On a separate note, over the past few weeks I’ve fallen into a blogging black hole, for which I sincerely apologize to my loyal reader(s). No excuse, really, just a busy month. I have several posts on deck, most of them about food, as I’ve spent much of the past few weeks processing food in various ways. So I’ll get to those and fill in some of the dead space and hopefully have new things to write about this coming month.
For the first time, this week, I made active changes in what I was buying at the store as a concession to inflation. I had been conserving and trimming luxuries for a while, but yesterday marked the first time I downgraded in the selections I was making. It’s not that we haven’t been making changes for a while; the biggest shift we have made in our household since I (voluntarily) stopped teaching has been in the way we eat. We no longer eat out, for primarily budget reasons, and I cook almost everything we eat at home, primarily for health reasons. For the first year of our plan, my partner still frequently bought lunch or coffee at work and we would eat out with friends. We joined a CSA in order to receive organic produce on a weekly basis, nearly all year round. As our savings dwindled and inflation started climbing we’ve trimmed luxuries, like cookies and soda and juice (not that we purchased these frequently, but we now purchase them only in times of desperate need). When we learned my partner’s cholesterol levels were dangerously imbalanced, we cut out the purchased lunches and I began cooking nearly everything we put into our mouthes in an effort to change the cholesterol profile through diet (which we did).
Through all of this, though, I have remained committed to certain principles of food purchasing and consumption. I don’t buy industrial meat, and with the higher cost of free range and pastured or organic meat we hardly ever eat it. From the local organic market, we buy basics — oils, flour, légumes in bulk, peanut butter, milk, butter — and fair trade items when they’re available — coffee, sugar, and spices. Several of the companies we support are cooperative businesses, namely Organic Valley, King Arthur and Frontier. While I’d likely be choosing their products anyway, it’s important to me that our household dollars are going to support ethical labor practices and helping to keep workers and farmers in control of their own livelihoods (yes, all my bank accounts are with credit unions, too).
With the close attention I’ve been paying to cost, I’ve noticed that the local market is consistently less expensive than Whole Foods for the items I buy regularly; not that Whole Foods is inexpensive, it’s just usually the only option for processed organic food. For our household cleaning supplies, we use almost exclusively Seventh Generation products: in addition to being free of fragrances and dyes, they are vegetable-oil based and use a large amount of post-consumer recycled paper and plastic. I could draw you a map of which stores carry them at the lowest prices: toilet paper at the Giant (by about $3 per package, surprisingly); dishwasher detergent at Whole Foods (only because they are the only store to carry the larger size since Target stopped stocking the products); Whole Foods again for paper napkins (because the organic market stopped carrying the brown option in larger packages); dish soap, trash bags, paper towels, laundry detergent and bathroom cleaners, all at the local organic market. I won’t bore you with the list of what we use for shampoos and soaps: suffice it to say that they all cost the least at the local organic market, too. When I buy produce beyond what comes with our farm subscription, I get it from the weekly farmers’ markets (fruit, mostly) or the organic market (onions, mostly).
The non-organic things that I buy at either the Giant or the new competitor are all related to my partner’s new cholesterol-busting diet: Cheerios (it really does help lower cholesterol, we’ve found), pretzels (the no-fat alternative to corn chips), bread (Roman Meal Double Fiber has the best fiber-to-sugar ratio of sliced wheat bread), and egg substitute. This week, for the first time, I chose the store brand egg substitute over Egg Beaters: it was a dollar less expensive per container. It’s not like the Egg Beaters chickens are any less crowded and warped than the store brand, right? Industrial egg products are industrial egg products. I also bought, for the first time in years, regular garlic at the Giant rather than organic garlic at the market. It’s garlic, right? Also, it was less than half as much.
Neither of these are major substitutions, but the fact of the choice I was making gave me pause. While I admire people who stretch their family budgets by buying in bulk or clipping coupons from the Sunday circular or stocking up on food close to its expiration date, that isn’t me. I keep — and use! — store coupons for the things we buy regularly, but I’m not going to switch to mac and cheese dinners (or ramen noodles) just because they’re 10 for a buck this week (they’re not, as far as I know, by the way: no need to rush to the store). I would prefer to winnow down to an ‘all lentils and brown rice all the time’ diet rather than buy the processed crap that’s the cheapest.
Over the past two years I’ve already learned that I’m willing to do a lot more cooking, and the attendant lot more dish washing, than I previously realized. I’ve always liked to cook, but never before have I had to make such a stark choice to commit to more labor in the kitchen to gain the freedom from laboring for someone else, as well as the resources to spend on the products I value. Garlic at $6 per pound, I learned this week, is apparently not one of them. I’m not ready to say that I’d get a job in order to keep buying fair trade organic sugar, but I’m also not sure that I wouldn’t.
The new Toto Drake in our snazzy yellow master bathroom.
As part of our long-term plan to never go on vacation again, we are slowly fixing up our house. ‘Fixing up’ is probably too strong, as the house was fundamentally sound and generally nice-looking and functional when we bought it. It is by no means a classic fixer-upper: we are not rewiring, replumbing, taking out or putting in walls, et cetera. It is, however, a treasure chest of hidden defects, mostly in the form of (1) necessary maintenance deferred for 20+ years by the cheap former owner or (2) barely functional antique appliances and fixtures never replaced by the cheap former owner. The
toilets commodes in the house were a happy combination of both: high-flow models that were no doubt installed when the house was built in the 1930s, with tanks held together by judicious amounts of caulk, that leaked and dripped when they weren’t lowering the water table with each flush. Clearly, they Had To Go.
Since we participate in the Maryland Heritage Preservation Tax Credit Program, we seek preapproval for each home repair project we undertake. The lag time between our proposal and their approval gives us plenty of time to make final decisions about what we are going to do. In this case, we spent months deciding whether we were really ready to spend $400 on a toilet (it certainly sounds more reasonable if you call it a ‘commode’). In the end, I successfully argued that reliable flushing was not a ‘luxury’ in a commode, and while it was a darn shame that other manufacturers had not yet created good low-flow models, I was not willing to compromise on that point. Which means that we decided to go with the low-flow commodes the internets and personal experience told us worked: those made by Toto.
Having made that first round decision to take the plunge, we researched different models and decided on the Drake, mostly because (1) an online guide to installation made it look easy, (2) we wanted something basic that would blend in with our older home, and (3) we weren’t sure we could fit the one-piece Ultramax into our smallish car. I knew that the Gmax flushing system was what I wanted, and I also knew that I wanted at least one ADA model in the house, for all the tall people with joint trouble who might be using it in years to come. With a little searching, we were able to find a dealer and inspect the pieces in person; we probably could have saved a little money by finding a way to order them online but I was nervous about breakage during shipping and happy to support a more local business.
Two trips to the store later (we wanted to test the smaller size in one bathroom before committing to the taller elongated models) and we have two new commodes installed and one on deck for tonight. Between the online guide I found and the instructions in what we fondly refer to as ‘The Man Book‘ the installation was a piece of cake. Wrestling the old toilets out to the alley for pickup (thank you, public works!) and cleaning up the nasty spaces underneath, though? Let’s just say there wasn’t enough beer in the house and leave it at that. The third one should be easier to remove — it’s on the first floor — and I’m hoping to donate it to Community Forklift since it still functions; maybe someone with more skills and patience than we have can rig it up to make it lower-flow.
After tonight, the final commode-related task is to have a plumber come out to remove the toilet from the basement and cap the sewer line. All the houses on our block have little shacks in the basement that include a toilet only, the 1930s version of a port-a-potty. I have no idea if the toilet even works, but I want it gone. The long-term plan is to remove the walls of the shack, address the basement water problems, and eventually put in a darkroom using that outgoing pipe.
For now, though, I’m just looking forward to next quarter’s water bill.
Following the glowing recommendation of friends who used EasyClosets systems to maximize the storage space of their San Francisco condo, I ordered shelving to convert our small hall closet into a pantry. We have a larger closet in the family room that we use for coats, and the hall closet is directly across from the (also small) kitchen. My hope is to move the collection of small kitchen appliances out of the dining room and off of the kitchen counters, along with the canning supplies currently in my office and the stocks of rice milk, paper towels and distilled water that are stashed here and there under counters and at the backs of cabinets. I’d like to remove the bookshelf from the dining room entirely, relocating the cookbooks to the nearest shelf around the corner in the living room.
At any rate: EasyClosets. Nowhere on their website does the word ‘plaster’ appear, nor is there any warning statement indicating that the hardware and mounting system — set up to drive the weight of the shelves against the wall and down toward the floor — is suitable only for drywall. Nor does any such warning or distinction appear in the instruction booklet accompanying the materials. Nonetheless, the anchors are readily identifiable as drywall anchors (once you have them in front of you), and the E-Z Toggle website clearly states (when you go searching for clarification), Since plaster has a different composition than drywall, E-Z Ancor® products cannot be used.
So. Here we are with a living room full of particle board, a dining room full of the stuff that we took out of the closet to prep it plus the tools we assembled for the installation, and no pantry. I called EasyClosets and am hoping that the guy who’s ‘done a lot of installations,’ but wasn’t at his desk just then, will call me back with instructions for mounting the shelves into plaster. I’m sure they would rather do that than pay to ship the particle board back to themselves because they don’t make it clear that their system is drywall only. I, of course, would rather have mounted shelves in the closet than not, so a hardware alternative would work for everyone.
Our own research didn’t leave us very hopeful; from what we could tell, the approach for mounting wall units into plaster is nearly completely opposite that of mounting them into drywall. With drywall, you use anchors to distribute the weight across the wall as evenly as possible, and the surface takes the force. With plaster, it seems that you drive as much of the weight into the studs as possible and away from the wall itself. As our closet is adjacent to the original exterior wall, we have only the first stud off the wall to work with, smack in the middle of the space; the closet is not wide enough to span two supports. The other alternative, of course, is to install freestanding shelves that are anchored to the wall for balance only, but I can’t tell you how sick I am of that type of setup. I believe my exact statement on that topic was ‘I want a pantry, not another gosh-darn bookshelf in a closet!’ It was late, I was tired, but the sentiment is the truth (and if you know me I’m sure you can guess that by gosh-darn I mean a whole bunch of other stuff not suitable for prime time).
Hopefully EasyClosets will pull a bunny out of a hat for me and save us from having to have another gosh-darn bookshelf in a closet.
This week has been rainy and I’ve focused on killing unwanted yard invaders. Chickweed is sprouting like crazy all over the town, spurred on by last year’s drought, and I’ve tried to clear the larger patches of it from the front yard. I’ve also tried to catch the dandelions before they go to seed, and have been moderately successful. I am not sure that the bare, slightly muddy, patches are better than the weeds, but I’m hoping the grass and violets will fill them in with time. I know that many people consider the violets themselves a weed — not to mention a sign of poor drainage — but I find them cheery and am happy to see them return. They, too, will spread, but more slowly than the plants that fling their seeds in all directions, so I tolerate them gladly.
I’ve taken advantage of the damp weather and wet ground to dig up more of the invasive liriope as well. I’m making slow but steady progress; I’m determined not to let the weeds get stronger over the next few months. Digging them up mid-summer was possible, but not a lot of fun, and I hope to have them well in hand by that point this year. In addition to killing things in our own yard, we lent our skills to the town for the civic association’s annual stream clean-up. Our contribution was to clear the invasive tree-strangling ivy from along the stream banks of one block of the town park. Yes, two hours of labor netted us two large contractor bags of ivy and one block cleared; that’s how prevalent the ivy is around here! In some instances the ivy had been previously cut but had grown back together and was refusing to die; in those cases we pulled the roots from the trunk, even though that can be harder on the tree. From all accounts the stream clean-up was a success, as there appeared to be enough volunteers to cover the entire length of the creek this year.
Ivy-damaged tree in the town park.
As I continue to clear the ground in our yard, I’m starting to need materials to cover it up again: plants and mulch. I purchased two cold hardy white azaleas for the left foundation bed, and they’ve been sitting on our porch while I collect the peat moss and humus that I need to plant them out properly. Azaleas grow well in the soil in our town, so I expect that if I plant them as recommended they’ll do well. This will be the first time I’ve planted a shrub, though, and I didn’t think the ‘plunking them in the ground’ approach that works so well with transplanting daylilies would suffice.
Plants waiting to be planted out.
In addition to the azaleas, I purchased a range of low-growing natives — woodland stonecrop, three types of woodland phlox, two varieties of crested iris — to fill out the front bed and the cleared area under the holly tree in the back yard. I’m hoping that the phlox will anchor both the soil and the mulch in the front and that the iris will spread into a nice ground cover in the back. Of course, this means that the coming week will be full of soil treatment and ground preparation, if it ever stops raining. Not that rain is bad; I’m grateful for it, especially after last year’s drought. It just means more time inside — and more money spent at the garden store — than I’d like.