Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Well, now I can cross "make penguins" off my to-do list

If you happen to have a pair of nieces who both like penguins, and if you also have a bunch of fake fur lying around that you want to make use of before you donate the rest, . . . oh, and if you also happen to want to make lunch bags that can hold quart-sized canning jars . . . well, then this is the post for you.

Here's how to make a Penguin Canning Jar Bag.  First, search the web and find some penguin pictures.  Sketch a design (don't forget the beak, wings, and feet).

Here's the beginning of one head.  Penguins seem to have a white patch around their eyes, with black separating the white.  This is going to be a cylinder -- think of it as a furry penguin-colored headband in the making.


Some animals look cute with really big eyes.  I pulled out my button stash to do some experimenting, and I decided the large buttons would make my penguins look stoned.  So I chose small black buttons for eyes instead.

Here's the beginning of a body, basically a white-and-black cylinder with wings.  I guesstimated the white:black ratio as about 1:2.

In all the pictures I saw, penguins had orange beaks and feet.  Alas, my cache of fake fur didn't contain orange.  I seriously toyed with the idea of green feet and beak, but then I wimped out and went for the pink instead.

Add tops and bottoms to your cylinders, stitch a liner to go inside, throw in some straps, and what do you have?  Penguin bags!  Adorable!

And they hold canning jars!

And if you pick them up by the straps, the penguins lift their wings!

Too much fun.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Curating the past

This past fall, I framed a bunch of old family photos and heirlooms, and I gave them as gifts to my sisters, father, and other relatives.  It was pricey, but it was worth it to pull these treasures out of boxes and make them visible again.

Problem is, there are still more boxes. Still more treasures . . . a lot more treasures.  And maybe there are not enough people to treasure them.  What to do with all these leftovers?


I started inheriting the family memorabilia after I got interested in our history -- like many people, I was enthralled by the 1977 television series Roots, based on Alex Haley's novel.  After that, my grandfather sent me letters he'd written to distant relatives and their responses.  In my young adulthood, I travelled the country collecting stories and memorabilia from our elderly relatives.  Now I have a hand-drawn family tree dating back to the 1700's.  I have photos taken in the year 18-something.  I have giant, 80-year-old books of baby photos.  I have recipes.  I have diplomas and a few clothes and hand-tatted lace and a doctoral dissertation.

It's the kind of collection that everyone in my family thinks ought to be preserved.  As time goes by, though, it becomes clearer and clearer that, this collection, . . . well, . . . , um, everyone else is happy that they are not the ones preserving it.  Life is busy; there's not much time or inclination to sit and read those old, scrawly cursive handwritten letters.  And the photos of these people -- remembering how each of these unfamiliar faces fits into the family, it gets so complicated that looking at the pictures becomes another chore.  These relics reek more and more of ancient history; they feel less and less like the leaves and fruits of a living family tree.

So this collection has become my white elephant:  it's too precious and irreplaceable to toss in the trash, but it's also so unwieldy that nobody actually wants it in their own house.  We need a family library staffed by a family archivist; that's what we need.

Instead, we've got a corner of my sewing room and me.  I want my sewing room back, and I'm getting ready to resign from this job.

So, here's my plan.  Now that I'm on sabbatical, I'm really supposed to be doing my math (and, in fact, my math is what I want to do).  But I'm going to pick one morning each week, and during that morning I'll spend an hour digitizing and making sense of some part of the collection.  I'll transcribe relevant handwritten notes, so they're easier for us all to read.  I'll scan photos and diplomas so we have electronic versions.  I'll write up a family history, including photos and letters in appropriate chapters, so it's easier to tell who fits in where.  With any luck, by December, I'll have a "book" both in digital and in paper form, and that's what the family will be getting for Christmas.

And then, everyone will have one full year to claim anything they want from the collection.  Fair warning, full disclosure.  And if no-one else want this stuff, well, then neither do I.  The originals will all make their way into the recycling bins.

I'd be glad to take advice from other people who've tried similar things in the past.  Anyone?  Anyone?


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Things-to-love-Thursday: the (velcro) ties that bind . . .

It's very, very seldom that I go out of my way to buy something that's made of plastic.  This post shows one of those exceptions (or, more correctly, many of those exceptions): velcro cord ties.
This is 100 velcro ties: 50 new ones for me,
and 50 as a gift for someone I know who likes home organization stuff.

Velcro ties are double-sided strips of velcro with a hole in one end and thin snout at the other end.  The short ones (5" or so) you sometimes find in grocery stores are too short for my taste; I try to find the ones that are at least 7" long.  There are cute little multi-colored versions, but I found these (50 ties for a bit less than $5) at our local hardware store, and I decided that black is beautiful, too.

And yes, for me spending $5 on a package of non-essential plastic stuff is a bit of a guilty splurge.

Here's why I love these ties.  You start with a messy mess of tangly mess that everyone keeps tripping over and tangling up.


Then you strap one of these velcro ties to the cord.  (There's a hole at one end of tie, and you thread the other end through that hole, so the velcro tie doesn't come off accidentally)


Then you coil up the cord, as much or as little as you like, and wrap the free end around the cord.  And . . . beautiful.  Easy to store in a drawer without tangling; easy to leave on the floor without tripping, easy to pack in a suitcase for traveling . . .
Voila!  No more messy mess of tangled mess!

These aren't world-changing.  But I like them.  I like them enough to actually buy them.  True story.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Pigeon Home Principal

In mathematics, there's a helpful little rule called the Pigeonhole Principal.  Essentially, it says that if you create a nesting box that has more pigeons than pigeonholes, then at least one of the holes has two (or more) pigeons nesting in it.

In our home, we keep trying to optimize people-space by filling the house up with extra people.  We have this home that has something like a gazillion bedrooms (okay, 5 bedrooms).  When K-daughter moved out in August, that left only two boys and the parents here.  At some point, the boys will graduate high school and eventually move out of the house; at that point, we'll gleefully switch strategies:  we'll optimize people-space by moving to a home that's substantially smaller.  But for now, we just add new people in to empty rooms.  Think of it as the "Pigeon Home Principal".

We don't go crazy with this PHP -- bringing strangers into the home has both advantages and disadvantages, of course.  Our family still remembers with a bit of trepidation the summer that C-son was with us. And J-son was reminding my husband the other night about the woman we hosted for about two weeks while she needed some time to get back into the right headspace; J-son remembers those weeks fondly as a time of camaraderie, but I knew she was seeing counsellors because of problems with self-mutilation.  Things can get a little edgy when random people move in.

So we've also said "no" to people who were looking for places to stay and hoping we'd say "yes".  B was such a person; she's struggling in college, both academically and personally, and can't go home to her family because they're not a safe space.  I knew from talking to others that she was going to need a lot of help, and also that she still has a lot of growing up to do.  I worried that if B moved in with us we'd become her own personal Hotel California; she'd never find a way out.  So we managed to find her an apartment at a local theological seminary -- off of our campus, so she has some space from academics, but also enough on her own that she has to take responsibility for her own choices.

We've also reserved one room as a safe-return space for K-daughter, who has a new baby, an almost-as-new marriage, and who still has a year or two of college courses left before she earns her degree.  We know there's a small chance she might want family around her at some point. (In fact, while her husband is off at Army Camp this summer, she'll move back in with us for just a few weeks. YYYYAAAAY!).

But there was one room left. So earlier this year, we got a note from my good friend TL, writing about a graduating student who wanted to do a year of Inter Varsity work before heading off for medical school.  TL said this:
I've hesitated to forward this request to you, knowing your generous nature and not wanting to pressure you in any way. I talked with Y again yesterday at church, and she still does not have housing lined up after Jan 11 besides a place on someone's couch. My understanding is that she will be looking for a job when she returns in January and is unable to commit to a rent amount until then. We have offered a month at the TL Chateau while she figures stuff out. From what I know of Y, I can only imagine that she'd be a respectful, delightful addition to any home. . . .
And this is how Y moved into our home.  She's very self-sufficient, so we don't see her much, but she's joined in Easter traditions and Girls Nights and a Special Dinner or two.  I've given her some of my cast-off clothes.  And for Mother's Day, she gave me a book she'd heard me rave about: a pre-owned copy of  Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, a fantastic book.  She hadn't read it before, so I read it to her and N-son on the living room rug.  It was a lovely moment to share.
The moral of this story is that, although you should never let the pigeon drive the bus, it can actually be a grand thing to let the pigeon move into your home.

Friday, May 15, 2015

A tale of three bags

My dad remarried a few years ago, after my mom passed away. He's bought a new home with his new bride, and he's been slowly slowly cleaning out the old home. About a month ago, my dad wrote to me and my sisters:


In emptying the house, a seemingly endless task, I have come across your mother's Kelty Back Pack, still in very good condition. Would any of you like it?


At about the same time, I was helping with our college's annual end-of-year garage sale, where we sort and sell off things that the students (mostly freshmen) decide they don't want to take home with them.  The stuff students leave behind is often incredible: clothes, furniture, electronics, food, school supplies.    We sell these items for true Miser Mom prices; floor lamps are $5, a complete set of pots and pans for $25, clothes for $1 each or $5 for a grocery-bag full.
This year, someone who knows the names of consumer items came over while we were still sorting the piles and piles of things students had donated; she warned me not to price two purses at our usual $1 each:  these were a Coach bag and a Kate Spade purse, still in their original plastic bag wrapping.  (So bags in bags!)  

 (There were also a pair of Ugg boots in their fancy cardboard box that got a special price, thanks to the same person who knows the names of clothes).

Of course, these cast-offs inspired the usual rant against spoiled students. How could it not?  To have some 18-year-old who gets showered with luxury items that she discards upon a trash heap -- it seems inconceivable to us.  The contrast is especially stark once the sale starts; our city is the home to many resettled refugee families.  We get families from Nepal, the Congo, the Dominican Republic.  Some families come together to our sale and buy enough furniture to stock their whole apartment:  $50 or $70 at Miser Mom prices for a heap of belongings that includes rugs, couches, fans, hot pots, dishes, clothes, shoes, bedding.  But no Coach purses.

The  Kelty backpack seems so much more virtuous; it was used by a woman who hiked through the woods with Girl Scouts, offering her time and expertise to young campers long after her own daughters had grown up and moved away.  Whereas the Coach-and-Spade combo was never even opened up.

And yet, I know my mom probably only used that backpack fewer than a dozen times; she liked the idea of backpacking more than the actual experience.  (She was an avid site camper, but not a long-distance camper, if that makes sense).  Her backpack was as much for "identity" purposes as it was for practical use.

Even more, because of my mom's long illness, the backpack itself probably hasn't seen use in the last dozen or two dozen years.  It's been sitting in the basement of my dad's home, just taking up space.  He has a lot of space, but still.  The backpack wasn't doing anybody any good for a heck of a long time.

Getting rid of things we don't want is hard.  My dad has been cleaning out this home for more than a year now [and my sisters and I are so so so glad that he's doing it, so we won't have to!].  He has the luxury of space, and he has the luxury of time.  The student who chucked her boots and purses into the Garage Sale Pile had only one or two days to clean out her dorm room.   And probably she had to leave behind everything that wouldn't fit in the car.  Would she have seemed less spoiled to us if she'd hung onto these bags without using them?

I'm not going to feel sorry for her or anything, but it does remind me how our belongings don't just serve us, but they also create obligations that weigh us down, that create moral quandaries, that take our time and our energy.

None of my sisters or me want the Kelty backpack.  It'll go to a charity garage sale, too.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A small thing to love: heat

In my seemingly endless quest for non-stick muffins that are also non-trash-producing, I've tried a lot of different techniques, with varying degrees of success.  I turned a corner of sorts back in 2012, when Kimberlie recommended the Misto sprayer.   I broke down and bought this for real money (it cost me $12; I've since found some at yard sales for 50¢).  

My Misto sprayer is fun to use (pump, pump!), and it works better than non-Pam alternatives (although not quite as well as trash-producing Pam and other aerosol sprayers, dang).  To help the muffins clamber their way out of the pans even more easily, I use a combination of spray oil and a dusting of flour.

But my experience with cast iron pan cooking, plus my vast waffle-iron experience, led me to remember the value of heat.  So I tried a small experiment the other day when I was making 2-dozen muffins.  I sprayed both tins, and then one of the tins I stuck in the pre-heating oven while I mixed up the muffin batter.
Yum! Muffins!  These popped right out, after a spray/flour/heat pre-treatment of the pans.
One half of my muffin batter went into the room-temp muffin tin; the other half went into a sizzling hot tin.  The first set of muffins came out with a small bit of coaxing.  The second set practically popped out.  Love it!

And dang, if I ever find a cheap cast-iron muffin pan, I'm grabbing it.  Because these so-called-non-stick pans are just as much work as (or maybe even more work than) my dad's hardy cast iron muffin pans.  

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Crowd-sourced Reading List

I started a reading experiment of sorts a year ago.  When I'm at a social gathering and starting to run out of good topics to discuss with the person I happen to be standing near, I ask for suggestions for a good book to read.  (With some people I don't know well, I "run out" of topics even before I start talking with them, and this gives me a great way to start a conversation).

I write all the suggestions down, noting also who suggested the book.  During the semester, I don't have much free time for reading, but I pull out my reading list once winter break or summer break begins.

I like this little experiment -- it has pushed me outside of my standard reading (mostly non-fiction and detective stories).  This puts me at the bibliographic mercy of others, a position I haven't been in since I was a student.  Sometimes I really don't like the books that people suggest: a professor of Comparative Literature recommend Nabakov's Pnin as knee-snappingly funny, but it was a bit of a dud, as far as I was concerned.

But sometimes I'm very surprised -- and usually I'm delighted -- by the books that people get into my hands.  One frighteningly serious professor of literature got the book question from me.  I figured I'd be reading a post-modern feminist novel from somewhere on the other side of the globe, and that would have been okay . . . but she recommended M.T. Anderson's Feed, and that was amazing.  It's a young adult fiction novel about a culture in which everyone has internet implanted directly in their brains.  Pop-up ads all the time!  The dialog and characters are amazing -- the author does a 1984 or Brave New World, except that he gets pop culture correct in a way the first two classics totally miss.   And I never would have expected that Feed would be the book that this Frighteningly Serious Professor would recommend.  She's a lot less frightening to me now.

Here are some of the books I'll be digging into this summer. Only 25% of these are non-fiction (although I've been warned by some that Polanyi's book will be a decent slog, so maybe this ups the non-fiction reading/brain time), and none, as far as I know, are detective stories.

  • Jodi Picoult, 19 Minutes, Lone Wolf, or The Storyteller
  • Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior
  • Rana Dasgupta, Solo
  • Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning
  • Luis Alberto Urrea, The Hummingbird's Daughter,
  • Pat Conroy, Prince of Tides
  • Anthony Doerr, All the light we cannot see
  • Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation

Don't spoil the plots for me!

And just in case you're wondering, the pile of in-process books that has been on my bed stand lately is this:

  • Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning
  • Garrison Keillor's Pretty Good Joke Book
  • E.M. Forester,  A Room with a View
  • a local history/tour book of my own home town