Archives for February 2010

Do Good, Feel Good

I’ve just started reading Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project. One of her “Secrets of Adulthood” is Do good, Feel good. This is a concept that’s been around for ages, but it’s important to remind ourselves of the idea once in a while.

The fact is that when we do good for others, we feel better. It makes us happier people who then do more good. There are lots of ways to do good — you can find a charity you’re passionate about and donate time and/or money to it, you can take action by promoting a cause that’s important to you, you can do something as simple as holding a door for someone or giving a hug to friend.

Below are a few resources to get you started.

Charities/Nonprofits:

There are so many charity groups, it’s hard to know where to start. It can also be difficult to determine which charities are set up in such a way that your money will actually do some good for real people in need. I tend to focus on charities where there is some personal connection — I like to know someone either working for the charities, or someone promoting them.

Love146.org. Ending child sex slavery and exploitation. I wrote about Love146 the other day. It’s difficult to read about the atrocities committed against these young girls, but the work Love 146 is doing is amazing.

Charity: Water. Chris Guillebeau has recently partnered with this group to build wells in Africa. Without access to clean water, communities cannot begin to dig themselves out of poverty.

The Environmental Working Group. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of this advocacy group. They conduct extraordinary studies and lobby Congress to promote real change for the safety of our products and our food.

Healthy Child, Healthy World. Another favorite here at Smart Family Tips. Healthy Child focuses all of their efforts on making the world a safer place for our children.

Find a Cause:

Visit Change.org to browse through a number of causes and click the links to take action. When taking action, you can send letters to Congress, among other things, right from the web site.

Go Local:

Find a homeless shelter or a nonprofit in your area that needs some help and volunteer your time. Volunteer Match is a good place to start if you’re unsure.

Get Personal:

Helping other people doesn’t require a formal organization. If you know of someone in need, help in any way you can. You can even help anonymously if you’re more comfortable doing it that way. Some ideas:

— If you know someone is really struggling financially, buy a gift card to a local grocery store or gas station. You can give the cards directly, or have them delivered anonymously.

— Cook a meal for someone who’s overwhelmed. Make sure to find out their tastes and any allergies they have before proceeding.

— Write a note to someone who’s been down lately.

— Tell someone you love them.

— Sign up at It Starts With Us to participate with a large group of others in “Weekly Missions” that provide you with lots of great ideas.

— Listen when someone needs to vent.

— Say nice things to others. When someone does something that impresses you, say so.

— Smile more. It makes both you and the people who come in contact with you happier.

How about you? How do you do good?

Reuse: Antique Silver is Green (and Beautiful)

Today, I have the pleasure of sharing a guest post written by Nancy Stuckwisch of Silver Magpies. Nancy helps people find silver they love and can use (rather than just polish). Why buy new when there is so much beautiful silver already out there? You can read more about Nancy, her background, and her business at the end of the post.

Sterling silver

Two words that often strike dread into the hearts of busy people. Sterling silver has unfairly acquired a reputation for being delicate and high maintenance.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Somewhere along the line, sterling has come to be viewed as old-fashioned and fussy. I suppose many of us have memories of the dreaded once-a-year cleaning before a major holiday.

I see the evidence of this all the time, as I run across blackened, neglected, and tarnished pieces.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

If you take a fresh look at sterling, you may be surprised.

1. Why not use your silver every day? Put it in the dishwasher. Yes,the dishwasher. The great, and apparently hidden, secret about silver is that the more you use it, the less it needs polishing.

Mine gets used every day and it never gets polished. It has acquired a beautiful patina, that subtle graying of the silver’s surface, indicative of use and care. A mirror finish often means that a piece is new and/or unused. Or that you have sent it out to have all signs of love and use buffed away by a machine.

2. Did you inherit grandma’s silver, but you aren’t that wild about the pattern? If you don’t feel any sentimental connection, you can always trade it in. Silver comes in patterns from plain and simple to baroque. You don’t even need to stick to a single pattern.

I have a client who has enjoyed building a “set” composed of Georgian tablespoons, Mother of Pearl handle forks, and some superb deco knives from Shreve. It looks spectacular, and if ever there was a lull in conversation at her table (highly unlikely), just talking about the flatware could fill any conversational gaps.

3. Don’t get intimidated or trapped by the names. Sardines serving sets, toast forks, 4 o’clock teaspoon, the ice cream slice; I have a number of clients confess to me that they would never use these pieces because they never serve these items. It does not matter.

Technically this is a toast fork. It is gorgeous, a Mother of Pearl handle and the rest is sterling silver. Perfect for serving smoked salmon or ham.

Throw caution to the wind and serve veggies with the sardine fork. As I have written before, Emily Post is not going to jump out of the bushes and rap you over the knuckles.

4. Buy vintage and go green. Antiques are Green is a wonderful organization that did a very interesting comparative study about the relative carbon footprint of a modern dresser vs. an antique one. Guess which had the smaller carbon footprint? While they have not done a study specifically on silver, I’d be willing to bet that the principle holds true.

5. What to look for when buying?

• Make sure it’s something you really love. If you like simple and spare, find it. Is over-the-top rococo your thing? There’s plenty out there. Don’t buy something “safe” because it is safe.

Does the sumptuous scrollwork of Louis XVI by the Whiting Manufacturing Co. speak to you? Or do you prefer the spare, classic lines of the traditional fiddle pattern? These pieces are Georgian c. 1777, but many modern versions exist.

• Look for well-made, high-quality pieces. Examine the back or reverse of an item as thoroughly as you would the front. A well- made piece is finished just as nicely on the back as the front.

This an extreme example, but the backs of these figural serving pieces are just as detailed as the fronts. Each flower is shown from both sides.

• Is it a nice weight? Shop around and pick up as many pieces as possible, getting to know how they feel. Some patterns will seem heavy for their size, other might feel light. Heavier is better – it means more silver.

This is the Christina pattern by Gorham. First issued in 1935, it was in production until 1991. The spoon on the left is much older than the one on the right.

6. It’s not as delicate as you think. It’s metal. It was made to be used every day. The pieces most of us own are not museum pieces – although I know of one museum worthy piece in use.

Sterling is a decorative art, but first and foremost it was intended to be functional.

7. Silver has fascinating stories to tell. Every piece was designed and made by someone who was reacting to, or trying to define, the world around us. Politics, art, history, economics, social trends — all of these influences are embodied in silver.

I had the pleasure of documenting some silver for a client, and among the items I cataloged was a pair of spoons dated 1765. As I followed the trail of their history, I found that the spoons had been made by George Hanners, a silversmith in Boston in the early 1700’s.

The first maker’s mark he registered in 1720 had his initials underneath a crown. The second mark he registered years later had the initials, but no crown. Hmmm, do you think his political views were changing?

Thoughtful | Functional | Beautiful

That is the tagline for my business. I truly believe that sterling displays all of those attributes.

The other point is that, by creating a “don’t touch, it will break” mentality about silver, and other antiques more generally, we are perpetuating a cycle that eventually leads to having no feelings for these things at all. The result is items are either stuffed in the closet, never to see the light of day again, or they are sold for their value as scrap metal.

In my own case, I know I cherish items in my personal collection not for their artistic merit, scarcity, or monetary value, but for the memories I have when I pick them up. If we never have a chance to use and touch, and our children grow up only with memories of being told “don’t touch,” it can’t come as a surprise to anyone when our children don’t care. Why should they?

Get that silver out of storage.

Use it, enjoy it, make memories with it. It’s beautiful, it’s tough, and it will outlast all of us.

Nancy Stuckwisch, owner of Silver Magpies, has had a life-long fascination with silverware. For 14 years she ran her own environmental consulting firm, working with non-profit environmental organizations. One day she decided to close it down and take another path. And with that, Silver Magpies came into being.

Silver Magpies specializes in antique and vintage silver for the table and bar. Every piece of silver has a story – it was not created in a vacuum. Social, artistic, political, economic, historical and personal influences all leave their mark. One of Nancy’s favorite parts of her business is researching each and every piece that crosses her desk and passing the information she learns on to her clients.

Notes & Observations is where Nancy regularly blogs about sterling silver, hallmarks, and silver in general. She strongly believes that we should get the silver out of the cupboard, onto the table, and then into the dishwasher. Use it, enjoy it, and don’t give tarnish an opportunity to develop. In her experience with clients, polishing away tarnish is the prime reason the silverware stays packed away.

Nancy is a British expat living in the US. She holds a BSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics, an MA in War Studies from King’s College, London, and an BSc in Geography from the London School of Economics. Surprisingly, these degrees come in handier than you might imagine.

For Valentine’s Day, Go Fair Trade

Equal Exchange, one of my favorite companies, is now offering the Chocolate and Coffee Pairing Gift Bag just in time for Valentine’s Day. Mambo Sprouts, a website dedicated to offering savings and coupons on green and organic products, sent one of these great bags to me to review.

I’ve always been impressed with the quality of Equal Exchange’s products and this is no exception. The coffee is wonderful and the chocolate is delicious. The gift bag includes two 12 ounce bags of Organic, Fair Trade Coffee (Love Buzz and Mind, Body & Soul), two organic Panama Extra Dark Chocolate Bars, two organic milk chocolate bars and a coffee pairing instruction card. All of this is packaged in a 100% recycled, printed gift bag with recycled tissue paper and ribbon.

I make it clear in my review policy that I will not promote products I don’t genuinely love. Nor will I promote products that go against the principles of this site. Equal Exchange is a first rate company that is doing a lot of good.

This Valentine’s Day, why not consider a gift that will not only make the recipient happy, but one that will provide the producers of the products with a living wage?

Visit Equal Exchange to read more about the Chocolate and Coffee Pairing Gift Bag and to order.

Organics on a Budget: What Matters Most

Most of us don’t have an unlimited budget to buy organic foods. While some prices on organic products have come down, for a variety of reasons, organics still command a premium price. This is one of the reasons we decided to grow our own organic vegetable garden last year, and why we’ll do it again this summer. I’ve written before about where to find coupons on organic products. Recently, I’ve learned that Mambo Sprouts is a good place to try, too.

But, for day to day shopping, when you want to avoid as many pesticides and growth hormones and antibiotics as you can, where can you get the safest food for your dollar? Based on my own research, not scientific fact, the list below is where I’ve decided to concentrate my own organic dollars. I hope it’s helpful to some of you.

Produce

For produce, I stick with the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. They list the “Dirty Dozen” and suggest buying these organic:

  • Peaches
  • Apples
  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Celery
  • Nectarines
  • Strawberries
  • Cherries
  • Kale
  • Lettuce
  • Grapes (Imported)
  • Carrots
  • Pears

These particular fruits and vegetables are subjected to the highest levels of pesticides if traditionally farmed. You’ll get the fewest pesticides for your dollar if you focus on these. EWG provides a handy printable pocket-sized guide that you can keep in your wallet. You can read about their Shopper’s Guide and print it out here.

Meat

I’ll say upfront that I don’t skimp on meat. If that means I have to buy less of it, or bulk up meat-based meals with beans or other ingredients, I will. I believe it’s best to know where your meat comes from. If you can buy it locally, from a farmer in your area, all the better. The easiest way to locate sources is through farmers markets and visiting localharvest.org to find local farms and CSAs.

Chicken

I buy organic, free-range chicken which means that the feed the chickens eat is free from pesticides and the chickens themselves are given no antibiotics. Farmers are not allowed to give chickens growth hormones, so while some packaging claims “hormone-free” chicken, that really is a given. I buy organic eggs for the same reasons.

Beef

Aside from the animal cruelty associated with CAFOs (watch Food, Inc. for more information), and the negative environmental impacts they create, I’m extremely concerned about the hormones and antibiotics given to cows and then eaten by us.

I buy only grass-fed/grass-finished beef that is hormone and antibiotic free. I used to watch for it to go on sale in the store, or cook beef less often to help with the budget. This year, we bought a bulk order of grass-fed beef from a local farm which really saved us a lot of money.

Milk

We drink cow’s milk and just like the beef from cows, milk is loaded with hormones and antibiotics. To avoid these, I buy only organic milk and dairy products. This is one that’s very important to me.

Canned Goods

I’m working to avoid these whenever possible. Soon I’ll be writing about BPA and why it’s a problem, but for now, be aware that nearly all cans are lined with it and it’s not good for you. The worst product to buy in cans, because of their acidity, is tomatoes. Unfortunately, there are few alternatives. Some companies (Trader Joe’s, for one) are starting to sell tomato products in Tetra Paks, which are a safe alternative, but they can be difficult to find.

One benefit of buying fewer canned goods is that alternatives can be less expensive. I buy many of our vegetables frozen if I can’t find them fresh. I stock up when there are sales and use coupons when I can. We also eat a lot of beans and there’s almost nothing less expensive than dried beans. It just takes a little bit more planning on my part to remember to soak the beans the night before I want to cook them.

It’s a work in progress, though. As was evident in the photos of my pantry, I do have quite a few canned goods (even tomatoes). But as I’ve become more aware of BPA, I’m slowly but surely working to reduce the number of foods we eat from cans.

To wrap up, in a nifty little list, here are the things I focus on buying organic. I buy other things that are organic when I can, but I rarely compromise on these. It’s worth it to me to sacrifice some things in order to feel better about what we put in our bodies. For us, cutting back on sugary soft drinks and expensive packaged foods has left more room in our budget for organics.

Buy These Organic

  • Peaches
  • Apples
  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Celery
  • Nectarines
  • Strawberries
  • Cherries
  • Kale
  • Lettuce
  • Grapes (Imported)
  • Carrots
  • Pears
  • Milk & Dairy products
  • Meat (Chicken, Beef, Poultry)
  • Eggs
  • Canned goods (best if organic, but try to avoid canned goods altogether — buy frozen or dried)

And another benefit I’ll mention before I sign off: organics taste better. Truly. I can tell a real difference in good, fresh eggs. I can also tell a difference in the milk and meat that I buy. There’s mounting evidence that organics may be healthier for us, too. As Barbara Kingsolver questioned in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, why is it that we are so willing to spend money on all sorts of things, but the main place we want to cut corners is on the food we put in our mouths?

Photo Credit: jekrub

Why I Created Smart Green Tips

Healthy Child, Healthy World was one of the places I first began learning about the chemicals that have invaded our homes and our bodies. They have a new video; it’s 3 minutes long. Please watch it.

This is why I started this blog:

If you’re reading this post in an email or RSS reader, you’ll need to click over to the site to view the video.