Tuesday, January 31, 2012

One heck of a crazy week

Well, our truck still won't start. Shane thinks the battery died so we have it on "life support"--battery charger hooked up and plugged in, as well as the engine block heater. It's still in the -30s, though, so we'll see.
Our good friend and next door neighbor came over to "rescue" us last night. We were cheeseless and wanting needing to make noodles and cheese sauce. (We used shells rather than macaroni so I can't call it macaroni and cheese, but that's really what it was.) I'll have to share that recipe sometimes. It's Shane's, and it's divine. I know he starts off with a roux, heated milk, and adds cheese plus a dash or two of nutmeg, but I'm not sure what else or in what quantities. I just know that it's fabulous. Dinner ended up being around 10:00 because we were still hoping that we'd get the truck running. Oh well. We do have food, but to make it all into meals we'll need to go to the store soon. Our neighbor offered to give us a ride if our truck won't start. I love having her live so close! I think I'll bake some bread as a thank you.
In addition to the weather and vehicle insanity, Shane starting classes, and the Fairbanks Symphony starting tonight, I'm having to work crazy hours because my coworker is out until further notice with family health issues. My boss is teaching a class Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, we don't have a student worker, and the library is supposed to be open until 7:00 each night. At least I got to sleep in a bit this morning, to make up for working late. (I'm on my 15 minute lunch break.)
On my walk up the hill, I got something in my eye. I rubbed it, and my contact fell out into the snow. Now, I have awful vision. As in, if it gets much worse I will be legally blind. There's no way I can operate with only one contact, and I don't normally carry my one pair of glasses with me wherever I go. This could have been disastrous, involving a headache inducing walk back home (with only half vision) to get a new contact and then trudging back to work with all of my stuff. (My normal work bag packed with two meals' worth of food and my violin in its huge padded case since I'm heading straight to Symphony rehearsal tonight. The case protects it from the cold.) Somehow, miraculously, I managed to find my contact in the snow. My next worry was that it would break or in some other way be weird because it was frozen. But I ducked into the nearest building, found a bathroom to wet down my contact, and somehow everything was fine. Disaster averted! I might have horrible luck in some things, but I'm counting this morning an overall win, even if I was at work 15 minutes later than I planned.
All of this is really just to illustrate the fact that I'm so thankful I planned ahead. I banked some meals in the fall by freezing some soups that can easily be reheated at work. (Butternut squash soup freezes and then reheats really well.) Because I baked a ton of bread over the weekend it was easy enough to grab a couple of rolls in addition and an apple as filling sides. Healthy, quick meals on the go for the win! I won't get home until after 10:00 tonight, and it will be a marathon day, but at least I'll have fortified myself well with nutritious, yummy food to keep me going strong right to the end.
Finally, I decided to shake things up around here a little bit with regard to the view. I wanted to make things simpler and easier to view. I'm trying to figure out how to tag things to get an archive by category going, but I'm still not sure how to do that yet. If anyone knows Blogger better than I do and wants to let me in on the secret, please do!

Bread Tutorial I

Quick! What's golden brown on top and delicious all over? This:


Anyone out there who's trying to cut carbs out of their life should stop reading. Right now. I'm going to talk about something very near and dear to my heart: bread. It's so yummy, and good for you (in the right amounts, with the right ingredients) and it's ridiculously simple to make once you get the hang of it. So here's my bread tutorial.
Every loaf of bread is made out of a few simple things: liquid, fat, flour, leavening, salt/sugar. That's really all you need. For liquids you can use beer, water, buttermilk, whey (from cheese making), or milk. There are all kinds of flours that are a possibility (spelt, rye, wheat, white, bread flour, oat flour....) and they can be combined in endless varieties. Fat is generally either an oil or butter for loaf type breads. (Biscuits and denser breads tend to use either butter or lard.) Salt is self-explanatory, although for savory breads there are endless varieties of herbs and spices that can also be used. For sandwich breads, however, when I use salted butter I don't add any extra salt because it doesn't need it. (Salted butter was originally only used as a topping for bread. Now it's ubiquitous and I figure we get enough salt in everything else we eat. I haven't noticed a change in flavor since I stopped tossing in a bit of salt.) Sugar can also be variable, depending on what you have or what you want to do. Table sugar, honey, and molasses are the most common sugars. (I've never tried powdered sugar in bread, and honestly I'm not sure if it would do well. Too fine.) It's nice to tailor the use of the sugar to what type of bread you want to make. For instance, I never use sugar when I'm making beer bread. Honey works the best, adding just a bit of sweetness without overpowering the beery/yeasty taste.
When you get to the leavening agent, that's what divides the bread world. Quick breads are made with baking soda or baking powder (which has baking soda in it) as the leavening. Things like banana and zucchini breads are quick breads. They're fast to make up because all of the rising is done during the cooking process, in the oven. The other type of breads, the not-so-quick breads, are yeast breads. And that's what I want to write about now. I've had a life-long love affair with yeast breads.
Probably the most important thing with yeast bread making is to remember that yeast is a living organism. So don't kill it. The liquid needs to be warm but not hot. You should be able to comfortably dip your (clean) finger into it. I heat my liquids in the microwave before pouring them in the bowl, testing with my finger, and then adding the yeast. Salt also kills yeast, so never add it during the proofing stage.
Also, yeast needs to have something to feed on to help it wake up or proof, as it's called. (Maybe because you're proving that the yeast is actually viable? I don't know.) What does it eat? Sugars. This is why almost all of my bread recipes have at least a little bit of sugar in them. However, yeast will also feed on the sugars in milk and beer. If you make bread with plain water, as in a sourdough or French bread, you need to add a little bit of sugar to the water/yeast combination or it won't work properly. (At least in my experience. Feel free to contradict me.)
So, with all of this in mind, I present to you my bread recipe. Trust me, it's so easy I have it memorized. And aside from the liquid, I don't measure anything. The rule of thumb is generally 1- 1 1/2 cups of liquid for every loaf of bread. My loaf pans are wide so I do 1 1/2 cups. This recipe makes 2 nice large loaves.

Basic Bread:

1 1/2 cups warm water
1 1/2 cups warm milk
1 1/2-2 regular spoons full of yeast (maybe about a tablespoon?)
Approximately 1/4 cup sugar or honey

Mix all of those ingredients and let it sit about 5 minutes, until the yeast starts to look foamy. This is a good sign. If your yeast doesn't foam or plump up, either the yeast is bad or the liquid is too hot and you've killed it.



This is what proofing yeast should look like. See the bubbles?










If it's fine mix in:

2 tablespoons of butter, melted
1 teaspoon of salt (optional)
Enough flour so that it forms a cohesive ball and doesn't stick to the sides of the bowl, about 6-7 cups. (I never measure. I go by what it looks like and how it feels.) The dough should still be tacky/sticky, though.

For Shane I do white bread. For myself, I do half white/half wheat, or some other crazy grain combination. You don't have to stick to one type of flour, or even two. The bread pictured at the top has two tablespoons of ground flax seeds, whole wheat flour, oat flour (made from regular oats ground in the food processor) and white flour. It's delicious. (Munch munch munch....)

Once it reaches the still-tacky-but-not-sticking-to-the-bowl stage, I smoosh (I can't say pour, because it's not a liquid...maybe pull? scrape?) the dough out onto a lightly floured counter surface. I either flour my hands, or put a light layer of flour on top of the dough. Then comes the fun part: kneading. Kneading is really just a word meaning that you beat the dough into submission. It's a little bit like a metalsmith folding steel to make it stronger. It's best accomplished by pushing the dough away from you, folding it over, and repeating the process. Don't worry about hurting the dough or killing the yeast at this point; you won't. And it's really fun. Don't work the dough too long, though, or you'll get a really hard, dense dough. A minute or so of kneading (more if you mixed by hand rather than in a stand mixer) should do. I'm honestly not sure what this step does, other than to create gluten. But most bread recipes call for kneading, and it's not like it's hard.
After it's properly kneaded, oil down the dough (either by pouring oil on it, spraying it on, or oiling the bowl and rolling the dough over in that) and put it back in the bowl. This step really is critical, or the bread will dry out and be both difficult to work with and lumpy (crunchy?) when it's cooked. Trust me, it's bad. Cover with a dish towel (if it's dry out, a damp dish towel works well) and let it sit and rise for about an hour to an hour and a half. It needs to pretty much double in size. You'll know it's done when you push two fingers into the top and they don't pop back up. Or if the whole thing just deflates when you do that. I can tell mine by sight now. When it's spilling out the top, it's risen.


Most recipes say to "punch" the dough down. You don't actually need to beat it, just moosh it down.
After this, loaves are formed. There's such an infinite variety of loaf shapes you can do. To make a regular loaf, however, flatten it down into a rectangle, and roll it up. Pinch the seam together, the roll the edges in and pinch those down, too.




Or you could do rolls.





Or domes.










Put it in the loaf pan (seam side down) that you already have oiled or buttered. You did remember to oil the pans well, right? You don't want that bread sticking, it's a pain in the a$$ to get out.
My loaf pans are, I think, 9x5. So if you have smaller pans, your loaves are going to need to be taller to make up for the lack of space in the pan. (You'll also want to cut back a little on the liquid. If the bread needs more room to expand than it has, it will end up being very dense on the bottom.) I can't tell you exactly what the loaves will look like when they've risen again because that comes with time and experience. However, I can tell you that the second rise is generally no more than an hour. And at this stage you want to be careful not to let your bread over-rise. This can cause it to fall in the oven and you'll end up with flat, dense bread. I usually set a timer for 45 minutes and go start the oven (set to 350^) just before it goes off. Of course, rising times also depend on how humid it is and all of that. But generally speaking, risen bread will look like an uncooked loaf.
Be gentle when you put it in the oven, and make sure it's not too close to the heat. Cooking time depends, I find, on the season and the oven. Anywhere from 35-45 minutes is a safe bet. Just start watching it toward the end. When the top turns golden brown, take it out.
Have fun with bread making. There are so many ways to do it, so many ways to dress up a simple recipe. This is the same recipe I use for French bread. The only changes I make are that instead of milk, all of the liquid is water, I do add salt, cut back on the sugar, and I shape it like, well, French bread. Elongated and torpedo-shaped at either end, with slashes cut across the top.
If you prefer really crusty bread, let it rise in the oven with a pan of hot water underneath. If you want it even crustier, leave the water in the oven when you bake it.
Because this bread doesn't have chemical preservatives, it will go bad. Around here, that usually takes a little under a week to happen. But the great part is that it freezes well, too. I pack mine in an old, clean pillowcase and stash it in the chest freezer. Once it thaws out (either in a plastic bag or in the bread box) it's moist and soft like it just came out of the oven. I don't know how long it would stay good in the freezer this way (we've never needed to keep bread in there for more than 2 weeks) but it should be about 6 months before the quality degrades. I've even kept half-loaves this way and the cut side is still perfectly soft.
Don't be afraid to mess up, either. I've been baking bread since I was 12, and I've made pretty much every mistake ever. Killing the yeast, over salting, over rising, under rising, under cooking, over cooking (or just plain forgetting I had bread in the oven until I smelled burning), forgetting to oil the pans.... You'll mess up. That's part of the learning process. But home baked bread is sooooo worth it, trust me. It's tastier and it's cheaper than anything you'll find at the store.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Whoops! Monday total this week

I didn't post my usual Sunday total. But I have a good excuse! It was still -50 down in the valley yesterday, so we escaped to the hills. We went to our friend J's parents' house where it was forty degrees warmer. You wouldn't think that -10 would feel so balmy, but it did! Shane and J helped haul wood, I helped L with Baby and cooking dinner. (J's mom has a number of health problems so when we go there we cook for her rather than the other way around.) I felt bad because Baby started crying every time her grandparents started cooing at her. I guess 5 months is the age for getting separation anxiety, and either I see her often enough that she doesn't mind me or I just ended up being the lesser of evils so she didn't care that I was holding her as long as it wasn't Nana holding her. Or as long as Poppa wasn't making faces at her.
We brought the dog with us, and she loved it. I was worried that she'd be a brat with being in a new house, around new people, with another dog, and most importantly with a baby around. The poor dog has a tendency to freak out whenever Baby makes noises. (Shane and I joke that our dog is turning into an old Jewish woman--she worries about everything! And then she makes us feel guilty....) But she did so well, I think partly because there was so much going on that she couldn't focus enough to freak out over any one thing. Also, I think she's getting used to having Baby around sometimes. It was warm enough that we let her run around outside for a bit and she just looked happier than she's been for a little while. J's mom was a little worried about how their old lady dog would handle having a new dog in the house (Grace, the dog, has been a bit depressed since their other dog died a couple weeks ago) but after their initial meeting, the two dogs mostly ignored each other. For a pair of old dogs, that's fantastic.
Anyway, our Sunday total was $40. We were on track to not spend any grocery money last week, until we invited our brothers and a friend over for dinner on Friday. A dinner which Shane planned, and I ended up making. And then eating by myself. We didn't have quite enough stuff for our planned dinner to feed everyone who was coming over. Then our truck wouldn't start because of the cold, so Shane had to grab a ride to the store with his brother and brother's roommate. The plan was to go really quick, pick up my little brother on the way home, and then we'd all have dinner before I rushed off to the theater to see FLOT's "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" with a friend. Well, they took a really long time at the store. So I ended up making dinner, and waiting...and finally eating really quickly before our friend came to pick me up. At least the show was worth it. The music (my friend was the orchestra manager) was fantastic, and the lead actors were wonderful. (A few of the background people were not so great, but hey, it's community theater.)
By the way, never go to the theater with someone who works in theater. He was cracking me up almost as much as the show because every once in a while he'd make a derisive, "Pfft!" noise, or throw his hands up a little. When we saw his wife between acts (the one managing the orchestra) she asked him how he liked it and when he made a "meh" gesture she complained, "You take the fun out of everything!" I had to laugh. (And then remind her that at least her husband will go to these things. I tried to get Shane to go see "Annie" and he looked at me like I was asking him to kick the dog.) As I said, I enjoyed it.
Our monthly total is: $243 on groceries. I suppose for an entire month of eating that's not really bad. Still, whew! Seeing it all together like that feels like a lot of money. And it was low because we didn't buy any food the first week we were back from vacation.
It's only -31 this morning. I borrowed L's snowskirt, though, until it warms up a bit. It was nice having warm legs this morning! It's a good thing I brought some leggings to go under my pants for the walk home, though. Apparently the skirt isn't warm enough to get away with not wearing them entirely. The skirt is long and zips up on the sides so I had to decide--do I only zip them partway and keep a normal stride, or do I zip them all the way down to keep my knees warm and deal with taking much shorter steps? I opted for cold knees and my normal stride. Didn't want to be late for work!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Ice fog

It's all -50 and ice fog outside today. Tomorrow we're escaping to the hills (where it can be 20-30 degrees warmer) to help cut wood for J's parents. For today, though, I'm mostly stuck inside, reading and cleaning. On my one very brief venture outside, I took a couple of pictures:



If I was on a hill, there might be sun dogs or ice rainbows. Down here, though, it just looks dim.

Usually this way we'd see the University up on the hill. Now we can't even see the busy intersection less than two blocks away.

Friday, January 27, 2012

This is why I'm scared of moose

There are usually several stories like this every winter. To sum up, this poor man (82 years old) was attacked by a moose, which his 85 year old wife chased off by beating it with a shovel until it stopped attacking her husband. He's lucky to have gotten away, and with *only* seven broken ribs.
Also, we're entering yet another cold snap. *Sigh* I'm dreaming of beaches and Fairbanks is giving me -40 and -50. Or, rather hilariously, snowfall on a sunny day as it was doing yesterday. I'm not sure how that worked since there was nothing more than wispy clouds above, but it was definitely snowing. We got a lovely snow rainbow out of it, too.

A paradox

If you ask most people what the number one way to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels is--what's quickest and easiest--they'll answer that efficiency is the way to go. After all, weatherizing your home can be rather cheap (compared to other remodeling you might do) and it's fairly easy. However, there is some evidence that efficiency of resources can actually promote waste. Thus I give you, the Jevons Paradox. Simply stated, the paradox is that when people use resources more efficiently they often end up using far more of them than when the resource was inefficient.
This happens for several reasons. For one, if something is efficient to utilize one often does it more. It's so easy! Why not turn up the heater a little bit more? After all, it just takes the push of a button. It's not like you have to shovel more coal in every time you want the house a little warmer. Or go ahead and take a longer shower. You've installed a low-flow showerhead! You deserve a little bit more time under the spray for being so eco-conscious.
The second reason is because the relative cost of the resource goes down with more efficiency. People feel freer to use something because, well, it's not going to cost that much more, right? And you're not using too much of it because you're being efficient! Go ahead, leave the lights on even when you're not in a room. After all, it's just the flick of a switch and it's all the way over there. It's not that big a deal, really, because the energy is so cheap.
Related to that is the fact that when a widely used resource is cheap, people have more money in their pockets to spend on other things. And as we've seen in the last few years, people are terrible at saving that extra money. After all, things are cheap! Buy more! By consuming more and more goods, we end up obliterating any gains we've made in the area of efficiency. All of the resources and energy that we're not using for Thing A end up getting used to produce Thing B, which usually would be a stupid thing to produce if the resources and energy weren't so cheap. But again, we're being efficient! We've got all the money in the worl...wait, the stock market crashed again?
Efficiency alone does not work. It needs to work in tandem with the idea of conservation. We need the perceived value of saving resources to match up with the value of making better use of them. That's the only true way to be efficient. I found a great infographic about some of the reasons electricity usage has gone up so much in our country in just the last 50 or so years. Digs against Republican views aside ("So much for the wisdom of the free market") it's very interesting.
On the subject of energy efficiency, light bulbs are now slated to be far more efficient soon. This is good news, at least in terms of how much money people will save. (Estimates say about $100-200 for the average household.) It would be even better news if people learned to turn off lights when they're not home or not in a room.
Also, fuel use in the U.S. went down by quite a lot last year. December reached a 15-year low. Since fuel use is so closely tied to economic health and employment (people buying things and going to work) why is it that so many politicians and articles are proudly proclaiming that we're out of a recession and on our way back to growth and prosperity? If you look at anything other than Wall Street and the stock market, the outlook is abysmal. The signs are not good. I'm not fool enough to think that the reduced gasoline consumption is because everyone in the country suddenly became concerned with the environment. I'm thinking it's more because they have to (can't afford it) or because they have no where to go (no jobs). Boy, I really can take some good news and make it depressing. It's a talent.
In other news, UAF was ranked as the fifth "most popular" university in the U.S. by USNews. Now, there is some debate and grumbling about how they defined popular (it's based on the number of applicants versus the number of enrollees) and I agree that it is bad, but it's also interesting. I think a lot of the naysayers were discounting the fact that we have some really good programs here. Anything involving biology, fisheries, and wildlife, or engineering, is fantastic. Even our Masters of Fine Arts program is in the top ten, last I heard. The fact that we retain 75% of students--that so many people are willing to tough out these conditions for their education--is a sign that our programs are worth it, I think. You can read their summary of UAF here. And then you can laugh with me that they define the setting as "urban". Anyone who comes from the big city expecting a truly urban setting is going to be seriously disappointed. (As is anyone who thinks they're coming to the middle of nowhere. I will never forget my sister-in-law exclaiming, "Oh, it's like a real town!")
Finally, here's a wonderful reminder that our actions affect not just humans but the animals around us too. "The mercury is believed to cause bats to act erratically, and in some cases to lose their adeptness at avoiding wind turbine blades." Actions that we take for the sake of human health and our environment positively affect the wildlife around us. Do we need any more reasons to change our behavior? Because I think that those two alone should be enough.
And next time you see an animal behaving oddly, remember that they might actually be suffering from mercury poisoning. And it's our fault.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Calling all crafters

I just found this cute site that shows you how to turn old plastic bags into knitted and crocheted items. Since there are already tons of plastic bags out there, I think finding a way to reuse them (before they get recycled, or shot into space because plastic is terrible, or whatever) is a fantastic idea. I might actually make some plarn and then get to crocheting bags myself, since we have so many from Shane. Or maybe I'll make a front door mat, since we don't have one of those. I wonder what else could be made? Any suggestions?
If crocheting and knitting plastic bags together isn't your idea of a great time, there are other plastic things that you can reuse and repurpose rather than recycling. Like plastic bottles. I admit, some of the ideas in this slideshow are kind of stupid. (Did you see that bracelet? Did you? U-G-L-Y.) But it also has some really great ideas. I'll have to look at it again, next time I find myself scratching my head over how I got a plastic water bottle and wondering what to do with it.
I have been starting to save for reuse our milk jugs. Actually, I've made Shane cut the bottoms off so that they can be set to two different purposes: the bottoms will be plant holders (what's the point in buying more plastic, just to set it under my plants?) and the tops will be mini-greenhouses for my fragile garden starts. I won't have to worry about sudden frosts and mid-summer temperature dips. (After the last winter I remember that was this harsh, it snowed in June! It didn't stick, but that could kill any sensitive plants.) If you don't garden but still want to re-use old milk jugs, there are also these ideas. Personally, I've already used my ones set aside as funnels sometimes. They work great for pouring flour or sugar from my shopping bags into my containers at home.
Another big source of waste which most people don't think about are the old clothes we throw away. We might donate the good clothes we no longer wear, but what about the rest? Well, we can actually get them recycled. And not just clothes, either, but shoes too. For our old, worn-out clothes I've had a policy of turning them into rags before throwing them away. Things with stains which I won't donate, or items with holes in them, get torn up into rags and used to clean the house (in place of sponges and paper towels) or used as pet rags. Same goes for old towels, or ones that we've found. (We looked under the cushions of our free couch about a year after getting it and discovered two hand towels and a pillow case.) I doubt I'd even want to recycle what they're reduced to by the time I throw those out. (Either they have some kind of serious grease on them--like from the truck--or they're absolutely disgusting from some kind of pet mess disaster. Remember when the dog ate an entire pan of gingerbread? The cleanup from that was not pretty, and that rag got thrown out.) For items that won't work so well for rags, I can always find someone else to give them to. Old denim goes to a friend who uses them for either UAF theater shows or for her personal crafting projects. Almost any type of fabric can be turned into a beautiful quilt in the hands of the right person. (I am not one of them, but I'd love to learn....) Or they can be torn up and made into beautiful rag rugs. I remember my grandmother making these when I was a child and they've always had a special place in my heart. (Or there's this version. Or this one.) There are so many ways to donate, reuse, or recycle clothing that I honestly don't know how so much of it gets thrown away every year. By one the textile site's estimate, an average of 70lbs per person per year! That's a lot of clothes. (But now we know how people end up spending approximately $1000 on clothes every year!) It almost makes me want to go for a minimalist wardrobe. (But not quite--it's not exactly feasible around here with a nearly 150 degree temperature swing every year! Maybe 10 pieces for each season?)
If anyone has suggestions for other "waste" that can be reused or repurposed, I'd love to hear them.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

More gardening news

My lust for gardening information is still here. Today I found out that the USDA is changing the hardiness zone map for the first time since 1990. "The map carves up the U.S. into 26 zones based on five-degree temperature increments. The old 1990 map mentions 34 U.S. cities in its key. On the 2012 map, 18 of those, including Honolulu, St. Louis, Des Moines, Iowa, St. Paul, Minn., and even Fairbanks, Alaska, are in newer, warmer zones." Well, that's good to know. Maybe someday we'll be able to grow fruit trees.
On the other hand, some people are doing it already. For Valley folks like me, we get about "90 frost-free days" out of the year so crabapples are the only option. But people on the hills, like our friend J's parents, they could potentially grow very hardy apples, such as Siberian varieties. Once again, I'm super excited for when Shane and I can buy our own house. I want to plant crabapple trees! Or even real apple trees. I'm wondering why I never saw this guy's booth at the Tanana Valley Farmer's Market? I totally would have bought tons of apples from him. I guess I'll just have to look a little harder this summer. It sounds like the apples might have come in while we were on our honeymoon.
If he needs a helper, I'd gladly help pick and learn from him....

Not so special after all

I stumbled across this article earlier today and it really struck a chord with me. The point the author makes in the beginning is that yes, humans are unique. But no more unique than any other species. We are characterized by several things, most of which comes down to our large brains and opposable thumbs (the latter of which we share with several types of primates). But why do we think that makes us so much better than other species, so graced by God? The author points out that the cheetah is unique in its ability to run over 60 mph, and the sperm whale can dive 2000 meters on a single breath. I would add that dogs are unique in the animal kingdom for their affinity for and relationship to us (what other species can read human facial expressions?), and cats are unique for being the only species which domesticated itself.
So what makes humans so special? We give preference to our own needs for water, air, power, and all the other resources of the planet. There are "acceptable losses" in terms of animal life when we decide to do things like build power lines and roads. What really gives us that right? We build zoos to cage animals. I'm not saying that zoos are bad. At the worst, they allow people to see and study animals, which makes us as a species feel more connected to them and we care for them more. At their best, zoos help to bring back species from the brink of extinction. But it's something we don't see other species doing. There aren't really human zoos out there with lions and elephants saying, "Ah, yes. I see now. The wild human...." We might have large brains, but in fact I think we've used them poorly for the most part. We've used them to treat the earth like it's ours alone, and treat other species as if they don't matter.
In the same way, I think we have a tendency to think of ourselves, individually, as special too. (And I'm as bad about this as anyone else is.) As just one example, what gives us the "right" to electricity? People lived without it for millenia. In fact, most people around the world don't have the easy access to electricity that we in Europe and North America enjoy. So what makes us special even among our species? We're poisoning the air and water and land with our use of electricity, and the ways in which we extract power from the earth that is absolutely unique. And it doesn't stay here, where we're doing the polluting. It travels in the wind and through the water. What gives us the right to do that to other people? So often it's the desperately poor who pay the price. They're the ones who work the mines, live next to the power plants and extraction sites. Why do they have to pay the price so that I can power my iPod, and do I have any "right" to these things when other people will be the ones to bear the harm?
I struggle with questions like these. Shane, I am absolutely certain, wouldn't consent to turning off our electricity, and I'm not sure I would either. It would be "weird". It would deprive me of a lot, especially light in the winter, which really can't be discounted around here. At the same time, it feels like such a hypocritical thing to enjoy all the modern comforts of the first world knowing what harm I'm causing others through my actions. Why am I so "deserving" of this?
I really don't know what the answer is. I suppose all I can do is my best. Cut back where I can, and try to do a little better every day/week/month/year. Someday, hopefully, I will have the perfect "sustainable" house of my dreams. Hopefully we as a species will finally learn to put our large brains to a good purpose, to the betterment of the entire world and not just ourselves. But I won't hold my breath waiting for that day, since I doubt even the sperm whale has lungs big enough for that.
And since this was depressing, here are some adorable pictures of baby animals to cheer you up.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Vitamins

I've been wanting to do a post on vitamins since around the time I read through my nutrition class's chapter on the subject. Well, they came up all over the book, but there was a specific chapter detailing all of the known vitamins and what they do for us. I'm not going to go over all of that here, because it should be general knowledge (at least a little bit of it) and you can find it elsewhere. What I do want to talk about is the fact that as I was reading through the chapter, what stood out the most to me was how many vitamins can actually be toxic for you. (Yes, you can have too much of a good thing.) But more than that, they'd list the reasons for the toxicity and unless you had a specific disease the only way to consume so much of a vitamin that it was bad for you was through supplementation.
Let me repeat that: most vitamins, no matter how much you consume in their natural form, aren't dangerous for you unless you have a specific condition. However, by consuming too many vitamins in the form of pills and supplements, you can be debilitated and crippled by toxic levels of the vitamins. How scary is that?
A lot of doctors are now saying that vitamin/mineral supplements can potentially (a)do more harm than good, (b)at best, create nothing more than expensive urine, and (c)could have dangerous consequences. (For a good overall article, go here. Most of what I'm saying is based on deeper study than just an internet search, however.) There is even some research stating that some people either take vitamins to cover up a lack of proper nutrition or to give themselves leeway to eat less healthfully. If you eat a diet of fast food, no amount of vitamin supplementation is going to make up for your crappy diet. There's just no way around that fact.
A while ago, my doctor recommended that I take a vitamin D supplement based on the personal opinion that "everyone in Alaska is low in vitamin D." No offense to her, but I didn't start taking it. I drink lots of milk, and I'm outside more than most Alaskans are in the winter. I make sure to turn my face to the sun (sans sunscreen) and absorb a bit of D that way. I'm sure my level is still a bit low in the winter, but the doctor never mentioned that exercise is also a good way to get D. Surprising? The reason I say this is because vitamin D is fat soluble, meaning that it's stored in your fat tissues rather than flushed out like water soluble vitamins. When you burn fat, some of your previously stored vitamin D is returned to your system and you don't need to consume/absorb as much.
Please don't stop taking vitamin supplements on my say-so. For people who have severe health conditions requiring vitamin supplementation it can be a matter of life and death. However, the general population doesn't need to supplement. What we need is to eat more fruits and vegetables to get all of the nutrients they contain (which is so much more than *just* vitamins), not just the paltry few vitamins and minerals we can get from a pill. Do your research, and decide for yourself if you really should be taking those supplements.
For me personally, I don't take vitamins. I think it's a waste of my time--even the minute or so to open the bottle and then swallow it is too much for something with dubious safety and effectiveness. Do I have exceptions to this rule? Of course. When we're ready to start having kids, the minute I think I'm pregnant I'll start taking a prenatal vitamin. So much of a child's future health can be at least partially determined by what happens in the womb and I want to be sure my children will be healthy. Mental and physical deformities can be prevented by ensuring that pregnant women have adequate nutrition and this can be assisted with (but shouldn't rely solely on) vitamins.
I did (sometimes) remember to take a vitamin the two times I've been recovering from broken bones. There is some evidence that upping one's calcium intake while your body knits bones back together can help speed up the process. Whether this means that my calcium/vitamin D supplement actually helped I'm not sure, but it was worth a shot. Even knowing what I now do, I'd take them again if I broke a bone. But vitamins are never going to be a regular thing in my life, since I feel that with adequate nutrition most of us don't need them. They're expensive and, besides, eating my vitamins is so much more fun than taking a pill!

Monday, January 23, 2012

And then there was light

It's getting noticeably lighter from one day to the next. We're gaining about 6 minutes of daylight right now, so it's quite obvious every day that the sun rises a little earlier, sets a little later. It's making me excited for the summer, and it's giving me a restlessness that I always feel at this time of year. There's an underlying anxiety that I've been feeling--not of bad things to come, but of good things that I'm anxious to hurry along. The daylight whispers that Spring is right around the corner, that soon I won't have to bundle myself in layer upon layer to step outside, that I'll be able to ditch the boots in favor of sandals, that I'll feel truly (as opposed to artificially) warm once again. It's a sweet siren song and I'm responding to it.
The first afternoon that I could still see the sunset during my walk home from work, I stood on the snowy hill for a moment, silently rejoicing. It was breathtakingly beautiful, with the deep red over the mountains in the distance, the nearly full moon on my other side, and the deep blue sky which the snow responded to by appearing as a lighter blue. It was one of those snapshots in time that makes me think, yes. I want to hold this in my heart forever, the joy and the beauty of now. One perfect, gorgeous moment in life.
As I get older, the days pass faster and faster. I know that really, Spring won't come until sometime in May, five long months away. But my heart doesn't listen, instead reminding me that it's already been almost six months since my wedding, which seems like it was yesterday. Spring, with Summer quick on her heels, will be here soon enough. And then the marathon that is Winter will become the sprint of Summer. I'll be running and rushing with hardly a moment to catch my breath or to stop and reflect. It's an entirely different kind of joy than winter brings.
I think that this anxiousness is necessary. It helps me to prepare for the short summer, to remind me of all the tasks I need to get completed before then. The dark season ends, and with it the slowness and lethargy of early winter. I want to be out and doing, not sitting around.
But sitting indoors is what I've been forced to do. The extreme cold of these past weeks have kept us housebound for the most part. I haven't even gotten to take the dog for more than two short walks because of worries that it's too cold for her. (It is--she loves walks but during the last two we took, the most excitement from her was when she realized that we were headed home.) So we fill our days with tasks that will be put off during the summer. I've already read 6 books this month, we've been visiting with friends and cooking and playing indoor games with the animals. I've even been watching TV shows. I'm trying to savor the slow season even as I prepare for the fast one. And to remind myself that patience is a virtue. The light returns in its own time. Spring and Summer will come in their time, on their own terms. All I can do is wait, prepare, and anticipate. It's such a sweet longing.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Some days I win, but not entirely (Sunday total)

I was feeling earlier like this week was sort of a win on several fronts. For one thing, I've been able to get rid of a couple of things that I was in a quandary about. I knew they had to go, but I wasn't sure what was the best way to deal with them. The first is an exercise ball that I won last spring through the health program at work. I already have one that I sit on at work so I thought, cool! Now I'll have one at home too. But I never used it. It's been sitting on a shelf collecting dust for most of a year. My coworker was asking me about them the other day and mentioned that she was probably going to go buy one, so I offered mine to her and she accepted. The second thing also went to my coworker: my health textbook from this past semester. She and her sister are going to be taking the course. I'd missed the deadline to sell it back to the bookstore and wasn't sure what I was going to do with it now. This works!
I've also been feeling like we need to declutter in terms of all the gift cards we have: family have given them to us for birthdays and Christmas and even our wedding. Kohl's, Bed Bath & Beyond, Sears, Barnes & Noble.... Most of them are lying on my desk, needing to be used. So, we're using them. We're headed to Sears today to buy a grain mill attachment for the KitchenAid (Shane's idea--he wants it for his beer making) and a pasta roller attachment. I was also going to talk to him about the BB&B gift card, since there are a few kitchen items that would make our lives easier.
I also used my Kohl's gift card the other day. Or rather, tried to. Apparently it didn't go through (why? WHY?!) so I just ended up spending $50 of my own money. >( Argh! Annoying. You might think, well that just means you can buy more clothes! But I picked out the two things that I felt I really needed right now and that I really liked. (That is hard to do when you're shopping online!) Plus, it's just irritating to check your credit card statement and see that you accidentally spent money where you weren't meant to. I'm not sure if I'm going to call them, or if I'm just going to let it slide. I am pretty lazy....
For Christmas, my mom sent us some lovely socks, and some food mixes. We used the soup mix on Friday night for dinner (tortellini soup--yum!) and I made the blueberry scones mix yesterday. It turned out to be perfect, since I had a friend drop by in the early afternoon and I was able to offer her fresh tea and scones while we chatted. :)
I also made tons of bread yesterday. Two loaves of whole wheat with some ground up flax seeds (the first time I've tried that and it was good--the heat degrades some of the omega 3's so it's not as healthy as you'd hope but some of them are still present, and it adds a lovely flavor), a giant loaf of white bread for Shane, and some buns/rolls because we made burgers for dinner. About half of this got frozen, since there's no way we can eat it all before it goes bad. But now we have "emergency bread" for weeks when there's no time to bake. With the symphony starting up this week, and "The Music Man" coming up in March, there will be a lot of those weeks soon.
As far as the grain mill goes, I was poking around on the farm & garden section of Craigslist the other day and saw that someone was selling wheat berries for $1/pound. That's not bad, actually. Since we're already going to get a grain mill, why not check it out? That's cheaper than the wheat flour I've been buying, by a lot. But I want to make sure that not only would the wheat be edible (it could just be meant for seed) but that it's non-GMO and hopefully grown with organic practices.
I've been absolutely obsessed with this music video lately and I just had to share it. Watch it, love it.
So, our Sunday total: $40. We actually bought very little food this week. Some apples, a little bit of wheat flour, some bacon, some chicken. And the meals that I've planned out for this week use things that we now have in the house. I think the only thing we might need more of is milk.
One thing I found odd at the store yesterday was the price of water filters. I keep a pitcher filter at work because the quality of the water on campus is AWFUL. It greatly depends on the building, but since mine is quite old, it's atrocious. Even if you make coffee or tea with the unfiltered water, it just ends up tasting like the nasty water. I haven't replaced the filter in a long time so it's past time for a new one (despite me extending the use of the filter by cleaning it out with vinegar regularly). The price of one filter is $8, the price for two is $12, and the price for three is $15. Which pack do you think I bought?

Friday, January 20, 2012

A tale of two "abortions"

Usually, I don't delve into politics. It's very personal and I don't usually like to attack another's beliefs. But there's an issue that is truly important and it involves women's health and rights. And it's being undermined by lawmakers all over the country. I don't feel that I can keep quiet about it because it's too important.
I am absolutely furious with those who are trying their hardest to limit access to abortion. From laws that allow healthcare workers to lie to the patient, to mandated "counseling" that is full of lies and misinformation, there's an outright war on women's ability to make decisions for themselves on what is best for them, their situations, and their families. Most of the people who argue in favor of these laws, and do in fact favor an outright ban on abortion, claim that it's the moral thing to do. They're preventing women from "making a mistake" or from "killing a human being". Bullshit. BULLSHIT. It's a paternalistic view of the world which says that a woman cannot make good decisions for herself, or that she will always regret the decision she made and therefore needs to be prevented from making it in the first place. I would like to say that anyone without a womb doesn't get to make reproductive decisions for those of us who do, but it's ghastly the number of women who participate in this suppression of a woman's basic right to make decisions for herself. I understand that a lot of women who are against abortion have had one themselves and came to regret the decision. In fact, I had a debate last year with a woman in just such a situation. (I got the feeling that it was more the religious beliefs she came into after the abortion that made her feel bad about it, rather than her regret about the child who might have been.) NOTHING gives someone the right to tell another person what reproductive choices are good for them. I don't care who you are or what you've done, you don't have that right and it's time more of us took a stand. I'm sick of sitting back and seeing the rights women have fought and lived and worked for for so long being sold out from under us.
First, I've never had an abortion. I've never needed to make that decision (thankfully), although I could see it being a possibility. Shane had a younger brother who was born without a diaphragm and, consequently, his lungs were deformed and too small. He died hours after being born. At the time, the technology didn't exist to see this before the birth. I'm not sure which was worse for my mother-in-law: the buildup and expectation only to go home from the hospital heartbroken and babyless, or hearing Shane's two-year-old self constantly asking, "Where's my baby?" You'd have to be a monster not to be just a little bit heartbroken by this story, right? But it has further implications for me. We don't know whether or not it was a genetic defect that caused Scott's deformation. We now have the tests and technology that it's very likely I'd find out about something like this before a child was born. I haven't looked into the issue, so I don't know if there's anything that can be done about it. But if there's not? Which is better, to have a baby who will most certainly die within hours of birth, or to abort it before it has the chance at life? I have absolutely no idea what we'd do. But I am most certainly not going to let someone else tell me what I can or cannot do in that situation.
My mother also never had an abortion, but she did go through the procedure. Most people don't realize that the procedure used for an abortion has other purposes. And the people who want to ban it can't ban the idea of abortion (which, I think, is what they'd really want--good luck) so they try to ban the procedure. My mother had four children, but five pregnancies. Miscarriage is like dark secret to pregnancy which most people don't talk about, although almost every woman will have at least one in her lifetime. (I recently had one woman tell me about hers and mention that it wasn't until after it happened to her that nearly every other woman she knows told her about theirs--until then she'd felt so alone, thinking that there was something wrong with her.) However, for some women miscarriage doesn't happen the way it should. My mom, after a short bout of false contractions with my oldest brother, never went into labor again. With any of us. And so it was with the miscarried fetus, too. Her body never got rid of it. There was no heartbeat, no growth. The fetus was most certainly dead but it was still there. If the abortion procedure hadn't been performed it's almost certain that the fetus would have festered in her womb and likely would have killed my mom too. (This was in the early 80's.) That procedure saved her life. The one in-depth conversation I've had with my mom about this, she said that all she felt afterward was relief. She said that knowing the baby inside of her was already dead was such a weight, she felt uplifted when it was over. Who's going to say that she's wrong for this?
I admit, until recently I'd never had any experience with someone who'd had a real, actual abortion of a viable fetus. I always wondered how I would react if a friend had one. Would I look at her just a little differently? Would I secretly judge her? Well, I was put to the test a few months ago. I invited a friend over I hadn't seen in a while and before she'd gotten her coat off she ended up pouring her heart out to me. Her birth control had failed and she'd gotten pregnant a couple of months before. (She later found out that her mom was on the pill both times she'd gotten pregnant.) She and her boyfriend have been going out for a while, but not more than a year. They're both in school. There are cultural boundaries between his family (foreign and not white) and hers (to be blunt, outside of her nuclear family there's a lot of racism) and economic considerations. And they're young. They were both devastated and after discussing their options decided that the best thing for them would be to go ahead with an abortion. This was not a decision they came to lightly or easily. The procedure itself wasn't easy, and my friend said that she'd never want to go through it again. And you know what? My only reaction was exactly what I'd hoped it would be--complete and unconditional love and understanding. I gave hugs and listened with sympathy, crying with her at times. I asked her more recently how she was feeling about it and she said that she had absolutely no regrets. In fact, knowing what she's been through is making her even more excited for the day when she can say, "Mom, I'm pregnant!" And I'm so happy for her. Just because now is not the right time, because something beyond her control (a failure of birth control--they've since changed to a different form) led to this situation doesn't make her a bad person for going through with an abortion. And whether you agree with her decision or not, the fact of the matter is that it was between her and her partner. It is not your decision to make, or mine, or the government's.
Even with my friend, I will never know exactly what went into her and her boyfriend's decision because I'm not her. But I know that I would never presume to tell her whether she did the right thing or the wrong thing. I will never understand how that's come to be the fashionable viewpoint in politics, or why it's gained so much ground. If you don't want to have an abortion, don't have one. But don't kid yourself into thinking that you have the moral high ground by trying to force other women to make that decision. Making abortion illegal doesn't stop it, it just becomes less safe and more people are killed because of the unsafe conditions. All those "pro-life" people out there actually cause more human harm because of making abortion illegal than do countries where abortion is legal. It would be funny if it wasn't so sad. And if you don't believe me, or you'd like to learn more, here's a handy little fact sheet about abortion.
It's clear to me that we have to fight for our rights. This is me, standing up and fighting.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Smiles

My default expression is a smile. When I walk through the hallways at work, I often realize after someone grins at me that I am, in fact, smiling at them. Well, not necessarily at them. At whatever I'm thinking about, or just smiling because there's no good reason not to. My smiling has, on many occasions, prompted complete strangers to say things to me. "It's warmed up today!" they'll say, smiling at me. Or even just, "Hi," in passing. And you know what? Most of the people who notice me smiling end up walking away with smiles of their own. In my truly unintentional way, I seem to be spreading a bit of happiness in my part of the world.
However, today is not one of those days. I can feel that my expression is somewhat sour. I've been grumpy with pretty much everyone (even though I've tried to hide it) and people who've made the pathetic sorts of jokes usually made to strangers (such as comments about me bouncing on my ball, which I use instead of a chair--"You're rocking and rolling, aren't you? Ha ha!") have elicited nothing more than a tight smile because what I really want to say is just too rude and uncalled for. I'm tired, for no real reason. I'm hating my job (I hate sitting all day!!) and the fact that my boss is fussing over everything, for no reason. Even knowing why she's fussing (she has to teach library science 101, and she hates it--today is her first class) doesn't make me feel any kindlier toward her. I want to tell her to just shut up and leave me alone. (!!)
I need a bit of an attitude change today, and I know it. Fortunately, there are things that help me cope on days like today. I went for a walk in the sunlight, had a delicious lunch (Shane made chicken fried rice last night, one of our favorites), drank several cups of tea, and have listened to great music when I'm not actively speaking with someone else so that I can tune out the world.
And I know that soon, hopefully by tomorrow, my smiles will return. I will recognize that while I'm not enjoying my job, it is a means to an end and I won't be here for forever. I need to recognize that the people who make stupid jokes to me are happy or nervous because the semester starts today. My boss teaches two afternoons each week, which means that there will be two afternoons free of her fussing every week. It also leaves some time for me to chat with my coworker, which always helps. We can complain about the fussing from our boss with impunity. :)
And tomorrow is Friday. I have the weekend to look forward to. I already know how I'm going to spend it: reading. The book I'm into right now ("Game of Thrones" by George R. R. Martin) is good enough, absorbing enough, that I didn't realize how late it was last night. I thought it was only around ten until I saw the time--midnight! It's always a sign of a good book when you don't notice the passage of time.

To do and what not to do

I've been trying to go over, in my head, the changes I've made in the last year and what I'd like to see myself change in the future. It's a lot of stuff when it's all added up.

Changes I've made:
-Hang dry most of our clothes
-Take shorter showers with fewer products
-Buy and preserve as much local food as budgeting and space (and knowledge) have allowed
-Tried growing new varieties of foods
-Tried eating new varieties of foods
-Made a conscious effort not to use disposables, even when out and about
-Reduced how often our trash is full from roughly twice a week to roughly once a week or less
-Added to my "homesteading" skills
-Made a conscious effort to reuse dishes that weren't really dirty--i.e., water glasses for more water later in the evening--so that we can cut back on the number of times we need to run the dishwasher (and consequently, do dishes)
-Bought more from local sources
-Bought more organic
-Thought about each and every purchase in terms of, do I really need this? Will it significantly impact my life/someone else's life for the better? Is it good quality? Can I get it used instead? What is the environmental impact of my purchase? (It sounds like a lot to think about, but it honestly goes through my head quickly and I hardly notice myself evaluating things like this anymore.)
-Had some good conversations with Shane about money sparked by my research. What we want to do in the future, how we'll work for it, etc.
-Started composting
-Stopped using paper towels at work. There are no hand driers, so I've either been letting my hands air dry (if I go to the far bathroom, they're dry by the time I get back to my office) or drying them on a towel in the office.
-Started using a handkerchief sometimes, in a very limited capacity. I only have one, so it doesn't get used all or even most of the time. But some is better than none, right?
-Gotten rid of a lot of the plastic in our kitchen and have severely reduced the number of times we cook in our Teflon/non-stick pans.
-Cut back on the number of plastic storage bags we use. In fact, they're used for only sandwiches and freezer foods at this point.
-We're doing our best to eat all of the food in our freezers.

Changes I see coming my way (by category) are

Gardening and food:
-Since we're done with the whole engagement/wedding planning process, this summer I'm going to expand our garden a whole bunch. I've got a giant list of seeds to order, including a bunch of things I've never grown before. It will be an adventure, and so worth it. I'd like to grow at least half of our tomatoes for the year, which is a huge goal but I think with the right conditions it's doable.
-Keeping track of how much I grow. I've never done that before, so this summer I'm going to start weighing my produce in terms of poundage. This way, at the end of the growing season, I can determine if the garden saved us any money. That's not the purpose of gardening (really, I just enjoy it and the food tastes great) but it will be neat to see how the costs compare.
-Try to reduce our food budget even further. For 2012, I'd like to see a weekly average of $100 or less, rather than last year's goal of $125 or less. In this total, I'd like to include my estimate of the cost/benefit of my gardening.
-Source almost all (or just, all) of our berries locally. Our two gallons of blueberries with a few cranberries and raspberries thrown in is great, but not nearly enough even for just two people. I'd like to see it be more like 2 gallons of raspberries, 2-3 gallons of cranberries, and 5 gallons of blueberries, plus strawberries. Plus plenty of berries for jam. I didn't get any local strawberries this year because there's no good source for them. I'll have to add some plants to the garden and see how well I do. (I've never had luck growing strawberries.) If possible, I'd also like to find a local source for currants, which are yummy and healthy. I know they grow here (my grandmother always had some) but I can't find anyone who sells them.
-Expand my skills even further. In the area of canning, I'd like to try making my own pickles and saurkraut. The only reason I haven't tried before now is a)we don't eat a lot of pickles and b)we never eat saurkraut. But I now have recipes using both of those which can easily be made into zero waste recipes if I just make my own.
-Expand my recipe repertoire. As just one example, when we run out of mayonnaise I'd like to try making my own, which I've never done before. And it intimidates me, for no logical reason I can think of. Maybe I should see just how many condiments I can make? I know there are recipes for ketchup out there....
-Bring in more houseplants. I don't know how I'm going to stuff them in, but I do know I should look for more shade loving plants and incorporate them into my household.
-I need to be better about putting a date on the things I store. I get the feeling that I sometimes use the newer things first because they're the ones at the front.

Household:
-Reduce waste even further. I know there are places/ways we can cut back still. In fact, I'd like to get us down to one bag of garbage every two weeks.
-Be more vigilant about recycling. Oh, you thought most of our reductions in garbage were because I was recycling more? Nope. In fact, nearly all of what we have left in the garbage could be recycled (with a few glaring exceptions) but knowing that I have to either carry the stuff to work to recycle, or we have to remember to drive it when we run other errands, is sort of a turn-off. I've been lackluster in this department and that needs to stop. No more being lazy.
-Be more efficient with how I store things. I often have very little freezer space, but plenty of space for canned things. Also, be more efficient with my freezer space by flattening things (like pumpkin and zucchini) before freezing them so that they take up less space. Our freezer is a little bit too much like a puzzle, only one that can fall on you and hurt.
-Continue to purge and organize. We've gotten rid of a lot of Stuff in the last year, but there always seems to be more crowding our space. I think the biggest thing, for me, is that I want to get rid of the coffee table. It doesn't work as a table because the glass is unattached and slides right off, so it just sits there looking ridiculous and taking up space.
-Replace plastic utensils in the kitchen with wood, bamboo, or metal. Donate the plastic ones.
-I'd like to get rid of our non-stick pans and replace them with things which won't off-gas during cooking.

Money:
-We figured out approximately what we need to save each month to afford our own home by the end of the year. Naturally, a lot of this depends on what kind of employment Shane gets this year. But I'm hopeful that all will be well. We have plans.
-Find a better job? I'm not sure about this one yet. I've been vaguely looking, but it would have to pay much better to pull me away from this job and so far I don't seem qualified for any of the jobs I've seen in the pay range I want.
-Save up for more travel. My family is having a reunion at Christmas in Maine, and I'd like to go to New York first because I've never been there. New York at Christmas--it would be so cool! And expensive! But worth it.

General:
-Use even less gasoline. I want to see if we can get under 550 gallons for the two of us.
-Be better about seeking out used things before buying new. I can be pretty bad about this, unless it's a book I'm looking for. If I know it's not a new title I'll seek out used ones first. With other things, it can just seem like such a hassle to look through all of the pre-owned options out there. I like my instant gratification, too. After all, I've already spent plenty of time deciding that I actually want something, so I should get it now!


These goals are long-term. Some of them (like the gardening) are things that I will definitely do this year. Replacing some of our kitchen items? Long-term. Purging our stuff? That will never end because, even though I try hard not to, we still acquire new things. Also, our circumstances will change. Something that's just right for us currently might not fulfill a need later on, or we might discover that we can do without it. We'll see.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

-50

Fairbanks once again dipped into the low -40s and even down to -50 in areas over the weekend. I'm sorry, I can't really begin to give you an idea of what it's like when it's this cold. It's just such unimaginable cold, even for me. You forget from year to year just what happens, and how cold it is. On Sunday I got all dressed up to take the dog (wearing her coat and booties, of course) for a ten minute walk. It was like getting ready for a deep sea dive, or walking on the moon. As I was putting all of the layers on I thought to myself, am I crazy? Am I overdoing it? Surely I don't need all of this.
But I did. Pepper ran to the door as soon as she could, anxious to go back inside. Through my layers of long underwear, socks up to my knees, and flannel-lined Carhartts, my legs were cold. So cold that when I took a shower to warm up, the hot water would be cold by the time it ran down my legs.
In the ten minutes we were outside, not only did my eyelashes frost over but so did my hat, scarf, and the outside of my hood. In fact, my scarf froze to my eyelashes several times and I had to thaw them with my fingers briefly.
Shane and I have noticed independently that the dog's hair (definition: hair grows indefinitely, fur has a pre-set stopping point) has seemed dramatically blacker over the past couple of weeks. In the summer sun her back will look brownish in some lights. Now it's a pure, dark shade of black, almost as if she had the gene mutation which allows Siamese cats and a few other animals to darken in cold temperatures. She's also incredibly fluffy and I'm starting to wonder when I should give her a haircut. (Not until at least the middle of February.)
-40 is the temperature at which rubber freezes. The seat in the truck was frozen solid, like sitting on a metal park bench. The shocks were also frozen, so it was a bumpier than usual ride. The windshield wipers were frozen and didn't work, so we had to be sure to wipe snow off before jumping in the truck. And of course, the heater doesn't really work. Nor does the truck idle well. If you're not sitting in it to punch the gas once in a while, it'll shut off.
It doesn't take long for rubber to freeze, either. We went to a friend's apartment for a potluck dinner on Sunday and my shoes froze in the ride over there. It's maybe a five minute drive? When I kicked them off I half expected the soles to shatter on the tiles.
And if you're going to be outside for more than about 30 seconds you'd better have something to put over your nose or it's in danger of being frostbitten. You can feel every breath, every intake of air like little needles. The air shouldn't hurt to breath.
It's cold enough that if you throw a pot of boiling water outside, it will never touch the ground. It will simply evaporate.
It's cold enough that my lunch froze on my walk to work today. This isn't quite as dramatic as it sounds, since it was half-frozen anyway, but still. I'm starting the process of thawing it out all over again.
I got a text from my younger brother on Sunday reading, "Great. It snows here the day before I fly back." I answered, "Enjoy the warmth. It's -45 here." We were unsure if Seattle (notoriously bad in the snow for a variety of reasons) would shut down the airport, but they didn't. The Boy flew in yesterday and I picked him up. He stayed with us for the night since the dorms weren't open. It's nice to have him home.


(A picture of downtown Seattle in the snow from a friend.)

Bear attack!

No, I didn't get attacked by a bear. Nor have I seen one in a good long while, and never around Fairbanks. But it's always a good idea to be wary, and apparently bear attacks have been on the rise in recent years. This is attributed to many causes which I won't get into here because they're all the usual suspects when animal attacks are on the rise. (Stupidity and climate change, basically.) But still, for people who live in areas with bears, knowing bear safety is crucial.
My uncle is a forester. When he lived in Anchorage, one of his jobs was to catch bears that were coming too near humans and relocate them to safer areas. In case of a bear attack, and in addition to all of the tips about how to avoid one in the first place, he taught me a simple rhyme to remember what to do. "Brown down, black attack." Brown bears are enormous. They're the ones that are most likely to view a small human as not much of a threat, so trying to scare them off at that point isn't going to do you any good. Your best bet is to protect your most vulnerable areas (your stomach, the back of your neck) and play dead. Brown bears are interested in prey, not carrion, and you'll still likely be hurt from the bear prodding you to make sure you're really dead but you'll survive. Shane taught me that shooting a brown bear in the head is the worst place, if you have a gun. Their skulls are so thick, and shaped in such a way, that the bullet will just graze them and they'll keep running. Your best bet is to shoot it in the shoulders, as many times as you can, to disable the bear. Of course, bear spray is a better option for both you and the bear. It's more of an AOE (area of effect) type of defense so you don't have to worry about your hands shaking and your aim being off.
Brown bears, on the other hand, can be intimidated. If one seems interested in you the best tactic is to make yourself seem as big and scary as possible. Grab downed branches and hold them up or out to the sides. Look threatening, make noise. Make the bear think that it doesn't want to mess with you. If that doesn't work, don't run. They'll think your prey and they'll chase you. Not only that, but they're probably about as fast as you and they can climb trees better. Bear mace works well, but if all you have are your hands you need to punch the bear in the face. (How badass would it be to say, "I punched a bear"? It's like saying, "I got in a barfight with a bear and I won.")
Polar bears...well, unless you've got a steady hand and a big gun, there's not much you can do about them. Thankfully, most of us will never encounter a polar bear. Of course, there's the occasional friend who goes to the North Slope for either research or work....


(Yes, that's a picture taken by one of my actual friends. He said he was "scared shitless".)
There's a story I've heard several times about a building that, when it was being built on the Slope, had 2 foot square windows because it was assumed that polar bears (which are huge) can't fit through windows that size. Apparently, they can. I don't know what the end result was, because that's where the story ends, but it's a good lesson. The moral of the story is, "Don't underestimate polar bears, and if you can avoid it don't ever meet one because that's the only real way to survive." Unless you're this kid. Or this one. If you want to read more about bear attacks and what to do in case of one, here's a very good article.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sunday total

It's -45 here and the whole town is blanketed in ice fog. I was going to run some errands today, but unsure if the truck would actually start. At least I have the day off tomorrow!
Yesterday was also super cold, but we escaped to the hills where it tends to be warmer (it was only -20) to visit with J's parents. One of their dogs died on Thursday. He was both a sweet animal and a working dog. Because they're remote, there's more of a chance of wild animals encroaching on their property. Jake kept the coyotes away from their cat and kept them safe from bears when they went to their (even more remote) cabin, among other things. Their only consolation now is that he went quickly (his heart gave out) rather than having a long, slow wasting away. Poor guy. He will be very much missed. They're discussing calling the shelter soon and trying to find another dog. And because of their situation, they absolutely don't want a puppy and that means one more older, less adoptable dog will find a great home.
Our total for this week was about $50. All we picked up were a few apples, more milk, butter, tea, and one or two other small things. I've been continuing my project of actually eating what we have in our freezer, so I made more pumpkin waffles yesterday and I'm making a gingered rhubarb crisp for tonight, when we'll be going to a friend's apartment for dinner. (If you follow the recipe, I've never actually done it with the apples because we eat apples too fast in our house. It's amazing with just the rhubarb and ginger.)
I have a snuggly cat, a good book to read, some hot tea, and another day off tomorrow. Life doesn't get much better than that.

Root vegetables

Oh, man, I'm so glad that I found Sharon Astyk's blog! She seems like a woman after my own heart. It's an old post, but I read earlier today her thoughts on root vegetables. She talks a bit about their historical importance (I do love history lessons, because I'm nerdy like that) as well as why they're important for the future. (If you're wondering what her credentials are, she's a teacher and a writer married to an astrophysicist. Yeah.)
Root vegetables, other than the ubiquitous, nutritious and delicious carrot (with a few potatoes) weren't a regular on our dining table when I was growing up. One thanksgiving, I don't remember why, we persuaded my mom to make something with sweet potatoes. She was surprised when at least Dravis and I loved them. (Brother, correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure you were with me in saying, "Why don't we eat this more often?") My mom was surprised in part because she really doesn't care for sweet potatoes.
Years later, at a family Christmas gathering, my aunt made roasted root vegetables. Most of it was stuff that I was pretty familiar with by then--sweet potatoes, carrots, onions. But there was a white thing in it that I couldn't identify. So I asked her and found out that it was a parsnip. Surprise! I love parsnips, too. Once again I asked my mom why she never did anything with parsnips and found out that it's because they taste incredibly bitter to her. (I find them sweet and with a slight spiciness that's very unique.) I added them to my mental list of "foods I want to eat more of".
From my own culinary experimentation this past summer, I found out that I'm also a big fan of turnips. (Not so much for beets.) Maybe next summer I'll try a rutabaga (that most maligned of vegetables in my house--whenever my dad needed a funny word he'd put in "rutabaga!") and find out that I love it?
My point is, they're nutritious. They're seasonally appropriate, easy to grow, cheap, and there's no good reason (other than you just can't stand them) not to eat root vegetables more often. Go on, give them a try. Give even one of them more space in your diet. It'll do you good.
In the spirit of winter being the season of root vegetables, I made a moose stew the other day. I meant to make a moose roast without (as Shane makes it) lots of thick, creamy industrial soups. (He usually dumps several cans of cream of mushroom over a roast and adds veggies.) But then I got the idea to do more of a stew. So we cut up and browned the meat in big chunks, knowing that it would fall apart after lots of cooking. I cut up onions, carrots and parsnips (we didn't have room for potatoes!) and dumped them and the browned meat into the crockpot, covering them with a bit of salt and some oregano. This went into the fridge overnight, to be pulled out and plugged in in the morning and a whole carton of organic beef broth dumped in as well, cooked on low all day.
And that's it. How simple is that? (I meant to add peas when I got home but forgot.) I had a slice of toast with mine, but it was good all by itself. The only thing Shane didn't like is that the parsnips seemed to have lost all of their flavor by imparting it to the broth and the meat, which was amazing. This is definitely a recipe that will be repeated in our house. I wonder what other seasonally appropriate veggies I could put in here? Maybe some broccoli?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Gardening "porn"

A big part of me wonders why I torture myself with reading about gardening in the wintertime. I can't do anything right now, when it's not only below freezing out (now with windchill!) but also too dark for most plants to survive, let alone thrive. But I still read all about it, and remind myself that in the process I'm learning a lot more about what works for other people.
Specifically, I'd love to learn more about how to extend my growing season. Would a cold frame work? Could I make one without spending any money? Greenhouses and hoop houses are out of the question in our apartment. We also don't have hay for thick layers of mulch to keep the ground warm. So, what else is out there? I'm constantly exploring ideas and ways that I can get just a little bit more out of my garden in the coming summer. And it has worked, since every year I've gotten just a little bit more produce for myself. That's something to be proud of, and I am.
The other part of the equation is learning more about preserving what I have, and using it all up. Sharon Astyk had another post about learning to make the most of one's food supply. Her farm was hit by the hurricanes this past summer and she was writing about preserving as much of the food as possible. I think the moment when she talks about the holocaust survivor (who uses her thumb to scrape out every last drop of egg from a shell because her father died of starvation) is probably the most memorable part. I can't imagine living through something like that and then seeing the excess and waste in our society. Something like 1/3-half of the food in this country is thrown out. How can we stand it? It's not that eating everything on your plate will help starving children in Africa (in her blog post, Astyk says that by growing food for herself she leaves more on the market for others but that glosses over the fact that many starving people don't have access to or money for food), but I do think it's is a lesson in being grateful for what we have. There are so many moments that we take for granted when we should be thanking God or Buddha or Mother Nature or the universe, or whatever you want, for all of the good things in our lives. Food is at the top of my list.
A big part of my mission to reduce waste in our household has to do with reducing our wasteful food habits. Throwing away food is a last resort. If we can't/won't eat it, do we know anyone else who wants it? (I successfully got rid of some chili I knew we wouldn't eat by giving it to a friend.) If not, is it safe for the dog to eat? It usually is. As for the rest, can is possibly be composted? As long as it doesn't have meat in it, it can. In this way we've *almost* completely gotten rid of food "waste" in our house. We don't have to throw things in the garbage because there's almost always a secondary purpose to it. If we didn't get to that last little bit of cabbage, or a few of those lettuce leaves went bad before we could eat them, at least they'll feed my compost and thus, my garden and next year's supply of food.
I bought tons of peaches last summer. They were from far away, and peaches don't travel well. So a lot of them were in danger of rotting before we could get around to eating them. (Although we did our best--for a time I was eating two peaches or nectarines each day. And now I want summer again!) So I froze most of them. They stayed good for far longer than they otherwise would have and we were able to enjoy peaches and nectarines for more than a few weeks during the summer.
Making the most of what you have and buy is good for so many reasons, I don't understand why most people don't do it. How much more disposable income would most people end up with if they actually ate all of the food that they buy--enough for an extra mortgage payment every year? For some families, I'm sure that's the case. That's a lot of money to be thrown away.
Oh, and don't let Ziploc fool you. They're not necessary for food storage. In fact, Pyrex and even Tupperware do a much better job. Ditch the disposables and you'll save even more money.
The other reason for gardening more myself (and buying seeds for heritage vegetables) is the dubious safety of GMO foods. I came across this article earlier, which talks about how much more complex the issue of GMO foods affecting our very DNA is than companies want us to believe. Yes, that's right: food affects our DNA. The science and research behind it is still very new (only about 10 years old) but it's solid. 'Monsanto's website states, "There is no need for, or value in testing the safety of GM foods in humans." This viewpoint, while good for business, is built on an understanding of genetics circa 1960.' When a company such as Monsanto obviously has something to hide (otherwise why would they fight so hard against safety and toxicity testing?) and they stand to make a lot of money off of what we don't know, I don't trust them. I'd rather not give my money to them. If there is such a thing as an evil empire, it's companies like Monsanto. So, if you'd like to join me and also stop contributing to the giant profits of GMO producing companies, here's this handy website listing organics certifiers and companies that have pledged not to source from GMO growers. You can also avoid the biggest sources of GMOs in our country by switching to organic: corn, cotton, canola, soy, wheat, and sugar. Here, read this.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

I'm not Superwoman

But some days it feels like I should be, but I'm missing the mark.
According to Shane, I sat up in the middle of the night and yelled at my boss in my sleep. (I told her she was annoying. ??)
This morning started off with back pain and lots of it. I pulled a muscle in my shoulder last night, and I'm still not sure how. But it hurts. Hurts to breathe, hurts to move my arm, hurts to type, hurts to twist my torso or breathe, shift my weight.... Since (for reasons that I feel are fairly obvious) I didn't want to walk uphill for half an hour, I decided to take the bus. But the bus route must have changed since I last rode it, because I waited and waited and it never came. So, walking. But by the time I got to campus I was not only super cold from standing around, but my back was hurting with every step. (This is not excruciating pain, don't worry, just the annoying kind. Walking through snow and on ice means using your stabilizing muscles more, hence the pain with every step.) So I decided to wait for the shuttle. Now, I've had horrible experiences with the shuttles in the past. When I was recovering from swine flu a few summers ago, the first day going back to work I tried to bike and knew that with the shape my lungs were in I wouldn't make it up the hill. But the shuttle didn't have a bike rack, and when I pointed it out the bus driver snidely told me, "Well you have legs. Why don't you use them?" I ended up carrying my bike aboard, if only to spite the rude driver. And they're all like that to me. Passive-aggressive and rude. Since I only use the shuttle when I'm in pain, or sick, I don't know why I merit this special attention from them but I seem to attract it.
This morning, the call button for the shuttles was broken. (When the semester's not in, there's only one limited shuttle and to get any other service you have to call for it.) So I asked the one shuttle driver to call it in and he did, then left on his route. Then he came back, and left again. And came back, and still no other shuttle for me. When I started walking away he called out, "There's a shuttle coming for you." I told him to forget it, because no matter what I was going to be late for work. I was pissed off. Waiting over ten minutes for the bus that never showed up, and then another ten minutes for a shuttle that "was on its way" isn't really calculated to make for a good morning.
So I walked. Since the moose incident before Thanksgiving, whenever I get to the woods above the sledding hill I either say something or sing a little bit to warn any moose that might be up there. This morning it was, "F*** the shuttle service!" rather loudly. And a moose ran out of the woods maybe 20 feet ahead of me. That was the straw that broke me. It was running away from me, but it still scared me and I ran in the opposite direction. Crying, I called Shane and explained how horrible my morning had been so far. He tried to get me to go another way to work, but I (slowly, warily, carefully) walked up the path. The moose was back in the woods about 30 feet off the path, happily munching on trees. Other than watching me go by (ears perked, rather than laid back) it didn't seem to care too much that I was there. I talked to Shane the whole time. He reminded me that it's Thursday, the week is almost over and of course just by talking to him I felt better.
My plan for this evening is to take a long hot bath with a good book and some epsom salts. I'm so glad our dinner plan consists of "sandwiches and any leftover stew". Not complicated! This weekend we had already planned to maybe go to Chena Hot Springs with friends. Looks like I'm going to need it!
As if you needed another excuse to hate how long your workweek is and how much time it takes away from the things you really want to do, there's a report out arguing that we should all move to a 21 hour workweek. If I could do that and still make as much money as I am now, I totally would. But there are a lot of problems with it, too, only a few of which are pointed out in the article. (They gloss over the fact that people would have to get used to their salaries being halved.) As it is now, however, aside from weekends people spend a majority of their time either at work, getting to and from work, or preparing for work. And then what do they spend their free time doing? Spending money on Stuff, most of which is to either look better at work or make the rest of the stuff that takes up their time more "convenient". Why do we need convenience? Because work takes up too much time. It's awful. How much healthier would the nation be if we all worked only half a week? If we all had the time to cook the healthy meals most people really want, and the time to exercise?
Also, for those in Nome, we're all hoping the tanker makes it to you quickly. You've already had a hard enough winter.
For those in Cordova, I sincerely hope the snow lets up soon.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Local news

I found an interesting blog/idea the other day called Riot for Austerity. In it, the author talks about having a goal (not just for herself, but for everyone) of getting down to a resource use of 10% of the average American's. Why only 10%? Because that's what it would take for us to *stop* global warming and a have a sustainable emissions level. The author calculated this in several ways, which is not truly comprehensive but nothing ever will be. I won't line out the points for you because they can be much better read in her post, but it is neat to at least get an overview and as a jumping off point to start figuring out how many resources you use. Are you better or worse than the national average?
The one thing I figured would be easiest for us to take a look at was the gasoline use. Now, I didn't calculate out all of the gasoline we use when we go to the in-laws (mostly because I don't know how much) and drive around with them, or use the snowmachines. But it was simple enough to figure out the total amount we put into the truck every year. We get, on average, about one tank of gasoline per month for nine months of the year. (20 gallon tanks.) Honestly, it's a bit less in the summertime due to biking and now Shane's motorcycle (with its 5 gallon tank we only filled up once, I think) but we'll go on the high side. The other three months of the year are the months we go on roadtrips to see my in-laws. Those months it usually takes us 6-7 tanks, and since I rounded up for the summer I'll round that down to 6. By my calculations, we're using roughly 550 gallons of gas for the two of us each year. It sounds like a lot, until you realize that the average person (by themselves) uses an average of 500 gallons every year. We've almost cut that in half, which is something to be proud of until I realize that to fully reach the Riot for Austerity goal I'd have to reduce our consumption to only 100 gallons per year. Even one of our roadtrips would be too much gasoline and would have to be stopped altogether. Ouch. (And not happening. But, at some point we will be buying a more fuel efficient car, so we can cut down in that way.) Even the author of the Riot admits that her family didn't make it all the way down, though. However, the point isn't to deprive yourself of everything to be able to say, "I did it!" The point is to start a conversation, to get people thinking about their choices and their resource use. It's amazing what an impact it makes when lots of people do a little bit. And it gets easier over time as you stop thinking about what you're giving up and instead think about what you're doing.
There's the common complaint that people just don't want to "sacrifice" anymore. Look what our country did in WWII! Well, part of the reason people did such monumental changes is because people weren't thinking of it as a sacrifice. Instead, they were contributing to the war effort. They were doing something positive for their country and "the boys overseas". It's always a matter of perspective, so I choose to focus on the good I can do rather than be a self-righteous "sacrifice"er.
If the Riot for Austerity seems to strict and harsh to you, another blogger came up with the idea of the Quiet Riot. It's about taking those first steps and making sure it doesn't all feel overwhelming. Do what you can, don't stress about the rest.
Speaking of little steps in the right direction, a report came out the other day saying that pollution in Fairbanks was less bad in 2011 than expected. I liken that statement to being along the lines of "your cancer isn't quite as bad as we thought it would be", but it's still heartening. Slightly. If you read the article it's not all roses and kittens. It's pointed out that the weather has been unusually mild, and that there have been strange winds and a weak temperature inversion that have all contributed to less pollution. On top of all that, the pollution they're focused on is still over the federal limit of 35 parts per cubic meter. Still, "better than expected" is great news compared to "worse than expected". I'll take it.
In other good local news, Gulliver's Books (my favorite store in town!) is going online with ebook sales. Hooray! I should be able to find anything I want there now. They've always been good about ordering books when asked, but this way I'll even be able to get books for my Nook it looks like. Gulliver's, you are amazing. I look forward to continuing to purchase many, many books from you. And don't worry, I'll still go in the store to check out your fantastic used books section.