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.