Monday, May 26, 2008


The pet communities that I'm part of are pro-speutering (a conglomerate of "spay" and "neuter"). You might think that I'd be against speutering, since it messes up the natural order of things. But I'm not, actually. I'd argue that speutering actually allows your pet's true personality to come out.

Why? Because hormones are powerful. Ask any woman with PMS. Or better yet, don't ask, and just let her be. Now just think of what they do to an animal with much less conscious control over its own actions--animals don't think so much as follow engrained behavior patterns that are laid down through eons of genetics and years of training. Hormones control just about everything in an animal, from its blood glucose levels, to hunger, to sex.

Removing the need to reproduce (and in animals, it's a NEED) allows the pet to concentrate on pleasing its owners (dogs), or cuddling on laps (cats). It lowers their tension levels, making them calmer. It's not a cheap way to get a calm pet. It's a good way to get to know your real pet. Let's face it--it's a lot easier to train a dog when he's not thinking "SEX SEX SEX SEX SEX", and that goes triple if there's a bitch in heat nearby.

One common speutering myth is that it makes the animal fat. This is not true. Sure, if you speuter your pet, it's not going to spend as much energy trying to have sex. But that just means you have to feed it less. Too much food, not enough exercise, is what makes pets fat--and with the amounts of food some people feed, I doubt neutering would have made any difference with respect to how fat the pet got.

Animals do not, in fact, change their personality after the procedure. If anything, their personalities become more clear, because they're not always going batsh!t crazy from their hormones. Shadow is a sweetheart, Boobies (yes, we actually have a cat named Boobies) sulks and won't love anybody but her cat-mommy, the Tweeb is a grumpy little old lady. Pokey is a sweet but fiercely protective Doberman. And so on.

And before you write me about the other two big points I've "forgotten": I haven't. Cancer risk and pet overpopulation are also very serious issues, but they tend to be more abstract and less tangible. We know, intellectually, that they are good things, but it's hard to know how much of a problem those issues are unless you are the one sticking animal after animal with euthanasia. But everybody (or almost everybody) has dealt with a yappy dog or a cat in heat before--it's not fun--which is why I chose to stick with the personality issue.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Food prices going up? Great!

I'm trying not to blog about frugality, since this blog is devoted to doing things as chemical-free as possible, but the fact is that the fewer chemicals that go into the food and things you use, the cheaper it is.

For instance, you could buy a loaf of bread for $2, or a bag of flour that will make 2 loaves of bread for $1 (because I now live in Europe, the amounts are kind of weird--no 5 lb bags of flour here, but 1 kg bags, intsead). The best thing about making your own bread is that there are no preservatives, it's REALLY fresh, and if you have a bread machine, that delightfully crunchy crust. But even if you don't, it's not that difficult--it just takes a little planning.

But it's not just bread--the same is true for almost all other foods, as well. I can make 3 meals' worth of chili (for two people no less) for about 3-4 euros, give or take 10 cents' worth of salt, pepper, cumin. The higher price is whether I make it with ground beef or not. It certainly beats paying $2 for a can of chili impressions from a soup company.

It's not just good for you inside, though. Eating a more natural diet can be good for your outside, too. I'll grant you that there's no real scientific data for this, but how many beautiful people--truly beautiful, without makeup--do you know who eat nothing but chips and hot dogs?

And speaking of makeup--why? My parents are in their fifties, and both are regularly mistaken for being in their thirties (my mother's aerobics instructor thought she was twenty-five)--and neither of them take any extraordinary steps, beyond eating healthy, drinking green tea, and getting enough exercise. But there are plenty of other natural things you can do to beautify yourself. Taking care of your skin does not have to involve lots of chemicals with complicated names. Honey and strawberries are just two of the most efficacious all-natural skin care products out there. And, from personal experience, nothing cures chapped lips faster than a smidge of honey.

Other things can be homemade, too: I make my own laundry detergent, using borax, washing soda, and a bar of soap--I spend extra on the soap, but that's because my skin is highly sensitive to trace amounts of scents and colorings. Other household cleaners can be made using those, too, in combination with dish detergent, vinegar, and nothing polishes wood like olive oil.

The one advantage of going all natural is not, incidentally, the health benefits or money-saving measures. It could quite literally save your life. The packaging that surrounds so much of our food and cleaners today is laden with phthalates compounds that can leach into the product. A few phthalates here and there won't hurt you, but add them up over the course of a lifetime, and you're basically becoming a chemical sink. I've tried to eliminate as much plastic as possible--saving and reusing jars (peanut butter, pickles, jelly) goes a long way.

The benefits of doing things yourself should not be underestimated. There is simply no way a multinational corporation, as much as it may spend on R&D, will ever be able to tailor everything to your own personal needs. Going natural in as many areas as you can is good for you, your wallet, and the environment. If that's not enough, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Happiness is....


I don't dare define happiness for anybody. Some people surf 60-ft waves. Others curl up with a good book. I take my binoculars and try to find rare birds. But the point is, there is something that makes us happy, and it usually has nothing to do with money--or at least, very little to do with money.

Yeah, yeah, we've all heard the "money doesn't buy happiness" shpiel before, and wondered how people could possibly be addicted to buying things. This isn't about any of that--after all, it's a natural living blog, and not a frugality one.

But it's true that most of the things that make us happy are free, or pretty damn close. Yes, my binoculars cost $60 (and no, I'm not complaining about that, just saying) but they've lasted almost 12 years, and they work well enough. We like to hang out with friends, spend time with family, train for a marathon, etc. They cost us in time, and not in dollars and cents, and that, I think, is what makes them so easy to forgo. It's not hard to buy orange juice, but to decide to spend Sunday morning freezing your @$$ off in the cold and hoping to see a smew is a rather unimpressive way to spend your precious time if you need orange juice.

I would argue, though, that it's a price worth paying. Taking time on a regular basis to reconnect with what makes life enjoyable for you is a way to avoid the pressure to buy so that you can be. What I mean by that, is stepping away from the consumer culture foisted upon us by all those TV ads and all the glam and glitter of shiny mailings and malls that tell us that we want to be the next pixie-stick supermodel and have cellulite-free legs, and focus on what we really want. It lets us be ourselves, rather than the cliches (yes, there should be an accent over the "e") that entertainment execs think we want to be.

Taking time away from "what you should be" and spending time with "what you are" can be life-changing, or just a nice way to relax. The better you know yourself, the better you understand what you need--and usually, it's got nothing to do with artificial colorings, credit cards, or any of the trappings of the electronic age. No, you don't have to live in a cave. But you do have to live with yourself, so it's a good idea to make sure you're as happy as you can be.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Doctor, doctor, give me a clue

Pharmaceuticals are investing a hell of a lot of money in finding the active components to a lot of "natural" medications. Take, for instance, licorice root. In traditional Chinese medicine, it has been used to control gastrointestinal disorders such as stomach ulcers, whereas Western herbalists tend to use it for a more varimore varied array of disease processes, some of which are justified by science, others which are not.

It seems strange to me, actually, that there are so many physicians and scientists who balk at the idea of using old-fashioned remedies for disease processes. After all, digoxin is derived from foxglove, and its use to enhance cardiac function has been around since at least the 1800s. Granted, a lot of old-fashioned cures contain a lot of hokey-pokey-hocus-pocus, but you'd think that there'd be more interest in some of the more efficacious ones.

The one major flaw in many of the studies that have been done "disproving" the efficacy of herbs is that there is no standard for efficacy and no standard for the drug that's administered. That is, studies demonstrating efficacy (or inefficacy) in mice and rats use entirely different criteria from studies purporting efficacy (or inefficacy) in humans. Furthermore, animal studies tend to use various extracts of the plant, rather than the concoctions you can buy yourself in stores--and God only knows what sort of stuff ends up in those, since there are no standards.

I take St. John's Wort and licorice, myself--the St. John's Wort seems to help my longstanding depression, and the licorice seems to help my eczema (though that's probably also because it's summer). I take them as teas (one cup of each, once a day), and it really does seem to help--I hadn't noticed the effects of St. John's Wort, actually, until I realized that I was writing for hours on end, and that my concentration had improved. I was taking it almost daily, not because of any special effects, but simply because it tastes good (to me, my counterpart hates it). And then I realized that I felt much the way I did when I was on a prescription antidepressant. The licorice is more hit-or-miss, but either way, I take it, because sleeping at night, even if it is a placebo effect, is good.

For a long time, too, I've used lavender oil on my skin, ever since that time I bought, on a whim, a little tiny tub of lavender skin balm from Terralyn. I used it because it smelled good and kept my dry skin at bay--it wasn't until I gave it to my sister to try (her eczema is far worse than mine) that she told me that it was the first thing she'd used in over 3 weeks that worked.

So my own feeling about herbal medications is generally good. But then again, I also happen to be exquisitely sensitive to drugs. Three hits of pot will knock me out, a small glass of madeira puts me to sleep, and a little extra St. John's Wort hurtles me into orbit with anxiety.

Of course, the science says that I'm a lunatic for thinking that these work, since the evidence is mostly to the contrary. But I don't think science can deal with herbal medications the way it can with chemically-engineered drugs. You can't isolate one compound from a plant and expect it to work the way taking the whole plant (part) works. After all, licorice root contains something like twenty different compounds, of varying efficacy, but the sum of them (for me) is less itching at night. There may not be known receptors for these compounds, and there may not be known pathways by which they all work, and we may never know for certain how much of the effect is due to one compound or the other. But just because we don't know the hows or whys doesn't mean it's not real.

If you're interested in using herbs, it is my recommendation that you do your own research as to which ones are right for you. If you have high blood pressure, for instance, stay away from licorice, even if you do have eczema. If you're fond of cheese and red wine, St. John's Wort may not be right for you. And so on--there are as many considerations for which herbs to take as there are for drugs. Keep in mind, these are drugs, and just because they are natural does not mean they are safe. Herbs for Health and Healing by Kathi Keville is a good place to start with your own research. It's not the end-all be-all to everything herbal, and it's coverage is almost exclusively from a Western perspective, but as a beginner's guide, it can't be beat.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Dinner: Bought, cooked, served

The problem with making real food for dinner is that real food seems complicated. You can't just pick up any old tomato, because sometimes you'll get one that's been sitting on the shelf just a bit too long; or maybe the asparagus isn't in season, or you haven't quite got the knack for sorting string beans. And then when you get it home, it's a question of how to prepare it--which food gets cooked first, how do you peel a tomato, is it okay to leave the skin on a potato? Either you've bought too much or not enough of one thing, and while you're pitching a fit worrying about whether the meal will taste good, the sauce is burning and you wonder how it is I persuaded you to try cooking your own dinner.

The fact is, though, making real food for dinner is not that complicated. I learned to cook by the seat of my pants, which I would argue is more suitable to real-life cooking than culinary school techniques. All the same, it does take an effort--it doesn't have to be much effort, but you do have to be willing to take your health into your own hands rather than leave it in the hands of a for-profit corporation. With that in mind, let's cook! The following lists contains 10 tips to simplify shopping, cooking, and storing real food.


1. Produce and/or meat - Use your senses. Don't just look at the color. Pick it up, test its weight--is it light, or heavy? Does it smell right? If you tap it, is it hard, or soft? Turn it over, check all sides of it--are there dark spots, indicating bruising? Is there a cut where the juice is leaking out? This doesn't have to take a long time. With a little practice, you can do all this within a split second of just picking it up, giving a quick once-over, and make a decision.

2. Know what's in season - You could make "Asparagus with Hollandaise Sauce" for Christmas. But you might not be able to find asparagus in December, and if you do, it'll be of questionable quality. There's a season for everything, during which they taste better than most. Knowing what's in season can help you plan your menu so that you can take advantage of the best food at the best prices.

3. List everything - Making a list and checking it twice isn't just for Santa Claus. It helps you not forget the one critical ingredient to your chili, keeps you on task so that you don't get sidetracked by that wonderful deal on Belgian endives (which you don't know what to do with), and gets you in and out of the store faster. If you're in a rush at the end of the day, this will save you from a lot of muttering, "What did I want to get again?" Do this the night before, or, if you have a long train ride, on the way home, and you'll save yourself a whole ton of time, and possibly money.


4. Know what you want, or planning - In science, we start every experiment with a brief note as to why we're doing it, what we hope to find, and our hypothesis for the outcome. Cooking is much the same thing (a parallel I will continue to make). Starting with the idea that you want scrambled eggs and changing your mind halfway through may lead to something brilliant, but only if you're a trained chef. Know what it is you want to make, and make sure you have all of the ingredients--before you start.

5. Mis en place, everything in its place - Mis en place is French (of course) for putting everything in its place. Basically, you get all of the ingredients ready. If the recipe calls for a cup of chopped onions, chop up onions to fill that cup. If the recipe calls for peeled tomatoes, peel the tomatoes (or, my secret, use the canned version). If you're just starting out, this can seem like an extra hassle, but it saves you a lot of time and trouble when you start cooking, because everything will be right there. Once you get used to it, you quickly learn which foods can be bunched together and which ones have to remain separate.

6. Know thyself - At least, know thine own equipment. And then realize that recipes are written for the average, so make your own adjustments where needed. Our oven has a propensity to burn everything if given half an excuse, so I usually set the temperature and the timer to a few degrees and a few minutes less than what's given. Pay attention to how long things take (water to boil, chopping onions), so you can figure out what can be multitasked.

7. Food safety - No cooking post would be complete without a note on food safety: keep veggies and meats separate, milk and cheeses refrigerated, and don't, whatever else you do, use a can that looks like it's about to explode. Use common sense to stay safe. Food is, after all, a living thing, and some living things are more deadly than others.

8. Clean as you go - If you've got everything laid out and you're just waiting for the onions to start sizzling, start putting stuff away, washing what dishes you're finished with, etc. Two advantages to this: one, you won't have to do it after your dinner, and two, it looks really impressive if the kitchen is spanking clean in spite of having cooked up a storm.


9. Leftovers are your friends - I don't know why people are allergic to leftovers. I routinely cook extra food so that there will be leftovers, which get eaten when we're both too exhausted to cook. Make extra, and tuck them into a Tupperware or similar storage device, and you can eat two meals for the effort of one.

10. Proper storage - The colder, the better. If you plan on eating the food within a few days, then it'll be okay in the refrigerator. But for longer storage, put it in the freezer. Be sure to use an airtight container, because otherwise you'll come back to freezer-burned food that will taste funny. Freezer burn, incidentally, is not because the food "gets frostbite", but because the water sublimates from it, leaving it dehydrated. It's a very slow version of what happens when food gets freeze-dried.

What's for dinner?

Food is one of those weird commodities where the more that's done to it, the cheaper it seems. This is especially the case when it comes to organic food--why are you paying more for the farmer to do less?
Well, that's not strictly true. Fact is, food grown or raised without chemicals is more prone to bugs and weeds, and of course your yield will go down. The exact decrease depends on the type of crop in question, but suffice it to say that the increase in prices reflects some of the decrease in yield. On average, the yield decrease is about 20%, but if you're really concerned about the living planet, there's no question that organics are better than pouring nitrates and phosphates into the soil.
How to integrate a wholesome way of eating--of organic food--into our busy, frantic lives? Sure, we'd all love to be the Barefoot Contessa or any of the celebrity chefs who have minions hunting down the best of the local/exotic/organic produce at the farmer's market, but most of us just want to have dinner on the table without cooking up a storm, and preferably without mortgaging the house.
The biggest change you can make to your health, actually, is to forego the organic question entirely and just focus on eating food. Real food. Baked potatoes, rather than Baked Lay's; chicken broth, instead of Campbell's Condensed; homemade bread rather than the fluffy white insubstantial stuff you buy from the store.
If you look at what most people put into their shopping carts, it's mostly stuff loaded with crap, for lack of a better word. Bread that doesn't go stale after a week, potato chips spiced and flavored into a color that indicates POISON in many species, prepackaged meals that you can just reheat months later. What exactly gives these things the properties they have, of long shelf life and fluorescent colors? Chemicals, i.e., crap.
Richard Hittleman gives a good description of "life force" in food. It's mostly fluff, in my opinion, but it makes intuitive sense: food is a living thing, and if you process it, you "kill" it (which, incidentally, is why you shouldn't eat meat, according to him--it's dead). Eating "dead food" drains you of your own energy, rather than giving energy back to you. Needless to say, I dislike the fluffy language, but there's no question that processing--heating, chopping, packaging, freezing--damages food, destroys the vitamins, and eliminates much of the fiber.
Organic does not necessarily mean healthy.
Organic potato chips may be processed without preservatives and real oil, but they've still been processed, and they'll still keep forever on your shelf. Real food doesn't have to advertise its health benefits, because it is healthy.

Next: Cooking and keeping real food

Friday, May 16, 2008


The first posting is always the most difficult--do I write about why I'm blogging, or jump right in? What do I mean by "mysticism", and what the hell is "natural living", anyway?

Science is great. It's given us penicillin, cotton, the Holstein cow, hydroelectricity, and the Internet. Unfortunately, it's also given us plastic, the atomic bomb, organ transplants, and the automobile. We could spend forever and a day debating the relative merits of all of these things, and whether I put them in the right or wrong categories, but that's irrelevant to the point: that modern life, for all its perks, doesn't need to be so "modern"--that there are a lot of natural and "old-fashioned" things that are simple, and work very well.

For instance, that bottle of all-purpose cleaner (409, or Fantastik) under your kitchen sink. Sure, it works great--and plus it's anti-bacterial, so you know it's got all those germs beat.

Would it surprise you to know that washing soda and dish detergent work just as well?

There's an increasing body of evidence to suggest that plastics are related to male infertility, that the overuse of cleansers is somehow related to the explosive increase in the numbers of children with asthma, and diet sodas actually cause obesity. These questions can take years to answer, and if the plastics industry is anywhere near as powerful as Big Tobacco, they'll fight to the death to keep the answers unknown. In the meantime, there's no harm in not using as much plastic, potentially toxic cleaners, or diet sodas. So why not?

Which brings us back to the question of what exactly is "natural living"? After all, I now live in a country that is, for all intents and purposes, man-made. I am writing on a device that was originally built to make calculations. My livelihood depends on a mode of transportation that carries people faster than Nature ever intended them to go. Yet I don't exactly fancy living in a cave and hunting for dinner, either. Nor would it be possible, really, to do that. It's hard to say exactly what "natural living" means any more, and if you think about it, it almost wouldn't make sense to try to pin down a definition any more precise than "to live in accordance with your circumstances", because after all, a cave man in a modern city is as much out of place as I would be in the Neolithic age--we'd both be hopelessly lost and out of place. The problem with modern life is that our circumstances and our biology are hopelessly out of sync with each other--or so it woud seem. I would argue that it's not. And the rest of this blog will be devoted to how.