Saturday, October 16, 2021

Local deforestation

This was a sad week for the environment in our neighborhood. We just lost two big, beautiful, healthy trees — and as far as I can tell, for no good reason.

Some background: on the opposite side of our street, there used to be a small ranch house. It wasn't in great condition and couldn't find a buyer for a long time. But when the real estate market went nuts during the pandemic, a developer bought it up and started trying to sell, not the house itself, but two new houses that they planned to build on the property. Both of which were quite a big bigger than the original house, and presumably quite a bit more expensive. 

Now, the catch was, the developer apparently couldn't get approval to begin construction on the new houses until they had buyers lined up for both of them. And a house that big on our street, which is kind of out on the edge of town, is a tough sell. But eventually they must have found a couple of buyers desperate enough to pay what they were charging, because over the last few weeks, they got to work demolishing the existing house.

To me, of course, knocking down a perfectly good house in order to build two new ones seemed like an unfortunate waste. But at least there was one encouraging thing about the process: the demolition crew carefully worked around the two mature oak trees in the front yard instead of knocking them down. We assumed this meant that the developer was planning to keep the trees on the new property, since we couldn't see why they'd go to such trouble otherwise. And it made sense, since a big healthy tree like that would surely be a nice selling point for the house.

But apparently, in this market, the developer didn't need actually a feature like that to sell an as-yet-unbuilt house on an out-of-the-way street. Because when we got up on Tuesday morning, we saw that there was a crew of workers across the street preparing to take the trees down.

This was not just depressing to me but also puzzling, since Highland Park has an ordinance dictating that you can't remove any tree above a certain size (which these two definitely were) without a permit. And I couldn't figure out why the borough would grant one for two beautiful, healthy trees like this, especially when it was clearly possible for the construction to proceed without them.

I tried calling up the borough's code enforcement officer to find out if these folks actually had a permit, but I couldn't reach anyone. Then I went out and asked one of the workers, and he assured me they did. The owner, who was there to supervise, even came over to show it to me when he saw me out there with my camera taking this picture. He showed me the plan of the property and explained that the two trees "had to" come down because they were planning to install two gas lamps in the exact spots where they stood. But he assured me that there would be new trees planted in the rear of the property to make up for it. (Of course, these new trees will be little dinky ones, rather than hundred-year-old oaks, and won't be visible from the street anyhow. But the ordinance says as long as you plant one new tree at least 2 inches in diameter for each one you cut down, no matter how large, that's good enough.)

So I'm forced to admit that the developer did indeed have permission from the borough to take down these trees. What I can't figure out is why. Why, why, WHY would the borough give this guy permission to remove two irreplaceable trees in order to install two gas lamps — a feature that clearly isn't necessary, isn't anywhere near as desirable as an old-growth tree, and oh yeah, burns fossil fuel and produces carbon emissions rather than removing them? Does the local government consider gas lamps more important than trees? Or does it care more about the needs of developers than those of local homeowners? Is it just so desperate for more property owners to pay taxes that it's willing to grant any concession at all to get more homes built?

To make matters worse, our next-door neighbor also just decided this week to cut down all the bushes in his front yard. So on both sides of the street, the area to the south of our house is now a bleak, bare, clear-cut expanse. And the absence of the shrubbery merely draws attention to the half-rotted fence between our yard and his.

But this, at least, is a problem we can potentially do something about. Brian already has plans to ask him if we can replace the fence (which we think is technically on his property) with some trellises. If he says yes, he plans to break up those crumbling concrete bars currently lining our driveway and replace them with some trellised planter boxes (sort of like these), in which we can plant some sort of climbing vines to grow up the trellis. He also has a notion to add another trellis to the end of the planter nearest the house, so it can partially conceal our trash cans from view. If this works, it will add a little shade and greenery back to our landscape and help block out that desolate view to the south. 

We can even use the concrete chunks from the broken-up bars to provide drainage on the bottom of the boxes, so nothing will go to waste. Because unlike some people, we don't believe in wasting perfectly good resources.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Recipe of the Month: Roasted Eggplant and Pepper Sandwich

October's Recipe of the Month came about more or less by accident. Brian had made Pasta Romesco for dinner the week before, but the roasted red peppers he used in the dish had come from Ocean State Job Lot, which sells them in a larger jar than Trader Joe's. Consequently, he had about a third of the jar left over and was wondering how to use it up. So I started searching through our cookbook collection for recipes that use roasted red peppers as an ingredient, and I came across one in a tiny booklet from Better Homes and Gardens called Easy Vegetarian Dinners. 

The dish was called "Grilled Eggplant & Sweet Pepper Sandwiches," and that was almost a complete description in itself. Basically, all it involved was grilling slices of eggplant and quartered bell peppers, then serving them on thick slices of French bread spread with soft goat cheese and Dijon mustard. We didn't have any goat cheese and didn't feel inclined to buy any, since neither of us cares for it much, but the recipe sounded like it would work just fine without it, so we decided to give it a go. 

We already had an eggplant, and Brian made a loaf of no-knead bread to use in lieu of the French bread. He usually bakes it in our big Dutch oven, which produces a rather flat loaf that makes short, wide slices that he thought wouldn't be ideal for this recipe. So instead, he baked it in our smaller cast-iron pot, creating a boule that was more ball-shaped and made nice wide slices. 

Then, since the peppers were already roasted, all he had to do was grill the eggplant. He cut it into slices between a quarter-inch and a half-inch thick, brushed them with olive oil, and grilled them on our outdoor charcoal grill for about 15 minutes, until they were tender and looked well browned. Since the peppers hadn't been grilled along with the eggplant, I put them on a plate and warmed them up for about 20 seconds in the microwave so everything would be warm when it went onto the bread.

As I expected, this combo was very tasty. The smoky flavor of the grilled vegetables went well with the vinegary Dijon mustard, and the tender veggies balanced well against the chewiness of the bread. But I did find, as I chewed, that the sandwich seemed like it could use a bit more body, a bit more substance. I had to admit that some cheese would probably have improved both the texture and the flavor, as well as giving it a bit of much-needed protein. 

However, I didn't think the goat cheese we'd omitted from the recipe was really what it was crying out for. To my taste buds, a smoked mozzarella with a firmer texture would really have been the ideal thing to complement the veggies, bread, and mustard. And it was really the smokiness, not the cheesiness, that I thought would contribute most to the dish. In my judgment, thin slices of smoked tofu would probably serve just as well to round out the dish in terms of both flavor and texture.

Not having any of that on hand, I must confess that I opened up a tin of smoked herring out of the pantry and added a bit to my sandwich, thereby de-veganizing it, just as a proof of concept. And sure enough, the smoky fish went very nicely with the veggies and gave the sandwich the extra substance it was lacking.

We've checked the tofu aisle at our local H-Mart and determined that it does carry smoked tofu, but it ain't cheap. I think it was something like five bucks for a half-pound package, or ten bucks a pound. Adding that to this dish would make it a lot more expensive, but it would also make it a much heartier and more satisfying dish while still keeping it vegan. 

Alternatively, we could just go ahead and include the smoked herring in the sandwich along with the veggies. It's still a bit expensive (about two bucks for 4.4 ounces, which works out to $7.27 per pound), but it's something we keep on hand all the time, which means we could make this sandwich pretty much any time in the summer without having to make a special trip to H-Mart. And if it's no longer vegan, well, we're not trying to be 100 percent vegan anyway. As long as it's low-carbon and doesn't come from an inhumane factory farm, that's good enough for us.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Yard-sale haul 2021

After being called off in 2020 on account of the pandemic, the annual Highland Park town-wide yard sale returned this year in all its glory. The planners even added a new twist: this year, people who for some reason couldn't host sales on their own property had the option of booking a space in the big downtown parking lot where our Friday farmers' market takes place in the summer. So Brian and I knew as we planned our weekend excursions that we could count on finding a good cluster of sales in one spot there.

Although we weren't hunting for any large items at this year's sales, there were a few smaller items I was on the lookout for. One was shoes of all kinds, since I currently have multiple pairs in my closet that are either due or seriously overdue for replacement (and as regular readers will know, finding shoes is always a struggle for me). And although I knew it was a long shot, I hoped I might chance on a copy of The Weekend Garden Guide for a friend who has recently acquired his first house and is planning to plant his first garden. Other than that, we were just keeping our eyes peeled for anything that looked like a good bargain, either for ourselves or as a holiday gift for anyone on our list.

And on this score, I'd say we did pretty well. On Saturday, we started out on the north side, working our way up one avenue and down another before crossing town to visit the market area and the cluster of sales that show up every year along Felton Avenue. We were out for about three hours all told and came home with the haul you see here:

  • Two shirts for me. One is a practical plaid that can be worn as a layering piece; the other is a more fanciful lacy blouse that can be incorporated into period costumes.
  • One pair of hiking boots in a boys' size 5 1/2. That's actually a little big for me, but they're wearable and intact, and that's more than I can say for any of the three other pairs of winter boots I currently have at home. These can definitely take the place of my old Timberland hiking boots, which I was keeping around at this point solely for grubby outdoor jobs. And if I can't find a more appropriate pair of winter boots by December, they may end up becoming my everyday shoes this winter.
  • Four books. One of them, a Ngaio Marsh mystery, is for our own enjoyment. The other three are fantasy novels we have already read and plan to present to one or more of our niblings.
  • Two board games. Some of the sellers in the market area turned out to be not homeowners getting rid of stuff, but vendors who are normally there on Fridays. One of these stalls belonged to The Moonladies, two sisters who used to run a local gift and toy store. After losing their premises last year, they've been making do with a booth in the market, and they had taken advantage of yard-sale weekend to unload some clearance merchandise. The prices were much higher than you'd normally expect to pay at a yard sale, but still well below retail. Brian picked up one board game there, which we won't name since it's likely to be a gift for someone who reads this blog. We also found another small game — suitable for a stocking stuffer, perhaps — on a table full of items marked "free."
  • Two bottles of masala sauce from the Moonladies booth. We usually make sauces from scratch, but Brian calculated that the marked-down price was approximately what we'd pay for the ingredients for a similar sauce. And anyway, it was a way to support a local business.
  • A fold-up camping chair (the big blue thing in the background). We already had one of these that had come in handy at various outdoor events, and picking up this one gives us a matched pair.
  • A bracelet (not visible in photo) that will make a nice gift for a niece.
  • An alarm clock. This was another freebie. Brian grabbed it even though it was held together with a rubber band because he already had an identical clock that was broken, and he thought he might be able to scavenge the parts from it to repair the old one.
  • A replacement seat for Brian's bike. He nearly didn't buy this, arguing that he didn't really need it because the one he has now isn't falling apart that fast. But eventually he saw the logic of securing a replacement now for $3, rather than having to buy a brand-new one when this one finally gives up the ghost.

By the time we'd collected all this, we were feeling pretty footsore, so we decided not to go out again after lunch. Instead we spent the afternoon running errands at actual stores, picking up food for ourselves and the kitties.

Sunday morning we ventured out again, heading up to the far north edge of the town to take in a different set of sales. As usual, the sales weren't nearly as thick on the ground on Sunday as they had been on Saturday. Some sellers who had signed up for both days had packed it in after Saturday, and even some who had signed up for Sunday only apparently decided not to bother setting up shop at all. So after about two and a half hours, we came home with only three items:

  • A bag full of apples. We didn't buy these, but scavenged them near the home of a neighbor with several large apple trees. The trees had been picked clean to about the height that could be reached with a standard ladder, but a lot of the fruit on the higher branches had fallen off onto the ground and had been left to rot. Most of the apples were too damaged to eat, but we gleaned enough intact ones to fill up one of our reusable produce bags. And, as we discovered later when we cut one up to eat with our lunch, they're very good apples. (Maybe next year we can work out a deal with this neighbor to swap some of them for some of our plums.)
  • A board game called "Fog of Love," which looked amusing enough to risk a dollar on.
  • A book called Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber. Books about money are an interest of mine, and I read enough of this one to confirm that it looked both interesting and intelligible to an ordinary reader.
  • Yet another alarm clock identical to the one we got on Saturday, except that this one was clearly in working condition. Brian felt a bit silly picking up the same clock again, but it was exactly what he wanted and it was only a dollar, so he decided it would be even more silly to pass it over.

The total amount we spent across both days of sales was $53.87, with most of that going to the Moonladies. It's more than we usually spend at these sales, but it enabled us to check at least three people off our holiday gift list, as well as providing several handy and/or amusing items for our own use. And since at least one of those items (the boots) was something that I absolutely needed, and that probably would have cost at least $53.87 to buy new, I consider everything else we bagged over the course of the weekend to be pure gravy.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Gardeners' Holidays 2021: Harvest Home (Halfway?)

The Gardeners' Holiday associated with the fall equinox is normally a little-bit-of-everything celebration. In late September, the tomato and pepper plants are generally producing at full steam, the basil is just winding down, the late beans and butternut squash are just coming into production, and the raspberry canes are in the middle of their second crop of the season. 

This year, however, we seem to have hit a bit of a lull just as the season was starting. There are currently no ripe tomatoes on the vines, not even among the ever-abundant Sun Golds, and only a couple of just-blushing peppers. Brian harvested all that was left of the basil last night to put into a Pasta a la Caprese, along with the week's whole crop of tomatoes (mostly the juicy Pineapple variety). And the green beans got munched early in the season by a deer that found its way into the garden, reducing our crop to just 15 ounces of the Provider beans and, so far, not a single pod off the climbing French beans. 

The squash plants do have a good amount of fruit on them — and although we planted only the Little Dipper variety this year, not all of them are little. But most of them aren't ready to harvest yet. So far, Brian has only gleaned one tiny squash from a vine that was already shriveled. 

However, that doesn't mean we have no squash to eat. Last year, we harvested a total of 21 squash, and Brian has been very parsimonious in doling them out, wanting to make sure that the supply would last until we were able to harvest more. So we still have two left from last year, and the arrival of the first squash of this year means that we are free to use them up at will. Thus, one of those last-generation squash is feeding us this evening in the form of a butternut squash pizza.

There's also one other crop that hasn't let us down: our trusty raspberries. Although the second raspberry harvest has slowed from its peak, I still got more than a cup of berries off the canes when I went out there this afternoon. And since the berries were probably too ripe to keep around for more than 24 hours, and since Brian and I are going to be busy all day tomorrow (going to a Renaissance Faire that doesn't allow any outside food or drink), we simply had no choice but to eat them tonight for dessert.

Our first thought was to make one of the rare exceptions to our no-dairy-at-home rule and pick up a cup of cream so we could make them into a raspberry fool, but when we got to the store, we found that cream was only available in quarts. That was more than we thought we could reasonably use, so we went with plan B, baking the berries into an apple-raspberry crisp. We'll enjoy that along with some entertaining international TV (we have several episodes of Taskmaster, both the original and New Zealand versions, and a new QI to choose from), then turn in early so we can get a good night's sleep before our day of carousing tomorrow. Huzzah!

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Freecycle track record

My plans to celebrate the Jewish new year by getting rid of a bunch of stuff on Freecycle have not been altogether successful. Of the six items I posted — a working cordless phone, bottles of potassium and magnesium supplements, two partly-used containers of skin-care products, and a set of cheap cloth face masks from Target that didn't fit either me or Brian properly — only one (the magnesium supplements) was actually taken. The phone and the skin-care products all got "Hey, I'm interested" messages, but when I replied to the senders attempting to arrange an actual pickup, they all ghosted me. (Note to any Freecycle members reading this post: Please don't do that.)

The good news is, I was able to find good homes for three of the other items through other means. After taking another look at the masks, I concluded that it would only take a few stitches and some knots in the ear loops to adjust them to a size that I could use. So I did that with both masks, and I now have two more close-fitting masks to add to my rotation. And I was able to dispose of two other items by dropping them off yesterday on my parents' table at their local town-wide yard sale, where they were offering up a bunch of free items that they had purged from their storage room in the wake of last month's flood. We left all our unclaimed stuff on this table, and before we'd even finished locking up our car, a woman had pulled up, snagged the two skin-care products, and departed again. (Sadly, the cordless phone and the potassium supplements had not found takers by the end of the day, but we did score a few good finds for ourselves at the sales — two shirts for me, a working set of headphones for Brian, a book for one of our nephews, a piece of scrap wood, a quartz crystal that's useless but decorative, and a little tool for rounding off the corners of pages — all for less than $10. So I'd call that a win-win.)

Anyway, today I was entering the results of these efforts on my Freecycle log, which I started keeping back in 2014 to keep track of items I'd posted on Freecycle and which ones had been taken. And it occurred to me that this document provided an interesting record of our successes and failures with Freecycle over the past six-plus years. I won't reproduce the entire list, but here's a summary of the most pertinent facts:

Since December 2014, we have offered 126 items up on Freecycle. Of those items, we successfully gave away 89 through the site, a success rate of about 70%. Most of these items were requested by only one or two people, but a few scored multiple requests. The most in-demand items were:

  • A couple of Pyrex bowls (acquired as part of a set when we only needed the largest one), with seven requests
  • A specialty cake pan for baking a cake in the shape of a train (scavenged from a freebie pile on a whim, and discarded after we learned my youngest nephew was no longer all that into trains), with six requests
  • An antique pharmacy lamp that had belonged to Brian's grandfather, also with six requests
  • We got four requests each for an IKEA table lamp, an indoor TV antenna, a set of cabinet organizer shelves, and my dad's old computer. Interestingly, my mom's computer, listed at the same time, got only two requests.

That leaves 37 items we could not find new homes for on Freecycle. We managed to give away 17 of these through other venues, mainly the Freecycle table at the Morristown Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, where the Troubadour concerts are held. This table, which sat outside the upstairs bathrooms, functioned as a miniature free store where people could drop off or pick up pretty much any small item, from books to coffee mugs. (Unfortunately, the table vanished in 2017, so I had to find new ways to dispose of things, including the local thrift shop and the Vietnam Veterans.)

Three of the remaining 20 items never found a taker and were eventually recycled. Our old printer and my mom's old scanner went to electronics recycling shed run by our local Department of Public Works, and a pair of CFL bulbs that didn't fit any of our lamps went into the recycling bin at Home Depot. So even if these items couldn't be reused, at least they didn't end up as toxic waste in a landfill.

There were two posts that we eventually retracted. One, as I mentioned above, was the pair of cloth masks that I ended up altering to fit me. The other was a square food container that we hadn't really been using, but once it became apparent no one else was interested in it, we decided to hold on to it rather than throw it away. It actually did prove useful for a while as a way to transport blocks of tofu purchased sans packaging at the Whole Earth Center, eliminating the need for disposable plastic bags. However, we haven't been able to get to the Whole Earth Center much lately, and on the few occasions when we've been there, the bulk tofu didn't appear to be available anymore. So this item may end up being relisted at some point.

The only items that never found homes were:

  • Four teddy bears in like-new condition, including one quite nice one that still had its tags on. They're still sitting on our windowsill, since it seemed too cruel to just consign them to the trash.
  • One unused oil filter for our old car, which we eventually had to throw away.
  • One reusable plastic drinking cup with a lid and built-in straw, which is still taking up space in our cupboard.
  • A pair of earrings made from some semiprecious stone I couldn't identify, which are still taking up space — but not too much — in my jewelry box. (The matching necklace was taken.)
  • Our old cordless phone, which has so far been listed not only on Freecycle but also on our local Buy Nothing Group and in the "finds" section on our local Nextdoor group, all to no avail. (Maybe nobody around here uses landline phones anymore?) I guess we may end up taking this one to the recycling shed as well — a pity, since it still works, but the only reasonable alternative if no one wants it.
  • A partly-used box of Tagamet (an anti-acid medication) and the partly-used bottle of potassium supplements I listed recently. I guess we can always dispose of these at our town's next medication takeback day, since it's not recommended to flush them down the toilet.

So, assuming my math is correct, our various efforts have successfully kept 116 items out of the landfill. Better still, 106 of those items went to people who (presumably) could use them, saving them money and saving the energy and natural resources that would have gone into making new items they would otherwise have purchased.

In short, Freecycle is a good, but not perfect way to dispose of unwanted items — particularly lamps, electronics, and kitchen gadgets (at least in our area). But some items — such as stuffed animals and over-the-counter drugs (at least in our area) — will never be all that welcome, and it's best to have alternative routes for getting rid of them. (Anyone know a good place to give away teddy bears?)

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Recipe of the Month: Herbed Grilled Veggies and White Beans

Now that Brian and I have almost completely given up meat, grilling season isn't quite the same for us. We can't just throw a few hot dogs on the grill, along with some accompanying veggies, for a simple meal in the summertime. We've tried various brands of veggie dogs, but none of them were really satisfactory. And veggie burgers — even the new, meatier ones like Beyond Burgers — just don't seem to grill very well. 

So, this year, the main thing we've been grilling is zucchini. Last month, however, Brian decided to experiment by adding some eggplant slices to the grill as well. He salted them beforehand and dipped them in a mixture of oil, garlic, and fresh herbs, using a recipe he found at Every Last Bite. Then he cooked the veggies until they were charred and served them up over a bed of quinoa.

This was sort of a mixed success. The eggplant itself was lovely — flavorful and melt-in-your-mouth tender — but it didn't seem to integrate all that well with the quinoa and zucchini. They seemed like three unrelated things on the same plate, rather than parts of the same meal. I found that it worked a bit better if I cut small pieces of the zucchini and eggplant and dished them up with the quinoa, but it still didn't quite taste like a coherent whole.

So the next time he made the same dish, Brian decided to mash up the grilled eggplant and dish it out over the quinoa like a sauce. He couldn't add a zucchini to the mix, since our plants have finished producing for the year. However, he knew from past experience that red bell peppers combine well with eggplant, so he decided to add one of them, dunking both veggies in the same herb mixture before grilling them. And when he asked me whether he should add some white beans to give the dish a little more protein, I suggested steeping the beans in the remainder of the marinade, so they'd pick up some of its flavor. So he soaked the beans in the bowl full of marinade while the veggies cooked on the grill, then tossed everything into a pan and cooked it together until it was heated through.

The result was a lot better than his first attempt. The eggplant, as before, was smoky, garlicky, and meltingly soft; the pepper was also tender but a bit firmer, adding a pleasant contrast in texture and a different, yet compatible flavor. The firmness of the beans gave it a bit more flavor contrast, as well as adding substance to the dish. And it all mixed nicely with the starchy, nutty quinoa.

If this dish had a weakness, it was that the beans weren't as flavorful as the rest of the ingredients. They didn't really soak up the herbs and garlic the way the veggies did, nor mix as well with the veggies as the quinoa. For future attempts, he might cook the beans and veggies together a bit longer so the flavors can blend more.

But even as is, this is a highly satisfying vegan dish with a good blend of flavors and textures, perfect for early fall. It's certainly worthy of printing in full:

Herbed Grilled Veggies and White Beans
1 (2 lb.) eggplant, peeled and sliced thickly (c. ¾ in.)
1 medium red bell pepper
1 15 oz. can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
¾ tsp salt

½ cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2-3 Tbsp fresh oregano, snipped
2-3 Tbsp fresh parsley, snipped
¼ tsp salt
grind black pepper
1 cup dry quinoa
1 ½ cups water
1 tsp vegetable soup base (we use Penzey’s)
  1. Spread the eggplant out on a cloth and salt both sides of each slice. Allow to rest for at least 15 minutes. Afterward, dry off the slices to remove any liquid along with some of the salt.
  2. Mix together the ingredients of the marinade and apply to the eggplant (use a container from which you can scavenge any leftover marinade). Make sure the eggplant is completely coated. Also brush the pepper with plain olive oil.
  3. Scrape the leftover marinade into a bowl with the beans and stir to coat. Set aside.
  4. Set up the grill. Grilling over charcoal or wood is highly recommended (we use Royal Oak charcoal), as the smokiness is an important component of the flavor.
  5. When the charcoal is ready, place the slices of eggplant and the whole red bell pepper on the grill. Grill for 10-20 minutes (this will depend on the grill), turning every 5 minutes, until the vegetables are well-browned (and before the eggplant falls completely apart). Remove the vegetables as they are done and place them in a covered bowl.
  6. While the vegetables are grilling, you can cook the quinoa. Mix the water and soup base thoroughly, add to a pressure cooker, and heat on high. Add the dry quinoa, then put the lid on the cooker. When the cooker begins to sputter, cook for one minute, then remove from heat and set aside. (If you do not have a pressure cooker, you can cook quinoa by your preferred method instead).
  7. When the vegetables are off of the grill, heat the beans and the remaining marinade in a skillet for a few minutes. This will give the pepper time to steam itself a bit in the bowl.
  8. Remove the pepper from the bowl and dice it up, removing the stem and seeds as you do so. Add the diced pepper and the eggplant to the pan. Mix and heat through, salting to taste, then serve with the quinoa.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Starting the year off light

Tomorrow night is the start of Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish year. Most years, I mark this occasion by going to services with my parents at their synagogue (either with both of them in the evening, or with just Mom in the daytime). But this year, the synagogue remains officially closed; the only in-person event will be an outdoor barbecue, and the service itself will be entirely virtual for the second year in a row. I can't log into that virtual service from home since I'm not officially a member, and we agreed that it would be a bit silly for me to go to my parents' house just so we could watch it together on the computer. So I need to find some other way to commemorate the occasion.

Now, one ritual associated with Rosh Hashanah is Tashlich, or "casting off." You go to a nearby body of water, ideally a flowing river or stream, and throw bread crumbs into it to symbolize casting off your sins. (Actually, it's apparently more popular these days to throw leaves or pebbles, since bread crumbs aren't good for the wildlife.) If that word "sins" has too much baggage for your taste, you can think of it instead as ridding yourself of anything unwanted or harmful in your life: bad habits, unwelcome thoughts, anything that's weighing you down and keeping you from living the kind of life you aspire to.

I tried taking part in this ritual last year, going down to the park and attempting to toss crumbs off the dock into the Raritan River, but the area was crammed with members of a local synagogue who'd come for the same reason. So this year, I'm taking a different approach: I'm going to rid myself of excess baggage by Freecycling it.

I'd already made a start last week by listing our old cordless phone, which we replaced earlier this year because it had become unreliable after we switched back to Verizon. (Occasionally, for no apparent reason, it simply didn't ring when a call came in.) Only one person replied to that post, saying only "I'm interested," but apparently they weren't interested enough to respond when I suggested they fix up a time for pickup. (Why do people do that?) I followed up by listing it on my local Buy Nothing Group, which I've recently joined via Facebook, but so far no takers there either.

But I refused to let this setback daunt me. Today I went through the drawer in our bathroom that serves as an overflow medicine chest and purged two bottles of skincare products and three bottles of mineral supplements that hadn't worked for me. Within minutes of listing them, I already had inquiries about three of these items, and one of them is already gone. That's a promising start.

While I'm at it, I'm doing my best to clear a backlog of other stuff, too. Catching up on long-overdue cleaning tasks, like washing all the glasses on my stemware rack (and the rack itself). Getting up-to-date with all my various medical checkups. And most importantly, finally getting around to donating the remainder of the stimulus money we received during the pandemic. Since we didn't need this money ourselves, we've been trying to donate it in ways that support the community, such as funding a local summer outdoor movie series and helping to Kickstart the coolest bookmobile ever. So today, I sent a message to inquire about donating the $1500 or so we have left to a fund for local businesses. (I'd tried inquiring about this before, but got no response, so this time I decided to try filling out the online form as if I were a business seeking funds and explaining that my "proposed project" is to support other businesses.)

Between freeing myself of things I don't need and getting money to businesses that do need it, I'd say I'm getting the year off to a good start. I may not be exactly free of sin, but I think actively doing something good is probably more helpful than making a promise — which may not even last the whole year — to quit doing something bad.