According to the New Yorker, I’m a slut who loves to fly and couldn’t give a s#!% about the environment

August 30, 2009

So have you read the latest edition of The New Yorker? If so, you might have noticed Elizabeth Kolbert’s rant about green memoirs. In it, she rips apart authors Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, authors of The 100-Mile Diet, as well as Colin Beavan, aka No Impact Man, and myself (you can read the full story here; the bits about Sleeping Naked is Green and me in particular are here). Basically, Kolbert takes a stab at my decision to move from a small apartment into a house with three storeys (she actually misspells it as having three “stories” — last time I checked, my house wasn’t a storyteller, but I definitely would’ve paid more if it was), as well as my trips to Banff, Oregon, Tel Aviv (it was actually the West Bank) and New York (she forgot to mention Spain), where she reveals how I met up with No Impact Man and “sniffed” at his choice of café, WHICH IS TOTALLY UNTRUE —  if anything, I felt embarrassed because I ordered a bagel with cream cheese before checking that the cream cheese was organic. Later, she mentions how Colin’s project was “almost as incoherent as [mine].” Does anyone here think my green challenge was incoherent? If so, I can explain it to you in one sentence: I made 366 eco-friendly changes to my life. That’s pretty much it.

Anyway, I’m not so much hurt by the article as confused by it — it seems Kolbert has taken the time to read through my book, or at least scan it pretty thoroughly, which makes me wonder how she missed the point of it all. In fact, the point of all these green memoirs is more or less the same: We wanted to find out what happens when the average person tries to be as eco-friendly as possible, and what our struggles and triumphs ultimately say about the green movement in general. What should we be doing? What should we not be doing? All four of us have taken plenty of time to acknowledge the hypocrisy and sense of futility that comes with such challenges, and we’ve all admitted that we’re far from being perfect environmentalists. True, perhaps we should have spent more time lobbying governments and less time debating whether or not to use toilet paper, but again, the point was to look at everyday habits — last time I checked, not everyone has time to be a professional activist.

But what do you think? Does Kolbert have a point about these “eco stunts”? Or does she have an unnecessary hate-on for green bloggers and memoirists? Leave your thoughts below!

P.S. Check out the post that Crunchy Chicken wrote about all this; she was much more on top of the game than me and there are almost 30 comments on her blog now (mostly supportive, occasionally critical).

P.P.S. I’m adding this very funny retouching of my book cover, done by one of the National Post’s graphics guys who I refer to as Stevetastic. Note the revised title (thanks, Steve!):

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A trip to skincare heaven: Colleen Hague’s homemade organic lotions and potions

August 22, 2009

Those who have been reading this blog for a while (or my book, of course) will know that underneath my newfound appreciation for minimalist living lies a ruthless product junkie. It really wasn’t so long ago that I could be found slinking through the aisles of high-end department stores in search of the Best Face Cream In The World, and I’d pay up to $100 to get it. Fortunately, during my green challenge, I was able to see just how ridiculous this was and realized that the only thing my face really needed was a firm slap; eventually, I managed to pare down my long list of facial products to a simple bar of soap and a bottle of jojoba oil. I still maintain that we don’t need much more than this.

However, I recently had the privilege of meeting an incredible woman named Colleen Hague, a clinical aromatherapist and founder of Awaken My Senses, a line of organic skincare products, which she makes in the basement of her Toronto home — a space that’s been converted into a beautiful and serene kind of apothecary, laboratory and womb-like healing centre (that smells AMAZING). This is Colleen:

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Can you believe she’s 55? Anyway, I was introduced to her by a friend of mine who raved about the Awaken My Senses products. Then I heard that, instead of testing on animals, Colleen tests all her lotions on herself — and you can see the difference. It’s hard to notice in the photo above, but in person, you’ll see that the right side of her face has fewer lines and a firmer, smoother texture. But what really caught my attention when I first met her was how she walked into the room, pumped out a blob of organic moisturizer into her hand, and licked it right off.

“If you don’t feel comfortable eating it, why would you put it on your skin?” she asked, adding that up to 80% of what we slather on our bodies and faces every day ends up being absorbed within 30 seconds, gradually making its way into the bloodstream.

She then took some peppermint oil and rubbed a bit on my foot.

“You’ll taste that in your mouth after a few minutes,” she said. “That’s how quickly it gets into your system.”

OK, I thought. So I have to be careful about what I put on my skin. But I already am careful about that. What I wanted to know was this: Does it matter whether we use an essential oil or a carefully blended mixture of oils, water and other nutrients? And to what extent does our diet really affect our skin? And really, is there any truth to this aromatherapy business? I was once told that, because of my low blood pressure, I should never smell lavender again — but come on, that’s a bit crazy.

Anyway, to make a long story short, Colleen convinced me that what we smell can definitely affect how we feel, and this also has an effect on our health. But more important is what all these different oils do once they’re absorbed by our bodies. In a mini lesson on dermatology, she explained that there are three layers of skin: The epidermis (on top); the dermis (below); and the subcutaneous (even futher below), where new skin cells are formed about every 28 days. Standard moisturizers only affect the epidermis, but pure essential oils will get down to the subcutaneous level; a good skincare regime therefore involves using a combination of both oils and lotions.

When it comes to problematic skin, you also have three areas of concern: Eczema (which belongs to the dermatitis family); psoriasis (which is related to the nervous system and is often stress-induced); and rosacea (a cardiovascular problem that manifests itself in the skin).

As we get older, the nutrients we ingest are diverted more to the endocrine system and skin becomes less of a priority organ. But just because our bodies care less about our skin, doesn’t mean that we have to forget about it, too. So while it’s important to eat healthy, bear in mind that our skin will be the last to benefit from all those antioxidants and whatnot, which is why we need to feed it topically as well.

In terms of treating wrinkles, pimples, redness, dryness and so on, there’s no single magic ingredient — the secret, says Colleen, is all in how you blend the oils. It also makes a difference when you use the whole oil, rather than extracting it, synthesizing it and then reinserting it into a water and petroleum-based cream to give it fragrance, which is what most manufacturers do. But Colleen also blends her products according to environmental and climate factors, pointing out that a person’s skin will look and feel different in the prairies versus the east coast.

Anyway, after almost two hours of poking around her lab, I was desperate to try some stuff out. Then, Colleen came up with an even better idea.

“Why don’t we make something up right now?” she said. “I’ll let you choose which oils and how thick you want it, so it’ll be custom-made.”

SO EXCITING!

She tied on her apron, we went over to the counter, turned on the hot plate, brought out the electric whisk and got down to business. I wanted to use the extra-virgin avocado oil as my base as she had just gotten it in and had been raving about it, and it’s a lovely green colour. So she poured some out in a measuring cup, then grabbed a vegetable-based emulsifying wax, shook a few kernels out into a mixing bowl and let it melt. Here’s the photographic documentation:

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Once this was melted, Colleen added it, along with some distilled water (or maybe it was spring water… I can’t remember), to the avocado oil and began blending them all together:

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Soon, it turned into a lovely, thick cream that looked good enough to eat (and, naturally, we could have eaten it and been totally fine):

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She then added some carrotseed oil, which gives it a longer shelf life (Colleen says most of her products have an expiry date of six months), as well as some jasmine, and presto! Beautiful, nourishing moisturizer:

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And finally, here’s a shot of her clays, which she uses for face masks. I just thought they looked pretty (sorry about the lack of focus):

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I really can’t say enough about Awaken My Senses — I’m not about to suggest that everybody go out and buy every single one of her products, because the packaging and shipping does have some environmental footprint. However, if you’re serious about nurturing your skin and making it as healthy as possible, these lotions and potions are the perfect answer. On top of this, Colleen is an incredibly inspiring woman, so if you want to learn more about natural approaches to dermatology, give her a call. And check out her amazing stuff over here: www.awakenmysenses.com.


Garden-sitting for the Alters, Part Two

August 9, 2009

Anyone who knows anyone in Toronto will be able to tell you that this city has been plagued with the worst summer weather this year — nothing but rain, rain, and more rain. Add a 34-day garbage strike to that (not to mention no daycare, community centres, ferries to the island, etc.), and you’ve got about two million people wearing their cranky pants like they were never going out of style. But I’m finding that one of the best ways to get out my frustration is to head over to the nearest garden and pull up weeds for an hour. However, because my garden is teensy, I usually go to the Alters, who have kindly let me garden-sit for July and August.

So here’s a little update: The beds of seedlings (beets, pea shoots and a bunch of other stuff) are sadly not doing very well but I can’t quite figure out why. I’m guessing it’s either a lack of sun or animals, except they’re pretty well guarded with chicken wire. The peas are faring the best, but who knows if the beets will make it. Here’s the pic:

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Here’s a close-up of the peas (I don’t have a macro lens on my camera, so they unfortunately look a bit blurry):

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On the bright side, however, the lettuce is doing quite well — it’s growing in these crazy vertical stalks rather than stubby little heads. I didn’t know lettuce could grow this way, but it looks healthy:

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And although the kale at the back of the garden is covered in slug holes, the ones at the front look fab:

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The squash and zucchini are also surviving the rain-and-no-sun problems, although I accidentally stepped on one of the zucchini stems while trying to cut back some dead flowers. Grr.

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And finally, there are the herbs — the basil looks to be in stable condition but also appears to have finished growing. The sage, after a bit of pruning, looks pretty decent, and the container pots are still alive and upright (one got knocked over by a raccoon but survived the trauma):

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That’s it for now! Feel free to offer any tips/advice on how to cope with mass amounts of rain… In the mean time, I’m going to stay home today and clean (and also sulk).


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