Living Like Grandma

Grandma Jean's houseI’ve been dreaming about my grandmother’s house lately.  Grandma Jean lived for over fifty years in the same small house in Beech Grove, Indiana, one of many built for veterans like my grandfather who had just returned from World War II.  The houses are tiny by today’s standards.  I’m not sure a queen-sized bed would fit into my mom’s childhood bedroom.  Her two brothers shared a bedroom tacked onto the back of the house.  Everyone shared one bathroom.

But that’s the way it was back then.  The closets were tiny and nobody minded because nobody had that much stuff anyhow.  An outfit for each day of the week plus a set or two of dress-up clothes for special occasions.  A few cherished toys.  The family record album collection.  My grandmother’s art supplies.

Grandma Jean also lived without a car, which was a bit unusual.  She never did learn to drive, even though Grandpa died young.  She took the bus downtown to her job at the Indianapolis Star.  Her house was only a few blocks from Main Street, complete with a small grocery store, a hair salon, a couple of restaurants, the community center, and a revolving assortment of other retail establishments.  She had neighbors and fellow church members who helped out when she needed a ride somewhere further away.  Eventually, her kids learned to drive and were happy to chauffeur her around.

I’m sure I overly idealize the way things were.  I’m sure there were days it was a pain in the butt to live in a tiny house, to fight over the bathroom, to miss out on some last-minute plan due to lack of transportation.  And yet I dream of her house and wake feeling that I’m missing out.  I think for me her tiny house symbolizes community and comfort.  More than that, it signifies a lifestyle of simplicity where material possessions are few and connections to people are many.  I want to live in a neighborhood where I bump into my neighbors on the way to the barbershop.  I want a house that is cozy and efficient and appropriately sized for exactly what I need – no extra closets where I’ll be tempted to accumulate junk.  I want a front porch that invites passersby to stop in. Our car can hide out back – if we even have one.

Really, I wonder if my dreams of Grandma’s house were conjured up by Will’s dreams for our future.  He is ready for a new house, one that will let us live a more pedestrian lifestyle – and by that, I mean a lifestyle based on walking, not a humdrum lifestyle.  His new job at IU has reminded him what a burden a car is on campus and how much nicer it is to walk through the beautifully landscaped grounds.  He has always been a passionate walker and recently he has become a believer that we really could live car-free.

All we need now is the house.  It doesn’t necessarily need to be small, although with our budget we won’t be able to afford anything large in our target area.  We want it to be within walking distance of campus and walking distance of a grocery store.  Ideally we’d also be near the bus station and my parents.  And with a bit of a lot, enough for a tiny garden or a couple of fruit trees – maybe even some chickens?  I’m willing to trade a bit of square footage inside for a bit of acreage outside.

The more I dream, the more I imagine us with a house that is just big enough.  A house that is just like Grandma’s.


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Guilty Sunday Driver

Lake_Monroe_012614I have an eco-confession to make.  I am a Sunday driver.  I loooove getting in the car and driving along back country roads on the weekend when I have the chance just to wander aimlessly.   Southern Indiana is truly beautiful and I love exploring farms and forests and tiny towns.

Alas, I feel guilty wasting gas and celebrating pavement.  I may drive a Prius with excellent gas mileage but it’s still not ecoconscious to go for a joyride.  Beyond that, I’ve also realized that watching the world through my windshield separates me from truly experiencing the places I drive through.

Yesterday I did a little better – I went Sunday driving with a purpose.  My mom and I signed on as citizen scientists with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources this winter.  More specifically, we signed on to be eagle watchers, which involves driving out to Lake Monroe to make observations. There are a surprising number of bald eagles out at the lake, considering they were only introduced in the late 1980’s.  There are also a surprising number of access points to the lake that of course are quite far from each other because there’s a big ol’ lake in the middle.  Driving opportunity!

I focused on the southwest corner of the lake, hitting the two viewing stations at the dam/spillway, the Salt Creek Boat Ramp, and the Fairfax Boat Ramp.  The lake was iced over and a fellow spotter pointed out a deer carcass that she said had been covered in eagles on Saturday.  Alas, I saw only one and he (she?) was flying high overhead, enjoying the balmy 45 degree weather.  Still, my sense of duty as an observer got me out of my car and into the outdoors where I could log my requisite 30 minutes of observation time.

While I still get a thrill every time I see an eagle, this time the most captivating part of my experience was listening to the ice.  I’m not sure if it was the fast rise in temperature or the light breeze off the water or both but I could hear the lake ice cracking and tinkling as it shifted from one solid surface to a moonscape of jagged pieces.  A few times the noise was so melodic I thought I was hearing stray wind chimes.  Other times it sounded like a large rock had suddenly plummeted into the water.  Mostly I was just glad not to be out on the ice, heart jumping with every CRAAACK!

Did I really need to drive those fifteen miles?  No, probably not.  Did I feel like I was being constructive?  Yes, I did.  Did I enjoy myself?  Absolutely!  It may be a long time before I completely give up my Sunday drives (or even better, replace them with Sunday bicycle rides) but for now I take the intermediate steps of 1.) driving with a purpose and 2.) making sure I get out of the car.  Because there’s a whole big world out there, even in the frozen winter.


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New Year, Same Dream

Nesting wren by Moschell on Flickr

Nesting wren by Moschell on Flickr

Welcome 2014. I think New Year’s is a bit overrated, probably because I hate staying up past 10:00.  Still, I truly enjoy the feeling of a fresh start.  It’s a comforting feeling, especially after a rough year.

I’ve moved away from doing New Year’s resolutions and yet I always feel the urge to do something so I was delighted to stumble across two alternatives this year.  The first was an article by Kelly McGonigal, a scientist who studies willpower and happiness.  Her research indicates that it’s beneficial to both your happiness and your willpower to spend some time looking back.  We should savor our memories of good times and also remind ourselves of the strengths we showed in past hard times.

One of her suggested exercises was to “list your favorite memories and triumphs of 2013, including the challenges you faced with courage or humor (even if things didn’t turn out the way you hoped).”   I was glad she included that extra nudge because 2013 was a very tough year for me and I initially had trouble finding anything positive.  My daughter was stillborn and it was devastating.  My grandfather passed away shortly after, as if to remind me that things can always get worse.  It would be easy to write off last year as one to be forgotten.

But there were good memories too, and even during the worst times I discovered strength I didn’t know I possessed.  It felt empowering to write it all down and to focus on the positive.  I also enjoyed writing a letter from my future self thanking my present self for working hard in 2014.  My visions of the future are still a bit fuzzy but I can imagine looking back on 2014 with satisfaction.

Of course, I do love setting goals and feeling purposeful so I also spent some time with Mark Manson’s Life Purpose Guide.  It’s a short series of writing exercises that he suggests doing once a year to remind yourself of where you’re heading and how to get there.  While I can’t say it gave me that light-shining-down-from-heaven LIFE PURPOSE, I feel good about the direction I’m heading and the things I hope to achieve this year.  I (still) want to have a baby.  I want to move into a new home that will allow Will and I to minimize use of our car.  I want to be trained as a life coach.  I want to spend more time cooking (with the hope that I will get better with practice).    I want to return to blogging about green living.

If I were to pick one word as my theme for 2014 it would be “nesting.”  I’m gathering bits and pieces to make my home and my career cozy and supportive.  I’m settling in and embracing who I am.  I’m continuing to grow and to accept that I can only control my own actions.  I’m living green and exploring life’s possibilities with Will.

And I’m writing again.  It’s good to be back.

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Program Your Thermostat

As I said earlier, I am working through each “Task of the Month” suggestion proposed by Earth Care Indiana and was happy to discover that we’ve already done the March task.  Sort of.

March task: Install and Use a Programmable Thermostat

This was a task we managed to do four years ago when we were still renting, as it is minimally intrusive (although you do have to do a little wiring to get it set up).  We brought the thermostat to our house when we moved but upgraded soon after to a version that tracks the number of hours that the furnace or air conditioner runs.  It’s a nice feature when you’re trying to get a feel for how often the furnace or A/C kicks on in the night. (Yes, we have our thermostat set to “Auto” so that the whole house fan only runs when the house is being actively heated or cooled, which is more energy efficient than setting it to “On” and letting the fan run constantly.)

However, we haven’t used the programming feature on our thermostat very much for the last two years because we keep it set at 60 degrees during the winter and 78 during the summer.  Will works from home so it doesn’t make sense for us to use an “away” setting during the day.  We could probably let the house get a little colder overnight during the winter but 60 seems cold enough.  In the summer, it is a question of how much heat/humidity we can stand and our tolerance actually goes down at night when we are trying to sleep so there’s not much wiggle room there.

We did add a ceiling fan in our bedroom last fall, which we’re looking forward to using this season.  Last year we got by with an assortment of box and pedestal fans.  Fans do use a little energy but a lot less than our A/C and they have an amazing impact when blowing directly on us.

Earth Care suggests (for their “advanced” step) to experiment with greater setback – e.g., push your comfort zone by setting the temperature a little cooler than you normally would in the winter and warmer than you normally would in the summer.  I feel like we have done a good job with this and am holding off on trying anything more extreme for the moment.  I think our next step will be to improve the curtains, shades, and vegetative shading on our house to minimize heat gain through our lovely south-facing windows during the hot, sunny summer months.

Our house is actually quite well designed with respect to the sun.  We have lots of windows on the south side but with an overhang to keep out the sun during the peak months of summer (except for our bedroom window, for some reason).  We have almost no windows on the north side, which minimizes heat loss from cold wind in the winter.  Additionally, we have windows that open on all sides of the house so it’s easy to get good cross-ventilation on pleasant days.  All we need to do is add some evergreen plants on the north side of the house for insulation and some deciduous vines for shade on the south side.  I’m thinking arctic kiwi and passionfruit on the south side and native honeysuckle on the northside.  Stay tuned for more details…

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Imagine Bloomington

I go to a lot of meetings, as someone who is interested in improving my community and willing to serve on committees.  Sometimes I have trouble getting excited about a particular meeting, which is what happened when I recently agreed to attend a public input session for updating the Growth Policies Plan for Bloomington.  I am fascinated by urban growth and excited to have a voice but it was the third night in a row of rushing home for dinner before heading out the door to yet another meeting…

Happily, I had a very nice time talking with a few fellow Bloomingtonians about the future of our fair city.  We were asked to brainstorm words & phrases that describe our city now and our hopes for Bloomington in the future.  The word cloud shown is our ideas for the future, and you can see how Will and I influenced our little group.

Okay, granted “sustainability” is pretty tiny but you can clearly see how we’ve been thinking about walking as a main form of transportation, both as a way to reduce our carbon footprint and to increase our general health.  We also mentioned better public transit, better access to trails, better opportunities for business development, and how to better integrate our diverse population that ranges from university students to retirees.

Will has been walking close to 20 miles a week and I hope to catch up with him when I end my contract in Columbus.  We also want to start biking more and are excited that the B-Line Trail is now complete and fairly close to our house.  However, access is still a big issue, especially in our neck of the woods where there are no side paths for a couple of miles.  It’s quite a design challenge, really.  The B-Line Trail used to be a railroad so naturally all the houses and businesses turned their backs to it and often put up fences to try and screen out the passing trains.  Now it’s a bustling trail filled with potential customers and businesses further north (in the downtown area) are adding patio areas, “walk-thru” windows, and back entrances that attract trail users.  Our neck of the woods is mainly residential with a few spurts of industrial/warehouse areas, which means there is less incentive to open up to the trail. (In the image shown, our house is the yellow star and the B-Line Trail is the long green line on the right.  Our closest access point is the railroad spur heading southeast that is marked with a dashed yellow line.  However, if we are headed north (towards downtown), we often walk one block further north on Rogers Street and cut straight east at Hillside.)

I am serving on yet another committee that is looking at how to develop the surrounding area into a park and I am hopeful we will be able to come up with some realistic access points to solve this dilemma.  For now, it’s easy for us to get on the trail to head north (towards downtown) but if we want to go south (towards Will’s business partners), we have to go up and then back down again.  Still, we’re glad to have the B-Line and are excited to see Bloomington get even better for walkers and bikers.

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Cozy Up Your Water Heater

maggie_water_heaterOne of my goals this year is to complete each “Task of the Month” suggestion proposed by Earth Care Indiana.  I think this is a great program because it is so achievable – simply complete one task per month for a year to significantly decrease your home’s energy usage.  Will and I have already taken a lot of these steps so my secondary goal is to create a “green belt” advanced level of tasks.


January’s task: Insulate Your Water Heater.

We did this already, although I can’t remember when and apparently did not think to write a blog post about it (*gasp*).  Probably it was in 2010 when we started the Energy Challenge.  It was very easy, except for the bit about crawling around in the crawlspace.  For gas water heaters, you have to be careful not to crowd the venting whereas with electric water heaters, you can wrap the whole thing up as snug as you’d like.  A friend suggested that a good way to evaluate the intrinsic insulation of your water heater is to put your hand on it and see how warm it feels.  Ours was a little bit warm but not very, so I think the insulation is a good idea but perhaps not as significant as it could be with an older water heater.

water_thermostatThe other suggestion from Earth Care is to lower the temperature on the water heater thermostat to 120 F.  Our water heater has two thermostats: one for the top heating element and one for the bottom heating element.  We initially turned them both down quite far, which saved us a lot of energy during the Energy Challenge.  In fact, I think we turned one of them completely off, which motivated us to take short showers before the hot water ran out.  Unfortunately, it also made me rather grumpy as I could not take a bath at all and my showers often ended on a lukewarm note.

About six months ago, I was feeling deprived and turned both thermostats back up.  I gloried in the decadence of hot water for the first couple of months but I have to admit, I took it too far the other way.  We really do not need scaldingly hot water.  This weekend I tweaked both thermostats to try and get them both around 120 F, which should be hot enough for baths and relatively long showers but not so hot that it can scald out of the tap.  We may have to keep finagling a bit.  (Note to water heater designers: Please do not design the cover of the thermostat to be attached with a Phillips head screwdriver and the thermostat itself to require a flat head screwdrive – that’s just annoying!)

As to coming up with an “advanced” task on this subject, the next logical hot water step should to install a solar hot water heater.  It could be a fancy solar hot water panel integrated with the house plumbing, or a freestanding 3-season backyard solar shower.  We are leaning towards the latter, although hoping to build one nicer than the camp shower  we experimented with in 2010.  The challenge is figuring out a good design and location – especially one that fits our budget and construction abilities.  I’m moving it up on the “To Be Designed” list.  Right after “chicken coop.”

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Pruning & Protecting the Future Fruit

enterprise_appleThe daffodils are blooming, six weeks earlier than last year.  Is it global warming?  Is it the weirdness of Indiana weather?  I say “yes” to both.  Two weeks ago, I took advantage of an unseasonably warm day to inspect my fruit trees and do a little pruning.  I am an overly squeamish pruner so this year I decided to make up for years of neglect with some serious hacking at the trees I planted in 2009 (the ones that actually look like trees).  My 2010 and 2011 trees still look pretty twiggy.  They also suffered from severe nibbling by the local deer population, so my pruning focus for them was mostly surgical.

Once I was done cutting off bits and pieces, I determined that I really need more deer protection if I want these babies to grow.  The rule of thumb for trees (and all perennial plants) is that the first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap.  I have several that are due to start leaping and I don’t want the deer to interfere any more than they have.  So, last weekend I installed random bits of fencing around all my fruiting trees and bushes, except the Nanking cherry bushes, which I think might take over the Earth if left to their own devices.  They have definite nibble marks but also have formed about 5,000 buds that look poised to burst into flower.

covered_fig_miniI also made the bold decision to uncover my fig tree from its winter cocoon of foam padding, leaves, and plastic bags.  Last year I waited until Easter and a week later it sent up new stems from the rootbud, which made me worry that the rest of the tree was dead.  However, the rest of the tree perked up a week later and looked just great so I’m hoping for the same results this spring.  Actually, I’m hoping for an explosion of growth and even more delicious fruit for me to enjoy.  (I ate about 15 figs last year – yum!)

Here’s a quick rundown of what I’ve planted since we moved in.  So far only the fig has produced fruit but that’s pretty typical, as trees and bushes take awhile to mature (especially when they keep getting chomped on).  If you’re in a hurry you can plant some small fruiting plants – I did eat some alpine strawberries and huckleberries last year from plants I grew from Baker Heirloom seeds.  And of course, there’s always gleaning – I think I scrounged about three pounds of mulberries from my neighbors’ trees, as they don’t consider them “proper fruit.”  Whatever; they were delicious.  Anyway, here’s what is in my yard:

  • Apple, Enterprise, 2009, Trees of Antiquity
  • bare_fig_miniApple, Akane, 2009, Trees of Antiquity
  • Apple, Liberty, 2010 Brambleberry Farm
  • Pear, Seckel, 2010 Brambleberry Farm
  • Fig, Chicago Hardy, 2010, Brambleberry Farm
  • Cherries, Nanking, 2010, Renaissance Farm
  • Chokecherry, 2011, Garden Fair
  • Pawpaws, 2010, Brambleberry Farm
  • Gooseberry, 2010, Brambleberry Farm
  • Jostaberry, 2010, Brambleberry Farm
  • Trifoliate Orange, 2010, Brambleberry Farm
  • Currant, Black (I think), 2011 Brambleberry Farm
  • Black Raspberry, Jewel, 2011 Brambleberry Farm
  • Blackberry, Apache (I think), 2011 Brambleberry Farm

Plans for this Spring

  • Elderberry, grown by me from a cutting and currently in a pot indoors
  • Blueberries, varieties TBD, Backyard Berry Plants
  • Kiwi, Arctic, from a fellow permaculturist

Some day my yard will be full of delicious fruit.  Soon….

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How to Commute Like a Lady

lady_bicycling_cropI am in the early stages of planning a roundtable discussion with the working title “How to Bicycle to Work and Still Look Great – Tips & tricks from working women on how to look professional, stay safe, and have fun while traveling to work by bicycle.”  It will take place the evening of May 2nd at the Monroe County Public Library and I have recruited an excellent panel of ladies who are experienced at commuting by bicycle.

I hope to count myself among them by the time the roundtable happens.  Alas, I have a long way to go.  For the last six months, I have been driving to Columbus three days a week, racking up 300 miles a week on the odometer.  In February, I was also commuting twice a week to Indianapolis, bringing the grand total to about 500 miles a week.  Bleah.  Even with a Prius, it’s hard to justify that kind of carbon footprint. 

My contract position in Columbus expires at the end of March and I hope I can find long-term employment within bicycling distance of home, or at the very least a job within Monroe County.  The weather is becoming much more appealing as of late so I look forward to at least doing some recreational biking.  I’d love to become a bicycle commuter but if that doesn’t work out, my secondary goal is to be ready when the next “Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Bike Ride” comes around.  It’s organized by a couple of inspirational women cyclists who work for the City of Bloomington.  This year it was held on February 18th and promoted with the following description:

Rain nor sleet nor snow nor roving bands of zombies will keep us from the streets during Bloomington’s first annual Terrible  Horrible No Good Very Bad Bike Ride.  The 5-mile ride will traverse urban cycling routes around Bloomington to prove that it’s possible to bike in all kinds of weather.  Intended for both the fearful and the fearless.  If you can ride on this day, you can ride any day.

Alas, ever fickle Mother Nature ruined their carefully laid plans by providing a warm and sunny day but the 40+ folks who showed up all claimed to have a wonderful time anyway.  They talked about clothing options, bicycle fenders, and other techniques for minimizing the impact of icky weather.  Next year, I want to be a confident velocipedestrienne riding along with them, fearing neither cars nor rain nor roving bands of zombies.  My role models are the confident lady bicyclists who terrorized the streets in the 1860’s, as captured by the wonderful artist Kate Beaton.

Watch out, world.

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Open House Feb 26th

house_portrait01We’re having an open house! 

608 W. Guy Avenue Bloomington, IN
Sunday, February 26th, 2:00-4:00PM

We are hoping it will be sunny enough to demonstrate our solar furnace (that big black box shown behind us).  For a sneak preview, check out our post about how it works and our more recent post about our experience so far.  We have enjoyed the extra heat a lot and think it is a very neat form of solar technology.  I’m afraid our pup won’t be joining us; she’ll spend the afternoon with a friend so she doesn’t get overly stimulated by NEW PEOPLE IN THE HOUSE OH MY GOODNESS.  And hopefully between now and then we will give the inside of the house a nice scrubbing plus have time to bake some cookies!  No promises about the yard, though.

Please RSVP by sending a note to us at maggie at  Thanks!

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Winter Laundry – Will It Dry?

snowy_laundryDuring the Energy Challenge, we discovered that our dryer is a major electricity hog (as pretty much all heat-generating electrical appliances are).  In warm, sunny weather it was pretty easy for me to get motivated to use our clothesline but I’ve found it more challenging during the winter months.  I also wasn’t sure if laundry would actually dry in sub-freezing temperatures, so I decided to do some test runs.

First test (shown in picture) – inconclusive.  Approximately 5 minutes after I hung my laundry to dry, clouds rolled in and proceeded to dump snow on my clean clothes.  I brought them inside and hung them on our indoor clothesline, where they dried after about 36 hours.

Second test – success.  It was very sunny and temperatures were hovering right around freezing so I’m still not totally sure how it would go on a really cold day.  It has been a weirdly warm winter and we haven’t had many super cold days.  Today, in fact, it was about 65 degrees out, which is just wrong for February.  The poor daffodils are sending up shoots and buds, which I have no doubt will be frozen off in another week or two when our “normal” weather resumes.  With a little luck, there will be a sunny day in the teens when I can get a definitive answer to my laundry question – will it dry?

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