Wednesday, December 25, 2013

I wonder how much I will save now on our heating bills?

In our living room, we have two huge windows. Each window is about three feet wide and six feet tall, and they leak a LOT of air. That is fine in the spring and fall, but in the summer, hot air leaks into the house, and in winter, the cold air comes in.

In winters past, the cold air would come flowing in at such a rate that the heater was constantly running. Even keeping our house at a low 60 degrees would tax our heating system and raise our bill to a couple hundred dollars each month. That is far more than we can afford, and every winter we fall farther and farther behind on our bill. We'd have to play the catch-up game - could we manage to get our tax returns back in time to pay the past due bill before our power and gas would be cut off?

We rent, and our landlord, while awesome in many ways, is also a bit of a negligent home owner. I have a list of things I need him to fix around this house, and the only time he ever does any repairs is right before the township inspects the house - and even then, most of the repairs are temporary ones.

So, this lead to to look at alternate ways of weather-proofing that didn't require repairs or breaking rules the landlord set (example: we aren't allowed to put up plastic over the windows). So I researched and found many suggestions, including the idea of hanging quilted curtains over the windows.

We rarely have any extra money. But in late October I was given $35 to spend as I wished. I managed to buy two quilts, two sweaters, and a flour sifter at a thrift store for $30 of those dollars. The sweaters were modified into mittens and hats. The quilts were modified into window hangings (the blue ones in the picture above are in the living room, the other went on an equally large window in the kitchen).

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

An unusual day

Knock knock knock.

I answered the door to find a Fed Ex man with a large box. “Delivery for Patricia Betts,” he said, and thrust a clipboard into my hands. “Please sign.”

After he left, I looked at the box in puzzlement. I didn’t remember ordering anything! Giving the box a careful inspection, I noticed there was an envelope attached to the outside, addressed to me. The letter read:

Dearest Patricia,
     I saw your post on facebook about being frustrated with all the work you had to do. So I’m sending you a little something to help out. You can only use this gift for a week. Enjoy!
                                              A helpful friend

I reached out to open the box, but stopped when it shook. There was something ALIVE in there! Before I could react, the box burst open and six minions jumped out.

They were bright yellow, with blue suspenders and goggles. They giggled in high-pitched voices, which attracted Trouble. He came racing around the corner and then skidded to a stop at the sight of the little yellow creatures. His tail came down and tucked between his legs, and he whined.

“Ooooo” the minions cooed. A stream of gibberish rose from the cluster of minions, and they swarmed the poor dog. At first I thought they were going to hurt him, and I jumped up to stop them – but then I realized that Trouble no longer seemed afraid. He was wagging his tail and grinning his doggy smile as the minions swarmed over him, scratching behind his ears and under his chin. He rolled over and let the minions scratch his belly. 

“Okay, okay, very cute. But you guys need to get off him now. It’s time for his walk.” One of the minions jumped up. He raced to the door, pulled Trouble’s harness down, and tossed it to two of his fellows. They strapped him into it while the first minion retrieved the leash. And just like that, Trouble was out the door, with one minion holding the leash while the two others rode on his back like he was a pony.

“Wow, um…okay. I guess you guys are here to help me. I do have some chores that need doing. I’m supposed to go to the store and get fruits and veggies, and then I’m supposed to wash the dishes and make some bread. Can you guys help with that?”

They nodded enthusiastically. I gave the biggest minion some money and set him out to the store to buy produce. The short minion pulled up a chair and started washing the dishes. I told the last minion the ingredients needed to make the bread, and he started enthusiastically throwing everything into the mixing bowl.

I checked back with the minion doing the dishes. He was licking all the dishes before throwing them in the soapy water. I winced, but decided to let it slide. After all, the soap would kill any germs – right?

Once the bread was rising and the dishes were washed, I set the minions to doing the chores my younger children usually do. If all the chores got done before the kids came home, then we would be able to spend the evening playing instead of working. That sounded like a lot of fun!

It was time to punch down the dough. The minions washed their feet and then started jumping up and down on the dough while singing in their high gibberish language. The minions who had taken Trouble for a walk came back, and it was clear they had worn him out completely. He barely had the energy to give each of them a thank-you lick before collapsing for a long nap.

The last minion came back from the grocery store looking very excited, with several brown grocery bags. He was practically vibrating with happiness.

“Bananas!” He cried, and next thing I knew all six minions swarmed the bag. Happy noises came from the pile of minions, and banana peels flew in all directions. Within seconds, the bananas were gone. 

“Is that all you bought? Bananas? You bought twenty dollars worth of bananas?!” I asked, astounded. 

The minion who had done the shopping grinned up at me. “Banana!” he gloated, then groaned and held his distended belly. In fact, all six minions looked as if they had swallowed a watermelon whole. But they looked very happy. “Okay, guys – I guess you earned that. You guys did good work. But I want you to clean up those banana peels before you rest.”

It was fun to watch them picking up their mess. Their stomachs were so round that they couldn’t stand up, so they rolled back and forth, picking up the peels and rolling to the garbage can to throw them away. Then they rolled into my bedroom and piled up together in a great big pile. Soon the sound of their snoring could be heard through the door.

I could tell this was going to be a week to remember!

Writing exercises

During winter break, I'm assigning writing projects for them to work on. I've found some fun writing prompts for them to use, and as an example, I'm going to be writing along with them. The next several posts will be the stories I wrote using the prompts the children have been assigned. Those stories will be intentionally done simplistically, as a child would write, so as to show the kids what I am looking for in their own writing.

I hope my readers enjoy these stories as much as I enjoyed writing them.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


I've struggled this past week with this post. I have so much I want to say, and every time I try to write it out, the words get stuck but the tears start flowing. And what words manage to get past the tears - while accurate and heartfelt - also sounded trite and hollow.

How do I describe Chris? If I had to chose just one word, it would have to be vivacious. She had such a joy for life, and she could be so enthusiastic over the littlest things. I could always count on her for a smile and a pick-me-up whenever I felt down.

At the same time, she struggled so hard. Emotionally, she battled chronic depression. Her personal life - her marriage - was abusive in the extreme, and she fought to find the courage to leave. She fought severe anxiety disorder that made certain things - like filing paperwork - incredibly stressful.

Financially, she had been dealt one of the worst hands in this country of plenty, often feeding her four children with only $50 a week. Yet at the same time, if someone needed help, she was usually the first one there, giving her all to aid others in need.

Physically? When I first met her she had weight issues - I thought she looked fine but she was not comfortable or happy with how she felt and looked. Later, when Chris became a Zumba instructor, she dropped pounds fast and was thrilled with her appearance. She had chronic pain issues, which was a subject we bonded over. And shortly before her death, she discovered she had food allergies. Cutting things like gluten out of her diet gave her a rush of energy and health that she honestly didn't think she'd ever feel again.

As a parent, she was an inspiration. Chris home schooled all of her children, and was active in a local home schooling co-op. I loved reading the stories of how she taught her children, especially when she had groups to teach. She was so creative and made learning fun, not a chore. More than once I wish I had known her when I was a kid, 'cause she would have been a fun adult for me to hang around with! She included her "little demon monkeys" in nearly everything she did, from errands to Zumba, cooking to gardening.

And speaking of her garden - oh boy, could that woman grow a seed or what?! When we first met, she was living in a little trailer on a small lot in a trailer court, and the amount of food she managed to grow on that tiny little speck of land was truly awe-inspiring. Her garden, and how she used that produce to supplement her family's food supply, was so impressive she was even showcased on a news report about the impact of food stamp decreases for dependent families.

She was an advocate for so many things, for so many people. She fought for the right to grow food in the yard, not just for herself but on behalf of others as well. She stood up for those in severe poverty and spent countless posts on her blog sharing ways to support a family with pennies. Every year she made certain to dry extra seeds so she could give them out to families to wanted to garden but couldn't afford the seeds to do so. I still have some of her seeds here and treasure them. Her fight for religious freedom was a quieter battle, but still one she fought with passion.

Chris made me feel lazy...and I mean that literally. I would sit at my computer after having done housework, feeling productive and a little smug, only to find that she had outdistanced me in every way. But she had a way of never making it feel like she was competing - rather, she seemed to be saying "Look, I lead by example - you can do it! Don't give up!"

Earlier this year, she made the decision to leave her abuser. She created a secret group on facebook to get support in her decision and help during the was a good group, and it helped her a lot. We shared so much on that page - horror stories, funny anecdotes, legal advice, words of encouragement, and so much more. And when her abuser used his wiles to get her to take him back, those of us in that group were able to comfort one another and renew our commitment to help her leave when she was ready.

Which she did, a few months later. She admitted she was glad she had gone back in a way, because it eased that nagging little voice in her head that accused her of not trying hard enough to save her marriage. That second time she left, that voice was quieted. The first time she had known in her mind that it wasn't her fault, but the second time she knew it in her heart, and she was at peace with the decision.

She moved on. Those of us who loved her were so glad to see her personality return. She was happy, laughing and celebrating life in ways I hadn't seen in a long time. She posted on her facebook page, "It is wonderful being me. I can look in the mirror and smile at myself everyday and I can enjoy the company when I'm all alone."

She cut her hair. She started wearing make-up again. She splurged on some new clothes and genuinely liked how she looked in them. She even started dating again. Everything that went right just made her joy soar higher, and anything that went wrong was handled with grace.

I am glad that she got to have those last couple months of joy. Nothing makes her loss easier to deal with, but at the same time, knowing she was happy? It makes me happy.

I didn't know her oldest son, Isaac, well. Since I tend to discuss a lot of adult-themed topics on my facebook page, I have a general tendency to not add minors as friends. But I did read posts from Chris about him, and I did see his comments on her page many times. My general impression was that Isaac was a lot like my teenage son, still growing and facing that confusion and angst that all teenagers experience, but at the same time he had a wry sense of humor and a genuinely wicked wit.

The one story that stands out in my mind is when Chris gave him the chore of folding laundry, he asked how she wanted the sham-wows folded. She was distracted and told him "Oh, any which way is fine." So he folded them into origami boats. She was tickled by that.

Our world is richer for having known them, and our world is infinitely poorer for having lost them too early. Rest in peace, dear ones, and know that your memories will live on in the hearts of those who knew you.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


I didn't want to believe the news at first. Still don't, to be honest. But it's clear that it IS real, and it's time to put to words the tragedy that befell my friend Chris's family last week.

Last Thursday, a cowardly, disgusting excuse for a human being entered her house. He wasn't supposed to be there. Chris didn't want him there. She was divorcing him. She was moving on. And he couldn't stand that. So he entered her house when he KNEW their three children would be away.

He had a gun.

And he used it.

I don't know who died first. Was it Chris? Was it her oldest son, who was not biologically related to the jerk who took her life? Did she have to see her child killed in front of her? Or did he have to comprehend the murder of his mother before his own life was violently ripped from him?

I don't know.

The not knowing hurts.

All I know is that Chris was murdered, and her son Isaac was murdered. The sorry filth that called himself her husband took his own life a short while later. I'm sure he thought that was romantic - the whole "I won't live without you" aspect of his suicide. But it wasn't (and if you are reading this and disagree with that statement - go get help. Now. Because you need it).

It's clear from certain aspects and evidence that he planned this. He planned to take her life. This was not a spur-of-the-moment act of passion. He waited until his own biological children were out of the home. He fought to get his guns back from the police, and within 24 hours of acquiring them, his crime spree was done. A part of me is sure he waited as he did for the cops to show up in response to the shots....and when no one reported the shots (why? why didn't anyone call 911? I'm sure the sound carried) he took his own life.

As if this wasn't bad if the pain this family was going to have to suffer wasn't sharp enough...some cruel imp of circumstance made it so that their six year old daughter was the first one in the door. She was confronted with the results of this evil. That is something no child should have to face.

Evil exists, folks.

It visited Lansing, Michigan on the 5th of December.

The bright light of two lives were snuffed out.

It's not fair.

Yes, I know. "Life isn't fair." But nothing can convince me that this is how they were intended to leave this world. Their lives weren't just ended, they were stolen and destroyed.

This post is for mourning. Grieving. For anger and horror, confusion and tears. This is my attempt to excise the come to grips with this senseless outrage that no one should have to experience.

I will tell more about Chris, and her son Isaac, in a secondary post, which I cannot bring myself to write yet. But it will be about their lives, not their deaths. It will be a celebration of their impact on the lives of their family, their friends, and their community.

But I can't tell that part yet. Today is for sorrow.

But I will say this. If you are in an abusive situation, please, PLEASE leave. Just grab your children and go. I will open my home to you in whatever way I can. And I am not the only one who is willing to help you.

Please, just go.

Leave. Before he hurts you again.

Before he hurts your children.

Before he decides it would be "romantic" for you to leave this earth together.

Before your friends and family have to deal with the enormous, crushing sorrow that the people of Lansing are experiencing this week.

Don't hide your bruises anymore.

Get help.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Gratitude day #13

Today, more than anything else, I'm grateful to have food in the house. My husband had an appointment at a church that offers legal services yesterday, and they also have a very large food pantry. While we have food in the cupboard, it's not enough to make it past the weekend, and we agreed that he would visit the legal help department while I would wait in line at the food pantry section.

That is, until we got there. There was a sign at the door, and a man who was turning people away who had come for food. They didn't have enough to meet the demand. He offered me an emergency bag - a small grocery bag with eggs and a couple canned goods - but I turned him down, told him to give it to people who were worse off than I am.

As I sat in the waiting room with my husband, I watched people get turned away. Old people. Homeless people. Families with young children. One woman hung her head and walked away with the emergency bag while her child sobbed "I'm hungry, mama!" while holding her stomach.

So today I am grateful - so grateful - that we have food in the cupboard, and that it will last until payday even though it won't last much afterward. I'm thankful that I don't have to hear my children crying in hunger tonight.

And I'm wishing I could bring that young mother and her hungry child out of the cold and give them oatmeal for breakfast, and soup with bread for lunch, and the biggest pasta dinner I can manage for supper. Because hearing that little girl crying tore my heart.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Veterans Day

Today I am grateful to all the brave men and woman who fought to preserve the principles this country was founded on.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Gratitude day #8

Today I am grateful for books of all kinds. I first learned how to read simple words when I was three, and once I got formal reading lessons I started to devour any and all types of books.

Reading books that were too large and complex for my age almost ended up getting me suspended from school when a teacher challenge my right to read The Clan of the Cave Bear.

Books have always been a revelation to me. I'll read anything. I follow medical journals online, blogs, certain authors, particular subjects - you name it, I'll read it. I enjoy everything from light romance novels to political non-fiction diatribes. I've read through the Bible multiple times as well as the Koran and books on Wicca, Buddhism, and other faiths. I get giddy when I get my hands on anthropological studies and archeology periodicals. My husband actually made me swoon one time when he put ten credits on my Paperback Swap account (each credit can buy a book, so that was a lot of new books!).

To date, getting a book is still my number one favorite gift, followed closely by crafting supplies and kitchen gadgets (yes, I'm weird).

Some of the people I have to thank for my love of the written word: my mother (who used to read to me with her finger under each word as she said it, which allowed me to recognize the repetitive patterns which lead to me learning to read). My teachers. Some very memorable librarians. My husband, who enjoys reading as much as I do. Thanks, you guys. You totally rock.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Gratitude Day #6 and #7

Both yesterday and today I was (and am) grateful for medication. I have a lot of health issues that have been kicking up lately; most importantly my hip/back pain and depression. Medication helps control both of those problems. Due to regularly taking my meds (which, trust me, is not something I've ever been good at before), I'm now much more positive and active, and as a result have lost 17 pounds in the last two months.

Oddly, I'm hoping that being on the medications will bring me to a state where I don't have to take pills daily anymore. The pain will ease off with weight loss, and my mobility will increase. More activity will mean more serotonin in my brain, naturally, so I'll be able to go off antidepressants.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Gratitude #4 & #5

I was exhausted last night and didn't have the energy to type. But I will say that last night, I was most thankful for my bed, and my fluffy pillows, and the layers of blankets I like to sleep with.

And today, I'm thankful for my pets. They provide amazing companionship and don't ask for much in return.

Ayla is the pet I've had the longest. In 2007, the kids and I were staying with a friend while I was getting back on my feet financially. We were walking back to her apartment after getting some groceries and we passed this marsh. I said "Listen. Do you hear the frog croaking?" Jacob looked at me like I was nuts and said "Mom, that's not a frog. That's a cat!" Well, after arguing it for a minute or two, I called out "Here kitty kitty kitty!" And sure enough, the plumed tail started bouncing through the marsh in our direction.

She was half-grown, and so thin you could see her ribs and hip bones behind the matted long-haired fur coat. She'd bounded through a puddle to get to us, and was soaked. It was October in Wisconsin and very cold, and she was shivering. But in spite of all of that, she was purring, thrilled to have found people. I carried her home, my friend was sympathetic, and she became a member of our family.


Gryphon showed up in the spring of 2008. I was sitting on the couch reading when I heard him meowing - though to be fair, it sounded more like screaming than meowing! His screams grew louder as the woman carrying him came up the steps to my door. She was a casual acquaintance of mine who knew I liked cats, and she thought I would adopt him. His mother's owner had threatened to kill her newest batch of kittens, and so she had taken the entire litter and was going to everyone she knew to see if anyone would adopt one.

Fast-forward five years and Gryphon is now a happy, mature cat who can still bellow with the best of them when he's in the mood (which fortunately isn't very often). He's currently fighting the battle against his tummy bulge.

Trouble came to us in June 2011. His mother lives down the road from us, and she had produced a litter of nine pups....but was only capable of feeding eight. As the runt, Trouble was often pushed out of the way by his siblings and wasn't able to feed as often as he needed. His mother's owner knew I fostered for a local shelter, and asked if I could help him. He was so tiny, and emaciated, and I made a deal with her that if I saved him, I'd get to keep him. He came home with me and pigged out on a can of wet cat food before collapsing into an exhausted sleep. He's been with us ever since, and is a boon companion who can always pull me out of a funk.

Trouble (as an eight week old pup)
 Bonus: Milo

Milo isn't really one of our pets...though he thinks he is. He was dumped here, quite literally, last September by one of our former neighbors, who found him and his sister abandoned in the home they were moving into. The neighbor's husband is allergic to cats, so they couldn't keep him. His sister managed to get out the door and run off, but they captured Milo and brought him here. We reluctantly agreed to care for him for two weeks while she looked for a permanent home for him. We never heard back from her.

Milo is still looking for his forever home. He loves catnip, enjoys playing with the dog, and is thrilled to chase the laser pointer as well as any pesky bugs that fly into the house when your children forget to close the door. He loves to cuddle with his human to sleep at night. If you would be interested in giving him a forever home, please contact me.

Milo, cuddling with Trouble

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Gratitude Day #3

 Today I am grateful for technology.

There are some things I like more than others. For example, I LOVE my washing machine. Utterly love it. I've been in positions before where I've had to wash clothing by hand...and washing the clothing for three children plus yourself in the bathtub every night, wringing them out by hand, and then hoping against hope they will be dry come morning? Yeah, don't miss that at all. Now I can just toss the clothes in the washer, add some soap, and push a button. That's it.

Another thing I'm grateful for is my computer. Being able to access the internet is such a blessing. I can stay in touch with family and friends, look up answers to my questions, share cute/funny/important life lesson links with my children, and even blog.

One of the new ways the internet has come to impact my life is the way my husband has started using it to stay in touch while he is at work. He sends a series of emails the night before his shift, and they are numbered. In the morning, I open email #1 to find a set of instructions plus links to things that are designed to make me laugh, or cry, or think. Also in each email is a time to open the next one on the list.

And the emails aren't all just chores, either. Sure, some of them will say things like "Don't forget to start the roast in the crock pot" or "please organize the desk; it's getting a bit cluttered". But others will say "If the kids have been behaving, sit down and watch an episode of Star Trek with them" or "after the kids go to bed, run a hot bath and add the bath powder I bought you, and take a nice long soak". And oftentimes the links he sends during the day are funny enough to share with the children, and he will occasionally leave a message for them, too - so even they get to enjoy the emails.

This enables us to feel close to him even when he is working his long shifts (his normal shifts are 24 hours long). And knowing he took the time to create these the night before makes me feel loved. I'll post some of the images he's linked to that the kids enjoyed.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Gratitude day #2

I'm fighting off a bit of a flu bug, so today I am grateful for my health (usually). My body has issues - I'm overweight and losing it is a struggle. I have fibromyalgia, and deformed hips, and lower back issues that make mobility difficult.

But you know what else I have? I have two legs. Two arms. Hands that can create beautiful things and delicious meals. My body has grown three children to term (and seriously, when I give that any thought, the miracle of it still awes and humbles me). My skin is clear, my face is attractive, my hair is thick and lush.

I have eyes that can see. Ears that can hear. A nose that is particularly sensitive, which comes in handy identifying seasonings and ingredients. I took that one for granted until I met my husband, who was born without a sense of I appreciate everything I smell, knowing some don't have that ability.

And best of all, I have a higher-than-average intelligence that allows me to enjoy learning. Research is, oddly, one of my favorite things to do. I love reading, learning, growing, expanding - mind puzzles, philosophy, conundrums, etc. I would be utterly bored without my brain!

So today I am grateful for my health, and my body - the blessings I have been given far outweigh the negatives.

Friday, November 1, 2013

30 Days of Gratitude

It's a sad fact of humanity that we tend to focus on the negatives. We allow them to bloom and grow in our mind's eye until they seem like great concrete barriers that would take a wrecking ball to bring down. In the meantime, the positives in our life tend to be taken completely for granted, and even worse, ignored.

The simple fact is that dwelling on negatives brings on negativity, while celebrating our positives can bring beams of light and laughter into the darkest corners of our psyche. And yet most refuse to acknowledge the blessings in life.

Today I discovered the 30 Days of Gratitude Project. It's to run through the month of November, and each day you focus on one of your blessings. I love the idea of this project and thought I would do a brief post each day for everything I'm grateful for.

Today, on the first day of November, with the rain and cold pressing in outside our windows and the air carrying a taste of winter, I find I am grateful for our home. I know I've complained about it before, and it does have flaws. But all in all, I've lived in far worse places, and not many nicer ones.

We live in a small cottage-style house (at least that's how I like to think of it - architecturally, it would probably fall under the definition of ranch style, loosely). The 960 square feet include the living room, kitchen, bathroom, and three bedrooms. I've bemoaned the tininess of it before, but honestly, when I think about it, I like the size of it. It doesn't cost too much to heat or cool, due to the size of it, and it's got a coziness and comforting feeling that would be lacking in a larger, more open home.

It's also got it's touches of beauty. The hardwood floor was installed right before we moved in. The two large windows in the living room are flanked by two built-in bookcases that make my book-loving heart sing. Every room has windows (I've lived in places that didn't), and the windows are all double-paned (again, I've lived places that had single pane windows).

Can I see room for improvement? Oh yes! But I'm not going to focus on those aspects today. Today is the day to be thankful for what this home represents and provides for our family.

(I discovered, to my surprise, that I don't really have many pictures of our house from the outside. The only one I found was taken after the winter blizzard in early 2011, our second winter in this home. I took it more to show how high the snow had gotten, but now, looking at it, I realize it also shows a sense of comfort. "It's cold outside, yes, but you can come in any time and warm up.")

P.S. If you want to join the 30 Days of Gratitude project, they do have a facebook page here.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Grown-Up Sloppy Joes

I've been meaning to post this recipe for a while. My first introduction to this recipe was on a Food Network show which toured different restaurants and featured their most popular dishes. This one seemed simple, wholesome, and yummy, so Sean and I decided to give it a try. It got several thumbs up from our gaming group (which consists almost completely of hungry college students) and requests for seconds and thirds from our children. Clearly a winner!

Grown-Up Sloppy Joes
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 cups of diced carrots
1 cup of diced celery
1 large onion, finely diced)
2 tbsp. nutmeg
1/2 tbsp ground cloves
1 tbsp. ground cayenne pepper
8-12 cloves of garlic, finely diced (depends on your personal tastes)
3 lbs of ground beef (with low fat content)
1/2 cup of brown sugar
1/2 cup ketchup
1/2 cup tomato paste
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
Worcestershire sauce to taste

Start out by cooking the carrots, celery, and onion in the olive oil until soft, about 5 minutes. Toss in the garlic for an additional minute. Add the salt, nutmeg, cloves, cayenne pepper, and beef, cooking until the beef is browned through. Do not drain the juices, and do not brown it into too small of pieces! Add the rest of the ingredients and allow to cook on low for 30 minutes to get all the flavors married together (I usually end up throwing the entire mixture into a crock pot on low for a few hours - the flavor cannot be beat!). This makes a HUGE amount of sloppy joe mix, but thankfully it reheats beautifully and I cannot see a single reason why the mixture can't be frozen for up to three months. Would make a wonderful frozen meal to pull out on busy days when slaving over a stove for hours isn't feasible.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Amazing what $50 will get you!

I got to go to the thrift store yesterday (can you hear me squealing in glee?) - and even better? I got to go without my husband (which is fantastic because he HATES shopping). I rarely get to go on big shopping spree (and trust me, even though I only spent $50, for me that's a huge spree. Enormous!)

A badly needed sewing basket with metal and wooden handle.
A small board with seven pegs (to be used for dishcloths in the kitchen).
A larger board with two pegs (to be used for aprons, which I plan to sew up soon).
An old-fashioned oil lamp with metal base (needs polishing).
A shallow wooden crate (to be hung in kitchen on wall, used as shelving).
A new small purse (my leather purse is showing damage from the winter cold).
A wicker and wire egg basket (not sure if I'll actually use it for eggs though...).
A hanging stoneware pot (thinking I'll hang it by the crate in the kitchen to store garlic bulbs).
A cute stoneware creamer with spout, plan on using as a flowerpot for wildflowers.
A set of three wire strainers (badly needed as I tend to make stock a lot).
A stoneware bowl, blue (not sure what I'll use that for yet).
Another wire basket with a glass inside for small candles.
(not shown) two matching blue stoneware bowls which are the new cat dishes.

Almost everything I got was a need rather than a want. For example, the two matching stoneware bowls weren't shown because they are already being used for my cats. Poor kitties, their previous dishes were old and chipped, and Ayla actually cut her lip against one of the chipped edges last week. Clearly the cats needed new dishes.

Sometimes, though, a girl just needs to buy something beautiful for herself - something not needed. A want. For me, my want was the little blue stoneware creamer. I love to have flowers on the table and I don't really have any kind of vase. And I hate traditional vases. That pretty little blue creamer is just perfect, and I can't wait to fill it with some bright daisies or yellow tulips.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Poverty Simulator

 A week ago, Sean found an article about a site called The article claimed that the site was "designed to help people understand the challenges and trade-offs faced by low-income people with insecure employment.  The “game” begins when you’ve been unemployed, have only $1,000 left in your bank account, and need to get a low wage job."

"Interesting," I said, a bit distracted as I was playing tug-of-war with the dog. "Bookmark the article for me, I'll go over it later."

I completely forgot about it until yesterday morning. I decided I'd give it a go, see how I did. And on my first try, I survived the month with $572 dollars left over. "This is easy." I thought. I mean, seriously, how could anyone fail this?

Then on a lark I posted the link to my facebook page and challenged my friends and family to play and post their results. Within minutes, I got a response from an old high school friend. "I ran out of money on day 10."

Flabbergasted, I replied "Yikes! What did you do???"

She responded "No clue LOL did it on my phone...will have to try it on the computer."

As the day went on, more of my friends responded:

I made it through with $44 but rent is due tomorrow. Lost my job though. Ouch."

I already played this in real life..."

I made it to the 26th. Would have been fine but got caught up on the question of what to do with my pet. Working on the premise that this was real life, I don't have anyone who can take them, and I won't take them to a shelter. So I "paid" it and went broke."

Final result, $105 but rent is due and I need a root canal that I can't afford. I know it was fictional, but I felt a little sad when I had to choose between seeing my child star in the school play or make an extra $50 for groceries. It's eye opening and makes me realize how truly blessed I am to be able to buy fresh, healthy foods, health care, and all the little extras we take for granted."

I was surprised by the variation in the answers, so I went back in and played it a few more times - each time making different decisions and seeing how it affected my ability to survive. I did fairly well overall, but how much of that was because of growing up poor, learning to make do or do without? My husband had a slightly better financial upbringing than I did, so I had him try it.

He failed - spectacularly - not even making it to day 8.

I feel like this is a great program to have young teens go through (in fact, one of my FB friends stated she was going to have her kids try it) as well as for people who have always been decently well-off (which to me means earning over $1200/year per person in your household). It's a real eye-opener for those who have never really given poverty much of a thought.

I decided to call my dad and have him run through it over the phone. He almost immediately gave up. Not because it was too hard, though! Rather, he took issue with the realism of the program. "$800 a month for rent? That's unacceptable - just put down that I pitched a tent in a field or something." Well, the program didn't have a "pitch a tent" option, nor even a "live out of my car" option, so he refused to go any farther.

I could understand his frustration with the simulator - I had a few issues myself. For example, there was an option to either spend $30 to wash your clothes at a laundromat, or you could choose to wash your laundry at a friend's house. But what if you don't have any friends with washers or dryers? I've been in that situation, and I ended up washing my clothes - and my children's clothes - in the bathtub by hand, and then wringing them out as best I could and hanging them around the apartment to dry. And that was in a dinky little one-bedroom apartment that I shared with my three sons and a roommate.

That's just one example of the limitedness of this program. For those who have been poor and survived it, the struggles cited are realistic, but the options to solve them were restrictive, limited. Poor people have to be creative in order to survive (I say this with a wry grin, looking off to the side of my computer at the old sweater I am cutting up to make mittens for my younger boys). I've had to sew my own clothing, patch kids jeans and readjust hems for growing children. I've had to ride the bus to the grocery store with three children (and then try to carry all our groceries home in one trip). I've eaten plain baked potatoes for dinner every night for a month, because I was able to get a great deal - 30 lbs of potatoes for under $5 - and thus was able to let my children have my share of the meat for the month. Being poor is a lot of work!

And yet, remarkably, many Americans romanticize the fight of people during famous poor eras our country has experienced. The Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Great Depression, Rosie the Riveter during the World Wars, so on and so forth. If you are poor during a time of national crisis, you are admired for suffering for your country.

But if you have the misfortune of being poor during a "normal" time period, your struggles aren't romanticized or admired. Rather, you are treated like a lazy good-for-nothing pimple on the armpit of society. I know. Because I've lived it. 

I've been yelled at by a total stranger in the checkout line for buying an $8 bakery cake for my son's birthday - how dare I spend HER tax dollars on such frivolities? I should get off my lazy butt and bake a cake from a mix. I wanted to yell at her that I'd happily do that if I had a working oven, but I knew better than to stand up for myself - the last time I had done so I got banned from the store for being rude to customers. When you are poor, you just have to grit your teeth and bear it.

The simulator on doesn't bring up the shame of being poor, or the frustrations and the exhaustion and the worry...but it does introduce some of the stress to those who need to understand it. I would ask those who read this post to try the simulator and then post your results in the comments.

We could all use a little more understanding in this world.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Making do on a tight budget (food pantries)

Today is a kitchen day. What is a kitchen day, you ask? Well, a kitchen day is a day where I spend at least five hours working in my kitchen. Today, however, is a slightly different day because instead of my normal cooking, baking, and processing, I won't know what I'm going to be working with until we get the food home from the food pantries.

Food pantries are a wonderful resource for those on a limited budget with hungry mouths to feed. They take in food that stores, restaurants, and farms that would normally be thrown away, and distribute it to those in need. The problem, though, is that most of the food is about to expire or already did. So every time we have a food pantry day, I have to do a ton of work sorting out what can and cannot be used.

First and foremost, the meat. All meat needs to be inspected for signs of damage, rot, or other things that would make it unusable. Oddly, almost all the meat I get from food pantries show signs of freezer burn, which means I need to thaw it and cook it immediately if it's going to be of any use.

So right now I have three pounds of corned beef in the crock pot, ten pounds of chicken legs and thighs in the oven roasting, three steaks thawing in the fridge (yeah, steaks - not your usual food pantry offering but I'm NOT complaining), and five pounds of sausage patties. My plan is to cook and shred the chicken, which can then be frozen in such a way to avoid freezer burn and used for multiple meals over the next several days. Ditto with the corned beef - what doesn't get eaten tonight will be leftovers for another day. The sausage patties look good so those went into the freezer. The skin and bones left over from roasting the chicken will be used to make stock.

I always ask for fresh produce. Food pantries get a lot of produce donations and most people don't want it, so when I make it clear that I do, indeed, use fresh produce regularly, I tend to get bombarded with the stuff! Sadly, about half of it is unusable. Example? I got about five bell peppers that are dried up and wrinkled, with a faint smell of rot emanating from the stems. Yeah, I'm not going to use those. Ditto with the rusted lettuce and the brown ends of the green onions - though the bulbs and lower stems are still edible.

There are always a ton of processed things like mock maple syrup, pancake mix, boxed mixes (like Jiffy mix) that I can't eat because it flares up my fibro. All those things get put in a box to be taken to my neighbor D. Her family loves those things - and in return she gives me stuff she gets from the pantry that her family won't touch, like gouda and other high-end items (again, no complaints here). It seems to me like an odd unbalanced system because I end up getting all the good stuff, but D feels the same way about her trade, so it works out.

One of the biggest contributors to food pantries are bakeries, and thus we always get more bread than we could possibly use. Wheat bread, white bread, fancy baguettes, doughnuts, brownies, cookies galore - usually all a day or two past their use-by date. Still edible, and when the bread gets older I can make bread pudding. Either way, it's always nice to be able to take a break from breadmaking for a couple days.

Lastly, candy. You would be shocked at how much candy they give out at food pantries! Just from the one pantry we went to this morning, we got enough candy to fill our largest mixing bowl to overflowing - everything from Oreos and candy bars to Easter peeps and bubble gum. Those items get handed out in small amounts over the month, so they last.

All this is from one pantry. We have another one to visit tonight...and the whole process starts over again. I feel blessed that this is an option for struggling families in our area!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Help brings back memories

I avoided reading "The Help" for a long while. I didn't really give myself a reason why. I knew I would read it at some point and had to wait until I was ready for it. And then yesterday afternoon I picked it up and started. I would read whenever I could between gaming, cooking dinner, cleaning, etc. I finished it this evening. And now I understand why I was avoiding reading it. It made me remember a lesson I was forced to learn as a Yankee child growing up in Texas.

I was a tomboyish child. I ran faster than the boys and climbed trees higher than the boys, and when the boys pulled out their BB guns they wouldn't let me take a turn because they knew I'd show them up. I really didn't like playing with girls my age because they all seemed focused on boys and sex and Barbie dolls, stereotypical girl activities that just seemed boring to me. I'd much rather go outside and get dirty and feel the blood pumping through my body as I ran.

At that point in my life, I had only ever had one girl friend, Kathy, and I had lost touch with her after we moved to Texas. And in Texas, we moved around a LOT. But in my tenth year, we moved to Jonestown, Texas, and I met another girl who was a tomboy like myself.

Michelle was brilliant. She ran as fast as me, so sometimes I won a race and sometimes she won, which seemed just and fair. She loved to climb trees and she loved animals, too, and we both loved listening to Michael Jackson. We were the same size - both of us short for our age - and we swapped clothes all the time. My mother worked but Michelle's mom stayed home, so I found myself hanging out there after school whenever I could. I was loyal to my mother's cooking but felt that Michelle's mama came in a close second place.

Summer was nearing its hottest point when I asked Michelle's mama to do my hair up like Michelle's. I remember she gave me an odd look and asked why. I told her I liked the idea of having my hair up, out of my face and off my neck in this horrid heat. She said she'd do it, but only if my mother said it was okay. So I called my mom and had her talk with Michelle's mama, and I remember she still had that odd look on her face, and talked in a hushed voice so I couldn't hear what she was saying. But when she hung up, she smiled brightly at me and said "Your momma said it was okay. Go on, Michelle, and fetch the box of ribbons."

Oooh, I loved the box of ribbons. It was a fairly big box with all sorts of lovely hair accessories. I was just girly enough to want to be pretty, and in my mind the prettiest hair of them all was Michelle's, with all those barrettes and ponytails and ribbons. Michelle's mama sat me down in front of her and just ran the brush through my hair a while. "I never felt hair this soft before," she said quietly, and Michelle and her brothers and sisters had to all touch my hair.

That was the first time I learned that it wasn't just our skin color that was different. Our hair had a different texture too. And I quickly learned that my scalp was far more sensitive, as getting it pulled into tight cornrows hurt like hell. But I endured, determined to have the same hairstyle as my best friend.

We also realized there was another the cornrows grew more numerous, the paleness of my skin began to shine through. The rest of my skin was tanned a dark brown from the hot Texas sun, but my scalp, under the thickness of my hair, had remained lily-white. "We need to do something about that," Michelle's mama murmured. "Otherwise you are gonna get sunburn on top of your head."

"I know!" Michelle was jumping up and down. "Use the henna you put on your white hairs, mama!" Thus I ended up getting henna smeared on the freshly exposed regions of my scalp, until the skin matched the color of my tan. I jumped up and looked in the mirror, and grinned. My hair was in pretty little cornrows, all neat and even, and I loved the feeling of the little braids with their barrettes brushing against my back. Best of all, when I went outside with Michelle, I could actually feel a breeze on the back of my neck for the first time in months.

Michelle and I decided to ride our bikes down to Lake Travis and practice skimming rocks. We flew down the road towards the lake, passing some beautiful large houses and then into a neighborhood with ramshackle homes, with garbage in the yards and rusted cars in the driveways. I'd been this way once before, but never with Michelle. My mother had disdainfully referred to this neighborhood as "Redneck Central" and we usually rode our bikes the long way around. But it was so hot and muggy that we didn't want to ride another six blocks to avoid it. Giggling, we slowed at a corner to look both ways.


I blinked in shock as something hit the back of my head and started dripping down onto my shirt. A moment later, a head of rotted lettuce struck Michelle's shoulder.

"F*cking n*ggers! Get away from our property!"

I turned to look. We had stopped at a corner by one of the miserable looking shacks, and a kid a few years older than us had thrown the lettuce and whatever it was that had hit my head. He was wearing a black tank top and torn jeans, and the start of a scraggly beard was hanging limply from his chin. "Get your black *sses out of my sight!" he screamed, then reached into the garbage can by his side and pulled out a couple of used tea bags, and threw those in our general direction. I felt frozen to my bike, unable to move.

The screen door behind the boy slammed, and his father came out. I felt a moment of vindication - surely his daddy would paddle his butt for such behavior, swearing and throwing things like that! But I was wrong - way wrong. The man stooped down and picked up a large heavy stick from the yard and started walking towards us with slow, steady steps, a wicked smile stretching across his face.

My shock was broken when Michelle grabbed my bike handles. "Let's get out of here!" She looked panicked, and it was that expression on her face more than anything else that snapped me out of my paralysis. We both flew into action and pedaled faster than we ever had before, out of that neighborhood and away from the corner of confusion and hate.

We arrived at the lakeside, breathless and sweating. I took off my sandals and sat on a rock, dangling my feet in the water. Michelle sat next to me and I turned to her. "Can you believe that? What the heck was their problem? Do you think they were drunk or high or something?"

Again, the look on her face stopped me. It was almost identical to the funny look her mama had given me when I had asked her to do my hair. "What? What am I not getting?" I knew from her expression there was something I was missing.

She let out a big sigh, and then grabbed my forearm and held it against her own. "Look at our arms," she instructed. "What do you see?"

I looked for a difference. "Um...I have more hair on my arms than you do?"

She sighed in exasperation. "Look at our color. What do you see?"

For the first time, I really looked at the difference. "Well, what do you know?" I laughed. "I'm tanned nearly as dark as you are!"

"Exactly! And with your hair up like that, those white men thought you were black too."

"Wait. You mean...they were racist?"

She rolled her eyes. "Well, they certainly weren't open-minded, now were they?"

"But....but racism doesn't exist anymore! Martin Luther King got rid of it long before we were born! It's illegal! ...isn't it?" The realization was hitting me now, and my eyes were filling with tears.

My friend just sighed, and turned my head to look at the back of it. "You have egg yolk in your hair." She pulled something from my scalp and handed it to me. It was a piece of eggshell. "Sit in the water and I'll wash it out."

I sat there as my best friend in the whole world washed rotten egg out of my hair. And I cried. It was my first experience with racism. I lost some of my innocence that day, and some of my faith in the belief that the world was a good place for all people. I realized that I was afraid - afraid to ride my bike back in that neighborhood, afraid to see those people again. Afraid to feel their hate beating away at my soul. And when Michelle quietly began to undo the cornrows that I had been so proud of?

I let her. Because I was afraid.

And I realized, when I finished reading The Help, that this memory was the reason I had avoided reading the book. That long-ago memory of blind hate, the sudden nasty realization that I didn't live in a fair world, the fear - the mind-boggling fear that those people would show up at my house with sticks to beat me - and the realization that my best friend in the whole world had to live with that fear EVERY was just a lot for a ten year old to handle. Some days it feels like it's too much for me to handle now, and I'm in my mid-30's and a lot more jaded about the world.

I strongly recommend reading this book. Sometimes we need that jolt, that sudden impact of knowing that the rest of the world doesn't follow the same morals we do. That in some places, there is still racism and prejudice of all kinds.

It will never change as long as people turn a blind eye.