How to Approach Life Planning to Secure Your Children’s Futures

This is a guest post by Jackie Waters. Ms. Waters believes balance and diligence can help you achieve a beautiful, clean home. She runs hyper-tidy.com, providing advice on being…Hyper Tidy!

If you’re not an attorney, accountant, or financial planner, you may have anxiety about life planning and making the right decisions to secure your children’s futures. You’re not alone. Many parents are not sure where to begin with planning for contingencies in relation to their children, making financial considerations, and knowing where to go for help. Our guide will help get you started.

Do Estate Planning Now

You need to do some basic estate planning regardless of your age and the ages of your children. The first step is to write a will to determine who will serve as guardians for your children if they are minors. Even if your children are not minors, you should have a will so that you can rest assured that your final wishes will be carried out and that your property, possessions, and assets will be divided as you desired them to be.

You don’t need to spend a ton of money on attorney’s fees in drawing up a will; many online resources are cost-saving alternatives that produce binding legal documents just like attorneys do. However, if you have a large estate, several specific requests, or questions about guardianship, it may be better to meet with an attorney. Read more of this post

How to make it from scratch instead of a package: Chipotle Simmer Sauce

My son Nicholas is 12 years old and often tells us about meals and snacks he enjoyed in his friends’ homes.  Last month, when we were shopping at Target, he pointed out a package of sauce that was the exact type his friend’s mother had used on the delicious fajitas.

I told him I wasn’t going to spend almost $3 on a plastic pouch containing one meal’s worth of sauce.  We could make it ourselves.

“Oh really Mom,” he said with a contemptuous eye-roll, “You don’t even know what it tastes like.”

“But you do,” I replied.  “I will write down all the ingredients that aren’t preservatives.  The first ingredient is the one used in the largest quantity, so I’ll start with that and reduce the amounts as I go down the list, and then you’ll taste it and tell me what it needs.”

He was very skeptical, but I held firm and did not buy the sauce.  I brought home the list of ingredients.  (What I didn’t write down was the brand name of this particular sauce.  I’ll get that on my next visit to Target and update this article!)

This interesting sauce, although designed for Mexican food, contains ingredients I don’t associate with Mexican cooking: soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, fish sauce, tamarind paste, ginger, and thyme.  I was curious to find out what it would taste like!  I’d recently bought fish sauce so that we could try making our own pad thai, and we also needed tamarind paste for that.  The only other ingredient in the fajita sauce that we didn’t already have in our kitchen was chipotle chili powder, which I was glad to buy.  I found the fish sauce at the Korean store on our block, tamarind paste at an Indian food store, and chipotle powder in the bulk section at the food co-op.  We finally made the sauce last week. Read more of this post

Go Green in 2017: Drink Better Milk

Did you make a new year’s resolution to “eat better” without defining specifically what you meant? or did you try to start the new year choosing all the healthiest, most responsible foods, and now you’re reeling at the difficulty of changing too many habits at once?

Sometimes it’s best to make one change at a time so you can focus on getting it right.  (To make more changes in a year, try a new month’s resolution each month, or give up something for Lent.)  One change you might make is choosing milk that’s better for your health and the environment.

Here are some factors to consider:

  • Where does the milk come from?  Where do the cows live, and where is the milk processed and packaged?  Milk that travels a shorter distance from farm to packaging plant to store is better for the environment because less fuel is burned to transport it.  Here’s a handy online tool for finding your milk’s source.
  • Are hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides involved in the production of the milk?  Did the cows eat grass in a pasture or eat genetically-modified corn or even gummy worms in a crowded barn?  Grass is what cows are made to eat, and the milk of grass-fed cows contains more conjugated linoleic acid, which is good for the heart.  Grassy pastures are better for the environment than concentrated animal feeding operationsCertified organic milk comes from cows who were not treated with hormones or antibiotics, ate food that was not treated with pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, and got at least some outdoor grazing time eating fresh grass.  Many small farmers that can’t afford every detail of organic certification still manage to meet most of these standards.
  • How is the milk packaged?  Milk stored in light-permeable containers loses riboflavin and Vitamin A.  If your milk containers are recyclable, will you actually recycle them?  If you won’t recycle, do you have a second use for those empty containers?  If you’re able to buy milk in returnable, refillable containers, that is the option with the lowest environmental impact: Washing and sterilizing a bottle uses much less energy than making a new bottle even from recycled material.
  • Where can you buy the milk?  If the milk that’s best according to all the other criteria is available only from a store that you otherwise wouldn’t visit, and you have to drive to get there, your car is burning fuel, which might be enough to offset the environmental benefits of that milk.  Also, if buying better milk is inconvenient and time-consuming, you’re unlikely to keep up the habit.  Aim to buy the best milk you can get at stores where you’re going anyway, where you can easily stop on your way home from somewhere, or within walking/biking distance (so you can double up with that resolution about exercise!).

I wrote about my family’s milk choices in 2012–check out that article for more detail.  Since then, the milk that used to be our #1 choice is no longer available, but we’ve found a new favorite milk. Read more of this post

Top 10 New Articles of 2016

This isn’t really a blog.  It’s a constantly expanding reference book.  Every year, when I look at the statistics on which articles drew the most readers in the previous year, all or most of the popular articles are more than a year old.

2016 was an unusual year for The Earthling’s Handbook.  Losing my job in June, after working reduced hours since March, meant that I no longer had lunch breaks sitting in front of the computer writing new articles and promoting the site by leaving comments on other blogs.  I’ve found it much harder to work writing and blog-reading time into my schedule while I’m at home, often distracted by my two-year-old’s needs or my twelve-year-old’s desire to use the computer himself, and using a lot of my computer time to look for a new job!  I wrote fewer new articles in 2016 than in past years, but more importantly, I was less active on other blogs.  (By the way, Facebook has not brought me the incredible increase in traffic that “everyone” said it would.  Linking my articles to blog carnivals and commenting on other blogs brings in far more readers.)

Also, in 2016 I became a contributing writer at Kitchen Stewardship.  Each of my monthly articles includes a lot of links to The Earthling’s Handbook–often to articles that are more than a year old.  That causes a surge in overall traffic for a few days after the publication of each new KS article, but a lot of it is going to old articles.

I’m not surprised to see that 2016’s top 10 most-read articles overlap heavily with 2012’s.  All the suspense lies in seeing which of the new articles got the most readers–and the short answer is, book reviews.  If I just gave you the top 10 list, 6 of the articles would be book reviews! See, this is what I mean about the effect of linking to blog carnivals: Quick Lit, hosted by The Modern Mrs. Darcy, brings me a lot of readers every month I can get my act together for a book-review post!

So I’m just going to tell you that the most popular new article of 2016 was Book Reviews: Good, Bad, and Coincidental and that you can read all my book review posts here, and then I’ll get on with

Top 10 New Articles of 2016 That Are NOT Book Reviews

  1. The City of Slim Shadies.  This essay on my experience of working for 17 years with data on the lives of 1,517 high-risk boys is probably the most introspective writing I did all year.
  2. A Person Who Deserves to Wear This Dress.  Cleaning all the way to the back of my closet, I found a surprise that served as both a Halloween costume and a self-esteem boost.
  3. Homemade Halvah: A sweet, nutritious, energy snack!  This is my easiest new recipe of the year.  Vegan, gluten-free, and perfect after a long walk.
  4. Coffee in Moderation: The 7-1-7 Plan.  Here I horrified some of my readers by explaining how I keep my coffee consumption down to a level they would never attempt.
  5. 5 Fish-Free Family-Friendly Meals.  Annoyed by “meatless” menus for Lent that all involved fish, I promoted these vegan, gluten-free ideas: Gallo Pinto, Green Ribbon Lentils, Black Bean Soup, Sloppy Joes, and Masoor Dal.
  6. A Really Real-Life Meal Plan.  When life gives you 7 weeks of craziness, make a blog post based on a photo of your so-called meal plan that hung on the kitchen cabinet…and give yourself some credit for having come up with any healthy, home-cooked meals during that time!
  7. Diaper Changing Duties: What’s Fair?  I was surprised to learn that splitting everything 50/50 doesn’t necessarily result in feelings of cooperation and harmony between parents…so we did it differently with the second baby.
  8. How to Clean a Blackened Baking Pan.  When I made the batch of Honey Baked Lentils and butternut squash that provided the photos for my Kitchen Stewardship article about this tasty, thrifty, nutritious meal, I managed to get one of the pans totally encrusted with burned squash-juice…thus creating an opportunity for photographic documentation of my best pan-cleaning technique!
  9. Cooperation, Communication, and Consequences.  This is one of the few parenting/discipline articles I’ve written lately, featuring examples from a discussion board as well as from my own family.
  10. Get FREE Breadcrumbs for All Your Recipe Needs!  This photo tutorial explains how to turn your random bits of stale bread into useful breadcrumbs and how to freeze them for later use.

There really was more to life than books in 2016!  But I’m grateful for all the excellent books I enjoyed last year–and looking back on it, I’m glad I wrote so many reviews because they help me to remember what I read, what I liked about it, and where I was in my life when I read it.

It’s hard to predict what will happen around here in 2017.  Maybe I’ll get a new job with the same kind of lunch breaks, and my writing will really pick up.  Maybe something different will happen, but I’ll figure out how to do more writing from home.  Either way, thanks for reading, and please stick around!

Go Green in 2017: How to Clean

Photographs by Nicholas Efran.

It’s time for New Year’s resolutions!  There are many ways you could change your habits to reduce your environmental impact.  One change you could make is replacing cleansers that harm the environment with cleaning products or cleaning methods that are safer for your family as well as the wider world.

rubbing alcohol, peroxide, baking soda, vinegarWhat’s wrong with conventional cleaning products?

These health risks don’t affect only people who are in direct contact with the cleanser; many cleansers leave a residue on the surface or in the air that can be absorbed through our skin and/or lungs, and some of these chemicals are bioaccumulative–our bodies can’t get rid of them, so over time our repeated exposures can build up to toxic levels.

p1040148Here’s our complete guide to cleaning a typical Earth dwelling.  We’ve tried many environmentally-friendly products over the past 20 years and have found more good ones than duds.  Here, we recommend some brand-name products that work especially well and some inexpensive basic materials that are great for various cleaning projects. Yes, it is possible to make more homemade cleaning products than we do.  We’ve struck a balance between purchased and homemade products that works well with our cleaning habits and the amount of spare time we have.  If you use an awesome homemade cleanser, feel free to share details or a link in the comments!

For basic home cleaning, you will need:

  • dish detergent
  • laundry detergent
  • white vinegar
  • baking soda
  • hydrogen peroxide
  • toilet bowl cleaner
  • all-purpose cleaner

Other items we use regularly that you may or may not need, depending on your home furnishings and cleaning standards, are:

  • dishwasher detergent
  • hardwood floor cleaner
  • furniture polish
  • antibacterial spray
  • rubbing alcohol

Look for these items in your local stores where you shop regularly. If you can’t find them there, encourage your stores to make them available; meanwhile, order online. Many of the brand-name products are available from Grove Collaborative–click here for a $10 discount on your first order!  Here is more information about Grove (formerly known as ePantry).

Here are the details on how to use each type of cleanser. Read more of this post

Vegetarian Yuletide Stew

Food styling and photography by Nicholas Efran.

My brother Ben Stallings invented this meal last night, and all 8 assembled relatives liked it!  The red and green colors are appropriate to the season.  It’s healthy, inexpensive, and quick to make.

p1040088To make about 10 main-dish servings, you will need

  • 1 small onion
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 45 oz. canned black beans, or 3-4 cups cooked black beans
  • 45 oz. canned diced tomatoes, or 3-4 cups fresh or frozen-and-thawed diced tomatoes, including juice
  • 3 cups shredded kale
  • salt to taste
  • granulated garlic to taste
  • oregano to taste
  • cumin to taste
  • balsamic vinegar to taste

Dice onion and brown it in olive oil in a large saucepan.  Meanwhile, drain and rinse beans.

Combine all ingredients in the saucepan.  Simmer until kale is cooked to your liking.

Serve with rice and grated cheese for each person to add as she prefers.  (The serving in the picture is mixed with a lot of rice, and no cheese.)

Visit Real Food Friday for more great things to eat at your holiday gatherings!

3 DIY Repairs to Eliminate Health Risks in Your Home

This is a guest post by Charlotte Meier.  Ms. Meier operates Home Safety Hub, which provides resources on preventing injury and property loss.

People don’t like to think that their homes are responsible for their illnesses, but if you feel worse when you are at home and better when you are not, there is a good chance that something in your house is making you sick. If you suspect that your home is making you sick, there are repairs you can make to reduce the health risks found in your home.

Install Water Filters

If your family has stomach pain or unexplained bouts of diarrhea, you may have an issue with your water. Whether you have well water or municipal water, there may be impurities, toxic chemicals, and carcinogens in it that can harm your health. Water filters reduce and remove the impurities, making your water cleaner, better tasting, and better for your skin and overall health.

Some people opt for whole-house water filters that deliver clean, odor-free water to the whole home. By removing chlorine, chloramines, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), pesticides, and herbicides, these filters improve the taste and odor of your water. Whole-house water filters improve the appearance of skin by eliminating chlorine and reduce stains in tubs, sinks, and toilets. Other people opt for point-of-use water filters to get clean, delicious, odor-free water from the sink. Point-of-use filters are known to block more impurities than whole-house systems and provide better-tasting water. Read more of this post

Coleslaw All Year Long–made with yogurt!

Coleslaw is a summertime food, right?  It’s true that it makes a tasty accompaniment to burgers or cold sandwiches, and its chilly crunch is refreshing on a hot day.

But the main ingredient in coleslaw is cabbage, and in temperate climates cabbage is in season (therefore, inexpensive) in the autumn and winter.  It makes sense to enjoy coleslaw in cold weather, too, especially if you don’t like cooked cabbage so much.  Coleslaw makes a perfect side dish for fish, and who wants to bake fish in the summer?  Try a cozy winter meal of fish, coleslaw, and maybe some biscuits or cornbread.

Six years ago, I found a recipe for Copycat KFC Coleslaw that we really liked, but it calls for buttermilk and mayonnaise.  We never have buttermilk on hand, and we rarely have mayonnaise.  So I substituted plain yogurt for both, and that was pretty good, but I often wound up tweaking the coleslaw by adding more of this or that, taking notes.  Now I’ve worked out a yogurt-based recipe that consistently comes out well.

The Earthling’s Coleslaw Recipe

For best results, make this recipe at least 2 hours before you plan to eat it.  The flavors combine better with time.

First, grate your cabbage and measure to see how much you have. Read more of this post

EVERYTHING WILL BE ALL RIGHT.

This is a story I’ve been wanting to tell since it happened, but it almost doesn’t sound real.  This really did happen, though, and it was an important encouragement just when I needed one, and now I’m at a point where I really need encouragement again.  I’m kind of writing this for myself to read, but I also hope that it will help other people to see a glimmer of hope in desperate times.

In November 2014, I was in my fourth month of pregnancy and finally starting to get past the nausea when I had a nightmare.  I dreamed that I was walking in the jungle, admiring the exotic plants, having a pleasant hike until I noticed a glimmering spot in my vision.  Then, gradually, I understood that a migraine was coming, but I was in the jungle with no medicine and no help and–and I woke up, and in fact my vision really was disrupted.  This is the only time in my life that this ever started while I was asleep and I was able to perceive it.  I quickly got up and took my prescription migraine medication, which the midwife had told me was safer for my baby than allowing the migraine to proceed because migraines disrupt blood circulation.  I did not get much of a headache and was able to go back to sleep and then get through a normal workday.

The next time, I had no warning.  I just suddenly got a bad headache, and when I took my medicine it came right back up again.  But I had to go to work I had to I had to, because I was working toward a deadline but also because if I missed one more day, I wouldn’t be able to travel for Thanksgiving.

By then I’d worked out a morning survival strategy that involved having a bagel with butter at work every morning, except on the day when I was out of bagels and therefore would go to the bagel shop before work to buy a half-dozen bagels for later days, plus a bagel with cream cheese and a coffee to enjoy at the bagel shop.  This was my cream cheese day.  I told myself to look forward to the treat because I would feel better when I ate it, if not before.

Instead, I got worse.  A lot worse.  You know how doctors ask you to rank your pain on a scale of 1 to 10?  For years, I never ranked anything higher than 9, because it seemed to me that it would be possible for pain to be worse than what I had experienced.  I was right: In 2010, I had a migraine that went to Level 10 and stayed there until I went to the emergency room and was given an off-label schizophrenia drug that brought it down to a 3.

On this day in 2014, I hit Level 10 as I stepped off the bus into bright sunshine.  It only lasted one minute, maybe less, but that was too much.  My vision fragmented as if smashed by a rock, and that was about how my head felt.  I staggered across the sidewalk, crashed into the fence, and clung there, not thinking, barely breathing.  Then the pain dropped to Level 8, which for me is the clumsy, self-criticizing level where speech is difficult and vomiting is likely.  I ripped myself off the fence and stalked across the street toward the bank (because I needed cash for the bagels) as my brain yammered, Don’t you dare throw up; the baby needs every calorie; you are a terrible mother taking terrible care of your poor innocent baby; don’t even think about the hospital; they won’t give you any off-label schizophrenia drug when you’re pregnant; don’t be ridiculous; they can’t help you; stand up straight and look normal you freak; go to the bank like a grown-up and get your stupid bagel and go to work; nobody will help you; get yourself together and act like someone who can be trusted with a baby!!!

So I got to the bank machine, and I kept dropping my card, and then I must have pressed the wrong button because the machine was in Spanish, and it was my fault that I was doing it wrong and my fault that I don’t know Spanish, and although I muddled through well enough to get the cash, by then I was in tears.

I turned around, stupid and incompetent and crying in public, and in front of me was someone I had never seen before.  She was young, probably a student at the adjacent University of Pittsburgh.  She had a Chinese accent.

She smiled so gently at me and said, “Everything will be all right.”

I stared at her for a moment, and then, slowly, I repeated, “Everything will be all right.”

“Yes!” she said. “Everything will be all right.”  She hugged me.  My brain filled with different ideas: The headache will go away; I will feel better soon; I have money in my hand and more in the bank; I’m going to have a nice meal and several more meals today; I’m really quite lucky; I have what I need; I will have a healthy, beautiful baby, and all the struggles will be worth it worth it worth it.  Everything will be all right.  Maybe not this instant, but it will be.

She stepped back, gave me a radiant smile, then hurried on down the sidewalk as I called a bewildered “thank you…” after her.

Then I walked to the bagel place, and by the time I got there I was running; I ran straight to the back and into the bathroom and puked, but I hit the toilet perfectly, and after washing my face I looked into the mirror and said aloud, “Everything will be all right.”  That demonstrated that I could speak normally.  I went out and ordered my bagels and coffee.

Half an hour later, I had no headache at all.  I went on to a happy and productive day at work.

Of course, not everything was all right forever from then on.  I hit more really low spots before that pregnancy was over, and I’ve hit many more since then.  Life sucks sometimes!

But the odds are that everything will be all right, pretty soon.  Hang in there!  Try to notice the things that are okay, as well as the bad things that are so much more noticeable.  Try to look forward to the future.  It’s hard.  The past several weeks have made it obvious to me, again, that I’m not good at this.  I tell myself awful things and wish I could just give up.  I can tell that my brain is upside-down, but I don’t know how to fix it.  I just have to try to get along until things pick up.

This is Advent, the season of waiting, the darkest time of year.  Even if you are not a Christian or not religious at all, try for a few weeks to pray when you find yourself waiting.  It may not seem to accomplish much, but it is better than doing nothing.  If you’re too upset for specific prayers, just focus on this one idea: Everything will be all right.  It will.  It will.

Turnips Armored in Self-Defense

For my latest article at Kitchen Stewardship, Kitchen Shortcuts for Busy Times, I needed photographs of at least one of the shortcuts, and the one I chose was cooking rice at the beginning of the week to use in three different meals.  Naturally, I found myself doing this at a busy time…which got busier…so that I ended up making the three rice-based meals on the last three days before the deadline and having very little time to take photos because everyone was hungry.  In fact, I forgot to take a photo of this dish until after we’d started eating!  And this isn’t a very good photo.  But this recipe, which we were trying for the first time, has such an interesting name and backstory that I decided to write about it over here rather than clutter the KS article–where it’s just the main dish that gets rice as its side dish.

p1040004Okay, so what we have here are some baked turnips with cheese and seasoning.  This is the tastiest way to prepare turnips that we’ve ever encountered, and it was easy and quick to put together, with a short baking time.

I mean, it’s not as if we like turnips.  I don’t think we’ve ever bought them on purpose.  We just get them in our farm share and then have to figure out how to use them.  Typically, we’ve either put them in Japanese Udon Noodle Soup or roasted them with olive oil and herbs, and either way they are good enough that we enjoy eating them in that meal.  Then we’re done with turnips until the next ones show up.

Well, this autumn we received large bags of turnips two weeks in a row.  We made the Udon Soup, but that only used three large turnips.  We’d recently roasted various other vegetables and were feeling a bit tired of roasted vegetables.  Time for something new!

Daniel suggested, “They had turnips in Europe in the Middle Ages.  Let’s see what they did with them,” and pulled out two books of authentic medieval recipes.  Both of them gave the same basic instructions, which sounded plausible, so we decided to try cooking turnips by this method whose “odd name might be a way of warding off attacks by hungry diners in Rome’s busy taverns, but it only made the poor turnips more vulnerable!” according to Gillian Riley in Renaissance Recipes.

We agree that this tasty armor’s effect is the opposite of protecting the turnips.  Here’s what we did, based on the somewhat vague instructions in the cookbooks:

  • Peel all the turnips and slice about 1/3 inch thick.
  • Steam turnips in a pot with just a little water, just until they begin to soften.
  • Grease the casserole dish with butter.  Put a layer of turnips on the bottom.
  • Put thin slices of cheese (we used muenster) on top of turnips.
  • Sprinkle with nutmeg and black pepper.
  • Make another layer of turnips, then cheese, then spices.  Continue until all turnips are in place.
  • Bake uncovered at 350F until cheese is thoroughly melted–about 10-15 minutes.
  • Serve with rice and perhaps a salad or fruit.  We had clementines.

We highly recommend this approach to turnips!  They were sweet and tasty, complemented by the flavors of the cheese and spices.  It was a gooey, satisfying, filling dish.

Visit the Hearth & Soul Hop and Real Food Friday for more great food ideas!  Don’t forget to check out my time-saving tips!

4 Easy Homemade Sauces for Instinctive Cooking

Are you good at following recipes but wish you had the knack for just throwing together a meal from ingredients you happen to have?  The way I got started on developing that knack was to learn to make a basic sauce from scratch.  Over at Kitchen Stewardship, I explain how to learn 4 sauces and how to use them:

  • Marinara sauce for Italian pasta dishes
  • Teriyaki sauce for stir-fry or salad
  • Herby olive oil sauce for awesome vegan food that’ll satisfy chicken cravings
  • Spicy peanut sauce for Thai-style noodle/rice bowls

All of them are flexible, easy to customize to your taste.  Two of them are ready in 5 minutes or less.  They’ll save you a lot of money, compared to buying ready-to-use sauces in bottles, and they may be healthier!

p1030961Here is a recent meal I made with the teriyaki sauce.  (Food styling and photography by Nicholas Efran.)  We had a cauliflower from our farm share, complete with all its leaves, and I stir-fried both the flower and the leaves while marinating tofu in the sauce, then added the tofu and sauce to the wok and cooked until bubbly.  Delicious!

Visit the Hearth & Soul Blog Hop for more great food ideas!

How to Save the Earth from Donald Trump and the Republican Congressional Majority

I was devastated by last Tuesday’s election results.  There are many reasons I object to Donald Trump (like his racist lies about crime) and many reasons I hoped for a Democratic majority in Congress, but what I’m writing about here is our environment.  Even if you voted Republican, you may not want to live in a polluted wasteland that’s getting hotter every decade, so while this government is advancing the parts of its agenda that won your vote, you’ll want to take action to keep Earth habitable. What can we do?

First, it is not too late to stop Trump from taking office!  It’s possible for the Electoral College to vote for the winner of the popular vote (Hillary Clinton) so that she becomes President instead.  This probably won’t happen, but it’s worthwhile to speak up if you support the idea.  (A more realistic goal is to abolish the Electoral College before the next election.  How is it fair that a Wyoming resident’s vote counts 4 times as much as a Texas resident’s vote?!?  We the people should get one vote each!  Here’s more about what’s wrong with the Electoral College, and here’s what we wrote about it before the 2000 election disaster.)  We’d still have the Republicans in Congress, but they can do less harm with a Democratic President.

Next, start now stuffing Trump’s suggestion box with pleas for environmental protection!  Especially, oppose his absurd goal of abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency–it will be bad enough if he appoints someone blatantly anti-environment to head the EPA, but if he manages to get rid of it entirely, we’ll really be at the mercy of big polluters as our state governments scrabble to protect us (or don’t even try, as is likely in some states).  This action plan for slowing global warming includes many good ideas to advocate.  Will Trump’s administration really heed the input of ordinary Americans?  The fact that they’re asking for it means it’s worth a try.

Also, start now making contributions to organizations that lobby for the environment and/or sue polluters.  My favorites are Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund and Union of Concerned Scientists.  It’s easiest to set up a monthly donation (put it on the credit card whose rewards scheme is most useful to you!) so that you donate consistently and kind of painlessly; this also minimizes the nagging emails you’ll get, and I’ve found that environmental organizations are better than other charities at reducing paper mail when you ask them.  Think you can’t afford to donate?  Look for changes you can make to save money and the environment, and put aside the difference.  Another option is to make something environmentally friendly that you can sell (for example, root cuttings from your plants and pot them in repurposed containers that you decorate) and donate the profits.

As issues come up affecting the environment, contact your senator and congressional representative encouraging them to vote for a clean and healthy world.  Phone calls may be more effective than email or paper letters, but if you aren’t able to call during office hours, emailing is better than doing nothing–staffers often count the pro and con emails received about an issue, even if they don’t have time to read each one in full.

Vote with your purchases.  The main reason Republicans in general oppose environmental regulations is not that they want all living things to be poisoned and fried to a crisp, but that they want businesses to make as much money as possible.  One thing that is giving me hope is that during the George W. Bush administration, 2001-2009, despite the anti-environmental attitude and actions of the President and Congress, ordinary citizens’ interest in being more “green” surged, making environmentally friendly options far more available than they had been.  Trend analysts pay a lot of attention to this kind of thing, and businesses respond.  That’s why they took the genetically-modified organisms out of Cheerios and Grape-nuts, for example.  Consumer pressure works!  Do your best to show corporate America that we want less packaging, fewer harmful chemicals, more organic and vegetarian foods, more reusable products, more renewable energy, more fuel-efficient engines, more public transit, and so forth.

Get ready for 2018!  Check out your representatives’ environmental scorecards, and if they’re not doing their jobs protecting Earth, get ready to throw the bums out and elect someone greener!  Every representative in the House and 1/3 of the Senate will be up for re-election in 2018.

What else can we do?  Did I miss anything?

I’m still appalled by the election results, but doing what I can to work toward making the world a better place works for me!  Just in case I sound too chirpy here, let me add: I’ve been working on this for a long time.  Not only did I slog onward in my ever-greener lifestyle throughout the George W. Bush administration, but I was dodging excess packaging and picking up recyclables and line-drying laundry during the first George Bush administration and on through the Clinton years.  It isn’t always easy, but I’m truly speaking from experience when I tell you that trying to do the right thing has always been worth it.

Grandma, Grace, Portage, Petunias, and a Jade Green Sweatshirt

My grandma would be 101 years old today, if she were still alive.  Last year I tried to write the centennial tribute she deserved, but I was recovering from a brain injury, so not only was everything a struggle but I felt really terrible and inadequate about everything…and also, I realized, “Grandma meant so much to me that I can’t cram it all into one article.”

So here is another article with some inspirations from Grandma that have struck me over the past few months.

Grace

The school I attended in seventh and eighth grades closed this year and will be torn down.  That’s fine with me–it was poorly designed in the first place and was in bad shape when I was there 30 years ago.  I was reminiscing to my son about the bleak concrete courtyard in which we were forced to hang around until the first bell rang, and about how I was on the first bus to arrive and therefore had to sit there for 40 minutes, often getting bullied.  In particular, there was this one eighth-grade football player who made my seventh-grade mornings miserable by yelling insults at me across the courtyard while his friends laughed.

Suddenly I remembered telling Grandma about that, when she called after I’d spent the whole day wincing shamefully over what that football player had yelled when he noticed that I was sitting with my legs crossed at the knee.  I couldn’t bear to repeat exactly everything he said (the gist was that I was trying to control my urge to be raped by him); what I told her was his opening line of sneering, “Who sits with their legs crossed?!” in a way that sounded like it was a totally stupid, wrong thing to do.  Grandma said, “Hmm, who sits with her legs crossed?  A graceful, elegant lady with impeccable manners!”  That really turned it around for me.  That bully and others continued to hurt my feelings, but it did help to notice how often their insults boiled down to, “You’re behaving too well!  You think you’re better than us!” which implied that, for all their frightening volume and vitriol and violence, they actually were afraid that I was better than them–and gee, maybe I was.  It depends on what your standards are, and I’m glad that Grandma nudged me to consider mine. Read more of this post

A Person Who Deserves to Wear This Dress

A few days ago, I was unpacking my winter clothes and putting away my summer clothes, and I realized that there was a small section at the very back of my closet that had gone untouched for years.  The garments hanging back there literally had cobwebs and a thick layer of dust on the shoulders.  It was the Haunted Zone!

I pulled out these garments to decide if there was any justification for keeping them any longer, since I obviously hadn’t been wearing them frequently.  One was the skirt-suit I bought for a friend’s wedding in 2000 and wore a few times after that, but it’s out of style now.  One was a silk blouse I bought in a thrift shop, which is nice but too big for me.  One was the red velvet micro-mini cocktail dress I bought in 1992 and wore to a couple of college parties, but I really thought I’d passed it on years ago!  (I found that I still can squeeze into it, but it’s absurdly tight in the hips, and it always was uncomfortably short!)  All these things need to be given away.

p1030859But then there was this dress, this sort of elegant party dress that I’d totally forgotten I ever owned.  As best I recall, this is the story behind this dress: I was shopping for an outfit for a special event, a springtime event, and I wasn’t finding anything appropriate that fit me, but then in the downtown Macy’s this dress was marked down to an extremely reasonable price, like $20, and it fit so well that I bought it anyway.  I thought that although it really wasn’t a springtime style, I could wear it to the event if I couldn’t find anything more suitable.  But then I did find a nice springtime dress at another store, so I hung this one in the closet, thinking I’d wear it to some other special event in the future.

The event I was shopping for may have been my brother’s wedding, which was 7 years ago!  Not only do I not attend a whole lot of dressy events, but I really had forgotten that I had this dress.  Now what? Read more of this post

Make a Soap Saver: neat, clean bar soap with no waste!

The finished Soap Saver hangs in the shower.Photographs by Nicholas Efran

This is a handy tip I learned as a Girl Scout that I still use in my home today.  It’s a great project for Girl Scouts (or any group of kids) as a follow-up to soap carving: kids can put their soap scraps in the Soap Saver and then add any bits of soap they have at home.

A lot of people have switched to liquid soaps, foam soaps, and body-washes instead of bar soaps.  One reason for this is that a bar of soap sitting in a soap dish accumulates a puddle of water underneath, which has an unpleasant look and texture, may harbor germs, and gradually dissolves the soap so that a lot of it ends up being wasted.  A soap dish in the shower really wastes soap if it’s positioned such that the shower water falls on it, causing the soap to melt rapidly and drip from the soap dish onto the shower floor, making the floor slippery.

The other problem with bar soap is that as the bar gets smaller and smaller, it’s more and more difficult to get the soap you need.  You end up turning it over and over and over in your hands, wasting time.  But it’s annoying to throw away perfectly good soap just because it’s a small piece.

However, most hotels still give out bar soap, and most of us don’t use the whole bar during our stay.  If we leave it, they’ll have to throw it away.  It’s best if we can take it home and make use of it.

Also, there are some nice soaps that are available only in bar form, not in liquid, that you might want to use if only you could control the slimy mess problem.

What you need is a Soap Saver!!

pack of 3 Other than soap, the only material needed for this project is a long, narrow mesh tube.  It should be at least 12 inches long; 18 inches is better.  You might happen to purchase some type of fruit or vegetable that comes in a mesh bag you can reuse.  If not, the best source is a scrubby-puff, like these, which I found in a 3-pack for $1 at a local dollar store.

intact scrubby puffOf course, if you happen to have a used scrubby-puff that you don’t mind destroying, that’s even better for the environment than cutting up a new one.  Each puff will provide enough mesh for 2 or more Soap Savers, depending on the size of the puff.

In addition to saving soap, this gadget saves time, because the mesh helps the soap lather up quickly so that you spend less time rubbing it.

Probe through the layers of your scrubby-puff until you locate the cord that holds it together. Carefully slide one scissors blade under the cord and clip it, being careful not to cut a hole in the mesh as you do so. (If young children are doing this project, an adult should prepare the mesh in advance.) Unravel the puff into a long tube of mesh. Cut it into appropriate lengths.
Scrubby puff is made of a mesh tube secured with a cord. unraveled mesh tube--enough for 2 Soap Savers Cut the length of mesh in half with scissors. Read more of this post

How to Clean a Blackened Baking Pan

Part 1Autumn is here! Time for some nice baked squash!  Unfortunately, this tasty side dish can really mess up your baking pan.  Here’s how my nice Corningware pan looked after my most recent batch of butternut squash.  For some reason, this particular squash had an unusually large amount of sugary juice that oozed out the sides and–especially in the areas that weren’t sheltered by the squash sections–burned into a blackened mess.

My pan and I have been through this before.  We’ve learned not to panic.  It takes some patience to recover from this, but it does not require a lot of hard work or any noxious chemicals!  This technique works on most types of baked-on food, not just squash.

This method is safe for any ceramic or glass pan or a metal pan with no special coating.  Don’t use it on a seasoned cast-iron pan (it will remove the seasoning) or a pan with non-stick coating (it may scratch the coating). Read more of this post

Book Reviews: Good, Bad, and Coincidental

Imagine my surprise when one of the paperback mysteries I’d picked up at a used-book sale turned out to reference one of the others!  In Harm Done, which I reviewed last month, a girl claims she was kidnapped by two women who forced her to do housework, and an irritated Inspector Wexford demands to know if she has read The Franchise Affair.  She has–apparently it’s such a classic in Britain that it’s required reading for university entrance exams–but she’s indignant at what he’s implying.  I didn’t understand until I read The Franchise Affair myself.  How convenient that it happened to be the next book in my stack!

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

This 1949 mystery begins with a languid, small-town lawyer getting a phone call from a woman who’s been utterly surprised by the police coming to her door.  Marion Sharpe and her elderly mother live in an isolated house (called The Franchise) on the edge of town, and 15-year-old Betty Kane claims that when she was waiting for the bus that would take her home from spring vacation at her aunt’s house, Miss Sharpe and Mrs. Sharpe offered her a ride but instead held her prisoner at The Franchise, forced her to do housework, and beat her severely before she finally escaped.  The Sharpes claim no knowledge of this at all!  The lawyer and police suspect that the Sharpes are innocent and Betty is lying to conceal what she was really doing for four weeks, but finding the truth requires a long investigation. Read more of this post

Homemade Halvah: A sweet, nutritious, energy snack! (GF) (vegan)

Halvah is a Middle Eastern snack/dessert made mostly of sesame paste and sugar with various flavorings.  I’ve usually had the chocolate flavor and liked it, but I never felt a craving for halvah until about six weeks ago.  Suddenly, late one night, I found myself wishing I had halvah and wondering if I could make something like it with the tahini I happened to have.

p1030665It was easy!  Now I’m making this stuff once or twice a week, to eat all by itself or as an apple dip.  It’s a great way to get a boost of energy that will last a few hours, instead of a short-term sugar buzz like you’ll get from eating candy.

To make one generous serving, you will need:

Mix the ingredients in a small bowl with a butter knife.  It takes just one minute to make!

The recipe analyzer at happyforks.com tells me it has 234 calories, 5 1/2 grams of protein, 13% of the Daily Value of fiber, 35% of Vitamin B1, 37% of Vitamin B2, 12% of Vitamin B3, 22% of zinc, 17% of iron, 15% of calcium, 13% of magnesium, 61% of copper, 60% of manganese, and 33% of phosphorus.  Wow!  Not bad for a dessert.

This recipe has a mild chocolate flavor.  If you want it more chocolatey, add more cocoa powder.

This snack works for me!  Visit Real Food Friday and the Hearth & Soul Blog Hop for more great food ideas!

Has Your Favorite Soap Been Banned?

The United States Food & Drug Administration banned 19 antibacterial chemicals from hand soaps and body washes.  By September 1, 2017, manufacturers need to reformulate their products or remove the products from the market.  If you’ve been using an antibacterial soap, you may not be able to get it anymore.

Don’t despair!  The reason for the ban is that years of research have shown that antibacterial soaps aren’t as great as advertising has suggested:

“Consumers may think antibacterial washes are more effective at preventing the spread of germs, but we have no scientific evidence that they are any better than plain soap and water,” said Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER). “In fact, some data suggests that antibacterial ingredients may do more harm than good over the long-term.”

Here’s some detail about the risks of triclosan, the most popular of the newly-banned ingredients. Rather than breed resistant bacteria, breathe chloroform, harm your liver and thyroid, and contaminate your drinking water, why not switch to a new soap?

This is your opportunity to not only get away from triclosan but also do even better for the Earth and your budget by switching to a plant-based soap that will save you money!  I previously explained how to make your own environmentally-friendly foaming hand soap in just one minute using two ingredients at a cost of just 69c per bottle.  If you didn’t do it then, do it now!

If you don’t want foaming soap, just a nice liquid soap to use in the shower, skip the foamer and buy Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap, available in 7 delicious scents and unscented.  It’s not only plant-based and all-natural, it’s certified organic, fair-trade, GMO-free, vegan, and packed in a 100% recycled plastic bottle.  This soap is safe enough to brush your teeth with, and you also can use it to wash dishes, hand-washable laundry, household surfaces, etc.

Click here for a $10 discount on a method foaming hand wash and a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap to refill it–you’ll pay just $10.88 for your first 33 foamers full of soap!  This link will take you to Grove Collaborative (formerly ePantry), a household products subscription company that does not force you to buy anything you don’t want; each month’s order can be customized as you like, and you can quit at any time.  But if you don’t want to join Grove, you can find method and Dr. Bronner’s products in many other stores.

Happy washing!  Visit Real Food Friday for more articles on keeping our lives real and the Hearth & Soul Blog Hop and Works-for-Me Wednesday for more great tips!

America is SAFER now than it used to be.

I worked with crime data for 17 years, and occasionally someone would say, “Gosh, that must make you so worried about your safety!”  No.  It didn’t.  It had exactly the opposite effect.  There are four patterns I saw, over and over again, that made me feel safer:

  1. Crime rates in Pittsburgh and in the United States overall were already declining when I started working for the Pittsburgh Youth Study in 1998 and have continued to decline or remained stable ever since.
  2. Most crimes (especially sexual assaults and homicide) occur between people who know one another; they are not random attacks by strangers.
  3. Homicide and shooting victims are disproportionately black and male.  I am white and female.
  4. Every map of crimes in Pittsburgh shows that I live near the middle of a large low-crime area.

I could write a lot about what I’ve learned and how it’s influenced my sense of personal safety, but at this moment in American history I need to focus on helping you understand how safe you are and who’s trying to mislead you.

Monday’s presidential debate included repeated ranting from Donald Trump about the number of murders and shootings in Chicago during the Obama administration, implying that Chicago has become more dangerous and that this is Obama’s fault.  Trump would like you to believe that America is a very dangerous place and only he can save you from hordes of dark-skinned killers.

U.S. Violent Crime Rate 1960-2014

Graph from factcheck.org based on FBI data. Click graph for full article.

“Almost four thousand” is an overstatement of the 3,624 homicides in Chicago since Obama’s inauguration, but 3,624 is still a lot of people, and as Hillary Clinton said, “One murder is too many.” Yes. But the fact is that murder is far less common in Chicago, and in the United States overall, than it was 15 years ago–and that was a big decrease from 20-25 years ago. If presidents are responsible for violent crimes that occur during their administrations, then by golly, George Bush Senior was the worst president ever!

And before anybody gets on my case about Bush-bashing, notice that George W. Bush was the president who presided over an enormous drop in violent crime.  Funny how Trump doesn’t mention that–because it would ruin his argument that crime is high and it’s Obama’s fault.

Homicides in Chicago also have declined during the 21st century so far, but the pattern there is even more striking: There was a big drop from 2002 to 2004, and since then Chicago’s homicide rate has never again gotten nearly as high as it was in 2003!

Homicides in Chicago, 2000-2015.

Chicago Tribune graph reprinted by the Los Angeles Times. Click graph for full article.

Now, of course, just because murders are less common now than they used to be doesn’t mean we’re all perfectly safe.  Homicide is still the leading cause of death for black males ages 15-34, and although many of those victims were involved in gangs or drug dealing or carrying guns (all of which increase a person’s chances of getting killed), many were not–every year, some innocent, law-abiding black men are killed because they are mistaken for someone else, because they happen to live in or be visiting an area that is “rival territory” for a gang, or because police or gun-toting citizens don’t give them a chance to explain themselves.  Only 13% of the United States population is African-American, yet 44% of homicide victims in the United States are African-American; only 49% of the United States population is male, yet 70% of homicide victims in the United States are male.  (My calculations are based on data from 2013, from this Census table and this FBI table.)

Every murder is a tragedy, and the prevalence of homicide among young black men is a horror that we must do our very best to control.  My concern is that Trump’s rhetoric makes it sound like America is getting more dangerous by the minute and like dark-skinned people are out to kill you no matter who you are, and this really isn’t the case.  83% of white murder victims are killed by other white peopleThose of us who are lucky enough to be white people living in safe neighborhoods should be concerned about the plight of black people in dangerous neighborhoods out of love and compassion, not out of fear for our own safety.  African-Americans face more risks than they should, but even they are safer now than they were 25 years ago.  Cities across the United States have made real progress in reducing crime, and it hasn’t been done by yelling, “Law and order!” like Donald Trump.

I could go on and on about crime prevention, too, but I’ll stick to telling you a little about what I learned from my own work on the book Young Homicide Offenders and Victims: Risk Factors, Prediction, and Prevention from Childhood.  I did all of the data processing and some preliminary analyses for this book, and I am a co-author of two chapters.  In this book, we studied the 37 convicted killers and the 39 homicide victims who were among the young men we had been interviewing since they were in elementary school, and we determined what predicted who would kill and who would be killed.  These are the nine factors measured when they were in elementary school that predicted which boys were more than twice as likely as the average boy to grow up to kill someone, in order of statistical significance with the best predictor first:

  1. One or both of his biological parents did not live with him.
  2. He lived in a high-crime neighborhood.
  3. His family qualified for welfare benefits.
  4. His mother was younger than 20 when her first child was born.
  5. He was old for his grade at the beginning of the study–either he started school late, or he was left back.
  6. His mother (or the female adult most responsible for him) was not employed outside the home.
  7. His parents and/or teachers agreed with the statement, “He doesn’t seem to feel guilty after doing things he shouldn’t.”
  8. The adult most responsible for him reported that his biological father had ever had “behavior problems.”  (This one bugs me because it is so vague and open to bias on the part of the person reporting, but the fact that it was a strong predictor indicates that it was measuring something important.)
  9. His family had low socioeconomic status–calculated from the current or most recent job and the highest education completed by the adults in the home.

Think about those things when you think about how to prevent murder.  There are so many things we as a society can do to support families so they can raise good kids and to help kids when they first show signs of trouble–instead of waiting until they hurt someone and then throwing them in jail.

Gun control is a factor, too, and a major issue in the current election.  I agree with both candidates that we need to do more to get guns out of the hands of convicted criminals who aren’t allowed to carry guns.  My opinion, informed by what I’ve seen in crime research, is that the way to do this is to control guns much more tightly, more like we do cars: Carrying, using, or owning a gun should require a license, and to get a license you should have to demonstrate that you know how to use a gun safely and you understand the laws.  Each gun should be registered with the state and that registration updated annually.  These policies would help to reduce illegal selling and borrowing of guns.  It’s also my opinion that we should have fewer guns in the United States and work away from the idea that we “need” guns so much, but those are cultural and psychological shifts, not changes in laws.

I’ve learned a lot about crime.  It’s made me feel safer.  Donald Trump wants to talk about a few carefully selected facts as if they prove that we’re in grave danger and only he can help us.  I hope that looking at facts about the bigger picture helps you to understand how twisted his views are.

It works for me!