Friday, December 31, 2010

To 2011

To treat life as less than a miracle is to give up on it.

I planned to post this article about new years resolutions, and I guess I just did that, but I decided that's not where I want to land at the end of the year.

So instead, I'm listening to Beggar on a Beach of Gold, and hoping Noah doesn't electrocute himself in the meanwhile. Not to be nonchalant about electrocution. I'm a big Beggar on a Beach of Gold fan. When I knew Mike and the Mechanics were dropping off the charts, I used to listen to the top 20 rerun at 2am on a Wednesday on East Coast Radio. Yeah. Alarm clock and radio.  Now I *cough* have the music on my laptop.  But I'm still usually awake at 2.  Anyway, the point is perhaps that we're all on gold beaches.  We should notice the riches between our toes.

I have plenty of goals-- and hopes-- for 2011, and you'll hear about them soon enough. But for now, I wanted to take a moment to share some pictures from 2010.   And I wanted to thank you very much for reading Concrete Gardener.  I've really enjoyed learning about sustainability, simplicity, and where it fits in our life as a new family-- I've loved learning with you, and hearing from some of you.  The internet has the power to remind me that I can connect even when I'm not quite sure of the how to express my hopes.

Now, I know you're not as in love with my family as I am, so forgive the deluge...  Also forgive the reverse order.

Noah is excited over his biggest gift yet... Thanks Tiff and Justin

Noah knows we're not going to be able to leave him here for long...

Noah was a ninja for halloween.  He wore our clothes.

Sam caught our sunset on July 4

Was it ever this warm?

Was he ever this small?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

How Do You Choose Your Milk?

Milk hasn’t been a priority of mine for very long; Noah’s birth helped spur me towards changing what kind of milk I drink. Much of the milk in the U.S. is produced in bad conditions, where cows’ lifespans are extraordinarily reduced because they’re forced to produce vastly more milk than is reasonable. I’m a big milk drinker, but that’s a topic for another day.

The question is: is milk still good if produced in bad conditions? I think the answer to this can be pretty nuanced: It depends. It’s likely not morally good; it’s not necessarily healthy, but it depends on what else you’re eating as to whether it’s healthy: “Healthy” is a relative term, and your choices depend so much on how much money you have. Maintaining life, particularly in the economic north, always comes at a cost, and my perspective is that I have to terms with that while trying to minimize that cost.

Organic milk vs non-organic is not the only choice here. Buying organic doesn’t necessarily mean you can sleep easy at night, knowing you only drink happy cows’ milk. But restless sleep doesn’t mean anything to cows, either. So here are some things I think about when choosing milk:

1. Cost
If cost is your greatest concern and you’re buying non-organic milk, buy really cheaply at convenience stores like 7-eleven or Store 24 (or Market Basket, of course). If the savings add up, use them to try other kinds of milk for a month, to see how you like them. For those of you in Massachusetts, the cheapest organic milk I’ve found is the 2% Stonyfield at Target ($3.29 for a half-gallon) and the Amish Organic milk at some Market Baskets (2.99 for a half gallon)

For most of us cost is a major factor in deciding what kind of milk we drink. For adults with other sources of Vitamin D and calcium, reducing quantity in favour of quality is a possibility. For the most part, you get what you pay for. That said, non-organic milk at Shaw’s costs as much as organic milk at Market Basket. Overall, non-organic milk is extraordinarily, and artificially, cheap.

Before I talk about the different facets that make up choices over quality, I’d like to suggest that, for those of you who are currently buying only the cheapest milk, consider a gradual transition rather than an overnight one. For example, consider buying organic milk at the end of the month when you discover the budget allows it. And then gradually increase your budget.

2. Taste
Choose milk you love
I’d forgotten how good milk can taste. I compared Garelick Farms (1%, non-organic), Market Basket brand (1%, non-organic), Archer Farms Organic (Target brand, 2%, organic), 2% Stonyfield (Organic), The Organic Cow, Trader Joe’s brand (both organic and non-organic). Of the non-organic milk brands, I liked Garelick Farms best. But to date, my favourite brand overall, based on taste, is Stonyfield. I like that it’s also relatively cheap for organic milk. Trader Joe’s actually has the cheapest gallon of organic milk (5.99/gallon) but I didn’t like the taste that much- the 2% seemed pretty watered down.

3. Organic vs. Non-Organic
Research the farm/group of farms, not just whether it's certified organic
If you have access to milk where you have visited the farm and seen how the cows are treated, I don’t think that the “organic” label matters nearly as the farm itself. That said, based on taste, there’s a clear difference between organic and non-organic milk, whether or not I know much about the farm. So switching to organic milk has been my gateway drug: a starting point before I try to consider all these other important categories.

4. Small farm vs. Large Farm
If you can, choose a farm that's interested in serving the masses (no, I'm not sure what exactly that means)
About a year ago, I wrote about this interview with Joel Salatin. I believe he makes a powerful case for small, local farms. The organic giant, Stonyfield, has helped me take the leap, so I’m very grateful to them for this, even as I'm not sure they're the place to land for the long term. I’d love others to weigh in on the debate, as sourcing milk locally seems really important but I’d be interested to hear the argument for large networks of farms. I'd love to hear how we could make sustainable, respectful farms the norm, rather than the expensive exception.

5. Raw vs. Pasteurized vs. Ultra-pasteurized
Consider pasteurized milk, rather than ultra-pasteurized (I don't know about raw milk yet
I’m actually just starting to read about the raw milk movement, so I’ll review a couple of books in a few weeks; I don’t know enough to comment on raw milk. Most milk that I’ve encountered on the shelves-- including all the large organic milk brands-- is ultra-pasteurized, to make it last longer in your fridge. But I think food should go bad. It’s normal. I’ve found some pasteurized milk from Maine at our coop, and I’m going to use it to make yoghurt and decide whether to start using it exclusively.

6. Packaging
Returnable glass if possible, cartons second and plastic last
Glass, plastic, or cartons? Many cities around the U.S. now recycle cartons (Check the full listing here), which makes them a better choice than previously. I’d say try for glass, and if you can’t go for cartons, and if you can’t go for plastic. What do you think?

If you drink milk, how do you decide what kind of milk to drink and give to your family?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Christmas!

Merry Christmas all!  Thank you so much for an amazing year.  We celebrated Noah's birth, moved house, bought a house in South Africa, started a (tiny) magazine, and were extraordinarily blessed by good friends, new and old.  We're so grateful for you. 

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Is Plastic Going to Kill my Baby?

Noah LOVES plastic. I think he’s doing it to mess with me. He likes messing with me. He looks at me with those big blue eyes and giggles right before he chomps down on Mr Musical Butterfly. Right as I’m writing about how awful plastic is, it seems to enter our house in a constant stream. In shapes that make noise and demand (mouth) attention from the tiny-est member of our household. And of course, I’m using medela bottles that aren’t exactly new.

So, in the midst of my guilt over my plastic-loving boy, I was thinking about why, after buying Market Basket milk when we were much richer, I finally switched over to organic milk a couple of months ago. And why I think about plastic so much now. I think there’s a heirarchy, and probably writing about some of this stuff shifts the heirarchy. How could I be writing about sustainability on this blog while drinking the cheapest milk I could find? But our priorities are our priorities. It’s ok. I’ve found that I can make tiny changes even when my priorities are a little behind. I don’t have to constantly be thinking about sustainability if I have a system in place for my fabric bags or a budget for milk.

There have been a couple of times in my life where I didn’t have enough food. I mainly didn’t have enough food because I was embarrassed to admit I didn’t have enough-- my parents would have gladly traveled the world to rescue me or send me money. In Sardegna, where I was a nanny in the summer of 2000, I didn’t have food or money and I was kindof a prisoner. I got really tanned and muscley but I was also exhausted and traumatized by the time I returned to Wales. I remember that was when I started to eat apple cores, which crossed a boundary I didn’t really want to cross (I mean, not other people’s apples, just the ones I had started.) As a friend said, you just need to take the seeds and the little branch thingy out and be brave. In my final year of high school in Wales, all the kids in our year went on “London trip”, except I only had 15GBP for the three/four days (How long is London trip?). Because the people in Sardegna had only paid me 150GBP, and that needed to last me an entire school year. So I walked everywhere. And didn’t eat anything. I was so embarrassed that I didn’t have money, so I didn’t tell anyone. I just kinda lay low. And the all-you-could eat Wednesday pizza at Pizza hut was the key to my survival. One giant meal in four days. At Wellesley, it was a little different-- there were jobs and an amazing scholarship including pocket money and my parents sent me to the U.S. with a check for everything that I’d need in the beginning, but plastic? Organic milk? They were just not THAT important.

I’m not sure what my point is. Perhaps it’s that plastic is probably not going to kill Noah. And that, if I’m thinking that much about his future sperm count, it probably means that life is pretty good for us. And it’s terrible that BPA is in everything and that cows are making WAY too much milk for their milk to be any good, and that everything has high fructose corn syrup in it, but it’s also good to keep things in perspective. If I only have a limited amount of outrage, I want to save it for the big stuff. Or at least link these relatively little things to the big stuff- to global warming and wars over oil. Like a conspiracy theorist. Except the conspiracies are real, people.

When I’m proposing life changes, I’m doing so because they’re what I can handle right now, and I think they DO make a difference. But I’m also going to be resilient and not stress about the changes I can’t think about just yet. Plastic Poisonous Toys from China, you’ve been granted a (brief) reprieve.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Book Reviews On Concrete Gardener

I've been looking back at books I've reviewed here on Concrete Gardener, as I consider books to review in the future.  It's a strange mix, and some make me cringe just a little bit, but it's also fun to look back:

On Food
The Botany of Desire (Michael Pollan)
In Defense of Food (Michael Pollan) Part 1Part 2
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Barbara Kingsolver) Part 1Part 2Part 3

On Justice
Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (Robert McAfee Brown)

On Africa
Saviors and Survivors (Mahmood Mamdani): A review in Two Parts (Part 1Part 2)
Collapse (Jared Diamond) A Review in Three parts (Part 1Part 2Part 3, and a bonus: snippets)
Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
It's Our Turn to Eat (Michela Wrong)
Emma's War (Deborah Scroggins)
The Green Belt Movement (Wangari Maathai)

On Choice
The Paradox of Choice (Barry Schwartz)

On Thinking of Mental Health in the Context of Family
Out of a Darkened Room (William Beardslee)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Granola-Making Basics

Store-bought cereal is expensive and has all kinds of strange things in it, and oatmeal (porridge) can get a little tedious if I have it every day. When I wake up in the morning, I'm on a mission to get out the door really quickly, and so breakfast became less of a priority (I know, I know)...

Making granola is easy, cheap (ish) and good! I had never made granola until I borrowed King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking, which gave me enough inspiration to start making my own.

The thing is, you don't really need a recipe, you can get something great just by eyeballing a mixture of:
Oats-- steel cut oats is better
Some kind of nut
Some kind of fat, such as butter or canola oil
Some kind of sweetener-- such as honey, maple syrup, or brown sugar.
Dried fruit
Another seed or grain- such as flaxseed, sunflower seeds, or shredded coconut.

You'll want to toss the mixture so that oats gets a coating of the liquid mixtures.

You can either toast the granola at a low temperature (200F) for a long time (1.5 hours or more), or at a higher temperature (350F) for a shorter time. It’s a good idea to keep watch the first time you try it.

What do you guys have for breakfast? Does anyone have something that they take with them to the office? I need inspiration!

Conferre Magazine: Food

Eug and I are excited to bring you the third issue of Conferre Magazine- which you can view in full screen by clicking below. If you enjoy reading the magazine, we'd love to hear more from you via the Conferre Magazine facebook page. The magazine is a non-profit free off-shoot of Eug's graphic design business, Conferre

As we complete the third issue of the magazine, Eug and I were talking about how one builds online community, which is something that's really applicable to Concrete Gardener. We have some ideas, but we're beginners.

It's hard to write posts that are helpful and generative, because much of the time I go with whatever is interesting to me. So I'd love advice and thoughts on how to go about building discussion here on Concrete Gardener. Discussion about discussion, I guess!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Planning a Mini-Retirement: Part 2

I'm blown away by how good 2010 was.  2011 has a lot to live up to!

A week ago I wrote this post about taking a mini-retirement. I wanted to share a little more about the idea, because it’s so different from a vacation.

In the U.S., many of us only have two weeks’ vacation a year. We’re often separated from our families, so our vacations are spent traveling to visit them-- over the busy, expensive, travel times of the year. And in many families, both parents are working full time. And this is not necessarily a bad life, particularly if we’re doing work we love. On weekends, and even at work, amazing things happen. Life happens. But for many of us, our careers are not totally in sync with who we are and who we’re hoping to become. As I see it, a mini-retirement is not meant as an escape, but as a means to recommit to living consciously, to recommit to the reality that our present is our lives.

For example, I drive to work, and I wish I didn’t. I'd love to be able to sew and knit, but I can't. A mini-retirement is a time where that can change. We have family all over the world, and dear friends who we haven’t seen for many years. With time on our side, the expense of visiting friends and family is greatly reduced (I can talk more about why in another post).

Even at it’s planning stages, a mini-retirement is an assertion that our lives are about more than our careers or our location.

Thoughts on how to make a mini-retirement conceivable (from A-27-year-Old-Who-Has-Never-Taken-a-Mini-Retirement-but-who-has-conceived-of-one):

(1) Get rid of non-mortgage debt (or develop passive streams of income, but this is harder)

(2) Think about what kinds of things you could do that would broaden or deepen your experiences, rather than compromise your career expertise. Make connections with people who are older and wiser, and in your field-- not strategic connections, but relationships that are valuable and enriching.

(3) Save. A little bit.  For example, if you would like to go on a mini-retirement one year out of every seven, and you've calculated the approximate cost (beyond what you think you could still earn) at $25,000.  Without factoring any interest, you'd need to save $25,000/6/12=$350/month.

(4) Plan what you’d like to learn during your mini-retirement, and how you could do it!

(5) Let people know that you're thinking about doing something different for a few months or longer, and listen to their advice or the friends they'd like to put you in touch with (this may depend on what you're thinking of doing)

(6) Don't make new commitments that would make a mini-retirement really difficult. For example, don't take on new debt.

Thoughts on how to make a mini-retirement a reality:
(1) Go on your mini-retirement when you moving between rental apartments.

(2) Consider staying closer to home, if this is more affordable or you have a mortgage.

(3) Consider staying in just one place, abroad.

(4) Get rid of stuff that’s not very useful to you.

(5) Don’t buy extra stuff.

(6) If you’re a two-income family, assess whether one of you could go without a formal employer.

As I write this, I recognize that there’s a danger in gearing your entire life towards this one event that may never happen. A mini-retirement does not mean more distant relationships, or less investment in the present. I have to be really careful to stay focused on experiencing my commute while I have it, enjoying my work and my time with my son, with family and friends, and not being obsessed with a time when I’ll get sleep. So I think it’s important not to do any of the above purely motivated by a mini-retirement. It only makes sense if most, or all, of the thoughts above fit with what you’re already doing and hoping for.

For example, for the most part I don’t want extra stuff, and Eug had the dream of working for himself with or without a mini-retirement. For us, the choice comes into play when I don’t buy books, or appliances, or extra lotion because I already have enough to last me into 2020.

How about you?
What aspects of a mini-retirement are appealing you you?
What's less appealing?
What hopes do you have for your work-life?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A 5am Work Commute [And Christmas Trees]

Every morning at around 5:30, I leave for work. I drive. I start out in Watertown near Target and Home Depot, pass by the Charles River and through Newton, south through west Roxbury and into Jamaica Plain. And I used to have this lingering sense of distrust of Newton (it’s a wealthy suburb and I have some judgement issues).

But my commute, and the neighborhoods I pass through, has grown on me. I love that Newtonites have put Christmas lights ALL over the trees on the roundabouts, and that someone somewhere decided to leave them on all through the night, even at 5:30 when I pass by. I like seeing the elderly man who is always awake, reading in his living room, and the lady with two giant knee braces who is out walking at 5:30 even though it’s WAY below freezing.

It’s striking how seemingly arbitrary things like a commute can have such a big impact on daily life. Having good music. Having a little coffee. Arriving at work before anyone else. It all really helps me to imagine more than my daily tasks. I wish I didn't have to drive, but things being as they are, I'm content with the way my day starts, and ends. And that makes a big difference.

How is your commute? Would you switch jobs or move to reduce your commute? If your commute is stressful, how do you deal with the stress and traffic?

I liked this article about Christmas trees. In South Africa, people don't use real Christmas trees very much and so my gut reaction was that the plastic ones were better for the environment. This article says this isn't necessarily true. If you celebrate Christmas, how did you decide what kind of Christmas tree to use?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Weaning My Hair Off Shampoo

A couple of years ago I thought I’d try going without shampoo.   I liked the idea of not being dependent on the stuff.  At the time, I was starting to use baking soda (Bicarb, for South Africans) and vinegar for pretty much everything. I gave it about a two week trial period, where I used baking soda and apple cider vinegar. The attempt failed pretty miserably. I didn’t have a good way to get the baking soda into my hair, and I smelled like apple cider vinegar (though I thought that was kinda cool).

So when I tried it again, starting about a month ago, I didn’t have any expectations. I did, however, have a spritz bottle. I use one tablespoon of baking soda mixed with water, in the spritz bottle. I don't use vinegar. I make sure the baking soda water gets all over my hair, and then I rinse.

I confess that occasionally I forget to take it into the shower, and since there’s still a bottle of shampoo in there, I’ve used it a couple of times. Still, my experience has been that my, pretty oily hair, has been completely the same as with shampoo. I haven’t had the greasiness that I feared, and although my hair feels a bit heavier, I don’t think my appearance has changed. I should probably show you in photographs, but since my appearance in photos hasn’t been too awesome, I’m going to wait until Christmas...

Who uses an alternative to shampoo?  Why?  How does it work for you?

P.S. The plant photos are meant to prepare you for my keeping plants alive in winter post.  Which i would post if only my plants didn't keep dying...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Our winner is Announced!

Our winner is announced here.  Congratulations!  More updates will follow.

Noah picks Tiffany

Monday, December 13, 2010

From-Scratch Tiramisu

I began making tiramisu in 2002, when my roommate Lia and welcomed our German roommate Anna to Lia’s house in Milan). It turned out that Anna didn’t really like tiramisu, so I found myself eating it for breakfast for about a week. And I was hooked.

Up until recently, I’ve bought Savoiardi and Mascarpone for the recipe. The cost for Savoiardi ended up being around $6.00 ($2.99 per pack), and mascarpone cost $3.99 for an itty bitty container, so I bought two and already the cost of making tiramisu was $14.

With this recipe, it’s still very much a special occasion dessert, but the costs are significantly reduced by making your own Mascarpone and Savoiardi. The great advantage is that you’ll have most (if not all) of the ingredients in your kitchen already. The main costs will be heavy cream-- the price of which depends on what kind of cream you buy-- and eggs. I divide up the recipe by what you need to do on day 1, and what you can do on day 2 (you’ll likely want to serve on day 3, unless you make the tiramisu early enough in the day to leave it time to sit before you serve in the evening.)

Before you get started, this is what you’ll need:
Food ingredients
Heavy Cream
All Purpose Flour
White granulated Sugar
baking powder
Lemon Juice

Mixing bowls
Two pots (one needs to fit inside the other) or a double boiler
Food thermometer
electric hand mixer
Expresso pot
Optional: Coffee grinder

Day 1:
500ml of heavy cream
1tbsp lemon juice.

1) Bring water in a pot to boil in a pot. Reduce the heat to medium-low so the water is barely simmering.

2) Pour the heavy cream into a smaller pot, then put the small pot into the bigger pot.

3) Heat the cream, stirring often, to 180F. It will take about 15 minutes of gentle heating.  I found it hard to get it the last few degrees-- I had to increase the heat slightly near the end.

4) Add the lemon juice and continue heating the mixture, stirring gently, until the cream curdles.

5) The cream will only just thicken to cover the back of your wooden spoon.

6) Remove the bowl from the water and let cool for about 20 minutes.

7) Meanwhile, line a sieve with four layers of dampened cheesecloth or a handkerchief and set them over a bowl.

8) Transfer the mixture into the bowl, or into a sieve over a bowl. Do not squeeze the cheese in the cheesecloth or press on its surface.

9) Once the mixture has cooled, cover and refrigerate for about24 hours, or until it becomes firm.

The main thing I learned from my first mascarpone attempt was not to worry if the curd didn’t seem thick enough, or even if it doesn’t taste that great. It works out. I had to use ultra-pasteurized cream, even though it isn’t ideal, and it worked out well.

For the savoiardi, I used this recipe. As you can see from the picture, I overcooked them. Again, it didn’t seem to matter to the final product. The texture was the most important thing. I copy the recipe below, with my comments.

4 eggs, separated
2/3 cup white sugar
7/8 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1) Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (205 degrees C). Line two 17 x 12 inch baking sheets with baking parchment.
2) Place egg whites in bowl and beat on high until peaks start to form. Slowly add 2 tablespoons of the sugar and continue beating until stiff and glossy. In another bowl beat egg yolks and remaining sugar. Whip until thick and very pale in color.
3) Sift flour and baking powder together. Fold half the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture. Fold in flour, and then add the remaining egg whites. Transfer mixture to pastry bag and pipe out onto prepared baking sheet. If you don’t have a pastry bag, you can spoon them out. The result is not as beautiful, but since they’ll be inside the tiramisu, it’s ok. The instructions say to bake bake for 8 minutes, but i found that 8 minutes were too few, and 12 too many.

Now you’re ready to make tiramisu!

Day 2

1. Grind your coffee beans, put into your little stovetop expresso maker, and brew. An 8-cup maker is just about the right amount of expresso. I’m no tiramisu purist, but i believe this is the ingredient that matters most; it’s important to use expresso.  Let the expresso cool down in a flat-bottomed container (for easy dipping later).

Zabaglione (cream filling)
2. Separate 5 eggs into whites and yokes. I’ve worked on this recipe to try to reduce waste: many recipes use many more whites than yokes, but then what do you do with the remaining yokes?
3. Beat the yokes. a lot. Add about ¼ cup white sugar and continue beating until the mixture lightens.
4. Fold the mascarpone into the yoke mixture, until just barely combined.

5. In a second bowl, whip heavy cream you have left over from making mascarpone.

6. In a third bowl whip egg whites until you can turn the bowl upside down without anything falling. You want this third bowl to be the last one that you beat, because folding the whites in while they’re freshly beaten helps the mixture hold together.

7. Fold the yoke/mascarpone mixture and the egg whites together- add some whipped cream, as needed to keep the mixture light and airy (usually just a couple of tablespoons!).
8. Optional- you can add some finely chopped chocolate to the mixture if you like.

Now, get out a pie container or whatever you’d like to use to hold the tiramisu (it just needs to be about an inch and a half deep.) Have your cooled coffee (you can add a little liqueur or vanilla to it if you like) and the savoiardi nearby.

Dip the savoiardi in the coffee, very briefly, and lay them, dry side first, in your dish. Add half of the zabaglione mixture, and a dusting of cocoa. Then do one more layer of savoiardi, and the other half of the zabaglione.

Leave to sit in the fridge for a few hours (or overnight), before enjoying!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Planning a Mini-Retirement

I love the countdown to Christmas, even if not the rain and freezing cold weather!

Here in Boston, or maybe just here On Earth, it’s easy to get caught up with life and feel stuck doing the same things, over and over again. A couple of years ago, Eug and I came across the concept of the Mini-retirement, or of taking breaks every few years to step back and do something different. And we love the idea of packing up, paring down, and traveling for long stretches rather than traveling while paying rent or a mortgage on a vacant place. It's been a major motivator in paying off our debt, not accumulating too much stuff (though we still have a lot!), and keeping to a budget. Noah has fundamentally changed how we think of mini-retirement, but I’m convinced it’s possible, even with a baby.

I connect with the idea of sabbath-- of resting about 1/7th of your life, of letting the fields lay fallow one year of every seven. And that’s not to say you don’t do anything that six months to a year. You do stuff. Recharging stuff. That isn’t about a paycheck (though you may need at least a bit of one to get by). It’s about acknowledging that everything you have comes from God, and that you can enjoy it. I don’t mean to overspiritualise the idea. I think we partly connect with it just because of who we are. A mini-retirement could mean so many different things.

Saving for a seemingly non-essential experience can be difficult: It’s hard not to live month to month, especially in a city like Boston. You have to structure your life, and plan for breaks from your 40-hour workweek job. Which is what we’ve been trying to do. For example, if you can get at least some location independent income, the cost of mini-retirement shrinks considerably: $1500/month is total abundance in many amazing places in the world.

Anyway, I wanted to share our planning document, in case it’s an idea that resonates with you. Although we haven't actually done it yet, we feel much closer every month that Conferre grows.

Here are some resources that were really helpful in our saving and then taking the leap to Eug working from home:

In The Four Hour Workweek, Timothy Ferris describes how he reduced his "work" time to just four hours/week. There was some outsourcing to India, which didn't fit with our plans, but the book really helped me think about how to focus on work tasks that really matter, and to think creatively about the possibilities of at least one of us not being tied to a 9-5.

As I've mentioned before on this blog, Your Money or Your Life is excellent at reframing your orientation towards money without trying to change your priorities. Rather than focusing on budgeting or telling you what is a 'need' and what is a 'want', the book encourages you to (1) calculate your real hourly wage-- after taxes, with commuting time, clothes or lunch money where applicable, gas included and 2) Consider financial decisions in relation to the real amount of time it's taking you to earn the money. Apart from giving me pause before making purchases, the book helped me acknowledge the real cost of having a job and what it might mean to be less tied to it.

Man Vs. Debt is a great blog for those of us who have kids and would like to travel. In it, Baker describes paying off their debt, saving for travel, and actually doing it!

I'll add more to this list of resources, as I think of them, so check back.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

How do You Decide on Packaging? Comparing Plastic and Metal. And Paper. And Back to Plastic

By all means please keep commenting on the previous post-- we'll take comments until next Tuesday, and then do our draw (I know it's a very tiny thing to give away, so I'm very grateful for the conversation.) South Africans, you can comment too because I can bring the bag to SA in January. Or people from anywhere, because there's the American Postal Service.

A random photo of our orchid, for inspiration

That said, I also wanted to move the conversation along to a related topic: We’re faced with seemingly endless choices about paper or plastic, plastic, aluminium or glass, and so on and so on. The best choice is “none of the above”, like the way that Joyce wraps Christmas gifts in cotton drawstring bags. That said, we’re faced with packaging every day. And the choices we make do matter. I wanted to demystify some of these choices for myself.

Bags at the checkout counter: I’m getting a lot better at remembering my canvas bags, but when I forget, I either try to go without a bag or I ask for a paper bag, because I need at least one paper bag every two weeks for recycling our mail. This makes sense in my world because Watertown recycles paper separately, and you need to put paper in a paper bag or tie it together. The city of Boston now has large blue recycle bins where you can put all recyclables, including paper-- so for those of you living in neighborhoods that do that, the choice is a little more obtuse. In some supermarkets there are plastic bag recycling bins, so you can also just reach in and grab a few bags for your groceries that day. Paper is a renewable, recyclable, compostable resource, whereas plastic is not.

I’m running out of plastic grocery bags, which I use for trash, and I had an idea to pick up some from the recycling bin at Target or Market Basket. I’m not at the point where I feel comfortable with our main trash can going entirely without a bag, because I can’t trust myself to wash the trash can out as it gets colder (which seems like an essential part of going without a plastic bag).

Aluminium, Plastic and Glass
Aluminium is much, much easier to recycle than plastic. Plastic is man-made: a bottle can never be a bottle again. It has to be broken down into tiny little plastic pellets and turned into something non-recyclable. So while it’s still important to recycle plastic, there’s no endless, closed loop. The end destination is always the landfill, even if it takes longer to get there. I found this website to be a helpful resource: “According to the EPA, in 2008, the U.S. generated about 13 million tons of plastics in the municipal solid waste (MSW) stream as containers and packaging, almost 7 million tons as non-durable goods, and almost 11 million tons as durable goods. However, the overall recovery plastics is relatively small – 2.1 million tons, or 6.8 percent of plastics generation in 2008.” 6.8% just doesn't seem like enough.

Aluminium tins/cans/metal are much more recyclable than plastic. According to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recycling metal results in:
• 105% reduction in consumer wastes generated
• 97% reduction in mining wastes
• 90% savings in virgin material use
• 86% reduction in air pollution
• 76% reduction in water pollution
• 74% savings in energy
• 40% reduction in water use
I was trying to wrap my head around these statistics, because a lot of U.S. metal is actually exported to China, and doesn’t that seem dodgy? The choice is also complicated by Bisphenol A lining on tin cans.

Glass is reusable and recylable.
It’s probably the best choice, when you have it. If you can get glass that you can reuse and recycle in your own home, so much the better.

It’s still hard to wrap my head around all these choices, but here’s how I’m thinking about them for our family, and a few thoughts for yours:
1) The ultimate goal for us is to eat from scratch and minimize packaging of all kinds. This goal makes sense because we're hoping to have a mix of simplicity and minimalism (and to be healthy, and to learn how to waste less.)
2) Don’t drink bottled water. This is the number one easy change you can make for both the environment and yourself.
3) Don’t drink soda/fizzy drinks. If you do:
Use a reusable container for fountain soda
If you only drink in small quantities, buy cans not plastic bottles.
If you drink in large quantities, you could either buy the larger bottles or buy cans.
4) Breastfeed, don’t use formula. Unless you have to, in which case try to use formula stored in glass. Which I realize is expensive, so I’ll get off my high horse....
5) Avoid foods that come in a can. Eug and I have two places we use canned food:
Canned crushed tomatoes or whole peeled tomatoes.
Once every two weeks or so, cream of mushroom soup for chicken pot pie.
I’m hoping in the next few years I’ll learn to can my own tomatoes, in glass. It’s just not a super high priority yet. We’ve only been doing chicken pot pie for a couple of months (since I first learned how to make a basic crust), and so the cream of mushroom soup is the last thing standing between us and totally-from-scratch chicken pie. Trader Joe's cans are BPA free, so you can feel better about getting canned foods from them.
6) Keep reusable bags of all kinds, everywhere. In the car, as you exit your home. Make the reusable bag the easy choice. Where you can, keep reusable produce bags, as well as tupperwares or small bags available for deli and bakery trips.
7) Make change slowly (unless you’re an overnight change kind of person, in which case ignore this advice). The goal is make changes you can hold to for a lifetime.