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.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Sunflowers in bloom

Four of the six sunflower seeds my daughter and I planted survived the seedling stage, My daughter ran in the house today, so excited because one of them had bloomed! The plant is about six inches tall now, and the flower is about two inches in diameter, and simply beautiful.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

I'm making more hair products--this time for styling

I've now gone seven months without using hair relaxer, and I'm still trying to get my hair care products down. I've been using my homemade hair oil and detangler for a while, which work great for softness, moisture and detangling, but do nothing for styling (which is why I'm mostly wearing my hair ponytails and buns these days!).

I found some recipes online for hair gel and curly pudding, which I made yesterday and tried this morning. So far, I like how my hair looks (soft curls, no frizz). Here are the recipes:

Hair gel
1 TBSP whole flax seeds
1 cup water (filtered or distilled)
2 TBSP aloe vera gel
10-20 drops essential oil

Bring water and flax seeds to a boil, stirring often, then reduce heat and simmer until thick, continuing to stir frequently. The recipe I found online said 10 minutes; I simmered it for about 20. Strain out seeds. Add aloe and essential oil (I used sweet orange oil). (Tip: I keep my aloe in the fridge, so I heated it for about 15 seconds in the microwave before adding). Allow to gel overnight. Store in refrigerator.

Curly pudding
2 TBSP shea butter
1/2 TBSP beeswax
2 TBSP pure aloe vera gel
10-20 drops essential oil

Melt shea butter and beeswax in small pan over low heat. Add aloe and essential oil and blend well. Allow to gel overnight.

A couple things here: I couldn't find beeswax. However, I have a honeycomb from a jar of honey that I saved; it still has some honey in the crevises. I addes 1/2 TB of that, so some honey was added to the mix (which is OK; honey can be used on hair). I also think I was supposed to blend the mixture with a blender, not just stir with a spoon. In the morning, the mixture had separated, so I had to stir it again. It was clumpy, but still usable.

This morning, I wet my hair as usual, applied my hair oil and sprayed on detangler, then combed my hair out. I applied the hair gel to my hair from the roots half way down and brushed it in. Then I applied the curly pudding from halfway down to the ends, and raked it through with my fingers. This kept my hair from poufing up near the roots, and allowed it curl up nicely at the ends. It looks good, and maybe it'll look even better when I get the curly pudding recipe right.

The costs for these ingredients are reasonable; Grocery Outlet sells 12 oz. bags of flaxseed for $2.99 (flaxseed should stay refrigerated); at 1 TB per batch (which I will probably make weekly), that should last me at least six months. A 32 oz. bottle of pure aloe vera gel (Lily of the Desert brand) costs about $7 at Super Supplements, and lasts me at least 4 months (I use it for skin as well as hair products). Right now, Super Supplements had Alaffia shea products on sale 50% off, so I bought shea butter there, but at regular price, it's cheaper to purchase online at AAA Shea Butter ($25 for 16 oz., which lasts me a year, being used for skin as well as hair products). A 1 oz. bottle of orange oil is about $3 at Super Supplements, and can last up to a year if used sparingly.

Here are, once more, my hair oil and detangler recipes, as I've modified them some since I first posted about them. When my sister-in-law was here, she tried both my skin and hair recipes and liked them, so I sent her home with some batches.

Daily hair oil/conditioner
2 TBSP extra virgin oil oil
2 TBSP pure aloe vera gel
2 TBSP hair conditioner (I use Trader Joe's TeaTree Tingle Conditioner, $3.99 for 16 oz)
1 TBSP vegetable glycerin (about $6.50 for a 16 oz. bottle at Super Supplements)
10 drops essential oil
water (filtered or distilled)

Add the first four ingredients to a 4 oz. bottle. Add water until the bottle is full. Shake well to blend, and shake before each use.

Same recipe as above. Fill an 8 oz. spray bottle 1/3 full with the first four ingredients of the above recipe, then fill the rest of the bottle with water. Shake well to blend, and shake before each use.

Because none of these recipes contain preservatives, I only make small batches, enough to last 1 to 2 weeks. After each batch is done, I wash out the bottles or jars with warm soapy water, then disinfect with hydrogen peroxide.

One additional thought: because this adds a lot more product to my hair, I will probably have to do a baking soda hair wash every few weeks to cleanse out the buildup (in addition to my weekly TeaTree Tingle conditioning wash and apple cider vinegar rinse. See this post for more info).

Monday, July 6, 2009

Update on bus route

The new bus schedules are out, and Pierce Transit hasn't gotten rid of the route that passes near my home, just shortened and re-routed it. It still passes by the schools. On the downside for me, it no longer stops two blocks from our home, and the stop by the schools is about a half hour walk for me.

The good news is that the new route passes by the shopping plaza that's a 10 minute drive from our home. The old route didn't stop there, so I could only get there previously if I or my husband drove there. At the shopping plaza, I can catch the bus to work and to one of Tacoma's main bus depots where I can transfer to buses all over town.

So now I have a longer walk to access public transportation at all, which sucks, because what happens if walking that distance is difficult for someone? It is for me on occasion, when an old knee injury flares up. The longer walk is also a problem when the weather's bad. But at least I can now access other buses and shopping more easily.

Too funny!

This morning I saw a bowl filled with some funny-looking yellow stuff. I asked hubby what it was. He answered, "A mixture of egg, urine and garlic. It's a deer repellant. Hey, it would repel you, wouldn't it?"

I had to laugh. He certainly had that right!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Permibus

The Permibus "Skills Tour" came to the Hilltop. The Permibus is a sustainable mobile home operated by the activist family Delyla and Stan Wilson and their daughter, Megan (and their dog). They travel around the country teaching people about sustainable living and social justice activism. Johnny and Michelle invited them to the Hilltop so they could reach out to the neighborhood and to the youth who participate in the programs at my organization.

Right up front, Delyla said some things that I wholeheartedly agreed with. First, she pointed out that a majority of people in this world live in cities, and a majority are poor, so any sustainable solution that doesn't work for urban communities and poor communities really isn't sustainable. Second, she talked about the fact you can't just tell people about the changes they should make--you have to demonstrate and teach them in very hands-on ways.

Their home (a converted school bus) includes a compostable toilet, a hutch of chickens that live in the underbus luggage rack when they're on the move, a worm compost bin, and plants growing out of PVC piping, which allows them to grow in limited space, with little soil and water. Stan shared that kids usually say, "ugh" to the idea of a compostable toilet, until he points out that regular toilets flush stuff into the same water supply we drink from, which then must be filtered out. Composting our waste keeps it out of the water supply in the first place.

The Wilsons operate the bus using biofuel; use solar panels to cook, read and operate their computer; and keep the bus warm and cool in the respective seasons using curtains sewn from emergency blankets. They hunt, forage and can their own food.

While they were with us, they brought the chicken coop out. My daughter, braver than I am, held one of the chickens, and loved it. They also taught us how to make seedballs -- mixtures of compost, clay, water and seeds of all kinds, rolled into 1.5 inch balls. They let these dry and then toss them onto open land or vacant lots wherever they go. Not every seed will germinate, but something is always sure to grow.

My organization has a summer academic enrichment program for struggling students focused on science, math and technology, in partnership with the Tacoma Public Schools, so the Wilson will return later this summer to teach a few hands-on lessons to the students.

The deer have paid us a visit!

About a week ago, we had a guy coming to power-wash the house, so we had to remove everything from the deck. This included all of our container plants. Hubby placed them in the yard, actually planting his tomatoes and green beans in the yard, but leaving the sunflowers, lettuce, and herbs in their containers. Everything seemed to be doing well, so we left them there.

(Side note: our friends Johnny and Michelle visited one day after we moved these things to the yard. On the downside, they told me that my spinach, which I planted about a month after everything else, had gone to seed. On the upside, they noticed that we had blueberry bushes growing in our yard. We love blueberries and are trying to figure out how we didn't notice them last summer).

Anyway, the deer paid us a visit this morning, leaving big footprints in the soil. They ate all the ripe blueberries (Hey! Maybe the deer ate all the blueberries last summer before we noticed!), and all the unripe tomatoes -- and oddly, left all the green leafy veggies alone.

So now hubby is going to look into some fencing. Since the plants did just fine on our north-facing deck, we think they'll do just as well along the west side of the house where they are now, and it's a smaller and easier area to fence in than the southern front yard where we had originally thought to plant.