Sunday, January 14, 2018

Small Moment

We have been in a lockdown deep freeze for much of the last two weeks, so my time outside is limited. But that doesn't mean I can't experiment with the new camera inside. These are a few of the small items I keep on my desk.

This pig has been part of my life forever. It probably belonged to my mom or one of her siblings, maybe even my grandmother, before I got my hands on it in grade school. It has traveled back and forth across this country more times than I like to think about. I keep it as a visual reminder that money isn't everything and being frugal helps.

The rocks are from Lake Superior, a wonderful trip Warren and I took several years ago. The seashell? Just one I have had for a long time because I like how it looks.

I bought this Frida Kahlo/Day of the Dead figurine in Portland on one of my trips there. I loved the combination of the watermelon and the parrot. And seeing her grinning at me each time I sit down to type reminds me of this favorite quote by Sir Francis Bacon: "Begin doing what you want to do now. We are not living in eternity. We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand—and melting like a snowflake."

Not that the snow outside is melting at all.

Part of the learning curve with the new camera is the focus, which is not unlike life itself. Each time I pick the camera up, I have to think about my focus and what I am looking to see. Each day I wake up, I have to think about my focus and what I am looking to do.

Sometimes life imitates art after all.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Money 2018

This came from—what else?—a notice for continuing legal education! We lawyers always think about money!

It is a new year and I am spending some of my time reflecting on money: how 2017 finished out, what 2018 may hold, and where I hope to take our household and my personal finances.

I wrote about money several times during 2017: starting the year with stringent monetary controls, actually looking at my finances visually every paycheck, keeping my accounts closely, and reflecting on where things stood as I headed into the last quarter of the year. So how did 2017 finish up?

I tracked our food and household spending (cleaning supplies including laundry, shared toiletries such as toothpaste, and household items like lightbulbs, garbage liners and such) for all of 2017. The total for the year came to $2518.62, or $209.88 per month on the average, or about $210.00 per month. My goal in 2018? Get that figure under $200.00 per month. How much under? I'd love to hit about $175.00 per month. We'll see. One of the tweaks I am making for 2018 is tracking the food separately from the household items, although I will combine them for the monthly totals. I'm curious where the dollars go.

One item I did not track in 2017 but will in 2018 is how much we spend, individually and together, on eating out. "Eating out" means any and all eating out: the cup of cocoa at the coffee shop with good friends, the quick drive-thru bag of food post chemo, pizza at our favorite restaurant. Other than when we travel, when our eating out rate jumps, I think we spend less than $25.00, and usually less than $20.00, per month. We always lack the time and often lack the interest in eating out. I don't "do" lunches because lunch is the hardest meal for me to eat, period. (I do well with brownbagging it, when I can be very specific about what is before me, but not so well otherwise. Sometimes friends from outside have been known to join me for brownbag lunch in my office.)

I start every year, as do most people with health insurance, with my out-of-pocket and deductible reset to zero. My out-of-pocket is $250.00; I have to spend that before my insurance kicks in. After the $250.00 is met, I pay 10% of all covered medical expenses until I have paid out $1500.00. I have an MRI scheduled for January 15 so I will meet my out-of-pocket and a chunk of the deductible right out of the gate.

[A note about the MRI: IF I had been able to get it approved and scheduled before the end of 2017, the cost to me would have been zero. However, my insurance company chose to deny the MRI (which is related to my myeloma and is not just a whim), issued a written denial with a false statement in it and some specious medical reasoning, then refused to take an appeal from my specialist at Mayo because he was not the doctor who ordered it. (My personal physician did; Dr. Leung at Mayo, who said it had to be done, agreed with me that it could be done in Ohio.) When my personal physician finally got through on the peer-to-peer line with my insurance company and explained to a real doctor why the MRI was medically necessary,  it was approved immediately. Unfortunately, the whole insurance rigamarole took until January 3 and so I will paying for a portion of it. On the bright side, that just gets me that much closer to meeting my deductible for 2018.]

On the matter of insurance, the county commissioners decided to require employees to pay 11% of the premium, up from 10%. Between that additional 1% and the annual premium increase, I am paying $108.00 a paycheck, up $15.00 from the $93.00 of last year. On the one hand, it's still a great deal. On the other hand, as a county employee, many of us make considerably less than we would in the private sector. Historically, the trade off has been better insurance and retirement. (For the record, Ohio has been systematically cutting away at retirement forpublic employees, making that less attractive than in the past.) The 3% COLA I got to my hourly wage just nudged ahead of the increase in my insurance premiums; I take home $9.00 more per paycheck in 2018 than I did in 2017.  Be still my heart. (Don't mind me; I'm grateful I have health insurance, and good insurance at that.)

As alway, I am fascinated with those who make January a no-spend month. I make it a "spend as little as possible" month. (Heck, I make all my months that kind of month.) Besides continuing to follow Katy Wolk-Stanley, the Non-Consumer Advocate, I am also following the January Money Diet with Eliza Cross at Happy Simple Living. There is also the No Spending for the Year 2018 Facebook group, which is just a hoot. I get a kick out of seeing what other people are doing to curb their spending.  The company does me good, even if 99.999% of the time I just watch from the sidelines.

With every paycheck this year (starting with the first one of the year), I am doing what served me so well last year: take out my fixed expenses (which includes yoga, Amanda!), write a check to my "expense account" (my separate checking account that serves as savings), and live on what's left.

Let's see what 2018 brings.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Small Moment

Back in November, I wrote about a lunchtime meal thrown together from the ends of a loaf of bread and the remainder of a block of Velveeta cheese stuff that had been lingering in our refrigerator since Ramona's visit in early July.

Friday evening's meal was right up with there on the Frugality + No Food Waste scale. Behold the homemade pizza. Dough: made myself (maybe 50 cents worth of flour bought on sale with a coupon and yeast with a drop of olive oil and a sprinkle of sugar—maybe). Topping: about a third of a jar of Prego tomato sauce bought on sale for 99 cents (33 cents), 1 onion (one of four from a 2 pound bag of sweet onions for $1.59, so another 40 cents), the remains of a bag of shredded mozzarella bought months ago with a coupon during a sale (the whole bag, which was 16 ounces, was 75 cents (it was a good sale and a great coupon) so the approximate fourth that went into the pizza was 19 cents), miscellaneous spices (10 cents would be ample), about a fifth of a can of parmesan cheese from Aldi (it being Aldi, the can was $1.79, so another 36 cents), and—wait for it—the last of the pepperoni that her parents bought Ramona when she was here (free and leftover to boot). So for a whopping $1.88, we dined well. Heck, add another 50 cents for the small salads and the can of pop ("soda" to you all) Warren had and we still ate well.

The savings were even sweeter because while the dough was rising, Warren and I went out in search of something he could mount his new CNC machine on. A sheet of plywood priced out at about $49.99. So we went to ReStore, the retail arm of Habitat For Humanity, and looked for a solid core door, which would have been about $15.00 or $20.00. No luck. But ReStore did have a brand new pallet, of thick plywood, for $3.00. Actually, $2.25 because everything was 25% off, but Warren was so thrilled with the pre-sale price that he donated the change back to Habitat For Humanity.

I'll be writing a longer post about money: what 2017 looked like and what 2018 holds. But if this is what it holds, we'll be living high on the hog for pennies.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Deep Freeze

Along with the rest of the Midwest and the East coast (I can't speak for the rest of the country right now), we are locked into a deep freeze. It is cold beyond cold out. So enjoy this post from 2015, when we experienced a similar weather cycle.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Inch Fifty: The Ninth Circle of Hell Has Nothing on Us

In the 1300s, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote a three-part epic poem entitled The Divine Comedy. I have not read the entire work, but I have read the first part, Inferno, more than once. The Inferno describes Dante's trip through hell, with the Greek poet Virgil as his guide. I have not read it in recent decades, but some things stick with you, and that work is one of them in my case.

Dante divides Hell into nine descending circles, with the sins and punishments growing more severe the lower one descends. The ninth circle is the very bottom of Hell, the lowest of the lowest, where Satan resides with the traitors, the most evil of sinners.

The ninth circle is not full of fire and brimstone. It is not a searing, scorched wasteland. You couldn't toast a marshmallow, let alone warm your hands in the ninth circle.

No, as Dante wrote it, the ninth circle is a frozen Hell. Satan is encased to his waist in ice and flaps his wings ceaselessly, producing the icy winds that keep everything frozen. It is without light, it is without warmth, it is without comfort.

I don't live in the ninth circle of Hell. I live in Ohio, which right now far exceeds the ninth circle. We are in the midst of a cold winter, the cold this week exacerbated by an occurrence of a Siberian Express. A Siberian Express is a  name dreamed up by some bored meteorologist to describe a sustained, frigid, often sub-zero weather mass, often originating in Siberia. The resulting temperatures take no prisoners.

There is a reason that the Soviet regime located its gulags in Siberia.

Yesterday all schools were canceled because the temperature was 3 or 5 or something like that, with a windchill of sub-zero temperatures. Today schools were canceled again because the temperature at 7 a.m. locally ranged from -3 to -12 before the windchill.

Minus twelve. Really?

Because of my job and a major community commitment, I was out of the house both days before 8 a.m. I don't care how much one bundles up (and trust me, I do), there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that will guard every part of the body against that kind of cold.

It is cold, cold, cold. It is Dante cold. It is the Keats cold of the Eve of St. Agnes. It is way past any cold Robert Frost every penned.

When Dante and Virgil leave the ninth circle, they reemerge on the earth just before dawn on Easter Sunday. E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.

"And then we emerged to see the stars."

I am hoping the spring emerges at some point from the wasteland of winter. After all, the major league pitchers and catchers reported to spring training this week.

I wish I could paraphrase Shelley:

Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth
The trumpet of the prophecy! O Wind,
If the pitchers report, can Spring be far behind?

But right now, the Wind is the Siberian Wind, and there is no joy in Mudville.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

What Christmas Held

One of our special ornaments: a bird from the National Museum of the Native American
Warren and I tend not to give one another large or extravagant presents ever. Birthdays, anniversary, Christmas: they tend to be celebrated in mood rather than in presents. There are many reasons for that. Neither of us are much moved by tangible gifts and we tend to be frugal when it comes to one another. I do not lust after jewelry, clothing, shoes, expensive kitchenware, and the like. In fact, early on in our courtship Warren sent me a note in which, looking at our respective financial positions and lack of luxury, he wrote: "You probably aren't going to get Europe, diamonds, many expensive meals or lots of shoes."

And that was and is fine.

So leading up to Christmas, the one thing I pointed him to was the just out first volume (paperback) of Mary Oliver's collected poems. It was in a shop in Rochester when we were there two weeks ago, modestly priced, and I thought that would be perfect gift for me. So when I unwrapped it (knowing which present it was) Christmas morning, I felt very much like Beth March, on the second Christmas in Little Women, who said "I'm so full of happiness, that, if Father was only here, I couldn't hold one drop more."

Another special ornament: the Santa we bought early on 
It turns out there were drops yet to come. Warren had two large boxes under the tree with my name on them. Again, in and of themselves, they did not arouse suspicions. We each have been known to wrap very small modest presents in big boxes; Warren especially is notorious for that trick. I unwrapped the first: it contained solar-powered outdoor lights in the shape of fireflies. I laughed, delighted. Warren grinned and said he thought they would look good out on the deck. I said they would look good out on the deck when my nephew gets married in our backyard next June.

Then Warren said, "That's not the present I thought it was. Unwrap the other."

The other had more heft to it. I only had a little of the paper off before I realized what it was.

A brand new DLSR camera, with lenses. (To be accurate: a Canon EOS Rebel T6.)

To say I was stunned would not begin to capture what I was feeling. Shocked. Floored. Caught entirely off guard. And emotional to the point that tears came into my eyes.

Back in October, I wrote about my introduction to and love of photography. What I did not write about, although my friend Cindy and I talked about it, as did Warren and I, were the limitations of a simple point and shoot (a Nikon Coolpix S3600) and whether we should invest in something better. Eventually I concluded with Warren that it was probably not worth the cost, given our schedules and busy lives. Warren, though, tucked away that discussion. He heard my tone of voice when I talked about how much I loved and used to shoot photos, and he acted on it.

The biggest gift in my life? My husband's love for me.

I didn't shoot the camera for the first few days. Cindy pressed me: just do it. I told her I was intimidated by the new machine. I told her it felt like writer's block; I just couldn't couldn't bring myself to do it. "My finger is frozen just hovering over the shutter release: I emailed. Cindy then gave me the best photography advice I have ever received: "NO!!!! PUNCH IT!!!"

She was right.

I am still learning my new camera, getting used to its many bells and whistles. I pulled out my old Nikon (film camera) that served me so well for so long, and spent time comparing the views through the respective viewfinders. It was Warren that figured out the focus issues tripping me up; I am the one who figured out some of the manual settings.

Even with what little I have taken, two of the photos shown here, I am ecstatic. I foresee photography in my life in 2018 in ways it has not been in a long, long time. 

Many decades ago, I wanted to be a photographer for National Geographic. (Before National Geographic, it was Life magazine I wanted to work for, but it folded in 1972, while I was still in high school.) That dream is long, long over, but the girl who had that dream and who loved seeing the world through a viewfinder is still deep inside me.  

And she can't wait. 

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Just Days Before Christmas

We are hosting family members for Christmas this year. The elders, of course: my dad (84), my mom (82), and Aunt Ginger (88). Aunt Ginger has been having health problems and there is every likelihood that this will be her last Christmas. My brother Mark, his wife Jackie, and their adult son Matt will be joining us as well, driving over from their home about 30 miles away. David, my stepson, may be briefly at the table before going to join his elderly grandmother's meal. It will be traditional holiday fare, and, yes, there will be apple pie for all. With about 50 hours to go before the meal, there is a lot remaining yet to do, but these thoughts come first.

I always have mixed feelings about Christmas and this year is no exception. This is not because of my Jewish faith and the disconnect between it and the dominant Christian one in this county. I was raised with Christmas. My children celebrated (and continue to celebrate) Christmas. Warren celebrates Christmas. No, my feelings are tangled up in old memories, dismay over the crass consumerism the holiday brings out in so many of us, sorrow over the state of our country, and the insistence that we all be merry. Not thoughtful, not contemplative, not kinder, but merry.

By definition, "merry" means "cheerful and lively." Synonyms include "joyful," "carefree," "high-spirited,""jolly," and "lighthearted," to name but a few. Nothing wrong with any of those responses, but one size does not fit all, even at Christmas.

I like better this quote by L. R. Kost that I came across in another blog:

Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.

Now that's something I can get behind this time of year. It very much reflects the Jewish obligation of tikkun olam, or repairing the world. And it honors the notion of doing good in a dark, broken world, regardless of the number of presents under the tree.

See you on the other side.

Saturday, December 9, 2017


It is a cold Saturday morning in Ohio, with the temperatures hovering in the low 20s and the sky gray. Warren is at rehearsal for tomorrow's holiday concerts. We left the house so fast and so early this morning for a community breakfast and last minute orchestra matters that neither of us nudged up the thermostat from its nighttime temperature of 61º.

The thermostat is still on 61º four hours later. I walked home from the concert hall, the 20 minute hike warming me up. Once here, I turned on the oven to bake a batch of biscotti and here I am an hour later, shuttling between the kitchen with the biscotti and the basement, where I am hanging laundry to dry.

As I sit here writing at the table in a cool kitchen and a chillier house, I am reminded of the homes I grew up in. I never lived in a house with central heating until long after I left home.

My lifetime-long friend Cindy and I emailed back and forth earlier this week about heat. She lives in a manufactured house, and there is always a worry about the water pipes running underneath freezing when there is a sudden cold snap. I wrote back that I remembered the first floor kitchen in my childhood house. (My grandparents and Aunt Ginger lived on the first floor; we lived on the second for most of the 14 years I lived there.) The sink was against an outside wall that I am pretty sure was just wallboard over stud frame and outside shingles. When it got really cold, someone would hang a lightbulb under the sink to warm the pipes all night (there may have been a fixture or a plug under there for this purpose; I don't remember). I told Cindy that the kitchen was unheated except for stove/oven activities. I went on to explain that there was no central heating: there were gas stoves (floor stoves) in a few rooms on each floor and that was it. She did not remember that, but I sure did. And when we moved to the house my parents still live in, there was only a coal furnace in the basement and floor grates on the first floor. Any heat beyond that was by virtue of hot air rising. All of us kids had bedrooms on the second floor. To this day, I remember the ice that formed on the inside of my bedroom windows in the dead of winter.

As a result of growing up with no central heating, I learned to prefer sleeping in cold air, a preference that is a great trial for Warren. Because I was a teenager (i.e., old enough to be reliable) when we moved, my dad taught me the basics of operating a coal furnace. I know how to bank a coal fire for the night and how to rekindle it for the morning. I understand how furnace flues work. I also know what it is like to shovel coal and stoke a furnace. (Relax: my parents switched to first oil and then natural gas to heat with, installing central heating. My dad is not shoveling coal at 84.)

As I look back, I realize that growing up without central heating made for family times in the winter that are less frequent in today's lifestyles. Think of the chapter "Winter Night" in Laura Ingall Wilder's book Farmer Boy. The Wilder family (her future husband's family) spent cold nights in the kitchen, where it was warmest, talking, doing needlework or greasing moccasins, eating popcorn, reading the paper aloud. My family likewise gathered in the winter after supper in our living room, near the gas stove, to watch television, read, work on homework, polish shoes, or play. I would sit crosslegged on the floor on Saturday nights while my mother put my hair up in curlers for church the next day. Dad would make popcorn. Even as my older brother and I aged and got moodier, we rarely retreated to a bedroom with a closed door in either house. It would be have been too cold! We needed those doors open for that heat to circulate.

Don't get me wrong. I like heat. I am grateful I don't have to struggle financially to keep the house warm in the winter. The biscotti is almost done and I will turn up the thermostat so Warren doesn't freeze when he gets home.

But I don't regret the childhood memories of family time in the evening, the wonderful way those stoves would warm mittens before going outside, or even the ice in my bedroom. That other time, those other memories.

Later note: After writing this out by longhand while the biscotti baked, I retreated to my second floor study to type. I confess: it's cold up here. Back to the first floor!