Saturday, May 27, 2017

Miser Family update, reunion edition

Life continues to be rich and full in the Miser Mom household.

Last week I wrote about N-son's performances and school news; what I didn't say is that he was on the verge of becoming a formal member of our church (a process which includes taking theology classes during Sunday school for several weeks, and then taking vows in front of the congregation).  I've included some pictures of the vows below.  My husband and I are super proud of him.

As for me, I've had a week of reconnecting.  Out of the blue I got an email from a pair of my former favorite students, from completely different classes, who bumped into each other in a bar, and then, as they said, "Pretty crazy that two people randomly meet in a bar, realize they went to fandm, and then the first person they talk about is you."  
Friday morning, I had another former student visit for waffle brunch, and he and his wife told me they're expecting twins.  yay! I'm going to be a grandma again (of sorts)!   Then, On Friday and Saturday, then I went to my 30th college reunion and got to reconnect with a bunch of classmates (including my freshman roommates, who as freshmen looked very much like the pictures below, but less than half as old).  And tomorrow --- which I know is next week's news, but which thematically fits well with the "reconnecting" theme --- I'm going to another former student's wedding.  

J-son has met a new friend named Rafael who has spent the night here, and who hosted J-son in return another night or two.  J-son is still enjoying boxing and hoping to make it a long-term profession.  We're still at odds trying to think about what might be the best plan for him next year -- his final year of high school, now that welding has fallen through.  Traditional classes don't hold much appeal for him, either, so we're glad for his social connections and boxing connections, and thinking hard about how these might help shape a more professional future for him.

My granddaughter Baby-A is obsessed with lawnmowers.  Every time we head out the back door, she mentions the lawnmower (and she does so over and over, in the way that only a two year old can).  Often, indoors she'll invoke the awesomeness  of the "mawnmower", as well.  She gives us a play-by-play description of her uncles N-son and J-son when they're mowing the lawn.  So, by now, all six of us who are living here in my home get the giggles whenever we think of lawnmowers.  

My husband went to Philadelphia for his weekly "Tuesdays with Toomey" protest, and he went to New York City where he surrendered his passport to the Russian consulate; he'll pick up his passport together with a visa from them next week.  The bike trip from Odessa to Finland is getting closer and closer, and we're all getting more and more excited.

I've been reading through many old letters my grandfather wrote, trying to figure out which ones to save for posterity.  He was an avid and encouraging letter writer, and it's lots of fun to see history through his eyes.  He wrote so many letters I don't want to try to save them all.  But I thought I'd rescue this one "PS" he sent to my mom and dad in November of 1965, a few months after he'd been informed that my mom was pregnant (with me!).  

What charge is placed against an elephant who lives in a messy house?
Ans;  Trunk and disorderly.  Hurry up and produce me an heir so that she-she-them may grow up and provide Gramps with a new generation of proper mentality at least until age 6, to appreciate his wonderful gags.

And indeed, I do appreciate his gags, even at almost ten-times-age-6.  

Monday, May 22, 2017

Selling students' stuff

On Sunday, my college hosted our now-annual end-of-year yard sale, where we sell of the stuff our students leave behind.   Now, I don't work at a humongous college.  (We bill ourselves as a "small liberal arts college", with fewer than 3000 students).

Futons, shelves, floor lamps, table lamps, toasters, printers, fans . . . 

And because of the way our dorms are set up (with older students living off campus), we pretty much only get to sell things that the departing first-year students left behind, with some stuff from sophomores as well, but hardly any donations from juniors or seniors.  So we're missing the "good" stuff from our many apartment dwellers.

pillows, foam rolls, mattress pads
(in another area, we had piles upon piles of bed and bath linens)

So we only got castoffs from a fraction of our students, and even then, we only got fraction of what those students discarded, because many students tossed whatever wouldn't fit into their cars into the dumpsters outside the dorms.  Some people are just too rushed/lazy/distracted/whatever to sort things, even though we tried really hard to make the donation areas highly visible and easy.  
Toys, clothes, and (just out of sight) tables of household goods,
food, laundry detergent, toiletries, school supplies, books, . . . 
In spite of the winnowing -- that is, although we rescued only a fraction of the discards from only a fraction of the students at a fairly small school -- we managed to make use of much of our basketball gym, with tables and tables of goods, and piles and piles of clothes, and lots and lots of household items for sale.

A view from my "check out" stand, at one corner of the gym.

The pictures above look devoid of people because I took them all just before we opened the doors to the community.  (The people in light blue shirts are all the volunteers who are helping to staff the event).  When we open the doors at noon, it's like a Rolling Stones concert -- people just pour in.  Seriously, they wait for an hour before the sale starts in a line that stretches around the block, and within three minutes of the doors opening we have hundreds of people filling up this gym.    I took the picture below just as the doors opened -- and after that, I couldn't take photos because I was so busy as the check-out person.

The crowd entering the sale, at 12:00 exactly.
We had several hundred people fill the gym.

We sell all this stuff at the very high end of Miser Mom prices:  $1 per item, or $5 per grocery bag, or $15 per garbage bag.  Even at those prices, we made almost $3000, all of which is going to local charities.

This event is one of my favorite days of the year, because it's what some of my friends call a "Triple Win":

  • a win, because we keep tons of stuff out of the landfill, 
  • a win again because community members (some of them, resettled refugees) get to furnish their homes and get clothes for bargain prices, and 
  • a third win because all the money goes to help other good causes.  
I'd add a fourth and maybe even a fifth possible win:

  • organizing this event has built and strengthened ties between our college and some of the groups that help up us with the carrying/sorting/pricing/staffing of the event.  I'm loving the stronger social network.
  • And finally, almost anyone I've seen who has ever been to this sale marvels at how much the students leave behind, and they are very likely to think twice about how they buy (or not) things for their own college-bound children.  Or maybe even how they buy things for themselves.
This last point feels like a mantra of mine:  we do live in a world of abundance -- it's so easy to live on the leftovers of others around us, if you have the patience and the knowledge of how to discover where those leftovers become available.  

But mostly, I just love this yard sale that we do every year.  Every year, when we clean up the gym at 3:00, we compare the small amount of bags and boxes we have remaining against the mounds and mounds and mounds of material goods we started with, and we feel so good about rescuing so many perfectly good items from their untimely demise in a landfill.  Then we go home and rest our achey muscles, and admire our "new" pair of shoes or office chair or some such, and we pack up the supplies to get ready for next year's sale.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Miser Family Update: culinary/jobs/body/Russia version

N-son leads the family in having noteworthy news this week.  Firstly, he had an end-of-year squash banquet (see the photo, below, of him chatting with K-daughter at this event);
secondly, he played drums for a kick-butt pair of songs at an open-mic night at a nearby restaurant (see the photo of him and the other musicians breaking down the drum set afterward).
And perhaps happiest of all, he found out he's making it into next year's all day culinary arts program through his high school.  Whoop!  That's fantastic news indeed!

Speaking of K-daughter, she's gotten a part-time job at our local Y, which is another cause for celebration around here.  She's looking for even more substantial jobs, and has gotten a few good nibbles.  We're all optimistic.  I'm really enjoying the many opportunities I'm getting to spend time with my granddaughter Baby-A.

J-son's new profile photo
J-son sparred again this week, and again won his sparring match.  Also, he updated his Facebook profile photo.  This isn't the kind of thing I'd normally consider newsworthy, but his new photo (taken by a friend of his) is a really vivid illustration of how much he's grown -- metaphorically and literally -- since he joined our family.  

J-son and N-son in 2010,
when J-son first moved into our home
I'm loving the "after" and "before" pictures I included below.  J-son doesn't so much love the "before" pictures -- but that's really the point, isn't it?  (My sister will probably recognize the boxing-glove necklace he's wearing, which she gave him for Christmas.  He loves that bit of bling).

My husband is riding home from his latest 100-mile bike ride even as I type this blog post.  He's getting more and more excited about his trip to Russia.  Earlier this week, he took the train to New York City to visit the Russian consulate, in hopes of getting his visa.  Alas, he didn't have the right paperwork and was sent home to try again -- so he's training both athletically and bureaucratically now.   Earlier in the week, he attended his regular "Tuesdays with Toomey" protest (this week's theme: incarceration and race).

As for me, my husband and I both voted in the under-appreciated odd-year primary races, which makes me feel highly virtuous.  Yay, civic duty!  And as May grows old,  I'm doing my best to transition into summer mode.  For me, "summer" means three things: 
  1. more time for math (my summer research student started working with me this week, plus I'm throwing myself into my next book);
  2. better weather for gardening (I transplanted my tomatoes, and I started getting super serious about weeding and staking the other garden beds);
  3. dedication to fitness.  (I've added upper body exercises into my mostly-running regimen, in hopes of getting my strength back.  My December bike crash is mostly a distant memory, except for the fact that my left arm strength is a pitiful shadow of what it once was. I don't want to lose my pre-crash strength permanently).

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Living frugal water

So, a week or two ago, my pastor preached on John Chapter 4-something, the woman at the well.  This is the passage where Jesus tells a Samaritan woman (not an one of the Chosen People, but one of those, y'know, other people) that he's Living Water.  And that anyone who drinks of Him will never go thirsty.  And he suggests pretty strongly that she ought to get the recipe for this drink, and she agrees and essentially posts it up to Pinterest.

As my pastor was preaching along, I doodled in my church bulletin, in the white space reserved for taking notes about the sermon.   I'm pretty good at listening, but I'm really pretty awful at taking notes, and I admit I sort of drift into half-listening while half-thinking-about-math.  Ducks apparently sleep with half of their brains as they keep guard with the other half; maybe that's what I'm doing in church, too.

What I doodled sort of looks like a building with floors and no walls, drawn in two-point perspective. but it has geometric applications to something called Steiner conics. You don't need to know the details; suffice it to say that what I was drawing was actually kind of related to my research (kind of sort of), and that I could doodle it while being my own species of Theology-Math Duck.

Math is where I go when I'm bored.  Math is where I go when I'm curious.  This past year, when I was swamped with work on a deadline-intensive, paper-work-heavy committee, I procrastinated by doing math.  And so now, even when I'm sitting around in a pew on Sunday morning -- worshiping and praying and then waiting to hear my faith expounded in a new light -- I worship while doodling math.

The sermon made me appreciate this nerdy side of me all the more.  My People, when we get to this chapter of the New Testament, we love to quote how John Piper described an answer to his own questioning 1988 prayer about why the heck Living Water didn't make him somehow stop being thirsty. The answer he got as he knelt was this:
When you drink my water it doesn’t destroy thirst. For then what need would you have of my water after that? When you drink my water it makes a spring in you. A spring satisfies thirst not by removing the need you have for water, but by being there to drink from when you get thirsty. Again and again and again. 
Not that the Lord of the Universe is the same thing as Steiner conics, mind you, but there's some wonderful parallel there about promising to be there to satisfy and refresh you exactly when you need it.

A friend of ours has had her daughter move back home recently.  The daughter is/was married to a guy with a heroin addiction.  Heroin is not, I think, Living Water.  The daughter coped with her situation by online shopping for Every Wonderful Thing, and she is now broke, surrounded by piles and piles of things she has no room for, and facing bankruptcy.  Online shopping is also not Living Water, I'd wager.

Neither is projective geometry the same thing as Living Water, I have to admit.  But as I did my Duck-listen to the Sunday sermon, I couldn't help but think about how glad I am for the kinds of desires that people can have that nurture us, rather than destroy us.  And how many of those build-you-up-and-feed-you desires are really frugal at heart.  I'm thinking of
  • going running with friends, and
  • memorizing poetry, and
  • bike riding (for my husband), and
  • playing drums (for N-son), and
  • reading books, and 
  • creating art out of plain stuff and fancy imagination, and 
  • a really good quiet time (praying or meditating or walking or such).
How wonderful it is to practice these things that ground us, that fill us, that make us stronger and happier and fill our lives (and maybe those around us) with richness.  

I have no idea what my pastor would think about this.  Maybe it's sacrilege to draw these kinds of parallels between that which is Holy and that which is earthly.  On the other hand, it was the Son of God Himself who compared his divinity to one of the most mundane and familiar molecules on earth, so maybe it's not so horrible that the ducks and I paddle around half here, half elsewhere.   I dunno.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Miser Family Update: Bones, Jobs, and Hat version

Life continues to be rich and full in the Miser Mom household.

chicken bones, a la commemoration
On Tuesday, we celebrated (?) the ten-year anniversary of my husband's bike accident.  Okay, I know he's had *lots* of bike accidents, and we don't commemorate *all* of them.  The accident with the ten-year anniversary was the only crash he had where he broke his neck, and fortunately he got better.  So we celebrated with chicken, and chicken bones.   Because broken bones.

What else happened this week?  I trash-picked an awesome easel for my granddaughter Baby-A, and she and K-daughter have been loving using it.  There is mondo Art happening in my home.  Speaking of K-daughter and Baby-A, I have a lovely picture of them both doing head stands together.  Adorable.

N-son got a job -- he's doing yard work for a family in our neighborhood. Since I've been nagging both of my sons on a semi-regular basis about the importance of getting summer jobs, I am very, very (very) happy about this right now.

J-son got a sneak peek at the welding program that he'd signed up for next year.  And, unfortunately, he decided that this particular welding program is not for him.  (His dad and I agree, reluctantly).  J-son showed up for orientation and faced an auditorium full of rural white farm kids.  This is definitely *not* his social scene . . . and since J-son is more sensitive to social cues than, say, N-son is, this really isn't a good fit for him.  We're exploring alternatives for his senior year of high school, while looking forward to post-high school welding programs at our nearby excellent school of technology.  But it is a bit of a bummer that he won't do welding in his senior year.
the easel I trash-picked from the side of the road,
already heavily decorated

I-daughter has headed overseas; if she's reading this blog post, it's because she found an internet connection in Ireland, where she's on an Emerald Island Knitting Tour. Is that cool, or what?!?

Now that classes have ended, my husband has divided his time somewhat equally between (1) worrying about our sons, (2) attending political protests, and (3) getting ready for his trans-Russia bike ride (which is now less than a month away).  There is lots of paperwork involved in all three of these (especially 1 and 3), and there are important doctor visits regarding 3.  

And me, I have been banging out the latest draft of one of my math papers, plus I got to go to Commencement.  Dad tells me that his dad, my grandfather, used to say, "I teach for free, but they don't pay me nearly enough to go to Commencement."  But I love going to Commencement.  This year I'm especially happy that I have my cap and gown that Mom and Dad got for me 25 years ago.  I almost lost my cap after Convocation in August, and I've spent months agonizing over the loss.  But I discovered early this week that my cap had gotten a promotion -- it had inadvertently been packed up with all the Trustee caps and gowns.  My cap and I were reunited on Tuesday when the Trustee gowns were unpacked, and I got to wear it today (Saturday) with all due pomp and splendor.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Getting into a pickle (juice)

Vegetable season is upon us.  Our CSA shares have started rolling in again.  Huzzah!

Of course, together with an abundance of vegetables comes an abundance of vegetable preparation.  I've said before that I've become a fan of trying to chop and store the veggies right away so that (a) they don't wilt before we get to them and (b) they look like snacks or dinner or lunch, instead of like potted plants taking up space in the fridge.

Here's one of my fave helpers these past few weeks:  two jars of pickle juice, left over from purchased pickles my husband and sons like.

The reason that one jar of juice looks red is because it held radishes for a while (and then we ate the radishes).

Pickle brine is wonderful for a few reasons.  One reason is that the combination of vinegar and salt (mostly the vinegar) serves as a preservative, keeping the food from going bad.  The traditional use of pickling is to preserve summer food long into winter, but it also works for preserving Tuesday food well into the weekend.  At any rate, my radishes never got soggy or wilty, even though I left them in the jar on the counter for several days before we actually got around to taste-testing them.  (In fact, leaving them out on the counter is better for pickling them than sticking them in the fridge).

The other big reason that pickle brine is wonderful is that pickle brine adds taste, making veggies even more yummy.  People love acidic foods (soft drinks being a prime example of this preference gone bad), and salt is so danged good it's become a Biblical metaphor for awesomeness.  Plus, there are a few other sugars and spices in the commercial pickles that just add to the overall flavor. I don't think that any of my kids or husband would have looked at a bowl of sliced radishes and thought, Yum!  Snack!  But pickled radishes are actually quite munch-able.

If you're a pickle neophyte, you'll be happy to hear that learning to pickle foods is like learning checkers: the basic rules are so easy anyone can start playing, but if you're super serious, you can get more complicated.  The basic rules of pickling are these:
  1. wash and cut up the vegetables
  2. put them in the brine.
That's it.  As you learn more about pickling you learn things like, the flavor deepens if you wait a few days; you can speed-up or enhance the process by heating the brine properly (one recipe I saw suggested leaving the jar on a sunny window sill for the first day); you can muck around with spices; etc.  But since all I want to do is to have my CSA vegetables wind up in people's tummies instead of on the compost heap by the end of the week, steps 1 and 2 are just perfect for us.   I'm not going to go all radichal with my radishes.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Squash that advice

Every once in a while, I get to see the financial world through other people's eyes -- that is, the eyes of people who think of shopping as entertainment, who confuse spending with wealth, and who think of debt as not only normal but also necessary.  I sort of like being in my own frugal bubble most of the time, but  I also don't mind emerging every once in a while to rub elbows with non-frugalists (if that's a word).  I know that those people are out there.   I know that they mostly get along fine in their non-frugal lives.   But I didn't think that those people would masquerade as financial advisors for young adults.

And yet, I was wrong.  Last fall, N-son's squash team coach decided to do the very admirable thing (I thought) of bringing in an "expert" from a local Credit Union to give a presentation to the players on the team and their families. We got to have pizza, we "learned" about finances, and we had a Q&A at the end.  I was totally jazzed for this event, figuring it would be great to have my kids hear about the importance of financial prudence from someone other than me, for a change.  But sheesh!   If you're going to teach kids to be responsible with money, maybe you ought to have the teacher be someone who is actually responsible with money, y'know?

The "teacher" in this scenario was a relatively young person who worked at a nearby Credit Union.  She'd been provided with a script and a power point presentation, but it was clear that she didn't entirely understand the script she'd been given, especially when it came to debt.  For example, here are some of the notes I jotted down, once I realized (to my horror) what she was telling these middle/high school kids and their parents.
  • The only way to get a car is with debt, she implied. She and her husband bought a car with a 5-year loan, and her car died after three years.  “Oh well, that’s what happens!”
  • "You want to have a little bit of debt so you build up your credit card rating."
  • "Debt is just a fact of life.    Everybody has debt; I do, too!  Life happens."
  • "The average American has $40,000 of credit card debt."    (How she came up with that number, I do not know.  Nerd wallet says the average debt is $16K, but that's among American households -- not individuals -- and even then, it's only among households that have debt in the first place.  PR newswire says that, contrary to what our presenter said, one in four Americans is debt free.) 
It was not surprising, then then the rest of her presentation was . . . well . . . not exactly the kind of a presentation a Miser Mom would have given.   Her power point said that people should have an emergency account, which she translated as 
  • Get a 3-months-of-expenses savings account in place before you attack debt.
(I know that there are other reasonable people who would agree with her; I just think that attacking high-interest credit card debt is probably more urgent than putting money into a low-interest-bearing savings account, especially if building up that much of a cushion is going to take you a year or more).

Her power point presentation told her that she should urge people to think about long-term financial goals.  This advice, she translated into the following example:
  • "Our long-term goal: My husband and I want to buy a house in five years. "
(I'd have said that a 5-year plan is a medium-term goal; "long-term" goals would be more along the lines of retirement, or children's college funds, or other goals for 10+ years into the future.  If you buy a house but don't have a longer-term savings plan that includes maintenance and upkeep, you're in for a rude awakening when you start getting those repair bills).

Speaking of retirement and long-term savings, she had this to say:  
  • "They say 'Invest with mutual funds', and I guess that’s not a bad thing to do.  It’s okay to invest your money."
Ummm . . .  it's "okay" to invest money?  It's "not bad"?!?!??   This, from the person who works at a credit union?!?  

Sheesh.  What I will say about this presentation is that, when the speaker was done, the other parents started speaking up.  They emphatically told the kids that "if you rack up debt, you'll find out that there are lots of things you want to do in life that become way more expensive, or even impossible".  One of the moms told heartfelt stories about the dangers of credit card debt leading to difficulties renting a decent apartment.  I was worried that if I said anything I'd be too strident, but the other parents had no problem jumping in and starting a bit of a rant.  It was nice to find that I had compadres in the room, after all.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Miser Family update: birthday and chores edition

Life continues to be rich and full in the Miser Mom household.

We celebrated several birthdays this week.  My husband hummed his way through his "Beatles Birthday" -- apparently, I will still need him and I will still feed him when he's 64.  But our Senator Toomey, whom my guy attempts to engage with every Tuesday, did not come out of his office to give my husband a big birthday hug.

Later in the week, we celebrated I-daughter's birthday with even more singing; I-daughter and N-son and a friend and I went to a performance of "Always Patsy Cline", a great show featuring a really good Patsy Cline impersonator who could belt out those songs.  N-son mostly noticed the drummer, who I'll admit was really good, too.  

We got to train up our family for new household jobs.  J-son has long been helping to trim N-son's hair, but this week for the first time he assisted in giving his dad's head a trim. 
And in other training arenas, as we were getting the garden carts ready for service in our college's upcoming yard sale, Baby-A did her best to help pump up the tires.  My guess is she'll need another year or two before she can be truly effective at that job.

As for me, in addition to making chocolate cake and singing songs about going walking after midnight (out in the moonlight) and having Sweet Dreams, I also gave my students their exams, and then I graded the exams, and now I'm done for the semester and looking forward to transitioning into spending my days working on my research.  

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Storing valuable objects where they're valued

Last week, I was honored at my college with what my husband calls a "sustained breathing" award.  I've been at my college for 25 years.  As a result, my provost stood up on stage and said laudatory things about me, and I got a valuable present.

In past years, 25-year veterans had gotten a clock.  (I am a tad wistful for that; I would have loved to get a clock.)  This year, we old-timers got crystal bowls.  To be more specific, we got Waterford crystal bowls, engraved with the name of our college. This is a pricy, momentous gift.


A gift like this is valuable in the sense that it cost my college a wad of dough to get it for me.  But the gift loses a bunch of value in being transferred to me.  In some homes, a bowl like this would grace the place, and make the place more beautiful.   But in my home, with a bunch of ADHD teenagers and a highly active 2-year old grandchild, caring for this bowl means finding protective storage space.  That is, the gift imposes a burden.  If I'd gotten a bowl we could toss in the dishwasher and/or the microwave, we'd have probably figured out a way to incorporate this into our lives, but Waterford crystal . . . not so much.

Ironically, the extra expense that my college incurred by engraving their name on the bowl makes the gift even less valuable, in the sense of being harder to sell -- assuming that I wanted to sell it, which actually, I don't.  I love the place I work, and I'm glad for this token of appreciation that they've given me.  I just want to make sure that the gift can be used in a way it's appreciated.  I want to place this valuable item in a place where it's valued.

So, huzzah for elegant friends. At the reception that followed the Sustained Breathing Acknowledgment Ceremony, I huddled up with some of my college employee buddies.  Some of my buddies are actually pretty classy people, and bowl that was such a storage-encumbrance to me wowed some of them.

And so I'm keeping my bowl --- permanently --- at the home of C, a childless and tasteful person I happen to like having lunch with occasionally.  C and her wife can store the bowl out in plain view, where it can be appreciated without the danger of tennis balls or wrestle-mania endangering it.  I told her that whenever she looks at the bowl, she can think of me.

The Waterford Crystal Bowl
on C's dining room table. Lovely.

This is why it's so danged hard to buy gifts for people, right?  I grew up with Waterford crystal at my parent's home; we used it for special occasions, and I have super-fond memories of carrying it up from its safe place in the basement, unwrapping the goblets from their protective tissue in their carefully divided cardboard boxes.  I loved the after-dinner ritual of hand-washing the glasses in soapy water, rinsing them carefully and setting them on soft towels to dry, and then repackaging them in their tissue-paper-and-boxes for storage again.  I loved these glasses so much, that at my first wedding, I asked for Waterford goblets, in the same pattern as my parents'.

But a dozen years later, I gave the crystal away.   The fact that something is valuable doesn't mean that it's valuable to me.  And in my own version of my own adult life, these goblets were either in storage or at risk of breakage, but they were never part of an elegant and appreciated ritual in my new, grown-up life.  It was better to hand them along to my sister, who could use them at her home.

So this gift that I got from my employer, it actually made me feel a bit guilty.  Like, I ought to be the kind of person who could appreciate this crystal bowl, but instead I'm just too crass for it.  I know that's not what they wanted to say -- that instead they were saying that a pricey gift like this symbolizes the value of the recipient of the gift.

So that's why I'm "keeping" the bowl by gifting it to another person's home.  The college I love, it appreciates me enough that it gives me way more than I could ever want or need, enough that I enjoy it best when I share with others.

But maybe I'll keep my eyes open this yard sale season for a nice clock, just because.

Monday, May 1, 2017

How much money is too much money?

There's a huge difference between "income" and "wealth".   That's the main financial lessons I want my sons to understand right now.

Although I understand the spiritual dangers of having too much money (wealth), with my sons I've lately been dancing the Worry Dance about getting too much money (income).  J-son in particular has found himself persecuted by abundance lately, and the results aren't happy.

Even prudent people have anxiety over what to do with a windfall -- an unexpected tax return, an inheritance.  It's hard to be responsible with a lot of money at once: much, much  harder than being responsible with getting the same amount of money in small increments over the span of many years.  An extreme example that might be familiar would be winning the lottery, or perhaps the example of starring in the NFL. Many tales abound of people in these situations being showered briefly with more money than they know what to do with, and then (because they -- literally, honestly -- do not know what to do with so gosh-darned much money) going broke or even into debt in future years.

Another related example (one that's probably familiar to only the smaller group of personal finance aficionados) is the Millionaire Next Door  concept of "Economic Outpatient Care", the paradox that says that the more money that parents give to their children, the less wealth the children end up accumulating.  The authors of that iconic book argue that encouraging children to be entirely responsible for their own economic outlook leads to greater financial stability than jumping in to help fill gaps.  In particular, the authors give some evidence that giving your kids too much money sets them up for financial ruin.

So what does this all have to do with J-son?

A year or so ago, my husband signed up to start collecting Social Security.  Part of the reason that my guy said "yes" to the SS agent was that he was told our "special needs" children bring us extra money if he started collecting money right away.  The problem with what he was told is that the SS agent was not being entirely forthcoming: the money does not come to "us", and certainly does not come without strings.   We've since gotten dire warnings about the need to return any money that was not devoted to enhancing the lives of our darling adopted sons.  And once the boys turn 18, the money goes not to our checking accounts, but rather directly to our sons.

Last September, J-son turned 18.  And from that day until the day he turns 19-and-two-months, thanks to the Social Security Administration, our government sends him the princely sum of a-bit-more-than-$800 each month.  This money that J-son gets is a huge problem.

Why is it a problem? For one thing, J-son does not need this money.  He doesn't pay us rent or utilities; he doesn't buy groceries.  And if he moves out of our house, he stops getting the money.  This means that a kid with huge impulse-control problems has access to huge amounts of money exactly when he does not need the money.  And once he turns 19 and graduates from high school, he stops getting money.  We have a recipe for disaster on our hands: this money totally gives him everything he needs to develop overwhelming "needs" for money, without any of the structure for promoting financially responsible habits.

I admit that I freaked out when I realized that this situation would be coming down the road toward us.  My freaking resulted in a conversation between the three of us (me, my husband, and J-son) that resulted in agreement that looked like this:
J-son gets to "keep" (= spend) $80 per month, and we'll put the other money into two-year CDs that J-son will be able to access only after he graduates from high school and moves out of the house -- that is, when he really needs the money.
Here was the simple, two-step plan:
  1. Each month J-son gets his check, and deposits it into his credit union, putting $80 into checking and the rest into savings, and then somehow miraculously spends only the money from the checking account.
  2. My husband helps J-son use the money from the savings account to buy two-year CDs which not only yield higher interest rates, but also protect the money from impulse spending.
But an agreement, no matter how fervently agreed to, doesn't necessarily automatically become reality.  And in this case, reality and aspiration diverged pretty quickly.  CDs have minimum purchase prices, and user ID and passwords sometimes become an overwhelming challenge for some people, and so we ended up leaving some of the money in J-son's savings account for a month or so, waiting for the money to pile up into large enough accounts to sock it away.

But the money in the savings account calls to J-son like sirens called to Odysseus, and J-son's mom (me) just isn't as good at bondage as Odysseus's crews.  Also, J-son's dad isn't as anal as I am about getting money into high-yielding CDs as quickly as possible.  As a result, about two months ago, J-son went to a boxing match with his debit card. What started as the simple task of purchasing food for lunch turned into a shoe-buying spree, and $500 later, his savings account had been decimated.

J-son voluntarily gave up his ATM card after that . . . for two months.  But then he snuck into my sewing room to take it back, and he indulged himself in a 7-day, $290 spree of buying snacks for his buddies.   The snack spree came on top of a cell-phone data spree that had reduced his checking account from a high of $48.94 to its current sorry state of $0.88.

I don't have an elegant solution to this impulse-driven, money-fueled problem.  J-son is definitely learning a lot about impulse control (mostly, that he doesn't have it) and about the value of external control (he actually sort of likes it when I take his debit card away).  What he's not learning to do is to spend small amounts of money at a reasonable pace.  He still has no idea of how to budget.  We're going to work on that in the future, but that's an ongoing effort.

But the fact that he has more money than he needs doesn't help.  There really is such a thing as too much money, and that's what J-son has.    Poor, rich kid.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Miser Family update, earthquake edition

Life continues to be rich and full in the Miser Mom household.

Perhaps the biggest news this week is that an earthquake struck nearby; this is the third largest quake since I moved here 25 years ago.  It was initially reported as 2.7 on the Richter scale, but later downgraded to 2.3.  

We have earthquakes seldom enough that the tremors caused some consternation.  There were multiple calls to 911, with people worried that the rumble/boom they'd heard was North Korea bombing us. (This makes perfect sense, if you think that  a likely strategic target of the North Koreans would be a small inland city surrounded by Amish farmland).  The local newspaper later carried reports that objects on the top of people's dressers in nearby Millersville, the center of the earthquake, had been knocked over.  Fortunately, recovery and rescue efforts all seem to have gone smoothly, and life here in our little city seems to be returning to normal.

On Monday morning, I broke a tooth.  My dentist was very busy and finally saw me late in the day; she said that three different people had broken teeth that day.  (I told her I blamed the Sunday earthquake). It looks like I'll need "crown enhancement" before I can actually get my new crown, although I won't know for sure for a little while. My dentist referred me to an oral surgeon who will see me next week; the surgeon has been out of the office this week, probably rearranging objects on the top of his dresser.  Although it was disconcerting to break a tooth, I'm rather comforted by the nonchalance and lack of sense of urgency of my dentist and oral surgeon.

N-son  played drums in church on Sunday; then later in the day both he and I-daughter sang in a beautiful local concert. N-son's ROTC commander was at the concert, and was impressed enough that he asked if N-son would sing the national anthem at the upcoming end-of-year ceremony.  N-son has been avidly practicing the anthem around the house ever since. Sometimes I ask him to practice a little more quietly.

J-son had an impromptu boxing match on Monday, which had the effect of prodding his coach to prod J-son to start running again (which he'd cut back on) and to train even harder.  So all this week, J-son has been coming home from the gym very sore and very tired.  I love it.

K-daughter has been looking for jobs, and in the process has started helping the boys to look for summer jobs. (Thank you, K-daughter!)  Right now it seems like N-son is aiming for food service jobs, and J-son thinks he'd be perfect for a job where he'd clean fish tanks.  Let's cross fingers that they get hooked up (or cooked up, depending) with steady work!

My husband's classes finished up this week (oh, I suppose mine did, too, now that I come to think of it!). He gave a presentation downtown at our local CS Lewis group.  He's spending Saturday (today) in Philadelphia at the Climate march, while I spent Saturday downtown at our local market doing voter registration. This was too late for our municipal primaries (which are coming up on May 16) and probably too early for the midterm elections, but it was a good practice run for a bunch of novice activists.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Loveliest of streets

About a hundred and fifty years ago, A.E. Housman wrote a poem about my front yard.  He wrote,
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
is hung with bloom along the bough,
and stands along the woodland ride
Wearing white for Easter-tide.
Okay, maybe this poem wasn't about my particular street, because Housman lived in Bromsgrove England, not in central Pennsylvania.  But this time of year, my street really is about the most beautiful street in my city.  The whole street is full of flowering trees that pop into bloom come the end of April.  Both sides of the road, plus a grassy median divider down the middle of the road, are all awash with cherry blossom trees as well as dogwoods.  They're wearing white and pink for Easter-tide, and it's just about the most amazingly wonderful place to be.

In fact, this is a view from my bedroom window earlier this week. There are dogwood blossoms, and there's a squatting dude.

The squatting dude was taking pictures of the trees as well as pictures of a young couple standing in the grassy median, surrounded by the trees.

I'm guessing that this couple had just gotten engaged, and that this was their professional engagement picture.  And of all the beautiful places in world they might want to have this moment commemorated, they chose the street in front of my home.

It's a picture of loveliness.  Or of loveliest.  It's a reminder to me to be grateful for what I get when I just walk out the door.

Housman's poem is about gratitude, too, as well as about how we can apply mathematical insights that enhance our gratitude, insights that allow us to make the most of the time we have amid beautiful places.  The people out my window were young, like Housman.  He computes the years remaining to him, and uses his meditation on time to think about the trees even more,
Now of my three score years and ten
Twenty will not come again,
and take from seventy years a score,
that leaves me only fifty more.
And since, to look at trees in bloom,
fifty springs are little room,
along the woodland I will go
to see the cherry hung with snow.  
Me, of my three score years and ten and possibly more, fifty one will not come again.  But still, I'm heading out to see the cherry hung with bloom.  Life is good.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Miser Family Update, Easter-Tax Day version

Life continues to be rich and full in the Miser Mom household

We began the week celebrating Easter, both in the Christian and in the secular sense.  Last week, I'd bought my candy from our local farmer's market, handing the canning jars to the woman behind the counter and asking her to fill them up. Even though I hadn't bought candy from her since a year ago, she recognized me and asked, "Are you the woman that only puts out one trash can a year?"  (I told her no, I actually put out 9 trash cans last year, so she must have me confused with someone else).  So we had our usual easter baskets with canning-jar-eggs, and our next door neighbor hid plastic eggs in the back yard for N-son and J-son to find, and we had a sweet morning, in many senses of the word "sweet".

Later in the week, on Tuesday, we celebrated Tax Day with our annual family "Money Dinner".  We invited a couple of guests over to share the wealth, and we served dollar-shaped soft pretzels, ("bringin' home the") Bacon, green tortilla quesadillas cut into dollar shapes, and lettuce that the older people saw as metaphorical for money but the younger people thought of as confusing.  Oh, and gold-foil-covered chocolate coins.

N-son played squash against his coach.  J-son visited his foster mom.  My husband went to the Earth Day protest in Philly.  I picked up an extra calculus class, because one of our department's mathematicians got sick suddenly at the end of the semester.  Baby-A can count backwards from 4.  

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Garbage offsets

This post isn't about tomatoes.  Still, I want to show you how happy my tomatoes are, enjoying their recent field trip outdoors.
Tomatoes in the sunshine.
I've started them in canning jars, per my usual custom, because (a) I don't want to spend money on plastic starter trays, and (b) plastic starter trays are so small that they require up-potting the plants anyway and (c) I already have gobs of canning jars just sitting around, and (d) this hasn't resulted in tomato genocide in past years, so I figure why the heck not stick with what's worked?

In the same way that I'm too cheap to buy plastic starter trays, I'm also too cheap to get grow lights, and even when I borrowed grow lights, I was too cheap to leave them turned on.  (Sometimes it's hard being a Miser Mom; I get a little too wound up about leaving on the lights).   But my high-E windows mean that my tomatoes languish without additional help, making the transfer from jars to the ground problematic, unless I give them a way to get full-spectrum light.  So during April and early May, whenever the weather is warm enough, I take my tomatoes outdoors to play during the day, and then bring them back in at night to protect them from cold and/or rain.
The tomatoes in their new "school bus",
hanging out with the violets.
What's different this year is that these field trips have a new tomato school bus, so to speak. Instead of carrying my tomato-canning-jars around in their cardboard boxes (a dozen to a box), I now have a fantastic wooden basket with handles that just perfectly fits all two dozen jars. This box is a most excellent acquisition, because not only does this box allow me to carry all the jars out (or back in) in one trip, but it also means I don't have to worry that errant rain will destroy my storage boxes by making them soggy. I love my new tomato school bus.

And where, you might ask, did I get this wonderful box?

From my neighbor's trash pile.

My neighbors, they throw away such amazing stuff.  Here I am, agonizing over two tortilla bags that go with feeding 8 people at our family's annual money dinner (internal monologue: "Is there  any way I can buy green tortillas around here without plastic bags?"  fret, fret, fret . .  ).  I obsess over eliminating material that is designed exclusively for the purpose of being disposed of.  And my neighbors, their trash piles contain object after object that remains perfectly useful . . . just not useful to my neighbors.  I've rescued I-don't-know-how-many beautiful wicker baskets, art canvases, flower pots, pieces of furniture, children's toys.   Just the other day, I pulled out a tea kettle.

This gets me steamed.
The kettle is in perfect condition.  But my neighbors are renovating their kitchen, and apparently the kettle no longer fits the decor.  I admit I don't need a kettle either, but I couldn't bear the thought of this thing taking up space in our increasingly overflowing landfill, so I grabbed it off the top of their trash pile and added it to our "donate" box.

To be more specific, I added it to our "donate -- household goods" box.  We have donation boxes for household goods, for clothes, for books, for scrap metal, for rags, and for arts and crafts, all near our garbage can, which is slowly-but-surely filling up for the third time this year.  I saw the level in my own garbage can rising even as I rescued the tea kettle from my neighbor's garbage, and a thought struck me.

If companies (and even individuals) can buy carbon offsets from other sources to make up for their own excesses, maybe I could use garbage offsets to make up for my own landfill contributions.  What would happen if, for every garbage can my family produces, I rescued an equal amount of perfectly good stuff and got it into the hands of people who could use it?  My net effect on the local landfills could be zero, even if I'm not technically zero waste myself.

I want to be clear that I know I sound like a zealot and/or crazy person saying all this. I don't actually root around in other people's garbage cans, and I'm not about to start doing that now, nor in the future.  (I've only rescued the stuff in plain sight, left on the top of the can or on the ground next to it).  I don't actually want to structure my life around being the Don Quixote of Garbage, riding off to tilt at trash cans every garbage day.

And yet, the idea of having a net-zero effect on our landfill appeals to me.  If I can't quite figure out how to avoid the tortilla bags and other soft plastics that seem to make up the bulk of our garbage, maybe I can help see to it that our garbage has a little less companionship as it heads off to its final resting place.

It's something to think about.

Monday, April 17, 2017

What seams difficult . . .

On Saturday nights, I listen to Prairie Home Companion, and I pay bills, and I mend clothes.

Except that now that my sons are finishing up 11th grade, getting closer and closer to the day they'll launch into the world on their own, I pay bills and have my sons mend their own clothes.

Fixing a ripped seam -- like the one on N-son's bike jersey -- takes maybe 3 minutes if you know how.  And I darned well want my sons to know how, and not to toss a piece of clothing that's easily fixed just because they're too intimidated by the process of pinning the fabric or threading the sewing machine.

The first time my sons asked me to mend some clothes and I turned the job back over to them, they panicked.  To me, that says that the lessons were all the more vital.  How did I let them get to that point?

I'm really pleased that by now, they accept the task matter-of-factly.  They know how to back-stitch at the beginning and end of the repair, how to remove pins as they stitch along, how to turn the needle so that it finishes up, how to snip the threads when they're done.

They're even sort of proud of their skills.  Sort of.  But I guess I don't have to leave that particular chore up to my sons; I can take on the the task of being proud so they don't have to do it themselves.

[addendum:  when I read a draft of this post to N-son, he replied, "Boo-YAH, I'm proud!"  So I guess that's yet another thing he can handle, after all.]

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Miser Family Update, the good rut edition

Life continues to be rich and full in the Miser Mom household.

My husband has done more than his share of political activism this week; he began the week with a bike ride to Harrisburg (~75 miles round trip) to join in an Immigration solidarity rally, after which he happily joined with his usual Tuesdays-with-Toomey protest, then attended (with me) a neighborhood reception for a candidate for mayor of our local city, and finished the week with enthusiastic participation in the April 15 Tax Day march, urging our current president to be as transparent about his finances as our previous presidents and presidential candidates during the last half-century.  

And if that last paragraph sounds like my husband is merely getting better at traveling along in the rut he's gotten used to, then it'll be no surprise to say that J-son had a boxing match this weekend.  He fought a 25-year-old, muscle-y guy.  He fought well in the first round.  In the second round he lost his mouth guard and the fight paused while he got it back.  In the third round, just as in his previous fight, he walloped his opponent so hard that he won on a TKO on a standing 8 count.  He earned a belt that my husband describes as "incredibly gaudy, plastic black belt with chrome attachments".
And look!  His face isn't all smashed up!  Way to go, J-son!

N-son likewise persisted with his usual routine of ROTC, squash, school, and culinary arts.  In addition, he signed up to take the SATs in early June.

As for me, I of course did more of my teaching (giving back Calc 2 exams) and committee work.  By the end of the week, I got to enjoy a balmy weekend day watching my granddaughter Baby-A.  She loves building things with the wooden blocks that my sister built for her.  She also loves going "ahhside" (outside), which meant that we got to do a lot of weeding and garden prep.  I think that "ahhside" is her favorite word. She's destined for a fabulous career as an environmental engineer, I think.

Let's start a tower . . . 

What an awesome sense of balance this 2-year old has!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Miser Family update (lost-and-found edition)

Life continues to be rich and full in the Miser Mom household. 

We try to have a "Family Fun Night" about once a week, and this week was one of those wonderful gatherings where everything accidentally fell together perfectly.  I-daughter and K-daughter came over for dinner, and after dinner little Baby-A had us all in stitches while she ran circles around J-son and N-son.  Like, literally, she ran around her uncles in circles about 100 times, all three of them full of lots of energy.  There was lots of giggling and fun.   

My husband has ratcheted up his riding in anticipation of his long summer ride across Russia; on Saturday he rode to New Jersey (75 miles). 

N-son has been grooving to his culinary arts program, and he's also snagged a few babysitting jobs, watching Baby-A while K-daughter is at her wedding planner job.

J-son got to spend the weekend with his birth dad --- this is the first time that they've gotten to meet face to face in well over a dozen years.  It's good to see J-son forging these connections.  He's also been working harder than ever at boxing (if that's even possible), and his coach is talking about maybe taking him pro someday.

As for me, I had an experience this week that I haven't had since 1996:  I almost lost my planner (my calendar/to-do list/external memory).  The last time this happened, I had been out to a restaurant with my then-boyfriend and another friend, and when we got in the car to go home, I realized I didn't have my planner with me.  Fortunately, my friend called to say I'd left it at his home . . . but until I got the phone call, I was in an awful emotional state (and the fact that my then-boyfriend thought it was funny is probably a big part of the reason he's no longer my boyfriend).

At any rate, this week I gave a talk at a nearby college and accidentally left my planner behind in the room where I spoke.  I spent an anxious 90 minutes driving around and trying to find it again (the organizers had picked it up and taken it to the dean's office), but eventually I was happily reunited with my planner,  . . . and so all is good with the world again.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Wading ankle deep

Sometimes, when you start seeing something it's hard to un-see it again.

On the one hand, back in the days that I was house hunting, I became super-sensitive to the "For Sale" signs in front of houses, but once I bought a house, I quickly learned to ignore those signs again.  So there are things I've learned to un-see after seeing them.

But somehow, this spring, as the snow melts and the sun begins to shine, I see trash everywhere.  I want to see the crocuses, and the daffodils, and the amazing blue skies, and the buds on trees.  But instead I see plastic bags and bottles, candy wrappers, stray paper.  I drove my students to a math conference last weekend, and the whole long drive through our region's rolling farmland, I saw litter lining the roadway.  I can't un-see it anymore.

plastic bag in the grass

The first time I remember being sort of rocked back by roadside trash was in Haiti, which my husband and I visited back in 2011.  The environmental trash there is really astounding; it's everywhere.  People sell drinks and food along the roadways, propping their tables along sidewalks next to gutters full of piles of trash.  The garbage there is like music and advertisements at the mall -- it's so ubiquitous people don't even seem to notice it unless (like me) they're strangers to the experience.  In fact, the mall drives me bonkers in the same way the streets of Haiti did (or maybe even worse, actually, because I really detest the mall).
Styrofoam block in the bushes

In the same way, I remember being somewhat amused and impressed by Bea Johnson (writer of the Zero Waste Home blog) and her excursions to pick up trash at her nearby beach. Surely this is a Sisyphean task because the giant ocean keeps bringing in new waves of plastic and other detritus.  It was probably shortly after reading that post that I ran a marathon with one of my running buddies, slogging our way through miles and miles of nearby Amish farmland.  And it was on that long run that I realized that it's not just beaches that have garbage washing up on its shores -- it's, like, everywhere.  There's trash washing up on the shores of Amish farms, just like it washes up on the shores of our beaches.  
white plastic rings and black plastic lids in another yard
How did this trash just pile up all around me without me ever noticing it?  Am I like the frog in that gradually warming pot that never realized the ever-increasing danger around me?  Or has my world always been like this, and I've just become so garbage-obsessed that I never noticed it before?  Is it the world, or is it just me?
This plastic ring is not a crocus.

I used to think that litter was caused by litterers: the jerks who threw their soda cans out the car window.  Litter, my teen-age self believed, was a deliberate act.  But now I see litter as a structural problem, caused by a society overrun by excess.   When we buy fast food, it comes with so many varied pieces of trash -- straws and their wrappers, condiment containers, the plastic bag containing napkins and plastic forks and bags of salt and pepper -- that it's all to easy too accidentally drop some of this trash as we walk from one place to another.  Trash overflows the cans that line the streets of my neighborhood, and because of that overflow, some of the trash escapes on the wind.  Trash haulers do the unenviable job of pouring garbage from one container to another, and --- like any of us --- they spill a fraction of this, which escapes yet again. It's no surprise, since we're surrounded by disposable objects, that we have a disposal problem.

I know there are other problems more urgent and pressing.  The impending famine that 20 million people across our globe will soon be facing is much more terrible, much more urgent, than roadside garbage on American highways and byways.  I also know that I can't do much on my own about either problem -- I can't feed people in war-torn countries, and I can't stem the tide of senseless plastic filth that permeates my landscape.

Still, it needs to be said.  We're living ankle-deep in our own trash.  Maybe we could try to change our society so that we focus on creating things of lasting value, and start to avoid creating things that get thrown in the trash, and on the roads, and in our oceans.  And if we can't change our society, at least maybe we could try to change ourselves.