That Time I Bought Ladybugs by Mail

Years ago, Daniel and I made friends with this guy named Vinnie who lived in one of the apartments over the garages behind the cluster of rowhouses where we were living at the time.  His apartment was small and shabby, but he’d chosen it because it had a large yard, and he loved gardening.  In the winter, he brought a lot of his plants indoors in pots.

Unfortunately, one winter his plants became infested with aphids and scale insects simultaneously.  Vinnie tried spraying them with various homemade concoctions, but nothing was working well enough, and the plants were dying.  Somehow a farm-supply catalog had made its way into his urban home, and he noticed that the catalog said ladybugs would eat these pests.  You could buy them by the pint.

Vinnie is a person who stubbornly resists The System: He likes to work informally as a landscaper rather than having a “real job,” he’s often lived without a telephone or a bank account, and he’s never had a credit card.  That’s why he asked me to order his ladybugs from the catalog.  I used my phone, my credit card, and my address, figuring I would take the bugs to Vinnie when they arrived.

A week or so later, I came home from work, and my housemate said, “You got a package.  Why is it labeled LIVESTOCK?  It’s not very big.”  The package was a small wooden crate containing a canvas sack.  When I held it up to my ear, I could hear tiny moving noises.  I explained to my housemate, and we speculated about how many ladybugs are in a pint–that crate might be small by human standards, but it was very much larger than a ladybug; there must be hundreds in there or thousands….

After dinner, I took the crate up to Vinnie’s place.  He was excited.  He immediately got some tools to pry open the crate.  Then he lifted out the bag, ignoring some folded papers that were underneath it in the crate.  One end of the bag was bunched together and secured with a twist-tie.

Naturally, Vinnie untwisted the twist-tie to take a look at his new beneficial insects. Read more of this post

A Tale of Two Toothpastes

As a VIP member of Grove Collaborative, I get a free item or special deal every month or two.  Recently, we’ve tried two new natural toothpastes.  Based on our 20 years’ experience trying natural and Earth-friendly hygiene products and cleaning products, here’s our evaluation of these two minty mouth-cleaning options.  This is an honest review.  We received no compensation other than a discount on these products.

Click here to get $10 off your first Grove Collaborative order and earn a credit for me!  Click here to learn more about how Grove works and whether it’s right for you.

JASON Powersmile Antiplaque & Whitening Toothpaste (Powerful Peppermint flavor) is indeed powerful.  It’s aggressively minty, similar to Altoids candy.  It will clear your sinuses!  But we don’t actually like the taste, which also prominently features stevia.  I’m very sensitive to fake sugar, and while stevia is not actually an artificial sweetener, the fact that it tastes super-sweet but has no calories can trigger a metabolic reaction that makes me feel nervous and queasy.  That’s a reason to avoid stevia-sweetened foods, but since I’m not swallowing toothpaste, my reaction is only psychosomatic and fades within a few minutes after rinsing my mouth.  Still, who wants to feel icky even for a moment after brushing teeth?  Not me! Read more of this post

Horses don’t dance in the bathtub.

Lydia, three years old, informed me that this is NOT called a soap dish.  It is a soap bench.

You can see her point.

Immediately after this pronouncement, she stood up and started dancing.

MAMA: Don’t dance in the bathtub.  It’s slippery.

LYDIA: I am just showing you how horses dance. (slips a little; casually rests her hand on the cold-water knob for stability)

MAMA: Horses don’t dance in the bathtub.  Too slippery.

LYDIA: Do horses not like slipping?

MAMA: Horses are very afraid of slipping.  If a horse falls down, often it can’t get up again.  Horses are strangely fragile that way.

(Lydia looks worried, sits down, and starts playing with cups.  She waits until she is out of the bath and out of the bathroom to show me again how horses dance.)

I’m glad that worked!  We didn’t have to get into a big power struggle about sitting down in the bathtub.  The susceptibility of horses to irrepairable breakage when they fall is one of the more disturbing things I’ve learned about life here on Earth, but in this situation it was useful to know!

A Look At Climate Change And The Questions That Surround It

This is a guest post by Neil Stawski of ClimateWise.co . Mr. Stawski believes we aren’t doing enough to protect our planet. He created ClimateWise.co to educate the public and encourage people to take action.

High water!

image via Pixabay by Hermann

Global warming, climate change, fossil fuels, and greenhouse gases: all things you’ve probably heard about in the news in recent years, and all things that are extremely complicated and hard to understand, especially when there is so much information–and misinformation–spread.

Among the many questions surrounding these topics is the question of what we can do to help stop these changes, and whether or not we can reverse them. Unfortunately, because there is such a gap between what we do and when we feel the effects, it’s nearly impossible to reverse climate change. We can only hope to slow it down.

What we can do, however, is educate ourselves about climate change, learn how to suss out the facts from the opinions, and implement some changes in our own lives that will benefit the Earth for future generations.

Below are some of the most frequently asked questions regarding climate change, as well as answers agreed upon by some of the most experienced scientists in the world.

What is the difference between “global warming” and “climate change”?

Global warming is a term used to indicate the massive rise in the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere over the last several decades due to the increasing use of fossil fuels, which contain carbon dioxide that traps heat. Global warming is a symptom of climate change, which encompasses all the global issues affected by the rising temperatures. These issues include melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and the possible extinction of many plant and animal species.

If global warming exists, why do we still have cold winters?

Global warming is taking place over a period of time, across the entire planet. Although the average temperature of our atmosphere is rising, we will still have cold winters and even snow and ice storms due to changing weather patterns.

Becca says: Check out this cartoon explaining why “what used to be normal now feels too cold.” Read more of this post

Compost Blanketing the Sahara

Last night, Daniel and I were talking about what might happen with Africa in this century.  It’s an interesting question, considering that Africa has an unusually young population, many unstable governments, metals that are hard to find anywhere else on Earth, significant presence of both Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, and very uneven distribution of resources.  All kinds of things could happen there!

Daniel had an idea that had never occurred to me before, which I think is fabulous!  We haven’t fully explored the science behind it (and we can see some potential pitfalls) but as an idea for what Earthlings could achieve if we tried, I think this is really inspiring.

The Sahara Desert covers almost as much land as the United States but is habitable to less than 1% as many people.  “Huge areas are wholly empty,” says the Encyclopedia Brittanica, but there is archaeological evidence that more people lived there in prehistoric times.  The Sahara has grown over the course of human history, partly because of climate change and partly because of unsustainable agricultural practices.  This is the region of Earth where human beings first developed agriculture.  This land fed people for thousands of years, but now it is used up, dried out, blowing away.

Is that just what happens?  Do we live in a place until we use it all up and then move on?  What will happen when we run out of places? Read more of this post

5 Book Reviews

Here’s a sprightly introduction to my reviews of the books I’ve read in the past month.

The God We Never Knew by Marcus Borg

Marcus Borg is a theologian and Biblical scholar who admits that he got well into his adult life and graduate studies before he realized that his understanding of God was warped by assumptions he’d picked up as a child in church.  He proceeded to explore and learn more about God.  He explains how God is in everything and everything is in God.  Because God is always and everywhere present, “…we are already in relationship whether we know it or not,” so prayer is not a magic spell addressed to a distant genie but is simply “consciously entering into and nurturing a relationship with God.”  He explains how this God is easy to reach yet heartbreakingly easy to ignore, describing his own surprising realizations that he’s “forgotten” to pray for a few days in a row even while he’s writing a book about God–that makes me feel better about my own lapses!

A debate over inclusive language brought him a startling insight: Read more of this post

The Dishwasher Ladybug

Many things in our home previously belonged to our relatives.  I claimed many books, dishes, pieces of furniture, and framed artwork from my grandparents’ homes after they died.  Daniel’s parents and grandparents have given us household items that they don’t need anymore but that are still useful.  Making use of these things in our home is a way of running them into the ground while also triggering memories of old times in another house and, in some cases, of people who aren’t with us anymore.

Daniel’s cousin Mike and his wife Barbara hosted the extended family for Thanksgiving for many years.  Barbara had a flair for decorating and a fondness for ladybugs.  In the breakfast nook of her red-and-black kitchen were shelves displaying the ladybug-themed gifts people kept giving her.  After Barbara died, Mike offered us our choice of ladybug stuff.

One of the items we brought home was a plush ladybug with a magnet in its belly.  It’s cute, but we found it didn’t work very well for holding shopping lists and so forth because it covers such a large area that you can’t see the paper.  It was just a decoration hanging on the side of our refrigerator for several months.

Meanwhile, we were using our dishwasher, which has an LED that illuminates when the cycle is complete and stays lit until you turn it off or you open and close the door.  It’s a convenient reminder that the dishes in the dishwasher are clean and need to be put away.  If we opened the dishwasher to grab just one spoon or something, we’d carefully push it almost closed but not latch the door, so the LED would stay lit.

This worked just fine until our daughter Lydia started walking.  She would grab the edge of the dishwasher door as a handhold, and if it wasn’t latched, it would swing down and bop her on the head!

ladybug magnetNow we needed a different visual cue to show us that the dishes were clean.  Many people use a magnet…and we happened to have this magnet that needed a useful role!

Over the past two years, Daniel and I and our 12-year-old son have adapted to this new house rule: When you open the dishwasher to take out a clean dish but not put away all the dishes, put the ladybug on the door.  When you have put away the clean dishes and the dishwasher is ready to collect dirty dishes again, move the ladybug back to the refrigerator.  Simple!

Of course, the plush ladybug hanging near floor level proved irresistible to our toddler sometimes.  We had to teach Lydia that it’s okay to play with the ladybug, but you need to put her back in place when you are done, because she is doing her job.  She is a helpful insect, not unlike the real ladybugs we see in the garden.  Lydia gradually became so responsible about keeping the ladybug on duty that I can’t recall when I last reminded her.

Using a cue like this helps us conserve water, energy, and money by running the dishwasher only when it’s full.  Because we eat different things from day to day, we have different amounts of dishes, so it’s hard to predict when the dishwasher will be full.  Many people have told me they run the dishwasher every night after dinner so that they can put away the dishes before bed and always have clean dishes in the morning and no confusion about what’s clean or dirty–but that’s so wasteful!  It’s also more total work to put away a smallish number of dishes every day than to put away a larger number of dishes every three days or so.

(I’d just like to mention that last summer, I proved to myself that I usually do, too, have time to empty the dishwasher now and get it over with: I put on the Genesis song “Abacab” and emptied the fully-packed dishwasher and even scrubbed that one dish that didn’t get clean before the song was over = 7 minutes, 2 seconds!)

Lydia just turned 3 years old.  The evening after her birthday, I filled up the dishwasher after dinner and turned it on.  Daniel told me that when he and Lydia came into the kitchen a while later, she immediately noticed the sound and said, “The dishwasher is washing.”  Then she took the ladybug from the refrigerator and put it onto the dishwasher.  She has learned the rule!

Our ladybug is very helpful in the household routine, and it also brings a little bit of Barbara’s ladybug-loving legacy into our daily lives so that we remember her fondly.

Visit the Hearth & Soul Link Party and To Grandma’s House We Go! for more home tips!  Visit Be Clean Be Green With Kids for more ideas for family cooperation to save the Earth!

6 Ways to Unclog a Toilet without a Plunger or a Plumber [Infographic]

It happens to us all at some point: When we least expect it, our normally reliable toilet lets us down.

A few flushes and a poke with the toilet brush often will be enough to get things moving again, but when that isn’t enough, here are some great suggestions to tackle the problem easily with a few different methods–depending on the tools you have at hand.

Check out this great infographic put together by Legendary Home Services for the details:
https://www.legendaryhs.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Plumber-Phoenix-6-ways-to-unclog-a-toilet-without-a-plunger-or-a-plumber.jpg

So, unless you’re fairly sure your toilet is broken, we recommend giving these methods a try!  But a quick word of warning: Don’t try flushing repeatedly if the drain is still blocked, as there is only one place for the water to go, and that’s all over your bathroom floor.

Notice that none of these methods requires any dangerous chemicals!  Click here for The Earthling’s Handbook’s tips on green cleaning for your toilet and everything else in your home!

Go Green in 2017: Clean Up Your Hygiene Routine!

Happy Earth Day!  What is your Earth Day Resolution?

I hope you’ve already switched to greener cleaners and started drinking better milk, and now you’re ready for something new!  There are many ways you could change your habits to reduce your environmental impact.  Let’s talk about the stuff you use to clean and care for your body.

You might think that the Food & Drug Administration is responsible for making sure (in the United States) that any product marketed for putting on or in your body is safe.  Unfortunately, that’s totally false.  The FDA does no pre-market testing of personal hygiene products and does not require full disclosure of ingredients!  (The term “cosmetics” used in that article does not mean just lipstick and nail polish; it includes more necessary products like shampoo, deodorant, and sunscreen.)  Even when a product causes serious injury to consumers and the FDA does intervene, it’s not allowed to issue a recall (that’s a voluntary action by the manufacturer), and other products using the same dangerous ingredients can remain on the market.  Cosmetic companies aren’t required to tell the FDA if consumers report that a product hurt them.

This means that when you buy, say, baby wipes for your newborn, they can contain just about anything, and the package may not tell you what fibers are in that soft towelette or what chemicals are in that sweet-smelling liquid.  The same is true of most personal hygiene products that don’t make enough medical claims to be classified as drugs.

Not only are your personal health and safety at risk, but many hygiene products also are bad for the environment.  Some of the chemicals common in body wash, deodorant, moisturizers, makeup, perfume, and nail polish are known to cause cancer or disrupt hormone production even in people or animals who don’t use them directly but consume water or air polluted with these chemicals by the user or by the factory.  A common ingredient in sunscreen washes off swimmers and kills coral reefs.  Here are 7 ingredients to avoid.

One of the most horrifying hazards found in hygiene products is microbeads, tiny pieces of plastic that increase the scrubbing effect of a facial cleanser or toothpaste.  They are too small to be filtered out of water, which means that plastic microbeads accumulate in our oceans and in the bodies of fish, and we’re drinking them ourselves, with unknown effects.  The environmental audit committee of the British parliament estimated that a person who eats six oysters has also eaten 50 particles of microplastics.

A great reference for checking the safety and environmental impact of your favorite products is the Environmental Working Group’s database.  It’s not perfect–they’re excessively worried about natural fragrant oils, in my opinion–but it gives you a lot of information to help make your decisions.  If you’re curious about a product that’s not in the database but that lists its ingredients on the label, you can search the ingredients in the database.

My family has been moving toward safer, more natural, less Earth-destroying, affordable options in hygiene products for about 20 years now.  Here’s what we recommend for many commonly-used types of products.  Many of our favorites (as well as other green options we haven’t tried) are available from Grove Collaborative; click here for $10 off your first order! Read more of this post

Why we had Banana Bread and Black Bean Soup for Easter dinner

We’ve never established a traditional Easter dinner for our family.  Partly it’s because we don’t eat lamb or ham, but the biggest reason is that for the past 15 years I’ve been heavily involved in the Easter celebrations at church.  The Easter Vigil service is late Saturday night, followed by a festive reception, and then there’s the Sunday morning service, followed by another festive reception!  As hospitality chairperson, I’m in charge of recruiting people to bring food for the receptions, organizing the array of food, setting up, and cleaning up.  Also, I’ve often read one of the scriptures in the Easter Vigil service, and this year I was a chalice-bearer (serving the Communion wine and, unexpectedly, lighting 14 candles–but that’s another story).

After all that, not only am I tired and burned-out on food management, but we’re not coming home hungry after church!  We eat during the reception, and then there are always some odds and ends left on the serving platters that are easier to eat than put away.  We don’t need another meal until Sunday evening.

We do have to eat then, though.  The extent to which I had planned that meal was thinking, “I’ll bake the last two sweet potatoes, and we’ll eat them with…something….”

I ended up not baking the sweet potatoes. Read more of this post

Darwinian Gardening

Tomato plant and squash plant in a pot, in the garden among morning glories, irises, spearmint, etc.

I’m writing a 3-part series on composting over at Kitchen Stewardship; here’s how to get started with my composting system using 3 ordinary flowerpots, and I also mention two FREE composting systems my family members have used. Here, I’m explaining my general approach to the garden I nourish with my compost.

The idea and the name of Darwinian Gardening come from my mom, who devotes a section of her large garden to “the survival of the fittest,” with lovely and sometimes surprising results.

You could just fertilize some soil and then see what grows there, being totally hands-off about it.  Mom and I intervene a little.  The basic idea is to plant the seeds you have and encourage the plants you like, to grow a uniquely beautiful garden that’s environmentally friendly, inexpensive, and low-maintenance.

I don’t have a big garden like my parents do.  My front yard is about 12 feet square.  My back yard (not shown in these photos) is on a cliff and very shady, so we struggle to keep anything growing there to control erosion.  One of my favorite things about Darwinian Gardening is that many species of plants intertwine, creating lots of variety in a small area.  My garden may be tiny, but there’s a lot to see here!

Morning glories, lamb’s ears, and purple vine working together to choke out “weeds.”

My garden combines things I planted on purpose with things that just showed up. Every spring, I plant whatever seeds I have, root cuttings from my potted plants, and maybe buy a few bulbs or seeds or seedlings.

A lot of my plants “grow like weeds” and are essentially invasive species, but I don’t consider them “weeds” because I like them!  I only pull up plants I truly don’t want, like poison ivy and burrs.

However, my most enthusiastic plants sometimes choke out other plants that I want to grow, so I intervene by digging them up and moving them to a bare spot.  Morning glory vines twine around other plants and block the sunlight; while I’m supervising my kids playing outdoors, I patrol the garden and carefully unwind morning glories from the other plants and wind them onto things I don’t mind them growing on. Read more of this post

Streamlined Task Juggling: Getting things done when working from home

This is a guest post by Ben Stallings (Becca’s brother), a Web developer and permaculture designer in Emporia, Kansas.

“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and – snap! The job’s a game!” –Mary Poppins

I work from home, and my wife doesn’t, so I do most of the housework as well as home improvements and managing my own work schedule. My clients rarely have fixed deadlines, so it’s usually on me to find the motivation to do my work and stay on task. Friends who don’t work from home often tell me that they wouldn’t know how to “juggle” work tasks along with housework, or that they’ve tried and failed to do it, so I thought I’d share my method.

Where I’m coming from

But first, a little background. I was a die-hard workaholic in high school and through most of college. If I took a class, I wasn’t satisfied unless I got an A on every assignment. If I joined an extracurricular group, I attended every meeting, and I showed up on time or early, and I resented those who didn’t! Then, over spring break of my junior year of college, I visited a friend in a small city in Mexico, and during his workday we took a two-hour lunch break (from 2-4pm, the famed siesta). Noticing my anxiety at the slow pace of the meal, he explained: “In America you have the Protestant work ethic, which says to go to heaven you must work hard. In Mexico, we have the Catholic work ethic, which says to go to heaven you must live well.”

That conversation caused me to question my approach to school, and later to work and housework. It made me ask, Who am I doing this for? What are their expectations? What do I hope to get out of it? How might I meet everyone’s goals, working smarter instead of harder, and leave more time for “living well,” whatever that means?

I had a breakthrough when I stopped getting my satisfaction from completing tasks and started getting it from making progress toward my goals. In school, I stopped worrying about how I did on any particular test or project or class and instead looked ahead to how each task was getting me closer to my longer-term goals. After college, I took a part-time job that paid barely enough to survive on, cutting my living expenses to levels I can barely imagine now, so that I had ample time to explore the city and soak up everything it had to offer. I’ve followed a similar approach in my career ever since: I rarely bill more than 2 to 4 hours a day to clients, which is barely enough to pay the bills and stay mentally abreast of the work, because I have too many other things I want to do with my time! Read more of this post

A Robot’s Cookbook, Chapter 3

See Chapter 1 for explanation of this unusual recipe collection.

HAM WITH EGGS: Take a few pickled walnuts, flattening through the mutton the same weight of buttered paper through a quart of herbs.  In a Belgian manner, take the liquor; mix the pan, adding pepper torn apart from the paste and all the threads.  Cut the dinner breads over the juice of this way.

PINEAPPLE À LA BOURGEOISE: Braise your gooseberries and let it all in cream, if you can garnish as it was burnt.  Shape the yolks of eggs after the yolks of crumbs remain.  Butter each layer of brown sauce for twenty-five minutes.  Meanwhile, take in sprigs of cauliflower and toss them out.  Let it aside to make cheese on a good green tuft.  Add a ball, salt, pepper, salt, and cold meats.  Open a layer of rich sauce.  Decorate with salt and a thick bechamel sauce and gelatine (melted).  Boil up and roll the liquor in a little boiling water.  Take the juice of well and bake till ready to be early for an English “dinner-party.”  Beat up two minutes, bind the other.  Let it taste like this; let stand in an earthenware pot three turnips, then fry in the sieve, and rub them in the top, leaving the oven.  Put all with a clean cloth so thinly that way.  Then return the dish as anchovies preserved fruit.

SAFFRON RICE: This is excellent with pepper and three sticks of tomato.  Break the neck that I wager you have, and mix it salted.  Take a little mushroom ketchup.  Serve dry boiled, pour in water, drain to moisten them all together and work in two pats of four leeks, a quart of one fish not too much liked, and a small chipolata sausage.  What a fireproof case for a good cream!  Mix all skin for two cabbages.  Trim some hard-boiled eggs.  Add sufficient quantity. Read more of this post

Seventh Generation Coconut Care Baby Lotion review

I received a free sample of Seventh Generation Coconut Care Baby Lotion to review.  This is an honest review of my family’s experience with this product, which we probably wouldn’t have tried if we hadn’t been offered a free sample.

Seventh Generation Coconut Care Baby Lotion is a gentle moisturizing lotion made without mineral oil, petrolatum, parabens, phthalates, or formaldehyde.  It’s made from 98% natural ingredients, including organic coconut oil that is harvested without damaging orangutan habitat.  All ingredients are listed on the label.

My daughter Lydia is the youngest in the family, at two and a half, so she was the first to try this lotion.  After her bath, I rubbed it into her arms and legs, which tend to get dry and flakey in the winter. Read more of this post

Public Transit and Convenient Commuting

It’s getting harder and harder for me to believe that the majority of Americans who work outside the home commute by car.

I understand that many small towns and suburban and rural areas have no public transit at all, and that many cities have inadequate public transit providing infrequent service to just a few neighborhoods.  What I don’t understand is why so many people put up with it!  Of course there are situations in which people have good reasons for living and/or working in remote areas.  But there are millions more who just seem to be taking for granted that, as a grown-up, every day you get into your car.  It hasn’t occurred to them to try their local public transit or to ask why there isn’t any.

What really staggers me is when I hear people who live and/or work in the very same neighborhoods I do, talking about driving to and from work–especially if they’re employed by one of the local universities whose every employee/student ID card functions as a bus pass!  Seriously!  You don’t need a special card; you don’t need to sign up for the transit program; as soon as you get your ID, you can hop on a bus, tap it against the card reader, and get a free ride to anywhere in Allegheny County the transit authority goes, any time buses (or light-rail trains or inclines) are running!  You can use it all weekend, not just for commuting!

Pardon all the exclamation points, but I’m excited to be working for the University of Pittsburgh now.  None of my previous employers offered free transit, so I’m accustomed to paying slightly over $1,000 per year for an annual bus pass giving me unlimited rides all year.  It was convenient even when it was a series of monthly passes arriving by mail, even more convenient with the ConnectCard that lasted all year.  It cost much less than paying cash fare for my workday commute, with the additional bonus of free rides for other travel.  But it was a substantial expense each year, which I don’t have now, whee!

It took me until last week, my fourth week at the new job, to realize just how staggeringly convenient my new commute is: Read more of this post

Book Reviews: Old and New

I started a new job three weeks ago, so I’ve been rereading familiar books as a backdrop to all the new ideas!  However, right before going back to work, I read a book published in 1999 that was new to me.

Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger

John is a teenager in the era of zines–that brief time between when teenagers started wanting to tell everyone their innermost thoughts and when blogging became possible.  That time and its trends are perfectly evoked in this novel of self-exploration and the joy of getting to know a really interesting person.  When you’re a straight white suburban guy, and your new best friend is a Puerto Rican Cuban Yankee lesbian, should you ask her to the prom?  I didn’t expect much from this book, but I really enjoyed it.

Kumquat May, I’ll Always Love You by Cynthia D. Grant

I read this book several times as a teenager and liked it so much that it had been on my shelf all these years, but I never got around to reading it again until now.  It’s pretty well done, with zany characters and some very clever lines, but now I see it as kind of self-consciously over-written, and Olivia is so mature and perceptive that her inability to pick up on painfully obvious clues doesn’t make much sense.

Olivia is a high school senior who has been living alone for two years.  First her father died, then her grandmother, and then her mother went out to the grocery store and never came back.  Her mom sends postcards once in a while, always promising to be home “soon.”  Meanwhile, Olivia has kept her solitude a secret from everyone but her best friend Rosella.  But now, her childhood friend Raymond has moved back to town, bringing new energy into Olivia’s life, falling in love with her, and sharing a secret of his own.  What will happen if she tells him the truth about her mom?

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This one did not disappoint me when I read it for what must be the fifth or sixth time, at least.  If anything, I’d forgotten just how excellent the prose and dialogue are, how wonderfully the various events of Scout’s childhood weave together into an overall story that feels so true, how perfectly it depicts a range of characters who understand that racism is wrong yet to some extent take it for granted, and how it’s not just about racism but about multiple ways of respecting people for who they are.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

My partner Daniel brought out his DVD of The Secret of NIMH to watch with our two-and-a-half-year old Lydia, who loved this story of a brave mother mouse and has wanted to watch it every week or so since–but Daniel and I were frustrated that the movie so drastically over-simplifies the plot of the book and adds a lot of magical mumbo-jumbo and makes Jeremy the crow so irritating!  We think the best thing about the movie is the colors; many scenes, especially at sunset, are visually gorgeous.  Anyway, I was inspired to look for the book, which I’d read in school in sixth grade.  I found it in the library.

Mrs. Frisby is a mouse raising four children alone since her husband’s untimely death last year.  When her son Timothy comes down with pneumonia, she visits Mr. Ages, a mouse known for his knowledge of healing, and gets medicine and the advice that Timothy must stay indoors and warm until he is fully recovered.  But the mice must move out of their winter home before the farmer plows his field and destroys that home, and the weather’s getting warmer too soon for Timothy to make the journey to the summer place.  Mrs. Frisby happens to rescue a crow tangled in string, who advises her to consult the wise old owl about her problem–and that leads her to learn about her husband’s surprising past and his association with the mysteriously intelligent rats who live in the big rosebush.

This is an excellent story combining cute animals with deep thoughts about the nature of intelligence, ethics, and cooperation.  Lydia’s interest in it is really pushing her toward accepting a story with very few pictures!  We’ve tried other chapter books on her, and she’s accepted them some of the time but often insisted on flipping through the book to see all of the pictures or on hearing Chapter One over and over again.  With this book, she keeps asking to hear the part about the owl (perhaps because that’s one of the scariest scenes, perhaps because she likes my owl voice) but she’s generally letting me pick up where we left off, so I think we’ll be able to read the whole book before it’s due back to the library!

Visit the Quick Lit Linkup for more book reviews!

Asian Ingredients for Every Kitchen

Longtime readers may have noticed that my family often makes Chinese, Japanese, and Indian food.  Check out my article at Kitchen Stewardship about incorporating Asian flavors and techniques into your everyday cooking!  Here, I’m giving more detail about some of the ingredients I like to keep handy.

Two foods I’ve always considered basics, even when I lived in a dorm and cooked in an electric hot-pot, are rice and soy sauce.

Brown rice is more nutritious and has more fiber; white rice is more traditional.  Basmati rice, sushi rice, or jasmine rice might be most suitable for specific recipes, but properly cooking each variety is a bit of a hassle.  I often use ordinary, inexpensive white rice for everything–Mexican and South American food, too!

Soy sauce should be traditionally brewed–it makes a big difference in flavor.  For years, I only bought Kikkoman because none of the other brands tasted right.  I tried Trader Joe’s soy sauce after learning that Kikkoman now uses genetically modified soybeans in its soy sauce for the US market.  (Kikkoman’s organic variety is, of course, GMO-free…but it’s hard to find and expensive.)  Trader Joe’s house brand plant-based foods are all GMO-free, and their soy sauce is traditionally brewed in Japan and tastes great!

However, if you’re gluten-free, you’ll need a soy sauce with no wheat in it.  Look for tamari, and even so, read the ingredients to make sure.  San-J tamari is gluten-free and very tasty.

If you can’t have soy at all, coconut aminos give a very similar flavor.

Whatever you do, don’t buy La Choy soy sauce–blecchh!!

I do eat non-GMO soy, and tofu is another favorite ingredient in my cooking.  If you’re allergic or opposed to tofu, in most recipes you can substitute boneless chicken–just make sure it gets cooked thoroughly in the recipe, or pre-cook before adding it.

My whole family loves nori seaweed, the greenish-black stuff that’s wrapped around sushi and recently popular in snack packages. We make our own maki rolls (technically different from sushi, maki use more nori) and omusubi (rice balls, also called onigiri) or sometimes we just eat nori by the sheet! It’s great for balancing your metabolism after eating too much sugar.

Rice wine vinegar makes sushi rice taste right and is a useful ingredient in sauces.

Sesame oil is delicious!  It’s more of a seasoning than a cooking oil: Mix it into a sauce or salad dressing, drizzle it on cooked food just before serving, or use a small amount of sesame oil mixed with a lighter oil (like peanut oil) for stir-frying.

A basic yellow curry powder works in both Indian and Thai recipes.  I buy mine in bulk at the food co-op.

Another great spice blend for Indian food is garam masala (also available at the co-op).  I was pleased to find that it has the right flavor for the Middle Eastern dish Loubie, as well.

For hot-and-spicy flavor, dried red pepper flakes or a standard American hot sauce will work, but I prefer sambal oelek chili paste.  It’s spicy but not ridiculously super-strong, just right for mixing into a sauce or adding to one serving just before eating.

Fresh garlic and ginger give the best flavor…but I’ll admit I usually get lazy with ginger and use the dry powder.  A garlic press makes fresh garlic easy to use.

Hondashi, also called bonito broth mix, is instant broth made from dried fish–essentially, fish bouillon.  It adds fishy flavor to soup, rice, or sauce.

Fish sauce has a stronger flavor than hondashi, kind of smoky.  Generally, fish sauce is more suitable for Thai or Vietnamese food, while hondashi is for Japanese food.  We recently tried a recipe for Thai coconut lemongrass soup that called for hondashi, but I ended up adding a dash of fish sauce to my servings to make it taste right…so the next time I made it, I used fish sauce instead of hondashi, and it was much better!

Coconut milk is yummy, in my opinion and both kids’, but my partner Daniel usually doesn’t like it–that soup is a rare exception.  Fortunately, in many recipes the coconut milk is added at the end of cooking, so we can leave it out of the pot and add it to some people’s servings at the table.  This works well with the “curried lentils and random vegetables” kind of meal.  Canned coconut milk is easy to keep in the pantry for spontaneous use.

Lime juice allows for spontaneity, too, if you keep a bottle in the refrigerator door.

Cilantro is great in Thai, Indian, and also Mexican food.  I wish the stores sold smaller bunches of it, but it’ll last two or three weeks in the refrigerator if loosely packed into a glass jar.

Oyster sauce, plum sauce, and hoisin sauce are bottled sauces you’ll usually find in my refrigerator door–but I don’t just use them by themselves; I mix them with other ingredients to make stir-fry sauce.  I especially like the smoky flavor of oyster sauce–try it in Zucchini Tofu!

We also keep stocked up on two kinds of Japanese noodles: Soba noodles are made of buckwheat and taste great with stir-fry, in place of rice.  Udon noodles can be used the same way or in delicious soup.

Pickled ginger is traditionally served alongside sushi, but it’s a tasty garnish for a noodle bowl, too.  Look for a brand without artificial coloring.  I used to love pickled daikon, too, but lately all the brands I can find contain not only artificial coloring but also artificial sweetener!  I have a scary metabolic reaction to artificial sweeteners, so I can’t have any more pickled daikon…but that reminds me…

Daikon is a big, long, white radish with a mild but interesting flavor.  (If red radishes upset your stomach, daikon might not–especially when it’s cooked.)  Most Asian markets and some supermarkets sell fresh daikon, which can be grown in many parts of the United States.  It’s nutritious and low in calories!  Slice it up for your soup or stir-fry.

Those are some of my favorite Asian ingredients!  What are yours?

Visit the Hearth & Soul Link Party for more fabulous food ideas!

Become a Temporary Vegetarian!

This is one of the easiest things you can do to make a positive difference in the world.  Every time you choose a vegetarian meal instead of meat, you conserve some resources.  You don’t have to be vegetarian full-time or forever to make a difference.

Meat production has a huge environmental impact.  Growing plants and feeding them to meat animals uses more water, fuel, pesticide, and fertilizer, per calorie of person-food, than just eating the plants ourselves.  The waste products of meat animals pollute our drinking water.  The use of antibiotics on meat animals contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can kill people.

Lent begins this Wednesday, March 1.  Whether you’re a Christian or not, you can use Lent as a 40-day free trial period to make the small sacrifice of changing one habit to a less wasteful habit.  You will make a difference, and you will learn something.  After Easter, you can reflect on what you learned and decide whether to keep the new habit permanently, modify it, or go back to your old ways and try making a different change next Lent.

Daniel and I gave up meat (including fish) for Lent 15 years ago.  It led to a permanent change in our eating habits.  We’re really glad we tried it!

Click here to read my article at Kitchen Stewardship with lots of advice on trying a less-meat or no-meat diet!  I’m always available for tech support on this topic, so please feel free to ask me about your specific meat-replacing questions.

Visit the Hearth & Soul Link Party for more great food-related articles!

lessmeat

6 book reviews and Peyton Place GIVEAWAY!!!

p1040349I thought it was time to reread Peyton Place because I hadn’t read it in years–I couldn’t remember how long.  But I found that I remembered it too well to thoroughly enjoy it again, and that’s why I decided to give away this book, which I read 3 or 4 times years ago.  This is a Book-of-the-Month Club facsimile of the first edition of this classic novel of scandalous secrets.  It looks great on the shelf but is lightweight for carrying around with you.

Giveaway is open to anyone with a United States mailing address.  To enter, leave a comment on this article.  One entry per reader, even if you have multiple comments.  Winner will be selected by a random drawing on March 1, 2017.

Peyton Place is the story of a small New England town and dozens of its inhabitants, many of whom have secrets: past decisions they regret, plots to deceive each other, or unacceptable yearnings.  Set in the late 1930s through the 1940s, published in 1956, it vividly evokes a society with strict taboos and enormous fear of gossip.  The character development and dialogue are excellent, and the scene-setting prose really pulls you into each moment.  The book became famous because it was so shocking by 1950s standards, but it’s become a classic because it’s really a compelling story!

Trigger warnings: Murder. Incest. Abortion. Gruesome poverty. Profanity and hostile language. Sexy teenagers. Lewd jokes.

Now, on to the six new books I’ve read in the past few months!

The Bronze King by Suzy McKee Charnas

Tina is on her way to school in Manhattan when she hears an explosion in the subway station.  She decides to take a bus instead.  Nobody’s heard anything about any explosion, and she wouldn’t think any more of it, except that her tuna sandwich is mysteriously missing.  Next day, her sneakers are missing.  Then it’s a statue in the park, then her bathroom medicine cabinet–and then she’s assaulted by a guy on a skateboard whose jacket says Prince of Darkness.  Tina remembers her grandmother’s advice to “make a wish by running water and seal it with silver,” and she wishes the statue would come back and set things right.  Then she meets a mysterious subway fiddler and a semi-annoying boy, and together they save the world from doom!

No Impact Man by Colin Beavan

I’ve now fulfilled my pledge not to read this book until I could get a used copy for free–thus, no impact.  I heard about Colin Beavan’s attempt to change his family’s lifestyle to zero environmental impact when he was doing it in 2007, but because I’d been on the greener-living journey for about 17 years at that point, I figured there would be no surprises for me in his blog or the book he wrote after completing the year.  I was wrong.

You see, I was raised in a family (and Girl Scout movement) that valued “using resources wisely,” so I always was thinking about it to some extent, and then I started gradually trying one thing after another to conserve more and produce less waste.  It’s been a very gradual and mostly comfortable journey.  Colin Beavan, and even more so his high-fashion, grew-up-rich wife Michelle, started with a carelessly wasteful lifestyle and suddenly tried to change everything really quickly.  They tried things I never have, like living without electricity.  They had to learn skills I picked up as a child and have never set aside for any length of time, like cooking from raw ingredients.  Their insights and personal growth are really impressive.

The experiment began with Colin waking up in the morning and realizing that he couldn’t blow his nose on a disposable paper product.  He eventually realized the answer was handkerchiefs and that he could use cloths he already had.  But by the time he figured that out, he’d realized that he’d been thinking of this project as a battle against his “selfish” needs and desires, but it was really about learning new habits that fulfill the same needs and desires.

What’s most remarkable about this story is the changes in what Colin and Michelle began to think of as rewarding, fun, and normal, especially those that came from tuning in to what their toddler was doing or from listening to their own minds instead of television.  Although they didn’t continue the most extreme of their changes after the year ended, they made many permanent changes.  Can one family’s choices really make a difference toward slowing global climate change?  Here’s one of my favorite passages:

Just because our individual actions are not remembered doesn’t mean they’re not crucial.  The straw that breaks the back requires all the rest of us straws.  The domino that begins the domino effect requires each of us to be in line for the chain reaction to take place.

The one thing I don’t get about this book is the author’s hostility toward the many people who asked him what he used instead of toilet paper and his refusal to answer that question.  He seems to think people were asking with intent to portray his project as disgusting and crazy.  Gosh, isn’t it possible that they were asking so that they could switch to this greener habit themselves?  They can’t do that if you won’t tell them how!  Well, don’t worry: I will tell you.  (I’ll also tell you what his daughter used instead of disposable diapers and what his wife used instead of tampons.  He didn’t mind putting those facts in the book….)

The Survivalist’s Daughter by Hazel Hart

Kindra is the sixteen-year-old daughter of homesteaders who live in an isolated mountain cabin, home-school her, and attend a very conservative church.  She’s restless and wants to see more of the world, but her parents barely allow her to talk to the guy working at the general store.  Suddenly, one morning, federal agents raid their home, kill her mother, arrest her father, separate Kindra from her one-year-old brother, and take her in for questioning about her father’s illegal gun sales.  The grieving teenager so sheltered she’s never eaten fast food is suddenly plunged into the real world and the custody of relatives she never knew she had.  The adults want to integrate her into the family’s everyday life by pretending everything’s normal and there’s no time to talk, but Kindra wants to understand why her father lied about her family and to find her brother and take care of him.  She and her newfound sister hatch a plot that ends up having unintended consequences.

This exciting story really pulled me along, and many of the details were well-written and realistic.  But some of the dialogue and characterization and plot points felt amateurish.  The author teaches community college, and this book reads a lot like something somebody wrote for school–but an A+ effort!

Trigger warnings: Violent death of a parent.  Otherwise, this is a surprisingly tame story considering the plot–scary ideas more than graphic scary action.

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

This interesting set of essays on Christianity comes from the perspective of a guy from Texas who barely knew his father and barely knew God, despite lifelong church attendance, but slowly things started to change, and now he’s been on a long road trip and lived in the woods with hippies and ended up in Portland, Oregon, where he spends a lot of time at the famously liberal Reed College.  He’s become a Christian in a whole different way than he was before, and he’s still learning.

Throughout the book, I wondered how old the author is, because he writes in an innocent way that sounds young, yet he’s clearly had a lot of experiences.  One of my favorite parts is the story of how he started tithing, giving 10% of his income to the church.  It’s so much like my “magic penny” experience of quadrupling my contribution that it gave me chills.  He does a great job of explaining the weird feelings of being a Christian “outside the safe cocoon of big Christianity” so that you find yourself explaining your beliefs, like this:

I believe in Jesus; I believe He is the son of God, but every time I sit down to explain this to somebody I feel like a palm reader, like somebody who works at a circus or a kid who is always making things up or somebody at a Star Trek convention who hasn’t figured out that the show isn’t real.

Wolfy & the Strudelbakers by Zvi Jagendorf

Wolfy Helfgott is a little boy when he and his parents, uncle, aunt, and cousin flee Nazi-occupied Vienna and settle in London–only to be bombed out in the Blitz and evacuated to a little seaside village.  They return to London after the war, and Wolfy grows into a teenager juggling British everyday life with the demands of Orthodox Judaism and the eccentric customs of his family.  Some of the chapters are from the perspective of other family members.  As an adult, Wolfy–who’s now changed his name to Will Halfgo–travels to Israel to meet the other part of the extended family who fled Vienna, and he repeats the traditional cemetery visit that connects to so many threads of his past.

This book combines zany humor and eccentricity with deep grief and worry in the way only twentieth-century Jewish stories can.  I’ll be thinking about these characters for a long time.

Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Korobi Roy is a college student in Kolkata, India, raised by her grandparents after both parents died.  She’s engaged to marry her true love, Rajat Bose, whose parents own an art distribution business with a New York City gallery that’s struggling in the aftermath of 9/11.  Everything seems perfect as Korobi and Rajat prepare to marry–but then Korobi has an argument with her grandfather, and later that night he suffers a fatal heart attack.  Her grandmother now feels released from her grandfather’s insistence that they keep secret from Korobi the truth about her parents.  When Korobi learns that her father is not Indian and may still be alive in the United States, she feels compelled to travel to find him.  While she’s away, things go wrong for both the Roy and Bose families, both Korobi and Rajat are tempted by other people, and then Korobi discovers a terrible secret about the New York gallery and then learns that even her grandparents didn’t know all the truth about her parents.

I love this tensely plotted novel, thick with descriptions of Indian life both traditional and modern.  It has so many plot twists yet never seems over-the-top.

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Muslim women in India: Are they like us?

My daughter Lydia, who is two and a half years old, noticed this picture in the newspaper I was reading.  This is a photograph by Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images, as it appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Sunday, February 12, 2017.


LYDIA: Who are they?

MAMA: They are standing in line to vote in India.

LYDIA: Are they like us?

MAMA: Well, they are people.  They live in a country where the grownups vote to choose a president.  They stand in line like we do.  But their country is far away, so some things are different.  They have different people to choose when they vote.  And they are all wearing headscarves.

LYDIA: I wear a headscarf!  It’s blue.

MAMA: These have some very pretty flowers and patterns.  (We admire the scarves until something else catches her attention.)
I vaguely recall that I once tied a blue bandanna around her head.  She has often seen Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women wearing scarves that completely cover their hair.  Are they like us?  Yes and no.  We all are people, and the things that are different between people make Earth an interesting place to be.  That’s not so hard to understand.