“Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.” –Thoreau

15 May 2012

Chemical-Free: Meat!

This is such a touchy subject, folks. I come from Nebraska, land of the amazing steak, and Nebraskans don't like to talk about where their meat comes from. It makes sense: almost all of us know someone who makes at least part of their living off beef cattle, and you don't want mess with another person's living. We tiptoe around the topic of antibiotics, hormones, and cruel slaughtering practices. We don't want to think about pen sizes or whether our hamburger ate grass covered in pesticides. There aren't many vegetarians in Nebraska, I can tell you, and the ones who are have a hard time. After all, tomatoes don't put food on your neighbor's table. Touchy, touchy subject, I can assure you.

I am not a vegetarian. For one thing: I like to eat meat. For another: I have Crohn's disease, which limits the foods I am allowed to consume. Limiting myself further would make it difficult to get the nutrients I need, especially since my body doesn't handle soy well. So yes, I eat meat every day. I'm not here to talk about giving up your bacon cheeseburger.

Let's talk, instead, about how to eat meat right. You heard me! Bam! Value judgement, right out of the gate. I'm not backing away from this, friends. In my (educated) opinion, there are right and wrong ways to consume other animals. I'm going to tell you how to eat meat the right way, and you can leave me annoyed messages amending everything I've said in the comments. I'm cool with that.


We're going to dive right in with my home-state's trademark: The Cow. Cows have been domesticated since the early Neolithic era, which means we've had a long time to breed them into exactly what we want them to be. Basically: really large, really docile, really delicious animals. My husband's family live on a cattle farm (no, it's not a ranch, I do know the difference). Casey assures me that cows are perfectly content to be penned up together, chewing up grass and sleeping a lot. Cows are very big, heavy animals and--little known fact--they can jump pretty high. If a cow decided it didn't want to be in the pen, it'd just walk right through it. Or jump right over it. It's pretty much impossible to stop a cow from doing whatever it damn well pleases.

But cows have been bred to trust us, much like sheep and goats. That's pretty sick when you think about it, although very convenient. Cows believe we are going to take care of them and so they stay where we put them. Contrary to popular belief, they are not stupid. Cows will come when you call them, just like dogs, and they form incredibly complex social bonds. They have friendships, social hierarchies, and even hold grudges against other cows. After I first witnessed the separation of the calves from the mothers on the family farm, I did a little research. My husband's pleasant lie-- that after a few days, cows simply forget their own babies-- is completely false. Cows have very long memories. They don't forget; they give up in despair.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because if we're going to eat an animal with the capacity for emotion, for friendship, for love, then we need to make sure we're dealing with them humanely. Most people wouldn't put down a dog by slitting its throat and throwing its body on a hook while it is still alive. We do this to cattle. There are many ways to slaughter cattle which are approved under the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958, and all require the animal to be knocked out before it is killed. But it is well-documented that the methods of doing so often fail, and the animals sometimes bleed out while conscious. Even if they don't, other cows can usually see the dead cows hanging in front of them while they wait their turn to die. This is no way to treat an animal which is giving its life to sustain yours.

Putting all that touchy-feely stuff aside, there are still the chemicals to consider. Commercially-bred and -raised cows are usually given a series of antibiotics (such as these), vaccines (like these), and steroids (see this article). They are fed hay which has been sprayed down with pesticides and weed-killer. And, if they can get away with it, they will wash the meat down with ammonia prior to grinding it. We're not even talking about Pink Slime, here, which is actually chicken. I don't know about you but when I order a hamburger, I just want to get hamburger.


As is often the case, we vote with our wallets.

Look, the beef industry doesn't care if you like a YouTube video. They don't care what petitions you sign or what stories you share on Facebook. All they care about at the end of the day is what you pay for in the grocery store.

If you continue to buy beef based solely on what is cheapest, you will be feeding your family chemicals that you shouldn't knowingly feed to your cat. I know, I know, it's easy for me to say. We don't have children to feed and clothe and house. I'm going to hit you some hard facts though. I'm sorry, but I just can't help myself:

1) You're eating too much meat anyway.

According to the USDA, "In 2000, total meat consumption (red meat, poultry, and fish) reached 195 pounds (boneless, trimmed-weight equivalent) per person, 57 pounds above average annual consumption in the 1950s." Although we are consuming leaner cuts of meat than our predecessors, most of us are still consuming too much protein. And we're getting it from sources that are higher in saturated fats and more expensive.

2) Meat is an expensive protein.

The average cost of a pound of hamburger is $3.33 and that makes four quarter-pound hamburgers. The average cost of a pound of black beans is $1.99 and makes roughly 8 cups. You also get protein from nuts, cheese, yogurt, eggs, soy, and even quinoa. You're probably taking in more than you realize; there's really no reason to think you need to have a meat option at every meal. I eat meat once a day, usually at dinner, and that is more than sufficient. Buying less means you can afford to eat better quality meat when you do consume it.

3) If your kids are eating school lunches, they are eating animal by-products.

Just watch Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. I don't have time to go into all of this here.

Okay, so here's what to look for if you want to eat meat the right way...

Certified Organic. The USDA requires certified organic beef to meet some requirements. The cows must be raised on a certified organic pasture. They can never receive antibiotics or hormones. They can only be fed certified organic grains and grasses, which means no pesticides or chemical weed-killers. They also must have unrestricted outdoor access, and be slaughtered in the most humane way currently available.

Don't be fooled by packaging that says the beef is "natural." This only means it has no additives-- which is good for hamburger but otherwise pointless. "Certified Organic" is the only guarantee you're going to get, short of driving out to the farm and seeing the process for yourself. We sometimes stock up on beef from the family farm, but only because I know exactly where and how it's raised and slaughtered.

Is it going to cost more? Yes. But it will taste better. It will be safe for you and for your family. It will ensure that we're treating our fellow creatures, even those we eat, with humane respect. Just try it for a month. One month of buying meat that is certified organic, even if it means buying less. You'll taste the difference, I guarantee, and you won't suffer from eating a little less beef.

Good luck, and bon appetit!

10 May 2012

As promised, on writing

UPDATE: I am not the technological genius you believed me to be (ha ha). I thought I'd posted this yesterday, and instead I just saved it. Fail. Here you are then.

I promised I would write about writing, and I keep my promises. Of course, writing about writing is a bit too meta for someone like me (I have a tendency to veer into the philosophical when discussing turkey sandwiches or subway smells) so I'll try to keep myself on track here.

In case you somehow missed this: I attend the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I'm studying Writing for Children and Young Adults, and in roughly 21 months I will have my masters degree. At which point I will require you all to address me as "Master Cary Diers" or, alternatively, "Master Jenny, Empress of Narrative." My husband is so excited about this, I can tell you. The program is low-residency, which means that I spend most of my time accountable only to myself. It's good training for the gut-wrenching, hair-pulling, time-devouring life of a novel writer. It's also good training for living like a grown-up.

My first semester advisor, Mark Karlins, has been excellent. He's gentle with me but never patronizing. His comments are concise and fair. When I need a butt-kicking, he administers it politely. And when I succeed, he helps me actually believe in my success... I think that last bit might be the most valuable piece of all. He's also a brilliant writer in his own right (see here, here, and here) which completely negates the worn-out adage that "those who can't do, teach." Not that I believed that anyway.

I've always been a voracious reader; now I read more and more in-depth than ever before. I write with purpose and I edit with a finer eye. I understand terminology I'd never even heard before. I dream about editing, too, which is neither as scary nor as productive as you'd think. I've made incredible friends in my semester classmates. I'm working on a novel which might turn out to be my best work yet-- although it's impossible to tell at this point-- and Mark is helping me to ask myself the hard questions. His help is absolutely invaluable. I dread giving up his critique next semester, although I know I'll fall just as much in love with my next advisor too. I am a baby bird, and Papa Bird must thrust me from the nest. He thinks I can fly. I'm just hoping I fall with style.

When I first broached the topic of attending graduate school for writing, even I thought I was a little bit crazy. Wasn't I an actress? A singer? A performer? Wasn't that what I'd always been, and thereby who I was as well? I certainly thought so at the time. Looking back at that long period of wondering, of questioning my choices and pondering my purpose, I wish I could speak to that woman from here. I wish I could say: Don't worry so much about who you are. Your soul is an intact creation, whole and complete and everlasting. No one can take that away from you. A vocation is only a way to spend time; the goal is to enjoy it and to make it mean something. We are not what we do, but what we make of it.

See that? I slipped into philosophy there. That means it's time for me to wrap up this rambling account. The sun is shining, the birds are conversing, and there are strawberries in my fridge begging to be eaten. Plus, I need to get editing the start of chapter five.

As promised, a cat photo:

Blessings to you all, and good luck on your journey today.

09 May 2012

Chemical-Free: Who, Why, and How

I've been slacking badly in the blog world. I know it. You know it. I had a good reason, lots of good reasons, but it's time to get back on the proverbial horse. Actually, it'd be great to get back on a real horse. But they're harder to come by.

Tomorrow I will put up a lengthy post on my own writing, and the impact my graduate program at Vermont College of Fine Arts has had on my process. It will be epic! Angels will sing! Probably not the angels part, but I will include a picture of my cat.

Today, I need to write about anything but writing-- since that is all I've been doing for four months now. So instead, I am going to talk about something I am almost as passionate about as writing for teens.

Chemicals. Or, actually, a lack of chemicals.

Here's the thing: I joke about being something of a hippie, and in many ways I'm not. I like living in a busy, urban area. I like eating out at restaurants that serve ridiculously expensive imported cheese. I like taking the car to the grocery store; I don't even know how to ride a bike. I'm a very bad hippie, indeed, and so my jokes about being one are just that. Jokes. But there are some parts of my life in which I am committed to "living lighter": to protecting the temple that is my body and reducing my impact on the planet I love. It's a lot easier than it sounds.

Every few days, I'm going to offer up some easy ways to avoid needless chemicals. I'll also explain why I made the switch. Take what you want, leave what you don't, and let me know how stuff works for you. I'm interested to hear your thoughts and opinions. Let's start with...


I want to be clean. I want my husband to be clean. But conventional, store-bought laundry detergent is both expensive and laden with unnecessary chemicals. Did you know that there is no practical reason for your laundry soap to have suds? It's true. Suds are the result of the addition of Surfactants-- chemical substances added to detergents to promote suds and (soap companies say) to help break down stains. They are completely unnecessary and harmful to the environment (especially fish). They don't wash completely clean, and we wear those chemical additives against our skin. There's evidence that they might act as an endocrine disruptor, which can adversely affect metabolism, reproduction, and growth. And this is just one of the many chemicals in store-bought detergents! Don't even get me started on "optical brighteners"...

Plus, fun fact: HE washers can't even handle the suds. The large soap companies now have to offer "low-suds" formulas for use in these machines.

So what do I do about it? I make my own laundry detergent. Fact: It is incredibly cheap. Also fact: It is fast and easy. Further fact: It is the best option if you have folks in your house with sensitive skin.

The recipe I use can be found all over the internet. There are a million variations. Casey and I don't get our clothes and linens very dirty because we have clean, indoor jobs. You may want to increase the concentration of your liquid if you're dealing with more serious grime. The basic recipe is as follows:

1/3 cup washing soda (similar to baking soda, and made by the same companies)
1/3 cup borax (usually found in the cleaning section)
1/3 bar of Fels-Naptha laundry soap (or any bar soap)
big pot
container large enough to hold two gallons
funnel, if you need it

1) Fill your container with water, leaving space at the top for future shaking. Filling the container with water ensures you'll never make more detergent than you can store.
2) Pour half the water into the pot. Put it on medium-high heat.
3) Grate your bar soap into the pot. A Fels-Naptha bar is large, so I use 1/3 of the bar per batch. A Dove bar is smaller, so I'd use 1/2 of that size.
4) Let the soap flakes melt into the water completely. Stir occasionally.
5) When soap is completely incorporated, add your borax and your washing soda. Stir it up well.
6) Let that sit on the heat, stirring occasionally, so that it can thicken a bit. It will not get as thick as store-bought detergent. I usually wait until it just begins to bubble. Don't let it boil; it will cause a mess... personal experience talking here.
7) Take the pot off the heat and stir in 1/2 of the water left in in your container (1/4 of the total water will remain). Let this cool for a while. You can wait until it gets to room temperature if you want but I'm too impatient.
8) Using the funnel (if you need to) pour your detergent into your two-gallon container. Put the lid on. Shake the whole thing to mix it up.

Each full load requires about 1/4 cup of detergent. Heavily soiled items might need more, delicate items a little less. I just eyeball it, but you could measure it out if you want. I always give it a good shake before I use it. Remember: This will look much thinner than you're used to. That's okay, it's still going to work. Your clothes will still smell fresh and clean, but they will have no scent (unless your bar soap is scented). You can dry them as normal.

When I first started making my own laundry detergent, I kept track of my costs. I bought my ingredients online, and I bought the exact ingredients I've linked to in the list above (although not at those exact prices). I use a well-cleaned container that originally held cat litter, which has worked very well for me. Each batch makes roughly two gallons, and each load takes about 1/4 cup. I have been making my own detergent for five months now and have only repurchased the bar soap. I still have plenty of washing soda, and I'm pretty sure I bought enough Borax to last me an entire year. My math isn't complete, since I still have product to use up, but I can tell you for certain that my laundry costs me no more than a penny a load.

That's right: one penny per load. Or possibly less.
You absolutely cannot beat that.

I encourage you to give this a try. I swear it takes very little time and effort (certainly no more than getting down to the store to pick up some Tide). If your first batch doesn't seem perfect, play with the proportions a bit. If you just aren't sold in the end, fear not! I will be posting more good ways to use up those ingredients. It's better for your body, better for the environment, and better for your wallet. It's Win-Win-Win!