Monday, December 30, 2013

The gift of space; the gift of closeness

We've had the usual whirlwind of travel and gifts and family, part of the normal Miser Mom family traditions.  (We've also had a few unusual extra adventures, like a Christmas night trip to the Emergency Room for a possibly-broken-but-fortunately-only-sprained ankle, but we're not intending to add that to our list of annual traditions).

Now I am appreciating two kinds of gifts.  J-son is off visiting the foster mom who raised him before he moved in with us.  These quiet days without him here are an odd reminder of a different kind of "normal", and it's good to remember that life can be like this.  We put a pile of change on the dresser, and we don't worry about where it will go.  I get ready for bed, and I don't have to wander through the house locking each of the cabinets and bed stands.  I wake up, and I do not bother to search J-son's bedroom for the latest contraband.  Even N-son, who loves having a brother in his life, is quieter and more content.  It is definitely a guilty kind of pleasure we are all experiencing.  It feels wrong to be happy that J-son is not around . . . but I do appreciate the tranquility that this particular respite is bringing us.

If one of my gifts is the gift of space, the other is the gift of closeness.  I spent a day or two recently pulling together photographs and souvenirs to make a "memory book" for K-daughter.  Because I first met her when she was 6 years old, I can't go back to birth, but I found some pictures of an 8-year-old version of this kiddo, and I also added in recent events of importance (like the day she got her driver's license).  I must have spent an hour or so at the copy place.

K-daughter knows there are photo albums from her early years, but they might have gotten lost in the upheaval that followed her grandmother's death.  And losing those early photos would be hard on her -- I know from all those foster-care classes I've sat through, that that's one of the more difficult losses that many itinerant kids face.

By making my own album for her, I know I'm rewriting her story.  It's not the story of the kid raised first by a single mom who loved her fiercely and then by a grandmother who had lost her daughter to cancer.   The story that I can tell is the one about the child who appeared magically in our lives, at first on the periphery of our lives, but becoming more and more woven into the fabric of our family so that now she is there at every major moment, every big event.  And as much as I know that K-daughter needs to find the early photo albums so that she can reclaim that first part of her story, I'm so glad for all of us that the second story is the one I get to tell.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Ginger-fail house. Yes!

How to begin this post?  How about . . . 
I believe in planning for failure.
or this . . . 
Two years ago, K-daughter and I made a gingerbread house together.  
Wherever this story begins, K-daughter has asked that making a gingerbread house be "our tradition", and so ever since that first Christmas together, it has been.  We use a lovely cast-iron mold that I got as a gift long ago.  But every year, we scratch our heads wondering whether we're supposed to use the gingerbread cake recipe or the gingerbread cookie recipe.  And that quandary comes even before the intricacies of assembling a structure that uses only icing to glue the walls and roof together.  

This year, when the sticky-note advent calendar declared it was Gingerbread Day, I decided to not only learn from my mistakes, but also (here's the difference) to remember what the mistakes would be.  I diligently wrote in my favorite recipe book that we were using a doubled version of the cake recipe this year.

 . . . And . . . it was a disaster.  As my husband said, it looked like an IED hit the house.  

None of the pieces came out of the mold easily, and even the few that came out in one piece didn't look very "house"ish.  Sigh.  I guess we used to use the cookie recipe.  Now I'll know.

We decided to cook the remaining cake batter in a plain old bread pan.  We thought we might make a gingerbread apartment.  Or a gingerbread hut.  But then, K-daughter got creative.
See the drawbridge coming out of the front?  She was so delighted with the castle that emerged that she took pictures and sent them to her friends as we worked.
What a palace!  If you look carefully, you can see a candle in a window turret.
As for the ginger-fail pieces, we broke them up into cookie-sized bits, decorated them, and sent them off with the boys to their church youth group party.
This ought to be enough sugar to keep a whole roomful of teenagers wired all evening!
K-daughter and I decided we actually prefer the loaf-pan method to our mold-and-assemble method, and that next year we're going to make several loaves so each kid can decorate his or her own building/castle/car/rocket ship.

We also decided to keep the mold anyway, for K-daughter's future household.  She said, "I don't want my family to be all about the gift stuff.  I want it to be about traditions."  So we put the mold in a special place just for her and whoever someday joins her.  Make me proud, kiddo!

Huzzah for creative kids!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Ooh, ooh, oobleck

Every year, I try to get my kids to mass produce presents (I call this X-mass production).  We've done decorated soap dispensers, to great general happiness.

One year, we did muffin mix.  Another year, we did ginger peach jam.  This year, N-son made his favorite pickled papers.

But then we went to a hip-hop concert that had a kids' fair beforehand, and the kids went crazy over a science museum display of oobleck -- a mixture of cornstarch and water.  And so this week, at home, we had an oobleck fest.

First, the "boring" part:  force the kids to make the cards that will go with the jars of oobleck:
 Then give each kid a bowl with 1 cup of water and another bowl with 1.5 cups of cornstarch.
 The kids add the cornstarch bit-by-bit, stirring carefully with each spoonful they add. J-son is a ham.
At some point, it becomes hard to stir with a spoon . . .
 At this point, it's become a "non-Newtonian substance":  it acts like a solid if you hit it, but like a liquid if you let it sit or ooze through your fingers.  So it's easier to stir by hand . . .
 We add food coloring at this point. At first the color is nearly invisible in the batter.

But it's a lot of fun to slowly and ookily mix it in . . .  

 Here's my favorite picture of the evening: the multicolored hands of my family.

We packaged the oobleck into jars, and we'll be ready to delight our relatives with their own non-Newtonian fun on Christmas.

And bonus . . . despite all the mess that you see floating around in these pictures, clean-up was surprisingly easy.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Anicius M. S. Boethius and his peeps

The end of the semester comes with a bit of extra time for reading.  I have a fairly eclectic set of tastes -- how-to books, poetry, mystery, economics, anything Dickens -- so this break I've been reading books recommended to me by my nearest and dearest.  (J-son brought me a copy of Hunger Games which he urged earnestly upon me, so now I finally have a bit of pop-culture in me, too).

For the past week or so, I've been curling up with a book my husband had waxed eloquent about.  My husband really only likes long-dead authors, so Hunger Games is way off his list.  But the author and philosopher Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius kicked the bucket in the year 524, so he's well-qualified to take a place on my husband's shelves.

 In some places, this book is just what you'd expect from a 1,500 year-old book of philosophy.  There are places (especially toward the end) where you run into head-scratching traffic-jam sentences like this one:

But if in the perception of corporeal phenomena external stimuli strike and impinge on the instruments of the senses, and corporeal passivity precedes mental activity -- a passivity which stimulates mental activity and calls upon the dormant forms in the mind -- if, I say, in perceiving corporeal phenomena the mind is not passively affected, but judges of its own power the experience subjected to the body, consider the case of beings which in their mode of being are free from all corporeal influence.

(Um, yeah.  I'll translate that one in a mo').  But there is a reason this book has inspired countless numbers of people, including and most notably Dante, and there's a reason it's been published and republished for millennia.  

Boethius had been a high-and-mighty politico in his time, but he wrote his The Consolation of Philosophy while he was in jail awaiting a death by torture.  He had all sorts of reasons to be severely unhappy with his situation.   In fact, the book opens with a poetic lament worthy of Job, very appropriately "woe is me".   But who should then stride into his jail cell, but Philosophy?  Philosophy is not merely some idea or ideal; she's a fearsome woman with an attitude:
At the sight of the Muses of Poetry at my beside dictating words to accompany my tears, she [Philosophy, that is] became angry.   
'Who', she demanded, her piercing eyes alight with fire, 'has allowed these hysterical sluts to approach this sick man's bedside?  They have no medicine to ease his pains, only sweetened poisons to make them worse.'
Tell it, sistah!

Philosophy doesn't come right out and say "virtue is its own reward" (that would have been Cicero, six centuries earlier), but it's pretty clear that she agrees with Cicero's sentiment.  Philosophy slaps down the fickle femme Fortune, reminding Boethius that we don't get to choose our circumstances, only how we respond to them.  

There's also a rather amazingly sophisticated argument about free will versus predestination.  (For those who care, here's Boethius's take:  we have free will.  How then can God know all we're going to do?  Well, here's an analogy.  Our bodies feel, see, and hear things, but the real essence of being human is that our mind then actively makes sense of these things.  Our minds "know" the world in a different and much higher level than the way our bodies sense the world; in the same way, God "knows" things in a way that's different and higher than the way we "know" things.)

I have to admit that I have a fondness for hysterical sluts (one of my favorite poems to read when I'm in a funk is Tennyson's In Memoriam).  But I'm glad to have spent some time striding fearlessly alongside the no-nonsense Philosophy, too.

(Next up on my list of books to read, thanks to my friends:  Nabokov's Pnin, Rippetoe and Kelly's Starting Strength, and M.T. Anderson's Feed).

Monday, December 16, 2013

Stocking, re-stocking, and pre-stocking

This has been the weekend for making springerli, a family tradition handed down from my grandmother to my uncle to me.
Springerli are these wonderful cookies . . . possibly "wonderful" in the sense that you could be full of wonder that anyone would ever eat them.  They were designed, I've been told, to last for months, to sustain medieval German families through the harsh winters and cold springs.  The cookies do indeed last a long time, coming out of the oven as fairly substantial beasts and turning more and more brick-like as the months pass.  Generations of infants in my family have teethed on springerli.  By March, you will need a cup of tea to dip the cookies in, should you want to eat them.  By next December, the cookies will have dried to the point of being suitable for christmas tree ornaments (which is how many people in our area sell them).

The basic idea is that you mix eggs, sugar, flour, and anise together.  Roll the dough out, press it with beautiful wooden molds handed down from an ancestor who loved you, and leave the dough to harden overnight.  The next day, you bake the cookies, package them in airtight containers, and mail them out to relatives all over the country who pretend to be grateful.

And actually, some of us really are grateful for them.  J-son grabbed a cookie fresh and soft from the oven on Sunday morning and asked me wistfully, "can't I have a hard one?".  We love to share the experience of gnawing on a cookie with our incredulous friends.  Of telling stories of toothless children who could slobber at one of these cookies for hours before eventually disintegrating it.  Of finding a hidden stash of springerli in September that were still edible, once you worked a bit to soften them up.

But the point of this is:  you only bake them once a year.  You don't have to pull out the baking supplies over and over.
And so this is also a time of year to be grateful to my former self, the self who one year ago finished up a batch of springerli, but then restocked the supplies of anise and anise extract.  When the sticky-note advent calendar said that this weekend is the springerli weekend, I didn't need to run out and buy supplies, I just grabbed my pre-stocked supplies.
I love re-stocking and pre-stocking.  There are other parts of my life where it's a big help to start over just as I'm finishing up.  For example,
  • Suitcases are a classic organizational example:  what methodical person doesn't know to re-stock the toiletries bag as soon as she comes home from a trip?
  • Ditto for the "church bag".  We come home Sunday, and I immediately sharpen pencils, refill cough drop supplies, and hang the bag so it's ready to grab-and-go next week.
  • Since I run early in the morning and don't want to wake my husband with turning on lights, I keep a bag with a complete running outfit in it.  At 5:50 A.-dang-M. three days a week, I drag that bag into the living room and get dressed there.  I always refill it the moment I come back from my run, so it's ready to go again.
I've always wanted to do more of this "start-as-I-finish" with cooking dinner.  My hero Amy Dacyczyn describes how, in her family, the person who does dishes one night uses that time to get things ready for dinner the next night.  If I were really truly organized, I'd use dinner clean-up time to think about culling our leftovers, pulling stuff out of the freezer to defrost for the next day, soaking beans, or some such.  But the closest we actually come to this is that my husband gets the coffee ready at night, so I just have to push a button in the morning.  Bless that man.

And come March or April, that coffee will go perfectly with a well preserved brick of springerli.  Yum.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The sticky-note advent calendar

It's not like I'm about to become the centerfold in House Beautiful or anything, but I'm pretty happy with our new advent calendar.

Yup, there it is on the fridge, right next to the "Mommy Dollar Value Chart".  And yes, it's just a list of things to do covered with sticky notes.  I totally took my Christmas to-do list and pretended like it was fun.
December 1. Put up lights.
December 2. Decorate tree.
December 9. Write our sponsored children.
December 14. Make springerli.
 I interspersed my to-do list with a couple of pre-planned events:
December 8. Christmas Caroling with youth group.
December 19. Driver's license dinner.
 I added in a couple of wacky but Christmassy sounding things (I mean, wacky for us):
December 11.  Make X-mas music together.

 So far, I give this advent calendar a big Huzzah.  N-son in particular loves peeling back the sticky notes and seeing what's in store for the day.  And then he pesters me until we do it.

It's a great way for sharing tasks with the family.  In fact, for the first time ever, I handed the decoration tasks over to the kids.
 They had a blast stringing lights and putting ornaments on our cast-iron tree.  (This time of year, it's a Christmas tree, but other times of year it's an Easter tree or a Halloween tree or some such).

And when the calendar revealed that today was the day for making music together, N-son bugged me repeatedly.  When, Mom?

 Now, I play about three songs on the banjo: She'll be comin' round the mountain, Go tell Aunt Rhody, and Will the Circle be unbroken.  N-son plays drums, with equal amounts of talent and noise (lots of both).  The rest of the family grooves on percussion, with more noise than talent.

But we got down tonight.  We rocked the house to "She'll be comin' round the Christmas Tree".  Next week we'll probably go for an encore with "Go tell the Magi".  I might have to break out the ear plugs.
Yeah, baby!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

I hit my children . . .

I hit my children . . . but I missed them more often.  J-son says my aim is miserable.

J-son came home from the Dyslexia Center late last night and called to his brother to come out and have an after-dark snow ball fight with him.  While the two boys suited up, their wily mother dressed quickly and took up an offensive position in the tree house.  When the unsuspecting boys came outside, I had my ambush all ready.

The best thing about a snowball fight is, even if you miss, it's a hit.  I can't aim worth beans, I discovered, but that didn't keep the boys from yelling with glee and running around as I did my best to pelt them both.  J-son responded by making snow balls the size of cannon balls and trying to lob them up at me.

My husband is out of town for two days, so he didn't get to try his arm.  Instead, we had some Mommy-son time, and it was surprisingly like summer camp.  (Or winter camp?)

After the snow ball rout with lots of trash-talking, we wrote letters to our sponsored World Vision kids [and total score! --- I discovered we could send email, instead of snail mail.  That was a blast!].  And we wound down the evening by having a slumber party of sorts in my bedroom, with both boys and the dog sleeping on my floor.

The slumber party was an odd sort of off-shoot from this past fall's problems.  At one point in October, J-son's behavior had gotten so bad at night (this was after we'd tried removing his bedroom door, but before we put an alarm on his door) that I made him sleep on my bedroom floor just so I would know where he was.  To my surprise, he found this comforting and comfortable.  Then N-son got jealous, and wanted to sleep on my floor, too.   So now, every once in a while, as a special treat I let my teenaged boys come slumber in my room.  

I guess you never know what's going to be a hit until you try it.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Adoption update

So, where are we on the plans to adopt a 15-year old kid from Haiti?

I think our last real update on the blog was that we'd heard in May that our paperwork had been submitted to the IBESR (the Haitian governmental agency dealing with adoptions).  Huzzah!

After that, things started getting hinky.   X-son ran away from the orphanage he'd been staying in --- and for good reason: the adults who ran the place were not feeding the kids, and occasionally tying the kids to trees and beating them as "discipline".  Through some little miracle, one of my friends happened to be visiting Haiti, discovered he was gone, figured out where he'd gone to (!), and arranged to have him move to an orphanage run by an amazingly energetic woman, Ann Hume.  

So now he's safe.  Phew!  Here's a picture of X-son and some of his friends all dressed up and ready to go to school on the school bus . . . or rather, on the school motorcycle.  (X-son's in the back).

But there's more turmoil.  The agency we're dealing with in Haiti has been embroiled in scandal and no longer has a license.  The main problem this group has, seems to be telling grand lies, so we've spent much of this year not knowing whether our paperwork has really been submitted or not.  Lots of unanswered emails and telephone calls.   We think now we have confirmation that we're good . . . and we're also switching lawyers down there so that we don't have to deal with that first agency anymore.
When X-son moved in, Ann told the other children living there,
"This boy is different.  He has all his arms and legs".
Ann is an amazing woman with a bunch of wonderful kids.

In the midst of this, we got an email saying that it was time to submit our form i600a (with the US government; it's immigration paperwork).  This form costs about $1K and has a bunch of auxiliary paperwork involved, including a home study.  In November, we got a note back from the Department of Homeland Security saying our home study was out of date; we had until December 10 (tomorrow) to redo it.  And so I've gotten a chance to prove my paperwork prowess.

 As part of redoing the home study we've now . . . 
  • fingerprinted all 5 people in the house for FBI background checks,
  • run criminal background checks on the 5 of us,
  • run child abuse clearances on the 5 of us,
  • had medical tests (including updating our TB tests),
  • been interviewed by our local social worker,
  • bugged a few friends for letters of reference, and
  • provided financial earning information for the past 10 years.

Fortunately, all the paperwork came back quickly, and I mailed out the updated home study out last Friday.  Once that gets over to the immigration folks, then the three oldest of us will get fingerprinted again, this time by the Department of Homeland Security.  
All for this kid.

IBESR usually takes a year or two to process their paperwork.  Once they approve the adoption, there will still be 6 months of work on the US end clearing immigration (the i600a is paving the way for that to happen, we hope).   So we're really in this for the long haul . . . urgent paperwork goes hand-in-hand with patience here. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Mommy dollars -- resurrected

I thought my teenaged boys had grown too old and sophisticated for Mommy Dollars.  "Mommy Dollars" sounds like something for little kids, right?  And the boys sure loved them when they were younger.  Fun.  Educational.  But not quite up to teenaged standards of cool, or so I thought.

But the boys -- particularly J-son -- keep asking for Mommy Dollars to come back.  He wants bling to stuff in his pockets.  My magpie child wants to be able to flash cash, even if the cash is pink and purple and orange.  And N-son would be happy to go along.
One disadvantage of a weekly allowance is that -- especially when you're an ADHD kid with impulse control issues -- that a week is, like, forever.  I thought moving from daily Mommy Dollars to weekly US Dollars would provide some valuable lessons in delayed gratification.  But I was premature.  Both boys need more immediate response and reward than the weekly salary.

So, to much hullabaloo, Mommy Dollars are back.
There's a slightly new design, to thwart any attempts to subvert the new system with old Mommy Dollars. But the design of the dollars still celebrates the members of our family.  The sisters are all proud to have their faces on valuable currency.  The dog is indifferent.

The Mommy Dollar system kicks in with a new set of ways to earn moolah (and also, to keep interruptions to a minimum, when to bug me for cash):
$1 feed dog and give him water and tell Mom right away
$2 make bed & clean bedroom floor before school
$5 make dinner (Mom must approve the menu)
$1-$3 write a letter to a relative
Bed-time checks:
$1 bring home school books (CA, Social studies, science)
$1 clean out backpack and hang it up
$1 bedroom floor clean
$1 brush and floss teeth
There are also, of course, ways to spend their cash:

$5 half-hour of TV time
$8 One US dollar. Redeemable only on Saturdays 5-6 p.m.
$1 Bedtime gummy vitamin
$2 (per mile) car ride to an appointment
$1 return phone late (every 10 minutes late, another dollar)
$1 buy back shoes/clothes you leave on the first floor
$8 leave light/radio until morning

I know we'll tweak this as we go along.  But I'm excited to have this fun new project swirling around in our home now.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

parenting through persistence and pharmacopias

So, what's up with my son?

J-son has had a turbulent semester, so bumpy that it's hard even to summarize.  Here are two snap shots:

  • In early September, he was named captain of his squash team.  Two weeks ago, he was kicked off the team.  Forever.
  • In early September, parent-teacher conferences were glowing.  Early November, the teachers huddled around my recently-returned husband to outdo each other with stories of grave concerns. 
Neither of these snapshots show the most persistent trouble that J-son had this fall, which has been with impulse-stealing things from our home.  We've been through this stealing-jag before; last time we "fixed" it with a combination of behavior modification, with locks and boundaries, and with drugs.

When the stealing resurfaced, we went back to the usual drill.  By "we", actually, I mean "I", because my husband was already off at army.  I reamed the kid out.  I required restitution.  I reinstalled locks on certain closet doors.

The stealing persisted.  

I took additional measures, each one feeling weirdly drastic.   I removed all furniture with drawers from his room -- all clothes must be hung up, not in drawers, to reduce the number of hiding places.  

When that didn't work, I turned to invasion-of-privacy.  I began daily searches of his room (uncovering daily new thefts).  I searched under his mattress, pulled purloined objects out of his pillow case, uncovered contraband from his corners.  We removed his bedroom door.

I turned to professional help.  I begged his pediatrician to increase his meds; she was dubious and kept him at his current levels.  I sent for information from military boarding schools.  We called our adoption agency, who offered to connect me support groups, but didn't have anything directly for J-son;  I declined these.  We entered the insurance/paperwork morass of finding a counsellor, and finally got him signed up.  

Through all this, I was working full time, or maybe more than full time.  So of course, I was also feeling guilty and torn.  If I were home for this kid, would that have made a difference?  Almost certainly.  And yet, I also knew the problem wasn't really me.  There was really something wonky going on with J-son.

The stealing persisted.  

His foster mom told me stories of his early life; how he had grown up hungry, and how his birth mother had hidden the food in her bedroom.  The only way he could get fed was to sneak into her room and take the food.  The habit was formed. But cursing the birth mom doesn't fix the child.

I did something I thought I would never do:  I bought an alarm.  It's not a house alarm -- our dog is alarm enough for the neighborhood we live in; it's an alarm for J-son's door.  Every night I'd make sure he was okay, and then . . . I'd seal him in his room.  On would go the alarm until I wake up in the morning and let him out.  

That didn't completely stop the stealing, because sometimes he nabs things during the day, but at least it let me sleep through the night without fretting.

There is no magic wand, I know this.  Here is my current hope, though:  we finally jumped 6 months ahead in line for a psychiatrist who can prescribe meds, and she's suggested a drug that helps with impulse control.   Given how suddenly this all came on, and how the last time we had trouble it was a med-adjustment that seemed to finally fix the problem, and how every time we ask J-son, "why did you take this?" he says "I don't know" and seems to mean it -- given all that, I keep pinning my hopes on the meds.  Not as  THE answer, but as a crucial PART of the answer.

For me, how do I get through this?

Partly I think it helps to have a PhD in math, not because this is a particularly quantitative situation, but because I can think of it as a problem.  Is there a solution?  Is there a counter-example?  I'm used to spending years banging my head against the wall trying to figure out the answer to something, and I'm used to finding out that the answer is quite different from anything I expected.  It's true that I'm not used to having my math problems hide electronics in their pillowcase, but the persistence part of this whole mess, I got that down.

I also feel like this is a huge lesson in faith.  Jesus, as he was hanging on the cross, invited a thief into his heavenly home, and I follow Him in this example.  Jesus in his sermon on the mount, winds up the beatitudes by blessing those "who are persecuted for righteousness' sake", and I'm feeling peculiarly blessed right now.  Even more, the New Testament is full of descriptions of how we are all of us adopted into God's family, of how God loved us even while we were still sinning.  And so I look at this wreck of a kid, and I think about the wreck that *I* am.  I think about how hard it is to keep loving this kid, and then I think about how amazing it is that God keeps loving me.  It sounds all gooey, but J-son's troubles remind me of how much I have to be grateful for.

J-son has managed to burn a lot of bridges this year.  If we can get the impulsivity under control, there's still a lot of restitution ahead.  Several of the people living in this house don't like living here with J-son, for fairly understandable reasons, and so there needs to be a lot of reconciliation.  Fifteen year old boys aren't particularly good at apologizing or admitting culpability, and I'm guessing J-son will need a lot of help with mending fences.  

As of today, it's been 9 days since he last took something.  That's our latest record.  We'll keep slogging forward.


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Facing outward

One of my comforts of this past several months has been my "Plan B" list.

When we found out the sad (and scary) news that my former husband's illness was progressing quickly and that he'd be entering hospice soon, I knew that there would be times this semester when I would suddenly have to leave my home and job to go be with my daughter.  So in my usual rather overly-methodical way, I planned for emergencies by making a giant list of names and telephone numbers, sorted into categories.

There are comforting aspects of seeking help, I've always found.  One of these is that I realize how very many different ways I am involved in the world.   When a make a list of "things I'll need to cover", I discover in a tangible way what a lot of things I do. That's just a little bit of ego pump, really.

Even more comforting is to name out loud the many good friends and colleagues who surround me.  And I'm very much aware that asking for help draws this circle tighter, making connections stronger.  I found people who offered to step in at a moment's notice to teach my various classes, to take over some ceremonial committee duties, to feed the dog, to watch the boys.

That last bit -- someone to watch the boys -- deserves a bit of extra mention.  With my husband away at military training for three months, and with K-daughter off at college, I couldn't just dump my sons on the usual suspects.  As I thought about "who could I call if I have to leave suddenly?", I mentally rolled through my circle of parent-friends.   I also asked my sons for their ideas, and N-son came up with "Officer S.", a public safety officer on our campus.

So I sent Officer S. a note:
Your name came up in a conversation I had with the boys today . . . I was telling them that I might have to leave town for a few days suddenly, and was there anyone in particular they might want to come and stay at our home with them?  Out of the blue, [N-son] mentioned you.   Whether or not you would actually be willing and able to volunteer for N/J-duty, I thought you'd be flattered by the thought. 
The leave-town-suddenly reason is actually rather sad.  Earlier this summer, my former husband was diagnosed with renal cancer.  Unfortunately, it's spreading very fast and he entered hospice today.  My daughter has been living with her dad since she graduated from college.  She has other people helping her and her dad during this awful time (his girlfriend and his sister have been heroes in all this), but it's still very, very hard for her.   
I am going to go visit her at some point, but neither of us knows when that will be --- as you can imagine, things are a bit of a whirlwind right now.   
BUT it gives us a chance to remember how many good friends we have around us . . . like you.
She (Officer S., that is) became a rock that I relied on.   In the past, she and I had worked together and respected one another, but now there's this additional connection, and in that way, my world is now a better place, my ties to the community stronger and more diverse.

And this story of gratitude is one I get to repeat over and over: there's the mathematician who offered to cover my Friday afternoon class, but who instead gets to hear the daily updates of family crises (latest one:  no news today!  woo-hoo!).  There's the mathematician who did actually cover a Monday morning class. There's the student who earnestly wrote to me, "It will get better; I promise".  There are the people from our church who prayed for us, who listened to me rant and rail, who helped with child care, who broke bread with me.  There's the woman in Haiti who is helping us find a new Haitian lawyer in hopes of getting X-son's adoption back on track.  There's the running buddies who kept me sane.  The vice principal who took N-son under his wing after the bad-hair day.

In spite of all the grief and tribulation and frustrations we've faced these past few months, it's a good and righteous thing to have these living, breathing reminders that there's a bigger world outside my doors.  And this world, with the wonderful people who fill it up, is a good direction to turn this face of mine.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Drowning in children

This has been a challenging fall in the Miser Mom household.

There's more to the challenge than just the week we call "The Horrible Week", but that one week (in late September) gives a sense of some of the challenge I'm talking about.  In The Horrible Week,
  • LJ-daughter's dog was struck by a car.  The dog survived, but only because of surgery and lots of care.
  • I-daughter's father (my former husband) passed away after a terrifying 5-month bout with renal cancer.
  • LA-daughter got very scary food poisoning, laying her flat on her back for a week or so.
  • K-daughter, driving to her college 80 miles away,  ran over stray pieces of metal on the highway, bursting two tires, leaving her (and five other motorists) stranded for much of the day.
  • J-son was in the throes of serious behavioral problems, making me realize that I could not leave this 15-year-old son of mine at home alone, not even for 10 minutes.
  • N-son got teased for about his hair in middle school, and he didn't make the football team.
  • We learned that our adoption agency for our hoped-for X-son was embroiled in scandal, throwing all of our adoption paperwork into limbo.
During all this, my husband was away for a 3-month stint with the Army National Guard, and I was not only solo parenting, but also working overtime at my college, having offered to take on a bit of extra teaching, a big committee assignment, and a lot of extra advising.  

Some of the Horrible Week was merely horrible in the way distant earthquakes and typhoons are horrible to me.  LJ and LA, my step-daughters, both live so far away that I felt miserable for them but could do nothing practical.  All I could do was fret from afar.

Some of the Horrible Week seems trivial in the telling -- I'm thinking of N-son's hair, here.  But he called home sobbing, and he came home in tears, and no matter what other awful things were happening in the world and to his family, this was the Horrible Thing that had flattened him. As much as I wanted to turn my face to bigger problems, his was the problem that was right in front of me, the problem I had to face right away, the problem that needed both love and counsel.

September has come and gone.  Some of the Horrible Week has faded into mere unpleasant memory.  Now, here almost in December, my husband is home from the army.  My semester of overtime is almost over.  LA has recovered from the food poisoning.  LJ's dog is back on his feet.  N-son found a barber who gives him stylin' hair cuts, and while he's not on the football team, he's doing well at squash.

Much of The Horrible Week, though, continues to remain horrible lo these many months later.  A month after The Horrible Week, K-daughter sat at the deathbed of the grandmother who reared her. She faces her first grandmother-less Christmas, just as I-daughter now faces the first holiday season without her beloved father.  J-son spirals and slams through difficulties at school and at home.  X-son's adoption saga is a tsunami of bureaucracy -- both maddeningly, time-gobblingly urgent and also maddeningly slow at the same time.

There are so many stories hidden in this sweeping summary.  Like the day the boys called to tell me their bicycles were missing . . . and we found out later that was because they'd mislaid their bike locks, so they just left their bikes unlocked outside of school all day.   Like my daughter, at the other end of the telephone, saying through her tears,  "Mom, you are so useful."  Like N-son finding a professional barber.  Like buying an alarm that we glued to J-son's door.  Like resurrecting Mommy-dollars.  So much happening.

But not a lot of time to write about it.  Which is probably just as well.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A verbing See-ya-Later post

Right now, in the middle of August but headed into September, action verbs abound.

Canning.  Dozens of jars of tomatoes burbled their way out of a steaming pot and into the cellar.  Pickled peppers showed them the way.  Corn joined the party.  Peaches and apples will follow in turn.

Running, biking, swimming . . . but of course.  I co-opt anyone around me -- my boys, my husband, my friends -- into joining me while I move around.   I have my eye on that triathalon almost exactly a year from now.

Spending.  Spending time, that is, with my energetic and occasionally frenetic sons.   Not enough time, probably.  They are bouncing off the walls, pretending they do not want school to start, but they are in fact eager to see their friends and to have a bit more structure. Soon, soon.

Sorting, cleaning, organizing.   The semester starts in less than two weeks, and once it starts, I hope to have as much of my life on auto-pilot as I can.  So I'm simplifying, preparing meals in advance, making lists, arranging wardrobes, coordinating calendars.

Grieving.  There is a huge undercurrent of sorrow I have tried not to write about, because it's not my own story:  my former husband, the father of my only birth child, is gravely ill, and so our daughter is watching her corner of the world fall to pieces.   Verbs are not enough; the sadness takes the form of nouns:  grief.  Verbs: grieving.  Adjectives.  grief-stricken.  Expletives and supplications, too.

Launching K-daughter, who is headed off to college.  She bought a car last night so she can come back home when she needs to . . . but she won't be a constant presence, and we'll miss her.

Telephoning.  Catching up with my husband, who is off at the army for three months.  Listening with both ears and with all my heart to my daughter.  Coordinating with my father, who will get married in September.

Waiting.  Patiently (but only because I have no choice), for X-son's adoption paperwork to slog its way through the bowels of Haitian bureaucracy.

Writing, teaching, meeting
.  These lie on the horizon for me, imminently approaching, with an extraordinarily action-packed semester of classes and committees ahead of me.  This, this is where I really want to be.  The rest of the action is mere swirling winds, circling madly around the center of the storm;  but the writing and teaching are the eye of the hurricane that is building in my head.

All this is to say, the verb that I'll be pulling out of this long list for a while is blogging.  I'll be taking a break from the Miser Mom blog for several months now.  The time has come to say good-bye, or at least, "till we meet again".

Be well.  Do good.  Live large.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

People-Colored Clothing Declutter

I wrote recently about how I'm drastically paring down my jewelry collection -- by "drastically" I mean I'm getting rid of ALL of it (except for my wedding ring).  I've gifted most of the collection already, and the rest of the assorted collection is getting ready to move into the hands of someone who knows someone who wants the rest.  From now on, as far as jewelry goes, I'll be happily nekkid.

This approach does not work, however, with clothes.  And I have a lot of clothes.  It's not that I do a lot of shopping; I probably buy fewer clothes than anyone in my circle of friends.  But because I take care of my clothes, mending as necessary,  they last me a long time.  (Right now, I'm wearing a black t-shirt from college, with my old dorm logo and the date "'85-'86" stenciled on the front.)   And because I'm nearly a half a century old, I've had a long time to collect a complete wardrobe.   So, between yearly yard saling, free clothes that just happen to come my way, and as-needed mending, I have accumulated a LOT of clothes.

I have so many clothes,  I developed a storage system for putting away the "off-season" clothes . . . and my system has evolved from two seasons to four.   I have so many clothes, that even with my "in-season" clothes, I've constructed elaborate schemes for choosing outfits for seven or even eight weeks into the future.  I have so many clothes, I spend my time fretting over them: organizing, deciding, categorizing . . . it's clear I've reached the stage where I don't own my clothes: they own me.

Alas, I can't do what I did with my earrings.  Even though I have the incredible career protection of tenure, and  even though I am blessed to live in a free country like the USA, I'd lose my job and my freedom if I just gave away all clothes and wore only my wedding ring.  Cold turkey is not an option.

Here's the problem with standard de-clutter advice.  They say, "if you haven't worn it for a year, get rid of it."   But what if you're an organizational, list-loving freak like me who takes that advice to mean, "Figure out a way to wear all your clothes every year"?    Should I really keep 40 different dresses that I wear two times each?  Because, man, they're taking up space in my closet, and they're taking packing/organizing/deciding space in my brain.

So I decided it's okay to come up with my own, completely arbitrary rule.  Rules, as any poet knows, do not stifle a person; they allow for creativity and flair.  Think of the difficulty of rhyme and meter; both of those are huge impositions on the English language.  And yet, when you do impose rhyme and meter, you get incandescent sentences, like this:

SHE walks in beauty, like the night
  Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that 's best of dark and bright
  Meet in her aspect and her eyes.

Byron was a free-wheeling, rule-breaking kind of guy, but when he wanted to write something beautiful, he bound himself to the rules of poetry.  And, in my own less poetic or enduring way, I created rules for the closet.

So here was my rule.  I would toss all my clothes, EXCEPT for clothes I like in these three categories:
  1. Black clothes, white clothes, black-and-white clothes.
  2. Brown clothes, yellow clothes, (segued to include some hot-pink clothes).
  3. Personally meaningful clothes.
The third category let me keep, for example, the blue Jackie-Kennedy-esque dress that my grandmother made for my mom.  I admit there's a bunch of wiggle room in category 3, but I don't think I abused it.

But even with the wiggle room of that last category, I found that this scheme let me do a very quick, mentally easy sorting-and-giving of clothes.  I'm down to about half of my former clothes, nearly effortlessly, and still loving the variety that's left.  Better yet, almost everything in my closet matches almost everything else.  

It was after I did the sort-and-give that I realized:  categories 1 and 2 give me "people colored clothes" (at least, in the sense that those are the colors we use to describe people's skin, even though of course those are mostly ridiculous descriptions).  I have no idea what that means about my closet and my clothes and me, but I sort of like it.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Farewell to Earrings

I've been a Big Earring Person almost from the day I got my ears pierced at age 8. Big. Flashy. Wild. Earrings. The kind of earrings that my students remark upon in my end-of-semester evaluations. When you wear Big Earrings, they become more than just body decoration, they become part of your identity. They become the basis for gifts, a topic of conversation, even a Daily Decision.

This was the bulk of my Earring Collection, as of six months ago.

But in the past year, I've started questioning this particular part of my identity.  Big earrings don't mesh well with all the running/biking/swimming I've been doing.  They mean one more early morning dressing decision (at a time of day I'd rather be ultra-efficient).  They take up space, going against my anti-clutter fantasy.

I remember meeting a group of college women in a summer math program many years ago; one of these women remarked to me that what set her apart from the other  30 women is that she didn't have pierced ears.  For some reason that story stuck with me; until then I had thought my earrings painted me in a different light, but after that I realized I was just one color in a great big rainbow of earring wearers.  And that it's not wearing earrings that is, in some way, the counter-cultural adventure.

So I last spring, I experimented with not wearing earrings.  I gave them up for six months.  What would happen?

To my big surprise, the answer was . . .  nothing.   My life got a little simpler on me, and no one else seemed to notice.  Well, so much for shocking the world.

For me, as much as I'd loved the flash/pizzazz of my wild earrings all those years, I came to love the freedom from earrings even more.  So this summer I decided to give all my earrings away.

This has been tricky.  For one thing, many of these earrings were presents from my loving daughters, who I figured would be disappointed and hurt that I was dissing their gifts.  But when I explained what I was doing, they were actually completely okay: in fact, they delightedly swooped down on the collection to commandeer many of their favorites for themselves.  Here's what the battlefield looks like now.

Figuring out what to do with the remainder of these earrings is going to be a challenge.  Some of these are really probably garbage (the pair of earrings I made from my dog's rabies tags, anyone)?  But some are actually valuable (the gold earrings that my dad gave my mom have both sentimental and commercial value).

I look at these, and feel that old material paradox that has haunted me since I read E.M. Forester's essay, "My Wood":  I start by owning the earrings, but now the earrings own me.  I can't just bring myself to toss the lot, but no one I have asked so far wants them . . . so what do I do?  

Friday, August 9, 2013

Beware Kids' Activities!

I'm leery of kids' activities.  Let me start there.

Lately, I've been swimming a lot, and I see very out-of-shape parents sitting passively by the side of the pool, watching their kids get exercise.  I'll admit, that bugs me.

It bugs me because so many kids' activities are unnecessarily segregationist.  Kids get on a sports team (or in a drama club, or in an orchestra) with other people almost exactly the same age, and I know that too much of that is a bad thing for our kids.  I worry that constantly sticking kids in age-restricted sports and clubs tamps down their maturity --- much as having 18-year-old college students live together in dorms encourages behavior that few 30-year-olds would ever tolerate.  They spend their time trying to live up to the coolness of someone a year or two older than them, getting trophies for being the fastest 13-year-old runner or the most consistent 10-year-old dancer, without getting to see or work with the even faster 18-year-old runners or the even more experienced 24-year-old dancers.  It tamps down the kids' maturity.

An alternative is to find things to do together, when possible.  So my husband takes all our kids to bike races, where they each race in their own age category, but the boys get to see how adult racers handle themselves, too.  Or we all do a 5k road race together, as a family, and compare notes afterwords with the 20-year-old winner of the race and with a 70-year-old runner who almost (but not quite) beat out N-son.  Or, (many years ago, when my daughter was still at home), we hired a good friend to come over to our home to teach "Family Dance lessons", and all of us, from age 2 to age 50, learned the swing and other snazzy dances in our garage.  (A dozen years later, N-son can still do parts of the dance we learned to Queen's "We will Rock you").  If we weren't riding bikes together Sunday afternoons, we could join the family-friendly intergenerational ultimate frisbee game in the park.

Still, kids' activities are a part of my kids' lives.  N-son takes drum lessons, and I'm hoping he'll soon join the school jazz band.  J-son runs track and cross-country with his middle school.  Both of them are part of an after-school squash program (that I love because it adds a tutoring component, teaming the squash kids up with college volunteers and thereby ratcheting up the age-mix.)  And this year, both of them want to join the football team.  That's a lot for kids just barely in their teens.  And I let them try to do it all, just like their mom and dad go a bit nutso on the sports side.

Which leads me to the other thing that makes me leery of kids' activities:  they're not designed with a frugal lifestyle in mind.  Latest example: three days this week, J-son's cross country practice started in one location (5 miles from our home) and ended two hours later in another location (3 miles from our home).   This completely rules out riding bikes to practice, so -- in spite of my "no car" hopes -- I've put fifty miles on the Prius this week, just so my son could run 12 miles.  Crazy.  Fortunately, this schedule is one-week-only.

[Also, J-son's feet grew from a size 6 to a size 9.5 this year.  No kidding!  My stash of shoes-to-grow-into didn't get quite that big, and all the so-called-thrift stores were sole-less, so when his coach said he needed a pair of running shoes, I went to a Real Store, where he got fitted with completely brand new $hoe$ . . . thereby quadrupling my clothing budget for the entire year.  sigh.]

All this is to say, I'm leery of kids' activities.  Let me end there.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Miser family in print

Buried deep in the middle of a supplemental issue to the September "Real Simple" magazine is a short blurb on our family.

Which is funny.  I mean, anyone who knows the difference between adjectives and adverbs knows the name of the mag should begin "Really"; and at any rate, if they're profiling a family that has goodness-knows-how-many people with a total of six last names among us, then it ought to be "Really Complicated".  

At any rate, now we're famous.  Or something.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Joy, Fun, and other frugal three-letter words


I love maps.  When I drove across the country twice, twenty years ago, I did so loaded down with a set of AAA maps and travel books.  I'd wake just before sunrise, jump in the car, and then drive until almost sunset.  Then I'd look in my book for the nearest hotel with a working hot tub (and, coming back across the country, that accepted pets), and stop there for the night.

I love AAA maps.  Lately, I love google maps.  My husband and step-daughter (both more technologically savvy than I am by far) love WAZE.

Yesterday I finally got to pick up the trusty ol' Prius from the service center.  Waiting for a shuttle would have been 40 minutes, plus the 15+ minute driving time.  I popped open my google maps and found a bizarre little-bit-of everything route: across a field, through a pedestrian tunnel, through the mall (dude! I was in a mall!), over a covered wooden bridge, along some yucky industrial roads.  The total distance was about 4.5 miles, a good run . . . and faster than the shuttle.  Saves me time; often saves me money; connects me to the land I'm in.  Man, I love maps.


Especially canning jars.  Good for canning, of course, but also for lunch containers, for mixing bowls (morning scrambled eggs, anyone?), for salt shakers, for drinking jars, for measuring cups, for buying hamburger at market with no trash, for storing all sorts of bulk-bought purchases in usable sizes, for holding leftovers that can go from fridge to microwave.

A subtle joy of canning jars is the lid issue.  Unlike all those plastic containers that used to fill my cabinets, I don't have to play a "where's Waldo?" matching game to find the right lid for the right container.  There are just two sizes of lids.  Loverly.


Not fancy purses, or clutches, mind you.  The humble, re-usable, all purpose bag.  If it has handles long enough to go over your shoulder, you can go hands-free carrying large loads.  Groceries.  Picnic supplies.  Mounds of exams that need grading (or better yet, that are graded and ready to be handed back).  Exercise clothes.

When N-son was just a baby, I used to carry him around in the canvas shopping bag that his adoption agency gave us.  He fit comfortably down in the bottom of it, and I'd sling the straps over my shoulder and tuck him snugly under my arms.

The way that language changes over time, common objects get shorter and shorter names.   Henry Ford's "automobile" becomes the modern "car".  Telephones become "phones"; cellular phones become "cells".  So it's not surprising that many frugal objects -- simple, versatile, humble, common -- have short names, too.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

And then there was one (car) . . .

Two little vehicles, sitting in the sun,
One lost its battery, and then there was one.

There are all sorts of good reasons for planning to own fewer cars.  The Miser Mom reason has to do with overall frugality, both on behalf of our finances (but of course) and on behalf of the planet.  The frugality side of the argument is so well-known, it's beyond cliche.   I say no more.

My husband's rationale for a reduced-car future is actually a kind of macho independence.  He's at the stage where all his friends are having to wrestle the car keys from their parents' hands, stirring up great clouds of angst and consternation on all sides.  The loss of independence that comes with loss of driving privileges is a huge blow for these aging relatives, and so it's not surprising that the No-Driving Discussion creates all sorts of reasons for fights and ill-will.  In his own peculiar reverse-psychology way, my husband wants to head off that eventual battle by becoming automobile independent long before our kids have to force that lifestyle upon us.

The rationale for keeping both cars are less straightforward.  Certainly we have a lot more instantaneous flexibility by keeping more than one automobile.  The question is whether we actually need that flexibility, or whether instead we should go all Aristotle on each other and train ourselves into a new kind of Vehicle Virtue by mere dint of learning new habits.  At any rate, we've been mulling over how to get down from two cars to one.

In some sense, it should be easy:  I walk two blocks to work; he commutes insanely long distances but usually goes by train.  The main two obstacles that have kept both cars in circulation have been (a) travel and (b) children.  That is, there are about a dozen times each year we both have out-of-town commitments, or one of us is out-of-town but the other one has to take our kids to their various appointments.

With the arrival of the SPDM, we've made a huge dent in obstacle (b).  The boys and I have spent the summer happily zooming around to drum practice, doctors' and dentist appointments, even to yard sales, entirely under pedal power.  Huzzah!

With the children securely on board (or, I suppose I should say, off-board), it was the perfect time for Life to give us the One-Car-Pop-Quiz.

The Prius battery died about 3 weeks ago.   A Prius battery is a famously pricey thing.  It's also apparently quite a rare thing -- our mechanic had to order it from far away (Tokyo?), and keeps revising the estimated date of arrival upward.  We've been without that car for basically the whole month of July.

And rather than fretting, we've been able to use this as a time to experiment.  Can we do this?  Is one car a reasonable number for our family of [currently] five people, leading the kind of lifestyle we think we'd actually be happy to lead?

I'd say, this summer has been a qualified success.  We've been blessed with good riding weather (no rainy dentist appointment days), and our travel schedules seem to have meshed well.    So we can do the one-car thing pretty easily when all the stars align.  In fact, most days this past month, my husbands' car sat in the driveway unused -- we were more often a zero-car family than a one-car family.

It helps a LOT that we've done thought experiments about this in our heads and in our discussions for a few years now;  we already had sharing-plans worked out in theory that were fairly easy to put into practice.  This included
  • walking to places nearby;
  • biking to places a bit further;
  • taking trains to distant places;
  • renting a van for a big family trip (both big family and big trip);
  • using the car only when the options above seemed impractical.

My Guy will be heading out (with his car) for Army training for three months.  I think I'll be happy to get my old, beat-up Prius back during that time.  But, as much as possible, I'm going to try to see if I can go without driving it at all.

One little vehicle, sitting in the sun;
Miser Mom bought a bike, and then there were none.  

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Grasshopper questions

My honorary daughter and my step-daughter are both moving into the "real" world . . . or at least into the next stage of the Academic World.  K-daughter is getting ready to head out of the house for her junior year of college; my step-daughter will soon be starting grad school in another state.  And they have both had lots of questions for me.

As usual, being a frugal-yet-slightly-pushy sort of person, I have lots of answers.  Here are some of them.

What kind of food is the cheapest to buy?
Free food.   Seriously.  When you're on a college campus, there will be all sorts of events that use food to try to lure people in; take advantage of those!  (The art talk/lecture/schmoozy stuff that goes with the food is often really good, too).  If you're at all connected to the organizer, offer to stick around and help clean up --- and maybe to take leftover food home.
Okay, but aside from mooched food, which kinds are cheap-but-nutritious?
Potatoes.  Rice and beans.  Add in healthy oils.  Think of traditional ethnic cuisines (curries, chili, etc), and you'll see how you can eat delicious meals for little money.   Don't forget to bulk-buy your food to bring the price-per-pound down even lower.
What's the best way to cook these small squash that are sitting on the counter top?
Cut them in half and scoop out the seeds; place the squash halves like bowls in a baking pan.  Make a mixture of olive oil, tomato, nuts, basil, parmesan cheese, and salt.  Use this as a filling for the squash.  Bake at 350 degrees.  Even J-son, who normally hates squash, said this tastes good.
Should I start saving for retirement while I'm still in school?
Wise people can disagree, but I say "yes".  The mere act of setting up a retirement account is the hardest part (from a learning/psychological/motivational point of view).  But that money you put in NOW is the most powerful money you can put in.   And setting up a retirement account is actually easy:  take it from Waste Less Grad Student!
What kind of retirement account does a young adult use?
Get a Roth IRA.   
Another alternative is a regular IRA, and that wouldn't be horrible, but it's better for high earners, which you are not, at least not yet. The difference is when the money gets taxed: a regular IRA gets taxed when you take the money OUT. If you're not making much money, you're not getting taxed much, so you would rather be taxed on the money going IN -- ergo, the Roth IRA is better for you right now.
You've heard of a 401K; that's what an employer sets up. You'll get that once you have a job, which you don't now, so 401Ks will come later. [Geek talk: My step-daughter has a graduate fellowship, so she's earning a bit of money, but isn't eligible for a 401K or 403b]. 

But can't I lose all my money?
Yes, if you invest in my uncle's Ostrich Farm.  He tried to get my parents to invest in that, but they decided not to do so, and you shouldn't either.  
If you invest in an "Index Fund" -- which sort of, but not exactly, means "an account that has a little bit of everything"-- then the only way to lose all your money is if every company on the planet goes broke, in which case you've got bigger problems than losing your money.  Then it's time for the underground survival shelter with a year's supply of canned food and water.  
But shouldn't I wait until I have a real job before I think about retirement?
Eh, if the choice is EITHER (a) saving for retirement while racking up debt, OR (b) doing neither, there's something to be said for option (b), it's true.  But if you're 25 years old, every dollar you put aside now will be worth $15 when you retire at age 65*.  If instead you wait just ten years to start your retirement savings at age 35, the dollar you invest then will turn into a mere $7.50.  That is, by starting now instead of waiting until you're settled in, you double the power of your money.  
*[Geek speak:  I'm using a 7% annual rate of return to get these numbers.  This is probably too low, or too high, depending on approximately 437,569 different factors you might want to add into the explanation.  But as a back-of-the-envelope computation, 7% is good enough to tell the story right.] 
Even more important than the total amount of money in your retirement account is the amount of money it can spit out at you every year you're retired.  That $15 in your Roth IRA will generate a dollar every year, for ever and ever*.  So forgoing a single movie now means you're setting yourself up to see movies every year of your retirement.  Skipping a spring break trip this year means you've funded a yearly vacation during each of your golden years.  To get the same benefit, but starting ten years later, you'd have to give up two movies or two vacations.  This is a powerful time in your investing life (and many 50 year olds can tell you regretfully they wish they'd known this).
*[Same 7%; same caveat.] 
How do you hem a black pair of pants?
Turn them inside out, put them on, and pin them up to the right length while they're on inside out.  Carefully remove the pants so you don't disturb the pins or poke yourself.  Baste with pink thread to check that you've done it right.  Try them on again.  When you're happy, do the hem in a regular stitch with black thread and remove the pink thread.  

Saturday, July 27, 2013

How to NOT convert a spendy spouse

I've come to think of having a non-miser husband as just one of those puzzles that adds much-needed challenge to my life.  Some people have physical difficulties that mean they can't walk to work or do their own home repairs.  Some people have health problems that they'll have to spend money on all their lives.  Some people start their adult lives deeply in debt.  As for me, I have the challenge of trying to live a frugal life while surrounded by obligatory cable TV, Starbucks Coffee purchases, and Vitamin Water.  It's an added degree of difficulty, an extra adventure.  But it's do-able.

I've read many articles on "how to convert a spendthrift spouse" (and by read, I mean "read and re-read and annotate extensively in my own head").  But conversion, that's not my marriage.

For one thing, conversion (at least as far as my husband goes) just wouldn't work:  he's not going to change just because I happen to have a more sensible approach, because, really, why be sensible when you can have fun?

For another thing, both he and I have a philosophical and moral aversion to people getting married and then trying to "change" or "civilize" a spouse.  I could go on and on about this, but I won't:  I'll just say we both find it repugnant.

But there's a totally frugal reason for not trying to change a spendy spouse, and that's the point of this particular blog post.  And it's this:  one key tenet to a truly frugal life is being grateful for what you already have.  And as for me, I'm truly grateful for my husband.  Another key tenet to a truly frugal life is finding good ways to make the most of what you already have.  And there are lots of ways that having my (admittedly spendy) husband makes my life better.

Part of the trick for me is to take on the parts where I can take over -- to do what I call "preventative shopping".  By buying the boys' school clothes myself, by purchasing beef in bulk and having it near-at-hand in the freezer, by getting sandwiches and trail-mix together for long trips, . . . by doing all these things I can head off many more expensive impulse buys.

Another important ingredient is just to keep talking matter-of-factly about where the money goes.  We have a monthly financial update, during which I go over what we spent and what we brought in.  This has become a ritual that we both appreciate, because it satisfies my craving for rigor and accountability, and it gives him a chance to warn me about expenses he thinks might be coming down the pike.

But the non-conversion part of this adventure comes in learning to make the most of my husband's non-miser ways.  It's almost like a form of Frugal Jujutsu, using the power of my husband's expensive tastes instead of opposing them.

Here's an example:

My husband cares a lot about clothes.  A lot.  When he takes the subway, the toll collectors call him "Mr. GQ" -- and, in fact, he has a subscription to that particular magazine.  Whereas I spend downwards of $80/year on clothing for my boys and myself, My Guy will blow hundreds of dollars on a pair of suits for my pair of sons.  (They're teenagers; they will wear these suits perhaps a dozen times in their life.  Sheesh).

In contrast, I know zilch about clothes, except how to get them for cheap.  (Before I married my husband, my highly-colorful clothing philosophy was, "since I don't know what I'm doing, sin boldly.")   Left to my own devices, I could end up looking exactly how you'd think a cheap-o Miser Mom would look.  Even more, I could condemn my teenage sons to Middle School Ridicule Hell.  But when I combine my thrifty ways with my husband's eye for style, I get a bunch of stylin' sons, and a personal wardrobe that gets me compliments.

Here's another example:

My husband is impulsive.  Our lives have changed directions many times in the 16 years we've been married:  he's taken new jobs; he's suddenly enlisted in the military; we've adopted kids.  His impulsivity in spending a gazillion dollars on a Big New Something has faded over time (oh, thank goodness), but he'll still fritter away money on a gazillion smaller things that catch his eye in a bakery, grocery store, bike shop, clothing store . . . .

But his eagerness for all that is shiny means my husband shakes me out of ruts.  And I love him for that, because it's all too easy for a frugal, careful person like me to grow complacent.  So when I'm thinking of possibly taking on a big new project, and when any other ordinary person would be pessimistic or even cautiously realistic, my husband is the Labrador who has just heard the word "walk" and the rattle of the leash.  And so I've taken on bizarre big projects at work, and I've donated a kidney to a coworker, and I've adopted kids with him, and I'm getting ready for a triathalon.  And all of these with my husband being my most enthusiastic cheerleader.

There are more examples of course.

I could tell you how my husband is the athlete of the home, and how because of that he keeps me healthy and active when I'd otherwise be sitting on my duff doing math.   Or how he's the macho, take-control kind of guy a peace-nik like me is supposed to shun, but because of that he has raised our daughters and sons to be unafraid of hard work and physical challenge.  Or how, because he's a total cell-phone addict as well as a Guy kind of a guy, he becomes the point-person for talking with Customer Service reps of all stripes.

The point is:  spousal conversion is not the goal.  Having a happy (and financially stable) life is the goal.  And it's possible to be a black-belt-frugalist married to a Man of the World . . . and to have both of us be the better for it.