Monthly Archives: February 2009

Lose-Lose Dilemnas

I, like many people, try to live my life in an ethical way. “Harm none” is the highest I can aspire to, and it is frequently not met at the end of the day, not because of the deliberate actions I took, but because the choices I made were between two things that weren’t a win to begin with.

For example:

  1. Food: Buy local, even though it isn’t organic? Or organic, shipped from who-the-heck-knows-where? Buy local or buy fair trade? Buy organic, or spend less on food?
  2. Charity: Do I give a dollar to the person holding a sign saying she’s hungry and out of work? Or to a national corporation that has offices, staff, and a 40% administrative budget (which means only $0.60 of my dollar goes where I want it to)? Even then – who do I give to? Organizations that focus on women’s rights like fair pay, reproductive freedom, or politics? How about Pagan groups that are trying to create community in various ways and places so that we are not a faceless (ignorable) groups? Or perhaps those that fight for people’s rights – no matter gender, race, or religion?
  3. News: Whether print, electronic, or TV – news sources are getting more and more dramatic and less and less factual. Stories rarely present both sides, and if you believe every word they transmit, the end of the world happened a decade ago and we’re just now catching on. Do you watch it and therefore support it? Or ignore it and miss out on knowing what’s going on in the world (even if distorted)?
  4. Make it or buy it? Homemade food is so much better tasting and frequently healthier, so that’s usually easy. But when it comes to things the situation is more difficult. Self-sufficiency is sustainable, increases your skills, and keeps you involved in the world. Making things is also usually less expensive and gives you a great deal of control over product choices. But it takes time to learn new skills, time spent on making a mess of things, and sometimes making the original situation worse. Moreover, if I’m increasing my skill set, I’m depriving another person of their livelihood.
  5. Do I buy from countries that have horrific labor conditions or do without? It may be labeled, but sometimes we need what is offered, no matter where it is from. Do I buy knowing I’m supporting a multinational with near-slave working conditions in other countries, or wait until I can afford to pay more for fair labor practices?

Then there are the larger issues:

  1. Where to live: Do I go urban: cheap transportation (at least here in the PNW), tons of culture, and necessitates a smaller living space ‘footprint’ which is ecologically sustainable, but the air quality can be poor, the closeness to others creates higher stress, and the noise can create health problems. Country: long (energy wasting) commute, harder to sustain infrastructure, isolated yet it also has healthy air and easier access to organic food and space to roam. Suburbs: neither twixt nor tween with its benefits and detriments as muddled as its location.
  2. Immigration: This country is a paradise compared to many other places. At the current rates of immigration, the U.S. Population will rise to 300 million by the end of this century. At that level we’ll lose our last pieces of wilderness, have unmanageable pollution levels, and likely be unable to feed the population. What’s the cut off point? Where the line between what is good for our country (literally) and what is good for our world?
  3. See #5, above. It fits here as well.
  4. Are animals more important than people when it comes to arguing for rights and monies to make a positive difference in their lives? Frankly, this one wasn’t on my radar when I was a cat owner, but either I’ve gotten sensitized, or the media is stepping up the reporting, because I feel like I’m seeing pleas for the rectification of abused animals everywhere. I hate it. But do I put my (limited) energy towards correcting animal abuse? Or towards preventing child abuse?

In the end: why do I have to choose?

Living Frugal: Greening Your Condo/Apt/Townhome

We live in a town home — which in Washington is defined as a single family unit with at least one shared wall (a condo is multiple units within a single structure) — which makes ecological living more difficult. This is because we do not own the exterior of our house, need to get approval for interior changes, and don’t have our own landscape. But there are still a number of ways we’ve managed to ‘green’ our home.

  1. Before we moved in, we painted nearly the entire house. This meant delaying our move until more than a week after we took ownership, but it made the process 1000 times easier. In response to consumer demand, household paint is becoming increasingly low vocs (volatile organic compounds which can include bezoin and formaldehyde  — its the stuff that makes paint fumes so hard to breathe).  One alternative product is milk paint, which has a velvety and surprisingly durable finish. But paint manufacturers like Benjamin Moore, Glidden, Kelly Moore, and Sherwin Williams have all created low or no VOC paints for the mass market.
  2. At the same time as we were painting, we took out the wall-to-wall carpeting in the front room (a combination living room/media room/library area) and laid down bamboo. We bought the bamboo from an construction overstock retailer and hired an installer through craigslist. He was in and out in an evening, and we have an easy-to-clean, durable, floor made from sustainable wood. the other half of the first floor (the dining room/kitchen area) was already hardwood and its in decent shape. We won’t replace it (thereby reducing the amount of materials we send to the dump) unless we’re in the house 10 years.
  3. As bulbs have gone out over the years, we’ve been switching to the new compact florescent bulbs. The variety is increasing each year, and manufacturers are providing more alternatives to the slow-to-light, stark white bulbs that were first offered. Because they look very different, it can be hard to tell which is the best cf bulb to use to replace an incandescent. The government has a pretty good breakdown here.
  4. We’ve also switched to rechargeable batteries for our smoke alarms (all four of them) and remotes. The only thing that we can’t recharge is our telephone handsets, which remain plugged in all of the time.
  5. In the wintertime we lay down rugs (100% wool, with the thickest rug pads we could get) on the hardwood floors. This single change cut out heating bills by 40%.
  6. We also hang up polar fleece liners under our regular curtains — the doubled curtains keep heat transfer loss to a minimum.
  7. A fleece curtain hangs across the doorway to the front room, trapping heat effectively and fooling our thermostat into thinking its warmer, quicker.
  8. All of our appliances are Energy Star rated. They are also the best we can afford in a matrix of reliability, economy, performance, and durability.
  9. When we recently had to replace our washer and dryer, we did so with a front loading washer –saving gallons of water every year, as well as laundry soap — and an efficient dryer with a moisture sensor. It will stop the cycle when the clothes are dry, not when a timer says they are. I’ve noticed that our clothes are cleaner, and lasting longer (the washer’s cleaning action is vastly more gentle than top-loading machines). As well, the drying cycle seems to be anywhere from 10-15 minutes shorter than with the old machine.

Creating an environmentally responsible, sustainably-based home is easier when you own it,  and the land it sits on, entirely. But its not impossible to make a positive impact on your surroundings. These changes increase your health, your families, and only benefits the environment.

Living Well Within My Means: Food

When my partner, J., reduced his hours last year, our household took a financial hit. I’m at a place in my life where saving every bit will make a huge difference in my end of life quality of living. (As a side note, it is very weird to have your attention focused on 20 years in the future.) To make my savings goals, and still enjoy a reasonably comfortable life right now, we both concentrate on living within our means.

That means we do a lot of planning. Every penny we earn is earmarked and some months we have to say to one another “well, we can fix the electrical system of the car or we can get a new garage disposal unit.” Some months its more like “car insurance is due next month, we need to watch our pennies so we can make that payment.” Generally, however, for major expenses that I know are coming, I manage to save enough in the household account to pay for most, if not all, of it. The summer car insurance payment is tougher than the winter one, because household expenses (particularly our energy bill) are much higher (the energy bill is doubled).

A few years ago we ate out, or brought food home from a place (teriyaki, pizza, chinese), at least once a week. That is a very expensive way to live, and not particualrly healthy. We gradually stopped going out, and saved that money for fancy meals every couple of months.

This year we’ve begun doing meal planning. In previous years we just bought what looked good, and ate a lot of processed foods — frozen pizzas in particular. Last year we started eating less processed foods and more home made meals, but we were still buying what looked good rather than what was on sale. We had a lot of leftovers, and we threw away a lot of food. A lot.

So now we make lists and buy in bulk. The Seattle Costco has a lot of organic meat (the Tukwila one doesn’t) so we buy whole chickens, and organic beef there (no organic pork yet) as well as specialty cheeses. When we get it home, I re-portion the meat into meal-sized portions and freeze them. This means the most expensive part of our meals — the protein — is purchased at the best possible price, and available any time we want (with defrosting time factored in). We can also get organic chicken broth there, which is a huge timesaver and all-around meal maker.

We eat vegetarian 2-3 times a week — tortillas wrapped around cheese, steamed vegetables, and rice are a meal at least once a week, sometimes twice. Homemade soups are on the menu every week or two — and they freeze really well, so one time of cooking means at least two meals. J and I especially like my potato soup variations.

Most meals make leftovers, and we plan to use them either for lunches or for an ‘etzeput’ dinner later in the week. We now only eat a pre-made (frozen pizza, potstickers, meals from Trader Joes) dinner once a week, if that. If not leftover-based, lunches are sandwiches we make. Its a bit boring, but healthy and inexpensive.

This year we’ve also started tracking the cost of individual items at the various places we shop. Based on this, I now know that I’ll spend about a dollar more for milk at Metro Market than I do at Safeway, and that both are more expensive than Costco (which now has organic milk and butter). I know that the quality of produce is better at Metro, but its also $0.50-$1 more expensive, so I have to balance cost over quality when making meal decisions. (If I have to look at it, I’ll go for quality, if its just a flavor principle, I’ll choose cost.) We haven’t shopped at Trader Joe’s since last year (we’ve been eating our way through the frozen meals), so I don’t know how their prices factor in. Tracking the costs is the final touch for me — it helps planning and saves money.

Bottom line:  our food costs are about 1/3 lower (yes, 33%) so far this year — and this is the expensive time of year to eat (so little fresh produce is available, you’re paying for shipping).

As a side benefit, we’re enjoying meal-making more than before. We each cook 2x a week, (etzeput, wraps, and a premade meal make up the other three nights) and are exploring new recipes. We talk, we compare notes, and we’re expanding our skills.

A little silliness

Sorry for the silence, things have been nutsoid at work and in life. I’ve been spending a lot of time fending off a cold (J is down for the 2nd time this year with one), barely maintaining my personal responsibilities while work stuff is eating into even more of my private time, and hibernating to destress from work. That said, things have been fine (if our usual fantasticness) at the House of Smooches.

Now for the silliness: This is so wrong, on so many levels. I’m essentially speechless. But I hope Technocowboy checks it out! Maybe he’d like it for his birthday?