Wednesday, December 7, 2016

What a Miser Mom buys her kids for Christmas

Lots of people talk about the wish to dial back Christmas giving, and of course the MiserMom household is no exception.  I love the descriptions in the Little House series of Laura's treasured, and yet frugal, presents: an orange, a penny, and a tin cup.  My kids are accustomed to hearing me promise/threaten/wax nostalgic about a Christmas like that. 

And yet.

And yet, among my "upper family" (sisters and father), the gift-giving exchange is about so much more than the gifts. It's one of two times each year we gather back together, and we spend a leisurely half-a-day going through the ritual of opening gifts one-by-one, watching each other, sharing stories about how a particular gift was chosen or what it was given for, laughing and reconnecting.  The ritual is a larger kind of treasure, worth far more than the material aspects of the event.

So I've been building a compromise.  In my "lower family" (among myself and my kids), I've tried to shift the emphasis onto shared experience.  The past few years, Christmas has been focused on building gingerbread houses (or gingerbread shacks, or earthquake-shattered wrecks -- even the disasters have been fun to create).  But we've also exchanged gifts, in a much smaller ceremony.

Some of my favorite gifts that I received last year had minimal material impact.  My step-daughters offered me all their cast-off clothes, and since they're fairly fashion conscious, that means my wardrobe got a styling update.  My birth daughter knitted me a pair of wool socks.  My sister got me a set of bamboo straws, so we can have our "no hands dinner" with no plastic straws.  My husband offered to clean out the basement, and made huge headway on getting rid of boxes and boxes of old paperwork he no longer needed.  We worked on that together (him deciding, me carrying).  That was a lot of fun.

And what did I get my own children?  My friend Carmen was sort of horrified.  She'd told me about her gifts to her teenaged daughters--a new phone, a jacket from Abercrombie, a pair of new shoes, a something else, another thing or two, and also a bottle of each child's favorite coffee drink.  So when she asked what I got my kids, and I said, "well, I sewed them cloth bags for vegetables out of old sheets . . . ", Carmen just about called the authorities to report me for child abuse.

To be fair, I didn't stop at the bags-made-of-old-sheets; I also made mesh bags out of old lace curtains, too.  So there's that, although that didn't much reassure Carmen.  (She finally eased up when I told her that I also gave the kids money as well).

But in fact, I was pretty happy with my gifts to my kids, not because everyone wants cloth vegetable bags, but because my kids all know how much I've been working to eliminate trash from my life, and these little cloth bags are part of my scheme for avoiding plastic.  I wasn't just giving them stuff, I was giving them a little bit of something that matters a lot to me.

So, at the risk of driving Carmen into another tizzy, here is the "Table of Contents" that came in each of the gift boxes I gave my daughters last Christmas.  I figure people can use this list the way that I use Laura Ingall's gifts ("Do you want an orange, a penny, and a tin cup for Christmas?  Or do you want Miser Mom's box of bags?  Hmm???").  Or, if you happen to know someone who's so frugal you have no idea what to get them for Christmas, maybe this list would spark ideas.

Guide to the Goodies
(with a food/shopping motif) 

Peach ginger jam
  • from the peaches on our tree, picked by N-son and canned by his mother.
Cherry jelly
  • picked, (imperfectly) pitted, and canned by J-son. Our host-daughter Y helped with the picking.
Cherry pits
  • Stick in the microwave to make yourself a heating pad. (I love tossing mine in bed right where my feet go, so I can go to sleep with toasty toes).
  • [These were cherry pits we'd washed and dried as a by-product of making cherry jelly.  I then put the clean, dry pits into cloth bags I'd made out of old denim jeans -- so these are a lot like bean bags, but with cherry pits.]
Mesh bags
  • made from 100% post-consumer products.
  • Great for purchasing vegetables and bulk M&M’s,
  • and also for washing delicates (like bras or stockings or boxing hand wraps, y’know) so they don’t tangle with other things in the machine

Cloth produce bags
  • Again, made from 100% post-consumer products.
  • Great for purchasing bulk grains or coffee beans. Use the washable crayons to mark the product code on the bag for check out purposes; then launder and reuse.
  • Store salad greens in this bag (keep the bag damp); the salad greens stay crisp for a week or more.

Something to read while you’re standing in line at the grocery store.
  • [a used book that I'd liked reading that I thought my daughters might like, mostly Peanuts Comics]

Something to give to the ca$hier.
  • [this was money, but in unusual denominations -- a collection of $2 bills or dollar coins.]

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Early advent update

Here's the update for the past week.

Our family delightedly put up our advent calendar, full of fun December tasks.  This week the calendar revealed that we would (Dec 1) see Beauty and the Beast at our local theater, (Dec 2) make a batch of marzipan, and (Dec 3) pull out the Christmas clothes -- hats!  shirts! earrings!  yay!

BabyA is ready to geek out with me!
It's been lots and lots (and lots) of fun for me to have K-daughter and my granddaughter in the house -- the whole place seems so much more alive.  Together with Baby-A, I've gotten to reconnect with that literary classic, The Little Engine that could.  K-daughter has had a bunch of friends over to the house, and they seem to like the place.

My husband rode his bike to Philly, and then back (that's getting to be a little bit of old news, right?)  On the way back, the wind was so bad that for a while he drafted an Amish buggy.  He's realized that if he rides 27 miles/day, he'll top 10,000 miles for the year -- I don't know if he's serious about making that number.

J-son has started taking on an informal leadership role in his boxing gym, mentoring the newer boxes.  He's also been bringing in some solid grades, mostly because he's been determined to take his schooling with the kind of seriousness he's been learning in the gym.  We're so proud of him.

N-son pretending to be a present
And speaking of proud, I'm psyched and just a little jealous that N-son got to run the cash register at his Career Training Center.  He's been picking up a lot of cool skills, and even a bit of a "can I help you" attitude that's been super useful around the home.  That's a real gift to us!

On somewhat sadder news, our Miser-dog's health has taken a turn for the worse.  We're caring for him with something of a home hospice model, trying to make him as comfortable as we can while he still seems to be enjoying having the family around him.  

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Advent calendar, coming right up!

Tomorrow, we'll put up our annual advent calendar.  This is becoming a tradition in the house, one that my daughters (even the one who doesn't live here) looks forward to.   So, yay for traditions!

As usual, each day has an activity.  Some of the activities are things we'd have on a normal calendar (like theater tickets or our city's sing-along concert), some of them are pre-christmas tasks (like decorating the house and wrapping presents), and some of them are other weird family traditions (like our annual celebration of the anniversary of my husband's driver's license.)  And a few of them are head-scratchers that I stuck in there to fill up the calendar (bowling, anyone?)

I discovered a few years ago that if you put sticky notes on paper, you can send the paper through the printer again and print on top of the sticky notes.  I guess that some year, when I finally get through my stash of yellow mini-stickies, I ought to go out and buy Christmas-colored notes.  But for now, this works.   At any rate, now the kids take turns taking off one sticky note each day, to uncover this calendar day-by-day.

Here's this year's list of advent activities.
  1. Beauty and the Beast! at our performing arts theater
  2. marzipan makings
  3. get out X-mas clothes
  4. hang lights
  5. decorate tree
  6. St. Nicholas Day: give to charity
  7. bring in pine boughs
  8. put out Santa & statutes
  9. Make springerli cookies
  10. mail springerli cookies
  11. Christmas caroling
  12. Make Eggnog
  13. Pancake party at my college
  14. Bowling Night
  15. Make X-mas music together
  16. Sing-a-long Concert
  17. walk outside and see lights
  18. write our sponsored children (via World Vision)
  19. Driver's license dinner
  20. deliver Springerli to neighbors
  21. shortest day; candlelight dinner
  22. wrap presents
  23. take X-mas photos
  24. read Twas the night before Christmas
  25. Christmas Day!  Gingerbread & Eggnog

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The foot of the dog, and brown cardboard boxes filled with good things

Well, it's been the opposite of a quiet week here in our neck of the woods!  What a lot has been going on!

For one thing, we thought our ancient Miser Dog was on his last legs, literally:  he was having an increasingly hard time walking and losing large amounts of weight.  We took him to the vet, dreading what we might hear.  But what we feared was terminal cancer turned out to be "merely" a case of allergies and swollen feet.  We brought him home with what I told the kids was "more pills than Grandpa takes"**: steroidal anti-inflammatories, allergy meds, fish oil for his liver (to off-set the anti-inflammatories), foot soak, a mystery medication, and antibiotics.    Here's a picture of me soaking my dog's feet, which I'm supposed to do twice a day.  His tongue is prominent in the photo because he licks peanut butter off a spoon while I torture him.  

(**At Thanksgiving dinner, my dad disabused me of this exaggeration -- Miser Dog takes 'only' 6 meds, whereas Dad takes 7--10, depending on how many of his guinea-pig medicines are actually placebos.  At any rate, the dog meds seem to be having the desired effect so far, thank goodness.)

We had a lovely Thanksgiving in the Miser Family tradition, with family (Dad and his wife brought some great homemade pies) and also with students from far-flung countries.  And this year, I had lots of help preparing food.  N-son helped by chopping vegetables with his new ceramic knife -- thanks, N-son's aunt!

As if that weren't enough excitement, on Saturday I got to "unwrap" another gift: my granddaughter Baby A (and oh, yeah, K-daughter) came back home and will be with us for the foreseeable future. I've missed having them both so far away, where "far" is measured by Lancaster standards: a daunting half-hour drive from the house.   Now they'll be just a stair-climb away again.

Cardboard boxes are the best toys ever.

With all that going on, it seems like minor news to say that J-son got to visit his birth mom for Thanksgiving, and that my husband rode his bike to Philly yet again, that I-daughter and I got to go see Tuba Christmas (one of my favorite down-town events) and that my husband and I went to Philadelphia to see the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But all that happened, too!

And that's about it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

What it's like to work in a soup kitchen

What surprised me most the first time I volunteered to serve breakfast at our homeless shelter, a year and a half ago, was the children:  Girls with their hair done in braids and barrettes, wearing sparkle backpacks, school uniforms neatly arranged.  Toddlers in pajamas. Wide-eyed babies in strollers.  I really was expecting the wild-eyed smelly bearded guys, not the adorable little kids headed for another day in second grade.

The first time few times I volunteered to serve breakfast at our local homeless shelter, I was wondering, "What do I say?  How do I make these people comfortable with going through a soup kitchen line?"  The more I returned, the more I realized that almost all of the guests at the soup kitchen know the routine, and they felt more comfortable there than I did (usually as in "stable", and rarely as in "entitled").

Over time, I've built relationships and sometimes even friendships with the people who come in.  Not the "I need a few bucks" kind of a relationship I thought I'd have to be careful about -- not one person has ever hinted at money to me -- but a face-lights-up, "oh!  Glad to see you", kind of relationship.  I've tutored one guy in math, traded bike stories with another, read Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the bus to a bunch of kids.

And after getting used to the stability of it all, it's disconcerting to have people just disappear.   A guy named Teddy and I developed a routine of talking about bikes and about strategies for cold-weather biking.  One day he asked me to "Pray for me; I've got a job interview today.  I hope it goes well."  And then I never saw him again.  Moving out of the shelter and back into "mainstream" life is the point, of course, but it's disconcerting just to have someone I like vanish into thin air.

In the material sense, I've come to learn some neat stuff about what goes on in large kitchens. I love the giant dishwashers, the ladles and stainless steel trays, the machine that washes and peels potatoes (super cool!), the ease with which things get labeled and sorted and stowed away in plain sight.  Cleaning the kitchen there after serving breakfast to 100 people is faster and more intuitive than cleaning the kitchen in my own home.

Kind of ironically, serving people food that has been donated to the shelter is now my most significant regular contact with trash and waste.  We use washable plates and glasses, but disposable (plastic) tableware and disposable (styrofoam) bowls and disposable (paper) napkins.  Also disposable hair nets and gloves (although washable aprons).   We fill several large trashcans each day with uneaten food, with packaging, and with disposable products.  Sigh.

And of course, for N-son, volunteering at the soup kitchen over the summer has been transformative.  He's decided (as only a teenager can decide) that he wants to go into the culinary arts, so much so that he now spends half a day at a culinary training center as part of his high school curriculum.  But he learned so much more: he learned about overcoming obstacles, about persistence, and about how all that can lead to compassion.  As I wrote in September,
[N-son] came home  talking about making mac-n-cheese from scratch, learning to cut fruit quickly, the importance of no-skid shoes, the proper technique for mopping (or "moping", as he spelled it). He interviewed the cooks about what it had been like to be homeless, and he heard story after story of wanting to make amends, to give back, to make the most of their second chances.
I go there once a week now, and it's a part of my routine that I look forward to each week.  And N-son goes back whenever he gets a day off of school.  Next semester, my teaching schedule will mean I can't serve breakfast there, and I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out whether I can fit a lunch-time volunteering routine into my academic schedule.  We'll see!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Birthday, sports, more sports, and cleaning advice

tired boxers
Saturday, N-son turned 17!

We celebrated with a dinner Friday night and with lots of sports on Saturday. (I ran with my friends, J-son had a sparring match against a professional boxer in which he actually did pretty well, and N-son had a squash match). It was a lot of fun celebrating at dinner that night, because I-daughter cooked her signature processed-food dish (mac-n-cheese from a box with hotdogs and garlic mixed in), while I tried to balance things out with the whole foods (salad and steamed vegetables). Throw in a few good friends and a chocolate cake, and lots of fun was had by all.

In other news, N-son is the captain of his squash team. I mentioned that in the update last week, I think, but his two local sisters missed the fact because of the other election-based-stuff, so I thought that good news would bear repeating.

My husband flew to San Francisco last week, rode his bike up and down as many hills as he could, and then flew back. He's recovering from jet lag now, which is treating by riding his bike in blustery winds here on the East Coast.

And me, last week was "Calculus Exam" week for me: I led the review sessions, gave the exam, graded the exam, gave it back, and counseled the students who needed counseling afterward. That pretty much ate up my week.

I've added a photo from J-son's boxing gym: it's a sign on the wall that says, "Please keep our gym safe and clean. If you get a bloody nose, wipe up after yourself. Thank you". That goes for calculus exams, too.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

From bags to tags: making a small difference

 Last year, I blogged a bit about writing "as nice a nasty-gram as I could" because of plastic bags.  A local scout troop collects food for local food banks -- something I commend in my city, which has a large percentage of people facing food insecurity.  But the collection involved rubber-banding plastic bags to neighbor's front doors.   I hunted down as best I could the person in charge of this, who . . . to my surprise . . . totally agreed with me that his scouts ought to do paper tags instead of plastic bags.  He'd been overruled by others around him, and said that my letter would him make the argument for change next year.

And sure enough, as a follow up, here's the letter that we got late last week on nextdoor. com (a social media site that I'm loving being a part of):
Today, Scouts from Pack XYZ placed door hangers on neighbors doors announcing our annual non-perishable food and personal item drive. Based on lots of feedback from neighbors, we decided to do away with the awful white plastic bags that inevitably blew through the streets following our distribution. 
We ask that you if would please take a plastic bag(s) or a paper bag(s), fill it with non-perishable canned goods (preferably those that are not expired) and place them on your front door step next Saturday, November 19th by 8AM, we'd be grateful. Our Pack collects the food and donates it to [Church Food Pantry] on [Nearby] Avenue.  
Thanks for supporting Scouting for Food and helping us support those in need this holiday season.
I'm not really sure that there was "lots of feedback from neighbors"; I suspect it was mostly me.  But whether I was the only one to polite-kvetch or not, I am really glad to have been part of the feedback that makes this tiny little bit of positive change possible.