Facing pandemic persistence, I’ll spend where safety dictates policy

We have made it to August 2021. Sadly, the pandemic is not over, though the most vulnerable people in America have been tricked into behaving as if it is.

Decisions were made to re-open all venues while simultaneously dropping every protective precaution. Some of us believe that choice was precipitous, even reckless. I feel vindicated as my logic proves sound… but also so deeply disappointed.

I know I like redundancies more than most, but this seemed so obvious. “Better safe than sorry” may be trite, but it’s also wise where human lives are on the line.

How ’bout making one change at a time? After each change, observe the effect. It works for scientists, after all.

Oh, right, science is a tool for the liberal elite! Yet fools parroting such nonsense do it gasping through their fluid-filled lungs, crowding into our hospitals—institutions steeped in modern medical knowledge derived via the scientific method.

Some feel their lives aren’t worth living if they have to wear a mask to go shopping. Safety goggles, cloth face mask, and disposable gloves

I wonder how those precious snowflakes would hold up under conditions of true adversity. I imagine the oppressed population of Myanmar—or the people in Haiti or Tunisia, watching their fragile governments wobble under anti-democratic onslaughts—could offer lessons on what really constitutes a hardship to pampered American crybabies.

I would recognize that wearing a mask pales in comparison to being the target of genocide even had I never visited Auschwitz.

What a summer we could have had! If only we’d been cautious enough to resume access to theaters and restaurants, but with our masks in place for crowded, indoor conditions from the outset. It might have been the joyful reunion we all dreamed of during 2020’s isolation, loneliness, and despair.Woman hugs child

Hugging my grandma with a mask on didn’t lessen the joy of it. Visiting with my aunt over coffee on the patio instead of in the kitchen offered equal satisfaction. Espresso in demitasse cup on cafe table

Watching as my father’s “elective”—yet quality of life preserving—joint replacement surgery was postponed once, and then a second time, because no hospital bed was available was yet one more cost of the pandemic, but, this time, caused directly by bad actors, not a novel disease with unknown characteristics.

Now that stung.Analog wall clock showing 12:06

Frankly, I believe libertarian freedoms should be available… but only at a reasonable price. Partakers in those freedoms must give up the right to extort payment from the sensible majority.

Refusing vaccines? Fine, but wear a mask in public settings. Also, public funds—and even private insurance—should eventually cease to pay treatment costs incurred by those rejecting approved vaccines for endemic disease sufficient to be flagged by public health authorities.

The price of ignoring experts when an entire society experiences extreme events should be borne by those who choose to heed only their own counsel. That’s a fair trade off.

During outbreaks of any vaccine-preventable, endemic illness, refusniks must also give up the freedom to enjoy entertainment venues and public conveyances for all but essential purposes. Take your bus across town to work—while masked—sure, but recreational jaunts and all air travel unless, say, to receive urgent medical care out of state ought to be curtailed for those likely to spread disease.

NZ Chch bus MetroUnvaccinated kids should learn remotely unless masks are shown to be sufficient in preventing the spread of measles, chickenpox, the equally transmissible delta variant of COVID-19, and any future outbreak of similarly easily spread viruses.

If masks prove to work as well as that, I am 100% fine with unvaccinated kids—wearing masks—in schools forever. The point is to keep vaccine-preventable germs contained, not to dictate personal decisions that affect only oneself.

It should go without saying that the vaccinated should always be prioritized over the voluntarily unvaccinated when medical treatment becomes a scarce commodity that must be rationed. I hope and pray it doesn’t come to that, but, today, I fear for the people of Florida, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Mississippi and Alabama look pretty terrible, too.

Pandemic illness currently strains the pathetically insufficient “just in time” commercial hospitals in these and other states. An August 5th AP news story describes one Broward County hospital cramming beds into auditorium, cafeteria, and conference rooms to accommodate surging COVID-19 caseloads.

How pathetic that we allowed ourselves to fall back to this point more than a year after learning how and where this virus spreads!

Speaking to business owners and service providers, I reiterate that my personal spending will be concentrated in locations with high rates of vaccination. Pile of money

I will preferentially patronize restaurants and stores that demand proof of vaccination before letting anyone remove her mask.

It shouldn’t fall to commercial interests to manage a public health crisis, but dysfunctional politics brought us to that point. Re-opening—with precautions—allows for increased economic activity without excessive deaths. That’s the course I’ll vote for with my wallet.

Here’s hoping leadership by accounting departments can make up for the inadequacies of incompetent elected officials.

Costco Executive Member swap of paper Reward Certificate for online use

Today’s tip will apply to a fairly narrow audience.

  • Are you a Costco Executive Member?
  • Do you still have your annual Reward Gift Certificate that was mailed out in 2020?
  • Are you avoiding shopping in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

If all three of those points apply to you, you may appreciate something I found out last month after a bit of searching. You can submit your paper Reward Certificate to the Costco home office by mail, and they will send you a Shop Card* redeemable for online purchases as well as in person, for example, at their gas pumps.

Costco Wholesale club Executive Membership Reward Gift Certificates dated 11/01/2019 and 11/01/2020As it happens, I hadn’t even gotten around to using my November 2019 certificate when I made my last in person visit going inside a Costco back in March 2020. The arrival in November 2020 of the next one brought the matter to my attention.

I was actually a few dollars shy of the break even amount for 2019—regular membership costs $60/year while Executive Members pay $120/year but earn back 2% of their spending in the form of this Reward Gift Certificate—and the $59 coupon in my wallet had completely slipped my mind.Costco Executive membership card in black leather wallet

My shopping habits changed a lot in 2020, however, and my two figure Reward from 2019 was more than doubled this year. In addition to regular orders of 2 Day Delivery shelf stable staples and household goods, I also bought Mountain House freeze dried meals and other long term storage foods, exercise equipment, and an expensive new vacuum cleaner from my favorite big box store.

While I frequented the Costco warehouse and gas station far less often during the pandemic, I did try to order as much as possible via Costco.com. I appreciate Costco’s consistent appearance on “America’s Best Employer” lists like this on from Forbes, plus their emphasis on value for dollar vs. lower prices on lesser quality goods matches my own preferences as a consumer. I feel much better shopping there than giving more of my money to Jeff Bezos over at Amazon.

With two Reward Certificates in hand, I found this page on Costco’s web site that explained how to redeem them for an equivalent amount of online-use-eligible gift certificates. I encourage you to follow the instructions on the official site at the link above, but here are the details on how to make the swap for yourself.

Mail your Executive 2% Reward certificate to Costco at:

Costco Wholesale
ATTN: Executive 2% Department
1455 11th Ave NW
Issaquah, WA 98027

Number 10 (business size) envelope with stampMake sure to include the following in a cover letter:

  • Member’s name
  • Membership number
  • Address to which you’d like the Costco Shop Card sent
  • Phone number in case they need to reach you
  • Executive 2% Reward certificate(s)

I took the precaution of photocopying my Reward Certificates before mailing them to Costco, and I’d advise anyone else to do the same or snap a readable photo. For good measure, and because my printer also works as a scanner, I captured an image of my membership card to the same document lest a foolish typo on my part prevent me from getting my money back!

I didn’t put the date on which I mailed my Certificates on my calendar, nor did I note receiving the replacement Shop Card, but the process felt pretty quick. I’d estimate that I had gift card in hand within a couple of weeks, even with the widespread postal delays of this past holiday season.Costco Shop Card gift certificate - 1

I was given no guff about submitting two annual Executive 2% Reward certificates, and the Costco home office combined both dollar amounts onto a single Shop Card gift certificate as I’d indicated was my preference in my cover letter.Pile of money

If, like me, you are sitting on a couple of hundred dollars or more in Costco IOU’s due to COVID-19, consider taking these simple steps to gain access to the money you’ve earned via your patronage. You might also want to express your appreciation for the opportunity as I did. Once again, Costco’s commitment to customer service has made me happy to continue my patronage of the chain, and I made sure they were aware of how their effort affected my feelings about my membership.

* Costco’s name for their gift cards

Kitchen compost bucket solutions to tame the sticky stink

I’ll have to begin with the bad news: if you fail to take your compost out, eventually, there will be odors. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.

Fundamentally, we’re talking about the process of decay by which food scraps become nourishment for future cycles of growth. It’s all good, but you’ll notice there’s goo in good

Biology gets sticky and stinky. Mathematicians know it.food in kitchen compost pail including gummy bears, coffee grounds, oatmeal, and seeds

Having accepted that taking out the compost is at least as important as removing household trash, here are my simple ideas for a less messy, less smelly, less likely to leak composting experience.

I recommend:

  • an 8-10 quart food storage container with tight fitting lid
  • 4 gallon compostable liners for the kitchen compost pail
  • a household paper shredder
  • scrap paper and cardboard shipping boxes destined for recycling
  • 13 gallon compostable liners for the curbside bin

Snapware food storage bin and lid lined with UNNI compostable bag with cardboard

Continue reading

Freeze meals in silicone bakeware to store more foodsicles in limited space

Freezing leftovers is not a new idea. Making a big batch of food and storing individual portions for later has been popular at least since mass production made containers cheaper than a home cook’s time. Sheltering at home due to COVID-19 has increased the frequency with which I do this kind of batch cooking.

Mushroom broth frozen in silicone muffin tray and stored in baggie

Recently, while browsing on Amazon, I noticed a product called Souper Cubes. These are specifically designed for freezing food in tidy, portion sized, rectangular chunks. They look incredibly functional, and I’ve added some to my Wish List.

This fairly expensive* specialty kitchen product reminded me of a similar hack I’ve employed for years. It might work just as well for you as it does for me, and it could save you money, too.

Smartware blue silicone brownie and bread pansWhen silicone baking pans first showed up at mass market stores a decade or so ago, I received a Smartware set as a gift. Since then, I’ve added a few shapes of individual silicone “muffin cups” to my collection of full size baking pans, mostly for use to create “bento style” packed lunches for my kids.

My orange Wilton muffin pan snuck into the kitchen along the way.

Frozen broth popping out of flexed silicone muffin tray

A standard size muffin compartment creates a very useful “puck” of homemade stock or broth. Half a dozen fit in a quart size freezer bag. These are easy to combine for recipes requiring larger quantities, and the small rounds melt more quickly than a solid frozen quart or even pint would.

A bread pan freezes the right portion of soup or stew for nights when I’m feeding just the kids. Couples with desk jobs would probably find this a useful size for the purpose; one large, athletic type might eat just as much. Keeping the fill to half depth or less, these “bricks” defrost in a reasonable amount of time. I reheat them back in that same blue bread pan. Being silicone, it is suitable for use in the microwave or oven.

Several stew bricks fit in a single gallon size Ziploc bag. I separate the bricks in the bag with parchment or freezer paper for tidiness and convenience.

Writing identifying descriptions and the date directly on each wrapped brick also prevents loss of external labels that tend to peel off in the chill of my freezer. I re-use the same large Ziploc over and over as long as there’s no obvious food residue inside.

A typical muffin tin or metal bread pan could obviously be used to freeze portions just as well. The main benefit of silicone containers is their flexibility. One would have to allow frozen portions to defrost quite a bit more in a rigid dish on the counter to remove them for more compact long term storage in baggies.

I think most of us are trying to shop less often to help prevent community spread during the pandemic. Freezing perishables helps me do that while avoiding feeding my family too many processed foods.

freeze silicone packed freezer - 1My freezer is crammed full, so every efficient storage trick is worth a try.

My scientist husband is particularly nonplussed by my use of the same Rubbermaid Commercial bins he uses to move frogs around his lab. It’s weird for him to pull the kids’ dinner out of one when his day-to-day experience primes him to expect a fecund xenopus.

I would enjoy the convenience of a Souper Cubes tray with its calibrated portion sizes stamped right onto the container. Those tidy rectangular prisms would probably improve the appearance of my messy freezer compartment, too. That said, I’m getting most of the usefulness of this method by using silicone items I already had at a cost of $0.

* ≈ $20/tray

Or in a Stasher silicone bag for those aiming to live plastic free. I’ve tucked a quart size Ziploc bag between the largest Stasher Half Gallon (white) and the pink Sandwich bag for scale in my photo here. The little aqua one is Stasher’s Silicone Pocket. I’ve purchased most of my Stasher stash at a slight member’s discount from online organic grocer Thrive Market.

Large, medium & small Stasher silicone storage bags with quart size Ziploc bag to show size

Café notes: Coffee, the Congo, and Lynn Nottage’s play, “Ruined”

I had a great cup of single origin Congo Ituri coffee at the mall last week.

NZ restaurant espresso - 1This is remarkable for several reasons:

  • First, I was at the mall.*
  • Second, I got a great cup of specialty coffee therein.
  • Third, my beautiful pour over arrived with a side order of coincidence.

I simply haven’t the foodie palate or terminology to give you a better explanation for why my cup of coffee was so great, but the barista on duty that day was particularly knowledgeable. He probably prepared my cup with great skill. Certainly the flavor profile of the beans and the roast landed right in the sweet spot for my tastes.

What struck me as I sat down in the café with my cup and opened my library book was the coincidence. Here’s the top of the first page of Lynn Nottage’s play, Ruined, setting the scene:

“ACT ONE, Scene 1: A small mining town. The sounds of the tropical Ituri rain forest. Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

The tropical Ituri rain forest? It rang a bell. I went back up to the café counter and read the menu board once more.

That day, the Nordstrom Espresso Bar was offering a Congo Ituri microlot coffee in the light roast** I prefer. Probably why I’d chosen it from amongst several offerings, including a light roast Kona I’ve enjoyed before.

I drink Ethiopian Yirgacheffe pretty often, and regularly select it preferentially, but I haven’t hit upon another African region for beans that’s become a steady favorite. I’ll certainly seek out more Congolese coffees moving forward, however, on the strength of this one notably wonderful cup.

But here are a few painful questions that I can’t answer, all stimulated by the tough subject matter of Nottage’s play that I read while sipping said cup.

  • How sustainable is coffee cultivation in DR Congo?
  • Does coffee cultivation there typically help the Congolese people, and especially the vulnerable women of Congo whose plight is underscored in Ruined? Is it a path helping average people rise above the legacy of the nation’s bloody civil wars?
  • Are major brands like Nordstrom and Starbucks doing enough to support the individual coffee farmer in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Or are these rich corporations paying less than they should for their beans because they’ve got the might to get away with it?

Honestly, I can’t answer any of these questions after a few days of searching.

Coffee is a delight to me. It is one of my daily pleasures, and, yes, a minor addiction. Coffee is also one the world’s most valuable legal commodities, like petroleum or precious metals. It’s big business on the order of tens of billions of dollars per year, and the needs of the coffee plant itself dictate that it be grown in what are often unstable, developing regions.

It can be hard to evaluate for oneself whether a coffee purchase meets one’s personal standards for ethical sales, environmental sustainability, etc.

Thanksgiving Coffee bean package of Ethiopia YirgacheffeThanksgiving Coffee, an artisan roaster I’ve patronized many times, encapsulates best what a consumer like me seeks with their motto: Not Just a Cup, but a Just Cup. I want to drink great coffee, but I’d prefer not to do so on the backs of modern day slaves.

Nottage’s Ruined is not, I should add, a play about coffee. Its setting is a bar/brothel, and beer, whiskey, and Fanta are the beverages I recall from the script. The subject matter is intense, and should be painful to anyone with an interest in social justice. Or to anyone with a heart.

Like other works I’ve read/seen by this playwright, Ruined is a story about women getting by in a world where someone else wields most of the power. It’s a tale of making do with one’s terrible circumstances, and coming to terms with it all as best as one can.

One needn’t look as far as the Congo to find such injustice and resilience, either. We’ve got plenty of it here at home in America. One of the best plays I’ve seen performed this decade was Nottage’s Sweat*** at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Aside from being a masterful work in and of itself, Sweat also inspired an “immersive transmedia” art project This is Reading in Reading, PA, the Rust Belt setting for that tale of struggle.

It can be hard to unravel the threads of thoughtful consumption in an era of broad scale multinational trade. You could give up completely, or simply begin where you can: by asking questions, and by sharing what you learn. My quick research into coffee farming in the Congo led me to more new questions than answers. Yours may yield better fruit.

Where we all benefit is by calling attention to those with less power than ourselves, and making even small efforts to do them good. Our strength increases with numbers; so, too, does our ability to enact positive change.

*The mall is not my natural habitat.

**As I understand it, it is easier to identify the flavorful nuances of a particular bean when the roast is lighter. I think I’m looking for extra complexity in my cup.

It’s a common misconception that dark roast coffee is “stronger” in every way than light. Roasting destroys some of the caffeine in the beans, so breakfast blends are usually a medium roast to maintain their power to perk!

Dark roast coffee has a deeper color, but it isn’t stronger in every sense of the word.

A few days later, I found two distinct Reserve varietals from different regions of the Congo at a local Starbucks with a Clover machine (used for making specialty single brews and not offered at most locations.) I enjoyed a cup of Idjwi Island Reserve, but not quite as much as the Nordstrom Congo Ituri.

But NOT the world’s second most valuable commodity, as you’ll see misstated all over the internet. My brief bit of research suggests that was true back in the 1970’s or so, but hasn’t been factual for quite some time. If you want to read more, try this article.

***And, in what has been my favorite performance in years, I must draw attention to the quiet dignity of actor Carlo Albán who traveled with Sweat from its world premiere at OSF to New York City. He played an often nearly invisible busboy in the play, usually reacting to the “bigger” characters swirling around him, and did it with such a beautiful, aching intensity that I was frankly honored to spend a few hours with him at an OSF dinner later on. I’m not the only one who was similarly affected by Mr. Albán!