Monday, August 30, 2010

7 uses for old towels

Old towels: cut-up cleaning rags on top, gym towel on bottom
  1. Cleaning rags – tougher than paper towel and every bit as absorbent, terry cloth towels reign supreme in the mess mop-up department. All you need to make them is scissors (pinking shears, the scissors with ‘teeth’ are even better as they help prevent frayed ends). They wash well, and if you have to wipe up something especially gross, you’ll be thankful for the extra ‘thickness’ keeping your hand from whatever the offending mess is.
  2. Swiffer/Wet-Dry cloth mop cover – Walter, who posted a comment under my entry on “Homemade Cleaning Solutions”, suggested using microfibre cloths for the same purpose. Here’s a link to someone who has made a terry towel Swiffer jacket – you don’t have to be an expert seamstress to whip up one of these!
  3. Donate to the SPCA – if you have more towels than you can reasonably reuse, why not consider donating the larger ones to your local branch of the SPCA? I called the Vancouver SPCA this month about dropping by with several old towels, and they said they were more than happy to have them – just bring them in (clean, obviously) during regular office hours.
  4. Emergency car stash – useful for when you’ve had an episode of unplanned skinny-dipping, for when you spill an entire carton of milk in the back seat (it happens!), as a seat protector when you have to give a ride to someone who’s been rolling in the mud or has been out in the Vancouver rain, and in a real emergency as a blanket if you have to spend an uncomfortable night by the side of the road. You could even use it to wrap up an injured animal, which is how friends of mine met their now tail-less cat, Bob. Towels are also great padding, so if you’ve bought yourself something breakable like a mirror or picture frame, wrapping it in a towel for transport is a great move.
  5. Gym towels – I suppose it depends on which gym you go to. If you’re at Ron Zalko I might not recommend this. But at the YMCA (which is where I now go), I can happily use my revolting orange, bleached out towel. My boyfriend uses a cute mauve and aqua hand towel I once bought from Ikea to wipe his sweat off the weights and equipment. I figure there's really not much point in trying to look suave when you're sweating butter, so I'm content with my ghetto gear.
  6. Gardening kneeling pad – I don’t really want to have to invest in knee pads, so I fold a towel over several times and kneel on that. You could sew it into a proper buckwheat husk-filled pad as well, but I find folding it over does the trick. If your towel hasn’t been cut or sewn, you can also use it to carry away weeds you’ve pulled, leaves you’ve raked or veggies you’ve harvested. You could even use it afterwards to wipe the mud from your spade or your boots, too. Every garden shed or muck room could use an old towel.
  7. Crafts – you know it had to come up eventually. I can’t help myself – it might constitute a mental illness. Not only will a large bath towel work great as a drop-cloth for painting or papier mache purposes, some people actually make things out of them! I was going to include a humorous list of crafts I’ve found online, but some things are so ugly that I feel it would be a disservice to society to further promote them. Instead, here are things that may actually not completely suck: vintage towel bib , a simple hot water bottle cover , reusable cloth baby diapers for the brave, or pair it with interesting, patterned fabric and use it as a lining for an attractive bath mat.
A holey tea towel works great for covering rising bread;  large towels double as drop-sheets for painting
And finally, to finish with a passage from The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by the late Douglas Adams:

“The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a few useful things to say on the subject of towels.

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitch hiker can have. Partly it has great practical value – you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mind-boggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you – daft as a bush, but very very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit, etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have ‘lost’. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still know where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.”

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Where to Buy Guide Part 2: Apartment / Home Essentials

Where can I buy….

Cheap, PVC-free shower curtains?

IKEA (Richmond or Coquitlam). Although IKEA was once snubbed by the enviro-minded community, even one of my Greenpeace magazines recently gave kudos to the company for making sensible and sensitive changes to their product manufacturing (for example, IKEA will phase out incandescent lighting by next year (2011), they’ve gone “bag-less” and have offered reusable bags since 1996, they’ve partnered with Stewardship Ontario to tackle recycling of their products once they’re decommissioned, are aligned with the Rainforest Alliance and Forest Stewardship Council and on and on – read more here).

For $1.49 (that’s not a typo – LESS THAN A TOONIE) you can purchase a PEVA shower curtain from IKEA in place of a dangerous, evil PVC one. Why evil? Besides the environmental consequences of production and destruction of poly-vinyl chloride, these things make your apartment a steaming death trap every time you shower. Alright, the ‘death trap’ is a bit of an exaggeration. But they’re not healthy, that’s for certain! Containing more than 108 volatile compounds including dioxins (carcinogenic), mercury and phthalates (super nasty – Wikipedia article here), they actually are released when you shower and get into your blood stream through your lungs. And you thought car exhaust was bad! At least it’s not trapped inside your home. Ditch the plastics, and start with boycotting ALL PVC today (recycling symbol “3”). Read more on the downsides of PVC shower curtains here. In the meantime, I’m happy to use PEVA (polyethylene vinyl acetate). It’s biodegradable, but then again it is petroleum-based (as are most plastics). It’s not perfect, but it’s sure a smart move! There are also cotton and linen alternatives, but they aren’t easy to work with and quite a bit more costly.

Yet another advantage to the $1.49 Näckten shower curtain from IKEA is that it’s translucent – and that means that it will make your tiny bathroom seem larger than an opaque one would. Because it’s colourless, you don’t need to worry about it matching your décor or the avocado green (in my case ‘dusty rose’) bathroom fixtures and gold-flecked 70’s tiles. Another advantage is that it allows more light into your shower, which is generally helpful. Maybe you can then switch to a lower-wattage CFL bulb instead of using the standard overhead halogen heat lamp which is very, very energy inefficient.

Cheap (but still soft and durable) towels?

Costco (several locations). Costco is not a very green or ethical company. In fact, there are several worthy petitions going against them at the moment – one on sustainable seafood (DON’T BUY CHILEAN SEA BASS!), one on reduction of plastic wrap on produce, and then a whole ton of regional ones trying to keep the big-box chain away for the sake of their local economy. So I do feel a little guilty about posting this tip, because I don’t like what the Costcos and WalMarts of the world are doing to the little guys. Unfortunately, being a student, I do occasionally resort to buying a select few items here to make ends meet. Borrowing a friend’s account (bring cash or pay them back later – the cardholder must purchase the items, and they don’t take VISA or Mastercard, FYI), I’ve bought a two-pack of polyester-filled pillows for $17 to replace some old, dust-mite and allergen packed ones, and of course towels. I buy white towels so that I can mix and match with little issue, and I truly think that white towels just look nicer – easy to recreate the ‘spa’ atmosphere in the bathroom. My bathroom desperately needs an injection of class, so tightly folded white hand towels and rolled-up face cloths are my first choice. I can’t remember the prices of the towel packages off-hand, but they are reasonable.

I bought IKEA towels once – their cheapest options are not worth considering, unless you need a source of rags (see my upcoming list on “What to Do with Old Towels”!). Their mid- to upper-range towels are much better, and apparently the source cotton harvest in Pakistan is ethical and sustainable. Definitely give the temptingly cheap towels (i.e. the Näckten range) a miss. You’re basically paying $0.49 for a fraying rag, not a face cloth!

Cheap but cool bistro-style dinnerware?

Ming Wo  (many locations, two in Kits). This is an easy one! Ming Wo has cheap ‘seconds’ of plain white china dishes that have small flaws in the glazing, or rust-stained bottoms (where the ceramic is unfinished). I’ve loaded up here a few times and really have been happy with my purchases. Presentation is everything, and you want your home-cooked, healthy meal to have the spotlight! I wanted to buy one of my brothers some nice serving dishes and platters, but soon realised that I wouldn’t be able to afford much more than a couple of side plates. Then I remembered Ming Wo! With food on these plates, and with careful choosing, you can’t tell that there is a flaw at all. I also like that if I broke one, I wouldn’t have to cry about it.

Ming Wo is a great place to browse – they have very cheap cotton tea towels (work great but must to be hung to dry) and for change you can buy a vegetable scrubber cloth that will even ‘peel’ your carrots without taking away all those healthy surface nutrients! Ming Wo is a Vancouver company (since 1917!).

Cheap but effective clothes-drying rack?

IKEA (Richmond or Coquitlam). Speaking of “hang to dry”, save energy (and therefore the environment) by putting dry apartment air or a sunny balcony to use with this drying rack from IKEA (Jäll, $7.99). I kid you not, I looked into building one myself and found that it would be much more expensive to buy the lumber alone. And that home-built one would be a mere fraction of the cost of most of the racks available on the market! Another of those things that you desperately want from Gaiam but just cannot afford. 

The Jäll rack folds completely flat, which is what they ALL say, but this one really does and it’s so thin and tiny that you can put it just about anywhere – narrow linen cabinet, under the bed, under the dresser or vanity if you have a longish one, hanging from nails in the back wall of the closet, etc. The top is horizontal, so it also works as a “Dry Flat” area for those woven sweaters.

Not only does avoiding the dryer save you on energy (or laundry change), it’s also a great way to cheat the dry cleaner’s – sometimes it’s possible to hand-wash a “Dry Clean Only” garment and hang it to dry. My Mom has this terrific knack at determining what can and cannot be safely hand-washed just by reading the tag. I’ll have to ask her to write me an article on this – dry cleaning isn’t only expensive, it’s also really, really rotten to our ecosystems! Rule of thumb in the meantime – never agitate wool (squeeze suds through very, very gently!), and don’t try to wash something that was expensive like a wool or silk-blend suit. If it was worth investing in, take proper care of it! Rayon, speaking from experience, is something that probably needs to be dry-cleaned. It’s not an environmentally friendly fabric to begin with and tends to look cheap – try to avoid buying rayon altogether.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Where to Buy guide, Part 1: For the Feet and the Private Bits

Where’s the best place to buy…..

Cheap socks?

YokoYaya 1-2-3
at Tinseltown (Chinatown & Stadium SkyTrain station). For $2.00 a pair, you can buy cute ankle socks that are thicker on the soles than the top, wash and dry well and have colourful but tasteful patterns. My boyfriend says they’re cute, and I find I can even wear them in my runners without blistering or having them slip off my heels. You can also buy Japanese-style toe socks and look like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, or the full 5-toed toe socks as well. YokoYaya 1-2-3 is also a great place to buy rubber dish gloves if you don’t like flocked lining (which I simply abhor). Just look for the package that says “No Back Hair”. No, I’m not joking. Most are labeled “With Back Hair” (a literal translation of cotton fibre backing?), and I almost bought a package just to laugh at it.
Strange sizing, but they fit a 7 to 7 1/2 foot perfectly.

On a side note, I once bought 3 pairs of adorable ankle socks from a vendor at the UBC SUB. After washing in warm water (and before they had hit the dryer) they shrunk to doll-size. Don’t buy SUB-socks. I was also attacked by a rabid squirrel that day - nothing good comes of SUB-socks. Beware of Night Market socks, too – the very same socks come out at night!

Cheap shoes and boots?

True Value Vintage Clothing (Robson near Granville, downstairs by the smelly donair shop). This may not be THE cheapest place in general, but I bought a pair of very trendy, sturdy, convertible ankle/knee-high non-leather boots there last year for an obscenely low price ($55). I wore those boots all fall, all winter and into the spring. I always got compliments on them, and a fellow Fluevog-loving friend of mine (we have expensive taste…!) saw them on me during the Winter Olympics. I had to take her to where I bought them, and lo-and-behold there was a single pair in her size, this time in brown with a wooden heel, on sale for only $25. Beautiful and mostly puddle-tested water-proof - an important consideration for a Vancouver winter! True Value also sells vintage shoes, as you have probably already gathered by the name.

Army and Navy (Hastings near Carrall). This is the perennially cheap place to buy shoes, and today was my first visit. I almost bought these gorgeous wooden-soled sandals with multi-coloured fabric straps and small but effective buckle motif for $19.99, but soon discovered that the shoes here, albeit interesting and surprisingly cheap, are mostly of the completely impractical or very uncomfortable variety. The $14.99 sneakers (Converse-style) lured me in, but they were so cheaply made the glue rode up on the seams - I didn’t even try them on. There was, however, a $4.99 shoe rack that contained some interesting shoes that didn’t overly tempt me (most were insanely impractical), but that’s maybe their strong point – if you have a wedding or event to attend and need to find a pair of shoes to match a dress, check here first! There’s a $9.99 rack as well, and the common racks (by size) are also fairly cheap (under $40 for the most part). Don’t get me wrong – I own plenty of shoes with 6” heels and platforms and embellishments! But if you can’t stand in them for more than 3 hours, or can’t dance in them at all, they are a little too frivolous and should be reconsidered.

Payless and Aldo Liquidation (both on Granville near Robson). It’s always worth checking out the outlet/clearance stores, but don’t go in with high expectations. If you luck out and hit a good sale (usually end-of-season sales as the new stock is coming in), you can buy $15 Airwalk canvas (Converse-style) high tops and a $5 pair of kitten-heeled sandals, for example. I’m still pretty happy about my $20 spent for two pairs of shoes, one of which I wore daily for 6 months until I wore the soles through and the other my $5 mostly-useless but fun-for-going-out-in bright orange sandals. That was in February, right before the spring and summer styles hit the shelves in full-force. It was also during the Winter Olympics, which may have been part of the reason for the sale.

Shine (West Broadway at Bayswater) and Turnabout Clothing (West Broadway at Balaclava). Buying used shoes is risky business, especially when they've been well-worn and broken in by a different pair of feet. But there's been a few gems at Shine and at Turnabout that have almost convinced me otherwise. I actually purchased a pair of white peep-toe, open-weave heels that I love, in brand new condition, for $25. That was 3 years ago - I'm still wearing them! Can't remember which shop it was for sure, so I'm including them both.

Cheap bras and panties?

Army and Navy (Chinatown/DTES). For $8.19 ($9.17 after the mo fo’ing HST was added), I bought a really cute and mostly practical bra and two pairs of thongs! This is the best deal yet – and I was pretty thrilled with my $9.99 bra and $4.99 matching ginch from Winners last month! To think of the crappy, easily stretched-out bras I bought all those years at places like La Senza for upwards of $40 a pop – argh!

Most of the clothing at Army and Navy is woefully low-quality, but there was a large selection of bathing suits and bikinis for ridiculously low prices. And we all know how many seasons a bathing suit lasts for – not many! Gone are the days of me investing more than $60 for a suit with the exception of a TYR or Speedo practical suit for doing laps or triathlons. There’s really no substitute for those.
$9.17 - for everything! Army and Navy stores

WINNERS (Granville and Robson). Twice now I’ve purchased cute, seemingly good-quality (as good as La Senza or La Vie En Rose anyway) bras and matching, detailed underwear here for around $20 in total.

StupidStore (Superstore – several locations). People don’t like Superstore (I can’t take credit for the slang – thank you Elli for that!), and I think I know why. Of all the grocery stores in all the land, Superstore has the patrons who are the least spatially aware, the brattiest children running free (sprinting, screaming twerps!), and the messiest and ugliest produce and dairy sections that are enough to put you off your food. Sure, the prices are a little better, but not enough to warrant that kind of chaos and disarray. But on the positive side, you can buy your friend Macapuno Balls made of Mutant Coconut for her (now defunct) Culinary Abortions blog, and also find all the Indian spices you could ever need, for which I am grateful. I love those candy-coated fennel seeds. And to its credit, Stupidstore also has a large bulk foods section. Avoiding excess packaging is a very good habit to get into.

But the Joe Fresh clothing line, however poorly hung-up and presented, is good and cheap. And I like cheap! Especially when there are staples like beige, undecorated, t-shirt appropriate bras for $13. You can never go wrong with a skin-tone bra (provided it’s in YOUR skin tone, I suppose!). Just avoid the Bridget Jones granny panties.

Check out the tempting fall line-up at their website but stay away from the fake-fur jackets. No one, but no one, looks good in faux-cheetah or leopard print jackets. They should teach these things in school. Worse, there’s always the chance that some rich git will suffer from reverse fashionism and be inspired by the white-trash version to wear the ‘real’ thing. Fur is not okay with me unless it’s still on the original animal. In short, there is never a good reason to wear a leopard-print fake fur jacket.

London Drugs (several locations). Speaking of panties, here’s a very cheap place to buy them! And no, I’m not talking about the old-person disposable type! I’m talking about stretch-lace Brazilians that are, alas, not high quality, but for $2 to $4, it’s tough to complain. Brands like “Sweet Intimates” appear at Army and Navy as well, and perhaps that’s a less weird place to buy them. But if you suddenly realise that your black ginch is fully visible through your summer dress, or worse, you’ve made the cardinal mistake of wearing full-bum underwear under yoga pants or stretchy jeans (DON’T DO THIS! EVER! YUCK!) and are rocking that hideous underwear-line look, pop into your nearest London Drugs and get yourself some cheap undies! Another in-a-pinch idea is to buy a pair of gusseted panty hose to wear instead, although I’m sure the new ginch is a more comfortable option. Although the lace thongs available at London Drugs are cheap and will probably not last as long as you’d like, it will at least take the sting out of buying ones that are infinitesimally better for 3 times the price at La Senza. Oh if I had known what I know now when I was a teenager with money to burn!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

EchoClean Shampoo – Where are you?

For months, I have been hunting the elusive EchoClean personal care line by VIP soaps (see earlier blog on this local (Misson, BC), ecologically sound company producing all-natural detergents).

Caught me an EchoClean conditioner!
The first time I emailed the company, they were very helpful and told me that Stong’s Market (Dunbar) carried the line. They also told me that there would be a sale on VIP products on the BC Day long weekend! I went out of my way to visit Stong’s only to be disappointed by an empty space on the shelf where they used to be.

I have the world’s most wonderful boyfriend who lives closer to Stong’s than I do, and a month later he very sweetly went by there to see if they had restocked the EchoClean shelf. Horrors of horrors, he not only returned empty-handed, but reported that the shelf-space had been dedicated to another line of shampoos.

Curses! I have since emailed VIP again asking for a complete list of Vancouver retailers, but they haven’t replied in over a week now. Hmmm. Stubborn as an ox, I enlisted the help of an eco-minded friend who thought that Choices might carry the line as she had found biodegradable baby diapers and other natural products there before. Secretly cringing at the mention of the lovely but terribly over-priced grocery chain, I followed her to the Davie and Richards location not holding out much hope. Searching the natural and organic shampoo section, I came up empty-handed, again. I had almost given up hope.

But while Laura was searching for a baby-friendly Bifidobacterium preparation (not a bad idea, I thought! Get that gut flora populated nice and early!), I asked a staff member if they carried EchoClean shampoos and joy of joys, it was only as far away as Aisle 4!

I found the conditioner only. I mulled over buying the ‘Floral Peach’ scented one, and once I had made up my mind, promptly changed it and grabbed a ‘Lemon Grass’ conditioner instead. It had this sweet little “BC Product” sticker on it, it smelled of lemon meringue pie, and I was so happy to be buying a local, environmentally friendly product….!

That 500mL partially recycled plastic bottle of conditioner cost $7.99. Ouch. That’s Choices for you. I figured I had looked long enough and it was only a couple of bucks more than online (not including shipping), so why not. I picked up a roll of recycled aluminum foil (wonderful stuff) which was $6.69 and called it a day. Outrageous, but hey, I felt good about my purchases. And I saved a whole $0.03 by bringing my own bag. Lucky me.
If You Care Aluminum Foil. Expensive, but worth it.

But still no shampoo!

I had to run a few errands downtown (Dressew-related, i.e. more yarn and buttons), and I thought I’d swing by the Army and Navy store (Hastings near Carrall – two blocks north of the Tinseltown Mall). I’d never been . . . more on Army and Navy in a subsequent posting, but while I was there I figured I would hit up the shampoo aisle, not expecting this bargain-basement discount store to carry newly launched brands.

There it was: EchoClean conditioner, $4.69 or something. That was seriously $3.00 to $3.50 LESS than the bloody Choices Market! Argh – a 60% difference! And just to rub salt in the wound, NO SHAMPOO. I asked, but the lady seemed to think that it must have sold out. I toyed with the idea of buying the ‘Floral Peach’ while I was there, but upon reflection realized that having two bottles of conditioner and no shampoo would likely only serve to annoy me further. 

Is everyone in Vancouver reading my blog? Was there a run on EchoClean shampoo?! Is this why VIP hasn’t returned my email – they’re working 24 hours non-stop to meet demand and all because of me?! A girl can dream….

For the select few of you who read my blog (thank you for reading!!!), please do me a favour – if you see EchoClean shampoo in the store, of ANY scent, please let me know ASAP! Otherwise it’s going be a longish stint of fragrant, all natural but greasy, greasy hair. I’m not quite ready to admit defeat and order direct from VIP . . . I’d have to pay for shipping, and I’m trying to recoup my Choices losses.

Monday, August 23, 2010

YggPLASTsil - The Tree of Death

YggPLASTsil by Hayley Spencer, 2010.
Yggdrasil, an enormous ash tree upholding nine worlds in its branches, was central to ancient Norse mythology and cosmology. It sustained all life and the heavens, its roots nourished in pristine springs and wells.

Over 100 million metric tonnes of plastic are produced each year, 10% of which ends up in our oceans. It is estimated by the UN that there are currently 120 000 pieces of plastic floating in the each square kilometre of the ocean.

Despite marketing propaganda to the contrary, everyday plastic is extremely durable and persists in our environment indefinitely, both on land and in the sea.

YggPLASTsil was created entirely out of discarded plastic. The external crocheted surface is made from plastic shopping bags cut into strips to make "plarn" or plastic yarn. The interior is stuffed with everyday plastic waste generated by myself in under 2 months. It includes plastic bags and wrappers from dried fruit, pasta, rice and cereals, bread tags, shrink wrap, hard plastic clamshell packaging, screw-caps and candy wrappers that are not currently recycled in Vancouver's waste management programme.

Remember this tree next time you reach for your wallet: what legacy are you leaving your children? Reusable non-plastic grocery bags only help so much. What will it take to convince you to make small sacrifices on pretty and convenient packaging for the sake of our home planet?

The 'bark' and 'leaves' of the tree were made from approximately 60 plastic shopping bags of the estimated 500 billion to one trillion produced globally per year.

YggPLASTsil was created by Hayley in 2010 for "The Art of Science" gala evening for the Dept of Pathology, UBC. It stands approximately 57cm (22.5") tall. Original design, with exception of the 2D skulls - adapted from a terrific pattern by Darlene R. Harris (Day of the Dead Crochet Skull on

Interested in learning more about plastics in the environment and plastics recycling in Canada? The truth is shocking! Check out CBC's DocZone documentary "Forever Plastic".

And if you're on the anti-plastic bandwagon like I am, please read Taine's incredible blog "Plastic Manners" in which she chronicles her year without plastic. It's absolutely fantastic - I am so grateful to Sarah J. for alerting me to the existence of Taine's blog!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Back to School Shopping continued - Back to Cool

My well-abused stainless steel bento box, stainless steel chopsticks and reusuable mini-fork
I covered the basic school supplies in my earlier post on Back to School Shopping, the Green Way. But I neglected to cover lunchtime!

Have you ever had the gleeful experience of already owning something that's suddenly en vogue and sought after? Have you ever said, "What, this old thing?" and felt really, really smug? I have - and it's happening again!

For years I've had a proper, stainless steel bento box that my Grandma gave me. She probably got it from a Japanese friend of hers - all the really cool origami and Japanese items I saw as a little girl came from some lovely lady who worked with my Grandma in Vancouver.

I always liked the thing, but I don't think I once used it for it's intended purpose - a lunch container. In fact, I remember using it as a pencil case and coating the inside with an uneven, streaky layer of White-out, which I then scribbled on. Oops.

But here it is, having survived middle school and still shiny enough to capture my reflection in the photo! Now that's built to last!

The stainless steel bento box might be *the* hot item for back-to-school this year! I've seen them for sale on the internet starting around $35. Thirty-five! That's insane! So I did a little searching and found The Tickle Trunk (not the Casey and Finnigan variety!) selling one almost identical to my retro one for $8. EIGHT! Much better!

A few years ago for Christmas I put in a special request to 'Santa' for stainless steel chopsticks. It wasn't because I was on an anti-plastic kick but because I was lazy and wanted to bung them into the dishwasher. I figure they must exist somewhere.... Santa found a set of Joyce Chen chopsticks several years ago, and I have to say they've held up well!

The reusable mini-fork (it says `Lube Sheep`, rather inexplicably) I bought at YokoYaya123 (also available at The Daiso) for $2.

But I`ve found an even better deal, because The Tickle Trunk also sells stainless steel cutlery in an aluminum carry-case, and the set contains everything you need (fork, spoon, and chopsticks that unscrew in the centre to make two shorter pieces for storage) for just $6. SIX!

$14 and you could have the coolest Back-to-School lunch kit in the world. Sugoi!

Get them while they`re hot is my advice!

Northern Environment - Guest post by Adam Spencer in Taloyoak, Nunavut

Yellowknife.  15 minutes between my continued flight through to Cambridge Bay.  Went outside for a smoke to feel the unfamiliar air of an unfamiliar town.  5 minutes later I go back inside to figure out where my plane is, and the staff has been looking for me, the white man who’s going to Cambridge Bay.  There’s no time set for take-off - when the few passengers are there, roll out on the runway and take flight.  The air traffic controller must be a relaxed individual.  Before boarding the plane, I was informed that I may be landing in Gjoa Haven because of heavy fog in Cambridge Bay.  “Well that sounds adventurous” I said with a smile.  And they smiled back… kind of. 

Landing in Cambridge Bay.  The landing gear makes an eerie “popping” noise. I pretend not to notice.  Down through the fog.  Runway looks short.  No pavement up here…  No problem for these pilots.  As the plane gears down and slows to a taxi, the feeling of the beginning of a new experience overcomes me.  Warm air for the Arctic today, feels like home. 

After being introduced to my plans for work up here, construction plumbing that is, I have the evening off to explore the town before I fly out to Taloyoak in the morning.  The sun never sets this time of year up here.  So off for a stroll I go in the mid‑evening which resembles the light of early morning.  The roads are dirt and natural gravel, and I try to get used to the sight of no grass on the side of the roads, only dirt and grey mud.  And then as I looked down to my side, I was sad to see garbage embedded in that mud and barely a couple feet over, some more.  An old bag of chips emblazes its factory red through the grey mud like blood on concrete.  So I think maybe it’s just the way the people are up here, maybe uneducated of how the garbage scattered around affects the land.  Anyways, down to the water, I want to touch the Arctic Ocean with my bare hands. 

The people here are truly unique from the people I’ve known elsewhere.  The elders smile with their entire face, their life experiences showing through their many wrinkles.  I witness a young boy with his young buck attitude jogging as if to cause trouble somewhere, as an old elderly woman grabs the boy and pinches his cheeks and holds his face close to hers, smiling as direct as possible to the boy.  As a young buck would, he shakes out of the loving grasp and continues his pursuit of trouble.  I think of the boy’s future.  Here I am far away from the cities, the ugly grey cities infested by man, raping the land of what it’s worth and bringing in supplies from who knows where.  A giant ant nest.  And even here, a group of only 1500 people have assembled a small town, and it’s no different.  But this is maybe inevitable, as we have noticed in other animals, they will eat and sh*t and eat and sh*t until all of the necessities of life are gone, and they themselves will die.  It is in our nature.  The future is unknown. It’s also out of my expertise.  People throw their garbage and it pollutes and kills animals and all that, but we all know we do worse, and some we don’t even know about, I’m sure. 

When I got to the beach I touched the Arctic Ocean’s chilling, but beautifully clear water.  The bronze rocks shimmered light through the faintly disturbed surface and looked as clean as a glacier.  And here I stray not, every meter down the beach as far as I could see, at least one piece of garbage.  Sad.   How much longer will that water be clear?

We all like to blame someone or something.  And when you see that there is a third world country living beside our comfortable arrangement down South, you start to wonder.  Us Southeners may be naïve, but not ignorant.  But there are some of us who are, and they somehow always end up in politics, don’t they?   Money money money… if the country had lots of it to spare, all of these issues would be addressed, wouldn’t they?  I mean, that would be after we paid out the million dollar Christmas bonuses to the random politicians.  But once the ones in control of the money are rolling in their dirty money, the people up North will be taken care of right?  The ridiculous rate of suicide reversed?  The drug and alcohol abuse addressed?  The rapes prevented?  The animal cruelty ended?  The garbage all over the towns picked up?  The vandalism erased?  The lazy cops making $150000/year finally have an impact?  The import fees and price of living compensated for?  And how about the government’s housing corporation who is $90 million in dept because their employees were getting $70/hour plus overtime building 4 and 5‑plexes that should be done in 6 months, but somehow lasting over two years and not even being to code?  When will this be fixed?

Turn away from the town and look out into the variety of landscapes among Nunavut.  It’s beautiful, almost as beautiful as the people who live within it.  But don’t look back, because you’ll see what your white man has done.

Adam J. Spencer
Taloyoak, Nunavut, Canada

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I Love Planet Veg!

Nevermind settling on Mars in geospheres - I'd like to live on Planet Veg!
1941 Cornwall Avenue, Kitsilano (near the beach)
But first, a little background as to why choosing vegetarian meals benefits our planet:

Vegetarianism has long been associated with environmentalism (all of us “hippies” get lumped together, I suppose!) and has recently been touted as a way to battle climate change (read article at here). 

While there are many, many fantastic reasons to kick the meat habit (like weight loss, heart and cardiovascular health, animal cruelty issues, antibiotic resistance and human pathogen concerns, awesome ethnic food choices, etc.), environmental issues are some of the most pressing. Most of the trouble with the meat industry is deforestation (usually rainforest) in order to provide more grazing land for beef and other livestock. The beef industry itself is estimated to produce 2 billion metric tonnes of CO2 emissions directly (yep, cow gas!) and another 2.8 billion tonnes in rainforest destruction (source here). 

Regardless of how you’d like to estimate or display the numbers, “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems” according to senior UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) official Henning Steinfeld (article here, from UN News Service website).

Vegetarianism is also a great economical option. Before vegetarianism became socially acceptable, home-maker’s magazines often featured (quietly) meatless dishes as a way to save money.

Earthsave Canada has a vegetarian directory for Metro Vancouver listing vegetarian and vegetarian-friendly restaurants in the local area, including the usual suspects like The Naam and The Foundation (both excellent choices, as is Bo Kong on Main Street or in Richmond).

Also listed is my favourite Vancouver restaurant of all time, Planet Veg, a gourmet Indo-Western vegetarian fast food joint on Cornwall by Kits Beach. I can’t promote this place enough – I don’t think I’ve eaten more often at any other restaurant in my life, and I really only started stopping by a year ago. I’m here weekly, which is also a testimony as to the affordability of Planet Veg’s menu choices and its proximity to both buses and the beach.
Planet Veg in the early morning (before the bistro tables and sandwich board)

Planet Veg began at its present location in 1997, a labour of love for Chitra Bansal to share healthy, delicious vegetarian food with others. Chitra and husband Babu are originally from Northern India, and have been running the restaurant non-stop, 7 days a week for the past 13 years. In my interview with Babu today, he admits that running a restaurant is probably more work than it’s worth, but Chitra’s drive and obvious talents have kept them going strong. 

Planet Veg has a loyal clientele (myself among them) that refer friends, but they don't advertise much which is why I'm keen to help them out. There are precious few Mom-and-Pop restaurants left in our city - just look at the chains like Nando's popping up along the same stretch. Support the worthy!

I asked Babu what they have done to lessen their impact on the environment (besides offering vegetarian fare and being small-scale and independent), and I had a hard time keeping up and jotting down all of their improvements! Eating in is obviously the best choice (stainless steel plates and platters, cutlery, etc.), but for take-outs, paper bags replace plastic ones. Gone are the Styrofoam take-out soup pots (replaced with microwaveable plastic - the next best choice). And the gelato plastic cups have been substituted for corn-based plastic ones. 

The sidewalk patio is a great place to people watch, as is the bar along the window on a non-sunny day. They have tap water in reusable cups available, a clean bathroom for pit-stops, and a mouth-watering menu that makes decision making quite the challenge! Fortunately, the friendly and approachable employees are always patient and helpful. If in doubt, go with the two most popular items – the Garden (Veggie) Burger with a Mango Lassi to wash it down.

Highlights at Planet Veg:

The Roti Rolls:
The Delhi Roll, Bombay Roll and Masala Roll are my favourites – choose your level of spiciness in these delicious, healthy and very satisfying curry wraps. Everyone I expose these wraps to love them, even the self-proclaimed ‘carnivores’ and young men between the ages of 19 and 25. Quite honestly the best wraps I’ve had anywhere, ever.

The Baked Samosas:
It might be hard to believe, but these are actually more delicious than their deep-fried cousins (and I like deep-fried!). They come in three varieties: curry potato, vegetable and spinach & tofu, the latter of which is vaguely reminiscent of and tastier than most spanakopita. 

The Tamarind Chutney:
Put it on and in everything – there’s a squirt bottle on every table. Mmm mmmm mmmm!

The Sandwiches:
Grilled Aloo (aloo = potato) and Grilled Paneer (paneer = mild Indian cheese). I have to admit that I’ve only tried these once (and loved them) because I always crave the Roti Rolls so badly. Nevertheless, these are just awesome – a better take on Panini than those of many Vancouver cafes and restaurants!

The Veggie Burgers:
The best selling menu items and what has made Planet Veg famous. Try the Garden burger (mushroom-based homemade patty) or the Mexi-burger (soy-based homemade patty). You can’t go wrong with the burger combo – you get a baked curry samosa on the side.

If you’ve never had a pakora, it’s time! India’s improvement on the French fry and onion ring and probably just about as healthy. Life’s short, indulge!

Beverages and Dessert:
Mango Lassi – traditional and very satisfying. Delicious, thin (and refreshing) mango and yogurt smoothie. Good for putting out the spice fires!
Gulab jamun – for the sweet-toothed only, this traditional Indian dessert is best described as hot TimBits in warm sugar syrup. (Pronounced “goo-Lob ja-mun”)
Mario’s Gelati – oh yeah, they have a freezer and cones! My favourite gelato in the whole of the country (maybe the world?!), Mario’s makes ridiculously tasty gelati, sorbetti and tofulati. I had 'Tiramisu' from Planet Veg this very afternoon - it made me very happy!  If you get a chance to go direct to the source (Main and East 1st), keep on the lookout for the “Italian Wedding Cake” flavour which I had once and almost died of pleasure. I think it might have been a one-time, on-a-whim creation but I’m not giving up hope yet….

Not being a Celiac (I am thankful for this everyday), I have to admit that I’ve never knowingly had a gluten-free bakery item. I figured they’d be almost, but not quite, as good as the real thing. Babu generously gave me a banana chocolate chip muffin to try. I had already decided that I would say “Yum” no matter how gross that muffin was, but I didn’t need the pre-empting. This was honestly, hand-on-heart the tastiest banana chocolate chip muffin I’ve ever had, and sadly that includes those I’ve baked myself. And it’s completely free of gluten! If all gluten-free muffins taste as good as Chitra’s, maybe I don’t have to be eternally grateful that I can tolerate gluten.

Over half of Planet Veg’s menu is (surprisingly to me) gluten-free, and there’s rumours of more menu options to come. You can even have the most popular menu item of all – the Planet Veg Garden Burger on a tasty, gluten-free bun.

Something else I'd like to mention is how accomodating they are for any allergies. I have been cursed with a sensitivity to garlic and red onions, which makes eating out insanely difficult. I have just learned to avoid either as best as possible but expect certain consequences. And yet I've never had 'issues' after eating at Planet Veg. Turns out that Chitra's recipes, like any real chef's, don't rely on garlic for flavouring. Her delicate mixtures of spices aren't only original and extremely toothsome, they also don't make me sick. I'm sharing this nugget of anti-garlic gold with my Facebook support group, the Campaign Against Garlic!

Not ready to go veg yet? Not to worry – you’re either the “quit cold-turkey” type or the “baby stepper”, and if you’re the latter, you might be interested in Meatless MondayGiving up meat for one day a week will have a positive impact on the environment and your health. You’ll be shocked at how easy (and yummy!) it is. You’ll also be delighted by the reduction of your grocery bill!

Stop by Planet Veg this Monday for dinner, or pick up a Roti Roll and a Snapple iced tea on your way to Kits Beach. Say hello to Chitra and Babu for me!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Child Sponsorship - Help me choose!

I've just added a quiz I wrote at to help fellow Canadians choose a child sponsorship programme that's right for them. There are so many to choose from, and I'd like to encourage EVERYONE to find one that they can feel good about supporting.
I don't know how long that quiz will last for (and if I'll get in trouble for borrowing logos for use in the answers!), so I'm going to list the organizations I've researched here.
As readers of my blog will know, I have a graduate student's stipend and owe some money in the form of student debt. But even with income of $17, 500 a year and rent and bills to pay, I find a way to support a child (through SOS Children's Villages Canada) in Africa who has been orphaned through the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I hardly notice the $33 a month - that's basically one dinner out a month, and it doesn't exactly stand out on my credit card bill.
Not only does it honestly feel good to help, your dollar or so a day makes all the difference in the world to a child living in a third-world country.
This is also a surprisingly economical entertainment option for families or for teachers to provide their classes with - exchanging letters and drawings with your sponsor child is all part of the experience, and the educational value of this is immeasurable. Your children will have such a personal understanding of what life is like as a poor child in that country.
Here are 10 different Canadian child sponsorship programmes, arranged in several ways.

By cost (descending):
$35 per month - World Vision Canada Child Sponsorship, PLAN Canada Child Sponsorship, Christian Children's Fund of Canada Child Sponsorship
$33 per month - SOS Children's Villages Child Sponsorship
$25 per month - Save the Children Child Guardianship, Salvation Army Child Sponsorship, SOS Children's Villages (Village Sponsorship)
$20 per month - Canadian Feed the Children Child Sponsorship
$10 per month - FTC (Feed the Children) Canada Feed-a-Child Sponsorship
$__ per month (name your amount) - UNICEF Canada Global Parent Sponsorship

By global presence (most countries, descending):
150+ countries - UNICEF Canada
132 countries -  SOS Children's Villages Canada
120+ countries - Save the Children Canada
118 countries - FTC Canada
90+ countries - World Vision Canada
48 countries - PLAN Canada
22 countries - Salvation Army Canada
7 countries - Christian Children's Fund of Canada
4 countries - Canadian Feed the Children

By reported donation breakdown (percent that goes directly to the child and child's community), descending:
Note: quiz lists Canadian Feed the Children as highest. Whoops. Can't undo...!
100% - Salvation Army Canada 
89%* - FTC Canada *(by my calculations only, based on 2009 annual report data)
86% - Canadian Feed the Children
82.5% - SOS Children's Villages Canada
82.1% - World Vision Canada
82%Save the Children Canada
80%+Christian Children's Fund of Canada
80% - UNICEF Canada (in general, not child sponsorship programme specifically)
78.9% - PLAN Canada

By mandate/core values:
Non-denominational/inclusive of all faiths: SOS Children's Villages Canada, UNICEF, PLAN Canada, Save the Children Canada, Canadian Feed the Children
Christian (some of which are inclusive of all faiths): World Vision Canada, FTC Canada, Salvation Army Canada, Christian Children's Fund of Canada

I hope this helps you find an organization or programme that suits your personality and needs. It costs so, so little to make an ENORMOUS impact on a child's life! Please start giving today - you will NOT regret it!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Navigating the Cosmetics and Feminine Hygiene Product Minefield: Say NO to disposable plastic

Realistically, I don’t think it’s possible to create an exhaustive list on what to / what not to purchase from your local drug or cosmetics store. I’ve compiled a list of some essentials and a few tips that may help you save some cash and be kinder to our earth.
  • Say NO to disposable plastic in the form of liquid handsoap bottles – Method’s refill package boasts a savings of 83% on plastic, water and energy over purchasing the same quantity of soap in their plastic pump bottles (which are recyclable). One thing that tripped me up in the beginning was that the refill packages (bags with a nozzle) are themselves not labelled as recyclable. Then I watched the fantastic CBC documentary called “Forever Plastic” (will discuss this further in a future posting) and was disillusioned with Canadian recycling practices altogether. Saving plastic and resources such as water and energy up front is always the better way to go. Shopper’s carries the refill packages, but I could only find my particular choice of fragrances at Superstore.
Say NO to plastic tampon applicators and plasticized wrapping and save $$$, too
  • Say NO to disposable plastic in the form of tampon applicators – Some people just don’t like using tampons, and that’s alright with me. Of all things that can be considered ‘personal choice’, this is one of the most personal! But I’m not a fan of pads, even the reusable ones. Disposable pads are basically plastic-based diapers, and just about everyone is aware of the environmental impact used nappies have. (Incidentally, I feel the time is ripe for a diaper company to unveil a product line made from degradable, plant-based plastic in place of the usual stuff – someone get on that! There’s a market for it!). Tampons, on the other hand, are little more than cotton (or cotton/polyester) and an applicator. The cardboard applicator is biodegradable, which is more than what I could say for the plastic ones. (Don’t flush tampon applicators – they fit nicely back into the outer, preferably paper, wrapper and are just as easily disposed of in the garbage!). The generic brands, in my experience, are every bit as reliable as the giants of the industry. Unfortunately, even my cardboard applicator box is suggesting I switch to the new, contoured and pretty plastic applicators, just like all of the annoying television commercials. Let’s just be frank here for a moment (and hopefully not too crass): my relationship with that applicator, albeit intimate, will be as brief as possible and last a second or two at the most. The idea that said applicator is now going to spend the better portion of a thousand years becoming brittle and breaking into increasingly smaller pieces in a sprawling landfill site does not give me comfort. Speaking of comfort, I suppose the argument for the rounded plastic tip is one of comfort and ease. Again, without being too rude, let’s just say that all plastic applicators have an uncomfortable edge somewhere, and there’s pinch potential in the star-shaped opening (I know whereof I speak). If you find cardboard applicators woefully uncomfortable, Glaxal base (a non-scented, non-coloured, non-anything moisturizer used by dermatologists and in compounding pharmacies as a base for making steroidal creams) or Vaseline can alleviate the issue and make it less of a drag (pun intended).
  • Say NO to disposable plastic in the form of razors – Does the plastic handle of your shaver really need replacing? That sucker will last forever (and ever and ever), but of course the blades won’t. As irritatingly expensive as they are, Gillette’s Venus/Venus Embrace razors with replacement cartridges make some sense. I still have my original handle from when the line first came out - they haven't changed the attachment mechanism yet, lucky for me! The brand name may have worn away from the bottom of the handle, but otherwise it's perfectly good (in fact, I almost prefer the 'generic' version). Buying the refill cartridges saves money over buying the disposable variety, but they are obscenely over-priced. Keep an eye out for sales on these and stock up. The great thing about evil marketing schemes is that they’ll change the colours often to keep their products ‘new’ – and it might benefit you as they purge the old stock. How can one possibly care what colour their razor cartridge is, save those with legitimate psychological conditions? I care about what size of dent they put into my monthly budget, and whether or not they work. That’s about it.
  • Say NO to disposable plastic in the form of packagingLUSH, a favourite company of mine for many reasons, has zero to minimal packaging on all of their products (all handmade – soaps, solid shampoos and conditioners, bath bombs and bubble bars, etc.). For the wet stuff, LUSH has 100% recycled black plastic pots of lovely fresh potions and creams. They even take back the empties for in-house recycling (probably saves them a mint by melting down and reforming their previously purchased recycled plastic. Smart!). In the meantime, they make cute seedling pots once they're emptied. One item I strongly recommend is their famous “Charity Pot” . They donate 100% of the price to charity (except the tax, because that would be illegal). Yes, that’s right – not 100% of the profit, 100% of the retail price. They absorb the manufacturing, shipping and advertising and any other costs there might be and give the money to charities (ever changing) that are advertised on the lid of the container. (This is how I discovered Sea Shepherd). Currently, Charity Pot sales support many charities the world over (click here for a cool interactive globe to see what and where!) like the Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz county, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Bicycles for Humanity (donating used bikes to Africa), Ecova Mali (teaching sustainable and ecological agricultural practices for some of the poorest people in the world), UNICEF – specifically children living with or affected by HIV/AIDS, the aforementioned Sea Shepherd (aggressive defence of dolphins, whales and other marine life from poachers/Japanese and Norwegian whaling fleets), and many others including one I have a personal connection to, the near and dear to my heart Camp Goodtimes  (Canadian Cancer Society camp in Maple Ridge, BC for children living with cancer directly or the cancer of a sibling). When you use Charity Pot cream, you can feel good about using fresh (fair trade ingredients, mostly organic), handmade, cruelty-free, vegan, sustainable and locally made moisturizer that had recycled and recyclable packaging where all of the $20.95 (plus taxes) went to supporting very worthy causes. Green and ethical in every way. Butter up!
Other tips, tricks and recommendations:
  • Vaseline – petroleum jelly is NOT a green choice for reasons which the name suggests. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find an alternative to pure petroleum jelly (Vaseline), though they probably do exist (let me know if you find one!). But then again, a single pot of Vaseline can last longer than you’d care to imagine, and has so many uses. As mentioned before, Vaseline works as a personal lubricant (***recall high school sex education – latex and Vaseline DON’T mix!***) in the case of tampons and other non-condom uses. It is also a great way to get more bang for your buck from your make-up: turn a lip liner into a lipstick shade by mixing a light layer of liner with a thin layer of Vaseline. Same goes for transformation of a matte lipstick to a gloss. Vaseline can also act as a base-coat to help keep powders like eye shadow on your skin, though remember to use it very sparingly – you don’t want to end up with sparkly ribbons of colour in the creases only! Vaseline on your eyelashes can substitute for mascara which is waterproof and won’t give you raccoon eyes. It can also be used to remove eyeliner (or, in small quantities, help it glide on and stay put), and is still, as the label suggests, the ‘ultimate moisturizer’. I remember using it on my poor old dog’s dried out soles, knowing that he’d lick 90% of it off and not get sick. It gets rid of the dreaded dead-of-winter cracked dry hands and elbow syndrome, too! Cheap, but it isn’t environmentally friendly, so by the time I finish my little pot (say, in the next decade or so), I’ll be on the lookout for a green alternative to Vaseline.
  • Recycled paper toilet paper – BioLife (Shopper’s Drug Mart brand) makes great toilet paper with minimal environmental impact. At the risk of being offensive, I implore you to stop wiping your arse with virgin paper made from old-growth or unmanaged forest tree pulp. Think of what you’re using this for – does it need to be taken from a tree that housed countless animal and insect species, provided shade for plants and animals along the forest floor, and removed countless tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air? You can bet your ___ it doesn’t. BioLife toilet paper is affordable and often goes on sale – another item to put on your sale watch-list.
Have a green item from the drug store that I didn’t list? Please post a comment below (no Google account required).

Friday, August 13, 2010

Dutch Blitz - Cheap Entertainment

I would like to dedicate this entry to my friend Andrew who has been so encouraging with my new-found hobby of 'blogging'. 

Dutch Blitz is a sweet, unassuming card game made by the Pennsylvania Dutch in Flourtown, PA, USA. It's old fashioned and very easy to learn.

But don't let the cute little figures and simple colour scheme fool you - this game gets really ugly really quickly. I've known it to put otherwise rock solid relationships in jeopardy, cause mothers to turn on their children, and have some of the most violent collisions of any card game going. I even know a couple who have decided that it's not wise for them to play head-to-head; if you're even a little bit competitive, be warned!

For about $15, you can buy your own set from Drexoll games (4th, near MacDonald) and invite 2 to 4 friends over for an evening of cards and shouting. If you have a family with children 8 years old and up (or those that can count 1-10, match colours and have the dexterity to move cards as fast as humanly possible), you can get the whole of your kin up in arms and out of control in no time at all. I've lost my copy of the rules (there was an incident....), but we've found a way to play in teams for the younger players to get in on the action and stay competitive.

Take your bored children off the electrical grid with this game. The simplistic green box describes Dutch Blitz as "A Vonderful Goot Game" and "Fast paced fun for everyone". It's great to take camping, assuming you have a large flat area to play on and no noise restrictions. BC Ferries vessels have proven to be yet another brilliant location for a furious game or two.

Nothing like a good ol' fashioned card game to drive people apart, I mean, bring them together. You can find Dutch Blitz at Drexoll Games on 4th or at the Granville Island Toy Company, or even at the Trinity Western University bookstore, apparently. For a list of distributors in other areas, or to send away for missing cards (it happens), visit the official website at .

Looking for a good old fashioned outdoor game? Stay tuned for a post on Kubb, the most talked about game on Kits beach (thanks to us)!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Handmade Gifts are the Best – Learn to Crochet

First post in a discontinuous series of homemade gift ideas

In my last post (Back to School Shopping) I managed to work in a line or two on learning to crochet. It’s my latest obsession, and with 5 pregnant friends (so far – more on the way!), I’m finding it’s a great way to make personalized and heartfelt baby shower gifts. Or bizarre birthday gifts, like the Hamburger Coasters.

Angel Wings Pinafore (made by Hayley) - free Ravelry pattern by Maxine Gonser
Handmade gifts really are the best, provided you avoid a few pitfalls. In the case of knit and crochet, don't knit/crochet anyone but yourself a sweater unless it's a baby and it has no say in the matter; don't make dolls that are actually toilet paper roll covers for anyone but yourself (no, just don't make them at all is my advice); choose neutral or fashionable colours - and don't go overboard with the bright acrylics and create something that resembles unicorn poop. Also be prepared for the inevitable - someone will not appreciate your creation. That's the way with all gifts, but it hurts so much more when you've put work into it. Accept this fact now and save yourself some pouting.

Learning to crochet over the internet (which is where I got 95% of my instruction) can be frustrating. But it is possible! Start with the Granny Square – you really only need to know two stitches: the double crochet and the chain (North American terminology). If you keep going with that Granny Square, you can make a square blanket or throw (or placemat or rug or . . . !) in no time. Or, at 20 cm (8”), you can donate it to a very worthy cause, Knit-a-Square. Knit-a-Square collects 8” knitted or crocheted squares and sews them together in South Africa to distribute blankets to AIDS orphans in the poorest slums of Africa. All you have to do is crochet one and pop it in the mail!

Invite some friends over, make some appies for potluck (but keep those fingers clean!) and try to learn together to make Granny Squares for Knit-a-Square. Not only a cheap (and entertaining!) evening, but a great cause as well. 

Once you’ve mastered the Granny Square, move on to new projects. The single crochet and triple crochet stitches are just simple tweaks to the stitches you’re already familiar with.

Here are the resources and materials you’ll need to get started:

  • Crochet hooks: Best place to buy them is Yokoyaya123 or the Daiso in Richmond. They sell very light weight and sturdy gold-coloured hooks in a wide range of sizes for $2 each. Go with a ‘medium’ sized hook between 3.5 and 5mm (5mm is an “H” hook in the US, and is a very common size for the patterns I’ve come across).

  • Yarn: Dressew Supply (Hastings – walking distance from Yokoyaya) is a great place to buy cheap yarn and wool. Wool is lovely to work with but will felt (i.e. shrink and fuzz!) if you wash it, which can be a neat effect. Wool blends are more forgiving – note that all yarn has washing instructions on the label. Cotton and cotton blends are some of the best for clothing and for things like dish cloths (another quick and easy beginner project). Rowan PureLife is a brand that produces organic cotton and organic wool yarns that are naturally dyed and come in a range of earth tones that are very pleasing to the eye. I’ve bought both wool and cotton from Rowan PureLife at Dressew. Another great option is to borrow some cheap acrylic (not so enviro-friendly, but nevermind) yarn from someone’s stash – anyone who knits or crochets generally has a stash of leftovers, and they’re usually pleased to share! A coworker of mine has a sister who recently gave up crocheting and generously donated ALL of her stash to me! I’m sharing the love and using it for teaching purposes at our next stitch and bitch (a colleague and I are starting up one for students in our program). For nicer yarns, try Baaad Anna's (it's new! East Van) or in Kits there's Homecraft Importers on 4th and Gina Brown's Yarn (also new - West Broadway).

  • Yarn needle: They come in handy, but you can get by without them in the beginning. They can be plastic or metal (go with metal – better option for the environment as you can pass it down) and look like big, blunt darning needles. Bought mine at Dressew for 25 cents or so.

Websites: Here’s the exhaustive list:

Crochet Cabana – a wonderful lady named Sandra Petit created this site. It has step-by-step photos for each stitch and several techniques (for example, joining pieces or squares together) and in-depth explanations. A great place to begin.

CrochetSpot – another good place to go if you’re a beginner! Rachel Choi recently added a bunch of guest authors (one of which is Alicia Kachmar whose blog I just love! Click here for her Safety Cone pattern) to blog about every crochet topic under the sun. Her site includes the CrochetSpot store where I bought my pattern for the Hamburger Coasters (hilarious and a great beginner’s project!) as well as many, many free patterns that are easy to read and for which she offers online assistance. 

Hamburger Coasters (made by Hayley for Chantal) - pattern by Rachel Choi,
YouTube – do a search for the stitch or technique you need help with. There are too many videos to mention, and do try a few to find an instructor that suits your needs. It’s a great accompaniment to Sandra Petit’s Crochet Cabana site – between her step-by-step photos and a video online, you’re sure to figure it out.

Ravelry – oh, how I love this site! I wasn’t too keen on it at first (overwhelming), but now, wow! Here’s where to go when you want to start making things like clothing or laptop cases or really funky household items. The patterns (free or for sale, usually as PDFs) are reviewed by the users (out of 5 stars) and are also rated by difficulty (starting with “piece o’cake” and working up to “impossible”). The pattern search tools are unbelievable, and with each pattern there are a list of user projects complete with photos (great for colour inspiration!) and comments. Those comments are so useful – if everyone’s telling you that market slouchy bag comes out really small, believe them! Ravelry is a fantastic resource for finding local yarn shops and groups (Baaad Anna’s has a group on Ravelry, and hosts stitch and bitch nights in the shop on Wednesday from 6pm to 8pm). If you need help with deciphering a pattern or simply learning how to do the basics, attend a stitch and bitch! If you can’t, get on a Ravelry forum for help from your peers.

Crochet Pattern Central – the ghetto version of Ravelry with free patterns only. No log-on required and there are an awful lot of toilet paper roll covers and tea cozy patterns. Don’t say I didn’t warn you – tackiness level 10. But if you’re up for browsing, there are a few free gems hidden away here that aren’t on Ravelry. I prefer Ravelry – most of the worthwhile patterns appear in both places.

Baby Hoodie (made by Hayley) - free Ravelry pattern by Moda Dea company
This is my first year of crocheting (although I once learned to make a Granny Square sometime in college, I think), and as you can see from my shameless exhibit of my work, I can actually make things! Try it yourself - if you're dextrous and crafty, you'll be crocheting gifts in no time.