Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Salt of the swamp

With so much aswirl around me, it seems silly to say that this one little pair of jars makes me happy.

But they do.  They're my "new" salt and pepper shakers, made one quiet morning after the kids had cartwheeled out the door, transforming the house from an arcade machine full of bouncing, yelling, fast-moving objects into one of sudden stillness.

The boys headed out the door, and I drank my coffee in tranquility.  And then I got out a hammer, a scrap piece of wood, and some nails, and I punched holes in some spare canning lids to make my new salt and pepper shakers.  These will replace a pair of shakers I'd bought several years ago for a quarter, but that somehow got smashed.  (In myhouse?  Imagine that!)

Much of the time this semester, I am deliberately focused on the tunnel of events in front of me.  There is paperwork, and teaching, and meetings, and more paperwork.  I seldom get to step back and see the landscape that shapes the geography of these activities; instead I march forward from each mountain of paper to each marsh of bureaucracy, following the trail blazed in my organizational calendar.

Yesterday, I got an email from a student of mine.  She's struggling a bit in my class, finding calculus to be a struggle after many years away from math, but she's working very hard, never giving up.  I'd stopped to talk to her on my way home from work, telling her how proud I was of her persistence and how much I enjoy having her in my class.  In her email, my student said
It means a lot to have a professor who takes an interest in her students outside of the classroom and it means even more to me coming from a person who is guiding me through my most difficult subject. In today's world people are so rushed that we forget about kindness . . . 
And this was a ray of sunshine bursting through the leaves of my e-forest.  I am much too mired in the swamp to be the salt of the world.  But even so, I can be the salt of the swamp.  

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Moderate Praise for Going to Extremes

A commenter on Frugal Scholar said, the other day, "I don't go to extremes like reusing coffee filters or stuff like that . . . " .  My immediate thought was "what's so extreme about that?"  I have a reusable "gold" coffee filter that I use whenever I can.  And when my husband makes Pot #1 of coffee with a paper filter, I've been known to make Pot #2 by just dumping a bit more coffee grounds into the existing set of grounds.  That's not extreme by my standards, it's just normal.

But I admit I do go to extremes in other ways.  In fact, recently I've been reaping the mixed blessings of a life lived to extremes.  This past summer, I spent something like 20 hours a week training for the Ironman triathalon.  It's not the way I want to live always, and I was happy as all-get-out when I finally finished the race.  It wasn't just that I was happy to do the whole 140 miles; it was a relief to know the triathalon training was behind me and I could now return to "normal".  

But, in large part because of going nutso this past summer, "normal" means something different for me now than it did before.  "Normal" now means I "only" run 13-ish miles a week.  It means I have gone from bike-fearing to bike-loving: I bike to market and to doctors appointments instead of driving.  And when I get a bit of extra time on the weekends, my husband and I go for a 25-mile joy ride, biking through some of my now-favorite farmland vistas.

And the truth is, I pretty desperately need that exercise habit to be deeply ingrained this year.  Because now that the academic year has kicked in, I've gone to extremes in another direction.  This year I'm both a department chair and a member of my college's promotion and tenure committee.   Either one of these jobs is notorious in academic circles for being a time suck; the combination (mixed in with teaching and advising that I'm also doing) is a little bit like an IronMan of Academia.  I've got lots and lots and lots of administrative work on my hands . . . although, it's not really my hands that carry the load, it's my butt.  I'm doing a lot of sitting and staring at computer screens.

The time-suck that I've entered into this year, I think of as another odd and painful blessing.  It has forced me to think about all the parts of my life that have become normal because of habit instead of because of choice.  So to keep myself sane, I'm examining every part of my day, from how and when I rise to what I do just before I go to sleep at night.  I'm paying especial attention to anything that keeps me seated at a screen, or seated reading papers.

I've put myself on a newspaper fast; between now and May, I'll get the Sunday paper but not the daily paper.  That's a half-hour each morning I'll spend differently.  I'm becoming more aware (and also much more careful) about internet use.  I'm seriously considering an internet fast from 7:30 each evening until 7:30 the next morning; I just have to work out the logistics of that.

I'm also, paradoxically, using these time pressures to force a few new activities into my schedule.  I have a weekly "date" with my grown daughters, and that's turned into a source of delight for all of us.  I've started attending coffee hour at our faculty center, mostly so I can schmooze with other people.   I've set aside time for a Bible study and for solitary prayer and quiet.    And I've decided that I need to read something that's pure enjoyment, so I'm threading my way through Jane Eyre.

With so little free time in my schedule, I'm working hard to make the most of the time that I do have.  All of a sudden, every little thing that I do matters.  I think about every part of my schedule these days differently, carefully, even obsessively.  It's an extreme way to live.   But I think that when this academic year spits me out into a warm, empty, wide-open summer, I'll be a better person for having lived this way.



Saturday, October 11, 2014

Bushel, bushel, bushed!

A good friend of mine came by this weekend to learn how to can apples.  This friend is a former student of mine, who is now an amazing and accomplished mathematician in her own right.  We serve on a national committee or two together, and we occasionally even swap math ideas (although we're in very different fields).

Well, my friend is now such a well-established math professor that there's not much left for me to teach her, besides how to can applesauce, so that's what we did.

I get my apples locally; my running buddy June picks them up during her tours of the Amish farms in our county.   I like getting apples both local and cheap -- only 50¢ per pound!   Win all around!

I told June that I wanted two bushels of apples.  "Are you sure?" she asked back.  I remembered she'd asked the same thing when I'd ordered apples a year before, and I'd said yes last year (and been happy for all the apples she brought.  So there).  So I said yes again.

And then June delivered the apples.

Oh.
I guess I hadn't ordered . . . two bushels . . .  last year.

Because two bushels is really a boatload of apples.

In fact, I looked it up on-line afterward, and a bushel is 48 pounds of apples.  So (using my math brain to compute) I now realized I ordered 96 pounds of apples.  Yeah.

So we canned.  We canned and we canned.  Then I made a giant batch of apple crisp.

I'm out of canning jars.  I'm out of energy, too.

 And I still have a more than a bushel of apples left.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Scurvy knaves and piratical wenches

Look lively, mateys!  The Pirates have returned!

This past weekend, in what has become an annual Miser-Mom homage to Talk Like a Pirate Day, we hoisted the Jolly Roger (the skull-and-crossbones flag) and feasted together on a piratical dinner.









The pirate wenches went all out in costuming ourselves . . .
 . . . and with Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance playing to set the tone, we had our scavenger hunt for buried treasure.  The pirates searched here . . .
 . . . and there . . .
 . . . and everywhere, until they found the gold dubloons "buried" underneath the dining room table.
As usual, we were grateful to the Turkey Lady at our local market for providing the grub!

Arrr, Mateys!  Eat hearty!







Saturday, September 20, 2014

One way to spend hundreds on groceries

This past month, I spent hundreds of dollars buying meat: I spent about four hundred dollars, in fact.  Especially for a former vegetarian like me, that's a heck of a lot of money to spend on consumable animals!

Of course, the reason I spent so much is that September is the time of year when we rev up our chest freezer for winter use.  Summer, the freezer sits empty and unplugged, but when tomatoes and corn start filling up the pantry, we know it's time to wipe down the inside of the freezer with a bit of water and bleach, plug 'er in, and fill 'er up with food that doesn't make it into canning jars.

My husband and boys are dedicated and enthusiastic carnivores, and they're also prone to impulse purchases.   So when the freezer starts up again,  I try to head off meat purchases that might be expensive/trash-intensive/questionably sourced with my own bulk purchase of hamburger and turkey kielbasa from local, organic places where I won't get styrofoam trays or excessive packaging.  And by bulk purchasing the meat, I bring the price-per-pound down, too.

But as I forked over my money it struck me . . . well, it struck me just how striking it is to pay for all of our hamburger and turkey at once.  This half-freezer-full of animal protein ought to last us for many months.  We'll buy a turkey at Thanksgiving; we'll buy pork for New Years; we might buy chicken wings for the boys' birthdays (a new family tradition), but that might be the only extra meat we buy until March.  So that's something like $16/week for a family of (now) four of us.

$400 for food sounds like a lot of money.  $16 doesn't.  This isn't profound -- it's just another example of how it's possible to think in such different ways about the same amount of money.  It's like the reverse view of that old financial chestnut about adding up the daily coffee purchase or the restaurant lunches:  "that $3/day habit means $750 spent each year on donuts!".  For me, I get my 'yoicks' up front.

I think this is another reason why I like bulk purchasing food.   When I used to shop frequently, every grocery store trip had something unusual to it, so it was hard to get an overall sense of where my money went.   There were just too danged-many purchases to keep track of.  But when I stock up on hamburger, or when I fork over (heh) $500 for  a CSA share that will provide most of our vegetables for the year, or when I take a trip to Miller's and buy enough flour and oats to tide us over for three months, well, then I have a better sense of the heft and expense that goes along with feeding my family.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Trouble brewing (coffee version)

Calamity struck our household last night -- our coffee grinder stopped working.
A very clean, but newly dysfunctional, coffee grinder, 
Of course, this is not really calamity, but the way my husband and I reeled from the blow, you'd think we'd have just discovered our car totaled by the side of the road, or the roof blown off the house.   Immediate action was required.  "Do we go out and buy a new one right now?  on a Sunday night?"   "Can we find some pre-ground coffee somewhere to tide us over?"  

My own head was racing with methods for what I call "preventative shopping"  -- that is, ways to buy a grinder on the cheap so my un-frugal husband wouldn't go to Starbucks or the Mall to get a high-end grinder at full price.  Stalling tactics were in order, so I could buy time instead of buying expensive machinery.

It's worse than I've described so far, though, because it wasn't just that the grinder stopped working all by itself.  Oh, no.  It's that I broke it.    I'd decided it was too dirty, and so I cleaned it with baking soda and toothbrushes and scrubbers, and then I rinsed it off under a running faucet.  And the water bath was just too much.  Cleaning had been over-kill, literally.

How miserably embarrassing.

My husband was nice enough not to actively blame me, even though we really were both in that tense let's-not-panic mode that could easily have led to finger-pointing.  But of course I knew this was all my fault.  So we came up with a plan, of sorts.
Stage 1: We found pre-ground coffee on our shelves, enough to last us a few days. Phew!
Stage 2: I got out the screwdriver and took the contraption apart in hopes of . . . what?  A coffee miracle?  I wasn't sure.
Stage 3: I immersed the dis-assembled coffee grinder in a bag of rice. I figured, if this works for some cell phones, maybe it works for coffee grinders, too.
The next morning I woke up, went for my usual Monday morning run, and then waited for my husband to leave the house so that if my "repair" didn't work, at least I could fail without an audience.  I shook the rice out of the grinder area, reassembled the grinder and . . .

Yay!   Grounds for Celebration!
A clean AND functional grinder!  yay!


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Awful vs. Awesome?

Long, long ago, when I was in a high school English class, I remember my classmates and I being mystified by "the awful Persephone".   Why was it that the beautiful woman from Greek Mythology, the one who reigned as the Queen of the Dead, was referred to as "awful Persephone"?  Hesiod seemed to think she was kind, beautiful, and good at heart.  So why "awful"?

Our teacher explained that Persephone was so amazing that she left people full of awe -- we should think of the adjective more like "awesome".  That explanation made sense to me, and it set me up for a better life-long understanding of the connection between love, reverence, and fear.

I think back to Persephone when I had two "awful Mama" conversations this summer.  Twice in the past few months, K-daughter had big announcements she wanted to share with me, and both time she was quaking about my possible reaction.  Here's part of the first quake-in-her-shoes moment.

Because I'm afraid of your reaction as to what I'm about to say, I decided to send you an email to say it. 
Yesterday, [my boyfriend] asked me how I felt about the idea of moving in with him. My immediate thought was; "Oh my God, I wouldn't even know how to ask [MiserMama]!" because I don't want to hurt your feelings or make it seem like I always want to leave home. I like to travel and find new experiences in life, and I would treat this like one of them. So, in turn of me freaking out, I asked [I-daughter] for some advice since she knows you well. She mentioned that you most likely will not have hurt feelings, but, I still worry. She also mentioned that you would ask about my plans for school, if I decide to do this.  . . . 
I'm worried to mention this to you because I'm scared you'll be mad, sad, skeptical etc. I also don't know how you feel about [my boyfriend] . . . Another thing that makes me anxious is, can I still come home for dinner and to visit and to stay the weekend if I want to? Because I know I'll miss you guys if this is what I decide to do.  
I hope you're not mad, I love and care about you and our family a lot, I'm just looking for a new adventure of life lessons I guess... And I guess I'm a bit crazy for searching. 
 Okay, now, of course I'm not even in the slightest upset, and in fact, I wasn't even all that surprised.  K-daughter is 22 years old.  She's really only lived with us for three years.

But I'm touched that my opinion matters so much to her, that she wants so much to live up to expectations that she feels I'm setting for her.  I'm so glad that I can reach out in love to this young woman who clearly wants to be loved.  And to be loved by me.

The second big announcement was that K-daughter will, sometime next spring, be a mother herself.  And in spite of all that impending motherhood means to someone still working toward finishing her college degree, the scariest part once again was telling me.  Oh, poor kid.

At one point in our conversation, full of anticipation and reassurances and joy, I got to tell my daughter this:
Someday, maybe twenty years from now, your own child will come to you and say, "Mom, I have something to tell you and I don't know how you're going to react."  And what are you going to say to your child, K-daughter?  You're going to say, "I'm your mother and I love you.  No matter what you do, that's never going to change.  I love you and I want you to be happy."  That's what you'll say to your child, and that's what I'm saying to you now.  
K-daughter is going to be an awesome mom.