Monday, October 26, 2009

Fall Colors

You don't have to drive too far from the city to happen upon a beautiful place to take a hike.

I am amazed at the beauty of the trees in the Northeast. While Illinois praries are beautiful themselves this time of year, it is great to be able to experience a forest full of hardwoods as they change.

We saw mostly brillant yellows and oranges, not the reds I had expected. Maybe the maples had changed already and I missed their display.

No Impact Experiment- Friday, Water

Water is the final lifestyle change that the No Impact Experiment tackles. You are asked to look at the footprint of your water and then see how you can make changes. After calculating my water footprint, I was surprised to see the majority of the water I use yearly comes from food production. While I don't eat a lot of meat, it was interesting to see that meat production used the most water of any other food item I consumed, coffee was the second highest. The water footprint asks for food volume in kilograms but I found a handy calculator that makes the conversion from pounds to kilograms.

There are many suggestions on how to reduce water consumption in the water section of the how-to manual of the No Impact Experiement and most of them I already practice. Run full loads in the washing machine and dishwasher, reduce shower lengths, don't run the water when you brush your teeth etc... but nothing I could change in this area would make the kind of difference reducing meat consumption would make. Amazing! Based on these findings, I am going to reduce my meat consumption and work on cooking more plant based meals.

This week's No Impact Experiment has opened my eyes to the fact that the biggest changes I need to make are those centered around food. Changing how I eat will reduce my impact in every area of the challenge we covered this week- trash, transportation, energy, and water. That by changing my diet, I will be making the most profound impact possible for me at this time. I can see how the packaging of my food items contributes to trash, how its delivery from distant corners of this country contributes to transportation costs and energy, how its production uses up energy and water. Now I just need to do the work to figure out how to make the changes.

With making changes in mind, I spent Saturday reading a book called, "On Good Land, the Autobiography of an Urban Farm" by Michael Ableman. The title pretty much tells you what the book is about, but it is also something more. A gentle reminder of the importance of maintaining a connection to the food we consume and the rewards that will come as a result.

Friday, October 23, 2009

No Impact Experiment- Thursday, Energy

For today's part of the No Impact Experiment, I was asked to look at ways to reduce my power consumption by going through each room of my house and listing everything that uses energy. I then was asked to determine if I was going to eliminate or mitigate use of that item. Rather than going through each room writing things down, I decided to look at the situation in a more holistic way by looking at my energy use systems- the lights, heat (or A/C in the summer), laundry, electronics/appliances, and water heater- and discussing each below.

The area of lighting is where I can see that I need to make changes. In my old house in Illinois, I used energy efficient CFL's in every room and this rental I am in now has recessed lighting with flood light type bulbs. Both the dining room and living room are set up so that if you flip the switch on the wall, no less than four of these lights will come on at once. They put out so much energy, that last week when it was cold in the house, I noticed a two degree rise in temperature on the thermostat in the living room about an hour after I turned the lights on. From now on, I am going to make the use of these lights off limits and use floor lamps with CFL's instead. Other than that, we are very good about keeping all unnecessary lights off and using natural lighting or even candles to light the way.

I am doing a pretty good job in regard to heating. Last week was pretty cold here with highs in the 40's and lows in the 30's and I only used my heat for a few hours around dinner time to take the chill out of the air and even then, I only heated the living room. Because our living room is zoned separately from the rest of the house, we just ran the heat in that room and hung drapes between the living room and the other rooms to keep the heat in. We left the bedrooms unheated and slept quite comfortably in our 50 degree bedrooms under down comforters. I figure as long as the low temperatures stay above freezing, we can keep the heat off in most of the house. When it does start to go below freezing, I will program our thermostat's to stay at 50 degrees all the time with the exception of the living room which I will put at 60-65 degrees when we are at home. I use a thin down sweater to help keep me warm or wrap up in a down sleeping bag when reading.

In regard to the laundry, I don't use the dryer, having given that up long ago and only do about three loads in the washing machine a week. We wear clothing over and over again and only throw it in the wash when it really needs it.

Electronics is an area where I don't know how I can change much more than I already have. While I would love to get rid of the TV and could live quite happily without it, my family enjoys watching sports and a few other shows each week. We don't own an energy hogging plasma TV so that helps keep the energy use down at least. While I could live without the TV, I would find it harder to live without the computer. I find that I am on it each morning for a few hours and could certainly do a better job of turning it off when not in use. I do turn off all electronics overnight with the use of a power strip and unplug other appliances when not in use to avoid phantom power.

The use of hot water for showers is where we could certainly make changes. I noticed that I took longer showers when the weather was colder last week and need to be more cognisant of that. Also, my 13 year old son tends to take very, very long showers. I timer of some sort would come in handy. On the upside, I only shower every other day.

This exercise was very helpful in making me notice some small changes I could make that would result in energy savings. Because I have been aware of my energy usage for a long time and have made lots of changes in this area already, I don't feel as overwhelmed as I did in the trash part of this experiment. I am glad I am blogging about this because I will have a concrete idea of what I need to work on going forward and it will be harder to walk away and go back to my old habits.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

No Impact Experiment- Wednesday, Food

Today's challenge in the No Impact Experiment was about trying to reduce the carbon footprint of your food by eating more locally grown foods, eating less animal products, and by purchasing foods with less packaging or processing. Oh no, I'm afraid shopping at Whole Foods isn't going to get me through this one.

Nevertheless, I marched off to Whole Foods yesterday to do some grocery shopping with this challenge in mind. I figured I could pick up some veggies and something from the bulk bins and put together a lower impact meal.

Unfortunately, I took Ryan with me and he immediately began rushing about the store trying to toss his favorite items into the cart. The first thing he tried to put into the cart was some store prepared salsa verde in a plastic container. I explained to him that we were trying to reduce our use of packaging and buy local. He begrudgingly put the salsa verde back as he explained to me that he needed to eat and that everything in the store comes in some sort of packaging.

I wandered over to the bulk bin area to look at the offerings. Of course none of it was local which left me in a quandary. Go for less packaging or less local? Which was worse? It was then that I remembered Colin had included a carbon calculator in his how-to manual which helps determine how to eat with a lower carbon impact. Wish I had checked that out before heading to the store. Given the array of decisions and choices, and none of them being good ones, I began to feel very overwhelmed and defaulted to shopping as I normally would. I rationalized my decision by figuring I was at least in Whole Foods supporting organic farmers from near and far, some items with lots of packaging, others less so.

As I walked home from the store, feeling badly about all of the processed, packaged, non-local foods in my bags, I thought about all of the changes I need to make to be more in line with reducing my food's carbon footprint- most of them not easy. Changing the way you do something can't happen overnight. Sure, I could have picked some of the lettuce I grew and made a salad and then heated up the stew I purchased at the farmer's market and made a lower carbon dinner for this challenge. But I can't eat stew and salad forever and wanted to be aware of what I need to do to make lasting change. To think the process through.

At first glance, I realize I need to reduce the amount of food I buy that contains lots of packaging and make more homemade items. For instance, I could skip the boxed cereals and purchase oatmeal in bulk. Or I could make my own muffins from scratch using flour from the bulk bins rather than store-made muffins encased in plastic. All this translates to spending more time cooking in the kitchen which I am not sure I am prepared for. So much to think about and process. Like I said at the begging of this challenge, this No Impact Experiment goes way beyond recycling and using cloth bags to carry your groceries in. It is a true challenge.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

No Impact Experiment- Tuesday, Transportation (and Trash)

Today, as part of the no impact experiment, I was asked to make changes regarding the way I transport myself. This part of the challenge was easy for me because I already walk or take mass transit most of the places I go so I didn't feel a need to change anything. But I find myself still struggling with the whole idea of not creating trash.

Yesterday's New York Times had an article called "Nudging Recycling from Less Waste to None"
which talked about how the zero waste philosophy is moving from the the fringes to mainstream with the simple concept of producing less waste. The article talked about how some communities, restaurants, and schools are composting food waste on a large scale basis and others are reducing the amount of trash they send to a landfill with their recycling efforts. I see these efforts as an attempt to reduce the back end of the waste stream. To figure out the best way to handle trash once you have made it.

But what about the front end of the stream? To not allow trash to enter our lives to begin with? To not only reduce our purchases, but to also avoid disposable cups or napkins and to reduce the packaging food comes in. Given how things are currently being done with the proliferation of disposable items constantly being thrust into your hands through out the day, it is easy to forget that every disposable item you touch needs to end up somewhere and many times that somewhere is a landfill.

Thinking about how to reduce the front end of the stream is where I lack awareness, yet if I placed my focus on making changes in this area, ultimately there would be less of my waste to deal with at the back end of the waste stream. Below is the trash I encountered yesterday and the changes I could have made to reduce it:

1) Instead of using a Starbucks disposable cup and food wrapper, I could have brought my mug or used their real mugs. I could have brought a cloth napkin to place my bakery item on. Starbucks gives you a .10 cent credit for using your own mug and your own insulated mug keeps your coffee warmer longer than their thin paper cups.

2) Instead of picking up the museum brochure, I could have looked at it online ahead of time or used it while at the museum but made sure to give it back at the end of my visit for reuse.

3) Instead of using paper napkins at the restaurant, I could have brought my own cloth napkin.

4) Instead of gum wrappers, I could have passed on the gum purchase.

5) Instead of having a drink from a disposable plastic bottle, I could have brought my own metal reusable water bottle or used a water fountain (if you can find one anymore).

6) Instead of making dinner using items with lots of packaging, I could have looked for ways to buy in bulk to reduce trash.

I pretty much have failed the trash part of the No Impact Experiment so far. I think I tried to reduce my trash on the front side of the waste stream on Sunday and Monday, then got frustrated yesterday and went back to my old ways. Kinda like going on a diet and realizing it isn't much fun. While I do a great job of handling the back end of the waste stream through recycling, I feel determined to change what I bring into the waste stream to begin with.

So much of our country's emphasis is on recycling after we have consumed. There is a concern if we were to reduce consumption, that the economy would be negatively impacted. This is a backwards way of looking at things. To say, "Lets just keep on using up the earth's resources so that our economy will hum along" A sinking ship bails water to stay afloat, we need to bail on the consumption so that the earth can continue to support us.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

No Impact Experiment- Monday, Trash

I have just completed day two of the No Impact Experiment and I found Monday's focus on trash to be particularly overwhelming. We were asked to save all of our trash on Sunday so that we could analyze it on Monday and look for ways to reduce our waste steam. Saving my trash made me aware of how much I take the trash can for granted and I found myself constantly telling my family not to eat all of something because then we would have to add the wrapper to my Sunday trash pile. But it really couldn't be helped. All of our food comes in some sort of disposable wrapper...cereal boxes, yogurt containers, soup boxes etc...

Luckily, the No Impact Experiment comes with a how-to manual and provides lots of great suggestions on how to reduce your waste impact. Many of the suggestions regarding trash I already do. For instance, I don't use paper towels or paper napkins at home and have replaced these items with cloth. My menstrual pads are cloth, I use baking soda for deodorant, and my cleaning supplies are mostly homemade, all which helps to avoid plastic containers and paper.

But, food packaging is where I cause the most harm. I never buy in bulk and use those grocery store provided plastic bags to put my produce in. I buy lots of stuff from the deli which are placed in plastic tubs and also contribute plastic to the waste stream from the Chinese take-out place up the road.

I guess because I am able to recycle most of my trash, I figured I didn't need to worry so much about the source. If the plastic tub from the deli is recyclable, then I can just toss it in the recycling bin and it will be almost like I never used it right? Before long someone would be wearing my plastic tub on their back in the form of a fleece jacket made out of recycled plastic. A good thing maybe?

Monday's trash day opened my eyes to the fact that I need to do a better job not allowing trash into my life. It will require big changes in how I shop and will probably be the hardest part of this No Impact Experiment for me. For the remainder of this week, I have to save my trash and see where I can make changes. It makes me nervous to see my trash pile up and to not send it off, out of sight. It's unfortunate that we don't all have to live with our trash more certainly would cause more people to take a harder look at the choices they make.

Monday, October 19, 2009

No Impact Experiment- Sunday, Consumption

This week, I am going to blog every day about my experience performing the week long "No Impact Experiment". This experiment is the brainchild of Colin Beavan of the blog "No Impact Man" and Huffington Post and encourages people to rethink how they are personally using the earth's resources. Each day of this week a different subject is tackled in the experiment- everything from shopping habits to transportation to the trash you create. Believe me, this goes way beyond recycling or using cloth bags to carry your groceries home. It challenges you to really think about the choices you make and their environmental impact. Not in a depressing way, but in an empowering way.

The "No Impact Experiment" started yesterday with the topic of consumption. It asked you to write down everything you planned to purchase this week then delete what you could live without. For the remaining items on your list, you were asked to think if you could get them second hand or borrow them. I immediately started to panic because with the weather turning colder, and my 13 year old son having shot up at least an inch a month this past summer, I knew he needed new clothes and I planned to order them this week. I am ashamed to admit that I myself had also been eyeing another pair of new shoes. I immediately thought to myself, why am I being asked not to shop this week? I haven't bought a thing for weeks upon weeks before this. Or have I?

This close up examination of shopping habits for this week is making me think that maybe I don't do as good of a job as I think I do. Little purchases here and there don't seem to add up to much, but collectively they do. Colin asks that just for this week I try not to shop and to replace the time I would spend shopping doing something I enjoy. Granted, with the weather turning warmer again tomorrow, I can see how I can put my son's cold weather purchases off until next week, but what will that accomplish over buying them this week? Maybe it will give me time to rethink the purchase. To possibly borrow clothing from my husband for my son or to check out the local thrift stores.

In the "No Impact Experiment: How to Manual", Colin provides information on how to green your purchases when you decide beyond a doubt that you need an item. Lots to think about. Going online and shopping is too easy, too handy. A few clicks and key strokes and you have something on its way to your door. Maybe something you really don't need.

Colin asks in his how-to manual, what is the hardest part of decreased purchasing? For me, I think I create a need and want to fill it immediately. I find a niche in either my wardrobe or my kids and try and fill it, justifying the purchase because they or I don't already have something like that. Sometimes I buy an item only to find out we already have plenty of those sorts of things hanging in our closet...that really there wasn't a niche needing to be filled. Just me needing to be filled I suppose. Now I see why Colin suggests doing something else with your time rather than shopping. The alternative activity will fill you more and bring you more happiness than an article of clothing ever could.

I have known that hiking along a trail is more rewarding than shopping and would always choose hiking over shopping, but I have never thought about how when I feel like shopping, I should just go hiking. To use an activity I enjoy to erase away the desire to shop. To not default to shopping given some perceived need. To fill those weak moments, early in the morning or late at night where it is just too easy to go shopping online, with some other alternative activity.

Lots and lots to think about but for now, I will take Colin's advice and get off this dammed computer, away from the lure of online shopping and go do something else. But what?

Friday, October 16, 2009

One thing at a time...slow schooling

I think I finally have Ryan's learning style figured out. When learning something new, he likes to totally immerse himself in it. To do it for hours and hours on end until he feels like he has mastered it. That is why homeschooling works for him and school didn't.

One of the complaints Ryan had about school was that he would get engrossed in one subject only to be pulled away from it when it was time to move onto the next subject. Everything felt undone and his learning felt scattered, piecemeal. Homeschooling allows him to focus on whatever his current interest is for as long as he would like. This past summer, his interest was reading and he read every Matthew Reilly book written, one after the other. He seemed to always have his head in a book- on car trips, in bed or at the dinner table.

This fall I haven't been able to get Ryan to pick up a book, His interest has shifted to rock climbing and that is the only thing he wants to do now. To challenge his mind and body as he scales walls and climbs boulders. We have been to the gym to climb three times already this week and will go again tomorrow. He is obsessed. I am impressed with his determination and motivation to learn this sport.

This makes me think differently about my approach to educating Ryan. In the past, we have operated more like a school by encouraging him to tackle many different subjects at one time while allowing him freedom in how he learns his different subjects. With this new awareness of how Ryan may learn best though, I think we should use more of a block schedule which would let Ryan focus intensively for weeks at a time on the one thing that most interests him. Granted, a few other subjects such as math and science would be done each day, but the bulk of the time would be devoted to one thing.

Does that mean if Ryan wants to do rock climbing the rest of the year, then that is how he will spend the remainder of his school year? Nope, I figure after about 3 months, his interest will fall back to a normal level and he will get engrossed in yet another new thing. Kinda like how he progressed from reading to rock climbing. In the meantime, I enjoy seeing the drive and desire on his face as he tries to boulder or climb harder and harder routes. To know that this same perseverance will take him wherever he wants to go in life.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Museum of Modern Art

See that kid wearing the white hoodie sitting in the middle of the couch in the picture above? Well that is Ryan hanging out waiting for Mike and I to finish our tour of the Museum of Modern Art after having decided he really doesn't like modern art.

Not even the beautiful colors of Monet could dissuade him.

Though he did rally a bit when viewing Ron Arad's "No Discipline" gallery of unusual chairs and other futuristic designs.

Luckily for us, we took advantage of the High 5 Tix offerings which offer low price museum and theatre tickets to teens in order to expose them to the arts. Through this program we only paid $2.50 to gain Ryan's admission to the musuem (or the comfy couch he retreated to).

All was not lost though. I have found Ryan discussing many of the things he saw at the musuem that day. He seemed particularly fond of an all black painting that really upon closer inspection holds other colors. Viewing the painting requires patience, a slowness in order to really see all of the picture. A call to slow down I suppose.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Good walking shoes needed

When I lived in Illinois, my walking mainly consisted of going from the house to the car to the store. Sometimes I ventured further and walked along a sidewalk or a path in the woods. For these short jaunts of less than a few miles, any sort of shoe would work, even flipflops if need be. For that reason, I never gave much thought to owning a true walking shoe- one that would be comfortable all day as I covered many miles.

I first discovered my need for comfortable shoes after I found myself spending more of my time getting around by foot rather than by car. Traversing many miles from coffeeshop to farmer's market, library to Whole Foods usually left me with some sort of foot discomfort. It didn't take me long to discover that Teva sandals and Keen shoes offered up the comfort needed to go for many miles all day.

Interesting how my life used to center around the automobile and the required considerations of reliability and mpg and how now I am more concerned about the quality of my walking shoe and how many miles I can go in it all day.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Community through far flung online friends

Yesterday Ryan and I spent the afternoon at the park. It was a beautiful warm fall day and as I watched Ryan run around with other kids in our new-found homeschool group, I finally had a sense of peace that we had finally found our niche here. It hasn't been an easy road, especially due to the fact that we moved here at the beginning of summer when many homeschool groups are inactive in this area.

It was community found through online access which allowed us to bridge the gap from Illinois to here. For Ryan, he stayed in contact with his Illinois friends by playing XBOX online with them. While I am not a big fan of computer games, I made an exception to his online time this summer because I knew how important it was for Ryan to stay in contact with them in order to keep his sanity. A teenager without friends to talk to can be a difficult kid to live with.

I myself was able to stay connected via email with not only my Illinois friends but with many others I had made over the years. This contact kept me sane as I spent my days in a sea of unfamiliar faces. Moving can really unhinge a person. Everything is new and different and it takes so much energy to figure out how to do the simplest things. So much of what I took for granted in Illinois no longer applied here. So it was incredibly refreshing each day to return to my inbox and see that I had received a message from a friend.

As I build new friendships here and feel less dependent on my email inbox to provide my only source of companionship, I feel more balanced. I have a sense of gratitude that I have many wonderful friends I can stay in contact with online whom can offer up a safety net of sorts when I needed to be supported, but also that there are many wonderful people I am beginning to meet in this area. Life is good.

Note: Picture above is of me with my closest Illinois friends, taken just before moving here.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Slow Schooling, Making Connections

I started using the term Slow Schooling this year because it best describes my approach to how I homeschool my thirteen year old son. When I took Ryan out of school three years ago I didn’t want to do school at home, but instead wanted to embrace a learning philosophy that would allow learning to unfold in an environment suited to my son. Ryan disliked the way school broke learning up into fragmented parts, forcing him to memorize bits and pieces of knowledge that he had no connection to. Soon after taking Ryan out of school at the beginning of 4th grade, I discovered unschooling which allows learning to be child directed, encourages parents to have a hands off approach, and trusts that the child will learn on their own accord, at a pace that is comfortable to them.

Through unschooling, I thought I had found the perfect solution for Ryan. Allowing a child to learn what they want, how they want, when they want. It really sounded great in theory, but putting it into practice can be difficult, especially when there is a lot of disagreement in the unschooling community about how to properly unschool and the conflicts based on semantics are divisive. Those that radically unschool feel that their kids should not be taught anything at all unless learning is initiated by their children and anything else is considered a form of coercion. Eclectic unschoolers allow for freedom in some subjects but teach others and feel radical unschoolers are not properly preparing their children for the challenges of life. These differences play out in negative ways and resulted in dividing the community I was a part of four different times over the space of three years. Hardly a supportive and enriching community for children to be exposed to.

Desiring a move away from the negativity of unschooling yet looking for a form of schooling that shares some of its philosophies, I discovered Slow Schooling. Based on the same idea of the Slow Food Movement, where you form connections to the food you consume by knowing the farmer that grows your food, Slow Schooling allows children to form connections to what they are learning. By embracing hands-on, experiential learning, Slow Schooling allows kids to understand why they are learning what they are learning and how it connects to the broader world. The emphasis isn’t placed on learning facts but more on the learning experience and forming deep connections to the material being taught. It requires searching for new ways to make learning exciting and is called Slow Schooling because quality learning can’t be rushed.

Under the banner of Slow Schooling, I still let my son select much of what he wants to learn, but I round out his education by teaching him the things he may not choose on his own. Last week for instance, I encouraged him to read his Oak Meadow science lesson which discussed living organisms that are neither plants nor animals. After reading the short lesson, he had to choose between one of five projects to do. He decided on the one that required him to go to the grocery store and find examples of protists, monera, and fungi in the food we eat. From that experience, he decided he wanted to make dinner based around one of those food items. So last Friday, we ate the mushroom soup (fungi) that Ryan had prepared from one of our favorite local based cookbooks called “Hudson Valley Mediterranean.”

As I sat at the table eating my soup, I couldn't help but think about all of the connections my son experienced that day. Those made as he discovered that the seemingly obscure things he was learning about in science are all around us in the grocery store. That cooking for family exposes him to not only the subjects of math, science and home economics, but also serves another purpose. One which brings family together at a table enjoying the connection of being together in community.