Monday, December 21, 2009

Small surprises

We just received our most recent utility bill, and our efforts to reduce heating costs have succeeded. Our energy usage is down 40% since last year! What's most remarkable about that is that at this time last year, we hadn't yet experienced any freezing temperatures. In contrast, we had a ten-day freeze during the time period covered by our current utility bill.

Another small surprise is that I have hopefully discovered a new local company to purchase products from. Until now, I have done a lot of my shopping for affordable natural products at Trader Joe's, but the store in my area has been slowly reducing the size of their health, beauty and household products sections. A conversation with a store manager confirmed that they, indeed, are downsizing in those areas, based on slower than desired product sales.

One of the products no longer at TJ's is their peppermint castile soap, which they had sold for $3.49 for 16 oz. Dr. Bonner's castile soap is available at other stores, but it's much more expensive.

Today, I stopped at Grocery Outlet, a grocery store that sells overstock items from other stores and producers at discount prices. I spotted a brand of castile soap from a company called Seattle Organics, in a variety of scents including peppermint. A quick glance at the ingredients list showed that it's all natural and is being sold for $3.99 for 16 oz.

As when I discovered the Alaffia shea skin care line, based in Olympia, WA, I got really excited about possibly discovering another company that is local and natural for household products. The only problem is that a google search didn't turn up a company by that name. I had only run into Grocery Outlet for something else quickly today so I didn't purchase the soap, but I will return and buy some and check the label to see if they have a phone number or web url. However, my search did turn up another pleasant surprise: a green directory web site called GoGreenLife that allows you to search for local, sustainable companies.

12/23 Update: I purchased a bottle of the Seattle Organics castile soap today. Unfortunately, the bottle only has a P.O. Box address on it, and no phone number or web url.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A few more thoughts on "Princess and the Frog" (SPOILER ALERT!)

Warning: unlike my last post, which was just a general review, this one contains quite a few spoilers.

These thoughts are about the ongoing discussion of Prince Naveen's race. First, to the objection of some that by making Naveen "other," the movie missed a chance to portray a positive black male: I wholeheartedly disagree. The most important role model in Tiana's life is her father, and although he only appears in the beginning of the movie (he dies in WWI), his memory, his love, his life lessons, and his dreams stay with Tiana throughout her life, motivating her in all she does.

Second, and this came up in a discussion I had on another blog: at the end of the movie, you see Tiana and Naveen, now married, fulfilling her dream of opening a French Quarter restaurant. I think the filmmakers' intent was to once more reverse the "princess" stereotype: instead of Tiana giving up her dreams in order to get married and live happily ever after as simply a princess bride, Naveen instead becomes part of her life, helping her to fulfill her pre-marriage dreams.

Whether or not the filmmakers realized this (and they may have, given that the movie's screenwriter is black), there is something else significant about this ending besides the feminist reversal. By remaining in New Orleans and helping Tiana open her restaurant, Naveen basically made a decision to become a black man. What I mean is, in the eyes of the law and society at the time, once he married Tiana and stayed in NOLA, he would have been considered black. The privileges he had at the beginning of the movie due to his ambiguous ethnicity and royal status would have disappeared. He gave them, for her. And that's romantic!

Update: another blogger discussing this was offended that Tiana and Naveen are shown at the end doing the manual labor to refurbish the building that becomes the restaurant. To her, that showed that Tiana ends up just as poor and struggling as she was at the beginning of the movie, unlike the other Disney princesses, who end up pampered and wealthy beyond dreams.

As you might guess, I disagree with this interpretation, too. First, I think the purpose of showing them doing the labor is to portray how much Naveen had changed from the lazy, spoiled young man he was at the beginning. And second, the manual labor (on a building they own) is just an intermediate step on the way to having a very successful restaurant, as you also see at the end. I suspect that while they'll always have to work hard, Tiana and Naveen would end up making quite a bit of money with their restaurant. (And there is quite a precedence for some hardworking black entrepreneurs becoming very rich and successful, even in the Jim Crow era, despite humble beginnings: Madame C.J. Walker, John H. Johnson, among others). So, being a black woman from that era in American history, Tiana would probably never have the "fairy tale" ending of the typical princess tale (and she didn't expect to), but she wouldn't end up poor and struggling. She'd find herself squarely within the black bourgeoisie.

Update 2: I really liked the fact that the movie showed a little of Tiana and Naveen's married life, with him even having a line where he refers to her as "my wife." I don't think any of the other Disney princess movies show that, even in their direct to DVD sequels, with one exception: The Little Mermaid 2, which is about Ariel and Eric's 12-year-old daughter, who, in a reversal of her mother's story, dreams of being a mermaid.

Yeah, I'm thinking way too hard about this, LOL!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

I loved the Princess and the Frog!

I blogged about this movie when I first learned about it earlier this year, and now I've seen it during its opening weekend. My husband and I took our daughter today as a special treat (she has been to two movies at the theater before today--Madagascar 2 and Charlotte's Web--and wasn't able to sit through either of them in their entirety). But sitting through this movie was no problem; my daughter was enchanted.

I have a standard for evaluating whether or not I love, rather than simply like, a movie: if I immediately want to see the movie again, I loved it. By this standard, I absolutely loved The Princess and the Frog!

So many things were wonderful about it: beautiful animation, somewhat great music (more on that in the next paragraph), a wonderful heroine who is also a role model (I don't consider any of the Disney princesses role models, except for Mulan, and to a lesser degree, Belle; Tiana, however, is a great one), a hero who changes for the better, and a plot that upends the traditional fairy tale story. More on that as well.

One of my only disappointments is the music. It seems weird to write that, because the music was amazing in many ways, filled with the sounds of New Orleans jazz and gospel. And Aniki Noni Rose, who is the voice of Tiana, is an incredible singer. The problem is that the songs weren't memorable, not in the way that "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast, "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid, and "Circle of Life" from The Lion King (and at least one or two other songs from each movie) were. I walked out of the theater and couldn't remember any of the songs, except for "Evangeline," a lovely ballad sung by the Cajun firefly Ray.

I have to add a comment about Ray. I read one review in which the reviewer noted that her biggest concern prior to seeing the movie was that Ray, a snaggled-toothed firefly, would be the worst of stereotypes, and was pleasantly surprised to find that he wasn't. I agree. He was actually one of the movie's sweetest, most endearing characters, and it's fitting that the movie's most romantic song was sung by him.

One other major comment I have is about the ethnicity of the movie's hero, Prince Naveen. I noted in my earlier post about this movie that some were already complaining that he wasn't black (FWIW, it's not a complaint I share), and I've seen several comments since then expressing the wish that Disney, while giving black girls a role model, had also given black boys a role model by making the hero a black prince. Instead, the character is brown-skinned; his name is Sanskrit; the actor voicing him is Brazilian; his accent is Spanish; the character speaks English, French, and something that sounds made up; and his nationality (Maldonian), is also made up.

In other words, the filmmakers deliberately made his ethnicity ambiguous, and having seen the movie, I think they made the right call. This goes back to what I said above about the movie upending traditional fairy tale themes. If you've seen the preview, you know that when Tiana kisses the frog, instead of breaking the spell and having him turn back to a prince, she becomes a frog instead. This is due to the fact that according to the original story, a princess must kiss the frog and Tiana is not a princess; she is a waitress.

The story does have a princess, though; a blond white girl named Lottie who is the daughter of one of New Orleans' richest men and who is also the Mardi Gras princess. And if the story followed a traditional arc, she would be the one to break the spell. Naveen wants her to, and even before he is transformed into a frog, he is trying to woo her. The fact that it's not the actual "princess" who wins the prince, and it's only when it no longer matters to Naveen that Tiana's not that he wins her heart, is part of the movie's charm.

This, then, is the principal reason Naveen could not have been black. Lottie's father accepts Tiana's friendship with his daughter, something not uncommon in the South--white children who were friends with the black children of people who worked for their parents (although having those friendships survive into adulthood was much less likely). Nevertheless, there is no way a wealthy white man in 1920's New Orleans would have accepted a black man wooing his daughter. But a wealthy, foreign prince of indeterminate ethnicity? In that case, I could imagine him overlooking a little brown skin.

It's interesting how Disney kept race in the background. At only one point do they reference it--and then indirectly. Tiana dreams of opening her own restaurant, working two jobs and carefully saving all her tips. When she has enough for the downpayent on a building, the bankers tell her that someone else has outbid her for the structure and only if she pays the full price in cash will they sell it to her. Well, it's bull--the building is in shambles and needs so much work that it's doubtful anyone besides Tiana wants it. But you really know the bankers are lying by what they tell her next: something along the lines of, "A young lady of your background shouldn't think she can have her own restaurant and rise above her station."

One of the most pleasant surprises was how romantic the story was. The movie made me believe that the two principal characters were falling in love, and the ending, with what they are willing to change and sacrifice for each other, cements it. And unlike the typical Disney princess movie, their kisses have chemistry! In addition, the movie had great messages about hard work being necessary to make dreams come true, and love and family being the most important things one can have in their life. This is the type of movie that I think adults would enjoy even without a child accompanying them. It was completely satisfying and I, for one, can't wait to own it and watch it again and again.

Friday, December 11, 2009

One full year of "no more chemicals!"

Last December was the last time I chemically relaxed my hair. I've cut it several times since then, and am pretty sure that most of the hair on my head is now chemical-free.

I have posted several times about the hair care products I've tried to use on my hair in the past year, and some of the stops and starts I've had along the way with finding what works. Anyway, here is what I've settled on:

-- Washing weekly with Trader Joe's TeaTree Conditioner, and once a month with a mixture of 1 TB baking soda in 8 oz. of warm water, and regardless of what I wash with, rinsing with a mixture of 2 TB of apple cider vinegar in 8 oz of cool water.

-- Daily conditioning with a mixture of TJ TeaTree Conditioner, extra virgin olive oil, pure aloe vera gel and vegetable glycerin, with a few drops of essential oil (usually orange or peppermint) added for scent. The mix I make includes 2 TB each of the first three ingredients and 1 TB of the glycerin, and lasts about 2 weeks.

-- Detangling daily with a mixture of 2 oz of the daily conditioner recipe above mixed with 6 oz of filtered water, shaken and applied with a spray bottle. This mixture also lasts about 2 weeks.

--A mixture of 2 TB melted shea butter, 2 TB olive oil and 1 TB aloe used as as a curly pudding applied to the ends of my hair, or brushed throughout my hair (using a soft boar's hair bristle brush) daily. This mixture lasts about a month.

--Styling with flax seed styling gel. Bring one cup of water to boil, add 2 TB whole flax seeds, simmer 10-20 minutes until thickened. Strain out the seeds, stir in 1 TB aloe gel and a few drops essential oil, and store in the refrigerator. I usually get 4 oz. of gel from this recipe, and it lasts about a month.

-- Monthly deep conditioning with a mixture of 1/4 cup mayo, 2 TB olive oil, and 2 TB water, warmed in a microwave, applied to my hair, covered with a shower cap and then a warm towel, and then rinsed out and washed after 30 minutes.

I really am happy with the results! Receding hairline? Gone; hair has grown back. Dry, flyaway frizzies? Gone. Dandruff? Gone. Itchy scalp? Rare, and when it does occur, successfully treated by rubbing the itchy spots on my scalp with vinegar on a cotton ball, and then applying aloe vera gel.

I'm still struggling with coming up with great ways to style my hair, and hope to learn (and post about) new tricks in the coming year. But the improved overall condition of my hair and scalp has been so worth it, and the fact that I am no longer using toxic chemicals on my body or rinsing them away into the environment makes that fact much sweeter.

I'm taking my daughter to see "The Princess and the Frog" tomorrow, and I'll post about it later.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

I know I've been negligent

... in posting. I think I'm finally better. Over the weekend, I remembered that we had a jar of Kwan Loong Oil (a mixture of eucalyptus, menthol, lavender and a few other oils) given to us by a chiropractor friend in Boston (this is the guy who helped save my hubby's life, being the first to notice his heart problems). Anyway, our friend swears by this stuff and I am glad I remembered it. I rubbed it on my chest and throat and applied a heat pack to it, and I could feel my congestion breaking up. Yesterday, I didn't cough at all, and thought I was cured! Of course, today my cough has resumed, but it's still much better than it had been, so hopefully (fingers crossed) it's on its way out of my system.

We had a great Thanksgiving, joining our friends Michelle and Johnny, and several more of their friends, at their place. They served an almost entirely local meal, save for the turkey. They were unable to find any local turkeys starting weeks in advance; all turkeys in the region had been claimed. The bird they bought was from California, but at least was free-range. It was a fun time.

I hope that soon I will have more topics to write about. Today, I am happy that the sun came out for the first time in weeks (the overcast skies of the Pac NW can be depressing!). I am also glad the police found (and lamentably but understandably, shot and killed) the guy who shot and killed four police officers not far from where we live.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

More random musings

I hate being sick. When my daughter was a baby, my doctor had me undergo a pulmonary function test to determine whether or not I had asthma. The test ruled asthma out, so her conclusion was that I just happen to be very susceptible to respiratory infections. And once more, my daughter was sick for only a week, and I, three weeks later, am still coughing!

It's a pain in the keister, because sometimes I cough so much it induces vomiting or stress incontinence. I also was hoping to serve at my town's Thanksgiving dinner, but I waited until this week to call so that I felt more confident I would be well by Thanksgiving, and they already had enough volunteers.* And my great plans to do more walking and use of public transportation rather than driving are shot--neither is a good idea until I am fully healed.

I think I just have to remember a revelation I had during that really bad, three-month long respiratory infection I had when my daughter was a baby. As I wrote earlier, she caught it from me and was sick for a month. When I found myself in the emergency room of Boston Children's Hospital for the third time in as many weeks when her fever spiked above 101, I was feeling rather depressed about it. I picked up a copy of the hospital's magazine to read while we waited. The magazine described the many efforts they were making to treat children with cancer... sickle cell anemia... cystic fibrosis... spinal bifida... etc. Meanwhile, my otherwise healthy daughter had merely a fever and a bad cough. How could I then feel sorry for myself?

Anyway, on to some happier thoughts. This week I was able to share some of my hair care product recipes with a friend who is white but has biracial grandchildren. She is struggling, as I used to, with finding good products to use on her grandkid's hair. I talked about the fact that so many products designed for black hair have petroleum jelly or mineral oil (a byproduct of petroleum) as their base, and in addition to not being good for anyone's hair, is much too heavy for children's hair. I look forward to hearing about how some of my products work for her grandchildren.

Last night I cooked salmon, mashed potatoes and kale for dinner. All local foods, including potatoes that my husband dug up from our farmer friend's farm, and kale he picked from the garden planted by Johnny and Michelle and the local teens. For the first time, I tried a water-saving idea I've read about: the same water I used to cook the potatoes, I reused to steam the kale, and then reused again to cook spaghetti for later in the week.

The best part about last night's dinner is my daughter. She wanted to help make a sauce for the salmon, and since I hadn't decided what I wanted to top it with, I let her have at it. She gathered a bunch of ingredients from the pantry and mixed them together, tasting as she went along. She made the most phenomenal sauce for the salmon! It included water, salt, pepper, garlic powder, cumin, lentils, dried parsley, dried rosemary, bay leaves, a little canola oil, and parmesan cheese. Most amazing? My child is four years old. When we told my brother-in-law this story today, he's predicting she'll have her own cooking show in a few years!


* One of the reflections of No Impact Week I didn't discuss is "giving back." We did do some of that on Saturday of that week. My husband and daughter joined a group of about 60 teens from a local high school, who went with Johnny and Michelle to our friend's farm to help him harvest his crops. Meanwhile, I was cleaning our yard and house (collecting yard waste and hazardous waste) for my town's annual Cleanup and Recycling Day, and also canned goods for the local food bank. At the event, I received a flyer of local volunteer opportunities and that's where I learned they were looking for volunteers for Thanksgiving. Oh, well. When I'm better, I will explore other ways to get more involved in our community.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The "100 Mile Challenge"

I caught an episode of this show on Planet Green, and it highlighted for me just how hard truly eating locally is, since we have grown so used to having food shipped in from everywhere. The show is a reality series about six families in British Columbia who have to eat only food produced within a 100-mile radius for a period of time. During the episode I watched, one family learned to fish; two others produced a meal together that took five hours to cook, since as one woman said, "There are no pre-packaged foods produced 100% locally, so everything has to be made from scratch." In other words, the shortcuts most of us take, even when cooking "from scratch" can't be made: no pre-made pasta sauce or chicken stock, for example (to cite a few I use).

These folks were struggling with a crew of experts guiding them--no wonder I found it so hard!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

I spoke too soon...

... and the day after I last posted, I woke up with the same symptoms as my daughter: fever, headache, body aches and cough. My daughter's doctor said we both probably have the swine flu, albeit fairly mild cases, since the regular flu isn't really around yet. We both seem to be on the mend, although I (as always) am still coughing my head off.

A few random musings:

-- My husband, as usual, hasn't caught anything from us. In this instance especially, I am happy for his typical resistance to infection, since as a diabetic with heart issues, he's at risk for severe swine flu, and the vaccine hasn't been available locally except for pregnant women, very young children, and homeless individuals.

-- I'm glad my daughter seems to have a strong constitution, unlike her mother. I remember being a child and how I seemed to catch whatever was going around, and I was usually very sick for at least a week, and many times much longer. Meanwhile, my brother and sister would get sick, if at all, only mildly for a day or two.

The worst occasion (at least socially!) was during February when I was 14. Friday was a half day of school, and I had plans to spend the night at a friend's. Saturday she and I were to attend a birthday party during the day, and a Valentine's dance in the evening. Sunday evening I was to spend the night with another friend, since Monday was President's Day and a holiday from school.

I had had a sore throat for several days, and my mother asked me to go to the doctor on Friday morning, just to be sure nothing was wrong. He examined me for a few minutes and said, "You have the mumps."

I replied, "No, I don't."

Doc: Yes, you do.

Me: No. I. DON'T!

Doc: I'm sorry to say, but Yes. You. Do.

Me: No, it can't be! It can't be!

Doc: (laughing) Did you have a big weekend planned?

Me: Yes! (in despair!)

I found out when I returned to school ten days later that two other kids at school also had the mumps. Neither was someone I hung out with, so how I caught it is a mystery. And naturally, neither of my siblings caught the mumps from me, despite my attempts to pass it on!

My daughter, on the other hand, has rarely been sick. As an infant, she never had colic and had only one ear infection. She caught a really bad upper respiratory infection from me (natch!) at nine months old and was really sick for about a month (the ear infection occurred during this time). Of course, my illness at that time lasted for about three months! Since then, my daughter was never sick again until last fall (almost three years later!) when she developed a persistent cough, which her doctor said may have been caused by breathing in all the mold in the air during her first cold, damp Tacoma autumn. And after that cleared up, she didn't get sick again until last week.

When I think about the things I have to be grateful for, having a healthy child is one of the top items on the list!

--I love my GladRags. This may be TMI, but hey, one of the purposes of my blog is to help people with practical green solutions. I use resusable menstrual pads, which I purchased from GladRags. (For tampon wearers, they also offer Diva Cups, another reusable product). I find GladRags to be much more comfortable than disposable pads. And when I'm sick, they have another use.

When I was pregnant, I developed stress incontinence--urine leakage when I coughed, laughed, sneezed or vomit. It mostly cleared up after I gave birth, but it affects me again when I'm sick, especially when I cough a lot. When I was pregnant, I purchased Poise and Depends pads, but I found them bulky, ineffective and embarrassing to wear. My GladRags, on the other hand, are much more comfortable and absorbent--not only good for the environment, but good for my peace of mind!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Well, I made it to a year!

But just barely. I wrote several months ago about my ongoing fight against bronchial infections, since I have experienced bronchitis, usually lasting weeks but occasionally months, almost every year since I was twelve (the exceptions were the first two years of my marriage, when my husband was selling antioxidants and I was taking them regularly). I started taking antioxidants again last fall with the goal to see whether or not they would keep me free of illness for a year. The year officially ended yesterday, so yes, I succeeded.

However, on Friday evening, my daughter spiked a 101 degree fever, and has been sick since then.* It might be swine flu, since the fever is accompanied by a cough, headache and body aches; I'll take her to the doctor tomorrow to know for sure. Thankfully, so far her illness seems mild.

Of course, I woke up sick this morning. I know this is probably not the case, but sometimes I think I have a latent germ that lives in my lungs, just waiting for my immune system to become occupied trying to fight off some other infection. When that happens, my latent germ takes advantage of the situation to kick into full gear. I say this because as always, I'm hacking my lungs out. I don't seem to have caught what my daughter has, since I don't have any of her symptoms except the cough.

Now the question is, will the antioxidants and such treatments as Airborne help me get over the cough quickly, before it turns into full-blown bronchitis that knocks me out for weeks or longer?


* Being sick, my daughter missed trick-or-treating (misery for a four-year-old!), and about seven in the evening on Saturday, she started crying her eyes out. So my husband ran out to the store and bought some candy and came home, pouring it into two bowls. He and I stood in different corners of the living room holding our bowls, while my daughter carried a bag and walked back and forth between us, saying "Trick or treat!" and having us drop candy into her bag. It wasn't the real thing, but it put a smile on her face, and hubby's and mine as well.


Condo Blues recommended a book, Practically Green, as a common sense approach to finding ways to green up your life. I'm linking her post here to help me remember to seek out the book at some point.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Final reflections on No Impact Week

I've already talked about setting a goal to generate less trash by making changes to my daughter's snacks. Here are a few more random thoughts, in no particular order:

On consumption: Hubby recently got a short-term subscription to the Tacoma News-Tribune (I know, not very green. He was responding to a sales call). As a result, I now am able to do something I used to do all the time: read through the Sunday circulars and coupons, trying to find good deals. In doing so, I realize just how far I have stepped away from the consumer culture, because the vast majority of things advertised, I have no interest or plan to buy.

We buy all our clothing, toys, appliances and electronics second-hand, except for my 6'7" hubby, who is only able to shop at Casual Male Big & Tall or Men's Wearhouse two to three times a year when they're having big sales. (Note: one of my challenges/ goals is to try to find something he can wear at a thrift shop). So I can immediately dismiss ads for all these things.

With a few exceptions (Alaffia Everyday Shea body lotion, Trader Joe's TeaTree Tingle conditioner, Tom's of Maine deodorant, and KissMyFace sunscreen), I make our skin and hair care products, and use resuable menstrual pads. So drugstores are now places where we only buy perscription drugs, unless someone gets sick and needs something OTC. Thus, the drugstore ads don't apply.

Although I do read the supermarket circulars to see what's on sale, even the Sunday coupons are mostly useless. A few items I clip for: bread, cereal, cooking oil, vitamins and cold medicine. But we have very little use for most of the items in the coupons, such as frozen meals, Hamburger Helper, Pantene Pro-V conditioner, and the like.

It was kind of nice to know I've really come a long way in this area.

Eating local: This is an area where we could grow a lot. Although we have made strides by growing some of our own veggies and connecting with farmers and urban gardens in the area, we make a lot of our food choices based on what we like plus what is cheapest. Until our finances improve, cost still has to take a priority over local. However, I'm sure I can do better by learning more about local food menus and availability.

Transporation: My daughter and I did a lot more walking this week. We walked to and from the park several times (30 minutes each way), and we drove to the town center and parked and walked to each of our errands, which probably amounted to about an hour's worth of walking. We were tired at the end of it--4r and of course, several times I had to carry my daughter on my back. But walking a lot is getting easier, especially taking the steep hills to and from the park. We'll keep at it.

Energy: The house we live in is very cold: it is large, drafty, built into the side of a hill with eaves over most of the windows (which means very little sunlight), except for the two windows overlooking the Puget Sound which are so huge they also have a huge cooling effect. Great during the summer, terrible the rest of the year. Nevertheless, we're determined to not turn on the central heat unless we absolutely have to. We're doing what we did in Boston: huddling in one room with the doors shut and using a space heater. That's good for family closeness, too!

Quick, cheap skin and hair care tips

Pimples and Blackheads

I saw a list of tips somewhere recently for dealing with adult acne. Despite having very dry skin, adult acne is a problem I occasionally have, and blackheads was a problem I regularly had before I started making my own skin care products. In addition to recommending commercial products and retinol (which you may need a prescription for), the list of tips told readers to avoid using any oil on your skin, since acne is aggravated by oil. From personal experience, I disagree.

Many thanks go out to the original web site (which I can't recall) that inspired me to make my own products. That site suggested using organic, cold-pressed cod liver oil to cleanse and moisturize skin. Due to the fact that I couldn't find cod liver oil anywhere that was both organic and cold-pressed, I went with shea butter instead, and started melting it and mixing it with an equal amount of extra virgin olive oil to make it creamier and easier to use.

The reason the cod liver oil recommendation impressed me was a test the blogger suggested. She wrote that it may seem counter-intuitive, but the truth is, oil attracts dirt and oil, and if you use a non-pore clogging oil on your skin, it can actually help rid your skin of excess dirt and oil, while cleansing and moisturizing your skin. (Consider this also: back in the days when people made their own soap, what did they usually make it out of? Lard. In other words, animal fat. And according to wikipedia, lard and other oils are still used to make soaps commercially).

The test was to put a little oil on a pimple or blackhead and wait for a while and see what happens. This is what I did: I put a little of my shea butter/olive oil mixture on the biggest, most stubborn blackhead on my nose, and covered it with a small bandaid. I waited 24 hours and removed the bandaid. Then I placed a hot washcloth over the spot, and the blackhead popped right out! This was a blackhead that I had never been able to rid myself of using commercial skin masques and products such as Biore nose strips. From that point on, I was a believer.

So here's my adult acne tip: cover the pimple or breakout area with a very hot damp washcloth, followed by a very cold damp washcloth. This will reduce the swelling. Apply witch hazel to a cotton ball and pat the pimple(s) very gently to cleanse. Then add a pure moisturizer to the spot several times a day: I alternate my shea butter/olive oil mixture with pure aloe vera gel. Using this method, any pimples I have disappear within a day, usually with no blemish. This process has also worked with other blemishes or itchy spots on my skin.

(And btw, I no longer get any blackheads!)


Itchy scalp

I have written before about how, alternating between baking soda washes/apple cider vinegar rinses, and "Curly Girl" recommended conditioner washes (using Trader Joe's TeaTree Tingle Conditioner) with apple cider vinegar rinses, I have cured my lifelong dandruff problem. However, being a curly girl, I wash my hair once a week and sometimes get itchy scalp in some spots between washes.

A quick way to ease that is to soak a cotton ball with vinegar and wipe the itchy spot with it, then apply pure aloe vera gel to the spot. The vinegar smell dissipates after a few minutes.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Midweek reflections on the No Impact Experiment

I'm not sure I'm doing all that great at this, but it is making me think. First, I'm thinking about how many eco-choices I make based on convenience. I've addressed this before: no one can do everything they can/should do to live green, and every choice you make has a cost, whether it's of time, money, access, etc. Each of us personally has to decide what we can or can't do, and then just do the best we can.

That said, there's always room for improvement. Here is one specific area I've identified, from the "no trash" day experiment. I buy snacks for my daughter that she can easily obtain from the pantry on her own, such as snack puddings or 100 calorie cookie bags. I like these because my independence-seeking daughter wants to do for herself, and because it ensures a controlled portion size for her, so she doesn't overdo it on snacks. However, I am obviously creating waste, because these snacks are packaged in non-recyclable packages.

So what to do? I can make pudding from a box, but if I want her to be able to get her own, I need to buy some small (4-6 oz) reusable plastic containers with lids to put it in, and have a designated place in the fridge for them, so my daughter can reach them. I read on another blog about a mother who places a basket in her pantry with reusable snack bags filled with small snacks for her kids to grab. That's another idea.

A harder challenge has been eating locally. With all the veggies I picked this weekend, I made soup and also a pasta dish with veggies. The veggies and herbs were local, but the Imagine soup stock I used is manufactured in New York, and the beans in Michigan. I have no clue where the pasta is from, nor the peanut butter/soy sauce/rice vinegar I used to make the sauce. This week, unless I were to eat nothing but salad and veggies, I'm not sure what else I could have done.

I have made soup stocks before, but that only works if I have the time to make the stock and plan to use it right away. Otherwise, I have no place to store the stock for later use. I like the convenience of having a bunch of cartons of Imagine stocks in my pantry, so I can just open one up to make a soup whenever I want. And what local foods could I have substituted for the pasta? Potatos and lentils are grown locally, but as much as I love them, I can get sick of them very quickly. (I made a small batch of lentils last summer when my sister-in-law was here, and she and hubby told me they liked it and asked me to make some more. Then they didn't want any more, so I tried to eat the rest on my own. After three days, I never wanted to see another lentil!)

I haven't had much success at making yeast breads, although I'm pretty good at making quick breads. All this is to say that eating local, if I were to do it right, would take a lot more than just growing my own veggies or picking them at our friend's farm. It would take a real understanding of what's available locally, and how to cook a variety of meals using just that.

The thought is a little overwhelming. Even local recipes aren't 100% local, just the main or most distinctive ingredient (say, salmon or apples), while most of the other ingredients and spices in the recipe could be from anywhere. But I'll keep learning, and taking baby steps, and maybe as long as at least some of the ingredients in my meals are local, that's okay.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

No Impact Experiment prep

The No Impact Experiment is partnered with Huffington Post, and they have asked participants to either upload a video or write a short essay about why they have decided to participate. Here is what I wrote:

I started trying to become more environmentally aware when I was pregnant with my daughter, both to protect her from environmental toxins and because I was concerned about the world she would grow up in. I became a fan of the No Impact Man blog because like Colin Beavan, I am married with a daughter the same age, and until recently, I lived in the city. I have made a lot of changes in my life already, inspired by his example. No Impact Week is an opportunity to stretch myself beyond the environmental changes I have already started to make.

Today we visited the lot where our friends Johnny and Michelle planted veggies using permaculture methods, working with youth from the nonprofit I work with as well as a local high school. They've grown tomatoes, lettuces, a variety of other greens such as kale and collards, a variety of herbs, strawberries, and edible flowers. They're going to send us photos soon and I'll upload some of them. They said it's been great watching skeptical teens get excited about growing food, and seeing neighbors who've observed the activity stop by to pick their own.

We gathered a bunch of plants today, which along with the squash we got from our friend the farmer, I will make some soup. This should help us eat locally (one of the No Impact challenges) for several days!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The "No Impact" Experiment

I've been hemming and hawing about signing up for Colin Beavan AKA "No Impact Man"'s No Impact Experiment, and finally did so. After defending the man and his efforts on this blog, how could I not?

The No Impact Experiment is an invitation to anyone out there to attempt to drastically reduce your impact for one week, using some of the ideas generated by Beavan during his one-year no impact experiment. Each day of the week (beginning Sunday, October 18), you are asked to focus on reducing your impact in one area, and continue that reduction each day while adding a new area, as follows:

Sunday: reducing consumption.
Monday: reducing the trash you generate.
Tuesday: transporation. Attempting to get around by your own efforts (e.g., walking or biking) or public transporation.
Wednesday: food. Attempting to eat more sustainably and locally.
Thursday: reducing your energy usage.
Friday: reducing your water consumption.
Saturday: giving back. Finding ways to contribute to your community.

The No Impact project provides a downloadable (PDF) guide with ideas on how to help you each day, and you can sign up for their social networking site to talk with other folks about their efforts. I signed up for the Washington group, and because I was the first person to do so, I also signed up for Massachusetts, since several others are already members of that group.

As I look through this list, there are many things I have already begun doing, and several areas for improvement. Since the bus routes in my town changed, I have been trying to do more walking. I have been taking my daughter to the park in her stroller. It's a half hour walk in each direction, up and down several hills. But it is getting easier to do, so I hope to soon tackle the one-hour walk to the shopping mall, which is where the nearest everything else is for me: stores, gas, pharmacy, etc. and the once-every-15-minutes bus. (There is a once-an-hour bus right by the park, but to catch it, I have to time my walks very carefully). Next week, I'll take on that one hour walk challenge.

Another area to reduce is energy usage. One of the big areas I can work on is doing more things with my daughter, rather than parking her in front of the TV. I already do a lot with her (she helps me cook and clean, and we play together), but if she had her druthers, she would spend all her time at home with Mommy. A friend of mine with two school-aged sons, one quiet and one social, says she noticed this difference between her boys. The quiet one has no problem playing on his own. The social one always wants to be doing something with someone else. It drove her crazy for a while, until she realized that if she didn't try to stay close to her outgoing son, he would look elsewhere for all his social needs, and she'd find herself regretting it when he becomes a teenager and wants nothing to do with Mom and Dad.

I believe the same is true of my very gregarious daughter. But that means I need to be engaged with her in an ongoing manner, not sitting her in front of the TV when I want some quiet.

The hardest part for me (and one I may not do) is eating locally. We are already doing more by growing our own, but our budget isn't such that we can afford to buy locally all the foods we need to buy.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Cheap green tip: use oil + liquid soap to shave

Caveat: I am writing as a woman who shaves her underarms and legs. I have no clue if this applies to men, especially black men whose faces can be really sensitive to razor bumps.

I blogged a while ago about switching to Preserve razors, because they're recycled, and they accept certain items for recycling that my local municipality doesn't (#5 plastics and Brita filters). I've also made other changes to my shaving routine to make it more green: soaking the razor in a small cup of water after use to clean all the hair out (and make the razor blade last longer), and no longer using shaving cream, just liquid soap.

I've heard some people tout using olive oil in place of shaving cream, and decided to try it. Actually, I used grapeseed oil instead, because I already use olive oil for so many other beauty uses, and my grapeseed oil is used solely for removing makeup (which I wear only on special occasions!).

I tried it, and it didn't work at first. Then I applied a little liquid soap on top of the grapeseed oil on my underarm, and it worked like a charm! I couldn't believe how smoothly and easily I was able to shave. Even better, all I had to do was dip the razor in a little water, and the hairs in the razor just fell out, leaving the razor wonderfully clean.

So a very cheap green tip: use a little oil plus a little liquid soap in place of shaving cream. You'll not only save on the cost of buying shaving cream, your razor will last longer.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Saving my skin and hair (and money!)

I've posted before about making my own skin and hair care products, in part because my concerns about the environmental impact and toxicity of many commercial products, but also out of desperation. For years I had tried various commercial products, and nothing seemed to cure my severe dandruff or extremely dry skin that was prone to blackheads on my nose and chin, flaking on my forehead, and itchy, red, scaly patches all over.

Not only have I cured those problems myself by making my own products from natural ingredients, but I'm spending so much less money to do so. I sat down last night to add up what I'm spending now, compared to what I spent before. Included below are just the products I used/use for basic (face) skin and hair maintenance, without including costs for styling or makeup.

What I spent before:
Cetaphil gentle skin cleanser: $10 for 16 oz (6 mo. supply) = $20/year
Cetaphil moisturizing cream: $14 for 16 oz (4 mo. supply) = $42/year
Olay Total Effects Moisturizer: $23 for 1.7 oz (1 mo. supply) = $276/year
Bioré pore strips: $10 for 6 (1 year supply) = $10/year
Neutrogena T-Gel anti-dandruff shampoo: $16 for 16 oz (2 mo. supply) = $96/year
Queen Helene Cholesterol Hair Conditioner: $3 for 15 oz (4 mo. supply) = $9/year
African Pride hair relaxer: $8 for 4 mo. supply = $24/year

Total: $477, or about $40/month

What I use now:
AAA Pure Shea Butter: $25 for 16 oz (1 year supply) = $25/year
Powdered milk: $6 for 16 oz (2 year supply) = $3/year
Extra virgin olive oil: $6 for 32 oz (1 year supply) = $6/year
Pure aloe vera gel: $7 for 32 oz (4 mo. supply) = $21/year
Vegetable glycerin: $7 for 16 oz (6 mo. supply) = $14/year
Apple cider vinegar: $1.50 for 32 oz. (1 year supply) = $1.50/year
Trader Joe's TeaTree Tingle Conditioner: $4 for 16 oz. (3 mo. supply) = $16/year
Jojoba oil: $6 for 4 oz (1 year supply) = $6/year
Vitamin E oil: $2.50 for 2 oz (1 year supply) = $2.50/year
Essential oils for scent: $10 for 2 year supply = $5/year

Other ingredients: flax seed, yogurt, yeast, green tea, baking soda, mayonnaise: These are ingredients I have in my kitchen. They cost so little to begin with and I use so little of them in skin and hair care (just small amounts, either once a week or once a month), that the cost is negligible. So let's say $2/year.

Total: $102/year, or about $8.50 a month. That's about one-fifth of what I used to spend!

The best part, however, is the results. I am in my early 40's now, and my skin looks better than it did a decade ago. It may be my imagination, but I'd swear that the wrinkles I had started to develop (basically, two lines on my forehead, and a couple of crow's feet around the eyes) have diminished. Meanwhile, I know for certain that my skin is softer, smoother and clearer than it's ever been. As for my hair, as I have posted before, I am still working on styling, but the health of my hair and scalp is fantastic!

For the skin and hair care recipes I use, please click here, here and here.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Basic soup recipe

It's fall again, it's getting chilly out, which means it's time for soup! I love making soup for my family, because it enables me to sneak lots of veggies into my daughter's meal, and it's a hearty, healthy meal that stretches.

I have also found that soups are easy to make. The following recipe is based on one I found in the Prevention cookbook, and can be endlessly modified. Follow the basic recipe, but choose you own set of ingredients, and the amounts, to add to it.

Oil (olive, canola or other vegetable oil)
Hard veggies, chopped (such as potatoes, butternut squash, onions, celery, peppers, carrots)
Broth or stock (such as chicken, veggie, or beef), and water
Spices (such as garlic, salt, pepper, etc.)
Soft veggies, chopped (such as zuchinni, tomatoes, green beans, mushrooms)
Protein (chopped, cooked meat or poultry, beans, or tofu)
Fresh herbs

~Heat 2-3 TB of oil on medium in a large stock pot
~Chop hard veggies and add to pot, and sauté for five minutes
~Add stock or broth. I usually add two 32-oz cartons of Imagine broth (organic broths, which I can often find on sale), plus 32 oz. of water. You can vary the amount of liquid depending on the amount of soup you're making, but a good rule of thumb is 2:1 stock/broth to water.
~Add spices and bring to a boil. For spices, I often add 2 tsp. salt, 1/2 tsp. black pepper, 1 TB garlic powder, and 1 TB Italian seasoning. For a spicier soup, I might exchange the Italian seasoning for 1/2 TB cumin.
~Add chopped soft veggies and simmer 10 minutes. During this time, if you plan to add meat and it's uncooked, chop and sauté your meat until brown. If you're adding tofu, you can sauté it if you wish, but it doesn't need to be cooked in advance.
~Add your protein: meat or poultry (chopped and cooked); beans (I usually add one 15-oz can of great northern beans, drained); or tofu (extra firm, drained and chopped).
~Return to boil and then turn off heat, and it's done!
~Add fresh herbs on top for garnish.

1) Add pasta to the soup at the same time you add the soft veggies. Or cook pasta separately and add when you serve it.
2) Puree the finished soup and add 1/2 c. cream, milk or plain soymilk for a creamy soup.*

* I wrote recently about the Magic Bullet blender, which I love despite the fact that it doesn't do everything it promised. One of the things it doesn't do as indicated is puree hot soup. The top blows off from the pressure (which is dangerous). I have to let soup cool before I can puree it in the Bullet.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Preparing for winter

Our heating bills almost killed us last year. I may have posted about this before: we moved to Washington state to live in the home of military relatives who are overseas for several years. They told us that our heating and cooling costs should be cheaper than in Boston, because the area doesn't have the temperature extremes.

Reality is a little different. The house is cooler in the summer, by virtue of being built into the side of a hill (we have a big spider problem, though). However, Washington had one of the coldest winters and THE hottest summer on record this year. Add to that the fact that in Boston, we lived in a small apartment, and now we live in a large house with huge windows and an old, inefficient furnace. Our heating bills this winter were twice what they normally were in Boston during the winter, and five times what they were when we were striving to be energy efficent (described below).

Needless to say, we can't survive another winter with bills so high. So we are going to try something we did in Boston that reduced our heating costs by 60%. It will be tougher to do in a house, but fortunately, the temperatures here don't often drop below freezing, so I think it will be survivable.

In Boston, we turned our heat down to 55 degrees (except on the bitterly coldest days), and carried a space heater around from room to room as needed. This is what we're going to try this winter here.

I was able to get good deals on two Honeywell surround heat space heaters, purchasing one at Value Village for $8, and another at a moving sale for $5. These are good heaters because they're energy efficient, heat a wide space, have child safety features and automatic shut-off if tipped, and are small and light enough to be carried around easily. I've also found at yard sales and thrift shops such things as bathroom rugs and slipper socks. Now the challenge is making my husband and daughter wear sweaters. I'm always wrapping up, but they like to be freer than I do!

One other part of the plan: bubble wrap insulating our windows! I've heard it really works.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Magic Bullet yum yum!

You may have seen the Magic Bullet blender informercials on TV--you know, $99.99 in 3 easy payments and it does miracles in the kitchen.

Well, I bought one as my "after Christmas" present to myself. Not at full-price, however, and certainly not via phone (I've been burned by buying shoddy informercial products before). Instead, I'd had my eye on the Bullet for $59.99 at Costco for a while, and when I saw it there after Christmas discounted to $39.99, I snapped it up!

No, it doesn't do magic. It takes more than the ten seconds to make something that the ads suggest, and everything in their recipe book doesn't turn out as well as they claim (whipped cream, for instance). But it does work well for most things and is much easier to use and clean than a regular blender--enough that I can honestly say I love having it. I use it to make guacamole, hummus, milk shakes and smoothies, and to blend fruit and veggies for other recipes.

A friend brought us some plums from the tree in his yard, and I used it today to chop them up to make spiced plum bread. I love having an appliance on hand such that I can take an ingredient (e.g., plums), google a recipe, and know that I can whip it up without a problem.

Can I technically call this a green product? Given its small size, I'll bet it uses less energy than a traditional blender (and perhaps less water and dish soap, since it's simpler to clean), and it makes it much easier for me to cook from scratch, saving the processing and packaging that buying the food already prepared would cost. I think I'll answer my own question with a "Yes!"

Monday, September 14, 2009

Wind power in Boston

Crunchy Chicken had a blog post today about wind turbines, asking her readers to weigh in on whether they thought they were awesome, or if they had the concerns that are often expressed about them (an eyesore, too loud, a danger to birds).

One reader wrote that they would never work in the city--too much turbulence and noise. So I had to respond, because when I lived in Boston, I lived a few blocks away from a wind turbine. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103 in Dorchster installed a wind turbine in 2005. Walking by it on numerous occasions, my opinion was that it was neither loud nor an eyesore. Just the opposite: it was one of the most attractive objects on the city skyscape (see photos above).

From what I remember, the wind turbine was a source of pride throughout the city. People thought it was cool, both visually and because of what it was accomplishing. I remember hearing at a public meeting that it was supplying a significant amount (maybe 50%?) of the energy needs for the IBEW building.

Curious to know what the current opinion of the wind turbine is in Boston, I googled it, and found this article. It describes how the city of Boston is now planning to install wind turbines on top of city hall and at several schools, and is creating wind energy zoning regulations for private property. Sounds like Boston definitely wants to be at the forefront of wind energy use in urban areas!

Apple picking!

One of the joys of New England autumns, in addition to the foliage, is apple-picking. Fearing we would miss this, we were excited to discover an orchard near our home in Tacoma. Curran Apple Orchard, now a public park in the city of University Place, has an annual harvest day in September from 1-4 in the afternoon. Last year, daughter was napping at one PM, so we went when she woke up at 3 pm and found all the apples picked clean.

This year, we decided not to repeat that mistake. However, even arriving at 1:05 yesterday, many of the trees were already bare when we got there! Nevertheless, we were able to pick two large bags of apples, and pressed enough to make two half-gallons of cider, with plenty left over to bake a few pies. It was great fun for my daughter, who is now old enough to climb the apple trees and loved being able to crank the cider press.

So a great day! The cider we pressed was fantastic, too. It was made from about four different varieties of apples, and we didn't add anything to it (no spices or sweetners). The only thing lacking was apple cider donuts...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Simplifying the hair care routine

I am all about simple. If something is too complicated to do, I often decide it's not worth it.

I posted before here and here, about the hair care products I make. Anyway, some of them are just too difficult to use. The curly pudding continues to clump up, and I have to rub it for some time in my hand to make it usable. The deep conditioner also clumps up and is hard to wash out, because avocado can be hard to blend smoothly, and coconut oil solidifies when it cools.

So here I go again, spelling out my modified homemade hair care products: my detangler and daily conditioner still work very well (see recipes at the first link above, near the bottom of the post), so I continue to use them.

For deep conditioning (once every two weeks), I now add 1/4 c. mayo, 2 T. olive oil, and 3 T. water in a dish and microwave about 45 seconds. I stir this mixture and apply to my hair, covering it with a plastic shower cap, and then with a hot towel. Wait a half hour, then wash out and condition/style as usual. With this recipe, I have no problems with any clumping, and it's easy to wash out.

For a styling gel, I will continue to make the flax seed gel (again, recipe at first link above), and for now at least, I'm abandoning the curly pudding altogether.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Thrift shopping bonanza

I haven't made a pitch recently for the National Thrift Store month petition, so here it is!

Yesterday, both Value Village and Goodwill had 50% off sales in honor of Labor Day, and daughter and I went shopping! Spending a total of $30, we bought:

-- Three kids' movies
-- Two books for daughter, and two for me
-- A hamper (a much needed item in our house!)
-- A purse for me, since the strap on my old one recently broke
-- An additional Brita pitcher and a popcorn bowl
-- Various clothing items for daughter, including winter boots, a leotard (she wants to take ballet), and two pairs of underwear
-- A necklace and jewelry case for daughter
-- The accessories to accompany my daughter's Halloween costume. My sister bought her a pink princess dress earlier this year, and we found some fairy wings that attach to her shoulders on an earlier thrift store trip. Yesterday, we were able to buy earrings, a necklace, a crown and a fairy wand to make the costume complete.

Among that list, there is one item I wish I didn't have to buy, and that's the purse. I now have in my closet three purses in great condition, except that the straps are broken. Not even the straps really, but the little piece of leather that attaches the strap to the purse itself. I have tried in vain to ask at tailor shops and shoe repair shops to see if they can fix them, and I've always been told no. In each case, it should be a relatively easy thing to fix, requiring only a few stitches if one has a heavy-duty sewing machine and thick thread. It just seems crazy that I should have to abandon decent handbags for want of a few stitches.

No Impact Man has written about this on occasion: the lack of people today who can repair things such as appliances, and how that negatively contributes to our throw-away society. I'm glad I found the new purse, but in the meantime, I'll hold on to the old ones in hope that someday I'll be able to have them repaired.

(*Note: my mother tried in vain to teach me how to sew by machine when I was twelve. I really wish I had been more adept, but even if I could sew, I'd need a heavy-duty machine that can handle leather. I can darn holes and sew on buttons by hand, however.)

Friday, September 4, 2009

Green beans! And a strawberry!

Finally, some green beans have grown! I picked a few today. I also picked our first couple green peppers, and added them to eggs this morning. Delicious! Alas, we lost our eggplant, which rotted before it was big enough to pick. However, another one is starting to grow. Not quite like the cukes, which are spreading like mad, but still a success.

I also discovered a strawberry today! Hubby bought a strawberry plant in the late spring, and it produced a few fruits in July. I thought that was it, since the season is technically over, so what a pleasant (and very sweet! Yum!) surprise to find one on the plant today and eat it!

More on The New Yorker and No Impact Man

The New Yorker article I wrote about is getting quite a bit of attention. Grist, a major online environmental magazine, wrote about it two times (and my blog post was linked in paragraph 4 of the second article!). Crunchy Chicken also weighed in, and I'm sure others around the blogosphere have been discussing it.

The consensus seems to be that the article's author, Elizabeth Kolbert, a leading journalist who writes about climate change and the environment, was rather unfair in her assessment of No Impact Man. And now the man himself, Colin Beavan, has added his own voice to this discussion. He makes a few primary points: that individual and collective action are both necessary--and indeed, the two often feed each other. Individuals who try to live more sustainably in their personal lives often become more aware and motivated to get involved in collective action. And collective action will be ineffective if we as individuals do not go along with the changes that it requires. He also notes that with so many forces aligned against environmentalism and sustainability (such as modern consumerism, climate change skeptics, and enormously profitable non-green industries), we can't afford to have people on the same side in-fighting like this.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Helping your neighbors and health care

This article reports on a town hall meeting in which Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, addresses a woman whose husband has a traumatic brain injury. When she tells him that their health insurance won't cover his care and asks what Sen. Coburn will do to help, Coburn responds, "Well, I think—first of all, yeah. We'll help. The first thing we will do is to see what we can do, individually, to help you, through our office. But the other thing that is missing in this debate is us as neighbors, helping people that need our help. [Applause.] You know we tend to ... [Applause.] The idea that the government is a solution to our problems is an inaccurate, a very inaccurate statement."

The whole health care debate is so frustrating and infuriating! One purpose of our government, stated expressly in the Constitution, is to "promote the general welfare." The fact is, there are many things that we as individuals, as families, or even as neighbors, cannot do on our own. The government can pool together resources and work on collective solutions much better than most of us can as individuals, families or small groups and communities. (By better, I mean they can take advantage of efficiencies of scale).

Take Coburn's statement above. There is a great deal that neighbors can do when someone has a seriously ill loved one. They can cook you meals, clean your house, watch your children, maybe drive the one who is sick to the doctor, and offer you moral support. In most cases, however, your neighbors cannot afford to pay your medical bills. (If you had neighbors that wealthy, you'd likely be that wealthy yourself).

Even if your friends and family pool together some money, how much are they going to come up with? A few thousand? That won't come anywhere near meeting the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars that a serious illness can cost. And no matter how well-intentioned, your neighbors most likely do not have the expertise to provide you with skilled nursing or medical care--and if they do, they probably have their own jobs they need to continue working in order to pay their own bills.

The inanity is driving me nuts, and what's saddest is that so many people are buying it, as the applause for Coburn's statement indicates. What's even sadder is that some of these very people are those in need, or who have relied on government solutions for their care (if you want, I'll look up the many articles and videos I've seen recently that show this), yet they somehow consider their own needs an exception and want to deny similar help to others.

Update: This article makes similar points about the incident, quoting medical professionals who were horrified by Coburn's words.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

A few years ago, I read an article titled something like, "Five Things That Are Just As Scary As Global Warming." It was then that I heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch for the first time. The Garbage Patch is a vortex in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that is drawing in plastic and other garbage at alarming rates. According to the Associated Press, scientists--who've only known of its existence for about a decade--are now studying the Patch to determine the extent of damage to the environment.

One of the biggest problems is that plastic degrades into small toxic pieces, which are then ingested by marine animals. And the strength of the vortex is such that scientists have no clue how to clean it up. As one researcher wrote, "Seeing [humanity's] influence just floating out here in the middle of nowhere makes our power painfully obvious, and the consequences of the industrial age plain. It's not a pretty sight."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I spotted an eggplant...

... in our garden today. It's not fully grown, but looks healthy. It won't be long before it's ready to pick.

This means that to date, we have had success with almost everything we've tried to grow: lettuce, herbs, cucumbers, tomatoes, green peppers, sunflowers and eggplant. The only exceptions are the spinach plants that went to seed early on (I planted them too late, and the heat got to them), and the green bean plants, which are still struggling along with no beans in sight (maybe because hubby over-fertilized them).

Otherwise, we are quite pleased with the results. Not bad for a family of novice gardeners, huh?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Thoughts on hypocrisy and "No Impact Man"

The current issue of The New Yorker has an article by Elizabeth Kolbert titled, "Green Like Me," that's a critique of the recent crop of confessional memoirs by people who are striving to live in more environmentally conscious ways. The article makes some good points, but I found the overall tone distasteful and counterproductive.

OK, the good points Kolbert makes:

1) Individual action and changes aren't enough to save the environment. Collective change is what is needed.

2) Sometimes eco-conscious people miss the forest for the trees, or focus on small changes while rationalizing the really big changes they aren't making. Kolbert cites Vanessa Farquharson, author of Sleeping Naked Is Green, as one example: Farquharson resolves to use no more toothpicks and to use natural lubricant instead of K-Y, while purchasing a new house and flying around the country to pursue relationships with various men (the problem there is the air travel).

The primary examples in Kolbert's article, however, are Henry David Thoreau and his somewhat modern counterpart, Colin Beavan of No Impact Man, and here's where I think her arguments really become unfair. For example, she writes:

A more honest title for Beavan’s book would have been “Low Impact Man,” and a truly honest title would have been “Not Quite So High Impact Man.” Even during the year that Beavan spent drinking out of a Mason jar, more than two billion people were, quite inadvertently, living lives of lower impact than his. Most of them were struggling to get by in the slums of Delhi or Rio or scratching out a living in rural Africa or South America. A few were sleeping in cardboard boxes on the street not far from Beavan’s Fifth Avenue apartment.

If she had spent any time reading Beavan's blog or book, she would know that he knows he's not living with no impact; no impact living is impossible for any living thing. The name is just a clever way to call attention to what he's trying to do. His goal is also to try to balance out his and his family's impact, by reducing their negative environmental impact as much as possible, while increasing their positive impact through environmental activism.

Second, it's also nearly impossible for anyone in a western developed nation to live with as little impact as people in the most impoverished parts in the world. That doesn't mean we should do nothing in response, or denigrate the efforts of those attempting to live more sustainably.

Kolbert ends the article with this statement:

What makes Beavan’s experiment noteworthy is that it is just that—a voluntary exercise conducted for a limited time only by a middle-class family. Beavan justifies writing about it on the ground that it will inspire others to examine their wasteful ways. ... [However] the real work of “saving the world” goes way beyond the sorts of action that “No Impact Man” is all about.

What’s required is perhaps a sequel. In one chapter, Beavan could take the elevator to visit other families in his apartment building. He could talk to them about how they all need to work together to install a more efficient heating system. In another, he could ride the subway to Penn Station and then get on a train to Albany. Once there, he could lobby state lawmakers for better mass transit. In a third chapter, Beavan could devote his blog to pushing for a carbon tax. Here’s a possible title for the book: “Impact Man.”

Again, although she's quoting from his book, I wonder how much of it she's read, or if she has visited his blog at all. Throughout the two years I've been following No Impact Man, I have read countless posts about times in which he has:

-- written about environmental issues on a local, national and international level. I especially appreciate that he has addressed issues of poverty while doing so;

-- called his representatives (and encouraged others to do the same) about local and national environmental issues;

-- visited some of his reps in person to address such topics as making the streets safer for cyclists and preventing the air pollution that makes New York City one of the worst places in the country for childhood asthma;

-- swum in a benefit swim meet to raise funds to clean up polluted waters, and he will soon participate in a Climate Ride for Change;

-- spoken to groups of students about how they can work together to address their own personal impacts as well as that of their schools;

-- and organized the No Impact project "with the goal of engaging citizens in our cultural response to the crises in our environment and our way of life."

In other words, Beavan's story has been anything but simply the limited personal journey of a middle class family. The family stuff is in there, because that's what makes it personal and relatable to most people. But Beavan's goals and actions go far beyond that, so I find The New Yorker's belittling attitude shameful.

On air-drying clothing

When we moved into my in-laws home here in Tacoma, they had a working washing machine, but a dryer that no longer worked, which means that we have to go to the laundromat to dry out clothing.

I've read countless times about how hanging clothes to dry is a much more environmentally sound choice than using a dryer. I have always hung handwashed items on drying racks inside, but when it came to hanging a whole load outdoors, the city kid in me had countless objections: What about pollution? Pollen (I have hayfever)? Bird poop? I posed these questions several times on web sites or blogs that advocated line-drying, and was frustrated that no one ever answered them.

As the mother of a four-year-old, I find myself needing to do "emergency washes" between laundry days more frequently than I would like. With one car and no more bus service, getting to the laundromat can now be a challenge on occasion, so recently I started laying some of the laundry outside, draping it or hanging it on chairs on our deck. One pleasant surprise has been that in the warm summer sun, most items dry within an hour (towels are the exception).

This doesn't fully address my questions and concerns above: August, fortunately, isn't pollen month, and it's the only month between May and October when something or other isn't pollinating. Our deck faces the Puget Sound rather than roads and traffic, so pollution isn't an issue. Also, I believe that our deck is only visible to our two most immediate neighbors, so eyesore concerns aren't much of an issue. (I have read stories of folks who line-dry getting complaints from neighbors). And by placing items on the deck, birds are much less likely to drop on them just by flying by. Not everyone is as fortunate to have a place like our deck to hang things.

One tip: I've seen some complaints in discussions about the rough, crinkly feeling of some items post-air dry, especially towels and jeans. I have found that adding some vinegar to the rinse cycle helps, and then hand-fluffing the item after it's completely dry will rid the item of its roughness.

Another blogger, Elisa's Green Scene, wrote a post on incrementalism, in other words, taking baby steps to be green. She's all for it, because if we had to reach 100% of the goal the first time out, then none of us would ever accomplish anything. This, then, is another baby step for me.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

All the pretty flowers... and a beautiful girl, too!

Gloria, who blogs at Black and Into Green, asked me to post photos of the sunflowers, so I'm attempting to upload photos for the first time. That's one plant, by the way. The other two also have four or five flowers on them.

While I'm at it, I also wanted to share a beautiful photo of my daughter, who is taking swimming lessons this summer!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cucumber smoothie

I found a recipe online and it's delicious! I didn't have all the ingredients (the original called for whole apples and fresh mint leaves), but even with my modifications it was refreshing and good. Here's what I made:

1 cucumber, sliced
1/4 cup apple sauce
The leaves of one herbal mint tea bag
1-2 cups of water, depending on how thick or thin you want it
A few cubes of ice

Put one cup of water and the rest of the ingredients in a blender and blend til smooth. Add additional water if you want the smoothie to be thinner.

Powerful video

Please watch The New Sound, by the organization Green for All. It's a short clip about the difference a "green collar" economy can make for poor communities, affecting everything from health to employment.

Speaking of health, I am closely watching the health care debate and very much praying that it ends with us implementing some sort of universal health care policies. No Impact Man had an interesting post about the connections between health care and the environment. It's rather obvious, actually: our access (or lack thereof) to such things as healthy, affordable food and a clean environment to live in greatly affect our health, which affects the costs that we as a society have to pay for health care. Colin adds that much of our consumerist society is due to the fact that we often have to have corporate jobs in order to afford health care. How many people would be entrepreneurs, perhaps inventing things that are more sustainable, or would pursue more artistic or humanitarian endeavors, were it not for the need to have a job that provides medical benefits?


... watching our plants grow.

My basil was the last herb to sprout, and then it shot past the parsley and chives in the container. Then, after a sweltering July, August began with overcast, 60 degree days, and the basil for some reason started to die.* Dying off seems to have been incentive for the parsley and chives to grow. Now they're taking over the container!

After planting the four sunflowers in the yard, the one that had already bloomed continued to die (the other three were taller, and in the container had blocked its light). But the other three bloomed almost immediately. Instead of growing taller, however, they have grown wider in the yard; that is, they've all branched out and now have about four or five sunflowers growing on each plant. I imagine there's a way to cultivate sunflowers so that they grow up rather than out, but it's fun and interesting to watch this happen.

Even though I was the one who wanted to start gardening, hubby has joined in with a flourish. He not only planted tomatoes and green beans, he later added squash, cucumbers, green peppers and eggplant. The cherry tomatoes ripen every day, and they're so sweet I've taken to eating them like candy. We have tons of cucumbers right now, and I need to look for a cucumber smoothie recipe in order to use them all! Everything else seems to be doing well, except the green beans.


* We're back to real Tacoma summer weather now. The last few days have been in the 70s to 80s, and sunny.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Another sweltering day

It's supposed to be almost as hot today as yesterday.

I'll admit that we have an advantage here. Having a home that's built into the side of a hill means that our lower floor (although not the upper floor) stays cool most of the time. It's great to have a whole floor to escape to on hot summer days and nights (we slept downstairs last night), although the downside is that our heating bills almost killed us this winter, and this summer we have also found the biggest spiders crawling on the walls. (Although no other insects. I assume the spiders kill them all!).

One of the challenges for this region is that very few people have air conditioners. "Challenge" might not be the right word from an environmental perspective, because AC is one of the biggest household users of electricity. A community-oriented solution to this problem has been that several libraries, stores and community centers have declared themselves "cooling centers" where people can come and remain for hours if they wish, just to cool off.

I hope that we continue to explore community-oriented solutions. I would hate to see, if hot temperatures continue, that the Pacific Northwest responds with an increase in air conditioner sales. 10,000 people in Pierce County lost electric power yesterday, so increased use of AC is not a good option. Finding other ways to keep cool is what we should be striving for.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

We're breaking records here!

Today the temperature here in the Puget Sound region will hit triple digits--for the first time ever.

The relatives who encouraged us to move out here said that the weather is usually mild: chilly but not freezing winters, damp and cool springs and falls, and warm, sunny but not sweltering summers.

That hasn't been the case this year, when we experienced one of the worst blizzards in the area in years, and now one of--scratch that-THE hottest summer ever.

I happen to believe in human-caused climate change, although I'm not a scientist and can't make a case for it scientifically (that's not to say a scientific case can't be made, just that I'm not the person to do it!). But it seems obvious to me that humans can have a negative impact on the environment, in everything from pollution to overfishing to destroying natural habitats for development.

Also, from what I've read, climate change will create more extreme weather conditions everywhere. Contrary to those who point to really cold winter days as "proof" that global warming is a sham, it makes sense that global warming would cause both warmer and cooler weather in different places and seasons: warmer because things are heating up overall; colder, because as Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets melt, they dump freezing cold water into the oceans.

That's not to say that the extreme weather we've had in the Puget Sound this year is due to climate change. It might be, but I'll leave that to the scientists to determine.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Taking charge of our health

This has been on my mind a lot as the health care reform debate rages on. We're currently in a situation in which we're having difficulty accessing affordable health care. We started buying my husband's prescription meds at Walmart, because they offer them cheaply. Thankfully, my daughter and I are in good health.

Everyone needs access to affordable health care, because no one can can take such charge of their health that they never get sick. Cancer, accidents and chronic diseases can happen to even the most health conscious among us.

Having said that, however, it is important to take charge of our health to the degree that we can, while recognizing that we'll never prevent every possible bad outcome. And of course, "to the degree that we can" is partly contingent on cost and access to the things one needs to be healthy. Thus, what I write below is just what my family is doing.

Recently, I found a set of books at a local single-proprietor thrift shop, "The Story of the Eagle Books," published by the Centers for Disease Control. (Tangent: another plug for thrift store shopping! Please support the petition for a National Thrift Store Month).

These books were created for Native American children as diabetes prevention education, and include a group of young children being taught by Mr. Eagle and Miss Rabbit about eating healthy, exercising, and making good snack choices. Meanwhile, Mr. Coyote tries to trick the children into doing unhealthy things. Since my husband is diabetic and Type II diabetes runs in my family as well, I want to impress the importance of prevention to my daughter early. She, like most young children, would much prefer cookies and candy to vegetables, but she is starting to understand. As a side benefit, she is fascinated by the Coyote character and has taken to making up stories in which she and her daycare friends defeat the tricky Coyote.

Once I complained to a friend that my husband, who has had problems with diabetes, his heart, high blood pressure and cholesterol, almost never gets sick. Meanwhile, I have no chronic health problems but almost every year since I was eleven years old, I have come down with severe bronchitis or upper respiratory infections, often lasting for weeks or sometimes months (and yes, it has at times jeopardized my employment as I have often used up all my sick time). She remarked, "Maybe stress manifests in him in chronic diseases. It manifests in you in infectious diseases."

The only way for me to combat this is prevention. If I catch a cold, I have to recover as quickly as I can, or else the virus works its way down to my bronchial tubes and lungs and knocks me flat. I refuse to use antibiotics, because of concerns about their overuse; because my infections are almost always viral instead of bacterial (the former causes clear sputum, the latter colored sputum); and because I've gotten some pretty bad yeast infections after taking antibiotics in the past (since they also kill the good bacteria that keep yeast in a woman's body in check).

The only two years in which I did not get sick were early in my marriage. At the time, my husband was selling an antioxidant powder that you mix with water for a multilevel marketing company. He eventually had to get out of the business, as it was one of those in which you have to buy a certain amount of product each month, and if you don't sell enough to cover your costs, you lose money. However, during that time, he and I both regularly took the antioxidant, and I didn't get sick once. After he left the business, we stopped buying it, because it's expensive ($30 for a 30 day supply, times two).

Fast-forward to our move to Tacoma. Within a couple of months of moving here, I once more got very sick, missing a lot of work after being on the job a short time. I was so tired of this happening, I couldn't take it any more.

However, I found out that my local Trader Joe's carries Emergen-C. Like the stuff my husband used to sell, Emergen-C is a powder you mix with water that provides your body with a good dose of antioxidents. A bonus is the price ($7.99 at TJ's for a 30 day supply, compared to about $14 which it sells for in most stores). The downside is that it is probably synthetic, vs. the stuff hubby sold which was made from natural ingredients such as pine bark and red wine extract. But unless you're someone who can afford whole food vitamins (I'm not), then Emergen-C is a good substitute.

Since I started taking it, I haven't really been sick. I had maybe two very short-lived colds, and that's the real power for me: that a cold doesn't quickly turn into a bronchial or lung infection. The real test of success will be whether or not I can go a full year without illness. By October, I'll know.

What I'm doing overall to stay healthy is eating mostly (but not exclusively) vegetarian meals (some good sites for recipes include Vegan Lunch Box and Black Vegetarians--hat tip to my fellow blogger Black and Into Green).

I'm taking the following supplements, on alternating days: a multivitamin (Centrum A-Z) and lutein (for eyes); and on the following day, one packet of Emergen-C, a calcium tablet, and a teaspoon of codliver oil. The latter provides Vitamin D, which many people in the overcast Northwest don't get enough of (although we've had an exceptionally sunny spring and summer), as well as Omega-3, which most Americans period don't get enough of. I alternate in order to save money, as well as to make sure I'm not overdoing it on any given vitamin or mineral. Between Trader Joe's (Emergen-C $8 for 30; calcium $2.49 for 60), Grocery Outlet (Centrum $5 for 120), and Super Supplements (lutein $9 for 60 and $6 for 12 oz. of codliver oil), I am keeping the cost for this relatively low (and by alternating days, everything last twice as long; if you're doing the math, all of the above averages about $9 a month total for me). I also recognize that even this is too much for some people's budgets.

I'm also trying to exercise, although I have to admit that running after a four-year-old helps. :-)

About those sunflowers...

I spoke to one of the Master Gardeners about a week ago, and he said we should leave them in the pot, reasoning that they were doing well where they are, and he added that their roots only grow about 6 inches deep, no matter how tall the plant. (Is that so? Not sure...)

However, my hubby and I have since concluded that they need to be replanted in the yard after all. After growing slowly since they were first planted, the two tallest ones (which still haven't bloomed yet) have grown another foot in one week. (So they may reach five feet this season after all). In addition, the one that had bloomed is now dying, and I think it's because the others, now taller, are blocking its access to sunlight.

So I told our daughter that we're going to plant them in the yard tonight. Wish us luck, and may my little one's sunflowers survive!

Monday, July 20, 2009

The power of blogging

One of my favorite bloggers, Ta-Nehisi Coates, wrote this today:

"Here is something else: Institutions are essential. But to me, writing, and the tools it depends upon (creativity, intelligence etc.), belongs to the people, not the institutions they create.

The power of blogging is that it takes back writing, it takes back public thinking, it seizes it from the bishops and archons and gives it to the people. It is the bane of credentialism. We just need more people to take up the fight in earnest. Grab your shield. Let's go."

Hey, I'm not just blogging, I'm fighting a populist battle!

All kidding aside, I wanted to write this blog because too many environmental sites I've read are either a) all about living off the land, off the grid--something unrealistic for people who live in urban communities and hold down regular jobs; or b) all about the expensive stuff--replacing all your furniture with sustainably grown wood and clothing with organically grown cotton fashion, for example--which is unrealistic for anyone on a budget.

No Impact Man is a sterling exception, because he writes about living low-impact in New York City. But after reading his blog for a while, I noticed a refrain that often came up in comments, and in my own mind--frustration when someone touts something that people should be doing to go green that many readers feel is out of their reach. I came to accept that not everything that works for one person or situation will work for another (although we can always do better). Some of it's temperament: what we're willing to do or tolerate in our quest to go green will differ from person to person. In many other cases, however, it's an issue of cost or access. So, as someone who has almost always lived and worked in urban areas and has always been on a budget, I wanted to add my voice and story about my own eco-efforts in hope that it will make a difference.

I realize that the things I do won't work for everyone. For example, I love to cook, so making my own hair and skin products is not much different. I also happened to discover a few stores here in Tacoma, such as Super Supplements, Grocery Outlet and Value Village, where I could buy natural products fairly cheaply and quality used goods (don't get me started on how much better Value Village is than the local Goodwill back in Boston). I know that not everyone has such stores in their area. I also have a car to use to travel to these places, and to a lesser extent, the bus (it would take a few hours of walk and transit, but it's doable)--again, not everyone has those options either. So if anyone is reading this and thinks, "But I can't do that for x, y or z reason" -- it's OK, I understand. I just want to offer my voice among many others, and if it can help someone else, I'm happy.

A few different updates

Hair: Still struggling with my styling stuff. I found some 1 oz. bars of beeswax for 59 cents each at Marlene's Market, a natural food store in Tacoma, and bought four. I tried to make some more curly pudding with it, using one-third of one bar of beeswax, melted; a quarter cup of shea butter, melted; a quarter cup of aloe; a few drops of essential oil for scent; and I also added a couple tablespoons of olive oil so it wouldn't be as thick as the last batch. And this time I blended it! It looked good when I first finished, much like Ms. Jessie's Curly Pudding, a commercial product my sister uses.

About an hour later, all the yellow stuff had gelled into a big glob in the middle while floating in some clear liquid, which had to be the aloe. I stirred it around, and checked it again in the morning. The mixture remained mixed this time, and was more creamy and pliable than the stuff I made the first time (most likely due to the addition of olive oil). However, there are small pieces of goop within the mixture, so I have to rub it really well within my hands to melt it all before applying it to my hair, or else I get small pieces of yellow goop in my hair. So... my homemade curly pudding works, in the sense of making my hair curl, but it's still not satisfactory as a great styling product. I'll continue to work on it.

The garden: Hubby's deer repellant seems to work, since we have tomatoes growing back. His green beans are growing well, both the ones he started from starter plants and the ones he started from seeds, but no pods have yet appeared.

My lettuce is starting to die, which was expected, since lettuce usually can't take the really hot days of summer. However, this means that it's time to plant some more lettuce seeds indoors, to be transferred outdoors in a few weeks for a fall harvest.

Of my herbs, the basil took the longest to sprout, and even once it sprouted, it didn't taste like much, while the chives and parsley had very strong flavors from the get-go. However, the basil is now growing like crazy, threatening to take over the entire herb container, and it tastes really sweet. I know this for sure because my daughter has started pinching off basil leaves to munch on. :-)

Speaking of growing like crazy, dear daughter's sunflowers are as well. To date, only one of the four has flowered, but the other three look ready to burst open any day now. The starter pot the seeds came in was about 3 inches deep and 3 inches in diameter, and the pot we replanted to is about 2 feet deep and 2 feet in diamester. The plants are now about a foot tall each, and I wonder how deep their roots are. I should check in with the Master Gardener program, because I probably should replant them in the yard soon. I'm just nervous about it, because I don't want to harm them in the transfer, since they're doing so well now.

I just looked up sunflowers on Wikipedia, and learned that they're an annual, so however big they grow this year will be the extent of these particular plants' growth. According to Wiki, they can grow up to 10 feet tall, and I know I've seen sunflowers in people's yards that are at least five feet tall. Somehow, I don't think ours will get that big, but maybe we can hope for 2-3 feet.

I also learned this cool fact from Wiki: "Sunflowers in the bud stage exhibit heliotropism. At sunrise, the faces of most sunflowers are turned towards the east. Over the course of the day, they follow the sun from east to west, while at night they return to an eastward orientation." I'll have to pay attention to this, and share it with my daughter.