Whole-wheat Zucchini Bread

This is a great high-fiber food for breakfast, snacks, or side dish and an excellent way to use the zucchini that is abundant at this time of year.  I just made a batch yesterday and served it with baked beans from a can (traditional Fourth of July food, and easy to prepare after all that baking!) for a nutritious meal to kind of counter-act whatever we might eat at the party today.  I started making zucchini bread a few years ago using a recipe I’d gotten from a co-worker, but now I’ve made enough modifications that I consider it my own, different recipe.

I started with 5 small-to-medium zucchini from our weekly farm share, shredded them in the food processor, and measured the shreds.  This is how I decide how many loaves to make: Each loaf requires 1 cup of shredded zucchini, and I have 4 loaf pans, so if I have at least 4 cups then I can make 4 loaves (for maximum efficiency in heating the oven and in using my own energy), and then I freeze any extra shredded zucchini, labeling the bag to show how many cups it is, and I can use it to make zucchini bread in the winter or to supplement a smaller weekly share of zucchini.  This time, I had 6 cups, so I froze 2 cups and made 4 loaves.

For each loaf of zucchini bread, you will need: Read more of this post

Cleaning Products to Avoid if You Have Allergies

This is a guest post by Phoebe Parlade.  Follow the link to her well-researched article about the harmful ingredients found in many off-the-shelf cleaning products and about alternative ways to clean that are better for the Earth’s health as well as your own!


Do you suffer from allergies? If so, you know how crucial it is to avoid certain allergens. However, you have to do more than avoid pet dander, foods, plants, and so on. Allergens are found in items and products that you come into contact with on a regular basis. You may be surprised to discover that dozens of household cleaning products are a prime cause of allergic reactions.

Cleaning products are riddled with ingredients like formaldehyde and ammonia. These strong chemicals can cause a wide range of allergic reactions. Some examples include throat irritation, coughing, burning eyes, and more. As you can see, cleaning products pose a legitimate threat to you, your family members, and your pets.

Fortunately, you can learn about alternative cleaning methods that are safe and effective. These methods use everyday ingredients that are inexpensive and easily accessible. Reduce the chance of triggering your allergies by exploring natural options for household cleaning.


Alternative cleaning products work for me! Visit the Healthy Living Link Party for more great ideas!

Here are some Earthling’s Handbook articles about healthier ways to clean:
Recommendations of specific products and a site where you can buy them all!
Make your own kitchen scouring powder and a cute shaker from reused materials!
The easy, Earth-friendly way to clean a microwave oven!
Homemade wonder-scrub for your bathtub, face, pasta pot, or mittens!

The Silliest Baby Toy

There are some things here on Earth that just defy rational explanation. Here, for example, is a toy that we received as a gift when our first child was born in 2004. His little sister played with it, too, but lost interest after infancy. I recently found it at the bottom of a toy basket and convulsed with laughter all over again as I tried to figure out what the designer of this object was thinking. Read more of this post

4 Great Poetry Books for Young Children

Our two-year-old Lydia loves poetry!  Most young children enjoy hearing rhyming, rhythmic words, but Lydia is particularly fascinated.  We have many picture books with rhyming text–like the wonderful works of Dr. Seuss–but we’ve also found several longer poetry books that she enjoys and so do we.

Poetry is very helpful in getting children interested in books and understanding how language works.  Our first child, Nicholas, went through a long phase of pointing out “matching” words on the page–words like rough and tough that look the same except for the first letter–and he was intrigued to learn that such words usually rhyme but sometimes don’t, and that words that rhyme sometimes don’t match visually.  Poems that don’t rhyme are educational in a different way, demonstrating the power of language to express feelings and perceptions.  Both rhyming and non-rhyming poems are more memorable than prose, enabling children to quote favorite portions and to “read” their books to themselves as the pictures cue them to recall the words. Read more of this post

Secrets to a Happy Road Trip with a Two-year-old

When our son Nicholas was 2 years old, we drove from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma, stayed a while, and drove back.  In each direction, we spent 3 days in a row on the road for about 8 hours a day of actual driving time, plus rest stops.  My cousin who has older children gave me two very helpful tips, and I thought of another idea that proved even more useful than those!

Tip #1: Bring a Magna-Doodle or similar self-contained drawing toy, instead of crayons/markers and paper. It’s much less messy!

Tip #2: Plan for an extended rest stop every 100 miles.  Look at the map for a park, museum, or other pleasant spot.  You will not stop at all of these places.  Just have a list handy in your travel folder (or wherever you organize the information like directions and coupons).  When your child becomes restless, then you can say something like, “Just hang in there for another 20 miles, and we can hike in Englewood MetroPark!”  (That’s one of the stops we made, a very nice park off I-70 near Dayton, Ohio.) Read more of this post

Cooperation, Communication, and Consequences

One of the hardest, most humbling things about being a parent is those moments when your child communicates with you using strategies that you’ve used with him or that he’s seen you use with someone else–and you shouldn’t have.  We all have times when we do something to try to get another person to do what we want her to do, without giving enough thought to whether or not it’s a healthy strategy that we’d like our children to learn or that we’d like anybody to use on us.  My first child (now eleven years old) is an especially egalitarian-minded type: He doesn’t accept that adults have a natural authority over him by being adults, so he assumes that anything we can do to him is something he can do to us.  You can see this, rather humorously, in my story of why Counting to Three stopped working.  Since then, we’ve had many interactions in which Nick’s attempts to treat us the way he perceives us as treating him have been painfully enlightening!

Although these issues have been magnified by parenting, the same problems can come up between adults, especially adults who live together and/or have known each other for a long time.

What communication strategies am I talking about?  Here are some examples:

  • I want you to do something right now, so I just keep ordering you to do it in an increasingly angry voice.  No matter what you say about why you can’t do it this minute or why it might not be the right thing to do, I won’t listen or acknowledge hearing you.
  • You ask me for something, and I attack your desire to have the thing, bringing up a bunch of barely-related things that you asked for when you should’ve known better or that I gave you but you didn’t appreciate enough.
  • I want you to do something, and when you resist, I start complaining about all the other things I wish you would do that you haven’t done.
  • You ask me for something, and I list a lot of other things that I have done for you, making it sound like you ask too much of me.
  • Instead of asking for what I need, I work myself to exhaustion doing things that benefit both of us or just you.  When you don’t seem to notice, I feel resentful.  I keep working, refusing to pause to take care of myself, until I suddenly blow up at you and act like you are stupid for not knowing what’s wrong.
  • I complain about how I’m tired and having a bad day and overwhelmed by the things I need to do.  Then, without asking about how you’re doing, I tell you that you have to do something nice for me.

We saw a counselor a couple years ago who didn’t work out so well overall but had one really good point that has stuck with me: “The key to family harmony is emotional self-regulation.”  It is easy to say to yourself, “His nasty behavior put me in a bad mood!  I shouldn’t have to be nice when everyone’s being so awful to me!” but then you are putting other people in charge of your feelings and actions.  This is particularly problematic when the other people are children and you’re supposed to be their role model.  You have to snap out of the “person who has been treated badly gets to treat others badly” cycle and set a more positive tone.  It is hard, but in my experience it pays off.  Feeling like my family members are constantly ruining my day and I’m powerless to stop them is hard, too, and really wears me down in the long run. Read more of this post

Sheet Mulching Turns Garbage Into Fertile Soil!

Last week’s guest post about choosing organic fertilizer drew comments from my brother, urban farmer and permaculture instructor Ben Stallings of Interdependent Web, explaining the good reasons to improve your soil with plants rather than manufactured pellets (even if they are made from organic materials).  Until then, I wasn’t aware that he had written an updated version of his Earthling’s Handbook post about sheet mulching with unwanted ragweed plants.  Here’s his article in Permaculture News giving more detail about the science and the technique.

I’ve also been contacted by fix.com suggesting that I share their helpful graphics about sheet mulching.  I’m happy to spread the word about this all-natural technique that puts your dead autumn leaves, compost, manure (a pet rabbit makes low-odor manure out of your carrot peelings and is cute, too!), old newspapers or cardboard boxes, and pulled-up weeds or grass clippings to work making rich new soil!  You can even set it up on top of a lawn without having to pull up all the grass first. Read more of this post

How to Choose a Safe, Earth-friendly Garden Fertilizer

This is a guest post by Josefine Schaefer of Fertiplus, a Dutch company manufacturing organic fertilizers.  Although I have not used their products myself, I support the idea of non-toxic fertilizers made from natural materials.  This is not a paid advertisement, and the article also includes advice on making your own organic fertilizers.  Fertiplus products are available through their website and can be ordered by email or telephone.

Facing the variety of options available in the fertilizers section, it is definitely not easy to make the right choice. There are mineral fertilizers, liquid fertilizers, and organic fertilizers. The organic type are increasing in popularity, with good reason: Fertilizers based on natural resources are a healthy alternative to chemical fertilizers, improve the soil’s structure, and do not disrupt the natural mineral and trace element content, moisture, and density.

What are Organic Fertilizers?

As the name suggests, organic fertilizers are natural products that are generated from natural resources, such as chicken manure or compost. Due to the fact that it can be a little tricky to estimate the exact nutrient ratio, organic fertilizers are sometimes also sold as “soil improvers”. This might be one of the reasons why some still shy away from organic fertilizers; however, the lower or varying dosage is not a downside: Because organic fertilizers have a lower proportion of minerals, they are easier to apply, and the risk of over-fertilizing and harming the soil is much lower.

The activation of mineralization largely depends on weather and temperature changes. This is a reason why results might not be visible immediately but will be more effective and natural in the long run: The organic fertilizer components are activated when the temperature rises, and they slowly but steadily release the nutrients over a much longer period of time. Read more of this post

What I’ve Learned By Reading Too Much (and 4 other books!)

In addition to finishing the books I got for Christmas in time for my birthday, I’ve read a few other new-to-me books recently, including one that actually has the alternate title What I’ve Learned By Reading Too Much!  I learned something from each of these books.

The Dance of Anger by Harriet G. Lerner

This is one of the most helpful self-help books I’ve ever read.  It explains several ways that anger typically functions in women’s relationships (with men, family members, friends, and co-workers) and how our handling of anger often keeps a relationship stuck in frustrating patterns.  Although the book focuses on women and makes some generalizations about what women do vs. what men do, it’s more insightful than stereotypical, and some of the strategies could easily be useful to men, too, when they find themselves stuck in the same situations.  A particularly helpful section talks about the formation of triangles in which “we reduce anxiety in one relationship by focusing on a third party, who we unconsciously pull into the situation to lower the emotional intensity in the original pair.”  I’ve sometimes realized that I was doing this, or that two people had pulled me into the middle of a conflict that was really between them, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to get out of it.  The book explains how to figure out why it’s happening and how to get out of it by “staying calm, staying out, and hanging in”–none of which is especially easy to do, but the clear explanation of steps makes it sound possible, at least!  I also appreciate this book’s clear explanation of a pattern in which one person consistently “over-functions” (does too much) and the other “under-functions” and why both people find this difficult to stop.

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

This dystopian techno-thriller starts with a fascinating premise and goes on into a saga that seemed kind of muddled… Read more of this post

Kale Marinara Sauce

This is a very easy way to add nutrition to a convenient, inexpensive, real-food meal anyone can cook!  Other dark-green leafy vegetables, such as Swiss chard, can be substituted for kale.

To make 2 servings, you will need:

  • a big handful of spaghetti noodles (For more protein, fiber, and B vitamins, use whole-wheat spaghetti.  We buy the 5-pound bag from Gordon Food Service; it’s affordably priced, tastes good, and has a smooth texture.)
  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups of prepared spaghetti sauce (In most grocery stores, it’s easy to find affordable sauce that doesn’t contain soybean oil or added sugar and that’s high in Vitamin C and fiber.)
  • 3 or 4 leaves of raw kale (This is a great way to use leftovers after making another recipe with kale–most stores make you buy kale in big bunches!)
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 cooking pots, and a lid for the larger pot
  • spaghetti twonger or fork
  • large spoon
  • colander (pasta-draining sieve)

Fill the larger pot with water, place over high heat, and cover.

Wash the kale.  Tear the leafy part away from the main stem.  Compost or discard the stems.  Tear or chop the leaves into small pieces.

When the water boils, remove lid and add spaghetti (breaking in half if desired).  Turn down heat a little.  Stir occasionally with spaghetti twonger/fork until cooked to desired softness.

Cook kale in oil in the smaller pot over medium heat, stirring frequently with spoon.

When kale is noticeably less fluffy and beginning to brown at the edges, add sauce.  Mix thoroughly.  Heat until bubbling.

Drain spaghetti in colander.

Divide spaghetti onto plates and top with sauce.  (If you happen to be fighting off a cold, crush a clove of raw garlic onto your portion and stir it in!)  Eat!


Adding kale to spaghetti works for me!  Visit the Hearth & Soul Hop and Real Food Friday for more great meal ideas!

A Really Real-Life Meal Plan

When life gets hectic, it’s tempting to quit spending time on food preparation and just live on junk from the convenience store.  The trouble with that approach is that it deprives your body of nutrients and gives it extra fat and salt to process, at just the time when you most need your body to work smoothly!

If your normal life is pretty hectic, you may be in the habit of preparing meals that use a lot of processed foods and getting take-out several times a week.  You may be thinking that you should eat better, but how are you ever going to find the time?  Start by working a few homemade meals in among your convenience foods, and work your way up from there!  (Also, check out Kitchen Stewardship’s article Real Food Is NOT Realistic! for lots of great tips.)

The first three months of this year were difficult for my family: Between the four of us, we had nine illnesses; I had surgery, was in a lot of pain, and couldn’t lift groceries or our toddler Lydia for three weeks; I had migraines more often than usual; and I was working hard to meet deadlines before my full-time job ended on March 31.  Normally, I plan the menu, and my partner Daniel cooks dinner every weeknight–but with so many distractions, I didn’t plan well; while I was unable to pick up Lydia from childcare, Daniel had to go get her every evening during cooking time; while I was unable to lift things and then while I was working overtime, I couldn’t do as much of the grocery shopping as usual.  We had to make some compromises.

What you see in this photograph is the sheet of paper that hung on our kitchen cabinet for seven weeks, from late February to mid-April.  You can see that we didn’t have a plan for every night.  You can see that we sometimes relied on restaurants or packaged foods.  But you’ll also see some nourishing, affordable, homemade meals that didn’t take all that long to make.  I’ll explain the things that I see need explanation, and I’ll be happy to do more explaining in the comments if you have questions! Recipe links are at the bottom. Read more of this post

Some Plants Are For Eating

Happy Earth Day!  Before I get to my main topic, I’ve got some special offers to tell you about…

  • First, instead of buying anything, check out the beautiful photographs in the Capture Conservation photo contest sponsored by the Student Conservation Association!
  • UPDATE: The sale on PlanetBox stainless steel lunchboxes has ended, but check out our review of PlanetBox–Nicholas is now finishing fifth grade and still using the same PlanetBox he got at the beginning of kindergarten!
  • Grove Collaborative is having a one-day sale on 42 different Earth-friendly cleaning and hygiene products.  UPDATE: The sale is over, but if you’re new to Grove (formerly ePantry), you still can start your order here to get an additional $10 discount, and I’ll also get a bonus!  Here’s my article explaining what Grove Collaborative is all about, with reviews of many of the fine products they carry.
  • GreenLine Paper Company will donate ALL profits from today’s orders for paper products toward the planting of trees.  UPDATE: That special is over, but still, check out their wide selection of office paper, household paper products, and janitorial paper products.  Buy by the case and save!  (If you live in Pennsylvania, like I do, or nearby, note that GreenLine is in York, PA, so the shipping distance is short–better for the environment than shipping a long distance.)

As spring settles in and you begin to spend more time outdoors, you may have access to some edible plants.  It’s fun to graze on fresh food that happens to be growing right there in your yard!  But if there’s a young child with you, doesn’t that set a bad example?  You don’t want the kid to think that we can just grab parts off of random plants and eat them–he might eat some nightshade berries or poison ivy and get sick or poisoned or itchy!

P1020014Here’s my daughter Lydia on her first birthday, last spring.  Our yard was at just about the stage it is now, with spearmint poking up through the mulch of autumn leaves as the tulips, lilacs, and dandelions are blooming.  Lydia was very interested in all the new, colorful things, and once she had seen me break off some mint leaves and eat them, she wanted to do that, too!

I was surprised how easy it was to teach her that some plants are For Eating while other plants are Not For Eating.  In our yard, spearmint, chives, sourgrass (yellow oxalis/wood sorrel), dill, and purslane come up every year.  Lydia was very pleased with the mint and chives, which are abundant, and within a month was showing us that she recognized “mihtt” and “hifes” as she named them while picking them.  She was rarely incorrect in her identifications, even at first.  Apparently recognizing a particular leaf shape is not so difficult a skill as we might think.

Being able to recognize some plants that are For Eating didn’t stop her from wanting to experiment with others, though!  We did have to watch her carefully and redirect her many times.  It’s a lot like learning to stay out of the street–which has required surprisingly fewer reminders than I expected, actually.
Read more of this post

The X, Y, Z Method of Child Discipline

We thought Becky Bailey’s book Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline was a mixed bag that contained a few good techniques; this is one of them.  Bailey talks about it in a more long-winded way, but I boiled it down to this formula, which I’ve found easy to remember and therefore to actually use in the heat of the moment sometimes!  Almost 8 years after reading the book, this is the one tip that’s really worked well for me.

This simple sequence can be used in any situation in which your child has done something he shouldn’t and you’re pretty sure you understand what he was trying to achieve with that behavior.  If you have no idea why he would do such a thing, use another method or (if you have time) ask him to explain what he was going for and then use this method.

“You wanted X, so you did Y. You may not do Y. Instead, when you want X, do Z. Try that now.”

This method achieves several things, efficiently:

  • You start by showing your child that you understand what she wanted.  This helps her feel like you’re on her side instead of attacking.
  • You show that you understand the connection of the motive to the action.  Then you condemn the action without condemning the motive.
  • You make a clear statement of what it is that is not allowed.
  • You explain what your child can do that is allowed.  It’s okay to want X, but she has to get it a different way.
  • You encourage her to practice the good behavior immediately.  This helps to reinforce it, as well as helping her to get what she wants.
  • The clear structure gets you to make your point quickly instead of going into an extended harangue about how bad the behavior is.

Examples: Read more of this post

Did you find Jesus anything to eat?

Eleven days ago, I launched a challenge to my readers to prevent food waste in some way, big or small, and report back after Easter.  Now it’s the Tuesday after Easter, and I haven’t heard from anyone yet.  Did you accept my challenge?  Tell me about it in the comments, or link to your own post on conserving food.

My own plans went differently than expected.  I knew that Holy Week and this week would be a very busy time for me because these are my last two weeks of full-time work, so I have a lot to do and thought I might need to work some overtime . . . but I was still involved in coordinating the food for my church’s receptions after the Easter Vigil and Easter morning services, which always includes some repurposing of leftovers.  Life threw me a curve ball of digestive mayhem that initially seemed to be just a symptom of the migraine that struck on Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week, but then as the headache got better my stomach continued to get worse.  From Friday through Sunday, I wound up preventing food waste by not eating much!  But I couldn’t resist eating small amounts of reception food, including grapes and raw veggies with hummus–and apparently those were just the foods to anger my innards.  Instead of making an innovative Easter dinner out of leftovers, I spent Sunday night in misery, and yesterday I ate only rice and yogurt.  Blah.  I’m finally getting better today.

It wasn’t a superstar week, but I can tell you some things I did do to use food wisely: Read more of this post

Have you anything to eat? a food-waste prevention challenge!

According to the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus was resurrected from the dead and appeared to his disciples, he said, “Have you anything here to eat?”  He must have been really hungry after being dead for three days!  In that spirit, as Easter approaches, I’m challenging all of you–Christians and everybody else–to do what you can to see that all the food gets eaten and appreciated.

The only rules for this challenge are to look for food that might go to waste, make use of it, and report back after Easter (March 27, 2016).  You might start right now and do everything you can for the next nine days, or you might focus on it just on Easter Sunday.  You might serve the salvaged food at a homeless shelter, donate it to a food pantry, turn it into something for your holiday celebrations, give it to that recently-dead guy who suddenly appeared among you, or just incorporate it into an ordinary meal for your family.  You might be scavenging leftovers from huge church or family events, or you might be a non-observer of Easter spotting waste in your ordinary routine.  It might be tons of food or just that sandwich you couldn’t finish at lunch.  You might write a whole article about the food you saved or just post a brief comment here.  Whatever you do to reduce food waste, you will be making a positive difference!

For inspiration, here’s how I made use of leftovers from my church’s Holy Week events three years ago, and here are 70+ recipes and tips for reducing food waste.  Although I didn’t post about it, last year I made more than one gallon of fruit sauce by simply putting fruit left over from church into a soup pot, attacking it all with the immersion blender, and then cooking it–we had delicious fruit sauce with our yogurt and granola for breakfasts for a couple of weeks!

What will you serve if Jesus shows up at your house, asking, “Have you anything here to eat?”–fish fingers and custard?  I look forward to hearing about it!

Please share this challenge anywhere and everywhere you like!  I’m linking up to Faith Filled Friday and Real Food Friday and That Friday Blog Hop and Friday Finds and Favorites and No Rules Weekend Blog Party and Motivational Monday and Thank Goodness It’s Monday and Meandering Monday and Hearth and Soul Hop.  (I’m trying out some new ones here, so if you came in from one of these, please let me know!  And if you’re a reader who’s never clicked on one of these linkups, what are you waiting for?  Each one is like the title page of a magazine filled with articles by different writers from all over the Web!  You never know what great wisdom you’ll find–maybe some more frugal food-using tips?)

Books from Other Cultures: Japan, Sweden, Louisiana…

I didn’t specifically plan to read about foreign cultures in 2016, but the books I got for Christmas happened to include three translated from Swedish, one translated from Japanese, one set in rural Louisiana, and one about houses around the world–so these are what I’ve been reading!  I reviewed the other two Swedish books last month.

Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, translated from Japanese by Dorothy Britton

This is the best-selling book in Japanese history, but I had never heard of it until Cocoon of Books reviewed it.  Totto-chan was the childhood nickname of Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, who grew up to become a popular television personality in Japan.  In the 1980s, she wrote this memoir of attending an alternative elementary school in the early 1940s.  Totto-chan started first grade at a typical elementary school but was considered an incorrigible discipline problem.  Her mother took her to visit Tomoe School, where the headmaster believed that children learn best from following their own interests and having plenty of field trips, conversations with adults, real-world projects, exercise, and music.  Totto-chan thrived in this unusual school, held in a cluster of retired train cars.  The book is a series of sweet anecdotes of childhood, many of which make serious points about educational practices and social norms.  Tragically, Tomoe School was destroyed by American bombs during World War II and was never able to reopen.  Kuroyanagi concludes the book with an essay about how the Tomoe experience shaped her into a successful person rather than a lifelong troublemaker (the core issue I’ve been studying in my work), and she gives updates on what some of the other alumni were doing in their forties.  This is a very charming book that really made me think.  It would be suitable for children over age 8 or so.

The Natural House Book by David Pearson

My partner Daniel picked up this used book, published in 1989, as a Christmas present for me because of my interests in architecture and environmentalism.  It’s dated but still interesting.  It explains how “natural houses” traditional in various parts of the world utilize environmentally-friendly principles and how the same ideas can be adapted in new construction.  It also promotes the idea that a more natural house leads to a more natural life that’s more comfortable and healthy.  I didn’t learn a whole lot from this book, but I did enjoy looking at it.  It’s funny how the traditional stuff is as true as ever, while some of the advice about how to avoid toxins in new construction is outdated.

Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells

This novel is related to the well-known Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, which I’d started to read a few years ago but abandoned after a couple of chapters because the protagonist seemed like such a whiner, her mother seemed like such an evil bitch, and I just couldn’t stand people with terrible names like Siddalee and Necie y’alling each other all over the place.  Daniel got me this book because, at a glance, he saw that part of it is about Girl Scouts and the author’s name is Rebecca and it seemed pretty well written.  Well, it is–there are some exquisitely vivid passages, and everything seems very real, and at times that’s sweet and wonderful.  The book is made up of interconnected short stories with different narrators, giving you a series of perspectives on a central Louisiana white Catholic family and their black maid and hired hand, first in the mid-1960s and then in the early 1990s.

I particularly appreciated the story in which Siddalee’s father, Big Shep, serves on the local draft board.  He starts off feeling inspired by this patriotic duty, but as the Vietnam conflict goes more and more wrong, he begins to have doubts, particularly when it’s time to consider the draft status of boys he’s known since they were born whose value to their families is painfully obvious.  In every debate, he’s crushed by the prejudices of the clean-handed businessmen who don’t understand his perspective as a rice farmer.  The Vietnamese peasants are rice farmers, too.  Big Shep, who in other people’s stories seems like such a tough guy, really struggles with his feelings here–and you, the reader, are the only one to hear about a lot of it.

But Siddalee’s mother is, in fact, a truly terrible and/or horribly damaged person.  There were moments when I felt some sympathy for her, but mostly she’s dreadful.  It’s no wonder Siddalee felt traumatized and fled and had years of therapy–and although the final story is supposed to be about how her healing process is working so well, now that she’s understood that God is really a woman and that she needs to treat herself like a baby forever, it mostly just made me wince.  I don’t think I’ll read this one again.

Trigger warnings: Alcoholism and associated appalling behavior.  Drunk driving.  Child abuse, both violent and sexual.  Unbearable dialect.

Shadows in the Twilight by Henning Mankell, translated from Swedish by Laurie Thompson

This book disappointed me by not being what I expected, but it’s really a very charming novel about an almost-twelve-year-old boy, suitable for reading by kids that age or even younger.  Joel lives in small-town Sweden in 1957 with his father, and they miss his mother, who left them years ago.  Joel wants to have an adventure and tries to get lost in the forest on purpose, but he realizes the foolishness of this before it’s too late.  Then he does have an adventure: Crossing a street in a hurry, he gets hit by a bus at just the right angle so that he falls between the wheels and is completely unhurt.  As the excitement of this Miracle fades, Joel begins to feel an uneasy sense of obligation: He must have been saved for a purpose; what is it?  He finally decides that he must do a good deed.  He makes the choice of what the good deed will be and figures out how to do it entirely on his own–with unintended results.  Reading, you’re inside Joel’s head, seeing things as he sees them and being talked through all his reasoning, as well as enjoying the various types of imaginative play that lure him away from his mission temporarily.

People have been recommending Henning Mankell to me for years, so I picked up this title when I saw it cheap (and let my one-year-old daughter give it to me for Christmas) without realizing that although Mankell is generally a writer of suspenseful crime fiction, this isn’t an example of it, despite the promisingly creepy title and cover.  I started reading it when I was in the mood for a mystery, and that’s what made it seem painfully slow, as if nothing was happening.

I’ll read this again sometime when I’m in the mood for following an eleven-year-old on his mild but really rather entertaining adventures.  I mean, he gets to wander the steam tunnels under his town, masquerade as an aspiring saxophonist, and sneak into the telephone office in the middle of the night–what’s not to like?

Visit the Quick Lit linkup for more book reviews!  Visit Works-for-Me Wednesday for more great tips on many topics!

Seeking the Greatest Sliced Bread

Like many families, we don’t bake our own bread.  We make quick breads sometimes, like Raisin Bran Bread, but baking with yeast is not something that any of us finds soothing or fun or worth the time.  We really appreciate the convenience of buying bread that’s already neatly sliced and ready to use!

The only trouble is that many of the breads sold in stores contain corn and/or soy, and most of these are not organic or labeled non-GMO, which means that they probably contain genetically modified organisms–92% of all corn and 94% of all soybeans grown in the United States in 2015 were GMO.  We don’t trust GMOs to be safe for our health or the environment, so we’re trying to avoid them.  It can be difficult.

Trader Joe’s store-brand products are GMO-free (except meat and dairy) so we’ve often bought bread there . . . but they don’t make any variety of whole-grain bread that all members of our family like!  (They have a white bread we all like, but white is not as nutritious as whole-wheat.)  We end up buying multiple varieties of Trader Joe’s bread to please everyone, and that’s confusing, and whoever runs out of acceptable bread first starts agitating to buy new bread while we still have the other kind.  Furthermore, the nearest Trader Joe’s is several miles away, so we only shop there about once a month, but we use about a loaf and a half of bread per week.

Last time the kids and I went to Costco, we tried a free sample of Angelic Bakehouse Sprouted 7-Grain Bread.  We all liked it!  My 11-year-old Nicholas was begging me to buy it, but I figured it would turn out to contain some kind of crappy ingredients and/or to be really expensive.  But the 3-loaf pack is just $7 ($2.33 per 16 slices, similar to Trader Joe’s or most whole-wheat supermarket breads) and it contains no GMOs, no corn syrup, no soybean oil, no weird chemicals, no refined sugar–just real food ingredients!  The fiber, protein, and iron levels are just as good as most other whole-grain breads and better than some.  It’s lower in sugar and sodium than a lot of breads, yet it tastes just as good.

The package says you should refrigerate after opening and freeze any bread you are not going to eat within six days.  That’s the downside to not using preservatives.  Still, six days is a decent amount of time for food to stay fresh, and we always keep our bread in the fridge anyway.  Also–while I would never recommend that you disregard a manufacturer’s instructions–our three loaves lasted two weeks without being frozen and didn’t show any sign of spoilage.  (If your bread gets stale, here are 4 things you can do with it!)

Why sprouted grains?  Well, they’re supposed to be more nutritious and easier to digest.  I don’t see a difference in the Nutrition Facts between this bread and most other whole-grain breads, as I said.  I mainly bought this bread because it’s crap-free and tastes good!

What about packaging?  Like nearly every bread you can buy in a store, a loaf of Angelic comes in a plastic bag.  Like nearly every bread sold at Costco, it’s multi-packed inside a larger bag.  Yes, that’s a lot of plastic.  Yes, it is recyclable–but let me take this opportunity to remind everyone that most curbside recycling programs do not accept plastic bags, that you probably need to take plastic bags to a bin outside a store such as Target or Giant Eagle, and that it doesn’t matter how recyclable an item is if you don’t actually recycle it properly!  Before you recycle, see if you can find another use or six for your bags: Put a bowl of leftovers inside a bag instead of covering it with cling-wrap.  Use an old bread bag to carry a snack.  Use it to hold vegetables or cheese that you’re freezing.  Use the large outer bag to carry your muddy shoes.  You could even save up a lot of plastic bags and make an awesome crocheted thing!

Buying bagged bread that’s been trucked from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania does have an environmental impact greater than baking my own bread at home.  But realistically, I can’t do everything, and baking bread is one of the things I’ve decided not to do.  I’m glad to have a new option in healthful, real-food sliced bread!

Costco is also a once-a-month shop for us, but it’s in the opposite direction from Trader Joe’s, so we tend to visit the two stores at different times.  Being able to buy good bread at both stores might make it possible for us to avoid GMO bread completely.

If you’re having trouble finding GMO-free food, check out this directory!

Visit Real Food Friday and the Hearth & Soul Hop for more thoughts on food!  Visit Works-for-Me Wednesday for other ideas as great as sliced bread!

Coffee in Moderation: The 7-1-7 Plan

When I was in college, in each September’s first meeting of my social organization, a few people would get up and make an earnest speech entitled, “Caffeine Is an Addictive, Psychoactive Drug” in which they tried to convince the new students to respect the power of caffeine by saving it for times when they really needed it.  They were right: If you get too accustomed to caffeine, it quits working, and if you routinely consume too much caffeine you’ll get irritable when you’re on it (but won’t realize that you’re irritable, thus increasing the irritation to everyone around you) as well as experiencing withdrawal symptoms whenever you miss a dose.

Mindful of their admonitions, I got through a very demanding educational experience on one cup of coffee most days!  If I felt drowsy on my way to an afternoon lecture, I’d get a caffeinated soda from the famous 35c pop machine.  If I had to pull an all-nighter, I’d drink a cup of black tea after dinner.  (Sodas and tea have less than half as much caffeine per serving as normal coffee.  Note that Starbucks is not normal coffee, and beware!)

I kept up similarly moderate habits throughout my twenties.  Then I became a mother.  Nicholas was the kind of baby who wakes frequently in the night and sometimes stays awake screaming for an extended period.  I went back to work only part-time, but I did have to get to work at a predictable time, and my work is the kind that requires intense focus on tiny details.  Some breastfed babies react badly if their mothers drink coffee, but Nicholas didn’t.  For a long time I stuck to tea at work (because I can drink it without milk in it, and also it has less caffeine), but I kept having days when I would decide to go out to lunch at a place with good coffee and free refills . . . and then my office moved to a building across the street from a mini-mart with affordable coffee, just before I was assigned a big proofreading task . . . and then Nicholas weaned and I started having migraines again, and with the freedom of being alone in my body with no worries of harming my baby, I started just drinking coffee whenever I felt like it.  (Is caffeine a headache treatment or a headache trigger?  It can be either.  The National Headache Foundation summarizes the science.  It was reassuring to find that on days when I stayed home sick and didn’t have any caffeine at all so that I could nap, I didn’t get a headache unless my illness was one that causes head pain–so my headaches weren’t caused by caffeine withdrawal.  Here’s some information on caffeine and health in general.)

After Lydia was born, I had to come back to work full-time.  She’s a somewhat better sleeper than Nicholas at the same age, but she did wake for nursing several times a night, and fitting in baby care around a full-time work schedule is stressful, so I was tired and tempted to slug down coffee constantly.  However, I’ve discovered a simple system that limits me to 3 cups a day by spacing them 6 hours apart.

I drink one cup (10-ounce mug) of coffee at 7:00 a.m., one after lunch at about 1:00 p.m., and one after dinner at about 7:00 p.m.  This system keeps me consistently alert enough but rarely jittery.  If I need to be awake until 1:00 a.m. to finish all the stuff I’m doing at home, I can manage it, but I can get to sleep as early as 11:00 p.m.  What I really like about the after-dinner coffee is that I stay awake while reading Lydia’s bedtime stories and then nursing her to sleep, so I’m able to get up afterward and finish the laundry or whatever.  It’s a big improvement over the frantic “Please go to sleep before I do so I don’t run out of time!!!” feeling that I used to have while lying next to Nicholas struggling to keep my eyes open!

The other crucial component of my system is a hot drink without caffeine.  I drink a cup of peppermint tea when I get to work every day, around 9:15 a.m.  Usually I feel like I “need more coffee” at that point, but if I have some water I’ll feel more alert.  Peppermint may serve a perking-up function, too.  I’ve started buying peppermint tea by the case to save money and time.

The exact spacing, times of day, and amounts of coffee that work best for your body might be different.  If you feel like you’re drinking too much coffee for your health, or you want to drink less so you can afford to drink only fair-trade organic coffee, try my plan and make adjustments until it suits you.

The 7:00, 1:00, 7:00 system works for me!  You can see it in action (actually 6:52, 1:55, 6:45) in this day in my life a year ago.

Visit the Hearth & Soul Hop for other life-improving tips!

The City of Slim Shadies

On days like this, when the sky is so heavy with clouds that we never glimpse the sun, and the wind is cold and damp, and it seems like winter will never end . . . I think of Eminem.

I guess I don’t mean the rapper himself so much as the character he played in 8 Mile [plot synopsis], which I saw when it came out in 2002 mostly because I was so impressed with the rap “Lose Yourself” [lyrics].  It very strikingly captures a young man’s desperation to escape the life he’s always known by seizing a fleeting chance to express himself in a way that will be heard and magnified to bring his family a better future.  The film amazed me with its very consistent, insistent pull, bringing me right into Rabbit’s story that he was not only telling me but making me see and feel.  I left the theater and had to walk around in the cold drizzle for a long time letting him speak to me some more.

And I thought, I work for that guy.  I work for 1,517 guys, a lot of whom are a lot like that.

Disclaimer: This article is not in any way an official statement by the Pittsburgh Youth Study or any of its funding entities.  This is a statement of my personal opinions and feelings.  For information about the Pittsburgh Youth Study, see our many publications.

Now, most people would say that I “work for” the principal investigators of the study, or that I “work for” a psychiatric hospital that is part of a corporate health-care system, or that I “work for” a research study that is funded by federal grants.  Yes, those are the ways my work is organized and paid.  But who have I been working for in my 17 years of data management and analysis of a longitudinal study of Pittsburgh’s at-risk boys?  I’m working for them.  I’m doing what I can to help us as a society understand why some boys break laws and hurt people and often wind up dead at a young age, while others somehow find their way to a stable and responsible adult life. Read more of this post

5 Fish-Free Family-Friendly Meals for Lent

It’s the third week of Lent, and if you observe the custom of fasting from land-animal meat on Fridays (or on all the days of Lent) but you normally eat lots of meat, by now you’re probably getting tired of fish sticks and macaroni-and-cheese!  It’s time for something different–and less expensive, too.

Here are 5 legume-based meals my family really likes.  Our kids are 11-year-old Nicholas and 21-month-old Lydia.  Most of these meals also have been eaten happily by Nick’s elementary-aged friends at some point.  If someone you’re feeding doesn’t like spicy food, though, you’ll want to be cautious with the pepper and ginger–maybe try half the amount the recipe specifies, or just leave it out, depending on your sensitivity level.

My family could eat all these meals in a week.  If you’re unaccustomed to eating legumes, don’t start out with too many as they may upset your digestion–but one meal a week should be fine.  Why not legumes on Friday instead of fish on Friday?  (Is it just because legume doesn’t start with F?)

All of these meals are gluten-free and vegan, unless you choose some of the optional embellishments or side dishes. Read more of this post