Friday, June 29, 2012

One Lovely Blog or One Lazy Blog?

Well, two of you (LivingSimplyFree and HowIGotThisFar) have been so kind as to nominate me for the One Lovely Blog Award.

While I'm totally honored to be nominated, I wouldn't be honest if I didn't admit that I'm a tad bit cynical about these "blog awards." They tend to come with all sorts of rules about what you're supposed to do once you've been given the award, and if you've learned anything about me by now it's that I totally suck at rules!

Anyhow, I'm supposed to tell you seven things that you don't already know about me.... OK... er... um.... let's see... I'm a total pyromaniac... I could just kiss Supreme Court Justice Roberts right now... I think steamed okra looks like ectoplasm...

Oh phuckit. I'm sorry to say, I'm just way too lazy for this sort of thing.

I'm also supposed to nominate 15 other bloggers. To tell you the truth, this part sort of gives me a knot in my stomach. I just know I'll end up hurting somebody's feelings, and I really don't want to. I mean I would love for all of you who blog to be able to get some new readers from this, and for us all to grow our collective community, but I just don't want to be in the position of choosing one over the other.

So I've come up with an even better plan...

OK... here it is. If you have a blog, please post a comment telling us all about it, and include a link to one of your favorite posts. I'd love to know why you blog and why the post you're choosing to link to is one of your favorites.

I can't wait to read all of your favorite posts!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Lovin' My Solar Oven

Well folks, the heat is on! It's been three record-setting days of triple digit heat with at least 2 more to come, and I have to confess that my attention has been pretty fully absorbed with the wildfires here in Colorado. There are about a dozen active fires at the moment - one in particular right outside of Colorado Springs where CatMan grew up and still has many close friends. We've got at least three friends in the evacuation zone and several more at risk, so I'm kinda having a hard time thinking about much else.

Soooo... since we can't do anything about the heat (or the fires) I figured I might as well drag out the solar oven, and while I was at it, I decided to dust off this old post from one of my former blogs. Enjoy!

Lovin' My Solar Oven!
A number of years ago, a co-worker of mine came back from a vacation on the beaches of Mexico, filled with stories of how he and his friends had cooked up an incredible variety of delectable sounding meals in a solar oven. Solar oven?! I’d never heard of such a thing. He said it was really just a big box with reflective flaps that concentrated the sun’s energy. I was intrigued… amazed even. Could this really work? 

Having a long love affair with all things solar, and especially with all things that sound too good to be true, the solar oven went on my “probably impractical but I really want one” list. At the time, they ran about $300, and that seemed like a hefty price considering it was sort of a lark, plus that was about all I spent on my “real” oven!

A year or two later I mentioned the whole thing to CatMan. I was whining about how I really wanted one, but couldn’t justify spending 300 smackers on something so frivolous. He said he thought they were easy to build out of cardboard and aluminum foil! REALLY?!? Now it really sounded too good to be true!

And so the great solar oven project began! I found a web site with plans for all sorts of different models. After lengthy consideration (like about 30 minutes) I settled on a combination of the “Heaven’s Flame” and “Minimum” models.

I found my boxes, stuffed my newspapers glued my aluminum foil, and when the big day came to try it out… it was a total flop. The box was too deep, the sun barely reached inside it at all, the flaps wouldn't stay put, the thing hardly got warm at all… I couldn't bring myself to throw it out, so for years it sat in a corner of the basement junk room until I finally sent it to recycling last year.

"The Flop" - Well, we live and we learn!
Undaunted, I tried again. This time I decided to follow the plans for the “Minimum” box cooker to at T. The results were definitely better, but I still couldn't reach temperatures much above 200 degrees Fahrenheit (about 93 degrees Celsius).  Finally, after a few modifications (angling the opening downward, replacing the window with glass instead of plastic, and putting felt around the edges to make an airtight seal)… success!!!

My oven now reaches temperatures of  nearly 300 degrees Fahrenheit (about 148 degrees Celsius).

OK - It was hotter, but then steam formed on the glass and cooled it down a bit.
These days I seldom use anything but the solar oven to cook on hot summer days. It uses no energy, helps to keep the house cool, plus it’s the ultimate “something for nothing” achievement! The only “issue” it has is that once it gets hot enough to reach the boiling point, steam tends to form on the inside of the glass which blocks the sun from getting in. Usually by that point it’s time to check to see if things are done though, so I just open it up and wipe off the glass.

Steam on the glass means it's time to check it!
So here are some tips if you’re considering plunging into the solar cooking adventure.

1. Get an oven thermometer so you can measure the temperature in your solar cooker
2. An airtight seal is critical for the box style cooker. For me, that meant using a glass top and putting felt around the top edge of the box to create an air-tight seal.
3. Be sure to point your oven toward the sun. You may have to adjust it once or twice throughout the cooking process.
4. Remember… what fuels the oven is sunlight not heat. So you’ll get better results on a sunny cool day than on a cloudy hot one.
5. Cookware matters! The best cookware to use is something made of thin metal. It’s pretty much essential that it’s black. I’m using a few Graniteware pots that I got at the thrift store, painted with BBQ paint (black heat resistant paint that you can get at any hardware store). But only paint the outside! You don’t want to paint any surface that’s going to come in contact with your food.
6.     Always cook with the lid on - both because the black color attracts the heat, and because it helps keep the heat in the pot where the food is.
7. A black metal drip tray under the pot really helps to concentrate the heat. Mine is just an old cookie sheet painted black, elevated on a small metal tray to allow hot air to circulate underneath the tray.
8. You want to position the pot near the back of the oven so it gets as much direct sunlight as possible.
9. Sometimes tilting the oven can help to get more direct sunlight.

See the 2x4 under the back part of the box tilting it to let in more sunlight.
Here are a few things I've cooked in my solar oven recently. Happy Cooking everybody!

Solar cornbread - baked about 2 hours (the lid was on during the cooking process )

Roasted Chicken with Potatoes & Onions - cooked (lid on) about 3 hours

So has anybody else out there tried solar cooking? I’d love to hear what has and hasn’t worked for you!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Thoughts on Class, Culture and "Green-ness"

One of my readers suggested recently that I might like the writings of a fellow named Joe Bageant, a writer who quite sadly passed away several months ago.

So I read some of his work online, and the suggestion was totally spot on. Joe was a white liberal from the rural south... and to be honest, I didn't know that such a creature ever existed. He had an open disdain for the middle class, especially white urban liberals, which I found totally interesting. I have only scratched the surface of his writings, but his take on the topics of class and culture brought up some very interesting questions for me.

What actually defines the middle class? Is it purely income level, or is it something else? And what exactly is meant by working class? Is that below middle class? Is the distinction white collar vs blue collar? And where do I fit in with these classifications?

I've always sort of considered myself to be middle class, but the truth is, I've never really fit very comfortably into any of these pre-defined class groups. Financially speaking, I've generally existed far below the line for what's considered middle class, but culturally... well I don't really know.

I had a college professor once who was from India. I think he was actually here for only a year or two under some sort of cultural exchange program. Anyhow, the class was a required freshman course called "General Education: The Roots of Western Civilization." It was quite interesting to be taught such a topic from a fellow with his perspective.

He had been a leading proponent of the "green movement" in India, which, in this context meant the shift to a western style of agriculture, and he had come to believe that it had all been a horrible mistake. According to him, the advent of modern farming techniques had essentially destroyed the Ashram system, upon which much of Indian society had been built.

This meant that millions of rural Indians could no longer be self-sufficient, and were forced to migrate to the urban areas where they either became slaves to giant corporations, or eeked out an existence in one of India's now legendary slums. I wish I could remember his name because I'd love to learn more about the fellow... But I digress...

Anyhow, one of the things this guy believed was that the economic classes in modern America,  rather than simply being an indicator of income level as we were all taught to believe, were actually the equivalent of the caste system in India, consisting of a whole network of rigid cultural rules.

Now let me tell you, this postulation was enough to send a few of my more affluent classmates into apoplectic fits. Their outrage was palpable at the mere suggestion that America, the land of opportunity, could be accused of maintaining such a restrictive and oppressive social system.

But whether or not the US system can be labeled as one of caste or not, if you accept the notion that the defining factors of class in America are somewhat more complicated than mere income level, it brings up a variety of interesting social dynamics, especially for me personally.

You see, my parents came from dramatically different backgrounds. My mother was a member of what you might call the working wealthy. Her father was one of the top executives for the Ford Motor company, and she grew up in a world of money and privilege.

But a falling out with her parents, and a subsequent decision to marry, and then divorce my father - a man who had grown up in abject poverty - left her in a decidedly lower income bracket. Yet even though our income barely clung to the bottom rungs of the middle class, my mother retained many of the attitudes and prejudices of her wealthy upbringing.

My father, on the other hand, was raised by a single mother who ever-so-barely kept him fed, clothed, and with a roof over his head. He joined the Air Force right out of high school, and as the story goes, when he had to apply for security clearance, he had to list every address at which he had ever lived - the list included well over 25 residences - most of which they had been evicted from.

Nevertheless, the military turned out to be his saving grace because, as fate would have it, he ended up stationed on a small island in the Aleutian chain, spending his days sitting in a shack out in the middle of the tundra waiting for radio signals from incoming weather balloons. Since the job was boring at best, he asked his mother to send him books to read  to pass the time.

My grandmother, who had no education beyond primary school, struck a deal with the woman at the local Woolworth's shop - Grandma gave her money every month, and the woman sent my father books. Well, thanks to some combination of the literary prowess of the Woolworth's lady, and the long hours of isolation, my father ended up becoming an academic.

As you might imagine, my parents' union was a short lived one, and I have very few memories from before the divorce. I often wonder what it is that drew such opposite souls together, but given my father's desire to cultivate a liking for all things upper class - opera, wine, etc...

... and my mother's desire to do anything possible to piss off her wealthy parents, one can only imagine. But I'm sure on some level they were speaking completely different languages. Come to think of it, save the occasional hurling of invectives, television sets and puppies, I really don't remember them interacting at all. (OK... he didn't exactly throw the puppy at her, but close enough...) Anyhow, once again, I digress...

I guess my point is that if you look at all this through the lens of a class/caste system, I was basically raised by two people who were living outside of their respective castes. I mean they sort of split the difference somewhere between wealth and poverty, but neither one was ever very comfortable in the middle class.

It sort of explains at least part of why I always felt like such a misfit among my peers. I guess in a very real sense I'm sort of a person without a class - or I suppose one could argue that I'm just a person with no class! :)
And to tell the truth, I've always felt a bit like I was an outsider looking in. Even as an adult, most of my friends are musicians & hippies, which means they are by in large highly educated people who make very little money, just like I am. I never really thought about it before, but I guess people like me are an odd minority.

It sort of makes me wonder if the relative ease with which I adopted the voluntary simplicity lifestyle is, at least in part, due to the fact that I never felt a strong class identity to begin with. It's sort of hard to feel like you're missing out on being part of a group that you never really felt you belonged to in the first place.

Anyhow, I had a bit of a revelation about class, culture and frugal/green behavior when I was out working in my yard today. My neighborhood is lower middle class... barely, and mostly populated with blue collar folk and recent immigrants. With the "cool" weather that we enjoyed today ("cool" meaning low 80's) people were out and about. There were a few guys across the street working on a car, a fellow painting his house, some people gardening, and lots of folks walking and biking around.

It suddenly struck me that much of the behavior that is considered laudable, "frugal" and "green" by the wealthier white collar crowd, is just day to day normal for those on the bottom end of the financial spectrum. I mean, I am seen as a bit of an oddity in my neighborhood, but it's mostly because I'm white and educated.

People think it's curious when I walk or bike to the store, but when the Mexican immigrants up the street do it, everyone figures it's because they can't afford a car. When I take on various DIY projects, it's a blog-worthy event... but my neighbors fix things every day, because they have no other choice. I hang my laundry out to dry because I enjoy it and because it saves energy, my neighbors do it because they can't afford a drier. The list goes on, but you get the picture.

I'm not exactly sure what my point or conclusion here is, but I just find it sort of fascinating to look at the different assumptions that we make about ourselves and each other based on race, class and culture. And maybe the "have nots" of this society are really the people who we should be looking to as our environmental role models... as opposed to the Prius driving, organic food eating hipster "green" crowd.

Sorry this post is so long and rambling, but I'd really love to hear your thoughts on this whole topic. Do you consider yourself to be a member of the middle class? What assumptions do you make about "normal" behavior based on your class? Do you avoid certain behaviors because they seem "low class" to you? I'm just sort of curious to hear what people who do have a strong class identity think about this entire subject.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Be Careful What You Wish For

Well, if anyone has been paying attention to my whining lately you might know that the weather has been a tad bit dry here in Denver.

Seriously, we'd only had about an inch of moisture since the beginning of March, the garden was bone dry and I was feeling like I should go out and do a rain dance or something. Well, last night, my prayers were answered... sorta.

I mean it did rain... oh BOY did it rain... I think we got more moisture in a few hours than we've had the rest of the year put together! Seriously, streets flooded all over town, and the rain was literally falling in sheets.

Then around midnight the tornado sirens started blaring. I herded all of the cats into the basement and tried in vane to find some meaningful information about what was going on.

I called CatMan, who turned on the TV only to find an infomercial... then I turned on the news radio and got Psychic Healers for World Peace (I kid you not.)

I finally braved it and went upstairs to turn on my own television. And of course, the wonderful channel that I watch was broadcasting live coverage of the storm... at 1am! Oh, how I LOVE Mike Nelson!

Anyhow, I'm feeling VERY lucky today because all we got was a ton of rain. This was the scene just a few miles south of me.

Yup, that's hail falling. Oh... visions of replacing the roof yet AGAIN.... Seriously, I still haven't completed repairs from last year's hail storm!

At any rate, since they're predicting more severe weather today, I decided that perhaps I should cover the garden. I mean, I dodged the bullet last night, but I really don't want to press my luck!

How about you? Anybody else got wild and wacky weather stories to tell?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Great Jumper Mystery Solved!

This is a stupid little post, but this has been driving me crazy for months now.

I keep reading blog posts by folks of the British persuasion talking about knitting "jumpers."

At first, I thought, OK... I'm not much of a skirt person myself, and I haven't worn a jumper since I was 8 years old, but hey, maybe it's one of those weird British fashion things like hats.

Seriously?!? This is high fashion?!?
Anyhow, I figured people were making things that looked vaguely like this:

But then people started talking about knitting jumpers for men. Hmmm... at first I thought they meant some sort of kilts or something...

But seriously, do men outside of Scotland really wear kilts? And can you really knit plaid?

Or are men in the UK just wearing skirts these days? I mean I know fashion is different "across the pond" but really?

Finally today I couldn't take it anymore and I looked it up. So here's the deal... In British English a "jumper" is a sweater.

Good GAWD! What's that they say... two people separated by a common language?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Re-Thinking my AC Strategy

For the first 12 years that I lived in this house I never had air conditioning. At the time I was working afternoons and evenings, so I was seldom home during the heat of the day, plus it was one of those luxuries I figured I could do without.

The house has an attic fan which pulls in outside air through open windows and pushes all of the hot air out of the attic. It does a reasonably good job of keeping the house cool once the outside temperature cools down. But during the heat of the summer, you pretty much have to run the thing all night long in order to get much cooling effect, because the outside air temperature never falls much below sixty degrees.

The main problem with the attic fan is that you have to have the windows open to run it, which, during allergy season made it sort of a "pick your poison" proposition. I could either suffocate from stifling heat or suffocate from the high pollen count.

Still, by employing the unheated waterbed tactic, and the occasional camping trip to the basement when it got really unbearable, I got by.

But then once I quit working and was home during the heat of the day, the weaknesses of my strategy started becoming quite apparent.

It was all made worse by the fact that my home office is on the west side of the house and has a sliding glass door, so that room just cooks in the afternoon sun, getting well over 85 degrees or so. During the worst of it, I'd actually sit at my computer with my feet in a bucket of ice water, wearing a wet t-shirt with a fan blowing on me just to make it bearable.

Soooo, when the government offered some nice tax rebates for installing high efficiency furnaces and air conditioners a few years back, I decided that the time had come.

I replaced the original 1954 furnace (which ran at about 40% efficiency) with a 95% efficient model and a central AC/air source heat pump. (A heat pump is basically just an air conditioner that can run either direction... so it can both heat and cool. They are much more efficient than any sort of a furnace when the outside temperature is above freezing. Once it gets really cold though, their efficiency plummets and you switch over to the gas furnace.)

Anyhow, my basic strategy had been to use the air conditioning only during the heat of the day to keep it below 80 inside, and then once it cooled off outside I'd switch back to my attic fan system. I'm used to the heat and I really don't mind it that much.

But recently a new problem has arisen. A family of skunks has taken up residence in our neighborhood. We're not quite sure where they're living, but they're out and about after dark most days, and trust me... those suckers are fragrant even when they're not spraying anything, and you do NOT want to pump a bunch of skunk scented air into your house at night!

So with great amounts of environmental guilt, sometime around the middle of last summer I started keeping the windows closed and running the AC at night. And to my utter amazement, my electricity bills actually went down!

I thought it was a total fluke, but then CatMan gave me a long lesson into the inner workings of an air conditioner, and it started to make sense. I won't pummel you with the details (and to be honest, I can't remember the details) but suffice it to say that an air conditioner works by moving heat from one place to another. This is accomplished by compressing and decompressing a gas trapped within the system. But it has certain physical limitations, namely that it can only heat/cool the air by about 30-40 degrees.

This is why the heat pump only works well when it's above freezing outside. Once it gets too cold, it just can't get the air warm enough. But it also means that if you run the air conditioner when it's 90 degrees outside, the temperature of the air coming out of your AC vents will be about 50-60 degrees. This will cool the house, but the AC has to work fairly hard to do it.

If, on the other hand, you run the AC at night when the outside temperature is 60 degrees, the air coming out of your vents will be closer to 20-30 degrees, meaning that it is able to cool the house down in no time flat.

Sooooo I now have a new strategy which is to run the AC at night to cool the house down to the low 70's. It really only takes about 20 minutes to get the house that cool. Then during the day I've got it set at 80 - but it has yet to come on during the day. Even with 95 degree heat outside, the inside temp is still holding steady at  a comfortable 76 degrees.

In the evenings I open the windows and run the attic fan for 15-20 minutes just to clear out any hot air that's still lingering up there, and leave them open for an hour or two, but close them before "the skunking hour" begins.

So far it's working great, and it's much nicer to sleep at night in a house that's 73 degrees as opposed to one that's 78 or so! Plus, it's really nice not to have to hear the noise of the attic fan running for hour upon hour.

So waddya think? Any thoughts on this new strategy? I'd love to hear how you utilize your AC to stay cool without breaking the bank.