Friday, June 28, 2013

For those rare, rare times when yard-sale-purchased gifts just won't do

Buying gifts.

This gift thing is a real challenge for a committed frugalist like me.  I'm thinking about gifts now because it's yard sale season, which is when I do most of my gift-buying.

For one thing, yard sales are a great place to gather up cool trinkets and toys that are very small -- come early December, we'll wrap them in a shoebox and send them via Operation Christmas Child overseas.  And speaking of children, this is a great time to get inexpensive things that my boys lust for:  J-son still fawns over the $5 lava lamp I got him two years ago; N-son loved his 25¢ Sponge Bob lamp to death, unfortunately.  The living room where I'm typing now is completely strewn with the wooden train track sets that cost about a jillion dollars in a real store, but that I snagged 4 years ago for $15.  So, yes, my boys will get yard sale presents from me for Christmas this year (and they're going to love them).

Even for adults, it's entirely possible to find great gifts at yard sales.  For one thing, most of my friends and family know of my allergy to stores, and they are cool with getting nice things that for some reason don't have tags attached.  For those people on my gift-giving-list who might be offended by getting second-hand items, I have to be a bit more careful, but I don't have to abandon my open-air-market ways.  Really, our society is just so over-full-of-stuff that people sometimes sell new items, still in the box, for pennies on the dollar.

But there are times when even I think a yard sale gift won't do.  There are big life events that just seem to call for something more substantial than the usual curb-side treasure.

For example, graduation.  I've had four family members graduate from college recently.  Graduation is a Big Deal in our family, and it calls for something significant.  But what does a frugal, stodgy person like me get for a Contemporary Individual of today?  And can I do something that honors the person and celebrates that achievement, while still remaining true to my own values of thrift, discipline, and all that other dismal stuff?

This was an especially hard question for me when I thought about my older step-daughter, one of the first of the next generation to graduate.  She'd grown up both in my house and in her mother's home, and the two homes had very different approaches to spending.  I mean, our homes were even more different than you might expect just knowing me.  For example: her mom bought her a brand new car when she turned 16.  My step-daughter already had her own computer and her own smart phone.  She had so many clothes that she gave her hand-me-downs to me.  It was really hard to think of something -- anything -- I could get her that she didn't already have, or that her mother's side of the family wouldn't have gotten her a better one.

At almost the same time, my birth daughter (who didn't yet know how to drive but who had taught herself to knit and crochet) was graduating.  For her, it was easier to decide:  she needed a sewing machine.  Yes.  She was, after all, flesh of my flesh, and we both knew she'd love taking after her mother in the mending and creating way as well.

Somehow, it dawned on me that I had the answer to *both* gifts at once.  Because although my step-daughter might not actually ever use that sewing machine, really, there's a good chance she wouldn't have ended up needing anything I gave her.   But my step-daughter knew how much I love sewing, so she'd realize the gift meant a lot to me.  Better yet, there was no way her mother was going to go out and buy her a sewing machine, so I wasn't about to get trumped.  [Since then, her boyfriend used it to make a dog bed for her dog, so I know it's gotten some use.  Score!]

And that is how I hit on the graduation sewing machine:  a gift that is substantial and fancy enough to be worthy of a graduation honor, but that is still consonant with a Miser Mom lifestyle.  My crafty nephew got his sewing machine a year later; my younger step-daughter is getting ready to take hers to grad school this fall.  She's already made herself a spool-bag with it.  Whoop!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The danger of successful DIY projects

It's the chain reaction.  It began with wanting to throw away less trash, so that now we do lots and lots more canning.  Managing all those canning jars in the kitchen turns out to be a pain in the . . . in the legs, because I spend too much time running cans up and down stairs to and from the basement shelves.  

So I got a piece of lumber I no longer needed, cut it to size with the old circular saw, painted it with leftover paint . . . 
. . . and voila!  A few more kitchen cupboard shelves, set at just the right heights for one-cup sized, pint-sized, and quart-sized canning jars.  There will be less stair-running now.  What could be the problem with this?

On a slightly more ambitious note, I finally got around to making myself a new bag (the style is sort of combination purse/briefcase/backpack).

I think it came out looking really nice.  I used some upholstery fabric I'd gotten at a church basement yard sale (the "fill a bag for a dollar" kind); that was my only expense.  Everything else was scrounged from other bags and such that seem to pass through the house.  I'd saved a motley assortment of straps, zippers, and fasteners.  I even had some gold/tan colored string that made perfect piping around the front of this bag.

Check this out: if you lift up the front flap, you see this (more zippers and fasteners):
Can't see it all?  Here's an annotated version.

I even love the selvage fringe (the unfinished edge of the fabric) that become the flap of my phone holder.

So, what's the danger with making my own bag?  Or my own shelves?

Part of the danger is that things don't always come out the way we want.  I'd spent a day (and $4 for some fabric) on an earlier version of a bag, and I'll just mumble my way past the fact that it didn't turn out quite so well.   Ahem.

Moving on. . . did I show you any pictures of the bag that came out well?  Yes, I thought I did.

And the danger of that successful project is this:  it is that making treasures out of trash encourages hoarding trash.   The odds and ends.  The "I just might be able to use this someday" kind of stuff that seems to lurk among the corners, closets, and drawers in this house.

For one thing, there is the closet full of paint.  This tower o' tint happens to sit precariously close to my husband's army clothes.  Perhaps not the best location.

There is the colorful, well organized collection of thread that will last me until I am 137 years old.  (I should know; I inherited my grandmother's thread still on their wooden spools, and I intend to pass what remains of them along to my future grandchildren).
The pin cushion the size of a soccer ball, with more craft-fetishes hidden at the back of the drawer . . .
The bottles of paints, the rolls of tape, . . .
The drawers of string and fabric and . . . well you get the idea.  

And this particular flurry of household creativity started out with trying to make less trash, remember?  To meander in a minimally material way through our everyday lives.

But every successful trash-to-treasure project just encourages me to want to hoard more stuff, because it just might someday be more treasure.


Monday, June 24, 2013

Underwater Dinner

Cue the Beach Boys music!

We don't have a video of N-son boogie-ing it up -- too bad.  But we've got a tall chair for K-daughter (who just got her life guard certification, whoop)!
 Goldfish swimming in their blue and green oceans (okay, really Swedish fish in jello):
 A Shell-fish dish (get it?  shell pasta and shrimp):
 plus rare fish sticks and sand (couscous):
 Here are some surfers ready to dive into the food!
 And the master chef is ready to dive in with them.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Family (Meal) Planning

After that very long post on food waste, I just thought I'd share two little pictures of my latest bit o' food planning joy.

I rescued from the trash a little white board that J-son had loved nearly-to-death.  I wrote the days of the week in permanent marker.   Each weekend, I add weekly events and meal ideas for the upcoming week in erasable marker.
I leave this out in the dining room, and the kids seem to love looking ahead to see what's coming up.  (Oooh -- this week we're going to have the Underwater Dinner!).

If it were just me doing the cooking, this would probably be too much work -- after all, we do have a family calendar in the pantry that everyone could look at if they want to.  But with 5 people involved in making meals, and with the crazy summer schedule making every week a totally different adventure, this seems like a great way to keep everyone on board (oog).  

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A contrarian view of food waste

It's summer, and here in the verdant rolling hills of Lancaster County where our farms boast the most fertile non-irrigated soil in the nation, thoughts are turning to food waste.  The general consensus:  food waste is terrible.

I'd like to take a contrarian view.  I think that many supposedly-frugal people make much too big a deal of food waste, and that letting food rot isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Not necessarily a bad thing -- but bear with me, here.

It's true that my family doesn't throw away much food.  The food we toss tends to be plant matter -- apple cores, vegetable peels, coffee grounds, the occasional wilted green.  It all goes into the compost bin, where it rots -- just like all the other 146 billion tons of biomass produced each year in the natural world.  When we pull dandelions from our yard, we don't say "dang, we're wasting food!" (even though dandelion greens are edible).   A head of lettuce or a stalk of broccoli doesn't magically become some kind of sacred object merely because it got to spend some time in our fridge.

I'll even go so far as to say the same for meat; animals die in the natural world all the time without being eaten by people.  When I drive by a deer killed at the edge of a highway, I don't think, "man, there goes more wasted food".   Why should I single out a chicken for special "wasted food" status more than, say, a wild duck that met its maker in some fowl accident?

No, when we complain about food waste, the problem is not with the food itself.  In this case, food is a proxy measure for other things that we ought to be paying attention to.  Food is easy to see and measure, just like a child's height is easy for a doctor to measure.  Short kids and tall kids can both be healthy, but a doctor keeps track of a child's height as a proxy for catching problems that might be harder to detect.  In the same way, wasting food tells us that there might be other problems we're facing we need to be aware of.

Let's look at three arguments that people give for not wasting food:  each of these points at a problem that might or might not be fixed by eating that yogurt before it starts sporting those blue fuzzy warts.

1.  People all over the world are starving.
I'm a bit partial to this sentiment, especially considering there's a child we're hoping to adopt from Haiti who has lived through many hungry times himself.  But as any 5-year-old can tell you, you won't feed the hungry people of Haiti (or even of your own city) by shipping a few of your leftovers off to them, nor even by eating less food yourself.

The problem of world hunger is not caused by how much food you buy at the grocery store.  According to Oxfam,
Famine is the “triple failure” of (1) [local] food production, (2) people’s ability to access food and, finally and most crucially (3) in the political response by governments and international donors. Crop failure and poverty leave people vulnerable to starvation – but famine only occurs with political failure. 
In other words, the best way to feed people across the world (or even in your own community) is to donate to or work with organizations that can help to deliver food into the right hands.  Emergency aid helps a lot, and so does help establishing a stable and local food infrastructure.  Advocating for your colleges, restaurants, and groceries to donate excess food to food banks would be a huge help.  Eating those last few bites of cheese before it gets hard, not so much.

2.  Growing, transporting, and selling food takes up vast amounts of our planet's resources.
I agree.  A lot.  In fact, if you want a picture of what I call "waste", look at this:
(How many different ingredients does it take to
make this plastic-encased cake "unmistakably fresh"?)
 or this:
(Organic apples in a bag that will out-last my great grand children).

Even though we ate all the cake, and even though we ate all the apples (well, not the cores), to me THAT is the true picture of food waste.  So much of the food we buy comes wrapped in trash, and we think that's normal.  And the trash that our food comes in isn't even remotely biodegradable; unlike the food that it once covered, it'll be around moldering (but not composting) in landfills for millennia.  THAT is DISGUSTING.  

I'll say that again.  The food we don't eat but put back in the ground turns into dirt that can grow new plants that can feed our world again someday.  Plastic bags and foil wrappers are a one-way trip from "resource" to "garbage".   And that is a true waste, in every sense of the word.

Of course, there are hidden pictures of waste that go with every foil wrapper, plastic bag, and plastic-and-foil-lined-cardboard-juice-container.  Even if we can't see it, we all know about the waste of fuel and fertilizer used in growing and transporting all that food.

The solution to this waste is only partly to consume less food.  The solution, for any ecologically concerned person, also includes trying wherever possible and reasonable to purchase locally grown foods in season.  It involves learning to preserve food (or possibly finding local people who can preserve food for/with you).  It includes choosing foods that are less energy- and ecologically-intensive (such as avoiding processed foods; also possibly increasing the number of plant-based dishes you cook and moving toward meatless or less-meat meals).

The solution also involves paying attention to packaging.  Sometimes, it involves buying in bulk to reduce packaging.  For even more careful people, it means avoiding packaging whenever possible.  Over the years, we've learned places where we can buy milk in glass bottles that we return to the dairy for a refill; our market reuses egg cartons and yogurt containers.  I'm far, far from perfect . . . but I'm proud that as of June 19, our family has put out only 8 trash cans so far this year.

In my eyes, a person in Pennsylvania who buys two bushels of local, organically grown tomatoes in August (using her own buckets as storage containers) and then lets the whole lot rot on the ground . . . that person has created less waste than if she ate every last chunk from a tropical fruit platter encased in plastic and shipped from half-way around the world in January.

3.  Food waste means wasted money.
Okay, now you're talking.  Systematic food waste points to a kind of inefficiency that I really do get twitchy and unhappy about, even though (unlike the two other problems above) it is a problem that affects only the household that's tossing the food.

There are a gazillion techniques for making sure we don't let food go bad, and therefore don't have to make trips to the grocery for even more costly food.  (Here's a particularly pithy set of ideas).  I'll add one technique I haven't seen much elsewhere:
Practice running out of food.  And then, make running out of food part of your normal practice.
Actually, I don't mean running out of all your food -- one of my American-born sons lived through days of food insecurity when he was small, and it still haunts him.  But it's okay to run out of "Easily Spoilable Food A", and then switch to "Long Shelf-Life Food B" until the next grocery run.  For example, I buy a half-gallon of milk each Tuesday, and my kids all know that when that runs out, they switch to water until next Tuesday.  [And if you're worried about their calcium intake, I'll point to the three heads of kale they eat in one sitting, plus all the other leafy green things that scramble into our home from the nearby farms.]  Similarly, when school is out for the summer, I buy a bit of sandwich meat and cheese which goes down early in the week; then we switch to peanut butter or hummus we make from our vast stock of dried beans.

Other ways I make efficient use of food in our home:

Turning old food into new food
The pantry principal
How not to go shopping
My weight in vegetables with no plastic

But these cute little ideas for how to manage the food already in our house, they miss the bigger point.  The takeaway message is this:
Food waste is so bad, but not because of the food.   So the solution to food waste might start by thinking about what's already in our own refrigerators and pantries, but it can't stop there.

Monday, June 17, 2013

My first 15-hour challenge

This past Saturday, I set myself the challenge of moving constantly for 15 hours.

This is a kind of a weird preparation for the triathalon I'm hoping to do in 2015.  I figure it'll take me 15 hours to do the whole thing, and Saturday was the 15th of June . . . a bit of a pattern here.

I'm a bit of a long-distance admirer of people who take on extreme life style challenges for a while.  The "No-Spend Month"ers beguile me; the one-year "No Impact Man" experiment warmed my heart; the "No car month" folks had me rooting for them.

The closest I think I'd gotten to a semi-extreme challenge myself, though, was the year that I vowed to respond to the question, "How are you?" without saying "I'm so busy!".  It was a great experiment, all the more so because it stuck with me, just like the (almost) no-trash life stuck with this family.  (Wow).

So even though I wasn't planning to exercise hard the whole time -- even though I just (? just ?) wanted to practice moving and not sitting down for a whole day,  I figured I'd learn a lot by doing this.  And  learn a lot I did.

Like, 15 hours is a long time!  I mean, I knew that, but it didn't really sink in before that it meant that if I start moving at, say, 8:30 a.m., I'd have to keep going until almost midnight.   Also, as I started setting this up, I realized how hard it was for me to come up with interesting ways to keep myself moving, without totally wearing myself out.  With the help of a lot of really good friends, though, I count the "Motion Day" a success; the only times I sat down were to change shoes, do very private things, or paddle a canoe.

If you're interested in peeping at what my day looked like, here it is:
5:00 -- bike 6 miles  to Manheim
5:30 -- run 1 mile with my friend M,, then bike 6 miles home again
7:00 -- run 10 miles with my friend TL -- this was hard!
9:00 -- (cry, and) walk around the block eating bananas and chicken wings
            several times while the boys woke up and fed themselves
10:00 -- bike 7 miles to the  to the river with the boys,
11:00 -- go canoeing (2 miles, plus hauling the canoe on land to-and-from the water)
12:00 -- bike home
1:00 -- discover that my plan to swim 2.4 miles go awry when pool is *closed*.  Drat.
1:20 -- walk 3 miles down to County Park Pool with K-daughter and the boys, then walk 3.5 miles home
3:30 -- pull weeds to kill time (and to kill weeds)
4:00 -- bike 18-ish miles with my friend A.
5:30  -- do a few shopping* errands on the bike, probably about 6 miles
6:30 -- work in the garden: weeding, sifting compost, and adding 3 wheelbarrows of compost the garden
8:00 -- done!

Grand total: 
Running: 11 miles
Biking: 50-ish miles
Walking: 7+ miles
Swimming: Fail
Gardening and Puttering: Lots 

In addition to the exercise, I got to see many sights that make me love living in a place as diverse as Lancaster:
An Amish horsedrawn buggy
The Lancaster Gay Pride Festival
Latin music festival
A caravan of Harley Davison Motorcycles (drivers waved back at my sons)
A Model T Ford
Cows grazing in the luscious farmland
People dining al fresco at city sidewalk cafes
6-year-olds dancing in the Binns Park water fountain
And, of course, my FRIENDS!

* What does Miser Mom buy when she goes shopping?  a bag of popcorn kernels from the grocery store, and then a bottle of an unhealthy adult beverage from another store.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Pesto passion

It's mid-June, and my first ever garlic plants are coming up.  And if you pay careful attention, you can see there's a special treat available right now for all garlic growers:  Garlic Scapes.

If you look carefully at the garlic patch, you'll see these curly goose-necked creatures hidden among the leaves.  Those are the scapes.  My neighbor (who is an amazing gardener, so I'm totally trusting her on this) says that those will eventually straighten out and become tall, thick, and woody -- they'll be unsuitable for eating.  But now, while they're curly, they're really tender.  So I chopped off all my scapes.

Will this kill the garlic plants?  I don't know and I don't care, because now I have a handful of scapes and I'm ready to make this recipe I learned from my CSA several years ago.

Garlic Scape Pesto1/2 lb. organic scapes (chopped into 1" sections)
1 c. organic olive oil
2 c. grated parmesan cheese
In a blender, combine the scapes and olive oil. Pour mixture into bowl and blend the cheese in by hand.

The end result isn't at all basil-y (after all, there's no basil in it).  It's a bit creamy, like mayonaise or hummus. It's good enough to be the sole spread on a sandwich, in my G.L.O. (Garlic-Loving Opinion).  I make a lot of it at once, and then freeze the extra either in ice cube trays or in small canning jars.

In our case, the inaugural 2013 Garlic Scape Pesto batch made it into a pasta salad (with kale chips and a bit of turkey kielbasa thrown in as garnish).   And, as such, it didn't last long at all.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Summer Surprisingly Superb

Life is not a fairy tale, and people don't really live Happily Ever After (here on earth, at least).  But every once in a while, you get a glimpse of what life would be like if it were truly the Happily Ever After kind of life.

Like yesterday, for example.  Whooda thunk that the pieces could come together like this?  I woke my three at-home kids at ten minutes to six and they got up gladly, dressed and brushed their teeth, and then we zoomed our bicycles down to our local Rescue Mission to serve breakfast.  And instead of complaining about the earliness and the work and the heat, the kiddos bubbled over with happiness and declared to me, "Mom, we should do this every week."   Like, who's life is this, really?

After that, we biked over to the farmer's market where I picked up milk and kale, to general rejoicing.  (Yes, my teenage boys really did do the Kale Happy Dance.)  We biked home, and the weather turned even more glorious as the boys took themselves to tennis camp while I did math.

The afternoon swirled around through lunch, through reading time (mostly mine), parks and basketball (mostly the boys), friends (mostly K-daughter), and a vigorous round of swimming (all of us together).  After dinner with a surprise-and-very-welcome guest, the boys and I biked ebulliently to drum practice, where N-son's teacher took me aside to say earnestly, "Thank you for bringing N-son to work with me.  I get goosebumps all over when I hear him play."  (I love that drum teacher a lot, but I think he's even more hippie granola than I am).

After drums and the library, the boys chased fireflies and had the obligatory second dinner.  And then they begged to be allowed to go read their new library books.   Lovely.

A year ago, this would have been hard to imagine -- we were in the beginnings of some rough and stormy patches with C-son, and that particular story didn't end like a fairy tale.  It was a miserable time. And perhaps yesterday's golden haze shone more brightly in contrast to my memories of last year.

You know, it wasn't a Perfect day.  I did have to send N-son to his room for making "That Face" again; I left random piles of unfinished work in my wake; I missed waking up with my husband (who is at army summer training for two weeks).  And I know the whole world did not rejoice with me; somewhere in the mist of my happiness floats a bit of gloom over someone I am fond of who is facing a terrible illness, and someone whom I love fiercely who is bravely caring for him.  Not an all the way, entirely, 100% perfect day.

But even so, the day just sort of glowed.  A window into the world of glory.  A feeling to remember.  A lot, when I think about it, like what Happily Ever After might look like, if fairy tales could come true.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Capital investments, home-tool version

When my husband and I got married, I had a sewing machine and he didn't.
An eleven-year-old N-son uses
my thirty-year-old sewing machine

That's not a particularly telling fact, given our genders.  But it's possibly more telling that I had an electric drill, and he didn't.  I also owned a well-organized tool kit, including hammer, screwdrivers, wrenches, tape measure, and pliers, whereas he had  a box of miscellaneous tools.

Want to guess who owned the jig saw and the circular saw?  The plumbers' snake?  The pitchfork?  That would be me again.

We still both think it's funny that  I thought I was marrying a rich man.  Why did I think he was rich?  It was the way he spent money on things like clothes, food, and books, areas of the budget where I definitely scrimped.  Plus, I knew that he earned more money than I did.  What I hadn't quite realized at the time is that the way somebody spends (or invests) money is actually a much bigger insight into wealth than the amount that person earns.

In order to turn income into wealth, we have to make capital investments.  I've always thought of "capital" as "money".  If you'd looked at our money investments sixteen years ago, you'd have seen that my husband had a retirement account only half the size of mine, despite his having been in the workforce twenty years to my five.  He also had a small rolling amount of credit card debt but no emergency fund.  So on the "capital = money" side of things, he really wasn't a particularly wealthy guy after all.  (It's a good thing that his money wasn't the reason I married him!  And really, he's a terrific guy.  I feel more than a little yucky for sounding like I'm picking on him so much here).

A couple of books I've been reading lately have made me realize that money is only part of the building-wealth story, though.  "Capital" also means equipment and materials that can be put to productive use.  Indeed, the whole reason that Capitalism has been so influential (according to Heilbroner and Thurow) is that "the market system becomes an immense force for the accumulation of capital, mostly in the form of machinery and equipment."  A cloth manufacturer who gets investors to float some money for a new loom is going to be able to produce more cloth -- and therefore earn more money for everybody involved.   (Little plug here for lending money through Kiva -- you get to be part of "an immense force for the accumulation of capital").

And a person just starting out in life will build more long-term wealth by purchasing a good sewing machine than by buying a lot of clothes.  The former is a capital investment; the latter is just what Thorstein Veblen would call "conspicuous consumption" (a.k.a., showing off).  In the case of my husband, it wasn't even that --- it was entertainment.  Moving money out of his own pocket and into someone else's cash register --- well, that was a game that got rewarded with prizes of fun clothes, ready-made food, immediate gratification.

I'm fortunate that, for me, these tools are just as much fun as nice clothes are for my husband.  Actually, maybe they're even MORE  fun, because a sewing machine and a drill are so versatile, I can keep playing new games with them.  (Check out how I repaired some of my son's wooden train tracks with wooden beads and chopsticks!  Whoop!)

Train pieces with the knobs chewed off.  (Blame the dog?)

My drill, wooden beads, chopsticks, a bit of glue
fix everything right up.

I was thinking about the home-tool-variety of capital investments this past weekend as I purchased a $7 mower-blade sharpener for my drill.  I bought it new; I bought it full price -- not my standard op procedure.  But over the past few years I'd tried unsuccessfully to find a place that will sharpen blades cheaply, and a new blade runs $20 or more.   And so I decided that this recent purchase is like the $20 thermos that pays for itself in half a year -- buying a sharpener  that will save me $20 every couple of years is a darned good way to invest $7 of my money.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Clothes sorting day

The end of school has come and gone; the boys are home for the summer.  I've promised them lots of chores during these long, otherwise unstructured days; I figure if I keep my promise, they'll learn a lot; if I don't keep my promise, they won't mind.

Making shorts decisions.
Chores began in earnest yesterday.  Thursday was "Fashion Show Day", a day to sort clothes.  We dug through closets and storage bins and pulled out all their clothes, lugging them all into the dining room.   When I say "all their clothes", I really do mean ALL.

Then I sorted everything into piles by kind of clothing (coats, long-non-school pants, long school pants, etc.).  And then I brought in the boys to try things on and make some hard choices.

Kids' clothes have a way of multiplying; they're like the fluffy little Tribbles on Captain Kirk's ship:  they seem cute and harmless at first, but before you know it, they're everywhere.   The clothes seem to procreate in my son's closets.  Outfits in their dresser drawers start expanding, swelling to the point that drawers can't close all the way, and eventually exploding into scattered piles on the floor.  Piles of shirts and shorts seem to generate themselves spontaneously underfoot, behind the living room couch, in the corner of the dining room.  Even my own carefully tended storage closet seems to grow slowly denser and denser -- a stealth army of shorts and jackets silently occupying territory.
Two overflowing laundry baskets of clothes to give away.

So one major goal of the cleaning is culling the herd of clothing.  I set population limits and strictly enforced them.  For example, each boy got to choose his favorite seven t-shirts and five pairs of shorts to keep in his room.  They got to choose ten more t-shirts and pairs of shorts to store in the basement.  The rest, we donated.  We gave away huge amounts of clothes, some of which are too small, some of which are no longer loved, and many of which are redundant.

The mending basket, with notes to my forgetful self.

Major goal number two is knowing what I have so I can intelligently fill in the gaps during the summer while yard sale season is in full swing.  The boys have more t-shirts than they would need even if they were an entire football team.  And somehow we accidentally acquired/inherited/bred enough school shorts to last them until they are old enough to run for president.  But long-sleeved school shirts?  Those are a rarer beast.  So I'll pick up nice school shirts if I can find them cheap enough, but I'll steer clear of shorts.

For this reason, labeling boxes and bins as I go along is crucial.   Man, do I love labels!  For an absent-minded professor like me, they're like "external memory".  I keep a stack of pre-cycled paper (paper with one side blank, that is) and a dark magic marker to label piles, bins, baskets, and even individual clothes as I go along.  With so many piles, it's just too easy to forget what's what.

 I label individual clothes that need mending.  I label boxes with what's inside them.  And when everything is sorted, I go through the boxes and make counts of what's inside, so I know what kinds and sizes of clothes I need to scout around for.  And I know what NOT to shop for, too (dang, how did we wind up with so many pairs of school shorts?)
Keeping a record of what clothes we have,
and therefore what areas of the wardrobe are running thin.

This, I won't kid myself, is a lot of work.  It took us probably two or three hours, including carrying baskets, trying things on, and cajoling and threats.  We took breaks to meet a friend, and another break for some yummy homemade granola snacks.   But  the work is behind us now and the clean, well-labeled storage area is smiling out at me at last.

The boys have relatively spacious closets and dressers.  The clothes are ready to go forth and multiply once again.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Get Over Yourself (or, Liberal praise for a Conservative approach to clothes)

I don't actually think I'm a space alien.  I'm pretty sure if you saw me, you wouldn't immediately peg me as belonging some utterly unusual culture or special tradition, the way you might instantly pick out the Amish who live in my county as being unlike yourself.

But when it comes to buying and wearing clothes, I do often feel like a Martian among Earthlings.  I'm the alien observer, the visitor from some other planet.  I have a hard time following ordinary conversations about shopping and dressing.   My best friends all know this.  So when they talk about clothes, they do the important part of their talk among themselves, and they only bring me into the conversation at the end, once the business part of the conversation is out of the way.  After all, who wants to hand over urgent Earthly matters to a Martian?

Case in point: a recent conversation about wearing bathing suits.  This was a discussion between my running buddies TL and K, and I just happened to be there for the conversation because, well, because we were running together.  I was there, but mostly I wasn't talking because of two reasons: one reason is the whole "what exactly do you say?" problem  I have with normal clothes conversations, and the second is that TL and K are way better at running up hills, which is what we happened to be doing at the time (if you can call what I was doing on that hill 'running', which is another matter.)

So I got to be the alien observer.  The gist of the conversation happened to be that K had bought a swim suit that either had or didn't have a butt-skirt (I forget which way it went), and she was having a difficult time wearing it to the pool with her kids.  The difficulty she had was because of how she looks in it.  (Please remember that K is beating me up this mile-long hill as she says this; she's an incredibly fit person who is worried about how she looks in a swim suit).

TL (who is likewise bounding, gazelle-like, up this hill) commiserates.  There is much discussion of how a suit looks on us, of how we feel about how our suit looks, about our need to accept our bodies (or our swim suit styles? I forget), and of coming to terms with appearances and such.  I couldn't take notes, so I don't remember it all, but if you're an Earthling I'm sure you can fill in the details.

We got to the top of that evil Duke-Street-hill about the same time that TL and K seem to have achieved some kind of resolution.  At this point, it was okay to bring in the Martian perspective, so TL turned to me and say, "And what about you?  You always  have a different take on this kind of question.  Do you like how you look in your bathing suit?"

What does the Martian think?  The Martian thinks they're asking the wrong question.

Here's the question the Miser Mom Martian thinks about:  why am I wearing the swim suit?

Sometimes, it's to accomplish a particular task (for example, getting in a swim workout).  In that case, what I think about is how well the suit fits and how well it lets me do my workout.

The other reason to wear a swim suit -- the big cultural reason -- is to show respect for the people and the circumstances around me.  That is, when I go to the pool with my kids, I wear a swimsuit to respect the pool tradition.  In my head, it's not about me, it's about the other swimmers and sun bathers.  And if I'm wearing a suit that respects local conventions, then I don't have to worry about myself; I can think about everything else:  my kids, the people around me, swimming, conversations, etc.

Mariah Carey wore her ball gown to the pool,
but that was a special occasion (her fifth wedding anniversary).
Here's another way to think about it.  I may or may not "look good" in a swim suit; I may or may not look good in a ball gown as well.  But I wouldn't wear a swim suit to a fancy dinner, and I wouldn't wear a ball gown to the pool.  The reason for the clothes is the event, not my own body.  Said another way, it's not about me; it's about the occasion.  That's actually a very liberating way to dress.

Maybe because I read so many old novels and devoured Miss Manners etiquette columns as a kid, I tend to think in old-fashioned ways about the role of costuming.  (My clothes are funky and a bit eccentric, but my thinking about them is old and crusty).  One hundred years or so ago, we didn't talk so much about self-expression and personal freedoms.  Our language and our society in those days focused much more on the collective.  It's only very recently that we've come to think our clothes define us, rather than thinking that our clothes are a tool for binding us more closely to the social fabric.  And --- as the conversation between  TL and K shows --- I don't think that the change has necessarily made us happier.

My husband heard the first part of this post and asked me, "So, what does that mean about the swim suit?  Should she wear the suit with the butt-skirt or not?"  Bzzzt!  Wrong question again!  The clothes decision goes like this:  "I'm taking my kids to the pool so that we can have fun together and with other people at the pool.  What clothes will allow me to do that?"   The answer will depend on community standards and tradition (does this more-or-less match what other people might wear?)  and also on functionality and fit (does the suit allow me to move around on deck and in the pool?).

After that, the best way to look good in your suit is to stop caring about how you look, but instead to enjoy the pool and the people around you.  

Monday, June 3, 2013

4 hot dogs and 51 miles

This post has nothing deep, just two little tidbits of progress and happy news.

Hot dog!
The first tidbit is that we've heard updates from the orphanage in Haiti where our someday-to-be son is staying.  They say,
. . . he is a very polite, delightful, helpful young man.  We are very impressed!  And he can EAT!  Lol.  I think he had 4 hotdogs last night. ;)
Since we were worried last month about his going for days with no food, we're now relieved to hear that he's getting enough (and even that "enough" means "a lot" -- he'll fit right in with the rest of the family).

Bicycle Bragging
The second tidbit is that triathalon training is proceeding apace.  On Saturday, I did my longest ride so far in my life -- 51 miles, on an organized ride through our rolling farmlands.  And then Sunday, I went out for a jaunty little 22-mile ride.  That IronMan?  I think I'm going to be able to do it!
My friend saw me and my husband riding along, right about here (on Indiantown Road),
and she made this "commemorative" for me.  Isn't that sweet?

I could pretend that I'm totally awesome for finishing the 51-mile distance in a mere 3.5 hours.  (And in my head, I'm definitely thinking whoop! whoop! I did it!).  But full disclosure means I should admit that I was riding in the midst of total amateurs who were way faster and stronger than I was.  Even the nearly-spherical man in the floppy green t-shirt was faster than I was --- he rode up the 1-mile long hill away from me, and I couldn't have caught him even if I tried.

And in some backward sense, this gives me even more reason to think I'll be fine on the triathalon.  These guys who looked like they spent more time on a couch than on a cycle were just zoomin' along.   So if I just keep practicing on the bike, but I hammer the running again, I figure I'll be okay.  (Maybe?)