Thursday, December 30, 2010

Expediency and Truth

When I was a kid we lived in the projects. One day I bumped into a classmate and we decided to hang out. She went to ask permission of her folks while I waited a couple houses down.

A little girl ran down the block, tears streaming down her face. I asked if she was alright. She looked up as she passed by, sniffled, and went into her home. Her mom soon came out the door, looked both directions, saw me, and stormed over. She grabbed me by the arm and started shaking. “Tell me you’re the one who hit my daughter, or I won’t let you go”. I could feel her fingers digging into my flesh.

So I considered the options. And I lied.

She pushed me away, and stomped back into her house. Even as the pink finger marks and discomfort dissipated, the guilt from lying burned in me. I vowed never to give in that way again, no matter what it cost.

It cost plenty.

You stand against bullies, and get the stuffing knocked out of you.

You counter friends who pick the easy way out. They tear you down to defend their turf, and you lose a friend. It’s like a battlefield amputation. Messy.

Once we start choosing expediency over truth, it’s that much easier for expediency to win the next time. When we celebrate Christmas our tendency is the same. We blur the edges and soften the reality. Gifts are fun. Singing is wonderful. Babies are small, helpless, and cute. But the truth is, Jesus isn’t a baby anymore. He’s not “safe”. We serve a risen Christ, One who will judge the earth with perpetual and massive judgements. We belong to the God who created everything, a consuming fire. Not some helpless child, who needs a diaper change.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Don’t Eat All Your Seeds

A blog discussion showed up recently asking if rich, middle class, or poor people were temperamentally different. I considered my rich uncle and what set him apart.

First. He worked very hard.

Second. Uncle saw opportunity where some of us might not. He grew up in a small mining community where he and his brother were butchers. A comfortable enough profession. They started buying up mining sites by leveraging their incomes and getting loans. Of course there were risks and deal making involved. Strikes, legal issues, overhead. My uncle plunged in and dealt with politicians, bankers, the educated. He learned to pilot a plane, play golf, and make a dignified impression. He was willing to act quickly and gamble it all.

Third. My uncle thought of money and time as commodities used to increase value, not to spend solely on pleasures. So in his 90's Uncle still painted his garage, and Aunt still cleaned their home. They were willing to go through the discount racks at better stores to purchase clothes, or travel that extra 15 miles to a small town hairdresser for a $20 dye job and trim.

Most of us like our comfort and so remain where we are. It takes huge effort to break free from the status quo. We have to fight the naysayers, those that ridicule big dreams, accusing us of being snooty, and perfect the social skills needed to navigate unfamiliar territory. Plus we may very well have to move away from the ‘hood.

I was amazed as we drove through a rough area of Philly recently, to notice amongst boarded up and abandoned houses, Direct TV on every rooftop. A prime example of exchanging the present for the future.

Moral: If you eat all your seeds you have nothing left to plant.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Letting Go

My dad brought an ancient Gingko log into the backyard. It sprouted leaves every spring. Without any roots mind you, or branches, but somehow through capillary attraction it sucked up moisture from the soil and pushed forth a few fan shaped leaves. Dad never got around to carving it before he died, but it became one more thing the salvage guys carted out.

Tightwads by nature hold onto things. There’s even a technical term for it. Sunk cost fallacy. It’s the too small clothes kept in the hopes of losing enough weight. Odd bits of string. Scrap paper. Little stubby pencils that barely fit in the sharpener anymore. We invested capital in these things and by jingo we want our money’s worth.

Eventually it leads to clutter.

This may sound blasphemous. There comes a point when it’s not worth holding onto. Face facts. Granted, the pencil lead has a tad more life in, it but the eraser is shot. The new pencil erasers are drying up even before you get to use them. You won’t lose those 50 pounds. I’m sorry, it’s true, you won’t. And if you lived to be a hundred, you won’t need more scrap paper. Junk mail will always come to your mailbox, you’ll always have a fresh supply.

It has spiritual implications. We hold onto habits because they’re comfortable. We hold onto stuff as a buffer for the future. We don’t really believe God will provide when we need it, but have to stockpile to insure protection against every contingency.

The first step is to admit you have a problem. “Hello my name is______, and I’m a packrat”. The second is to realize you have sinned by seeking to control your world, and to admit you need God’s help to overcome fears and put sin to death.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Ten Tips for Frugal Finesse

A friend visited recently. Her father had weathered the Depression and kept his parents and siblings afloat through it and during WW2. No small feat. She mentioned financial disciplines he insisted she follow during her early earning years. At the time they seemed restrictive. But these enabled her to purchase a house for less than market value in cash. Her cars the same. Pretty amazing. Which got me thinking. If I could do anything, what lessons would I want to pass on to my kids?

1) Save up for what you need.
2) Spend less than you make.
3) Make a distinction between wants and needs.
4) Try to fix it before you replace it.
5) See if you can do without before you fix it.
6) See if you can get it for free.
7) Use conventional objects in unconventional ways to fulfill a need.
8) Learn skills from books, online, or from other people.
9) Do your best, but don’t beat yourself up if you make a mistake.
10) Every once and a while give yourself permission to have fun.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Better Than I Deserve

John graduated high school by the grace of God and through the kindness of his teachers. One in particular walked him through that last year. A mentor, encourager, and solid example, Mr. Patterson gave John extra credit assignments to enable him to just-clear-the-last-hurdle.

It’s not that Mr. P’s life is easy. His wife is on the MS roller coaster, and wheelchair bound. He’s plagued with his own ailments. Their son is in the military, always in the thick of it. And since he teaches at a Christian school, he works a second job over school breaks to make ends meet.

So I caught him in the school parking lot a while back, and called to him. “How’re you doing Mr. P?”

“Better than I deserve”, he said.

How true.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Tree For Christmas

Just before the holiday one year, Dad pulled from his station wagon, a bare, lacy-branched deciduous tree. Victim of a construction site bulldozer. He cut off the roots, and stuck it in a tree holder. Mom layered it with clear twinkly lights, strung cranberries, candy canes, white paper birds, and popcorn balls wrapped in glistening orange cellophane. The combination was magical. Early Christmas morning we kids crept downstairs to the dark, turned on the tree lights, and lay on the floor just to watch the lights silently flash branch patterns onto the ceiling.

Long after the popcorn balls were eaten, the candy canes and paper birds put away, the tree remained. I’d still come downstairs on occasion in the pre-dawn morning to watch the branch designs. Eventually though, it became “just one more thing” in a fairly cluttered small house.

We came home one day from school to find the tree gone from it’s place. Dad had taken it, trimmed the fine lacy branches from it, cut down it’s trunk and suspended it from the ceiling upside down, in front of our porch window. Still beautiful, it was the first thing you noticed as you approached the house.

It was as if we had returned to our first love.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Is Money Evil?

We welcome long time financial advisor, Gary Foreman, to this special early week edition of The Frugal Bohemian. Copy and paste the links below to access information, Dollar Stretcher article archives, and their friendly forum. Thank you Gary.

Is Money Evil?
by Gary Foreman

Can you be wealthy and still be virtuous? Or is it necessary to turn away from material things to become truly moral? Many people believe that by definition the rich cannot be moral people. That the only way to become rich is to take advantage of someone else.

I don't believe it's that simple. You can't measure a person's morality by the size of their bank account. Money is a very poor measure of morality. Here's why.

Money is a tool and a way that we have of exchanging things. Money has no value on its own. It's not good or bad. It's what people do with money that is good or bad, so the problem is with the way money is used.

"For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (1 Tim 6:10) is one of the most misquoted verses in the Bible. When we place our affection on money, we become vulnerable to troubles. So merely acquiring some wealth is not bad. It's loving that money (or what it can buy) that causes moral problems.

What does this have to do with achieving Financial Independence? Quite a bit.

First, to be financially independent, we have to be in control of our money instead of letting our money control us. Therefore, we need to be careful not to fall in love with money. If we do, we'll let money have too much influence in our lives.

Also, if we believe that money is bad, we could be sabotaging our desire to build wealth. We'll push it away from us and find it hard to do the things necessary to build a savings account or IRA. I've even heard people say that they have a way of repelling money or that they're allergic to money. Our subconscious has a large impact on what we do and say, and sometimes it even ruins our own plans.

What do you think about money? Do you have a good relationship with it? Or is it time to reconsider what you believe?

Gary Foreman is the editor of The Dollar "" a frugal living website devoted to helping people "live better...for less". This post originally appeared in Financial Independence. FI is a daily email designed to help people take control of their financial lives. To find out more check out the "" Financial Independence page.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Tree

While walking down a dirt path through a wood, I noticed a massive tree splintered at the base and laying on the ground. It was in full leaf and the trunk looked perfectly intact. The surrounding trees stood upright. I wondered what freak accident could have hit it that hard to knock it over without damaging it’s companions. Until I came to the other side. A gash split the trunk top to bottom. The inside was riddled with termite holes and sawdust.

How many of us who claim to be Christians, allow termites to chew out our spiritual insides? Our bark looks tight and even. Our leaves sprout green and strong. Until a sudden gust knocks us flat. I thought of all the times I’ve said, “The kids are driving me bazonko!” Or of friends who’ve cut loose from the narrow way. Tough circumstances don’t make or break us. They just reveal what’s already there.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Really Looking

The beat cops should have known better. They should have figured the kids making rubbings of an ancient sewer cover in the middle of Fifth Avenue were just art students fulfilling an assignment. What person in their right mind would have a buddy directing traffic around them as they squat in the middle of a swirling New York street unless they had to? I mean, they knew Parsons was just a few blocks down.

To avoid any unpleasantness, I worked on a wall plaque attached to an old building myself.
“Don’t you know what you’re doing is illegal?” I turned my head to see a police officer glaring down on me.
“I was just making a rubbing.”
“That’s defacing property.”
“You mean I can’t make rubbings? I’ve got to do it for school.”
He shook his head slowly. He probably thought our teacher was a nut case.
“Just don’t let me catch you destroying property.”
With that he walked away.

Maybe Mr. Norado was unconventional, but this exercise and others like it taught us to see, to really see what was around us. From these larger assignments and the filled black sketch books we got the pump primed for actual design solutions, William Golden style. (The guy that designed the old NBC logo after seeing display of branding irons in a Tiffany window.)

Sure, none of us are Sherlock Holmes. We don’t go through life collecting minute observations of everything around us. I suspect that much volume would make us mad through synaptic overload. But it doesn’t hurt to really look at something once and a while for the sheer joy of it. To see how beautifully hand drawn letters interact on an ancient enameled sign, or appreciate the seemingly airbrushed colors of a Cedar Waxwing.

So look, and while you do, savor it all.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Filling Their Heads With Worthwhile Stuff

I’m disappointed. My mom told me it was fun. It’s not, nor is it easy. The reality is, there is no all-contingencies-listed-child-rearing operator’s manual out there. St. Nicholas Hospital didn’t issue us a 500 page encyclopedia with an extensive thumb index and an emergency 800 number when we took the kidlet home. Sure we read books, studied the Bible, observed others, and drew from our own growing up experiences. But much of parenting is winging it, trying to make the best decision, given the information we have at that moment.

Our goal is to lay in enough lessons to enable the child to live successfully on their own, without getting too beat up in the process. Be Christ centered. Develop good study and hygiene habits. Know how to choose ripe bananas, do an oil change, replace a light switch, balance a check book, sort laundry, cook a meal, sew on a button.

As the big guy left for college this morning, we talked about something basic, (like “you should know this by now”), and he absolutely bristled. I know we covered it before, so why is he SO clueless? Maybe because he doesn’t see current value in it. He has to catch a bus. That’s all that matters this instant.

So instead of repeatedly whacking my head against the wall in exasperation, I should see the lessons as a tool box. Something to draw from when needed. He may hammer a nail with a shoe from time to time. Eventually he’ll remember he has a tool box in the garage with all kinds of useful stuff in it. Including an 18 ounce hammer.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Project for Cold Winter Days

Ever wonder if someone in your family’s deep dark past was a pirate or a king, but not enough to plunk down big bucks to hire a researcher? Try these free places to scope out answers on your own.

Start with yourself and work backwards. Downloadable forms from enable you to gather, organize, and present your findings, navigating you through the information maze.

Cyndi Howells is the grand dame of genealogical web information. Her “Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites” contains a massive 264,000 plus links, and she's constantly adding more.

State Archives store census records, but they’re also repositories for old photos, maps, and historical artifacts. These resources answer questions like, "What was life like for my coal mining grandfather?" shows actual ship’s manifests, transcribed excerpts, and specs on the boat that took them over. Sign up to use it. The records cover the years Ellis Island actively received immigrants into the US through New York, from 1892 to 1952. Manifests are fascinating glimpses into the immigrants' lives. Could they read or write? How much money did they have? What was their occupation?

Try the Social Security Death Index, (SSDI), to track more recently deceased relatives. Go to Rootsweb,(avoid paid sites), plug in a name, and scan the list for matches. It lists a birth date, social security number, where they received their card, and the month and year of death, sometimes the actual day. These are helpful in finding information in census records, newspaper obituaries, or deeds.

Telephone white pages in various countries may help you narrow down the region your family came from, and discover possible living relations. Google “telephone white pages (country)”, and see where it takes you.

Yahoo!’s Babelfish roughly translates found documents. If you contact that third cousin twice removed in the old county, this gem offers a painless way to translate English into the language. Just avoid slang and contractions.

Snuggle up with your computer and on with the quest!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Christians and Wealth

I struggle with what is “right” for a believer. There seems to be a great deal of subtle emphasis in Christian circles on the cookbook approach to finances. “If I tithe and am faithful with what God has given me, He will make me financially comfortable.” I do my part, and God is obligated to do His.

Personally, I haven’t found this to be true. He said He would provide for our needs. He determines what our needs are. Paul reflected this by saying if he had food and clothing with that he would be content. Even more, he had learned to be content without those basics. In “nakedness, peril, or sword ” we are “more than conquerors through Him who loved us”.

When the scriptures talk about “God works all things together for good”, what is the good God works towards? Not necessarily what we consider “good”. He means to make us look like Jesus in the end. He means the cross. Not comfort. He means death. Not good health and long life. He means remaining faithful in the face of adversity. “Having done all, to stand.” And if Jesus learned obedience through what He suffered why should we think we can learn obedience through comfort?

But what is the payoff? In my own situation I suspect the Lord is working a contentment with Him along the lines of Psalm 73. He gives Himself. And isn’t He better than stuff? As it is written, “God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever”.

Q. 104. What do we pray for in the fourth petition?
A. In the fourth petition, which is, Give us this day our daily bread, we pray that of God’s free gift we may receive a competent portion of the good things of this life, and enjoy his blessing with them.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Not a Normal Post

I was working on a rather heavy theological meditation about suffering and it’s place in a Christian’s life, but scrapped it, at least for this week, as it didn’t fit this blog’s stated aims. Instead I’d like to post two links for your joy and delight.

A fellow from California named Michael Janzen, is building a tiny home out of pallet wood. He sees the poetic justice of turning discards into something utilitarian. (Janzen has another blog called “Nine Tiny Feet” in which he explores the philosophy of space. Not for the claustrophobic.)

Along similar lines, and much more esthetically done, is the project four senior high drafting students took on last year. Maybe coming from North Carolina (think furniture) influenced their craftsmanship. Anyhow the tiny home is lovely. To get the full blog viewing benefit, start at the end (beginning chronologically) and read through.

Pleasant dreaming.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Always More to Learn

I don’t know it all, or even most of it. Each person has their own perspective and skills. Each live out of their personal repertoire of frugal hacks. Maya Angelou said when an old person dies it’s like losing a library. I would never have learned how to make good pie crust if it weren’t for Millie. Or attempt brewing dandelion wine if it weren’t for the check out guy at Sharp Shopper. Or see how to tie a knot on the end of a thread to mend something if it weren’t for Grandma. Old people know stuff. If nothing else they know the stupid things to avoid. But they know tons of valuable stuff too. What to keep and what to let go of. So ask questions, listen, apply, and grow.

The flip side is this. Frugality is not all there is. Younger people know stuff too. Our first born remembers how to get places when I’m disoriented. He can program the phone, do things on the computer (more than one way and without fuss or freaking out), and work the TV remote. Both sons tell me to lighten up and get perspective. Their optimism is encouraging, their dreams possible. Sometimes they have fun at the expense of work. And maybe, just maybe, that’s not too bad, to just enjoy life.

There’s always more out there to observe and master. And when your life is over, you hope you’ve done the best with what you have, and passed the good stuff on to others.

Friday, September 17, 2010

I’ve Got Those Oh So Cobalt Blues

It was a fall day, much like today. Cool, very pleasant. My mind was elsewhere though, somewhere down and discouraged. I had walked from the train and was trudging up the steep Walnut Street incline to Mom’s house after doing something in Philly. Low autumn sunlight glinted off blue in the dirt near the sidewalk. A sliver of brilliant, happy, cobalt blue. After pulling the thing from the black soil, I rubbed it’s surface and knocked the dirt out. It was an old Bromo Seltzer bottle. The kind you put a cork in. About two and a half inches high.

How it got there, I don’t know exactly. Except I do. God put it there for just that day, just as the sun slung low in the west, to hit it just right and shimmer. For me to pick up.

It’s traveled all over with us. To South Dakota for our difficulties there. Back home when we cared for Mom. And now here in the midstate, as a sort of Ebenezer, that He will never leave nor forsake.

I like to look at it on the window sill with light shining through it when I’m feeling low. Think about the God who took the trouble to do something special for one person, out of the billions on this planet. A bit of cobalt blue in a sea of black.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Carrot On A String

Most cheapskates are sick of the same tired advice. (Remember the latte factor, pay yourself first, have a six month emergency fund, cook from scratch, get a side hustle, pay off high interest loans...). The counsel isn't bad. It's only frustrating because it doesn't 1) apply, or 2) deliver the promised "life will be wonderful when you're done" payoff. A carrot dangling on a string. Always out of reach.

I once criticized my dad's colleague’s work. He responded by putting himself in the other guy’s shoes. "No one sets out to make bad sculpture". This has financial implications. You do the best with what you have in hand. Skills, money, information, energy, and time are dropped off in various amounts at different seasons to various folks. It’s all a matter of using it. We all know spendthrifts, when confronted with the “latte factor” concept for the first time, have an epiphany. Those of us who cut costs wherever possible, and still tread water, look for more edgy ways to reach the magic carrot.

Should we seek the carrot at all? When, if after having done all we can, we still can’t retire, can’t give as we’d like, can’t help our kids more, and just get by, are we stupid, irresponsible failures? Sure, “the plowman ought to plow in hope”, so goals in themselves aren’t evil. But if we are faithful now, and God still doesn’t “bless us” here, is that wrong?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Tasty Tidbits From Things You’d Typically Toss

A chicken carcass simmered in a large pot of vegetable laden water is a common soup base in many a frugal kitchen. Then there’s the infamous leftover casserole. But here are four less common, even giftable food items, prepared from peels and seeds you’d normally dump.

For candied orange rind start with about four thick skinned oranges. Score the surface into quarters through the white, and peel from the fruit. Slice the rind lengthwise into 1/4 inch strips. Place them in a pot, cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes. Drain. Repeat. Drain and repeat again. (This removes bitterness.) Dissolve 4 ½ cups of sugar in 1½ cups of water over low heat. Add peels to the sugar syrup and simmer on a low heat until the rinds become translucent, about 45 minutes. As they float to the top gently push them under with your spoon. Let them sit in the syrup overnight. Heat through again in the morning and drain the peels. (Keep the syrup for use in iced or hot tea. Yummy.) Carefully coat individual peels in more granulated sugar and dry on a cookie cooling rack overnight. Done right, these have a gum drop like consistency with a hint of zing. In our house they don’t last a day.

Toasted seeds begin with a squash, like butternut, or pumpkin. Remove the seeds, rinse and separate them from the pulpy middles. Toss the pulp. Drain the seeds. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Drop the still damp seeds, single layer, into a lightly greased pan. Sprinkle the seeds with salt, garlic powder, and paprika. Or for those who like bit more kick, chili powder. Toast for about fifteen minutes until lightly brown. Let cool a tad, and munch away.

My Mom introduced me to pickled watermelon rind as a kid. Now I make them regularly. Start with the rind, scrape off most of the pink, and remove the green skin. Cut the prepared white rind into ½ inch cubes and measure about a quarts’ worth. Dissolve ½ cup salt in 5 cups of water, add the rind, and let sit overnight with a dish on top to keep the rind submerged. Drain. Rinse well. Cover with fresh water and boil until just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and put back into the pot. Combine 5 1/3 cup sugar, 2 ½ cups water, and 2 ½ cups white vinegar in a large non-aluminum pot. Tie 2 cinnamon sticks, and 4 teaspoons whole cloves in a cheesecloth bag. Drop the spice bag into the vinegar sugar mix, bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the rind to the liquid and let sit overnight with the spices. (Putting a dish on top.) Bring to a boil again and simmer until the rind becomes almost transparent. Remove the spice bag. Transfer the rinds into clean, hot jars with a slotted spoon, packing tightly, and pour the hot syrup over them, leaving about ½ inch head space. Cover and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Wait three weeks before using. These are lovely served along side salty and pungent foods like cheddar cheese or ham.

Lastly, a new addition to my frugal repertoire, apple peel jelly. Take the cores and peels from about 15 apples (4 cups tightly packed). Put them in a large pot and cover with 6 cups of water. Simmer for about 20 minutes. Drain the juice through a cheesecloth lined colander into a bowl. (I use the low sugar pectin, but if you make the real thing follow the recipe for apple jelly on the package.) Measure 6 cups of juice. If you find it’s not enough, don’t squeeze the peelings, but do a second boiling of the peels in an additional cup or so of water. Once you have 6 cups, put the juice into a pot. Take the box of low sugar pectin and mix it with 1/4 cup sugar in a small bowl. Add the pectin mix to the juice and whisk it in. Bring to a full rolling boil that cannot be stirred down. (You’re stirring constantly.) Add 3 3/4 cup sugar and return to boil. Let it boil hard for one minute. Pour the jelly into hot glass jars, leaving about 1/8 inch head space, wipe the rims, and screw on prepared lids. Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Or turn the lidded jars upside down on a towel. Let cool undisturbed for 24 hours. Test for a seal. Refrigerate and use unsealed jars first.

So there you go, taste treats from what you’d normally toss. Bon Appetit.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Twenty Ways to Improve Your Life

An inspiring article showed up on “In the Trenches” last week, and it got me thinking. We often beat ourselves up over lost opportunities or analyzing decisions to death. What 20 things can I do to make life better? With what I have on hand at this very moment?

1 Lose two pounds to start
2 Have a yard sale
3 Paint our bedroom closet
4 Re-veneer my desk top
5 Sand and paint our folding chairs
6 Repaint our bathroom a better color
7 Try a new recipe for bread
8 Finish Isaac’s quilt
9 Put the back on Ron’s needlepoint pillow
10 Start saving for a visit to Italy
11 Listen to music
12 Study my Italian CD’s
13 Do one thing each day just because it’s fun
14 Wake up to see a sunrise
15 Give the kids hugs
16 Give Art hugs
17 Memorize one really good Bible section
18 Throw pennies from the coin jar onto the sidewalk, and watch who picks them up
19 Soak in the tub with bubbles for an hour
20 Write a real letter to a friend

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Too Much Stuff

Reduce the complexity of life by eliminating the needless wants of life, and the labors of life reduce themselves.
- Edwin Way Teale

Having stuff is like having a cat. You think you own it, but it actually owns you. It’s amazing how much you accumulate over time. I’m convinced it breeds secretly in dark corners. Hence the phrase, “Where did this come from?”

Right now our living room is slowly losing that “disaster area” feel as I price things for next week’s yard sale and stash them in the garage. It should be a doozey. At least five neighbors are participating at their respective homes. We hope to have a really good turnout. The Foxes are no slouches either. Isaac went though another growth spurt and we’re trying to cut our losses on the clothes front. Then there’s furniture, books, and many items from my abortive attempt at the antiques and collectable business a couple years back.

Just where are those Life Laundry people when you need them?

Maybe we should follow Mom’s suggestion (she didn’t, by the way), to move every two years.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Six Ways to Trick Yourself Into Saving

You don’t need smoke and mirrors to stash cash, you can do it. Just go for it.

Take the saying, “pay yourself first” to heart. What about an automatic deduction from your paycheck? Or put that bit of cash away in an account somewhere or under the mattress even, and plan your budget apart from it. You’ll never notice it’s missing.

Tuck away oddball business extras. You know, bonuses, overtime pay, tips, and put them in a different place. If it helps, buy a CD to keep yourself from temptation.

Live on last year’s earnings. Just pretend that inflation adjustment never came through. Don’t hyperventilate, you will be able to manage. Your savings will thank you.

Don’t laugh about this one, but do you remember keeping a penny jar in your room? Just dump each day's change into a clear sided jar and literally watch your savings grow.

Cash in your trash. If your state has a system for redeeming bottles and cans, go for it. If not, look into recycling centers near you. Aluminum cans in our area bring in a decent return.

Money making ventures like yard sales, credit card cash backs, rebates, and survey cash rewards add up. As soon as they come in hand, put them aside. Slow and steady wins the race on this one.

See, you’re that much richer, and it didn’t even hurt.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Too Frugal

At what point does frugality become a moral issue? When is the line drawn by cultural norms, instead of actual “wrongness” or “rightness”?

I just had a rather interesting back and forth with a PF blogger. He thought cutting a dryer sheet in two or putting two good nylon legs from two pairs together when the other legs got runners to save money was "too frugal". I draw the line at “thou shalt not steal” This command actually covers a broad range, from doing your neighbor’s finances good, to seeking to better your own.

So if I ask for free samples only to receive something free, with no intention to consider purchase, that is harming my neighbor’s finances. If I put money in the bank to gain interest or use it to start a business or get an education, that is seeking my own financial benefit, but is not wrong.

Another is “thou shalt not murder” Any practice that shortens life, or decreases health is eliminated. So avoiding the dentist for 20 years or eating only jelly sandwiches to save money when you have the means, is out.

Current gray areas include dumpster diving, trash picking, gathering aluminum cans off the street. In these cases the command to “honor your mother and father” comes into play. It includes the rights of authorities to enact laws. So if a dumpster has a “keep out” sign, it’s locked, it’s on private property, or the local laws prohibit it, then don’t dive. In the realm of “equals” these practices become issues, if they cause a brother to stumble, encouraging him to sin against conscience. In those cases, don’t tell him, or do it in front of him.

To withhold what is due God is a moral issue. You shall have no other gods before Me. If in order to save money I don’t pay the tithe, that reveals a heart attitude. I am worshiping mammon and not God.

There’s a different set of constraints and freedoms if God’s law is used as a moral basis for frugality. A greater freedom to pick mulberries from a tree in a field to munch on, or take a needed chair from a pile on trash day.

One point. We may be able to say definitively something is morally wrong (any form of stealing or coveting) but there's a whole range of preferences. I know someone that "never bought anything at a yard sale" and never would. But if another mom didn't buy stuff at a yard sales/thrift shops her family would go without the basics. The one lady has the means to decide either way. The other doesn’t. This becomes an issue when it causes a brother to stumble, when we look down on the “poor” man as a moral failure or look up to the “rich” one as somehow morally superior. If someone wants to halve their dryer sheets or double up on nylons, why do I think it odd? We shouldn't make distinctions where Christ hasn't. And if we are aware of a situation, don't we have a greater obligation to share with those in need?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Mr. Sirotkin Showed Me How

During my stint in college I lived in a fifth floor walk up, with a bunch of equally yoked roomies, barely within the boundaries of the East Village. Our landlords were a dear older couple, Mr. and Mrs. Sirotkin.

By the time we came on the scene the building was inhabited mostly by college and career types. Mrs. Sirotkin called us “her kids”. Except for older families who had lived there forever, all of us came by referral. There was an almost sacred trust to your word in that. You didn’t want to give the Sirotkins a bum deal with lousy tenants. She wouldn’t interview you exactly, but checked you out by having you over for tea.

There Mrs. Sirotkin told her story. How as a girl of sixteen she worked at the dry cleaners on the first floor and how her older employer (he was in his twenties) started to court her. She was shy at first, but he was a kind and good man, so won her heart, and they married. When they got wind the building was about to be sold out from under them, he entered the purchasing process. He had never intended to own a building. But as a family man, he had a wife to care for. It was scary at first with an additional 23 families, and a mortgage to cover. But he learned. They worked together. She handled the books, he made repairs. It became painfully obvious they couldn’t do it all, so he sold the dry cleaning business, and jumped feet first into the challenge.

While their children were still young he had a massive stroke. She said, “I cried for fifteen minutes, pulled myself together and said ‘they all need me now, I can’t let myself go’.” She arrived at the hospital to bleak news. She nursed him at home while her mother cared for the children. To everyone’s amazement, he survived, though with a good deal of paralysis. When we knew him, he walked with a decided limp and had difficulty speaking.

We offered to paint the apartment for them when we first moved in, and after Mr. Sirotkin literally dragged himself up the five sets of stairs to replace a light switch, I asked if I could watch. I would do it next time. He obliged. That short interaction boosted my confidence to later replace light switches, sockets, ceiling lights, and even rewire lamps. But their example of teamwork, mutual respect, love, and perseverance in the face of obstacles, taught me even more. What a good marriage looked like.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Outside the Box

He was dubbed “The Wizard of Weston” and enjoyed the allusion to Thomas Edison, “The Wizard of Menlo Park”. Stanley Mason may not be a household name, but his inventions are. It seems we’ve always lived with granola bars, microwave cookware and dental floss dispensers.

Let’s take a peek into how his mind worked. It was 1949. “My wife asked me to put the diaper on the baby. I held up the cloth diaper, and it was square. I looked at the baby, and it was round. I knew there was an engineering problem.” What resulted was a form fitting disposable diaper.

Mason taught innovative thinking at the University of Connecticut. He felt corporations squashed creativity and was fired several times for his unconventional solutions. In spite of bureaucratic lethargy, many big organizations turned to him for new product ideas through his eight man think tank, Simco.

When his daughter’s dorm room was burgled, he designed a doorknob mounted alarm system. He collaborated with a toilet manufacturer, an expert in ceramics, to develop microwaveable cookware. He’s the guy who invented the stringless Band aid package, plastic dental floss, baby wipes, a sonic method for sealing chip bags, Depends, and hundreds of other things.

So what does all this have to do with frugality? It’s seeing the need and figuring a way to solve it with what you have. It’s our brother in law Dave, who coming up north to face car inspections for the first time, rigged small Christmas lights over the dashboard to illuminate it. (Dave also “grilled” cheese sandwiches on his dashboard during a drive to California, but we won’t go there.)

So what are your needs? When tackling them, remember the Wizard of Weston.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Being Different

I went to a funeral Wednesday morning and felt strangely apart from everyone there. Almost like an alien observer from another planet. The lady had worked for a florist almost 30 years. I was struck by the fact all the ladies attending worked outside the home even when their kids were young.

Art and I talked during our afternoon walk about the assumption I’d get a job. Again it revolved around easing our finances a bit. He asked, “Is Christ pleased with you?” I thought I could use my time better. He said, “The people who expect it don’t take into consideration my schedule. I like to know that everything is in order at home. That I can trust you to take care of things.”

This quote has been rattling around as well, “Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents which, in prosperous circumstances, would have lain dormant.”- Horace (65-8 BC) Roman Poet. Isaac observed that same truth several years ago. He said, “being poor” made me more creative. I would never in a million years have attempted a garden, or taught my self to cook and can, rewire lamps, repair furniture, mend socks, quilt, cut hair, keep a written budget, write articles, unless we were in this situation. I might have considered foraging, if only for the romance of it, but not in earnest. Even my mom, married to a sculptor, attempted very few of these things. “Adversity” pushed me into scary places. Past the “plant killer” stage. Past early canning failures. Past indestructible pie crust. To make do in oddball ways, by using things for unintended purposes.

Being different is lonely though. What do you talk about when there’s assumed equity? “What’s your cell phone number?” “I told my hairdresser I wanted a different color.” “This place has the best crab cakes.” “Where are you going for vacation?” “You’d really like this (cable) TV program.” How do you untangle that kind of presuppositionalism? You can’t. I’m tempted sometimes to talk about cooking burdock roots, gathering places for mulberries and wild raspberries, trash picked finds. Just to throw a wrench in. But it’s sort of like the Far Side cartoon of a dog cocktail party. First frame. One dog says to another as everyone is chatting away. “The doctor says I have worms.” Second frame. Silence.

Being the introspective type, I have to consciously pull away from self pity. To change context. This is not my home. This will not last. It finally revolves around Art’s question. “Is Christ pleased?”

Thursday, June 24, 2010


Those who know me are aware of my container love. Some are tins. But most are old boxes. Wooden ones especially. But shell encrusted, fabric covered, and painted ones find their way into the collection as well. Perhaps it’s a sense of mystery surrounding any enclosed object that draws me to them. Like stumbling upon a secret room or an overgrown path in the woods. What does it contain? What was it’s purpose? Who used it?

Boxes have histories. They tell stories. Some are muffled, some clear.

A collar box covered in swirly apricot mohair sits on my dresser. Uncle Lou picked it up at an antique store. A natty dresser once kept it on his bureau. He’d open it in the mornings as he prepared for his workday, looking at himself in the mirror as he knotted his tie and fished around for cufflinks and arm garters. He’d give a final glance to make sure his hair was perfectly parted and slicked down before he left.

On the living room mantle a thumb length oxblood colored hinged box sits. It looks a bit like a mouse sized violin case, but it’s velvet lined interior once housed a pipe’s mouth piece. I don’t know who owned it, but it was in my dad’s things after he died. Why did he keep it? I wonder if it belonged to his father. Who could even venture a guess at this point? But it was empty. No mouth piece with bite marks or pristine one without. A mute vacant box.

Several shell encrusted souvenir boxes grace my grandmom’s old vanity. “Nassau” and “Bahamas” are their names. Thrift store purchases. Places I doubt I’ll ever see. Who gathered all the makings from sandy beaches? What agile hands carefully glued each shell in place? Who sold them to tourists as they poured out of busses blinking in bright sunlight? What vendors pressed them upon reluctant buyers in makeshift markets? How did the seller’s meager earnings cover household expenses? Or did it? And when tourist season ended what did the sellers do? Go into their small homes to craft more boxes.

Each piece carries a bit of the persons who touched them. Like the thumb print of God on what He made. Listen, listen hard, to the stories told.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

In the Society of Bottom Feeders

One is apt to keep company with creative types as one stretches the boundaries of frugality. It’s no wonder we hang with trash pickers, recyclable metal scavengers, and artists. Lately I’ve been having a wonderful email back and forth with a friend who is familiar with the more rural joys of creek fishing, brewing sassafras tea, chomping on red clover flowers, and making what she calls “weed jam”.

I smile when I think of her. In a non sequitur sort of way she reminds me of some favorite things. On our mantle, sitting atop Mr. Man’s head is a primitively painted red wooden toy bird. When rolled on the floor it’s wings flap. As far as I can figure it’s cut from fruit crate wood and thick wire. On the mantle next to it is an acrobatic clown. He’s suspended from two strings through the hands between two sticks. When the sticks are squeezed or released the clown tumbles and dances. He’s made from popsicle sticks and tongue depressors. What binds these things together? It’s the concept of taking what you have and creating something from it. We consider the final products folk art and pay good money for them. But most people would toss these original bits and pieces with little thought to their pleasure giving possibilities.

A while back Buck Weber of The Buck List blog, mentioned a colleague from another country who took all manner of discarded things home with him to repair or re-purpose. Some even Buck scratched his head over. But you never know what kind of vision can be brought to something.

Perhaps it’s because we have too much. We lose sight of beauty potential in the things around us. We play video games instead of waking for a meteor shower. Pity.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Cooking With Purslane

A little song to sing while stirring the pot.
“O humble plant in sidewalk cracks, what treasures do your leaves contain?
Who knows? Perhaps you're a Cinderella in disguise.”

About a year ago, Pat Veretto, moderator for the Dollar Stretcher Community, mentioned this spreading-red-stemmed-succulent in passing as a good foraging plant. Yikes! I had been pulling it up as a weed for years. Being a bit of a bohemian, I tried it out. It tasted like lemony spinach. We ate it twice in a salad that spring with cut grape tomatoes, a bit of chopped sweet onion, in a vinaigrette. Quite pretty and good. The only downside, the leaves are the size of a pinky nail or smaller and a bit hard to pick up with a fork.

So this year I’m experimenting. Last week I cooked whole tender plants in a pasta dish with crushed tomato, a bit of extra garlic, some leftover spinach, mozzarella and ricotta. Good. The second experiment was inspired by an online mention of purslane casserole using corn meal and egg. “Why not bake it in corn bread?” So I added a cup of leaves and a cup of grated cheddar to this terrific cornbread recipe. It was a hit. Today I made purslane pesto. The guys will have it tonight. During preliminary tests John thought it tasted a bit too “green”. It seems quite similar to a spinach pesto I make during winter months, so we’ll see how it flies over a mound of hot angel hair pasta. With boys, pasta helps.

Here’s the recipe. Without a net.
Wash whole plants in a salad spinner, spin away, then pick the leaves off.
1 cup purslane leaves
1/3 cup olive oil
Blend until smooth.
Add and blend until fairly smooth..
1/3 cup Parmesan
1/3 cup English Walnuts
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt or more to taste
2 Tablespoons dried basil leaves

You may need to add a tad of pasta water to it before mixing with the pasta as it’s thick. Should be enough for about a pound’s worth.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

I’m Dreaming of an Almost Free Christmas

The race is on. 204 days to go. Actually, I followed my sister’s example by starting Christmas shopping right after the holiday. (When wrapping paper and ribbons are half price.) In addition to her discount strategy, a new idea popped up last year on a personal finance blog. This particular couple were on a mission to put their financial house in order, so they axed their discretionary budget. They challenged themselves to use accumulated “points” from credit cards, cash backs, rebates and the like to get gifts for each other. Even with these restraints, the presents were quite wonderful. It was sort of a financial epiphany for them. And for me.

I’ve always been one to make homemade items as part of the gifts. Special foods for the diabetics, or hand crafted things for the kids are my way of expressing love. Besides, it stretches a tight budget to accommodate eight siblings and spouses, eight nieces and nephews, three other relations, a grandmom, and the four of us.

This year in my quest for the perfect outlay, we’re pulling all the methods together. Survey points should cover several gift cards (for a couple of cash strapped relatives), a Cross pen, and an artist’s sketchbook. Not too shabby.

I’m skimming from the grocery cash each paycheck to stock up on food supplies and collecting recipes for terrific homemade treats. Plus, I’m setting aside the occasional very crispy dollar bill. Ah you ask, what are they for? Following online instructions, they’re transforming into a bit of money origami. Regular cash is so boring. This is spendable, with a twist.

Our local bump and dent grocer, Sharp Shopper, offered Cracker Barrel cheese in wonderful sliding top dovetailed wooden boxes this past week. Since the cheeses are coated in wax, and come to $2 a pound, I bought four. Ah the ideas are flowing on that one. Boxes have so many possibilities.

A couple things just plopped into my lap. They were cool gifts, free with postage, on the back of bread bags and cereal boxes, perfect for kids.

This spring’s batch of homemade dandelion wine ages even as you read. It should be really mellow by the holidays. Something special for the older folks.

To be totally honest, a few items were purchased on sale. The standard is, are they things with a “wow” factor, and do they suit the giftee? (Without saying, they have to be amazing bargains.) So at a going out of business sale I found a detailed book on knights, for a nephew, and a couple of gorgeous, (no exaggeration), journals for my sisters. Online, at a one day only promotion, I snagged a handmade Christmas stocking. Using a special code it even had free shipping.

With half the year over and twelve people to go, the quest continues. Keeping my eyes peeled, I never know what will show up. Should be fun.

(By the way. Feel free to use these secrets, just don’t tell anyone what they got.)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Tree House for Sale

Constructed in 1996 with improvements/additions in 2008. Needs to be moved. A thirty-six square foot frame construction house perched four feet off the ground on four 4x4pressure treated posts. 80% green construction, from mostly salvaged materials. Shingled roof. One room. No electricity. No plumbing. No fireplace. No taxes. Natural light. Excellent ventilation. Sleeps one comfortably. Sports a large plexiglass (replacement) window, and two small escape hatches (one hidden in the floor to surprise bad guys). The additional entrance door is accessed by a drawbridge ladder. To discourage attack, appropriate warnings are painted on it. Friends may use the brass knocker to request entry. An additional interior ledge, accessible by ladder, is designed to hold a warrior type so that he may fling water balloons or shoot water guns at enemies below. Sold “as is”. Presently inhabited by a robin and her young. Lease is up once they fledge. All offers considered.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Gift From the Sky

For the longest time I couldn’t understand Dad’s work. His birds looked like fishes and his fishes, birds. Both flowed, drifted, swam, soared in their respective spaces. I just couldn’t figure out which was what. It was like Lucy Van Pelt asking for Schroeder’s rendition of “Happy Birthday”. Make it simple, or I don’t get it.

It’s not that Dad couldn’t draw or sculpt realistically. Just he was trying to show something different. It’s inside on the outside. The animal’s essence. It didn’t help he was a quiet man and never explained himself. Or when he worked, he entered such impenetrable concentration the house could have blown up around him and he wouldn’t have noticed. Not one bit.

He was in his world, and I was in mine.

The first breakthrough came when I showed him my portfolio for Parsons’ admissions interview. “Hey Dad, what should I bring?”

He flipped through and said, “All of it.”
He suggested I apply to Philadelphia College of Art as it would involve a commute instead of dorm costs. I told him I was considering a double major and Parsons was the only school to offer both subjects. He said nothing more. When the acceptance letter came, Dad smiled. That meant he was deliriously happy.

Being young and naive I carried a really heavy course load, and working involved a lot of odd paying gigs. I returned home that first summer. When Dad found out I hadn’t visited museums because there was no spare time, he was horrified. “They’re free on Tuesday nights!” He promptly booked two seats on a chartered bus trip with a bunch of white haired rich ladies to see the Constable show at the Whitney.

It was amazing. Sure, Dad knew sculpture, and hung out with artists all the time, but as we drifted from painting to painting, he described what Constable was trying to accomplish, contemporary artists, and what set Constable apart. It was revelatory. Dad was smart, eloquent and passionate about anything visual. His mind sucked up huge amounts of information and processed it. But he never talked before. Until then he had always just been my dad. The guy that pounded rocks in the cellar. At that point he became a mentor.

Once back in school Dad sent clippings of articles he thought would interest me. We even had short conversations on the phone. Nothing major, but it was a start. This continued through my working years and after I married.

Arthur and I had just moved to South Dakota, (what Mom considered slightly beyond the civilized world). While looking out the window of our new digs, I saw a bird land in the front yard with a violent red mark on the back of it’s head. It gleamed like nail polish. “What a rotten thing to do to a bird", I thought. Then in a flash of yellow underwings, another alighted next to it. I immediately called Dad. He’d know.

“It sounds like a flicker”, he said. So it was.

Art and I continued on in that rural pastorate. It wasn’t a good fit. It ground us into the dust. We’d escape on our day off. While driving south from a day in Pierre, I spotted something hovering in the sky. It suddenly plummeted into a gully. Fifteen feet from the car. With a couple massive wing sweeps it disappeared back into the blue. Though the markings weren’t distinct, it’s wingspan was unmistakable. We had encountered an immature Bald Eagle.

As soon as we hit home, I grabbed the phone and told Dad. He said, “I saw a Golden Eagle once. All reddish brown. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen”. The silence following spoke clearly. I knew what he meant. I finally understood.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

We’re Looking for a Few Good Women

It was a terrible time. Your country sold it self to other gods. Again. Another nation took over. Again. These attackers were merciless--violent–powerful--raping, pillaging, and murdering wherever they pleased. Even their women loved their violent men because they knew they’d be getting stuff when they came back from raids. These ladies didn’t care what it cost in human lives. And it wasn’t just that these guys invaded, they actually set up shop in your backyard. They took over cites and had been living in them for years. Whole sections of the population were destroyed by them, it wasn’t safe to travel, and no one dare fight back. Everyone felt beaten down. And who should come to the forefront? Your mom. Your mom is willing to stand up. She sets up a little shop, plop in the middle of the whole country. A place where people can go for answers and wisdom. She tells it to them straight. In a funny way she’s under the invader’s radar. Because she’s just a mom. No biggie to them.

Judges 5:7 "The peasantry ceased, they ceased in Israel, until I, Deborah, arose, until I arose, a mother in Israel.”

What qualified Deborah to be judge and prophetess?

She didn’t see her self as some big shot or the wife of some big shot, but someone who filled the gap during a really tough time. She didn’t see herself as a judge or prophet hot shot strutting around on donkeys like Jair’s sons, but as a mom. She didn’t work out of some nice house to give judgement, but under a tree. A place of hospitality where you could sit in the shade and talk. Out in the open. Easy to spot from the distance. The tree even had a name. It was a very specific place. She was always there for whomever came to her.

Deborah was wise. People came to her for judgement. She knew her bible. Sure, she was centrally located but it was still a trek. Samuel made a circuit, this lady stayed put. Her judgements must have been worth the distance, especially as travel was dangerous and time consuming. (They went in round about ways to avoid Sisera.).

She had compassion. What bothered her about her current times? The peasantry ceased in Israel. Common people had been devastated by Sisera and his big bully chariot riders. And when Israel went out to battle, what bothered her? The fact the guys had no spears and shields. Maybe it was like the time the Philistines took over. Israel had to go to Philistia to get their farming implements sharpened because the Philistines took everything away. So when King Saul went against Philistia the people took their mattocks and plows to do battle.

Deborah didn’t mince words. She told Barak to go. She told him because he was chicken and needed “mom “ to go with him into battle, a women would defeat Sisera. She said the people had chosen false gods and tied that into their troubles. She was openly critical of the tribes that sat on their duffs while other tribes took their lives into their hands and fought. She was just as encouraging to those who did good.

She had faith. She trusted God would give victory in a time when others wavered. God told her, and she believed Him, not the nay sayers around her. God fought in miraculous ways. He caused the Kishon to flood, He enabled the Israelites to obtain swords (perhaps from their attackers) and defeat them, He set His stars against them, and the angel of the Lord cursed them.

She had guts. She went into battle. Now what middle aged mom you know would go with an army of volunteers who had no real weapons, to fight against seasoned soldiers in chariots?

She gave glory to God. The song of Deborah and Barak takes up more space than the description of the times and battle. She may have noted the people chose false gods but she said from that time forth Israel would know the LORD (the covenant name of God) delivered them and they’d talk about it wherever they went.

So, are you a mother in Israel? Some of you are. Ask yourself, are you wise, compassionate, straight talking, believing, gutsy and giving the glory to God alone? If not, buck up and be a mom. In times like these we need all the moms we can get.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Ten Uses for Zucchini

With spring planting coming soon, I'm already starting to make plans for the produce. Zucchini, though not particularly tasty in itself, is prolific and has many uses. Since you start with so little and it becomes so much, it’s the ultimate frugal food.

1) Puree and put in tomato sauce with extra herbs. Your kids will never know.

2) Frittata. The kids will know, but if you bribe them properly this should be palatable. Use an iron skillet. Put olive oil, finely chopped onion and a bit of salt in the pan with the zucchini as you cook it. Add the eggs and cheese. Once the egg starts to set put the whole pan in a 350 oven and bake it until it browns slightly on top and puffs. Even the “I hate zucchini” people with eat it. This is a good night to make a decadent chocolate dessert.

3) Leave the forgotten one, you know, the one that hid under the leaves, that’s 4 feet long and looks like a pregnant boa constrictor, on an unpleasant neighbor’s front porch. Run like mad. If, on the other hand YOU’RE the lousy neighbor, keep your lights off and stay quiet. Zucchini season will not last forever.

4) Shred, squeeze out liquid, and use in chocolate cake or muffins to add moisture. If you want to be sneaky, peel the zukes first so no green shows.

5) Slice and use in a salad instead of cucumber. Once it’s covered in dressing accompanied by a bunch of other vegetables, it’s not that noticeable. My cousin did this during a visit at her house and the boys didn’t make a peep.

6) Batting practice.

7) Pickles. If you can use something as crazy as watermelon rind, why not zucchini? It lends itself to a bread and butter pickle rather nicely.

8) Stuffed zucchini. Take larger ones, slice them in half length wise, scoop out seeds and fill the middles with a mix of herbed bread crumbs, and grated cheese. Drizzle the top with a bit of olive oil. Bake until tender. Serve with food everyone likes. This is not a good night to cook liver.

9) Zucchini Parmesan. Thickly slice zucchini lengthwise, dredge in seasoned flour, then egg, then flour before frying in olive oil. Drain on paper towels (or if you’re cheap, newspapers). Layer with a savory meaty tomato sauce, and loads of grated mozzarella. Repeat layers until the pan is full, ending with sauce and cheese. Bake at 350 until the cheese is bubbly and lightly browned.

10) Dead zucchini makes great compost. Just turn often so the seeds don’t sprout. If they do, go back to idea 1).

Thursday, April 22, 2010


Typical questions on Clubmom hit on difficult, pragmatic things, like how to collect unpaid child support, or are there any real at-home jobs out there. You can sense the sadness and fear these ladies live under. Recently, one particular woman asked something a bit more philosophical, “How do you feel about your financial situation? Are you poor, making it, comfortable, or rich?”

It got me thinking. Growing up, all my parents’s friends were artists. My dad was a sculptor. Everyone had used or own made furniture, beater cars, ate leftovers, and got clothes from the Veterans’s Thrift Store. We lived like everyone else we knew, and that was fine. Fairly often my mom fed surprise supper guests with scrambled eggs, kidney bean salad, homemade biscuits, and coffee.

My own family now owns one used car, though not a beater, has used furniture, eats leftovers, and wears clothes from the thrift store. Those things haven’t changed from the early years, and some of the furniture is the actual stuff I grew up with. But now that our colleagues are in business or professions, we’d be considered poor. I assumed over time our situation would gradually ease up a bit, that it wouldn’t involve constant financial reshuffling to make things work. You know, lay back a bit, with packed out bigger better barns, headed towards retirement, like “other” people. All because I was looking around at the “new normal”.

Our present situation isn’t different than my previous life. But if I assess the overall, our kids are healthy, we are not in debt, and we know how to have fun. So when all is said and done, I think we’re doing OK. It’s a matter of setting myself in the right context.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Guys From Gratz

On any given construction site in the mid-state at noon, the guys from Gratz eat their pie first. When asked why, they say, “How else will you know you’ll have room?”

Before every mother cries “foul!”, think about it. Ladies from Gratz make great pie, and the guys certainly don’t laze around all day. They eat their lunches. Just after the pie.

Art experienced something similar. He was working in a panel truck, blowing up balloons for some political campaign or other. It was blistery hot. He and the other guy were told to help themselves to the picnic offering for campaign workers. Art passed by the food and headed right to the Cokes, green glass bottles nestled in a sea of ice. He downed one in a gulp. Nothing matched it since.

I remember a summer day in Winner, SD. The town was still wet from a torrential rain. After being stuck indoors John and I were eager to get out. He charged onto the grass outside as I dragged a laundry basket to the line. The next thing I knew, he was sitting in a mud puddle, covered with muck, having a blast. I figured I’d hose him off before he came back indoors. We later heard an elder’s daughter and her boyfriend drove past and saw him. Her beau said to her, “Is that the preacher’s kid?”

If we hold convention so tightly, we miss out on pleasures along the way. Don’t continually put them off. Every once and a while remember those guys from Gratz, and eat your pie first.

Friday, April 9, 2010

A Plowman Ought to Plow in Hope.

Outside our dining room window is a rather straggly lilac bush. It’s been in that location for some time and early on we did a heavy duty number on the ancient stump of the “mother” plant. It was fairly well rotted through and when we broke it off and dug up the remains, we found it was riddled with termites. We cut the straight sucker shoots off the live plant a couple of years in a row in an attempt to consolidate it’s efforts. It really looked dead for a while. The living portion has been leafing somewhat, and this year for the first time in years, is forming healthy looking, fat, and sassy buds.

It goes to show, things take time.

Every spring we shovel out the finally broken down compost and add it to our raised beds in an attempt to get bigger, better tomatoes. These I turn into sauce for use throughout the year.

Our sons are the same in one sense, though much more complicated to grow. And our mistakes are much more visible. Though if any of this depended solely on us, we’d be sunk. So we plod on.

Plowing. Planting. Watering. Weeding. In hope.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


Four prisms hang in our living room window. Low early spring sunlight shines through them, spattering various surfaces red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. Consider the mechanics of differing wavelengths producing something visible. It’s an amazing concept. Reflections off a surface traveling through the air, through the human lens, stimulating cone cells on the retina, and interpreted as color by the brain.

The first rainbow was a promise. God sent it after He flooded the world in judgement of sin. Only Noah and his family remained alive. The rainbow reminded them He would never flood the entire earth again in judgement. A comforting thought. Most of the time we don’t even think about that when we see a rainbow, just that it’s pretty and somewhat uncommon.

I visited a family friend, Lois, in Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania as a youngster. Her concrete block home had a wall of windows on one side, looking down a hill, over a row of trees, a river, then New Jersey. Angry cloud and rain showers moved across the ground in the distance across the river. Flashing lightening in a darkened field, with incongruous sunny patches on either side as far as you could see. When the storm finally moved on, the sky shone in it’s wake with an awesome double rainbow.

Rainbows follow after storms. You might get a smaller imitation in the mist of a sprinkler on a bright summer day, but the real deal comes after real rains. Just when we’ve gotten discouraged and wonder if there’s hope. That there are no promises left. It comes when we need it. If we just look for it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

99 Frugalities

Since this is the “frugal” bohemian, and not some totally heady intellectual blog, I thought it right to write up things we have done and are doing to shave expenses. Most are small but over time really add up. Squeeze those Lincolns until they scream for mercy!

(Household management)
1 reuse aluminum foil
2 wash out and reuse Ziploc bags
3 tie up soap tidbits in the foot of an old nylon stocking and use them
4 make cleaning products from vinegar or ammonia
5 use less laundry detergent than called for, or make your own
6 fill dishpan with soapy dishwater and rinse in a dishpan of clear water
7 cut rectangles from cereal box liners and use as reusable/washable microwave spatter guards
8 re-purpose plastic milk jugs for undersink storage, toilet brush holder, small toys
9 dry clothes on line
10 drain bacon on newspaper
11 use baking soda, vinegar and boiling water to clear out sink clogs
12 turn card board boxes inside out for mailing
13 use grocery bags as trash can liners
14 wash plastic utensils
15 make kitchen scrubbies out of plastic mesh onion bags
16 make rubber bands from shot rubber gloves
17 make cleaning rags from old towels and t shirts thus eliminating paper towels
18 sew up cloth napkins from scrap fabric
19 use the clean backs of junk mail ads, notes from school, etc. in computer printer
20 carefully open up junk mail envelopes, re-glue inside out and use
21 use paper scraps for notes by the phone

22 buy bulk meats, divide and freeze in salvaged bags (frozen vegetable, produce, bread, etc,)
23 start raised beds or container gardens
24 compost pile from vegetable peelings, banana peels, shredded documents, etc.
25 forage berries, dandelion and other greens
26 can and freeze
27 cut milk with reconstituted non-fat-dry
28 use day old bread
29 use other jars for canning (mayo for regular quarts and other jars with lids for gifts)
30 make jelly from canned fruit liquids, or apple peels and cores
31 watermelon rind pickle
32 purchase foods loss leader, preferably with coupons, with rebates, and stock a pantry/freezer
33 eat beans
34 cook from scratch
35 drink water, not soda
36 use one tea bag to make a pot
37 buy from the grocery’s discount bin
38 institute a leftover soup or smorgasbord night
39 save bacon drippings in a jar in the fridge for cooking other things
40 buy cheese ends at the deli counter if cheaper
41 make homemade yoghurt
42 save bread ends to make bread crumbs
43 make bread crumb cookies
44 add bread crumbs to homemade granola before baking
45 add bread crumbs to ground beef for hamburgers, not just meatloaf
46 use a crockpot instead of stove top or oven
47 make cheap meals, get ideas from $5 Dinners and Hillbilly Housewife on line or the More With Less Cookbook
48 check the weight of already bagged produce and buy the heaviest bag
49 buy produce from road side stands or pick your own if you can find a deal
50 glean (different from foraging)
51 gratefully receive gifts of extra produce (yes, even zucchini)

(Personal care)
52 cut own hair, go longer between cuts
53 use up all the toothpaste, cutting the tube open if need be
54 soften solid deodorant tidbits in microwave and refill container with melted bits
55 use up the last bit of lipstick by mixing with Vaseline to make gloss
56 use baking soda instead of tooth paste
57 do not color grey hair
58 rinse off razor, dry, and put a thin coating of Vaseline on to prolong it’s life
59 shave after a shower, eliminating gel

60 buy used furniture from thrift stores. yard sales, auctions, even antique places
61 scrap quilt, use worn out blanket instead of batting
62 use dial up at home or use the library computers
63 eliminate cable TV
64 instead of a cell phone, use Tracphone
65 scope out freecycle and craigslist
66 buy books at library sales, thrift stores, or online used book venues
67 make curtains from flat sheets
68 decorate you home with natural found objects, like stones or shells
69 trash pick (or if you prefer call it trolling or treasure hunting)

70 make Christmas gifts/shop loss leader sales/buy at thrift stores
71 barter (include trading off baby sitting)
72 buy birthday cards at Dollar Tree or thrift store
73 buy stamps online from dealer and get discounted prices
74 pick up aluminum cans off the street and cash in
75 use alternative long distance service
76 do without
77 ask for prescription samples from the doctor or from the drug company
78 don’t get pets
79 take day trip vacations
80 take up walking as exercise
81 buy used cars
82 keep the thermostat lower in winter and higher in summer
83 use the library for videos, special reading programs, interlibrary loan, and informational classes
84 take advantage of community walking trails, free events
85 eliminate subscriptions, read online, or share with friends
86 make your own fun, tree fort from scrap lumber, wild birthday parties

87 wear clothes more than one day before washing (not underwear or socks though)
88 wear clothes/shoes until they’re worn out
89 mend underwear, socks, rips in clothes
90 cut down adult sized clothes to fit kids
91 re-purpose old adult t shirts as sleeping shirts for little kids
92 go barefoot
93 use shoe goo to build up worn spots on shoe heels
94 make homemade baby wipes from Bounty paper towels, shampoo, baby oil, and warm water
95 cloth diapers
96 thrift stores and yard sales
97 discount stores like Ross, Dollar General, Gabriel Brothers
98 online sales with electronic coupons
99 hand me downs or loaners

Friday, March 12, 2010

Stone Soup

We were coming to the end of our time in South Dakota. My husband, Art, interviewed in Oregon where we stayed at a church elder’s home. His house was surrounded by trees, where mists settled into lower winding paths, softening their edges. It lent a postcard quality to the place. One night we were treated to an all church get together. Our host’s sister made a huge tomato based stew, full of eggplant, peppers, zucchini, green beans, onions, and carrots. Someone else baked crusty loaves of homemade bread and supplied butter. It was a very pleasant time. The stew was good, we were still slightly sleepy from jet lag, the house was warm, and conversation mellowed into a soft hum. It wasn’t until we settled into bed later that night I realized there was no meat in the stew, and remembered the stew maker was between jobs.

A Depression era actor, when he finally got a gig, invited all his friends over for soup. He supplied the soup-bone, pot and water, and everyone else brought a vegetable gift for the pot. Some were pilfered, some purchased. One latecomer found her onion arrived too late. Everyone had eaten, and the pot was empty. Feeling sorry for her, the host revealed his secret. Instead of a soup bone, the pot contained one very well scrubbed rock.

Friday, March 5, 2010

In Anticipation of Spring-Dandelion Wine

The check out bagger said his uncle’s wine tasted like sunshine. Was it sweet? Yes, but not too much. And yellow? Ah yes, a beautiful color. It sure packed a wallop too. With that, the corners of his mouth formed a dreamy smile, and his eyes glistened a bit.

It sounded like a lovely Christmas gift for family. And if Katie Luther was known for her good beer, why couldn’t a Presbyterian try her hand at wine? So, this last spring I picked all the yellow heads from our own fine crop of dandelions. It came to about a quart. The internet yielded a ton of recipes. All but two called for a gallon of heads. That eliminated most. Many required expensive equipment too. Well not now. People made dandelion wine long before speciality yeasts and special containers. So I went with an older “family” method calling for a crock and combined it with the recipes using fewer heads. A scrubbed gallon pickle jar, swished in bleach water before rinsing, seemed to fill the bill. When all was said and done it wasn’t quite large enough, so I borrowed another large jar and divided the “must” among the two.

For several weeks the concoction bubbled and frothed. Every day I stirred it down. The smell was reminiscent of friendship bread. However it was an ugly, brownish green color. Not at all yellow. There was too much of an investment to toss it though, and since it didn’t actually smell unpleasant, I persevered. Finally it stopped fermenting. The recipe said to let it sit for a day to make sure, then filter all the solids out. It was still cloudy, not at all attractive, and took quite a few days until the sludgy stuff fell to the bottom. Finally a clearer yellow appeared on top. Now we were getting somewhere. I siphoned it off between settlings a couple times, until only the good stuff remained. One little over zealous suck got an accidental mouthful. Whoa! It did have a kick.

With all the excitement, I’d forgotten the bottles. I cleared the fridge of chili sauce, soy sauce, even olive oil and a couple other oddball containers. Any glass bottle with a screw on lid was washed up and enlisted for the cause. The final product tasted a bit herbal, like sweet vermouth, with the lovely golden yellow of liquid sunshine. It’s supposed to be better if you age it six months to a year. Maybe next time I’ll find out.

Here’s the adapted recipe.
Pick fully-open, fresh, yellow dandelions heads (no stems) on a sunny day. Remove the green base, (called the ‘receptacle’, now we know), from about half of them leaving only the yellow petals. Boil a quart of blossoms in a gallon of water in a large pot for thirty minutes. Strain out the flowers through a cloth lined colander, pouring the liquid into a large, clean gallon jar. Once that cools, return it to the scrubbed pot and add one tablespoon of dried yeast, (I happen to have rapid rise), six cups of sugar, a box of raisons, one orange and one lemon, both chopped fine with the peels on. Stir to dissolve the sugar and yeast. Ladle the whole shebang evenly between two sterilized gallon jars, or into one larger jar if you have it. (You’ll need bubbling room.) Cover loosely with the lids. Every day stir the concoction down and re-cover. It will continue fermenting for about two weeks. Once it stops, strain the solids out, pouring the liquid back into the jars. Wait until it settles. Carefully siphon the clear wine off the top into sterilized bottles, leaving the sludge behind. (I used new plastic tubing made for fish tank filters.) This took several passes until the wine was totally transparent. Once bottled, close the lids tightly, wrap circles of saran wrap over the caps and upper bottle neck, to keep the air out, and cover those with circles of aluminum foil, for aesthetics. Attach homemade labels and they’re ready for gift giving.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Poetic Justice

My dad loved everything living. He’d go around the house glass and piece of cardboard in hand to trap a wayward fly, so that he could release it outside. I did the unthinkable once and tossed a potted twig after it sat on the kitchen table for months and months without sprouting. Dad rescued it and admonished my impatience.

Well, he was right. It started budding, and come spring he planted it in the backyard. Somewhere he found an open spot among the fruit trees, mulberry bushes, and bamboo stalks he had already put in that crazy space.

OK, Dad was a bit eccentric. He was a dreamy minded artist. We moved to a conventional suburban neighborhood, into a twin home with regular working class neighbors. The adjustment was rough, for us at least. Mom stayed inside most of the time, and Dad was oblivious. But once the pecking order reshuffled to accommodate the new kids on the block, (my sisters and I), we made friends and developed regular routines. Besides the other girls actually on our short dead end street, there were a couple of really nice families nearby. Donahues and Tierneys. The Donahues were a large Catholic family. They occupied a huge Victorian. Their backyard consisted of a multi-bayed garage, some worn spots, and an ancient Elm. That tree was about 3 ½ stories high and so thick two kids had to join hands to encircle it. One stormy night early on in our time there, a large branch broke off, partially landing on the garage. Sadly, the break revealed all was not well with the tree. So Mr. Donahue did the sensible thing, and cut it down. The process took over a day of constant chain saws and cracking limbs. Even now the felling of an old tree gives me deep sadness.

Sometime after that, new neighbors moved into the small row home on the end of our block. Mrs. McKinley, her ailing husband, and their youngest son, Jon. Mr. McKinley passed soon after the move, and Mrs. McKinley poured her energies into her postage stamp sized front and back yards. She grew everything. It was a jungle of green and flowers. Viney plants on trellises, large leaved ground plants, shade and cool, and as an accommodation to convention, a small privet hedge neatly trimmed along the front yard’s narrow sidewalk, in some sort of vain attempt to keep everything contained.

Our family lived in our house for about 30 years. Neighbors came and went. Jon grew up and moved away. My sisters and I grew up and moved too. Mrs. McKinley stayed. My dad became ill, and after many years, died. Mrs. McKinley visited my mom, to share books and talk. One day she pointed out something sprouting in her and Mom’s hedges. Of all things, Elm saplings.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sort of a Book Review Possum Living

You have to admit the name is intriguing. I first heard the title mentioned in a Philip Brewer article for Wisebread over a year ago. Philip looks at his dog-eared copy when he wants perspective. After a bit of searching I found the book in it’s entirety on line. Read only. Then our intrepid library ladies tracked down a copy through inter-library loan. It’s easier to peruse in hand but had to be returned. I wanted my own and checked our favorite used book sites, only to find it was outrageously expensive to purchase. Happily, it was reprinted just this year and is available for $12.95. My sister Lisa gave it to me as a Christmas gift. (Thanks Lisa!)

PL addresses basic questions, “What is enough?”, and “Is there a way to live outside the money economy?” I’ve puzzled over ways to integrate Dolly Freed’s experiences into our current situation, eliminating any ethically shady bits. (There are plenty.) Several major strategies remain. Maintain a large garden, cook from scratch, preserve, learn how to fix things by reading library books, forage, and be content. I suppose in a pinch I could learn to kill rabbits for meat. That certainly would be a learning curve for the kid who freaked when her fish swallowed a hook. But our cellar isn’t good for rabbit breeding or chicken nesting either, as it tends to flood in heavy rains. So gratefully, that’s not an option. And there are always beans.

Dolly and her dad were content to live in a fixed up house, basically off the land, and never go anywhere. If it were a treehouse in the woods as home base, maybe I’d agree. Washington state, or Britain or France even. But a treehouse, or a small bungalow among trees. Not suburbia. Not all the time.

Would I recommend it? Try interlibrary loan first. It may not be your cup of tea. For me it adds ideas to the stockpile. I have big dreams and limited means. The romance of cross country travel, silent stepping in pine forests, musty marsh smells, hawk calls, salty sea breezes, churning brooks, cool water rocks. All these sing their siren songs. How to get from here to there though, that is the question. And Possum Living may just offer some answers.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

It All Fits

I’ve been revisiting a high school passion, Fibonacci numbers. “Huh?”

OK here’s an explanation from Wikipedia, “In mathematics, the Fibonacci numbers are the numbers in the following sequence: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144...By definition, the first two Fibonacci numbers are 0 and 1, and each remaining number is the sum of the previous two”. Fibonacci numbers show up in the proportions of a snail shell spiral and the curved patterns in a sunflower head’s seeds even though they were invented by man. “Strange”, you say. Bear with me a bit. Thinking about these numbers lead to some mental wanderings. Sort of brain ping pong. Keep your eye on the bouncing ball.

There is an exquisite order in the universe. We know it exists intuitively. It’s here before we arrive. We seek to make sense of the world from our earliest interactions, to understand patterns and categories because we know they’re already in place. To decipher language, interpret facial expressions, decide whether we prefer strained peas to mashed banana, we develop filing systems for the bits and pieces. Even language reflects our heart of hearts knowledge of pre-existing order. We say “circulatory system”, “logic”, “cause and effect”, “singing off-key”, “proportion”, “laws of nature”.

The double helix is both beautiful and simple. Envision the cell division dance enabling reproduction. Amazing. Chromosomes. Microscopic codes, blueprints for life. Why someone has one blue eye and one brown. Why your kid gestures like your dad. Why identical twins look alike. Why some tomatoes are nematode resistant. Or certain flowers come in certain colors.

And yet for all our gathering and filing we can’t get to the One Thing Holding It All Together. It is outside our experience and capacity. Too big and way before our time. So we go into default mode. If I can’t see, hear, taste, touch, or smell it, it doesn’t exist. Very unsatisfying. It’s the little kid playing peek a boo, “I can’t see you”, when he knows you’re there.

Then we ask, where does creativity come from? Or love? Or hope? “From within ourselves”, we answer. That’s quite a stretch. Sort of like the geocentric theory of the solar system. You have to explain away a lot of irregular orbits. Unless of course planets revolve around the Sun. Then it all makes sense.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Dreams of Treehouse Living

Early morning eggs sizzle white with happy yellow middles in an iron skillet. Birds outside the window circle a makeshift feeder before lighting. Falling acorns gently drum on the tin roof. Outside, wind blown leaves dance under a porch swing. Under the porch trap door, a circular staircase touches the loamy forest floor. I'm living in the trees, and loving it.

It’s an image that keeps coming back, though it smacks of unreality. My dear sweetie, Art, (always a pragmatist), reminds me he’d be hard pressed to keep all his books in such a home. Like the ill-conceived Medici family’s marble-encrusted-arboreal-folly, it would come crashing down. So we’re left with an alternate dream. This one is totally doable. A cross country trip in a converted van, darting here and there to smaller and larger sites, until we arrive at Michael Garnier’s Out ‘n’ About Treesort, in Takilma, Oregon. Ah....His tree-house dream came true, and we can enter into it.

Check it out at-

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Stone Soup

We were coming to the end of our time in South Dakota. My husband, Art, interviewed in Oregon where we stayed at a church elder’s home. His house was surrounded by trees, where mists settled into lower winding paths, softening their edges. It lent a postcard quality to the place. One night we were treated to an all church get together. Our host’s sister made a huge tomato based stew, full of eggplant, peppers, zucchini, green beans, onions, and carrots. Someone else baked crusty loaves of homemade bread and supplied butter. It was a very pleasant time. The stew was good, we were still slightly sleepy from jet lag, the house was warm, and conversation mellowed into a soft hum. It wasn’t until we settled into bed later that night I realized there was no meat in the stew, and remembered the stew maker was between jobs.

A Depression era actor, when he finally got a gig, invited all his friends over for soup. He supplied the soup-bone, pot and water, and everyone else brought a vegetable gift for the pot. Some were pilfered, some purchased. One latecomer found her onion arrived too late. Everyone had eaten, and the pot was empty. Feeling sorry for her, the host revealed his secret. Instead of a soup bone, the pot contained one very well-scrubbed rock.

Friday, January 22, 2010


I don’t understand. At least my dad had a reason, he was a child of the Depression. And dear Uncle Lou, whose oft repeated vow, “This year I’m going to clear out the cellar”, brings smiles to those of us with similar tendencies. But what prompts the rest of us to collect like a bunch of love sick Bowerbirds? Are we gerbils frantically shredding up nesting materials? Is it survival tendencies gone awry?

The closest I came to an answer was a comment from a very tidy, organized friend. “Most of my stuff holds no emotional attachment for me”. Horrors! Everything means something, doesn’t it? Those envelopes containing our boys’ baby curls, a flipping acrobat toy I picked up at Woolworth’s when I was ten, my marble collection. I can tell the story of each one. To totally strip objects of emotion means, wow, you could live like a hermit, and it wouldn’t make any difference. Or is that it?

God didn’t make flowers in black and white, food doesn’t taste like cardboard, birds sing real songs. All very good, and meant to be enjoyed. All reflective of their Creator, and shadowed mirrors of the future. But it’s not the thing itself but what it means that gives it value. So somewhere there’s a balance. Where you own the stuff, but it doesn’t own you. Unlike Citizen Kane, who, in seeking to possess all, lost Rosebud.

So I’m thinking, savor while you have them, but hold lightly. And need be, let these go. All will pass away. There’s something even better ahead.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Uncle Rocco Had Style

I never met him. As a matter of fact, I haven’t even seen his photo. But I have been told about him so many times, that a vibrant image comes to mind. A dashing figure. A fine story teller. A man of wit and charm and good looks. He could draw and paint and play many instruments. He gave lessons. He had a following, and was invited to parties. His siblings adored him as someone with a “great gift”. You knew when he entered the room. Scarlet lined cape flipped over a shoulder, soft Fedora at a jaunty angle over one eye, sporting a hand carved cane. He filled the space. He had presence.

But in his heart of hearts who was he? In the down times, when left to himself? Sure he came to family functions on occasion. And if you know anything about Italian family functions you know the warmth, and food, and good times that entails. But in the end, all my mom could tell me is he married a barmaid and they had many children. Mom never met them. The family always stayed home.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Crazy Quilt

On Art’s day off, during our prairie years, we went places. Mostly to the McDonald’s in town, for the ten cent burger special lunch, splitting a large soda between the three of us, (with free refills). Or to Ziegler’s, the thrift/antique/oddball place run by a family we knew. Several times a year we’d trek the hour and a half to Pierre, to a real shoe store, and get John’s problem feet fitted. While visiting the “big city” we’d tuck in some sites. South Dakota’s State Museum was air conditioned in summer, pleasantly warm in cold weather, quiet, and free. My favorite case enclosed a crazy quilt festooned with small oil paintings, embroidery, fair ribbons, and bits of cloth advertising. The varieties of silks, velvets and fine embroidery spoke of a more gentile life. Fair ribbons hinted at the realities of cattle farming, miles between neighbors, frostbite winters, and blasting hot summers. I recall Art and John impatiently pulling me a way from that display after a long look see. I so wanted to embed that image in my heart, to understand the woman who drew her disparate life-parts together.

My own attempt at quilting started innocently enough. While helping set up a yard sale, I spotted a 1940's red rayon tie in a pile of donated clothes. It shimmered ruby-like with blue and orange highlights in the white sun. And it was only 25 cents. Opening seams and ironing it flat, it yielded about eight inches of fabric at the widest spot. All in all, it took over forty ties for the quilt. Each had a story. One was my dad’s, a narrow woven black and white checkered number he wore in the seventies. Another came from a friend back home in Pennsylvania, a crazy red thing with gold threads woven through it. Most were silk or rayon, in various reds, given by individuals through word of mouth, or carefully collected at yard sales. Strips were arranged and rearranged side by side onto squares taken from a worn bed-sheet, then pieced, and assembled into wide panels. Panel over panel until a substantial rectangle formed. Then framed with swatches of drapery fabric, sandwiched with batting and another sheet, and finally quilted. Though not expertly done, it’s richly colored, and keeps us warm. And like the one in the museum, it tells a story, of places, family, and friends.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Looking at it Sideways and a Little Upside Down

The whole thing started by accident. In 1898, German chemist Hans von Pechmann heated diazomethane. It left a waxy residue which his colleagues dubbed “polymethylene”. For years nothing came of his discovery. Then in 1933, two British chemists, Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett combined ethylene and benzaldehyde under extremely high pressure and produced that same waxy plastic. It was easily molded and looked commercially promising. The trick was reproducing the process, as their equipment sprung a leak during pressurization, skewing results. Another chemist, Michael Perrin, finally reproduced the experiment in 1935. Perrin’s work became the basis for commercial production of “polyethylene”.

In 1939 polyethylene replaced metal in British radar components. This innovation enabled severely outnumbered Allied planes to carry on-board radar, giving them an advantage over Axis aircraft. After the war, chemists attempted to replace high pressure with chemical catalysts. In 1951, Americans Robert Banks and J. Paul Hogan, added chromium trioxide. It worked alright, but try as they might, they couldn’t get uniform quality. Tons of off-spec “Marlex” pellets filled Phillip’s Petroleum warehouses. So the product was laid aside again.

Backtrack a bit to 1948. Richard Knerr and Arthur Mellin started a slingshot company in their garage. These powerful little numbers tossed chunks of meat into the air to train falcons. As one might suspect, business was slow. That is, until one of the partners went on a sales trip to Australia. There he observed kids exercising in a school playground with wooden hoops. In 1958 Knerr and Mellin approached Phillip’s about purchasing their plastic. Phillip’s was delighted to get the stuff off their hands.

That odd marriage was a rousing hit. The former slingshot company,“Wham-O”, sold twenty million hula hoops in six months.