Wednesday, June 12, 2019

You Say Mango, I Say...Mango

Image result for foreign languagesAfter five years of studying German, and passing quite a few difficult exams, my younger son recently graduated from high school with a seal of biliteracy on his diploma. I'm very proud, of course, but it also got me thinking about my long-ago experience learning French in school. I never got close to my son's level of fluency, but it was fun to be able to muddle through in a foreign language.

For some odd reason I still remember the text book from my junior high French class. C'est Marie. Marie est blonde. Exciting stuff! That was eons before the many apps and online courses that make it easy to learn a new language from the comfort of your very own home.

See the source image
Uhh...different Mango
My local library provides free access to Mango, so this past week, I dipped my toes into the vast ocean of world languages. Mango offers lessons in everything from Arabic to Yiddish, including Shakespearean English and Pirate. Yes, that kind of Pirate, shiver me timbers. (From an entertainment standpoint, that one is pretty great.)

First off, I tried Dutch. My husband learned to speak it as a 5-year-old expat back in the day, so I figured how hard could it be? As it turns out, it is hard. After a few days, I switched to Spanish, which was easier because a) I have more exposure to it and b) it's linguistically closer to French.

The Mango lessons are fun and quick. It's helpful to hear the pronunciations of native speakers, and I enjoyed the cultural tidbits thrown in. As I clicked through the screens, I could feel the rusty gears of the foreign language center in my brain coming unstuck, which was gratifying.


Learning a foreign language is a lot of work! (Thanks, Captain Obvious.) It requires much more investment than fifteen minutes a day--for me, anyway. After a mere seven days, I have a renewed respect for anyone who is multilingual.

Even though my Mango language study was fun and good for my brain, I just don't have the capacity for it right now. As a result, this week's Take It or Leave It is a regretful Leave It. With the possible exception of Pirate.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Oil Change

Image result for palm oil forestMove over hydrogenated oils. There's another bad guy on the block, and his name is palm oil. But unlike hydrogenated oil, which really has no redeeming qualities, palm oil is a mixed bag. Semi-solid at room temperature, it resists oxidation and extends shelf life. It is a very efficient crop, producing more oil per acre than any other equivalent. In fact, palm oil accounts for 35% of the world's vegetable oil while using only 10% of the land.

The trouble is, that land is already home to lovely tropical forests. The worldwide demand for palm oil drives deforestation and threatens many species which are already hanging on by their toenails. What with all the slashing and burning, the palm oil industry also contributes to an increase in greenhouse gases. And apparently the jury is still out as far as the health benefits or implications of consuming palm oil.

All things considered, I figured it wouldn't hurt to go without palm oil for a week. In fact, I thought it would be really easy, because I tend to not eat a lot of packaged cookies and frozen pizzas and the like. I did not realize that palm oil is in everything from lipstick to ice cream to biofuel. Sneaky palm oil is also known by many aliases, including vegetable oil, Palmitate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol, Stearic Acid, etc. etc. A person could go cross-eyed from reading all those ingredient labels. (That person is me, and yes, I did.)

Image result for orangutan Despite my concerted efforts, I failed at completely removing palm oil and its cousins from my life. But I did manage to swear off my favorite palm oil product: vegan butter. I love butter, but I don't really eat much dairy anymore. I thought Smart Balance was the perfect solution. The orangutans think otherwise. Darn you, palm oil.

Since I'm not a fan of dry toast, I turned to the internet and was rewarded with many recipes for vegan butter. The one I tried called for coconut oil, avocado oil, nondairy milk, salt, vinegar, and sunflower lecithin (which cost nearly $10 a bottle, and I only needed a teaspoon). Honestly, the result was not wonderful. It looked weirdly curdled and tasted like a combination of butter and feta cheese.

Now I'm in a tricky spot: settle for my unappetizing homemade "butter" or kill an endangered gecko every time I have breakfast? I don't want to do either. So I will try for a middle-ground approach and choose sustainable palm oil products whenever possible. And avocado toast...which probably has its own set of issues. 

Because I am going to continue to reduce my reliance on conventional palm oil, I guess this week's Take It or Leave It is a Take It. But it's going to be a challenge.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Tell Me a Story

I'm pretty sure humans have enjoyed oral storytelling ever since the first cave people gathered around the fire and started spinning yarns to amuse themselves. (Which predated actual yarn, but you know what I'm trying to say.) Judging from the exploding market for audiobooks, we haven't lost our taste for listening to great stories. According to Publisher's Weekly, for example, audiobook revenue jumped 22.7% in 2018. That's huge.

If you're old enough, you will remember Books on Tape--bulky collections of uncooperative cassette tapes, often abridged to make them light enough for one person to carry without risk of physical injury. The digital market changed all of that. Now, we can tote audiobooks around in our pockets without so much as a tweaked muscle. Technology for the win!

Despite the growing popularity, I don't have much experience with audiobooks. When my boys were younger, we listened to the Harry Potter series (voiced by the amazing Jim Dale) on road trips, and that's pretty much been it for me. So last week, I decided to jump in and see what I've been missing.

Using Hoopla, I was able to borrow and download the books free from my library. I chose one fiction (The Nightmare Room, by Chris Sorensen, narrated by the author) and one nonfiction (Heart: A History, by Sandeep Jauhar, narrated by Patrick Lawlor). Full disclosure: it was a busy week for me with a kid graduating from high school on Saturday, and I was not able to finish either of them. They are both very good, albeit very different, books, and I hope to get to the end at some point in the near future.

From a convenience standpoint, audiobooks beat print books hands-down. I could listen while I did laundry, washed dishes, or worked in the garden. (I know many people like to listen in their cars, but I didn't try that this time around.) And there's an engaging performance aspect to audiobooks; a good narrator really does make for a fun experience. I enjoyed the time I spent with both.


As a writer, I find myself taking sentences apart to examine what worked or what I would do differently, and I missed seeing the words on the page. I also missed the ability to reread passages that resonated with me; they went in one ear and out the other, as the expression goes. If my mind wandered a bit, I couldn't just glance back to catch up. And I kind of missed the sound of my own voice reading in my head, if that makes sense.

All in all, one week wasn't enough to make an immediate audiobook convert out of me, but I'm not ready to throw in the towel. There are so many books I want to read--and so little time to read them--that multitasking with an audiobook makes sense.

So I will Take It...and any recommendations you may have for my listening pleasure!

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

An Apple a Day...

Image result for apples...keeps the doctor away. We've all heard that old adage, right? It makes sense, because apples are healthy food--low in calories, high in fiber and nutrients, all that jazz. (Hey, there's even a Jazz variety of apple.) But, as is the way with pretty much everything, some people have taken the whole apple thing to the extreme. This is legit the first day of a so-called "apple diet":

Breakfast: 2 apples
Lunch: 1 apple
Dinner: 3 apples.


A less fanatical approach is to eat an apple before each meal. Despite varying accounts of apples as a superlative diet food, the concept behind the pre-meal apple isn't rocket science: the volume of the apple takes up room in your stomach, prompting you to eat less.

So, that's what I tried this week. And here's the thing...I like apples. I really do. But 21 apples in a week was too many. The breakfast apple was good. The lunch apple was...fine. By the time dinner rolled around, however, I found myself resentfully forcing down my third apple of the day. Eating out meant packing an apple to go--okay, that part wasn't so difficult, as they are very portable--but I also kept having to go to the store to buy more apples, which didn't feel like a great use of my time.

All in all, I didn't notice a difference in how I felt (except for being generally irritated about apples) or how my clothes fit. No one commented on my glowing apple cheeks or called me the apple of their eye. (Quick side note: From Adam and Eve to Hercules/Heracles to William Tell, apples are HUGE in world folklore and mythology. Pretty interesting stuff for such a humble fruit.)

After seven days, I'm happy to go back to an apple every day or so, making this week's apple bonanza a Leave It.

Have a great week, and steer clear of any rotten apples!

Image result for eating apple gif

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

It's a Bling Thing

Image result for Tiffany Jewelry
Not mine
I'm sure it's no secret by now that I am a creature of habit. I have habits I need to make, habits I need to break, and habits that are just sort of run-of-the-mill--nothing amazing either way, but they are part of what makes me who I am.

Image result for marge simpson This week's challenge addressed one of those ordinary habits. I tend to wear the same jewelry every day: sterling silver and abalone shell earrings, my wedding ring, and some kind of beaded stretchy bracelet on my left wrist. Not exactly Barbara Bush and her iconic necklace...or Marge Simpson and hers, for that matter.

Image result for jewelry
Even though I don't often buy jewelry for myself, I have amassed quite a collection of it in the form of gifts from my husband, my sister, my sons. It's not the fancy stuff--no Tiffany here--but most of it is fun or cool or unique. The only problem being, it never gets worn.

Until last week, that is, when I succeeded in wearing at least one piece of jewelry per day that I hadn't taken out of the box in a long time. Not only was it fun to mix things up, but it was a surprisingly sentimental journey. In looking through my collection, I was reminded that I have jewelry given to me by two very dear women: my mother, who is still living, and my mother-in-law, who is not. I stumbled across wearable art projects (admittedly a generous term) made by my sons in elementary school. I found earrings my husband gave me before we were married, back when we had lousy jobs and little money. I even reevaluated some pieces I made when I took a class and (briefly) thought I might want to pursue jewelry-making as a creative endeavor. Age hasn't improved them much, but hey, I tried.

Lest you think it was all a skip down memory lane, I also came across quite a few bits I can easily live without--clearance items I knew I'd probably never wear, holiday gift exchanges that aren't quite me, and stuff that makes my overly-sensitive skin itch. It was good to weed those out and focus on the things that have a deeper value. In fact, the only downside was that I spent so much time poking through jewelry that I was nearly late leaving for work most days.

This was a fun one for me and resulted in another Take It on my ever-growing list.

See you next week!

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Life in (Im)Balance

We're all in search of a balanced life, and I think I usually do a fair job of not getting pulled too far in one direction or the other. But once I started doing yoga, I realized that my actual physical balance is horrible! Whenever I'm on one foot, I wobble and tip and bob around like a dashboard ornament. 
Though it's often overlooked, good balance is really important to overall health. It strengthens core muscles, helps prevent falls, and some research suggests that subjects who participate in balance exercises show more cognitive gains than those who do not. Most things that are good for the body are also good for the brain, so that shouldn't come as a surprise.

Image result for flamingoFor a quick balance assessment, close your eyes and stand on one foot. The times below coordinate with functional age:

28s = 25-30y
22s = 30-35y
16s = 40y
12s = 45y
9s = 50y
8s = 55y
7s = 60y
6s = 65y
4s = 70y

Yikes. Seeing as how I am not sixty years old, I didn't exactly score where I should have (that eyes closed thing really got me). Let me also mention that there's a distinction between static balance, such as standing on one foot, and dynamic balance, which helps maintain control of your center of gravity while your body is in motion. I'll be the first to tell you that I'm not great at either.

Since I had to start somewhere, I spent the week practicing my best flamingo impersonations. And after seven days...I'm not a whole lot better at it. In fact, I was really surprised at how much my balance varied over the course of the day. Sometimes, I felt rock-solid. An hour later, a strong breeze could blow me down. I have much better results when I can keep my eyes open, and I'm barefoot on a hard surface. I think this is why doing yoga in a darkened room is challenging for me.

It's pretty easy to work in a few minutes of balance practice during the day, and that's a good thing because this Take It or Leave It was an eyeopener for me, ha ha. But with continued practice, maybe I can someday claim the flamingo as my spirit animal.

Here's wishing you a balanced life in all possible ways!

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

'Sup, Single Use Plastics?

Image result for recycle cartoon
Last Monday was Earth Day, and in respect for that important observance, my goal for the week was to reduce my single use plastics.

Plastics have done so much to make the world safer, more accessible, and more technologically advanced. But as you probably know, we're suffering from too much of a good thing. It is estimated that there are more than 150 million tons of plastics in the ocean. If we continue along this path, the ocean is projected to contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish by the year 2025. That's an astounding number, and not that far in the future.

Those plastics choke, strangle, and foul up the digestion of thousands of creatures. Additionally, plastic can degrade in the sun and salt water, resulting in trillions of microplastic particles that work their way up the food chain to us. Super fun, right?

Like most modern humans, plastics make an appearance in all aspects of my life, but nowhere more so than food packaging and consumption. From clamshells to take-out containers to straws and stir-sticks, food and plastics are nearly inseparable. I may feel virtuous buying organic baby carrots, but they still come in a plastic bag.

An alien creature consumes my avocado
The good news is that there are options available for consumers wanting to use less plastic. But it takes some advance planning. Before the week began, I assembled my kit: metal utensils in a pouch that I could toss in my purse; mesh produce bags; cloth shopping bags; reusable water bottle and coffee mug; and a weird but fun product called Cover Blubber Super-Stretchy Foodsavers (that's the green one on the left). I meant to also pick up some of those cloth-and-beeswax food wraps, but I didn't get to it. (So I wrapped food in aluminum foil instead.)

Since going without plastic is virtually impossible, I focused on reducing items such as the water cup and "disposable" fork that get used for ten minutes at a fast-casual meal and then discarded. I wasn't perfect, but I did manage to score some eco-points over the course of the week:

  • At a dinner meeting, I had to use a plastic plate, as piling salad directly on the table didn't seem to be a great option. But when I took out my metal fork from its handy pouch, my fellow diners were impressed.
  • I brought a travel mug when I went out for coffee. Not only are coffee lids plastic, but the paper cups are plastic-lined, too.
  • I made the ultimate sacrifice a conscious choice to not purchase my favorite single-serving guacamole cups.
  • A woman at the grocery store asked where I got my mesh produce bags, and I again felt that I was setting a positive example.
  • On a quick errand, when I ended up buying more items than I anticipated, I refused to let the clerk bag them and, with as much dignity as I could muster, stuffed them in my purse instead.

These are not huge accomplishments, but I'm the kind of person who believes that small changes add up. That's pretty much the point of this whole Take It or Leave It experiment. Speaking of which, this week's reduced use of plastics is a Take It, no doubt about it.