Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Saving your teeth and many dollars on dental bills....

Yesterday morning I had a dentist appointment and I'm happy to report no cavities. At least that is what the dental hygienist thought as my dentist Dr. Fredricka was out sick.

I'm thinking of sending Freddie as we call her, a get well card as I love, love, love my dentist. She was not easy to find and I interviewed quite a few frogs before I found her. My main criteria was clear: Must work well with dental wimps!

There are now many web sites out there like Dentalphobia.com that have a variety of explanations for dental neurotics like myself. For me, a few bad experiences with zingers and what those in the industry like to refer to as "a little discomfort" did me in. And I'm not a wimp in every area; I almost feel bad taking cookies from those sweet American Red Cross volunteers after donating blood, because sticking needles in my arm and watching my blood drain out really is not a problem. But start sticking metal pointy things around my teeth and I get shortness of breath.

I made the mistake of asking for the "first available" dental surgeon when I needed my wisdom teeth out. Note to self: First available, especially if available about any hour on any day starting today is NOT a good sign.

My dental surgeon, the one whose availability was so high, an older curmudgeon, lacking humor, quickly grew impatient with my whimpering and whining. He said he admired people who weren't afraid of simple pain. Honest to goodness, this is what that masked man was saying coming at me with an entire tray of miniature metal knives and a power drill.

But Freddie is different. When I told her I had a sensitive area near my right lower side molars, she said, "No problem!" Now the dental hygienist puts numbing gel there every time I get a cleaning. They hand me headphones before I even ask for them, tuned into some sort of Yanni songs. And it is in comparison to the scraping of metal on teeth, not unlike fingernails on a chalkboard, that one really appreciates the genius of his work. Just kidding there, I actually find his music quite mellowing, just right for relaxing under the lights.

When Freddie had to drill, she not only pre-numbed and then gave me the numbing shots, but also gave me nitrous oxide. I remember she was chatting with her assistant while waiting for the gas to take effect and I realized for the first time how hysterically funny she really is. Dry wit indeed. I was laughing so hard I started to snort and when she then casually went over and started turning a knob, presumably to lower the rate of gas flow, I found this so comical tears were streaming out my eyes. All in all, not a bad cavity filling experience, though I was nauseous the entire drive home.

So saving money idea number one, don't put off cleanings because you're scared. Just search around till you find a dentist that sees wimps as real people;-). And if you're one of those people like my friend Emelia who says she actually likes to hear the sound of the scraping because it feels good to know how clean her teeth are getting.....well, next time you see her on Pluto, where I'm sure she must spend a fair amount of her free time, be sure to say hello.

My first dental report card didn't go so well. To check the health of your gums, they stab you with a spiky stainless steel rod that looks a lot like the tool my grandpa kept near the walnuts and walnut crackers to tease out that last bit of nut meat. Then they find out how far it goes into your tender pink flesh. One to three is pretty good, anything over three is written in red ink on your tooth report card. I got some red marks and the dentist started talking gum disease. My thoughts raced to a good friend who has had to go through gum tissue grafting. You do NOT want to go through this.

She recommended I switch from my $2.99 Reach toothbrush to an electric one or sonic care as she felt I was scrubbing too hard against the gums and this contributes to gum tissue issues. She also recommended a water pik.

These two things, especially the water pik, have done wonders for my teeth. And the gross stuff that is still between my teeth even after brushing that then shoots out with the water pick is nothing short of astounding (so sorry if you're eating as you read this....).

Now my dental report card impresses even my wonderful dental hygienist Mary, who is giving me all ones and twos these days when she pokes around my gums.

So money saver number two, get an electric or sonic toothbrush and some sort of water pik. I got mine at Target a few years back for maybe $40.00 and it works great. Considering the cost of one trip to the dentist, that's money well spent. An aside, do you ever almost forget to pay as you're on your way out? Somehow my psyche feels like I was the one who endured the most and why I should be handing over a hundred dollars and not them, can be confusing in the moment.

So signing off tonight with my not so pearly whites (the home bleaching stuff made my teeth tingle for weeks) but very healthy chompers. Goodnight and happy brushing (electric that is).


P.S. The lawyer in me hastens to request you not consider my blog as dental advice, but rather seek the advice of a qualified dentist near you....;-)

Monday, September 28, 2009

Our Neighborhood Economy is Thriving

Yesterday morning, my neighbor Gene arrived with his lawnmower and a trailer full of leaves he knew I could use for my garden. After we unloaded them I purchased two raffle tickets for his group's fund raiser to send cards to servicemen and women stationed overseas. He stayed a bit and told me the story of his helicopter winch airlift off the fantail of the ship he was serving on in the Korean war. Due to his wife's doctor's pulling of strings, he was given ten days to go home and see his then six week old daughter. I suspect he enjoyed telling the tale as much as I enjoyed hearing it.

As Gene and his John Deere headed out the drive, I yelled thanks for the free mulch and the great story and it occurred to me that while the world economy is struggling, our neighborhood economy is thriving.

I wasn't always in the loop. We've lived here over ten years and early on I was teaching morning classes at one college, afternoon classes at another, and evening classes at a third. I would come home pulling into the drive and using the electric overhead door button, happy to have that big garage door slam down behind me and allow me to escape people into the quiet cocoon of my house.

The sight of a neighbor walking up the drive was met by thoughts of "Oh Bother!" (can you guess we've been reading Pooh lately at bedtime) rather than, "Nice to see you!" I felt tapped out and considered interacting with my neighbors as one more thing on a crowded to do list. And when you add the fact that Myers Briggs has me pegged as an introvert, you can see why my house wasn't the first stop for girl scouts selling cookies.

I'm not even sure I can even remember how or when that changed, but it did, drastically. Now I know and appreciate all our neighbors. And we've even created a mutual economy of sorts. Joe and Amy two doors down called to ask to borrow a car seat as their pastor's granddaughter was coming into town. When I delivered it, I confirmed with their daughter Olivia that she was still planning to babysit on Friday.

Doug, who lives kitty -corner, is as fanatical a gardener as I and the sheer number of plants we've traded, along with books and tips on great garden sales, has created a perfect import/export balance.

To my north, Steve is a plumber who gave us a good deal installing a kitchen sink and his dog Grace is always happy when I stop by to walk her, free of charge, whenever I get the chance.

And my dear friend Kathy, was five years ago, just a neighbor I occasionally waved to until she stopped one day to chat as I was mowing the lawn. A few days later, I was walking my dogs past her house and on a whim asked if she wanted to join me. She said yes, and we've walked close to 365 nights a year, over four years now, seeing the moon and stars in all their various constellations, sharing the ups and downs of our lives, and at least one good laugh each time around the subdivision. I helped her paint her daughter's room a pale yellow and she helped me get through many times when I felt overwhelmed as a new mom.

I could go on, but you get the gist. Neighbors can suggest who to hire and who not to if you need a giant dead Oak tree chopped down. Neighbors can watch your dog and water your plants when you're out of town. Neighbor kids may be happy to mow your lawn and babysit your kids and your dollars may help them with their college fund, or at least fund their McDonald's addiction;-).

So if you're like I was and race to escape into your house at night or on weekends, you may not want to start off by having everyone over for a cookout, but you might just want to stop and congratulate the next door neighbor on his new daughter or bring the retired couple across the street a few extra apples from your farmer's market haul. You may already be the social director of your subdivision, but if not, you may be surprised how much you gain from your neighborhood economy.

How To Garden In January Without Spending Half a Million on a Second Home in Florida or California.;-)

Here in Wisconsin, our garden season was short. There were the first chilly spring days when I would determinedly dig in the still frost hard soil. The muggy, buggy, weed filled July months when I questioned my sanity in putting in over 30 flower beds and the cool fall days when I tucked in masses of daffodils (rodent proof) and a handful of tulips (rodent treats).

Those days are gone my friends! I first came across the the never-ending garden year at the winter sowing forum on Gardenweb.com. A brilliant woman named Trudi Davidoff had been playing around with sowing seeds in the deep of winter and shared this gem of knowledge with the rest of the gardening world.

Don't go to the site now if you're at work and you're a garden fanatic because you'll be sucked into the vortex of the greatest array ever of forums on everything from plant propagation to seed saving. Your job will just seem a waste of precious time that could be spent better learning from that Minnesota gardener whose just posted pictures of her thriving azaleas and you'll be wondering if she could really be zone 4 and what might you do with Northern Lights in that shady spot by the fence... and that report will go unread at your desk for some time.

If you're not sidetracked by the geraniums forum, scroll down to winter sowing. The concept is that many seeds lie dormant through the winter to sprout in spring. You take advantage of this and the need for some seeds to experience cold temperatures, called stratification. There is now a list on the site which is nothing short of amazing of the annuals, perennials, biennials, and even vegetables that can be winter sown all the way through zone 3.

I read in the Natural Shade Garden by Ken Druse recently that if you sow seeds in shady spots, often even plants that would prefer sunnier sites, will acclimate much better than a sun-preferring nursery purchased plant plopped down into a shady area.

And this all means that at winter solstice, you can be potting up everything from red poppies to phlox divericata in milk jugs on your kitchen table as snow flies outside. Then you just set these mini-greenhouses of sorts out on your deck, porch, or yard and wait for spring.

Meanwhile, you begin to get a little high when you see a neighbor tossing four milk jugs on one trash day, just as some new seed packets arrive in the mail.

And that brings us to the next great part - the winter sowing seed exchange.

You save seed from your so prolific you're slightly sick of them Stella d'Oros or your 200 strong hosta collection. You allow these to dry, then put them in little envelopes and label. Now you're ready to post on the exchange.

Have: Stella and Hosta Seeds
Want: Astilbe and cone flower seeds

The variety of plants available for trade at the cost of a few postage stamps is breathtaking. There are some serious collectors and gardeners on this site.

An aside, some plants such as hosta won't "come true" from seed. That is, they will differ from the parent plant, but that's a lot of the fun.

And in the cold, dark days of February, when you used to be in the basement dusting off that light box guaranteed by Walgreens to fight off the winter blues, you'll find it's a veritable Christmas morning each day you check your mailbox and find yet more tiny packets. There's the carefully marked heirloom Amaranthus seeds from Dorothy in Detroit (her grandma's favorite shade of dark pink) and the most cold hardy ever pansy seeds from Betty in the Upper Peninsula.

And if you're the competitive type, you'll be checking the container count thread daily. There are people on that site who will be potting up 2000, yes 2000 containers each year. And if the thought of all those flowers and plants doesn't just make your heart sing, what does?

In the spring, you'll be dashing about with a spade in one hand and a hunk-o-seedlings in the other looking for some bare five inch spot to stuff with cleome and learn to see grass as the enemy- really the nerve of that green mat taking up so much space!

Your family will be relieved in April when all that dirt and mess is finally moved outside and they don't have to move a bag of potting soil off the stove to cook some scrambled eggs - you'll have long since given up making dinners with all those seeds needing potting up each night - and isn't it a good thing to encourage independence in children and spouses anyway?

You may find yourself tapping your toes for those gorgeous pink daffodils to go to seed because you KNOW Jean in Galveston, who is SO picky about trading, will likely now be willing to share some of those rare anemones you've long had your eye on.

Once again as fall chills the air, you'll be scouring the house for old envelopes to fill with seed for winter trades, and you'll find the garden season really needn't end.

And should your significant other question this whole winter sowing endeavor, one morning over coffee, simply take a pen and begin circling ads for one bedroom, no indoor bath, fixer-uppers in San Diego, starting around $500,000....trust me, in no time your partner will "get with the program" and start bringing home the empty plastic take out containers co-workers were about to toss and scouring the streets for plastic pop bottles....

May your life be filled with gardening, 365 days a year! Eileen

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Wasted Regrets and Parallel Universes

About three nights ago I had a dream that I was trying to drive home to Illinois from college in Iowa, a route I actually took for four years, but in my son's blue peddle car. In my dream, I called my now husband to tell him I'd lost track of my good friend and roommate, who was also driving home, albeit in her silver Dodge and presumably making much better time. I stopped for a snack at a gas station and got a few snickers as I pulled my peddle car into the lot. And I remember it was getting really dark and I wasn't sure if Highway B would take me all the way home. Someone at the station asked "Are you really driving THAT??!!"

The next morning I was telling Greg, my husband, about the dream and he suggested it probably had to do with my blog. And of course, after thinking about it, genius man was right;-). And dream analysis is SO not his right brained thing.

But I think he hit on it. I'd talked to my friend that day about my blog, which she hasn't had time to read as she's been involved in a big litigation case.

She and I graduated law school the same year after being college roommates. She has had huge success in her career, one of the first women partners in a very prestigious firm, making a not small fortune, and being in the papers regularly, usually with yet another honor or award. And she's earned every single accolade with hours upon hours upon hours of life energy.

When I was in high school, I graduated with a number of awards from our small school. My dad came to the awards ceremony, and I still remember him standing up and clapping every time they announced my name. Now it was quite something for him to even have been there as his business kept him from attending many school events, but the fact that he stood up each and every time I was awarded, really hit home somehow.

The years went on and included a graduate degree from Stanford and my dad keeping his "Stanford Dad" mug full of pens and pencils on his Goodwill desk in the office of the Redi-mix plant that had taken the majority of his hours, but paid him handsomely.

Many years later, in my darker moments, I wonder if he's just a tiny bit disappointed that the daughter of the man who never got to graduate from his own high school and who paid many of the steep tuition bills chose to be a part-time stay-at-home mom and a part-time teacher of evening law classes and not a Congresswoman or at least making the local papers for trials she won? Though happy in my life, have I in some ways not made the most of the opportunities I was given?

And my dear friend, who did take that route, though also happy and truly proud of all she has accomplished, has admitted in her darker moments she fears a future tombstone that will say simply, "A really good lawyer who made a lot of money." End of story.

I saw Oprah's interview of Whitney Houston. The "Voice" talked about years, literally years, she spent in a haze of drug use and of the tumultuous marriage she shared with Bobby Brown. When asked about regrets, she said she didn't live that way. She looked back at the good times and laughs in her relationship with appreciation, and realizes that the sadness and insaneness got her to where she is today. They got her to a better place. I think I need to channel a little Whitney sometimes....

I have friends with deep sorrow that they never married, friends with unhappy marriages who regret they didn't choose differently, and divorced friends who were walked out on or walked out and wish it could somehow all be done over.

Some physicists have postulated that there is a parallel universe. Fred Allen Wolf writes: If the parallel universes of relativity are the same as those of quantum theory the possibility exists that parallel universes may be extremely close to us, perhaps only atomic dimensions away but perhaps in a higher dimension of space-- an extension into what physicists call superspace. Modern neuroscience through the study of altered states of awareness, schizophrenia, and lucid dreaming could be indications of the closeness of parallel worlds to our own.

If so, maybe I am going to court this Monday in my Porsche convertible in a new suit chosen for me by my personal shopper Majhuba and maybe my friend will be serving dinner to the kids in the 1970's bi-level and looking out the windows to her garden. I hope we have enough sense in that universe to simply nod at the other possibilities, appreciate the joys that are our own lives, and get on getting on;-).

P.S. Ready to hit some more dollars and cents savings on Monday! Thanks for letting me share the other stuff;-). Eileen

Is there such as thing as wasted effort?

Last night, I went with a friend to see The September Issue. The documentary was a fascinating look at the behind the scenes life at Vogue, and its infamous editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.

While I never quite "got" Vogue (I'm more of a InStyle reader - easily accessible - put a blue shirt with these pants), I realized watching the film how much art truly goes on in those pages. And the main woman creating the visual stories is called Diane. It is clear from the film that she sometimes has a hard time with her relationship to Anna, but she has stayed at Vogue over twenty years now. And she explains somewhere in the film, "If you don't have a place to showcase your work, it's not really valid is it?"

I'm paraphrasing her line, tempted though I was to whip out a pen and jot it down on my popcorn bag.

But I remember thinking that was a good question. If we never get to "showcase" our efforts, are they still valid? And as I'm looking at waste this week, what are wasted efforts?

Have you ever cleaned your entire house, shopped for some special snacks, and then had a friend cancel at the last minute? Have you ever taken on extra duties at work, but not been paid? Did you ever play on a sports team that never won a trophy?

I went to the estate sale of a neighbor a few years back. He lived in a fairly small duplex and at the estate sale there must have been thousands of Christmas decorations. It turns out he owned a small house in a neighboring town and every year would decorate it to the hilt inside and out. Clearly he was never paid, and I doubt the people who enjoyed driving by sent him thank yous, so was it wasted effort?

He took on this endeavor because he wanted to do it. I've often read the idea that it is a mistake to work only for end results and not for the joy of working. Because if the results we want don't come, we're disappointed.

In the book Being Happy, Andrew Matthews writes that if we can put in the effort to any endeavor and see it as a privilege and a joy to learn, to test ourselves, to experiment and experience, we will succeed.

"Getting to hung up on results takes us out of the present moment. It is possible to be always focusing on what is ahead and not on what we are doing. This approach removes us from the enjoyment of the present moment. As we detach ourselves a little from the results, we can enjoy what we are doing for the sake of it."

Or as Emerson put it,"The reward of a thing well done is to have done it."

Writing this blog is similar. I often find the writing a joy. But if you wonderful, more appreciated than you'll ever know fourteen followers hadn't given me the encouragement that your little profile icons do each day, I'm not sure I would have the inner pep squad to keep typing. If we ever make it to Oprah's book show, we're going as a group!;-)

In closing, my goal for today is to do at least one task for the sake of the task itself and not for some future reward (I plan to start with something easier than say, an annual pap exam). And to find at least one opportunity to acknowledge the efforts of others.

P.S. Today is Saturday and Kai and I ran to the libary, the park, picked up a boy scout application at the city pool, then walked past the post office. Pulling in, having just finished his route, was our postman, a truly friendly guy who always smiles and takes the bigger packages right to our doorstep. I flagged him down to give him a quick thanks - just in case his inner cheerleader was out sick today;-).

Have a great day! Eileen

Friday, September 25, 2009

Truly at a loss today for any posts - just a quick story on my son's new vernacular.

Slow news day here;-). Feeling a bit tapped out. But I will share a short incident that parents of boys might relate to.

Yesterday my five year old was in a public bathroom having told me many times how badly he had to go.

As I am washing my hands, he yells out from the stall to me and about four others waiting in the restroom. "Hear that Mom? (Referring to the sound of his urine going into the toilet.) "That's one gun that hasn't been fired off in a LOOONG time!".

So it's not just in his world languages class that he's picking up new phrases...;-).


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Mom, How Many Hours Since You Graduated College?"

"Mom, how many hours since you graduated college?" was hollered from the backseat of the minivan last night on our way home from the playground. I responded it was LOTS and I wasn't sure only to hear an insistent, "Try, Mom, just try!"

My son did end up letting me off the hook on that one as the math was beyond what my head can compute while driving. But my own curiosity was peaked.

I graduated in 1990, about 19 years ago. There are 365 days in a year, 24 hours in a day, so it's been 166,440 hours since I graduated.

My next natural thought since this is my week to address waste, was "how much of that time was wasted, and how do I define wasted?"

And I don't really know the answer to either. But here are some observations and an invitation to hear others' reflections on the issue.

When my older son was about two, we were once on the swings at a park and an older man stopped by, smiled and said, "Time spent with a child is never wasted." As he ambled on, I tucked that little phrase in my memory.

And while I agree with the concept, I question how much time I really "spend" with my kids. How often I mentally escape their unceasing energy and chatter into my own world of thoughts, responding to their conversation attempts with non-committal "uh-huhs and mmmms", until a phrase like, "so you promise, Mom, you PROMISE we're going to get a Great Dane puppy today...." and then I come back to them and try to recapture the thread of conversation and turn it around.

Highly recommended by the awesome posters at the Simple Living Discussion boards is the newest book on my nightstand. Everyday Blessings, The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn stresses on page after page that what your kids really want is just for you to be there, now, really there mentally, experiencing what Thoreau refers to as the "bloom of the present moment."

I find though that if I don't have some time alone with just me and my thoughts, the well of attention, nurturing, humor and fun runs bone dry.

So time spent with the kids, not wasted. Time spent pondering my way in the world, not wasted.

What about the hours spent vacuuming, grocery shopping, folding socks and unloading the dishwasher? I often set the kitchen timer for 15 minutes and fly around getting as much of this pain in the tush stuff done as I can. But Eckhart Tolle admonishes us to consider getting lost in a task for the task itself, and not rushing through one activity to get to a future moment, where THEN I'll be happy.

But the simple truth is I'm more contented reading my garden books than washing dishes. Now if I could find a way to be happy in both, to enjoy the process of one and be lost in the moment scrubbing burnt cheese off the cookie sheet, there would be fewer wasted moments indeed.

In 1758, Ben Franklin wrote the following in "The Way To Wealth".

If time be of all things the most precious, wasting time must be, as Poor Richard says, the greatest prodigality; since, as he elsewhere tells us, Lost time is never found again; and what we call time enough, always proves little enough. Let us then up and be doing, and doing to the purpose; so by diligence shall we do more with less perplexity. Sloth makes all things difficult, but industry all easy. Drive thy business, let not that drive thee; and Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

All of which sounds like good advice until you pair it with the thought one shouldn't "be so busy making a living she forgets to make a life."

In closing, I've been listening to Plato tapes lately. In the Apology, Socrates apprises us "an unexamined life is not worth living." Thus I sign off the computer in the hope this time spent pondering and typing was well-spent.

According to a 1991 chart from the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, reprinted in Your Money or Your Life, the average time left for someone my age is 329,601 hours. And I don't want to waste another minute;-).

Waste not want not.

My husband's grandma always impressed me. Her house was ceaselessly tidy to the extent you could probably have eaten off the garage floor. I remember we were visiting once and I needed to throw something away and asked where the trash was. She pointed under her kitchen sink cabinet to a tiny, less than knee high, waste can. It turns out, that was her trash for the week!

I suspect she secretly may have been appalled when we gathered at her home for Christmas dinners and she watched all that wrapping paper, the boxes, packaging, ribbons and bows being shoved into large, black, plastic garbage bags moments after gifts were opened.

I wish I had gotten to know her better when I had the chance. As I've gone down this road to try to simplify for economic, environmental, organizational and other reasons, she would have been a wonderful source of advice. As it is, her memory keeps some of those lessons in mind as I go about the week.

I've come to believe there is a big connection between waste and wealth. Wealth both in the sense of dollars and in inner contentment.

Benjamin Franklin told us "A small leak will sink a great ship." The New Englanders admonished us to "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without." And the environmentalists tell us to "Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle."

So what is waste? Some of the definitions according to the dictionary: To use and expend thoughtlessly and without return; squander; to fail to take advantage of opportunity, not under cultivation, unproductive, unoccupied.

To my mind that includes not only celery and lettuce that went into the trash uneaten (did you ever notice chocolate never seems to end up this way?), but also wasting the chance to giggle with my two boys who are splashing in the bath and instead getting aggravated and pointing to wet spots on the carpet.

There are so many areas of waste in my life and I'm looking at this next seven days as a challenge to see if I can discover ways to recoup a bit of what is sometimes lost.

There is one area I know I've "got it" as far as not being wasteful and that is my garden.

I now have over an acre of flower beds and many of the perennials in those gardens came from what I found tossed at our town's compost dump. I've learned the art of division and easily doubled and doubled again those original starts. I've learned about seed saving and not only save seeds for my own use, but to trade through the mail with others to expand my plant collections.

I have more than my share of trash picked planters and tools. And when my neighbor Bud was taking down his rock wall, I was lady on the spot with my wheelbarrow hauling those stones back to my own yard to edge paths. When someone on freecyle wanted to get rid of some pretty nasty carpet, my ever expanding garden empire used every scrap to kill the grass to make new beds, then put those carpets to use again under wood chips along woodland paths. Many, many times the flowers from my gardens have been shared with coworkers, friends, family, and neighbors and a compost pile gathers all the banana peels and grape stems right off the back deck. I collect my neighbors' leaves and clippings for mulch. And I'm giving some thought to offering to head up a plant sale at our church as a fundraiser.

So despite the fact I came home from an errand this morning to find four outside lights burning away, and tossed one bad apple this morning, I have hope that inside me is that uber thrifty, prudent New Englander waiting to get out.

What are your areas of waste and those areas you've totally "got it"? Care to join me this week? Antoinette, Committed Recycler that you are, maybe there's still some areas of waste??;-) For anyone who wants to waste less or share their "got it" areas, I would love the company. Eileen

Wishing you a Wonderful Day in this Wonderful World!

Just stumbled across this last night. Made me smile. Have a great day. And thanks Mr. Armstrong! Eileen


Monday, September 21, 2009

Reframing life at 8 cents a day. Or catching fireflies on camera!

I've picked up a new habit this past summer. I keep my camera handy and try to find or make one "picture worthy moment" each day.

The idea came on several fronts.

I happened upon an aspiring photographer last year on Craigslist who would come to my house for $20 and photograph my gardens and teach me some basic points on garden photography. When she came, we sat down with my albums of yard pictures (these may even outnumber the albums of kids' pictures, but the gardens were here five years before the first kid, and I will be the first to admit to having "garden issues").

She said in almost every photo, the problem was I didn't have a "focal point". And it was a problem with my gardens too. I have plants, plants, plants, plants, plants, plants.....and need one item in each garden to stand out.

My summer days were likewise seeming a bit amorphous. There was the chocolate milk spilled then wiped up by eager helpers with my snow white hand embroidered gift towel. There were two giggling boys wrapped up in a quilt, tossed over Dad's shoulder, and delivered upstairs as "that big order of potatoes just off the truck!". There's the pee stain on the cream carpets because someone forgot to let the dog out. And when asked, so what'd you do today, I often got that deer in the headlights feeling...so what DID we do?

I have a lovely German friend who is always willing to "work" to have a memorable event. She likes to eat outdoors, even if it's a nuisance to be far from the fridge. She likes to make homemade Christmas cookies and homemade soups, and willingly puts in the time and effort to have fresh flowers and farmer's market produce on her breakfast table. I really admire this as I tend to lean a bit more toward the frozen cake and instant oatmeal at the breakfast counter for purposes of ease and time. When we're together, I see how she MAKES the magical little moments happen. And I also see how that extra bit of effort she expends is rewarded.

And as I try to make more of those moments in my own life, I find I need the photo, or too quickly forget that moment. The gift of the photo is amazing. It lets me relive the moment at the zoo or the quiet kayak ride on the lake. And sometimes the absolute beauty of Wisconsin's summer is missed by my naked eye, yet caught by the camera's lens.

There's something about knowing you're going to capture a moment for your kids to enjoy looking back to, possibly in five decades, and you want to make it a bit more special. Not special as in stressing out over perfection, but special in that you created that moment. I read in a book about Tasha Tudor that she used to build tiny wooden toy ships, light them with candles, and sail them with her kids on a pond - I'm SO not there yet, but find the thought both moving and inspirational. And yes, in the moment, maybe some of the kids were fidgety or tired, but I would guess when they look back at such a photo, a little bit of the magic must revisit them.

So at the end of each week, I go back through the week's highlights and see the good times and smiles and feel the abundance of love and beauty and joy that I sometimes don't completely experience in the moment.

Some might call this a revisionist history, after all, where are the teary fights over who gets to hold the ONE stuffed dolphin, the backseat whining as McDonald's whizzes by, the angry outbursts at the candy aisle, or the sheer boredom of a February Sunday.

On the plus side, should my kids grow up and try to blame all their idiosyncrasies on Mom, I'm fully prepared, armed with 365 photos a year.....Mr. Psychologist, "Please allow me present exhibit number one.;-)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Plato for Pennies or Harvard on the half-dollar.

I've been hanging with Plato quite a bit lately. He rides shotgun as we go about town doing errands. And the more time we spend together, the more I find myself really liking this guy. Last Saturday on the way home from our zoo outing, my two year old son Kai fell asleep so I invited Plato to finish the fascinating tale of his teacher Socrate's arrest, imprisonment, and eventual execution via hemlock. Can this guy ever tell a story!

I'm hoping he'll join my new inner circle of friends which now includes Martha Stewart and Eleanor Roosevelt.

And no, despite any appearance otherwise, I'm not writing this from a padded cell;-).

Awhile back I was facing a tough personal situation for which I needed chutzpah, moxie, just plain guts. And courage has never been my strong suit. When I would read about the underground railroad or people risking their lives to hide Jewish families in Nazi Germany, my admiration was always tempered with a disappointment in myself for not knowing I too could have that strength.

Now my situation was not so dramatic, but I did need to find my inner steel magnolia and I had been simultaneously reading a book written by Martha Stewart and a self-help book.

The book, I wish I remembered the title but I've easily read hundreds in the genre, suggested that you expand your peer group beyond your flesh and blood family and friends to include those who have the qualities you'd like from any time in history, any continent, any gender, religion, or background.

I was drawn to this idea of having a "round table" discussion group and imagining what some of these people would do in my situation. I was drawn to both Martha and Eleanor for courage. Watching Martha go to prison and emerge, not cowed or afraid to go on in public life was inspiring to me. And Eleanor's quote, "You must do the thing you think you cannot do" had helped me get through my first college speech class. They were both women I wanted to get to know better.

Plato I must admit was added as a bit of a fluke. He had a good reputation and was available at my last used book library sale for a buck. I mean really, it was cheaper than buying him a coffee at Starbucks. And I find he's quite good company.

There is a second part to this new desire to get to know the "great thoughts" of some "great people". I read somewhere that if a New York taxi driver spent his or her average idle time between fares reading the classics in any area of interest, within a few years, that driver would have the equivalent of a PhD in that area.

That thought intrigued me as my day, like a taxi driver's, is also lived in bits and pieces. And as I get older and face the big questions of life and the inevitable question of death, I'm more and more interesting in getting a PhD in "Life" and finding teachers who've lived completely different lives than my own is quite instructive.

I think I had an excellent undergraduate teaching staff, at least if that can be assessed on the basis of tuition costs, but I'm not sure how much I learned. Mostly I remember hoping I would have someone to sit with for lunch at the cafeteria, hoping my new stone washed denim jeans would give me one iota of the casual chic of those sorority sisters, and being anxious, always so anxious about grades.

Now here at forty something, the thought of learning without any grades attached is positively lovely. Harvard tuition and fees as of last year were a bit over $36,000 per year. If someone were to give me a full scholarship and offer to take over all my duties here, and tell me there were no exams or papers, I would be delighted - who wouldn't?

But I figure I have some chance to get something of that opportunity here at home. I may not be able to attend lectures, but I can get through much of the same syllabus for free on book cassettes, or at most 50 cents in late fines from the local library. And I can rewind at will for the especially tricky parts; imagine asking your profs if they minded repeating that entire lecture? I'm starting with a sort of "For Dummies" version in that you hear the original dialogues, followed by Charlton Heston's soothing voice giving you the cliff notes of what it all meant - Much easier!!!!

I think I'm going to get a whole lot more out of my education this time around. Sophie Kinsella (Shopaholic series) will remain on my nightstand, but I'm widening the circle.

Gotta go, Plato and I have a grocery run tonight. And how cool is this.... he just told me he only gives out A's!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Who Dictates Your Beauty?

The night before our son Kirk started kindergarten, my husband and I were looking back at some photos of his birth and infancy. My husband remarked, "We sure looked a lot younger!"

And for just a millisecond, my stomach fluttered with something akin to fear. I WAS older and would my husband still say I'm "hot" at 50, 60 and beyond?

But somewhere even deeper, I was okay even with that thought. My beauty truly is my own to define, admire and enjoy.

I can't think of a single woman I ever met that I didn't feel had beauty. Once on the public transit in San Francisco, handwritten list of all the local thrift stores resting in my lap, I watched a woman who looked to be in her late 80's take her time boarding the bus. She happened to sit next to me and I took in the diamond boulder on her finger, the silk scarf, expensive perfume and thought she must have a story.

She told me her husband hated the weather in San Fransisco and was staying at their other home in Palm Springs. We chatted until I got off and I remember thinking how cool it was she had taken the time to do her hair, her nails, her makeup, plan her outfit and put on the last, perfect finishing touch - the silk scarf. She was quite beautiful.

Back home I met my now deceased friend Birgit when she was about the same age as the San Francisco woman. She called when she saw a sign I had posted at the local grocery store wanting to buy perennial divisions. She invited me over to her modest one bedroom red house and showed me her amazing three acres of gardens, slightly weedy but with that glorious cottage style - something akin to walking into a Tasha Tudor book. She started me off with lots of plants (given freely as she insisted she did not "sell" plants") and big dreams of what did in fact become my own acre of flowers.

She had a very, very wrinkled face, never wore make-up, and always kept her hair tied up in a bun. She'd retained a strong accent from her Eastern European homeland and been a refugee of world war two, a widow with two living children. And like the Mona Lisa, you really couldn't take your eyes off her slightly shrunken face when she was dictating her very strong opinions on everything from gardening to proper child-rearing. She was a stunner.

And beauty doesn't only belong to women. I doubt anyone ever attended a Stephen Hawkings lecture thinking, now THERE is an ugly man. And I saw an old interview of Michael Jackson recently on Oprah, done after his plastic surgeries had given him a new, some would say freakish, face and long before any allegations of sexual abuse.

As he talked about the loneliness of being a child star and the harsh treatment he got from his father, you could sense sadness. And when he admitted he didn't like mirrors because he was never satisfied with how he looked, I believed him. But when he gave Oprah a quick demonstration of the moonwalk, and his body flowed in a way to which even Martha Graham or Isadora Duncan would have paid homage, you couldn't help but see his beauty.

A few years ago I went with my husband on a work trip. I was in my bathing suit and feeling self-conscious. Any woman who has large breasts, has gone through a few decades of life and a couple pregnancies, knows the issues of "sag". And until I track down the maker of a swimsuit that has the support of my steel lined industrial strength bras, I wiggle along hoping my breasts are at least topping my belly button.

Meanwhile at the pool was a woman about 50, short - cropped gray hair, cellulite and a, shall we say, "lumpy" sort of body. This woman was in a bikini and exuded sheer sexuality and confidence. We started talking and she was from Germany, here in the U.S. with her boyfriend. I never forgot her.

We are indeed sold a bill of goods in airbrushed, computer altered beauty magazines. Cindy Crawford once said in an interview, "Even I don't get up looking like Cindy Crawford." So our very standards are being set by what??

Anyone who has seen a painting by Peter Paul Rubens knows skinny girls were once shunned and even today in Mauritania girls are force fed to achieve a "beautiful fat body." Then there's the issue of wanting what you don't have, straight hair, curly hair, thinner, more curves, and so on. Personally I stare with envy at any woman's hands with a French Manicure. My own hours playing in the dirt of my garden has made this too time consuming for me, but what beauty on other women.

My four decades of life have also begun to show up more on my face. The cute crinkles when I smiled no longer smooth down when I don't and I even went for a consultation for Botox for the lines along my forehead. I know, NOT frugal, but I just wanted to see what the deal was.

The plastic surgeon showed me a computer model of my face and patiently explained why Botox wouldn't work for me. My lines were on the sides of my forehead rather than the center. And if he relaxed these muscles, it would likely just lower my brows and lids, already getting that every so slight Elvis look as it was. As I stood to leave, he added, "Sometimes it's good to just accept that age is a natural part of life." I thought that was a lovely sentiment but did wonder with advice like that how the payments on that Lexus in the parking lot were going....

There are so many people that never come to terms with how they look. My own mom has struggled with her weight almost all her life. Yet inevitably, when she looks back at pictures from any prior decade, she'll say, "You know I really didn't look too bad." But she just cannot seem to carry that thought with her to the present moment, the now.

And I have no doubt at 77, she'll look back at her 60's and think the same thing. I wish I could give her my own perspective, which sees her gorgeous green eyes, petite hands that wear a ring size far smaller than mine, a body that her grandchildren think is just perfect as they snuggle on her lap, and face that's been looking out for my happiness for so many years.

So here I am at 41, determined to enjoy every bit of my own beauty all the way to 100 if I'm so blessed. Wouldn't it be neat if every man, woman and child looked in the mirror this morning, really looked NOW and saw their own beauty?

We may all just find ourselves grinning, giving a wink to that familiar image, and belting out, "Helloooooo Gorgeous!"

Maybe blast a little Christina Aguilera, check out that left profile, right profile... maybe one small dance step? Lookin' GOOD today!!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Helping educate your kids for a few coins and a couple minutes a day.

My first attempts to help our older son "succeed at school" were disastrous. When he was about three, I got some Your Baby Can Read videos for a quarter at a garage sale and a few days later a Leap Frog alphabet toy for a buck at a thrift store.

This sparked a whole new hobby idea - turn my toddler into a genius! How fun!

Maybe a week or two into this, he shoved away a counting game I was setting up and hollered, "NO LEARNIN' STUFF!!!"

So much for mom instilling a life-long love of the educational process.;-)

I had enough sense to back off for a bit until I was talking to my friend in CA and she mentioned a friend of hers whose son, same age as mine, was indeed in what his mom referred to as a sort of "genius school". And this kid, at four, could play chess, read, do math equations, and was learning two languages.

My son was looking decidedly disadvantaged in comparison and I restarted with vigor. Rhyming word flashcards and 24 math problems a night - and if you've raised a typical four year old and are shaking your head at my naivete, you won't be surprised to learn I didn't make a week on that attempt.

I was stumped but not defeated. What did Edison supposed say in a Times interview, "I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have
succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have
eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will

So my next stop was a teacher supply store. I went a little mad buying colorful posters, almost 30 in all, covering everything from sea creatures to planets to amphibians to rhyming words and letter posters. I put some on his bedroom wall, some along the hallway, and some on the back of the bathroom doors. I even thumb tacked a huge world map over his bed.

Though oh so tempted to go into my college professor role, spring for a new metal pointer and begin lectures each night, promptly at 7 p.m., I restrained myself.;-) He was naturally interested and I just followed his lead.

We've been reading the Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne (an aside: may I just say she must be an educational genius!). We've traveled with her characters Jack and Annie through time and across the world, everywhere from Egypt to dinosaur days and often, lo and behold, our posters are right there reinforcing what we're reading.

Then there's the books- I'd say we easily have 1000, all picked up in the quarter range at garage sales and I do believe this is the best $250 we've spent. We keep baskets of books in every room and in the car (and store bins of them in the basement).

They cover every topic imaginable and I'm often amazed myself how often the kids wander over and randomly pick out a book, study it a bit, then toss it aside to continue playing dinosaurs or blocks.

In the car there are game boards of animals, a tiny math pinball machine, and a planet earth voice game. Sometimes these are ignored for weeks on end, then used non-stop for a few days.

Dinner place mats, picked up for a dime each, have dinosaurs, letters, and the one my older, currently money obsessed to buy my own toys son loves, Learning About Money. One hope, they are so enthralled in learning they don't notice mom truly is a lousy cook.

I could go on, there are also "active" learning things we do, but that will have to wait for another post as I'm guessing any reader who got this far may be getting a bit glazed eyed.

My point, of course, is that all these things were really cheap and take absolutely no time other than thumb tacking posters to the wall or occasionally rotating some books and games in and out of the car.

And while it would be fun to report my now five year old started kindergarten this fall reading Latin, doing Calculus, and speaking five languages, such is not the case. But he can read basic words, do elementary math, and could tell you more about the French Revolution than you would likely care to hear (who knew gore and beheadings would peak his interest in history?).

What I would LOVE to hear are additional cheap, quick, easy ideas, especially in languages, music, science and art, not my strong suits.

Thanks! Eileen

P.S. For the record, there are some plain white walls in the house, lest you see photos of the kids' rooms and start thinking of the rather morbid Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story of the woman who lay in bed staring at that busy yellow flowered wallpaper slowly going mad....;-)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The "Magic Chart" and its role in making us millionaires;-).

Dramatic title, I know. Put it down to flipping through so many gossip magazines in the checkout line seeking ever more information on the child count and relationship status of Brad and Angelina.

But the chart has had an almost magical effect on my husband and me as we've continued this journey to financial independence, which started with a negative net worth as the wedding bells rang that September day in Chicago.

The concept was first presented in Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. I was fascinated the first time I read about it and went to an office supply store for a pad of graph paper.

We kept those charts right there at eye level on the wall, staring at us day in and day out. Each month, we would chart our month's after-tax income, our month's expenses, and the gap (usually positive).

Knowing my pen would be recording those dots each month was a powerful motivator to put off or rethink various purchases. The months with a big positive gap were celebrated. A small or negative gap became fodder for late night pen and paper strategies for reducing everything from electric to food costs.

A second graph charted our net worth each month. And we were beyond thrilled when it first hit $100,000. Eventually our net worth grew considerably beyond that.

We still have not achieved financial independence, the number at which your income from investments pays enough to fund all your expenses should you live to be one hundred. And this is not an easy task to accomplish, especially as our expenses have grown quite a lot in the past five years with kids and looser purse strings.

To put this in context, for every $100 a month in expenses, dinners out, electric bill, or annualized heating costs, we need to have $24,000 in the bank spinning off interest at a rate of five percent. And many think five percent may be optimistic. At three percent, we need $40,000 in the bank.

We haven't done the chart in almost two years, not surprisingly coinciding with the birth of our beloved, energetic, rambunctious, started up Grandpa's combine when no one was looking, two year old son Kai.

But as I write this, I'm excited to dig out some more graph paper and restart the process.

One mistake I made early on was to think, "when we finally reach XYZ, THEN we're going to be SO happy." Looking back, the first milestone brought us every bit as much satisfaction, if not more than the many that came after.

And I've come to realize my daily happy moments don't tend to involve our net worth. Watching my Pug greet her canine buddies at the park, my petite, slightly sadistic step-aerobic commandant announcing cool down time, my kids occasional camp out nights on our bedroom floor, my husband's eyes lighting up on date night because I took the time to read the Economist and the conversation turns from potty training to "The Vote That Changed Japan".... It really IS the journey.

Whether you're starting at a negative number, zero, or three million, good wishes to you as you plot and graph your way to wealth, taking time to realize you're probably already pretty rich;-).

Monday, September 14, 2009

Mean People?? Advice Sought;-)

The first time I saw the bumper sticker "Mean People Suck" along with a sunny smiley face, I smiled myself. I mean really, meanies - who needs 'em??

And I briefly thought of honking in solidarity with the driver who'd put this pithy statement on his bumper, but I was behind him at a stop sign and thought he might misinterpret my friendly gesture as rushing him along, and I've been flipped off for less...you get the quandary.

Complicating the matter, I'm FAR too thin skinned. If 19 students find my class worthwhile and are satisfied, but one questions the mental state of any dean crazy enough to hire me, I tend to discount the good and keep circling back to the bad like a kid with a loose tooth that just can't leave it alone.

A fist-shaking fellow driver, irate that I forgot my blinker, a rude checkout clerk, heck Shakespeare suggesting, “The first thing we do, lets kill the lawyers. [Henry Iv]”, I take all this stuff far too much to heart.;-)

Thanks to a veritable library of self-help books, I've learned over time to pretty quickly put negative thoughts behind and just start mentally rearranging hydrangea bushes in my garden leaving those mean drivers in the proverbial dust;-). But as I know full well that if I'm blessed with another sixty years of life, I'm statistically likely to rub some people the wrong way and catch others on a bad day, I'm looking for strategies. I don't want to just "not think about it", I want to retain a sense of peace despite it and indeed in the moment of it.

How I'd love to have the sanguine nature of the Dalia Lama, who I doubt loses much sleep regardless of the accusations slung at him by the Chinese government and posted right there on the front page of the New York Times.

And another part of me realizes at some level the sullen waitress's bad day only mirrors those that have been mine. I certainly have my share of meanness, and she has her share of kindness. And really, how easy to be nice to those who are nice to us, and after four decades on this earth, shouldn't I be aspiring to a higher standard?

And who is to say she's even really being mean? I'm sure I've taken offence where none was intended despite having cut out a quote once reading "to take offence is as harmful to the peace of the universe as to give offence." My older son who shares my over-sensitive nature has come home with stories of kids who "were teasing him" and I've learned through experience to ask a lot of questions before I go into "mama bear" mode. Often the supposed digression of a fellow kindergartner is so harmless I have to stop myself from rolling my own eyes and telling him to "toughen up". Neither of us would make it in politics.

I also realize that how I treat the angry waitress back in this moment is my choice, and will have ripples after it.

I hope it doesn't stretch the bonds of filial loyalty to describe my mom, who I truly believe would take a bullet for me, as being a bit "prickly." When she's ticked off, she puts on her self-described "mad face". Recently she called and told me about a renter, long in arrears who finally sent his girlfriend over with $50, a tiny percentage of what was owed. Mom was irritated to begin with and self-aware enough to realize her irritation was not exactly bringing out the best in the girlfriend, whom she described as getting "huffy". During this conversation, my mom's new rescue dog wiggled lose and started to pee on all over the dining room rug.

They both left the conversation peeved and I couldn't help but think of the kicked dog syndrome. You probably know the one. The boss goes to work in a bad mood and gets after the man. The man goes home, now in a lousy state, and snaps at his wife. His wife, now ruffled, yells at her son. Her son, feeling wrongly blasted, kicks the dog. And while my mom would never hurt an animal, it's doubtful she or the girlfriend went about spreading much sunshine the next couple hours.

A great friend of mine is a well-respected sports writer for one of the top newspapers in the country. She's already published her first book and been approached by publishers eager for her to write her second. She's one of those natural leaders and when four of us, whose friendship goes back to fourth grade sleepovers, got together this past spring in Chicago for a girls' weekend, we naturally looked to her for dealing with travel issues from reservations to getting around the city - despite the fact she is now based on the east coast.

My writing friend, tall, blond, and never seemingly ruffled, was one of the first I approached with this issue. Here's what she responded in a recent email.

"There are just some unhappy people out there who take perverse pleasure in knocking people down. This is unfortunate. But you can't let them get you down. For better or worse, I read all comments on my stories. Some of them are really nasty. Some of them are constructive criticism that I learn from. And some are wonderful and make my day. But no matter what they say -- women should be in the kitchen, not writing about sports to my writing is so eloquent I should win a Pulitzer -- I don't put much stock in it. I'm never as bad, or as good, as they say I am.

Even when I get negative feedback, I am happy for it. At least someone read me. I may not like what they have to say, but they at least were moved to write me. I caused them to take action. That's a powerful feeling. Try and remember that the next time someone criticizes what you have to say. And remember, at the end of the day, you have a wonderful husband and two adorable children, they are the ones that truly matter. The rest is just noise. Keep writing."

And yes, I do realize how lucky I've been in friendships.

I continue to look for techniques, suggestions and golden nuggets of wisdom from those of you who, like my friend, have managed to develop thick skins but retain a warm heart.

My hope for my son at five and myself at 41 is to lighten up and take life's occasional slings and arrows, real or imagined, with good grace and good humor; not to shut down or say, be, or do less for fear of mockery or to fit in more; and for me anyway, to accept that Shakespeare probably just had a run-in with a solicitor the day he wrote that quote (copyright infringement perhaps?) and I probably shouldn't take things so personally....


Sunday, September 13, 2009

My ASTRONOMICAL personal debt level - Yours?

I read an interview of a self-described, self-made man. Asked whom he felt he owed for his success, his reply: "I never had ANYTHING handed to me. I don't owe anyone but myself."

My balance sheet is not so clean. Though our house and car are paid, my personal debt load is so high I'm not sure it'll be paid in a lifetime. I had my first inkling of this one night at age five when I vomited my way down the green shag steps of our old farmhouse, looking for the bath. Somewhere in the back of my head it occurred to me to be glad it was Mom, not me, who would clean up that awful, stinking mess. And though I didn't say, "I owe you one" as she washed me up, put on my clean pjs, and tucked me into bed to tackle the stairs, I did owe her for that and a million other small sacrifices she made.

When my dad used money hard won from years of pre-dawn to late night days building up this redi-mix business to pay for my college and my older brother spent two rare days off to drive me straight through from IL to graduate school in CA - insisting he take the longest night shift - the debt grew.

My grandpa taking my anxious calls about exams, collect of course, and telling me jokes to make me smile, my fantastic husband who fully supported my decision to leave the practice of law, despite halving our income, my in-laws who raised not only the greatest guy I've ever met, but also his kid brothers who've become much loved uncles to my own children, friends, some of whose friendship now dates thirty years - it all adds up.

And what about the patient elementary school teachers, compassionate maternity nurses, and my neighbor Bud, cheerfully jump starting my mini-van one frigid February morning? Or the firefighters who, as I write, stand ready to risk their lives if I'm careless with a candle?

And as a woman, how do I repay suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony who faced a lifetime of heckling crowds to fight for my right to own property, vote, have a career, and not be beaten by an angry spouse?

On Friday, we took the neighbor kid with us to McDonalds, then walked across the street to a big, old cemetery. Buried there is a man who died at the age of 102, named Nathanial Ames. Under his name is a plaque: "Served in the Continental Army Under General George Washington".

I wonder if he was there with the other soldiers that bitterly cold Christmas night of 1776 listening to Paine's words read by the General himself, "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman..."

And as for him and the other soldiers beyond weary, without tents or proper winter clothing, willing to take a perilous journey not for a pirate's share of gold, but for an ideal - an ideal of freedom and democracy and the thought that maybe all men WERE created equal, well how to you repay THAT?

So you see, my debt load is high, but I'm working to pay it down in bits and pieces. I'm patient with the elderly driver creeping down the street in gratitude to all those who were patient as my own 80 year old grandpa tried so hard to hold on to his independence through his car.

I take a deep breath (sometimes) when I want to shriek at my kids and nod to my now deceased grandmas who raised great human beings under far harsher circumstances.

I try, not always successfully by any means, not to always ask, "What's in it for me?". But rather, "Am I paying my own way, at least a bit today?"

And go to bed tonight in awe at the generosity of the human spirit.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Garage Sales - Are they true money savers?

As I type this tonight, I am in a state of gleeful anticipation for tomorrow morning. My iced tea is chilling in a thermos and several of my mother-in-law's delicious "monster cookies" are packed in a paper bag. Because tomorrow is.....CITY WIDE SALES!!

As a football fanatic gets a high at the thought of attending the Superbowl, as my dear hubby dreams of watching his beloved Hawkeyes at a Rose bowl, as the Brits look forward to....Wimbledon?? I look forward to the garage sale season.

But when push comes to shove, are garage sales really money savers? From my experience, sometimes yes, sometimes no.

You've heard the saying, "Two elephants for a quarter isn't really a bargain unless you've got a spare quarter and need two elephants." I've sometimes fallen down on this one. The thought "What a deal!" flashes through my mind as my hot little hand reaches for what will enter my home as my 70th flower vase. And my recent experiment in downsizing the number of kids' toys and reclaiming my basement was brought on by too many great deals on plastic dump trucks and wooden puzzles.

And I SHOULD know better. My own dear mom is a pack rat. My parents own several storage shed sites and she has her own shed at each, packed to the gills with "bargains" purchased over the years. When my dad grumbles that they couldn't sell the stuff for enough money to pay one month's rent, she gets a bit hot under the collar and the sparks fly.

On the plus side, I don't have attachment issues and can usually recoup most of the costs of overbuying by selling the stuff at my own garage sale. And if you have kids, garage sales are a no-brainer. Kids stuff can be had for pennies on the dollar.

I can get the kids shirts, pants, snow boots, snow pants, spring jackets, tennis shoes, and swimsuits, an entire wardrobe for about $50 per season. And the kids have hundreds of books, usually purchased for a quarter or less, on everything from insects to spaceships and both love to read/be read to. After story time each night, I hand my five year old a stack of about a dozen Berenstein Bears books and he looks at these each night until he falls asleep. And don't tell them, but most of "Santa's" toys were first delivered to the kids down the street.

On the other hand, if you no longer have kids, and don't need to furnish a new apartment, the bargains may be fewer and farther between. In this case though, you can always justify your love of garage sales for the social venue they offer.

We (meaning my kids and I, dear hubby has yet to realize what he's missing) have met some of the neatest people this way and seen some wonderful gardens. Just this summer my kids got to meet a WWII veteran who was wearing his medals as he sat in his garage and told my older son what it was like to march into Germany as part of the Allied forces. At my own garage sale I met a lady whose house I knew and I commented how much I liked her Cleome display, only to come home a week later to find a cardboard box full of Cleome seedlings and a lovely note.

The social part comes with a few awkward moments. I remember the time I was trolling for yard sale deals in quite a tony area of town. At one gorgeous, large brick Federal style home, I spotted a bin of great condition kids socks at only five cents each and started grabbing up an armful. The woman running the sale kept staring at me. I briefly wondered if she was afraid I was pilfering this footwear, when she suddenly said, "I think I know you....are you XYZ's wife?"

A bit awkward as I stood there clutching her kids' cast off footies. My own dear husband is the managing partner at his law firm, highly respected by his often multi-millionaire clients, and has even been on local television espousing some pretty high level finance theories. When I go to his "work" events, I don't often find myself sharing that the great, like new, Etienne Aigner pumps I'm wearing were $4.99 at Goodwill. And standing there was the wife of one of his biggest clients.

She was friendly. I was embarrassed and headed out rather quickly. The irony I missed at the time, but later had pointed out to me: was it any more embarrassing to be the buyer than the seller in that case?;-) And as she was obviously frugal enough to sell her kids still perfectly useable socks rather than toss them, we had a lot in commen and I may have missed a chance to make a new tightwad friend.

It's about 9:30 p.m. now, there's gas in the car, a pocketbook full of singles, and many castoff treasures to be found in the morning. Wishing you all a goodnight! And looking forward to hearing your thoughts on whether garage sales are truly money savers.

The Joys and Threshholds of Tightwad Happiness - What are yours?

In my free time I sometimes grab a calculator and a Diet Coke, sit down and determine what each day's electric costs and devise strategies to reduce this. Or I might grab a slip of paper to compare the costs of a bowl of oatmeal at home verses a bagel out. I truly enjoy this sort of thing, i.e. what are the real costs of living. And no, I didn't have many dates in high school.;-)

My cell phone finally perished in a drowning accident (I had snuck ice and a diet coke into the movies in my purse and the ice melted all over my forgotten phone)...so much for cost savings. When I brought it to the repair guy, he sort of snorted at the state it was in (it had long since had several key pads cracked, the antennae cap gone for over a year, and one mysterious wire had escaped and just hung around outside the phone) and said, "This phone will go down in our records as the saddest phone ever."

Similarly, when I whip out my fantastic bargain digital camera (only $5 at a garage sale), I get some strange looks. It is a bit big, clunky and old fashioned looking, and the viewfinder doesn't work, but hey, how hard is it to just look through the peephole?

And I felt the sheer tightwad joy of making that phone last as long as possible and of knowing my camera worked just fine at only a tenth the cost of a new one. So in many areas, I think tight wadding is just plain fun!

But not everyone gets this and I've been chastised at times, to the effect "get a life", though usually more politely stated as "Life is short; don't waste it penny pinching."

And this is where I think frugality gets a bad wrap. A true "miser" isn't feeling joy at scoring that cashmere Banana Republic sweater at Goodwill for $4; he's just loathe to part with the $4 at all.

Once the penny pinching or accumulation of wealth REDUCES the quality of life, maybe it is time to lighten up. We do in fact have a limited time on this beautiful planet and as the country western song puts it, "You never see a hearse pulling a U-haul van."

There are certain thresholds, and they differ for each person. We bought five wooded acres behind our house not because it was a good investment, it's not, but as a garden fanatic, the unending opportunities all that space offers has brought me pure joy. When I take my dog and kids on the walking paths, especially after a fresh snow and feel I'm in my own private state park, that is worth the exchange of life energy (a term from the book "Your Money or Your Life" i.e. how many hours of your life you're going to give to paid employment for a purchase.)

And my blond highlights are not cheap, but allow my inner California surfer girl to express herself through the long Wisconsin winters.;-)

My collection of English garden books is a bit excessive, but how I love to curl up with those authors and hear their thoughts each night, only wishing those gorgeous British accents accompanied the printed word.

So I guess it is all about balance. Life IS short, but how fun to check off another milestone in your growing net worth.;-)

So what are YOUR tightwad joys and thresholds?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My Family's Inherited Wealth - Yours?

My grandma Clara has been on my mind lately. She has been gone for over five years and didn't live to see my first child, but whenever the weather turns cold, I think of her.

My dad's family were extremely poor. My grandma had been widowed when pregnant with twins, the last of twelve children. She often worried about feeding the family and didn't even have indoor plumbing until my dad (the third from the youngest) was in the army. I sometimes picture what it must have been like to be pregnant and going to an outhouse during a February night in the Midwest or trying to keep a supply of clean cloth diapers through those winter months, washed in a bucket heated up on a stove. I imagine what it would have been like to go out in a snowstorm to pump water to cook dinner and just hope there's enough food for a dozen children.

And it was a good night if there was something to cook. My dad remembers many nights when they just ate bread with sugar on top for dinner and the thought of canned, condensed PET milk still makes him shudder.

She was, as my dad would say, "A tough cookie" through it all. She had come from a fairly wealthy family that had servants, but was "disowned" by her family when she married my grandpa, who was not her social equal.

She was a devout Catholic and her faith carried her through many a tough time, including the death of one of her children and the suicides of two grandchildren.

My dad has told me how they all had to gather each night in the living room to pray the rosary, a very long prayer if you're not familiar with it. And they had to kneel. As I know all my aunts and uncles to be very energetic, indeed noisy, outgoing people, how she managed this each night is a mystery.

She was determined that the kids go to a Catholic school, but had neither the money for tuition nor a way to get them to the school. So she managed to flag down a passenger train and make a deal that if the driver would stop briefly each weekday, she would trade produce from her garden. And she talked the priests into giving a tuition break for the whole family - I wish I'd inherited her negotiating skills.

My dad remembers her weeping with worry about money, something that I think haunted him. There was a real fear among the kids that they would be sent to Mooseheart, which is a sort of economic orphanage still in existence near Chicago.

My dad went to work in the second grade setting pins at bowling alleys until midnight, then getting up to go to school. He also worked for farmers throughout the season, always giving the majority of his pay to the family. His siblings did likewise.

One time he was driving a tractor and backed into a trailer. This was at the beginning of the summer and the farmer told him he would have to work all summer without pay to reimburse the costs of the damage. My dad was heartbroken, but he did indeed work all summer for this farmer with the encouragement of my grandma. And on the last day before school started, the farmer and his wife invited my dad in to dinner (a first). They told him they admired his finishing out the job and would in fact pay him for his summer's work. My dad's relief was deep.

When it was cold, my grandma worried about running out of coal and insisted they let the furnace die down each night. But my dad felt it was too hard to start a new fire in the morning, and would try to trick her by leaving just a few embers glowing. If he got caught, she wasn't happy. This is something I think about when the central heating has my house and my own two children and family toasty on a winter night.

When I was a kid, Grandma wore flowered housecoats, cardigans, sensible shoes, and already had over 40 grand kids and great-grand kids. But we were each special to her. She would call if she hadn't seen us in awhile despite the fact we lived only a few miles away, sitting at a tiny bench using her black rotary dial .

We got cards and a small gift for birthdays and holidays. And at her house, she always had a glass jar with a big green metal top you could twist off to help yourself to her homemade chocolate chip cookies. And there were several other jars of Smarties candies and Tootsie Pops. You could stuff yourself with never a word of recrimination. In fact, she never had a harsh word for any of her grand kids. My guess is she used up her scolding voice raising her own children.

She had a few jokes she enjoyed telling many times over and she loved to give money to various charities. She never had much, but she always gave and she was on more mailing lists than your average politician.

As she got older, she liked to hold my hand when we talked. I think about how much physical contact I have with my own kids from bathing to dressing to holding hands to go across the street to cuddles and snuggles and how she must have had so many hands to hold, until they all grew up and she must have missed that a bit.

Naturally I wish I'd visited more. She was over the moon when I would come home on college breaks to take her to church or the cemetery. And I distinctly remember the day she met me at the door with her walker, already dressed in her sweater and waiting by the front door. She had in her now arthritic hands very plastic purple roses. I was taken aback as she'd always made fun of "fake" flowers and instead had gathered ferns or peonies from her own yard to take to grave sites. Now she chirped that these "new" flowers were so real no one could tell the difference. I started to see her aging.

Her funeral was packed with children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren. She had lived for over 98 years and each of us there that day owed a special debt to her. She'd somehow managed to keep the family together and was the "mother", literally, of all of us. And the "family wealth" we all inherited is beyond price. Thanks and love to you Grandma!

If you'd like to share about your own family's inherited wealth, that would be lovely. And if you still have living grandparents, realize what a treasure that is, and sometimes, hold their hands while you chat.

Does that $100 a month on restaurants actually costs $24,000 a year?

As my husband and I strive toward financial independence, I'm becoming more conscious of what it would be like to live without a salary. If we are living off savings, how much savings does each of our monthly expenses require?

Let's take a $100 a month expense. That might be dinners out for some or new clothes or excess groceries that are not really needed, i.e. treats.

And one hundred a month or $25 a week does not seem too crazy for "fun" money. But let's look closer at that number.

Assume a five percent withdrawal rate. Some would argue this is too high and you should really be looking at a three percent withdrawal rate. But we'll be optimistic and go with five percent. To spend $100 a month or $1200 a year, you would need $24,000 invested, "spinning" off that interest.

And if your superfluous expenses are closer to $500 a month, or $6000 a year, you would need $120,000 to fund them.

My husband and I have seen a major upward creep of expenses in the past ten years. We've had kids, done some major home repairs, and become less focused on money saving strategies. The spike got higher five years ago, which correlates directly to the kids being born;-). It is not only the added expenses of their needs, but also the accompanying time crunch. Where I might have spent time looking for the best deals on things before, I now tend to factor in time pretty heavily and "just get the job done." If you've ever gone grocery shopping with a five and two year old, you know leisurely price comparisons between canned goods is tough....

In addition, as our income has grown, we've found ourselves getting more complacent with expenses. "We can easily afford this" is something we've both said. But then I look back over 10 years or so of record keeping and our expenses are almost five times higher than they were in our super frugal mode.

And importantly, I don't think our quality of life is five times better. We had a wonderful life then and a wonderful life now. It's nice not to feel we "have" to stress about how much the electric bill costs, but if it turns to laziness about unplugging appliances not in use and eating out at will and more big screen televisions (private aside to my sweet husband;), we're setting ourselves up to work a lot more years to pay for this luxury lifestyle.

So my goal in the coming month or so is to do some simple math as we go along. For every dollar we spend, we would need $20 in the bank to spin it off. Now that bagel and iced tea at Panera that I so love ($3.95) - is probably not worth $80....and my favorite Friday night pizza place ($20) - is probably not worth $400 - but whether the mind will be strong when the stomach is weak, remains to be seen.

Happy interest computing as you go about your day! The Frugal Millionairess.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Adding Height in the Garden - On the cheap;-).

All the garden experts recommend adding height to the garden, and to that end I have almost 20 shepards hooks collected through the years tucked in various gardens to draw the eye up.

One glorious year - roundabout 2006 - Walmart had big hanging baskets of ivy geraniums at $4.00 each and I scooped up a dozen or more. I hung these throughout the yard and they garnered unending compliments.

Since then I've yet to see these hanging baskets under $12 each and have been exploring other options. One idea that has worked well is hanging small lanterns on these hooks. At night I put tea candles in these. Recently a garden club was touring my yard around dusk and I had about 10 of these little lighted lanterns as well as some white fairy lights and it created a lovely ambiance (all the better to distract from the weeds and general August untidiness).

I also have many birdhouses and have started hanging these here and there and many resident birds have moved into these hanging abodes. All of these birdhouses as well as the lanterns have been picked up at thrift stores, garage sales, and estates sales, and not one cost over $2.00. As they will remain decorative through the winter too, they offer an excellent return on investment.

But I'm keeping my eyes open and pocketbook ready for the return of the greatest geranium sale on earth!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Bargain Container Gardens - Only $1.50 each!

Like so many other gardeners, I lust after the magazine cover decks and porches pictured overflowing with color. But I've also priced out some of those containers at over $40 each, just to buy the annuals needed to fill them. And that can be ONE container. Since I have over 50 containers to fill each season, I've learned many ways to get a lush look for less.

First, pick your annuals wisely;-). For me, one six pack of salvias is about $1.50 and will fill a large container within a few weeks. The bright red is not my favorite color as I lean to the "Monet" palette of blues and pinks, but the red does make a bright cheery statement and the hummingbirds love it! I have two big white pots in front of my picture window and those salvias are workhorses all summer long. At a combined cost of $3.00 - that's a lot of punch for a sunny area (they'll look sad and listless in the shade).

I also use smaller Terra cotta planters that I can pick up for $1.00 or less at garage sales and put in one six pack of begonias. These are also hard workers and will bloom all summer in the shade, asking little in return. For $1.50, I've got a little table display for about three months here in Wisconsin.

Another idea I've started to put to good use is to mix in perennials dug from my yard to give the displays a lusher look. I saw this done at Olbrich Botanical Gardens, came home and dug out astilbe, daylilies, hostas and others from the garden and put them in plastic pots. Then I put the plastic pots into bigger planters.

The reason for the double potting is that plastic retains moisture better and at the end of the season, I can pop out the plastic container, plant and all, and over winter this by my shed. All of these hardy plants come back bigger and better each year. And, of course, an empty Terra cotta planter is MUCH easier to move into the garage for its winter quarters.

Cost of the perennials - Free! And if they get too big for their plastic containers, I just sell them at my annual garage sale and start digging more divisions.

If you don't have them already, Terra cotta and other planters are easy to come by. Spend a weekend going to some garage sales or estate sales and you can usually pick them up for $1 or less. If that doesn't work, just post on Craigslist or Freecycle or even put up a note at your local grocery store and someone out there will have a pile gathering dust in some back shed that they'll be glad to sell or give you.

The bigger the better in containers as the larger sizes retain moisture better and the plants just seem happier. Put a layer of grass clippings or leaves from your yard in the lower half of the planter. This helps keep in moisture and vastly reduces the amount of planting soil you need to buy, which can be expensive.

I know some people suggest dumping your soil each year and starting new. I've never done this and had no problems. The soil actually gets richer as the grass and leaves break down and enrich the potting soil. You just need a tiny bit of topping off the following year.

Some annuals can be wintered over inside for even more cost savings. I've been quite successful doing this with geraniums in the front window, but not successful with many other annuals. I'd love to hear others' experiences with annuals indoors.

So as the fall are gets chilly, pull out your garden notebook and ask how you're going to make-over your own porch or deck into a magazine cover paradise next spring. Happy gardening!