Welcome

I am a freelance, nonfiction writer who cares about the environment, individuality, creative expression, and simplicity. I'm glad you've found my blog, and I hope you'll join in the conversation by leaving a comment. Disagreements are allowed, even encouraged, but cruelty, vulgarity, and slander is not.

And the Living is Easy

May 9th, 2013

Money. When you have it, life is fine. Right?

I'm going to challenge this notion, but before I do, I want anyone who has been suffering in the unemployment lines or working too-long hours for too-low wages to know that they have my condolences. There is a stress that comes from this kink in our financial system, one that can eat away at a person's health, self esteem, and quality of life. Conditions in America have been down for a LONG time, and it's taking its toll. I know that; food-on-the-table-hardship is not what this is about.

For the rest of us, a need for thrift can yield good results, and it helps to be reminded of that from time-to-time. Think of a royal palace filled with opulence and waste, scandal and pretentiousness, and a general misperception of what's important in life. Every one of us is subject to the corruption that money can bring, no matter how small the purse. Meanwhile, every one of us has a natural instinct to respond to a challenge when it presents itself. We may wish we could be lions laying the shade, but even the king needs a little chase once in awhile. It is in the challenge that we find -- and often get -- what we really want.

Here are a few positive things I've seen come out of the challenges since the 2008 financial downturn:

1.) Renewed interest in our cities. I would suffocate in the city, but I'm an advocate for city life just the same, especially for the folks who want convenience, stimulation, and activity.

Philadelphia, PA

In the 1990s, thousands of such people fled the streets for the promise of safety and a new home in a field, and as suburbia filled up, they seeped into the rural zones, too. Natural areas turned into housing developments as the locals kept asking, "Who is buying these monstrosities?"

Because the transients were accustomed to shopping frequently, developers were happy to feed them shopping centers and grocery stores. Gyms popped up in the places where farmers would have otherwise gotten their workouts just by living life. All the while the city -- with its existing buildings, roads, infrastructure, and amenities -- crumbled from a lack of infusion. This was bad for the environment. It was bad for the rural families that gave up pieces of their generational roots. It was bad for the once-proud and productive cities. And it placed significant hardship on every suburban town's ability to build and maintain infrastructure. It was just bad.

But that has changed. The pressure to protect suburban land has subsided as people have figured out their lifestyle and their pocketbook is better suited for a clustered community. Small towns and some big cities are revitalizing. I still cringe when the market reports on "new home starts," as if growing more houses in the midst of so many abandoned buildings is a good thing, but at least the attitudes and the demands of the consumer have shifted. And most of that change was driven by the high cost of fuel and the need to be frugal. (I'm much better at frugality in the country, but this part's not about people like me.)

2.) Renewed appreciation for the simple things. I love to go camping. Yes, there is an initial expense for a tent and sleeping bag, but after that, camping is a low-cost way to spend quality time with the people you love or quiet time by yourself. So is a walk in the park. Or a visit to a local museum. Or a bike ride down the trail. Or a Frisbee catch in the back yard. With such activities, you challenge your mind, your muscles, and your senses, often without spending a dime. We've been led to believe that we must buy our experiences, and that's simply not true. A tough economy forces us to recognize that.

My husband after a fun game, at the park, in February, with yard-sale-bought discs.

3.) Greater attention to the money path. You probably haven't been in favor of the trend wherein jobs keep shipping overseas. You probably don't like the idea of buying asparagus from Peru when the farmer down the road has some growing in his field. For a long time, we've grumbled about this "global" situation. However, now there is a desperation in our voices as well as a deeper appreciation for just how much that farmer needs your business or your kid needs a job. We've reached the end of our rope, as my mom used to say. More and more of us are putting aside the foreign-made product in favor of the local one, and we're learning that the choice isn't just better for our community, it's a better product all the way around. And with less money to watch, it becomes easier to see where it goes.

The faceplate on my old, Betsy Ross spinet piano indicated it was originally made in Philadelphia. Like cars, pianos were once made in American cities everywhere. Now only a few remain...Steinway's the only one I'm truly sure about. How great would it be if the tides turned back?!

Those are just three examples. I've got more, but you get the picture. Sure, we've still got a long way to go. Our cities are still in trouble, we still spend way too much money on nonsense, and there are no new piano companies moving in yet. But thanks to this financial hardship, we're realizing the true meaning behind the idiom, "money isn't everything." That gives us reasons to be grateful for this prolonged state of woe. We humans are slow learners; we need time to let our habits to sink in. The longer this goes on, the better chance that, when the abundance returns, we won't frivol it away on opulence and waste. Besides, life can be easy or hard -- regardless of our financial condition -- because fine is just a state of mind.

ps. If you are looking for a job -- one that aligns with your environmental intentions -- check out the links here.

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Defying Science in our Backyards

May 3rd, 2013

In America this week, it's as if one half of the country is still waiting for spring. Getting snow in May must be frustrating for anyone who is ready to emerge from the cold.

The Denver Post
From The Denver Post online: "Dick Williams bends down to get the best angle to photograph the flatirons at Chautauqua Park in Boulder on May 2, 2013. (Cliff Grassmick, The Daily Camera)"

Meanwhile, the eastern half of the country is appreciating a pressure system, one locked in place, holding back the weather like a barricade, and on this side it's as perfect as it could be.

But this post isn't really about the weather.

While the greenery is coming out faster than I can watch,

Poison Ivy is always easy to spot this time of year.

...so too are the landscapers, with their mowers and shovels and wheelbarrows. Some have their cars moved out of their driveways, making way for the garden center to deliver this year's giant pile of mulch. Every time I see one, my back aches from the thought of all that work.

There is so much mulch everywhere you can smell it as you take your evening stroll. Homeowners are racing to apply it, it's use a smart mimicry of nature's way. Like a blanket of leaves covering the forest floor, mulch retains water and helps to prevent the underlying soil from drying out. Over the winter, it prevents plants -- bulbs in particular -- from getting pushed out of the ground by the soil's response to freeze and thaw. It encourages earthworms and beneficial insects that love a moist habitat. And if that's not enough, it slowly decomposes to feed the plants all year long.

But in typical fashion, humans have taken this mimicry and added their own silly twists, ones that catch on neighbor-to-neighbor, association-to-homeowner, and advertisement-to-consumer. Reaction to peer pressure takes over and tramples the science that was behind the initial intention. Even I have to catch myself sometimes from getting caught up in all the hype.

Maybe it's because I grew up in the country, but I don't ever remember my parents paying a dime for mulch. Like mulch in the woods, ours was made of leaves. Dad would mow them over to make them more manageable and to keep the mulch from smothering the tender plants. Or he'd add in grass clippings and such. But we never had to move our cars from the driveway, and we never had to get in our cars to obtain a bag of dead plant material; our yard produced plenty of that on its own.

Even when I lived in town, the township had a wonderful yard-recycling program, where our fall leaf piles and winter Christmas trees would rot in a big pile on township property. Maintenance workers would turn the pile with a bulldozer occasionally, and come spring, we could take the magical result for free.

Cut leaves from last fall's cleanup.

A lot of American's don't make mulch, they buy it, and they get more every year whether it's needed or not. I never saw anything like the "mulch volcano" until a tree-hugging friend pointed one out a few years ago, another example of mulch ridiculousness I've written about many times before. All told, I've either grown to notice more with age, or we're now coloring so far out of the lines of mulch science, we not only have to buy mulch, we have to worry about it fading.

Fading? Like leaves do when they rot. The yard-care-industry giant, Scotts'®, latest advertising campaign calls mulch that fades "inferior." Inferior to what? Nature? Is that why their product is called Nature Scapes®?

Once again, Nature must be shaking her head.

In the meantime, I hope she'll let down her barometric barricade long enough for Colorado to see some nice spring weather. I promised my western friends I wouldn't post any photos of my Pennsylvania landscape right now. I feel a little greedy keeping all this springtime locked on the Eastern seaboard.

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When the Lights Make You Dizzy

April 26th, 2013

"It's like the 1900s all over again," said Phil Jones, green building expert.

He was talking about lighting. Buying a light bulb hasn't come with so much uncertainty since the development of the incandescent market. Over time, the only significant additions to our options were the halogen and the fluorescent tube. Today, the options have grown, options themselves that are the midst of rapid improvement. While that has done wonders for energy efficiency, it presents a problem for consumers. Visit any store lighting section, and you'll find a ton of choices with little explanation as to what those choices mean.

The benefit -- and the confusion -- is even greater for commercial applications, because it usually takes a lot of lights to illuminate commercial space.

Meanwhile, it is in your interest to dig in and move forward. Not only do today's bulbs last significantly longer and use less energy than the old ones, LEDs don't produce heat. That equates to lower air conditioning bills, allows for better insulation around fixtures, and more.

Business or residential, here is a little advice:

Learn a New Language
Where we once bought bulbs based on watts, we must now buy according to lumens. Click here to learn why.

Where we once bought just a bulb, we must now choose between:

• Incandescent - electrical current heats a wire until it glows which is inside gas that is trapped inside a glass bulb. (Government standards are pushing us away from these, but the incandescent bulb has not been outlawed.)

• Halogen - an incandescent that uses halogen gas to increase output and life.

• Fluorescent - electrical current charges argon gas and mercury inside a tube. Compact Fluorescents (CFLs) are smaller tubes, curled into a compact bulb.

• Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) - a semiconducting chip emits light when voltage is applied. Multiple colors and wavelengths can be achieved.

Application Matters
Since LEDs don't emit heat, they don't melt snow. Since CFLs rely on heat to work, many do not work well outside at low temperatures. Since bulbs in either category vary greatly in brightness and color, each bulb must be matched to its intended purpose.

For these reasons and more, you must consider what you want the bulb to do before you shop (task, security, ambient, or accent lighting). Color comes into play here, too. Rated low-to-high on the kelvin (K) scale, low numbers are warm and relaxing while high ones are cool and energizing. (This link is about auto headlights, but starts with a decent explanation and simple rendering of the kelvin scale.)

Add in Controls
On a different shelf are lighting controls, which also play a role in convenience and efficiency. A motion control turns bathroom lights on when occupied. Dimmers with sensors lower output based on daylight. Timers remember to turn outside lights off after the party ends. You can hire an electrician to ensure you are not putting a low-voltage application onto a high-voltage feed and that the chosen control matches the intended bulb.

Consider Big-Picture Costs
Sticker shock can accompany the dizzying array of choices. Still, avoid cheap bulbs, plain and simple. Poor CFLs will take forever to reach full brightness. You wont get the same efficiency and longevity with the low-priced version of any variety. Look for the Energy Star label, but avoid the one that says, "Energy Star Partner." Also, remember to consider the reduced utility bill and the reduced number of bulbs you'll need to buy when upgrading. Fewer maintenance hours are needed, too, for applications such as in commercial parking lots, where changing a bulb is no small task. The good news is prices are predicted to come down, especially on LEDs, as the market and the technology increases.

Don't Forget About the Sun
One of my favorite things about working from home is that I don't have to turn on any lights if I don't want to. My desk is positioned near a window, and there are only a few days when I need additional light. Nature's lighting is better than artificial for my mood, health, and eyes. Sunlight offers the best electric-bill savings because the most efficient light bulb is the one turned off.

Hire Help
While we're on the subject of efficiency, Pennsylvania's electricity suppliers are rolling out the latest batch of upgrade incentives, due June 1st, subjecting you to even more energy-saving options. Tune in to your supplier for more info. I expect that many will offer rebates and discounts for what's called a home or commercial energy audit. An audit is the best place to start if you want to know about the efficiency of your entire building. An auditing professional will look at your situation and turn his or her knowledge into targeted advice. Home audits cost a few hundred dollars before rebates. Commercial audits are usually priced according to square footage. The audit will reveal much more than lighting inefficiencies; it will consider heating, air conditioning, electrical hot spots, and any other large power drain on your bill. With incentives come scams, so be very careful about whom you hire. Make sure they are credentialed by a reputable engineering or contractor association. Look for an affiliation with a green building council, etc. If you only want a lighting evaluation, hire an electrical contractor to give you an upgrade estimate (often for free). In either case, don't forget to ask them which bulb you should buy for every kind of light in your home.

I keep hearing media references to the fact that our energy-supply problems will not be solved simply by "changing a few light bulbs." But according to the Department of Energy, lighting makes up about 12% of our energy consumption and sometimes 40% of a commercial bill. So while we still have to tackle big issues such as transportation and heating, we can at least learn how to take advantage of today's lighting advancements without passing out from confusion.

by Ruth Heil

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Still not satisfied? Click here for a comprehensive light bulb FAQ

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Celebrate Through Learning

April 19th, 2013

Monday, April 22, 2013 is officially Earth Day, and many of us will be celebrating the occasion this weekend. (I'll be picking litter out of the local stream on Saturday.) Our planet home certainly is something worth honoring.

It's been more than 40 years since the holiday's creation. Time has a way of graying out a purpose, and although there is no lack of participation in this event, it's helpful to understand the day's history in order to get the most from celebratory good intentions.

I briefly summarize the holiday's purpose in a piece I wrote for Lehigh Valley Marketplace. You can read it here.

The article goes on to talk about an issue pertinent to the valley region. Depending on where you live, environmental concerns might be related to something else, such as drought instead of flood. Whatever they are, the point is Earth Day is THE day to learn more about them. Or, if you are an educator, to teach more about them, to adults as well as children, the public as well as students. Strive to understand more about whatever Earth-related topic interests you, whether it be science, geography, history, politics, etc.

Misinformation and ignorance is nothing new, although it may feel as if we're drowning in it now more than ever. The truth is, we've come a long way. The cloud coming out of today's smokestack is far cleaner than what people had to contend with in the 1970s. But that's not to say we can relax and put our feet up, because the unscrupulous smokestack owners still have toxins to dispose of. They're just a lot more clever about bending the rules, rules put in place in part because of Earth Day. The more we arm ourselves with the truthful knowledge, the quicker we can identify such wrongdoings (and right doings) when we see them.

Meanwhile, celebrate! And do so knowing your actions are part of something big, really big ... like planet-sized big. And in the spirit of the day's original purpose, learn and/or teach, to stamp out that which the polluters love most: misinformation and ignorance.

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A Short Story About Daily Life

April 12th, 2013

It takes a second for the numbers on the dashboard to register: 2:28.

“What happened? Inside, only moments ago, it was 2:15.” The sense of lateness intensifies as the tires roll down the driveway. Out the lane, 1st gear, 2nd gear, 3rd. “How far is it exactly?” Each intersection, the long curves, the short straightaways, every point along the route flashes through my mind so I can calculate as the gas pedal crushes the floor.

“I sure do know how to move this old Honda when I want to, but I’m mature now; I know how bad it is to be driving this fast.” I hate to be late. “These people have appointments to keep, a full schedule I’m sure. One late patient can throw an entire day’s plan out of whack, and there’s no excuse for me right now.”

That thought got explanatory scenarios running through my mind: school buses, dilly dalliers, a dump truck, car trouble, wrong turn, construction, or job issue. I want to be ready to explain myself, but lying isn’t any better than being late.

“Focus. Where am I going? Why am I on route 29? I want to be over THERE.” I turn around in as-seen-on-tv fashion, showering the dirt parking lot with dust.

“OK, Ruth. No more of that.” I subtract three minutes from the numbers, knowing the clock is intentionally cushioned. “I think I can make it. Just don’t look at the speedometer; keep your eyes on the road.”

“Please tell me she is going straight ... dammit.” The unhurried driver gets in front of me at the fourway stop. “She’s either lost or drunk. Lady, would you PLEASE at least do the speed limit!” It’s never pleasant to hear yourself screaming. Before she turns off my route, I try to be grateful for being forced to slow down. “Maybe she saved me from a crash.”

A golfers’ cross walk sign appears. “Avoid mauling down happy people at leisure on a sunny day just because I can’t manage my time.” 1st gear, 2nd gear, 3rd, a curve, downshift, stop. “Can I ever just open it up around here?”

Turning around one more time before reaching the office -- a misjudged shortcut -- adds precious seconds to my condition. “Well, I could tell the receptionist I was here on time but had to sit in this left-hand turn lane until a break in traffic let me pull into the entrance.” Gunning it across two lanes, I must brake quickly for the guy with the cane walking around the parking lot. 2:49 on my 3-minute-fast clock, I glide into an open space. With years of practice, I release the key, grab my purse, hit the lock, and slide off the seat with impeccable efficiency. “I’m here.”

Half jogging to the door, I pause for a composing breath before entering. One millisecond later, I discover a nagging fear is true: the waiting room is stacked, and I have no doubt they are all there for the same guy. Glass slides open with a rumble. “Ruth Heil for a 2:45,” I announce. The receptionist takes my copay and asks me to sit and wait.

2:49 becomes 3:00. 3:00 becomes 3:15. Like two weeks ago, I sit and I wait. At least this time I have pen and paper so I can write down this account to entertain myself.

The old man with the cane shuffles in to grumble about the office door being hard to find and sits among the crowd. It obviously didn’t matter how slowly he raced here either. Another redundant scene in my life has unfolded: rushing to meet my engagements for no reason at all.

3:15 becomes 3:30.

“Ruth.” the nurse calls, hugging her clipboard.

I know the wait is far from over; I’m only in the exam room. In preparation for the second leg of this tour, I take a seat and stare at the poster on the wall. “Sun damage can have serious consequences,” it says. “So too could rushing to get here,” I respond to no one.

3:46, a knock and the door opens.

“Sorry to make you wait, we got behind and we can’t seem to get caught up today,” he says.

“That is EXACTLY what he said two weeks ago. Exactly. Same inflection, cadence, and sincerity.” My trust in him fades.

He continues, “The biopsy report is back, and it’s good news. However, we should keep an eye on things. I'd like to see you every year.”

3:51, the old man is still watching the waiting room floor, and I’m back in my car. I check carefully behind me, back out of the spot, and think about another practice in the area. Still, I drive home calmly, enjoying the sunny day and the favorable report.

A few miles into my journey, up from behind me races a work van, hugging my bumper, its operator in a serious hurry.

I mutter to my rear view mirror, “Idiot.”

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