Tuesday, May 24, 2016

How to make the most of home fruit production

I love gardening. Ever since I was a kid and realized that people could grow their own food, I wondered why everyone paid good money for what they could produce themselves. Now that I'm older, I get it somewhat. It's a lot of time and effort to grow all of your own food, not to mention prohibitive in how much land it takes. But a little bit of food? Well, with the number of blogs out there detailing apartment gardening, clearly everyone could grow something.

This spring, I helped my parents to put in a large raised bed. It's a project which all three generations in this house are excited about and can help with. The Munchkin, in fact, has tried her hand at naked gardening. The wave of the future? It's not any crazier than some other garden trends.

At the moment, we have peas and potatoes growing well, spinach, lettuce, and carrots in their infancy, and perennial fruit going crazy. The apple tree, which last year produced a sad crop of less than twenty apples, needs to be thinned out soon before it kills itself with over-laden branches.

The cherry tree, a gift to my mother for her birthday about five years ago, has set its first real crop. I'll still be buying cherries at the farmer's market this summer, because I love them and can easily eat pounds of them in a single day, but my mom keeps marveling at how many cherries are growing. It's a sight that makes me really happy too.

The blueberry bushes are small, but they're covered in green fruits.

Lastly, we have strawberries. Last summer, the strawberry bed was moved. It had been right next to the house, in a shady spot, and the berries never did very well. There were a decent number of them, and they were always decadently sweet and strawberry-ish, but they were tiny.
After my mom and I picked through and ate some.
We decided to leave a few for the guys to eat.
This year, however? Oh boy. They are loving their new, sunnier spot in the yard, and rewarding us for this change by producing massive amounts of fruit. The berries are bigger, but just as tasty. "Melt-in-your-mouth good", my mom pronounced them. On any given day we don't collect too much ripe fruit, the largest haul so far being about what comes in the smaller plastic tubs at the grocery store. But, they're sweeter and more flavorful than any we could get at the store. Not to mention, we need to pick the ripe fruit every day. In the last week we've probably picked roughly $15 worth of fruit, had we bought it at the grocery store.* That rate of return for a few plants, which will continue to grow and produce fruit for years to come, is well worth it.

Naturally, I want to make the most of the fruit we're getting. However, we don't put any pesticides on our plants, so some of them get eaten by bugs. The ones which are very far gone get left out there, as a sort of sacrifice to the bugs in the hope that they leave the other berries alone. (Ha! Yeah, that'll happen.) But what about the berries which are almost perfect and just have a small part where bugs have nibbled on them? I don't want to toss those away. I was, in the beginning. Then, when I thought about how many berries I was wasting that way, I was just cutting off the buggy parts and eating the rest (still delicious), but now that we're getting so many perfectly good berries, I can be a little pickier. That doesn't mean I want to throw those buggy ones away, however.

I love strawberry jam, but realized that none of us would want to give up the good berries for weeks, just for jam. Better to eat them fresh. The
See the hole where a bug got to it? So small.
Why waste the rest of the fruit?
buggy berries, on the other hand, are perfect for making jam later on. Since I don't get too many all at once, I'm setting them aside in a bag, in the freezer, to collect. At the end of summer, or when the plants stop producing, I'll make jam.

This was just the first day's collection of less-than-perfect fruit.
How much would I be throwing away over the course of the summer
if I was picky about the bugs? Tons. The answer is, tons. And that would
be a real shame.
We don't actually eat a lot of jam, but it's fun to make and a great little treat. I'll mix it into yogurt, or use it instead of syrup, or, very occasionally, put some on toast for the Munchkin. She goes crazy for it, of course, and I feel better about making my own jam because I know exactly how much sugar is or isn't added. Plus, I get to experiment with different flavor combinations. Last summer's vanilla-cinnamon plum jam was a major hit, so much so that HusbandX has already requested I make it again this year. We'll see what the favorite ends up being this year. Perhaps strawberry-balsamic vinegar jam?

*Remember, we're growing these organically, so this is a comparison to organic prices. Non-organic, it's probably more like $10. Still, I'll take not paying $10, and for a better/tastier product, any day.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

How to score a free laptop

I'm writing to you on a laptop which was completely and totally free for me.  Now, a laptop is not a necessity in my life, so I wouldn't have paid for one at this moment.  But a free laptop?  I'll take that.  I didn't even have to enter a contest.
The secret is: know someone who works in IT.  Seriously.  My brother, before he left on his epic bike adventure, worked in IT for a corporation.  I mentioned that I wanted to get a laptop at some point and he said, "You know, we get rid of them somewhat frequently.  I'll keep an eye out for you."  So he did, and a few months later he delivered a laptop to me, wiped of the previous user's content and with freshly installed OS, browser, and security software.  It's lovely.
Not that it's entirely without flaws.  I can definitely understand why the company decided that it had run its course.  There's a crack around the track pad, the screen is a bit wobbly, it has trouble connecting to the internet sometimes, and some of the keys don't always work perfectly.  (Some problems in the keys didn't start until my cat decided to jump onto my laptoped lap, then freak out as he dug his claws into the keys and jumped away.  My 'o' key was traumatized.)  But for me, for what I needed, it's pretty perfect.  I don't mind dealing with a few flaws.
Not all companies have a policy which allows this sort of thing, of course, but I think most companies which deal heavily with computers understand that if someone else can use that mouse, laptop, keyboard, monitor, or whatever, great.  Go for it.  It would just be getting recycled otherwise, so as long as there's no information left on it which could be harmful to either the employee or the company, take it.  I know of several companies, at least, which have "free" shelves for computers and parts so that employees can take them.
My younger brother also works in IT.  (I'm surrounded by computer-y people.)  He got a job at a repair shop fixing broken (and sometimes "broken") computers.  The other day they took in a MacBook Air from 2014 which someone had dropped off to be recycled.  When they turned it on and messed around with it they discovered that there was absolutely nothing wrong with it.  The person who wanted it recycled just got a newer one and decided to ditch this one.  As my mother would say, "someone with more money than brains".  But, you might know someone like that, someone who gets the newest, "best" gadgets all the time and doesn't care about the old ones anymore.  You too could score a free laptop just by asking, "What are you doing with your old one?"  It's worth a shot.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Skewed Danger of Biking

“Is that a child with you? Then you need to DRIVE.”
I stared in stunned disbelief at the woman who said those words to me, before she and her SUV screeched away. I admit, in the aftermath I yelled something rather unpleasant to her. It was so shocking, so unexpected, to have someone yell at me for daring to do something as mundane as biking with my toddler.
You can't ever win as a parent, but if you're a parent who bikes, then I've learned that you're perceived as one of the lowest of the low. You're someone who doesn't look out for their own child's safety.
What I really wanted to say to this woman wasn't what I yelled. In the quiet moments I've had to reflect on it since then, I really do wish I could take it back, which is usually the case when I say something in the heat and shock of such a moment. Not that I think a well-reasoned argument would have helped, either. I could have pointed out to her that she, in her giant single-occupant vehicle, was the single greatest threat to my and my child's safety. By concerning herself more with judging me as an unsafe parent than with watching the road, by blocking other drivers' view of us, and by spewing out all of that pollution in our faces, she was making our trip that much more unsafe. But I doubt she would have heard or believed me, if I'd told her.
I wish I could point out to her that she has a very skewed sense of what's dangerous. I don't necessarily blame her for that, since it's a national attitude. We view cars as such a right that taking someone's driver's license away is only for the truly heinous vehicular crimes. And not always even then, since a suspended license is more the norm. (How much does it take for drunk drivers to get their licenses permanently removed?) Getting a driver's license is a “right of passage”, rather than a privilege. Owning a car is seen as almost a moral duty, and the rest of the world rightly considers that a rather strange attitude.
In a country where killing a cyclist is not really considered a crime, it's easy to see why so many people think that cycling is dangerous. However, to think so is also to ignore the fact that it is cars and drivers which are so fatal to cyclists, not the bicycle itself. Automobile accidents, whether a person was in the car or merely a pedestrian, is a leading cause of death among all age groups. It is a particularly prominent cause of death for children between the ages of one to eighteen, topped in the early years only by birth defects. When you give your teenager access to your car, do you think about the fact that they might die in it each time you see them off? Do you kiss your spouse in the morning hoping and praying that they're not one of the more than 33,000 road fatalities in this country every year?
When we add in the number of children who are injured in or by cars each year, biking seems comparatively safe. With its slower speeds, greater maneuverability, and the ability to stop frequently to check on your children, I always wonder why more parents don't choose that option for short trips. Biking to the grocery store is one of my life's greatest luxuries and pleasures.
The statistics about childhood obesity in this country are hard to miss, and while there are many contributing factors, one thing everyone agrees on is that children need to get more exercise. What most people miss is that telling your child to get outside while you're sitting in front of the television is not going to work. We, as parents, need to model the lifestyle we want our kids to have. We need to show them what getting exercise and being healthy means. Bicycling is not the only thing parents can do, of course, but it is one strong component, particularly for those who moan that they don't have enough time to exercise. Biking for transportation, while it seems scary at first, can bridge that time gap. Who doesn't like to get two things done at once? Even if you bike solo, you are still showing your children that it can be done, and that is crucial.
The number one thing I wish I could tell that rude woman, and really make her understand, is how much fun I have biking with my toddler. Yes, there are dangers and, believe me, I am very well aware of them. If she'd known how my heart was racing already that day, not from exertion but from the number of cars and people I suddenly had to navigate through, then perhaps she might have felt slightly less self-righteous. If she'd known how my brain was racing, trying to take in every potential threat, then she might have felt some empathy for me. But even with those heart-in-my-throat moments, biking with my child is truly a pleasure. She sings for me while I ride. We get to have conversations which are as great as one can have with a two-year-old. Almost always, we both show up at our destination cheerful and full of energy. Can anyone reading this honestly say that most car trips with their children are pleasant or fun? Or is it just one more chore?
I read recently about a school which has outlawed kids from walking or biking, or from parents trying to pick up or drop off their children that way. It makes me unutterably sad, that there are people out there with such narrow-minded focus on a car-centric culture that any other model seems crazy and dangerous to them. The damage they are doing those children by forcing them to be in and around cars so much is what seems crazy to me.
I have been a cyclist all of my life, and I will remain one until I'm forced by age and infirmity to give up my bike. It is my preferred method of transportation, and one of my favorite recreational outlets. One silly and ill-informed remark by someone who needs to learn to mind her own business will not make me quit, but I admit that it put a damper on what should have been a milestone. The day she made that comment to me, I was celebrating the fact that it was my longest bike ride with my daughter, over twelve miles round trip. I was feeling strong and content, halfway through, even a little virtuous, and one stinging comment took much of my euphoria away. It often works out that way. Even the man who told me, “You rock!” as he saw me climbing the big hill toward home couldn't lift my spirits, because it's the negative comments we remember much better.
Even if most people who drive are never going to get the courage to get on a bike themselves (although I highly encourage everyone who can to try), why can drivers not seem to contain their anger at cyclists? Why is it acceptable to yell at us, to disparage us, or even to injure us? Why do drivers claim the moral superiority, despite the proven dangers of cars and driving? Why is cycling seen as such a threat to driving? I don't have the answers to those questions, so all I can do is fight back, one smiling, happy bike ride at a time.

It's bike month. Get out there and ride.