Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Bicycle Purgatory

Last week, during the days leading up to the purchase of my own new bicycle, I rode a bunch of different bikes, and I learned a lot.  Not so much about bikes, actually, but definitely a lot about my husband.

Here are three of the bikes I've ridden.

Bike One is my trusty old used-store purchase.  It's built for stability and safety, both of which are important to me because I'm a total bike wimp.  I decorated it myself in such a way that no teenage boy would ever want to steal it, saving myself the expense of a bike lock.  It's got a big fat cushy seat, huge paniers for lugging groceries, streamers I made myself from potato-chip bags, spoke decorations that my husband bought me.  It's a kooky, visual joy.

The disadvantages are minor.  One is, it weighs a ton.  I think it's made of solid lead, or cast iron, or something.  So I can't carry it up and down stairs, and I can't easily put it in a trunk.  That means, it can't travel with me.  The other downside to this bike is its rider; I just don't ride it much.  Hence, the challenging myself with a triathalon -- which I can't do on this bike.

Bike Two: My husband's one-speed bike.  (He calls it a "single speed" bike, not a "one-speed".  More on the differences between me and my husband below).  I rode this about 5 miles around the neighborhood with N-son.  I was surprised at how comfortable it felt.  I raced N-son and, even though I didn't win, I tired him out.  Success!

Bike Three:  My friend's bike.  It's a darned nice bike, but it's very small (she's short).  When I rode it around the block, I felt all twitchy and like the bike was about to flip upside down and crash  me into the pavement, or a telephone pole, or something.  Size matters.  I'm getting a much larger bike.

But mostly what's surprised me is the several intense conversations I've had with my husband.  Such as,  . . .

Conversation number 1:
His car, with some of its stickers.
When I mentioned putting a sparkly cow sticker on my new bike helmet to bling it up, he begged me not to.  This is the guy who has more than a dozen stickers on his car.  This is the guy who sometimes wears neon-colored, form-fitting spandex to our evangelical presbyterian church.  But stickers on a helmet would make other cyclists take me not seriously, he says.  To which I reply: compared to them, I'm not serious!  They should take me not seriously!  This disappoints him, I think.

Conversation number 2:
My husband adjusted the seat post on my friend's bike so my butt would have been about a mile in the air.  I said, that's too high; move it down.  He reluctantly moved it down a half a centimeter.  I said again, too high, move it down.  He started telling me how long my legs are and where a true seat height ought to go.  And I sort of flipped and started yammering about dying and falling from great heights and said in my most serious (yet slightly freaked-out) voice:  move it DOWN!!!  Which he did, but he was totally unhappy.  But I lived.

Conversation number 3:
My step-daughter texted my husband to say she was watching coverage of a triathalon in which "all sorts of very fit-looking people collapse."  This prompted my husband to ask, "have you thought about what you'd do if you collapse during the triathalon?"   By this, he does not mean "which hospital would you go to?" or "who would take care of our children?", but rather, "would you then sign up for another triathalon so you could say you finished one?"  We had a big conversation after this, the basic gist of which is that there's a big difference between competing in a triathalon and doing the triathalon.  My goal is to be able to keep moving for 12-15 hours, not to compete.  If there's a hard hill, I'm walking up it.  If there's a scary intersection, I'm breaking before I get there.  If I get tired, I'm slowing down.   That is, my goal is to not collapse, thank you.

When my husband starts a race, he thinks about the road directly in front of him.  When I start the same race, I think, "Okay, it's 9 a.m.; I'm going to be running until 11 or so.  Can I keep up this pace the whole time?"  Of course, these are the ways we each approach personal finance, too.  It's been surprising that he's just figured out that this is the way we look at endurance races.

All of this is prelude.  It is prelude to my new bicycle. Thursday:  the Sudden Painful Death Machine comes home.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hurri-came, Hurri-goes

Monday:  a day spent in anticipation of a Super Storm.  Early in the day, at least in my area, it was just a bunch of rain, hardly different than other rainfalls.  I ventured out to the doctors to pick up prescriptions and then meds for my sons -- we'll won't need the meds until Thursday, but I figured I ought to get them before the storm.
Note to my bicycle-rider-wannabe, car-driver-wanna-not-be Self:  If I just plan a few days more in advance, I can get the docs to mail me the prescriptions, saving me either a 6-mile bike ride or a 6-mile car drive.  Plus, in the case of a hurricane, I wouldn't have to decide between(a) venturing out or (b) fretting over running out of our anti-hyper pills while sealed up in a home with two hyper teenagers.
After the meds were safely put into the closet, I spent much of the rest of the day sealed up in my sewing room/home office, playing a lovely, leisurely game of catch-up.  I'm sure many of my students, colleagues, and friends were doing the same.  We all declared a giant Time Out in our game of Telephone Tag.  Classes canceled.  School suspended.  Hurriedness on hold. It was, as I wrote this time last year, a gift of obstruction.
Word of the day:  "hunker".  I heard it from so many reporters and well-wishers and e-friends, that I started fantasizing about directional hunkering.  Why is it always "down"?  Couldn't I hunker up?  Hunker out?  Hunker around? 
Late in the day, after we ate some of the food that we just happened to have lying around the home, the power went out.  For how long?  We didn't know (then).  We pulled out candles and reassured J-son, who was a little weirded out.  I'd already stuffed the fridge with gallons and gallons of water, and turned it to its coldest setting, in anticipation of going 5 days without power.
Miser Mom Fantasy of the week: a chest refrigerator.  I've often toyed with the idea of just getting rid of the fridge altogether, of course.  It is entirely because of sucking up to my husband and K-daughter that I haven't ditched it.  But check out this post from "A self-sufficient life", or this one from Mt Best, or this one from Energy Conservation News.  They all converted a chest freezer to a chest refrigerator and now use 1/8th to 1/10th the energy they used to.  Plus, if the power goes out during a hurricane, the chest set-up keeps food cold longer, even if you open the door.  (My neighbor did this experiment the wrong way a few years ago; she accidentally left the lid on her chest freezer open for a week.  The freezer certainly used more power that way, but all the food was still frozen when she finally discovered her mistake). 
The power came back on an hour or so later, while we were at a friend's home, playing card games by candlelight.  While other people had dashed out to the grocery store to stock up before the storm, our stocking had mostly been done during the August harvests, and both our houses instead did baking in anticipation of the storm.  I have two loaves of bread sitting on the counter; my friend's daughter had made cup-cakes.  Hence, we went to her house.

The worst of Sandy arrived in our area after midnight.  Howling winds.  More rain.  But, since you're reading this, you can see the storm passed over without knocking us out again.  We'll have to wait until noon for the last of the dangerous winds to leave the area.  So this morning, we'll continue to hunker down; but this afternoon, I think I'll hunker out-and-about instead.

Monday, October 29, 2012

133: a Happy number

We spent a heck of a lot of money this week, but not on groceries.  On groceries, we spent only $64:  $8 for eggs and yogurt from market (it's easier to carry eggs and yogurt on a run than a giant stalk of brussels sprouts, in case you were wondering), plus $56 for cereal, coffee, and ice-cream (courtesy of my husband).

This brings our 32-week grocery average to $133/week.  And that's a happy number.

At least, it's a happy number in base 10.  That means, if you square all the digits and add them together, and if you do this over and over again, eventually you get down to "1".  For some reason nobody knows, someone decided to name this property "happy".  Here's how it goes:

133.  Square the digits and add them:  1 + 9 + 9 = 19.
19.  Square the digits and add them:  1 + 81 = 82.
82.  Square the digits and add them:  64 + 4 = 68.
68.  Square the digits and add them:  36 + 64 = 100.
100.  Square the digits and add them:  1 + 0 + 0 = 1.

For us, there's a bit of happiness in knowing the larder is stocked so well that we don't have to go out and get more, even as Hurricane Sandy and the Frankenstorm threaten.  Even when we pre-plan for the upcoming Halloween dinner.  We're set.  We've got what we need.  We have enough, and we don't really need more.  And that's one small part of happiness.

To all my fellow East Coasters, I wish you safe, warm, well-stocked homes that you can hunker down in today.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Love, money, and employment

I started floating the idea for this post by my husband at the beginning of our evening walk, and for the entire rest of the two miles we had together, he commandeered the conversation to tell me why he dreads his job.   And why, you ask, does he dread his job?   He responds at great length:  There's the great length of the commute, for one thing; there are the time demands, for another; there are the aspects of striving for goal X only to be cut off at the knees and turned all-of-a-sudden to goal Y.  In general, the analysis is this: it is not much fun.

If his job is all that dreadful, then some people might wonder why in tarnation he stays there.  You probably know the answer, and the answer is a word that starts with the letter "S", and the "S" in question is crossed through with vertical lines.  It's a $alary.  And his $alary pays our mortgage.  And $o, he $tays.

The career I swim through seems so different to me.  I love what I do, and I claim I'd do it even if I didn't get paid to do it.  In fact, I am really looking forward to having the kids grow up and move out* so I can do MORE of my job.
(* I know, I know, we're still talking about adopting yet another kid.  But that's a temporary bump:  the rule in the Miser Mom household is that any kids who enter the home have to be born in a year that start with the number 1.  Teenagers or older, only!  We're not starting over.  When N-son graduates from high-school, we start the process of shoving all our little birdies out the nest and letting them fly, and we go solo.  Hah!)
Among the gazillion differences between the way my husband and I see our jobs, this question has been niggling around in my mind lately:  if you get paid to do what you love, do you love it more or do you love it less?

To me, it seems that the answer depends a lot on how you get "paid".  Now-well-known studies show that rewarding day-care kids to color with crayons by giving them stickers or treats makes them, in the long run, less likely to want to color pictures than kids who don't get the rewards.  But stickers and treats have nothing to do with coloring; they're compensation for lost time, at best.  If you reward kids for coloring by giving them direct feedback on their artwork and also by giving them more/better crayons, they'll color way more.

When N-son started drumming, his first snare drum was a long-awaited reward for a summer of good behavior.  And later, the hi-hat was a similarly long-awaited reward for practicing regularly with the snare drum.  As time went by, we kept "rewarding" his drum practice by eventually "letting" him have more and more pieces of his drum set.  Now we "reward" his practice by "letting" him perform in public occasionally.  We are totally messing with his mind, rewarding his music practice with even more music practice.  But if we'd gone the route of say, paying him for good practice by giving him extra allowance or extra dessert, I don't think he'd be the avid drummer he is today.

Salary:  it comes from the word "salt", because that's how Roman soldiers used to get paid for their military duty (or so I hear; I'm a mathematician, not a historian).

But a salary is not the best reward, because a salary has nothing to do with the job at hand (unless you work in the salt mines).  My husband gets paid with money: he uses this money to build a personal life, not to build his career.  But my own office gives me more than money.  It just bubbles over with opportunities to teach the way I want, to follow my mathematical passions, and to bring my family and my career together.  Instead of "salary", think about these words instead:
  • reward, comes from "regard", meaning to look at someone.
  • recognition, meaning to know (or even, to recognize) someone.
  • compensation, which comes from 'com' (together) and pensive (thinking) and really means to weigh one side against another.
The best rewards of all to get are the kind where you can say, "Look at me!  Look at what I did!", and the person rewarding you looks at you and says "Yes, I see," and then agrees "Yes, I understand."  And life is even better if the person rewarding you says, "Let's think together (com-pensate) on how to help you do this even better."  

That is, paying the right kind of attention is just as important as paying the right kind of salary.  Think about it.  

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Tale of Two Banjos

Any professor can tell you that a tenure decision is the ultimate pass/fail exam.  Six or seven years after a school hires you, a committee gets together and makes a decision about your fate: if they say "no", you're fired; if they say "yes", you've got a job for life.  For obvious reasons, Tenure Decision Day is a honking big deal.  There's not a traditional way to celebrate (or mourn, for that matter).  For me, I celebrated the day I got tenure -- November 18, 1998, in case you're wondering -- by going out and buying a banjo.

Before I bought my banjo, the only musical instrument I knew how to play was the radio (I'm a darned good radio player, if I do say so myself!).  For my first non-radio instrument, I chose the banjo because I like bluegrass, and because I wanted an instrument that had to satisfy two criteria:
  1. It had to be easy (ish) to play.  Flutes, violins, and bag pipes were right out.
  2. It had to be one that nobody else I knew played.  I didn't want to get to the point of mastering "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on the guitar, only to have my friend pick it up and play "Free Bird".  
Baby N-son grooves to "Go Tell Aunt Rhody".
For a year or so, after I got my banjo, I played stupid little songs every day. I was really bad (although my dog and my kids grooved to "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" and "Frere Jacque"). Eventually, I got to the point I could play semi-decent little songs like "Cripple Creek". Then I started playing with a really good player (a groundskeeper at my college named Boots), and I got to the point where I could play truly decent little songs, plus a few indecent ones. (Hello, "Dueling Banjos"!) Then I bought my second banjo.

Banjo number 1 cost me $600.  It was new, from one of those mall-side music stores.  It was probably really worth only half that (on the market, that is.  Obviously, to me  it was symbolically much more important).  It was a beginner's banjo, light and plinky, serviceable.  I couldn't have told you why, but it was nothing a professional would have played.  Worked for me, since I wasn't even close to being a professional.

Banjo number 2 cost . . . the same:  $600.  I bought it used, with Boots' help, from a musician who'd decided to pass it along.  It's a beautiful looking, beautiful sounding, heavy banjo that was probably worth twice what I paid for it.  It was a much, much better instrument than the first one I got, and yet I paid just the same for it.

When I bought my first banjo, it wasn't just my fingers that couldn't do the music.  It was also my ears:  I honestly couldn't tell the diference in sound between one banjo and another.  (And I bought it on Tenure Decision Day, so I didn't care -- I just wanted to get a banjo!)   Over the course of the several years between the two instruments, after playing banjo nearly every day, I learned not only how to make a few chords and a whole bunch of "rolls", but also how to appreciate the beast I was holding.  

I think about those two banjos a lot as I consider getting a new bicycle for my upcoming adventures.  I test-rode a bunch of different bikes this past weekend, ranging in price from $700 to $2000.  And I could sort of tell they felt different, but I honestly couldn't have told you which was "best".  I know it's going to take miles and miles (furlongs?  centuries?) before I can feel and understand the difference between the machines.  

This time, I'm not running out and buying something right away.  A friend has offered to loan me her bike (yay for the Mutual Friend Account!)   I'm going to try to use it to put in a bunch of miles so I can build up my legs and my sense of how the bike connects me to the road.  Then I'm going to go and test-ride those various bikes again.  

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Mutual Friend Account and the Emergency Friend

Any good book on finances will tell you about the importance of building up an emergency fund, and that same good book will tell you about mutual funds.  To which I say, all good and well.  True, true; I believe.  No argument.  But even as I mull over those monetary funds, I focus more on investing in the mutual friend account and having a good set of emergency friends.

In my book, the reason friends come before funds is largely moral/ethical/theological.  I'm one of those kooks who think that people come before things or money.  I even believe that community comes before self.

But I'm also practical and cheap-to-the-bone, and I think that people-before-money has some real tightwad benefits, too.

Consider the mutual friend accounts I have.  I was actually thinking about this the other day as I'd borrowed the apple peeler/slicer/corer from my friend June.  When I broke it [horror and shame], I actually considered buying a new one.  But before I did so, I schmoozed with some of my other gardening friends, one of whom (Judy) suggested Craigslist, which led me to a finding a local, gently-owned machine for just $15.  So let's say that my friendships with June and Judy saved me $30 over buying a new contraption.  In contrast, I'd need to set aside $500 in a mutual fund earning 6% interest (after taxes) to net the savings I'd need for this particular purchase.  I'll choose June and Judy over the mutual fund for sheer quality-of-life reasons.

I have friends who keep me running, who cut my hair, who remind me how to forgive other people, who help me raise my kids.  All of these are things I could shell out money for, but I don't.  Friends are financially advantageous for a Miser Mom.  I'm in a lovely holding pattern of having strong friendships that enrich my life, both in emotional and in financial terms.

But let's think about worst case scenarios.   Let's think about emergencies.  Why?  Because I do think about this, all the time.

For example, I have a page of photocopies of all the credit cards (etc) in my wallet, just in case I lose it or it gets stolen.  For years, I had an emergency (money) fund in case my husband lost his job; now that we're hyper-focusing on paying off the house, we have a line of credit instead of an emergency fund, but the emergency fund will re-emerge once the home is paid off.

And for the same reason, I have a list of Emergency Friends.  This list of Emergency Friends was especially important to me when I was a single mom.  Now that I'm married, a lot of "I need help!" pleas can go straight to my guy, but it's still true that I carry this list around with me of who I can call if things go wrong or I need help.  Some examples:
  • Plumbing/carpentry woes:  My dad or my brother-in-law.
  • Child-care needs: my husband, K-daughter, several close friends, several students.
  • Dog care: two different neighbors.
  • Garden disasters:  June, Judy, and several others.
I don't want to list their names below, but I also keep lists of people I can call for professional reasons.  Here are some of those categories that matter to me, although of course your categories will be different:
  • Teaching questions (mentor in my department; mentors on my campus in other departments; mentors from math at other campuses).
  • Research questions (ditto the three categories above).
  • Funding issues:  there's a guy I know in Indiana who knows the NSF well.  And I have a few contacts at the NSF.
This past summer, I got to see what happened when I didn't have an emergency friend at the ready.   The 15-year-old boy we'd brought into our home, C-son, was getting to the point that we were needing outside help.  The day before he blew up, our social worker Amanda the Amazing was working with us, casting about for alternatives to just pulling him out of the home.  "Do you have any friends who might be willing to take him for a few nights?" she asked.  It was when I realized the answer was "no", that I fully realized I was completely in over my head with that kid.  I have friends who have my back with all my other kids, but not one of my friends could deal with C-son -- nor would I feel comfortable asking them to do so.  That was the light-bulb moment that convinced me it wasn't all my fault things weren't going well.

That's the scary/yucky side of the Emergency Friend list:  not having one.  But the more positive side of this is that making a List of Emergency Friends and Mentors is an incredibly gratitude-producing experience.  And better yet, each time I've been willing to tell people that they're on my list of trusted advisors, that made the relationship even stronger.  It developed that portfolio of assets, if you want to use financial lingo.    It made my life more stable, more comfortable, and richer in all senses of that word.

Monday, October 22, 2012

$135: aimless spending

In a totally abstracted, undirected way, we spent $122 on food this week: garlic, peanuts, candy, yeast, peanut butter.  What's up with that list?

The two most photogenic purchases of the week were the apple machine and the brussels sprouts.
In back, you see the apple peeler/corer/slicer I'd borrowed from my friend June with a now-bent blade.    (Um, June doesn't have a bent blade; the machine does).  June swore up and down she'd never have wanted the peeler/corer/slicer back anyway, but still, I got one [in front] that works.  We'll keep it in my house, and I made June promise she'll come ask me if she wants to borrow it back.  There are few things in life that make me feel as slimy as breaking something that belongs to a friend, even if the friend doesn't want it anymore.  

But wait!  There's more!  As I was lamenting shelling out $45 for a mail-order machine, my pal Judy convinced me I could get a good one via Craigs' List.  And Judy, of course, was right.  So I ended up shelling out only $15 (less money, yay!), and doing the environmentally sounder thing of purchasing used instead of new.  

Speaking of environmental, I decided to combine a shopping trip to market with my long weekend run. I'd meant to pick up just some yeast and a bit of sandwich turkey, but then I fell in love with this stalk of brussels' sprouts.
 [News flash: it's harder to run the last 2 miles home
with a 2-foot tall stalk of brussels sprouts
than without it!]
This week's purchases bring our 31-week grocery average to $135/week.  In base 10, 135 has some semi-photogenic aspects itself.  For example,

[Thanks to Wikipedia for the photos of those equations].

There is no theme or conclusion to be made here.  Grocery-wise, it was that kind of week.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Frugality and other F-words

You've all heard the sad, sad story about the guy who scrimped and saved his whole life so that he could relax and live out his dream some day -- and then he was struck ill and passed away right before his dream could come true.   It's the reason people like me should lighten up and live a little, or so I've heard.  We've all gotta have a little fun now; we owe it to ourselves.

Do I agree with that?  Do I believe I have an obligation to splurge on things today because I might just kick the bucket tomorrow?  Hah!  Nobody who calls herself 'Miser Mom' would ever subscribe to that brand of magazine.  In fact, if I were being all uppity (and I know I climb up on my uppity horse far more often than that particular horse needs a rider), I'd say I have obligations to something and someOne far bigger than myself, thank you.  I do believe I have obligations, but Frivolity and Self-indulgence are low on my obligation list.

Frivolity is low on my obligation list.  But I still have a lot of frivolity anyway.  No, really, I do.  A family that eats Pirate Dinners together might or might not be splurging, but it's not a family of self-flagellation and drudgery, either.

The famous parts of frugality are getting stuff for small amounts of money: foraging, if you will.  But getting stuff is not what it's all about; frugality also means being grateful for what we already have:  finding unexpected uses for everyday things.

It's frugality that means my kids have more yard-sale-purchased toys than they know what to do with; and it's frugality that keeps us from overwhelming them with yet even more junk.  Why buy an X-box, when the kids go all happy and "look-at-me!" playing with a cardboard box?

It's frugality that means my closet is full of clothes I like to wear, clothes rescued from giveaway piles or purchased for pennies at yard sales.  It's frugality that means my cupboards are stocked with homemade and locally produced foods that we can use to feed ourselves and our friends.  It's frugality that means my husband and I are more likely to read to one another or to go for a walk together than to pay for outside entertainment in the form of movies or restaurants.   We can dance in our own living room.  Sometimes, we do!  Ordinary occasions become festive!

And in the areas where I don't want to scrimp -- charity, health, theater, bicycles -- frugality frees up the space to help us afford those things.

Perhaps you've seen those t-shirts and bumper stickers that some runners show off: they say, "My sport is your sport's punishment."  Translation:  running is a pain in the butt, unless you get good at it, at which point it becomes a joy.  If you know someone who loves running, you have seen that joy.  (If you look around our large country nowadays, you might also conclude we have more than a few people who could use more of that kind of joy in their own lives).

And that's the main problem I have with the whole "you have to live it up by spending money" narrative.  Because once you can do it right, frugality is . . . fun!  It's freeing.  For me, it's the way of life that allows me to live many of my dreams right now, not to wait for some long-distant day.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

420: counting down and moving on

Two weeks ago, my pastor tossed off a casual allusion to a grueling race.  He compared the Christian life to an IronMan Triathalon.  And even though he was trying to make the point that anyone who did that kind of race is just a bit obsessive and nutso . . . let me rephrase that:  maybe because he was trying to make the point that anyone who would do that race would be just a bit obsessive and nutso, I got bitten by the bug.

My guy had been off at Army training and missed church, but I mentioned the IronMan idea to him.  And he got bit by the bug even bigger.  The more the two of us talked about it, the more we got excited.  I don't own a decent bike, but I'm sure I could figure out how to ride one a mere 112 miles.  He can barely swim the length of the pool, but he's sure he could get lessons and figure out how to go 2.4 miles through open water.  We've both done half-marathons; how much harder could it be to go the full 26-point-something on foot?  (That marathon comes after drowning swimming for about two hours and crashing biking for 6-ish hours, or course).

For the past two weeks, that's sort of all we've been talking about.  We've decided we'll try to do this before I turn 50 . . . that means, during the summer of 2015.

Just like that, our lives are about to become different again.

The financial implications:
The race itself is expensive.  Travelling to the race is expensive.  I guess I can deal with that.  Maybe.

Some people claim that runners need special shoes.  I have exactly three pairs of running shoes; I bought them over the past 4 years at yard sales, and I paid a total of $11 for all three pairs combined.  I've run more miles than I can count in them, including a few half-marathons.  Maybe SOME people need expensive new shoes all the time, but I figure I can get by without them.  Harrumph.
(For a long harangue on why I think used shoes are really okay, see this.  
For where I think the whole "used shoes = bad shoes" idea comes from, see this.)

Ditto for the fancy ScienceDiet squirt foods.  I've done fine so far carrying waffles and bananas around with me.  It is entirely possible that eating expensive squirty stuff might move me from 863rd place to 794th place in a race of 1000 people.  But I'm not buying it anyway.

Bike.  Okay, the bike, I'm going to have to buy that.  And bike shoes, too.  And that's an expense.  But part of the reason I can justify it for myself is that I've grown too comfortable taking the car on jaunts of a mile or more.  Much of the frugal part of me has been shaking a finger at the car-driving side of me.  The frugal me screams that short automobile trips are evil-bad-bad.  I figure that training for the race will make me want to take the bike on these trips (in the short run), and even after the race they'll make me feel more comfortable riding the bike for errands (in the long run).  Perhaps this will save money in the distant future.  We'll see if I'm right.

The health implications:
During the last two weeks I have kept on thinking about what it would mean to do an event that will take 15 hours of constant motion.  And it makes me realize about how much of my current waking day is spent in constant immobility.

Already I feel myself itching just to get moving more.  Get off the butt.  Stretch.  Walk/run/garden.  One of my students told me that his club is hosting a 12-hour dance-a-thon in March, and my first reaction was "that would be good practice for the triathalon!"

The time implications:
Yeah, time.  I'm giving myself until the summer of 2015 to get ready for this.  Sometime between now and then, I'm going to have to ratchet my training up from about two-or-three hours per week to something like ten-to-twelve hours per week.  That means (doing quick mental arithmetic here . . . ) more than an hour a day of exercise and motion.

I can do a bunch of this training in ways that overlap with the things I already love.  (Integrate, not balance).  My boys are avid cyclists; J-son is a fabulous runner.  No doubt we'll all have some quality family time on the road or in the pool together.  And training with my husband is one of my two favorite ways for us to get sweaty together.  Similarly, running and swimming have always been good times for me to think about math.  So I can probably keep up with my research and still train for the event.  (It helps that 2015 will kick off my next sabbatical, so I'll have a bit of extra time off of teaching after the event, when I can recover).

But even with family/math/movement overlaps, something has gotta go if I'm going to take this new thing on.  The time to train has to come from somewhere.  And therefore . . .

The blog implications.
The time to train will come from ye olde blog.  I've loved putting my life out there into the cyber world -- I've loved it too much, really.  I get a little obsessive about posting.  So much so that I've occasionally delayed getting homeworks back to my students, and so much so that I've often ignored my kids so that I can write about cute things they did.  This is not healthy, in many senses of that word.

For the sake of my eternal soul and also for the health of my professional and family life, it's probably time to cut back anyway.   I don't want to stop immediately (just like I don't want to start training several hours a day immediately).

Today's post is my 420th post.  By the time I get to 450 posts, I'll put the Miser Mom baby to bed.

I want to write more about what's up with the kids (including, I hope, posts about our eventual Haitian child).  I want to write about semi-retirement for my husband.  I want to write about why frugality is not the same as delayed gratification.  There's a lot I want to say here.  I'll have 30 chances to speak (or at least, write) my mind.

But after that, it will be time to obsess about something else.  Time, as they say, to move on.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Miser Mom with a non-Miser family

Frugal-to-the-bone:  She Is; He Isn't.  That's one of the melodies running through our marriage.

It's not the only melody.  There are some pretty big "We are" melodies, too.  We are active; inquisitive; occasionally irreverent; tough disciplinarians; book lovers; stinky when it comes to humility.  We both love taking on grand, idealistic, semi-impulsive projects.  So when I niggle about
"and then he bought an expensive latte!" 
and people might wonder
"What keeps them together?", 
the answer is that the magic in the marriage is that I can tell him something like,
"Even though I don't own a bike, 
I was thinking of trying an IronMan Triathalon" 
and he responds by saying,
"I'll learn to swim so I can join you!'  

It's that kind of marriage.  That grand, slightly nutty idealism is how we adopted N kids (where N is a number greater than or equal to 2, depending on how you count).  It's how my husband decided to reenlist in the military at age 54 (in army years, that's older than dirt).  It's how we decided to get married in the first place, really:  a whirlwind romance lasting less than a month, that 16 years and many kids later is still going strong.

But it's not the kind of marriage where he's going to give up cable TV.  Or fancy lattes.

Let's switch back to looking at the world entirely through Miser Mom lenses:  Suppose you marry a man who comes with a bunch o'debt and other financial obligations, no real retirement savings, and a spending philosophy which is impulsive at best.  Can frugality work its magic on our finances?  Is one-sided frugality even worth it?

Fifteen years ago, I would have told you I wasn't sure.  I would have said somehow the miser has to convert the spendthrift, or else the frugalist suffers while the spender revels.  But today the picture is different.   Even with me doing the bulk of the bulk-purchasing, so to speak, our entire family is better off, me included.  No car debt. The home is within a year of being completely paid off.  We give something like 6-8% of our take-home salary to church and other charities.  Several of the kids have been successfully launched into the world, and others are moving toward the launching pad.

And truth be told, my non-miser husband is a heck of a lot more miserly than he was when he married me.  He often brings lunch to work; he's figured out how to make his suits last longer; he stays in cheap hotels when he travels (much to the bemusement of his coworkers).

Although I admire (and sometimes am a little wistfully envious) of those couples that walk the frugal/no trash/garden extravaganza life together, the point is, if you want to be a frugalista, it's possible to lead that parade solo.  To march along with no marching band behind you.  And still to make sure that the whole family is better off than it would have been if you'd waited for everyone to line up in formation. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

I walk the walk. I take a hike.

This is a back-to-basics post.  I was walking down the street with N-son on Saturday when he took my hand, grinned up at me mischievously, and said, "I like . . . having the sun on my face!"

He was stealing my line.  No fair.  Our family plays a game called "I like" where we take turns saying things we like doing.  It's a sappy-sounding game, but my teenagers haven't figured out that they're too cool to be that sappy, so they still start it up at random moments.  And N-son was having double-fun, because he snagged one of my favorite lines, leaving me with liking . . .  eating waffles, holding hands, drinking coffee, hugging his dad . . . still a lot to choose from, actually.

But N-son reminded me how much I love walking.  What a wonderful thing it is to be out-and-about on my own two feet.  Even better: to be out-and-about holding hands with my 12-year-old son, on our own four feet.

Some of what this frugal-meister-Miser Mom loves about walking is what it means we're not doing, of course.  We weren't cruising along in an automobile, paying for gas and etc.  Walking around is nearly free (shoes and chocolate are just about my only expenses; your own chocolate mileage may vary).

The transportation aspect of walking is the reason we bought our home 3 blocks from my office.  It's the very un-theological reason I chose the church we attend, less than a mile from our home.  I wanted to structure my life to make walking just as easy as driving, so I wouldn't be tempted to default to the car.

But a walk is more than what it isn't, if that makes sense.

A walk is a way to recover (when I had a surgery a decade ago, the doctors got me back on my feet by getting me back on my feet; they literally made me walk until I farted).

When I'm healthy, a walk is a way to stay healthier.  It's one of the most amazingly sustainable kinds of exercise there is.
My guy and N-son walking to church in 2009.

A midday walk is perfect for breaking up that computer-induced trance.  After sitting still all morning, a walk is probably better than coffee at perking me up.  (But please don't tell my coffee that I'm insulting it; I love my coffee).

A walk is a way to connect with the people I'm walking with.  I've walked my kids through many of their relationship woes, through their "I don't know what I want to do with my life" worries, through their "I'm just so angry I could spit" moods.  But even more often, walking is a good way to swing between silence and conversation and back again, unforced.  As N-son has figured out, it's a great time to play "I like".  (And it's a perfect time to steal Mom's favorite lines).

A walk is a way to connect with the neighbors around me; to meet the new puppy, to check out my neighbors' garden, to catch up on the news of my friends' children.  I can't do any of that from the safety of my automobile.

A walk can be a romantic activity (think of the cliche "SWM likes to take long walks on the beach").  My husband and I like to take long walks across our college campus.  We hold hands, talk, walk, and make googly eyes at each other.

A walk can be frugal-yet-memorable entertainment for an entire crowd.  When I was growing up, Saturday hikes through the woods were something our entire family loved (especially the dogs).  Now that I live near a city, we head downtown for special events, gadding about on foot.  Even when we do drive, we'll park far from the center of town at the cheaper parking spots, and hoof it the rest of the way in.  And a walk this time of year past my favorite trees is a definite feast for the eyes.

Walking is health and entertainment and transportation.  Its hard to beat the price, says the Miser Mom.   But it's also hard to come up with something I might ever want to spend actual money on that could do all that for me and the family.

The final word on the subject comes from Miser-Dog:

He asks:  Do you want to go for a walk?  Do you?  You know you do!

Monday, October 15, 2012

$136: put it up; suck it up; eat it up.

Put it up.
Silly me, thinking the harvest season was over for the year.  Tomatoes are off the vine, canned up and put down; that is true.  Apples are in, yes.  Pumpkins have turned orange and have joined the huddle in the cellar, yes.  The garden is a mixture of vine-y things and clods of dirt.

But then my husband brought in a stash of the only essentials still somehow missing from our larder:  Cases and cases of Vitamin Water.  Further cases of Gatorade.  The giant Box O' Donuts.  Ibuprofin, which he takes in such quantities it practically counts as food.   Together with dairy and celery from Market, this means we spent $86 on groceries this week, bringing the 30-week grocery average to $136/week.

Suck it up.
Perhaps you thought that Miser Mom has the kind of family where this situation occurs:
Mom comes home from a pot luck dinner and says to her daughter, "I brought home a piece of cake and the leftover beet salad."  Daughter responds, "Oh good!  I was hoping there would be some beet salad left!"
If that's what you thought . . . well, actually, you'd be right.  True story from Friday night.

I long-ago learned how disastrous it is to raise a picky eater.  It's disastrous for both the wallet and for the eater, really.  Jared Diamond in his excellent book Collapse describes an extreme danger of picky eating:  Norse settlers starving to death en masse on Greenland, surrounded by lakes full of fish they were too finicky to eat.  And this is why -- although I twitch a bit, and although I poke fun a lot, at my husband's choices of so-called food -- it makes its way into the home.  My foot doesn't get put down; my nose doesn't get turned up.  We just eat whatever we're fortunate enough to find in front of us.  The motto in our home is, "You don't have to like it; you just have to eat it."

So I'm proud of my kids for being such omnivores.  Given their druthers, the boys would eat cereal, ramen noodles, and mac-n-cheese endlessly.  I overheard a yo-dude/true dat conversation they were having with their friends about the evils of all green foods, and they all waxed eloquent about the vileness of vegetables.  But then one of their buds mentioned brussel sprouts, and N-son immediately jumped in with rhapsodic descriptions of the deliciousness of grilled brussel sprouts, and this started J-son on a full-out brag on how he could eat more kale than anyone.  Don't beat it; just eat it.  And we do.

Eat it up.
Earlier this month I had a bunch of my calculus students over for dinner.  It was fall break; the dining hall was closed.  I fed them spaghetti and homemade sauce and homemade bread and grilled zucchini, except not one of them touched the zucchini.  They whined about how bad the dining hall food is, while they passed my vegetable plate without touching it.  I've never been so proud of my own kids, who were delighted at the chance to eat extra servings.

To be truly frugal means to be willing to try -- and also be willing to learn to love -- those cheap, healthy foods that surround us.  But another side of this willingness involves sharing the delights of the people in front of us, to be willing to join in their meals.  In the absence of religious or health restrictions (which clearly take precedence), the personal ought to bow to the communal.

Does saying this mean I drink vitamin water?  No, vitamin water is not something my husband wants to share, and I'm happy for him not to share it with me.  Does this mean I eat at McDonalds when my family goes there?  Yes, in fact, I went to that particular chain and ate something it sold back in 2010.  (Or was it 2009?  It wasn't fun for me, but I did it, and I have witnesses to prove it).

Friday, October 12, 2012

Techno-Rant, X-stuff, I-stuff, E-stuff

           Recap of the last week or so:  
Miser Mom laments that our things own us.
Miser Mom fears that the machines are taking over.
Miser Mom praises paper mail over the electronic version.
Miser Mom drags her children to watch (operatic) women die horrible deaths on stage,
       but seldom lets them watch Bionicles battle for world supremacy on TV.

Why is Miser Mom on such an anti-tech rant?  And why does she refer to herself in the third person?

yoicks.  The whole third-person thing is just silly.  But the whole technology rant has a reason.  Or rather a constellation of reasons, which are
 •  a nasty-large cell phone bill, coming on top of
    • Consumer Reports "50 best products" issue, arriving right at the end of
         • the yard sale season.

The end of the Lancaster yard sale season means that my own favorite Christmas shopping venues are basically closing down for the year, not to reopen until next May.  Shopping season is almost over for me; the coin jar is nearly empty and will begin its long, slow refill.  But before I quit buying things for the year, I want to top off the X-mas baskets, going into November free of that "aaahhh! What do I get her???" kind of last-minute panic.  So I've been mulling over the few people on my list for whom I didn't snag cool scores this summer.

Then I got the latest Consumer Reports at the same time as my monster cell phone bill.  Their featured "50 Best Products" include a jar of olive oil, a few bottles o' wine, a set of kitchen knives, cans of paint . . . and then lots and lots (and more lots) of things that you plug in, turn on, power up, power down.  And I just thought, if even I wanted to consider a techno-gadget for my friends and loved ones, I'd be giving them the gift that keeps on taking.  That's not nice.

Hence, the techno rant.  No i-things.  No e-things.  It goes against my moral fiber to buy the cheap stuff that will just require expensive batteries before it gets tossed into some landfill.  And I'm just too cheap to get the really good stuff (although I could pretend that I'm not too cheap, but that I don't want to hook my loved ones on an expensive e-habit, and that would be true, too).   (But the first reason really is that I'm too cheap).

So what do I get for people who I love and who I share connections with, but who are far, far away?  How do I get them things that don't take space on their shelves, or create even more garbage in this world of ours?  Some of these people are 77 years old and darned well off, and some of these people are 7 years old with no money of their own (but with doting parents who supply goodies as needed/wanted).  Neither extreme is easy to shop for.   And some of these people are young adults just starting out on their own, and I have no idea of the state of their current belongings or desires.

How shall we save the day?

Opera, of course.

Or rather, theater tickets.  My only homemade daughter knows that her birthday present for many, many years was a set of 3 subscription tickets to the local theater: one ticket for her, one ticket for me, and one ticket for a friend of her choice.  When she went off to college, we replaced that with passes to the movie theater near her school.  Two years ago, my nieces in San Diego got to go see a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta courtesy of their Aunt Miser Mom.   Theater may or may not be an option for family members this year.

Not to mention restaurants.  For young-adults-just-starting-out in distant cities, I believe that a gift certificate to a local (to them) restaurant can't be beat.  In fact, for my 77-year-old father, I'm going to meld plan A and plan B, and get him a lovely dinner at the restaurant near his favorite opera house.  This will come packaged together with a heartfelt note of gratitude for hooking me on sex-and-violence (as performed by sopranos and tenors who are backed up by large orchestras).

 And for the 7-year-old nieces?  The answer is its own drama in three acts.

Act 1.  Last year, I bought a puzzle book I thought they'd like.   They're bright kids; the puzzles I chose aren't connect-the-dots kinds of puzzles, but more like  "Turn LOVE into CASH by changing one letter at a time" kind of puzzles.  [LOVE - LOSE - LASE - CASE - CASH is one possibility.  Not your average 7-year-old].   But instead of sending them the whole book at once, I cut apart the pages and sent them one puzzle a week, together with a little note from our family.  I could imagine doing the same thing with a coloring book, actually.  I really love this idea; takes a lot of pressure off of writing a long note, and gives the kids something to look forward to . . .

Act 2.  . . . except I heard nothing back from the kids.  Did they like it?  Were the puzzles too hard?  I went into a funk about my cool idea that seemed to be disappearing into a black hole.  Then, this summer, both nieces told me how much they love getting my letters and puzzles.  In fact (they say) they've written several letters back, but somehow never seemed to manage to get the envelope, address, and stamp all together to send something back out.

Act 3.  Inspiration hit.  My nieces (and perhaps even a few young adults) will be getting envelopes, pre-addressed, for all the many many people in our family.  There will be -- yes-indeed-ee -- a few extra envelopes with the name and address of yours truly.  Perhaps I'll get some mail next year.

Creating such envelopes is not difficult on the computer and home printer.  Stamps are the most expensive part of the project, but they will be included (note that stamp prices will go up again in 2013, so buy now).  Cards, also, will be part of the package, again thanks to the wonder of the computer.

Tech?  No.  This year's X-mas gifts will be theatrical X-periences, and X-cellent meals, and X-pository outlets.

But this year's Noel gifts will have no E gifts.  (Say that out loud to appreciate it.  Heh.).

Rant over.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

How to take a child to the opera

If technology (which I'm on a two-week rant against) is dangerous for us because it's easy to get sucked into and hard to quit, what's the opposite?

How about opera?  Opera is hard to get used to, and (unless you had a really good parent/teacher/mentor to introduce you to the genre), really really easy to walk away from.  So it probably goes without saying that as much as I hate (love HATE) my cell phones, I love (love LOVE) opera.

Taking a kid to an opera doesn't sound like a miserly experience, does it?

Okay, it's not.  Operas are pricey, and they're an acquired taste at best.  But if you're GOING to take a kid to an opera anyway, teaching a kid to make the most of that expensive experience is definitely the Miser Mom way to go.  If opera's not your bag, I'm sure you can substitute your own favorite expensive hobby in here and figure out similar ways to prepare the kid for the exquisite experience of luxury that only an adult could love.

Prepare beforehand.

I tell the story of the opera from the end first:
La Traviata is a story about a beautiful woman named Violetta, and you know what happens to her at the end?  She dies!
Then I back up and tell a bit more.
La Traviata is a story about a beautiful woman named Violetta, and at the end of the opera, she's sick but says she's feeling so much better she wants to get up and go to church.  And then you know what happens to her?  She dies!
Then I back up and tell a bit more.
La Traviata is a story about a beautiful woman named Violetta.  Her boyfriend Alfredo leaves her.  At the end, he comes back because she's sick, and that makes her feel so much better she says she wants to get up and go to church.  But you know what happens to her then?  She dies!
And slowly I work my way back to the beginning.  This technique works well with just about every opera.  (Madame Butterfly is about a beautiful woman from Japan, and you know what happens to her?  She dies!  Carmen is about a gypsy woman who falls in love with bullfighter -- and you know what happens to her?  She dies!  Aida is a story of an Ethiopian princess who is captured and turned into a slave.  And you know what happens to her in the end?  She dies!  This, for a kid raised on Sponge Bob, is heady and exciting stuff).

I also play the favorite arias from the opera as going-to-bed music for about a month, so the kids get used to it.  If N-son can watch Ice Age over and over and over again (and he does), then he's not about to get over-weary of the humming chorus from Madame Butterfly.  Quite the opposite -- it becomes a thrill to hear that the people on the stage know that song, too!

Explain the local rules, especially the cool stuff.

In opera, the first violin comes out to tune up the orchestra.  I tell the kids (and this is true) that THAT is my favorite sound in the whole entire world.  I could listen to an orchestra tuning together all evening.  I'm not the only one who feels like this.  Not at all.

Then the conductor comes out, and everybody claps.  Then they play the overture; the correct people know that there is NO talking during the overture.  (I tell my kids that there are always rude people who talk during the overture; my kids are allowed to glare but not to say "shhh!"  It is always fun to be more correct than grown-ups).

There's an intermission when we get to go get a soda (gasp!), and then we come back in for more.  When the lights blink, that's when we know it's time to go back in.  Cool.

At the end of the opera, clapping goes on forever and ever. If you stick your fingers in your ears, the applause sounds like rain and thunder -- likewise very cool.  We love that.

Give the kids a safety valve.

There is no fidgeting during an opera.  None at all.  But the kids are allowed to fall asleep quietly, provided they don't wiggle or snore.  One of my daughters once told her friends, "Carmen was so loud you could hear the music even when you were asleep!"

Another, even better way to get through the occasional boring parts is to see how long you can hold your breath.  (No loud explosions or heavy breathing at the end).  The holding-the-breath trick has been a staple in generations of my family.  Try it during a committee meeting sometime -- you'll see why we love it.

There is no talking while the music is playing (which is pretty much the whole time).  But kids are allowed to ask a very quick question while the audience is clapping.  My kid's favorite question, which they usually get in right after the very first aria of the very first act, is "Is she dead yet?"

When they ask that question, I know the kids are hooked.  They're opera lovers, holding their breaths, waiting for more.

No, baby, she's not dead yet.  Keep watching.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Update on the Haiti adoption

If you have a long memory, you might vaguely recall that there's a child in Haiti that my husband and I visited last December, and we'd talked about trying to adopt him.  What's up with that?

The process of international adoption is slow.  And it's very cumbersome in terms of paperwork.  We started our paperwork in January and finished it in May, although "finished" is a relative term, as this latest update shows.  We recently got this email from the agency we're working with:
This is an important, action required email.
We are requesting that a revised Power of Attorney document be added to your dossier in order to accommodate changes on our legal team.  The document we need is attached in both English and French.  It needs to be personalized with your information  (both versions) and then notarized, authenticated by the Secretary of State, and legalized at the Haitian Consulate assigned to your state.
One more little piece of paper.  (Well, two really; one in English, one in French).

For us, the trickiest part of taking care of this one piece of paper was finding a time when my husband and I were both together at the same time that a notary was available -- that's probably a sad commentary on how hectic our work schedules are.  But we were just thrilled to find a half-hour time slot that actually worked: 10:30-11:00 on a Friday morning, right after my husband got a crown for his tooth, and right before I met with my calculus students.  And that thrill of making the schedule work is probably an appropriate commentary on why we like living this hectic life.  Woo-hoo!

After we got the papers notarized ($10), we had to wait for the state holiday to pass.  On Tuesday, my husband took a day off of work to go first to Harrisburg to get the apostille ($15), and then to New York City to get the document officially approved at the Haitian consulate ($25).  Then we mailed it off  ($36 via Fed Ex) to our adoption agency.  Toss in 450 miles of travel, plus $45 in parking and tolls, and we're talking about a mildly expensive piece of paper, eh?

And that's where the adoption stands now, waiting for the the right paperwork to grind its way through that particular mill.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Taming the wild e-beast

Take a gander at what one of the folders in my email "in-box" looked like Sunday night (with names of people blurred out for privacy reasons).
In contrast, here's what my desk and office area looks like.  
Not really the same visual experiences, you think?   There's a huge difference between the looks of these two mail repositories, and this difference explains why email is both easier and harder than paper mail to deal with.  The good things about email (speed, low cost, low trash) I'll take as a given.  I love-love-love email.

As a matter of fact, here is a digression on one more cute reason why a mathematician loves email. We have a "secret code" that lets us send math long distances. (Okay, it's not so secret; it's called "TeX").   I can send a regular old email message with bits of this secret code, very ugly:
\item \tf The telescoping series $\sum_{n=1}^\infty \frac 1{n(n+1)} = \sum_{n=1}^\infty \left(\frac1n - \frac1{n+1}\right)$ converges. 
 And my colleague can "decode" it to get this pretty picture:

Magic!  Before email (and TeX), sending math back and forth was painfully slow.  Now it's not.  Digression over.

But email stinks at being easy to tame. Both paper mail and email accumulate; both become overwhelming; both can take over their habitat.   But I think paper is a heck of a lot easier to sort into psychologically manageable "tackle me" piles. Because,
  • I can (and do) sort paper into piles, and the piles have actual locations: things on the near corner of my desk are urgent; things on the floor are to file; etc.  It's true you can sort email into files, but the folders are different because of different names, not because of different locations.
  • Sorting paper actually uses my body.  Not that putting a piece of paper down is exercise, but reaching to the left, or reaching behind me, or reaching up -- those are psychologically very different than clicking and dragging a mouse.  Not to be all new-age-y on you, but I do get a physical connection to the paper.  Even tossing a paper in the recycling bin feels more final than clicking "delete".  Let's just say that paper allows for a greater range of motion than email does.
  • Paper stays put, mostly.  Once I put my mail on the left hand side of the desk, it's there; whereas new emails bump my old email down lower.  Things move around on the screen without me moving them.  Said another way, I have to search for the email by its name, not by its location.
  • Paper has color and shape.  I can search my office for that small blue envelope, that memo with lots of writing on it, the bundle of papers stapled together.  It's possible to add "labels" to email with some programs, but the choice is limited (6 colors?), and I still have to add it myself.  Paper mail comes already with its own distinctive looks.
  • I can write or attach notes onto paper.  If I could suggest ONE change to the gurus who design email systems, it would be to allow the person getting an email to attach something like a sticky note to the outside of the email:  "Call Sam".  "Follow up on Friday".  "Check budget and reply".  Look again at that picture of the email I'm sitting on.  It's hard to know just what the heck I'm supposed to do with each of those messages, unless I either remember what it said or I open it again, read it again, and decide what to do.
So here are some of my favorite e-sorting tricks for choosing and naming the e-folders I use.  (If you have good tricks, I welcome them).
  • Name folders for time-specific projects with the year.  "Calc2012" is a folder of email from my current calculus students.  I'll hang onto until 2013, and then I'll trash it and all the mail in it, too.  Long-term, this will mean less email to clutter up the "search" features on my email.
  • Keep a bunch of "action" folders near the top.  (I got this idea from David Allen, Getting Things Done).  Begin these names with @ (for action), $, or #.  Such as . . .
  • $ Saturday.  That's when I pay the bills, so all e-bills go right in there, to be deleted/filed after I pay them.
  • # waiting.  This holds those emails I don't need to look at or think about right now, but might want soon:  confirmation of purchases that are on their way to me; letter from a student who wants a recommendation, but who I asked to send a bit more information first; information about an upcoming weekend camp for the boys, etc.
  • @ to print  self explanatory, no?  I don't print email often, but I'll chuck emails in here that have pointers to things I do want to print.  
  • @ to do.  I never put any email in here unless I first write down in my planner exactly what I should be doing.  I don't want to get caught up in the "I have no idea what to do; I'll deal with this later" box of email.  No, this is for the big projects, for the letters of recommendation I plan to write, for the specific tasks I intend to do next Thursday.  All written down as tasks in my paper planner.   (The screen shot above is actually my @to do folder -- and by today, several of those tasks are Done!  phew!)
Beneath the action folders -- the ones I use most frequently -- I put the gobs of folders that I think of as "reference" folders.  These include letters from family and friends; semi-dormant committee work, messages to and from people who have invited me to speak in the past.

Moving email into folders (or just deleting it) is a bit of a constant chore, and sometimes I wonder if I should just do what so many of my students do:  just have one giant in-box with all my mail.  But keeping my in-box small keeps the list of things to scratch my head over that much more manageable.  So I don't have to fret that I'm missing something big.   And to me, that's worth the hassle, at least until I figure out a  better method.

Monday, October 8, 2012

$137 - Eyes, hearts, and minds

This week, I did a jaunt to Miller's Amish organic grocery to the tune of $64, which paid for 20 lbs of oats and 10lbs of soy flour, plus 4 lbs of cheese, plus . . . well, then plus some pickles and nuts.  I didn't know beforehand that I wanted pickles or nuts, but once I walked into the store I was hungry, so I bought them.  My husband contributed his cereal and our coffee for an additional $41, bringing our weekly total to $105, and our 29-week grocery average to $137/week.

What is in a number?  Shakespeare's sonnet #137 seems to capture the whole idea of our eyes being bigger than our stomachs.  There are things we think we want (oh, those pickles!), and then later we regret spending $6 on a single jar of them.  Here is how Wm. himself said it, in his Sonnet 137.  He says our eyes make us want things that better judgements should know we don't really want.

Thou blind fool Love, what dost thou to mine eyes,
That they behold and see not what they see?
They know what beauty is, see where it lies,
Yet what the best is take the worst to be.
If eyes, corrupt by over-partial looks,
Be anchored in the bay where all men ride,
Why of eyes' falsehood hast thou forg├Ęd hooks,
Whereto the judgment of my heart is tied?
Why should my heart think that a several plot
Which my heart knows the wide world's common place?
Or mine eyes seeing this, say this is not,
To put fair truth upon so foul a face?
     In things right true my heart and eyes have erred,
     And to this false plague are they now transferred.
–William Shakespeare
If we don't want our eyes to lead us into the plague of purchasing pricey pickles (a predicament Peter Piper could have appreciated), maybe we should eat lunch before we go shopping.  Note to self:  eat lunch first; then shop for the pantry.    Or else, I might go nuts.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The machines are taking over . . .

Yesterday, I wrote about how our things start taking over our homes.  Our belongings seem to do whatever they want to do.  Today I'm going to go further, and ruminate on how our things get us to do what they want to do.

I'm not pointing a finger at other people.  When I lament what technology does to us, I'm pointing a finger at myself first of all.  Time to 'fess up:  this past month, our family spent $400 on cell phone plans.

That's four hundred dollars.

Just to talk and text on cell phones.

Imagine that.  That amount doesn't count how much we paid for our landline or for internet or cable service, all those other modern marvels of mass connectivity.   The woman who claims to be a "Miser" is dropping a substantial wad of dough on things that remind herself of Captain Kirk at his campiest, and in all likelihood I'm going to keep doing it.

I could make excuses.  Excuses such as: this amount includes the total for 8 different people.  Such as: for one of these people, the costs included a new-phone upgrade.  Such as:  we get reimbursed for a bunch of this from my husband's employer, and the four daughters all pay for their share of their phones themselves.  But excuses only muddy the waters on this very clear fact:  we paid a heck of a lot for something that was a $0-item in our budget a mere dozen years ago.

My family is not alone.  Anton Troianovki of the Wall Street Journal wrote a blurb citing government statistics that show that -- even as U.S. families have cut budgets on areas like dining out, clothing, and entertainment -- families have increased spending on cell phones.  Just like us.

When I was in college, I used to spend 33¢ a month on long distance service (no joke); now I spend more than a thousand times as much.  But back in college, the telephone was a clunky black thing with a rotary dial.  (I tell my students to their horror, "When I was your age, when we talked on the telephone we had to stand next to the wall!  There was a cord, so we couldn't walk around!"  No!!!!!!)

The cell phone gives us a kind of freedom . . . but it also starts to own us.  That clunky black phone in my dorm didn't need a special charger.  It didn't need an upgrade every few years.  We didn't need a different phone for each of the four different people in my quad.

Modtern technology is greedy, needy bleed-y, and it makes those of us who own it dance to that same tune.

Modern technology is increasingly greedy, much more so than "old" technology.  Neither my vacuum cleaner nor my table lamp needs a special adapter to charge it up.  But computers and cell phones and cameras and even some lawn mowers do.  My parents used to watch whatever was on television at the time; but my husband's TV set up also includes has a VCR/DVD and other boxes.  So we buy accessory appliances to please our appliances.

Modern technology is also increasingly needy, needing ongoing commitments.  The cell-phone contract that 6-out-of-8 of our family members were part of shows that.  Sing the same refrain for cable contracts vs. a good old-fashioned pair of rabbit ears.  Not to mention, my "free" laptop computer from my job translates into the freedom (so to speak) of working at home, so we pay every month for internet service.  In contrast, the typewriter I grew up with didn't have any kind of monthly fee attached.

Modern technology is increasingly bleed-y, at least in terms of energy.  My parents' old television turned off (all the way off) when you hit the "off" button. But our television and our microwave oven and many other of our "smart" appliances suck down energy in our sleep, to the point that energy mavens shake their fingers at flat screen TVs for consuming more electricity than our fridges.  We have to go out of our way to say "no" to these beasts (buying power strips to power things down, of all ironies).

Each time that I need to pay to keep my technological marvels going, I wonder that self-same question:  do I own my things, or do my things own me?

You can sense the conflict seething within me.  Morally, I hate these machines that are usurping control over the finances and structure and energy of my life.  Yet I am the one who bought my sons their first cell phones this summer.  I understand the practical and social reasons for joining the techno-wagon, so much so that I hopped right on.

I just know that the fact that these machines are actually helpful (in certain, specific, particular ways) does not mean that they are Good.

Friday, October 5, 2012

When our things own us

The photo below might shock you.  Or it might not.
 This is the view of my sewing room/bill paying room/work area from one corner.  What a mess!  The view from the doorway isn't any better, really.

When we get busy, our homes get messy.  Maybe I shouldn't speak for you; perhaps your home stays spotless.  So I'll just say, the messiness of my own sewing room is like a barometer of my busy-ness; the greater the atmospheric pressure around me, the higher the piles get.  And that seems like such an obvious statement, but why should it be obvious?  Why does it take such an amount of energy and time on our part to tame the things we own?  Why is it a struggle for us to keep our so-called possessions in their places?

Is it, perhaps, because our possessions actually own us?

This is an idea I think about so often that my non-miser husband says it has infected him.  He tells me he worked hard this summer to get rid of piles and piles of books he's unlikely to read, only to head into his office in the basement to find his shelves still eerily full of books -- as though a Sorcerer's Apprentice had accidentally cast a spell that had magic brooms bringing books, not pails of water, into our home.

We live in a strange world of excess.  A world where we pay people to get rid of our trash, and even where we pay people to haul away our not-quite-junk.  A world where adult children whose parents pass away have to worry about how to clean out the family home of all that stuff.  A world where thrift shops get too many donations of goods.  A world where we spend time and money taking care of our things (yes, I'm thinking of staying home while the dishwasher repair guy came).

For me, the hydra's heads (to switch metaphors) seems to be kitchen appliances.  My kitchen gadgets fill up all sorts of interesting nooks and crannies in places both in and out of the kitchen.  Two examples: The cuisinart and the blender live on a high shelf in the kitchen, above the coffee and baking supplies . . .

. . . but the waffle irons and one of my two crock pots hang out (for some reason lost to historical accident) in a dining room cabinet . . .
. . . and there are more shelves down in the basement (near the sorcerer's apprentice, apparently), shelves full of canning equipment and my dehydrator.

So . . . should I get that apple peeler-corer I fell in love with last weekend?  The standard consumer response is to note that I like using it, and it costs less than $30, so why not?  But I look at my cupboards, and all the things that keep coming out of my cupboards to take over my home space, and I also want to ask myself:

  • do I want to create space for this machine in my home?
  • do I want to take care of this machine, and store it, and clean it?
  • will having this in my kitchen or on my shelves make cleaning the rest of my home harder?

Really, I want to know to what extent I'm going to own this machine, and to what extent it's going to own me.

More on this topic tomorrow.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Making the grade

I'm thinking a lot lately about how our things own us.  But since people are more important than things,  I'm going to focus on my students for today instead of thinking about the stuff we own, and the stuff that owns us.

Focusing on my students, in this case, means I'm busy grading my students' exams.   
And grading, and grading, and grading.   Back with more on "things" later.