Friday, December 9, 2011

When you're not the mom you want to be

I haven't done a lot of blogging in the last few months, mostly because I'm trying to figure out life.

I promised during the summer to write about what I was learning through a number of parenting and education books I had been reading. There were several thought-provoking ones among them, such as Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's Nurture Shock and Ron Clark's The Excellent 11.

But the book that affected me the most was one I discovered by accident while reading a mystery novel (Lisa Gardner's Live to Tell). The novel tells the story of a group of children in a residential treatment center for kids with emotional and behavioral issues, whose families are being murdered. In the author's acknowledgements, she describes being drawn to write the story because of the experiences of a friend with such a child. She also cites Dr. Ross W. Greene's book, The Explosive Child and his "collaborative problem-solving approach," for shaping her thinking about kids with behavioral challenges and what can help them.

I found Dr. Greene's book in the library and decided to read it out of curiosity, not thinking it was really relevant to my life. My daughter's behavior isn't explosive (characterized by fits of rage, extreme tantrums and even violence). And yet, almost immediately upon starting it I knew that the book was extremely relevant to both my daughter and me.

The book establishes a key premise: that explosive children do not behave that way intentionally, because children do as well as they can. Instead, explosive children tend to lack certain skills that make less extreme emotional reactions possible. These include such things as the ability to tolerate frustration, disappointment and sudden changes; the ability to positively express and regulate one's emotions; perspective-taking and empathy; and others. When they encounter life's difficulties, they don't know how to handle it other than to explode.

The author describes his concept of collaborative problem-solving as a method in which invite your child to work through problems together, while you model and guide for your child ways to develop the personal and interpersonal skills they might be lacking.

As I read this, I knew exactly how it applied to my child and me. She doesn't explode when she's frustrated, disappointed, or struggling with her emotions; instead, she sulks and withdraws. It's not a more constructive method of handling problems, simply less destructive than exploding.

But I also realized this: I am not really equipped at this point to guide and model a different way for her, because I do the exact same thing. When I am frustrated, angry, overwhelmed or hurt, I sulk and I withdraw.

Reacting this way has had many negative effects on my family relationships, friendships, and career. I am trying to learn how to deal with it for my own sake and so that I can in turn help my daughter.

I met recently with our minister and talked through some of this. She pinpointed something about me: isolation has been a theme of my life. She's right. I have often heard that people's greatest fears are public speaking and death. I have never particularly feared either of those, but I have always feared being alone. Yet I have often felt alone, despite this fear. I am not shy, but I am reserved, and it is difficult for me to move past the acquaintance stage into true friendship with people--one of the reasons why our move to Washington State has been so difficult for me. (That is one area in which my daughter and I differ. She, like her father, is very outgoing).

It wasn't difficult for me to pinpoint the start of my isolation: something pretty awful happened to me when I was six (for a variety of reasons, I don't want to go into it online). But it seared into my psyche that I couldn't trust people to care about my needs or pain, and that it was dangerous to be vulnerable.

And that lesson took hold quickly. A year later, when I was 7, I was in a work group of four students in my class at school, and one of the other girls in the group began taunting me for reasons I don't remember. She was relentless to the point of leaving me in tears. But they were silent tears, so as not to attract the attention of our teacher. Another girl in the group went up to the teacher to ask for tissue for me. I assume the same girl later told the teacher what happened. The next morning, my teacher pulled me aside and asked, "Why didn't you tell me what was going on?"

I shrugged and didn't answer, but I was thinking, "Because you wouldn't have done anything about it." Already in second grade, I was that cynical.

I'm meeting with my minister again next week to discuss this further. But I know it's the root of my tendency to withdraw from others and myself when I'm facing problems, and my daughter is learning that from me. I want to be able to show her, and help her, discover a more positive way of dealing with difficulties.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Gabby Giffords' recovery on video--amazing!!

If you ever want to see inspiration--this is it!

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, shot in the head last January. Her amazing recovery was chronicled on film by her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Another homemade failure

Last week, I had my first-ever cavity filled.

I've always had good teeth, and in 40+ years had never had a cavity. In fact, other than having my widsom teeth pulled, I had never needed any dental care beyond routine checkups and cleanings. My husband is the same.

I know there's a lot of controversy about flouride, about its possible toxicity. I've even heard some say that flouride in our water supply and toothpastes is causing more dental problems than it solves.

I think there might be merit to the first charge (toxicity). I'm skeptical about the second. My parents had all kinds of dental problems, and I remember my mother observing that her children's better dental health was due to two things she lacked as a child: good dental care, and flouride toothpaste. I also remember reading an article in my early 20s that reported that half of American children have no cavities, a big improvement over previous generations that the article credited to flouride toothpaste and flouridated water.

In the past few years, I have tried several homemade personal care products. The products I've created for skin and hair care have worked beautifully. But two others were less successful. I gave up the first, homemade deodorant made of coconut oil, corn starch, baking soda and essential oils, because it made my underarms break out in an itchy rash.

I didn't have any immediate problems with the second, homemade toothpaste made of glycerin, baking soda, and peppermint oil. I stopped using it after a few months, however, because my teeth never felt as clean, nor my breath as fresh, as when I use conventional commercial toothpastes. I've tried a few natural toothpastes, and had the same, "they don't feel quite as clean" feeling.

In June, my family and I all had dental checkups. My daughter and my husband both had clean mouths, but I had my first cavity. I know I take better care of my teeth than either of them; my daughter is still trying to get the hang of flossing and my husband doesn't floss at all, but I floss daily. So why was I the only one to have the cavity? The only thing I can point to is the four months I went without using flouride toothpaste.

Friday, September 30, 2011

How'd my summer go?

OK, I know, it's been a while since I've posted. And after my high school friend, Laura, sent me a birthday card telling me my blog was how she keeps up with my life! (Hi, Laura!)

My excuses... work has been busy, I've been getting used to apartment living, blah blah blah. (Meaning: no good excuse).

So, time to fill you in on my summer:

Still savoring? Not as much: OK, I've fallen off the wagon a few times from my "savor the sweets" diet, and have times when I indulge my sweet tooth more than I should. But still, at a doctor's appointment this week I weighed 153 lbs, down from 160 at my physical in April, so I'm making progress.

Green apartment living

We moved in May from a house to an apartment, and not long after our move, I shared about some of the "green" advantages I anticipated to apartment living. After 3 months, here is my report:

Growing our own food--a challenge: Because we moved too late in the season to start planting seeds, I bought starts. Our apartment is one of a series of buildings that surrounds a courtyard filled with large trees. Our small balcony overlooks the courtyard, and thus gets virtually no direct sunlight.

The starts I bought were for plants that can do well with little sunlight--cilantro, basil, mint, and lettuce. The basil and mint made it through the summer (but weakly), and the cilantro and lettuce didn't make it at all. I have a lot to learn about growing food in our current circumstances, so I'll try again next summer.

Composting--bokashi on the cheap: I had long heard about bokashi apartment composting. A bokashi system is an anaerobic composter--basically a bucket with a drip spout that allows you to drain off the "tea" (the liquid residue of your compost, which can be diluted and used as a fertilizer). Bokashi is a mixture of bran, molasses and microorganisms that, when added to your food scraps, accelerates their decomposition through a fermentation process. It's ideal for apartment-dwellers, because it's compact, it's an anaerobic system so fruit flies and other pests can't get into it, and because of the fermentation process, it doesn't smell. (Well, yes it does. But it smells like something fermented, rather than like rotten garbage).

A bokashi system can be expensive (about $120). But a gallon of the bokashi mixture is pretty cheap (about $15) and it lasts several months. As some experienced composters have pointed out, a bokashi system is just a bucket with a secure-fitting lid. Thus, you can do bokashi as long as you have such a bucket. I use a large container that once held ice cream served at a church social. You can also ask fast food places if you can have their left-over pickle buckets. If you're really ambitious, you can drill a hole in the bucket and add a drip spout to catch the "tea." But if you are like me, you can just add your food scraps to a Bio-bag in the bucket, and the bokashi "tea" will seep through the bag and pool in the bottom.

The challenge of using bokashi is that once the food scraps are well-fermented, you need to bury them. Once buried, the scraps decompose rapidly and supposedly make incredibly rich compost. I bought a large garbage can for my balcony, filled it with potting soil, and I'm adding the bokashi'd scraps periodically. I'm not sure how well this will work. My plan is to take a sample of the soil to the WA State Master Gardeners in the spring and have them test it to see how healthy it is. Stay tuned.

Transportation--still working on it: I haven't walked or used public transportation as often as I'd planned. Mostly, it's a function of time, since it's faster to drive. In addition, because my daughter's daycare teacher asked to participate in our summer staycation adventures, I often needed to drive because I was transporting other children besides my daughter. However, we have walked or taken the bus on several occasions, so I am patting myself on the back as an encouragement to keep it up and do more.

I haven't learned as much about my car as I had planned. I have been tracking my mileage, and I have made a few changes to improve gas mileage. I removed the luggage racks from my vehicle to reduce the weight, I am keeping my tires inflated, and I learned that the click my gas cap makes when I turned it--which I always thought was a warning not to turn it anymore--is actually a good thing. I should keep turning the gas cap until I hear it click three times, and then I know that it is fully closed and unlikely to evaporate gas.

But my biggest challenge is staying within the speed limit of 60-65 on the highway. The average speed of those around me is 70, and I'm often following the crowd (usually to make sure I get to work on time). I have found that my gas mileage can go from a low of 20 miles per gallon to a high of 35 mpg, all depending on my speed. This, and walking or taking public transportation more often, are often functions of my own discipline. If I plan my time better, I can improve in both areas.

Small green steps: I wrote about my switch to a Moon Cup back in June. I still love it, and the switch came just in time. In June, I also had an IUD inserted, which increases menstrual flow.

Otherwise, I've made two changes this summer:

Reusable straws: I purchased stainless steel drinking straws, which my daughter and I both love! They're easy to clean with the straw brush that comes with them, and neither of us have experienced the complaints some have of funny taste or getting too cold. (Those concerns, if you have them, can be alleviated with glass drinking straws. I didn't want to go that route because I was concerned that my daughter might break them, even though they're made from very strong glass).

Homemade air freshener spray: I have used natural air freshener sprays for some time, but I read recently that those may still contain phthalates. So when my last bottle of Air Therapy ran out, I decided to try making my own. Here are two recipes I use. They're more mild than commercial air fresheners, but they smell good and do the job:

Peppermint/orange air freshener: add 1/2 cup of filtered water, 1/2 cup of vodka, and 20 drops each of peppermint oil and sweet orange oil to a spray bottle. Shake before each use.

Cinnamon/vanilla air freshener: Add 1 cup filtered water, 1 cup white vinegar, 2 cinnamon sticks and 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract to a pot. Bring to boil, and then reduce to low, cover and simmer 10 minutes. Allow to cool, and then add to a spray bottle. Shake before each use.

The biggest focus of my summer has been my daughter. In another post, I'll share about our summer adventures, and my summer reading about parenting and teaching.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Learning to savor

Until I hit my 30's, I was one of those super-skinny people who could eat anything she wanted and never gain an ounce. At 5'7", I weighed about 115 lbs. on average. My low weight came with its drawbacks: I almost always felt too cold, except on the warmest of days; despite what the media tell us, most men aren't attracted to women with "boyish" figures; and I got sick frequently, with sickness taking a horrible toll on my body since I had no stores of fat or extra nutrients to protect me.

I knew even then that my thinness wouldn't last. Throughout my childhood, I witnessed my mom and aunts, almost all of whom had been very thin as young women, struggle with dieting and weight. I knew that one day, too, I would start to gain. I didn't want to end up in that same cycle, so in my 20's, I decided that I needed to eat better.

At that age, eating better meant giving up red meat and fried foods (unless I was being served such foods as someone's guest). Nevertheless, I still started gaining weight when I hit my 30's, and the first 20 to 30 additional pounds were very welcome. I finally had a womanly figure, I wasn't constantly freezing, and I definitely became less sickly.

Over time, I have continued to improve my eating habits. Since I started my green journey when my now 6-year-old was a baby, I eat more vegetarian and vegan meals, more whole and organic foods, and more fruits and vegetables.

But of course, I had given birth, with all its changes to a woman's body. And then I turned 40, with all its changes to a woman's metabolism. So I was still gaining weight.

At my last physical in April I weighed 160 lbs, which is right over the edge into "overweight" BMI. I've never officially dieted, but I know that I now have to do something to manage my weight.

I decided that I need to do two things: 1) manage the amounts of food I am eating. What I am eating (for the most part) is not a problem, it's how much; and 2) manage my sweet tooth.

With the former, I am using the "smaller plate" method of managing portion sizes, and writing down everything I eat. Writing it all down is a great tool, because it makes me very aware of what I'm putting into my mouth. No more mindless grazing, or going back for seconds without thinking about it.

The sweet tooth is the bigger challenge. I love sweets, especially chocolate. I have often had days in which I eat, say, oatmeal and OJ for breakfast, a salad for lunch, and salmon, broccoli and brown rice for dinner. And that same day, throughout the day, I would polish off an entire bag of chocolate chip cookies. Most of my weight gain is probably the result of my sweet tooth.

I couldn't imagine giving up sweets or chocolate altogether, so this is how I've decided to deal with it: I am learning to savor. For example, Safeway sells bags of "Dark Chocolate Covered Mint Cups," a transfat-free candy about the size of a mini Reese's cup. A serving is 3 pieces, but after lunch I am eating one. One piece contains about 63 calories, 3 grams of fat and 2 grams of saturated fat. I take a tiny bite and let it sit on my tongue until it melts, moving it around so I can fully taste it. Then I wait a while and do it again. I can make one piece last an hour, and I'm working on extending that time.

After dinner, I am doing the same with, for example, about 2 ounces of homemade tofu chocolate mousse (made from silken tofu, melted semi-sweet chocolate chips, a little mint or almond extract, and enough almond or rice milk to make it smooth, blended in a blender and chilled). I take a small spoonful and savor it.

In this way I'm getting the same joyful thrill I always get from eating chocolate, without all the calories I used to consume because I couldn't stop eating more and more.

I'm seeing a secondary benefit: perhaps because I am consuming less sugar, fruit is becoming more satisfying to my sweet tooth. I've always like fruit, but given a choice between fruit or cookies, I would almost always go for cookies. But now I'm starting to choose fruit, knowing it can give me a thrill, too.

So far, my "diet" plan is working. I'm down to 155, and my goal is 145.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Parenting advice that works!

I love reading parenting books. I feel like I need a lot of help, and many books out there have great advice. (In a later post, I'll share some of what I've been learning this summer).

But of course, there are so many parenting books out there, and some give differing or contradictory advice. How do you decide which advice to follow?

I have a good friend whose daughter was born a year after my daughter, and I wrote her a letter upon her daughter's birth titled something like, "The Ten Lessons I Learned from My First Year as a Parent." I don't remember all 10, but I do remember that I wrote something like the following about parenting advice: "Take it all in, weigh it, and decide whether it makes sense to you based on your experiences and what you know about your child. And if you're not sure, try it out and evaluate the results." In other words, parenting advice is just that--advice, not truth etched in stone. Advice can be weighed, examined, tried, evaluated, and even rejected.*

One piece of advice I have often read is about children who are picky eaters. The general consensus is that you shouldn't force children to eat anything, just encourage them to try new foods, and eventually they'll eat a variety. Other tips are offered: for example, having children help you grow, cook or prepare foods, and setting a good example by eating healthy foods yourself are recommended.

Still, there are some dissenters from this advice, those who say that kids learn to eat all kinds of foods only when not given a choice about whether or what to eat or not. And sometimes I struggled with whether or not that was true. Here is my tale...

My stubborn mama: My mom grew up with Depression-era parents who were of the mindset that you never waste food and you eat what's put before you or else. My mom, however, was both a very picky eater and very stubborn, and she fought them tooth and nail in this arena. If she was told she couldn't get up until she cleaned her plate, she sat at the table all day. If she was told that she could leave the table but would have to eat the same plate at the next mealtime, she'd go hungry. When faced with a kid that stubborn, parents either have to give in or become abusive (force-feed the kid, beat them, or starve them). Since my grandparents weren't abusive, eventually they'd give in.

But my mother never forgot those battles, and never really overcame her aversion to many foods, either. To this day, she hates oatmeal and most vegetables, except for sweet potatoes, green beans and iceberg lettuce.** And she decided that she wasn't going to battle with her own kids at the table.

She'd serve vegetables, even though she didn't like them, because she knew they were good for kids. But she'd make deals with us: we had to eat as many bites as we were old. Or, if a nutritional equivalent was in the fridge (a salad, or a leftover vegetable we liked), we could exchange it for what was on our plate. Because of this system, there weren't any dinner table battles in our home. But there might not have been anyway, since my siblings and I weren't very picky eaters. (I only disliked peas and lima beans).

My picky daughter: I had hoped for the same with my daughter, but alas, it wasn't to be. While she happily accepted baby food veggies at first, at about 18 months she started spitting them out. By age 3, the only vegetable she would eat was French fries with ketchup. And that bit of advice about how after 15-20 tries of a new food a kid will eat something? Not my kid. I tried hard not to compare her to my niece, who at age 3 was happily ordering bowls of broccoli for lunch.

At this point, I began to doubt the "don't force them, give it time" advice. Only the realization of how forcing a kid to eat backfired with my mom held me in check.

You know what? It eventually paid off. It took a lot more than 15-20 tries, but by age 4, she was gradually accepting vegetables again. First carrots, then celery, then salads, and so on.

Success! On Sunday afternoon, my 6-year-old daughter asked to make her own lunch, and I said yes. Usually when she makes something for herself, it's a sandwich or a bowl of cereal. This Sunday, however, was different: she made a salad. And not just a basic lettuce salad, either. Her salad (in a big bowl, btw!) contained romaine lettuce, broccoli, cucumbers, celery, green beans and carrots. She added ranch dressing and ate the whole thing! Patience and a good example paid off.


* One piece of advice I rejected when my daughter was an infant: read to your baby 20 minutes a day. Whose infant can sit through a 20-minute story??! Not mine. She'd either fall asleep after a minute or two, or grab the book and chew it! By age 2, however, she loved to have stories read to her.

** My mom, of course, waited until we were adults to tell us this.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A bunch of cheap (and sometimes green) tips

Thrift store finds, repurposed for fruits and veggies:

~ Crocheted cloth squares, probably created as trivets or potholders, for scrubbing veggies, in place of plastic veggies scrubbers. I had tried a natural coconut coir veggie brush, but disliked it because it shed bristles and often bruised or damaged my produce. These squares are soft enough to prevent damage to produce, but have enough texture to scrub fruit and veggies well.
~ Cloth diapers for patting fruits and veggies dry after washing. They’re very absorbent, and it saves paper towels.

Cough medicine: In the moldy Northwest, I have been plagued by long-term coughs. This recipe is a great cough reliever: mix 1/2 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and 1/2 tablespoon of honey in 8 ounces of warm water, and drink.

Car dehydrator: I found this wonderful tip at The blog. I had long wanted to try Condo Blue’s recipe for making orange essential oil, but couldn’t prevent my orange peels from molding while I was drying them out. Now I just place the peels in my car dashboard window on sunny days, and by the end of the day, I have hard, dry orange peels. And the car smells great while they’re drying! (Of course, in Washington State, I can only do this in the summer).

Reduce fat and sugar with water: Sometimes the most natural products in the store (not counting meat or produce), with the least additives, contain the most fat and sugar. Natural mayonnaise, for example, or real maple syrup. I have found that adding water to these is a good way to reduce the fat or sugar content, without the additives of the "lite" version. (I even read a suggestion on another blog recently: buy a half gallon of whole milk, pour it into a gallon jug, and add water. Presto, a gallon of reduced fat milk at reduced cost! It's one way to better afford organic milk).

Btw, you’ll often notice that in “lite” versions of products, water is the first or second ingredient anyway. All the additives are added in order to give it the same thickness or taste as the original product, or to prevent separation. So if you’re going to add water, it’s important to only do so with the quantity you’re going to use, right before you use it. It will be thinner, but if you eat it right away, it generally doesn’t separate or affect taste. Experiment to find out the ratio you like best: 4:1 (where 1 is water), 3:1, 2:1 or 1:1. Whichever you choose, you'll be stretching your budget by making the food item last longer, and you'll be reducing fat and/or sugar.

Homemade chocolate sauce: Add 1/2 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips, 1/4 cup milk of your choice (regular, soy, almond, rice, etc.), and 1 tablespoon of a mild oil (I use canola) to a small glass bowl. Stir gently to coat the chips. Microwave on high for one minute. Remove from microwave and (optional) add 1/2 teaspoon of flavoring (I usually add peppermint extract). Stir until smooth. Serve immediately over fruit, ice cream, cake or other dessert of your choice. Yum!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

I will not complain

I used to hate winters in Boston, because I couldn't handle the cold. In my twenties, I was very, very thin. (You know those people who can eat anything and never gain an ounce? That was me back then. Alas, now that I'm over 40 and post childbirth, that's no longer true). Because I had so little body fat, cold temperatures took a toll on my body.

A store's motto, however, changed my perspective. I had a boyfriend who planned a hiking trip with some other guys in New Hampshire's White Mountains in November. He visited a ski shop to buy outerwear for the hike, and told me that the store had a motto proudly displayed on its walls: "There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing." Hearing that made me consider that maybe the problem was that I wasn't dressing warmly enough for the cold. I began to wear more layers and found it made a difference. For the first time, I could appreciate, or at least not loathe, Boston's winters. (Of course, gaining weight once I hit my 30s helped, too).

I also made a decision to be grateful for the weather, whatever it happened to be. That attitude served me well during my years in Boston, but I had forgotten it here in Washington. I found myself once more loathing a season, but in this case, it was Western Washington's nine-month rainy season from September through May.

But now... most of our relatives and old friends are living in parts of the U.S. that are sweltering. And meanwhile, I've heard a few locals here in Washington complain about the cool summer. I can't join them.

I will not complain. I know what I could be experiencing, and by that measure, this summer in Tacoma has been beautiful. Yes, it's cooler than usual, but the sun peeks out for several hours most days (sometimes even the entire day!), and by afternoon it often hits a balmy 70 degrees. I drive from work with the sun on my face and have a good hour or so to watch my daughter ride her bike outdoors after I get home. I can drive with the windows rolled up so I can hear the radio or a CD, without needing to turn on the car's AC. We not only don't need AC in our home, we've only needed to use a fan a couple times this summer -- saving both energy and money.

Yes, I most certainly can't complain. Instead, I am grateful for the summer we're having, and I pray for all those suffering across our nation.


FYI: Crunchy Chicken offers a great list of tips for keeping cool this summer.

For more on what's happening this summer across the U.S., this Weather Channel post shares some sobering information.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Summer Staycation Adventure, Week 1

(Since last Monday was July 4th, Monday, July 11 was the first vacation day I've taken this summer--making it Week 1 of our Staycation Adventure. My plan is to take each Monday off to have a fun and learning adventure with my daughter. More about our summer staycation plans here).

Discovery Pond: My daughter and I had two adventures last week. On Monday, we visited Discovery Pond at the Tacoma Nature Center. Adding to the specialness, my daughter's daycare teacher has decided to join us for each Monday's adventure, so all of her friends are coming along. Discovery Pond is a play area for kids designed as a natural environment that includes rocks to climb, caves to explore, a pond (with fish!) to rock-hop across, a treehouse to hang out in, and an old-fashioned water pump. A staff person told us that they were amazed that the fish have survived since Discovery Pond opened last year. They were sure that either the fish would die or the raccoons would get them, and neither has happened.

The kids had a ball in the play area, followed by a picnic lunch. We also visited a little of the inside of the Nature Center, and the kids got to see frogs, turtles, snakes and lots of bugs! As a follow up, I asked my daughter what she wanted to learn more about, and she said turtles, so we checked out a few books from the library about them.

Tiptoe through the Tidepools: I learned that day that Metro Parks Tacoma and the Nature Center were sponsoring a free "Tiptoe through the Tidepools" event at Titlow Beach on Saturday (yesterday), one of several they've held this summer. My daughter and I visited and it was fascinating. I learned a new word, "estuary," which is an area where salt water and fresh water come together. The Puget Sound is one of the world's most prolific estuaries, replete with sea creatures that are most visible at low tide. Estuaries are also perfect habitat for salmon, which is why this area is known for them.

My daughter and I were able to see and touch a variety of crabs--and watched a poor kid get pinched by one :( -- along with seaweed, barnacles, starfish, and the most amazing 20-legged sunflower sea star (see pic below). We're following up by reading more about tidepools here in the Northwest.

I'm really starting to appreciate the natural environment here in Washington, and probably will even more so after we visit Mt. Rainier, which is the most prominent mountain in the contiguous US (prominence is the measure of the distance from a mountain's lowest point to its summit), and one of the world's potentially deadliest volcanoes.

I never thought anything could compare to the breathtaking beauty of a New England fall, complete with apple picking and scrumptious apple cider donuts. But I'm learning that Washington state has a unique beauty of its own.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Cheap green tip: Etsy for everything! (almost)

I have grown to love Etsy so much! It's an online site where individuals can buy and sell handmade and vintage items. It has become my go-to place for so many reusable products. I've purchased (insert "reusable" before each of the following items) sandwich wraps, snack bags, Swiffer mop covers, cotton makeup remover pads and business card holders, and I have (continue to insert "reusable") flour sacks, bowl covers and dryer sachets on my wish list.

These days, anytime I think, "Wouldn't it be great to have a reusable [whatever]," I first check local thrift shops for the item. If I can't find it there, my next step is to do a search on Etsy. I'm usually in luck: if I've thought of it, then someone else has thought to make it. Best of all, by buying through Etsy, I'm buying American and supporting small business craft people.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Cheap tip, period: technology ideas

These aren't necessarily green tips, but they are money-saving ideas that I'd like to pass along.

Net10 for cell phone service: About two years ago, I had completely had it with most traditional wireless phone services. I was tired of the poor customer service, the sneaky add-on fees in the bills, the two-year contracts with hefty early termination fees, the way they'd extend your contract without your knowledge every time you called to ask for any change in your services (often times to reverse a change that they'd made without informing you), and on and on.

I'd considered pay-as-you-go phones, but most seemed to work best for people who use them rarely. For the amount of minutes I used--typically about 450 a month--most pay-as-you go phones would be pretty costly for me.

Then I learned about Net10. The 10 stands for 10 cents a minute, which is what the phone costs to use (with minutes purchased in $20, $30, $60, or $100 increments). I've now been using Net10 for almost two years, and I love it! All of my complaints about typical cell phone plans are non-existent. And even better, you can add minutes online, saving both the environment (by not buying the disposable plastic cards to reload minutes) and money. Net10's best monetary deals are available if you pay online, so I now pay $25 a month for 750 minutes (which I never use up). And if I ever choose to discontinue service, I can just stop paying.

The best part about Net10 is the fantastic service. My husband became a believer this weekend. We took a trip to the Cascades to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary, and while in the mountains, his T-Mobile phone had no reception. As usual, my Net10 phone's reception worked perfectly. Net10 even offers a smart phone, the LG900, which is what my husband plans to switch to as soon as his T-Mobile contract is up. And for $50 a month he can get unlimited service, which is half (when you include all the fees) of what he currently pays for unlimited service with T-Mobile.

One caveat: Net10 offers excellent service at really cheap prices by saving money on the physical phones themselves, which aren't as well made as phones offered by other wireless carriers. I've had one phone that broke into pieces after 9 months, and my current phone has little quirks, such as occasionally freezing up (I have to turn it off and on again to restart it).

Netflix plus Roku in place of cable: Cable TV is another service in which I had been increasingly frustrated. Countless channels with at times nothing good to watch, the lack of ability to select only those channels we really wanted, poor service, and big jumps in cost after an initial startup period. No thank you! So we dropped cable about two years ago. Netflix, in contrast, costs $7.99 a month for unlimited movies and TV shows. I've read a few articles recently noting that several American households are like mine: they've opted out of cable for the much more affordable and more personalized services of Netflix instead.

The Roku streaming player device allows you to watch Netflix on your TV. It's pricey--we paid $79 for ours--but it's a one-time purchase.

But what about Internet? Since many people obtain their Internet service via their cable provider, foregoing cable means finding an alternative for getting online. We use Clear, a 4G wireless Internet provider, which doesn't require cable or installation. Monthly at-home service is only $35, and if you add an on-the-go device (allowing you to use your Internet service anywhere), the price goes up to $60 a month. Note: Clear isn't yet available in all areas of the U.S.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

When doing your best is not enough

I have blogged before that when it comes to going green, you should do the best you can rather than feeling guilty about what you can't do. I've blogged about the importance of making small steps, and how the small steps of many can make a big impact. I've even ranted about those who would criticize the green steps of others because those steps are less than perfect from an eco-perspective, not considering that that step may be the best the person can do in their circumstances, and may lead to bigger steps if you don't turn them off with smug attitudes.

I still think those things are true. One of the reasons I started this blog was to encourage people who feel left out of the environmental movement because of race, income, time, access, knowledge (both skills and awareness), etc., that green really can be for the rest of us.

But what happens when the best you can do isn't enough? When the small steps don't add up enough to save our world? I read this article today, about the threat of mass extinction of all marine life due to climate change. If that happens, humanity and our planet are screwed. There is so much division, greed and hostility in our nation and world that I fear we might never come together even to address our species' very survivial.

It makes me feel at times as if my green journey is for naught, and my green steps are just useless gestures to make me feel a little more in control and less overwhelmed. Any thoughts? Ideas? Reasons for hope?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Cars, the Year from Hell, and My Delight

Crazy title, but bear with me, it's all related!

My dad died when I was 16, and as a result, my mom freaked out about the thought of her kids driving. Thus, I got my driver's license just before leaving for college, primarily to have a form of identification.

I lived the next 16 years car-free in the Boston area (easy to do, their public transportation system is very good) until I married a man in 2001 who owned a car. Even then, I continued to take public transportation to and from work and only used the car for road trips and shopping.

And then came the Year from Hell. In one year (actually, about 15 months), my husband had emergency open heart surgery, my father-in-law died, I found myself unexpectedly pregnant with a high-risk pregnancy*, one of my sisters-in-law had a stroke, another had a kidney transplant, two relatives died of cancer, and a young niece, distraught about all that was happening in our family, was hospitalized for cutting.

Buying a car: On top of all this, my husband totaled our car that year, and given that he was still recovering from surgery and not working and I was working sporadically depending on the state of my pregnancy, we had no money to replace it. (The insurance payout was eaten by other bills). That year Boston had one of the worst winters on record, and I found myself frequently trudging though several feet of snow to get to work, while pregnant, incontinent, and suffering from hyperemesis (extreme morning sickness).**

When I gave birth to our daughter***, my husband was working again but I had been on bed rest for four months, so we were still broke. And now with a baby, we desperately needed a car. We bought two clunkers off Craig's List for about $700 each, both of which lasted about 3 months, while we tried to save for a newer car. We eventually purchased a 3-year-old used Subaru, which, because we had excellent credit at the time, we were able to finance over 5.5 years.

Preserving the car: That Subaru is now 9 years old and has 155,000 miles on it. Among other things, it moved us cross-country, was hubby's on-the-road vehicle when he was in traveling sales, and now carries me on my 45-minutes-each-way commute to and from work. (We now have a second used vehicle that hubby drives). We'll make our final payment on the Subaru this summer.

When my car was out of commission this past winter, it cost $1,800 to repair it. At that time I made a decision: I want this car to last at least another three to five years after we own it free and clear.

I recently read an article about a man who owns a 1992 car with 2.5 million miles on it. His secret? Good maintenance. He spends about $1,000 a year to maintain it. The article recommends reading your owner's manual and following its maintenance instructions to the letter.

So that's what I'm doing. I'm reading the manual as well as books such as AAA's Driving Survival guide, I bought a tire pressure gauge to help me keep the tires inflated, and I'm trying to learn all the maintenance tips I never before worried about because I left auto maintenance to hubby.

This is very much a "green" thing to do. Maintaining a vehicle is a greener choice (in many cases) than replacing it, and it improves gas mileage. So here's to becoming an expert on my car!


* I got pregnant the first time my husband's cardiologist gave us the go-ahead to try sex. We had only planned to fool around. Ah, well...

** Since my husband couldn't work at that time, I had no choice but to keep working, no matter how sick I was or how difficult it was to trudge through snow.

*** As you may have guessed, my daughter's birth was My Delight. My mom said she prayed during my pregnancy, "Let this be a good baby, since they've gone through so much!" Her prayers were answered. My daughter was born healthy, she latched on immediately and never had any problems breastfeeding, she was rarely sick, and she was one of the happiest babies I've ever known. We drove with her as a one-month old to New Jersey to see my sister-in-law right after her kidney transplant. The hospital allowed us to bring the baby in for one minute only. The miracle of being alive and seeing her newborn niece lifted my sister-in-law's spirit to the heavens!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Weekly summer staycation adventure!

Mt. Rainier, Washington. Image from

Several factors--a lack of funds for vacation travel, my daughter's daycare teacher being short-staffed on Mondays this summer, and the advice of educational experts--led me to plan what I'm calling our "Weekly Summer Staycation Adventure!"

Instead of taking a week or more off from work, I'm going to take every Monday off to do something fun and educational with my daughter. There are tons of low-cost places to visit in the area, many of which we've never been to. And educational experts advise that one of the most effective way to help your children learn during the summer is to reinforce experiences with reading, writing and other learning activities. Having a different experience each week, rather than cramming a bunch of experiences into a short time frame, will give us quality time to do that.

Here are the experiences we have planned (not yet in any set order):

1) The Hands-On Children's Museum in Olympia, WA.

2) A visit to Alaffia's factory in Lacey, WA.

3) Fort Nisqually Living History Museum in Tacoma.

4) Port Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma.

5) The Tacoma Nature Center's Discovery Pond.

6) A trip to Mount Rainier (this may be a weekend event, because I want hubby to join us). Mt. Rainier is the impressive peak that looms over Western Washington, but is only visible when the sun is out. If you're new to Washington State and you arrive when it's overcast as I did three years ago, the first time this huge mountain appears in your vista is indescribable.

7) Stewart Heights Pool and Water Park in Tacoma. (This one is just for fun!)

8) Maybe even blueberry picking at Charlotte's Blueberry Park in Tacoma.

9) Perhaps a visit to a farm in the area.

We may add others as we discover them. For each experience, we will get books from the library to learn more, we will write stories and do art projects, and if I can be creative enough, incorporate math and science. I'll blog more about this throughout the summer.

Each of these locations is relatively low-cost (admission is either free, or less than $10, except for the zoo), I plan to pack our lunches, and for the Tacoma locations, I hope to take the bus.

BTW, all praise to Metro Parks Tacoma, the muncipal corporation that manages every single one of the Tacoma locations above, making available incredible opportunities for recreation, the arts and nature for the people of Greater Tacoma!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

I tried the Moon Cup!

Syndicated on

Since the return of my period when my daughter was 14 months old, I have been a GladRags girl. GladRags are reusable cloth menstrual pads, and in my five years of using them, I have loved them! They are so much more comfortable than disposable menstrual pads, they are obviously cheaper in the long run and better for the environment, and they are multi-purpose--I wear them when I am sick and have stress incontinence while coughing.

But they are messy to clean. So I finally decided to try the other green alternative -- a menstrual cup. I hadn't tried it earlier because I was never much of a tampon wearer, since I found them uncomfortable. But I recently learned the discomfort of tampons has much to do with their absorbancy, which can be drying to one's vagina. Reusable menstrual cups don't have that problem.

I chose the Moon Cup, which I purchased from Amazon using accumulated Swagbucks, so it cost me only about $13 including shipping and handling. (Note: the link shows Size B, but I use Size A, for post-vaginal delivery). What a deal! I knew when I first bought my GladRags that it would take me a few years to equal the cost of buying disposable pads each month. But $13 is what I used to spend in about 3 months on pads, for a product that will last me 10 years!

It took a few tries to get used to inserting it and taking it out comfortably, and my fingers get a little bloody when doing so. According to the instructions, while sitting on the toilet, you fold the cup between your thumb and forefinger to insert, and then release once it's fully inside you so that it opens up. The toughest part is adjusting the Cup once it's in--again, according to instructions, you pull the tab a little bit forward and up so that it's in line with your cervix. I have found that practicing this while wearing a mini-pad helps. Try sitting, standing, lying down and walking. If it feels comfortable in all four positions and you getting little or no leakage, you've done it correctly.

Overall, the Moon Cup is very comfortable and so much easier to clean than reusable pads. And if I have another bout of bronchitis with stress incontinence, I always have my GladRags to fall back on.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Advantages of our move from house to apartment

We moved two weeks ago from the home of military relatives for whom we had housesat for three years while they were overseas. And I am so glad!

Our new apartment has almost everything I was hoping for in greener urban living:

1) Smaller space. Our new apartment has less than one-third of the square footage of our previous home, but unbelievably, more storage--the most I've ever had in an apartment! It will be so much easier to keep this place warm or cool, as the weather dictates, without using as much energy.

2) More walkability. I had hoped to keep my daughter in the same school system, but live somewhere closer to public transportation and other amenities. We had moved from a neighborhood in Boston with a Walk Score of 85 (very walkable) to a house outside of Tacoma with a Walk Score of 7 (where almost all errands require a car), and I found our car-dependency very frustrating.

We lucked out. We not only found a place in the same school district, but it's also one block from public transportation and two blocks from our local town center. Yesterday, my daughter and I walked to the town center to do our grocery shopping, using a large collapsable canvas shopping bag on wheels that I picked up at a yard sale for $1. It was awesome to be able to do something without driving for a change! Our new neighborhood has a Walk Score of 58.

3) Places to play and garden. One of our relatives' selling points in housesitting was that they had a yard for our daughter to play in, whereas in Boston, we needed to walk to a park. That wasn't the case--they have a beautiful, heavily landscaped yard that was totally inappropriate for a young child to play in. And there were no parks within walking distance. (That will soon change, thanks to a Pepsi Refresh grant my town won to build a new playground).

However, their yard did provide us with the benefit of space to garden, and we had a fun two years of growing our own vegetables and herbs.

One of the downsides of moving to an apartment is that we won't have the space to garden anymore. However, I am growing a few plants on our balacony, and I recently learned that some folks are trying to start a community garden in a park that is three blocks from our new home.

But for my daughter, the move is a real blessing. Not only are there two parks within walking distance of our home, our apartment building is one of several that encircles a huge grassy courtyard where tons of kids play. My very social, very active daughter is loving it. As an unexpected bonus, we found out that my daughter's best friend from school lives in one of the other buildings!

Holding on to recyclables? Yes!

I've held on to a bunch of recyclables over the last three years, primarily because I knew that these items could be recycled, but my local municipality didn't take them. And sometimes I wondered if I was crazy--after all, these items added to the junk in my house. Now, however, I think it was worth it.

One set of stuff included #5 plastics and Brita filters, which Preserve, a company that makes razors, toothbrushes and tableware from recycled plastic, accepts back through their Gimme 5 program. You can drop off items for recycling at Whole Foods, but the nearest one for me is Seattle, an hour away. Or you can mail them a box of plastics to recycle, which I did about a year ago. It cost me more than $40, which is just too big a chunk out of my pocketbook. Since that time I've been holding on to my yogurt and Smart Balance tubs and filters, hoping for a windfall.

I received it--but not monetarily. As we prepared to move, someone told us that we could drop items off at the Tacoma landfill, even though we don't live in city itself. There's a fee per each 100 lbs of garbage, but recycling is free. The recycling center at the landfill is amazing; they accept much, much more than my local municipality. I recycled all our number #5 plastics, leaving only the Brita filters. I was able to mail the latter to Preserve for a much more reasonable $9.

A second set of stuff was old shoes. In Boston, I was able to easily drop off old sneakers (which are recycled to make playground materials) at City Sports and the New Balance store. When I moved to Tacoma, I googled "sneaker recycling" and learned (at least according to the Google results) that the nearest place was the Nike factory in Seattle. Again, it doesn't make sense to travel an hour just to recycle.

But last week, I had a meeting at the REI store in Seattle, and I decided to call and ask if they accept shoes for recycling. They do--so I brought the old shoes with me. There is also an REI store in Tacoma, but since I've never shopped there, it hadn't occurred to me to ask. So now I know I have a place to recycle shoes in Tacoma, too!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Cheap green tip: A&D ointment for polishing shoes

Or how to repurpose your unused diaper rash cream.

As I've shared before, my green journey started when my daughter was a baby, as I began to think about how to make sure I was doing what was best for her and for the world she would inherit.

One of the areas I researched was shoe polish. Somewhere I read that petroleum jelly (not the greenest stuff in the world, but less toxic than most shoe polishes) was great for polishing shoes, and lanolin was great for weatherproofing your shoes.

My daughter's first year came and went, and she never once had diaper rash. I took a look at an unopened tube of A&D ointment, wondering who I could pass it on to. Then I looked at the ingredients. The first two: lanolin and petrolatum.

Since that time (5 years!), I have used that same tube of A&D ointment (which costs about $5 for 4 ounces, much less per ounce than shoe polish) to polish and weatherproof my shoes. I squeeze a little on the shoe and rub it in with a soft cloth. A little goes a long way, it's much less messy than shoe polish, and I can use the same ointment no matter what color the shoe.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Furnishing a home for less than $600

Three years ago, we moved from Boston to Tacoma to house-sit for military relatives who were being sent overseas. We sold or gave away everything we owned and moved west with only some clothes and personal possessions.

Since we always knew that one day our relatives would return and we'd need to move out, I have spent the last three years collecting items to furnish a household. And since we didn't have much money, I obtained virtually everything second-hand, from thrift stores, yard sales, Freecycle and gifts from friends.

We moved this weekend, and I want to share the costs to furnish our new household room by room.

Living room: sofa, easy chair, two bookcases, a TV stand, a TV, DVD player, two end tables, two lamps: $103.

Dining room: table and chairs, computer desk, computer: $133 (computer was $90)

Master bedroom: queen-sized bed (passed on from a friend), dresser, two nightstands, two lamps, exercise bike, file cabinet: $25

Child's bedroom: twin bed (passed on from a friend), dresser, nightstand, lamp, toy box, bookshelf, TV stand, TV/VCR (since kids' videos are much easier to obtain second-hand than kids' DVD's): $30

Kitchen: Too many items to count. We have a fully-furnished kitchen, including small appliances, dishes, flatware, cookware and bakeware. The only items purchased new were a large Teflon skillet my husband bought (because the stainless steel ones I bought used aren't big enough for some of the stuff he cooks); the Magic Bullet I got at a steal during an after Christmas sale at Costco; a cast-iron waffle iron (which still sticks, even though I've seasoned it four times); and a Kitchen Aid mixer, the only kitchen item I brought with us from Boston. My husband bought it for me during our first year of marriage in 2001, and since my mother has had the same Kitchen Aid mixer for 40+ years, I know they're quality-- so I wasn't about to give mine up!

All other kitchen items were purchased second-hand. Other than the microwave, which costs $20, everything was $10 or less, with most items costing less than $5. Estimated total spent on used items: $120. (New items were $40 + $40 + $20 + $60 = $160).

Household cost
Living room: $103
Dining room: $133
Master bedroom: $25
Child's room: $30
Kitchen: $120 (estimate)

Total: $411

Counting in the new items adds $140 to the total, including $100 spent in the kitchen (I'm not including the 10-year-old mixer, but only what we've purchased since coming to Tacoma), and $40 spent to purchase bathroom rugs and a shower curtain.

Grant total: $551

The best part is, everything works together. I really searched for quality items that were well-maintained rather than worrying about appearance, but everything looks good, too. I purchased a lot of dark wood items, and it happens to match the cabinetry in the apartment. It won't win any awards, but I think we have an attractive, cozy-looking home!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Private vs. public sector: which is better?

First, a disclaimer: I have never worked in the public sector. However, I have always worked in the nonprofit sector, which, while technically private, has a public mission.

The public sector has been trashed in many quarters of late, and thankfully (in my opinion), the trashing is producing a backlash. Many people are starting to realize just how much all of us benefit from the public sector and its services.

I wrote a post a few months ago at the height of the protests in Wisconsin, about how thankful I am for the government and its libraries, schools, safety net, etc. Now some might say about the stories I shared in that post, "Well, OK, maybe the public sector can do well sometimes, but if it's a choice, the private sector will always do a better job." Competition and profit, they claim, will always result in better service.

Not necessarily. Often the same problems that occur in the public sector also occur in the private sector. For every complaint about waiting in line at the DMV, there's a complaint about waiting at home all day for Comcast to show up, to give one example.

But there are also occasions when the public sector does a better job at the exact same service. I'll share two examples from my life in recent years.

FedEx vs. the Post Office

The Post Office--"Neither snow nor rain...": During Christmas week in 2008, a terrible blizzard hit the Puget Sound region. Not being well-equipped for blizzards, many of us were shut-in for days, and my street was one of many that went unplowed.

On Christmas Eve, my daughter and I went out to build a snowman. Our snow-blanketed street was deserted and silent. After a while, we were surprised to hear a vehicle approaching. Soon a U.S. postal truck, producing the only tire tracks on the road, came into view. The truck stopped at our house and the mail carrier delivered two packages for my daughter, one from each grandmother.

Without that delivery, my daughter would have had only one present on Christmas day, the one her father and I gave her.

FedEx--"A blizzard? Get it yourself!": The day after Christmas, my sister called to ask how my daughter had liked her gift, and we told her we never received it. My sister said, "Man, FedEx sucks! I paid extra for them to deliver it on Christmas Eve!"

When I called FedEx to inquire about it, I was told that they weren't going to deliver until the snow melted, and if I wanted the package sooner, I had to go to the main FedEx facility to pick it up. I stood in line at the facility for about two hours that weekend. A Tacoma News-Tribune article later reported that neither FedEx nor UPS had made any of their deliveries during Christmas week, to the consternation of their customers, but the U.S. Post Office had made all of theirs.

Public sector: 1; private sector: 0.

AIG vs. Washington Labor & Industries

I'm a grant writer, so I work on a computer all day. When my right hand started hurting in 2002, while I still lived in Massachusetts, my first thought was carpal tunnel syndrome. However, an Internet review of my symptoms vs. carpal tunnel's (pain rather than numbness in my middle finger, no pain in the wrist, relief rather than aggravated pain at night) made me realize that wasn't the case.

I filed a workplace injury clain at work (for repetitive stress) and was referred to an orthopedist, who insisted despite my protests that I had carpal tunnel. She treated it as such, aggravating the problem by making me wear a wrist brace that increased my pain and giving me a cortisone shot in the wrist that caused my fingers to curl into a fist that I couldn't uncurl.

I demanded to see someone else and eventually was able to see a hand therapist (a subset of occupational therapy) who correctly diagnosed tendonitis and was able to successfully treat it.

AIG--"Let's give you the run-around": However, AIG, through which my employer had our worker's comp insurance, refused to honor the claim because I hadn't accepted the first doctor's (incorrect) diagnosis and (harmful) treatment. It was a full year before AIG finally paid on the claim, after numerous phone calls and letters to them from the HR person at my job, the hand therapy clinic, and me. During almost all our dealings with them, they were rude and incompetent (for example, we'd send a fax, call to ensure they'd received it, and a week later would be told that we never sent it).

When AIG had all those problems during the 2008 financial crisis, needless to say I wasn't surprised.

WA Labor & Industries--"We're thorough but caring": When my thumb started to hurt this winter, due to my previous experience I soon recognized the problem. I went through the same process of filing a claim at work and seeing a doctor, who (as I expected) diagnosed DeQuervain's tendonitis in my thumb.

The state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) handles worker's comp claims in Washington. They've been very thorough in the paperwork my employer and I have had to complete, as well as their follow-up--they obviously don't want anyone to game the system. But they've also been very kind and competent in my dealings with them, and approved my claim in about five weeks.

The public sector wins again!

Why a sweeper is better than a vacuum!

On a recent visit to Value Village, I found a Dirt Devil Sweeper--one of those old fashioned sweepers that uses neither batteries nor electricity, just a pair of roller brushes and your own muscle strength. I don't know what it cost originally (do they even sell them anymore?), but I purchased the used model for four dollars.

I am notoriously lax about vacuuming (just ask my husband!). But I love this sweeper so much, it's inspiring me to use it often. Here, then, are the top reasons why an old-fashioned sweeper is better than a vacuum:

1) No need to unwrap a cord before using--just grab it and go.
2) It takes more energy to push than a vacuum, so it provides a good workout. If you're a busy mom like me who can't get to the gym, household exercise is a plus.
3) It's nice and quiet.
4) It doesn't accidently pull out of wall if you move too far from outlet.
5) No need to switch outlets when you move to a new room or location.
6) No bags to change--just open a small door on the side of the sweeper and dump.
7) It's a very green choice: it uses no energy (other than your own labor), and with no motor, it's unlikely to stop functioning.
8) When I'm finished, I don't have to wrap up a cord again.

None of those reasons are major in and of themselves, but when you add them up--no wonder I disliked vacuuming and love my old-fashioned sweeper!

Memorial Day Update:

Reason #9: When your guests leave late at night, you can use the sweeper to clean the carpet without waking your child or disturbing your neighbors downstairs!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tacoma's EnviroHouse

In light of our upcoming move, I've discovered the City of Tacoma landfill and recycling center. They recycle scads of stuff (much more than my local municipality), and it's helping us clear the house out. And in the process, I also discovered the EnviroHouse! Located at the entrance of the the landfill/recycling center, the EnviroHouse is "a permanent model home showcasing green building and natural landscape ideas, materials and techniques to create a healthy home and planet."

My daughter and I visited this week when dropping off recyclables, and it was so cool! The entire house (structure, counters, walls, furniture, floors, etc.) is made from either recycled materials, including glass and paper, or rapidly renewable materials such as bamboo. I can't do it justice to describe everything they've done to make the house and the landscape low-impact, energy and water efficient, and sustainable, so please read the EnviroHouse link for more. At the house, the city offers free workshops, tours and advice to people who want to learn more about making their own homes and yards more natural and sustainable.

My daughter was fascinated by everything she could touch and feel (all the different textures of materials used in the home), as well as the real-time computer readings of the solar energy being absorbed by the house, even on a rainy day! I most loved how free and open the house felt: how fresh the air in the home felt, how bright the natural light coming through the skylights was (and again, this was a very rainy day!), and like my daughter, how wonderful everything felt to touch.

Homemade failure... and success!

The bad news first: homemade deodorant FAIL

I've given up on the homemade deodorant. Even with all the changes I'd made, my underarms were still red, and the itchiness was relieved but not eliminated by moisturizing before applying. So now I'm trying out Tom's of Maine's Crystal Confidence. It's a roll-on rather than the stick I used before, and has fewer ingredients than Tom's of Maine's stick deodorant. So far, so good in terms of keeping me drying, odor-free, and non-itchy. Let's see if my underarms continue to tolerate it, and if it continues to work when the weather really gets hot.

Trial and error with homemade hair products

I have shared before that I've been successful in making my own products to clean and condition my hair, but have had a difficult time creating my own styling products. As a result of not having the funds to get my hair done often by professionals, and struggling to make my own styling products, I usually opt for the simple ponytail style, which gets boring after a while.

I've had my hair professionally done twice in the past two years, and both times the hair stylists (at two different shops) used products on my hair that they recommended I buy to manage my curls. I bought Beyond the Zone's Noodle Head at the first shop, and was very unsatisfied with how hard and dry it made my hair.

At the second shop, where I had my hair done about a month ago, they used and recommended Miss Jessie's Curly Pudding. I'm familiar with Miss Jessie's because my sister, who lives in New York where it's made and sold, uses it, and it is a good hair product. But it's expensive, and although it hasn't been reviewed by the Safe Cosmetics Database, I looked up the ingredients, and a few are high hazard (like this one).

And now, homemade hair product good news!

Having curly pudding used on my hair inspired me to search for a different curly pudding recipe than the earlier one that had failed so miserably.

Most recipes I found on natural hair care sites were similar, and most involved combining a commercial styling product for curls (most with toxic ingredients) with natural oils. One person, however, wrote down this formula:

holding gel + moisture + shine = voila!

And that formula was the key.

I realized that I have the ingredients on hand for the formula:

Flax seed gel & beeswax + aloe & glycerin + natural oils/butters

Here is the recipe I came up with:

1 Tbsp beeswax
2 Tbsp coconut oil
2 Tbsp unrefined shea butter
2 Tbsp pure aloe vera gel
3 Tbsp flax seed gel (see directions for flax seed gel below)
1 Tbsp vegetable glycerin
1/2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
10-20 drops essential oil for scent (I use peppermint and sweet orange)
10 drops of liquid grapefruit seed extract (as a natural preservative)

-With a shredder, shred beeswax until you can fill a tablespoon.
-Add shredded beeswax, coconut oil and shea butter to a small saucepan over a low flame, stirring constantly, until completely melted.
-Add the rest of the ingredients.
-Blend with a hand mixer until thick and smooth.
-Add to a small glass jar. Makes 4-6 ounces.

Once cool, it will look a little like and have a similar consistency to margerine.

Flax seed gel directions
-Bring 1 cup of filtered or distilled water to boil in a small saucepan.
-Add 1 TBSP whole flax seeds.
-Return to boil, then reduce heat and simmer until thick, stirring frequently.
-It may take 10-20 minutes to thicken until it drips slowly off a spoon.
-Strain out seeds.
-Add 2 Tbsp pure aloe vera gel (room temperature), and if desired, 10-20 drops essential oil for scent. Stir gently.
-Allow to gel overnight. Store in a small jar in refrigerator. Makes 4-6 ounces.

Note: Although I store my gel in the fridge, I'm not storing the curly pudding there. I suspect that because of the coconut oil and shea butter, it would become very hard if it were chilled. If contamination is a concern for you, cut the curly pudding recipe in half, or store half in the freezer and then allow to thaw at room temperature when you're ready to use it.

The result: hair product success!!

To use, rub a dollop in your hands and apply to damp, moisturized hair. Rake through hair with your fingers (especially the ends) and allow to air dry. Gently brush the hair with a natural bristle brush (such as boar's hair), and brush out the ends with a shampoo brush or paddle brush. I've used it on both my own and my daughter's hair, and it curls it up nicely.


My new hair routine--for the girl with dry, curly hair

Regular cleaning
Add 2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar to an 8-oz squeeze bottle, and fill the rest with warm water. Shake gently, squeeze on hair, and massage well through hair and scalp. Allow to sit on hair about 2 minutes, then rinse well.

Regular conditioning
Add 1 Tbsp. olive oil and 1 Tbsp. scented vodka (I add a few drops peppermint essential oils to the vodka) to an 8-oz squeeze bottle, and fill the rest with warm water. Shake gently, squeeze on hair, and massage well through hair and scalp. Allow to sit on hair about 2 minutes, then rinse well.

Deep conditioning (occasional)
Add 1/4 cup of mayonnaise, 3 Tbsp. water and 2 Tbsp. olive oil to a glass dish. Stir until smooth. Cover and microwave for about 30 seconds, and stir again.

Apply throughout hair, especially at the ends. Cover with a plastic shower cap, followed by a hot towel. (I take a small clean hand towel, wet it so it's thoroughly damp but not dripping, and heat in the microwave for about 45 seconds. Then I wrap it around my head). Keep all this on your head 15-20 minutes, then rinse thoroughly. Follow with an apple cider vinegar wash.

Deep cleansing (occasional)
Add 1 Tbsp. baking soda to an 8-oz squeeze bottle, and fill the rest with warm water. Shake gently, squeeze on hair, and massage well through hair and scalp. Allow to sit on hair about 2 minutes, then rinse well. If you're prone to dandruff like I am, follow with an apple cider vinegar wash.

Daily styling
Comb out damp hair after spraying generously with detangler. Use daily conditioner, followed by curly pudding.

Daily conditioner ingredients
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. pure aloe vera gel
1 Tbsp. vegetable glycerin
3 Tbsp. of your favorite natural conditioner (I'm currently using Alaffia's Everyday Shea conditioner)
10-20 drops of essential oil for scent, and 5 drops of liquid grapefruit seed extract as a preservative.

Add all ingredients to a small glass dish (except the essential oils and grapefruit seed extract), stir gently, cover and microwave for about 30 seconds, and stir again gently until smooth. Add the oils and extract, and pour into a small squeeze bottle. Makes 4-6 ounces.

Each day, squeeze into your palms and rub gently into your hair.
Follow with curly pudding.

Detangler directions
Mix one part of the daily conditioner with three parts distilled or filtered water in an 8-oz. spray bottle. (In the winter, warm the water for about 20 seconds in the microwave first). Shake gently to mix, and shake gently before using each time.

The kiddie hair routine

My daughter washes her own hair with Burt's Bee's Baby Shampoo or Alaffia Everyday Shea shampoo. We use generous amounts of my homemade detangler and daily conditioner, and style. If the style is loose (e.g., not braided), use curly pudding.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Finally! A green quiz for the rest of us

At last! The folks at Practically Green have come up with a green quiz and set of tips that make sense!

I've taken several "how green are you?" quizzes (they're all over the web these days), and most of them I find useless. The quizzes tend to fall into three types:

1) The snarky quiz. These quizzes include multiple choice questions with 3 choices, one of which is an absurdly anti-green action, one of which is an extreme green action, and one of which is meant to represent the sensible middle. You know you're supposed to pick the sensible choice, even if none of the above apply to you. For instance, they might ask you about your toilet habits, and the choices are: a) I flush 6 times each time I use it, whether I need to or not; b) I compost all my body waste in a pit outdoors; or c) I have a dual-flush toilet.

2) The "how many earths are you destroying?" quiz (otherwise known as a carbon footprint calculator). These quizzes depress me, without teaching me anything new. I already know that because I'm American, because I drive a car and because I eat meat, that my lifestyle is not sustainable and that if everyone on earth lived like me, we'd deplete the entire planet in about 3 years.

3) The "this only applies to the wealthy and/or homeowners" quiz. These quizzes only ask questions about actions you have to have a lot of money or own a home to do, such as installing insulation or Energy Star appliances, buying hybrid vehicles, buying only clothing made from organic fabrics, and the like. No green actions that apply to non-homeowners, or that cost little or no money, appear on the quiz.

The quizzes all come with recommendations, but the recommendations are often equally useless, to me at least. The first type only offers one possible option per area (e.g., buy a dual flush toilet); the second would require radical changes in our society to have an impact; and the third, I'd have to have a lot more money than I have now to do.

A green quiz for the rest of us: Practically Green

This quiz was awesome! It only takes five minutes, but it asks multiple questions in four different areas: health, water, energy and stuff (possessions). They actually ask whether you own or rent a home, they include questions about things that you need to be a homeowner to do (such as install dual-paned windows), but also about actions that anyone could do (such as wash clothes in cold water). And you can answer "not sure" or skip the question if it doesn't apply.

At the end of the quiz, they bounce back recommendations for you in each of the areas. If you click on the recommendation, you can read why it's green, how to do it, and some resources that will help you to implement it, which is fantastic. Then you can check whether you're not yet committed to the action, whether you're already doing it, whether you plan to do it, or whether it doesn't apply to you.

Although they give you about a dozen recommendations for each area, as you check them off, new ones appear (their web site says their database includes more than 400 actions). I love that, too, because sometimes I feel tapped out, unsure how to keep making improvements to be more green. Because of the recommendations, I have added the following items to my action plan:

1. Clean/mitigate any household mold
2. Shop at a farmer's market
3. Sign up for CSA
4. Inflate your tires
5. Switch to all-natural chewing gum
6. Switch to all-natural hand sanitizer

So, kudos to Practically Green!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Thrift store miracles!

I've had two of them recently, both at Value Village!

The elusive thumb brace
I currently have DeQuervain's tendonitis in my thumb and needed to purchase a thumb brace. After searching several pharmacies, I finally found one--the last one they had--at Fred Meyer.

Wearing the thumb brace is absolutely necessary when I'm on the computer, but I was running into trouble because I'd leave it at home, or at work. I needed two, I realized, one to leave in each location.

I checked Fred Meyer again, with no luck. I decided on a whim to check Value Village, which is right across the street. And miracle! They had a thumb brace, open but still in its original packaging and appearing brand new (as though the donor had bought it, tried it on, and then decided s/he didn't need it). It was only $3, compared to the $17 the new one had cost at Fred Meyer!

Replacing a salt shaker and pepper mill
The second miracle occurred today, just one week later. My in-laws for whom we've been housesitting are returning from their overseas tour of duty next month, so I've started thinking about how to repair or replace the few things we've damaged. One of the items is a salt shaker which we dropped and broke. It was part of a 10-inch tall, glass and stainless steel salt shaker and pepper mill set. Meanwhile, since we were no longer using it, the pepper mill has gotten a little rusty.

I searched at Bed, Bath & Beyond, Target and a specialty kitchen shop, with no luck. Not only did they not carry the same set, but the sets they did carry were all much smaller (4 to 7 inches tall) and expensive ($30-40 a set).

I had seen a small but very nice salt shaker/pepper mill set at Value Village, and decided that if I couldn't match the original, at least the replacement didn't have to cost me thirty plus dollars.

I stopped by Value Village today, and the set I had seen was no longer there. In its place: a 10-inch tall, glass and stainless steel salt shaker & pepper mill set. The exact same ones! They were a little dirty but otherwise in perfect condition. And they only cost $5 (actually, $3.50, after I used a 30% off coupon Value Village have given me in exchange for a recent donation). Another thrift store miracle!

Move over, quinoa, I'm in love with farro!

At a conference I attended recently, I requested vegetarian for dinner. The meal I was brought consisted of grilled veggies in a creamy sauce, served over a grain that looked like unpopped popcorn kernels.

I had never seen the grain before, but when I tasted it, it was phenomenal! The same grain was served as a crunchy topping on our salads the next day, and was just as good that way. I asked one of the waitstaff about it, and he told me it was farro, a "super grain" that is originally from the Middle East, but is now grown organically in Washington state. As this web site which sells it describes it,

It's high in fiber, protein and nutrients, and absolutely delicious - nutty, full-flavored and with an appealingly chewy texture.

So now I don't have to eat quinoa to benefit from a super grain--I can eat farro! Even better, it's a local food for me!

(*I have to admit, though, quinoa has grown on me--just a little--since I wrote this post).

Monday, April 11, 2011

But what about charity? Part 3

At last, my long-awaited conclusion! Today I'm going to write about why charity isn't a solution to the health care crisis in our country.

Parts 1 & 2 Recap

In Part 1 of "But what about charity?", I noted that I've worked as a fundraiser for nonprofits for a decade, so I understand a lot about charitable giving in this country. I pointed out that the reason why charity alone is insufficient is because people's good intentions to donate or volunteer are often derailed by laziness or apathy, or are limited by very real barriers such as cost and time.

In Part 2, I wrote about why charity alone can't address the needs of our mental health care system, pointing out that the elements that research has shown motivates people to give charitably, such as immediate needs, appealing causes, and track records of success, don't apply to mental illness. Instead, mental illness is a long-term problem, it's misunderstood and stigmatized, and the likelihood of complete cures is slim--in other words, a very difficult cause to generate dollars for in the world of fundraising.

Health care and charity

Health care is a whole other ball o' wax. Health insurance differs from other types of insurance, which operate on most people not needing it to cover those that do. But everyone needs health care at some point. Only life insurance comes close, since everyone dies--but that's always a one-time payout--which health care most certainly is not.

Moreover, one report noted that half of all americans have preexisting conditions that might have made them ineligible for some or all health care plans, pre-health care reform.

In other words, the only way to make sure everyone gets what they need is for us to have as big a pool as possible, with everyone chipping in. And since not everyone can afford to chip in, the government has to help out. (Many people have made this argument much more articulately than me).

But some disagree. They think charity can meet these needs.

My husband's surgery: a personal example

During the health care reform debates, I blogged about Senator Tom Coburn, R-OK, who at a town hall responded to a constituent whose husband had a brain injury and had reached the limit on their insurance coverage. Coburn told her that she should be looking to her neighbors and friends for help in the situation.

I was astounded. Charity alone can't meet the health care needs in our country: too many people need it, and it's often too expensive. As a personal example, we had very good insurance when my husband had emergency open heart surgery in 2004. We got a notice of benefits about a month later (with big letters on top: THIS IS NOT A BILL) that informed us how much his surgery and care cost: $86,000+. If we hadn't had insurance, who among our friends and relatives could have helped us with that bill? No one!

That's not to say that our friends and relatives weren't charitable to us during that time. They cooked meals for us, gave us some funds that helped pay for my husband's medications (even with insurance, the copays were about $250 a month for several months), and bought us a TV when ours went on the blink so hubby could have something to do while recuperating. But that's a far cry from coming up with $86,000 to help us pay the bill. The average American facing a medical crisis is in our shoes: unable to afford the cost themselves, and without a big enough or rich enough network of friends and family to cover them.

When taking charge of your own health isn't enough

That's not to say that I think we shouldn't do more to take care of ourselves. For example, last winter when I was unemployed and uninsured, my toes started feeling numb and tender, swelling and turning red. Internet searches and questions on online forums about these symptoms turned up diseases such as diabetes and gout for which I lacked many other symptoms.

So I went to the library (yay, public libraries!) and began combing through medical books. I finally found something that fit. (Unfortunately, I can't remember the disease's name). But it was a condition that affects primarily women (check), it first strikes between the ages of 30 and 50 (check), and usually has no other symptoms besides numbness, pain, swelling and redness in the toes and sometimes fingers (check). The bad news is that there's no cure, and can, in its worst stages, lead to nerve damage and amputation of digits. The good news is that the condition doesn't affect any other parts of the body, and can be prevented. The main means of prevention: keeping your hands and feet warm.

So I began to do that, wearing several pairs of socks and gloves on my hands, even indoors, throughout the winter, and found that the symptoms subsided. And I felt really empowered by the experience of diagnosing and treating myself.

But... what if my library research had turned up a disease that required more than wearing socks and gloves? What if it had required some sort of surgery, or expensive medication? What would I, as an uninsured person, have done then? And please don't give me blather about going to an emergency room. Yes, anyone can go (at high costs to us all!), but they treat what their name suggests, emergencies. My condition wouldn't have presented as an emergency unless my toes were falling off. Barring that, an emergency room would have turned me away.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

William Kamkwamba was a 14-year-old in his native Malawi who used a science textbook to build a windmill. His feat would change the lives of his family and everyone in his village. The young man is now a student at Dartmouth. He will share his story at a book signing for his memoir, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, this Sunday at 2 pm at the main downtown branch of the Tacoma Public Library. Visit Youtube to hear more about his amazing story.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A GREAT reason to use recycled paper products!

Because one of the biggest makers of non-recycled paper products in the U.S., Georgia Pacific, is owned by Koch Industries, one of the major players behind the union-busting going on in Wisconsin and other states.

Here is a list of paper products to boycott:

Bath Tissue

Angel Soft®
Quilted Northern Ultra Plush®
Quilted Northern Soft & Strong®
Soft n' Gentle®

Cups & Tableware

Vanity Fair®


Mardi Gras®
Vanity Fair®

Paper Towels

Mardi Gras®

So, how about some good alternatives?

CVS 100% recycled paper products
Safeway's Bright Green paper products
Trader Joe's
Seventh Generation

All of the above are 100% recycled. Marcal and Seventh Generation can be a little pricey unless you get them on sale, but CVS recycled, Safeway's Bright Green, and Trader Joe's are all very affordable.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mmm... more great homemade skin care

I got a great suggestion for a homemade facial cleanser from a friend at church. This feels heavenly when applied to your face!

Almond-grape facial cleanser

Add 1/2 cup of slivered almonds and 1/2 cup of white grapes to a blender and puree.


Because the resulting mixture can spoil easily, I split it up between several 2 oz containers and froze all but one. I placed the remaining container in my refrigerator. I take it out at night, wet my face with warm water, massage a little of the mixture all over my face, and then rinse off with warm water again. Moisturize when complete.

After I use up this container, I'll take another out of the freezer.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Gotta love thrift shopping!

Think it's hard to find what you need at a thrift store? Think again. I often find that I have just as much (if not more) success looking for something I need at a thrift store than a mainstream department store.

Like kids everywhere, my daughter is growing so fast! She recently outgrew her boots, and a pair a hand-me-downs from a friend that are couple of sizes too big keep slipping off her feet. She's also taking swimming lessons, and her swimsuit is becoming too tight.

Boots are everywhere right now, but since it's neither the beginning nor end of the winter season, sales are unlikely. And who wants to pay full price? And where can you find swimsuits at this time of year? Maybe a sporting goods store, but I'd have to call around to know for sure.

Instead, my daughter and I went to Goodwill and Value Village today. We found a cute pair of boots in excellent condition in her exact size for $8 at Goodwill, but no swimsuits. At the end of one aisle in the girls' section of Value Village, however, there was a small selection of swimwear. We found a suit she likes that also fits well (with a little room to grow into) for just $4.

In fact, my daughter made another special find today. She has a wooden rocking chair we bought at Value Village for $7 about two years ago. Recently, she commented that she wishes her Baby Alive had a rocking chair, too. Guess what she found today for $2 at Goodwill? A doll-sized wooden rocking chair!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Is my compost toxic?

I'm always getting green tips from the internet or books, and composting is no exception.

I have two bins I started on my porch last summer, and in each I did something based on a recommendation I'd read. Since then, I have been afraid I've ruined both batches.

For the first, I added a few briskets of charcoal. I read this recommendation in a children's book about going green, which suggested the tip as a way to reduce odor (the charcoal absorbs it).

Since then, I've read that charcoal should be buried as deeply in the ground as possible, away from anything you're trying to grow, because it's so toxic.

In the second bin, I added shredded personal documents. I read this recommendation in several places online, as a good way to get rid of documents you don't want to add to your recycling bin while still intact because of identity theft concerns. Shredded paper shouldn't be added to recycling bins either, because the small scraps are difficult to recycle, and they are hard to separate from everything else, thus corrupting the other materials (e.g., glass or plastic) to be recycled. So shredding these documents and adding them to a compost bin as part of your "browns" (i.e., paper and leaves) should be an ideal solution, right?

Well, other sites say no. Newspaper is OK, because most newspaper is printed with soy ink. But the ink generally used on business paper is more toxic, which can then contiminate your bins, harm your plants, etc.

So have I totally ruined these two bins? Should I just bury the stuff, or are the naysayers exaggerating the issue? (With both bins, the amount of charcoal and shredded paper I added was minimal compared to the total content). Any guidance on this will be appreciated!