Saturday, May 29, 2010

Flat Cookies and Food Waste. Yum?

Jake decided that he wanted to bake something this afternoon. (Yes, I realize that the above picture is not the most appetizing if we're talking about baking, but bear with me, I'll eventually get to the explanation.) If you know me, you know that I don't often bake. Not until the end of the year, that is, because the holidays are baking time, in my mind at least. It's not that I don't like to do it year-round. It's just that I don't want to eat too much of a not-so-healthy food (and that's the only stuff worth baking), and then we don't often finish off whatever it is before it's gone bad/stale, and then I feel bad about eventually throwing it out. So, I feel guilty if I do eat it, and I feel guilty if I don't. But Jake is really into baking (I think at least partially because they do it so often at preschool), so we pulled out a cookbook this afternoon and sat down to decide what we should make together. After a little deliberation, we settled on chocolate chip cookies. I didn't actually go with the recipe in Jake's Betty Crocker Kid's Cook!, but instead went with my all-time favorite cookies, Martha Stewart's recipe for Soft and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies (2 Weight Watchers points per cookie).

Now, since I don't often bake, I needed to check the list of ingredients to figure out what we had on hand, and what I needed to pick up from the store. I picked up the flour container, and it felt heavy enough that I knew we had plenty for cookies. But on a whim, I decided to actually open it up and check on the flour inside (since last time I baked anything was probably before Christmas). Sure enough, I opened up the bag to see hundreds of tiny black dots moving around. Apparently, these little bugs are known as flour weevils and are usually present as larvae inside the bag of flour even before you get it home, so that's how they manage to grow and multiply inside a sealed container. Gross. A trip to the grocery store was a definite necessity before the baking would commence.

Anyhow, this discovery reminded me of one of my new favorite blogs, The Frugal Girl. Every Friday, she posts her Food Waste Friday blog, which includes a picture of the food that she throws out each week, in an effort to hold herself accountable for reducing the amount of waste. If you look back at the earlier blogs, you can see that she was wasting what was probably less than the average household, but still a lot compared to what gets wasted now (she often has weeks with no waste at all).

Okay, so you guessed it. The picture at the top is my own Food Waste Friday, er, make that Saturday.
-About a quarter of the bag of flour.
-A relatively small amount of salt. I know, you're probably wondering how salt goes bad. Well, when you've had it so long that it clumps up, and even when you beat the container against the counter, you can't seem to break it down enough to get the salt to pour out the top, then it's gone bad. That's my definition, at least. The only way that I could have gotten the last big chunk out would have been to somehow tear the top off of the container to access it, and that just seemed like way too much work, especially considering that I already had another unopened container in the pantry. (It's actually a small cabinet where we keep the food, but I like to think of it as a pantry. It feels fancier. But, I digress.) 
-Most of a very small can of tomato paste. (What do you do with the rest of it when the recipe only calls for a tablespoon or two? No, those aren't marshmallows in there, it's mold. Yes, that one had been in the fridge for awhile.)
-Half of a container of grape tomatoes (I'm not a big tomato fan, so I find it hard to finish those off before they become wrinkly and gross).
-The rest of a can of enchilada sauce.
-About a dozen pepperoni.
-Most of a jar of pizza sauce. I guess I should freeze the tomato-based products in smaller, usable quantities after I open them, huh?
Anyhow, I don't even think this was that bad of a week for me, but I am wondering if I already threw out other stuff earlier in the week that I didn't document. Hmm, I think I should try to do this regularly and see what comes of this little experiment.

But maybe I need to take a step back for a minute to tell you why I even care. Recent studies have shown that the average U.S. household wastes approximately 14% of their food purchases, or that a family of four throws out $590 per year in just meats, fruits, vegetables and grain products. This is a waste of the water, energy and oil that went into producing, packaging, transporting and selling the food, even if it does get composted. If not, it goes into the landfill, where yes, it decomposes, but that's part of the problem because it causes a release of methane, which is about 23 times more damaging than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in our atmosphere. Every bit of food wasted contributes significantly to increasing our overall carbon footprint.

So, I may not be saving the world by taking a picture of our household's food waste from this week, but at least I'm trying to hold myself accountable. I could do a better job of planning meals around foods that we already have in the pantry or fridge, and at least cleaning out my fridge weekly will help me to see what's lurking in there that should be used up soon before it goes bad. Now, I really should check the freezer...
But again, I digress, because I started out this post talking about cookies.

So, Jake and I spent the afternoon baking chocolate chip cookies, and we had fun doing it. But, every time I have baked cookies in the last six months (which is probably a grand total of four times), they have turned out totally flat. And this time was no exception. Here, see for yourself:

I really don't understand what the problem is that causes my cookies to go flat. They seem fine until the start to bake, and then they just spread. And these last four batches of cookies were made by me in three different kitchens (in three different states, for that matter), with different recipes, different ingredients, different tools and different baking sheets. The only thing they had in common was me. Apparently, I bake flat cookies. But this didn't used to be a problem, so what about me, or my technique, has changed? I honestly don't know. I don’t let the butter melt; in fact I usually have a hard time waiting until it’s room temperature, so if anything, it’s over-chilled. I put the dough in the fridge in between batches, so that it stays chilled. I let the cookie sheet cool completely between batches. The only thing that I can think of is that maybe I over mix the dough? Because the butter is too cold, I have to work harder to mix it with the sugar, which adds more air into the dough, which causes it to spread more and flatten in the oven? I don’t know, but it’s the only theory that I could come up with. I may have to make another batch just to test my theory.

But, I should say, I think I might actually like the flat cookies even better- chewy in the middle and a little crispy around the edges. YUM!

Monday, May 24, 2010

How Did I Leave Project 50/50 Off My List??!

I don't know why I didn't include this one in my last post, except that it's not a regular blog that I follow, but rather I get my updates via Facebook. My friend Vince Yanez (who gives tons of his own updates of sorts via Facebook) introduced me to Project 50/50, and if you're looking for something inspirational, check it out. Shay Kelley began a journey in January of this year in her blue Ford pickup, with a goal of traveling to all 50 states in 50 weeks, going door to door to collect at least 200 cans of food to donate each week, and along the way, interviewing people and taking pictures to tell their stories. Her own story? She lost her job in marketing and had her car stolen in the same week, found herself homeless, thought her life needed direction and purpose, and set off to help other homeless people across the country. No, I'm not ready to devote an entire year to that kind of volunteerism, but it does remind me that every person makes a difference. Pretty cool, huh?

By the way, this hobby search of mine, I think it's really because I'm not working right now, and so it seems like a good time to start something new. Yes, blogging could certainly count as a hobby, and especially with the amount of time that I've spent on it this week. But I can't blog about nothing, and the thing I like about all the other blogs on my list is that they were formed around one central (bigger) purpose. What can I say, I like to be inspired.

But really, since this was about changing the things that I didn't like about myself, the hobby part of it boils down to this: I want to be an artist. I want to be able to create beauty and share it with others. I wish I had the kind of talent and creativity that I see in my friends. I want to be able to draw, paint, sculpt, write, photograph, tell stories and make music. I want to do all of those things, and yet I want to devote my time to none of those things. I'm not sure what I'm looking for, but I know that I'm still looking.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Photography, Sex, Food? Those Sound Like Great Hobbies!

In thinking about a "hobby" to help me with the list of things that I wanted to change over this year, I started reflecting on some really cool things that I have recently discovered online. I'll try not go into detail about ones that you probably already know about, like The Julie/Julia Project, or hobbies that definitely don't interest me, like 365 Days of Trash or The Year of Living Biblically, or ones that just aren't appropriate for me like The Year of Yes. But here's a list of other inspiring people who found a hobby and started a yearly (or longer) project:

Jonathan Wilson of jawsnap photography is the husband of one of my co-workers. He started his One/Day Project with the goal of taking one unique photo every day for a year and uploading it to his website. He's now in Year 3 of the Project, and takes some of the most amazing photos. I mean, who else do you know that can make pesto look sexy? Jonathan is also the photographer who took these amazing photos (and many, many more) at Brody's first birthday party.

Cathleen Cherry is one of Chris's college friends, and I am very happy to now claim her as one of my own. Cathleen says Jonathan's One/Day Project was one of her inspirations for her weekly blog Chez Cerise, which was one of my inspirations for starting my own blog. Since I introduced her to Jonathan's work, I like to think it comes around full circle. But unlike my little blog, Cathleen is like a real writer. She's smart, funny, passionate, and inspiring, and she tells a great story. Really, check out Easter Sunrise, Sonoita circa 1977. Or Carnitas Kid. Or her impassioned plea, How to Make a Civilization Flourish.

1000 Awesome Things is a blog by a guy named Neil Pasricha, and is all about finding joy in the little things in life, like #995 Finding money you didn't even know you lost, or #585 Figuring out the plot twist just before they reveal it. He posts a new AWESOME thing every weekday. Most inspiring? He started this after his best friend committed suicide, and when he and his wife started going their separate ways. It was his attempt to "get things back on track by talking about one simple, universal little joy every single day — like snow days, bakery air, or popping bubble wrap."

The Happiness Project is also awesome because it's kind of EXACTLY what I am doing with this blog, Time for a Change. Okay, not quite exactly, since Gretchen Rubin had a far more organized approach, as she spent a year "test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies, and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happy." But it started with identifying what made her happy and what didn't, and taking small, concrete steps in her daily life to change. Seriously, watch this video: The days are long, but the years are short. The blog includes tips, quotes, interviews and helpful advice like act the way you want to feel. Another one of my favorites is her description of a fight with her husband, and how the Happiness Project didn't prevent her outburst of anger, but it did help her to overcome it more quickly. A lot of good, useful info packed into that one post.

And then there's a different kind of happiness project, 365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy. Have you heard of this one? Charla Muller decided to give her husband Brad an unusual gift for his 40th birthday: a promise to have sex with him every day for a year. Actually, don't bother to check out the blog, it's really little more than an uninteresting description of her current speaking engagements. Because there are audiences everywhere that want to ask, "Really? Everyday? No, really, every day???" And I can't claim to have actually read the book, but seriously, it's an interesting, umm, hobby to consider.

And just to round out my list with a "green" blog, I recently came across one that I enjoy. At the beginning of 2009, Angela Barton pledged to join The Compact (a group based in San Fransisco that  makes an effort to counteract US consumer culture by going beyond recycling and buying nothing new). This meant borrowing or buying used only, with a few exceptions like food, medicine, personal care items, socks and underwear. She has been documenting her story on My year without spending, and includes pictures and stories from other people that have inspired her, like The Frugal Girl's Food Waste Fridays (pictures documenting any food wasted that week), the Meatless Monday initiative, or the girl who made her prom dress out of Starburst wrappers. Seriously. (And by the way, The Frugal Girl is in itself a very interesting blog, including, among other things, her weekly grocery/meal plans, and some great looking recipes I plan to try out.

Just slightly off topic, I feel like I would be a little remiss if I didn't include a wonderful book on this list, Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Vegetable Miracle: A Year of Food Life, which documents her family's attempt to eat only home-grown, or when unavailable, locally grown food for a year. If you've never read Kingsolver, you should, and I found the book very informative and inspiring, even if I still haven't started my own home garden. Maybe one day.

I don't know if any of this has brought me closer to finding my own hobby just yet. Unless surfing the Internet counts, of course. I may just have to give up that "Spend less time on the computer" goal.

All right, anyone getting tired of all my links lately? Can you tell I'm having a lot of fun with them? (If you don't know what I'm talking about, click on any of the words that are printed in bold green and it'll take you to the related website. See? Fun!)

Friday, May 21, 2010

Please Excuse My Soapbox, I Really Just Meant to Give You an Update

It's been 11 weeks and 3 days since I first started this blog. Why am I counting? Well, I wasn't, but then I thought it would be nice to look back and see what kind of changes have happened since I started. It would be nice if it had been a real milestone, like the 3-month mark, or even 12 weeks maybe. I could hold off to post this next Tuesday, but do I really need to wait just because it appeals to my sense of order and perfectionism?

Here's my original list of what I wanted to change, or actually a slightly condensed/edited version:
-Lose weight
-Have a more active lifestyle
-Cook food at home
-Eat healthier food (less fast food)
-Find a hobby
-Spend less money at Target
-Improve the world (volunteer)
-Drink less soda
-Use reusable bags
-Spend less time on the computer
-Stop reading emails, etc. while driving
-Let Chris know that I appreciate him
-Keep my car clean

Well, I've made some improvement in about 85% of those goals, and I would say significant improvement in several of them. But it needs more work. How 'bout a quick assessment? (Okay, okay, I know I'm really unlikely to do it quickly, but here it goes anyhow.)

Lose weight: I think this counts as my biggest success so far. I have lost 21 pounds, and I feel much, much better about how I look. I haven't put on a swimsuit lately, but I can tell you that I could use some new (smaller sized) pants. My goal is still to lose another four pounds, and I'll do it, although it feels like slow going here at the end. But I'm really concerned about whether or not I'll be able to keep it off long term. I've never dieted before in my life, and Weight Watchers tells me that I should think of this as more of a lifestyle change than a diet. But honestly, I don't want to change my life to have to always be thinking about what I ate last and what I can "afford" to eat next without gaining weight. Will I ever be able to stop counting points? I hope so, but I think I've got a long way to go in the "maintenance phase" before I get there.

Active lifestyle: I don't count this one as nearly as much of a success. Yes, I am walking FAR more frequently. I try to take a walk with Brody in the stroller almost every day. But it's usually a short walk, like to the grocery store or Trader Joe's, and it's definitely not a "power walk". I've also been doing about 15 minutes of strengthening exercises at home about four times a week (sit-ups, leg lifts, push-ups, etc.). But I still haven't made it to the gym. Yes, we pay for a gym membership that doesn't really get used. And yes, they have childcare, so it shouldn't be that hard for me to plan time to go during the week. But since the last few times Brody went to the childcare, he cried so much that they had to come get me, I haven't been excited about the idea of bringing him back. I just need to do it, but there's always an excuse, like he has a cold or he's grumpy because it's too close to naptime. I realize it's time to move past the excuses and just give it a try because I'd really like to start going to at least one of the weekly exercise classes that they offer (yoga and kickboxing have been quite fun in the past). I put the classes that sounded good on my calendar, so at least I'll have a reminder that I'm not doing it.

Cook at home AND Eat healthier (less fast food) AND Drink less soda: I think I can safely put these in one category, since they've all been about equally successful. I've been making meals at home usually every weekday, and we go out, or pick up food to bring home only on the weekends. I try to limit eating out on the weekends to no more than one meal per day, but that can be difficult depending on what we have planned for the day. We probably end up having "fast food" close to once a week, and I'm drinking about one to two sodas per week, which is far less than previously. Yes, it's healthier and I'm sure we're saving money. But that doesn't mean that I don't think about eating out every single day. I would gladly have El Pollo Loco for lunch everyday, or have Chris stop to pick up Panda Express on his way home. But the reality is that there is no way that we could do that AND still stay within my allotted 19 points per day. (Yeah, I started with 21, but it turns out you lose WW points as you slim down. Unfair!) We can eat a few meals out on the weekend because I save up my weekly "splurge" points, and even then, I really try to limit the portion sizes (kid's meals or sharing meals often works). I have simplified cooking at home so that it's now much easier, and I have several meals that can be put together in about 15 minutes or even less. I cook extra so that we have leftovers for lunches, and we usually have leftovers for dinner a couple of nights a week as well. It's going really well, but I still like eating out. I guess that's just one of those things where I will always have to limit myself.

And all of this cooking at home hasn't really helped Jake's eating habits. Since I wait to eat dinner with Chris after he gets home, we usually don't eat until after we put the boys down for bed. So yes, I make a separate meal for my picky eater every night, which is almost always chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, bean and cheese burritos, or pepperoni pizza. And yes, that's a topic for a whole other blog.

Find a hobby: Nope, haven't done this one. I'm enjoying this blogging thing, but I don't really stick with it regularly enough to call it a hobby. I read a book (Pride and Prejudice). (BTW, I found it to be quite like a Harlequin romance novel where bickering=foreplay. But then, just when you think it's all going to pay off, there's NO steamy sex scene and the book is over. I felt a little robbed. And actually, I read two books, if you count Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems, which by the way, I haven't solved at all. But again, that's a whole other blog.) I love reading books; I always have. But my problem is that once I pick up a book, I find it very hard to put back down until I've read it all the way through. I could never understand people that read several books simultaneously. Don't you want to know how the first one ends? Don't you get so wrapped up in the characters and their lives that you find everything else in your life a distraction? No? Well, I guess that's just me. So, I don't think reading is the best hobby for me, unless it's okay for me to totally ignore my kids and my husband. Maybe I should take some kind of class- photography or karate or something. I'll have to think on this one.

Spend less at Target: Yeah, I'm not so sure why I set this as a goal in the first place. I don't think of myself as a crazy big spender. I don't like clutter, so I don't buy that much stuff. But I think I have bought slightly less over the last few months, so I guess that's good. But I really would like to lose these last few pounds so that I can go shopping for new clothes. I know I really need to go through my closet first and see what works and what doesn't, but that doesn't sound nearly as fun as a shopping spree.

Improve the world (volunteer): Yeah, I helped with a fundraiser at Jake's preschool, and we raised about $5000, which will go towards updating and beautifying the art studio. Yeah, Jake and I cleaned up an alley in our neighborhood. But that doesn't seem like quite enough.

-Did you know that World Blood Donor Day is on June 14th? Did you know that about 9% of Americans donate blood annually, and that if that number increased by just one percentage, it would be enough to end all national blood shortages in the foreseeable future? If interested in participating on June 14th (or any other day), you can schedule a donation through Red Cross.

-Did you know that Heal the Bay organizes beach clean-up events on the third Saturday of every month? I haven't made it to one yet, but does anyone want to join me on June 19th in Playa Del Rey?

-Did you know that there's this really cool organization called Kiva that works to connect people, through lending, to help alleviate poverty worldwide? You can choose the person you would like to loan money to, and give as little as $25. The repayment rate is over 98%, and when you get your money back, you can choose to loan it to someone else or cash out. We recently invested in Ernestina Sequeira Morales, a grandmother and janitor in Nicaragua who is trying to make improvements to her roof before the rainy season, so that her grandaughter (who lives with her) can "grow up in a pleasant atmosphere".

-Did you know that "kitten season" has begun? This is the time of year when there is an overabundance of stray kittens brought into local animal shelters, where they just don't have enough space or staff to care for them all. The sad part is, if these kittens could just be cared for until they are old enough to be adopted out, the majority could be placed with families who want them. Rescue groups help with some of these animals, but our also rely on individual volunteers to take in these animals temporarily. They'll provide you with food, vaccinations, etc. You just care for the animal(s) in your own home until they are old enough to be adopted out at 8 weeks. If there's any way that you can help out during this busy kitten season, please consider fostering an animal. If you have pets, please spay or neuter them. If you're thinking about getting a new pet, please consider your local animal shelter. And you can also help by donating towels, blankets and newspaper to your local shelter. Okay, back to my list now (since I will have to spend some time convincing Chris that we are ready for kittens again)...

Use reusable bags: I was already doing okay with this one, and I've made an effort to do even better. It's not perfect, but I'm trying. Did you know...

-Each year, 6 billion plastic carryout bags are consumed in LA County (600 bags per person per year).
-The US uses 12 million barrels of oil per year on the manufacture of plastic bags.
-It may take up to 1,000 years for a plastic bag to break down in a landfill, but even more alarming: Plastic bags are not really biodegradable. They actually go through a process called photodegradation—breaking down into smaller and smaller toxic particles that contaminate both soil and water, and end up entering the food chain when animals accidentally ingest them.
-In LA, public agencies spend tens of millions of dollars each year on litter prevention, enforcement and clean up. Plastic bags contribute greatly to this problem.

After my previous post, I had a couple of people tell me that they reuse their plastic grocery bags as trash liners, or to pick up their dog waste. And I've definitely done that. But that doesn't change the fact that they end up in the landfill, and eventually contaminating our soil and water. And there are better alternatives, like biodegradeable BioBags. I have to admit, I haven't tried these, and I have been using plastic trash bags to line the kitchen trashcan . But it's on my list to check out the alternative options at Whole Foods today. I know Seventh Generation makes recycled trash bags, which is at least better than creating a whole new bag for that purpose.

While we're on this topic, we should all use refillable bottles instead of disposable plastic water bottles, and bring our refillable mugs when we head to Starbucks. By the way, I don't claim to be anywhere near perfect, but I'm trying. I have friends that compost a lot of their waste, but I'm just not ready for that yet (I should, though). Yes, I still use paper towels and ziploc bags, but less than I used to. Oh, and I don't want to gross out anyone, but I really like my DivaCup, and the fact that I'm not adding tampons to the landfill. But I'm seriously digressing from my list today...

Spend less time on the computer: This one really hasn't been happening. Umm, you think that this blogging thing happens quickly? Nope, there's a lot more computer time right there. And I still check my email, like every five seconds. But I have gotten better about turning off my computer at night, and not looking at my phone. You know, unless I have actual work that needs to be done. Like blogging.

Stop reading emails, etc. while driving: I don't even want to talk about this one. Maybe I should turn off my phone before I get in the car. Okay, maybe I do need to talk about it. I LIKE feeling like I'm multitasking, and not "wasting" my time while driving. It's not safe, I know that, and it needs to stop. Maybe I should consider listening to books on tape or find some cd's that will teach me Spanish in the car. Or sing songs with the kids or something.

Let Chris know that I appreciate him: I really suck at this. If anyone has any great ideas, I could sure use some suggestions about how to be more complimentary and less critical. And actually, our 11th anniversary is coming up in a couple of weeks, so thoughts on that would be great, too.  :-)

Keep my car clean: Inside, yes. Outside, no. I am regularly cleaning out all of the crap that used to accumulate in my car, which is great. But I still let the kids snack in the car, so the backseat is still pretty gross. And I haven't gone to the car wash much, which is why it's not being vaccuumed often, and the outside is covered in tree sap and bird poop. I know, I should just wash the car at home, which would give me some exercise at the same time.

Okay, so there's my list. And my accountability. Can I really change the things I don't like about my life in a year? Almost three months in, and I think I'm at least on the right track...

Chris lost about 20 pounds without hardly trying.

It doesn't seem fair. I mean, I'm happy for him. He looks good, and I'm sure it's healthier for him. He did a trial of Weight Watchers, and his daily points allottment is like 65% higher than mine. And does he use those extra points to eat healthy food? Not unless you count muffins and lattes as healthy food.

I pack him lunch just about every day, and I literally give him almost twice as much food as I get to eat. He gets snacks! And when we eat dinner, he can have seconds! And he doesn't even count his points on a daily basis. I'm trying to be supportive, but sometimes life just isn't fair.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Eco-Friendly but Patience-Testing: The Trials and Tribulations of Using Reusable Bags

Do you use reusable bags when shopping? Always? I think I generally do a good job, or at least I have good intentions. I have my nylon BAGGU bags, which I love because the fold up so neatly in their little pouch in my purse, so I almost always have them with me. And they're pretty big once they're unfolded, so they hold quite a bit, and they're sturdy and machine-washable. As it is time to pay for my purchases, they're right there in my purse when I go to pay, so it's not like I forget them. So what's the problem?

The problem is this: in their rush to keep the lines moving and check me out quickly, the clerks at the grocery store or Target don't want to be hassled with using my bags, because it's quicker and easier (and a habit) for them to use theirs. I have found that I need to place the bags on checkout counter before I place anything that I want to purchase there. And tell the clerk that they are my reusable bags. And make sure to unfold them. And give them at least twice as many bags as I think they should reasonably need.

The other day, I was at Target buying some miscellaneous stuff. Mostly groceries, plus laundry detergent. (Yes, our Targets all have grocery stores now, isn't that convenient?) I put my three reusable bags on the conveyor, then my fruit platter, laundry detergent, two bottles of juice, etc. First, the checkout person started to put the fruit into a plastic bag, and I said, "That's okay, it can just go in one of my bags." Then she put the liquid laundry detergent (which has its own handle, mind you) into a plastic bag, so I took it out, handed the plastic bag back to her, and just the detergent directly in the cart. Then the granola bars and other random stuff went into one of my bags (yay!), and then the juice she started to DOUBLE bag in plastic bags. At which point I said, "No, REALLY, I don't want ANY plastic bags."

Perhaps I should just bag my own stuff, you say? Perhaps I should, but I was also trying to pay and keep Brody from screaming. And at the grocery store, I do often use the self-checkout, but I find that it takes about twice as long because I have to wait for the other people who often can't seem to figure out what they're doing to finish up in front of me. And then it's my turn to look like I don't know what I'm doing as I try to use my reusable bags and the self-checkout register keeps telling me that I need to remove them from the bagging area and rescan them, because the register thinks I'm trying to steal something I didn't pay for. So I have to wait for the attendant, who is busy attending everything except people using the self-checkout registers.

All of this just to avoid accumulating more paper or plastic bags. Saving the earth is a lot of work.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Operation Clean Up

We filled up two big black trash bags. And I'm using the word "we" fairly loosely here.

I dropped off baby Brody at a friend's house yesterday afternoon, and picked Jake up from preschool right after nap (his, not mine; I don't get naps). I had to bribe him with a Slurpee to get him to leave school before closing circle, but he came without too much protest, and picked out a cherry-orange combo at 7-Eleven. We went home and armed ourselves with gloves, brooms and a dustpan, and set out for the alley a half a block from our house. I should have taken before and after pictures of the alley, but of course this idea didn't occur to me until we were well into the clean up process, so you wouldn't have gotten the full effect, and besides, I didn't bring my camera anyhow. But here's a pic of Jake in his fabulous gloves.

Jake had a lot of thoughts about how all the trash had gotten into the alleyway in the first place, and what was going to keep it from coming back again in the future. In the end, he thought the most plausible reason for the trash was that the people who used the alley must not know where to find a trashcan to throw away their stuff. "Christy," he told me (I have no idea why he no longer calls me mom, but we're on a first-name basis now), "I think the people must be too tired to carry their trash all the way through the alley, and so they drop it while they're walking. Maybe if there was a trashcan at the beginning of the alley, they wouldn't have to carry it so far."

Sounded logical enough to me, but I pointed out that there are two sides to the alley, so people could enter from either place, depending on which direction they were headed. Jake of course decided this meant that we needed two garbage cans. Somehow, I talked him down to one, which we could place in the middle of the alley. I'm pretty sure that he was still worried that people wouldn't be able to hold their trash until they got to the middle, but I pointed out that they would be able to see the trash can from each side, since it would be at the corner of the 90-degree turn. And maybe seeing the garbage can up ahead would be enough motivation for them to hang on to their waste just a little bit longer. So yes, we also brought along a trash can with a lid to leave in the alley. Which I guess I am now responsible for checking and emptying on a regular basis?

Jake tried sweeping up the trash, but the big broom was difficult to maneuver. He tried picking up trash with the dustpan, but found it hard to scoop up more than one piece at a time. He tried pulling weeds, but pulled so hard that he fell back onto his bottom. He tried picking up the trash with his gloved hands, but, well, it just wasn't fun. And this reminded him of the fun he was missing by not being at school. "Christy, I bet all the friends at school are waking up from nap and saying, 'Where's Jake? Why isn't he here to play with us?'" So, it was my fault that not only was Jake missing out on the fun he could have been having at school, but I was also making the friends at school sad because they wouldn't get the chance to play with Jake.

I found out that the alleyway does get some use, by people other than us. We saw one family walk through while we were on our way there. Another man walked by in the other direction, just as we were about to get started. And one lady walked through while we were in the midst of Operation Clean Up. (It occurs to me now, that if I had described this to Jake as more of a tactical mission à la The Penguins of Madagascar, then maybe there would have been slightly less complaining. Probably not, though.) The lady politely asked us why we were cleaning (were we affiliated with the nearby church?), and nicely thanked us for the job we were doing. Jake noticed after she had gone, "She was able to carry her trash the whole way through without dropping it." I guess she wasn't as tired as some of the other people Jake imagined to be passing through.

As you may have guessed, the afternoon involved a lot of talking (on Jake's part), and a lot of trash collecting/sweeping/weed pulling (on my part). In the end, I think we did a fairly descent job. I left behind a few small weeds (some of them really were difficult to pull out of the cracks along the sidewalk). I'm sure I missed a few small pieces of broken glass (the broom doesn't work so well over the really uneven sidewalk). And there were a few large glass bottles stuck behind a utility pole that I couldn't figure out how to remove without breaking the bottles (I still have no idea how they got wedged in there in the first place). But, we did remove two large bags that were literally bursting with trash. And we left behind a trash receptacle, the effectiveness of which remains to be seen. I felt pretty proud of what Jake and I accomplished together.

Jake also seemed pretty proud, too, when he told his dad about what we had done later. "But, Christy," Jake asked me, "Next time you decide to clean up the alley, can you not invite me?"

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Path to Improvement

There's this walkway (alley? path?) near my house. It goes from the neighborhood to La Tijera Blvd., and is the perfect shortcut to get to The Coffee Co. It's situated between two houses, then you make a sharp right turn, then a left, and it brings you out right next to the church. And it's disgusting. Sometimes smells like urine, full of trash and weeds. When Mark lived here, we used to joke that as you turned that blind corner, you needed to be ready for anything, because you never knew who/what you might run into in there. And actually, I've never run into anyone; I'm not even sure that anyone else actually uses this path. Maybe all the disgusting stuff just blew in with the wind and got stuck. Or maybe it's all been there for the last 10 years, because nobody has bothered to clean it out.

I would like to clean up this pathway. Actually, Jake is the one that suggested it. As we were walking along it one day, I said something about how gross it was. And Jake asked why the people who owned it haven't cleaned up their trash. As I tried to explain that nobody really "owned" it, I realized that in fact, we all kind of own it, especially those of us who use it. Since then, each time we walk through, Jake reminds me that we need to come back and clean it up. And each time I think about how he's right, but wonder about the logistics of it. I mean, it's disgusting, and I don't want to be touching the trash, and I certainly don't want Jake to. And what am I supposed to do with Brody? He's not just going to sit happily in his stroller and watch, and I can't do it while he's running around in the mess. And even if I figure out the logistics, will picking up the trash really make a big difference? It's not suddenly going to be a beautiful alley just because the paper cups and food wrappers are gone. I don't have any special talents to paint a mural along the wall, and even if I did, who's to say that it won't be covered with graffiti before long? And really, how long will it take before the weeds grow back and there's more trash?

But these are the same reasons that all of us struggle with volunteering our time, money or efforts to fix the problems in the world. There's not enough time, and it's too hard to figure out the logistics. What difference can I really make, and will it last? And I know that the answer is, if we all do something, even a little, it adds up, and we keep on working towards our goal. And that's the reason that I need to start somewhere, even if it's just a small, little-used alley near my home. Because I know it will make a difference to at least one person, and that's my son.