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

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

What Insurance Is For

Although I’ve managed to get 5 articles posted in the past 6 weeks, I’m actually not doing all that well, and I finally decided that I owe my readers an explanation.

I was driving, with my whole family in the car, when our car was rear-ended on August 15.  Nobody else was hurt.  I didn’t notice that I was hurt until we were back in the car after exchanging insurance information with the other driver, so it must not have been that bad, right?

Oh, it could be worse.  It could be so much worse.  Riding in cars is very dangerous!  We are lucky and grateful.

But my back still hurts.  This is my 46th day of continuous pain.  Much of the time it’s quite mild, but it wears on me, makes me tired, dulls my appreciation of every good thing in life.  Then there are the times when I try to do some ordinary thing like picking up a half-gallon of milk or my 22-pound toddler, opening a heavy door, or scooting back my desk chair by pushing with my feet–or I’m not even doing anything at all–and my lower-back muscles send out blinding flashes of pain.

I thought it was just the cumulative pain that was making me so tired that I had trouble stumbling through my daily life, so distracted that I found myself wrapping up work days realizing that I’d done only two hours’ worth of work in eight hours, so irritable that I was shrieking at my ten-year-old.  I thought it was because my lower-back muscles were yanking on my upper-back muscles yanking on my neck muscles that I was having more frequent and more severe headaches.  These things are probably true, but there’s more to it than that. Read more…

3 Ways to Save on Fair-Trade Coffee

Daniel and I both drink coffee, at least 3 cups a day each.  That adds up!  We support human rights and environmental stewardship by buying only fair-trade*, organic coffee for our home.  My church also buys fair-trade, organic coffee.  This coffee is more expensive than the big mainstream brands.  How can we get the most value for our money?

*(Yes, I have heard that fair-trade certification isn’t always perfect; I’m also willing to buy coffee from companies that “have a relationship” with coffee farmers and treat them well but have not obtained official fair-trade certification; what I’m looking for is some acknowledgement that the coffee is grown by people in a place and that these people deserve fair compensation for their labor and this place deserves not to be ruined.)

UPDATE: A fourth way to save money on coffee is to buy loose coffee grounds instead of individual pods!  I knew pods were bad for the environment and our health, but I had no idea how much more expensive they were until I wrote this investigative article!  If you’ve been buying conventional coffee in pods, you can actually save money by switching to fair-trade, organic coffee by the pound.

Buy in bulk.

Organic coffee in the supermarket often costs $10 or more for a 12-ounce (3/4 pound) bag–and then what will you do with that bag?  Years ago, Daniel and I made coffee one of the things we routinely bought in reused containers from the bulk section of our local food co-op.  Just recently, after he read my post about buying by the case, we talked about other products we might be able to get cheaper if we ordered a case.  It turns out that the co-op’s “case” price for coffee is a 5-pound bag.  We use about a pound of coffee a week, so 5 pounds is not an unreasonable amount to buy at once, especially since it’s whole beans that we grind shortly before brewing–it won’t go bad or anything.  This month, Equal Exchange Breakfast Blend is on sale for $8.99/pound; after the 20% discount for buying a case, our 5-pound bag costs $35.96, which is $7.19/pound–almost half the price per pound of the supermarket coffee! Read more of this post

All-Natural Vegetarian Non-Refrigerated Convenience Foods

This is not a sponsored post.  This is a recommendation of products I tried and liked.

Daniel and I try to make enough real, from-scratch, healthy food that I (working in an office) can take leftovers for my lunch every day and he (working at home) can get something ready to eat within a few minutes rather than spend time cooking at lunchtime.  It works out better at some times than others.  In the past year, with the additional distractions of getting our baby daughter ready to go each day, I’ve had more days when I didn’t have time to pack a lunch, couldn’t spare the attention to figure out what leftovers were available, or wasn’t able to carry a lunch because I was bringing something to work (like dish detergent) and there’s a limit to what I can carry along with Lydia and all her gear as we commute by bus!  I was grabbing Trader Joe’s meals from our freezer sometimes and eating in restaurants much more often than normal.  I like restaurants, but at $6-$9 per lunch, that gets expensive!

One day I was buying some milk for my coffee and mixed nuts for snacking at the CVS store half a block from work when I noticed a sale on foods in pouches and noticed that many of these were vegetarian foods.  I took a closer look and saw surprisingly unobjectionable ingredients.
P1010735 P1010736 P1010737 P1010738
Read more of this post

My Father Taught Me How to Be a Working Mother

When I was born, my mother quit her paying job so she could be home with me.  She did not take another job until I was almost twelve years old.

I resumed working outside the home when each of my children was twelve weeks old.  After Nicholas was born, I went back part-time and later gradually increased my working hours until I was back to 40 hours a week when he was four years old.  After Lydia was born (when Nicholas was nine years old), I returned to my job full-time.  It isn’t easy!  Forty hours, plus commuting time, is a long time to be away from home even when you’re only taking care of yourself; when you have young children, it’s a time-management struggle as well as an emotional struggle over being apart from the kids so much.  My mother–who’s been a great role model to me for things like breastfeeding, intelligent discipline, and making healthy food–was not much help as I figured out how to balance parenthood with employment.  It’s my father whose example has really helped me understand what’s important and where to cut myself some slack.

Oddly enough, it was an insensitive comment my father made that led me to realize his value as a role model for me. Read more of this post

A Day as Mama and Data Manager

Welcome to the March 2015 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Day in the Life

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have given us a special glimpse into their everyday.


There are three main things I do in my day-to-day life: mothering Lydia (10 months old) and Nicholas (10 years old), working 40 hours a week as the data manager of a social science research study, and writing this Handbook.  I write quite a bit about the first activity, and if you are reading this you’re obviously aware of the third.  But I’ve written very little about my job.  What is a “data manager of a social science research study,” anyway?

My job is to organize the HUGE PILES OF DATA collected by interviewing 1,517 men every 6 months for 4 years, then every year for 9 years, and 3 more times since then (whenever we got a grant to follow up).  Other people do the interviews; I just work with the data.  The study started when the guys were in elementary school.  They answered questions for about 2 hours each time, and in the early years their parents and teachers were interviewed, too.  Each person’s answer to each question is encoded as a number in a data file, which looks like a spreadsheet.  The row is the data on that participant, who is identified by a 5-digit number.  The column is the question, which is identified by a string of 8 letters and numbers.  There is a separate data file for each questionnaire, each time it was asked; each data file has a name, also 8 letters and numbers.  There are patterns to these 8-character strings, which I can “read” and remember very easily after 16 years working for the study.

In addition to organizing the data from the interviews, I make variables called “constructs”, each of which represents an idea that is measured by a bunch of different questions.  I write computer programs that do arithmetic and algebra with the “raw data” from the questions to create the constructs.  For example, the construct Parental Stress sums up the parent’s answers to these 14 questions; a parent with a score of 14 is exceptionally calm, while a parent with a score of 70 is a frazzled wreck.  My programs attach labels to the constructs and their values so we can keep track of what all the numeric values and 8-letter-and-number variable names mean.  (No, “frazzled wreck” is not the actual value label!  It’s “very high stress”.)

So, it’s my job to know what questions we asked, how the answers were coded, what constructs were made, and where everything is in thousands and thousands of data files.  I also spend a lot of time looking for things that don’t make sense, figuring out what’s wrong, and fixing it.  The higher-level statistical analysis is done by other people, as well as most of the writing of papers about our findings–but because I like to write and am a grammar zealot, they often ask me to proofread and sometimes let me write a section.

The main focus of the study is juvenile delinquency: which boys do it in the first place, which ones outgrow it rather than becoming adult criminals, and what factors make crime more or less likely.  We also have lots of data on mental health, substance use, parenting practices, and demographics.  Interesting stuff!  I love my job.  I’m surprised I managed to summarize it this briefly!  Okay, let’s get on with A Typical Day In My Life…. Read more of this post

DIY Instant Oatmeal: Ditch the Packets!

I love oatmeal.  It’s nutritious, with plenty of fiber and minerals and Vitamin B1, and has many health benefits.  It’s filling.  It can be seasoned any way you like.  Quick-cooking oats are really easy to make–I don’t even bother cooking them in a pot, just mix them with boiling water in a bowl–and very low-priced, especially in bulk at the food co-op or in a large canister at GFS Marketplace.  I have a favorite recipe for oatmeal that includes other healthy and filling ingredients like almond butter, and I also make fruit-flavored oatmeal whenever we finish up a jar of jam.

But in my workplace, I can’t store a lot of ingredients, nor do I have a nice counter space to assemble food.  I don’t want to be licking sorghum syrup and almond butter off my filing cabinet!  I do have a very nice electric kettle which provides properly boiling water (much better than a microwave) suitable for cooking oatmeal….

At times, I’ve bought instant oatmeal in single-serving packets.  They’re okay.  Some of the flavors are quite tasty, and a snack of oatmeal is very satisfying.  But seeing those plastic-lined packets piling up in my wastebasket makes me feel a little sick.  And a packet costs about 5 times as much as a serving of quick oats with embellishments.  The giant boxes of packets, with a lower price per serving and slightly less cardboard waste, inevitably are “variety packs” including at least one flavor that I don’t like as well as the others.  The less-expensive brands of flavored oatmeal usually include weird ingredients that might not be so healthy, plus a lot of sugar.  Some flavors contain dried fruit, but after being stored mixed into the oatmeal it is so dry that it isn’t very appetizing.

Now that I’m a nursing mother again, I’m especially in need of healthy snacks, and oatmeal may increase milk production–it does seem to have that effect on me.  A few months ago, Costco had a sale on Nature’s Path organic instant oatmeal with no weird ingredients…and I plowed through those 32 packets in less than 6 weeks.  Furthermore, I felt that a packet wasn’t really quite enough food for me now, so I sometimes ate two packets together.  I had to find a less wasteful option! Read more…

9 Things I Forgot to Bring After Maternity Leave

Lydia is three months old now, and I went back to working outside the home last week, back to the same job I had while I was pregnant. In fact, I still do basically the same work as I did when Nicholas was a baby nine years ago (although we have moved office buildings since then), and Lydia is going to the same conveniently-located home childcare as Nicholas did, so my daily routine is very much the same as it was then. You’d think that would make it easy to remember what stuff I needed to bring to use at work and what stuff I needed to pack for the baby.

Apparently, it wasn’t easy, because by noon on my first day I’d made a list of SEVEN things to bring the next day . . . and I’d already noticed the most important forgotten item when I arrived at childcare . . . and when I picked up Lydia, her sitter informed me of yet another thing she needed! That’s NINE things I forgot! This made me feel really idiotic and panicked, so even though my actual job-related stuff went very smoothly and Lydia is quite happy with her sitter, my first day was very stressful.

To make things easier for other moms returning to work outside the home, here’s the list of things I forgot. Not every mother and baby will need all of these things, but if you go over this list and think about whether or not you need each of the things, maybe your first day can be a little less frazzling than mine was! Read more…

FREE Earth-friendly Party Decorations!

Want to decorate your home for a party?  You could buy a bunch of bright-colored paper streamers or rubber balloons that you inflate with air.  These things are inexpensive, but they’re typically made in China by exploited workers in polluting factories and then shipped halfway around the world to you, wasting a bunch of fossil fuel.  When the party’s over, you can compost these things–if you don’t mind having those strong dyes in your compost (do you put it on your food plants?) and you’re willing to wait a couple years for the balloons to break down.  Another option is to buy mylar balloons and shiny plastic decorations, made (usually in China) from irreplaceable petroleum, which aren’t recyclable and will never biodegrade.  You could inflate your balloons with some of the world’s dwindling supply of helium, which we need for so many other more important things.

Or you could save your money, reduce your environmental impact, lighten the load in your recycling bin, and keep your kid busy while you do other things to get ready for the party!  Simply convert some scrap paper into festive link chains to festoon your home, like this:
Read more…

Breastfeeding While Working Outside the Home

My only child weaned 5 years ago this month, and I’ve been meaning to write this article ever since!  I finally got inspired by a recent magazine article arguing that the whole concept of breastfeeding being any kind of good idea is A PLOT TO KEEP WOMEN DOWN!!! and supporting this argument by quoting outdated materials from La Leche League and a few carefully selected over-zealous Websites.  It was so silly, but it was promoting an idea that I’ve heard in lots of less-silly contexts: that feeding a baby nothing but breastmilk until he’s ready for solid foods is horribly difficult unless the mother is willing to be trapped in her home with the baby 24 hours a day.  That just isn’t true!  In my experience, it is entirely possible to pump milk at work and put it into bottles for someone else to feed your baby, even if you work in a non-private cubicle and get only 12 weeks of maternity leave.  To me it seemed hardly more difficult than preparing bottles of formula would have been.  So I am writing this article to share the details of what worked for me.

But first, the disclaimers, Read more…

Staying On the Ball at Work

This is an historic moment for The Earthling’s Handbook.

Almost 15 years after we started this Website, almost 5 years after we set up blog software so that I could write articles on my lunch break and post them easily, we have never posted any photographs.  I’ve explained my reservations about photos but also said it isn’t a strict rule.  I always thought that someday, I might write an article that really requires a visual illustration to show what I mean.

This is that article.

For a couple of years now, Daniel and I have been improving our “core strength” (abdominal and lower-back muscles) by sitting on an exercise ball and balancing with feet off the floor for a few minutes a day.  We keep a big red ball wandering around our bedroom for this purpose; it’s constantly rolling eagerly into our path to remind us to use it!  Read more…

Composting in the Office

I’ve been composting some of my household garbage most of my life.  At work, though, I had been putting compostable items in the wastebasket because there isn’t a compost bin in my office building.

Then one day in early November, I was setting my office wastebasket outside the door for the cleaning people to empty.  I do this only every few weeks because I discard very little during my workday.  I was astonished to notice just how many used teabags were in my wastebasket . . . and most of the rest of my trash was dead leaves from the plants on my windowsill, plus a few paper napkins . . . the only non-biodegradable items were a couple of pieces of clear plastic torn off the tops of the frozen meals I eat when I don’t have any leftovers to bring for lunch.  That got me thinking: Would it really be so difficult to bring home my compost? Read more…

Greening the Employee Holiday Meal

I wish this were a story of a big project I did that made a big difference, but this one is only about a personal choice that made a small difference.  It’s still better than nothing!  And you can’t always change what big organizations do, but you can change what you do–so maybe you could make a little choice like this one!

I work for a department of about 40 people running two social science research studies and several associated substudies.  Most of the time we’re sort of in our own little world here.  But we are part of a megaconglomerate “health system” that owns a bunch of hospitals, medical practices, research facilities, and a health-insurance company; it is one of Pennsylvania’s largest employers.  The System provides each of its tens of thousands of employees with a Holiday Feast each December.  This event inevitably takes on a somewhat standardized and mass-produced tone, but I do appreciate getting a free Feast.  What I don’t understand is why it has to produce so much non-recyclable, non-biodegradable garbage. Read more…

Scrap Paper Saves Money and the Environment

More than 20 years ago, inspired by Earth Day 1990 and by one of my high school teachers handing out a huge amount of paper printed only on one side that was useless after a single day’s activity, I designated a bin on my desk for scrap paper: full sheets of paper with one blank side that could be used for a new purpose.

I have been saving and using scrap paper ever since.  I use it to write notes to myself, to do arithmetic and make little charts related to my work as the data manager of a research study, to plan my family’s meals, to write my weekly to-do list, to copy recipes off the Internet for our recipe binder (Why fire up the laser printer–only to find that the page prints in a weird format in too-small type on several sheets of paper–when I could hand-write the recipe in the exact format I prefer?), to write down directions from Google Maps in my own words (which helps me understand and remember them so that I can spend less time glancing away from the road), to take minutes for my church vestry, to sketch the architectural ideas I still have from time to time. Read more…

My grandmother got a few things done.

My paternal grandmother would be 100 years old today, if she were still alive.  She died in July 1991, when I was 18.  Her name was Janette, so we grandchildren called her Janmother.

Janmother was an outstanding high school student but never went to college.  She married just after turning 20, and at times she helped my grandfather with his work, but primarily she was a homemaker.

My dad and I were able to spend the final week of Janmother’s life staying in her house and visiting her in the hospital.  The last time I heard her speak coherently, she said, “I’ll never cook another meal.” Read more…

You think YOUR job sucks?!

Hey, I’m not about to claim my job is worse than yours.  That correction fluid misadventure was about as bad as it gets.  I really like my job, actually, and often notice how lucky I am to be able to use the restroom, drink coffee, get online, or receive a personal phone call anytime.  Lots of people–such as my child’s teachers–don’t have such luxurious flexibility in their work.  I love being with kids, but when I was a Girl Scout leader there were never more than 18 in my troop, with two adults present nearly all the time, and I was on-duty with them a maximum of three days in a row–so let’s hear it for teachers, who go solo with that many kids or more, hours at a time, five days in a row!

On Labor Day, I always get a paid holiday.  Lots of workers don’t.  I ate in a restaurant tonight, staffed by people who were working on the holiday.  I’m grateful.  I’ve worked in food service, so I know first-hand that it’s harder in many ways than an office job, yet food service workers are often taken for granted and treated with little respect.

I’ve been thinking this weekend about some of the jobs I’m very glad I don’t have to do myself!  Some are jobs I’m glad somebody else does so I personally can avoid them.  Others are jobs I’m not sure any living being should have to do.  Here are some examples: Read more…

Bullying: an article I wrote, and three I don’t have to write

Although I am discussing my work here, the point of view is my own, and this is not an official statement of the Pittsburgh Youth Study.

As the data manager of a long-term research study, I recently helped to write this academic paper: Bullying Perpetration and Victimization as Predictors of Delinquency and Depression in the Pittsburgh Youth Study.  What we found, looking at data collected from the 503 men we’ve been interviewing repeatedly since they were in first grade, is that bullies are more likely than non-bullies to grow up to be criminals, and bullying victims are more likely than non-victims to grow up to be depressed.  That’s not really surprising, is it?  But it’s good to add to the hard scientific evidence that bullying is a serious problem with lifelong consequences.  This whole issue of the Journal of Aggression, Conflict, and Peace Research was a special issue on school bullying, with 7 more articles on the subject.

I had been kind of thinking I should write something about bullying that might be read by people who don’t read dull academic journals.  But I felt very shy about it and afraid to admit that, well, I know there’s a problem and can prove there’s a problem but can’t claim I ever solved this problem for myself or anybody and tried so many things that didn’t work and when I even think about it I get so scared and what if– Read more…

Important tip for Liquid Paper users

If you need to use a lot of Liquid Paper (or other brand of white-out or correction fluid) in a short time, particularly if it is the variety that says FAST DRY on the label, you will soon find that it is all gummy and impossible to spread and it seems like there isn’t any more in the bottle.

This does not mean your bottle is empty.

It does not mean that the remaining white-out in your bottle is ruined. Read more…

Client Service Notes

Here’s another thing I saved from my long-ago job at an invention-marketing company: A letter I distributed to the client service representatives on my last day.  These were the long-suffering people who spoke with the inventors by phone and did their very best to speak to these people as if they were sane and reasonable. 

Dear Client Service Representatives:
When I’ve had occasion to read the phone notes, I’ve noticed some real gems that demonstrate what you all have to deal with on a daily basis.  I’ve been collecting them for a while.  Now that I’m leaving, I want you all to know how much I appreciate your help in communicating with the clients…saving me from dealing with moments like these!

Client wants to change the name but doesn’t know what to.  Client wants us to be less descriptive but doesn’t know how we can. Read more…