Monday, November 23, 2009

Shopping for a New Vacuum

I'm allergic to cats. And now I live with four of them.

A little more than a year ago, a lovely midlife wedding resulted in the addition of a new husband and stepfather, along with his two mature cats, to our household.

And a couple of weeks ago, a fairly spur-of-the-moment decision resulted in the addition of two much younger cats to our family.

Foolish; yes indeed. A rare act of heedless spontaneity, love and goodwill. The heart has reasons that reason cannot know.

As a partial defense I will point out that I seem somewhat less sensitive to cat dander than I used to be, it's quite a big house so it doesn't get too concentrated, and we take reasonable steps to reduce the allergen load.

We keep the cats out of our bedroom; the door stays closed all the time. The whole lowest level of the house, including a family room where I can retreat to watch DVDs or read, is cat-free (though there is some air exchange between the levels, so certainly some dander is making its way down there, as well as into the bedroom). I limit my direct contact with the cats, and wash my hands and even change my clothes if necessary after I handle them. We keep sheets over the living room furniture and launder them regularly.

I am entering new arenas of house-cleaning. I am now going over the hard floors on the main level with a microfiber floor cleaning pad and/or damp mop almost daily. The grit and dust bunnies that once lurked in every corner of the den with the hardwood floor are gone. Dave vacuums the carpeting in the living and dining rooms every few days when I am out of the house. I take loratadine (generic Claritin) and use Flonase nasal spray daily. It's all an improvement, and following this regimen I almost never get sneezy or congested -- but Dave and I are both still finding that we are wheezing a bit at the end of the day.

So we are researching vacuum cleaners. We have an inexpensive bagless Eureka that has a HEPA filter and does a pretty decent job of picking up dirt, but vacuuming seems to make things worse before it makes them better - the stirred-up particles have to have several hours to settle back down again before the air quality is actually better than it was before vacuuming.

So, though I rarely buy big-ticket items, I'm now looking at high-end vacuum cleaners as an important investment in our health. Lots of people love Dyson, or Hoover, or Kirby, but many of the reviews I'm reading aimed at allergy-sufferers seem to really come down in favor of the German brand Miele for durability, power, and a really effective interior seal which means that all exhaust goes through the filter and no measurable particulates are being expelled back out into the air.

I know I've got quite a few readers who like animals, at least in the wild. I assume many of you are also pet owners. And I'm guessing that some of you, like me, are pet owners despite allergies.

So if you've got any experiences to share on great vacuum cleaners that are easy to use, reliable, and really leave the air cleaner during and immediately after use, I'd love to hear them. Thank you!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

To the Max: A New Day in Charitable Giving

Tuesday was "Give to the Max Day" in Minnesota -- a work of marketing genius and the dawn of a new day in philanthropy.

In 24 hours, inspired by a pool of matching funds from several area foundations and by a flurry of media attention and appeals from nonprofits to their audiences and mailing lists, nearly 39,000 people donated more than $14 million to Minnesota nonprofits via a new site, (GiveMN is powered by Razoo in partnership with Network for Good. A distinctive feature of the site is that foundation support pays for all credit-card transaction costs, meaning that the charities recieve 100% of the funds donated, rather than losing a percentage to fees.)

$14 million! That's an average of over $350 per donor!

I've been aware of online charitable giving sites like Network for Good and that act as a one-stop donation portal to registered nonprofit organizations. The GiveMN model is the big next step in simplified, motivated giving because of synergy created by:
  • A designated, highly publicized donation day in which funds would be matched
  • A $500,000 pool of matching funds -- which in this case, because of the huge outpouring of donations, ended up only amounting to pennies on the dollar. The limits of the matching fund were not always well-communicated, with many people (charities and donors) evidently believing that a full or substantial match would be made for all donations. I'm sure this has led to some disappointment, and probably the donation level would not have been as high if everyone had known the situation -- so the match was lower than expected, but the donations greatly exceeded expectations. But donor matches are a highly successful tactic and in most cases as a practical matter do have to be limited.
  • Coordination with social media: if you chose, you could post a comment about your donation(s) that would not only appear on the individual giving page of the charity/ies involved but also, again if you chose, appear on your Facebook or Twitter feeds.
  • Individual giving pages on the site that allow you to see who else is at least following, if not supporting, the particular cause and, if the nonprofit chooses, to also see how much has been raised so far.
It remains to be seen if most donors simply moved up their normal end-of-year giving by a few weeks, or if many nonprofits will see a net rise in gifts for the year. I have to think there were some new and additional donations made. I personally made several modest donations; two of these were the first time I had donated to the particular organizations, and another was a small gift in addition to my standard yearly membership donation.

The outpouring of generosity in Minnesota was far greater than anticipated. The truth is, once people get used to the idea of giving they usually enjoy it, and people don't always need to feel they have excess funds before they are willing to give something. I came to a realization several years ago (fostered by having worked for seven years at a listener-supported radio station) that if I value something I should support it to the extent I can, and that even if I feel quite pinched financially I would be ashamed of myself to give nothing to at least a few causes I feel are important when I am so much better off than much of the world.

I don't mean to sound sanctimonious or preachy or self-satisfied. I hope I am none of those things. But it was a breakthrough to me when I realized that I could fit some modest giving into my life on a regular basis; all I had to do was make it a priority. My shoes are old, my wardrobe is adequate but limited, I don't go out to eat much, I don't buy luxury items -- but I can give $25 here and $50 there to certain causes I believe in.

Philanthropy becomes a habit, and anything that makes it easier and more fun, as Give to the Max Day did, is all to the good in getting more people hooked. I hope that public celebrations of charitable giving like Give to the Max Day become a recurring feature of our lives.

Friday, November 13, 2009


This isn't really within the usual scope of Penelopedia, but I can't resist posting this photo of our new kitten Orion, taken on his first afternoon with us. He is on my son's desk, looking across the room at the goldfish in a tank on the dresser, and doing an admirable imitation of a meerkat. He's a skinny, nonstop-action little guy who weighs less than four pounds and is already earning nicknames like Trouble and Monkey. He is having some residual tummy troubles which we hope clear up soon.

And because she's so pretty I also can't resist posting this photo of our other new kitten, Amber. She is six months old, to his three, and looks huge next to him but is still a small cat. She is so lovable we couldn't not take her from the shelter, too, when my son picked the little guy as his kitten.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Noontime Walk Over the Bike Bridge

At lunchtime today my friend Mary and I followed the bike path along the east bank of the Cannon River behind the co-op, through Riverside Park, under the highway, over the new pedestrian/bike bridge, and down the path toward Sechler Park, behind the Malt-O-Meal plant. It was the first time I'd crossed the new bridge and so the first time I'd ever had the chance to stand and look at this particular view of the Cannon, facing southwest away from town. The bridge is named in honor of Peggy Prowe, former Northfield city council member, who has worked so hard to advance the Mill Towns Trail.

As we stood there, several geese flew from behind us and came in for a landing near this group of geese in the distance (barely visible in the top photo). Here you can see the white stripe across their rears which we don't that often get the chance to observe. (Click on the photo for a larger view.)

Here is a milkweed pod, seen alongside the path through the woods, burst open to show its silky white seed threads -- quite a contrast to the prickly-looking pods. (This photo is really cool when you click on it to see the large version. Go ahead, check it out.)

It was in the lower 50s but a beautifully sunny day. After our disappointing October weather, it seemed a perfectly good day to be outside for a while before heading back to the office for the rest of the afternoon. When I came out again, at about 5:45, it was nearly dark.
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Sunday, November 1, 2009

Halloween Moon

There was a perfect Halloween moon last night. When I started to try to take this photo while accompanying some youthful trick-or-treaters, the moon was still completely behind the cloud, creating a spooky but beautiful illumination as you can still partially see in this shot. The clouds must have been moving quickly, though at ground level the wind had died down considerably. A few moments later, the full or nearly full moon was shining in clear sky. With just a point-and-shoot and no tripod, this photo had no hope of being well focused, but still it captures the mood, I think.