Saturday, July 30, 2016

When people ask me for money, I . . .

I spend a lot of my financial thinking time thinking about getting a good portion of my family's money out of our hands and into the hands of others who can use it.  I've written in a bunch of different places about donating money, belongings, and time (sometimes, even body parts) to charitable organizations.

It's not surprising, therefore, that we get a lot of requests from charitable organizations.  Actually, what does surprise me is how seldom I get requests for money from people I know.  I've been serving breakfast at a nearby homeless shelter one morning a week for about a year now.  Not one person has hinted at money -- I've loaned one person a book; I loaned one volunteer a cloth bag (to bring home spare bagels); and another guy (who got out and moved away) calls me once a week just to chat about life.  But not one money request.
Funny side story:  A friend of mine from work, whose son goes to the same Quaker Local School that my sons went to, asked my husband if I was going to go to the school's benefit auction.  "C'mon, she's gotta go," my work-friend urged him.  "These Quakers are frugal; they're her kind of people!".   My husband laughed his head off:  "These Quakers drive their kids to school in SUVs, and their kids all have the latest iPhones! They're not Miser Mom's people!"  And no, I didn't go to the auction to buy artwork (etc) I don't need, but mostly because I hate buying stuff.  So, apparently, auctions are the wrong way to ask me to help with a charity!
Occasionally I get funding pleas from distant family members or former students of mine who are taking on an activity for charity.  My ex-aunt-in-law, who is a wonderful person, did a cross-country ski thing to raise money for cancer research; an alum of mine grew his mustache in Movember for a similar cause.  In general, if I think the cause is one that I don't find objectionable, I'll go ahead and donate $25-$50 to the charity they're promoting.  I like hearing from my distant aunts and from my former students, and if this is what it takes . . . well, I know the College I work at asks them for money, so I don't mind setting a good example while simultaneously bribing them to write to me.

But of course sometimes I get hard-luck stories from people I know, and a couple of times a year we'll get requests from kids from church who are trying to raise money to go on missions trips. I've been reading blog posts lately regarding some new (to me) phenomenon called "GoFundMe", and good timing, because earlier this summer I just got my first GFM request.

Hard-luck stories: it took me a while to come up with a good response to them.  For example, I knew a woman who I'll call "Beverly".  She'd been in and out depression (even going to a hospital for a while).  She stayed at our home for a week or so after one hospital visit, not because she was homeless but just because she didn't want to be alone.  She got so far behind in her various payments that she was afraid to open her mail or answer her phone, because it was always creditors or other bad news.  But she (mostly) had the money to pay for her debts (mostly, not entirely).

When Beverly moved back into her apartment, rather than give her money to pay her bills, I went two or three times to just sit with her while she sorted mail.  I'd open the envelopes and put things into piles.   She paid bills online, if she could, or create an IOU pile if she couldn't.  I was just the calm, non-anxious presence, and she really needed that.

That was years ago.  I most recently saw Beverly at the homeless shelter where I serve breakfast.  She'd lost her apartment and was now living at the shelter.  She eventually had to leave the shelter, too -- I don't know where she is now.  I don't know how much my sitting with her all those years ago helped (if it helped at all), but I know that money wouldn't have made a difference.

So.  I got my first GoFundMe request, this one from a former student, a student whom I will call "Pat".  Pat and Pat's twin sibling (raised by a single parent) have a pile o' student debt.  Pat is interested, long-term, into going into grad school, but in the meanwhile, wants to go work overseas at an "underfunded school" in a region of the world that is very much related to Pat's intended grad work.  There's very little money to go around in the family; does anyone want to help?

I've never asked my former professors (and other internet-connected people) for money; but I have gotten travel grants that helped me early on in my career.  And I had parents who put me through college without any debt.  So I don't at all sneer at Pat for asking for money or think that I'm better because I wouldn't do the same myself.  On the other hand, since I'm not going to open my wallet, how can I support this young scholar?

For what it's worth, here's what I wrote, deciding to share advising and philosophy as opposed to sharing cash:
What a wonderful adventure lies ahead of you!  You have a good heart, and I think you're right that this could be terrific for you, both in terms of your professional but also in terms of expanding your own views.

So, the bad news is that my husband and I have a policy of not giving money to people going on trips.  (For example, we sponsor children in other countries, but we don't pay for people who go on missions trips to those countries).  

On the other hand, I'd love to help you achieve all these goals.  It turns out, I'm particularly good at figuring out how to do big things on a little bit of money.  When my husband and I got married, I "inherited" his huge financial obligations.  Somehow in spite of all this, we got things under control and managed to get to the point where we could pay off our home early, adopt a bunch of kids, get multiple kids through college with little-to-no debt, and set my husband up for early retirement.

SO . . . if you'd like some advice on how to frugalize your life, advice that might make the upcoming trip less expensive but that might also help you financially through the rest of your life, I'd be happy to offer that.  Ooh, and books.

Are you likely to be in [our town] any time between now and [the day of your trip]?  If so, I'd love to have you come over for lunch or dinner. 

If Pat hadn't written back, I would have been okay with leaving the conversation there.  But Pat did write back, with this message:
Hi Professor!!
Thank you for your kind words. They are very encouraging, as you always are.
All that you are offering sounds great! I would love advice and books and a meal. I'll let you know when I'll be in town, because I definitely will be.
And that's how Pat and I got together earlier this week. We would have had quiche, except that Miser Dog ate it first, while we were touring the garden (dang that sneaky Miser Dog!)  So we had homemade bread with store-bought peanut butter, plus homemade salsa and peaches from our tree.  I got to hear updates on Pat's very interesting life, and I got to load this former student of mine down with a few more books (the Tightwad Gazette and Your Money or Your Life).

What people ask for, it's not always what they actually need.  I'm so glad, though, that people ask.  Because the request gives me a chance to connect and reconnect with people, to share a bit of my own life and my own interests, but also to hear more about theirs.

But Miser Dog, man, he's got some 'splaining to do about that quiche.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

How I made my own Adirondack chairs, in 113 easy steps

Step 1.  Take apart an old fence with your son.  Save the boards.  

If you have the choice between stabbing yourself with a rusty nail while you disassemble your fence, or not stabbing yourself with a rusty nail, I can say I've experimented with this choice, and I'd favor "not".  But y'know, if you do go with the self-stabbing, then steps 2--6 involve washing the wound, bandaging the wound, checking medical records to see when your last TDAP vaccination happened, reading medical websites obsessively, and possibly getting a tetanus booster.

Step 7. Go over the boards again and double-check that all the nails are truly out.

Step 8.  Inspect the boards for nails again, one more time, because hey, it's faster than repeating steps 2--6.

Step 9.  Locate an Adirondack chair that you like.

Steps 10-12.  Steal it.  Or at least, borrow it.  I loaded a chair from our college green onto our garden cart (step 10), bungee corded it onto the cart (11), and wheeled it home (12).

Step 13.  Confess.  Right after I got this chair home, I got a call from our campus public safety office.  Guilt!!!!  I confessed to taking the chair and promised I'd bring it back in two days.  It turns out, they were just calling me because I'm the advisor to our campus Inter-varsity Christian Fellowship, and they knew somebody who wanted to get involved.  But the officer who I confessed to offered to write me a ticket and/or lock me up, if that made me feel better.  I just promised I'd bring the chair back in two or three days, and the officer agreed that sounded more practical.  I love my campus public safety officers!

Step 14-16.  Make a template for the leg braces using newspaper.  This is pretty easy if you (14) spray the leg with water so the newspaper sticks, (15) smooth the newspaper out along the leg, and (16) use scissors to cut the newspaper to size.

Step 17.  Lay the newspaper template down on a former fence board and trace the outline with a pencil.  My dad says a pencil always lasts him about 5 minutes in the workshop before he loses it; if he has 30 minutes to work on a project, he'll bring 6 pencils along with him.   Me, I seem to be much more fortunate in hanging on to my good old #2's.

Steps 18-21.  Begin cutting out the leg brace with your jigsaw (18), and then (19) bike on over to the hardware store to buy new jigsaw blades because the only one you have is so #@$ dull it's driving you crazy and then (20) put in the new blades which are better and then (21) finish cutting out that first leg.

Doing this project, which requires a lot of jigsaw work because of all the curves, really made me appreciate my circular saw, which just tears through stuff quickly and noisily (even through extension cords, although I'm getting a bit ahead of myself).  Jigsaws, in contrast, are painfully slow and require a bunch of arm muscle.  All this cutting and lifting and pushing was fabulous work to do in a heat wave (and I mean that; I really love getting a good honest sweat going.   I know most people hate/fear this heat wave we've been having, but I've been reveling in it.)

Step 22.  Check that the leg brace we just cut out really matches the original.  phew! It did!

Steps 23-27.  Use this leg as a template for other leg braces (a wood template is sturdier than newspaper), and then cut out five more legs.  Did I mention that I wanted to make three different chairs?  So six leg braces total.

Steps 28-34 involve making  newspaper templates, tracing the onto pieces of wood, and jigsaw cutting of the six remaining curved pieces, two for each chair.   The other curved pieces of an Adirondack chair are the back support braces behind the seat, the ones that hold the back slats in place.



The rest of the pieces are basically straight (so yay! I can cut them with the circular saw).  Steps 35-38 involve measuring the front legs, the chair slats, the back slats, and the armrests.  Steps 39-42 involve measuring them all again, just to be sure, because measure twice, cut once, and all that.  Plus, my measuring assistant really liked playing with the retractible measuring tape -- and who doesn't?  Measuring tapes are fascinating!


Steps 43-60something (what the heck, I'll say step "67"; I'm losing count here) are to zoom through these pieces with a circular saw.  The arms require a bit of tapering of corners, but the circular saw still works for that job.  At this point, I started to really just "flow" with the work.  No agonizing or decisions required, just pick up the next piece of wood and buzz it to the right length.  This was where the true fun began.
When I was done cutting everything up, I just had a bunch of piles of wood, not very impressive.  It certainly didn't look like enough for a chair, much less three chairs.  But just wait!  It's going to work, you'll see!

If using a circular saw is fun compared to using a jigsaw, using the drill is the bomb.  Wow.  There is just something really, really satisfying about seeing all these pieces come together.  In my head, I was grokking to Bloom's Taxonomy of Knowledge, thinking "I've just done analysis (separating things into their components), and now I'm doing synthesis."   I love Bloom's taxonomy.  

Steps 68-71:  Assemble the seats.  Lay the seat boards down on the leg braces (68), add spacers so everything is even (69), drill holes (70), screw everything together (71).   Steps 72-75 are to do the same thing for the seat backs.

On the first chair I made, I added the front legs before connecting the seat and the back, but on subsequent chairs, I decided this was the wrong order.  So I'd suggest this instead (which worked well on the second and third chairs):  Steps 76-78:  attach the back to the leg braces (position the seat, drill holes, screw things together.

Then attach the armrests to the back, which is like 6 additional steps because getting the screws in deep enough requires making insets with several different drill bits and also a search for a long screwdriver plus taking a bit of a break for cold water because at this point with things going so well, you don't really want to let exhaustion and tiredness cause you to make a stupid or hasty mistake.  

Step 85: Breathe a little.  All is good.

Step 86:  Lay the chair on its side.  Step 87: prop up the legs under the chair so they fit right up against the armrest.  Steps 88-89: drill holes and insert screws into leg braces.   Steps 90-92: Stand the chair up, and drill holes, and insert screws to attach armrests to the legs.  Steps 93-99: repeat on the other side.  Done!




100. Oops.  Except on chair #1 (which is actually a love seat; is that cool or what!?!) I realized I'd cut the upper back brace at the wrong angle.  You know that something is going to go wrong on a multi-step project like this, and it turned out that this one little angle-thingie was the part destined to get me scratching my head.  So I did a bit of futzing and realized that my jigsaw actually allows me to set angles (cool!  How did I not know this before?) and redid the back braces on the next two chairs before I attached them.  More laborious jigsaw work (huff, puff, steps 101-107, maybe).  And then (step 108) a quick trim with the circular saw -- a little too quick because I also trimmed the electrical extension cord.
Whoops!  Need to angle the cut on that back brace,
so it matches up with the arm rests better.
Note the wheel on the front leg -- fab!

As long as we were out getting a new electrical cord (step 109), I decided to also get wheels for the front legs.  Because Adironack Chairs on wheels are just way too cool for words.  yes?  yes?  Step 110, 111, and 112:  trim the legs to the right new length (circular saw back in action), mark the holes and drill them, and then screw the wheels to the legs. 

But after all this fun, voila!  An Adirondack Love seat!  And a pair of Adirondack Chairs!

An Adirondack love seat.


An Adirondack Chair
(with the other chair and love seat in the background,
beyond the mulch pile).
My uncle saw pictures of the love seat and wrote, "Congrats on building the Adirondack chairs. They're interesting, and have just a hint of medieval torture in their looks." I think he means that in a good way.

Finally, step 113:  Return the stolen borrowed chair to campus, or rather, have my sons do it.

The cost of these chairs?  $24 for the wheels, $20 for a set of three new-to-us extension cords (snagged off of Craigslist), $8 for a set of jigsaw blades, and $1 for borrowed chair transportation.  The screws,  I had leftover from a previous project, so essentially $0.  That's $53 for a set of chairs that are, if I say so myself, full of character, plus a weekend of incredible woodworking fun.


Sunday, July 24, 2016

Recognizing problems for pay

Picking up where my last post left off . . . we're no longer doing "allowance" in my home, we're paying the boys to recognize problems and solve them.

N-son, at 17 months, putting dirty
shirts down the laundry chute.
A bit of a set-up for this: my sons are 16 and 17, and they're starting to get jobs outside the home.  They've always done chores around the house -- N-son put his own laundry down the laundry chute even before he could talk, and he helped empty the dishwasher (putting away silverware) by the time he was 2.  Nowadays the boys are in charge of vacuuming, feeding the dog, making dinner once a week, cleaning bathrooms, mowing the lawn, and more.  We've worked hard to teach them how to be helpful, and somehow, happily, all that work we did getting them to work . . . it worked.

So.

But if the boys are good at doing everything we ask them to do, what they're not good at is doing what we don't ask them to do.  That is, most tasks around the home are sort of invisible to the boys, until we point the tasks out.  The lawn getting long?  It'll get longer and longer until one of the parents makes noise.  Dog hair and food all over the dining room rug?  Science experiments will spontaneously get underway in the carpet, unless a parent directly mandates that the vacuum cleaner make an appearance.

I have a friend who works for our college's Facilities and Operations department, who supervises a bunch of college students who are summer workers.  He tells me they're like my sons: he calls these students "work amplifiers".  He says, "If I'm doing work and they're with me, then work gets done about 60% faster.   They amplify the amount of work I get done. But once they're out of my sight, they sit on their butts and do nothing, because they have no idea what they're supposed to do.   I have to spell everything out for them, even if I already explained it the day before."

This is not what I want for my sons.  I'm ready for an alternative.

My friend TL has been reading a book on raising kids who are financially not-spoiled, and she liked it so much she decided to have a book group discussion about it.  One of the short digressions in the book led me to a blog post by a dad named Jake Johnson who decided to pay his son to be an entrepreneur.   The post, which he wrote in 2013, went viral -- there's a retrospective in the New York Times at this link.

I'm not a fan of the title "entrepreneur" -- actually, I think it's that I am not a fan of nouns and titles in general.  But I loved the verbs he used:  he wrote,
In our house, you get paid for recognizing a problem and proposing a solution. I've taught Liam that if he wants to make money, he has to pay attention to the world around him, identify a problem that needs fixing, and propose a solution.  We then negotiate a payment.
What great verbs.  Recognize.  Pay attention.  Identify.  Propose.  Negotiate. These are great ways to navigate the world.  I want to turn my sons' heads in this direction.

One of the dangers of any system of monetary rewards I use is that my rewards tend to be so low that other people thwart my system.  My husband, especially, is prone to impetuously throw money at the boys because . . . well, because they don't have much money.  But fortunately, this system seems to work well through my husband's lenses, too.  If the boys are running low on cash and they've been sitting on the couch all day, surfing their phones, . . . well, there is money hanging from the branches of the bushes that need to be trimmed, money growing out of the ground with the weeds that need to be pulled, money sliming up the walls of the hallway that could use a good scrubbing.  All the boys have to do is put down their phones, open their eyes, and grease up their elbows.

So two weeks ago, we sat down with our boys and told them the allowance journal days are over, for now.  The boys will still have to do household chores, and they still won't get paid for regular household work.  But if they notice a problem area in the house and suggest/follow-through on fixing it, and if they do it before I make them do it, then they get paid.  On the other hand, if that problem bugs me enough that I make the boys do it before they notice it gets bad, they do it for free.  Being proactive pays.

The flip side, I told them, is that from now on they pay for all their clothes themselves, plus sports and musical equipment.  It's time for them to start learning that side of the earn/spend financial world.

I have a giant list of things that will eventually need to get fixed and/or cleaned up around the house, and I used this list as a "for example" spreadsheet to get the boys started.  They both asked for, and got, photocopies of this list.  I also suggested that, all other things being equal, a rule of thumb would be to think of an hour of work as being roughly $5 (that's like minimum wage, minus taxes, rounded off to make it easy to calculate).  Tasks that require more skill would likely get more money.

Then I off-handedly suggested something that turned out to be the golden halo of awesomeness, as far as the boys were concerned.  I said, "you don't have to negotiate for money.  You could offer to do a chore in exchange for getting to keep your phone for a night or two instead."  Little did I expect that that would be the biggest draw.  For example, J-son took out a big bush from the front yard that needed to come down; we agreed that in exchange, I'd give him $5 and two nights of having the phone in his room, subject to good behavior.
[Our long-standing practice with these phone-addicted boys is that they turn in their phones to us before bedtime, and we charge the phones overnight.  This has worked incredibly well at making sure the phones aren't lost, broken, or being used for all-night video gaming.  But the boys -- particularly J-son -- would like to be able to use the phone for music and as a wake-up alarm.  We're cautiously experimenting with allowing this.]

This is clearly going to be a long-term endeavor.  Changing my sons' mindsets isn't happening overnight, in the same way that teaching them to do chores in the first place took more effort (initially) than doing it myself.  I'm doing a bunch of suggesting problems to them that I think they ought to recognize.  So far, I'm not finding myself going broke because of all the money projects the boys are throwing themselves into.

Here's what they've done so far in the two weeks we've been in this system:

  • J-son:  sawed down a bush, trimmed bushes, fixed a sideboard from our grill, washed the car with N-son, carried a chair back to campus with N-son.
  • N-son: peeled 80 lbs of bananas and placed them on trays for freezing, washed the car with J-son, carried a chair back to campus with J-son. 
All of these are jobs that I proposed they ought to recognize, not ones that they recognized on their own, but it's a start.  I think I'm down $16 and four nights of phone use -- compared to $20 of allowance money that I would have forked over for the same time period.  And I'm up a bunch of help around the house.  So selfishly, I'm ahead.  But I'm looking forward to the days when the boys catch fire with this system, and start genuinely seeking out ways to be a help, even before I ask.  A year or so from now, I'll let you know how it goes.






Friday, July 22, 2016

Giving money to my sons

As my family has grown and morphed, I've transferred family wealth from parent to child in a variety of ways. We're currently in the process of transitioning to yet another scheme that will allow my sons to get their itchy hands on my hard-earned dollars, and I'm looking forward to seeing how this new scheme works.  (Early indications are hopeful).

Our early money lessons came in the form of "Mommy Dollars".  I just can't sing the praises of those Mommy-Dollar-Days enough.  In fact, just recently my 16- and 17-year old sons were sighing nostalgically and suggesting that maybe we ought to bring Mommy Dollars back.

I don't really think these guys actually want to carry purple, orange, and neon green currency around on their oh-so-cool persons, but I understand the nostalgia.  From their point of view, Mommy Dollars was almost as compelling as video games.  They got paid every day!  They got to carry tokens around in their hands!  They got nearly instant feedback on daily activities:  finish homework?  earn $20!  leave socks on the floor?  lose $5!  And the money that they got to carry around was like score cards, score cards that they could use to compare themselves to the day before, or to their brother.  They learned the importance of wallets, of not leaving money in your pockets when you put your pants down the laundry, and whenever they had the discipline to save instead of spend for a little while, they got their first taste of having wealth.  There's nothing like carrying several hundred dollars around in your pocket to make you feel like you're something, even if the dollars are the colors of popsicles and have the pictures of dogs and big sisters on them.

And from my more manipulative point of view, Mommy Dollars allowed me to retain control of their financial education.  Every dollar they earned, they earned from me.  Every dollar they spent, they spent with me or with each other.  This meant my money lessons couldn't be thwarted by well-intentioned relatives who would spontaneously shower the kids with real money.  It meant that I got to give them daily lessons in basic applied arithmetic, that I got to introduce them to important concepts like the difference between "rent" and "deposit".  Because of the "auctions" we held over deeply emotionally charged aspects of life (like, who gets to hold the TV remote this time, or who gets to put the napkins on the table, or who gets to wear the Bling Watch --- meaningful stuff, here!), they learned a healthy life-long appreciation for how easy it is to get carried away in financial bidding.

Eventually, though, the larger world beckoned, and Mommy Dollars declined in value.  So we switched away from our nightly payment of Mommy Dollar earnings, and moved to a weekly allowance of US dollars.

But the financial lessons also progressed to a new level.  For the past year or so, the boys have had to keep an "allowance journal", each week writing down three things:
  • Where their past money actually went in the previous week.
  • What they plan to do with their next allowance for the upcoming week.
  • Their current savings balance.
That's all: reflection, anticipation, and a tally. In the "plan/anticipation" category, I've required them to be specific: more than saying "give $1, save $2, spend $2", I want to know what they think they might spend the money on. (And oh, yeah, my sons rock an allowance of $5/week. Because I am MiserMom, and that's all they're gonna get from me.)

Needless to say, the allowance journal is not as much fun as Mommy Dollars. But the boys really have learned a lot from it. J-son is the impulse spender; he's the one most likely to vow to save all his money, and then to blow it all a half-hour after it gets into his hands.  He'll even ask me to hold it for him so he doesn't get tempted . . . and then an hour later, he comes back to me to ask for the money so he can go to the convenience store with his friends.  He hasn't curbed his impulses at all, but the weekly practice of reflecting on his impulses has started to convince him that "just this once" isn't really just once.  He can laugh along with me when he says, "I just need this one more pair of shoes, and then I won't need to buy anything more".  Because "just this once" is really "just this hundred times" with him, and now he knows it.

Especially now that he has a paying job (working for his boxing coach),  J-son is getting savvier about putting fences around his money so that he's less tempted to spend it.  For example, now that he has a checking account with a debit card, and now that his debit card has gotten wear and tear from some serious action for the past few months, he's asked me to file away his debit card in my sewing room for him.  

And N-son?  He's not at all as drawn to hitting the stores.  He's steadily split his allowance between charity, saving, and a pittance of candy money, and so even without an outside paying job, he's managed to accumulate a few hundred dollars in his savings account.  He doesn't like keeping track of his money, which meant that one day this month he woke up to discover what he hadn't realized before: he's rich.   Having actual wealth is a motivator, that's for sure.  N-son had been a bit (well, more than a bit) jealous of all of J-son's toys . . . but, dang, N-son's got the bucks.  That's a cure for jealousy, right there.

But, as with Mommy Dollars, so with Allowance Journals.  Lessons have already been learned, and new lessons beckon.

We are moving into a new realm of wealth transfer:  "Recognize Problems and Propose Solutions".  (Shoot; I really need to come up with a better name for this system;  RPaPS is a miserable acronym).  
But this post is long enough.  I'll think of a better name for this baby and write more later.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Getting our money's worth from medical insurance, unfortunately

Professors often complain among ourselves that college is one of those few things that people pay a lot of money for, that they're happy to get less than they paid for.  My students, taking my math class that costs thousands upon thousands of dollars, are always thrilled when I cancel a class.  And of course, there are many students who skip class for a variety of reasons -- when students do miss class, it's seen as an offense against me (the professor who is getting paid to teach), not as a loss to the students (who are paying for the amazing opportunity to be in the same room with me).

But of course, there are other arenas where we're all happy to get less than what we paid for.  Medical insurance is one of those expenses that I'd be happy to plunk down money for and then not take advantage of the benefits. Unfortunately, recently our family has been getting our money's worth from our medical insurance company.

I'm usually the one who is the specimen of health, so this year's bouts with anxiety and heartburn are unusual (not to mention, I must admit, a bit of an ego issue).  Fortunately for both my body and my foolish pride, I'm coming off of both anxiety and heartburn medications and returning to the realm of specimen-worthiness.

Well, except for punching a rusty nail.  Better to drink one than to get stabbed by one, is my new motto.  And so let me just say how wonderful it is to live in an chronological era and a political/geographic region where

  • I get tetanus (TDAP) vaccinations every 10 years, and
  • I got my last tetanus vaccination in 2007, and
  • the internet is available to let me know what to do when I do lose a fight with a rusty nail, and
  • I can bike on over to my doctor for a tetanus booster, which I need since my vaccination was after 2006 and before 2011.
So, internet and regular doctor -- that's our first visit.

But also, these newfangled Urgent Care locations have come in handy. My husband got sprayed in the face with pesticide as he was biking through farmland, and it freaked him out. Since the doctors' offices were closed, he went to an Urgent Care Center where, for $30, they looked him over, reassured him that his eyes have not been damaged by the spray, and sent him home a calmer man.

So, Urgent Care: that's our second visit.

The third (and final, we hope!) medical encounter of the week came when N-son lost a battle with the lid of a tuna can.  He got a pretty severe gash in his hand, and it was clear he was going to need stitches -- but when I told him this, he freaked out.  And I realized, this kid has never had stitches before; his last visit to a hospital was seeing his dad there after a bike crash in 2007.  What N-son remembers about that visit is that his dad had broken his neck (fortunately, not paralyzed!), but I think the part that was traumatic was that his dad's face had been banged up, to the point of needing a plastic surgeon.  So when N-son saw his dad, his dad looked a bit like Frankenstein, with a bruised face full of stitches.  Ewwwwww.

Needless to say, N-son did not want that kind of medical attention.  But the tunafish lid had gotten the upper hand, so to speak; his palm was a mess, and the urgent care centers were closed, so I took this extremely nervous kid to the emergency room of our nearest hospital.  I explained beforehand we'd spend the majority of our time filling out paperwork and waiting, and I reassured him repeatedly that I'd be with him the whole time, letting him hold my hand (but not the hand with the rusty nail puncture, because ow).   We have a picture of the stitches below -- don't scroll down too far if you don't like that kind of thing.

At any rate, we made it through the stitches, and I was actually glad N-son had this experience, because now he'll know not to fear it in the future.  I had told him, "Yes, you're scared, because you don't know what to expect.  But after you get the stitches, you'll realize it's not that big a deal."  And, thanks to the miracles of modern painkillers and sterile environments and well-trained medical staff, all went exactly as predicted (even the paperwork and waiting parts, of course).  N-son describes his experience this way:
I was scared at first.  I thought it was going to hurt.  And then it wasn't really that bad. My advice is, not to look at it when the doctor is sewing.  

At any rate, although I'm incredibly grateful that we've been able to rely on an abundance of wonderful medical expertise, I'll be glad if the upcoming year has us paying insurance for medical care that we don't really end up using at all.






Saturday, July 16, 2016

I just can't pear it anymore!

Good-bye, pear tree!

Last summer, I wrote about how tricky it is to harvest pears; they're finicky about ripening.  Our pear tree itself has grown massive, shading our garden, dangling its pears several stories above our heads, and producing fruit that alternates between hard green rocks and brown slime balls.

Since we had other tree issues as well -- our maple tree (the one that holds our adored tree house) has branches that have been scraping the roof of the house -- we got a few estimates for tree trimming (maple) and tree removal (pear).  I mean, when I got this tree, I *loved* the idea of a pear tree in the abstract, but the reality has been less than romantic nine-ladies-dancing, in spite of the fact that my true love gave it to me.

Tree work is expensive.  I wasn't too surprised when the four-figure estimates started rolling in. We found a tree company that we liked and offered them the job . . . and then waited until they could work us into their queue.  Estimated wait time: four to five weeks.

And then we lucked out.  If you look at the very right edge of the picture above, across the alley you'll see the bark of a tree that belongs to our neighbors.  Or rather, I should say belonged, because the tree died in place, and the neighbors decided they needed to take it down.  Yesterday, I woke up to the sound of heavy machinery (cranes, chipper/shredders, and chain saws), and by the end of the day their tree was safely horizontal instead of dangerously vertical.

But while the tree crew was out there, a whole bunch of other neighbors (including me) started mobbing the crew, asking them for quotes on our own trees.  ("As long as you're here, how much would it be . . . ?").    And the crew very gladly took down a bunch of other trees, as well as trimming quite a few more.

The crane that worked on trimming
our maple tree.
Its feet stick out like a water bug.
Tree crews are just really fun to watch.  There are people high up in the air, in cranes, wielding chainsaws and ropes with pulleys, yelling lumber-jack-y things at one another.  The limbs come down bit by bit, sometimes dropping directly down, sometimes being lowered by ropes attached to pulleys that swing around other limbs.

Down on the ground are the kinds of trucks that my sisters and I loved to play with (in Tonka versions) in our own dirt piles, when we were kids. My favorite was a little beast that looked like a cross between a bull-dozer and a pair of giant salad tongs:  its job was to troll across the yard, scoop up branches, and haul them back to the chipper-shredder.

And just like painting a room, the real work in tree trimming and cutting isn't in the painting or trimming; it's in the set-up and clean up.   Getting all these amazing machines in place must be an amazing feat of scheduling in the first place.

Which is why I wasn't too surprised at the high price estimate when we started scoping out tree work, and why I jumped at the chance to grab this crew while they were already set up -- we'll end up paying only about half of what we'd have paid if the other crew had come around.  It's not everyday you can find a way to spend $500 less than you'd planned, just by running out in your back yard and waving your arms at workers in hard hats.

So the pear tree came down, and by the time I grabbed my camera, it was already being winched along the ground to the chipper/shredder.  In this picture below, the top of the pear tree looks like a bush just beyond the garage.
But you can see it's a bush on the move (thanks to the winch).

And what's left of the pear tree now?  A stump . . .

. . . with two rock-hard pears left behind.

The whole loss-aversion thing that we humans carry around with us makes me feel a bit sad to see the tree go. I mean, it was a living thing, one that I planted myself, and now I'm responsible for killing it.  Taking down this leafy green giant is not like what my neighbors did, taking down dead or dying trees.

But what's left behind is an open, sunny place that my garden will be able to expand into.  And the sunshine, which my vegetables yearn for, makes me happy.  

So, notes to self:
  • Before I plant more trees, figure out how big they'll get first.
  • Before I plant more fruit trees, learn more about collecting the fruit.
  • Before I hire tree trimmers, check with all my neighbors to see if we want to work out a neighborhood deal.

I just can't pear it anymore!

Good-bye, pear tree!

Last summer, I wrote about how tricky it is to harvest pears; they're finicky about ripening.  Our pear tree itself has grown massive, shading our garden, dangling its pears several stories above our heads, and producing fruit that alternates between hard green rocks and brown slime balls.

Since we had other tree issues as well -- our maple tree (the one that holds our adored tree house) has branches that have been scraping the roof of the house -- we got a few estimates for tree trimming (maple) and removal (pear).  I mean, when I got this tree, I *loved* the idea of a pear tree in the abstract, but the reality has been less than romantic and nine-ladies-dancing, in spite of the fact that my true love gave it to me.

Tree work is expensive.  I wasn't too surprised when the four-figure estimates started rolling in. We found a tree company that we liked and offered them the job . . . and then waited until the could work us into their queue.  Estimated wait time: four to five weeks.

And then we lucked out.  If you look at the very right edge of the picture above, across the alley you'll see the bark of a tree that belongs to our neighbors.  Or rather, I should say belonged, because the tree died in place, and they decided they needed to take it down.  Yesterday, I woke up to the sound of heavy machinery (cranes, chipper/shredders, and chain saws), and by the end of the day their tree was safely horizontal instead of dangerously vertical.

But while the tree crew was out there, a whole bunch of other neighbors (including me) started mobbing the crew, asking them for quote on our own trees.  ("As long as you're here, how much would it be . . . ?").    And the crew very gladly took down a bunch of other trees, as well as trimming quite a few more.

The crane that worked on trimming
our maple tree.
Its feet stick out like a water bug.
Tree crews are just really fun to watch.  There are people high up in the air, in cranes, wielding chainsaws and ropes with pulleys, yelling lumber-jack-y things at one another.  The limbs come down bit by bit, sometimes dropping directly down, sometimes being lowered by ropes attached to pulleys that swing around other limbs.

Down on the ground are the kinds of trucks that my sisters loved to play with (in Tonka versions) in our own dirt piles, when we were kids. My favorite was a little beast that looked like a cross between a bull-dozer and a pair of giant salad tongs:  its job was to troll across the yard, scoop up branches, and haul them back to the chipper-shredder.

And just like painting a room, the real work in tree trimming and cutting isn't in the painting or trimming; it's in the set-up and clean up.   Getting all these amazing machines in place must be an amazing feat of scheduling in the first place.

Which is why I wasn't too surprised at the high price estimate when we started scoping out tree work, and why I jumped at the chance to grab this crew while they were already set up -- we'll end up paying only about half of what we'd have paid if the other crew had come around.  It's not everyday you can find a way to spend $500 less than you'd planned, just by running out in your back yard and waving your arms at workers in hard hats.

So the pear tree came down, and by the time I grabbed my camera, it was already being winched along the ground to the chipper/shredder.  In this picture below, the top of the pear tree looks like a bush just beyond the garage.
But you can see it's a bush on the move (thanks to the winch).

And what's left of the pear tree?  A stump . . .

. . . with two rock-hard pears left behind.

The whole loss-aversion thing that we humans carry around with us make me feel a bit sad to see the tree go. I mean, it was a living thing, one that I planted myself, and now I'm responsible for killing it.  Taking down this leafy green giant is not like what my neighbors did, taking down dead or dying trees.

But what's left behind is an open, sunny place that my garden will be able to expand into.  And the sunshine, which my vegetables yearn for, makes me happy.  

So, notes to self:
  • Before I plant more trees, figure out how big they'll get first.
  • Before I plant more fruit trees, learn more about collecting the fruit.
  • Before I hire tree trimmers, check with all my neighbors to see if we want to work out a neighborhood deal.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Provision

It's amazing how, sometimes, the Universe provides exactly what you need.

For example, back in May I wrote that I was having my own kind of money problems: in particular, extra money is starting to come in faster than we're spending it, and I have to figure out a way to deal with that.  Well, just earlier this week, the Universe gifted us with a $32,000 home repair bill.  See?  Problem solved! Life is good.

That home repair bill turns out to be not quite as large as $32K after all --- what really happened is that my husband had been noticing our basement drain has started smelling increasingly . . . um . . . sewage-like, and so he called in a plumber to check it out.  The first plumbers he called in are a local firm with a reputation for up-selling.  In fact, the day before, when we'd asked them for an estimate on installing a hybrid heat pump water heater, they pushed hard for including a water softening system (and we don't really need that).  So, when  their diagnosis of our smelly drain pipe included massive excavations of the front yard and such (to get at the tree roots that are clogging the pipe), we were impressed by the size of the estimate, but guessed there might be a more reasonable approach.

When they left, we sort of basked in the thought that we're at the point that a $32,000 drain-pipe repair bill would be hard-but-not-impossible for us. But we're not total idiots: we also called around for other estimates.  We found a guy we like --- with good credentials, a lot of good online reviews, and a  bounty of in-person helpful advice --- who can do both the tree roots and the water heater for less than the first group could do just the water heater.  We'll probably go with him.  At any rate, more provision: we need to get rid of hydrophilic oak roots, and now we think we have a way to do so.

Here's another serendipitous shower of wonderfulness raining down on me. Last weekend, our host daughter Y and I had a conversation to figure out some of the best ways to have her help out around the house.  She suggested that one thing she could do would be to help chop up the CSA vegetables we get once a week, since chopping vegetables is one of her not-so-secret superpowers.  And since, every Tuesday, it takes me about an hour to cut up everything we get, I was very happy to take her up on this offer --- in fact, I suggested we do it together, because (a) spending time together is fun, (b) she has admirable taste in music, and (c) I was sure we could both learn something about vegetable preparation from each other.
Y chopping some of the food

Well, little did either of us know what *perfect* timing this would be.  Because this week's CSA box came stuffed to the brim with wonderful food.  Somehow, the chopping, packing, and labeling the vegetables (with the assistance of Chris Thile and his mandolin) took us two hours.
Some of the food that still needs to be chopped.
So, gobs of good food, and a fun person to cut it up with (not to mention bangin' bluegrass music to round out the experience).  Provision indeed.

And finally, for your provisional viewing pleasure, here is a photograph of my basil in the garden where the stone cat likes to soak up sun. 

I planted basil early this year, and it didn't grow, and so I decided to dub this spot the Persistence Garden, and plant the basil again.  And look what a profusion of plants are there now!  Enough that I chopped most of the plants in half (leaving the bottom halves rooted in the ground to keep growing), used the top halves to make 8 cups of pesto, and still have profusive amounts of basil remaining in service to future culinary projects.  


Saturday, July 9, 2016

The frugal hot awesomeness of scrubbing

I've been noticing this theme in my life recently, which is basically that "scrubbing is awesome".  In particular, in a myriad of ways, I've been seeing instance after instance in which mechanical methods of cleaning (with occasional thermal assistance) have won arm-wrestling matches against chemical methods of cleaning.

The variety of ways this has made a difference is sort of impressive -- teeth, bathtub drains, hair, cast iron pans, and teenage armpits are just a few of the scrubby areas of my life lately.

Teeth.
My favorite toothbrushing photo!
I've written about this a bunch of times; I decided to experiment with not using toothpaste six years ago, just as a curiosity.  What would happen? I'd read in the Tightwad Gazette that scrubbing alone could be enough, especially for people who drink fluorinated tap water (as I do).  And over the years, my admittedly skeptical dental hygienist keeps giving me gold stars for good dental hygiene.  I'm not an anti-toothpaste nut, so I could imagine that someday I'd go back to using toothpaste for flavor or other reasons.  But it's sort of neat to know that scrubbing -- brushing and flossing -- alone has been just as effective as doing those both with toothpaste.



Bathtub Drains.
We have an old house with slow drains, and sometimes the drains slow down to the point of not moving --- particularly in the upstairs shower that sees a lot of girl hair going down the drain, but also occasionally in the upstairs sinks.  My husband used to love buying Draino and/or biological versions of drain cleaners, and pouring these down our pipes, with limited effectiveness.  Ugh.  We were literally pouring money down the drains, in the form of chemicals, and our efforts didn't even help much.   And then I switched to an occasional vigorous use of the plunger.  And a plunger is like magic, it's so good at clearing those clogs quickly and completely.

Bonus, now that canning season has gotten underway again:  when I'm done with a round of canning, I pour the leftover boiling water down the bathtub and sink drains that have a tendency to give us trouble.  The boiling hot water has to go somewhere, after all, and this way of disposing of it cleans a lot of the greasy gunk out of the pipes, making plunging an increasingly rare event.  Another awesome use of brawn and heat (which are essentially free and environmentally neutral) beating out purchased noxious liquids in petrochemical containers.  Yawp!

Hair
Here's one of those things I am hesitant to share, because it's not that I actually think shampoo is an evil conspiracy designed to enslave the naive masses, or anything like that.  I don't like buying stuff that comes in plastic containers, but the shampoo inside the container is not my enemy.  Still, in the pursuit of curious frugal adventure, I've experimented with alternatives to shampoo.  Baking soda, bars of soap . . . there are other people out there who are happy with those alternatives, but I didn't happen to be, so I went back to shampoo.

And then, about a month ago, I read a blog post by a woman who'd given up shampoo a year ago, using only hot water and a vigorous scalp massage.  I figured I'd try it -- worst that could happen is that I hated it and so at my next shower, I'd use shampoo again.  I also, even more significantly for me, decided to forego conditioner as well.

And let me tell you, that my hair just didn't feel as nice in the shower.  Conditioner, especially, has me leaving the shower with my hair feeling silky, but showering without conditioner made my wet hair feel . . . crunchy? clumpy? Maybe a combination of those two words: crumpy.   And as my hair was air drying, it was still crumpy.  But once my hair dried . . . magic happened.  Because my hair was fluffier than it has been in years.  I really liked the way it looked.  And ever since then, knowing I could go back, I've kept the experiment going, and it keeps giving me the same result.  Crumpy wet hair, then  fluffy-happy dry hair.

If I were swimming (chlorine and tangles), I'd definitely go back to shampoo and conditioner.  I'm not going to be a prosthelytizer who preaches the sin of shampoo.  But if not using shampoo actually makes my hair look better, well, then why the heck look back?  Scalp massages in hot water it is!

Cast Iron Pans
After having a few decades of serial monogamy with non-stick frying pans (our old pan would eventually get scratched up, and my husband would buy a new one to replace it), about a year ago I convinced our family to go with cast iron.  Such happiness in the Miser Mom world now!  Even better, we bought our new pans about the same time that Erica over at Northwest Edible lured me into purchasing the "ringer", a chain mail scrub pad.  Several of the reviews of the ringer noted that a good way to clean these pans is to keep them hot, scrub them out with water (and with minimal soap or none at all), and then wipe them down with a rag and a tiny bit of oil.  It turns out, this ringer-thing works well on pyrex, on our old gnarly baking pans, the crockpot . . . really on anything from the kitchen that gets stuff stuck to it.  And although I still do use soap, I've been mightily impressed by how well hot water and scrubbing make cleaning up our baking/frying dishes so much easier.

Teenage armpits
I am saving the best for last.  This example didn't start out as the best, let me tell you!  My sons hit middle school and they both turned into walking aroma factories.  We got the phone calls from the school nurse ("don't feel embarrassed; we have to call lots of parents about deodorant"), to which our response was "Yes! That's what we keep telling these stinky boys!  Deodorant, yes!"  J-son, my fashion king, remained stinky for all of about three months, moving eventually through the larvae stage of smelling like Axe everywhere he went (a dubious improvement), and eventually emerging from his aromatic cocoon as a sweet-smelling butterfly.

But N-son, oh, N-son.  Nothing worked with him.  He'd stink like month-old-sweaty-socks-at-the-bottom-of-a-gym-locker, and so we'd send him upstairs for a shower and deodorant.  He'd come out smelling like sweaty-socks-soaked-in-deodorant.  Kids teased him, or they avoided him, or both.  We'd go to church, and I'd beg my husband to sit next to our kid because I couldn't bear to sit next to him myself.

The biggest mystery of all was why the showers didn't have the proper effect.  We'd load him down with soap and shampoo and send him to bathe, and he'd come out smelling only marginally better.  We gave him instructions on parts of his body to target (hair! pits! private parts!), which he promised to lather and rinse, but the sweaty-locker-socks cloud hung around him like dust clouds around Charlie Brown's pal, PigPen.  I couldn't follow my 16-year-old son into the shower to figure out what was wrong . . . but man.  Something just wasn't clicking with this kid.

About two months ago, he came home in a mopey mood: he was being "bullied", he told me.  I asked for details, knowing just what I was going to hear. He told me that kids were being mean to him, saying that he stinks.  And, of course, he did stink.  I mean, I didn't blame the kids on the bus for not wanting to sit next to him.

So the next time he headed into the shower, I handed him a wash cloth and said, "scrub with this!"   And when he came out of the shower, he smelled . . . fine.  Truly fine.  And the fine-smellingness of my son lasted pretty much all day.

And since then, he's smelled okay after showers, getting smelly only after vigorous exercise, at which point a shower (with washcloth) brings him back to presentable.  He hasn't had anyone tease him, either, which is a wonderful state of affairs.  He had one lapse, which turned out to coincide with lack of washcloth, but this lapse only goes to show that it's not a biological miracle, but a mechanical one, that has led to his new state.  I'm assuming (hoping) he still uses soap, but no amount of soap works without the added scrubbing assistance of the washcloth.



So, scrubbing.  Scrubbing with a toothbrush, with a washcloth, with a plunger, with a chain-mail scrubber.  But any way I do it, scrubbing has been making my life a little less expensive and a little bit cleaner than before.

Awesome.




Friday, July 8, 2016

In(ter)dependence Week

Independence Day, Shmindependence Day.   I know that July 4 is the day that the U.S. declared itself separate from England, but it's not a day about "independence".  We don't celebrate it by going and sitting in our own little rooms all by ourselves, do we?  No! We celebrate it by getting together with other people, sharing experiences communally.

So happy Interdependence Week, everyone!  Here's a few photos from my own fun gatherings.

Last Saturday, my running buddies and I kicked off the weekend with a "Red, White, and Blue (and all other colors) Run".

On July 4th proper, my neighborhood hosted a parade, starting with a gathering of the next generation,
and rolling over into a 3/4 mile traverse of the neighborhood
with an amazing variety of scooters, bicycles,
wheel chairs, roller blades, strollers,

and even paws.

And then, but of course, later this week we had to have a Special Dinner with our family plus a student of mine.  My host daughter Y was out of town, and J-son was off at boxing practice, but the rest of us dressed for the occasion.  (My husband was taking the photo; he came to the dinner, too).
Love the red-white-blue leggings on Baby A!
For the main dish, I started by making rows of white rice,
filled in between the rows with Tex-Mex, plus a square of blue corn chips.  

(I made enough for two of these flags, so we have lots of leftovers.  It looks like we'll be having Stars and Stripes forever!)

Dessert was the ever-popular (as in, "Please mom, make it!") cheese cake:
with strawberry stripes and blueberry stars.

Although serious tip-of-the-hat to nine-year-old Olivia, who heard about our upcoming dinner and made the following cake for her own family!  Way to go, Olivia!

And afterwards, we put together a puzzle I'd snagged at a yard sale for a quarter.

When we put this puzzle together, what do we have? Do we have the Independent States of America?  No, we have the United States!

It's good to spend time with others around us, and to remind ourselves of just how fortunate we are to be part of this larger, wonderful country.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Throw-it-together and give it a name

This weekend, two of my family's favorite racers won big events.  (When I say "my family", I specifically mean "N-son and my husband", because they're the big race fans; J-son is spending the week visiting his former foster mom, and I am not a race fan and mostly just get to hear loud cheering and/or groans.)   Some dude named Hamilton won some automobile race, and some other dude named Sagan won a stage of the Tour de France.  There has been much jubilation among the men-folk in the Miser Mom household.

I made dinner in much the usual way:  scavenge the fridge for random material, throw it in a pot, and add salt and oil.  This is a surprisingly effective technique for generating an amazing variety of yummy dinners as well as for using up good food that might otherwise go bad.  Adding a name to the dish makes it taste even better (my church group says, "I've never had Tyrolean Vegetable Medley before; it's fabulous!"  Heh-heh!  Neither have I!).

And really, even unlikely pairings of vegetables seem to go well together.  So here, for your gustatory pleasure,  is the recipe for
Hamilton-Sagan Stew.

Heat a skillet with bit of oil in it.  Add a quart-sized canning jar of sliced onions (because we're so happy we could cry) and also some finely sliced beets (because our heroes can't be beat).   Total bonus coolness: the beets turn the onions red.

Then dice up the stalk of celery that is still good but is too limp for your husband, who normally loves celery, and add those diced pieces, leaves and all, to the pot.  Because, our racer heroes are going to have an even bigger take-home celery if they keep winning.  And then dice some leftover sausage (because I never saw-such great racing?) and toss that in, too.  And add some salt because these racer are worth their . . . um . . . salt.

Good enough that everyone asked for seconds.  Even though the whole point of the meal was a pair of firsts!

N-son shows what's left.  He says that holding the lid like this,
he looks like Captain America!



[Here's a thank-you to my friends for your condolences on the last show of my favorite radio guy.  I'm recovering from my intense sadness.  A bit.]