Monday, September 1, 2014

A new beginning, again

Oh, I love this time of year!

We're teetering on the edge of a new semester.  First-year students have shown up on campus, and they're full of nervous energy, bursting with grand ideas about the future.  My former students are trickling back from far away places, and they're surprised how much coming back to the campus feels like coming "home".  Everywhere I walk on campus, there are hugs, greetings, exclamations of joy at seeing people long-separated from one another.

The faculty are a bit more sober.  My colleagues are, as every year, visibly stunned by the speed with which the summer flew past us.  Projects we thought we'd have finished, they still loom large.  A wave of paperwork in the form of syllabi, annual evaluations, and course rosters threatens to capsize us and dash us against the wall of September.  And yet, even among the professoriate, there is anticipation, high hope, even occasional giddy optimism about the promise of a new academic year.  I soak this up like a sponge.

Last year, my family obligations occupied much of my attentions.  My husband was off at the army for three months and my children each had their own versions of a Horrible time.  This year, life seems to have mercifully smoothed out for the children, and my husband is not only not traveling, but he's dropped down to part-time work, so he'll be the primary parent.  Miser Mom will be more and more of a Miser Mathematician, and also a Miser Manager (because I've taken on some big administrative duties this year).

Between the start of the semester and all the IronMan training I did this summer, I've done precious little yard sale-ing.  My canning jar collection is mostly empty.  But my syllabus is almost done, and my students are buzzing happily through the hallways; it's going to be a great fall.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

One last IronMan post

My husband and I are both (surprise) a little sore.  There are blisters and rashes and achy muscles, as you'd expect.  On the drive home from Louisville yesterday, my husband would ask if I need to use a restroom, and then say, "but if we did that, we'd have to get out of the car, which would mean we'd have to STAND UP . . . " Rising from a chair is a bit ouchy.  

But we're both (as one of my friends happily described it "ridiculously proud" of each other.  I kept telling people that my main goal was to "not collapse".  And this was a meaningful goal; while I was on the run I saw ten (10) people who had collapsed, and another two who were violently and grossly nauseous.  I got to see the post-race medical auditorium that had rows and rows of cots, with people on them getting IVs because of dehydration and nausea.  As you can see, we didn't collapse, so I'm happy!

The thunderstorms that happened in Louisville the past few days really roiled the river up.  That meant for me, who has done open water swimming before, that I was on an exciting roller coaster speedway.  I had a blast dodging through other swimmers, zooming through waves, and then zipping along at incredible speed downstream.  I loved loved loved this current.  For my novice-swimmer husband, the river was more of a roller coaster/horror show, with scary waves that turned him in random directions and hordes of swimmers banging into him.  Fortunately, one of the volunteer kayakers decided to be his guide, and stayed by my guy until he finished.  He was the 4th-to-the-last person to finish the swim! 

For my husband, the effort of the swim slowed his bike way down.  But for me, biking was another fantastic adventure.  I flatted at mile 2 (my first segment was the slowest, even though that was the flattest section).   I changed the tire, but couldn't get it up to full pressure for another 15 miles, when I found a bike tech.  After that, I had lots of fun climbing and descending hills.  Louisville advertises the bike course as "challenging", but fortunately my home county is full of even more challenging hills to go up and down.  So I wound up *passing people*, which NEVER happened on my training rides.

Unfortunately, my bike shoes gave me blisters, and something about doing the bike twisted my knee, and so I had to walk the entire marathon.  That was a bummer, especially because once the sun went down I felt *great* and really wanted to jog -- but my knee wouldn't let me run.  (My buddies will understand just how significant this is when I say that I was actually *walking* down hills.  It was sad).  I've got my knee wrapped now, and the doc says I'm supposed to stay off of it for two weeks.  On the other hand, power walking instead of running means I didn't wind up like those 10 guys down on the pavement surrounded by medics.  

The run was fairly warm -- 92 degrees with a lot of sun -- almost no cloud cover at all.   It wasn't until I was on mile 10 of my walk that I saw my husband coming at me on the marathon, and that was the first time I knew he'd finished the swim.  My friends who followed the race on-line all knew it LONG before I did!  He ran/walked much of the marathon walking with a 54-year-old Black Hawk pilot.  After about 17 miles, my husband ditched the pilot and started running so he could finish on time.  

Now we've both finished!  We drove back home yesterday, and today we're going to work like normal people.   Life resumes!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Will Miser Mom be an Iron Maiden?

My husband and I checked in with the IronMan officials today.  We've got our blue wristbands and our ankle timing chips, so now we look like hospital patients who are under house arrest.  We are surrounded by hearty, wiry people with storm-trooper-style bikes and helmets.  Everyone looks insanely fit.  I am enjoying myself immensely!  
Chris Lieto, serious triathlete.
Note the rhinoceros-horn-shaped bike handlebars, scary-pointy helmet,
and rocket-butt-launcher for his back water bottles. 

In contrast, here's Miser Mom on my SPDM,
getting passed on a ride last year.
Sort of photo-shopped, but accurate in principle.
The weather on Sunday, race day, should be 91 degrees with a chance of thunderstorms.  This is an improvement over earlier forecasts I'd seen, which predicted 98 degrees with a chance of thunderstorms.  I think back to the long winter runs my friends and I did, with 19-degree weather and snow on the ground and frost on TL's eyelashes, and I decide I'm going to be grateful that I don't have to worry about slipping on ice.

For my husband, the real test will come early in the morning Sunday:  everyone has to complete the swim in 2 hours 20 minutes, or else get pulled from the rest of the race.  [His previous times have been 2 hours 30 minutes -- so it's close.  We thought he'd be able to buy time because the early rules said "2:20 from the time the LAST SWIMMER starts", but now they say "2:20 from the time the YOU start", so he's nervous as all-get-out.  I'm hoping the fact that we're in a river with current will help.]  After my guy makes it past the swim, the bike should be pure fun for him.  He'll try his best on the run, but doesn't really care as much that he actually finishes that part.

As for me, I'm hoping this where I'll be on Sunday:  
  • While you're eating breakfast & getting ready for church (7:00 to 9:00ish), I'll be waiting my turn to start, and then swimming.  
  • While you're going about your daily activities (9:00 to 5:00), I'll be going about my bike activities.  
  • Around the time you sit down to dinner, the only thing I'll have left is the little marathon.  The rule is, I have to finish by midnight or I turn into a pumpkin.  

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The discontent of owning nice things

We just got back from a week of family vacation, a week that we spent at the very new home of my dad and his new wife, "Sarah".

"Sarah" is a great companion to my dad; we're all glad that he found someone who shares his love of travel and square dancing and even math and physics.  And she's been delighted to be welcomed into our large and rather active family.

Still, this past week was  a bit of a soul-sucking adventure for me and my kids, all because of the wonderful new home that my dad and Sarah bought together, and also because of the wonderful stuff they filled it up with.

Sarah has played piano all her life, and now, at the age of 79, she has finally treated herself to a present she's waited for, for years: a Steinway grand piano.  This piano costs more than any car I'd ever bought, and so it's no surprise that our family members all got this little caution as part of a pre-vacation message from my dad:
 Which reminds me of a rule - no one, even me, is to touch her new piano without getting Sarah's permission first.
So, when on Tuesday night, one of my sons touched the piano, it was an occasion of great grief. First, Sarah told me she saw one of my the boys lean up against the piano and lay his hand on it.  (Sarah had given permission for another child to play the piano; apparently my son was listening and got too close). Sarah found a fingerprint on the glossy black finish, and this really upset her.  I immediately took off, rounded up both sons, had them apologize, and had them both promise not to go near the piano again.  I warned them ahead of time that their apology would be met with a stern lecture, not with forgiveness, and I told them they had to suck it up and apologize even more, not talk back.  Which they did.

But my dad came over to me shortly after, and told me Sarah was still distraught about the fingerprint, which she'd need a special cleaner to get off.  So, knowing that my kids couldn't make it right, I went and did the apology also.  I let Sarah vent at me for a half hour or so -- I knew she needed an outlet and a target.  After all, this was her dream piano, and she HAD warned us not to touch it, and we HAD touched it ourselves.  I totally get that this was our fault.  I apologized for my kids, and thanked her for her graciousness in hosting us, and I told her I completely understand wanting to keep her beautiful piano sacrosanct, because I *do* understand that.

But that doesn't mean the vacation was fun.  The rest of the week, Sarah was on edge about her belongings.  We went berry picking, and while the children delightedly showed their baskets of berries to her (still out in the orchard), she recoiled at their juice-stained hands and turned the happy day into one of dismay.  There were serious discussions launched by my sisters about the very slippery throw rugs Sarah had placed on the floor near the front door (many of us found them a tripping hazard), but Sarah rankled at the possibility of removing them because she fretted over having so many people pass over her shiny hardwood floors.

If the tension wasn't fun for my kids, I'm sure it was hard on Sarah, too.  She's used to living alone, and all of a sudden, because of my dad, she had nineteen people descend on her home and her belongings, swarming around her and leaving her no peace.  If we had been somewhere other than her home, I'm sure she would have found the crowd overwhelming just because of the number and noise of us.  It's even worse inviting these people in where they're in a position to inflict damage and dirt on her own carefully chosen, dearly prized belongings.

I understand Sarah, because I'm still a little wistfully bummed about dings in my own car (not even a brand-new car -- a 2001 Prius with 98,000 miles on it).  I'm not bummed enough to actually pay to *fix* my car, but I think about my crumpled old car, and I sympathize with Sarah's desire to protect the beauty of her new home.

At the same time, this week has reinforced my resolve not to buy anything nice until my boys move out of the house, because I just got another first-hand lesson that owning nice things doesn't always make you happy -- in fact, owning nice things can make you and everyone around you miserable.  And so maybe, even after the boys have grown up, if I want to get visits from my kids and their kids I'll try not to buy anything so nice that I care too much about my things.  We'll see.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Space: the Frugal Frontier

I'm not a Disney fan, but even a stodgy ol' wet blanket like me can understand why my daughter (and other gals of her generation) fell in love with Belle. 
In particular, I can totally relate to falling in love with Belle's love of the Beast's library.  Wow! Even now, I remember the first time Belle, my daughter, and I came into this room . . . 
Again, wow.

I'd had my own library-lust moment at a similar age.  Many years earlier, when I was a young teen, I'd fallen in love with the Peacock Room in the Smithsonian Museum's Freer Gallery.  The peacocks were painted by James Whistler, and there's a great story behind that.  But what I loved was not so much the walls, as the shelves that lined these walls.  Oh, *I* wanted a room full of shelves like that!

I'm bringing all this up because Jen asked a great question on a post I wrote about de-cluttering:
I'm very good at getting rid of stuff, I need to do better at not buying it in the first place (though, like you, I tend to always buy my things secondhand anyway).
My question is if I truly get rid of everything I don't "need"...what do I do with the empty room? Moving to a smaller place isn't really an option (or a desire). Do you keep things just to fill up the space?
Yeah, how do I reconcile all my "get rid of excess" delight with my multi-generational shelf lust?

This is how I do it.  I say, "Space is a design element".  Even more importantly, it's a luxurious design element.  If you look again at the Beast's library, you'll see that around the shelves, there is empty space: a giant window, a stairwell (with no books or papers on it), a shiny floor.   The same goes for the Peacock room.  The shelves aren't jammed with belongings; there is one (or no) item on each open shelf.  It's beautiful.

[As an aside, about 15 years ago, I used to volunteer to help fix things up at a local women's shelter, and there I saw the an even more striking example of this phenomenon.   There, the women who had moved in certainly owned less and had many fewer material belongings than I did, but the women had to keep it all in just one bedroom.  No one there seemed to wish she owned more things, but they all wished for more space to spread out.  Open space is a luxury.]

Artists know about this open space; they call it "negative space", which makes it seem like a negative thing.  But the open space around your stuff is a positive thing; it makes space for people.
You can use open space in a bunch of ways.  

Space helps us separate objects into zones so it's easier to tell one area from another.  (You can see this especially with avid gardeners -- my neighbor's garden looks much better than mine not just because of the plants, but because there's a mulched border between the grass and the flowers, and also between different patches of flowers).

Space helps to focus our eyes on certain areas; to say, "there's nothing important here; look over there instead."  That's why designers tell you not to evenly space all your photos across the wall, but to gather them together.  If your whole room were "gathered photos", it wouldn't be as effective a look; it's the gathering together with the empty space that makes your photos stand out.

Space allows for easy access.  It's easier to pull something out of a drawer that has 3 items in it than it is to pull something out of a drawer that has 30 items in it.  

And finally, space acts as a frame -- a halo of space can turn ordinary objects into art.  You can stand a single plate up on each shelf (as in the Peacock Room).  You can open one of your favorite books to one of your favorite pages, and that becomes a display in and of itself. 

And just in case you think that this is just one person's quirky opinion, here's a bit more visual evidence for the "space = luxury" argument.  I googled "beautiful shelves" and clicked on images, and here's what I saw.   Some of these shelves are completely empty because it's just the shelves of course, but some of the shelves are in use.  And when you look a the shelves, look also at the space around them. 

Don't you just want them all?  Ah, shelf lust!  It runs in the family. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Storing my wine glasses in the "cloud"

When I reorganized our kitchen and dining room a few weeks ago, I decided that we use our wine glasses so seldom, that I ought to store them elsewhere.  And if I can farm out my data and electronic documents to "the cloud", why not do the same with my wine glasses and other household objects?

Having more stuff than I want is not a problem that's unique to me.  Self-storage outfits have been around for ages, of course, for people who want to keep their belongings around . . . just not keep them in the house.  But what I'm seeing more and more in my own travels and reading goes beyond having less space than stuff; it's a growing realization from even the non-miser types that we people have more than we need, more than we want, more than we should.

Increasingly I see companies advertising their decluttering services -- these companies make money by coming to your home to "recycle, donate, or dispose of your junk responsibly".  It used to be you'd read articles about heirs arguing over inheritances, but nowadays newspaper articles often describe the difficulties children face when cleaning out their deceased parents' homes.  It's getting rid of things, not keeping things, that is the challenge.

If I thought I was imaging this trend, the latest Consumer Reports issue dispels all doubts.  This "what to buy" magazine has, for the first time I recall, a giant article on "how to sell your stuff".  They carefully and meticulously rank categories like "Auction House", "Consignment shop", "Online", "Yard Sale", and "Donate".  The magazine on "how to buy it" has started writing articles on "how to get rid of it".   Something big is afoot.

In a weird sort of a twist, this trend makes it easier and easier for people like me to let go of seldom used objects and store them . . . where?  well, as I keep saying, "in the cloud".  I've sent the wine glasses out there, somewhere, into the general populace.  I boxed up my wine glasses for Good Will, knowing that if I ever change my mind and decide I want to drink wine from glasses with stems attached, they're a yard sale away from me, or at most a so-called-thrift-store away from me.

One advantage of being a yard-sale shopper is that I get a yearly tour of what our world has enough of already.  I don't need to pile up spare suitcases in my basement; every summer I pass by never-used, lightweight, better designed suitcases than the ones I bought a dozen years ago (for real money).  Occasionally, when we add a new kid to the family who needs his own suitcase, I'll plunk down a whole dollar and buy one for him in his favorite color.  But I've been purging our grown children's clunky old "just in case"suitcases from storage spaces.  Send 'em back to the cloud.

Wine glasses.  Small kitchen appliances (especially coffee makers).  Printers.  DVDs.  Christmas decorations.  Women's clothes.  Spiral notebooks.  Picture frames.  Craft supplies.  Mugs.  Furniture. Sewing supplies . . . . It's all out there in the cloud.  If you donate any of these items and later decide you need it back, all you have to do is wander into the nearest church basement yard sale or local thrift store, and you can buy it back.

Better yet, don't buy it back.  Tell your friends you're hunting . . . because if your friends are like all the rest of us, they have all these things tucked away in the back of their closets, and they're dying for a good excuse to move this clutter out of their homes.   And taking their belongings out of their crowded house will be your little gift to them, and to their children, and to their children's children.

If you see my old wine glasses out there, you're welcome to 'em.