Monday, August 30, 2010

Pursuit of Happiness

A blog I read recently about the misguided idealization of "Liberty" has coincided with some family issues going on in my life, and got me thinking about the American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Sure, I am Canadian through and through, but let's face it, Canadian culture is greatly influenced by this ideal. Our own Charter of Rights & Freedoms essentially strives toward the same goal, at least in the ways the Charter is being interpreted in courtrooms across Canada today. The focus today is not as heavily on true equality as it is on the assurance of individual rights.

This cultural idea that every individual has the fundamental right to do as they please and pursue their own happiness is so ingrained in our society that mere children are being molded into this image of individual entitlement. You see it in the 8 year old throwing a tantrum in WalMart because his mommy said "no" to a new toy... and too often she ends up giving in. You see it in the imbecilic teenager who recklessly careens down the freeway, careless of all fellow drivers. You even see it in the ignorant jerk who sits in his car at the gas pump, fiddling interminably with his radio and cellphone and giving rude gestures to the long lineup of cars waiting to fuel up.

When children are brought up being taught that they have Rights, Privileges, and Freedoms... without being taught just as emphatically that they also have Responsibilities, Duties, and Obligations... we create conditions that cultivate sociopathy as a way of life. And that, dear readers, does not cultivate happiness.

Happiness is found in giving, not in getting, according to an 80 year study started in the 1920s in California. Apparently it really is better to give than to receive. Unfortunately, studies have also shown that greater wealth results in greater ability to give, indicating that perhaps money really can buy happiness. The reality is that not all of us will be wealthy. Some may never even have enough material wealth to give at all... does this mean that happiness is unattainable for the poorest of the poor and downtrodden?

For most people, happiness is circumstantial: A person is happy about receiving a gift, making a friend, or achieving a goal. But what about when circumstances, frankly, suck. You lose your job, your investments fail, your husband leaves you, your child is killed, and you ask yourself "how can I ever be happy again?" Some of my most beloved authors, including John Milton and C. S. Lewis, have found themselves at the end of their rope, or at the bottom of the barrel, and there nonetheless have been (as Lewis puts it) surprised by joy.

Joy, that inexplicable sense of calm and contentment despite circumstances, is available to anyone, anywhere, any time. In the book of Habakkuk, chapter 3, the writer says
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines,though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.

While happiness is fleeting, joy lasts. Our society doesn't want you to have it, because it wants to sell you happiness which has a short shelf life, something you'll have to buy again and again. Maybe that's why the American Constitution guarantees not "happiness" but "the pursuit of happiness"... because happiness is an elusive prey... and don't forget, a capitalist economy depends on endless expenditure in this pursuit. The propaganda of dissatisfaction is big business!  But joy cannot be quenched by misfortune or tragedy, and cannot be bought with credit or gold. It can't be found in a mall, a cruise ship, or a mansion; it's priceless and it's free. So as for me, forget happiness, I'm pursuing joy.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Landfill To Veggies, One Boxspring At A Time

My facebook status this weekend generated some curiosity among friends and acquaintances, so I thought it might be beneficial to post details and photos of my latest project. As many of you know, I am very concerned with reducing our eco-footprint, and saving items from landfill. I'm also all about frugality, health, and making things from scratch. And, I love food. I have wanted to have my own veggie garden for the last two years, but have been stuck in ruts along the way.

Two years ago I bought a bunch of seeds, and never got around to planting them. Last year I bought seedling starter pods and had my wonderful husband till a plot of ground in our backyard for me to plant. Unfortunately my seedlings damped off and failed to thrive, and the tilled ground required more prep work than I had the energy to do (breaking up lumps, removing stones / grass / weeds). Finally this year I discovered raised bed gardening, which eliminated the tilling issues, and "lasagna gardening" which cheaply produces great nutrient-rich soil and inhibits weed growth.

This year my husband's job was to pick up a boxspring and mattress I found on Freecycle, and I also managed to score some landscaping fabric and plastic hardware netting at yard sales, to make my garden even more weed and critter proof. Here are the basic steps I took:

Step 1, rip fabric off top and bottom of boxspring. (Remove any springs...but in this case cheap boxsprings that are mere wooden slats work best.)

Step 2, choose a location with full sun, position mattress on ground with boxspring on top (slats down) to form a raised garden frame. (At this point I laid landscape fabric down around the perimeter to smother weeds and grass, and also used a staple gun and more landscape fabric to cover the somewhat ugly frame.)

Step 3, layer the following materials in this order: grass clippings / weeds / dew worms, leaf mulch / pine needles, fresh unrotted compost, wet newspapers (thick layer), rotted compost, leaf mulch, topsoil or potting soil.

Step 4, plant seeds or seedlings. (I also staked netting around the garden to discourage critters from nibbling on my freshly planted seedlings.) Watch them grow, with high yields and little or no weeds! :)

I planted 4 cherry tomato plants, 4 beefsteak tomato, 2 broccoli, 3 cauliflower, 4 celery, 4 head lettuce, and 4 mesclun greens, and needed to buy 4 bags of black earth topsoil. My total cost for the garden was $27 and change, including tax. Keep an eye out for updates on how our garden succeeds!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Recipes: Quick Loaded Baked Potato Soup

This recipe was born of urgent necessity. A lazy Saturday turned into evening without any plans for dinner, and hungry kids waiting on mom. This mom put on her improv hat and pulled out a pot... a short time later everyone was slurping this delicious soup happily. Eater beware: No claims are made regarding fat content. Hey, this is convenience comfort food!

Quick Loaded Baked Potato Soup

3 cups chicken stock or broth
4 cups water
4 medium potatoes, peeled & finely diced
2 handfuls finely chopped green onions (reserve 2 tbsp)
1 generous handful real bacon bits
1 cup milk
1/4 cup cream
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
3 tbsp corn starch (mix with cold water to make slurry)

salt to taste

Bring chicken stock and water to a boil, add potatoes and green onions (reserving 2 tbsp for garnish). Boil rapidly until potatoes are tender. Turn down to medium-low, add bacon bits, milk, cream, and mozzarella. Stir well until cheese is melted. Add corn starch slurry, stirring briskly. Bring back to a boil, stirring rapidly until soup is thickened. Add salt to taste. Cool slightly before serving.

Serves 6.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Truth About Maternal Health

Well girls, here I am coming out of blogger semi-retirement after such a long lapse. My own family life has consumed so much of my energy these past months that I have had nothing left over to give to the blogosphere... until now. The issue of maternal health is a pressing one, both nationally (in Canada) and globally, and there is much posturing and politicizing on both ends of the spectrum. If you care about women, if you care about humanity, READ THIS.

The recent discussion of the G8 agenda for child and maternal health has reopened (at least in Canada) the debate over abortion. I have friends both "pro-life" and "pro-choice", but I have yet to find one person who thinks that abortion is evil but should be permitted. Generally supporters and opposers of access to abortions fall into two categories: 1) those who think it's wrong (usually based on religious beliefs), and 2) those who think it's sometimes the right choice for a woman (based on ethical and compassionate humanitarian values). I don't think even the most avid supporters of abortion access are saying that women should be forced to have abortions. The point is that women need to be protected and to have the ability to protect their own interests.

Here are the facts.

The World Health Organization defines maternal death as "the death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy, irrespective of the duration and site of the pregnancy, from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management but not from accidental or incidental causes." The organization also states that "Maternal death is, from an epidemiological perspective, a relatively rare event".

Wikipedia provides some interesting statistics from a range of medical and sociological studies, showing that
maternal death is closely linked with infections, low birth weights, and lack of medical staff, facilities and supplies. What these facts indicate is that maternal health hinges on nutrition, sanitation, and access to prenatal and postpartum medical care - not on access to abortions.

And of course, to state the obvious, abortions are counter-productive to infant and child health. (Duh, abortions kill unborn children.)

Pregnancy is not inherently dangerous to women. Face it, women's bodies are designed to bear and birth new life. The midwifery movement has been saying this for years: pregnancy is a natural process, NOT a medical complication. Women are incredible in their power to produce young. Women who are malnourished and abused will have difficult pregnancies - but then, these women would have less chances of survival even WITHOUT being pregnant.

Let's get real, folks. Women's rights are important - as basic human rights. All people should have access to good food, safe shelter, good sanitation, and good medical care. The same goes for children, as was emphasized in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The same goes for the disabled, the poor... in fact ALL people everywhere.

Abortion has no positive impact on these issues. In fact, it has a number of long-term negative impacts (both physical and psychological) on women who have had them. So, whether you believe in God or not, whether you believe in Christian morality or humanitarian ethics or both, let's drop the issue of a woman's convenience (and that's really what it is) from the discussion of child and maternal health as a global initiative.

And that's my two cents.

P.S. I happen to be a follower of Christ who takes the Bible as my guidebook... and I am encouraged to find that in all circumstances, the laws of the Kingdom are the way the world / nature / society / life works best.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Mainstream Is A Big Step Backward

A friend of mine with whom I was sharing the burdens of housewifery and parenting this week made me realize how far I have departed from mainstream North American consumer culture. Shocked by the thought of me spending 2 - 4 hours a day cooking, and trying to help me alleviate some of my time-stress and work load, she suggested I buy more prepackaged meals and convenience foods. This suggestion appalled me, and suddenly made me realize how much I have changed in 5 years.

It's not just the fact that nearly any prepackaged food from the grocery store costs four times as much (or more) to buy as to make from scratch; as I ardently protested over the phone, the true costs are much higher, and certainly not worth the savings in time.

Consider the ingredients of even a "healthy" prepackaged meal. The list is longer than your fifth grade essays, and half the ingredients are unpronounceable without a graduate degree in chemistry. Then think about the interactions of all those additives and preservatives in your body, and the cumulative effect of them over the years. What do you think your drug costs might be in the next 10 years? Maybe you have a great drug plan, but you're still going to end up paying for your health care through taxes and insurance premiums.

And then there's the environmental costs. Prepackaged food travels farther to your grocery cart, meaning more carbon emissions and higher fuel costs. All that packaging is being created to contain the food, and often ends up in landfill. Even if the packaging is recyclable, it still takes energy and resources to create (creating pollution), to transport (more pollution), and to process for recycling. Do we pay for that? You bet we do. And so do our children, and our grandchildren... if the earth lasts that long.

Even if I could be making $20 an hour (which I'm not) for those 2 - 4 hours a day, is it really worth it? Not in my books. And if I was a gazillionnaire... would it be worth it then? If I was the only person on the planet, maybe. But I'm not, and the earth, it's resources, and our own social resources are shared by billions of other people - other human beings, just like me.

Five years ago I put things like jalapeno poppers and bagged chicken alfredo into my shopping cart without a second thought. Today I would rather eat my shoes. I just can't do it without massive guilt. Who would have known that in five short years I would go from being Average Joe Consumer of mainstream culture (scoffing at my Trent U influences), to being one of those green-frugal-alternative nuts I so disdained.

All things considered, I consider this to be a sign of personal growth. My new lifestyle is rich, intentional and meaningful. I don't want to go back to being mainstream, and I want to bring as many others as I can down this path. Next stop... a visit to the Complete Tightwad Gazette.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Stretching Dollars, Stretching Groceries

Last week, I took the plunge. Pushing aside my habitual procrastination, disorganization and impulsivity, I sat down and created a weekly meal plan. Breakfast, morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner, dessert or evening snack, and all beverages for each day meticulously planned out to the smallest detail, I then wrote a grocery list based on that plan. I estimated the cost of groceries required. And I had a fit.

Here's the thing. My meal plan was based on exactly how much every member of our household eats on a daily basis, and was made up of foods we regularly prepare and consume. Everything was to be made from scratch, and sales and discounts were taken into account. My total came to just about $140. Our weekly grocery budget is $80, but allows for an extra $20 a couple times a month for diapers.

How is this possible? I know for a fact that we have not been spending anywhere near $140 a week on groceries. I haven't been eating as much lately due to pregnancy sickness, but I certainly haven't been starving myself, and all three of our kids are eating well. My oldest daughter often eats more than she should, in fact.

With a great deal of difficulty I managed to pare down the grocery list to about $120, by stretching what I had on hand, planning some recipe substitutions, and doing without a number of items. I convinced my husband that I needed an extra $40 on the grocery budget. Then I went shopping. Without diapers, my total came to less than $100, and I ended up getting most of the things I had crossed off the list anyway. I realized that the only way we have stayed on budget every week is that we have been fortunately favoured with getting unexpectedly amazing deals on groceries and making great finds on the grocery clearance racks regularly. Thank God.

The second big challenge over the last few days has been addressing some greedy belly issues in our home. One of the reasons we usually end up scavenging barely-meals on Wednesday and Thursday every week (Thursday evening is when I grocery shop) is that certain people are frequently eating food that was intended for other meals / uses, and I am not on-the-ball enough to realize it. Now when someone asks for food, I refer them to the meal plan. Did you eat your lunch? Make sure you finished all your leftovers. You did? Then you'll have to wait for afternoon snack time. What can you have? The schedule says veggies and dip. You don't feel like having veggies and dip? Too bad. That's all that's available for this meal.

I'm not the mean mom, I'm just sticking to the meal plan. This is how I make sure the food I bought for the week LASTS for the week.

This is a whole new approach to life for me. It requires discipline I have never had before. But my goodness, do I wish I had done this a whole lot sooner. Goodbye mealtime battles, hello happy (less stressed) mom!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Recipes: Asian Cabbage Salad

I'm posting this recipe because my mom unexpectedly mentioned how much she had loved this salad one time when she was over... I can't even remember when I served it to her, that's how long ago it was, and I'm shocked that she remembered it. Anyway, mom says she's been waiting and waiting for me to blog it, so here goes. Please note that "Asian" in the title refers to the dressing and style, not to the cabbage.

Asian Cabbage Salad

1/2 head of green cabbage, shredded
1 pkg ramen noodles with Oriental or Chicken seasoning*
1 small handful of sesame seeds
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tbsp soya sauce
2 tbsp white vinegar
1 1/2 tsp brown sugar
approx. 1/4 c vegetable oil

Prepare cabbage in a large salad bowl and set aside. In a heavy bottomed pan or wok, heat 1 tbsp oil over medium heat. Break up ramen noodles into small pieces and add to pan, along with sesame seeds. Heat together while stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until noodles and sesame seeds are golden brown and aromatic. Remove from heat and add to cabbage. In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together soya sauce, white vinegar, brown sugar and contents of ramen noodle seasoning packet. Add oil to make between 1/3 and 1/2 c of dressing, whisk together until thoroughly blended. Drizzle over salad, and toss well to coat. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, and toss again before serving. This salad tastes better the longer it sits. (If you need to serve immediately, increase soya sauce and white vinegar amounts to 3 tbsp for a quicker flavour boost.)

* Ramen noodle seasonings contain significant amounts of MSG, a flavour enhancer, and known carcinogen. MSG has also been proven to be addictive, and a contributor to both obesity and ADHD. Although the Oriental seasoning packets are both tasty and convenient, I have developed a somewhat similar and much healthier substitution:

1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp mustard powder
1 tsp white sugar
1 tsp lemon juice

May I suggest if you are making this salad that you double the entire recipe, as it disappears very quickly.