Monday, December 24, 2012

Alternative Wrapping Paper

I came home Saturday with a suitcase full of presents and the knowledge that I didn't want to use any traditional wrapping paper this year.  My plan was just to use the comics section of the newspaper.

Instead I wound up getting a little bit crafty.  Last week, Dogs or Dollars mentioned a tutorial about making your own bows.  So I dragged out a bunch of old magazine pages I had saved from grade school (I'm a sort-of-recovering pack rat...) and got to work.

I slightly changed the tutorial because of the size of my magazine pages.  I used 3 10.75" strips, 3 9.75" strips, and 2 8.5" strips, all 0.75" wide, plus one 3.5"x1" strip.  And I put the bows together with a glue stick, instead of double-stick tape.  I think if I do this again, I either need to use more glue or a different kind of glue, since a lot of them fell apart later...

I was only able to wrap a few presents in comics pages - it might have worked better if I had told anyone at home about this a few weeks ago.  Instead I just had two Sunday funnies and one weekday comics page.  So I also wrapped presents in brown paper bags and put one in a box.

Looking through those old magazine pages, I found a bunch of animal pictures,  so I decided my young male cousins didn't need bows.  The Star Wars-obsessed 10-year-old got everyone's favorite 'droids :)

All in all, I'm pleased. Tape is still involved in the wrapping, so it's not totally plastic free, but basically everything else involved was destined for the recycling bin.  The gift tags were made from a piece of pastel paper I've also had laying around since high school.  I've already given some of the comics+magazine bow presents, and they didn't get many comments, so I guess that means no one thought they were weird?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Reusing Yogurt Containers

Thus far, buying yogurt has proved to be one of the big sticking points in reducing waste.  I haven't yet found yogurt in a reusable container, and NYC doesn't recycle any plastic besides bottles.* 

I started eating yogurt a lot last year - who knew I could really love it when you get rid of all that fake sugar and flavoring? Anyway.  Nothing beats yogurt and granola for a quick, simple breakfast. 

I buy a big container from a dairy at the Greenmarket every week or two.  They started to stack up on my shelf because I figured I would find a place that would take them, i.e. the Gimme 5 program.  That hasn't happened, although I will take some home at Christmas (my parents' county recycles all numbers).

In the meantime, though, I've been using them as bulk-buy containers.  They're lightweight and stack together, which means they're easy to carry, and when I get home I just wash them. I've even used them to store some foods that don't spoil fast and that I eat fairly quickly, like oats, brown rice, and pasta.  I sharpie the food, cost, and tare onto the lid to make life easier on the volunteers at 4th Street Food CoOp


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Learning to love a To-Do list

I've tried to make to-do lists for myself in the past, with very little success in actually using them.  This semester, though, I've come to appreciate a to-do list that has helped me stay on-task and motivated in my research.

Basically, the list is all of my tasks for the next week, broken down into little steps.  Oftentimes, I find that just thinking about all the things I need to get done for the next week is overwhelming and I don't know where to begin.  Just the act of writing everything down forces me to think about each task, rather than feeling like the work is insurmountable.  Breaking larger tasks down into little steps also helps me be more productive when I have short blocks of time.  I don't waste half that time wondering what I should be doing.

This method is mostly inspired by an old post at 43 Folders that I read in high school.  The post describes a procrastination hack called (10+2)*5 that's pretty similar to the currently popular pomodoro technique.  I used to use it to get through my history readings in high school.  This time, I borrowed the concept of breaking down my to-do list.

Here's how I make my list.  I meet with my advisor once per week (typically).  This results in a messy sheet of notes and tasks for the next week.  That afternoon or the next morning, I go over that paper and pick out each task for the next week.  I pull out all the different aspects of the task, and write them down separately.  I break them down further from there if I need to.

For example, two weeks ago I had to plot all a bunch of data on a single figure.  In addition to the basic plot, I had to include several other pieces of information we had on each source.  So I had to write a program to change the plotting symbol based on that information, and my task breakdown for that code looked like this:

Plot this diagram, XvsY
  • Distinguish type A from type B
  • Distinguish types 1, 2, & 3
  • Distinguish between 6 data sources
  • Plot X vs Y
I leave space to annotate this if a sub-task requires several steps or I have to stop partway through.  In this case, I added a note to fix the symbols for the data source, and then broke the plotting down further (plot type A before type B, add error bars, add a legend). 

Finally, I don't force myself to go in order unless the tasks require it.  I skip around and work on whichever task I feel like, and check off each task/subtask as I finish it.  Eventually, I have to do the ones I'm dreading or that are just plain annoying, but I can procrastinate on those by working through the others.  This technique is all about tricking my brain.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The cost of a haircut

Back in May, 6 days after graduating from college, I took a leap I've been wanting to take for about 10 years.

I cut my hair off.

Not all of it.  But quite a bit, especially if you compare to the length it was in 10th grade, when I got 18 inches cut off and it still sat at my chin.  My hair has fluctuated between mid-ear length and ~shoulder length since then. But this was different.  There was no turning back from this haircut.  My longest strands were about 3-3.5 inches in May - and last Sunday's haircut left nothing longer than maybe 2 inches. 

The benefits?  I love every one:
  • I look older.  Someday, this may bother me.  Right now, (almost) nobody questions that I'm over 21 anymore.  And even if I dress a little casually, I don't look like an undergrad when I TA.
  • I only shampoo my hair every other day, so I only spend half as much on shampoo.
  • I don't use conditioner any more.  I don't need it, because my hair is too short to get frizzy like it used to.
  • Breakage isn't a problem.  My hair doesn't tangle or snag, so it doesn't break.  That means it doesn't get frizzy, either.
  • I don't need to buy product for my hair, and then remember to use it every day.
  • No blow drying! Or straightening! Granted, rarely did either, but the result was a messy mane when my hair got long.  
My point is that I like how my hair looks without the effort.
However, there are downsides:
  • I have to at least get it wet every morning.  Otherwise I look like something the cat dragged in because it goes everywhere while I sleep.
  • It dries ridiculously fast.  This is great when I've combed it and styled it before it dries.  Less so when I forget.  The day I left the house without combing it? Not. Good.
  • I pay an uncomfortable amount to get it cut.   The exact amount fluctuates; let's just say it's >$50.
The last one is where the cost-benefit analysis part of this is the hardest to deal with.  On the one hand, I could grow my hair out and get it cut straight across every few months at a cheap salon.  Maybe long layers.  (I don't trust cheap places with my short hair, because short hair makes a bad haircut more obvious, and good stylists go places they can get paid better.)  And then I could put the day-to-day effort to make it look nice.

I'm not sure whether the product to make long hair look nicer would be cheaper.  My guess is probably yes, since I have to get it cut about every 6 weeks (and that's pushing it).  So, I'm cutting it twice as often, for at least twice as much as a Hair Cuttery (for example).

For the most part, that's worth it to me.  I hate having to spend time on my hair, so having to remember to schedule (and budget for) an appointment once every 6 weeks is a blessing.  But since I'm trying to save money, I still feel a little bit guilty about what I'm paying.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Culture on the (relatively) cheap

When I moved to NYC, I was really excited to check out all the great performances in the city.  Unfortunately, a lot of those cultural experiences are pretty expensive.  This has not deterred me, however, from going to the Metropolitan Opera and to Broadway.  Both have ways to get cheap tickets if you nose around enough.  (Although admittedly, cheap is a relative term here)

The Met has a few different options for acquiring cheap seats.  Thus far, I've only sat in seats with a partially obstructed view.  You miss a little bit of the action, but the family circle box seats have excellent acoustics.  When I saw Carmen, an old man sitting near us said he always got those seats because the sound is the best in the house.  Another option is purchasing family circle seats (the highest level in the opera house) way ahead of time - I already have tickets for a February performance that cost the same as the box seats I sat in last month.  Those were $30 each, plus some annoying ticket fees that jacked it up to $40.  Other shows have less expensive tickets though - Turandot, for example, has $20 box seats.

Two other Met options that I haven't taken advantage of yet are Met student discounts, where they release a certain number of tickets that can only be purchased if you have a valid student ID, and standing room only.  A friend of mine has done standing room only, and says it's not that bad, but I don't know whether I can handle standing through a 3 hour opera.  I'm a student member at the Met, so I get emails about tickets, but haven't bought any yet.

Traditionally, to get cheap Broadway tickets you need to do rush/student rush.  I have sat in student rush seats, but a friend went to the box office for both of us so I have no experience with the lines.  We sat in partially obstructed seats for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying last summer, for $20 each I think, and had a great time.

My sister visited this past weekend, and we discovered an option at least for shows at Lincoln Center Theater: LincTix.  You have to be between 21-35, and you can sign up to get $30 tickets for almost any show, for any seat still available in the theater (as far as I can tell).  We bought tickets to War Horse on Friday night, and sat in the front row of the Loge (the balcony) for the Saturday matinee. Those are usually $125 each, but we payed just over one quarter of that amount.  And the show was very good.

City living definitely isn't cheap.  But thus far I've had pretty good luck finding discounts; all it takes is a little bit of extra work.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Sandy Update

(I probably should have posted this sooner)

We survived the hurricane relatively unscathed in my part of the City.  I never lost power and I'm well above sea level, so no flooding.  The university shut down for two days, the first of which I spent very productively.  The second...less so.  I tried to review for one of my classes, but I got distracted and frustrated very easily.  I'm struggling to balance research (which I enjoy and want to spend a lot of time on) with classes (which I don't enjoy as much and in which I'm having trouble).  But that's the topic of another post.

Right now my biggest debate is whether or not to return some of the canned goods I bought for the storm.  Because I waited too long to go shopping, I paid way more than I would have liked to for cans of beans and soup.  And for peanut butter in a glass jar, but I opened it so that's water under the bridge at this point.  I still need to do my usual once-a-month shop, but I've already spent more than half my monthly grocery budget for store-shopping.  Decisions, decisions.

Monday, October 29, 2012

My setup for the next few days (thanks Sandy)

We're battening down the hatches here - the wind from Sandy started hitting the city last night, and the rain is supposed to ramp up today.  I've made myself a scholarly nest in my apartment, and don't plan on going into the office for at least today and probably tomorrow.

I've got textbooks to catch up on reading and hard copies of papers in the event that we lose power.  I'm trying to get ahead on my research now because it relies on computer programming, and my battery won't last more than a couple hours if I'm trying to run code. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Weekend Away

Or, a Homecoming weekend, in many senses of the word. 

One of the other grads in my department has been jokingly teasing me about actually going to Homecoming.  But I really felt like I was coming back home; my college was my home for 4 years.  I could see that at big schools or those with a consistently-winning football team, Homecoming might be less worthwhile for your average introverted nerd.  But at a small school, Homecoming was the time to see my professors.  To get a hug from Miser Mom, N, and J, or to sit in a former advisor's office for an hour and tell her about the graduate program that she helped prepare me for. 

Additionally, my group of friends have made a tradition out of Homecoming; I spent three years watching my older friends come back to visit and now it's my turn.  And I adored spending time with friends this weekend, fellow alums and current students alike.  Suddenly I was back among the people who made my college feel like home.  I've enjoyed getting to know new people in my department and around NYC, but it was nice to just hang with people who've known me for a while.  Some of the conversations were deep and emotional, some were delightfully geeky, and others were just catching up on life. All valuable for friendship alone, but particularly life-giving because of how much I've missed them in the last months.

I just realized that this weekend was the first time I've been out of NYC since moving here two and a half months ago.  That feels very strange, and explains part of my (disoriented) relief at being back in rural(ish) Pennsylvania.  Adjusting to NYC was in part an adjustment to not being on that campus anymore.  The location itself played a role, and the escape from the big city to a more scenic location was definitely a blessing.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

How Tastes Change

I realized this week that the me of several years ago would be appalled if she could see what the me of right now was eating.

I remember being in elementary/middle school, and my friend Courtney's mom was one of those "weird" moms who made her kids eat the peanut butter that you have to stir every time because it separates.  Why couldn't she just let them eat JIF (my one true peanut butter love for most of my life) instead of that gross stuff?

Now I buy, and gladly eat with gusto, the plainest of plain peanut butter.  No additives but salt, thanks very much.  I eat my brand-name former love when I go home, and honestly? It tastes really weird now.

And beans.  I used to hate beans.  The texture put me off.  I would eat around them if they appeared in any more meaty dish, and avoid them altogether if they were the main attraction.  Then, about a year ago, I realized "hey, beans are cheaper than meat.  And healthier too."  Now I'm willfully dumping multiple cans of beans into this:
The amount of meat that I eat has been drastically reduced, and my diet has gotten a heck of a lot more varied.

There was a point in time where I stopped eating yogurt; I didn't like the taste of artificial sweeteners, but "natural" yogurt kinda grossed me out.  It was lumpy and you had to mix it up, and it tasted funny.  Then I discovered Greek yogurt, and after a transition phase where I had to mix fruit in with it for sweetening, came to enjoy the tangy sourness of it.  Now I buy tubs of plain yogurt from the farmer's market, and mix it with a little bit of honey or....

Granola.  I can remember actually gagging when I tried to eat yogurt and granola a few years ago.  The texture combination was so weird to me.  Then I tried some at Miser Mom's house at the beginning of the summer.  I have no idea what changed.  All I know is that I eat this at least 3-4 mornings per week:
Homemade granola! Me!

This is a long, looooong way from the girl who ate pretty much nothing but sandwiches and cereal if left to her own devices.  I pretty much never eat either of those things anymore, unless I'm at my parents' house.  Mostly for reasons of budget, but I'm also trying to choose healthier options.  And I really have no regrets.  Life is a lot tastier now :)

Monday, October 8, 2012

Corn Bread Muffins

I've mentioned before my love of Maki's Pumpkin Yogurt Corn Muffins, because they're tasty and freeze well.  Simple convenience food, and goes well with a lot of soups.

I made pumpkin turkey chili last week, and decided that pumpkin muffins wouldn't work.  Obviously, pumpkin+pumpkin is a little repetitive.  More importantly, my last can of pumpkin puree went into the chili; I won't buy more until after Thanksgiving, probably, because then it goes on sale.  So I got out Grandma's corn bread recipe:

  • 1 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 T baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 cup oil (I used canola)
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 eggs, slightly beaten
To make one pan (Grandma's instructions)
  • Preheat oven to 425 degrees F
  • Grease an 8x8" or 9x9"pan
  • Combine dry ingredients
  • Add milk, oil, & eggs with a few strokes
  • Bake for 20-25 minutes, until it begins to brown
To make ~18 muffins (instructions mostly taken from Maki at Just Bento)
  • Preheat oven to 360 degrees F
  • Line two muffin tins with silicone liners (I only needed a tin and a half for 19 muffins)
  • Combine dry ingredients
  • Combine wet ingredients
  • Mix wet and dry ingredients with a spatula until just mixed
  • Fill liners halfway
  • Bake for 20-25 minutes
To freeze the muffins, allow to cool on a rack until they are about room temperature.  Then pack in a freezer bag, squeeze out the air, and freeze.  To reheat, just microwave for 45-60 seconds if they're frozen, or 30 seconds if they've thawed in the refrigerator for a few hours.

Tastes like home :)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Finally Paid

It's been an exciting month on the financial front.  My stipend comes to me in two different forms: a big check at the beginning of the semester, and then a few hundred dollars twice each month. 

It turns out my university had some trouble getting me my big check this semester.  Quite a bit of trouble, in fact.  I got an email saying I could pick the check up way back in mid-late August.  I tried several times to pick it up, and kept being told to come back in a few days.  Eventually they did cancel the check and reissue it (after telling me they were going to do that several times), and I got the check on Monday.  I had enough savings in the bank from undergrad that I could handle it without asking my parents for money, but it was going to get close.  October's rent will be a little late, but the check's in the mail.

I now have a new appreciation for the emergency fund.  I had planned to use my pre-grad-school savings as the seed for an emergency fund, but I didn't think I'd need it yet.  I was planning for far-off emergencies, like a busted computer or having a funding gap between grad school and a post-doc position.  Instead, that few thousand dollars allowed me to settle in, eat properly, and pay September's rent without resorting to my credit card.

UPDATE 10/5: I have not yet been paid.  The university apparently put a stop payment on this check after they had given it to me, so my bank returned the deposit.  I wrote myself a check from my account at my parents' bank that will hopefully clear in time to cover the loan and rent checks that are in the mail, but this could become nightmarish soon.  

Monday, October 1, 2012

Once a Month Shopping, Take 2

Let's try this again.  Lessons learned from September:
1) Better planning is required to avoid mid-month runs to the store.
2) I do not remember to defrost things from the freezer.  (Food that can safely defrost in my lunchbox (soup & muffins) or that can defrost and cook at the same time (mini burgers) work well.  My mini packets of fish, which need to be defrosted before cooking, are basically untouched.)

In light of those insights, I'm changing my tact this month.  Once a Month Cooking doesn't work so well for me.  I will make more mini burgers, probably next weekend, and muffins as needed.  Aside from that, I'm looking at big, easy meals that will have a lot of leftovers.  I picked 5 recipes that make 4-8 servings from The Everything Healthy College Cookbook and Cheap, Healthy, Good's huge post of healthy one-dish meals.

My shopping this weekend basically consisted of procuring the dry ingredients for those recipes plus some pantry supplies. Quinoa, rice, cornmeal, brown sugar, lentils, spices, lots of oats, and lots of canned beans*.  And ground turkey because it was on sale at Whole Foods.  All in all, I think the cost was pretty acceptable: $37 at WF and $19 at 4th Street Coop.  Plus $4.50 getting to the Coop by subway, if we're being picky. 

One more lesson learned about the Coop: if something I want is on the out-of-stock list, I need to call them and double check.  Because I gave up and bought cinnamon from WF Saturday, and I had opened and used it by the time I went to the Coop yesterday.  Where a new jar of bulk cinnamon was sitting on the shelves.  I could have saved $5 there.

I also decided to try a one-to-one price check on rolled oats at the Coop.  I picked that one because I have a brand-name (I know...) container from the supermarket a few blocks away from me.  It's a small container, but cost me $4.39 plus tax.  So I took the container to the Coop, and got it refilled.  For $1.24.  Between that and the savings on some spices, I'm ahead even with the round trip on the subway.

*I'm aware that dried are cheaper and possibly tastier, but my aforementioned trouble remembering to defrost things means I doubt I will remember to soak beans.

Monday, September 24, 2012


I've been in classes for 3 weeks now (it does not feel that long, wow) and I'm starting to realize that I formed some bad habits over the summer the last four years.   Mainly one bad habit.  When I'm frustrated with work, or just don't want to focus on it anymore, I go on the internet.  To lovely and entertaining but utterly useless websites.  Since I still don't have a full schedule (I haven't worked out my research situation yet. I still have a week), I feel like I have a lot of free time.  Which is more feeding my desire to procrastinate than actually being a legitimate cause, but sometimes I like excuses.  The habit isn't going to fly, though, in the long run. 

Enter LeechBlock, a FireFox add-on that can serve as internet blinders for the easily distracted.  Give it a list of websites and it will prevent you from accessing it during certain hours or after spending a specified amount of time on one.  Lifehacker has setup instructions.  Currently, I have 2 lists set up, but it's possible to set up to 6.  One list blocks websites that are never productive, like Tumblr or Facebook, for significant portions of the day.  The other allows me to access sites like Twitter or certain professional blogs for 10 minutes every 2 hours, but then will send me back to work.  You can lock the program so it won't allow you to change the settings while it's actively blocking websites, but since I'm adding URLs frequently right now, I don't have the lists locked yet. 

Since LeechBlock allows you to use any URL as the page that shows up when a site is blocked, I've also shamelessly recruited a few friends to help me block the websites:

(that's four cast members from The Avengers and Benedict Cumberbatch on Sherlock, if you're wondering.  Sadly the webpages that I got them from don't seem to be around anymore, although the first one is all over Tumblr.)

Thus far I'm annoyed at having my websites blocked but I know that means the program's doing what I need it to do.  With minimal fuss, I'm happy. And my customized block pages at least make me laugh a little bit :)

Admittedly, this is only a browser-based solution.  I think there are other programs out there for different browsers, but since the only thing on my work computer is FireFox, I'm not worrying about it.  Gradhacker has some total internet control apps (all Mac-based) reviewed here

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Small Sucesses: Bulk Spices

After last week, anything would have been exciting, but this week I finally made it down to the 4th Street Food Co-op, which is in downtown Manhattan, about a 45-minute subway trip from me.  Why go so far? Because they are a full-on sustainable, organic, and bulk store.  Not just nuts, granola, flour, and sugar.  They had bulk spices, pasta, a bunch of different types of flour (whole wheat, gluten-free, etc), and shampoo and other household products.  I bought rolled oats and whole wheat pasta, plus three different spices.

The best part was I could use jars, not just bags.  At Fairway and Whole Foods, the bulk section was completely self-serve and there was no way to tare my bags, much less anything heavier like a jar.  At the Co-op, I tared my spice jars at the counter, and then took just what I needed from the bigger jars on the wall.  I didn't bother to tare the cloth bags I used for oats and pasta because they hardly weigh anything.  My love for this place means I'm living without cinnamon for a few weeks because they were out, and after paying so little for spices in my own jars, I can't bring myself to walk into a store and pay $4.

Did I mention the cost?  $7 $5.50 for spices, pasta, and a lot of oats.  I also bought soy sauce and a new storage jar, which took the cost up to $11.50.

And, if I'm being honest, it was great to go to a place where I didn't have to explain myself.  Where the cashier was appreciating the store anew after 6 weeks in another state where she actually had to buy food in packaging.  Where nobody commented on my bags.  Bulk is an absolute way of life in that little store. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Learning the rhythms

The reality of the challenge I'm facing has begun to sink in, as evidenced by my somewhat unhappy post last Thursday.  My enthusiastic beginnings are being lost under the recognition of what it means to live a sustainable life.  But it's not all rainclouds - the lessons are mostly good ones, about getting into the rhythm of my new department, the farmer's market, and my own habits. 

Learning the rhythms of the Greenmarket took me a few weeks.  Milk and yogurt? Only midweek. Bread? Still haven't found one that balances taste, freshness, and price, but I bought a loaf yesterday that seems promising.  Eggs? Both days, but one of the midweek sellers is from near my undergrad, so nostalgia's making the decision there.  Fish? Only on the weekend.  And there's a daily rhythm as well - essentially, shop in the morning because by mid-afternoon there's not much left that's worth eating.

I'm still learning the rhythms of the department.  A light breakfast is ok on these days, because we have department coffee/tea & snacks mid-morning.  Don't bring lunch on this day because we have department pizza, or on that day because grad students go to lunch with the visiting speaker.  Some other days I'll go to lunch with the other grads, I'm trying to see if anyone else carries theirs and maybe we can eat together so that we aren't just eating at our desks.

My own habits are proving to be the most challenging.  First off, I didn't plan that well in terms of how much I bought when I went shopping a few weeks ago - I didn't get enough snack-type food (nuts, granola, dried fruit), or any pasta, which is a staple for me.  I had to go to the store yesterday (to 4th Street Food Co-op - more on that Thursday!).  My goal is to only go to stores once a month - If I want to avoid future mid-month trips I'm going to have to get better at predicting how much I'm going to eat. 

Part of making sure I buy enough food is realizing how much food is required to make myself 2-3 meals every. single. day.  I'm realizing how much I depended on the dining hall and campus restaurant.  Just to see friends, I ate there with some frequency, but also if I was working late in my lab or didn't have any food in the fridge, I just headed over to the dining hall.  That's not an option any more.  Better planning to make sure I have a well-stocked pantry is imperative going forward.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Small Success: None, really

I don't really have any improvements that I made this week.  In fact, I've had quite a trash-producing week.  Ground turkey and fish at the farmer's market both came packaged in plastic.  I went out to eat with other grad students on Tuesday, but we went to a street fair so it was all disposable.  I bought yogurt yesterday, because I needed some kind of protein for lunch, but yogurt cups aren't recyclable in NYC so I'm either going to have to throw it out or wash it and take it to my parents' house at some time in the future.

I suppose I'm going to have to find a balance, at least right now.  I definitely need to improve my planning skills about when to shop and to make sure that I have enough food at the right times.  Nutrition and money may require me to purchase some food that comes with packaging.  I don't want to give up on lunch with other grad students, because I like hanging out with them and I don't want to be unsocial, but it costs more money and produces more trash.  It's a little frustrating because I feel like I'm compromising...and I am compromising, but it seems like it may be necessary right now.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Freezer Cooking

After the sense of relief I felt when maintenance delivered the new refrigerator and I could actually keep dairy again, my next project was stocking the freezer.  The rather shallow freezer, but my roommate says she doesn't use it so I can use what space there is.

I started doing this last year.  Makes my life a little bit easier, to be able to grab lunch on the way out the door or have dinner mostly prepared way ahead of time.  In particular, it helps keep me from being tempted to go get takeout (which is more convenient now than it was in undergrad, except that produces a lot of trash and I have to spend real money and not dining dollars).  Right now, I've got 4 types of pre-prepared foods, plus some ground turkey that I pre-portioned and froze. 

My freezer! Top shelf has pyrex pans holding foil packets of fish and ground turkey.
Muffins in silicone liners on the door, compost bag, containers of soup concentrate and mini burgers.
I've made the first three items before.  Instant vegetable soup concentrate and pumpkin yogurt corn muffins make the base of a simple lunch - I usually add a greek yogurt for protein and maybe some fruit.  The recipe calls for wrapping portions in plastic wrap, but I've found that an ice-cube tray works just as well.  Once the portions of concentrate are frozen, I transfer them to other containers and wash out the ice-cube trays.  The muffins are really tasty; they get even better when made with plain greek yogurt.  Tangier and a little drier, but I like the contrast with the soup.

Mini burgers are delicious, a kind of cross between meatballs and hamburger.  In the past I've used meatloaf mix, but this time I just used ground beef from the Greenmarket: expensive but very good.  Probably higher in fat than your average grocery store ground beef which might be part of it...oh well.  They just need starch (rice, usually) and vegetables to make a meal.  Sometimes I mix them in with sauteed vegetables and marinara sauce to go with pasta.

All three of those recipes come from Just Bento, a website dedicated to healthy and tasty lunches.  Most of the recipes are Japanese or Japan-inspired and require cooking in the morning - I'm lazy and just hunt down the freezer recipes for lunches (occasionally I make one of the other ones for dinner though).  The soup/muffin/yogurt combo in particular is easy to grab out of the freezer/fridge in the morning.

My other recipe is an experiment that thankfully turned out very well.  The basic recipe is Lemon Caper Tilapia Packets from Once a Month Mom.  I didn't have capers and there wasn't any tilapia at the Greenmarket soooo...I bought flounder and just used parsley I had in the fridge.  I froze six prepared fillets and cooked one for dinner.  Turned out alright, a little blander than it's probably intended but still tasty.  The halved cherry tomatoes are my favorite part, I got good fresh red and yellow ones.

So with 12 servings of soup, 6-7 servings of mini-burgers, and 6 servings of flounder, that's at least 24 meals there.  Plus the pound of ground turkey and I'm not buying any more meat this month.  Vegetables are easy to get twice a week, and rice/bread are easily found in my kitchen to complete the meals.  Usually those two things require either a short amount of cooking when I want to eat them, or a long-but-mostly-unattended-time, which amounts to the same thing when I don't have much energy for cooking.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Small Success: Compost!

I should not be this excited about food scraps.  Really, really shouldn't.  And yet. 

When I started cooking a lot last year, I felt frustrated by the amount of food waste I was dumping in the garage bag.  We didn't have a general compost program at my undergrad, and a dorm apartment isn't really the place to make a compost pile.  So I've been anticipating this since I first found out about GrowNYC's compost program at their Greenmarkets.  Once a week at the local Greenmarket, I take my little pile of food scraps to the compost stand.  They have big bins waiting to take my scraps and turn them into compost for city greening projects.  Woohoo!

Right now I'm using a foil/plastic takeout container that's living in the freezer to collect my scraps.  When I stopped by the Greenmarket stand last week, they told me that if I'm keeping the scraps in the freezer, then I can actually use a paper bag, and then just drop the entire bag in the collection bin.  I'm probably going to switch to that method next week, until I can find a better container.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

First round of shopping

I brought some leftover canned/jarred foods, baking supplies, and spices with me that I had in my apartment last year, but the last half-week I've been trying to stock up my kitchen with at least a basic array of goods.  It's been an adventure, and I've learned a few things.

The first lesson was that trying to shop for food after two straight days of cleaning, shopping for apartment stuff, and organizing with Mom and T was a really bad plan.  I wandered around Fairways and Trader Joes in something of a state of shock.  I know I'm an introvert, it shouldn't surprise me that trying to go out in public after two straight days with people would make my exhaustion that much worse.  So, updates on Fairways bulk section will come a different week.  For now, let's just say the rest of their store is expensive.  I don't know how I shopped there last summer.  I didn't spend any money there last week.

Trader Joes.  This was my main store last summer, because it's relatively cheap, it was on my way home from work, and my roommate adored it because her boyfriend worked there.  It's still convenient to get to by subway, so I went there last week.  However, now I realize that basically everything is packaged in plastic.  It's probably going to be a primary source of meat in the future, though, because, well, it's cheaper than anywhere else I've ever seen it.  In the end, I bought canned goods and a box of tissues there, to the tune of $14.50.

I also hit up the local farmer's market. I   I got green beans, peaches, apples, honey, a quart of milk, and bread for $18.  Most of that money went towards the honey and the milk, but the milk comes in a glass jar so I'll get a discount next time I go.  And it was good milk, so I don't regret that decision.  I also got some more produce (green beans, tomatoes, and bell peppers) yesterday for $6.50.

Finally, Whole Foods UWS.  My first bulk-buying experience.  Unfortunately, the bulk-bins are completely self-serve, there's no way to tare my own containers.  So I think I'll just have to take my lightest bags and pay a few extra cents :/  Still, I got nuts, granola, sugar, and quinoa for $14.34, and the trip overall cost me $47.07 for bulk items, a few herbs and canned goods, and local mozzarella.  The mozz was an impulse buy that was way more expensive than it needed to be and that I probably didn't need to get.

So my grocery/market spending last week: $76.07.  Definitely room for improvement, since my monthly goal is $200.  Restaurant spending was something like $40 (I didn't save all my receipts) for a grad student happy hour and three meals with a friend who was in town.  That's coming from my wants budget, and that's more than half of a week's worth of "wants", so...that should be reduced.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Finally, internet! And a clean apartment.

Due to some (ongoing) issues with the wireless router left by the last tenant, it's been a few days since I've had internet.  But I have completed my move to New York City!  Most of my stuff came up by UHaul truck a few weeks ago, and on Monday my mom, sister and I hauled three suitcases with everything else up on the train.  We spent the next two days sweeping, scrubbing, being totally grossed out, and organizing.  Most of the cleaning was done by Mom and T, because they're a lot more intense about it than I am.  And given how disgusting the kitchen and bathroom were when we got here, I'm very grateful. 

The kitchen is my favorite part about the apartment.  I'm 100% responsible for my own food for the first time in my life.  The cabinets aren't that spacious, but we added metal shelves for more storage space and a rolling cart with counterspace on top.  Jars of various dry goods are sitting out on the shelves making me happy.  Granted, I can't put much in my refrigerator right now because the gasket is old and won't seal, so dry and canned goods are really the only thing around.  And a few pieces of fruit that I bought at the farmer's market yesterday.  But, when I get my new refrigerator today, freezer cooking can commence for September.  I'm inordinately excited about that.

I'm very thankful to be living in university-owned housing. I can live close to the university but, while it's not cheap, my rent isn't sky-high and it includes utilities.  Also, my super and the maintenance guys are awesome.  I dropped a maintenance slip off on Tuesday night for the refrigerator gasket, a very dirty but out-of-reach light, a burnt-out but also out-of-reach light, and a couple of nasty ceiling patches. My super dropped by on Wednesday morning with another maintenance guy to see what was going on.  They were appalled, called in work orders for the fridge and ceiling along with new window grates, fixed both lights, and told me to submit a request for a new toilet seat because mine is old.  And I don't have to pay for any of it.  Except that I'm probably going to bake them cookies when I trust my refrigerator to hold dairy products.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Book Pile Status II

I'm somewhat disappointed with myself in the last month and a half, my reading rate is not what I would have wished.  And I realized today that aside from the books listed in this post and my previous status update, I have only read two other books this year.  Two.  Both on spring break.  I suppose it's an indication of how busy I was but I can't help feeling disappointed in myself.  Ugh.  Anyway...

I finished The 4% Universe, which doesn't really count as coming from the pile because it was a graduation present.  Still, it was a fascinating read, telling the story of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the accelerating universe.  The book discusses the history of cosmology, and its title refers to the fact that "normal" (baryonic) matter only comprises 4% of the universe.  The rest is comprised of dark matter and dark energy.  I thought this book was quite well written, and some of the phrases were downright amusing and fun to read.

J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century by Tom Shippey took up most of my reading time this month.  I thought it was a biography, but it turned out to be literary criticism.  I still enjoyed reading it.  Shippey is a philologist, as Tolkien was (he even worked with Tolkien at one point) so he spent a lot of time digging into the linguistic and literary background for Middle Earth and its inhabitants. He also talked a lot about Tolkien's writing process and about the appeal of the books. My vocabulary for discussing literature isn't very strong, so I felt like Shippey articulated some of my love for Tolkien's writing that I didn't quite know how to explain.

Michael Kimmel, author of Guyland, visited my undergrad last fall to give a talk.  I was intrigued at the time, but the book was much better (during his talk, he seemed to focus on the more shocking stories he tells in the book, and less on the discussion and sociological explanation/implications).  I wish I had read it before I left college, because I would have loved to talk with some of the guys I knew while we were still in that environment.  It made me think a lot about the ways in which I react to situations involving guys and how I might have changed my interactions with the guys in my care when I was a residence assistant.  Kimmel also talks about the negative effect that Guyland has on women, and gives some brief ideas on the ways they can reject that culture.

I'm almost done with North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.  That one doesn't actually come from the book pile either; I'm reading a Project Gutenberg copy on my Nook and listening to some chapters on LibriVox.  I saw the BBC miniseries about a month ago, and started the book in response.  It's pretty decent, although I wish I had read it before watching the miniseries because my opinion is clouded now.  I can keep them separate when I read before I watch, but it's harder when I've watched the adaptation first.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Impatience and Peer Pressure

I've wanted one of those reusable cold cups (designed for iced drinks at coffeehouses) for a while now.  I looked longingly at them last summer, when my research group made weekly forays to Starbucks, but never bought one.  They're made of plastic, and I wasn't sure I wanted that.  This summer, I kept my eye out at yard sales but didn't see any.  I mentioned it to my family, who questioned why I wouldn't just buy one new since they were so inexpensive and available.

So a few weeks ago, we were at the grocery store, and there were the cups, with stickers proclaiming "eco-cup".  My Mom and sister went "look, here they are, just get one."  And I did.  So did my sister.  I felt vaguely guilty for picking up a new piece of plastic, but I ignored it.  Surely, it had to be better than getting a new plastic cup every time I wanted an iced drink?

Tonight I went to Starbucks to meet a friend, toting my reusable plastic cup.  As I walked over to the counter, guess what I saw.  Reusable metal cold cups, complete with metal straws.  I could have cried.  If I had waited a few more weeks, and not given in to the pressure, I wouldn't have bought a new piece of plastic.  Clearly, Starbucks pays at least some attention to the recent anti-plastic trends, and has come out with an alternative.  It was just too late for impatient me.  I could buy a metal one, and I still might, but it doesn't change the fact that money has already been spent on the blue plastic cup sitting on my counter right now.

Monday, July 30, 2012

My Blank Slate

Last week, T and I went to sign the lease on my new apartment and scout out the situation.  The verdict? Smaller than I anticipated, but this is doable. The living room has already been furnished by my roommate, so I'm in charge of the kitchen plus my own room.

The kitchen includes two small squares of counter-top space, a small stove/oven combo and a small refrigerator.  Plus a microwave and panini press that may belong to my roommate's subletter.   I've got plans for extra shelving, but I'm worried about the minimal counter space.  The lack of dishwasher doesn't bother me, except that a dish drainer will take up valuable counter space.  The refrigerator's size was pretty worrying, but my roommate says she rarely cooks and never uses the freezer, so it looks like it'll mostly be mine.

My room is small too, but only slightly smaller than the room I lived in last year, so I think I can make it work. 

I know this isn't a very content-heavy post, but I wanted to share my before pictures.  When I move in a few weeks from now, I'll post the afters.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Small Successes: Slow and Steady

My attempts to reduce my waste while living at home have been met with a variety of reactions, from understanding to misunderstanding, from helpfulness to laughter and scorn.  When I tried to institute cloth napkins back in May, that last pair of reactions was the most prominent.  T thought it was gross to reuse them but wasteful to wash them if they'd only been used once (to clarify, at that point we had 8 napkins total, for 4 people).  Mom thought having to wash them was a pain in the rear.  Dad, after a while, confessed to me that he actually liked using them.  And more and more recently, everybody has used the cloth napkins.  As I've acquired more, I think their continued presence has helped my family feel like they're commonplace and ok to get dirty.  And sometimes everybody used paper ones and I would just silently exchange mine for cloth. 

But this. I came home Tuesday with a set of napkin rings and a some more new(ish) napkins from the thrift shop, and I looked at the middle of the kitchen table.  I realized that something was missing.  Can you tell what it is?

The paper napkin holder is empty.  I don't know when it was emptied, I think it may have actually been last week.  But it definitely stayed empty for at least three days.  Not much, but it's a start.

(This happened with reusable grocery bags as well, near the end of my high school days.  I bothered my parents to buy a few, and then kept bringing them along as often as possible, and now we have a fleet of them.  By the time the bag tax rolled around a year or so ago, we didn't even have to change our routine.)

Related to this, I've finally gotten around to getting napkin rings for the family.  I found a set of 5 wooden rings for 25 cents at the thrift shop, and have now decorated them with sharpies to distinguish each person's ring.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Preparing to Budget

I've finally gotten my housing assignment for next year, so my rent is a known quantity and its time for me to start setting up my budget.  I've given myself budgets in the past, to variable success, but I'm determined to stick with it this time.

The primary challenge to my budgeting process is that I don't know what my tax situation is going to look like.  I have a stipend, but nothing will be withheld from it as far as I know.  In addition, my fellowship package technically includes my tuition and some university fees that are paid without me ever seeing the money. Do they count as income? Will I have to pay taxes on it?  Right now, I have no idea, so I'm just picking the tax bracket that I technically fall into if my stipend were my only income and removing a flat percentage before I start budgeting.  If I wind up with extra money at the end of the year, hooray! I'd rather be cautious this year until I figure everything out. 

Post-taxes, this is how my budget will break down, percentage-wise.

Giving: 10%

Saving: 20%
- For the first year or two, most of this will go towards an emergency fund. My current savings will roll into the base of the emergency fund, and then I'd like to double the amount that I have right now.
- I'm also going to start putting away a little bit of money into general savings (which will eventually become a retirement account) and a future-house fund.

Needs: 55%
- My rent is about 42% of my total budget every month, although utilities (water and electricity) are already included.  I do have to pay a $29 internet fee every month, though.  I'm living in university-owned housing, which means I can live close to school without paying the higher rent that the neighborhood can command.  I'm also purchasing renter's insurance through my parents' home insurance.
- I'm budgeting $200/month for food. I wish I had kept track of my food costs last summer (I lived in the same neighborhood during an REU) so I could know if this is reasonable. 
- I plan to set aside a little bit of money every month to cover what I'm calling "career costs" - books, computer programs, dry cleaning for conference clothes, stuff like that.

Wants: 15%
- This is the category I'm most worried about sticking to. On the one hand, this percentage feels small compared to my other categories and recommendations I've seen online.  On the other hand, the actual dollar amount is well above what I've spent on myself every month during undergrad.  On the other other hand, my parents helped me out sometimes and won't be doing that as much anymore.  So yeah. Nervous.
- I'm including any eating out that causes me to go over my $200 "Needs" food budget.

I'm sure I'm going to wind up with some serious Wants-Vs-Needs analysis going on, especially the first semester.  Right now, my plan is pretty strict and my needs are almost entirely limited to food and shelter.  But I don't want to compromise on giving or saving, either.  The former category has been important to me for a while now, and the latter needs to become important for the future. So I will make this work.  Somehow.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Summer Slumping

I promise posts like this will not become a regular occurence.

I've hit my mid-break slump.  It happens nearly every school break that's longer than about a week where I don't have a job or volunteer position to take up most of my time.  In other words, it happens any time I'm left to monitor and motivate my own activities completely on my own at home.  After some relaxation and enthusiastic work on my projects, things peter out.  I waste a lot of time.  I avoid doing anything that looks like progress unless I have a due date that I can't avoid.

So that's what I've been doing for most of the last few weeks.  A whole lot of nothing.  I've probably spent upwards of 6 hours a day online.  95% of that time has been utterly useless (tumblr, twitter, tvtropes, online shopping (though thankfully no online buying), etc).  I've been reading the same book since I got back from Spain.  Not because it's an incredibly tough read, but because I've only been reading for a short amount of time every couple of days. 

And it's not that I don't want to work on things.  I go to bed thinking of all the things I've left undone that day, and what I plan to work on tomorrow.  It's just that, when the time comes, I decide that it's easier to do other things.  Work takes mental energy.  Tumblr takes approximately none. I can't think of anything interesting to post about because my waste-reducing efforts haven't had much effort put into them lately. 

I'm hitting the point, though, where work has to start happening.  I'm starting to climb my way out of the hole.  The end of the break is in sight, so I have to start getting things done.  I have a paper to finish writing before I leave.  I have to get ready to move.  My goal is to get regular posting restarted next week, and hopefully a post like this won't be necessary again.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Hostel as Conference Lodgings

On my previously mentioned conference trip to Spain, I was traveling on a more stringent lodging budget than I have in the past.  Two things combined to cause this: I couldn't find a roommate to share a hotel room, and I'm between schools and advisers so I was scraping together funding from a variety of sources.  Rather than spend at least $150/night to stay in a hotel, I decided to stay in a hostel for about $250 for the entire week.  I got the idea from a postdoc who used to work at my undergrad who preferred to stay in hostels.  I've stayed in one before, but it was back in high school on a school trip to Italy.  So this was pretty much a brand new experience. 

I searched online for hostels in the conference city.  I read the reviews carefully, and I'm glad I did.  Any hostel with more than one or two reviews complaining of noise got thrown out, as did any with bad cleanliness reviews.  I didn't worry too much about reviewers complaining about the tourism aspects of the hostel (the lack of planned excursions or club trips, for example).  Then I picked the highest-ranked hostel that was closest to the conference center.

My stay turned out well.  I lucked out and my neighbor turned out to be another undergraduate attending the conference.  Although I hadn't paid attention to details like breakfast or air conditioning, I was exceedingly glad that my hostel had both.  Having breakfast included helped keep my food budget under control, and air conditioning made sleeping much more comfortable since it was hot and muggy in the city.  Paying attention to noise reviews meant that I picked the hostel a few blocks away from the party quarter, rather than another otherwise-well-reviewed hostel in between two bars.  The hostel also had good electronic security lockers, which I hadn't given a lot of thought to when I looked at reviews.

The best thing I took with me was good ear plugs.  Even though the hostel overall was quiet, if my roommates (I had 3 all week) came back late they could be noisy.  And soccer victory celebrations in the street are not muted affairs.

I do still wish I had done a few things differently.  For one thing, I wish I had booked early enough to book an women-only room.  I luckily had female roommates for most of the week, but my last night it was just me and three men I didn't know.  Booking earlier would have allowed me a little more peace of mind.  I still can't decide whether I would rather have booked a single room - I would have needed to look much earlier and maybe stay further from the convention center to avoid the party quarter. It would have cost about twice as much as the quad, but that's actually still cheaper than half of a hotel room.

I also wish I had taken shower shoes. Despite being pretty clean overall, the floors could be a bit questionable because I was waking up before the cleaning crew came in but after all the party-goers had come back.

So, in summary, hostels are more than just cheap lodgings for backpacking college students.  When chosen carefully, they can be great ways to stretch your conference budget.  

Friday, July 6, 2012

Surprised by Restaurant Waste Abroad

Others have noted that traveling can produce quite a bit of waste.  But I was surprised by two contrasts between all of the Spanish restaurants I visited and their American counterparts. 

On the beneficial side, the only outright trash produced at my table was paper napkins and a few toothpicks over the course of the week.  Even the cheapest, most touristy restaurants provided metal utensils, real plates and glass cups.  My hostel also provided reusable dishes and utensils at breakfast, even if they were plastic.  I did go to a few restaurants that provided cloth napkins as well.

One of the more unfortunate differences was the anti-tap water sentiment.  I carried my own water bottle that I filled at the tap whenever I could, but admittedly the taste of the city water wasn't fabulous (just for comparison, I haven't found city water in the US that bothers me taste-wise).  The bad taste is the reason given for why all restaurants only serve bottled water.  Nicer places served water from glass bottles, but others gave out plastic bottles.  The city seemed pretty recycling conscious, with bins everywhere in the streets, so I can only hope the bottles were eventually recycled.

I also noticed a difference in the amount of plastic included in my airplane meals.  Two trans-atlantic flights meant a pair of in-flight meals, one on an American-based carrier and one on a European carrier.  There was less plastic, and less trash in general, involved in the lunch I ate on the Air France flight than the dinner on the Delta flight.  However, it's entirely possible that this difference was based on my class - I got bumped to business class for the AF flight home, so I couldn't actually compare economy meals.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Quick Hello

I just wanted to give a quick update on why there haven't been posts for 2 weeks now.  I went away to a conference for a week, and originally that was to be the only hiatus, but when I came back a nasty storm had knocked out my family's power and we probably won't get it back until this weekend.  Suffice it to say, things are a little warm and I'm rather disconnected (I'm at a friend's house at the moment, so I can post this quickly).  When I get internet and power back, look for posts on lessons learned from hostel travel and my other experiences in Spain. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Book Pile Status

(This is taking the place of a Small Success post for the week.)

I've already shown that I have too many books.  The pile pictured there has actually grown a little bit, as I've realized that my initial trip around the room only included the shelves where I knew there were many unread books.  I forgot that my poetry shelf included Beowulf or that Watership Downs was residing on my bookcase of kid's books, for example.

Anyway, I've read 4 books from the pile since I posted that picture.  They are Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Memory of Earth by Orson Scott Card, The Girl Who Heard Dragons by Anne McCaffrey, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.  I greatly enjoyed all of them.   

In the past I've been asked, as a science fiction fan, whether I've read Brave New World, and I've had to ashamedly answer in the negative.  Finally, I've read it.  It's chilling in the way that the best futuristic works are - like Bradbury and Orwell, Huxley shows an extreme future in order to illustrate something about the present.  In this case, the importance of complex, critical thought and the power of societal pressure. 

The Memory of Earth is the beginning of Card's Homecoming series, the story of humankind's descendants on another planet.  The idea is that 30 million years prior to the story, the last remnants of Earth's residents settled new worlds.  To prevent the type of destructive wars that were apparently the end of civilization on Earth, a protective computer system called the Oversoul was set up over the planet Harmony.  The Oversoul prevents them from creating any type of technology that speeds travel (like wheeled carts) or that would be considered a large-scale weapon.  But the Oversoul is starting to fail... The book raises some interesting questions about belief and the practice of religion, since the Oversoul is the god of the people of Harmony.

The Girl Who Heard Dragons is actually a short story collection.  The first story, with the same name as the collection, takes place in the Dragonriders of Pern 'verse.  Most of the others take place in a space-faring universe that's probably related to McCaffrey's other books, but I've only read the Pern novels.  My favorite story was "The Greatest Love", a story written in 1956 about a fictional first attempt at human IVF.  Aside from getting to drive T crazy with my questions about the medical terminology (she's a pre-med student), I enjoyed the twists and turns and stumbling blocks encountered by the characters as they pushed forward with the procedure.  Since I started this book the day after I finished The Memory of Earth, I also enjoyed the juxtaposition of styles between Card, a Mormon, and McCaffrey, who seems quite to distrust the religious establishments of the world. 

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde shouldn't need an introduction, really.  I'm disappointed in myself for never reading it before now, since I've known the basic premise since early childhood.  The story, however, did not disappoint.  It chilled and horrified while at the same time examining the way one man dealt with his darker side.  Given the recent release of the Avengers (I haven't seen any of the individual Hulk films), I also saw the parallels between Drs. Jekyll and Banner and each man's success (or lack thereof) in controlling the beast within him.

In addition to those, I reread Neil Gaiman's American Gods back in May and I just finished rereading The Hobbit in preparation for the first film this December.  I'm also halfway through a book called The Four Percent Universe, which was a graduation gift.  It's a nonfiction book about cosmology, which is the study of the large scale universe: its structure, its origins, and what it's made of.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dealing with Pack-Rat Tendencies

I've noticed that I hold onto things for one of two reasons.  Either the items were important to me at some point and/or I think I might use them "someday".  Both sources of attachment make it hard for me to just throw things into a bag for goodwill, and the stuff just takes up otherwise-useful space.  If I'm really attached to something, I have to convince myself that someone else needs or will use the item more than I will.  There's really 2 methods I have to force myself to get rid of stuff when I just can't let go.

1. Give them to someone specific
This way, things I once loved don't float anonymously off into the donation bin.  I know where they're going and I can pick "good homes" with people I know will enjoy them. (Yes, I'm aware this comes across as a little neurotic).

One example: my collection of Dragonlance books.  I was really into the series in middle school and early high school, and I had worked hard to collect about 20 of the books over a few years of used books stores/sales.  By college, though, I had mostly stopped reading them, except for briefly introducing a friend to the series at the end of sophomore year.  I knew I wasn't going to read them again, but I couldn't bring myself to donate them after working so hard to get my set together. 

Solution? Email my friend and ask him if he would take the books off my hands. He gladly accepted the new reading material, and I freed up a shelf.

2. Have someone else tell me to get rid of them
Sometimes I just need another voice telling me that it will be okay.  Little sister usually fills this job remarkably well.  During a cleaning session last week, I made a small pile of guilt-laden items, and then called her in to ask her what I should do.  I wanted some old Winnie the Pooh bags (a duffel and a backpack) out of my closet, so that I could have more storage space.  But those bags were my trademarks for a lot of my childhood.  I felt really guilty letting them go.  So T verbally hit me on the head and told me to donate them.  And that was enough. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Small Success: Plastic-Free at the Farmer's Market

Well, new-plastic-free, anyway.  I'd gone to our local farmer's market once before, but came home with some new plastic.  This time, I went prepared.  I didn't have enough clean cloth bags to use them for everything I bought, so I had to bring some used plastic bags with me.  Still, I got green beans, a green pepper, broccoli, lettuce, and cherries without bringing home any new packaging.  I'll take the cardboard blackberry basket back this Sunday.

There was some confusion when I bought the lettuce, because I used a cloth bag to purchase loose leaves by weight.  I asked them to tare my bag, but the scale didn't have a tare function so after some discussion they just gave me a 25-cent discount.  In hindsight, I should have just bought a head of lettuce and not worried about it.  

(No pictures with this post - we ate everything before I realized I should have taken photos!)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Old Blue Jeans

This box contains 15-20 pairs of jeans I've worn and ripped through in the last 8ish years.  The really unfortunate thing is that these jeans ripped along the inner thigh; they wore thin from constant wear and then just tore through.  If the holes were in the knees, like they were when I was a kid, I could patch them or leave them ripped.  Alas, these are really not appropriate for public wear.  I didn't want to throw them away, so I've been piling them up thinking "someday" I'll do something with them.  Well, they managed to take up a drawer and a half of space without me ever doing anything.

I need that drawer space.  I'm proud of myself for crafting a wine-bottle tote out of one leg and a waistband, but I'm not going to make 30-40 of them.  That leads back to the "someday" problem, and even if I started a business I'd still have scrap.

Enter Cotton from Blue to Green's mail-in program*.  They take old denim clothing and turn it into insulation.  Then some of the insulation is granted to projects like Habitat for Humanity, for use in insulating homes for those in need.

Green Guilt assuaged?  Potentially helping those in need?  Totally worth the shipping cost.

*Cotton from Blue to Green also takes denim through volunteer-organized drives; none appear to be scheduled on their website, hence I'm mailing my jeans in.

Friday, June 8, 2012

(Very) Small Successes at the Beach

We're on a family vacation this week.  I've had a hand in producing a lot of trash, which I'm not proud of.  There are a few bright spots, though.

Like cloth napkins and a reusable produce bag.  I've actually managed to get my family to use the cloth napkins at every meal we've eaten in the apartment.  And to use the reusable produce bag, which my Grandma made for me from a fabric scrap and shoelaces.

I was disappointed to find out that they don't recycle here. At all.  But this is our little pile of recycling, and it will go home to be recycled there.  

Monday, June 4, 2012

Lesser of Two Evils

There's not really a conclusion to this post.  I've just been thinking lately about choosing one type of waste over another.

To be specific, I'm talking about the increasingly popular choice to go paperless.  This involves switching from a paper-based organization system to an electronic one, either whole or in part.  There's a big positive impact here: not using paper is much more forest-friendly than using paper.  My conscience starts to twinge, though, at the fact that going paperless means relying more on technology, particularly portable devices like tablets.  Laptops, tablets, smartphones - they're all made with plastic components and designed to be replaced.  Electronic waste is a big environmental (and human rights) problem these days. 

So which impact is worse?  Using a tablet, which will go to an e-waste dump in a few years when it becomes obsolete?  Or using paper, which is recyclable?  On the other hand, even only using 100% recycled paper so no new trees are cut down, you'd still need a computer and a printer with ink. 

I don't have an answer.  I do have a Nook.  I also prefer to read articles on paper.  I'm not sure there is a good choice if I want to continue in the modern world at all, much less pursue a career in a technology- and publication-heavy science.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Small Successes: Learning to Can

(So much for posting every Thursday.  Oops.)

I don't know how relevant this lesson will be in the future, since I'll be living in the city without cheap access to bulk produce, but I'm glad I learned how to can anyway.  It seems to be one of the best ways to save money and support local agriculture, although it's somewhat labor-intensive. 

I visited Miser Mom earlier this week, and she taught me how to can.  We picked strawberries and then made jam; I came home with five jars and some brand-new knowledge :)

Monday, May 28, 2012

Too Many Books

In trying to get ready to move out of my parents' house this summer, I'm being confronted by all the stuff I've accumulated and the wasteful behaviors I've acquired in the last twenty two years. Big area of weakness: my book collection.

I've always loved to read.  My family frequently gave me books for my birthday and Christmas.  Whenever I had money, I bought books, new or used.  My high school hosted a huge used book sale every year.  My book collection grew and grew and grew.  As I grew up, I took more and more pride in how many books I had.

The problem is that I wasn't reading all of the books.  I read a lot of them, but a fair number just sat there.  I didn't have as much time to read as I once had.  I bought books I thought I "should" read.  I bought many books at once, and I would only read one or two before my interest moved on.  I always meant to go back and read the rest.  Sometimes I did.  Sometimes I didn't.

Which leads me to this pile, containing (almost) all of the books in my room that I haven't yet read.  This pile represents wasted money (mine and my family's) and wasted good intention.  I've had some of these books for seven or eight years without reading them.

I've given myself the summer to read as many as I can.  If I read a book, I can keep it.  At the end of the summer, I'll pick 3-5 books that I still intend to read, and I'll donate everything else.  That step will hurt, and I'm dreading it.  I like having stuff.  I like having books around "just in case" I want to read them someday.  But more than that, I want to appreciate the books I've read and love.  The majority of the books above are readily available in bookstores and libraries.  If I want to read them someday, I can get them again.  It's time for me to let these books go.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Small Success: Replacing Tissues

This will be the start of a series: every Thursday I'll post one small step I've made towards less waste in my life.  Generally, it will be something new I've done that week.

This week, cloth tissues! I use tissues a lot (who doesn't?) and they make up a large portion of the non-food waste that I produce.  I made these replacements using old t-shirts.  I started by very exactly cutting out 8.5 inch squares,  and then I just gave up and cut them approximately.  I'm keeping them in an empty tissue box, which I may or may not decorate.  I haven't gotten a receptacle for them yet; right now I have to chuck them across the room into my laundry basket.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Free Entertainment via the Internet

Free and legal, that is.  I'm trying to save money, which means using less money to buy media, but I want to do that while respecting copyright laws.

This post was inspired by discovering that Mur Lafferty is giving away EIGHT novels/novellas for absolutely free during May and June.  The set consists of her five-part Afterlife series plus three other works.  I haven't read anything by Mur before, but I've listened to her wonderful readings on the Escape Pod (more on that in a moment).  I'll store these stories away on my Nook, ready to be consumed when I travel in June.  I also have a pdf copy of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies, one of my favorite books, acquired for free during a promotion a couple of years ago. I learned about

Barnes and Noble's website has a section for free ebooks.  A few years back they had about five classic novels available for free each week.  I "bought" as many as I could, and held on to them, which has come in handy now that I have a Nook.  It appears they're having a similar sale at the moment (or they brought it back in a more permanent fashion).  Another source for free ebooks is Project Gutenberg.  Granted, they only provide books that have entered the public domain, but again, if you don't mind reading classics then it's great.

What about audiobooks? I acquire them from LibriVox, an audio version of Project Gutenberg.  Not always the highest quality (look for versions where one person has read the entire book, rather than a different person on every chapter), but hey, they're free.  I adore the readers on my copies of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.  Again, only public domain books can be found here.

Finally, podcasts from the Escape Artists group provide a fabulous source of new fiction.   I found Escape Pod's 100th episode three years ago, although I don't remember how I found it.  Every week they post an audio rendition of a science fiction short story (35-50 minutes long), and they release a pdf copy of the stories once per month.  And it's all for free, although they request donations so that they can offer competitive pay to their authors and readers.  Escape Artists also offers a weekly fantasy story at PodCastle, and a horror story at PseudoPod

My primary method for discovering these sites has been through reading blogs or simply by googling "free _____" (audio books, for example - generic terms are best).  I listen to Pandora for my free music fix; I use the free version of the service at the moment but I'm probably going to switch to the paid subscription soon (a few dollars per month will get rid of the ads, which drive me crazy).  I also subscribe to streaming Netflix.  So not everything can be both free and legal.  Still, as shown above, a little effort yields quite a few options that fit both categories.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Graduation Woes

I've left a lot of waste in my wake this week.  Very little of it was directly my fault, but much of it could have been avoided with a little more backbone on my part.  Pretty much all of the trash came from graduation parties, both mine last Sunday and my friend's yesterday.

I did not purchase the items that became trash at my party, nor was I aware of their purchase until I came downstairs on Sunday to find a plethora of "Congratulations 2012 Graduate" party supplies strewn around our kitchen, living room, and deck.  Balloons were everywhere.  At least I made it in time to nix the idea of hanging shiny streamer things from the ceiling; they'll probably make a reappearance at my sister's party next year though.  The cupcake wrappers, tiered cupcake holder, plates, napkins, and cups were all disposable as well.  Some of the utensils were also plastic, but we didn't have enough in the cabinet so some people were forced to use our usual metal silverware. At least it was something.

So I didn't purchase these disposable items, but what does their presence say about my ability to communicate with my family, particularly my mom ?  I've been talking a little bit with her over the last year or so about my desire to reduce my environmental impact, but clearly it wasn't enough.  We have most of the items we would have needed to minimize the trash created at the party.  We don't have enough cloth napkins or suitable replacements for cupcake liners, but we have basically everything else. I could have talked to her more, and told her not to get balloons or ceiling decorations.  I could have suggested that we use the "outdoor" party plates and cups that we bought when I was little (they are plastic, but reusable at least).  I could have told her to just stick with cookies, and not worry about the cupcakes.  But I didn't talk to her, and so I began my post-undergrad life with several bags of trash created in my name.

At my friend's party, I failed to refuse, refuse, refuse.  His mother had also purchased Grad 2012 paraphernalia, removing the plastic shrink-wrap from a multitude of disposable items while we got ready for dinner.  I was several hours from home, hungry (and staying overnight), and couldn't bring myself to ask for a reusable plate or glass.  I didn't want to be rude or seem ungrateful, so I smiled and ate despite my dismay at my own actions.  I'm still in awe of those who can simply refuse to eat, or who bring their own dishes to events.  Or even those who can simply ask for a non-disposable option.  The experience underlined an area I know I need to work on, but for an introvert who usually tries her best not to make waves, it's going to be hard work.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Waste Less, Grad!

Testing, Testing! Is this thing on?

The idea of this blog has been bouncing around in my mind for months now, so I figure I might as well put it out there.  Over the last year, I've felt convicted to try to reduce the amount of waste in my life.  I'll talk about the background of some of this in the future, but basically, I realized there's a lot of waste in my life.

I waste money.  I waste time.  I waste brain power. 

I waste plastic, paper, and other resources.  I waste energy.  I waste food. 

I'm tired of this trash, and I want to get rid of it.

My initial inspiration came from the book of Genesis, and the first task given to humanity, which was to care for the garden of Eden.  I've since been inspired by Miser Mom, The Zero Waste Home, my hermanita (unrelated and actually older than me), and countless others whom I've met and whose blogs I have read over the last year.

My goal is to have this blog be a way of sharing my journey towards less waste in my life.  The tone of my writing from now until August will probably be somewhat different than what will show up come September.  I'll be starting my five-to-seven-year journey towards a PhD this Autumn.  In pursuit of that goal, I'll be moving from my parents' suburban house, where I'm living for the summer, to an apartment in the big city.  I'm spending the summer preparing for the move and trying to convince my parents that I'm not insane.  In the Fall, I'll switch to dealing with waste in the city while trying to survive graduate school.  That, I hope, will be the primary function of my blog going forward.

So hello Blogosphere! Here I come!