a baby. She used white tagboard, cut it into pages (about 5" X 7"), glued pictures on each page, covered them with contact paper, punched holes on the left edges, and tied them into books with pretty ribbon. Do these with photos for far-away baby relatives, or cut up an art museum catalog to expose babies to masterpieces. When Sebastian was a baby, my mom and brother made him a book called "Sebastian's Pictures of the World." It's a three-ring binder with page protectors designed for trading cards, but instead of cards they cut out beautiful photographs from magazines. He used to look at it for hours.
  • Beanbags -- This is another project that you can do yourself. Just stitch up some squares of fabric and stuff them with beans.
  • Nuts and bolts -- Nice big ones that can't be swallowed
  • Telephone -- Another great opportunity to recycle
  • Transistor radio -- They love turning the knobs and watching the dial move and hearing the stations and volume change.
  • A roll of toilet paper and/or a roll of tape
  • A box of junk mail or a newspaper
  • Step-stool
  • Radio Flyer makes a baby bike with four wheels
  • Natural teether -- thread empty wooden spools onto a leather thong and tie the ends of the thong together to make a circle.
  • Sorter -- Cut a 1/4" or 1/2" wide slit in the top of a coffee can lid. Reinforce the slit with masking or duct tape (this also makes the edges safer). Put a few metal juice can lids in the can, replace the lid, and you've got a great gift. To make it prettier, you can cover the can with contact paper or fabric. I made this for my kids when they were little, and they loved it.
  • Empty boxes -- I kept telling everyone that this was what my toddlers wanted for Christmas. Unfortunately, no one ever believed me. I don't know what would delight a toddler more than empty boxes of assorted sizes -- the ones with lids are even more of a treat!

gift guide part 3A: gifts of time together

  • A trip to the fire station
  • A dance performance, play, concert, or trip to a museum -- Or, if you really want to get extravagant, how about season tickets or a membership that you can enjoy together?
  • A trip to the swimming pool
  • A picnic (indoors or out)
  • An offer to teach the recipient something: how to ride a bike, how to play chess, how to do origami
  • Read aloud to the recipient (consider making a recording, so they have a tangible record of your time together)
  • Go to the movies, or have a movie night at home -- Dante once received a present of an empty popcorn tub with a packet of microwave popcorn, some Hot Tamales, and a Blockbuster gift card
  • Ofter to listen, really listen, to anything s/he wants to talk about
  • Skip all gifts and take a trip together
  • Graffiti the neighborhood together -- Just kidding! (Sorta! It's okay with me if you do really cool, artistic, politically astute and graphically compelling graffiti with stencils. The police and your neighbors may disagree, however)

gift guide part 2C

More questions to ask as you select gifts:

Will this gift just be clutter at the recipient's house? Am I giving the gift out of obligation, or because it seems just right for this person?

Oh, how I wish that the person who gave us a coconut monkey-with-a-pipe piggy bank had asked himself this question and decided to skip the whole gift thing altogether.

Can I really afford this? Will buying it stress me out financially?

Please, don't go into credit card debt just because you're "supposed" to give gifts for the holidays! Don't snap at your kids or partner or friends because you're freaking out about money because you felt like you had to spend more than you could afford.

Does this gift support or contradict my core values?

This is an ongoing struggle for me (and I suspect I'm not alone). It started with the whole toy gun thing when the boys were little, and encompasses way more than just gifts. Dante had some money of his own, and last week asked if he could buy a new game for the Xbox. It was rated E (for everyone), so should have been ok for him to play, and I ordered it for him online. It came yesterday, and I was horrified when I saw the actually contents of the game, which included battling a gang of thugs brandishing metal pipes. So then I had to be the mean mom and tell him that even though it's rated E, he can't play it.

It's true that he would have really enjoyed playing it for hours, but it's equally true that I don't want my kids exposed to the glorification of violence. On the other hand, Rock Band was the big present at our house last year. Even though it's a video game -- not my favorite type of toy -- it's interactive, it's nonviolent, it's musical, and it fosters cooperation among family members instead of competition.

Monday, December 8, 2008

gift guide, part 2B

In considering gifts and companies to list, I used the following criteria, which I altered and expanded from a list by Alicia Daniel found in the Nov/Dec 2003 issue of Mothering Magazine. The article was No More Junk Toys: Rethinking Children's Gifts by Judith L. Rubin.

Will this eventually turn into dirt -- i.e., could I compost it?

This is really a question about natural materials. You can't compost rocks, but they make a great gift! No, that wasn't a joke! Just tonight we were playing with some beautiful, smooth, flat rocks that my brother brought the boys several years ago from the coast of France. Those rocks sit in a wooden bowl in our living room most of the time, but they can be stacked G0ldsworthy style, or used for any number of other things. Tonight we didn't have any nuts or candies to play dreidel with, so we used the rocks instead. It was lovely and satisfying to slide them in and out of the "pot" in the middle.

As you are considering this question, think Beavis and Butthead: Bread, good. Clay, good. Some wood, good. Metal, okay. Plastic, bad.

If not, does it reuse or recycle something that would otherwise go straight to landfill?

I know some people have issues with used gifts -- I'm not one of them, especially if you find something that was really nice quality to begin with and is still in great shape. This probably works best when getting gifts for younger kids and teens or adults who share your values. I've never seen a 3-year-old turn up his nose at wooden blocks simply because they were "preowned," and one year I gave my siblings and parents all books from the library book sale. There may be some older children/younger adolescents who will reject a used gift, but if you find just the right thing, even they may not care.

What are the hidden environmental costs of the production, transportation, and disposal of this gift?

When we buy cheap plastic toys from overseas, we are not paying the true cost of the poisonous, oil-dependent manufacturing processes, the plastic packaging that may well end up in the Pacific, the trees that were cut down to make the cardboard packaging, and the cost in global warming from transporting these "cheap" goods from the poorly regulated factories to the store. We also aren't paying for the cost to our bodies from living with them, or the cost to the environment that comes when we try to throw them away.

Do I know who made this? Are they well-paid and well-treated? To whom is my money going? Is the CEO of the company getting rich while workers are starving?

Rubin's article has some frightening information about this topic, as well.

Is this gift beautiful?

Beautiful doesn't always mean perfect, it can mean the grace of something made by human hands. In fact, many of the gifts in this guide can be made by your hands! I know you're busy, and maybe you don't think of yourself as crafty, and that sometimes handmade gifts seem like they're just, um, useless or lame, but these ideas are so jammin' and easy that I hope you'll try at least some of them.

Will this gift capture the imagination? If it's a toy, can it be used in many ways, or is it self-limiting? Will it foster the child's natural inclinations? Will it help him more fully engage in life? Does it help her reach her goals?

So often, the best toys are ones that don't represent any one thing -- ropes, sticks, playsilks, those rocks I just told you about...

gift guide, part 2A

"Rings and jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only gift is a portion of thyself." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

"No one wastes resources out of meanness; we do it when we think, maybe this thing will make us happy. To know that happiness does not come from things changes everything." - Laurel Robertson

"I have come to understand, finally, and even to accept, that in almost everything I believe and care about I am a member of a minority in my own country, and in most cases a very small minority." - John Holt

Three quick items before we get to the criteria that I used when deciding what to include:
  • Shopping locally: I'm listing mostly online sources for gifts on this list. By definition, local is only local to me and the small number of people who happen to both read this blog and live near me. So I encourage you to find local sources for this stuff whenever you can. By listing online sources, I'm trying to follow Laurel Robertson's definition of buying local, which says that money is a form -- a projection -- of our life force, and that we should put it to good purposes in each transaction. I hope this guide helps you do just that. Order soon, though! Christmas is coming quickly!
  • Cost: This is a tough one. The truth of the matter is that beautiful, environmentally friendly products whose makers were paid a living wage cost more in the short run than crap that was produced at great cost to our earth and water and whose makers don't earn enough to eat or live in anything remotely resembling a house. You decide: is it better to give a small, simple gift that you can feel good about, or a whole bunch of gifts that you should feel guilty about? In this guide, I've tried to include ideas that will fit a wide budgetary range. Remember that a gift that won't be loved, enjoyed, and used by the recipient is no gift at all, it's just clutter.
  • Wrapping: Once you've got your gift in hand, stick with the whole sustainability idea. Wrap it in recycled gift wrap, a paper bag from the grocery store, a newspaper, or, the best idea of all, make fabric bags (using organic fabric, of course!) It's easy, just cut squares or rectangles to the appropriate size, put right sides of fabric together, stitch up three sides and hem the fourth. Put the gift in, tie it with a ribbon, yarn, or string, sew a spare button on a piece of scrap paper to make a pretty tag. Voila!

gift guide, introduction

I used to be the director of religious education at a church. For a couple of years at that job, I published little packets of "fun, creative, useful, and sustainable gifts for everyone" to set out where people could pick them up before or after the service. I just came across a copy of the one I did in 2003, which might have been my last Christmas at that job, and I've gotta say, it was pretty dang great. So I'm going to reprise some of it here, because I think it's still just as good now as it was then, and because the issues are even more urgent now than they were five years ago.

As a side note, I know that changing conceptions of the season is really difficult to do, especially when there are kids, traditions, and in-laws to deal with. When I wrote the last issue of the guide, in 2003, I had two very little kids whose only experience of Christmas was the one I had provided, with my values and limited income clearly at the forefront. My family is basically a tribe of hippies, so there were no issues there. My ex didn't really participate in Christmas, and we had limited contact with my in-laws, so no issues there.

Fast forward five years, and I've got two elementary age kiddos, a new partner whose kids have grown up very differently from mine, and lots of people around us with a desire to give our kids gifts. We're negotiating traditions and values and finances and it seems like an emotional minefield at times. So yeah, I know it's not easy.

In a conversation with my sweetie last night, he expressed that he doesn't know how to change the way he's always done things without disappointing his kids. He knows that they will be getting plenty of gifts, both from us and from others, but it will definitely be scaled back from the mountain of presents that they've gotten in the past. So while in terms of environmental and consumer values, we agree, and we also agree that none of our kids really need anything, it's still a change, and change is uncomfortable. My contention was that this is a good year to change expectations, since everything else is changing, and we're starting new traditions. And if we give lip service to conservationism, and say that we don't want to be mindless consumers, but then go out and do it anyway, how does the cycle ever stop?

I'll keep ya posted on how it all works out at our house this year, but in the meantime, I'll go ahead and post the guide. I'm dividing it into sections for ease of reading. This is Part One, which serves as an introduction of sorts. Part Two is some thoughts about gifts and the criteria I used for the guide. Part Three is the source list and gift guide itself, divided very roughly by age group. Even if you're only shopping for an eight-year-old, read the whole thing, as you'll probably find appropriate ideas in every section. Part Four may or may not happen -- the original guide contained a bibliography/reading list. I may incorporate that throughout, or I may do it at the end, or I may skip it altogether.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

yet another reason to go locavore

Just in time for Halloween! Poison candy!

From “Melamine is an industrial chemical compound that some Chinese milk-based product manufacturers have added to their products in an attempt to artificially inflate the reading for protein levels. Chronic exposure to melamine can cause a number of severe health issues including bladder or kidney stones, acute kidney failure, reproductive damage, respiratory irritation and bladder cancer.”

Melamine is the substance responsible for killing several Chinese babies and sickening thousands more who drank tainted formula.

We know for sure that there are products (pet food, for example) that have been imported to Canada and the US that contained melamine. We also know for sure that melamine in Chinese milk products remains an issue. Candies from China that were tainted with melamine were definitely exported to Canada and England. Specifically, Pirate’s Gold chocolate coins and White Rabbit chocolates sold in Canada, as well as 11 different Cadbury products in Great Britain and some Asian markets.

Right now, the FDA is basically telling American consumers not to worry about candy found in the U.S. (though this link does contain a list of other food products that have been imported from China and found to contain melamine.)

However, I think perhaps more caution is warranted for a couple of reasons. First, it is certainly possible, given the global nature of our economy, that candies originally slated for sale at Costco and dollar stores in Canada have made their way to Costco and dollar stores in the U.S. Second, and more importantly, it is possible that the problem is much greater in scale than just a few brands or types of candy.

According to the FDA website, the U.S. imports milk-derived ingredients including whole milk powder, non-fat milk powder, whey powder, lactose powder, and casein. The FDA is sampling and testing these products when offered for import from Chinese sources to determine if they contain melamine.

The Associated Press says that Hershey has never imported milk products from China for use in its candies. However, the AP reports that Mars North America’s statement says that its operations in China do not get any ingredients from companies found to be selling melamine-contaminated dairy products. It says the Chinese food-safety agency tested samples of Mars China's milk powder suppliers and found them to be free of melamine.

Maybe I’m just paranoid, but I really don’t trust Chinese food-safety agency tests at this point. And we really don’t know the scope of the contamination, so it’s possible that even if Mars doesn’t source from companies known to be selling melamine contaminated products, there are companies doing so that just haven’t been found out yet. Mars makes Snickers and M&Ms.

If you want to err on the side of caution, you might want to avoid any candies made by Mars, and really, ANY food products from China (this is more difficult that it might seem!) However, if you want to just eat your candy and not worry about it, this statement about toxicity levels from the FDA might make you feel better:

“In food products other than infant formula, the FDA concludes levels of melamine and melamine-related compounds below 2.5 parts per million (ppm) do not raise health concerns. This conclusion assumes a worst case exposure scenario in which 50% of a person’s diet is contaminated at this level, and applies a 10-fold safety factor to the Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) to account for any uncertainties. The TDI is an estimate of the maximum amount of an agent to which an individual could be exposed on a daily basis over the course of a lifetime without an appreciable health risk.”

As a side note, the FDA says that NO level of melamine in infant formula is safe.

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

what i did on my summer vacation

Summer 'O8 photo highlights! We went camping a couple of times with friends of Will's. The campground is perfect for us. It's only a little more than an hour out of town, and there is plenty of hiking, fishing, and forest to explore...These are just four of about 400 pictures that I took!

Seems like Wednesday rolled around really often -- that's our day to pick up CSA veggies. I wasn't organized enough to use and store nearly as many of them as I should have (I gave a bunch away, and ended up throwing some out when I didn't use it fast enough) but here's some gorgeous spinach that I got into the freezer in time.

Will and I did the Great Urban Race with my sister and her boyfriend. Part costume contest, part scavenger hunt, part photography contest, part foot race, this was really fun, despite the fact that we all ended up with bloody feet. We figured that we probably walked/ran at least 20 miles over the course of 4 1/2 hours. We didn't even come close to winning, but we've got some strategy planned for next year...

yeah, yeah

So much for blogging every day in July, eh? I was a little busy...hanging out at the pool, moving Will and kids into our house and out of his, getting his house rented, figuring out what to do with all the stuff, having a HUGE yard sale, hanging out at the pool, putting a contract on a house, running a couple of races, hanging out at the pool, playing at the river, camping, going on picnics, watching bat rush hour outside our house, hanging out at the pool...Over Labor Day weekend, I was going to do a whole "what I did over my summer vacation" post, but, well, you can see how well that worked out. I'm going to put up some photos of highlights, call it good, and move on from here.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

perhaps a name change is in order?

Four and a half years ago, I officially became a single mom. I had been functionally single for a looooong time, but still wasn't really prepared for the reality of raising two little boys entirely on my own. (And yet, that statement is misleading, because I've never been entirely on my own. What's true is that the buck stops with me. I've got - for the moment, anyway - sole legal and physical custody of the kids. I'm entirely responsible for their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. But I'm entirely supported by a community that starts with my parents and siblings, and expands to include neighbors, friends, teachers, and various groups to which we belong.)

There's a part of me that has taken a huge amount of pride in the fact that I'm doing really well as a "single mom". I'm not really sure how to express it, but it has been the core of my identity for the last four years. Maybe there's a little (a lot?) of ego tied up in the fact that my kids are doing well academically, that they've made huge strides socially, that they are involved in lots of different activities, that I'm politically active, that I find time to exercise and take care of myself, that I maintain close friendships, work full time and (mostly) do a good job of making a home for the three of us, and that I've done all of this successfully without a partner. My kids definitely wish that their dad was a dad to them, but I hope that despite his general absence, they'll look back on their childhoods as happy and filled with love and fun.

So I guess that all of the above is why I'm feeling that this summer is a bittersweet time for me, because our family is about to change, and that identity is about to shift. I'm so happy that I've met someone who will truly be my partner in every sense of the word, and yet...I won't get to be a single mom anymore. Adding another adult to the equation changes everything, and while the changes are good, the dynamic of our happy little family will inevitably shift.

And on top of the emotional changes, we've got the physical changes involved in consolidating households -- what do we do with 4 sets of silverware? How many sheets does one family need? Who is going to sleep where until we get a house that's big enough for all of us?

At any rate, I think it might be time to rename the blog. I'm considering something like, two boys, a mom, and a snake plus a man, two more kids, a dog and a fish. Whaddaya think?

Thursday, July 3, 2008

yeah, right!

From my dad's blog:
" of the favorite pastimes of the family is putting me in humiliating situations." I have no idea what he could possibly mean by that.

yet another goal

(Pretend like I wrote this one on July 2 lol)

My sissy posted about her gas goal on her blog, and one of my friends has set a goal for herself of 25 miles of driving a week. I was really trying to be conscious of my driving through May, when I was biking to work a couple of days a week, but I couldn't seem to get below about 150 miles/week.

The problem is not short trips -- there are definitely days that I don't drive at all, since the grocery store, pharmacy, dairy queen, park, pool, etc. are all within biking or walking distance. I'm not driving at all around the neighborhood, and I'm trying to double up trips and not drive to either end of town more than absolutely necessary.

But my sweetie lives about 20 miles away, at least for the next couple of weeks (before he moves in with us!!!! ACK!!! whole 'nother post on a whole 'nother topic!!!) and even though I make him do most of the driving back and forth, I still end up doing some. Also, any time the whole family goes out of town, I end up driving because my car seats 7 peeps, so it totally makes sense for me to be the one to drive. Otherwise we'd end up taking two or three cars, which would be way worse in terms of carbon footprint. Two boys, a mom and a snake don't need a minivan, but two boys, a mom, a grandma, a grandpa, an aunty, an aunty's boyfriend, a sweetie and his two kids sure do! And my brother and his wife are moving here this month!! So, yeah. Minivan.

And I guess we go out of town more than I thought? It's a trip to the zoo, or a trip to see relatives in the mountains, or a camping trip, or going fishing in the next town over or...none of them are super long trips, but 50 or 100 or 120 miles on the weekend really bumps up the amount of gas I'm using and the volume of emissions I'm spewing.

So 25 miles/week definitely doesn't seem like a reasonable goal for me. On the other hand, 150 miles/week seems outrageous, not to mention expensive.

During the school year, 5 days/week X 5 miles each way to work is 50 miles. I can and will definitely bike often in the spring and fall, but honestly I feel a little wimpy about it in the winter. I want the goal to be something that's actually attainable. Oh, and if I'm taking classes toward my master's, that's like 60 miles round trip. So one class a week plus driving to work puts me over 100 miles/week even if I never drove anywhere else. Crap. Maybe I need to transfer to the university in my town? I really don't want to because of the fact that the program is much better where I'm going now, and I can do it at my own pace. The university here in town has a cohort program, so I think you have to take classes with the cohort. On the other hand, I could probably get done faster without the commute, which would be a very good thing, and maybe the degree is what really matters, and even if the program isn't as good, I would still have the piece of paper that lets me be a principal, which is the ultimate goal of the whole endeavor...

Sorry, getting a little off track there. But if you've got comments on this whole university dilemma, I'd love to hear them.

Ok, back to gas and mileage...When my sweetie lives in town, that will probably be 40 miles a week that will fall off automatically. Maybe I should try for an average of 90 miles/week over the course of a month -- that way if I end up driving out of town one weekend, I could be really frugal with driving the next week, and still come out ok. I just filled up my tank yesterday, and I've already driven 23 miles, so this will definitely be a challenge...

totally cheating

I set a goal for myself to blog every single day in July, but here it is July 3 and I still haven't done a single entry. So I'm totally cheating, and pretending that this is my post for July 1, when in fact I didn't even write it myself. It's a meme that my mom did for me and emailed, so I just had to cut and paste. Even the commentary is hers...

1: Type in “[your name] needs” in the Google search:
September needs to hurry up and get here

2: Type in “[your name] looks like” in Google search:
September, Kinda Looks the Same

3: Type in “[your name] does” in Google search:
September does football season

4: Type in “[your name] hates” in Google search:
apparently, nothing
(nope not a hatuh)

5: Type in “[your name] goes to” in Google search:
september goes to you
(yes, you!)

6: Type in “[your name] loves” in Google search:
September Loves Young Dream.
(and is apparently Japanese?)

7 Type in “[your name] eats” in Google search:
september eats.
('nough said)

8: Type in “[your name] has” in Google search:
September has Become Synonymous With a Lack of Preparedness
(despite BEST intentions)

9: Type in “[your name] died” in Google Search:
not yet she di'n't

10: Type in “[your name] will” in Google search:
September Will Include New Features
(that's always good)
September will bring clarity to GOP race
september will never end
September Will Never Be The Same
(ok, it's me again -- maybe this should have been my 6 word memoir title??)

My favorites are the ones where I'm late and unprepared, cuz they're true, and that I'm bringing clarity to the GOP race, cuz I want to make it clear that you shouldn't vote for McCain!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

diy worm bin instructions

You, too, can have this in your kitchen for under $15!

My first thought was to go to my local eco-friendly store and buy a ready-made worm bin. It seemed like it would be cleaner and easier and require less thought than trying to make one myself. I wanted something totally self-contained, and I needed it to fit under my kitchen sink, which is really the only indoor space I have available.

To keep a worm bin outside would involve insulating it somehow, or having it open to the ground so the worms could crawl down and not freeze in the winter. This seemed a) complicated and b) like it would be unsuccessful because it would involve me going outside to put the scraps in, and I'm pretty lazy.

Yeah, well, the best laid plans and all that...I went to the store and the smallest worm bins they had were $120 and there is no way they would fit under my kitchen sink. So I got online and did a little research and found directions that seemed not too complicated and decided to bite the bullet and make my own.

I will say that at some point I just started making stuff up so I could do it in a way that worked for me, and my worms seem to be doing fine. I'm going to give step-by-step instructions here, so if you are cheap and lazy you can follow them with confidence. Or, take what you want and adapt it to suit your own needs...

1) I went to Target and got two Rubbermaid Roughneck storage tubs, 10 gallon size. The dimensions are 23.9 x 15.9 x 8.7 inches. I read in more than one place that the tubs should be at least 12 inches deep, but these were the deepest I could find that would still fit under my sink.

2) I left one of the lids intact, and drilled lots of little holes in the other lid so the worms can breathe. These holes are not big enough for the worms to get out of. You can barely see them in the picture, but I made a pretty star pattern on the lid.

3) I turned both of the bins themselves over and drilled bigger holes in the bottom of each one. I tried to make the diameter of these holes around 1/4 inch, which is big enough for the worms to crawl through. I didn't actually have a drill bit this big, so the holes turned out not to be perfectly round. The purpose of these holes is twofold: to let the liquid drip out of the bin, and to allow the worms to crawl into the other bin when it's time to harvest the castings.

4) I read in several places that the best thing to use for bedding is damp black and white newspaper pages, cut into 1 inch strips. I don't get the newspaper, and I thought to myself, "it's not like worms can only live in newspaper bedding out in the wild," so I actually started by using old leaf matter for bedding. I went out to my yard and gathered up the stuff that I should have raked last fall (see, procrastination can be a good thing!), wet it down with water from the sink, then put it in one of the bins. I think you're supposed to have about 6-8 inches of bedding at any given time, so this picture actually doesn't show quite enough bedding in the bin.Lately, I've started making the worm bin into a paper recycling bin as well, emptying my dad's shredder, wetting down the little strips, and using them as bedding. This actually seems to work pretty well.

5) The final step for setup involves putting it together and adding the worms. I took the intact lid, and set the bin with bedding on top of it (the lip of the lid serves to hold the liquid that drains out). Worms went in -- I was lucky enough to be able to get some from the worm bin at the school where I teach, so I didn't actually have to buy them -- and I put the lid with airholes on top of the bin. It fits really neatly under the sink. (I considered linking to some sites where you can buy red wigglers, which are the type of worm you'll want to use for vermicomposting, but since I've never used any of them and can't vouch for their service or reliability, you'll just have to google.)

6) I have a little container that sits on my counter and I just put the appropriate food waste (basically no meat or dairy, any fruit, veggie, grain scraps are fine) into the container and then when it's full, I empty it into the bin. I haven't cut scraps into 1 inch pieces like I think you're supposed to, and it works fine anyway. I use a big kitchen spoon to stir the scraps under the bedding and mix them in with the nice dark organic stuff on the bottom of the bin.
7) Whenever I feed the worms, I drain the liquid in the bottom lid into the same little container. This "worm tea" is supposedly really rich in nutrients, so I either pour it on my plants, or send the boys over to my mom's with it, so she can pour it on her garden.
The whole feeding process takes less than 5 minutes a couple of times a week. The only bad part is that (as you can see from the photo above) that the length of the bin is wider than the cabinet door, so if I'm not careful about how I take the bin out of the cabinet, I end up getting worm tea on the floor. The bin itself doesn't smell at all, and you would never know I'm composting in the kitchen (even when the lid is off it just smells good and earthy, not at all like all the rotting food that's in there) but the liquid is pretty smelly so I'd rather not have it all over my kitchen.
Worms can be poisoned by their own castings, so after 2-3 months, you are supposed to harvest the castings. This setup seemed like the simplest diy harvesting method out there.

8) When it's time, I'll take the lid off the bin I'm using, put bedding in the second bin, set the second bin on top of the current bin, put the lid on that top bin, and start feeding the top bin. The worms will crawl up through the holes in the bottom of the top bin, and when they have evacuated the bottom bin, I can remove that, use the compost, rinse it out, and it will be free to serve as the second bin when it's time to harvest again. Nice, huh?

Worm composting is fun and easy!

(Dante took these last two pictures while I was drilling -- apparently he thought I just wanted cute pictures of myself leaning sideways?? and didn't realize that the point was to show the drilling and the bin! He did do a good job of taking all the other pics in this post that have me in them -- and threw in the bonus one of Sebastian while I was pouring the worm tea!)

The New York City Compost Project has some good general composting info, as well as detailed information about vermicomposting. Another worm bin how-to(very similar to mine, but different enough that it might be worth a look) plus troubleshooting ideas and a list of what can be composted in your bin can be found here. If you've got kids who want to read up on the topic or build a bin themselves, try this link. If you feel like my plan is too simple and you want to use rubbermaid tubs to make a more complicated bin, click here.

Friday, June 6, 2008

better late than never?

Robin tagged me with the following:

1. Write the title to your own memoir using 6 words.
2. Post it on your blog.
3. Link to the person that tagged you.
4. Tag five more blogs.

Right away I started thinking about it, but then we had the tornado (still haven't blogged about that yet), and our trip to Vermont (still haven't blogged about that yet), and the end of the school year (report cards!) and the murder, so I never had a chance to post. But I kept on thinking about it.

The first one I came up with was, "rats in freezer, worms under sink." Every time my landlord comes to work on the house I feel like I need to warn him about what he might find and why. They're to feed the snake, really!! They're to fertilize the garden, really!! I'm a pretty girly girl in some ways, but snakes and worms and dead mice don't bother me, and in fact I sort of see them as a sign that I'm doing the best I can to raise boys without a dad in the house.

I also considered something like, "smart girl, bad choices, happy anyway," but that seems a little too...I don't know...glossy, like it simplifies some aspects of my life (both difficult and fantastic) that have been really complicated.

The one I finally came up with is something that everyone who knows me will completely agree with, I'm sure:

Oh, crap! I'm running so late!

Once I checked a book out of the library called Never be Late Again. It was waaaaay overdue by the time I returned it. That is not a made up story, just a sad fact. I'd like to not be late, but I seem to always try to squeeze too much into any given amount of time. I have a friend who points out that I'm never late for yoga, because I know that it's not an option. He sees this as proof that I am perfectly capable of being on time when it's important, but I actually once showed up 15 minutes late for a job interview (and I really wanted the job!). Amazingly enough, my tardiness did not stop them from hiring me.

I'm cheating and tagging six, because these are the blogs I read regularly: Dante, Masasa, Silver, Heather, Sarah, and Colin. I think Sebastian is too young to get it. I bet he would just say, "I love to kiss Dante's lips" or something equally weird.

I would tag Corina, too, but -- oh, yeah, she doesn't HAVE a blog! Hers would probably be something like, "didn't waste time on the internet."

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

yes, we can!

Obama '08! Lots more to follow (probably more than you'll want to read in the months leading up to November LOL), but today is a good day!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

This is the kind of neighborhood

where we gather on the street every night to hang out and talk and watch out for the kids riding their bikes up and down. It's the kind of neighborhood where we have barbeques on a regular basis, and know the names of everyone who lives in every house. It's the kind of neighborhood where the kids run from back yard to back yard, knowing that someone's parents are watching out for them. It's the kind of neighborhood where everyone knows who is visiting whom, because we recognize most of the cars that drive by.

Two examples of typical interaction around our neighborhood:
1) Last week I was out in the street talking to my next door neighbor. She commented on the fact that I never fill my garbage bin, and neither does she, and we decided to cancel my service so we can share one bin.
2) The other day I came home and one of my neighbors from across the street came over and told me that she had seen Dante home around 9:00 that morning (school starts at 8:30). He told her that he had forgotten his library book, and was back home to get it. She offered to give him a ride back to school, but he said no, that he would walk. She waited a few minutes, then called the school to make sure that he had gotten there safely. (Note: Dante never bothered to mention that my mom and Sebastian were actually waiting around the corner for him, so he wasn't even walking back to school alone. He also never mentioned to my mom that my neighbor had stopped over to check on him. Silly kid!)

There are so many more examples I could give of the kind of neighborhood this is. It's the kind of neighborhood where it takes us an hour and a half to trick-or-treat around the block, because we have to stop for photo ops, and wine, and to wait while the whole gang of neighborhood kids gets candy at every house, because even though we didn't start out together, we've ended up in a big group. It's the kind of neighborhood where my burnt-out headlight is fixed for free before I even knew it needed to be replaced, and where Sebastian learned to ride on a bike that his buddy across the street learned on and outgrew.

And this is the kind of neighborhood where a young woman was sexually assaulted and murdered in her home on Friday before the perpetrators set the house on fire. She lived next door to the people who live directly across the street from me, and our house was considered part of the crime scene until late Friday night.

It was the last day of school, and we had a half day. I came in from doing bus duty around noon, and checked my phone. There was a voicemail from one of my neighbors -- it had been left about 15 minutes before, and her voice was shaking. "September, you need to call your mom and tell her that our street is a crime scene and not to bring Dante home this way. Oh, God, here's your mom! I have to go talk to her!" Click. I called my mom and all she knew at that point was that there had been a house fire and someone had died. Later I found out that the reason our neighbor had been so worried about Dante was that they had just taken the body out of the house and she wanted to make sure he didn't see.

When I picked Sebastian up at preschool that afternoon, I took him directly to my parent's house (around the corner from mine, but out of sight of the media and police circus). I went home and had to be checked in to cross the police line that was blocking access to my house. I also had to dodge all the cameras and reporters and trucks with live feed satellites. I got overnight stuff for the boys, and after I was interviewed by the police, we went to my sweetie's house for the night.

When we got home on Saturday morning, the tape around our house was down, and there was plastic covering the broken windows, so the burnt-out shell that was the inside of the house wasn't visible anymore. However, even today the INTERAGENCY COMMAND CENTER is still set up in front of the house next door, the street is still packed with police and fire vehicles, we are still being accosted by reporters every time we leave the house, and our quiet, friendly neighborhood is anything but back to normal.

And, of course, life will never be normal again for this girl's family, especially for her parents. The worst part might be that they arrived on the scene just in time to see their daughter's body pulled out of the house and dumped naked on the front lawn. There aren't words to express how hard it must be for them right now. Please keep this family in your thoughts and prayers.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

say, say oh playmate

come out and play with me
and bring your dollies three
climb up my apple tree
holler down my rain barrel...

Rain barrel? What the heck is a rain barrel? Now that I've gone all diy with the worm bin, this seems like a cool project. But did you notice that barrel is one of those words that looks like it's spelled wrong and stops making sense the more you write it or see it?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

four things

On Saturday, I was teaching Sebastian to ride a two wheeler. I told him the same thing that I told Dante when he was learning: "You have to do three things to be able to ride by yourself. Pedal, balance, steer." Sebastian said, "And imagine. So that's four things. Pedal, balance, steer, imagine."

I guess it worked! On Saturday, he couldn't ride at all without help, but on Sunday he could!

And I know this sideways video thing is lame, but my computer can't read the file, so I can't get it to rotate before I upload it. I'll have to either hold the phone differently when I record video or get some technical help. In the meantime, just be glad it's short so your neck won't hurt too much! Or you could pretend that not only can he ride a bike, he can also defy gravity and ride on a street that's perpendicular to the earth!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

yay, me!

I ran my first 10K this morning! My goal was to do it in less than an hour, which I did (57:28 so a 9:17/mile pace). I loved it, and it felt great while I was doing it, but my hip flexors are awfully sore right now. Maybe not such a good idea to do a race this long when the last time I ran over 6 miles was Christmas break?! On the other hand, the race served its purpose, which was to motivate me to get back into a running/training schedule.

As I ran, I was thinking about how weird it is that just over a year and a half ago (the week I turned 33) I went running for the first time. I ran slightly less than half a mile and thought I was going to die. If anyone had told me then that I would be able to finish a 10K, let alone actually enjoy running it, I would have thought they were crazy.

That fall I ran three days a week, adding half a mile each week (so the first week I ran 3 days x 1/2 mile, the second week I ran 3 days x 1 mile...) until at the end of last summer I was logging around 30-36 miles a week. Then school started again, and I've had trouble finding the time to do more than 2-3 miles a couple of days a week.

But the weather is getting better and school is almost out, so I'm planning to pick up the training pace again. If only my damn hips didn't hurt so much!

Friday, May 2, 2008

this might just be the freakiest thing I've ever seen

I guess some people really don't like anyone reading over their shoulders?!

maybe I should change the name of this blog

to awfullysweetbrothers

stuff we were already doing

I realized that we already do some things that qualify me for environmental geek status, so thought I'd throw a quick list here, since they don't really fit on the list of changes.

Stuff we were already doing:
Walk to the grocery store with our wagon and a bunch of cloth bags. We got this wagon for $7 at a yard sale. The trailer definitely makes grocery shopping more doable.

  • Use cloth napkins instead of paper, and washcloths instead of paper towels.
  • Buy lots of stuff at thrift stores and rummage sales instead of buying it new.
  • Program our thermostat so we're not heating an empty house (and it goes down to 55 degrees at night, while we cuddle up under blankets.)
  • Turn off lights when we leave a room.
  • Buy as much organic food as possible.
  • Buy in bulk to reduce packaging.
  • Reuse and recycle.
  • Leave produce loose when buying it, instead of putting it in a plastic bag.
  • I'm sure there's more...I'll add to the list as I think of stuff.

Stuff we used to do but don't need to anymore:

  • Cloth diapers -- did this for both kids from the time they were about 2 weeks old. I was so committed that I used cloth even when we didn't have a washer and I had to haul the dirty diapers to the laundromat. I'm convinced that cloth also made potty training much easier and earlier than if we had used what my mom calls artificial diapers.
  • Breastfeed. I didn't do it for the environmental benefit, but that was a nice side effect!

Stuff we used to do and somehow got out of the habit that I really need to start again:

  • Hang wet clothes on the line.
  • Use non-disposable menstrual products.
  • More home cooking, less eating out or eating convenience food.

environmental geek

This is what Dante calls me, based on the following little changes I've made in the past couple of weeks.
  • Switched from buying organic milk at the grocery store to buying organic, local milk that's delivered in glass bottles.
  • Moved our garbage out from under the kitchen sink to make room for a worm bin (more on that later).
  • Stopped having a disposable cup of yogurt for breakfast every morning. I found some yogurt that comes in glass jars, since the plastic containers aren't recyclable. I've been using that for smoothies and to substitute for sour cream.
  • Rode my bike to work 5 out of the last 14 days. It's not great, but it's a start! Four of those days I never got in the car at all.
  • Opted out of junk mail (more on that later, too).
  • Switched out the boys' plastic water bottles for stainless steel ones. I tried to do this years ago and they resisted, but this time the water bottles are smaller and have sport tops, and the change has been taken with grace.
  • Took the food canisters that sit on my kitchen counter to Whole Foods and filled them directly with bulk foods, to avoid the plastic bag middle-man.
  • Called my landlord about the leaky bathtub.
  • Switched one of our lightbulbs to compact fluorescent. This was actually not entirely successful -- I think it deserves it's own post, too (see how I keep promising more info -- that's not really for you, it's to motivate my procrastinator virgo self to keep posting!)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

can you see why i'm super in love?

Just for you yaapsters, this is my favorite recent photo of me.

you're right, i never really do get tired of showing off

Photos of how I hang my photos. Note the couch that is exactly like the one featured in a Sunday NY Times article on super classy decorating -- well they didn't call it that. Mid-century modern in a small apartment is what they thought it was about. Really it was about super classy decorating. (Craigslist, $250, yay me!)

why yes, I AM a showoff!

We are another one of those small house families, so we keep all of our art supplies and games and puzzles (and library books and kid's nonfiction books and school stuff, including finished schoolwork to save) in our dining room. Oh, and my CDs, and some magazines, too...) Our living room opens onto the dining room, so everyone walking in the front door gets to see it. Actually, even people who don't walk in get to see it. You just have to knock at the door. Schwann man, Jehovah's Witness lady...everyone sees it. Here's what it looks like tonight. (I might come back and edit out the overhead light. I think the picture would look much better without it.) And here's a closer look at how I store our art supplies. It's an entertainment center that I got at a church rummage sale for 30 bucks. The baskets on top are for finished school work to sort through/keep for posterity -- one basket for each kid. Next to that are some photo boxes that actually do hold photos in case I ever start scrapbooking again. Then a bin for paints of all kinds. Below that are labeled plastic drawers with all kinds of art supplies. The big drawers are full of paper, puzzles, and games. It's all totally accessible to kids without driving me crazy.
I tried to do a close-up of the cool sticker labels on the drawers, but I'm not sure it came out well enough to make it worth it. They are glittery and funky fonty. Oh, and here's how it looks when my sweetie comes over with his kids and two five-year-olds stay up way too late with the slime they made at the science carnival, the "metal findings" drawer, and the "clay tools" drawer...And in case you're curious, here's a sample of what's in the metal findings drawer.

Happy Earth Week!

For awhile now, we've been taking these lovely containers (as far as I can tell, they are #5 plastic) to restaurants with us, so that we've got something to bring our leftovers home in instead of a styrofoam container. Last week (or maybe it was the week before?) I took the concept a step farther, and we went to the local sub shop down the street. I asked if they could make our sandwiches in these, to eliminate the carry-out trash. They thought I was weird, but agreed. So here they are -- fast food with no trash! Yay! PS We took out the removable dividers to make room for the sandwiches, but the dividers are great when we go to the Rio (beans or rice on one side, chile relleno on the other, so the only thing I leave behind is the leftover margarita. Oh, wait, there never is any leftover margarita!)

OK, fine. Here.

I've been feeling guilty about not posting anything -- tons of stuff going on and I'll compose entries in my head and then not actually make it to the computer to write them, but mostly it's been the idea of pictures that has me all worked up -- seems like it will take to write explanations for all the pictures I have wanted to get up. So I thought I'd do a bunch of pictures with not much text just to post something, and I'll try to go back and add text in the next couple of days...

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

the problem with changing your life

A couple of days after I made my threat to the boys about starting an awfulbrothers blog, I stumbled across a link to a sustainable living blog written by a woman in our area. I was super excited at first, because I read her intro and profile and thought, "Hey, it's true that this lady has a husband, but she's got three kids and I've only got two. And she's got a full-time job that might even be more exhausting than mine is! So if she can make a serious commitment to reducing her family's carbon footprint and eating only local organic food, I can do the same thing!"

Then I read on. Oh. Well. Never mind. She quit her job. So now not only does she have a husband, which I don't, she can devote all of her time to creating an environmentally sustainable family life. I'm not bitter! Really! I just wish that I could find a role model who is enough like me that her example would seem doable given the constraints on my life.

So then I decided that maybe I can just do it anyway and be the role model for other single moms who are trying live in a way that won't accelerate global warming and give migrant workers cancer and increase the disparity between haves and have-nots. Maybe interspersed with the videos of my kids fighting with eachother (still haven't figured out how to download those off my phone, but I will soon, I promise -- I know you can't wait!) I can post inspiring stuff about our sweeping life changes! Yeah, that's the ticket!

Except, the problem with changing your life is that you have to change your life. Or, as my dad always says, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." So all week I've intended to start riding my bike to work. But I've been running late, or had plans after work that would make biking complicated, or...this morning I woke up and they said on the radio that we were going to have 20-30mph winds all day, with a good chance of rain turning to snow. Yeah, I wimped out. And I shouldn't have, because the rain didn't start until after I was home.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

lather, rinse, repeat

This week, I was standing in the yard talking to my mom and watching the boys (aka Darth Tyranno and Snake Eyes) fighting again. Each came running to me with tears and tales of the woe inflicted by the other (evil) brother. Then they ran off to start the cycle again -- Sebastian jumps on Dante, or pinches him, or kisses him on the lips. In retaliation, Dante -- twice his brother's size -- swings out a leg to trip Sebastian, or elbows him, or pushes him to the ground... Feeling helpless to do much else, I took out my cell phone and started filming it. "I'm going to start a blog," I threatened, "and call it and it's going to be nothing but videos of you guys fighting." They liked the idea.