Saturday, December 31, 2016

last weekly update of the year 2016

Miser Dog, standing guard.
I'll begin with the sad -- but not unexpected -- news that we had to say goodbye to our 12-year-old dog on Wednesday.  It's strange to be in a house where food we accidentally drop on the floor doesn't immediately attract a live vacuum cleaner, but I'm so grateful that Miser Dog  survived as long as he did, got to make it through the holidays so that all the children could see him and pamper him as much (or as little) as they wanted, and that he didn't suffer at the end. 


The rest of the week was much kinder to us, and full of lots of adventures.

N-son helps prepare food
On Sunday morning, N-son and I did something I had been hoping to do for years -- we served meals at our local homeless shelter on a Christmas Day.  This was the first time I'd been back since my bike crash, and I got much love back from the guests there -- many of whom I'd gotten to know from my past normal-day visits.  Plus, I got to see my culinary-arts-trained son in action.

We were lucky to have all our kids in the house that afternoon and evening, and then the next day, my husband took off with N-sonJ-son, and L-daughter for a three-day trip to go shopping in New York City.  (I stayed home and very happily did math, and I think they were all jealous of me!)  
Pecan pie, anyone?

J-son had a three-mom week: visiting his birth mom on Christmas day, me on Christmas evening, and his foster mom after he returned from New York City.

K-daughter is keeping busy with her Reiki work, and her occasional job as wedding coordinator at our church kicked into overdrive at the end of the week, with a wedding that went on for hours and even included a fainting groom!

My husband finished out the year by (surprise) riding to and from Philly.  He did not make 10,000 miles this year -- "only" 9,859 miles.  He has more statistics for anyone who is interested.

On Friday, I got my splint off and started informal rehab on my arm.  Whoop!  My left arm is swollen, tender, and puffy, and has a (hopefully temporary) restricted range of motion -- for good or ill, I can't bite my fingernails!  But it's incredibly nice to be able to type and write again; I'm glad to return to the ranks of the bi-dextrous.

Here's wishing you all the best in the new year!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The "Please Remove Us" grind

In spite of my best efforts (well, maybe not my best efforts, but at least my substantial efforts) to get off of junk mailing lists, those junk mailers keep gifting me unwanted cards, catalogs, and brochures.

The credit card offers that come with postage-paid return envelopes, I return with the request "please remove us from your mailing list".  In fact, because somehow my husband keeps attracting new credit card offers, I printed up a bunch of mailing labels with that phrase that I slap onto the credit card offers, just to save time.  In double fact, I like these mailing labels so much that I printed up multiple sheets of them, and gave copies to my daughters for Christmas, so they can do the same.  (You're welcome, daughters!  Nothing but the best for you!)

By the way, those "privacy" statements that I get annually from the credit card companies?  I've taken to reading them carefully, and then contacting the companies (or delegating my husband to contact them, since they're mostly his credit cards) to limit sharing if that's not already the default.  That has also helped a lot in reducing unwanted junk mail.

If junk mail doesn't come with its own return envelope, I save it in a yellow folder titled "please remove us", and when the folder gets full, I spend an hour or two removing myself from mailing lists.  Fortunately, this folder takes longer and longer to fill these days; I think the last time I had a "please remove us" binge was eight or nine months ago.

I've made extensive use of a web-based organization called Catalog Choice.  If Catalog Choice has the company on file, usually a few clicks will stop future mail from that company.  Today I managed to get on the "please remove us" list of four or five companies in about 15 minutes. But that left six more pieces of mail where the only way to stop new mail was to make telephone calls.  Ugh!

Enter N-son.  I offered him an exorbitant fee (50 cents per catalog or flyer) to do the calling for me.  He, of course, was reluctant; it's scary talking on the phone with a business when you're just a kid.  But his apprehension just convinced me all the more that this would be a good life skill for him to have, so I coached him through how to make a call, and I gave him one piece of mail at a time so I could ensure each call went according to plan.  The only company he didn't reach directly was a place called "Carpet Mart", and he left a message on their answering machine.  We'll see how that goes!

N-son did so well that I wish I had thought of conscripting my children in my anti-junk mail crusade several years earlier.  Not only would I have saved a bunch of telephone time myself, but I would have given my children lessons on how to talk to a sales person or customer representative, and let them realize how non-scary it actually is.  Parents with younger children, take note!

Here, in case you've never done it yourself, is how to get off a mailing list with a phone call.  Usually, the hardest part is finding a number to call.  Call that number, and when someone answers, say "we would like to be removed from your mailing list." Sometimes they transfer you to somebody else.  You will need to read the name and address off the mail you already got, and sometimes a catalog number and/or customer number.  Say thank you, and you're done.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Miser Family update, pre-Christmas

Early this week, I went to the surgery center where they gave me fancy booties, a monogrammed bracelet, a hat, a gown, and pins to go inside my arm (but no matching purse).  After being treated so decadently, I embraced the hedonistic lifestyle; the past few days, I've been lying around in bed, doing drugs.  
My new internal jewelry.

My step daughters LJ and LA are back in town, and they came by for a family photo.  The impromptu selfie that we took afterwards came out even better than the posed photo, I think.  

Me with five of my kids (K-daughter was off visiting other friends).

LJ, a more avid dog lover than even I am, took over caring for Miser Dog, hand feeding him raw meatballs that she has made herself.  He's still very skinny and weak, but enjoying the attention.

My husband and the boys are doing well, I think.  (Did I mention I'm a little bit out of it?)  My husband will probably not make it to 10,000 miles on his bike this year, but he'll get darned close. The boys are looking forward to having some time off school.

We're wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Things that are hard to do one-handed

I can dance with my granddaughter and children
one-handed (although this photo
is from before I got my sling).
Button Jeans.
The first day, when I had just come home from the hospital in my sling, I had lots of fun embarrassing my teenage sons by asking them to button my jeans for me.  Since then, I've worn sweat pants with an elastic waist.

Butter my bread
The bread keeps dancing all over the plate. Very frustrating.

Buckle my seatbelt and unbuckle it.
I think it's hard mostly because I have to reach across my body, and my body has a big old arm in a splint stuck to the front, blocking me from reaching things.

Sharpen a pencil.
I'm actually doing a half-decent job writing with my bad hand, but the dull pencils are piling up around me.

Funny how different people talk to me about my broken arm, depending on whether they're  bicyclists or not.  Cyclists act like that tough-love parent who sees a child fall on the sidewalk and skin a knee: "okay, you fell, but now get up.  You're going to be okay."

Here, for example, is the entire letter from my father, three days after I told him about my trip to the ER.  If you listen to Prairie Home Companion and know the laconic father "Hank", you've got a pretty good sense of how my dad talks:

Dear [daughter]:

I am sorry to hear about your run-in with a car, but glad you were not more seriously injured.  Cars almost always win in these confrontations.

I was once hit by a car (from behind) while riding my bike.  Ruined the bike, but I only lost a little skin when leaving the bike in a hurry.

Love,  Dad

Or this letter, from the mathematical colleague who introduced me to the dictation feature on my computer.

Oh my gosh - so sorry to hear. I had a similar thing happen in 2000: wrist, radial head, scapula, and some ribs. Oh, and a shattered helmet. Glad to hear your brain faired well - scary stuff. Also glad to know that the dictation has come in handy, just sorry about the need! 

In contrast, my non bicyclist friends say things like this:
. . . And, in closing, I hope you get well (heal) quickly and without setbacks. I'm still shaken up by what happened to you and it wasn't even me. I so don't regret now not getting on my bike more than once this summer. I think I will stick with the exercise bike in my apartment.
Where do I stand right now? I, who named my bike SPDM (for "sudden painful death machine")?  I think I've gone over to the dark (bicycle) side.  I think it's really annoying that I can't ride now, and my reaction to the accident is not to blame the bicycle, but to feel that cars ought to be banned from roads.

Meanwhile, today I'll get a pin put in my elbow. My surgeon is a tall and extremely genial guy with movie-star teeth, who is positively gleeful about this operation.  He says, "I love broken bones, because bones heal."  He happily drew me a little picture of my olecranon, which I've included here. ("Olecranon" doesn't make it into crossword puzzles; it's part of the ulna, which is a great crossword puzzle word.)

Supposedly, the splint I'll get today will be shorter than the one I'm currently wearing, which means I might be able to use my left hand for writing and typing again.  I'm really looking forward to sharpening those pencils.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Post crash update

My big news of the week was supposed to be that I am recovering from giving final exams. Instead, my big news is that I'm recovering from being swiped by a hit-and-run driver. But I already wrote about that.

I'm actually recovering really quickly.  I look terrible, because the black eye is spreading, which they say is normal.  But the cut over my eye it Is healing just beautifully and I'll get the stitches out Wednesday or Thursday.  In spite of many warnings that my arm would  hurt so bad that I would get nauseous, I haven't really had any pain.  And the only medication I'm taking is to get the inflammation down.  In fact I walked to and from church Sunday, and it was really nice to be outside moving again. The Sunday school class was on pain and suffering, so I got to be the "show and tell"!

Okay, in other more pleasant news, my husband and N-son got to go together to the military ball posted by N-son's ROTC. They look good dressed up together don't they?  Earlier in the week, my husband presented "The little red hen" in his Russian class.  (He missed the final exam for that class, thanks to sitting in the hospital with me, and says this means that now he won't ever get into medical school.)

Y, our host daughter for two years, moved out to be in her own place, and J-son has been very happily moving all of his stuff into her old room.  He loves arranging and rearranging things.  He and N-son have been a huge help to me now that I'm down to one arm.

K-daughter has been gathering hats and coats, and she and her friends take them downtown with cookies and give them out to people who need them.  I so admire her.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

What happened when a car hit me

View through my screen door this morning.  Not a picture of my injuries.
So, my last post was about the joys of bicycle riding through cold weather. This post is about what many people warn bicyclists about: collisions with cars.

While I was biking home from serving breakfast at our local soup kitchen yesterday morning, a car got jealous of me having my own space in the road, and knocked me down. The car didn't hit me from behind; it came up next to me and then swerved into me, and then drove off. Possibly it was somebody texting who never saw me, but to me it felt malicious. The cops are looking for the driver of the car, but aren't optimistic.

Waiting for treatment, 
before my eyes started turning black

After I got up with my bicycle, I would have tried to bike home, but the nearby drivers who stopped to help encouraged to me to be seen at the emergency room. At first, I tried to reassure them that I was just fine, but after two rounds of them and me debating, I saw the blood coming down my face and believed them when they told me I would need stitches. A little bit later my arm started hurting. I got a fancy ride in an ambulance, with lots of people to wait on me inside the emergency room.

I don't think my elbow is supposed look like this!
So, I have a black eye. Also, four stitches above my eye, and my husband warned me that my broken arm is eventually going to hurt like the Dickens (but he did not use the exact phrase "the Dickens"). Right now, I'm in a splint. On Monday, after the swelling goes down, we'll go to the orthopedist to see whether I need pins or just a cast.

The good thing is that almost all of the things the doctors were really worried about were fine. No concussion, no head trauma aside from the stitches, no spine trouble, no collar bone trouble, even my legs and my bike are fine. In fact, even all the glass jars that were in my market backpack were fine. Go figure!

(I did lose two perfectly good turtlenecks when the nurse had to cut the arm off -- of the turtle neck, not of me! My pastor, who knows and teases me about my frugal ways, offered to take up a collection at church to help me replace the turtlenecks. I think he knows that I can spare the dollar for a pair of new shirts eventually.)

Random thoughts:
My pink tube-thing on my head
looks a little like a
zombie bandage here.
  • Because I can't use my left arm right now, which is the arm that I write with, grading my final exams is going to be a bit of a bear. But the semester is over, so I really do have time to rest and recuperate.
  • I'm really glad my computer has a dictation mode so I can talk instead of type. I do have to go back and fix a lot of transcription errors, but I don't catch them all. If you see anything wonky, I blame it on the computer.
  • I had Motrin in the hospital, but I've managed okay with no painkillers since. (My computer translated this as "with no painkillers cents"). If I can stay drug-free, this will be a perfect time to give blood, because my exercise is already shot to pieces. Dang.
  • I'd been hoping make 50 push-ups by the end of year, but my training fell off in the last month. Now I have a good excuse for why I won't make it. Yay?
  • If I had had this accident a month and a half earlier, I would have had the perfect Halloween costume. I look like a zombie. Totally bad timing.
  • This morning, I woke up to snow. If it snowed yesterday, I wouldn't have biked, because biking on ice is dangerous, of course!
  • I've tried never to take my good health for granted. This experience fills me with gratitude, not only because it obviously could have been so much worse, but also because I get constant reminders of how fortunate I have been to have two working arms and two working eyes. And also because I know that once my arm heals, and my Frankenstein face no longer scares small children, I'm likely to be just as healthy again.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

My foul-weather friends

Last week, when the outside temperatures were getting very cold (as opposed to this week, when they are getting very, very cold), I rode my bike downtown as usual, to serve breakfast at our local soup kitchen.  It's a thrilling sort of wonderfulness, breezing through a dark city so early in the day that I have the streets pretty much all to myself.  Just about every time I make that ride, I feel unaccountably happy just to be alive and awake, and I also feel yet again that I'm so lucky that I wound up living in a great city like mine.

So it tickled me that all the other volunteers and staff, who have seen me riding my bike every week for the last year and a half, were amazed that I would ride my bike in the cold.  When they pestered me about this, I used what has become one of my family's favorite Mr. Money Mustache lines:  "There's this wonderful invention; it's called clothes. You put them on your body, and then you stay warm."  Fellow servers kept returning to the fact that it's very cold outside, and I said "Yes, I know; that's why I decided not to wear my bathing suit here!"  They asked me how far I had to bike to get there; when I told them "2 miles," you'd think I had told them I had swum here from France.  What a distance to travel!  How could a person ever do that?!?

For the record, I truly believe biking two miles in the cold is more comfortable than driving two miles in the cold. I have experience with both.

When I first got my job here at my college, I was a single mom with a two-year-old daughter and I lived a mile and a half from where I work. The only thing the cold car had going for it, comfort wise, is that it blocked the wind.  Those winter mornings that I drove my daughter to her preschool (next to my work), she cried from the cold the whole way there, even though I dressed her in as much warm clothing as I could, and even though I then wrapped her in blankets.  That car ride was danged uncomfortable, not just because the weather outside was cold, but the entire car itself was a giant Cold Sink, one that sucked all the warmth from our bodies into the icy seats and frigid metal frame that surrounded us. Even if we had driven far enough that the engine could warm up, and the air inside the car started to become bearable, every other interior part of the car would hang onto its coldness for a long time.  Worse yet, our bodies were strapped into immobility, and we couldn't move around to generate muscle heat.

For a two-mile trip, the car didn't even allow us to spend less time in the cold weather:  what with walking to the car, getting my  bags in the car, and then parking and walking from a parking lot to her day-care/my office, the time spent outside of a warm building was just about the same either way.  Nowadays when I go on a two-mile trip, I put my backpack on indoors, and my biking starts and ends at the doors of where I'm going.

So the bike isn't much colder than the car.  In fact because I'm exercising (using my legs to crank up the ol' body heat as well as to move me along those dark city streets) my internal thermostat feels like it's at a much happier place.  That's why I think that tooling along on the bike is actually more comfortable than shivering in an automotive straitjacket.

Not that I'm a total nut about cold-weather biking, mind you.  The weather, as I've mentioned earlier, is currently changing from "very cold" (freezing temps) to "very, very cold" (single-digit temps).  And just the other day, after biking a half-mile to my dentist and back through very cold temps, I wimped out and decided not to bike the extra four miles over to our blood bank (nor back again, while drained of blood).  I didn't drive, either -- instead, I walked the two blocks to my office and caught up on paperwork.  And don't think that I didn't mentally beat myself up, pitting my own comfort against saving the life of a sick or injured person!  But despite the self-flagellation, I don't know when I'm going to go give blood, because four-and-four miles through the increasingly (very)^2 cold December weather is wigging me out a bit.

That being said, the older I get, the happier I get about being outside in winter.  It's not that my body is changing, it's that I've discovered clothes.

The first clothing epiphany I had was in graduate school when I accidentally bought a pair of humongously thick-soled Earth Shoes. The shoes were so ugly that even the other math grad geeks made fun of me for them . . . but for the first time ever in the post-frostbite portion of my life, my feet were warm in winter.  Ugly be damned: I could walk outside in January and not be miserable!  So even though my current shoe selection is much less of a fashion wreck, I make sure I have a good selection of thick-soled boots to get me through the winter.

Strategy:  I spend a bunch of time during the summer yard-sale season rounding out my boot wardrobe, making sure I have 3 or 4 pairs of potentially worthy boots waiting for me come December.  This usually means I buy a "new" pair of boots every year or two, so my annual boot budget alternates between $0 and $5.  Having four pairs of boots feels a bit like luxurious overkill, but I've learned I can never tell in summer which boots will hold up in snow and slush until there's actual snow and slush, and having a good selection of back-ups keeps me from having to resort to those pricey "thrift" stores where boots can cost a crazy $7 or more. I'm currently rocking a pair of Ugg boots I snagged with a bunch of other stuff in a "fill a bag for $5" yard sale.  

And speaking of clothes: tubes.  Tube-like headbands that go on my ears are, like, 50 times better than a hat, for reasons that I can't at all understand.  Tube-like things that go around my neck and keep the wind off my neck have made all sorts of outdoor excursions more comfy.  Somehow, I didn't know about these tube things until a few years ago, and now I've become a bit of a compulsive tube collector.

Also, the older that I get, the more I take to heart the wisdom of layered clothes.  Right now, as I type this, I'm wearing purple warm tights under my jeans, and I'm also wearing three different knit tops, one over the other.  I used to think layers made me look like a Girl Scout (probably because I first got lectured about layers while I was backpacking a lot with the Girl Scouts, and the layers we wore were waffle-weave long-johns topped with flannel shirts -- imagine that).  But nowadays, I like how the different layers add more color to my outfit, and of course they also help me stay warm.  Plus, I get to wear even more of my favorite clothes all at the same time.  Win!

So there you go.  Warm clothes have become my foul-weather friends, appearing exactly when I need them the most, and assuring me that they've got my back even when the rest of the world is giving me the cold shoulder.  I'm going to go cuddle up with another sweater right now.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Advent-ures in decorating

Here's the latest update from our family.

We continue celebrating advent together; this week was mostly about decorating, as we gathered together to (4) hang lights, (5) decorate the cast iron tree over the fireplace, (7) bring in pine boughs, and (8) put out the Santa statues (pictures of that below).  We sported our fun Santa hats at every step, with J-son rocking a striped version he loves and commandeering our only pair of Christmas socks.  I-daughter, living a half-mile away, tells me she played along at home, plugging in her Christmas lights right on schedule. 
We also (6) celebrated St. Nicholas day by donating money to a local charity, and then (9) introduced Baby-A to the joy of of rolling out and pressing Springerli.  Well, except that Baby-A wasn't as joyful as the rest of us were, because she just wanted to eat the raw dough.  She doesn't yet realize the pleasure of waiting until the cookies are so brick-like that they click when you tap them on the table.  Kids these days!

N-son got to visit an army recruiter this week, and he has an action plan for moving forward on enlisting (although that is very far off, if indeed it can actually happen). J-son got to hang with some of his boxing friends, both at their houses and at ours.  K-daughter has been teaming up with friends to collect hats and scarves to give to people who don't have them.  My husband rode his bike to Philly yet again (sheesh).  And me, I finished teaching for the fall semester -- exams next week!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

What a Miser Mom buys her kids for Christmas

Lots of people talk about the wish to dial back Christmas giving, and of course the MiserMom household is no exception.  I love the descriptions in the Little House series of Laura's treasured, and yet frugal, presents: an orange, a penny, and a tin cup.  My kids are accustomed to hearing me promise/threaten/wax nostalgic about a Christmas like that. 

And yet.

And yet, among my "upper family" (sisters and father), the gift-giving exchange is about so much more than the gifts. It's one of two times each year we gather back together, and we spend a leisurely half-a-day going through the ritual of opening gifts one-by-one, watching each other, sharing stories about how a particular gift was chosen or what it was given for, laughing and reconnecting.  The ritual is a larger kind of treasure, worth far more than the material aspects of the event.

So I've been building a compromise.  In my "lower family" (among myself and my kids), I've tried to shift the emphasis onto shared experience.  The past few years, Christmas has been focused on building gingerbread houses (or gingerbread shacks, or earthquake-shattered wrecks -- even the disasters have been fun to create).  But we've also exchanged gifts, in a much smaller ceremony.

Some of my favorite gifts that I received last year had minimal material impact.  My step-daughters offered me all their cast-off clothes, and since they're fairly fashion conscious, that means my wardrobe got a styling update.  My birth daughter knitted me a pair of wool socks.  My sister got me a set of bamboo straws, so we can have our "no hands dinner" with no plastic straws.  My husband offered to clean out the basement, and made huge headway on getting rid of boxes and boxes of old paperwork he no longer needed.  We worked on that together (him deciding, me carrying).  That was a lot of fun.

And what did I get my own children?  My friend Carmen was sort of horrified.  She'd told me about her gifts to her teenaged daughters--a new phone, a jacket from Abercrombie, a pair of new shoes, a something else, another thing or two, and also a bottle of each child's favorite coffee drink.  So when she asked what I got my kids, and I said, "well, I sewed them cloth bags for vegetables out of old sheets . . . ", Carmen just about called the authorities to report me for child abuse.

To be fair, I didn't stop at the bags-made-of-old-sheets; I also made mesh bags out of old lace curtains, too.  So there's that, although that didn't much reassure Carmen.  (She finally eased up when I told her that I also gave the kids money as well).

But in fact, I was pretty happy with my gifts to my kids, not because everyone wants cloth vegetable bags, but because my kids all know how much I've been working to eliminate trash from my life, and these little cloth bags are part of my scheme for avoiding plastic.  I wasn't just giving them stuff, I was giving them a little bit of something that matters a lot to me.

So, at the risk of driving Carmen into another tizzy, here is the "Table of Contents" that came in each of the gift boxes I gave my daughters last Christmas.  I figure people can use this list the way that I use Laura Ingall's gifts ("Do you want an orange, a penny, and a tin cup for Christmas?  Or do you want Miser Mom's box of bags?  Hmm???").  Or, if you happen to know someone who's so frugal you have no idea what to get them for Christmas, maybe this list would spark ideas.

Guide to the Goodies
(with a food/shopping motif) 

Peach ginger jam
  • from the peaches on our tree, picked by N-son and canned by his mother.
Cherry jelly
  • picked, (imperfectly) pitted, and canned by J-son. Our host-daughter Y helped with the picking.
Cherry pits
  • Stick in the microwave to make yourself a heating pad. (I love tossing mine in bed right where my feet go, so I can go to sleep with toasty toes).
  • [These were cherry pits we'd washed and dried as a by-product of making cherry jelly.  I then put the clean, dry pits into cloth bags I'd made out of old denim jeans -- so these are a lot like bean bags, but with cherry pits.]
Mesh bags
  • made from 100% post-consumer products.
  • Great for purchasing vegetables and bulk M&M’s,
  • and also for washing delicates (like bras or stockings or boxing hand wraps, y’know) so they don’t tangle with other things in the machine

Cloth produce bags
  • Again, made from 100% post-consumer products.
  • Great for purchasing bulk grains or coffee beans. Use the washable crayons to mark the product code on the bag for check out purposes; then launder and reuse.
  • Store salad greens in this bag (keep the bag damp); the salad greens stay crisp for a week or more.

Something to read while you’re standing in line at the grocery store.
  • [a used book that I'd liked reading that I thought my daughters might like, mostly Peanuts Comics]

Something to give to the ca$hier.
  • [this was money, but in unusual denominations -- a collection of $2 bills or dollar coins.]

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Early advent update

Here's the update for the past week.

Our family delightedly put up our advent calendar, full of fun December tasks.  This week the calendar revealed that we would (Dec 1) see Beauty and the Beast at our local theater, (Dec 2) make a batch of marzipan, and (Dec 3) pull out the Christmas clothes -- hats!  shirts! earrings!  yay!

BabyA is ready to geek out with me!
It's been lots and lots (and lots) of fun for me to have K-daughter and my granddaughter in the house -- the whole place seems so much more alive.  Together with Baby-A, I've gotten to reconnect with that literary classic, The Little Engine that could.  K-daughter has had a bunch of friends over to the house, and they seem to like the place.

My husband rode his bike to Philly, and then back (that's getting to be a little bit of old news, right?)  On the way back, the wind was so bad that for a while he drafted an Amish buggy.  He's realized that if he rides 27 miles/day, he'll top 10,000 miles for the year -- I don't know if he's serious about making that number.

J-son has started taking on an informal leadership role in his boxing gym, mentoring the newer boxes.  He's also been bringing in some solid grades, mostly because he's been determined to take his schooling with the kind of seriousness he's been learning in the gym.  We're so proud of him.

N-son pretending to be a present
And speaking of proud, I'm psyched and just a little jealous that N-son got to run the cash register at his Career Training Center.  He's been picking up a lot of cool skills, and even a bit of a "can I help you" attitude that's been super useful around the home.  That's a real gift to us!

On somewhat sadder news, our Miser-dog's health has taken a turn for the worse.  We're caring for him with something of a home hospice model, trying to make him as comfortable as we can while he still seems to be enjoying having the family around him.  

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Advent calendar, coming right up!

Tomorrow, we'll put up our annual advent calendar.  This is becoming a tradition in the house, one that my daughters (even the one who doesn't live here) looks forward to.   So, yay for traditions!

As usual, each day has an activity.  Some of the activities are things we'd have on a normal calendar (like theater tickets or our city's sing-along concert), some of them are pre-christmas tasks (like decorating the house and wrapping presents), and some of them are other weird family traditions (like our annual celebration of the anniversary of my husband's driver's license.)  And a few of them are head-scratchers that I stuck in there to fill up the calendar (bowling, anyone?)

I discovered a few years ago that if you put sticky notes on paper, you can send the paper through the printer again and print on top of the sticky notes.  I guess that some year, when I finally get through my stash of yellow mini-stickies, I ought to go out and buy Christmas-colored notes.  But for now, this works.   At any rate, now the kids take turns taking off one sticky note each day, to uncover this calendar day-by-day.

Here's this year's list of advent activities.
  1. Beauty and the Beast! at our performing arts theater
  2. marzipan makings
  3. get out X-mas clothes
  4. hang lights
  5. decorate tree
  6. St. Nicholas Day: give to charity
  7. bring in pine boughs
  8. put out Santa & statutes
  9. Make springerli cookies
  10. mail springerli cookies
  11. Christmas caroling
  12. Make Eggnog
  13. Pancake party at my college
  14. Bowling Night
  15. Make X-mas music together
  16. Sing-a-long Concert
  17. walk outside and see lights
  18. write our sponsored children (via World Vision)
  19. Driver's license dinner
  20. deliver Springerli to neighbors
  21. shortest day; candlelight dinner
  22. wrap presents
  23. take X-mas photos
  24. read Twas the night before Christmas
  25. Christmas Day!  Gingerbread & Eggnog

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The foot of the dog, and brown cardboard boxes filled with good things

Well, it's been the opposite of a quiet week here in our neck of the woods!  What a lot has been going on!

For one thing, we thought our ancient Miser Dog was on his last legs, literally:  he was having an increasingly hard time walking and losing large amounts of weight.  We took him to the vet, dreading what we might hear.  But what we feared was terminal cancer turned out to be "merely" a case of allergies and swollen feet.  We brought him home with what I told the kids was "more pills than Grandpa takes"**: steroidal anti-inflammatories, allergy meds, fish oil for his liver (to off-set the anti-inflammatories), foot soak, a mystery medication, and antibiotics.    Here's a picture of me soaking my dog's feet, which I'm supposed to do twice a day.  His tongue is prominent in the photo because he licks peanut butter off a spoon while I torture him.  

(**At Thanksgiving dinner, my dad disabused me of this exaggeration -- Miser Dog takes 'only' 6 meds, whereas Dad takes 7--10, depending on how many of his guinea-pig medicines are actually placebos.  At any rate, the dog meds seem to be having the desired effect so far, thank goodness.)

We had a lovely Thanksgiving in the Miser Family tradition, with family (Dad and his wife brought some great homemade pies) and also with students from far-flung countries.  And this year, I had lots of help preparing food.  N-son helped by chopping vegetables with his new ceramic knife -- thanks, N-son's aunt!

As if that weren't enough excitement, on Saturday I got to "unwrap" another gift: my granddaughter Baby A (and oh, yeah, K-daughter) came back home and will be with us for the foreseeable future. I've missed having them both so far away, where "far" is measured by Lancaster standards: a daunting half-hour drive from the house.   Now they'll be just a stair-climb away again.

Cardboard boxes are the best toys ever.

With all that going on, it seems like minor news to say that J-son got to visit his birth mom for Thanksgiving, and that my husband rode his bike to Philly yet again, that I-daughter and I got to go see Tuba Christmas (one of my favorite down-town events) and that my husband and I went to Philadelphia to see the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But all that happened, too!

And that's about it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

What it's like to work in a soup kitchen

What surprised me most the first time I volunteered to serve breakfast at our homeless shelter, a year and a half ago, was the children:  Girls with their hair done in braids and barrettes, wearing sparkle backpacks, school uniforms neatly arranged.  Toddlers in pajamas. Wide-eyed babies in strollers.  I really was expecting the wild-eyed smelly bearded guys, not the adorable little kids headed for another day in second grade.

The first time few times I volunteered to serve breakfast at our local homeless shelter, I was wondering, "What do I say?  How do I make these people comfortable with going through a soup kitchen line?"  The more I returned, the more I realized that almost all of the guests at the soup kitchen know the routine, and they felt more comfortable there than I did (usually as in "stable", and rarely as in "entitled").

Over time, I've built relationships and sometimes even friendships with the people who come in.  Not the "I need a few bucks" kind of a relationship I thought I'd have to be careful about -- not one person has ever hinted at money to me -- but a face-lights-up, "oh!  Glad to see you", kind of relationship.  I've tutored one guy in math, traded bike stories with another, read Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the bus to a bunch of kids.

And after getting used to the stability of it all, it's disconcerting to have people just disappear.   A guy named Teddy and I developed a routine of talking about bikes and about strategies for cold-weather biking.  One day he asked me to "Pray for me; I've got a job interview today.  I hope it goes well."  And then I never saw him again.  Moving out of the shelter and back into "mainstream" life is the point, of course, but it's disconcerting just to have someone I like vanish into thin air.

In the material sense, I've come to learn some neat stuff about what goes on in large kitchens. I love the giant dishwashers, the ladles and stainless steel trays, the machine that washes and peels potatoes (super cool!), the ease with which things get labeled and sorted and stowed away in plain sight.  Cleaning the kitchen there after serving breakfast to 100 people is faster and more intuitive than cleaning the kitchen in my own home.

Kind of ironically, serving people food that has been donated to the shelter is now my most significant regular contact with trash and waste.  We use washable plates and glasses, but disposable (plastic) tableware and disposable (styrofoam) bowls and disposable (paper) napkins.  Also disposable hair nets and gloves (although washable aprons).   We fill several large trashcans each day with uneaten food, with packaging, and with disposable products.  Sigh.

And of course, for N-son, volunteering at the soup kitchen over the summer has been transformative.  He's decided (as only a teenager can decide) that he wants to go into the culinary arts, so much so that he now spends half a day at a culinary training center as part of his high school curriculum.  But he learned so much more: he learned about overcoming obstacles, about persistence, and about how all that can lead to compassion.  As I wrote in September,
[N-son] came home  talking about making mac-n-cheese from scratch, learning to cut fruit quickly, the importance of no-skid shoes, the proper technique for mopping (or "moping", as he spelled it). He interviewed the cooks about what it had been like to be homeless, and he heard story after story of wanting to make amends, to give back, to make the most of their second chances.
I go there once a week now, and it's a part of my routine that I look forward to each week.  And N-son goes back whenever he gets a day off of school.  Next semester, my teaching schedule will mean I can't serve breakfast there, and I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out whether I can fit a lunch-time volunteering routine into my academic schedule.  We'll see!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Birthday, sports, more sports, and cleaning advice

tired boxers
Saturday, N-son turned 17!

We celebrated with a dinner Friday night and with lots of sports on Saturday. (I ran with my friends, J-son had a sparring match against a professional boxer in which he actually did pretty well, and N-son had a squash match). It was a lot of fun celebrating at dinner that night, because I-daughter cooked her signature processed-food dish (mac-n-cheese from a box with hotdogs and garlic mixed in), while I tried to balance things out with the whole foods (salad and steamed vegetables). Throw in a few good friends and a chocolate cake, and lots of fun was had by all.

In other news, N-son is the captain of his squash team. I mentioned that in the update last week, I think, but his two local sisters missed the fact because of the other election-based-stuff, so I thought that good news would bear repeating.

My husband flew to San Francisco last week, rode his bike up and down as many hills as he could, and then flew back. He's recovering from jet lag now, which is treating by riding his bike in blustery winds here on the East Coast.

And me, last week was "Calculus Exam" week for me: I led the review sessions, gave the exam, graded the exam, gave it back, and counseled the students who needed counseling afterward. That pretty much ate up my week.

I've added a photo from J-son's boxing gym: it's a sign on the wall that says, "Please keep our gym safe and clean. If you get a bloody nose, wipe up after yourself. Thank you". That goes for calculus exams, too.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

From bags to tags: making a small difference

 Last year, I blogged a bit about writing "as nice a nasty-gram as I could" because of plastic bags.  A local scout troop collects food for local food banks -- something I commend in my city, which has a large percentage of people facing food insecurity.  But the collection involved rubber-banding plastic bags to neighbor's front doors.   I hunted down as best I could the person in charge of this, who . . . to my surprise . . . totally agreed with me that his scouts ought to do paper tags instead of plastic bags.  He'd been overruled by others around him, and said that my letter would him make the argument for change next year.

And sure enough, as a follow up, here's the letter that we got late last week on nextdoor. com (a social media site that I'm loving being a part of):
Today, Scouts from Pack XYZ placed door hangers on neighbors doors announcing our annual non-perishable food and personal item drive. Based on lots of feedback from neighbors, we decided to do away with the awful white plastic bags that inevitably blew through the streets following our distribution. 
We ask that you if would please take a plastic bag(s) or a paper bag(s), fill it with non-perishable canned goods (preferably those that are not expired) and place them on your front door step next Saturday, November 19th by 8AM, we'd be grateful. Our Pack collects the food and donates it to [Church Food Pantry] on [Nearby] Avenue.  
Thanks for supporting Scouting for Food and helping us support those in need this holiday season.
I'm not really sure that there was "lots of feedback from neighbors"; I suspect it was mostly me.  But whether I was the only one to polite-kvetch or not, I am really glad to have been part of the feedback that makes this tiny little bit of positive change possible.   

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Family update -- with and without election reflection

Here's the family update, starting with the light, cheery news:

My husband made a social visit in Philly, schmoozing with his former co-workers. J-son (aka, "Man of Many Mothers") returned from a visit with his birth mother to spend the week here with his adoptive mother (me), and is now gone for the weekend, visiting his former foster mother.  N-son was named captain of his squash team by his coach, who praises his dedication and hard work.  And me, I've been making good progress on my latest math paper -- it's good for the soul to be doing math!

**  The less cheery, election-related stuff **

But of course, the election results loom large. All of my over-18 Pennsylvania off-spring voted, but as large as my family is, our votes weren't enough to carry the state for Clinton.  (Below, there's a photo of a proud J-son at the polling place).  My husband has since sworn off of all political podcasts and returned to WW2 podcasts, just to ease his stress.   J-son had to mediate a heated discussion in school cafeteria between a Trump supporter and a Clinton mourner.  

On my campus, I've had students in shock, including one student who broke down sobbing in my office -- she and her 3-year-old niece were born in the U.S., but the rest of her family has lived here for decades undocumented, and she's terrified of the family being torn apart.  Our campus is a microcosm of the state, with some students wearing Trump caps, other students afraid to wear Trump caps, some students grieving over Clinton's loss, many students declaring solidarity with their non-white students, and vocal majority of us condemning the swastika inside a star of David that appeared on a classroom blackboard late one evening.  

In response, I've self-medicated with mathematics (hence, the productivity).  But also, N-son and I have both continued volunteering at our local soup kitchen, and I joined the Environmental Defense Fund, and started sending letters through the Union of Concerned Scientists website to people who have the power to defend the climate from the catastrophe of deregulation.

One of the advantages of squandering my teenage years memorizing poetry and speeches is that sometimes I carry consolation around in my head.  And so this week, I've been chewing over and over on these words that President Lincoln spoke to a nation that was even more divided than we are, reminding us that our nation was "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal".  And he then called us to action to defend these ideals:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Life on November ninth

 I listened to this, this afternoon, tearing up just a bit.
This is painful and it will be for a long time.  But I want you to remember this: 
Our campaign was never about one person, or even one election.  It was about the country we love, and about building an America that's hopeful, inclusive, and big-hearted.  We have seen that our nation is more deeply divided than we thought, but I still believe in America, and I always will. And if you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future.   
Donald Trump is going to be our president.  We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.  Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power.  And we don't just respect that; we cherish it.
From the concession speech of Hillary Clinton (12 minutes and 13 seconds). 

I'm doing my best to work on cherishing right now.   (I meant that seriously, not in a snarky way.)  And also on this:
Our constitutional democracy demands our participation, not just every four years, but all the time.  So let's do all we can to keep advancing the causes and values we all hold dear.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Scrounging Pizza: a family update

Here's an update on the family this week.

Our family ate pizza for dinner on Thursday.  That doesn't sound like news, but it's a picture into what it's like to live in my home.  Every Thursday, my College has a giant lunchtime talk, and they serve pizza to the hundreds of people who show up.  Often, there's leftover pizza, and the servers have discovered that "Professor MiserMom" loves to scrounge/save the extra food.  So every once in a while, I get to bring a couple of boxes of pizza home.  

A few years ago, when the boys were in maximum-growth-mode, I'd bring home four boxes of pizza, and they'd all be gone long before bedtime (aka, "second dinner time").  But this week, I only brought home two boxes, and we ate only one pizza between the four of us at dinner . . . the boys are done with their growth spurts.  But I'm not done with my scrounging!

In other news . . . 
J-son travelled up to the Hamptons for a boxing match, one that didn't happen.  From there, he went to Philadelphia (amid the SEPTA strike), where he's spending a bit of time with his birth mom. 

N-son continues to enjoy ROTC (he's started signing his letters, "N-son Miserchild, Rank 4th Class Cadet").  He had me take several photos of him in his dress uniform and told me I needed to post this one here. 

My husband has been glued to FiveThirtyEight, when he's not out on his bike (the weather has been lovely for bike riding).  We're both very, very much looking forward to Tuesday, and thinking hopeful thoughts.

And me, I got page proofs from a paper I wrote and submitted and obsessed over last year; it's so wonderful seeing this baby finally about to come out in print!

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Halloween Dinner

The table decorated with pumpkins
(which multiplied like rabbits in my yard this year)
and a lamp decorated with Halloween-themed scarves.

The highlight of the week in the Miser Mom Household was our annual "Halloween Dinner".  We had a bunch of current and former students join us, and we dressed in costumes (some of us dressed as "college students", but others dressed as boxers, or army guys, or math queens, or -- most creatively -- Ursula the Sea Witch!).   

I want to say, I love the fact that I get to have students join me for dinner, and that alumni of mine still come back to visit.  I like feeling like what I'm doing now is touching the future, and that what I did in the past still matters now . . . not to mention, I like eating!

And for dinner, we served
  • Zombie Eyeballs,
  • Salted Rat Brains,
  • Mexican Monkey Skulls, and
  • Great Green Globs of Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts.

(In more ordinary terms, these would be (a) deviled eggs, (b) steamed cauliflower, (c) stuffed peppers pre-carved like jack-o-lanterns, and (d) spaghetti and bok choy in a peanut/soy sauce).  Lots of fun was had by all.

In other news . . . 

N-son's big news of the week is that -- in addition to doing culinary arts in the mornings -- he has now been signed up for ROTC during 7th and sometimes 8th period.  So he has a very small window of pure academics in the middle of the day, but he is SO HAPPY with his schedule.  He loves-loves-loves dressing in his uniform and parading around the house and playing Toby Keith songs on his phone.  (If you aren't familiar with Toby Keith, he's a Country singer who is very pro-American-soldier-good-ole-boy).

J-son, in the meanwhile, continues to love his electronics class.  He's working hard at that, and is looking forward to having three periods of electronics in a row next year.  My husbandever the gear-head, has a blast working on homework with J-son.  Somehow, they never had quite this much fun solving algebraic linear equations for his math class, but Ohm's Law apparently rocks.

Even as I write this, the men-folk are down in Richmond visiting my step-daughter and my son-in-law.  I'm at home with lots of time to do the committee work that's been piling up around me, but instead I spent two hours today cutting out monster masks for next year's Halloween dinner.  Which sounds to me like a good trade-off, really.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

As easy as apple . . . sauce!

My friend June made her annual stop at a nearby orchard and brought me a bushel of apples for $16.  This time of year, local apples are abundant and inexpensive (not to mention delicious!).

Applesauce might very well be a sort of a gateway drug for future canners, because applesauce is so easy.  First of all, the ingredients of applesauce are minimal:  apples, plus a tiny bit of water.  Second of all, all the cooking that goes with applesauce happens when the weather is cool, so (unlike in August when the tomatoes and peaches are steaming up my kitchen) heating up a pot of hot apples makes the house feel better, not worse.  And finally, the actual making of the apple sauce is surprisingly simple, especially if you like including the peels in the applesauce (like I do).

The steps of making apple sauce are basic: chop them, heat them, and mash them.  To cut them up, I've used an apple peeler corer in the past, but this year decided just to cut each apple into eighths and then remove the core (triangled wedge).  N-son, with his growing confidence because of his culinary arts training, started on this even before I got home from church, and we worked happily on this together while listening to Chris Thile make his debut as the host of Prairie Home Companion.

We tossed the cut-up pieces into a pot with a small amount of water (about a half-inch, enough to prevent scorching the apples), and then heated up the apples until they got soft.  I used a potato masher, followed by a stick blender that I scored at one of our annual Bad Gift Exchange parties.

At that point, the applesauce was done!  To summarize, all you do is chop them, heat them, and mash them.  No extra ingredients (aside from a bit of water) needed, no special thermometers.  So it's a really quick and easy food to make.

To can the applesauce, you put the applesauce in jars and then boil the jars for 20 minutes (if they're quart jars) or 15 minutes (if they're pint jars).  You'll need actual canning jars and jar grabbers, but that's the only special equipment you need -- you could use a spaghetti pot for canning, if it's deep enough that the jars can be completely underwater.

For us, this past weekend, canning 19 quarts of applesauce took three-and-a-half hours: that's the time from opening up the bags to putting away the freshly-washed pots.  If you start with fewer apples, of course this will take you less time, and there's no reason you need to do so many at once -- you could can just one pint of applesauce if you wanted.

My favorite step-by-step site for canning directions is here.

Canning apples was so easy, that I decided to try my hand at making my own apple cider vinegar as well -- this will be my first attempt.  Basically, I just put the apple scraps (cores) in glass jars with water and a bit of sugar, and I'll wait a month or so and vinegar will magically appear.  Or something.  I'm mostly following the directions from the PrairieHomestead site (no relation to Chris Thile, as far as I can tell).  Advice is welcome.  

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Miser Family update, pumpkin version

Here's the latest family update.

The highlight of the week for the family was pumpkin carving.  This year, a large patch of small pumpkins took over our back yard.

Earlier today, N-son and I went out to pick them and bring them into the house.

About once a week, we have what we call "Family Fun Night", often with I-daughter and K-daughter returning to the home to join in.  This week, we made faces (pumpkin faces, that is).  My granddaughter Baby-A loved playing with the pumpkin brains and then replacing the pumpkin skull cap back onto the cranium, over and over and over again.  

Why wasn't J-son at the family pumpkin surgery festival?  Well, J-son made friends with connections; he's spending the weekend hiking and kayaking with them in the Poconos.  And my husband got to do more than he'd planned of his favorite activity: he rode his bike to Philly, and then, because a flat tire on the car (not on the bike!) prevented me from joining him there, he rode his bike and the train back home.  It was a long ride!

As for me, I gave back calculus exams this week.  I actually liked taking tests when I was in college, because I had a chance to do well.  But as a professor, it's always the case that half of my students do below average, so I really dread giving back those exams. Sigh. Fortunately, the first exam is now behind us, and we're moving on to the part of the semester that my students feel most comfortable with, so we've got another few weeks of fun stuff before the next midterm rears its ugly pumpkin head at us.