Friday, March 26, 2010

Moving to the Foreground

Last weekend, the weather was glorious in the DC area. Several days of sun and warmth rewarded us for surviving the snowiest winter our region had ever seen.

Of course, the gorgeous days called us to the garden. This year we've decided to expand our gardening space to the front yard. The backyard garden, which has produced much for us, has gotten shadier and shadier as the years go by.

We decided to construct raised beds the easy way.

making raised beds

After laying out a design, we went to the lumber store and purchased 2 boards 8 feet long and 2 boards 10 feet long. We asked the store to cut 3 1/2 foot lengths off each board.

Because we have absolutely no skills, we decided to buy decking L's. I don't know what these are actually called, but they make it possible to create perfect right angles by sliding boards into slots. It made laying out the beds quite easy. (You can see the metal L's at the base of each corner.) We then screwed the tops of the boards together.

our garden

After an afternoon of work, we had all four beds laid out. There is a large space in the middle so we can have picnics, play in the grass, and enjoy the sun. We might put a table in the center. If we feel a need for more gardening space at some point in the future, we might construct a 4x4 diamond or something in the center.

We then lined the beds with cardboard we'd been collecting all winter. Many of the large pieces came from the cool refrigerator we recently purchased.

raised beds with cardboard

David always appreciates photos that show him to such advantage:

raised beds from behind

Our son, old enough now to be a big help in construction projects like this, was wiped out after an afternoon of work. He was very pleased to find new beds exactly where he wanted them:

new bed for napping

After his nap, our son soaked the cardboard down--using the leak in our hose as the main source of water distribution.

hoping to grow real boxes

After filling the beds with cardboard and watering it in so well, we're really hoping to raise some full-sized boxes by the end of the season... (Do you know Edward Lear's nonsense botany? I think he could draw the box plants better than I ever could.)

victory garden beds

Tomorrow, we're having 3 cubic yards of topsoil delivered. David plans to go with a friend to collect composted horse manure from a local stable to amend the dirt. And then soon, we will start planting spring seeds and then summer transplants. Here we are at the beginning of our own front-yard victory garden!

Thursday, March 25, 2010


According to a new Harris Interactive poll, conservatives have some pretty strong feelings about Obama.

67% of Republicans think the President is a socialist, and 57% believe he is a Muslim.  51% believe he wants to turn over the sovereignty of the United States to a one world government.

Perhaps the most astonishing statistic is that 24% of Republicans believe that Obama "may be the Anti-Christ."  (Only 6% of self-identified Democrats believe he may be the Anti-Christ.  WHAT?!)

Be sure to check out some of the other lovely little tidbits at the poll site.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


I just finished Raj Patel's The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy. What a great read!  I'll say straight up that while I am an academic historian, I know precious little about economics.  Luckily, Patel assumes his readers know, well, nothing--and yet he treat us as intelligent and thoughtful people at the same time.

He also has a sense of humor.  I loved the lightbulb jokes that showed his point.  I loved his pithy snippets of wisdom that pepper the book and had me reading lines outloud to my partner.  Best of all, he has FABULOUS footnotes--ones that simply support his textual comments but also literate inciteful ones that add depth to the comments he makes in the body. (Footnoting TS Eliot in an economic analysis? You get points from me.)

Before I read the book, I had heard that it was commie pinko drivel.  Well, with all honesty, that just does not condemn a book for me.  In fact, as a driveling commie pinko myself, that always makes me hope to find a soulmate.

But of course Raj Patel, while remaining a soulmate in many ways, is certainly not spouting radical leftist stuff.  He's talking in a more intellectual way (and perhaps a more thoughtful way) about more or less what Michael Moore was talking about in Capitalism: A Love Story: how unfettered capitalism can absolutely destroy true democracy.

I especially love chapter six. Here Patel talks about everything from the demise of the commons and the rise of accusations of witchcraft--to the creation of colonialism and the idea of the "savage"--to territorial use rights of fisheries. At other places in the book he talks about the politics of breastfeeding (a subject near and dear to my heart which also exemplifies many of his points). The whole book is a feast of ideas, combined with a critical thesis. Go, now, to your local independent bookstore or to your library and get thee a'readin'!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Cooling Things Down

or, Purchasing an Extremely Energy Efficient Refrigerator
...and reducing our electric bill by almost 40% overnight.

Since my partner David and I moved into our house a dozen years ago, we've been thinking about the day when we would have to replace the 1970 refrigerator. As the years passed, the old white Kenmore continued to work perfectly--but it was incredibly inefficient, using about 1800 kilowatts per year.

Because the refrigerator was relatively small and surrounded by cabinets, our choices were quite limited. Unless we wanted to redo that entire half of our tiny kitchen, we would need to stick with a super-small model. When we first started looking at our options...continued here

Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Unplugged Schoolhouse

During the month of March, my homeschooled son and I have decided that our "one small change" will be to pull the plug on all electrical use during at least one school day per week.

For a while, my family has celebrated--albeit inconsistently--a weekly powerdown evening where (after the meal is prepared) we spend the rest of the evening together without using electricity. We light the table with beeswax candles, spend time together reading aloud and playing recorder trios and just talking, and go up to bed on the early side. I hope we will get back in the habit this month.

For our unplugged schoolhouse, however, the challenge will be a bit different. My son and I plan to turn off any lights as well as the laptop by 8:3O or 9 am, depending on when we wake up. Everything will stay off until 3:30 or 4. Although these are traditional school times for many children, most of that time is not actually "school" for us. Instead, it is time for music practice, free reading, yoga or running around outside, and other pursuits such as knitting or drawing or folding paper airplanes. (My son would add that his chore of taking out the compost also falls during this time.)

We're honestly fairly removed from a lot of plugged-in entertainment compared to many families, I guess.  We don't own a TV or some game system or anything like that. But significant amounts of our days disappear to the hungry soul of this laptop. We've fallen into the habit of using it as a teacher sometimes--especially enjoying things like Thinkwell and the free Hippocampus. My son loves to watch old Pink Panther cartoons and Buster Keaton movies--as well as Myth Busters--on Netflix instant-watch.  Not that these things are bad; they certainly aren't occasionally.  But too much always seems to leave us further removed from any real-life connection than I think either of us wants.

A powered-down homeschool day also forces us to get out the solar oven and cook in the sun at least one lunch a week.  On days that are very cloudy, we'll have cold sandwiches.

By not starting the day until 8:30, I can make a pot of tea for myself and encase it in my homemade recycled-sweater tea cozy to keep it warm for a while.  Cheating?  Maybe.  But a hot beverage seems to be the only way I can stand freezing our buns off this season.

We're allowing ourselves the liberty of deciding which day to celebrate the unplugged schoolhouse.  Mondays are our free day.  When we are home, it will be ideal.  But we do sometimes go on adventures in downtown DC on Mondays and would therefore be mooching off a museum's electrical supply.  On Tuesdays, my son has a piano lesson at home.  The room with our piano is one of the darker rooms in our house--and our deal is that if it is a cloudy day, it will be perfectly acceptable for my son and his piano teacher to turn on the light in that room during the lesson.  This Tuesday was our first day and although it was cloudy, neither bothered to turn on the lights when they walked in the room.  (The teacher has no idea about this game, by the way.)

Just like last month's small change of not eating out, this day of powerdown is not something I imagine keeping rigidly for the rest of our lives.  Instead, I hope that this month will get us in the habit of relying on ourselves rather than our devices--and making us more conscious of the role of electricity in our lives all the time.

Anyone want to join us?

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

One Small Change: Eating In Recap

Last month, my "one small change" was to eat dinner every night at home. The month was quite a success--more than I could have predicted.

There were a few rough spots, but not many. On one afternoon, I was craving take-out pizza as we came home from a day at the Smithsonian museums, but by dinnertime we were ready to spend the effort for a home-cooked meal. On the night where I could just not stand the idea of cooking at all, my partner David took over the complete preparations.

One evening, our 10yo son served us a lovely candlelight dinner. He played both chief cook and waiter. He was even the evening entertainment, serenading us with his violin. (He did not play the role of chief bottle-washer, unfortunately.)

We went to a party at friends' house one evening where we had vegan take-out from a locally-owned Middle Eastern restaurant in town. It was yummy and we did not feel like we were cheating at all. There is something about time with friends that changes all the rules.

On the last night of the month, I stayed home recovering from a stomach bug while my fiddling son and his Papa went to a local Scottish pub for a children's Irish music session. (As odd as it sounds, I suspect Irish and Scottish pubs in this country probably do a lot of crossing over....) Like eating at our friends' house, this meal seemed right, even though it technically broke the rules.

So what is it that made these seem like times to bend our self-imposed regulations? I think it is because both times we were after something special--not just the default position. A special event, a time of togetherness, a celebration--these are things I do not want to miss as time goes forward. Even a special meal--be it a cuisine I've never tasted, or a meal at a new downtown restaurant in our little inner suburb, or a feast at an organic or local restaurant--could certainly count. We have no intention of continuing this "one small change" in its extremity--but it has set us up to be more deliberate about our choices.

Of course, when I began to eat again after my stomach bug, it was March--and we immediately went out to my favorite Pho soup restaurant. (David chose a vegan dish, mostly to avoid what is probably CAFO meat. Sometimes, especially in the face of Pho, he is simply a better person than I am.)

I knew I had soul-mates on this eating-in journey, but I had no idea how many I would find. As I mentioned before, my initial inspiration came from The Conscious Shopper--but during the course of February, I also discovered Cathy Erway's blog and also her brand-new book The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove. To celebrate the release of the book, Huffington post sponsored The Week of Eating In--which drew an enormous number of other folks to the same challenge I was setting for myself. And what I thought might be a challenge that could isolate us introduced us to a whole new online community!

Tomorrow: One Small Change for March.


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