Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Book Review -- The Non-Toxic Avenger

Among the blogs I follow is one from Seattle called The Crunchy Chicken. Written by Deanna Duke, a wife and mother of two, the blog covers sustainable and non-toxic lifestyle choices. Just before I picked up the blog, New Society Publishers released Deanna's book, The Non-Toxic Avenger. I promptly bought it, read it, and have redesigned some aspects of our life based on her information and experiences.

The Non-Toxic Avenger is the record of a project that grew from Deanna's experience of her son's diagnosis with Aspergers and her husband's with myeloma in the same week. Realising that such diagnoses were becoming more common led to her exploration of the insidious toxins that form part of our daily lives – the fire retardents in clothing and upholstery, the PVC in computer cables, the ingredients in personal care products, the BPA residue from thermal receipts – and their impact on our health and well being. Some of these chemicals are known carcinogens, others can cause birth defects or disrupt hormones. Others seem more benign – until you realise that by engaging your immune system in their processing, they are preventing it from addressing the viruses and germs that it should be fighting to keep you in optimal health.

Long ago, after reading Cleaning Yourself To Death, I made parts of my lifestyle as non-toxic as I thought that I could – in terms of cleaning materials for us and the house. I banished all commercial cleaning materials, replacing them with vinegar and soda for the house and natural soaps and shampoos for us. Almost immediately I noticed that my sensitivity to fragrance developed to the point that passing the supermarket aisles of synthetic cleaners became an uncomfortable experience.

The Non-Toxic Avenger advances the process. Deanna starts the book by discussing the environmental toxins that our bodies must deal with every day: the plasticising pthalates found in childrens toys, medical equipment, paints, cosmetics, cling film, and plastic food wrappers; the chemicals and heavy metals found in non-stick cookware; the coatings added to fabrics that make them flame resistant, waterproof, or wrinkle-free. She designed a project whereby she tested her body's burden of chemicals before embarking on a four-month ridding of all toxins from her environment and a rigourous body detox, and again after. Her experience and results make interesting reading for anyone concerned with the potential health effects of everyday materials.

Mixing some hard science with a conversational tone and plenty of anecdotes, Deanna has written a book that is accessible to all readers. I had a private whinge about some of the Americanisms in the text, but... the book was written by an American, largely for an American readership: European regulations being much more stringent, and the tone needs to stay conversational – or readers might go cross-eyed from information overload.

I was a little disappointed that she left out information on several areas, but she couldn't cover everything and subjects that did not relate so directly to the project got less, if any print. Feminine 'hygeine' is something that she barely mentioned except to cover the quantity of related waste dumped into landfills, but of concern to me is the materials and chemicals that we are exposed to by our use of tampons, pads, wipes, and fragrances. I long ago reduced my exposure by switching to washable cotton pads, but that's too crunchy for many women who may never give a thought to the products they use. Deanna's children were past the nappy stage by the time she wrote The Non-Toxic Avenger, so she doesn't enter the 'washable vs disposable nappy wars'. The dyes, bleaches, and super-absorbent gels used in disposables have caused allergic reactions in and toxic shock in children, and may be linked to male infertility.  They have been known to harm pets (on ingestion?), and the waste and environmental implications are enormous. Disposable wipes, even unfragranced ones, are loaded with chemical nasties, yet babies' bottoms encounter them daily, then are often slathered with creams or powdered. I would like to see feminine and baby-care products given the same kind of scrutiny that Deanna gave Christmas lights, Hallowe'en costumes, and candles – anyone out there want to step up to the plate?

I highly recommed the book. Toward the end, Deanna mentions the practices that she started during the project that she has continued: organic food as far as possible, non-stick banned from the premises, the use of plants for interior air filtering, a new hoover, and all 100% clean body products. These are all practices that anyone can institute in a move toward a healthier life-style. The author also includes several recipes (for deodorant, hair lightener, mole repellent, acne wash, and soap) to help readers make the transition.

For my part, I tossed all the old non-stick cookware I had and resurrected some cast-iron and glass. I replaced the old cookie sheets and the small frying pan with 'Green non-stick' from Teflon (PFOA, lead, and cadmium-free) and a Green Pan. I pay more attention to packaging, and no longer buy tomatoes in tins, choosing glass instead, and avoid handling or retaining shop receipts as much as possible. As clothing, appliances or furniture wear out, I will be more attentive to the materials in their replacements. As an eye-opener for some topics, and a refresher course for others, The Non-Toxic Avenger was a great buy.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

It's a Dog's Life... and Death

A stray aristocratic-looking husky bitch that Sophia and I dubbed the Ice Queen showed up last week at the Cuz's supermarket/cafe at the end of the road. In itself, that is not a problem – except that she's in heat. And that, like a magnet, draws all the stray male dogs in the area – and our Sputnik.

And that is a problem.

They trash the gardens, they pullout the garbage, and they create a hazard on the main road – which is dangerous enough where we are. They also run the risk of catching a bullet from one or another of the armed characters up here including my husband and his brother.

So four days ago, along with Stelios who was working for me for the day, Sophia and I set out to capture the Queen and her Main Acolyte, a young chestnut brown labrador-pointer cross with a sweet face, and take them to the shelter. The husky may well be chipped as they are quite valuable here. The Acolyte was a dog no-one wanted: beautiful but whip thin and shy as a fawn. I'm sure that he had been beaten by the way that he cringed when anyone turned in his direction or attempted to approach.

I had seen Sputnik, the Acolyte, and the Queen in the dirt lot behind the cafe, so – armed with leads and some leftover hamburger – we piled into the Landrover. The dogs were there, and Sputnik ran to us with a smile: “See my new friends?” The Queen immediately went to Stelios, and we were about to get her into the car when the waitress from the cafe came out. “Where are you taking that dog?” she asked in broken Greek.

“To the shelter,” I said. “And this one, if we can catch him”

“Are they yours?” she asked.

Turns out that Cuz had claimed the Ice Queen.

“That dog is so not his,” Sophia said to me in an aside. “He just wants her because she's pretty and valuable!”

Cuz muttered something about a friend of his coming to take her and I said, with emphasis: “Cuz, she's female, and unless you keep her tied up, she's making a problem for all of us up here. I'm not going to shoot her, but Bill or Best Beloved might. Keep her on your place.”

On the way back to our house, I found the Acolyte – alone for the moment as Cuz had taken the Queen. I tried to make friends with him with a view to catching him and taking him to the shelter, but though he ate some chunks of burger from my hand, I couldn't touch him, let alone get him into the car, and I had no time to construct a trap and lure him in to safety. I had to trust that Cuz would take the husky home and that the problem would be solved.

Of course he didn't, and of course more dogs kept arriving. Then it was Bill's turn. “If it's your dog, Cuz, keep it off my place and away from my dogs. I keep finding piles of crap on my lawn...”  Cuz gave him a different story about the dog's ownership, but Bill cut him short.  "Just keep her under control."

Then last night: “Bill shot the Acolyte,” announced BB. Sophia and I exchanged pained and guilty looks. “And you'd better keep an eye on Sputnik because if Cuz doesn't keep the Husky under control, she might be next, and good shot though he is, Bill might miss. Among milling dogs, it's easy to hit the wrong one.”

Sophia immediately went to find Sputnik. “He's covered in blood!” she said.

“Well, he was close. As I said, keep an eye on him.”

This morning, Sophia went to find Sputnik to wash and feed him. He was at the cafe, sleeping curled up next to the Ice Queen. She prised them apart and carried him home: “He was crying his eyes out all the way,” she said. “The Queen was tied, and she was yipping and crying at the end of her chain, she would have followed if she could. I couldn't get all the blood off, Sputnik wouldn't eat, and as soon as he could he went back to the cafe.”

They're fine at the cafe, as long as the husky is tied or confined. She'll be out of season soon and the problem will end – for the moment. But if she is allowed to be loose and another swarm of dogs gathers, Bill is sure to shoot more of them. Strays are a real problem here, and although I do my best to take the ones that I find and can catch to a shelter – I've taken at least eight in the last year – there is no sign of a let-up.

Above pictures are not mine.  They were found on the Internet.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Barbie and the Van, Cappadocia, Turkey 1991

The Gallery this month asked us to find a landscape and 'show what a wonderful and diverse place the world is'.  So here's mine: the record of a wonderful week in a beautiful place with a   dear friend.  Please follow The Gallery link to see what others came up with!

From November 1987 until August 1992 I lived on the road in this van. Sometimes I was alone, sometimes with friends. For nine wonderful months, my best friend Barbie was with me. She flew out from London and I picked her up in Heraklion, Crete on Easter Saturday. We raced up through Greece to get out before my customs documents expired, then spent three months in Turkey looping from Constantinople to Mount Ararat, up to the Black Sea coast, then across into Syria. We spent a month in Syria, a month in Jordan, then alternated between the Sinai, Israel, and Cyprus depending on time, work, customs documents, and visa restrictions.

One of our more relaxed times was a week in the central Turkish region of Cappadocia where the wind and weather have sculpted the rocks into 'fairy chimneys' – some of which were used as monasteries and churches in years gone by, others have been turned into dwellings and hotels still in use. Local people were genuinely helpful -- whether or not we chose to buy from their shop or eat in their restaurant. No refuse, plastic bags or scrawny animals were to be seen in the streets and urban areas: the horses pulling the little carts were groomed and carried bags under their tails to catch manure for well-tended gardens and fields.

Barbie is far away now, living on the other side of the world. We are still in touch, though our lives have pulled us in very different directions. I still think of her as one of my best friends, and remember the times we shared – terrifying, exuberant, exasperating, tedious, and poignant – as some of the best of my life.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Spanish Fire

As I mentioned in a January 'Things Around Me', our house gets cold in the winter. We have the radiator-running woodburner downstairs and an open fire upstairs, but the open fire is not very efficient. Best Beloved loves it, I believe, for the psychological aspect: the Lord of the Manor in his Great Hall. When lit and roaring, it's an impressive sight... But I digress. Over these last few cold weeks, the house has been decidedly chilly, especially upstairs where the radiators really don't get much above lukewarm because the system is just too big for the fire.

Since the start of the cold snap, we have wrangled for hours about heating the upstairs: BB went to see Chris Hadjipetrou at Thermodynamics on the Polis road who had sold us the other two woodburners in the house, and Chris advocated putting one of his big burners in the open fireplace, but nothing he had would fit without knocking out what was already built and although BB and I might fight over his fireplace, we agreed that unless something fit without alteration, that idea was a non-starter.

“But we could install another fire,” my husband suggested. I cast an eye over the room, checking out the corners he had indicated as possible locations or envisaging a sexy Scandinavian in-the-round number in the centre of the living room, and finally said: “Yes, we could. Right behind my desk.”  Our house might be about to become a Thermodynamics Alternate Showroom, but at least I would be able to work at my desk in the winter without two jumpers, woolly socks and slipper boots.

Chris had several models that would work, so we settled on Tessa from the Spanish company Rocal – slightly raised, glass doors on three sides. BB and Chris discussed price to include installation, construction of a plasterboard backing with spotlights, and the moving of some electrical points, and settled on a delivery date.

Last week a large white van drew up at the front door and Don and Wayne, familiar from the installations of our other fireplaces, began setting up. They were done within the day, and blessings on them, swept up every mote of dust and picked up every scrap of packing, leaving the room spick and span. 

We couldn't light Tessa the first night as the cement was still curing on the chimney, but we did the second and felt a difference in the room. She is pleasant looking, easy to clean, and a joy to work in front of – and since BB provides all the wood from our tree demolition with his trusty chainsaw – cheap to run.

But I still felt cold upstairs. Was our top floor simply too big and lofty to heat at all?

The answer came Saturday.

“Manamou,” Best Beloved said to me mid-morning. “Come here.” He was standing at the kitchen sink, and he pointed up to the left, where the larder and kitchen walls converge. “Does that hole go to the outside?”

He had been standing at the sink, and hearing sparrows, had looked up, thinking that a bird or two had got into the house. Only then had he noticed that where the massive beams meet the wall, there seemed to be a space. Some hapless builder had never filled between the ceiling joists and the wall, and because of the darkness and natural colour of the wood and the angle of the ceiling, we had never noticed.

We collected the long ladder and he climbed up to see. Sure enough a space below the ceiling measuring fifteen by thirty centimetres has sucked out heat and let cold into our house for the last five winters.

BB called the contractor – who's also, luckily, a friend – and he sent some builders around the next day while the plaster board guys were doing the fire surround. The hole has now been filled and painted, and when I walked into the house that evening, Tessa had been going for an hour or so and the upstairs was actually warm. Not just 'not cold', but honest-to-goodness warm.

Glad we got that sorted!

Unfortunately there are 'During' but no 'After' pictures -- yet. Our plasterboard finisher is a real anachronism – a perfectionist who cares about the quality of his finished product. He is having trouble with a section of work, and will not sign off on it until it meets his specs. I grumbled about that at first: although Mr Mattheas cleans up after himself (a great selling point for Thermodynamics as most local workmen leave all their litter behind them), a fine layer of plaster dust from his re-sandings has been in this room for the last few days and he will not finish until tomorrow or after. Then I realised how lucky I am to have a craftsman who cares about his work and will strive to get it right: I haven't seen one of those for a while and will trade a bit of dust for the cost and disruption of repairing a bodge any day.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Going Bananas

Best Beloved has a cousin who grows bananas, and last week he was kind enough to give us some.  Not a few, not a hand, a whole freakin' tree's worth...  Now I'm not knocking this:  Cypriots are truly generous, especially with what they produce.  We get tons of yoghurt, anari, peanuts, citrus, and other things from relatives, and it is very welcome.  I try and keep up in mango and plum season, and with my offerings of hand cream, etc.

But when someone gives you around 150 unripe bananas, whaddaya do???

Well, I started out putting some sugar solution in the stem 'to make them ripen evenly' according to BB (who had initially said when I had asked, open-mouthed, what do do with them 'Put them in the compost, if you want!').  For want of a better place, I put them in the Back Kitchen -- on a par with the basement for organisation -- and kept a beady eye out for the next few days.

They did, indeed, change from green to yellow.  Then, alarmingly, their skins began to split.

I knew that it was time to start using them, so I made banana bread.  I googled the recipe, used the first that showed up, and tweaked it by adding cardamon and walnuts.  That took care of nine bananas... except that, although yellow and with splitting skins, they are still a little hard.  When I put them in the Kitchen Aid and turned in to the lowest setting, bananas -- whole and parts thereof -- erupted from the bowl and whizzed around the room.  I returned them to the bowl and held a tea-towel around it, mashing this time without hazard...

Turned out tasty.  Now, what to do with the rest?  Muffins, pancakes, more bread -- for the freezer this time -- gifts for friends, and if the worst comes to the worst, the compost is always just 30 steps away!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Recycling Wine Bottles

When he was about twelve, my older brother discovered a new source of income: he spent hours cutting wine bottles into drinking glasses. Some of these stayed in the family, others were made into sets of matching colour and size and either given away as presents or sold. They were practical, cheap, and tough, and making them to sell taught him a lot.

About ten years ago, I'm sure that I saw an identical cutter in the catalogue from the Centre of Alternative Technology Eco Store in Wales, but my life was too busy for me to even consider buying it, let alone embarking on the hassle of removing the labels from bottles, etching the cut, alternately heating it over a candle flame and rubbing it with an ice cube (and cleaning up the attendent mess); then, if the cut was a clean one, sanding the edge so that lips are not sliced to ribbons. The process, I remembered, was not particularly profitable given the time spent, but it did assauge my parents' dismay at the throwing away of the quantity of bottles that they accumulated what with their own consumption and their entertaining.

So a year or so ago I decided to find a cutter and start making glasses – or maybe turn the project over to Zenon so that he could walk in his Uncle's footsteps. My first stop was the CAT catalogue. No sign of a bottle cutter. So I contacted CAT. “We have never had such a thing in our shop.” Ebay? Nope. I had enough things to do, so I pursued the quest no further.

Until the Instructables. Lots of ideas come from this magnificent website, and thank goodness I didn't un-sub from their mailing list when I did a mail clean-out some time back. Because about a month ago instructions for making a bottle cutting jig showed up on their weekly newsletter. The plans looked ok, but I didn't want to start a woodwork project just then. But I found the website for Green Power Science, and, watching their video I decided that, though it was expensive ($45), I would buy their jig and try their technique -- using boiling and cold water alternately until a clean break occurs along the line of least resistance, the thin etched line in the glass. The international postage, at $23 felt steep, but I decided to take the plunge.

It arrived ten days later in a box marked US Postage $11.39.

“Hmmm,” I thought, taking a deep breath and feeling a little 'had'. “Where's the $23 in that?”

“Don't waste your time, Manamou,” Best Beloved said when I mentioned writing to complain. “They'll tell you that the rest of the shipping money went on the box and on someone to take it to the Post Office.” But I persisted and wrote a polite note asking where the remaining $11.67 was, then put it out of my mind and started cutting bottles.

My cutting was not very successful. Unlike Dan Rojas, the man behind GPS, who gets a near perfect cut with most of his bottles, none of my cuts were smooth, and most were unusable with downward cracks . The glass on some of mine was thinner than on standard bottles, but the heavier bottles (champagne and proseco) cut much more evenly.

So, putting aside the cutter after some experimentation, I removed the labels from a host of empties and planned a day on the learning curve for Wednesday. My lack of success had not discouraged me, I just figured that I needed to master technique, and to find which thickness of bottles cut best. A pleasant email from Denise Rojas told me that they were refunding $8 to my PayPal account – the other $2 witheld to cover the cost of the box (“Two dollars?” I thought. “More like nearly four where I learned to add...” But I decided to quit while I was ahead, and sent her a nice note back thanking her and telling her I was enjoying my cutter. Her response that evening was along the lines of “Nice to hear it, let me know if you need any more help.” So I congratulated myself on not having followed my first instinct and been nasty, but instead had laid the foundation for a postitive relationship...)

In the first light of Wednesday morning, I heard Stumpy miaowing outside the kitchen window, and, eschewing the door, I let him in the window – something that I almost never do. His front paw tangled with a strip of window draught-proofing that was on the sill awaiting installation, and that in turn, tangled in the jig. As I lifted the cat off the sill (he doesn't manage jumping from heights well as he has only one front leg to absorb the shock), the whole lot crashed to the ground. I picked it up, fed Stumpy, and forgot about it.

...Until everyone was at school. With only the murmur of Galena's hoover downstairs and lunch in the oven, I sorted out all the clean new empties into bottle shapes and sizes, picked up the jig, and sat down to cut. But instead of a thin white line appearing on the glass where the wheel was etching the line along which the break would happen, nothing appeared. Puzzled, I looked closer at the jig, and where the tiny cutting wheel should have been caught between two edges, a gap mocked me. The wheel was gone, knocked out of place when the jig fell off the sill that morning.

I felt ill. Sixty dollars gone because I'd done the cat a favour and let him in the window... Of course I looked on the floor, but I'd swept earlier, and Galena had hoovered the sweepings. Any other day and I would have found it.

So I got back on the Net and emailed Denise... After all her last words had been “if you need any more help.” “How much would it be,” I enquired. “For you to send me an extra cutting wheel?”

I haven't heard back yet. But in the meantime I've been back on Indestructables and found several different plans for jigs that don't look that difficult after all: $10 - $12 (make that 15 Euros, probably, given that things are dearer hear) and an hour or two's work.

Time to rethink bottle cutting. Meanwhile I will take my more successful attempts up to Turtle and Moon Studio where Lise has glass grinding equipment:  I tried paper, but although it smoothed the clean cuts well, it is not able to clean up the jagged edges.   Watch this space for developments!