Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Month Without a Car

I love my little Honda Civic. She's a little bit beat up around the edges, but she came of age this year... she's 21.

My mother bought her for me when I graduated from college. It was less of a graduation present than it was some combination of self defense mechanism and guilty conscious payoff.

You see, I had worked all through high school and college, but had nothing to show for it because I had spent all of my hard earned money on not one, not two, not three, but four - yes FOUR cars... all of which my mother had recommended, and all of which died in dramatic fashion within a year or two of my owning them.

First there was the Toyota Corolla that had a mysterious overheating problem... which turned out to be a cracked block. (For those who don't speak car... that's BAD... VERY BAD.)

Then there was the Chrysler that burned more oil than gasoline. I can't remember what its diagnosis was, but I think we had to pay somebody to come haul it away.

Then there was the Ford Escort that my mother's used car salesman "friend" sold me... turned out somebody had driven it without oil for a long period of time. It threw a rod (while my mother was driving it... somehow I thought that was poetic justice).

Then there was the Mazda that would just stop... for no apparent reason. The mechanics could never find anything wrong, but after it left me stranded for about the umpteenth time, I had had enough.

My mother finally concluded that I had some sort of car curse, and the only way to break it was to buy me a new car. Personally, I thought the problem had much more do do with the quality of the advice I was getting than any sort of curse, but hey, I was gonna get a new car out of the deal so I kept my mouth shut!

So I did my research and decided on the car that Consumer Reports rated highest in reliability... the Honda Civic. My mother bought it for me with one condition.

OK... have I mentioned that my mother is... well... errrr... a little bit... ummmm.... out there? The deal was that before I could have the car she took it to one of her psychic healer friends who performed a curse breaking spell on it. (Not kidding here)

And I had to promise to keep the curse breaking "Wanga Doll" in the glove compartment at all times. (Yes - it's still there.)

Anyhow... crazy parents notwithstanding, it's been a great little car. It took me across the country three times and even to Mexico. All that, and she still has less than 85,000 mile on her.

But about 5 years ago she started having problems. At first I thought it was just a fluke, but soon a definite pattern emerged. The car wouldn't start when it was hot. I took her to mechanic after mechanic. Most told me that I was either flooding the engine or that it had vapor lock, and nobody could fix it.

The problem grew worse and worse until about a month ago when it got to the point that it was practically unusable. Seriously, I'd run to the grocery store and then have to wait 2 hours in the parking lot for the engine to cool down before it would start again. Perhaps I had spoken ill of the Wanga doll one too many times...

I was distraught. What would I do without my little Honda?

Finally, in desperation I turned to the internet. Never forsake your friend, the internet! Within a few clicks of the mouse I had found a whole slew of Honda owners with the same problem. And lo and behold, apparently it was an easy fix... some obscure electrical part in the fuel injection system called the main relay.

Soooo... to make an excruciatingly long story a tad bit shorter. It took me a few weeks of research to determine that I probably wasn't gonna be able to replace the part myself, and then to find a reputable mechanic who would do it. I finally found a fellow who's been around since 1978 working exclusively on Hondas and Acuras. When I described the problem, his first response was to tell me to open the driver's door and give a hard whack right on the spot where I had already determined that the main relay was located. I knew I'd found my man!

So as long as I was gonna take her in, I decided to fix a whole gaggle of long neglected problems that had been lingering. Call it a 21st birthday present if you will. It meant that she had to stay in the shop for a week, and it cost me over 2 grand... (this included several concessions to CatMan who felt it was unsafe for me to be driving around in a car with a cracked windshield and a non-functioning defroster.) But it was worth it.

ANYHOW.... this is all my long winded way of telling you that for the past month I haven't had a car. The funny thing is, I barely noticed.

I walked or rode my bike to the grocery store, and for some reason both CatMan and my Dad decided that they needed to take me out to eat, so I actually went "out" much more than I regularly do. Really the only substantive change I had to make was to order a few cases ridiculously expensive food for the fe-lions online instead of getting it at the ridiculously expensive cat food store. In fact... it actually ended up being cheaper to buy it online!

So does this mean that I'm gonna go car free?

Well... while I certainly think it would be possible, the answer is no. I'm sure I could make it work if I really had to, but to be honest, it's really nice to know that you have a car available when you need to haul some lumber or to go to the farmer's market or Whole Foods, or someplace out of bicycle range. Plus... it just seems like the prudent thing to have transportation available in case of kitty medical emergencies.

All in all, it hasn't been a bad month, but I'm really glad to have my baby home!

I hope to keep her running smoothly for another 21 years!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Why I'm Seriously Considering Eating Meat Again

I've been pretty much a vegetarian for nearly 20 years. "Pretty much" meaning that I never gave up eggs or cheese entirely, and I've always caved in and had fish or chicken a few times per year. For me it's basically an ethical issue, but over the years, maintaining my vegetarianism has gotten more and more difficult.

The first blow was being diagnosed with multiple food allergies. This took all tree nuts and all seeds off the table (with the exception of pumpkin seeds and flax.)
This fairly thoroughly wiped out a huge percentage of vegetarian cuisine for me, but still I persevered.

Next came the migraine headaches. Actually the migraines have been there since I was a teenager, but as I've worked to sort out my migraine triggers, I realized that one trigger was soy products including soy milk, tofu and tempeh.

Over the years I realized that all legumes are migraine triggers for me. This basically means I can only get away with a maximum of one serving per day of any sort of beans or soy product. And if there are any other migraine triggers floating about in my life at the time, even one serving will push me over the edge into the migraine zone.

And to make matters worse, for some reason that can't be connected to legumes, wheat gluten (seitan) also gives me migraines. My doctor suggested that it may have to do with fermentation that takes place in processing the product. Cross one more off the list.

Then came round 2 of the allergy problem. Even though whole food soy products like tofu and tempeh gave me trouble, for some reason I could still get away with fake meat products made with isolated soy protein. For many years these made up a great chunk of my diet.

But... two separate allergic forces have converged to take these off of the table. First... apparently many food allergies get worse over time. This appears to be the case with my allergies to herbs and spices. I'm not allergic to ALL herbs and spices, but there is a very lengthy list. Unfortunately they are not required to be listed separately on the ingredient list. After I had hives every day for nearly a year, my doctor said I had to cut out all foods that listed "spices" or "natural flavoring" on the ingredient label.

And to top it off, many of those fake meat products suddenly started including an ingredient called inulin. I'm still not sure what exactly inulin is, but apparently it is often derived from the chicory plant and, you guessed it, I am violently allergic to chicory.

So this basically reduced my protein sources to eggs, cheese, one scant serving of legumes per day and unflavored isolated soy or other protein powder.

At this point I started upping my intake of dairy & eggs, and I started eating fish more like once a month. The problem is that I'm lactose intolerant, so I can only have very limited amounts of dairy, plus aged cheeses and yogurt in large quantities also give me migraines. And fish more than about once a week really isn't safe because of the mercury.

Then came the final straw. I started reading about the dangers of isolated soy protein, and soy products in general. Here's the article that pretty much did me in:

So here I am. It's been about a year since I gave up soy entirely (OK... I still give in and have some egg drop soup with tofu at my favorite Chinese restaurant now and then, but pretty much entirely). I've been trying to get by, but it just isn't working.

It's just really hard for me to get enough protein. My blood sugar is a nightmare... It seems like I'm always on the verge of passing out, and when my blood sugar gets low I get migraines.

I've been eating eggs every day as one of my main protein sources, but geez... there are only so many huevos that one human being can take. Plus, I'm sure that it's not healthy to rely so heavily on them.

I've gained ten pounds, and it's nearly impossible for me to get any meaningful exercise anymore, because... long story here, but my severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) are triggered by both food and exercise, so I have to wait at least 2.5 hours after eating anything before I can safely exercise. And when I don't get enough protein, by the time 2.5 hours rolls around I'm having a serious blood sugar crash.

So I'm at my wits end. I hate to admit it, but I'm about ready to start waving the white flag and give up the fight.

I really hate the thought of going back to eating meat on a regular basis, but I just don't see any good alternatives at this point. I'm really getting sick and tired of feeling sick and tired all the time!

I know it's a terrible eco-sin, not to mention the ethical issues involved. I really don't think I can make myself do beef, so I'm pretty much just talking about adding a chicken breast once a week or so.

I'm sorta expecting the vegan evangelists to come after me brandishing torches and pitchforks, but there comes a point when one must take care of oneself.

I dunno... what do you think? Anybody have any brilliant ideas that I haven't thought of?

In case you're curious, here's the follow up to this post.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Salvage Soup

Well, digging out from the hail storm continues, and lordy, am I tired! It feels like life has been a crazy sea of repair men, roofers, insurance agents and non-functioning this and that ever since the storm hit. And then there's the garden.

Just a few hours before the onslaught I had been outside admiring my bountiful kale plants. It was the first time I'd ever succeeded with the cruciferous veggies. I'm pretty sure the banana peels worked, but aphids seem like the least of my concerns now!

At any rate, as I was out surveying the damage after the storm I couldn't get over how my beautiful kale had been reduced to shreds, and all of my plans for making potato kale soup seemed lost.

But as I knelt by the tattered remains of my harvest, it dawned on me that there was still plenty of kale there, it was just beat to pieces. But if I was gonna make soup out of it anyhow, perhaps this wasn't all bad. In fact, perhaps this was just "pre-chopped" kale courtesy of mother nature! So I set about gathering up as many of the bigger pieces as I could.

Meanwhile, a good chunk of the potato plants got pretty much totally pulverized, so I decided that I should just dig up & harvest what I could from the plants that were damaged beyond repair, which left me with a surplus of potatoes. Oh... the stars were aligning!

Now generally, soup making is a task that I save for the fall when the weather is colder, and I'm over-run with a surplus of veggies. But hey, I guess you've gotta make soup when the hail falls, or whatever that saying is!

So here's my recipe:

Potato Kale Soup

One onion - chopped
A few cloves of garlic - minced
5-6 medium sized potatoes - chopped
1 big bunch of kale - washed and chopped
1/2 cup cannellini beans (dry)
6 cups of soup stock (or water)
salt & pepper
olive oil

Prepare beans as usual - actually you should probably do this step ahead of time, or you could just use canned beans if you're not BPA paranoid like I am. Saute the onion in olive oil with a little salt until it is soft and clear. Add garlic and saute another few minutes. Add the stock (or water) and bring to a boil. Add the potato chunks and let them simmer until soft. When the potatoes are cooked run about a cup of them through a potato ricer (or you could use a blender) to give the soup a nice thick body. Meanwhile, blanch the kale in boiling water. Add the cooked beans and the blanched kale, salt & pepper to taste, stir and let the flavors blend for 10-15 minutes before serving.

Yum! I guess every cloud has its silver lining... or in this case a yummy soup lining! And just in case I needed any further evidence that all was not lost, as I looked up from my kale salvage operation, mother nature gave me this.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dammitall to Hail!

Well, I was just sitting down to write a post about how wonderful the monsoon rains are. How my garden was soaking up the moisture and bursting forth with lush greenery.

And then... A rumble of thunder in the distance... then a few drops started falling... then the happy little ping ping of the rain started turning into the much more ominous thud thud of hail.

I flew out into the garden to cover the plants. I tried, really I did... but soon the thud thud turned into bang bang, and after a few particularly painful wallops I decided that discretion really was the better part of valor. So I grabbed a box from the garage to cover my head and made a dash for the back patio fearing that I might actually get knocked unconscious by a poorly timed stone.

I managed to grab a few on the way inside.

Then the bang bang started turning into crash crash. Seriously it was sooo loud, that I started fearing tornadoes and god knows what else. I herded the fe-lions into the basement.

Then the glass started breaking. I started to get seriously worried and was even contemplating whether I should be shoving everybody into carrying cases and hiding under the stairs.

Then, just as suddenly as it had started, it stopped. And within about 15 minutes the sun was shining... I think it was doing it just to mock me.

My poor little garden. I tried... really I did...

I think I might have saved a few of the tomatoes. The kale and collards & other cruciferous veggies were not so lucky.

Neither were the squash

or the chard

There might be a few green beans buried alive under the blanket

And the deck awning looks more like a giant hammock for some sort of horrible hail and leaf monster.

But the storm door certainly got the worst of it...

At least until the insurance adjusters come tell me how badly damaged the roof is....

I guess I have to look on the bright side. The whole time the hail was falling all I could think was how grateful I was that Princess was no longer living under that pine tree. And it does smell vaguely like Christmas outside with all of the broken pine branches.

My poor little xeriscape plants... and I finally had some marigolds blooming....

Well, at least I got a few pictures yesterday... And now I guess I'll have incentive to check out the farmer's market!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"Frugal Consumer" is an Oxymoron

Consciously Frugal recently did a "spreading the word" post about a company looking for thrifty families to feature on a new reality TV show. First of all, I want to be totally clear that I don't mean this as a knock on Aldra, because I think she totally ROCKS. I also think that as far as reality TV goes I'd much rather see a show on thrifty families than the sort of ridiculousness that generally makes it onto the airwaves.

But... aside from the fact that I can think of nothing more antithetical to the entire concept of "simple living" than subjecting oneself to the horrors of reality television, there's something about it that's really bothering me. Here's the pitch from the company:
Is your family the thriftiest in America? Do you refuse to pay full price? Are you always on the lookout for the best deals?

Calling all coupon experts, yard sale fanatics, thrift store wizards and super savers for a brand new show on a major network! This show will be the chance to put your skills to the test in a fun competition and prove once and for all that you and your family are the ultimate bargain hunters!
To be perfectly honest, just reading this blurb makes me shudder. Now I realize that they're trying to be cute and catchy, and that they also need to craft a program that will have some hope of appealing to the average American, but the whole idea that frugal living is somehow accomplished through "thrifty shopping" seriously makes me crazy.

This message is by no means unique to the producers of this show... in fact it seems that ever since the country entered the "great recession" we've been bombarded with articles, feature stories and human interest pieces about people who are finding ways to buy the "American dream" with less money. The message is that if you just learn how to shop better, you can "have it all" while paying less.

But here's the thing. The problem is not that people don't know how to shop properly, and it's not that the proverbial American dream is too expensive. The problem is that the American dream as it's currently understood is really a nightmare foisted upon us by a society which treats its people as consumers rather than citizens.

I would posit that if you want to live frugally, you don't need to cut coupons, find deals or hunt for bargains... what you need to do is stop buying things! We don't need to find ways to "get more for less" what we need to do is "get less" in the first place!

Now, obviously even the most frugal of the frugal will need to acquire a few objects from time to time, but seriously folks... how much stuff do we need?
Consumables excluded, I probably only buy about a dozen or so "things" per year... and that includes everything - clothing, garden tools, kitchen toys, home improvement items, gifts, cat stuff... everything. When I decide to buy something, I do try to get it as inexpensively as possible, but the truth is that the savings achieved by "thrifty shopping" is really negligible compared to the savings achieved by never "going shopping" in the first place.

And as far as "consumables" are concerned, my theory is that with very few exceptions, any product that has enough of a marketing budget behind it to be able to print coupons, is not something you need to be buying in the first place.
Here's the thing. There's just no way to shop ourselves out of the mess that our society is in. It doesn't matter how cheaply you're able to buy things, the very act of buying things in the first place sets us up for problems. We buy more things, we need more room for our stuff, plus we worry that people will break in and steal our belongings. So we get bigger houses in "nicer" neighborhoods, and then we need more time, energy and money to maintain and pay for them. And don't even get me started on "keeping up appearances." The whole process just puts us on a treadmill that becomes very difficult to get out of.
I guess what I'm saying is this. What we really need in this society is not cheaper stuff, or better deals, what we need is a complete paradigm shift.

Colin Beavan (AKA No Impact Man) gave a talk a while back about this topic. He was speaking about sustainability not frugal living, but it's all pretty much the same as far as I'm concerned, and he really hit the nail on the head.

What do you think?