Monday, November 16, 2009

Cozi link fixed

Just wanted to let you know that if you haven't been able to access the Cozi article, the link is fixed now. Thanks for your patience!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I'm baking bread over at Cozi!

A new post is coming tomorrow, but in the meantime, please check me out on! If you've wondered how to simplify bread-baking, this post is for you.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

When "crunchy" hits the wall

Here is why the blog entry didn’t happen yesterday: I have a three-year-old. A three-year-old who gets bored when Mommy is on the phone. A three-year-old who shows it by finding a bit of brown crayon and scribbling all over the LCD TV screen with it.

The ensuing apoplexy made it impossible for me to say anything intelligible or fit for reprinting in a family-oriented blog.

I did what any 2009 mom worth her salt would do: put it out on Facebook. Many, many comments later, the consensus appeared to be a product called Magic Eraser, made by Mr. Clean, which I have never used. One of the ingredients is formaldehyde-melamine-sodium bisulfite copolymer, which the company insists is not formaldehyde but rather a chemical compound that is totally safe and nontoxic. I don’t doubt that, but still, it’s not a product I would buy under normal circumstances.

These were not normal circumstances. I didn’t pay anything for the TV, but I can’t afford to replace it, either. This was a case where I felt like the benefit of restoring the TV, and bringing my blood pressure down, outweighed the detriment of having weird chemicals in the house. (Besides, my kids won’t lick the TV screen. Maybe I should confirm that with the three-year-old.) After further Internet research singing the Magic Eraser’s praises on LCD screens, I went with it. It was a miracle. You can’t even see where the crayon was.

I didn’t try what another friend suggested, rubbing it off with a microfiber cloth, because I was afraid it wouldn’t work and might smear the crayon. Maybe on another, less costly surface.

Do you find that certain situations test your crunchiness (or cheapness)?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Guest-blogging with Cozi!

There will be more later, but just wanted to let everyone know that starting next week, I will be guest-blogging over at's Live Simply magazine! Can't wait to see all of you over there.

In the meantime, look for another "real" post tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

How to make floor wash

Perhaps I should mop. What do you think? Doesn’t it look like a crime scene?

You know me. I’m not pulling out the Pine-Sol. A few simple ingredients, most of which you have in your house already, will get your floors clean as a whizzle (as my five-year-old son says).

Here’s what you need:
Liquid soap (here I’m using natural dish liquid, because it’s what I have handy; Dr. Bronner’s is my favorite, though, and another time I’ll show you how to make your own)
Peppermint tea
Measuring cups

And here’s why:
VINEGAR. I find that vinegar cuts grease and dirt well, and it’s an effective germ-killer. It’s a nontoxic way to add a little oomph – Mr. Clean with long hair, if you will.
LIQUID SOAP. The EPA recommends liquid soap as a germ-killer.
PEPPERMINT TEA. Also has disinfectant properties, and its strong but pleasant smell helps to cut the vinegar’s intensity.

First, sweep up schmutz, tragic Legos, and whatever else bedevils your floor.

Next, put ½ cup of water on the kettle to boil, and make a cup of very strong tea. As usual, resist the urge to slurp it up greedily.

While it’s steeping, pour a cup of vinegar and a scant 1/8 cup of liquid soap into the bucket. If you find at the end that it’s a little soapy for your liking, you can always add more water to the mix.

After about five minutes, add the tea and then a gallon of water to the bucket, and mix. Mop, rinse, and dry as usual. Good for one use.

Look, Ma, no Legos!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Moving green

Being the ever-frugal and environmentally conscious person that I am (or try to be), I wanted our Colorado-Illinois trek to have as minimal an impact on the earth and our bank account as much as possible. And now, with a month or so remove on it, I still feel like we did pretty well. Here's what went right, what went wrong, and some things that might help you the next time you have to uproot.

Shedding. I have gone from pack rat to compulsive shedder. (When I announced this to my husband, he hugged me with tears in his eyes. “Finally!” he said. “You’re one of us!”) It’s always been part of the “thrift” thing – “What if I need it one day?” So I lugged things around for 10 years or more, waiting for the day when I might need it. Then, when we realized we were moving, I looked around and, through my tears, said, “Well, I don’t want to take all this stuff.” I didn’t need this weight, this dormant energy that 20 boxes of unused stuff brings. Why not send it out into the world, to spread joy and comfort to those who need it (if I haven’t used it for 10 years, clearly I don’t)? So I did, and I threw very little away. And I’ve never felt better.
Have a yard sale (or two). Sell it on Craiglist or eBay. Put it on Freecycle. Give it to your local charity thrift store. Give it to friends. Spread the wealth (and create a little wealth for yourself), and keep it out of the landfill!

Boxes. Thank goodness my natural pack-rat tendencies led to my having saved every barely usable box I’ve accrued since college – we didn’t have to buy a single box this time! Family and friends also gave us some boxes, totally unsolicited. Never turn down gifts of boxes at moving time.
If you don’t have a stockpile from which to draw, or friends who will give or lend you boxes, get freebies from the liquor store or grocery store. That’s where many of ours came from in the first place. They’re free, and they’re strong; and by taking them off their hands, you’re keeping them out of the waste stream.

Packing materials. We had some leftover bubble wrap, which we reused, but mostly I multi-tasked my newspaper subscription (which helps an industry close to my heart in the first place). I say pish-posh to those who insist that one must pack in something other than newspaper – if you wrap your fine things well (as you would a present, but without the tape) and in a couple of layers of paper, you’ll have little to no breakage. (I always make sure to wash my plates and cups once they make it to their destination.) It’s so much cheaper, and it’s recyclable.
Another idea, which I used to great effect, is to use towels and sheets as packing materials rather than packing them separately.

Moving truck. We rented a Penske truck, the biggest one we could get (after all, there are six of us). One reason we picked Penske was that it purported to get 500 miles per diesel tank. But even on almost exclusively highways, and even with using cruise control, we found it got about half that. (We think they figured the mileage on an empty truck. Because who doesn’t rent a truck to PUT NOTHING IN IT? Thanks for the bait-and-switch, Penske. End of rant.)
We were paying for the move ourselves; thus, we did the whole thing ourselves. This was the balance we had to strike. If you are able to hire professional movers, it’s worth checking Green Movers to get a quote. Their partner movers are taking steps to reduce carbon emissions and their contributions to the waste stream. If yours is a local move, you might be able to find a mover that uses biodiesel-powered trucks (a little Google searching ought to help you there).

Friday, July 17, 2009

Forgive thyself

It took months, but finally, FINALLY, we are just about settled into our new digs in Chicagoland. It’s been a hard road. Thanks, fans, for waiting around for me to get around to posting again.

Which pulls me back around to this post. Sometimes life gets the better of you. Sometimes there’s just, frankly, way too much going on to fit into a 24-hour day. And sometimes there are days, and weeks, and months, and years that go on like this. It’s OK. We’ve all been there.
In the process of the move, I found, toward the end, that I just didn’t have it in me to maintain an everything-from-scratch lifestyle. Raising four kids on my own, dealing with the emotional Sturm und Drang (both mine and the kids’), and packing the place on my own … it was a lot. Obviously, I quit blogging. We started grabbing takeout more. I didn’t make bread once. And (shudder) in the last two weeks, I quit making cleaning supplies. I was overwhelmed.
And it’s OK. I gave myself permission to deal with the situation, to be busy, to grieve, to try to get my feet wet in a new area. I’m still doing it, too, but I find that I am ready to reclaim the things that make me ME. And so this is a perfect time to share these thoughts.

Many of us don’t give ourselves permission to think about how to play the cards we’re dealt. Many of us see sadness and anger as weaknesses, and we try to bury them under layers of work. Or, if we take time to indulge that moment (or those moments) of sadness or anger, we pile guilt upon ourselves for not doing more work, for allowing ourselves to work through those emotions. Why do we do this to ourselves? Is it healthy in the long run?

Don’t do that to yourselves. Do what you can. We all come from different life stations, have different life experiences, have different demands on your time. Can’t do it all? Then don’t. Do what you can. Do what you are able. And forgive yourself all the rest. You’ll never believe how much better you feel.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day

So how did you celebrate your Earth Day?

I confess that, despite my cheapness (and crunchiness), I did not notice it was Earth Day until it was half over. Shoot. I would have been well-prepared with some kind of eloquent blog entry or something. And I wasn’t. Believe me when I say that I live in one crazy house now, with a long-distance move looming close on the horizon. I spend most of my time nowadays moving, packing, and spending time with the people I love.

More about that long-distance move in a later post. It relates, in its own way.

So, how did I spend Earth Day once I realized it was Earth Day? I spent it kind of the way I spend almost every day, with one difference: We are also celebrating National TV Turnoff Week. And yes, I am aware that “American Idol” is still on. But the reasons are great:
1. My kids are spending their evenings playing board games with each other. BOARD GAMES! Next week, you’ll see why community is the linchpin to this lifestyle I’ve created.
2. Televisions suck a great deal of energy, even when they’re off. According to a CNET review of 139 television sets, the cost of running a television can vary from $30 to more than $100 per year.
3. Apart from the fact that we’re saving some energy and the kids are playing board games, it’s better for their brains, and for mine. There’s loads of evidence out there that draws a direct correlation between TV and childhood (and adult) obesity, attention-related problems, poor socialization skills, and anemic academic performance.

Lots more of you, however, did more than me (my friend tended her garden and put up her clothesline – I’m jealous!). Did you do anything differently today?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Earth Hour

Hmmm. *scratches head*

I don’t want to come across as a crank. Oh, who am I kidding? Those of you who know me know I have my cranky side. But, seriously … What do you guys think of Earth Hour?

Here’s my take. First, the pros. I am all for anything that highlights the need to make some real, substantive changes in our consuming lifestyle. (I almost wrote “consumptive,” but that makes it sound like we all have TB.) And according to this article, electricity fell by 5 percent in Chicagoland last year during Earth Hour, so one can assume that it did something in the short term to reduce noxious emissions and shine a CFC-friendly spotlight on conserving energy.

Alas, that segues neatly into the cons. The key in that last sentence is “short-term.” I hope more than a few people came away from Earth Hour last year thinking, “Wow, I kept the lights off for an hour and I didn’t die. Maybe I could do this for an hour every night, or make a commitment to use only natural sunlight during the day.” But I remain unconvinced. Statements, no matter how great or noble, remain only statements if they aren’t put into action (and, in this case, habit).

So I'm thinking that, by all means, if you are able, go for it and turn the lights off tomorrow. It will be a good thinking period, a good reflection on what we can all do to help the planet (and reduce our energy bills in the process). Think about how we can help the planet and our energy bills. And then, think about how you can take that energy and make it translate into action every day. Give the movement meaning.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Evil propaganda

Some of you are going to be mad at me. I can feel it. So I’m just going to say it, bluntly, much like a bandage getting ripped off.

Want to know one of my money-saving food tips? I’m a vegetarian.

I want to be very, very clear: I am not telling you you shouldn’t eat meat. I have chosen not to – and for me, that choice feels right and good in every way I can express. Not only do I find that my personal food choice centers me and reminds me that I am capable of compassion (something about which I must occasionally be reminded), but I feel better and healthier. I know that my personal environmental impact is minimized that much more. And it’s cheaper.

Is this the right choice for everyone? Well, judging from the number of people out there who eat meat, obviously not. Certainly I do not, and cannot, expect everyone to do as I do. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “If two people are thinking the same thing, one of them isn’t thinking.”

Here is my challenge. No, not a challenge. In the spirit of my laissez-faire attitude toward personal food habits, I’ll call it a suggestion. If you are a meat-eater, try eating vegetarian for just one day a week. Or two or three -- whatever your lifestyle might accommodate. Make sure you do this with your brain engaged. Include a protein source such as tofu or beans with at least two meals a day (three if you’re feeding children); and add something high in iron and B vitamins such as lentils, spinach, or kale. And make sure you heap on calcium-rich vegetables such as broccoli if you’re going vegan, especially if you’re a woman.

So do this for a day, and then look at your receipt. Do you see a difference? I can get tofu for $1.99 a pound, much cheaper than I can find chicken breasts. And it can’t be a bad thing, healthwise, that I do much of my grocery shopping in the produce aisle. Right?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Making your own laundry detergent

A number of people have asked how I make my laundry detergent. This is the bones of a recipe I’ve seen floating around the Internet, with slight modifications.

Why go to the trouble?

First, it’s hardly any trouble at all. Start to finish, it takes about half an hour to 45 minutes; and I tend to be slow and overly careful, so it may take you a much shorter time.

Second, the time is well worth the money you save. This makes about two gallons of detergent, and it costs a whopping $3.10. And that’s because I use expensive soap.

You will need:
* Borax, found on the laundry aisle of most grocery stores.
* Washing soda. This one's tougher, and do not confuse it with baking soda, even though it is made by Arm & Hammer. I find it on the laundry aisle of my local King Soopers, but that's the only place I can find it. carries it, but it's pricey; Google it and see if you can come up with a local source before you order it.
* A bar of soap. I like Dr. Bronner's, which drives the price up but I save overall so I justify it. You can use Fels-Naptha, also on the laundry aisle; Kirk's Castile, which I've used too; or Ivory if you are so inclined. The main thing to avoid is moisturizing soaps (for example, Dove).
* A pot. I have a really mangy soap pot dedicated for the purpose (also for making soap and for keeping a pot of water on the wood stove).
* A cheese grater.
* A bucket or bin with a lid capable of holding as much as three gallons. I got mine at Kmart for three bucks.

Start out by grating your bar of soap. Be careful as you get to the end; I hope I don't need to tell you. Right after we shot this photo, I grated my finger, which I had burned earlier that day. I didn't enjoy that.

Put your fun little soap shavings in the soap pot along with six cups of water. Melt them together on medium to medium-low heat, stirring continuously until the soap is melted. It kind of looks like toenails as it gets to the end. Pretend you're the bad guy in a fairy tale, making something "delectable" for lost children in the woods. Cackle. It will make your kids laugh.

Once the soap and water mix is running clear, pour in a cup of washing soda and a cup of borax. Add essential oils if you like them -- I didn't this time because I was using lavender soap, but feel free.

Keep stirring on medium to medium-low heat until the powders are dissolved and there's no grainy "spoon-feel" at all. You will notice it thickening considerably.

Add four cups of hot water to your bucket (which is what you'll use to store it), pour your cooked mixture in, and stir. I'm not sure what the science behind this is, why you need to pour the hot water in first, but the first directions I got said to do this and so I stick with it. Stir once the soap's in.

Next, you're going to pour in a gallon and a half of cold water -- I'm guessing this is to stop any "cooking" action this mixture is continuing to do. I use a repurposed 1.5 gallon bottle for this purpose, but any way you want to measure it will do.

And ... that's it. You're done. All there is is the waiting. You can use it immediately, or you can let it sit, and in about a day it will have thickened into a rather thick, gloppy, congealed and kind of fun mass. This photo was taken a couple of hours later and, as you can see, it's already starting to look very different.

To use this, I use a coffee cup and measure anywhere from a half to a full cup, depending on the size and filthiness of the load. It works pretty well, although obviously you don't want to let real stains sit too long without washing because it won't be much help there. And I had to rewash a couple of loads after a stomach bug ripped through the house (hence the minimal posting as of late). But, in general, I have been really pleased with this, and I hope you will be too. Enjoy!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Making your own counter cleaner

Why make your own counter cleaner? First, if you make it yourself, you have control over what goes into it, meaning you have control over its toxicity. Second, it’s a WHOLE lot cheaper than buying a chemical concoction at your local grocery store. Third, by making your own, you reduce packaging. I reuse my bottle. And I would probably have the vinegar on hand.

There are many, many recipes out there on the Interwebs telling you how to do this. This is my humble offering. There are more disinfectant ones out there (and I plan to try some of them and share/report back). Of course, you may tweak at will. But first, why do I use some of the ingredients I do?

Vinegar. Has anti-germ properties.
Peppermint tea. Provides an additional disinfectant.
Liquid soap. Adds a little elbow grease to the mixture.

Here’s what you need:

Liquid soap*
Peppermint tea
Two tea cups

First, put water on for tea. When it boils, pour it into your cups.

Let it steep. Resist the urge to stop and have a cup.

While it's steeping, measure out a cup of vinegar and pour into the bottle (this is where the funnel comes in handy). Add 1/2 teaspoon liquid soap (not pictured; the photo didn't come out. These things happen).

When the tea's ready, pour both cups into the funnel. You might splash some. It's OK. The good news is, it's counter cleaner. You can just wipe it up when you're done.

And ... voila!

* This isn't actually Dr. Bronner's liquid Castile soap -- I repurposed a bottle. I made my own. I'll show that off another time.
(All photos are c. 2009 Steven D. Dodds II)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The cayenne cure?

One of my jobs involves spending 20 hours a week at Vitamin Cottage. Yesterday, I had the chance to chat with an ayurvedic practitioner who was doing a product demo. She said something that struck me as interesting, and which I’d heard but completely forgotten: Spicy foods are marvelous immune-system boosters. And here I was marveling at the fact that I haven’t gotten sick all winter (knocking on wood!), when it might just be the fact that my black-bean chili turns red from cayenne pepper.

Turns out that cayenne pepper might also help arthritis pain. So eat up, knitters.

It made me think, though. We rely so much either on conventional medicines or on herbal remedies, which can be pricey, to fight or prevent disease; but we can create the same positive outcomes with some easy, simple (and tasty) dietary tweaks. So if you like it hot, do it till it hurts!

What do you think? Have you tried ginger or hot pepper as an immune booster? Do you eat five oranges at the first sign of a cold? Or do you think it’s all hoodoo?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Epsom salt soak

This is going to be quick. I'm working two jobs (a week ago yesterday, I had none) so I need to buckle down. But: A (maybe) illin' friend reminds me to post this recipe for an Epsom salt soak that purports to provide a good detox bath. The idea is, you soak out the toxins (i.e., viruses) that are building and, with luck, the symptoms will disappear. I got this from an herbalist who came to speak to the holistic mamas (oh wise holistic mamas, what was her name?).

1/3 c. Epsom salt
1/3 c. hydrogen peroxide
8 c. chamomile tea (one bag per cup)

Pour all ingredients into a hot tub of water and soak until the water is no longer warm. If you have sensitive skin, don't splash it on your face.

I post this with the caveat that I have not tried it because (knock on wood) I haven't been sick since I got this recipe. What do you guys think of Epsom salt? How about throwing in the hydrogen peroxide? Is it too much? Either way, anything that can stave off illness for relatively little money is worth its weight in gold.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Gettin' Somethin' for Nothin'

Today we installed our new TV. It was a gift – look, if I were to say that my big thrifty trick was, “Have generous relatives,” this would be a pretty lame blog. So I do not have any tricks regarding how to get a free TV.

Or do I?

We already had a TV. It is old and not digital-ready – not a flat screen, nothing fancy whatsoever – but it does the job. So, I’m going to Freecycle it.

If you don’t know about Freecycle ( -- you’ll see the link to the right as well), get friendly with it. The philosophy behind Freecycle is, you give away things that might otherwise go in the landfill. By giving it away, what you’re really doing is a random act of kindness. And you’re keeping something out of a landfill – especially something like a TV, which I wouldn’t be able to put in the landfill in good conscience anyway. And if you regularly surf Freecycle, you can get some great stuff from it. I got a bed for my son, and all it cost me was a 15-mile car ride.

And this week, somebody is, in fact, getting a free TV out of it.

Have you used Freecycle before? What are your Freecycle stories?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why? Why? Why?

I’ve long been interested in environmental and health issues – trying to reduce packaging, being concerned about preservatives and other onerous ingredients in my kids’ diets, consumerism, you name it. That’s not new.

What’s been new to us is that, through circumstances not of our making, we have been forced to get by on a shoestring. And we are, to the nation’s collective distress, not alone. Not nearly.

Plus, I know too many people who, even if they are employed (and sadly, I know too many people who are not), work in unhealthy industries and are nervous about how long they’ll be working, or are nervous about the condition of their stock holdings or retirement savings.

There are six of us in my family. There’s my husband and me, and we have four kids, ages 10, 9, 5, and 2. And we have gotten by on $13,000 in the past six months. That includes Christmas. (In the interest of full disclosure, we have incurred some credit-card debt, but it’s in the low four digits.)

Everybody wants to know how we’ve done that. And there are a few ways.

First, we’ve been creative. We’ve researched ways to get the things we want for free or very cheap. We’ve been willing to go to a little more trouble to make these things happen. My husband is the champion in this regard. He will share his findings periodically.
Second, we’ve adopted more of a “back-to-the-land” policy. We’ve made everything from bread to laundry detergent from scratch, we’ve bought almost everything we needed second-hand, and this summer I plan to try to grow as many of our vegetables and fruits as I can. (I’ll let you know how that goes. I’m a notorious brown thumb.)
Third, we’ve been patient and willing to do more work than we used to. It takes more time to get things for less money. But you pay for the convenience of being able to walk into a store and get something you want off the shelves.

So, should you feel inspired by this journey, here’s my first bit of advice: Concentrate on eating healthy foods and reducing your packaging. That’s something we can all do, regardless of our employment status. Also, focus on getting (or staying) out of debt – our lack of debt going into this period is part of what’s really saved us. Live within your means. It’s an old-fashioned concept, but, well, what’s old is new again. Now, will you go to sleep a corporate suit and wake up a bread-baking, vegetable-growing, wood=splitting monster? No. Probably not. And that’s OK. Do what you can, or what you’re willing to do, and you will see that your bottom line will be better – and that your planet is a healthier one in the process.

Now, here’s my second bit of advice: If you are able – you’re working, you can spend a little without incurring debt – go out to eat every once in a while. Buy the occasional gift from a local florist, or a good book. Consumer spending is a huge part of our economy, and if it completely dies, the foundation of our economy is destroyed. Those businesses can’t employ anyone, and they can’t spend money, and so on. So if your bottom line isn’t really hurting, don’t be spooked! Live within your means, with a mind toward your health and the health of your planet. And if your anniversary’s coming up and you want to plan a big date night, enjoy it.