Monday, August 29, 2011

Book Recommendations

I've read two fantastic and eye-opening books lately. The first is "No Impact Man" by Colin Beavan. I read this book in about a day and a half because I couldn't put it down. And when it was done, I wanted to start it over just to be sure I'd properly taken it all in. Suffice it to say, it was very eloquently put and very human in the way it was related. The premise is that the author, being a pretty average person, decided that climate change needs to be addressed and that it's up to each of us to start with ourselves by changing our habits. Without knowing really anything about how to live an eco-friendly life, he knew he had to do more than complain about politicians. And he had to drag his wife and baby daughter along on the adventure, too. Very philosophical and, as I said, very touchingly human, this book was marvelous. In the end, living a better and more sustainable life isn't (or doesn't have to be) about the planet: it can be about the people we're on it with.
The second book was "Slow Death By Rubber Duck" by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie. It could be such a scary book (and yes, it did make me want to throw out my few remaining inorganic, un-eco products I've been trying to use up) but it was told with a fair amount of humor. The authors used themselves as the guinea pigs for all of their trials about the chemicals they were looking into, tested some of their own children's toys for the chemicals, etc. It's a very personal narrative about a big problem that affects literally every corner of the globe. (When these chemicals are showing up in the fat of polar bears, you know it's a problem, because there's no natural way for these bears to have gotten these chemicals. That means it's in the environment, and it spreads.) You might reconsider the things you let your children chew on, and what you bring into your home, if you read this. Not in a truly scary way, just as something that you should know and think about.
Finally, Shane keeps telling me lately that I should get a Nook or a Kindle. I've been wondering which is eco-friendlier, an e-reader or a paperback book that gets read several times? I don't actually know the answer. Of course, most environmentalists would say library books are the solution--and I do read library books--but some books are so good you just want to own them, and pass them around to all your friends. (Like the books listed above.) So which is better? I'm not sure, but I'm betting that when you're talking hundreds or thousands of books it probably gives the edge to the e-reader. Maybe I'll get one for Christmas. Knowing Shane, I might get one whether I want one or not. :)

The silliness of hankerchiefs, and other thoughts

Growing up, my dad always carried a handkerchief around with him. Yep, he still does, and he still blows his nose on it. I always thought it was quaint, and cute, and a little repulsive. When you carry around a handkerchief that's been used, you're carrying snot in your pocket. Why not carry feces, too? Except, I was reading over the weekend about someone else's zero waste project (more about that later) and it struck me that I find handkerchiefs weird but I don't find the idea of wiping my nose on my gloves during the winter to be nasty. (If you've ever been in true cold, you know that your nose runs all the time. Might as well face up to it--haha--and wipe it off.) Furthermore, how is it less weird to wipe my nose on a dead tree than a bit of cloth? It's certainly less wasteful. So I tried it. And it turns out to be not weird at all. I've got an old bandanna which I haven't used in years, but it's soft and it doesn't take up any room in my bag. So far, no weirdness and I don't feel any less "clean" for carrying it around.
This morning I was musing about the fact that, when you have a few nice things but not enough that they're commonplace in your home, you really want to take care of them. Shane and I, despite our expectations, received an expensive but really nice knife set as a wedding present from a group of family members. (A friend who went to culinary school said, "Treat those well and you'll be able to pass them on to your children or grandchildren. That's a good, quality brand.") Since nice knives are never supposed to go in the dishwasher, ours don't. In fact, if they've just been used for vegetables we don't do more than rinse and wipe them off. No need for soap, since there isn't any worry about cross-contamination or anything. The reason this crossed my mind earlier is because I was taking my lunch dishes over to the sink to clean and I thought, why do I need to wash these out? They weren't very dirty (one held grapes, the other piroshke) and they didn't have any contamination from meat. Did they really need more than a rinse? I decided no. The dish soap at work (which I didn't bring in) isn't eco-friendly, so who knows what is in it. Plus, the less we use that's less money to spend on soap and fewer resources used cleaning dishes unnecessarily. How many times could we avoid the work and hassle of cleaning things? Like cups used once for water? (I have one cup that sits on my desk for water. I clean out the tea mugs regularly, though, because of the milk I use.) How many fewer times per year would we need to run our dishwashers if we reused our dishes when they don't absolutely have to be cleaned? I admit, I don't always do this at home. Sometimes I'll get out a plate for dinner and, once the food's on it, realize that I could have simply re-used my toast plate from earlier. Zero waste isn't just about getting rid of garbage, it's also about trying to get the inefficiencies out of our lives. I call cleaning things that don't really need to be cleaned inefficient, don't you? Much better to spend that time with Shane, or walking the dog, or teasing the cat.
I've also started dumping stale or "leftover" water into my watering can to use on the plants, rather than dumping it down the drain. There's something about our hard water that creates a film on water that's been heated and it's extremely unappetizing. It also gets worse the longer the water is heated. (You should also see what it does to tea....) So I don't simply re-heat the water in the pot. But the plants don't care, so that's how I reuse it. Even noodle water, or the water I've been using to blanch veggies before freezing, is good for plants. It's been helping me water my garden, and providing whatever nutrients it's leeched out of my food to my other food-producing plants.
I made this granola recipe the other day (minus the seeds because I plain old forgot them), and it's pretty amazing tasting. Not only that, but it only took minutes to make. It was almost zero-waste--I found everything I needed except the spices and honey in the bulk section (honey in a glass jar, though, which I can return), and I didn't see a need for parchment paper. (The granola came right off the pan without it, no worries.) Since I was making sort of open-face, toasted sandwiches for myself that night for dinner, I doubled up on the oven and got two things for the heat of one. Awesome. I'm just storing it in a big glass container on the counter, and it's going pretty fast. My favorite way to eat this so far has been over yogurt with some dried fruit on top. A 2-cup serving in one of my Pyrex containers kept me feeling full from breakfast time (around 6:30 this morning) to noon. Definitely a keeper.

Time to relax

All right, I didn't get everything done that I wanted to. I didn't go berry picking. (I did get some rose hips, but not that many and I'm frankly not quite sure what to do with the 2 tablespoons of usable food product I got out of them....) But it was a good weekend, and even better that I gave myself time to relax. One phone call to my mother nixed that feeling of peace (love you Mom! stop freaking out) but I got it back.
I did manage to freeze a lot more local carrots and celery. When I bought the three stalks of celery the farmer said, "Three? Do you freeze them?" So I told her about my mirepoix starter kit. (Mirepoix is the French term for the mix of onion, celery and carrot.) I harvested potatoes, found out that rather than just trading in my tea canisters I can actually just get them refilled at the store (for 10% off, no less), and did a good deal of biking around town. I also canned some tomatoes yesterday (they cook down so far--only 5 cans out of all those lovely tomatoes!) and cooked up a giant batch of piroshke ("Russian hot pockets", as one friend describes them--the ones I made have cabbage and carrots in them) so that I don't have to cook for the rest of the week. I'll even have enough to feed my little brother when he arrives tomorrow.
I got my bridesmaid gifts ready: books and homemade vanilla extract. I didn't realize how easy that is! I had to order the vanilla beans online, but I used locally produced vodka. And that's all you need. Cut open the beans and toss them in vodka, shake every once in a while and it should be good to go in about 8 weeks. How easy is that? You can even reuse the beans--when it starts getting low, just add more vodka. If you need to, toss in another bean or two. The spent beans can be dropped in sugar to make vanilla sugar. I'm totally making my own extracts from now on. And I can't wait to see what else I can make from those vanilla beans! I already know I want to make a vanilla syrup, so that hopefully I can get Shane to stop using coffee creamer. (Have you seen what's in it?!) Make the syrup, mix with milk, pour in your coffee, and ta-da!
I guess I can't really say that I relaxed this weekend. I did manage to read some, but popping up to go do something else at the end of every chapter isn't exactly "relaxing". But I did get stuff done that I wanted to do, and I'm not stressing out anymore about wedding stuff. I'm just excited. I walked to work today with the biggest grin on my face. Less than a week to go!!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

This week in crazy....

Part of me finally feels like I have all of the wedding stuff under control. (Notice I said part of me.) And at this point, it pretty much has to be good enough. Shane leaves tonight for the moose hunting trip/bachelor party. Cross your fingers that they have luck!
Back at home, I think I'll be spending most of my time doing my last autumn preparations: cranberry and rose hip picking/preserving. Maybe another trip to go blueberry picking? Harvesting my potatoes, getting more rhubarb in the freezer, which is getting quite full. I'm slowly trying to make the refrigerator freezer into our produce freezer, and leaving the other one for meat and fish. It hasn't fully happened yet (there's still a lot of crossover) but it will get there. Shane and I agreed that when we get home from our honeymoon we need to figure out what, exactly, we do have in our freezers and start planning meals accordingly. (Please note: running a mostly empty fridge/freezer takes a lot of electricity. When it's fuller, it doesn't have to work as hard because the other cold foods help to keep the temperature down. As we work down in the chest freezer we'll start putting in jugs of water that we've frozen outside. This also works as an emergency fresh water supply in case of emergency. Smart, huh?)
We also had the home weatherization people in our place this week. Shane and I both had to rearrange our schedules a bit to either let them in or talk to them/sign paperwork. (As if life wasn't crazy enough for us right now!) But it was good. They put in some extra weather stripping and, at least in a few places, some more insulation. They insulated the water tank. They also vented the dryer outside (it was just blowing into the garage, which is not only gross but dangerous--the supervisor told me that dryer fires are the number one wintertime cause of home fires in Fairbanks) and put a vent in our bathroom to help with the mold problems we've been having. Hurray! We got a number of nifty little toys, too, like a temperature/humidity monitor, a timer for plugging in the truck, a special brush for cleaning the coils on the back of the fridge (should be done at least once a year), new CFL light bulbs (which actually only replaced our least-used bulbs), and he did a complete electricity audit with me to help with ways to lower our electricity bill. (Like not using the heat dry setting on the dishwasher, which I don't do anyway.) Apparently our fridge is only costing us about $8/month, which is pretty good around here. Overall it was pretty fantastic. It's a "very leaky house", but this should help make it less so and hopefully our landlord won't have to raise the rent on us. Once again, fingers crossed....
I bought turnips last weekend at the farmer's market, but we honestly had no idea what to do with them. I knew when I bought them that I didn't want them for anything this week, but the farmer's market will probably be gone when we get back from our honeymoon, or at the tail end and with few vegetables. (They generally go until the snow falls.) So I'm trying to stock up. We don't have a root cellar, and the garage is too warm even in winter. Shane had the brilliant suggestion of using the second bedroom as a sort of root cellar, since it's generally quite a bit cooler than the rest of the house. So I'll be storing our turnips and potatoes in there this winter.
I grabbed a book from work about Alaska berries and what to do with them. Rose hips, look out! There are some very yummy recipes in there that I'm looking forward to using. Like rose hip cookies, and different fruit leathers, and how to freeze/can stuff properly.
It was almost frosty this morning (I could see my breath as I was biking to work) so I'm battening down the hatches and getting ready for winter. Almost ready. And since I'm not the only one with big preparations to do, good luck to those of you on the East Coast! I hope hurricane Irene is gentle with you.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Walking to work today, I was suddenly very conscious of some of the state of unemployment in Fairbanks. Usually Alaska, being so far away, has a bit of a buffer when it comes to economic crises that affect the rest of the country. After all, we have oil, tourism, and distance to help us out.
However, the boom time is definitely summer. Employment around here ebbs and flows with the seasons, picking up a lot in the summer and fading back again when the snow falls. One of our big industries is actually construction. Roads are constantly breaking down in our harsh conditions and needing to be re-paved every few years. This summer there's been the boon of construction on campus: the life sciences building that's currently underway across the street from my office, the new offices they're putting in the former courtyard of my building, and several new greenhouses. (These are just the projects I know of--I'm sure there are others on campus. These just happen to all be ones I see daily.) And while the pace of construction has moved rapidly, these won't be finished before snow falls. Some are scheduled to be finished by the end of October, likely after the first snowfall. But it's pretty much impossible to do construction over the winter unless it's all indoors. With tourism winding down (mostly in winter we just get a small number of people hoping to see the Northern Lights--mostly Japanese, so it will probably be an even smaller number this winter) and construction season almost over, unemployment in Fairbanks, and Alaska more broadly, is going to shoot up. It's reminding me once again to be thankful for everything that Shane and I have, and kicking me to donate a little bit more to the food bank.
The end of these jobs comes every year at the worst possible time, because it's when people need money the most: to pay for oil to heat their homes, to cover sky-high electricity bills (between the high cost of electricity and how much we need to use it, $200 a month in the depths of winter is not uncommon here), and to pay higher food costs. For an example, the "great price" I've been getting cherries for, in season, is about $5/pound. That's in season. A tiny plastic container of blueberries is often over $10 in the winter, non-organic. Can you understand why I put away as much as I can? (And will probably go berry picking again this weekend.) I know there will be people in my community who will be hurting, and I wish I could do more to help them.
On a happier note, I found a website (and blog) by the authors of one book that I loved about self-sufficiency: "The Urban Homestead". (Even better than buying: I found it for free through an e-book library program called Listen Alaska.) I'd say that building an urban homestead is probably what I'm ultimately working towards. (Here are the 10 Elements of an Urban Homestead, if you're curious.) I like the idea of being more self-sufficient, not having to rely on other people and corporations that probably don't share my beliefs of how the world should be run. And with these people, anything I've thought of they've already done. Of course, they have some advantages which I don't. Like being able to grow fruit trees. But I have advantages they don't, like access to moose, salmon and halibut, wild blueberries and cranberries. (Shane found a bunch growing, and he's going to show me where so I can pick them this weekend.) Besides which, self-sufficiency is what draws a lot of people to Alaska. If you're living off the road system (and a surprising number of people do) you can't rely on others. Being dependent on yourself is a mindset up here, more than any other place I've been. It's why urban gardening (as more than decoration) has never gone out of style here. Instead of blazing my own trail, I'm just proudly joining in this tradition. Can a few actual trailblazers help me out, here? I could use some help and advice....
I also apologize for not having any pictures of the fun stuff I've been doing/observing lately. Both of our cameras chose this very inopportune moment to die. Lovely.

Monday, August 22, 2011

More blueberry picking, and good news!

It was another super busy weekend. A friend's birthday (complete with a BBQ and beer-in-hand kickball--I wore a hockey mask to protect my broken nose), more housecleaning and wedding chores, an adventure at the Marlin to listen to Sweating Honey (our favorite local band) and make a pact with two friends that we would run the Equinox Marathon next year. (What did I get myself into?!) I went to the farmer's market on Saturday and bought, among other things, four bunches of carrots. When I got them home, I realized that I didn't have any meals planned for this week that involve carrots. So I blanched and froze them, as well as the rest of the celery I had in the fridge. (Celery goes bad so fast around here!) Actually, combining the two items in freezer bags is going to turn out to be really helpful over the winter, because now it's like part of a chicken soup kit. Or pot pie, or butternut squash many possibilities.
Sunday was for more blueberry picking. This time it was just me and Fiona. Ellie wanted to go, but she had too much work to do. (Ah, the life of a teacher, working weekends.) Anyway, this site was much further out than the last, an hour and a half drive out of town. It's also bear country, so I brought the dog and we attached bells to her. (Bears don't usually attack if they know you're there; they'd much rather avoid you. So talking, singing, and bringing bear bells are all necessary and smart precautions in bear territory.) It was fairly amusing because she jingled any time she moved. I think she liked it, too. I had to carry her over the river crossings, shaking in my arms (and I did buy some boots for this--but not XtraTufs because no one carried them in my size! the curse of tiny feet) but for the most part she loved the walk. And the site was SO WORTH IT! The patch we were at (one of several) was rather big, but even better was the fact that the berries were super dense in there. We set right to work, only taking one small food and drink break. But in the roughly two hours we were picking, we each got a gallon sized bucket brimful of berries. And we took about ten minutes to pick some for Ellie, as well, since she couldn't make it. (A very grateful--and rather hungover from kickball--Adam opened the door, surprised and pleased that we'd done that. I'd had moments of thinking we could just split those berries and keep them, but seeing how happy we'd made him was even better.)
We actually left the spot not because we were out of berries to pick (we only made it about halfway through the patch, and that was being picky about not picking the shriveled ones!) or because of the wet and cold (my hands did get cold, but I brought some tea to help me warm up) but because of the dog. After a while of running around, then a lot of confusion on her part as to what we were doing, she finally sat next to me for a long time, wet and miserable. She jingled every time she shivered. She kept shaking and looking back at me as if to say, "I don't like this. I'm wet, and I don't like it." So we decided that our gallons were good enough for one day and hiked back to the truck. When we got there Fiona said, "Hey, it's my dad's truck! He must be caribou hunting." For some reason, that amused me. I think it was the fact that we were all out there but didn't meet each other or even hear one another. I hope he gets a caribou.
Shane and I finally got a chance to see "Harry Potter" last night. For two people who love those books as much as we do, it's been a little torturous to wait until we had time to properly enjoy the final movie. And of course, I left the theater regretting that magic isn't real. Until I realized that there is a sort of everyday magic that we take for granted, and I'd witnessed a small part of it earlier in the evening. J and L had their baby yesterday, a little girl weighing 7 pounds, 1 ounce. If creating a new little person out of two half cells isn't magic, I don't know what is. This particular little person is beautiful, and I can't wait to babysit!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Freeing myself

Yesterday, I took myself a big step toward freeing myself from my bank. Since moving to Fairbanks, I've been banking with one of the big 5 banks and I really can't stand them. Not only do I hate all the fees (and find it absolutely ridiculous that an entity would have the right to charge me for using/accessing my own money) but I hate them on principle for what they're doing to people around the country. They're one of the companies behind such lovely things like the "robo-signing" scandal.
So, I opened an account with one of the Alaska credit unions. I don't know why I never did this before. Laziness? Probably laziness. But not only am I getting much a much better deal--including better interest rates and service, fewer fees--but now I'm not helping to support an entity I hate. That's a good feeling.
I would most likely have kept being lazy about this if not for our honeymoon. When I purchased our plane tickets for our honeymoon (the airline company is foreign) I was charged $75 because it was an international transaction. (I did not realize they'd charge for such a ridiculous thing. What on earth does it cost them to move a few electronic numbers that they'd charge me $75 for?!) When I looked into this a bit deeper, I found out that not only would the credit card charge me a percentage every time I used it in a foreign transaction, but my bank would charge me $5 for every debit transaction in a foreign country. My credit union does not charge me anything, and if I have to use an ATM they will return any fees incurred from that transaction. A much better deal, wouldn't you say? There's no way we're going to carry around enough cash to cover everything we'll need to pay for while we're gone. That would be silly, as it could be easily stolen. This way, we have the security of a financial institution behind us without the ridiculous fees that a bank would charge.
I still haven't closed down my accounts with the big banks. For one thing, my work is still auto-depositing my paychecks to that account. (I've sent in the paperwork needed to change that, but it will take a couple of weeks.) I also have a few outstanding transactions that I'm waiting to clear. But I'll close them down soon and move all of my money to the new accounts.
Shane and I have been talking about how we wanted to arrange our finances for a while now. Since we realized we'd have to get new accounts anyway, moving our money at this time was easy enough. And I'm so glad we did.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The most important question

The Republican contenders for the White House have been all over the news lately, and (at least on the news sites I frequent) their constant attacks on the EPA, science in general, and climate science more specifically, has been a big part of their coverage. Rick Perry has apparently written scathing emails to the EPA, while taking vast campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry. (You can read this article, and this one, about some of his environmental policies, then this one about how crazy they are.) Michele Bachmann keeps claiming that climate science is all bunk. The fact that they are generally acknowledged to be the "frontrunners" makes me want to cry. (And cross my fingers that people in this country aren't a)stupid enough to elect them or b)fed up enough with the president to elect them.)
But I really think that they (and the people who, apparently, are stupid enough to think that they're brilliant) are focusing on the wrong issue when it comes to the climate. At this point, it doesn't matter whether almost every credible scientist is wrong about climate change and its causes. The more important question is, can we afford the consequences if they're right? The answer to that is clearly and overwhelmingly no. We can't afford the catastrophic loss of species (both in marine and land animals, and plants) that we're causing. Who can really gauge what the long-term consequences of those losses will be? We can't kid ourselves that it's just environmental problems that we're causing. What unknown benefits to our own species are we losing out on because we haven't cared enough for these creatures and plants?
We obviously can't take the health effects to ourselves, either. We're creating new diseases to wipe ourselves out (if you don't think so, google MRSA), and contaminating our bodies (which are, if you think about it, our most precious natural resource--at least on an individual level; you only get one body, so keep it safe and healthy) with toxic substances which have never been checked for human health. All kinds of chronic diseases have been on the rise for a while now, and the rates are continuing to climb higher. Asthma and cancer alone have catastrophic consequences to the family affected and to the community, not to mention the healthcare system, and are directly linked to environmental contaminants. How much is this costing the world, to treat (or in poor places, not treat) these diseases? What are the long-term impacts? I don't think there's a single person on earth who can fully comprehend all of the ramifications of what we're doing to ourselves and the planet.
So can we afford it? No. Can we do something about it? Yes. Will the government do something about it? As bashing the environment gets more and more popular, that looks less and less likely. Can individuals do something about it? Absolutely. I don't mean letter-writing campaigns to make your opinion known to politicians (although I do, also, advocate that), but the actions each of us takes on a daily basis can do good. Each time you bike rather than drive, what's the ripple effect of that? Not only are you doing yourself and the environment good, but you're actively not supporting an industry that has proven itself to be underhanded and greedy, and which works against the public good. (Even if it wasn't for the health and environmental problems, I wouldn't want to support the fossil fuel industry!) Every time you create a little bit less trash, can you really picture how much you're not adding to a landfill over your lifetime? I certainly can't. But I know that's what I'm doing, and it keeps me going. In this fight, where the consequences are so far-reaching and unthinkable, knowing that I'm doing my part (and maybe helping others to change their habits a little?) is a victory.
Any time I get depressed about how much impact my little actions are really having, I remind myself that Ghandi was just one man. Mother Theresa was just one woman. Nelson Mandela was just one man. Joan of Arc was just one woman. Martin Luther King, Jr., was just one man. Rachel Carson was just one woman. The evidence is all around that just one person can change the world. Even the "lowly" can cause such a stir that the world is never the same. If all I change are a few lives around me, I will have done some good and that is enough for me. If all I do are to change my own habits and do a little bit of good that way, that's enough for me. It kind of has to be, doesn't it?
There are times when I don't do so well, either. I broke down last week and bought a box of chai tea, even though the packaging had to be thrown away. You know what I found later that day? A recipe online for how to make your own chai tea concentrate. But now I know, and I can do better in the future. I have to remind myself that changing my mindset was the easy part and even that didn't happen overnight. Now I have to completely overhaul my habits, and that is the hard part. My transition period is turning out to be messier than I'd hoped (in so many ways). I'm trying to change my spending habits, the way I shop for everything, my eating habits, my driving habits...and so many more things. I'm changing my lifestyle drastically, all at once. By focusing on the important questions--like does this or that matter to me, and what can I do better next time--it keeps me focused on what my goals are and why I'm doing what I'm doing. "Is climate science right" doesn't enter into it at all, because ultimately that doesn't matter to me. Believing in it or not doesn't make it true or not. But stating your skepticism about it does go a long way toward showing what kind of person you are.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Autumn is here. It's early stages yet, but it's definitely started. Our days have been cool, with highs in the 60s. (Which still means t-shirt weather for us, but pants rather than shorts and capris.) The leaves are starting to turn golden on most of the trees. The fireweed is having its last hurrah, with splashes of brilliant purple-pink color around.
When I was cutting up cherries the other night to freeze, I left the back door open for the pets. Suddenly, I heard this incredible cacophony of honking and I had to go see. The cat sat next to me and we both watched the sky as a large flock of geese in their V went flying southward. It was quite beautiful, actually, with the tree in our back yard starting to turn yellow and a slight tinge of pink to the cloudy sky from the setting sun. (It was past 10 o'clock.) Even the noise, as jarring as it can be, sounded beautiful to my ears.
Autumn is such a bittersweet time. It means the end of summer's abundance (or, if you're lucky, over-abundance) and the last mad dash trying to make sure everything is prepared for all of the long, cold months ahead. Is everything ready? Do we need to stock up on any food products that might be hard to get? Is there anything else we can do to make the house warmer? It's like being a part of some ancient ritual common to all animals, these preparations for winter. I know why so many composers have written pieces about the different seasons, and why of those so many end up with the feel of a dance. The turning of the year really is like a never-ending dance and we keep twirling around to mother nature's tune. My job is not to regret when the tune changes, but to change my dance to go with it.
Autumn is my favorite season. I love the riot of colors, and the activity that comes from every direction. Seeing the geese in flight left me with an amazing sense of peace. (I think it just left the cat with a primal desire to hunt something, and the knowledge that in his cowardliness he wouldn't do it.) Summer and all of its joys are ending, but now we get to anticipate the quieter activity of winter. Though it might feel like it, it's not really a lessening of activity, instead switching to different activities. I haven't knitted all summer, but I'm sure I'll start again when the first snow falls. I'll feel less of a need to run around "taking advantage" of every waking moment, and instead allow myself the time to enjoy quiet (weekend) mornings with a mug of tea and a book.
I get this wonderful sense of anticipation at this time of year. It's as if there's something good right around the corner waiting for me. (Which, this year, is perfectly true! 2 1/2 weeks! But I'll feel this way even after the wedding, after the honeymoon.) I don't know why, but I never feel this way in spring when it would probably be more apropos. Spring has more of an anxious feel to it. At the end of winter, I really just want summer to get here already. In autumn I take the time to enjoy the crisp days after the heat of summer, the transition to warmer clothes and heartier meals.
And, of course, I'm a busy bee stocking up on everything I can think of. Tonight is a wedding chore free night, so I'm going to focus on getting some of my summer squashes grated and frozen, my rhubarb chopped up and also frozen. I might even start pulling out my potatoes. (I'm still mad that I didn't find any more tires to keep hilling them. I should have had at least two more, probably three more tires on the stack. Next year.)
I didn't do everything I wanted to this summer (like canning tomatoes, so we could have homemade tomato sauce all winter) but those worries are now behind me. What's done is done. I'm going to enjoy autumn to its fullest, because it doesn't last nearly long enough.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Well, one major thing checked off my to-do list: we've mostly finalized the wedding menu with the caterer. Whew! I feel lighter and freer already. On to the next big task....
I have to admit that, for the summer, our food budget has been sort of blown away. Not entirely, but we've definitely been spending more than I hoped to. The only reason is because of the amount of fruit we've bought. It's so hard to say no to fruit when it's in season and actually worth buying, which is not the case around here for most of the year. So I know we'll make up the difference in budget over the winter when we're no longer gorging ourselves on delicious fruit. I've been looking for fruit that is from Washington or Oregon mostly, and organic since our favorites tend to be soft fruits like cherries and strawberries. And of course local blueberries and cranberries from the farmer's market are a current staple in our household, a lot of them getting frozen for winter. I have another date to go blueberry picking with the ladies on Sunday! I'm hoping to pretty much double the amount of blueberries I currently have stocked away for the cold months.
It's not just local fruits that I've been saving, though. Since cherries came into season I've bought about 20 pounds of them. Most of them we've eaten right way. (And I do mean right away--munching on them as we drive home from the store; it frustrates me that I haven't been allowed to bike for the last two weeks, so we've had to drive.) But I think they're starting to go out of season again, because the ones I bought last week started to go bad very quickly. So last night I took the time to cut them open, pull out the pit, and then fill a cookie sheet with them so that they can be frozen. As much as we love cherries, we won't be able to eat all of them before they go bad. So now they're frozen and we can have cherries all winter. I could also can them, but that takes even more time. Time is what I don't seem to have enough of right now! That can be a project for next year, because there are situations in which using canned rather than frozen fruit works much better. Although, the cherries we haven't just straight eaten have gone into my breakfast smoothies, which I've been loving, and frozen fruit works pretty well for that. (It jams up the blender if it's still frozen, so I put it in the blender and then let it sit in the fridge overnight to thaw. That seems to work the best.)
I think I'm also going to freeze some carrots. It's a process that involves blanching them in boiling water before you freeze them, otherwise they freeze and thaw oddly. You still wouldn't want to eat them as they come out of the freezer, but cook them in things like soups and you'd never know that they were frozen. So worth it. It's amazing to me the difference between a farmer's market carrot and one from the grocery store. They're much brighter and better tasting. Even the Alaska Grown carrots at the store don't quite match up to the ones from the market because they've been bagged and stored for who knows how long.
We're starting to gear up now for Shane's pre-wedding moose hunt. The regulations are quite strict this year so they might not get anything. But if they do I'll be quite proud, and we'll gladly eat the meat. I read this article yesterday about Colorado moose, with some great pictures (that still don't really do justice to their size) and a few facts about moose. One thing it doesn't say: you're more likely to be attacked by a moose than a bear in Alaska. Most people think of them as slow-moving, peaceful creatures because they're herbivores. But they're loners, so they can be incredibly territorial. And since they do have to deal with things like wolves and bears, they've developed a rather vicious way of defending themselves. So while I think that they're incredible animals, and I don't mind eating them, I very much respect them and their space. As does everyone with a minimal amount of common sense, I give them a wide berth when I see them. You never think about it, but a charging moose would probably be scarier than a charging bear.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Blueberry picking

So we've been totally, insanely busy trying to get things organized for our wedding. We check one thing off the list and remember four more that we need to do.
However, I did take some time away from that on Saturday to go blueberry picking with friends. Five of us ladies went out past Fox to a patch that Fiona knows of. She was the only one with any wild blueberry picking experience to speak of, so the rest of us didn't know what to expect. The drive over was hilarious and we agreed that even if we didn't find any blueberries, the laughter from that mini-road trip was worth it.
It was such a rainy day, but the rain stopped about two minutes before we got to the site. So it was soggy, but not actually raining. (Note to self: I should get some Xtra Tufs for next year. My shoes were squelching by the time we were done. Also, it's insane for an Alaskan not to have a pair of Xtra Tufs. It's like not having Smartwool socks, which I was very thankful to be wearing. Thanks for the socks, Dravis! My feet were wet, but still warm.) Anyway, we pulled the car over and piled out into the mud, pulling hats low and zipping up jackets. Deciding to go up the hill rather than down turned out to be a great decision. We hadn't gone more than 20 feet into the brush before Hannah called, "Blueberries!" Ellie asked, "Are you...calling them?" The response: "No, I found some!" There were blueberries everywhere. And crowberries, and what I think were low-bush cranberries. But I wasn't sure enough of my identification to actually want to eat them. (Looking at pictures online, I'm fairly certain that's what they were. I could have doubled my berry haul if I'd picked them! Oh well.) The link for the crowberries explains them rather well: they're rather tasteless and generally used as "filler berries"--that is, to make the berries you want last a little longer you mix in crowberries. Making blueberry pie? Add in some crowberries and no one will know that it's not a pure blueberry pie. Since they're even higher in vitamin C than blueberries are, you'll even be doing yourself a favor. They have also been used by native peoples to help fix eye ailments and stomach problems. I only picked a few, but again I could have doubled or tripled my berry haul if I'd been less particular. I just wanted to focus on the blueberries. They are, after all, probably my favorite berry.
And oh my goodness were there plenty of blueberries! With five of us picking, we gathered quite a few, but could have gotten way more if we'd been willing to stay out there for more than two hours. (Fiona mentioned going out there every day this week, so maybe I can manage to get out there again. And if not with Fiona, Ellie certainly wouldn't mind another trip!) I had big yogurt containers that I've been saving to use for my plant starts next spring (I think the individual cups are too small, so next year I'm going with the big ones) and they worked just as well for berry containers. I was glad I had the lids, too, or I would have dumped them out several times! I managed to fill 1 1/2. Other women had saved the plastic ice cream buckets with handles and those worked well, too.
The tundra was nice and thick with mosses, so the ground was soft to kneel on. (I ended up wet through all the way up to my thighs.) And with all the rain we've had lately, the berries were big (for wild berries) and sweetly juicy. Mmmm! We talked a lot, of course, partly to pass the time and partly as a defense against bears. The real danger is surprising one and making it defensive. If they know you're there they'll avoid you. So we chatted, about marriage (Hannah kept asking us three married/almost married ladies questions about when we knew they were the one for us, how we met, how they proposed, etc.), about how much fun we were having (Fiona's comment was, "This might sound sexist, but I can totally understand why women used to leave the men at home to come berry picking with each other. It's so relaxing and enjoyable!"), and how many berries we were getting. Exclamations over particularly large berries, or a great patch of them, were inevitable. I finally asked everyone what their plans for the berries were. A lot of people said freezing some, but there was also talk of jam and pies if there were enough berries.
I decided that most of them would get frozen, but I also wanted to make something with the fresh berries. My brilliant idea: blueberry pancakes with blueberry sauce on top! The cat woke me up on Sunday morning ("Mom! Moooom, I'm out of food! Mom, feed me breakfast!") so I got up and started making breakfast for everyone. I used Alton Brown's pancake recipe, which is one of my favorite from-scratch recipes. (Just the right mix of sweetness and savoriness, and really easy to throw together.) I added the blueberries while the pancakes were already on the griddle so that I could be sure each pancake had a lot of berries in it.

For the sauce I dumped some of the washed blueberries into a pot (I didn't measure) and started mushing them with a fork. Then I added some water, some vanilla and a tablespoon of sugar, and turned on the heat. I added a bit of cornstarch later to thicken it up. Shane's comment about the sauce was that it was "Weird. I can't tell if it's good weird or bad weird." I mentioned the vanilla and he said, "I think that's what's throwing me off, I didn't expect it." Well, I really enjoyed it. I smothered my pancakes in this sauce. So good! We both had blue mouths after breakfast. All of this used up the half container of blueberries, so the others are now sitting in my freezer. It'll be good to use them like this again during the winter and remind ourselves of summer's sweetness. It's fleeting around here, we need to make it last.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

These people say it better

There's this article on why going green makes you happier. In part it seems like a big pat on the back for anyone who dubs themselves environmentalists (which I do not consider myself--being aware of the environment and my impact on it is important, but I've got a long way to go before I could feel like I deserve that title without feeling hypocritical), but the article does have its basis in quite a few philosophical quotes by brilliant people. Who am I to argue with the Dalai Lama? Besides which, we could all use some positive reinforcement to help solidify change in our lives. And I get the feeling that one good habit inspires us each to make other changes in our lives. Start small and it's amazing what you can do. What's that saying about each journey starting with a single step?
Then there's this one on one reason the chemical cocktail we're pouring into the environment needs to stop. There should be a ratio of boy babies to girl babies being born that's 51%/49%. Some communities are seeing twice as many girls born as boys and the reason is most likely because of chemicals in the environment affecting reproductive organs. (This is difficult to prove, but almost all affected communities are near chemical plants. The others are downstream of them, or in some other way affected by chemical plants outside of their immediate region.) How scary is that? What's even scarier is that I noticed this trend (lots of girls being born, fewer boys) among people I know before ever hearing about this. Across the country, friends and family who've had babies over the past couple of years have overwhelmingly had girls. I realize that my observation isn't exactly scientific, but what's the possibility that of roughly 15 births that I can think of in the last year and a half, only three were boys?
The things these people have been trying to bring attention to are fascinating. Particularly pay attention to Fred Kirschenmann, who pointed out that growing organically doesn't mean that you're growing sustainably.
Also, this article made me laugh with the tone (and since when is dog mushing "big Alaskan business"?), but I'm very proud of the fact that people and towns in my state are moving toward a more sustainable life. Even if we can't get anything going on the national level, if we each changed our communities locally to be sustainable there would be no need for national change.
Finally, there's this article on the moral imperative to reduce waste and rid ourselves of the idea of disposability. Usually I don't like the religious point of view (getting involved in religion, more than anything else, tends to set other people's backs up; also I hate the idea of trying to impose any one religion/religious tradition on others) but this article was really good and sort of transcends any one religion. We treat everything as disposable, and it's leading us to treat our planet as disposable. Unfortunately, that's not really an option we have. Do you see us terraforming new earths anytime soon? I don't either.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


When I get stressed, I clean. Very productive, right? Well, when something big happens, or is about to happen, I end up overhauling entire areas. With my wedding approaching, look out little apartment! The other night, somehow, moving furniture so that we could practice our dancing (we don't have a routine, but we do need to remind ourselves of the moves) turned into cleaning out the closets. I now have several bags ready to go to the homeless shelter, with shoes (I almost never wear high heels, so why would I need more than two pairs?) and clothes.
Something as monumental as our wedding is naturally going to get a big cleanup. For one thing, we've got more stuff coming in. (We got our first wedding presents the other night! I still need to write a thank you note....) We were very careful when selecting stuff to register for, keeping it to things we'll use. Sheets (we're down to one set, and those were free), towels, and kitchen stuff mostly. I also tried to make sure that it was in line with our values: wood, metal, and very little plastic. This step also allowed us to evaluate our lives: what kind of home do we want to create? What is important and worth bringing into our home? Stuff we registered had to be stuff that would actually improve our lives in some measurable way. Anything that we're trying to replace (like our blender and dishes) will be either given away to friends who need them or donated. I'm hoping it will all get reused in some way.
The house cleaning will continue this weekend, when Shane and I have set a date to go through our things. But here's something: what to do about boxes we haven't looked into for more than a year? We have a few of those. Should we just take them to thrift store and let them throw away what they don't want? Or should we go through and actually make decisions? If we haven't even looked in these boxes for so long, we obviously don't need what's in them. But there's always the chance one of us will think, "Oh, I should keep that...." We're both packrats, trying to fight that tendency.
Then there are all the things we've set aside for friends but haven't actually delivered to those friends yet. I have a pile of ripped jeans that I can give to a friend who sews. I should actually give them to her, because they're not doing any good in a pile in the closet.
We're also evaluating the things we have. Before I met him, one of Shane's friends who was moving gave him a TV for free. In the dorms we used it a fair amount. Watching movies, TV shows, etc. But it's been turned on maybe three times in the last two years. If we're going to watch a TV show or movie, we inevitably do it on our computers. (Or at J and L's--they have an enormous TV. Mostly we have it on as background while we chat.) We should have gotten rid of the TV a long time ago but have just been lazy about it. So now it's up on Craigslist. We'll probably start getting rid of a few of our DVDs, too. At least the ones that are easy to get through the library. Since I work there, it's not like it would be out of my way to check them out. If our library doesn't have it, it can be obtained through interlibrary loan, as well. In fact, that's most of what our ILL department sends out.
As much as it pains me, I do regularly purge my book collection. Will I read it again? Is it one I want to loan out? (Quite a few of my books have been read multiple times.) Does it have some intrinsic value, like reminding me of something I learned from it? (Basically, did reading it make me a better person?) Does it contain knowledge that I might want to reference in the future? If it fits any of these criterion, it stays. If not, it goes to Gulliver's. (Shane claims I still have too many books.)
Because we clean out regularly, we keep our "stuff" to a minimum. This is one reason I don't think we'll ever need a huge house. In fact, I don't want to have enough stuff that we need a big house. Objects just aren't that important to my life, and I like it that way.

What's a girl to do?

Last night, I had a panicked dream in which I was running around on my wedding day, in my dress, looking for someone to do my makeup and cover up my two black eyes. (Which, in reality, are thankfully gone.) It's that last mad scramble and the panic of realizing that my wedding is in three weeks!!!!
So what do I do to calm down? Look at seed catalogs. Weird, right? But it gets my mind off of things (I don't have the final menu yet! I don't have the final guest count yet! Oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh....) and it's oddly soothing to plan out my dream garden. In fact, I saved a document that lists some of the seeds I'd like to order for next year. Of course, I listed far too many seeds and won't get around to nearly all of them. But it's a good starting point for the spring. And I found them all on heritage seed sites, so many of them are unusual. As in, you'll never find these at the grocery store. One of the major problems with our current system of agriculture is that the big companies (and grocery stores) have narrowed down the possibilities of what can be sold to just a few different types. Sure, there are cherry tomatoes and beefsteak tomatoes. But are there black tomatoes? There are only about 10 different types of apples in the store when there are really over 7500 varieties of apple. How many flavors and sensations are we willingly sacrificing? And not only what flavors, but how much flavor? In his book "Epitaph for a Peach" author and farmer David Masumoto writes about a peach that was his favorite as a child. It had such an intense, sweet flavor. To read his words, it's a crime that grocery stores have given up foods like those peaches in favor of tasteless fruits whose only virtue is the ability to travel and sit on a shelf for a long time. I'm thinking that I agree with him. It makes me think of my mom's apple tree, the little apple tree that could. It was supposed to be a crabapple tree, but the tiny fruits were so sweet and juicy. The tree itself produced so many that each spring we had to go out and pick about half of the started apples off to keep the branches from getting too heavy. (That's how it eventually died--suicide by overproduction. I did say that plants are optimistic.) When it was apple season we made so many apple pies, apple tarts, and practically ate nothing but applesauce for weeks. I miss that apple tree. (Don't worry, Mom planted another in its place, it just hasn't started putting out apples yet. At least, not in any quantity.) Those apples never would have won any prizes (despite their sweetness, they tended to be mealy which is why we cooked most of them), and they certainly wouldn't have been put out at the grocery store or used in commercial products, but we loved them.
One of the other problems with getting rid of the diversity of food plants is that the ones that are left don't have as much pest resistance. One of the reasons there's so much variety in the first place is that each species had its own defenses and its own reason for being. This one might do better against moths while that one does better against beetles. If you only have the one that's better against beetles, what do you do in a year when there are lots of moths? You use more pesticides, and even then you probably lose more of your crop than you otherwise would. Variety has always been a way of protecting yourself against the vagaries of nature. This one does better in a heavy rainy season, that one in a dry season. Can you really predict what the weather will be like? Nope. So plant both, and at least one should do well.
There are a bunch of people, mostly small scale and subsistence farmers, who are fighting back. Heritage (also called heirloom) seeds are seeds that have been saved, usually for generations. There's amazing variety among them, even just in how they're colored. Do you think that lima beans are just tiny, kidney shaped beans? Guess again. (In the top right corner, the beans she's holding are lima beans.) What about grey zucchini, or red celery? Many of these heritage seeds can be dated back to at least the 1800s. And as I said before, the flavors are intense.
Not only that, but they have wonderful descriptions of the proper growing conditions. I've been able to find a lot of seeds that are from Russian varieties, or at least from northern locales. They're used to smaller growing seasons and all of the other oddities that come from living here. I think the one I'm most excited about is the determinate (bushy) tomato variety called Cosmonaut Volkov. Either that, or the type of pea called Alaska.
There are also heritage animals, though. I bet you didn't realize that there are breeds of domesticated chicken that are almost extinct, did you? (Don't worry, I didn't either.) Commercially, there's really only one type of (meat) chicken and one type of turkey that are grown in this country. One or two types of beef cow, one type of dairy cow. But just as with the seeds, small farmers are starting to bring back many of these rare animals. One day, I'm going to have chickens and turkeys. (Shane has made clear that he wants nothing to do with that.) The main objection to chickens that I've heard is that "they're disgusting animals". Well, it depends almost entirely on the breed. The main one that's used in factory farming, the ubiquitous white chicken, is only grown because it has a lot of breast meat. They're stupid, they're not good laying hens (that's a different type of chicken) and they are pretty gross. Some of the heritage chickens, however, have more pleasant personalities and even different tastes to the meat. My aunt bought some chicks this year and it's been fun hearing her take on raising chickens. It was also funny to have her describe one breed as being obviously stupider than the others.
To support heritage animals, however, you don't have to grow them yourself. It can be as simple as ordering one for your Thanksgiving meal.
So when I plant my garden next year, and every year after, these are the resources I'm going to use. I simply googled "heirloom seeds" and came up with tons of sites. And when I plant my seeds next year, I'll be sure to let you know how each one does.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Smoothies and soups

We went to the fair on Saturday with J and L. Mostly this involved walking around and lots of eating. (Mmm...reindeer hot dogs! Strawberry shortcake! Elephant ears, and gyros!) Because of L with her full-term pregnancy (she could go into labor at any time now) and me with my broken nose, we had to be somewhat careful, and slow. And no rides. But we did get to see the animals ("Shane, Shane! Can we get a pig? Look at how cute they are! ...But it's wagging its tail at me!") and we saw the giant vegetables. (Actually disappointing this year--the biggest cabbage was only about 42 lbs. Last year it was well over 60.) And then we ate some more.
To be honest, neither Shane nor I has really felt like cooking very much the past couple of weeks. I've been exhausted (healing a broken nose takes a lot of work) and Shane's been tired from picking up my slack. (Isn't he wonderful?!) The vegetables I bought at the farmer's market last weekend still hadn't been eaten, so I didn't end up going to the market on Saturday. Mostly, we've been making a lot of smoothies. They're very good, and good for you. Especially for breakfast since you're getting most of what you need first thing in the morning: protein, calcium, and tons of vitamins. We just make them with a bunch of fruit, blended, and then added vanilla yogurt. Some of my favorites lately: cherry-blueberry, and cherry-blackberry. Shane also tried avacado-pear. It was weird, but kind of good too. We think. It certainly had a creamy texture.
Last night I decided that I should actually cook something. Being a chilly, rainy day, it was perfect for chicken soup.

Mom's Chicken Soup

Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Brown the chicken in the oil (I also season it here), then add the garlic and onions. Cook until the onions start to go translucent. Then add the other veggies EXCEPT the potatoes, and the water. Simmer until the veggies are cooked, then add the potatoes and finish seasoning. It's done when the potatoes are cooked.
This is one of those recipes that my mom has memorized. Super easy to put together, a lot of the cooking can be done while you're doing something else. Like reading, and laundry. It's her go-to recipe for rainy days, and it's been a family favorite for always. She always makes it the same way, with the same vegetables. I'm the one who's been experimenting. Last summer, needing to use up some cabbage, I added that in place of the celery. Last night, we didn't have potatoes. (I haven't dug mine up yet, waiting to let them get a bit larger before I snag them. And I refuse to buy potatoes.) What did I have instead? Turnips. I bought them at the farmer's market last week, along with some beets, because I've never tried them. (I can hear you gasping.) I don't know if my mom just didn't like them, or she never thought to use them, or what. But as far as I can recall, I've never tried either beets or turnips before. (I still haven't tried beets, they're waiting for me to cook them up sometime this week. If I don't like them, I can give them to L who loves them.) I was a little unsure about my experiment (should I have tried them in soup like that without even tasting them?! and what will Shane think?) but it actually turned out really well. It turns out, turnips have a cabbage-y taste, and I've already said how much I like cabbage. It added a sweetness to the soup, too, that was really yummy. Now I want to look up more turnip recipes! According to Wikipedia, turnips can be bitter. Or maybe it's just the turnip greens? (I threw mine into the compost. I know, such a waste! But I knew we wouldn't get around to eating them.) I kind of wonder if my bitter tastebuds are all mixed up. Bell peppers are bitter to my tongue, but parsnips, turnips, and things of that nature are incredibly sweet and flavorful. ??
In any case, I'm looking forward to what other new flavors I can try. Last year my one new taste was kohlrabi, which tastes like a cross between cabbage and radish. It's good, but I'm not sure what I'd do with it. (I think the most common use around here is to put it in a salad.) It's nice being able to try these from the farmer's market, so that I know what I want to have in my own garden. Next year, there will definitely be some turnips in it.


Shane and I have started subscribing to the Freakonomics podcast. It's really interesting, and it's especially nice for taking the dog for a walk. Some days I want music, some days I want information. Yesterday was one of those days, so I took the dog for a huge ramble (about an hour and a half) and listened to the episode titled "The Church of Scionology". It's about passing down family businesses and whether or not it actually works well. (Answer: not usually.) It got me started thinking about estate planning, though. Just in very general terms because to truly plan your estate you need heirs and, you know, an estate. But I'm an admitted (over-) planner and I like to have at least an idea of the important things before decisions really need to be made. So I asked myself, why am I saving money? I don't really care about having money for the sake of having money. That's stupid. Money, for me, is no more than a means to an end. With that view, saving money for the sake of saving money is silly. So what am I saving it for? What's the point?
I think that there are basically four economic classes: destitute, poor, those who have enough, and those who have more money than they really know what to do with. Shane and I both put ourselves in the "poor" classification, with the modifier "fortunate". We're fortunate because we have a lot of advantages most people never get: we have college educations, we have prospects even in this terrible economy, and our parents taught each of us the importance of working hard and saving for the unknowns in life. We won't be in the "poor" category for the rest of our lives, so it's important to me now to start thinking about what I really want and what's truly important to me.
I don't think my dreams are really any more grandiose or modest than most people's. I don't need or want billions of dollars. I don't need or want to own my own jet/yacht/racehorse, etc. I don't need buildings named after me. What I do want are: a house, big enough for the family we want to have and maybe a little bit of space for family to visit but no bigger. A bigger house means more work for upkeep, more taxes, and higher energy costs.
I want to live debt-free (including all debts: student loans, mortgage, etc). In fact, I will end up staying in my current job longer than I initially planned because one of the benefits is free education. It's worth it to me to stay in a job that's not my "dream career" (I don't even know what mine is!) so that I can work toward other goals.
I want to be able to donate to charities in larger increments than I'm currently able to. I think that it's always important to help others out, and I know that there are plenty of people out there who aren't as fortunate as I am.
I want to be able to give my kids a college education, if they choose to go to college, the way my parents did for me. I don't want them to have to start their "real" lives burdened with huge debts.
And I want to travel the world. There is so much to be learned from experiencing places different from your own and meeting people outside your normal sphere. I think everyone should be required to travel to at least one foreign country, and I feel bad when I meet people who've never even been outside of their home state. Usually they seem proud of this fact, and all I can think is that they're covering up how scared they are to encounter anything different from what they know. That's no way to live.
I realize that a lot of these dreams are the dreams of the privileged. It's true, what they say about counting your blessings. Most people in the world are wishing for nothing more than safety and assurance of their next meal. I try to keep that in mind. Any time I feel down about us being poor, I remind myself of how much worse it could be. It helps, but it also just makes me feel bad for everyone who isn't as well off as we are. I firmly believe that helping those at the bottom makes life for everyone better. Happiness, health, and education are not finite resources. We can all do something to help out our fellow humans, and by helping one we help the world. (For more ideas and inspiration about donating/helping others, check out The Simple Dollar and this blog.)
But what about a legacy to leave behind? One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard about estate planning was this: you want to leave enough money so that your kids can do anything, but not enough so that they do nothing. Even if I did, somehow, make tons of money, I wouldn't want to leave it all to my kids. Inherited wealth is like anything else: too much of a good thing is bad. If I do end up with lots of money, it's going to either a charity or to set up a scholarship so that I can share in some of my good fortune.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

"Winter is coming."

This past week, while recovering from my surgery (and by the way, even minor surgery can apparently rob you of any energy you even thought you might have for the week following; holy crap) I watched the HBO show "Game of Thrones". (So good!) It's based on a fantasy book, and part of it centers around these characters from the North. The place they live has odd seasons--they make reference to the fact that several children in the family (who are at least 10) have only ever known summer. But the family motto is, "Winter is coming." Now, this has less ominous implications for us here (we won't have to deal with 20 years of winter or anything like that) but it's a saying I can definitely relate to. Summer is fantastic, but we always know that it's going to be far shorter than we'd like it to be. It's so busy and packed full because we all know that we have to get the most out of this time, stock up for winter and fill ourselves with the sensations (warmth) and activities (biking, running, etc.) that we can't have (or can't do as easily) during the winter. My forced inactivity and lack of energy have been major frustrations to me, because there's so much more that I want to get done, and feel that I should be doing. But even reading a book is sometimes more taxing than I can deal with.
As I mentioned before, it's fair time. It's practically a saying around here that when the fair comes, so does the rain. Because it always does get chilly and gloomy during fair time, if not downright miserably rainy. (Today it seems to be sticking to just clouds so far, although it rained overnight.) This is such a turning point in the year. The fair acts almost like a signal to everyone that we need to make our last mad preparations before winter sets in. We don't have that much time left. In the next week or two I expect we'll start seeing autumn produce at the farmer's market, mostly squashes. A few leaves have started to turn, even this early, but by the end of the month most of them will show at least a little bit of color. I know so many people who've been canning, freezing and otherwise preserving their summer bounty, putting up as much as possible. Suddenly, the last real month of summer seems far too short for all we need to get done. (And I can't kid myself--September is autumn here. The days will be cool and the nights will start to get frosty.) There's always the lingering thought, have I done enough? Is there more I can do? And always, wondering how hard this winter will be. The last two winters have been rather mild. Are we due for a harsher one?
So, I very much understand those characters and their dire warnings. Winter is coming. We need to be prepared.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The kids are alright

Surgery went well, very quick and with minimal fuss. They didn't even have to pack my nose or put in splints to keep it in place. Shane had surgery on his deviated septum years ago and he said that having them pull the packing out of your nose is one of the weirdest sensations ever. Like someone reached through your face to the back of your skull and was pulling everything out through your nose. After that description, I was very grateful that was not necessary.
My nose hasn't been hurting too much. In fact, the bruise on the back of my hand from the IV has been bugging me more than my nose! So, no more Vicodin for me. Hooray!
It's a very weird sensation to be knocked out for surgery. If you ever have to do that, make sure the IV line isn't twisted before they give you the knock-out juice. Otherwise, it HURTS when it all goes flooding into your system! Hopefully, this was the last time I'll ever have to deal with that.
And now, I've gone from looking like Sloth from "The Goonies" to looking more like this:

I have to wear a nose cast until next Friday. This is the first weekend of the fair here (which, of course, means it's cold--for summer, at least--and there's lots of rain in the forecast) but I think I'll wait until next weekend to go. Being out in public looking this way is not exactly my favorite thing. Plus, in large crowds it would be more likely that my nose would accidentally get bumped by a careless person. After going through all the trouble of having it surgically fixed, that would be horrible.
On the plus side, apparently the anesthesia can have...uncomfortable digestive side effects. So I've been ordered to eat lots of high-fiber foods, like fruit! Poor me. It's such a hardship forcing down all these yummy summer fruits and veggies at the doctor's request, but I think I'll live through the experience. :)
The harder part will be forcing myself not to exercise in the next two weeks. I'm allowed to take the dog for walks, but that's about it. :(

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Think Twice

I found this very interesting article on the Huffington Post today. It was interesting to me mostly because my mom is one of the millions of people who was prescribed a statin drug which she didn't need. And she got one of those horrible side effects the author listed: it messed with her memory. Since her mother developed dementia, seeing signs of it in my mother (not yet 60) was especially scary. When I googled the signs, everything came up with early onset dementia. A quick trip to a doctor however (NOT the doctor who prescribed the medication) showed that not only was this drug the problem with her memory, she didn't even have the high cholesterol this drug is supposed to treat. I can only assume that the doctor who prescribed it had received some sort of "speaking fee" or other bribe from the drug company. (A more widespread problem than most of us, myself included, would like to believe.)
About the time we were learning about this problem, I started reading more about side effects from drugs. Not just statins, but all drugs. The statistics about drug side effects and the numerous problems they cause (from rashes to death) haven't really gotten the kind of notice I feel they should. Here's another article on medicine and side effects in general. It includes plenty of those scary statistics, like how many people die because of side effects. In fact, the author points out that a lot of the time side effects are thought to be or treated like new symptoms of the original affliction and so more medicines are piled on top of the first one. Am I the only one to see problems with this? Like, major problems?
We're so programmed to trust our doctors, and to believe that they know what's best for us, that I think most people don't question their medications as thoroughly as they should. We should all become familiar not only with what ails us, but also with what we're treating ourselves and the potential downsides to treatment. If you take a medication, I really don't think it's too much to ask that it actually make you feel better, rather than bringing on new problems.
With my broken nose, I only took two Vicodin. One at the hospital, and one the next day. The second one was a mistake. It took away the dull, achy pain but replaced it with dizziness and an upset stomach that lasted the rest of the day. I don't really consider that "better", do you? Achy pain is endurable, but for me having an upset stomach is not. So what do I now do with the other 23 pills that I've got? Save them for the next time one of us is injured? I'm sure I could take them back to the pharmacy or something, and I probably will. But my instructions were "not to take more than 8 per day". If one caused all of these problems, what on earth would 8 do to me? I shudder to think of it. Granted, I've got a higher pain tolerance than most women. (And for that, I should thank my brothers for abusing me as a child.) How many people out there, though, actually take as many as they're directed to take? (In this case 4-8 per day.) And how many of them end up with worse problems than an upset stomach?
I don't know what other medications I'll have to take now (I need nose surgery today, which involves anesthesia) but it probably won't be as much as I'm prescribed. It's just not worth it.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

All in all

All in all, last week really wasn't a bad week. I had enough sick leave to take Tuesday-Friday off from work. And I did so not because I was in so much pain, but because I have a very public position in the library (mine's the main circulation desk) and I really didn't feel like going in when I looked like a victim of domestic abuse. Going to the grocery store on Thursday was bad enough. At least children will stare openly. Adults take one look, pretend they didn't see, then watch you out of the corners of their eyes. It's weird being stared at. But at that point, the bruising looked like (as one friend put it) a butterfly over the top half of my face. (Don't worry, it's mostly gone now. Although, I've got an appointment today to see if it needs to be reset, and it's a little crooked, so it will most likely bruise up again....) It also stopped hurting pretty quickly, resolving down to a dull ache that's really easy for me to ignore. The Vicodin I took when I posted last week was the last one. It made me so sick to my stomach!
Anyway, if you ignore my broken face, last week was a pretty good week. I had plenty of time to read, and cook, and bake, and garden. And help a very pregnant L put a new battery in her car, then feed her lunch. She gave me more rhubarb and some thyme in exchange. (Get it? I gave her my time, so she gave me her thyme!) We're both very proud of our gardens, by the way.
Shane's been muttering about me having too much rhubarb in the house, so I made a rhubarb coffee cake. (Sorry, I won't put the recipe up here because it's my mother-in-law's and I don't know if I have permission to give it away.) And then I froze just a little bit more rhubarb. I don't think Shane has noticed yet. But our freezers are getting rather full. I'm wondering how much more I can put away before winter? Hopefully, plenty of squash, rhubarb and berries! Especially if I get more zucchinis like this one:

I made it all into this recipe (with a few tweaks, like not having any eggplant and adding chicken), which ended up looking like this before topping it with mozzarella and tomatoes:

The two halves are different because I underestimated how many veggies I'd need to cover that much surface area! But the bread was home-baked French bread, so it was especially delicious. Shane was skeptical about it when I mentioned making it. But as I started cooking the veggies he said, "That smells good. That smells really good." And he started stealing veggies from the pan. Then off the bread. When it was finished and we finally sat down with it Shane said, "We have to add this into the regular rotation of meals." At least for the summer, we definitely will.

It's electric!

I really hate that song. ("Electric Slide", in case you didn't recognize it.) But I was reading earlier about how the Japanese have been having to conserve electricity, and are not only meeting but exceeding their goals. This, in a country where the electric use per capita is far less than our own.
First of all, I'm the one in our house who pays the electric bill. (Shane pays for internet.) So I'm the one who tracks our usage and has to fork over the money. I'm thinking, however, that we should switch. Lately Shane's been driving me NUTS by going into the kitchen for thirty seconds, and then leaving the lights on when he leaves. He knows this is a pet peeve of mine. (So much waste!) But since he doesn't pay the bill, he doesn't realize how much this costs us. (It also doesn't help this summer that we have John living in a trailer in our driveway, sucking more power. He pays for it, but it's still made our bill shoot up.) I know Shane and I were raised differently--his mom didn't yell at them for leaving lights on, while mine did. But in the interest of domestic harmony, I'm trying to shape his habits to match mine. (That's how it works, right? Seriously, there's lots of give and take. It's just that in this case, my habits are more beneficial.) So energy conservation has been on my mind a lot lately. How can we save more power and therefore, money? We don't have many appliances that eat up power when they're not on, and the ones we do have on (like the fridge and chest freezer) kinda need to stay on. It does help that, since being employed, Shane's been turning off his computer when he goes to work.
I've also been trying to read near the windows. Now that it's starting to get truly dark for a few hours (in the middle of the night, but still darkish for a few hours around it) there's less ambient light in the house to read/cook/work by. So moving myself closer to the windows is the best option to avoid turning on lights.
We're taking advantage of summer and doing more grilling this week, too. Now, we love grilling. Shane's even started the grill up at -30 a few times. But for some reason this summer we just haven't been taking as much advantage of it as we should. We made it a point to buy the stuff for kabobs and so those are our dinners for the next few days. Salmon, later this week, will also be grilled. (Grilling uses propane, so we're just switching from one type of power to another. But since our oven/stove are from the 60s when the house was built, they're not exactly the most efficient.)
It's not just our household trying to save electricity, though. The University has its own power plant, but that needed to be shut down for several months for repairs. (I think it's back up now.) Having to use the municipal power plant costs millions of dollars more than they would otherwise spend so they ask everyone to conserve as much electricity as possible. (This happened last summer, too.) We've figured out which lights in the library aren't essential and never turn them on anymore. I've even gotten my boss to turn off the light in her office when she leaves. Victory!
This issue has also been on my mind because of a number of factors. For one, now that the budget stuff has passed through the government, we still don't know about the status of Shane's job and probably won't for a few weeks. If he doesn't have a job, unemployment is just a few short weeks away. (And he's too "proud and independent" to actually get unemployment checks.) Not only that, but our landlord said that with oil prices being what they are (our house is heated with oil) he might have to raise the rent. I like our landlord, he's a good guy, and I know he wouldn't do that unless he absolutely had to. I can also understand where he's coming from. But Shane and I had a hard time making ends meet the last time he was unemployed. If rent is raised and Shane's unemployed for another 6 months, there go our savings. (And thank goodness we are savers!)
I also often end up feeling this grand push at the end of summer to save as much as possible of everything. Food, power, time, energy. The days are getting shorter and it's obvious that summer's winding down. I need to do as much as possible while I can to prepare. I think that the environment in Alaska fosters this attitude. Summer provides so much, but winter is sooo looong. I feel a little bit like a squirrel, stocking away nuts for winter.

Update: I'm not the only one who's got this on their brain. Check out this article by Representative Mike Honda (from California) about introducing a bill to get better standards for electronics.

Monday, August 1, 2011


I read this interesting article earlier today about fish, and how overfishing is actually not the biggest worry. What we should really be worried about is the acidification and de-oxygenation of the oceans. Not good news. (Not that overfishing isn't a part of the problem, even a big part of the problem, but even if we stopped eating fish tomorrow and kept polluting the way we have been, our oceans would still die.)
So, what's an eco- and health-conscious person to do? We keep hearing how great fish is for our health, how wonderful those omega fatty acids are. Especially for kids, but not too much fish because it's got mercury! And never certain kinds of fish. There's so much evidence on both sides about things we should and shouldn't do, always wrapped up in personal opinion (and frequently, self-righteousness).
I've already stated that we eat salmon and halibut. (And clams! Shane's parents go clam digging sometimes. Yum!) We're not going to stop. At the very least, we use every portion of the fish except the head, fins and skeleton. (And the head could be boiled for the dog, but most of the fish we get has already been prepared by Shane's family and the head is gone.) Even the above article suggests eating local seafood, rather than seafood brought in from across the world. And being mindful of those species that we've fished nearly to extinction. (To search what you can eat, check here.) My fish travels fewer miles than most to get to my plate, even taking into account that it comes from halfway across the largest state. (At least it's not Chilean seabass.) It's wild, so there are no nasty surprises (either nutritionally or environmentally) from its growth. And since neither of us is a huge fan of fish, we don't actually eat it all that often. (Salmon is on the menu this week, with broccoli from the farmer's market as a side.)
As for the omega fatty acids that everyone says are so great, if you look into it there are several things to know. First is, even more important than the amount of fatty acids you eat are the type and the balance. We all want omega 3 and omeg 6, but it turns out that they should be in balance with each other. You can read the abstract of a study on the issue here. (Sorry, I can't get the full article to you.) Anyway, as it turns out most Westernized diets are far too high in omega 6 and too low in omega 3. They're both called essential fatty acids for a reason, but they do two different things: omega 6 has inflammatory properties and omega 3 has anti-inflammatory properties. So the one most people eat too much of has the inflammatory properties and that sets you up for a number of diseases. Like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. (Is it really any wonder so many people have those?) It turns out that there are some foods which have the perfect balance, or at least close enough to it. Eggs are a big one. (In fact, nutritionally eggs are just about the perfect food. Not that you get all you need from eggs, but it's hard to find another nutritional bomb in a single package like that.) Grass fed beef is another one that has a great ratio of these nutrients, but NOT conventional beef. Because feedlot cows are given grains, they don't get the right balance of omegas themselves. There's too much corn in their diets, and both corn and corn oil (and other corn derivatives) have been shown to have a terrible balance. I do like the saying "you are what your food eats".
Walnuts, flax seeds, olive oil, and even most dark leafy greens are great for more omega 3. (Actually, leafy greens have more omega 3 than omega 6, which is unusual.)
So if you really want to cut fish out of your diet (or cut back) and are afraid that you'll lose out on these essential fatty acids, don't be. Just do a little research and make a few minor tweaks to your diet.