Friday, August 31, 2012

Payback Time versus Investing

I promised today I'd compare investing in things (like DIY equipment, or thermal windows, or a freezer for your bulk-purchased meat) with investing in financial thingamabobs (like savings accounts or CDs or IRAs).

Both in terms of the way we live and in terms of the math involved, there are some big differences between the two.  And because life is complicated, the math could get really complicated if I let it.  So I'm going to pretend that you have a bit of money to do something with, and you do only one thing.  You either buy the battery charger, or else you put the money in the bank, but either way, you then forget you ever did it.

Either way, we start with a bit of money.
If you buy something that's supposed to "pay for itself" someday, the immediate effect is that you've lost that money.  In the short run, this is a losing prospect.   
But over time, you earn that money back through savings.  And more-or-less, you save the same amount of money each year, so the the way you make that money is "linear".  That's the simplest kind of mathematical formula.  

The graph of your money, if you depend on payback time.
If, instead, you drop the money into a savings account or CD and earn interest, you don't lose your money.  Interest has a way of seeming like nothing much happens at first (which is why it's hard/boring to invest money), but to take off like a rocket in later years (which is why every financial planner urges you to do it).  This kind of graph is called "exponential"; it grows slow, then fast.
The graph of your money, if you invest in a savings account.
So, which of these two is better?

The answer is, it depends.  It depends on how long your payback time is (things that can pay for themselves quickly are probably going to win out), but also on the interest you'd be earning.

If your payback time is long or the interest you could earn is high, then a savings account or a CD beats buying something.  Our own home insulation project is a good example of this.
Investing wins over buying the hybrid riding lawn mower.

If your payback time is quick or your investment accounts don't earn that much, then some day (longer than the payback time), your CFL lightbulb purchase is going to win out over that T-bond.  But note that if you continue to do nothing, eventually the savings wins again.  Exponential functions rule.  
Things that have a short payback time win out over savings,  for a little while.
But compound interest wins in the long run.
Clearly, then, the best strategy would be to choose to buy things that could pay for themselves quickly enough to beat the IRA in those early sluggish years, and then move that money over into savings once it has created the great big pile burning holes in your pocket.  So, how quick a payback time is quick enough?

Here's a table that shows various payback times.   Against each, I list the highest possible interest it could ever beat, and also the amount of time it would take for the payback strategy to actually match an investment earning that interest rate.  

pay back time (years) interest (%) years for payback to get ahead of interest
1 45 2.5
2 20 5
3 13 8
4 9.6 10
5 7.6 13
6 6.3 15
7 5.4 18
8 4.7 20
9 4.2 23
10 3.1 24

If you can earn better than 5% interest (after taxes!) right now, you know something I don't.  So anything you buy that can earn its keep in just seven years is a darned wise purchase.  Heck, if your choice right now is putting your money in a savings account or buying a gizmo that wouldn't pay for itself for a decade, I'd go for the gizmo.  Even though it will take a quarter century to come out ahead, 25 years from now you'll be thanking me.

Which is all to say, that home economics is economics, too.  

Thursday, August 30, 2012

It's payback time!

According to Morningstar, the 5-year average of the Dow Jones is 3.06%.

Can I go back and crow about my Thermos again?  No, I probably shouldn't -- even though my thermos investment spanks the Dow Jones in the butt.  But as far as blogging goes, I've beaten my thermos to death, so to speak, and I can't save more money by buying more thermoses (thermosii?).

Still, payback time has been on my mind lately.  We're contemplating a switch from our oil burning furnace to some form of gas.  We've gotten an estimate for a handful-of-thousand-of-dollars to convert our oil burner to a gas burner.  At that price, my best guess is that payback time would be 2-3 years.  We've also been shopping around for ripping out the oil burner entirely and replacing it completely with a new high-efficiency gas burner.  The prices and payback times are still murky on that one.

Either way, it's a lot of money to pull out of active duty from our savings account.  Unlike the thermos (there I go again), this isn't pocket change.  And it seems reasonable to wonder, Is It Worth It?

There's a lot to that "Is It Worth It?"  question.  Several years ago, we spend oodles of money on insulating our home.  By "oodles", I mean "a heck of a lot".   To me, because I'm an eco nut and also because sealing up the home contributed mightily to the general comfort, there were strong non-financial reasons for doing this.  But financially, it made much less sense.  The insulation and sealing will, in our particular case, take about 67 years to pay for itself -- hardly a bargain.  (Although perhaps I'll appreciate it once I'm 115 years old).

The thermos . . . dang.  Okay, can't leave it alone.  The thermos rocks on both the environmental (use less energy) AND on the financial scales.  Switching to natural gas is ethically vaguer for me.  On the one hand, we'd be importing less oil from overseas; on the other hand, we'd be fracking our neighbors.  This is still something I have to mull.

But financially -- pure dollars and cents -- that's an easier computation.  It's the kind of thing to die for, for a person who loves calculus and who can compare linear and exponential graphs.  (Um, that would be me).  A payback time of 2 years will eventually beat any interest rate of 20% or lower.  A payback time of 3 years beats any interest of 13% or less.  In other words, financially speaking, we should go for it.

Tomorrow, for the truly geeky, I'll compare payback times and savings rates, just in case you have your own financial outlay to consider.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Filling out forms

Yesterday, when my son asked in a loud voice, "Mom, where's the emergency form?", I didn't panic.  I smiled.

It's that time of year again.

Schools are sending home piles and piles of forms to fill out, over and over again.  A year ago I wrote about how I create a master form on my computer with all sorts of pesky information, a form that's easy to update .  (One piece of that information is names/addresses of people to contact in an emergency; that's why my son was calling this the "emergency form".)

Usually, I hand the master form over to the kids and have them use it to fill out their school forms.  Except that this year, they've learned the drill so well that they didn't even need me to tell them what to do.  (We usually keep the master form on the bulletin board near the phone, but I'd taken it down to update some phone numbers, so all he really wanted was some help finding the one form with all the answers.)
Even with the master form in front of them, the boys still had lots of questions, which shows one reason why filling out forms is so hard.  My master form lists a "medical provider", but the school forms asked for a "physician".  We had to translate between those words.
So I guess I could pretend I'm doing all this NOT  because I'm a lazy bum trying to save myself from mind-numbing work (which would be the truth), but because it teaches my children valuable administrative skills they'll need some day.  Hah!

Here's the list of information that I keep on that master list.
  • Child’s Name 
  • Birth date 
  • Address
  • Mother’s Name 
  • Home Telephone/Cell phone 
  • Address 
  • Work, Work Address, Work Telephone 
  • Father’s Name 
  • Home Telephone /Cell phone
  • Address 
  • Work, Work Address , Work Telephone 
  • Emergency Contact/Person to whom child may be released (some forms need 3 names)
  • Name, Address, Telephone 
  • Name, Address, Telephone 
  • Name, Address, Telephone 
  • Medical Provider, Address & Telephone 
  • Dentist, Address & Telephone 
  • Special Disabilities 
  • Allergies
  • Insurance company, policy number, telephone
This year, my kids worked pretty hard on their forms.  I myself spent 5 minutes proofreading and correcting the huge stack they'd plowed through, and then we were done.  Score!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Visiting the mental hospital

On Saturday, we made the trip an hour-and-a-half down the road to see C-son.  It's the first time we've seen him since the night the police took him away, although we've talked on the telephone a few times. In a way, this was meant to be a "good-bye" visit, although we'll try to continue to see him several times a year once he moves out of where he currently is -- the mental hospital -- into his group home.

We brought a few things for him to keep.  I printed out some photos we'd taken of him; most kids in foster care have very few photos, and C-son is no exception.  No baby photos.  No pictures of his birth mom or birth siblings.  No first-day-of-school photos.  None at all.  So I figured he could use these.

Because I printed them out on regular paper, I had the all three boys write comments about the pictures -- who was in them, what was happening.    That helped to kill a bit of time while also reminding the boys of fun they'd had together.
It was good that we'd brought something to do, because we were pretty much stuck in a conference room the whole hour.  Security was tight:  on the way in, there were two different locked doors we had to be buzzed through, and on the way out, the receptionist had walk us out herself, unlocking each door with a key.  We'd brought C-son the black shoes he'd left at our home, but we had to remove the laces before we could give them to him.  In that environment, there wasn't a lot of room for the usual kinds of play.

Of course, kids can make toys out of just about anything.  J-son made himself some "ears" out of the shoes . . .
And then J-son and C-son made themselves hats with the shoes (without even knowing of Dali or Schiaparelli!)
Mostly, though, the boys played with J-son's Bionicles.  N-son and J-son more or less played together, and C-son played next to them, but quietly by himself.  Back when he lived with us, I used to say C-son talked half as much as Clint Eastwood; on this visit he spoke even less.  I'm guessing that's partly circumstances and more-than-partly his medications.
He seemed to be happy to be with us (or perhaps just happy for the chance to be away from his roommate).  It was a calm visit.  An I'm-glad-we-could-see-you visit.  After our hour was up, we said good-bye with hugs all around and made promises to meet up again in the future.  And then C-son went back to his room, and we drove home.

Monday, August 27, 2012

$141: Laying up food for the winter

After 23 weeks of tallying my food expenses, I'm pretty confident in saying that our $194 food bill this past week is above average for the 5 of us; the average is hovering at $141.

We spent money on both what I'd call "short-term" and "long-term" kinds of groceries.  The short-term purchases included $63 at a grocery store to buy commercial vitamin water, bread in plastic bags, processed cereal, etc.,  (not that I would ever judge what my husband buys, mind you).  It also included a $19 trip to our local market for milk in a reusable glass jar, ginger packaged in our own glass jar, apples from a local orchard dumped straight into my market basket, and local cider -- unfortunately in a plastic jug.  (See?  I'm not perfect, either.   On the other hand, I'm so smug, it's a small miracle that my husband can tolerate me).

In a scene of true marital harmony and devotion, my husband made a detour on our long Saturday drive on the way home from visiting C-son -- more details tomorrow -- to take me over to Miller's Amish Store for the first of what I think of as my "long-term" purchases:  $64 for 50 lbs of unbleached flour and 2 lbs of pecan pieces.  From there, I went solo to the southern end of the county and forked over $15 for $25 lbs of peaches, and then -- finally -- bought 3 dozen  more canning jars from our local hardware store.  And with this, the shopping was done.

Earlier this week, I'd moved the canning jars into my shelves, sorted by month.
The pantry is in the red, so to speak.
Wish I had more greens there.
And I defrosted the freezer and sorted all the food into month-based bags before filling it up again.
On top of the freezer:  September, October, butter, and cheese.
This exercise showed me that we still have a few gaps in the bulk summer purchases.  Salsa is on its way, thanks to the garden.  Applesauce will be next; that's also in the plans.  With the shortage of corn this year, I'm not sure how intensely I'll work to stock up this year.

But we're missing leafy green vegetables -- I'm going to have to keep my eyes open for a good deal on kale.  And meat -- I've stocked up 1 pound/week between now and May.  That'd be plenty for me, but my husband will waste away under such a regime, even if I try to fortify him with vitamin water and cereal.  So a visit to the Turkey Lady for a large, large order of turkey kielbasa is in order.  Plus, the Pirate Dinner is on the horizon (ahoy there, matey!), and I want to enlist her help with the menu.   More on that later.

The hope is, if I can stock up on kale and kielbasa, that over the winter we'll pretty much be set for the main part of our meals, and all we'll have to go out to buy will be the short-term kind of stuff.  You know, dairy products and vitamin water.   We'll see how well that plan works out.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The toothbrush, the whole toothbrush, and nothing but the toothbrush

The toothbrush, the whole toothbrush, and nothing but the toothbrush . . . okay, and floss, too.

It's time to put a bit of the "miser" back into "Miser Mom", and bring up -- yet again -- the fact that I don't use toothpaste.  By "yet again", I mean that I wrote about this a year ago, explaining some research into why this is actually okay.

For what it's worth, my husband swears my breath smells fine.  What's more, I haven't had a cavity in almost two decades.  And my dental hygienist, who got to clean up my mouth earlier this week, had to ask if it's true that I'm still not using any toothpaste.  When I confirmed my lack of pastiness, she said, "Well, whatever you're doing seems to be okay.  You have hardly any plaque or tartar."

I'm sure that part of the reason my mouth passes muster with her is that I eat a diet that's pretty low in sugar and processed foods.  And aside from coffee in the morning and whiskey at night (not mixed together, mind you), my beverage of choice is tap water: low in cost but rich in fluoride.

The other reason my teeth seem to be hanging together okay is that I'm religious about brushing twice a day.  I mean that almost literally; often I'll pray while I'm brushing my teeth -- by the time I've gotten through asking the Lord for blessings on each person in my family, I've had a heck of a lot of toothbrush time.  But I also mean that I'm strict with myself about brushing every morning, and about brushing and flossing every night.

As anyone who's ever cleaned a bathtub knows, cleaning off gunk is partly chemistry and largely mechanical.  I grew up not using floss, and the floss-less-ness of my life took its toll on me when I was a young adult.  Right after I had my daughter, I went to a dentist who found 5 places where cavities had formed.  Five cavity sites.  But it was worse than that, because the decay sites were between my teeth, so there were actually 10 cavities.  All at once.  My mouth, alas, is a sea of silver.

Back before I got those cavities, I brushed with toothpaste all the time, but I didn't floss.  It wasn't the chemistry; it was the mechanics that did me in.  I've brushed and flossed both, ever since.  And I've been cavity free since, too -- the lesson has been learned.

Over the years, I've kept up the daily scrubbing, but I've gradually cut back on the toothpaste, giving it up pretty much entirely 2 years ago.  And all the while, my dentist keeps gushing about how well I'm caring for my molars.

My trusty old toothbrush, yes.  Floss, yes.  Fluoride, on tap, yes.  But stuff I pay money for just to spit it down the sink -- stuff that comes in plastic packaging that will forever after lie in landfills?   That, I can do without.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Pulling the pieces together

If last weekend I felt pulled in many directions, at least this week I've been putting the pieces back together.

Earlier this month I got to go to Durango Colorado, right near "Four Corners", where a person can stretch out hands and feet and touch four states at once.  I like to feel like that, to feel like I'm living in all the parts of my life at the same time.  Not balancing things, but bringing things together.

This weekend, though, I did feel disjointed.  The crops came in just as K-daughter left to visit with friends, so I canned solo.  And also, but in a very different way, I talked on the telephone with a far-away C-son and his therapist.  And because of all that the weekend meant both physically and mentally, I held all my official work at bay, even as the semester looms large on the horizon.  It was a bit like being on the rack, having all the things that matter to me pull from different directions.  

It is better for my soul to live as I did later in this same week.  Tuesday, I spent the day futzing around with my kids.  We started at home; together we tackled the last of the peaches, by now ripe enough that the easiest way to get the pits out was to abandon all tools.  The boys mashed the peaches with their hands.  Oh, I wish I had a picture of that, or that I could tell you how much fun that was, both of the boys up to their elbows gooshing up the peaches for jam!

Once we washed up, I put N-son in charge of canning the ginger-peach jam.  This combination came out so well that N-son said, "Mom, we have to hide this from Dad!" (His dad has been known to eat whole jars of jam at one sitting.).  Here is a jubliant N-son with two of his sixteen half-pints.
N-son is as proud as punch.  Or as proud as peach.  Something.

J-son, handy with a knife, sliced tomatoes from our garden for the dehydrator.  I was going to make them into salsa, but we're still totally out of pint jars, so we are desiccating them instead.  
J-son is the master of the dried tomatoes.
After a bunch of fun with food, I hauled the boys over to work with me.  There's a large computer lab in the basement of my building where the boys could play while I worked.  I got to schmooze with colleagues, catch up on the latest news, and also catch up on some of the committee work I've been missing out on.

And also, I got to strengthen those connections between my campus and my kids.   I like that my colleagues know my sons, that they tell me they saw them riding bikes on the quad, that they ask what grade the boys are going into.  My sons know the groundskeepers by name; they play video games with my students.

It's nice to have topological dynamics and ginger peach jam and children all swirling around me.  I'm feeling put back together.  Feeling -- this is probably the best way to describe it -- whole again. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The burden of integrity

Yesterday I wrote about how Susan Social Worker lied to us (and probably to herself) about C-son's situation.  I've been hearing a lot of professional lies lately.

Late in July, after C-son threw hammers at the house and punched a glass door, I listened to the police explain to him that he wasn't in trouble; they just had to put him in handcuffs and take him away from our home.  But, of course, he was in trouble.

Last week, I got to hear C-son's new therapist explain to him the reasons for moving him to a group home.  "It's not because you did something bad", she said; "it's because when you're in a family you have feelings that you're unsafe.  And we want you to feel safe," she said.  But, of course, cursing and punching and breaking things is something bad, and that is why our family finally said he had to move out and not come back.

Integrity matters a lot to me.  It bothers me to hear people lying to this kid, telling him that he's done nothing wrong.  It's not that I want him to feel miserable, but I can't believe he doesn't understand that his actions have consequences.  Why not help this kid connect the dots?  Why not say,
"These bad things you did might not be what you wanted them to be, but because of them your life has changed"?

Integrity matters a lot to me.  So it matters a lot to me that these are the words I said to C-son back in May, and it matters to me that I've said them to him over and over and over again since then:
I've taken to reminding him that it's my job now to love him forever and ever. That when he's happy and being good and the world is going his way, I'm going to love him and take care of him. But when he's feeling terrible and misbehaving and things are awful . . . then, then I'm going to love him and take care of him. No matter what, that's my job.
Sort of hard to reconcile those words with sending him away, isn't it?

We can't take him back.  Even if K-daughter didn't have panic attacks at the thought of having him back in the house (and she does), and even if my husband weren't hyper protective of the other kids (and he is), I've realized over the past three weeks just how much C-son had taken over my life.  When he was here, I couldn't leave him alone in the house; I couldn't discipline the kids without expecting a huge blowup; my tools and phone chargers and a dozen other little things disappeared into the corners of his bedroom; life was constant stress.  The place he'll live is several hours from our home, and I'm relieved beyond description at the distance we'll have between us.

So how do I reconcile the me of May and the me of August?  Here's what I'm telling him now.  I'm saying, "I promised to love you and take care of you.  I still love you, but I can't take care of you the way you need to be taken care of.  So I'm making sure that you're in a place where you can get the care you need."   I've told him we want to stay part of his life, that we'll visit him four times a year. 

Lie number 1.  I have no idea whether the group home will really be the best place for him -- whether that's where he'll get the care he needs.  

Lie number 2.  Although we really will try to visit him, I am not doing it because I love him and miss him.  This is far more involved than I want to be with this kid now; having been burned badly I'd like to shy away completely from him.  But I can't bring myself to turn my back on the words that came out of my own mouth.  And I don't want to be Mom Number 21 (or whatever number it is) who has entered his life and disappeared without a trace.  

So I'm trying to do some small version of "right" by this kid, telling my own version of the professional lie, joining the Liars' Club.  

And there's an irony about all this that's not lost on me.  Lots of people have told me that I've done the best I could; that's sort of like saying I didn't do anything wrong.  I don't know whether that's the truth, I really don't.   But I do know this:
These things I did might not be what I wanted them to be, but because of them my life has changed.  
And I'm okay with that.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What happens to the child nobody wants?

We've been in touch with C-son by telephone lately.  The telephone contact is likely to continue.  We'll probably try to visit him a couple of times a year.  But he's not coming back to this home.  What happens to a child nobody wants?

It's probably worth backing up and explaining how he came into our lives in the first place.

About a year or two ago, a woman who I'll call "Susan Social Worker" (not her real name) contacted our family social worker with C-son's profile.  She said, "I think yours is the perfect family for this kid".  We looked over the profile and said, no way.  His history went like this:  he moved into a home, was wonderful for a little while, and then got so violent that police were called.  Repeat that scenario 10 or 20 times with minor variations, and that was his story.  We didn't want that around our kids.

Early in this calendar year, we got a nibble from Susan about a pair of brothers needing a home but fast.  Were we interested?  They seemed like decent kids; we said we'd give it a look.  Last-minute, the brothers got moved into another home.  But, Susan added, C-son was still there.  And his written history was misleading, she said.  The violence was all in the distant past, a result of one family's abuse, long ago.  Time, therapy, and drugs had brought great changes, and all this kid needed was a chance.

We met with Susan in March.  She was aglow about this boy.  She didn't have an updated profile to give us (the current one was 2 years old), but he was a darling kid.  Model student.  Great smile.  Really wanted a home, really wanted a family, everybody has misunderstood him and he really needed a chance.  And so we said, yes.  And a few weeks later, on April 5, he moved in.

If it seems like I'm pointing a finger at Susan Social Worker, you read me correctly.  Later, when we got the updated profile, we discovered he'd been suspended from school in March -- not exactly a model student.  And his therapy and drugs hadn't really cured his violence at all, as we were to find out.  My experience with the foster care system has put me in touch with all sorts of amazing, admirable people (Tammi-the-Terrific was our first social worker, and I've leaned heavily these past few years on Amanda-the-Awesome).  But I've heard stories about the Susans of the social work world, the ones who mislead themselves and the families they work with, just so they can place kids.   And that's what happens to some of the kids that no-one wants:  some over-zealous social worker convinces a family that everything is going to be okay, and the child ends up taking over the family's life.  If you're curious about this side of it, just look up "Reactive Attachment Disorder".

So, as I said: that's what happens to a small fraction of foster kids that nobody wants -- somebody gets them anyway.  If C-son had managed to hang on and stay adorable for a few more months until we'd legally adopted him, he'd have been our kid for life.  But there's a legal waiting period between move-in day and adoption day.  And here's what happened with C-son during that waiting period.
  • April 5th, C-son moved in with us.
  • At first, he was the most amazingly perfect kid you could have imagined.
  • By early May, he was starting to have melt-downs, hiding under his blankets or in closets.  I figured "Love is not enough", and decided to stay home with him instead of going to work this summer.  I was going to give him attention that he desperately needed . . . I thought.
  • By late May, I was getting twitchy, reading books about positive reinforcement but also growing nervous about being on my own with the boys for the entire month of June.  Three boys on one mom, with one of the three being particularly unpredictable.  I was writing things like, "So, can I say how happy I was to have a trouble-free weekend last Saturday and Sunday? This is something that I used to take for granted, but now I'm watching for this like a farmer of a parched field watches for rain."
  • By early June, C-son was starting to pick fights with his brothers.  Bedtime became an increasingly convoluted routine of protecting C-son from slights (real or imagined), and conversely protecting his brothers from him.  But during the day, things were fine, mostly.  
  • By mid June, C-son was doing great at chores on his own.  I was spending a lot of time supervising him -- I realized I couldn't leave him at home alone without worrying about an outburst.  But as long as I was there, we were getting a lot done together.  It was actually quite nice in its own way.
  • But it was increasingly clear that even mild criticism from an adult set him over the edge.  One day after he and J-son were talking in church, I moved J-son over to the other side of me so they couldn't talk anymore.  In response, C-son stormed out of church and wouldn't talk to me.   That kind of reaction was becoming the norm, not the exception.
  • By the end of June, C-son was getting mouthy and was openly taking things that weren't his.  I was getting so sick of tip-toe-ing around him that I "picked a fight", telling him he couldn't use my tools for one day.  He sulked mightily for the whole day, though he finally came around.  I hoped things would get better once he realized I was back in control.
  • Things calmed down.  The boys visited my sister for a week, and during that time of peace and quiet, I decided to stop being a whiner and redouble my efforts.
  • But even before he got back home from my sister's place, things got worse, much worse.  Blatant stealing.  Outright defiance.  Temper tantrums.  
Finally, there was the two nights in a row that he exploded.  Throwing things, punching things, cursing.  Police were involved both nights.  And when it was a clear he was posing a danger to himself and possibly to others, he was taken away for mental health evaluation.  

Where does a child like this go?  For the past three weeks, he's been in a mental health hospital an hour from our home, getting his meds back on track and getting some additional therapy.  (He'd had both meds and therapy while in our home, but obviously this is more intense).  Next week, he'll move into a Group Therapeutic Home even further away, and that will be his home for the indefinite future.  Not with a family, but under constant supervision and managed care.  And definitely not coming back here.

And what does this mean for our family?  This post is long enough already.  I'll write more about that tomorrow.

Monday, August 20, 2012

$187, $139

   - a short jaunt to market ($22 for dairy stuff and sandwich meats),
   - the peach-picking and tomato-buying escapade ($86), and
   - a grocery store run for shrimp, canning supplies, and ice cream ($79),
we managed to spend $187 on groceries this past week.

The canning supplies -- it floored me that I'd run out.  I had oodles of jars left over from last year.  I'd gotten more canning jars at yard sales. I'd gotten canning jars as Christmas gifts.  I have jars everywhere.  But somehow I managed to buy even more food than I had space for in the jars.  I'd already put up cherries and some pickled zucchini this summer. With the table chest-high with peaches and tomatoes, I somehow managed to run out of jars.  Oh, cripes.

I spent all day Friday and much of Saturday canning and preparing food. It was both exhausting and fulfilling at the same time.  Here's a picture of Friday's work: 38 quarts and 24 pints of catsup, tomato juice, tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, and peaches.

Saturday saw another 10 quarts of peaches and 16 half-pints of pickled peppers (can I say that again?  pints of pickled peppers -- heh).  I also made a gallon of shrimp gumbo inspired by the okra that showed up in our CSA basket.  Cheap okra leads to expensive shrimp purchases . . . go figure.  The gumbo is destined for the freezer, by the way; I'm nervous about canning seafood, plus I'm totally out of jars.  

Even with the expensive shrimp, and even with 3 dozen new canning jars, this is not a bad haul for $187, if I do say so myself.  The shelves are groaning.  

I'm done for now, but I'm not done for good.  The garden tomatoes are coming in gang-busters now.  Their name is salsa.   Apple sauce is in the future.  I'll need more jars yet.  I've become a canning monster, for sure.  I'm loving the chance to buy food in season and to spend my relatively free summers doing cooking, since in the winter I have neither much time nor access to baskets of fresh tomatoes.  

Where does this leave us money-wise?  The weekly average -- not counting those weird restaurant-intensive weeks -- is $139/week, for a total of 22 weeks.  139 is a prime number (in fact, it's a rare "twin prime", coming as it does on the heels of its prime sister, 137).  

Friday, August 17, 2012

My weight in vegetables

I was going to write something pithy and mathy about payback times, but then K-daughter asked if we could go peach picking.  And of course I said, 'yes'.  Good to spend time with her, and also, peaches are one of the least time-intensive fruits to pick and to can.

On the way, we decided to stop at a roadside veggie stand and grab some tomatoes as well, to make spaghetti sauce -- that was one of the things we kept running out of last year.  By "some tomatoes", I guess I mean "a heck of a lot of tomatoes".  Because when we finally came home, this is what our dining room table looked like:

That pile includes 60 pounds of tomatoes (cost, $14), congregated together in this giant party tub.
 It includes 40 green peppers ($10).
And, of course, it includes 62 lbs of hand-picked peaches ($62).   I think it took us 5 minutes to get this many peaches.  I love peach picking!
After we hauled this loot into the kitchen, we went to pick up our CSA shares:  corn, eggplant, potatoes --- and two large bags of tomatoes.  Then my neighbor came over and brought me some leftover vegetables from last week, including another bag of tomatoes.  Plus, while I was away, she'd harvested some food from the garden for me.  Yes, more tomatoes.

All together, this is more than my weight in fruit and vegetables for only $86.  But aside from the cost of all this, I love what I do NOT see on the table.  Plastic.  Trash of any kind, really.

I know what I'm doing today, I guess.  The ketchup is bubbling in the crockpot right now, and the canning jars are coming up from the basement.  Things are going to get hot around here today.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Home economics: Thermos vs. IRA

When you hear people talking about "investments", you probably expect to see words like "Roth" or "NASDAQ".  You probably don't expect words like "freezer" or "thermos".  And that's too bad, because active frugality gets a bum rap in the world of finance.

There are a lot of ways to be frugal that don't cost any money:  walking instead of driving.  Drinking tap water instead of soda.  Playing cards with friends instead of going to movies.

But some kinds of frugality involve shelling out dough.  Twenty years ago, I bought a sewing machine that I still use to mend clothes today.  Two years ago, we bought a chest freezer so we could bulk-purchase meat.  Five years ago, my sister bought solar panels for her California home.  Last year, when our old thermos broke, we bought a new thermos.  Different amounts of money, different payback times.  Are these good investments?

Let's take a look at the goofy little purchase:  that thermos.  Every morning as soon as our coffee is brewed, I pour the pot into the thermos and turn off the coffee maker.  If we didn't have a thermos, we'd leave the coffee maker on for an hour.  The little silver tag on the bottom of our coffee maker says (among other things) "1100W", meaning it uses about one thousand watts, or one kilowatt.  We pay about 15¢ per kilowatt hour, so if we didn't have the thermos, we'd pay an extra 15¢ each day for electricity.  Doesn't sound like much, I know, but multiply by 365 days, and that's $54.  The moral of the story: a $20 thermos pays for itself in less than half a year.

There's more.  If the thermos lasts 10 years, that initial $20 "investment" nets $520 ($540 in electric savings less the initial $20 investment).  That's a ten-year annual rate of return of 38%, something any stockbroker would die for.  And, unlike stocks, it's there's no risk (if by some miracle we stop drinking coffee or if electricity becomes magically free, we save even more on our electric bill).  Also, unlike stocks, this money doesn't get taxed.  Wins all around.

Another way to think of this is that, if I wanted to invest enough money in a savings account to earn $54/year (after taxes, etc), I'd have to figure out a way to fork over more than $800 today.   Once again, the thermos beats the stock market.

Unfortunately, there are few investments with the same bang-for-the-buck as our thermos.  Our freezer cost a lot more, and the payback time is longer, not to mention much more dependent on the vagaries of how we use it.   My sister's solar panels have been beating the market during the past 5 years, but that says more about our economic climate than the climate climate (so to speak).

There's also the truth that frugality has built-in upper limits.  I know for a fact I can't "invest" in my home in ways that allow me to save more than $700/year in electrical costs, because that's my current (heh) annual bill.  I can't save more on the electric bill than I already spend.  But someday, for retirement, I'm going to want to generate (oog-sorry) more money than $700/year.  Stocks and bonds are a crucial part of my financial long-term planning.

But so is my thermos.  And also my sewing machine.  Not to mention many of those other little (and big) purchases I've made to help me live a low-impact, frugal, and sustainable lifestyle.  I'd say "power to the people!", but I've turned the power off and bottled it all up in a sealed container.  Heh.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Squash and grow?

After a week in the desert airs of Durango, I returned home and was greeted by air almost thick enough to swim through.  Followed by a thunderstorm.  Followed by a 3-hour steady downpour.  We're on mold alert in our home.

Someone from around here once told me that Lancaster County, PA has the most fertile non-irrigated soil in the nation.  He said that's part of why we could win the Revolutionary War oh-so many years ago -- we could feed all our soldiers.  But for years, the soil of Lancaster County taunted me, as I helplessly watched plant after plant after plant wither away and die on me.

For years, I couldn't figure out how to turn dirt into plants, but I was a wizard at making plants into dirt.  My 3-year-old daughter once proudly told a friend of mine, "My mom has a PhD and a compost pile!"

So imagine my surprise to come home yesterday and see my compost bins looking like this:
Can't see the bin in there?   Neither could I!  Here's another view of the garage and compost bins.  One bin is directly under the window; the other is just to the right.  Still hard to see, huh?

 We had volunteer butter neck squash start its squashy life in the compost pile and then just take over the yard. It's like there's a squash forrest back there.
Also, there are pumpkins the sizes of basketballs.  Even, apparently, some basketballs.  (Okay, maybe the boys left that there).
Around the corner, the broccoli was as tall as I was.  I'd always thought broccoli was a short little plant like cabbage; this summer I learned otherwise.  I learned to cut off hunks of broccoli just as they ripen and wait for the plant to grow more.  The everlasting broccoli bush?   Sounds like sorcery.
And around yet another corner, we see the tomato plants that wouldn't die.  I didn't ever stake them up this year, and now searching for tomatoes is like an Easter Egg hunt.
Next year, I'm doing stakes.  Or concrete mesh.  Or something.

I would like to draw some kind of conclusion about persistence, or perseverance, or learning from friends, or some such.  But this garden is really just magic to me.  My fairy godmother waved her wand, and the earth exploded into vegetables.

Not all is unruly, though.  My dog had a wonderful time at the kennel this past week, or so his "report card" tells me.  And apparently, he has learned a great deal at the kennel.  Here he is, enjoying a quiet moment in the library, no doubt contemplating which book he should read next.
If he chooses "Cinderella", we'll have his coach ready to go, just waiting out in the garden.  He'll have a ball.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Home is where the [you-name-it] is

The boys' bags are packed.  Mine, too.  We've checked under beds, in the bathrooms, all around the place we've been staying.  I've made a mental checklist of toiletries that I'll need to restock when I get home: refill the shampoo and conditioner.  Check on the sun-screen.  More dramamine for N-son.

The B-stash of trail mix has been divvied up into person-sized bags for the trip home.  Our water bottles are in our travel bags, ready to be emptied out before we go through security and refilled once we make it through the metal/etc detectors.  I've got a book to read on the airplane.  We've checked and double-checked our flight times.

This morning I woke up at 5 a.m. Durango time to watch the sun rise over the mountains, the juniper pines and pinion oaks glowing black and green and a little orange in the cool, early-morning light.  That's 7 a.m. Pennsylvania time; if I'd been home I would already have finished my humid morning run with my friend June.  And as I think about my friend June, I can tell that I'm in two places right now: my body is still here in Colorado, but already my mind is heading home, eager to drag the rest of me along.

It is good to break routine every once in a while -- I've used this week with my family not only to reconnect with my father and sisters, who I seldom see, but also to talk about the future with two of my daughters.  I've started my own New Year's Resolution list (for professors, September is more of a new beginning than January is).  I've gotten to see my regular life from a distance, and from other people's eyes, and that helps me to rethink what I'm doing.  I like that.  I need that.

But I am not very good at just sitting around.  I want to jump back into my life and start doing things.  Two different editors wrote to me this week and asked me to review papers for their journals; both papers are related to my own work, and I'm intensely curious to see what they'll say.  Classes will start in just a few weeks, and I need to put finishing touches on my syllabi.  At home, the tomatoes-that-didn't-die are ripening on my vines, and I'm not there to pick them.  In our local orchards, the peaches have been ready for two weeks -- we're planning a picking/canning extravaganza with K-daughter and the boys.  There are two big sewing projects I've been simultaneously putting off and planning for.  And I miss my dog.

Think about your favorite home songs -- those are the ones I'm humming to myself today.  Wherever I roam, there's no place like it; I feel so broke-up, I wanna go there.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Good Judgement vs. Being Judgemental

Because I am perfect and never knowingly make mistakes, it's easy for me to blame other people who make stupid messes of their own lives.

Well, okay, obviously I'm not perfect.  But I spend a lot of time practicing thinking I am, or at least thinking that because I'm trying to the the right thing, my way must be the right way.  Also, thinking that the nice things in my life are things I got through my own persistent effort and stunning intellect.  Ergo, thinking that other people's messes are results of lack of effort/intellect.

There are people in my extended family who don't have the good fortune that I have.  They also -- I will add -- haven't always made good choices.  And I've noticed that I struggle (when I hear about their struggles) with thinking about my own notions of good judgement and the sheer hubris of being judgmental.

An example.  There is an uncle, far away. Our family hardly ever sees him anymore.  He has been ill; he is under threat of losing his home; his business is hurting for customers.  I feel sorry for him.  And also, I make snarky comments.

Because he's had a lulu of a life.  He's had a gazillion jobs, each one perfect perfect perfect when he started, up about to the point that he started explaining to his boss the right way to run the show.  Then he'd explain why said boss was being an idiot for not agreeing with him.  And soon -- surprise! -- he'd be on to the next perfect job.  Or he'd buy a house without inspecting it (no foundation).  Or he'd be petulant because our family didn't want to invest in his sure-fire money-making venture:  he was going to start an ostrich farm.  There are a lot of stories about this uncle.  Too easy to be snarky.

With a colorful uncle far distant, the sorry/snarky conflict is actually sort of amusing.  With people right in front of me, being judgmental is more of a problem.  It's too easy for me to wrinkle my nose at people struggling with weight who eat the wrong things right in front of me.  To shudder at the octogenarian who leaves the car on with the air conditioning running while she's in the store, who then complains about spending too much money.  To get on my high horse when a friend allows his children to whine, and then complains that they're ungrateful.  This kind of list, unfortunately, goes on and on.

Fortunately for me, my friends and family are much nicer people than I am.  They're easy to like, and it's easy to find likable things about them.  They forgive me for being such an obsessively perfect person, even before I quite realize I need that forgiveness.  And if I could learn that from them, I'd be an even more perfect person.  Which could be dangerous.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Cheap treats and family lore

Not everything about travel is pricey.  Here are some of our family's favorite cheap activities on this vacation.

- Finding a 55¢ copy of Presumed Innocent at a local used book store.

- Swapping books we brought to read, so we have something new to read on the way home.

- Finding lizards.  This has been a major past-time of the four youngest kids; they've created little lizard zoos inside of cardboard boxes where Lady Gaga and Sir George and other friends have eaten (or not) the tomatoes and frolicked (or not) in the lettuce.

- Telling our stories.  And retelling them.  This, perhaps, is the best part of family vacation.

That stories thing?   I've belonged to lots of groups (my church, the college I work at, the girl scouts, etc) that talk about being a community, and not all of those groups really lived up to the talk.  What I've realized is that a "community" requires having something in "common" -- after all, that's where the word comes from.  You need a common history, a common set of traditions, and a common space and time to share those.  Telling family stories together does all that.

It's not that we set down a specific hour of the day for this; the stories just bubble up while were spending time together.  When we get together as a family and retell the story about the dog eating my sister's birthday cake and my other sister's lasagna, we're explaining who we are.  (This is one part of why, although I love dogs, my sisters shun them and refuse to have one near their homes).  We retell the story about mom fixing garlic bread and peaches for breakfast.  The story about the time we got caught in a snowstorm and Marvin Schwartz rescued us.  The story about my sisters dressing baby N-son up in girl's clothes to get my husband's goat.  We tell stories about table manners, about chores, about other family trips.

And of course, even while we're spending lots of money here together, we talk about our frugal ways.  My youngest sister lives in a desert.  Her home is solar powered, and she's a bit of a maniac about saving water (yes, she puts a bucket at the base of her kid's slide to catch run-off).  My middle sister lives in a remote place on the edge of a lake, where trash removal means hiking up a long hill to the road; she's obsessed with recycling and reusing.  A mutual friend was talking to my two sisters about their penny-pinching ways and asked what I was like.  "Her?" responded my frugal sisters, "Oh, she's cheap cheap cheap."   That story has become part of the new family lore.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Travel Lust

It's not that I'm surprised that travel is expensive.  There are certain parts of travel everybody knows will require more-than-the-usual allotment of weekly money.  Also, it eats up significant amounts of time.

Just moving bodies from one place to another is costly:  airplanes, rental cars, tolls, gasoline.  Two full days of this eight-day trip we're on are devoted to going to and from Colorado.  We're spending even more time daily driving to see the local sights.   But this, I knew about.

Food, likewise, I was mentally prepared for.  I travel with bags and bags of homemade trail mix, not only to keep down cost but to be able to feed hungry travelers on the fly, so to speak. We bought groceries and mostly cook for ourselves, but we can't use most of the frugal grocery strategies we use at home (buying in bulk, buying in season, knowing where the stores with the good deals are).  We'll end up wasting a bunch of food when we leave.  And of course, a few restaurant meals have been unavoidable.  All this, I knew about, too.  I'm prepared for it.

The touristy things my family does together are a total splurge.  One that, again, I was ready for.  My husband rents a bike and rides up mountains.  My dad loves seeing national parks and historic sights, and the rest of us gladly join him.  Yesterday we climbed up scary-looking ladders to the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde; tomorrow we'll ride the train to Silverado.  My sisters and I love doing more active things:  we'll spend a day kayaking down a river; we'll ride horses (my favorite thing each year).  And for the kids and geeks among us (that's all of us) we went to a science museum where J-son got to make this cool stop-animation movie.  None of this is even close to being free.  Part of me is twitchy about all this, and part of me loves it.  But either way, again, I knew this was coming.

What I wasn't prepared for is two things:

Surprise One, how much I have come to hate throwing things away.  I carry a water bottle with me everywhere (goes nicely with the spoon and chopsticks, no?), but the second time my husband brought me coffee in a paper cup I resolved to spend real money.  I spent about a half-hour in downtown Durango comparing coffee mugs, and finally dropped [careful, here, this number may shock you] $35.
Lame justification that sort-of makes sense to me:  Since at home I have several 25¢ travel mugs, this is more that 100 times as expensive as my usual purchase.  But there's a reason I don't bring those ones with me:  they spill when tipped over, they don't clip onto my bag.   They're good for cars but not airplanes or hikes.  The one I bought seals completely, insulates really well, and hooks onto my bag so I can carry it hands free.  It is going to be my new everything bottle.  
Surprise Two: I love traveling.  Really love it.  I'm such a well-conditioned miser that spending money usually feels like punishment to me.  (That travel mug really feels like a splurge, and I adore it but I'm also a tad uncomfortable about the expense, honestly.  I know "normal" people don't feel the same).

Traveling through Mesa Verde yesterday, I found myself asking my husband, "wouldn't you love to come here some day to camp?  You could ride your bike; I could hike . . . "  My head is full of both memories of family camping trips when I was young and visions of future trips as the boys get older.  Without my dad and sisters, I know the trip would be much more modest than the current vacation, at least financially.   We don't own a tent or any camping supplies, though.  And we don't have airfare or camping fees worked into the long-term budget.  But I feel like I've been bitten by the bug.  Not like me.

Edna St. Vincent Millay ended her poem on travel this way:
My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing,
But there isn't a train I wouldn't take
No matter where it's going.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Sharing spoons with strangers

Goofy little story, here.

When our family was boarding the plane to Durango, I was seated next to a young guy who was holding a yogurt cup in his hand.  All of a sudden he realized he'd forgotten to get a spoon.  He asked the flight attendant for one, but she didn't have any spoons to hand out (it was a tiny plane, with no meal service).  She told him there was probably enough time before the doors closed to run back into the terminal to get a spoon, though.

And just like in those old movies, where the villain has been torturing a poor damsel until the moment that our bow-tie-wearing hero steps in saying, "I'll pay the rent!", I got to rescue this poor man in distress.  "I have a spoon!" I said.

He didn't say, "My hero!", although he did gush a little.  And he was cute, not that I'd tell my husband so.

We had a good conversation about conservation -- about how I carry a spoon and chopsticks with me everywhere, tucked into the pencil holders of my bag, so that I don't have to throw away garbage.  As we flew out of Phoenix, gazing out of the windows at home after home, neighborhood after neighborhood, with so many people down there I could hardly even count them, it seemed all the more ridiculous to me to pretend I'm saving the world by being one person who carries my own spoon with me.

Against the spoon: the futility of it all.
For the spoon: a pleasant conversation with a nice guy.
I'll keep the spoon.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

$58 and $600

These past few weeks have been very un-miser-like in the so-called Miser Mom household.

Last week, restaurant spending dominated grocery spending by a lot -- for me, because I was at the math meetings, and for my husband and the rest of the family, because I was at the math meetings.

Not everyone in my family loves cooking from scratch.  Or even if they do love it, it's the kind of love that comes more easily when they have a coach [slave driver] standing over them, telling them to do it now.  So even though grocery spending was a piddly $58 for the week, I call foul.  That week doesn't count.

This past Monday, I went grocery shopping with my dad in Durango, Colorado.  You would not have recognized me had you seen me.  To whit, we did our shopping at a giant, chain store whose name ends in "mart".   Can I say, that I had sort of thought my complete and utter rejection of big chain stores came to me from my family, in the same way my frugality and conservation did?  But no, the one time every year that I opt for people-over-principles (at least as far as Wall-stores go) is when I'm with the people who reared me up and set me loose on this world.

Before we went into the store, we compiled a grocery list 3 pages long.  We piled three carts full of food.  Even though my daughter handed me some cloth bags, we had not nearly enough -- the food got packed into 40 plastic bags.  Ugh.  Another non-me kind of experience.

We spent $600.  That, for a gaggle of 15 people, seems fairly reasonable -- that's $40 per person.  It will get us through much, but not all, of this week together.  We're back to cooking for one another; we'll try hard to avoid restaurants . . . at least that part of the Miser-make-up is something that comes from my upbringing.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Groceries vs. Food

There is a problem we have sometimes around the Miser Mom home:  the shelves are full of food, but there's nothing to eat.

Julia Moskin did a great write-up about this dilemma a few weeks ago in a NYT article called "Eat your veggies", describing why many people find cooking vegetables more intimidating than cooking meat.  But my husband summarized the issue even more succinctly while I was galavanting about at the math meetings last week.  He called me from home to say K-daughter had picked up our CSA box and found inside it "food I'm sure only Mom knows how to cook."

So Sunday, when I finally got home  . . . oh, a digression here.   The airport situation was bad, lots of cancelled flights all around.  I spent one night sleeping on the floor at gate B9 of the Chicago O'Hare airport.  Given everything I've been through lately, I decided to be philosophical:  I was late, but safe and sound.  I also played a game trying to be more cheerful than any other traveller in the airport.  That's a game that's darned easy to win, unfortunately.   Airports seem to breed grumpiness.

At any rate, when I got home I followed Moskin's vegetable advice.  She says, don't just leave all that stuff in the fridge waiting for inspiration -- prepare it right away.   For those who want minimal fuss, she even recommends just chopping and baking it all at once, to make it easy to snack on later in the week.   But me, I fussed.

Beets:  wash, peel, mince.  Mix with garlic, hot sauce, oil, vinegar, salt, and chopped apples.  Leave it on the counter with a large spoon so people can steal tastes.  Five beets were gone within the hour.

Eggplant.  chop into 1/2" cubes and fry up with a generous helping of olive oil and garlic.  After it starts browning, add chopped tomatoes and salt, then parmesan cheese.  Done.  K-daughter wolfed down a bunch of this for dinner, and I packed up the rest to freeze for lunches.

Green beans:  snip off the ends (while catching up on gossip with K-daughter), blanch by boiling in hot water.  In the past I've done this and then left the beans in the fridge, only to have them disappear the next day down the bellies of supposedly-vegggie-hating-children.  But because we were heading out soon, I froze the beans after blanching them this time.

Speaking of freezing, that's also what happened to three zucchini (post-shredding; they're destined for muffins, soup, and bread) and to one melon (which shall fullfil its destiny in a fruit smoothie someday).

Potatoes and onions are stored downstairs, but not near each other (they don't play nicely together).

And then tomatoes.  Why, oh why, oh why, does a frugal person ever travel during the summer?  I came back from MathFest only to discover that my tomatoes have started ripening.  I've charged my next-door neighbor with picking them this week.  Chill them.  Freeze them.  Don't let them rot on the vine.

So my veggies are now safe and sound at home, all ready to eat.  But we left Monday morning for a family vacation.  So now the problem is there's no one home to eat them!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Travel and topology

Today is the last day of MathFest; I'm dashing off to run a mathematical 5K race, to go to committee meetings, and (I hope) to hear Ghrist speak about applications of topology.  Then I'll fly home.  Sunday is my internet sabbath, and Monday we'll wake before the crack of dawn to head for the airport yet again, this time for a family vacation.  Don't fret if you don't hear from me for a little while.

That talk I'm hoping to hear is one that Ghrist describes as "the mathematics of holes".  Sometimes it's easier to understand what a space looks like by looking at what isn't there.   Even though both beach balls and swimming rings are made from (sort of) flat sheets of plastic, the inside of a ball looks vastly different from the inside of a swim ring.  It's the holes that are different, but not the surface.  The surface of each looks basically the same.

To me, this reminds me of my frugal lifestyle compared to the "standard" lifestyle.  Many people think frugality is the same as digging a deep hole of unfulfilled desires. I disagree.  The mall is a strange hole in my life, at least compared with other people.  I don't  go to the mall to buy new clothes -- but I still wear clothes.  In fact, I have so many they hardly fit in my drawers.

Paper towels are another odd-shaped hole in my life . . . a part that most people would say is "missing".   But my t-shirt rags clean better than paper towels, at least by my own unenlightened standards.

If Columbus had somehow gotten it wrong --  if he'd mistakenly thought our world was a sphere when really we lived on a giant doughnut -- would most people, living their day-to-day lives, have been able to tell the difference?  I doubt it.

For me, defining frugality by what is not there -- by the absence of processed foods, by the dearth of electronic video games, by the professional services you skip by doing things yourself -- is an important part of describing the large, overall structure of a life, in the same way that describing the shape of the hole tells you whether you're looking at a beach ball or an inner tube.

But this approach doesn't paint a good picture of what it's actually like to live this life.  Because, at least for me, living the frugal life day-in-and-day-out doesn't feel like digging holes.  It feels as normal for me to be walking around on my giant inner-tube as it does for any American-style consumer to be walking around on a giant beach ball.

And either way of living, when you think about it from too far away, is dizzying.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Gen(erosity) X

The friend who pulled me into her hotel room has a name that starts with 'X'.  How cool is that?  Especially for a mathematician!
X and me, hamming it up at the transit of Venus earlier this year.
Ordinarily when I travel to math meetings I determinedly stay in a room by myself -- a rare chance to be alone.  A solitary space is a treat-of-all-treats for me, even if the room I'm alone in is a skanky old dorm room.  But X is a former running buddy of mine; a yard-sale-enthusiast, a mathematician, a spanish-speaker.  She's the woman who spoils my children.  She used to live just down the street from me, and now that she's moved away I miss her.  Staying with X this week has been a great way to catch up on gossip and missed hugs.

Like me, X is a woman who celebrates frugality.  Emphasis in her case on "celebrate".  Sharing a room with a friend is but one example of how saving money can actually be more fun than spending it.  

The hotel we're in has a program where, if you agree not to have the maids come in each day, you get a $5 certificate to spend somewhere in the hotel.  X is planning a little ice cream party with this windfall, I think.  Meanwhile, yesterday when I came home she'd confided delightedly to me that she'd tidied up, making the beds just like the maids would have.  It really tickled her.

Sitting on our counter is a a large bag of fruit -- apples and oranges and grapes.  Those have become our breakfast food; a healthy, fast, and welcome meal, especially after all the restaurant meals that seem to be inevitable while we're at this conference.   We use this as a chance to break bread together (or at least, to peel oranges together) and to trade even more stories about our lives.  

Meanwhile, she gushes over everyone she meets (did I mention she spoils my kids?).  She's delighted by small things -- just now, she was laughing at herself because she covers up all the miscellaneous pin pricks of light in the room with her socks, so the power button and TV and alarm clock aren't shining at her all night.

Delight and contentment.  It's good to be around that.  

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Odd transition to joy

I've written before how much I love my job.  And the end of this particular week is part of the reason why; I got off the airplane to join a thousand of my colleagues who, like me, love doing math.

No, really.  Last night at the opening banquet of our summer convention I saw all sorts of friends huddled in conversations about generalized eigenvalues; people who compared notes on their latest teaching assignments; smiles and hugs all around.  After dinner for 400 people, there was a musical where we sang -- I kid you not -- lyrics like these (to the tune of "All that Jazz"):
Number theory and topology!
         And all that math!
Graphs and hyperbolic symmetry!
        and all that math!
Come on, guys, let’s congregate today
here at the summer meetings of the MAA!
We’re having lots of fun
Right here in Madison
With All!  That!  Math!
I'd planned to stay at a nearby dorm, but a good friend grabbed me and put me up in the second bed in her hotel room.  Whatever stereotype you might have of the soulless, humorless mathematician -- you wouldn't have seen it last night.  

This sounds neither "miser" nor "mom".   But maybe, after the first part of this pretty awful week, a break  is a good idea.  Today I'm going to hunt down some people who might want to grab lunch and talk about projective geometry.  Yes.  Harmonic homologies, here I come!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The day after

I have a friend who described the strangeness of life continuing onward after her father's death; she said it was eerily like a stone dropping in the water.  There was the splash, and after that the water covered over so that to most people it was like nothing had ever happened.  But she knew the stone was there, at the bottom of the pond.

For me, the day after C-son left is more like trying to put together electrical sockets and cheese -- the pieces of this picture don't seem to fit together at all.  On the one hand, I've been canceling his many many appointments, telling family and friends about the change, packing up his things.  On the other hand, I'm getting ready for the mathematical meetings that I've been looking forward to all year.  (In fact, I'm writing this post from the airport).

The strange transition from sentiment to pragmatism is something that apparently I'm hard-wired with.  Here is the letter my dad sent me when I let him know about what was going on.

I am sorry to hear about C-son.  You, like your mother, are wonderful in your attempts to rescue those in need.  While it is always sad to fail in an attempt, you should take pride in you successes.
On a separate note related to family vacation; I have booked a Midsize SUV from Hertz in Durango with you listed as the driver. I expect to meet you at the airport, but if not, the Expedia Confirmation number is [############]. (one notes that  the number is large enough to provide a separate number for each person on the earth to rent 25 cars.
Love,  Dad