Tuesday, May 30, 2017

On balance

For a variety of reasons, I keep finding myself in "how to retire well" seminars.  My church is organizing one of these as one of our regular adult Sunday school classes, and my college reunion likewise had a session that a bunch of my buddies decided to go to.  All of a sudden, I'm surrounded by people who are starting to think seriously about something I've been thinking about for decades . . . it's sort of fun.

At any rate, the topics range over subjects that I pretty much expected. There's discussion and philosophizing about finding purpose, about staying socially connected, about dealing with extra time, about dealing with decreasing health.  There's not so much talk about money: I'm not sure whether that's "politeness" or because for most of the people in the room, the money part is assumed to be what it is, or what.

On the topic of health, I've actually learned one new thing.  Amid all the discussions of dealing with dementia and decreasing mobility and other joy-killing topics, the presenters keep returning to the wonders of exercise ("the fountain of youth", one physician described it).  Praise of exercise is not the new thing to me.  What was new was that each of these docs said that a good exercise program has four components -- more than the three components I'd always heard of so far.

The three exercise aspects I'd been schooled to work on were aerobics, strength, and flexibility.  To this, the doctors added balance.  Cool!  I can totally see why working on balance is important, watching how my friends and family and I move differently as we get older.

At any rate, these discussions make me extra glad that I started doing this one additional drill (described below) a couple of years ago.  I picked this drill up as a way to keep the muscles around my knees strong; I've discovered it actually helps strengthen my knees and my ankles and my legs .... and (drum roll . . . ) it's super for working on balance.
Here's the drill.  Stand on one foot.  Imagine there are four handkerchiefs on the floor in front of you: one each at 9 o'clock, 11 o'clock, 1 o'clock, and 3 o'clock.  Squat down (bending knee and hips to keep your knee over your foot) to pretend-pick-up each one of these, one at a time -- so you do four squats.  Then do four more, to pretend-put the handkerchiefs back.  Do the same pick-up/put-down routine again with the other foot.

I do this three times through -- once with my left hand, once with my right hand, and once with both hands.  (I switch hands mostly so that I don't have to keep count, because I hate counting things; the hand I'm using tells me how far along I am). This exercise takes a lot of concentration, a lot of balance, and it really does help to keep those valuable ankle and knee joints stronger.  It even works my lower back a bit.

This is the part where I am supposed to write a clever conclusion to the post -- something about "the balance of life" or some such.  I don't have a clever conclusion.  I just wanted to write up a post about this drill that N-son's squash coach taught me a bunch of years ago, and that I've liked doing, and that I now know has been even better for me than I had originally thought.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Miser Family update, reunion edition

Life continues to be rich and full in the Miser Mom household.

Last week I wrote about N-son's performances and school news; what I didn't say is that he was on the verge of becoming a formal member of our church (a process which includes taking theology classes during Sunday school for several weeks, and then taking vows in front of the congregation).  I've included some pictures of the vows below.  My husband and I are super proud of him.

As for me, I've had a week of reconnecting.  Out of the blue I got an email from a pair of my former favorite students, from completely different classes, who bumped into each other in a bar, and then, as they said, "Pretty crazy that two people randomly meet in a bar, realize they went to fandm, and then the first person they talk about is you."  
Friday morning, I had another former student visit for waffle brunch, and he and his wife told me they're expecting twins.  yay! I'm going to be a grandma again (of sorts)!   Then, On Friday and Saturday, then I went to my 30th college reunion and got to reconnect with a bunch of classmates (including my freshman roommates, who as freshmen looked very much like the pictures below, but less than half as old).  And tomorrow --- which I know is next week's news, but which thematically fits well with the "reconnecting" theme --- I'm going to another former student's wedding.  

J-son has met a new friend named Rafael who has spent the night here, and who hosted J-son in return another night or two.  J-son is still enjoying boxing and hoping to make it a long-term profession.  We're still at odds trying to think about what might be the best plan for him next year -- his final year of high school, now that welding has fallen through.  Traditional classes don't hold much appeal for him, either, so we're glad for his social connections and boxing connections, and thinking hard about how these might help shape a more professional future for him.

My granddaughter Baby-A is obsessed with lawnmowers.  Every time we head out the back door, she mentions the lawnmower (and she does so over and over, in the way that only a two year old can).  Often, indoors she'll invoke the awesomeness  of the "mawnmower", as well.  She gives us a play-by-play description of her uncles N-son and J-son when they're mowing the lawn.  So, by now, all six of us who are living here in my home get the giggles whenever we think of lawnmowers.  

My husband went to Philadelphia for his weekly "Tuesdays with Toomey" protest, and he went to New York City where he surrendered his passport to the Russian consulate; he'll pick up his passport together with a visa from them next week.  The bike trip from Odessa to Finland is getting closer and closer, and we're all getting more and more excited.

I've been reading through many old letters my grandfather wrote, trying to figure out which ones to save for posterity.  He was an avid and encouraging letter writer, and it's lots of fun to see history through his eyes.  He wrote so many letters I don't want to try to save them all.  But I thought I'd rescue this one "PS" he sent to my mom and dad in November of 1965, a few months after he'd been informed that my mom was pregnant (with me!).  

What charge is placed against an elephant who lives in a messy house?
Ans;  Trunk and disorderly.  Hurry up and produce me an heir so that she-she-them may grow up and provide Gramps with a new generation of proper mentality at least until age 6, to appreciate his wonderful gags.

And indeed, I do appreciate his gags, even at almost ten-times-age-6.  

Monday, May 22, 2017

Selling students' stuff

On Sunday, my college hosted our now-annual end-of-year yard sale, where we sell of the stuff our students leave behind.   Now, I don't work at a humongous college.  (We bill ourselves as a "small liberal arts college", with fewer than 3000 students).

Futons, shelves, floor lamps, table lamps, toasters, printers, fans . . . 

And because of the way our dorms are set up (with older students living off campus), we pretty much only get to sell things that the departing first-year students left behind, with some stuff from sophomores as well, but hardly any donations from juniors or seniors.  So we're missing the "good" stuff from our many apartment dwellers.

pillows, foam rolls, mattress pads
(in another area, we had piles upon piles of bed and bath linens)

So we only got castoffs from a fraction of our students, and even then, we only got fraction of what those students discarded, because many students tossed whatever wouldn't fit into their cars into the dumpsters outside the dorms.  Some people are just too rushed/lazy/distracted/whatever to sort things, even though we tried really hard to make the donation areas highly visible and easy.  
Toys, clothes, and (just out of sight) tables of household goods,
food, laundry detergent, toiletries, school supplies, books, . . . 
In spite of the winnowing -- that is, although we rescued only a fraction of the discards from only a fraction of the students at a fairly small school -- we managed to make use of much of our basketball gym, with tables and tables of goods, and piles and piles of clothes, and lots and lots of household items for sale.

A view from my "check out" stand, at one corner of the gym.

The pictures above look devoid of people because I took them all just before we opened the doors to the community.  (The people in light blue shirts are all the volunteers who are helping to staff the event).  When we open the doors at noon, it's like a Rolling Stones concert -- people just pour in.  Seriously, they wait for an hour before the sale starts in a line that stretches around the block, and within three minutes of the doors opening we have hundreds of people filling up this gym.    I took the picture below just as the doors opened -- and after that, I couldn't take photos because I was so busy as the check-out person.

The crowd entering the sale, at 12:00 exactly.
We had several hundred people fill the gym.

We sell all this stuff at the very high end of Miser Mom prices:  $1 per item, or $5 per grocery bag, or $15 per garbage bag.  Even at those prices, we made almost $3000, all of which is going to local charities.

This event is one of my favorite days of the year, because it's what some of my friends call a "Triple Win":

  • a win, because we keep tons of stuff out of the landfill, 
  • a win again because community members (some of them, resettled refugees) get to furnish their homes and get clothes for bargain prices, and 
  • a third win because all the money goes to help other good causes.  
I'd add a fourth and maybe even a fifth possible win:

  • organizing this event has built and strengthened ties between our college and some of the groups that help up us with the carrying/sorting/pricing/staffing of the event.  I'm loving the stronger social network.
  • And finally, almost anyone I've seen who has ever been to this sale marvels at how much the students leave behind, and they are very likely to think twice about how they buy (or not) things for their own college-bound children.  Or maybe even how they buy things for themselves.
This last point feels like a mantra of mine:  we do live in a world of abundance -- it's so easy to live on the leftovers of others around us, if you have the patience and the knowledge of how to discover where those leftovers become available.  

But mostly, I just love this yard sale that we do every year.  Every year, when we clean up the gym at 3:00, we compare the small amount of bags and boxes we have remaining against the mounds and mounds and mounds of material goods we started with, and we feel so good about rescuing so many perfectly good items from their untimely demise in a landfill.  Then we go home and rest our achey muscles, and admire our "new" pair of shoes or office chair or some such, and we pack up the supplies to get ready for next year's sale.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Miser Family Update: culinary/jobs/body/Russia version

N-son leads the family in having noteworthy news this week.  Firstly, he had an end-of-year squash banquet (see the photo, below, of him chatting with K-daughter at this event);
secondly, he played drums for a kick-butt pair of songs at an open-mic night at a nearby restaurant (see the photo of him and the other musicians breaking down the drum set afterward).
And perhaps happiest of all, he found out he's making it into next year's all day culinary arts program through his high school.  Whoop!  That's fantastic news indeed!

Speaking of K-daughter, she's gotten a part-time job at our local Y, which is another cause for celebration around here.  She's looking for even more substantial jobs, and has gotten a few good nibbles.  We're all optimistic.  I'm really enjoying the many opportunities I'm getting to spend time with my granddaughter Baby-A.

J-son's new profile photo
J-son sparred again this week, and again won his sparring match.  Also, he updated his Facebook profile photo.  This isn't the kind of thing I'd normally consider newsworthy, but his new photo (taken by a friend of his) is a really vivid illustration of how much he's grown -- metaphorically and literally -- since he joined our family.  

J-son and N-son in 2010,
when J-son first moved into our home
I'm loving the "after" and "before" pictures I included below.  J-son doesn't so much love the "before" pictures -- but that's really the point, isn't it?  (My sister will probably recognize the boxing-glove necklace he's wearing, which she gave him for Christmas.  He loves that bit of bling).

My husband is riding home from his latest 100-mile bike ride even as I type this blog post.  He's getting more and more excited about his trip to Russia.  Earlier this week, he took the train to New York City to visit the Russian consulate, in hopes of getting his visa.  Alas, he didn't have the right paperwork and was sent home to try again -- so he's training both athletically and bureaucratically now.   Earlier in the week, he attended his regular "Tuesdays with Toomey" protest (this week's theme: incarceration and race).

As for me, my husband and I both voted in the under-appreciated odd-year primary races, which makes me feel highly virtuous.  Yay, civic duty!  And as May grows old,  I'm doing my best to transition into summer mode.  For me, "summer" means three things: 
  1. more time for math (my summer research student started working with me this week, plus I'm throwing myself into my next book);
  2. better weather for gardening (I transplanted my tomatoes, and I started getting super serious about weeding and staking the other garden beds);
  3. dedication to fitness.  (I've added upper body exercises into my mostly-running regimen, in hopes of getting my strength back.  My December bike crash is mostly a distant memory, except for the fact that my left arm strength is a pitiful shadow of what it once was. I don't want to lose my pre-crash strength permanently).

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Living frugal water

So, a week or two ago, my pastor preached on John Chapter 4-something, the woman at the well.  This is the passage where Jesus tells a Samaritan woman (not an one of the Chosen People, but one of those, y'know, other people) that he's Living Water.  And that anyone who drinks of Him will never go thirsty.  And he suggests pretty strongly that she ought to get the recipe for this drink, and she agrees and essentially posts it up to Pinterest.

As my pastor was preaching along, I doodled in my church bulletin, in the white space reserved for taking notes about the sermon.   I'm pretty good at listening, but I'm really pretty awful at taking notes, and I admit I sort of drift into half-listening while half-thinking-about-math.  Ducks apparently sleep with half of their brains as they keep guard with the other half; maybe that's what I'm doing in church, too.

What I doodled sort of looks like a building with floors and no walls, drawn in two-point perspective. but it has geometric applications to something called Steiner conics. You don't need to know the details; suffice it to say that what I was drawing was actually kind of related to my research (kind of sort of), and that I could doodle it while being my own species of Theology-Math Duck.

Math is where I go when I'm bored.  Math is where I go when I'm curious.  This past year, when I was swamped with work on a deadline-intensive, paper-work-heavy committee, I procrastinated by doing math.  And so now, even when I'm sitting around in a pew on Sunday morning -- worshiping and praying and then waiting to hear my faith expounded in a new light -- I worship while doodling math.

The sermon made me appreciate this nerdy side of me all the more.  My People, when we get to this chapter of the New Testament, we love to quote how John Piper described an answer to his own questioning 1988 prayer about why the heck Living Water didn't make him somehow stop being thirsty. The answer he got as he knelt was this:
When you drink my water it doesn’t destroy thirst. For then what need would you have of my water after that? When you drink my water it makes a spring in you. A spring satisfies thirst not by removing the need you have for water, but by being there to drink from when you get thirsty. Again and again and again. 
Not that the Lord of the Universe is the same thing as Steiner conics, mind you, but there's some wonderful parallel there about promising to be there to satisfy and refresh you exactly when you need it.

A friend of ours has had her daughter move back home recently.  The daughter is/was married to a guy with a heroin addiction.  Heroin is not, I think, Living Water.  The daughter coped with her situation by online shopping for Every Wonderful Thing, and she is now broke, surrounded by piles and piles of things she has no room for, and facing bankruptcy.  Online shopping is also not Living Water, I'd wager.

Neither is projective geometry the same thing as Living Water, I have to admit.  But as I did my Duck-listen to the Sunday sermon, I couldn't help but think about how glad I am for the kinds of desires that people can have that nurture us, rather than destroy us.  And how many of those build-you-up-and-feed-you desires are really frugal at heart.  I'm thinking of
  • going running with friends, and
  • memorizing poetry, and
  • bike riding (for my husband), and
  • playing drums (for N-son), and
  • reading books, and 
  • creating art out of plain stuff and fancy imagination, and 
  • a really good quiet time (praying or meditating or walking or such).
How wonderful it is to practice these things that ground us, that fill us, that make us stronger and happier and fill our lives (and maybe those around us) with richness.  

I have no idea what my pastor would think about this.  Maybe it's sacrilege to draw these kinds of parallels between that which is Holy and that which is earthly.  On the other hand, it was the Son of God Himself who compared his divinity to one of the most mundane and familiar molecules on earth, so maybe it's not so horrible that the ducks and I paddle around half here, half elsewhere.   I dunno.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Miser Family Update: Bones, Jobs, and Hat version

Life continues to be rich and full in the Miser Mom household.

chicken bones, a la commemoration
On Tuesday, we celebrated (?) the ten-year anniversary of my husband's bike accident.  Okay, I know he's had *lots* of bike accidents, and we don't commemorate *all* of them.  The accident with the ten-year anniversary was the only crash he had where he broke his neck, and fortunately he got better.  So we celebrated with chicken, and chicken bones.   Because broken bones.

What else happened this week?  I trash-picked an awesome easel for my granddaughter Baby-A, and she and K-daughter have been loving using it.  There is mondo Art happening in my home.  Speaking of K-daughter and Baby-A, I have a lovely picture of them both doing head stands together.  Adorable.

N-son got a job -- he's doing yard work for a family in our neighborhood. Since I've been nagging both of my sons on a semi-regular basis about the importance of getting summer jobs, I am very, very (very) happy about this right now.

J-son got a sneak peek at the welding program that he'd signed up for next year.  And, unfortunately, he decided that this particular welding program is not for him.  (His dad and I agree, reluctantly).  J-son showed up for orientation and faced an auditorium full of rural white farm kids.  This is definitely *not* his social scene . . . and since J-son is more sensitive to social cues than, say, N-son is, this really isn't a good fit for him.  We're exploring alternatives for his senior year of high school, while looking forward to post-high school welding programs at our nearby excellent school of technology.  But it is a bit of a bummer that he won't do welding in his senior year.
the easel I trash-picked from the side of the road,
already heavily decorated

I-daughter has headed overseas; if she's reading this blog post, it's because she found an internet connection in Ireland, where she's on an Emerald Island Knitting Tour. Is that cool, or what?!?

Now that classes have ended, my husband has divided his time somewhat equally between (1) worrying about our sons, (2) attending political protests, and (3) getting ready for his trans-Russia bike ride (which is now less than a month away).  There is lots of paperwork involved in all three of these (especially 1 and 3), and there are important doctor visits regarding 3.  

And me, I have been banging out the latest draft of one of my math papers, plus I got to go to Commencement.  Dad tells me that his dad, my grandfather, used to say, "I teach for free, but they don't pay me nearly enough to go to Commencement."  But I love going to Commencement.  This year I'm especially happy that I have my cap and gown that Mom and Dad got for me 25 years ago.  I almost lost my cap after Convocation in August, and I've spent months agonizing over the loss.  But I discovered early this week that my cap had gotten a promotion -- it had inadvertently been packed up with all the Trustee caps and gowns.  My cap and I were reunited on Tuesday when the Trustee gowns were unpacked, and I got to wear it today (Saturday) with all due pomp and splendor.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Getting into a pickle (juice)

Vegetable season is upon us.  Our CSA shares have started rolling in again.  Huzzah!

Of course, together with an abundance of vegetables comes an abundance of vegetable preparation.  I've said before that I've become a fan of trying to chop and store the veggies right away so that (a) they don't wilt before we get to them and (b) they look like snacks or dinner or lunch, instead of like potted plants taking up space in the fridge.

Here's one of my fave helpers these past few weeks:  two jars of pickle juice, left over from purchased pickles my husband and sons like.

The reason that one jar of juice looks red is because it held radishes for a while (and then we ate the radishes).

Pickle brine is wonderful for a few reasons.  One reason is that the combination of vinegar and salt (mostly the vinegar) serves as a preservative, keeping the food from going bad.  The traditional use of pickling is to preserve summer food long into winter, but it also works for preserving Tuesday food well into the weekend.  At any rate, my radishes never got soggy or wilty, even though I left them in the jar on the counter for several days before we actually got around to taste-testing them.  (In fact, leaving them out on the counter is better for pickling them than sticking them in the fridge).

The other big reason that pickle brine is wonderful is that pickle brine adds taste, making veggies even more yummy.  People love acidic foods (soft drinks being a prime example of this preference gone bad), and salt is so danged good it's become a Biblical metaphor for awesomeness.  Plus, there are a few other sugars and spices in the commercial pickles that just add to the overall flavor. I don't think that any of my kids or husband would have looked at a bowl of sliced radishes and thought, Yum!  Snack!  But pickled radishes are actually quite munch-able.

If you're a pickle neophyte, you'll be happy to hear that learning to pickle foods is like learning checkers: the basic rules are so easy anyone can start playing, but if you're super serious, you can get more complicated.  The basic rules of pickling are these:
  1. wash and cut up the vegetables
  2. put them in the brine.
That's it.  As you learn more about pickling you learn things like, the flavor deepens if you wait a few days; you can speed-up or enhance the process by heating the brine properly (one recipe I saw suggested leaving the jar on a sunny window sill for the first day); you can muck around with spices; etc.  But since all I want to do is to have my CSA vegetables wind up in people's tummies instead of on the compost heap by the end of the week, steps 1 and 2 are just perfect for us.   I'm not going to go all radichal with my radishes.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Squash that advice

Every once in a while, I get to see the financial world through other people's eyes -- that is, the eyes of people who think of shopping as entertainment, who confuse spending with wealth, and who think of debt as not only normal but also necessary.  I sort of like being in my own frugal bubble most of the time, but  I also don't mind emerging every once in a while to rub elbows with non-frugalists (if that's a word).  I know that those people are out there.   I know that they mostly get along fine in their non-frugal lives.   But I didn't think that those people would masquerade as financial advisors for young adults.

And yet, I was wrong.  Last fall, N-son's squash team coach decided to do the very admirable thing (I thought) of bringing in an "expert" from a local Credit Union to give a presentation to the players on the team and their families. We got to have pizza, we "learned" about finances, and we had a Q&A at the end.  I was totally jazzed for this event, figuring it would be great to have my kids hear about the importance of financial prudence from someone other than me, for a change.  But sheesh!   If you're going to teach kids to be responsible with money, maybe you ought to have the teacher be someone who is actually responsible with money, y'know?

The "teacher" in this scenario was a relatively young person who worked at a nearby Credit Union.  She'd been provided with a script and a power point presentation, but it was clear that she didn't entirely understand the script she'd been given, especially when it came to debt.  For example, here are some of the notes I jotted down, once I realized (to my horror) what she was telling these middle/high school kids and their parents.
  • The only way to get a car is with debt, she implied. She and her husband bought a car with a 5-year loan, and her car died after three years.  “Oh well, that’s what happens!”
  • "You want to have a little bit of debt so you build up your credit card rating."
  • "Debt is just a fact of life.    Everybody has debt; I do, too!  Life happens."
  • "The average American has $40,000 of credit card debt."    (How she came up with that number, I do not know.  Nerd wallet says the average debt is $16K, but that's among American households -- not individuals -- and even then, it's only among households that have debt in the first place.  PR newswire says that, contrary to what our presenter said, one in four Americans is debt free.) 
It was not surprising, then then the rest of her presentation was . . . well . . . not exactly the kind of a presentation a Miser Mom would have given.   Her power point said that people should have an emergency account, which she translated as 
  • Get a 3-months-of-expenses savings account in place before you attack debt.
(I know that there are other reasonable people who would agree with her; I just think that attacking high-interest credit card debt is probably more urgent than putting money into a low-interest-bearing savings account, especially if building up that much of a cushion is going to take you a year or more).

Her power point presentation told her that she should urge people to think about long-term financial goals.  This advice, she translated into the following example:
  • "Our long-term goal: My husband and I want to buy a house in five years. "
(I'd have said that a 5-year plan is a medium-term goal; "long-term" goals would be more along the lines of retirement, or children's college funds, or other goals for 10+ years into the future.  If you buy a house but don't have a longer-term savings plan that includes maintenance and upkeep, you're in for a rude awakening when you start getting those repair bills).

Speaking of retirement and long-term savings, she had this to say:  
  • "They say 'Invest with mutual funds', and I guess that’s not a bad thing to do.  It’s okay to invest your money."
Ummm . . .  it's "okay" to invest money?  It's "not bad"?!?!??   This, from the person who works at a credit union?!?  

Sheesh.  What I will say about this presentation is that, when the speaker was done, the other parents started speaking up.  They emphatically told the kids that "if you rack up debt, you'll find out that there are lots of things you want to do in life that become way more expensive, or even impossible".  One of the moms told heartfelt stories about the dangers of credit card debt leading to difficulties renting a decent apartment.  I was worried that if I said anything I'd be too strident, but the other parents had no problem jumping in and starting a bit of a rant.  It was nice to find that I had compadres in the room, after all.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Miser Family update: birthday and chores edition

Life continues to be rich and full in the Miser Mom household.

We celebrated several birthdays this week.  My husband hummed his way through his "Beatles Birthday" -- apparently, I will still need him and I will still feed him when he's 64.  But our Senator Toomey, whom my guy attempts to engage with every Tuesday, did not come out of his office to give my husband a big birthday hug.

Later in the week, we celebrated I-daughter's birthday with even more singing; I-daughter and N-son and a friend and I went to a performance of "Always Patsy Cline", a great show featuring a really good Patsy Cline impersonator who could belt out those songs.  N-son mostly noticed the drummer, who I'll admit was really good, too.  

We got to train up our family for new household jobs.  J-son has long been helping to trim N-son's hair, but this week for the first time he assisted in giving his dad's head a trim. 
And in other training arenas, as we were getting the garden carts ready for service in our college's upcoming yard sale, Baby-A did her best to help pump up the tires.  My guess is she'll need another year or two before she can be truly effective at that job.

As for me, in addition to making chocolate cake and singing songs about going walking after midnight (out in the moonlight) and having Sweet Dreams, I also gave my students their exams, and then I graded the exams, and now I'm done for the semester and looking forward to transitioning into spending my days working on my research.  

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Storing valuable objects where they're valued

Last week, I was honored at my college with what my husband calls a "sustained breathing" award.  I've been at my college for 25 years.  As a result, my provost stood up on stage and said laudatory things about me, and I got a valuable present.

In past years, 25-year veterans had gotten a clock.  (I am a tad wistful for that; I would have loved to get a clock.)  This year, we old-timers got crystal bowls.  To be more specific, we got Waterford crystal bowls, engraved with the name of our college. This is a pricy, momentous gift.


A gift like this is valuable in the sense that it cost my college a wad of dough to get it for me.  But the gift loses a bunch of value in being transferred to me.  In some homes, a bowl like this would grace the place, and make the place more beautiful.   But in my home, with a bunch of ADHD teenagers and a highly active 2-year old grandchild, caring for this bowl means finding protective storage space.  That is, the gift imposes a burden.  If I'd gotten a bowl we could toss in the dishwasher and/or the microwave, we'd have probably figured out a way to incorporate this into our lives, but Waterford crystal . . . not so much.

Ironically, the extra expense that my college incurred by engraving their name on the bowl makes the gift even less valuable, in the sense of being harder to sell -- assuming that I wanted to sell it, which actually, I don't.  I love the place I work, and I'm glad for this token of appreciation that they've given me.  I just want to make sure that the gift can be used in a way it's appreciated.  I want to place this valuable item in a place where it's valued.

So, huzzah for elegant friends. At the reception that followed the Sustained Breathing Acknowledgment Ceremony, I huddled up with some of my college employee buddies.  Some of my buddies are actually pretty classy people, and bowl that was such a storage-encumbrance to me wowed some of them.

And so I'm keeping my bowl --- permanently --- at the home of C, a childless and tasteful person I happen to like having lunch with occasionally.  C and her wife can store the bowl out in plain view, where it can be appreciated without the danger of tennis balls or wrestle-mania endangering it.  I told her that whenever she looks at the bowl, she can think of me.

The Waterford Crystal Bowl
on C's dining room table. Lovely.

This is why it's so danged hard to buy gifts for people, right?  I grew up with Waterford crystal at my parent's home; we used it for special occasions, and I have super-fond memories of carrying it up from its safe place in the basement, unwrapping the goblets from their protective tissue in their carefully divided cardboard boxes.  I loved the after-dinner ritual of hand-washing the glasses in soapy water, rinsing them carefully and setting them on soft towels to dry, and then repackaging them in their tissue-paper-and-boxes for storage again.  I loved these glasses so much, that at my first wedding, I asked for Waterford goblets, in the same pattern as my parents'.

But a dozen years later, I gave the crystal away.   The fact that something is valuable doesn't mean that it's valuable to me.  And in my own version of my own adult life, these goblets were either in storage or at risk of breakage, but they were never part of an elegant and appreciated ritual in my new, grown-up life.  It was better to hand them along to my sister, who could use them at her home.

So this gift that I got from my employer, it actually made me feel a bit guilty.  Like, I ought to be the kind of person who could appreciate this crystal bowl, but instead I'm just too crass for it.  I know that's not what they wanted to say -- that instead they were saying that a pricey gift like this symbolizes the value of the recipient of the gift.

So that's why I'm "keeping" the bowl by gifting it to another person's home.  The college I love, it appreciates me enough that it gives me way more than I could ever want or need, enough that I enjoy it best when I share with others.

But maybe I'll keep my eyes open this yard sale season for a nice clock, just because.

Monday, May 1, 2017

How much money is too much money?

There's a huge difference between "income" and "wealth".   That's the main financial lessons I want my sons to understand right now.

Although I understand the spiritual dangers of having too much money (wealth), with my sons I've lately been dancing the Worry Dance about getting too much money (income).  J-son in particular has found himself persecuted by abundance lately, and the results aren't happy.

Even prudent people have anxiety over what to do with a windfall -- an unexpected tax return, an inheritance.  It's hard to be responsible with a lot of money at once: much, much  harder than being responsible with getting the same amount of money in small increments over the span of many years.  An extreme example that might be familiar would be winning the lottery, or perhaps the example of starring in the NFL. Many tales abound of people in these situations being showered briefly with more money than they know what to do with, and then (because they -- literally, honestly -- do not know what to do with so gosh-darned much money) going broke or even into debt in future years.

Another related example (one that's probably familiar to only the smaller group of personal finance aficionados) is the Millionaire Next Door  concept of "Economic Outpatient Care", the paradox that says that the more money that parents give to their children, the less wealth the children end up accumulating.  The authors of that iconic book argue that encouraging children to be entirely responsible for their own economic outlook leads to greater financial stability than jumping in to help fill gaps.  In particular, the authors give some evidence that giving your kids too much money sets them up for financial ruin.

So what does this all have to do with J-son?

A year or so ago, my husband signed up to start collecting Social Security.  Part of the reason that my guy said "yes" to the SS agent was that he was told our "special needs" children bring us extra money if he started collecting money right away.  The problem with what he was told is that the SS agent was not being entirely forthcoming: the money does not come to "us", and certainly does not come without strings.   We've since gotten dire warnings about the need to return any money that was not devoted to enhancing the lives of our darling adopted sons.  And once the boys turn 18, the money goes not to our checking accounts, but rather directly to our sons.

Last September, J-son turned 18.  And from that day until the day he turns 19-and-two-months, thanks to the Social Security Administration, our government sends him the princely sum of a-bit-more-than-$800 each month.  This money that J-son gets is a huge problem.

Why is it a problem? For one thing, J-son does not need this money.  He doesn't pay us rent or utilities; he doesn't buy groceries.  And if he moves out of our house, he stops getting the money.  This means that a kid with huge impulse-control problems has access to huge amounts of money exactly when he does not need the money.  And once he turns 19 and graduates from high school, he stops getting money.  We have a recipe for disaster on our hands: this money totally gives him everything he needs to develop overwhelming "needs" for money, without any of the structure for promoting financially responsible habits.

I admit that I freaked out when I realized that this situation would be coming down the road toward us.  My freaking resulted in a conversation between the three of us (me, my husband, and J-son) that resulted in agreement that looked like this:
J-son gets to "keep" (= spend) $80 per month, and we'll put the other money into two-year CDs that J-son will be able to access only after he graduates from high school and moves out of the house -- that is, when he really needs the money.
Here was the simple, two-step plan:
  1. Each month J-son gets his check, and deposits it into his credit union, putting $80 into checking and the rest into savings, and then somehow miraculously spends only the money from the checking account.
  2. My husband helps J-son use the money from the savings account to buy two-year CDs which not only yield higher interest rates, but also protect the money from impulse spending.
But an agreement, no matter how fervently agreed to, doesn't necessarily automatically become reality.  And in this case, reality and aspiration diverged pretty quickly.  CDs have minimum purchase prices, and user ID and passwords sometimes become an overwhelming challenge for some people, and so we ended up leaving some of the money in J-son's savings account for a month or so, waiting for the money to pile up into large enough accounts to sock it away.

But the money in the savings account calls to J-son like sirens called to Odysseus, and J-son's mom (me) just isn't as good at bondage as Odysseus's crews.  Also, J-son's dad isn't as anal as I am about getting money into high-yielding CDs as quickly as possible.  As a result, about two months ago, J-son went to a boxing match with his debit card. What started as the simple task of purchasing food for lunch turned into a shoe-buying spree, and $500 later, his savings account had been decimated.

J-son voluntarily gave up his ATM card after that . . . for two months.  But then he snuck into my sewing room to take it back, and he indulged himself in a 7-day, $290 spree of buying snacks for his buddies.   The snack spree came on top of a cell-phone data spree that had reduced his checking account from a high of $48.94 to its current sorry state of $0.88.

I don't have an elegant solution to this impulse-driven, money-fueled problem.  J-son is definitely learning a lot about impulse control (mostly, that he doesn't have it) and about the value of external control (he actually sort of likes it when I take his debit card away).  What he's not learning to do is to spend small amounts of money at a reasonable pace.  He still has no idea of how to budget.  We're going to work on that in the future, but that's an ongoing effort.

But the fact that he has more money than he needs doesn't help.  There really is such a thing as too much money, and that's what J-son has.    Poor, rich kid.