Our Favorite Things: Wedding & Home

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As I have more and more friends and relatives getting married and starting to have kids, I wanted to do a post with some of my favorite things and biggest things learned from the last few years. I’ll probably update this from time to time and link back to it in my monthly post whenever I do.

Think big but also practical! I think I was a little too practical. I didn’t want us to be given all the fun stuff and have to go get the practical stuff ourselves, but I also didn’t want to have to choose between things we weren’t given. But it’s amazing how much people want to give you. So don’t worry about registering for that BlendTec (especially because it can be blender, food processor, and ice cream maker all in one)!
Think about what you want your home to be like – what it looks like, how it functions, what sort of things you want to use it for, what you want on your counters… and that will help a lot. I had registered for a stand mixer, hand blender, blender, and hand mixer, and we ended up returning the hand mixer because I figured I just wouldn’t use it – and I haven’t missed it and am glad for less stuff.

Speaking of hand/immersion blenders, make sure you have one on your registry! I use mine more than I ever thought I would, mostly since we don’t have a lot of counter space and our food processor is an attachment on our mixer and it’s a pain to get it all out for one thing (see above note about what you want on your counters!), so I use the hand blender a lot: soups, smoothies, sauces, dressings, eggs, batters… I probably use it almost every day. And they also make them with mini food processor and whisk attachments, which would be even more useful and multi-purpose. For $20-40 bucks it’s hard to beat!

My other favorite things in the kitchen:
– canning funnel (I buy a lot in bulk, so this is almost a necessity to transfer things from the bag to the jar)
– custard cups (for holding snacks, sauces, etc)
– shot glass measuring cup (for small amounts of liquid)

Prioritize your top 3 things and work the rest around it. This is especially true regarding the budget, but really goes for everything. We really only had two things, the people and the photography. We were willing to cut corners in other areas if needed to have what we wanted there, even to fly people out (which we didn’t end up having to do).

Delegate! I learned this before planning my own wedding from watching my sister plan hers. People were telling Cait to not have anything to do the week before the wedding, and while she was still doing odds and ends, most of what was left to do had been delegated to others, so she could relax and enjoy her wedding day. I did this as much as I could, though I only flew into the US the week before so I did have some things left to do. But thanks in large part to my aunts, cousins, bridesmaids, and few other friends, I was able to not worry about anything on the day of.

Budget: we were slightly limited on how we could have a more budget-friendly wedding because we weren’t getting married in a town either of us were really from, so we couldn’t get friends or church family to do a whole lot as far as DIY, decor, food, etc. was concerned. And because it was a relatively small town there weren’t many venue options. But our reception venue provided a fair amount of decor and would do the decorating with their decor for you, which helped a lot, and my aunt did the rest of it (mostly putting out favors, picture frames, and the ivy wreaths that went around the mirror plates and tea light holders the venue provided). The downside was that we had to use their caterer, which was more expensive, but in the end both venues worked out to be around the same price but the one did the decorating for us so it won out. At the ceremony venue, we wanted to keep decor simple especially as we had a larger wedding party. But a few days before the wedding, the church called us and asked if we wanted them to leave up their Christmas trees, which were just decorated with white lights, and we said yes and it really added to the woodsy feel we wanted. We really couldn’t have made either venue work the way they did – perfectly – without the help of my mom’s sisters!
I considered using silk flowers as it would have been the cheapest option, but timewise it didn’t sound like a good plan, so we supported a local business and friend of my grandmother’s (since we were getting married in her town) to do dried flowers for our Winter wedding. Another friend of my grandmother’s loves to make cupcakes but didn’t want to do everything required to be an official business, so gave us a really good deal on our cupcakes, which were absolutely delicious, and made us a small cake we could cut.
My dress was tailor-made in Dubai, which is cheap in Dubai! But before I found a pattern I liked we were looking on Etsy since I knew I wanted something vintage-y and under $300 and something I could wear again. In the end fabric was about $50 and so was the tailoring!
Our invitations and bookmarks (favors) we designed ourselves, using a pattern Ezra had woodburned into a box for me, and a friend who had done a lot of graphic design in the past vectorized my pencil work and made it look professional, and then we looked at various places online to get a good deal for printing.
For a guestbook we got a nice box, 3×5 cards, and pens at Target, and people could put prewritten cards or what they wrote on our cards in the box. We also had some scrapbook cardstock with things like “Names for our future kids” “things we should do in our first year of marriage” “things we should learn how to cook” etc. written on them, which was really fun to look over later.

We kept an excel document with wedding gifts listed on it, with a separate column for cash and checks so we could add up that and use it for furniture and items from our registry we hadn’t been given.
Except for S’s crib and our electric piano, ALL of the furniture we have purchased since we’ve been married has been from Craigslist, and we’ve gotten some beautiful, solid wood pieces that way for a really good price. Our piano we bought new at Guitar Center, but scored a big discount because they only had the floor model left, so they priced it as if it had been damaged even though it wasn’t.

When unpacking, the first time I just put things where they fit best in cupboards, but found a few weeks later I was moving things around again. So when we moved into our second apartment, before I put anything away I thought about where I would be using what and tried to put things accordingly – so plates were closest to the table, cups by our water filter, mixing bowls by the pantry, pots by the stove, etc. Not everything fit where it made the most sense, but I was much happier.

Chores were not hard for me to divide up, but it was so easy to not keep up with them because with only two of us things didn’t get dirty very fast. But I did find it was so much nicer when I did at least a touch up on things when I was “supposed to,” having made a chart that meant all of the major places – floors, bathrooms, laundry – got done every week. I also have a monthly and yearly list I rotate through to get things that don’t need cleaning every week. But I haven’t been very good about that since we have never lived anywhere for more than a year yet and we’ve always known that and so since we have to deep clean when we move I don’t bother doing it in between moving in and moving out.

We mostly use cleaners that we make ourselves. The recipes for toilet cleaner and the all purpose cleaner I use come from this book, which I cannot recommend enough (my favorite essential oils are from Plant Therapy!). This website also has lots of good info on safe use of essential oils.
Window cleaner seems to be the trickiest one to get down, but I have found this works best. This or oxiclean free work well for bleach and getting stains out (Just don’t use essential oils in laundry unless you will wash on very hot before putting in the dryer). A soak in a bowl with oxiclean works wonders on most stains! For oil stains we’ve usually rubbed baking soda in and then after a little while sprayed with hydrogen peroxide and then washed a bit later. This is great for cleaning tubs, essential oil not necessary.
I used to use liquid castile, diluted, for dish soap but found it didn’t really get things sparkling clean, so we just use regular dish soap, but do use diluted castile in foaming dispensers for hand soap.
And did you know that cleaning your washing machine is a good idea?
We use this for our toothpaste, this if we want it to actually be paste. This is what has worked best for us for dishwasher detergent. I don’t recommend making your own laundry detergent.
Hand sanitizer.
Cleaning glass shower doors.

Since I’m talking hygiene and recipes for that sort of thing, for my hair I use a shampoo bar and rinse with ACV or kombucha. Ezra and S use a Kirk’s Castile soap bar, which is what we all use on our skin. Once or twice a week I use a sugar scrub on my skin, mixing grapeseed oil and sugar into a paste and then adding essential oils based on various needs – the book mentioned above helps with knowing what to use. I oil cleanse 2x a week if I remember. See here and here.

One of our favorite healthy food resources is Azure Standard.

Book Recommendations:
Let me be a Woman (Elisabeth Elliot)
When Sinners Say I Do
This Momentary Marriage (John Piper)
The Hidden Art of Homemaking (Edith Schaeffer)


Living in Japan has been wonderful, but it hasn’t exactly been easy. I think some of that is just the stage S is in right now, testing boundaries, being picky, and being cranky from whatever is causing her to wake up at 5. But it also took us a long time to get plugged in because ladies’ Bible study was during S’s morning nap and the first church we were going to wasn’t very good but from what we had heard it was the best option around, until we found something else (a community we are still plugging into but that can provide the support we need when E is traveling and when the baby is born). Culture shock was minimal, but still not nice and I still find myself with a deer in the headlights look thinking “I can’t Japanese!” in the middle of the crowded grocery store. And because E was delayed in the US and so I got here first, adjusting to him being here and a part of the life we had already settled into here was hard and rocky.

All that was an emotional roller coaster for me, often leaving me feeling exhausted – but I didn’t really feel like exhausted was the right word. Drained? Maybe a little closer. Overwhelmed? That was definitely a part of it.
Then one day it came.
Everything together was taking all of my energy, all that I had.
But it was when I realized I was empty that things began to change, because when I realized I was empty was when I realized that I was trying to do it on my own strength. Of course I’d been praying about everything, but when I finished praying I went back to trying to push through it on my own.
But when I knew I was empty was when I could let God fill me and when I started to know that the feeling of “can’t” was a sign that instead of pushing through and praying about it later, I needed to ask for His help now if I was going to respond to S patiently.

It’s amazing to me how some of the biggest ways I’ve grown through motherhood have been such seemingly simple things.

Thoughts on Convictions – 2

In the first post in this series I explained that while the Bible speaks clearly about how we should live, there is often freedom to apply its commands in various ways. In these second two posts I hope to give some examples of how this works. These ideas can be applied to many different biblical commands, but my intent here is to examine some of the bigger issues in conservative Christianity.

                There is a clear command in Ephesians 6 for parents to raise their children in the Lord. Many take this to mean that the only form of education is homeschooling. This is supported by Deuteronomy 6, where parents are told to speak to their children of God’s laws when you rise up, when you lie down, when you walk by the way, etc.  Homeschooling certainly makes obeying those commands easier, especially with younger children who don’t yet have the discernment to sort right from wrong in a secular teaching environment.[1]
But I have seen families who homeschool neglect the spiritual teaching and even more, spiritual care of their children, and I have seen families who do not homeschool excel in raising their children in the Lord. Those families had to work extra-hard to disciple their children, but they most certainly did not neglect God’s commands in sending their children to private or public schools. Successes and failures aside, what really matters is not what worked for someone but what God says.
My understanding of those two commands (Deuteronomy 6 and Ephesians 6) is that the place of education isn’t as important as the interaction between parents and children at home. Discipling your children and homeschooling are not synonymous. Neither is simply doing family worship at the end of a school day, whether that day was at or away from home. It is teaching your children when you rise up (but you can be getting ready for school or studies at home), when you lie down, and when you walk by the way (whether that’s the car to and from school or up and down the stairs of your house).
We see homeschooling as the easiest and most practical way of doing that and so have chosen to homeschool, but believe making that the only valid option for Christians is beyond the teaching of scripture.

                Post-high school education is often hotly debated. This is an area that I don’t believe there are commands in the Bible that directly apply. However, there is teaching on the company you keep, making wise choices, and the calling of God.

We don’t see college as the only or even best route, but one of many. What is most important is receiving what you need to fulfill any calling or passion God has given you – that might mean internship, trade school, online courses, college, or simply reading and studying this and that on your own. This goes for daughters AND sons. The aforementioned callings and passions should be shaped and checked by scripture (for example, only men are to be leaders in the church, so if a daughter aspires to that she must re-think her desires). First, one must study the Bible to determine what a Christian is to do and be, and then what a man or a woman is to do and be, and finally what they personally should do and be with the giftings God has given them. From there one can determine what the wisest route is – and that is never sitting idly at home!
Because of the above, I don’t believe a daughter must stay at home, but I do believe that after careful study of biblical commands to women, it would likely be the wisest route in order to prepare for the future. I do not see a career as being the norm for a woman; see “women working” below.


Youth group
                As with education, the clear command of scripture is for parents to raise their children in the Lord.
Does this mean others can’t be involved? No. But others should not take the place of parents in any way. There are definitely times when peers can gather and do peer stuff. Is it always wise? No. But should it be banned across the board or generalized as dividing the church into age-based factions? I don’t think so.


Women Working

“Older women… are to train the younger women to be… working at home.” Titus 2:3-5. (Other translations say “keepers of the home.” Strong’s concordance suggests that the Greek best translates into the idea of housekeeper.)
The understanding of this command does depend some on the variance in translations, as noted above. Because of that, some read this passage and believe that women may only work in and from the home. Others apply that only to a wife. And still others see the application as the keeping of the home being the woman’s first and primary duty, but once that is done she is free to work outside the home. Because of Proverbs 31, there is rarely any dispute over whether or not a woman may work from the home. The issue is not a woman generating income.

I tend to side with the latter two opinions, thus concluding that daughters have more freedom in this area (though living at home would perhaps be wisest, and if at home, any family duties must be fulfilled), and that there are times it is permissible for a wife to work outside the home.
Our view is that if a woman can still manage the home (which pre-baby could easily have been as little as 15 minutes of chores and an hour of cooking a day), working is not an issue (it should also be noted, however, that working from home can cause as much if not more of a distraction from wifely duties than working outside!). This means that it would most likely only be part time and not full-time or a long-term career. However, that doesn’t mean it’s the wisest use of her time.

Before we got married, Ezra and I decided that we were okay with me working part-time pre-kids if I wanted to. But his job is plenty to support us and we decided my time would be better used in other ways – like volunteering at the pregnancy center, writing, visiting people from church, etc. Not that it was wrong for me to work, but we saw that the better use of my time would be in these other ways that were more along the lines of how the women who were applauded in scripture spent their time. Also, just because you “can” do both on paper doesn’t mean it will play out that way. As a couple, you must consider what it really means to be a keeper at home, versus simply making dinner at the end of a long day.
I wrote about this more in 2012, and you can read that here.
I understand and have respect for more conservative views, especially considering the variance in the translation of the passage, but do not see it as an across-the-board rule.

Birth Control
                 The Bible does not say anything about birth control specifically, however, it does speak about how we should view children, the sovereignty of God, the sanctity of life, and also to issues of sin in our hearts. Some look at these teachings and conclude that using birth control is always sin, implying that if you don’t take “as many as God gives you,” then you’re not really seeing children as a blessing. Others believe we have freedom to use whatever birth control we choose as long as we still view children as a blessing. In the middle are people who would use only some forms of birth control, or only at certain times.
This is a complex issue that is often emotionally charged, personal, and has many facets.
                First, there is our mindset towards children. The Bible is clear that children are a blessing, can bring their parents great joy, and are like arrows in the hand of a warrior – “tools” for engaging our culture.
                Second, there is the sovereignty of God. God is in control of every area of our lives – which combined with point one say to me that the number and timing of children isn’t something for me to regulate. This is even more clear to me as I think about the timing of S’s conception and birth – with circumstances that were better than we would have chosen, but also ones we would not have chosen – yet still showing how God’s way is so much better than ours. To say “it’s just science” is to deny God’s hand in every day details of our lives, including the science of things like the rising and setting of the sun. It does not feel right to me to try to take control of that, nor does it ever seem to me like there is a “good time” to have a baby – babies are always work and life is always kind of crazy.
                Third, there is the sanctity of life. This applies to specific forms of birth control that can be considered abortifacients, and that therefore I believe are wrong for Christians to use. If after points 1, 2, and 4 are prayerfully considered a couple still chooses to delay or prevent children, there are other options to choose from that do not compromise life, some that could even be considered God’s design (ecological breastfeeding, Hosea 1:8). However, I think in most circumstances, after said prayerful consideration, the use of birth control will be excluded.
And fourth, there is sin in our own hearts. Ask yourself: why do I want to use birth control? It’s easy to want to wait for a better time, or a longer gap (side note: I do believe God can and does give us more than we can handle – but never more than HE can handle!), or to want to be done so you can focus on other things. Those are often complex and deep concerns that often belong to the couple (and sometimes their mentors) alone, but whenever steps are taken to prevent children we must check our hearts for sin, particularly selfishness. Selfishness can also show up in our ideals for what we want our children to have. Love is not measured by what things we can give them or activities they can do.

Within that framework, I know people who have chosen to use legitimate forms of birth control, particularly for health reasons (and I know people who have chosen to still forgo any birth control despite health risks – and both decisions were reached with much prayer), or in seasons of particular trial. Whatever the reasons, though, we must always check ourselves to make sure it’s not simply selfishness that leads our decision.

Whichever side we fall on, the decision seems to come from more general texts (Children are a blessing and God is sovereign) that combined with wisdom are lived out a certain way (If the above statements are true, are we really in a place to seek to prevent kids?).

On the other side of things, I don’t think it’s right for us to pry into others’ plans for children. I always felt that if people weren’t divulging that information, then that was their choice to keep it a private matter and that was completely fine. I think that someone in a mentorship position can and even should ask about that at times, especially if the couple is waiting to have children, to help check their motives.

I’ve also often found that behind the asking and/or the way it’s responded to, there’s usually an unspoken implication that they’re hoping you take the same position as them, which in our circumstances has been the mindset of leaving it up to God and it makes it awkward if that’s not what you’re doing.

But what clicked the other day was also that the way some people reply to pregnancy announcements (or ask if you are pregnant yet), implies that we really hope you are because it’s the best thing that can happen in/because of your marriage. I don’t mean by being annoyed at this that children aren’t a great blessing or that having them isn’t good for your marriage (the past months have been very good for our marriage, especially communication, and I think a fair amount of that is due ways we’ve grown because of S). But marriage is about WAY more than having children, and there are other blessings God gives as well.


[1] Unless a child has a clear profession of faith and fruit to match, we cannot claim they are a necessary “salt and light” in the secular schools.

Thoughts on Convictions – 1

In the last two years or so, I’ve thought often about convictions, particularly the way they play out in conservative circles. I was raised with a lot of books and CDs from “ultra-conservative” circles  and benefited from them. However, I often accepted the rationales given for their values without question,[1] and there was definitely a time when I was lock-step with most of their teachings. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I began wondering at some of what they said, so that I started studying to make sure that my thoughts were biblical and not just things that “sounded right” to me.

As a continuation of those thought processes, I re-read some of the books we own dealing with homeschooling, birth control, emotional purity, etc. I really started thinking about phrases being used and where they come from. Is guarding your heart really a biblical concept? Are we really supposed to “give our hearts to our fathers?” How “wrong” is youth group? How absolute is homeschooling? And what should a daughter do with her time? In the end, my convictions remained the same in their basic outworking, but my explanations for them changed. This was mostly due to one thing I kept seeing again and again as a pitfall in these circles: It seems that the clear commands of the Bible, such as parents discipling their children (Ephesians 6, Deuteronomy 6), are often blown out of proportion. Instead of acknowledging the freedom we have to apply such commands in different ways, the application itself becomes a further command: you must homeschool. This also happens in areas such as modesty, courtship, birth control, youth group, and women working outside the home.
I firmly believe that the Bible speaks to each of these issues. It is usually very easy to see exactly what God desires:  you shall not steal. You shall not commit adultery. Children, obey your parents. Flee sexual immorality. Parents, teach your children the ways of the Lord. However, as proved by the varied ways Bible-believing Christians apply the commands of scripture, it is clear that the simple commands of the Bible are not so simple to apply. The way a brief command interacts with culture is complicated. Sometimes, people use that to ignore commands of God, sweeping everything off of the table and saying nothing of those commands, refusing to consider the differences between our culture and what the Bible says. Other times, they make the commands to mean more than they are (as in the previous example of “bring [your children] up in the training and instruction of the Lord” becoming “homeschooling is the only form of education for the Christian family”).
There are many times when we have more freedom than some allow in the application of His commands. Things like homeschooling may be the wisest and most practical way to obey Him, but homeschooling is not the only way, nor is it a command from the Bible. It may be a right thing to do, but I believe it is the application of a law of God, not the law itself. I hope in the following posts to show examples of how this plays out in various issues. I hope by these examples to demonstrate that these things are important, but also delicate and require grace in the way we live them out.

[1] Despite my family’s use of the materials in a way that went to the Bible FIRST and applied any teaching with grace.

Apartment #2

Before we got married, we knew we’d have to move out of our apartment within a year. They wanted to renovate it and charge a lot more than we were willing to pay. Looking for a new place was stressful and exhausting. We almost signed the lease on one place before I decided that while I was okay with 2nd story and one bathroom I didn’t want to have a split-level apartment with one bathroom so close to the baby being born.

A week or two later, there were a couple of other places that seemed like good options, but they kept not working out for various reasons. We had about three left in the running the week before our “decide” deadline, and one of those places wouldn’t call me back. The other one called the morning of the day I had an appointment and said the apartment was leased (but they said the soonest they could show it was the time slot they’d given me!).

I was really frustrated. In the weeks before, it was becoming more and more clear that each place we seriously considered was better than the last in location, price, and/or the apartment itself. But with the options we had open at the time, it looked like we were going to be paying more and farther out than we wanted to be.

And then when I was checking online right before bed one night, the place I’d liked best had just dropped $100 a month. So we applied that night, and about two weeks later we moved in with the help of lots of church friends – one of whom had given me a ride to see the apartment in the first place!

We were very reluctant to move since we loved our old place and there wasn’t anything wrong with it. A month later, I certainly miss the trail and extra counter space, but that’s really about it.

This place has paint from the owners, as well as some organizational/storage stuff that we love. The carpets are really soft and deep. It’s quieter than our old place and the neighbors upstairs don’t have a whiny dog. We have a great view and extra parking.

And we still have a guest room, so come visit! 🙂

Courtship & Legalism

In response to a recent article critiquing courtship, Ezra has written this blog post and I wanted to share it with my blog readers.

While Ezra’s post deals with the most glaring issue, there are a few smaller comments I wanted to make. Umstattd’s article did bring up some legitimate flaws in courtship, at least in the way he defines it. Apart from what Ezra pointed out (which, unfortunately, was not at all a part of Umstattd’s solution, as he turned to a new formula rather than God to solve the problem – perhaps the saddest and most disappointing thing about his article), the biggest “flaw” in the way he defines it is that the only difference between courtship & engagement is a ring & a date. I wanted to briefly outline how for us courtship was a completely different thing than what Umstattd makes it out to be.
– We didn’t view marriage as the only or even most probable outcome to our relationship. Courtship (as we defined it – and any time I use the word “courtship” from now on it has that caveat) was a time to get to know each other in order to determine whether or not marriage between us would be wise or glorify God. We would have still considered it a success if we had decided NOT to get married for valid, godly reasons, and it would have been a failure if we moved on to marriage when we shouldn’t have.
– Umstattd speaks ill of parental involvement. While I have heard of stories that parental involvement was taken too far, the roles our parents played were healthy and necessary, especially considering our circumstances. Our fathers were involved in our emailing, and they along with our mothers were our primary counselors throughout our courtship. This was in many ways by our choice, as we knew that they knew us well and could help us see things more clearly.
That said, they weren’t controlling. Most of our Skype time was on our own. While we were together in person, we had time with our families and friends, but we also had time where we could talk privately and without interruption, whether it was in the car, on walks, in the living room, etc. I was grateful for this, not only because it gave us time to talk through things that we couldn’t really talk about in front of others, but it showed that although our parents were involved, they also trusted us to know ourselves/know if we would be tempted/be mature and let us draw many of the boundaries (ie, WE decided not to have physical contact during our courtship).
– Many say that in courtship, you can’t really getting to know each other. However, with the involvement of our families and friends (in person and via email) we could find out if the other wasn’t being honest and genuine. I was also confident that Ezra wasn’t hiding anything or trying to “make it work” because he was clear and forthright about sin – past or present – and any theological disagreements, proving to me that his hope was ultimately in God and not our courtship, as well as that he wasn’t hiding who he really was.

I say all that not to provide another formula for others, but to explain that there are outer differences as well as deeper differences between the courtship Umstattd critiques and what courtship (or whatever you want to call it) means to us.
It’s not a perfect way, and even in the circles we run in has ways to grow, perhaps especially in men and women getting to know each other/be comfortable with each other on a friendly level, again with the purpose of glorifying God in ALL relationships, be they romantic or friendly – which is another discussion that needs to be had between communities – how guys and girls can get to know each other to even know if they’re interested in taking things to a further level.

Radiation: Discussion of the Known Properties and Dangers of Radiation

This is the first in a series of blog posts on radiation. With all of the hype in “crunchy” circles about the dangers of low intensity radiation, Ezra and I wanted to do research on it and come to conclusions that were based on science as much as possible and not on the hype.
This first article is written by Ezra, who studied a lot about nuclear systems, specifically for reactors, in university and in preparation to possibly work with submarines after. The purpose of this post is to define some terms we’ll be using later and establish some of what we DO know for certain before we move on to areas that we (and many others) know much less about.

A Short Discussion of the Known Properties and Dangers of Radiation
The term “radiation” is used for many different types of particles or waves which are “radiated” from various substances. For the purpose of this discussion, I will make a broad division between two different kinds of radiation: radiation which has enough energy to cause damage to human cell tissue and radiation which does not. This discussion will focus almost entirely on the “higher energy” radiation, because it is responsible for all known, studied, and measured negative radiation-related health effects.

Four of the most notable types of radiation are gamma, alpha, beta, and neutron radiation:

Name        Particle (Charge)                                     Penetration Ability         Damage Potential
Alpha     Two neutrons and two protons (+2)        Almost none                      Large
Beta         One electron (-1)                                             Very little                             Medium
Gamma    One photon particle/wave (0)                Medium                              Medium
Neutron    One neutron (0)                                          Considerable                         Small

Alpha particles occur naturally, so that everyone is exposed to some (typically very small) amount of alpha radiation during their lives. Due to their large size and charge, they can do a relatively large amount of damage to human cells. However, these same properties make them extremely unlikely to penetrate the human body beyond the very outer layer of skin, so that they are only dangerous if ingested in large quantities. Interestingly, the amount of alpha radiation in an area can increase slightly with the weather phenomena known as temperature inversion.

Beta particles typically do somewhat less damage than alpha particles, but also can penetrate a little bit further into the body. However, they can still be stopped by a thin layer of clothing, and therefore cause only surface burns unless they are ingested.

Neutrons do not occur naturally in large levels. Also, because they have no charge, they can travel right into the human body, or even through the human body without interacting with it at all. Neutrons are the type of radiation which sustain nuclear reactions, both in power plants and bombs. This is why nuclear power plants employ multiple thick layers of water and lead shielding; utilizing these types of shielding reduces the amount of radiation emitted from a functioning power plant to less than normal natural radiation levels.

Gamma radiation is the most commonly encountered radiation. The particle (or wave) which forms it is the photon. In other words, light is gamma radiation. Visible light itself is does not have high enough energy to cause radiation damage to cells (although the sun’s rays may contain non-visible photons that can cause damage). However, photons of higher frequencies (which means higher energies) can. Also, photons will often penetrate deeply into the human body before colliding with human cell tissue.

It is important to understand that there are two completely different effects that these types of radiation can have on the human body, which must be discussed separately in order to be understood correctly. These are known as acute effects and chronic effects.

To understand acute effects, imagine your body being bombarded by thousands of molecular sized particles, and then repairing the damage caused by those particles. That would describe how your body normally deals with background radiation. Acute radiation effects would begin when your body can no longer repair damage done by those particles colliding with your body. When a cell in your body’s tissue cannot repair itself fast enough to keep up with radiation damage, it begins to die. If enough cells die, your body will begin to lose its ability to function, which can result in death. There are very few examples of this in real life; aside from nuclear weapons, Chernobyl, and a few military and scientific experiments gone wrong, these effects generally do not occur. Radiation levels simply are not high enough to produce acute effects in most cases, even when they are high enough to produce chronic effects (Three Mile Island and Fukushima both did not release nearly enough radiation into the atmosphere to cause acute effects). Note: most Hollywood portrayals of “radiation sickness” are based off of acute radiation effects.

Chronic radiation effects result from radiated particles passing through a cell’s membrane and colliding with the DNA in a cell’s nucleus. This has the potential to alter the DNA, which can cause deformities and cancer to show up at a later time. Because cells cannot repair themselves from damage to DNA, chronic effects are cumulative, meaning that a low intensity of radiation over a long period of time can have the same chronic effect as a high intensity of radiation in a short period (as opposed to with acute effects, where the intensity of the radiation is what matters more). So then, everyone receives a chronic dose of radiation which accumulates over their life time from various every-day sources, both natural and man-made.

It is useless to worry about trying to eliminate the sources of radiation which accumulate into this chronic dose; they include the sun, dirt, rocks, trees, bananas, building materials, some medical procedures, and most other things encountered in life. While some of these things are unavoidable, such as dirt and trees, many which are avoidable provide benefits which far outweigh the added risk. Following are some common avoidable sources of radiation:

Name                             Increased Radiation Exposure        Potential Benefit
Bananas                                        Minimal, from potassium              Health
Medical (isotope, x-ray)        Moderate                                           More accurate diagnosis
Flying                                           Moderate                                            Quick travel
Nuclear power plants           Minimal                                                Economical power
Cigarettes                                 Significant                                             Enjoyment
Cigars                                         Moderate                                              Enjoyment

It would be silly to stop eating bananas because they contain more radiation than most fruit; they provide enjoyment and health benefits which far outweigh the insignificant amount they contribute to an individual’s chronic dose. Medical procedures which use x-rays or isotopes are worth a bit more thought; they can represent something like a tenth to a sixth of an average person’s annual chronic radiation dose. However, in most cases, the benefits of medical radiation also outweigh the risks. The same might also be said of flying.

Nuclear power plants are a hotly debated subject when it comes to radiation exposure. I will simply add my thoughts to this debate by saying that while nuclear power plants do pose some health risk, so do all other forms of large-scale power generation, both traditional and alternative. A discussion of exactly what these risks are, or how they stack up against each other would be long and complex and beyond the scope of this writing. However, as a person who has studied nuclear power plants in-depth, I will simply say that I would have no qualms living next to an American nuclear power plant, that living next to a nuclear power plant will not increase your annual radiation dose, and that the benefit of having nuclear power plants is most certainly worth the risk.

Cigarettes are a significant contributor to the annual radiation dosage of anyone who smokes on a regular basis. Typically, for a chain-smoker, cigarettes will contribute more than any other factor. The reason for this is that the cigarette smoke will leave particles behind in a person’s lungs which will continue to radiate into that person’s body for years. Two other points regarding cigarettes: first, since the smoke from a cigar (or pipe) is not breathed into the lungs, cigars are significantly healthier, so that a person who enjoys a moderate amount of cigar smoking may reasonably deem the enjoyment worth the risk. Second, the radiation dose accumulated by cigarette smoking is a much smaller health concern than the volume of smoke dust particles accumulated in the lungs.

One more big concept worth understanding is the difference between radiation and radioactive contamination. Radiation refers to the actual particles or waves which have been emitted from something else, and which will normally travel in a straight line until they collide with something or are absorbed by something. An individual particle of radiation generally exists for an extremely short period of time. Radioactive contamination is any substance which contains unstable atoms which can decay in a process which emits radiation. Thus, radiation comes from contamination. When a news anchor reports that “radiation” was released from Fukushima, what they actually mean is that contamination was released. This is significant, because contamination will continue to cause radiation for a period of time after it is released (though, in the case of Fukushima, it will likely be found that the increase in background radiation caused by the accident will be minimal or even negligible).

Finally, it is worth ending this discussion with a word about lower energy radiation (the kind without enough energy to contribute to cause direct harm to the human cell). I have done my best here to lay out the dangers of higher energy radiation as they are: dangers worth considering, but in many cases, risks worth accepting. What I cannot speak intelligently about are the emerging claims that low-energy electromagnetic radiation, such as that which is emitted from cell phones and wi-fi hot-spots, may effect the function of the brain, or may interfere with hormone levels in the body. Such a thing seems possible to me, but my knowledge of neuroscience is insufficient to give anything like an educated opinion on the matter. My only concern is that the risks associated with higher energy radiation are often confused with the conjectures being made about lower energy radiation, an unhelpful situation which often leads to unnecessary fear or the sale of expensive and dubious products, falsely marketed as scientifically tested ways to protect an individual from being harmed by low-energy radiation.