Wednesday, July 31, 2013

baking soda & laundry: is it a conspiracy or a miracle?

I'm off my rocker--gone plum baking-soda-crazy.  I'm telling you, I love that stuff!  I wash my hair with it, brush my teeth with it, bake cookies, do the laundry, slap it under my arms in great powdery puffs, then turn around and scrub the tub and toilet with it. 

I'm hauling it out of the grocery store in 4 lb. boxes and storing it in recycled 1 gallon grain buckets in my laundry room, and it occurs to me: I hope this isn't a raw material for some kind of homemade explosive device (baking soda does everything after all). If it is, then my repeated trips to the grocery store, where I have swiped my card with my cart loaded down under boxes of suspicious white powder, have most certainly earned me a spot on one of those top secret government watch lists that prevent you from flying on planes or crossing carelessly into Canada. 

Rather than a threat to public safety, however, I wonder if this miracle stuff isn't more of a threat to corporate profits in the cleaning and beauty industries.  In my shift to no poo almost a year and a half ago, I managed to replace shampoo, conditioner, hair gel and hair spray with just baking soda! What was a no frills girl like me doing with all that crap to begin with?  (More on that later in my highly anticipated follow-up post, "no 'poo, part...III?!" or some such title).

There are a ton of websites packed to brimming with how-to-use-baking-soda advice.  You'd think you wouldn't need any more from me, but last year I found several that included recipes and advice for washing hair and doing laundry with just baking soda and vinegar--and I don't seem to be able to find those sites this year.  Everything I can find, like this Life Hacker  list and this Care 2 make a difference list suggests adding baking soda to your shampoo or your laundry detergent in order to "boost" their performance, That both lists (and others) use the word "boost" suggests to me that their information came from the same source--perhaps there is a detergent or chemical association out there somewhere that has adopted a clever "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" stance, flooding the internet with green living advice that suggests baking soda should be used only in conjunction with store-bought products?

I don't know why I'm going all conspiracy theory on baking soda today!  Really, I'm just hear to tell you that while I think both of these above lists are otherwise useful (check 'em out! get excited about sodium bicarbonate!), for laundry and hair, you don't need to couple baking soda with anything but it's good friend vinegar.  I assure you that together these two are good for more than just volcano making.

After I gave up shampoo last march, I began looking into how baking soda might substitute for other household products. As with shampoo, I had a lot of concerns about what my Trader Joe's laundry detergent contained.  Check out how it is rated by The Environmental Working Group.  Not good. You can search that same site to see how your brand is rated, and if you want to know still more about toxicity in detergents, you can read here, and here.  Unfortunately, you will see words and phrases like "hormone disruptors," "fertility problems, "eutrophication" (excessive growth of algae), and "loss of aquatic life."

Eventually, I learned that I could wash my laundry (and my moldy shower curtain, btw!) by putting 1/2 C of baking soda in the wash cycle then adding 1/2 vinegar during the rinse cycle.  (Do not mix them in the same cycle.  Of more concern than the creation of a possible volcano, they will neutralize each other, leaving you with little more than a mildly salty solution with much less punch.) 
Steve is not particular about most things, but for whatever reason, the laundry matters to him.  He has long complained that our "natural" detergent from Trader Joe's doesn't work.  Sometimes the wash would just randomly smell bad, and it didn't have a long life at all if forgotten and left to sit wet in the machine by a certain member of the family who cares deeply about a lot of things like the environment, social justice and local food sources but who can't seem to get into much of a dither about forgotten laundry. 

Since Steve already felt I'd compromised the cleanliness of our clothes with my TJ detergent, I worried that he would reject my new laundry strategy out of hand.  So naturally, I snuck the suspect ingredients into our wash routine without him knowing.  I carried on in that clandestine way for a month, letting him whittle away at our last bottle of detergent when he washed, but then, when it was my turn, creeping furtively around the laundry room like a fiend, as if I were trying to slip the laundry a mickey when no one was looking.  Now we're getting to the real conspiracy, I suppose.

The results were amazing!  Baking soda removes odors and stains, vinegar acts as a fabric softener.  Our clothes came out bright, soft, fluffy and smelling fresh--which means, by the way, that they smelled like nothing.

If you use this method to wash your clothes, you should know that they will not come out smelling like a synthetic blue sky or a chemically induced meadow complete with faux-smelling butterflies (what do butterflies smell like, anyway?).  If you've grown to rely on these smells for assurance that your clothes are indeed clean, no worries: it doesn't take long to forget about them.  In fact, once you're desensitized, a trip down the detergent aisle of the grocery store will overwhelm you with perfume so thick you'll feel like you just licked a dryer sheet.

I feel like I need to spit just thinking about it.

Once I'd determined the baking soda and vinegar were effective, I broke the news to Steve--unveiling my deception as if it were the most casual thing in the world.  He was leery until I told him I'd been doing most of our laundry this way for a month.  Since then, he actually agrees our laundry seems cleaner and brighter, and even Gareth has learned to set the timer so that he can add vinegar to the rinse cycle. 

As for cost, I wish I could say the BS&V way is cheaper, but that depends on your current method.  If the number of loads advertised on detergent bottles are to be believed, then it seems buying baking soda and vinegar together costs about the same as purchasing an equal amount of detergent.  If you count fabric softener, however, then BS&V is cheaper.  Regardless, it's certainly not more expensive, and it's absolutely more green.

And I think it's more clean. 

So hooray for no more store bought detergent! No more reading labels and wading through articles about toxicity! And most importantly, no more crapola going down our drains from the washing machine!

Perhaps it's a miracle after all.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

trayvon martin and the privilege of invisibility

Amid the media frenzy over the George Zimmerman acquittal on July 13th, I came across this Jet interview with renowned scholar and activist bell hooks.  When asked about how African American parents should talk to their kids about the dangers black children face today, hooks reminds us that our current crisis doesn’t present a new dilemma for African American families.  She explains that black parents have always practiced what she calls, "parenting for justice"--a phrase she uses to describe ways black parents teach their children to be activists for justice while also raising their kids’ awareness regarding the inequities and dangers they will face growing up black in America. 

Reading the interview I was immediately reminded of a performance by my fellow Listen to Your Mother cast member Taya Johnson back in May.  Taya's piece, Peanut Butter and Jelly, recounts the tragic and sudden loss of her husband and the subsequent challenges she faces raising their special needs son alone.  Embedded in this story, however, is the fear and weighted responsibility Taya and her husband felt in the moments when they discovered they would have a son.  Taya notes that parenting is terrifying for everyone, but adds, "our fear was doubled as raising an African American boy presents a unique set of challenges and concerns."  She continues that racial "anger, fear, ignorance and hatred is often directed to and acted upon black boys and men." In the face of these threats, Taya and her husband made a plan: their family, with a strong emphasis on the role model of the father, would help their son Marcus to navigate these challenges. 

Sadly, Marcus's father did not live to see that plan through, leaving Taya to rely on male members of their extended family to help Marcus know the man his father was. Still, I find it remarkable that even though they wouldn't have used this language, Taya and her husband had planned how they would "parent for justice" before their son was even born.

Of all the fears and anxieties I felt when pregnant with my son, I never worried that I was bringing him into a world that would not welcome him.  I have never worried that someone in our neighborhood might perceive my son as a threat.  I have never counseled him on how to avoid arousing the suspicions of others.  I have never advised him about how to stay safe if confronted by the police. 

I have never had to deliver these dire warnings because Gareth enjoys a privilege that white people, including myself, take for granted.  It is the privilege of invisibility.  Gareth’s whiteness lends him a legitimacy and a belonging that allows him to walk regularly to 711 to buy candy without fear. He is invisible because no one notices him.  No one suspects him.   Of course, I worry endlessly that he will step carelessly into traffic, but in all the times he has made that trip, it has never crossed my mind that he might get shot. 

Such freedom of movement should not be a privilege; it is a right. 

The work of securing this right for all young people should not fall to African American parents alone.  White people can “parent for justice” too. 

First, we can educate ourselves and our kids about racial profiling.  I don’t just mean that we should understand that it happens.  Rather, we need to understand what it’s like—or admit that we don’t really know so that we can ask questions and find out. 

Have you ever felt targeted by the police for something beyond your control?  This has only happened to me once in my life, and arguably, it wasn’t beyond my control.  In January 2001, I went to DC to protest the election of George W. Bush.  Despite my peaceful intentions and my right to free speech, the police repeatedly treated me like a threat to society rather than as an active, socially conscious part of it.  They blocked my way, barked orders at me, refused to look at me, and refused to answer my questions.  At one point, when the police unlawfully blocked the protest route, I turned down a side street chatting and laughing with some fellow marchers.  Two police officers came out of nowhere and attacked the young man walking just in front of me.  They threw him to the ground and raised their clubs at him, yelling for him to lie still.  I watched in horror before I was corralled away by additional officers (no, I was not arrested). 

Later that afternoon, as I was driving home, I contemplated my treatment and the mixed emotions it had evoked.  I had felt indignant, angry, misunderstood, and sometimes afraid.  Most surprising to me, the unfair treatment made me want to fight back.  I wanted to yell at the police, point my finger in their faces and tell them how wrong they were about me.  I wanted to push them to make them acknowledge me when I was talking to them.   I didn’t do any of those things, but I was shocked to discover how quickly the police could make me want to. 

While driving my car and marveling at this surprising turn of my character, a police cruiser drew alongside me on the highway.  When I saw that black and white in the corner of my eye, I flinched and cowered a bit in my seat, expecting him to pull me over.  I had learned to feel like a criminal in just one day.  Then I remembered that this officer had no way of knowing that I'd protested earlier--that I was no longer the subject of his suspicion and ire.  By getting in my car and driving away, I had disappeared back into the privilege of my invisible self, a self who was free to move about the city without question.  I felt a tremendous sense of relief. 

My one day of minor mistreatment doesn't even make a drop in the bucket when compared to the systematic infringements of racial profiling.  If I could feel so targeted, so angry and so vulnerable in such a short time, what must it be like for young black men who endure the suspicious gaze of those who unjustly fear them on a regular basis—and during the formative years of their childhood no less?  How often do they feel afraid?  How often do they alter their plans to avoid trouble? How often are they incited to violence they wouldn't otherwise commit?  

I have heard arguments that profiling is an insignificant problem because innocent people should have nothing to fear.  That argument overlooks the more far reaching damage done to a population that falls perpetually under a suspicious gaze.  Even more importantly, the argument ignores the fact that racial profiling subjects the same population to repeated risk of dangerous conflict.  Eventually, someone gets really hurt, or as happened in the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, someone dies.  

That is unacceptable.  To truly bring an end to racial profiling however, we must overcome an even greater hurdle: our fear. 

Have you ever felt unduly afraid or suspicious of a young black man?

I've spent a lot of time studying things like race theory and the history of slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights and stereotype.  Still, I live in this society that privileges whiteness while demonizing blackness, and I am not immune to its influences. 

I admit that there have been times when I have looked twice at unknown black teens who have walked through my neighborhood or past my car.  I am ashamed of those feelings, but instead of hiding them, I think we should confront them.  We should ask ourselves where our fear originates: in personal experience, or elsewhere?  Far more than personal experience, we will find the seeds of fear in Hollywood, on television, in the news, in the application of the law, and in the law itself.  

As these many sources of fear show, no one of us has single-handedly created this culture, but whether we like it or not, we are all stewards of it.  Understanding the root of it can empower us to resist.  Instead of blindly perpetuating fear and stereotype, we can question them.  We can educate ourselves about their origin and history, and we can “parent for justice” by teaching ourselves and our kids to look beyond stereotypes to see the promise and the humanity they mask. 

Without fear, the practice of profiling would die, and we could finally guarantee young black men the privilege of invisibility--the privilege of moving freely without evoking suspicion and incurring harassment. 

We can do all that, and if we think Trayvon Martin should be the last innocent black child to die for our fear, then we must. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

recycling and "the debris" in tennessee

I just spent a week's vacation in the smoky mountains of Tennessee.  We stayed on Lake Watauga, a body of water touted as the second-clearest lake in the country.  Hearing that, and reading from the rental agency that we should avoid bringing paper and plastic kitchen products because they have "limited trash facilities" and excess trash would be "frowned upon," I expected pristine.  I was not disappointed.

I took this from our deck just minutes after we arrived. 
I've never seen the end of a rainbow before--it went right into our own pot of gold: the lake!

Olivia fishing on our dock.

Taken from my canoe in the river that feeds into the lake right across from our cabin.
Canoeing through here felt otherworldly.
It was completely still and silent, save the kingfishers darting among the trees.

Showing you all that, however, is like showing you a family photo album that has pictures of the wedding, the birthdays and the vacations, but not the death, the divorce, or the long days at work.   So I'll have to turn my camera around for you. 

There was also this:

This is what our dock looked like on the first morning, surrounded by what we came to call "the debris." 

Apparently, recent weeks have brought record amounts of rain to the area.  Locals boasted that the lake was EIGHT FEET higher than usual.  We didn't doubt it as we could paddle around in the canoe while peering down at fences and walkways that lay still and unused 6-8 feet below us. Our own boat house poked only its nose above the flood:

Unfortunately, like a mischievous child, those eight feet of water crept their sticky fingers up into everyone's yards the week before we arrived, lifted everything buoyant, and set it adrift.  Consequently, the lake roiled with floating driftwood, bits of twigs and leaves, and, you know it's coming: plastic crap.  Lots of it. 

Are you thinking that the lake and my vacation were ruined?  I admit it was shocking to see so much trash in this beautiful place, but "the debris" came and left in waves.  It traveled like the blob, in big amorphous slurries that answered to the whims of the wind and the moods of the river that fed into the lake.  Also, it's wasn't smelly or slimy or slick.  It floated atop the water, leaving no trace of itself when it moved on. 

What made it feel dirty was the plastic.  You may know that one of the big problems with plastic as a pollutant is that it's light weight, making it highly transient.  I could swim in this lake and see my feet it was so clear, but when "the debris" arrived, we'd watch plastic containers, balls, water bottles (oh, the water bottles!), and even a broken pink plastic tricycle (darn I wish I'd gotten a picture of that) float by amid the wood and the twigs.  Whatever trash might have been sitting around in people's front yards, half buried, waiting to be fixed, or waiting to be thrown away, had gone traveling.   

Are you wondering why people had so much plastic crap in their yards to begin with?  I bet it didn't look like a lot when it was contained to people's property.  We all have stuff tucked away in our yards, don't we?  If a flood came up on my carport right now, a few plastic buckets for gardening, a sidewalk chalk container, a hoola-hoop, a big plastic watering can and some Ping-Pong balls would all go a -traveling.  None of it really looks like trash right now, but it sure would have if it had floated past my dock last week while I fished with my kids. 

Is the moral of this story to keep our plastic trash tied down in case of a flood? Or is it simply to avoid having so much plastic crap to begin with?

On one evening, I sat on the dock splashing my feet in the water.  The light was just so, the water a mirror, my feet feeling baptized by the kind of cool that speaks of depth and mountains.  Everything was so still, I could see the current from the nearby river, running relentless and purposeful through the middle of the lake.  I felt that calm we all hope to find on vacation.  Then, I noticed a huge piece of white plastic, jagged and bobbing, sailing like a great ship down the center of the current. Are you old enough to remember those cars that used to drive around with bullhorns on top of them blaring political messages into quiet neighborhoods?  I actually don't think I'm old enough to have ever seen one myself, but you've seen them in the movies, right?  This chunk of a defunct plastic container, sailing past in all its glaring trashiness, reminded me of those cars. It blared its bullhorn through the evening sublime to tell us once and for all to PLEASE STOP THROWING SHIT IN THE LAKE!"

In a great irony, while lamenting the presence of so much plastic, we discovered that the local municipality did not provide recycling services. 

Were we to throw our recycling in the trash?! 

As far as water goes, I had only brought one 5-gallon jug with us in case we discovered the tap wasn't potable.  We didn't need it, however, because the well water tasted pure and wonderful--no way did I want to miss that for some prepackaged Polar Springs a la polyethylene blah blah blah. 

But beer didn't come out of the tap (darn it!).  Neither did wine.  And not everyone on our trip had come with reusable water bottles with which to take advantage of the tap.  With a crowd of sixteen (it was a family reunion kind of event), we accumulated a pile of recyclables faster than "the debris" could collect at our dock.

What to do with it all?  I announced that we should save it, and I started a pile on my back porch.  I had no idea what I would do with the regiments of cans and bottles that soon stood ready for battle outside my door, but I recruited them anyway.  People humored me, sending an occasional soldier to join the ranks. 

I know, however, that they also thought I was a little crazy.  I never saw anyone put a bottle or can in the trash, but I know they did it.  I found the evidence, unhappy and ashamed, gone AWOL under my kitchen sink. 

I imagine my family quietly slipping the offending items behind their backs and into the garbage while casually talking to me about whether the fish were biting.  They didn't know that just as quietly, while commenting on the latest influx (or outflux) of debris, I snuck many of those cans and bottles back out and deposited them on the porch where they stood proudly at attention, awaiting my orders.

On the final morning, they marched dutifully into bags, filling two-and-a-half plastic trash bags with discarded plastic, glass, and crushed aluminum.  Were we really going to dump all that into the "limited" waste disposal system of our hosts? I just couldn't bear to do it.

So the moment of reckoning came.  Steve trudged up the stairs with his packing face on.  If you haven't seen it, you should know it's not something to trifle with. 

"Um, hon?  I've got all this recycling." I gestured to the bags that pressed hopefully against the sliding glass doors like orphan children looking for a ride home.  I want to take them with us."

He stood erect, arms straight down at his sides, and looked at me.  Everything about his body said, "You've got to be f--king kidding me."  I'm sure that at times like this, he must wish I could just be a normal person.  The kind of person that says, "When in Rome..." or "to hell with it, we're on vacation!"  Even I wish I could be that kind of person sometimes.  I think I can be really annoying with my inability to let certain things go. 

We take vacations precisely for that reason, right?--to let go.  I get that.  I showered less, I ate and drank more. I peed through my shorts in the lake for god's sake!  But some things aren't meant to be let go.  I still brushed my teeth.  I took my thyroid medicine; I fed my kids...and, I recycled. Or at least I tried to. 

In the interest of saving our marriage as it wavered precariously on that top step, I saw Steve take a long slow breath.

"Maybe in the cooler?" I ventured.  (We had a huge cooler with us).

He huffed his begrudging assent and gathered up my precious cargo.  I dared not say another word.

With our cooler "packed," we hit the road--me grinning as we rolled through the countryside, Steve probably rolling his eyes.  We stopped for a quick breakfast along the way.  When we returned to the car, I noted a distinct Eau de Frat House in the car. 

"Ew.  The car stinks!" we all agreed.  The kids and I laughed because we knew, as much as Steve might hate that, he'd never endeavor to empty the cooler now that we'd buried it under our mountain of vacation paraphernalia.   So we drove merrily down the road, in our old tin can of a car, smelling like a stale beer.  And you know what?  Even Steve smiled eventually.

At home, we dumped our cargo in the recycling bin.  I'm happy about what we were able to bring home, but I also know a lot of recyclable material slipped by me in the course of the week.  For that reason, I have a little recycling vacation advice for myself and anyone else who might want it:

-if renting a vacation home, check ahead of time to see if it has recycling services

-if not, check the local town/city to see if there is a place where you can drop recyclables during (or at the end of) your vacation.

-if not, plan to bring your recyclables home (bring appropriate containers, plan room in the car, warn spouse of your plan before that moment when he/she thinks the packing is finished).

-check ahead of time to see if your tap water will be potable. 

-if so, bring reusable water bottles that can be kept cold in the cooler at the beach, on the boat etc.

-If not, bring 5-gallon jugs of water to fill reusable water bottles.  That way, you can avoid using a gazillion individual water bottles, some of which are sure, at some point in the next millennium, to set sail right into the middle of someone else's vacation!