Sunday, July 28, 2013

"America's Dirty Habits: Bad for the Environment, Bad for U.S."

Of course there are many things that we have adopted into our culture that are bad for the environment but today's post outlines some big offenders. I am spreading awareness to try to break this mold of "standards" that have originated from other ecosystems (Lawns), to get people to consider alternatives to dry-cleaning and hot air drying, investing in reusable universal BPA-free plastic bottles, and even trying to raise awareness about communities that aren't recycling. Check 'em out!

-> Comment Forum: Let me know about any other Bad Habits for the environment that you might be educated about below.

1. GREEN LAWNS. Lawns are a big offender. First, there's the water waste in watering the millions of lawns across America, many of which are in ecosystems where green grass is not natural. There are also the billions of gallons of fossil fuels used to mow and maintain these lawns. Then there are the pesticides, herbicides and chemicals used by landscaping companies with big development or business contracts that are polluting the ground, and areas nearby and underneath these lawns. Read more about the hazards to the environment as a result of lawns here on Smithsonian's Blog.  I truly resent that the "classic green lawn" is the standard for subdivisions and businesses everywhere. They are not conducive to a green planet, even though they may look like it.

Where did lawns originate? In England, where rains are a daily occurrence. It's ridiculous to me that this fashionable landscape can be found in the deserts of America in subdivisions and of course at golf courses throughout many climates where irrigation, reclaimed water and vast amounts of chemicals are needed to maintain the greens.

What are alternatives to a green lawn? (1) Replacing your lawn with clover, which requires little water, no herbicides and gives you good luck! (2) Planting a wildflower garden or meadow. (3) Replacing your concrete or asphalt driveway with gravel. (4) Creating a vegetable garden paradise instead of a lawn. (5) Creating a pebble or rock "zen" garden. (6) Creating a "southern desert" rock garden.

2. ELECTRIC DRYERS. I live in the humidity of Tampa, Florida and I understand why hanging laundry outside is a bad idea: mold, bugs, pollen, spores, etc...However, there has to be an alternative to these electric dryers. Even the newer ones use a large amount of energy. However there are ways to be mindful of the energy being used. Read my friend Nicole's blog post about "Ten Eco Friendly Laundry Tips" here. For example:

  • Use a tennis ball, or a natural dryer ball (read Nicole's review of organic ones here.)
  • Use less of the heat, more of the air dry.
  • Consider hanging clothes inside instead on a clothes rack or a line.
3. DRYCLEANING. Don't dryclean your clothes. EVER. The chemicals are extremely harsh (and carcinogenic), and are put on your skin when you wear the clothes. You can read all about it on the EPA's website here.  Educate yourself! Besides, contrary to the name, dry cleaning is not a dry process, and also requires heat drying, which wastes power. Hand wash instead! Or consider trying to find an "Organic Drycleaner" which are becoming more and more popular. 

4. PLASTIC BOTTLES. I can't believe how many plastic bottles Americans go through each year. This isn't going away, folks. They are just increasing in number in vast quantities and so many of them aren't being recycled! It's sickening. Please buy reusable BPA-free bottles. TIP: While I know they can pile up and be expensive, if you buy many that are the same type it is easier to find lids for them. 

5. COMMUNITIES that AREN'T RECYCLING: That's on you, Florida! (And many other places.) While the counties around me recycle, none of the apartment/condo/townhouse subdivisions do. That's hundreds of pounds of trash that needn't be in the landfills. It makes me ill to think about it, and no one is advocating for change in this regard. I've been known to drive bags of plastic and paper to recycle centers, but these are few and far between, and it still uses gas to get there. Any ideas on how we can clean this dirty habit up? Comment below. 

So perhaps I missed the Bad Habit that you wanted to read about: Flying, home energy consumption, junk mail, newspapers, eating meat, plastic bags, driving and parking. I too considered these habits, and wanted to learn more about them. I found a great article by the Chicago Tribune which included these habits, which is highly worth reading if you want to educate yourself about even more bad habits. 

Really, to change a habit requires commitment for about thirty days. So challenge yourself this year, and if you forget for your New Year's Resolution to axe some or all of these habits from your list and you can join me in the quest to leave less of a carbon footprint on mother Earth. Thank you for considering making some of these changes: together we can change the world.

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Sunday, July 21, 2013

"Coffee? Yes, please!" Confessions of a Coffee Addict...

Coffee Forum-->Share your favorite blends/coffee drinks below!

I am a caffeine coffee addict. So naturally, I take coffee, very, very seriously. I look forward to a morning cup of coffee before bed, while I'm making it, while I'm drinking it, and sometimes in the afternoon, when I'm making another. I have definitely pasted that same smile (see photo) as the 50's style meme to the right before I have taken a sip of the coffee in my hand and someone asks me a question forcing my brain to operate painfully before 8AM. Any student who has ever sat in one of my classes knows that at some point during the class period I will look up and say, "Where did I put my coffee?" in panic as I'm wandering all over the classroom. I realize this might not be normal behavior. I realize that it's clearly due to a caffeine addiction and obsessions with the smell and taste of roasted coffee beans.

I realize that Green Tea is healthier, if not as satisfying (I've actually reviewed my Top Ten favorite teas on this blog before, here.) I know that Splenda is probably bad for me and Aspartame is definitely bad for me, and refined sugar is bad for me, and heavy cream and milk and large quantities of caffeine are also bad for me, but over the years, I've loved most of or all of those ingredients at one time or another. I have contemplated the humorous ingenuity of an IV drip of coffee. Yes, I am also a Starbucks Gold Card Member. If you don't know what that is, please don't go look it up, it's embarrassing. Yes, I frequently go to Dunkin' Donuts when I'm sick of Starbucks, because honestly, I love coffee and I love both chains. I have opinions about types, roasts, fair trade and what should and shouldn't be in coffee. So I must confess: I am a Coffee Snob. I realized this fact this past weekend after going through my shelves to see what kind of coffee my relatives would like and realized that I had over three pounds of different types, and at least five different flavors.

Me drinking coffee in Wuzhen, China.
So, today, I'm going to share all the knowledge of coffee that I've accumulated like Gollum researching the One Ring, and hope that we can share in some of this coffee madness together. The research on the benefits and harm of coffee is conflicting. Some sources say that it prevents Alzheimers, others that it leads to high blood pressure and heart disease. Generally, many sources agree that is is bad in high doses, meaning that there is a "magic number" which is considered too high for caffeine intake. I even found, recently while doing research, this article, compiled by the APA (American Psychiatric Association) about "How drinking too much coffee can induce a mental disorder," which warned of the dangers of caffeine intoxication and withdrawal! It seems we can't win! So putting aside "the debate: is it good? Is it bad?" I shall review my favorite types, flavors and varieties.

I started drinking coffee around the age of sixteen. This coincided with the increasing challenge of waking up earlier and earlier for high school. (Why did classes start at 7:05?) Being a Masshole New Englander, meant that I had my pick of Dunkin' Donuts locations [chain was founded in Quincy, MA] and this being 2002, there was not a Starbucks for thirty miles. [Banned by the Quincy, Massachusetts Coffee Mafia?] So I drank my "French Vanilla, Extra Extra" happily for months, until I realized that it was the source of daily agony (milk intolerance) and switched to black coffee, which I've been drinking since.

At nineteen, on my summer break before Sophomore year of college, I got a summer job as a barista at Jaec's Coffee in Attleboro, MA, by the train station. While I was usually called "The Sandwich Queen," since I loved making the salads and sandwiches, I was still trained on and often made drinks using the industrial espresso maker at the coffee shop. I grew to appreciate a good espresso, which has a drip of 25-30 seconds, made from freshly ground beans in a packed handle, in a clean glass so that it doesn't taste "burnt." I grew to love the "Pumpkin Spice" flavored roast at Jaec's so much that I bought a five pound bag which lasted years in the freezer at my parent's house. That summer culminated in my drinking eight espressos before the "American Cancer Society's Relay for Life" where I ran around the track for the midnight-4am shift and woke up sixteen hours afterwards having a new understanding of caffeine addiction. So I quit coffee cold turkey, walked around like a zombie for three weeks, and eventually switched to a more green tea influenced diet for years.

Then I decided to become a middle school teacher, 8AM classes continue. On a related note: seven years later, I have tried dozens of brands, varieties and flavors and have narrowed down my favorites to the following.

"Aimee's Must Try Coffees."

I think I have a problem...
I order my coffee from Mattie's Mountain Mud in New Castle, Virginia. (So does one of my colleagues and my boss, because we field trip up to that city annually with our students for an outdoor trip.) Mattie ships it to me with bumper stickers and a handwritten note, because she is a small business owner, uses certified organic beans, and ensures that her beans are Fair Trade certified. My absolute favorite is BAVARIAN CHOCOLATE. In fact, my husband who only drinks Mochas from Starbucks popped his head into the kitchen to see what that delicious smell was (newly ground Bavarian Chocolate coffee beans) and helped himself to a cup every time I made a pot of it for the next two weeks. 

My second favorite, is also a Mattie's product: COAL. This one has an awesome story of creation, where Mattie charcoaled the beans as far as she could before they caught on fire. Surprisingly, this extra dark roast isn't flavored like dusty carbon or charcoal, and has a deep, full taste, which with raw sugar is smooth and sweetened. It's definitely a headache killer, as a few sips restore the brain of any caffeine addict to normal operation.

If you love coffee, be sure to try her incredible Dark chocolate covered coal coffee beans: they are to die for. 

Pumpkin Spice Coffee Vs. the Pumpkin Spice Latte: HELP ME FIND "THE ONE!" 

Even though Floridian Octobers are incredibly hot still, I still yearn, as do all of the other Yankee transplants in the Fall, for a decent Apple Cider and Pumpkin Spice coffee or latte. I usually default to the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte with soy milk (which I could dare you to try to find a difference to normal milk it's so hard to tell.) However, since this latte is still loaded with sugar, I buy a couple of pounds of the Dunkin' Donuts' Pumpkin Spice flavor. Granted, as that's loaded with artificial flavors, I'm still searching for the perfect blend: care to share yours?

The Starbucks Secret: Peppermint Mochas are available YEAR ROUND.

Sometimes, when I need a comforting warm drink to hold, I order a Starbucks Peppermint Mocha off season. In case you didn't know: they're available year-round. As are these other Starbucks secrets: the "Off the Menu" drinks that you can order. I've tried the Thin Mint Frappuccino and it tastes exactly like a Thin Mint Girl Scout Cookie.

The Best of Normal "House" blends of coffee:

#1. Waffle House regular coffee: the best in the USA!
#2. Starbucks' Pike's Place Blend.
#3. Starbucks' Italian Roast Blend.
#4. Cracker Barrel coffee.
#5. Dunkin' Donut's House with French Vanilla.

Varieties I avoid: 

#1. Starbucks' "Blonde" roast. Ew. Too light. Just drink tea instead.
#2. Starbucks' Dark Roast. Burnt taste. Too sour.
#3. Starbucks's French Roast. There's a whole lot wrong with this.
#4. Dunkin' Donut's regular house: bland, sawdusty.
#5. Fast Food Chain coffee. $0.59 of D grade. No thanks.

So, I've admitted that I'm a coffee snob: preferring to order "Off the menu" at Starbucks sometimes, ordering coffee from an awesome organic roaster in Virginia, and blasting varieties that taste like sawdust or too burnt because I care passionately for coffee. But, if you're reading this, perhaps you do to. 

Please share your coffee secrets, favorite blends and types 
that I should try below and I will love you forever. 

Other Media/Sources/References:
1. Dufty, William. "The Dangers of Refined Sugar." 07 JUL 2013. Web.
2. "Aspartame." American Cancer Society. 07 JUL 2013. Web.
3. Schwaner-Albright, Oliver. "Coffee Pollutant No.1: Cream."New York Times. 07 JUL 2013. Web.
4. Veracity, Dani. "The Hidden dangers of Caffeine." Naturalnews. 07 Jul 2013. Web.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Product Review: Progressive "Snapshot" Device and Discount Program.

A few months ago I decided to try the Progressive Snapshot discount program because I've put very few miles on my car during the past two or three years, I haven't had an auto-to-auto accident in Florida (7 years) and I have never had a speeding ticket (12 years.) [Knock on Wood!] I figured that I was a prime candidate for an excellent driver!

HAH! If you think the Progressive Snapshot Device can truly distinguish a "good" driver, than you (and I) are both wrong.

Let's talk about what it is. It's a tiny wireless computer device that plugs into your car's computer (in the panel by your driver seat) and reports your speeds (estimated based on mileage), hard brakes (when you stop faster than 7 MPH/Second) and the times of day that you drive as either a low, medium or high risk. Then after SIX months of daily reports, (something they don't tell you when you sign up) Progressive can choose to offer you a discount based on these reports.

I did a little research on other Snapshot product reviews and found that many people had similarly frustrating and negative results as me. DailyFinance reviewed the device accurately, noting Progressive's false advertising of the device as rewarding "good" drivers for the truth, that it only rewards "low risk" drivers, good luck if you drive during the rush hours!

Then there's the class action lawsuit that the device drains car batteries, which I know for absolute certain that it has been doing so to mine, over the past three months, as I had a new battery put in just before this trial and the car has barely been starting up recently, which is probably going to cost me anywhere from another $80-120 dollars to replace.

This blogger also reported the same experience that Tom and I had with it: that the "Hard Brakes" seemed a bit overzealous. There were times when I slowed down from 40MPH to 0 with over a hundred feet, and a fifteen second brake, and it was considered too fast. There was another time, in our first week of device reporting, where Tom got four hard brakes (in a row of four seconds) for going over a speed bump at 5MPH. The truth is, this calculation of "hard braking" is faulty. It even encourages users to run yellow lights!

Then there was the hugely irritating e-mail after only ONE month of the six month program that suggested that I had a 0% projected discount from the program...but I still have to leave it in for the remaining months so that it can drain my car battery. Even after three months now, my report says projected discount at 0%. To say that both Tom and I have been driving carefully is an understatement. Which is why even after a week of consecutive days of no hard brakes, and only a dozen or so thus far, I am annoyed.

Review Summary: This product is falsely advertised by Progressive. The device does not monitor or reward actual good driving. It depletes your car battery. It encourages aggressive driving to customers who avoid hard brakes in order to see a higher return on their discount percentage. It assesses risk regardless of past driving history. It does not monitor evasive or defensive driving as a result of other poor drivers, regardless of past driving history.

Advice: Honestly, I'm so disappointed in the false advertising, poor product and analysis, and program length at the cost of my battery that after more than five years of being a client of Progressive, I'm considering switching to a different insurance at the end of this policy length. Don't be fooled by Flo, friends.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Our China Trip Video!

Aimee, Liz and Richy travel in June of 2013 for two weeks to China, visiting Dalian, Beijing, Xi'an, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Wuzhen, and Shanghai. Here is a documentary about their adventures. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Review: Carnival Cruise Lines: Carnival Paradise, Western Caribbean 5-Day.

A lot of people looked at me incredulously when I told them recently that I was going with my family on a Carnival Cruise this summer. This was mainly due, no doubt, to the bad press that Carnival had been getting this year: first with the stranding and sinking of the Costa Concordia last year where 32 people died off of the coast of Italy (yes, owned by Carnival,) and also by the multiple-day "Feces cruise" stranding of the Carnival Triumph after a fire in the Gulf of Mexico. Then, there were also problems this past spring with both the Carnival Legend and Carnival Dream and even while we were on our own cruise, there was yet another man who died on the Carnival Magic after tragically slipping off the railing on his balcony. However, regardless all of the negative press, even analysts were surprised to report a rise in the company's profits for the first half of the year, even above estimates, due to promotions and discounts that the company ran, as well as the publicized planned $300M upgrade to every ship in its fleet by the middle of 2015, which, as the Carnival parent company, currently holds ten cruise brands, has a corner on 50% of the cruise market worldwide. Knowing one of the members of the "Carnival Care Team" which responded to the springtime incidents, she advised me that now was a better time than ever to go, especially with the heavy discounts from the cruise line, and so I asked my mother in law Robin and my sister in law Christy, if they wanted to go, and we booked our adventure.

Me, Christy & Robin on Carnival Paradise - July 2013
Our Cruise: Our 5-day, Western Caribbean (Tampa--> Grand Cayman--> Cozumel, Mexico--> Tampa) cruise was a first for me and my two fellow cruise mates, Robin and Christy. Considering that we had all never been on a similar extended overnight cruise before, our expectations were moderate. Knowing all of the incidents that had happened with other ships this past year and definitely this past spring, I shared our own Nadow-family motto, "It's all a part of the adventure," our standard catchphrase in vacation episodes of surprise, disappointment, change, delay, cancelations, annoyance, sickness, or danger, knowing ahead of time that something could very well go wrong. Robin was able to find a great deal on a single room, three berth (two twins, one lofted bunk) for the 5-day cruise online, and an even better rate if you were a Florida Resident (which I was). Also convenient (for me) was the fact that it sailed out of Tampa, twenty minutes from my house, so my husband could drop all of us off, and we didn't have to pay the exorbitant overnight car parking fees at the Cruise Terminal. 

Review of the Cruise Activities, Ports and Shore Excursions: I was nervous that we didn't sign up ahead of time or on the ship for the advertised Shore Excursions in either one of the countries that we visited. Christy, smartly steered us toward making reservations once we were off ship and in port, and the first day we paid about $40/p.p. to take a Sting Ray City boat ride in Cayman out to a sand bar and reef to snorkel, with gear included, and drinks available. It was absolutely worth the savings of anywhere from $60-100 more that the contracted ship booked excursion would have cost. In Cozumel, again we waited to get offshore to book the ATV and Beach excursion, and even though we didn't save any money on it getting it for the same price as advertised, we were able to get into the earlier group (for the sister ship in port, which was departing Cozumel much earlier) by booking in port (our ship's ATV excursion wasn't until 3-hours later) so we jumped into that group, enjoyed the experience, had extra time at the beach, and still time to shop in port before getting back onto the boat earlier than our ship companions, into the dinner line earlier than any of our companions, and to the Serenity level to get lounge chairs for sunset before anyone else on our ship did. So both excursions were great experiences, we saved some money, we avoided the ship crowds, and had a great time, even though we didn't book through the ship. 
The Carnival Elation & Paradise docked in Cozumel

On the "At Sea" days, of which there were two as we made our way to Cayman and home from Cozumel, there were lots of various activities to do all day long. Each evening, we received a "Fun Times" printed mini-magazine which listed the activities for the day, the dress style for dinner, the lunch and dinner options, and "open" times for places like the library, pools and ship info desks, sales that were going on in the shops, teen activities and the like. The only Ship complaint I had for the whole trip, was that there was no "weather" report listed anywhere to figure out what to wear for the day off-ship, or on board, or to plan for gear to take ashore as well. 

The ports were havens for shoppers, eaters and drinkers. Naturally, I felt a bit adverse to staying there long. The Cozumel port was much more fun, with "photo ops" readily available, many more stores of different kinds, vendors, and restaurants to choose from. Cayman had much less to offer, although seeing as we were some of the first ones on a tender (ferry) ashore at sunrise that day, we did have the local coffee shop and free WIFI to ourselves! The only Port complaint was that regarding the tender ferries, the time available to be ashore in Cayman was less than six hours total. It was hardly enough to go on our snorkeling adventure, have 45-minutes to poke around the port before we had to take a ferry to go back to the cruise ship. An oversight that we easily remedied by postulating Carnival Paradise leave Tampa at noon the day before, (instead of 4pm) so that the ship would be docked and readied for ferries much earlier in Cayman, and that would allow us to have more time there, as well as more time the following night in Cozumel if we arrived in Tampa later and disembarked at noon (instead of 8-10am.) 

Us with Sergio and the surprise Creme Brûlées!
Review of the Hotel and Food Accommodations onboard: Our room was just spacious enough for three people to live comfortably. I would definitely not recommend four, with using the additional cot stored under one of the twin beds, there would be no room to walk anywhere. We also stored our luggage under the bed, and were able to hang many of our outfits up, put our shoes away, and fold other items on shelves. The bathroom mirror hid all of our toiletries and hair appliances easily. There were chairs and stools as well in the room. The room and bathroom was cleaned in the morning and turned down at night, daily, with an adorable "animal towel" creature greeting us with "sweet dreams" chocolates.

The dining room staff (which you could request by name each night) fostered first name relationships with the guests and were very timely, efficient and courteous. Our server Sergio even put in a special request for Creme Brûlée for us, off the menu! There was entertainment, like singing, dancing and musicians each night during dinner too. The meals are all included and it was a great experience!

Review of the entire experience: I had a fantastic time. Granted, I did not get sea sick, luckily, and was able to have a great time even though the ship was swaying hard for several hours, and softly for most of the rest. The food was great and plentiful, the service in the dining rooms and cabin flawless, the activities fun, and the offshore experiences memorable. You should know before you cruise, that your "Sign and Sail" room key is an easy gateway to spending even more money than the cruise originally cost, especially if you have more than two drinks per day, buy photos, and memorabilia on ship, we didn't even VENTURE into the Casino, the Salon or the Spa, luckily, but there are many ways that you can spend money on board, and you will. I ended up spending most of my trip money on the formal and informal pictures that the professionals took on the ship, and I would have purchased even more if they were less than $21 per 8x10. However, knowing how hard professional photographers work (since my dad is one) I didn't feel too guilty about buying them legitimately, especially because their quality was far superior to photos of my own!

Tips for future cruisers: Google a good cruise packing list. Carry on extra water bottles. Don't forget your "cruise elegant" or formal wear! Bring all of the necessities, bathroom products, items that you could need (like sunscreen and aloe) otherwise you will definitely pay for convenience. (About $10 more onboard than you would find it at CVS per item!) For drinkers: look up what you can take onboard to save money. For shore excursions: consider booking in port to save money. For shoppers: don't miss the money saving coupon book and shopping info session on board. For art enthusiasts: the art auctions generally raffle off "mystery items" which are usually free bottles of champagne for fun.

What cruises have you been on? 
What would you recommend to future cruise travelers? 

Friday, July 05, 2013

Lean and Green Frugal Living: A great blog you should check out!

Check out my friend and colleague Nicole's Blog about Lean and Green Frugal Living! She has great tips, coupons and reviews about living green in a challenging consumer economy!