Windows, culture & great comforts: how do we learn to share what we take for granted?

The world has gotten so much more interconnected. My tiny blog has been viewed by readers from all over the world. Yet, still, we miss opportunities to share our best ideas about life’s most basic conveniences.

My thoughts today are prompted by windows. Specifically, what I’ve thought of as “German windows” since my first visit to that country in the late 1990’s. A recent internet search tells me they are referred to as “Tilt and Turn” or simply “Tilt Turn” windows in English-speaking markets.

Do Germans even have a special name for this type of window, or is it just “a window” because the technology is expected?

The details of why I love these windows are a little off topic for this post, but they are uniquely functional fenestrations. I was reminded of that fact during a recent stay in a “passive house” (i.e., energy saving construction built using European “green” concepts.) Tilt & Turn windows might solve a challenge in my home, so I went looking for sources in the USA.

My specific home improvement aside, I was left with a renewed frustration about the difficulty of implementing well-tested, obviously useful technology that’s ubiquitous in another country here in my home.

Having traveled, I have some idea of the scope of great ideas for making comfortable homes that have developed around the globe. I’d love to bring some of these innovations back with me. Talk about the ultimate souvenir! But, to do so is almost impossible on a middle class budget.

I learned that this problem exists years ago as a first time homeowner with old steam radiators. An 80 year old unit needed to be replaced, ideally with something much narrower and taller. The existing unit stuck out ten inches past an adjacent doorjamb and into the hall! The plumber swore no such radiator existed for sale in the USA. I wasn’t knowledgeable enough then to realize how limited the repertoire of a standard contractor was (and is.)

I now have a plumber who enjoys learning about cutting edge technologies in his field. He’s taught me a lot about what can be had, domestically, and at what (high!) price. Thanks to him, at least I have options to evaluate for myself.

Scottish castle - 1

Scottish castle that had some fine modern radiators

Way back in 2002, I could have purchased the tall, slim, wall-mounted radiator I’d seen in Scotland, contrary to the old plumber’s thoughts. I couldn’t have afforded the system upgrades necessary to use it in my old house, however.

Our tradespeople frequently learn through mentoring relationships and apprenticeships—a tried and true method, undoubtedly—but it appears that the process precludes much exposure to innovation.

Couldn’t a better job be done in sharing building products and processes, at least between regions with similar climates?

Conservative behavior does make sense when we are talking about a home. For so many, it represents the bulk of his financial resources; the ultimate “investment.” No one wants to spend foolishly when it comes to her nest egg.

The flip side to this, however, is a failure to adopt even simple improvements that save resources over the mid- to long-term. The eventual costs end up staggeringly large. Also, right now, we enjoy less comfort at home.

Until you’ve traveled away from home and experienced life as another culture lives it, it is hard to even identify your own most mundane expectations and prejudices as such. Wearing shoes indoors or not? Various household appliances as luxuries vs. necessities? Local swimming pool, recreation center, or library as nice perk, or indispensable locus of community life?

Because I’ve traveled—and indulged a personal hobby of reading and occasionally obsessing about foreign cultures—I enjoy my daily life more.

I use a Japanese deep soaking tub for arthritis relief. I can’t imagine life anymore without an electric kettle (a habit I picked up in the UK) for preparing my tea. My husband and I share sleep more soundly with bed linens arranged in the German tradition—two separate twin duvets of wildly different warmth/weight on our king sized bed.

Most of these are inexpensive objects easily blended into a typical American home. My tub, for example, is a portable model that fits in my shower stall, something like an overgrown version of child’s wading pool, but it provides more comfort than any Western bath I’ve tried. I’d love to remodel my outdated bathroom someday and include a beautiful, high quality, built-in tub of this type, but that may never be economically feasible.

Also, the most intriguing aspect of the Japanese tub—an integrated heater that keeps a bath at a ready temperature—is not allowed in the USA. I think it is the cultural disconnect between people who wash before they get in to soak (Japanese) vs. the idea that the tub is the bath in which you soap and scrub. Only chemically disinfected hot tubs can be kept hot in America.

All of the previous paragraph is assuming I’ve got a handle on the actual code issues with these heaters, which I may well be misunderstanding. I have no background in the building trades, nor am I a particularly handy homeowner. Here’s more about using an ofuro in the Japanese tradition.

There are real technical reasons these are the hard innovations to incorporate. Building codes are different. Electrical requirements are different. Standards are different.

But, if we don’t know the technology exists to improve our lives, how can we ask for it?Boy Harnessed the Wind book cover photo

Another influence on these thoughts. A book I’m reading about how a boy growing up in Malawi experienced, and learned to work with, technology.

How do we, as interconnected citizens of the world, in constant contact with each other, share the best, most comforting aspects of our lives?

Can we do a better job of getting the word out?

Can we share our greatest comforts?

Good lunch in a hurry: less waste doesn’t have to take more time

Sticking with the theme from yesterday of how to pack a waste free lunch, today I’ll shift the discussion to getting a low waste lunch packed in a hurry.

Remember, the idea of a zero waste lunch is to avoid generating unnecessary garbage (usually packaging) to lighten our ecological impact.

Time is of the essence

No one seems to have enough time in her day anymore, and this is at least as true of moms as it is of the general population. Mom has the same 24 hours available to squeeze in caring for herself and her offspring.

Today started off with one of those mornings. It was predictable, and I often employ strategies to reduce morning stress, but sometimes I fail to achieve my idealized solutions.

  • I didn’t pack lunch the night before.
  • I needed to get laundry in the machine this morning so it would be dry by evening.
  • I didn’t prep the breakfast ingredients the night before.

Each of these tasks is quick—taking perhaps 5-10 minutes—but, when added together, there goes my precious early morning tea time. Not the end of the world, but it sets a very different tone to the day.

When I’m not prepared, it takes more work to have what the kids and I call a “good” morning. No yelling! No taking frustrations out on family members. No blaming someone else for the jobs we left undone and are scrambling to complete.

We did manage a good morning, in spite of my poor planning. One reason for that was having strategies in place for a speed-packed lunchbox. I even took a few extra seconds to snap some pictures. We arrived at school with three minutes to spare, though, if I’m honest, that’s only because traffic was mercifully light and I lucked out with every traffic signal on the way there.

Here’s how I packed a lunch so fast.

Main dish straight from a bulk package in the freezer

There were no leftovers ready to go, so DS2 got his favorite treat for a main dish: chicken nuggets. These are the gluten free version from Applegate Farms. He can use a microwave oven at school, so I packed them in a CorningWare 16 oz glass casserole dish. A paper towel and the heating instructions are folded into the dish with the food to make it easier for DS2 or a helpful teacher, to prepare his lunch.

The heating instructions call for the paper towel when re-heating nuggets in the microwave. At home, I would use the oven heating instructions and avoid the waste, but that isn’t an option for school.

When I’ve included glass dishes in a child’s lunchbox, I make a point of reminding him to be a little extra careful about how he handles it. I suspect that this advice is forgotten before he’s even through the door, but we have had very good results in spite of careless boys and breakable containers.

I’ve been happy with both CorningWare and Pyrex dishes. They are very sturdy. The insulation/padding of a modern, soft-sided lunchbox no doubt helps cushion the glass as well.

Side dishes zip from storage to containers

Here’s another case where I have to own up to my imperfections in the area of less wasteful grocery practices. One of the reasons I always keep “baby carrots” in our fridge is that they go straight from storage to the lunchbox or plate. The value of this ease can’t be overstated when it comes to getting fresh veggies into the lunchbox, and making vegetables a quick grab snack to which the boys may help themselves.

I also have regular carrots on hand that I buy from our local farmers. We use those when we are cooking and prepping lunches and snacks ahead of time in an ideal scenario. But baby carrots are the champions of less than ideal mornings at our house. Cherry tomatoes are really easy, too.

Another corner I cut on a day like today is patting dry the other produce before I pack it in the round stainless steel containers. The U Konserve/Kids Konserve rounds with silicone lids will hold whatever water remains while in transit, but I will probably get a moderately grubby lunchbox back at the end of the day due to dribbles, crumbs, and dirt.

Thank God it’s Friday! We only wash the lunchbox once a week, on the weekend, to maintain some semblance of good hygiene.

Potato chips are a rare lunchbox treat, but, like the chicken nuggets, both popular with the child and super quick to pack. Since he’s getting two servings of vegetables today—one for snack, and one for lunch—it’s a good day for this concession. I’ll avoid anything high in sodium for dinner tonight to make up for the little guy’s salty lunch.

Washing twice as many veggies took less time than choosing and getting out an alternate snack option, like nuts (kept in the freezer) or an egg (which I peel for him at home, thus costing more time.)

The apple wins the award for least packaging needed, but my son may well skip eating it. Sliced apples are much faster to eat, which is why I usually take the time to cut them up when I include them in his lunch. Reducing packaging isn’t necessarily an ecological improvement if it results in wasted food.

I mention this to, once again, underscore how personal all of these choices can be. What works for me may not be ideal for your situation, but I hope my tips generate ideas you can use.

Dessert and drinks are prepped ahead for the week

Both a treat and a beverage were already portioned and ready to pack. I almost always have these prepped for the week on Sunday night.

Sweets for school—except on a rare holiday—are home baked goodies with a healthier profile than packaged products. The blondie I packed today uses whole grain teff and millet flour and a healthy dose of almond butter for flavor and fat content. They taste great, and are helpful for tempting my little guy, who’d rather play than eat during his allotted break time.

My recipe is adapted from one I found here.

Lunch quick pack busy morning - 5

Today’s lunch pack required four U Konserve rounds (medium, 2 small, mini), a CorningWare 16 oz casserole, Nalgene 8 oz bottle, and a Bumkins small snack bag. The apple required no packaging.

My water bottle choice: Nalgene 8 oz rectangular

The water bottle issue is one I’ve grappled with for years. I’d prefer not to use plastic, but I have yet to find a glass bottle that is affordable enough, durable enough, and sized and shaped right for the way I want to pack a school lunch.

The Nalgene 8 oz wide mouth rectangular bottle is the best option I’ve come up with for daily school use. Here’s why:

This bottle fits inside the lunchbox. My younger son, in particular, will not remember a separate bottle. Either the lunch or the water bottle will be lost. I don’t like that option. He could carry a larger lunchbox, but then it wouldn’t fit inside his backpack; once again, he’d be responsible for managing two important items. It’s a recipe for more frequent replacement of expensive, necessary objects.

Also, rectangular dishes use the space in the lunchbox more efficiently than round ones. I tried packing our small Sigg bottles in the same spot, and the bag bulged alarmingly, if it would zip at all. The Nalgene rectangular bottle is the perfect shape.

I was really upset by how the Sigg company handled the issue of its use of BPA in the liners for its otherwise great aluminum bottles. We still use the ones we have, but I won’t be buying more.

I fill six Nalgene 8 oz bottles with about an inch of water on Sunday night. I freeze them all. Each morning, I top off one bottle’s chunk of ice with filtered water and pack it in the lunch. This helps keep the contents of the lunchbox cold, and it reduces the temperature of the water in contact with (HDPE) plastic.

These factors are important to me for food safety reasons and to reduce my child’s exposure to leached toxins, respectively.

When the weather heats up, or if I know the class is taking a nature study field trip, I’ll add a second frozen bottle to the lunchbox. This gives DS2 enough water to stay hydrated, and keeps the lunch chilled longer.

I have frozen ice packs in a variety of sizes which I also employ as needed, but frozen water bottles are sufficient during most of our school year in New England’s climate.

Not all or nothing, just a best effort for today

It’s taken me far longer to describe packing this lunch than it did for me to complete the task. I’ve had years of practice, but it takes more desire to avoid waste than it does talent or skill. A few containers in convenient sizes also come in handy.

More than anything else, I hope that someone reading this who feels like waste free lunches are out of reach can see that this is a process. It isn’t all or nothing. Do what you can manage today, and aim to do a bit better tomorrow.

Here’s a secret: I keep a small shelf full of pre-packaged snacks at the top of my pantry. Why? Because, some mornings, tossing a ready made bag of pretzels into the lunchbox is the best I can do. It doesn’t matter why, and it doesn’t make me a bad person, or a failure as a mother.

Taking even small steps to reduce waste is a fine start. Just keep following those steps up with more. You’ll get to where you want to be.

What do you do on your busiest mornings to get the best lunch packed in the least time? Do you use more packaged goods, or have you got better solutions? Please share in the comments!

Multi-generational co-housing: sharing a home with my in-laws

A few years ago, we made the choice to move, together with my husband’s parents, into one large, shared house.

We sold a three bedroom, one bath home; my in-laws sold their own similarly sized three bedroom house.

They contributed to the down payment on the new place and paid to remodel their portion. This included adding interior walls and a second kitchen for their exclusive use to create a true in-law apartment. They have an exterior door that leads from the driveway to their space, three bedrooms, a living room, and two bathrooms, all their own.

We share a short hallway from the garage, basement and garage space, and the yard itself, though we agreed upon one patio area for their outdoor furniture and primary use. Our main entrance is the original front door, so none of our guests pass through the other’s private spaces.

It’s not a rentable second residence (we share utilities, for example), but we don’t have to share cooking space, bathrooms, or exterior entryways. We can open interior doors to see each other, but we can also close them for privacy.

We took on a mortgage of a similar size to what we would have spent moving alone into a larger home. Sharing a 35 sq ft (a little over 3 m2) bathroom—with a bad layout, asbestos panel walls requiring professional abatement, degraded brass plumbing, and a cast iron tub in dire need of refinishing or replacement—with three males had become a daily nuisance, and I was demanding an upgrade one way or another.

I’ve had people commend me for being “willing to allow” my husband’s parents to move in with us, but it was actually my idea. DH is very close to his parents. He took virtually no convincing, though he was concerned about how I would respond to living together. My rationale for entering into this arrangement—unconventional in 21st century Western society, but “traditional” when considering human history—was multi-faceted.

First, my husband is an only child, and care of his parents is his sole responsibility. If or when, in the future, they need more assistance, he is duty-bound to provide it, and I wouldn’t wish for him to behave any differently. My hope was to create a comfortable home in which we could all co-exist peacefully before circumstances forced the issue.

How much better is it to move joyfully forward into a great new house we’ve picked out together than to cram an ailing or recently widowed elder into a house that’s ill suited for aging in place? We were barely squeezing our family of four into our old place. Any sudden addition to the household would have been difficult, maybe impossible, if infirmity had been the motivation for the change!

I grew up with my maternal grandfather sharing our home. He joined our household when I was a preschooler, after he had been a widower for a few years. I’m sure my decision to expand our household beyond our nuclear family was made easier by the experience growing up with Grandpa just another familiar daily presence. He had health issues and spent most of his time in his room listening to classical music, but he was there, and he was just part of the family.

Besides these more emotional reasons for expanding the scope of our family home, I must admit that I also believe in the sensibility, and sustainability, of the modern co-housing movement. There are economies to be gained by living in groups, even small ones.

I loved the idea of buying a unit in a co-housing community, but had never made headway convincing DH it was a good idea. Sharing a household with my in-laws does put some of my environmental principles into action.

For example, a periodic energy usage report from the local utility says we use 25% more energy than neighboring households. That bothered me until I remembered that our one home replaced two. Also, three members of our six person combined family are home (consuming power and keeping the heat or air conditioning at comfortable levels) for most of every day. A mere 25% above average is actually an energy savings win.

It was hardest to coax my father-in-law (FIL) into the arrangement. DH’s mother (MIL) would have moved into our old (detached, unheated) garage without complaint if she thought it would serve the family. She’s also generationally and culturally inculcated to go along with her husband’s financial decisions. Aside from making clear that she didn’t want to live in a basement, MIL was on board with the co-housing idea from the moment she heard it.

FIL felt differently. He still works, and he’s fit and active. The first time we broached the subject, it was pretty clear that he didn’t want to be assumed as our “responsibility.” I think he appreciated the fact that we were expressing care and concern for their future, but he was not ready to “move into his son’s house.”

An alarming health scare a couple of years later, which, happily, turned out to be a false alarm, brought FIL around to our plan. I believe he acted then out of concern for his wife. What if something had happened to him? What would happen to MIL? As soon as FIL expressed a tentative interest in the idea of moving in together, I called a realtor and began readying our place for sale.

We were able to buy a much larger home in an ideal neighborhood by combining the value of two properties. Neither household was compromising or downgrading comfort, space, or property values in the move. We have enough room that no one is on top of each another. We had plenty of options at this higher end of the market to find houses that were easily adapted to multi-generational living.

Another really important point to my story is that FIL and MIL really weren’t “giving up” on independence and “moving in with” their son. We gain at least as much by having them living downstairs as they get from us!

MIL is the traditional Jewish grandmother in one obvious way: she always wants to feed her loved ones. If you’ve read some of my other posts, you may recall that I’m a reluctant cook. The boys get nutritious, home cooked dinners four nights a week with their grandparents. I get to skip cooking four nights every week during the time of day that my energy is lowest. I’m very content to dine alone on leftovers while the boys enjoy vegetable soup and котлеты and lots of doting attention.

Also, I get an hour to myself to recharge my (introverted) emotional batteries after spending all day with DS1, who learns at home. My husband deserves to be greeted, after a long day at work, by my best self, and he’s more likely to get her if I’ve had a chance to take a break. I’d like to be an eternally happy housewife, but I’m simply not without regular intervals of peace and quiet.

And speaking of the home school scholar (DS1), FIL is a great help with that process. He is not just willing, but eager, to tutor his grandson in math, history, computer science, and the Russian language. MIL, who was a concert pianist, accompanies DS1 while he practices his violin. Their experience and wisdom definitely enhances DS1’s education.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning the social consequences of the in-laws moving in with the “kids.” I think FIL was a little worried that their friends would judge them for making this change. After supporting himself and his family for decades, would it seem like they were financially needy, even derelict? Instead, attitudes seem to be quite the opposite. If little birds can be believed, many friends feel rather jealous.

“Your daughter-in-law asked you to move in with them?!?”

What better proof that you are valued, loved, and that your presence is appreciated?