7 sustainable Christmas gifts

Christmas should be fun … but it should be fun for our wallets and our planet, too.

From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, household waste in the U.S. increases more than 25%. This waste consists of uneaten food, shopping bags, packaging, bows, ribbons, and wrapping paper. Not to mention all the trees that we kill to sustain our holiday cheer. But the waste doesn’t stop after New Year’s: our overwhelming consumption of goods during the holidays results in throwing out perfectly good household products and clothes throughout the rest of the year.

So here are seven gifts you can give this Christmas to have a great time and still feel good about yourself:

1.) Buy a living Christmas tree

If you want the look, feel, and smell of a real Christmas tree, then try out a potted, living tree! You can dress it up so it looks just as regal as a traditional, dead tree. Enjoy it in you living room now: plant it and enjoy it in your yard later…

book tree
Photo by Greg Rutty

2.) Make your own “Funky Tree”!

A funky tree is a tree that anyone can make on a low budget just by putting together things you find around the house … like books or egg cartons!

When you use items that would have been thrown out or recycled and make something functional out of them, it’s called Upcycling. It’s the even-better alternative to recycling because by using the objects in their current form (like, say, making a Christmas tree out of egg cartons or plastic tubing) you save the fossil fuels it would have required to convert the objects back into raw materials again. Check out this funky, up cycled tree to the left.

shrek hat

3.) Knit Mom a hat!

What better way to thank the woman who birthed and reared you than to knit her a cute little hat to keep her head warm this Christmas?

The only person who would appreciate a handmade hat as much as your own mom is the mom of a cute little kid if you make him/her one of these children’s Shrek hats!



4.) Give that smelly friend some eco-friendly soap.

Maybe that guy who sits next to you in Psych 101 is just allergic to the harsh chemicals and parabens in most commercial soaps. This holiday season give the gift of hygiene that’s gentle on the skin and the planet. Mountain Laurel Gifts on Court Street is selling Space Cadet soap bars for $6. They feature unique scent-combos like “lavender, rosemary, chamomile,” and “peppermint, orange.” And this local Athens business isn’t messing. Check out the ingredients label on Space Cadet Soaps: nothin’ but nature’s goodness!



5.) Purchase some eco-friendly salve that saves homeless puppies.

Appalachian Earth Sisters makes hand-crafted, organic salve (it’s a natural version of Vaseline) out of organic extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, and beeswax. They are a “full nonprofit”: all proceeds from the salve sold in Athens, OH goes to Athens County Humane Society to house and care for stray dogs and cats. You can find Appalachian Earth Sisters salve at Import House and Mountain Laurel Gifts on Court Street.


IMG_02446.) Paste together a collage.

Pull together some pictures, print them out at Minutemen Press on West Washington, and paste them in a crazy pattern with glue and pasteboard from College Bookstore on Court Street.

To the left is a collage I put together for my Dad one Christmas. Feel free to cut some photos out in rectangles, and cut others on the outline of the subject of the photo — this way you’ll make certain photos pop.



7.) Give the gift of a warm home by rescuing a stray cat or dog!



If you or someone you know is in the position to take care of an animal long-term, then go through Athens County Humane Society to rescue a little buddy to curl up by the fire with. And remember, don’t buy an animal through Petland or other businesses that buy from abusive puppy mills. Adopt your friend through your local shelter or humane society.


 And one last tip: wrap your gift with newspaper instead of wrapping paper!

Wrapping paper is so early 2000s. Impress all your friends with this creative alternative. Re-use paper such as newspaper and customize the content of the newspaper to your friend!





Give thanks by playing with a cat this Thanksgiving

Editor’s note: In a nod to the Thanksgiving holiday, reporters for the Shopping section of Court Street Stories have decided to “shop” for a local charity. What better way to say “thanks” than to find an organization worthy of a donation or volunteer work?






Coffee-themed opera makes buzz at Ohio University

Voice students at Ohio University’s school of music performed “caffeinated opera scenes” in their quirky production of L’Esperesso D’Amore. They used a classical art form, opera, to explore contemporary, first-world experiences such as powerful caffeine addictions, “The Coffee Cantata,” crushing on the local barista, “Taylor the latte boy” and having your partner give more attention to his/her iPhone than you, “Telephone.”

“These are a few of my favorite things” about L’ Espresso D’ Amore:

1.) Culture Clashphoto

Act one was set in a mock Donkey Coffee, who helped sponsor the event. Act two took place in a young woman’s pink, Ikea-decorated apartment. These settings provided hilarious incongruity with the performers’ classical vocal training. Just imagine a Bob Marley-style beanie-wearing barista with mutton chops singing from Bach’s Cantata.

2.) Shameless Performances

Guest artist Melissa Brobeck stole the show with “Taylor the Latte Boy,” in her neon-yellow stockings, glittery dress and cropped, spiky, red hair (see feature photo). But it wasn’t just her outfit that drew all eyes and ears. She comically-swooned and literally fell over her crush, the beanie-wearing barista, played by Tyler Thress. Her rocker-inspired dance poses and comedic largess made this song both delightful and hilarious. She joyfully recalled the moment “at 8:11 this morning,” when she swore that the latte boy gave her “extra foam,” at which she suggestively slid her hands up her hips.

3.) Satire

In “The Coffee Cantata,” Anne Yuan sang about her hopeless love for coffee with comedic sincerity in the melodramatic style of opera. Her father, played by Bryan Daly, disapproved of her coffee habit, of course. Yuan’s character snuck shots of espresso with the same manic anticipation of a crack-cocaine addict. Yuan lamented her father’s disdain, woefully singing “what’s wrong with drinking coffee?” to which Daly responded in his tenor vibrato, “everything is wrong with drinking coffee.”

Yuan and Daly. Photo courtesy OU Voice Division.

4.) Relevance

Despite it’s light-hearted tone, L’ Espresso D’ Amore brought up some important questions about modern life and its strange quirks that we take for granted. In “Telephone,” the boyfriend of a woman who’s obsessed with her iPhone, finally gives up on getting her attention long enough to ask her to marry him, and leaves her apartment to catch his train. In a final, desperate attempt to breach her cellphone-bubble, he calls her at the train station. She picks up the Facetime call, asking him, “Where are you?” The boyfriend, who just spent an hour physically by her side, now present only on the screen of her iPhone, replies, “I’m very in front of your face.” The irony of his comment made the couple’s reunion more sad than joyful.

Perkins and Witmer. Photo courtesy OU Voice Division.

5.) Why It Matters

The incongruity of the production was not only hilarious, but made the opera feel more accessible. I always thought of opera as some fat lady in a Viking-helmet belting an outdated drama on a far-away stage in Europe. This production mixed and matched opera with a contemporary (and even local) setting, songs from musical theatre and even played with some satire for added fun.

Thress and Brobeck. Photo courtesy OU Voice Division.
Thress and Brobeck. Photo courtesy OU Voice Division.


Three musicians and a giraffe: a portrait of Near Hills from Athens, Ohio

Jamie Moriarty, Ben Leeson and Maddy Ciampa of Near Hills are just as authentic as the trio’s raw music style would suggest. I popped in to listen to a rehearsal at Moriarty and Ciampa’s home. Flopping down on the big futon couch in their twinkly-lit and bulldog-paraphanalead living room, Moriarty, who already had water boiling on the stove, offered me a cup of tea. Leeson, who does vocals, guitar and piano for the band, soon joined us. Ciampa, cellist and vocals, got held up at work. But that didn’t stop the guys from enjoying their tea:

Photo courtesy of Near Hills Facebook page.
Maddy Ciampa on the cello at Folk Fest, 2015. Photo courtesy of Near Hills.

Moriarty set a big mason jar of honey on the coffee table. The honey was, of course, made by none other than his uncle’s own honey bees. I spooned a big helping of the sweet mess into my heart-decorated mug of spiced chai, and chatted with Moriarty and Leeson about their music and why it matters to them.

The guys echoed each-other’s love of collaborating in a small group to create something new. Moriarty said, “I think I get my drive out of … being able to have that connection with each other, and being able to come up with something that just us did, that just we, ourselves did. And I think in that sense we’re simple, because it’s not that we’re not ambitious, we just wanna keep it holistic and keep it real. Just the three of us …That’s way more special.

Leeson, Ciampa, and Moriarty celebrating New Years in January, 2015. Photo courtesy of Near Hills’ Facebook page.

As we talked, a giant, 6-foot stuffed-animal giraffe, sitting on the sofa to the left of Moriarty, kept falling on him, its plush hooves wrapping around the musician, trapping him in a giant, giraffe embrace.

You might think that these musicians sound like your typical brand of Ohio University hipsters living in west Athens, but they exude a sense of humility and enthusiasm for their work that makes them not only likable musicians, but great foster parents to a slightly-creepy, 6-foot giraffe.

When I asked about what artists influenced them, Moriarty shared, “We bonded over our individual inspiration from Bon Iver.”

Leeson added, “He [Bon Iver]’s … from Wisconsin, [and] he recorded an album in a log cabin, when he was super sick, one time, and it became super famous. He just recorded it all himself and it’s just this really different kind of folky, soul — awe, I don’t even know how to describe his sound — it’s just so unique.”


“Super rustic and creaky. He captured a lot of the location, and I don’t think a lot of artists do that,” Moriarty piped in.

Near Hills describes themselves as “alternative musicians with folk instruments.” They use a lot of harmonies to create a simple, yet evocative sound. They played a little demo for me, Leeson shredding up the piano, and Moriarty strumming his guitar and stamping his Teva-clad foot to the beat:


Not bad, right? They call it “Fear of Anomoly.” I think Bon Iver might even like it.

If you’re interested, you can check out more of Near Hills’s music on SoundCloud.



Athens students saving the world, one apple-crisp at a time

Think all college students are apathetic moochers who subsist on Ramen and reality TV? Think again.  A group of students at Ohio University are dedicating their Thursdays and Saturdays to whipping up home-cooked meals to serve and share with members of the local Appalachian community.

This is all happening at UCM, United Campus Ministry, an Athen’s non-profit center for spiritual growth and social justice.



Evan Young, who serves as pastor at UCM, and whose deep, reflective voice reminds me of Morgan Freeman’s, expressed the importance of students  “being face to face with, in service to, and in community with people that they might not meet otherwise. People who are on the margins in one way or another. Whether they’re economically disadvantaged or struggling with mental illness… Our meals are one of the places in Athens where the community and campus come together and they can talk and get to know each other. It’s pretty easy for students to come to Ohio University… and not really have any sense of what it means to be in Appalachia.”

Students and townies sit down to a game of chess after dinner.

But students who spend time at UCM are getting a sense of what it means to live in Appalachia. They’re getting a sense of what it’s like to live in Athens as a person, and not just as a college student.

OU sophomore Lacee McKinney, a student of anthropology and classical literature, spoke passionately to me that, “It’s important… to volunteer anywhere simply because it gets you out of your comfort zone. It does! It’s a different experience with different types of people. Because when you’re on campus you really only see people (who are) 18-24, maybe: all day, every day. But then when you volunteer you get out into the community.”

As a free-meal intern, McKinney helps to plan the bi-weekly meals based on the produce that UCM receives from CFI (community food initiative). In addition to meal planning, interns organize volunteers and make sure cooking, serving, and clean up goes (relatively) smoothly.

The meals are hosted in UCM’s basement dining room which is equipped with a well-worn kitchen where the clang of pots and pans and volunteers’ laughter can be heard spilling out of the small space.

You wouldn’t think a basement would be a homey place to eat your dinner, but the lively hum of regular guests and volunteers greeting each other and sitting down to enjoy beans and rice, salad, and freshly baked “apple crisp” – a weekly favorite – make the humble space feel warm and cozy.

Young said, “It would be easy for us to serve free meals that just focused on getting food into recipients. That’s not really the point of the free meals here. Yah, we like to serve food; but what’s most important is the community that we serve: the sense of belonging and acceptance, the way it feels when you walk into the basement and people recognize you and they’re happy to see you and they make sure that you’re comfortable. That’s what we mean when we say community meal.”11539023_10153391300782162_6928611706609704757_o-2

A handmade sign on the bright-turquoise painted cupboards in UCM’s kitchen reads, “This is a radically inclusive space. That means everyone – even zombies are welcome.” UCM is unique in that its a non-denominational, or interfaith spiritual growth center. Interfaith means that “all faiths and no faiths” are welcome.

UCM is also a “safe-zone,” meaning that it actively supports and advocates for Athens’s LGBT community.

I asked Josh Baron, a red-bearded ceramics student and free-meal intern, what made him keep coming back to UCM. Josh laughed before responding, “what keeps me at UCM is the welcome culture, the accepting culture: the loving attitude that you get from just about everyone who walks through the door. And that’s something that I haven’t found anywhere else, ever.”

Thursday Supper: 5:30 p.m. Volunteers can come at 3:00 p.m. to help cook.

 Saturday Lunch is served at 1:30 p.m. and volunteers come at 11:00 a.m. 

Students can email ucmmeals@gmail.com to volunteer.

Dining hall grub: the better of two evils?

If you take a walk through east green around dinnertime, as you wind around majestic oaks and quaint, colonial dorms, you will most likely hear the grumblings of underclassmen about their “Shively shits.” Those of us who are past the days of meal plans can’t forget that peculiar gassy feeling that creeps up mid-stroll home following a campus-meal with your friends.

What really goes into the 3.8 million meals per year that OU Culinary Services feeds us?


When I asked Culinary Services up-front if they used food preservatives or additives, they responded, “We do not use preservatives or texturizes in our products on campus.”

This, I had a hard time believing.

I asked Culinary Services for their ingredients, which they told me were on-line. Just for the record, the ingredients are not actually online.

This was their first lie.

I asked if I could come into the dining hall to snap a few pictures, also secretly hoping to check out some ingredient labels, but they denied my request, claiming that it would make students feel uncomfortable as “residential dining venues are a place for students to relax and refuel.”

So I decided to take matters into my own hands. I had an underclassman friend swipe me into Shively so I could have the full dining hall experience.


Shively was just as homey as I remembered it – I loved feeling engulfed in the lazy atmosphere of a dining hall towards the end of a long school day. I let myself be lulled into the collegiate comfort of the warm room as  I watched the lazy strides of students whose hardest decision that evening was choosing between chicken tenders and grilled cheese. Then I sank into a cushiony, retro, crescent-shaped booth by Shively’s front entrance.

There was so much food that I didn’t have to cook, and I wouldn’t have to clean up after!

“Ahhhh,” the privileges of college dining.

I filled a freshly-washed white bowl with beef vegetable soup, grabbed some classic Shively garlic bread, and made a verry elaborateimagejpeg_0-6e salad.

Then for dessert. For Homecoming the dining halls served these cute football-shaped cookies, along with Shively’s impressive variety of ice-cream.

Once I had allowed myself to be wined and dined, I got down to business. I snapped photos of the ingredients tags of various dishes, including the beef – vegetable soup I enjoyed.

Here are my findings.


According to the label, this Kosher and Halal-friendly soup contains disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate. Both are food additives, used as flavor enhancers, often times in conjunction with MSG. The soup also contains lactic acid, a preservative and curing agent used as a decontaminant during meat-processing.

This was Culinary Services’ second lie.

I don’t expect a dining hall to serve some bourgeois meal of organic beef, carefully raised on the pristine green pastures of New Zealand. Preservatives are arguably necessary when feeding students on such a large scale in order to keep food from spoiling.

But I don’t expect Culinary Services to lie to me about it, either.

Photo courtesy of Ohio University Culinary Services

That being said, I don’t see Culinary Services as this evil branch of OU that’s out to torture students by giving them “the Shively shits.” In comparison with what most students eat once they escape the clutches of the meal plan, dining hall food is often times the better alternative. The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that at a midsize university in Oregon, 59% of students had experienced food insecurity within the past year. Students who are strapped for cash are more likely to go for calorie-rich foods like fast food and processed foods with a longer shelf-life. Jacqueline Duffy, a social-work student living off campus at OU, said, “I would buy healthy options if I had the money, but I have to buy in bulk and that kind of stuff (produce,) goes bad.”

Purchasing a meal plan helps a student allocate a certain amount of money each semester to their food budget – ensuring that he or she will have regular access to fresh food throughout the semester. And as less-than-perfect as some of the dining hall’s cooked dishes may be, the salad bars at OU are the bomb. Equipped with sunflower seeds, nuts, spinach, feta cheese, bell peppers, cucumbers, and sometimes even kale, dining halls have the resources to provide students with produce that’s replenished throughout the week; whereas a bag of spinach in your own fridge has to be eaten in a few days before it goes bad.

And while we’re on the subject of cooked meals, how many of us off-campus folk actually cook, at all? Most busy college students still choose take-out or an Easy Mac, out of convenience. Kelsey Gerard, also a student at OU, commented, “It’s easier to un-package something and eat it.” In regards to food additives, Easy Mac has just as many preservatives as that beef- vegetable soup that I broke down for you.

When all is said and done, dining hall food may not be as good as your Mom’s cooking, but is your cooking that much better?