Monthly Archives: December 2010

Schvitzing in a Winter Wonderland

It’s winter…

The view from inside.

…in Israel.

Winter in Israel means wind.
Winter in Israel means rain.
Winter in Israel means hail.
Winter in Israel means cold.
Winter in Israel means galoshes and mittens.
Winter in Israel means down coats and wool-lined boots.

But, above all else, winter in Israel means bundling up … before you go inside!

Winter in Israel is one of those unnatural wonders of the world. It’s the time of year when average temperature outside hovers around 9°, while average indoor temperature is inconveniently a significant 5° less. During the day, the sun often beats done mercilessly forcing us to peel off our morning winter apparel layer by layer. By evening, the chill sets in again. But, no matter the time of day, most buildings are freezing cold. So while winter in Israel is indeed wind and rain and hail and cold and galoshes and mittens and coats and wool-lined boots, there is so much more…

Winter in Israel means cold feet and colder fingers

… inside.

Winter in Israel means fewer showers

… because the house is freezing.

Winter in Israel means uneven heating

… so your left side freezes while your right side is drenched in sweat.

Winter in Israel means frigid walls and frozen floors

… that make jumping into the freezer sound tempting.

Winter in Israel mean t-shirts outside and down coats inside.

Enough said.

The situation is inconceivable! But it could be different.

Let’s first understand how the buildings got that way. We could start pre-Crusaders, but for that we have Wikipedia. For our purposes, we’ll start with 1948. The War of Independence. Israel is flooded with immigrants. New housing is needed. And fast. But Israel is a little short on traditional building materials such is wood. So, in Brutalist architectural style, they begin to raise veritable tenements, which, in effect, consist of angular concrete slabs with holes for windows and little character to boot.

Fast forward to the last few minutes of 2010. And we’re still using concrete slabs. Why? Are they really that suitable for the Israeli climate? Last I checked, winter is unbearable and summer is no better! Wikipedia tells us that concrete is a composite construction material composed of cement and other cementitious materials such as fly ash and slag cement, aggregate (generally a coarse aggregate made of gravels or crushed rocks such as limestone, or granite, plus a fine aggregate such as sand), water, and chemical admixtures. Chemicals. That’s nice. Even if they say that concrete has thermal mass properties that insulate buildings to maintain a steady indoor temperature during daily temperature fluctuations, I can tell you with great confidence and anecdotal certainty that concrete drains heat from buildings during the winter, turning a medium of self-protection into a bona fide igloo. And I don’t like chemicals.

In my opinion, concrete, a man-made material, does not make the cut.

So what are the alternatives?

Believe it or not, houses weren’t always made of concrete as we know it. Ancient cultures used other aggregates to construct edifices to protect them from the elements. Initially, STRAW BALE was used by builders in Paleolithic Africa, and then made a comeback in the 19th century. The problem with straw is that it is not particularly rain-resistant or suitable to humid climates. As such, the structure must be built on a raised platform, and a large overhanging roof is needed to protect against the rain. As a further precaution, the walls may be coated with clay, plaster, cement, or stucco, which also increases thermal mass.

Straw is nice. If you live in the driest place on earth. So let’s look at another possible building material: COB. Cob makes use of straw bale, but combines it with clay, earth, sand, and water. The ingredients are kneaded together by stomping on them and then constructed into two foot thick walls. Cob has a good thermal mass, but is not a good insulator. Nevertheless, it handles temperature fluctuations well, but requires increased insulation for consistently cold climates.

Cob, perhaps in addition to straw insulation, is an improvement. But let’s give it one more go: RAMMED EARTH HOUSES. Rammed earth walls range in thickness, but start at about 1 foot thick. Want an example? How about the Great Wall of China for starters! The method is similar to cob in that it’s a mixture of clay, sand, and gravel. But with rammed earth, composition is key. Rammed earth houses are more suitable to wet and humid climates, and are agreeable with colder weather if appropriate insulation is used. A company I came across in a Googling spree constructs rammed earth houses by sandwiching 4 inches of rigid insulation between two rammed earth walls. They claim that rammed earth on its own is not a good insulator, but, combined with the insulation, keeps dwellers warm and toasty during the dark winter months.

At the end of the day, if we build our homes out of plastic garbage bags, it’s bound to keep us nice and hot, though I can’t guarantee that it would be ideal for summer. Anywhere. But the point of exploring alternative housing materials is to bring us back to earth. Literally. Let’s reconnect with the planet and start building peaceful homes that work for us while working with the land.

One day, I will live in a home that provides comfortable temperature regulation while being kind to the earth.

And how about you? Would you live in a house of straw?

Leave your comments below.

Stay Warm!


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Of Hot Spots and Little Things

It’s the little things in life, or so they say. It’s probably because little things have huge impacts. Impacts on us, the people in our lives, people beyond our circles, the environment. Really, the universe itself.

So, in the spirit of huge impacts, I thought I’d share with you some of my little things:

  • A decadent piece of chocolate.
  • A warm embrace.
  • A subtle breeze.
  • A breath of fresh air.
  • A liberating sneeze.
  • A heartwarming chat.
  • A glance at the sky.
  • An encounter with a bug.
  • A sip of cool water.
  • A good back-scratch.
  • An unexpected recycling bin.
  • A contemplation on a single blade of grass swaying in the wind.
  • A good snuggle.
  • A hot spot on heated floors.

The list goes on and on. And I’m sure yours does to.

But this is a little post about little things.

So, tell me, what are some of your little things?

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Don’t Stress… It’s Just Stress!

I hope I didn’t leave you all in a frenzy the other day when I warned of an unknown pandemic sweeping across the western world. Because that would be ironic. Why, you ask? Well, first off, let’s define the meaning of the word pandemic. According to Merriam Webster’s Medical Dictionary:

pandemic is an epidemic “occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population.”

I’m sure you haven’t heard of any recent pandemics to be weary of. Sure, there was H1N1 and Avian Flu and even SARS. But, a pandemic? We would’ve heard about on the news! So what is this pandemic I speak of? Well, it won’t surprise you, I hope. And if it does, don’t stress. Because I’m talking about…


Stress is a concept that bears more than its fair share of meanings and connotations, having evolved into a metaphor for our haphazard modern lifestyles. The word has its origins in biology. Coined by the endocrinologist Hans Hugo Bruno Selye, the word stress began to take form during his tenure at McGill University in Montreal (my alma mater!) in 1936. Countless experiments on mice and hours of human observation later, Selye discovered “stress.” (You’d think it was just a self-diagnosis, but, to be fair, he did have 40 lab assistants.) He had found that injection of irritating substances (in mice) and observations of people suffering from different diseases consistently produced a swelling of the adrenal cortex (think: adrenaline), atrophy of the thymus (in the neck below the thyroid), and gastric and duodenal (a.k.a. the first part of the small intestine) ulcers. And with that, stress was born. Selye divided stress into two components: the general set of responses (a.k.a. the general adaptation syndrome [GAS]) and the development of a pathological state from ongoing, unrelieved stress. He claimed our responses to stress are the same whether the stressors are negative – distress – or positive – eustress.

Seventy-four years after Selye stepped foot on the McGill campus (hmmm…wondering which rez he lived in…), his legacy lives on in every one of us. Literally. We all live in constant vacillation between eustress and distress, the latter of which is the type that causes anxiety and depression. Physiologists have provided the 21st century with a succinct definition of stress:

Stress is the physical reaction to a real or imagined stressor.

Those stressors can be acute – i.e. stress in the short-term (a.k.a. fight-or-flight response), or chronic – i.e. stress in the long-term. It’s the body’s way of saying: Houston, we have a problem, a relic from days of running from or fighting attacking wild animals.

Nowadays, however, stress has transformed into a sort of catch-all for our perception of the challenges that life chucks at us, be it real or imagined. And, boy are we stressed! We wake up early. We go to sleep late. We run from commitment to commitment like headless chickens hoping we don’t end up on a dinner plate.  We have deadlines and excessive responsibilities, and, all the while, we’ve got to keep our cool and cope. Guess what? These are acute stressors.

It’s alarming.

There are people who say they thrive on stress. In fact, we all do at times. That’s eustress. As for the rest of the time, with each acute stressor, we cast our tired bodies into another round of adrenaline. We end our days drained, body, mind, and soul. For most people, stress is chronic. They just don’t realize it. They’ve become accustomed to headaches and stomachaches and mood swings. Fun? Sure, if you’re a masochist. Not only are we suffering from stress like there’s no tomorrow, we’re killing ourselves in the process.

So, just to break down last week’s breaking news:

  • An unidentified pandemic Stress is mercilessly wreaking havoc across much of the western world. The source of the pandemic is yet to be has been confirmed. However, medical officials believe are certain that it originated in large mammals people hibernating in a cave working excessively long hours in the northeastern United States entire western world.
  • The enumerated symptoms of the pandemic entail the very real and very wide spectrum of medical conditions that acute and chronic stress can cause.
  • No, you’re right. The U.S. has not issued travel warnings. But for all intents and purposes, shouldn’t stress be right up their with malaria? Workaholism is contagious.

My take-home message for you is this: Don’t stress. Perhaps easier said than done, considering the fact that Selye proved that stress is indeed a physiological response. We can’t entirely avoid it because of the interplay of the body and the brain. Nevertheless, each of us can play a larger role in preventing its lethal consequences. Give me something concrete! you’re saying. Okay. First, learn to spot signs of stress. Second, figure out your triggers – are they in your head or are they real? Then, when stress strikes, just breathe – don’t let that beating heart and those sweaty palms take control – and respond calmly and actively to your stressor. Finally, learn techniques to prevent stress in the first place. All the basics: relax, exercise, eat right, sleep well, don’t smoke, don’t drink too much coffee or alcohol. It’s become prosaic, but there’s a reason why yoga has become such an addiction in the west.

And learn to smile in the face of stress. Because no matter the stressor, bear in mind that this too shall pass.

Have a distressless and eustressful day!

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Mammalian Pandemic Across Northeast A Cause For Concern

***Breaking News***

Unknown Pandemic Sweeps Across the West

An unidentified pandemic is mercilessly wreaking havoc across much of the western world. The source of the pandemic is yet to be confirmed. However, medical officials believe that it originated in large mammals hibernating in a cave in the northeastern United States. Symptoms of the pandemic are many and span a wide spectrum of medical conditions, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • headache
  • backache
  • muscle tension
  • gastrointestinal disturbances
  • rash
  • gingivitis
  • hemorrhoids
  • varicose veins
  • hypertension
  • changes in eating habits including overeating
  • fatigue
  • insomnia
  • nervousness
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • anger
  • intense mood swings
  • loss of / poor concentration
  • heightened confusion in mildly stressful situations
  • inability to complete tasks
  • suicidal thoughts
  • panic attacks
  • panic disorder

The U.S. Department of State has issued a surprising travel alert for foreign travelers from undeveloped countries visiting certain regions of the northeastern United States. Ordinarily, the U.S. State Department issues travel warnings “when long-term, protracted conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable lead the State Department to recommend that Americans avoid or consider the risk of travel to that country.” As such, the recent warning comes as a surprise to government officials in third world countries, who are accustomed to limited American travel in undeveloped countries.

Consequently, the United States is attempting to contain the epidemic, though it appears to have spread more rapidly than anticipated, with reports of symptoms and hospitalizations in Canada and across Europe and certain parts of Asia.

The contagion is airborne and waterborne, but can also be contracted via food and human contact. The public is requested to remain in their homes until medical officials have deemed it safe to resume regular routines. Until then, all government agencies will be in recess, and all private institutions will be in mandatory shutdown.

Further updates to follow.

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If you can CAN olives in a JAR, can you JAR olives in a CAN?

This morning, we opened our first jar of olives – not just any olives – homemade olives. Our very own homemade olives. And they were delicious!

It all started 5 weeks ago with a Saturday morning walk around the neighborhood. Armed with a canvas bag, my other half and I spend those walks hand-in-hand keeping our eyes peeled for fruit trees, herbs, and other little surprises we may chance upon along the way. Well, it was that specific Saturday morning that we noticed that the olive trees were bursting with succulent little olives. The first tree we came upon was more olive than leaf! Such jubilation! Until we realized that tip toes and jumping just weren’t going to cut it. We managed to snag some of the lower ones, tossing them into the canvas bag. Reluctantly, we abandoned this beauty. As a consolation, we guaranteed that the first olive tree we grow in our own yard (when that day comes…) will be from this strain.

Our walk took us past unripe citrus and papayas that were out of reach. We chanced upon more olive trees, though their fruits were pitifully small, practically shriveled, pretty much past their prime. But beggars can’t be choosers, so we tossed them, too, into the canvas bag and continued on our way.

We were making our way up the hill, just a three minute walk from home. We were content with our harvest and excited for our first attempt at canning. Halfway to the top, we directed our glance to the left and lo and behold, what do we see? Lying in a shallow alcove just off the sidewalk was none other than a huge olive branch brimming with succulent green and dark olives! We’d hit a gold mine! Without hesitation, we got to gleaning. Moments later, we see another branch, this one levitating through the gate of the adjacent house. Behind it a figure appeared. The owner. He saw us. And was delighted! Apparently, he was doing a little gardening and was pruning – if you can even call it that – his entire olive tree. The tree, he claimed, was creating too much shade and preventing other plants from growing. So he was going to leave the stump and let it start over. And the olives? Well, he said we could take the whole lot. He and his wife had done canning years ago. Too much effort, they had decided. Anyways, they preferred the taste of the store-bought stuff.

We spent the next 20 minutes stripping every branch of its fruit, as well as salvaging some of the newly fallen ones from the ground. The canvas bag was full. I mean really, really full. Not overflowing, but that’s because it’s a pretty big bag. We figured it weighed somewhere in the range of 5 kg. Let’s just say it was heavy and that I didn’t mind not bearing the burden on my back. We thanked the olive tree neighbor, told him we’d bring him some tastings if our experiment was successful, and headed home.

The process of canning, as we soon discovered, is quite involved.

In the spirit of the short attention spans, OUR process (emphasis on the OUR) was as follows:

  1. Pour olives into a large bowl.
  2. Separate green olives from dark olives.
  3. Olives need to be slightly open to let the bitterness dissipate. We started by knocking each olive with a rubber hammer. That was messy and inefficient, so we switched to making a slit in each with a knife. That’s clearly our recommendation.
  4. Let each batch soak in water for two days in a covered pot.
  5. Replace water and soak for two more days.
  6. After a total of four days, rinse.
  7. Time to can! Jars need to be sanitized, so do one of three things: (1) microwave with water inside on high for 2 minutes; (2) pour boiling water and shake; or (3) bake (i.e. place jar in oven. place cap on jar. DO NOT SCREW ON CAP – it will stay glued on.)
  8. Let jars cool.
  9. Start to can.
  10. Fill jar with olives up to an inch from the top.
  11. Add a few slices of lemon and a head or two of garlic.
  12. Cover the entire combo with water (+1 teaspoon salt for every cup).
  13. Add a thin layer of olive oil at the top. Nothing should be peaking through.
  14. Cap jar and place in dark, cool place.
  15. Every few days, unscrew the jar to release the gases.
  16. After a month, BON APPETITE!

I must admit that I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’ve had homemade olives in the past and I’m sorry to say that they weren’t anything to write home about. Bitter at best.

But, ours? Well, we put a lot of love into our babies, checking up on them and watching them become the succulent and robust olives that they did. We didn’t really follow the recipe to the letter. Apparently, dark olives are supposed to be canned differently. But I’m far from complaining and am anxiously awaiting our next olive canning.

Until then, well, let’s just say that we have more than enough to tide us over.

Enough olives to feed an army

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