Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Christmas has come and gone, and now it’s only one more day until 2010! My Christmas was a really wonderful one, one of my favorites so far. Mom and Dad and Tighe arrived from Spokane late afternoon on Christmas Eve, and I made Brazilian black bean soup, fried plantains, and salad for our supper. We attended the Christmas Eve candlelight service at First Unitarian Church downtown, and it was beautiful, 1,000 people and wonderful music. We stayed up late, hung stockings from my mantelpiece, and woke up to a clear blue sky and a gorgeous, sunny Christmas Day. We drank tea, dug into our stockings, ate grapefruit and cinnamon bread per tradition, listened to Neville Marriner and the Choir and Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (also per tradition), and opened our presents.

I got a number of wonderful, useful things. My family knows I like practical gifts- I received The Encyclopedia of Country Living by Carla Emery, a set of glass Tupperware, tea and dried fruit, a really cool guitar strap from Tighe, and a gorgeous basketry-style trivet/centerpiece handmade in Senegal. Matt gave me an insulated thermos and a nifty potholder that fits around the handle of my cast iron skillet and lives there so I don’t have to reach for a potholder every time I need to lift the skillet. Mom and Dad also took me shopping on Boxing Day and got me a 12-quart stainless steel stockpot. We couldn’t find one with the blancher insert that I wanted, but we did find a stainless steel colander that fits in perfectly and will serve the purpose just fine. They also got me jar lifters/canning tongs, so all I need now is a small canning rack to keep the jars off the bottom of the kettle, and I’m set!

For Christmas dinner I roasted a local pastured chicken and made a green salad, and we roasted pans of veggies including potatoes and carrots from Mom & Dad’s. It was simple, but delicious. I had made a squash pie on Christmas Eve, but we didn’t eat that till late Christmas night because we were so stuffed! Matt joined us for Christmas dinner which was a nice addition, and we spent an hour or so with one or more of us on guitar, playing and singing Christmas carols and folk songs. Before dinner my family and I went walking for an hour or so through Washington Park, enjoying the clear blue skies, if not the freezing cold wind. On Christmas night we walked through Peacock Lane to see the light displays, but didn’t stay long as it was very cold and windy. I really couldn’t have asked for a nicer Christmas. We all went out for a fun Thai dinner on Boxing Day with relatives who were passing through, and spent the evening with my cousin and her partner, so we got in lots of good social time. Mom and Dad and Tighe headed back to Spokane after breakfast on Sunday, leaving behind lots of good memories. I just enjoyed myself so much and give so many thanks for wonderful family, good food, and beautiful weather. This was my first Christmas without snow, but I hardly noticed, thanks to the sunshine and smiles!

I hope you all had a blessed holiday and that your 2010 will be filled with fun, friends, family, and music!

Thursday, December 17, 2009


My favorite days are the ones when I accomplish a lot. Tuesday night was one of those nights when I got a lot of things done and felt great. I did two loads of laundry (I do laundry at my cousin’s house, three blocks away, so this involved some exercise too), pulled out my sewing machine and did some more mending, made a good dinner, washed dishes, and decorated my Christmas tree!

I forewent the usual Christmas music accompaniment –my soundtrack was Bruce Springsteen. I’ve also been crocheting a new dishcloth, mostly at work, and working on mending that is too detailed for the machine.

I am now in the throes of holiday festivities, with a holiday party at work last week, a wonderful Hanukah party at Leah’s last Saturday, gathering last night with Matt’s family to decorate his dad’s Christmas tree, and an all-staff holiday gathering today. Right now I'm in the middle of working on more gifts! This weekend will include volunteering at the Jesuit High School Alumni food drive (Matt and his sister both went to Jesuit), a holiday party at my house, a holiday party at another friend’s, running lots of errands, and hopefully attending a Celtic fiddle concert!

My family (Mom, Dad, and brother Tighe) is coming to Portland for Christmas this year, so I am also planning and working logistics for that. They will be staying at my cousin Carol’s house, my apartment is just too small for more than two people! I am excited to have a cozy Christmas here in my own space, and do lots of cooking for my family! I’ve been sadly lax on the cooking front lately, as I haven’t really had much time at home with so much going on in the evenings. But this weekend and early next week I will be a cooking maniac, preparing all the traditional holiday food I grew up with. Strangely, I’m most excited about the chex mix! I also need to make a fresh batch of granola before the family arrives, and will cook Christmas Eve dinner for them.

I’ve made a couple nice inroads this week in terms of living sustainably:

• I put a compost jar in the kitchen at work! I’ve been meaning to do this for awhile and finally got around to it. I will take it home to my compost bin every couple of days, but I feel much better now, since a little part of me dies every time I see orange peels and tea bags going into the garbage. Sadly, this effort is involving a little more education than I foresaw, mostly along the lines of “No, actually, foil-lined teabag wrappers are not compostable.” It is a good reminder for me that composting is not such a norm for everyone as it is for me, and that this is good opportunity to open the minds of my little community of coworkers!

• I talked to my landlord and he has ordered me a low-flow showerhead and an aerator for my kitchen sink. Both of these items, and a lot of other water-saving devices, are free to Portland Water Bureau customers. Those of us who are tenants have to get our landlords to order them, because they are the customers, but I feel like any landlord would be happy to do it, because of the savings in money, if not the lower environmental impact. My current showerhead is one of the 5 gallon per minute ones, the new one will be 1.5 gallons per minute. This will save so much in terms of water and money, and also will make my hot water last longer! The aerator will decrease the amount of water that comes out of the kitchen faucet, without decreasing the pressure. My landlord made it sound like he had ordered these for all the apartments in the house!

Mixed in with all this, I continue to work on my personal statement for my application to PSU and round up my letters of recommendation. I anticipate I will be happily busy now through Christmas weekend! I wish you all the happiest of holidays. May you be surrounded by good friends and family, good food and good music!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Advent of a Sewing Machine

Either I’m a giant nerd, or a pioneer at heart. Hopefully both, but these days the thing I am most excited about is my sewing machine! With my mending pile getting out of hand, and lots of ideas for gifts involving sewing, and a desire to be able to repair my clothes in such a way as to make them last, I invested in a sewing machine a couple months ago. When I say invested, what I actually mean is I bought one from a Craigslist posting for $30. I’m very pleased, as it was something of a gamble. I’m not overly familiar with electric sewing machines, having grown up using my parents’ 1910-vintage cast iron treadle machine. But I understand all the parts and how they work, so I was able to make sure that this one was at least functional.

One big piece of simple living is to barter for services or make use of a friend’s skills instead of paying money for something. In this case, my good friend Bonnie, who has worked in a variety of costume shops and therefore knows her way around a sewing machine, helped me get mine in working order. She came over and we tested it out, took apart the entire bobbin casing, tested all the parts, and got it rolling. I maintain that the best way to understand a new city is to get lost in it, and thus the best way to get to know a machine is to take it apart and then put it back together again. We got everything squared away for free (and a cup of tea), as opposed to spending $80, the minimum cost I could find in Portland for getting a sewing machine serviced.

Bonnie guessed that my machine is 1950s vintage or so, and it works fine, with a few foibles. It took me another half hour to adjust the bobbin tension and get everything back to just the right settings when I actually got it out to sew for the first time, but the advantage of it being finicky is that I am feeling very confident in my ability to adjust it and get it fixed on my own now, having had plenty of opportunity to do so. I’ve already completed some Christmas presents (I can’t say what they are as their recipients read this blog) and mended a whole pile of socks. For whatever reason, every single pair of socks I own had become “air conditioned,” as my brother and I called it as kids. So I sat down for half an hour, and now they are all reinforced and warm again, hopefully ready to last a good long while more. The amount of money I spent on my sewing machine has already been made back just in the savings on socks! The savings in time is huge too- after doing all my mending by hand for years, I can already feel the difference.

I actually know very little about sewing. I don’t know how to use a pattern, but I’ve sewed plenty of basic things like bags, and can do anything involving hemming, and basic mending. I hope to learn from friends so I can actually get to a point of sewing some of my own clothes, but for now I am content to catch up on my mending so I am not put in a position to spend money on new clothes. Even when my clothes do wear out, they will go into my rag bag, where they become fabric for patches, napkins, or any number of useful things.

I love the feeling of having produced a clothing or gift item myself, and I like having projects on hand to get done in a few spare minutes. It’s funny that I could feel so useful just from having mended some socks, but I really do. Yesterday I also finished crocheting a gift item, so now it’s time to start another project to have on hand for when I need to kill a few minutes. I also want to learn to knit this winter, as I think it will prove more versatile than crocheting.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Happy Lack of Plastics

Plastic is not biodegradable, and it is a synthetic material, something our bodies can’t handle. That’s enough to make me take a few steps to decrease the number of plastic products I use. I don’t want to ingest any plastic, and I don’t want to create garbage if I don’t have to.

First of all, while I sometimes store food in plastic containers, I NEVER heat food in plastic. I don’t care if it says “microwave safe.” There are plenty of sources out there showing that the denotation “microwave safe” only means that the container won’t melt if you heat it. It does not refer to the safety of your food once it has been heated in the microwave in a plastic container. If you ask me, the fact that a plastic container won’t melt when heated to high temperatures is more dodgy than if it actually did melt. There’s enough research out there to convince me that heating food in plastic is not a good idea- plastic molecules can slough off of plastics and into food when the container or wrapping is heated and cooled repeatedly.

I mostly store food in glass jars and in Pyrex Tupperware-style containers. Unfortunately the latter are fairly expensive, but they are in fact microwave safe in the true sense. As for the jars, I use some canning jars, and the rest are jars that other food products are sold in. I try not to buy food that is packaged in plastic, and if I have to buy peanut butter or something canned, I try to always find it in glass packaging so the jars can be reused. I do freeze a lot of foods in plastic, since any glass besides Pyrex doesn’t usually stand up to freezing, even with room left for the expansion of broth, etc. I have less qualms about freezing in plastic, since I only let things thaw in the plastic and remove before heating.

I cook exclusively in cast iron, ceramic, Pyrex, and stainless steel. Hopefully we all know that “non-stick” pans are a big no-no. For me, all it takes is one good look at a pan that has been sliced up by knives and spatulas and is missing some of its metal lining, lost into food at some point or the other. Cast iron is the original non-stick material, and I swear by it. I’ve stopped using aluminum pans as well. There is some research out there that suggests aluminum is linked to Alzheimers, but from what I can tell, the amount of aluminum you would have to ingest for it to cause dementia is HUGE. Still, I don’t like the idea of molecules of a foreign metal entering my body by any means. (On a side note, aluminum is the active ingredient in most antiperspirants—a substance that is put straight into pores. I began using an aluminum-free deodorant several years ago, made by Adidas, of all people. It is effective and safe, as far as I can tell. I admire Tom’s of Maine as a company, but their aluminum-free deodorants make me smell like a giant hippie).

A few years ago I also got rid of my plastic water bottles, and bought two metal water bottles. One is a Klean Kanteen, made from stainless steel. The other is a Sigg, from the Swiss company. It is made from aluminum, but with a liner that is supposedly proven to not leach anything harmful into the liquid in the bottle. I guess in some ways everything is a gamble, but I feel better with metal than with plastic.

I do still use plastic bags for storing some dry foods and for things like veggies in the fridge. My major complaint about plastic bags is that people often throw them away after one use, forgetting that things like bread bags are recyclable, and that sandwich bags are reusable. I wash and re-use all plastic bags, unless they are hopelessly destroyed (i.e. something rotted in it) in which case I do throw them away, or unless they get torn, in which case they get recycled. I rarely get plastic grocery bags at the store- that only happens if I forget my canvas totes and have too much to carry without a bag. I’m usually on my bike and put all my groceries in my pack. I always try to take my own produce bags from home, so I’m not creating extra waste by taking new ones from the store. Each time I wash bags at home, I put a bunch of the clean produce bags in my pack or totes so I don’t have to think about it when I go to the store.

In some cases it’s hard to know what to believe. I feel like I run on instinct mostly, feeling better about using more stable substances like glass and cast iron for cooking purposes. The only thing research is saying for sure is that plastic wrapping can leach into food at harmful if heated or cooled, while also acknowledging that harder plastics can leach into food, but at such small amounts that a “harmful” accumulation is almost impossible. Still, I choose to believe that any accumulation of a foreign substance in my food or drink is unacceptable, as is putting unnecessary plastic in the garbage, which will end up in a dump and never break down.

Links to research and news regarding plastics:

The FDA’s Statement on Bisphenols (BPAs), 2008:

2005 Research Suggesting Cancer Link to Plastic:

Alzheimers Society article on aluminum as a contributing factor: