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Adventures in Tree Studies

Jan. 13th, 2014 | 03:13 pm

This fall I decided to become interested in identifying trees. Living close to the Arboretum, I have the perfect place for independent study. It wasn't a great time of year to make that decision, since the leaves had already begun to fall. Still, even in late fall and early winter, I've learned to identify several new tree friends. Some are almost easier in winter because they have season-specific distinguishing features.

Before beginning my self-guided course in Trees of Urban Massachusetts, I could identify a shamefully low number of trees.

Oak, identified by leaf shape and acorns

Maple, by Canadian flag leaf shape and helicopter seeds (although I've since learned that a number of other trees have similar leaf shapes)

Japanese maple, by small size and pointy, pot-like red leaves

Birch, by white bark

Weeping willow, by weeping shape (although I've since learned that I called any weeping tree a willow)

"Evergreen", or Christmas trees, a general class of any vaguely triangle-shaped tree with yearlong green needles or scales, and some sort of cones

Certain fruit trees as long as they are actually bearing recognizable fruit, like apples, pears, or lemons. I identified most of the common, urban trees bearing deep red, berry-like fruit as crabapples, which I still think is usually correct.

That's basically it. Here are the new trees I've added in the last few months. I'm fairly confident in my identifications of these, since I've noticed the relevant features even outside the Arboretum and away from the helpful plaques.

Gingko, by leaf shape (can't believe I never noticed this very distinct shape before) and stinky fruit

Beech, by the nuts (there's a giant one right outside my house and for weeks in fall, the outside stairs are covered in pointy, burr-like nut shells)

Linden, mostly by leaf shape, and sort of a default since it's up there with oak and maple as most common tree in the city.

Sycamore, by camouflage-like bark and seed balls (I used to misidentify this as a maple because the leaves are similar)

Tuliptree, by pointy bracts in winter (I also used to identify this as a maple)

Sweetgum, by pointy, maple-meets-pot leaf shape (I also used to identify this as a maple)

Sassafras, by dinosaur footprint leaf shape

Magnolia, by pussy-willow-like fuzzies in winter

Dawn redwood, by the reddish bark color and red tassels

Hawthorn, by the long, creepy thorns; creepy, meandering shape; and creepy bright-red berries (although sometimes I misidentify other creepy trees as hawthorns)

Also, I can narrow down the evergreen identification to pine vs. fir/spruce/hemlock vs. cypress/sequoia, and can sometimes make more specific identifications. Norway spruce is the weepy one.

I'm ready for my first exam!

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A generalized theory of Movies Teen Me Would Have Loved

Jan. 9th, 2014 | 12:28 pm

W and I watched Elvira: Mistress of the Dark on Netflix the other night after learning it was one of RuPaul's top five favorite movies. On Facebook I simply reviewed it: "Elvira, Mistress of the Dark: good movie or best movie?" but I'm going to talk about it a little more because it leads me to a generalized theory of Movies Teen Me Would Have Loved.

Fascinating! Tell me more!Collapse )

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Drive-by game rec: Gone Home

Nov. 29th, 2013 | 04:11 pm

Y'all know of my love for the 90s. It's amazing how that era, and so many other things that are right up my alley, are found in the game Gone Home, a quirky little game I played in one sitting last night. You piece together the story entirely through, basically, snooping (no manual dexterity, nothing timed, not even really any puzzles). It's what I always expected/wanted the Nancy Drew games to be (although those games always had some ridiculously difficult timed puzzle at the end to spoil everything). Although I'm younger than the main character, who's 17 in 1995, there was a whole lot that reminded me of me when I was 13 in 1999--the smart-alecky humor of a gifted kid trying to entertain herself in the drudgery of school; the wide-eyed passion and intensity of a kid discovering music and cool friends for the first time; pirates. Somehow, without knowing me, the Fullbright Company made a game for me.

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Current Hulu Commercials That Don't Make Sense

Nov. 22nd, 2013 | 12:44 pm

I just watched this entire season so far of Parks & Rec on Hulu and I've seen the same set of five or six commercials over and over and over. I don't normally watch commercials, so I'm not desensitized to them anymore. Observe my perplexity.

Buick LaCrosse I'm almost impressed by the shameless unnecessariness of the features this car boasts, like Bose speakers and a heated steering wheel. No mention of a single relevant car feature.

Infants' Tylenol "We lowered her fever. You raised her spirits," a gentle wise-sounding female voice intones. After a bit more of this, she concludes, "For everything we do, we know you do so much more." While ostensibly admitting that PARENTS are more important to children than Tylenol, the whole function of the commercial is to put them on the same level. "Parents are more important than Tylenol" is the overt message of the commercial so you can't object to it, but it should not need to be said, and by saying it, they are implying that there is any comparison. Clever and gross.

Mobile banking of some kind A woman announces she needs to go deposit a check, so it's the uncle's turn to take care of the baby. The uncle stutters, panicked, as the mother deposits the baby in his arms. She steps away for two minutes, pushes some buttons on her phone, and returns to take the baby. The uncle, now gently smiling down at the child, says he's got it. This is cute enough, I guess, and the idea that mobile banking makes your life easier than it was in previous generations comes through, but the voiceover explanation that follows makes so little sense that it drives me crazy. It's something like, "Simplifying your life so you can create a bond that will last a lifetime."

The whole point is that the mobile banking shortens the time the baby has to be with the uncle! If the mom had had to go to the bank, the uncle would have had to baby-sit for real, not just hold the kid for ten seconds. I guess maybe the idea is that if the mother had actually had to leave, she would have had to find a real baby-sitter for the baby, since the uncle is clearly unprepared. "Capital One... Creating obligations on your phone that are not quite distracting enough to require a real babysitter but distracting enough that you shouldn't really be alone with your baby, so you can rely on semi-competent caretakers with abandon."

The one has nothing to do with the other, is what I'm saying. You can help your brother bond with your baby without mobile banking.

Planters nuts This one is just plain annoying. Claymation Mr. Peanut tells us, in a voice that reminds me a bit of Paul trying to be as smarmy and irritating as possible, "At Planters we know how to hold a great Holiday party... no matter who shows up." A nutcracker shows up and tries to bite the Planters nut. It's a little disturbing, although no more so than the whole idea of Mr. Peanut. I can't think of him without thinking of this tweet: Is there anything more capitalist than a peanut in a top hat and monocle selling you other peanuts to eat

Best Buy This series, one of which features Maya Rudolph, does that obnoxious but common Christmas thing of combining old-fashioned, epic style elements (like fairy-tale type language, fake reading from a giant leather book, and Carol of the Bells/Harry Potter soundtrack type music) with modern techie jargon to confuse people into thinking that words like "mobile carrier plan" are necessarily associated with Christmas. That tactic is familiar to be (though it still makes me feel itchy and greasy). Here's what bothers me specifically.

The commercial where the dad is trying to find phones for his twin daughters is told in rhyming couplets, mixing fakey "Twas the night before Christmas" language with embarrassingly out of touch slang like "mad quick" (but I guess this is a commercial meant to appeal to dads of teens, not teens themselves). At the end of the commercial, the dad concludes, "If I wrote these lines myself, they wouldn't be this... be this..." He trails off.

WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE? Are they implying that he did write the lines himself, and he's betraying himself by not being able to think of an ending (or not wanting to conclude with the logical ending, "bad"?) But why would he even start a sentence with "If I wrote these lines myself," then? And if he expects us to believe that he didn't write them, why does it matter if he says they're bad? I thought the whole point of distancing himself by claiming someone else wrote them was because he was aware they were bad. And if he didn't write them himself, why is he unable to complete the sentence? Is he too polite to insult the writers? I DON'T GET IT IT DOESN'T MAKE SENSE.

Aflac A PA is helping the Aflac duck run through his lines. The duck keeps saying Alfac in different gimmicky voices (Southern belle, various racist black voices, etc.) Each time, the PA praises the duck, then says a snide remark under his breath: "I LOVE IT! (I hate it.)" The duck finishes the commercial by banging his head against the mirror in self-loathing while the PA mutters, "I am so fired." This is an oddly heartbreaking picture of an actor duck in crisis. Why is the PA being such a yes-man? Obviously the duck is looking for some genuine direction here. He is keenly aware that his efforts are not panning out. He doesn't buy the PA's hype. He's blindly searching for some way to improve his craft and receiving no guidance. The PA is also aware that his current strategy is not getting him the results he wants--the duck isn't happy, he's not happy, he fears being fired. Everyone is miserable and nobody knows how to escape from the hell they've created for themselves in their hopeless pursuit of showbiz.

Wait, why is any of this supposed to make me want to buy car insurance?

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Fall on the homestead

Oct. 21st, 2013 | 01:02 pm

My homemade laundry detergent got the true test yesterday. I brushed against some wet paint. The stain was bright red and felt dry to the touch on my cotton hoodie, and water did nothing. I took it off and decided to throw everything I had at it. I sprayed the stain it with vinegar and water solution and put the sweatshirt in the washing machine with my homemade detergent in the detergent dispenser and lemon juice in the bleach dispenser. I even used hot water even though I normally only use cold. It came out almost completely clean! There is just a faint pinkish tinge which you can only find if you are looking for it.

Either (1) my homemade detergent really works, or (2) you don't really need detergent to make your clothes clean at all. Either way, I'm happy that I'm not buying Tide anymore, and that my favorite hoodie is okay.

Yesterday we also made a jack-o-lantern out of our little CSA pumpkin. We separated out all the seeds, roasted, and ate them. And we food processed the gunk inside and used it for a pumpkin spice latte and pumpkin butter. We used every part of the pumpkin. No part of the pumpkin was wasted!

Fall has the best flavors. It's also apple season, and when we ran out of orchard apples, we bought a big bag of Macintoshes at Whole Foods. They're not normally my favorite apple, but right now -- at the peak of ripeness -- they are both beautiful and delicious.

The CSA is over. I'm sort of relieved. I love the idea, but in practice, we couldn't use all the vegetables and many things just rotted in our fridge, especially greens. My current plan is to take the money I would have spent on a CSA for next summer and add it to our grocery money, for farmer's markets and organic, local produce. The few times we made it out of the local farmer's markets this year, we felt too guilty to buy anything because we had veggies at home, but I'd rather have the veggies I like in reasonable quantities.

Maybe I will also be inspired to work harder to curate my own little veggie patch.

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Camp Spartacus Comes Out Today!

Sep. 18th, 2013 | 01:37 am

My short story Camp Spartacus came out today, and here's the best part -- all proceeds go to OutServe, a charity supporting LGBT military members and their families! This is an amazingly appropriate charity for my stories, since both Camp Spartacus and my novel, Don't Ask, star a teen who's gay and who serves in Future Servicemembers of America, the school military club. Think something along the lines of junior ROTC or Air Cadets.

(Camp Spartacus is a sequel to Don't Ask, but you don't need to read one to enjoy the other. They're both self-contained. Camp Spartacus may spoil you about some basic things in Don't Ask, but it's no biggie.)

Camp Spartacus is also a team love story. Each of the seven members of the team is a unique individual, and together, they form more than the sum of their parts. My inspiration for creating the teammates came from imagining different reasons that a high schooler might choose to join Future Servicemembers--and, not only that, but to come to the optional summer camp for hard-core cadets.

Ruggiero may have joined FSA because he wanted to hide his gayness behind a macho mask, but somewhere along the way, he fell in love. He geeks out about procedural details, and he truly, honestly believes in the values of honor, courage, and service. (Mike Ruggiero's story begins in Don't Ask.)

Lewis is a natural leader and high achiever. He could probably do anything he sets his mind to. But he comes from a modest background, and doesn't have many role models illustrating effective paths to success--except a cousin who's in the military.

Bailey represents the wholesome, "real America" family values ideal. He's the kind of white, blond, crew-cutted, apple-cheeked boy that Uncle Sam always dreamed about.

Walker may be small, but with her loud mouth and quick temper, she has no trouble keeping up with the meatheads in her squad. She was happy to join a mostly-male club because she's always gotten along better with guys. If she meets someone, that's okay, too. Not within the squad, though. These guys are more like her brothers. And if you'll excuse her, she has to go yell at them for being idiots.

Dante dreams of someday living off the grid and being completely self-sufficient in a self-made cabin in the woods. He figures Future Servicemembers will test his stamina and teach him valuable wilderness survival skills.

Medina is a simple man. He loves video games, Mythbusters, and anything that makes a loud noise. He's not entirely prepared for the physical challenges of military camp, but man, is it fun to hold a gun.

Hudson's reasons for coming to camp are closest to "my mom made me." A military brat, Hudson comes from a long line of celebrated officers. Hudson isn't nearly as serious as his family. He's a bit jaded about military pomp, hard to impress, and quick to flout the rules. But in his heart of hearts, he's just as in love with team as everyone else. He wouldn't trade this summer for anything else.

My favorite part of writing Camp Spartacus was getting to know the teammates, and I hope you'll love them too!

Every year, the great authors at Torquere Press put their money where their mouth is, donating their time writing stories for our chosen charity. Those same authors donate any royalties earned on their stories to the chosen organization, with Torquere matching those donations 100%. In the past we've raised $5000.00 for Lambda Legal, over $3000.00 for the Matthew Shepard Foundation, and more than $10000.00 combined for organizations such as NOH8 and Doctors Without Borders.

For the 2013-2014 Charity event, which will premiere September 18th 2013, we've chosen OutServe-SLDN as our donation organization. OutServe is a non-profit that provides legal services and support to LGBT military individuals and families, working toward equal representation and benefits.

Our Bloghop Starts Here: Torquere Press

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Homemade Hand Soap

Aug. 25th, 2013 | 10:09 pm


I basically used this recipe, only I made a quarter recipe so that it would fit in an empty soap pump which held about 1 cup of liquid.

* 1 cup distilled water
* 1 ounce bar soap (approx; I grated about 3/4 inch off a 3.5-inch, 5oz bar of Dr. Bronner's Baby Mild Castile Soap)
* 1/4 tsp liquid glycerin
* 1/4 tsp vitamin E oil (I'd like to use pure vitamin E, but I used a CVS product containing palm oil because we had it around the house. no scary chemicals detected in ingredients list)
* 2 drops Sweet Orange essential oil (I wanted to go light on this, but next time, I will use more - this is currently undetectable over the general scent of soap)

Grate the bar soap and add to water. Bring to a boil. Simmer until the soap is fully melted, about 5 minutes (more if you do a bigger recipe). Remove from heat. Add rest of ingredients. Allow to cool. At this point, you will have what amounts to liquid with a few soap bubbles in it. Bottle and let rest overnight. It will turn into a luxurious pearly gel.


I haven't tested it on truly grimy hands, but it seems to work fine for everyday handwashing, and leaves hands feeling soft.


Distilled water is $1 per gallon, or 6 cents per cup. (I used distilled water rather than tap because this recipe has no preservative - the usual suspects, vinegar, salt, or baking soda, would dry out the skin.) A bar of castile soap costs $4, or 80 cents per ounce. My $7 bottle of glycerin contains 14 ounces, which comes out to about 2 cents for a quarter teaspoon. We had the vitamin E just lying around and I don't remember how much it cost, so I won't count that (you could easily leave it out). The essential oils were about 5 cents for 2-3 drops; make it 10 cents because I plan to use twice that amount next time.

All that comes out to 98 cents for an 8-ounce bottle of hand soap. This is about half the cost of buying equivalently-sized bottles of CVS brand hand soap or Softsoap, and competitive with buying hand soap refills in bulk.

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Homemade general purpose cleaning alternatives

Aug. 17th, 2013 | 05:05 pm

This weekend we did two more loads of laundry with our DIY detergent and experimented with frugal, green ways to clean the kitchen. These also work for the bathroom.


Scouring Powder Sprinkle a little baking soda on a damp microfiber cloth. Scour kitchen and bathroom surfaces to get up stains.

All-Purpose Spray Fill a spray bottle with a 1:1 ratio of vinegar and water. Add a 1-2 drops of essential oil to neutralize the vinegar scent, add a nicer scent, and boost the antibacterial power. This also works on surfaces and mirrors (it's streak-free as long as you use a microfiber cloth, streak-free rag, or newspaper!)

For this experiment, I used tea tree oil. It's supposedly the most antibacterial/antifungal of the bunch, great in bathrooms. It has a fresh, vaguely medicinal scent. At the dilution we used, the scent was not strong, but it was very effective in reducing the fish-and-chips scent of the vinegar.

Tile/linoleum floor cleaner Pour half a gallon of warm water into a bucket. Add half a cup of vinegar and a few drops of baby oil, for polish.

For this experiment, I did not have baby oil on hand, so I used coconut oil. This was a bad idea, as now the kitchen smells like old coconut oil. I would not recommend adding essential oils to this since the vinegar hardly smells at all when it's that diluted and it's sort of a waste of expensive oils - you're going to dump the mixture down the drain once you've used it for mopping.


Overall, I'm satisfied. Baking soda as scouring powder is pure magic. I got up all the food stains on the oven with just a few firm swipes of my powdered cloth. Microfiber clothes are worth buying - definitely easier than attempting the same thing with a tea towel. One caution, be sure to rinse up with water or vinegar spray so as not to leave a powdery residue. I am not sure if the vinegar solutions worked a lot better than plain water would have, but I have discovered one reason that the green diy solutions are better, for me, at least, than using cleaning products. I drag my feet about cleaning a lot less when the prospect doesn't involve drying out my skin, burning my nostrils, and making the house smell like toxic chemicals.


I used Peapod to judge how much things cost at an ordinary grocery store.

Baking Soda is about $1 per 16 oz box. I'd say about an ounce (2 tablespoons) is enough to clean the whole kitchen and bathroom. So about 6.25 cents per cleaning session.

Vinegar is $3/gallon. Assuming you mix up half a gallon of floor cleaner and use about a cup of all-purpose spray per cleaning session (probably a way overestimate), that's one cup of vinegar per cleaning session, or 18.75 cents.

Baby oil is $5 for 20 ounces. You use only a few drops in a floor cleaner batch. There are apparently about 600 drops in an ounce. Let's say you use 10 drops each time. You're still only using 1/1200 of the bottle, or less than a cent.

Essential oils are expensive. I paid $10 for an ounce of tea tree oil. We'll say you use 3 drops per cleaning session (an overestimate - you only need 2-3 drops each time you *mix up* the vinegar solution, and it keeps indefinitely, so you can mix it up one session and use the rest the next). That means you use 1/200th of the bottle each time, or five cents.

Microfiber cloths, sponges, etc.: can be used again and again. It's hard to quantify how much wear and tear they get per cleaning session. I'll leave that out of my estimate for now.

Total cost per cleaning session (to clean all kitchen and bathroom surfaces and floors): about 30 cents.

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Homemade liquid laundry soap (borax-free)

Aug. 10th, 2013 | 08:17 pm

I am re-entering a new obsession with gentle, nontoxic, green, frugal, diy cleaning products, and I've bookmarked a ton of recipes. My first adventure: homemade laundry soap.


It was sort of hard to find one that didn't have borax. I find borax to be a skin irritant and the whole point of this was to create something that would be friendly with my extremely sensitive skin. I also wanted liquid because I don't know how to load powder into our washer. I got this from Livington Family Adventures and remeasured to scaleable ratios:

3 parts liquid castille soap (we used Dr. Bronner's Baby Mild)
3 parts baking soda
1 part coarse sea salt
10 parts hot water

Dissolve salt and baking soda in hot water. Stir. Add castille soap and stir.

Use 1/2 cup per load of laundry (in our machine, this filled perfectly up to the thing that says "MAX")

Homemade laundry soap


The clothes look clean. Colors have not faded. There are no visible stains, though, note that I didn't test this on majorly stained things to being with (fyi, I've heard you should pre-treat stains with vinegar!)

If I had to characterize the scent, it would be "nothing! nothing! in fact it smells like nothing at all!" (tm Dr Cox) Which is perfect. I don't like the fakey "fresh" smell of detergent. If you inhale deeply, you detect a faint, not unpleasant baking soda scent. The musty scent of some old attic rescue shirts was totally eradicated. Some traces of body odor were still detectable when inhaling underarms of cotton T-shirts that had been sweated in, but I'm not sure it's any worse than normal - I don't typically subject laundry to this level of scrutiny.

Clothes fresh out of the dryer felt soft and nice. I haven't worn them yet, but I don't anticipate any itch problems considering the ingredients.


Start-up costs were sort of high because we had to buy liquid castille soap. We got 32 fl oz for $13.99. Since we only use 1 oz for every 24 oz of water, this is enough soap for 800 ounces (100 cups) of laundry detergent, or 200 loads of laundry. Doing about a load of a laundry a week, we're set for the next four years. Assuming the baking soda and salt also lasts that long, following this recipe has us spending under $5 a year on laundry detergent. Why wasn't I doing this in college??

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Don't Ask Giveaway

Jul. 17th, 2013 | 04:34 pm

Sure, my book was technically released in print two months ago, but I didn't know you could do a giveaway on Goodreads until now! Enter to win a free copy.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Don't Ask by Laura Hughes

Don't Ask

by Laura Hughes

Giveaway ends August 01, 2013.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win
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