Archives for May 2012

Making the Green Bin Less Icky, Plus a Giveaway

Last summer I talked about my love-hate relationship with the green bin. I love it because it has allowed me to compost things that I can’t put in my backyard composter, like my kids’ half-eaten grilled cheese sandwiches. I hate it because it’s gross. And the warmer the weather, the grosser it gets. Week-old meat + heat = ew.

Compostable Food Waste Bag Boutique CascadesWhen the folks at Boutique Cascades offered to let me try out their compostable food waste bags, I wasted no time in accepting. I’ve seen food waste bags at the grocery store, and while I liked the idea, I wasn’t sure they were worth the expense. This was a way for me to get a trial run without spending any money. I like not spending any money. Plus, I loved the cardboard playhouse from Boutique Cascades, so I was already sold on the company.

The food waste bags from Boutique Cascades are smallish, at 7″ x 11″. They have a six liter capacity, and for my family that means that we go through two or three in a week. The bags are made of a double layer of paper, from 100% recycled fibres. Imagine two paper grocery bags and you have the approximate thickness. Unlike some other food waste bags, there’s no leak-proof liner. While the bottom of the bag does sometimes get a little damp, they held firm for me with my regular kitchen waste. You may not want to put anything really soupy in there, but they worked well with my run-of-the-mill leftovers.

The big part, though, was how the bags worked in my green bin – and they really did the trick. I had been lining my green bin with newspaper, but no matter how much I put in food was sticking to the sides and the bottom. The newspaper was sticking to the bottom, too. These bags eliminated that problem, reducing the “ick” factor considerably. Plus, since they’re only made of paper, you could use them in your backyard composter, as well.

Compostable Food Waste Bags Boutique Cascades

Boutique Cascades also sent me some of their yard waste bags to try. The bags themselves are fairly standard when you look at them. They’re the same size as all the other yard waste bags I’ve bought, and they’re made of the same double layer of kraft paper. There were two things that stood out, though. The first is that these particular bags are made of 100% post-consumer fibres. That’s important because using post-consumer waste ensures that there’s a market for the paper we recycle, plus it saves water and reduces your carbon footprint.

Garden Waste Bags Boutique Cascades

The other thing that distinguishes these bags from other yard waste bags is that they come with a cardboard stand to keep the bag open when it’s standing upright or lying on its side, even when it’s completely empty. I was smitten. My husband was less so. He found that it didn’t make much of a difference for him. My theory is that it’s because my husband’s arms are longer. He can reach all the way to the bottom of the yard waste bag to open it fully. I just can’t. The cardboard stand, which you reuse with each new bag, helped the bag to stay open and made filling it just that much easier for me in my shortness.

Cardboard Stand Garden Waste Bag Boutique Cascades

If you’d like to try the food waste bags or yard waste bags for yourself, there are two ways to do it:

  1. I have some bags to give away. Leave a comment on this post before 9:00pm Pacific on Monday, June 4, 2012, and I’ll draw one name at random for some food waste bags, some yard waste bags, and a cardboard stand.
  2. If you’d like to buy some bags for yourself, you can get 10% off at Boutique Cascades by using the code STRO10CEL.

Happy composting!

Drawing on Walls: Creativity and Children

I remember when my daughter Hannah started drawing. It was a few months before her fourth birthday, and WHAM!, her creativity just exploded. She started spending a good portion of her days drawing. While my husband and I repeated the mantra we only draw on paper over and over again, sometimes her art just refused to be contained. She drew on walls. She drew on herself. She painted on the floor. She covered the world in lines, shapes and colours.

Experiments in mixing paint colours

Hannah hasn’t stopped drawing since. She remains a prolific artist, and while I am undoubtedly biased as her mother, all that practice has made her pretty good. Many of her drawings are better than mine, even though I have nearly three full decades on her. I love that Hannah has this outlet that allows her to express herself, explore her world, and play. I love that my daughter is an artist. I’m also glad that she’s gotten much better at keeping the art on paper and off the walls.

Now my son Jacob is coming up on his fourth birthday, and recently he went through a creative explosion of his own. He’s started drawing and colouring and creating recognizable forms, like this “friendly ghost”:

Jacob's drawing of a friendly ghost

Jacob is spending more and more time with a marker in his hand. And just like his sister before him, his art refuses to be contained. We remind him repeatedly that he should draw on paper and nowhere else. If you ask him where he should draw, he dutifully replies, “Only on paper.” He has the rote theory down, and yet we still often come across scenes like this:

Jacob drawing on the furniture

When I catch my son red-handed, drawing on the back of my kitchen island, I point out to him that we only draw on paper. He says, “Yes, we draw on paper.” When I try to take the marker out of his hand, though, he says, “No! Wait! I’m not finished yet!” Then he proudly shows me his creation. He can talk the talk, but he’s not walking the walk.

I love seeing Jacob’s budding artistic skills. I love that he’s expressing himself creatively. I understand that this penchant towards graffiti is natural. I understand that Jacob will eventually learn where it’s okay to draw, and where it’s not okay to draw. I only give my children washable markers, so Jacob’s work is relatively easy to clean. And yet, it’s hard not to feel a little bit, erm, put out, when I come across yet another masterpiece on my wall, my curtains or my coffee table.

Can you relate? Do your little Picassos draw on every surface in your home? If you’ve recently gone through this stage, how long did it last? I could use some commiseration from other parents who have drawings all over their walls.

Public Relations, Premier Christy Clark and Me

Wikipedia has this to say about public relations:

Public relations provides an organization or individual exposure to their audiences using topics of public interest and news items that do not require direct payment.

Before I was an active blogger I didn’t know much, if anything, about public relations. The first time I got a PR pitch I didn’t know what to do, with the pitch or with myself. It’s been a few years since that first PR email made its way into my inbox now, and I’ve developed some informal rules for myself. It’s my own rough framework that helps me decide whether or not something is a good fit. Here’s what I consider:

  • Is this something I would talk to a friend about? I consider the people who visit my blog to be friends, and I don’t want to share something that I don’t believe in.
  • Is this something that conforms with my values? I’m not about to promote a product that I feel isn’t sustainable, for example.
  • Would this make for good content? If it’s not sufficiently interesting, I don’t want to write about it, both for my own sake and for my visitors’ sakes.
  • Is this worth my time? I’m not interested in promoting someone’s product in exchange for “exposure”. I need to consider what value I am getting from the arrangement in return for my efforts.
  • Would participating be particularly fun or enriching for my kids or for me? If so, I’m more likely to jump on the opportunity.

I rarely get paid directly for the PR work I do, and I am very choosy about what opportunities I accept. When I am compensated in some way, I make that clear. I want to be transparent about what’s happening, and I want to feel good about what I’m doing. I’m not about to sell my soul in exchange for some free laundry soap. It’s just not worth it.

Waiting for the BC Family Day announcement
At the press conference for British Columbia’s new Family Day

One of the things that has been interesting to me lately is the way that other people respond to the PR work I do. When I get free admission to the Vancouver Aquarium or a free cardboard playhouse for review purposes, everyone seems pretty positive. When I accept an invitation to be at an event with British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, the tone changes. On Twitter, people even said that if they had the chance to meet her, they’d say some pretty rude things. I think that basic civility is always called for, but the shift in attitudes was hard to miss.

I understand why politicians bring out everyone’s inner cynic. They love to make lots of promises, and a good portion of them never come to fruition. Plus, we all have different political orientations, and no one is better at highlighting those differences than politicians. It’s also true that anytime I’m invited to an event as a blogger, the unspoken expectation is that I will blog / tweet / post to Facebook / create a YouTube video / etc. So, yes, if I’m in a room with a politician and a whole bunch of mom bloggers, I get that there’s some PR happening. They’re hoping to get something from me, by giving me something.

Goofing around while Christy Clark speaks
Hannah kisses the glass while Premier Christy Clark speaks

Yesterday I met the Premier again. There was an announcement about British Columbia’s new Family Day. Local families were invited, including mine. Since my daughter Hannah’s teachers were having a professional development day, I loaded her up and headed to the Vancouver Aquarium for the event. She got to hold a sea urchin, we had an opening to discuss how our government is structured, she got a front-row seat for a press conference, and she got to meet the leader of our province. I realized that my child was being used as a PR tool. I was okay with it, because (1) she really enjoyed herself, and (2) I felt she got a fair bit out of the experience on a rainy day that would otherwise have been spent watching too much TV.

Anytime you’re responding to a PR pitch, you’re making a calculation. For me, that means asking myself those questions I highlighted above. But what it really boils down to is this – am I willing to participate in this exchange? Is what I’m getting from this experience of sufficient value to myself and my audience (and not necessarily monetary value) that I’m willing to hold up my end of the bargain?

Premier Christy Clark, Hannah and a sea star
The Premier, my daughter, and a sea star

I am not what you would call a Christy Clark supporter (although I’m not a supporter of any other party leaders in my province, either). On the two occasions I’ve met her, I did that mental calculation, and decided that I would accept the bargain that comes with any PR pitch. The opportunity outweighed the downside. I understand that some people may attribute certain political leanings. While that’s not the case, I can accept that. I am willing to own my decisions. But I think it’s interesting how the PR ploy (which it surely is) is pointed out when there’s a politician involved, while no one called PR ploy on my free ferry passage to Victoria earlier this month to cover an exhibit at the Royal BC Museum.

I’m not the only blogger who runs into this type of situation. Many people accept far more PR pitches than I do, without a word of complaint. And then one day the accept a pitch from Nestle, or McDonald’s, or they go a little overboard when presented with swag. On the one hand, I think it’s important to own your choices. You need be clear about each opportunity that comes your way, and who you’re working for. This is why I myself have passed up pitches from brands like Nestle, McDonald’s and Coca Cola. On the other hand, it can be shocking for people who’ve never faced any pushback to suddenly encounter it.

Hannah floats her "free ice cream for children" plan to Christy Clark
Hannah floats her “free ice cream for children” plan to the Premier

When we accept a PR opportunity, we’re lending our voices to a cause. It’s important that we recognize what impact accepting the opportunity will have on the way others view us. My experiences meeting the Premier have definitely highlighted that for me, and underlined the bargain I’m making. As I said, I accept that. I can honestly say that I would make the same decisions again. But I also think that it’s an illuminating experience. There are clearly some products we’re willing to be sold (cardboard playhouses!) and some products we’re not willing to be sold (politicians we disagree with!). It’s given me food for thought, both as a blogger and as a consumer. What bargains am I willing to make on both ends of that equation? My answers are always evolving.

I wonder what you think. How do you decide what opportunities are and aren’t worth accepting? Do you find that you respond differently to the PR ploy depending on how you feel about the product? And have you ever had a negative response to a review or article you’ve written based on a PR pitch? I’d love to hear!

PS – Family Day is going to be the second Monday of February, which is very disappointing for me because Hannah’s birthday often falls on the third Monday of February. I was hoping my kid would get a birthday long weekend. I guess that even PR pitches we accept with open eyes can bring disappointment.

Running with Children: A Conundrum

Last summer I took up running in order to train for Run for the Cure. For three months I kept at it. I even went for a run while I was at BlogHer in San Diego. On the big day I showed up, donned my special T-shirt and did the run. After not running for nearly 20 years, it felt good. I felt powerful and accomplished and healthy and all that fabulous stuff. I swore that I would keep at it, and I did … once or twice.

The starting line
The starting line at Run for the Cure

By then, it was October. It was cold, it got dark early at night, and I found it harder to motivate myself to head outside. I realized that if I was going to keep up running over the winter I’d need to buy cold-weather running gear, and I didn’t really want to spend the money. Plus, I had been running while Hannah was at school and Jacob was at daycare, and by the time you added in warm-up and cool-down and a shower, it was taking an hour I just couldn’t spare out of my work day. Running quickly fell by the wayside.

Now it’s late May and the weather is balmy. I’d like to take up running again. If I’m going to do this, though, I’d like to plan ahead a little bit better. Right now, it’s easy for me to head out in the evening after dinner for a jog. It’s light enough, warm enough, and there are enough people out that this works well. But October will come again before I know it. When it does, I’d like to be ready for it, so that I can keep up my running routine.

Central Park in the afternoon, May 2009 - 38
Image Credit: Ed Yourdon on Flickr

I see some possible solutions, but I don’t really like any of them. Let me lay it out for you:

  • Option 1Use a jogging stroller. If I put my son Jacob in a jogging stroller, I could bring him with me and I wouldn’t need someone else to take care of him while I run. However, I don’t like this because the kid will be four this August, which means he’s kind of heavy and hard to push. Plus, I don’t currently own a jogging stroller, so it would be an added expense for something I just couldn’t use that long.
  • Option 2Head to the gym. If I run at the gym, either on the indoor running track or on the treadmill, I can put Jacob in childcare there while I work out. I don’t really like this because I actually enjoy being outdoors while I run. Plus I’d be paying something like $10 per workout, between my admission and the childcare fee, which feels kind of pricy.
  • Option 3Get up early. If I got up half an hour earlier, I could get my run in during daylight hours, before everyone else is awake. I don’t really like this one because I don’t want to sacrifice sleep for exercise. I already tried to do that by getting up early to do yoga, and I found it unsustainable. Plus, in the dead of winter it’s sometimes still dark when the kids wake up, which presents another issue.

Running on a treadmill
Image Credit: E’Lisa Campbell on Flickr

I feel like I’m being overly pessimistic, but I’m just not seeing a great solution. And the reality is that if I don’t see something as workable, I’m just less likely to pull it off. At the same time, I know that many other parents manage to get out for a jog on a regular basis. There must be other options, I’m just not seeing them. This is where you come in.

I want advice! If you’re a runner, tell me what you do with your kids when you head out for a jog. How do you find the time to take care of yourself, without biting into sleep or work hours? I could really use some good suggestions!

Podcast: Talking to Bad Mommy Willow Yamauchi

Picture it: Christmas, 2010. My husband Jon comes across a book called Adult Child of Hippies by Willow Yamauchi. Immediately, he knows that he should buy it for me, as I myself am an adult child of hippies. On Christmas morning I open the book. I promptly devour it. I laugh heartily, in a knowing fashion, at such gems as:

You know you are an Adult Child of Hippies if…
You chewed licorice roots as a treat.

– and –

You know you are an Adult Child of Hippies if…
You shaved your legs as an act of rebellion.

As an extra-fun bonus fact, my mother really wanted to name me Willow, but my father didn’t like the name. Instead, I was named Amber Dawn. Given our similar pasts I felt a certain kinship with Willow Yamauchi after reading her book, even though I’d never actually spoken with her.

Strocel.com podcast willow yamauchi adult child of hippies bad mommy

Bad Mommy

Fast forward 17 months, and Willow herself got in touch with me via my job at VancouverMom.ca, telling us about her new book, Bad Mommy. I knew immediately that:

  • I had to read the book.
  • I wanted to interview Willow Yamauchi.

Luckily, Willow is an incredibly good sport. She left a copy of Bad Mommy hanging in a bag from her doorknob at her house in East Vancouver. I stopped by, picked it up, and devoured this one, too.

strocel.com podcast willow yamauchi bad mommyThe premise of Bad Mommy is that, as parents – and particularly as mothers – we’re served a heaping helping of guilt and blame. There’s simply no way to do everything right when it comes to raising kids. From the moment of conception someone, somewhere, believes you’re doing something wrong. Childhood vaccines are a perfect example. Miss one, and you’re a bad mommy. Vaccinate your child at all, and you’re a bad mommy. There’s no shortage of ways to fail your children at every turn. Willow’s turning that on its head so that we can laugh at it, and liberate ourselves from the cycle of mom guilt.

Willow and I set up a time to chat, and she was every bit as awesome as I knew she’d be. We talked about our respective hippie childhoods (hers was way more hardcore than mine), all the ways that we fail as parents, and what it means to embrace the “bad mommy” label. If you’re tired of trying to do everything right and failing, Willow says that it’s time to do what works for you. And you know what? I agree completely.

Strocel.com Podcast with Willow Yamauchi

If you’re a mom, an adult child of hippies, or you’d just like a good laugh, you’ll want to listen to what Willow had to say:

Next week on the Strocel.com podcast I’ll be sharing an interview with Shannon Henry Kleiber, who just released the book On my Honor: Real Life Lessons From America‚Äôs First Girl Scout, about Juliette Gordon Low. If you have ever been a Girl Guide or Girl Scout, if you’re interested in the movement, or if you’d just like to hear about an inspiring woman who was decades ahead of her time, you’ll want to tune in. Subscribe to the Strocel.com podcast in iTunes, and you won’t miss a minute!

It’s Time to Ban Cosmetic Pesticides

I live in British Columbia, Canada. It’s a beautiful place, with a progressive bent, and a pretty good environmental record. For example, in 2008 our province was the first jurisdiction in North America to introduce a carbon tax for consumers, aimed at reducing our carbon consumption. Regardless of how you feel about the tax (and, let’s face it, intelligent and informed economists and environmentalists disagree on how best to regulate carbon footprint), the point is that our province has taken some leadership in this area. So I was extremely disappointed to get an email in my inbox containing a report from the province’s Special Committee on Cosmetic Pesticides.

Before I go any further, I’ll give you a bit of background information. In 2010 the Canadian Cancer Society proposed a ban on the use of cosmetic pesticides here in British Columbia. They did this because they felt that there is a clear link between pesticide use and cancer. Some physician groups agree, including the Ontario College of Family Physicians. They conducted a comprehensive literature review in 2004, and as a result they strongly recommend that people reduce their exposure to pesticides wherever possible. Their report identifies pregnant women and children as being at particular risk.

Here in Canada, six provinces have already banned cosmetic pesticides. Ontario, which introduced their ban on Earth Day in 2009, has some of the strongest regulations in the country. Nova Scotia stands alongside them. Quebec was the first to introduce a ban in 2003, and New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Alberta have bans as well. In British Columbia, 40 municipalities have bylaws banning the use of cosmetic pesticides. However, municipal regulations only cover residential and municipal lands. Also, municipalities cannot ban pesticide sales. This is why the Union of BC Municipalities called for a province-wide ban.

In response to the Canadian Cancer Society’s proposed legislation and the Union of BC Municipalities we’ve been going through a review process. I participated in an online survey some time ago. Many other people did as well. And just last week, the report was released, which is why I got that email in my inbox. You can read the short version here.

The full report makes 17 recommendations, mostly centred around creating measures to reduce pesticide use through regulations and education. This will create some additional hassles if you want to use pesticides on your lawn, but you will still be able to use them. Here’s a quote from the press release:

“Our recommendations are designed to promote the safer use of pesticides for lawn and garden care. But the majority of the committee does not think the scientific evidence, at this time, warrants an outright ban,” explained committee chair Bill Bennett.

I am disappointed in my province. So are our top health groups. Premier Christy Clark and Health Minister Mike de Jong have both expressed support for a provincial ban on cosmetic pesticide use. I was hoping that the committee would answer the call, and do the right thing.

As a mother, I do not want my children exposed to pesticides for the sake of a nicer lawn or driveway. Sure, weeds and bugs are a nuisance. But where do our priorities actually lie? Is a pretty yard really more important than our health, and our children’s health? I don’t think it is. I can control what happens in my yard, but I have no control over what my neighbours do. This is why we need laws protecting public safety, and it’s why I think we need a ban on cosmetic pesticides. I would like to see my provincial government – and all governments, really – taking leadership and enacting legislation to protect the families they represent.

What do you think? Are you comfortable with the idea that your neighbour could be using pesticides in their yard for purely cosmetic purposes? I’d love to hear your thoughts on pesticides, and how best to reduce exposure.

My Bag of Parenting Tricks

I’ve been working at this parenting gig for over seven years now. Each and every day of those seven years has brought some kind of situation that left me at a loss. Whether it’s trying to explain to a toddler that biting your mom is a bad idea, deciding which child to deal with first as siblings go toe-to-toe, or decoding mystery illness symptoms, parenting continues to baffle me on many levels. That’s what makes it such a white knuckle ride.

At the same time, I have picked up a few tricks in my years as a mom. I’ve honed my parenting tools, and come up with some techniques that make my life just that much easier. Today, I’m sharing some of them with you. Hopefully a few work for you, too.

Hannah up a tree
“When I count to three, I need you to climb down from the tree.”

Amber’s Go-To Parenting Tricks

  1. Set it to music. I sing to my kids constantly to get them to do stuff. We have special songs for getting dressed, going upstairs, brushing your teeth, and a whole lot of other stuff. For getting undressed I sing this to the tune of Ottawan’s “Hands Up”Hands up, Jacob hands up! Take off your shirt, take off take off your shirt! It works like a charm.
  2. Order of operations. I’m not a huge fan of bribery. But that doesn’t mean I can’t set up a sequence of events in my favour. This is why you’ll hear me saying things like, “Here’s the plan: first we’ll clean up our toys, then we’ll fold the laundry, then we can each have a cookie.” It’s not bribery, exactly, but it does elicit cooperation.
  3. Arms wide open. I have spent more time calling for my kids in public places than I would care to remember. It starts out innocently enough, but it quickly escalates. My volume level rises, my face gets red, and more and more passersby stop to look. It’s frustrating, it’s unattractive, and I don’t enjoy it. But if I catch my kid’s eye and kneel down with my arms wide open, that kid will immediately come running pretty much every time. No raised voices, no gawkers, and I feel like I totally rock the mom gig.
  4. You get what you get, and you don’t get upset. I learned this phrase from a guest at one of my daughter’s birthday parties as I was passing out cake. There’s something about setting words to rhyme that kids find compelling. Apparently, you just can’t argue with a rhyme. I find myself using these words often, when negotiations over exactly how many noodles each kid has get out of hand.
  5. Counting to three. When I was a kid, if someone’s mom started counting, you didn’t want to be around once she got to three. I don’t use counting as a threat with my kids. However, I do often say, “When I count to three, I want you to [put down your toy / turn off the music / give me the marker / etc.]” There’s something about the counting that eases the transition from one thing to the next, and it often works to get my kids to stop doing something that I don’t want them to do.
  6. It’s not me, it’s the phone. We all know we’re supposed to give our kids warnings when it’s time to leave, so I’ve always done that. Still, even after giving a warning, I usually find myself arguing with a kid once the actual moment of departure arrives. But then I started using the timer on my phone. I explain that I’m setting the timer, and when it goes off we have to leave. When the beeping starts my kids groan a little, but they don’t argue. How could they argue with a phone? I’m using technology to deflect the blame, and it’s awesome.

Those are some of my parenting shortcuts, but I could always use more. What tricks do you use to make your life with kids just a little easier? I’d love to hear!

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