Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Things My Husband Says

My husband,
on when I give birth to our first child:
"It's going to be fun!"

Monday, September 21, 2009

On Happiness

Aside from fame and copious dollar bills, one of the perks of writing the occasional A-List for the local alt-weekly, City Pages, is that I can occasionally get free tickets to events. Sometimes those are even events I want to attend. Thursday night the husband and I went to the Policy and a Pint event at the UBC forum at Minnesota Public Radio. Policy and a Pint is an event put on by MPR and the Citizen's League in which attendees listen to (and partake in) a discussion about a policy-related topic and drinks pints of beer. Well, a pint each - so things don't get rowdy.

Thursday's event featured Colin Beavan, author of No Impact Man, a book which started as a blog in which he chronicled his and his family's attempt to live one year having zero environmental impact. Beavan, his wife, and his toddler went to fairly extreme measures from foregoing NYC's mass transit in favor of bicycles to turning off the power supply in their apartment and relying on a single solar panel for their computer, candles for light, and elbow grease to clean their clothes. What was, perhaps, most surprising about the experiment is that sacrificing take-out and store-bought bread, TV and electric lights actually made their lives, well, better. In spite of the fact that he was baking his own bread daily, Beavan found that he seemed to have more time in the day. There was less running around, fewer late nights at work, more time spent playing games with his family and friends.

One of the things that Beavan touched upon in his talk at Policy and a Pint is that there was, however, a limit to the improvements that came from these sacrifices. There was a point at which too much sacrifice, too many limitations on resources, merely lead to misery. He pointed to the night that his daughter got sick, threw up on the bedsheets, and then threw up again on the second pair of clean bedsheets that he'd replaced the first set with. He caved. He used the washing machine in the basement of their apartment. Having to do laundry by hand was one of the greatest hardships during this experiment.

One of the points that Beavan has been using his experiment to make is that doing away with wasteful consumption made him and his family happier. On his blog he wrote, "I believe, as Professor Tim Jackson of the University of Surrey discussed in his 2005 paper "Live Better by Consuming Less?," that there is a "double-dividend" to reduced consumption. One dividend is that it helps maintain our health, happiness and security as it depends on our planetary habitat and the other is the increase of happiness that can come with a lesser emphasis on accumulating stuff."

In his talk at Policy and a Pint, he suggested that this idea that less consumption can lead to greater happiness is a selling point for people not already part of the environmental movement. And to a certain degree, I buy this. Sure. Tell people that using less resources will make them happy and they just might sign on.

The problem I have, however, is using this notion of "happiness" as a selling point. The word happy is two-dimensional and superficial. "Happy" lacks depth in the same way as other words that have gotten into this global warming situation to begin with: convenience, money, status. Happy seems unsubstantial.

And being "happy" can mean so many different things to so many different people. For Beavan, playing cards with his wife by candlelight made him happy. For some, driving a large SUV makes them happy. Roasting marshmallows around a backyard fire with my family makes me happy but so does a long, hot (water wasting) shower. This difference is that one leaves me feeling fulfilled and the other makes me feel fuzzy and relaxed.

It strikes me as oddly lacking in depth that our founding fathers included the phrase "pursuit of happiness" as among our inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence (and that Will Smith made a movie by the same name. C'mon, Will!). Surely there are words and pursuits that get at a greater depth of human complexity and emotion and that would convey something more permanent, less transitory: contentment, joy, satisfaction, fulfillment.

Beavan pointed to the ways in which increased access to and use of resources can increase happiness for those at the other end of the spectrum. A father in a developing country who is finally able to access enough coal energy to hang a lightbulb for his student daughter is, according to Beavan, happier for it. But he's much more than just "happy" -- he's fulfilling a biological imperative to take care of and improve the lives of our children.

The resource that my husband and I use that is perhaps the most contentious in our household is the air conditioner. After listening to Beavan, my husband noted that doing away with air conditioning would make him very, very unhappy. In this way, he tried to justify using it. He's (mostly) joking, but I think he found the point at which the whole "living an eco-friendly life will make you happy" sales tactic falls apart. Happiness is something of a selfish emotion. I do this because it makes me happy (because I feel cool or warm and relaxed) right now. I don't do this because it makes me unhappy (sweaty or shivery). Asking people (and corporations and manufacturers) to be thoughtful of the environment is going to take a lot more than telling them, "It will make you happy!" It will require more self reflection than that. It will require that we ask ourselves the question that Beavan opened his talk with: "Have I lived a life where I've done more good than harm?" Sometimes doing good is about making tough choices, making sacrifices and sometimes it leads to a sense of satisfaction that is much longer lasting than mere happiness.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Eat Your Curds and Whey

After living in virtually dairy-free Thailand for three years, I returned Stateside to find that I was utterly intolerant. Intolerant of lactose, that is. Eating dairy left me doubled over with cramps. I soldiered on, vowing to make myself, well, less intolerant.

Six years on, I can eat most cheeses and even some ice creams sans problems. Milk? Bad idea. When I found out I was knocked up this past spring, I amped up the calcium supplement. Still, I was worried that this little bugger was sapping all the calcium I was ingesting and then some.

And so began the yogurt experiments. I'd had bad experiences eating yogurt in the past so I was reluctant to try again. But after making it through a few small, handy containers of the good stuff without any problems, I decided yogurt was safe. Perhaps I'd just had bad yogurt (i.e. that with milk solids in it) in the past or maybe my bad reactions had been coincidental... or psychological.

Since spring the old man and I have been plowing through containers and containers of yogurt like nobody's business. I was making trips to the co-op just to buy yogurt: large tubs of vanilla for my morning cereal and a variety of smaller, fruit-bottomed ones for our snack through the day. Unfortunately, this was costing not just us but the environment. The number 5 on the bottoms of the white plastic might have been "666": the mark of the unrecyclable.

Just as I was beginning to lose faith that we'd never find a way to feed our craving in an eco-friendly way, my mother-in-law brought a copy of the Star Tribune with an article about making your own yogurt. After I let the article float around from pile to pile of junk in our house and to appropriately needle my guilty conscience, I pulled it out, checked the directions and bought the two ingredients I needed for yogurt: milk and a small container of plain, sweetener, and stabilizer-free yogurt.

I opted for the unhomogenized milk in the glass bottles and "Cultural Revolution" yogurt. My first batches, I've made with whole milk because it seems to be the easiest. Well, turns out making yogurt is pretty easy in general.

I boiled a quart of the milk in a saucepan until bubbles began to form (about 180 to 190 degrees). Then I waited. And waited. I needed the milk to cool to about 115 to 200 degrees -- or, as some recipes indicate, until I was able to stick my little finger in there for ten seconds without burning it. Since I only have two pinky fingers, I prefer to use a candy thermometer.

(You might be able to see the bubbles forming in this picture if you look closely.)

Once cooled, I removed about 1/2 cup (I used one ladle full) of the warm milk to a bowl and stirred in about 1/2 cup of the yogurt (some recipes suggest only a few tablespoons are needed). I mixed well and then slowly added it back into the saucepan of warm milk, combining well.

I poured the milk/ yogurt combo into a large quart glass container (there was a little left for one smaller pint container), covered, and set it on top of my fridge wrapped in dishtowels. No need for a fancy yogurt incubator! I left it there overnight and in the morning: voila! Yogurt. I poured off the whey and put the containers in the fridge. The longer it sits in there, the more tart it becomes. Now that I have my own yogurt, I can just set aside a little bit each time to use to make the next batch -- so they only thing I have to buy is the milk. I've done two batches now and both have worked out great -- perfect with granola and fresh fruit in the morning and now that my yogurt is in handy glass containers, I don't have to worry about the waste! For the husband, I mixed some up with some berries and some honey for a little container on the go. (Although fresh fruit does make homemade yogurt a little runny.)

Next up: experimenting with lower fat content milk and making strawberry-flavored kefir (a yogurt drink) for my husband.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

If this doesn't excite you, you might need to check your pulse...

... or you just might not be a wool nerd like I am.

Just got a big bundle of wool from Blue Goose Glen. It's super soft and colorful merino that I'm testing out for some upcoming projects. I usually use and rougher roving for felting, but this is so nice to touch and work with that I might have to start using this softer stuff.

These guys flew over just as I was outside taking the pictures of the Blue Goose Glen wool. It seemed auspicious somehow.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Minnesota State Fair Redux

I stuck to my State Fair plan and (at least of the first visit) only ate the one thing at the fair that stands out above all else (and that is hard to come by outside of those two weeks): pork chop on a stick. I don't have a picture of that. But I do have this:

and this:

and Eric eating a corn dog on a stick (he's decided to go with the pronto pup in future years):

We also have Conan on a stick made from seeds (perhaps you have to be a Minnesotan or a Minnesota State Fair attendee to really appreciate what's going on here):

I'm not sure if this was what the seed artist was referencing...

Lastly, and certainly the best part of the State Fair this year was stumbling across this guy playing Dance Dance Revolution at the arcade. It will take a moment to "buffer" but it's well worth it. (S0rry for the pretty low quality.)

What you might not be able to tell is that this guy was getting perfect scores -- even when he had his back to the screen. SOMEONE's put A LOT of time into practicing DDR.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Curtains: The Symbol of My Reintroduction into the World of Selfish Crafting

It's often said that when your "art" or "craft" becomes your living, you no longer do that art or craft for fun. There are the cliches of the carpenter with the crumbling house, the plumber with the leaky faucets, the chef who's dinner consists of canned ravioli and iceberg lettuce eaten leaning over the kitchen sink. Try as I might, I cannot avoid this cliche. My husband's clothes sit un-mended and the parts of various textile-related household projects (like making covers for pillow forms) are shoved into a corner while I sew products for my shop and gifts for other people.

No longer!

I am turning over a new leaf and giving just as much priority to those incomplete household tasks. Just this weekend I finally completed the curtains for our second floor bathroom (the one that looks directly into our neighbor's house).

The "before" picture might be some indication of why it was one of the more pressing projects.

I even used some of the left-over material to fashion a panel curtain for our backdoor and to replace the unfortunate floral one that was, I think, slowly driving my husband mad. But I'm digressing into another post. (In an upcoming post I'll give a quick tutorial for making a super easy panel curtain for a door.)

In the meantime more pictures of the completed curtains.

Please pardon the lack of trim on the window. Thankfully, my husband is a scientist, not a carpenter and that project should be complete before the turn of the next century!