Saturday, December 31, 2011

The industrial resolution

Some people don't make New Year's resolutions at all.  Some people make resolutions they'll drop mid-January.  Some people are entirely reasonable, setting down resolutions that are largely attainable and that motivate even when they're not perfectly reached.  And some people write down painstakingly detailed resolutions with time-tables and subcategories in a list that goes on for three pages, and they do this twice a year.  If you were in any doubt, I'm in Category D.  I love making lists.  Oog.

There are the Financial Resolutions (summary: pay off the House Loan in 2 years, while still funding our upcoming adoption, while still flinging a bunch of money at charities local and global).

There are the Family Resolutions, carried over year-to-year, and which I fall embarrassingly short of.  Examples:  Kiss the husband every day.  Hug my kids every day.  Have a 10-minute conversation with at least one son each day.  Now seriously, what kind of a mom am I that I don't actually do that?  Sheesh.  But I write the resolutions down, and I read them over periodically, and I remind myself, "oh, yeah, I'd better get off my butt and go hug my kid now.  Sigh."

There's the Health and Fitness resolutions (like, exercise gregariously and eat healthy meals).   These bleed over into the Fun and Food resolutions, including the family Special Dinners [footnote: with a meatloaf mummy at Halloween! Awesome!]  There are the House-and-Home resolutions:  Build shelves for the boys. Expand the garden. Do something about that bathroom.  Finish building the Visible Engine we got one year ago.

There are also Professional Resolutions:  research, committee service, and other such academic endeavors.  (Most people reading this blog don't want to know more, but for those who care or those who dare, I'm planning to get deep into compositions of harmonic homologies.  It's cool.  Trust me).

A new category of resolutions this year are the Trash Resolutions.  As in, I want to make less of it.  I want other people to stop sending it to me (seriously, our paper recycling bin is 70% unsolicited mail).  I want to stop storing things (like wrapping paper) that take up valuable closet real estate, but that we're just going to toss in the trash eventually.  I've been reading the Zero Waste Home blog, and it has me just a little bit obsessed.

Is this Trash Resolution category measurable?  I think we're up to Thing 14 of our 100-thing-challenge; giving away 100 things we don't need would be nifty.  I'd say we'll have made serious progress in the trash reduction habit if we get down to one grocery bag (canvas, of course) of paper per month, and one large garbage can of trash per fortnight.  That would about halve our current trash output.  Given that I'm currently one-fifth of the occupants of the home, this will require some ingenuity and finesse on my part.

This is the short version of the industrial resolution list.  I'm stopping here to go on a Bling Run with my friends.  Happy Old Year, one and all!

Friday, December 30, 2011

24 Cinder Blocks

I bet you didn't know that you can fit 24 cinder blocks in a Prius.  The guys at Penn Stone didn't think it could be done; they eyed my little green car and asked, "You sure you want 24?  You gonna make two trips?"

The Prius is mighty.  And with two dozen cinder blocks in it, it's mighty weighty: 9 in the trunk, 13 in the passenger seats, the last 2 riding shotgun.  The little car that could had its tail dragging, but we made it home.

I've been trying to find a good way to store the boys' extensive collection of toys.  After gobs of experimentation, I discovered a way of making storage bins from printer paper boxes, and it's worked well in the sense of helping us keep things neat(er), but it ain't pretty.  Function over form.

I've dithered and waffled over a shelving system to store the boxes.  (The toys go in the boxes; the boxes go on . . . what?  Dunno.)  Finally the Christmas onslaught arrived, and storage needs have suddenly become dire.  The kids and I girded up our loins and went shopping.

First stop:  Habitat ReStore.  Shopping there has multiple advantages: it's cheap; it sells used stuff; it supports a good charity.  Unfortunately, the disadvantages included not having any shelving suitable for paper boxes.

Next stop:  A large office supply store that shall remain nameless.  This had the major disadvantage that I hate (detest/loathe) shopping at chains.  It had the advantage that it, likewise, had no suitable shelving.  We breathed a sigh of relief and reprieve, and left contentedly empty-handed.
[But not quite empty-hearted.  A lovely aside happened in that store when this 19-year-old girl I decided several months ago needed claiming--this kid I call K-daughter--bumped into a friend.  He asked her, "How are you two connected?" and she answered, "She's my honorary mom."  First time she ever said that and I'm still aglow.  Yes.]
Try again: a discount/bargain store.  This had shelves that might sort of work, but they were partly plastic.  Yecch.

I decided that function wins and form be damned.  We're going for cinderblocks and wooden planks.  The shelves will be appropriately teenage-boy-ugly, as befitting FangZ and Waspix and those other nasty plastic creatures.  And ten years from now when the boys move on, the shelving can morph, transformer-like, into other useful poses.

And so I visited our locally owned lumber store, which pointed me to the local stone-scaping supply store, which led me to loading up the Prius almost to bursting.  $45.  Not bad.  We'll assemble the shelves from scraps and odds-and-ends.  We can pretty it up if we need to as we go along.  K-daughter can't wait to paint.  Her h-mother can't wait to help.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Special dinners

You probably don't want to know about The Green Dinner.

Our family likes to have "Special Dinners" -- dinners with a theme -- every once in a while.  We had the Army Dinner (meatloat, potatoes, salad, and apple pie, served from a made-up mess line, all in one plate).  We had the "dOnnOr" (everything shaped like Os, from the bagels to the hole-y hamburgers, and we talked with all 'O's as best we could).

The Green Dinner . . . well, it happened long, long ago, but the memory remains seared in our psyches. Let's just say that my kids will never again beg me to please-please-please buy neon-green-ketchup, and that's all right by me.

As you can probably tell, there's a little creativity and pre-planning involved in pulling together a special dinner.  And with only one exception, these dinners have been lots and lots of fun.  So I'm using some of my quiet time this week for planning so we can launch these dinners regularly.  This year, I'm enlisting the help of the kids to brainstorm ideas, and they're weighing in with some great ideas.  I bend my rules on non-processed foods slightly, but it's still basically healthy and frugal.  Here's what we've come up with so far.
  • January:  New Year's Dinner with pork, mashed potatoes, and sauerkraut.  This is a deep-rooted local tradition, and we can't buck it.  
  • February:  Valentine's dinner.  Heart-shaped table linens, red jello with whipped cream, reuben sandwiches with hearts traded in-and-out via cookie cutters (hard to explain without a photo). Not sure what else yet.  Valentines vegetables still have us stumped.
  • March:  Zoo dinner.  Lots of ideas from the kids, including (but of course) stuffed animal decorations, animal crackers, and turning our chairs arounds so we eat through the backs like cage bars.
  • April: Money dinner.  Just in time for tax day, we'll decorate the table with money covered with a clear drop cloth.  Lots of bacon, lots of dough. More ideas keep flowing in.
  • May: Siete de Mayo.  (Well, we'll be busy on Cinco de Mayo).  Good Mexican music and food.  I might keep everyone in the family on their toes by speaking only in Spanish (heh-heh).
  • June: Underwater dinner.  Dress in bathing suits and goggles.  Blue jello, goldfish crackers, shrimp, sea weed (real or lettuce pretending) and more.
  • July: All American dinner.  
  • August: DOnnOr.  It's been a while, and this was so much fun we've got to bring it back.
  • September:  Talk Like a Pirate Dinner (to commemorate Talk Like a Pirate Day, September 19).  Arrr, matey!
  • October:  Halloween Dinner.  Zombie eyeballs (devilled eggs), salted rat brains (cauliflower), cockroaches (sausage with toothpicks), any other gross things we can imagine.
  • November: Not sure yet.  Maybe the always-popular "No Hands Dinner".
  • December: Car dinner, to commemorate the anniversary of my husband's drivers license, which he celebrates every year.  
It's fun to shoot an arrow into the future and see where it lands.  I love planning for the important, serious, detailed stuff in my life.  But I love planning a little zaniness, too!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Old Year's Resolutions

Unlike many people, I go through two sets of "New Years" each year.  I get a Big New Year each summer, when the school year really winds down.  That's when committee assignments stop, the students go away, and the campus is deserted except for scholars who put up their "Do Not Disturb" signs because they want to put their heads down and think about scholarship.  That's a great time to think about the big questions of What-I-Want-for-My-Life.

The January New Year is my Little New Year.  I get a short break after grading exams and before pulling together a new syllabus, and I'm happy to use this break and the magically quiet time that it brings to think about the future.  But this short break is really the calm between the storms.  It's not suited for grand planning, life-changing strategies, visionary alterations.

So my Little New Year's resolutions mostly involve tweaking, or implementation planning, or some such tinkering at the edges of old resolutions.  For example, last summer I decided it would be a good idea to teach the boys to cook dinner.  This idea has sort-of-but-not-completely worked.  January is a good, quiet time to think about why and why not.

Why it worked:
     They like "mommy time" (provided nothing more exciting is going on).
     Even more, they love earning Mommy dollars.
     They're proud of making a decent dinner "on their own".

Why it didn't work:
    It's more fun to play than to cook, if they're already engaged in a game.
    They didn't have assigned days or consequences for not cooking on certain days.
    They'd offer to cook something for which we didn't have the ingredients, so it was easier for me to make something myself.
    I was often too busy, or too worn down, to force them to come help me.

So I'm planning -- resolving, if you will -- to have them cook on a more regular schedule.  Their cooking nights are going in my calendar.  I'll try to fix the ingredient problems by working with them in advance to choose meals, and making sure they have the ingredients ready to go.  I'll mark out time in my daily planner to help them cook, instead of leaving that time open for committees or students or grading (maybe that will keep me from rushing home last-minute and throwing something quick together myself).  There's even a chance this plan will help the boys become self-sufficient as dinner chefs.

I'm glad for the chance to reflect and tweak, to organize and to plan.  And that's why, unlike most people around me, I'm working on my Old Year's Resolutions.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Running buddies

One of my 7th-grade vocabulary words was "gregarious":  it means "sociable" or "liking to be with other people".  I put that vocab word to good use this time last year when I listed one of my resolutions for 2011 as "Exercise gregariously".  With the exception of one week in March when I was traveling to visit an elderly mentor, every single time I went running this year, I did it with other people:  my friends, my husband, my sister.

I'm not much of a gym person.  It's not just the money for gym membership that deters me; it's also that for whatever reason, a gym doesn't motivate me.  (I get to go to my college gym for free, but I don't go anyway.)  I'm not knocking gyms for other people; just saying that gym = no for my own lifestyle.

In fact, I recognize that a gym has a number of really important advantages over the friend-based exercise plan.  Chief among these are
  1. Weather.   By which I mean, in a gym you can exercise no matter whether there's weather.  The gym has air-conditioning during the summer, and absence of cold rain when it's raining outside, and it's not pitch black in the morning.  In contrast, my friend-runs all brave the elements, except when the elements whup our butts and keep us indoors (and in bed).
  2. Existence.  The gym exists.  In contrast, it took me about 15 years of living in this town to find a friend who I could run with regularly.  I didn't get a lot of exercise those years.
  3. Continued existence.  After 15 years of no friends to run with, I got to run with my new friend for about 4 months, and then she moved away.  I sunk back into sloth and torpor for several months after that.  
But when the stars align and I find a dependable group of friends to go running with, it makes life good good good.  It was about 18 months ago that I was at a neighborhood party, lamenting to some guy that I really needed to start running again, and he said, "So does my wife!"  He played match-maker between us.  We agreed to try running together three mornings a week, Monday-Wednesday-Friday at 6 (gulp) a.m. -- and a new era in both our lives began.

Golden moment number 2 happened when I joined up with a local running club on their Sunday morning trail runs, and I met a woman just as nerdy and (un)fond of hills as I am.  She became one-third of a Saturday-morning running trio that has stuck together for a bit over a year.  

[Moral of this story:  if you're looking for a running partner, google your city name and "running club", then whine to everyone who will listen, and then wait 15 years.  You could get lucky like me.]

Here is my partial list of why "gregarious exercise" wins out over solo toil (not even counting the no-fee aspect, which is important to me also).
  1. Accountability.  There are lots of areas of my life in which I'm very self-motivated.  As you can tell from the above, staying in shape isn't one of those areas.  Knowing that J. will be out on her porch waiting for me at 6-gosh-darn-it every Monday morning gets me out of bed and into those sweat pants.   Friday e-mails from T.L. and K. get me going on weekends.
  2. Therapy.  Or venting.  Or camaraderie.  Or not-sure-what-you-call it.  We get to catch up on each other's lives, brag about our latest escapades, commiserate over each other's frustrations.  Honestly, with multiple kids and a full-time job, this is my most consistent social outlet.  (C.S. Lewis wrote about this aspect of shared experience as philia, friendship, in The Four Loves.)
  3. Mutual dog-sitting, hair-cutting, book loaning, etc.  We've built up a network of mutual social services.  No gym ever offers to pick up a bushel of apples for $8 this week and then loan me an apple-saucer for the weekend.  
  4. Goofiness.  The New Year's day "bling" run last year was just too much fun for words. I'm still hoping we get do to a prom dress run this May.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas loot

I think, as a Miser Mom, I'm supposed to do a rant against the commercialization of Christmas.  And I suppose also I ought to point to non-consumptive strategies like pulling a name from a hat, or giving gifts only to children, or some similar plan.

But I'm outing myself: I love our giant gift extravaganza.  The 19 people in my family spent the ENTIRE day exchanging gifts yesterday.  (Since our family is full of math geeks, I'll offer this calculation:  if each of the 19 people gets one gift for each of the other 18 people, that's 342 gifts we're talking about!  sheesh!)  We started opening presents at 9 a.m., took breaks for lunch and dinner, and finished about 8:30 p.m. We took turns, youngest to oldest, round robin, oohing and ahhing over each other's creativity and insight.  We wore Santa hats and blinking lightbulb necklaces and ties that chimed Christmas carols.   It's the kingdom of kitsch, and I love it.

The boys were amazingly focused and intent -- they unwrapped a few bionicles early on and spent the time in between their turns assembling the wicked creatures and then posing them for battle.  The teenagers (well, actually they're now all in their 20's) fretted and fussed to see how their own gifts went over.  The adults all told funny stories about times past and about our current lives.  We traded tales about local craft markets or about making things by hand.  We guffawed over internet catalog discoveries.

It's not the price of the gifts that make them work.

  • K-daughter got my husband laundry detergent (it's sort of a family joke how much he loves doing laundry), and that was his favorite gift.  She also made some highly coveted bowls out of old vinyl records she had gotten for free.
  • My nephew got me a dozen canning jars that he'd decorated with a cow stencil -- that gift is now on my list of all-time favorites for creativity.  
  • I-daughter knitted and crocheted hats, mittens, and a bag-out-of-plastic-bags.  These are treasures.
  •  The wax-covered pine cones I made for my dad were my favorite gift to give, because they connect my old math professor, my mom's lessons on solar energy, and my dad's fireplace together (long story; trust me).  
  • My dad got my very academic daughter a Thinker's Thesaurus (we looked up "miserly" and found "cheeseparing" and "mingy").  
What makes these gifts "work" isn't their cost; it's the story that goes with each gift.  Each gift, each here's-why-I-thought-you'd-like-this, is another thread connecting each of us, one to another.  And that's why a mingy Miser Mom loves her over-the-top Christmas day.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

X-mass production, redux

Last night we finished up the kids' gifts to their relatives, teachers, and favorite adult friends.  As usual, I went for the assembly line approach (that's what I call "x-mass production").

Because the boys have been learning so much about cooking this year, I figured it made sense for them to share their new-found knowledge.  They each wrote down two of their favorite recipes.  We compiled this into a "cookbook" (K-daughter added a few recipes of her own and designed the cover, and then I photocopied the whole shebang).  Then we made bags of pancake mix, using my no-refrigerated-ingredients recipe.  That's where the assembly line came in.

These gifts fit well into the miser-mom criteria:  they're low cost, they're not going to clutter up people's shelves or living rooms, and they are well within the capabilities of the kiddos.

Christmas is coming!  We're heading over the river and through the woods, to grandfather's house today.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas tickle

Yesterday as I was going through my files, I found a present I'd given myself.

A few years ago after reading Getting Things Done, I started a tickler file -- that's a way that many people organize papers that they'll need for a specific date in the future.  I've come to love using it.  And yesterday I remembered one more reason why.

I came across a file folder, next to my December folder, full of Christmas mailing stuff.  It had sparkly mailing labels with a gaudy holiday theme (love those), package labels, cards, and [big drum roll here . . . ] envelopes that I'd already addressed.  Score!

Apparently last year when I was addressing envelopes (the memory of this comes back to me slowly), I decided to make three sets of envelopes -- it's not really that much harder than making one set.  And this year, when all I have to do is write the letters, slap on the stamps, and send the letters with love.  That's the fun part, really.  Ahhh . . .

Thursday, December 22, 2011

. . . and back

So, my husband and I spent 4 days away from home, visiting Haiti, and now we're back.

And really, we're back.  In the same way that a stone dropped in a lake makes a big splash at first but leaves no real trace on the surface of the water, it'd be hard to tell that we were away.  We're back to doing dishes with a real dishwasher, turning on christmas lights, going to the office, driving errands.  What a weird world this is.

I'm wearing pants, brown socks,  and torn blue crocs;
my new friend is wearing the brown shoes.

Okay, so here's one more Haiti story before I go back to being American again.  I've written a couple of blog posts about buying used shoes:  a long-winded explanation, followed up by another long-winded explanation, both saying that wearing used shoes is unlikely to be the danger to your health that, say, processed food is.

The picture above shows two pairs of used shoes.  Crocs are everywhere in Haiti; the blue pair in the photo above belonged to one of my young "hair dressers" (see yesterday's post).  But I could see that the crocs were torn and wearing down, so I playfully exchanged her shoes for my new(er) shoes.  (I bought those brown shoes last summer for 85¢ at a yard sale).  She loved the new shoes, but wanted the blue shoes back again, too.  She got both sets of shoes -- I had a pair in reserve for myself.  I don't think that used shoes top the list of her health concerns, either.  You should have seen her strut her stuff!

And for me, this was golden.  This moment was the payoff for all the stuff I haven't bought, the clothes I've mended, the leftovers I've converted into new foods.  A big part of the reason that I love to live the miserly life style, as I wrote in my first post, is right there in that picture.
We live in a world that thinks the proper thing to do is spend money on ourselves -- as that advertisement goes, "Sure it costs more, but I'm worth it."   Intentionally scrimping on ourselves is counter-cultural.  But I believe that we're happier if we spend our money on things that are bigger than us, things that are outside of us. . . . 
I know it's not easy at first to live a life of thrift and discipline, but . . . it's a joy to be able to deny ourselves well, and this blog is about that joy.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

to Haiti and back

I often take my sophomore math majors over to the Career Center at my college.  I physically walk the class I'm teaching into the Career Center building -- I've learned that going the first time into a new place is the hardest, and that once the students have been there once, it's easier to go back.

In the same way, going to Haiti for the first time -- actually setting foot in the country -- was amazing.  Beforehand, my husband and I were making jokes about letting our kids know where our wills are.  Within a few hours of being in Mont Rouis, we were having serious conversations about retiring there.

It's so hard to know where to begin describing a place so different from home.  Here are three quick high-lights.

A bunch of the fun was hanging out with the kids in the orphanages, getting my hair "done".  The village of Mont Rouis is home to an incredible number of orphanages -- we stayed at an missionary orphanage that specialized in taking care of kids with physical problems (club feet, missing limbs, and such).  On one side of our mission, there was another orphanage with 40 babies; on the other side was the orphanage in these photos, run by a Haitian woman named Dina.  She herself was an orphan, and she started up this place the day after the earthquake.  That's where I got my hair pulled (I mean, brushed).

A second memory I'll cherish is hot banana soup.  I always feel a twinge of guilt eating bananas in Pennsylvania, knowing how far they've travelled.  But here, I could see the banana trees around me almost everywhere I looked.  And I ate banana soup with gusto, knowing that for now it was a local treat.

The third take-away for me was related to the poverty and over-crowding that everyone who goes to Haiti is struck by.  The main highway between Port Au Prince and Mont Rouis was torn up by the earthquake two years ago and still rubble for several miles. The land nearby is packed with shacks and tents, which are packed with people.  I knew to expect all that (although seeing it in person was still a powerful experience).  What surprised me most was the roadside stands, lining the highway -- or rather, what they did (and didn't sell).

As a veteran yard-saler, I'm at my element shopping al fresco, and I kept my eyes open for good Haitian memorabilia that I could bring home.  But these stands basically sold imported plastic stuff.  And imported clothes.  And (with the exception of bananas and mangoes) imported food.  There wasn't anything homemade, no wall-hangings, no colorful kitsch with "Haiti" painted on it in garish colors, no jewelry stands, no straw hats.  There was nothing Haitian for tourists to buy, but there was also almost nothing Haitian for Haitians to buy.

There are so many different aspects of Haitian poverty, and I'm not sure why this last one had such an effect on me.  

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Leaving the country

This morning my husband and I will board a plane for Haiti.  This isn't exactly a miser thing to do -- the trip will run us over $2000 -- that counts air fare, medical visits, and the rest.   We've packed two large suitcases full of books, clothes, and meds that we'll just leave at the mission/orphanage we're staying at.  We also have two smaller bags with summer clothes for ourselves.

At our med visit, we got Hepatitis A vaccines, anti-malarial medicine, orders to put on bug spray, plus recommendations for stomach problems, not to mention repeated stern warnings about drinking the water.  It's not easy to buy bug spray in December in Pennsylvania.  I'm thankful to a friend who loaned me some of hers.

I remember reading in the Tightwad Gazette a letter about how traveling to developing countries can save money long term by helping people live more simply when they return to the US.  I loved that idea, but I'm pretty sure this short trip won't have the same impact on us that a year abroad had on the letter writer.  I'm pretty sure this will just be expensive for us.

At any rate, I'm already grateful for clean water (right out of the tap), internet access, and a relative dearth of mosquito-born diseases.  And of course gratitude is a gift, maybe even one that's worth something.

We'll be out of contact until Wednesday.  No blogging for a while.

Friday, December 16, 2011


Ahhh, time to make Springerli!

Last year's springerli.  Yummm . . . ouch.
The molds (not the cookies)
About a dozen years ago, I inherited my grandmother's wooden Springerli molds, and I've taken it on myself to make these cookies every year for everyone in my family, whether they want them or not.  Springerli are cookies that are meant to last . . . I just pulled out a few I made last year; they're hard as bricks but still edible.  You just sort of have to gnaw at them.  An acquired taste, but yummy once you get used to them.

When the springerli come fresh out of the oven, they're more pliable -- they're only as hard as soft bricks.  Or something.  Generations of my family have teethed on them.

The recipe (which I triple, just to make sure I share the love) is
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 tsp anise extract
  • 1 Tbsp anise seeds
  • 4 cups flour
Roll out the dough, coat lightly with flour, and press with the molds.  Let the cookies harden over night; the next day, bake them at 300° for 10-12 minutes.

In the past, I've done the overnight storage on several sheets of aluminum foil, but I'm becoming so enamored of living trash-less (or, at least, with less trash) that I realized I could pull out all my flat-ish pans and used those.  The cookies fit on the trays -- happiness.

This year, I inducted K-daughter into the Springerli ritual.  A new generation joins in the tradition -- she seemed very happy.  She gnawed along with me cheerfully.  Watch out, family, here come the cookies!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Peanut Butter Pasta

This week we segued from hot showers to hot pasta water . . . so it seems like a good time to segue further toward pasta.

Even the teenagers love it.

This is how you eat a no-hands
The meal my kids request most often is a no-hands dinner -- that might or might not be pasta.

The second-most-often requested meal is Peanut Butter Pasta. Yum!  Here's how I make it.  Some night when I'm making pasta for something like spaghetti, I make way more than I need.  The leftovers get used in lunches and snacks, but the bulk is saved for this special dinner.

In a large pot, I heat up a bit of soy sauce and some peanut butter.  Depending on my mood, I'll also toss in garlic and shelled peanuts (that is, peanuts with no shells).  Then I toss in the cold, leftover pasta--often I'll chop it up a bit first.  Stir so that the pasta gets covered with the sauce, heat until it's warm, and then serve.

This is cheap, and it's quicker than mac-n-cheese from a box (mostly because I save a step by using day-old pasta).  To my mind it's less processed; definitely less fatty.   I like the protein that comes from the peanuts, and the kids love the taste.  I serve it with whatever vegetables or fruit we have at hand.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

More hot water

I have no idea if this saves me money, but it feels like it does.

I have an old salad spinner that stopped spinning.  Now I use it as a spaghetti drainer.  In the winter months, this allows me to keep the hot water -- not pouring money down the drain, as it were.  (I pour the spaghetti and water in there, use the strainer to pull out the spaghetti, and leave the water steaming in the bowl).

Water, with spaghetti removed.  Can you see the steam
at the top of the photo?
Every little bit counts.
As inoculation against stupid-last-minute spending for the holidays, I grabbed The Story of Stuff from our local library.  You can watch a 21-minute you tube video if you're intrigued, but I prefer the book.  It's a good reminder that not buying garbage (or stuff that'll quickly become garbage) is not just a miserly strategy, it's also an environmental strategy.  I figure reading this helps me to balance out all the advertisement urging us in the other direction, right now.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hot showers

There are three reasons why our hot showers cost more in the winter than in the summer.

The first is that the water coming into the heater is colder, so the heater has to do more heating.  Clearly, it'll take more energy to heat the water if it starts at a chilly 35° than if it starts at a balmy 80°.

The second reason is that the cold water you mix it with is colder, too, so you need more hot water to offset the cold water.  For example, in the summer you might mix cold (80°) and hot (120°) water equally, and you'd get 100° water -- a little warmer than body temperature, so pretty comfortable.  But if you mix winter cold water with equal parts of hot water (mixing 40° and 120° water), you'd have 80° water. That's swimming pool temperature -- pretty chilly!  Most people use less cold and more hot water instead.

The third reason is that the surrounding air is colder, so you're likely to take hotter showers in the winter than in the summer, just to keep the body comfortable.

How to spend less money?  Let's take the last issue first.  Keep the tub and room a little warmer by closing the drain while you shower (even tossing a washcloth down on the drain keeps some water in).  The warm water will help to warm the tub a bit, and warm feet helps your whole body feel warmer.  It might also help warm the bathroom enough that you don't need to shower longer than usual just for warmth.  You can let the tub drain out after you are done with your shower.

Turn the knob on the thermostat
to adjust temperature.

You can reduce the amount of work your water heater has to do by lowering the thermostat on it, if you haven't already.  Keep your water heater thermostat at 120°F, the lowest temperature that still kills germs.  If you've never changed the setting on your thermostat, this might seem scary or unfamiliar . . . but spending 5 minutes on this can mean saving lots of money and fuel, so gird up those loins and do it!  (See this US Dept of Energy page for why this lower temp helps your heater last longer, too.  Bonus!)

Tighten with a wrench.  Done!

Screw the new spigot on just like a light bulb.
And to use less water, you can install a low-flow shower head.  If you haven't done much plumbing before, you'd be surprised how easy this is -- it's almost exactly like changing a lightbulb.  You'll need a shower head, a wrench, and teflon tape.  You don't need to turn off the water main or anything.  Just use the wrench to unscrew the shower head, wrap a bit of teflon tape 2 or 3 times around the threads (this helps the new fixture slide on more easily), and screw the new shower head right on.  Tighten a bit with the wrench, and . . . Done!

For those of us who have mastered hot water 101 and want a little more challenge, here's an extra-credit  assignment (can you tell I'm gearing up for grading exams?):  Install a hot water heater timer.

These babies are like the programmable thermostats for your whole home.  They allow you to turn down the water temperature during times when you're not around (say, at night while you're sleeping), and then heat it back up when you'll need it.  I managed to install one myself several years ago, so I know it's possible as a DIY project, but honestly I don't remember if it was hard or easy to do.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Weekend organizing

As I was running swiftly* up the mile-long hill with my friends this weekend (*"running" really means "walking", and "swiftly" means "breathing heavily"), my friend TL asked me what I'd be doing this weekend.  TL is past half-way to having her next kid, so when she and K. ran on ahead of me up the hill, I was being left in the dust by three people, not just two.  How embarrassing.

I'd love to write sometime about how wonderful it is to have friends to run with.  They keep me in shape better than any gym membership could, and they cost a lot less, too -- in fact, K. gave me her old Othello game, J. loans me her canning equipment, and TL cuts my hair, so I score big-time on this deal.

But instead I'll answer TL's question; what I did this weekend is, I got to organize stuff.  I love organizing stuff.  It was a happy weekend.  Jonas Kaufmann at the Met hit the high C's beautifully in Faust while I organized, so I think he had a good time, too.

In addition to doing maintenance kinds of cleaning, I sorted out three areas by how I'll use them.  There's the food I've canned.  I shuffled things around so that, instead of all the jam on one shelf and all the soup on another, I've got the cans sorted by the month we'll eat them.  I'm hoping this will take the guess-work out of how many cans of applesauce are left, and keep us from the perils of having 6 quarts of peaches but no tomato sauce come May.

This worked so well that I decided to do the same with our freezer; I sorted the bulk-purchased hamburger, turkey sausage, corn, and other frozen goods into pillowcases, which I labeled with permanent marker.  (I'm guessing my boys won't mind that the pink pillowcases are no longer in the linen closet).  I can pull each bag out of the big freezer and move it to our smaller, fridge-top freezer.  (Wait, it's December already, isn't it?!  Got to get busy on eating that food!)

And then I tackled my clothes closet.  I wrote back in September about why I like to organize my outfits into one-week groupings.  Here is a shot of the hair-doods grouping my teaching clothes into sets of four; when I come back to teaching in January, I'll be ready to go.  In the meanwhile, I've got my comfy, slouch-about clothes in my drawers.  (I really do have too many clothes).

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Whence and whither

It's harder for me to write about saving money during the winter because that's when I don't actually spend money.  (Well, not much).  Summer gardening, canning, yard-saling is over, and I'm back to doing math and pulling food out of the freezer.  It's hunker-down season for me.

So it seems like a good time to remind myself why I live this way.  The whole frugal thing is about where I've come from and where I hope to go.  It all started . . .

Well, Stage One for this story was taking on a lot of debt and also commitment to large financial obligations.  That story's been told.  That led to scariness that led to adopting an ultra-frugal lifestyle, which I discovered I enjoyed.  In fact, I got cocky (kooky?) enough about frugal living that, just as we were getting close to closing out the old debt and obligations, I opted for a huge home renovation -- meaning new debt.

That brings us to about now, heading into the future.  Goal number one is to be generous with local and global charities.  Feed people and bring beauty into the world.

My husband and I seem to have accumulated a passel of children as we've gotten older.  Goal number two is to make sure that none of the new kids who make it into our home are born in a year starting with the number "2".  Old kids only, please.  We want them all to grow up and move out before we're doddering idiots.

All the kids currently living at home came cheap -- locally grown, you might say.  K-daughter just sort of moved in with us last May, and I've decided she needed someone to claim her, so I did.  We adopted the boys through the Statewide Adoption Network, through the foster-to-adopt program.  Private agencies are pricey; not so ours.  Taking on more kids to fill up the empty rooms in the hou$e ought to be cheapish . . .

. . . unless a friend from church meets a kid while she's in Haiti and says she wants us to adopt him.  Which she did. And we thought about the money an international adoption would run us, and what that means in terms of how long it will take to pay that off.  And we decided, let's see.  So in one week we're off to Haiti to meet this kid.

The third goal, really, is to do our best to do right by a bunch of kids who need parents crazy enough to adopt and rear a bunch of wild boys.  We figure the home can hold four boys, so we're keeping feelers out for maybe two more.

But also, I really want to get my husband to the point where he's financially independent.  Because his job is far away, and mostly he loves it, but sometimes he doesn't, and once a month when the hormones kick in, he worries he'll be fired tomorrow.  I'd love to have him be a kept man, is I guess what I'm saying.  That's goal four.

It's my home renovation that ties my guy to his job for an extra two years.  And adopting this kid from Haiti will mean three more months on top of that, if it even works out.  So paying off the debts current and future comes before financial independence; that's goal 3-and-a-half, perhaps.  And those are the things that I think of as I pull the bulk-purchased turkey kielbasa from the freezer, and open up the home-canned peaches, and wear the clothes I bought 6 years ago and that still look just fine, thank you.  And don't forget to turn off the lights when you leave the room. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Gift giving

How does a Miser Mom give gifts?

I'll admit straight up I'm not great at this.  The transition from ordinary-frugal to master-miser was particularly fraught with some bad choices; among many others, there's a gift to my mother-in-law that I'd ask for a do-over if I could.  But it's hard to blame miserliness for all my woes -- I've given some really inappropriate expensive presents, too.  I figure, if I'm going to make mistakes, I'd rather make cheap ones.

I'm in a deeper straight-jacket than other gift givers because I was brought up to think that cash and gift cards are business gifts only.  I won't do them except for, say, my child's after school teacher or the people that clean my office.  No gift cards for relatives or friends, even for cute ones I hardly ever see.

And to make the chase even tougher, I mostly avoid exchanging wish-lists.  Miss Manners, one of my absolute favorite syndicated columnists while I was growing up, weighed in again on this recently:
Blatant greed is the No. 1 etiquette problem today . . . [People] are getting other people to do their shopping for them.  They are exchanging shopping lists and paying for the milestones of life.
If I won't give cash and I don't ask people what they really want, p'raps you can see why some of my gifts fall short.  But still I try.

The times I've failed most miserably, actually, were pretty clearly the times I didn't try hard enough.  I've come to realize that there's a lot of integrity involved in good gift-giving.

My sisters are good examples of this.  My middle sister went through some lean times herself, and has learned to craft up some really beautiful--and small--gifts.  The integrity part came about in how careful she was to craft them nicely, in accordance with her values of low-trash life.  There were the magnetic photo frames (cloth over cardboard) that I still have all over my office filing cabinet. When she started learning to quilt, she wasn't up to entire blankets, but she made beautiful pot-holders.  Later [after a grumpy uncle asked her if her craft projects were something she'd done with pre-school kids] she up-graded to quilting a baby blanket, and donated that to a charity in honor of the grumpy uncle (he got a photo of the quilt and a nice card).  Foo on grumpiness.

Meanwhile, my youngest sister is the big bucks sister who spends real money on gifts.  She loves what she calls "score!" gifts, when she discovers something that perfectly fits that other person's interest. There was the year she found me an intensely colorful trash can, made out of trash itself, and made by a women's collective in India.  I still love that thing.  Or the fair-trade coffee that came in a cow-shaped bag.  Or the banjo cutting board.

Here are some general principles I've tried to settle in on in my giving.

• When giving a gift for hard-to-buy-for people, give something I'd like myself.  My step-daughters' mother gave them each cars when they turned 16 and computers when they graduated from high school.  There's no way I can "compete" or even compare with that mode of giving.  So when my step-daughter graduated from college, I got her a sewing machine.  She may or may not ever use it, but she knows that its something I value a lot.  This Christmas (don't peek, gals!) they're getting yard-sale-purchased hair clippers.  Again, they've seen me using one like these, and occasionally even borrowed mine themselves.

• Not exchanging lists doesn't mean I can't pump people for information.  I'd been thinking about getting my dad's new "lady friend" a calendar with all the family birthdays and anniversaries.  In casual conversation, I discovered she's loaded down with calendars.  But I did get to pump her about whether she'd like to know all of our special days, and she was enthusiastic.  So she's going to get a pretty document with information about our family, and also some jam in flavors that my dad likes.

• Start early.  For me, the reasons for this are two-fold.  Not only do I hate doing things last-minute, but my shopping season is naturally during the summer, while I'm yard-saling.  I carry a list with all my family's names on it, crossing off names when I find something cool. I try hard to match my younger sister's "score!" criteria, although I know I sometimes fall short.  Which leads me to . . .

• Don't obsess. The point for me is to enjoy the people I'm with.  The gifts that I wish I hadn't given were all things that I bought just to have SOMETHING to hand over; in retrospect, it would have been better to give nothing, or a nice letter, or a bag of locally made chocolates.  Because . . .

•  . . . gratitude is the greatest gift of all.  I figure that I'm not the only one who worries about giving good gifts.  A heart-felt, enthusiastic thank you note to let other people know how their gift pleased me is the perfect way to wrap up a gift, so to speak.  

Thursday, December 8, 2011

100 Thing Update

Some of my students dropped by my office the other day to turn in their papers.  (Good!  More to grade!)  I asked what they'd be doing over the weekend, and they said they were going to redecorate their dorm rooms.  I joked, "Would you like a cow?"

I have more than a hundred cows of various kinds lurking around in my office.  There are cow stuffed animals, cow magnets, cow pencils, cow picture frames . . . you get the idea (partly).  All of the cows are gifts from other people, a legacy of a bad pun that got out of hand.  (Long ago, in high school, I'd called calculus "Cow Class".  That joke was the basis for my first cow gift, and they've reproduced themselves exponentially since then, you might say).

So when I asked, "Would you like a cow?', it was a reflection of my own office motif.  I didn't expect my students to answer, "Sure!".  But they did, so (remembering my 100 Thing Challenge), I grabbed a cute terra cotta cow and handed it over.

Here's a more complete update on the Challenge, which is going slowly.  (The plan, such as it is, is to try to give away 100 things sitting around our home to people who could actually use those things.  I guess office things count, too).
  1. Train-shaped birthday candle holders to my little buddy Catherine and her baby brother Tony.
  2. Math book to the Harbaugh Club.
  3. Aloe plant, in a spare pot, to the Harbaugh Club.
  4. Six canning jars to a friend who wants to can olives.
  5. Cat Condo to Melissa.
  6. A free turkey we got from the grocery store, to a family at church who told our pastor they weren't going to be able to get a turkey this year.
  7. Cow figurine to my students Jill and Emily.
  8. Latin vocabulary cards to a different Emily.
  9. Your Money or Your Life to Justin
Only 91 to go!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Nit picking

A conversation I had with a friend last week took me back to the dark days of a miserable February a dozen years ago.  It was rough February partly because my husband was traveling a lot -- one of the unhappy side-effects of his new higher-paying job.  I was parenting between one and three kids, two of whom were my new step-daughters.  It wasn't always easy.

But what made that particular February so incredibly bad in a big way was bugs that were bad in a little way: lice.

I'd never had lice as a kid, so when my daughter got sent home from school, I wasn't quite sure what to do. (Did I mention that she was my long-haired daughter?)  The nurse sent a note that said something about trying lice shampoo.  I am not at all the kind of person who wants to pour pesticide on my own child's head, but I was so freaked out (and clueless about what else to try) that I dutifully went out, bought that, put it on my daughter's hair.  Miserable long story short, her brand of lice had developed a resistance to Nix.  I got to read about that in the paper a few years later, and all I could think was, "no kidding!"

No matter how many times someone says, "It's not your fault", we couldn't help feeling like social pariahs.  My child was carrying a communicable disease, and at the slightest mis-step, I might infect my friends.  Did I mention it was miserable?  And it seemed to last forever.

Through trial and error, after a few agonizing mis-steps, I finally discovered the technique that worked for us.  Here's what I bought:  baby oil, a shower cap, and a nit comb.  This last was a metal nit-comb (which you can find at most drug stores).  The plastic nit combs that come with the nasty nit shampoos are worthless; the teeth are too far apart.

For a period that lasts a bit more than a week, there's a lot of work.  Every night, I would put baby oil on my daughter's head -- I read that the oil helps to dissolve the glue that keeps the nits (eggs) stuck to the hair, making them easier to comb out later.  I'd comb out and then braid the hair next.  She'd sleep with her hair in the shower cap, which helped to keep the oil from getting all over everything.

Every night and every morning, I would comb through her hair, first with a regular comb to get out tangles, and next bit-by-bit with the nit comb.  It's called "nit picking" for a reason -- this is exhausting, painstaking work.

In the mornings, after the combing, we'd shampoo her hair to get the oil out, and then we'd blow dry her hair.  We'd then throw towels, sheets, and pillowcases down the laundry.  Her coat and hat, her stuffed animal -- anything that might come into contact with her hair -- went in the dryer, if not in the washer as well.  Heat supposedly kills lice.  And in February, there's a lot more clothing being worn!  It seemed like the dryer was running non-stop.

A year later, the lice epidemic came around again.  The second time around was still exhausting, but it didn't seem to have the same sense of agony -- we had the supplies laid up, and we knew the drill.

I wish my friend the best as she goes through her own bout with this tiny, itchy, nasty beast.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

When our things own us

This past Saturday, there was a moving sale in our neighborhood -- a rare December garage sale.  It happened to be right on our route back home from a doctor's visit, so of course, I stopped to peek around.

As I was browsing the knick-knacks, I heard the owner repeating to other people, "This lamp originally cost $300, but I'm selling it for $75.  I'm letting it go that low, but it originally cost $300."

The lamp in question was definitely unusual; it looked a bit like a hanging windsock -- although to be honest, my first reaction was that it looked like a uterus.  The lamp shade (if you call that part a "shade") was made of gold silk.  Definitely an acquired taste.

Now, I'm fond of things that are quirky and acquired tastes.  I could imagine people who might want a golden uterus lamp.  But what struck me about the garage sale was how much that initial price of the lamp seemed to have the owner fixated.  She no longer wanted the lamp, but the price meant she couldn't sell it for a yard sale price, either.  That cost was holding her hostage, as it were.

It's easy for me to point a finger at others on this kind of thing, but hard to see it in myself.  How often do I not get rid of something because it cost a lot to buy?  How often do I buy something I don't need just because it seems to be a "good deal"?  This is something I think about a lot.

One of the phrases that helped me rethink my role with my possessions a while ago was in a de-cluttering book that asked, "does that object love you back?"  Some things I own make me smile -- our christmas/halloween/easter tree, for example.  Some things I own make me groan -- the lantern someone gave me as a gift that I never seem to use but have to keep dusting.  I've tried harder to value my possessions by my own reaction to them, not by what they cost or where they came from.  But still, it's a constant struggle to figure out how to own my possessions without letting them own me.

Just FYI, I donated the lantern to Goodwill, and I passed up the golden uterus lamp, even though it was a real bargain.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Oh, Christmas tree

When I first started my job here 19 years ago, a friend and I got to go to a summer craft show held on my campus.  My friend and I quickly discovered we had good taste, or at least expensive taste: it seemed like everything we liked cost a lot.  The blue bowl cost $60.  The leather bag cost $300.  We admired; we reeled; we kept walking.  One of the things that I fell in love with was a cast iron tree, meant to be mounted on a wall.  I lingered there longer than usual; it cost $1000.  I reluctantly walked away.

Every summer, my friend and I would go back through that same craft fair, and every year I'd drag her over to the tree-maker's stand so I could gaze adoringly.  Finally, in 1998 I got a "commission" of sorts to go give presentations during a week-long workshop on math and art, up at Dartmouth.  The organizers said they'd pay me $1000.  The workshop started the day after the craft fair, and I decided that was an omen, or permission, or something.

A recent post from Dogs or Dollars reminded me that it's time to decorate the tree.  This year, she's renting a live tree that will eventually go live out its life as a woody guardian to a stream -- I love that idea.  In fact, I checked to see whether our local conservancies have a rent-a-tree program.  (They don't, but I'm going to suggest it to the group I send a yearly check to).

So December is decorating time.  Sometimes we butcher the evergreen bushes in the front yard to bring in some branches that smell good, but mostly we just decorate the cast iron tree with lights, ornaments, and whatever cards our friends send us.  My tree is artificial, of course.  If you amortize the tree over the past dozen years, I've paid something like $80 a year for the tree.  If I hang onto it for, say, 50 years, that's $20 a year.  That's still not cheap, especially if you think of it only as a Christmas tree, which is sort of what it is during this time of year.  But at other times of the year we decorate it with small pumpkins (the Halloween tree) or eggs (the Easter tree).   I pretend it lives the life that Sgt. Joyce Kilmer envisioned in his poem:

     . . .
     I think that I shall never see
     A poem lovely as a tree.

     A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
     Against the sweet earth's flowing breast

     A tree that looks at God all day
     And lifts her leafy arms to pray

     A tree that may in summer wear
     A nest of robins in her hair

     Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
     Who intimately lives with rain.

     Poems are made by fools like me,
     But only God can make a tree.

     . . . 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Morphing into a merry miser

I wasn't always such a miser.  Two decades ago, I was a sort-of-normal, frugal consumer.  I shopped at the mall, but I hunted for good deals while I was there.  I went out for dinner once a week with friends, but -- while I marveled at one set of friends who gave up restaurants entirely so they could save for a home -- I myself didn't eat out a lot.  I bought my groceries at a real grocery store, but I tried to get generics whenever possible.  I'd read Joe Dominguez' Your Money or Your Life, so I tracked my spending, discovering that I spent way more than I'd intended on airport books, and less than I'd intended on socializing with friends.  I had a small home with a manageable mortgage, and no other debt.  You know, normal shopping and spending, with a whiff of financial restraint.

Then I got married.

My husband was a sort-of-normal, big-spending consumer.  I didn't realize the difference between our approaches until after we'd moved into the new home, blended our families, and obligated ourselves to several other large financial ventures.  We got into a bunch of debt quickly.

Step 1 to digging ourselves out of the hole was when we agreed that I should take over managing the money.  That didn't solve all the problems, but it solved two big ones quickly: it put the person who obsesses about record-keeping in-the-know, and it relieved the guy who doesn't want to think about details away from those pesky details.

Step 2 was to cut back on some big expenditures (put less money into retirement, mostly).  This slowed down the downward slide a lot, but it wasn't enough.  We kept bleeding out more money than we brought in, and the obligations we'd already made severely limited how much we could cut from our monthly budget.  Step 3 was for my husband to find a better-paying job.

Even with these three changes, though, it was clear we couldn't always make ends meet unless something else changed.  I began to go to the mall less often, ate out with friends less often, tried to convince my husband that generics were okay.

One day my husband brought me home a copy of Volume I of Amy Dacyzyn's Tightwad Gazette.  (He proudly pointed out he'd gotten it at a used book store for 25¢).  I devoured the book.  Then I read it again.  Then I went to the library and got the sequels.

A miser monster was born.

The changes in my life are too numerous to mention.  The biggest change, really, is how much fun I have.  Figuring out how to spend less money has scratched all sorts of itches I'd felt -- the environmental itch to use fewer resources, the bleeding-heart itch to support local farmers, the competitive itch to do better than last year, the creative itch to make something great out of whatever is in front of me, the dutiful itch I have to share the wealth with others. The biggest trick was figuring out how to do all that while having fun.

Not only have we made it through the worst of the bad-financial times (knock on wood), but I've turned all those early negative emotions of fear/resentment into what's almost really thrill-seeking.  That's what surprises me most -- I thought miserliness was deprivation, but it's really an outlet for creativity.  Even when the big bad debt is no longer knocking at our door, I'll be yard saling, mending, gardening, canning.  As Amy Dacyzyn says, "Even millionaires need to wash out their plastic bags (or hire someone to do it for them.)"  I've become a merry miser.  

Friday, December 2, 2011

What our bags say about us

I recently finished re-reading Snoop, a book about how to figure out what people are like by looking at their homes and offices.  I don't know how well it helped me snoop on other people (why don't you invite me to your home, and we'll find out??).   But it did help me appreciate something about my husband.

The author, Gosling, bases a lot of his analysis on 5 personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.  (Conveniently for those with weak memories, in this order they spell out "ocean").

My husband and I are high on openness (did I mention we're going to Haiti in 20 days?) and relatively low on agreeableness (if you sob on our shoulder, we're likely to tell you to suck it up).  We differ from one another most markedly on the traits in between.  I score really high on the conscientious scale; my guy not so much.  He scores high on the extroversion scale; I really value my "alone time".  So it's not surprising that one of our marital traditions, as it were, is that he calls me on the phone several times a day.  Just to say hi.  Because extroverts just like contact.  But me (conscientiously doing work), I want to get down to business, and seeing that there's no real business, I get tetchy, wanting to get back to work.

This also explains our approach to shopping bags.  Me, I have a large stock of canvas bags, ready to go to the store or anywhere else.  Part of the bag stock is by the back door near my well-organized garbage; the other part of the bag stock is in the trunk of the car (but of course).  And yet my guy comes home with plastic bags just about every time he goes to the grocery store.

Now, plastic bags don't cost me money, but they cost the world money both in manufacturing and disposal costs, so I'll lump the avoidance of plastic bags under the miser umbrella.  My guy agrees, at least in principal. So why does he bring them home?

Because using them takes longer.  He explained this in some detail to me the other night.  In the self-check-out lines, each canvas bag has to be "tared" (that is weighed) and the shopper has to call out to the cashier, and the cashier has to push buttons.  Meanwhile, other shoppers in line have to wait longer.  He hates waiting behind other people (he's not exactly a delayed gratification kind of a guy), but he also hates being the reason that other people behind HIM have to wait.

As for me, I don't care about those other people waiting a little longer.  And I think plastic bags are so evil that the extra time that so bugs my husband is something that wouldn't register on my radar.  And even if I did notice the extra time, I'm a huge fan of delayed gratification and self-control, so I would suck it up.

It'd be easy for me to think of plastic bags as what impulsive, inconsiderate people do.  But Snoop helped me realize that I've got the "inconsiderate" part wrong, at least in this case.   I'm not giving up on getting those bags out of my home, and now I've got a new angle for thinking about how to work together with my husband on this. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

neighborhood swing set

About 40 years ago, one of my neighbors (C.P.) built a large wooden swing set and jungle gym for his daughter.  When she grew older and no longer wanted to play with it, C.P. offered to loan it to a neighbor with small kids until those kids outgrew it.  Thus began the travels of the swing set.  It's been in almost a dozen different yards, from what I can tell.  Here's a picture of it in our yard a few years ago.  As you can see, it's a massive, substantial, and very stable set.  Moving it isn't easy.

I like this idea of temporary ownership -- especially when it comes to kids' things, because they so quickly go through different phases of life.  The swing set was probably in our yard this past time for about 6 or 7 years -- long enough to seem like "forever" to our kids, and long enough to make them sad to see it move along.  But that's a short portion of the swing set's 40-year lifetime of being enjoyed by kids all around our neighborhood.
What impresses me the most about this wandering swingset is C.P. himself.  This isn't some store-bought thing; it's something he designed and built himself.  And from the way he monitors its disassembly, moving, and reassembly in each new yard, it's clear he's both proud and protective of the piece.  The rungs of one of the ladders broke when we moved it to my yard (that's why the jungle-gym portion is no longer attached), and I could tell he was a little fretful about that.

And yet, he's willing to share it with others anyway, to relinquish control over his baby when it's in the yard of other people.  That's a kind of selflessness that I admire, and I doubt I could emulate.  

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Pressure canner adventures

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

Blowing off steam

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cutting hair

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

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

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

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

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

But that's a story for another time.   

Monday, November 28, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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