Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Systemic Vs. Personal Change

I had this brief exchange with Caitlin around personal and systemic change. We were thinking particularly about how one deals with inequality, but I think it applies to many kinds of transformations we hope for our family, community and world. I know I'm simplifying an incredibly complex set of thoughts, but our question is often: “is what I’m doing making any real difference?” We all want so badly to feel as though our actions have meaning beyond our day to day lives. Of course, it's not just about how we feel-- it's whether there is actual impact. But feeling inspired and effective seems to be part of having impact, because perhaps we remain inspired to learn.

Personal change
My view of social change was greatly helped by N.T. Wright’s, Surprised by Hope, who makes a case that everything we do on earth can actually part of building something new forever. That earth and heaven are not as discrete as we might think. I only a vague sense of what that really means, but I’m convinced that whatever we do to create a more equal, more just world is also transformative for us at an individual level.

Systemic Change
My public health background compels me to add that I’m also convinced that we have to make the good choice the easy choice. And that’s systemic change. And yes, I want to tell you what the good choices are and guide you to them... moohahaha... Joking aside, my ideas of our need for global, systemic change towards equality guides my views on poverty and therefore my politics around taxes and social programs. It also guides my career choices.

In order to be engaged from a systems perspective, I think we need to be convinced that basic equality is better for everyone. We have to live that reality through our day-to-day actions. When we zoom out too far, we lose sight of what the person beside us needs right then and there. Here’s a TED Talk that helped articulate this thought better than I can:

I'd love your thoughts on justice, from whatever perspective is inspiring you out of drudgery right now.

Update: In honour of World AIDS day, here's an article about a New Style of Activist

Monday, November 29, 2010

Reusable Produce Bags from Joyce on Etsy

A couple of years ago, I was in our local coop and I noticed someone putting their grains from the bulk bins into a fabric bag. At the time, I was really impressed, but in a distant, “I buy my staples at Market Basket”*, way. But something about that moment stuck with me. Buying from bulk bins and using muslin drawstring bags seems like a great way to get staples and produce without a lot of waste. So I’ve finally made the leap.

I’ve been looking for reasonably priced, simple drawstring bags for a while and I recently found Joyce’s bags on Etsy. I really like that each of the bag sizes are adequately sized for produce, grains, nuts and lentils. The largest size (16’’X14’’) can easily fit a loaf of bread or a fairly large number of fruits and vegetables. They’re extremely light, so need not cost more at the checkout counter (though you can also weigh them and have their weight subtracted, if you’re buying something really light). They wash well. The smallest size (9’’ X11’’)is still large enough for two pounds of granola or risotto.

I’m most excited that having these bags have finally made it possible to buy staples without producing trash.

I asked Joyce to talk more about why she started making reusable bags, and this is what she wrote:

"When I would go to the market, they would ask "paper or plastic?". I would always say plastic, thinking I was saving the trees. I would always recycle the plastic bags, but then I made some canvas totes to carry to the market. I just had to get into the habit of taking them with me when I went shopping. Then I starting thinking about replacing the plastic bags that the markets have for produce with something that was reusable. I found a lightweight mesh fabric that you could easily see through and made some produce bags. They worked so well that I decided to make some for sale. I sold quite a few on eBay, but then I discovered the Etsy site and opened my shop there. Someone asked me to make a set of muslin bags for them and I was hooked. They have become my biggest sellers.

I've sewn mostly clothes since I was a teenager, but I have discovered that I have a passion for making fabric bags of any kind (shoe bags, laundry bags, tote bags, gift bags, purses). For the first time last year, I made fabric gift bags for Christmas. Wrapping gifts last year was so easy. No paper, tape, or scissors to worry about. I'd just put the gift in a fabric bag, pulled the drawstring to close the bag, and I was done. It was also another great way to help out the environment. I'm making more for my shop and for personal use this year. I promise to let my family and friends keep the ones they get this year (I asked for them back last year). They were just too pretty and I got attached to them."

Visit Joyce's store on Etsy.  I'd love to hear from you if you've started using fabric produce bags.  What has your experience been like?

*For those of you not in our region, Market Basket is the cheapest store in the area.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Reducing Our Dependence on Plastic

Maybe it's the time in my life. I've seen pictures of birds with plastic in their stomachs before, and had even visited the Fake Plastic Fish website before.

This time was different. I found myself digging deeper to learn more about plastic and what it means in my plastic-filled life. I've long been a little self-righteous: "Hey, I use a whole lot less than my neighbor." But I had the wrong reference point. The key thoughts I found persuasive while rethinking our use of plastic were these 1) Plastic never goes away 2) prolonged exposure to plastics is generally bad-- plastic has all kinds of things in it that you don't want in contact with your body.

These are just some of the places we use plastic:

Groceries: Frozen vegetables, all dairy containers, plastic wrapped cheese, sometimes egg cartons, sometimes fresh vegetable plastic bags, all processed foods.
Storage: tupperware! plastic wrap! sometimes ziplocs.'
Gadgets: anything and everything we buy seems to come wrapped in a thick layer of plastic. We don't buy much, but when we do it's hard to get around the wrapping. And then. There's The Thing itself-- electronics, toys, etc, all seem to be made of plastic.
Over the past couple of years I've largely cut out bottled water and bottled soda, as well as single-use plastic shopping bags at the check-out counter.

Over the next couple of weeks, I'm going to try making small, incremental changes to reduce my use of plastic. I want to start with the things that are easy to change:

Plastic produce bags. Tomorrow I'll be reviewing the bags I've started using for produce and bulk bins. Rather than using plastic produce bags, I'm transitioning to just using light fabric bags (or no bags). The fabric bags are also great for bulk bins at our local coop--rather than buying boxes of our staples (which usually have a plastic inner bag), I'm going to try using the bulk bins, and see how it works out cost wise.

Milk cartons: Although 1/2 gallon cardboard milk cartons are still lined with plastic, they contain less plastic than the large 1 gallon plastic cartons. Since trying organic milk, I've been using the cardboard containers. The next step is to reusable glass, which will involve some time and cost.

Gradually, I'm going to try making more of my own dairy products (cheese, sour cream, etc). Many plastic containers come into our house by way of dairy, and they don't need to.

Plastic wrap and ziplocs I realized recently that I use a LOT of plastic wrap. I've started covering half finished bowls of food in the fridge with a companion plate rather than plastic wrap, and it's worked fine. Rather than wrap or put things in ziplocs, I'm using our tupperwares as much as possible. Which, except for a few pyrex containers, are still largely plastic but it makes sense to use them until they are all used up before getting rid of them.

Those are the easier changes that I think will help us eliminate some of the plastic we use in our household every day. And I'm interested in the harder changes too. But I have to start somewhere, I guess.

I found this plastic free guide really helpful for thinking about life after plastic. I'd love to hear your thoughts on plastic and the role it plays in your life.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The 100-mile Diet

A while ago I read about the 100-mile diet, where a couple went a year only eating food grown within 100 miles. As we enter winter (and things get more and more rooty here in Northeast America), I'm interested to hear what you think about eating only locally. I find the idea of "food miles" really helpful-- the number of miles a food needs to travel to get to my plate-- particularly when thinking about processed food, where each ingredient has to be shipped cross-country to be assembled and only then shipped to the local grocery. I feel good about eating when I'm able to eat with fewer ingredients, and our CSA and my cheapness help achieve fewer food miles to a limited extent in our household. That said, eating local in Boston in winter is HARD. Are food miles something you think about? How? What's been useful to you in trying to limit the miles your food travels to your plate (and don't say moving to a tropical climate... I'm so with you on that already...)?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Learning from Somali Muslims

As many readers of this blog know, I’m a Christian. Or, if the label “Christian” comes with too many stereotypes that I don’t want pinned on me (though I sometimes exemplify them), I’m someone who believes that Jesus’ life is our best representation of who God is (that God is Jesus), that God answers prayers, that this is a good thing, and that we need help to avoid totally messing up our lives. I could go on, but sometimes it feels as though it doesn’t matter what I believe. What matters is who I turn to when my baby wakes up at 3am for the twelfth time tonight. What matters is whether I try to protect my money or give it away it joyfully. What matters is how angry I get when someone cuts me off in traffic or tells me how to raise my child. What matters is if I can grow old without becoming extraordinarily grumpy. What matters is how I navigate trying times. And there are always trying times, even if they seem trivial.

When I’m trying to make life changes, oft described here, I’m doing so because I think taking care of ourselves and the earth can be an act of worship. I slip into legalism when I’m least connected to God; when I don’t feel love I try to do the right thing, which feels burdensome and usually looks and feels artificial; when I’m trying to show someone somewhere that I really am better than them, when everything I say I believe says I’m not.

More than two years ago I wrote a post about how I came to be friends with some Somalis in Boston. It seems strange to talk about relationships with “a community”, since surely we are always in relationship with another person, not with a few thousand people at once. The context of that piece was that I had been requested to write specifically about the community as a whole. I wouldn’t write about my relationship with the Korean community in Boston. Because I don’t know “the community”. But Somalis tend to be lumped together because everyone knows everyone. Unlike South Africans. I met another South African in Boston when I was getting an ultrasound once. That's about it. Anyway.

Most Somalis are Muslim. Most Somalis in Boston are refugees. Many have experienced unimaginably hard times. My friends and colleagues are Muslim. For one colleague Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, was clearly about religious observance, a painful but necessary attempt to adhere to the requirements of her belief system. Raised in conservative circles, the feelings I had while talking to her, even if not the actual requirements of Ramandan, were very familiar. Which is strange because Christians say a million times over "it doesn't matter what you do" and then live lives incredibly guilty over everything we're not doing.

But my moment of connection was when a different colleague said that Ramadan was a time that allowed her extra time and focus to talk to God, and feel like God was listening and answering prayers for her and her family. There was something in that statement that touched me. Maybe the tentativeness of it-- “to feel like” just maybe, maybe God was listening.” For her, Ramadan wasn’t legalistic, it was joyful. And I witnessed in her life the fruit that I want for my own life-- deference to God for all in her life she can’t control, hard times that hadn’t taken root as bitterness, and overflowing generosity.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving! Buy Nothing Friday and Small Business Saturday

Happy Thanksgiving!  This past year, Eug and I witnessed my brother’s wedding, welcomed Mr Noah into the world, moved house, welcomed my other brother and his wife's beautiful Ethan, had a visit from my mom, and published three issues of Conferre Magazine (ok, so the third is Almost Out).  At work, we finished enrolling participants in our quantitative study ahead of schedule (something I’m immensely grateful for).  I’m able to work with quite a bit of purpose.  We haven’t really been sick all year.

There were little moments along the way:  Noah started smiling, Noah started rolling, sitting, crawling, laughing.  We tried a bunch of foods for the first time.  We made new friends.  We grew heirloom crops (badly) for the first time.   So a lot to be thankful for.

And a little more Michael Franti: a link to a documentary I know I’m not Alone, from 2008.  

Here's an alternative to black Friday.  In the U.S., Black Friday refers to the day after Thanksgiving, “black” because it’s the day that businesses finally move into the black on their balance books.  But it kinda sucks that on Thursday we’re grateful, but on Friday we’ve already moved on from gratitude to consumerism.  During the time I’ve been in the U.S., stores have been opening earlier and earlier-- from 7am-to 6am-and on and on to midnight.  One year friends went directly from their Thanksgiving celebration to the Outlets, and traffic was backed up for miles on the free/highway.  I refuse to believe that we’re doing each other a service by buying stuff.  We are more than consumers. 
Another alternative is Small Business Saturday. It’s sponsored by American Express, but I still like the idea. Rather than (or in addition to) buying nothing, you could consider buying something from a small business.  Not a’la 30 Rock where all the small businesses are actually owned by Haliburton, but actual small businesses. Where you know who you're buying from.

Happy Thanksgiving, again!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My First Fresh Pumpkin Pie

I made my first pumpkin pie, and I have pictures to prove it. Now you’re thinking, why would I try a recipe where the pie is rectangular and doesn’t look good? Aah. Because it turned me from someone who had never made pumpkin pie to someone Who-Makes-Pumpkin-Pie-While-Watching-Her-Crazy-Baby. And once you’ve taken that step (you can even subtract that last part) there’s only one way forward: to great tasting pies.

I used the no roll pie crust again. Tiff, I think it holds together if it’s thick enough and as even as possible. Sometimes mine breaks apart, also. If any of you are ready to take the next step, the New York Times had this Q&A on pie crusts, in honour of Thanksgiving.

1 medium sugar pumpkin
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 recipe pastry for a 9 inch single crust pie
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup honey, warmed slightly
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream

Cut pumpkin in half, and remove seeds. Lightly oil the cut surface. Place cut side down on a jelly roll pan lined with foil and lightly oiled. Bake at 325 degrees F (165 degrees C) until the flesh is tender when poked with a fork. Cool until just warm. Scrape the pumpkin flesh from the peel. Either mash, or puree in small batches in a blender.
In large bowl, blend together 2 cups pumpkin puree, spices, and salt. Beat in eggs, honey, milk, and cream. Pour filling into pie shell.
Bake at 400 degrees F ( 205 degrees C) for 50 to 55 minutes, or until a knife inserted 1 inch from edge of pie comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.

Now, I felt like I had a lot of pie insides so I made the mistake of doubling the recipe. This had the effect of making my pie pretty eggy and thick. Next time, I’ll follow the directions. Even with this misstep, the results were good enough for me to press on to a next time.

For those of you cooking for tomorrow, and needed a little inspiration, Mark Bittman of the New York Times always has great ideas. I'm particularly into the idea of the Walnut Pie as an alternative to Pecan pie. Granted, the shops are crazy by this time so nobody is going to pick something up unless they really have to, right?

Happy Thanksgiving!  I'll put up my Thanksgiving post tomorrow!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Whole Wheat Bread-maker Bread (Cost: $1.42)

Paul’s comments on this post about eating well for under $190/month inspired me think more about whole grains, which in turn inspired me to try to make whole wheat bread, rather than our staple French bread.  There’s some white bread flour in this recipe, but there’s still a whole lot more fiber than in our usual fare.
At first, sometime last week, this led to colossal failure in the form of quinoa whole wheat no-knead bread.  I won’t link to the recipe.  It’s probably not the recipe’s fault.  The bread is in the compost, because otherwise it might have killed a duck.

The Whole Wheat Bread (my new bread bag in the back)

Thankfully, colossal failure was followed by success, using the recipe below.  You can get a lot of detail by following the link to the recipe that I stole from used.  

Yes, I returned to the bread-maker.  [Someone just asked which breadmaker we use: Ours has been going strong for three years, makes good bread and allows you to take the paddle out before it bakes.] As I have mentioned on this blog, I'm a big believer in gradual change.  From buying bread to making bread in a bread maker.  From making white bread in the bread maker, to making whole wheat bread.  Today I picked up The Tassajara Bread Book from the library, and am already feeling inspired to get to know how to make bread without relying on the bread maker.  My dream is to be able to bake a loaf of bread (or a few loaves, since I guess the oven time might use a lot of gas) without feeling totally tied to a recipe.  I'd love you to join me if you'd like to be able to bake bread.  We can have a little community of beginners.

Ingredients to add to the breadmaker (as you know, the order is important):
Cooling on the Stovetop

  • 300 grams lukewarm water (1 1/4 cups)
  • 30 grams white granulated sugar (2 tablespoons)
  • 24 grams canola oil (2 tablespoons)
  • 4 grams iodized table salt (1 1/2 teaspoons)
  • 300 grams whole wheat flour (1 3/4 cups)
  • 200 grams white bread flour (1 1/4 cups)
  • 8 grams yeast for bread machines (2 teaspoons)
  • Use the 1.5lb whole wheat loaf setting.  
Here’s the Cost Breakdown:
How much would you pay at a bakery or grocery store for comparable quality bread?  I think you can get the cost down to less than a dollar by buying the flour, the most costly item, in bulk, but this is for beginners rather than you pros out there!  I stopped buying bulk from Costco because the brand for white bread flour seemed a bit dodgy (though I enjoyed it for a full year!).  But for whole wheat flour, I believe they sell King Arthur.  Have readers had success asking their coop to sell them bulk orders of flour at lower cost?  
Related to an earlier post about reducing our trash, I read this post about keeping bread fresh without plastic.  Growing up we always had a bread box, but Eug and I never bought one.  Up until recently, I was reusing a transparent plastic bag.  But the bag finally died.  I’ve been using a fabric bag (which I’ll review next Monday evening!) and we eat it quickly enough that the bread doesn’t go off, but I probably need a wooden bread box or a tin or something.  I just don't want to buy one, so I'm checking out the streets...Wherever in the world you are, how do you feel about fresh bread?  And how do you get it?

No More Adsense

Hi everyone,

I've removed the adsense banners, at least for now.  I saw a problem when my cloth diaper posts generated ads about huggies diapers.  Which kinda wasn't what I was going for.

Some of the links in posts will still link to Amazon, but I only mention stuff that's awesome in my posts so I think (hope) it's ok.

This evening's post will be a success story!  I found a whole wheat bread recipe that makes great bread!  Yay!

Monday, November 22, 2010

No More Paper Towels

About a year ago we ran out of paper towels and stopped buying new ones.  At first, this wasn’t exactly hygienic, because I just had a few rags and no system for cleaning them.  Since then, we have a much better system, which I share for those of you who are thinking of forgoing paper towels but who don't have a sewing machine:

We use old T-Shirts.  I tear t-shirts up to rag size pieces-- tearing is important because you don’t get any fraying, which you do when you use scissors.
And a basket to put all the clean rags in
And a small section of floor in the bathroom to put the dirty rags (probably it would be better if we had some kind of container)
We use the same rag for about a day on the counter, and one on the floor.  They rotate regularly.
I wash them all about once a week, together with the mop end thingy.

Changing the Way We Think About Trash

According to Clean Air Council, Americans produce an average of 4.39 lbs trash/day.  That would be 61.5lb (28kg) in our household if Noah isn’t counted, and 92lb (46kg) if he is.  For the simplicity of getting down to 1/10 of the average, I’m going to count him-- plus, the average baby actually creates more trash than adults, despite their tininess.

Over the next two months, I’m going to be writing a lot about trash.  My goal is for our family to have one plastic shopping bag of nonrecyclable trash a week (probably 4-6lb), and not a lot in our green bin (for plastics and metal), for a total of up to 9lb, or 1/10 of the average.  Our paper waste is mainly junk mail, which I will work on reducing in the New Year.  I’m aiming to eliminate our food waste by improving our composting.  When we run out of plastic shopping bags, I’d considering an alternative to putting our trash in a plastic bag, particularly since most food items don’t go in there so smell is not necessarily a huge issue.  Has anyone tried putting their trash directly into their trash can?  Thoughts?

Almost 1/3 of the waste generated in the U.S. is packaging.  A lot of packaging reflects mass production and centralization, which in my bravest moments, is something I want to work against, in favor of decentralization and local production. To reduce our waste, I’m using reusable produce bags, bulk bins at the local coop, and reusing as much as I can.  I won’t use single use items like paper cups or takeout containers.  But Eug can, if he likes, before he gets his kleen kanteen for Christmas.

What's been the most trash-reducing move you've made?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

On Whipped Butter, and some links

A little whipped butter

Does anyone use whipped butter for bread or cooking(can’t use it for baking)? Add some milk to some butter (around 1 tbsp per stick/1/4 cup), blend/mix it up and your butter is soft for spreading. It’s great for extending your butter and not trying to spread the unspreadable.

A couple of links from this weeks surfing:

Man vs. Debt discussed couples finances this week. As I’ve mentioned on this blog, Eug and i combine finances but leave a little space for spending differences by each having a small personal spending account. Any thoughts?

Has anyone tried going without shampoo? I’m embarking on the journey, but I’m nervous about the transition period where my hair will be greasy, so I’m taking it slow.  Today was day one with Baking Soda.  I’ll give an update in a few weeks.

Friday, November 19, 2010

What do you do with your Baby Clothes?

Noah has been growing out of his clothes really quickly, and I'm not sure of the best thing to do with the clothes he grows out of. What do you do? Do you store them, in case you have another baby? If so, how? Or do you sell/give them away- and what's worked best?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Whoa I think I'm a grown up.

I don't have anything left for this week of posting (have you noticed I'm trying to post every day?), seeing as my wheat and quinoa bread is, well inedible. Here's hoping Eug doesn't find out that it's inedible because I'm still hoping he'll eat it, but you probably don't want to see pictures. So I'll give you a rundown of the end of my week, instead.

It's hit me over the last while that I'm an adult. I feel like a child in a lot of ways-- it's hard for me to be selfless even if noone's watching. As I was taking laundry down to the basement, I realized it's time for me to grow up: Our basement is creepy and unfinished, but since Noah has been going there a long time (since he was about a week old), he thinks it's the coolest. Or so I thought. Today, I took him down with me and he pretended to be happy and content, until I wanted to let him sit on the floor for a second while I loaded the washer. He grabbed on to my grey pants as though his world would end if I let him go. So I picked him back up, gave him his kissy kisses and came back upstairs. But in that moment I realized someone completely depended on me.

By the end of the afternoon, Noah had knocked over a pot, tried to eat our palm tree (disturbingly, I kind of left him to it for a couple of minutes, he seemed so happy), jumped around for a while and pulled out my vacuum tube while I was trying to pump a little extra milk for him. He also learned how to do somersaults sitting on my lap. A good day.

I came across Enjoying the Small Things this week, and really enjoyed it in it's power to bring me out of the mundane parts of my day. Beautiful photos, beautiful family.

Let's close out the week with a little Michael Franti, my favourite barefoot poet reggae rapper:
So I let go of a broken heart
I let go to an open heart
I let go of my broken dreams
I let go to the mystery
And I believe in the miracles
I believe in the spiritual
I believe in the one above
I believe in the one I love
And take one step closer to you
I just take one step closer to you
Even when I've fallen down
My heart says follow through

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Homemade Baby Oil

Burt's Bees Baby Oilis awesome but it’s really expensive, and I wanted to avoid mineral oil. So I’ve been making my own baby oil since we ran out of Burt’s Bees. Here's what we use:

Apricot or Sweet Almond oil (about 4oz, or half a cup, or 2/3 of a Trader Joe’s Pesto jar, at a time)
About 15 drops of essential oil-- I’ve been using lavender.
Shake it up.

Simple, good, cheap(er)-- and Noah’s skin has stayed great.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Switching to Whole Grains

I’m trying out eating more whole grains. I confess, I’m more of butter-sugar-bread person than an oh-joy-yay-vegetables-and-roughage person, but my tastebuds are pretty dysfunctional (give me processed food and I’m happy-- isn’t that sad?). I’m trying to make them functional again, and whole grains seem to be a part of that. It helps that Eug eats anything. Joyfully. Anyways, some changes have taken place over about a year, and here’s where we are right now:

Whole Wheat Pasta. At Trader Joe’s Organic Whole Wheat pasta is pretty affordable at $1.29 per pound (although sometimes there are crazy sales on Market Basket brand, the standard cost of pasta is probably around $1/pound). It tastes good. It was an easy first change for us, because there wasn’t a huge difference in taste between white and whole grain pasta.

Whole Wheat Couscous. Also from Trader Joe’s. It tastes good and you don’t feel deprived. This was our second change. Though I often (somehow) avoid couscous on our week’s menu.

Quinoa-- a pretty complete protein source, is actually a seed, but it’s usually also considered a whole grain. We started eating it a couple of months ago. Eating quinoa just makes me feel like I'm living on the edge. Eating red quinoa makes me feel like I should be living in Cambridge and driving a hybrid with an Apple sticker (sorry guys, I'm totally not dissing you). Either way, it tastes like something between brown rice and cous cous, and makes a great base for sauce or frittata or anything you'd eat with rice.

Polenta - made from Whole Grain Coarse Ground Cornmeal. It takes a while to make polenta from coarse cornmeal, but it tastes great.

Brown Rice The final part of our transition to brown rice came out of laziness (we finished our 25lb bag of jasmine rice but had barely dipped into our bag of brown rice). Our main struggle is remembering to soak the brown rice the night before we want to use it. Brown rice tastes great;

We also love our arborio rice for risotto. It's not a whole grain, but we're keeping it.

Bread and pizza are the remaining outliers in our transition story. Over the past three years we started making all our bread in a breadmaker, thanks to a huge bulk order of yeast(Otherwise I'd most certainly forget to buy yeast). Given that we use the breadmaker and I'm proud of my French Bread rhythm, I actually don’t know how to make whole wheat bread from scratch. Over the next few months, I’m going to make bread without the bread maker, to get a sense of how to substitute the whole wheat flour effectively (before moving back to using the bread maker). My first quinoa-whole wheat flour loaf is currently in the kitchen, doing its rising thing. That said, fresh white bread is an innocent enough joy so I'll only make the switch if whole wheat bread tastes awesome.

While I tend to write pretty functional tippy posts, I love blogs that pull off real, soulful, sharing. And I love Tamara-out-loud, discovered today, for being a Jesus follower and relatable at the same time.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Environmental and Financial Advantages of Cloth Diapers

As a follow-up to my post about Elimination Communication, I wanted to talk about diapers, because much of the time, Noah is still a diapered baby.

Now and again, I read an article that says cloth diapers are not any more environmentally friendly than disposables, because of all the energy and water needed to launder them. Then I read this article in the NY Times that described cloth diapers as the Achilles heal of all these hard-core environmentalists. Strange times. But in my experience, cloth diapers
1) Are not that difficult, even with Eug and I both working.
2) Don’t use as much energy or water as disposables.
3) Don’t contribute to landfill waste and
4) Are much, much cheaper than disposables, even when you buy bumGenius, the cadillac of diapers
5) Bring fewer weird chemicals into contact with your baby's skin than disposables.

1) Are not that difficult

Like many cloth diapers, the diapers we ended up going with (bumGenius
Diapers, [though we enjoyed gDiapersbriefly when Noah was tiny] ) go on like disposables. We throw them in the diaper pail and empty the diaper pail into the wash once every couple of days. It isn’t super messy. Noah only poops at home (so far), so we just wash his bum in the sink when we need to.

Taking the diapers to and from the washer takes 5 minutes; hanging and sorting the diapers takes about 90 minutes a week. This is how I think about the time commitment:

i) Time to and from the washer=time to and from the outside trash (they cancel eachother out)

ii) Sorting and hanging the diapers: 1.5 hours/week (if you don’t use a dryer) X 52 weeks/year X 2.5 years = 195 hours over two and a half years. Thinking about what you’d actually be doing those 1.5/week hours if you weren’t sorting diapers is probably also relevant here-- this isn’t rocket science work, it’s the kind of thing you’ll do when you don’t feel like doing anything else, while you’re listening to NPR (because you’re probably an NPR listener...sorry for the non-U.S. readers who don’t know about NPR, I’ll bet if you were in the U.S. you’d be an NPR listener) and watching your little person.

iii) I won’t factor in how much time it takes to go to the shop and buy disposables, because I figure everyone does that differently.

iv) I’ll break down the time commitment a bit further when I talk about cost.

2) Don’t use as much energy or water as disposables.

There have been some marketing campaigns that claim the impact of growing the cotton for cloth diapers, as well as laundering the diapers, use more energy and water than producing disposable (plastic) diapers. This doesn’t take into account the landfill space used by plastic diapers (which I’ll talk about next). Reading these analyses, I believe they're comparing totally different things. I tried making a comparison but the more I dug down, the more I felt like my comparison couldn’t quantify all the variables involved (where/how the cotton was grown, where the woodpulp for disposables was grown, how it was processed, how you wash and dry your cloth diapers, etc).

I don't think people don’t choose disposables because they think they’re as environmentally friendly or more environmentally friendly than cloth diapers. I think they choose them because they think they’re easy, and that cloth diapers are prohibitively difficult. That said, rather than making a comparison I’ll just talk about what’s involved in using cloth diapers:

Making the Cotton
Your babies diapers will be used many, many times, possibly for multiple children. The cotton used to make the diapers will look a lot like the cotton used for clothing. I’d argue that you can offset the amount of cotton used in diapers by buying used clothes for your baby and using all your diapers until they're worn out. The cotton use is simply not that great.

If you are afraid of the energy and water it takes to produce and launder a cloth diaper, consider that it takes around 3 gallons to flush a toilet. Your front loader uses 25 gallons/water per wash. You wash each load of diapers twice so you use about = 50 gallons per wash. Each load will have around 20 diapers (which is often more than one pee per diaper). If your baby was flushing the toilet each time he/she peed (as he/she likely will in a couple of years), the resulting use of water is equitable. So at some level, an ecological decision is actually made by having a new baby, but the amount of water used to launder diapers is not more than the amount of water needed for one person, flushing a regular toilet.

The electricity used to run the washer/washing machine
A front loader doesn’t use that much more energy than a couple of lightbulbs in the house (the argument for a smaller house and switching the lights off!). The energy needed to heat the water is more significant. If you reduce the number of hot washes (for example, we only do a hot wash when we have a poopy diaper), the energy of those additional six loads laundry/week is low. The key here is NOT using the dryer. The dryer uses a lot of energy. We use a spinner (similar to a giant electric salad spinner) for two minutes, to get out extra water. Then we put our diapers on a little clothes horse, and they take about a day to dry. My conclusion after reading a lot about the energy taken to wash diapers is that you can compensate for this energy pretty easily in other areas of the house. The overall energy use of the household has not skyrocketed.

3) Cloth diapers don’t contribute to landfill waste.
2.1% of U.S. landfill waste is diapers. Plastic Diapers take hundreds of years to decompose, and the plastic never goes away. It's unnecessary waste.

From Clean Air Council: An average child will use between 8,000 -10,000 disposable diapers ($2,000 worth) before being potty trained. Each year, parents and babysitters dispose of about 18 billion of these items. In the United States alone these single-use items consume nearly 100,000 tons of plastic and 800,000 tons of tree pulp. We will pay an average of $350 million annually to deal with their disposal and, to top it off, these diapers will still be in the landfill 300 years from now. Americans throw away 570 diapers per second. That's 49 million diapers per day.

4) Cloth diapers are much, much cheaper than disposables.
These are how the calculations pan out in our household*:

Cloth Diapers [This will be significantly less if you have more than one child.]
$17 per diaper, 30 diapers (each diaper is a one-size fits the entire time the baby is in diapers) = $510 (Note that I'm NOT use the more complicated, but cheaper, prefolds. I'm using diapers that go on exactly like disposables)

Washer costs (using a cost of 9c/load in electricity, 5c/load for detergent, we don't pay for water) $2.31/month, $28/year for washer where detergent is 0.05c/load
Total, given 30 months of diapering is about $600

Disposable Diapers
$70/month, for 30 months =$2100

Difference in cost in the Adams Household

There’s two ways to think about this money:

i) $1500/$23 an hour=65 hours pre deductions, 85 hours after deductions. This is a Your Money or Your Lifestyle calculation. It’ll take me 85 hours of work to earn the money I would need to keep Noah in disposables, rather than cloth. However, my paycheck is already spoken for so it would mean cutting back on other parts of our budget. I was happy to pay for the diapers up front, because it means fewer monthly expenses.

ii) $1500/195=$7.69/hour after deductions for sorting diapers. For me, this is actually a good rate, because there aren’t any other things I can do at home, while watching Noah, listening to music, and doing something good for the environment, and still earn $7.69/hour.

and lastly,
5) cloth diapers don’t put your baby’s skin in contact with weird chemicals.
For many parents, this reason trumps all the others.

*let me know if you want any details on how these costs work out.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Noah's Dedication

Hi everyone. Today, Noah was dedicated in church. This is a little like being christened, except without water or oil, and we believe it's more of a symbolic gesture, and a commitment on our part to seek God's wisdom in raising Noah.
I felt a sense of grace on our lives as we saw the congregation stand to commit with us. As we learn how to be parents, I'm so grateful we have help (human and supernatural).

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Weekend and Another Potato Idea

Jo Hunter Adams
As I’ve been thinking about life changes and personal growth , I’ve been encouraged by the idea that in nature, growth usually takes some time, disasters move quickly. Sometimes I want fast change. But if habits take time to form, it's ok-- are we that separated from nature that we need to change overnight?

Along those lines, I read this article, which talks about the impact of babies on school kids. A powerful, simple idea!

And, in case you need a snack this weekend, try slicing some potatoes really thin and spreading them out on a pizza pan or other flat surface. Sprinkle some crushed garlic or garlic powder, and a little olive oil or butter, and cook at 375F for 15-25 minutes (depending on how thin you cut them.) It's simple, quick and good, and just the thing when fast food is beckoning...

Friday, November 12, 2010

Plastic and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

I’ll be talking more about plastic, and my use of plastic, on this blog over the next few weeks, and I wanted to share this video as a preview:

I quote this introduction from TED:
Capt. Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation first discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch -- an endless floating waste of plastic trash. Now he's drawing attention to the growing, choking problem of plastic debris in our seas.

A yachting competition across the Pacific led veteran seafarer Charles Moore to discover what some have since deemed the world's largest "landfill" -- actually a huge water-bound swath of floating plastic garbage the size of two Texases. Trapped in an enormous slow whirlpool called the Pacific Gyre, a mostly stagnant, plankton-rich seascape spun of massive competing air currents, this Great Pacific Garbage Patch in some places outweighs even the surface waters' biomass six-to-one.
Moore said after his return voyage, "There were shampoo caps and soap bottles and plastic bags and fishing floats as far as I could see. Here I was in the middle of the ocean, and there was nowhere I could go to avoid the plastic."
Since his discovery, Moore has been analyzing the giant litter patch and its disastrous effects on ocean life. Through the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, he hopes to raise awareness about the problem and find ways to restrict its growth. He's now leading several expeditions to sample plastic fragments across thousands of miles of the Pacific.
"His findings have gone a long way toward educating the science community, if not yet the public, on the magnitude of marine pollution and its impact on life -- all life."
Thomas Kostigen, Discover Magazine

If you want to read more, here’s the link to the TED conference focusing on the Pacific Garbage patch.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Exclusive Breastmilk and Working Moms (the working mom is me)

Happy Half-Birthday, Mr Noah! I can’t believe that Noah is already six months old, crawling around and generally wanting to eat EVERYTHING. This is an plug for breastfeeding, so it may be directed to a bit of a niche audience. Anyway, bear with me.

I’m hugely proud to have made it to six months of breastfeeding Mr Noah. Breastmilk, vitamin D drops, and a little tylenol are all he has ingested over his first six months (I don't count all the dirt he's probably eaten). Thanks to my friends and supermoms Leah and Bridget who lived the reality that babies just need breastmilk their first six months of life. In those early days, when I didn’t really know what Noah needed, trusting my body to provide for his physical needs gave me huge peace of mind. Although I’m not insensitive to the reality that our bodies don’t always work the way they should, our bodies are made for this! (Unless you’re a man.)

Granted, it’s partially laziness and partially cheapness that’s brought us to this moment. Formula is expensive and complicated. Food is messy. Breastmilk is breastmilk. With the added bonus that it’s the best food in the world for a baby. I had a couple of infections and I don’t think Noah has necessarily got the best latch in the world, even now. We tried to figure it out, but never quite got it down. The thing is, those things don’t matter as much as I have thought they might. He still gets plenty of food, is growing well, and I feel fine.

My experience has been that Noah has very seldom been ill, has grown pretty huge, and I’m able to stay connected to him when I’m home. I know there’s a big part of this that I can’t take credit for: sometimes babies are sick, and that’s certainly nothing to feel guilty about. My point is this: breastfeeding (and breastmilk, if you’re having to pump a lot of the time) is good stuff, even for those like me for whom breastfeeding never really provided a tingly sense of awesomeness.

Pumping has been difficult-- and will continue to be-- hence my building a monument to myself online. Don’t be turned off, I am laying the foundation for a monument to you, dear reader, who is deciding whether to continue to breastfeed. Keeping up your milk supply while pumping- particularly if you have a meeting-heavy job like I do-- is hard. But once I figured out how to set aside three times in the day to pump, it got easier. These are the gear I settled on:
1. Medela Pump in Style Advanced Breast Pump. I got this second hand. I know you're not supposed to, but I did some research and felt like my chances of transmitting Hepatitis B to Noah was slim to none (I can share more thoughts on this if you're facing a similar decision- just let me know in the comments). But the pump is really great. I don't have anything to compare it with, but it's worked really well being used three times a day.
2. Medela Breastmilk Feeding and Storage Set
3. Medela Quick Clean Micro Steam Bags If I'd been boiling bottles I would have quit.
and last but not least (don't be freaked out)
4. Simple Wishes Hands-Free Breastpump Brathis has been the lifesaver in keeping my productivity up at work, and also for not feeling like a cow. Provided I find an office with a computer, this bra means I can work and pump at the same time. I don’t have an office and I have to roam around the building looking for a place to pump. I also asked Eug and his mom not to give Noah milk from our emergency supply unless there was, in fact, an emergency. This way, if I wasn’t making enough milk I’d have to rely on Noah telling my body so. And I think he has.

He’s just starting a little rice cereal, and will hopefully still be breastfeeding for a while (six months?) longer. And I've joined the ranks of happy breastfeeding cheerleaders.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tips on Winterizing a Rented Home

If you're from Durban, the idea of being cold sounds barbaric. Isn't it a human right to be warm? So every winter, probably together with a few million other displaced Durbanites in the northern hemisphere (not to mention the billions of people born in the cold!), we have to face the decision of whether to freeze or burn with guilt over global warming. This year Noah is added into the equation. "His little bum will be cold every time we change his diaper!" On top of this, there's the fact that rental units, like ours, don't have much insulation or interest in energy efficiency. So we have to create cheap solutions to our need for affordable, efficient warmth.

While there's no getting around keeping the thermostat a little low and wearing sweaters, there are some ways we're trying to stay warm, not go broke with heating costs, and use less energy.

Tip 1: Insulate Your Windows
You can buy a Window Insulator Kit from Home Depot or Amazon for a few dollars. Windows, particularly in older houses, never close completely and so you save a lot of energy by sealing up all your windows.

This can feel a little claustrophobic, what with not opening your windows for six months, so you probably want to get a lot of plants. Grow them, borrow them, hijack (rescue) them from random street corners. Plants are your friends. I kill quite a few plants every year, but I may still offer unsolicited advice on keeping plants alive in winter. Stay tuned.

Tip 2: Get [heavy] curtains for doors and windows.
By stopping cold air at your entryway, you'll be able to keep the rest of the house warm. in addition to pretty heavy curtains on the windows, we've put up curtains between the entryway and the living room, between the kitchen and dining room (the kitchen is freezing) and outside the back door. We repurpose the same thick velvet fabric in a bunch of different ways every year. You can be creative-- people will understand.

Tip 3: Insulate around your outlets. Take the outlets out and check

This one I just learned: a lot of heat is lost at your electrical wall outlets. If you take the covers off the outlets, you can put some foam insulation. It wouldn't take much for $3.00 of insulation to pay for itself.

Tip 4: Wrap Up Your Water Pipes For Cheap.
You can buy Tape pipe insulation, or, as I'm planning, wrapping pipes in newspaper and taping around them. This will help prevent them from freezing. I'm not quite sure (yet) how this affects heating costs. Do you know? I was thinking of doing some DIY insulation for our water heater and the water heater that sends hot water through our pipes, also.

Tip 5: Make Fabric Snakes for your doors.
We have cheap woven entry mats (around $1.50 at ikea) that we no longer need as mats, so I’ve sewn them into snakes for our entryway, between the entryway and the living room, and for the back door. The idea is that they help with drafts coming through on the bottom of the door.

Tip 6: Check for Energy Resources for Renters in your area.
For example, Renew Boston offers free assessments (and help) to Bostonians, and renters can benefit!

Tip 7: Make Your Bed Warm (but not so warm you never want to leave)
Try getting something warm for bed. You can microwave grains like rice or barley, so if they’re in a fabric bag, this can be a great DIY source of warmth.

So the point is that you can reduce your heating bill and energy footprint without dying of hypothermia. I hope! I'll track our heating bill here, so that you can hold me accountable. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Step-by-step Guide to Beautiful Free Furniture

I was inspired by this post over at Frugal Girl. I loved the pictures of her furniture and felt empowered to try finding and painting furniture suited to our needs. Up to now I've been an ikea person because I didn't know any other way... I picked up this little cupboard down the street-- it was brown and dusty with old hinges and keyholes. After painting it, it's replaced a bookshelf and table that used to be side by side (one holding Noah's toys, the other supporting my plants). Here, I'll talk about how to acquire and improve such great furniture.

Step 1 Find a Piece of Furniture you like
These are the kinds of furniture you never have to buy in Boston (and, I imagine, a lot of other towns):
1) Side tables
2) Living room little tables
3) Chests of drawers
4) Small cupboards
5) Bookshelves.
Seriously. I see these pieces in plentiful supply on trash day, and they come up pretty often on freecycle, too. Wooden furniture is super resilient and bad looking tables look great after a coat of paint.

Step 2 Find a Place where it can sit for one week
This can be challenging in Boston, where the weather is terrible but you don't necessarily have a spot where something can just sit. If you do have to keep it in your living room, you can probably finish it up in just a couple of days. Try to keep it somewhere where there's at least some air circulating.

Step 3: Take off Doors, drawers and hinges
By removing these now, you'll be able to get a much smoother paint job.

Step 4: Choose a paint you like, and go to it!
The paint, in my case, was free, but if you have to buy paint, it'll cost about $12-14 a container, and a container will last you several pieces of furniture.

After painting pieces both white and black, I tend towards the black. It's more forgiving.

Fear of the need to sand was one thing that was holding me back, because I knew there was no way I'd get around to picking up the power sander. I think sanding is important (I did do some minimal hand sanding), but if it's between not doing anything and skimping on the sanding to get you started, don't stress too much about the sanding. Don't worry about the "right" way just yet. Just try it out.

Thin coats of paint are THE key tip to take away from this post. I mean REALLY thin. Better to paint 8 coats, each 2 hours apart, than a couple of thick layers.

Step 5: Try Decorative Paper
Eug had the genius idea to add paper to the top section of the cupboard, above the doors. I think this is the key feature of the cupboard now. I love it. We just found a sheet of paper, stuck it on using school kids glue, and started varnishing. It took several layers of varnish to start to look shiny. We used water-based varnish, which really helped with cleanup.

Step 6: Consider Replacing Doorknobs and/or Hinges
Replacing the doorknobs on this cupboard cost about $4, but made a big impact on its overall look. I just painted over the old hinges and keyholes, as they were too old to come in a standard size.