Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Teaching Trouble a new trick

Every weekday, my oldest son comes home from school and takes Trouble for a jog. Trouble LOVES this. He seems to know exactly what time Jon is due home from school, and will watch eagerly from the window for the first sign of "his boy" coming home.

Trouble with Pepper, the foster kitty. Most recent picture I have.

Recently, Jon discovered that his high school has a chess club that meets every Wednesday after school. I gave him permission to go as long as his grades stay consistent. Of course, no one thought about explaining this to Trouble.

He was waiting at the window, like always, watching eagerly for Jon to come into view. Every time a kid would walk past the house, Trouble's tail would wag faster and faster...only to stop suddenly when he realized it wasn't "his" kid. Half an hour later, Trouble had had enough. He crawled onto my bed, buried his head under the blankets, and started crying. Pitiful whimpers and plaintive wails came from my quivering bedspread as the poor puppy gave voice to his sorrow.

It was clear I had to distract the poor little guy, so I pulled out a handful of treats and decided to teach him a new trick. Twenty minutes later, Trouble was happily playing dead every time I pointed at him and said "Bang!".

I praised him for being a good puppy and rewarded him with a stuffed animal to gnaw on, then went to browse the net. About ten minutes later, I heard a light whimper by my elbow. "What's wrong, baby?" I asked, looking over at him. Trouble wagged his tail and dramatically collapsed, looking at me hopefully. When I didn't get the hint, he glanced at the treat bowl, then back at me, and wagged his tail a little bit more. I tried very hard to hide my laughter as I praised him, then turned back to the computer.

Two minutes later, he wiggled into my vision, and when I glanced his way, he collapsed again.

This has been going on for half an hour now. I've successfully taught him to play how do I teach him to stop?

UPDATE: Trouble has been playing dead at a glance for over an hour now. Sean arrived home from running errands and I excitedly went to show him the new trick. I pointed at Trouble and said "Bang!". Trouble just cocked his head to the side and looked at me with a puzzled expression.

"Yeah, Trish, great job training the dog." chortled Sean as he walked out of the room. And of course, the moment Sean walked out? Trouble fell flat on his side and played dead.

The dog is an unrepentant brat.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Guest Post

I have a guest post over at Adventures of a Thrifty Mama on a Trailer Park Homestead. It features one of my family's favorite dishes, Mexican Lasagna - check it out!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Obesity and weight loss

Most of the people reading this blog so far have met me in person, so the news that I am obese really doesn't come as any kind of surprise (for those of you I haven't met yet - um, surprise!). On June 1st of this year I weighed in at 363 pounds - my heaviest yet.

For those of you who have never been fat, let me try to describe what it's like. Imagine that some sadist came and duct-taped a beach ball full of water to your stomach, and two smaller water-filled balls to your chest. More water-filled tubes have been wrapped around your back, your upper arms, your thighs, and your neck. Now, imagine carrying this all day, every day.

Try to picture how hard doing everyday chores has suddenly become. Walking out to check the mail...trying to get close enough to the sink to wash the dishes. Showering. Sleeping. Getting behind the wheel of your car without your stomach catching on the steering wheel.

For me, the final straw came when I tried to garden earlier this year. I had spent all winter visualizing and planning my garden, and finally - finally! - the wet spring had given way to early summer, and the sodden ground had dried up enough to dig in. I excitedly got everything together, and began clearing the overgrowth in the front of the house.

Five minutes later, I was sprawled on the grass in my front yard, gasping for breath and aching in my knees and lower back. As I laid there, tears sprung into my eyes and I realized I was too fat and too out of shape to garden. After a while, I struggled to my feet and went inside, depressed beyond all reason.

But you know what? I'm a stubborn bitch, and I determined that nothing was going to stop me from planting those stupid strawberry seedlings. It took me a WEEK to clear a four foot by four foot area of ground, but I finally got it cleared - and it took another three days to get all the seedlings into the ground. BUT I DID IT. There was a sense of pride in that.  And when I stepped on the scale later that week, I discovered that I had lost three pounds from the effort of gardening.

I knew I wasn't going to be capable of having an extensive garden that year, and I resigned myself to a small garden area. It was very clear to me that my focus had to be weight loss and health, or else I would never have the big garden I had dreamed off, or the active life with my children and husband that I desired. So I began to walk.

First, it was just to the near corner and back. Only about eight house lengths, but I could barely make it to that corner and back again. After a while, though, it became easier. And then the day came when I was able to walk there twice without much effort. 

I then turned my attention to the far corner, which is a quarter of a mile away from my house - and uphill. Let me tell you, THAT corner was the death of me in so many ways. It wasn't the distance that bothered me so much as the uphill battle...which was sad because it wasn't that steep. But I made it, one rainy day in early July. I'm sure my neighbors must have thought I was nuts, standing at the corner doing a victory dance, but I felt too happy to hold it in.

The next goal was to walk around the block. After that, two blocks away. And as the start of the school year drew closer, I realized I was regularly walking a mile at a time, twice a day.

And the scale began to reflect the pounds dripping off of me with every mile.

I began to take joy in the feel of my muscles moving under my fat - joy in the newfound freedom and the lightness I was experiencing.  I began to think about walking a 5k, even though I still struggled to walk over a mile without a break (a 5k is 3.1 miles).  I kept pushing myself, exploring my neighborhood in new directions - and discovered, to my excitement, that just over a mile away there was a nature preserve, with hiking trails and a bike trail.  And to my shock, when I came home and tracked how far I had walked that day, I discovered I had walked 5.75k...without even realizing it.

So where am I at now? In June, when I started out, I weighed 363 lbs and couldn't walk to the near corner and back. Now I am at 335 lbs - a 28 pound weight loss - and walking a 5k twice a week.  I'm planning on training over the winter for a 10k in the spring, and I'm starting to work on jogging. Right now, I can only jog for the length of a house...but small steps lead to bigger ones, and I'm confident. Next year's garden isn't going to be such a hardship!

And my biggest Christmas/birthday wish for this upcoming season? I want to get enough money to buy a year membership at the local township gym. It's gonna cost me $265, but even if I have to save in $5-10 dollar increments, I'll get there. And then I'll blow everyone away with my progress!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Working poor

Like many Americans, our family has been affected by the recession. My husband’s employer cut wages, then cut hours, and suddenly his income was no longer adequate enough to support us. He tried to find a second job, but most of the jobs in his field are under hiring freezes. I tried to find work – even part-time at a fast food place would bring in enough money to cover the food bill and electricity. But since we live in a heavily ethnic area, even fast food jobs were requiring a second language.

My husband swallowed his pride and applied for food stamps, only to discover that he made too much to qualify. When he asked how much was too much, he was told “You make $700/year too much.”

 So our family has entered the ranks of the working poor. Wikipedia defines the working poor as “those… who maintain regular employment but remain in relative poverty due to low levels of pay and dependent expenses”. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 6.4 million working poor in 2000. That number increased in 2010 to 21 million. Applications for food stamps increased over 50% in the last year.

How do you survive if you are one of the working poor? From experience, I can give you several ideas to relieve financial pressure in your household.

Review – and trim – your expenses. Do you really need 400 cable channels? Or, for that matter, do you really need cable at all? Most television shows can be watched online. If your family has a landline phone and cell phones, can you do away with the landline?

Think about your mode of transportation. The average American household has two vehicles - two car payments, two gas tanks to fill, two vehicles to insure and maintain – it’s a lot of money that could be used elsewhere. Is it feasible for your household to downgrade to a one car family? Take into consideration alternate methods – is there a bus system in your area? Do you work close enough to work to bike there instead of driving?

Consider your diet. Take a good luck at your food budget and habits. Do you buy expensive name-brand items? Most generics are just as tasty for less money. Do you need to be buying a $4 cup of coffee on your way to work every day, or can you make something just as tasty at home, in a reusable cup, for a fraction of the cost? Packed lunches are easy to prepare, and don’t have to be boring – google ideas for fun lunch ideas and save yourself the cost of eating out during the work day.

If you have a family member who is unemployed and handy in the kitchen, consider learning how to make foods from scratch. Meals will cost less to prepare and usually taste better.  An added benefit? Most home-cooked meals are healthier. If you have children, have them help with the cooking. Even a three year old can shred cheese, and five year olds love to help with mixing and egg cracking. This also allows you to spend some quality time with your children, and teach them skills that will help them all their lives.

Make your yard work for you. Can you carve out a chunk of your backyard for a garden? You’ll be amazed at how much produce you can get from a small plot. Tomatoes, corn, green beans, peas, zucchini, cucumbers, lettuce, strawberries, sunflowers, fresh herbs – all can be grown in most backyards with minimum fuss and at little to no cost. There are many groups that offer free seeds to struggling families, and gardening tools can be found on the cheap at garage sales and thrift stores.

Dig up a three foot by five foot section of the lawn and let the kids have their own “spaghetti garden”. Plant tomatoes, basil, oregano, onions, and garlic – and then, in the fall, they can help to make homemade spaghetti sauce. The sauce can be canned or frozen for long-term storage, and the children will feel like they made a real contribution to the family.

Watch your utility usage. Turn off lights when you leave a room. Keep the heater set low in the winter, and compensate for the colder temps with long-sleeved clothes. In summer, set the air conditioner a degree or two higher – chances are, you won’t notice a difference, but your budget will notice a change in price. And make it a family challenge to see who can take the shortest shower to cut down on the water bill.

Our family may be the working poor – but that doesn’t mean we have to BE poor, or that we have to feel downtrodden or shameful. All it takes to thrive during this recession is creativity. Think outside the box!

Friday, September 2, 2011

this moment...

A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. 
A simple, special, extraordinary moment. 
A moment to pause, savor and remember.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Breakdowns - part two

In an earlier post, I mentioned that we have had several things break down this summer. First the computer, then the dryer, the washer, the vacuum, and finally the lawnmower. I was hoping the breakdowns had stopped there, but that was a vain hope.

One of our neighbors offered to look our lawnmower over. If it was a simple problem, he could fix it, no worries. While he was looking over the machine, another neighbor, Dena, offered to let me borrow her mower. I was so grateful I nearly cried - our lawn had become a jungle at this point and something needed to be done.

The front lawn was mowed, and most of the backyard as well. The mower was turned off so the picnic table could be moved, and then my teenager Jon went to mow the patch of grass that had been under the table. He gave the starter string a sharp tug.


"Um, Mom? I think I just broke Dena's lawn mower".

I stared at the machine, which had been purring happily a few minutes before. The starter cord had completely disconnected from the engine, and no amount of pulling was going to start it. I dreaded telling Dena that we had broken her mower as well as our own.

I half expected the lawnmower to pull this neat trick next.

Later that evening, the neighbor's wife brought our lawn mower back while I was talking to Dena. "My husband said he couldn't fix it," she said apologetically. "The engine is completely seized up." I thanked her for making the effort anyway, and remarked that I was just having bad luck with machines, while pointing at Dena's mower. She offered to take Dena's machine back with her to see if her husband could fix the starter, and Dena agreed. I said if any parts were needed, we would pay for them, as the machine broke while we were using it. I privately decided that each household is getting a fresh-baked loaf of cinnamon bread for their generosity.

So today I decided to pull out the weed whacker and try to trim the small bit of yard that hadn't been mowed, and also to trim the verge around the driveway and carport. The weed whacker worked for about sixty seconds, then the plastic string on the bottom flew off into the thick grass and vanished.  Ta da, a totally useless weed whacker! I was starting to feel like some sort of circus freak

("Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and see the amazing Machine Killer! She may look like an innocent housewife, but watch what happens when she touches that lawn mower - BAM! It's irreparable!")

I was determined to get SOMETHING done outside today, so I decided to transplant my tomato plants into bigger containers. And of course, just as I got the first pot filled...CRACK. The wooden handle of my shovel split, right above the metal part. I threw down the shovel in disgust and stomped back towards the house.

...only to discover that the air conditioner had stopped working.

I really need to join a circus. I belong in the freak tent.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Biscuits and Gravy

My husband grew up in a variety of different states around America, due to a parent in the military. He proudly calls himself a southern boy in taste. Many of his favorite dishes are from down south. He's been pestering me for a year to make biscuits and gravy, and I've been resistant - mainly because I still struggle whenever making gravy, and it has never once come out the way it's supposed to! But I finally decided to try making this dish for him a couple weeks ago, and I was astounded by how simple it was. The gravy came out perfect and the biscuits were light and fluffy.

The first thing you have to do is make biscuits. If you really want to, you can buy ready-made biscuits in a can, but I find those cans rather insulting - it's almost like the companies are implying that their consumers are not capable of mixing a simple batter together. No ready-made biscuits in my house! And lets be honest, shall we? When you make it at home, you control the size and thickness of the final product, and those biscuits-in-a-can are never big enough.

So here is my recipe for buttermilk biscuits, modified from the original found on

4 cups all-purpose flour
4 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2/3 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups buttermilk

In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients. Cut in shortening until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in the buttermilk until moistened, and knead until the buttermilk is fully incorporated. Roll to 1/2 an inch thickness and use a mason jar ring as a biscuit cutter (this works perfectly because the ring is exactly 1/2 an inch thick, so you will know if your biscuit is too thin). Place on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake at 450 degrees F until golden brown (about ten minutes).  Makes 20 thin biscuits or 15 nice thick ones.

While the biscuits are baking is the perfect time to start your gravy. I must admit the recipe I found on allrecipes is perfect, and I can't picture changing it in any way. Absolutely scrumptious!

1 lb. sausage
1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 cups of milk
salt and pepper to taste

Crumble and cook sausage in large skillet over medium heat until browned. Stir in flour until dissolved (I put in a little at a time). Gradually stir in milk. Cook gravy until thick and bubbly. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot over biscuits.

Every Saturday night we have a large group of people come over for gaming (my husband is a big Dungeons and Dragons fan). I usually cook for the group, and everyone chips in to help pay for the ingredients. Last night I made the biscuits and gravy - thirty biscuits and over four pounds of gravy. It was a hit, with people wandering back to the stovetop for seconds. This morning I took stock of the leftovers - we have two biscuits left, and no gravy whatsoever! You know a recipe was a winner when there aren't any leftovers.

Currently my three kids are arguing over who will get to eat the last of the biscuits - I may have to make another batch!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Good Wife Guide

I'm sure many of my readers will remember seeing this article (supposedly from the 50's, though it was later said to be fake):

I remember there being a great outcry by both men and women about the article being sexist and promoting inequality. I'm sure many of you remember this yourselves, so I won't go into much detail about how insulting the article was to many people. Rather, I want to focus on the few brave souls who went against public opinion.

"I wish my wife would accept the part that says 'Don't greet him with complaints or problems'. I understand that she had a rough day with the kids, and I'm more than willing to talk the problems over with her - I just wish she didn't slam them on me the moment I walk in the door."

"If I told my wife I expected her to have a cool drink ready for me when I got home, she'd probably dump it on my head!"

"I wish society was more accepting of submission in women - I'd personally love to greet my husband at the door and offer to take off his shoes.  But I think it would spark an argument!"

I was working in an office at the time, and for each one of those statements above, a furor and outcry would fill the break room as everyone else would rush to correct the offender - especially the one woman who had the desire to take off her husband's shoes!  It got me to thinking, though - was the article really all bad?

Sure, there are certain points that I found offensive - such as "Don’t complain...if he stays out all night." "His topics of conversation are more important than yours." "You have no right to question him."  I think most people will agree with me!

But what is wrong with making sure the home is a place of peace, order, and tranquility? Is it fundamentally wrong to greet your spouse with a meal or a drink when he returns from work? Some of the things on that list struck me as being sensible, even respectable.

For example, the second point suggested taking a little time for yourself before your husband arrives home. This just seemed wise to me.  After rushing around all day, cleaning and cooking, it just makes sense to take some time for yourself! How would you rather greet your husband after work (or you children after school) - frazzled and overwhelmed...or calm and collected? 

Clearing away the clutter, and doing a bit of dusting before everyone arrives home also seems wise. Having a cluttered busy home makes it hard to relax and unwind. When everything is tidy, it promotes a relaxing affect on everyone...and who doesn't want to have relaxed children in the evening?

"Be happy to see him".  It's kinda sad that we need reminders like that, isn't it? After all, if we aren't happy with our spouse, why are we married to him? But sometimes life gets so hectic and busy that we forget to express our pleasure in others. Another sad reminder is the exhortation to "listen to him" - really, that's not something we should forget.

And honestly - it goes both ways, doesn't it? A husband has similar duties to his wife. I love this article which created a companion list called "The Good Man's Guide", reminding husbands that they need to participate in making home life enjoyable and relaxing. I also feel that children have a responsibility to keep the house running smoothly.

I keep a copy of this guide on my hard drive, and have printed out a copy and taped it to my fridge. It represents a lot of things to me - first, how far the woman's lib movement has come, and how far it still has to go (I'll go into more detail on this in a later post). But it also serves to remind me to look at the big not be so distracted by the little things that I lose track of the most important thing of all - my family.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Junkyard Summer

Earlier this year our computer was affected by a virus. We'd been thinking about getting a new one anyway - the poor thing was over a decade old, and ready for retirement. Replacing it wasn't really a big deal. And I must admit, I love our shiny new computer, and  didn't feel much sadness when the old computer was sent to the junkyard.

Then our dryer broke down. I didn't see this as much of a loss, either. A lot of studies have found that the dryer is the second to third largest energy consuming item in a home - and our dryer took two cycles to dry a small load (three cycles if it was something heavy, like a comforter). Besides, summer had just started, and I've always preferred line-drying clothes anyway. So the dryer ended up in the junkyard.

Then, disaster - our washer broke. My fondness for old-fashioned methods of cleaning clothes stops at line drying. The idea of laboring over our bathtub with a washboard was terrifying - and when I thought about how much clothing a family of five really goes through in a week? Not gonna happen. Fortunately my husband agreed with me.

The old washer was relocated to the junkyard, and an $800 dollar loan was taken out to replace it.

Last week I plugged in our vacuum and discovered that it, too, was not working. At this point I felt like screaming at the universe (the only thing that stopped me was the suspicion that the universe wouldn't listen anyway). Now, please realize, we have two cats and a dog of our own - plus our foster animals (and at that point we had a foster dog and two more kittens). So you can imagine how much I NEED a vacuum just to keep up with the pet hair - not to mention the dirt and debris that my three sons drag in every day.

I sat down and looked over the entire machine from top to bottom. No clogs, no strings wrapped around the bristles. I even took it apart to check the belt, but there was no obvious reason why it wouldn't start. So the vacuum joined the growing mass of products in our local junkyard - and Sean sighed and looked on for a new vacuum, while I tried to figure out a menu plan that would allow for the price of the vacuum to be taken out of the food budget.

This morning I went out to mow the lawn. Can you guess what happened? Yup. I pulled the starter string and all I got for my troubles was a loud, ominous CLANK followed by a jammed starter string. I'm dreading telling Sean about this one - he's under a lot of pressure financially, and I don't like adding to the weigh on his shoulders. In the hopes that I can give him good news along with the bad, I've sent out a freecycle request for a working lawnmower, but my hopes aren't high.

....and when I remember that little glowing "check engine" light that's been lit up for a couple months in our car?  I feel like pleading with Karma to spare us ("Oh no, please, no, not the car, anything but the car!).

I don't think Karma's listening.

Friday, August 19, 2011

this moment...

A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. 
A simple, special, extraordinary moment. 
A moment to pause, savor and remember.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Why I Love My Husband

The first five years of my life as a adult were beautiful.  I had a small son who was adorable, obedient, and intelligent.  I had a small but tidy home that I rented.  Most of my transportation was done by bike (with a trailer for my son to ride in), so I was in wonderful shape physically.  I was attending college and getting fantastic grades.  One of my professors nominated me to be the editor in chief of the college newspaper.  I was busy, happy, and feeling confident about my course in life.

Then, disaster.  During the next eight years of my life, my confidence and happiness were shattered, over and over again.  The man who had abused me during my childhood made a reappearance, bringing flashbacks.  I had two life-threatening pregnancies, and the births were only eleven months apart.  During the second pregnancy and recovery, I missed so much work from my well-paying job that I was fired.  I ended up leaving the father of my children after he got hooked on drugs.  I rallied by starting a home-based business which slowly grew and thrived, until someone jealous of my success set out to sabotage my work - and succeeded.  The loss of income from that sabotage resulted in homelessness, and while I was homeless, the storage unit that held all our belongings was destroyed in a fire.

Again I rallied, fighting to better my life and the lives of my sons. Again, I was struck down.  Over and over and over again, for eight years.

During that time period I grew very depressed.  I eventually got a job outside of the home (at a fast food restaurant), and settled into a life of drudgery.  I took no pleasure from my job, and I was too exhausted when I came home to take pleasure in parenting my children.  Keeping the home clean and organized seemed an insurmountable task, and at this point I gave up on a lot of things.

I gave up on keeping a clean home.

I gave up on finding a better job.

I hid the fact of how miserable I was from those who loved me.

I gave up on the idea that I could ever be successful, or reach the dreams I've had since girlhood.

I gave up on the idea of ever finding a significant other who could make me feel whole again.

And then Sean walked into my life.  Honestly, I was so depressed at that point, and so terrified to take a step towards bettering myself (out of fear that I would be struck down again), I'm really not sure what he saw in me.  I certainly wasn't any kind of catch at that point!  I was nearly 200 lbs overweight, and hadn't done anything for my appearance in years. My wardrobe at the time resembled that of a goth chick - just without the sexy corsets and artfully ripped jeans.  I looked dumpy, to tell you the truth.  (Recently I asked him why he found me so attractive when we first met - he replied that he saw the person I had the potential to be hiding inside the person I had become.)

He asked me to marry him that night.  I laughed, thinking he was joking - I mean, for goodness sake, we'd just met an hour before!  But he was utterly serious.  And I realized, as I laughed, that I hadn't smiled in so long that it hurt to smile - as though those muscles in my face had atrophied from lack of use.

He devoted himself to courting me.  The next couple of months were a whirlwind of laughter, teasing, and an awakening of my awareness of myself as woman rather than mommy.  I felt alive in a way that I had almost forgotten was possible to experience.  When he asked me to marry him a second time, I said yes.  And he gave me my dream - the opportunity to be a stay-at-home mother and housewife.  He's worked hard to make sure we have a steady income, and he's gone without to provide the extras for the children.  He's treated my sons as though they are his, and made it clear to the boys that he considers himself their father, even though they don't share genetics.  His wisdom astounds and humbles me, and his intelligence awes me.  

And over the last three years with him, I've gotten reacquainted with the woman I always had the potential to be.  And I realized that I always had this potential within myself - I had just grown so scared of the possible downfalls that I wasn't willing to reach for the heights.  I credit my husband with my success, but he refuses to accept that credit.

He insists I did it all by myself.  And that is why I love my husband.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Learning to ride a bike

To my shame, I must admit that my younger children did not get their own bikes until August of 2010, for their seventh and eighth birthdays, respectively.  Why not?  Well, we had moved to Illinois when the children were four and five, and we moved into an apartment building that had no storage space for bicycles.  We couldn't see the point of buying a bike for the boys when they would have no place to put it.

In July of 2010 we moved to a home in a suburban neighborhood - complete with a yard, a driveway of our own, and ~gasp~ a shed for storing bikes.  My husband suggested getting each child a bike for his birthday, and I agreed.  Jon's birthday is in July, and James and Jacob were born in August, so within six weeks of moving to our new home, all three boys had new bikes.

Jon already knew how to ride a bike, so I didn't have to work with him at all.  Sean and I both started out teaching the younger boys, but for some reason they didn't seem interested after the first couple of days.

"It's just too hard, Mom!  I didn't think it would be this hard."

Then the first snows came early, and thus halted bike learning for 2010.  I started up again in early summer this year (the spring was constantly rainy, so we hadn't had a chance before July to practice again).  This time I handled the training a bit differently...I focused on teaching just James.  The reason for this is simple - my youngest, Jacob, has a temper, and is stubborn as a mule.  When he fails to learn a new skill after the first couple tries, he crosses his arms and refuses to try anymore.  But he's also very competitive, and I knew that if James learned how to ride a bike first, Jacob's natural competitive nature would drive him to learn the skill in short order.

My plan worked like a charm.  I focused on James and within a week he was able to ride his bike all the way down the driveway before falling.  His shouts of joy and triumph drew Jacob, who watched him wobble down the driveway.  Jacob hugged his brother, congratulated him, then turned to me with a determined expression and said "I want to learn now!".

By the second week, James was riding to the corner and back without falling over once, and Jacob had mastered the driveway.  ~laughs~ I love it when psychology works!

This morning I took the boys out again.  James has been asking to ride around the block, which I was a bit leery about (our block is amazingly long - just walking around it is more than three quarters of a mile).  But I said if big brother Jon went with him, James could ride around the block.

While the two older boys were gone, Jacob rode down the driveway, turned, and rode about three houses down.  I watched as he attempted a U-turn (which he has never successfully done before).  And he made it - just barely, but he managed to turn around without falling off!  He spent the rest of the morning riding back and forth in front of our house, doing U-turns and riding back.  Every so often he would fall, but he got right back up and brought his bike back to start again.  You could just see the determination to catch up with his older brothers! 

By the end of August, I suspect I will have three skilled bike riders in the family.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Taco Soup

Food prices are rising, and for many (myself included), this means a major change in shopping and cooking habits.  We have slowly but surely been buying cheaper, more filling products and reducing the amount of processed food we consume.  Along this path of change came the cooking of dried beans.

I've been given dried beans before - they are a staple at food pantries.  But I never knew what to do with them!  Usually the bag would sit in my pantry until I finally tried to cook it, but once I had the beans reconstituted, they tasted so bland that I couldn't eat them, and they would end up being thrown out.

Then along came this wonderful thing called the world wide web...and the discovery of multitudes of fantastic cooking blogs.  One of my favorites is "Bored Cook in the Kitchen", and she has a wonderful recipe for taco soup.

The first time I made her recipe, I followed the directions exactly.  I discovered that there were a few changes I wanted to make - for example, no one in my family enjoyed the broth of the dish.  My husband commented that it would have been perfect if the broth had been based off chicken stock rather than water.  I replied that replacing the beef with chicken would add a lighter texture.  The second time I made it, everyone declared it perfect - and it's been a staple in our menu since.

Taco Soup
2 cups shredded chicken
1 28 oz. can petite diced tomatoes
1 medium onion, diced
1 can of corn, drained
1 1/2 cups black beans, drained and rinsed
1 packet of taco seasoning
1 packet ranch dressing 
1 packet Goya Sazon (in the orange box)
1 1/2 cups chicken broth

Add all the ingredients to your slow cooker, set on high (to cook for 4-5 hours) or low (to cook for 6-7 hours).  Creates around 6 servings.

Of course, if you garden, you can add your own produce, such as fresh sweet corn or peppers.  I like to top my soup off with shredded cheddar, sour cream, and crumbled tortilla chips, but that significantly increases the cost per meal, so keep that in mind...however, for me, I do tend to always have cheese and sour cream on hand for other recipes, so this does give me a chance to use up more of the product before it expires.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


For me, a big part of being a good homemaker is to create a happy, healthy, relaxing home on a minimal budget.  You don't have to make 100 grand a year to have a classy home.  It just takes time, ingenuity, and patience.

One of my favorite new resources is Freecycle.  Definition: "Freecycling, also known as Free Recycling, is the act of giving away usable unwanted items to others instead of disposing of them in landfills."  I've made some great finds on Freecycle since I signed up four months ago.

  • My husband wears weird pants sizes.  I have not yet found any jeans in that match both is length AND his waist.  However, his waist size is common, so whenever I see jeans given away in his size, I make them into shorts.
  • I accepted some sheets that were being given away.  They were in excellent condition, with a modern clean floral print that wasn't overly feminine.  I'm making them into curtains for the living room.
  • An older wheelbarrow, which is going to save my back with gardening.  It also helps a lot when I carry a heavy load of wet laundry out to hang on the line.  
  • I am now the proud owner of several pairs of very nice, nearly new shoes in my size.  I've always admired pretty feminine shoes, but am too practical to have ever bought them for myself.  But now, for the first time in my life, I own four pairs of pretty, feminine footwear.
  • I've gotten three garbage bags full of clothing - most of it in my current size.  Since I'm losing weight, I've stored the smaller sizes in my closet - I now know that I shouldn't have to buy a whole new wardrobe for each dress size I lose.
  • A rice cooker, which saves us money as we now feel comfortable buying rice in bulk.
  • Plant cuttings - including willow switches, which means I won't have to spend any money on basket-making materials this fall when I start to teach myself how to weave baskets.
  • Free tickets to Six Flags.
And today, I received a remarkable find on Freecycle.  My husband has been wanting a kindle ever since I received one for Christmas last year.  Now, all our "extra" money is having to go towards vet bills for our new puppy, and he was a bit disgruntled that he wouldn't be able to get himself a kindle for his birthday.

I figured chances were slim, but I put a request out on Freecycle anyway.  My request was answered this morning by a nice woman who had an e-reader gathering dust - she hadn't used it in six months.  I figured it was an older model, but more than sufficient for Sean's needs, so I arranged to pick it up this afternoon.

You can imagine my shock when I opened the bag and found a color touch-screen multimedia e-reader.  This thing looks brand-new - and I don't just mean it's condition.  It looks like something that is currently being sold at stores!  I did a bit of research when I got home and found it is a fairly new e-reader, less than a year old and very popular.  I'm so excited, I can't wait until August to give it to my husband - I'm going to present it to him tomorrow when he gets home from work.

Freecycle goes both ways.  I'm able to post an offer about items I no longer need, but that are still usable and in good condition.  It makes me feel great to be helping other people, as well as keeping good items out of the landfills.

Geography lesson

A few days ago, my husband and I impulsively decided to go to a Border's store that was closing.  Everything was on clearance, and although finances are crazy tight, Sean said I could spend $15 on whatever I wanted. My first thought was to get the Ishmael trilogy by Daniel Quinn, but evidently it's a popular book series - it was already gone.  I wandered the fiction and non-fiction areas but nothing jumped out at me.  I considered getting a couple of puzzles for the kids, but nothing just seemed to click...

I found a book called "Plunge into History" that looked interesting, and I thought the kids might enjoy reading it as well, so I picked that up.  Left me with about six dollars, and nothing was really looking good.  Then Sean pointed out the maps.

I've been wanting to get a map of the U.S. for a while now, and this was a nice big map - three feet by five feet.  It was two dollars more than my six remaining dollars, so I went to put the book back.  But Sean stopped me and said he'd  be willing to pay the extra two dollars since I had chosen something educational. The kids were thrilled with their new map, and spent about 25 minutes pouring over it when we hung it up.  But I knew it would become a boring, everyday poster if I didn't use it regularly. During the school year, that won't be so hard, but how to incorporate it during the summer? 

That's not as hard as you might think.  This year, we had to order new backpacks for all three kids.  I pulled up the shipping details this morning and discovered that Jacob's backpack had already shipped out from Lexington.  So I showed him the online shipping details and then asked him "How far away do you think Lexington is?"

He went STRAIGHT to the map, and found it in seconds.

Jacob pointing to Lexington, Kentucky.
He's excited - he discovered that the backpack is now in Itasca, IL (about twenty miles away).  It will probably arrive today, and so he keeps running to the windows every time he hears a vehicle drive by.  "Is that my package? Aw, drat, it's just the neighbor's car."

I'd love to homeschool, but I know it's not the right step for me at this point in my life.  But that doesn't stop me from encouraging learning at home!  My kids are at the top of their classes, mainly because Sean and I have taught them that learning is fun rather than a chore to be dreaded at all costs. 

How do you encourage education at home?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Food Insecurity

I came across this statement today while reading a news article:

"According to a 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 14.7% of American households were "food insecure" at least some time during that year. "Food insecure" means all household members did not always have access to enough food for an active, healthy life."

Nearly 15%.  Sit here and think about that for a minute.  America is supposed to be the richest country in the world.  The American dream was - and still is - a driving force for immigrants who want a better life for their families.  Recent estimates by the World Health Organization classified 74% of Americans are overweight.  And yet 15% of our citizens are unable to access enough food to stay healthy??

What scares me the most about that statistic is that it is two years old - which means the info was gathered in 2008-2009, at the beginning of the recession.  Three years later, how much higher must that number be?

The article I was reading was about Holly Hirshberg.  In 2008, Holly's husband lost his job, and her family had to depend heavily on her garden to provide for their needs.  After realizing just how helpful her garden was, she started The Dinner Garden, an organization that provides free packs of seeds, enough to feed a family of four.  "If you have a willingness to garden, we can help you find a way to do it," Hirshberg said. "The seeds do all the work. You put them in the ground, they will grow. ... With just a couple minutes a day, you really can grow a lot of food for your family."  In 2001, Holly was invited to speak at TED San Antonio.

I went to check out the Dinner Garden site, and again my mind was blown to find this message:  "Please note that due to incredibly high demand, we have a waiting list of over 45,000 families while we wait for additional funding for supplies. The wait may be over a year."

That statement says a lot about America's economy, doesn't it?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Tricia's tip - seed depth

This morning I got a bunch of free pots at a rummage sale.  I spent the afternoon planting seeds.  This is my second time planting seeds, and I ran up against the same problem I had last time - how do I know what the right depth is?

Last time, I eyeballed the depth, but near the end of the planting I had a sneaky suspicion that I was going too deep.  I sent one of the boys in for a ruler, and sure enough, I was planting the seeds more than twice as far as they should have gone.

Is it any wonder that only two of my seeds sprouted?  (I planted twelve, originally).

This time, I gave the matter a little bit of thought.  At first I thought "Well, if I take a stick out of the yard and cut notches into it at each half-inch, that would work as a guide"....but that seemed like an awful lot of work.  Then I thought about making the marks with a marker rather than notching the stick.

Then I remembered that I had some cheap wooden chopsticks in the junk drawer.  Eureka!  I took a chopstick and marked it every half inch, and I got my seeds at exactly the right depth.  I'm far more confident that my seeds will grow properly this time.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


We live in a suburb of Chicago, which you may recall has the nickname "The Windy City".  Lake Michigan affects the weather patterns in this area, making good weather even better and bad weather even more severe.  This past Monday was a perfect example of that.

Around 7:40 that morning I let the cats out - the sky was still overcast but the air was still.  I couldn't smell any approaching storm either.  I came back inside and started on a new blog post.

I was writing the second paragraph when the entire north wall of our house shuddered as though it had been hit with a giant's fist.  Simultaneously, my computer screen went dark.  The still weather that I had seen just five or ten minutes before had completely disappeared.  A strong wind was whipping branches and bending large trees in half.  My cats were pawing at the door and screaming to be let back in.  And the wind began to howl like a freight train.

I let the cats back in and yelled for the children to get into the hallway (the center of our house).  With a loud crack of thunder, rain began to fall - I could see out a window that the rain was driving horizontally.  The sky turned black and lightning flickered.  For a few moments, it was sheer destruction outside.  Our cats cowered under our arms and the puppy was crying - and Hansel, our foster dog who had lost his family in a tornado earlier this year, was so terrified he wet himself.

And then, after about 8-10 minutes of terrifying storm, one last powerful blast shook the house...and then the wind went still.  It was stunning, almost as though someone had flipped a switch and turned the storm off.  We waited a couple minutes to see if the calm was temporary.  The sky lightened, the sun came out, and birds started singing, so I figured it was safe enough to leave the house. 

Branches - some small, some large - littered the yard and the street.  One of our neighbors had lost a tree.  I grabbed the camera and took a few pictures of the damage.

There was no sign of lightning damage on this pole - the wind alone brought it down.

This branch brought down a wire - you can see it on the sidewalk.

This tree brought down another wire, and was resting on several others.
I didn't get far - barely a block away a city official told me it was too dangerous to continue.  There were several downed wires and he was not allowing anyone to pass.  I went back home.

Our power was still out.  As the day wore on, conditions became dangerous.  The temps got up into the high 90's, and the sun was pounding down out of a clear sky.  I kept the house cool by spraying the roof down with water every hour (word of this technique passed down, and soon every neighbor was outside on the hour, watering her roof.).

Updates continued to trickle in via phone.  Over three quarters of a million people were without power.  Estimated times for the power to be fixed varied from a few hours to several days to more than a week.  Without power, the traffic lights wouldn't work - and if you've ever been in the Chicago area, you can just imagine the insanity of no street lights.  Traffic was backed up for miles, and commutes that usually only took twenty minutes were taking over two hours.

Jonathan, bless him, took it upon himself to find ice.  He rode his bike around and eventually found a store that still had ice left.  He brought home three bags of the stuff, and I credit his actions with saving the hundreds of dollars of meat in our freezer.  He had even brought enough ice to fill the cooler, so we could have cold drinks.

If you watch the news - national news, not just local - you'll discover that power outages are becoming more frequent with each passing year.  The grid just can't handle the demands of the population - and all it takes is one freak event - in our case, a storm - to completely knock it off-line.  One of my long-term goals is to get off the grid - to have my own source of cheap electricity without having to depend on others. 

We were without power for over 30 hours.  It was a long time to be without power, but at the same time I'm relieved it wasn't longer.  From what I understand, some areas are still without power.  I'm grateful that ours was restored as quickly as it was.  Thanks to the ice Jonathan managed to find, we didn't lose the food in our freezer.  But we lost almost everything in our fridge.  If we had our own power source, this wouldn't have happened to us.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Recipe of the Week : Amish Bread

One of the bigger changes I've made in the last year has been to bake our own bread.  "Why?" I can hear some of you moan.  "Why on earth would you do such a thing when bread is so easy to buy at the store?"

Well, for a couple different reasons.  First of all, additives.  Have you ever noticed that store-bought bread stays edible for a very long time?  This is due to additives that extend the shelf life of the product.  In some people, like myself, regularly eating these additives can caused physical pain (I have fibromyalgia).  So I try to stay away from such things whenever possible.

My second reason was price.  Four years ago, I was able to go to my corner store and buy two loaves of bread for a dollar.  Now, the cheapest bread I can find is $1.99 per loaf - that's four times the amount I'm used to paying!  And it seems lately that the price is increasing even more.  When I did the math, I discovered that a loaf of homemade bread costs less than a quarter (when you buy the ingredients in bulk).  So homemade bread is cost-effective.

And let's be honest...nothing says "home" like the smell of fresh-baked bread!

When I started out, I experimented with many different bread recipes, trying to find one that suited our family.  After much trial and error, I settled on the recipe below:

Amish Bread
2 cups warm/hot water
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons active dry yeast

1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup veggie oil
6 cups flour

Mix together the warm water and the sugar until the sugar completely dissolves and the water appears clear (I tend to use hot water for this step - as hot as I can get it out of my tap.  I've found that it cools to just the right temp by the time the sugar has dissolved).  Add the yeast and stir to dampen.  Let mixture sit for five minutes, until the surface of the water develops a creamy foam.

Add in the salt and oil.  Work the flour in, one cup full at a time.  Once too thick to mix with a spoon, turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead the rest of the flour into the dough.  Once dough is smooth, form into a ball and place in an oiled bowl, turning dough to coat.  Cover bowl with a damp cloth and allow dough to rise until doubled (takes approximately an hour).

Punch dough down.  Knead for a few minutes and then divide the dough in half.  Form each half into a loaf and place into two well-oiled loaf pans.  Cover with a damp cloth and allow to rise for about 30 minutes, or until the dough is an inch above the rim of the loaf pans.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.  Allow to cool before slicing.

This recipe is wonderfully adaptive.  You can exchange any portion of the white flour for wheat flour - I love to go half-and-half.  You can exchange the sugar for honey to add sweetness.  You can roll the dough flat and sprinkle with cinnamon/sugar mix to make a swirled cinnamon loaf.  My kids have even dyed the dough to make Rainbow Bread:

This recipe also makes great hot dog buns and hamburger buns.  Just form the dough into the shape you want and cook it on a greased cookie sheet.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Are two-income households really better off?

While discussing the subject of homemaking on my facebook page, my sister left this comment:

" I feel like I am not a good enough mother sometimes because I am NOT a stay at home mom.  I work 32 hours a week (I'd like to work 40 but my employer will not work with my availability as I have to be done by 4:30 everyday to get my daughter), so I have 1 extra day off a week.   It's not enough though!  Not only do I not work enough, but I don't get enough work done at home.  Yes, sometimes I am unmotivated and exhausted!  But most of the time I feel rushed.  I struggle to work in cleaning and grocery shopping, unless it's my day off.   Even then I feel like I am neglecting my child because I cannot play with her as much as I want to because I am cleaning for hours, then we rush to the grocery store, then I occasionally make dinner (Hubby is a better cook than me).  So, not only am I tired all the time, but I feel like an inadequate mother, and an inadequate wife for not working and making enough money, AND an inadequate wife for not doing enough around the house!  PLUS, I have no 'me' time. And now, I have baby number 2 on the way! I hope it comes more naturally with time and experience, but for now it never seems to be enough. I would love to be a stay at home mom, but then I would need a rich husband lol. Then I would seem like a gold digger! It really is the ultimate catch-22" 

The situation my sister outlined in her post is, sadly, all too common in today's world.  Both parents work, both parents are stressed out, and both feel guilt that they aren't able to do all the things they want to do.  Our society tells us that a family can't function without two steady incomes.  It's the only way to be secure and to make ends meet, right?  It's become the norm.  But do two incomes really offer the security we think it does?

I don't think so.  And I'm not the only one with that opinion.  In their book "The Two-Income Trap", authors Elizabeth Warren and  Amelia Warren Tyagi argue that two-income families are almost always worse off than their single-income peers. 

In this interview with, Amelia Tygari states "
those families (with two incomes) certainly make more money than a one-income family did a generation ago, (but) by the time they pay for the basics -- an average home, a health insurance policy, a second car to get Mom to work, child care, and taxes -- that family actually has less money left over at the end of the month to show for it.".

When you factor in how much that second job costs your family (paying for a second car, child care, and assorted other work-related charges), is it really bringing in enough money to make the stress and exhaustion worth it?  In our family, we decided it wasn't.

I've been a stay-at-home mother for three years now.  We are not rich people.  Last year, my husband's income was around 30k - just barely above the national poverty threshold for a family our size.  Would another source of income be nice?  Oh, yes!  But in our eyes, the benefits of having a full-time parent at home outweighs the benefits of a second income.  By staying home, we are able to be a one-car family - so no second car payment, and our gas bill is lower.  Child care costs are non-existent.  I have time to cook from scratch, which is not only healthier for our family, but cheaper.  This year I've started gardening, and I anticipate that in a few years, our garden will provide hundreds of dollars worth of fresh produce - thus, reducing our grocery bill. 

And just because you stay home with the children doesn't mean you can't bring in an income.  Author Wendy Brown makes an excellent point in this blog post about being a WAHM (work-at-home mom).  There are multiple ways to earn money while staying at home (which I know all too well - I used to run a daycare out of my home).  Wendy has a lot to say on the subject, and her blog is well worth following - and her book is a great read as well. 

Wendy also linked me to this cost of working calculator, which is a great tool to figure out how much that second income is costing you.

I know this was the right move for our family - how about yours?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Hello, and welcome!

Lately it has seemed as though things have spun out of control.  Our banks were so far into debt that they would have failed had our government not stepped in.  The housing market and stock market have dropped alarmingly.  Gas prices are high, and peak oil seems imminent.  Millions of jobs have been lost, and our economy has suffered.  Earlier today, President Obama spoke about the recession, saying "People may not have been prepared for how long this was going to take and why we would have to make some very difficult decisions and choices. And I take responsibility for that."

Even the weather seems to be acting weird.  Deadly storms, floods, droughts, volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis - everything seems more intense, more frightening.

Now, more than ever, we need a safe haven - a place to go where you know you are safe and secure.   My husband and I are starting small, but working our way towards financial independence and home ownership.  This blog is going to outline my journey to create such a haven. 

Some of the topics that are going to be addressed in this blog are urban homesteading, being a housewife, cooking healthy food from scratch, and learning the skills that are, for the most part, no longer taught to young women - how to be a good steward of the home.