Thursday, December 22, 2011

It's been a crazy week

Trying to get ready to leave this week had been a monumental task. For one thing, the only time we can ever seem to do a deep cleaning of our apartment is right before we leave it. Last night I spent at least three hours cleaning and organizing the kitchen. I had laundry going all evening as well because I was stupid and didn't plan ahead. It was easy enough on Tuesday night to think, "Oh, I'll just do the laundry tomorrow so that everything will be nice and freshly washed for our trip!" But that didn't leave enough time for air drying, which oddly left me with less time than usual on a laundry day! Even doubling up on the dryer loads (2 washer loads can easily go into the dryer at once, as long as a few strategic things--underwear, things which air dry very quickly like fleece, things we won't need for the trip like our tablecloth--are pulled out and air dried) it took a long time. I had to ask Shane to transfer the last of the laundry. This is the first time I've ever asked him to do it and he's actually done it. Yay! Of course, his plan has been to sleep all day today so that he'll be fresh to drive tonight so the laundry was in the final stages of drying when I woke up. (I think I burned my wrist on the extremely hot button of one of my pants when I pulled them out.) But laundry is done! I still need to fold and pack when I get home.
On top of all that craziness, I've been working 9 hours every day this week to be sure I'll have enough vacation time and I'm flat out exhausted. Not that work is so very difficult, but the time, the darkness, and the frenzy at home has all combined to make this not the easiest of weeks. The dog hasn't helped anything by continuing her rampage of destruction. Last night she kept trying to mess with the towels as they were waiting to get washed (I think she was licking/chewing the dish towels--because apparently that's pure flavor I wanted to wash out) and she ate one of my bamboo spatulas! We hand wash them and it was on the table drying when she grabbed it and chewed it up. !!!! Not that she knew what I was saying, but I told her that if she ate one more thing that wasn't her food we'd be leaving her at home for Christmas.
We did manage to get a new litter box made. The first one we had was pretty much just a box. No lid, nothing. Now, our cat is quite big. He's very long, that is. So he would sometimes miss, and when he didn't miss he'd often fling litter (and sometimes poo with it) out of the box in his efforts to clean up and hide his waste. Helpful, right? Well, we got him a new box with a lid. And he hated it. I think it's too small, so he felt cramped and it's just not comfortable to poop when you're cramped. So he's instead been using our bathtub as his litter box. The suggestion from a friend that we used was to cut a hole in the lid of an empty tote and fill it with litter. We thought it would work because, like so many others, ours is a box cat. He loves boxes.

"Why yes, I am a cat in a box in a box. Thank you for noticing."

I didn't even have a chance to fill it with litter before he was inside it, exploring. When I get home today, I'll check to see if he's used it or not. Hopefully our pet sitter won't have to clean our tub daily the way we've been doing.
It should also be somewhat dog-proof. Hopefully.
We still have so many chores and errands to get done before we go, but vacation time is almost here! I probably won't be posting again until after the new year, so happy holidays to you and yours. I hope 2012 starts beautifully for you all and gets better from there.
And since I didn't say happy solstice yesterday, I'll say it now and leave you with this video of the winter solstice in Fairbanks. It was taken from a building across the street from mine. This is what winter looks like to me. Isn't it beautiful?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Striving for excellence

One thing I tend to struggle with is my constant need to better myself. I'm not really a perfectionist, because I can let little mistakes go. But what bothers me is when I don't get around to everything I wanted to accomplish. Whether it's my goals for an evening (1.Cook dinner 2. Hang out with Shane 3. Knit socks 4. Clean apartment 5. Walk dog 6. Exercise 7. Finish reading that book 8. Play with cat....) or my goals for the year, I get disappointed with myself when I don't cross everything off my list. I create my own stress!
Logically, I know there's never enough time to do everything that I want to do. (Stupid needing to work for money! Grr.) Heck, there's never even enough time to do what needs to be done. (Have you seen my apartment lately? No, of course not, because I'd never invite people over when it's as messy as it currently is!) Or maybe it's just that I don't prioritize "needs" correctly? In any case, it's hard to be so hard on myself. And I know I'm not alone. Are you stressed? I thought so.
This is why I'm enjoying trying to focus on the little things. It's not about how much I can get done in one night or one week, it's about what I get done. I might not have gotten through my whole list, but I did manage to vacuum the carpet and look how much cleaner it is! I might not have done my full workout, but I did take the dog for a short walk and played with the cat. (I consider playing with the cat an ab workout, since I laugh so hard my belly hurts.) Focusing on what I manage to get done is so much nicer than seeing all the things that haven't been done.
Working this way, slowly and kind of lazily, I've checked quite a few things off my list recently. Of course, some of those things circle back around again (how can I need to dust again already?!) but some of them get done and stay done. (I cleared some stuff out of the dining room and it's so much more spacious and clean!) The list gets added to from time to time (thanks to the dog/gingerbread incident, we now have to shampoo our carpets) but that's becoming more and more ok.
So I don't exercise 6 days per week the way I *want* to. (I'm not sure that's the correct word for it, but it works.) At least when I do workout, I push myself to do more and be better than last time. And since I take the time off between, I figure I'm less likely to injure myself. And I actually enjoy my workouts now. I even laugh at the way the dog rings the bell to go outside every single time I start my workout. Two minutes into the warmup she apparently thinks, "Mom's not doing anything important. I'll ask to go out. And then back in again thirty seconds later! And I'll be the biggest pain about it that I can be." Rather than a nuisance, I love that the cat seems to recognize my stretches and comes over to join me. ("Oh dear, that's not how to stretch! Learn from the master. You're supposed to do it like this.") Because I've chosen when to workout, and I'm not cramming it into my evening as just one more thing that needs to get done, it's become a much more pleasant experience and I think it will be more of a long-term thing, rather than my usual "I finished that workout program, now back to sloth" attitude.
I have a yearly goal of reading 52 books. Every year, I tell myself that it's the minimum number of books I'd like to read. One book each week isn't so hard, right? Last year came in at, I think, 53 books. This year, so far I'm only at 46. But it's something I enjoy so I've made it more of a priority on my "list" for the next week or two (not a written list, just a mental tally), which is essentially like planning in mental breaks for myself. I've allowed myself the time to read as much as I want and it's lovely. I put it off nearly all autumn because there were "more important" things to do. And some of them were--"Annie", getting my classwork done, hanging out with friends--but sometimes I think I just dithered and wasted precious time when I could have been doing something important to me, like reading. (Honestly, my younger self would be so disappointed that I can only get in 52 books per year, rather than well over 100 the way I used to do. And to think that when I was younger I always thought I'd have more free time to read as an adult! The follies of youth.)
For 2012, I want to refocus my priorities. I want to figure out what's most important to me and keep going with it. All the rest can be dropped. Becoming more sustainable is still very, very important to me (less wasteful is at the top of the list) and so is saving money and spending locally, but for the rest I'll have to figure out what's really going to be on my list of accomplishments for 2012.

More thoughts on "peak oil"

In the book "$20 Per Gallon", the author points out that one of the most basic distinguishing features between the middle class and the poor are that the middle class owns cars. Now, I don't know that this is necessarily true in the U.S., since I've known plenty of poor people (myself included, back when I could truly describe myself as "poor") who've owned cars. But for most of the world, owning a car is a giant barrier to the middle class lifestyle. With a car, you have more mobility and more options. Thus, most of the world aspires to owning a car.
However, we're getting so backwards in the U.S. that not owning a car (or being "a one-car family") is becoming a sign of how well-off you are. It means that you can afford to live in an area with lots of choices in shopping and transit. And food. Most poor urban areas are considered food deserts, meaning that they don't have easily accessible grocery stores and farmer's markets. This leaves poorer people more dependent on their cars to get the basic necessities of life, as well as to get to and from work. It's a horrible cycle because most poor people can't afford nice cars, so the very thing they're dependent upon is also keeping them in a state of desperation by constantly breaking down and being very expensive to own and operate. I wonder how many people we could bring into the true middle class (as I think of it, noted more by a lack of debt than by car ownership) if we focused on making our cities and towns less dependent on cars? How many accidents each year would we prevent, and how many deaths and injuries? How much "car debt" would be erased in just a few short years?
I think that one of the changes we'll see as our nation changes, as oil gets more and more expensive, is that there will be a greater demand for walkability and mass transit. When gas hit $4/gallon, how many more people chose mass transit than cars? Since mass transit is still dependent on fossil fuels, how much more emphasis will there be on walking and biking in the future? Fewer and fewer people want to be dependent upon their cars. I know I don't, and I'm so glad I'm not. If we had to get rid of it tomorrow, it would limit some of the things we could do in the winter (like seeing friends across town) but wouldn't be a disaster. I'd like to keep it that way, thank you.
I do know that this past summer there was an uproar in downtown Fairbanks over an initiative that was started to make downtown more walking and biking friendly. I tend to avoid the downtown area, because it's across town so it's harder for me to get to and it's a warren of confusing streets. Not fun. But the houses there are affordable, so it's a place I've considered for living. (The transit station is there, so I would be able to bus to and from work.) The biggest factor against that is that it's not a friendly place for walking and biking. There aren't really any grocery stores, and all of the amenities I've gotten used to having nearby would more than likely have to be driven to.
The initiative that was up for a vote was backed by almost all of the downtown businesses, but was killed by the city council. (I don't know what the reasoning behind it was.) They've placed more of an emphasis on building big box stores at the fringes of town than on rejuvenating the downtown businesses and for that I'm upset since it can only hurt my community. And in the long run, I see the steps they turned down as being necessary for my community.
I'm rethinking already considering who not to vote for the next time city council members are up for reelection.
As far as the book, "$20 Per Gallon", it was ok. Not great. I think that as an overview for some of the changes we'll have to make in the future it's decent, but the author takes an overly simplistic view of things. He derides some of the clean technology that's been come up with (wind, solar) and praises nuclear as the best option for the future. Granted, this was before the Japanese earthquake and the disaster at Fukushima. But I still don't think that nuclear is the direction we're headed in. It's expensive, and unlike that author I don't gloss over the small amount of very, very harmful byproduct it creates. I think we'll just have to do better than that in the future. Honestly, I'm excited for the new technologies that we'll come up with to work our way out of this problem. I don't think that we'll ever go back to living the way pioneers did because people are resourceful. We're not going to essentially go back in time.
The author also claimed that electric cars are the wave of the future. And yes, I see a lot of people moving that way right now (or at least to hybrids--I now know at least two people who own Priuses) but no matter what people say, electric cars are not zero emissions. You have to plug them in, and roughly 50% of the country's electricity is powered by coal. So they don't have oil fumes spewing out of them, true, but unless you're purely powered by wind and/or solar, they're producing harmful fumes somewhere. They're not zero emissions, just better than anything else we have.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sunday total

My house is already having an odd day today. For one thing, I woke up before dawn. On a weekend. (I woke up at about 9:00.) I woke up partly because the dog was trying to physically merge with me again and I was crushed against the wall, but also partly because I had a strange dream about decorating for Christmas. My family and Shane's family were together, and everyone was baking cookies, making bizarre and elaborate gingerbread houses, and carving pumpkins. Not into jack-o'-lanterns, but into representations of candles, flowers, and with abstract and beautiful swirling patterns. I never knew my mother had such an artistic flair for pumpkin carving before.
Shane was already up (he fell asleep around 9:30 last night while we watched a movie) and he said, "Don't be mad at her now, because it won't do any good, but the gingerbread you left on the counter...she got it." It was really my fault. What was left of the gingerbread was really stale and I wanted to throw it out, but the garbage was full so I left it on the edge of the counter thinking I'd get rid of it today. Now my dog keeps groaning and her tummy (which was looking nice and lean) is all bloated. Then she had the nerve to get upset when I fed the cat and not her! She's getting a huge walk today so burn off some of those calories.
Thanks to my dream, I really wanted to do something with pumpkin. I pulled out some of the frozen stuff and defrosted it. I pulled out a recipe I've been wanting to try for a while, pumpkin waffles. The original recipe can be found here. I, of course, made a few tweaks. For one thing, I doubled the recipe because I don't seem to have frozen pumpkin in a quantity smaller than 2 cups. Here's my version:

1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup white flour
3/4 cup corn starch (or a little bit less)
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon
1 big tsp ground ginger
Several dashes of the cloves (it comes out slowly, so it was maybe 1/8 of a teaspoon)
A few dashes of nutmeg
2 large eggs
2 cups buttermilk
2ish cups of pumpkin
1/2 cup brown sugar

I didn't make the maple-walnut syrup, mostly because we don't have walnuts. But also because I've moved on to reading a David Sedaris novel ("When You are Engulfed in Flames") and I wanted to read that while the waffles were cooking. Finally, I didn't crisp them in the oven because that just seemed like an unnecessary step to me, but feel free to if you prefer crispy waffles.
When I went back to the bedroom to tell Shane that the waffles were ready he said, "It smells sooo good back here!" After one bite he said, "Umm, I think this is how you should use up all the pumpkin we have left." Good to know. I always like it when I have a hit on my hands. Although, I do have a few more pumpkin recipes up my sleeve that I want to try, such as a pumpkin and pasta dish. But that will have to wait until the new year. (We leave in five days!)
Our total for this week hurts. I keep having to remind myself that we'll be gone for two weeks and therefore won't have to buy groceries, but that doesn't really help since we've spent at least the equivalent of our groceries on Christmas presents instead. (Not that I begrudge the Christmas presents--I came up with several for each of my brothers and Shane had to say no. I had to do the same thing when he got overly enthusiastic about gifts for some friends. "Umm, how much were we going to spend on them again?" "Oh...yeah. I guess I'll have to wait for birthdays.") So the total for this week was $120. And that was with coupons totaling about $15 in savings! (Don't be so impressed--one was for $10 off the total.)
Thankfully, our bill for this week should be much, much lower. Neither of us wants to leave a bunch of food in the fridge to go bad so all we're going to get is some cat food, some frozen fruit, and possibly some milk. (Yes, I decided to include pet food in our totals.) I wanted to not grocery shop at all, but Shane convinced me. The cat food is also necessary, since I don't want our petsitter to run out of it while we're away.
I'm sure we'll be relying on baked root veggie "fries" this week for our vegetables, but they're so good I don't care. I came home on Friday and cut into long slices some potatoes, sweet potatoes, and carrots. I mixed them in some olive oil, salt, and garlic powder, and baked them at 400 for about 30 minutes. I ate a little bit much, but since it was veggies I don't feel so bad. They were good.
Almost 11:30 and the sun is finally starting to rise. Lovely!


Thursday, December 15, 2011

"Peak oil" might be right

I just started reading a book called "$20 Per Gallon" by Christopher Steiner. I can tell already that it needs to be read with a grain of salt, because it was written back in 2009. Statements like, "We could see $7/gallon gas by 2010" seem horribly dated by the eve of 2012, not to mention unbearably pessimistic. But that's not really what the book is about, anyway. It's an interesting thought project where he tries to imagine how the world would (will?) change at different price points for oil. He makes the excellent point that oil is in everything--only 40% of our total oil consumption is in the form of gasoline for cars. It's also in nearly ever commercial beauty product, every plastic, and in many synthetic chemicals. Think that ball is rubber? It's a synthetic petroleum substitute for rubber. (Real rubber comes from plants.) Your toothbrush is made of petroleum, and even most (if not all) of your food has either been shipped using petroleum, or packaged in some form of it.
So what makes me believe that peak oil might be real? Well, there's the price. It keeps going up and up and up. When I first started driving (in WA state) for a time the gasoline was $.97 per gallon. Halcyon days! For the last couple of years, gas has been hovering between $3.50-$4.00, depending on your area. That's with a huge decline in the amount of driving people have done during that same time period. The author points out that in the year 2008, people drove about 180 billion fewer miles than they had the year before. And the price still went up. Oh, not all at once. We might see big leaps every few years (as with the leap from $2/gallon gas to $4/gallon, which happened rather quickly) but for the most part I think prices will hold steady for the most part and rise rather slowly, without ever dropping significantly. $4/gallon has become our new normal hasn't it, after roughly 3 years of it? (At least, it's still about $4/gallon here, I don't know about your areas.) I have a hard time believing that speculation is the sole cause of the jump in price. Supply and demand are still the biggest indicators of price, and demand is still going up.
The more convincing argument to me, though, is simply to read the news and hear where oil companies want to get their oil from now. Places like the Arctic Ocean. I think of that as a place of last resort, because it's so damn difficult to get to and work with. There's no reason why any sane person would think, "I'll drill there! Fantastic!" unless they had no other choice. It's expensive, it's difficult, and it's dangerous. There's no way around those three facts.
Then there's the huge debate about the tar sands in Alberta. From what I've read, it actually takes more energy to get the oil out of the tar sands than it will create. (The difference is that the energy to extract is natural gas, rather than oil.) Even if it's not true, it's still a very energy intensive place to get oil from, so the profit margin is much slimmer. From any logical perspective, this makes no sense. Except that most things run on oil, not natural gas, so with that in mind (and factoring in the idea of profitability above any other considerations) it does make a weird sort of sense to go for it. But as with drilling in the Arctic, it's not easy and it's not cheap for the companies. In future prices, if they're allowed to move ahead with these projects, a certain amount of risk will need to be factored into the price of oil. Which means that prices will go up again. A lot. And since oil is so prevalent in our daily lives, everything else that's attached to or made from oil will also go up in price.
The last convincing argument for me is the fact that several oil industry insiders (most notably T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oil magnate) have said that peak oil is real. Pickens, last I heard, has started a wind energy project. I can see how one might suspect him of fanning the flames of peak oil to get a leap on making his new venture profitable. What I find less easy to believe is that he'd jump ship on a very profitable venture to start a riskier and often less financially rewarding one. As with most things, it's easiest to follow the money. If oil barons think that oil won't be as profitable in the future, they'll move onto other profitable things.
We might wonder why more isn't being done to create a more sustainable, renewable system of energy. As with a lot of things, the answer is money. As long as oil is profitable, they'll keep pushing it. As long as people keep buying it, they'll keep producing it and charging as much as they can for it. It's simple economics.
I don't think that oil is going to "run out", as the common wisdom goes, and I'm not a "doomer". I don't think society will totally collapse because I think that changes will occur over a period of time rather than all at once. Oil won't disappear overnight, it's simply going to get too difficult to extract, and too expensive to use. I'm torn in my hopes for the future prices. On the one hand, people would make many different choices if gas got up to $20/gallon, or even $8/gallon. They'd drive less, be more economical with their energy consumption, probably utilize more naturally sourced things (since plastic would go up in price, too) and generally be forced into living greener lives because not doing so would be too expensive. However, this would also disproportionately hurt the poor. So many people are struggling as it is. What would happen to them? For that matter, what would happen to us? Heating oil is already horribly costly (I haven't priced it out lately, but I know it's at least a dollar or two more per gallon than regular gasoline) and we use it for so much of the year. What would happen to our rent if the price went up another dollar or two?
Speaking of which, when I spoke to my brother in California the other day he was shocked by the fact that our landlord can raise the rent by 10%. I guess in Cali there's a cap of 3-4% per year. I did say, though, that this is the first time in three years that the rent has been raised, so it's basically only about a 3% average increase. I never thought of it in percentage terms before, though. $100 doesn't seem that bad, but 10% seems like a lot.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It's coming!

It's been snowing off and on for the better part of four days now. What little daylight we get at this time of year has been completely obscured by the clouds, and it's never actually been light. Just less dark.
It would be so depressing if I hadn't been keeping busy with lots of fun things! Monday night the boy came over to help me make cookies. We made three batches of cookies and one of gingerbread while watching "Home Alone". That kid gets funnier all the time! (And by "kid", I do mean my 23-year-old brother.)
I've almost finished reading "Little Women", which is just as good now as the first time I read it. Don't you love books like that?
And of course, Christmas is coming up! Drew told us last night at Pub Trivia that for our Christmas present, he's giving us a date to Pad Thai. He knows me so well! It's been months and months since we've been there, and I've been craving Thai food. But it's expensive, so I figured the next time we'd work it into our budget wouldn't be until February. Now we don't have to budget it out. :) And I didn't even have to tell him "I don't want Stuff as a gift."
I finally started working on those socks I've been wanting to knit while we were at Trivia last night. A couple of friends we haven't seen for a while came by and they laughed at me for it, but when that didn't dampen my excitement for the project ("Yeah, socks! I've been wanting to try this for so long!") they acquiesced. And then we (surprisingly) took third place, because we kicked butt at the "name this holiday song and the artist who sings it" category. I'm still kicking myself for forgetting that a particular duet was sung by Bing Crosby and David Bowie. (I got Crosby right, so half the points. Aaaaand...now I have it stuck in my head.) We got most of the rest correct, though. I do know my Christmas music.
On the ListenAlaska website I looked up tons of books to check out and read on my new Nook. So excited! I probably won't get around to them until we leave for the break, however, because I have a couple of loaner books from friends which I want to finish first.
Shane and I agreed to try not going grocery shopping again until after the new year starts. It should be fairly easy, since we've stocked up and we'll be leaving for Soldotna next Friday (or maybe Thursday night). Shane was worried that we wouldn't have enough fruits and veggies, but I pointed out all of what we'd bought (we now have potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, oranges, apples, a pear, lettuce, spinach, and cabbage--that's just the fresh stuff) and that reassured him. At the very worst, we have plenty of fruits and veggies in the freezer to see us through. And this will once again force us to stop relying on the grocery store so much. We have more food than we need in our house.
It's chillier today than it's been the past few days. Unfortunately, I didn't put on my longjohns today because I was too warm yesterday. And then my legs were cold on my walk to work. When will I learn my lesson not to judge the weather by what it did yesterday? It's so changeable around here!

Monday, December 12, 2011

What can a dollar buy?

Today, not much. If you're feeling like your dollar doesn't stretch as far as it used to, it doesn't. There are obvious problems, such as not getting a raise. (Most workers who are lucky enough to have a job haven't gotten a raise since around 2008. Have you? I recently wrote our governor to beg for the proposed 3.5% raise for university staff.) There's the fact that food and gas prices and just about everything else has gone up. And then, there are the sneaky ways that you don't realize you're paying more for less. I found this great article on Yahoo earlier today, about how packages (or sometimes, just what's in the package) are getting smaller but the price is staying the same, or even going up a little bit. They make the great point that deception in food packaging is a long standing tradition. It's one of the reasons I hate buying chips. You spend so much money on a giant bag that's really only half full. For the rest, you're paying for air. (And extra packaging! How much waste could be eliminated if they'd stop doing that?!) But now, it's gotten really bad. It's not just some brands, it's most of them. They do highlight a few that are still putting as much in their product as before, but in most cases you're paying a lot more for that. So not only can you not afford to buy as much, but when you do buy food there's not actually as much of it in a package as there used to be. Is it any wonder most of the media talk about the middle class being "squeezed"? That sure is a fitting description for what it feels like.
When you're getting just as much food, and paying a little more for the privilege, you're generally getting a lower quality product too. Have you looked at steaks in your area? After browsing the meat section at Fred Meyer the other day (just to see) I realized that all of the meats looked so much fattier. They're the kinds of things that I would never want to bring home and serve my family. I wonder what else is getting stretched that way?
The biggest drivers behind food prices are global warming related events (such as hurricanes, tornadoes, ice storms, and droughts--like the ones all over the U.S. this year) and the fact that nearly all of our crops can be traced back to four large companies. And yes, I am accusing them of price-fixing. They might not set the standard for what each grocery store charges, but they're certainly responsible for the costs of seeds (more and more of which are genetically modified and, therefore, patented) and for the costs of running a farm. (Monsanto, for instance, has both seeds that they sell and the pesticides that are used on them. And since the seeds are patented, the farmer has to buy from them every year. Also, the pesticides lose effectiveness over time and so the farmer has to buy more and more to keep their crops "safe".) It's a lovely situation we've gotten ourselves into, where most of us are paying an arm and a leg just to eat. With deceptive marketing practices, it's hard to know exactly what you're getting unless you read the fine print. I guess the only way to fight back is to read labels exceptionally well, and to keep growing more and more of your own food. Hunt it, fish it, grow it, cook it, bake it yourself.
It all makes me so mad.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunday total

I feel like I have a rather grim total for this week: $108.45. Ouch. The worst part is, it's all from one receipt (Safeway) and at the bottom it says, "Items = 23". How is it possible to spend that much money on 23 food items?! It doesn't seem like much, but several of them were quite expensive: cheeses (ricotta, mozzarella, and parmesan) for the lasagna. Apples. Organic apple juice. I also bought lots of butter (and more today for the upcoming week's groceries; I count Sunday-Saturday, rather than Monday-Sunday) because of the cookie give-away at work. At $4/lb., it's quite pricey. If I spring for the organic stuff (which I sometimes do) it's over $5/lb. Oh food, why do you have to be so expensive?
Shane and I ran quite a few errands today, most of them for Christmas shopping. We got each other's gifts, and since we're terrible at keeping secrets from each other we gave them early. I got Shane some stuff from the Comic Shop (don't ask, I'm ashamed :) and he and a few friends pitched in together to get me a Nook! I'm very much looking forward to filling it with books, because I know there are a lot of free ones out there. Pretty much any book which is old enough to have had the copyright lapse, for instance, can be found for free. So many, many classics will be downloaded and read by me. I can also use ListenAlaska on it, which is the Alaska state library program for ebooks. I'm so excited! I know there are some good ones out there. When asked for our input about what books to request and order for it, I suggested books about gardening in Alaska. They had a couple of books about gardening, but none for Alaska specifically and as I've already found out, gardening advice that's geared toward the lower 48 doesn't really work here.
I should also be able to find plenty of novels, which will be fantastic. Some books I want to own just because I know I'll read them over and over (I'm re-reading "Little Women" for at least the 4th time right now) or loan to friends, but some I know I'll just read once and be done with them. Those would be best to borrow and read on my Nook.
Reading "Little Women" is making me want to knit socks. In nearly every chapter there's a reference to the girls knitting socks, either for themselves or for the war effort. And I could use some new socks.... That's a task for over the Christmas break, however. I'm too darn busy until then, and I'm very behind on my reading.
As for gardening, I spoke with L the other day about pitching in together to order seeds. She tried to grow peas this year but it turned out the variety she got was merely ornamental. So the moose had a lovely snack, but the people got nothing. Since I've already identified two varieties of heritage peas I wanted to try out ("Alaska" and "Early Frosty"), and I know they come in packs of at least 100 seeds, I asked if she'd want to split it with me. We'll see if we can get some more people to pitch in. For home use, we don't need nearly that many seeds!
Since it's nearly the turning of the year, I'm once again starting to get excited for gardening. I'm planning where I want to put things in the yard and I have my whole huge list of seeds to order. This year will hopefully be a big year for gardening for me. If I get all of the varieties of seeds I've identified, it would be over $100! (At $1.25-$2.00 per packet of seeds.) So you can see why I'm anxious to get others to pitch in. I've got everything from lettuces and spinach to peas, beans, and squashes. I'll have potatoes, of course. Now the only thing left to do is to figure out where everything will go, although I have a few ideas. This year I'm going to start prepping the garden space while the snow is still melting, when it's rather softer because of all the wet. Hopefully that will save me a bunch of backbreaking weeding later in the summer!
Anyway, the other gift we handed out today was to J&L. We got them a couple of gift certificates, one to SilverGulch for dinner and the other to the movie theater along with an offer to babysit so that they can spend some quality time together. So much better than more Stuff, don't you think? L was very excited. They were supposed to go on a date this past week, but J got caught up in a project and it never happened. Now she has leverage to drag him out of the house, which will be just as good for him as it is for her. :)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Gingerbread house party and caroling

This has nothing to do with sustainability, it was just fun.
We went caroling around campus last night, for the third year. So much fun! It's funny every year, weather-wise. Last year it was -30 so we were all bundled up and toward the end our lips were going numb from the cold so it was hard to sing. This year it was fairly warm (I didn't even bring my winter coat, just wore a thermal shirt and my fleece) but it was snowing like crazy. I brought the dog along (bundled up in her coat and booties) and she barked at people when they opened their doors to us. It was funny, like she was trying to sing along. And since this was her first walk in several weeks, she had a blast.
We went through the family housing first, where we knocked on a few doors with wreathes and Christmas lights, then over to the student apartments. Most of us know people who live there so we knocked on quite a few doors. There was always a flurry of, "What song are we singing? Oh. Wait, what page is that on?!" at every door. But we made a lot of people laugh and smile. People in surrounding apartments would frequently stick their heads out of doors and windows to see what was going on. We made our way down to my brother-in-law's apartment where we did a very silly version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas". We alternately sang it very fast or very slow (EG, the music teacher, directed us for the slow parts) and for the very last verse we got down to "two turtle doves" and when we paused Big D said, "Let's just go." So we left it hanging. When I saw Spencer later, he and M had thought that we planned it but we didn't.
The final caroling of the evening was actually to some foreign exchange students. They seemed so utterly charmed by the fact that there were real, actual carolers. One girl was even Skyping with her parents in Russia so she brought the laptop outside so that they could see and hear us. How fun is that? They gave us some candy as thanks for "the show".
After running home to change (I was so wet from the snow!), Spencer and M came to pick us up and we all went to AG and EG's place for the gingerbread party. They'd made a bunch of yummy chicken chili for everyone to eat and warm up with, so we stood around eating and talking and laughing for a while and people wrote down themes for the hat. The ones I put in were "Little Women" (because it's a Christmas story and I'm reading it right now) and "shark attack".
For the rest, well, I think the pictures will speak for themselves. Just as a warning, most of the themes were not at all classy or PC.
"Dr. Seuss's Vacation Home"
"The Cantwell Chevron Station". It burned down recently. That team took third place
"Victoria's Secret show for the impoverished". They took the award for "ugliest".
"Hippie Church". They got second place.
"Hipster house" with a greenhouse roof, solar panels on the other side, and a recycled materials chimney.
"Gingerbread Meth House".
This was ours. We won first place for our rendering of "The Farmer's Loop Transfer Station". We even put in John the Baptist, the homeless man who hangs out down there with shopping carts full of cardboard.

Cleanup day

For a few weeks I've been thinking that it would be a good great idea to clean up my papers. We've had papers all over the house for a while now, and most of them I didn't even know what they were. On top of that, I had two drawers in my desk full of papers that I hadn't looked at in a long time. Some of them I knew were important (like our lease) but I figured that most of them could be either recycled or shredded and then recycled.
How right I was.
I started with the papers I could see lurking around the house. Mail, quite a bit of it junk. I've signed up for something that's supposed to stop us from getting catalogs, so hopefully that will kick in soon. But we also get an astounding number of credit card offers. It's very petty, but they all come with a prepaid envelope so I tear up the offer and send it back to them. Of course, I also circle our names and tell them to take us off their list. Sometimes, if I'm feeling particularly cranky, I'll tell them to stop wasting paper and plastic. (It's not enough to send us the offer anymore, they have to send a stupid fake version of what the credit card would look like if we signed up for it!) I've mostly stopped getting offers, but Shane's still getting roughly three per week. Once I had them all stacked up and ready to be sent out, it was rather an impressive pile.
That's less than a month's worth. I got a few other things ready to be sent out while I was at it, which will clear away even more paper clutter. And I found this, which made me laugh out loud:
The ridiculousness of sending a paper thanking me for signing up for paperless billing and then telling me how green that is just kills me.
I tackled my desk next. The top has been covered in papers for so long. I cleared it off before the wedding, knowing that family would be coming to our apartment, but it filled right back up with wedding stuff, bills from my nose, etc. It's felt like a losing battle so what harm can I do to add one or two more pieces of paper? I even had all of the response cards from our wedding stacked up. I was going to do something with them so that we could always remember who came to our wedding. Then I realized, I'll never look at it and as an heirloom, it would kind of suck. What do future generations care? They won't know all of those people. That's what we have digital pictures for, anyway. So those got recycled, along with all of the bills from my broken nose and surgery. I've paid them, and don't really need to keep them around. (I have the receipts, though.)
The desk drawers were the places where I got rid of the most paper. Whew! The piles for both "shred" and "recycle" were larger than I thought they would be. In the end, I kept less than a quarter of what was in there: a letter from one of my little cousins, the leases for our current apartment and our cabin, tax forms, and a few other things. They don't even fill up one drawer! How wonderful to get rid of all that unnecessary stuff. And I found some Christmas wrapping paper while I was in there, totally unused. I can dress up some Christmas gifts with it now. Earlier this week, I found some wrapping paper from a few wedding gifts which is still in good condition. Since it's all white and gold with stars, I figure it's appropriately Christmas-y and we'll reuse it to wrap a few family gifts. The other item for re-use is a Christmas bag that's been passed around several times. I think when I reuse it this year it will be its fourth re-use. After all, bags don't get ripped like paper and they look lovely even after many uses.
We still have a long way to go when it comes to cleaning out and organizing our house. But I feel so much better knowing that I made a start today. If you need a little more motivation to start your organizational binge, you should watch this short video. What he says in the beginning, about carting that box around, is so true for so many of us. Why do we do it?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Cookie dough

In case you haven't heard or read a report on this topic, apparently it was raw "ready to bake" cookie dough which caused so much illness recently--enough to send 36 people to the hospital. Now, I've been against pre-made cookie dough for a long time for a variety of reasons. One, the chemicals. Everything is preserved, processed, and stuffed with chemicals to make it seem "homemade" even after it's been in transit or on a store shelf for months at a time. Eww. But besides the "ick" factor, there's the ridiculousness of needing a convenience cookie. I mean, really? How many of us don't have time to make cookie dough? It's easy! No more than five minutes to mix up the dough, and you can do it while you're watching T.V. You're not really saving yourself any time because you still have to bake the darn things, without the fun part. Even better, when you make the dough yourself you can get your kids involved and spend time with them. How many people will let their small children handle the oven? Not many, because it's dangerous. But you'll let them pour a cup of sugar into the bowl, right? Crack a few eggs? How many of us remember doing that with our own parents and grandparents? Why on earth would you take that joy away from your kids? The whole concept is just absurd. It's convenience food without the convenience or the part of making cookies that's fun. The fact that people actually buy into the idea that they need pre-made dough makes me want to gnash my teeth.
My little brother came over last night for dinner and to watch "The Grinch". So I made cookies. They're whole wheat chocolate chip cookies, although I can't remember where I got the recipe. They're fine, but not great. I think I prefer my half white/half wheat plus oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. They're still somewhat healthy, but they don't taste like it. :)
The boy will come over again on either Sunday or Monday because I'm going to be making tons of cookies for the library's annual finals cookie give-away. We set out cookies, coffee, tea, hot cocoa, and such for students to nibble on while they study. It's fun for us to do and every year we get many, many thanks from grateful students. Most of them say that having that little pick me up made what would have been an awful final seem just a little bit better. This year, I think I'm going to bring in some bread and butter, too, so that there's a non-sugary thing to eat.
Also this year, the boy and I won't make the same mistake as last year. I guess I doubled the recipe when I wrote it down. So not remembering that, we doubled the written recipe last year and panicked a little bit when we filled up my largest bowl and still needed to add seven cups of flour. We had to transfer about half of it to another bowl and still filled both of them. It was hard to stir. Between that, the two other (double) batches of cookies we made, and the gingerbread I made we were baking for about 6 hours. It was ridiculous, but at least it gave us something to laugh about! And we always put on Christmas movies in the background and speaking along with our favorite parts. "Merry Christmas--in jail!" With everything going on, we end up laughing the afternoon away. And after all, spending time with family is the best part of the holidays.
Tonight, Christmas caroling around campus and a gingerbread house contest! My friends and I do this every year. Shane doesn't join us for the caroling because he's a terrible singer so it's not fun for him. But the rest of us wander around to the dorms, family housing, and apartments on campus to sing Christmas songs and bring a little cheer to the darkest time of year. Afterward, we go to our friends' house for a gingerbread house making contest where everyone teams up and pulls two themes out of a hat. You have to use one, or both. Last year Shane and I took second place with our "Starship Enterprise escaping from a black hole". The gingerbread and frosting are made by our chef friend, and everyone brings a candy to share. I'll try to get some pictures.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What a difference humidity makes

I said a few weeks ago that Shane and I had considered getting a humidifier, but decided not to because we'd have to buy one and it would increase our electric bills. However, when we went to Soldotna for Thanksgiving, Shane's parents had one that they wanted to get rid of so they asked us. It's huge, and old, and I'm certain our electric bill will go up, but we took it. And boy does it make a huge difference! Just in the week or so since we've had it working we've both noticed major changes. My hands don't get as dry, which means they're not cracking and I'm not slathering them with lotion all the time. We're not drinking the gallons of water we usually need to take in during the winter months. The cat isn't a bundle of electrically charged hair, so he enjoys being petted. The dog usually gets horribly dry, flaky, itchy skin in the winter but not this year. Finally, my bread rises better! I had always noticed that during the winter bread doesn't rise as well and speculated that it could be due to the humidity levels. Now I know, I was right. I made an oatmeal sandwich bread (half wheat flour, and instead of being chunky the oatmeal seems to dissolve into the bread leaving its flavor) the other day, and normally over the winter I wouldn't expect it to rise all that well. This time, both loaves turned out perfectly. Shane and I have enjoyed several sandwiches over the last few days (which is, oddly enough, a treat for me since I love sandwiches but we don't eat enough to justify keeping the ingredients on hand at all times) and it's such a pleasure to know that I made these perfect slices of bread. Yum! (Am I making you hungry? Because it's working on me.)
Speaking of bread, I decided that I also wanted to get rid of our bread maker. I tried it a couple of times and the loaves never quite turned out right. Plus, I just enjoy making bread. It's not a chore, so why would I want to have something else do it for me? So when our friend came over to get the glass jars and water pot, I gave her the bread maker too. Hopefully she'll enjoy it. If not, since she's a like-minded person, I'm sure she'll pass it along rather than throwing it away. :)
Since I'm focusing on reducing waste, I figured I should mention TerraCycle. This is a company that specializes in taking in waste that's either difficult or impossible to recycle at the municipal level. They then turn these items into other things, generally by upcycling. Pretty neat, huh? I'm trying to figure out which "brigades" I want to join. I'm thinking that at the very least the personal care and beauty products one would be nice. We don't go through that many bottles anymore because we've been focusing on using less (a little less shampoo, a little less handsoap, etc.--do we really need a full pump of soap or a giant glob of shampoo?), but I could collect the bottles and send them in about once a year. Even better, I could get a bunch of people to join me and we could send in our stuff together. The only thing I don't like about this company is the blatant advertising. If they're trying to get rid of waste, why are they advertising for blatantly un-green companies like Frito-Lay and Garnier? Those companies now don't have any incentive to reduce their wasteful packaging. I'll send TerraCycle my stuff, but I still feel it's a little ridiculous.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Fake vs. Real Christmas trees?

I'm not actually going to argue in favor of either one here. I honestly think that the argument has been made very well for both sides ad nauseum. (If you're still not sick of the debate, you can read an overview of the arguments here, although it doesn't do anything to clear up the issue. In the best journalistic style, the author presents a few facts without an opinion.) If you truly want an alternative, you can go to this website and make a donation which will not only plant some trees, but also help people in poor countries. (Here's the article I read which talks about it. Unlike a lot of charities, this one actually works with the locals to build a better, more sustainable community.)
Shane and I do have a little (not quite five feet tall, because it's shorter than me) fake tree. When I bought it, I wasn't thinking about, "Is it good for the environment?" or anything like that. I was just sick of going without a Christmas tree. And since it's just the two of us (three last year, with my little brother), and we visit family for Christmas every year, I didn't see the point of keeping a real tree. There's no way we would have kept up with the watering and it would have just been a fire hazard. Also, there's not enough space in our apartment for a big tree, or even a short round tree. This one has just the right amount of girth to be nice and noticeable, but it doesn't take up a huge amount of space.
The only downside to this tree is that it's rather lightweight. We'll see how it does this year, but last year the cat knocked it over several times (chasing the lights and the ornaments) and broke a few ornaments. We eventually weighted down the tree, but not before we had some casualties. Shane lamented the fact that his motorcycle Santa was missing half of his motorcycle, since we never did find it.
Will I get a real tree when we have a family of our own? Probably. I grew up with real trees, and there's just something about them that's hard to beat. In my opinion, they always look better and there's the wonderful, subtle smell. But Shane grew up with a fake Christmas tree, so we'll see how he feels about it when the time comes to decide. If we opt for a real tree, or even a bigger fake tree, this one will get donated so that someone else's holiday can be that much brighter.
The ornaments we used were all of Shane's ornaments from childhood, which his mom saved, boxed up, and sent home with us last Thanksgiving. The only others we have at this point are ones which are given out at the symphony's holiday concert. A local engineering firm sponsors the concert (which is a big deal with three singing choirs, a handbell choir, and the symphony) and they give out etched glass ornaments. Two years ago Shane and I accidentally each grabbed one so we had two flutes, but I traded one with my friend who was in the symphony the year they gave out the violin ornaments.


This year it was a piano. Last year was the conductor, which Shane and I still laugh about. "What, you don't want Dr. Zilberkant on our tree? Why not?" I mean, in addition to the face he's making (when he conducts, he makes faces like the music is so beautiful he's in pain, and they chose to portray an action scene, I guess) there's the sheer irony of having an ornament of my Jewish conductor on my Christmas tree. That ornament is so full of awesome!
At some point, I'll get my parents to send along my ornaments and then Shane's skiing mouse can share space with my clothespin ballerina. I know that some people like to get rid of all of their ornaments every year so that they can "start fresh" each year and have a new "theme" a la Martha Stewart, but I don't buy into that idea. Our ornaments have meaning to us. It's fun every year to pull them out when we decorate as a family and say, "Oh, look! This is one of my favorites!" Or hand someone an ornament that's special to them. My parents still have a couple of ornaments from their first year as a married couple, and even more sentimental ones which belonged to their parents (who have all passed away). No amount of professional decorating or "perfect" coordination can make any Christmas tree more special than using our old, sometimes shabby, ornaments. Who needs new ones every year when we have boxes of meaningful ones to hang? Even the oldest, with its chipping paint, looks beautiful hanging on the tree. That ballerina I mentioned? My mom bought it for me (after a little bit of wheedling and begging) when we were at the Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker" with dear friends. I get to remember how much fun that was every time I see that ornament. I have so many wonderful memories of Christmas, and the tree is a big part of that.
Speaking of Christmas, I found this heartbreaking article about how little kids are asking for themselves for Christmas. Most of what they're asking for are things like "jobs for mommy and daddy" and food. It makes me want to cry. No child should ever have to wish for enough to eat, or heat, or shelter as their Christmas gift.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

In trade

Shane and I have continued our obsession with hot mulled cider. We've been buying lovely organic cider, which comes in 3 quart glass jars. They're a wonderful size and I'm sure they're useful for something, but I couldn't think of what to use them for in our house other than Shane's cold-pressed coffee. (The cold pressing doesn't have as much acid, so it's better for his stomach.) But we don't need as many jars for that as we have, and the collection is growing. What to do with the rest? I hate to waste them.
We also got another wedding present the other day. From my brother and sister-in-law. (I sent theirs really late, too!) They sent a lovely electric kettle, which is stainless steel and about three times larger than our old plastic one. I bought that one for my dorm room, and wanted a small one so that it would pack into my suitcase nicely when it needed to. Nice for the dorms, inconvenient now for two people who go through a surprising amount of hot water. I've already used it quite a few times and it's a lovely addition to our kitchen supplies.
It also left me with the quandary of what to do with the old kettle? The obvious answer was, give it away. If no one of my acquaintance wanted it, I could always stuff it in my give-away bag. So I posted on Facebook about it, and while I was at it I asked if any cabin dwellers wanted some glass jugs to hold water. In less than five minutes, a friend responded that she wanted both! So we made plans for her to come get them. Another friend, seeing our FB back-and-forths, asked friend one if she could also drop off a bowl that friend two had left at her cabin? That way she could just get the bowl from me since we see each other far more often than they do. That is very much a win, in my opinion.
I'm constantly looking at our stuff and trying to figure out what's useful and what's just Stuff. What can I get rid of? A few things which I'd be happy to part with (like our panther coffee table, which is pretty useless as a coffee table, since the top isn't connected to the base and it's constantly in danger of tipping over) I'm not sure Shane would be as happy about getting rid of. Currently, the coffee table acts more as a shield to keep the dog away from the litter box. It just takes up space, gathers dust, and yes, keeps the dog from eating disgusting things. (There's literally no other place in our apartment to put a litter box except the corner. Our bathroom is too small, the cat can't get into the garage, etc.) But I'm sure we could find something else to do that and get rid of that ugly table, which we never use. A friend of ours had an idea for turning a plastic tote into a giant litter box, but I haven't brought the idea up with Shane yet.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Sunday...er, Monday Total

Honestly, I just didn't feel like doing a weekly tally yesterday. I tried, but blogger bugged out and since I was in a bad mood (the stupid dog is eating anything that's not nailed down, including my food when I'm silly enough to leave it within her reach for all of one second) I decided that I'd forget about it for the time being. And immerse myself in Christmas-y glory. It was the holiday concert yesterday (fun!) and we put up our little (fake) tree. In addition, during the evening I turned on "The Muppet Christmas Carol" and made gingerbread. Well, what was left of it after I ate roughly a pound of dough. I made two pans of it, and unfortunately one of them is burnt. I was going to send that along with Shane to visit a professor (who I know loves gingerbread) but I'll have to make a new one. I'm sure we'll find some way to use up the gingerbread. It's too tasty to waste, even when it's burned! (Also, expensive! My recipe calls for 1 cup of molasses for each batch. Two batches nearly killed my jar.)
I mentioned to Shane last night that it would be fun to have my brother over for dinner, since we haven't invited him over recently. Shane said, "You just want to watch 'The Grinch' with him, don't you?" MIND READER! When I just sat laughing silently Shane added, "Yeah, that's right. I can read you like a book."
So our total for last week is pretty impressive: about $40. We didn't have to buy any fruit, since my MIL bought us two boxes of mandarin oranges (they're $10/box around here, and only $5.60/box on the peninsula) and we had plenty of meat, some previously purchased and frozen veggies, etc. The only stuff we bought were things like coffee, milk and butter.
This week will not be so good, since we're now almost out of food in the house. At least, food to make a meal out of. I'm not going to eat plain lasagna noodles or frozen and shredded zucchini.
The winter storm that was supposed to ravage the interior actually isn't so bad. At least, for me. It got up to about 40 above yesterday (meaning 80 degrees warmer than it was two weeks ago) due to the Chinook winds so everything started melting and it's made the roads just awful. At the concert yesterday, I heard one family saying that they'd brought overnight bags in case they couldn't make it back out to their house for the night. The district cancelled school for today so that families don't have to brave the iciness, but the university is still open. I'm of two minds about this. I was perfectly able to get to work today (unlike the ice storm last Thanksgiving, when it was dangerous and difficult for me to walk), but most people don't walk, they drive. And there's no denying that the icy roads are dangerous. Even the walking made me thankful that I'm young, since I slipped (and caught myself) a few times--I'm not worried about breaking bones, but I know that's a serious danger for older people. Even walking to and from their vehicles can be dangerous on the ice. So in that regard, I disagree with the chancellor and think the university should be closed. But I also know some students are thankful that it's open because they have campus jobs and need the money. I shouldn't be selfish and hope for campus to close because I want an extra day off. (If campus closes due to the weather, staff and faculty would get paid administrative leave. Student workers wouldn't, I don't think.)
It's cooled down again, now. Not super cold, but the wind is still blowing (and not the lovely Chinook wind, which feels warmer than the rest of the air when it's blowing) and it was a chilly walk this morning. I ended up wrapping my scarf around my head like an old woman to keep my ears warm. I'm pretty sure I looked ridiculous.
Waking up at 6:45 after sleeping in until 11:00 the day before is just miserable. Not because I couldn't get to sleep last night, but because I hate waking up in the dark. At nearly 11:00 right now it's still plenty dark outside, and yesterday I decided that I wanted to have at least one day of the week when I didn't wake up until it was daylight. The cloud cover sort of ruined my dream of waking up to sunshine. Sun, please come back!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Stormy days

I read about the huge wind storm that whipped through the Southwestern U.S. the other day. My brother and sister-in-law live in L.A. so I spent a good amount of time texting them yesterday to be sure everyone was ok. Apparently, their apartment is rather sheltered so they didn't get the brunt of the storm. They did, however, get to see someone else's rain gutter come flying into their yard. Other than that, the cats went crazy but all was well.
So now it's our turn. There's a big storm brewing for Alaska that could dump 1-2 feet of snow. We're not actually used to that in the interior (that's more like Valdez's snowfalls) so it should be interesting. Add the wind to it and "blizzard-like" conditions and I'm not quite sure what's going to happen. But you know that if they're telling everyone to only drive in emergencies, and warning that there might be road closures, this is going to be one heck of a storm.
The only real downside that I see to this is that it's been dark the past couple of days. Even when the sun is up, the cloud cover is so thick that it's not very light. It's really been getting me down. I hate that the light affects me so much, but it really does. And I'm not the only one. I was talking with a friend last night who was saying that he and his roommate have been very snappish with each other. Shane's been cranky and downright unpleasant to be around at times. I've been short-tempered with the dog (who, admittedly has been a brat--she did try to eat that frozen meat outside, despite Shane's claims that she shouldn't be able to smell it!) and tired. I can't wait for the sun to come back. I think I'll throw on some Christmas carols then curl up with a good book and some tea to cheer myself up.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Apparently, Marie Calendar's and I have different definitions...

of "homemade". I was watching some awful Christmas movie on Hulu earlier (don't ask) and there kept coming up a commercial for Marie Calendar's pie. I couldn't find it on Youtube, but I'm sure watching some smarmy movie on Hulu is a quick way to see it. Anyway, they claim that eating their "homemade" (or was it "home baked"?) pie is an amazing "tradition" for the holidays. Ummm, where are they getting their definition of homemade? Since when is a factory "home"? And even if they went for "home baked" rather than homemade, buying something frozen and then putting it in the oven doesn't make it a home product and it's pathetic for advertisers to try making it seem like it is. I don't load my homemade pies with preservatives. Do you? Marie Calendar's should be ashamed, and I'm so glad I never buy stuff from them.
I'm certain that there's never really been such a thing as "truth in advertising", but this Christmas the advertisers seem to be hitting new lows. Also, it reminded me why I hate watching Hulu.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A step in the right direction

The Fairbanks Symphony holiday concert is this weekend. Hurray! It's the only real fundraising concert because it's the only one that sells out (despite the tickets being $30--ouch!) and it's just really fun to do. I think I've stated before how much I love Christmas music. In addition, one of my good friends is in the choir that will be joining us so I got to laugh at how chastened he looked when the conductor scolded the choir. "I was told that this is sight-readable music. You do know what Christmas carols sound like, don't you? Then why are you all singing different things?" Concert week is always stressful for the conductor, and every one I've ever played for can get rather cutting the week of the concert. I think Dr. Z sounds even angrier because he's Russian. I was just happy that he was happy with the orchestra. We would have heard otherwise if he wasn't, and he wouldn't have been as gentle with us as he was with the choir. :)
The rehearsals are 3 hours, which on a Tuesday night can make life really hectic. I only have half an hour after getting home before I'm rushing out the door again. So dinner has to be ready and I need to gather my gear (music, violin) quickly. It's totally worth it, don't worry.
But because the rehearsals are so long, and it's difficult to concentrate so hard for that long, there's a break in the middle when people can get coffee and tea, and there's usually coffee cake and/or cookies to nibble on. (The sugar really helps to keep energy up for the second half.) Naturally, since no one's going to do all of the dishes for the hundred + orchestra members, there are disposable napkins and Styrofoam cups. The napkins are easily avoided, since I'm going to be eating the cookies right away and I keep rags in my case for cleaning off my instrument. (So I don't get grease and crumbs on my violin.) And you'd think that the disposable cups would be easy to avoid as well, but that requires me remembering to bring an alternative. When I've only got half an hour at home, that could be not so easy for me. However, I've been doing it. Last year I'd either have to not drink anything at the break (which meant flagging energy during the second half, or being inattentive due to thirst) or to berate myself for using the Styrofoam. I was determined to do better this year, and I am. I think I'm finally getting into the habit of remembering to bring a mason jar with me to hold tea. The only downside to this is that the jar gets very hot, so I'll have to make myself a little jar cosie. I should be able to crochet one in about an hour.
What made me feel really good about remembering this last night, though, was that someone else noticed. One of the trumpet players was in line for hot water behind me and as I was filling up my jar he said, "Ah, you brought the green alternative to Styrofoam. [pause] I did not." I got someone else thinking about their choices without having to say a word! So I smiled at him, nodded, and said, "And this holds more." I hope that I can subtly inspire others this way.
In other positive news, my plan to propagate as many plants at work as possible is really taking off. We have four new jade plant starts, and the begonia start, which I was afraid I'd killed, has perked up now that it's got roots started. So I'll plant that just after Christmas. (If I plant before, no one will be here to water it.) We'll continue to have a very green library even after the botanical gardens take their plants back.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Haircuts

The past couple of weeks have been big in the home hair-cutting department. I kicked it off two weeks ago by cutting my hair. I hadn't had a haircut since last Christmas (partly to grow out my hair for the wedding) and I was sick of how ragged it was looking and feeling. I just wanted something chin-length again, but didn't want to pay around $50-60 to get it done. (I realize there are cheaper options, but the last time I got a "discount" haircut I hated it. It was the worst haircut I've ever had.) So I took out our kitchen shears and did it myself. Of course, this involved lots of running back to the bedroom to ask Shane, "Is it straight in back?" And over the next few days I had to trim ends which somehow had been missed. But it's not bad. I even managed to get in a tiny bit of layering by parting my hair in different ways. Not bad for only the second time I've ever cut my hair. I even got a few compliments on it the next day.
One of the "chores" which Spencer and his girlfriend wanted to take care of over Thanksgiving weekend was shaving my in-laws' dog. This got us into a discussion of why Shane and I still take Pepper to the groomers and I pointed out that I cut my own hair, but pay for the dog to get a professional haircut. Spencer answered, "Yeah, but there are so many things I'd buy for my dog if I had one that I wouldn't buy for myself." I said, "Like squeaky toys?" and got a laugh out of him.
So Ranger was the next to get a home haircut and he looked much better for it. Although, he was quite a bit front-heavy. He had double knee surgery just over a month ago for "wandering kneecaps" (he's young, or the vet wouldn't have done it--it's a quality of life issue) so his back legs are still sore and the muscles have atrophied. (He's getting much better, and we gave him plenty of gentle exercise over the weekend.) Combine that with the fact that he won't let the clippers near his head, so he ended up looking a bit like a lion, and it was funny in a sad way. (He's a cavalier King Charles spaniel, by the way.)
Since the clippers were out, and Shane hadn't visited the only hairdresser he'll consent to see, he was up next and we just shaved his hair short. It doesn't look great on him at this length but it will grow fast. I really hope that it has a chance to grow out before he goes for an interview!
Finally, Spencer decided that his hair was getting "out of control" (at less than 2 inches long) so his girlfriend cut his hair.We kept teasing my little brother that he was next, but the boy insisted that his hair helps keep him warm. He tends to shave his head three times per year--once at the beginning of each semester, and once at the beginning of summer. It doesn't look the greatest on him, but I don't think he really cares about that. And when it grows out it does look quite nice.
You might wonder what to do with all of the hair after a home haircut, but the answer is simple: compost. It can all go into a home compost pile just fine, as can nail clippings. All of the hair that got cut in Soldotna went into the garbage, since my in-laws don't have a compost pile right now. But all of my hair went out to my compost after I showed the pile to Shane (I cut off about six-seven inches) and asked, "Want to make a wig?" I got a very definite "Ew!" response. It was also neat to actually see my hair and all the different colors in it. Since I only have a limited view of my hair, I tend to think of it as being all one color--dirt brown--but it's not. I actually think I like my hair better now for having seen it differently, and I don't mean the haircut.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Midwinter food additions

My in-laws are completely incapable of sending us home without tons of food. Don't get me wrong, this is not a complaint. In fact, when I know they have excess, I ask for some of it.
So we now have two coolers on our back porch full of more fish and more moose meat (mostly ground, with a couple of roasts to top it off). We also got an enormous grocery bag full of potatoes. At Christmas, we'll see how all of this is doing and get more if necessary.
Shane's dad was worried about if we'd have enough freezer space for it. Shane laughed and said, "Dad, it's Fairbanks. My freezer is bigger than the house." In most parts of Alaska, there's the worry about bears if food is left outside. However, Fairbanks is magically situated so that most black and brown bears stay south of us, but polar bears are still way north. Of course, foxes are still a problem (the last time I was at the feed store, someone was buying a fox trap) and in the outlying areas wolves can also be pesky. But here in town, in a fenced backyard, our food should be fine. The only pest we have to worry about is the dog, who was sniffing it interestedly this morning. When I told Shane to keep an eye on her he said, "But it's frozen! Not much smell should be coming off of it. Are you sure she's not just curious?" I answered, "It's Pepper. She smells the food."
Since it's in coolers, we don't have to worry about it getting too frozen either.
I have thought that someday it might be nice to put our chest freezer on wheels so that we can roll it outside during the winter and then don't have to pay the electricity to keep it going. There's a lock on it, so we wouldn't have to worry about having our stored food stolen. But I'm not sure how good that would be for the freezer, and we couldn't do that right now because the back door isn't big enough. The other option is that if we have a garage of our own we can stick it out there, where it at least won't have to work as hard to stay cool.
We don't keep all of our food on the back porch for several reasons. I already listed the dog, whose sense of smell and desire for food shouldn't be underestimated. The other is simply that it's not all that convenient. Would you want to stand outside at -40 deciding what to have for dinner? Or try choosing the right pack of meat in the dark? Neither do we. If, toward the end of winter, we eat down the freezer to the point that it's not worth the electricity, and as long as it's not getting above freezing, we'll probably load food into the coolers and put them outside to conserve the power (and money!). For now, though, it just wouldn't be convenient to do for all of our freezer food.
Ah, the list of things I want to do "one day". I'm sure this is true for most people, but I still shake my head at myself sometimes. I think I'll spend most of my life waiting for "one day" to arrive.

No Sunday total for this week

Sorry, I don't have a total for this week. We just didn't go grocery shopping, since we would be away for most of the week.
We drove down to Soldotna to see my in-laws for the holiday. The original plan was to have all of us drive down together (me, spouse, two younger brothers and one girlfriend + one dog) but my MIL started panicking about "putting all eggs in one basket". So she rented us a car (even with the cost of gas it was supposed to be cheaper and easier than taking the truck) and it was two in one car, three (+dog) in the other. Oh boy. The drive down worked out great. I drove the Fairbanks-Anchorage leg, then Shane took over for the Anchorage-Soldotna leg while I napped.
We had a great weekend. Lots of good food, lots of family time. We played dominoes every night, and discovered that couples cannot sit next to each other during games. While playing "Sorry", it didn't matter that Shane was sitting across from me. So we switched to "Clue" and had two games ruined by people either guessing prematurely and then announcing to everyone else what it should have been instead of letting someone else guess, or cheating by accidentally not showing a clue they had. We went back to dominoes after that.
We looked up funny videos on Youtube, listened to the brothers humming "Moves Like Jagger" all weekend (it was stuck in their heads), and watched more football than I do in the whole rest of the year. It was great.
It was also (other than the driving) fairly low-waste. When we went to the coffee shop, I remembered my reusable mug. Even my FIL, when he was running out to the coffee shop, brought my mug to get me some tea. The turkey carcasses (yes, two turkeys since there were seven of us at the house and 6 assorted relatives for Thanksgiving day) got reused to make turkey soup when most of the meat had been carved off and made into sandwiches or topped with more gravy and eaten straight. The dogs got plenty of meat, skin, and fat. They loved it.
As for Black Friday, I'm a little ashamed to admit that I did take part this year. But it was for a good reason. Shane and I figured out that our combined phone plans were costing us nearly $90/month, and if I got on his family's plan that would drop to $30/month. Spencer needed a new phone because he's got a bad habit of dropping his in lakes and hot tubs. The phone company has a promo for Thanksgiving weekend of a free phone. So we went. My old phone (which is mostly still usable) will get donated to a charity that will make use of it before recycling it. In terms of phones, in most people's eyes I "downgraded" since I went from a touch-screen to not a touch-screen. But my phones without touch screens have lasted about 3-4 years, while my touch screen is getting somewhat spotty after only a year and a half. I'd rather go for functionality than how cool it is.
The drive home was...well. I put us in a ditch. The rental car companies don't put winter tires on their cars because it's not "worth it". So we had somewhat bald summer tires and on a downhill corner I started spinning out and turned the wheel the wrong way. Totally my fault. You're supposed to turn the wheel in the direction of the turn, but it's instinctive for most people (myself included) to turn the wheel the other direction. I know what I'm supposed to do in that situation, but it's not instinctive so I did the wrong thing and by the time I formed the thought of the right thing to do it was too late. I had way over-corrected. Shane told me that when we go down at Christmas, he's going to take me to the high school to work on spinning out until it does become instinctual to turn into the spin. I might make that happen before the drive down there, though, just to be on the safe side.
I must say, it's very dramatic to have all of that snow fly up over the windshield. No one was hurt (except perhaps the dog, who hit the dash--Shane checked her over and said that at most she's got some bruises) but we needed a tow. Luckily, the other car was no more than a couple of miles behind us so they soon drove up. Also luckily, there happened to be a tow truck that stopped less than five minutes after the accident. Turns out, someone about five miles further up the road had hit a moose. (Ouch! They looked ok when we passed them later, and a cop was there.) After calling the tow company, it was decided that since our vehicle was still running we'd be the first pulled out. It took a while, since the chains needed to be attached to parts that were buried in the snow.
And it cost $200. Ouch. Thankfully, between all of us we had the cash on hand. So now we just owe money to a younger brother. What a pain. As for the car, the only lasting damage was to the left headlight. The bumper partially popped off because of the snow piled up while it was being pulled out, but Shane got it put back on. You wouldn't think that such a critical piece of car safety would be so easy to come off/put back on, but it is.
We got home very late, but safe. The cat was very happy to see all of us and scolded us quite vocally while he rubbed against us and purred. Usually he's got a soft purr, but when we've been away he turns into a little engine that hums almost constantly just at the sight of us. I missed my little guy!

*Correction: it was not the bumper that came off, it was the fender. I know nothing about cars.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Stuff

If you haven't seen "The Story of Stuff", you really should. I think it's especially important now, before Christmas and the biggest time of year for consumption (in terms of calories eaten, money spent, and stuff bought). I think there are so many better ways to show your loved ones that you, well, love them than to buy them things. Especially things of dubious quality (c'mon, is that toy for your nephew really something he's going to cherish for years and pass on to his own kids? are you sure it's non-toxic?) and questionable use. When 99% of the stuff we buy--yes, 99%--is thrown away within six months, I'd argue that there really aren't many of us who need new things for Christmas. There are many alternative gifts you can give people, such as passes for the zoo or tickets to a really great show you know someone in your family wants to see. The Zero Waste Home Blog has a really great post today about alternate ideas for gift giving, and the comments at the bottom are also full of great tips. I will be trying to go as local, small-scale, useful, and zero waste as I can with my gift giving this year. It's tricky (mostly because of distance), but I have a few ideas up my sleeve.
One of my favorite things which my mom and her siblings do is to donate to charities in each other's names. After all, they're all settled and reasonably comfortable. Any "stuff" they can buy for themselves. So they donate to charities instead, and if they really find something small that they can't resist, they send that along too. Usually it's local stuff that the others can't get, like local delicacies. (I do like getting chili powder from Texas relatives!) But it's not "stuff", then, so much as it is something useful which the others will appreciate and use.
Have you heard of the freeze yer buns challenge? I didn't think so. It's a challenge to see both how long you can turn of your thermostat (and turn it back off again earlier in the Spring) and how low you can keep it when you do turn it on. As many people have pointed out, you actually acclimate to the cooler temperatures and it can feel uncomfortable to be in the "normal" 70+ degree indoor temperature.
Anyway, Shane and I ended up arguing about this idea. In the cabin, we did this (without ever knowing that it's a movement) because we simply couldn't afford the heating oil. In our current place, we don't pay for heat. The landlord does, so Shane wants to keep the heat at 72(F). His side of the argument is that we have no idea where the thermometer is for the thermostat, and if it reads 72 the rest of the house (like our bedroom) probably isn't at 72(F). My argument is that even if we don't directly pay for heating oil, we still "pay" for it in terms of rent. In fact, our rent is going up in January because of this very problem. Heating oil is too expensive, and our landlord has been losing a lot of money on our place because of it. Not only that, I'm far more comfortable at 68-69(F) than I am at 72. If I get cold, I'd rather just snuggle up in some blankets or put on a sweater. Shane wants to be able to wear shorts in the house all winter.
The reason this devolved into an argument last night is because I wanted help putting an old sheet over the window. Shane didn't want to help me because it's "pointless" and "won't do any good anyway". Huh? Um, people have been using curtains for centuries to help hold heat in and cold out. Shane says that they're purely for privacy. (Nope, that's what a hedge is for.) So he wanted me to call the landlord and have him buy some of the plastic window coverings (which costs maybe $5, by the way) so we could put those over the windows instead.
I don't know where he's gotten the idea that a very thin sheet of plastic will help, rather than a doubled-up sheet, but I know he's wrong. A friend of ours is an engineer and to make a long story short, he knows that the plastic doesn't help that much.
Also, there's ice forming on the inside of this window. Not on the other two in the bedroom, just on this one. And it's the one that's right next to me. So I'm going to bring home some thumb tacks today and just put the sheet up myself. And then turn the heat down.
We do have a couple of other places in the apartment where ice has started to form, such as on the sliding door. Brr! I wonder if the whole winter is going to be like this? I forgot to mention it last week, but there was a time when Fairbanks was ranked as the coldest place on Earth. Let me repeat that. For a short time, Fairbanks was the coldest place on the planet. We beat out Siberia, Antarctica, and all manner of cold places. It's a dubious distinction, but we'll take it.
Last night we got some snow, so the cloud cover made it a bit warmer. It was only -25 for my walk home.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Reminder

Sometimes, all it takes is a little reminder that the small things do add up. I found a book (which I really want to read now!) called "Sleeping Naked is Green" and the accompanying blog, Green as a Thistle. The author challenged herself to make one green change every day for a year. And since she was squeamish about some of these changes (her blog post about changing to recycled toilet paper, and wondering what it used to be--old issues of "Maxim"?--was hilarious) I think it's a good jumping-off point for people looking to make changes but wary of them at the same time.
It also led me to this blog, from another Canadian, about trying to green her family's lifestyle with small changes every day. I like that, at least in the beginning, her husband was wary of what changes she'd want to make. They'd already "greened" their lifestyle by "normal" standards, but she felt there was more they could do. I think Shane feels the same way sometimes, while I constantly look for ways to improve. I've had to go into "stealth" mode myself a few times to make a change. Then, by the time Shane notices, it's permanent.
So this week I want to focus on the small things. Not all of them are environmental, some just make life easier. For instance, last night I noticed that one of the handles was nearly falling off a kitchen cabinet. So I fixed it. It's one of those tasks that could be so easy to put off until the handle actually fell off, but I didn't have anything pressing to do and Shane and I were hanging out in the kitchen anyway (getting dinner ready, and Shane was starting more beer). I then took a minute or so to test all of the other handles and fix the two others which were loose. Easy peasy.
Since I already had the screwdriver out, I wondered what else I could take care of? That reminded me about the outlet inuslators. When we got the home energy audit/repair thing this summer, they gave me a free pack of outlet/socket insulators for all outlets on walls which lead outside. The pack turned out to be just the perfect number for our apartment. I fixed most of the outlets a couple of weeks ago, but at the time Shane was napping and I didn't want to wake him up to move the bed for those in our room. So I finished those last night. Since it's colder now than it was before (currently -35F), I could really feel the difference! When I was unscrewing the outlet cover, I could feel the cold air. And I don't mean a little bit. After putting in just the small bit of insulation and screwing the cover back on, there was no more cold air vortex.
Now I just need to bother Shane until he helps me put the sheet up over the window on my side of the bed. Brrr! The blinds are down, but the bed is low so I think the blinds do more to funnel the cold air down onto me than they do to block it. Shane keeps saying, "Why don't we just get some of the plastic window covers?" but I don't think that would help as much as he hopes. An old, doubled-up sheet we never use as a sheet would go a long way toward making our room warmer.
I have also noticed that when the air is super cold like now, the oven tends to cycle on a lot more, as in it uses more energy to keep the temperature up. I have no idea what it would need to make that not happen, but it's interesting to note. Last night I bundled the baking as much as possible (which is a good idea in general, since it saves tons of electricity by only having to heat up the oven once) and got most of it done with all at once so we won't have to use the oven so much this week.
The final small thing I did last night was to make my own hot chocolate mix. There are tons of recipes online (I used Alton Brown's, easily found on the Food Network website) and I used Ghirardelli's chocolate since they're more ethical than either Nestle or Hershey's. (It's also damn good chocolate.) Lo and behold, it was a success! I mean, a messy disaster to make it (apparently, I'm not good with powdered foods, since the chocolate and the sugar got everywhere) but it was very yummy. Shane tried some and also enjoyed it. I think we'll be drinking less hot chocolate this year than we did last year, but at least we're done buying Quik and its arm-length list of ingredients. Did I mention that this tasted great, too? Way better than anything you can buy pre-mixed.
What other small changes could we make?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sunday total

It's actually Sunday when I'm doing it this week! I feel like a total champion today because I completed another goal this morning: I finished the last assignment for my class. That means that I can relax over the Thanksgiving holiday and not think about how much I have left to do. When I get home, I'll review the material and take the final. Whew!
The last chapter was sort of driving me crazy, though, since it was about food safety and associated illnesses. Instructions for proper handling of food make it seem like we're all going to be imminently poisoned by our food, and unless you read them with a grain of salt (tee-hee!) you'd wonder why we're not all dead. One recommendation is to wash everything between raw foods. As in, if you chop an onion on a cutting board you'd then have to wash your hands, the knife, and the cutting board before then chopping a zucchini. The only safe way to cook is to super-clean everything. And never, ever use wood because it can trap diseases. So alarmist. And no food is safe. Food you cook at home is contaminated by you and your unsafe cooking practices, while food at restaurants is contaminated by the very nature of having so many people around. We're all going to die from food poisoning.
You know what it did make me realize, though? Since Shane and I started eating healthier, organic, and local foods we haven't gotten food poisoning at all. Living on campus I would get mildly ill on a regular basis, and there were two different years when I had to pack up the majority of Shane's stuff to move out of the dorms because he'd gotten severe food poisoning. We just haven't gotten sick off our local/homegrown foods, and we haven't had to worry about nationwide recalls.
Finishing the class also gives me time for actual reading. I've had free time, but instead of reading I've been watching the previous seasons of "Bones" since I've been saving the books I have for after my classwork was finished. When I'm done with this I'm going to pull out "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women" by Harriet Reisen (a birthday present--my birthday's in the spring, so I've been holding onto this for a while) and I'm ridiculously excited to dig in. I'll probably re-read "Little Women" when I'm done, too. Just for fun.
Our grocery total for this week was $80. I'm impressed with how consistently under-budget we've been getting. Of course, one of my cousins put it all into perspective for me. On Facebook she mentioned being able to get two dozen large sweet potatoes for $3. And here I'd thought I got an amazing deal yesterday by finding them for only $.99/lb. (And I actually got to use a coupon! I had one for $2 off any fresh produce. Usually coupons only work for heavily processed foods so I rarely use them.)
The one thing I'm disappointed by is that all of the food was purchased at either Safeway or Fred Meyer. We didn't really need any meat so I didn't have to go to Homegrown, and the local milk is also sold at Fred Meyer so I didn't go to the AK Feed Co. Honestly, I just wanted to drive as little as possible in this weather. Especially considering what a process it is to start the truck at -30: plug in the block heater for at least three hours before even thinking about turning the ignition. Try the ignition, realize that the steering column is frozen and I'm not strong enough to turn it all the way. Roust Shane out of bed and into the cold to start the truck. Let it idle for about ten minutes so things start to warm up. Pray that I'll be able to start it on my own at the grocery store, and make it a quick trip so it's less likely to freeze solid again. Sounds fun, right? And people wonder why I walk.
Tonight's dinner: pulled pork sandwiches (made in our Crockpot, of course!) and baked sweet potato fries.
Excuse me, I have a book to lose myself in.