Monday, April 7, 2014

steampunk dehydrators & other fun things

the steampunk dehydrator

I had some fun over the weekend cobbling together a solar dehydrator for Gita.  She wanted to dry out some bitter gourds that she had purchased at the Asian food store, and didn't want to smell up the house (because they don't smell good) or burn lots of energy using the electric stove to dry them out.

So I rummaged around in the basement storage room for an old electric grill which I knew had been down there for years, and which I had looked at before and thought that it might have potential as a solar cooker.  It's an old West Bend electric frying/grilling thing that has a black metal base and a glass cover.  From the looks of it, it's between 10 and 15 years old.

Also in the basement junk closet was a bathroom medicine cabinet with a beveled mirror.  It was in perfectly good shape, but it didn't fit in our remodeled and reconfigured bathroom.  So I repurposed it as a solar reflector.

It was a simple - and kind of ugly- combination, but it worked fairly well to dry out the bitter gourds. 
In the spirit of John Michael Greer, I'll call it a steampunk dehydrator, rather than a bathroom mirror married to an electric skillet.

 As for the bitter gourds, Gita will powder them with a mortar and pestle and eat the powder mixed into other foods over the next few months.  It's apparently an effective Ayurvedic remedy for preventing cancer and other ailments.  I've tried them (in whole form, not powdered) in curry, and they're really, truly bitter, but it's a flavor that grows on you over time.  If you enjoy really bitter foods, you can find them at most Asian food stores, or at many farmers' markets these days.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

So I started a new job today.  Much the same as my previous one- but in a different location and with a little bit different mix of projects.  I'm still a landscape architect for a consulting firm as my day job.  The upside is that now I'll be working mostly on designing schoolyards and their associated parking lots and retaining walls, rather than parking lots and retaining walls for oil refineries and chemical plants. 

It also comes with a pay raise, which is a bit of a surprise after being laid off, but a very nice one.

The last two months have been a bit chaotic, what with all of the running around that the unemployment deities make a person do to justify the weekly check, the jobsearch itself, and the additional duties that come from suddenly becoming a house husband and primary caregiver for two beautiful kids.

Additionally, I've been pursuing a longtime dream.  Something that has been slowly but surely growing over the last year, and which I haven't discussed in this blog, at least not yet.

Not that it isn't relevant to the eighth acre farm.  It is.  It's all about local organic food production, and making something out of that food.  It's also about resilience in the face of peak oil and climate change.  And it's about building community around something that very much brings people together-- liquor.

Yes, liquor.  In this case it will be produced by the fine establishment to be known as Urban Forage Winery and Cider House.

It's an idea that has been brewing for a while, and which still has a long way to go, but if you'd like to follow our progress, I'll be blogging about it at the Urban Forage Winery and Cider House blog.  I may be posting there a bit more often than here, since that's where my energy is focused at the moment.

We're hoping to kick off a Kickstarter campaign soon, so if you're feeling generous, feel free to participate!  I'll give details as the time gets closer.

Cheers!

Friday, February 7, 2014

leading economic indictor- my job

well, now I have more time to spend with the kids
   So, last Friday I got a call from the head of Human Resources while I was sitting in my cubicle trying to finish a project that I was supposed to turn in before the end  of the day.  In a very nice voice he asked, "Would you mind coming down to my office, Jeff?"

Of course.  Why wouldn't I?  But I knew exactly what the call meant as soon as I got it.  The same call I've heard that others had gotten a few years ago when layoffs happened in waves, each month or so during the depths of the Great Recession.

I  walked down the stairs,slowly, to the HR Director's office.  I've been there before to chat.  I had designed his patio and some of the landscaping for his yard, so I stopped by every so often to see how things were going and to say hi.

The Vice President of the Architecture Division was there too.  I pretty much knew he would be, because I had heard that this was what happened when they were going to lay you off.  Make you reudundant.  Kick you out the door.  Send you a pink slip.

So we had the obligatory awkward conversation. Your workload had been low for the last couple of months.  It isn't your fault.  We'll have you back as a casual worker if we have more work to do soon.  Oh, and your health insurance ends today, sorry.  Here's a form to sign if you'd like to get severance pay. Think it over, and get back to us.

At least they didn't walk me out the door as I've heard they've done to others.  I suppose I didn't pose much of a threat.  I've never made a stink about anything in the past and I suppose they knew I wouldn't about this either.  Even so- I decided that I wanted to clean out my desk that afternoon and make sure I didn't have to come back again.  For what, I can't really say.   Maybe to face the humiliation of seeing everyone, knowing I'd been laid off, when they weren't. One other guy, an architect, was laid off at the same time, but I still didn't want to face those who were left behind if I didn't have to.

It felt very different than I had imagined, being laid off.  In the past- in 2009 and 2010, when seemed like layoffs occurred every odd Friday there was a sort of funereal air about the office as the rumors drifted around of who had lost their job that day.  Of who may be next.  Would it be me?  Back then I had two very young children at home.  We had an infant and a toddler and I desperately didn't want to lose my job.  It would have been close to catastrophic at that time, and fortunately the axe never fell on me.

But I imagined it, and I prepared, to the extent that it was possible.  We saved some money.  Never enough, but more than we may have otherwise.  We gardened like crazy and canned food.  We looked into alternative employment.  I imagined that the act of being laid off would be as gloomy and funereal as hearing about the layoffs of others, but without the welcome rush of relief of making it through another Friday without the call to the HR office.

The reality was very unlike I had imagined it.  I dreaded the walk down the stairs.   I knew who I'd see in the office, with the exception of the CEO.   I heard he sat in on some of the firings in the past.  He didn't show up for mine.  It was just the three of us, and a fairly friendly conversation.   My voice caught in my throat at times, but I kept it together.  Because, as they were taking my job away, they were also offering me a sort of liberation.

I cleaned my desk out in a haze.  I was out of a job I'd had for seven and a half years.  But not a job that I particularly liked or wanted to hold on to that badly.  A job where I could have done so much, but where I mostly designed parking lots and designed the minimum necessary green stuff to meet the minimum requirements of whatever city or county or watershed district the client happened to have their facility located within.

I sent an email to all my co-workers thanking them for seven and a half years of companionship and mentoring and growth and left my contact information in case anyone wanted to be in touch.  I wasn't sure if my email would work for very long, so I wrote it quickly and sent it without editing.  I could have written more but I didn't.

A technician I hadn't talked to very much during my time at the company, but who I enjoyed talking with when I did, walked out to my car with me, and waited with the push cart full of my desk stuff, while I pulled my car from the parking ramp around into the waiting area to load up my four boxes of books and office junk.  We talked for what have must been a half hour- about how the job sucked.  How the older folks in the office did next to nothing but earned twice our salary.  How people our age were always the ones who were laid off and how it made no sense for the future of the company.  It felt really good, and I wished I had had this conversation with him a year ago, when it could have reaffirmed my faith in the goodness of my co-workers and the company itself.

Also unexpected were the short letters and notes I got that day from (now former) co-workers who had also been laid off in the past and who offered messages of condolence and hope for better things to come.  They were heartfelt and uplifting in the way that a Hallmark card isn't.  Those were the best part of the layoff day, and they made all the difference.

My heart felt light  as I pulled away from the gloomy turnaround in the underpass between office buildings where I once worked.  I was leaving and not coming back and that was OK with me.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

So this last week has been one of readjustment.  Of my spending more time finishing off our home renovation.  Fortunately we've already purchased most of the expensive stuff, and what remains is doing the hard work of putting it all together.   I have plenty of time for that now.  And dropping off and picking up the kids from school.   And working on new job leads, as well as the prospect of self-employment, now that I no longer have a 'no-moonlighting' agreement hanging over my head.

It's liberating- as much so, or even more, than it is depressing.  The initial shock was hard to take.  Now, seven days later, it feels pretty good.   Today, Gita and I spent the day at a seminar held by a St. Paul based non-profit on starting our own business.  I would have had to sneak out of work and feel guilty to attend something like this before.   Now I can do it honestly on my own time.  Now I can say 'yes' to people who are asking if I have time to take a look a their yard this spring.   That is, if, in fact I don't have a full-time gig lined up by then.  I can, in fact, look at all the opportunities that I haven't had the time, energy or ambition to pursue in the last seven and a half years as I was bound to a place which churned out parking lots and highway medians with abandon. 

I would have had difficulty walking out of there on my own- so I owe them a certain amount of gratitude for making the decision on my behalf.

On to bigger and better things.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

polar vortex redux

frost covered garage
  
If I had a nickel for all the times I wanted to leave Minnesota in the mid-winter I'd have a big jar of nickels by now.  I love my state, but it's so damn cold here in the winter sometimes.

It keeps the riffraff out.  At least that's what people say.  Of course if that's true, why hasn't it kept me out?

This cold is hard to deal with.  It's supposed to get no warmer than minus four tomorrow in Saint Paul.  But it's also beautiful at times.  I woke up the other morning and went to get something out of the garage- can't remember what- but found the door and lock covered with a delicate lacework of snow that was blown onto it by the snowstorm the night before.  I couldn't open the door- not because it was frozen shut, but because I had to get a camera to take a picture of it before I made a mess of the scene by opening it.

 

dormant garden

There isn't a lot I can do for the garden right now.  I'm glad to have the break.  It's under almost two feet of snow, so there's not much to do but plan for the next garden season.  Which I haven't done yet.  Too much to do on the kitchen remodel, and I still haven't gotten my gardening mojo back after last year's disappointing season.

I know it'll be back at some point.  The return of garden  mojo usually coincides with the freakout over the length and severity of the winter.  Usually some time in February.  I can feel it coming pretty soon.  If I didn't have cabinetry to work on, it might already be here.

There are little things here and there I've done lately for the garden.  One sub-zero morning a week or two ago I found a frozen dead squirrel on the sidewalk as I left to go to work.  I picked it up by the tail and it was stiff as a board.  I could have tossed it in the trash, but opted to toss it on the snow-covered compost pile instead.  

Of course this violates the 'no meat' rule of composting- but if it's in the middle of winter, in sub-zero weather, I wonder if it freeze-dries enough not be too stinky when it thaws out.  I guess I'll find out some time in mid-March.  My compost needs some extra nitrogen anyway- I've had lots of 'browns'- that is, the dry, high-carbon stuff like sticks and leaves and sawdust, and a general lack of 'greens'- high nitrogen stuff- this fall.  A dead squirrel is definitely a high-nitrogen score, so I'll keep it and maybe tuck it under some leaves in the spring if I can.



the frozen garden gate

One positive thing I can say for these Minnesota deep freezes.  It  might take care of the Emerald Ash Borer problem, at least for a while.  Somebody did some research somewhere that showed that 98% of borers are killed off by a -30F deep freeze, and a good number are also killed off by a -20F freeze.  

We have a big ash tree at our rental place in Minneapolis, and I've been watching it for signs.  The borers have been found less than a mile away, and it's probably only a matter of time before they take it down.  I'm hoping this will buy our ash- a beautiful tree- a few years of life.  Maybe.

Another thing the deep freeze brings out is climate change deniers.  The Weather Underground and Updraft blogs seem to be troll magnets whenever this happens.  I don't know if anyone else is sick of seeing the "Where's Al Gore?" comments every time it gets cold somewhere.  I am.  As if a cold couple of days negates years of climate science.  Are these people paid by BP to comment on this stuff?  Because that's kind of what it sounds like.

Where is Al Gore, indeed.  Somewhere in Tennessee in a very large house.  A hypocrite?  Maybe.  But that doesn't negate the pile of evidence in favor of a changing climate.   Killing the messenger doesn't negate the message.  And where were the deniers when the temps were over 100F in Minnesota this summer?  And last summer?  I should call them to come and help me install my window A/C units in May when the temps are over 90 and the air is thick enough to cut with a knife.  It might be good for them to get out and do something useful for a change.



apricot tree on the left, plum on the right
I will, by the way, post some pictures of our renovated kitchen next time, I promise.  Thank you for asking about it.  It's almost to the finish point, but not quite, and I'd like to wait until the countertops are in before I go and put it on display for the whole world. 

It's looking pretty good.  I'll say that.  It's been way too much work, and not a lot of fun going without a kitchen for months on end, but the end is in sight and the change is good.

Cheers,

Jeff


Saturday, December 21, 2013

a merry solstice to all and to all a good night





It's been a while.  Not because I don't like blogging.  It's been a while because there has been so much happening- good, bad and in between.

I'm home tonight, with the kids fast asleep in their beds.  I am somewhat doubtful that there are visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads, since they've never seen a sugarplum in their lives, and honestly, I haven't either.

Gita has gone to an anniversary party for some friends of hers.  The kids both have strep throat, and I volunteered to stay home with them and put them to bed early.  This works out pretty well for me, since I'd be sitting in the corner at the party with the kids, watching the Disney channel, while all the other guests speak animatedly in a different  language and I try to make polite but awkward conversation when people come to sit near me.  I've been to many of these already.  Better to stay home and catch up on all the things I haven't done in a while.

I talk a lot about gardening here, and you may be checking in because you're also a gardener.  I have to say, with a small amount of shame, that I was glad to see the gardening season end this year.  Part of it was the weird weather.  Part of it was my stepping down as head of the community garden that I helped to start.  Part of it was just the sheer exhaustion of trying to do too much and not doing any of those things well, and being relieved that mother nature stepped in to take one task off of my plate.

My carrots froze into the ground before I could dig them out.  Usually it's one of my favorite jobs of the season- pulling up  a bucketload of super-sweet post-frost carrots and root cellaring them or making a batch of carrot wine.  This year, they've turned into green manure for next spring's garden.  My potatoes froze into the garden too.  Granted, the freeze came earlier than average, at least for as long as I've been gardening- and it came on quick.   They might re-sprout in the spring.  At least that's what I tell myself.

 To be honest- we did do a lot of putting stuff away for the winter this year.  We canned almost 30 jars of applesauce from foraged apples this fall, and a half dozen jars of apple butter from the peels.  We made a dozen or more quart jars of salsa from our tomatoes and more than a dozen jars of marinara sauce.  I made a big batch of pickles from a bunch of cucumbers I picked up from the farmers market.  And we have 3 5-gallon carboys of dandelion wine and applejack fermenting away in the basement. 

The competing use of time is our kitchen renovation.  In mid-November I tore out all of our existing kitchen cabinets, the floor, parts of the walls, all of the lighting, and with some help from WHD of Off the Grid in Minneapolis, I am rebuilding the whole mess.  The previous kitchen was a slapped-together 1980's remodel and was a non-salvageable mess of particle board and laminate.   Everything is now being done with quality materials and to code.   I've hired out the plumbing, but otherwise between myself and WHD, we've done it all and have done a pretty good job if I do say so myself.

Also competing for my time is an opportunity which involves fermentation, and which also involves getting lots of licenses and certificates at the city, state and federal level, which I am in the thick of at the moment.  I'll elaborate at a later time, but if you're interested in imagining what that might be, I'll refer you to a couple of previous blog posts:  'how to make homemade wine'  and 'carrot wine?  why not?'

Of course being a good dad and husband is a lot of work too.  It takes a lot of time.  But I love that job. 

So it's the winter solstice today and I'd like to be making a bonfire in the back yard, but instead I'll stay inside.  It's warmer in here, and if the kids wake up, I'll hear them.

So, being the end of a solar year, I'm thinking through where we are and taking stock.  Here are a few things that have happened lately that I'd like to think through and hope you'll have the patience to think through them with me.

One is the appearance of 'crazy ants' in Texas, that has come out of virtually nowhere, and which is making life on the American Gulf coast difficult.   If there's a story which embodies the maxim that "Mother nature always bats last"  this is it.  These ants swarm over things made my people, and are so prolific, their bodies pile up to the point that they create obstructions to human habitation.  They also seem to be drawn to electrical gadgets, frequently invading them and short-circuiting things such as electrical outlets or computers, and rendering them worthless. 

But this is a cold climate, here in Minnesota, and it's unlikely crazy ants will make it this far north.  Except that  a far more subtle and sneaky mutation in the world of small things hit much closer to home this morning.

I mentioned that both of my kids have strep throat at the moment.  They first had it around Thanksgiving.  We took them to the doctor and they were, as is pretty common, prescribed Amoxicillin, an antibiotic that has been shown to be effective against strep.  They both took it for the recommended 10 days and we figured it would be done with. Except that it wasn't.

The sniffly, sore throat lived on, and we took our daughter in again on Thursday- to a clinic full to the gills with kids with similar symptoms.  I had really never seen it so full- the parking lot where we had always parked was completely full, the overflow parking was full, and I ended up parking on the street and walking with my sick daughter to the clinic, a little further than I had expected (but glad to be in the city where they at least allow parking on the street).

So we did our thing there, and I asked the doctor about the possibility of antibiotic-resistant strep, and she glibly blew it off saying 'we haven't seen resistant strep around here- they probably re-infected themselves with their toothbrushes, etc.'  Which I took at face value, since, after all, she was a doctor.

Then last night our son started having the same symptoms.  So this morning, I took him to the little cheapo clinic in the department store, since our regular clinic wasn't open on Saturdays.  There he was seen by a very friendly nurse practitioner who had seen him 3 or 4 weeks before when we were dealing with our first round of strep.  She was less glib.  "I've seen a lot of this lately"  she said.  She told me that she had stopped prescribing Amoxicillin for strep throat not long after we had last been there because she had seen a number of kids on whom it didn't seem to be working- one of whom went to the same school as my kids.  She also said she was going to send an email to the other practitioners at the other clinics at the big box to be watching for non-responsive strep.  And she prescribed him a different, more powerful antibiotic.

So there we were- at the forefront of an antibiotic-resistant bacteria outbreak.  No mention of it in the news just yet.  Spread the word if you are able.   I am hoping that the new (and much fouler-tasting) antibiotic she prescribed will work for my poor little worn-out sore-throat kids.   I like home remedies, but know that strep is no small thing to deal with- having had it many times as a kid myself.  I don't want to have to rely solely on honey and cayenne pepper if I can help it.  For myself, OK, but my kids-- I just want the sickness gone.

So mother nature bats last.  Strep bacteria can number in the billions in one human body.  It has a doubling time of 20-30 minutes, meaning, even at the 30 minute rate, it can have 24 generations within a day.  Meaning, you can multiply 24 generations by a few billion, and that is the number of opportunities that strep bacteria has to develop a mutation that will allow it to resist an antibiotic in every infected person, every day the infection lasts.  It's amazing this resistance didn't develop sooner. 

So do we really want to feed this stuff to animals, and multiply that risk by the billions of domestic meat animals kept worldwide?  Which we're pretty much already doing, at least on the majority of farms in the United States.    Risking losing one the best weapon against bacterial disease in order to fatten the profit margin of feedlots?   Not worth it in my  book.  But inevitable given the lack of backbone amongst regulators in this country.   And of course by the overprescribing of antibiotics for things such as the common cold, by the medical profession. 

So that's no bright ray of sunshine.

But it's the darkest day of the year, at least here in the northern hemisphere, and if I'm going to discuss dark things, it may as well be today.

Which brings me to sulfide mining.  Which, unlike crazy ants and antibiotic resistant bacteria, you can actually do something about. 

The state of Minnesota is right now deliberating whether or not to allow mining of copper and nickel in northern Minnesota- in one of the most pristine areas of the lower 48 states.  This is an area which has been mined for iron ore, but not for copper and nickel, and not using the methods proposed.  The process they would like to use would likely end up sending acidic waste to Lake Superior, the second-largest body of fresh water in the world, and one of the cleanest. 

Yes, there are people who would like to see this mine developed for the jobs it would bring to the northern part of the state.  There are always people who will trade a paycheck today for the health of their children, grandchildren and great-great-great-grandchildren.  That's a decision that is considered rational in current economic thought, but personally I'd like to err on the side of the health of future generations.  I hope to have great-great-great-grandchildren, and I know that the choices that my generation and a number of generations before me are going to leave legacies that are less than stellar.  I'd like  to see that mistake not made again.  I don't want to be responsible for leaving the largest body of water on the continent undrinkable in a future age of heat and desertification.   We are leaving them that, yes, so we may at least leave them clean water to drink. 

See here to send a comment to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources about sulfide mining.  If you expect your offspring at some point in the next 500 years to depend in some way on Great Lakes water, you have an interest in the quality of that water.   You don't have to be a Minnesotan to care about such things.

Cheers,

Jeff

Thursday, October 31, 2013

creating kid habitat


You learn a lot of interesting things when you do landscape design for a living.

I get to call myself a landscape architect now after running the gauntlet of higher ed, board exams and internships.  As a result I get to design parking lots and ballfields and sidewalks and other projects which, while not all that interesting, pay the bills and keep me out of trouble.

Monday, September 9, 2013

today I love my city: Saint Paul's Urban Oasis


artist's rendering of the proposed urban oasis food center in saint paul
Saint Paul is not my home town, but I've lived here for  11 years now- about as long as I've lived anywhere at this point in my life.  Almost exactly as long as I lived in the other, very nice city across the river, Minneapolis.  I love them both, the way I love both of my kids.  They're different, but both good in different ways.  One is more chatty and talkative, with a better art and music scene, always recreating itself and following the newest trend and trying to keep up with Portland and Austin and Seattle and Boston.

That would be Minneapolis, for those of you not familiar with Minnesota.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

2013: the fruit trees are bare

red and white currants- the only fruit from our yard this year.

I have, admittedly, been a bad steward of our little pieces of the earth this summer.  Our yard, our community garden plot, the yard at our little rental place- the weeds at all of them are growing faster than I can manage to pull them out.   We are, as usual, crazy busy in the summer so that hasn't helped.  But I still don't feel good about it.

In addition to the kids- who always want me to play with them (which I don't really mind), work is really busy again this year for some reason, the rental place needs lots of little repairs- and we have another project to work on- which I will get into in future posts- but for now I won't.  But it's eating up just about all of the time I would have spent gardening in a normal summer.  And the garden looks it.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

mother nature is not amused



our roof- after a big branch went through it early friday morning

I haven't been here for a few weeks, but the time has been anything but uneventful.

We've had a series of big nightime thunderstorms over the last few days, which have dropped large, heavy tree branches on our house and in our yard.  One of those branches cut a nice sized notch in our roof and took out most of the soffit on that side.

So we're now working through the process of finding a roofer and of making an insurance claim- the first one ever on our homeowners insurance- and waiting to find out what will happen.

This isn't something I enjoy, and really don't want yet another project to work on, but there it is.  There's no way around it.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

some thoughts on neonicotinoids



 I was sitting down to lunch on Friday, and had a rare treat- somebody had left behind a pile of newspapers in the skyway food court where I eat my lunch on the days I don't bring my own.

Though this is downtown St. Paul, in the pile was a copy of Minneapolis' Star-Tribune.  I love the Strib, and in general love reading an analog newspaper, though I've never gotten into the habit of subscribing to one.  Mainly because I'm a cheapskate, but also because they have an army of telemarketers who will harangue you into submission if you ever let your subscription expire. 

So I was eating a burrito and paging through the Star-Trib and found an article on neonicotinoids that, I'm sure most people breezed by, but which nearly made me choke on my lunch.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

winter to summer in sixty seconds

Our street- April 23rd 

 The picture above is from Tuesday morning.   Fresh snow, broken tree branches, another day of extended winter.  That was April 23rd and we had 4 or 5 fresh inches of heavy, wet slushy snow blanketing the ground. I, along with most of the population of Minnesota was ready to scream.

This has been a long, painful winter.  Not super cold, just super long.  The Arctic Oscillation decided to go negative at just the wrong time and the cold got stuck over us.  The days were getting longer- the light lasts until after eight o'clock now, but outside- snow, grey skies, bare trees, and brown grass when you could see it at all.