Category Archives: Uncategorized

The irony of WALL-E

Ever since I saw the first WALL-E teasers and trailers online months ago, I’ve been dying to see the movie.

I suppose that’s effective marketing, and I fell for it.

Once the initial “awwwww, how cute” factor was established (the robot WALL-E is an adorable cross between Spielberg’s ET and Short Circuit‘s Johnny 5, with a vague twist of Woody Allen), the movie’s bigger concept pulled me in.

The Pixar film gives a subversive yet playful look at what we’re doing to ourselves and our planet. Issues of sustainability, environmentalism, consumerism and humanity in general are illustrated in a thoughtful and humorous way.

*** WARNING: May contain spoilers ****

Through rampant consumerism (fueled by the WalMart-esque mega-corporation Buy N Large), humans have trashed the Earth to the point of it being uninhabitable. The Earth has been evacuated to make room for an army of WALL-E robots programmed to clean up the Earth. Probes periodically visit Earth searching for signs of life.

Our leaders originally expected it to take about five years for the Earth to once again sustain life, at which time the planet would be re-colonized. As the story goes, innumerable generations of humans have lived on cruiseship-like space stations for seven hundred years.  What was spun to be viewed as a vacation of sorts has turned to a lifestyle in itself.

During their time away, humans have been bombarded by BuyNLarge’s aggressive branding and robbed of physical activity and real personal interaction. As a result, humans have gradually become morbidly obese lumps in flying wheelchairs, devoid of all creativity and motivation. In short, humanity has lost all its humanity.

The film perfectly and cleverly illustrates America’s love affair with uncontrolled consumption, and our destruction of the planet with tons of disposable plastic crap. The film’s message is clear: we are responsible for turning the Earth into a giant rotating landfill. We need to rein ourselves in and regain our humanity.  As the captain of the Axiom (the space station) says in the film, “I don’t want to survive! I want to live!”

The tongue-in-cheek website for the fictitious BuyNLarge corporation has a scary, Big Brother feel to it. There is an exquisite irony in the products sold in the BNL Store, such as t-shirts, hats and coffee mugs all with the BuyNLarge logo. It’s difficult to tell if these products are being sold in earnest, or with intentional irony. Furthermore, the Disney-Pixar officially licensed products machine has gone into overdrive, releasing WALL-E kids’ books and lunchboxes and action figures and video games and plush dolls…

I wondered how and why a major studio would release a film that so sharply criticizes consumerism, which the movie-marketing machine so desperately depends on. I guess they just take an attitude of “Business as usual, and hope nobody catches on… and if they do, hope they think it’s intentionally ironic.”

Anyway, I loved the movie, for what it’s worth.

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Building a better blog: going a little “meta” today

I read a lot of blogs.  The endless variety of personalities, passions, and areas of expertise is truly staggering. That’s why I enjoy blogging– as a blogger and as a reader– so much. I get a great deal of pleasure from watching other people geek out on their passions… and I learn a lot.

That said, I also tend to be a stickler for spelling and grammar. Some days, I think my head will explode when I stress over the dozens of careless typos and outrageous linguistic blunders I come across in the blogosphere.

I admit to being very casual about certain areas of grammar, such as paragraph structure and punctuation. I make my share of mistakes, and will be the first to admit I’m only 98% perfect. What I’m pointing out elsewhere in the blogosphere, though, are some seriously bone-headed blunders and linguistic disasters.

Now, there are Writers and there are Bloggers. Writers often blog, but Bloggers very rarely Write. You can immediately distinguish a Writer from a Blogger. Writers write because they must; Bloggers blog because they can. There are plenty of hacks in both camps, but it’s easy to sort them out.

To Writers hoping to parlay their blogs into book deals, I would recommend making more of an effort to edit and polish your online work. Yes, there are editors and proofreaders and other lackeys to handle that unpleasantness once you sign your contract and get your big fat advance check. But why not make your best possible impression from the start?  That said, I usually cut some major slack regarding typos if the writing is good enough. A certain rawness can be overlooked in some cases.

However, when a blogger is clearly presenting him/herself as an expert in some field (and possibly earning income from their blog), I find it very difficult to overlook mistakes. A part of me actually begins to discredit the content of the blog.

If a blogger doesn’t even know the difference between “there”, “their” and “they’re”, what else might he or she be getting wrong?

You may argue that the ideas and information are far more important than the spelling and grammar used to express them. I happen to disagree. If you’re presenting yourself as an expert, then you owe your readers a higher degree of professionalism in your writing. Many of your readers might not notice the language mistakes, but the ones who do may certainly think twice about trusting your expert advice. I warn you, we are snobs, and we will question your authority.

Frugality often requires cutting corners and making do with less. Just make sure you’re not cutting corners on and lessening your professional image.

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The vague gourmet: Lentil-veggie burgers

I made the absolutely yummiest veggie burgers last night!

Of course I wanted to share the recipe– it’s a super-tasty, inexpensive, low-fat alternative to prepared veggie burgers. Unfortunately, I cook by the “little of this, little of that” method and lost track of the actual amounts. I tried to trace my steps as carefully as possible.

LENTIL-VEGGIE BURGERS

1 cup of granular TVP (textured vegetable protein)

1 cup dry red lentils, sorted and rinsed

2-3/4 cups of water

1 vegetable boullion cube

2 eggs, well-beaten

3/4 (?) cup of bread crumbs

onion powder

garlic powder

salt and pepper

1.  PREHEAT OVEN TO 375 degrees.

2.  Put TVP, lentils, boullion and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to boil on medium-high heat, then lower heat to low. Simmer for about 15 minutes until most of water is absorbed.

3.  Let TVP-lentil mixture cool to room temperature and place in a large mixing bowl. This will keep the eggs from starting to cook in step 4. (If you’re in a hurry,  dump the whole mess into a fine-mesh sieve. Run cold water over TVP-lentil mix and drain well before putting it in the mixing bowl. You’ll need to add extra seasoning in step 5).

4.   Stir beaten eggs into the TVP-lentil mix.

5.   Add seasonings, mix well.

6.   Mix in breadcrumbs. Start with 3/4 cup, and add more as needed. Shouldn’t need more than one cup. It should be a very moist and sticky mixture– not too dense, not too loose.

7.   Spray a large baking sheet with non-stick cooking spray. Form about 10 good-sized burgers, about 3/4 of an inch thick and 3 inches across. Carefully place burgers on baking sheet as you form them. Spritz the top-sides of the burgesr with more cooking spray. The uncooked burgers will be pretty moist and gooey, but the burgers will firm up a bit while baking.

8.  Bake for 15-20 minutes. Turn them over, and bake for another 15-20 minutes. They’ll be nicely browned and crispy on the outside, but wonderfully moist on the inside. Makes about 10 generous-sized burgers.

Serve on a hamburger bun with all the fixings. Or you can serve them with the dipping condiments of your choice– ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce, etc. Even with brown gravy and mashed potatoes, this can be salisbury-steak type dish!

Summary:

  • High-protein
  • High-fiber
  • Low-fat
  • Low-cost
  • Highly delicious

What more could you want?

OPTIONS:

  • For color and variety, throw in some finely-chopped vegetables, such as onions, peppers or mushrooms.
  • Any special seasonings or spices you like can be used. There are no real rules.
  • In step 2, stir in half a capful of Gravy Master for a darker, more authentic meat-like color.

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Coupons: Just cut it out

This will probably ruffle a few frugal feathers out there, but I have to say it.

For the most part, I don’t find manufacturer’s coupons very useful at all.

Success with coupon-clipping really depends on the mix of products you buy regularly.

With the exception of health and beauty products, I rarely find coupons for things I buy.  For things like shampoo, hair color (ahem… oh yes, I’m a natural blonde), and toothpaste though, I score big. Coupons + Wal*Mart = huge savings.

But as for food? Not so much.

I buy a lot of store brands, which (with a few exceptions) are just as good as the name-brands.

Most store brands are actually manufactured by the name brand company! Same stuff, less packaging fanfare. Not only that, though. Even when you have a coupon for the name brand, the store brand at regular price will almost always be a better deal. Always check the store brand.

Most of the coupons I come across are for things I don’t want or need.

They usually promote some brand-new product that is 3OP– Overly-Packaged, Overly-Processed and Overly-Priced.  Food manufacturers are in a frenzy these days to maximize profits by creating as many different new package configurations as possible. Keep in mind that 100-calorie packs, individual servings in itty-bitty plastic containers, microwave-in-the-bag veggies, anything labeled “To-Go” or “Ready” will jack the price upwards of 279%!

I stock my pantry with a lot of bulk dry goods, like beans, rice, and TVP (textured vegetable protein). While prices are going up, these basic commodities will almost always be less expensive than their prepared, processed, packaged counterparts. If you buy prepared rice, for example, you’re paying extra for the water they used to dehydrate the rice. I’ve never seen coupons for any of these things, but they’re priced reasonably enough every day.

Farmer’s markets are great for saving big money on fresh locally-grown fruits and vegetables. As with bulk goods, you probably won’t find coupons for these things, but they are usually priced very reasonably. And even if they’re a little more expensive than your grocery store, you may decide it’s worth it to pay a little more for super-freshness.

You have to do the math if you really want to figure out what’s a good deal and what isn’t.

For example, the big 18-ounce box of Goldfish crackers at regular price is a vastly better deal than a box of the 100-calorie packs at virtually any coupon discount. Figure out the per-serving cost, and you’ll always score. (Yes, we will use this math stuff later in life.)

Coupons are best used on products you need, want, and/or regularly use.

Saving fifty cents on something you didn’t need in the first place is just silly. Don’t get caught up in the “I saved fifty cents by spending four dollars on this thing I don’t need!” If you don’t buy it at all, you’ll save four dollars and fifty cents! Wow, you’re a great shopper!

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Bloggers Against Hunger: Reporting from Maine

Note: Today, I’m participating in Bloggers Against Hunger, a movement started by my good friend Lauren J.

I moved to the great State of Maine about two and a half years ago, and I won’t lie– it’s been a struggle. Starting over in a new place is rarely easy, and the scarce job prospects didn’t help. Going back to college last September was the best move I ever made– in the present, and for my future.

I’m certainly not going to starve any time soon– the medical profession calls my body type “famine-proof”.  I have learned to live on very little money. Still, I’ve had some moments in between bi-weekly paychecks where I didn’t even have a handful of change to buy a box of pasta.

A lot of people are by far worse off than I’ve ever been, but I understand the pain. I’m finally getting on my feet, and I look forward to being in a position where I can do more than just write a blog to support the cause of hunger.

To raise awareness of the problem of hunger in Maine, here are some statistics from the Good Shepherd Food Bank.

Maine Hunger Statistics

  • More than 40% of Maine kids under the age of 12 show some evidence of hunger
  • 19,375 Maine children are hungry.
  • An additional 64,087 children are at risk of hunger.
  • 10% of Maine households, representing 141,000 people, experience food insecurity.
  • Hunger and the risk of hunger are widespread among Maine’s low-income families with children.
  • The likelihood of experiencing hunger or the risk of hunger is directly related to income.
  • Children living in households which experienced hunger or the risk of hunger are more likely to experience health or school-related problems.
  • Adults are even more likely to experience hunger in low income homes. Adults in four out of five households surveyed indicated that they sacrificed for their children by eating less, skipping meals entirely, or by eating less nutritional food.
  • Several groups are found to be at greater risk of hunger in Maine; children, adults in low income families, disabled persons, persons with special needs, the elderly, those living in rural regions and the inner cities of Maine’s largest urban places.
  • One in three jobs in Maine does not pay enough to cover the basic needs of a family of three. Many others are seasonal, less than full time, or offer only partial benefits.
  • Several factors contribute to hunger in Maine; including income growth that is outpaced by cost of living; high level of underemployment; widening gap between rich and poor; illiteracy; and lack of consumer information on nutrition.

Here’s a heart-breaking series of articles on the subject: For I Was Hungry, an in-depth look at hunger in Maine

How to help:  Good Shepherd Food Bank

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Saving money through mindful shopping

How many times have you gotten to the grocery check-out and been completely blind-sided by the grand total?

“How on earth did I spend that much money?!”

Actually, it’s pretty easy to do, if you’re not shopping mindfully.

What does that mean?

Students of Eastern philosophy, such as Buddhism, will recognize the idea of mindfulness. To practice mindfulness– to be mindful– is variously defined as being present in the moment… as being aware of the present… as being attentive to the present moment. You are fully paying mind to the task at hand. Your mind is fully grounded, present in the moment.

All too often, we’re zipping through the grocery store, rushing on our way to or from somewhere else. We’re mindlessly tossing items into the shopping cart. Our minds are focused on everything but the task of purchasing food to nourish ourselves and our loved ones. We just want to get out of that store as fast as possible. Even worse, we skipped lunch today and hit the grocery store with an empty, growling tummy.

So much for our carefully-crafted grocery budget.

No wonder the grand total at the check-out is a big surprise! I only came in for three items, and now I have half a shopping cart-full! How did I do that?

I can write about that sort of crazed grocery run from experience. These days, though, my check-out experience has zero sticker-shock. When I get to the check-out, I always know– within a dollar or two– how much I will be spending.

How?

Simple. With each item that goes into my cart, I make a point of noticing the price on the shelf. I keep a running total in my head, rounding up or down to the nearest full dollar. That just makes it easy to keep track. In the future, I may start bringing a little pocket calculator with me.

It’s also good to have your budgeted amount in mind while doing this, so you know when you’re getting close to the edge. It’s not an exact science, but it works. When the cashier wants my money, I already know approximately how much it will be.

This technique may slow you down, but that’s just the idea. Come back down to earth and shop mindfully. The Retail Powers-that-Be are counting on you to move through their stores like mindless little consumer-zombies. Beat them at their game. Reap the reward of no check-out surprises… and your budget shall prevail!

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Buy for longevity and make it last longer

I have a great pair of LL Bean hiking boots that I’ve had for eight or nine years now. They get more comfortable with each passing year, and still look almost good as new. Maybe the latter means I should get off my butt and go hiking more, but that’s another blog for another day.

Considering our modern world of planned obsolescence and disposable goods, eight or nine months is a good run for a pair of shoes. I should be thrilled that those sixty-ish 1999-2000 dollars have been so well-spent (cost of ownership: $60/8.5 years = $7 per year). LL Bean merchandise is generally made to last, which justifies the higher initial cost.

Imagine my disappointment when the rubber sole detached itself from the upper a few months ago! Not to mention I nearly fell on my face when the sole peeled back from the toe as I took a step.  Knowing Bean’s liberal return policy (I worked in their customer service department for a time), I knew they would cheerfully replace my boots with no (or very few) questions asked. I would of course feel very silly about demanding a replacement for eight-year-old boots, but bless old Leon Leonwood’s heart.

Since it’s taken this long to break in the boots to foot-heaven perfection, and they still look great, I didn’t want to give them up quite yet. Besides, a quick product search told me that my particular style was no longer available. I was fairly sure there must be a Bean-approved way of repairing the boot myself, and set this problem on the back burner for a while.

While wandering through their flagship store in Freeport one night, I did in fact find a product in their shoe department that solved my problem: Freesole, “a patented urethane rubber repair system”. Cost: about eight dollars.

A few days later, I had time for the boot repair project. I stuffed the toe of my boot with wadded-up newspaper (to retain the boot’s shape), and prepped the boot with a rubbing alcohol scrub. I applied the Freesole rubber cement to the area, and tightly wrapped the boot with duct tape. That would keep the sole and upper in contact while the cement dried. (Total prep/application time: 10-15 minutes. Drying time: 24 hours)

Now I have a perfectly good pair of hiking boots again! Let’s see if I can get another eight years out them.

 

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