Friday, October 30, 2015

It's time for Leaf Tarps

Last weekend, N-son and I did our first raking of the season, and so I got to break out our lawn tarps again.  

When I was growing up and raking leaves with my dad and sisters, we always raked leaves this way:
  1. rake the leaves from all over the yard into one or two giant piles in the middle of that section of our yard,
  2. stuff as many leaves as we could into a giant plastic or metal trash can (one sister was in charge of jumping up and down in the trash can to help pack as many leaves in as possible),
  3. haul that heavy trash can around to the back of the house where the compost pile was,
  4. dump out the trash can, banging it a bunch to get all the leaves we'd compacted into the bottom out of the can;
  5. repeat steps 2, 3, and 4 until that section of the lawn was clean.
It wasn't horrid work, but it wasn't easy, either.  

And so now I don't know why the heck we never used tarps back then.  (An old shower curtain, or an old sheet, also works great for this).  A tarp is so much easier to use at every step of this process.  
  1. Put the tarp right next to the leaves you want to rake, so you don't have to keep re-raking those leaves across the yard to a pile; the pile is right there where you're raking.  Move the tarp along with you as you go. You never have to move the leaves more than 2 or 3 feet with the rake.
  2. Raking leaves onto a tarp that is on the ground is a lot easier than picking the leaves up and trying to stuff them all in a can.  And no need to try to pack them down, either.  (Sorry, jumping sister!)
  3. Folding up the corners of the tarp creates a "bag" that you can carry over your shoulder or even drag along the ground to wherever you want to take them.  Not as heavy or unwieldy as a trash can!
  4. Dumping out the leaves is as easy as letting go of one set of corners and shaking out the tarp.  
  5. You might have to make more trips than with a trash can, especially if your tarp is small, but the rest of the process is so much easier; so who cares?

Raking leaves is still a bunch of exercise and effort, but because I remember the hard work we all did as kids without these, I was just all smiles when we got out the tarp this past weekend. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Washing Machine Opera: Act III

So.   The washing machine doesn't work as well as it used to, now that it looks like this.

Welcome back to Act II the Washing Machine Opera -- a tragic opera, I might add -- in three acts.
  • Act I:  the Agony of deciding to get a new machine,  
  • Act II: Miser Mom goes to Mall, 
and . . . 
  • Act III: Farewell to the Former Machine.
We'd decided to replace the old washing machine.  We'd purchased a new one (with no warranty, but with "free delivery").  Now we just had to wait for the new machine to come and the old one to leave.

The guys who brought our new machine had obviously had a lot of experience.  They measured the doorway to our basement and clucked their heads:  "not gonna fit".  We pointed out that there was already a washing machine in the basement that did  fit, so they reluctantly tried anyway.  Nope, the machine stuck in the doorway.

They started heading back out to the truck, but I pleaded with them:  Let me take off the door frame.  "No, we don't have the time to wait. We'll come back another day."  Please, I asked.  Give me five minutes.  If I don't have the door frame off in five minutes, you can go.  They agreed to wait, with Guy1 looking impatiently at his watch.

Hooray for flat-head screwdrivers and hammers!  Three minutes later, Guy1 and Guy2 were easing the washing machine through the barely-big-enough doorway and down the narrow stairs to the basement.

A few minutes later, we saw Guy1 heading back up the stairs with his empty hand-truck.  My husband asked me, "Weren't they supposed to take the old machine away?"  I don't know what they're doing, I told him.  I'll go downstairs and find out.

I went downstairs to schmooze up Guy2.  He was from the Dominican Republic, I found out.  (I'm so glad I speak Spanish).  We talked about places I'd visited in Mexico, places in Puerto Rico he'd been to and that I'd nearly been to.  While he hooked up the new machine, I asked him about the old one standing right next to him.  "Oh, we're not supposed to take that.  We have 13 minutes to make a delivery, 30 minutes if we're also taking away the old one.  Our manifest says we have 13 minutes at your house."

Oh.  I was all-of-a-sudden even more grateful for the 5 minutes they'd granted me on my door frame removal.

We waved good-bye to Guy2, and my husband got on the phone with the department store:  What about the free delivery you promised us when we got the department store credit card?   It turns out, that doesn't come with free pick-up.  Pick-up costs . . . well, it costs as much delivery + pick-up. So if we wanted them to take our old machine away, we'd essentially be paying the delivery fee anyway.  (What a bait and switch!  Man, but I truly hate the Mall.)

But, as Joseph noted to his brothers when they visited him in Egypt:  "You might have meant this for evil, but God intended it for good".  (I don't meant to imply that hidden pick-up charges are as evil as selling your brother into slavery, of course, even if while we were in the thick of things it felt just as vile).

So I turned my back on the department store.  I got busy with wrenches and screwdrivers.  The inside of a washing machine is an interesting new world:  the drum is held on, not with nuts and bolts, but with giant springs!  (Makes sense, now that I think about it).  The machine is so danged heavy because the drum is balanced with giant concrete blocks that keep everything from bungee jumping all over the basement.  Wonder and mystery.

Once I'd disassembled the machine -- a therapeutic process for me, not unlike taking apart the elephant-mother-chair -- we hauled the pieces upstairs one by one, and placed them in the driveway.  We called Paul D., now unfortunately a widower, who recycles scrap metal to bring in some extra money.   Giving him our scrap metal -- turning our steel into his gold -- wasn't exactly the Amazingly Good Act of saving the Egyptians and the Israelites from seven years of famine, but it still felt like a redemptive way to bring this opera to an end.  

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Washing Machine Opera: Act II

So.   The washing machine doesn't work as well as it used to, now that it looks like this.

Welcome back to Act II of the Washing Machine Opera -- a tragic opera, I might add -- in three acts.
Act II:  Miser Mom goes to the Mall

This is the act in which I seem to spend my time railing against professional people.  

For example, our repair guy (RG) told my husband he recommended we get a new washing machine.  He also told my husband, "Don't get brands S or L; I spend all my time repairing those."  

Now, I really like RG, but I also know the dangers of seeing the world from particular angles.  He probably spends most of his time repairing white-colored machines, but that's not because white-colored machines are more likely to break -- it's because that's the color people buy most often.  It was entirely possible that RG was swayed by what statisticians call "selection bias".  So when my husband declared that we wouldn't buy brands S or L, I suggested we might do some actual research that was based on data, rather than anecdote.

Sure enough, multiple sources (Consumer Reports, Good HouseKeeping) convinced my husband that the best brands for energy use and reliability were in fact S and L.  So we figured out what machine we wanted, and we headed off to a large department store in the Mall.

I have not been in the mall for several years, except that last year I ran through the mall (as in, "going for a run") on the way to a car repair place.  So of course, the experience is a little overwhelming for me.  I have a friend who also, like me, avoids the mall, and he talks about going back in like "coming out of a sensory deprivation chamber"-- and he doesn't mean that in a good way.  

Once we got into the large-appliance section of the department store, we got to meet Jonah, our sales associate.  He was the guy I got to rail against.  Things started off well: he offered to show us machines, we said we knew exactly what we wanted and pointed to the particular machine we were interested in, and he agreed it was the most popular model he sold.  "It's a great machine!" he said cheerily.

He also effused over the matching dryer, and took our "no, we don't want that" with good grace.  But then came the pitch for an extended warranty.

Here's the thing about warranties:  that's how appliance stores make most of their money.  They advertise the machines for relatively low prices, and they supplement their income by selling warranties that can cost, in the long run, as much as or more than the machines themselves.   Extended Warranties are to washing machines what the popcorn and soda are to movies (economically speaking, at least).  I don't buy warranties, and I can understand why stores sell them.  What I really hate about them is the pressure, the hiding of the truth, and the deceptive premises that go with all the selling of them.

Once we'd agreed on the machine, Jonah turned into a Warranty Warrior.  He started with a simple sell:  would you like one?  (No thank you, we said).  He then brought out charts.  The same machine he had declared "Great!" just a moment earlier had a host of dreadful diseases that could beset it, and they were all listed, together with repair cost.  $234 for a new pump!  $137 for an electronic gizmo! Another $200 for a sensor! It was clear that this most excellent machine could easily cost us several thousand dollars in repair costs if we weren't careful.

No thank you.

Jonah tried again.  This is his job, I know, and it's his commission, but I still hate it.  I should probably have just said No thank you and left it at that, but I actually tried to reason with him.  During the years we've owned our current machine, I pointed out, we've spent less than $300 on repairs -- that's $30 per year.  (And that's even with my husband paying for repairs that we later learned to do ourselves for free). A warranty costs a bunch more than that.  Jonah countered by pointing out that companies aren't making machines as reliably as they used to; we're  going to be looking at rising repair prices.  Better be on the safe side!

Man, I really hate how combative this is.  I hate that I can't trust a single word out of a sales person's mouth. Because remember: this department store is not offering the warranty because they want to save me money; they are not looking to make a loss on this sale just so they can do me a favor; they want to make money off of me.

A bit more unpleasantness aside, and we bought the warranty-less machine.  We agreed to get a department store credit card because it meant we'd get "free delivery" of the machine.  But "free delivery" is the subject of Act III.  Time to leave the Mall and go home.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Washing Machine Opera: Act I

So.  The washing machine doesn't work as well as it used to, now that it looks like this.

That photograph above ought to be the fateful poster advertising the Washing Machine Opera -- a tragic opera, I might add -- in three acts.
  • Act I:  the Agony of deciding to get a new machine,  
  • Act II: Miser Mom goes to Mall, 
  • Act III: Farewell to the Former Machine.

Act I:  The Agony

A week or so ago, my husband let me know the washing machine was acting up again.  We've had this problem with the filter getting clogged with things like coins, newspaper bags (?!), and the like. Thanks to the miracle of internet You-tube videos, we've learned to clear out the filter ourselves (not hard to do, actually), but apparently the damage these clogs have done to the pump caused it to fail, too, and we couldn't replace that ourselves.

Now, me, I'm a huge proponent of trying to fix things.  I'll fix things myself if I can; I'll pay other people to fix things if I can't.   My husband, on the other hand, not so much.

For example, just a few days earlier in the week, we'd had a conversation about a vacuum cleaner:  it didn't work! my husband told me.  We need to buy a new one!   So I went and looked at it, and the problem was that someone had pulled a rubber gasket out of place, so in a series of ankle bone connected to the  . . .  wrist bone moves, the hose didn't fit properly into the canister, and so the power didn't connect.  I put the rubber gasket back in the right place, and all is now fine.

And just so you get a fuller picture of the characters involved in the Washing Machine agony, here's the conclusion to the Vacuum Cleaner Episode.  My husband still wondered whether we ought to go buy a new vacuum cleaner anyway, because this one is getting old and it might break again.  And I talked him back from that particular ledge, noting that the fact that he doesn't know how to use a screwdriver doesn't mean the vacuum cleaner is busted.  Seriously, it works fine!

But the Washing Machine is an appliance that falls within my husband's realm.  My husband is the the Lord of the Laundry around here; he does laundry daily, just for fun, and he doesn't let me near it. There are obviously very nice things about having someone else do laundry for me, so I'm not complaining about this.  But it means that I can't just swoop in and do my Miser-stuff when things get hinky down there in the laundry room.

We called in our favorite repair guy (whom I'll call RG) -- the one who convinced my husband that he could probably clean out the filter himself, which he could.   RG popped the figurative hood on the machine and agreed that we need a new pump.  But then RG said that the thing the pump connected to might go soon, and replacing that "would cost as much as a new machine".

So, what to do?  On the one side of the stage, you've got Miser Mom, singing the aria of "don't create trash!  don't ditch the whole machine just because a few pieces of it need work!"  I mean, we have not only our wallets, but also the Earth that we live on to consider.  We can afford some repairs.

And on the other side of the stage, there's the Lord of the Laundry, belting out the mournful woes of "but the control panel might fail also; but the machine is so old" (we bought it in 2006).  "We need a new machine because the current one might break again!"

There is no one "right" answer, I know.  It's the same with an old car needing yet another repair: when is the right time to give up and get a new one?  When does convenience -- or at least lack of inconvenience -- rise to the level that it trumps the cost to our wallets and to our planet?

And so, in this particular instance, the Don't Drive Them Crazy directive came into play.  It's my husband's washing machine, and he needs to use it every day to be happy, and so we agreed to go get him a new one.    It's one possible right answer.


Stay tuned for Act II: Miser Mom goes to the Mall.

Monday, October 26, 2015

A little Monday "yay": pegs for cutting boards

Here's a little something that makes me happy:  a pair of pegs on my kitchen cabinets.  (Actually, a pair of screws that are acting as pegs until I can find some wooden pegs I like).

The reason I wanted pegs is that we do a lot of chopping and cutting in our kitchen, thanks to food that is homemade (like bread) or unprocessed (like this beautiful bounty of fall vegetables we got recently).

Our cutting boards get a lot of use -- probably once or twice a day on normal days, and even more use on Extreme Cooking Days, I'd say.  And with all the cutting and chopping, we also seem to be doing a fair amount of waiting for washed cutting boards to dry before putting them in cabinets.  And sometimes not waiting, so boards get put away still wet, and so a tad bit of discoloration had affected one of the boards (it got a little ewww-y).

At any rate, I'm a true believer in visible, accessible hooks for things that get a lot of use.  So, a handy-dandy drill, a pair of screws, a new hole in one of the cutting boards, and now I have this.

(Plus, I re-sanded and oiled the ewww-y board, so now it's good-looking again).

And now our cutting boards can hang around, just waiting for action, and easy-as-can-be to put away again once things have been chopped and sliced.  As I said, it's a little thing, but it seems to make such a happy difference.  yay.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Frugalizing my road trip

I'm writing this post from a hotel room, chilling out after a talk I gave at a regional math conference in a region that happens to be far from my home.  And even though the folks who invited me are paying my travel expenses, I'm doing my best to keep my trip as minimal (in a monetary sense) as possible.

Here are two of of my minimal efforts:  rental car and grocery store.

Rental Car.
So, it turns out that reducing our family fleet down to one car (plus nine bikes) saves me and my husband a bunch of money, even though it means occasionally we rent a second car for long trips.  

But does renting an extra car mean I'm foisting an expense off onto my mathematical hosts?  Doesn't renting always turn out to be more costly in the long run than owning?   Actually, to my surprise . . . no.  I've been amazed at how cheap it is to rent a car for a long trip.  In my case, I'm over this weekend, I'm driving something like 1300 miles roundtrip (crazy, but I kind of like really long drives).  If my hosts were reimbursing me for the IRS mileage rate on my own car, they'd be forking over nearly $750.  If I'd flown, between airfare, parking, and shuttle costs, it wouldn't have been much less than that.  But renting a car, even including gas, is going to come to less than $300 -- a more-than-50% transportations savings for the folks who invited me.   That sort of floored me.

And as a side benefit, driving in a modern car is amazingly fun.  I still remember how much I loved the quiet ride of our Prius when I first bought it used . . . in 2002.  (It's an original 2001 Prius).  I still think of it in my head as an amazingly quiet and smooth car.  But my Prius, no matter how I picture it my head, is now an old car.  Folks, it has a cassette deck.  

So when I get in my rental car . . . wow, I realize the age of my own.  Not that I'm complaining about my car, mind you -- it's just way fun to temporarily be able to drive a very quiet car.  It's fun to play with the key (which folds, swiss-army-knife-like, into its electronic fob.  How cool is that!?!).  It's a little piece of heaven to be in a car that is the kind of clean that my teen-age-boy-toting, hungry-husband-hauling personal car has not seen in a decade.  I don't need this extravagance all of the time, but as a once-in-a-while luxury, I can take it.

Not to mention, mid-October is a fabulous time of year to drive through Western Pennsylvania.  No photo I took can do justice to the beauty of the fall foliage I drove through.  Ooooh.

Grocery Store
. . . And then, I arrived at the hotel my hosts had arranged for me.  Clean and quiet, but in the midst of a three-mile stretch of parking lots containing the best-known chain stores of Generic Retail Americana.  

By the time I arrived, I wanted real food (I'd packed a gallon of trail mix for eating in the car, but now that I was out I wanted something more . . . um . . . food-y).  And I had my choice between packed parking lot after packed parking lot of chain restaurants:  Onion Garden, Fried Lobster, SubMart.  All crammed with the cars of other diners (at least, so it appeared from the outside).  So I bought my dinner at a grocery store instead.  

And because I bring a plate, spoon, and napkin with me wherever I travel, I had a lovely sandwich in my quiet hotel room:  sourdough bread, hummus, and pickles.  All of the ingredients for $6.47, with lots leftover for dinner the next night.  And it's just possible there was a bottle or two of beer, bought separately, that my hosts won't have to spring for themselves.

Bonus: scrounging again
At the conclusion of the conference, there were piles and piles of donuts left over, plus cases and cases of bottled water and fruit drinks.  I urged the organizers to urge all the undergrad students to take home donuts, but the undergrads were stuffed.  So with the many blessings of my hosts, I boxed up the donuts to take home to my sons.  I left the bottled drinks with my hosts (those won't go stale, so their math club will get a bunch of use from them in coming weeks and months).

What surprised me (and what sort of always surprises me) is how grateful the people who bought all this food are when someone suggests that they give it away.  It's such an obvious thing (to me), but other people often seem to feel grateful to have "permission" to say, "please take this home with you".   Go figure.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

How d'ya like THEM tomatoes?

Here's what I wish I'd known long ago:  Green Tomatoes.

Raised as I was on supermarket food, the only tomatoes I saw when I was growing up were the red kind -- y'know, the kind that grows in styrofoam trays.  As a teen (or young adult?), I'd read Fannie Flagg's novel Fried Green Tomatoes, but I read it at the same time I read Like Water for Chocolate, and the juxtaposition of those novels just made green tomatoes all the more exotic -- like mangoes, or plantains, or tahini sauce.  Food from a distant country (or at least, from the deep south), prepared only by people with the special knowledge of special cuisine.  Purchased in stores that smell like curry or tabasco.

And then, as I started moving the dirt around in my backyard over the weekend, I stared balefully at the hibernating tomatoes on my many tomato vines.  These babies had started their lives in canning jars on my window sill this past March, and I was really hoping they'd work their way back into those jars someday, but the cool September and October days had put them all a dormant state.  These tomatoes were just not going to turn red on me.  And it was time to pull the plants out of the ground so I could move the sidewalk into their space.

So I put all my green tomatoes into my garden bucket (a re-purposed kitty litter bucket), tossed the vines onto the compost pile, and moved my sidewalk around.  And when I finally came in the house, I got on the internet and did some searching.
A few of my dormant tomatoes . . . 
My tomatoes might be green tomatoes, but what I eventually discovered is pure gold. I am in love. And the name of my new paramour is Green Tomato Chutney.

I'm going to say it again (like Tony in West Side Story singing "Maria"):  Green tomato chutney, green tomato chutney, green tomato chutney.

And here's how that song goes:

Make a hot oil bath for anointing the beloved tomatoes:  add spices (garlic, ginger, cardamom, cumin, mustard, chili peppers).   Don't be stingy with the garlic or ginger!

Once the hot aromatic oil bath is ready, add some pickle-y things:  a heap o' salt, a bit of sugar, and some vinegar.   Stir it up and, and then add the diced green tomatoes.

The site that I got this recipe from says to bring to a boil and simmer for 2-3 hours.  Having lunched on this after a brief (20 minute) simmer and dined on it after a long (2 hour) simmer, I'd vote for brief:  the concoction is delicious when the tomatoes are still a bit crunchy-yet-hot.   But even soft tomatoes with the oil and spices and such are yum.  Yum. Wish I'd known this years ago.

Thanks a million to Sacha McGregor, who posted the recipe that I modified and then enjoyed.  

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

By the seat of my (husband's) pants

Because . . .  patching a hole in the seat of the jeans is faster than buying a new pair.

(Cheaper, too, of course).   The seat ripped out right before a trip that my husband took to New York, and I got the pants fixed and back onto his body in time for the train, with nary a trip to a store needed.

But a butt fix is faster only if the jeans are still mostly good --- that is, only provided the jeans aren't so old and threadbare that I'm not committing myself to continually sewing patches on top of patches.  Alas, my husband's jeans are getting to the dangerously threadbare stage.  Eventually, I'll declare them defunct, remove the solid parts for patching future jeans, and toss the rest.  (I still haven't found a local place that recycles rags -- our local Goodwill says they toss them in the trash).

Oh, but ripped jeans can be one of the most comfortable pairs of pants to wear, can't they?   My sister, who lives in California, tells me she realized she needed to go shopping for new jeans finally when a fire evacuation caused her to pack up and leave her house for a few days, and she realized while packing that every single pair of jeans she had was ripped.  Comfy, but torn.

So, for  now, I patch his jeans -- the seat, the knees.  The end of the jeans is imminent, so this is merely a stitch in time that buys more time. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Qmart versus Yard-Mart

On Friday, in anticipation of a round of applesauce canning, I made a quick bike trip to a store I will just call "Qmart" to pick up two dozen more canning jars.  (Dang, I keep thinking I have enough jars, and then I keep running out!  And Qmart is the only local place I've found where I can buy them).  Then on Saturday, after running up and down hills with my girlfriends, and before actually doing my applesauce canning, I biked around to a bunch of yard sales.

So, Friday was Qmart; Saturday was Yard-mart.  The contrast continues to strike me.  Friday I was looking for a specific thing; Saturday was just taking advantage of random opportunity.   Friday I was surrounded by shoppers who wanted to get more stuff; Saturday I was surrounded by people who wanted to get rid of what they'd already bought.

Melissa summed up the angst well in a comment she made on an earlier post of mine:
I now live outside of the US and on a trip back to the States earlier this year, I made a few strategic stops at thrift stores to search for things I needed. I was stunned at how every single one was stuffed to the gills with...stuff! I wasn't even going to retail establishments and yet every inch of store space at every store was full of the outcasts/excess of American life/consumerism. Made me feel that my gleaning was just as much public service as it was a matter of caring for my own family!
I'm so incredibly susceptible to the excess/gleaning argument.  I think the most depressing thing for me at Qmart was being line with a bunch of other people who looked like they were struggling financially, but were buying all sorts of kitsch that I'd see people selling the next day for cheap.  The guy in the line in front of me bought clothes for his 3-year-old daughter, all tagged and with plastic hangers and such, and he spent $180.  For little girl clothes.  Which are like, everywhere at yard sales, sometimes with the tags still on.  sigh.

But let's look at a few other aspects of retail versus re-use shopping, compared side-by-side:


  • Qmart:  Off a fairly major road, with nasty traffic and an ugly, massive asphalt parking lot. 
  • Yard-Mart:  All the heck over the place, but because of that, on neighborhood roads.   I stopped at four yard sales Saturday.
  • Who wins?   Yard-mart! (local roads vs. major roads)
Travel Distance
  • Qmart:  4.2 miles round trip
  • Yard-Mart:  3.5 miles
  • Who wins?  Yard-mart! (3.5 miles vs. 4.2 miles)
  • Qmart:  Fluorescent lights, manicured shelves, huge lines.
  • Yard-Mart::  Blue skies.  Wind. Fresh air.  I mean, wowwww!  It was a perfect day for being out of doors.
  • Who wins?  Yard-mart! (fresh air vs. fluorescent lights)
  • Qmart:  I heard the couple behind me in the checkout chatting (I got to practice my Spanish eavesdropping skills; yay) and the guy in line ahead of me asked the cashier a bunch of questions about redeeming points from the card he'd brought.  The conversation I overhear is all about what we're bringing home, or what things cost.  No actual conversation myself with others.
  • Yard-Mart:  So much fun!  Stop 1, a group of  friends decluttering.   They're supporting each other in getting rid of clothes they no longer want.  I help by taking a hoodie.   Stop 2, a solo woman clearing house.  People keep asking, "How much are you asking for this?", and she says, "Just take it!"  She's cleaning house for free, and keeps giving her things away for free. We chat for a while about taking insulin and about health in general.   Stop 3, a family at my church is (again) decluttering, and we catch up on family gossip before I take a tank-top and a jar, and then move on.  Hugs all around.  Stop 4, a cute young couple is moving.  They say, "It's hard to think about how much people accumulate if they live in the same place for many decades.  Make an offer!  Take this stuff off our hands!!"  We chat about a sewing machine they're selling, and the conversation veers to their mother (who bought it and used it once), to wishing they could learn to sew but not right now.   
  • Who wins?  Yard-mart! (totally)

What I got
  • Qmart: Two cases of canning jars (a dozen wide-mouth pint jars plus a dozen quart jars)
  • Yard-Mart: Three tank tops, a hoodie, and two or three jars, plus a coffee maker.
  • Who wins? Tie:  If there's something very specific and urgent I need, especially something that doesn't appear in yard sales, then Qmart wins.  But yard sales rule for random non-urgent gleaning. 
What I spent
  • Qmart: $25.42
  • Yard-Mart: $5.75.   One of the jars I picked up, though, was a reusable milk jar from our local dairy; on Tuesday I'll bring that down to Market and get $1.50 back.  Whoo!   So all that for $4.25.  Not bad.
  • Who wins? Yard-mart!  ($4.25 vs. $25.42)

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The moving sidewalk ends here . . . for now

Taking a sabbatical isn't the same as taking a vacation.  I just have to say that.  There are ways I do humongous amounts of work; it's just not committee/classroom work.  

But it's also true that having a sabbatical is a luxury.  It's a luxury of space and structure.  I spent the end of August trying to clear out the cobwebs and rug dust of my life, making room so that I could have an open path toward my math research.  Just about the time that I despaired of ever making headway in getting started on my paper, the locomotive of logical thinking barreled down upon my brain, and I got to spend all my waking hours obsessing over geometry.  Food and dinner was a mere distraction; my marriage was a mosquito buzzing around my head; my children were just a speed-bump on the beautiful paved highway toward my mathematical work.  There was nary a committee meeting or a student to get in my way or turn me aside from the thoughts racing around in my head and spinning themselves into theorems on my laptop.  This week, after a month of obsessing over theorems, lemmas, corollaries, axioms -- after a month of intense intimacy with geometry -- I submitted my paper to a kick-butt journal, and I was sort of sad to see it go.  I had loved spending time in the arms of my research, and now my research has packed its bags and boarded the airplane.  Cross fingers that it'll get accepted.

What I do when I'm doing math

And so what have I been doing with myself since I submitted the paper?  Well, aside from recovering from a fatal disease that I don't actually have, I've been giving my brain a bit of "margin".  Working hard, but not on math, so I can get ready for the next big math push.

I've done some sewing, making myself a new planner bag:
(I'm sure I'll write more about this bag in another post).   And I've been moving the sidewalk behind our house.

Doesn't everyone move sidewalks? Well, maybe not.  But it seemed like a good brawn-vs-brain task for celebrating the completion of a paper.  Here's the current extent of our new section of sidewalk . . .
 . . . ending right at a grove of giant okra.  The okra plants have grown taller than I am; in fact, they're up to the roof of the garage now.  It feels heartless to pull them out to make way for my new road, right?
I've been moving the sidewalk one paving stone at a time; this week I've been moving more and more of them.  For about two or three years, I've had my garden sandwiched between the sidewalk and the garage.  I've been thinking that next summer, it would make more sense to switch these: to have the sidewalk sandwiched between the garden and the garage.   Moving the garden out would give the plants more sun; moving the sidewalk in would give walkers more shelter from the elements; plus the new arrangement would make it easier to reach all the plants.  In theory.  We'll see how this goes.

For now, I'm happy and very dirty, with a sidewalk that leads visitors right up to a grove of stately okra, and then stops.  And then jumps out three feet to another, older sidewalk, that continues on.

But the okra, it's going to go. Soon.  And the sidewalk will plow through.  And once the sidewalk is all in the right place (and my muscles are all sore, and the dirt has coated my clothing and then gotten washed away), I'll be ready to go back to my next big math project.

Sabbatical Yay.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Leftovers from a soup kitchen

So, how frugal am I?  I'm so frugal . . . that I feed my kids discards from the local soup kitchen!  How's that for cheap?

Now that my sabbatical has been well underway, I've been volunteering one morning a week at the breakfast line at our local rescue shelter.  It's been a super-fun thing to do, for a whole bunch of different reasons.  I'm downtown that morning anyway because it's my usual market day; I like feeling that I'm helping out our community; and I've really, really come to like the folks who work and eat there.  

I've taken to bringing kids' books along with me and reading them to the kids who are getting ready to go to school. (Yay for "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!")   I have bike conversations with the guys who are getting ready to bike off to their own jobs. I talk about boxing with one of the chefs, and I compare grandchild stories with my fellow food server.  But mostly, I just hand out bowls of fruit, bowls of oatmeal, servings of bacon, and groove to the way-too-loud (but awesome) Praise Music that is playing in the kitchen.  It's good times.

Two weeks or so ago, as I was helping clean up after breakfast was over, I heard my co-workers clucking over wasted food.  Bagels, scrambled eggs, all going into the trash.  What a pity!  Of course, I joined in with questions of "can't you save it?"  Well, they're not allowed to let the guests take the food out of the mission (liability reasons, not to mention that few people who eat here have place to store/reheat food anyway).  They offered me some, but the only containers they had were styrofoam clam shell containers.  Even if I could have overlooked the styrofoam, though, I'd biked downtown with my market backpack; the food would have spilled all over.

And I'd never thought about this before, but it is a funny question to think about:  what happens to the food when food pantries get rid of food?  Answer:  trash!

Since that week, though, I've come prepared. This week, a sturdy tea towel wrapped up a pile of pancakes (still warm when I got home) that became a breakfast for me and my husband . . . 

. . . and two canning jars (but of course) held a bunch of scrambled eggs (some plain, some "cheesy ham").

So dinner that night became "Scrounge SoufflĂ©":  scrounged scrambled eggs mixed in with beet greens (leftover from making grilled beets), diced swiss chard stems (leftover from making a swiss chard salad), orphan tomatoes from the fading garden, and a bunch of overlooked shallots.

Too funny.  I already give money once a year to this particular place; if I'm going to start using their food to feed my family then I guess I ought to up the contribution. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

My Brain is Formidable (or, Apparently I'm not actually fatally ill)

So, last Wednesday a week ago, I popped into my doctor's office.  She looked over my chart and said in a chirpy voice, "your lab results look great!"  That's the takeaway: I'm officially and certifiably in excellent shape, confirmed not only by those lab tests, but also by a subsequent abdominal ultrasound.  I'm fine, really.

But the reason that I had that ultrasound is that when my doctor chirped, "your lab results look great!",  I responded with "are you kidding?!?"  And then I proceeded to grill her.

I should back up.  Way back in June, I had my annual physical that comes with a side order of blood test stuff. I have always been an insanely healthy person, so much so that about thirteen years ago, when a co-worker needed a kidney, I figured "what the heck?  Let her have one of mine!  I have more than enough health to go around!"  Since then, I've given blood regularly, adopted kids, run marathons, finished an IronMan, and done other rah-rah uber-healthy things.  My annual exams always make my doctor wistful, wishing she had more patients like me.  And so it was very gingerly that my doctor suggested, back in at my exam in June, that one of my blood test results could bear a bit more watching:  I ought to get re-tested in three months.  And since the watch-able result had something to do with kidney function, I agreed (but in my head did that "hah, hah; no way there could be anything wrong with me" thing that I do).

Zoom forward to mid-September, and I went in for another blood test.  The doctor tsk-tsked that I rode my bike a whole two or three miles to get to the blood test, because that could throw off the results, but at least I did ride slowly and leisurely.  These days, I've been biking more than 40 miles each week, plus running 13 miles each week, so a little 2-mile bike ride isn't really a workout.  I did my blood test, patted myself on the back, and biked on home.

And then on Friday, I got the results via computer, in this newfangled electronic records system that my physician's office has set up for me.  Ugh, what a horrid mistake!  Because this is where my formidable brain took over.  What follows is partly understandable, and mostly just really embarrassing.

So, the result my doctor was looking at back in June was my KFC -- my Kidney Filtration Category.  Okay, it's not really called a "KFC", but since what follows in this story is the result of my own brain instead of actual doctor advice, I'm going to call it "KFC" so nobody is even tempted to try to get medical advice from this post (other than, "trust your doctor", which I didn't have the opportunity to do).  On Friday afternoon, my email binged with the news that my test results were in, so I looked them up on the newfangled computer system, and it said, "Your KFC is 52%".

Okay, what the heck does that mean?  I looked around on various reputable -- I swear! -- web sites, and every single one of them said, "Dude.  Your KFC is supposed to be close to 100%. If it's below 60% for more than a quarter of a year, your kidneys are probably dying on you.  Get some good meds to keep them from getting worse too quickly".  I quick called my doctor's office, made an appointment for the first available date -- next Wednesday, and settled in.

From Friday to Wednesday, in the absence of actual doctor feedback, my formidable brain took over.  I already mentioned that I did research in reasonable places to do research, all of which shook their heads sadly at me and said that it's merely a matter of time before I go on a transplant list.  It wasn't long before the symptoms set in on me.  The fact that I'd been completely symptomless up to this very point was easily explained by those same reputable web sites, which said, "Most people with Chronic Kidney Disease exhibit no symptoms."  Oooh!  That's me!  But then, the tell-tale signs of true kidney failure started setting in:  thirstiness.  nausea.  chills.

By Monday, it had become increasingly clear that the problem was not merely that I had a weak kidney; no.   The pain that had started infecting my stomach meant that the kidney loss was a secondary cause of pancreatitis.  Or stomach tumors.  Or both.  Or maybe something having to do with my lungs.  My husband did his best to stay calm, as did I.  He said, "If it were anybody else but you, I'd have thought you were over-reacting.  But you are always so calm, I know this must be serious."  We went out for our anniversary dinner, and I watched him eat his food. I couldn't even touch mine.

And then Wednesday, I finally got to see my doctor, and she smiled cheerfully and said, "your lab results look great!"  And I asked "Are you kidding?  What about my KFC?"  She said, "Oh, people only use that for dosing purposes!  We really care about THIS number (some acronym) and THAT number (another acronym), and yours are both GREAT!"   And I asked, "Well, what about my chills?  My pains?  The pancreatitis?"  And so my doctor offered me anxiety medicine.

The doctor said, "By the way, you've lost weight!  That's great!  What have you been doing?"  And I said, "NOT EATING!!".  Losing weight is not the sign of health that it's cracked up to be.

I haven't taken the anxiety meds, but I did agree to take some heartburn medications.  And even though I felt perfect two weeks ago and I totally knew that it was my brain that had stressed me out, I was still stressed enough that eventually I whined my way into a total abdominal ultrasound.  And that's how I know that I'm fine, because apparently I'm beautiful on the inside.  But dang, my brain is powerful -- I'm still  having minor random stomachaches, and I know I've spent a bunch of money on meds and tests just because my brain led my body into scary new territory.  Not wasted money, exactly, but certainly money and anxiety that wouldn't have happened if I'd gotten the test results from the doctor instead of getting them on the computer with a 5-day head start on a proper interpretation.

How embarrassing.  It truly is nice to know for sure that my body is okay, just like I had always thought it was . . . and in an odd way, I'm even glad that I got to have the humbling and very educational experience of not being able to rely 100% on my health.  But I thought I'd had more control over the stuff between my ears.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The White Flour Happy Dance

So, about two weeks ago, we were having soup and bread for dinner at my house.  There were six of us there: me, my husband, and the two boys, of course (the four of us still all live at home) -- plus two of my daughters who come back weekly for what we call "Girl's Night", even though we're all adults.

At any rate, the conversation around the dinner table went like this:
"Yumm, this bread is delicious."
"Yes, it's really poofy!"
"Yeah, the bread seems different. Did you do something different?"
[me] "Actually,  I think I accidentally bought white flour."
"You bought white flour?"
"Mom bought white flour!!!"
"Wow, this is great!  White flour bread!"
And then my four kids actually started dancing in their chairs.  Happy dance! Especially the grown-ups.  My husband was in stitches: here was our family, rejoicing and celebrating over bread that I made with white flour.  Not whole wheat, but fluffy stuff.

I buy 50 pounds of flour at a time from our local Amish store.  I've been trying to keep up the healthfulness of food in our family, and so a year or more ago, I switched us to whole wheat.  Because I buy so much flour at a time, my baking supplies are a bit like an aircraft carrier:  I can't change direction quickly.  So my family has had a long time to get used to more . . . um . . . substantial bread, waffles, and even (yes) birthday cakes.  Can I say, I think that chocolate cake with whole wheat flour is really yummy?

But my family, even if they submit reluctantly to the yumminess of chocolate whole wheat cakes, still seems to prefer white flour.  "Prefer" in the sense of doing happy dances at the dinner table.

This blog post, I need not mention, is brought to you because my kids all said, "You need to write a post about this."

For what it's worth, here's a recipe for bread that makes kids dance at the dinner table:
  • 1 and 1/3 cups water
  • 1 Tbsp or so of vegetable oil
  • 4 cups flour (whole wheat for long-term health, or white for dancing)
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 Tbsp dry milk
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 Tbsp yeast
Toss all of this, in this order, into a bread machine.   Use the "quick loaf" (1-hour) option, not the regular option, because this seems to make bread with a MUCH better texture.  Seriously.


Saturday, October 3, 2015

Frugal food thoughts

According to Mint, we've spent a lot on groceries recently.  Back in the beginning of September, the program sent me this dire warning:

Now, this $760 (or $437, if you want our "usually") monthly grocery bill is for a household of four hungry people, who almost never eat at restaurants.  And we're not particularly bird-like eaters, either:  when our family cooks potatoes, we cook five pounds at a time, and there's seldom any leftovers hanging around the next morning.  Ah, the joys of teenage-boy appetites!

Mint misses some of our expenses, so the number above is artificially low.  (It doesn't include school-purchased lunches, and it doesn't capture anything I purchase with cash or check, which probably averages out to an additional $100-150 per month).   Still, I think our grocery expenses are low enough to count as "frugal".  Certainly we're down there with what the USDA would call a "thrifty plan".

But although the number of dollars my family spends is one way to measure frugality (the easiest way to measure, and also the most obvious), it's not actually my own personal way of thinking about frugal food shopping.  I've been thinking about this a bunch, lately, in fact.

I've seen four main approaches to frugalling the food budget.
  1. Coupons.  This is the most visible way of pinching food dollars, but I've always avoided it.  I started avoiding it because it was a suck on my own time and energy, but increasingly the reason has become more communitarian:  coupons are a suck on the time and energy of the entire system, because it requires that someone is there to create, promote, process, redeem, monitor, etc. coupons.  Relying on coupons as a regular strategy strikes me as one of those things that looks like it would bring food costs down, but long term drives them up by adding bureaucracy and inefficiency into the works.
  2. Using the efficiencies of the system.  Several of my favorite frugality bloggers love Costco; some even groove to Walmart.  I don't (not that I'm arguing with my favorite bloggers, mind you).   There are a lot of ways that the efficiencies of the system map onto the frugalities I care about, but there are also ways that it doesn't:  here, I'm thinking about how these stores use more packaging than I do, and care less about building up local community than I do. 
  3. Using the inefficiencies of the system.  My husband has become a big fan of this approach; he has taken to dropping into our local salvage store and buying whatever meat is just about to expire, now down to half or 25% of its original price. It's sort of a modern-day, corporate version of gleaning.  As a result, the boys are all reveling in lots more sausages, pork chops, hot dogs, etc than whatever they'd get from me.   (Yuck)
  4. Focus on the food; move out of the system.  Back in mid-August, I spent $60 at a local farmer's market on 44 lbs of peaches ($44), 52 ears of corn ($10), and 18 bell peppers ($6).  The food was in season, locally grown, and went straight from the farmer's wagon into my own buckets and bins.   Later, I spent another $260 at our local Amish market on about 150 pounds of dry goods (flour, oats, nuts, etc.)  The food is now safely put up, and it ought last me through the winter, stored in my own glass jars and (for the flour and oats) old cat liter buckets.  All the packaging and trash I have to show for those big expenditures is a small pile of compostable/recyclable paper bags, a smaller pile of clear plastic bags (sigh), plus one receipt that I think is hilarious in its non-specificity (every item I bought is listed as "grocery").
    $259.33 worth of "grocery", next to the entire amount of packaging from the food.
    I like that my purchases bring me closer to the people who grow my food.  I like that I'm not spending money on advertising campaigns, newspaper inserts, package design, excessive packaging, air conditioning, shopping carts, cross-continental transportation, giant asphalt parking lots, and other things that come with "normal" store-bought foods.   It might not be the most frugal way to buy food measured in dollars alone, but it feels increasingly right to me.