Friday, August 22, 2008


I wrote most of that last post over a month ago. Now our blog and our ("official") marriage are coming up on the one-year mark. And I think it's time for me to take a break.

I've always been an enthusiastic member of the internet generation--learned basic HTML at 13, started blogging at 18. I'm happy for the ways in which online communication has made it a lot easier to keep in touch with friends and family, near and far. If it weren't for the internet, I don't think Jacob and I would have met, although it may have been remotely possible.

But recently, my outlook has taken a turn. I'm feeling deeply disillusioned and unsettled by a feeling of online anomie. It isn't the result of a particular occurrence, but rather an accumulation of smaller experiences. And it's offline as well as online. For example: I often see car magnets proclaiming the message Choose Civility, which references a small movement in Howard County spurred by this book. Take a moment, if you have the time, to contemplate the need in our society for an entire book essentially explaining how to be nice to other people.

I am too often shocked and perplexed by the cruelty and abuse people are capable of inflicting upon each other. These days it's just been wearing on me too much. Governments around the world are starting wars, killing innocent people over money, resources and power. On the morning we left for the beach, a troubled and unstable gunman walked into the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church and opened fire, killing two people, injuring six, and leaving the rest of the congregation, the denomination and other well-meaning people everywhere asking, "Why?" How could this happen? How could anyone do such a thing?

I've found myself more affected by even the smallest displays of insensitivity--those not at all on the scale of the acts I just mentioned. The driver who leans on her horn the second the light turns green, not noticing that the car in front of her is waiting for a pedestrian to finish crossing. The man at a restaurant who doesn't bother to make eye contact with the waitress, speak to her in full sentences, or say "thank you." The girls on the playground who deliberately leave another girl out of their game for no reason, whispering, "just ignore her." People all over the internet who think that behind the shield of their computer screens, they can say whatever hurtful things they want, bend reality to their advantage, or make themselves out to be superior.

There's hope yet for the girls on the playground. The rest of us, I'm not sure about. I used to think that when you asked someone, "How are you?" they'd say something like, "Fine, thanks; how are you?" Now I'm learning not to expect that as much.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in Strength to Love that to contribute positively to the world, one must have both a tough mind and a tender heart, and that softmindedness and hardheartedness are equally detrimental to one's efforts in doing so. He wrote,

The hardhearted person never truly loves. He engages in a crass utilitarianism which values other people mainly according to their usefulness to him. He never experiences the beauty of friendship, because he is too cold to feel affection for another and is too self-centered to share another's joy and sorrow. He is an isolated island. No outpouring of love links him with the mainland of humanity.

I see hardheartedness everywhere I turn, and it drives me crazy, as I'm sure it must drive many of you crazy, too. I used to think that my persistent good will and tenderheartedness would be enough to make a dent while also giving me some sense of hope. But it hasn't, really, and I think it's not just all the hardheartedness that's giving me trouble. It's the combination of that and my own softmindedness. I'm smart enough to act toughminded some of the time, but toughmindedness ultimately isn't about intelligence. It's about focus, discretion, discipline and mental fortitude. With my mind weakened as it has been by the effects of MDD and ADHD, attaining those qualities has been a steep uphill struggle. And it's been hard to extend myself to love, and to accept love, without also being overly affected by my encouters with carelessness, selfishness, apathy and inhumanity.

So I think it's time for me to turn my energy elsewhere and continue working to build a tougher mind, more of a balance. I won't be writing here for the time being, and I won't be reading or commenting as much, either. As you may have noticed, Jacob hasn't been too psyched about blogging after typing on a computer all day, so it'll probably be pretty quiet around here.

I've let my social networking accounts go fallow as well. I might stick around on Freedom Gardens, since there's not much involved. Otherwise, I'll be on email or in the real world. I'd love to hear from you in any of those places.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.


the invisible stepfamily

Sorry about the absence, everyone. I'm still sort of decompressing from several crazy-but-wonderful weeks of summer parenting time. It's pretty much baptism by fire for me, compared to the typical parenting learning curve, and considering I'm still somewhat new to this. It feels a little jarring to be unceremoniously thrown into "mom" mode, including being called "your mom" by many well-meaning (but presumptuous) strangers, while not actually being Khymi's mother--not wanting to be, not pretending to be; just assuming similar responsibilities. I guess some would say a stepmother is a kind of mother, but I'm quite aware of the fact that I am not Khymi's mother. That title has always belonged to someone else, and it always will.

Every now and then I read another stepparent's account of their integrating a partner and the partner's child(ren) into his or her life, and although I hear a lot of familiar experiences, I've never much liked the "instant family" image that is often described. Maybe many people think of blended families as something like The Brady Bunch. The thing about the Bradys is that Mike was a widower, and no one really knew what Carol's story was, but each set of children was supposed to have been raised exclusively by one parent for some time, before Mike and Carol met and they were just one big happy family--emphasis there on one.

The Brady Bunch and its cousins like Yours, Mine and Ours (also about the blending of two widowed families) don't really portray the typical blended family, because they conveniently eliminate any need to discuss divorce/separation and shared custody by making the parents' ex-partners either deceased or completely out of the picture. For most of us, that's just not the case. In my opinion, to call one's new nuclear family an instant family isn't entirely fair to the child(ren) involved, or to the other adults. To me, "instant" it makes it sound effortless for a child to automatically become "ours" and have that be the end of it, when in most cases, the child is also someone else's, and that's a significant part of who that child is. This is true even when one of the parents is deceased or absent, and it's certainly true if the child's other parent is present and involved in his or her life.

The fact that the kids have another parent/family somewhere else isn't a bad thing, nor should it reflect negatively on them. Although the two-family situation can sometimes present challenges that non-blended families do not have to face, for the most part,
it's just the way it is. I really don't think it would have been that complicated or inconvenient for Marcia, Jan and Cindy to take an episode off because they were with their father that day. Sitcom writers have made far more unlikely storylines happen when they really wanted to.

If I were to make a movie or sitcom about our family... well, it wouldn't be interesting enough. (That's why we all have blogs, right?) But hypothetically, I couldn't even consider making it seem like it's just about the three of us and our life here, no matter how simple it might be to edit here and there to make it look that way. So much of who Khymi is comes from her mother and maternal family, her life and experiences at her other home, and also from her past, years before either her stepfather or I even knew she existed. None of those parts of her life involve me or are under my control. That doesn't mean, though, that I can just operate as if those parts don't exist or matter. If I did, I would essentially be rejecting my stepdaughter's integral, whole being. And so, while we spend most of our time together focusing on maintaining a good family life in the everyday and in this place, Jacob and I know that we are just one side of her uniquely multifaceted life. We are one family, but we are not her one and only.

It's a little tiresome, but when one of those well-meaning counselors or teachers says to Khymi, "Let's show your mom what you've learned," I smile and say kindly, "I'm her stepmom, but I'd love to see what she's learned. And maybe we can take a picture to show her mom, too."


Friday, August 1, 2008


For once, I'm not talking about the stuff at our house.

My mom, textiles PhD and sustainable consumption blogger Nice White Lady, is doing a series this week on clothing/textiles made from bamboo. We personally are all too aware of how "highly renewable" bamboo is, but does that alone make it a more eco-friendly source of material for fabrics? Find out here.

As for us, we're finishing up a week at the beach, so we'll catch up after we get back.


Friday, July 25, 2008

waste-free lunches part 4: "hidden" waste reduction

So maybe everything I've written is no news to you. You've been using food savers and cloth lunch bags and water bottles and cold packs for years, and you've got a pretty healthy diet. What else is new? Maybe it's time for us to examine the processes behind our seemingly simple choices, and remember that not all carrot sticks or granola bars are created equally.

When I wrote that list above, you may have thought to yourself, "Wait a minute. Granola bars?" A product that comes individually-wrapped in a cardboard box of six doesn't seem to belong on a list of waste-free lunch ingredients.

Granola bars are another manufactured and packaged food product that used to be on my regular shopping list, especially if I knew I had a car trip with Khymi coming up. Apart from scanning the ingredients for anything questionable, I didn't really think twice about tossing the box in the cart or grabbing a couple of granola bars on the way out the door. That was until I discovered how easy they are to make at home, with whatever ingredients you like best.

Just poke around online and you'll find lots of recipes for different kinds of granola bars.

A recipe that's working for us right now (adapted from Vegetarian Times):

Chewy Granola Bars! (not vegan.)

2½ cups rolled oats
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour, or lower protein flour like pastry or rice flour [what's up, Allie?!]
¼ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
2/3 cup chopped dried apricots
½ cup dried cranberries
½ cup almonds (you can chop them up; I like to leave them whole)
½ cup maple syrup
½ cup almond butter
¼ vegetable oil
2 egg whites
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F/175°C
  2. Grease a rectangular baking dish (glass works well)
  3. Combine first four ingredients (dry powdery things) in a bowl. Add the next three (dried fruit/nuts) and stir to coat so the fruit doesn't stick together as much.
  4. Beat last 4 (wet) ingredients together until smooth. Stir in dry ingredient mixture until well-combined (this works really well in a stand mixer, but a wooden spoon would also probably do the trick).
  5. Spread mixture in baking dish and moosh it around with a spatula to compress it and make the top and edges nice and even. Sprinkle a little salt on top if you like. Bake for about 30 minutes or until firm. Cool completely before slicing into bars.
Other recipes are probably really similar. What's great is the versatility--cut into bars of whatever shape and size you prefer. Store them in an airtight container, and pack in lunches, or for road trips or kids' sporting events (for daily lunches, I'd pack one in a very small rectangular food saver). Many of the ingredients are interchangeable, so if you hate raisins or are allergic to peanuts, you can just leave them out. Use a different sweetener (brown sugar, brown rice syrup, honey), or no sweetener. The recipe above might not be vegan, but there are a bunch that are. Crunchy eating habits notwithstanding, you could throw in some M&Ms (or bacon bits, or whatever), if the mood takes you. Experiment!

We take so many of these industrial foods for granted, when it's usually not so hard to find or make food that's local, seasonal, and/or uses less packaging. Here's our list from the "food" post again, this time emphasizing some of the hidden choices we found we could make:

-Pita pockets with hummus and lettuce, with sliced tomatoes in a separate container to be added on top before eating (prevents sogginess) [Homemade hummus using dry chickpeas and olive oil purchased in bulk with reusable containers, lettuce from our garden, tomatoes from the farmers' market]
-Tortilla roll-ups with separate containers of egg salad and fixins [Homemade tortillas using bulk flour, local eggs from the farmers' market, homemade plain yogurt instead of mayonnaise]
-Regular sandwiches (peanut butter & jam, hummus & pesto spread with lettuce and the separate-tomato container) [Homemade bread stored in a reused bag, bulk grind-your-own peanut butter in a reusable container, homemade jam using local strawberries, homemade pesto using homegrown basil]
-Cold leftovers from dinner (cold sesame noodles, pasta with veggies, rice and beans) [Bulk pasta, rice, dry beans, and soy sauce; veggies from CSA share and farmers' market]
-Carrot sticks or cucumber slices with hummus or dip --[Carrots purchased in 5-lb bag, cucumbers from farmers' market, dip made from homemade yogurt and homegrown fresh herbs]
-Fresh fruit [Seasonal fruit (peaches, apricots, cherries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries) from the farmers' market]
-Dried fruit or trail mix [Purchased in bulk]
-Granola bars [Homemade granola bars using bulk rolled oats, flour, maple syrup, almonds, dried apricots and cranberries, local egg whites, and bulk grind-your-own almond butter]

What a difference, huh? And these are just the choices we could make, or were willing to. Yours would probably look a little different.

We still have replacements we're working on--for example, one of our big lingering plastic-packaged vices is tortilla chips. We eat those like it's our job. So we'd like to start making corn tortillas for fresh tortilla chips instead. Same thing with crackers. And one of Khymi's favorite quick lunches is pan-fried dumplings--I even put them in her lunch as a treat on the first and last days of camp--but we buy the packaged frozen ones; we don't make them from scratch. How hard could it be?

Well, I think that's it. Any other lunch box tips out there? How easy has it been for you to pack fresher, healthier lunches for yourself or your family? Have you found that sacrificing "convenience" hasn't really meant that much of a sacrifice? What about in the winter when less fresh produce is available locally?

Other reading about healthy or waste-free kids' lunches:
  • Jacob's Aunt Nora is a school health consultant and writes a blog called Create Healthy Schools, where she discusses healthy school lunches among the many other components of a healthy school.
  • is a site sponsored by the makers of Laptop Lunches, offering lots of advice on reducing waste in portable meals.
  • The Vegan Lunchbox by Jennifer McCann is a source of tons of healthy, impeccably-presented, low-waste, kid-friendly lunches from a vegan perspective.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

waste-free lunches part 3: drinks

Khymi has a stainless steel water bottle with a sport top. It's durable and washable and it replaced her old polycarbonate water bottle in light of all the concerns over BPA. The problem with stainless steel, though, is that it's a conductor--heat and cold go straight through it. We have neoprene insulating sleeves for our stainless steel bottles, but even those only help for so long. So for day camp, where they don't offer refrigeration, we filled up Khymi's water bottle the night before and froze it, leaving a little room at the top for expansion (if you forget to do this, the bottle will get a rounded bottom like a Weeble--we learned the hard way). The only nice thing about stainless steel's lack of insulation is that it cools down really fast in the freezer.

One part of caring for a kid that I haven't really been able to get with is the supposed inevitability of JUICE. Look at the fruit juice aisle in every supermarket and there are tons of choices, many intended specifically for kids. And any juice company who knows anything about marketing to kids knows that they have to offer their product in lunch-sized boxes as well as bottles. But when you think about it, why? What's so essential about juice?

Since I started eating more locally, one thing I really had to reconsider was juice. I used to buy orange juice every week, but here in the Mid-Atlantic there's no such thing as local orange juice. And really, almost any other fruit juice is the same way. Even if it's organic, 100% juice, who knows where it really came from, or how much energy was used to produce and package it?

So now we buy local milk, and we drink filtered tap water. Every now and then, as a treat, we buy a glass bottle of juice or a couple of cans of organic sparkling fruit "soda" from the store. And one of the pleasures of autumn is the arrival of apple cider at the farmers' market.

For these hot summer days at camp, we felt like it was more important to provide Khymi with enough cold water to drink than to satisfy her (typical kid's) desire for a sweet drink like juice. True, juice contains some vitamins and other nutrients, but for that purpose I'd rather she just have the whole fruit. If we happen to have juice at home, we're happy to give her a glass with an afternoon snack or with dinner.

Eliminating something we previously took for granted, like juice, brings me to tomorrow's final post: the behind-the-scenes trash in a portable meal.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

waste-free lunches part 2: food

Jacob takes a lunch to work with him every day, and it's usually some sort of leftovers from dinner. We try to make a big batch of some all-in-one dish at the beginning of the week so he'll get a few days' worth of lunches out of it. But that plan wasn't going to work for Khymi--for one thing, Jacob keeps a microwaveable bowl at the office so he can heat up his leftovers (no such luck at camp), and for another thing, kids are less keen on eating the exact same thing several days in a row.

Two things seem to increase lunch appeal for kids: small tastes of many different foods, and some sort of interactive element. I don't doubt that this is what made Lunchables such a huge hit when they were first introduced. If you're my age, you remember the advent of Lunchables--little cracker sandwiches that the kids can build themselves, and a miniature dessert or drink, all in a seemingly space-age disposable tray. (And if you're anything like me, you were annoyed that your parents unjustly denied you the coolness of Lunchables and continued to send you to school with sandwiches, yogurt and fruit.) So we tried keep that in mind in order to re-create the Lunchables experience--without all the packaging and preservatives.

Here are some of the different foods we tried out:
-Pita pockets with hummus and lettuce, with sliced tomatoes in a separate container to be added on top before eating (prevents sogginess)
-Tortillas with separate containers of egg salad and fixins, to be made into roll-ups at lunchtime
-Regular sandwiches (peanut butter & jam, hummus & pesto spread with lettuce and the separate-tomato container)
-Cold leftovers from dinner (cold sesame noodles, pasta with veggies, rice and beans)
-Carrot sticks or cucumber slices with hummus or dip
-Fresh fruit
-Dried fruit or trail mix
-Granola bars

We sat down with Khymi before she started camp and asked what some of her favorite lunches and snacks are. She's homeschooled, so she's not exactly used to brown-bagging it, but she does bring lunches and snacks to swim meets, as well as on the roughly four-hour ride between here and her mom's house. I think she appreciated being involved in the planning, as well as picking out ingredients at the farmers market and the store, and helping grow vegetables in our home garden (she has unofficially given herself the job of "lettuce washer"). In my experience, you're more likely to appreciate what's put in front of you (no matter how old you are) if you had some hand in the process--growing, buying or cooking.

Tomorrow I'll talk a little about drinks and ditching the juice box. See you then!


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

waste-free lunches part 1: lunchboxes, containers, utensils

[Note: I know a picture is worth a thousand words, and it might be more effective to show, not tell, but I'd rather readers make their own consumer decisions. Hence the verbal descriptions with no links to products or pictures containing brand labels, although there are a few cases where I don't mind making an exception. In general, I know that anyone reading this is savvy enough to find what works best for them.]

The last time Jacob packed day-camp lunches for Khymi, she was in a half-day camp. She was five, and we had gotten her a small, simple, one-compartment insulated bag. This time, we realized that that wasn't going to cut it for an older kid at a full-day camp where she'd be involved in lots of physical activity. We went for a bigger, more durable ripstop soft-sided lunch box, with separate insulated and non-insulated compartments and space for a cold pack. Other criteria: lead-free, no "licensed characters" (i.e. our kid is not advertising for Viacom unless they pay us...sorry, Dora).

One of the reasons the lunch box needed to be so big is that we knew we wouldn't be using plastic bags. We've amassed a pretty big pile of food savers, from cheaper "disposable" plastic containers to multi-packs in various sizes, to a lunch container with a built-in spoon and fork in the lid. Reusable containers are the way to go, but they are a less efficient use of space, so we had to consider that in buying a big enough lunch box.

Apart from the lunch box, we already had all of those containers, so we didn't need to go around gratuitously buying lots of new stuff. But I have to say that if we had been starting from scratch, I would have seriously considered a Laptop Lunch or some other neat little bento- or tiffin-like contraption. In retrospect, I also think we should have bought a lunch box with a detachable carrying strap.

Sometimes it did make a lot more sense to pack a dry snack like crackers or trail mix in a bag instead of a plastic food saver, so it could go in the smaller, non-insulated compartment. In these cases, we used one of our small cotton produce bags.

One nifty (if somewhat gimmicky) new container I found was this one, which has a lower compartment for fruit, vegetables or granola and an upper one for dip or yogurt, with a small cold pack that snaps in between. The problems were that it was a little bulky to fit in a lunch box, and although I found it easy to handle, the seven-year-old had trouble closing the lid of the top container tightly enough to prevent leaking. I think it might be a better sort of thing for an adult or an older child.

As for utensils, one of the containers comes with plastic utensils, but otherwise we'd just throw in some silverware from home. We also included a cloth napkin instead of paper.

Tomorrow: what all we put in those containers!


Monday, July 21, 2008

the quest for healthy, waste-free lunches

[Note: There's a chance that some of you might have had the tenacity to read this in its original format after I posted it on Monday afternoon. Since then I've decided that it was really long and worth breaking up into multiple posts.]

One change we know we have to make when we add a growing seven-year-old to our household is the amount of food we buy. Besides the additional food we eat at meal times, having a kid in the house means meeting the frequent demand for between-meal snacks. Our first instinct when we want a snack to is to reach for the bag of tortilla chips, but now we also stock up more at the farmers market for fresh fruits and vegetables to snack on, and we make a lot of air-popped popcorn and homemade yogurt.

Because of our schedules, Khymi spends part of her time here going to day camp. Last year, she went to a camp that provided a "kid-friendly" lunch that turned out to include a lot of processed meats (lunch meat, chicken nuggets), processed cheeses, packaged chips and pretzels, and also some fresh fruit. It was nice for us not to have to bother packing a lunch, and it gave Khymi one less thing to keep track of, but we also felt like the food options could have been healthier and more varied. Khymi isn't the only kid I know who will happily eat healthy, whole foods if that's what's provided (she puts our eating habits at her age to shame). For some reason, "kid-friendly" often ends up meaning salty, sweet, starchy, bland, processed and over-packaged. (Take a look at any kids' menu anywhere and it's plain to see why so many parents are frustrated with the assumption that their kids are incapable of making healthy food choices.)

This year, we chose two day camps within walking distance of our house. Neither one provided a lunch. After last summer, it was kind of a relief to have more control over what Khymi was eating, but also a challenge, because we knew we'd have to come up with a healthy lunch and snacks every weekday for the time she was in camp. We were also dreading inevitable encounters with the more wasteful aspects of bag lunches: juice boxes, individual packages, and countless plastic baggies. As it turns out, we were able to make wholesome, kid-friendly lunches with little to no disposable waste. Over the next few days, I'll be posting what we've learned in four installments:

  1. Lunchboxes, containers, utensils
  2. Food
  3. Drinks
  4. "Hidden" waste reduction
Check back soon!


we're still alive.

Well, for the last three weeks, we've had a small person living here. In case you have kids and you were wondering what it's like to be a primarily non-custodial parent with no other children:

Imagine your life before you had any kids. Waiting until 8 PM to decide what to eat for dinner, not really caring about the cleanliness of your floors, leaving sharp objects lying around, staying out late on the weekends, using swear words liberally...then imagine your life as it is right now. Which is a good life, and can be immensely rewarding, but in a different way, right?

Then imagine time-traveling between those two states on a regular basis. That's kind of what it's been like for Jacob, I think, and if you also imagine that your child entered your life as a fully-formed, potty-trained and otherwise competent four-year-old, that's kind of what it's been like for me. It's becoming important to me, though, when I discuss these things, not to rely too much on that imagery. It's something I'd like to post about in more detail soon.

I've been doing a lot of thinking like this since Khymi arrived, about how being a stepmother has changed my life, about which changes are similar to those associated with becoming a (legal/biological) parent and which ones are very different. I've also been noticing the changing face of the American family, and how more often than not, popular culture fails to reflect it. And I've been trying to think of ways to share my thoughts here without getting too personal, because so little of what I see on the Internet deals with experiences like mine or families like ours.

These days, more of our time is spent at the pool than on the blogs. But hopefully soon we'll get in some posts dealing with consumer waste, specifically food packaging (how's that for a change of subject?). Individually-wrapped food items are maddeningly ubiquitous, but also surprisingly avoidable...stay tuned.


Tuesday, July 8, 2008

NWL on Kojo

Nice White Lady, a.k.a. my mom, is going to be on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi Show tomorrow talking about a longtime favorite topic (can you tell?): clothing and gender. Check it out!

The show is the second in a three-part series about clothing and culture. She was also on last Wednesday to discuss sustainable/ethical fashion--audio is still available online.

In other news, hi. I'll be back soon.


Thursday, June 12, 2008


So, this whole blog thing is kind of all over the place. There are bloggers out there who have a purpose. Here, not so much. We are what some would call a marketing nightmare. Good thing that's not the point in our case. We're just talking to anyone who cares to listen.

But anyway, even when you have no purpose, there comes a time when your right sidebar gets too long, and you think it might be nice to also have a left sidebar. And you discover that your blogging system of choice ("the poor man's Wordpress/MoveableType/TypePad/AnythingReally") isn't too versatile in this regard. Which is why I am glad there are people out there who know a little CSS, like the good ol' Blogger Guide. They share this stuff for free, so I am giving credit where credit is due.

In other news: our power went out for 56 hours last week right when the heat wave hit, leaving us with no ceiling fan, no any kind of fan, and no refrigerated food. Then it was still hot. Ridiculously hot. Cat-won't-sleep-anywhere-but-the-bathroom-floor hot. Now Father's Day is closing in, and certain daughters/stepmoms might want to get their act together...


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

yogurt redux

Ever since we got interested in making yogurt (again, thanks to inspiration from Mama Monster), we've found a few different methods that all seem to work. And since then, when I mention that we've started making our own, the next thing I usually hear is, "How?"

Making yogurt is kind of a ridiculously simple but fascinating process. Methods vary, but they always involve the same basic steps:

  • Heat milk (of any kind: whole, skim, soy, goat, whatever you prefer) to about 185°F to kill any bad bacteria, but not so hot that the milk curdles
  • Cool it to about 110°F - 120°F (opinions vary, but this is about the temperature that will get the yogurt cultures all happy)
  • Add good bacteria (active yogurt cultures) in the form of a couple tablespoons of yogurt from a previous batch, or from store-bought plain yogurt
  • Somehow keep the milk warm for 8 - 12 hours so the cultures can do their thing. In this warm environment, they begin to reproduce, eat the lactose (dairy sugar) in the milk and release lactic acid, which is what makes yogurt taste sour. The increase in acidity also makes the milk thicker. Once the yogurt is chilled, the cultures slow down and go back to sleep. Wow! Science!
How you heat the milk, how you check the temperature, and how you keep the milk warm are the variables, and they depend on what you have or what you are willing to buy.
  • The easiest option for many people is to buy a home yogurt maker. It takes the guesswork out of the heating and cooling, and automatically maintains the optimum temperature for you. It does use electricity, but if you don't have the time to be watching over a pot of milk, it might be a worthwhile investment.

  • If you have an electric heating pad, try the detailed instructions at We used this method for a while, even though we don't have a heating pad. We just piled a bunch of towels over the pot of milk to keep it warm.

  • If you have a microwave and a Thermos, try Bean Sprouts' method. Melanie also includes a handy troubleshooting list and an extra step to make thicker Greek-style yogurt.

  • Just wing it. I recently showed up for a workshop with the PermiBus folks on their Skills for a New Millennium tour, prepared to make a water jacket and use a candy thermometer like in the MakeYourOwnYogurt directions. While a candy or dairy thermometer is a handy thing to have, it's probably not essential. The people at the workshop suggested a couple of rough measures to tell if your milk is the right temperature: When it starts to froth and form a skin, it's hot enough. When it's bath temperature (i.e. hot, but not so hot you'd scald yourself), it's cool enough to add the cultures. They made the yogurt directly in glass mason jars, which eliminates having to put it in a storage container once it's done.
So there are some options. The way we've been doing it recently is heating the milk directly in a pot on the stove, putting the starter yogurt at the bottom of a couple of pre-heated 24-ounce mason jars, pouring the milk in the jars, stirring and closing the lids tightly. Then we roll up the jars in towels and leave them all day or overnight. When it's done, we stir vigorously and stick the yogurt in the fridge. The end!

Homemade yogurt is thinner than most store-bought yogurt, because the manufacturers usually add a thickener like pectin or gelatin (if you use a store-bought yogurt as a starter, make sure there aren't any such additives; just milk and active cultures). If you want to thicken your yogurt, use Bean Sprouts' straining method (link above).

Why make your own yogurt?
  • It's cheaper (ours works out to be about half the price of store-bought)
  • No waste; no plastic containers piling up
  • You know exactly what's in it
And it's delicious! I like it as a snack with fruit or jam, for breakfast with muesli, or in smoothies (hello, frozen strawberries). You can also use it as a substitute in recipes that call for buttermilk. Or make a sort of raita by mixing a few tablespoons with a pinch of salt and some chopped fresh herbs like mint, chives, or if you're into that kind of thing, cilantro. Great as a condiment with spicy foods.

Go forth and multiply some bacteria!


Sunday, June 1, 2008

people doing good things

  • Author Sharon Astyk has been running her style of blog challenge for about a month now:

    The idea is that people get into the habit of promoting food independence in their everyday lives. It's a blog challenge, so people check in each week to report how much they've planted, harvested, managed, etc.--a good use of the "online support group" aspect of blogging. I haven't been committed enough to the blog thing recently to check in, but I've had Sharon's list in my head almost every day as I think of what to do next.

  • We joined the Great Sunflower Project, whose goal is to track bees' presence in as many locations in North America as possible. They send you free sunflower seeds, and assuming your sunflowers grow, you sit and watch the sunflowers once a week to see how many bees visit them.

  • Last, but certainly not least, some of our neighbors right here in our city have started a community garden on a large vacant lot. Check out Food Not Blight to read their story.


Thursday, May 29, 2008

what else is new

I started reading a new book called Homestead Year, written in the early- to mid-1990s when many of the back-to-the-land folks had since gone back-to-the-yuppie-suburbs and Al Gore was just a boring vice president. At least to me--but I was about ten years old during the title year and really wasn't concerned with a lot more than how many different colors of slouch socks I owned.
Anyway, so far, so good. Although I would like to say I'm a little tired of authors who talk about farming on a humble acre of land. With all due respect, cry me a river, guys. Come take a look at our streetcar suburb lot of about a sixth of an acre, plagued by a north-facing slant, too much shade, and the ever-encroaching bamboo and ailanthus, and maybe you will feel a little better. Not only that, but this is the most land I've lived on since I lived with my parents. Up until this year, I was lucky to have a rooftop or a balcony for a little outdoor space. But I suppose the point here is that however small our space may seem to us, we've got to try to make the best of it. (Jacob often refers me to the story of the cow in the house).

One way I found to use less space is potatoes planted in an old trash can:

This is one of many, many experiments we've got going on in the garden. It's pretty much all experiments right now, because we barely know what we're doing, and this is our first season living here. But the potatoes have been pretty easy so far:
I just scrubbed out an old trash can and rinsed with hot water and distilled vinegar, drilled several holes in the bottom, planted some seed potatoes in some soil at the bottom of the trash can and they've gone from there. Every time they get a few inches taller, we cover them with old dead leaves, coir or light soil. I planted these in March, so supposedly in a couple more months, the plants will flower and die back and we'll have a trash can full of potatoes. I'll believe it when I see it...potatoes and root crops make me nervous because you can't see what's going on! But I really hope it works, because this has probably been one of the easiest projects.

The collard greens were an impulse buy of Jacob's at the co-op one day, and they were really suffering for a while, but now they are doing well. I love collard greens. I just want to bite 'em. (Upon further inspection, it looks like something has, in fact, bitten them. Hm...)

Here's another experiment. We had an old birdbath lying under our deck, so I thought I'd plant something with shallow roots in it, like lettuce. Cute idea, but kind of stupid, seeing as how birdbaths do not drain. I don't want to use this as a real birdbath, though, because we have a crazy mosquito problem around here.

What else is on the deck?
Ah, yes. As you can see, we do not have a clothesline yet. It seems like money evaporates when the weather gets warm. It's on the list, and the drying rack works fine for now.

In front of the house is Khymi's flowerbed, a lesson in delayed gratification. There are zinnias, cosmos, and...some other stuff. We take care of it when she's not here, but we still let her take most of the credit.

I have been waiting and waiting for these lovely peonies to bloom. See, I am not a pink hater.

The newest thing out front is our tomato trellis. We saw a blurb about tomato trellising in Organic Gardening and thought we might as well get some use out of that damned bamboo. We'll be growing cucumbers, and maybe pole beans, on the tripods. The bed is a lasagna garden with layers of coir, municipal leaf compost, decomposed horse manure, and our backyard compost. More experiments!

Here's something we did not grow:
Mulberries! There is a big, huge mulberry tree, and we didn't even notice last summer because it was later on when we moved here. Naturally, it is over the the driveway, so we have had to park our (white) car on the street for the past few days. Anyway, you can see that a lot of them are just about to ripen! A few have ripened already, and I got about a pound this afternoon just by shaking the branches within my reach:

(The white petals are from an adjacent tree).

I don't adore the taste of mulberries, but they're good, and there are so many that we thought we ought to do something with them. I've read that they make good wine, but we don't have the equipment for that. Any other suggestions?

Remember how pleased we were when we finally conquered the bamboo back in February? Sure enough, it's back with a vengeance:

Ugh. It's growing faster than we can keep up with it. Let's talk about something else.

Like jam! Look at those little jars. They just look happy. I didn't think it would be possible, but almost all the strawberries are used up or frozen.

Well, that's where we're at, and it's almost June. With any luck, I'll have much to report in a month or two. Hope you're all enjoying these sunny days.


Monday, May 26, 2008


Along with strawberry season came a baby named Jackson. As of Thursday morning, the queen of the mountain only kid at the Small Red House is now also the omnipotent ringleader eldest of three over at Family Hack. We hear everyone's doing great and we wish them the very best!


Sunday, May 25, 2008

looking for berries, berries for jam.

Yes sir.

You're looking at fifty pounds of strawberries. On Saturday, the people in the small red house, plus one cousin, dragged themselves out of bed to spend the morning at a local pick-your-own farm. (Well, those of us under the age of 16 did not require any dragging). A more perfect day you couldn't have asked for--not too hot, blue sky, and rows upon rows of beautiful ripe berries.

There is just nothing like strawberries in season. There was a certain giddiness among all the visitors at the farm, kind of like when the kids in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory first walk into the room made of candy. Kids of all ages were scrambling around among the rows, their zeal renewed when they'd come across a good spot or a particularly outstanding specimen (I heard my fair share of, "Ima! Look how big THIS one is!!!")...a good time was had by all and I recommend it for all ages, if you're not growing your own berries. Local small-scale farmers could use our support.

Anyway, we got home and realized that we had just brought fifty pounds of strawberries into our house. So today Jacob and I and aforementioned cousin spent the afternoon cooking and canning strawberry jam and preserves. The rest we're dipping in chocolate or just plain devouring, or freezing (to be used later in pies, ice cream, smoothies, popsicles...)

This has all made me feel rather insecure about our little strawberry jar outside with a few measly plants and halfhearted berries. But we're still excited for what the rest of the season has in store.


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

pink at the rink: some thoughts on children and gender

It's official: I am becoming my mother.

Okay, let's back up. A while back, I started taking ice skating lessons. Or rather, re-started. When I was in elementary school I was a half-decent figure skater, but then I stopped when I was about eleven. I was 4'9". Now I'm 5'9". So I thought I would re-learn some of the skills now that I'm a lot farther from the ground than before.

Anyway, one day I was at the ice rink lacing up my skates, observing a group of young parents and their group of young skaters and their siblings; about ten children, mostly girls, maybe ages 2 - 5. Every single girl was wearing something pink. I counted. At least one article of clothing each, but in some cases a lot more. Pink shoes, pink scarves, pink jackets, pink gloves. Jeans with pink-themed embroidery and appliqués. Pink barrettes. All of them.

Why? Are they afraid people won't know they're girls? Or, the more likely explanation--pink is hard to avoid when you're buying girls' clothing.
I don't have anything against pink itself. It's an inherently nice color, one that occurs in nature in the form of beautiful cherry blossoms, seashells and birds' feathers, not to mention all of our own bodies' mucus membranes (okay, maybe not the most pleasant image). I will also freely admit that despite this claim, I own hardly any pink clothing.

Many people I know have made the good point that rejecting pink because it's a "girly" color is just as bad as insisting on it. It's still an acceptance of the idea of pink as feminine, when really you should just choose according to your preference no matter what. This makes sense, and it would make more sense if our preferences weren't completely skewed by the culture we live in. If we could all make truly unbiased decisions, don't you think that some men and boys would prefer pink and pastels too (I know, besides the frat guys who wear pink polo shirts to be ironic)? Why should it be women's responsibility to reject or reclaim something when the point is ultimately that color shouldn't indicate gender?

A couple years ago, I spotted a posting on Craigslist:

Looking to trade Bumbo seats, I'll take any color! Just can't stand putting my boy in purple!

Really, I think this is interesting. It's remarkable to me that pink is so completely inescapable in the girls' section, but even more telling is its conspicuous absence from the boys' section (does anyone ever wish there were just a kids' section?). At least girls can wear "masculine" clothing (those are huge incredulous quotation marks) if they want, and no one's really the wiser. It's cute if a girl wears boys' clothing. It's tomboyish. It's endearing...sort of in the way that it's endearing when a child dresses up like an adult. (You'll see what I mean in a minute).

But heaven help the boy who wants to wear girls' clothing. Heaven help that Craigslist parent who got stuck with the lavender (yes, it's actually lavender) Bumbo seat. I honestly wonder what this person envisions--how this lavender apparatus might scar his or her child so. Will he take on "feminine" qualities from this piece of obviously girly plastic? Will he become...sensitive? Nurturing? Artistic? Vulnerable? Sympathetic? Reserved? What a failure this child could become! A blue Bumbo seat, stat!

I think it's the universal undesirability of "femininity" that says the most about our culture. We could look at things like careers, but let's stick with appearance to keep it simple. Comfort and practicality aside, a woman wearing "masculine" clothing (work overalls, a loose-fitting Oxford shirt, or a necktie) in our modern context is seen as strong, daring and even intelligent. A man wearing a skirt, however, is generally considered bizarre and sometimes perverse. Parents can feel free to buy red, yellow, blue and green for their daughters, but they wouldn't dare put their sons in lavender or pink. What this tells me is that it's fine for the subordinate group to try and emulate the dominant, but put the other way around, it seems...backwards. And that means that (surprise!) women are still an inferior class.

I don't know. Call me stuck in the second wave, but I don't think it's so great that girls and women (or rather, the large companies that manufacture our clothing) are reclaiming pink. A real change with have come when a) men can feel comfortable being "feminine" as much as women are comfortable being "masculine" and b) eventually the current concepts of masculine and feminine have blurred to the point of being almost indistinguishable.

I realize that it seems completely counterintuitive that women should somehow need validation from men to prove that femininity is obsolete, but that's just it: it's just gender. I'm not looking to preserve it. Sex, for the most part, is undeniable. Women will always be women. Men will always be men. Adult men and women have some physical differences that make certain clothing more practical for one sex than for another, but guess what? When you're a kid, those differences are much fewer. Children's bodies are almost exactly the same until they hit puberty. Separate kinds of underpants should be pretty much all you need. The rest is all gender. It's noise. It's an empty signifier.

I've been thinking a lot about all of this recently, because it seems like a lot of people in my life are having babies, and I've been hearing a lot of, "It's a good thing/it's too bad _____ is having a boy/girl because ______." If it's not their first child, there's talk of hand-me-downs and whether or not they'll be useful.

Today, the comments on SouleMama's latest post said it all over again: multiple uses of the words 'sweet' and 'adorable', and lots of people either being grateful they have a girl so they can make sweet, adorable clothes, or wishing they had a girl for whom to make sweet, adorable clothes. (To be fair, Amanda Soule's sons have beautiful clothes, too, and they seem to love the domestic arts as well, which I think is great). But it left me thinking, boys (little, baby boys even!) can't be sweet, delicate and adorable?

Wouldn't it be great if there were just kids' clothes, and nobody had to buy a whole new wardrobe for an opposite-sex younger sibling? What a victory against consumer culture that would be!

The reason I say I'm becoming my mother is that gender in children's clothing has been one of her main research areas since before I was born (at this point, she could write a book...hmm). I guess I've learned to notice stuff like this.

Notice is one thing, practice is another. I've never had a baby and I don't fully know the questions gender can present. My stepdaughter came into my life at age four, with a full wardrobe and some preferences already in place. I'm interested in hearing about the experiences and thoughts of parents who have had small children, especially those who have had both boys and girls. What place does gender have in this 21st-century generation of kids?


Thursday, May 1, 2008

dear internet

I've been on a self-imposed sort of blog hiatus recently. I've been meeting some new people and spending a little time with old friends and family. And I've been thinking a lot about the people behind the blogs.

In The Phantom Tollbooth there is a character named the Dodecahedron. A dodecahedron is a three-dimensional shape with twelve pentagonal faces. And the Dodecahedron has twelve faces, each with a different emotion. I sometimes think of people as various polyhedra, with many different faces.

The weird thing about this culture on the internet is it makes it possible for us to conveniently show only the faces we choose to show. Usually we like to show the happy face, or the pleased face, or the proud face. And after a while we end up with these constructions of people that aren't really people. Just a few faces.

Blogs and social networking have been presenting me with the same few themes, with some exceptions. Themes somewhat like these:
-Here Is My Expertly Photographed Family and All of My Good Parenting Decisions at Work!
-I Heard About This New Thing/Method/Tip/Or Maybe Totally Meaningless Information First.
-Let's All Talk About What Good People We Are!
-I Will Admit I'm Flawed, But In A Funny Way!

I don't mean to sound disparaging. I enjoy participating when it comes to subjects like these, no doubt. But sometimes I wonder about the real people, the real stories. What's your first memory? What was the worst fight you had with your spouse/partner? What would you consider the low point in your relationship with your parents? When was the last time you cried? What have you done that really made you wonder if you were a bad parent?

If you answer these types of questions in list form, it's called a meme and it's considered an act of self-pity. But hardly anyone likes to discuss these things at length or with any degree of sincerity. If we show our less impressive faces, we have to use some sort of defense mechanism (sarcasm, irony, "snarkiness"). Maybe because we're afraid of marring our spotless self-constructed internet images.

I understand that there's a line between public and private life, and it's up to each of us to determine what that means to us. But it's strange that "public" usually automatically means what we consider the best sides.

My friend has two beautiful and creative children, and up until somewhat recently, was half of one of the coolest couples I knew. Her world turned upside-down when she and her husband split up. But she kept blogging. She kept being sincere and sharing what she felt comfortable sharing. I think that's admirable.

The author of one of the funniest "parenting blogs" around, Finslippy, recently chose to share with her hundreds (thousands?) of readers that she had suffered a miscarriage.

Breakups happen. I know; if nothing else, we stepparents wouldn't be around if it weren't for breakups. Miscarriages happen. Grief happens. People are vulnerable. We get sad. We make mistakes. We aren't perfect.

I'm not saying the blogosphere should be one big therapy session. But personally, I find a little sincerity refreshing. It's nice to hear someone is going through what you might be going through, or what you've already been through.

I haven't noticed a unity of opposites in our culture. We want the best, the greatest, the happiest and the most perfect. Maybe we should try to accept more of a balance, an equilibrium.

I'm thinking about how I might approach this in the future. For now, a struggle and a pleasure...

I have suffered from mental illnesses for the past decade, or maybe longer--Major Depressive Disorder, which I at least know runs in my family, and ADHD, the origins of which I'm less sure. I have done badly in school despite being quite intelligent, and sometimes I have struggled to be a productive adult. My mental health has been the single greatest burden I have carried in my life.

Today I turned twenty-six. I watched ants crawl around the sticky buds of a peony, I planted lettuce, and shared a wonderful dinner with someone who loves me. Tomorrow we are getting on the train to go to Vermont. I'm really looking forward to it.

That's the truth.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

our cargo bike

Remember my post about our "new" (old) Craigslist bike? Back in November, when oil was $96 a barrel? Ha ha!

Well, autumn changed into winter, winter changed into spring (ahh, nice). Many a pretty day has come and gone but I kept forgetting to take a picture. So here you go:

Consider it my contribution to Earth Day (although if you want some real perspective, read what my mom has to say).

As you can see, I did install the wire pannier baskets, with the help of the great folks at our local bike co-op. In this picture, I've got my grocery bags in there, ready to go. The woven front basket came from a friend.

We have both really loved riding this bike so far. We're fortunate in that we're about the same height, so we can share.

What you can't see is that there are two glass milk bottles in that green bag. It's taken a little improvisation to figure what to do with fragile groceries, but I've found that making a "bumper" out of something softer (a bag of rice, maybe) to go in between the bottles works well. Eggs are a challenge, too, but not as much if I remember to bring along a dish towel in which to wrap the carton, and pack it in a secure position. So far we haven't had any bike-related mishaps (knock on wood).

Now that the weather is getting warmer, I might try riding longer distances. The less I have to get in that car, the better.


Sunday, April 20, 2008

curds and whey

For the last few weeks, I've been making the household's weekly quart o' yogurt. Praise is due to Mama Monster, although our yogurt technique is more low-tech. Just follow these simple directions and you too can change a quart of milk (plus a couple spoonfuls of yogurt) into a quart (plus a few spoonfuls) of yogurt! All you need is two pots, a kitchen thermometer, a towel, and some heat.

At least for the milk and yogurt we get, it's actually much cheaper to just buy the milk and turn it into yogurt ourselves ($2.25 for a quart of milk vs $4.00 for a quart of yogurt).

Every beginner's bound to slip up sometime, though. Witness today, when I left the improvised double-boiler to heat up about a hundred degrees above 110°F. The water boiled, the bacteria got crazy and died, the milk curdled and separated, and I got disappointed. Considering I had made a double batch this time to bring some for a work colleague, I pouted and kvetched to Maria all evening long.

But Maria saved the evening with an inspirational turn of phrase:

"When life gives you schlimazel, make cheese!"

And thus, dear readers, was born Schlimazel Cheese. Or maybe Schlimazel Quark.

The full array: bowl, strainer, spoon, cheesecloth, salt. That's all it takes, folks, for reals.


Friday, April 18, 2008

current events

[In the car. Khymi and I have just heard the subject of today's Talk of the Nation Science Friday. I explain that the people on the radio are talking about the President's (losership) plan for what we should do about global warming]...

Khymi: Well, why doesn't he want them to stop polluting?
Maria: He has to care about a lot of different problems as President. And I think maybe he worries more about these companies making enough money than about--
Khymi: Snow???

[more talk of what the next President might do differently, the elections]

[Khymi ponders]

"...I wish I were a grown-up. ...No, I wish I were a fairy."

Grown-ups' powers are finite. It's a sad fact.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

the buy nothing challenge and i

Buy Nothing Challenge - April 2008

This month I'm participating in Crunchy Chicken's Buy Nothing Challenge. It's gone pretty well so far. Of course, it's easy not to buy stuff when you really can't afford to, although it seems like folks manage to do that, too. My problem was, I actually had some stuff I had planned to buy this month. But a couple of loopholes in the challenge rules made it possible: it's okay to buy supplies for growing your own food (ha-ha) and it's okay to buy stuff used.

Here is what I've allowed myself to spend money on since the beginning of the month:
  • gas (ugh)
  • groceries
  • car maintenance
  • a haircut (nothing more)
  • gardening tools (a start-up investment and hopefully a one-time purchase)
  • a couple of serendipitous trips to the thrift store (where I actually did find a pair of roller skates that fits Khymi, miraculously; ten 24-ounce mason jars, and an old one of these for 69 cents)
  • a literary magazine and a ticket to a play at the Baltimore '68 conference
  • reasonably-priced dinner with a friend
I think that's all. And I think most of it (arguably) falls under stuff that's allowed, since most of it isn't actually stuff, and almost none of what is stuff is newly-manufactured.

What's been nice about the challenge so far is that I've also felt inspired to get rid of some stuff--since I'm a little bit of a thrift store addict (shopping there isn't what I would consider a sacrifice), I made a rule for myself that I have to take something to donate any time I want to buy something. As a result, I've also had to think more about buying stuff that will last for a long time--stuff I won't just want to get rid of in a couple of years. I've also had to think about what I can just make myself instead of buying (most of this falls under the food category anyway, though...more on that later).

Maybe, come May, I'll be up for the Extreme Eco Throwdown.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

FYI: King Corn on PBS tonight

Tonight we'll be watching the new documentary about our country's corn industry, King Corn, for free on PBS's Independent Lens. (Follow the link to check your local listings--for folks in our area, it'll be on WETA Channel 26 at 10 PM).

Hope you get to see it, too!


little farmers

We were happy to have Khymi here for a few days last week. It seemed like she wanted to spend every spare moment in the garden, getting friends and neighbors in on the action whenever possible. Even just in the last year, I feel like she's gone from being this little kid who constantly needs help (or thinks she does) to being capable of just about anything. Sometimes she still needs a step stool, though.


Sunday, April 6, 2008

treat yourself to some greenergy

A few months ago, my nearby aunt and uncle told us that our local energy provider, Pepco, offers 100% wind power. A little investigation revealed that Pepco does indeed have a private subsidiary, Pepco Energy Services, that offers residential power generation/transmission from either (1) 100% wind sources or (2) a mix of wind, solar, hydro, and biomass.

Great, think the skeptics, but only chi-chi yuppies can afford the whole "green" racket, right?

Sorry, dear skeptics, but the price tag for either source turns out to be only TWO CENTS more per kWh than your nasty (NOT the least bit "clean") coal or nuclear power. Last month, this amounted to a difference of SEVEN DOLLARS.

(We opted for wind because we were uneasy about some of the ecological dangers of hydroelectric dams and biomass. And because windmills are just doggone cool, notwithstanding the NIMBY naysayers.)

Honestly, coal and nuclear just aren't as pretty.

To recap:
For seven dollars a month, you can
(a) save part of the world's oldest mountains, North America's largest contiguous forest, and lots of poor folks' lives, homes, schools, drinking water, roads, and health, all of which are destroyed by destructive mountaintop removal mining,
(b) save tons of carbon emissions at the other end of the coal power process, thereby helping stop global warming,
(c) save tons of other pollutant emissions from coal-fired power plants, and
(c) reduce the dangers for humans and other life from nuclear waste, nuclear energy production, and nuclear catastrophe (not that nuclear production offers much for efficient carbon reduction, either).

How about that, folks?

Now, of course, that cost difference (i.e., our $7) varies with power consumption. But cutting down on power use is easily within a household's grasp: the key is just to unplug or shut off ("standby" doesn't count!) things you're not using anyway, such as phone chargers, coffee makers, stereos, TVs, microwaves, computers, and so forth. They're not doing anything but costing you money!

Aha, pipe up the skeptics, this is all well and good for you Marylanders with your Pepco, but who's to say we could get a similar deal in Minnesota, Wyoming, Maine, etc.?

Oho, quoth we in the Small Red House, who's to say you can't?


welcome little M

Our friends at nurtureblog have a new daughter! Congrats to mother, father and big brother N :)


Friday, April 4, 2008

live from baltimore '68

Well, not really. I don't have a laptop, so I'm in a computer lab. But anyway, this weekend at the University of Baltimore, we're looking back forty years.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on April 4, 1968 in Memphis. Here in Baltimore, and in cities across the country, the proverbial camel's back broke as people looted, burned and destroyed their own neighborhoods out of anger and exasperation. Some of Baltimore's neighborhoods are just beginning to recover; some never recovered.

What does this have to do with me, someone who wasn't even a glimmer in anyone's eye in 1968 (in fact, the year my parents met)? For the last year, I have been helping out as an intern with Baltimore '68: Riots and Rebirth, UB's project studying the riots and their aftermath. My job as a student oral historian has been to interview Baltimoreans who lived through the riots about their experiences, and to transcribe and edit the interviews so they can be archived as oral histories for future researchers.

(continue reading by clicking "full post")

I initially took the internship because I was looking for part-time work, and because I have a tolerance (a preference, even) for tedious, time-consuming, single-task activity like transcribing and editing. I didn't really expect that I'd be hearing such incredible stories from such a diverse scope of interviewees, younger and older, black and white.

What I also didn't expect was what more I'd learn about Martin Luther King, whose name has become as ubiquitous as Thomas Jefferson's but whose deeds and philosophies are just as vaguely perceived. If you'd asked me what I knew about King last year, I'd probably say the same thing most people of my generation would say: something involving preacher and civil rights leader, Montgomery bus boycott, nonviolent protest, "I Have a Dream", assassinated at a young age. That guy.

One of the interviewees (PDF of the transcript here; it's worth a read if you've got the time) gave me a better sense of what it was like to be a young person at the time, pointing out that at the time of King's death he was just as much an anti-war activist as he was a civil rights activist. Before this interview, I had heard the song "Abraham, Martin & John" on the oldies station but I'd never given it a passing thought. Cheesy as it may sound to some, when I've listened to it since I think of how desperate it must have felt to have the great young leaders of one's time disappear within a decade. And on top of that, to be living with a terrible war (sadly, an experience I do know now), but with the added threat of the draft, plus the lingering uneasiness from the Cuban Missile factor on top of the next.

I don't learn history too well from books. Dates and facts tend to kind of blur together on the page. But to hear someone say, "Yes, I remember, the prom was that weekend," or "I was walking home from the bus stop when I ran into the National Guard," or "My father had the finest pharmacy in East Baltimore; he could never go back," makes it less text and more story. In German the words for "story" and "history" are the same: Geschichte, from the root word Schicht, "layer". Somehow I like this image better than "story", like the stories of a building. It has been through many layers of memory that history has begun to offer me some meaning.

Anyway, back to Martin Luther King. One book I did find useful was actually assigned reading for a class that had nothing to do with the riots project. It combined various writings by King with ways to apply his philosophies to leadership. It was interesting to me that King often referred to his nonviolent methods simply as "love". Not affectionate or romantic love, but what he considered pure Christian love, based in part in his own religious upbringing and in part on Gandhi's teachings of satyagraha, love-force or truth-force. This kind of love simply means sincere respect for each person's worth regardless of who he or she is (UU folks: 1st principle, anyone?). Not obligatory or lipservice respect, but respect that comes from a deeper, greater regard and love for humanity and life on Earth (what King might have referred to as God's Creation).

King believed that it was through this love that change was possible. He was clear in explaining that it did not mean allowing one's self to be walked over, or deferring to something one believes is wrong; it did mean approaching what is wrong and unjust with love and justice. He shared experiences wherein those who opposed him would write verbally abusive letters, saying things like, "People like you have no place doing what you're doing; you have no idea what you're talking about. You're completely messing up our country. It's despicable and disgusting and you will pay in the end." (I'm just making this up as an example, because I don't have the book with me, but it was usually something like this, with a lot of what we would now call "'you' statements" and nasty adjectives).

King could have very well responded in the exact same way; in some ways it seems only natural. But he always engaged with his opponents respectfully, politely, sympathetically and with a healthy inquisitiveness. He made it clear that he understood why they felt the way they did, and then patiently and articulately explained and defended his position. King writes that no one will listen unless they feel as though they are being listened to; no one will seek to understand unless they know that they are understood.

This concept of satyagraha or love had a particular resonance for me. It put into words what I have always felt is so universal and yet so seemingly elusive in our time: a pure and exuberant love for others. A love that goes deeper than golden rule, beyond a mindset that uses Number One as the point of reference for all of our interactions.

I especially admired this idea coming from a Christian leader like King. Not once did I read any mention of salvation as a motivator; never did I detect a tone of sanctimoniousness. For King this was not all about Christian virtuousness and piety; it was about love for love's sake alone, a value he also considered essential to his Christian identity. It holds just as much value for non-Christians like me.

Back to the is both fascinating and perplexing that the untimely death of such a person could send the country into the tailspin it did. In some ways it was the ultimate betrayal; many people felt somehow that God had betrayed them by allowing Martin Luther King to be killed, so what was the use? What was the use in not getting angry? What difference did it make anymore?

If you'd like, I encourage you to read the oral histories we have online (we're still working on a long backup of interview audio). I would love to hear any personal reflections you have if you remember April 4, 1968 and the days that followed--in Baltimore or elsewhere. We still have so much to learn.

Has anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good, they die young
I just looked around and he's gone.


Thursday, April 3, 2008

cheapskate pizza

Making pizza at home is becoming more popular, as are an arsenal of specialized home-pizza-making supplies. You could use a regular baking sheet for your homemade pie, but some folks will tell you that to get that perfect crispy crust, you need a pizza stone to simulate the stone floor of an old-fashioned wood-burning pizza oven. Better hightail it to your favorite kitchen gadget retailer and pick one up for $35 or more, right?

Wrong. No. No. Step away from the overpriced yuppie merchandise. There is a better way, and you don't have to go any further than your local building supply.

We got this brilliant idea from my next husband Food Network television personality Alton Brown, back when we had cable: Those fancy pizza stones? They're nothing but ceramic tiles. The same thing you can get at Home Depot, Lowe's, or preferably, a surplus building supply place like our beloved Community Forklift.

You can buy an unglazed ceramic tile or quarry tile in the dimensions of your preference for around a dollar. (Do not make the mistake of buying flagstone--it's too lightweight and it will crack at high temperatures.) Take it home, give it a good scrubbing, and voilà! Perfectly crispy homemade pizza, without the gourmet price tag. Mmmm.


Tuesday, April 1, 2008

spring has sprung!

You can't see, but there are little lettuce sprouts in the cold frame. I built it myself! It was mostly easy and fun. All you need are:

-An old window (from a junk yard or building surplus)
-Some scrap 2 x 6s or whatever other size lumber you prefer (cut to fit the window and build a box higher in the top than the back, which means you'll have to have two triangle-shaped pieces to create an incline)
-Nails or screws
-A saw
-A tape measure
-Some scrap 2 x 2s or thereabouts for corner posts
-A hasp or latch of some kind (optional)
-Weather stripping (also optional)

The only thing that I couldn't do myself was cut the one piece on the diagonal to make two triangles. I had to have my dad help me because he has a band saw. But if you have and are handy with a rip saw (I do not, and I am not), that is an option, too. I also didn't use carpenter's glue, but that might have been helpful.

I would write more detailed directions, but I didn't have any. I had to figure it out for myself, and I imagine that someone with better visual sense would make fewer mistakes than I did if they just took the time to make a diagram. I just made mistakes anyway, and then took it apart and put it back together again. It worked out in the end.


Thursday, March 27, 2008


It was heartening to watch the trailer for The Greenhorns, a documentary film about young people in my generation reclaiming control of our country's foodways through their own small farms. I think it's a good thing that at the same time urban agriculture is starting to take hold, another new ruralism is also growing.

I noticed something in watching the trailer, though. These wonderful young people are so strong, so ambitious, so conscientious, and so...white. I think there was one person of color featured among the many in those few minutes.

Maybe it's because I grew up where I did, in a county where African Americans are the majority (example: at the public middle school I attended, out of 806 students total, there are currently 75 white students--my elementary and high schools were a bit more demographically "even" but still not predominately white). So maybe, when other people might take it for granted, I sometimes notice when the "minorities" (a relative term) are absent--from a restaurant, a church, a school, a film or a social movement.

It's difficult for me to weigh in on this topic without feeling like too much of a nice white lady. I don't really feel like it's my job as a white person to go around proclaiming where people of color's interests ought to lie. Something's wrong with that picture. But I feel like something is also wrong with the picture of the new rural America that I'm seeing--where privileged and socially conscious young white folks can move out to a piece of land somewhere and have the resources to start up, and somehow people of color are always thought of as "urban." African Americans and Latinos have their roots in the land as much as whites do, but one issue is that the rural agricultural legacy for many, at least for the past couple of centuries, is intertwined with one of oppression and imposed poverty. It quickly becomes a more complex subject.

I suppose the greater issue at hand is that farming is seen as either a) something people do who can't do anything better or b) something white people can afford to do for fun because they think it's neat. And really those are both huge myths. I think if more people saw farmers as the proud, self-sufficient, hard-working, intelligent and creative people portrayed in films like The Greenhorns, more people--of all races--would view farming as the admirable, respectable, and even desirable line of work that it is.

And I guess there's a limit to what I can do from my position of privilege. I am glad that I notice when people are invisible, but what next? Besides blogging?

Edit: It's not just me. A recent New York Times article on young farmers was found to contain a significant amount of Stuff White People Like.


Monday, March 24, 2008

summer dreams

I can tell other people to "live in the moment" all I want, but it's hard for me to take my own advice sometimes.

We've reached that point in our lives wherein spontaneity has lost its place in favor of planning ahead. Not always. Spontaneity isn't dead. But it's gotten to the point where it doesn't make sense to leave everything to the last minute, nor is it really considerate of the other people in our I've been having to think about the summer a lot.

Today I'm filling out my FAFSA (late). That's something that has to be done months ahead of the fall semester. I haven't picked my fall courses yet, but I have to soon. I'm already registered for my summer class.

And there's so much else going on in the summer...joining the pool, going to the beach, working in the garden, summer chorus, bike riding, not to mention Khymi living with us for an extended period of time, which will involve day camps, swim team, Girl Scout camp, and who knows what else.

Needless to say, my current agenda of writing midterm papers, getting ready for a big conference and waiting for the last frost is kind of lame. It's even too cold to sit on the porch today. My birthday is in May, and usually the weather is beautiful and warm, but it's also inevitably right when everyone's freaking out about finals. Including me.

I can't wait until summer!


Monday, March 17, 2008

seven years

someone in the Small Red House just had a birthday. well, not "just" exactly: a full weekend of gigs kept a certain parent from hitting the blogs for a full two days after the Ides of March this year. and not "in the SRH" exactly either: she's was at her mama's for her actual birthdate this year, so the Small Red House will mark the occasion next weekend. apparently, scallops and linguine are to be on the menu, but the jury's still out on dessert, although her stepmom and i have a sneaking suspicion it'll involve hamantaschen one way or another.

yes indeedy.
seven long years.
seven tall years.
seven gummy, toothy, toothless, and now even a little toothy-again years.
seven years of Snugli and stroller, car seat and booster, streamers and training wheels, playgrounds and farm, sneakers but mostly sandals and "Princess Shoes".
seven years of one cuddly, careworn "jam-jams" after another in endless succession.
seven years with two families through eight houses (or more?) in four states - small wonder she's so fascinated by geography!
seven years of car rides, bike rides, scooter rides, car rides, shoulder rides, wave-riding, car rides, ice skates, metro rides, car rides, strolls, even a flight or two. and lest we forget, car rides.
seven years of laughing, farming, singing (whether or not anyone is listening), doctor-ing, bossing, hugging, de-tangling, chatting. and now reading!
a few (unforgettable) years of diapers, a few years of crawling, many years of steps and runs and leaps, and seven altogether of dancing.
seven years of jamming with dad, cooking with dad, walking with dad, joking with dad, reading with dad (from english to german to english again), tickling with dad, all-around hanging with dad. all that and more with dad, and all the same (I'm sure) and more with mama.

piled together thus, all these parts of speech come in a bunch, as if the past were ready-made. to tell the full story of how this baby became a toddler, became a child and now a girl, would require an ode, which i fear would bore all but myself. (not to mention the impropriety of posting someone else's tale on the public Intarwebz.) suffice it to say, we've all grown a lot in the last seven years. she's done it in the most recognizable ways, but through those remarkable changes, i mark my own growth and that of all those around her. she's taught me a lot about living, and i stagger at the amount in store.

with all that schmaltz, let me say:

happy birthday, khymi, my firstborn daughter. may every seven years be as full of joy, love, and learning as these past. l'chaim and cead mile failte, küçük hanım.


Monday, March 10, 2008

want vs. need

A few hours after my last post, I came across this paragraph in an essay by Wendell Berry:

It is plain to me that the line ought to be drawn without fail wherever it can be drawn easily. And it ought to be easy (though many do not find it so) to refuse to buy what one does not need. If you are already solving your problem with the equipment you have—a pencil, say—why solve it with something more expensive and more damaging? If you don’t have a problem, why pay for a solution? If you love the freedom and elegance of simple tools, why encumber yourself with something complicated?

Berry is discussing technology in general--part of his response as to why he refuses to buy a computer (*cough*), but the same might be applied to our technologically-affected food. For some, the line may be drawn at not eating animals at all, affirming that one doesn't need meat to thrive anyway, so why go through something that is morally troubling? I suppose what I meant as a result is that the introduction of another complicated set of products might not really solve anything, either.

What jumped out at me the most was the sentence, "And it ought to be easy (though many do not find it so) to refuse to buy what one does not need." No, many do not find it so easy not to buy things. It actually seems to be really difficult for most people. This article in the Post last week was the first high-profile (albeit unnecessarily snarky) statement that finally brought some attention to the real bottom line: "green consumption" is a contradiction. Maybe we could call it "greener consumption," in the way that some folks prefer to make a distinction between "safe sex" and "safer sex".

My mom has been working for the last few months on the concept of "green fashion," and everyone who's interviewed her is interested, first and foremost, on what to buy. No one wants to hear that we've got a ton of surplus clothes in this country and the "greenest" place to get clothes is the thrift store, a yard sale, or your friend's closet. The "greenest" wedding is the one in which you don't replace all your mismatched (but perfectly functional) dishes, sheets and towels with new, coordinating ones from your registry just because you can. No one wants to hear that it might be a good idea to look for timeless "investment" clothing that will last you for the next twenty years--want it to last longer? Learn to mend clothes instead of throwing them away when they're worn. In many ways, "green fashion" is also an oxymoron, because fashion is, sometimes by its very definition, ever-changing, temporary and disposable.

It will take quite a cultural paradigm shift for people to really only buy what they need. Look around and you'll see we're not even close.