Thursday, January 22, 2009

New Year's Resolutions Update

This is the Tweeb; I adopted her from a rescue two years ago, and occasionally I'll send her foster "mom" an email titled "State of the Tweeb". Now, though, she'll get to headline the state of my New Year's resolutions. Follow me as I track my ups and downs:

1) Switching to CFLs: I've only managed to switch out 3 bulbs so far. More are coming, but we've recently decided to look into buying lamps for our bedroom, so I'll hold off on switching the bedroom lights until we do.

2) Eating more organic produce: Unforunately, this is winter, and produce is normally priced higher. Organic produce, doubly so. But I have made the switch to free-range and/or organically-raised eggs. The labels here are kind of confusing, but I've decided that free-range is more important than certified organic, because less stressed chickens means less salmonella. Plus I've always felt that humane treatment is more important than not using chemicals.

One thing I have been doing is taking note of where the produce is coming from. Eating locally and non-organic is probably better than eating organically but not locally.

3) Not buying clothes: I've succeeded so far in avoiding the purchase of all things clothing, but I'll need new socks soon.

4) Balcony garden: Our balcony has been cleared. It awaits but a few shelves and stuff that I'll tack together over the next few months, and spring should see the start of a beautiful crop. Assuming that I don't kill any of the plants...

5) Photography: Still haven't resumed this to the extent I would like. In part, this is because we've been busy remodeling the kitchen. In part, this is because the recharageable batteries I've been using have been charged one time too many and have decided to quit, and I've yet to bite the bullet and pay for new batteries and a new recharger (grr).

6) Selective use of chemistry: Yep. So far, so good. Except today, when I had to get new laundry detergent--I hadn't anticipated running out of the homemade stuff in the middle of starting a second load. Well, we'll make more tonight, and keep the store-bought stuff for emergencies...

7) Maintenance: Kind of. Our record for cleaning out the dishwater trap is abysmal, but I've been taking careful note of the pressure in my tires, and I've patched up a pair of pants.

8) Turning things off: Got power strips that can be turned off for the TV, lights, DVD player, sound system. Getting better at nagging :-)

9) Canning stuff: This is actually the boyfriend's forte. He loves doing it. Now, it's mostly marmalades, as oranges and grapefruits are in season.

10) Yoga: Yes and no. It's actually remarkably easy to get up at 4:30. Slightly less easy to do yoga. But I've found that going from M-F is about as much as I can take of it.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Pitchers and basins

We're remodeling our kitchen. Yesterday we took out all of the cupboards and shelves. Today we've patched up some of the walls. Tomorrow we'll give it a paint job and remove the fridge and stove, and Wednesday the appliance guys move in and put up a new kitchen.

When we took out the cupboards, we had to turn off the water to the entire apartment (like all decent plumbing systems, it's now refusing to come back online all the way), which meant that for the better part of the day we had no running water at all in the apartment, which makes washing hands rather tricky.

Or rather, it would, but for a pleasantly fortuitous home decor item I purchased a few weeks ago: an old pitcher/basin set, the kind that farmhouses without running water used for sinks.

I bought it because it was beautiful--simple, aesthetically pleasing, if an armload to carry back. But it got its turn to function this week, as a supplementary sink, for when the bathroom sink just won't do.

It's quite interesting to muse upon the fact that, years ago, you couldn't see a house without a pitcher and a basin set. And now, you can hardly find a house with one.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bring your own lunch--without plastics

Living green and living cheap are not always one in the same—to whit, organic produce. Easily costs twice as much at the supermarkets, here, which is why I prefer to hit the farmer’s market instead. Except at this time of year, not only are the prices still exorbitant (it’s winter, and the produce at the organic stands are not only organic, but local, too), there’s also very little else that’s affordable except mushrooms and herbs. Which make a fantastic combination, but one does not live on mushrooms alone (although they do taste great stir-fried).

But living green and living cheap are, for the most part, mutually compatible goals: bringing your own lunch, for instance, is a great way to save the environment and tighten your financial belt. You can choose what you’re eating, and most likely you’ll have a hard time coming up with worse crud than what’s served up at the local fast food joint—which is none too green itself, if you believe Eric Schlosser’s reporting.

There is, however, one point of contention with going green by packing your own—the plastic. It bugs the living daylights out of me to have to use plastic sandwich baggies when everything else I do (going vegetarian, reusing and recycling what I can, turning off the lights, etc) attempts to be as environmentally friendly as possible. And I’m none too fond of Tupperware or its ilk, either—inadvertent liquid sculpture is only an art form if it doesn’t set off the fire alarms.

Most days I bring sandwiches, anyway. Not for any lack of imagination on my part—simply because at 5:30 in the morning there’s not much time for very much else. And while I know there are Tupperwares specifically designed to hold sandwiches, I simply abhor the thought of having to go out and buy it—it means yet another plastic box cluttering up our cabinet, and it’s anybody’s guess how long it’ll take my boyfriend to lose it, as he’s done with the last two lunch boxes I bought for him. Besides, our kitchen is getting renovated soon enough, and having more crud in it is the last thing we need.

I’ve come up with two solutions, one for sandwiches and other things that have to be wrapped, and one for a Tupperware analog for foods that must be heated:

1) Tupperware analog: glass jars. I personally use peanut-butter jars (which are still made of glass in this neck of the woods) but there’s no reason to think of that as the one-and-only. If you can’t stand the thought of eating out of a jar, keep a plate/bowl and spoon/fork in your workplace, and wash those as soon as you’re done.

2) Sandwich baggie substitute: butcher paper. Obviously this won’t work quite as well with things like tuna salad (which, in my opinion, you’ve got to be nuts to bring, anyway—salmonella, anybody?) But this should be.

We can’t ever completely oust the role of plastics in our lives, but minimizing its use is just good sense. You’ll help reduce our dependency on foreign oil, reduce your exposure to phthalates (which are de environmentalist rigeur at the moment) and toxic compounds (given off when plastics are heated to melting), and maybe save yourself a couple bucks in the meantime. Besides, glass jars are essentially free, extremely durable (as long as you don’t drop them), completely unstainable, and infinitely reusable.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Homemade goodness

I do most of the baking in our home: cookies (every other week, thereabouts) cakes for special occasions and just-because, and bread. Actually, the bread machine makes the bread, but it still means I have to decide when and what to add to it. There’s a windmill nearby that carries all kinds of interesting flours, nuts and seeds (and pet food)—it’s always a fun trip, and I never come back empty-handed.

I don’t know why people say homemade is healthier. I suppose that’s mostly true, but then again you don’t see that many morbidly obese folks wandering the too-narrow aisles of Whole Foods all that often (come to think on it, you don’t see too many people at all wandering through WF these days). People who have that kind of money usually eat right to begin with, exercise, and if they prefer fancy gourmet breads because it’s “healthier”, then it’s a small wonder that people who eat all-natural things are healthier. I haven’t heard of any studies about this, so I doubt these two are causal.

So it’s not for any reasons of health that I bake and the boyfriend cooks, but because it’s tastier. Even after factoring out the cost of the bread machine, we’ve made up for it by the “exotic” breads that I regularly make with it—flaxseeds appear regularly in our loaves, as do whole wheat flours. But that doesn’t mean our homemade things are necessarily any healthier—yes, you miss out on lots of chemical preservatives and gain a ton of taste. But you also gain tons of fat. The cookies I make usually require 125-250 g of butter (that’s ~4-8 oz), and untold amounts of sugar (this gets cut back—I don’t like sweets to be too sweet).

The moral of the story is that homemade is only as healthy as the stuff you use to make it. One of the complaints against jarred tomato sauce is that it contains (gasp!) sugar. Well, if you make your own (and it’s not that hard), adding a modest lump of dark brown sugar greatly improves the flavor. Whining about the amount of salt in prepackaged chicken soup? Make your own, and you’ll find that you need a surprising amount of salt to get it to taste the way we’ve come to expect chicken soup to taste—I’m not sure how much, as it’s been eons since I’ve made it, but I remember being surprised at how much I had to dump in. Granted, if your tastes run towards the mild end of the spectrum you’ll probably need less sugar and salt than the amount going into prepackaged foods. Although you probably won’t have access to food-grade tocopherol or any of the other additives and preservatives added to prepackaged foods, just because you make it yourself doesn’t mean it’s any healthier than something out of the freezer aisle.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Out, out, damn spot!

*Bonus points to whoever knows where the title comes from*

This post is mostly inspired by this MSN Money post. In my mind, fewer things garner more irritation than "frugal hacks" which aren't. Okay, saving a buck on laundry is good. But wouldn't saving mega-moolah--while being good to the environment and NOT killing yourself one molecule at a time--be better?

I've made my feelings about chemicals known, what wasn't so clear is that I actually dislike using powerful chemical cleansers. If you've got to wear chemical protection against it, why the hell would you spread it around on your floors? On purpose? This isn't just a rhetorical question. If you've got small children or pets running around, they'll eventually put their hands and feet in their mouths, eating the dirt--and whatever chemical poison hasn't been degraded by time or light exposure. People who want to blame vaccines for autism would have a better case against Dow and Johnson & Johnson (not that I think cleaning products cause autism, but if you've ever taken a deep breath in a shower that was just sprayed with one of the stronger products, the harm is quite obvious).

Getting things clean is really all about chemistry, anyway. Once you understand a bit about soaps, acids, and bases, it's just a matter of tinkering until it's done.

Everything that matters can be cleaned with:

Hand soap
Washing soda
Baking soda
Bar soap

Laundry detergent: I use this recipe from Trent Hamm. It's great because even if I use an expensive, olive-oil based soap (I'm very sensitive to perfumes and coloring), I still come out ahead. Save up empty milk jugs or keep the containers of your old laundry detergents around. The sole disadvantage of this is that it has a tendency to separate. I've found that using olive-oil based soaps decreases this tendency, but if a jug has been sitting around for a few months it'll need a bit of shaking up.

Wine stains can be pretreated with salt (I'll bet you were wondering where this one came up). It's the tannins in the wine that set the stain, and salts disrupt this process. Just set the item aside, and pour on a copious amount of salt, enough to cover the entire stain. Let it sit for at least 15 minutes (I prefer 1-2 hours). Then rinse off the salt--in COLD water--and dab a drop of hand soap on it, and rub it in. You can repeat this a few times; depending on the wine, the stain may get lighter, or it may not. In the end, launder as usual. This is not entirely foolproof on white items--it seems to depend on the fabric type and the wine involved. The other bit of advice is to drink cheap reds--well, at least, young reds. They contain fewer tannins and are less complex (both in taste and chemical structures). Unless you have a sommelier for dinner, odds are nobody will know. :-)

Sweat stains are nigh inevitable in white shirts, but you can get them out and get a few more wearings out of them if you soak a lightly-stained shirt in baking soda and VERY hot water (be generous, 1/4 cup to a gallon). Let it sit for a few hours, and then wash (with other whites) in bleach. You'll have a sparkly-white clean shirt by the end.

Blood stains are surprisingly easy to get out. Soak in COLD water, and use a dab of hand soap to get out the most stubborn of stains. The only downer is that the soak has to be overnight for it to be completely effective. You can get away with shorter soaks, but you may have to soap the stain for a little longer.

We don't have a dryer, but if you do and if you use one, toss in a tennis ball. It'll act as a fabric softener AND decrease static cling. It does the same thing as those expensive dryer balls, but tennis balls are cheap.

Vinegar also acts as a great fabric softener, if you use such things (because we hang everything out, softeners would be defeated).

Nothing I've mentioned (not even the tennis balls) would cost more than a box of OxyClean. Everything is multipurpose--you can use baking soda or vinegar to clean lots of other things--and they're SAFE. These are, by far, a most effective way of going natural.

Friday, January 2, 2009


I come across articles like this one frequently on the Internet, articles which purport to explain how relationships work and when you should be hitting "milestones", as if every couple develops according to some as-yet-unknown Piaget. If not even kids follow the rules all the time, why the hell do we expect adults to do the same thing?

I think a lot of discontent comes from the fact that we don't take relationships slow enough. When you're "supposed" to make out on the third date or it's a bust--when you're "supposed" to start thinking of moving in together after a year--waiting for months for your first kiss can certainly make you feel like either a freak, or that you're dating one (I am almost certain Peter did, as I freaked out every time he tried--for months).

But like the Supremes sang, "You can't hurry love". Lust and infatuation are easy, but being in love and Loving someone are, in my opinion, very different. And sometimes, your Nerve Growth Factor just takes a while to come up to that level associated with Love. Mixing neuroscience and pop psychology is, admittedly, a leap of logic, but no more so than subscribing to the popular opinion that dinner and a movie, guy-pays-for-all, is the "right" way to date.

I'm thinking about this because 2009 will be the eighth year that my boyfriend and I have known each other; the second year that we will have lived together. We didn't share a kiss until almost three years had passed, though I suspect that things might have moved a little faster if we'd been on the same side of the Atlantic. A little, but not by much, I think. In terms of Relationship Development, this would put us at "cretin".

But I don't think that's a bad thing. Certainty and stability are hard enough to come by in this life, and if you're going to get through life together, then you've both got to be certain, and stable.