Monday, March 28, 2016

(Not so) First world problems

Darling Husband and I, being of a certain age, take a handful of supplements every morning and evening. The sorting of a dozen pill bottles into individual doses in boxes marked with the days of the week is a sweet reminder that we are growing old together, and some of the bottles are shared. But the romantic aspect ends there.

Every week we open one or two new bottles, and the process is the same: remove the outer seal (sometimes a thin film around the neck of the bottle, other times a heavy plastic pull tab—both are good tests of fingernail health), peel off the seal from the mouth of the bottle (sometimes with a tiny fiddly tab on the edge, other times with an unpredictable cellophane pull tab that covers half the opening), and then remove the wad of cotton (or more likely polyester) so we can get to the vitamin in question. A handful of waste gets chucked into the bathroom wastebasket, and I can’t help but wonder how zero-waste people manage this invasion.

Our kids laugh at us, and verbally hashtag it as #firstworldproblems. But is it? In addition to the seals and cotton whenever we open a new bottle, we have the old one to discard as well. The glass ones are easily recycled, but at this point, the vast majority of the bottles are plastic, and the lids a different type of plastic that is not recyclable in our municipality. The vitamin shop will accept most plastic bottles for recycling (but not the lids)—and desiccant is not recyclable at all. It takes us only a few months to fill a brown grocery bag with empties, almost all of them in absolutely pristine condition.

And this is where our first world problem becomes a whole world problem: the most responsible thing we can do is recycle the bottles. They go away—from us. But where do they go? We have no idea, and it is likely that only a portion of them are ever actually recycled. I expect most people just chuck them in the bin, meaning the vast majority of them end up in landfills and eventually the ocean, where they break down into microscopic pieces and join one of the several gyres.

In a final insult, Darling Husband has a supplement that used to come in bottles of 60; now the same sized plastic bottle holds only 30 (with a correspondingly larger wad of fluff at the top). He has discovered that four bottles can be decanted into one. We note that the manufacturer is local, so maybe it is time for us to use our consumer voice (a sort of privilege) and ask them for more sensible packaging. How about a glass bottle that holds 120 tablets? Dare we dream of a sealed paper envelope to refill our bottles? We are interested in not only our own health, but that of our fellow inhabitants and our planet as well.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The rest of us

In a culture where few seasonal items remain, February has a seasonal food of sorts: Girl Scout cookies. I have long been a fan of thin mints, much to the detriment of my hips, but lately it has been the rest of my system that complains when I feed it wheat or gluten. There was only one thing left to do: develop my own GF thin mint. Don't worry, I still buy the green boxes to support the fledglings in our neighborhood, but this recipe supports me and a legion of similarly deprived girlfriends.

GF Mint Cookies
1 3/4 cups GF flour mix (I like Namaste, but any mix will do)
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (preferably Dutch-process)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg or egg replacer
1/2 teaspoon mint extract

6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate

Whisk flour, cocoa, and salt in medium bowl to blend. Cream sugar and butter in large bowl until well blended. Add mint extract, beat in egg. Add dry ingredients; beat until blended. Divide dough in half: Shape half of dough into a log 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Repeat for second half of dough. Wrap in wax paper and refrigerate 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Unwrap cookie dough, and cut into 1/4-inch slices. Place on prepared cookie sheets. Bake until cookies no longer look wet and small indentation appears when tops of cookies are lightly touched with fingers, about 11 minutes (do not overbake or cookies will become too crisp). Cool on sheet 5 minutes. Transfer chocolate cookies to racks and cool completely.

Drizzle or dip with tempered melted chocolate. Try to wait until set before you start dunking them in hot cocoa or devouring them.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The EV compromise

With National Drive Electric week nearly upon us, and with three years of EV ownership under my belt, I'm still thinking about the impact of my choices and actions. There is a fair amount of anti-EV sentiment making headlines, some of it politically driven, some of it remarkably level-headed, and asking smart questions about whether EVs are the answer. I come back again to my conviction that it is not what you have or buy, but behavioral choices that make the difference.

But let's be clear: driving an electric car is a compromise: if I were "green" beyond reproach, I would be living in a high-density urban area in a net zero building, within walking distance of my workplace. Cycling (and cycling distance from the workplace) is a close second to this. Omitting anachronistic modes of transport such as horse and buggy, and things like skateboarding, means that public transit comes next, and then ride and car sharing. Driving in a personal car is really at the far end of the sustainability spectrum; but it's not the car that needs to change, it's the way we arrange our cities and lives.

The biggest change is where we choose to live: when someone tells me they couldn't make an EV work because they commute so far from work, I have to wonder why they live so far away. Yes, homes closer in to urban or suburban employment centers are more expensive, but the cost of commuting over the years is even more so. And that "hidden" cost keeps many artificially poor.

Even a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation, with readily available numbers (the IRS mileage rate, the value of your time at minimum wage) gives staggering results: those miles and days really add up, and compounded over the spam of years that most people work, it's clear that the expensive house close to work is actually much cheaper in the long run. A typical 30-mile round trip commute? It adds up to well over $450,000 (double that if both spouses are commuting) over 20 years, and that's not even considering the impact in terms of extracting and burning fuel (over 100,000 tons of CO2, in case you were wondering), and the social and environmental impact of traffic congestion and new road construction when everyone starts thinking that a 30-mile commute is normal.

Now those numbers are based on commuting with a gas car. If I run the same commute with my EV numbers, I'm a bit better off: $130,000 over that same 20-year span. (I can't compute the CO2 emissions for everyone--the guy with his own solar panels is doing much better than the guy plugging into 100% coal-generated electricity.). But the social cost of my time and the impact of roadways remains.

For the record, I work at home, and Darling Husband takes his bike or walks to his office under 2 miles away: the car is for ferrying kids and running errands. My husband's bike commute is a clear example of choices playing out: $700 for the bike (it's a nice one, bought used), and about $50 each year for a tune-up. Over 20 years, it's paid for the whole house two times over. Even if he had to replace the whole bike every year, we're still way ahead, and he doesn't need to take time out of his day (and away from family) to go to the gym. Because in the end, it's not what you have, but what you do.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


Frustrated by escalating market prices for decent bread, and inspired by our new neighbor (who makes an incredible crusty rye bread in his dutch oven). Darling Husband has taken to baking bread. The Internet gave him a basic recipe for Seelen, and after a few weeks of practice runs, we have been enjoying spectacular golden Seelen on Sunday.

After posting pictures on Facebook, many friends asked about what they are. Seelen, literally "souls" are the bread found in the pocket of Swabia where my Darling Husband originates; the same place he rushed to, to gather with his family and share salty tears and Seelen with his family. For while he was baking Seelen here, his father was slipping towards the other side, and passed the threshold in the wee hours of our morning, shortly after his son arrived in the Vaterland.

Seelen were originally the small loaves placed on graves for All Soul's Day. But they're so good with fresh butter, it would be a waste to not share it with the living, and make it daily.

This is where I admonish you to hold your family tight, and perhaps share a crusty loaf with those you love. Because all too soon, we must say goodbye.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Thoroughly Modern Millie

I went to the bank yesterday. In my line of business, contracts are irregular but not infrequent, which means that checks need to be run to the bank irregularly and fairly frequently. In the interest of saving time, I often let client checks pile up for a week or so before running deposits--the joke is that the way to make a pending check arrive is to deposit the others.

While I was handing checks to the teller for deposit, she asked if I was aware that they had added a shiny new feature to the mobile banking app--I could now deposit checks from my home office--she thought I might be really interested, since I seem to be in so often.

Sure enough, after that bank visit and picking up Little One from school, and getting some more ice cream (Jr. Firefighter is home from college for the summer, and this wreaks havoc on frozen inventory), I swing by the mailbox on the way up the drive, and there it is, another check.

Oddly enough, I find myself torn: Yes, it is a good idea to reduce trips, with all those pesky carbon emissions, traffic congestion, and such. Yes, it is an ease of burden for the busy to be able to take care of errands in a few seconds. Yes, reducing the amount of paper reduces cost, both environmental and administrative.

But. When I walked into the bank, the manager looked up from his desk, and greeted me by name. I still remember when he came to this branch as a teller, long before Little One was born. I think of the times a trip to the bank counted as human contact, during those years as the tired mother of two young boys. I think of the time that same bank manager flagged a transaction because he knew I wasn’t in Texas (having a spa day and buying a flat screen TV) because he had seen me just an hour ago (and he knew I wasn't a Red Door kind of girl). I think of the phone call from my mother's bank when something didn't seem quite right with her, and I wonder if my bank will still be around to provide that same human connection and safety net. Can the mobile app call my kids when I'm 84?

I could get on my high horse and justify a drive to the bank since the carbon emissions don't apply to me in my electric car (and it's true), and discount my contribution to congestion since I try to combine trips. But it's still a car on the road, and an electric car is at best a compromise (maybe I should get a bicycle). So I take the newly arrived check, endorse it "for mobile deposit," snap pictures of it, and send it off through cyberspace. And fight the urge to email the bank manager just to say hi.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Brambles and sweet

There is a moment near the end of summer, when you can smell the blackberries on the dry wind that musses your hair as you drive past with the car windows open. It's the time of year when you try to make sure there is some sort of container in the trunk in case you have a few extra minutes to stop and pick a pint.

My childhood is punctuated with memories of snatching those drupes from the thorny vines. There was the time that Mom let us stand on the hood of the car and pick blackberries from the brambles peeking over the fence at the back of the parking lot while she went into the bank, and there were countless weekends of puttering on hot dusty back roads with my father, when we would fill hats and frisbees and baggies and cups with the dark berries, and stick out our purple tongues at each other.

It should be no surprise then, that I did the same with my kids, at first passing berries to their toddler selves, and then enlisting them to pick the lower branches.

In the final months of my father's decline, he was unable to leave the house easily, and so I stopped at the side of the road and picked a handful of sun-drenched berries for him. He relished them as only a dying man can. It was one of the last times I saw him.

The weeks and months before leaving to college are full of partings as well: goodbyes to teachers and classmates, goodbye to the explorer post, goodbye to the cello teacher. When Jr. Firefighter first started playing the instrument, Little One and I would sometimes play in the park across the street, where brambles weave their way up the madrona trees. Many of those berries made it into mouths and under ice cream--if they made it home at all.

And so it was that on his return from his final cello lesson, Number One came home with a baggie of blackberries picked from the same park, a parting gift, and a request for one last cobbler before setting off on his next adventure, where I play only a sidelined role.

A handful of blackberries. A parting. Pain and joy. Brambles and sweet.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Double delicious

I am stuffed. Full of smiles that make your cheeks ache, and endless hugs--the solid kind that last long enough to synchronize breathing--of laughter, of touches, of love. And then there was the potluck table, groaning under the weight of multiple and tasty savories and sweets, all washed down with wine produced by one of ourown, followed by s'mores at the fire pit late into the evening, and a hearty brunch the next day.

It was a reunion, of family of a sort: 30-some odd years ago, we were young theatre students, so sure of ourselves and so incredibly unsure of ourselves, trying on new personas and discovering who we might turn out to be. Some still work in the industry, many do not, but all agree that they use their degree (or near degree) every day of their life. And all have turned into lovely people I am just tickled to be able to count as friends.

With all the missteps and misunderstandings of our youth behind us, we could truly appreciate and enjoy each other, and we did so joyfully as we devoured the food and each others' tales. And so I offer you these special cookies from a very special  place--my heart.

Giant Toffee Chocolate Cookies

makes about 18

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 lb. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/4 cup butter

1 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 tbl vanilla extract
8 oz. chocolate-covered toffee, coarsely chopped
1 cup walnuts, toasted, chopped

Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl; whisk to blend. Melt chocolate and butter together in a double boiler set over simmering water until smooth. Remove from water and cool mixture to lukewarm.

Using an electric mixer or food processor, beat sugar and eggs together until thick. Beat in chocolate mixture and vanilla. Stir in flour mixture, then toffee and nuts. Chill batter until firm, about 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper or a silicone mat. Drop batter by 1/4 cupfuls onto sheets, spacing 2 1/2 inches apart. Bake just until tops are dry and cracked but cookies are still soft to the touch, about 15 minutes. If baked cookies are misshapen from escaping toffee, use a spatula to coax the still-hot cookies back into shape. Cool on baking sheets. Share with friends.