Thursday, October 10, 2013

Painting the Office

I've been writing a lot of "I haven't forgotten about you" emails. I owe someone an updated resume. An old business associate asked me to give him feedback about my experience with his graphic design company (excellent, by the way). The community garden I helped launch two years ago is in need of some attention as we wind down for the season and transfer some responsibilities to new leadership. I am starting another ambitious composting project where residents will learn how to maintain a worm composting system to recycle coffee grounds we collect from local businesses. I might have let the idea go if it weren't for an enthusiastic response from a couple of experts. One is conveniently my neighbor who studied with the vermicomposting guru herself, Mary Appelhof. The other is one Dr. Chester Wilson at the biology department at the University of St. Thomas, a 10-minute walk from my house. I'm developing a game. I can't explain exactly what possessed me to solve that puzzle (that's how I see it). It's been too long since I first considered it. It's the same deal with origami. Out of the blue I taught myself how to make a cube. It was like having a craving for something I had never tasted. I can see Ying teaching the twins origami, but I'm not sure if that really happened or if I've inserted something into my memories of them. There is the organizing of trash haulers to do. I never thought it would be simple or easy to get everyone to agree on a single garbage company to reduce the number of trucks that are using our streets and alleys, which is 5-8 for each alley in my neighborhood. But, I am realizing that there will be more to it than sending out a couple of emails to a listserv or flyering the neighbors once or twice.

I would compare it to painting my office. Initially, it seemed like the biggest task was picking a color. After a couple of false starts, we found one that worked. Wash the walls. Tape. Prime (Pepto-Bismol pink requires this step). Paint. Right? As I sit in my office with its venetian green walls today, it is hard to believe that it was years in the making. It started with realizing that the Pepto-Bismol was peeling off in sheets. It would have been wishful thinking to paint over it. To make things worse, when I looked at the baseboards and molding more closely, I could see where paint had dripped and caked over the previous layers. I had been in enough houses when we were in the market to know that painting over that could give a room an uneasy vibe. We used to call it "old baggage", which is a certain feeling you can get in a space that has absorbed too many layers of paint the way it might have absorbed too many sad stories or resentments or in one memorable case, cat pee. These houses would send us running and laughing hand-in-hand like criminals escaping the chain gang, at first at a slow trot as not to be obvious and then at full speed toward the getaway car that would deliver us to a safe distance where there might be a fireplace, a bite and cheap Merlot served in appropriately full-bodied goblets.

I'm never confident that my workmanship is any good, but it is not for a lack of trying. I did not cut corners. Then my parents came to visit and they were impressed. My Dad's work is always perfect. Crisp. If you want to talk quilts, my Mother's craftsmanship is equally stellar, but she will argue if you say so. So, an endorsement from them is everything. I can still see where I messed up, where the lines aren't as clean as they should be or where the finish on the maple wood (so went the layers of caked paint) is uneven. But it doesn't bug me as much as it once did.

Is every project painting the office with its thankless prep work, the tasks that only seem to present the next one and the imperfections we must eventually accept? Attending to a few details will likely produce more favorable results. Likewise, as my Mother reminded me when I was at my wits' end with the office, doing something every day - no matter how small of a task - will move the project forward and that will inevitably bring it to its completion. And what a blessing to be able to say, "Who cares how long it takes?"

In the meantime, there are packages to mail and stacks of cassette tapes to review. I was looking for specific tapes from the 2004 Democratic National Convention for a potential radio program I want to produce. While I haven't seen them yet, there's lots of other material begging to be put into some context. I particularly enjoyed a tape from 2002. It's a long string of phone messages, a lovely audio diary. In some cases these messages serve as a reminder of who I am and what I love. In other cases, I can barely remember the circumstances - like the slew of calls generated by - apparently - changing auto insurers. There is more. A million more things out there like those cassettes in those boxes, waiting for some action when I have a minute to contemplate what will be next.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

It would appear that I am about to take on the impossible task of organizing my neighborhood in order to reduce the number of garbage trucks that use our alleys. In my particular alley, there are at least five of them. Nearby there are as many as eight with a total of 12 unique haulers in the area. Any child could see that this is crazy. In a five minute conversation, my sister pointed to a solution that keeps resurfacing, but never seems to get any traction.

"You're organizing what?"

"Trash haulers. I mean on my block I'm..."

"You're working for a garbage company now?"

"No. I'm trying to help my neighborhood reduce the number of haulers that use our alleys. Right now we have five."

"How does that make any sense?"

"It doesn't."

"Sounds like a waste of money."

"It is."

"In Boise the City takes care of it. Are you working for the City?"

"No. I'm... I'm volunteering... to... I'm... Here people can feel pretty strongly about... um...thier hauler. There are a lot of companies to support."

"Couldn't you just divide the City up where a different company handled certain areas?"

"There doesn't seem to be the political will to do that."

"Political will?"

"It's complicated?"

"Why is it complicated?"

"I'm about to find out."

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Getting Around to It

[Picture: Tony, Energy Squad, removes a little trim to make room for the weather strip.]

Last night, as I was putting on eighty layers of clothing to head out and watch the Wolves beat the pants off of the Spurs, a cold draft reminded me to call the Energy Squad. Two years ago, they offered to weatherize our front door, but I was hesitant to remove some original wood trim in order to do it. I have since seen the light, literally. For where there is light, there is an energy leak.

Jody and Tony did a beautiful job of weatherstripping the door. They also did me the favor of caulking the gap between the doorframe and the interior wall, a task that's been on the list ever since the energy auditor suggested it years ago. Apparently good intentions are no cure for procrastination. It's perplexing and another reason why the Energy Squad is so valuable, in addition to - of course - measurable outcomes. Their work significantly reduced drafts and raised surface temperatures around the door.

[Picture: Jody, Energy Squad, installs a better fitting door sweep after noticing light peeking over the threshold.]

As for the woodwork that I lost in exchange for energy conservation, I do not miss it. Rightfully, we want to do justice by this old house. But worries over a flimsy piece of wood turned out to be silly. Neatly installing barely noticeable materials, the Energy Squad demonstrated how to have the best of both worlds. In fact, when friends had the same work done on their old door, they had to point it out to me because it blended in so well.

[Picture: The weather strip is hardly noticeable while doing a great job of tightening up some drafty gaps. ]

To satisfy my curiosity, I used a Black & Decker Thermal Heat Detector to take some surface temperatures before and after the improvements. Here's what I found:
AreaBefore AfterChange
Insulated switch cover66.2⁰FNone
Gap between door trim and interior wall63.6⁰F65.3⁰F/caulking+1.7⁰F
Drafty area by lock between door and jamb54.6⁰F58.6⁰F/weatherstripping+4⁰F
Bottom of door51.4⁰F54.3⁰F/door sweep+2.9⁰F

[Picture: Weatherizing the door eliminated drafts and raised the surface temperatures.]

In addition to improved surface temperatures, drafts went from being very noticeable to not noticeable to the touch. This will greatly improve the comfort of our home.

The coming of a new year brings forth a lot of promises about getting around to it. With the Energy Squad serving the Twin Cities area, getting around to some simple energy conservation updates is effortless, inexpensive and quite satisfying. To make an appointment and to learn more about their services, see The Neighborhood Energy Connection website.

Friday, December 9, 2011

This is what solar looks like!

By this time next year, a solar photovoltaic (pv) system will be producing more than 100 percent of our electricity; I’ll be wondering by what miracle did this happen? I’ll forget what prompted me to get a solar site assessment. I’ll forget quizzing exhibitors at the Green Expo. Solar home tours... huddled in basements getting the lowdown on utility meters that spin backwards...staring up at rooftops... these memories will have faded. When did Brian and I actually agree to pursue this? Was it on the ride home from the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair in Wisconsin a couple of years ago? When did I start imagining myself as a power producer? Was it during my Energy Committee days?

Once the installation is complete, people will have questions for us as they begin to imagine themselves as power producers too. How big is the system? Why did you go with Sanyo? Why micro-inverters? How much did it cost? That's a big one. Some of them might actually be interested in seeing the spreadsheet I designed to help us sort through the various proposals. It was a headache. But, somehow we are on the other side of a big decision and that feels pretty good.

How can you put yourself on the path to solar pv ownership?

Talk directly with homeowners who have already made the leap. Check out the American Solar Energy Society for details about their annual solar tour If you can't wait for the tour, be bold. Knock on someone's door. Ask them about their pv system.

Get a solar site assessment. Put it on the calendar this week. The +-200 dollars it costs for an assessment and a design proposal (see ours pictured above) supports local jobs and a solar industry (a cool thing), can inspire you to take another step toward being a power producer, and is counted toward the cost of a system should you make a purchase (check with individual vendors on that one). Personally, I think a solar site assessment would be a lovely Christmas gift for anyone who is dancing with the idea. In Minnesota, see for accredited vendors. Elsewhere, start with your state’s commerce or energy department websites. Stick your toe in the pool. Get an assessment.

Check out available federal and state solar rebates:

Take a step. Then see what happens.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Keeping the Kitchen Clean with Composting

Is that the garbage truck? Do I have the wrong day? No? Either way, a mad dash to the get the trash out is a thing of history. I haven’t done that in a long time, ever since we started composting. There is freedom in that.

While a person might worry that backyard composting will attract vermin, or that the compost bucket will be a smelly eyesore, or that emptying it will somehow be a bigger chore than remembering to empty the garbage or chasing down the garbage truck in your bathrobe, in my experience composting has made these things better, not worse. Because there is no waiting for (or missing) garbage day, food scraps will neither stink up the kitchen nor entice critters in the alley.

If you really want to keep things tidy, line the compost bucket with a sheet of newspaper. This will keep it cleaner longer. Or, try covering the food prep area with a newspaper and collect food scraps there. The cost of making a mess is zero. Simply roll up the paper and place it in the compost bucket when it's time to clean up.

As a bonus, using newspapers like this will help keep your compost pile balanced as it needs both “green” material such as food scraps, and “brown” material such as leaves or newspapers.

For more information about how to get started composting, visit the Gardening Matters website.

Line the compost bucket with a sheet of newspaper. Personally, I found that lids and filters for compost buckets aren't necessary and just get in the way.

When lined with paper, the bucket stays cleaner longer.

Cover your food prep space with newspaper.

Collect food scraps on the newspaper. There is a lot of room for error.

Covering the backsplash with newspaper will keep it cleaner.

To clean up, roll up the newspaper with the food scraps...

...and place it in the compost bucket.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Piece of Crap

Have you ever been stuck with a piece of crap? Maybe it was a broken appliance or a pair of shoes, a piece of furniture or a gadget that couldn't be easily repaired. I have.

Nothing could be done with prematurely worn out sandals because the uppers weren't leather. "Pitch them!" I was told. But, they're still taking up closet space, awaiting the day that I will figure out a solution that a seasoned cobbler couldn't imagine.

At least crappy shoes can't kill you. Last spring while she was eating, my sister discovered a shard of plastic in a batch of lasagna she had just made, most of which she had given away to new parents. After frantic phone calls, texting and email messages that warned the young couple, we discovered the source of the plastic: A Hamilton food processor. Years ago I had the same issue with a Hamilton blender. A piece of plastic ended up in my Margarita.

My latest gripe concerns a fan that is impossible to clean.

Prompted by the heat wave, I finally made the time to get it out of storage. It was really dirty and needed a thorough cleaning, but I couldn't remove the grill due to ill-designed tabs that held the fan together.

Unable to believe that anyone would design such a thing, I asked the manufacturer for advice. They replied:
"If you are unable to get the fan apart with out damaging the tabs, you can clean it a different way. With our other models we suggest taking a can of compressed air and spraying it in the fan. This usually removes most of the dirt and dust."
In other words, someone would design a piece of crap on purpose.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Vanishing Lunch Meat

This ad jumped out at me. First you see this:

Then you turn the page and you see:

Did you notice anything?

The trail of packaging left behind the vanishing lunch meat is a given; we are not supposed to notice it. It says so right there on the page. “Now you see it… Now you don’t.”

I don’t?

Is there any value in taking the time to notice the assumptions embedded in these kinds of messages before they wash over us like a morphine drip? For example, what do ads for kitchen garbage bags, a stopover for those invisible lunch meat packages, assume? Kitchen scraps are garbage. It follows that your kitchen garbage stinks (Buy the scented bags...). It's unsightly (There's a new "blackout" bag you can buy...) and it's messy (Good news! You can buy bags that are strong enough hold a piano...).

These ads wouldn't fly without a widely accepted assumption that kitchen compost is garbage. Without it, those pine fresh nylon-reenforced roles of plastic would join the Bacon Genie in the Hucksters Hall of Fame.
  • Hefty Blackout Bag Commercial - Video
  • "The Smell is in your kitchen" - Video
  • Hefty Ulta Flex Bags - Video
  • Hefty Steel-Sak Bags - Video
  • Jackie Chan Hefty Ad - Video
  • 9 News Colorado - Garbage Bag Face Off - Video
It's difficult to escape the Kitchen Compost is Garbage message. The other night, Brian and I were watching a documentary where a subject in the film pitched an overripe mango in the trashcan. Brian immediately looked to me for a reaction and he got it.

"Someday, we'll look at that and say, 'You're kidding? People did that?'"