Getting ready to go

Ah, the ritual of getting ready to travel. Do I have my toothbrush? Medications? Are all my toiletries in a clear bag that is easily accessible without having to open the main suitcase? Are all my electronics easily accessible without having to open the main case? Did I remember socks and underwear? Which shoes should I take? My mother’s voice is echoing in my head loud and clear. Oh, wait. She’s coming with me. That really is her voice repeating the same litany over her own luggage.

Away to Houston, prepared to be blown away by the hard work and creativity of the people there. I’m excited to go, but the beginning of any trip always has me wondering if it’ll be worth the hassle of packing, flying, missing work, getting behind on house stuff, and being away from all the projects I want to work on.

This trip is one of few I’ve taken without the Bear, and the first time I’ll be in Texas. It definitely feels like a stretch out of my comfort zone, which is one of the reasons for doing it. That, and going to the Houston show has been on my bucket list for quite a while now. Mom’s not getting younger, and I want to go while she’s in good health and spirits. We have plans for travel next fall, and the future gets murkier the further out you try to see, so this fall is the year for Houston. I’ve been planning the trip since July, and it feels strange now that the day to go has arrived.


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Trying to get pregnant? Sniff a baby.

This is one of my crazy ideas. I have no scientific proof to back this up, and I have done no literature review. But here it is anyway, another crazy idea thrown out to the universe.

Most of us know, or have heard stories of an infertile woman who turned to IVF or adoption, and then unexpectedly got pregnant soon after bringing home her “non-traditional” baby. A lot of people shrug and say that she could’ve just waited a little while longer before going through all that, but I think there’s something else going on.

I think there’s a phermone produced by babies and/or new mothers that can signal to women when it’s safe to conceive. Without that phermone, some women’s bodies won’t be fertile – their bodies just won’t waste the energy to make a baby that may not survive. Now, I don’t think this applies to all, or even most women – but I do think it could explain some infertility.

During times of disease and famine babies, pregnant women and new mothers are typically the first ones to die. Women who do not conceive during adverse conditions have a better chance of surviving to deliver healthy babies than women who conceive during times of stress. The best proof that it’s safe to have a baby is to be surrounded by healthy babies and mothers. So it makes sense to me that there is some sort of biological signal – probably a phermone – given off by babies or mothers that can inhibit or trigger some women’s fertility.

Today, many women have minimal exposure to babies, young children or lactating mothers until they have a baby of their own. Without that exposure, they won’t get the dose of phermone needed for their bodies to be fertile, so they turn to other measures such as in-vitro fertilization or adoption. Once an infertile woman gets a baby, not only is she exposed to whatever signal that child gives off, she starts going places and doing things that involve other babies and mothers and are exposed to all the cues that they produce. If my hypothesis is correct, they couldn’t but help but conceive more easily.

So, if you’re a woman experiencing infertility and your doctor can see no physical reason behind it, try going out of your way to spend lots of time around healthy children and their moms. Get to know a few moms and spend some time physically with them and their babies. Hold babies and sniff their baby smell (that’s another piece of evidence that it’s a phermone – most people love sniffing babies). And do it several times a week. It sure can’t hurt, and maybe, just maybe, it’ll help.

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On sprawl

A few days ago, a Facebook friend shared this editorial by a Michigan businessman who postulates that the major challenge faced by his growing business is not taxes or regulation, but lack of talent. Talent, he says is being driven away from Michigan by “soul-crushing sprawl.” Sprawl which, he says, has made an undesirable “quality of place,” repellent to those with education and money, leaving Michigan “A place without youth, prospects, respect, money or influence.”

In response to that post, a couple of folks commented that people must like sprawl or there wouldn’t be so much of it: “If people hate sprawl so much, then how do hellish wastelands … get created?” I disagree. I don’t think people really like sprawl – I just think that they haven’t given much thought to any other way of life.

Sprawl has always been around. Once upon a time, yea, even before the whole concept of time was really nailed down, people were hunting, gathering nomads. They picked and hunted an area clear of consumables, then packed up and moved on before they had to deal with traffic control, waste disposal, or derelict industrial tracts. I imagine that the pattern of human expansion has always looked a lot like ringworm: a spreading, central patch of degraded land surrounded by actively growing colonies.

I believe that in the United States, our sprawl is fueled by habit, ingrained cultural values, and one hell of a marketing machine. A great many of us have bought into (been brainwashed into?) the idea of “the American Dream:” owning a single-family home with a yard and two-car garage.  This dream is constantly reinforced by our political leaders and every sort of media outlet there is (HGTV, anyone?).  Unfortunately, land for such a dream is expensive to come by in city centers, so people go out in ever-expanding circles in order to find an affordable bit of dream.

But the Dream is killing us. Ask most homeowners if they enjoy home and lawn maintenance, and the answer is “no.” Do they enjoy their commute to work? No. Do they spend more time commuting than they do with their families, hobbies, or puppy dogs? Yes. Sprawl contributes to obesity, stress disorders, asthma, and premature deaths due to car accidents. Yes, people like the idea of their houses and lawns, but I really don’t think they consider all the baggage that comes along with them. And our society doesn’t want them to.

Modern urban planning in most of the U.S. is  extremely responsive to the industry that builds these expanding rings – in fact, I’d say our political leaders are more responsive to the needs, wants, and desires of businesses than it is to human needs, wants, and desires. Including and especially local leaders. Many business leaders are motivated to run for local office in order to protect their industry and continue to encourage the uncontrolled growth that is sprawl. At a higher level, there are many industries that depend on the sprawl model of expansion – not only building developers but road builders, car manufacturers, utility companies – on and on – the amount of money and political influence involved is breathtaking.

The American Dream is built on The American Dream – and to point out that the American Dream is killing us is anathema to a lot of people, not only those who make their living in jobs fueled by the American Dream. A HUGE percentage of our national economy is dependent on it – the mortgage break-down and subsequent financial crisis is ample proof of that.  The marketing of the Dream has been so successful that it is impossible for many to see that the Dream may actually make them miserable.

But just because something has always been is no reason that it should continue to be so. Our species prides itself in being able to learn from the mistakes and innovations of others.  Many cities on this planet have problems associated with urban sprawl. Some have managed to get some control over it.

There are cities that have managed to come up with ways that re-imagine and renovate their city centers so that their boundaries don’t so much resemble someone with a nasty skin condition. These cities have livable neighborhoods where the basics of life (food markets, schools) are available within an easy walking distance, and where there is public transit to the more intensive commercial and industrial areas.

And – these tend to be cities that attract the educated, affluent people with options: San Francisco, New York, Washington (D.C.), Portland, Seattle. A few whole countries have managed to control the fungal-like growth: Switzerland, Germany, Sweden. Controlling sprawl is not impossible. It is not something we have to roll over and accept because “people must like it.” We can do better.

I’d like to think that everyone could live in a vibrant, livable community. That cars could be optional. That we’d have more choices when it comes to lifestyle than we seem to have now. Maybe I’m crazy – but this is my place for that.

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Baby Quilts

Two of my goals for 2011 were to make quilts for my niece and nephew, who were born on March 3 (and are beautiful – everyone’s doing well). I am pleased to announce that I finished both quilts mere hours after they made their arrival:

Baby quilt, exquisite pattern

His quilt

baby quilt, exquisite pattern

Her quilt

They were both made using the Exquisite block (from Better Homes and Gardens 501 Quilt Blocks), machine pieced, hand tied, backed in flannel. I always tie my baby quilts because I feel like it makes a softer quilt than machine quilting, and it’s doesn’t take as long as hand quilting. Besides, I’m really bad at machine quilting.

These quilts came together really fast, and I’m pleased with the results. They’re far from perfect, but these are utility quilts – they’re made to be used, not put away in a box or hung on the wall. My hope is that they’ll be completely worn out by the time the babies turn 10. Though my 10-year-old still sleeps with the baby quilt I made her, and it’s still holding up, so they might last longer.

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Bag project completed

My Trifecta

My Trifecta

Well, I get to cross one of my goals off of my 2011 list: I made a new purse! I’ve had the Trifecta pattern by StudioKats for 3 years, and finally got around to putting one together.

It took me the better part of a weekend to get it done, but I found the pattern to be easy enough to follow. The instructions were broken down into baby steps – lots of them, but each one was easy to accomplish. There were some moments of doubt and confusion and I was sure I was going to end up with a mess, but I just kept chugging and it all come out right in the end.

I’m very pleased with the way it turned out. I love the fabric I chose. I love the three compartments, and I especially love the fact that the middle is zippered and that the outside compartments can be closed with the magnetic snap. But, alas, it is not quite the perfect bag.

The three pockets of the Trifecta

The three pockets of the Trifecta.

I want a bag that will hold the stuff I like to have with me all the time (wallet, first-aid kit, hand sanitizer, etc.), plus have flexible space for a thermos and day planner (yes, I still use a paper planner) for work.

This bag is so, so close! The two outside pockets hold the planner and thermos perfectly, but when they’re loaded up, the middle pocket is too squished to hold the day-to-day necessities. I also like to carry my bags cross-body – it really is better for your back – and these straps are too short for that.

The middle, zippered pocket is too squished when the other pockets are holding the thermos and planner.

The middle, zippered pocket is too squished.

When I get a few more goals out of the way, I want to come back and make another bag that’s about 2 inches bigger all around and modified so it can be worn cross-body. That might do the trick. In the meantime, I’ll continue to use my old purse and use my new Trifecta as an additional bag for the extra stuff I take in to work.

As another note: my daughters decided that this pattern would make a great lunch bag, and each wants her own. I just hope it’s not another three years before I can get around to it.

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Why I didn’t get any tomatoes last year.

Last year, my vegetable patch consisted of almost 100 square feet of prime veggie real estate – three 4ft X 8ft raised beds filled with manure, peat moss, compost and top soil.  And that was about it. Last year’s garden was almost a complete bust. I got a few okra, a couple bunches of kale, some basil, three sunflowers, and five tomatoes out of the whole thing. I probably spent more than $50 on peat moss, plants and seeds (to say nothing about the rain barrels and past expenses to initially set up the beds) for less than $20 worth of veggies. What a rip.

As this article (and others) will attest, I should have gotten a bunch of veggies out of that plot. I ought to have at least broke even on plant expenses. I didn’t. Not even close.

The tomatoes were the biggest disappointment. I filled an entire bed with tomato plants, confident that I’d have enough tomatoes to fill my freezer with marinara sauce. My tomato plants grew strong and healthy, they bloomed, but I got no fruit. Why?

I thought maybe my soil was deficient in something. Maybe I needed to lime.  So, this year, I sent a sample off to the Virginia Extension Service’s Soil Testing Lab to see what I could do to get my soil ready to grow tomatoes. Guess what? My soil’s in great shape – plenty of micronutrients, phosporus, calcium – I don’t even need lime. So what gives?

Back to the Extension Service, this time to a publication imaginatively titled “Tomatoes.” There, I found this: “There is consider- able evidence that night temperature is the critical fac- tor in setting tomato fruit, the optimal range being 59° to 68°F. With night temperatures much below or above this critical range, fruiting is reduced or absent.”

Well, last year was crazy hot – but what about the night time temperatures? Fortunately for me, I live not too far from William and Mary’s Keck Lab. They maintain a weather station right next to Lake Matoaka and make the data freely available. So, I looked at the daily high and low temperatures for last summer and graphed them with the night time temperatures required for optimal tomato growing. Well, there were three days in June, four days in July, and one day in August when the temperatures were low enough for good fruit set. That’s right – it was too hot to grow tomatoes here last year.

Looks like we had about 2 weeks of good tomato growing weather, then on June 1, it got too hot and stayed that way until September. When I pulled my plants out in October, there were lots of little green fruits on them, but by then the days were too short for them to ripen. How frustrating.


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Raw milk

So, last night I went to a “cooking class” held by a pair of women who feel “called” to provide information on eating healthfully as a “ministry” – but have also started a small business around their classes. The class showed us how to make pizza using home-milled flour and mozzarella cheese made using raw milk. They discussed the benefits of using truly minimally processed foods including sugar alternatives, home-milled flours and eating locally. The pizza was good, the desserts tasty, the conversation interesting.

There was one bit of their spiel that bugged me (ok – more than one thing bugged me, but this is what I’m going to talk about today): they are strong proponents of replacing pasteurized, homogenized milk with “raw” milk. Their argument: raw milk is “alive” with beneficial organisms that support our own digestion and immune system; that raw milk is considered medicine, useful for treating anything from acne to cancer; and is a complete food – whole, raw milk is all you need to sustain life. Pasteurizing destroys nutrients, enzymes and proteins and generally makes processed milk a vastly inferior product. Like processed flours, pasteurization only benefits the food industry, and isn’t necessary.

Uh-huh. Right.

For full disclosure, I’m farm-bred. My immediate family did not depend on livestock for a living, but my grandfather raised beef cattle. I raised a dairy calf for 4-H, and took care of occasional orphans from Grandad’s herd. I have visited more than one dairy, and my grandmother had a backyard milk cow, which provided milk for half the neighborhood. I loved Grandma’s milk. Every week, she’d give us a big gallon jar filled with really wonderful milk. Or should I say that 3/4 of the jar contained milk. The other 1/4 of the jar was cream, yellow and thick. Mmm, cream. I still have a thing for cream. But she always pasteurized the milk.

Barnyards are not clean places. Cows are nasty, dirty critters. They prefer to hang around in specific places, and their sharp hooves churn up the ground at their hang-outs. They crap indiscriminately, and have no problem with lying in their own feces. Even if they have plenty of room to lie elsewhere. When they lie down, their udders are on the ground. Picture the barn as I knew it: surrounded by a moat of shitty mud, with the cow lying in the middle of it, calmly chewing her cud. She could’ve been lying 20 feet away, in the clean grass, but no. Knowing what I know of cows, the idea of drinking straight from the teat is more than a little icky. Even when it’s washed off. Because really, all it takes is a flick of a filthy tail, or the stomp of a muddy hoof and it’s dirty again.

But do I need to change that picture? Do these two women know something I don’t?

Is raw milk more nutritious than pasteurized? It doesn’t look that way to me. I made a brief search with Google Scholar using the phrases “raw milk nutrition” and “unpasteurized milk nutrition.” I came across a 1953 article in the Journal of Nutrition where the researcher fed different dogs different diets of milk that had undergone different processes.  Some dogs were fed raw milk, some evaporated milk, etc. The animals’ urine and feces were tested, and their weight was monitored to determine the animal’s health. The researcher found that “autoclaving whole raw milk at 10 or 15 pounds’ pressure for 15 or 30 minutes has no detrimental effect on the protein as measured by digestibility, biological value or nutritive index.”

Other articles weren’t so conclusive. There was at least one article that showed that babies fed on pasteurized human breast milk gained weight slower than those on raw. Another article showed that pasteurization inactivates glutathione peroxidase activity. Whatever that is. Others showed that differing pasteurization methods could alter the nutrition of milk somewhat, or that there is a possibility that drinking raw milk can alleviate allergies.

Ok, without an exhaustive search, I’m getting the impression that if pasteurization diminishes the nutrition of cow’s milk, it’s a modest change that probably doesn’t make a great deal of difference. It’s still a very nutritious food.

Now, let’s say that I’m determined to wring every bit of nutrition out of my milk. Is raw milk safe? Would any benefits I may gain by drinking raw milk be undermined by the risk of milk-borne disease?

This article, from the journal Clinical and Infectious Diseases points out that before pasteurization, over 25% of all disease outbreaks linked to contaminated food and drink were from milk-borne pathogens. Now, it’s less than 1% – and it seems that those milk-borne outbreaks were almost always from people drinking raw milk. The article confirms my suspicion that, even with modern hygiene procedures, it is darn near impossible to eliminate bacteria from the milking and milk handling process, and that to drink raw milk is to take the risk that you are exposing yourself to a pathogen.

Is the risk of exposure worth the potential (minor) health benefits? No way. My husband is of the opinion that folks preaching the raw milk gospel are very similar to those who have autism and vaccines linked in their heads: they are suspicious of the food industry and government regulations (ok – rightfully so), and no amount of scientific proof to the contrary will change their minds. Questioning industry and regulations is a good thing, but to ignore more than one source of scientific evidence because your mind is made up is not.

That all said, I did have a taste of the raw milk last night. It was delicious – sweet and creamy. Better than that skim crap we have in the fridge. But I suspect the difference was not due to it’s raw nature, but to the fact that it was fresh (less than a week old), from grass-fed Jerseys, and was whole. Almost exactly like the milk I used to get from Grandma. I wouldn’t mind getting milk just like it – if it were pasteurized.

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