Friday, August 26, 2016

dOnnOr 2016; be Advised

A few months ago, I was searching for a good digital picture of my dad, and I decided to google him.  To my surprise, one of the top hits I got was a story about how he and my mom had donated $300,000 to their alma mater.  I had known that my parents had been generous with their school, but I hadn't known the specifics until then.  (The way my dad explained it to his kids is, "We're giving away your inheritance.")  And I was super proud -- the first google hit I got for my dad wasn't about his career in physics (which is prodigious--Science Citation Index credits him with more than 150 articles); it's about this act of giving.  That's impressive.

(Okay, I know it also says something about the PR machine of the school my parents gave the money to versus the PR tinker-toy of particle physics, but I'm still impressed).

And so we have dinner.  Or more specifically, dOnnOr, originally named after one of my kids' favorite snacks, the Opple.  You make an Opple by starting with an apple, and coring it . . .

and then slicing it thinly.   Voila!  Opples!

And this entire bowl of Opples disappeared at dinner, compared to a few little bags of potato pOtOtO chips that I had brought home from some event where there were more people than food.  (Note to self: only 40% of the people at my table ate any of the chips.)

But I digress:  the annual dOnnOr is a time for us to eat food shaped in Os (like Opples, and  hOmbOrgOrs on bOgles), and it's also a time I get to think about charitable giving.  You are what you eat:  if you eat dOnnOr, then you turn into a donor. (?!)

This past week, I *finally* did something I've been thinking about/working toward for a long time: I opened a Donor Advised Fund with Vanguard Charitable.  This money is now something I can direct to specific charities, at whatever time in the future I deem fit.  Pulling together the money to set this up took a long time because the initial investment is so big . . . but you eat an Opple one bite at a time, and I saved up for this fund a bit at a time, and so eventually I got here.

The Donor Advised Fund really becomes a mini charitable funding entity.  Mine is called by my last name and my husband's last name:  as in, "the Miser-Nonmiser Fund".  I think of it as part of my "Retirement Charity Savings".  I have a regular retirement savings through my 403b (like a 401K, but for academics); I have an HRSA (Health Retirement Savings Account) that's just for retirement medical expenses; and now I have my Donor Advised Fund.  Between now and when I retire, the fund monies will be invested (through Vanguard Charitable) in the stock market, so they can grow along with my retirement portfolio, and then later when I'm ready, I can start giving that money away.

The practical advantages are that this allows me to save more money for retirement in a tax advantaged way.   Since I'm going to give money to charity after I retire, this fund allows me to get the tax break now (I'm already maxing out my 403b).  But the emotional break is even bigger than the tax break for me:  I don't have to feel like I'm making a choice between being generous and hoarding money for my future self:  from now on, this is a way I can do both at once.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Crunchy air-dried patience

Here's a picture of laundry patience:  clothes hanging up in my family's garage.

The "patience" part isn't that air-drying clothes takes a long time -- that's not the part of of laundry maintenance I want to talk about.  No, the "patience" part of this story is that it took my family almost two decades to get to the point of air drying our clothes.

It's not entirely true that this is the first time we've consistently air-dried our laundry.   Back in 2009, when my husband was in Iraq for a whole year, I co-opted little N-son to be my laundry helper, and we hung every item from every load of laundry that year.  Between boycotting the dryer and unplugging the TV for a year, we cut our household electricity expenses from upwards of $50/month down to $25/month.  So I know whereof I speak when I say that the dryer sends our money up in smoke, or at least up in warm, humid air.

But my husband is the Lord of the Laundry, and he doesn't particularly like my Darwinian approach to cleaning clothes (Darwinian in the sense  that I figure only the fittest clothes deserve to survive the washing machine; if something shrinks or turns color there, it didn't earn its place in my closet anyway.)  So I've been excluded from the laundry area -- not only from the washer, but also the dryer.

My husband does air dry delicate clothes, including most of his bike outfits.  He owned a large wooden drying rack when we got married, and early on in our marriage, I bought him (at his request) a second giant rack.  So it's not lack of supplies or knowledge that has kept us from air drying.

No, it's the crunchiness factor.  My "don't drive them crazy" directive means I don't nag my husband to conserve both money and the environment by making the painfully obvious choice to air dry clothes, but somehow my subtle opinion has become apparent anyway.  (Right?).   It is possible I sort of tease him about his frivolous dryer habit, but if that is so, I get equal teasing back about the alternative, which is wearing clothes that feel like cardboard.  Given the choice between wearing the figurative hair shirt of crunchy clothes, on the one side, or stylin' those soft outfits, on the other side, my classy husband chooses style.  And since he's the Lord of the Laundry, what he says, goes.

So imagine my surprise when, early this summer, I saw the drying racks come out of the basement into the yard, and then I saw actual clothes on them.  And not even spandex clothes, but cotton clothes.  And then I saw towels on the racks, too!

What had gotten into my husband?  Not that I'm complaining, mind you -- no, not at all. But I didn't know what wonderful turn of events had caused my husband to decide to air dry clothes now, after two decades of dedicated dryer devotion.

I asked him about this cautiously, not wanting to frighten him back into the machine.  It turns out that part of the reason for this new frugal-venture is our old frugal-venture: we have no air conditioning.  He decided that running the dryer just made the house too hot.  And the basement is too humid to air-dry clothes, which is why he moved into the yard.  A bit more experimenting moved the laundry into the garage, where it's protected from rain (as well as from a neighborhood skunk), and where the temperatures are high enough to bake the clothes into dryness overnight.  In fact, he likes this so much that I set up a long rod (formerly, one of my neighbor's curtain rods, which I trash-picked on one of my morning runs) that he uses to hang shirts on plastic hangars.

After nearly a summer of air-drying clothes, what does my husband think of this?  Well, he's realized that nobody in the house "seems to mind cardboard shirts" (his observation).  He might switch back to the dryer once the temperatures drop a bit more, but I think he'll be more inclined to take the air-dry option than in the past.

So that's how I "convinced" my husband to adopt this frugal habit:  I waited 20 years.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Cooking, Exercising, and possibly Gender

Y pulls food out of the fridge while
N-son makes hamburger patties using canning rings.
Miser Dog is *always* ready to help
with the cooking!
School starts up soon again, and in the way that one thing leads to another, cooking meals is becoming a thing-to-reckon-with.  I've long believed in teaching my kids to cook, and I've had intermittent success at actually enforcing a cooking rotation for dinner duties.  Both of my sons have got some serious culinary skills now.

But, man, is it an effort to keep that rotation going!  It seems like any little bump in the road of our daily schedules knocks the dinner-rotation-train off its tracks, and I wind up taking over the main part of the cooking again.  Even this past year, with my husband retired (so that in theory he could take on the majority of dinner-time duties), I've ended up preparing meals about three nights a week, which is more than any other person in the home does.

Part of this is because -- I admit -- I'm a bit of a control freak about some things.  I rescue food from the soup kitchen where I work so that it doesn't get tossed in the trash, and so I make pizza-bagels for dinner that night.  Or we have a family special dinner about once a month, and preparations for those events are Mine-All-Mine, baby.  Or there are vegetables coming out of our ears because of our CSA and our garden, and I feel morally obligated to get those green things onto the table and into our bellies before they turn into something only the compost pile would accept.

So at any rate, I know the dinner-on-me thing is partly a matter of my own bossy and controlling tendencies.

But there's more going on that dictates dinner management, and I think it's a sports thing -- maybe even a gendered sports thing.  I think that athletics conspires to make moms (and not sons or husbands) do the dinner cooking.  Am I crazy to think so?

My female friends and I love running together.   We all, in our various ways, schedule our running early in the morning, to minimize family disruption.  With my friend June, I run about 4k every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 6 a.m.  We get home by 6:30, wake our kids to get them ready for school, and then get ourselves ready for work.  My long-distance friends run together on Saturdays at the "late" hour of 7 a.m., which means our kids can sleep in until we get home.

My husband and his (mostly male) buddies, on the other hand, have a daily bike ride that starts at 4:00 p.m. and lasts until 6 or 6:30 -- which is right when the kids are getting out of school and starting homework.  My sons similarly have late afternoon/early evening sports.  J-son doesn't get home from boxing until 7:15.  N-son has after-school squash, plus evening drums and voice rehearsals.  So the men-folk in my household are not around to prepare dinner, at least not unless we wait until 8 p.m. to eat.  If our friends are any indication, the same pattern holds in many households across our city.

With the school year starting up again -- and with my committee load kicking into high gear this year -- I've been keeping an eye on our dinner scheduling.  We've recently pulled out the old "Family Meal Planning White Board" (with the days of the week in permanent marker, and the chef of the day in dry erase marker).  There are five us us at home (that includes our host daughter, Y, who takes a meal a week), so there are plenty of chefs to go around.  With a bit of careful work, we can coordinate with sports and musical schedules.

Sometimes, the hard part about making dinner is figuring out what to make. But for our family lately, it's almost as tricky to figure out who is making it.  Wish us luck!

Friday, August 19, 2016

From fence to canning jar shelves

This  little essay could be called
"Reason #167 I love my cordless drill".  
In between preparing my syllabus and going to all those bazillion meetings that seem to pop up just before the beginning of a semester, I love the feeling of ripping wood apart and putting it back together in new configurations.

The fence that has come apart has been coming back together in a variety of useful new ways.  Like, as a solar dehydrator. And as Adirondack chairs.  But also, most recently, as shelves for my empty canning jars.

(We had had shelves for the spare jars before, made out of cinderblocks and scrap wood, but because of recent basement renovations including getting a new hybrid electric water heater, those shelves had to move.  And once we moved them, we realized they were falling apart. Plus, they weren't really exactly the right size for canning jars -- sort of space-inefficient plus saggy -- so making a new set of shelves is like a basement upgrade.)

At any rate, I started with two-by-fours to make a pair of ladder-y things, with the rungs spaced 9 inches apart, which happens to be just about the right separation for storing quart-sized canning jars.  The circular saw was my first friend, to get all the pieces the right size. But after I was done with the circular saw, I pulled out my BFF, the cordless drill, and started forming strong attachments.

First I made two ladder-like things. Then I stood the two ladders up with diagonal braces while I attached the fence boards-cum-shelves.

The drill: it stands at the ready.

And here are the completed shelves, empty.   (Note the diagonal brace on the back, to add stability.  The mathematician in me loves how useful triangles are!)

Here are the shelves with boxes of empty canning jars.  The quart-sized jars near the bottom of the shelf have almost no head-room (as I designed--perfecto); the pint-sized jars in  the middle have a bit of space above; the one-cup jars fit double-stacked.  This will store a lot more jars in a lot less space than before, and it also keeps everything nice and visible. I'm so happy with how this came out. 

More up-cycling is happening in here.   If you look carefully, you'll see a printer box in the middle.  I love using printer boxes for storing things, partly because they're free and abundant, partly because they're recyclable once I destroy them, and partly because they're so easy to cut down to make handles or visible openings.  I've discovered that if I cut them right at the top of the flap that folds up, they're the perfect height for quart-sized canning jars.  This means I can store the jars with a printer-box lid on top, which will help even more with keeping basement dust and dirt out.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Kids who are getting bigger

One last vacation story . . .

On the long drive back from the family vacation, we stopped in a midwestern city to have dinner with my best friend from my elementary/high school days.  The timing of the trip worked out perfectly for this!  Yay, perfect timing!

Also, yay for best friends from long ago, and the chance to catch up with each other!  And yay for a home-cooked dinner on a long drive!

My friend has two kids, and of these two, Sam is very close in age to my own sons.  They've met once or twice before -- in fact, the boys got to play together a few years ago.  So N-son remembered Sam and was looking forward to seeing him again.

And when we did meet up, N-son took me aside and said in an awed voice, "Mom, Sam has gotten a lot bigger since we last saw him!"

N-son thinks it's funny to wear his regular glasses
and his sunglasses at the same time.  

Um, yeah, N-son; Sam isn't the only teenage boy who's gotten a lot bigger these last few years!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Family recurrence map

There's a swirl of life that's a bit like a mathematical curve called the Lorentz butterfly attractor.  The shape (of your life, or of the curve) is stable, but tracking where the heck you've gone as you've traveled back and forth through the shape isn't always easy.

A mathematician named Poincare decided to look at a simpler version of the tracking question; instead of looking at the whole shape, he just put a kind of a toll-gate across one of the bands, with all the lanes of that particular loop passing through the toll-gate.  Then he looked at when and how you pass through that toll-gate again, and again, and again.  That's the Poincare recurrence map.

In a way, our annual family vacation is like a Poincare recurrence map.  Once a year, my dad, my sisters, and our families get together. It's a little glimpse into all that we're doing, how far we've come, where we're headed.

My dad and some of his grandkids work on a jigsaw puzzle,
or maybe on their cell phones.

The grandchild set, for example: they're growing so well.  My nephew -- who used to be a wild and unpredictable bundle of energy and noise -- is now buying his own home, has a job, and is halfway through a PhD.  A niece who spent her toddler years with a propensity to be whiny and picky has pushed herself hard into ecological endeavors, and is now amazing at caring for farm animals (her own and other peoples').  Seeing these kids go from pest to professional makes me optimistic about the chances for my own children.

My sons, who have had their own share of a-little-too-much exuberance in the past, impressed their aunts this week with their helpfulness and maturity.  I sort of see my sons' growth myself, but my sisters see the changes more starkly because my sisters get to see the boys only once a year.  And then, when I see my sons through my sisters' eyes, I can see the changes, too.

I like to stop and reflect on my life every once in a while.  I make New Year's resolutions twice a year (each winter at the turn of the new calendar year, and again each summer at the turn of the new academic year), and part of the reason I do this is because I like the chance to pause and reflect:  where have I done well?  What do I still need to work on? What parts of my life could use a bit of additional attention?

The family get-togethers give me a chance for an external reality check.  For example, I like that I've stayed in pretty good shape over the years.  The fact that my 80-year-old dad is still stooping down on one knee to help with a jigsaw puzzle, or that he volunteered to walk a mile to the grocery store and then back a mile with a bag of groceries, inspires me to stay active.  (My other elderly relatives provide the stick to my dad's carrot; they haven't made time in their lives for exercise; they're now having major trouble handling a single set of stairs; and getting up and down from chairs is almost more than they can manage.  It's sad to watch.).

But lest I get all high on my own fitness levels, running with my sisters reminded me that I've been letting the strength-building side of my workouts wane a bit.  Look at us: a bunch of 40- and 50-year old faces on top of some fairly pumped bodies.  My sisters impress me, and they make me want to step up my game just a notch.
Me and my two sisters.
These once-a-year gatherings come with other lessons that nudge me.  My sisters are massively organized and helpful.  As much as I like to think I am organized and helpful, too, they are the anti-tornados that blow into the vacation home, and wherever they touch down, things are set to rights.  My youngest sister arrived in New Mexico with three coolers worth of food, a list of family allergies and food preferences, and a chalkboard for writing up breakfast and dinner menus.  My middle sister flew in with the family napkins and a comprehensive list of local activities we might want to take part in.  And me?  I arrived with a pair of hungry teenage boys and a couple of big hugs.   Miser Mom the moocher. 

It was a fabulous week.  I'm glad to be back home again, what with the tomato vines groaning under the weight of their fruit and the fall semester looming over me like a tidal wave.  And I'm also glad that being back home means that for a week or so, I was away, looking in at my life from the outside.  It's a good thing to do, to pause and think about what I'm doing . . . and then to zoom forward and keep doing it some more.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Lunch, Land, and Lyrics

What does it look like to go on a vacation with my family?

Well, partly it looks like this, because my dad loves the South West.
The ruined church and grave wall in Taos, New Mexico.

My dad, adored by his daughters, arranges the family vacation every year by soliciting possible dates from us, and then announcing the actual date and location.  And we go where he says:  because he's our dad, and because we adore him, and because he pays for the rented house where we stay (not to mention a huge part of our travel expenses).  We don't really mind that we have no say in the destination.

Once we get to the place where we're staying, my sisters (and I, but not as much as my sisters) take on the task of organizing meals.  Increasingly, the next generation gets involved, too.  We take turns making dinner for the 15-or-so people who are gathered.  Even when we go on day trips, we avoid restaurants:  we make our own sandwiches . . .
. . . and pack them in coolers to take with us.  Cheaper than restaurants, and faster, too. This makes sight-seeing with many, many people much easier.

Below are a few gratuitous photos from our sight seeing.
I loved the colors in this blanket, and
took the photo so I could remember this combination.

At the Pueblo tour in Taos, what the grandkids loved
the most was the friendly dogs.
Although the Pueblo was a really remarkable tour, too.

Dad bought us tickets to the Santa Fe Opera performance of Don Giovanni.
This is what it looks like outside the theater;
a stunning view (looks better in person than in the photo).

The stage itself has no backdrop, so the audience looks through the stage
to see the hills and sagebrush beyond.  

But when we're not doing the breath-taking, stunning stuff, there's a lot of just-as-fun but not-as-photo-worthy stuff.  Big meals around a giant table.  Runs together through the local neighborhood with my sisters and me catching up on children, exercise regimens, jobs, friends.  Jigsaw puzzles. Card games. Knitting lessons.  Journal entries in the family journal book.  Bike rides that my husband and N-son take together.  Grandkids (ages 13 to 27) huddled around a TV watching dance contests, while the older generations gather at the dining room table to map out future home construction projects.

Santa Fe is truly lovely, and I'm glad we came.  Here's where I insert the standard hokey phrase about the expensive parts of this trip not being the best parts . . . isn't it nice when the standard hokey phrase is actually true?