Monday, September 29, 2014

Essential Ingredients of a Broke-Ass Pantry

Singapore Curry Flavoured Noodles, -Mar. 2011 a
Fast, cheap and healthy -- there's a better way!
In an ideal world, we'd all have kitchens full of healthy, nutritious, exotic ingredients on-hand all the time.  In the real world, it seems inevitable that you run into a week (or month) where grocery bills are tight and some of those more exotic ingredients go by the way side.  If you can't afford to stock up on fresh produce and organic meats, here are a few nutritious (and cheap) staples that can keep you fed without resorting to over-processed crap:

Potatoes and sweet potatoes

Keep an eye out on sales and stock up when they become cheap.  Kept around 40 degrees in a dry, dark area, both will last for two to three months so don't be afraid to buy in bulk.  Sweet potatoes are at their cheapest around Thanksgiving.  Potatoes go on sale around St. Patrick's day.  But even in their off-season, both of these are cheap, versatile and filling.
  • Use potatoes in soup to add a creamy consistency.  The starchiness makes for a very filling soup without needing to add dairy (or as much dairy).  Try potato, broccoli and cheese, potato corn chowder or potato with sausage and kale.  
  • Sweet potatoes are amazing in chili.  I like to combine black beans with sweet potato or winter squash and chili spices for a hearty stew-like dish.  
  • Baked potatoes and sweet potatoes are fast and nutritious.  A few minutes in the microwave is all you need.  Butter, salt and pepper make for a fast meal, or boost it up with some greens.  I like twice-baked potatoes stuffed with a slice of crumbled bacon, an ounce or so of cheese and a ton of kale, collard or spinach (you can also cram a ton of greens into mashed potatoes). 


Eggs are a nutritional powerhouse, and they're super versatile.  Organic cage-free eggs will run you $5/dozen, which for the money isn't terrible.  If you're in a bind, you can usually find factory-farmed eggs for under $2/dozen, and I won't tell on you.  Eggs will usually last about a month past their sell-by date, but sometimes they last a lot longer.  Check their freshness by placing them in a bowl of water -- the eggs that sink or stand on their end are safe to eat.  The ones that float have gone bad.
  • Make a quiche by mixing together eggs with a little bit of dairy and whatever else you have on hand, from potatoes to leftover meat to veggies.  You can make a simple pastry crust from flour, butter and water or just serve it crust-less.  
  • Scramble together eggs with whatever veggies you have on hand (I like kale and mushrooms) for a super-nutritious high-protein breakfast.  
  • Add an egg to your soup to boost its nutritional value.  You can make ramen noodles sexy by adding an egg and some greens -- just like traditional ramen in Japan.  Soft-boiled is my favorite, but hard-boiled, fried or poached all work just as well.  Runny yolk mixed into the broth makes for a super creamy texture.  Or, make a simple egg drop soup out of chicken broth (and a bit of sesame oil if you have it) and add in a beaten egg before taking it off the heat.  

Peanut Butter

Commercial peanut butter can last for up to a year in storage, and you can buy a huge tub of it for under $5.  Organic single-ingredient freshly-milled peanut butter is pricier and lasts just a few months, but it's still a very efficient use of your dollar.  Aside from sandwiches, peanut butter is a great protein source to beef up your meatless meals.
  • Make a simple Thai peanut sauce by thinning out peanut butter with a little bit of water and some siracha or  chili sauce.  Use this to coat noodles for a super simple dish that can be eaten hot or cold.  Add any veggies you can get your hands on to it for a nutritional boost. 
  • Use it to add depth and creaminess to soup.  There are actually a lot of soup recipes involving peanut butter and sweet potatoes!  Who knew?
  • Eat it on your pancakes or waffles, stuff it inside french toast or mix it into your oatmeal for a big flavor and protein boost that will keep you full without overloading on carbs at breakfast.  


There is no single ingredient more versatile or long-lasting than the dried bean.  You can find them for less than $1/lb, and a pound of dry beans can keep you fed for a week (around 6 cups of beans!)  For an easy no-fuss cooking method, soak them overnight in your crockpot. swap out the water (use it to water your house plants or garden) and cook them on low all day.  The finished beans can be stored in the fridge or frozen if you won't get to them that week.
  • Make chili.  You won't even notice that the beef is missing.  Just combine an onion, a cup of beans and three cans of tomato sauce with some chili spices (cumin, chili powder, salt, pepper) and leave it to simmer.  You can eat it as-is or served over rice, cornbread, potatoes or any other starch to spread it out.  
  • Smash them.  If the texture of whole beans is off-putting, mash them up.  Mashed garbanzo beans turn into a base for hummus.  Mashed pinto or black beans, combined with a bit of fat and maybe a little cheese, work just perfect as the filling of a burrito or served with some chips.  
  • Replace the meat in many of your favorite dishes. Making tacos?  Smash up about half the beans, leave the other half solid and mix up with a bit of salsa for a spicy filling (we do this with lentils and it's always a hit). 
With just a few other pantry essentials (flour, butter, milk, cheese, and any veggies you can afford), you can put together really simple, healthy meals based around these super cheap ingredients.   I believe in you! 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Would You Kill a Fly for $1,000?

So I missed my Critical Thinking Thursdays post.  I had planned to write something about us poor, mixed-up millennials and our troubles finding work, but my research for it started to make me depressed and angry so I stopped (although it's a subject I plan to return to when my head cools).  I've also been a little under the weather the last couple days, so I spent most of my time away from the computer yesterday and watched some movies instead.

I have a Halloween tradition that involves binge-watching horror movies all October long.  This year, it started a little bit early (and I am never more grateful toward Netflix than I am on days I just want to laze on the couch).

One of the movies I watched yesterday actually had an interesting premise from a non-consumer POV, in a roundabout way.  It was called 13 Sins, and it revolved around a clever premise: A down-on-his-luck guy receives a mysterious phone call from someone who knows all sorts of details about his life and says that he's been volunteered for a new type of game show.  All he has to do is complete 13 challenges, each one with a certain pay-out.  If he makes it to the end, he becomes a multi-millionaire.

The challenges start off pretty simple: First he has to kill a fly for $1,000.  Then he has to eat that fly, for $3,000.  But, predictably, the challenges start getting increasingly twisted, and our poor protagonist becomes trapped: Either he can keep completing the challenges (to win the money and see his name cleared) or he can stop (losing all the money and facing charges for all the illegal things he's done).

It's a pretty excellent metaphor for the rat race.  I won't tell you more in case you want to watch it, but I would love to hear your thoughts.  When is money worth the strings that come attached to it?  How far would you go to earn more money?  Or, how far would you go to avoid the rat race?  Much to think about.

You can find 13 Sins on Netflix or click the poster up there to get it on Amazon. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Why Can't You Eat Food That's Been Left Out Overnight?

If you're anything like me, you may sometimes find yourself eyeballing a questionable food item, wondering whether it's safe to eat.  The idea of throwing out what might be perfectly good food is a hard one to swallow, especially if your grocery budget is tight.  On the other hand, the idea of being holed up with food poisoning isn't very appealing either. 

I've been deeply curious about food safety, and I wanted to lay some myths to rest once and for all.  So without further ado, here are some real answers about just how safe it really is to eat that pizza that was sitting on the counter all night.

What is Food Poisoning?

Food poisoning is actually a catch-all term for the illness caused by eating any number of microorganisms dwelling in food.  The most common of these are e. coli, Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium perfringen.  These pathogens spread in different ways and in different foods.
Symptoms of food poisoning will vary.  Depending on your immune system, you may not feel any effects at all, or you may get diarrhea, stomach cramps, vomiting or fever.  Severe cases can lead to kidney failure, liver damage, and even some neurological effects like meningitis.  So food poisoning runs the gamut, and people with reduced immunity -- the very young, the elderly, the chronically ill -- are at the highest risk.  

I personally have had food poisoning only once, and it was the product of some questionable chili mac at my campus eatery my freshman year of college.  Since then, I've eaten all sorts of foods in "the danger zone" without any ill effects.  It's quite possible that years of questionable eating habits have built up my natural immunity -- a real "chicken and egg" situation, really.

However, that doesn't mean that the foods I'm eating are safe.  Someone else could eat them and get sick.  And if I were in a position of feeding others, I'd have to be a whole lot more careful about what I was eating. 

Officially, any "high risk" foods need to be eaten or refrigerated within two hours.  If not, they'll need to be kept at a high enough temperature to inhibit bacteria growth (think the steam tables in a buffet). 

What foods are at the highest risk?  Mostly, moist foods -- things like soup, creamy salads and cooked vegetables or grains.  Basically anything that is damp or mushy invites a playground for bacteria, which like to live in damp, mushy, warm places.  Dry foods -- like jerky or bread -- don't invite bacterial growth because there's just nowhere for the bacteria to live; they need moisture.  That's why drying is such an effective food preservation tactic, by the way. 

Why Cooking or Freezing Food Doesn't Save Questionable Food

Here's the million dollar question: If cooking a food to a safe internal temperature or keeping it refrigerated will prevent foodborne illness, then why can't you just re-heat the food to kill off any bacteria that might be on it after being left out?

Say you made a pot of chicken noodle soup last night.  Everybody ate some, you put the lid back on the pot and then forgot to put it away until morning.  Is it safe to eat it?  What if you put it in the freezer?  What if you heated it back to a boil?  Surely that would kill the bacteria, right?

Here's the issue: While extreme heat or cold will indeed kill bacteria, it won't kill the toxins created by those bacteria.  And in the case of many foodborne pathogens like e. coli, it's the toxins emitted by the bacteria (not the bacteria themselves) that are making you sick.

Think about it this way.  Imagine that you went away for the weekend.  While you were gone, a bunch of rowdy teenagers used your house for a party, and made a huge mess.  You kick them out when you get home, but the mess is still all over your floor.  It's the same with that pot of chicken soup.  Bacteria are living organisms, and they produce waste just like we do.  It's their waste that no amount of cooking can get rid of.  

And just like your teenage kids that invited their friends over, the dangerous bacteria already live in your food.  They create spores (sort of like seeds) that linger around in food.  Unlike live bacteria, these spores do not get killed by freezing or boiling.  When the opportunity arises to grow and multiply (due to perfect temperature conditions), these spores will "hatch" bacteria.  And then the party begins. 

So Should You Eat the Food Left on the Counter? 

Eating food that's been left out is really a calculated risk.  Most of the microorganisms that cause food poisoning don't have any discernible effect on the food, so you won't notice a funky smell or odd taste.  And symptoms can take hours or days to kick in, so you may not realize right away that you've eaten something contaminated.

When assessing your contamination risk, you really have to look at a few factors:
  • Are you in generally good health with a healthy immune system? 
  • How many contaminants could the food have been subjected to? (the more ingredients in it, or the more people who have handled it, the more likely that it could have bacteria in it)
  • What is the makeup of the food?  (a sandwich made with a loaf of french bread and salami will probably last longer than one made of eggs and mayonnaise)
  • How was it stored out on the counter?  (was it covered? is your house clean?) 
From there, you'll have to decide for yourself how safe you feel eating the food left in the danger zone.  Everybody will draw their line somewhere.  Just realize that anything over two hours at room temperature is not considered safe from an official perspective.  

Further reading:
Food Safety Myths from the Department of Health
Your Food Safety Handbook from the USDA
Bending the Rules on Bacteria and Food Safety from the New York Times
I Forgot to Refrigerate Food.... from Still Tasty (an invaluable resource I use quite often)

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Blood Money: Donating Plasma as a Side Job

Today's "Frugality Friday" post is a little late.  It was hubby's birthday today so I've been away from the computer baking cake and hanging out. 


A lot of people these days are finding themselves strapped for cash.  If you're having trouble making ends meet and need some money fast, one of the easiest things you can do is donate plasma.  It's not exactly something you're probably eager to run out and do, but it's also not quite as scary as you might think, and there's a lot more people donating these days than just homeless folks and college students. 

What is Plasma Donation? 

Plasma is a fluid in your blood that occupies the space between your red and white blood cells.  It's used in all sorts of medicinal services, including treating burn victims and creating vaccines and medication.  The plasma you donate probably will not go directly to a patient the way a blood donation would, but it will be used for research or pharmaceutical development that could go toward saving lives.

The process of donating plasma is a little lengthier than blood donation, which is why they pay you for it.  It's not actually legal to buy bodily substances from people, but the donation center will reimburse you for the time it takes - usually an hour or so, plus the time it takes to get screened. 

To donate plasma, you will need to go to a plasma donation center and fill out an intake form.  This will ask about your medical history and habits and is used to ensure that your plasma is safe to use.  You'll also undergo a brief physical exam, simple blood test and urine test (to make sure you're not on drugs).  If you pass the tests, you'll go into a room where you'll be hooked up to a machine that will drain some blood, filter out the plasma, then pump your platelets back into you (this is the time-consuming part).

Who Can Donate Plasma?

For the most part, any healthy person over the age of 18 can donate plasma.  There are a few things that will disqualify you from donating:
  • Drug use
  • Insulin-dependent diabetes
  • Heart problems
  • A recent tattoo or piercing (due to hepatitis risk)
  • Having a low protein level (which is the point of the blood test)
  • Being under weight (I think the minimum weight is around 130)
The point of these regulations is to ensure that 1.) your plasma is safe to use and 2.) it will be safe for you to donate it.  

People who are caught lying on their paperwork will be banned from ever donating plasma again.  

How Much Money Can You Make? 

The exact compensation for plasma donation will vary from one center to the next.  In general, larger cities will have more competitive rates.  In my city, the first five donations earn $50 each.  After that, you can earn $60 per week -- $20 for the first donation and $40 for the second.  The amount you earn will depend in your weight (heavier people have more plasma so earn a couple dollars more).

You can donate plasma twice a week.  The amount of time it takes will depend on when you arrive (early morning is usually the best time to get through quickly).  Your first donation will take longer, maybe as long as three hours, because of all the processing.  After that, it should take no more than an hour or two.

So altogether, donating here will earn you about $250/month.  It'll be paid in either cash or loaded onto a prepaid Visa that you can use the same day as you donate.  It's not amazing money by any means, but per-hour it's better pay than a minimum wage job and it's something you can do immediately, making it an attractive option for someone who desperately needs money right now.  It's also a nice supplemental income that can be used to jump-start a savings account or give you a little bit of cushion.  If you spend your time at the donation center doing homework, filling out job applications, blogging on your laptop or whatever, you can maximize the efficiency to get the most out of it. 

Is Plasma Donation Safe?

Plasma donation is generally safe.  Donation sites have to follow strict sanitation standards, and all of the needles and tubing used for you will be hermetically sealed and opened in front of you.  The needle stays in your arm for the whole process, so there's very little risk of any sort of infection or contamination. 

The most common risk associated with plasma donation is feeling faint or woozy afterward.  You can mitigate this by taking care of yourself: Eat a big breakfast before you come in, focusing on protein (something like peanut butter, beans or eggs should do fine), and be sure to drink plenty of water before and after.  Staying well-hydrated will make the donation go by more quickly (since your blood will flow faster), and replenishing the lost fluid will prevent you from feeling ill afterward. 

You might feel a little tired after a donation, especially your second one in a week.  Taking an iron supplement should help.  You should not, however, be feeling particularly sick or anemic.  If you're having problems, talk to your doctor.  And if at any point during the donation itself you feel sick or faint, tell the technician working there so you can get help!

Also note that plasma plays a vital role in your immune system.  If you donate plasma regularly, you may find yourself having a weakened immune system.  Taking care of yourself in other ways can help offset these effects, but by all means give it a rest for a while if you start to get sick more often than usual.  

For more information...
Plasma Donation Information from the American Red Cross
Risks and Effects of Donating Plasma

Thursday, September 18, 2014

New Blogging Schedule!

So to keep things on track around here (and give y'all some powers of accountability) I've decided I'm going to start sticking to a regular blogging schedule.  Three times a week, expect posts on these exciting themes: 

Meal-Planning Mondays:
Featuring (obviously) meal plans, but also recipes, grocery deals and general shopping tips.  Basically, if it has to do with food, it's going to be posted on Monday. 

Critical-Thinking Thursdays: 
Looking at big issues and discussing solutions.  This is the day all of the social awareness posts will be made.

Frugality Fridays: 
Tips on saving money on every non-food aspect of your life.  Expect any money-saving posts to happen here, whether they're tips or a check-in with how I'm doing things at my own house!

The Month in Reviews
Toward the end of the month, I'll post a review of a book, documentary or other media that's related to the site's theme! 

To keep everything organized, all of these topics will be tagged, allowing you to instantly browse through the categories at your convenience.  I hope you all find this change to be enriching and helpful! 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Quit Your Day Job: Now Available for Pre-Order

On a regular basis, someone will ask me, "Tiana, how do you do what you do?"  "How did you get started freelancing?"  "How can I make money online?"

There are a lot of people out there who can't find traditional work and are eager to find a solution that they can start doing TODAY to make money to sustain themselves.  There are a lot of people who are trapped in jobs they hate and would kill for the freedom to work for themselves instead, even if it meant a loss of income.  There are people who have always dreamed of being professional writers but haven't got a clue how to get started. 

If you're one of those people, this is a book for you. 


I wrote this guide to be brief, to-the-point and filled with as much information as I can possibly cram into it.  This is an actionable plan for exactly how to do what I do.  It draws on my experience in the field as well as the input of other writers. 

It's currently available for pre-order at a special reduced price of 99 cents.  If you buy it today, it'll deliver to your device automatically on October 1.  Once October rolls around, the price will go up, so grab the book now! 

Friday, September 5, 2014

What's for Dinner: Singapore Noodles

As you might recall, our last grocery shopping trip left us with an epic ton of rice noodles.  We had already eaten some stir-fry over noodles and some rice noodle soup (inspired by pho), but we wanted to try something a little different.  So when David found a recipe for Singapore noodles, I knew what I had to try for dinner. 

Singapore noodles are a popular dish in Chinese restaurants, both in America and in China.  Curiously, they're not popular in Singapore.  Go figure. 

Basically, Singapore noodles are stir-fried rice noodles mixed with various ingredients -- the exact mix is up to you, but the key ingredient is curry powder.  This hint of Indian seasoning gives it some kick and a lot of personality. 

I followed the recipe linked above except I made it on the stovetop, sauteeing the vegetables until soft and adding lots of liquid to aid in cooking/prevent sticking (this created sort of a saucy base).  I added my noodles directly to that, added the spices (I used garam masala for the curry powder), stirred it all together and let it sit to soak up the sauce.  Then I garnished with green onions. 

Overall, it turned out pretty delicious.  It was very spicy!  In the future, I think I would make the sauce thicker and pour it over a noodle base rather than mixing it all together.  Traditionally, this can be served with any number of meats, and I personally think it would be perfect with shrimp. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Eating From the Pantry: Meal Plan for the Upcoming Weeks

At my last grocery shopping trip, we split our time between the Asian market downtown and the Smith's, which is swiftly becoming my go-to standard grocery store.  I like the rewards card (which you can apply coupons to), and I especially enjoy the manager's specials, which allow you to get great prices on meat that's approaching its expiration date, has a little freezer burn or is otherwise not-quite-perfect.

Anyway, we spent $56 at Smith's on things like produce (celery, carrots, bell peppers, a large bag of "normandy blend" veggies, watermelon, potatoes), meat (an 8-pack of pork chops, a pack of chicken tenderloin, kielbasa) and a few packaged things like bread, cereal, milk, cheese and bullion cubes.

We spent $63 at the Asian market buying specialty items like stir-fry noodles, rice noodles, several large packages of pot stickers, organic soy sauce, mirin, a 3-pack of organic tofu, a jar of tikka masala sauce, a large bag of bulk cumin, fish sauce, sesame oil, and a few of David's favorite Japanese sodas.

When we buy noodles, we don't mess around. 

I had a few things in the pantry already, including flour, sugar, cornmeal and a few canned items like tuna, beans and tomato sauce.  I also have herbs from my garden -- mint, basil and rosemary -- and a ton of apples from my parents' tree. My mom gave me some hot dogs and chili the last time I was at her house, since she was sick of eating leftovers. 

So with that in mind, I set about making my meal plan for the next two weeks.

What Are We Eating? 

Waffles with whipped butter, cinnamon and sugar
Pancakes with apple compote
Apple muffins
Breakfast burritos (egg/cheese/potato/bacon)
Eggs, bacon and toast
Toast with butter and apple butter
Cornmeal porridge

Simplified hot & sour soup (egg, tofu, broth)
Grilled cheese sandwiches
Welsh rarebit
Vegetable stuffed baked potatoes
Pot stickers
Barbecue tofu sandwich
Teriyaki tofu sandwich
Tuna burgers/patties
Tuna salad with apples and cheese


Porkchops with apples & steamed veggies
Pho with thinly sliced pork
Sopas with garlic & cheese
Singapore noodles
Stir-fried veggies
Chicken tikka masala
Chili cheese dogs
Sausage and bell pepper with noodles
Kielbasa with potatoes, cheese and broccoli
Kidney bean curry with rice
Ramen with poached egg

You'll notice that I don't have a full set of 14 of anything.  That's because I will repeat several of these meals, or do a slightly different version of them multiple times.  As you can probably guess from looking at our grocery list and meal plan, we tend to eat a lot of Asian-inspired cuisine in our house.

I'm also working on preserving the apples, which I'll be posting about in greater detail soon.  Plans include apple pie filling, applesauce, apple butter, apple chips, frozen apples, apple jelly, and quite possibly some apple cider (maybe even hard apple cider, since I got an amazingly complete home-brew kit from my brother as a wedding gift!)  I will definitely be keeping you up-to-date on all of our apple-preserving adventures.

If you want to keep up with our day-to-day activities, see pictures of what we're eating or just check in, be sure to like us on Facebook. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Simple Tomato Tart to Use My Garden "Bounty"

Gardening is hard, okay?  

I mean, okay.  I'm not saying it's rocket science or anything.  People have been growing their own food for centuries, and mother nature does a good chunk of the hard work for you.  But it's still a learned skill, and it takes practice to get it right. 

So let's just say, I'm grateful that I'm not forced to feed myself purely from my garden right now, because I would probably starve.  But I am grateful for the opportunity to have a garden and to learn skills that may someday feed my family. 

Anyway.  Why am I waxing philosophical about gardening right now?

Because I successfully nurtured a tomato plant that yielded...wait for it....three tomatoes.  One of which was eaten by an extremely large caterpillar before I could use it. 

So here I was, intrepid young blogger, hungry and staring down a largely empty kitchen.  What in the world can I make with two tomatoes that will feed a pair of hungry people tonight? 

As it turns out, I could make an egg-and-tomato pie

It's been a while, and I wasn't paying attention to ingredients so much as dumping things in from the fridge that needed to be used.  But I do recall it using six eggs, two slices of bread (toasted, and crumbled into breadcrumbs), my two brave tomatoes, and half of an onion.  I laid down the bread crumbs and layered up the tomatoes and the onions, then went diving into my refrigerator looking for help.  As luck would have it, I had some sun-dried tomatoes lingering in the back of the shelf that I hadn't gotten around to using, so I plopped those in too.  I also had a little bit of feta cheese that I added in. 

I beat my eggs, poured them over the top, liberally seasoned with salt, pepper and fresh basil from my garden, baked it until it was firm, and bam -- eggy, tomatoey goodness. 

Half the key to eating on a budget is learning to put together meals from what you have on hand. 

So how about you guys -- any fun culinary adventures you've had lately that showcase your ingenuity?  I want to hear about it!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

So Where the Hell Have I Been?

Things have been pretty quiet since the wedding, blog-wise.  I'd like to say that's because I've been honeymooning in some exotic location, but actually, I've just been busy with work.  The summer slump finally gave way and now I'm quite busy trying to catch up on all my owed work. 

I've also been busy writing something special for you, Lean Times readers: 

What it says on the tin: This is a book that will walk you through the process of establishing a freelance writing career with zero experience and no contacts.  It gives practical, actionable tips for starting out as an internet content writer, then how to branch out into professional copywriting or writing for magazines.  It also touches on the business aspects of the job, from time management skills to managing taxes and how to get insurance. 

Part of my mission at Lean Times is to give people the skills they need to live comfortably at the income level they choose.  In my case, I've chosen a simple lifestyle so that I can afford to work a job I love.  Because I do something I'm so passionate about, a lot of people have contacted me asking for help and direction on how to get started. 

This guide is by no means exhaustive, but I do believe that anyone who reads it should be able to put those tips to work immediately.  If you put in the work, I absolutely believe that you will be able to quit your day job and pursue writing full-time after reading this book -- as long as you couple the tips inside with the lifestyle changes I try to advocate here. 

Quit Your Day Job is currently undergoing its final round of editorial changes.  I'll let you know when it's ready for pre-orders.  Due to the cost of production (and my desire to keep costs low for my frugal readers) this book will only be available in ebook format -- but I'll try to get it up in as many different formats as possible, including a .pdf that you can print at home. 

I'm really excited about this, and I hope you all get some value out of it, too!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Our Frugal Non-Consumer Wedding

So, I got married recently!

I'm still reeling with the joy and excitement of the event.  I'm probably a little biased, but I think it was probably the most fun wedding I've ever been to (and I have attended quite a few).  It helps that David and I have been together for a very long time, and we know each other's families quite well, and most of the guests also knew each other very well -- so it absolutely had the atmosphere of a huge party.

I could talk on and on about how awesome everything was, but I wanted to take a couple minutes to share some of the non-consumer touches.  Part of what made the day so special for me was just how very "us" it was, and that includes the way it conformed to our values as a couple.  Hopefully any other soon-to-be brides and grooms out there can get some inspiration from our experiences!

Our Vision

So going into this thing, we laid out a few ground rules.  We wanted to keep it affordable, we wanted to prioritize food and fun to make sure everybody had a great time, and we wanted to be sure that everything reflected us as a couple -- both our passions and our values.  I'm an atheist and he comes from a devout religious background, so we blended that with a secular ceremony and a prayer from his father and a reading from my mom that would honor my family's ethnic heritage (Irish, French, Cherokee). Because I'm a writer, it was important to me that I write my own vows, and David stepped up to write his as well although he was very nervous about it. 

It was also super important to me that, as much as possible, we kept things organic, local, fair-trade, etc. without breaking our budget.  So with that in mind...

The Venue

David and I are foodies, and food was our #1 priority.  So with that in mine, we chose to get married at a restaurant that offered a full-service wedding package.  This simplified the planning a lot because the wedding and reception were all in one place, with one set of vendors to work with.  It also made budgeting easier: They charged a flat fee per guest, so managing the guest list automatically kept the price in check.

The specific restaurant we chose won out for two reasons: the food was delicious, and the place was gorgeous.  Choosing a beautiful venue saved us a lot of time, effort and money on decorations.  We just had to put up a few center pieces and decorating was done.  If you're in the planning stages, I seriously recommend that you put some thought into choosing a place that's meaningful and beautiful all on its own.  Everything else will fall into place easily from there.

The Rings

I made it clear early in our relationship that I was not a fan of diamonds.  Aside from the ethical concerns, I just don't like the look of them and I can't see the point in paying a huge sum of money for a piece of jewelry.  We both wanted something unique and beautiful without the cost.

We shopped together on Etsy and found a handcrafted copper and peridot engagement ring, as well as a pair of matching copper wedding bands.  They're totally "us" and very unique and comfortable.  Altogether, the three rings cost us around $150 (including the cost of resizing his band, which turned out to be a little small when it arrived).

The Attire

 Since we were getting married outside in August heat in New Mexico, we wanted clothes that would be comfortable and not too formal.  We opted to put the groomsmen in just shirtsleeves and suspenders, a look I've always thought was timeless and adorable.  The groom wore a shirt and vest, no jacket.  We actually found a great vest in a thrift store for $12 but it was too small and we weren't able to get alterations done in time.  We opted instead to just rent one for $60.

For the girls, I asked all of my bridesmaids what dresses they already owned and put together a mix-and-match ensemble based on that.  I figured it would be criminal to force any of my fellow strapped-for-cash ladies into buying a dress they'd only wear once, and we were such a diverse group of body types that no single style would have suited us all anyway.  It worked out perfectly that we had black, blue and purple -- it created a sort of ombre effect and really allowed everyone to show of their strengths.

My dress took a bit of searching.  I briefly considered doing the "say yes to the dress" experience and trying on a bunch of dresses at a bridal shop, but I realized that actually seemed super stressful.  As a "plus-size" bride, I had very little interest in trying on a bunch of things that might not look good on me and feeling that my body was being critiqued.  I also didn't like the price tag attached to designer dresses or the sweat shop labor behind the more affordable ones.

So I set out to find an affordable, ethical alternative.  After searching in vain for a used dress I liked (difficult in my size), I was recommended a website called HolyClothing.  It's a family-owned business set up in India but with ethical working conditions and extremely reasonable prices.  Their style is very Bohemian, which totally fits my aesthetic, and they carry sizes all the way up to 4X.

I absolutely loved my dress.  It was comfortable, easy to wear, figure-flattering and just 100% "me."  I got lots of compliments on it and felt totally awesome all night.  Best of all?  It cost me $50, a HUGE savings over a more traditional dress.  If you're shopping for a wedding dress, seriously do not be afraid to look outside of traditional venues and choose something that isn't a "wedding" dress! 

I opted out of wearing a veil and instead made a floral crown with silk flowers purchased at Michael's.  I had enough flowers for me and my flower girl as well as boutonnieres for all of the boys.  Altogether I think my supplies ran me around $30 and I still have leftovers if I'm feeling crafty in the future.

The Decor

Like I said earlier, I kept things simple by choosing a venue that was naturally stunning.  The restaurant had an outdoor arbor under trees, so there was lots of lush greenery and flowers growing everywhere.  Inside was also pretty lush, with a waterfall and tons of plants.  Since everything was already so festive, we opted just to do some simple centerpieces and bouquets.

We did all of our flowers ourselves.  I went to Trader Joe's and picked up several bunches of flowers.  All of them were certified by the Rainforest Alliance, which was very important to me, and they were very affordable -- all told, it came out to about $70 for all of the centerpieces and bouquets.  For the centerpieces, I found some great mismatched long-stem vases at Goodwill for 99 cents each.  I added some aquarium rocks to that and paid about $20 for all of those accessories.  My maid of honor did most of the arranging; I picked out blooms I thought looked nice together, and she made it look gorgeous.

The leftover flowers were used to decorate the cake, which also turned out beautiful.  We just left all of our scraps out for the cake lady, who put this together in a few minutes and pretty effortlessly made it look like we'd planned it that way all along.

Other Touches

  • We did our own music with an iPod and the venue's PA system.  I put together a playlist that was meaningful to us (in our case, theme songs from every anime we've watched together as a couple) and it required minimal tinkering to keep things going smoothly.  
  • I skipped the wedding favors and nobody seemed to notice or care.  Lots of people brought home flowers at the end of the night, which made me happy since they got some extra use.  
  • I bought all of the invitations through VistaPrint, spending about $70 for 100 invitations.  They turned out great and were much less work than the home-printed route I had originally planned.  
  • I wrote and designed the wedding program myself, printing it and our guest tree at FedEx for about $80.  We got the tree mounted so it could be hung up.  I will say that the finished product certainly didn't look like the ones on Pinterest, but it has a lot of personality :) 
Anyway, that's a glance at how we did things.  I hope this gave you a bit of inspiration.  If you have any experiences you'd like to share, please feel free to drop them in the comments! 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Guest Post: Tips for Dealing With the World Post-Climate Change

I'm a member of the excellent Non-Consumer Advocate Facebook group, and one member shared a very thought-provoking post today. I asked if I could share it here because this  information is so important. So...Take it away, Theresa Smith!

So, the other day, I went looking to see what I could do, just me, myself, and I, and a not too amazing budget, to help slow down the effects of the climate change disasters so many of us are already seeing evidence of. I found the usual stuff, switch to CFL or LED bulbs, drive less, eat local, don’t water your lawn, etc. That’s all well and good, BUT um what next? Part of the issue is that many of us, far more than you’d think, have already done most of that stuff. Yay US!

That’s great, but it does nothing to help ME or my household deal with higher summer temperatures, intermittent flooding, power outages, water shortages, colder winter temps or wild wind storms. Just so we’re clear I’m not talking about the ever famous apocalypse scenario. I’m talking about 2 inches of rain in one day in July which just happened a week ago where I live! I’m also not talking about brownish lawns; my lawn gets a tan every year. I’m talking about a town in Texas where the local park’s kid’s toys MELTED in the heat, and it didn’t rain for 9 months. I’m talking about the kind of “something I should do” because scientists think that the Colorado River’s aquifers may just be giant dry voids at this point, and it would take about four decades for them to refill, even with no one using any of the water.

So, whether you think the weird weather is human related, not human related, or because cows are farting too much, is really pretty immaterial when it comes to practical actions that we as individuals, families, and maybe even communities can take to mitigate the problems the freaky weather is causing. And apparently there is not a lot of material written about this, anywhere.. So here goes! I’m going to put out this article with a few practical, some tested and some not tested ideas that don’t cost an arm and a leg, can be accomplished fairly easily, and will make an appreciable difference in how the freaky weather is affecting you, your family, and your house.

Paint your roof white, especially the south face of it. Sea ice reflects light into space. Sea ice is melting and there is less of it now, so less heat is reflected back into space and more of it stays here. And it gets hotter. The hotter it gets the more ice will melt and the cycle continues. BTW the extra heat in places where it’s not usually that hot is one of the things pushing the odd weather patterns. Also, we all know that wearing a black shirt is hotter than wearing a white shirt in direct sunlight. Your roof gets a lot of direct sunlight. Paint it white and it will absorb less of that heat and reflect more of it back out of your house. In an awesome ideal world, we could paint most of the roofs white and replace the sea ice etc. I did this, and it lowers the summer temp in my house by about 5 degrees, easy. I don’t live in a particularly hot place so this should work even better for people in places like Arizona, Mississippi, and Florida where it’s really hot. I live in the northern hemisphere so if you live in the southern hemisphere prioritize the North face of your roof rather than the south etc. Ok, here’s how. Buy good quality white exterior grade, acrylic paint and then thin it down by ½ with water making it really liquid. It adheres to the textured roof tiles better, and dries faster when it’s thinned down, and it also covers nearly twice as much area for the same expenditure. Did I mention that my budget is a bit, Use a paint sprayer and just spray it on your regular roof tiles on a hot windless day. The windless part matters if there’s another house close to you. Don’t EVEN park the car near the house or hang your laundry that day. The thin paint adheres well to the roof tiles, dries nearly instantly on a hot day, and lasts for years. Needless to say, if you’re re-roofing anyway, just get the lightest possible tiles (they come in arctic white).

Create a “water garden” in the portion of your lawn that gets the most water and has the worst drainage. Information on how to plant a water garden is available on the internet and your county extension or gardening organization should also be able to help. I’m not going to go into too many specifics since plants and annual rainfall, and city ordinances vary so much from area to area. The purpose of a water garden is to catch excessive runoff from major storms and filter it slowly through plants that need the water rather than having it flow into a storm drain. This helps reduce street pollution in runoff, and helps prevent urban flooding from sudden drenching storms. It also filter more water into your lawn without you paying for the water. These can be sited either where a local street or sidewalk dumps water into your lawn, or near buildings whose roofs catch and drain vast amounts of water during a storm.

Get a water barrel, or make one for yourself. They have some very pretty ones for sale on the internet and probably at your local garden outlet or farm store, but they are so easy to make that I can’t see why. Silicone epoxy and the appropriate hole saw bit are the secret to making them quickly and easily. It does generally take either two people or some way to steady the barrel. Again, free water.

Plant a tree! Shade that hot side of your house with a deciduous tree. In the summer when the sun is hot the leaves keep the sun off the house, and in the winter the leaves fall off and allow the lower angled winter sun to warm the walls of your dwelling. It’s the best of both worlds. Not to mention that trees generally clean a ton of dirt and pollution from the air and produce oxygen, this is always good. Alternately, and I’ve seen this work pretty well, put up trellis on posts and grow a climbing vine (honeysuckle is wonderful) about 4 feet away from the wall you’d like to shade. It looks pretty, smells great, and shades the house in summer while breaking the worst of the wind in winter.
Get really good window coverings. A thick insulated pair of curtains will do almost as much for your heating and cooling bills as new windows (which I also recommend) will.

Keep the shades or curtains drawn on the east side of your house until noon, and then switch and close the ones on the west side in the afternoon. Keeping all that heat from getting into your house in the first place is one of the best ways to ensure it stays temperate without the AC running nonstop, and closing those heavy curtains at night in the winter will really make a difference in how cold it gets overnight. You can make insulated curtains yourself from any heavy curtain fabric backed by cheap flannel sheets that have been washed and dried on hot. Or if your inner seamstress is anything like mine, you can also buy curtains with excellent insulating materials already included.

Get a water filtration system. I’m not talking about one of those super spendy in ground systems, although those are certainly nice! I mean something as simple as a large fridge water pitcher with the filter. Now keep it filled up every day. I have a 3 gallon standalone system I was given as a gift, and it’s come in handy more than once if a city main breaks and there is a boil order for the water due to possible contamination. Also house plants love the filtered water. It makes much better tea and coffee too.

Get heavy area rugs. They are easier to keep clean than wall to wall carpet and are much less expensive to replace if something does happen to them. They can be rolled up and put away in the summer so you can enjoy the nice cool floors, and put down as extra insulation and comfy warmth in the winter. Incidentally, this creates one less season of vacuuming!

Keep chanting, “Heat the person, not the room!” Invest in a gorgeous heavy weight sweater or polar fleece to wear in the winter, and suddenly keeping the heat a bit lower doesn’t suck so much. But sometimes even with the heat blasting in our houses it seems hard to get warm. Smartwool socks and heavy sweaters will make for a happier winter. Buy winter shoes ½ size bigger to accommodate heavy boot socks, you’ll be glad you did. This is the time to bake and make soup, it’ll help warm the house and keep you warmed up inside too.

In the summer afternoons, if you can, spray water, not a lot but some, on the roof of your house. Evaporative cooling will help cool the house down a bit, but will especially keep it from “heat gain” in the evening. And yes, you’re using water, but it need not be drinkable, and it does actually evaporate and get returned directly to the earth’s hydro-cycle so it’s not really “wasted” anyway. Use the same theory to help yourself stay cool too by placing a shallow pan of cool water in front of fans in the summer, or even just wetting your hair, or shirt, or placing your feet in cool water. “Cool the person, not the house!” makes just as much sense. Also eat cold foods like salad, and jello, or ice cream, or iced tea etc. rather than cooking dinner and eating hot food.

This is a little more expensive, or crafty depending on your skill set, but it makes such a huge difference that I’m going to include it anyway. Put awnings over your windows. It saves the window frames from water damage and storm damage from things flying in the wind. An awning shades the windows from the higher angle summer sun but allows the lower angled winter sun to come in which is perfect. Also, it generally ups the value or at least the “curb appeal” of your home. Plus it makes it really easy to decorate for various holidays!

Again, this is a “buy it” solution, but I have found it to be of practical value. Buy a few solar charged LED lights. Not the “stick in your lawn” kind, but ones that are meant for indoor use. They just sit in a window sill until a power outage, or backyard party requires their presence.

These are a few of the practical DIY ideas I’ve come up with. I hope you’ll share those you can think of too! I just try to put the emphasis on DIY, not too expensive, low tech or no tech, set it and forget it type of things which address a specific problem and do no harm anyway even if it doesn’t work as well as hoped for.

These are great!  Do you have anything to add? Share in the comments! 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Film Review: A Place at the Table

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A Place at the Table, Participant Media, 2012

From the makers of Food, Inc., this is a documentary with similar themes but a different angle.   A Place at the Table tackles the issue of hunger in America, weaving together the personal stories of people suffering from food insecurity with facts, interviews with experts, and various proposed solutions to the problem.

 First, it starts by explaining what food insecurity is, and introducing you to some real people having problems finding enough to eat.  Then it systematically goes through some of the proposed solutions, before ultimately coming to the realization that no single solution can do much until sweeping cultural changes are made -- that our hunger problem is an issue of poverty and politics, not food. 

Overall I really enjoyed this.  It hit on a lot of important points, like the way that processed food is creating a nation of kids who are overweight and under-nourished.  It also made a point of explaining why this is a problem not just for the individuals suffering from hunger but for our society at large, which is something I think a lot of people need to listen to.  This isn't just "their" problem -- it's a problem for all of us, and that was definitely a recurring theme in this documentary. 

Overall, I definitely would recommend this.  From a film standpoint, I don't think it was as good as Food Inc -- it lacked some of the polish and it was a little slow to get started -- but information-wise, it's quite good.  You can buy the DVD by clicking the pic above, or you can try to catch it on Amazon Instant Video or Netflix. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Coca Cola's New Marketing Campaign: Coke is the Secret to Happiness?

So, if you haven't seen it already, Coca Cola has unleashed a new, incredibly clever marketing ploy.  Now all the individual Coke bottles come with names on them.  This "Share a Coke" campaign urges you to reach out to a friend or loved one with a really meaningful gift -- a Coke!  Naturally!

This is some brilliant marketing on their part.  They keep their iconic red-and-white logo, but replace "Coca Cola" with a name.  All told, there are 250 different names that you might be able to find at the store.  Not just that, Coca Cola specifically chose names that were popular among teenagers and millennials -- those of us who are in the most likely position to reach for a Coke.

(I will note that there are no Coke bottles with my name on them. You can check to see if yours is here)

And to accompany this clever branding strategy, Coke's got a whole slew of marketing support -- from the ability to share a "virtual" bottle through its website, to a Twitter hashtag to solicit some social media interaction, to a series of commercials, like this gem:

Now, that's a sweet commercial, right?  doesn't it make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside?  Damn, Coca Cola's marketing team knows what it's doing.

Here's the deal.  The entire brand of Coca Cola is centered on the idea that Coke brings people together.  It will mend your relationships.  It will help you meet new people.  It will usher in a new era of world peace!  Coke is happiness!  Coke is America!  Coke is freedom and sunshine and puppies!

Except, of course, that it's not

Coke is diabetes!  Coke is child obesity! Coke is a dumping ground for the excess GMO corn that our tax dollars are subsidizing! Coke -- and every other soda -- is just empty calories bundled with bone-stripping acid and fake flavors.  It has zero redeeming qualities.

And yet....and yet.

I've ranted about this in the past.  I ranted about this when Coca Cola released its Superbowl commercial.  And I ranted about at length here, where I try to come up with some alternatives to drinking soda.  And the next time Coke comes up with another clever marketing strategy, I'll probably rant about it some more.

Why bother?

I care about this shit because marketing is insidious.  If you don't stop to examine it, to really think critically about it, the message will crawl up inside of you and make a home under your skin.  It will inform your decisions in the future, even when you're not thinking about it -- especially when you're not thinking about it.

Stopping to examine an advertisement, to see what their hidden message is really about, helps to break the spell.  It helps you confront your beliefs and decide whether they're really indicative of how you actually feel.

If you consider the issue critically and you keep drinking Coke, fine.  That's your prerogative.  But go in informed, not with preconceived notions carefully created by a massive marketing company and planted in your head.  Knowledge is power.  Critical thinking can break this spell.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Super Easy Recipes: "Kitchen Sink" Minestrone

When I was 12, I decided I wanted to be vegetarian.  That lasted until I was about 18, and during that time, I did much of my own cooking.  One particular cookbook, The Teen's Vegetarian Cookbook, was pretty much my cooking bible.  I still have my very dog-eared copy sitting in my kitchen and occasionally browse it for inspiration.

Anyway, this minestrone soup recipe is adapted from the one in that book.  This was one of the very first meals I ever learned to cook for myself, and it's still one of the "go-to" meals in my cooking rotation.

What I love about this soup recipe: It's versatile, it's easy, it's filling, and it's cheap.  It will never be exactly the same twice, but you can make it with anything you have in the kitchen and it will turn out will.  Here's what you need to make this soup happen:

Kitchen Sink Minestrone Recipe

  • Carrot, celery, onion and garlic (or whatever you prefer in your mirepoix
  • A large can of crushed tomatoes 
  • A cup or so of stock (or bullion) 
  • A small can of tomato sauce 
  • About a cup each of frozen mixed veggies, pasta, and beans
  • Season with salt, pepper, oregano, thyme and basil 
Saute together your mirepoix until softened, then add in your stock, tomato products, and about six cups of water.  You can use whole peeled tomatoes or diced tomatoes instead of crushed if you want -- whatever tomato product is on sale, use that one.

For the veggies, I always just make things easy and add whatever frozen veg I have on hand.  You can certainly use fresh instead.  This soup is a great way to use up some of your excess harvest.

Add about a cup of dried pasta.  I like shells, but elbow macaroni or any other smallish shape would work just great.  Just dump the dry pasta right in the soup and let it plump up.

Add your beans.  Canned is fine.  Dried beans that have been cooked are fine.  Frozen are fine.  Whatever you're comfortable with and have on hand.  I like navy beans, garbanzo beans or kidney beans for this.  But feel free to experiment.

When you season, don't be scared to put in a lot of herb.  If you happen to have fresh herbs from your garden, awesome.  If not, dump in some dried or whatever else you have on hand.  If you don't like having floating herbs in your soup, gather them up into a tea ball or something before dropping them in.  Taste as you go to see if you need to adjust. 

Boom.  That's it.  You're done.

You could probably do this in the crockpot, too, if you waited til the end to add the pasta.  I've never tried it -- this whole thing comes together in less than 30 minutes, and you can leave it gently simmering for as long as you need to after that while the flavors meld and you clean your kitchen, play a round of League of Legends, throw a stick for your dog, have a cigarette, whatever it is you do in your free time.

If you don't think you're any good at cooking or don't know where to start...start with this recipe.  It will open doors to whole new worlds for you!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Book Review: The Real Food Revival by Sherri Brooks Vinton and Ann Clark Espuelas

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The Real Food Revival by Sherri Brooks Vinton and Ann Clark Espuelas

This is a really excellent book.  You absolutely should get your hands on a copy right away. 

I picked this up at my first trip to the local library in my new city.  I got a lot of books on that particular trip, but this one really stood out.  While I just sort of flipped through the others for ideas, this one demanded that I sit down and read it cover-to-cover, which I did.  I even read portions of it aloud to David, who was curious what was capturing my attention so much (he then asked that I stop reading to him, because it was making him hungry). 

The Real Food Revival is a plea, from one food-lover to another, to make better eating choices.  It's very much in line with Michael Pollan's books; if you've read In Defense of Food (and you should), then the premise of this book should be pretty familiar.  Pollan is referenced a few times, and they share sources -- but this is more than a rehashing of Pollan's work. 

After a brief introduction to let you know what to expect, the book is broken off into sections, each one correlating to an aisle in the grocery store -- produce, meat, grains, etc.  Every chapter is organized in the same way: An introduction about the type of food, an "industrial agriculture snapshot" showing how those foods make their way to your table in the conventional system, and then tips for reviving real food -- such as ways to find organic produce, where to get grass-fed meat, etc. etc.  After that is a section highlighting a specific producer in-depth so that you can see how real people are working to combat the problems described early in the chapter. 

Interspersed among these sections are simple recipes that relate to the food being discussed, including a really delicious feta pie for the "ugly tomatoes" you end up with when you buy heirloom varieties.  Seriously, try that recipe, it's delicious. 

Moving on.  I really enjoyed this book.  It was packed with information, some of which I knew and some I really didn't (the entire section about seafood was mind-blowing for me), and the overall attitude of the book is very "can do" without speaking down to people or making them feel guilty for their choices.  The book's overarching message is very much in line with what I believe here at Lean Times -- someone might not be able to do everything, but everybody can do something to help make the world more sustainable. 

Have you read this book?  Share your opinion in the comments!  Also, I'm open to suggestions for what to read or watch next!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Is it Ever Possible to Truly Live According to Your Non-Consumer Values?

I read any interesting article today that really resonated with me -- talking about the impossibility of an ethical life.  The author discusses the myriad inconsistencies in her lifestyle: Abstaining from meat, but owning leather; recycling, but owning two cars; buying local produce, but purchasing clothing from big-box stores.  It's a conundrum that I think all of us face at one time or another. 

Ethics is not an entirely black-and-white field.  If it were, there would be no room for debate and differing opinions -- we would all just do what was right or be "evil" people.  But life isn't a Disney movie, and the lines are not drawn in such clear contrast. 

Everything Affects Everything Else 

The problem with living a sustainable lifestyle is that we're all interconnected.  None of us is really, truly self-sufficient.  We rely on other people in some form or another.  And those people all have their own lives and ethical dilemmas and problems.  Do we buy our clothes from a major chain, which sources them from sweat shop workers?  If we buy those same brands second-hand, aren't we still supporting the original purchase to some degree?  If we make our own clothes, where are we sourcing our fabric from?  Synthetic materials use up petroleum products, but cotton is a GMO crop.  What if we only use organic cotton?  Even then, it uses up so much water to produce.

And on, and on.

The deeper you delve into the question of conscious consumerism, the more complicated it starts to become.  It's tempting to stop caring at all when there seems to be no perfect answer.  

It's true that nobody can do everything.  However, everyone can do something.

And that's really all we can ask for.  Be aware of the impact you're making in the world, and strive to improve the areas that you can.  Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater -- just because you can't be 100% committed to a zero-harm, zero-waste, non-consumer lifestyle doesn't  mean there isn't real value in doing your best.  Every dollar you spend (or don't spend) is a vote for the kind of world you want to live in, and those votes do count. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Guilty Admission: I Am a Gardening Sham

So despite my enthusiasm for gardening, my passion for food and my burning desire to build an urban homestead, I have a confession to make: I'm actually kind of a sham.

I've never had my own garden before this year, and have never been very good at keeping plants alive in general.

But this year, I was determined to change things. I bought a bunch of planters and organic soil. I carefully consulted the back of my seed packets to figure out where and when to plant some late-season direct-sowing plants. I eagerly planted, watered, waited. 

A few days ago, I discovered the first seedlings sprouting up from where I had planted them! I was so excited! I sat and watched them, waxing poetical in my mind about the miracle of nature, the amazing power to create something edible from a humble seed, sunlight, dirt and water. It was exhilarating.

But as the days passed, I started to get a little uneasy. None of the other seeds I'd planted seemed to be sprouting. And then I saw those same seedlings cropping up in other areas, where I hadn't planted. And after a little inspection, I realized that those seedlings looked suspiciously similar to the weeds growing all around the backyard.

Looks like I've been lovingly fawning over and tending to a bunch of goat-head bearing weeds.

On the bright side, the plants I bought are doing well.  The bush basil and chocolate mint looked pretty pathetic after transplanting, but they've perked right up after a few weeks of consistent watering.  The rosemary looks beautiful, the strawberry is growing (though I doubt it will make berries this year, at this rate) and the tomato plant has two little tomatoes growing on it.

It's definitely a learning process.

And right now, I'm very grateful that I am not actually relying on this food to survive.  This is another one of those areas where it's important to remember privilege.  It would be very easy for a person with gardening experience to look at people spending money on groceries and say, "Why waste all of that money when you could grow it yourself?"  And while growing your own food is a very worthwhile goal, it's not something that's going to be happening overnight.

So: How is your garden faring this year? 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Why the Supreme Court's Ruling About Hobby Lobby Scares the Shit Out of Me

This is sort of old news by now, but in the days following the Supreme Court's ruling, thinking about it made me too sick to my stomach to form coherent, blog-worthy thoughts.  It's taken a while for all of it to really sink in, for my impulsive anger to reside enough that I could explain in plain English why exactly this ruling is so fucking terrifying. 

So in case you've been under a rock, here's the deal.  Under the Affordable Care Act, employers are required to offer insurance coverage to their employees.  That coverage has to meet certain basic guidelines to ensure that everyone gets the same quality of coverage.  And part of what's covered by that insurance mandate is several forms of birth control, including Plan B, Ella and two types of IUD.  With me so far? 

Okay.  So Hobby Lobby -- a store founded on Christian values -- objected to being forced to pay for this coverage because these forms of birth control violate their pro-life stance.  To clarify, the contraceptives covered by ACA insurance are not abortion pills, by the medical definition of abortion.  An abortion is medically defined as the destruction of a fertilized egg that has already attached to the uterine wall.  None of the birth control methods mentioned above do that.  Instead, in some way or another, all of them prevent eggs from being fertilized in the first place, or prevent a fertilized egg from implanting. 

All the same, the Supreme Court ruled that it was against the law to require businesses to offer contraceptive coverage that went against the owner's religious beliefs. 

As you might expect, a lot of people have a lot of opinions about this, on all sides -- questions about religious freedom, reproductive rights, and whether your employer should have a say in your healthcare.  I'm not going to get into that here, because I think there's a bigger issue that we need to examine.  Because I don't think this case was about religion at all. 

Corporations Are Not People

....but the Supreme Court seems to think they are. 

Thanks to Corporate Personhood, businesses have the same rights as individuals.  And apparently, if the precedent set by this most recent landmark case is anything to go off of, a corporation's rights can supersede the rights of its employees. 

Make no mistake.  Hobby Lobby doesn't give a shit about birth control.  If it did, it would not have invested so much of its money into the pharmaceutical companies that create the very products it refuses to cover through insurance.  The issue isn't about the corporation's values -- it's an issue of money, power and control. 

Granting corporations so many rights is dangerous, in part because corporations have a whole lot more power than individuals.  Part of the reason that individuals have rights in the first place is to protect the weak from the strong.  Without some sort of protection, there is nothing to stop those with power and authority from enslaving or otherwise abusing those who can't fight back. 

Corporations have more money than individuals.  They have more power.  And thanks to the Super-Pacs, they have immense political pull. 

Ushering in a New Age of Feudalism

Wealth inequality is a major problem in our country.  Today, I read a brilliant blog post from "ultra-rich man" Nick Hanauer that said exactly what I've been thinking for years:  If we don't do something to stop it, we will enter another feudal era. 

If you're not familiar with feudalism, here's the way it's basically laid out: At the top, you have a monarch.  Below him are a cluster of noblemen.  These people would be granted ownership of land within the kingdom, in exchange for them providing soldiers to the king's army.  The lands owned by the noblemen would be populated by nobles and knights, certainly, but there'd be a much higher percentage of peasants.  These peasants would live on these lands, but they would have no rights to them.  They would grow crops, but most of what they grew would be the property of the nobleman whose lands they tilled.  There was no upward mobility.  There was only long, arduous hours of back-breaking labor in exchange for a subsistence lifestyle and the persistent threat of abuse from noblemen. 

It seems to me that corporations are the new noblemen.  They're the Lords and Ladies of the modern age.  

The so-called "working poor" (which, in these times of the vanishing middle class, means most of us) are share-croppers, peasants tilling the land of the big corporations.  Except instead of growing sheep and turnips, we're growing cash.  We keep just enough of it to survive, and the rest goes up to those landowners -- who in turn give some of their money to the government in exchange for the freedom to keep doing what they're doing. 

Think on it.  Read Nick Hanauer's article.  Consider it long and hard and tell me honestly if that's a reality you want to see come to pass.  If not, you and I and everyone else needs to start making some noise.  We need to become champions for our own rights while we still have the chance, before things get nasty enough for a full-blown revolution.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Magazines About Urban Homesteading

Here's a question for you readers:  Do you subscribe to any magazines about homesteading, self-sufficiency, social justice, etc.?  Which do you recommend?  Discuss in the comments!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Do Humans Have Rights?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness  -- The Declaration of Independence

I've often found that people do not give much thought to their beliefs -- because if they did, they might realize that they're actually monsters.  The more I hear talk from certain demographics of the country, the more I realize that, if they really believed what they were saying, they must also believe that humans do not have innate rights.

Take, for example, the issue of healthcare.

Many people are less-than-pleased with the Affordable Care Act, for a variety of reasons.  I can sympathize.  It's not the healthcare I would have asked for, either (although I'm still very grateful for the opportunity to buy insurance, which I otherwise could not have done).  But in trying to get people to defend their position against it, you run frequently into a wall.

How are people supposed to get healthcare if they cannot afford it?

If you don't want the government paying for healthcare...and the patient cannot afford it...then who pays?

And if it's not paid for......then the person simply dies?

Because if that's what you believe, by all means, say that aloud.  Say, "I believe that people who cannot afford healthcare should die."  Say out loud, "People who can't find work should starve to death." If that's how you feel, then own it. 

I will find that point of view reprehensible.  If I know you, I will probably "unfriend" you in accordance with whatever space we share.  But at least you're being honest, and I can respect that.

Otherwise -- if you accept, as our founding fathers did -- that everyone is entitled to live and pursue happiness, then we need to all work together to figure out a way to make that happen.  Stop pretending that real people's lives aren't on the line whenever policies change, and start thinking with a little bit of creativity and compassion.  We're smart.  We can come up with a solution. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Hidden Language of Yard Sales

I found myself pulled bright and early from bed this morning to go on a yard sale adventure with my mom.  Fortunately for me, she had the forethought to bring coffee, as 8AM is pretty damn early for a vampire like myself.  But once I'd properly caffeinated, thus began the quest of searching for signs, getting lost in subdivisions, slow-rolling past sales and picking through boxes of other people's belongings. 

This was really a targeted quest: I'm on the hunt for a proper desk for my office.

But not just any desk.  Because I have looked at roughly a million desks so far, at yard sales, thrift stores, consignment shops, office supply stores and furniture stores.  None of them have been exactly what I was looking for.  What am I looking for, you might ask?  I have no idea.  But I'll know it when I see it!

So anyway, while questing for the Mystical Unicorn Desk, we came across a whole number of yard sales.  I wanted to use my phone to take some surreptitious pics to turn this post into a photo essay, but I didn't really have the opportunity. 

The thing that's fascinating to me about yard sales is how they really give you a window into the lives of the people having them.  It's interesting to see what you can learn about someone from what they're selling, how much they're charging, and how they react to you and each other when you ask questions.  The whole experience was very much an anthropological study, if nothing else. 

Among other things, today we stopped off at:
  • A house clearly belonging to parents of a no-longer-toddler -- the yard was full of baby supplies, including a potty training toilet and lots of baby clothes.  
  • The home of a shoe addict.  There's no other way to explain the two HUGE TUBS of nice shoes out on the driveway.  
  • The home of a lady who clearly has a lot of great ideas that never come to fruition...exercise equipment, foreign travel plug adaptors, various electronic gadgets still in the box.  I almost considered buying the never-opened "set your own combination" locking thumb drive, but thought better of it.  
  • A very cool garage full of strange antique furnishings.  A lot of awesome stuff that I sadly could not justify buying, including a real solid wood high-chair with metal tray.  
  • A church parking lot filled with booths -- my favorite of which being the guys who were selling (among other things) an ornamental katana, two slow cookers, an automatic cat feeder, a PS2 and a hamster.  I hung out and chatted with them for a while.  They seemed like cool folks, the kind I'd be likely to hang out with.  (I very nearly came home with that old PS2, but for $50 I couldn't justify the purchase).  
  • An extremely, obviously Christian household selling stacks and stacks of books -- my favorite of which had a title like "Seducing Our Children: Saving Your Children From Witchcraft and the Occult!" I was this close to buying it out of sheer curiosity, but I resisted the urge. 
There were more, but those were the ones that stuck out in my mind.  Lots of good times to be had.

I did not, however, leave my quest empty-handed.  Though no Mythical Unicorn Desk appeared, I did walk home with a coffee grinder, large crock pot and well-worn copy of The Joy of Cooking, all for $11.25.  Not half shabby if you ask me.

Anyway, that was my adventure in garage sale land.  Did anybody else have any fun anthropological experiences to report? Find any good deals?  Let me know all about it in the comments! 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Moving: Non-Consumer Wins and Fails

Well, I've gotten mostly settled into the new house and have my internet turned on, so I should be back into the swing of things soon. 

Moving itself was an experience (as it always is).  Though I tried to be mindful during the move, some things invariably were sacrificed to the altar of convenience.  All told, the move was full non-consumer wins and fails: 


  • I successfully purged a lot of unwanted items and dropped off a total of about 10 boxes to the thrift store.
  • I gave my perishable and hard to pack groceries to a neighbor in exchange for her helping with some clean-up. 
  • I packed my breakables in dish towels and other reusable materials; I also used some trash bags as filler and can re-use them now as actual trash bags.  
  • I managed to find moving boxes for free at Target (although it got dicey and looked for a while that we'd have to buy them -- it's getting HARD to find free boxes).  


  • We've eaten out entirely too much during the move -- it's time to rein that back in now that the kitchen is unpacked.  No more excuses! 
  • I caved in and bought some convenience items, including some cleaning supplies and frozen pizzas.  
  • We also fell into the lure of half-price shakes at Sonic.  For shame!
One money-spending thing I did that turned out to be a smart idea: Hiring "moving helpers" to unload the truck.  It cost about $80 for an hour of work, but the two guys did all the work for me and saved us the trouble and exhausting work of unpacking the truck the same day we'd packed it and driven it down.  That was money well-spent.

The biggest fail, consumer or otherwise, of the move?

Realizing -- two hours into my drive -- that I had totally left the dirty litter box in the hall closet of the old apartment.  

I'd had every intention of cleaning it and packing it up last and somehow it just...never happened.  Whoops.  That will be a fun surprise for someone later.