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.