Eco-Saturday: Cottage vs. McMansion

View of our house from the backyard. We have an attached garage, which is handy for storage.
View of our backyard. Our house has an attached garage, which is handy for storage.

While a few notable exceptions exist, as a general rule, big houses are terrible for the environment.

Think about it: The bigger the house, the more material it takes to build, and the more energy it takes to heat and cool. Big houses also encourage consumption; if you have a lot of excess space, it’s really hard to resist the temptation to fill it with shiny objects.

For the sake of both the environment and our bottom line, Ron and I have always insisted on buying small houses.

Our current home is an 86-year-old, 730-square-foot Craftsman bungalow with hardwood floors; a full, unfinished basement; and a front porch that’s just right for sitting with a glass of wine and watching the world go by on a summer evening. Despite its diminutive size, it feels roomy, and I’ve managed to live in it for 16 months without cluttering it up.

Here are the advantages of a small house:

* They cost less to buy.
* They cost less to heat and cool.
* They are easier to retrofit for alternative energy. You can go solar in a 3,000-square-foot McMansion, but it’s never going to be cost-effective.
* They discourage unnecessary purchases. If you don’t have a place to put it, you can’t buy it. I still buy a lot of stuff for the garden, but I waste far less money on odds and ends for the house these days.
* They take less time to clean.
* They’re cute.

Small houses require some creativity and planning, especially if you’re downsizing from something bigger, but the payoff in terms of energy and cost savings is worth the extra effort. If you’re considering a move in the near future, get on or another MLS engine to get a feel for what’s out there. Take an honest inventory of your personal possessions, and get rid of anything that’s taking up space without giving you anything in return. Figure out how much space you actually need, then look at your options. Chances are good you’ll save a pile of money, both upfront and over the long haul, and you’ll certainly be doing the environment a favor.

Here are a few photos of our house to give you some inspiration:

Bedroom. That's a battery-operated, LED reading lamp mounted to the wall. It folds up and out of the way when I'm not using it.
Bedroom. That’s a battery-operated, LED reading lamp on the wall. It folds up and out of the way when I’m not using it.
Dining room. Look at all that floor space! (Don't look at that ugly chair. I haven't had time to repaint it.)
Dining room. Look at all that floor space! (Don’t look at that ugly chair. I haven’t had time to repaint it.)
Kitchen. The counter was a tad more cluttered than usual because I was in the middle of a couple of projects.
Kitchen. The counter was a tad more cluttered than usual because I was in the middle of a couple of projects.
Our house was built before recycling was a thing, so I had to improvise to find space for the bins.
Still life with recycling bins and cat food. Walter photobombing.
We use a corner of the counter as a sort of breakfast bar for Ron's toast and my coffee.
We use a corner of the counter as a sort of breakfast bar for Ron’s toast and my coffee.
Office. The only truly cluttered space in the house, mainly because it's a multi-purpose room, and I'm always in the midst of one project or another.
Office. The only truly cluttered space in the house, mainly because it’s a multi-purpose room, and I’m always in the midst of one project or another.
Living room. I have no idea why Walter felt the need to photobomb every room.
Living room. Clingy cat photobombing yet again.

I can’t tell we’ve lost anything by downsizing from 950 square feet to 730. We have enough room to live our daily lives comfortably with a cat and two dogs, and those low energy bills make up for any minor inconveniences (e.g., the lack of a good place to store dog food and recyclables).


Vegan Friday: Green chile burritos

Little packets of awesomeness.
Little packets of awesomeness.

One of my favorite recent additions to Route 66 is a truck stop just off I-40 in Endee, N.M., called Russell’s. The classic car museum, diner and terrific assortment of souvenirs are all nice, but the real attraction for me is the green chile burrito.

Wrapped in foil and tucked in a case under a heat lamp, Russell’s green chile burrito looks like any other gas-station snack you’ve ever seen, but trust me on this: It’s different. Way different. Stuffed with meat, potatoes, cheese and green chile, this burrito is basically your first taste of New Mexico after you cross the state line from the Texas Panhandle. 

Knowing it could be a long time before I had another opportunity to enjoy the real thing, I paid special attention to what I was eating on this trip, savoring the taste with an eye toward replicating it at home. Here’s the vegan version of what I came up with:

2 small potatoes, diced
Small onion, diced
Two green chiles, roasted, or 1 small can chopped green chile
Olive oil
1 bag Boca crumbles
Cumin to taste
Chili powder to taste
4 to 6 flour tortillas

Nuke onions and potatoes with a little olive oil.
Nuke onions and potatoes with a little olive oil.

Nuke potatoes, onion and a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a covered dish until potatoes are soft. Add Boca crumbles, green chile, cumin and chili powder, stir, and microwave again until heated through. 

Warm each tortilla for 10 seconds in microwave. Using a big serving spoon, put a scoop of potato-Boca mixture in center of tortilla, wrap and serve. (If desired, add a small handful of your favorite vegan cheddar substitute before wrapping.)


Hired help

We have trapped seven — count ’em, SEVEN — squirrels in our garden this year, covered all the tomato plants with bird netting, and the birds and rodents are still decimating our harvest. No, wait. Not decimating. That would imply they’ve only ruined a tenth of my tomatoes. They’ve actually destroyed closer to half of them. Jerks.

As I was cussing the birds a few weeks ago, I remembered we never had this problem in Tulsa, largely because our neighborhood was full of stray cats, including a half-feral character who liked to hang out next to the chicken tractor and sleep on top of the beehives.

Schrodinger, as I called him, was a great deterrent to marauding wildlife. He served us well for several years until we had to put a privacy fence across the back of our property, whereupon his visits ceased. I don’t know whether he couldn’t climb it or simply didn’t choose to, but we never saw him again.

Our current yard is surrounded by a six-foot privacy fence, and it’s full of shady places for a resourceful cat to duck out of the weather or escape from overly curious dogs, so this afternoon, I decided to roll the dice and answer an ad I found in the paper for free kittens.

As it turned out, the lady who ran the ad is overrun with strays that people dump in her neighborhood. As I was holding a kitten, this little girl — who is about a year and a half old — wandered up and clamored to get in on the attention:


The lady said she really needed to find a home for “Moomaw,” as her grandkids had dubbed this little cat. After learning Moomaw was an enthusiastic hunter who would probably be content to hang out in the yard as long as she was fed and petted regularly, I tucked her into Scout’s old crate and brought her home. She complained for a few minutes but settled down nicely when I turned on some music.

I was going to change her name to something less ridiculous, but then tonight, I remembered an eccentric artist named Bob Moomaw was responsible for the world’s only known hippie memorial, so I have to think about this name issue some more. Maybe her first name should be Karen. She seemed to like the Carpenters. Then again, she’s definitely a country girl, so Loretta would be appropriate. Loretta Karen Moomaw sounds like a good name for a cat, doesn’t it?

I’ll settle on something after I learn a little more about her personality — assuming she doesn’t scale the fence and ditch us before she settles in. I don’t think she will. She seemed pretty happy rolling in the dirt under the tomato vines and rubbing her cheeks against the bird netting this evening, and she definitely liked being petted once she worked up the nerve to approach me.


Eco-Saturday: Save garden seeds

Here, I've allowed arugula to bolt and let the seed pods dry so I can save seeds to replant next year.
Arugula, one of my favorite salad greens, is very easy to grow from seed.

One simple way to save money on both garden supplies and groceries is to save seeds from garden produce and replant from year to year.

If you want to harvest seeds from the star performers in your garden, you’ll need to start by choosing open-pollinated varieties that will produce the same type of plant and fruit every time you save seeds from it and replant them. Hybrid varieties are unpredictable, and genetically modified organisms often come with patents that make it illegal for you to save seed and replant the next year. Any seed labeled as an “heirloom” variety is a good candidate for saving and replanting.

Choose seeds from the best plants in your garden. If, for instance, you have a particular tomato plant that is outperforming the others of its type, harvest seeds from that plant.

I used an old sherbet tub to collect the seeds as I removed them.
I used an old sherbet tub to collect the seeds as I removed them.

For plants that set fruit with seeds inside, such as tomatoes or cucumbers, allow the fruit to reach full maturity before you harvest it. For leafy plants, such as spinach, collards or lettuce, allow the plant to mature and set seed, then leave it alone until the seed pods are dry and brown. Do the same for beans and peas. When the pods are completely dry, bring them in and remove the seeds from them.

In some plants — for instance, cucumbers and tomatoes — the seeds are surrounded by gelatinous fluid. To harvest, scoop out the seeds, spread them thinly on a paper towel, and leave them in a warm, dry place until all the moisture evaporates. When the paper towel is completely dry, peel off the seeds. It’s OK if some of the paper comes with them.

I didn't have any on hand, but those little snack-size ziplock bags are great for seeds.
I didn’t have any on hand, but those little snack-size ziplock bags are great for seeds. I used a Sharpie to label my bag.

Seal dry seeds in an airtight container, such as a ziplock sandwich bag, labeled with the year and variety. If you live in a humid area, you might want to save the little silica gel packets that come in shoeboxes, purses and some kinds of beef jerky and slip one in each bag with the seeds to absorb moisture. For best germination, store seeds in a dry, relatively cool place, and plant them the next season.

If you end up with more than you can use, share them with friends who garden.


Vegan Friday: Veggie skewers


Here’s an easy recipe you can start tonight in the fridge and finish tomorrow on the grill. If you have a garden, it’s a great way to use up excess cherry tomatoes.

1/2 lb. whole mushrooms
1 green pepper
1 red onion
1 carton cherry tomatoes
1 c. Italian dressing
Bamboo skewers
Cooking spray
1/3 c. whole-wheat couscous
2/3 c. water
Margarine or olive oil

Wash mushrooms and remove stems. Cut pepper and onion into big chunks. Marinate all vegetables overnight in Italian dressing.


Thread marinated vegetables onto skewers in whatever order makes you happy. Either grill them outdoors over charcoal or bake on a cast-iron grill pan at 400 degrees until onions and peppers start to soften, turning once.

While vegetables cook, microwave couscous and water in a covered casserole dish until water is absorbed (about 3 minutes, depending on your microwave).


Divide couscous between two plates, top with a pat of margarine or a drizzle of olive oil, and arrange skewers on top of couscous. Serves two.

Vacation recap

We just got back Monday evening from a much-needed vacation, and I’ve been covering a murder trial all week, so I just got a hand free to start Photoshopping some images.

We left as soon as we finished up at the copy desk in the wee hours of the morning Aug. 10 and drove straight through to Tucumcari, because I hadn’t been out there in 20 months, hadn’t had a proper vacation in two years, and simply could not be bothered with such niceties as sleep until I got a lungful of high desert air.

We’d been on the road somewhere around 12 hours when we rolled through Erick, Okla., on Route 66 and passed a familiar rust-covered sign standing sentinel over a pasture near Texola:

I’ve always loved this sign between Erick and Texola, Okla.

At Vega, Texas, I insisted on stopping for a photo op with the mascot for Rooster’s Mexican restaurant. If you’re a fan of The Bloggess, you know why this was important.

Knock-knock. Vega, Texas.

As soon as we reached New Mexico, I insisted on stopping at Russell’s Travel Center in Endee so I could pick up one of their awesome green chile burritos before we went on to Tucumcari. Do I even have to tell you where we stayed?


Despite having been up for 38 hours — and on the road for a good 18 of them — I woke up at 6:30 the next morning, feeling more refreshed than I had at any point in the past two years. Once Ron got up, we loaded the car, grabbed breakfast at Kix on 66 (green chile breakfast burrito) and headed for Santa Rosa.

Santa Rosa, N.M. Practicing Bob Dylan covers on a crappy student guitar I picked up for $80 at Hastings.
Santa Rosa, N.M. Photo by Ron.

We visited the Rudolfo Anaya monument, where I sat under a tree, quietly playing Bob Dylan covers and singing to myself. We also wandered down the park trail, trying out the outdoor exercise equipment the city has put in since my last visit. (I was, of course, inspired to add “build outdoor gym in backyard” to my to-do list for my next creative outburst.) After Santa Rosa, we took the old alignment of 66 up to Santa Fe, making a short detour to Las Vegas, N.M., to see Allan Affeldt’s latest project — an old Harvey House called La Castaneda that he recently acquired and plans to restore. We spent some time poking around the interesting little shops downtown, which I highly recommend.

La Castaneda.
La Castaneda.

We got an order of green chile cheese fries — which I’d been craving for two solid years — at El Parasol in Santa Fe before heading to Albuquerque, where I broke my green chile streak with a trip to the Dog House for a (red) chili dog. We stayed at the Monterey Non-Smokers’ Motel, which was comfortable as always, and grabbed green chile breakfast burritos at the Frontier Restaurant before heading out of town.

Owl Rock, west of Albuquerque, N.M.
Owl Rock, west of Albuquerque, N.M.

In Gallup, we went to Aurelia’s Diner, where I consumed what might be the greatest thing ever invented: a “green parfait,” which is a parfait glass full of mashed potatoes layered with green chile stew and topped with shredded cheddar. GLORY.

We’ll pick up this saga there tomorrow, assuming I can shake free to work up a few more photos. I’ve got tons of images from Amboy Crater to share.


Munchkin Tuesday: Waterfuls

Haven’t done a Munchkin Tuesday in ages, but a Twitter conversation with a girl who remembers the childhood joys (and traumas) of the late ’70s and early ’80s got me thinking about the Waterful toy I had as a kid. Mine was a small one that involved a plastic swordfish who had to catch rings on his nose. I have no idea why I don’t have carpal tunnel after all the time I spent playing with that thing.

Remember when toy stores used to put out Waterfuls for kids to play with in hopes they’d get hooked and bug their parents to buy one?


Eco-Saturday: T-shirt bags

I could have sworn I’d posted this somewhere before — maybe on this blog, or maybe on the one Ron set up to track our adventures in solar living a few years ago — but bloody hell if I can find it now.

Anyway, several years ago, inspired by this awesome Craftster tutorial, I turned some old T-shirts into a set of reusable shopping bags to take to the grocery store. (BTW, Craftster is a fantastic site full of creative people from all over the planet who have all kinds of ideas for upcycling and reconning stuff that otherwise might end up in a landfill. Whenever I’m feeling down, I pop over there and surf for ideas. Some of my most epic creative outbursts have been inspired by Craftster posts.)

Whether you make them yourself or buy them ready-made, reusable bags are a great, super-easy way to reduce your environmental impact.

Martha Stewart has a slightly simpler tutorial here that’s closer to the method I used. If you use her approach, stitch across the bottom two or three times to reinforce the seam.