Sunday, April 6, 2014

Recipe: Cheeseburger Cobbler

A family-of-friends on Facebook posted that one of them had brought forth a family recipe and it was amazing. This family recipe such as it was came with some vague instructions (not unlike my own "recipes"), and I added it to my mental list of Things To Try At Some Point.

Of course, being me, I didn't need much more than the vague instructions to fly off in my own direction. And thus, this casserole was born. (I'm adjusting directions for better flavor than what I did, don't be alarmed that the layers are in a different order than the pics; you still get the idea.)

  • 3/4 lb or more ground beef
  • 1 onion, diced
  • seasonings to taste
  • 1/2 lb mushrooms, quartered (optional)
  • 1/2 green pepper, diced (unpictured, optional)
  • Pickle chips, or relish
  • ketchup
  • mustard
  • Cheese of your choice, separated (pictured: muenster sliced, cheddar shredded)
  • Raw biscuit dough, enough to feed 2 biscuits to everyone (canned is fine, as is Jiffy mix)
  • garlic bread seasoning, or granulated garlic, basil & oregano.

  1. Brown ground meat with onions, salt, pepper, and garlic -- add other seasonings as you like for your hamburgers. (This I did days ahead and may have contributed to a problem I had below. Directions will reflect both options.) If you're going to make your biscuit dough from scratch, do this while the meat is cooking, and I heartily recommend putting some seasonings into the dry mix before adding the wet ingredients. 
  2. Preheat oven to 375.
  3. If you did step 1 days ahead like me, your meat is cold. Dump it into your casserole dish and stick it in the oven as it preheats. If you browned your meat at the same time as you're cooking to eat this thing, skip this step. Once the meat is at least warmed and you have raw biscuits, continue: 
  4. Drizzle meat with ketchup and mustard. Top the meat with some quartered mushrooms and pickle chips.
  5. Place a layer of cheese of your choice on top; shredded or sliced is fine.
  6. Carefully construct a layer of biscuit dough. You might do this with biscuits from a can, as I did here, because I can't find half my kitchen still. However you might make some biscuits from scratch or a Jiffy mix, and that's great too, especially as it means you can put the seasonings and perhaps even some of the cheese inside. 
  7. Top the biscuit dough with the garlic bread seasoning, or your garlic & herbs. Then top with a light layer of shredded cheese, because garlic cheddar biscuits are amazing. 
  8. Pop in the oven at 375 for... probably 15 minutes? This is where it gets fuzzy. As you can see, my biscuits were a little goopy on the bottoms still at 15 minutes. However, I only baked at 350 and my meat was cold. Hence starting from hot meat. Anyway, cook until your biscuits are done to your liking. 
  9. When biscuits are browned and done through, remove from oven and serve. If you forgot your pickles inside (like me) or are using relish, put the pickles on top. 

So that's Cheeseburger Casserole!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Furniture renovations for the win

I'm pretty good about using things as I need them and not just using, say, a nightstand when I need a nightstand. Thinking outside the box, as it were. When I was growing up, I had a loft bed, and the top of my tall dresser was my nightstand. I've used file cabinets, actual nightstands, upside down trash cans, stools, chairs, and most recently: a small bookshelf.

Bookshelves are great for nightstands. They don't come too far forward, so you aren't trying to scoot around them getting into bed. They have lots of storage space for the room they take up, and if you want things on them to be hidden you can put them in decorative boxes/baskets.

The problem with my bookshelf was, it had to be placed in such a way as to either block the outlet from being usable at all, or else pulled 3-4 inches away from the wall to allow the plugs some room. Of course, pulling it away from the wall presents other problems, namely earrings and pill bottles getting dropped behind it. Not helpful. Also due to my mobility issues, I needed my plugs a bit more accessible than being on the floor in a plug extender or behind a piece of furniture.

This was my solution: Putting a 1x4 on the back to extend the depth of the top shelf, while leaving a gap behind the remainder of the unit. The shelf doesn't need to hold anything heavy; my lamp is rather light and could stay toward the front anyway, and the rest is pill bottles in a light basket, my phone, and whatever else gets shoved up there that stays for a few days before being cleaned up again.

I also screwed in a couple screws to hang a plug extender right next to my head. Ok it's actually about a foot away from my head, especially the way I sleep, but it's not on the floor and that's what's important. (That I actually did in our last apartment, and then we spent three weeks finding the exact extender plug that matched the holes because we didn't label it. It's labeled now, and will also not be removed from the unit again.)

It is properly level, it curving up a bit is an optical illusion. I used "mending brackets" on it because my original plan of L-brackets wouldn't work; the back is attached by being inset a bit like a puzzle, as are the sides, so there wasn't a solid spot to screw into except on the top there. It's not ideal, I would have preferred a smooth top, but it is effective and it was a fast solution. If possible, I still recommend L-brackets underneath instead.

You can see the two screws for the extender plug there, pre-unearthing it from a box. And the Goodwill sticker at the unit's front left corner (top, here). CLEARLY it needs some love in the form of a good sand-down and painting job. But in the meantime, it's FUNCTIONAL and that's what's most important to me. Besides, it's usually covered by baskets and a lamp anyway.

Speaking of the lamp, due to the trim at the floor on the far side, there is a 1/4 inch gap between the unit and the wall. Perfect for running the lamp cord down to the outlet behind, so that I can focus my extender plug on things like my computer, phone cord, and whatever else I may need to plug in but not leave there or have maximum slack for sitting in bed.

Now, does anyone want to come over and paint it?

What DIY projects are you working on right now?

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Latest Dirt: Gardening 2014

Saturday I wanted nothing more than to dig in some dirt. After all the snow, wind, rain, and grey of winter, I just needed some sunshine and dirt time. So I spent a little time (only 20 minutes or so) prepping my containers for planting. Surprise surprise, I didn't get any "before" pictures of the cluttered balcony. This is a failing I'm certain we're all going to have to learn to accept. 

This is the set-up we're hoping to use for our garden, though the cascading effect of the ones on the left means they may get less sun than if I cascade them out. Unfortunately it also means that would make the herbs less accessible for fast snipping while cooking. I might try working on a shelving mechanism to get maximum light and access. 
Once I'd pulled out all the clover, and turned the dirt a bit, some delightful plants came into view. Like these darlings! To the left and right bottom corners you can see tiny springs of oregano that popped in for some reason. This big thing... Well, it's in the dill pot, but it was growing outside the area where I'd planted the dill and it doesn't SMELL like dill. I transplanted it toward the center until I decided what to do with it. Any input identifying it is welcome. 

My poor lavender. I didn't harvest it properly last fall, and I think it froze and dried out over the winter. Everything pretty well just fell off when I went to trim it back, all the stems were cracked and dried, nothing green inside. I left the stalk to see if it can be encouraged to grow. If I don't have anything green within a couple weeks here, I'll splurge on another plant to replace it. I loved having lavender around too much to go without it. I will say that the dried lavender leaves made the compost smell much nicer than dead onions!

Thyme! I had two plants in here, a lemon and an english thyme. The English one you can see here, growing happily. The lemon I thought had died off completely, but once I got the dead stems out of the way there was new growth underneath.

But there is also this huge overgrowth of moss underneath. None of my other planters have this moss issue, and I'm wondering if they're beneficial to each other. Thyme grows wild in the mountains, or so the song goes (you're welcome for the ear worm) and so does moss, so they're either natural besties or competing for nutrients. Not sure which theory to go with but for now I'm going with friends. What do you think?

Sunday I took a bit of time to pull out the seed packets and get the seeds soaking in warm water. It's a trick I learned for using seeds intended for previous growing seasons, and one my grandmother used to revive seeds from as early as 1969 with about an 80% germination rate. I've had some rough germinations from my seeds the last couple attempts, so I thought I'd try this version. Directions varied from soaking them for an hour to overnight/a full 24 hours. I'm going the overnight route due to scheduling, so I have Mr. Moon to help me move the heavy planters around.

All in all, a lovely couple of days digging in dirt. Mostly herbs again this year, though I did get some lettuce and kale started for greens. I might also pick up a few more planters, if I can work out a shelving mechanism to have room for them, because I'd really like to have a couple more versions of greens and maybe some tomatoes out there.

What are you planting in YOUR garden this year? 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Homemade dandruff remedies

This is going to get a bit gross. Don't eat while reading this, and feel free to skip it. It's just scalp stuff though so it isn't TOO gross.

I've had psoriasis & eczema since I was a kid. High school was horrid, because being a swimmer, the chlorine really irritated my skin. Frankly I didn't know anything else and I liked swimming enough that it didn't bother me too much, I just went through a lot of lotion. After high school, I still have kept the habit of having a bottle of lotion next to the bed for my hands and feet, and my worst spots are my upper arms. And my scalp. Oh, my scalp.

My scalp has been the bane of my existence for as long as I can remember. No amount of dandruff shampoo has ever helped. Quite the opposite, it's always made my scalp worse. Since HS I've known that showering more than every 2-3 days irritates my skin horribly, but I can keep the patches on my arms down to splotchy-hive-looking things (not too scaly and gross) if I don't shower too often. My scalp has also seemed to like this arrangement best, up until about two years ago.

Two years ago my scalp suddenly erupted. I didn't even have to scratch my head to have a blizzard fall every time I bent over. Gross! I saw two dermatologists, two allergists, had a bunch of tests done, and all anyone could tell me was, you have dandruff. THANKS A LOT, CAPTAIN OBVIOUS! No but really, I've done so much for this in the last two years, and nothing has ever helped. I had three different kinds of shampoo, and it's not like they worked for a while and then stopped so I could just rotate through them. They never helped. Steroid and anti fungal ointments to go on my scalp that made it look greasy and attract dirt like you wouldn't believe, but still didn't help.

Then about 6 months ago it suddenly got even worse. Besides just flakey patches, now I suddenly had the plaquey chunks that I hadn't had since my last swim season of high school. And they smell like brewing bread or beer or something. So, pretty solidly a fungus, and pretty clearly growing out of control, and now it is IN MY FREAKING EARS. Along the way the last two years,

  • I started shaving my head pretty radically and regularly to be able to clean my scalp better, with mixed results. 
  • I went back to the anti fungal prescription shampoos. Still no luck. 
  • I tried coconut & olive oil hair masks. Nothing, now the plaque chunks were just greasy. 
  • I tried scrubbing with baking soda, but I can't get it into my scalp unless I've JUST shaved and even then I have a mohawk so the center portion is still bad and I refuse to shave my head entirely. 
  • I tried rinsing with apple cider vinegar with no results. 
  • I started scrubbing my head with a sugar & olive oil scrub (with peppermint and tangerine oils) occasionally but it makes my hair greasy so I can't do it too often.
Finally this week I decided enough was enough. I'd scratched my ears so hard they bled. My scalp had bloody scratch marks from scratching in my sleep. I've ditched the pharmaceuticals. They haven't ever done a thing for me and the dermatologists never even looked at what was wrong before they prescribed them so I just don't care about them anymore. It's back to home remedies. 

First I searched home remedies for dandruff. I'm pretty skilled at dealing with fungal infections, being prone to them for a lifetime, so I focused on the most commonly recurring themes and anything that looked good for fungus. As you may or may not remember, I'm allergic to tea tree oil so that's a common one I have to avoid. 

Common elements seemed to be baking soda and vinegar, tea tree oil, lavender oil, peppermint oil, and detox baths. 
  • No 'poo is baking soda as an abrasive agent and to absorb oil deposits, then a vinegar rinse to remoisturize and rebalance pH levels on the scalp. But I knew that didn't work for me. I saw some dandruff remedies say to use just baking soda, or mix it with shampoo, or even dissolve it in warm water, so I figured the baking soda chemical reaction was probably more important than its abrasive qualities. 
  • Vinegar ratios were anywhere from 1:9 (1/10th vinegar) to 1:1 (half vinegar) and used either apple cider or white vinegar. No 'poo methods recommend white vinegar for light hair, and apple cider vinegar for dark hair, stating that white vinegar on dark hair can lighten hair and ACV on blond hair can make it brassy. Interesting. Apple cider vinegar it is.
  • Lavender oil, peppermint, lemon, grapefruit, orange, and rosemary all have anti fungal properties and are all ones I own. 
Other remedies that came up less often but still repeatedly included:
  • Aloe vera gel on the scalp for 15 minutes, then shampoo as normal. 
  • Warm oil scalp treatments for 15 minutes to overnight. 
  • Sugar scrubs with coconut or olive oil or both. 
  • Honey scrubs with coconut/olive oil. 
  • Honey on a lemon & scrub. 
  • Green tea as bath water, hair rinse water, and hydrator.
Once I'd done my research I came up with a plan. Everything said to use them every day or two for two weeks and then once a week or so thereafter, which is right up my alley as a treatment plan. 

The first night, Thursday, I took a detox bath. Epsom salts and lavender oil. I put a ton of peppermint oil into my aloe shampoo, and believe it or not I'm going to put more in because it's not as tingly as I want it. Once I had the shampoo on my hand I sprinkled on some baking soda, and scrubbed that in. Let it sit for a minute or so, then rinsed it off. Lather, rinse, repeat--yes, I did the shampoo & baking soda again. I made sure to get it in my ears, and I let that sit. Just soaked in the water with epsom salts and soothing, relaxing lavender for about 5 minutes, and then rinsed that off. I filled a dollar store ketchup bottle half full with apple cider vinegar, and half full of lukewarm water. Squirted that through my hair, making sure to rub every inch of my scalp with it and get it into my ears. Of course, it drained down my face, so I rinsed that off with cool water. By the time I'd saturated my head twice over, I'd used... 1/4 of the bottle. Phooey. So I drained the bath (which let me tell you looked digesting by now so I was grateful) and rinsed my entire body with the vinegar wash. 

Results: HIVEY HIVEY HIVES all over my face, neck, and chest. Angry angry skin. Head not too itchy, ears still itchy. I think the vinegar was too strong for my poor sensitive skin to handle. But there were no chunky plaque deposits on my scalp anymore, even if there were still a lot of flakes. Improvement in one shot, that's what I like to see. I woke up the next morning THIRSTY AS YOU WOULD NOT BELIEVE. Standard practice with detox baths, though, so that was a nice way of my body telling me I'd done something do it and having it respond as expected. 

Second night, Friday, I took a spill and bonked my head on the floor. I was sore, I was tired, and Mr. Moon got off work late. But "every night for two weeks" was my game plan, and if I can at least do every night for a week I'm doing good. Besides, after twisting myself and falling down, an epsom salt bath is really good for me anyway. Repeated the shampooing, again twice, making sure to get into my ears and behind them. Reduced the ration on the vinegar rinse a bit--I intended to do about 1:3 vinegar:water, but it ended up being more like 1:2. Still, 1/3 vinegar as opposed to 1/2 vinegar was better, and it didn't sting as much. Also got some rosemary in the bath this time; rosemary oil is supposed to boost other oils for one, and is an anti fungal agent itself. 

Results: Face still mildly hivey, everything else fairly happy. But dry. So, so dry. I felt like my skin was going to crack open and I couldn't even get a wide-tooth comb through my hair. So I put on some coconut oil, on my scaly arms and my face and even rubbed it into my hair and scalp. Let that sit overnight. Woke up still feeling thirsty but able to move my mouth this time so that's an improvement. Also not as sore I expected to be after such a fall. Next morning, no cruddy deposits behind my ears, hair still greasy and coconuty, ears miraculously not itchy, but scalp is slightly. Ears have very mild flaky deposits, scalp... too greasy to tell thanks to the coconut oil, but no plaquey deposits is nice. 

So the plan for the next two weeks is to 
  • Continue epsom salt baths every night. 
  • Keep lather-rinse-repeating with the shampoo & baking soda scrub every night
  • Rinse with vinegar solutions of decreasing strength from 1:3 down to 1:9 over the next few days then sticking with 1:9 for the remainder of the two weeks. 
  • Increase the amount of peppermint in the shampoo, because I like it better when it's nice and cool & tingly, but I'm thinking about also adding some orange oil to it because for one I like the way it smells and for another it's nicely antimicrobial as well as moisturizing. 
  • Use coconut oil on my skin every night, and on my scalp/ears/hair as necessary. 
  • Get better about increasing my water intake since dehydration helps fungus take hold and it will help a lot of my issues anyway. 
I don't want to add too much more to the process because I want to see how it works as a rehabilitative plan. However, I do enjoy using my sugar scrub on my scalp and skin, and I enjoy green tea baths, so after the first two weeks is up I'm definitely varying the routine a little for the weekly maintenance stuff. I will keep the baking soda shampoo & vinegar (or green tea) rinses pretty constant as an every shower/bath" kind of thing though. 

Sorry, this post is not fun or glamorous but it's the realities of life. I am so grateful for all that I've learned so far with home remedies, and I'm looking forward to learning so much more. I'm also pretty grateful for my parents and schools teaching me the value of the scientific method; I tried doing one variable at a time to see what helped, and now I'm combining a bunch of things that sort of helped on their own to see how they do all together. And of course, writing and sharing the results in case they might help someone else!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Adventures in Food: Rice Vinegar

So at my favorite chinese restaurant, they have an amazing delicious vinegar on the table, used as a condiment. I've asked a couple times what it is, and they look at me as if I have three heads and say it's vinegar. When asked what kind, they say, "Vinegar." I haven't gotten up the nerve to ask to see the bottle. And ultimately that's probably going to have to be my next step.

But in search of this delightful condiment, I purchased a bottle of Black Vinegar. I was hoping against hope that it would be what I was looking for. While it is delicious, and the right color, it is not the same stuff. The stuff on the table is light, roasty, malty, but much richer than a standard malt vinegar. The stuff in this bottle tastes like worchestershire sauce as a vinegar rather than a salty-sauce. Good, flavorful, and has come in very handy in my stir fry adventures, but ultimately not what I'm looking for.

What's unclear is whether Black Vinegar and Black Rice Vinegar are even the same thing. I think they are. And this issue could even be a simple matter of brand; it being not a single-ingredient fermented into vinegar so much as many of them being mixed for a condiment.

In the meantime, I'm pretty excited because I've discovered there are even more types of rice vinegar. Time to stock up and play around with them!

Unrelated to vinegar, I'd really like to work on my curries. I certainly am not a pro at stir fries, but I've gotten good enough at them that they're edible and even pretty good when I put a little effort into them. I'd say I'm at a low-intermediate level with them. I'd really like to get somewhere past "basic beginner" with curries and at least be able to tell what sauce is what. Heck I can't even do that with Italian food but I prefer curries anyway. Very excited to explore Northern Indian, Southern Indian, Thai curries... I don't even know what other ones are out there! Very exciting projects ahead. As soon as my kitchen is unpacked.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Living a low-fragrance life

As my asthma has gotten more fickle, and my efforts to reduce costs have resulted in more home-made solutions, I've found myself avoiding artificial fragrances more often. I knew that strong artificial fragrances could be a migraine trigger, but I'm not sure I realized before recently just how much I'd arranged my life to avoid them.

My trip back to Michigan highlighted to me just how far I've come in removing excess fragrances from my life, when I discovered that for some reason there were 13!! "air freshener" things in my grandma's guest bedroom. I spent the first two days thinking I was suffering the worst jet lag of my life, until I finally got over the real jet lag and was still miserable. I finally had the energy to do something about the air fresheners, found more tucked away in hidden places than I had originally accounted for, collected them all and put them in another room with the door closed. With the window open, the air became less oppressive and it took barely more than an hour to get rid of the headache.

I ran out of laundry quarters after the bank next door had closed, so I had to borrow a friend's dryer for a load of laundry. Even without using the soap and dryer sheets she had, my towels STILL ended up smelling overpoweringly like laundry soap, and it's a similar problem using communal or laundromat machines. I'd been hoping to score an apartment with our own washer & dryer, so I could clean them out once (vinegar really seems to do the trick) and not have to deal with it as often. Alas, it was not to be.

My favorite anecdote along these lines is the doctor's office. They have a sign up requesting that patients respect the fragrance-free policy of their office, forgoing perfumes and colognes or other overpowering scents when coming into the office. Ironically, the alcohol-based hand sanitizer in their dispensers has the most disgusting, alarming, and in my case hive-inducing "baby powder" scent. I usually avoid industrial hand soaps because of the same hive issue, but had to risk is to get that baby powder scent off me as soon as possible. Thankfully, their soap wasn't horrible, and the nurse happily wrote "NO HAND SANITIZER" on the front of my chart folder so people knew to wash rather than sanitize when they come in to see me. The office manager promised to check into a fragrance-free version of the hand sanitizer for their next order, but of course, who knows when that will be or if they will remember.

As a former candle lady, I remember being trained to recommend lemon- and citrus-scented candles for "those annoying kitchen odors." It struck me at the time that this seemed counter productive. Rather than covering up unpleasant odors, why not clean them up instead? Oh, your kitchen smells like fish because you cooked fish? Air it out. Clean the pan. Don't just cover it up and ignore it! I've lived my entire adult life with this philosophy, and that may only be 12-ish years but I can say it's served me well. Unpleasant odor from the trash? Take out the trash! Unpleasant odor from the litter box? Clean the litter box! Offending item cleaned but the smell remains? Air it out! It is that simple, and that complicated. But I'm thankful that I have a partner who is completely on board with that attitude.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the odd scented candle or incense stick, and I wear some nice perfumes occasionally, but I'm conscious not just for my own sake not to go overboard with the fragrances. The last thing you want is to be sniffing your waiter's deodorant when you're trying to eat your food. Similarly with the cologne from the next table over. That perfume is for the enjoyment of myself and my partner, and no one else should be forced to smell it.

I didn't spend a lot of mental energy removing the excess fragrances from my life, since fortunately most of them require active effort to include them in your life to begin with. But I will say, simplifying in other ways has had a direct impact on the number of artificially fragranced items I've brought into my home, and I'm quite pleased with the results.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

An Announcement! and thoughts about buying local

I'd like to start with a little announcement...

Mr. Moon and I are getting married!!

He popped the question at my birthday party and of course, I said yes. Now we're in the whirlwind process of wedding planning. Which brought me to finally having a reason to buy the book that started one of my favorite blogs, Offbeat Bride.

So the book is $13.30 on Amazon with prime, 2-day free shipping. Or I could get it "used" but really new for $9-10 including shipping, but I'd have to wait longer. But let's check out the local book store? There's one I like a lot in town where they have a restaurant in the bookstore and a pub downstairs. But according to their website, they don't have the book in stock and it says it ships in 1-5 days. Plus I have to pay $17. Plus I have to put on pants, leave my house, talk to people, and I will probably buy a coffee or a beer while I'm there.

Financially, for me, it makes sense to buy it online, even if I pay the extra couple bucks for "give it to me right now" shipping. When faced with the prospect of planning a wedding with two receptions (oh trust me I'm sure I'll write about it, but that's a story for another day) with no knowledge of any financial assistance from our parents, I'm looking at every penny we have being a choice between Wedding Stuff and [whatever I'm looking at].

But on a larger, "I'm not the only important thing in the universe" scale, I really want to support local businesses. I know I haven't always done my part in that area of my life, and it's something I'm certainly working toward doing better at this year. I just have to weigh my own needs and abilities against that, and sometimes that means making sacrifices for the greater good; sometimes it's the other way around. I'm not going to choose against buying local over a couple dollars or a modicum of effort on my part. Significant savings, though, and I have to seriously consider it.

Thankfully in this particular case, Amazon is local, as is the author whose book I'm buying. Sorry Local Bookstore, if you'd had it in stock I might have paid the extra $4 for the book to have an excuse to leave my nest and go buy a beer with my love. Instead I'm buying it online and drinking a beer from the fridge!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The freezer debacle

After we moved, my health took a sharp downward turn. There were a lot of changes that happened all at once, and so it was difficult to pinpoint any one particular cause. I thought most of it was just pushing myself too hard in the moving process, or maybe the fact that we had been in survival mode for so long and now I was allowed to give myself some more time for self-care. But that wasn't it.

Shortly after we moved into our apartment, we noticed that a couple of our food items were freeze burned. We put it down to the old freezer which was not well-maintained, or some abuse during moving, and ignored it. Then we discovered brand-new food items were getting freezer burned. We checked to see if a vent was getting blocked, and checked for excess ice crystals. I checked the seal on the gasket on the door. We adjusted the temperature gauge with no change in temps or results. As time went on, I started noticing a metallic, almost anti-freeze flavor going on in our food. Everything became flavorless. I was getting sick after every meal; exhausted, headaches, stomach aches, constant food aversion. We ate out a few times, and I thought it was less sickening because it was comfort food or because I didn't have to smell the food cooking in the house.

I called my dad. He has more experience with refrigerator repairs than I do, though to be fair working in budget kitchens for so long (and all those years of science fair projects and managing my health care!) I'm pretty good at observing symptoms of a problem and coming up with a logical solution. He confirmed a suspicion that we probably had a fridge coolant leak.

I did some research. I found out that not all refrigerators these days have freon in them, but I also found out that it almost doesn't matter. The symptoms of a coolant leak are the same:

  • Foods that are frozen solid but feel warm to the touch and getting visibly freezer burned. 
  • Foods that have metallic flavors. 
  • Foods that rot in a ridiculously fast timeframe, especially from the inside out (like cucumbers that look fine on the outside but have slimy seed cores). 
  • Food outside the fridge, especially in the path of the air when the door is open, rotting more quickly (like the freshly purchased bottle of olive oil that went rancid, but the larger bottle it came out of was tucked away in a cupboard and fine).
  • Stomachaches, and intestinal distress after eating contaminated food.
  • Intense, incurable heartburn that is especially bad after eating contaminated food. 
  • Headaches after contaminated food, but the coolant leaking causes chronic symptoms unrelated to food intake. 
  • Trouble with concentration and focus.
  • Body aches, muscle pain, joint stiffness due to the leaking in the atmosphere and eating contaminated food. 
  • Lethargy, general weakness, and exhaustion with difficulty sleeping. 
  • Photo- (light), smell-, and sound- sensitivities that get worse over time. 
  • Aversion to food in general but our subconscious brains put it together first that the food in our home is making us sick, so it often starts as a strong desire to "just order in" or "let's go out"--but as for the latter, see the aversion to smells and sounds. 
  • As time goes on and the poison keeps getting introduced, ulcers will develop in the esophagus, stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, colon and bladder. Blood in the stool and urine become more noticeable. 
  • The aerated coolant will also irritate the sinuses and lungs, causing allergy and asthma symptoms/aggravation. 

Health-wise, everything there is a symptom I deal with regularly, so I didn't notice at first. Mr. Moon wasn't feeling anywhere near as poorly, which makes sense as I have a weaker immune system and the fact that he got a significant break from the coolant in the apartment's air supply by going to work almost every day. It was the incurable heartburn that finally got my attention that this was serious, and not simple user error. One day it was so bad that I ended up with chemical burns on my tongue and throat. My voice was hoarse for days, speaking and swallowing were intolerable. That was when I called my dad and eventually put all this together.

Within a couple days of the worst of the horrible heartburn, we woke up (at 10am on a Wednesday) and I realized that food we had purchased the day before was completely freezer burned, and the smell of the coolant was finally noticeable in the freezer. The coolant leak was officially confirmed. We called our landlord who said he would be over within 2 hours, cleared out the freezer (I calculated about $200 in food thrown out), and sat around the house feeling miserable, getting sicker by the hour. Eventually (9pm when the landlord hadn't shown up yet) we went to the store to pick up some fridge thermometers so we could see what the temperatures in the machine were, and some ice so we could salvage our food in the fridge, and while we were gone our landlord called to say he was bringing us a 3/4 size fridge to move our food into. He said if we needed a new fridge it would take a few days to get to us.

We didn't realize at the time that the leak was contaminating all our fridge food too, we just thought it was the freezer at first. We moved all the fridge food, turned off the old machine to let it defrost because the landlord was convinced it was just ice on the coils. Without the coolant being pumped, the smell seemed to dissipate a bit. He was supposed to be over at 10am the next morning to check to see how much ice melted off (hint: none, there was no puddle). He never showed, but the fried stayed at a steady 45 degrees F while the freezer was a solid 20F. So it was not an issue with the defrost cycle taking too long or heating up the food At noon on Friday, Mr. Moon called to find out when the landlord would be over to deal with this broken fridge. He asked us to find out if the defrost cycle was not working by temping the freezer with ice cubes, and could not seem to understand that we had already done that no matter how many times we told him that the temps were fine, and our food tastes like fridge coolant. We did his test with the ice cubes, confirmed they were freezing, barely, but tasting like nasty coolant, and I had to turn off the fridge. I could feel what it was doing to me just by being on. Without food inside to absorb the gas, it was even worse than before.

Saturday passed. Sunday passed. We started realizing how badly the food in the fridge had been contaminated, and increased our food loss to $300 by throwing out everything that was not contained in glass. The glass jars seemed to be fine.

Finally on Wednesday, we got ahold of our landlord again. We finally managed to convince him that the machine was busted, and it was time to replace it. A new one was purchased, but then he called to have me take measurements and it wouldn't have fit under the cupboard that was above it. He ordered a new one, to be delivered on Sunday. I asked him if he would be removing the old fridge before then and he said he would call me before he could stop by so we wouldn't have two fridges sitting around. Surprise surprise, he never did. That was the day before Thanksgiving.

Sunday came, and the delivery truck came by. They moved the broken machine out, and in the process a gelatinous glob of rotten STUFF fell out of the internal workings (onto my carpet no less), despite the entire thing having been cleaned twice already. I've since found out that the coolant will gelatinize around the leak sometimes, which is why it doesn't all go at once, and I can only imagine that's what this glob of nastiness was.

I got the glob all cleaned up with homemade enzyme cleaner, which seems to have actually helped. I figured it would just take the worst of the smell out until a professional could be brought in since the landlord said it might take a couple days (that was 10 days ago, by the way) but the spot doesn't seem to be collecting dirt or having any noticeable odor yet. Maybe after more time has gone by, if it's a problem we can get it cleaned better.
How are we doing now?

Ten days since the broken leaky fridge was removed, I really seem to be on the mend. I've made a point of taking lots of healing probiotics, drinking kombucha and such to help heal the ulcers. My sinuses are much happier and my headaches have lessened quite a bit. Since a lot of the symptoms I had were pre-existing, there's only so much improvement I can expect. Mr. Moon seems to have more energy, though. Our sleep improved once we got a new bed, but that's a whole other comedy of errors! My incurable heartburn has been reduced back to the usual treatable kind, so that's nice.

The biggest thing is that we learned. One more thing that, if it happens again, we will be able to take care of it before we get super sick, before we lose anywhere near as much food. We didn't meet our renter's insurance deductible, so it's all out of pocket. Another expensive lesson that would have been more expensive if we owned and had to replace the fridge ourselves as well. I'm looking on the bright side of knowing how to deal with this if and when it ever happens again. That's all I can do anymore.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The intersections of chronic illness and "normal" life: Keeping a home whoever you are

I was diagnosed with chronic illness at age 17, after 2 solid years of suffering and plenty more before of pain and misery. I don't remember more than 3 days of my life when I wasn't in pain. I spent a lot of time internalizing my fear of making goals and having dreams, because when you can't plan a week ahead, how do you know what next year will bring? How do you plan for decades when you could be crippled with pain an hour from now?

Having dreamed so big and fallen so far, I have learned many things. The first and foremost of which is that my home is a sanctuary, even moreso than for the average person. I need a safe, clean, comfortable home to return to at the end of the day, sometimes even the middle of the day. These days, sitting at home usually IS my day. Finding my place in keeping my home, playing the dutiful housewife who can't do much physically, has been hard. It's been allegorical to finding my place in the world at large, as I sit here wondering what I have to contribute in my relationship, in my home, and in society. The larger picture, I don't have an answer for, though in my home at least the answers have become clearer.

By no means are these things that I have mastered. The wonderful thing about lessons is that you can discover what the lesson is before you really succeed at learning it. But it's helpful for me to have a system of goals in place so that we can remember our priorities, and get back on board when we fall off the wagon.

Couple my physical and mental deterioration with my OCD and Mr. Moon being a poster child for adult ADD, and you'd think this is a recipe for disaster. Certainly, our house has never been magazine perfect and I expect it never will be. Which brings me to my first lesson:
#1: Let go of perfection. It takes hours for magazines to stage those rooms for photoshoots. Unless you are a home design blog, you just need to have room for kids to come over (or just come home) without tripping and choking on anything, and cozy places for your family to relax without excess clutter. 
Not having to have everything perfect all the time releases me from worry. We focus on keeping our house at a level where we wouldn't be embarrassed if anyone just dropped by, though we always appreciate the ten-minute heads up to adjust things for group-seating rather than just the two of us.

With chronic pain, I tend to nest. On the other hand, too much clutter and I get claustrophobic. The end of the day is the worst, or sometimes second-worst compared to the beginning of the day. Mr. Moon's focus is generally shot after he gets out of work, so "evenings" (after 10pm!) after horrible times to expect any household progress. Which brings me to my second lesson:
#2: Know your weaknesses. Everyone has then, no one is perfect. Take some time to evaluate yours and the rest of the people in your home, and accommodate them. Lovingly, if you can. 
Consistency is my number one weakness. Similarly with Mr. Moon. He also has good days and bad days with being able to focus, which is something that frustrates me in myself to no end. You would think it would be easy to understand in someone else, but somehow it is simply infuriating until one of us consciously realizes the issue. They say that you find most annoying in others what you dislike most in yourself, and in this case it's true. Which bring me to lesson three:
#3: Consistency is hogwash. Setting chronic and mental illness aside, Life Happens. Midterms, finals, summer break, the flu, deadlines, children, double shifts, unexpected visitors, vacations, the list goes on! You will have a plan, and you will fall off the wagon. Learning not to beat myself up about lack of consistency is the best thing that ever happened to me. 
A couple years ago, I set myself a new year's resolution to stop fighting human nature--just for one year. We had four of us living in a townhouse, I was getting annoyed by purses and shoes and coats tossed willy-nilly when everyone came home, and I was just as guilty as everyone else so no glass houses here. The problem was two-fold: The coat closet was across the entire house from the door that was used the most; and (I don't know about anyone else but) I hate hangers. I will simply NEVER use hangers if I have a choice, because the movements to hang something on a hanger just HURTS--and at that point, the floor (or the back of a chair) becomes a valid choice. For Mr. ADD-boy, he just got distracted trying to walk the 15 steps to the closet.

Enter the coat rack. It's a simple, obvious solution. But it solved all my frustration! Even when people forgot to use it, I knew where to put their stuff when I picked up--and more importantly, they knew where to find it if it had been moved! No more fights about purses on chairs and no place to sit. Which brings me to my fourth lesson:
#4: Have a system. Even if you don't use it consistently, you know what to get back to when you're ready for life to settle back down. It means that life settles back down much faster, too! Because you know where to start when it all gets out of control. 
We have checklists. Both of us being in the restaurant industry, we have learned to love and embrace the wonder of checklists. Sure, we don't use them consistently (see lesson # 3!) but when we need them, they're there. I like to make my systems so that they're easier than NOT following it, whenever possible. Like, making it so it's harder to drop your underwear on the bathroom floor than it is to put it in the hamper--or at least just as easy! Also trying to make them so that following the system makes the rest of life a LOT easier than not following it helps. Like, having a pair of scissors in the laundry room, so that I can cut off the tags of new clothes as they go in the laundry, and I'm not tempted to try to rip the plastic pieces off with my teeth. Saves me pain AND ripped seams at the same time! But only if I don't have to go searching for scissors every time I go thrift shopping.

What this means for my chronic illness is that my partner is in charge of ALL housework, and anything I do is a bonus. Before it got to this point, it meant that I might not have the energy on Mondays to get the bathroom done, but at least I knew exactly how long it had been so I knew where my priorities were when I DID have energy to get caught up. We also have specific checklist items that are things I do to help if I'm able (like if I'm up to helping, I am in charge of decluttering the bathroom counter, putting everything in place before the scrubbing happens, cleaning the mirror and restocking the washcloths).

Which only tangentially brings me lesson five:
#5: Know your strengths, and work with them. 
It's this far down because it worked narratively, but it goes hand-in-hand with #2. If you're living with people already and trying to make your home work better, then try this: Everyone go around and list YOUR OWN weaknesses. We are always harder on ourselves than other people are, but yeah, go ahead and list each other's weaknesses if someone is missing one that is glaringly obvious to everyone else. Do it lovingly, and YES you can find a way to be kind and honest at the same time. BUT THEN, go around and list each other's strength's. Have your partner or your roommate tell you how you are AWESOME at sticking to a schedule or picking up everyone's coats to hang up without complaining. Thank each other for the good job that someone did cleaning the bathtub, or that someone else did saving the kitchen from the MASSIVE pile of dishes. If you don't already live with people and are, for example, moving in together without knowing each other well while trying to negotiate a chore chart or something, give everyone a chance ahead of time to come up with a list of their own strengths and weaknesses. List them out! Find where everyone is going to suck and give everyone equal responsibility there, or negotiate trades.

Once you know your strengths, put everyone in their best roles.

  • I can't handle dirty dishes, but can empty a full dishwasher in 90 seconds--so perhaps everyone else takes turns on dishes, but EVERY time the dishwasher is clean it's my job to empty it. 
  • I'm fabulous at organization and evaluating fairness, but vacuuming kills my shoulder for days and the kicked-up dust kills my asthma--so I might be in charge of the chore chart (and rotating the chores that no one likes to do so everyone takes a shot), while someone else is in charge of vacuuming while I'm at work (in a fantasy land where that's how it was set up when I worked and had roommates; these are examples here!) 
  • Everyone hates taking out trash, and everyone hates cleaning the bathroom. These are CLEARLY different-sized chores, so rotating them through everyone makes sense. However, let's say everyone in the house has a cat, or shares the pets. Maybe one person is in charge of the litter box, and one is in charge of the trash; or you get trash AND litter box duties for one week a month (so that the trash going out can be timed with the litter scooping) and you're done with it. 
  • For Mr. Moon and myself, I'm in charge of checklists and keeping him on task. This means that it is legitimately my job to remind/nag him (as much as I hate it, even more than he does) to get things done, and to make cleaning checklists for each room of the house. No matter how bad I feel, I can remember to tell him to follow his checklist. Now matter how distracted he gets, if he has a checklist he can follow it or at least get onto whatever is next when he realizes he's gotten distracted. 
Which brings us to lesson number six:
#6: Have clear expectations & priorities. Communicate with everyone what you ALL want to accomplish, and what each person's role is in that picture. Give everyone a say, even if they're kids. 
Knowing that my once-upon-a-time stepdaughter who was three at the time that we first lived together had a priority of being able to find her toys unbroken when she got back to them and that she be able to maximize her time hanging out with her favorite grown-ups meant that I knew EXACTLY how to motivate her to do things that seemed tedious or annoying to her. It also meant that I knew it was important to do things that would take my attention away from her during times when she was asleep or occupied with someone else, and that I could get her to do almost anything in the name of spending time together. That girl was a champion dish-washer at 2 years old, a window-washer and floor-sweeper by the time she was 5. Take away the knives and she'd get all the silverware clean while I put the rest of the clean dishes away. I could have her sweep the floor and yes, I had to go back over it because she would miss spots, but then when I swept it took half the time; she got the feeling of accomplishment helping and we got the kitchen cleaned in record time by doing it together. That means more time for books and dollies and unicorn puppets! Bonus, because she was shorter with a tiny broom, she got under the lip of the cabinets much better than I could! 

Bringing it back to present day, it is not anywhere near as annoying to either of us when I remind Mr. Moon that he has a checklist, because that's my job (I can be an absolute harpy about it, because chronic illness involves irritability, but that's a totally different topic). Being the quality control check person also means I get the fun job of being able to say, "The bathtub walls and floor look fine, just wipe down the counter and toilet then let's watch an episode of Doctor Who." Though admittedly that also means sometimes I have to say "hey, we slacked on the bathroom for two weeks, better make some extra time for that today."

Just discussing expectations like it being my job to remind him to use a checklist, or saying "OK we have to hurry up and clean the kitchen then we can make a pillow fort and have puppet theater" means that it's a lot less annoying when someone else is telling you that it's time to live up to expectations. It also means that when the person in charge of ANY task starts to fall behind, everyone has the option to say hey, let's get back on task here. (I will never forget the day my munchkin reminded me that dishes need to be finished before story time. I'm now certain every exhausted parent, at least once, has used the excuse "they're soaking, I'll do them before my own bedtime.")

But then again,
#7: It is OK to change tactics when something isn't working! Sometimes, we get ahead of ourselves. We overestimate our abilities and underestimate our available time. If something isn't working, re-evaluate and go back to rule #6. It's no good to change the plan if no one else knows the new plan. 
With mental illness and chronic pain, that's a hazard of life, but for the average person it might just be one of those Life Happens moments. The semester or work shift changes, someone signs up for a  bowling league on Firebomb the Kitchen night, or you just realize HOW FREAKING TIRED you are after a full day of work and there is no way you're scrubbing the bathroom after dinner. That's OK!
#7b: Be married to your priorities and goals, not the schedule that gets you there. 
Maybe you really wanted to do daily pickups, and it Just Isn't Happening. Maybe you wanted to stretch the chores through the week but Someone made the basketball team and they don't have time on Tuesdays and Thursdays to participate, or in my case, I discovered that with some jobs I couldn't handle working and major chores in the same day. That's OK! If it isn't working, just revisit your plans. Sometimes that means you need to scrap the entire system and start over, sometimes that means tweaking.
#8: Give yourself a BREAK! You are no good to anyone if you don't give yourself a day of rest. In the meantime, take time to reward yourself! 
An old set of roommates had two theories about housecleaning: 1) I shouldn't have to work on the house today because I worked at my paid job; and 2) I shouldn't have to work at home today because it's my day off from work. The issue was that the both thoughts were being COMBINED. Either one separately makes perfect sense and I can get on board! But not together.

One thing Mr. Moon and I found is that for us, there has to be a day off from both. For us that means keeping a schedule where one day a week has no chores on it, and moving that day to a day off from work. Our schedule has no chores on Thursday, but if he works Thursday then Wednesday's kitchen cleaning might get moved so there are no chores Wednesday. Some folks believe that the Sabbath should be a day of rest in all respects, others think that basic housecleaning doesn't count (because for example the goats need milking and dinner needs served even on a day of rest). Still others don't observe a sabbath for religious reasons, but can create one for health and happiness nonetheless.  Whichever you choose, give yourself a light chore day on a day you don't work out of the house.

If you work from home, schedule yourself a day off work with light housekeeping at least one day a week. Go to the park, have a Netflix marathon, call your mother, doesn't matter what you do. But have one day a week that you look forward to with relief instead of more drudgery. We still have the daily tasks (dishes clean by bedtime, ten-minute pick-up at least once) on the Day Off, but there's no dusting or vacuuming or scrubbing on that day. Only the bare minimum to keep up on an otherwise day of relaxing. This is the day we schedule date night as often as possible.

Last but not least:
#9: Be kind to yourself and each other. Address issues if they keep cropping up, and try not to let the little things get to you. Communicate when you're calm rather than letting it bottle up into an explosion of anger.
Mistakes are going to happen, spots will be missed, and sometimes despite the best of intentions the tasks to get you to your goals will fall by the wayside. If there is ALWAYS a pile of underwear behind the bathroom door, do something about it. One pair that gets left for a couple days every once in a while after a long day or a late night is not the end of the world. Say something if that pair of socks has been on the arm of the couch for almost a week, but don't wait so long it makes you scream.

This means forgiving each other when the bad days make you less than fun to live with. Having the goal of being kind helps me bite off rude remarks when I think before I say them, or just sighing inwardly and letting it go when he wanders off in the middle of doing dishes for the eighth time in an hour. It also means my ever-patient partner is more forgiving when I inevitably fly off the handle and remind him he's been doing a 20 minute job for an hour, or squeeze the toothpaste tube from the middle. We all do things that irritate each other, but if we can remember to be kind to ourselves and each other it makes life a whole lot easier to live.

It also helps to consider the likelihood that if someone else's socks are on the arm of the couch for 5 days straight, you've probably also forgotten one or two of your own socks somewhere. If that happens, get everyone on board with a catch-up day (or, sometimes, week). Pull out those checklists, update your chore carts, and just get back on the wagon. Protip: This usually happens when you realize on Monday that you have a party coming in on Saturday. It's also totally ok to plan a party just to get yourself motivated! Just try not to shove everything into one room instead of actually getting back on track. Besides, they're your friends. They will love you even if you don't have a living room from a magazine.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Back in the saddle

After almost a year of struggling with a sub-par computer, I've finally gotten it replaced (under warranty no less) and have one that actually identifies every letter as I type it instead of sometimes deciding to recognize only half of them. Hopefully this will make blogging a bit less frustrating!

We took the week off from menu planning this week. We had a friend in the hospital, and caring for the group was our #1 priority. The friend is home and recovering now, and we're hoping to get over to visit now that she's almost even awake more often than not.

It also means we've let the daily checklists go by the wayside, and that's been a bit more of an issue. Evening marathons of Doctor Who are always so much more appealing than catching up on dishes, am I right? Mr. Moon caught up on the dishes today, and tomorrow is a new week. One thing I am proud of is that we kept up on tidying regularly. The pile of dishes next to and in the sink was a bit more than I can reasonably handle, but the rest of the house didn't fall into complete disarray. We could have guests stop by randomly for a respite from the hospital if necessary, and at no time would I have been embarrassed for them to do so.

Please excuse me, my cat is trying to get into the CLOSED toilet, despite a freshly full water dish, after she already tried to drink my coffee. ... Right, where were we?

Right, catching up!

One of my favorite stories of moving in is assembling flat-pack furniture. Since the opening of IKEA, there has been this human myth about the dangers of flat-pack furniture. Men refusing to follow directions, women refusing not to, couples fighting and breaking up, police getting called, these stories are everywhere! All implied commentary of the dangers of prejudice, misogyny and sexism aside, I'm not going to claim we were immune to the frustrations of assembling flat-pack furniture together. Tears were shed, words were said, and tempers ran high during the Over-Toilet Organizer Assembly incident of September 2013. Perhaps the issue is that we were out of beer, the step-0 requirement of furniture assembly if my mother's teachings are any indication, and we were drinking wine instead. Those large bottles simply aren't conducive!

So when it came time to assemble the kitchen table from IKEA, we demanded better of ourselves. We swore over a bottle of Blue Moon that there would be good communication, lots of listening, no fighting, no tears, no threats, and no throwing things during this project or any others. We would work together as a team, and we would treat each other with respect. I'm proud to say we got through it with nothing more than a dirty look and a hefty sigh. If we can get through 17 steps of IKEA directions with only a 6-pack of beer, I think we can get through a life together.

Coming soon:

  • Pictures of the new place, all set up! 
  • The much-smaller composting system we've got going on. 
  • More recipes? What are the readers in the mood for this season? 
  • Our ongoing freezer fiasco
  • Our ongoing humidity fiasco
  • And so much more!

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