The Little Things.

I “get through” my day after day after day i.e. life by looking forward to something. It’s so easy to be distracted by only the big things, but really it’s those little somethings that make up the journey in life. What is a trail anyway? It’s a line, and a line is endless infinitesimally small points along the way.

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Yesterday, my big thing was a little something full of lots of simple smiles. I got to spend an evening cooking with someone dear to me. Jeff and I of course have fun skiing or playing volleyball like we sometimes do, but it takes a special kind of person to still go outside to build snowmen and to spend a few hours preparing a meal from scratch – and have fun doing it.

From walking to Heinen’s, to slam-dunking food into the buggy, Jeff making fun of me standing on my toes to look over shelves, wandering aisles because he’s too stubborn to ask for help, walking home in the rain, stirring frogs eggs pudding, cutting up Jeff’s first star fruit, sipping wine while making our own broth, fixing up pretty plates of roasted asparagus and improvised homemade hollandaise sauce…we had a blast. We sat down the watch The Bachelor, but we didn’t need a TV show to keep us entertained. I think we could make scrubbing dishes fun.

And that’s when I thought, how many people do that? How many people can enjoy cooking a time-consuming dinner? How many people in their late 20s would build a snowman with me in snow that won’t even compact? How many people take the time to read a silly, three-paged letter with joking references to the Hunger Games trilogy? How many people can still appreciate the little things?

Maybe we are weird, but I like it. And I’m really glad I have someone like Jeff to make being weird less lonely.

Our menu from last night included: white wine, champagne, roasted asparagus, homemade hollandaise sauce with lime, basmati rice, chicken/seitan in white wine broth with sun-dried tomatoes and seasoned artichoke hearts, arugula-basil salad with fresh mozzarella and balsamic-basil vinaigrette, frogs eggs (tapioca pudding), and a sliced star fruit.

Taken for Granted.

ImageI’ve been reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  The story focuses on an extended family and surrounding people living rather isolated and somewhat primitive in Colombia.  The patriarch of the family is transfixed with the ideas of science and invention.  In fact, he founds his own village, Macondo, on an island so he can spend his life entertaining his curiosities.  What’s particularly interesting about this man and his village, though, is the fact that the both are so isolated in only the familiar and with little contact to the outside.  For example, some gypsies bring in a large piece of ice to the village as a “demonstration” – not of science, but of magic.  The man is transfixed by this enormous diamond and pays for him and his sons to touch it.  Because he sees things in one light and one light only.

I’m still reading the book, but that was the gist of what I’ve gotten from summaries of it and what I’ve read so far.  But what really stuck out to me was that ice scenario.  I started thinking about the life that family had, isolated in one of the last regions to be explored.  In fact, Colombia is still heavily avoided, perhaps due more to violence than environmental concern such as the Amazon in Brazil.

But…ice.

I see ice every morning during this time of year.  There’s ice on my windows, ice hanging from my eaves, and ice on the sidewalks.  We go to the restaurant and we’re served water with ice.  We buy bags of ice for coolers to pack samples in the lab.  We have ice for injuries whenever we need it.

But, ice.

There are people in this world who have lived their whole lives without ever seeing, feeling, tasting, knowing ice.  They might know steam and not recognize it as water.  If they saw ice, they surely wouldn’t first guess water, would they?  Could they say ‘diamonds’ if they knew diamonds?  And how could you ever explain that feeling of such coldness?  So cold, it seems boiling hot if you have only ever known boiling hot.

I’m not just thinking about the materialistic things we take for granted in our daily lives, like heat and air-conditioning.  I’m not just talking about the people we take for granted in our daily lives, like friends and family.  I’m talking about the science we have come to know and how it has changed our lives as we’ve learned to manipulate it.

Medication.  Transportation.  Entertainment.  Those are some of the big ones.

But even something as simple as ice.  Phase change.  Think of how many things we have that rely on phase change: cooking, engines, pumps,…a lot of little things that make up much bigger things.  Science, knowledge….the ability to share that information – it can so easily be taken for granted.

How different would your life be if you lived in a place where no one knew ice?

Festive or Infective?

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With the holidays cranking out since November’s American Thanksgiving, I can’t help but feel perpetual bitterness fueled by the generalized attitude of the public.  Shop shop shop shop shop, eat eat eat eat eat.  Whatever happened to the holidays being a time of togetherness and thankfulness?  No, of course not.  Now it’s just a constant competition to get the best deals, cook (or take-out!) way too much food, have a prettier tablescape, decorate your house better than the guy next to you, cut down a bigger tree (that took as much as 15 years to grow!), and complete forget what this time is about.  I don’t celebrate any holiday, but aren’t these supposed to be religious times, too?  Who even goes to Christmas Mass anymore?  When did Christmas become all about Santa?  And what about the other holidays?  (I got so many “Merry Christmas” goodbyes as I left work this week that I began to think…what about Chanukah?  Kwanza?  Winter Solstice??)

And what I really can’t get over is this: Christmas trees!  Dude, that’s a PAGAN tradition!  PAGAN.  For all of you Christian/Bible-reading superlatives out there.  And that’s fine.  But just remember it’s not some holy, Christian-only enterprise.  (I’m sick of people asking why my family puts up a tree.  Why run your car if you don’t believe in Global Warming?  You’re still partaking.)

So let’s all just have an enjoyable winter and not feel pressured to waste money buying gifts that you and others don’t need, cook too much food that will go to waste, and stay inside instead of enjoying all of the outdoor opportunities that are peaked in the colder areas this time of year and just as available as always to the warmer ones.

The Hypocrisy in Cleveland’s Local Food System

I have been closely involved in the local food system in Cleveland for the last three or more years and I can’t help but continuously noticing the hypocrisy in it.  I’ve brought some of these topics up before at Brews + Prose local food panels in Ohio City and been backed up by the experts, so I don’t feel at all out of place for calling it “hypocrisy”.  I’ll just break down some of my observations to give you an idea of what I’m seeing:

1. LOCAL FOOD AS A LUXURY:
This is my favorite point at panel discussions.  I’ve written several locavore restaurant reviews on my Cleveland blog and always conclude the same thing: Local food is presented as a privilege, not as a way of life.  Why is it that I can visit these “local” ingredient restaurants and spend exorbitant amounts of money on tiny, decorated dishes of vegetables?  Why do fancy chefs have to run these “locavore” joints?  Why is the trend in Cleveland to make eating local a showy, classy, exclusive trend for those with money?  Shouldn’t it be the other way around?  The one explanation I got was simple: perhaps the demand is much higher than the resources due to population density.  So isn’t the next logical step to educate the public and make serious strides in adding green spaces and gardens to Cleveland?  Some co-workers just this week commented on Cleveland’s lack of attractive parks within the downtown area.  If these concepts weren’t so foreign, maybe people wouldn’t be so in awe by them and remember that local eating is not a newfangled trend but rather a way of life – the only way there should be!

2. WASTEFULNESS:
I worked on a farm on the outskirts of Cleveland as an intern where we grew organic food to deliver to our clients within the city.  Sometimes these deliveries were whole plants, but it was usually produce.  We grew ridiculous quantities of squash and cabbage as the weather started to cool – so much, in fact, that we started giving it away —— and NO ONE WOULD TAKE IT.   Does that make any sense???

3. ENERGY CONSUMPTION:
On the same farm, we also used greenhouses to start nearly every plant and to grow a lot of our basil and winter our plants.  We were looking at getting a solar panel array to supply the operation.  It was a lot of energy to grow local food.  I thought about this again at the North Union Farmer’s Market at Shaker Square.  My mom and I were walking around looking at produce and she asked me what they could possibly sell in quantity during the winter months.  She’s accustomed to canning and not fighting the Pennsylvania snow once the first frost threatens our orchard.  She made the point that a lot of the farmers at the market would probably use green houses to grow crops for profit.  I started to think about these two situations – my farm and the farmers at the market – and began questioning how this was a better solution.  How is asking all of this produce to be grown in a green house outside of the city then driven to the public in personal cars any better than just bringing a large shipment to an urban store?  It’s not like you can buy all of your needs at a farmer’s market like you can buy your food, clothes, and supplies at one Wal-Mart.  It’s like how it’s more energy efficient and green for England to import its tomatoes from Spain than to grow them in English green houses…

4. PLASTIC BAGS:
If you try to buy something at the market, the vendors don’t even ask but try to shove your produce into a plastic bag.  You have to stop them and tell them you brought a bag.  They sometimes seem surprised…but why?

5. DRIVING:
For all of the cars that are parked around the market each Saturday, I have to wonder how many people actually walk to the Square on market day.  That makes me wonder how many people here don’t take advantage of the market and why they don’t.  Then I start to wonder where the other people must be coming from…and I wonder if they come from the same towns as the farmers who drive here weekly.  I would love to do a statistical analysis on the gas consumption caused by market day for this reason.

6. PROMOTION:
Why eat local?  The idea is it’s better for the environment.  My mom points out it’s also better for the farmers, thinking about the dairy farms in our area that are broke because the milk prices are kept at statewide lows.  However, I investigated what the promoted reasons for attending are.  They consist primarily as “educational experiences” or as ways to get the “freshest” food.  How is it educational?  Because apparently people don’t realize that apples don’t grow in Region 6 Decembers.  It’s been hard for me to realize how little people really know about growing – and cooking – food, especially in urban areas.  Even so, I would be promoting how it benefits the environment and the local farmers…because it does, right?

7. FARM SHARE:
The market at Shaker also promotes a “farm share” program…which I absolutely think is hypocritical.  Can you believe there are people who live within a block of the market who will not leave the house to buy produce on Saturday mornings?  What better things do you have to do on a Saturday morning?  No, instead they sign up for “farm shares” so they can have someone do the shopping for them, then deliver a PLASTIC bag of goods each week to their DOOR.  Imagine all of the driving that must be done for these personal deliveries.  I told my mom this as we walked around the Square and she was absolutely disgusted.  Then she looked up to see a woman teetering on a bike whose baskets were overflowing with produce.  “Look at that lady in the dress – on a bike!”  I thought my mom was going to insult her for wearing a dress, but instead she was making a point.  “Even a classy lady like her, at her age, is real enough to take her bike to the market each week to buy her produce.  Anyone who could live here and get a farm share… it must just be for show.  Those people don’t really care about what they’re doing at all, just what other people think about them doing it.”

That is why I have vowed to do my shopping every week at the market.  I’m going to start buying extra and canning it for the winter.  I only walk to the market, I only buy on Saturdays, I only use my reusable bags, I freeze extra food that isn’t canned or dried, and I keep as many live plants as I can to grow my own food.  I try to pick from the stands that have the most honest practices.  In one case, I bought peaches from a stand of senior citizens because I witnessed them breaking their backs to lift, sort, and sell their produce and I knew that they were hard workers.

Is there any hope for the local food “scene”?  Is it not full of hypocrisy?

Fueling Up the Smart Way

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My grandma and I were making a trip out to Ohio yesterday when I stopped at Get Go to fill up one of our Audis with her Fuel Perks.  Get Go and Sheetz have always had my admiration for how they create savings for customers as a way to keep business in their favor.  With fuel prices always rising and falling, saving at the pump regardless of the prices is an attractive choice.  I’ve long given up watching the fuel prices and accepted that driving a car with Premium petrol requirements and fueling up at competitive stores with competitive prices is always going to leave me paying a hefty bill.  I’ve also driven enough in Europe to realize our fuel prices are – relatively speaking – outrageously low, even in California.  Still, how to maximize your dollar at the pump?

First, let me just say: I am actually a fan of rising gas prices.  Before you grumble too much, consider what these prices are implying: Sure, you can argue it’s the oil industry being the king that it is and taking what it can from the common people.  But doesn’t it also come down to demand?  Not only do prices rise when we keep burning up gas at higher rates than we usually consume and/or extract it, but the prices are able to rise with our increased dependency on fuel.  I think it should cost an arm and a leg to fill up your car.  That’s a tiny sacrifice we make for a life of luxury that we don’t deserve and which is in turn destroying the planet.  So let the oil giants live like kings for the time being.  Their luxuries are short-lived, but also their investment in the business is incredibly genius.  They benefit from our dependency, stupidity, and greed as a society.  That makes them no less of a criminal than all of the other enterprises that thrive off of society’s demands.

But let’s talk about saving money.  Part of that comes from making good choices for the environment, too.  Sure, sometimes the green solution is the more expensive solution – but it’s the right solution.  And it doesn’t always have to be more expensive.  Sometimes it’s a matter of living with less, or just knowing how to spend less.

First, I am notorious for my miraculously low to non-existant electric and gas bills at my apartments in Cleveland.  How do I do it?  By living the same why I live in the country in Pennsylvania.  For the life of me, I don’t understand why city people drive as much as they do.  They have public transportation AND you can find five of the same stores within a five mile walk!  You’d be lucky to find a house that close to where I live, let alone a sole store… but we still make do!  Furthermore, city folk are all about working out.  They pay for gym memberships, drive the the gym, then do the same work that they could do if they made better lifestyle choices on a daily basis.  Talk about hypocrisy!

So how do I keep up my country, fuel-efficient, healthy ways in the city?  First of all, I always pick do-it-yourself before anything else.  Without a question, you can guarantee I walk up every flight of steps, walk to any store within a predefined radius, carry my own groceries in reusable bags, buy only what I need as I need it, buy things that are not only made or grown locally but that belong in the local climate, and I let the outdoors dictate my indoor climate as much as I can.  That means I open and close windows during the summer to utilize the cool night air and the breeze without the need of fans or air conditioning, and in the winter I seal my place up and keep it as cold as I like.  If you’re going to spend money on sweaters and socks, you might as well use them!  I hate artificial lighting, and if you’re going to have a place with windows that let heat escape, well you might as well use those too!  I do everything by natural light, save for some moments when I light candles or do turn on the electricity.

I cook my own meals from scratch and I grow most of my ingredients or harvest them from the patches of woods I find around Cleveland.  I am appalled that there are people in Cleveland who have asked me, “Wait, what’s compost?  You do that?”  I know down to the cents per kilowatt how much energy I’m using and I maximize this energy as much as possible.  If I’m making tea, I’ll use the steam off of the hot water to heat something else.  If I’m baking, I’ll use the cooling oven to reheat other things or just let it dissipate to heat my room or even my socks before bed.  I’d use a wood fire to cook in Cleveland if I could.  Also, I prefer to take baths rather than showers.  This allows me to run less water (although water is fairly recyclable in urban settings).  After my bath, I use the water to hand-scrub my clothes which then hang to dry on my drying rack.  I dream of the day that I can run all of my products off of a self-installed solar panel array.  I also think bikes are one of the best inventions of all time.

But this doesn’t answer the question of how to save money when I’ve gotta roll out my Audi and drive somewhere, like when neither a bike nor public transportation are suitable to haul my large hockey bag across seven states for my indulging in sports.  This is when I invest in Sheetz and Get Go.  Back to the pump at Get Go: I’m filling up only half of a tank on my grandma’s 50-cents-off-per-gallon discount and thinking, What a waste.  But my grandma is very particular about not letting the gauge go down too far and I know I’ve got to use it or she will complain.  Still, 50 cents off on only eight or so gallons?  I turned around to see a family with a huge truck tanking up, then unloading small gas cans and filling those too.  You’re not supposed to do that because that’s how you’ll make the system bankrupt, but they do it anyway.  Alas, my everlasting internal battle: social honesty or environmental responsibility?  I’d have to choose the honesty here.  I couldn’t milk a bargain that way without feeling guilt for how I was jeopardizing a widely-welcomed system.

However, filling up your truck – that is fair game and it’s a smart move.  I’m used to using Fuel Perks on my GMC pick-up truck, all 20-some gallons of it.  That’s why my tiny eight-gallon fill-up felt particularly illogical next to the F150 two pumps over.  But then I started recalling warnings from my parents about not using the Fuel Perks until a lot has been saved up and I realized that’s only true in a certain regard.  Honestly, you’re going to save the same amount of money regardless of the discount, right?  That’s just it, though: it’s a rate.  The rate may be the same, but your purchase size is what affects your savings.  So no matter if you’re saving 20 cents on a eight gallon fill-up or 40 cents on a 16 gallon fill-up, you’re saving the same amount despite the different rates.  What my parents were really trying to tell me is save up a lot of savings… then make a big purchase.  In other words, we rack up savings here and there, then buy a large quantity of fuel to expire our savings.  My little fill-up used up those savings on an unjustifiably small (if you’re not my grandma) quantity of fuel.

So do some math, weigh your values, and take the effort to do what’s right for your wallet – and the environment.  The point of this entry is really just to get you thinking about your daily choices and how it’s affecting your health, your planet, and your wallet in different proportions.

Urban Gardening

I’m from the country.  My family, like most, rarely buys a lot of produce from the grocery stores.  Most of use grow our own produce.  When we are short on something – or if we simply don’t grow it – we trade with surrounding farms.  For example, my land grows a lot of blackberries, but this old man down the lane has his own cherry tree.  We swap fruits to make pies quite often.  Right next to that man is a sweet corn farm with the best corn I have ever had – much better than our own grown-in-poor-top-soil, small corn.  That we pay for with cash and there is always a crowd.  And the farmer’s market?  Biggest event I’ve ever seen.  It’s more of a trading post than a market.  But at home, even meats and eggs are obtained differently.  A lot of people have their own chickens and their own eggs; my family can’t keep chickens with our coyote problem, so we sometimes swap hot peppers or pattypan squash – our best crops – in exchange for a dozen.  In the fall, our swap becomes homemade applesauce or pear dumplings from our orchard.  Meats?  Well, most everything we have is venison, pheasant, or salmon – things we hunted and cleaned ourselves.

That’s what I grew up to know.  Now that I live in Cleveland, my world is has been flipped completely upside-down.  The people beside me grow tomatoes in pots.  They bought the tomatoes at a store.  I just don’t get it!!!  At home, we start everything from seed in our greenhouse then transplant things.  And it’s not uncommon for us to haul buckets of water when the well goes dry or when our only hose is tangled over a few acres in the other direction.  No, in Cleveland, I got in trouble for planting corn.  I planted some flowers and the groundskeeper ripped them out.  I was made fun of for growing plants.  I was beside myself.  Other people had flowers, but apparently my grow-yourself-dinner concept was some taboo “hippie” notion to the man next door.  Unbelievable.

Looking at Cleveland – or any city at all – makes me a little sick inside.  I think of all that asphalt, all the buildings which have destroyed greenspace and plastered it with an impenetrable cover.  In fact, it is this exact disgust that got me into Civil/Environmental Engineering.  It started in 9th grade when my friend made a speech about her grandmother being an architect.  Apparently she designs a lot of green roofs.  Green roofs!  The perfect solution to replacing what a building has destroyed, assuming that your building doesn’t taper and that your roof is the same surface area as your foundation.  Green roofs are simply roofs made into gardens.  They can be somewhat complex, however, because you have to plan for soil depths and how to deal with drainage and root penetration on your roof materials.  Here are some pictures of green roofs in existence today:

Chicago

Portland

Dearborn

When I was on a design team last year, my group got to redesign a building on campus in Cleveland.  I submitted a design for the roof that included greenspace, walkways, and even a greenhouse!  The building is very close to our campus wind turbine, so I included anemometers and other weather testing equipment that would be useful for scientific study.  I also proposed that the greenhouse be used for biological and pharmaceudical research, and that tests be done on growing different kinds of plants under different roof conditions.  Here is a shot of my roof:

But back to the guy next door who reported my corn-growing to my landlord: I decided he had no business calling me out, but that maybe I wouldn’t plant in the front yard anymore.  Instead, I took a look at the back of the building.  There is no grass at the back – it is completely asphalt.  We park on it, but there is a section behind the garage that is completely useless.  No car can go in and out of it, yet it’s paved over.  Gross.

I found the solution, though.  Why not make raised beds?  It’s the same idea as a green roof, but on the ground.  So I went and bought several planks of wood, nails, and tools.  I decided to do it the hard way and used handtools only.  I used a hand saw to cut through several boards, then nailed the boards to form two rectangular frames.  My brother suggested that I line them to trap the soil, so I bought landscaping mesh, hand-stitched pieces to form a wide enough swath, then used pushpins to tack in the lining.  I filled the boxes with a mix of peat moss, top soil, and manure, then added some moisture beads (because being over asphalt would make the beds a lot hotter and drier).

I started a lot of seeds inside during March, April, and May.  It was a tough year to start this experiment because we had snow and frost clear into May.  Nonetheless, I got a lot of things to come up from seed.  When it was time to transplant or directly sow the seeds, I took them outside.  Here is what managed to survive the weather on my first attempts…

This is my backyard garden, cleverly utilizing the useless asphalt space:

This is the left garden up-close:

This is the right garden up-close (with some basil plants on a salvaged milk crate):

Here are some storage blocks I salvaged from the trash, anchored with zipties, and used to hold some of my basil plants:

I planted broccoli and brussel sprouts together, but the rain off the roof blasted the seeds out of the ground.  I think only the broccoli took seed – and it’s kind of scattered.  But the cabbage moth likes it!:

I love portulacas, so I planted them and some poppies (which bloomed out already):

Marigolds have natural pesticidal properties.  We used to use them on the organic farm I worked for last year (Squire Valleevue, CWRU).  I planted seeds throughout my garden:

The sunflowers in the back will give nice blooms and then seeds in a short time:

They also provide stalks for my green beans, planted in a pot balanced on the frame, to grow up on:

My peas are taking over the ground of the right bed:

I planted cucumbers in two hanging baskets, then hung them on the fence behind the garden to vine:

My tomatoes didn’t do very well and only one plant survived, but here it is in a pot:

My peppers most certainly did the best.  I started bell and a hot variety pack from seed, and I’m just now learning which ones I have.  Look like anaheim, cayenne, and… we will see!:

Yesterday, I harvested three anaheim peppers and some fresh basil.  I bought a few more ingredients from the local market and made vegan (and gluten-free) stuffed peppers.  ( For more on my recipe, read my post at http://heartsmartandpennywise.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/vegan-stuffed-peppers )

I had tried to grow a lot of herbs and was going to barter with them.  Sadly, they didn’t do very well.  It’s difficult to keep everything watered.  Obviously, the plants in my asphalt garden need to like full sun… but I still planted things that prefer shade.  Those I put on my porch.  Check it out:

My hanging baskets are just for looks.  I planted some begonias and salvia.  The salvia are doing especially well:

Unfortunately, I went on vacation for about a week and my plants didn’t get watered.  When I left, they were thriving.  I came back to find most of them dead (like my parsley and lavender) or almost dead (like my vegetables).  My beets are doing okay:

But my radishes are clinging on to life:

And my carrots are… well they grew so well and now they’re all dried up and dead:

My lettuce has been very frustrating… I planted seeds about three times now.  I see the problem, though.  There are bugs eating them!  The devils were crawling over the soil when I took the picture:

I love bleeding hearts, but my plant only had one flower this year.  It’s not doing the best.  Hard to keep them watered enough:

These are the cute little pots I tried growing my lavender seeds in:

I put up a string of lights for atmosphere to go along with my windchimes, unvisited hummingbird feeder, and solar-powered butterfly light (which you can see in the picture of my porch above):

Not a complete success… but certainly not a failure!  This project gives me something to do and makes me feel good about living in a city.  More people should get involved in urban gardening!!!  Soon I hope to dedicate a page or whole blog to Cleveland: restaurant reviews, farmers markets, and green projects.  Speaking of which…

There are more ways to be chic in the city than just urban gardening.  For example, check out http://www.freshwatercleveland.com/features/furniture111110.aspx to read more about this chopping block I have:

This block is made from recycled wood!  I was given this by a Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA) studen who lived with me last summer.  I’ll have to write about recycling efforts in Cleveland with another entry.  Cool stuff!

Hope you enjoyed this.