Why I DIY

I started researching making my own cleaning and personal care products, and finding reusable solutions for disposable items, in February 2011 as part of a New Year’s resolution to live more mindfully, reduce waste, and reduce expenses.

We reduced our waste substantially last year. I read a statistic last week that the average American produces 7 pounds of trash a day. I estimate our family of 3 produces around 7 pounds of trash a week–at any rate, it fits into one or two of those plastic grocery bags (which find their way into our house despite the fact that we bring our own bags to the store most of the time).

We saved some money too, and while I didn’t keep track I don’t think the change was as significant as the trash reduction.

But what I didn’t expect was the sense of freedom I got when going to the grocery store and walking past all the things I no longer buy: toothpaste, deodorant, facial cleanser, bathroom cleaner, drain de-clogger, napkins, paper towels, feminine hygiene. I may be buying a little more baking soda and vinegar these days, but there are several corporations that I am no longer dependent on, and that makes me happy.

I also found several communities of like-minded folks in the blogosphere who are further down this path than I am, and that makes me happy too.

And finally, there is the challenge of learning new things. How can I make my own (fill in the blank)? How can we further reduce our carbon footprint? What can I turn this old sock/t-shirt/random piece of pipe into? What can I try next?

What’s your inspiration for doing it yourself?

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Trying New Things

Author Rita Golden Gelman (Tales of a Female Nomad) says whenever she gives talks, she encourages her audience to try something new as often as possible. While for her that’s often been living in a new country, she realizes that may be a big step for most folks, so she says: next time you go to the grocery store, buy something you’ve never eaten before, and learn how to cook it.

This is what I loved about one of the produce delivery services we tried last summer: they brought the new and unexpected right to my door. A couple of times I had to resort to Google or my Facebook friends to figure out what that strange-looking thing was in my box. So for the first time in my life I (knowingly) ate a persimmon, kale, and leeks.

This year, I planted kale and leeks in my garden. The garden has also expanded to include broccoli (still under the grow light inside), garlic, beets, and mesclun, none of which I’ve ever grown before.

I got out of my cooking rut by buying a couple of cookbooks and now have new staples in my dinner repertoire (leek and potato soup, red pepper and potato sauteed in olive oil, macaroni and cheese bake with spinach, and red lentil daal).

But trying something new isn’t all about food, of course. New experiences help keep the brain nimble. Last year I bought a bicycle; I hadn’t ridden one in nearly 30 years. Once I got comfortable I started to run short errands on it, riding on the street (something I’d never done–previous rides were all on trails). In May I hope to participate in bike-to-work month. (I will, however, be taking the bus home as it’s all uphill. I want to be fit but I am not a masochist. Fortunately Seattle buses are equipped with bike-holders in front.)

I learned how to make all sorts of things last year too, and am doing my best to continue that journey this year. I got over my lifelong fear of sewing machines and took a class to learn how to use one. I made a tote bag in class, and napkins for my son’s lunchbox out of class, as well as finally mending a few years’ worth of ripped clothes.

I make my own face wash and tooth powder, and am experimenting to find a homemade deodorant that works without giving me a rash. This week I am going to try making yogurt for the first time.

What new things have you tried recently? What would you like to try this year?

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Top 5 Reusable Purchases of 2011

These aren’t in any particular order, just things I’m so happy I bought last year, that will keep me from buying/using disposable versions this year:

1. Kiva Keychain Tote. I bought mine in a grey/purple leopard print pattern that’s no longer available. I keep this in my purse at all times so I always have it on hand for stopping by the drug store, grocery store, clothing store, or library on my way home from work–or for carrying my coat and my son’s coat when we’re at a museum or other indoor activity in winter.

2. Collapsible Storage Bowls. When empty, it’s easy to stick one in your bag when going out to eat, so you can bring home leftovers waste-free; I admit I’m always worried that the bowl will leak though I haven’t had any problems yet. More often, I bring the middle-sized one with me on work mornings if I’m going to get a bagel from the coffee shop. The baristas think it’s great!

3. Mesh Sponge. I’ve only been using this for a couple of weeks but it’s held up better than disposable sponges and really holds the soap well when washing dishes.

4. Misto Sprayer. After 8 months of daily use, it finally clogged up–probably I should have been cleaning it more regularly. Now, after a good clean, it’s back in business, making it easy to spray the waffle iron or frying pan for a fraction of the cost (and none of the chemicals) of commercial oil sprayers.

5. Preserve Plates. Last spring I looked everywhere for dessert-size reusable party plates, and finally found these on a site called Greenfeet.com. Now, they’re available at Reuseit.com, Amazon.com, and my local QFC grocery store. I used them for my son’s birthday party and a holiday cookie party.

Still looking for: Small towels (for wiping up kitchen spills) that are actually absorbent. All the kitchen towels I’ve tried seem to just move the water/coffee/etc. around the counter rather than soaking it up.

What are your favorite reusable items?

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Two Christmases

When I was growing up, I was fortunate enough to celebrate two Christmases each year: “American” Christmas on Dec. 25 and Ukrainian (Julian calendar) Christmas on Jan. 7.

Dec. 25th was about a tree and presents under it. We would listen to my parents’ LP of Bing Crosby, Percy Faith, and other crooners singing the usual English Christmas carols as we decorated the tree. There were no stockings, and we didn’t do anything special on Christmas Eve, but Christmas morning I would wake up to find brightly-wrapped loot under the tree. I was allowed to open them before my parents woke up (wise decision on their part–playing with my new toys or reading my new books kept me occupied for hours, allowing them to sleep in). I believed in Santa for a while, until I outed my parents when I was 8 by announcing “Guess what? Santa left the price tags on my presents!” to which my father responded, “Oops.”

We’d have a big family lunch–my aunt, uncle, and grandmother would come over, and sometimes my other grandmother and great-aunt. My uncle would always say that Santa accidentally left some presents for me at his house. Everything was over by 4:00 so everyone could get  home (less than 2 miles away) before dark–that was, for some reason, an obsession with my family.

Ukrainian Christmas was very different. The tree stayed up till then, and often there’d be a single present under it for me, but the focus was the centuries-old tradition of the Christmas Eve dinner. We always ate this meal at my grandmother’s house. As soon as the evening’s first star came out, we would sit down to the table. After my grandfather passed away, there was still a place set at the table for him in remembrance, as is the custom.

Tradition dictates 12 specific dishes be served, each with a symbolic meaning. (This site has a good description of Ukrainian Christmas traditions.) My grandmother usually didn’t make all 12 dishes, but I think she made at least 8 of them. My favorite was kutya, a mix of poppy seeds, wheat berries, nuts, and honey in water.

The next day, Jan. 7, we all went to church (I took the day off from school if it was a weekday) for a special service, followed by lunch and caroling in the banquet hall, and it was not unusual in the early days for families to visit each other’s houses for caroling.

Of course I loved getting presents, but for me it was the second Christmas that held meaning, even though I wasn’t then, and am not now, religious.

Now, to go back to Santa for a moment. I can’t remember now if I made wishlists for my parents to pass on to Santa or not, though I suspect I did, and while there was usually a surprise under the tree (most memorable being the backgammon set I received when I was 8 or 9, and still have), most gifts were things that I knew my parents knew I wanted.

But at Ukrainian school (which occurred on Saturdays, at one of the local elementary schools), Father Frost came to the holiday assembly and gave out a gift to each child. The same year that price tags gave my parents away as the purchases of my Dec. 25th presents, Father Frost gave me a portable radio. I hadn’t told anyone I wanted one–how did he know? While I was easily able to dismiss the existence of Santa, I wasn’t so sure about Father Frost. And I wasn’t about to ask any questions.

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The Presentation of Presents: Fun and Thrifty Gift Wrap

While I’m a huge proponent of experience gifts (massage gift certificates, theater tickets, museum memberships), even I give stuff for the holidays. And when I do, I wrap it. But I haven’t paid for giftwrap in at least 5 or 6 years.

Sometimes, I re-use wrapping paper. This was something we always did growing up; it just makes sense. The invention of gift bags a while back made that even easier. I also receive lovely free wrapping paper from the World Wildlife Federation every year because I’ve donated to them in the past.

But lately I’ve tried to find ways to make the gift-wrap part of the gift, or to find ways to re-use things that weren’t originally intended as gift-wrap. Here are my suggestions for gift-wrap that is either free, or a gift in itself:

1. Pillow cases and cloth napkins. For household members, I’ll wrap things in our own pillowcases or cloth napkins (which are a very un-Christmasy lilac color because they came from a “free” box on the sidewalk) and tie a real ribbon around them. I’ve also bought pillowcases for friends and used them to wrap another item–there are lots of super-cute flannel pillowcases for sale during the holidays and the recipients usually get a kick out of them.

Flannel pillow cases & cloth ribbon

2. Reusable bags. I love my compact reusable bag that folds into a little carrying pouch, because I always have it in my purse for unexpected trips to the grocery store/drugstore/Pike Place Market. I bought a dozen in different colors one year and used those (again, tied off with ribbon) to wrap books or other items. Two gifts in one!

3. Lunch bags. No, not the brown paper sacks. There are lots of cool-looking reusable lunch totes for kids and grown-ups–a pattern to fit every personality. And they are just perfect for tucking an extra little gift inside–maybe a paperback, or a gift card to a gourmet store for a treat your recipient can take to work or school in their new bag.

4. Pretty tissue boxes. Small items can fit in those cube-size tissue boxes (and you can put the items in gift-tissue for an added “authentic” look). I used this one to wrap a toy truck for my son; the other bonus is it was easy for a 3-year-old to “open” the gift.

5. Your kids’ art. Maybe I’m less sentimental than most moms but I don’t really want to keep and display every single piece of art my child has created. So some of them get re-used to wrap gifts (mostly for the grandparents). But you can also get your kids (or yourself) to draw, stamp, or otherwise decorate the plain brown “craft” paper that some packages come with. We had quite an overstock of this at one point during the summer and I wish I had thought of this idea before I gave it all away to someone who needed it to wrap items when moving house. (If the recipient isn’t moved to keep the art, it can be recycled.)

6. Scarves. Scarves make great gifts, and also great gift-wrap! You can probably find some for cheap at your local thrift store.

What ideas do you have for creative gift-wrap?

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Connecting Through Cooking: Leek and Potato Soup

After years of relying at least partially on frozen meals and side dishes to make dinner, I’ve recently gotten back into cooking again. Two elements came together at the same time as I was thinking I should make more effort to eat local: I found two awesome cookbooks for cheap at a book sale, and I signed up for a biweekly produce box delivery where the company would just send what was in season from a variety of local farms. Getting a “mystery box” of produce makes me feel like I’m on one of those cooking competition shows.

Also, while I’ve always exchanged recipes with friends and family, most of the time I never end up making the recipes I requested from them, and I never know if they actually try mine. Recently, however, I’ve had the joy of sharing a recipe on Facebook and having a friend comment “I’m going to make that tonight!”

And this week I mentioned my new favorite recipe, potato leek soup, to a friend as we shopped together at the farmers market. We ended up cooking it on the same night (though she was more adventurous and used purple potatoes in hers). The immediacy of these two exchanges made it feel like an actual connection through cooking and made me very happy to be “sharing” a meal with friends.

Cooking from scratch makes me feel more connected to my food, too. Most importantly, I know exactly what goes into my meals and I know it hasn’t been treated with pesticides. And there’s nothing quite like buying directly from someone who said “I picked those tomatoes myself this morning”. The act of chopping, sauteing, and stirring also reinforces the connection–it truly feels like “my” dinner.

Although my 5-year-old doesn’t eat much of what I cook (canned black beans and frozen peas are his staples, though I suppose I could buy those both dry and cook them), he does enjoy baking and loves to participate in mixing up a batch of zucchini muffins and rolling balls of snickerdoodle dough in cinnamon sugar. My sweet tooth was what got me into cooking at an early age too. 🙂

When I find recipes that are easy and delicious, I’ll try to share them here. And so, without further ado:

Leek and Potato Soup from the cookbook Soup:

1/4 cup butter
1 onion, chopped
3 leeks, sliced
8 oz. potatoes, cut into 3/4-inch cubes (this is about 1 big or 2 small potatoes)
3 1/2 cups vegetable stock
salt and pepper
chives for garnish if you are feeling fancy

Melt butter in large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, leeks, and potatoes and saute for 2-3 minutes, until soft but not brown. Pour in the stock, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes.

Transfer soup to blender in small batches and process until smooth. (I use a handheld stick blender, most awesome purchase ever!) Return to rinsed-out pan, season with salt and pepper (I recommend garlic pepper), and reheat. Serve in warmed bowls, garnished with chives.

Serves 4.

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Responsibility to a greater whole

“Movements are the expression of changed attitudes, and how each person comes to realize his responsibility to a greater whole is a unique experience.”Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World

Before I  launch into my own “unique experience,” let me just say that if you have a story about realizing you are part of a greater whole, please share your experience in the comments!

When I was in 11th grade, my private school instituted a community service requirement for graduation. Looking back, I think this is a wonderful idea, particularly in a school where nearly all the students come from privileged families. At the time, however, I did not think this was wonderful. I thought it was annoying, but was grateful that because we were only two years from graduating we got a “reduced sentence” of only 20 hours instead of the 30 hours that all the classes behind us would have to do.

A group of us spent several weekends working at a soup kitchen in some part of Washington, DC I’d never been to before. Because the soup kitchen itself was an all-volunteer effort, there was no supervisor to sign for our hours so we were allowed to sign for each other. Of course we padded our hours so as to be done with the requirement sooner. I remember very little of the experience aside from being scared of the patrons.

Fast-forward to my first year out of college, working my first job at a newspaper in a slightly seedy industrial section of downtown Silver Spring, MD. My office was down the street from a soup kitchen, and I volunteered there once a month for well over a year. This was 20 years ago and I don’t remember how or why I decided to volunteer there, but for sure I was there of my own free will, and even recruited one of my best friends to join me. Clearly a switch somewhere inside me had been flipped.

Several years later in Seattle, I was materially pretty well off thanks to a stroke of luck in taking a customer service job at a dot-com just before they became a household name. I had moved up to an editorial role which was more in line with my skill set, but lacked meaning. I wanted to feel good about what I did, and I just couldn’t get excited about the fact that I was merely helping people shop online. I tried looking for another job but instead ended up answering a volunteer ad to tutor at-risk students who live in public housing. My husband and I had just become home-owners, and I remember feeling like I was truly part of a community now, and had a responsibility to share my good fortune and good education with those in the community who had less of both.

For most of the past 10 years I have spent 2 hours every week during the school year helping kids build their reading, writing, and math skills and helping them with their homework. I love it. When I stopped tutoring for a year to have my own child, I missed it.

It was that ad that was my turning point–the answer I didn’t know I had been looking for.

Since then I’ve switched jobs to a company with a foundation that takes investing in the community as a serious responsibility, and asks interested employees to assist in reviewing the grants and making site visits to ensure that the money goes to truly deserving local programs. It’s the most rewarding thing I do at the company. It’s inspiring to learn of the great work that these programs are doing, and humbling to realize that there are still not enough programs to meet all the need just here in Seattle.

I have it good. I am not rich. But I have everything I need and then some. How could I not share that with those who don’t have even the basics?

Wanting to make the world a better, cleaner, healthier place with more opportunities for everyone is something I can continue to work on every day, even in small ways, whether it’s helping a 2nd grader with fractions, turning off the water in the shower while I soap up, saving plastic bottle caps so Aveda can recycle them into product packaging, or passing on my son’s outgrown clothes to friends with younger children or to Goodwill.

As they say, every little bit helps. And I feel like I would be letting the world down if I did not do my part.

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