Monday, April 30, 2012


The 9-week grocery average: $159, about $6 higher than last week.
Average weekly spending, each week since March 1.
That rise in the average is because this past week, our  one-week grocery spending totalled $210.
Weekly spending since early March

What did we buy this week?  A bit of splurging (well, okay, two bits of splurging), plus a bunch of frugal spending.

Splurge #1.  An 8-dollar-trip to Market for yogurt and milk transformed into a 39-dollar-trip when I spied real maple syrup, in a real glass jar.  About two years ago, I decided to perform my own little one-person boycott of syrup: the choice seemed to be between cheap processed corn-based syrup, on the one hand, and wickedly expensive real maple syrup on the other hand.  I couldn't hack either choice.  I switched to homemade jams instead.

This is a parade I march in, in which no-one follows.

My husband still loves the expensive, real $yrup.  My boys still love syrup in any form it appears [mumble-mumble-blush: they get the artificial goop.  Pay no attention to the bottle  behind the curtain].  At any rate, when I saw I could get something nice for my guy without getting plastic, I plunked down $22 on a half-gallon of NY state maple syrup.  Call it insanity; call it love; it's the soft underbelly of my devotion to my guy.

Splurge #2.  My only homemade daughter, my sole birth daughter, came back into town.  It is a family tradition that she makes mac-N-cheese mixed with hot dogs and garlic.  This is fake-food-heaven, and my children revel in it.  You do not have to eat this; I share this so you will know I am not at all perfect. (While my husband was at the grocery store getting processed food-stuffs, he also bought frozen peas and several jars of mayonaise, for a total of $42.)
On the lower-left, evidence that my daughter has been in town.
Elsewhere, dry staples.  

Frugal spending:  I took a trip with a friend to Millers, our local Amish-run, organic food store.  I spent $128 on a bunch of staples:  50lbs flour, 30 lbs dried beans, 20 lbs oats, 5 lbs sugar, 5 lbs sesame seeds, 2 lbs bulgher wheat, apples.

Unlike the rest of the spending, the Miller haul is deliberate, planned to last a long time, planned to feed our family for several months.  (For example, I know our family goes through 50 lbs of flour in about 3 months).  The food, because it's organic and mostly local, is not the cheapest of its kind.  The flour, for example, cost $45 for 50 lbs; I'm sure I could scout around and get a cheaper price elsewhere.  Probably ditto on the dried beans.  But the type of food itself is cheap:  it's not meat or cheese or other pricey stuff.  Hearty.
Some people say I'm full of beans.  Hard to argue with that!

Also unlike the rest of the spending, the Miller haul brought home a bunch of groceries that left us with nothing to eat.  The flour has to be made into bread/muffins/waffles; the beans need to be soaked.  The apples are ready to go, but the rest of the food needs some preparation. And yet, this is the food I'm the proudest of.  This is the food I'm putting the Miser Mom stamp-of-approval on.

Meanwhile, the kids do their little happy dance around the mac-n-cheese, the hot dogs, the corn/maple syrup.  Food that can actually be eaten.  Real life, real food, and as always, reality depends on the belly doing the consuming.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The secret society of the blissful busy

As April winds down, I want to say the forbidden word, and then to make a confession.

My life (I have written) has been rich-and-full lately.  There has been a lot going on.  I have been -- to use a word that I try hard not to use -- busy.  I could list all the ways my time has been apportioned (children, housework, job, PTO) but that's not the point -- I know that other people are busy, too.  The details don't matter.  The busyness, that's something you can understand without wanting to get close enough to read the bumpersticker on the back of my busy-bus.

And I think it would be fair for you to think that "busy" means "unhappy", or "frustrated", or "overwhelmed".  But no.  Actually (here's the confession part), I really like being busy.  Delighted, you might say.  I've been having my own little Busy Ball.  I've had a blast.

It's true that I do NOT like letting important things go undone.  When I can't meet obligations (to myself, to others), then I'm frustrated.  The getting-big-things-done part of my life is why I took a few days off of blogging, in fact.  But the mere fact that my day is filled up with activity, that part I like.  I seek it out, truth be told.

As busyness goes, it's just that, generally, activities that other people find relaxing, I find stressful -- lacking in purpose or sense of accomplishment:  family vacations (couldn't we find a volunteer activity to do together?).  Lying on the beach (anyone want to go for a walk?).  Long lunches.  "Just sayin' hello" telephone calls.  I can do those if I have to, but I'd rather be making lists, writing emails, doing math, canning tomatoes.  Anything that leads to something.

I'm one of those people who gets twitchy when I sit still.  At a grand dinner earlier this week, I was the one who kept hopping up, walking over to other tables, schmoozing all around.  I was the one to propose that next year, maybe we should add dancing.  Sitting still for 75 minutes?  Not my style.

Except when sitting still is purposeful.  Give me a book and a quiet room, and I'm there.  Back in the pre-N-son days, I read entire Tom Clancy books in a span of half-days; John Grisham and Agatha Christie and John Donne and Dorothy Parker can still command my undivided attention.  So it's not at all that I'm afflicted with some kind of ADHD.  (My sons, yes).

 But I don't think busy-ness is some kind of sin.  There are times it comes close:
  • when we try to act superior to others because we're so busy;
  • when we try to impress others because we're so busy;
  • when we try to welch on our promises because we just discovered we were busy;
  • when we try to blame others because we took on big tasks that (surprise!) made us busy.
But is enjoying being busy bad?  That is, provided you can control those other aspects of pride and conceit?  Sometimes people imply that it is; that "not taking time to smell the roses" is somehow a signal of general maladjustment.   If they're right, I'm way out of whack.   

Friday, April 27, 2012

Fan mail Friday

I'm back, just in time for Fan Mail Friday.

As in, I thought I ought to share with you some things I've been a fan of, recently.  Writers of whom I am a fan.  Good way to do a bit of updating on things I wrote about a while back, while sharing how much I've learned.  These are always people way smarter than me (thank goodness!), and I love to learn from them.  Here is a peek at some of those smart people I've been admiring.

Oil on not-so-troubled waters.
Back in January, I wrote about my quest to get rid of disposable spray oil cans.  Kimberlie recommended the Misto sprayer (Advantages: reusable, fun to pump; Disadvantages:  $12).  I futzed around for a while, trying to find a way not to spend that $12, and finally caved in/gave up/shelled out/came around.  I've been enjoying the whoom-whoom-whoom action of pumping it up.  Jealously guarding it from my sons, in fact.  And my muffins have been obligingly sliding right out of their tins. But then I ran across this post from Natures Nurture, who -- faced with the same situation that had stumped me -- figured out how to get a regular spray bottle working well with oil by adding this secret ingredient:   water.

I am in awe.  And a dozen dollars in the hole, apparently.  

Mommy dollars and chore charts
C-son and J-son and N-son are all earning Mommy Dollars, and they all have BoMama accounts.  But keeping accounts straight has been getting less-and-less straightforward.  With three sons, there's a bit of -- shall we say -- "rambunctiousness" at bedtimes.  Sometimes we count up how much money we've earned during the day each day; more often, we do not.  

So imagine my delight when I saw this lovely video, in which a nine-year-old boy saves up enough for an iPad.  It's not the iPad that wowed me, though; it was his chore chart.  I realized I could use charts, not to assign chores, but to keep track of which ones I should eventually pay for.  Our lives are getting straightened out again.  

General busy-ness
Did I mention that April can be a hectic time for a professor?  I think I just might have said something like that, perhaps.  (Did I?)   Now that my semester is over and the summer is here, I'll never be hectic again, of course.  But still, my recent posts on my "rich and full" life prompted a lovely email from my alter-ego on the opposite coast. I read the first blog post below out loud to my husband, and I'm just glad we didn't pee our beds, we were laughing so hard (probably at ourselves, really). 
Just a quick note for other things I've been reading on the subject, that I thought you might be interested in. 
Erica at NW Edible life (who actually lives right down the road from me) recently wrote about the cult of busy.
I've found myself referring back to the post more than once.  
She also linked to someone else's interesting ramble on Slow Time vs. Fast Time, something I'd not thought about as I tend to try to treat everything like Fast Time.
And that's a peek at my end-of-semester reading list.  It's nice to be back again!

Monday, April 23, 2012


This Monday, we've arrived in the Land of Plenty.  That is, the last week of April is the Land of Plenty-To-Do.  Between my final week of teaching (which includes supervising frantic students) and helping to transition my new son into the home, I'm going to take a bit of a break from blogging -- I should be back in the e-saddle by Friday.

Even if we're not living in Land of Milk and Honey, that's what we spent our grocery money on this past week.  We bought five pounds of honey, plus yogurt and milk and cottage cheese and more milk (plus some coffee, soup cups, spices, and etc).  The weekly total was $79.  This total doesn't reflect a bit of scrounged food (2 leftover pizzas, rescued from a large event with more food than party goers).  Waste not, want not.
Weekly spending each week for the past 8 weeks.
This brings the average weekly spending over the past 8 weeks to $153/week.
Average spending since early March.
Now, 153 is a triangular number.  To wit, this is what $153 would look like, if you arranged it in aesthetically pleasing rows:
$153, arranged triangularly.
Count 'em, if you don't trust me.  17 rows.  One more dollar in each row than in the row before.  Not particularly useful, but very pretty.  Amusing, in a geeky sort of way.

I'll be back April 27.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Yard saling!

Yard sale season has begun here in Lancaster, PA.  Churches (which have large indoor spaces) seem to be leading the way, having some kind of architectural insurance in the case of inclement weather.

Last weekend, four members of my family hit the road.  Our first, unplanned stop netted three pairs of dress shoes for me, $1 each.  This was a lucky find -- my current heels are decaying, and my feet (size 9) are not optimal for yard sales.

A few other planned stops were mostly unproductive, and then we hit the magic spot:  a church-basement sale that had a $2 fill-a-bag AND a bunch of things we could actually use.  Altogether, the weekend haul cost us $7.25; for that princely sum, we brought home all this:
  • three sets of dress shoes for me; 
  • one pair of long-boarding shoes for K-daughter;
  • a large pile of briefs and undershirts for the boys;
  • two highly coveted baseball caps;
  • one nail care set (soon to be a gift for the stylin' J-son);
  • a puzzle;
  • several pairs of summer shorts and a running top for me.
The first harvest of the 2012 yard sale season.
There was also a really nice pair of black shoes I passed up; the woman selling them explained that she was selling them for $7 because she'd originally bought them for $125.  That kind of explanation is familiar to me, and there are ways in which it's compelling.  But to keep spending really low while yard saling, I have to ignore what the value is to the person selling the items.  (If I were being completely obnoxious, I would say, "Just because you spent a lot, doesn't mean I have to make the same mistake."  But I try to limit my obnoxious-ness).

Instead, I try to keep in mind on my own goal:  I will eventually want to get a pair of black walking shoes, and I am very likely to eventually find them for $2 or less.   Instead, I blamed myself for being an utter cheapo.  What I did say, as I was putting the shoes back on the table, was, "They're very nice, and I'm sure they're worth it.  But it's against my religion to spend more than $2 on shoes.  I'm just cheap that way.  Sorry."  And there were no hard feelings.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Surviving a busy spell: phase 3 = lists

Write it down.  That's phase 3 of my when-I'm-way-too-busy coping mechanism.

You knew I was going to say this.  You just wondered when.  I make lists all the time.  When I get busy, the lists are even more essential to me.  A list is not just some kind of security blanket for the obsessive-compulsive (although, thank goodness,  it can certainly be that for people like me -- hah!)  When people  are under stress, both memory and decision-making suffer.  So writing things down helps to avoid brain farts, minor mishaps, or even huge mistakes.

The point of a list is not to make my life conform to the list.  Just because I write it down, doesn't mean I have to DO it.  It just means I no longer have to actively remember it . . . my list will remind me.  More written on the paper; less clutter in the head.

Every time I think of something I might want to do, it goes onto my list.  (I keep all my lists in my planner).  Big or little, I just write it down.

What happens once I've got my list together is more of an art form than a science.  I know from past experience that I tend to write down more tasks than I can ever accomplish in a single day.  Some people deal with this using the "three big rocks" method (choose the three tasks you really need to accomplish, and just do those), and I understand the appeal of that.  But my day is often full of many important little tasks; if I did just three of the things on my list, my world would fall apart.

Instead, once I've got a list, I do a kind of quick triage.  I'll often read through my list quickly, marking some of the tasks with a "U" or a "V" or other symbols.
  • For me, "U" stands for "urgent" -- C-son needs meds today.  I have to prepare for my class before the class happens this afternoon.  If I don't register for the conference today, I lose the early-bird discount.
  • "V" stands for "vital", the tasks that are central to my identity and my values.  Getting exercise.  Doing math.  Hugging my kids.  (Yes, I write "hug kids" on my to-do list, because I'm the kind of person likely to forget to do that.  Sad but true).  
  • Depending on what else is on the list, I might also mark some items with a telephone (on days I have a lot of calls to make) or an "e" (on days there are a lot of emails to send out).  This allows me to "batch" my tasks.
Given that I don't have enough time in a single day to do everything on my list (and trust me, I don't), I try to whack away at the U/V parts first.  And sometimes, "whack" means just not do it at all: to heck with that conference.  Or, I'll run tomorrow when it's not raining, but skip it today.  Crossing something off my list because I decided NOT to do it feels really good on a busy day.

I also try to ease some of the mental strain of large to-do lists by deliberately moving some big tasks into the future, when the semester is over and life will be less hectic.  In May, I'm going to review a paper an editor sent me, and I'll also work on a newsletter that has no fixed deadline.  Both of these are things I want to do, but I don't have to do them now.  So they're not on today's to-do list (try saying that three times fast!); they're on a "May" to-do list.  I can forget about them for a while.  Phew!

Having a list isn't a method for getting everything done.  Hardly!  For me, it serves more as a way of getting peace of mind -- it reminds me that I haven't forgotten to do something important.  Reminds me that what I am doing right now is really the most important (to me) thing to be doing.  That if there's something important I didn't do, at least I know I didn't do it, and can try to work around that.  That, since I can't do everything today, at least I'm making choices about what I can do today.  

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Surviving a busy spell: my unbalanced approach

Phase 2 of surviving a busy time: don't go for balance.

I've seen a lot of presentations on "balance", as in "How to balance career and family", or (for professors), "How to balance teaching and research".  I really don't like that metaphor.  For me, it sounds like this:  two different, important things, that you need to keep as far away from each other as possible.
Balancing work  and family?
I try to think instead of "integrating" -- that is, bringing things together.  I like that I take my kids to math conferences with me.  I like that my students come to my home for dinner, or that my kids come to my classes.  I like that I go running with my friends; that's a lot better for me than "balancing my exercise and my social life".

A better metaphor than "balance" might be a jigsaw puzzle.  How can we put all the pieces of our life together, especially when there's not much room on the table (or in our calendar)?

Examples are in order.  They're tricky, because I'm sure the puzzle pieces of my life don't look like yours.  You don't probably don't have a pair of boys who were dying-dying-dying to play squash last weekend.

You probably didn't have a huMONGous pile of papers to grade, either.

That would be me with the squash wannabes and the grading.  Two puzzle pieces.  Pieces that fit together nicely, like this:
I grade, unmolested, overlooking my sons,
who smash the ball into as many walls as they can.
So yes, I plan my syllabus around my children's athletic and music practice schedule.  I often grade while they run drills on the basketball court or while they bang away on drums.  [ --> Earplugs! <-- ]  I want quiet while I grade; they want a mom sitting on the sidelines but not on the court with them.  Fits together nicely.

Cooking with my kids is another example; I'm such a task-oriented person that I'm not good with playing traditional games.  (I'd be happy building the V-8 engine together with J-son, but once it's built, I don't have much patience for just watching it run.)  So -- since I want to make sure I spend time with my kids, and since somebody has to make dinner anyway -- cooking gives us a purposeful task to accomplish together.

We "put the pieces together" when we do several errands at once, keeping shopping time to a minimum.  (Bonus points if one of those errands is a stroll through the farmers' market, hand-in-hand with the husband.  Yes.)  In a different way, we "put the pieces together" when we live according to our religious convictions all week long, not just when we're at church.  I kind of like having the different pieces of my life oozing around and touching one another.  Integrated.  Connected.  Better than trying to live life in the middle of a teeter-totter.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Surviving a busy spell: phase 1 = acceptance

I mentioned earlier this week that April is a month that is really "rich and full" for me -- a euphemism for "busy".  Every academic year is sort of like the 1812 overture: it starts all sunny and soft, but it build in intensity, ending with all instruments full voice and cannons going off.  Okay, so I'll admit it: I'm getting overwhelmed.

For me, one of the ways I get through this month is to realize that this is the way I decided to live.  I didn't choose the particulars, necessarily (no, I do not want to make 5 trips to the pharmacy again this week!), but I did choose the general outlines that make up my tasks.

Occasionally, I've been surprised to find that other people don't see it this way.  I remember a conversation with a friend who was complaining about how much grading she has to do.  I made what I thought was an obvious remark:  how lucky we professors are, that we set the amount of work we have to do, and we work hard because of our own high standards.  My friend was insistent that the grading she faced was just way, way too much.

Now, at my college, no one tells professors how many papers we have to assign.  No one tells us that we have to serve on national committees.  But we still assign a LOT of work to our students (and it comes back in spades as piles of papers to grade).  And many of us join all sorts of committees, and end up doing all sorts of extra work because of that.  But I quickly realized that trying to push that point with my friend would turn me into a jerk, so I eased up.

And yet, I still believe there is a heck of a lot that I do that's not other people's fault.  It would be easy to rail against the system that made me spend 8 hours in the offices of doctors, notaries, schools, and pharmacies last week.  I'm betting you didn't do that, after all . . . but that's my point.  *I* chose to adopt a child from the Statewide Adoption Network, and *I* agreed he ought to move in the Thursday before Easter.  Okay, so all this was a choice.  My choice.  In the same vein, I spent the past weekend (and also much of Monday . . .  oh yeah, and then again much of Tuesday) grading piles and piles of papers . . . but *I* assigned those papers to my students.  Another choice that was mine, all mine.

It might not be that the particular flavor of busy-ness I face is what I would have chosen, granted.  It's reasonable to ask, "Is this worth it?"  Sometimes, I think, "no".  Then it's time to extricate myself gently.  I've resigned from committees because of this in the past.  I've often said "no" to things I really want to do, just because I know how awful April is.

I also know that my situation doesn't apply to everyone.  A tenured professor has freedom that few other people have.  If my dean says, "I just thought of something I need you to do right away", I can say, "Sorry, not going to do it," and nothing bad happens to me.  (Just think how miserable it would be to be my dean!!!).

But for me, at least, the first phase in surviving the onslaught of too-much-to-do, too-little-time-to-do-it, is to own the busy-ness.  It's mine.  

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Special dinner: Money!

Our family's special dinner for April was last night.  Just in time for Tax Day, we had . . .

We decorated the table with a green "tablecloth" (sheet), topped with money my husband had picked up in his business travels all around the world.  (We got out the globe and got to have geography lessons, hearing stories about Singapore, Australia, Argentina, Belgium, and the Netherlands).
The "tablecloth" was pale green -- trust me.
The menu for the evening sent the message that we're brining home the bacon:
Turkey bacon from Market.

That we got us a pile o' lettuce:
Lettuce with a strawberry vinagrete dressing
 (we're out of honey, so I used strawberry jam in the dressing instead.  That's a keeper!)

That we're rolling in the dough:
Soft pretzels are my fastest bread recipe to make.
 All-in-all, we agreed that we're rich together.  Yes!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Time and Money: $163

A few years ago at our winter math meetings, I noticed a phenomenon you've probably seen, too.  I would see a friend or colleague I hadn't seen in a long time, and we'd start chatting.  "How are you?" one of us would ask.  And the other of us would invariably say, "Busy.  Oh, I'm so busy!"  And this would lead to a long listing of the besetting committee work, grading woes, and other giant time sucks.

It struck me that the new standard response to a "how-de-doo?" was a combination of grievance and bragging.  And it wasn't pretty.  I resolved back then to try to spend one year without saying "I'm so busy" as an answer to a polite question.  

To my surprise, the "so busy" has become so much a part of our standard way of conversing, that it's really hard to avoid.  Even when I would answer, "fine, thank you", the other person would often come back at me with, "Really?  I bet you're awfully busy!!".  Hard to know what to say, because I didn't want to lie and say "no".  (I do a lot of stuff, and I am proud of that.  I just had a psychological evaluation because of the adoption process, and part of the report says, "Her competitive streak and frequent themes of admiration/exhibition in TAT responses indicate that she enjoys feeling like a "Superwoman" and being perceived that way by others . . . ".  Um, yeah.  Spot on).

Eventually I came up with a rejoinder that sounded more positive to my ears.  When people asked me if I was really busy, I'd say with a knowing smile, "My life is rich and full."

Which is true.

Well, for a professor, April is generally what you might call "richer and fuller" than the rest of the year. Given my druthers, I wouldn't have chosen this particular month for moving a new child into our home, and yet . . .  and yet, here he is.  And he's wonderful.  Let us just say that riches have rained down on my head, and I've come close to being overwhelmed.  Could do with just a bit of poverty now.

But there is that Superwoman part of me, too, determined to shine in my own eyes if not in the eyes of others.  Not busy; instead, possessed of a rich-and-full life.  So later this week, I'm going to try to share some of my "keeping my head above water" tricks.  But that "rich and full" is the first, most important part.  I chose this life; embrace the choices I've made.

Weekly spending:  $63 at farmer's markets (potatoes, milk, yogurt, bacon, apples, broccoli), and $41 on ice cream, cereal, and ramen noodles.  You can probably guess who brought home 50 lbs of potatoes, and who brought home the processed sodium: my husband and I make a good team, even when we don't pull in the same directions.  This brings the 7-week average to $163.

Facts about 163:  it is prime.  It also has the cool property, 
163 = 10^2 + 8^2 -1^2 = 9^2 + 9^2 +1^2.  

Total weekly spending since March 1.
Requisite graphs:

Avg spending for each of 7 weeks.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The first week with C-son

This past week has been a swirl of activity.  Many new parents expect a certain lack of sleep, but with a new 15-year-old, most of the disorienting activity happens during the day time.

So let me just say up-front that much of my impression of this past week is of bureaucracy:
  • The most pleasant of the week's paper-work and form-filling included two different one-hour visits from our various social workers.  Our social workers are both people I like, and they're doing their best to make the transition easier.  
  • There has also been an hour of mine spent in the school offices, trying to enroll C-son for high school, an hour that culminated in a "don't call us; we'll call you" decision.  My husband went for the second hour-long appointment with the schools, resulting in a decision to start him in high school this coming Monday.
  • In addition to social workers and school offices, I've had 5 different unsuccessful trips to the pharmacy, not to mention 3 or 4 different somewhat desperate calls to social workers, trying to convince doctors/insurance companies/druggists that yes, he IS out of medication now, even if his last foster mom filled the prescription last week, and he DOES need more SOON.  As in, NOW.
  • And, of course (?), there are trips to notaries, signing papers.  I figure we spent two hours yesterday on this. 
  • For the two younger, well-established boys, there were several medical visits.  Orthodonist: one hour.  Heart specialist: two hours.  The summary is, braces are coming, and the heart is fine (which I already knew). 
  • The doctor's visits for C-son happen next week, but they're coming.  Psychologist, medical doctor, dentist . . . he's going to need an oral surgeon to remove wisdom teeth, and maybe an orthodontist to straighten out the rest.

The reason that the bureaucracy can fill my mind is because C-son himself is a doll.  A sweetie.  Try to imagine a 15-year-old boy who laughs out loud with utter delight when I read the exploits of Tigger and Roo climbing a tree -- that gives you some idea of what a gentle soul he is.  Parenting him is NOT taking extraordinary amounts of energy or patience.

[Note:  I am not so optimistic that I believe this is the permanent state of affairs.  I've done this often enough to know that there's a honeymoon period with new kids.  Still, this week, he's been a honey.]

C-son has been acquiring many of the requisite objects for belonging to our miserly family.  He has his own napkin ring.  He got his first Mommy Dollars, and he has added to his mommy-stash because his chore (sweeping the hall) nets him $5 a day. He has contemplated opening an account at BoMama (Bank of Mama), not-quite-yet filling out the laborious form [name and address] with help from his younger brothers.

He's also learned to play "I like", one of our family games.  The rules are simple, and you can probably pick them up probably as quickly as C-son did.

Me:  I like . . . having the sun on my face.
J-son:  I like . . . playing soccer.
C-son: I like . . . living at this house.
N-son: I like . . . playing basketball.
Me:  I like . . . eating waffles.
J-son:  I like . . .  showing off.
C-son:  I like having brothers.

There are no winners in the game, just a lot of almost-goofy affirmations. If you play a few rounds, you'll discover how hard it is to remember the many things that make you happy.  [Try it, and you'll see what I mean. It's a lot easier to remember the gosh-darned frustrating parts of life, like enrollment offices that haven't actually enrolled a student.]  C-son, unique among my kids, never hesitates.  He's ready to describe all the things about his new home and his new family that he loves.

All considered, could be worse.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Industrial resolutions --> Cooking with Kids

The standard shtick about New Year's Resolutions is that they're bound to fail.

But sometimes being resolute actually . . . um . . . resolves things.  Case in point: my own decision (probably Resolution #8 in a list that was 53 items long, if I'd bothered to number them) to have one night a week where my sons cook dinner.

Somehow, "Cooking With Kids" has taken on a life of its own.  We've gone from one night a week (with J-son and N-son alternating weeks) to all four kids cooking each week, vying for the best meal.  C-son, new to the home, has told us he wants to be a chef.  Since he does not yet know the difference between Tablespoons and teaspoons, we figure he has a long way to go on this goal . . . but the intention is there.  And he's learning fast.  He's got two meals under his belt in his one week under our roof.

Cooking with Kids takes a bit of advance planning over the weekend: schedules must be coordinated.  The freezer and its contents have to be part of the conversation.  Shopping lists come together.  Without the advance planning, good intentions pave the road for exuberant grocery-shopping sprees.

But the weekend work is worth it.  Here is the latest week of cooking, with a recipe for N-son's "Scalloped Sweet Potatoes" thrown in.

Monday: N-son cooked.  For dinner we had Shrimp Gumbo (defrosted from the freezer), black-bean hummus, and a new dish:
Scalloped Sweet Potatoes.   Peel a pile of sweet potatoes.  Using the cuisinart -- aka, the most fun machine in the entire kitchen according to every single one of my children -- slice the sweet potatoes very thin: say, 1 mm.  Coat the slices in a mixture of vegetable oil, salt, garlic, and paprika.  Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.  Serve hot.  
We made up two pans of this.  This was what was left of the second pan:
What scalloped sweet potatoes look like, after my family has had at 'em.
Tuesday:  J-son made stroganoff and rice, his now-favorite recipe.  He can do this pretty much on his own, the only son in the family who I trust to fly solo in the kitchen.
J-son serves stroganoff to K-daughter.
Wednesday:  Earlier in the week, I'd asked C-son to skim through our latest edition of Chop-Chop to find a recipe that appealed to him; he chose deviled eggs.  We relaxed health requirements and doubled our cholesterol intake for his dinner.  (Although, come to think of it, many of these meal are high on the oil and fat end of the nutrition scale).  From left to right below, you see watermelon, homemade bread, and lots and lots of deviled eggs.

From least to most fattening: watermelon, sliced bread fresh out of the oven, and deviled eggs.
Thursday:  K-daughter makes lasagne, garlic bread, and broccoli.  Her, also, I trust to reign solo in the kitchen, probably because she's terrified of making mistakes and doesn't quite trust herself.
Broccoli first; then you get to get lasagna!
Friday: For tonight, I'll be making chili soup and bread; our church group is coming over for a pot luck, bringing the rest of dinner themselves.  So I'm not cooking alone tonight, either -- in fact, one or more of the boys have pleaded to be allowed to help me.  (Oh, okay, . . . if you insist!)

I honestly figured, back at the coming of 2012, that I'd still be twisting arms all year to get occasional help in the kitchen.  And sometimes, the arms of my boys do indeed ache after the boys' conversations with their mom.  But not always.  Less-and-less, in fact.  Peer pressure is taking over.

I love (but take no credit for the fact) that the kids are really enjoying this.  For example, on the deviled eggs night, J-son begged C-son to let him help.  The two worked side-by-side, with occasional direction from me.  J-son got to show off that he knows his way around teaspoons and tablespoons, but it was more than just showmanship; cooking good food is really getting to be something the kids all like -- in fact, they're really, really proud of it.  Ready to brag.
My sons do egg-cellent work together!
As am I. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Saving vs. Borrowing

I had a friend who works in our admission office ask me this question recently.

I was hoping you could help me with a little junior high math – it’s been a while.  I am working on a piece on ‘saving for college’ and researching all the myths and advice.  The following is from one of our more reputable sites on financial aid regarding how it is always cheaper to save than to borrow: 
I understand the concept, I believe, but I don’t understand why it works – sort of like those math puzzle games that just seem to be magic for reasons that baffle me.  I’d like to understand the dynamic so that I can present and counsel on the point more clearly when faced with one of our more popular questions, posed often combatively, “So, why the #$@% did I even bother saving all that money?!?”

Any teaching points you can offer, I’d appreciate.  
Someone wants a math lesson?   COOL!

Saving money (by putting it in a bank) is really a different sort of a beast than saving money by buying stuff that claims to be cheaper than other stuff.  The first kind really does help you get ready for other big events in life.  The second kind, well, that usually just translates into spending money.  It only really helps you "save" if you end up putting more money away for use in the future.

But that doesn't answer my friend's question.  Why is saving better than borrowing?  Here's what I wrote to him.  (Those of us who don't drink can replace "beer" with "ice cream sodas" and the explanation still works).
Ah, good question. The reason this seems so much like magic is that it's (sort of) the same total amount of money involved in either direction. 
The real difference is who pays the interest. If you save money, the bank pays the interest. Say, you put in $200,000; the bank puts in $100,000. You've got $300,000 to spend on education or beer. 
If you borrow $200,000, you pay the interest yourself. So you pay $200,000 PLUS $100,000. You pay more money: some for education, and some for interest, and there's nothing left over for beer.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Mulch ado about nothing

Just outside my backdoor there is a beautiful garden plot, getting ready to burst out in color.  It's going to be one of the prettiest spots in Lancaster in a month or two.  It's not mine, of course; I kill plants.  It's my neighbor's.
The view from my back door.
My neighbor happens to be an amazing gardener, and she's taught me a lot.  As with many things in life, it's wonderful to be able to trade skills and services with other people.  We belong to the same CSA, and so we can pick up vegetables for one another.  There have been years when my daughters mowed her lawn (she paid them in Beanie Babies).  Just about every year, she acts as the Easter Bunny for my kids, hiding a dozen plastic eggs in our yard.  I return the eggs to her each year; the kids use sidewalk chalk to write, "Thank you, Easter Bunny" in her driveway.

We share mulch.  This year, it was my year to buy.  [In case you haven't heard, when people tell you to put mulch on the garden, you put it AROUND the flowers, not ON TOP OF the flowers.  I know this now.  I just wanted to make sure you know it, too.]

Mulch has many uses:  It keeps the soil moist.  It discourages weeds.  That's what it does at my neighbor's home.  At my home, it entertains the children.

Oh, my boys like mulch.  They can climb on it.

They will even spread it, at least for a little while.

They become creative about transportation and tools.

Eventually, some of the mulch will go around (not on) my tomatoes and pepper plants.  And, of course, much of the mulch will go here:

  It's good to have good neighbors.  We like each other very mulch.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Doggy Jail

I know enough about training dogs to be a devotee of the crate system.  My basic advice about crates is this:  Just Do It.  Crates save money; they save time; they save hassle.  And dogs actually like them.

Our current dog is a case in point, because until last week, he didn't have a crate. The reasons are various, mostly having to do with pride and procrastination (I was going to build him an ultra-cool one, someday, but hadn't quite gotten around to it).

He is a sweet dog, but an occasionally destructive one.  If he were awful all the time, we would have taken crate action much sooner, so it's a tribute to his gentle and generally angelic behavior that he's avoided doggy jail for almost two years now.  For example, surprisingly, he never eats shoes or the boys' toys.  Never ever.  Sometimes he'll snatch a tuna sandwich that the boys turn their backs on . . .  but so do my husband and I, and I'm not putting either of us into crates, either.

But he's not always angelic, particularly when he misses his mistress.  When I'm gone, he goes loopy with grief.  He turns into Destructo-Dog.  Infractions of household rules can be minor:  eating out of trash cans.  Sleeping on the couch.  They can be gross: leaving doggy messes to mark his territory.  They can be costly:  eating my husband's bicycle gloves. And they can be embarrassingly personal: he loves to eat objects that belong to me that I should not speak about in public.  The more intimiate the object of mine, the more likely he will -- in my absence -- perform his own holy communion ceremony: "Take this object, and eat it in remembrance of me".

What can I say?  I am my dog's Lord and Master.

So, at the end of March I went on a trip and my dog missed me.  Pride and procrastination were only two of my personal belongings that got swallowed.  Enough was enough.  April is just too busy for me to do my own construction project, so I bought a commercial crate.  It was pricey.  But it was worth it.
Without being asked, the dog wants to enter the crate.
Unlike the admirable Dogs or Dollars, I don't like paying for real dog beds.  But I was inspired enough by her many photos that I rescued some cushions from a couch my step-daughter no longer wants, and I made a slip-cover out of a pile of unwanted black t-shirts. I also bought a bone (that is, a bribe), that my dog can chew on only while in the crate.

Perhaps the bone is part of the crate allure.
I should have done this long ago.  Because my dog, he loves it.  He might have tried to eat his dog bed, but at least he hasn't eaten my . . . well, he hasn't eaten anything of mine, since.

Monday, April 9, 2012


Easter baskets:  success. They contained cashews, raisins, a single dollar coin, Spiderman pencils (so cool!!!), dried apples, and various vegetable seeds.  No chocolate bunnies, but a bit of candy.

The six-week average of grocery spending is $173.   I love graphs; here's our average spending since March 1.
Average grocery spending since March 1, for each of the previous six weeks.
Is 173 a good sign?  This particular value is, once again, a prime.  In fact, it is a Sophie Germaine prime (named after one of the most accomplished number theorists of the 1800's).  And it is the hypotenuse of a right triangle:  173^2 = 52^2 + 165^2.  So this feels, indeed, like a good sign.

Grocery spending this week (all on behalf of my husband) consisted of 10 pounds of butter, some milk, and some cheese, totaling about $34.  A modest amount after last week's spending spree.  In fact, my husband went to a store we Shall Not Name, and walked away empty-handed because the food there was surprisingly expensive, he says.  Here is the graph of our 6 weeks of grocery spending.  Oh, I love graphs!
Total grocery spending each week since March 1.
My husband is chomping at the bit to go out shopping again.  He wants eggs and chicken.  He is not sure which comes first. I am pointing to the food stored in our freezer.  Neither eggs nor chicken there, but lots of other good food -- shrimp gumbo, corn, beef, and sausage.  Squash.  Soups.  Lots still to eat before the summer harvest arrives.

Do you eat the food that's in your head, or the food that's in your refrigerator and on your shelves?  The food you think you want now, or the food that you thought you wanted way back then, back when you bought it?  That's the tension. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

What lies ahead this weekend

After a week of traveling, of getting a new child, and of doing my regular job, what lies ahead for me this weekend?  I mean, aside from writing a real blog post?

Well, as soon as I hit the "publish" button, I head out for a run with my friends, first time in a month that I've done a weekend friend run.  Two of us have had kids since we last ran; I hope for me, my fitness hasn't suffered.  Hah!

After that, some gardening.  The tomatoes are growing like gangbusters.

Melons, peppers, etc, are not so sure they want to join the party.

Outdoors, the oregano is taking off,

as is the parsley,

but the cabbage is feeling sluggish.  So to speak.
We'll get mulch delivered later today.  And mow the lawn, first time this year.
Here's some rising dough,

precursor to a pizza.

It was C-son's first installment in "cooking with kids".  For the rest of the week, some further meal planning is in order.

Finally, here is a picture of my assembled Easter Baskets:

As in, I haven't done this yet.  Other things have taken precedence.  I refuse to go shopping to buy plastic garbage for the children -- ye-gods, four of them.  This time last year, there were only two children.  I repeat:  no plastic purchases.  So we'll see what we can assemble from the good stuff that already exists in the home.