Thursday, October 9, 2008


First, have you read "In Defense of Food," the latest book by Michael Pollan? If you haven't, get thee to your local library and do so as soon as possible. It's a very readable and very remarkable indictment of the American food industry and the rise of the "nutritionism" pseudoscience. Interesting stuff that will definitely make you think differently about what we eat, why we eat it and how we probably should be eating. Suffice it to say, many of us are doing it wrong. I was fascinated and inspired.

Speaking of fascinated and inspired, another book that I actually bought is Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian." Now, I'm not a vegetarian and neither is Jeff, but I confess that having two living, breathing chickens walking around the backyard makes me look rather differently at the meat on the plate. Coupled with Pollan's summary maxim--"Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much."--and the general idea that less meat might be more for both me and the planet, more forays into the world of vegetarian cooking can't be a bad thing. This particular cookbook is filled with great, easy recipes and a lot of "base recipes" with multiple variation, like 13 ways to do vegetarian/bean burgers or Asian noodle dishes. I can vouch for the deliciousness of the basic veggie burger recipe, which is saying a lot since I usually find them akin to a soggy piece of cardboard recently used by a homeless gentleman as a sleeping accommodation. I highly recommend this one and will be adding some of the recipes to the family cookbook if I EVER get around to sending out an update. I know I'm behind!

And, being more environmentally aware here at the HandyHouse means occasionally trying something that seems totally out there. This week's experiment? Using apple cider vinegar (1 Tbsp diluted in one cup of plain old tap water) as, of all things, hair conditioner. Theoretically, it was supposed to make my hair soft and shiny and ever so nice. But, anyone who knows me knows that I have a lot of hair. Very thick, very tangly hair that has never been without the smoothing joys of hair conditioner since I stopped using Johnson & Johnson's No More Tears as a wee babe. But, thought I, what the hey? What's the worst thing that could happen? Well, the worst thing that happened was . . . my hair came out soft and shiny and ever so nice. I swear, it worked like a charm! Don't ask me how or why, for the science of pH balancing is well beyond my puny brain, but it totally, totally worked. Try it! Just use the formula above, rinse about a cup of the mix through your hair and rinse it out. I'm curious to know your results if you do.  That said, I take no responsibility for more interesting results than the ones I experienced.  I'm just the eco-messenger here!

We're certainly experiencing interesting times these days, but I like to remember these words from the Dalai Lama:
"It is under the greatest adversity that there exists the greatest potential for doing good, both for oneself and others."

Here's hoping we all have the chance to recognize and embrace our potential.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

An Amazing Patent

The patent has finally gone public, so now I can tell you what Jeff and I have been helping Neil McCanney, my mom's husband, do for the last three years or so. Neil has come up with a totally innovative engine/power plant that produces hydrogen on-demand from plain old water as it's working to power a car, a boat, your house, whatever.

Why is this innovative? Well, you can read more about it by clicking on the title of this post (in the "Press" section of the site, there are links to a press release and Q&A that I wrote about it), but, in summary, it solves the so-far insurmountable issues of hydrogen production and storage, both of which have totally stymied the use of hydrogen as a widespread alternative fuel source. That's pretty amazing right there. Neil's engine requires a small amount of gasoline/diesel to create the heat needed for the reaction, but the end result is a drastic reduction in CO2 pollution and the equivalent of 250-400 miles per gallon. Crazy! Even cooler is the fact that the invention consists of parts that are available right now.  People are talking about alternative energy technologies being available in 10 years or 20 or 30 (or when it's far too late?). Why not 2 or 3 years? It's doable, so let's do it already.

It's been a huge challenge for all of us to get the invention this far. Now we're on the hunt for both funding and publicity so we can actually create the thing. Given that none of us have done this before, this is proving to be no small task. Just try getting the attention of anyone in Washington during an election year. While candidates make endless noise about green revolutions and alternative energy, people knocking at their doors with practicable ideas can't get anyone to listen. Frustrating to say the least. Still, we're persevering. For me, it's not only a chance to be part of a solution to our own energy crisis here in America, but, more importantly, a chance to provide technology to a rapidly developing world that deserves to advance but could be spared the same mistakes we've so tragically made. To put the entire planet on a road to sustainable development in a way that shares resources in a far more equitable manner rather than forcing people to squabble and bleed for them? That's a project I'm willing to spend my time and energy pursuing. It's the just thing to do.

So, if anyone reading this happens to know a venture capitalist or agency interested in economic and social justice through energy independence, let me know.  In the meantime, send out some positive energy, alternative or otherwise, please!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Cuddly Little Killing Machines!

Isn't that raccoon cute? Sure, they're downright adorable . . . until you find one trying to eat your poor chickens in the middle of the night, as one of these little blighters did. At 3:00 a.m. we were woken by the sound of the chickens doing the chicken version of panicked screaming. We ran outside to find a raccoon with a mouthful of feathers. It took off over the fence, leaving us freaking out in our jammies. We thought Lucy had been killed, but it seems like she was just playing dead or in shock (or both). Ethel was shocked, as well, but they both appear to be otherwise unharmed. I can't blame the raccoon; it's just doing what raccoons do. Upsetting for all concerned, to say the least.

I think in addition to running for their lives, the fact that both chickens are moulting--that is, losing all their feathers and growing nice, new ones--saved their lives. Judging by the clumps of feathers all over the yard, every time the raccoon got a hold on one of them, their feathers just came right out, leaving our little thief holding nothing but pillow stuffing. Well timed, my feathered friends, well timed indeed.

Needless to say, we fortified the chicken run and are now locking the girls in at night. They're not thrilled but they're also not straying from the coop as much as they used to. It's always an adventure in the backyard! Luckily, this adventure turned out okay.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Florida's Gardening Quirks

Our backyard Square Foot Gardening experiment is underway! Jeff and I have built six 4'x4' boxes and installed them in the yard area next to the deck that was once home to our rotten, never-used picnic table. So far, we have managed to fill four of the boxes with the custom mix of compost, peat and vermiculite recommended for the SFG method. Here's hoping it helps retain moisture in our killer climate. We're also topping up our original 3'x8' garden box with that mixture. Altogether, these seven boxes will give us 120 planting "squares." Wow, what do with all of that? That's the fun part!

Since many of our family and friends are in more northerly climes, and because most people in Florida don't have a clue about gardening in our climate, I'm including a little chart here that I assembled so we would know what should be planted when for central Florida. It's weird! Our schedule is the complete opposite of everything one might come to expect from a lifetime of PBS gardening shows and illicit book and magazine browsing in the stands of Barnes & Noble. It's strange to be so "off" from the cultural norm, but adventuresome too. In the next ten days, I expect to be putting down our second round of tomatoes (which will hopefully be more productive than the first), cucumbers, eggplant, broccoli, chile peppers and the first bits of lettuce, plus a re-do of our sadly neglected herb pots. Wish us luck!

Thursday, May 22, 2008


Meet Lucy and Ethel, our two new chickens. Lucy is the larger and bossier redhead—definitely the top of the now-literal pecking order. Ethel is shy but, I think, quicker on the uptake. I guess our randomly selected names were more appropriate than we expected! They seem perfectly contented to walk around the backyard, scratch up everything, eat bugs, poop and lay beautiful, sage-colored eggs (six eggs in three days so far). Jeff's sister Chris helped us identify their breed, Americauna or "the Easter Egg chicken." They're silly and relatively well-behaved, although I learned this morning that they will let you know if you're late with the breakfast. Well, fair enough. I'd be mad, too!

As always, click on the pic if you'd like to see a larger version.  Their feathers are remarkable and beautiful constructions.  Go, keratin!

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Step by step

Eight "Sunshine Blue" blueberry plants were planted in raised bed boxes over the weekend, our fence is repaired, our current garden box is still pumping out veggies, one-third of our path is constructed (helping to clear the area where our garden will go), the clothes are consistently on the line, I'm back on my bike to work more than ever before, lots of research is being done and we're about to start building a cardboard prototype of our chicken coop.

The world keeps changing and so are we. More adventures await!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

That Thing I Do

The installation of the "Amazing Bodies" life science exhibition in Amarillo, Texas, is complete! I am quite pleased with how this one came out, I have to say. The activities are fun and informative, and the large-scale graphics turned out beautifully. For those of you who don't really know what I do, imagine a big empty room with boring grey carpet and white walls and then look at this picture. What I do, with my cute little teammates, is research the client's chosen exhibition topic to the nth degree, then figure out what content can be turned into cool ideas that people can actually touch and do--basically, we come up with the idea behind every single exhibit that goes in that boring white and grey room. Then, the design team here turns those ideas into "things" that can be fabricated. While all that is happening, it's my job to write interesting words for all of those exhibits using the research that we've gathered and to work with the graphic designers to come up with a label that has all that information in it. A lot of times, that also includes me researching endless photos to find that one special cow or lung X-ray or jumproping child that we want to put on that label (since we know better than the graphic designer what exact type of cow, lung or child we would like to see on that label). I also help develop any multimedia programs and find videos and sounds for any exhibits that have media in them.

And then, while I'm doing that, I set and follow where the project budget is going, set the schedules, track the project's progress and keep it moving, and communicate with the client to get their approvals as we go along. But that's all. :-)

I'll be going out to Amarillo in mid-April to do a photo shoot of the exhibit, so I should get some better photos of it. It's the first time I've ever had to handle one of our photo shoots, so that should be loads of fun. Even more exciting is the chance to see the exhibition first-hand. I spend, on average, two years of my life working on a project, but I've only been to about half of the finished exhibitions. I'm usually too busy working on the next one to go!

And what's next, you ask? Well, now that I've wrapped up a life sciences exhibition along with a small ecology exhibit about the cypress-tupelo swamps of Louisiana and East Texas, I've moved on to a project about the maritime history of the Gulf of Mexico. That's a new one! But I now know how to find my longitude and latitude if I'm ever stranded in the middle of the Gulf with a boatload of nineteenth-century navigation tools. Life is good!

By the by, that activity in the picture asks people to try to match the heartbeat rate of a dog, human and cow. It's harder than you think! And we had to track down real, plastinated hearts of all those critters, which you can see in the windows there.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

For No Reason Whatsoever

How cute are these guys? Sickening!

How Does Our Garden Grow

Apologies to all those in more northern climes, but check out our garden box! This was shot today, March 2. Last summer's box failed pretty miserably after my post about it. Not only did the corn fall to pests, but so did everything else in a matter of about 30 hours. It was a sad state of affairs, and the weather became too hot to replant anything. This year, I tried planting earlier—in January—hoping for better results. I hit it right for the lettuces, herbs, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers, I think, but too late for broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. The cauliflower and cabbage plants are growing but aren't producing anything; the broccoli hasn't moved at all. Next time, I'll plant all three of those in October. Still, I've already harvested off the lettuces three times and they just keep shooting out more leaves. Hurrah!

All of this has continued to spur my thinking about gardening & "smallholding" within the suburban landscape. Why, exactly, do we have this cultural obsession with grassy yards that do absolutely nothing but demand attention, water and chemicals? The days of the Victory Garden are long gone but not that far away. I would love to see a rejuvenation of the idea that anyone, no matter where they live, can grow some of their own food. I'm personally surprised by how little time it takes to look after things that grow themselves. Granted, our scale is small indeed, but the results are larger than I expected them to be given the amount of time I spend on it.

I'm now thinking what else we could do, including ripping out the scraggly plants along our fence in the backyard and replanting them with either bananas or blueberries (or both!). Did you know Florida is now a major supplier of blueberries? I'm looking at a species called "Sunshine Blue" as a possibility. It's a dwarf with the lowest amount of "chill hours" required to create delicious fruit—a nice plus in a state that completely missed winter this year. I'm not sure what else we might do here, but a call to the Cooperative Extension Service is next on my list. Maybe they can help!

And my idea of installing a few chickens in the backyard continues unabated. I'm just waiting to get a larger plan in place before jumping into anything as major as that. In the meantime, I can enjoy the chicken flock (complete with illegal rooster) that some construction worker is raising on a work site next to my office's parking lot. Go, urban farmer, whoever you are!

Back from Beyond

Wow, it's been a long time since we checked in here at the HandyHouse. So much for best intentions, eh? A few things have happened since October, including a little trip to Paris that Jeff and I took the first week in November. It was fantastic, not in small part because we managed to squeeze it in between two major transit strikes that brought Paris to a standstill in mid-October and mid-November. If the French love anything as well as they love wine and fine food, it's a chance to protest.

We're very happy to report, however, that we had an absolutely wonderful time. Although a bit cold and rainy, November is a great month to visit this very popular city, since the crowds are much smaller and the cost of lodging is significantly cheaper. As has always been my experience in the past, everyone we met was very kind and helpful. I'm sure it didn't hurt that we always tried to speak French; Jeff had downloaded some great podcasts that helped him learn some and helped me remember a lot of what I forgotten from school. Like any people would, I think the French appreciate it when you at least make an effort, and it made our experience far more enjoyable and challenging.

Our apartment was cute and really well located, with a nice market at one end of the street and Notre Dame at the other, although I'm somewhat convinced that I got a few bedbug bites in our sleeping loft. Ew! Still, when your view is a gorgeous garden in autumnal splendor, it's hard to complain too much.

Since this was Jeff's first trip to Paris, we focused on seeing the "big things," including the Louvre, Musee d'Orsay, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, Montmartre and the Orangerie, where Monet's "Water Lilies" paintings are housed in two custom-built, sunlit galleries. I had never been there before, and it was probably my favorite museum of the bunch. In addition to the Monet works, they had a small but lovely collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works. It was just the right size to feel comfortable and allow us to really spend time looking at them. The larger museums are packed with wonders, to be sure, but their massiveness does create a sense of "work" that's a bit unfortunate and exhausting. We had "Paris Passes" that gave us entry to all the museums as much as we wanted for the entire week, which allowed us to visit the Louvre three times. We still saw only a fraction of what it offered! We didn't have time to do everything we had hoped, but Jeff is now "caught up" with most of my previous experiences in Paris, meaning that our next visit there will allow us to do more exploring off the beaten paths, including a descent into the Catacombs, I hope. We can't wait to go back!

We have hundreds of photos that still need labeling. As soon as that's done, we'll post an address to the online gallery and you can browse them at your leisure.