Sunday, September 16, 2018

Small Moments

"The fields are coming down."

I don't know which one of us said it first, but we both said it. Last night Warren and I were driving a few miles north to one of our favorite ice cream stands in a small village you reach by roads that run alongside farm fields. It was early evening, the sun was starting to do magnificent things with the line of clouds along the western edge of the land, and there was a farmer starting to harvest the corn crop for the year. We could see the dust rising from the combine way off that way; trucks to haul the grain were parked tail to nose on the country road next to the farm.

Bringing in the crops is the surest sign of fall we know in these parts.

As we sat on the church steps near the ice cream stand (church steps we sat on first in 1972, eating ice cream from the very same stand), we talked quietly. We noticed that, unlike high summer when the lines are ten or more deep, we were the last two customers of the evening. The stand closes September 30 and we agreed it was probably the last time we'd be there this year.

I make no bones about it: fall is my absolute favorite season. EVER. Winter is a distant second. I love fall not for its commercial cuteness ("Pumpkin spice latte!" Not.) but for its finality: winding down the natural year, bringing the outdoors to a close. My gardens are starting to shut down—I spent part of yesterday morning and the same today trimming and cutting. I might (might) get a few more tomatoes.

We still have warm weather and are likely to have it for some weeks yet, but the sunlight slants now rather than come on strong high overhead. The heat of the day evaporates into cool evenings. Morning fogs are not unusual this time of year, highlighting every spiderweb on every bush. Last weekend was cold and rainy; I spent it inside making and freezing black bean soup for the winter ahead.

The Jewish year begins in the autumn. The High Holy Days come at the time of harvest, with Sukkot following hard after. This is a time of self-reflection and renewal, a time of reconciliation and of making peace with one's own shortcomings. For me, it resonates with the ending of the gardens and plantings: time to reflect on what we brought in, what we could have done differently, what we hope to be and do next year.

"The fields are coming down."

Saturday, September 15, 2018

August Finances

Yes, yes, it IS mid-September and I  am just now getting around to writing about August finances. Well, we didn't get home until 3:30 a.m. on September 6 (driving, mind you), I was exhausted from the trip, then Rosh Hashanah popped up, then there was this small awards ceremony yesterday that I had to write a talk (two, actually) for, and then...

Excuses, excuses. So what about August?

I approached August a little differently because of our trip that stretched from August 22 into September. While out west, we bought groceries for meals and the household. While out west, we took family (sometimes lots of family) out to eat. I ended up adding the western groceries into our August expenses: whether we were buying for two or ten (two of them children), it was money spent on food to keep the household going. As for eating out, I only added those meals that were just the two of us.

So what about August?

Food purchases (at the grocery store, including and especially my all-time favorite store ever—EVER—Winco) came to $220.76. Add another $10.05 for household items, and September purchases come to $230.83. That brings our monthly average to $177.45, just over the $175.00 I am hoping to average in 2018. With September already half over, and grocery (food and household) right around $110.00, I think the month will finish up frugally.

Warren, who had never shopped at Winco, was totally sold on it. BEST. GROCERY. STORE. EVER. And the fact that it is solely employee-owned makes it even sweeter.

Eating out in August, using the vacation explanation I have above, came out to $34.67. $18.45 of that was an evening meal Warren and I grabbed one night at Burgerville, a regional burger chain out there that can be pricey. That night, when we were worn and depleted, it was worth every penny.

The trip itself was not inexpensive, but we had saved for the travel costs and I had set aside in my own account funds to spend on the trip. I came home with money left over, despite spending more loosely than I do at home. I did not categorized every single expense, but here are some of the big ones:

Tickets (plane, train, and rental car, long-term parking at O-Hare, and a hotel room for one night in Sacramento): $2471.21
Gasoline (to/from Chicago and gas for the rental car out there): $139.81
Fares, parking, and admissions (ourselves and others): $111.85
Percussion (doesn't everyone go on vacation and buy percussion equipment? We do!): $76.00
Clothing (totally not a foreseen cost—thank you, Fred Meyer, for having great sales): $79.23
Duffel bag replacement (Warren's gave up the ghost): $32.45
Books (one word: POWELL'S): $66.89
Gifts (Ramona turned 6 and Lyrick was turning 2; this includes $50.00 gift cards to Target for the parents for each one): $229.43
Ornaments (we buy Christmas ornaments when we travel: Mt. St. Helens, California Railway Museum, California State capitol building): $55.02

These figures, except for the eating out we did on the way home, include some September spending, but I have lumped the trip all together.

The finances have nothing to do with the overall wonderful trip. We spent much welcome time with family and then with close friends when in Sacramento. The train trip home was spectacular. I haven't even begun to sort pictures.

Okay, August is in the books. Hard to believe that in 15 more days, September will be too.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Things I Learned While Traveling

Warren and I just midweek (Thursday morning at 3:30 a.m. to be precise) returned from two weeks on the road: Delaware to Chicago, then all the way out to Portland/Vancouver (Washington, not B.C.), then down to Sacramento, California, back to Chicago by way of Amtrak, then home to Delaware by car. When I post my August financials, I will have a breakdown of the trip (even though some of it fell into September) and at some point sooner than later I will share a few pictures.

This post, in comparison, contains travel observations I scrawled in a notebook while riding the rails. This was not our first lengthy train expedition, but traveling is always an opportunity to broaden one's horizons. In no particular order, here's what stuck with me:

  • Two small travel toothpastes are enough for two people for two weeks, no matter what your spouse says.
  • When traveling as a couple, I will always pack more than I need.
  • Don't leave the cheap flip-flops at home. Ever.
  • When traveling by train, take every Fresh Air Break they call one, get out and walk around. Okay, every FAB except the one at 3:00 a.m.
  • Amtrak meals (included with the roomette) are expansive. Don't eat everything. On the other hand, stockpile bottled water every chance an Amtrak employee offers you one. 
  • The upper berth on an Amtrak roomette is adequate if you are into self-abasement.
  • It is easier to sleep head to toe in the bottom berth than subject anyone to the top berth. (See previous entry.)
  • The Milky Way is real. Look at it. (I know that, but it helps to be visually reminded from time to time.)
  • Look out the window all the time. Even when it is dark. This is a big country. Treat yourself to it. 
  • Practice patience. Practice mindfulness. You'll need it.

It's good to be back.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Books And Then A Brief Hiatus

A brief hiatus? Well, only because we head out to the Pacific Northwest midweek for two (2!) weeks and I am only bringing along two books. I don't read e-books as a rule and am not the least bit tempted to break that rule. But the reality is that my overarching goal on this trip is to be with my family and, even for an avid bibliophile like me, books are relegated to the bottom of the list.

In preparation for our being away, I froze my reserve list at our library, set to thaw the day before we get home. I just finished and dropped off a library book this morning, and the two I have at home yet are due after we come back (and one of those is going with me). So all matters book-related are squared away for the duration.

So what have I finished since last time? These treasures:
148. What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan (set in Shanghai, this novel turns on family, honor, promises, and a prodigal adult at the heart of it all)
149. A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety by Donald Hall (this one moved me so much I blogged about it here)
150. The Distance Home by Paula Saunder (a novel set in South Dakota  that I read on the strength of a review in The New York Times; good read)
151. Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly (this was the 2018 Newbery Award winner and we all know how I feel about the Newbery; it took me some several chapters to warm to this Juvenile novel, but it was worth the wait)
152. Let's Talk Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris (why not Sedaris?; see also #120)
153. Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson (as much as I enjoyed the 2018 Newbery winner (#151), I really, really loved this YA novel, a Newbery Honor book for 2018; Jade, a scholarship student at a private Portland (Oregon) school who is slotted into a mentor program for young women of color, deals with racism, class, privilege, loyalty, family, and friendship)
154. Another Side of Paradise by Sally Koslow (a novel of the Sheilah Graham/F. Scott Fitzgerald romance, beautifully told from her point of view)
155. Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li (I almost put this novel down after the first 20 or so pages; I'm glad I took a break, started over, and got caught up in the story of the Han family and the many layers of loyalty and responsibility woven through the Chinese restaurants run by the family)

While out west, I believe Ramona will be reading to me. See you on the other side.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

So You Have To Redo Your Grocery Budget? An Interview With A Couple Who Did Exactly That.

My little brother Mark and my sister-in-law Jackie 
A few years ago, my sister-in-law Jackie learned she was lactose intolerant. That discovery required her to rethink how she approached eating, cooking, and shopping for groceries. Then last fall, her husband (my brother) Mark lost his job. He is now self-employed, but has a significantly reduced income. That required them to again rethink how they approached eating, cooking, and shopping for groceries. We have had lots of conversations and emails about saving money eating, saving money cooking, and saving money while shopping for groceries.

A week ago I received this text from Jackie:

Mark wanted me to tell you that we bought a week's worth of groceries      including toiletries and paper products for $70...Saved $20 between specials and coupons! We are proud of ourselves - getting better...

That was such a great text that after I celebrated with them via text, I asked if they'd be willing to be interviewed for my blog. They agreed. So Sunday after we had them and my parents over for a joint birthday meal (Dad just turned 85, Mom will be 83 later this month), the three of us sat in the living room and talked about their grocery turnaround. (The folks had left and Warren went back to work in his shop.) Mark and Jackie's children are adults and do not live at home; it's a two-person household. They shop primarily at Aldi and at a market near them, Mosier's in Raymond, which has some excellent meat prices. They often answered jointly; I note who is giving an answer when it was person-specific.

So you recently texted me about your shopping trip. Tell me what prompted that text?

We were proud of it. [We know] how little you spend...we never come close. So just sharing the news—it is going in the right direction.

Did you always shop weekly or is that new with the frugal changes?

We always shopped weekly.

How much do you think you spent—ballpark it—on groceries before making these changes?

Over $100 a week easily. Probably more like $125 to $150.  Mark, later in the interview: Probably more like $800 a month.

What are some of the special dietary challenges in your household How does that impact your grocery spending?

Jackie: My stuff is much more expensive. Dairy-free cheese is $5.00 versus a dollar something, for example. And milk: I spend $3.49 for a half-gallon of almond milk. [Note: milk is going for about $1.59 a gallon locally at present.] You just pay substantially more. Dairy-free ice cream? A lot for a little amount! As a result, I find us cooking and eating simpler meals. Heavily processed foods often have dairy in the ingredients, so we don't buy those anymore.

Were there any lifestyle challenges that you had to work around? For example: "there's no time to cook." 

Jackie: The dietary changes [because of the lactose issue] eliminated a lot of challenges in that sense. Mark: We had to change the rules on fruits and veggies. The new rule on fruit is "buy one." Because Jackie would buy a fruit she liked and then buy a bag of apples for me. She doesn't eat them. But I can't eat a whole bag before they go bad. Now we're throwing away less fruit.

Where do your food dollars go? Deconstruct a typical grocery shopping.

Fruit, bread, milk, eggs, chips, coffee [I asked here: Coffee every week? No, monthly], meat. We are trying to cut down so we are only buying meat every other week. And not eating as much of it. Mark: And we bought the marked down ones! [Jackie's mother was an RN and Jackie has very definite opinions about food safety. So she winced on this reply, but gamely said "and we haven't died of anything yet!"] We only have the refrigerator freezer, so there are limits. On paper products: big pack of paper towels, napkins, and large pack of toilet paper. We shop a lot at Aldi, so that keeps the cost down.

This answer led to a tangent on toilet paper. Mark asked me where we bought ours. I said we bought the Aldi 18-pack and told him the price (substantially less than the Charmin they buy). Jackie said "but I like soft paper." I ran upstairs, got a roll of ours, and said "here, take it home and do a test run." The things you can do with family!

What if anything have you eliminated from your diet that would thought you would miss but you don't really?

Excess fruit sometimes. We have a similar rule on veggies: we limit how much we buy if we are buying fresh. 

What about leftovers?

We are not anti-leftover. Mark: I don't like eating the same thing night after night. So we eat it one or  two nights and freeze the rest. That really helps on nights when we are tired and can just heat up something that's already cooked.

What's been the biggest hurdle for you in making these changes? Example: "I really miss gourmet cheese," or, "it's too time-consuming to plan a shopping trip so tight, with coupons and looking for specials." Anything like that? 

Jackie: No, we were used to doing that—coupons—before the budget change. Mark: I miss ice cream. But that's not a budget issue. I won't buy it and keep it because Jackie can't eat it and I don't want to eat it in front of her. Jackie: And it doesn't bother me if you do. Mark: I know, but I'm not going to do it. 

I understand that. Since I got diagnosed with the diabetes, Warren often will pass on having cookies or something after dinner, saying he wants to support me. And I'm just like Jackie: I tell him it won't bother me. And Warren says, "I know. But I want you to know that I care." But what I am hearing is the bigger change to your eating and shopping was the lactose intolerance. Am I hearing that right?

Oh, definitely. The lactose issue was the biggest change. Losing the income just made us hone in even more on what we were buying and eating. We don't do a lot of processed foods at all. Mark: And we stopped buying frozen meals pretty much all together.

What's been the biggest surprise for you?

Putting fridge in the food for a lower price. And looking at it and saying "it's enough." That was a big change in our thinking.  

I know some of these changes were driven because of the income shift. Truth: if your income went back to prior levels, do you think you would continue to shop like this? Why or why not?

Mark: I would hope we would continue to shop the same way as now. The money we'd save [with more income] could go elsewhere. Jackie: We are eating simpler meals. I'm aware that we're getting older and we need to be more aware of what we eat and be more health-conscious. That plays into it, too. 

Sometimes people read blogs about cutting grocery bills and comment "I could never do that." I belong to a Facebook group, No Spending for the Year 2018, and newbies on the site will often be overwhelmed at the thought of making such substantial changes. What words of advice would you have for someone who is looking at a radical grocery makeover, either by choice or because they had a big life event that requires them to make deep budget cuts?

Mark: Look and see what you really need to have and get it. Set the other stuff aside—stuff you really don't need. Put it out of your mind. Learn to say "that's enough." And you'll be surprised: it really is enough. Jackie: Keep meals simple. I look at recipes and and not do one because it calls for expensive items and I think "I'm not going to get that much more pleasure out of that!" 

We talked several more minutes about how I buy remaindered apples, peel them, cut them up, and freeze them for future apple pies. Jackie asked whether I had to prep them in any other way, such as putting lemon juice on them. Usually not. If I am doing a lot of apple prep (several pounds at once), I will throw the slices into a bowl of water with lemon juice in it to cut down on how brown they turn, but typically not. And the truth is with apple pie, it doesn't make a difference if the apples turn a little brown in the preparation. By the time I add cinnamon, there's a lot of color change in the final product!

At the end of the interview, we talked about money issues in general (not using credit cards, pay cash or put it off, for example) and just enjoyed being together. Jackie and I walked out to the garden and we picked several tomatoes for her (Mark doesn't eat them). They left our home, after hugs all around, carrying the "test roll" of toilet paper. (Mark to Jackie: "You just used their bathroom and you know that's what they had in there!")

Sometimes it's as simple as a roll of toilet paper.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Donald Hall

Donald Hall died a few months ago, late in June, a few months short of his 90th birthday. When he died, I posted this on Facebook:

Author and poet Donald Hall died Saturday at the age of 89. I first read his words not in the poetry field, but in his memoir String Too Short To Be Saved. His writing has never let me down, especially the heartbreaking and beautiful The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon, his memoir of his marriage to Jane, a formidable poet herself, their life together, and her death from leukemia.

In my most recent book post, his work Essays After Eighty was #140 for the year and I commented on how much I loved his work. I just within the last hour finished his final work, A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety. After I read the last sentence and closed the book, I sat there holding the book and my heart in my hands.

Hall predicted, all too accurately, that poets he knew and admired would be forgotten, that his works and the works of his wife Jane Kenyon, would be forgotten, that being forgotten was the reality of being a poet. He writes of going back through old poetry anthologies, including one he helped edit, and being jolted by seeing good works by poets he knew well, and realizing he had forgotten those poems and those poets, not because of old age, but because poetry is always moving into the future. The same can be said of essayists: the Hall essays I took to first some 40 years ago will not be read in another 40.

In one of the Carnival essays, Hall talks about a live performance with Ira Glass in which an interview he gave Glass in 1998, 18 years earlier, was played while Hall sat on stage. The interview was given after the death of Jane Kenyon, and the topic was her death and his grief. The live evening up until then had been something of a comedic event, and Hall wrote that "the uproaring audience slid into immaculate silence." He noted how at the age of 86, he "entered the grief of of my mid-sixties in another century." And then Hall concludes:

Now I understood how death and desolation fit into the riotous joy at the Music Hall in Portsmouth. The emotional intricacy and urgency of human life expresses itself most fiercely in contradiction...Only the wrenching apart permits or reveals the wholeness. Enantiodromia. Up and down. Down and up. Way way down, way way up. A carnival of losses. 

A carnival of losses indeed.  And I've got tickets to the carnival.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Booking It

We leave for points west in less than two weeks, and I just froze the books I have on my reading queue—ten total—until the day before we return. Right now I have 13 books out (two of which I have finished and need to return), another one waiting to be picked up, and two more that are en route to Delaware as I type.

That's a whole lot of reading to get done before we leave!
Waiting to be read

What have I read since last time? Well, since you asked:
137. The Ensemble by Aja Gabel (for all those who love music, and the making of music, read this novel; it follows a string quartet from young adulthood to middle age, both on stage and off)
138. Not That Bad: Dispatches From the Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay (a staggering book; Gay asked for submissions from people (men, women, people of color, people in the LGQBT community, wealthy, poor) about being sexually assaulted and this is the result. Not a light read, but an absolutely necessary one)
139. Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over by Nell Painter (Painter, a Professor Emeritus at Princeton, went back to college for a bachelor and master's degree in visual arts at age 64 and writes about finding herself—old, female, African-American, academician—and, finally—artist; I am not a visual artist but reading this book gave me a far deeper appreciation of the process of making art)
140. Essays After Eighty by Donald Hall (I have loved Hall's prose since reading String Too Short To Be Saved many, many years ago—this is next to last book Hall wrote [he recently died at the age of 89]. This is why I love his writing: when he received the National Medal of Arts in 2010, President Obama said something to Hall in his deaf ear; on being asked what the president said to him, Hall replied that Obama said "either 'Your work is immeasurably great' or 'All your stuff is disgusting crap,' but I couldn't make out which." How can you not love that?)
141. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (this is a reread of a juvenile novel that both my boys and many other young readers read in grade school; think My Side of the Mountain written in a minor (musical, not literary) key)
142. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George (after reading Hatchet, how could I not follow up with this one? I have read this book more times than I know [although not as many times as Little Women, Katrina!] and have a worn out paperback cover framed in my study; this was the first of two Newbery Award books George crafted. On seeing me reading it, Warren commented how deeply that book impacted him when he read it as a boy)
143. Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years  by David Litt (the author volunteered in college on the first Obama campaign and ended up in the White House as a speechwriter; there are parts of this book that made me laugh out loud and other parts, especially Litt's account of Obama's eulogy at State Senator Pinckney's funeral after the Charleston massacre, moved me to tears)
144. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar  by Cheryl Strayed (Strayed, who also wrote the stunning Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, started her writing life as an advice columnist on The Rumpus; this is a  collection of some of her favorite columns; now she and Steve Almond write a weekly column for The New York Times: "The Sweet Spot")
145. Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America by Eliza Griswold (when I finished it, I noted "oh, oh, oh." This is a heartrending book about fracking destroying one family in rural Pennsylvania, as well as the impact of fracking on the community and the nation. Spoiler alert: there is not a happy ending)
146. Savage Inequalities: Children in America's School by Jonathan Kozol (this book came out in 1991, detailing institutionalized racism and inequities in this country's public education system in the 1980s; as I reread it in 2018, I am angry that we have not moved that line to the positive at all)
147. Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America by Beth Macy (following on the heels of the fracking book, this one also tore my heart and soul out; this is written a decade plus later than Dreamland (#93) and matters have gotten far worse since that earlier work; if you think opioid addiction would "never" happen to you or your loved ones, think again)

Back on June 4, I blogged about how my library receipt tells me how much money I have saved to date. I'm past $2300 and closing in on $2400 fast. Yes, I love that!