Saturday, March 31, 2012


It's hard to imagine a dish more frugal than soup.  It starts with what we don't eat -- even with water drained from cooking vegetables or beans.  Toss in some spices and some odds-and-ends, and you've got yet another dinner.

This week's soup stock started with a chicken.  J-son has been begging to be allowed to cook a chicken himself; this was his week to prove he could do it.  Here he is, pretending that his head is coming out of the platter.  He doesn't have the anatomy of his dinner down well enough to know that his head is supposed to be at the other end of the chicken, but on the other hand -- the important hand, here -- he's turning into a mean cook.  Is that the other wing I mean?  Either way, there wasn't a lot left when our family was done.
J-son, or John the Baptist?  You decide.

All that was left when we were done was skin and bones.  Not a lot of skin, either.  It all went into the crock pot, covered with water, to cook all night on "low".  Come morning, I turned off the heat and let the mixture cool.

Once the mixture cooled, I drained off and save the broth, straining out everything else.  Then comes the part not suitable for the squeamish -- separating out the meat, bones, and other.  The only way I know of is to do this slowly by hand.  I took no pictures of this step, not because I'm protecting delicate sensibilities, but because my hands were so slimy I didn't want to touch the camera.

The nice meat goes back into the broth -- chicken soup.  The bones . . . I'd love to compost them, but my husband is worried it would attract skunks.  So they go in the trash.  Any advice out there about alternatives?
What to do with bare bones?  I dunno.

And the "other"?  The ookey, blobby parts I put into a special, well-labeled ice cube tray, and from there into the freezer.  I can pull out one cube at a time later for my dog, who loves-loves-loves them.
My dog loves the ookey parts of the chicken.
This way he gets them a little at a time.
For those who haven't done this process, one small chicken can make a heck of a lot of soup stock; I'm using our little 4-lb chicken as the basis for soup that will feed about 16 people about 2 weeks from now.  Add some veggies, some noodles, some odds-and-ends, and we'll have a meal.  Soup's on!

Friday, March 30, 2012

My day job

Today I'm going to teach two math classes.  I'm going to spend some time on a conference call because of some committee I was elected to.  I'll have to get off the call early to drive to the airport; I'll be flying to another state to give a talk on some math I've been doing.  I'm taking along a big pile of papers to grade, and also a paper I'm supposed to review for a scholarly journal.  This trip means I had to cancel a meeting with two of my research students, also.  (One of these students has some results that I'm hoping we can work up enough to get published somewhere.)

This is a side of my life I don't write about a lot: my job.  I write about my kids; I write about not spending money; I write about making lists; I write about my husband.  It might be reasonable to guess, if that's all you know about me, that the job is the means to an end, and all those other things I write about are the end to which my job is the means.
A space in my life that I seldom write about:  my office.
The truth is, though, my job is me. Maybe it's even a bigger part of me than my kids, or than not spending money, or even maybe than my husband. (Probably it's not more 'me' than making lists, though).

I really love what I do. Mathematicians often say things like, “we get paid to do what we love”. Some even go so far as to say we’d do math even if we didn’t get paid for it. Sounds like an exaggeration, but if you go to big math meetings, you’ll see many so-called retirees there. Retirees from business don’t go to trade shows; they go to the golf course. But “retirees” from math do go to seminars and math conferences. To me, looking at these colleagues of mine says awfully good things about the way I’ve chosen to spend my life.

What we do isn't always who we are.  We often confuse these two things; people ask, “So, what do you do?” and we answer, “I am . . . .”   “I am a taxi driver, an accountant, a teacher, a doctor.”  My husband earns his money by writing and doing public relations, but at heart he is a bicyclist, a joke teller, and an acolyte of C.S. Lewis.  Mathematicians are fortunate because these two things--what we do, and who we are--very often closely coincide.  I do mathematics; I am a mathematician.

Being a penny-pinching Miser Mom doesn't mean that I hate my career.  I know many people turn to frugality to help rescue them from a job they want to be able to leave, a job they hope to retire early from.  That's not me.  I love my work.

The flip side is that having a well-paying job doesn't automatically obligate me to spending a bunch of money.  I've seen people write things like, "anybody making that much money shouldn't obsess over washing plastic bags" (or make their kids eat generic brands, or dress in yard sale clothes, or . . . well, you name it; I probably do it).  But I raise my kids the way I live my own values.  I'm an eco-nut.  I believe in helping others who are less fortunate.  So [ . . . watch me as I get up on my preachy horse here . . . ]  so wasting money doesn't have to happen just because I happen to have more money to waste.

[ . . . climbing back down . . . ] At any rate, it's time to go to work.  I've gotta job to do.  And I love it.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Stop and go

Well, as long as I'm admitting to utter incompetence . . . this is definitely another one of those "don't do as I do" posts.  As in, don't let your 12-year-old drive your car.

In my defense, it was in a nearly empty parking lot.  We were far (well, at least initially far) from other cars.  And my son had strict instructions to touch the brake pedal and nothing else.  Just creep and stop, that was the plan. A little pre-teen taste of being behind the wheel, for a guy whose heroes include Dale Earnhardt Jr and Lewis Hamilton.

What I didn't reckon with, but should have, is that because of a stroke he'd had in utero, the right side of my son's body just doesn't work as well as the left side.  He compensates so well I often forget . . . but on this particular day, his right foot couldn't tell the difference between the brake and the gas.  Then I remembered.  I remembered with a lot of yelling and "watch out"s.  The 20-foot drive turned into a rather fast-paced 50-yard drive.

Fortunately, all ended safely.  Contents of the car both shaken and stirred, but no cars or people were harmed.  And my son decided that if he's going to take Dale Earnhardt Jr's spot in the future, he'd better get his right foot in shape.

So here's a training contraption I put together with odds and ends.

Pedal to the metal, man!

Now my son can practice stopping and going from the safety of a wooden chair while he watches Nascar.  Vrrooom!  Vroom!  Screech!  

Cheap: Made from scrap material already lying around the home.
Easy: Took me about 15 minutes to assemble.
Desired:  He truly does want to race with Earnhardt Jr. and Lewis Hamilton some day.  And
Safe:  Thank our lucky stars.  Don't let your 12-year-old drive your car.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Five different ways to kill your plants

I am the Amelia Bedelia of gardening.  When I moved here to Lancaster, the only thing even remotely like a garden I'd seen was a lawn.  And bushes.  And my only job for those had been to cut them.  So when I started trying to garden I made some memorable mistakes.  Many.  Here are some of the many mistakes I've made.

Compost is a sacrament of gardening.  Compost adds texture and vitamins and a gazillion other good things to the soil.  Even though I killed plants right and left, I could make compost.  I loved putting stuff in a pile and letting it rot.  I was the queen of compost.  My three-year-old daughter told my friends, "My mom has a PhD AND a compost pile!"
1.  When people say you can make a compost bin out of wooden fencing, do not use an actual fence.  It will rot, too. The neighbors will not be happy.  Also, do not use one edge of the house.  Or the garage, either.   
I got poinsettias for Christmas one year.  The tag on my pot said that they do not like direct sun.  So I put them in an unused fireplace, far away from the sun.  They died.  (And became compost).
2.  Apparently, poinsettias do indeed like direct sun.  Certainly, "not liking direct sun" doesn't mean "liking total darkness".  Green things need sunlight.  I haven't always figured out how much, but 0 is not enough.
3.  Similarly, "do not overwater" does not actually mean, "Do not water for several months."  'Nuff said. 
People kept telling me how important it is to put mulch on the garden.  I put mulch on the garden, and promptly killed all my remaining Black-eyed Susans.
4.  When people say "put mulch on the garden", what they really mean is put mulch AROUND the plants, not ON the plants.  If you bury your flowers under mulch, they will die.   I wish people would say what they mean.
After this, I met up with Joe, a friend who was mulching his many Day Lilies, and he offered some of them to me.  We were chatting about that whole "around" versus "on" thing, when Joe's wife came out and saw us.  "Why don't you offer her some Black-Eyed Susans?" she asked.  "No one can kill Black-Eyed Susans".  Joe just shook his head and said, "Our friend is a woman of many talents".
5.  Day lilies are hardy.  If you leave them lying in a laundry basket outdoors for about two weeks or so, and then decide to actually plant them, only some of them will die.  The ones that live will take over your yard after a few years.
The Day lilies were a turning point in my garden.  After I planted those, I started getting better at not-killing the plants.

My feeble tomato attempts produced 5 or 6 brave tomatoes a year, until the year that I moved the plants into a tiny, sunny corner of the yard . . . when they took off.   I do recall people saying sun mattered, now that you think of it.

Trash-picked tomato climbing fence.
Now I'm a tomato monster.  Some people buy furniture for their kids and/or their pets; I buy nets for my tomatos to climb up.  I trash-pick fencing for my tomatoes to climb up.  I love growing tomatoes.

Basil -- I still haven't figured that out, though.  That, I still kill.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Modern marvels

Sometimes I feel like a Laura-Ingalls-Wilder-wannabe.  Canning my own food.  Gardening (well, pretending to garden).  Making quilts from used clothing, and braiding my own rugs.  Walking instead of driving.  No video games.

But there are some modern marvels that I am exceedingly grateful for, things that Laura could hardly have dreamed of.  Here are some of them.

Chlorine in my water.  I know many people worry about the dangers of chlorine, but the people who worry about that aren't the people recovering from typhoid fever, dysentary, cholera or other water-borne diseases. Are these real diseases?  This past January, the boy we're trying to adopt from Haiti got typhoid.  One year ago, one of my students found out her mom and sister in Zimbabwe both had cholera.  Yes, these are real diseases.  A tiny investment in chlorine saves countless dollars in health care costs.  To me, it's a little miracle that, any time I want, I can turn on the tap and get potable water.  I'm spoiled.
Even when the sink is dirty, the water is clean.  Hah!
I've said it before, and I'll say it again.  The drink of choice in our home is not soda.  The boys get a cup of juice and/or a cup of milk each day, but mostly we all drink water water water.  It's cheap and it's healthful.

Ibuprofin.  Yes.  I'm so glad for Ibuprofin that I'm speechless.  'Nuff said.
Two in the hand:  better than a bird in the bush?
The internet.  For blogging, for doing mathematics with colleagues over long distances, for email, for looking up information on canning . . . it's magic.  It's wonderful.

Scanners.  This is one of my latest favorites.  Instead of mailing/faxing/photocopying paper, I scan it and email it to myself.  I can post pdf versions of worksheets on the web for my students; I can send paperwork to my social workers without using more paper.  At my office, photocopies cost 7¢ a page, but scanning is free.  I am totally falling in love with my scanner.

Diversity.  Don't know how to say this without getting too gushy, but my family would not have been tolerated in respectable circles in Laura I.W.'s time, nor even 40 years ago.  When we were getting ready to adopt N-son, other adoptive parents warned us that we'd hear insults from complete strangers.  Hasn't happened.  As we get ready to add yet another African American child to our family, I can't help but give thanks for how different the world is now.
My several children, plus one friend (in green crocs).
We're not exactly the Brady Bunch.
But all that doesn't mean I'm going to go all 21st century on you.  In fact, it's time to get back to gardening and quilting right now.  Wagons, ho!

Monday, March 26, 2012


Here are some pictorial updates from the Miser Mom household.  We begin with two more pictures of our last-Friday visit with our soon-to-be son.  (He's front-and-center, both photos).

The three boys have been playing basketball and soccer in the hot sun.
You can be glad you can see them and not smell them.
They all smell like teenagers.

Where are all our girls?  For four different reasons, in Virginia.  Some of the reasons involve boyfriends.  Some of those boyfriends have not yet come to meet their girlfriend's mother.  But they seem to be nice men anyway.  
Week 4: Weekly total for groceries: $26.50 (I spent $25 for olive oil, and K-daughter spent $1.50 on potatoes).  We're still living mostly off of what's in the freezer and what we've canned, clearly.  Otherwise, who'd want to eat at our home? . . . "Potatoes and oil for dinner, again?!?"

This means that the four-week grocery average is $204; not a prime number.   Still, it's twice what I believe the average really ought to be, long-term.  It is true that 204 (in the usual base 10 description) is also 11001100 in base 2, which is sort of cool. [Extra credit:  Can you divide 11001100 in half, base 2?]

J-son begged me to take a picture of the transformer he built.  Here, it is, guarding those tomato plants that are sprouting in my canning jars.  As predicted, they have sprouted in time for my birthday.

Did I say "birthday"?
I did.  

As of today, I'm officially pushing 50.  Closer to the big Five-Oh than to any other X-Oh.  For people who worry about what it means to be 46, I will just say, do you realize how many famous people have been 46? I've been waiting to be 46 all my life.  Now I'm here.  Yay!

And since we're pointing toward the future, tomorrow I will share some of my favorite modern money-savers.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A low house-to-person ratio

Anyone who knows me knows that I read about tiny houses (the size of small trailers) and get lustful.   129 square feet.  I could do it.  Anyone who knows my husband, however, knows that aint gonna happen for our family.
A tiny home . . . I could live there!
We bought our current home when we got married, bringing into our marriage three small girls from previous marriages.  My husband was already anticipating/dreading the day when we'd have three teenage girls, and he figured we'd need a lot of bathrooms.  We moved into a home that has one shower, one bath, and four toilets.  He hoped that would be enough.

Truth be told, we bought a lot more house than we need.  Our realtor lists us as having 2400 square feet, but if you count all actual floor space (boiler rooms and such), our home is over 4,000 square feet.  We rattle around.  We have to call out, "where are you?" to find one another because the place is so big.

Would a smaller place be cheaper?  In terms merely of sale price, probably not.  We have occasionally looked at city homes nearby, smaller than ours.  Location matters a lot, and we have found that moving to a place half the size of ours, but nearer the center of our town, would be nearly a wash when it comes to sale price.  (Utilities and upkeep would certainly change, though.  I read those zero waste blogs and see how happy the small-home owners are.)

How does a Miser Mom ensure that a gi-normous home is still efficient?  How do I lower the floor space-to-occupant ratio?  If I can't decrease the floor space, then the only solution is to increase the number of occupants!

This, I understand, is not the usual household strategy.  Adopting a bunch of kids isn't actually the best way to reduce a family's expenses, I'll admit.  In fact, of course, the truth is quite the opposite.  Everything from food bills to clothing bills to repair bills to medical bills to transportation bills -- it all goes up.  For me.  But somewhere else, those food/clothing/repair/medical bills go down.   In a larger sense I feel like spending a bit of my own money, because I'm so gosh-darned penny pinching, is saving society a bunch of dough.

Yesterday my husband and I drove a couple of hours to meet a boy I will call C-son.  He's 15 years old.  He's been in foster care since he was 4; he's lived in 15 different homes.  It's hard to imagine.  Next weekend, he's coming for a visit to our home.  Plan is, the weekend after that (Easter weekend), he's going to move into our home, and that will be that.  No more new families -- we're the "forever family" he says he's been waiting for.

Here's a picture of our big house, back in December 2009.  Much bigger than a tiny house.
Current occupancy is 5 people.  We still have 3 empty beds;  C-son gets one of them.  We're going to use what we have.  Fill 'er up.  

Friday, March 23, 2012

Get lots of free stuff!!!

I'm good at getting free stuff.  I could go on and on about the nifty things I dragged home from various curbsides after an early-morning jog on trash day (chicken wire, bean bag chair, lumber . . . ).  I could sing the praises of my friends who have offered me waffle irons, clothes, earrings, chutney, and more.  I could tell you about yard sales and the occasional terrific "Free Box" finds.

But that's not what I'm thinking about today.  Today I'm thinking about all that stuff that I get that I do NOT want to get, and what a pain it is that I have to pay (in time, in money, even in space) NOT to get it.  Junk mail.  Plastic f-ing bags.  Senseless packaging.

According to the Livestrong web site,
The average American produces about 4.5 pounds of trash each day. About 31 percent of that trash is packaging and containers.  
Wisegeek places even more of the blame on packaging:
So how is it that so much garbage is produced? Most of the stuff that fills the landfills is packaging, especially in the form of fast-food containers, but office paper, disposable diapers, Styrofoam inserts, and plain plastic bags also contribute an important percentage to the total waste production of the country. In fact, paper waste makes for about 35 percent of the total material filling up landfills.
In my own household, now that I compost food waste, and now that I recycle glass, cans, paper, and cardboard, the finger points even more pointedly.  What's left in my garbage is almost entirely packaging, followed by glossy stuff: catalogs, magazines, sales advertisements.  (Tissues take a distant but significant third place).   Since December, every time a new catalog comes into my home, I call the company and ask to be removed from the list.  But new catalogs keep finding me.  Seriously, who would think that I would want to buy anything at all from the American Doll Company?  How on earth did those people decide to put me on their list????

And plastic bags, they follow me where ever I go.  Okay, I can understand why, say, a bunch of grapes would come in a bag.  But plastic bags seem to be standard issue for everything these days.   Umbrellas. My husband's dry cleaning.  Even my newspaper . . .

. . . until now.  For the first time in 5 years, my newspaper comes naked.  Behold!
In the wee hours of the morning, the newspaper arrives.
The plastic bag does not.
The transition was not free.  I tried hard to get rid of plastic newspaper bags last summer, but I came up against the Prime-"Do not drive them crazy"-Directive.  Still, 180 orange bags later, it was me that was going a little nutso.

I hired a boyfriend.  (Not my own boyfriend; my oldest step-daughter's boyfriend).  His task was to build a newspaper box while spending as much manly-man time with my boys as possible.  He brought an impressive work table . . .
and duly involved his side-kicks to the best of their and his ability . . .
The lessons were good ones, but they were not free.  And I know that I'm asking for extra on behalf of my newspaper carrier, a really great guy who gets paid not nearly enough to put up with kooks like me.  I had to reassure him that I'd rather get an occasional damp paper than to have 365 plastic bags each year on my conscience.  He's going to get an extra tip come the annual X-mas thank-you season.

But wouldn't it be great, I ask, wouldn't it be wonderful . . . if it were just as easy for me to NOT get stuff for free, as it is for me to get stuff for free?  Just sayin'.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Ninja umbrellas

Lesson of the day:  Buying on impulse is expensive.  Using what you already have is often both faster and cheaper.  Taking proper care of what you already have is better yet.

The correct Ninja Umbrella has finally arrived.  J-son, now much the wiser, will now tell anybody who listens that it should not be used to shovel snow . . . little chance of that in this warm weather.   A little lesson that wound up costing him some $27 -- ouch!

As often happens, whatever J-son has, N-son wants.  Fortunately, it is easy to make a scabbard for an existing umbrella, especially if (like me) you have saved a few scraps of black fabric and various canvas straps.   I love using what I have already to solve jealousy problems.

Here are my Ninja boys, headed for school, with their dangerous snow shovels umbrellas slung across their backs.
Yes, they're Ninjas.
I barely managed to get this photo
before they disappeared from view.
Here they are in their Ninja clothes . . . 

Watch out!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Starting seeds in canning jars

This past weekend, I started my seeds.  After years of killing all my plants, I have successfully gotten to the point where I now kill only some of my plants.  Huge improvement!

I use my canning jars as seed starters.
I start my seeds in canning jars.  I've tried a bunch of alternatives:
  • Little plastic starting pots are expensive (okay, not hugely expensive, but they're not free), and they don't let the seedling grow much.  I've since learned that people who know what they're doing will eventually move seedlings to larger pots, calling this "up potting".  Too much work for me.
  • Wooden salad bowls I no longer used were both pretty and free, but the plants that started in them all died quickly.  
  • I've saved little plastic tubs from various foods -- yogurt, for example.  But as I work to eliminate my trash, I have fewer of these, and the assorted sizes were difficult to store.
Two years ago, I was casting about for a way to start my seeds and remembered my large stash of canning jars.  I figured, "what the heck?", and tried them.  To my utter surprise, I had the best year ever with my seedlings.  I haven't looked back since.

First, I put in potting soil and 2-3 seeds per jar -- I know some places recommend more seeds, followed by thinning.  I don't have the heart to deliberately kill something green that has managed to survive my attempts to accidentally kill it.  So I practice plant contraception instead (or is that plant abstinence?).  Once I've poked the seeds into the dirt, then I add a bit of water.
Adding water.  Note the canning funnel on the left for quick soil transfer.
The cool thing that happens next is the potting soil floats up on top of the water.  This used to worry me, but after two years of not-total-disaster, I now just think it's cool.  When the roots start growing, the water at the bottom will disappear into the soil.
The soil is floating on a half-inch of water.
Last year, I planted one dozen jars of tomatoes.  That felt like a lot -- and it was -- but we love tomato sauce, so I'm doubling the number this year.  (We don't get a enough tomatoes from our CSA to bother canning those).  This is two-dozen jars of tomato seeds, in my southern window:

Move the tomatoes into the light.
In past years, I capped each jar with a sandwich baggie until the plants started growing.  This year, I rescued a dry cleaner bag that my husband had tossed, and I'm using that to keep the moisture in, instead.

Eggplants, peppers, jalapenos, and melons, all getting ready to grow.  Or maybe, to die spectacularly.
The plants ought to start sprouting in a week or more.  I'll have little baby tomato plants poking up in time for my birthday . . . I can't tell you how much I've been waiting for this time of year.

All the seeds I planted so far this year are leftover from last year.  Ditto for the potting soil.  So essentially, the cost of gardening so far this year is $0.

This whole process of starting my plants in the same jars where they'll wind up again feels a little bit like cannibalism -- reminds me of the comedienne A. Whitney Brown, who said, "I'm not vegetarian because I love animals.  I'm vegetarian because I hate plants."  But me, I'm rooting for my plants.  Grow, baby, grow!

[Today I linked up with Frugally Sustainable].

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Zoo Dinner

Sunday night was a real zoo in the house.  My kids were animals (especially if you believe that you are what you eat).  Hungry as a bear.  Real pigs.  Why?  We were celebrating . . . it was the Zoo Dinner!

The beginning of the event was decorating the table with photos of animals from various calendars we've gotten.  The chairs face backwards (read on to find out why . . . )

The menu included lion heads (hot pockets stuffed with hamburger, seasoned with taco sauce, barbecue sauce, and salsa).  Sort of mangled lion heads, actually.  [If your head had been in the oven for a half hour, it wouldn't look that great, either!]
Can you sort of see eyes and a carrot nose?
They looked more lions before we cooked them up.
Also on the menu:  pesto turtles.  These, like the lions, puffed a bit out of shape as they cooked . . .
Baked pesto turtles.  
After making all these animalitos, I got tired of making little pockets. I gave up and made a boa constrictor which had swallowed up, in one gulp, the remaining stuffing supplies.

In spite of my substandard sculpture techniques, feeding time at the zoo was an animated event.  All the animals in their cages roared to be fed . . .
J-animal eats his lion.  GRRR!!!

N-son gnaws on his turtle.  
After everything was done, we hosed down the cages, closed down the exhibits, and put the carnivores back in their dens for the evening.  Grrrr . . .  prrrr . . . zzzz.

The boa constrictor has quickly became a family favorite.  Both N-son and K-daughter begged for the recipe.  I realized we could easily make several at once and freeze the rest, minimizing hands-on time.  So in case you're interested, here's the recipe:

  • your favorite bread dough (I use 1 1/3 cup water, 1 Tbsp yeast, salt, sugar, 4 cups flour, a bit of oil).
  • 1 lb hamburger, seasoned with three things:  homemade taco mix, barbecue sause, and salsa
  • diced vegetables (in our case, the last of the Miller's carrots)
  • 1-2 cups cottage cheese mixed with pesto
  • some grated cheese.
This should be enough for two snakes, so divide the dough into two pieces.  Roll out each, so it looks like a pizza.   Add the other ingredients in long lines.  Roll this baby up, parallel to those lines.  Add raisins for eyes.  Grease the pan, and bake at 350° for 40 minutes.

Monday, March 19, 2012


This past week, I took the boys to our local farmer's market.  One of the non-food advantages of going there is getting lots and lots of arithmetic lessons.  At each stand we stopped at, I had the person at the stand total our purchases, and then I worked with the boys on the "counting up" method of figuring out change back.  This was a lot of work for them, but they started getting good at it toward the end.

In total, I plunked down $33 at market, buying1/2 gallon milk, 1 pint yogurt, 2 gallons cider, apples, oregano, plus Zoo Dinner fixings (2 pints cottage cheese, 1 lb animal crackers).  That total includes 50¢ for parking and 25¢ to each of the boys for acing the last math question.  Proud mama and all that.

I was all set to brag shamelessly about the low weekly total -- had the post all written, in fact -- when my husband toddled off the the grocery store for supplies and came back with a receipt totaling $93.  This brings the weekly spending up to $126.   Drat.  Still, it brings the 3-week average down to $263.
Cute math aside:  263 is, yet again, prime.  This is getting eerie.  263 is also unusual in that we cannot express it as the sum of three squares.  A cool theorem by a dude named Lagrange says that we can express every integer as the sum of 4 squares (for example, 263 = 2^2 + 3^2 + 5^2 + 15^2, or 263 = 4+9+25+225).  But many integers can get away with just three squares.  Not so, 263. 
There's a much more interesting math/personal finance lesson in here.  It's my quite-possibly-irrational belief that, on average, our family spends about (or even less than) $100/week on groceries, and so far, the majority of the time I've been keeping track (2 weeks out of 3), we've come close.  This week, we spent $126; last week we spent $85.  Pretty good, right?

What our family has spent on groceries each of the past three weeks.

And yet, as I described above, the average spending so far is more than twice $100.  How could that be?

The running average of our weekly spending.
The mystery lies in the power of the splurge.  Even one big spending spree bumps up the average a lot, in ways that seem invisible to the person who's not watching it.

Think of it.  If I'd spent that $577 one week and then bought nothing at all after that, it would still take 6 weeks to get down to below $100/week average.  The effect on the checkbook for those 6 weeks is the same as if I'd spent $97 per week on groceries for 6 weeks, but from my own day-to-day existence, I'd think I spent nothing at all for a month and a half (well, except for that one splurge).

This is why just about anyone who writes a book on personal finance starts with the advice:  keep track of your spending.  Write it down.  Tally it.  Do not skip this step.  You think you know yourself, but you're probably wrong, wrong, wrong.

Of course, I knew all this when I started tracking my spending with a "splurge" week: I'd rather see the average going down than see it jump up.  But it doesn't mean I know how this will pan out in the end.  I spend a lot of time spending almost nothing.  I spend a very little bit of time spending a heck of a lot.  I am very probably deluding myself; I know that my perceptions can't be trusted to calculate the long-term average.   When it comes to food, I could be full of it (so to speak).  It'll be interesting to see what this monitoring reveals.

Not that I subscribe to numerology -- far from it.  But I just noticed that by Friday of this week, I'll have written 263 blog posts.  Nifty coincidence, significant of just about nothing.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Counting on the resolutions

Here's a mid-March update on the progress of my yearly goals.

A newspaper box, still with no newspaper in it.
As in one newspaper box built.  The idea is to try to get my delivery guy to stop giving us plastic bags.   More on this later.

Dinner for two?
As in, two special dinners!  The New Year's pork-and-sauerkraut extravaganza was carried off with great aplomb my my husband, and the Valentine's dinner was sweet.  Coming soon, the Zoo Dinner, which will make three special dinners, and speaking of which . . .


The last of the pizza that N-son made Wednesday.
That's the number of times my sons have made dinner this past week.  If I were the kind of person who writes "OMG", this would be the time to write it.  The boys made sushi together with my friend FF on Saturday.  Then J-son did his obligatory kitchen duty on Tuesday (this week's creation, stir fry), and the eaters of his masterpiece included an older sister, briefly returned from grad school.  N-son was so jealous of the attention J-son got for his endeavors, that he begged to be allowed to make pizza the next night.  And he got permission.  I came home from work to find rising dough, grated cheese, and chopped sausage.  Dang.

The Visible Engine, so far invisible.
(Tail between legs here because . . . ) 4 is the step I'm at in constructing that darned Visible V-8 Engine we got two Christmases ago.  Finishing this, sometime this year, is one of my Industrial Resolutions.    Although I'm abashed I haven't gotten further with this, I'm irrationally delighted by the next number, which is . . .

A curb, with no trash cans.  Again.
Cans of trash.  That's how many bins we've hauled to the curb during these first eleven weeks of the year.    Could I possibly get down to a can every three weeks?  The cogs are turning . . . 

Friday, March 16, 2012

My secret enemy

Some things I'm better at than others.  Forgiveness is one of those others.  Sometimes (okay, oftentimes) I can't for the life of me figure out how to forgive someone on my own, and I need to get professional help.  Fortunately, I happen to have a friend who's a pro, and so I can turn to her.

There was this person I used to run up against a lot.  Sometimes I didn't know if he even realized what a pain in the neck he was to me, and other times (many other times) I was sure he was doing it on purpose.  My closest confidants all agreed:  he was a jerk.

I couldn't get away from him; personal circumstances kept us coming back into the same circles. I think I could have forgiven him more easily if I thought he wasn't going to be a jerk to me again next week, next month.  If he were far away, I could probably have let by-gones be by-gones, but unfortunately, he wasn't gone.

I also didn't want to try to pretend that he was actually a nice person.  Because the truth is, he was really being a jerk.  Selfish, manipulative, even deceitful.  Mean.

So why on earth would I even want to forgive him?

Partly, there's the whole theology thing.  I believe that God so loved the whole world that he sent his only begotten Son to die for me, and he did that while I was being a total jerk myself.  And so I'm supposed to go and be a jerk no more, not even when other people are nasty to me and I'm feeling entitled to think I'm better than they are.

The other more immediate (= selfish) reason is that it really was eating at me.  I just couldn't not take this personally, couldn't get to the point where I could say, "yes, you're mean and spiteful, but it's not about me."  It was consuming me.  Consuming as in, eating me up from the inside out.

Enter professional assistance, in the form of my friend Amanda.  Amanda put me on a spiritual workout program.  The most helpful thing she had me do was to pray every morning for 30 days straight.  And what I prayed, every single morning of that month, went sort of like this:
Lord, please pour your blessings down on that guy.  Show me how much you love him.  I'm not strong enough to forgive him or love him myself, so I'm giving up, and I'm going to delegate that job to you.  You do it for me.  I'm just going to watch, and see how it's done.
And Amanda told me that I was supposed to watch for any good news that might come that guy's way.  And you know, it felt so good just to off-load the whole forgiveness thing for a month.  To pray for good news for my enemy while still acknowledging that he was my enemy, whether he knew it or not.

Prayer isn't magic, and things didn't suddenly and magically get better.  Still, good things -- very good things -- have come the way of that guy.  He hasn't been mean/nasty spiteful to me lately, although I know that's as much circumstance as anything else.  As I said, forgiveness is not one of the things I'm good at, but I've found some measure of peace over the years.  Thanks, Amanda.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What my boys eat (and eat, and eat)

You might have heard that boys can eat a lot.  Indeed, I too have heard that boys can eat a lot. Because I live with them and grow slowly accustomed to the increasing amount that I cook, it's sort of hard to realize how much the boys and their appetites have grown.  Then we get a visit from someone who hasn't seen the kids in a while, and I realize how much things have changed.

Here are four data points.
  • Late in the summer, I cooked up a huge batch of kale, planning to freeze the leftovers.  Both boys had fourths of the dish and were disappointed when it ran out.  There were no leftovers.
  • When I make pasta for our 4-5 person family (the number of people varies a bit from evening to evening), I always make 2 lbs at once.  Occasionally, there are leftovers, but not always.
  • Two weeks ago, my husband made 2 pounds of hamburgers and 5 pounds of potatoes (mashed).  At the end of the meal, all that was left to put back in the fridge was a fist-sized ball of mashed potatoes.
  • After their basketball game last Saturday, their coach took the boys out to an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet.  J-son had had 3 muffins for breakfast (why 3?  Because I wouldn't let him have 4).  At the buffet, he had a large salad and 9 pieces of pizza.  (Yes, he ate it all).  That same night for dinner, he had a large pile of sushi. N-son's totals were less impressive: 3 muffins, 5 pieces of pizza, sushi.
Tally of part of my son's breakfast and lunch on Saturday.
Salad not pictured here, but it was impressive, too.
One of two sushi rolls he ate later the same day.
Look at how skinny he is.  Where does it all go?
These are some of the more extreme days; the boys don't always eat this much.  N-son eats less than J-son (and sadly, N-son is also the one who most needs to watch his waistline.  Isn't that always the way it goes?)  But with both me and my husband doing a lot of running, and with the boys getting taller by the hour, we put away a heck of a lot of food.  Healthy appetites are the norm.

So healthy meals are the norm, too.  With the exception of occasional random things that my husband buys, I try to surround my sons with cheap, filling, nutritious foods.  Potatoes.  Soups.  Homemade breads.  Vegetables galore.  Because store-bought snack foods and processed breakfast cereal are a little expensive if you're eating just a little of it, but they're a lot expensive if you're eating as much as my boys do.  

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Dog wounds and bandage bins

My favorite frugal fix-it story of the year 2004 was patching up my dog with duct tape.  (I’d also done three toilet repairs, a dryer repair, and the first half of a washing machine repair that year, but I only got to use duct tape once during those projects).  The reason that my dog, Lucky, needed repair was that she got into a fight with the cat, and of course she got the worst of it: the cat bit a huge chunk out of her ear.  In order to bandage the ear, which was bleeding badly, I made a quick bandage from clean rags and a bit of antibiotic lotion. I learned quickly that she could easily shake small bandages off (and I won’t tell you about the mess made by a dog with a wounded ear who shakes her head vigorously), so I taped this bandage securely to her head, winding the white duct tape around several times.  She looked like a revolutionary war veteran, and if I could have given her a fife and drum, that would have made the portrait perfect.
Disclosure:  I did call the veterinarian to double-check that this method was okay.  Lucky Dog was so nervous about the vet that she had to take valium before her annual check-ups, so I figured a home fix was probably easier on everyone involved.  The vet approved.
I was thinking about my dog bandages recently during a less severe wound:  N-son came to me a few nights ago needing love and bandages because he had "stubbed his toe".  Small amounts of blood were indeed visible, if you looked hard.  My baby boy had been damaged.

Hugs first; bandaids second.  I rooted around in our bandaid bin and found weenie little round bandaids and also huMONgous bandaids, but none just perfect for the toe.  The hunt was complicated by jars and vials of this-and-that.

Clearly, time for a cleaning.  No before photos, just after photos:

Baskets within baskets: organized bandages.
Here's what's in the bandage bins now:
  • a small container of scissors and tapes,
  • a mess of sterile pads,
  • petroleum jelly and aloe lotion, and
  • a small plastic jar of bandaids.
N-son's bandage hunt helped me make a decision I've been wavering over:  I'm phasing out the bandaids.  I never can easily find the size I need; tape and sterile pads works just fine, make less overall trash, are are cheaper to boot.
How much cheaper?  A quick search of yields many different prices of many different brands of bandages and first aid tape, so a direct comparison isn't easy. But going by general trends, let's compare 100 3-inch-long bandaids that run about $3.50 with tape that costs $3.00 per 36 feet.  Are you up on your fractions?  Using tape instead of bandaids saves about 1.4¢ per boo-boo.
I'm also phasing out this:
Good-bye, antibiotics!
When I cleaned up these baskets, somehow I found something like a dozen tubes of antibiotic creams.  Oh, good grief!  No wonder I could never find anything in those baskets!  I keep reading that petroleum jelly works better for healing purposes, so I'm ditching the antibiotic ointments.  (Actually, I've bagged these up and will send them with a missionary friend to Haiti.)

In the future, bandages in our house will likely have these layers:
  1. hugs and kisses,
  2. petroleum jelly,
  3. cloth pad, cut to size, and then 
  4. tape.
You did not really want to know about my bandage bins.  What you really want to know is this: 
How do you get duct tape off a dog?
The answer is, you pretend to the dog that you're petting her.  You do not pull the duct tape off the dog.  Rather, you grip small sections of dog hair with your fingers and gently pull the hair away from the duct tape, toward the dog.  The dog is delighted beyond all imagining at the loving attention she gets.  A well-bitten ear takes about 8 days to heal.