Archive for June 2010

And That’s Why I Aim For 95%   3 comments

It’s confession time: I ate a “conventional” cheeseburger yesterday.

I had blood drawn twice in less than 24 hours (two different tests, one at my new naturopathic doctor’s office and one at a clinic where my insurance will pay the lab bill), and after the second time I realized that it might be a good idea to consume some iron, but we don’t currently have any red meat in the freezer (not that we would really want to cook it anyway, in this 100 degree heat). Since I was going to have to buy lunch anyway I decided to enjoy an In’n’Out burger. It was the first such burger I’ve had in almost a year and the last such burger that I’ll probably eat for the next couple years. Boy was it yummy.

So what’s wrong with the burger? Well, for most people, nothing. But last fall I committed to 95% elimination of meat and dairy containing synthetic hormones as one of the first steps in my pre-pregnancy prep. Why 95% instead of 100%? Because 100% is unrealistic. I’m not about to research (and then remember) every single cheese in the Whole Foods cheese display to figure out which are European, which are organic, and which are conventional. I feel really weird eating my leftovers at staff meetings or vendor presentations where everyone else is eating free pizza or whatever. I don’t want to inconvenience other people, just myself. And there will always be situations where the lines are gray, such as yesterday’s iron vs. beef-that-was-fed-artificial-hormones. What 95% does include is only hormone-free meat and dairy at home (that commitment actually dates back to 2001 when I first moved out on my own), and avoiding “conventional” meat and dairy when not eating at home.

I originally went hormone-free on two grounds. First, I was concerned that there may be some influence on my adult-onset acne from the residual hormones in the meat and dairy that I was consuming. Second, I was concerned about the health and welfare of the cows fed the artificial hormones; and how degraded health might affect my food in other indirect ways. On the first point, there is some scientific debate about whether/how much artificial hormones and related compounds pass into the meat/milk, whether/how much is destroyed by the human digestive system, and whether there is any effect from that small dosage. But I cite the Precautionary Principle. I’ve seen enough research results over the years to make me want to be wary, especially when it comes to a fetus that will spend 9 months immersed in my body and exposed to my body burden. That future fetus is the reason for ramping up my commitment to avoiding synthetic hormones. Since I’ve been told that it takes several months (on the order of three) for hormones to stabilize/be removed from the body, I decided to eliminate potential bad-actors well before we actually start trying to get pregnant.

Just in case anyone wants to know: US regulations allow synthetic hormones to be given to dairy cows, beef cattle, and lamb, but no other form of meat. Use of synthetic grown hormones (specifically rBST, recombinant bovine somatotropin) is not allowed in the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or Japan. The first synthetic hormone was developed in 1994, and before that natural hormones were expensive and rarely used. For a few months in early 2009, the US imposed a luxury tax of 100% on some European goods and 300% on Roquefort cheese, supposedly in retaliation for the EU ban on imports of beef and dairy from cows given growth hormones.

Posted June 30, 2010 by mayakey in food, health

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Breezing In   2 comments

Ugh, it’s hot. So… here’s part two in the series on strategies that I have used to keep my house cool (see Awnings Up for part one) without over-reliance on air conditioning.

The first principle to reduce your cooling load is to block the sun. The second principle is to take advantage of breezes (both outdoor and fan-made) and cool night temperatures.

Taking advantage of natural breezes is especially easy in this part of California since we get the Delta breeze every night (except tonight which explains why it is 11 pm and the house is still at 84 degrees). As soon as the temperature is the same outside as inside, we open up the doors and windows and let nature finish the cooling, for free. When it’s really hot, we leave some windows open overnight so that the house is nicely chilled by morning. Likewise in the morning we keep the doors and windows open until the breeze coming in is the approximate temperature that we want the house to be. If a house is warm in the morning in the summer, it will be even worse later in the day, so do whatever you can to take advantage of night cooling. Even a slightly warm breeze can actually make a room feel cooler by reducing the stuffiness.

To really take advantage of breezes and indoor vs outdoor temperatures, you have to understand not only your overall climate, but the microclimates around your house and the ventilation patterns inside your house. Vegetation, hardscape, and shade elements make a big difference outside; while knowing what path the air will take through the house helps optimize the natural cooling inside. Our driveway is shaded on the west side starting in mid afternoon, so in the evening the air in the front (south) side of the house is comfortably cool long before the temperature has dropped on the west side of the house. We can open the front door and windows relatively early, and likewise we can keep the side door (west) open until early afternoon because it is still shaded and cool there. But our bedroom is a dead zone and we have no option except the air conditioner in there.

The other aspect of breezes is of course the use of fans. They don’t cool the room (in fact they technically heat it up a little bit), but when sitting in front of a fan it is possible to be comfortable at a much higher ambient temperature than otherwise. Fans in windows and doors can help the cool night breezes reach the entire house. Not all fans move air from one side to the other, though, and there is such a thing as overkill. Using a network of four fans in an attempt to force the breeze into the dead zone that is our bedroom really showed up on our electric bill, without helping cool our bedroom much. Unfortunately, while there are EnergyStar ratings for ceiling fans, there are no efficiency standards for floor fans. The last couple of times that I shopped for a floor fan I tried unsuccessfully to find out the energy usage to make sure I bought something that would be efficient. I don’t trust marketing: “efficient cooling and ventilation!”; I want numbers.

Posted June 28, 2010 by mayakey in energy use, frugal living, home

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With a Side of Meat   4 comments

“Eat less meat” We’ve all heard that before. But why is this such a challenge in our society to begin with? I got to wondering that a while ago and I realized that part of the issue could be the way we view meat in relation to our meals. Generally in American society most meals are planned around meat. What’s for dinner? Chicken. Steak. We eat more protein than we need. The starches and vegetables alongside the meat are often sort of considered second class citizens. But meat isn’t a god, or the sun, or a child; the world does not revolve around meat. It is just a class of ingredient. Also, the recommended serving size for meat is something like 3 or 4 ounces (that “pack of cards” guideline), but face it, that’s hard to do when the meat is the center of the meal.

My thought – relegate meat to side dish status, not necessarily main dish status. Use meat as ingredients to augment the other foods on the plate. These aren’t exactly crazy concepts, but I think the general attitude is the challenging part. At home we usually follow this since we usually plan vegetarian meals and then sometimes decide to add some sausage. Occasionally I’ll get a beef or lamb or buffalo craving and then we’ll usually get some ground or cubed meat to add to something. There is the rare occasion when we decide to buy steak or pork chops or something similar and then plan a meal around it. Somehow I often find that the meals planned around a piece of meat are less fulfilling then meals that just incorporate the meat.

Changing my attitude should make eating out at restaurants a little healthier (only a little, though, I just don’t have that much self control) and cooking for Game Night less terrifying because I will commit to no longer trying to make the meat a star ingredient. And for everyone who cooks a big holiday dinner, take some of that turkey pressure off and accent all of the other million dishes on the table. Is this a doable attitude shift for many people? What do you think?

Posted June 24, 2010 by mayakey in food

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Peaches and Cream Oatmeal   Leave a comment

This weekend it has been pleasantly cool again, allowing me to enjoy an occasional but treasured treat: peaches and cream oatmeal. Since I only eat seasonally, this dish requires a confluence of factors: a weekend so that I have the time to cook steel cut oats, cool weather so I won’t overheat the house, and fresh peaches in the market. It is an example of how eating seasonally does not just refer to what produce one eats, but what dishes as well. I know lots of people adjust somewhat to the seasons, for example by eating more salads in the summer than in the winter, or cooking outside (read: barbecue). With the use of air conditioning keep the house cool no matter what the other conditions are, such planning and seasonal adjustments are probably less common now than decades ago.

For me, adjusting like this also keeps the things I love special. I love oatmeal and other hot cereals, but if I ate them all the time I think I would get tired of them. Only eating them when the weather is cool introduces scarcity, which makes them more valuable experience (funny how some economics concepts translate to real life: scarce items have higher value than common items). In the late winter/early spring I start looking forward to more scrambled eggs/omelets/ breakfast burritos, which take the place of oatmeal since they require less cooking time; and then in the fall I get excited about returning to hot cereal. When doing meal planning, think about what’s fresh, how much cooking you want to do, what effect the cooking will have on the house (heating a cold house, overheating a hot house), and what your body craves (cooling salads or warm and filling casseroles)

I also encourage everyone to make their own hot cereal mixes and not be limited to what marketers create for us in the store. As kids we used to enjoy the occasional treat of M&Ms in our oatmeal. Now this past winter my flavor du année was dark chocolate/white chocolate. I swirled dark chocolate chunks or cocoa powder with sweetened white chocolate chunks. The white chocolate provided the sweetening and the richness, while the dark chocolate offered a hint of flavor. I also love chopped walnuts, sometimes with maple syrup for sweetening. To do nuts in your oatmeal, put them in when you first start warming the milk or water so that the nut oils can diffuse into the entire pot. Apple cinnamon is another occasional treat. When putting fresh fruit in hot cereal, chop the fruit when you start the cereal on the stove and put one third to one half of the chopped fruit in the pot near the start of the cooking so that the flavor and sugars disperse throughout. That fruit will also often partially disintegrate and add to the texture. Right before it is done cooking you add the rest of the fruit so that you get the fresh flavor and texture as well. When adding cinnamon to hot cereal there are two ways to do it: stick and powder. If you add a cinnamon stick when you first start warming the milk or water there will be an almost perfumy cinnamon flavor throughout the cereal, and if you add powdered cinnamon during or at the end there will be a more forceful cinnamon flavor.

Posted June 20, 2010 by mayakey in food

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Refrigerat-aargh Pre-Shopping   1 comment

While waiting for our home loan to be processed, my husband and I decided to pre-shop for a new refrigerator so that when we have possession of the house we can have the decision already made on what model of fridge and can move on to floors. It was supposed to be an efficient way to make decisions. Not so much.

I started by downloaded the list of Energy Star refrigerators from the EPA website: fifteen hundred models! So how to narrow down? That’s the part that has not been as easy as we thought.

Our original plan was to get a bottom freezer unit because for years I have heard that bottom freezer units are more energy efficient. Turns out, according to Energy Star, that top freezer units are more efficient. But we had been planning for so long for a bottom freezer that we got used to the idea and were looking forward to a bottom freezer. So I’m attempting to figure out if there really is a difference, and so far it is inconclusive (different sizes, etc.). And it means that I am not yet willing to filter out either top or bottom freezer units. (Side-by-side units are absolutely out because that is the least energy- and space-efficient configuration.)

I had previously figured that we would, of course, get an automatic ice maker. It seemed like a “duh” decision. Then we actually thought about it and realized maybe not. A fridge with an automatic ice maker in the freezer is less energy-efficient than one with no ice maker. If you open the freezer door frequently to get ice, than it is probably more energy-efficient overall to get the ice maker. But if you don’t open the freezer very often for ice, than it is probably more efficient not to get the ice maker. I don’t ever get ice, and my husband only uses ice for less than half of the year, so does that mean no ice maker?

At least we can rule out the door dispenser of water and ice since neither of us wants that. And I’ve narrowed the size down to 18-20 cubic feet. Currently we are jammed into a 15 or 16 cubic foot refrigerator, but all of the buying guides recommend staying under 20 cubic feet for better energy-efficiency unless you really need the larger size.

In addition to the Energy Star list, frustrations abound online and in stores, also. In order to help narrow down I am trying to view the specifications for the models online to rule out features that we don’t want. But the specification lists are not really that helpful: “Door Bin Quantity: 2; Door Bin 2 Quantity: 1”. Huh? And they all show a picture of the front of the fridge. Ok, so I know what the handle looks like. Big whoop. I’d like to see a picture of the inside. After all, that is where the action is! Those few models where I have found interior pictures have been a bit suspicious. When the same interior photo is posted for two different models, are they both right? When the specifications say no ice maker but the photo shows an ice maker, are they describing the same model?

When we did our initial browse at a physical store, we were very glad that we weren’t buying yet because we did not find a single model on the floor that we liked. I should take that back: we found configurations and features that we liked in 21 cubic foot models and stripped down models in 16-18 cubic foot units. Oh, plus on the floor the choice was also between black/white basic model or stainless steel fancy model. What about the middle-of-the-price-road black/white fancy model?

To be continued…. after I’ve had some sleep and more time to “shop”.

Posted June 18, 2010 by mayakey in energy use, home, shopping

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Aaah, Sun Tea   3 comments

…one of the best things about summer.

Although, making sun tea is now apparently discouraged. Since the water temperature never reaches boiling, it won’t kill any bacteria on the tea bags or in the water. Instead, the warm water could actually help bacteria to flourish. Okay, I’ll grant you that, but personally, I am not willing to give up my sun tea habit. I grew up on sun tea and I love it. For me, balancing the risks and rewards leaves me with: enjoy my sun tea. A big part of that is the fact that I’ve never personally known anyone to get sick from sun tea. So I question how serious the risk really is. Yes, in theory a jar of water in the sun is a great environment for bacteria, but a quick look around the kitchen reveals countless other great environments for bacteria. I am inclined to say if my tea was cloudy or had visible biofilm in the jar I would not drink it. Plus, I can’t find anything on the internet that actually tells me what might happen if one consumed the bacteria of concern, Alcaligenes viscolactis. I found nothing when I actually searched the CDC website, either, despite finding numerous references to CDC as the source of the “don’t do sun tea” guideline. So I don’t personally feel that the risk outweighs the rewards. Of course, everyone has their own unique place on the risk-reward spectrum, and therefore a different conclusion.

I do take precautions: I brew my tea in small batches using glass jars that originally held juice. No plastic, no fancy doodads with nozzles or spouts, just a glass jar and a lid. The tea doesn’t sit around for long since one jar makes enough for two glasses of tea, and depending on how hot the weather is that is either one evening or two. I have multiple jars so that I can rotate them every day, with one in the fridge chilling while the other is outside steeping. This allows me to wash the empty jar each evening and leave it to air dry before making another batch of tea the next day. I inspect the lids after every use and make sure they are clean.

What is it about sun tea? I’m not really sure. I don’t remember noticing that sun tea really tastes different than regularly brewed tea (except for the addition of a mint sprig). I guess part of it is the tangible proof of the power of the sun. It kind of feels like a daily science experiment. Plus, it’s easy, impossible to screw up, and almost free (except for the cost of the tea itself and a few cents for the water) since there’s no energy cost. Personally, I feel more connected to the earth drinking sun tea compared to iced tea made in the kitchen.

As for the tea itself, I grew up on the standard of two Lipton bags with a sprig of mint, but I have done some experimentation to find my favorite iced tea. The world of tea is so big! I’ve tried Orange Pekoe, Darjeeling, Earl Gray, Gunpoweder Green, jasmine green, and a green tea blend. Right now my favorite is a blend: 1 bag of Orange Pekoe and 1 bag of Gunpowder Green with a sprig of mint. Surprisingly, I also enjoyed jasmine green tea so I’ll do that every once in a while for variety. Of course, all of my tea is Fair Trade; I won’t buy anything else. I think Fair Trade is a topic for a whole separate post, though.

Posted June 14, 2010 by mayakey in food, simple living

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Awnings Up   7 comments

After a long cool spring, summer appears to be here. Last weekend we had to hang our awnings in an attempt to keep the inside temperature from getting too hot, but we still had to turn on the air conditioner briefly.

As renters, we have been limited in what we could do to make our home comfortable in the summer (especially when our landlady decided to cut down all of the trees on the west side of the house right before summer started one year). But we have figured out a few strategies that I will share.

The first principle to reducing your cooling load is to block the sun off/out of the house. If the sun doesn’t shine in the windows, then it won’t heat up the inside of the house. Better yet, if the sun doesn’t shine on the window or wall at all, it won’t heat the window or wall above ambient temperature, which will then radiate into the house. And even better, if the sun doesn’t shine on the ground near the house the amount of heat reflected back up at the walls is reduced as well. If you own your house you can plant a tree or large shrub, or construct an awning or other shading structure; but most renters are limited to just closing the blinds.

During my second summer in Sacramento I challenged myself to a no-AC summer, which meant figuring out other ways to keep the house cool. I decided to create cheap and non-permanent awnings for the west facing windows by hanging canvas drop cloths from the gutters using glued-on hooks. As I mentioned above, not too long after I moved in here our former landlady cut down the trees and turned the side yard from a mossy and shady lane into a hot dry oven. I was thrilled, I tell you, and in response we bought the longest drop cloth we could find and stretched it all the way along the west wall. Because of the proximity of our neighbor’s house that three feet of awning keeps the sun off of the entire height of the wall for most of the afternoon and evening. At one point we tried canvas from the fabric store, but discovered that the nice thing about canvas drop cloths is that they are thin enough that they don’t block all of the light, just the sun.

canvas awnings

Posted June 11, 2010 by mayakey in energy use, frugal living, home

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Meditation in a Rose Garden   Leave a comment

Meditation can, of course, be done anywhere. But there is just so much extra energy that can be found in a nature meditation. Not to mention the sensuality. Meditation in nature leaves me with a unique peace and invigoration.

Instead of focusing inward, in nature there are countless external foci: the smell of grass or loam or flowers, the patterns formed by ripples in a pond or fluttering leaves, the feel of the breeze, the feel of flower petals or moss or leaves, the sound of birds or insects or rustling leaves, or the overall sensation of being immersed in nature. Nature meditations are done while sitting, laying down, walking, running, floating, and even working in the garden. Sometimes any nature will do including gardens, yards, parks, or any open space. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if there’s a nearby train or the nature spot is next to a busy road. Sometimes it does matter and only isolation deep in the natural world with no reminder of human technologies will feel right.

If it helps, there have been many studies done that find benefits to experiencing nature, even briefly. Just looking out the window at the leaves blowing in the wind or watching fish in an aquarium for a few minutes is enough to relax the mind and reduce heart rate and blood pressure. Maybe it’s the feeling of being part of something big. Maybe it’s the beauty. I’ve heard the theory that it is the randomness of nature (the unpredictability of the swimming fish, or the ripples on the lake) that helps our minds to relax,. All I know and care, really, is that it works.

Posted June 8, 2010 by mayakey in spiritual practices

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Being the Body   5 comments

This Sunday’s homily is inspiring me to write a post about how I found myself on this journey I call conscious and conscience living. I usually enjoy hearing what inspired other people to become interested in social justice, or going green, or living simpler lives; so here I share my story. To be completely honest, I’m not really sure how it happened. It just kind of did. Maybe there is something in my personality that helped me gravitate to this path. There is also a definite “nurture” aspect since my parents sowed many a seed in me that have grown into different aspects of my calling.

Looking back at my personal history, there really isn’t a starting point or a turning point, but I generally think of college as the practical starting point. College was for me the phase of life dedicated to becoming an independent and independent-thinking adult. It was the time when I had to develop my own value system out of the value system that I was raised in at home. In developing that value system I can cite two strong influences: fantasy books and the Catholic church (might explain why I’m proud to proclaim myself one of those “new age Catholics” that the Vatican doesn’t much like).

Many works of fiction are studies in humanity: how we deal with life’s problems, how our personalities are affected by our surroundings, how we relate to those around us, and how we evolve as a society. In my opinion, almost all fantasy and science fiction stories are such studies. Often characters are distilled down to a few elements. For example, in Star Trek there is a purely martial race, a purely intellectual race, and a purely commercial race, which allows us to think about the consequences of those predilections in ourselves without feeling threatened. Often the plot lines are apocryphal, with some threat, be it social or environmental, looming over a nation or the world. And most of the fantasy books that I read are chock full of great lessons about the divide between the rich and the poor, governance, care for the environment, wanton overconsumption, war, isolationism, loss of history, segregation and discrimination, and gender relations. I soaked those lessons up, and especially in the case of my leaning towards pacifism, I have to say my fantasy library is the primary inspiration.

In college, not only was I able to buy as many fantasy books as I wanted, but I was able to return to the church after a couple of years away to overcome my co-dependency on religion. I was really looking forward practicing my Catholicism again, all the more so after I started going to Mass at St. Mary’s (the Newman Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor). At St. Mary’s I found an invigorating, inspirational, and living Catholicism that overcame the negative and dying Catholicism of my youth. I learned to think, to question, and to understand. I learned more about the Catholic church and it’s teachings in a couple of years than I had in the previous 18 years. Every week I learned something new about my faith that gave me hope. I came to really feel the teaching that we are the Body of Christ, and I came to realize that I needed to live that in my attitudes, decisions, lifestyle, and relationships. Eventually I felt my personal calling to being a pioneer living this lifestyle, hoping that by my example and my dollars I could make it easier for others to make green/socially just decisions. I am thankful that I don’t have to be a true pioneer, since most of the trails have already been blazed, but there is still plenty of work to be done.

Posted June 6, 2010 by mayakey in conscious living, mission

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Inventory Updated in Time to Move   Leave a comment

We have finally finished our annual home inventory update, just in time to move to a new house. I am a proponent of detailed home inventories as an aid to save money, a tool for self-auditing, and hopefully also as an aid while moving our household. My inventory started as just a list of major electronics and furniture so that I had a record of serial numbers and values for large items for insurance purposes. At some point, though, I realized that all of the small items around the house add up and my insurance coverage could be seriously low. So we made a project of expanding the inventory to include pretty much everything non-consumable with a value of at least $20. (Yes, I’m a bit OCD.) It was shocking to realize how many thousands of dollars worth of books we own. It was also shocking to realize that my rather streamlined wardrobe is also worth several thousand dollars (even t-shirts and underwear add up, but once you include nice clothes it adds up fast).

I consider the home inventory to be an aid to save money and a self-audit tool because it is very in-your-face about how much stuff you have. I was absolutely shocked by both the number of items and the total value when we expanded the inventory. It really brought home the fact that we already have too much stuff, and made me not want to buy more until we got rid of something. When casually surveying a room that is organized, with the stuff tucked away in storage, you will invariably underestimate how much stuff is in the room, but when each item is a line on a spreadsheet it can’t hide. The inventory also helps when developing a wish list for future purchases because it eliminates the possibility of duplicate purchases (unless it’s on purpose or a replacement). In a few cases, things that were on the wish list were removed after doing the detailed inventory because I realized that I had similar stuff that I had forgotten about (so why buy something else that I will forget about?) For my clothing inventory I also have a column where I note if something is wearing out (but still acceptable) or if I’m just getting tired of it, so that I can develop a detailed clothing wish list. Unfortunately I have not done a good job of using the inventory for color balancing. I keep forgetting how many purple shirts I have, and then accidentally buy more, for example.

Also, I would consider having the right amount of insurance coverage to fit in the saving money category. If the coverage amount on your renters/homeowners insurance is significantly lower than the value of your stuff, won’t you end up with insufficient reimbursement funds to replace everything in the event of an emergency? Plus, when choosing a deductible I found it helpful to have an idea of the value of the things that I own that is based on fact, not guesswork.

Now I’m hoping that this detailed inventory will be of use as we move into a new house and have to figure out where to put everything. We’re planning on doing the moving ourselves, but if a moving company was doing it I would definitely use the inventory to make sure nothing gets stolen.

Posted June 5, 2010 by mayakey in frugal living, home

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