Archive for August, 2008

Finding a Sustainable Schedule

Grandpa and Mary in FloridaBy the time this article posts, Will and I should be lounging on a beach in Florida with my grandfather and my aunt.  Well, more accurately, we should be stumbling out of the car after a long day on the American interstate system.  This trip won’t rank high on our sustain-o-meter but we’re ready to get away for awhile and are hoping to spot some sea turtles hatching.

I feel like I keep saying that it’s been a crazy busy month but that it keeps being true.  September will be no better since we’ll return from this trip, have ten days at home, then take off again to spend two weeks in North Carolina attending two weddings and a food conference.  Then we’re back home in time for another wedding, then a couple weeks to finish preparations for our wedding, then we’re off for our honeymoon.  Perhaps November will be calm.

I’d love to get back on a more regular schedule but the other big issue is that I am constantly juggling my schedule to accomodate my different jobs as well as my participation with various non-profit groups like the Center for Sustainable Living and the Citizens Advisory Council for the solid waste management district.  I suggested to Will that we should try to reestablish our cooking schedule at least but he pointed out that this fall I’ll be gone every Wednesday for an organic gardening class, I have one board meeting the first Monday of each month, another the second Tuesday of each month, another the Tuesday preceding the second Wednesday of every month (no, I’m not making that up) plus random job meetings and other commitments so it’s hard to come up with a weekly routine.

Whew.  Are you tired just reading all that?  I am.  Still, I want to be involved in the community.  I think I would get restless and lonely if I stayed home as much as Will does.  So how do we find a schedule that feels sustainable?  I’m not sure yet, but I am looking forward to November…

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Learning Basic Home Skills

I took a trip up to Indianapolis today to participate in a Farm Bureau workshop about how to bring farming education into the classroom.  It seems like a natural fit for me since one of my jobs is doing environmental education and the other is working with farmers but I still have to figure out how to combine them (and convince someone to pay me for the combination.)

Most of the workshop participants were farm wives who had a deep respect for agriculture and a deep sense of alarm for the growing disconnectedness between kids and farming.  One of the lecturers pointed out that the majority of kids in school today are now 3, 4, or even 5 generations removed from farming.  When you ask where food comes from, their automatic response is “from the grocery store.”  Sure, it’s true and it’s even amusing but it’s a little shocking to think that many of them don’t understand where bacon comes from and even if they do, they’ve never actually seen a pig.

Another presenter commented that many kids today aren’t even exposed to the basics of home economics.  They aren’t asked to help with cooking and often there isn’t even very much cooking that takes place.  Many households are largely dependent on prepared foods.  The days of sewing a new dress with mom and constructing a dog house with dad seem like they were light years ago.

Now, I’m 30 so it’s not like I grew up with Betty Crocker and Donna Reed as major role models but I did get the chance to do cooking, sewing, gardening, carpentry, camping, and building with my parents.  I wish I had done more.  My sewing skills are extremely limited and Will and I are both desperate to have better home repair skills.  (The last set of trim we hung looks decidedly better than the first but I still wouldn’t call it professional looking.)

I feel that being handy and having a good grasp on basic life skills empowers people to discover new ways to live greenly, ways that aren’t delivered to us in the form of slick green marketing.  I do okay in the cooking department and have saved some money doing home repairs but there are still things I don’t feel ready to handle.  I know it’s ludicrous to spend $70 on a rain barrel but I get nervous when I think about making one my own out of an old barrel and $10 in plumbing bits from the hardware store.

I am hoping to teach some of these skills to the kids I interact with but I’m also hoping to improve my own skills.  My days of classroom learning are over (at least for now) so I’m focused on either finding people willing to teach me what they know or organizing a group to stumble through a project together.  Anybody want to have a rain barrel party?

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Being green and being employed

A man hiding his face behind a green piece of paperI had a lot of trouble coming up with a topic for today’s post. I’ve got some things I’d like to talk about that aren’t quite ready to share (I should wear my bike helmet at least once before I mention it). Maggie’s been doing a lot of cool stuff recently too, but I’ve mostly just been working and arranging my work space. Not much fodder for posts there.

And then Student Doctor Green came to my rescue with a post title I know why the caged musician does a line of cocaine. In it, SDG talks about a particularly difficult form of social pressure. It’s like peer pressure except that the people pressuring you are often superiors or can affect your relationship with your superiors, which makes it even more difficult to ignore.

Just yesterday, I was reading about a similar situation in, of all things, an expose on car dealerships. The author, a writer for, went “undercover” at two dealerships and worked as a salesman for several weeks at each place. In one entry, he talks about how he started to fit in:

I spent all my time with other salesmen. They were my friends. Believe it or not, I tried to fit in, to belong. So I began to develop an interest in gold ties, white shirts and dress shoes. I even grew a goatee because a lot of the guys had beards. And I put gel on my hair and combed it straight back.

Wearing gold ties and growing a goatee aren’t bad habits (they might be bad choices still), but it’s easy to see how the same type of thing can make it difficult for you to stay true to yourself. If everyone around you is talking about their latest trip to Europe, it’s going to be hard to stick to your goal of not flying. It’s easier to rationalize a new car when everyone you know is getting them too.

This topic also reminds me of The Millionaire Next Door. The authors found that the richest profession wasn’t the one with the highest income (like professional sports players, lawyers, and doctors) because those also had high social pressure to seem wealthy (fancy houses, cars, etc.). The profession that had the most millionaires per capita was actually auctioneers. Nobody thinks twice when an auctioneer wears blue jeans and drives a ratty old pickup, so they often do. That allows them to save more money, which makes them wealthier than those earning more money.

This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to become rich as a doctor or lawyer. In the same way, I think it’s possible to stay green even if you’re not a gardener or self-employed.

If you’re lucky, you might find a subset of your profession that has similar goals. For example, as a doctor, you might look into doctors without borders. These are doctors who aren’t primarily motivated by wealth, so they should be more tolerant of other motivations (like making the world a better place, which jibes quite nicely with the green movement).

The most common active response is probably to try and green your group. Although that might work, I think it’s a long-term process, so it would be easy to burn out early on and turn your co-workers–or yourself–off of sustainability.

Another possibility, if the drawbacks aren’t too bad, is to carve a niche for yourself. Stake a claim in the areas in which you’d like to be defined and let the others go. If it’s important to you that you’re vegetarian, don’t hesitate to let people know (just don’t preach to them). On the other hand, if it’s not important that, as SDG says, you leave your thermostat at 78, you don’t have to tell them that. Hopefully, this’ll give you a reputation (“oh, he knows the good vegetarian places in town”) without annoying your coworkers.

The most drastic possibility is to switch careers. Work for yourself and pick new peers. Start a green landscaping business. Find a group of people who’ll help you achieve your goals and figure out how you can join them in what they do.

Of course, I’m lucky in that I don’t have to deal with other people’s expectations. I work with friends who are willing to listen as a ramble on about whatever crazy idea I’ve had most recently. And the fact that nobody can fire me helps too.

How do the rest of you deal with expectations at work?

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Make Soda at Home

Soda in the FridgeI think Will and I got into soda-making last year when we read “The Tightwad Gazette” and started thinking about the myriad ways we could save money if we just put some energy into it.  Or perhaps it was when we started paying attention to the amount of corn syrup contained in the food we eat and looking for an alternative.  Well, mostly I think it just sounded fun.  We started with a Mr. Root Beer kit from Bloomington Hardware.  I’m not much of a soda drinker but I do enjoy a good root beer and was intrigued by the idea of brewing my own.  Alas, that first batch tasted like the fake flabor in root beer hard candies.  Yuck.  We tried a couple other recipes and had some successes but then got involved in other projects and the soda-making supplies were ignored for awhile.

Lia Cuts GingerI decided this weekend I was ready to try again and invited my cousin Lia to come and help out.  (Little did she know it was an invitation to do all the work.  Mwa ha ha ha.)  We decided to make a gallon of ginger beer and a half gallon of root beer.  To make any sort of soda, the basic idea is to make a sweet herbal tea or juice mixture and then add a little yeast and let it ferment for a few days to create the carbonation.  Technically, the carbonation means that it’s very mildly alcoholic but I think we’re talking something like 0.01%.  Once it’s fizzy enough, you put the soda in the fridge to stop the fermentation.  Actually, the soda will keep fermenting in the fridge but at a much slower rate.  You do have to drink it within a couple of weeks or it’s liable to fizz all over the place.

Boiling gingerOur first step for the ginger beer was to cut up a bunch of ginger.  (I let Lia do the dirty work).  Our recipe said to combine 1.25 oz grated ginger, 1/2 gallon water, 1.75 C sugar, and  the juice from half a lemon and to simmer for 25 minutes.  The next step was letting it cool so we got started with the root beer.  I decided to try using Pappy’s sassafras tea concentrate this time.  It’s a greenish brown syrup sold at the grocery store for people who are too lazy to dig up sassafras root.  (Actually, there’s some big hooplah about how sassafras contains a carcinogen so there are lots of “safrole-free” products available at grocery stores but I read through the study they did on rats and a person would have to drink hundreds of cups of tea a day to get the same dosage so I don’t worry too much.)  We mixed the concentrate with water and sugar and heated it up to dissolve the sugar.  Then we had to wait for it to cool too.

Lia ladles soda into bottlesFor the ginger beer, the next step was to mix our ginger “tea” with half a gallon of cooler water to get the final mix around 75 degrees F to make the yeast happy.  We mixed 1/8 teaspoon of yeast with 1/4C of water and let it proof for a few minutes before mixing it all in.  The recipe book “Homemade Root Beer, Soda, and Pop” generally calls for ale yeast but the author says you can also use bread yeast, which is what we use.  After mixing the ginger beer, we added yeast to the sassafras tea to make root beer.  Then we poured each batch into bottles.  Will and I have been using two types of bottles.  There are four 1-Liter plastic bottles that came from our original Mr. Root Beer Kit.  They have special lids with little pressure release vents so if there’s too much pressure, they will fountain rather than explode.  The plastic bottles are also nice because you can squeeze them to judge the amount of carbonation (the bottles get firmer as the soda ferments).  Our other bottles are 1-pint (I think) brown glass swing-top bottles from Butler Winery, a local supplier of homebrew equipment (and also tasty wine).  The swingtops lids also provide emergency pressure venting and the bottles look super cool.

Due to warm August weather, our soda was ready in two days.  My verdict?  The ginger beer is quite tasty although it definitely has a strong bite.  The root beer is a bit disappointing, with a mild sassafras flavor and a very strong yeasty flavor.  Maybe I’ll try again using more sassafras concentrate and less yeast or perhaps I’ll go old school and try with real sassafras root.  We’ll see if Lia is up for some more hard labor.

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Water heating is a tankless job

An outdoor showerMy abstract thinking about a tankless water heater became more concrete recently when we realized that our (25-year old) water heater was broken. Not just broken, in fact, it was actively spraying water all over the crawlspace. The bad news is that it took us several weeks to realize. The good news is that the crawlspace has excellent drainage, since the water didn’t seem to stay. According to the water company, we used 66,000 gallons of water (usually, we use 1-2 thousand), so we’re glad it didn’t back up! We’re also dreading our water bill.

In the meantime, we had a plumber come out and make a quick $100 fix to the leak. The water heater still didn’t work because of a broken temperature breaker, so Maggie short-circuited it. It works well enough now, we just have to keep the water heater off at the main breaker so that it doesn’t overheat. The part is relatively cheap and easy to replace, but since the current water heater is so old, we decided to see how much it would cost to have it replaced.

Two weeks of phone calls to the plumber later and we finally had an estimate. They said that it would cost $800 to replace the current one with a new electric tank and that there was no such thing as a whole-house electric tankless water heater. $800 seems like a lot and I was pretty sure I’d seen the apparently mythical electric tankless versions, so I did some digging.

It turns out that the natural gas tankless water heaters can give a much better flow rate than electric ones. I’ve seen natural gas tankless run up to 10 gallons per minute with a 55-degree temperature change. Electric ones seem to peak at around 4 gallons per minute.

Still, 4 gallons per minute seems reasonable to me, so I’m not sure why the plumber thought it was impossible. We only really use hot water for showers and doing dishes (and we rarely do those at the same time). A standard shower fixture uses 2.5 gpm and a sink uses about the same, so that would be pushing things somewhat. Of course, the result would just be slightly cooler water, which wouldn’t be terrible either.

And if we got a low-flow showerhead and a sink aerator, we could reduce that to 1.5 gpm and 0.5 gpm respectively. That’s only 2 gpm, which would only require a middle-of-the-road tankless water heater.

Even if we got a dishwasher, we’d only need 3 gpm to make sure it would get hot water. It doesn’t seem like it would be a big deal to avoid taking showers while washing dishes, especially since we only wash dishes once or twice a week.

Or maybe I’m deluding myself and it would it be unbearably annoying to start a shower and then have it get colder as Maggie starts up our (hypothetical) dishwasher. Guests might come over and be devastated that the water got colder when they took a shower at the same time (in different showers, for those of you with dirty minds).

Another possibility is that Maggie and I just don’t use as much hot water as a usual household, so an electric tankless would work perfectly for us. How much hot water do you all use at once? More than a shower and a faucet? I’d love to hear from you to see if our water usage is really that unusual.

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Dry It! You’ll Like It!

Peaches in Dehydrator TraysThis evening I went over to my friend Bobbi’s house to help her dehydrate some peaches.  I am still a novice food preserver but I am really excited to learn more about drying food and Bobbi has been doing it for awhile.  Her persimmon leather is particularly tasty but she works seasonally and the fruit-of-the-month is peaches.  She buys seconds (the ugly, small, or slightly blemished fruit) from Olde Lane Orchard and dries, freezes, cans, or jams them although her preference is drying.

Washing PeachesWe started by washing the peaches in a sink full of water.  (Kind of makes you want to bob for peaches, doesn’t it?)  Eliza, Bobbi’s daughter, had requested that we do a batch without skins so our next step was to drop each peach into boiling water for a few minutes to loosen the skin.  This is the same technique used to get the skins of tomatoes for people who like their tomato sauce smooth.  Bobbi and I are both of the opinion that it’s easiest and most nutritious to leave the skins on most everything but we were curious to see how it went.

Peeling PeachesThe peeling part wasn’t too bad once we let the peaches cool a little.  The clingstone peaches seemed to peel a lot more easily than the freestone peaches, which may explain why they’re still a popular variety even though they’re a pain to cut up.  However, skinned peaches are incredibly slippery and I think it was sheer luck that none of them landed on the floor.  They also seemed juicier than normal when cut, perhaps because they were partially cooked by the boiling water.

Cutting peachesWe sliced them into roughly even chunks and put them on the dehydrator trays to dry.  In an ideal world, all the pieces should be exactly the same size so they dry at the same rate but in reality some of them get a little drier and some not quite as much and life goes on.  Drying at low temperatures preserves a lot more vitamins and nutrients than canning or freezing and if the moisture content is low enough, it can be stored for many months.

Dried PeachesBobbi’s dehydrator is much nicer than mine with adjustable heat and a timer so you can turn it on and set it to magically turn itself off in X number of hours, which is helpful since drying times for fruit tend to be pretty long – say 20 hours.  I left just a couple hours after we got the dehydrator loaded so I won’t be able to report back on the results for a few days but I’m sure they will be tasty and probably look like this batch that Bobbi did last week.  I’m looking forward to trying out a few recipes from “Dry It!  You’ll Like It!” with my baby dehydrator and hopefully finding a serious dehydrator of my own some day.

Special thanks to Eliza for taking pictures while we worked and for nourishing us with nori rolls!

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A New Commute

A new commute

Up until we moved, I had the perfect commute. I’d get up in the morning (to be honest, sometimes in the afternoon) and wander next door to see if my business partners had anything to discuss.

Now that I live two miles away from them, it’s a bit harder. We only have to be in the same room twice a week for status meetings, so I’ve been working exclusively from home most days. On the other days, I’ve been exploring different ways to get to and from work. Eventually, I’ll bike, but I want to make sure that I don’t miss anything along the way until I have my route picked. I also needed a helmet that wasn’t a decade old, but I got that today.

So far, I’ve walked to and fro three times, once for each main route. The part closest to work doesn’t change, because there’s only one road nearby. In the order I walked them, here they are.

The scenic route follows a former railway turned into a small path (that mostly parallels the main rail-to-trail that the city is currently working on). It’s a small path, but very pleasant. Unfortunately, I have to go past the house and then back along a road, so it takes about 45 minutes to walk.

The short route is similar to the scenic route except that it exists along parallel roads. This avoids the switchback required by the scenic route. Although most of the walk is through pleasant neighborhoods, there are some places that aren’t as nice. It’s only slightly faster too, at 40 minutes.

The shopping route is the longest and least pleasant of all. Almost all of it is along the busiest street around so there’s no shade. It also goes even further past the house than the scenic route. It took almost an hour for me to walk this one. The advantage of this route is that there are shops all along it. They’re mostly restaurants and car dealerships, but there are other things as well.

Starting next week, I’ll try biking the scenic route. Once winter gets here, snow and ice will probably make it hard going, so I’ll switch to the short route. If even that gets too much, I’ll walk the long way around and stop someplace warm for lunch.

In a car everything disappears too fast for me to get a handle on it. Now that I have a real bicycle commute, I’m looking forward to exploring it!

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Teaching Sustainability

If you were going to teach a couple of classes on how to live more sustainably, where would you start?  What of subjects seem most important and what subjects seem most appealing to the public?  Is it better to teach a subject you’ve already mastered or to invite your class to learn with you?

I’m thinking about teaching a class or two for People’s University this winter and I need to get my proposal in by September 15th.  It’s a very cool program run by Bloomington Parks and Recreation.  Anyone in the community can sign up to offer a class in… well, pretty much anything.  Most of the classes are either informative lectures on a topic (“Listening to the Beatles with New Ears”) or some sort of how-to class (Waltzing, Knitting, Glass Blowing, Sauteeing).  Some classes are just one session while others meet multiple times over several weeks.

Will and I actually met at a People’s University class – “Introduction to Massage” back in early 2006. This year we’re taking a class together called “This Whole House” to learn about home maintenance and repair.  I also signed up for the “Grow Organic Educator Series,” which I’ve been thinking about for a long time.  It’s eleven classes, two-hours each, so it was a big commitment but I’m really excited to learn more about organic gardening.

I taught a lecture in 2007 about ecovillages that was lots of fun but that didn’t come out as smoothly as I’d anticipated.  (I should have planned a little more.)  Now I’m thinking it’s time to try again but I can’t quite pick a subject.  It’s also hard to think about something that won’t happen until January or February but they like to get the course catalog figured well in advance.

Will and I could teach a class in soda-making, which we’ve talked about in the past.  I could do some research and do a talk on composting toilets and other humanure alternatives, a subject that intrigues me greatly but I’m not super knowledgeable about.  We could do a short intro on green living (as presented by

What kind of class would YOU sign up for?

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A ceiling fan saga

Armitage low-profile ceiling fanMaggie had her bridal shower this weekend, but I had some excitement myself. After two weeks of abortive starts and dangling wires, I finally managed to install a ceiling fan in my new home office. It’s a good candidate for a ceiling fan because it’s in a corner, which means there’s not much airflow. Unfortunately, the ceilings are relatively low (7.5 feet), which made it hard to find a short enough ceiling fan.

It seemed like every ceiling hugger fan had a huge light fixture and vice versa. But, after searching for several days, I found a fan with a total height of less than a foot. Even better, it was less than $20! All I had to do was take it back, remove the old light, and put the fan in.

Of course, that’s where the trouble started. Removing the old light was no problem, but it revealed a plastic fixture. Since the ceiling fan instructions said in big letters DO NOT INSTALL IN A PLASTIC FIXTURE, that was something of a problem. Even worse was that we couldn’t tell how the fixture was connected.

So we just left the wires dangling from the fixture while we figured out what to do. I moved a floor lamp into my office so that I could actually work and that’s where things stood for a week. Once we’d gotten some more important projects done, including using the old light to replace the hanging chandelier in the dining room (it was way too tall and included too many incandescent bulbs), we revisited the project by buying two of the three types of fan fixtures that Lowe’s had. The first just bolts directly to a joist. The other, more stable one, has extending arms that bolt to the two nearest joists. The one we didn’t get bolts underneath a joist, but our joists are right up against the ceiling, so we figured it couldn’t be that.

Armed with a new ladder (and a broom to measure distance), Maggie crawled into the attic and dug through the blown insulation for the top of the fixture. I stood below, ready to catch her and yelling up directions as I heard her moving around. She found and cleared it only to discover that it matched none of the three fixtures.

Instead, it wrapped up the sides of the joist and bolted into both sides. This left the fixture pretty shallow, but made it sturdy. And, of course, to install one of the metal fixtures, we’d have to cut a new hole.

Luckily, while checking the plastic fixture on Saturday, I scraped it clean enough that I could read the lettering which said that it was rated for ceiling fans! I immediately pulled the ceiling fan pieces out and started assembling only to be thwarted at the beginning by my lack of two washers.

Sunday, I grabbed my friend Ian and took off for the hardware store to return the metal fixtures and get my two washers. We returned triumphant and, two hours later, I had a ceiling fan in my office… just in time for the weather to cool down.

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Showering with Eco-Gifts

Sparkly ToesMy toenails are purple and sparkly.  This is somewhat unusual for me since I’m not much of a girly girl and I’m pretty dangerous with fingernail polish but this weekend my aunt Mary threw me a spa-themed wedding shower so I thought I’d go for a little glitz.  She did a great job emphasizing eco-friendly naturally beauty tips so we started our relaxation with an oatmeal face mask (complete with free range organic eggs) and homegrown organic cucumber slices on our eyes.  Then all my aunts brought out their home foot bath kits and assorted back massagers and we rotated through them all.

The fingernail polish wasn’t super organic but I must confess, it’s fun to play around with the stuff every now and then and I managed not to make a mess.  (Yay me!)  We drank mimosas and munched on an assortment of tasty snack foods.  Mary only had one shower game planned, which was just right.  We each got five clothespins and then the game was to try to get as many clothespins as possible by demanding them from anyone who crossed their legs.  My friend Maggie came in late and she said even before the game was explained, she noted that people were standing in rather wide-legged stances.

Lisa won the game handily and then everyone gathered around to watch me open gifts.  I must confess, I was a little overwhelmed at being the center of attention.  I don’t think I’ve opened gifts with an attentive audience gathered round since my 12th birthday.  But everyone had a good time and all the gifts were super sweet.  Maggie commented later that she thought it was great how everyone honored my lifestyle choices and plyed me with organic bamboo towels and fancy gardening tools.  I was especially touched by the gift of cloth napkins that were my grandmother’s before she passed away.  She was a practical woman and would probably tease me a little for being sentimental about a few pieces of cloth but she’d also be happy to know I’ll be putting them to good use.

And yes, there was one gift that made me blush.  Will didn’t blush when I showed him but that was in the privacy of our own home without a crowd of aunties and good friends watching closely so it’s not quite the same.  But hey, ya gotta have at least one.

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