Friday, April 26, 2013

Friday blogaround

Well, here's to the weekend!

We'll start it with some cool links.  But first, a word from the search terms that brought people here (cut and pasted from my stats page).  As you can see, the Stepford Wives are still quite popular, as is line-drying clothes:

the stepford wives book analysis
clothesline images
stepford wives book summary
Amy dacyczyn
close line rack
png hot women sexy*
stepford wives

* Um, I'm afraid you did not get what you were looking for.

Let's get started, shall we?

Awesome life hacks. Wow.

Learn about passive solar homes.  My dream home would be a straw-bale house with passive solar design (and actual solar panels).  With a large vegetable garden in the back. I do think it's a good reminder that there is more to solar than the panels we associate with it; in my old condo, my bedroom got hot during the winter because the sun shone right into the window. (Not that I ever complained about that!)

Life on Pig Row has been using the Dig for Victory pamphlets from WWII.  It's an interesting history lesson, and I do agree that lawns can be great food producers.

Frugal in Derbyshire continues the trend in her roundup, talking about some of the cookbooks she has, including the Victory Cookbook.  She also welcomes back a new (and cute put somewhat prickly) neighbor.

Lili would like to know about your frugal specialty.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

There's no walking away from Omelas

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. As a story I didn't find it that gripping; as an essay about a hypothetical, a thought experiment, it was interesting. The spoiler is this: the people of Omelas are very happy, peaceful, and prosperous. They are this way because the agreement is they keep one child in filth and rags in a closet, away from others. Sometimes, people cannot take the idea that one person should suffer so everyone else may be happy, so they leave Omelas.  They walk and they keep walking.

Most people would like to think they would leave Omelas. I'd like to think I would, if for no other reason that I couldn't be happy knowing that one kid must be isolated and brutalized and miserable as the price to pay.  Then again, nothing would change for that kid, who was suffering and brutalized. And if you rescued the kid, everyone in Omelas would be miserable.

So people rationalized. They would really enjoy their happiness to not make the child's suffering in vain. Rescuing the child at this point wouldn't do much good anyway--misery would come to the land and the child didn't know any better and wouldn't adapt well.  Or they opted out. They walked away. And things stayed the same.

As some of you may have heard, a Bangladeshi factory collapsed, killing at least 87 workers. Maybe more. Far more injured. They were making clothing for companies as diverse as Benetton and Wal-Mart. Everything from inexpensive clothing to high-priced clothing.

The thing is, it's not just clothing. The computers we write posts on and the smartphones we use, are made in EPZ's from minerals that are the focus of wars in Africa (they're called conflict minerals for a reason).  Our small appliances, our camera parts, our auto parts, our printers, our toys, our housewares. . .it's not just clothing, many of the things we use are made in export processing zones in terrible conditions. Buying used clothing or sewing everything we wear will not solve the problem, I am sorry to say.

This is not me saying that there's nothing you can do. I don't believe in throwing up my hands and giving up, and if this makes you as angry as it makes me--and this issue has made me livid for years--then I think it's a good and laudable thing to do something about it. And if you want to thrift, or make your own, or buy used, I'm all for that. Anyone who reads this blog knows I do a lot of it (or make entertaining attempts).  But I'm also for contacting your representatives, pushing for an effort to reexamine our trade agreements that end up putting desperate workers at risk (just because a law or trade agreement exists doesn't mean you can't try to have it changed), and contacting companies and asking them why they're insisting on impossible deadlines at an abysmally low cost and then getting so surprised when things like this happen.  Unfortunately, there's no opting out. You can weave your own cloth, sew your own clothes, never buy anything new, or only buy locally sourced and ethically made goods, but there will be others who still have to participate. And then we get into the politics of personal purity rather than efforts to make things right.

We cannot walk away from Omelas. Go on, turn your back! Walk! Breeze through the city gates! Go down that long road. Your next destination will be. . .Omelas. Wherever you go, you will be in Omelas. Because if someone's working two jobs they may not have the time or energy to sew their own clothes.  Because if someone's got kids to feed and housing to pay for and a job that's insecure or a medical condition that's squeezing them dry, they're not going to be able to buy expensive locally-produced things, no matter how long they last. Because if someone lives in certain regions, the only game in town might just be the Wal-Mart or the Meijer. So do you walk away or make an effort to make change?

Welcome to Omelas. There is no walking away.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Greek Chicken and Orzo

I had a friend over for dinner after work one weeknight.  I wanted to make something special and delicious and this was it. It was very easy.

Now, I am lucky in that I live a mere 7-minute drive away from work, so I could turn on my slow cooker during my lunch hour.  But if you cannot do that and you want to use your slow cooker during the week, buy a light timer.  You can get a manual one or a digital one. You can set it to start at a certain time and end at a certain time.  Plug it into your outlet, plug your slow cooker into the timer, and you are in business.  It is used for lights but it can be used for anything electrical.

Okay. Here's the recipe.

You will need:
4 medium chicken breast halves (I used chicken thighs)--about 1 1/2 pounds
2 tbsp cooking oil
1 medium fennel bulb, cut into 1/2 inch pieces (about 2 cups)
1 medium onion, cut into wedges
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups water
2 tbsp white balsamic vinegar (I used regular white vinegar as I couldn't find white balsamic)
2 tsp instant chicken bullion granules
1 tbsp snipped fresh oregano or 1 tsp dried oregano, crushed
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
1 1/3 cups orzo pasta
1 medium tomato, chopped
1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
1/4 cup chipped pitted ripe olives
1 tbsp snipped fresh oregano

Skin chicken and brown in a large skillet in the oil.  Combine fennel, onion, and garlic in the slow cooker.  Add chicken. In a bowl, stir together water, vinegar, bouillon, dried oregano (if using), and crushed red pepper.  Pour over all.

Cover, cook on low for 5-6 hours or high for 2 1/2-3 hours. If using, stir in the 1 tbsp fresh oregano towards the end.

At about the time the slow cooker time is done, cook the orzo according to package directions and drain. Stir tomato, cheese, olives and the 1 tbsp fresh oregano into the orzo. Using a slotted spoon, remove chicken and vegetables from the slow cooker.  Serve with orzo mixture.

This was a delicious and easy meal to prepare, and made for excellent leftovers for lunch.

Monday, April 22, 2013

It's over

Yes, they caught the second bomber (after they lifted the shelter at home order), and took him in alive. He's being treated for his injuries.  Given the fact that the cops were worried they planted IED's in other parts of the city, I think the temporary order to stay home was a good call.

We have had an outpouring of support from all quarters, including from people who deal with this stuff on a regular basis, and I am touched.

The injured need to get support and to heal. The surviving families of the three dead need consolation and support.  And we need to shake this off.

Other terrible things that have been happening in other parts of the US and the world.  I do not want to forget the people affected by these other tragedies.

I'll get back to posting my usual fare tomorrow. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

It never ends!

A fertilizer plant in Texas caught fire and exploded early this morning. At least 15 people are dead, scores injured. My heart just aches.

You can find resources at this link if you are in the area and need help.  Readers, if you know of any legitimate organization that is taking donations to help the people who were affected, please post it in the comments.

If the Red Cross will take your blood (they will not take mine), then of course see about donating but donate regularly.  Boston got all it needed in the wake of the Marathon bombing but they'll need supplies within five weeks or so; if you're inclined to give, it wouldn't be a bad thing to do in disaster free times.

It ain't easy being cheesy

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a cheese making class with a friend of mine.  We made ricotta cheese (pictured) and mozzarella.  It was a lot of fun.

There are a few cheeses you can make in your kitchen that don't take very long and that isn't very complicated.  You'll only need citric acid, milk, and rennet (or rennet for most of them). 

Do not use ultra-pasteurized milk, as it's been heated so high that the casein in the milk will not form a curd.  Some people are against using milk that's been pasteurized at all, but I am a fan of playing it safe.

You can make mozzarella or ricotta pretty easily at home.  And it's fun; certainly with mozzarella, the hands-on part would be fun with kids.  With mozzarella you heat the milk, add the citric acid and the rennet, and press the curds against a sieve or slotted spoon.  You stir them in a bowl until they are a smooth ball, then heat them in the microwave for a sixty seconds.  Then you take it and pull it and stretch it.  You heat it beforehand to get the curds to melt; if it's not stretchy or if it's still crumbly, heat it for another 30 seconds.

I won't go into detail because a) my memory is terrible and b) the links will take you to some how-to's.  You can also get a kit from New England Cheesemaking Supply.  They're a good resource if you decide to venture into the hard cheeses, though those require curing and aging.

Now, here's where you'll be surprised: while I enjoyed the class, I don't see myself doing this.  And the instructor admitted that she does not make her own cheese on a regular basis, either.

First, it takes a gallon of milk to make a pound (or a little under a pound) of mozzarella or ricotta.  I suppose you could save money doing it but I don't think it's such a savings that it's worth the time you'd take to make the cheese and clean up your kitchen after. 

Second, it takes a lot of time.  Yes, you can do it in 30-45 minutes, or maybe 90 minutes, and in the grand scheme of things, it's not that onerous. But it's time I personally would rather be spending doing something else.

This is not to say you shouldn't try it if you want to do it! It was fun. It's certainly a fun project to do with friends or family on a rainy day. And I totally get why some folks would derive a real sense of satisfaction from making their own cheese (I have, after all, made my own yogurt, albeit with varying results).  But for me personally, the class was a fun distraction, not an inspiration to make cheese on a regular basis.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Bombs go off at Boston Marathon

Okay, the details are still murky, but the explosions everyone was talking about turned out to be IED's (yes, IED's) and there were others that had not gone off. I'm hearing other stuff but I'm holding my peace as there's a lot of confusion.

If you have a loved one who was running in the marathon, you can check their status here.  If you are safe and well and (and known to be at the marathon), please register at the Red Cross's Safe and Well page.  If you are looking for a loved one who was at the marathon, you can check the Red Cross Safe and Well listings to see if they've registered.

Do not try to give blood if you're in Boston today.  The hospitals have enough right now and they're busy. (Apparently, people in the area want to do something, which is understandable.)  Massachusetts General Hospital is taking walk-in blood donations at 7 AM tomorrow.  They will need more blood donations so if you can do it it would be much appreciated.

Also, I want to stress: We do not know who was behind this. Please do not go making any assumptions about who has done this.  And once we know, please do not go around making assumptions about people who share the perp's/perps' ethnicity or background. I have friends of all ethnicities and religions; I do not yet know if the Boston based friends were in the area of the bombing. They will suffer and bleed and die just like anyone else.

Your fearless blogger gets ranty

I was going to review a book I read. I was going to, but the thing is I was so busy restraining myself from throwing it across the room that I wasn't sure I could finish it, let alone provide a coherent review.  

What bugged me about this book is what bugs me about a lot of the environmental/voluntary simplicity movement.  There's a large subset of the movement--the one that gets the most air time it seems--that would have you think you have to buy expensive hybrid cars, live in expensive, tricked out homes, and only shop at certain places.  That if you don't cook all of your meals from scratch you're a bad parent and if you don't buy everything local you're a bad person (forget the fact that some folks just cannot afford the prices, and yes, I know all about the subsidies to big agra, but that doesn't help the single parent on food stamps who's trying to get by, people). If you don't live in 400 square feet, you're doing it wrong (unless the home was constructed out of totally reclaimed materials with passive and active solar and a greywater recapturing system).

I just. . .I cannot even.

Listening to Graham Hill or Barbara Kingsolver or Michael Pollan or some of these other people, you could understand why so many people think this sort of thing is a  trend pushed by affluent to wealthy people that has nothing to do with the rest of us.

I remember mentioning a CSA on the blog and one of my readers commented wistfully that it sounded nice but it was way beyond something she could afford.  And that's something I think we all need to keep in mind.  It's nice to be able to do these things, but not everyone can and no matter how much you complain about the real price of food or fuel or whatever, it's not something that people who don't have a lot can afford.  It will not change their financial situation one whit to say that well, those eggs you got so cheaply were actually the product of agricultural subsidies for big corporations.  Yes, okay, but at the end of the day, if you have limited funds to feed your family, you're going to go for the cheap eggs.

So I'd urge anyone who is about to give a TED Talk or write an article or a book about this awesome sustainable thing they're doing to just lay off the lectures.  Lay off the insistence that it will save you money (no, actually, chances are it won't) or that it's cost effective the end (no, actually, for someone who's barely getting by, it isn't).   Remember that not everyone can do the things you're doing and it's not because we're all living in McMansions and driving Hummers.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Friday blogaround

Taken from LOLCats.
One of my friends started her own blog, called Family Fandango.  Check it out, she's very cool and a great writer.  Her toads are as debauched as my squirrels.

Get Rich Slowly wants to know if you save more or less than your parents.  I save less (though I do try to save a lot, it doesn't touch what they are able to do)--my parents are frugal Jedis.  Heck, I'm going to suggest they start a blog called that.

A Homesteading Neophyte is getting weary of pop-culture homesteading.  I get where she's coming from, as I tend to get surly when it comes to pop-culture frugalistas or "minimalists" like Graham Hill (protip: if you're buying a 300-square foot co-op for $280K to "camp out in" while you have a 400+ square foot coop you purchased for $285K tricked out with multi-use, collapsible furniture that costs thousands, and movable walls and technology that costs thousands, you aren't actually saving money).

Asparagus does not travel well.  If you want to enjoy this taste of spring in other seasons, Lili shows you how to freeze it.

Carol is now officially debt free.  Hooray!

Happy blogiversary, Justin!

Have a great weekend, everybody!  I am going to learn to make cheese.  What are your plans?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Looking for my home sweet home

Right now, as you know, I'm renting a cool house.  It's within walking distance to the town center and under 10 minutes by car from where I work, so I'm getting terribly spoiled.  It's got a small yard and a small garden plot (perfect for herbs).

I ended up renewing the lease for a year because I did not find any houses to buy.  Well, actually, I found two that I put offers on but we could not agree on a price.

The first one was overpriced considering the fact that:

It was only two bedrooms (I'm fine with two bedrooms but two bedroom homes tend to be priced lower than this place)
It was on a fairly busy street
The owner had incontinent dogs who used the carpets throughout the place as pee pads.

Now, the house itself was pretty big, the bedrooms were huge, it had a full basement and an attached garage so I was willing to overlook a lot of stuff.  I was not willing to pay what she wanted because fixing the dog pee issue would be expensive.  As in, I'd need to have the sub floors replaced. That takes money. We could not agree on a price.

The second place was great in a lot of ways.  The lot was level and clear--perfect for a garden. Very quiet cul-de-sac, quiet neighborhood, and populated by people who would not side-eye a clothesline or a compost bin, etc.  However, again, the house needed work.

First, the owner bought it on auction with the intention to flip it.  I found out how much (or how little) he paid.  He was hoping to make about $70K in profit, judging from the original price of the house.  However, when you need to replace ten windows (several of them cracked), when there is a hole near the roof in the attic crawlspace area, when there is no insulation in the basement crawlspace, when there are obvious signs that the pipes burst over the winter, when the carpets upstairs are in dire need of cleaning, and when the former owner's stuff is still there (think: liquor bottles in the cabinet over the fridge), you need to be realistic in your pricing.  If you want to make $70K, do the $15K-$25K worth of work that needs to be done, throw on a coat of fresh paint, and clear the stuff out.

His excuse? Well, he does this for a living and his guys were busy fixing up other houses.  Okay, but you still have a house that is in dire need of work, the excuse doesn't undo that. 

He and I could not agree on a price.  What I offered him would have made him $20K (after the real estate agents got their commission).  That's not bad for doing little to no work.  (He was starting to replace one window, but didn't intend to do any others, and it looked like he just stopped in the middle of the window replacement, got a sandwich, and forgot to finish).  Had it not been for a carpenter friend whom I took with me on my second look, I would have walked away thinking, "No way!" He told me what was fixable and how much it would probably cost.

Unfortunately, it didn't work out.  Which is fine--I really liked that house, but the seller would not even try to meet me half way. (I would have gone up some had he countered, but not up to where he insisted I meet him, which was still unreasonable considering the amount of work that needed to be done).

I've seen a fair number of houses over the past couple of months.  I figure I'm going to look at a lot more over the summer.  One good thing about my situation right now is that I can consider short sales (which can take months to close) since I'll be leasing my house.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Turning over a new leaf

I had an epiphany this weekend.

I have been going about my life all wrong.  I was focusing on the wrong things.  I really thought I was something, what with cooking and reusing things and trying to be creative. What with working and being careful with my money, as if I had a mind for that sort of thing.

I've been selfish, not thinking of other people, and one of those terrible, insufferably driven women who will get what they want at any cost.  I had no idea how much I was hurting people.

Well, no more!

I pledge, from here on out, to stop hoarding my money so selfishly and to buy bigger and better things.  I pledge to stop being so selfish and arrogant, and do something about my looks.  I am going to schedule an appointment with a plastic surgeon this week.  I cannot believe I have walked out of my house not looking my very best every day--regular grooming and dressing won't cut it.  I have a credit card, why not get new clothes every week and new cosmetics and highlights every month?  It's shameful that I have not contributed to the economy by buying more stuff.  That I have not even considered that I could add to the economy and improve my standard of living by buying a much bigger house with no money down.  Yes, I would be paying much more in interest, but think of the jobs my revenue would generate! Think of the fuel I'd be adding to our sputtering economic engine.

From the bottom of my heart, I do apologize.