Friday, February 28, 2014

Keeping My Sunny Side Up: That fresh pine smell might be good for the planet...

Keeping My Sunny Side Up: That fresh pine smell might be good for the planet...: When I arrive to work in the morning, I am sometimes overwhelmed by the fragrant scent of pine. The hills around my college are cover...

That fresh pine smell might be good for the planet...

When I arrive to work in the morning, I am sometimes overwhelmed by the fragrant scent of pine. The hills around my college are covered with ponderosa pine trees, and the sweet, earthy odor lingers on the morning breeze. The smell makes me feel happy; I associate it with summertime, and camping with my family, and long hikes in the mountains.

But it turns out that piney smell might have another positive impact – it might be helping control climate change.

An international team of scientists have discovered a way to predict how the odor, formed from volatile organic compounds, will react with oxygen over the forest canopy to form aerosols – light- and heat-reflecting clouds of volatilized chemicals. These aerosols, which are airborne particles made up of at least some level of solid matter, can help cool the atmosphere over forests.

The scientists who conducted the study predicted that, as the climate continues to warm, photosynthesis in the forest will speed up and create even more boreal aerosols. Don’t get too excited, though – forests that are stressed from drought or excess heat can have decreased capacity for aerosol creation.

The bottom line, then, is that forests are good for our planet. They take in carbon dioxide, breathe out life-giving oxygen, help trap atmospheric pollution, and now scientists have proved a way that they may even hold the key for slowing down climate change. 

I think I’ll go hug a tree.

Meanwhile, there are charitable organizations that are working to help save and protect the earth’s forests. The organizations I have listed have been ranked as five-star charities by, and the bulk of their finances go to support their programs, not administration.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Keeping My Sunny Side Up: Jazzing Up the Winter Blues

Keeping My Sunny Side Up: Jazzing Up the Winter Blues:   I’ll admit it – winter is starting to get to me.   February is always my worst month, mood-wise – but judging from the weather, it ...

Jazzing Up the Winter Blues
I’ll admit it – winter is starting to get to me.  February is always my worst month, mood-wise – but judging from the weather, it looks like February is going to drag on into March. The cold weather , accompanied by piles of snow, shows no sign of letting up any time soon. I told a friend this morning that it was like we were stuck in an infinite loop of winter.
The problem is called SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder, a propensity for depression during the long, dark days of winter. Why my mood always plummets in February, when the days are actually starting to get longer, and not in December or January, when the days are short, is a mystery to me. 
Maybe it’s just that the winter has gone on… and on… until, like the movie Groundhog Day, it looks like it will never end.  So today, in my effort to “Keep My Sunny Side Up,” I’m going to look at ways to combat SAD – also known as the winter blues.

First, some fun facts about SAD:

  • Residents of Nordic countries (where most of my ancestors lived) are particularly susceptible to winter depression – nearly 10 percent of Scandinavian residents suffer from SAD.
  • SAD was named and categorized in the 1980s by Dr. Norman Rosenthal at the National Institute of Mental Health. He was trying to find a reason for the decline in mood that occurs in more northern climes during the winter, having observed the issue after moving from South Africa to New York.
  • In Alaska, 25 percent of people suffer either full-blown SAD or a less intense version of the disorder. Since much of Alaska is dark for a LONG time during the winter, this makes sense.

And now, some ways to combat the winter blues:

  • EXERCISE. This is never my favorite thing to do, and the weight I gain every winter makes it even harder. But exercise releases endorphins, feel-good chemicals that can help your brain combat SAD.
  •  LIGHT THERAPY: Some years ago, my parents bought me a little portable light for Christmas. I have used it with great effect every year since. The blast of portable sunlight stimulates my neuroreceptors and tricks my brain into believing it is getting more sun than I really am. It works – as long as you use it.
  • GO OUTSIDE. Fresh air and sunshine help you feel better, even if it’s zero degrees.
  • WATCH YOUR NUTRITION. Winter blues make me want to eat carbohydrates – a LOT of carbohydrates. This makes sense, because carbs raise serotonin levels. But too MANY carbs – or bad carbs like donuts and chocolate bars – contribute to weight gain and mood crashes. Good, balanced nutrition can help your mood.
  • VITAMIN IT UP: Some researchers believe that winter depression is linked to a lack of Vitamin D, which your skin makes when it is exposed to sunshine. Vitamins D and B12 may help improve mood levels.
  • WRITE OR TALK IT OUT: Writing or talking about your feelings can be an effective way to cope with depression. Many people – people who are social by nature – improve through social contact.
  • LISTEN TO MUSIC. Music that makes your heart sing will… make your heart sing.

Some depressive disorders are severe enough that they need medical attention. If you are having symptoms that don’t respond to any self-help, don’t blame yourself - see your doctor.
And now, since the sun is shining, I think I will go outside for a little while. I hear the birds are already starting to sing.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Keeping My Sunny Side Up: Confessions of a Serial Artist... or How I Came To...

Keeping My Sunny Side Up: Confessions of a Serial Artist... or How I Came To...: I am an artist. I have always been an artist. No doubt I will always BE an artist. But I haven't always been a focused artist. I have wh...

Confessions of a Serial Artist... or How I Came To Play in the Mud

I am an artist. I have always been an artist. No doubt I will always BE an artist. But I haven't always been a focused artist. I have what I like to call "Craft ADD."

It goes like this: for a period of time, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer, I get "into" a particular craft or artistic method. For a time it was oil painting on driftwood - an engaging endeavor that ended abruptly when my house became too full of paintings to feel excited about making more. After my painting phase, I got into mosaic tiling. This hobby led me to frequent second-hand stores, searching for the perfect plates to smash. It was fun, but this, too, led to a glut of mosaic work in my house, and an eventual cessation of smashage.

After that, I decided to try making beaded jewelry. This endeavor found me buying pounds of beads online, scouring Youtube for "how to" videos, and stashing beads in every plastic container I could find. My plan, when I started to make jewelry, was to sell it on Etsy, for those of you who aren't familiar, is a site specializing in handmade items, and so I thought it would be a great place to sell the jewelry I made. As it turns out, I wasn't the only one with this idea. Handmade jewelry is one of the most crowded vendor categories on Etsy. Couple that with the fact that my jewelry was pretty basic, and the notion that I was going to get rich by selling jewelry on Etsy was clearly doomed to fail.

But at the same time, I finally had the opportunity to take a clay class at the local art museum. I had always wanted to learn how to throw clay on a wheel; I was 43 when I finally got the chance. But guess what - it's HARD! I was terrible at it. REALLY terrible. It took me weeks just to finally get the clay centered on the wheel. While others were merrily spinning away, making what accomplished potters lovingly call "dog dishes," I was still fighting to put the clay in the middle of the wheel.

I hate being bad at something. I REALLY hate having people SEE me being bad at something! So I came into the studio in the afternoon when nobody was there - sometimes for an hour, sometimes two. I worked on basic throwing techniques. I centered the clay, then cut it off, brought another piece and centered that. I didn't try to make anything - I just worked on becoming better at handling the clay.

Things started moving faster for me when a friend loaned me his wheel, saying I could keep it in my basement until he built his new garage. Now I could sneak down in the evening and work for a time on the wheel. While I still wasn't skilled by any stretch of the imagination, I started to be able to make pots that looked like pots.

I started sculpting faces on my mugs to practice my sculpting techniques. The idea grew from funny little faces to pigs and sheep and dinosaurs. I have made giraffes, elephants, lamas, lions, horses, pigs, cats and dogs. I keep coming back to the human face, the first image we see as babies, the last thing we see before we die. With the passing of my 50th birthday, I have become intrigued by the faces of old women, and with how we see the elderly in our society. Last night I worked on three different old women - two mugs and a face jug. As I created the fine lines in their cheeks, I thought about the real women who have lived their lives, cared for their families, loved their men and their children, and made a difference in the world.

But I digress. I started selling sculpted pottery on Etsy, and this time it was a good idea. It gave me an opportunity to make more, to continue to grow as an artist, and to not have a thousand pots lining the shelves of my home. With clay I seem to have come home - because with clay, there is always something new to learn. I had to allow myself the space to be bad for a while, the space to learn and grow. I'm still learning. I'm still growing - and I wanted to share my journey with those of you who might think, "Oh, I wish I could be an artist."

Here's the secret: you can. You just have to dare to fail.

I came upon this short video by Ira Glass that talks about the process of learning a creative craft. It's worth listening to. So next time you tell yourself you're not good enough to create something great, add a little extra word: "Yet."

Thursday, February 20, 2014

To Infinity and Beyond!

Pssst - wanna feel SMALL? REALLY small?

Scientists recently postulated that our universe - our ENTIRE universe - is really contained within a single black hole that is part of a much, much larger universe. So if thinking of yourself as a single person on a single planet in an outer spiral arm of a single medium-sized galaxy that is one of 5 BILLION galaxies in the universe isn't enough to make you feel very small indeed, then imagine that whole universe as just a small part of a much broader "mother" universe.

The idea is being put forth to explain the singularity that scientists believe caused the Big Bang, the beginning of our universe 13-15 billion years ago. Our understanding of physics breaks down with these singularities, accoring to University of New Haven physicist Dr. Nikodem Poplawski in Connecticut. But if you imagine these singularities - the point at which matter in a black hole becomes infinitely dense - as having a finite level of acceptable mass, then if the mass goes beyond that limit - BOOM! The Big Bang, and the beginning of our universe.

Poplawski's idea is wild, even by cosmological physics standards. But because it explains so much that was don't understand about black holes, some scientists are beginning to give the notion serious consideration. Even though the hypothesis can't be proved, it gives physicists a framework to think about black holes in a different way. If Poplawski is right, then black holes could be exactly what science fiction writers have imagined for decades - gateways to other universes.

The bottom line is that, even with all our technology and scientific developments, we really don't know much about this huge universe of ours. There is still so much to learn. So the next time you're feeling like your problems are huge, think about Poplawski and his black hole universe. Suddenly, we are only stardust - and blessed to be a part of this amazing, infinite place.

If you want to read more about Poplawski's ideas, read the original article here in National Geographic, or the article on Mother Nature Network.

We come in peace. :)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Keeping My Sunny Side Up: Do-It-Yourself Backpack Dinners

Keeping My Sunny Side Up: Do-It-Yourself Backpack Dinners: I love to eat. Hey, who doesn't! Puttering around in the kitchen, mixing ingredients like a mad chemist, is my idea of a good time. But ...

Do-It-Yourself Backpack Dinners

I love to eat. Hey, who doesn't! Puttering around in the kitchen, mixing ingredients like a mad chemist, is my idea of a good time. But my creativity got stretched to the limit when I was helping my oldest son plan an extended backpack trip last summer.

He needed food that was light, cheap, and was going to keep the fires of his raging metabolism going while he traveled the back country of Washington for as much as a week at a time. He needed protein, carbohydrates, and enough vitamins and minerals to keep him going.

Tor Bertin in the Washington Cascades
Some backpackers might just head to REI and stock up on ready-to-eat meals - but I try to "do it myself" whenever possible. Prepackaged backpacking food can cost as much as eating in a fancy restaurant, with much less deliciousness!

The biggest problem we faced was packing enough protein for him. To address the issue, we bought a used food dehydrator (the kind that was popular in the early 1980s), and proceeded to learn about food dehydration.
Did you know that you can dehydrate hamburger? I guess it shouldn't surprised me - I am, after all, a big beef jerky fan - but for some reason I was just delighted with the knowledge that you could fry up a huge batch of hamburger, dry it and package it, and rehydrate it high up on some mountain for a soup or stew. Here's how you do it: First, fry the hamburger until it is well browned, and drain the oil from it. Rinse the hamburger repeatedly under hot water until there is no oil left (oil will make the meat rancid). When the meat is grease-free, dry between two paper towels, and place in the dehydrator. Dry and package. Boom! Instant hamburger.

We dehydrated cooked noodles to give him quick-cook pasta (similar to instant rice), found bags of dried apricots, and made big bags of homemade trail mix. My favorite concoction involved instant mashed potatoes, hamburger, dried onions, sliced carrots, spices and garlic for an instant, potato-y blast of carbohydrate goodness. My son reported that the burger was rather bland and tasteless, but still made for good eating at 10,000 feet.

I started thinking about these homemade backpacking preparations when I ran across a list of Army MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) from around the world. The food in the packages for each county has a special... shall I say, flavor... unique to that part of the world. Very interesting! Here's a peek at some  NON homemade meals. I think the French one looks the most delicious - go figure! is what Army food rations look like around the world...

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Keeping My Sunny Side Up: Napping Boosts Brain Power

Keeping My Sunny Side Up: Napping Boosts Brain Power: Short naps in the middle of the day can increase productivity by more than 30 percent.

Napping Boosts Brain Power

Hello, and Happy Tuesday! After taking a break from writing on President's Day, I'm back at it, and also back at work. Topic for the day: naps!

Young mothers often get the advice that they should sleep when their baby sleeps. Having long been an inveterate napper, this sounded like great advice to me. I made my youngest son take naps until he was 9 years old - at which time it occurred to me that I COULD nap without him. I did so.

As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing quite like a little nap over the lunch hour to refresh and rejuvenate. I used to sneak out to my old pickup truck during lunch and take a 20-minute snooze in the cab. I always - well, ALMOST always - woke up in plenty of time to go back to work. There WAS that one time when my boss woke me up by rapping on the window... hmm.

Anyway, I feel lucky that naps are part of my sleep repertoire. I've always thought that countries for whom the nap was a regular part of the daily routine really were onto something. It turns out that there is a biological need for sleep in the middle of the day - not necessarily the two-hour "siesta" favored by  hot countries (darn!), but a short nap leaves people feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. It turns out that humans are what is called "bi-phasic" - that is, evolutionarily designed to need more than one period of sleep.

The mid-afternoon nap has a long history. In Roman times, a regular nap was considered a physical necessity. Islamic law actually included the nap as part of a necessary health routine. The Spanish developed the two-hour siesta to allow agricultural workers to avoid working during the hottest part of the day.

Modern research has showed that short mid-afternoon naps improve productivity, reduce burnout and increase learning ability. Some businesses are taking advantage of this by creating nap rooms for their workers; there is even a company offering "nap pods" for workers. In 2007, the French health minister considered making an afternoon nap a legal right to French workers. In 2010, Japanese companies jumped on board the sleep train by encouraging workers to nap at work. Even in America, more and more companies are starting to offer employees a space for napping. Employees emerge with increased cognition and improved productivity.

Napping also reduces the chance of heart disease, although research also indicated that it increased the chance of Type 2 Diabetes.

So how long should our naps be? Research indicates that 10-20 minutes is all that is required to improve our productivity for the remainder of the day. Longer than that - between half an hour and an hour - can leave you groggy; if you are going to sleep longer than 20 minutes, you need at least 90 minutes to go through a full sleep cycle.

There are lots of sites that offer advice on how to nap for the best "brain benefits." Information at the following links will teach you how long to nap and what benefits  mid-day sleeping offers.

Siesta Awareness
How Long to Nap
Napping Benefits and Tips
Napping Dos and Don'ts...
The Science Behind Power Naps

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Keeping My Sunny Side Up: Real Beauty

Keeping My Sunny Side Up: Real Beauty: I grew up in the 1960s and 70s - young enough to have benefitted from the women's movement, but old enough to remember a time when women...

Real Beauty

I grew up in the 1960s and 70s - young enough to have benefitted from the women's movement, but old enough to remember a time when women were very much at the low end of the social pool. I can remember, as a child, thinking that it would be fun to be a stewardess (which we now call flight attendants). I wanted to be a stewardess, but I knew that at the time airlines had specific standards for their employees - and I knew I wasn't pretty enough. At the time, this did not strike me as an injustice - it just was the way it was. But looking back, I am outraged for that little girl who didn't think she was pretty enough to work on a plane and serve people drinks.

I am not what you might call a classical beauty. Some might argue that I'm not beautiful at all. I have a round face, a long pointed nose, and I'm 25 pounds overweight. Despite my husband's insistence that I am gorgeous, I have never really felt physically beautiful. Even when I was running 10 miles a day and weighed 125 pounds, when I had a body that some might call "rockin'," I did not think of myself as "hot."

So why are we so critical of ourselves as women? Why do we have a hard time seeing ourselves for the beautiful women we are? The way women are portrayed in the media has a lot to do with it. Tune in any television show on any channel, and the women are slender and gorgeous, with high cheekbones, tucked tummies and gorgeous long legs. Most television shows are centered on male characters, with the women playing supporting roles. The same holds true for movies. Although there are a few outstanding exceptions, like "Thelma and Louise," how many women action heroes do you know?

In magazines, the "cover girls" (why don't we have "cover boys"?) are Photoshopped within an inch of their lives, taking off pounds, removing blemishes and imperfections until they attain an unreachable - and unreasonable - standard of beauty. This video from Buzzfeed takes four normal women and gives them the star treatment - complete with Photoshopped beauty. Their reaction is interesting. One woman sums up the experience like this: "Once someone else has done your makeup, and someone else has done your hair, and then take away your imperfections, then there's not much left of who you really are."

And that is what we need to remember. Our imperfections are part of what makes us who we are. Nobody meets the standards of beauty expected by the modern media - not even the models who adorn magazine covers. So it's time to redefine that beauty. It's time to embrace our whole selves, complete with flaws. It's time to recognize that true beauty is a whole package.

The following are links to a couple videos that deal with women's body images. The first is the Buzzfeed video I referenced earlier. The second is a rather startling video from Dove about how women describe themselves. We are too hard on ourselves. Let's work on being a little kinder!



Saturday, February 15, 2014

Keeping My Sunny Side Up: Restoring Hope to the Garden of Eden

Keeping My Sunny Side Up: Restoring Hope to the Garden of Eden: Things are looking up for the place once known as “The Garden of Eden,” a lush oasis between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In the ...

Restoring Hope to the Garden of Eden

Things are looking up for the place once known as “The Garden of Eden,” a lush oasis between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

In the mid-1990s, Saddam Hussein drained the marshlands and poisoned the water as punishment against Shiite Arabs, who had rebelled against him after the Kuwait invasion. The rebels fled to the marshlands; Hussein followed and destroyed the area. The once-green landscape turned into a dusty wasteland, and the people who lived there, descendants of the ancient Sumerians,  were forced to seek other places to live. It was one more remnant of an ugly and poisonous regime, one more problem in a place already ravaged by decades of war.

Azzam Alwash, a civil engineer grew up in those wetlands. His father was in charge of the irrigation department, so as a young boy he spent many hours on the marshes. After Hussein fell, Alwash determined to return to his homeland from his new home in California. He was faced with a nearly impossible task: make environmental protection important in a land that was struggling with basic infrastructure issues like roads and water.

He founded Nature Iraq, a non-profit organization, and applied what he knew about hydraulic engineering to survey and restore the marshes. After the wetlands were reflooded, the previous residents returned to try to rebuild their lives. Iraq has its first-ever national park. Alwash continues to work on water issues throughout the Middle East.

For the full story on Azzam Alwash, click here: