New friends

I got to help with a cool project Saturday morning. Some volunteers from the local Islamic Center teamed up with some members of Abbey Road Christian Church — which I’ve been visiting for the last few weeks — to pull weeds and trim back perennials in the flowerbeds around the church’s labyrinth.

There has been a strong effort lately to foster better communication between members of the Muslim and Christian faith communities here in Cape, which delights me to no end. (My favorite high-school anecdotes all start with what sounds like the setup to a bad joke — “A Muslim, a Jew, and a vegan walk into a pizzeria” — and end with a bunch of kids laughing until our faces hurt while our scholar-bowl coach tried to figure out what we were up to this time.)

Anyway, between my fondness for interfaith activities and my love of labyrinths, showing up Saturday was a no-brainer, and I spent a couple of happy hours making new friends and working in a pretty garden.

Unfortunately, the project became less pleasant for three participants who encountered a colony of red paper wasps that were nesting in one of the flowerbeds. Paper wasps are usually fairly docile, but if you disturb their home, they’ll invoke the castle doctrine.

Several church members suggested using pesticides to kill the wasps, as they presented a safety issue for the volunteers as well as anyone who might come out to walk the labyrinth.

I understood their concern, but as a beekeeper, I knew I could suit up and remove the threat without harming any adult wasps, so I suggested everybody simply avoid that flowerbed while I called Ron to bring me a protective suit and gloves.

Once Ron arrived, it took about 15 minutes to suit up, find the nest and remove it. Problem solved. I brought the nest home so the pupae developing inside the sealed cells could finish maturing and hopefully hook up with a colony in my garden when they emerged. (Sadly, the larvae and eggs were doomed the minute I removed the nest from its original spot, but I’d rather lose a little brood than destroy the entire colony.)

I’m always amazed at how far I’ve come with respect to wasps.

As a kid, I didn’t know much about stinging insects, and I was terrified of them. As I grew up and learned more about pollinators, however, fear gave way to understanding, respect, and appreciation, and today, I’m not the least bit shy about running interference on their behalf when necessary.

Funny how that works, isn’t it?


Tiny Tuesday: Capsule wardrobe

Most of what I do lately is done with my end goal — a tiny, off-grid house in northern New Mexico — in mind. (The longer this election cycle drags on, the more that idea appeals to me. Let me just vanish into the high desert and live in a way that obviates the necessity of interacting with other human beings altogether.)

Anyway. A tiny house, typically defined as 300 square feet or less, requires a certain commitment to minimalism. Items that make sense in 690 square feet won’t make sense in 300, so I’m constantly looking for downsizing opportunities.

One area I’ve downsized considerably is my wardrobe.

I’m not going to tell you how to choose the items that should go into a capsule wardrobe. There are plenty of resources online to help you with that; Project 333 is a good one to get you started. I will, however, point out some considerations that helped me make decisions as I downsized.

1. There are only seven days in a week, and I only work five of them. We do laundry once a week, so I really don’t need more than five outfits that are presentable for work and two that are suitable for whatever rough-and-tumble activities I choose to undertake on weekends. I try to keep a couple of spare work outfits on hand in case I spill something on myself (likely) and a couple of spare weekend outfits on hand in case I get sweaty or muddy or soaked with pond water (also likely). But I don’t have much beyond that.

2. I’m not willing to squander precious storage space on things I can’t wear, so anything stained, smelly, too big, too small, unflattering or damaged went out the door.

3. A couple of cardigans and a couple of hoodies take up less space than a closet full of bulky sweaters. My summer and winter wardrobes are virtually identical: black T-shirt and khakis for work; jeans and a T-shirt for weekends. Add a cardigan, hoodie or flannel on cold days, and I’m comfortable regardless of the season. I also have a couple of broomstick skirts, which store easily and work fine with a black T-shirt and cardigan for those rare instances when I need to dress up.

4. Comfort is king. I wear a pair of 16-year-old tan suede Birkenstock clogs at least 300 days a year. If it’s cold out, I wear them with socks. If I need to dress up, I wear a newer pair of charcoal wool Birkenstock clogs. I also have a pair of black Justin boots for snowy days; two pairs of running shoes (your risk of injury is lower if you rotate between pairs); and a pair of Dansko clogs I bought for a job interview one time and have worn maybe a half-dozen times since. That’s it. I’m not wasting closet space on uncomfortable heels or colorful shoes that only match one outfit.

I still have more clothes than I need, but not by much, and by keeping the inventory small, I can find things easily and don’t have to spend a lot of time figuring out what to wear. If you’re trying to save space, I highly recommend giving a capsule wardrobe a try.


Make-it Monday: Safety feature

This isn’t so much a “make-it” project as a “buy-it-and-install-it” project, but it was cheap, quick and might save us a few bucks on vet bills and insurance deductibles, so I thought I’d post it anyway.

Several months ago, Ron hit a slippery spot after a rainstorm and fell on the steps leading from our deck to the backyard, earning himself a nasty bruise in the process.

He wasn’t the only one who found treated lumber just a little too slick to negotiate safely after a rain; during a particularly wet period this summer, we noticed our aging collie mix, Songdog, stepping gingerly and occasionally slipping, so the next time I was at the hardware store, I picked up some tread tape and a package of tacks and set about making the steps a little safer for my boys.

The finished project would have looked a little neater if I’d cut the strips to length instead of tearing them, but I didn’t want to dull my scissors cutting tape with the texture of sandpaper. If you’re particular about such things, you could probably use a utility knife with a disposable blade to make a neater edge.

Riggy wasn’t impressed (lacking eyes, he navigates the world with his nose, ears and paws, and he doesn’t like it when familiar paths suddenly feel unfamiliar under his feet), but I’m sure we’re all safer, and even if he refuses to set a paw on the strips, they slow him down and force him to think about what he’s doing, so he’ll be less likely to slip when he comes charging in for dinner or cookie time.

You can buy narrow tread tape for about $1 a foot at most hardware stores; wider tape will run you a little more. I think the stuff I used was about two inches wide and came with a self-adhesive backing that I spent about 15 minutes reinforcing with tacks just to be sure it stayed put. Cheap, easy project, and one I highly recommend if you’ve got outdoor steps that are prone to get a little slippery in wet weather.


Sunday self-care: Coffee break

Sometimes taking care of myself involves doing something big and time-consuming, such as going out for a 10-mile jog.

Sometimes it’s much simpler.

For the past six months or so, I’ve made a point of enjoying one simple pleasure every day, without fail: my morning coffee.

I don’t drink as much coffee as I used to. Sleep is too precious and too fragile these days to jeopardize it with two or three shots of espresso or several cups of coffee. Instead, I concentrate on quality over quantity, and I start my mornings with a pourover made from the best quality coffee I can find (usually Sumatran, and preferably from a local roaster), ground on the spot and prepared using the pourover method, which is a little time-consuming but yields a better cup of coffee than anything an automatic drip machine is likely to produce.


The whole process, from heating the water to tossing the spent grounds in the compost bucket, takes about five minutes. I spend another five to 10 sipping the finished product and enjoying a few minutes to myself before the house wakes up.

On a cool morning, I’ll let all the dogs out and take my coffee out to the garden to sip while they play; when it’s hot, I stay inside, where Walter might decide to curl up on my lap or Lillian might toddle into the dining room to sit on the floor beside my chair in companionable silence. The simple ritual of heating the water, grinding the beans, and slowly pouring the water over them makes for a nice transition from rest to running around, and one I’ve come to cherish.


Eco-Saturday: Water-heater blanket

One of the easiest home-improvement projects you can do to reduce your overall environmental footprint will take maybe 15 minutes and set you back less than $25: Install a water-heater blanket. The U.S. Department of Energy reports you can save $20 to $45 a year with this simple project.

A water-heater blanket is basically a small roll of fiberglass insulation with plastic backing that’s cut to the approximate size of a 60-gallon household water heater. It typically comes with several feet of very sticky, heavy-duty tape and a set of instructions for installation. You should read the instructions before you start, obviously, but the upshot is that you wrap it around the water heater — taking care not to block the thermostat or any vents — and tape it in place. That’s really all there is to it.

Because water-heater blankets are made of fiberglass insulation, you’ll want to wear gloves and long sleeves while you work so you don’t end up with itchy arms and hands.

I installed a blanket on our tired old water heater last fall to knock down our winter gas bills. (I took pictures at the time, but they subsequently vanished into the ether, which is what I get for not posting projects as soon as I complete them.)

The old water heater, which was installed in 1988, was having trouble holding proper temperature, and the blanket helped reduce that problem for a few months until we could afford to replace the whole appliance.

If you can afford a new Energystar water heater, by all means, get one. We finally did this spring, and we’ve enjoyed warmer showers and lower energy bills ever since. But if you’re stuck with an old one, you’ll find that $15 to $25 you spend insulating it will pay for itself and make your life a little easier in the meantime.


P.S.: Tip from my mom, copied from a comment below: “And if you have an electric water heater, put it on a switch and turn it off after everyone has showered. 20 minutes before you’re going to shower or do laundry, turn it back on. I can’t begin to count the $$ we’ve saved over the past 15 years doing this, and the inconvenience is minimal. I turn on the water heater as soon as I come home in the evening and we turn it off after the last shower that evening. Bills are MUCH lower.”

Vegetarian Friday: Cheesy cauliflower mess

I am not one of those people who will swear to you that cauliflower tastes “just like [insert thing that is not cauliflower],” because it doesn’t. Cauliflower tastes like cauliflower. It can be made to approximate the texture of various other substances — most notably, mashed potatoes — but it’s not going to fool anybody, and if you try, you will only annoy your dinner guests.

What cauliflower will do, if prepared properly, is taste good without costing you as many calories as some of the other foods you might like to prepare in a similar manner. For this recipe, we’re going to puree cauliflower and then add a bunch of crap you’d expect to find on a baked potato, which will give you something that bears exactly zero resemblance to a baked potato but still tastes good and is a nice way to eat cauliflower.


Bag of frozen cauliflower
2 tbsp. water
2 tbsp. butter
1 c. shredded cheddar cheese
1/4 c. sour cream or your favorite onion dip
1 tbsp. snipped chives (fresh is best if you have some on hand)

Put the cauliflower and water in a microwave-safe dish, cover, and nuke until tender (about 7 minutes in my tired old microwave, but your mileage may vary).

Drain cauliflower. Place cauliflower, butter and 3/4 c. of the cheese in a food processor and puree until smooth.

Divide puree between two bowls and top with the rest of the cheese. Nuke briefly to melt cheese.

Top each bowl with sour cream or dip and chives. Serves 2.

Non-vegetarians: You can add a couple of strips of bacon to this list if you feel like messing with it. Fry to your liking, crumble them up, and sprinkle on top along with the chives.

Sustainability on a shoestring