Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Purple Dress Dinner

Last night, our family celebrated 2nd annual "Purple Dress Dinner".   To be honest, I almost called it off because of the stress-and-strain of the recent week -- not to mention that I knew this morning I'd have to jump in a rental car and drive 700 to a different kind of party, "MathFest".

But, oh man, I'm so glad we had the party.  It was wonderful!   And just what I needed, in so many ways.  For one thing, three of my kids who I didn't expect to be here actually came:  K-daughter got home from work sooner than I expected and brought A-child with her, my youngest step-daughter just happened to be in town instead of at grad school in Minnesota, and even J-son showed up.  That means, of our six kids, we were missing only my oldest step-daughter, who has the good excuse of living several hundred miles away with her husband.

Eight-ninths of a complete family reunion!

But even more, we got to toss into the pot a few other friends, most of whom, it turned out, had "family" ties to me in odd ways.

Friends in purple are friends indeed.

For one thing, the host family that J-son has landed with came, so we got to meet each other.  The mom and I had some very very good conversations.  Yes.   Also, my own former host daughter Y came and helped me cut up CSA vegetables before the party, for old times' sake.  She's just finished up a year leading Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship at my college, and she's headed for medical school in a week.  We also got to be elegant with my friend K, who had long ago suggested to us that we ought to adopt a child from Haiti (the adoption of X-son fell through, but we still support him).  So there were a lot of family ties, Miser Mom style, among these guests.

We dined on elegant finger foods, had deep and intensely helpful conversations, and then went for a stroll.  The stroll included the requisite tour of a local rose garden.  It was good to take time to smell the flowers.
These roses were pretty but didn't have much of a smell;
the yellow "Julia Child" roses had an aroma to swoon for.

As for dinner, you may or may not care about the menu.  But as I ran around pulling together this party at the last-minute, I found it super helpful to look at my pictures and remember ideas from last year, so as a service to my next-years's self, I'm posting bad pictures of good food here.  With the exception of the fruit and wine, this was all made from food I was lucky enough to have lying around the house.  How nice to have a well-stocked larder!

Tomato-basil salad in small canning jars with spoons, and strawberries on skewers.
Hummus on summer squash, and cherries on the stem.
Also, just out of the photo, fresh-baked bread and a jar of carrot-top pesto.
Kale with lemon massaged into the leaves,
quiche in muffin pans,
and sliced cucumbers.
Not pictured:  Chocolate cupcakes.



Monday, July 24, 2017

J-son: the Village has arrived

Saturday night, I wrote that J-son has moved out.  What's up with that?

I've been trying to figure out how to write this post in an unbiased way, and I finally decided I just can't.  What I'm about to describe is totally the way *I* see the past few months, not the way J-son sees this summer.   Feel free to read between the lines and see my flaws that I can't or won't admit; I'm sure they're there.

J-son has always been a kid who is (a) charming and (b) prone to impulsive mistakes.  Summers, with the lack of school and structure, have been times of woe and hardship for us in the past, most notably in 2013 in a series of events that culminated in what we called "the horrible week", where the follow-up discipline included installing an alarm on his bedroom door, removal of almost all objects from his room, and near-daily searches of all his belongings. That was a bad time.

We got through the horrible week and its follow-ups, and things returned to normal(ish) for a while, but then they got less normal in the fall leading up to New Year's 2016.  More bad things happened, eventually getting bad enough that we (meaning he) were/was on the verge of prison. But at the edge of that cliff, we managed to pull J-son back, and had a cathartic and redemptive glimpse at how to apologize and make restitution.   My husband has been going through counseling since then, since dealing with the fallout has been a bit more than he feels like he can deal with on his own, or even with my help.

This past year, a complication of luxury threw its monkey wrench into the mix when my husband's social security endeavors started spewing unearned money at  J-son. I worried that this money would not help shore up his financial future, but would rather steer him in the wrong direction -- back towards wanting and stealing.  Since I'm the one telling this story, I'll say that my fears were born out by subsequent facts.  (Again, you can disagree with me).

All that is the background that was swirling in my head as I was preparing for this summer, with J-son already 18 years old but still needing to complete his senior year of high school, and with my husband planning to take his long-awaited bicycle trip in Eastern Europe. How do we keep this kid engaged in good ways?  How do we stave off dangerous boredom?

My (I think) reasonable plan was that J-son ought to have a summer job.  After all, he loves spending money, an activity that is demonstrably easier to do when you are actively earning money.  J-son semi-dutifully (although in my mind, half-heartedly) applied for a few jobs this spring and didn't get any.  His boxing coach, on the other hand, assured us that J-son could do work at the boxing gym to keep himself busy, making a small amount of money along the way.  And that -- the boxing gym -- was the plan for J-son's summer when my husband boarded his bike onto the train/plane that would take him to Serbia in June.

Needless to say, this plan didn't work out. From my completely biased viewpoint, J-son committed all the classic teenage sins. In spite of claiming to love boxing above all else, he avoided the gym (both workouts and paid work).  He stayed out with friends all night and then slept all day at home.  He spent all the money he had, and then he returned to bad habits, sneaking money from my wallet, lying about money he'd made, spending it on shoes and snacks or even more nefarious substances.

Fortunately, even with my husband gone, I was not alone. J-son's former foster mom took him away for a week, during which he briefly got his head screwed back on straight. (He texted me saying, "I'ma try to apply for a job to" and "Shes been helping me realize alot of things").  His foster mom told me, "It takes a village to raise a child; well, the village has arrived!"   This has been my favorite line of the summer --- so much so, that I'll repeat it:


The village has arrived.

I've been a fan of the concept "social capital" for a long time, and so I've been encouraged by the fact that whatever J-son lacks in impulse control, he makes up for in agreeableness.  He's been blessed by -- and has been a blessing to -- many others around him, including his friends and their parents and his foster mom and his birth mom and his boxing coach.   If J-son thrives in the future, it's because of this village that has formed (or perhaps, that he has formed) around him.

At any rate, fast-forward to this past Saturday, when J-son returned from (per usual) sleeping over at a friend's house, so he could do his weekly chores.  A dispute arose over missing money from N-son's dresser, and a search of J-son's pockets determined that J-son had taken the money.  I got understandably (to my mind) upset:  I need to make sure that the many people who live in my home are safe.  J-son and I had some serious words about where he lives, and I told him that there was a good chance I was going to take his foster mom up on her offer to have him finish his senior year of his school at her home, 40 miles away from where we live.  He'd be insulated from the many temptations of our city (including the temptations of his "bad" friends).  J-son balked; moving back in with his foster mom would mean leaving behind his boxing and all of his friends, for good or ill.

Later in the day, J-son announced to my husband that he'd moved out.  He'd taken with him his many valuable shoes, and that more than anything else indicated he was serious.  He'd rather live with friends, without money, than with us or his foster mom with money.

That was where I left things Saturday night.

As of today, without knowing for sure where his life is headed in the future, I think I can say that I'm still cautiously optimistic.   For one thing, this kid has serious village wealth.  He's got several places to stay, including at the boxing gym and with kids his age whose parents keep telling me how wonderful he is.  For another thing, he and I are both working to make sure no bridges are burned -- I visited him on Sunday to bring him two weeks worth of ADHD meds, and to encourage him to adult up.  I made a list of things he needs to do:

  1. Finish summer school.
  2. Find a doctor in the city, transfer your medical records there, and get a new prescription for your ADHD meds.
  3. Get a checking account with a debit card, or get a new debit card for your existing account. ***
  4. Call your foster mom and arrange a visit with her.
[*** He cut up his last card after he went on a spending spree that even he decided was over the top. So now he has no way to access the money in his credit union account without visiting the bank in person.  The money in this account currently happens to be only 17¢,
 because having money has meant spending money.  ]

He's already followed through on task #4, and he's promised to follow through on #1 over the course of the next week and a half, and he says (which I reserve judgement on) that he's going to do his best on #2 and #3, both of which I've offered to help him with.  I also reminded him that our other kids who've moved out of the home come back once a week for Family Fun Night, and that he should, too -- and his response was to ask if he could bring his friend.  Cool.  yes.

So we're burning no bridges.  I've told him that I've been hoping he'd be able to move out of the home someday, although I was expecting that "someday" would come after he graduated from high school.   But if this is the way he wants to structure his life, I'll try to figure out a way to work with this, rather than against it.  


And that's where we are with J-son.  It's a saga, and I don't know the end, or even the next chapter, of the saga yet.  But the story isn't over, and I'm still crossing my fingers for a happy ending.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Miser Family Update, moving edition

Life continues to be rich and full in the Miser Mom household.

There has been some news, in relationship to which, all other news pales. We'll cover the pale news first.

Me, I finished up my summer research with my student. She's managed to make some nice progress on our question, and I'm looking forward to writing up the results for possible publication this fall. I keep banging away on my own math paper, too. I love having several math project to keep me busy.

N-son and my husband had a blast heading out Friday to Philadelphia to protest Jeff Sessions' message, who was there to protest that Philadelphia (and other cities) have declared themselves sanctuary cities. N-son enjoys being politically active with his dad. When they're not heading off to political rallies, N-son and J-son have also both been spending their mornings caught up in their summer school classes.

I-daughter got the good news that her eye problems were not auto-immune diseases, but might have been "eye-shingles". At any rate, she's recovering well and we're all happy about that.

. . . and that's all the simple news.

In more substantial news, you might have inferred by reading between the lines that J-son has been both growing up and growing apart this summer; earlier today the "apart" aspect of his growing took precedence, and he moved out of the house to live with friends and also at his boxing gym. We're still uncertain as to what this will look like long-term for him, and I guess also for us. More updates as we get them in the future.

And that's the news from the Miser Mom clan, a family that continues to be prosperous in our adventures.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Vegetable torture

The zucchini and the summer squash from our CSA were trying to invade my kitchen and take over all our counters and shelf space.  So I put them on the rack.

Dehydrating squash.

My homemade drying rack, that is. Made (from the ground up) of

  • a little red wagon, 
  • a wide base made of a few fence boards, 
  • some trash-picked framing boards to hold the screen, 
  • a discarded window screen,
  • more trash-picked framing boards screwed to a plexiglass storm window.
After just two days in the sun (not to mention an overnight under the moon), a half-a dozen zucchini will dry up enough that they can fit almost into a single quart-sized canning jar.  They're not quite like potato chips, but they are much more snack-like than before dehydrating. And this way, I can also save them for winter-time soups. Ymmmmm . . . 

So much of converting plants into food --- that is, so much of dealing with our massive abundance of fresh vegetables that seems to overwhelm us this time of year --- sounds like torture.  I wield my knife with abandon.  I rub salt into the wounds. I throw acid (vinegar) over everything.  I dump boiling oil -- or at least, oil -- on the poor, unsuspecting victim.

And the vegetable torture usually yields the desired results.  In fact, there are a couple of recipes I make and leave on the kitchen counter, knowing that they'll disappear even before dinner time.  All three of the recipes below involve both good cop/bad cop methods of interrogation.

Tomato salad:
  • bad cop torture:  wield the knife to slice the tomatoes, then do the oil, salt, vinegar treatment.
  • good cop additions: basil (fresh if you're lucky enough to have it) and chopped walnuts.  Tonight I added chopped peaches, too, since they've been lurking on the scene.
Swiss Chard salad:

  • bad cop torture:  wield the knife to slice the chard as fine as you can, then do the oil, salt, vinegar treatment.  
  • More bad cop: add chopped hot peppers.
  • good cop additions: garlic, parmesan cheese.  Oh, lordy, this is good!
Beet salad:
  • bad cop torture:  wield the knife (cuisinart) to dice the beets like coleslaw, then do the oil, salt, vinegar treatment.
  • more bad cop torture:  bring in zucchini or carrots for similar treatment.  Also, hot peppers.
  • good cop additions: garlic, black pepper.  
There's something about slicing vegetables finely that makes such a difference -- perhaps it's merely increasing the surface-area-to-volume ratio, so the dressing has more effect. But it's also truly wonderful to have bite-sized morsels of fresh vegetables so ready at hand (or at mouth).  

Tomorrow we're taking on the peach tree.  

Monday, July 17, 2017

Using recipes, and not.

My husband follows recipes, pretty much to the letter.  I mostly make up recipes out of my head as I go along, although occasionally I remember a recipe I read/developed long ago (hello, waffles!)  But aside from those remembered recipes, I basically throw stuff in a pot and cook it.  This means that I get to make up fun names for my meals . . . and I get to keep making up names, because I almost never remember what ingredients I actually used in previous meals.  Our family still fondly remembers inviting a friend over to dinner who remarked with surprise, "I've never had Pittsburgh Pasta before!  I can't believe I haven't tried this!"   All we remember of the recipe is that there were artichokes and chopped-up, leftover lasagna noodles.  Plus other "stuff".  "Stuff" is my favorite ingredient.

Possibly for this reason, I have only two cookbooks.  One is a well-loved copy of Joy of Cooking, which I've had forever. (By the way, if you ever want to read a really wonderful history that looks at kitchens, cooking, society, and also a riveting story of an old-fashioned mom with her hippie daughter, check out Stand facing the stove : the story of the women who gave America the Joy of cooking, by Anne Mendelson).   I love how my The Joy of Cooking describes the basics of preparing food, starting from scratch as well as doing stuff that's fairly sophisticated -- and if you're curious about why this book does it better than others, Mendleson's history explained how the cookbook developed to do just that.

The second cookbook is the More With Less Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre, which describes lots of different ways to make substitutions, and, as promised, offers many ways to make hearty meals starting with humble ingredients.  Longacre was a Mennonite woman who believed that every action tied in some way to promoting (or not) justice.  I love the philosophical preamble to the book as much as I love the pragmatic and helpful guides/recipes that follow.

(Oh, I just realized that I also have a third cookbook -- the Winnie the Pooh Cookbook.  I got it as a child, and I keep it for sentimental reasons.  Yeah).

Having said all that, here's a big hug for K-daughter, who decided to solve the "problem" of having lots of cauliflower from our CSA.  (The "problem" was that the cauliflower was sitting in the fridge and not getting eaten, because it looked like plants and not like food).  And her solution involved hunting for recipes in the modern way (on-line), combined with being willing to take a bit of advice from her mom on how to make substitutions so that using cauliflower didn't mean going to the store to buy even more ingredients.   Huzzah!

Here's the blow-by-blow, via text messages.

K: How does a new recipe for tonight sound? Cauliflower casserole? We dont have sour cream, can i substitute it for the plain yogurt we have in the fridge? Would you mind?

M: Sounds AWESOME! add a tsp or so of vinegar to the yogurt and it'll be more like sour cream. http://allrecipes.com/recipe/215240/homemade-sour-cream/

K:  Sweet! Thank you!!!

M:  You're welcome!

K:  I get out of the child watch at 6:30, i dont think it will take too long to make this if i prep for it now. So we can have dinner by 730 ish?

M:  Sounds fine by me. Thanks for cooking!

K: Totallyi just hope itll taste ok! Haha
It calls for corn flake crumbs.... Can i ise grape nuts instead?!  this may be a dumb question

M: Or regular bread crumbs -- I have a bunch in the freezer. Grape nuts would probably be too crunchy.

K: Awesome. Thanks!

****** after awesome dinner . . .  ********

M:  So where did you find that recipe???

K: I just googled online cauliflower recipes and it popped up with cauliflower casserole, and that sounded really yummy! would you like it?!

M:  Ypppers!!!

K: http://www.food.com/recipe/cauliflower-casserole-30444

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Miser Family Update, emotion version

Life continues to be rich and full in the Miser Mom household.

The big Woo-Hoo for the week was that after 5 or 6 weeks in which he visited 19 countries (14 of them via bicycle), my husband returned home today.  I think my favorite part of having him come home was seeing the faces of my normally monosyllabic, guarded teenage sons . . . these young men of mine were each radiant with happiness. I can only imagine my face reflected theirs.  It's good to have My Guy home.

And in the evocation-of-emotion theme, N-son played drums in church on Sunday morning, the same morning that I was in charge of reading the scripture.  I marched up to the pulpit and said, "I'm going to go off-topic briefly.  For all of you parents who suffer through noisy kids at home, it's such a blessing to have this child  making such wonderful music in public . . . "   I admit I got a little choked up, which is *totally* unlike me.  But seriously, he's so good at playing those drums as part of a group of other musicians.  How did that happen?

J-son has been playing to his own strengths, sparring with some big dude on Tuesday and hanging with a vast and changing collection of his friends on most evenings of this week. (Not to mention, lighting up like a lantern when he walked back into the house with a pair of friends and saw his dad here again).

For my dog-loving relatives, I'll just add that Prewash continues to be a complete joy to the family.  She's still battling a persistent case of giardia (icckkk . . . ), but behavior-wise, she's practically the perfect dog.  For example, 2-year-old A-child flops down on Prewash's head, or pulls toys out of her mouth, and the dog responds by wagging her tail and "tickling" A-child.  

As for me, I'm getting close to the end of a summer research project with one of my students; we managed to prove a pretty cool thing together by discovering the Lindemann–Weierstrass theorem, which says (among other things) that x and cos(x) can't both be algebraic unless x=0.  Life changing, that!


And that's the latest from the Miser Mom clan, a family that continues to be prosperous in our adventures. May you and yours be similarly wealthy.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Suck it up (a vacuum cleaner repair story)

Today's blog post is brought to you by the letters "R" and "E", my favorite letters.  These combined letters, for example, lead off almost every word in the list that Bea Johnson (my Zero Waste Hero) uses to avoid trash:
  • Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot (just barely missed the 'e' on that last one!)
And for frugalists, there are also the words "Receive" and "Repair", which will be the themes of the rest of this post.

Enter the main characters of today's story: the vacuum cleaners.

Twenty five or more years ago, before I even moved to this city (much less into this house), I bought a canister vacuum cleaner from Sears.  About a decade after that -- after I married my husband, moved to this multi-story house, and acquired a hair-shedding dog -- we got a second vacuum cleaner.  I vaguely recall the reason being something like this:  the original vacuum cleaner stopped working, so my husband naturally assumed the correct response was to get a new one, while I naturally assumed the correct response was to take the vacuum cleaner to a repair place, and we both followed our natural inclinations.  That might not be the actual reason -- we might have just decided it made sense to have a vacuum cleaner on each floor.  But the truth is, it was convenient to have both an upstairs and a downstairs vacuum cleaner, and the original cleaner did at some point get repaired.

Since that time, both vacuum cleaners have started having what you might call "personalities".  The upstairs (original) vacuum cleaner has been working less and less well, making incredible amounts of noise and appearing to work hard while having little noticeable effect on the dirt.  (In this way, the vacuum cleaner isn't entirely unlike its teenage users).   The downstairs, "new" vacuum cleaner developed some kind of electrical glitch so that the electric carpet brush would do its spinny thing only while we pushed forward, but would stop all action when we head backwards (I can't decide if that describes anyone in the house or not).

My husband started making more and more frequent comments along the lines of "we need to buy a new vacuum cleaner".  Naturally, I resisted, procrastinated, and urged a "wait-and-see" approach.  A new vacuum cleaner would get just as much mauling from our energetic sons as the old ones did; maybe we could limp along with what we had a little longer; yadda yadda.

I actually did poke around a bit on Craigslist.  Vacuum cleaners, even used ones, are much more expensive than I remembered -- running $100 (or even $500!) used.  Dang.

And then, in the way these wonderful things have their way of happening, some neighbors on NextDoor.com mentioned they were putting a vacuum cleaner at the curb -- anyone who wanted was welcome to come get it.  Bingo!  I love getting stuff I need on the cheap, even better if it's free.   I popped the trailer on the bike, peddled my way down the tree-lined boulevards to our neighbors' home, loaded the new-to-me vacuum cleaner into the trailer, and toodled back on home. That's the REceive part of this story.

Alas, this vacuum cleaner ALSO had a personality, in that the brush head seemed not to work at all (although the machine worked just fine for bare floors).  So now we were up to three vacuum cleaners, only one of which actually cleaned carpets anymore, and even that one only when you pushed forward.  J-son started balking at his weekend chores, saying the vacuum cleaner wouldn't work at all and we needed to buy a new one.  I handed him a broom, and he figured he'd rather vacuum pushing forward.

But still, it seemed like it was beyond time to go find a good repair shop.

Part of the reason I'd hesitated so long (aside from the time aspect of not wanting to think about this while I was working long days) was that the most recent, nearby repair shop I'd been to was a little sketchy.  So I hunted about a bit on the internet and found a place that seemed highly ranked at the long, long distance of 8 miles from my home.   I put the two non-working machines in the car (sigh), drove to the repair shop, and dropped off the vacuum cleaners.  After the guy repaired them both, I dropped off the forward-only vacuum while picking up the fixed machines.

Man, I love me a good repair shop.  They're often owned by really interesting people, for one thing.  This shop was run by a guy who'd inherited the place from his father, who started selling and repairing vacuum cleaners in the 1940's when a bad back forced him off the factory floor.  Bluegrass hymns played over the speakers, and a cat slept under the cash register.  When I picked the vacuum cleaners back up, the owner spoke earnestly and even a little lovingly to me about the fixes he'd made: replacing ball bearings in the rollers, filters, belts, and electrical connector cords.  He'd cleaned the innards of each machine out, and they looked much, much better than when I'd brought them in.

And, wow, when you've been using a vacuum cleaner with a personality, it's such a treat to bring home and then use a vacuum cleaner that actually picks up all the dirt.   On the first pass.  Wow.

So, what's the takeaway from this repair?
  1. We now have THREE vacuum cleaners that work, for the price of buying one new machine.  Whoop!  (We don't currently need three vacuum cleaners, of course, but when the kids start moving out, we can gift one or two of them with the extras, so they'll come in handy in the near future.)
  2. We kept THREE vacuum cleaners out of the landfill.  The only trash was a couple of broken belts, dirty filters, bad ball bearings, and cut cords.   Well, plus whatever exhaust comes with making three 16-mile round-trip automobile trips to the repair shop.  
  3. We avoided the need for the world to produce three new vacuum cleaners (with all the plastic, copper, energy, etc that goes into making them).
  4. We supported a local family-owned business.

Two of my three (working!!!) vacuums,
enjoying the sunshine by the back door,
on their return home from their trip to the vacuum salon & spa.
What a great getaway vacation they had!!!

And those are some REally good REasons to RElish REpair shops.