Monday, August 28, 2017

A calendar of special dinners

Penn asked me a while ago if I could describe all our family Special Dinners. This post is a response to that request!

We started doing these dinners a while back (like, two decades ago), with my first round of kids.  Back then, we scheduled the dinners sort of randomly, and they were all one-off affairs.  We had the "Army dinner" (meatloaf, salad, mashed potatoes, and apple pie, all on one plate).  That generated fond memories, with not much desire to re-enact it.  By far the most popular Special Dinner from that era is the No Hands Dinner, which we still do from time to time, to the incredible happiness of all involved.

What almost killed the Special Dinners for all time was the "Green Dinner" (dye all the food green, so as to complement the neon green ketchup that my step-daughters kept telling me was wonderful).  The Green Dinner is now lives in infamy in my family as one of the most reviled of all of our dinners, although I will note that it completely dissuaded my kids from trying to buy neon-colored food in the future, so I figure that the dinner was a win in the long run.  Not to mention, it continues to be a great shared story.   I think every family should have a dinner like that, you know?  It sort of brings us together as a family to have shared that experience together.  Or something.

After the Green Dinner, I had to tread carefully with Special Dinners.  The next dinner therefore was the Chez Lucky dinner, named after our dog at the time, and it was designed to be an elegant dinner for our daughters and their best friends.  We modeled it on one described in the Tightwad Gazette.

In spite of my efforts to Make Special Dinners Great Again, though, the the Green Dinner continued to loom large in family memory, so it wasn't until my step-daughters went to college and J-son and K-daughter joined the house that we could resume the dinners.  Planning in advance seemed to be a good idea, and so we came up with the following list, which was supposed to take us through one year.  We didn't realize at the time that many of these dinners would become Tradition with a capital T and with my kids emphatically telling me when and how I needed to hold these events.    Miss Manners says that when your kids tell you that you're doing something the wrong way, that's evidence you've created a tradition; that's sort of how I know that these dinners have succeeded.

But the other half of success is that after just about every one of these dinners, my kids post their photos on Facebook and brag to their friends that "I have the best family anywhere", and their friends responds that they're "totally jelly" (or jealous, or something like that).

This is roughly how our yearly Special Dinner calendar works out nowadays.
  • January:  New Years' Dinner
    (A regional meal:  pork and sauerkraut on January 1 is supposed to bring good luck).
  • February:  Valentines' Dinner
    heart-shaped anything, red-and-white reuben sandwiches
  • February also:  Black History Month Dinner
    (started as a sort of challenge/dare to me from my sons, but it worked really well and is likely to continue into future years)
  • March:  Zoo Dinner.
    Why a zoo dinner in March?  I have no idea -- I think it was a random kid idea, but it's worked really well for us.  It's silly, and fun, and not too hard to implement. 
  • April:  Money Dinner
    Celebrate Tax Deadline Day.  
  • May:  Cinco (or whatever) de Mayo.
  • June:  Underwater dinner 
  • June / July:  Also, Purple Dress Dinner
  • July:  Flag Dinner
  • August:  DOnnOr O-shaped food, talking with "O" sounds, and donating money)
  • September:  Pirate Dinner.
    Lordy, but this is fun!   And it's become such a tradition that by now my husband hates the turkey legs, but my kids overrule him.  The treasure hunt is sort of insanely popular.
  • October:  Halloween Dinner
    Mummy face meatloaf, "cockroaches", "salted rat brains", and "zombie eyeballs", plus of course costumes.
  • November:  Thanksgiving
  • December:  Car Dinner, to celebrate the anniversary of my husband's driver's license.  We attempted and failed a home version of a car dinner for many years, and finally decided that this dinner works best at a Diner.  So it's our one annual restaurant dinner.  Go figure.

Having done Special Dinners two ways (one: randomly and once-and-done, and two: pre-planned and repeated), there's a big part of me that favors the second way.  Because I really do love methodical creativity, whereas spontaneous creativity is just likely to fizzle for lack of oxygen, time, and energy.  After all, when your kids start pestering you because Pirate Dinner means the treasure hunt that must be done, well, then you do it.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Miser Family Update: last hurrah version

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

If there was a theme this past week, it was "make the most of the last week of summer".  My husband went to lots of cool chemistry events, both in DC and Philadelphia; he biked to Philadelphia; he celebrated his usual Tuesdays with Toomey protest; and he . . . (big deal coming here) . . . was on a conference call with Madeleine Albright.

K-daughter and A-child got to dress as super heroes one day at work (which is appropriate, I think, because there's a lot about raising a kid that takes the kind of super powers that K-daughter seems to be exhibiting daily). I love having them both around so much.

N-son did his own super helping thing (although not in costume), helping a family from our church clean out the home of a grandfather.  N-son got to drive a tractor as part of the helping, which was gob and gobs of fun.

When I bragged to J-son that I did 25 push-ups the other day (see how I'm now bragging to you about that?), he told me he did 50 push-ups as part of an interview at a different boxing gym, one that's closer to his host mom's house.  He is spending his last weekend before school with his former foster mom, who I know is *super* happy to spend time with him after all the changes he's been going through.

And me, I've been throwing myself in to the latest revision of the book my co-authors and I have been working on.  I've also been working on a speech for our college's Convocation.  I had a beautiful draft written, and mentioned to our President that it was 11 minutes long -- and that's when I heard that my speech needed to shorten itself down to 8 minutes.  So out came the scissors.  Sigh.  Most of my subsequent practice run-throughs have been 8 minutes and 11 seconds.  I figure I won't get fired for that extra 11 seconds, so I think the speech is good enough. I hope.

Classes start for many of us (me, J-son, N-son, and my husband) this upcoming week. We've had our last hurrahs and are ready to go.  

Monday, August 21, 2017

Sunrise over canning jars

I woke up to this view this morning.
Sunrise over canning jars. 
Yesterday we had a huge canning session, wrestling our way through two bushels of tomatoes and 24 peppers. In this round of canning, I was ably assisted by N-son.  He's been a bit of domestic whiz this week.  He moved bedrooms, and he used his Senior Year Photo proofs (complete with the word "proof" emblazoned across them) to decorate his new bedroom door.  I love it.
N-son's door.  He's not usually so linear;
I love the attention to detail here.
When I asked for help with the many, many tomatoes I'd brought home, I was fearing I'd wind up with a tale of the "Little Red Hen".
Who will help me can these tomatoes?
"Not I", said the big yellow dog.
But instead, I got the "Little Engine That Could".  N-son actually asked me if he could help, instead of me asking him. When I agreed, he grabbed his favorite ceramic knife, put on one of his favorite musical CDs (Reba McEntire's Greatest Hits, in case you were wondering), and got down to chopping.

(I do not know how many people who decorate their bedroom doors with homemade "Black Lives Matter" signs count Reba McEntire as one of their favorite singers.  That right there is an interesting juxtaposition, I have to say).

N-son washed and cut up so many tomatoes that he joked to K-daughter that his hands were getting wrinkled "like old man hands". We also worked our way through a round of pickled peppers, which is one of N-son's favorite foods.  And then I'd had enough, and we all went to bed.

This morning, I woke up to my ready-for-winter food congregating in my window shelf, waiting to take the ride together in their cardboard box bus down into the basement, where they'll bide their time before coming back upstairs, one by one, to remind me week-by-week of the sun that rose over these physical manifestations of a day well-spent.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Miser Family Update: Back home edition

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

I-daughter, N-son and I got to spend much longer in airports on the trip home from our family vacation than we'd originally planned.  But I convinced the kids to play "Be the Most Cheerful Person in the airport" (when the people in front of you start grumbling and ranting because you have to get off the plane that you just got on, because the air-conditioner unit is making terrible noise, you think, "Okay, I win!" and try to find more pleasant things to think about).  I-daughter is particularly adept at this; she carries her knitting with her everywhere, and even got to give lessons to a curious young person.

Later in the week, we had our annual dOnnOr.  J-son came over, and it was good for the soul to see he's doing so well.  At least for now, he's preparing for his senior year of high school, and he says he's started to go back to his boxing gym, both to box and to earn money.  His host mom bought him the cell phone he's been mooning over; there is a difference between her and me.  Truth.

N-son has had a calm week with no school (although senior year looms on the horizon).  He's walked Prewash a bunch, moved his bedroom into a new room that went vacant when we moved the dog crate out of there, gone to K-daughter's job at a local gym, and even filled out a job application with the child watch group there.

My husband got to go to several protests this week -- both the Tuesdays with Toomey and also a march with 2,000 of his closest friends in Philadelphia to protest White Supremacy.  It's been a good week to remind ourselves that we ought to take active pride in our nation's racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity.

Me, I've been mostly throwing myself into book revisions and into getting ready for my own upcoming school year.  But I've also been trying to get in shape for the Miser Mom Half Marathon, and this week I did 20 push-ups!  Whoop!

And that's the news from the Miser Family, which continues to be prosperous in adventures.  May you and yours be similarly blessed.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

dOnnOr 2017: food, funds, family, friends

Well, our dOnnOr last night was lOads of fun!

The dinner was traditional:  bOgOls, hOmbOrgOrs, Opples, and OniOn rOngs.  YOm!
Notice the money tablecloth under the plate?
I designed it for our tax-day dinner, but it's good to have another a use for this!

New this year to the menu: for dessert we had dOnOts, a rare treat indeed in his household!

We looked over an amazing picture book called "The Material World: A Global Family Portrait". Peter Menzel photographed families all over the world with their possessions. It's a beautiful and humbling book.   You can also see many of the photos at this web site, but the descriptions and stories that go with the photos make it worth borrowing the book from the library.

We had a robust crowd, with four of my kids -- including J-son, who brought a bike tire that needs repairing and that fortuitously provided additional O-shaped decOration for the dOnnOr!

We also had a good buddy of mine who works with non-profits, who told us about her experience raising money for charities.  She brought up some good points about donating to local versions of national charities (for example, "Small City Habitat for Humanity" as contrasted with "Habitat for Humanity").   She also was very much more in the know than we were about implications for charities that have -- or have not -- pulled their events from Mar-A-Lago.
My good buddy, my grandchild A, and J-son.
And why were my friend's observations so helpful to us?  Because money for charities was of course the other activity (entertainment?) for the dOnnOr.   The kids each got to pick envelopes from among the charities we support, and write the checks.
Choosing envelopes.  K-daughter (in the middle) gets the most excited about this.
This dinner is a great way to remind my kids how to write checks (which in our electronic age, is becoming a bit of a dying art), in addition of course to reminding the offspring that it's fun to practice generosity.
N-son's favorite charities were all scooped up by K-daughter,
but he still got to write checks to the NAACP and a local community action group.
I sign the checks, of course, and then enter them into the check register.  And that's the biggest clean-up aspect of this annual event.

I love that the dOnnOr has evolved over the years into a way to get everyone in the family involved in our charitable plans, and I especially love that for me (selfishly), this makes the act of giving an even more joyous one.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The 2017 Donor Dinner (aka, the "Donnor")

One of the golden rules of frugality is to use your money where it makes the most difference to you and yours.   For example, a box of store-bought cereal costs about a gazillion times what it costs to make my own granola, and it doesn't much alter my breakfast happiness quotient.  So I don't buy prepackaged cereals.   For another example, Giardia meds for my dog cost about a gazillion times what a box of store-bought cereal does, but having a diarrhea-free dog is sort-of a big deal to me and my kids, so this summer we forked over the money for Metronidazole and Panacur without complaint.  We spend our money only where it brings the most contentment or where it alleviates the most pain.  That's the frugal mantra.

Ergo (that's math-speak for "therefore"), it makes sense to practice giving our money away to other people.

The reason that it's frugal to give our money away is that there are other people in the world who can make much better use of it, at least in support of creating the world our family cares about.  I basically stink at feeding hungry children on the opposite side of the globe or even in my own community, but there are charitable organizations I give money to that have helped to raise entire families out of poverty by feeding and educating their children.   Likewise,  I am a total incompetent at curing even the most curable of common third-world diseases, so I'm grateful for organizations like Doctors without Borders who bravely go where I myself fear to tread.

My family gives our money away in a bunch of different modes.  Monthly, we have money taken out of my paycheck (United Way), my checking account (church), and my credit card (World Vision and my alma mater).  Annually, we've started transferring large amounts of money to a Donor Advised Fund, from which we'll eventually direct it to charities when we retire and when we've had even more practice at spending our charitable money wisely.  (Because figuring out how to give well does take practice, same as learning many other frugal skills like how to make a yummy no-sugar granola.)

At any rate, here's one thing I've practiced and I'm getting moderately good at.  All year long, I save the solicitation envelopes we get.  There are a heck of a lot of these solicitations.

Once a year, usually in the summer, I sort through the envelopes (below you see me sitting cross-legged in my 25¢ yard-sale purchased gold skirt, putting the envelopes into piles alphabetically around me).

I cull the duplicates.  I've started adding handwritten notes to the worst repeat-offenders, asking them to mail me one solicitation in June or July, and quit with the monthly harangues.  That actually seemed to help a lot. 

This year, my husband and I have refocused our areas where we want to donate money.  We've always tried to channel a bunch of it toward feeding hungry people; this year we're paying special attention to the global refugee crisis, affecting over one hundred million people this year.   Having a population larger than the size of Russia facing food, water, and health care shortages doesn't get as much media attention as does, say, one particular relative of Trump meeting with a few people from Russia, but the worldwide refugee epidemic is real and it's just going to get worse --- my husband and I want to contribute in our own small way to helping the NGO's that are on the front lines.

But speaking of media coverage, a new area for us this year is to support investigative news outlets.  For reasons that I don't need to elaborate on, we feel that these places need grass-roots support more than they have in the past. So there's a new pile of envelopes for us.

And growing in emphasis for us this year is caring for the environment.  We've long donated to local conservancy groups, but this year we've added the Environmental Defense Fund, in part because this group seems to have managed to partner with industry in ways that seem to mark it as pragmatic (in addition to being idealistic), which matters a lot to me.

And in the same way that Erika over at NW Edible has decided to start celebrating fall harvests (because that time of year means a lot to her and her family), our family has for several years celebrated the signing of the charity checks.  Our annual dOnnOr is tonight.  (Here's a post on a previous dOnnOr).

Perhaps I'll have pictures tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The (dog) poop on paper vs. plastic

Be duly warned:  this post is about picking up dog poop.  If that's not something you want to read about, s'alright to leave the room right now.

Our previous dog (Miser Dog) was so insanely bad around other dogs that we pretty much never walked him (he used a fenced-in dog run as his bathroom). But Prewash is great with people and beasts alike, and she learned to walk at heel so quickly that I've had a lot of fun walking her around the neighborhood.

This means that for the first time in a decade, I've had to think about how to clean up after my dog in other people's yards.  It just so happens that, over the course of that same decade, I've tried to become a bit of a "no trash" freak, with a special emphasis on "no plastic".  In fact, one of the small feats I keep patting myself on the back about is that I've convinced our newspaper carrier to stop wrapping our daily paper in plastic bags --- and yes, those are the same plastic bags that so many people tell me make "excellent dog poop bags".

It's true that we still seem to have an endless supply of plastic bags in our home.  Even though we try to avoid it, we get random plastic bags wrapped around our produce, our cereal, Amazon items, etc.  So there are still plastic bags in abundance that I could use for walking the dog, although admittedly some of them are odd and inconvenient shapes.

But I've discovered something I like way better than plastic bags, even better than plastic newspaper bags:  newspaper.  And the reason paper is better than plastic is this:  when my dog squats, I slide a sheet of paper right where she's hunkered down, and the poop falls on the paper.  Her mess doesn't get stuck the grass or anything like that.  I then fold the paper over top of her mess, wrapping it in more paper if I'm going some distance, and carry it to the nearest trash can (or if we're close to home, I have a compost pile that's a non-food compost pit, where I bury the newspaper bundle in a pile of leaves).  I'm fortunate that our walk takes us past lots of trash cans, so I usually don't have to carry it far.

Clean up is so much easier than with a bag this way . . . I'm sort of amazed how nicely this works.  And  I like that this little package is entirely biodegradable.

And I know this is a gross subject, so I'll just stop here.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Miser Family Update, Tree edition

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

I have to admit, I'm not sure exactly what's been happening with my husband and most of my kids, because early this week I boarded a plane with I-daughter and N-son and headed for Sequoia National Park (aka "the land of no internet").  I am only just now re-emerging into e-connectivity.  What I've heard is that my dog Prewash has mostly been good but has not exactly modeled good "housebroken behavior".  So I'll have some training work to do when I get home.

I got to spend the week with my "upper family" (dad and sisters and their families), which was a fabulously relaxing time, with the possible exception of that afore-mentioned dearth of internet, and also the possible exception of the incredibly curving, winding, torturously twisted roads.  This sign, which I snapped along the route between our guest house and the park we visited, wasn't lying.

But what the area lacked in internet and straight boulevards, it made up for in trees, which we loved.

There were some majorly honkin' big trees there.

Like, trees that were large enough that they had their own names.

I can't remember whether this was the General Sherman tree (largest volume)
or the General Grant tree (largest diameter).
Either way, it was a seriously big tree.

We also got to see wildlife, both up close . . .
N-son and a squirrel.

and in cages . . .
I-daughter and a pair of lions.
We did a bunch of hikes, climbed hills, descended into caves, made lots of food for lots of people, and got to catch up on the lives of those people we grew up with.  Good for the soul.

And now I'm leaving the trees and returning to the world, which apparently has been a little poopy since I left it.  I'm glad I got to hug big trees and my sisters this past week.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Miser Family Update, odd celebrations version

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

Early in the week, my husband and I celebrated our 20-year anniversary in our typical way: with me 700 miles away at a math meeting, and with him at home watching the dog and remaining kids. We've got a very understanding kind of marriage, I have to say!

Later in the week, my husband got to have his "Annual Celebration of Health" (that is, his yearly doctor's appointment).  His doctor continues to be amazed and astounded that a man could get to be as old as my husband is and still be essentially disease- and impairment-free.  It's very sweet and annually funny, really.

We got a lovely-yet-brief visit from our oldest daughter, who usually resides several hundred miles away.  She rescues animals in her spare time, and she's a huge dog lover.  It is possible that she was mostly interested in getting to meet the new dog, Prewash, but the rest of us got to hang out with her, too.

I already mentioned that I-daughter teamed me up with one of her friends, and together we picked about 95 pounds of peaches, canning up 3 dozen quarts and 4 more pints of peaches.  It's so nice to have packed a bit of this summer into jars.

J-son seems to be getting more comfortable at the home where he's staying, although it's clear he's still trying to figure out how to adjust to his new life.  He's stopped boxing, which saddens both me and his coach.  I'm glad, though, that the mom who owns the house where he's staying seems to enjoy his company and stays in touch with me about what he's up to.

N-son finished summer school and got a "94" (with the numbers in that order, and not the other order). He's got some pretty darned proud parents.  He's super excited about our upcoming family vacation --- we leave for the airport early tomorrow, but he had his suitcase packed and next to the front door two days ago!

And I'm looking forward to seeing my family -- my dad and his wife and sisters and nieces and nephews and brothers-in-law and childhood friends, too!  California, here I come!   

(But the downside of this is that we're going to be in a place with almost no internet service.   On that front, I think my dad is trying to torture me . . .   So if you try to comment and get an "awaiting moderation" message, you might have to wait a long time.  And I'm going to go through a serious e-mail withdrawal.   Sigh.)

And that's the news from the Miser Mom clan, a family that continues to be prosperous in our adventures.   May you be similarly wealthy.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Is canning peaches worth it?

As I write this, I'm recuperating from a canning session.  Like all canning sessions, it seemed overwhelming and intense at the time.  Like all canning sessions, when it was finally over, it felt incredibly rewarding and totally worth the experience.  In this sense, a bout of canning is about as intense as -- but much less costly or life-committing than -- childbirth.

Today my daughter, her best friend, and I spent 5 hours and $95+ on 95 pounds of peaches.  With this bounty, we canned 3 dozen quarts and 4 more pints of peaches, with a semi-ginormous pile of leftover peaches that didn't go into jars but that will go into pies, breakfasts, and of course straight into our bellies.  (The peaches themselves ran $95; add to that a bit of gas, a bag of sugar for the syrup, plus the energy to can the fruit, means that we spent a bit more than $1/pound for all our efforts, but not much more).

My little army of peaches, cooling on my window shelf.  
So, man, canning is a full-body experience. Intense.  My daughter's friend Mary wanted to learn to can, and so my daughter said I'd teach her.  Canning with other people is always better than canning alone, and I was just as super-glad for the help getting my peaches into my jars as Mary was for the hands-on lesson for her first canning experience.  But in spite of our mutual gladness, there was definitely a moment when we were both exhausted and wondering "is all this effort worth it?"

I just want to acknowledge that busting a gut now in order to minimally ease the future is a heck of a lot harder for people under stress. In my own case, it doesn't help that I've been distracted by questions of what's happening with J-son.   Since wondering about J-son has been causing me stress lately, I'll just say that I probably would have skipped canning peaches this year if Mary hadn't stumbled into the picture.  This is yet another reason why having strong social connections can help a person's financial (and other) outlook.  Social capital is where it's at.  Word.

Given all that stress, is canning my own hand-picked peaches worth it?   Is it?  I think that my own "is it worth it?" moment came at a bit before 3 p.m.  By that time, we'd already driven to the orchard, picked 95 pounds of peaches, driven back home, started several large pots of water boiling and sliced up about half of the peaches for eventual canning.  Our bout of canning seemed miserable and never-ending at the time.  But the truth is, Mary left with her dozen quarts of peaches about an hour and a half later, by which point my own two-dozen quarts were just about done.  And everything was cleaned up by 5 p.m.  Five hours isn't exactly the same as eternity, even if if feels like that in the moment.

Around 4 p.m., once the finished quarts had started accumulating on the window shelf, a kind of euphoria hit me.  And Mary had her own euphoria at about the same time; she started imagining a February in which she pulled her beautiful jars of peaches (already visible, cooling on the window-shelf counter-top), to the delight of both herself and her peach-loving husband.  The mood lightened considerably at that point.  We stopped complaining about the oppressive early-August heat and about our backs, and started discussing plans for canning applesauce in September or October.  I have to say:  a shelf full of canning jars full of fruit is a beautiful sight.  Food in canning jars is just pretty.  It really is.

One of the drawbacks of hating shopping is that I no longer know how much things cost in the grocery stores.  I'm guessing that having 2-dozen quarts of peaches, hand-picked and canned at a bit over $1/pound, will beat the February/March/April grocery store prices for fruit.  I know for sure that canning means less recycling and less landfill-bound trash, but I can't personally verify anything about cost.

Is this worth it?  If you ask me at 3 p.m. in the middle of a canning day August, I just might have said "no".  But check back in come January, when I go "shopping in the basement", and the answer might be different.  Right now, I'm happy for the day of company, for the distraction from aspects of my life that I can't control, for the golden peaches on my table and on my window shelf.  It's nice to have an intense experience with friends in the midst of adversity; it's heart-warming to have beautiful jars of beautiful food promising to feed me in the cold months ahead.