Thursday, December 31, 2015

Writing thank you notes

The old life-lessons for kids:  presents might come with no strings attached, but they always come with the ball-and-chain of attached obligatory thank you notes, to be written under the watchful eye of a stern Miser Mom.  None of this "Dear Sis, thank you for te presnet. Love, bro" drivel; a true Thank You Note shows thought, sincerity, and evidence of mild proofreading.

I tell my kids that a proper thank you note does not even begin with the words "thank you".  I find that starting with those two words really mentally paints the writer into a corner.  The writers are allowed to (and in fact, should) say "thank you" in the last sentence, and for that reason, too, the thankers ought to find a different way to open their letter.  In fact, J-son this year opened each of his letters by describing opening the present he's thanking people for:  "I was excited to open the gift with the head phones in it."
J-son, wearing his present while he writes about it.

I also tell my kids that every thank you note has to have at least three sentences before they get to the final, "thank you" line.  Why did you/would you want this thing?  What will you do with it? A four-sentence thank you note isn't a novel, and it isn't even a minor literary masterpiece, but it is a heck of a lot of work for my sons (especially because my sons have a heck of a lot of relatives, so they have a lot of these four-sentence notes to write).

N-son with his empty canning jar (it had candy in it for about 1.5 hours after he opened it)
and some groovy music helping him write lots of letters.
And, truth to be told, these sentences of explanation are the best part, often even deliberately funny:
  •  "The Hershey bar was so good that I ate it right away."
  • "Also thank you for the soap.  A guy has to smell good for the ladys."  
  • "Now that I got hand wraps for Christmas I don't have to make my parents pay for them" (with an asterisk on "parents" that says, "Miser Mom!!!").  

Not to mention, occasional adorable pictures.
Punching mitts for boxing, a jar of candy (temporarily full), and
a set of headphones on a happy guy.
And now the thank you notes are done, with both record speed and also conscientiousness.  And the boys worked hard and occasionally quite cheerfully on them.  And I didn't have to nag anybody or make anyone start over, for which I'm very grateful.  And the letters are so fun to proofread and look at, that I couldn't help but share the highlights -- which is a perfect present for a parent to get for the holidays.  Thank you, boys!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

What she bought: candy, baking supplies, and tradition

A friend of mine asked me, ". . . but . . . you must go shopping sometimes; you must buy some stuff, right?" And so I figured it might be fun to start documenting actual purchases I make.
Here's the reason for last week's big shopping trip.  Just before Christmas, I realized that I hadn't actually saved up a bunch of hard candy from the previous year.  So my husband and I had a "date", going to the grocery store together, spending a whopping $30.61.  Y'know, if you've got to go to the grocery store in the rain, it's nice to hold hands with a good-looking guy while you do it.

Not pictured here are the eggs ($4.19 for 18 of them) or flour ($2.29).  The remainder of  the money was all completely unhealthy junk:  frosting and candy. It's hard to buy candy without trash attached.  M&Ms are possible from the bulk aisle, but candy canes and smarties?  Haven't figured those out yet.

Why did I need so much candy? Because we are in our second of year of moving gingerbread, eggnog, and cider into the center spotlight of our family Christmas gathering (and thereby gently sliding present exchanges off to a more minor side show).

. . . seven ice-ers icing, six geeks a-playing,
five cooo-old drinks . . . la la la . . .

This year, instead of building houses, we decorated cookies.  Decorating is even more fun than eating:  see how deeply N-son is concentrating?

L-daughter made smiley faces (near plate below).  K-daughter managed to make vertical monstrous master-pieces by stacking candy high-high-high like legos and by planting candy cane forests in a glade of gingerbread soil (far plate).

I-daughter went for variety.

J-son created his own masterpieces, too; but Baby A, my granddaughter, decided she was really into deconstructionism.

And now we still have lots of eggs and flour left that we can use for dinner and breakfast, and we even have a few jars of candy remaining that will be ready and waiting for Christmas 2016.  So that's a shopping trip I won't have to make.   Phew.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Eleven Garbage Cans

This morning is trash morning, and so last night, I put out a can of garbage.

Actually (get ready for the crowing . . . ) it's our eleventh garbage can of the year.  Over here in Chez Miser Mom, there is a little bit of congratulatory back-patting going on.

We've been working on reducing our trash output for a couple of years now.  The years 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 saw us putting out 23, 17, 19, and then 11 cans, respectively.

And although the main rah-rah-go-team Waste Warrior in these parts was clearly Yours Truly, I just as clearly couldn't stop producing household garbage on my own.  I'm surrounded by a family that happens to consist of largely Normal People, after all.  They bring home take-out food in styrofoam trays; they go to the hardware store and bring home one door latch in a plastic shopping bag; they buy deodorant that comes in plastic containers, bundled together in cardboard, wrapped in extra plastic.  Sheesh.

And yet, here we are.  Eleven trashcans for the year.  My husband is retired now and so he can't "game" the count by throwing his lunch-time trash away at work, and so we figured that last two year's 17/19 garbage cans were an all-time low, but now look at my driveway!  It's almost always empty on trash day.  Less than one garbage can per month, and it's because the family has started thinking of trash-less-ness as a game, a little competition with ourselves, and so in spite of all the commercial packaging they do buy, there's a lot more garbage that they're proud of avoiding.

Rah! Rah!  GOooooO Team!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Making a key book

Most people I know have house keys so that they can keep outsiders from getting in.  What with front doors, back doors, deadbolts, screen doors, etc, I've got quite a collection of house keys, which until recently I kept on a wall in my sewing room.

Keeping the keys out and visible is probably not the greatest idea (although at least they're not not by the front door, where "robbers" could come in and find and take them easily).

Alas, the problem in my house is that it's not those pesky outside "robbers" I need to worry about.  We lock things in our house to keep them safe from people in our own house.  Sigh.

I was at a Christmas party a while back with another parent who has raised a lot of troubled kids, and we were lamenting some of the lifestyle changes we'd never expected to have to get used to.  He pulled out his key ring and started naming his many keys to me: "refrigerator, bedroom, closet, . . . "   I pulled the chain off my neck and chimed in: "bed stand, sewing room".

For a long time, I stupidly didn't think I needed to hide away our outside keys -- after all, we don't actually lock ANY of our external doors, so what good would a key do anyone?  Let's just repeat that that was stupid thinking on my part.  I underestimated the damage that can result from danged impulse control issues in a danged teenage body.  Time to put the keys where they are truly out of sight.  Ugh.

For what it's worth, I really like how I put these keys out-of-sight and yet organized.  I took a sturdy piece of cardboard and three-hole punched it.

Then I laid the keys out, adding a paper-clip-worth of space above each key, and marked the top of the paperclip with a pencil mark.

I drilled holes and threaded the paperclips halfway through the holes.  Then I labeled the cardboard and hung the keys on the paper clips.  I stuck the whole page of keys in a notebook that has other household information (or, you could say, "other key household info".  Heh).  This is a book I keep on a very out-of-sight shelf, one that I usually keep locked with a combo lock.  The out-of-sight-ness, combined with the fact that few people would expect to look for keys in a 3-ring binder, will be another factor in keeping these keys safe.

Well, I hope it's enough to keep things safe.  I'm sure there's a good metaphor out there about expecting evil to come from outside while it's really within, but for now I'll just put the book away, lock the door to the closet, and go help my sons with their housework.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Ho-ho-hope your holidays are bright

There's nothing like a little bit of Christmas arm wrestling, . . . 

 . . . especially if you're getting strong enough that your uncle, a house builder and all-around strong-as-an-ox guy, shakes his arm after whomping you and says, "whew! that's getting tough!", and your aunt in reindeer antlers takes a photo.

Although opening presents with a dad/grandpa who's dressed in his Santa hat, and who likes his Alice in Wonderland as illustrated by Salvador Dali so much that he forgets about other presents around him --- well, that's pretty sweet, too.

Here's hoping your holidays brought you memories that you will continue to treasure. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

What she bought: bags and chocolate

A friend of mine asked me, ". . . but . . .  you must go shopping sometimes; you must buy some stuff, right?"  And so I figured it might be fun to start documenting actual purchases I make.

So, here goes:  Saturday I went to the grocery store and I bought bags and chocolate.   Or, the way I think of it, I bought "bags wrapped in trash, and chocolate without trash".  Total expense:  $9.08.
Cloth bag to canning jar for some trash-less chocolate;
paper bags in a (sigh) plastic bag.
The chocolate ($6.65 for a bit more than a pound), I bought for baking purposes because SOMEONE ate all of the rest of the baking chocolate in the house! It wasn't my kids, and it wasn't my husband, which means it was . . . well, let's just say I felt it was my responsibility to refill the baking chocolate jar. I bought my chocolate pieces in chunks from the "bulk" section of our local grocery. Although I chose the bulk section to avoid garbage, I've found that many candies there (like M&Ms) are cheaper than buying them in commercial bags. I use a technique I learned from the Zero Waste Home: I use my own cloth bags (made from cutting down a pillowcase), and write the code number on the bag in a washable crayon. (Crayola makes those). When I got home, I transfered the chocolate to a glass canning jar.

Well, I transfered most of the chocolate to the canning jar.  But there it is.

I also bought a pile of 100 paper lunch bags ($2.43).  Some of these immediately came in handy when J-son packed his lunch for work later that day.  And yes, I know he could use a reusable lunch box, but he tends to leave things behind -- the amusement park is already richer two canning jars that he's left there, so I don't mind him taking paper lunch bags.

But the real reason I bought the bags is for wrapping presents.  We've done our usual "x-Mass Production" lines, and since then, the boys need to wrap their many gifts for family and friends.  The boys decorate the bags and plop the presents inside.  I get a kick out of the pictures N-son does on his bags (J-son is a little more stoic in his style).

Here's an N-son original for our next-door neighbor, the one with the beautiful garden.   Sweet drawing, right?

Monday, December 21, 2015

J-son gets a job! (briefly)

J-son, nervous before starting
the first day of work.
Saturday was J-son's first day of work.  He was seriously nervous beforehand.

And good reason: this first job has been a long time coming.   How long?  We started the process of job searching a year and a half ago -- not searching terribly seriously at first, mind you, but still a start.  I had a "Financial Summer Camp" for my boys in 2014, and as part of that, the boys created their first resumes and filled out their first-ever applications (for a volunteer position).

Nothing ever came of that application, aside from a few nibbles ("you're next in line when we have an opening", but they never had an opening).  But it was a good first-round lesson on paperwork.

We started job searching again in earnest at the beginning of this summer, using what I called my "Viktor Frankl summer plan".    We filled out what seemed to J-son HUGE numbers of on-line job applications (I think it was three or four of them).   As always seems to happen, though, it was networking that got J-son that first big break; I heard from a neighbor that a local amusement park was a great place for teens to work.  J-son sent in a job application, and in July, there came a call back for a job interview!  yay!

That job interview was both J-son's big break, and also what broke J-son.  He stopped applying for other jobs, because this one was obviously imminent.  We hunted unsuccessfully for official paperwork (a social security card -- somehow, that didn't seem to come through with all the rest of the adoption paperwork back in 2011), and then we gave up looking and applied for a new card and a work permit.

But J-son did eventually get the interview scheduled.  Setting a time for the interview took several tries (another few weeks, I think?) because of all the many trips our family was going on.  In early August, our family got the good news:  J-son had a job!

But before the job could officially start, there was orientation.  And then training.  We'd get last-minute calls inviting J-son to these sessions at seemingly random times, and only at a moment's notice, and the last-minute-ness of these combined with our own schedule delayed first the orientation and then the training.
[I have to say, though, I'm super-impressed at the orientation and training materials from this place.  It's clear that they know this is most kids' first jobs, and the place seems determined to do right by the next generation.  It shows them how to set up direct deposit, what to wear, how to clock in, and even starts everyone in a 401K plan that they have to actively opt out of, rather than opt in to.]  
By the time both orientation and training had happened, we were well into the fall, which is, of course, a slow time for amusement parks.  J-son used the time with me to open a checking account to go along with his existing savings account.  (Hooray for our FoolProofMe lessons, which prepared the kids for this day!)

And now, with a mere two weeks to go before the park shuts down for Winter, J-son has had his first day of work.  I might have mentioned he was super nervous.  Did I mention that?  Did J-son mention it 85 million times beforehand?  Mom, when I get there, are they going to show me what I'm supposed to do? Yes.  Adorable.

I bought him a bus ticket.  We watched videos on how to ride the bus (I *love* our local bus service and how helpful they are.  These videos are great and non-judgmental and step-by-step.)  I had my husband watch a video on how to put bikes on the bus, and he got so excited that he rode the bus with J-son to work the first day.  Here's J-son inside the bus, and the two bikes out the front window of the bus.  (See the bar mitts on J-son's bike?)

Okay, so J-son will only have about ten days of work before the park closes down until May.  But look at how much he's learned, so fast, from this little bit of paid employment.

  1. How to interview.
  2. How to dress for a job.
  3. How to open a checking account.
  4. How to clock in and clock out.
  5. How to read a bus schedule.
  6. How to ride the bus.  
  7. Bring a lunch.  Even if you tell your mom, "no, I won't get hungry" you really need to BRING YOUR LUNCH!
  8. Keep track of your badge, your official sweatshirt, your official water bottle.
  9. How to use an ATM to deposit checks (before direct deposit kicks in).
  10. And yes, your boss will tell you what you're supposed to do.  You're going to be fine.

As for me, what I sort of already knew, but got to learn again:  this takes lots and lots of time.  N-son is certainly going to start a lot earlier than June when it comes time for his summer job search.  Also, make sure you have social security cards somewhere.  

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Encouragement. Rewards. Drums.

N-son started drum lessons back in 2009, when he was a youngster of 9 years.  I'm not a Loud Noise Lover myself, but I knew he was, and I also knew he needed some kind of therapy/training to help him connect his left and right side, which had trouble communicating with each other because of a stroke he'd had in utero.  I figured drum lessons would be something he might enjoy and that would force him (in a good way) to do the hard work of mending his own body.  I bought him a drum pad and a pair of sticks, signed him up for lessons, and told him he could get the actual snare drum (that actually made noise -- ouch) if he diligently practiced all summer long.

In my very first blog post back in 2011, I wrote about drums and frugality:
I know it's not easy at first to live a life of thrift and discipline, but most great things aren't easy. Like making music or excelling at sports or learning to cure illness, living a life of frugality takes practice. It's something I teach my kids every day, and they're just about as good at discipline and thrift as they are at playing the drums (that is, they're still wild and loud, but they're getting there).
And in this 2012 blog post on "love, money, and employment", I wrote about drums and rewards:
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.
Somehow, all that "messing with his mind" seems to work.  It seems to have worked both in the physical sense of developing coordination and timing, but also in the mental sense of developing a passion for music and rhythm.  In the physical sense, man, this kid is good.  He's started playing at our church services occasionally; I've heard him at a few recital concerts; he's got some real talent.

The room around this drum set is a swamp of everything-ness,
but the drum set itself is an oasis of order. 
But it's even more gratifying to see how the drums have become a source of joy and discipline in his own life.  Last summer when I was doing a presentation on organizational techniques, I pointed to N-son's bedroom, where just about everything appears to be a mess -- but his drum set remains completely free of clutter, and ready for action.  When we asked what he wanted for his birthday or for Christmas, the only things he could think of were "a djembe" (which is a kind of an African hand drum) and drum brushes.

And recently, when N-son started swirling a bit into social difficulties, we turned back to drums as a way to throw him a life line.  N-son can be a bit of a hedgehog, a little prickly, especially when he gets uncomfortable.  He tends to get uncomfortable when he's in groups of children his own age, so social settings at school can be a source of frustration and/or alienation.  To help N-son find a path around this, we turned back to music.  We signed him up for a local chorus, run by the enthusiastically welcoming group called "Music for Everyone".  Welcoming is exactly what N-son needs, aside from the music aspect, and this group met and exceeded all expectations.  (And it's largely adults, which is great for N-son's comfort level and also for giving him good role models.  Double win!)

After just one one rehearsal, N-son is hooked.  Here he is, one day later, avidly checking his music on his phone.  Rehearsing without someone reminding him.  Driving his brother J-son a little bonkers by walking through the house singing Carol of the Bells over and over.

And speaking of J-son going bonkers, I really wish I could find something like this for him.  J-son has been sailing in and out of the seas of moral rectitude, and lately he's been more out than in.  I want a star to steer him by, one that doesn't shine with the light of a teenage sneer group.  What he wants most of all right now is to be liked, to be cool.   But the twin siren songs of coolness and boredom have been luring him onto dangerous rocks.  

Aside from re-starting the process of therapy (thanks to my husband making appointments and arranging school  excuses and bike-transportation), I think I want to try to get J-son involved in a MakerSpace near us, one where he'll get to play with metal machining, 3-d printers, and laser technology, and also with adults who know and love the equipment and its potential.  I need to find a way to "parent out", to use the adult communities around me to help guide him toward a stable future, one that he'll actually want to work hard at, even without his mother looking over his shoulder.  I need to help him find a virtuous path that becomes its own reward.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Why Miser Mom spent $214.62 on gloves

So, in fact, I spent $214.62 on three pairs of gloves (meaning $71.54/pair).  I don't know if that makes it sound better or worse: one huge splurge versus three large splurges?  I dunno.   And the gloves aren't even people gloves; they're bike gloves.

Here's the SPDM sporting a fabulous pair of bike gloves.  Actually, the brand name (emblazoned in glow-in-the-dark letters, is "Bar Mitts", which has me and my husband constantly wanting to add a "Vah" below: "Bar Mitts Vah".  It just might happen).

These fancy bike gloves are more than just a fabulous conversation piece (although we've certainly had a lot of other bike riders strike up conversations with us to ask us how they work).  And they're more than just trend-setting style accessories (although we certainly do turn a lot of heads).

No, these bike gloves are capital investments.  They're going to help my family keep riding through cold weather.  And that's going to save us some serious money on commuting costs.

How much money will that save us?  Well, of course it's hard to tell. For the past two years, our one-car family has spent about $700/year on gasoline.  That doesn't include the amount I spent in rental cars, which were reimbursed by the places that invited me to give talks, but it does include a vacation trip from Pennsylvania to Minnesota (and back, of course), and a few trips down to Virginia, and all of our local travel.

Well, that $700 includes all of our local car travel.  But we do a lot of local non-car travel. For example, our typical week includes
  • weekly drum lessons (2.4 miles away),
  • daily boxing practice (2.2 miles away),
  • weekly food shelter (2.1 miles away), and
  • weekly speech therapy (2.1 miles away).
These little regular trips would add up to at least 35 miles/week in a car (and they add up to more miles than that by bike, because some of these trips have multiple riders).  And recently, for behavior problems, J-son was kicked off the school bus (school is a bit over 6 miles away); all of a sudden the ability to bike is saving us an extra 60-ish miles/week driving back and forth to school.  Plus, there are all the random extra trips -- to a friend's house, to a doctor's appointment. Being able to send kids off on bicycles saves us, I'm figuring, over $5/week in gas alone.

Not only that, but the bikes are time savers for us as parents.  We don't escort the kids ourselves to most places; it's a great amount of freedom to be able to kiss the boys good-bye as they head out the door for their daily boxing lessons, and then sit down to finish a blog post.  No sitting in evening rush-hour traffic for me!

All this is to say, biking matters a lot to us now, for reasons financial and fitness and other.

N-son demonstrates how the hands slide right in. Toasty!
But in winter, getting ready to get on the bike gets more and more convoluted.  We're keeping track of lights, front and rear, because of the darkness.  We're putting on warm clothes.  We continue to keep track of helmets and bike locks, as in the summer.  Keeping track of gloves . . . well, I just don't want to get into the situation where for want of a glove, I had to spend an hour in mall-congested traffic driving my kid to and from school instead of drinking coffee and doing my math.

I got myself a pair of these mitts (or rather, I got the SPDM a pair) in mid-October, and immediately the boys developed a severe case of jealousy.  Which was exactly what I wanted, because that was their birthday present when N-son's birthday rolled around in November.  By the time they unwrapped their gifts, they were all primed to be delighted.  The boys' brand new  Ride-Your-Bikes-all-Winter-Long-Bike-Mitts were a great frugal torture device, disguised as a present. You're welcome, boys!

Questions we've gotten from others:
  • Can you get your hands out quickly if you need to signal?  Yes, no problem.
  • Do they actually keep your hands warm?  Actually, sometimes my hands start getting sweaty.  The nice thing about these compared to regular gloves is that, to cool off, you just take your hands off the handlebars momentarily.  I haven't needed additional gloves yet, although if it gets much colder I might wear gloves under the bar mitts (vah), because the bike handlebars conduct cold fairly well.
  • Can you get your hand back in quickly?  Almost always, yes.  I ordered the largest size just to make entrance and exit easy.  Sometimes if I signal and then have to brake right away, I can't quite get my hand back in in time (that's happened two or three times in as many months). But they're soft enough that even when I didn't get my hand in quickly, I could grab the brakes even through the mitts.
  • Where did you get them?  It's possible to order them online, but I like our local bike shop so much that I had them order the three pairs, and bought the mitts from them.  
  • What does your dog think about them?  He's quite sad about them.  One of his very favorite chew toys is when he discovers yet another pair of new $75 bike gloves that my non-miser husband purchases occasionally, apparently just for the dining pleasure of the dog.  Now the poor dog has nothing fancy to eat.  

Friday, December 11, 2015

A happy guest-post from N-son

This is n-son, miser Mom's youngest son. Today she is letting me do a guest post. 

Today we adopted k-daughter at 1:30 and it was FUN. We got to talk and smile and cry a little. It's cool having another sister to look up to and to have around to help us and to see us on the weekends. K-daughter is fun to be with because we can hang out and make a place a party or a laughing zone within 10 minutes. This is another day to remember and to hang on to for life. 

When she first moved in with us it was weird because it was just me and j-son still living at home and then she came. But after a while I got use to having a sister in the house and then she would go places with me and j-son  like to drum practices. When j-son and I would come home she would help us with our homework.  When she got a job as a lifeguard she would take me to the pool she was working at for the day and I would have so much fun with her. 

When I was just six weeks old I got adopted into this family and I really didn't have a choice. But k-daughter did and she could have picked not to be adopted but she came into our home and we loved it.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Pass the Plate (community version)

Why have I bought hundreds of plates these past few months? And a hundred cloth napkins?  And similar quantities of cutlery?

It was an exercise in community, in seeing how far I can extend the oddities of my trash-averse life, past the shark-filled moat of the "don't drive them crazy" mantra, into the broader public realm.

At my church, there's a woman who puts on amazing lunches for a hundred people, and she does this just for fun.  She's not a caterer, and our church has no kitchen, so this is no minor feat to pull off on her part.  She hauls in chafing dishes and crock pots galore; she jerry rigs everything together so that the circuit breakers don't blow.  She brings vast quantities of food she prepared in her own kitchen.  She sets up table upon table upon table.  She gets a few volunteers to help her with set-up and also with clean-up, but mostly she is a one-woman culinary force of nature.

Several times a year, thanks to this rather formidable generosity, a hundred people from my church gather together for lunch.  It's a wonderful gathering.   We come away with a stronger community, with connections to new people, and full bellies.  And we leave behind bag upon bag of trash.

My friend June says that at her church (a much more eco-crunchy kind of a church than mine) families bring their own plates and flatware to church lunches.  That, I just have to say, ain't gonna happen at my church.  We're not exactly a think-ahead, do-it-the-frugal-way kind of church.  So if there was going to be a change, it was going to have to happen top-down structurally instead of people-up structurally.

There was no way I was going to ask the Force of Nature to take on the task of washing plates and silverware and cloth napkins -- especially because our church has no kitchen, and in the space where there is no kitchen, there is likewise a conspicuous absence of a dishwasher.  (Ditto for laundry).  I took it as a given that I'd end up hauling stuff back and forth between the church and my home, and that I'd spend an afternoon loading and emptying the dishwasher, not to mention a lot of time folding napkins.  Finding plates that were unbreakable, good-looking, and light enough to carry in my bike trailer turned out to be one of the big challenges.  (So hurrah for the Restaurant Supply Store!)

But the bigger question -- beyond expense and time and such -- was how this would go over socially.  Would I be insulting the Formidable Generosity of a woman who is a distant friend, at best?  Would the mere act of inserting these plates (etc) into an already meticulously synchronized and complicated affair be one straw too many for an over-burdened camel?  Would the many lunch eaters roll their eyes about the burdens of being Ecologically Correct?  I had no illusions that I was a white knight in shining armor, rescuing the villagers from the dragon that terrorized them daily.  No, the dragon was all mine.

I bought plates.  I offered them to the Force of Nature.  She shrugged her shoulders and declared that washing plates (etc) was just "too much work".  I agreed that she shouldn't be the one doing any of the cleaning, and I insisted I'd do it myself.   It was as though I'd just offered to scrub the parking lot with a toothbrush:  "whatever: suit yourself".

And so, in this way I joined forces with a Force of Nature.  She, with her garrison of chafing dishes, crock pots, sternos, and extension cords.  Me, waving my little green (cloth) napkins and brandishing the shield of melamine plates.  And we prepared for the onslaught of a hundred hungry presbyterians.

And you know what?  People loved it.  They loved it.  I had friend after friend coming up to say, "I'm so glad we finally got reusable plates"; "I'm so glad we're not throwing away paper napkins."  I'm sure there were people who thought the whole thing was silly (or worse); but they didn't come say anything to me.  Instead, a bunch of people got to have one more previously-unshared wish answered in public.  In fact, I've ended doing much less of the cleaning than I'd originally offered to do, because so many other people have spontaneously joined in the sudsy fun.

Since then, several people from my church have borrowed the plates and napkins to host large events of their own, returning everything (washed, stacked, folded) when done.  I don't know how many bags of trash I've averted from our local landfills, but I'm feeling like a pretty successful crunchy eco-nut right now.

But I'm also, I have to say, really happy that this all worked out in a way to build the social good, that far from weirding people out, I got to give us all something to be collectively proud of.


Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Passing the Plate

This past fall, I bought hundreds of reusable plates, forks, knives, spoons, and napkins. The reason why is the subject for another post; in this post, I just want to make a plug for a new (to me) kind of store. This is a store I actually do not mind being in!!!

But first, here's what I tried that didn't work. Local department or box stores just don't have quantities of plates (except for disposable plates, which is exactly what I was trying to avoid). I went to several different local stores, including two national chains whose names end in "mart", with nothing to show except a case of the heebie-jeebies for having walked through the building.

[By the way, I think it's funny that my gut reaction to being in or near a Walmart is, "What if someone sees me?", and that my next reaction is "Well, that means that THEY are in this den of iniquity, too!" You'd think I was going into a porn shop, or something.]

My next stop was the internet, but of course. I found vast quantities of washable plates there, and did in fact buy 200 plates from them (pictured below).

The first round of plates.  They crack too easily.
These plates were *almost* what I wanted, but not quite.  On the plus side, they're lightweight, good-looking, and theoretically washable.  On the negative side, they aren't sturdy.  We've only used them twice, and already had about a dozen plates crack or break.  They're not going to hold up for much longer.

So, while I was helping serve breakfast at our local shelter, I realized that the kinds of plates they used were exactly what I wanted!   Yay!  Even though I take home leftover bagels from the shelter so they don't wind up in the trash, I didn't take their plates -- but I did ask where they got all these plates, and they said:  a Restaurant Supply Store.

I hadn't heard of these things, and I'm glad now that I know of these places.  It turns out, there's one not too far from my home, with the fancy and surprising name of "The Restaurant Supply Store".

Actually, what I loved about this place when I wandered around its aisles was that it was neither fancy nor gimmicky: it was full of really practical stuff, logically and pragmatically displayed.  None of this "30% off, this week only!" shenanigans; no bizarre items like Frank-Sinatra-singing-doorbells  or scented-curtain-rods.

There were plates (I got sets of melamine plates) and metal forks and knives.  (There were vast quantities of disposable plates and flatware, too, of course, but I didn't bother with those).  They had bulk quantities of spices and condiments.  There was also an intriguing set of aisles with cooking stuff, both electronic and otherwise.  I'm tempted to go back again just to browse.

At any rate, given how very much I hate going shopping at regular stores,  especially in the crowds and commercial mania of December, this is where I'd go spend my time and money if I were still looking for holiday gifts for people.

Monday, December 7, 2015


I've been seeing this idea come up over and over recently:  the topic of self-control, and often of lack-thereof.
In addition, this past week I had three friends who separately ran into serious problems with other people -- in all three cases, the other person is someone who is (a) related to them, (b) did something pretty awful that was dangerous/illegal/hurtful and that (c) betrayed my friends, and (d) left my friends in a quandary about what the relationship is going to look like in the future.   There's a serious lack of willpower involved in the person who did the hurting, but because of that, they've created willpower problems for my friends.  That is, there's not a lot of composure and control to tap into, for my friends who are reeling from the revelation of recent injuries.  It's not "decision fatigue" they're going through:  it's "decision collapse".

On Wednesday and Thursday, when I was recovering from my fast, I decided to recuperate both physically and intellectually by reading Willpower, a book by psychologists Bauermeister and Tierney.  (The book has the encouraging subtitle, "Recovering the Greatest Human Strength"; now, who wouldn't want that?)

It's a really good read: the writing is engaging, the stories they choose are fun and compelling, and there's good science woven throughout.  Since I've read a lot of other pop-psychology books, there was a lot in this book that wasn't new to me (but I don't mind that -- I still enjoyed reading it a lot).  But some of this stuff was good to add to my repertoire of self- and other-knowledge.

Self-knowledge.  There aren't really obvious signs that your store of willpower is being depleted.  You don't start sweating, or shivering, or seeing double, or have trouble breathing.  So it's really, really hard for people to tell when they're getting to the point of making stupid choices, or giving up too early, or being unable to navigate a complex decision.  There are subtle signs, however:  everything seems more intense.  That chocolate bar that ordinarily seems merely alluring; now it's singing to you.  That sad song that comes on the radio makes you tear up.  The car that cuts in front of you enrages you.  (Or, I'd add, your husband says he'll do the dishes and then doesn't, and you think that's a sign that the marriage is over.  Maybe THAT's a sign that you're not thinking entirely with your full brain power).

Food.  I've heard a bunch of people talk about "decision fatigue" -- that as you get tired from the day's activities, you have less and less of a brain for making good decisions.  The blurbs I've seen about this say, "keep a candy bar in your glove compartment, and eat it before you go shopping!"  -- the idea being, that with food in your system, you'll be less likely to make unhealthy purchases that you'll regret later.

But while the authors do talk about how glucose (sugar) helped people in their lab experiments make good decisions or persist through uncomfortable situations, the authors criticized that sugar brings you up and then lets you crash worse.  They emphasized a healthy diet, with protein and complex carbohydrates.  Take care of yourself, in other words, and you'll better conserve your wells of self-control.

Unrelated activities use the same reservoir.  Fighting temptation depletes your willpower (even if you give in).  Experiencing emotion -- or fighting a display of emotion -- depletes your willpower (so being polite to a jerk or staying alert during a boring meeting or comforting a grieving friend is going to wear you down a bit).  Making choices depletes your willpower, whether it's choosing a lunch option from a long menu, or choosing which item on your to-do list to do next, or choosing whether you ought to forgive someone or move out.

Wait.  For my friends who'd been sideswiped by loved ones, the whole question of "what do I do?" was tangled in the briars of hurt and betrayal they'd just been confronted with.  And, at least for two of them, I pointed out that they didn't have to decide now:  that they weren't in a good state to make decisions right now.  They could give themselves permission to find a safe space, to take a bit of time (a day, a week) and make a decision later.  And that seemed to be one of the most comforting things I said, to remind my friends that they didn't have to suffer the problem and solve the problem in the same instant.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Holding Fast

This is a story of how my son's Bible class wrecked my marriage (except that it didn't really . . . read on).

At my son's Quaker Local School, one of the required classes is on religion and the Bible.  I've been impressed my how much these classes have delved into non-Quaker religions.   (Okay, the school isn't actually technically "Quaker" -- that's a pseudonym I gave the place.  But it is a school that is run by a religious denomination that promotes pacifism, service to those who have less, and a commitment to respecting the diversity of the world's people.  So, sort of like a Quaker, but not actually).  At any rate, the boys have come home with study sheets on lots of different world religions, including but not only "quakerism".

This semester, the students in J-son's class were each encouraged to take on a large, experiential project.  From the list of many choices, J-son chose to undertake a two-day fast.  He and his dad talked about it all semester long.  His dad (my husband) has done fasts in the past with his men's group, and my guy offered to join in, to support J-son.

And so it was that last Saturday night, about a week ago, the men-folk in my home chowed down in a serious way, preparing themselves for a Sunday and Monday with no food.

I've done two, maybe three, 24-hour fasts in my life, long ago.  I don't remember much about those, except that I learned to carry over the idea of dealing with being hungry to non-fasting days.  About a month after one of my earlier fasts, I happened to be at a math conference where the organizers had just sort of . . . forgotten . . . that all the dining halls would be closed during the first morning.  Almost all of the mathematicians there were as irritable and angry as could be:  "how could they not feed us!!!"  And while I could totally understand how miserable they felt, I was surprised that I could feel hunger but not be miserable about it.  It was a rather happy and encouraging revelation.

So, Sunday morning, I decided, "What the heck?  I'll join the fast."

Not surprisingly, J-son was a wreck.  This kid -- who almost never eats breakfast, even when I beg him to -- woke up declaring he was ravenous.  We went to church, and came home, and he let us all know just how much all he wanted to do was eat.  Instead, we read books and then he called a friend, and went to that friend's home for distraction.  It turns out J-son's 48-hour fast ended up lasting 15 hours, the first 8 of which he was asleep. So.  So there was a lesson learned; perhaps not the same one the teacher intended, but nonetheless new knowledge about hunger and food and limits of endurance.

For my husband, the agony lasted longer; and "agony" was, to his surprise, the right word for the fast this time around.  My guy learned late about the early end to J-son's fast, and the moment he heard, he headed for the kitchen himself.   Twenty hours without food is not easy.

I say that, and I think about people --- some of whom I know --- who go hungry regularly for reasons that have nothing to do with choice.  There are school children in my city who dread the holidays because it means that school lunches stop for a week or more.  There are students at my college who feel guilty about having three meals a day, knowing their families back home can't do the same.  A child we had tried to adopt, X-son down in Haiti, survived the 2010 earthquake in a bizarre twist of fate when his school principal declared there was only enough food in the building for small children.  The principal shooed away the older kids to scavenge, and X-son was sad and dismayed, because he was so hungry and wished he'd been allowed to stay and eat.  That day at lunch, the earthquake killed everyone left in his school.  X-son fled into the hills and has since survived typhoid, beatings, and much more hunger.  Fasting seems like a personal torture, and yet I also worry that it is somehow demeaning, like I'm playing at a game that is all too real for far too many people.

But anyway -- or maybe, "so, therefore" -- I continued.  I decided not to go for a full 48 hours, mostly because I had a mind-numbing, soul-sucking committee call scheduled for noon on Monday, and I figured having a brain would be more important than proving I was a 48-hour brand of toughness.  I went to sleep Sunday night with weird dreams of nestled spoons and nesting children running through my brain.  I woke Monday morning and did my usual morning run with my friend June.  I decided I didn't have enough brain left for a blog post, but I did email and even do a little math.  And then at 9 a.m., I ate breakfast.

The rest of the day Monday, not surprisingly, I ate more and caught up on work and I also slept a lot.

And then Tuesday I divorced my husband because he left me with the dishes.

Okay, actually, I didn't really divorce him, but I wanted to.  In fact, here's the email that I wrote him that afternoon:

[Something about taking N-son to speech therapy] 
Also, I washed the rice pot, and J-son's brownie pan, and filled up the dishwasher, and cleaned the mess off the stove. 
My head is really not in a good space today, so I'm not going to say any more.

Which, if you read between the lines (and my husband did read between the lines) said, "She's furious!".   Now that I look back at this, I think it's pretty amazing that he can understand me so well, which is part of saying that we truly do have an awesome marriage.  And of course, while waking up to a pile of dirty dishes is no fun, I was totally out of my skull to react so severely that I was thinking that the kitchen was a reason that I ought to leave home.  At least I had the brains to shut up and not go publicly berserk, and give myself time to get my head all better again.

And by Wednesday and Thursday, I was back to normal, but also watching my head carefully just to see if other crazy stuff had lodged there during my 36-hour vacation from food.  I think I'm okay again now.

So I learned something about hunger and food and limits of endurance, too.   Good.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Sticky Note Advent Calendars

A couple of years ago, I started making a December advent calendar that mixed fun stuff with chore stuff, interspersing the scheduled events ("Winter concert") with the pre-Christmas tasks ("put up Christmas lights").  I listed one event per day.  I covered each day with a little sticky note; my kids get to take turns peeling the stickies off each day.  This has turned out to be a great way to pace myself, and also to include the entire family in Christmas preparations . . . that, and to have a bunch of fun together.  (After all, who wouldn't want to enjoy an evening of rousing family banjo/percussion music like "She'll be coming round the Christmas Tree when she comes"?  You know you want to join in, too!)

These sticky-note calendars have now become a tradition of sorts.  This year, I've made extra copies for my  daughters, who live nearby but not in my home;  now even though we're spread apart, my kids all know what their mom is up to during this month.  And already, the gals have started peeking under the sticky notes to see:  which day are we making Springerli?  [December 16.]  Are we scheduled to go see K-daughter sing in Amahl and the Night Visitors?  [yes, December 19]

This year, thanks to a cute idea I got off Pinterest, I added a new twist to these calendars:  printing on top of the sticky notes themselves.

Here's how I  did this.  First, I printed the calendar, and I cut the sticky notes to size and placed them over individual days.  In this picture, you can see almost all the days covered.

Then I make sure the sticky notes are smoothed down, and send this sheet (sticky notes and all) through the printer again.  This time, I print the calendar with the days (1, 2, 3, . . . ) but without the activities; I also added a picture of trees (because I love trees, naturally).

Oh, yeah.  Better Homes and Gardens is going to come knocking at my door any day now, for sure.  But even though it's simple and cheap:  don't you think it's cute?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanks-running day

Last Friday, I wrote to my running group:
As a warm up for all those turkey and butter-filled gatherings that are soon coming our way, I hereby declare that this Saturday to be our own special
Thanks-Running Day!

Because I'm grateful for my health, and for my friends (that's YOU), and for my awesome pink running shoes, and for crisp-but-sunny autumn days . . . and for so much more!

The celebration begins at 7:00 a.m. at the [usual place].  See you there?

This amazing group of Running Friends just constantly fills me with gratitude, for so many reasons.  It's not just about getting exercise; there's so much more.  So much more, in fact that I've just given in to the urge to say to my BRFs (best running friends):

How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.

  1. Running keeps us humble.  We've all had the days when we're the worst runner in the group, and we make other people walk with us.
  2. Running makes us proud.  Dang, we've done some truly astounding long runs together through blizzards and ice.  We're so tough.
  3. We inspire each other.  We've all done those mid-week "I'd better get back in shape" runs, just so we can keep up on Saturday morning.
  4. We accept each other as we are.  Because if we don't actually keep up, the rest of us slow down and don't resent it at all.
  5. When someone shoots out an email asking "who's up for an easy 3-mile run?", there are always takers.
  6. When someone shoots out an email asking, "who wants to help me do part of my 12-mile training run?" there are still takers.
  7. A 12.5-mile, Tell-the-Story-of-Your-Life run makes an awesome birthday present.  Thanks, B, for sharing a story per year for every half-mile of that run!  
  8. We share the sunrise.  Which, this time of year, let me tell you, is gorgeous.
  9. We share the early-morning full moon.  Which this time of the month, let me tell you, is breathtaking.
  10. Running introduces us to our city.  We know people and places we never would have known, and we know them up-close.
  11. Running makes distances shorter.  There are all sorts of places we now walk to, because we're more comfortable doing things on foot.
  12. Running gets us out of bed and starts our day off on the right "foot", so to speak.
  13. Horrible hills are their own reward.  Duke Street and County Park, I'm talking to you!
  14. Downhill runs are an even better reward!  Zzzzzzoooom!
  15. We've got our own language. (Everyone in our little group knows where "The Goat Run" goes, even though the goats are long gone).
  16. We've consecrated the cement with our own blood.  That little sidewalk just at the top of Chesapeake Street is a tribute to TL's toughness.
  17. Running gives us appetites.  It's so much fun to come home and just . . . eat.  Yummy food
  18. Running keeps us healthy.  And strong.  And good-looking.  Hurrah for being in shape.
  19. Hot showers after cold runs . . . total pleasure.
  20. We keep track of each other's lives.  It's good to know what's going on behind the scenes.
  21. We are sounding boards for each other. How to raise kids.  How to can applesauce.  How to deal with that annoying person at work.  Y'know.
  22. Cheaper than therapy when we're angry or frustrated or just plain down.  There's nothing like a run that has all the "passion put to use in my old griefs", as E Browning wrote.
  23. Mood enhancer because we always feel amazing at the end of a tough run
  24. We know each other's quirks.  For example, L. and her husband can't run at the same time, because they have one pair of running shoes, which they share.  How cool is that!?!
  25. TL cuts my hair.  
  26. Leah hosts amazing canning parties.
  27. Kim gives blood with me.
  28. Kathryn trades adoption stories with me.
  29. June loans me . . . well, everything.
  30. Margaret fills everyone around her with encouragement.
  31. Becca talks math with me.
  32. Because when someone tells your running friend, "well, I'm glad you got that marathon out of your system and that's all behind you now," you just know that means your group is going to have to start training together for a marathon right away.  Because it's not out of our system.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
[Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1806 - 1861]

    Tuesday, November 24, 2015

    It's that time again: Pickle Juice for Dinner!

    I love my giant Thanksgiving list. I pull it out about this time every year, and I spend four or five days living by its wise guidelines. The first page is the massive shopping list; the next four pages are a day-by-day (at points, even minute-by-minute) guide to getting ready for Thanksgiving. I update it slightly year-by-year, but the bulk of it has been the same since I put it together six years ago.

    The guide begins with a Monday cleansing:
    Make space in fridge by emptying out gross moldy things.
    Tuesday, the real preparation begins:
    Grocery shop.
    Make cranberry relish:
    grind together in the blender 4 cups cranberries, 1 orange, and then 2 cups sugar. place in refrigerator.
    Make dressing:
    mix 1/4 c walnut oil, 1/2 c vegetable oil, 3 tbs cider vinegar, 1 tsp mustard, 1 Tbsp honey, salt, pepper, and 2 tbs chives.
    The list ends Friday with directions for making shepherd's pie and canning turkey stock from the leftovers (20 minutes for pints, 25 minutes for quarts).

    Right now, we're at the clean out the fridge stage.  My fridge has accumulated a lot of jars. 

    And this year, a heck of a lot of those jars come from pickles.  We like pickles so much, we save the brine to make more pickles.

    We have the brine from store-bought pickled cucumbers (actually, not bought by us: we scavenged them from a school picnic); we also have jars with whatever is left of pickled okra, pickled carrots, pickled radishes, pickled kale stems . . . you name it.

    But since it's November, we're low on veggies and rich in brine right now.  (I think I counted six jars of brine, with a few briny but lonely vegetables floating here and there).  So last night, we  had pickles for dinner.  Pickles, and Cream-of-Leftover Soup.  Yum.  And a few other leftovers as side dishes.

    But, in the "mission accomplished" realm, the fridge stands ready for the next infusion of food.

    And, to my intense delight, the fridge clean-out resulted in zero trash:  the waste involved was one recycled pickle jar, a few hand-washed plastic bags (not yet trash, as I can use them again a few times), and a heck of a lot of canning jars getting ready for the dishwasher.  (Miser Dog, by the way, was very happy to help dispose of the food of questionable longevity, so there wasn't even anything to compost).

    We are so fortunate to have this much food just sitting here waiting for us to eat it.  It's strange to make this fridge clean-out almost into a game.  I can't help but think that.

    And I also think:  canning jars, yay!  Because later today, they'll hold homemade salad dressing and cranberry relish, and it's about time, because Thanksgiving is coming soon.  

    Saturday, November 21, 2015

    Time In, instead of Time Out

    One of my sons has been really grumpy lately.  

    Actually, that son has had grumpiness issues all his life, probably related to a stroke in utero and ADHD and a couple of other things.  He usually balances the grumpiness out with cuddliness (think about a grumpy teddy bear?), but the older he gets, the less the cuddliness side of the equation works.

    There's been a bit of inadvertent destruction that has accompanied the grumpiness lately.  It's not violent; it's things like picking at electronics, until the electronics are in a pile of unattached wires.  Or trying to do chin-ups on his brother's clothes closet rod, after which the rod bends and breaks.

    What I really want to do is send the kid to his room.  I want to quarantine him for just long enough that this mood passes -- say, for 3 or 4 years, when he's about to turn 20.  That, and I want to nag him into submission:  "STOP being so GRUMPY, you!!!!!  You're driving everyone CRAZY!!"

    Somehow, nagging and criticizing him doesn't help with the mood thing, though.  And banishment leads to angry boredom, which leads to more inadvertent destruction.

    So instead of doing "time outs", we do "time ins".   This is so much harder:  these Time Ins are just terrible, terrible punishments . . . for the parent.  Mustering my self control and cheerfulness around someone acting like a hedgehog is just incredibly energy consuming.  I have to muffle all those "Stop it right now!" impulses, and instead model that calm, focused presence.  "Please come back in this room and then practice leaving it without stomping."  

    Last weekend the Time In included practice at the many stages of restitution.  The closet rod had been broken, and my son is old enough now to take responsibility for choosing a new rod, paying for a new rod, and installing a new rod. 

    And like going for a long run, the hardest part was getting started.  Once we were out the door, the whole experience turned into an adventure, a bout of camaraderie.  We biked to the hardware store, and I realized I'd never shown my son the secret back-way route that avoids all the automobile traffic.  He was delighted.  We got to the hardware store, and I realized I'd never shown my son that I walk my bike through the store with me.  ("If people can bring in shopping carts," I told him, "then we can bring in bicycles.")  He was delighted again.  I had my son ask a clerk for help finding the right kind of rod and attachments, and the clerk was very friendly and helpful, which surprised my son.  Clearly, I've missed out on many teachable moments.

    We got home, and my son got to have yet another lesson in proper use of a drill and a screwdriver.  He's getting better and better as he gets older. 

    And then we got the financial lessons:  how to read a receipt, how to calculate sales tax, how to be grateful that you saved money up for a rainy day (or a destructive day), so that this round of expenses doesn't plunge you into debt.

    And since then, he's seemed much calmer. Maybe that's just what he needed:  a bit of attention.  Supervised practice at doing things well.  A sense of accomplishment; something he created (instead of destructed).   A glimpse into the adult world of commuting and commerce. The satisfaction of knowing he's made restitution.

    As for me, I'm happy, if just a little worn down.

    I think I've earned myself a Time Out.

    Thursday, November 19, 2015

    The Plastic Bag Princess

    I think I'm become one of "those people".

    You know how, when you go to someone else's house they say something like, "I should warn you:  Don't pay any attention to the mess in my living room"?   Or when you get in someone's car, they apologize for all the stuff they left on the front passenger seat?   Well, when I go to a friend's house, she'll say, "Just don't look at all these plastic bags!"

    Really, I try not to judge other people.  Left to my own devices, I am a No-Trash-wanna-be, but in public I try just as hard to follow the Don't-Drive-Them-Crazy rule, especially with people I love. If you have plastic bags in your house, well, it's your house.

    That's why I started to feel an existential angst earlier this week when I came home and saw a plastic bag tied to the handle of my front door.  I want so hard to keep those things away from my own home, but this was a plastic bag gifted to me by the Boy Scouts.  And it was for a food drive.  How do I complain about something like that?  And yet: Plastic Trash tied to MY door knob.  Blecccch.

    After a few days of letting the existential angst work its angsty way through my system, I decided I did actually want to kvetch, as nicely as I could.  I hunted around on the web, found the "Director of Programs", and wrote him as nice a nasty-gram as I could. My husband shook his head at me:  "You really are becoming one of THOSE people.  The Program Director is just going to hate you, you know."

    And yet.  And yet, a mere 15 minutes later, I got back the following letter:
    Thank you for your email.  I very much agree about the bags and am going to advocate for a change next year for a number of reasons including those you gave.  I have brought up the prospect of a change in the past and our volunteers who actually run the drive have shot me down.  I will push harder. Again, thank you.
    So.  Huh.  That wasn't really as awful and confrontational as I figured it would be.  In fact, we have since exchanged a few more "way to go" emails on the ecological front. 

    For what it's worth, I've pasted in the letter I originally wrote below; I modeled it on Bea Johnson's advice to (a) start with warmth and praise, (b) address the specific problem and why it's a problem, (c) offer a viable solution, and (d) return to (a).  

    I should warn you it's not the most articulate letter I've ever written.  (I guess I should urge you to just overlook my mess).

    Dear Mr Manner,
    I just left this comment on the Food Drive blog, but I wanted to make sure someone in a position of authority gets to see it.  Since you're the Program Director, I hope you are the right person to share this with!
    I am not a boy scout (but for many years I was a Girl Scout). I want to thank you very much for the food drive. It’s a wonderful way to help those in need — for example, in my own city, one in four children are food insecure. I know the local food bank really appreciates the extra help you give them! I also think this drive is a wonderful way to teach the scouts about the importance of helping others.
    I do have a recommendation to suggest. The plastic bags that you use to request and collect the food detract from the good that you do. When I go out for walks, I see them littering the side of the road where they’ve blown away. Plastic bags are a known source of pollution and environmental hazard (because they’re so light they can be blown far away, and end up endangering sea life, even). For this reason, many locations have banned them from stores.
    If your group could switch from plastic bags to paper tags — which people could affix to their own plastic bags, or even tape directly onto boxes of food — this would create a much more ecologically friendly food pickup. (I think that a paper tag would also be much easier to read than the bags, which I have to say, have fairly smudged print.)
    Again, thank you for this wonderful service to our community.

    Tuesday, November 17, 2015

    What's in a purse? (Construction version)

    In my last post, I explained that when I made myself a new bag/purse/thing, I decided the main goal was that it would be a helpful transition tool, allowing me to zip effortlessly (hah) from home to office to class to airport. 

    It's easiest to describe what I was going for if I explain what I wanted to fix about my old bag that I'd made in 2013.  In many ways, it was a fabulous bag, with lots of dedicated pockets for things I need, and therefore easy to find things in.  I also liked that I could just do a quick pat down -- literally just patting my bag in a few places to make sure I had wallet, phone, keys, planner, and water bottle -- so I didn't have to root around to make sure I was ready to go, once I had my bag in hand.  Here's a quick tour:

     So, what was wrong with this bag?
    • The carrying handles.  I tried to make a "bike" bag, with the shoulder strap coming out of the top and then down around one side, but I very seldom used this on the bike, and so the handle was just sort of . . . awkward.
    • Too-small phone pocket.  I made a dedicated pocket for a flip phone that I owned, but that baby broke and I got a smart phone, which unfortunately didn't fit in the phone pocket anymore.  Dang.
    • Speaking of size, the glasses pocket was large enough to hold my reading glasses, but not large enough to hold my sun glasses.  And my reading glasses would occasionally just fall out.  Which leads to . . 
    • Non-zippered pockets let things fall out.  The pencil holder seemed like a good idea at the time, as did the glasses pocket, but when these are made of upholstery fabric instead of mystery modern materials (like in my older store-bought bag), then ordinary things just slide out.  I lost a lot of pencils and pens, and I also lost a few pairs of reading glasses, before I just gave up and stopped using those pockets.
    • Too-many similar-looking pockets.  Once I started storing my glasses and cell phone in with the things in the existing pockets, it was harder to remember where thing were.  I knew where I kept my often-used things (like keys and cell phone and wallet), but I wasn't sure about my pencil sharpener, bandaids, and other seldom-used items.
    • I grew holes in the bottom of the bag. Okay, I didn't design those in on purpose, but my college gave me a Mac Airbook that is so thin that it doubles as a pizza cutter.  And the corners of this nifty little computer dug little holes into the bottom of my old bag, which I patched and re-patched.  The new bag has a reinforced base in hopes that I won't wound people by allowing my Airbook  to slice through the bottom of my bag and escape in a mad dash to freedom.
    In designing a new bag, I cared naturally about price:  because I am, after all, Miser Mom.  I spent about a year scouting out yard sales in the hopes of finding a stash of upholstery (= sturdy) fabric in a color scheme I liked, at a Miser-Mom price.  I lucked out in August and found a yard or two of scraps at my neighbors' house, across the street, for $1.  Meanwhile, I'd been saving zippers and nylon straps out of freebie conference bags and old backpacks.   So I finally had enough raw material for a new bag, and I only had to spend a dollar.

    Beyond the cost-to-me frugality aspects of this, I have to say that I also like that this bag is made of scrap material and scavenged accessories, so that making a bag this way is kinder to our landfills and the earth's natural resources, too.  

    But really, the main reason I make my own bag is so that it can do exactly what I want. I can't find a bag like this in the store, so the only way to get a bag like this is to make it myself or hire someone else to make it.  And here's what I designed into this bag:

    From the outside:  
    • Handles, small and large.  This photo shows a small "grab" handle, useful for hanging the bag or picking it up quickly.  You can't quite see -- but it's uber important to me -- that there's a shoulder strap on this, too.  I see a lot of women walking through airports with their hands clutching/carrying their purse, because their purse doesn't have a shoulder strap.  I want to be able to have my hands free when I'm carrying this bag!   [And, as a side note, the strap is long enough that I can actually throw it over my head and one arm, and use it on the bike.  So I really didn't need to do funky straps on the old bag.]
    • Zipper pocket for papers.  The zipper on the front is in a flat flap that covers the rest of the bag.  I pretty much only use this pocket in the airport, when I've got to keep my ID and boarding passes easily accessible.  I also use it to collect receipts while I'm on a trip.  Having this pocket front-and-center is useful when I've got a suitcase and this bag and important papers to juggle.
    • Pocket for my insulated bottle, same as in the last bag.  I love this.

    When you pull the flap up and over, you can see a couple of my "pat-down" pockets and hooks.  These are different shapes (so it's easy to remember what goes where), and they're generally larger than in the old-bag-version. 

    Here's my own personal set of pat-down items, as shown in the pictures above:
    • On the left is a tall zippered pocket for glasses and/or pencils.  
    • On the right, there's a pocket with an elastic top for my cell phone (the black circle is actually black mesh, so I can see a bit of the screen if the phone is lit up).  
    • Beneath the phone pocket is my money pocket.  
    • And hanging from a nylon strap is a key hook.  
    All I have to do is pat-pat-pat and I know I have these important things with me.  As for those seldom-used, but still important things, I've moved them to mesh pockets inside the bag. When I zip down my "special supplies" front panel, there are two large zippered, but see-through (!) pockets.   Unfortunately, I couldn't find a cheap/used source of black mesh, so I had to make do with scrounged white mesh.  Not as aesthetic, but at least the white makes things easier to see.

    One pocket contains work/electronic stuff: phone charger cord, the dongle that connects my computer to a projector for when I give talks, a thumb drive.

    The other pocket contains "first aid" stuff:  chapstick, swiss-army card (with scissors and tweezers but sans knife because of airport security), a cloth napkin and metal spoon because I try to avoid creating trash when I eat on the road.  

    Behind the front pocket, there's a larger pocket that holds the stuff I'm working on/with:  my computer-pizza-slicer of course, and also papers and my planner. That's the pocket that I'm constantly packing and emptying as I leave one place and arrive at the next, so it's nice to keep this stuff separate from the pat-down and seldom-used items that have more permanent residency in my bag.  I like that these go in my bag vertically ("portrait" mode instead of "landscape" mode, if you will).

    So far, the bag seems to be working really well for me, where "working well" means getting me out the door quickly and confidently when I need to go from one place to the next.  It's nice having all my seldom-used stuff tucked away securely in the middle of the bag, not interfering with the things I put in and pull out constantly.   The bag is young, so the zippers all work smoothly still, and there are no pizza-cutter holes in the bottom of the bag.  We'll see if we can get this bag to last me six more years until my next sabbatical!