Thursday, September 1, 2016

New season, new job

The leaves are beginning to turn their pretty fall colors around here and the insane (for me) heat is starting to wane. At last. Autumn has always been my favorite season. Much more so than New Year's, it seems like a renewal. Winter is a time for hibernation and occasional lifting of spirits. Spring is the time of anticipation and ramps up into summer, when there's always stuff going on. Fall, on the other hand, doesn't seem to know where it's at. It's simultaneously a season of starting anew (new school year) and slowing or quieting down. The busy-ness of summer gives way to a quieter, more contemplative season as the days get shorter and the temperature slowly starts to drop. I love it. "Clair de Lune" has been playing endlessly in my head, not that I mind, and seems to capture how the season feels for me. It has a quiet sort of energy to it, soaring and beautiful without being overpowering.
The change in seasons usually brings with it a change in  point of view for me, particularly autumn. Taking stock of my life at the end of summer works well for me, far more so than the middle of winter. Changes always occur. We got married in autumn, at my request. (My husband would say, at my insistence.) We'll mark five years on this coming Sunday.
Some of the changes made in autumn are always out of my control, which brings the usual mix of good and bad. HusbandX's job, we found out in mid-August, decided not to extend a full contract to him. The one bright side is that it was for company reasons, not for performance reasons. (They don't have enough senior staff to take on more junior staff.) But once again, he would be jobless come the fall.
For a while, I was just angry. It seemed that life was throwing us more of the same old crap just as we were starting to get comfortable, to hope that we could change our circumstances. I was mad at the company for not telling us sooner, so that he could begin job hunting that much faster. I thought of how much time we've already spent living in my parents' house when we (foolishly) planned it to be for no more than 3-6 months. This was particularly notable when I realized how much our daughter has changed since we moved in here and when I further realized that, soon, she'll have spent as much of her life in this house as she did in Fairbanks. Half her life in a place we've considered a temporary living situation, with only two rooms actually "ours". I've just been angry at it all.
After a while, I got sick of being angry. I was sad, too, and it was affecting how I interact with the people around me. Since I'm mostly at home, that means I was taking out my anger and frustration on my family. It's not pleasant to realize that, particularly as a mom. What a terrible example to set! So I decided to be more proactive, to do something to change our circumstances. I'm sick of waiting for companies to realize how great my husband is. I'm tired of being at home all the time, having nothing in common with the moms that I meet in this fancy neighborhood, and feeling like my brain is atrophying from disuse.
People (mostly nosy neighbors) keep mentioning that surely our daughter is old enough for preschool now. (Depends on the preschool, it turns out.) HusbandX and I talked it over and decided that, even if she's not old enough, it would be good for her to get more social time with kids her own age. We can see how starved she is for that, so putting her in either preschool or daycare would actually be a good thing.
With all of this and more going through my head, I started a job hunt. A really, really lazy job hunt. I applied for a grand total of three jobs over the course of four days, two of which were part time. Thankfully, since I was applying for jobs that I had plenty of experience for, I heard back from one of them the day after sending in my application. I had a phone interview a couple of days later, and then they asked for an onsite interview. Apparently, I nailed it. I had no sooner gotten home than I received a call saying that the team was impressed with me and that they wanted to do a background check and get some references before extending me the offer.
The background check cleared, of course, and my wonderful references said nice things about me (I assume), so yesterday I accepted the offer. I'm still stunned by how quickly everything has moved. HusbandX's employment ends this Friday, and mine begins next Wednesday, just over two weeks after submitting my application. I'll only be working part time, but I'll still be receiving full benefits, which is incredible. Occasionally I'll be asked to come in full time, but I don't mind that. My biggest concern was that I wouldn't cover the cost of childcare, or that I'd just barely cover it. (After taxes, transportation, office-appropriate clothes and childcare, not to mention the allure of convenience when you're tired from working all day, you might be surprised at how much it costs just to have a job.) In this case, however, the company will cover my bus fare, and I'll be earning enough to have some money leftover even after childcare, taxes, and my retirement contributions. I might not be earning much each year, certainly not enough for us to live on in an expensive city like Seattle, but the math still works out in favor of this job. Plus, the mental relief it brings to me is worth quite a bit more.
Even better, the company seems like a neat place to work. Ethical, based on the benefits they offer, what they do, and how they're organized, and everyone I talked to said that they enjoy working there. The position I'm filling shouldn't be particularly taxing, nor will it be completely mindless. It's a mix of duties (reception/admin assistant type work) so every day will be a little different. I was concerned that my upcoming trip to Russia would be a problem, but they're fine with it. Phew!
I have so much to be excited about this autumn. It's not what we'd planned on, and it's not even what I'd hoped to be excited about (house hunting...), but it's a good change.
I'm also feeling more hopeful again in general. My optimism came back before I even had an interview, just from beginning the process of searching for a job. It turns out that doing something to fix a situation, rather than just being angry about it, is the best way to feel better. I know that HusbandX will get another job, and it should happen much more quickly this time. Good things are starting to accumulate, and the tail end of 2016 should be better than the first half of it was.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Garden peas

This year, we've been growing peas. I love growing things, I always have. Gardening, canning, and otherwise preserving food is something I've always enjoyed, and living in Alaska made it seem like more of a necessity in my life than just a pleasant hobby. (If you lived there, you'd understand. The state has a precarious food supply at the best of times.)
Here, I'm amazed by the abundance of foods we can grow. Not just the number and variety, but also the fact that there are multiple seasons in which to grow. In Alaska gardeners spend the entire beginning of the year in anticipation. Waiting, planning, scrapping the plan for a new one, and more waiting. Finally, sometime in May, the trees leaf out and you go. Everything into the garden, all at once, go go go! Grow, little seedlings, grow! A few weeks later you're thinking, "Um, what am I supposed to do with all of this rhubarb and zucchini?"
Today, in August, I pulled out our pea plants and re-seeded. Incredible. The spring planting had developed a white mildew, so I harvested what I could and then yanked the plants out so that I can plant the fall crop. Multiple gardening seasons. I'm still in awe.
Over the course of the summer we harvested roughly a gallon of shelling peas, after being shelled, plus more sugar snaps and snow peas than we could eat. Seriously, I took quite a few to the neighbor who shares her fruit with us. Gardeners are nothing if not generous.
Peas, Grommet! Roughly a pint of them.
The peas haven't just been about getting food, however, they've been a learning tool. The Munchkin helped me plant, helped me tend, and then helped me harvest. All right, so the planting lost her interest quickly, the tending was mostly fun because she got to play with the hose, and harvesting mostly meant that I handed her peas to munch on while I picked them. Still, it's been an activity we've both enjoyed, and I will continue sharing this with her as she grows. As someone once said, why would I explain miracles to her when I could just grow a garden and show her instead?
It was while I was picking peas a few weeks ago that I thought about all of the unrest our country has experienced lately. Overt racism has taken center stage, and it's ugly. It's a very ugly thing. I mourn the lost lives and the hatred behind these acts while not really knowing what I can do to stop it other than to be kinder, and to try to raise my child to be caring and empathetic. How many of us have looked at our children hoping that their generation doesn't have to experience this? I know I have. Yet, it feels like I'm doing so little. I have to remind myself that it's not a little thing, to raise a child who is caring. Clearly, there are a lot of people who fail at it.
After yet another shooting, weeks ago, I had a conversation with my friend Claudia. She's a cyclist, one of my mommy biking friends. She's also black.* However, her son has a white dad. Her son's hair is black, but straight. His skin is light. He doesn't, as she said, present as a black man. Already, by the age of ten, he's noticing that people treat him differently when he's with his white father than if he's with his black mother. We were talking about how important it is to discuss these issues with our kids, while at the same time wanting to shield them from the worst aspects. Obviously, by ten, her son understands that black men are being killed for, essentially, being black men in public. But she also knows that his experience of race and identity, even with a black mom, are going to be different than that of other black men. How to navigate such a large issue, one that is so important and yet so fraught with hard truths about people? It was a heavy, important, wonderful conversation.
Three sizes of peas. All were ripe, but some were
made to be bigger and others were meant to be small.
So I was thinking about it while I harvested peas. The Munchkin was messing around with the hose behind me, and I wondered how I will broach this topic when she's old enough. It will, by necessity, be different than the conversations Claudia has with her son. We are white, and have a white experience of the world. My daughter and I will never have to worry, in this country at least, that someone will automatically suspect us of being less than simply because of our skin. How do I explain this? How do I help her see the world through the experiences of those who do get labeled as 'other'? How do I show her the silliness of racism, bigotry, xenophobia?
Then I realized, I had the answer in my hands. You see, we grew three different types of peas. They were all in the same raised bed, so they cross-pollinated. Not all of them, but enough. So we started off with three types of peas, but what we harvested ended up being a wondrous variety. Some of the cross-pollinations ended up bizarre, others were made better. Bigger, sweeter peas. Since searching for peas is literally looking for green things in a sea of green, some of them got missed until way late. We ended up with snow peas which were the garden equivalent of Sloth from The Goonies--huge peas in deformed, oddly light pods. I even got some nice seed peas, by accident, because they got left on the plant so long that they cured in the sun. There were so many different peas. But, in the end, they're all peas. They were all sweet and tasty, or in the case of the seed peas, useful. And the variety, as I said, made some of them better. Some of the peas ended up huge. Some were a little silly, not like the others, but that's just the way nature is sometimes. It doesn't make them any less peas to not look just like the others do.
A regular snow pea, and one of my crazy cross-pollinated ones.
When the day comes that I have to have a conversation with the Munchkin about the awful, ugly hate that some people hold in their hearts, I will begin it in the garden. We will talk about the ways in which people have such beautiful variety as well. This applies not just to race, but to other aspects of people as well. The same neighbor who shares her fruit with us has a son who is disabled. He was born with microcephaly, among other issues. There's no distinct diagnosis for "what's wrong with him" (as she gets asked, frequently), he just is who he is.
He's also roughly the same age as my Munchkin. The more the two kids play together, the less I see his disabilities and the more I see how he is, in so many ways, just like every other kid. Though he is older, the Munchkin is already surpassing him. She will continue to pull away from him in what she can do, as he stays more toddler-like. However, at least for now, they are friends. He likes to ride his trike, to play with the hose and in his wading pool, just as my kiddo does. Seeing the two of them dropping rocks into the storm drain together, and spitting down it when they run out of pebbles, is hilarious. They play, just like any other two kids their age would. My Munchkin clearly knows that he's not like she is, but it doesn't keep her from playing with him. It's beautiful.
Beyond anything else, their play also shows me that these attitudes, racism and bigotry and even sexism, are all learned. These are not natural attitudes, so I don't have to force anything on my daughter, or really teach her not to hate others. All I have to do is foster her own natural sense that people are different, and that's okay.
If all the peas were just the same, then we wouldn't get to marvel at each and every one of them. They're all a gift, and I hope she remembers that.

*I'm never sure how to include this information about a person. Obviously it's important, both for her identity and to inform us of how she experiences the world. But it does feel like an awkward thing to point out because I feel like pointing out someone's skin color can feel like an end point. As in, that's all you need to know about them. Instead, it's just one aspect of who they are. How to say it that way, respectfully? I'm never sure.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Why Frugality?

Over a year after starting this silly little blog, I figure I should address why I chose to talk about frugality (among other topics). I've read so many online comments about how people who are frugal "deprive" themselves, or miss out on life. I've even heard a few comments from friends to the effect that it's not really worthwhile to save money, or even to manage it well. (Thankfully, those comments have been few and far between--most of my friends and family are pretty savvy about this stuff already.) I always feel a little sad about those comments, because the people who make them don't really understand what they're missing out on. They're the same ones who will be complaining that they'll never be able to retire a few years down the road. Or even worse, they really won't get to retire.
Our old lady dog, enjoying a well deserved rest in the sun.
Everyone deserves the same relaxing, carefree time
in their old age.
No one should be stuck working when they don't want to, and a life spent like that just seems like a waste. Do you really want to drag yourself to a job every day, no matter how old you are? And for what? It's not like most people who mismanage their money spend it on things to make their lives better. The odd vacation, sure. But will that brand new, expensive car really make your life better? Or is it just going to be a thing that schleps you to your job every day and you won't notice it after a while? How many clothes have you bought in the past that really, really stick in your mind? How much opportunity for things you really want, or even need, to do are you trading for kitsch and the momentary satisfaction of a purchase? When you think about it, is it really worth it?
The economist Keynes believed that we would have a fifteen hour work week by now. That would be aweome...if it had actually happened. However, what we tend to see is that people work longer hours now than they used to, while others experience a shortage of jobs. It's a disconnect which, frankly, has a whole host of social, political, and economic problems attached to it. But the reason he figured we'd have such a short work week is because we wouldn't need to work any longer. With our needs met, people would put in fewer hours at a traditional job and spend more time in leisure. How many of you just read that and thought of all the ways a fifteen hour work week would improve your life? Yeah. The problem is, people began finding so many ways to spend themselves out of that shorter work week. It's not all our fault, there is a lot of creepy psychology behind marketing. But, if we're honest, a lot of it is also our own fault. No one makes us buy unnecessary stuff, we do it to ourselves. How many purchases have you regretted soon after making them? And how much is that in terms of your salary? Did you waste an hour on the silly purchase, two, four? Taken all together, how much of your life have you spent on silly purchases? Putting it in real terms like that tends to up the stakes. When I was younger, my best friend and I calculated everything in terms of books. "No, that's way too expensive. I could buy at least three books for that amount!" It was an easy way for us to determine what was really important, and what was an impulse purchase we'd later regret.
My love of books is well documented.
I'm not immune to marketing and the desire for stuff. Even as what Gretchen Rubin would call a "compulsive under-buyer" (someone who routinely doesn't buy stuff, even when it would improve my life), I still have the want of things. I just don't take the next step and actually buy them until I've thought about it for a long, long time. As an example, there's a purchase that HusbandX has approved, but it's thirty whole dollars and I'm just not sure I'm ready to spend that money right now on anything except food. As a consequence of this tendency, which HusbandX has to a slightly lesser extent as well, we end up saving far more of our income, percentage-wise, than most people. Not even most people in our age and income bracket, or family situation, but most people in general. As a consequence of that, I can reasonably expect that we will be essentially financially independent by sometime in our forties, if not a little earlier. Not that quitting work will necessarily be something that happens when that day comes, but we won't have to work unless we really, really want to. It might not be important to others, but being able to choose the course of our lives without worrying about money or work is very important to both of us.
HusbandX and I don't have a specific dream we're working towards. We don't want to retire super early, like these people or these people or a whole bunch of others. We don't want to take a few years to travel the world (although we do want to travel, just maybe shorter time periods, thanks). There's nothing pressing which is driving us to frugality. However, being good with our money and resources gives us options. There's so much freedom inherent in being able to make choices, and so many people spend themselves out of these options.
Frugality isn't just about how much you can make over and above your expenses, it's also about how much you can save. I've heard it described as offense and defense, which well describes what HusbandX and I are doing. He's the offense, earning most of our money, while I play defense at home. I do what I can, within reason, to save money so that the money he's worked hard to earn isn't frittered away wastefully. This isn't a model that works for every couple, there are as many ways to do frugality as there are people, but this is what's working for us. For a while when we lived in Fairbanks, the roles were switched. I expect that, at some point, they may switch again, but maybe not. Maybe they won't need to. Being open to changing as circumstances demand, however, is crucial to our smooth operation.
A little bit of defense: home canned applesauce from
free apples. Doesn't get much better than that.
Frankly, the biggest thing that having a bit of money put aside gives us is peace of mind. I know that when times get tough we always have options. There have been times (such as, uh, right now) when we've kept ourselves in less than ideal circumstances so that we can give ourselves better circumstances later on. Do either of us want to be living with my parents? No. But doing so is allowing us to save up the money we need for a down payment on a house of our own. (Soon....) Yay! If we rented, particularly in this crazy market, it would take us years more before we'd be in a position to buy a place. For us, the trade-off has become worth it. Others might not see it that way for themselves, but this works for us.

Friday, July 1, 2016

It's always something

"It's always something, isn't it?" The husband grumbled this to me the other day, and he's not wrong.
It started with a lost driver's license. While we were house-sitting for friends a couple of months ago, I took their dog and the Munchkin on a walk, and decided to call one of my brothers. It was a lovely call, but somewhere along the way the Munchkin decided that she was bored, so she dug into the pouch of the carrier she was in. And then she began dropping the things she found. Bandages (because toddlers, yo), old receipts, and my credit card were all found littering the sidewalks. Not my driver's license. Adding a level of difficulty, I still had my Alaska driver's license. To go straight to a WA license, I would have to re-take the driving test. Annoying. I can get a new AK license from out of state, costing only $5. Not nearly as annoying, but still a hassle. It's one of those minor inconveniences that life is riddled with.
Then, on our road trip to Denver, the car started driving funny on the way home. We realized that it had been quite a while since we got the oil changed, since we drive it so infrequently, so that was the first thing we checked. It was out. We refilled it, and the car drove better, but still not great. We were able to limp home, but the only place either of us wanted to drive it to was a repair shop. The local dealership for our sort of car is conveniently placed so that I was able to bike home, and assure the mechanic that we were in no rush. Biking is our main mode of transport. He looked skeptical, and repeatedly told me to be careful on the roads. Yep, thanks. Got it.
The day I flew out to my family reunion, I texted HusbandX to let him know we'd landed safely. His reply text was that our car is totaled. We have three options: buy another used car (most expensive), get the engine replaced (still hideously expensive), or sell the car for scrap and rely on the use of my parents' vehicle when we need a car (least expensive). It turned out to be a fairly easy answer for us, since neither of us can stand the idea of relying even more on my parents and we shuddered at the thought of getting a different car.
Friends who've gone through this have had good advice for us, as have our families. It's not the end of the world, but it is a giant, expensive hassle. Once again, I thanked our frugal natures for being what they are. We have the cash to pay for it, and it shouldn't set back our house-buying plans at all. Considering that a majority of Americans can't afford even a relatively small car repair, let alone the thousands this will cost us, we are in a good position. I would say we're lucky, but really it's hard work. We've pushed off purchases we'd like to make (the giant scratch/bruise on my leg from the bike wreck caused by my fenders catching my shoes last night is testament to that) in favor of saving for the bigger things. And there are always, always emergencies. It's always something.

The one thing we were not, are not, prepared for, are emergencies which involve long-term expenditures. When I returned from my trip to Maine, I noticed that my cat was suddenly looking dangerously thin. I'd thought, before I left, that he seemed to be losing weight, despite eating well enough, and for the past couple of months he's been using...not his litter box. Seeing how frail he suddenly looked, though, after little more than a week, scared me. Adding in his lethargy and the fact that, suddenly, he could no longer even jump up on our bed, I booked an appointment with the vet.
His diagnosis is the worst of all possible worlds. It's treatable, but at such cost. I don't just mean financially, though that is important, but emotional. He's got diabetes. This was such a shock, since our cat is not fat. He's large, as tall and long as our dog, (we suspect he's part Maine Coon) but except for a couple of months right after we moved down here, he's never been fat. We're sensitive to the fact that being overweight is as bad for our pets as it is for people, so we do our best to regulate their weight well. And we did, getting him back to a healthy weight as soon as we saw it had become a problem. Which makes this diagnosis all the more shocking and horrible.
My sweet kitty, today.
The vet was very clear with us that it's an expensive disease to treat. Aside from all of the treatments he would need in the first six months, and the special diet we'd have to start him on, and the equipment we'd need to buy to treat him, and the number of vet visits we'd have to take him to, if all went well and his diabetes turned out to be well regulated (no guarantees), it would be a maintenance of about $100 per month.
If this was a human member of our family, of course we would do this. But, if it was a human member of our family, we'd also be able to talk about it together. Decisions with pets are never easy because it is we humans who have all the power and responsibility. I cannot ask him what he would prefer. He doesn't know anything except that he doesn't feel well. Extending his life might make me feel better, but would it really be best for him? At best, I would need to give my cat 2-3 injections per day, and get blood samples regularly to test. He would have to go to the vet every few months for checkups, and since my sweet little guy pees in terror when put in his kennel, just the idea of that turns me off. Some cats can handle such treatment with relative equanimity, but ours is not one. He would grow to fear and resent me, and that's unbearable. He's a sweetheart of a cat, gentle and quiet. He likes to bluster occasionally, pretending that he's going to go take out a bird, but he's never killed anything in his life. He loves me because I'm so quiet with him. He snuggles down onto me when I get settled into bed at night, because I'm so still and won't startle him. I won't delude myself into thinking that he would still love me if I had to stick a needle in him twice a day.
Finally, our lives just don't support the amount of care we would have to do. All the monitoring, making sure he got his injections in time, the vet trips...I know we'd fail at it. I have a hard time administering regular medication to myself, let alone poking a needle into my cat on a strict schedule. Between all my other care-taking responsibilities, this would be too much.
Cat-cat and baby, checking each other out.
When all of the factors above are taken into account, our decision for what to do was easy. And yet, it totally wasn't. HusbandX and I are in agreement, but we're not happy about it. With all of my reasoning, a small part of my mind whispers that I'm justifying killing my cat. What a horrible thought. Knowing that he could, maybe, survive, stings my conscience. If we were better people, wouldn't we give him that chance? But, survival is not enough. I don't want to see my poor kitty go through all of this, for his sake. Extending his life, or any life, is not the purpose. Living well is the purpose, and he has done that. He has been an incredible cat, a sweet companion. As parents, we can forgive a lot of faults in any creature which treats our kid well. This cat doesn't have much to forgive, and on top of that he's been amazingly patient with our little chaos maker. For a creature who frightens so easily, that's really saying something. He's never scratched the kiddo, though he's been given plenty of cause. At worst, he hides when he doesn't want to be around her, and no one could fault him for that. When I got the call from the vet, I was petting our cat while the Munchkin watched a movie. While I was hearing his prognosis, she came over to pet the cat and give him a kiss. She loves her cat-cat (as she calls him), and it breaks my heart that she will learn her first lesson on death from him.
This is the cat who always knew I was getting sick before I did, and tried to snuggle me into good health. When I was pregnant, he would lie over my belly, purring. To think of choosing to put him down rather than treat him seems so callous. I will always regret this choice, even though I know it's the right one. There is no easy answer, when no options are good ones.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

How to make the most of home fruit production

I love gardening. Ever since I was a kid and realized that people could grow their own food, I wondered why everyone paid good money for what they could produce themselves. Now that I'm older, I get it somewhat. It's a lot of time and effort to grow all of your own food, not to mention prohibitive in how much land it takes. But a little bit of food? Well, with the number of blogs out there detailing apartment gardening, clearly everyone could grow something.

This spring, I helped my parents to put in a large raised bed. It's a project which all three generations in this house are excited about and can help with. The Munchkin, in fact, has tried her hand at naked gardening. The wave of the future? It's not any crazier than some other garden trends.

At the moment, we have peas and potatoes growing well, spinach, lettuce, and carrots in their infancy, and perennial fruit going crazy. The apple tree, which last year produced a sad crop of less than twenty apples, needs to be thinned out soon before it kills itself with over-laden branches.

The cherry tree, a gift to my mother for her birthday about five years ago, has set its first real crop. I'll still be buying cherries at the farmer's market this summer, because I love them and can easily eat pounds of them in a single day, but my mom keeps marveling at how many cherries are growing. It's a sight that makes me really happy too.

The blueberry bushes are small, but they're covered in green fruits.

Lastly, we have strawberries. Last summer, the strawberry bed was moved. It had been right next to the house, in a shady spot, and the berries never did very well. There were a decent number of them, and they were always decadently sweet and strawberry-ish, but they were tiny.
After my mom and I picked through and ate some.
We decided to leave a few for the guys to eat.
This year, however? Oh boy. They are loving their new, sunnier spot in the yard, and rewarding us for this change by producing massive amounts of fruit. The berries are bigger, but just as tasty. "Melt-in-your-mouth good", my mom pronounced them. On any given day we don't collect too much ripe fruit, the largest haul so far being about what comes in the smaller plastic tubs at the grocery store. But, they're sweeter and more flavorful than any we could get at the store. Not to mention, we need to pick the ripe fruit every day. In the last week we've probably picked roughly $15 worth of fruit, had we bought it at the grocery store.* That rate of return for a few plants, which will continue to grow and produce fruit for years to come, is well worth it.

Naturally, I want to make the most of the fruit we're getting. However, we don't put any pesticides on our plants, so some of them get eaten by bugs. The ones which are very far gone get left out there, as a sort of sacrifice to the bugs in the hope that they leave the other berries alone. (Ha! Yeah, that'll happen.) But what about the berries which are almost perfect and just have a small part where bugs have nibbled on them? I don't want to toss those away. I was, in the beginning. Then, when I thought about how many berries I was wasting that way, I was just cutting off the buggy parts and eating the rest (still delicious), but now that we're getting so many perfectly good berries, I can be a little pickier. That doesn't mean I want to throw those buggy ones away, however.

I love strawberry jam, but realized that none of us would want to give up the good berries for weeks, just for jam. Better to eat them fresh. The
See the hole where a bug got to it? So small.
Why waste the rest of the fruit?
buggy berries, on the other hand, are perfect for making jam later on. Since I don't get too many all at once, I'm setting them aside in a bag, in the freezer, to collect. At the end of summer, or when the plants stop producing, I'll make jam.

This was just the first day's collection of less-than-perfect fruit.
How much would I be throwing away over the course of the summer
if I was picky about the bugs? Tons. The answer is, tons. And that would
be a real shame.
We don't actually eat a lot of jam, but it's fun to make and a great little treat. I'll mix it into yogurt, or use it instead of syrup, or, very occasionally, put some on toast for the Munchkin. She goes crazy for it, of course, and I feel better about making my own jam because I know exactly how much sugar is or isn't added. Plus, I get to experiment with different flavor combinations. Last summer's vanilla-cinnamon plum jam was a major hit, so much so that HusbandX has already requested I make it again this year. We'll see what the favorite ends up being this year. Perhaps strawberry-balsamic vinegar jam?

*Remember, we're growing these organically, so this is a comparison to organic prices. Non-organic, it's probably more like $10. Still, I'll take not paying $10, and for a better/tastier product, any day.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

How to score a free laptop

I'm writing to you on a laptop which was completely and totally free for me.  Now, a laptop is not a necessity in my life, so I wouldn't have paid for one at this moment.  But a free laptop?  I'll take that.  I didn't even have to enter a contest.
The secret is: know someone who works in IT.  Seriously.  My brother, before he left on his epic bike adventure, worked in IT for a corporation.  I mentioned that I wanted to get a laptop at some point and he said, "You know, we get rid of them somewhat frequently.  I'll keep an eye out for you."  So he did, and a few months later he delivered a laptop to me, wiped of the previous user's content and with freshly installed OS, browser, and security software.  It's lovely.
Not that it's entirely without flaws.  I can definitely understand why the company decided that it had run its course.  There's a crack around the track pad, the screen is a bit wobbly, it has trouble connecting to the internet sometimes, and some of the keys don't always work perfectly.  (Some problems in the keys didn't start until my cat decided to jump onto my laptoped lap, then freak out as he dug his claws into the keys and jumped away.  My 'o' key was traumatized.)  But for me, for what I needed, it's pretty perfect.  I don't mind dealing with a few flaws.
Not all companies have a policy which allows this sort of thing, of course, but I think most companies which deal heavily with computers understand that if someone else can use that mouse, laptop, keyboard, monitor, or whatever, great.  Go for it.  It would just be getting recycled otherwise, so as long as there's no information left on it which could be harmful to either the employee or the company, take it.  I know of several companies, at least, which have "free" shelves for computers and parts so that employees can take them.
My younger brother also works in IT.  (I'm surrounded by computer-y people.)  He got a job at a repair shop fixing broken (and sometimes "broken") computers.  The other day they took in a MacBook Air from 2014 which someone had dropped off to be recycled.  When they turned it on and messed around with it they discovered that there was absolutely nothing wrong with it.  The person who wanted it recycled just got a newer one and decided to ditch this one.  As my mother would say, "someone with more money than brains".  But, you might know someone like that, someone who gets the newest, "best" gadgets all the time and doesn't care about the old ones anymore.  You too could score a free laptop just by asking, "What are you doing with your old one?"  It's worth a shot.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Skewed Danger of Biking

“Is that a child with you? Then you need to DRIVE.”
I stared in stunned disbelief at the woman who said those words to me, before she and her SUV screeched away. I admit, in the aftermath I yelled something rather unpleasant to her. It was so shocking, so unexpected, to have someone yell at me for daring to do something as mundane as biking with my toddler.
You can't ever win as a parent, but if you're a parent who bikes, then I've learned that you're perceived as one of the lowest of the low. You're someone who doesn't look out for their own child's safety.
What I really wanted to say to this woman wasn't what I yelled. In the quiet moments I've had to reflect on it since then, I really do wish I could take it back, which is usually the case when I say something in the heat and shock of such a moment. Not that I think a well-reasoned argument would have helped, either. I could have pointed out to her that she, in her giant single-occupant vehicle, was the single greatest threat to my and my child's safety. By concerning herself more with judging me as an unsafe parent than with watching the road, by blocking other drivers' view of us, and by spewing out all of that pollution in our faces, she was making our trip that much more unsafe. But I doubt she would have heard or believed me, if I'd told her.
I wish I could point out to her that she has a very skewed sense of what's dangerous. I don't necessarily blame her for that, since it's a national attitude. We view cars as such a right that taking someone's driver's license away is only for the truly heinous vehicular crimes. And not always even then, since a suspended license is more the norm. (How much does it take for drunk drivers to get their licenses permanently removed?) Getting a driver's license is a “right of passage”, rather than a privilege. Owning a car is seen as almost a moral duty, and the rest of the world rightly considers that a rather strange attitude.
In a country where killing a cyclist is not really considered a crime, it's easy to see why so many people think that cycling is dangerous. However, to think so is also to ignore the fact that it is cars and drivers which are so fatal to cyclists, not the bicycle itself. Automobile accidents, whether a person was in the car or merely a pedestrian, is a leading cause of death among all age groups. It is a particularly prominent cause of death for children between the ages of one to eighteen, topped in the early years only by birth defects. When you give your teenager access to your car, do you think about the fact that they might die in it each time you see them off? Do you kiss your spouse in the morning hoping and praying that they're not one of the more than 33,000 road fatalities in this country every year?
When we add in the number of children who are injured in or by cars each year, biking seems comparatively safe. With its slower speeds, greater maneuverability, and the ability to stop frequently to check on your children, I always wonder why more parents don't choose that option for short trips. Biking to the grocery store is one of my life's greatest luxuries and pleasures.
The statistics about childhood obesity in this country are hard to miss, and while there are many contributing factors, one thing everyone agrees on is that children need to get more exercise. What most people miss is that telling your child to get outside while you're sitting in front of the television is not going to work. We, as parents, need to model the lifestyle we want our kids to have. We need to show them what getting exercise and being healthy means. Bicycling is not the only thing parents can do, of course, but it is one strong component, particularly for those who moan that they don't have enough time to exercise. Biking for transportation, while it seems scary at first, can bridge that time gap. Who doesn't like to get two things done at once? Even if you bike solo, you are still showing your children that it can be done, and that is crucial.
The number one thing I wish I could tell that rude woman, and really make her understand, is how much fun I have biking with my toddler. Yes, there are dangers and, believe me, I am very well aware of them. If she'd known how my heart was racing already that day, not from exertion but from the number of cars and people I suddenly had to navigate through, then perhaps she might have felt slightly less self-righteous. If she'd known how my brain was racing, trying to take in every potential threat, then she might have felt some empathy for me. But even with those heart-in-my-throat moments, biking with my child is truly a pleasure. She sings for me while I ride. We get to have conversations which are as great as one can have with a two-year-old. Almost always, we both show up at our destination cheerful and full of energy. Can anyone reading this honestly say that most car trips with their children are pleasant or fun? Or is it just one more chore?
I read recently about a school which has outlawed kids from walking or biking, or from parents trying to pick up or drop off their children that way. It makes me unutterably sad, that there are people out there with such narrow-minded focus on a car-centric culture that any other model seems crazy and dangerous to them. The damage they are doing those children by forcing them to be in and around cars so much is what seems crazy to me.
I have been a cyclist all of my life, and I will remain one until I'm forced by age and infirmity to give up my bike. It is my preferred method of transportation, and one of my favorite recreational outlets. One silly and ill-informed remark by someone who needs to learn to mind her own business will not make me quit, but I admit that it put a damper on what should have been a milestone. The day she made that comment to me, I was celebrating the fact that it was my longest bike ride with my daughter, over twelve miles round trip. I was feeling strong and content, halfway through, even a little virtuous, and one stinging comment took much of my euphoria away. It often works out that way. Even the man who told me, “You rock!” as he saw me climbing the big hill toward home couldn't lift my spirits, because it's the negative comments we remember much better.
Even if most people who drive are never going to get the courage to get on a bike themselves (although I highly encourage everyone who can to try), why can drivers not seem to contain their anger at cyclists? Why is it acceptable to yell at us, to disparage us, or even to injure us? Why do drivers claim the moral superiority, despite the proven dangers of cars and driving? Why is cycling seen as such a threat to driving? I don't have the answers to those questions, so all I can do is fight back, one smiling, happy bike ride at a time.

It's bike month. Get out there and ride.