Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Pressure canner adventures

Yay!  I tried the pressure canner for the first time, and it worked!

Blowing off steam

Watching the gauge
I know from trying to teach math that the unknown is scary -- the first time trying anything is the hardest.  So I've been waiting for (= dreading?) an excuse to get out the pressure canner I got from a woman at our church.  Thanksgiving gave me the excuse I've been looking for: I made a huge pot of stock from the turkey carcass.  And since the freezer is getting full (no more room at the inn for turkey stuff), I screwed up my courage, checked the internet a few last times, and got things boiling.

Heat up the stock; boil some water; sterilize the jars.  Pour the hot stock into the hot jars, screw on the lids, (screw up my courage once again), put the jars in the canner.  Per instructions, I let the steam bleed out 10 minutes, closed the valve, then monitored the gauge to keep the dial on the whole contraption at 11 for 25 minutes.  Done!

Taking stock, so to speak.
When the pot cooled down enough to open it again, I pulled out the hot jars and set them aside to cool.  The stock inside the jars bubbled and boiled for another two hours.  So cool!!!  It was a joy to watch.  Man, I can't wait to do this again!  I just needed more jars; I'd run low on pint jars, and I'm completely out of quart jars.  But I still had a lot of broth.

I got so happy with this that my husband and I drove out to a store (!) and bought another dozen canning jars.  Soup was next.  The boys go through that like no tomorrow -- it makes a great after-school snack for them. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cutting hair

When I was a kid, our mom used to cut our hair.  My sisters and I were not fond of hair-cutting fests.  There was that one night before school pictures, when my mom decided tonight was the night.  Every time she took another swipe at my bangs, she decided they were uneven in another direction; she zig-zagged her way up my bangs until they were 1/2" long on one side and 3/4" on the other.   Somehow I escaped her grasp at that point, but the photos from my 7th grade year continue to haunt me.

A friend of the family rescued me in later years, whisking me away from my mom and taking me to a professional hair cutter.  Getting my hair done by someone who knew what she was doing meant a lot to me.

So it's with considerable caution that I admit that I've taken over my mom's tradition of cutting family hair.  In fact, I only mention home haircutting now because my daughter, returned home briefly for Thanksgiving, asked me to cut her hair and said I should write about it.  Full disclosure:  I didn't touch her bangs.

I've learned as I got older that it's not always as hard as my mom made it look.  Boys are easy, thanks to clippers (except when they ask for dragons and checker boards--then boys aren't so easy).  About a dozen years ago, I got a pair of clippers for about $7; they've paid for themselves many times over.

But girls need scissors, and I remember scissors as an evil to be endured. When my daughter was in high school, I offered her $20 to perm my hair, and she learned as she went along.  She got really good at it!  Since a perm at the nearby hair salon could easily run me $100, I figured paying my daughter was a bargain.  We've cut each other's hair over the years.  When she went to college, I lost my favorite hair stylist . . . at least until my friend TL came along.

But that's a story for another time.   

Monday, November 28, 2011

N-times-epsilon

This summer while I was yard saling, I bought a large black roasting pan (with lid) for $1.  Plan A was to use it in a solar oven to heat water, but I didn't have any cardboard boxes lying around that were large enough to make a solar oven that big, so my solar cooking is still restricted to the small black pot and my existing small solar oven.

Plan B: cook the Thanksgiving Turkey in it.  I have a lid-less pan that I've been using for years, and so in the past I had to cover the turkey with aluminum foil.  This Thanksgiving, thanks to my new pot, I saved several pennies on aluminum foil.  If aluminum foil costs $8 for 200 feet, then I figure I saved 16-20¢.  Woo-hoo!  My pan will pay for itself in just 6 years!

"Oh, geez!" I'm sure people are thinking, "she's obsessing about aluminum foil now".  Not really -- I'm still obsessing about light switches; aluminum foil is mere white noise.  Still, I've been professionally trained to believe that it's all those small habits we pick up that add up to huge differences in the long run.

This is a really big epsilon!
Mathematicians know this well -- the subject of calculus is built on accumulating small changes.  We use the greek letter epsilon to name this small change, and we use N to describe a really big number.  We're fond of pointing out to anyone who hasn't figured out how to avoid us at parties that N times epsilon can be really big number, too -- a single rain drop (epsilon) is small, but put all those raindrops together, and you might flood the neighborhood!

As with geeky math, so with saving money.  Here are a few of the tiny things I didn't spend money on this Thanksgiving holiday (I do my little happy saving-money dance):
  • aluminum foil (big black pot, yes!)
  • paper napkins for my large family (cloth napkins instead)
  • paper towels (love those rags!)
  • gasoline (I walk to my office, and many other places, too)
  • hair stylist (I cut my daughter's and husband's hair, per their requests)
  • bottled water (for good or ill, our family drinks tap water)
  • soda (see entry on bottled water)
  • restaurants (home cooking, mostly from scratch)
  • movies, tv, new books (hurrah for a visit to our local library!)
  • electric lights for rooms that no-one was in.  (I'm following you!  Turn off that light when you leave the room!)
I did spend big bucks (for me) on Thanksgiving dinner -- $142 at our local market, a few dozen at the wine store.  My husband made several unspecified trips to the grocery store to buy things he feels are necessary.  Our regular household expenses are high -- we're putting lots and lots of money into paying off the home loan.  And of course we try to make sure that we share what we have with others who don't have as much.  With the possible exception of the grocery store runs, those are the parts of the budget I feel like we ought to spend MORE, not LESS, on.  That money has to come from somewhere.  

What pot could that money come from?  From my new black pot, of course!  And from all the frugal habits that go with it.  (Big black pot, big black pot, tra la la).

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Heirloom gifts for kids

With people turning from Thanksgiving to X-mas, I thought I'd offer up ideas of frugal-yet-meaningful gifts for kids who are "friends once-removed" (that is, kids of your friends or relatives).  These are things that my own kids (or other kids I know) have appreciated.

My sister ingeniously unloads kitsch that I'd given her long ago by re-gifting it to my daughter.  The clever part of this is that she doesn't pretend the items are new, she offers them as "heirlooms".  Those gaudy earrings and homemade knick-knacks that we thought were groovy when we were younger . . . well, my sister and I have grown out of these just as my daughter grew into them.  The fact that they come with stories about our own younger days made them even more special.

Similarly, my sister gave my daughter her album of photos from my wedding to her dad. Since that dad and I are divorced now, those photos don't mean quite so much to me or my sister, but they mean a lot to my daughter.  Fabulous!

One mathematical colleague of mine sent his niece a card every year explaining something neat about her age.  (For example, "6" is a "perfect number", because it's the sum of its proper divisors.  That is, 6 = 1x2x3, and also 6 = 1+2+3.   The next perfect number is 28, and NOBODY knows if there is an odd perfect number.  If you could find one, you could get a million dollars!)  When his niece became a teen-ager, my colleague figured that the cards were too geeky for her, and so he stopped.  But his niece called up and asked, "where's my card?  I've been waiting to find out what's special about this year!".

Similarly, starting a tradition of telling a story (maybe together with a photo) about a child and her family could be a tradition that the kid cherishes and remembers long after the batteries have died and the plastic toy-o-matic has been tossed in the landfill.  My own kids, who have lived through divorces and foster homes and other disruptions, all value stories about their own and their parents' lives.  They regularly go back and read through their own "life books".  Adding pages to those books means a lot to them.

And it's cheap, too.  Bonus!

Friday, November 25, 2011

State of In(ter)dependence

It's hard to link roadside signs to Thanksgiving, but some things have been bumping around in my head, so I'm going to try.

I've always thought the roadside signs coming into my home state have a lovely irony.  Driving north on Route 83, the first sign you see is "Pennsylvania Welcomes You: State of Independence".

The next three signs, in rapid succession (all within 100 yards of the Independence sign) warn motorists that they should "Buckle Up; It's the Law!", that speed limits are enforced by aircraft, and that littering is punishable by a fine.

 And then, shortly after those three signs, there's an emergency call box.

So, in other words, the bold rhetoric says that we're independent, but our laws and customs say we're not.  The signs that follow the "independence" sign remind motorists that
  • we expect and even require that people be responsible for guarding their own safety (in this case, by buckling up);
  • we expect and require that people conform to what other people or cars do (in this case, by driving at approximately the same speed as other drivers); and
  • we expect and require that people have a responsibility to the environment (by not littering).


And we also expect that our society has a reciprocal responsibility toward its citizens (to respond in case of an emergency).
We like to think of our own independence as driving down this lonesome highway, with not a care in the world.  Our independence has a directionality to it:  we chart our own course through the world; we take the road less traveled by (and that makes all the difference); I did it my way. 

But the word “independence” itself has denial in it (that first "in" means "not").  Being “in-dependent of” means “not to depend on”.  And when we put these ideas side-by-side, the tension is aparent.  We say we are “independent” (of our parents, our community, our peers); we do not like to say that our parents, our community, our peers do not (or can not) depend on us.   Freedom and independence are precious to the extent that they are asymetrical, flowing in one direction in our lives, allowing us to be unique, to be unconstrained, to choose our own path.  When independence flows the other way--when our own actions and efforts make no difference to those around us--the concept holds much less appeal.


This past week, my college newspaper asked students what they were thankful for.  Every single one of the students said, "Friends and Family".  It sounds so smarmy to say it, but I agree -- totally.  What I love most about driving up route 83 into Pennsylvania isn't leaving Maryland to enter a state of independence, its that I'm coming home to be with the people I know and love.

Welcome to Pennsylvania:
State of Interdependence.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanks listing

Miser Mom's top ten list of reasons to be grateful this Thanksgiving:
  1. A dad who can diagnose a burnt-out motor on a heat pump from 107 miles away.  Thanks, Dad!
  2. A dog who follows me wherever I go; who slobbers on my children; who growls at strangers; who goes ecstatic over simple pleasures.  Oh, boy!  Dog Food!  AGAIN!!!
  3. A 12-year old son who begs to be allowed to go to a math meeting on his birthday, rather than be left home to play with toys and friends.
  4. A 13-year old son (and lady-killer) who reeks of manly deodorant but who still loves to be tickled by his mom.  I'm gonna getcha!
  5. A bubbly honorary daughter whose favorite words are "awesome" and "rad", and whose favorite phrase is, "Do you need any help?"  Really, I'm the luckiest person in the world.  No, really.
  6. A step-daughter who brags about her thrifty, strict, authoritarian step-mom and her African American brothers, but who still hangs out (and fits in) with the blonde, stylin', $50-for-a-pair-of-flip-flops crowd.  She's going places, that's for sure.
  7. A daughter who has a "reverse fan club" (many of her friends are members of the highly popular "Io-loves-you" group).  She's what I might have been if I were good with people, which I'm not, but she is.  Hmmm . . . food for thought.
  8. A step-daughter who is fiercely loyal to family and friends.  If I were walking down a dark alley, she'd be even better than the dog at protecting me.  
  9. A husband who believes that marriage is supposed to be a glimpse of what heaven is going to be like, and who lives out that belief just about every day.  
  10. The freedom to worship without persecution, and a church that persistently spurs me to act out my faith in deeds as well as in words.  
Life is good.  Happy Thanksgiving, one and all!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving master recipe

As I promised yesterday, here's my giant Thanksgiving recipe.  Shopping done!  Today's stuffing day.

Tuesday
  • Make space in fridge by emptying out gross moldy things.
  • Grocery shop.
  • Make cranberry relish:  (grind together in the blender 4 cups cranberries, 1 orange, and then 2 cups sugar.  place in refrigerator.)
  • Make salad dressing:  (mix 1/4 c walnut oil, 1/2 c vegetable oil, 3 tbs cider vineagar, 1 tsp mustard, 1 TBS honey, salt, pepper,  and 2 tbs chives.) 
Wednesday
  • Chill white wine, water, and canned cranberry sauce.
  • Defrost turkey.
  • Start the stuffing:
Brown 2 lbs turkey sausage with sage and celery and break up clumps.  While letting cool, toss 12c. bread cubes with 2 tbs olive oil, thyme, salt, and pepper.  Spread onto 2 baking sheets and lightly toast in 350° oven for 20 min, shaking pans occasionally.  mix with sausage (not grease), cherries, and apricots.  Store in a ziploc bag.  Save 2 tbs grease.

Thursday

t = -5.5:  20 lb turkeys take 5 hours; cook about 15 min per pound.
  • preheat oven to 450°.
  • finish stuffing:  (chop up 2 apples.  mix sausage grease with 2 cups water.  add both of these to dry mixture.  stuff into turkey).
  • grease turkey with butter or oil & cover with foil.

t = -5:
  • place turkey in oven; reduce heat to 325°
  • put the rest of the stuffing in a crock pot.
  • start salad: (wash and dry lettuce; tear into small pieces and store in ziploc bag in fridge)
  • for dressing, chop 2 apples and mix with 1 tbs lemon juice and then 1/4 c walnuts.  mix all ingredients together with dressing from Wednesday and store in fridge.
  • make sweet potatoes:  Preheat small oven to 400°. Wash and slice potatoes into quarters. In a large bowl, mix together 1 tbs olive oil and 1/2 tsp paprika. Add potato sticks, and stir by hand to coat. Place on greased baking sheet. Bake for 40 minutes.  Serve at room temperature.
(this is the last chopping until t = -1.5.)
  • run dishwasher.

t = -4.5:
  • baste turkey now and every 15 to 30 minutes (says Joy of Cooking).  ugh!

t = -1.5:
  • empty dishwasher.
  • set table.  Don't forget serving bowls, serving spoons, and butter.
  • wash, peel, and quarter potatoes.  place in a pan of cold water.

t = -1:
  • open red wine.
  • boil potatoes, then simmer.
  • check turkey temperature (when cooked, stuffing should be 165°).
  • preheat second oven for bread.

t = -15 min:
  • put cranberry sauce & relish on table.
  • boil water for greenbeans.

t = -10 min:
  • nuke 1/3 c. milk for 1 min.
  • nuke gravy
  • add greenbeans to water.

t = -5 min:
  • Finish mashed potatoes (drain potatoes; add 3 tbs butter and nuked milk, mash together and use mixer to whip it lightly). Put in nice bowl on table. 
  • open white wine. 
  • mix lettuce with salad dressing. 
  • pour water, milk. 
  • remove turkey from oven, remove stuffing from turkey.

t = 0:

On table or sideboard:
  • Turkey 
  • gravy 
  • mashed potatoes 
  • butter 
  • stuffing from turkey 
  • bread 
  • sweet potatoes 
  • salad 
  • green beans wine 
  • cranberry relish 
  • cranberry sauce 
  • milk 
  • water
After dinner, begin preparations for leftovers:
  • shepherd’s pie 
  • soup

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thanksgiving shopping list

I might have mentioned once or twice (or a dozen-dozen times) that I love making lists.  Ahh, here's another of my favorite lists: the thanksgiving shopping list.

I put this list together one year when I was dreading the act of pulling together all those menus for foods I make only once a year.  I don't dread the cooking; it was the act of organizing all that stuff at a time that I was already really busy with kids and grading that was stressing me out.  So I decided to create a "master recipe" -- one giant set of directions that starts with "Tuesday:  clean out the gross moldy things from the refrigerator" and ends with a list of all the foods that need to go on the table Thursday at meal time.  (Can you tell I've forgotten to bring out the cranberry relish one-too-many times?  I vowed "never again").  I typed up the entire thing on my computer, and I bring it out again every November and tape it to my cabinet doors.  I update it a bit from year to year, right after Thanksgiving, so I don't have to fret beforehand about what I'm missing.

Accompanying my master recipe (which I'll share tomorrow) is the master shopping list.  The first round of shopping happens at home -- I check inventories and cross out everything we're already well-stocked with.  Oh, I love this list!  Yours is probably very different, but I can't restrain myself from sharing.

meat:
  • 20+ lb turkey 
  • 1 lb turkey sausage 
dairy
  • milk 
  • 3 sticks butter 
fruit and vegetables
  • 1 orange 
  • 4 apples 
  • 4 c (1 lb) cranberries 
  • 4 sweet potatoes 
  • 6 big potatoes 
  • celery 
  • lettuce 
  • green beans 
  • 1/2 c dried apricots 
  • 1/2 c dried cherries 
  • 1/2 c chopped walnuts 

spices and oils
  • 2 tbs chives 
  • 1 tbs dried thyme 
  • 1 tsp sage leaves 
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg 
  • 1.5 c sugar 
  • 1/2 tsp paprika 
  • honey 
  • mustard 
  • cider vineagar 
  • brown sugar 
  • walnut oil 

store-made items
  • 2 baguette breads (for stuffing) 
  • 1 can cranberry sauce 
  • stuff for homemade bread 
  • 2 jars gravy 
  • vanilla ice cream 
  • ziplock storage bags 
  • ice for turkey in cooler 
  • wine — red and white

Monday, November 21, 2011

How not to go shopping

A group of students asked me to come speak to them last week about "all I do and how I do it".  I warned them that I'm not exactly normal, and that I don't expect that they'd want to follow my example.  I added to my talk a list of things I do NOT do:  I don't watch TV; I don't play kid's games; I don't go shopping.  These are not moral choices on my part; it's just that when life is full, something's gotta go -- and those are the things that went from my life.

The "not shopping" thing was the part that most astounded them.  What did I mean by "not shopping"?  I checked my credit card records and verified that I had actually been to two stores this past month -- I bought boots for my sons (a summer yard-sale-planning lapse on my part) and toilet paper for the home.  Aside from that, I haven't been inside stores all month.

How does a person not go shopping?  I have a sort-of unfair advantage in the not-shopping arena.  I live 2 blocks from where I work, so my commute is on foot.  I'm spared the temptation of stopping at stores on the way home from work -- getting in a car to go shopping is actually going OUT of my way.  But there's more to not-shopping than having a foot-based commute.

Here are some of my other favorite ways to dodge stores.
  • Have someone else go for me.  Okay, this is a cop-out, but only in some senses.  My husband LOVES going shopping, and so about twice a month I'll give him a small grocery list, making us both happy.  And even better, if I ask my friend to pick up a bushel of apples for me, it's hard for her to splurge and buy the figs I didn't know I wanted.  So I don't mind avoiding stores by sending in a stunt-double.  (I return the favor; during the summer most of my friends give me "wish items" that I look for when I'm yard saling).
  • Find alternate sources for things I need.  Food doesn't have to come from a store.  We signed up for a "CSA" (Community Supported Agriculture), and so once a week we pick up a giant boxful of local, fresh vegetables from the nearby pick-up site.  Those vegetables form the basis for most of our meals, so we merely need to fill in around the edges.  Clothes don't have to come from a store: during the summer, I go to yard sales; that's where I get almost all of my clothes.  I jog through wealthy neighborhoods on trash day . . . 'nuff said.  
  • Stockpile.  My summer yard-saling is supposed to last me and the boys all year long.  The 40 pounds of hamburger we bought and the 30 pounds of turkey sausage we bought should likewise last us to spring, especially because we try to eat meat-less and less-meat meals.  On a smaller scale, buying 20 pairs of identical black socks means I can start my son off with a mere 7 pairs but replace missing socks when they get beamed up to the UFO space ship (not sure where else they might go).  I won't have to go back to the store for toilet paper for a long time yet.
  • Anticipate and plan for the future.  Stockpiling is one aspect of this planning.  But anticipating/planning can be as simple as thinking about the meals I'll be cooking all week, and then making only one grocery trip instead of several.  This is definitely an area where I try not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good; the more I practice guessing what I'll need, the better I get at guessing.  (Still bummed that I forgot to look for yard sale boots, though.  Drat!)
  • Buy things that last.  This criteria goes beyond durability.  Think about permanent versus disposable, and search for non-perishable alternatives.  We use cloth napkins and cloth cleaning rags, so we don't buy paper towels.  I buy powdered milk for cooking -- it doesn't expire the way liquid milk does.  If you find yourself tossing things in the trash or down the sink, search for the non-tossable alternatives.
  • Use what I already have.  I know some people think about what to have for dinner ("hmm . . . pizza"), see if they have the ingredients ("dang; no cheese!"), and then go to the store while the food already in the fridge slowly rots.  But I think constraint breeds creativity.  What kind of dinner can I make with a half a head of cabbage, baby bok-choy leaves, a half-link of turkey sausage, 2 pieces of cheese, spaghetti, and rice?  Sounds like stir-fry, especially if I put the cheese back in the fridge.  Or quiche, if I have a few eggs.  Or maybe a salad.  No shopping needed.  Similarly, I "shop" in my own home for a cute outfit or for a way to fix that umbrella before I run to the store.
And finally, now that Thanksgiving is nigh upon us, it's worth remembering that attitude trumps acquisition:
  • Be grateful for what I already have.  This is probably the biggest hurdle for most of us -- I know it often is for me.  It's so incredibly human to want what's new and to ignore what's familiar.   Think about how tempting it is to go buy a bottle of [soda/wine/juice], and to forget what a miracle   it is to have clean water coming out of the tap.  How tempting it is to go shopping for entertainment, but to ignore the board games stacked up on the living room shelves.  It is an incredibly powerful experience just to put my hands on my own belongings and think, "I am grateful I have this."  
'Nuff said.  Time for a jog.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A sentimental story

This isn't a story with a moral.  It's just one that I love to remember, offered up in honor of my son's birthday today.

Our second son moved in with us over the course of several months during the spring of 2010.  By June, he was moved in "full-time".  The new J-son and the established N-son mostly got along well, but they could also go through stretches where they got really testy with each other.  (No surprise there!)  One June morning, J-son came into my first-floor bedroom early in the morning to complain that N-son was talking and waking him up. So, bleary eyed, I sent J-son back upstairs to bed, called N-son downstairs, and told him to read quietly in the living room. "It's early in the morning! Leave your brother ALONE!".

About 10 minutes later, I heard soft footsteps coming down the stairs. Down means it was J-son moving around. Soon after that, N-son came in to ask, "If J-son came into the living room, am I allowed to talk to him?" I said yes. But instead, all was quiet.

Finally I went out to see what was going on. There was only one lump curled up on the couch, and I wondered which kid it was. When I pulled the blanket back to uncover the lump, this is what I saw.

Awww . . . 

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Miser Dog

Is it a frugal thing to own a dog?

We call our dog
"a miniature Great Dane".
Loaded question, of course.  That depends on a lot of things, including (the big question) how much you like dogs.  I grew up with Great Danes and Irish Wolfhounds, dogs that my dad said he chose "so I wouldn't have to bend down to pet them".  I love the companionship of a dog, and I know a lot about training them.  (When I was a teenager, one of my neighbors paid me to help them train their dog).  It makes emotional sense for me to want a dog.

But what about the financial side?  Or the time side?  On the minus, there's definitely dog destruction.  Our current mutt doesn't chew up shoes, but he has an odd predilection for gloves -- especially my husband's very pricey biking gloves.  We're out a good bit of money (and good will from the husband) because of that.  There's also the messes that a dog can leave behind -- even if your dog never leaves "presents", shedding dogs mean more frequent vacuuming and such.  When I see those spiffy home decorating magazines, I always ask myself, "I wonder how this would look covered in dog hair?"  Sometimes, not so bad, actually.

Our first view of Miser Dog.
For advice on food and vet costs, I bow to Dogs or Dollars.  Our family keeps dog costs low in a variety of ways.  I've grown fond of getting mutts from the Humane League.  I look for a dog who follows me intently with its gaze -- I've found those are very trainable dogs.  We minimize the need to go for walks at inconvenient times by having a dog door built into the house with a fenced in dog run outdoors.  (For energy conservation reasons, we built this into a basement window well.  From the outdoors, it looks like a dog house.  I think this set up is a real hoot!)

Dog stairs in the basement,
going up to the dog door.

What's on the other side of the dog door:
Dog "house" outside, covering the window well.














For me, though, having a dog means a certain kind of freedom.  When I walk a dog through the nearby city at night, or when I run through the empty backroads with the dog by my side, I don't worry at all about crime.  For a solitary woman, that is a HUGE part of peace-of-mind.  Our neighborhood is a generally safe one, but occasionally there are rashes of burglaries.  But with a dog in the home, I don't ever worry about burglars.  This is especially helpful to us in the summer, when we leave windows and doors wide open at night to cool off our non-air-conditioned home.  In this way alone, my dog is a good financial strategy.

Does the burglary protection make up for vet costs, food costs, and bicycle gloves?  Debatable, really, but I'd vote for "yes".  In one sense, the answer doesn't matter.  The truth is, we don't really see our dog as a financial strategy so much as a lifestyle choice; we think our lives would be poorer in a way we can't quantify if the dog weren't there to slobber on the kids when they get home.

But in another sense, this miser mom is glad to know that her miser dog is pulling his own weight when it comes to household finances.  Go, dog, go!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Earth, Water, and Fire

We all know the stories of the three little pigs; each one built his home in a different way.  I come from a story of the three little sisters, each of whom is nuts about conserving a different kind of thing.

One sister conserves earth (or, at least material stuff).  She lives in Ithaca, on the edge of a lake.  Everything that gets into her home comes down a long (lonnnng) hill, from the edge of the road down to her home by the lake.  Everything that goes out of her home goes UP the same hill.  She's a master of low-waste living, making my own garbage organization system look simple by comparison.  She's the one who hunts for recycling bins for our rented condo on vacations.  

Another sister conserves water.  She lives in the dry desert of San Diego.  She keeps a bucket at the base of her kids' slide.  When her neighbor up the hill waters (or over-waters) the lawn, she and her daughters run outside to put buckets in the gutters to catch the run-off.  She weirds her husband out with the "if-it's-yellow, leave-it-mellow" non-flushing routine.  I try to conserve water (low-flow shower heads, special hand-washing techniques), but I don't have the same environmental pressure to do so -- this year, my area is getting so much rain that we're fighting mold in the home (ew!).  

My favorite money-saving tool.
And me?  I'm the light-switch dominatrix (that's sort of like conserving fire, right?).  The year that my husband was in Iraq, I spent about $25/month on electricity; when he returned, that figure doubled.  I follow people around the house, turning lights off after them.  I trained my sons to do the same thing -- I'm sure we're annoying.  I like to think I'm Christian, but I bet if Jesus came to tell me it was time to go to heaven, I'd tell him I have to turn off the lights in the dining room first.    

Like the three little pigs, we have a great time being together in one place, and we all have our own stories about what the big, bad wolf really looks like. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Snooping on myself


I've been re-reading a book I happened on several years ago:  Sam Gosling's "Snoop".  His premise is that you can tell a lot about people by the way their rooms or offices look.  He describes three kinds of "clues" to consider.  One kind of clue is what he calls "identity markers" (the poster on the outside of our dorm room door tells people something about the kind of person we want other people to think we are).  Another set of clues comes from the fact that we organize our spaces to be comfortable or efficient for our own personal style or preferences.

And then, he points out, there's all that stuff that we don't intend to have around, but we do anyway.  A good example of this is trash:
Stuff salvaged from trash cans is particularly useful [to "snoopologists"] for two reasons.  First, as the items are discarded they are also dismissed from the owner's conscious consideration, so they do not receive the same kind of attention to managing impressions as the items still in place in pre-trash life.  Second the contents of a trash can reflect behavior that really happened, not just the kinds of things we think we might do one day.  
I was thinking about what my trash says about me (I figured snooping on myself is more ethically sound than snooping on my neighbors).  This made me realize how complicated my trash life has become -- there are whole hosts of ways things leave my home.

By the back door, there is
  • a "regular" trash can, carefully lidded to keep the dog out;
  • a bag of plastic bags (for re-use as trash/dog poop bags);
  • a cans-and-bottles recycling bin;
  • a newspaper-recycling box; and
  • a canvas bag with used office-paper (occasionally as this gets full, I haul it off to my office where I can actually recycle it).
In the garage, there is 
  • a hazardous waste box (CFLs and batteries, mostly);
  • a books-to-donate box (these go to the library);
  • a clothes-to-donate box (these go to our local thrift shop);
  • a household-goods-to-donate box (thrift shop also; they like clothes and goods separate); and also 
  • a pile of corrugated cardboard, which I learned this summer I can recycle on campus (for the locals, the cardboard dumpster is between the basketball gym and the BOS/gov building).
And of course in the yard we've got 
  • compost piles for biodegradable stuff.  
Phew!  I guess anybody could guess from this list that I love organizing stuff, even trash.  (Should I alphabetize my trash collection system?) And that I hate to see things go into a landfill.  And that even though I love to go to yard sales, I'm not planning to host one.

We don't pay garbage fees by the trash can here; we pay a flat rate.  But if cost ever becomes a factor, we'd pay for about one garbage can a week (that's with about five people in the home).  I'm fairly proud of that, although I wish we could generate even less trash.  At any rate, I've read that the main reason people don't recycle is inconvenience; for me, having a (complicated?) system to make recycling a bit more convenient is important, and I'm even willing to go out of my way to avoid giving the garbage haulers more work.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Blessed are they . . . ?

The beatitudes ("blessed are the meek, for they shall  inherit the earth" etc) has long confounded me, but not for the usual theological reasons.  For me, the problem is that dang passive voice.  Where is that blessing coming from?  Okay, okay, I know the blessing comes from God.  But is the meekness the blessing, or is it the inheritance?

Here's a less theologically-loaded version of the question.  My parents used to haul me and my sisters off to operas, where we had to sit still for 3-4 hours (with a small intermission).  The "sit still" was very, very important to my parents.  You could even say, "Blessed are they who sit still through the opera, for they shall have their reward."  Now, what was that blessing?  When I was young, it was really the blessing of not getting whacked by my mom, or the blessing of out-sitting my sisters, or even the blessing of getting to have a treat at home later.

But when I got older, something stunning happened.  We were at a performance of Don Giovanni, and I was suddenly entranced.  By the end, when D.G. fell screaming through the floor and went straight to the fiery pits of Hell, I was sitting at the edge of my seat, holding my breath because I was so caught up in what was going on.  All of a sudden, the opera itself had become the reward, and the sitting still was just what I wanted to do.

The scientific studies resulting in the "don't eat the marshmallow" slogans seem to say that delayed gratification really does become its own reward.  We're going to be happier if we save our money for a big goal than if we spend it on whatever's in front of us.  We'll be happier if we are willing to put in hard work, instead of playing or resting, to achieve another long-term goal.  And it looks like it's not just the goal that is the fun part; we learn to get pleasure out of the frugal, hard-working journey, too.

I'm not ever going to know the blessing of meekness, I'm afraid.  (Dang).  My husband calls me  the "Iron Maiden" (from him, a compliment) because I expect my kids to sit still in church and at math talks and at plays.  They eat whatever healthy food I give them.  They do lots of chores, many side-by-side with their parents, and many on their own.  If they want a toy they don't have, they have to earn the money for it themselves.  In many ways, this is a hard, strict life.

But me, I think I'm blessing them.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Throwing out my boys' toys

Early this summer, I finally decided to throw away my sons' favorite plaything.  They loved that toy, and it had cost a lot -- many, many hundreds of dollars!! -- but it was time to let it go at last.

The toy was large, and it had cost an awful lot of money, but at least it came with a free stove inside, and I've made a lot of use of the stove since then.  

Here is a picture-based tribute to the dearly departed cardboard box.




Saturday, November 12, 2011

Doing the dreaded task

I don't know what your dreaded task is. But I know what mine is.  It's that task that is so big, so monumental, that it's just going to take me forever, and it's not going to be much fun, but I know that I really want to do it.  Maybe it would be more appropriate to say, "I want to have done it, but I don't want to be doing it."

When I started my job as a math professor, that task was research -- solving a mathematical problem that no one else in the world knew how to solve, then writing up my answer and convincing a journal to publish it.

The standard advice to young professors is to set aside one day a week -- on that day, you ignore all your students and focus exclusively on research.   But doing math isn't easy, even for a math professor.  Everything else is more fun than being stuck on a problem:  Reading email is more fun.  Sharpening pencils is more fun.  Even grading exams is more fun.  Spending an entire day being stuck and confused is torture.

I learned early on that I had to ignore what everyone else told me about "setting aside one day". That might work at high-powered grad schools, but I don't know anyone with a REAL teaching schedule who manages to make that happen, and it just made me feel even more guilty and undisciplined if I listened to that advice and couldn't follow it.

Instead, I  try to do ten minutes of math each day. Ten minutes seems such a tiny amount that you'd think it can't make a difference, but that's exactly how I (and a couple of other people I know) got tenure. I'd promise myself to do 10 minutes each morning. That was just enough time to track down and print out a paper, or to read a page of that paper, or to think about what kind of lemma I'd need in order to go forward. If I did that each morning before my students showed up, I often would get brainstorms that I'd want to come back to in the afternoon, but I gave myself "permission" to do no more than those first 10 minutes.

I found that the clock was an important ally. It's EXTREMELY important to end those tiny research sessions on time, especially if they're going well. 

I'll repeat that part:  if I'm on a roll, it's especially important to stop working after exactly 10 minutes.   That sounds counter-intuitive, but if you think carefully, it makes sense. If I end at exactly 10 minutes, while the problem is going well, then I know exactly what I'm itching to do next -- it's something I look forward to starting the next day. But if I scratch that mathematical itch right away and keep going past the 10 minutes, then I keep going until I get stuck.  So then the next day I face a math problem that I'm stuck on, and that I'd already spent more time on than I promised myself I would -- it's discouraging to plunge in again.

For that same reason, if I pick up a problem voluntarily later in the day, the moment I start getting discouraged, I look at the clock -- and then I do math for exactly 5 more minutes. In this way, I often stop in the middle of something good, and it's easier to jump back in.

And today, Saturday, do you know what I want to do?  I want to think about math.  I've got this problem I'm just dying to work on.  But instead I'm going to grade papers and write a report, and THAT is my dreaded task for the day.  Maybe I'll get to sneak in 10 minutes of math anyway.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Tom Sawyer-ing my children

Our family does a lot of reading out loud to each other.  I love reading old childrens' stories to my kids -- for example, I read my daughter and my first son all of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books.  (A funny follow-up; when my daughter grew older, she was so aghast that I hadn't read the Harry Potter books, that we switched roles and she read the book to me!).


When we brought J-son into the home, it was clear that the more sedate Laura couldn't keep him entertained, so we switched to Fitzgerald's Great Brain books about some boys who lived in Utah in 1885.  These boys wrassle and get into trouble in ways that Laura and her sisters never did -- a lot of action!   (Bonus for our family:  the Fitzgeralds adopted a young boy.  My own two kids cheered wildly when we go that part of the book.)


And recently, we've started reading Tom Sawyer.

Not only are these all great chapter books, but they're also glimpses into a time when kids were often happy with very little.  One Christmas, Laura Ingalls is delighted to get three gifts:  a penny, a tin cup, and an orange.  Tom Sawyer has a box of treasures that includes "a dead rat, and a rope to swing it by".  (Every once in a while, I offer my boys the same, but so far they decline.)

Another aspect of these books that Harry Potter doesn't match is that the children in these books were expected naturally to do a lot of household work.  Tom Sawyer weasels out of a lot of his work -- famously, in the case of the whitewashing scene -- but he always knows the work is there.  All of these books are full of mentions of kids hauling wood, tending gardens, and "wiping dishes"; the ability to do these chores is a source of pride for the kids.  In fact, in one chapter in the "Great Brain" series, T.D. spends a considerable amount of effort figuring out how to teach a friend with a peg leg to become a "real kid" again, which means not only how to wrestle and play stick ball, but also how to go up and down stairs with a coal scuttle and how to feed the farm animals.

And then there's the issue of race and prejudice.  Laura Ingalls and the Great Brain both occasionally talk about relations between white and Native American peoples; those are rather sympathetic views compared to Injun Joe in Twain's book.  A white woman reading Tom Sawyer to her black sons definitely has some interesting conversations about Jim and the N-word.  It's one thing to tell my sons that things are different now than when my grandmother was a kid; but these books let us have more direct glimpses of that time.

My husband thinks it's hilarious that his law-and-order wife is reading her sons books about a misbehaving and mischievous punk of the 1800's.  But at any rate, we're loving our latest book.  

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A miser married to a spender

There are a lot of financial advantages to living with another person.  Those advantages would be even greater if the person were a perfect clone who agreed completely with everything you believe!

Real life is messier (and often, a lot more fun) than that.  But living with a husband who has different financial philosophy and habits can be, um, challenging.  For me, one of the biggest challenges has been trying to manage money when so much of our family spending is completely outside of my control.  

Here are two pie-charts that show the breakdown -- in percentages, not in dollars -- of our recent spending.  (This counts everything that doesn't get deducted automatically from our paycheck, so it doesn't count taxes, healthcare, and part of our charitable contributions, for example).
How our family spent money in August 2011.

How our family spent money in September 2011.

The purple sections of the charts are the husband-dominated spending, the parts I monitor but don't affect.  The little purple wedge shows one aspect of this:  it continues to amaze/dismay me that we pay more for telephone/cable service than we do for all our other utilities combined.  (Think about that.  We pay more for telephone and TV than we do for oil heat, electricity, water, and trash all together.  Ugh).   But being massively connected is exceedingly important to my husband, and so we throw money at Verizon and Comcast.

Even more significant is that large purple swatch.  There are families, I know, that have budgets.  My guy would rather be staked to an ant hill than to deal with budgets.  There are families that set goals.  If I bring up goals, my husband says, "You know money better than I do.  You should do whatever you think is right." . . . but his saying this has zero impact on the size of that big purple wedge.  There are families that agree that every purchase over a certain dollar amount needs to be discussed first.  My husband completely agrees with this, except when he forgets to tell me he's just spent a lot of money.

I've always admired from afar those couples that agree together to get out of debt, to pay off the mortgage early, to live a zero-waste lifestyle.  Can a tightwad convert a spendthrift?

Maybe that's really the wrong question.  There's more to a marriage than money, after all.  My guy and I agree about the joys of staying active, the importance of stifling (I mean, rearing) our kids, the delight of reading obscure philosophical works out-loud to each other . . . it's hard to kvetch about mere finances when all the rest of the marriage is so good.  But, if we mesh so well in all those other areas, a body still might ask if this miser mom can tinker with another person's financial personality.
  • I'm convinced that nagging, resentment, and/or nursing grudges won't work.  (They're not a lot of fun, either, which is even more important).
  • Setting a good example has a limited impact: we've slowly given up paper towels, but paper coffee cups look like they're going to be part of our landscape forever.  Starbucks sucks in more of our money than I would ever want to admit.  I take my victories where I can get them, and try to deal with the rest.
  • I do what I can to make it structurally easier for my husband to be frugal.  Years ago, I bought him a clothes steamer to use at home; he loves using it, and so this has saved us lots of money on his dry cleaning.  I bulk purchase local, organic meat, so when he cooks for the family, he can get his carnivore fix for cheap.  
Instead of trying to make a convert of him, I focus on that part of our budget that I can control.  I've cut our kids' clothing budget to almost nothing, because I can yard sale.  I teach the boys to cook from scratch.  We eat a lot of meatless and a lot of less-meat meals, because our work schedules have me at home for most weekday meals.

Even more,  I've learned to deal with the financial ups and downs.  I keep a cushion in our checking and savings accounts, and I issue dire warnings during those rare times when the cushion gets low.  (The dire warnings are more likely to get him to file overdue expense reports than to curb spending, but the net effect is the same).  We instituted a tradition of having monthly "financial reports", where I show him how we've spent and earned our money over the past 30 days.  All of this seems to help keep the communication about money flowing smoothly.

And you know what?  We're really happy.  Because I write this blog about money, it sounds like my husband and I are worlds apart.  But all of this structure I impose on the money side of things actually frees up the rest of our lives.  And in that abundant free space, we really do get to enjoy each other.  Go figure.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Hardware stores are great places

I was taking K-daughter along with me to repair a light fixture, and I heard myself repeating my father's words:
Every plumbing repair means three trips to the hardware store.
We weren't fixing plumbing this time around, but the sentence still made some kind of sense in the situation.  For a lot of people, the going-back-and-forth-ness of home repair, the not-getting-it-right-the first-time-ery of DIY projects, that imperfection is what frustrates them and turns them off from trying to fix things themselves.

But Dad's example taught me that expecting a bit of frustration is normal, and that patience wins out.  Start a project when the hardware store is going to be open for a while, he says, and expect to hop back in the car, and eventually it'll come out okay.  It's the closest to zen my dad ever got.

K-d and I were fixing an incandescent light that had been acting unruly for a month or so.  She has a friend who is an electrician who offered to come by and check it out sometime, but when "sometime" took a long time, I got up on a chair, moved aside the ceiling panels, and figured out how to unhook the fixture.   Then I tucked it under my arm and hauled it and my daughter/apprentice off to the hardware store.

I might have mentioned once or twice that I hate going to stores.  The hardware store is my one glorious exception: man, I love that place!  We have one of those locally owned, family hardware stores about 3 miles from our house (a long distance by my standards), valiantly holding its own against the big box stores.

I almost never know how to fix what I want to fix when I come in, but I bring the broken piece and the guys there come over, take a gander at the problem, and lead me to the thingamajiggy that will make everything better.  I brought K-daughter along to demonstrate to her how the process works.  In this case, I suggested to my guy Joe we might need a new ballast.  My guy Joe looked over the fixture, showed me a $50 ballast, and then showed me a $12 new fixture that would work even better than the ballast.

K-daughter and I tooled on home, hooked up the fixture, and sure enough, good-as-new.  (In fact, it was new).  But then the fixture next to it started acting up, probably out of jealousy.  Back in the car we go, back to my guy Joe.

Fixture number 2 was an even quicker fix.  And all was good.

Only two trips to the hardware store.  I called Dad to tell him about this.  "Yeah . . . " he said. And then after another pause he added, "Sometimes you get lucky."

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

For richer or for poorer . . .

Before I married my husband, I was most nervous about whether he was a messy/neat person.  I was really nervous about clutter, for some reason. I wasn't thinking about financial compatibility at all.

Now, a decade-and-a-half after he convinced me to say, "I do", we make jokes about how I thought I was marrying a rich guy.  We started our marriage with him taking on the financial duties.  It only took about four months for me to realize something was really very, very terribly wrong:  we were going into debt fast. It's not that I actually wanted to be rich; but I really, really don't want to owe money to others.  This slide into debt freaked me out, but debt was fairly normal for him; his philosophy at the time was, "well, I always seem to find a way to make more money and pay for it."

I had thought my husband was rich because he spent a lot of money [caveat:  "compared to me"].  He had essentially no retirement savings, and similarly no emergency savings.  He carried a small balance on his  credit card.  I hadn't ever come into close contact with people who didn't compulsively avoid debt.  How do you buy a car, for example?  My husband thought EVERYBODY (except weirdos) financed the whole price.  I was sure EVERYBODY (except idiots) saved up the money and bought the car with cash.  It turns out I married an idiot and my husband married a weirdo.
(Note to Dogs or Dollars:  I'm cheering for your 8-month car plan!)
This is the point at which most couples would have fought epic battles ending in daggers or divorce.  Fortunately for all involved, the hearts-and-flowers part of our marriage won out over the cold-hard-cash part.  It helped a lot that the two of us quickly realized that the financial management in our marriage should rest on the shoulders of the person who obsesses about it most [= me].  He gladly handed over the reins, and I've been in charge of setting up accounts, tracking our monthly expenses, and monitoring finances ever since.

This doesn't mean we do everything my way.  Hardly (ha!).  I've had to learn the odd art of budgeting when vast proportions of my budget are completely out of my control and largely at odds with my own philosophy  (details to follow eventually).    It's not that we've come to some happy and harmonious compromise somewhere between our two starting positions . . . in fact, in many ways, our marriage has made BOTH of us become more frugal than before.  I'm much, much more parsimonious than when I first married him, out of that need I feel to keep us both in the black.  My guy has never come close to matching my early frugality (he goes to fast-food restaurants, can you imagine!!), but he's learned to watch expenses in a way that make his co-workers think of him as a thrifty guy.

In irony of ironies, the one large remaining financial weight on our shoulders is because of a house renovation that *I* decided to go for.  Aside from that very large debt, we've paid off our mortgage, have no car or credit card debt, and helped put our three daughters through college (our ex-spouses played large co-starring roles in that movie).  The retirement account isn't all it should be, but it's there.  The charitable donations aren't all they should be, but they're happening.

We're getting to be weirdos together, is what I guess that means.



Monday, November 7, 2011

Quality time

A few weeks ago, I read a line from a mom who asked, "Who says spending quality time with kids means doing what THEY want?"  My kids would probably think that was me saying that, but it wasn't.  Still, I tip my hat to her.  I love spending time with my kids by pulling them into my own activities, but I'm just miserable at traditional kinds of "fun" activities.

This past weekend, I dragged my boys along with me to a math conference at Penn State.  They sat quietly through the math talk; they wrassled outside on the sidewalks when the talk was over.  We then got to buy ice cream at the famous local creamery.  As they sipped at their milkshakes on the cold, cold, mile-long walk back to our hotel, they thanked me for bringing me to the math conference.  I stifled the laughter and said "you're welcome".


On Saturday, my husband was AWOL; he flew around with his guard unit on big bad helicopters.   I dropped J-son off for a visit with his former foster mom.  N-son, K-daughter, and I did garden chores.  We pulled up the dead tomato plants, cut down weed trees, dug up the dirt in the garden, and raked a gazillion leaves.  J-son, hearing what he was missing, was bummed that he wasn't going to get to dig in the dirt with a pitchfork.  "No fair!"  K-daughter and I got to talk about getting her driver's liscence, and kept saying, "This is a perfect day!"   The three of us had fun in the dirt while the sun was out, and then we split up (the kids went shopping, and I went to Prairie Home Companion) by the evening.
On Sunday, after church we had our own little "quiet times".  When I announced I was ready to can applesauce, both kids jumped up to help.  We spent 2 hours putting up 16 pints of applesauce plus 5 trays of dehydrated apples.  Then we went our separate ways again; me doing a bit of grading, and N-son and K-daughter hangin' with friends.

It's hard not to ooze pride.  It's not like my life really is this perfect always -- there are days that the boys are wild, destructive, and quarrelsome, after all.  But this weekend together, dedicated to productive work, was as golden as the leaves all around us.  Ahhh.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Boys' hair cuts

My sons have been asking for specialty haircuts.  J-son wanted a checkerboard; N-son wanted a dragon on his head.  Neither of these was an option when I was a kid.

I have clippers, and I did my best to imprint checkers on J-son's head.  The overall effect made him look like he had mange.  Or maybe he was related to Frankenstein, I don't know.  He was happy, but I was a bit embarrassed.  Really, who wants to let the neighbors know your kid has mange?

I googled all sorts of combinations of "how to black boy hair cut etch design", to see what I was missing out on.  I got, interestingly enough, LOTS of You-tube videos.  That's really the first time that happened.  I don't get You Tube videos when I look for "how to can applesauce", for example.  The videos all came with lots of hip hop music, and (depending on the combination of words I put in) were more or less advertisements for a particular hair shop.  But I got to see lots of handsome african american men styling hair -- either their own, or someone else's.

I finally decided that my hair clippers don't really cut quite close enough.  I started over with a combination of clippers and razors.  I'm nowhere near professional, but round 2 at least doesn't look like mange.  These hair cuts have lasted for a week without a request to undo my handiwork.  The boys are happy, and that's what counts.

J-son has a checkerboard pattern shaved into his head.

N-son has a dragon head forward, wings in the middle, and a tail in the back.
Suggestions for improvements are most welcome.  Fortunately, when it comes to hair, my mistakes will grow out.  But I would love to do a better job.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Scrounged food

A glowing-eyed ghost dog guards the pumpkins?
This week I nabbed 3 pumpkins, left-over from a charity event that our snowstorm cancelled.  The organizer wrote to the staff at our college,
Does anyone have a suggestion for what we can do with 25 pumpkins? Other than throwing them in the trash, that is.
I offered to take three off her hands and turn them into dinner for our family.  (The organizer wrote back, "I didn't realize that people would eat the pumpkins - I thought it was just neck pumpkins." sigh)

This got me thinking about other ways that I scrounge food. I've done a lot of food-scrounging at formal events on our campus the past few years, partly because for a while I had a job that involved LOTS of lunches and dinners for groups of people. For those who might have similar opportunities, I offer some of my own advice for snagging left-overs from a company lunch or dinner.
  1. Stick around to help clean up.  I don't pack up food while the event is going on; that'd really raise eyebrows!
  2. Be prepared. I keep several boxes of ziplock bags in my office, near where the lunches and dinners would be held. Plastic bags are not, I know, the most environmentally friendly container. But they're socially acceptable as a way to give food to other people, which is important because of advice item #3.
  3. Give food to other people first, starting with the needy and the absent.  I always try to start with people who have a social reason to want free food:  students are a great example of this category.  Someone who has an absent friend/spouse also makes a good target:  "Mary, I know George must feel awful to be stuck at home with a sprained ankle.  Would you like to take him a piece of cake?"  (When I asked for the pumpkins for myself this week, I also suggested a local set of refugees who could use some cooking pumpkins).
  4. Then branch out to offering food to anyone else who is sticking around at the end of the event.  
Once one person takes some food, that breaks the ice.  I've found that at this stage, people usually start talking about what a shame it would be for all this food to go to waste; it'll just get thrown out; etc.  That is exactly the right kind of attitude, in my opinion.  I think people are just too nervous to be the first one to take food.  But hardly anyone thinks throwing the food away is morally right -- the reluctance to bag it up is really all about appearances and fear of being "tacky".

I try to wait until everyone else has taken all they want.  Then I bag up all the leftovers I can handle.  At this point, I'll sometimes use a more environmentally friendly reusable container, if I have the right kind on hand.  I bag up the bags in my heavy cloth tote, and take the food home.  Since I'm usually one of the very few left cleaning up at this stage, it's easy to do this without seeming like a greedy food snatcher.  In fact, I've often had people apologize for leaving me with all that heavy stuff to carry.  

Clearly this works best in a situation in which I have some kind of official presence.  I can do this at the college where I work; I wouldn't attempt this at an event at my husband's work.  And the fact that the food is purchased (not home-made) makes a difference, too -- the whole subject is moot at most pot-luck events, because everyone takes home their own food and knows not toss it.  

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Fixing umbrellas

Here are a few ways I've fixed persnickety umbrellas recently.

Sometimes a rivet comes loose, and so two struts aren't connected anymore.  I recently fixed this on my son's large umbrella by using a paper clip as a rivet.


Sometimes a metal strut bends where it's not supposed to; this gives the umbrella an unhappy lop-sided appearance.  I've had good success with reinforcing the bent strut with a chopstick and duct-tape.  Because this fix is under the umbrella, it doesn't look bad to anyone outside.  (And if you're close enough to another person that he can see the under-side of your umbrella, snuggle up!)

Sometimes the cloth of the umbrella comes off the ribs, leaving a sharp, pokey metal piece sticking out just waiting to stab someone in the eye.  Yoicks!  If the rib has a hole at the end, then just sew the cloth back on with a needle and thread.  If there is no hole (drat it), then I've occasionally sewed a little fabric "pocket" onto the cloth of the umbrella that I can stick the end of the rib back into.

Any of these fixes are faster and cheaper than going out to buy a new umbrella.  They can be done in less than 5 minutes -- even the laborious "pocket" one.  And these fixes cost nothing if you happen to have spare paperclips, chopsticks, and/or thread lying around. 


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A gift of obstruction

On Saturday, I was supposed to drive to New Jersey, to a mathematics conference, and give a talk.

Then an unexpected snow blew in.  Not just any snow, but a snow that would close roads, cause power outages, and cause all sorts of unexpected devastation.  I called the organizers of the conference, and together we agreed my coming would be a really bad idea.  Even if I could travel the 150 miles there and 150 miles back safely, many conference goers wouldn't want to stay around in the evening to hear me talk about projective geometry -- getting safely home wins out over Desargues' Theorem, any day.  (Yes, even for math geeks).

In a sense, we were all devastated.  We've been planning this conference and this talk for months and months now.  All sorts of emails have gone back and forth, making sure that all the details were in place.

N-son wishes it to be known that he took this picture.

And in another sense, I think we were all relieved.  At my end, I all-of-a-sudden gained a day of "extra time".  I spent my Saturday on issues of deferred maintenance.  With N-son and K-daughter, I cleaned up our dining room.  My husband took J-son grocery shopping, and we restocked (really, over-stocked) our pantry.   I began patching holes in our walls. I wrote a report I'd promised to write.  I got in touch with people I'd lost contact with.  I got to listen to Prairie Home Companion, after all  (ahhhh).  None of this was hugely important.  But all of these tasks had been niggling at the corners of my mind, and I got to take care of them in an unexpectedly leisurely way.

I remember a columnist in our local newspaper, a woman who was chronicling her bout with breast cancer, describing how she had been looking forward to surgery as a time finally relax -- a time to get away from her other obligations.  She marveled at how over-scheduled her life must be to make her think this way.

This snow was my own version of disaster-as-peace.  For whatever it means, I'm glad that every once in a while nature intervenes and reminds me that I can't do it all.


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Booting the budget

The irony of getting an email asking about used shoes right now . . . is that I bought new shoes this past weekend.

This summer, I forgot to search for snow boots for my sons.  I don't know how that slipped off my summer shopping list -- am I getting prematurely senile?  Saturday's early snow came, and the boys adventured out in their sneakers.  Both boys covered their feet in (first) socks, (second) plastic bags, and (third) shoes.  The plastic bags kept their socks dry; a temporary fix.  We all agreed this wasn't ideal.

Sunday morning I went "shopping" in the attic for their boots; that's when I discovered my oversight. Oh, drat drat drat.  I was so proud of getting all their clothes and shoes this summer for $30.  But I know they're going to need boots.  Can't wait until yard-sale season starts again.

We went to the so-called thrift store.  No boots at all there; other folks had beat me to it.

So we went to a retail store.  Curses.  I'd forgotten how many choices there are at a real store; that's both a blessing and a curse, really.  But we found boots that the boys fell in love with.  We checked to make sure the boots fit well.  I plunked down my $60 -- not all that bad, by normal standards, but it blows my clothing budget out of the water.

Or maybe, out of the snow.  Harrumph.