Sunday, June 1, 2008

Party like it's 1899!

I've been experimenting with some homemade household and personal care products and thought I'd review the results thus far.

Liquid Laundry Soap: While making this soap my husband said he felt like he was living a page out of "Little House on the Prairie." But so far, it seems to work just fine. I tried it out on diapers first, because, well, that seemed like a good test of cleaning power. They passed the test. Since then we've used it for everything else and I have no complaints. I used Fels Naptha instead of Ivory soap (see link for recipe) since my mom swears by it as a stain fighter (and I agree).

Dishwashing Powder: I was excited about this recipe since I don't know what is in conventional powders and liked how simple it was to make. But...I've had mixed results. Bottom line, the dishes do not get as clean as they do with Cascade-style detergents. I mainly notice the difference on my coffee cups, which retain some coffee residue after I run the dishwasher (not just coffee stains, but stuff that I can wipe off with my finger). Also, some, but not all, of the dishes seem to have residue/film from the powder itself. I will tinker with the recipe before I abandon it, but I was a little disappointed.

Baking Soda Anti-perspirant: No recipe here, just a little baking soda brushed or patted on to your pits! A makeup brush or powder puff works well. I was skeptical, but I LOVE it! Anti-perspirants have never worked for me, and they contain more chemicals than I want to put on my body anyway. So I've been using Tom's of Maine natural, unscented deodorant for a long time and like it, but notice some B.O. by the end of the day. And, unfortunately, I'm a pit-sweater. I don't sweat a lot otherwise, but the pits get pretty moist. The baking soda keeps me drier than any anti-perspirant I've tried, and I have practically no B.O. And it's so cheap! It will probably take me a year or so to go through a $0.95 box. It may not work for everyone: my husband has reported skin irritation from the baking soda, which seems surprising to me, but the armpit does seem to be a sensitive area for some.

Vinegar: For just about anything. I've had success with it as a rinse agent in both the dishwasher and washing machine, and as a general cleaner (diluted with water). There are tons of websites devoted to the virtues of vinegar and baking soda.

When my shampoo runs out I'm going to try a new hair-cleaning regimen: pure vegetable oil bar soap followed by a dilute vinegar rinse. I'll report the results when I have them!

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Off the Wagon

May has been a little tough, not for any significant external reason, but mainly due to my own lack of resolve. I have an unfortunate habit of failing to follow through with ideas and projects, and I am determined not to let that happen with respect to my simpler living goals. I don't think of living more simply as a thing I am doing, but as a way of being.

So what went wrong this month?

For one thing, the weather has improved — which is great — and as a consequence I took advantage of more outdoor activities with my daughter. Often these were spur-of-the-moment: friend calls, says, "Hey, I'm going to the park for an hour, want to join me?" Saying yes often meant committing to driving since a bus trip or long walk requires prior planning and extra time. But saying no just on the principle of driving less would feel like an unnecessary sacrifice, like deprivation — which is counter to the goal of simple living. Living simply is supposed to make one feel more fulfilled, not less. And so, somewhat guiltily, I've been driving more than I'd like. I'm really not sure how to allow for spontaneity, when walking or busing necessitates planning ahead.

I also found myself eating out more this past month. Let me rephrase: I chose to eat out more this month — because it is about choices, after all. Why? Disorganization around meal planning, extra activities (see above) that cut into food prep time, out-of-town guests, laziness, feeling the urge to indulge...pick any or all of the above for any given dining excursion. And then there's the snowball effect: if I've already been "bad" and eaten out when I really shouldn't have, I (illogically) figure that the damage has been done and I might as well do it again. And again. Sort of like falling off the diet wagon.

Who knew that living simply would require so much discipline? Shouldn't it be simple?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"Lead paint: Delicious but deadly!"

(Remember when The Simpsons used to be really funny? Don't get the reference? That's okay, just play along.)

There's just so much to say about toys: most kids have too many, a lot of them are worthless junk, they often lack value or promote icky messages (see my aside below); the list goes on and on.

And then, to top things off, they're full of TOXINS! C'mon, now, these are products designed for kids — you know, those little creatures whose brains and bodies are still developing and who are therefore more susceptible to the effects of toxic chemicals. And did I mention that they really like to put stuff in their mouths? I'm on the Consumer Product Safety Commission's mailing list for toy recalls, and it's pretty appalling...."lead," "lead," "choking," "lead," "lead," "lead"....

And don't get me started on phthalates and bisphenol-A, which are only now coming under scrutiny but still abound in products-a-plenty, including teethers, bath toys, and bottles, among many other things.

So, we give our kids toys that may or may not be coated in delicious lead, creamy cadmium, and assorted hormonal and endocrine disruptors. We don't intend to, of course, but most people aren't aware of every recall, and not every product is tested. Besides, we assume that products will be safe — there are standards and regulations, after all — but considering the millions of toys imported from countless factories in countries halfway around the world, it is unrealistic to expect that every toy will be toxin-free.

But this really isn't about toxins in toys — there are plenty of more informed sources on that topic. It's just been on my mind lately as I recently had a few of my daughter's toys tested; her Mega Blocks (an older set, purchased about 5 years ago when I was a nanny) — the yellow one we had tested, at least — had high levels of lead (2.5 times the federally allowed amount, and about 16 times the amount now permitted in toys in Washington state due to the recent passage of a toy safety bill).

So, what to do? Well, one can (and should) do many things: be an informed consumer, buy locally from sellers who know exactly where and how the product was made, push for stricter safety's the really big fewer toys! Because the fewer toys you buy, the less you have to worry about exposing your kids to potentially hazardous chemicals. Think about how many toys you have in cupboards, buried in toy baskets and organizational units, and in closets. Rotate the toys you already have and voila!, it's almost like getting new ones. Most kids only have a few things they really enjoy playing with anyway.

If you're just itching to buy some new toys, stick with the basics since these allow for the most creativity and have staying power:

Saturday, May 10, 2008

(Something's) Gotta give

Those of us with kids, especially young ones, know how quickly the toys pile up. They overflow into every room of the house and the yard; we toss the less-favored or over-sized ones into the garage. Then a birthday comes along, or Christmas, and the piles expand.

If kids are showered with mountains of presents at every gift-giving opportunity, how can we fault them for expecting more, more, more? I would much rather see my daughter receive just a few nice gifts from her immediate family and closest friends. It makes my life easier since I don't have to find homes for a ton of new toys, and I don't have to figure out what to do with gifts from well-meaning friends that don't jibe with our values, or are just kind of junky/ugly/too-loud-and-beepy.

Just say Girl Power!
Now, let me get a condom out of
my boot before we talk money.

[I don't mean to sound like a snob, but there are some toys I don't want my daughter to have....say, anything in the I-want-to-be-a-prostitute-when-I-grow-up! category (aka Bratz dolls). I'm seriously not a humorless PC enforcer, but you don't have to be a feminist to gag a little when you think about what little girls are internalizing when they play with those dolls. But I digress.]

And, with fewer gifts, maybe I can adjust my daughter's expectations a little. Maybe, if I'm really lucky, she'll appreciate the things she has rather than just glancing at generic toy #526 then tossing it onto the pile as she shouts "Next!"

The complicating factor is that people really want to buy stuff for kids. I was recently invited to a friend's baby's birthday party, and the invitation stated "No gifts necessary." One of the other invitees, however, asked what I was going to buy (if anything); she felt that despite what the invitation said, one ought to bring a gift. I still opted not to purchase a gift (though I brought wine for the parents...I figured that they could use the booze more than their 1-year-old could use another push toy), but I couldn't help wondering if I appeared cheap, thoughtless, etc. as a consequence. Why does a celebration have to be about who buys what? And how do you opt out of the cycle of consumption (or at least scale back) without coming across as ungrateful or holier-than-thou?

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Johnny Crow would dig and sow...

...till he made a little garden.

My last attempt at a vegetable garden was about 14 years ago, and it was pretty comical. My general lack of planning and maintenance resulted in dozens of un-thinned, stunted carrots; five zucchini plants which produced more squash than we could have eaten in a year; broccoli that went to seed before I got around to harvesting it; you get the idea. Not exactly encouraging results.

I have never been a gardener. My mom gardens and loves it — I have tried to love it, but I seem to have missed out on that gene. The armies of dandelions surrounding the unkempt flowerbeds in my front yard and the victorious vetch that has claimed the back yard beds are a testament to my lack of tending. It's not that I don't notice or don't care about the weeds — I would love to look out my window and smile at beautiful cascades of flowers — but the work involved seems overwhelming (we happen to live on a large lot, which seemed cool when we bought our house and everything was nicely landscaped, but not so cool when we realized what it took to maintain that landscape). The weeds have been around a lot longer than I have, and they certainly know how to survive. One weed species in particular looks fairly benign on the surface, but has a really impressive, seemingly endless lateral root system that shoots new babies up to the surface. Seriously, I am in awe of this plant. If only it was a pretty flowering ground cover....

Despite my gardening deficiencies, I've decided to try growing vegetables again. Since I already cook and bake most of my family's food (I buy few prepared foods and we eat out infrequently), it only makes sense to take things a step further and cultivate some of my own ingredients. I've actually read some books this time and done a bit of preparation. I've probably skipped some important steps (like figuring out the pH of my soil), but at least I have a basic plan. I even discovered that the three-tier compost system we've been dumping our yard waste into (but otherwise totally ignoring) actually WORKS! You just throw stuff in, and eventually it turns into great dirt — who knew?

Honestly, it's not a freshly-dug grave. I may have accidentally
cleaved a few worms with my shovel, but that's it, I promise.

I've completed phase I, the tedious work of digging up sod, turning soil, and working in the compost, so it can only get easier, right? My garden plot is very small (I'll be doing some container gardening as well), but I think it's a good, manageable size for a novice like myself. It's not much to look at yet, but I hope to have photos with lots of lovely green stuff growing in the next couple of months.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Car Report Card

At the end of March I decided to cut back on my car use during the month of April. I allowed myself use of the car one day a week (on Thursdays) and every other Monday to accommodate regular engagements that would be difficult to get to via bus, bike, or feet.

I'd say I earned a B- overall. On average, I ended up driving one additional day a week. The usual reason was time: too far to walk and/or limited bus options.

For example, to take the bus to a friend's house a few miles away (a 10 minute drive), I would have to walk 15 minutes to the bus stop, ride for 15 minutes, then walk another 10 minutes; and since this particular bus only runs once an hour, I would likely either have a very short visit or an overly long one (and mess up my daughter's nap routine). I would also be limited to morning visits since my afternoon (post-nap/pre-dinner) window is too short to make busing feasible.

Several other friends are clustered in another part of town, about 20 minutes away by car. The same trip by bus (including some walking time) is an hour, minimum. I live outside of Seattle's urban core, and public transit options within and between these more suburban areas aren't abundant. The question, then, is whether the much lower cost of using public transportation (or bike/feet), reduced consumption of natural resources, and increased exercise balance out the significant time commitment and general lack of convenience.

Some days I'm completely sold on the idea of getting rid of my car (and sharing my husband's one or two days a week); other days, especially the cold and rainy ones, I am grateful to see that car sitting in the driveway... just in case I don't have the motivation or time to choose a car-less option.

Nonetheless, I think we're going to try and sell our (newer, more expensive, and less fuel efficient) car. I need another week or so to fully embrace this decision, but I feel like it's the right thing to do. I'm not committing to being car-less indefinitely: in the fall, my daughter starts a 5-day-a-week preschool program (about a mile and a half away) and I may find that it's too difficult to manage on foot/bus when the wind is whipping the rain sideways. But, if I can make it through the summer, perhaps I will become fully converted to living with one less car.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Sneaky money

April has been a pretty frugal month, with few purchases other than consumables (food, personal hygiene products, gas). A handful of other small items — a birthday gift, a shovel for my garden — but that's about it. And for good reason: some large and unavoidable expenses in late March ate up most of our April income before we even had it. By mid-April, we were really scraping the bottom of the barrel (though we do not, in fact, keep our money in a barrel). Then, a few days ago, we received a check for a sizable sum of money that was owed to us. "Sizable" is relative, of course; for us, it was a nice chunk of cash. Now, this really wasn't "extra" money, and it was badly needed to help us through the rest of the month.

And yet....

Once it was in the bank and that balance figure was back to a comfortable level, I realized how quickly one's mind drifts toward dirty thoughts. Come on, baby, spend know you want to. Example 1: I drove past a Target store and blithely wondered if there was anything I needed to buy. Before the check was deposited, and spending simply wasn't an option, I'm certain I would not have had the same thought. Example 2: We ate out tonight because I didn't feel like cooking. Nothing fancy (a generic Mexican food restaurant), but we both ordered margaritas, adding about 25% to our usual tab. It was easy to justify: we were treating ourselves after a day of yard and garden work. But I wonder how much produce I'll have to grow in my little garden plot to make up for the dinner bill? Again, pre-check, we would have eaten in.

What amazes me is how easily this happens even when I am trying to be vigilant about expenses, trying to evaluate needs vs. wants — trying to be a conscious consumer. No wonder so many of us are just squeezing by month to month (or worse, living on credit). Now, I'm not agonizing over the fact that we went out to dinner; I just want to feel like I'm making choices rather than blindly following momentary wants while under the illusion that money is plentiful. Because (not-so-)easy come, easy go...