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.