Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Perception of Distance; or Walk More!

 While recently reading David Owen's The Green Metropolis, I learned that people are less likely to walk than drive in rural and suburban areas not just because there are fewer hassles involved in non-urban driving, but also because of distance perception. The same distance on a rural road where houses are few and far in between, or even on a suburban street where shops are separated by big parking lots, will seem longer than it will in a city where buildings are clustered closely together and human activity is more bustling. To put this theory to the test, I used the Google Maps distance measurement tool (yes I am a map geek) to assess some familiar routes in my life.

Distance to the subway from my old apartment: 1/3 mile
Distance to the subway from my current apartment: 1/2 mile

Distance from my college dorm room to the music building on the opposite side of campus: 1/3 mile
Distance from senior housing to music building: 1/2 mile

Distance from a cafe to my friend's apartment on the outskirts of a village upstate: 7/8 mile

I was surprised that the length of my morning subway walks in Brooklyn are about the same as my former walks to class. All those times I rushed to class, past scattered campus buildings across lawns and tree-lined paths, the route felt so long! In comparison, walking the same distance past brownstone after brownstone to the nearest subway stop feels like a relatively short stroll so I can get where I'm really going. In fact, when I lived in senior housing with my car nearby, I used to drive to class sometimes to save time. I can't imagine ever driving to the subway!

When I was upstate a couple months ago visiting a friend, in a very walkable town, I noticed a distinct lack of people on the street. Yes it was cold, but fifty miles south, the cold didn't stop New Yorkers from walking where they needed to go. Rather than have my friend pick me up from a cafe, I had a pleasant walk to her apartment, getting some exercise along the way. I had no idea when I set out how long the walk really was - I initially perceived it would be quite a ways to go from one end of town to the other, but it actually ended up being a manageable 15 minute walk, or about 7/8 mile, something I wouldn't balk at trekking in New York City.*

I believe that cars play a role in distance perception, as well. The more you drive, the more you get used to the short time it takes to drive everywhere, so of course walking seems to take a long time in comparison. Yes, it may take longer to walk, but there are many benefits. For example,  money saved on gas and parking. Less fuel wasted from the earth's dwindling supply of peak oil. More exercise means less need to drive to the gym to burn the calories you could work off by walking or biking.

Two ladies in particular have written about their own inspiring experiences with pedestrianism: Lisa the EcoYogini walks 45 minutes to and from work in negative degree weather. Erin the Conscious Shopper walks with her children, stroller, and gear in tow for two hours several times a week.

So I'd like to challenge you: Next time you're headed somwhere less than a couple miles away that you'd normally drive to, try walking instead!

*In fact, just this weekend I accumulated 6 miles of walking without intending to over the course of the day, between walking the dog and getting around while out on the town. Proving another one of David Owen's points that urbanites often spend more time outside then their rural counterparts who go from indoors to car and back again.

via flickr

Friday, March 26, 2010

Sudden Spring

Spring is here, and unlike last year when spring kept retreating back into winter, I am hoping it's here to stay. I had almost started to believe our lives would go on in a state of perpetual winter, so the warmer weather and extra daylight still feels like a pleasant surprise each day.

I enjoyed last weekend's sunny climes to the fullest with lots of biking and walking.

I took the Ocean Parkway bike path all the way to Brighton Beach, but it's not as nice riding as I thought it would be. After Ditmas Park, smooth paving gives way to bumpy and cracked sidewalks. Still, in less than an hour I was at the beach, something New Yorkers often forget exists as part of this city. Specifically I was sitting outside at Tatiana, one of the Russian cafes on the boardwalk. My salad and cured fish were good enough, but I'll have to go back for the delicious looking pierogies, which I regretted not ordering as soon as I saw them at a neighboring table.

Saturday evening I biked to Williamsburg for bar hopping involving multiple charcuterie plates, in a sea of hip strangers all out and about in the balmy darkness. I played the "remember when" game, reflecting on all the years I lived in Williamsburg's lively social scene, along with most of my friends. Now it seems we've all packed up and scattered to other neighborhoods, and I can't help but miss it a little.

Sunday afternoon I walked to Carroll Gardens for some more bar hopping. The second stop was inadvertent - on my way home I passed this faux-farmhouse, which turned out to be Black Mountain Wine House, and it was too adorable not to stop in for a pre-dinner apertif involving oysters. Would you say no to adirondack chairs nestled into an unassuming Brooklyn street corner?

How have you been enjoying the newfound freedom of springtime?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Roam the Land

I just stumbled across the blog Grass Doe, replete with photographs that capture moments, faces, and landscapes in perfect stillness and calm. Shhhh, don't show this to my boyfriend or I might be forcibly carted off to a farmhouse in Maine where Milo can roam the land like his bushy-tailed brethren.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Recommended Reads

Read the Printed Word!

I have always been a voracious reader, the kind who doesn't want to put a book down until it's finished. I was the little girl who read aloud to my kindergarten class, stayed up past bedtime to read Laura Ingalls Wilder, systematically devoured my father's science fiction collection, and always tried to read in the car even though it made me car sick. I now average a couple books a week (according to my library history, I've read forty books in the last four months!) thanks to ninety minutes of daily reading time on the subway (another bonus of public transportation over car commuting). On days when I'm without a book, my train ride seems unbearably boring.

I love the thrill of carrying home books, stacking them on my bedside table, and flipping through the pages. Unlike some people who read electronically via kindle and rarely finish the books they start (I don't get those people). So of course it was easy for me to join esb & cevd's campaign to read the printed word, to make sure we're still reading real books in this age of increasingly shorter electronic communication.

I've read a lot of mediocre books lately (I don't understand how publishers can afford to throw book deals at every tom-dick-and-harry blogger, resulting in a sea of nothing-more-than-adequate books that can't be making much in sales). But here are a few diamonds in the rough that I recommend - books that are worth the risk, as Amanda of First Milk puts it so eloquently, of "walking into another land and coming back changed, or not ever quite returning at all."

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
I really, really loved Time Traveler's Wife, and I'm not sure that story can be topped, but Audrey Niffenegger's second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, is another well-written supernatural love story. This book pulled me in with its tales of sisters, ghosts, and romance, frought with mysterious twists and turns and a haunting ending.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood has invented with brilliant detail a dystopian post-apocolyptic reality that serves as a warning to humanity and keeps you reading to the end to see what hope lies ahead. It runs in tandem with its companion book, Oryx & Crake, but I liked The Year of the Flood and its sympathetic characters better. I must also thank agirl for getting me on this Atwood kick.

Comfort Me With Apples by Ruth Reichl
Comfort Me With Apples tells the beginning of Ruth Reichl's career as a restaurant critic, alongside the dissolution of her first marriage and the passionate start of her second. Her talent for writing about food and life with relish make it clear why she became a successful food writer. She has written other memoirs, which I will now add to my library list.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
This is an old favorite of mine. It had been so long that I forgot how the story ended and it was like rediscovering the book all over again; I love it when that happens. The Dispossessed is technically science fiction, but it is so much more than that - it is actually a captivating comparison of an anarchist/communist society versus a capitalist society that fully explores anarchy's capacity for utopia as well as its pitfalls.

"You have, we do not have. Everything is beautiful here. Only not the faces. On Anarres nothing is beautiful, nothing but the faces. The other faces, the men and women. We have nothing but that, nothing but each other. Here you see the jewels, there you see the eyes. And in the eyes you see the splendor, the splendor of the human spirit. Because our men and women are free - possessing nothing, they are free. And you the possessors are possessed. You are all in jail. Each alone, solitary, with a heap of what he owns."

Have you taken the pledge yet? And have you read anything good you'd like to share?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Where Should I Travel?

Have you ever considered that part of what makes a great vacation is looking forward to coming home again? I'm all for getting away, experiencing new things, and shaking up the daily grind - but sometimes it's hard to see the point of leaving if you're just going to have to come back to the same problems you left behind.

I realized this when I was doing nothing in the middle of nowhere on a long weekend in December and I couldn't help but consider that my life could feel much easier like this vacation if my boyfriend didn't have dogs. It was somewhat disappointing after that to return to the kennel we call home and proceed with life and jobs and chores as usual. Obviously, stress and obligations can never be totally eliminated, but I believe that people should intentionally design their lives to feel enjoyable and a bit like a permanent vacation, rather than feeling so overworked and harried that there's a constant need to take a vacation. That way travel can offer inspiration and adventure, not just escapism. What do you think?

This has been on my mind lately because reminiscing about Belgium finally got me to overcome my reluctance to travel and got me interested in dreaming up a new adventure - but can't decide where. To an eco-tent in the Caribbean, or would I get bored with all the relaxing? To Paris, to give the city a second chance over my cold, gray, and impersonal memory of it, with side trips to sip wine in Bordeaux and feast on markets in Provence? To Spain, to relive my love affair with palm-treed Seville, stay up late in Madrid, and eat more ham this time? To Italy, to savor three-cheese gnocchi, drink limoncello, hike the cinque terra, and venture to an island like Capri or Sardinia?

I've been looking for deals (after all, that is how we ended up in Belgium - because it was cheaper than traveling to Italy), but I'm leaning toward Europe over the Caribean, and the flights to Europe are all expensive. And if it's going to be pricey, between the airfare and the prohibitive dog care costs*, and if I'm going to rack up the carbon miles guilt, than this had better be a d*mn good vacation.

So tell me, where should I go? Where are you dreaming of traveling lately? Do you know of any cheap but fun destinations? Where have you been and what insider recommendations can you share?

* For example, boarding the dogs here in New York while away costs more than human lodging cost in Argentina last year. There is something wrong with that.

via flickr

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Story of the Seltzer Maker

One afternoon my boyfriend called me up at work and excitedly told me he wanted to buy a seltzer maker. I'd read about the environmental benefits of such machines before so I wasn't totally opposed to the idea. But sometimes he gets carried away and splurges on expensive toys that he doesn't end up using. So I said, okay, let's not get it right now, but we can talk about it, and think about whether it would be a good decision to buy one.

However, a few days later I came home to several cases of bottled seltzer and water. What was plastic bottled water doing in my "green" home?? Turns out when I denied him on the soda maker, he went ahead and signed up for a delivery of seltzer bottles, which came with a complimentary delivery of regular water bottles as well. Apparently his interest in seltzer is not a passing fad but an obsession. He had been spending $$ daily on sparkling water from delis near his office and was looking for a way to cut this cost. It would have helped if he had told me this!

Then he read the receipt and realized he had inadvertently signed a yearlong contract for a monthly delivery of seltzer. The thought of hundreds of plastic bottles moving through our apartment unnecessarily every month was even more horrifying to me than the sight of the dozens of bottles currently housed in our apartment.

He yelled at me for blocking the seltzer appliance purchase in the first place. I yelled at him for making a decision without us having the opportunity to properly discuss the situation. (Oh domestic "bliss") In the end, he decided it would still be cheaper to pay the contract cancellation fee and buy the soda maker than it would be to continue with the delivery service. Score one more: by a stroke of luck, Poland Springs let him out of the contract without a fee because they had messed up the order slightly.

So now he has the Soda Stream Soda Maker. Not the $200 Penguin model with glass bottles, but the $80 Jet model with BPA-free plastic bottles because it was cheaper, plastic is lighter and easier to carry around, and the plastic bottles are larger and thus hold more water than the the glass carafes.

Homemade soda makers have several environmental advantages over store-bought seltzer. The machine comes with two reusable bottles and utlizes our own tap water. By not supporting bottled water companies, we are preventing tons of plastic from being manufactured and moving through the waste stream. Fewer fossil fuels are being used for the creation, transport, and recycling of bottles. Furthermore, tap water is actually more strictly regulated and safer than bottled water.

So far it's a hit. He makes seltzer daily, brings it to work, and it stays carbonated throughout the day. I'm not a big on seltzer personally (to me, the most environmentally friendly beverage of all is plain water, which I drink in abundance), but I do see the benefits. When I was sick a couple weekends ago, I was happy to be able to drink sparkling water with lemon slices as an alternative to sugary processed ginger ale. I pretty much cut out mixed drinks when I gave up conventional soda, among other processed foods, a few years ago, so I'm looking forward to experimenting with simple syrups and flavorings to be able to create homemade sodas and cocktails.

Have you thought about getting a soda maker? Do you have any other tips for cutting down consumption of bottled beverages?

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Bread of Life

I finally tried no-knead bread. Yes, I am late to this game, but like everyone says, it is truly revolutionary how easy it is to make a great artisan loaf with this recipe. No need (pun intended) to take the time to knead by hand or to knead by food processor and then wash its bazillion parts. No need to spend all afternoon or evening monitoring a rising blob of dough.

I started making my own bread two and a half years ago, as part of my campaign to cut out processed foods. Even healthy sounding breads available at the supermarket are hiding high fructose corn syrup and preservatives. Baking at home is cheaper than shelling out $4 for a fresh bakery loaf and allows you to control the ingredients. I have the added option of making totally local bread, since here in NYC, we are lucky to have access to locally grown and milled flours from the Blew Farm, Wild Hive Farm, and Cayuga Organics, sold at the Union Square and Grand Army Plaza Greenmarkets.

I've kept it up fairly faithfully, making a loaf every week or two, except for those steamy summer days when you wouldn't dare turn on the oven, and except for the six months when my sister lived with us and brought home fresh bread daily from the bakery where she worked. My go-to recipe used to be the basic whole wheat recipe in The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book: A Guide to Whole-Grain Breadmaking, but it takes over four hours from start to finish and involves a lot of hands-on time, which was annoying on work nights.

In contrast, the no-knead method feels like a breeze. I take five minutes to mix dough one night after work. The next night when I come home, I simply reshape the dough into a ball, wait two hours, and then bake it for an hour. If you've wanted to try breadmaking, but you've been too intimidated, I encourage you to start with this method.

* You do not need a dutch oven. I don't have one, which is why I always avoided this method, but I finally took the time to look it up, and my CrockPot stoneware is oven safe and it does the charm (not including the glass lid - cover the top with foil instead to catch the steam).

* A regular loaf pan, preheated, will also work with a foil cover. The Kitchn suggests some more dutch alternatives here

* The recipe is forgiving. For a while, I was lacking in teaspoons and my yeast measurements were more of a guessing game than an exact measurement, but 24 hours allows plenty of time to rise and develop gluten even if you're a little short on yeast. Likewise, if you're worried you didn't get the right ratio of flour to water, it will still turn out okay.

* This recipe can be used for making a decent pizza crust. Divide the dough in half to make two nice-size pizzas on a preheated baking sheet or preheated cast iron pan.

* You can go ahead and add whole wheat flour. It won't rise as much or get as holey, but it will still have a crackly top and become a moist, hearty whole wheat loaf.

* I have experimented with making a multigrain loaf, but I went a little too crazy (cornmeal + rye + whole wheat + ground flax seeds + molasses + yogurt + sunflower seeds) and I don't think there was enough gluten to give it structure. This version was adequate, but not stellar. I'm going to work on this and will be sure to report back with a multigrain recipe once I've made some progress.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Snow Bunny

Another big snowfall a week ago. Funny how that childhood longing for a snow day never goes away. When I woke up and found piles of fresh snow outside our window, I had a secret hope that work would be canceled. Milo adores the snow and was out the door first thing in the morning to dig and leap and play. In stark contrast to Spencer, who gingerly avoids the white stuff.

But there are no snow days here. Public transportation allows life to proceed as usual, work and drinks with new friends and dance parties with sisters, and all. Thankfully I have no car to dig out or move to alternate street parking. Snow in the city has none of the hassles and all of the pretty. Until it turns to slush the next day. Thanks to all that blacktop and concrete and underground steam, last week's snow is nearly melted already, though I am sure we will see some more slush come our way before the winter's end.