Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Land of the Free

I've already posted more than once on this site about my fondness for Freecycle.  Its many benefits include
  1. finding a new home for your unwanted stuff so it doesn't end up in a landfill;
  2. finding stuff that you can use at no cost; and
  3. saving the resources used for making new stuff by keeping old items in circulation.
However, it does have a couple of drawbacks.  One is that my local group draws from such a broad area that often I'll see things listed that I think I could use, but it would take an hour or more of driving to pick them up, and the time and gas used would cancel out any potential savings.  Another is that receiving individual e-mails for each item that's posted would quickly drown out all the other messages in my inbox—but receiving the "daily digest" of 25 postings at a time instead, I often don't see the listings for desirable items until they've already been taken.  And of course, there's the problem that with Freecycle postings, you usually don't get to see items before you request them, so you can't be sure they're really what you want.  In fact, in many cases you can be pretty sure they aren't exactly what you want; people who have multiple items to give away often list a whole box with the direction, "must take all," so you have to take a bunch of unwanted items to get the few that you want.  Of course, you can just turn around and re-post those unwanted items for others to take, but you can never be sure anyone will want them—or, for that matter, any other item that you post.  And there is always the problem of "no-shows," people who say they'll come at a particular time to pick up a particular item and then leave you waiting by the door.

So what would be the perfect way to keep all the benefits of Freecycle without any of the drawbacks?  This month's Green American has an answer: a free store.  These range from actual storefronts to folding tables set up under a tarp, where you can drop off any unwanted items and pick up anything that looks useful.  According to the article, this business model does not, as you might think, encourage people to sweep in and grab everything on the shelves, the way some extreme couponers have been known to do during extremely good sales; since everything that's free today will still be free tomorrow, there's no particular urgency about nabbing the bargains before they disappear.  Of course, it's apparent that a store where everything is free does not generate any income, and a store is bound to have higher operating costs than a Freecycle group, so these stores rely on outside funding, generally in the form of grants, to pay their overhead.  (Interestingly, though, a free store in Portland, Oregon is managing to operate on a for-profit basis by charging $20 a year for membership, which is probably a good deal if you consider how much you could save in a year by "shopping" there.)

Free stores of various types are operating successfully in several U.S. cities, including Portland, Baltimore, and San Francisco.  (Historical note: the free-store movement in the US was actually started in San Francisco by a hippie group called the Diggers, who took their name from the 17th-century English farming collective celebrated in the folk song "The World Turned Upside Down.")  A quick Google search didn't turn up any free stores in New Jersey, but there is an informal one in New York City (which has apparently, and bizarrely, been the target of repeated arson attempts).  Also, Philadelphia recently hosted its first Really Really Free Market, a gathering at which individuals can swap services as well as goods.

Unfortunately, I don't know if I'll have a chance to get up to Brooklyn any time in the near future, and it certainly isn't something I could do on a regular basis.  But those of you who live or work in large cities might find it worth your while to do a quick Google search on "free store, city name" and see what turns up.  The location may not be terribly convenient, but you can't beat the prices.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

The first year after we built our compost bin, some "volunteers" popped up in front of it in the spring—a couple of tomato plants that had apparently seeded themselves from tomato remnants that we'd tossed in the bin.  We put up tomato cages around them, but the vines quickly grew over the tops of the cages and sprawled all over the side yard, making it nearly impossible to walk past.  We got a fair number of tomatoes off those volunteer plants, but they weren't particularly good tomatoes—no better than what you'd buy in the supermarket—and I decided that even for no-cost, no-cultivation tomatoes, they weren't worth the trouble.

So the following year, I ruthlessly pulled out all the tomato plants that popped up in the area around the compost bin.  And what should pop up in their place but a massive butternut squash vine that sprawled clear across the asparagus beds and even managed to thrust its way through the fence into the back yard, its huge prickly leaves nearly obstructing the path.  That plant gave us close to a dozen squashes—our entire crop, as it turned out, since the ones I actually planted in the garden didn't produce anything—but I still found it a major pain in the butt.  I figured that if squash could grow that well in the side yard, we ought to be able to grow it in the actual garden with a bit of effort, rather than putting up with interlopers spreading themselves all across our path.

So this year, what happens?  What else—we get tomatoes and squash, filling up the entire space between the compost bin and the asparagus bed.  And if I don't do something about about them soon, I can expect them to turn into the Vegetables that Ate Cincinnati.  Help!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Two updates

Today, a couple of quick updates to posts I made last month.  First of all, back on May 23 I posted about how we'd refinished an old corner cabinet to go in our downstairs bath, and the only thing missing was inserts for the cabinet doors.  Well, that problem is now fixed.  My first thought was to pick up some stiff translucent paper from Michael's, but it turned out that they sell this stuff in the scrapbooking section, and it's only available in 12-inch sheets—too small to fit the doors.  Then I thought we could try parchment paper, the kind used for baking.  I bought a roll of this, but we found it too flimsy to be any use; we couldn't get it properly secured in the door panels because it kept popping out.  So we finally decided to try cutting up an old lace curtain that was hanging up in one of the windows when we first bought our house.  We didn't like it at all for a window treatment, but rather than throw it out, we stowed it away in case we might one day have a use for it.  And now, that day had come.  We simply doubled over the fabric, secured it to the inside of the door with a staple gun, and cut away the excess.  And I must say, this jerry-rigged job doesn't look half bad.

Second, on May 24 I posted about a family of robins that had moved in just outside our kitchen door, on top of the light fixture.  In that post, I mentioned that the baby birds were growing fast and would probably fly the coop soon, and sure enough, within a few days they were gone.  After a couple of weeks, when it became apparent they weren't coming back, we removed the empty nest from under the awning.  And no sooner had we done so than a new nest appeared to take its place, and a new mama bird took up her post.  This one's another robin, a bit smaller than the previous one, and with a somewhat smaller and trimmer nest.  The picture's a bit fuzzy—I couldn't get too close for fear of scaring her off, so I had to zoom in as best I could—but you can make out her little head poking up over the edge of the nest and peering at me.

Looks like at our house, everything old is new again.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Lowe's en espanol

We've been thinking for a while that it might be time to replace our old refrigerator.  We don't know exactly how old it is (it came with the house), but based on the data from our Kill-A-Watt meter, we know it uses about about 500 kilowatt-hours a year (about 50 percent more than a new Energy-Star-certified model).  So on our trip to Lowe's last weekend (the one on which we picked up the defective window shade), I picked up a flier that I spotted in the store advertising an Energy-Star-qualified, 15-cubic-foot Frigidaire for only $389, which seemed like a great price.  Upon taking a closer look at it, I found that I'd picked up the Spanish version of the flier.  I could still make out most of the information, but when we went back to Lowe's to return the window shade, I figured I might as well grab a copy of the English version. 

However, when I picked up the English flier, it didn't include the $389 Frigidaire.  The two other fridges featured in the Spanish flier (a $900 side-by-side Whirlpool and a $1700 French-door Whirlpool in stainless steel) were the same, but the third model listed was a $2400 Samsung.  Checking over the two fliers side-by-side, I found that although most of the pages were identical, wherever they differed, the Spanish version featured cheaper products.  It seems that Lowe's is assuming Spanish speakers are interested in cheaper products than English speakers

This strikes me as discrimination of some kind, but I'm honestly not sure who the victims are.  On the one hand, it seems somewhat unfair to assume that Spanish-speaking customers can't afford high-end products--but I must admit, as an English speaker, I'm pretty ticked off that I'm not getting to hear about the good deals.  I mean, is it really fair to assume, just because I don't speak Spanish, that I must want a fridge no smaller than 25 cubic feet and that I'm willing to pay upwards of $900 for it?  Are all Anglos supposed to be spendthrifts?

I can't think of many times in my life when I've actually felt discriminated against, but this really gets my goat.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Make it do or do without

First of all, apologies for being incommunicado for the past couple of weeks.  We've been doing an unusual amount (for us) of traveling, and until this week we weren't home for more than a few days at a time—just about long enough to get caught up from the previous trip before leaving on the next one.  So it's taken me until now to scoop a free hour out of my schedule to attend to the blog.  I hope to make it up to you with a longish post today and a slew of short ones in the days to come.

An old saying from the Depression goes, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without."  In today's "disposable society," where it's often actually cheaper to replace things than it is to fix them, that attitude has largely fallen by the wayside.  But just in this past week, I've had a couple of vivid demonstrations of how "making it do" can often be a better option than throwing it out and starting over.

The first occurred when my blue canvas moccasins—my go-to shoes for daily wear in the spring and fall—started to wear out beyond the point of repair.  At first it was just the soles, and I thought I could make them last another year by patching them with Shoe Goo; then the linings went, and I thought maybe I could come up with some way to patch them; but when I found holes in the uppers themselves, I reluctantly concluded that I'd have to give them up.  Unfortunately, I couldn't simply buy another pair just like them, because the manufacturer has discontined this style.  Shoes in this general shape are easy to find, but only in leather, which I, being an animal-friendly type, won't buy (except secondhand).

So I did a little searching online and found a slip-on shoe in synthetic leather at Payless, which I thought would probably do—but since I have hard-to-fit feet, I thought I'd better go into a store and try them on in person before buying.  Lucky I did, because once I got my feet into them I found that they were about the most uncomfortable pair of shoes I'd ever had on.  Every single bump and contour seemed to be in exactly the wrong place, and I couldn't imagine keeping them on my feet all day, let alone walking three miles in them.

Next I tried a Google search on "canvas shoes," and a brand called TOMS looked promising (though a bit pricy), until I found that (1) most of their canvas shoes have a suede lining, and (2) most of their vegan shoes don't come in wide widths, which are an absolute requirement for me.  Grasshoppers offered somewhat more selection, but nothing that was exactly what I had in mind, and I was still skittish about buying anything without being able to try it on first.

So I started wondering whether maybe, before spending $40 or $50 on a new pair of shoes, I should see whether there was any way to fix up my old ones—not the blue moccasins, but the brown suede pair I had before those.  I'd bought these secondhand at the local thrift shop for two bucks, even though they were about half a size too big, thinking, "Well, I might still be able to use them"—and I ended up wearing them regularly for about two years.  By that point, they'd gone through three sets of insoles, the lining was patched with moleskin, and the heels had developed holes too large for Shoe Goo to cover.  However, I'd held onto them anyway, using them for grubby jobs like gardening so that I wouldn't mess up my "good" shoes, and now I wondered whether I might be able to stretch them out a little bit longer.  So I invested $2.50 in a fresh pair of insoles, re-patched the lining, and found them wearable—certainly more comfortable than the ones from Payless.  I still haven't figured out what to do about the holes in the heels, but I figure I'll see what the local shoe repair place has to suggest—and even if they can't do anything, I'll still have something tolerable to wear until I find something better, which was more than Payless could provide.

The second example was our old bedroom windowshade.  It was obviously a veteran already when we bought the place four years ago, and by last winter it had frayed so badly around the bottom that we'd tried trimming off the last few inches and re-attaching the slat with hot glue—only to see the repaired shade fray just as badly in the same place.  So we figured it was time to give in and replace it.  We found one in Lowe's that was labeled as "room-darkening" and marked at $7.50, and after spending several minutes hunting down an associate who could cut it down to size for us, we took it up to the checkout.  There we encountered our first disappointment with our new purchase, as we found that the price marked on the shelf was apparently wrong and the real price was $20.  But we told ourselves it was worth it, since we clearly had to have a new shade.

So we got it home and encountered, in quick succession, three more disappointments.  First, although we'd measured the old shade very carefully, the new one—supposedly cut to the same size—wouldn't fit in the old brackets.  Brian ended up having to move one of the mounts, only to find that the shade was not in fact "room-darkening"—or at least, not nearly so room-darkening as our old one had been.  But the last straw came when he tried to open the shade and found that it wouldn't roll up.  It wasn't just that there was a trick to it; no amount of pulling, tugging, or twitching had the slightest effect on the thing.  Back to the store it went, and Brian set about trying to repair the old one.  First he trimmed several inches of material off the bottom—removing not just the torn part, but all the section that had become yellowed (and presumably brittle) with age.  He reattached the slat with hot glue, as before, and then reinforced it with a strip of duct tape running all the way across, which hopefully will prevent our fingers from poking holes in it when we miss the slat and grab hold of the thin plastic instead.  He also taped the top, which had come unstuck at one corner, securely onto the roller and re-hung it (fortunately, he was able to squeeze it in without having to move the mounts again).  The finished product is just long enough to cover the window, with only an inch or two to spare—but it blocks out the light and it goes up and down, which is more than the new one could manage.

Mind you, I'm not trying to argue that making do with what you've got is always the best policy.  One of the other purchases we made at Lowe's, a new laundry basket, is decidedly superior to our old one, which—in addition to having its handles held on with duct tape—was a big, unwieldy shape that I'd always had trouble wrestling up and down the stairs.  But it does appear that in some cases, at least, patching up an old piece of equipment isn't merely "good enough"; it's actually better than you can do by buying new.