You keep using that word.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
— Inigo Montoya

Let’s talk about word usage for a minute. Specifically, let’s discuss the word “hack.”

Historically, it was appropriate and accurate to use the word “hack” if you were referring to …

1. … someone’s wood-chopping technique.
2. … the sound of a cough.
3. … a data breach.
4. … Judy Blume.

A fifth context arose a few years ago, when people started using the word “hack” to refer to the practice of disassembling something, making major modifications to it, and then reassembling it. The first time I saw it used in this context was sometime around 2007, on a website selling Holga camera modifications.

I’m not sure whether the term is meant to evoke chopping (“hacking up” an object to alter it) or cybercrime (“hacking into” something to improve it, as you might do with a smartphone’s operating system), but either way, it makes sense when you’re talking about making major alterations to something.

It does not make sense when you’re talking about using an item straight out of the box, with no modifications (e.g., hanging a spice rack in the bathroom to hold small items), using an item exactly as it was designed to be used (e.g., pushing in the little tabs at the ends of a box of waxed paper so the roll doesn’t fall out), or doing something sensible that anybody with any common sense could figure out (e.g., all of the tips listed in the “Five Hacks for Winter Running” article I saw the other day, which included such dazzlingly clever innovations as wearing several layers of clothing, putting Yaktrax on your shoes when it’s icy, and doing a few warmup exercises indoors before heading out to run).

“Hack” was a clever term about 10 years ago, but at this point, if you’re not using it to refer to a person who writes clickbait headlines for a living, I think it’s probably advisable to drop it from your vocabulary.

Emily

Tiny Tuesday: Repurpose a dishrack

I swiped an idea from my mom while I was helping her with the Thanksgiving dishes Thursday.

Mom and Dad redid their kitchen not too long ago, and their old dishrack wouldn’t fit well on the new counter, so they bought a new one.

Rather than throw out the old one, Mom stuck it in the bottom of one of the new cabinets, where it keeps the pan lids organized and easy to find.

Repurpose an old dishrack as a neat storage center for lids.
Repurpose an old dishrack as a neat storage center for lids.

Given the weight of some of those lids, I’m not sure how well this would work with a flimsy plastic dishrack, but the one Mom used is made of heavy wire coated with plastic, and I am fairly certain it’s been around longer than I have, so it’s obviously pretty sturdy.

The rack takes up more room than the lids would if they were just tossed onto the bottom of the cabinet willy-nilly, but for me, part of the appeal with the tiny-house movement is its emphasis on organizing your things instead of just cramming them in wherever they’ll fit and forgetting where you put them. I love the idea of having all my possessions in close proximity to each other so I can access them quickly and easily, but if my cabinets aren’t organized well, I’m going to lose that advantage.

If I were using a dishrack for storage in my own kitchen, I’d probably use that space to the right of the lids to keep my big wok out of sight but within easy reach.

Take a look around your kitchen and see what items you could repurpose to organize your cabinets. I’ve found a streamlined space makes food prep faster, easier, and much more pleasant.

Emily

Sunday Self-Care: Seed catalogs

It’s the third-most wonderful time of the year.

The most wonderful time of the year is the first Saturday after Tax Day, when we put the garden in the ground.

The second-most wonderful time of the year is the day Cubs pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

But the third-most wonderful time of the year is now, when the companies that sell seeds for the garden and beekeeping equipment for the apiary start sending out catalogs, which means I can start dreaming about spring in specific detail and figuring out how many times we’re going to have to eat enchiladas or sauerkraut to save up enough cans for all the seeds I intend to start. (Tin cans with the bottoms cut out make the world’s greatest seed-starting pots/squirrel deterrents. Unfortunately, about the only products that still come in cans with identical tops and bottoms are Ro-Tel tomatoes; certain brands of sauerkraut; and most enchilada sauce. This means for about two months every winter, my grocery list revolves around my gardening needs.)

Gardening and beekeeping catalogs are my saving grace every winter. Gray skies and short days don’t do anything positive for my mental health, and after a while, I start to wonder whether I’ll ever get to put my hands in the dirt and bask in the sunshine again. When that first seed catalog lands in the mailbox, I see the first glimmer of hope.

We got catalogs this weekend from Seed Savers Exchange and Betterbee, so I’ll spend the next few months dogearing pages and circling varieties that sound promising and drawing scale diagrams of the garden while I dream of spring.

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Eat in season

We’re reaching that drizzly, chilly, depressing time of year when all the tomato vines are dead, most of the herbs are fading, and the farmers’ markets are winding down.

When the weather sucks, it’s tempting to buy the out-of-season produce that finds its way into the grocery store every winter.

Try to resist the temptation.

Out-of-season produce is almost always shipped in from some other country where the growing seasons are longer. To survive the trip without spoiling, it has to be picked early — before it’s ripe — and the varieties capable of traveling long distances are bred for durability, not flavor, so you’re going to end up paying extra for an inferior product that’s wasted a ton of fuel getting here.

Rather than subject yourself, your bank account, and the environment to that, look at what you can do with frozen and canned vegetables and whatever happens to be in season.

The Mother Earth News Almanac, which I reviewed on here last week, has a couple of good winter recipes, including an utterly divine potato-cheese soup I’ve made too many times to count.

Root vegetables (carrots, onions, turnips, radishes, potatoes, and sweet potatoes) are good this time of year and likely didn’t have to travel very far. Winter squash is also in season now, and mushrooms are grown year-’round.

If you like meat, try putting a roast or a few chicken breasts in the Crock-Pot with a can of beer and several cloves of garlic and cooking it overnight. If you don’t eat meat, dried beans are a good option — just soak overnight, simmer in the Crock-Pot all day, and serve over couscous for an easy, high-protein meal.

Cruciferous vegetables (kale, collards, turnips, cabbage) are in season. Slow-cook the kale, collards, or turnips, or shred the cabbage, fry it with bacon and onions, and spice it up with a little sriracha.

Apples and cranberries are also in season at the moment; grab some of each to make cranberry sauce. Many other fruits are available frozen or canned and work well in cobblers.

If you just can’t give up salads, use spinach or sprouts (easily grown on the countertop) as a base and add mushrooms, a handful of nuts, some bleu cheese, and maybe a diced Granny Smith apple or some thinly sliced radishes. Raw turnips also make a good addition to salads if you julienne them first.

And, of course, you can always find canned and frozen ingredients to get your family through the winter. Our favorites include chili; posole; gumbo; minestrone; green-chile stew; smoked sausage with canned sauerkraut; and Philly sandwiches made with frozen tricolor pepper strips.

Food doesn’t have to suck just because the weather does. Pay attention to what’s in season, and don’t be afraid to buy weird-looking roots you see at the grocery store. Between Google and Pinterest, you should be able to figure out what they are and how to use them.

Emily

Customer service

Several months back, I pre-ordered a Judy Collins concert DVD called “A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim.” It was still in production at the time but was supposed to be ready in a matter of weeks.

I’m really good at ordering things and then forgetting about them, so I didn’t think about it again until we got a note saying there’d been a delay, and the DVD wouldn’t be ready for a few more weeks.

A few more weeks passed. And a few more. And then one morning about a month or so ago, Ron went out to get the mail, and there was a package from Wildflower Records.

“I think your DVD is here,” he said.

I opened the package. It wasn’t the DVD. It was a copy of Ms. Collins’ latest CD, accompanied by a note from her record label apologizing for the long delay, explaining the CD was a gift to make it up to fans for having to wait so long, and assuring us the project was still in the works and should be finished shortly.

The election happened. Leonard Cohen died. Leon Russell died. I forgot about the DVD again.

Ron went out to get the mail Saturday morning, and lo and behold, there was another package from Wildflower. Inside it was the DVD, autographed and accompanied by another note apologizing for the delay, this one signed by Judy Collins herself.

I wasn’t upset about the wait, but I was impressed by the customer service.

Things go wrong. You can’t always control that. But you can control how you handle the situation. Anybody who’s ever waited tables knows the best way to keep a screwup in the kitchen from costing you a tip (and the restaurant a customer) is to apologize, maybe bring the customer an extra basket of chips, and issue regular updates on the situation so he’s not left wondering what’s going on. If you can upsize the meal or throw in a free dessert, you do that, too. Most people are pretty forgiving if you apologize and try to make it up to them, especially if they know the situation is beyond your control.

Wildflower handled this situation about as well as they possibly could: After one delay, they sent a notice. After a second delay, they sent a gift. When the product finally became available, they added value with the autograph and enclosed a note signed by the artist.

That extra effort was a classy move that showed the label — and the artist — cared enough about the fans to try to compensate for the unforeseen delay. It made me smile, but it didn’t particularly surprise me, once I thought about it.

After all, Judy Collins used to wait tables before she became famous.

Emily

Tiny Tuesday: Space-saving gifts

Last year, I ran into a bit of a challenge as Christmas approached. Earlier in the year, a new Five Below store had opened in town, and on my first visit, I’d found a plethora of items I was sure my niece would love. I bought several, wrapped them, and stacked them on a high shelf in the bedroom closet.

As the year progressed, I added to the pile: a Hastings run here, a trip to World Market there, with new additions being wrapped and placed on the shelf as they came in, until the pile started encroaching on the space bags full of extra linens, and I started running out of places to stash gifts where the dogs couldn’t unwrap them.

As I wedged an awkwardly wrapped plushie into the space between a Death Star tea infuser and a set of Batman pint glasses, I thought: When we build our tiny house, everybody’s getting a gift card, because I’m not going to have anywhere to store all this.

Then the tags started falling off the presents while I was trying to figure out which ones needed to go to whose house on Christmas, and in what order, and I decided I’d just make the switch this year instead of waiting until we move.

Look at all that space they aren't taking up!
Look at all that space they aren’t taking up!

Maaaaan. Gift cards aren’t a new concept, obviously, and I buy a few every year (ask my dad how many Barnes and Noble cards he’s gotten in the past decade), but doing the vast majority of my shopping this way? Major stress reducer. No wrapping. No storing large items. No chasing the cat out of the presents 583,742 times a day. All I have to do is buy a few Christmas cards, slip the gift cards into them, and file them so they don’t get lost in the next month.

Bonus: If the recipients have limited space, they can use their cards to buy small items or consumables, so their gifts won’t create storage issues for them, either.

If you’re too disorganized to keep track of a gift card, another good option is to treat your loved ones to dinner out. I did this for my little brother’s birthday this year, and it was great: We got a nice visit, he got a meal he liked, and I got out of shopping. So. Much. WIN.

Emily

Sustainability on a shoestring