Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why You Should Follow the Frog

People want to know what they can do to help protect the environment. They fear that their personal actions are not making enough of a difference. But, all of our small actions do add up and we can only make change by starting at home.

The organization I work for, Rainforest Alliance put together this (very amusing) video to explain that you don't need to go to the ends of the earth to protect the planet - you can start by "following the frog." By purchasing goods like coffee, tea, chocolate, and juice with the Rainforest Alliance frog seal, you can rest assured that your dollars are supporting farmers who are earning a good wage and growing responsibly in a way that protects the environment and wildlife.

And you can know that your purchasing decisions are contributing to a transformative impact. For example, in just a few years, the Rainforest Alliance has trained over half a million small holder tea farmers to adopt sustainable practices and has certified nearly 10% of the world's tea. So you see, the decisions we make every day about what to buy - whether you look for organic or local or Rainforest Alliance or Fair Trade or FSC or some other sustainable label - can make a difference around the world.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Living Small

Upon moving out of the apartment with the bed bug issue where I lived with my best friend, my next move was in with my boyfriend. He had been living in a smallish one bedroom, but we thought it was just a little too small for the two of us, so we spent all of March and April hunting for a bigger apartment, to no avail. Because his current rent would be so cheap split two ways and we knew we could make it work, we didn't want to move unless we found something worthwhile, which we didn't. So we decided not to be pressured by the rental market and to stay put until we felt like looking again.

What we learned was that his apartment was not too small, like he had feared. We actually fit together just fine in 400 feet. I'm a minimalist, so I didn't add much more to his space, and I enjoy puzzling out small living spaces. Evan has plenty of stuff like a normal person, including a bazillion musical instruments and cables, but he knows how to hide things away under his bed or shoved in the closet. If we had stayed there longer, we could have invested in more vertical storage like tall, narrow bookshelves or dressers or floating shelves, to use the space even more efficiently.

There are certain elements that make a tiny home more usable, and that apartment boasted many of them: An open kitching/living plan, which made cooking social rather than isolating and made entertaining possible. No narrow hallways to eat up space. Multiple closets to fit all our stuff, with enough vertical room for two shelves above the hangers. More kitchen cabinets and counter space than most NYC apartments I've lived in. To that end, they were deep kitchen cabinets with room for storage above them. Window boxes and ample windowsills for growing herbs and cheery flowers and sleeping cats.

We did rent a storage unit, which I always considered excessively yuppie, but now I realize it's worth paying another $85 a month to hide winter clothes or boxes of your boyfriend's random stuff, rather than paying many more hundreds in rent. (And we held onto some extra furniture in case we moved.)

Now that we're in a bigger apartment, I still miss that one sometimes. I miss lounging on the couch and chatting with Evan five feet away at the kitchen counter. I miss laying in bed and hearing him play guitar right next to me. Mostly, it felt cozy and homey and lived in. I'm glad we had that experience -- it's good to know that we know we could downsize and fit in small space again if need be. I would have been happy to stay there a while longer, but instead, we ended up moving only a few months later into an apartment almost twice the size.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Watermelon Lime Mint Punch

Although the weather is easing into fall, watermelon is still making appearances at farmers markets and end-of-the-season outdoor parties. Now, have you ever noticed that it's nearly impossible to eat a whole watermelon, or even for that matter, a half-size one? It's fun to eat, but hard to finish off all that volume. Even after dinners with friends, there are leftover pieces that languish in my fridge.
So this watermelon punch is a great solution to the watermelon problem. It's light and refreshing and a little sweet, and depending on how much seltzer you add, a little bubbly. I served it straight up in a pitcher at the double birthday party, so our pregnant friend and anyone else who desired could have some non-alcoholic fun to drink. For the rest of us, a shot of gin or vodka was the perfect accompaniment in our punch glass.
The ingredients below are rough guidelines -- you can take liberties as long as it tastes good. At a party last weekend, the host served a variation that also involved infused cucumber and St. Germain. I do recommend fresh lime juice (even though I admit to using bottled juice because that was also sitting in the fridge needing to be used up). Note that it freezes just fine, so you could freeze half to take a little bit of summer with you into the fall.
Watermelon Lime Mint Punch
half a large watermelon
1 handful of fresh mint
3 tbsp lime juice (about 3 or 4 limes)
vodka or gin (optional)

Chop the watermelon into large chunks, removing the rind and any large seeds. Blend it with the mint and lime juice until smooth. You could strain it if you want to be extra classy, but it's not necessary. At this point, you can choose to store it in the fridge for a few days or the freezer for a few weeks. When you're ready to serve, mix the punch with seltzer, which thins it out and brightens it up. You want about 1 part seltzer to 1-2 parts watermelon. Add a shot of vodka or gin to each glass for a nice cocktail.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Bed Bugs Part 2: How it affected my life

The unpleasant thing about bed bugs is not the itching. That is much worse if you have say, a mosquito problem, which I've experienced indoors and outdoors in Brooklyn. It's the way you have to live carefully, so that you won't spread bugs anywhere or to anyone else. It's the work involved in keeping your things meticulously clean and sealed up in bags. And doing it all over again when you realize you left a bag open after a late night of drinking or the cat tore it open. It's the paranoia that made me wonder if every itchy spot was a bite, at some point losing perspective on what was normal everyday itching and what were true bites. So looking back, I probably had fewer bites than I feared I did. It was also the indignity of negotiating solutions with a landlord who just. didn't. get. it.*

So from October 2011 to April 2012, I lived out of bags like this. I paid $1,000 a month to live in a ~70 square foot, windowless room in a railroad apartment that meant my roommate and her cat traversed through my room like a hallway.** We couldn't have guests over. Only my boyfriend, who somehow had the patience to deal with the system of coming over, immediately changing into the pajamas he kept there and putting all his stuff in a plastic bag. I did the same thing in reverse when going to his place, to prevent possibly carrying bugs there, which luckily worked.

Obviously during this time, the apartment wasn't a particularly enjoyable place to be, and it didn't feel like a home - more like a crash pad where I would return after work, rifle through plastic bags, to pack up my things to leave again in the morning and spend a night or weekend at my boyfriend's. You don't realize how important home is - as a solid ground where you can retreat and restore - until it's gone.

I'm also angry that it stole from me this time that was supposed to be a year of enjoying single living with my best friend, because I wasn't around as much as I otherwise might have been, and we didn't have parties or friends over the way we had hoped. The apartment that my roommate had decorated so cutely turned out to just be a headache.

The experience was particularly trying because after previous negative living experiences, I had told myself I would never let myself get stuck again. Yet, there I was, unable to move on.

The thing that got me through it was the belief that I would be living in a normal home again by summertime. A place where I could come home and just lounge on a couch or hang my clothes up in a closet. And, it came true, since I now live in a real home with my boyfriend.

* why don't landlords ever get it? why are they all clueless?
** but that's its own story about how the NYC rental market sucks.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Bed Bugs Part 1: The Story

I was waiting for the bed bug ordeal to be over and my apartment security deposit to be returned before talking about it here. So now that it is safely past me (at least this time...because there is no guarantee that I won't get bed bugs again when they are so prevalent in New York) ...

There are two kinds of bed bug infestations. In the first one, you notice a couple bugs and bites and get sprayed right away, a few times over the course of a month and a half. You don't experience any bug evidence after the first spraying, so after the last one you can feel secure that the problem is gone and go back to normal living. This is how it seems to go for most people. It didn't go that way for me.

In the second scenario, the landlord ignores bed bug complaints for too long and doesn't handle the situation properly, which allows them to infest the whole building. I only know of a few other cases like this. 

Our building supposedly had bugs a year or so prior, and then they popped up in one apartment again, but the landlord ignored it for months before bringing in an exterminator. For some reason, those particular tenants didn't care enough to do much of anything about it, so their infestation spread to other apartments and continued to persist. Neither the landlord nor my downstairs neighbors understood the value of a preemptive, comprehensive approach. The landlord refused to spray the whole building on the same day. He hired an exterminator who would only come to our place on his days off from his regular job. Then he had his handyman "trained" as a secondary exterminator, who did a terrible job. Also, it was weird being in a text-friendly relationship with the exterminator that got so friendly he asked my roommate out on a date.

Our landlord also pressured me into not reporting him to the city, insinuating he would withhold our deposit. And since all I ultimately wanted was to be able to move out and get my security deposit back without spending time or money in the court system, we didn't report him. So now that I'm no longer fiscally or legally tied to him, I can say that Marek Kaczor is a bad landlord. It wasn't just the bugs. There were constantly things going wrong, like no hot water for a week, no heat over Christmas, no working oven for a month. Our neighbors downstairs said they had taken out two lawsuits against him. Unfortunately for renters, he owns several buildings in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint area, mostly rented by Bedford Prime Realty.

I would have liked to just move out of the building, like many of the other tenants did within a couple months. However, my roommate refused to move - and I couldn't very well sublet a room with bed bug risk, I didn't want to pay double rent to live somewhere else, and since my roommate was my best friend, I couldn't just leave her to deal with figuring out how to cover my rent. 

Instead, after three months, the landlord realized it was probably because bugs could hide in our cracked floors. So we moved across the hall into a fully sealed apartment while he redid our old apartment. Things got better there, but knowing that the apartment below us still had bugs meant I could not, nor would I ever in that building, trust it was safe to take my stuff out of bags.

We finally moved out in May, two months short of our lease. Ultimately, it turned out for the best that we waited until the spring to move. By then, we hadn't had any definite bites in a couple months, so we felt relatively confident that the bugs were gone and we wouldn't be taking them with us. Which meant I didn't have to throw out or store away my stuff, or spend a month's worth of rent to fumigate all of my belongings, all ideas I had previously, angrily considered.

You can be sure that when I went hunting for a new apartment, I was thorough about checking into the landlord. Most people by now know about the bed bug registry. But in New York City, you can also search an address in the city's public database of building registrations and violations to look for past and current complaints, violations, and lawsuits, and to find out the landlord's name so you can google for any dirt to be found on them. I always ask the broker/landlord/current tenant if there has been any history of bugs or other problems. There is also a disclosure of bed bug history form the landlord is required to complete if you ask for it. See the city website for more on the laws related to tenants' rights and landlord obligations regarding bed bugs

This experience also taught me the value in trusting your gut when looking for a new apartment. My gut didn't feel good about choosing this apartment in the first place, but we took it anyway because we felt like options and time were running out. In Part 2 tomorrow, I talk a bit more about how this experience tested my patience and my sanity.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Double Birthday Party

When we found out we were moving into an apartment with a yard, we instantly started to get excited about hosting Evan's upcoming birthday party at home. Originally we hoped to have an afternoon outdoor affair, but our bizarre daytime mosquitos dashed that dream (more on that later) so it turned into a nighttime inside-outside party. It was good motivation to get all unpacked and settled both inside and out within the month of moving, even if it did mean I was throwing up a few posters just before the first guests arrived.

Because we expected a large attendance, we went with a handful of appetizers rather than serving a full dinner. I made my white bean herb dip, which is versatile enough to use whatever herbs you have on hand. In the past I've mostly used rosemary, sage and thyme, but this time it was heavy on the parsley and marjoram because that's what's flourishing in my yard. The dip went out with a bowl of bruschetta topping (diced tomatoes, garlic, basil and olive oil) alongside vegetable crudite, sliced baguette, crackers and a cheese plate. The other birthday boy's wife made lemon ricotta sage butternut squash crostini and delicious mini tarts with feta, tomato, and cucumber (I think).

Like our party back in February, I like to put up a sign next to the bar suggesting cocktail options to make it readily apparent what's available. At this party, in addition to standard bar fare, we had a couple punches that could be enjoyed with or without the addition of alcohol - a cucumber limeade that a friend brought, and a watermelon-lime-mint punch (will share that recipe soon).

For dessert, I made mini flourless chocolate cupcakes - as expected, the miniature size is perfect because they are so rich that even the regular cupcake size is a bit much. I also made peach oatmeal crumble squares (pictured above) by adapting a Smitten Kitchen recipe for blueberry crumb bars. Since I don't have the requisite 9x13 inch pan, I did some math to determine that my 12 inch cast iron pan covers about the same area. I didn't believe that Deb was able to cut hers into 36 squares, until I started cutting mine and realized a little square will go a long way because they are tall and dense, especially so with my addition of a cup of oatmeal to the dough. And then, of course, there was the ice cream cake...