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 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 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!

Houses Built from Plastic Water Bottles!

This guy in Panama is building a village of houses whose walls are insulated with empty plastic beverage bottles!  Click through to watch the video.  This is a really great idea for making use of garbage, reducing construction costs, and building well-insulated homes that will require less energy to cool or heat.

BUT!  This is not a reason to drink bottled water!  Don’t think that because somebody’s found a use for the empty bottles, it’s perfectly okay to buy and discard them.  Bottled water has a huge environmental impact and on average is not as clean and safe as tap water.  Drink from the sink, refill a reusable bottle when you need to carry water, and if your local tap water is not safe, keep fighting until it is!  Bottled water should be for emergencies only, not an everyday thing.

Peek Into My Pantry!

This rare glimpse into an actual Earthling habitat shows you what foods we keep on hand and how we organize them!  Get all the details in my article at Kitchen Stewardship!

Exclusively in The Earthling’s Handbook, play “Find the differences between these two photos!”  The one on the left was taken first, but then I noticed a few organizational flaws and made some small adjustments before taking the photo at right.  How many differences can you spot?  Let me know in the comments!

p1030408 pantry-version-2

This practical pantry isn’t slick and beautiful, but it’s functional.  We are able to

  • keep extra stuff on hand
  • save money by stocking up at the sale price
  • buy bulk foods and big packages that wouldn’t fit in our kitchen cabinet
  • plan menus using mostly what we have
  • reduce the temptation to eat poorly by having healthy ingredients handy
  • save time and gasoline by shopping less often
  • be prepared if weather or illness stops us from shopping

Our pantry’s basement location also helps us to stay fit and resist unnecessary eating!  If you have to walk across the dining room and down a flight of stairs to get a box of cereal, either you burn some calories doing it or you decide you’re not so hungry after all.

This is the pantry that works for me!  Visit the Hearth & Soul Hop and Real Food Friday for more food-related posts!

Some Old and Some New: September Book Reviews

This month I read two books that were new to me and two I’d read before but didn’t remember well.

36 Children by Herbert Kohl

Mr. Kohl was a white, Jewish graduate of Harvard and Columbia who agreed to teach sixth grade in a public school in Harlem in 1962.  The school was only 29 blocks from his apartment, but it was in a different world.  His 36 students were all African-American or Hispanic.  He says, “It is one thing to be liberal and talk, another to face something and learn that you’re afraid.”  He faced it, but it took him a while to rearrange his approach.  His first breakthrough moment came when he asked the kids why they used the word psyches to insult each other: What did it mean?  “Like, crazy or something.”  Why?  Mr. Kohl showed them the word’s unusual spelling, explained that it is Greek, told the myth of Cupid and Psyche, and listed some words derived from those names.  The students became fascinated both with the concept of root words and with ancient myths, and these interests helped to guide the whole year.  Read more of this post

Bedtime List: How to organize a child’s routine

Our two-year-old Lydia has always been the type who takes a while to wind down, but in the late spring after she stopped nursing, she went pretty easily into a relatively smooth routine of listening to several stories and then saying good night and lying alone in her bed in the dark listening to a story CD as she fell asleep.  She was napping inconsistently, but at least we could get her to bed for the night in a predictable way.

Then, at the end of June, I finished my job and the next day we traveled to visit my parents in another time zone for a week, and then when we got back our daytime routine relaxed because I didn’t have to get to work and get Lydia to childcare–and her happy routine disappeared.  She started freaking out when we turned out the light, screaming and crying and refusing to stay in bed.  Some nights she’d lie quietly if a parent stayed with her, but other nights she’d flip around, literally trying to climb the wall next to the bed and falling on the parent–ow!!–and if we didn’t stay, she was almost certain to get up and come looking for us.

Also, Daniel and I were sometimes forgetting one or another of the steps of getting her ready for bed, because we weren’t doing them in a consistent order and it’s easy to get distracted when anything unexpected happens–which is basically every evening in a household with not only a two-year-old but also an eleven-year-old sort of nutty inventor person….

snack; toilet; pajamas; brush teeth; brush hair; stories; tuck in; sleepI decided it was time for a Bedtime List. This is an idea I didn’t try on Nicholas until he was five, the age when I remember having my first Lists.  My dad made me a Morning List and an Evening List showing what to do before kindergarten and after.  I loved following my Lists!

Nicholas has never been so keen on the Lists; he likes deciding what color each item should be and how it should be illustrated, but then he doesn’t want to look at the list and tends to argue about what should happen when.  Probably this is mostly about his personality compared to mine, but what if it would have worked if I’d started earlier?

Lydia is too young to be involved in making the List.  Her father Daniel and I went over what needs to happen in what order to make sure we agreed, and then I made this List using drawings that I thought she would recognize.

It’s working very well!  Lydia likes looking at her List, pointing out the steps and talking about them.  She’s more cooperative with the routine than she was before, especially if we get back on track after a distraction by saying, “Okay, what have we done on the List?”

A fringe benefit is that Lydia is practicing her pre-reading skills: “This red sign says eat snack!  This other red sign says brush teeth!”  Understanding that written words convey meaning is a very important step toward recognizing those words when you see them without pictures.

We’re still working on getting her to stay in bed by herself.  But at least she’s understanding more clearly that certain things are going to happen every night and that the sequence is supposed to end with sleeping.

Organizing a child’s routine with a list works for me, at least sometimes!

Stratospheric Flight: electronic music

My man of many talents has composed and recorded several electronic music tracks.  Here’s the latest!

Click here if the embedded link below does not work for you.

Yogurt Sundaes: A healthy treat!

I’ve been eating Yogurt Sundaes since I was a teenager.  This versatile bowlful of food can be a yummy breakfast, a light lunch, a late-night snack that keeps you full until morning (crucial for fighting pregnancy nausea!), or a satisfying treat when you want the fun of eating a sundae without the calories and sugar of ice cream with syrup.

Yogurt SundaeYou can make it any size, you can use any kind of fruit and any kind of (optional) crunchy stuff, and you certainly could make it look fancier than I did last night when I spontaneously decided to snap a photo.  I’m not big on appearances, and my 11-year-old food stylist was asleep!

This particular Yogurt Sundae was made with plain whole-milk yogurt, unsweetened organic applesauce, Cheerios, cinnamon, and allspice in a cereal bowl.  I did not add any sweetener, yet I thought it was pleasantly sweet.

Here’s what you need to make your own Yogurt Sundae:

  • Dish.  Choose one that will look pleasantly full with the amount of food you should be eating–if you feel like having a snack but aren’t all that hungry, use a small dish to avoid overeating.  You might want to use a proper sundae glass or other fancy dish to enhance your perception of enjoying a sweet treat.
  • Yogurt.  I recommend using plain yogurt and adding fruit, and sweetener if you must, rather than using flavored yogurt, which can contain more sugar than chocolate-caramel sauce!  The fruity stuff in fruit-flavored yogurts is more highly processed and therefore lower in vitamins and fiber than fresh fruit, frozen fruit, or even some canned fruits.  My very favorite yogurt is the whole-milk regular (not Greek) style from Trader Joe’s–it doesn’t taste sour or acidic at all.  (Yes, it does have cholesterol and saturated fat.  I eat very little meat and cheese, so I’m not worried about getting too much of those.)
  • Fruit.  You might dice a fresh peach or banana.  You might dice a fresh apple or pear and cook it quickly or keep it raw.  You might use cooked fruit that you made from odds-and-ends.  You might microwave some frozen berries.  You might open a can or jar of fruit–try to buy unsweetened or “packed in juice.”  Last night, we were out of fresh fruit but had an open jar of applesauce.
  • Crunchy stuff (optional).  I usually include some granola or other cereal–but I’m one of those strange people who thrives on carbs and stays slim.  Chopped nuts also make a great sundae topping!  If you want cereal but need to limit carbs, try sprinkling just a tablespoon on the top of your sundae.
  • Sweetener (optional).  Taste your sundae first to see if it’s sweet enough; you might be surprised.  Even if you drizzle it with maple syrup or sprinkle it with sugar, you’ll likely use a smaller amount than the added sugars in flavored yogurt or canned fruit packed in syrup!
  • Other toppings (optional).  Some fruits taste better with cinnamon, ginger, etc.  If you have a chocolate craving, try sprinkling on cocoa powder.  If you want to take this in a really healthy direction, sprinkle with ground flax seeds or wheat germ.  Maybe even put a cherry on top!
  • Spoon.

Think this is too healthy to satisfy you?  Try it as a breakfast first, then as a snack, and in a few years you might find yourself eating it for dessert as well as gradually decreasing the added sugar.  That’s what I did.

Visit Real Food Friday and the Hearth & Soul Blog Hop for more great recipes!

Drowning in Veggies? 5 Steps for Using a CSA Farm Share

It’s dinnertime on a Wednesday, and you’ve just been handed 10 pounds of fresh, organic, locally-grown, assorted vegetables!

You’re eager to get some of them onto your family’s plates tonight and make sure you use every bit as wisely as you can before next week—when another load of vegetables will arrive—and you never know what kind of veggies they’ll be until you get them. How will you work your way through such unpredictable abundance?

I’ve got 15 years of experience in utilizing the weekly crate of vegetables from our community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm.  I explain my approach in 5 basic steps and explain how it applied to one week’s actual food for my family, in my first post as a contributing writer for Kitchen Stewardship!  Click on the image to read the article.

CSA Overload!

Visit the Hearth & Soul Blog Hop and Real Food Friday for more great food-related articles!  Visit Works-for-Me Wednesday for more great tips on many topics!

Wallflowers and Oranges Unbound! (book reviews)

I’ve been catching up on my magazines this month, but I’ve also read three books…

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Charlie is a friendless teenager beginning his freshman year at a high school in the affluent southern suburbs of Pittsburgh.  The book is a series of “Dear friend,” letters he’s writing anonymously.  His writing style and some of his perceptions of things are weirdly innocent, like he’s four or five years younger, which made me feel afraid for him right away.

Charlie soon makes friends with two seniors, Patrick and his stepsister Sam, who introduce him to “good music” and parties with lots of drugs.  The friendship is valuable and helpful to all three of them, but there’s a lot of drama of many kinds (romantic issues, conflict with the popular crowd, family problems, sexual orientation, academic struggles, abuse, mental illness) constantly twisting all of them around and destabilizing their relationships.  Some of this story is about the joy of having a few good friends in a school where you’re mostly an outsider.  Most of it is about struggling along trying to deny that something is very wrong with you. Read more of this post

The Evolution of Happy

Last October, my daughter Lydia was 17 months old and learning new words rapidly.  One day, we were out for a stroll and saw a large, inflatable Halloween decoration in the form of several grinning jack-o’-lanterns stacked up like a totem pole.  Lydia was very excited and shouted, “Balls!”  I said, “They are pumpkins.  Happy pumpkins.”  She said, “Happy!” for the first time.

As the season progressed, Lydia remained excited about jack-o’-lanterns and shouted, “Happy!” whenever she saw one.  We had to acknowledge that we also saw the Happy–using that word–before she would stop yelling about that one and look around for more.  She stubbornly resisted learning “pumpkin” or any other word; to her, they were Happies.  Even pumpkins without faces were Happies.

Jericho illustration by Brenda SextonIn early November, Lydia rediscovered The Little Golden Bible Storybook, illustrated by Brenda Sexton, and when we reached the story of Jericho, she began shouting, “Happy!!!” and pointing at the illustration.  Do you see why?

I didn’t get it at first.  I thought she was recognizing that Joshua and his tribe were happy when the walls came tumbling down.  That person in red does have arms raised in the gesture Lydia had learned (from Dr. Seuss’s ABC) is called, “Hooray!”  But when I said, “Yes, they were happy!  Hooray!” that was not what she was looking for; “Happy!” she insisted, jabbing her finger frantically at the page.

Eventually her dad realized that what Lydia was pointing out was the building.  See how it has a face like a jack-o’-lantern?  That face doesn’t look happy at all–it looks appalled, as well a building might be when its protective city wall has been abruptly destroyed–but the dark eye and mouth openings must have reminded Lydia of a jack-o’-lantern, and jack-o’-lanterns are Happy.

By the new year, Lydia adjusted her definition of Happy to apply to what most of us would call “a happy face,” and she began pointing out happy faces in various picture books, on shopping bags, on toys, on the Eat’n Park sign, etc.  She also discovered that most people can draw a happy face quite easily, so she went around demanding that people “Draw Happies!”–by the end of one church service, at least five different people had drawn Happies for Lydia on their service leaflets!

P1030279She’s two years old now and has started saying “happy face” or “smiley face”, but she still asks us to draw them frequently.  Our home is littered with sheets of scrap paper that look like this.  Sometimes we put some variety into the faces just for our own entertainment; sometimes she requests “different noses” or something like that.

Meanwhile, she’s also shown that she now understands “happy” as the word for a feeling, not just a facial expression. Sometimes after she’s vented some hurt or frustrated feelings, she’ll wail, “I need to be happy!!” and then calm down. Sometimes when someone else is upset, she’ll plead, “Be happy!” She isn’t quite doing the “Mama, you happy?” thing her older brother used to do, but almost.

A few weeks ago, I had a bad migraine on a day when I had to be home alone with Lydia for a couple of hours.  After I had drawn some happy faces for her, she started drawing on that paper and another sheet, so I was able to lie down on the bed in the same room.

P1030280Some time went by.  I may have passed out or slept or something.  I got up after Lydia climbed up on the bed and started pulling on me.  Later, I was cleaning up the room and got a closer look at her drawing papers.

That blue scribbling at the bottom of the page at right doesn’t look like just an aimless scribble.  Might there be some eyes on a face there?  Is it just my imagination that makes that look sort of like some sort of elephant (with one sock foot)?

P1030281Even more intriguing is the page where Lydia drew after getting hold of a pen.  I really think I see a happy face there!  By this Halloween, she may be drawing her own jack-o’-lanterns.

Watching the fascinating processes of my child’s learning the different things a word can mean and learning to draw works for me!

HVAC Hacks: Energy-Saving Improvements You Can Make Yourself

HVAC=Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning–the system of ducts that brings hot and/or cold air to the rooms of a building. The advice here applies to systems that deliver only heat or only AC, as well as those that do both.

This is a guest post by Ryan Martin at Home Improvement Leads, who connects quality contractors to homeowners to give them the best home improvement experience possible. They specialize in solar, roofing, and HVAC lead generation for contractors.

We all want to spend less money on energy at home, but sometimes costly HVAC updates and repairs aren’t quite worth the savings they provide over time. Thankfully, there are improvements you can complete yourself for a fraction of what it would cost to have them done professionally. Home Improvement Leads offers a few suggestions for making your home more energy efficient on a budget.

Add Insulation in the Attic

Proper insulation in the attic or the area above the garage is crucial. Since these areas are not climate-controlled, you must use a thermal barrier to stop heat transfer between the attic or crawlspace and your house. If you don’t, heat will more easily enter your home in the summer and exit your home in winter, making everyone uncomfortable and forcing your HVAC to work harder. Read more of this post

4 Eco-Friendly Modifications for Your Foreclosed Home Purchase

This is a guest post by Paul Denikin, author of  Paul began learning the ins and outs of do-it-yourself home repair while making his home better fit and more accessible for his daughter, Maggie, who has special needs. Paul wants to continue to help special needs parents like himself, and offer them a source for ideas. And that’s why he created, a website that offers home improvement project how-tos and other accessibility information. When Paul isn’t being handy around the house, he likes to take Maggie to the movies on the weekends.

Image via Pixabay by OpenClipartVectors

Image via Pixabay by OpenClipartVectors

Purchasing a foreclosed home from a bank can be intimidating. The rules are slightly different, there are likely repairs to be made, and it can be risky. However, with the help of a good agent and some research, you can be the proud owner of a previously foreclosed home. Now all you have left to do is make necessary repairs. Though this too can seem challenging, think of this as an opportunity to turn your new home into a structure that is environmentally friendly. Here are a few ways you can make your new home more eco-friendly as you return it to its former glory.

1. Energy Star Appliances

If you need to replace something like a refrigerator or microwave, you should look into Energy Star appliances. Not only do they limit your energy consumption but they also dramatically lower your electric bills on top of a potential tax credit. These appliances may cost a little more but will save you money in the long run.

2. Water Conservation

One of the best things you can do to limit water waste is invest in a low-flow toilet. These toilets use less water per flush and cost about the same as any other toilet. With the modern wave of eco-friendliness, the selection of such appliances has increased dramatically.

Another beneficial and cheap way you can reduce water use is an aerated faucet. Both showerheads and sink faucets offer a variety of aerated options. Aerated faucets use both water and air to limit water but maintain water pressure. These also run at about the same cost as their less efficient counterparts. Read more of this post

3 Super-Simple Homemade Frosting Recipes

I’ve seen many recipes for cake frosting that require separating eggs, using ingredients unfamiliar to many people (like cream of tartar), cooking for 7 minutes whisking constantly, using a double boiler, or some other complicated technique.  It’s no wonder that so many people have the idea that homemade frosting is very difficult to make!  Even when I was growing up, most of my friends’ birthday cakes were decorated with store-bought frosting, or the entire frosted cake was purchased from a supermarket bakery.  Manufactured frosting is even more prevalent now at the birthday parties my kids attend–yet their friends always enjoy my homemade cake with homemade frosting, and at some parties their cake-time conversation has been about how gross the supermarket cakes are!

But thanks to my mom, I’ve always known several frosting recipes that are so simple you don’t even have to measure the ingredients!  Just use your common sense to work out the proportions and obtain the consistency and color you want.  The measurements I give here are suggestions to get you started toward making approximately the right quantity of frosting for your cake.  (It’s always better to make too much than too little.  If you have too much, you won’t have to skimp on your cake, and then you can put the extra in a tightly-sealed container in the back of the refrigerator, and after the cake is gone you can spread frosting on your whole-wheat toast, if you have been very good.)

These recipes use ingredients that are easy to find in any supermarket.  I know, powdered confectioner’s sugar is not a health food!  Cake frosting is a special treat, not a staple food that we eat regularly.  I make plain white frosting unless the birthday celebrant requests colors–but if he does, I use conventional, artificial food coloring because it’s easy to buy and works reliably.  Again, it’s a special treat that only lightly undermines our generally healthy diet.  Compared to the crappy ingredients in purchased frosting, these recipes are healthier!

Citrus Frosting is vegan.  Basic Creamy Frosting can be made vegan, using coconut oil–refined coconut oil, if you don’t want it to have a coconut flavor–but mixing and spreading it and keeping the consistency firm in warmer weather are difficult; I don’t have enough experience with it to give complete advice. Read more of this post

What I’ve Been Reading Lately

Having finished all the books I got for Christmas, I acquired a bunch more for my birthday!  Not only did I receive some books as gifts, but I found lots of low-priced books at the Regent Square Yard Sale, I bought a few books at Balticon, and after reading one of the titles below I swapped it for one of the others at a Little Free Library in my neighborhood.  I’ve got enough new-to-me books to last all summer!  Here are the highlights of my past month’s reading:

Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler

This is a classic Anne Tyler novel: A bunch of quirky characters form a family in Baltimore, someone goes through some self-evaluation and yearning, there’s an off-and-on romance involving misunderstandings, somebody runs an unusual business, and there are some gems like these:

“That first night you telephoned, I had just about hit bottom.  It was so incredibly providential that you called me when you did, Rebecca.”  He reached across the table and gripped one of her hands.  Unfortunately, it was the hand that held her scrunched-up napkin.  Also, she felt an instantaneous, nearly overwhelming urge to wriggle her fingers frantically, like some kind of undersea creature.

Read more of this post

Bulk Food in Reused Containers in the Microwave: A Cautionary Tale

I’ve explained how we buy many of our groceries from bulk bins in the food co-op store, dispensing the amount we want to buy into containers we got by buying (and using) foods that came in them.  

Usually, when a jar has a label that can be removed, we soak it off so that the only label on the jar is the one where we write what food is in it now and the numbers for purchasing.  That looks better and is less confusing.  I just demonstrated another reason:

If a jar’s original label had metallic printing on it, and you put it in the microwave, it will give off sparks and an unpleasant smoke smell.  Why would you microwave a jar?  Well, if that jar is full of honey that has crystallized, a few seconds in the microwave will soften it so that you can pour it out.

But if that jar has a metallic label that you did not remove but only covered with the co-op label, this is what happens in only six seconds in the microwave:  

Yikes!  There was no damage to the honey, my microwave, or myself–but I wonder if whatever chemicals in the labels turned so black have created something that’s not safe to handle.  I decided to use a new jar of honey in the zucchini bread (I’m revising my recipe–stay tuned!) and figure out what’s best to do about this jar tomorrow.