Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Un-story

Back in 2009, my husband went to Iraq.  After he got back, we adopted J-son.  This is a true story about things that didn't happen because of that.

Because my husband had served overseas, we were eligible to apply for a free, one-week summer camp for the boys, and so last summer, I filled out the paperwork.  There were lots of cautionary statements to the effect that space was limited, so the boys might not get in.  And sure enough, they didn't.  That's the first thing that didn't happen.

In the fall, we got a request to fill out a survey about J-son's experiences (or in this case, his non-experiences) at camp.  I agreed.  It turns out the survey actually had a lot of questions about J-son's reaction to his father serving overseas for a whole year . . . except, as you might recall, we hadn't yet adopted J-son then.  We didn't even know him then.  As it turns out, because of that, he took his father's deployment quite well.  I did my best to answer questions that the survey asked -- about yet another thing that didn't happen.  He didn't go to camp, and he didn't know his future father was serving in Iraq.

After filling out the survey, and also a follow-up survey or two, we finally got some gift cards as rewards.  I had to laugh when I saw them, because here they are:

Hah!  That's perfect for me.  Because shopping at a giant store like Walmart is -- at least as far as this Miser Mom is concerned -- the last thing that's not going to happen.  Perfect ending to the un-story.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A new direction

Some big books that get no lovin' in our home.
Speaking of cleaning up clutter . . .  sometimes cleaning up means acknowledging a change in the way you live.  For example, consider these large atlases and smaller telephone books.

We've hung onto these books for years, storing them near the "mail center" just off our kitchen.  The U.S. road atlas is dated 1997, in fact -- the year we got married.  And I keep tidying up around them, neatening the stack of phone books we store along with them.  Our tiny church directory and school directories are dwarfed by these behemoths.

And after about the 27,345th time I straightened these up, it finally struck me.  I never use them.  Never. I use our church and school directories a bunch, but the yellow pages and atlases?  No.

I pulled them out of the stack and told my husband that I'm going to get rid of them.  His immediate reaction was, "but we might USE them if we take a long trip . . . "  but even before he got to the end of his sentence, he had convinced himself of the reverse " . . . but we actually wouldn't".  We either go get a fold-up, current map from AAA, or we look things up on line.  And the phone books?  Again, the internet is our favorite way to find a place.

Bill Cosby may or may not agree, but we've decided there's not always room for yellow (books).  We'll let our typing fingers do the walking.  We're shrugging off the atlases.  Yeah.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Shirt cheap

Our most recent pants emergency led to a massive cleaning and reorganization of J-son's closets and drawers this weekend, as well as a bit of a purging of the stockpiled clothing.  Here's a photo of the box of giveaway clothes.
The clothes that will leave our home for better places.
Some of the discarded clothes didn't make it into the box; they were so stained they became rags.  When we think about frugality, we often think about how to get more things for cheap.   But saving time/energy/space also means letting go of things that clutter up our life, as J-son discovered in the lastest round of "what's in your closet?"  The reasons for getting rid of (and often, replacing) clothes from our home are varied.

Growth.  A year ago, J-son was wearing pants with a 24-inch waist, and they kept sliding down so much you couldn't help admiring his choice in briefs.  Friday, the pants I pulled out of the stockpile had a 28-inch waist, and they fit him just fine.   These boys are growing fast, apparently because we feed them just about every day.  So I buy many sizes of clothes each summer, ready for that growth spurt.  (Growth surge?)

One of N-son's favorite pair of
pants has decorative patches.
Wear and tear.  N-son is particularly hard on his clothes.  The "tear" part of "wear and tear" is literal; we have a large collection of shirts where he's bitten through the wrist part of the cuff (he fidgets a bit sometimes).  J-son has the most amazing holes in the knees of his favorite jeans -- this is largely because he can't bear to part with them long enough for me to patch them, so the holes keep getting bigger.  And "patching" is really a main strategy, here.  I reinforce the cuffs of shirts, and I sew large sturdy patches on knees (as long as I'm allowed to get my hands on the clothes, that is).  Saturday night, during the weekly Prairie Home Companion Observance, I gather up the mending for the week and stitch up whatever I can.

Dirt.  The boys can get really, really dirty.  Here, the ounce of prevention helps a bit.  Because our public school district has a uniform policy, the boys have one set of clothes they wear for school and other sets of clothes they wear to play in.  (Middle School organized sports are great: they've helped us a lot in the idea of changing into sports clothes).  Play clothes come to us for free from a variety of friends, whereas school clothes require us going out to buy them, so the tradeoff is obvious.  In fact, J-son had so many t-shirts and sport shorts in his drawers that he voluntarily decided to get rid of more than half of them when we were cleaning this weekend.

Fashion and personal taste.  Last year, N-son loved turtlenecks.  Because he goes through shirts so quickly (see "wear and tear" and "dirt" above), I had a VERY large collection of these in a variety of sizes, accumulated over the years.   This year, N-son has decided to turn his back (so to speak) on turtlenecks.  As we near the end of winter and his resolve has remained firm, I took Saturday's cleaning spree as an opportunity to thin out my stockpile by getting rid of 17 turtleneck shirts, representing about a $15 investment.  Button-down school shirts from now on.

The Bermuda shorts triangle.  Some clothes just get lost.  Black socks.  Pants.  Underwear.  There are mysteries I will never fully understand.  It is in the realm of this mystery (and to some extent, in fashion and personal taste) that  the boys' financial responsibility really starts to kick in.

The boys have a meager allowance -- close to starvation level if you ask them -- that allows them to purchase luxuries, provided they've accounted for the necessities of life.  The necessities include replacing clothes that their parents have already provided.  Once J-son had to start paying for his replacement briefs, they magically stopped disappearing.  Black socks have likewise lived with us longer, now that they were purchased with money J-son could have used for chips/candy/a fully stocked iPod.  In the category of luxuries, the boys willingly spend their own money on a sixth pair of shoes.  Or a seventh.  Cool.

With one exception only (drat those snow boots), I've spent no money on clothes since September, when yard-sale season died down.  The boys have each purchased a large bag of socks, and one boy who wishes to remain anonymous purchased some good-looking briefs.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Pants panic? No problem

Some people lose the shirt off their backs.  My sons lose the pants off their butts.  I don't know how this happens, I really don't.  But somehow, every once in a while, one of the boys comes downstairs in the morning yelling, "Mom!  Mom!  I don't have any pants!"

Now, really, because my husband is the Lord of the Laundry, they should be yelling "Dad! Dad!", but they don't, because their Dad is also the drill sergeant who makes them run.  So if they admit to him that their pants have disappeared . . . again . . . somehow . . . well, they don't want to have to sweat about that.  This is why they yell, "Mom! Mom!"  (The ploy never works, though; I just get out the tennis racket and lob them over the net to the Lord of the Laundry, and the boys end up getting both of their parents down on their case, one who makes them run and the other who makes them clean their room.)

The really interesting question, the real mystery, is this: Where do the pants go?  I have no clue.  The Bermuda shorts triangle, perhaps.

But a secondary question (and the only one I know how to answer) is this: How do we replace the pants cheaply and quickly?  And the answer is: stockpiling.  In the same way some people harvest food in the summer and store it up for the winter (okay, the same way that *I* can food and store it for the winter), that's the way I also harvest cheap clothes from yard sales during the summer and store them up for use on some long-distant February morning.
The summer crop of yard sale clothes, 
put up for the lean winter months.

Yesterday morning when J-son came downstairs yelling, "Mom!  Mom!", I served him up to his father.  But then, when the Lord of the Laundry returned the serve, I conceded the match.  I went shopping in the closet, and pulled out a "brand new" pair of pants, purchased last summer at either 50¢ or $1.

Even if I liked going to stores (and I don't), I probably wouldn't like going to stores at 7 a.m. on a Friday morning with a half-naked teenage boy who needs emergency pants in time for school.  Say what you will about the penny-pinching life, it's still true that bulk-buying when things are cheap saves both  money and time.

Friday, February 24, 2012


That whole mind/heart interaction thing is more confusing than most people think.  No, really.  That's come to my attention in three odd ways recently.

Way number 1:  K-daughter sometimes has panic attacks.  It's scary (especially for her).  You'd think the best way to get her out of shaking like a leaf, wondering whether death is imminent, is to reassure her.  To speak to the heart.  But actually, as a therapist friend showed me, it's better to engage the rational side.  I start asking questions:  What day is today?  Can you recite your phone number?  What did you have for dinner last night?  What ingredients went into that dish?  That intense concentration helps to stop the shakes, to bring her back. To cure, if you will, the emotional side.
Fixing the emotional sometimes sometimes requires the rational.

Way number 2:  Several educational researchers have showed that, if you ask women in a math class to spend 15 minutes writing about their values and goals on the first day of the semester, then their final grades at the end of the semester are higher.  Does that make sense?  Writing about their deeply held convictions on one day helps these students perform technical computations months later.  As a person who teaches a lot of math myself, I'm still trying to digest this.
Succeeding at math is tied to knowing your values?
So, on the one hand, rational thought helps to heal emotions.  And on the other hand, acknowledging the heart's desire helps people improve their rational thinking.  And as I was mulling over these seeming contradictions this past week, I stumbled (Way number 3) on the following sentences from Susan Blackmore's Meme Machine,
The neurologist Antonio Damasio (1994) has worked with many patients who have brain damage, often in the frontal lobe, that causes them to lose their normal emotional responses and become emotionally flat.  Far from turning into super-rational decision-makers, able to plan their lives without all the irritating distraction of unwanted emotions, they become almost paralysed with indecision.  Whether to choose pickle and pumpkin crisps, or cheese and onion, can become a nerve-racking dilemma to be resolved only by long and careful thought, and a normal life becomes impossible. 
In other words, our brains can't even make a simple choice unless we have a way to feel good or bad about that choice.

What does this have to do with being a miser mom?  I like to think (being the uber-rational person I am) that the way I spend money is The Right Way -- meaning of course the logical way.  But if I am honest, each choice is also the way that I just happen to feel like spending money . . . or not spending money, as the case may be -- heh!  

I like turning off unused lights (rational).  I also like plunking down a wad of money to go to live theater (emotional).  I like going yard saling, finding new school pants for 50¢ (score!).  I don't like being inside malls, even when the malls are giving away free stuff.  

The way I spend . . . it's not rational.  Except when it is.  Go figure.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

How (not?) to hire a tutor

In September of 2010, we hired a tutor to come over to our home to help my two boys with their homework.  The tutor was the kiddo we now call K-daughter; she's since moved in with us and we've now claimed her as one of our own, but that claim is more emotional than legal.  The emotional ties are strong, and not so complicated.  The financial ties: those are weak but confounding.

In fact, it's the financial ties that are driving me nuts this week.  It's not her fault.  It's the tax part that's killing me.  It's the whole bureaucracy of it that's overwhelming.  The issue is not that we hired someone; it's that she works in our home.  If our boys went to her home, there would never have been a tax issue (but of course, a big part of her problem was that she didn't really have a home the boys could go to).

So, we are responsible for all sorts of taxes on the relatively small amounts we pay her.  Here's what I've figured out.
  1. I pay her, weekly, to watch over the boys when they come home from school.  In 2010, the amount I paid her was $2,720.
  2. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this triggered a round of tax forms I needed to fill out.  Each quarter, now, I fill out and mail in form UC-2 (Rev3-06), for unemployment compensation.  I also send in a check associated with this form.
  3. Then I Telefile a W3.  I call 1-800-748-8299.  From the menu options, I include "employer withholding".  I enter my 8-digit PA account number and my EIN (both of which took a while to apply for, way back when).  I enter various amounts:  compensation, tax withheld, and total deposits. I stay on line to receive my confirmation number.
Figuring out how to do all this wasn't easy.  And probably, despite spending hours on it, I haven't got it right.  In fact, I just got a politely worded letter from the IRS saying I screwed something up.  I didn't file a W2 form for her.  Drat.  I'm now learning to file a W2 -- this requires, among other things, access to a typewriter.  I have a slide rule and and abacus, but not a typewriter.  Time for a scavenger hunt.

All those political candidates who messed up their nanny taxes?  I feel for them mightily.  Forgive me for being grumpy; I'm paying a person I know and love to help take care of my kids whom I know and love.  And I want to do the right thing tax-wise, but for the life of me, I haven't been quite able to figure out what that is.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Life we're Lent

Today is the first day of Lent.  If I told you I believe the observance of Lent is some kind of commandment from on high, I'd be lying.  I can't find any kind of axiomatic instructions on this particular topic in The Manual of Christian Living, if you know what I mean.

And yet.

And yet, I discovered, back in 2005 -- a particularly miserable year of my life -- that it was observing the sabbath that kept me sane.  To this day, I turn off my computer Saturday night (after the obligatory Prairie Home Companion observance), and I don't turn it back on until Sunday night.  Not a perfect sabbath, but at least an internet sabbath.  The e-world seems to survive without me present, and in return, I revive while disconnected.  It's good to rewire my brain toward a world where email and the blogosphere takes a back seat to church, to books, to the NY Times Crossword puzzle, and even to a bit of nature.  Oh, yeah, and my family.

And as far as bad habits go, 40 days and 40 nights seems to be a particularly appropriate time for subduing them.  So each year for Lent, I think hard about the way my connection to this goshdarned material world is controlling me, rather than the other way around.  Some years, I decide I'm really fine just as I am -- not a particularly Christian conclusion.  (Truth is, if I have an inferiority complex, it's not as good as other peoples'.*)
* I shamelessly stole this joke from Garrison Keillor.
But for the same reason that I worry about my things owning me rather than the other way around, Lent gives me a chance to worry about whether my habits and addictions overwhelm the rest of my life.  About ten years ago, I decided my quest for caffeine was one of these unreasonable addictions.  I gave up coffee for Lent.  The most embarrassing thing that happened was when I overslept and missed a class I was supposed to teach . . . a class that started at 3 p.m..  I think that proves the point.

This season of repentance seems to me (ignorant as I am of theological history) to be a modern, Christian version of Yom Kippur, the Jewish observance of atonement.  The event that shocked me into an observance of Lent wasn't a Catholic or other Christian act. It was my colleague, a man I adore, coming to me at the beginning of Yom Kippur, and begging me to forgive him for any way he might have offended me.  Really, it should have been the other way around.  He is one of the most perfect men that I know, and his plea for forgiveness rattles around in my head to this day.

This year, I'm doing my best to renounce whiskey during Lent.  I drink uber-cheap rot-gut whiskey.  My husband, who loves me dearly, obligingly purchases the cheapest glog he can find.  It's not a financial worry that makes me step back -- it's my mother's breast cancer and her losing battle with Alzheimers.  It's my own delight in a glass (or two, or three) at night.  It's my students' academic difficulties, often alcohol-related.  Forty days with no alcohol.  And forty nights, too.  Dang.

If I've offended you this past year, I ask for your forgiveness.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

My people

A week ago, I wrote a post about looking for shampoo recipes.  My friend Linda wrote back and sent me a link to a recipe that I'm probably going to try.  But this post isn't about making my own shampoo -- it's about the kind of people who make their own shampoo.

Mathematicians sometimes like to pretend that a line stretches so far in both directions that it reaches around and meets up with itself "at infinity".  That is, we sometimes think that a line is really part of a giant circle . . . the same way Columbus might have sailed in a straight line around the world and come back to where he started.  (I know, I know, bad history.  But the idea holds).

And so, shampoo makers.  In my own life, I often see my most liberal friends and my most conservative friends looking more like each other than they'd believe possible.  DIY shampoo-ists don't seem to be mainstream Americans.

Me, I'm learning to shun store-bought products because I worry that McDonalds is going to gain control of the USDA, or that Disney is going to get a seat on the U.N.  But I share a lot of day-to-day habits with the folks who write the Off The Grid News.  It's true that they don't worry, "What if Proctor and Gamble buys the next election?".  The shampoo author worries instead,
What if I woke up and my local drugstore was closed forever? If a worst-case scenario came true, and there wasn’t any more store-bought shampoo?
I fear big business.  My sister-in-shampoo-ity fears big government.  We both think small, in the most positive sense of that word.

I went to a women's college so incredibly liberal that we accused the president of NOW of not being feminist enough.  I loved hanging out in my women's groups, digging deeply and honestly into issues that only we women faced. And now I've come full circle, attending a conservative Christian church, entrenching myself in women's groups, digging deeply and honestly into issues that only we women face.

What can I say?  It's good to come clean together.

Monday, February 20, 2012

DIY detergent, the saga

Our family has finally joined the ranks of serious frugalists in making our own laundry detergent. For those of you who are new to this, you can find a link to the recipe we used down toward the bottom of this post.  But I think, in my case, the interesting question is . . . why did it take us so long?  After all, DIY laundry soap costs less than a quarter (that is, less than 25¢) for 75 loads -- less than one tenth of what commercially prepared laundry detergent costs, even on two-for-one sales.  And the ingredients come in two cardboard boxes plus a few paper-wrapped packages, not in fifty giant plastic bottles.

Shouldn't I have done this ages ago?
The best anniversary gift ever:
a front-loading washing machine.
The real reason I hadn't done this before is because my (non-miser) husband is in charge of the laundry.  He LOVES laundry.  No, really.  Above is a photo we took in 2006; for our anniversary, I bought him a front-loading washer.  To this day, that washer ranks right up there with the clothes steamer as one of the best gifts I ever got him.  My guy jumps up in the middle of dinner to run down to the basement "because the clothes might wrinkle".  I still have no idea what that means he's doing down there.

My husband cares deeply about his clothes.  He looks good in them.  The Philly subway toll collectors call him (I am not making this up) "Mr. GQ".  In fact, he has a subscription to GQ, and he knows the names of clothes manufacturers the way I know the names of mathematical theorems.

This poor guy; he married a woman who believes in DLP (Darwinian Laundry Processes).  I get my clothes for less than a dollar an outfit, so darned if I'm going to fret over dry cleaning or special treatment.  I figure, toss it in there; if it survives, great.  If not, it was Not Meant To Be.  My husband disagrees.  Ergo, the last time I touched the washing machine was two years ago, when my husband was overseas in Iraq.  He is the Lord of Laundry.  I toss my dirty clothes down the laundry chute, and I accept my clean, folded clothes when he is done with them, and then I put them away in my drawers.  I am a minion, not a master.

The Lord of the Laundry has over the years uttered certain truths that mere mortals accept with due meekness.  An Incontrovertible truth:  the dryer is essential.  Now, left to my own devices, I'd never use the dryer.  Indeed, the Iraq year meant a year of miser-mom-style, air-dried, stiff clothes and towels.  But stiff towels are heresy in my husband's eyes.  The dryer gets a heck of a lot of use in our home now that he's back.

The other Incontrovertible Truth has long been: Name Brand Laundry Detergents only.  Actually, that is an understatement . . . there is the One True laundry detergent, and we should forswear all others.  The Lord of the Laundry had spoken.

But lately, there has been a bit of wavering.  For Christmas, K-daughter bought my husband laundry detergent, of a brand that is not even remotely of the One True type.  And he didn't seem to mind.  In fact, he confided to me that -- because of the wonderful front-loader machine that I bought him -- a variety of types of detergents seem to work well.

So when I got this email from a neighbor, I decided to show it to my husband:
Hey Miser Mom!
I ran across this recently and I think I am finally going to make it.  Home made laundry detergent!  The numbers are pretty impressive on how much money you can save.  I figure you have seen these recipes, but I thought of you when I saw it.  Have you ever tried making it?
Let me know if you try it or if you have made some before.  I could take our 2 person household a year to use it all... but it's just too tempting.  :)
The ingredients (plus water).

I showed the email to my Guy.  And he consented to the experiment.  I found Fels Naptha and Borax at my local hardware store, and Washing Soda near the water softeners in my local grocery (that's a story for another time).  The concoction quickly became a family endeavor.  Our laundry detergent is now home-made.

The boys grate the Fels Naptha,
with help from a younger friend.

K-daughter adds the recipe to her own personal cook book.
The boys stir the concoction together.
This recipe is so simple,
even a child can make it.
A bit of takeaway:  My husband and I both make a lot of jokes (here and in the rest of our life) about his dominion over our laundry.  For me, leaving the laundry choices to him in spite of my otherwise thrifty leanings is a huge part of my "don't drive them crazy" philosophy.  But if this experiment does indeed work -- in the sense that even my Guy likes the results -- it's pretty strong evidence that making our own laundry detergent isn't just for weirdos like me.  Someday, you might even see this recipe in the pages of GQ.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


The weather is getting balmy around here.  Not very February-esque, really.  More like April.  And I am impatient to garden again.

Other people get seed catalogs; I have a bunch of packets leftover from previous years, so I don't get to lust over lists, so to speak.   Instead, I have a box of seeds:

My eyes are not what they used to be, and the writing on the packages is small, so I've added numbers on the fronts of each seed package:  eggplants, for example, are 8-10 weeks.

8-10 weeks from what?  From May 15, the Lancaster PA last frost date.  All the experts around here say I should wait for the right time to start my seeds indoors.  The weather outside is saying, "grow grow grow!", but the calendar says there's a month to go.  The action really starts mid March.  That's when I'll pull out the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, and put them into soil, in my southern windows.  Not until then.  Not now.  Darn.

But look.  Outside, the weeds are thriving in the garden.

The compost is rotting in the bins.
All I'm planting right now is impatience.  Tick tick tick . . . 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Peanuts and Pizza

Here's the latest installment in Cooking With Kids.

Downside of the project:  Doing all the nagging/browbeating/herding that goes into teaching a teenager to turn his back on all things fun, and cajoling him instead to focus his attention on the kitchen counter .

Upside:  The boys are indeed learning to cook.  And so, Cooking With Kids is one of my penances goals for 2012.

I take success where I can find it.  

Success number 1:  our first mailing of the magazine Chop Chop has arrived.  N-son devoured it, so to speak, and asked me, could we please make our own peanut butter?  From peanuts?  Apparently, peanut butter does not originally come from plastic jars on the grocery shelves, he's discovered.  His mother has promised that, if he's very, very good, he may use the food processor and our Miller-purchased peanuts.  He's promised to be very, very good.  

Success number 2:  I had a business dinner to go to last week.  I took a chance that night; I left the kiddos my camera and a note instructing them to make pizza and to take pictures.  I didn't leave the recipe; that's already in their own personal recipe books.  J-son didn't turn his back on all things fun, but N-son and K-daughter got down to work.

Here are 5 of the 30-some photos they took -- these were mostly pictures of the kids rolling in the dough; no good pictures of them hitting the sauce or cutting the cheese.  (Oops, sorry; teenage boy humor).

The house didn't burn down.  Everyone got fed.  There were even a few leftovers.  Score!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Portrait of the Artist as a struggling woman

True confessions time.  So, every once in a while I blather on about the idea that one of the big reasons I try so hard to be frugal is so that I can share with others.  I talk the talk.  Do I walk the walk?

Er, . . . no.

What Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have in common with each other, but not with me, is the number 14%.  That's how much of their income they each donated to charity last year, according to their income tax statements, or so I hear.  Several religions (including mine) strongly suggest 10% as the minimum magic number (except, of course, we don't say "magic").  I'm not there either.

Even if you just look at the money that makes it into our bank account -- that is, after my employer deducts taxes, retirement, and health insurance costs and then deposits the rest of the moolah for me -- even if you look at that reduced amount as the base, we don't make it to a proper tithe.  

What I can say about our expenditures is that we're paying a lot for our moral values.  The energy-saving home renovation consumes a vast amount of our take-home pay.  Our high-energy boys consume another big chunk.  I suppose if we hadn't renovated the home or adopted our kids, we'd find it a lot easier to be as proportionally generous as our two presidential front-runners.  
The break-down of how our take-home pay leaves our home.
 This doesn't include some large categories:  health insurance, retirement, or taxes.

But for me, that's not really an excuse.  In my heart of hearts, what I wish I could do is be a marvelous mom, a perfect professor, an excellent environmentalist . . . and still find a way to put large chunks of my money in the hands of others, making the world a better place.  See the pigs flying by?  

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Valentines Day

Our family valentine's day, thanks to a bit of advance planning, was sweet.  In many senses.

The Valen-table

Dinner was beautiful . . . more sweetness than I usually allow near our digestive systems.  We'd planned the menu way back in December; N-son and J-son had offered ideas and taken down notes.  (I made them write that their father and I were going to gaze into each other's eyes and sigh, so it was very funny to open up my notes this weekend and read "red jello.  Sigh. Sigh.  pink lemonade.")  We made cinnamon-heart applesauce, pink lemonade, red jello with cherries (picked this past summer, frozen, and brought out for the special occasion).   We had some lovely heart-shaped cookies given us by a friend -- thanks, Linda!   The tablecloth was actually a fitted sheet, left-over from the daughter days.

Red jello with cheries and whipped cream,
pink lemonade, and tap water.

At the center of the meal was homemade reuben sandwiches.  In advance, I made two loaves of rye bread, and I added food dye to one loaf.   After we fried the sandwiches up, a little mix-and-match with a cookie cutter yielded this:
Reuben, red reuben.

And then there were the photographs . . .
Getting ready to pose . . . 

What a lot of love!
Ahead of time, I took some way-too-cute photos of my sons; these photos offended the boys' manly sensibilities, but endeared them mightily to their doting sisters.  Aren't the guys too adorable for words?  The boys also recorded a drums/vocal version of "You are my sunshine" that I sent via email along with the pictures.  (I can't figure out how to attach the music to the blog).  The musical/photo card was a huge hit all around.  Yay!
All around a lovely day.  As planned.  Afterward, I gazed into my husband's beautiful face.  Sigh. Sigh.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Paul's Package

The world is celebrating Charles Dickens' 200th birthday this month-- he's holding up remarkably well for a guy who is two centuries old. When I was younger, I read the Tale of Two Cities out-loud to men I loved, twice, and both times I ended up sobbing audibly.  I got to play Ebenezer in a Girl Scout version of A Christmas Carol.  I spent almost an entire month of one summer devouring Bleak House.  This birthday brings back lots of memories for me.

I was thinking about all things Dickens, and also mulling over my trash reduction goals, when I got this email about a member of my church.
Paul D. collects the following items, disassembles them, and takes them to recycling facilities.
1. Metal--File cabinets, lawn furniture, grills, washers, dryers, stoves, propane tanks, electronics, Small appliances, toasters, coffee pots, toaster ovens, vacuums cleaners, door lock or any type of locks, speakers, computers, Christmas lights, lamps, light cords, metal tables, shelves, cassette tapes, irons, radios, old metal hangers.
2. Newspapers, cardboard (cereal boxes, medicine boxes, etc.)
3. Aluminum cans (like soda, cat food cans, or anything aluminum).

Paul will pick things up. Just call him to make arrangements. His number is  . . .
Of course, I called Paul's home right away; only his wife was home.  The longer we talked, the more Dickensian the conversation became.  They live on just social security; his wife is legally blind, is in a wheelchair, and suffers from bladder and kidney infections.  Their insurance (medicare?) doesn’t cover herbal remedies (like cranberry juice).  Paul's metal salvaging helps bring in a few extra dollars to help with her medicines.

What Paul does is, he removes the copper, aluminum, steel from whatever "trash" he gets.  He pulls the copper out of strings of Christmas lights.  He disassembles all sorts of appliances to get at the metal in them.  He's so good at this, he even takes apart cassette tapes, separating the screws, throwing the plastic and tape away, and then recycles aluminum and copper from inside the plastic case.  It's not at all fair to compare Paul D. to Jerry Cruncher, but Jerry would approve, I couldn't help but think -- both of them resurrecting bodies that would otherwise have remained buried, and both for their own profit.

Paul came by this past weekend and took from us a box spring mattress we've been saving for the dump.  He also got our old defunct waffle iron, a broken screen door, and a discarded light fixture.  I've never felt so good about getting rid of trash, nor wished so much that I had more trash to offer.

So now my well-organized trash has yet another category: the Paul box.  God bless us, every one. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

New members of the family

The sun rose beautiful and bright this weekend, welcoming in several new members of our household.

Meet Tommy and Nemo

Here, they're being pampered by their proud guardians.

Also, here is Roland, our new household servant.

He's got a big mouth, but I hear he's fairly sharp on the uptake.

We've burned out several electric pencil sharpeners over the past few years; here's hoping Roland proves himself to be a bit longer lived.  As for Tommy and Nemo, I also suggested to my boys the name "Compost".  The boys declined.  But for now, the fish love to accompany the boys to bed each night and back downstairs for breakfast each morning.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

My mom's shampoo

As I've been working to reduce the amount of trash passing through my home, considering homemade versions of toiletries (but, honestly, too lazy to actually try concocting actual batches yet), one of my excuses for continuing to buy commercial stuff in plastic bottles has been not having a good container to put homemade stuff in.  Miserably thin excuse, really, but it's been enough for me.

Then, over Christmas, I was helping my dad clean out even more of my mom's old things. It's amazing how much one person can collect over a lifetime, and for the past several years, I've helped pack up more of her stuff each time I go home for Christmas or summer break.  This past December, I ran across this trio of bottles.

Now, this probably doesn't look particularly sentimental to you, but those labels might as well be in my mom's actual handwriting.  She had a labeling machine that she loved using, and she used it to label just about everything in the home she could get her hands on.  I see this set, and I'm just overwhelmed with nostalgia.  Dad doesn't use conditioner, and he doesn't use lotion, so he didn't want to keep them.  So of course this came home with me.

Mom wouldn't have made her own shampoo from scratch (you can see she loved Nivea by name, and other bottles she labeled that I didn't take home were her travel bottles of "Breck Shampoo").   But she did always encourage us to try doing for ourselves, and she encouraged learning new skills.  So now I've got to start looking for recipes.  No more excuses, not even miserably thin ones.

Here are some of the sites I'm mulling over for recipes:

Loving it Raw (vinegar, baking soda, lemon, cucumbers??)
About Chemistry (castille soap, olive oil, glycerine???)
Frugally Sustainable (vinegar and herbs????)

Not sure that any of these is right for me.  And I've got a bit of a backlog of shampoo still, so I'm not under any time pressure to come up with something perfect right away.  Suggestions are welcome.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Reusable lids

While surfing around the web the other day, I came upon something that caught my eye, that I immediately wanted to buy:  reusable canning lids.  They're for canning--cool!  They're reusable--low trash!!  Isn't this perfectly ME?  But for a Miser Mom who considers a $5 pair of jeans way too expensive, dropping $60 on 72 lids is a lot of money.  So I immediately employed my most effective money saving strategy:
Walk away.  Wait one week.
In the meantime, I did a bit of soul-searching.  This week was a great time to ask questions like,
  • Do I already have something that could do just as well? (I have toss-able lids, after all.  But I know that I will eventually have to go buy more).
  • Would I really use them?  (Yes, I've become hooked on canning).
  • Would they actually save me money?  (For the same price, I could buy 6 times as many disposable lids. This savings question is the big unknown).
  • Do these align with my other values?  (I like that these don't go in the trash, and that they help me preserve locally grown foods.)
  • Where would my dollars go after I spend them -- am I "voting" with my money the right way?
This last question is low on my list, but it's something that I have more and more luxury to think about the more stable our household becomes.  Francis Moore Lappe wrote, "Every dollar you spend is a vote for the kind of world you want to live in."  I don't really want to vote for a world of cheap plastic garbage, or a world of wealthy CEO's profiting from foreign child labor.  So a lot of common "frugal" practices (like shopping at the Dollar Store or warehouse stores) are just not standard options for me.

Other things that have caught my eye recently -- the Cupow, the Misto sprayer, for example -- haven't yet made it past the first few questions on this list.  But the reusable canning jar lids, so far so good.

So a bit of external research was in order.  The company itself is (of course) exultant about its product: the lids are BPA free.  They're made in the USA (flags all over the web site).  They list testimonials from people who bought lids back in the 1970s who are still using the lids, but who need to replace the wispy rubber rings. They say "We guarantee the TATTLER plastic lid to last a lifetime or we will replace it free. However, no customer has EVER made the request to replace a single lid."

A bit of searching on other web sites not owned by the company backed up how happy people were.  Can you see the magnetic pull on my wallet?  Can you see the credit card just levitating in front of you?

The credit card was put to work.  The money was spent.  I bought six dozen lids -- not enough for a full season, I'm guessing, but enough for an experiment.  I still have my disposable lids, after all, as a back up.  Now I'm just waiting for my package in the mail.  Christmas in February.  Yes, we can.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

5-minute zipper fix

J-son came home last night with his backpack gaping open.  All the stuff he has crammed in there was just too much for the zipper, which lost its grip.  This gave me a chance to perform one of my favorite tricks from the Tightwad Gazette: the 5-minute zipper fix.  Here's how it goes:

1.  Start at the bottom of where the backpack zips up.  (Sorry it's so hard to see these pictures; J-son prefers the all-black backpacks over the pink sparkly ones).

2.  Make a small snip in the side of the zipper that doesn't have zipper pull on it.

3.  Restart the zipper.

4.  Distract your son from asking, "is it done yet? Is it done yet?" by letting him take pictures of the dog.  (This step is optional).

5.  Secure the base of the zipper by stitching some thread around it a few times.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Food thoughts

Some random ways that food passes through our home . . .

. . . in books.  I've been reading Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and loving it.  It's the kind of book that makes me feel (and I mean this in the most uplifting sense possible) terribly guilty about the way I eat.  In that sense, it reminds me of the More with Less Cookbook.  Longacre wrote in that latter book something like, "if you tell people that they're consuming the world's resources, they'll say, they don't want to hear it; they don't want to feel guilty.  But what if they ARE guilty?"  As for me, I'm guilty as charged.  Kingsolver is pushing me more and more to fill up the home with locally produced, in-season foods.  Repent and sin no more.

The map to Miller's Grocery.
. . . from local markets.  Lancaster Pennsylvania is nearly Eden when it comes to locally grown food.  Our downtown market (the longest continuously operated indoor farmer's market) has fresh, local produce at prices that often beat grocery store prices, and and that almost always beat supermarket taste and freshness. Two weeks ago, when I was moaning about quick oats taking over all the grocery store space from my real, rolled oats, my husband offered to drive me out to Miller's.  It's an Amish-owned market that sells bulk, organic, locally grown produce.  And I feel like a complete doofus for having lived in Lancaster almost 20 years without having been there.  We bought 50 pounds of flour, 20 pounds of oats, plus cheese, nuts, raisins, other dried fruit . . . we dropped about $200.  All cash, no credit cards, of course.

. . . from grocery stores.  Because even though My Guy loves me enough to go to Central Market or on a Miller's date with me, he still loves our modern world in all its synthetic glory.  My sons have been happily wolfing down his gifts of the artificial food in plastic containers . . . Ding dongs.  Pudding packs.  Ramen noodles.  This is part of my home, too, and none of the Y-chromosome people in my household shudder at it.

. . . from our shelves.  I love pulling together a meal from existing resources.  Last week, my Guy had a hankering for pork, so he went and bought pork, probably from the corporate-industrial complex, but that's really beside the point.   The point is that we've had lots of left-overs.  And last night's dinner mixed together assorted refrigerated items:  Garlic.  the Pork.  Carrots and Cheese from Miller's.  a Turnip from our December take-home of the CSA, still hanging on but losing the battle.  Canned Tomato sauce.  a dollop of Ranch Dressing from some restaurant.  Oregano from my sister's garden.  Basil from our window sill plant. And from the cupboard, lots and lots of spaghetti.   Each of the boys had thirds -- or was it fourths?  This sauce was a little bit of everything from my life . . . this dinner really lived up to the motto, you are what you eat.

Spaghetti a-la-what-exists, with apple-oatmeal muffins.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Calculus of Frugality

I'm teaching calculus this semester -- actually, I teach calculus just about every semester.  I've been teaching calculus longer than my students have been alive.  Calculus colors the way I look at the world.

Here's an example of non-calculus thinking.  Most of us think about wealth with a picture that looks like this:  bar graphs.  We picture wealth as a snapshot of how we're doing right now.

A picture of wealth: poor Pete is down-and-out, wealthy Walter is rich and happy;
middle-class Marv is comfortable but looking to improve.
But calculus says that life is all about change.  And if you think about living a long time, you could see why a snapshot of where you are right now isn't all there is to the picture -- a good picture shows where you're at and where you're headed, as well. It's about looking at your wealth as you move through time.  Here's the same picture as the beginning of a graph.
Wealthy Walter enjoys spending his money on nice stuff.
Middle-class Marv is cutting coupons.
Poor Pete is darning his own clothes (darn; wish I could draw better).
From this snapshot, you can see not only where these guys are at, but you also get a hint at a trend.  It's not just how much we have, but also what we're doing with it, that matters.  If we catch up with these guys again 10 years later, the graph might stretch out like this.
Walter is still shopping boutiques, and Marv is still shopping the sales.
Pete has started hanging his own laundry,
and he's learning other ways to cut costs, too.
The trend lines show that a cost-conscious middle-class person like Marv can certainly set aside enough money to become comfortable.  Pete doesn't have as many options for saving money as Marv does (because he doesn't have as much to start with), but don't let the fact that his graph is still lower than the others' fool you.  For the long term, it's the trend, not the bar graph, that matters.   Because if this keeps up, the next ten years gives us a very different picture.
Whoops! Walter still has a lot of money, but he's in over his head anyway.
Marv is still comfortable clipping coupons.
And Pete can finally rest easy, thanks to his penny-pinching strategies. 
Pete's graph is exponential (as in, "prices are rising exponentially").  In the long run, exponential growth wins out just about any other kind . . . even though it's frustratingly slow early on.  It's why experts tell you to start investing in retirement as early as possible.  But it's also the reason why developing good habits and constantly learning new things can be so powerful . . . eventually.

It's these three graphs, seared deep in my psyche, that keep me from worrying much (if at all) about the occasional one-time expensive purchase -- that's a single snapshot in time.  But it's these same three graphs that keep me washing my plastic bags, packing my lunch for work, patching my son's backpacks.  Because habits and rituals are the parts of our lives that determine the shape -- and because of that, the height -- of that graph. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Wrestling with my kids

This poster shows what my sons didn't get to do this weekend.

J-son's former foster mom had called about a week ago, asking if she could take both my boys to see a Christian Wrestling Extravaganza at her church this past Saturday.  I am a Christian.  I actually wrestled for a while with a team while I was in grad school.  In spite of those two facts, I think this group is, um, outside of my own usual definition of "family fun".  Even, possibly, outside of "normal".

But practicality trumps philosophy.  Since I had a huge pile of math papers to grade, I enthusiastically agreed to let her take my children away.  The boys were thrilled.  All was good.   But at the last minute, the church got flooded out.  I don't know if the wrestlers were related to Noah, but the event got cancelled.

Instead, the boys got to have what one of my friends affectionately calls an "All Sports Saturday" (and, yes, my friends usually abbreviate the name).  The boys played in a league basketball game.  We went to a wrestling match at my college (much less colorful than Plan A would have offered, alas).  The boys played football with a friend.  They went running with my husband.  We did our best to wear them out.

There's part of me this weekend -- a large part -- feeling like a pitiful excuse of a mother.  I was thrilled when I thought I'd get to hand off my boys so I could grade a bunch of papers.   Maybe I'm the one who is far from family fun.

And yet, I graded my papers.  I worked a bit more on the Haiti adoption process.  On Sunday, I went to church and got to hear my boys singing in the choir.  And Sunday afternoon, I got to watch them wrestling on the living room rug. 

In the meanwhile, I got an email from our social worker asking us if we're interested in finding out more about a 14-year old boy currently in a group home outside of Pittsburgh.  There are things about this kid that make the Christian Wrestlers look tame . . . but we said, sure, let's meet the kid.  More family, more fun.  But definitely not normal.