Showing posts with label quality-of-life. Show all posts
Showing posts with label quality-of-life. Show all posts

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Cooking: Ecological, Economical, and Better for You...

Cooking has never been one of my passions; it’s more a commitment which follows from liking to eat. This past year I find myself enjoying cooking more, and spending more time at it.  There are a number of contributing, idiosyncratic factors like my new sunny kitchen and its wall-mounted radio, so NPR can keep me company when I’m slicing, stirring, or mixing.  And my new IPad allowing me to easily download and listen to interesting podcasts and living near enough to Weavers Way Food Coop to shop daily. The fact that my children grew up means I both have more time and two fewer picky palates to please, also making the cooking process less stressful.
But there are some way simpler, replicable things which have contributed to making my cooking more efficient, and therefore more gratifying.  I did a budget check and realized how much we were paying to eat in restaurants, often because I just didn’t have the energy to decide what to make for dinner at the end of a long day.  Once I realized it would pay back, it justified my putting more time into meal planning.  I created a simple data base of weeknight menu combinations which we both enjoy eating, including any unusual ingredients and advance prep that facilitates getting the meal to the table.  By doing the thinking in advance and entering it in my google-doc, I can just refer to it, make a menu decision earlier in the day, and plan accordingly.  If it will be chili, I know I need to get the rice started in advance, that sort of thing.  Since I actually finding the menu decision more onerous than the cooking, this has made a huge difference!
A small investment in better cooking utensils has vastly improved the cooking experience.  Better knives, larger frying pans, a sturdy long-handled spatula and new goodies like a roll-up cutting mat have been so much nicer to use.  Purchasing a duplicate set of measuring spoons and measuring cups is an embarrassingly simple upgrade.  If some are in the dishwasher, I don’t need to rummage around to find them.  If I want to prepare two dishes in a row, I don’t need to stop and wash them. Duh!  Why didn’t I think of this 35 years ago?  The cost of this enhancement is paid for by one stay-at-home meal.
The internet has also livened up the cooking process.  Recipes, techniques, cooking blogs, even unusual products – these are all available with one click. If you’re someone with a large cookbook collection, you might want to join EatYourCookbooks, a site which features tens of thousands of indexed cookbooks.  Register the cookbooks you own and use, and when you search by recipe title or ingredient, it will find the recipe and ingredient list.  Where’s that great recipe for pecan lemon pound cake?  This site will locate it. It doesn’t bring up the recipe itself, but will tell you which cookbook it’s in.  The first five cookbooks are free; after that there is an annual fee. 
Eating at home is cheaper and healthier.  Another motivator, on the environmental front: at-home food preparation has a much smaller eco-footprint.  Unless you would walk to the restaurant, you save the round-trip drive.  Restaurants themselves are extremely high consumers of water, electricity, fuel, chemical cleaners, and disposables.  While the diner might focus on wasted food (portions which are ridiculously large, uneaten bread which can’t be reserved, Styrofoam clamshells to take home, double-wrapped in plastic bags) most of the waste is out of the diners’ sight.  There are some greener restaurants which compost, but most generate huge volumes of trash and food waste, none of which is reused or recycled.  Restaurants are not, by law, allowed to serve leftovers!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Self-Provisioning Resource Conserving Eco-Nut Next Door

Amidst the landslide of greening and sustainability books constantly being marketed and touted (get the irony?), two jumped out at me.  Reading them as a pair made it clear that Plenitude, by economist  Juliet B. Schor, and The Cheapskate Next Door by journalist Jeff Yeager are describing the same contemporary trends using very different language.  People can earn fewer dollars without their quality of life being diminished, IF they also experience an increase in free time.  This free time can be invested in social capital, healthy lifestyle, creative self-provisioning, and ingenious thrift, aided by everything from social networking to asking grandma to teach canning techniques.  Schor’s book is analytic; Yeager’s is  a how-to-do-it  manual.
Reading over and over again how we aren’t “over” this Great Recession because none of us are buying enough, hence the jobs producing all of it are lagging, has often made me wonder how that squares with the carrying load of the planet.  The fact that personal savings have actually increased seems like good news, not bad.  The fact that demand for fossil fuels has decreased – isn’t that the goal here?  Schor, an economist with an emphasis on ecological concerns and the author of two other terrific books, The Overworked American and The Overspent American, reviews the basic theoretical underpinnings of modern economics and concludes that they don’t square.  As developing world incomes rise, driving massive additional consumption, the world’s growth limits will be tested.  We can’t just keep on extracting finite resources on the cheap and expect it will all end well.  Likewise, she predicts there will never again be enough conventional jobs for all who seek work.  We’re becoming too efficient and productive for that, through ever improving and disseminating technology.
Schor’s solution,, that we cut back on workers’ hours, thereby employing more people over all, is not original. This has been tried in many places and times, often to avoid laying workers off.  Kelloggs of Battle Creek, Michigan, famously offered a six-hour day for decades which workers loved, along with all the others lucky enough to live there.  Schor’s original synthesis is to combine this with the new realities of environmental as well as social stress, to define a life of Plenitude less dependent on material excess.  By editing out the waste of American life, and utilizing the dividend of extra time, whole new micro-economies are evolving, allowing people to live healthier, happier lives that – paradoxically – are lower income.  She effectively decouples standard of living from quality of life, as happiness studies have been confirming is correct, once people move past subsistence.
She cites examples of lowering overhead by resource sharing, plugging Freecycle, CraigsList, carsharing, Open Source internet software – much of which I have written about over the years.  Local agriculture, from gardens to micro-farms, is a favorite example, written about glowingly throughout the book.  She describes people once again learning to cook, preserve, sew, and build their own downsized homes.  It all sounds very idyllic; I want to believe her, I really do.  Except that what she is talking about as a trend looks more like an interesting trickle of outliers (Hi, Anna!  How’s the honey going?).  OK, I grow a few tomatoes.  That doesn’t make me Ma Ingalls.  But perhaps a generation from now her manifesto will prove true.  If so, we will all be the better for it.
The Cheapskate Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of Americans Living Happily Below Their Means is a charming hybrid of two terrific classics, The Millionaire Next Door and The Tightwad Gazette.  Those books were all about resource conservation from a financial standpoint – why leave good money on the table?  TheMND describes a value-oriented affluent population who eschews conspicuous consumption.  TTG was more about people scrapping together a nest egg, even on a tiny salary.  The secret of both is living beneath one’s means.  However, they were written before the age of environmental awareness.  All their strategies translate quite well to a new eco-age.  The Cheapskate took himself on a national book tour – by bike, CouchSurfing his way across the country. 
His book is a lot of fun.  My main takeaway is that if you create good habits, these too are hard to break.  One becomes  a  reflexively resource-conscious consumer [a description I prefer to “cheapskate”].  Case in point.  Two friends and I were at the beach in search of 1% hydrocortisone cream for my friend, suffering from a bee sting. We grabbed the first brand we saw.  But I couldn’t resist going back to look at the shelf, where I found a generic tube for half the price.  Then I saw a generic tube half the SIZE.  It is generally more economical, both financially and ecologically, to buy a larger quantity.  But!  Only if you will finish it all.  Having just thrown out boxes of unused, expired OTC meds from my old house, I knew the smaller generic tube was a good choice.  Time expended: 1 minute.  Amount saved: ~ $6.00.  Since I earn less than $6.00 a minute, it was a good use of my time.  However, you can’t send a child to college or pay for health care –America’s two huge and ever escalating price tags  - on small salaries supplemented by self-provisioning and judicious cheapskating. 
If you’re following these authors’ advice, be sure to check these books out from your local library soon!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Our National Sustainability Crash Course

We all keep reading about that Keynesian chestnut, the Paradox of Thrift - the theory that if everyone cuts back simultaneously, it results in the economy contracting even more. All kinds of good behaviors have unintended outcomes - if people all stop smoking and drinking, tax revenues plummet. So even if the contracting consumption causes economic contraction, I'm all for it. I love that the newspapers are reporting on sensible behavior, which they find noteworthy. A recent article highlighted a booming Recession Biz - vacuum repairs. If more people discover how to live more sustainably, and therefore lower their overhead, it just can't be a bad thing in the long run.
A few years ago I read about the six-hour day, championed by Kellogg in Battle Creek, Michigan. Workers loved it. They had time to garden, be with their kids, and involve themselves in all kinds of civic activities and organizations. It seems to have balanced out - they needed less childcare, spent less on groceries, and had lots of homegrown entertainment and great quality of life. Probably not so much in the way of consumer high-end stuff.
What killed it? The escalating cost of healthcare, for one thing. It became too expensive to offer benefits spread over more workers, so the hours were increased to extract more labor per healthcare contract.

logo from

Friday, October 24, 2008

Tanking Net Worth & Happiness - Linked or Not?

Life seems to be lived on two levels these days, the every day and the long view net worth financial crisis level. For those who have already lost their jobs, these levels have merged to create a new, terrifying reality, but for the rest of us, what are we to make of it? The advice to those lucky enough not to need our assets in the short term, is not to panic and wait it out. All evidence shows the stock market recovers over time. Conventional wisdom aside, this feels like something way more catastrophic than even baby boomers have experienced. Our parents were children during The Depression. Three generations ago, most of our grandparents didn't lose much in the way of assets, since they didn't have much to start with.
Everything I have read about what makes people happy points to happiness not flowing from the material, once basic needs are met. If you achieve a level of secure comfort (shelter, food, health) other factors become more significant, like family and friendship, meaningful work (not necessarily paid), spiritual centeredness, and community and belonging. Though the hitch is that people compare themselves to their perceived peers, and if the gap is too wide, it creates frustration which makes it more difficult to be happy. The American story these last decades is wider and wider distribution of wealth, with some people becoming obscenely wealthy while most workers' standard of living, as defined by income, is stagnant or falling. So while people can be happy with modest incomes, since they can enjoy an actual high quality of life, if they feel they're not being left out while "everyone else" has more, seeinge the disparity up close creates discontent.
Our contemporary society has not faced massive downward mobility. Those who grew up poor, during the depression, and eventually achieved a comfortable, affluent life style often comment, "We didn't know we were poor. No one had anything!". If we all have lost a great deal of our financial security what will it feel like? It will be an entirely different experience than watching others propser while we are sinking. Nicholas Kristof recently highlighted statistics pointing to a paradox: during economic downturns, personal wellbeing actually shows gains. We will all be in this together, and that could enhance interconnectedness and mutual support. Crises can bring out our better natures.
We shall soon find out what our new shared reality will look like. Interesting. How are you feeling about things? Economizing? Obsessing? Detaching? Willing to look at your own statements?

image from MedHorizons

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

TableSharing: A New Trend at the CoffeeHouse

Unclear how we ever lived without The High Point, our indie coffee house. Great pastry, coffee, and ambiance. Part of the coziness is that it's a tiny space. Since it's booming, this can become frustrating, but enlarging isn't an option and moving could kill the whole thing, since it's near our food co-op, independent bookstore, environmental home store, and yoga studio - all the necessities of a proper progressive lifestyle.
I just noticed little signs they place on a few of the larger tables, designating them "Shared Tables". As in, at these tables you can't keep empty seats out of circulation while others are waiting. This is an interesting form of social engineering. Clearly there is no requirement that people at shared tables interact - they can plug in their Ipods, read their NYTimes, or power up their laptop and zone out. But I imagine folks do occasionally connect, and it seems like a great departure from our privatized American life. I also find it interesting, from a social psychology standpoint, that people actually abide by the policy an establishment makes up, though I imagine enforcing the policy for non-compliers gets a little dicey. Now I wish they would ban plastics from The High Point, simply refusing to provide disposable cups, or at least charge a whopping surcharge for them. Maybe by next year.
What policies would you like to see instituted? Last week I wrote about Costco providing preferential parking for HE cars. Whole Foods IS phasing out plastic bags. Smoking is banned in most public places now. How else can we improve quality of life in the commons, now that so many of us are techno-nomads?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Bring Back Postum!

OK, I tried to deal with the demise of Postum. Can't do it. It was too good a product, too nurturing, too much a ritual in my life to just roll over and take Kraft 's idiotic decision to pull it without a fight.
I have started a blog, predictably titled Bring Back Postum. (Plain old "Postum" was taken.) My idea is that if a product has millions of loyal fans, why doesn't a smaller healthy food manufacturer take this up? I am devoting my monthly column in my food coop newsletter at Weaversway Coop to pitching this idea, hoping that through some of the Co-op's Connections, someone will heed our cry.
Ideas, anyone?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Woe is Me! Postum is Dead and Gone!

Postum disappeared from the supermarket a few years ago, and it took awhile to locate some. Eventually it returned. So I wasn't entirely surprised when my local grocery had an empty spot on the shelf behind the Postum label. When a second store didn't have the label, I got concerned. When a different chain didn't have it either, I started to hyperventilate. This has been my late evening, calming drink of choice for about 30 years. And I'm neither Mormon nor in my 80's. It's healthy and has a great, mellow taste.
A quick search online produced the nasty news that Kraft has killed it. Their explanation is it had a declining customer base. Tell that to Utah! When you see the junk on the shelf where the Postum should be - fancy powdered, sugared, artificially sweetened, chemical-laden lattes - you can guess that the profit margin on Postum didn't warrant the shelf space, not the lack of loyal customers. I am so bummed!
The next solution was Ebay. If you want a laugh, or a new business to think about going into, take a look. A 4-bottle Postum lot is going for over $100.00. Postum added greatly to my quality of life, but I don't think I'm ready to buy it at $25 a bottle. I find it totally nuts that a great product disappears. Why didn't they sell it to a different company, or jack up the price, rather than just kill it? Clearly there is a steady customer base, since I found hundreds of them online.
I'm not really hyperventilating, but I am very, very sad, both about not being able to obtain my favorite drink any longer, and for the insane corporate control Kraft has over the lives of all Postum mourners. I wonder how long it will take for someone to bring it back into production?
Kraft pulled it in January. Since I was buy a few bottles at a time and store them in my pantry, I just found out - too late to scrounge around and hoard a few, to tide me over until an enterprising person brings out a new version. That can't be soon enough! In the meantime, check out my new blog, BringBackPostum, to share your ideas and get ideas for lobbying companies. You can also join our Yahoo Group.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Ode to the Humble Handkerchief

Some of you may be too old to remember your mom ALWAYS carrying a pretty, neatly folded, perfumed handkerchief in her purse. They were always my favorite item in the ironing basket, since they were flat, pretty little works of art. Gradually disposable tissue made them obsolete, so much so that the term Kleenex is generic.
Countless tissues left in my pockets, turning my laundry into a blizzard of little white specks all over my primarily black garments, were the push to rethink handkerchiefs. The pull was sensory: how pretty they are, in their infinite varieties. Kind of like snowflakes - no two are alike. And after a few washings, they are so soft. Virtue, the fact that they are endlessly reusable, did not really enter into the picture, but one does earn eco-points and frugal-kudos for switching to cloth rather disposables.
The initial challenge was finding them. I raided my mother-in-law's drawer, where she's stored them since the Eisenhower years, long since having switched to Kleenex. I bought a bunch on Ebay - they often come by the dozen or so. (Everyone has grandmothers who never parted with their collections - they used to be a popular Mother's Day type gift item.) I have also picked up a few on foreign travels in dollar-store equivalents. And sometimes flea markets and antique stores have a few. The most I've paid is $2 a piece.
I've found that in order to ALWAYS have a handkerchief available, I need about 30. I just stick them in the pocket of every jacket and vest I wear. When I forget to take one out, no problem. It just sits there in the laundry and doesn't shred and adhere to everything like Demon Kleenex.
There are statistics about how much money and how many resources you save by using Kleenex, which I will spare you. Anything you don't buy and dispose of does save resources all through the supply chain: no sourcing, manufacturing, packaging, transporting, or trashing. But in this case it's simply been a lovely quality-of-life upgrade. And don't worry. They don't need to be ironed. This is not the 1950's.
Any handkerchief fans out there want to share a story? What's your best hankie source?
photos from PinkPaint and Roses.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Bostonians: You Can Help This Soldier's Dad, and All Who Suffer from Auto-Immune Diseases

Pictured at right is my daughter's dear friend Niriel. We are so proud of her commitment to serve in the Israeli army - this is her picture in her brand new fatigues. [Note to the Israeli Tourism Authority: feature Niriel in your next ad!] Niriel's father Michael has fought a long battle with Type 1 Diabetes; he alerted us to cutting edge research on this and other auto-immune diseases which promises to be life-transforming for the many victims of these illnesses, which include Crohn's disease, lupus, scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren's syndrome, and multiple sclerosis. (I'm sure everyone out there knows at least a few people in these categories....) I promised to help recruit volunteers for this long term study a few months ago and am following through on my promise.
The medical star of the story, Dr. Denise Faustman, has been working on a cure for auto-immune diseases for 15 years and is close to perfecting breakthrough treatment. Her clinical trials aim to actually correct Type 1 Diabetes, not just treat it - think how that would change people's lives! In order to fine-tune the therapies, her lab needs volunteers to give small amounts of blood. Volunteers cannot have an auto-immune disease or be a close relative of a person with an autoimmune disease. Participants in the program need donors on their behalf; Niriel's family is covered, but they are committed to recruiting more donors to expand the research. You can check out an interview with Dr. Faustman on NPR. The researchers are committed to this therapy avoiding a take-over by big-pharma - they do not want the treatment to be patented by corporations and priced out of reach of the millions of patients whose lives will be dramatically transformed by curing auto-immune diseases.
The Faustman Lab is in Charlestown, in the Boston area. If you're near there, go for it! If you have family or friends who are in the Boston area, please send this on to anyone you think would be willing to help. Michael tells me that a lot of Niriel's friends are in college in Boston and they've been especially forthcoming. Here is his personal contact info, if you'd like to speak to a patient in the study.

Here are the lab contacts, to arrange blood sample donation:

Faustman Lab
MGH-East, Bldg. 149
13th Street, Rm. 3602
Charlestown, MA 02129
Tel: 617-726-4084

Questions about the MGH
Diabetes Clinical Trial:

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Feelin' Abundance, Feelin' Pinched

The psychology of money is as important as the actual bottom line - I am intrigued that financial facts are often not matched by financial feelings. Last summer I explored this in a series of "Feelin' Poor" tales, along with a counterpoint of "Feelin' Rich" stories, especially my so-called Two Fry Pan theory of abundance. (That post earned me the title of Two Fry Pan Bhodisatva ; a couple of my friends have been having a good time with that sobriquet.) It is well-documented that happiness doesn't flow directly from standard of living; material things contribute, but do not define, a sense of well-being.
when I carry more cash in my wallet, I feel more flush, period. Likewise, if there's more in our checking account, I feel safer. If we need to cash-out an investment to cover an expense, I feel a pinch - irrational, since from a strictly financial standpoint, keeping too much money fluid is a bad strategy. Hence the distinction between financial facts and financial feelings. I suspect that many affluent people induce a sense of financial anxiety by simply playing their finances too close, based on old habits. I don't think these feelings actually influence my purchases or behaviors, but they certainly impact my mood.
The flip side is accessing a sense of abundance by simple changes. The essence of my two fry-pan theory: it doesn't take much to make you feel great. We picked up some microloft sheets last year - essentially fleece, they are thick, incredibly cozy, and it it feels like sleeping on a cloud, especially when combined with a heated mattress pad. Since we keep our house very cold, I found I actually looked forward to getting into this wonderfully warm, soft bed. But sometimes they were in the laundry and we had to use our regular old- fashioned flannel sheets, which don't retain warmth nearly as well, and aren't nearly as soft. Bummer. After a few months of winter, I splurged and bought a 2nd set of the microfleece sheets, so we can rotate two sets. For $59.99, I improved the quality of my life every single night. I feel deep gratitude and happiness when I hit those warm, cozy sheets.
Crazy, huh, what makes us financially pinched (having less cash in our pocket) and what makes us feel financial abundance (warm, snuggly sheets.)
When do you notice your perception of your finances don't match the facts of your finances? Let's hear some other examples of how irrational we all are!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Picked Up by a Big Blog

Being picked up by a big blog does sound a bit like a horror flick, but in this case it's great. A column of mine is featured at Get Rich Slowly, a deservedly popular personal finance blog. I read about it initially in The New York Times and have found it consistently well-written, well-edited, and its author is generous about sharing information and connecting with others interested in the same topics.
My son Zach, a professional financial educator at a large union, also thinks it's an excellent source of all kinds of info on PF.
J D Roth, the guy behind Get Rich Slowly, is following his own advice. He is now out of debt and his blog generates enough income for him to take the plunge and give up his day job in his family's box factory. Hence the topic of my guest column, Working from Home. Proud to be picked up by this blog!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Blizzard Bikers in Philly - A Forum on BikeSharing

OK, it wasn't exactly a blizzard, but it was a snowy and slushy yesterday here in Philly. Friends and I attended a program on bringing bikesharing to Philadelphia. We were expecting a pretty paltry turn-out and were astounded to see a full-house. And our cool new wonky mayor, Michael Nutter, addressed the crowd, emphasizing how important sustainability is for the world and our city. The host asked how many had biked (in the snow, on a cold January night) to the event, and about 100 raised their hands. Yikes. Something is really going on here.
Three mayvens from other bike-share programs shared a lot of fascinating information. BikeSharing is an old concept, but recent advances in swipe card technology have made it feasible. Biking is user friendly, decreases traffic congestion and CO2 emissions, improves the life of the commons and increases social connection, and promotes healthy citizenry.

There are many deterrents to biking, though - scary traffic, bike security, and general accessibilty - not easy to schlep a bike on a train or bus. But biking infrastructure is improving. As Gilles Vesco, the Lyons bike sharing mucky-muck explained, it's a chicken-and-egg problem. People don't want to bike if there aren't safe infrastructures in place, like bike lanes, bike parking, driver ed, etc. But infrastructure doesn't get created if there aren't sufficient numbers of bikers. It takes civic planning and commitment to re-engineer a city's culture. This has been successfully done in Lyons, and Paris has famously followed suit. The picture above is from the Paris Velib bike system. If you click on it, you can see amazing detail of the bikes and the parking bike vendor system.

A few bits of data intrigued me. If there are two bikers on a street, their safety increases by 33%. In other words, once drivers start to expect to see bikes, they begin to adjust their driving habits. Another intriguing, and encouraging, Lyons discovery: once the city introduced 2000 bikes, private biking increased by 80%! The system solves a number of problems. You pick your bike up at one station and can drop it off at another, so you don't have to bike round-trip. They're easy to park, so you don't have to spend a lot of time looking for a decent place to lock up your bike. You use a charge card, so it's easy to pay for. These systems are ideal for relatively flat, densely populated areas. Like cities. Washington and Vancouver are setting up just such systems, and many other cities are joining the movement. Hail to Philadelphia, which already has over 200 miles of bike lanes. If you're local and want more info, check out our Bicycle Coalition.

Just one problem, as far as I'm concerned: the bikes do not ride up hills for you. Maybe someday they'll add electric bikes.... If you've biked in one of the cities with a bikeshare system, tell us what you thought.

picture from

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Throw Money at It! Money as a Problem Solver

When some matter goes awry in my life, the most liberating, comforting advice I give myself is "Throw money at it!" Obviously this doesn't work in all situations, especially if they're life-threatening, but a surprising number of times, knowing I can spare the money to make a problem go away lowers my anxiety all by itself.
The question I set out to answer when I launched MoneyChangesThings is "What is a surplus for?". Most financial blogs ask "how do you get out of debt" and "How do you best invest and manage money to increase your net worth?" These are important questions, but it's the question on the other side that I grapple with and find very few folks willing to discuss:
"Once you achieve financial sustainability, then what?"

Two weeks ago today we were in a nasty car crash. No one was seriously injured, quite a miracle, since both cars were totaled. Accidents are terrifying, needless to say.
But a financial cushion made it all so much easier - this is a way that money changes things. We have car insurance. We have health insurance. Our policy covered a car rental. We had money budgeted to replace my husband's car since it was ten-years-old and on the edge of cost/benefit for replacing. I could take a few days off and rest up from my minor injuries without worrying about being able to pay the bills. It was yucky, yucky, yucky. But it wasn't magnified by losing sleep over the financial fall-out. We could focus our attention on being grateful that we and the other car's passengers are alive and well, working out the logistics, and healing. That is an ENORMOUS blessing.
I don't waste money when I have control over a situation, but occasionally I throw it at problems and I am so grateful for that privilege. Money doesn't fix everything, of course. But in the end, I think having money for problem-solving is one of the greatest outcomes of financial sustainability, one that truly defines high quality of life:
freedom from money worries.
For all those of you who are solvent - appreciate it. And for those striving to reach this point, may 2008 be a great year in which you make progress reaching your personal and financial goals.

PS. We were all wearing seat belts. BUCKLE UP!

Image lifted from Notes for a Neophyte

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Happy Vegetarian Family WonTon Soup

One of our family favorites is Wonton Soup. It's a huge project to make, but soooooooo good. Some of the steps are tricky, so I've broken it down here along with the pics, which should help.
It's a wonderful dish for family members to create together, since it involves a lot of sitting and "potchkeing". Potchke is Yiddish for a slow, time-consuming handmade process. Another name for this dish: Big Potchke WonTon Soup. Kids enjoy this, but so do adults.
I started with a basic recipe which I've modified so many times I no longer know where it came from. The main caveat is: *if you dump all the wontons in at once, they adhere into a giant glob.

WonTon Ingredients:
1 package wonton wrappers, about 60. (Nasoya wrappers are pictured above)
1 onion or 2 to 3 scallions, chopped fine
~ 1 t. minced garlic
~ 3 T oil
12 oz vegetarian "ground beef" like Morning Star Crumblers or Smart Ground (pictured)
3 T. soy sauce
1/4 c. bread crumbs
1 egg
In large frypan, saute garlic and onion in oil until soft. Turn off flame and add the other ingredients, until they are smoothly blended. (Some of the soy products are looser than others.)

Assembling the WonTons: this is the hard part.
1. It's best to work on a large cookie tin or jelly roll pan. Put out a dish of water.
2. Dip each wonton wrapper quickly and gingerly in the water and lay them out on the tin. The water makes the wonton dough stick, si too much water will make a mess.

3. Add a spoonful of the filling and carefully fold each wonton into triangles, pinching edges closed. This is the conventional style, also known by Jewish cooks as "kreplach".

A fun an artful alternative is to make little pockets, which we saw at a great vegetarian Chinese restaurant here in Phillie, called Singapore.
To do that, start with a square, put a small spoonful of filling in the center, and carefully pinch the corners together.

Then take the sides and twist them together until they create a pouch.
Set the wontons aside as you create them. If you decide to freeze half, carefully set a tray of them in the freezer for about 20 minutes. Then take them out an freeze them in a bag. Believe me, if you put the wontons in a bag without freezing the dough first, they all stick together. (Sad experience speaking here.)

Now you're ready for the soup. The broth is much easier!

Soup Ingredients
: [you don't need to make the soup until the wontons are finished.]
1 bag of Oriental Mix vegetables (pictured above) or a mix of:
julienned carrots
baby corn
water chestnuts, or any mix that appeals to you.
~ 3 T. soy sauce, to taste
~ 3 T. powdered vegetable broth (like Telma, from Israel)
2 to 3 quarts water

In a 3 or 4 quart pot, add all the ingredients and bring to a boil. Drop the wontons in, *one at a time!!!, and cook 5 minutes or so until they puff up and rise to the top.
We usually cook about half and freeze the other half (as per instructions above) so there's a bonus treat to look forward to.

These are a wonderful first course for a festive holiday meal, or by themselves for a Sunday supper.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

My Money, My Self

A Workshop in Creating a Personal Financial Mission Statement

Facilitated by Betsy Teutsch
Writer of The Simplicity Dividend column and Blog: MoneyChangesThings

Our bank accounts and checkbooks are secret territory in our society – some say the last taboo for polite conversation! In a world with unprecedented abundance, how do we achieve a balance between our material life and our values?

This 6-Session CONFIDENTIAL workshop will explore our experiences, attitudes, and goals shaping the role our finances play in our lives. It is not about investment in the usual sense, but about using money to support lives that bring us fulfillment, comfort, and purpose. The workshop presumes financial security, though not necessarily wealth (however you define it!).

We will explore the psychology of money and how our upbringing and experiences have shaped our money attitudes and behavior. By creating Personal Financial Mission Statements, we will determine if these ideas still serve us well, and what our future goals will be visa-a-vis


Six Sessions, beginning

Thursday, January 17, 2008, from 8:00-9:30 PM

at GreenOnGreen Building, corner of Greene and Carpenter (across from Weavers Way Coop), Mt.Airy/Philadelphia.

Fee: $100.

To reserve, email

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

With the Thermostat Set to 63, These are a Few of My Favorite Things

About four years ago, when our coldest winter months' heating bills were pushing $1000, we started experimenting with turning the thermostat of our ~4000 square foot house down to 63 degrees. We gradually bought electric room heaters for the rooms we frequent, but in truth, it was pretty miserable. I had cold hands and cold feet the whole winter.
We then started investing in energy upgrades for our home and for ourselves, partly for efficiency, partly for comfort. These all require outlays, but if they allow you to keep your thermostat down, they pay back pretty quickly. (Especially in our era of ever higher energy rates.) I was less aware of carbon emissions and climate chaos when we started this project, but I recently noted that as a result of all these changes we have lowered our fossil heating fuel consumption by nearly 50%. Our Monster House heating bills are still high, because the cost of natural gas just keeps on escalating, but had we not embarked on this, our bills would now be $2000 a month! I have learned two basic principals:

  • If you're not comfortable, you will not stick with this.
  • It's much more efficient to keep yourself warm than to heat the whole house!
In terms of house comfort, a major investment was insulating the stone walls of our coldest rooms and under the dining room bay window. We also insulated our attic and the roofs of two rooms which are extensions. This has made an enormous difference in comfort, all year round. We replaced an ancient boiler with a more modern, efficient model. We added humidifiers in rooms we use the most. We did ***some*** window stripping, but it's so tedious we have not gotten far on that project. We added a gas fireplace which requires no ventilation and no work to use - just flick the switch. We rarely use our living room except for company, so now we sit with guests around a beautiful, inviting fire which warms that space. We also have a few afghans around; people are happy to snuggle under them. As a result of these changes, it is rare for me to notice the discomforts of 63 degrees.
On the personal front, I have discovered silk long johns. I particularly like WinterSilks offerings. They add warmth without bulk. Another great product is CuddleDuds; they are smooth on the outside and fuzzy on the inside. I gradually bought enough of all these items so that I always have clean ones! The right socks help, too - I hate super bulky ones, they remind me of ice skating in below zero Fargo winters. My favorites are Wyoming Wear, also smooth on the outside and soft on the inside.
But the all time top luxury which is worth it is - ta dah! - a heated mattress pad! It's the same principal as an electric blanket, but underneath you. Just like in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy, where Almanzo's family heated the beds with hot pans from the fireplace, you can turn it on ahead of bedtime to preheat the sheets. We also experimented with microfleece sheets, which are amazingly warm, but I haven't found any more like them.
Lastly, sometimes you have to take off all the warm layers in a cold bathroom. Since our house is old, there is no built-in bathroom heater. This was the most dreaded part of the whole new regime. Eventually it dawned on my to buy a room heater for the bathroom. If I am really organized, I turn it on an hour or so before showering and the room is noticeably warmer. It seems extravagant, but it's only relatively extravagant, since it's just extra heating in one room, not the whole house. For awhile I set the bathroom heater on a timer so it would go on an hour or so before I woke up in the morning, but I dropped that eventually.

Another obvious solution to this challenge, of course, is to buy a smaller house!

Please share any of your strategies for keeping comfortable with lowered thermostats in cold climates.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

High-Quality-of-Life Double Mushroom Barley Soup

I often try to distinguish between standard of living and quality of life. Much of what defines high SOL doesn't really add much to your actual daily experience of life; conversely many simple pleasures are below the SOL radar screen (since that measures SPENDING) but add greatly to one's day. Winter soups are, in my book, quality of life enhancers of the first order. It's easy to make them vegetarian and since they use very inexpensive ingredients, they are both planet-friendly and pocket-friendly. Barley in particular has long fed the world's peasants with distinction.

Here's my favorite Double Mushroom Barley Soup. I use both dried mushrooms along with fresh, and it makes a rich, hearty, full-bodied soup. It's a meal in itself if you're inclined.

1 oz. pkg dried mushrooms (pictured)* -these are Porcini
1 T. olive oil
8 oz fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 onion, sliced
1/2 lb carrots, sliced
4 ribs celery, chopped
3 T vegetable boullion powder (I like the Israeli versions, one pictured. While chicken "flavored", they are actually vegetarian.)
1 cup barley
8 cups water
Pepper, salt, tamari sauce if desired, to taste.
Parsley for garnish

Soak the dried mushrooms in water about 1/2 hour. In a large soup pot, saute the onion, fresh mushrooms, and celery. Microwave the carrots until soft, a minute or two. Slice in small chunks and run through the food processor until finely chopped. Add to the sauteing vegetables. Slice the soaked dried mushrooms into small pieces - they will be spongey. Add to the soup pot along with 8 c. water, 3 T. bullion, 1 c barley, salt and pepper. Since the boullion is high in sodium, I don't add much salt, but be generous with the pepper. Bring to a low boil, turn on lowest setting, and simmer for 1 1/2 hours. The barley will thicken the soup. The dark mushrooms, carrot, and celery give the soup a nice color palate - mushroom/barley is fairly gray looking by itself.
This soup freezes well. It's a great gift or bring along.
* Dried mushrooms are often found in the ethnic aisle of the grocery store, in the Kosher section. They hail from eastern Europe, as do most American Jews, but this dish is not uniquely Jewish. It's just that most groceries no longer have a "Polish" or "Lithuanian" section

One of my most creative gifts ever was creating a cookbook of my favorite recipes for my son when he moved into his first post-college house. I wrote it by hand, with lots of anecdotes connected to the recipes. If I were doing it over now, I would take advantage of online sites to produce personalized cookbooks - at Tastebook you can edit your own recipes. A hard-cover recipe book of family recipes is a great gift. Probably there are sites where you can download your own pictures, which means you can show what stages and steps look like. Or just start your own recipe blog! Anyone out there with experience or recommendations on sites?

PS I have checked a few supermarkets and cannot find the dark dried mushrooms. I checked in with the distributer, Kirsch Mushrooms, and they don't know which stores their products wind up in. However, you can buy a pound from them directly for $42.80, shipping included. Just mail them a check to 751 Drake Street, Bronx, NY 10474.
The little containers are about $2.95 for 1/2 oz. so this is the equivalent of 32 individual containers! (And way cheaper if you don't mind a lifetime supply - 32 containers would be $94, + 32 plastic containers biting the dust.)

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Five Star Medical Care with One Star Customer Service....

Recently I had back surgery at a world-renowned teaching hospital. Before the anesthesia kicked in I counted 12 professionals in the OR, including a Neuro-Surgical Tech team electronically tracking my body's every impulse. The surgery successfully removed a benign tumor in the spinal sac, with no nerve damage. I am grateful - for having health insurance, for the availability of diagnostic tests to determine so precisely what the problem was, and of course for awesome scientific advancements that make this micro-neurosurgery possible.
Then comes the low-tech hospital part of the experience. I was moved to a double in the spinal surgery unit which consisted of about 25 rooms off a long central area. Nurses dutifully come around and dispense meds, but beyond that, you are no longer the center of attention. The second night I was in the hospital, when my mind was working but my body couldn't do much, I found myself composing a blogpost about all the ways hospitals miss the mark for good customer service - the customers being the patients, of course. It was a nice way to channel my energy! Here are a few of my observations. If I Ran the Zoo, hospital designers and managers would have to lie in a bed for a day before proceeding with their jobs!

  • Clocks. Patients generally are told not to bring any valuables, and all your personal belongings are hung in a closet which a back surgery patient has no access to. So no watch. Time matters a lot to a hospital patient - for general orientation purposes, to know when your pain meds are wearing off, etc. My room had one large wall clock. When the curtain was pulled to separate the two patient areas, I could no longer see the clock. Apparently only 926A needs access to the clock; screw 926B.
  • TV Access. I hardly ever watch TV, but the last night, restless and not able to hold a book up, I experimented with the overhead TV. There were a couple of junky cable stations, plus a station featuring the head of the hospital telling patients how valued we are. But if you wanted any conventional stations (I was hoping for NPR), you have to pay an upgrade! I just saw a bill for my treatment: $68,000+ - but no decent TV unless you pony up! It is not easy to pay if you don't have a credit card at the ready, having listened to the advice of the hospital and not brought your wallet! Man, that pissed me off. My husband tells me there was a number on the TV screen to call for activation, but I figured there was no point if I didn't have a credit card.
  • Food. I probably wouldn't have eaten any food, but the offerings were astonishingly unappealing. The meal that comes to mind - the vegetarian offering - was a plate of white rice. You don't get condiments unless you order them, apparently. Like there's no connection between nutrition and healing? To go with it was a piece of pumpkin pie. I was reminded that in the developing world, hospitals do not provide meals. Patients' families encamp and provide food. Not very efficient, but I bet it has lots of psychic benefits for the patient, as well as straightforward physical benefit.
  • Call Buttons. Despite the existence of technology that could communicate a patient call instantly, the system employed is a light board. The patient presses a button and a light goes on; when staff happen to notice it, they come. My roommate waited 90 minutes to be taken to the toilet. Unreal.
This hospital did not offer a concierge upgrade package, but looking back, seems like it would have been worth looking into. I could have used someone holding my hand (once my dutiful husband had checked out for the night), serving me some food that didn't offend, and generally listening to what I was concerned about....

Fortunately I am healing well!

Monday, July 30, 2007

Feelin' Poor: Induced by a Move to Manhattan

In the late 70's we were DINKs in our late 20's, selling our first house in the 'burbs and heading for Manhattan. We were quite pleased with our real estate luck, having sold the house for about 1/3 more than we paid. We figured we could take the equity and the profit and have a pretty decent down payment for a Manhattan co-op. (If I told you what the prices were in those days, you would laugh, of course. But all that matters about real estate prices is what they are relative to other prices, really.) We were wrong. The brokers I spoke to started off each conversation with a "In your price range ....." I was impressed with how quickly we had become poor. Eventually we purchased a brownstone with 8 apartments, four which we renovated into one large apartment, and maintained the other four as rental properties. As anyone could have predicted, including my husband and I, the cost of all the renovations exceeded the budget routinely. I remember checking out which spaghetti was the cheapest at the Shopwell around the corner. But of course this was temporarily induced poverty, not the real thing. Our sweat equity - measured in fleas, cockroaches, plaster dust, obnoxious rent-stabilized New York City tenants, bursting radiators, and the smells from the RibCrib across the street on hot summer days - was a great investment in the end.
Eventually we moved to Philadelphia, which has always had great housing for much lower prices than other east coast cities. (If you want to feel loaded, at least temporarily, move from Manhattan to Philly!)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Feelin' Rich: The Tale of Two Irish Tweed Suits

In the early 80's my husband and I traveled to Ireland. Man, the dollar was strong!
It was a great vacation on a modest budget; one of the highlights which we still gleefully recall was our trip to Kevin & Howlin, a famous tweed purveyor in Dublin. My husband loves Irish tweed jackets - university style dressing and very practical. In those days, especially in Great Britain, central heating was not the norm, and those tweeds really kept people warm. They travel well without wrinkling and wear like iron. They are far less common now that heating is pretty much taken for granted, both indoors and in cars, and men have switched to three season suits, but they are still classic.
We were delighted by this quaint, beautiful store and the inventory wowed my husband. And the prices, when converted to dollars, were really cheap.
He happily tried on a suit off-the-rack and discovered - to his astonishment - that while all his American-bought suits required extensive tailoring, the Kevin & Howlin tweed fit him perfectly.
He was so pleased.
I then said something really transgressive, at least in the sober, frugal, financially disciplined (and somewhat withholding) culture in which my husband was raised:
He looked at me with a degree of disbelief. But he considered my suggestion, and proceeded to follow it. The two suits together cost a bit over $200. He wore them weekly for over a decade, and when the pants went, he still enjoyed the jackets. One would have been great. But the second was really over the top.
Of course if we hadn't generally been frugal, this wouldn't have seemed like a big deal. In our case it was a paradigm breaker. (And not replicable. With the dollar in the basement relative to the British pound, and Irish tweed increasingly rare, this is not to be repeated, alas.)
But at that moment in time for an extra $100, he could purchase a second perfect suit. Having the second was utter luxury, like winning the lottery. Indeed we felt very rich.
Thus ends my second of my Feelin' Rich stories.