Sunday, October 23, 2011


We all tend to think of inflation as a rise in prices. In fact, rising prices are a result of inflation.

Inflation is an expansion in the money supply.

Money supply expands when it is created into existence without a corresponding rise in goods and services. Like when the Federal Reserve quietly injects more than 20 Trillion dollars (by some estimates) into the banking system over a three-year period. The money did not come from anywhere. It didn't exist until the Fed said it did.

When there are more dollars, but there aren’t more goods, (like gasoline, sugar, and corn) the prices of those goods rise because there are more dollars competing for an unchanged number of goods.

In the end, goods have not gained value. They aren’t more valuable today than they were last year. Instead, the value of the dollar has fallen. It buys less than it did before.

Expansion in the money supply = currency losing value. That is why prices are so high and rising.

For more comprehensive information on inflation, see John Williams' Shadow GovernmentStatistics .

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

On Poverty

Several weeks ago I read a comment responding to an article about the “plight of the poor” in the US. The respondent was a paramedic who regularly made calls in public housing areas. He said that he was discouraged by parents who had big screen TV’s, expensive clothes, and other costly items sitting around, but couldn’t seem to come up with money (or be bothered) to buy Motrin for a feverish child or get them to a doctor. He took issue with their choices and priorities. I see his point.

I got me thinking about poverty and money management. There is a difference between being poor by statistical measures, and living poorly.

Admittedly, we all come up short from time to time. Emergencies can catch us off guard. The car loves to break down when the bank balance is lowest. There is a line between having enough to meet your needs and falling short of sufficient income. There are some costs that cannot be further reduced beyond a certain point. There is also a point where it becomes possible to get by. Whether or not you can do it is up to you.

In some cases, a very low income will undoubtedly mean an impoverished life. But in other cases, is it lack of income, or poor money management, that causes poverty? How is it that some couples who collectively make about $100k per year have so much trouble paying their bills that their lights and water are regularly turned off, while others making less than a quarter of that keep the bills paid?

A lot of people live in “technical” poverty. Their incomes are low enough to qualify for public assistance, but they don’t seek any. Yet they live fairly well. They certainly aren’t miserable. It isn’t a fancy life. It means doing without sometimes, making things yourself, cooperative efforts, finding things at thrift shops, and not having the newest and latest electronics. Some people call it “living within your means”. It often means redefining what it means to live well. It means shutting out the noise that tells us we need more and more, that we deserve newer, bigger, better.

What it comes down to is being really, really careful how you spend what money you have.

You can be impoverished because you just don’t have enough money. You can also be impoverished because you don’t manage what you have. Know the difference.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Do It Yourself Sweet & Sour Sauce

I love Chinese food. One combo plate can be stretched for 3 or 4 meals. Still, the money can go a lot further at the grocery store. Sigh. Responsibility is such a drag…

Let’s face it, inflation is strangling budgets in most households these days. Going out to eat is a getting more rare all the time. So when hit by that sweet-and-sour chicken craving, it’s time to get creative.

Armed with search engine, the perusing-of-recipes begins. I never knew that sweet & sour was so basic. It’s made up of just a few ingredients:

Vinegar (White vinegar*, rice vinegar or rice wine. Cider vinegar could work in a pinch too.)
Soy sauce

*Note on vinegar: white vinegar turned out to be far more potent than cider or balsamic vinegar, so use less (by half even) or dilute with an equal part water if you go with white vinegar. (Edited May, 2012)

Yep. That simple. Of course, there are infinite variations and additions, but this is a good starting point. This “Betty’s Kitchen” video has a really good explanation of the process:

Betty's Basic Sweet & Sour Sauce Recipe

Here is her ingredient list:

1/3 cup rice vinegar
4 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 tablespoon ketchup
1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons cornstarch
4 teaspoons water

However, I wanted to go a little more exotic, so I used pineapple juice and balsamic vinegar, with a little clove thrown in. It has a Far Eastern flavor to it.

Juice from a 15-1/4 oz. can crushed pineapple (Save the pineapple. Reserve a few tablespoons juice to mix with the cornstarch.)
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup ketchup
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1.5 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 tsp ginger
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp cardamom


Mix the cornstarch with a few tablespoons pineapple juice in a small bowl to avoid lumps. Place the remaining juice from the can of pineapple, sugar, vinegar, water, soy sauce, ketchup, spices, and cornstarch mixture in a medium saucepan, over medium heat, and bring to a boil. Stir continuously until the mixture has thickened. I know, I know, it takes forever to come to a boil and you’re sooooo tired of stirring. Hang in there. It’s worth it.

Once it has come to a boil, it will be thicker, smoother, and clearer. Add the pineapple to the sauce at this point. My version is not red like others, due to the balsamic vinegar, but very tasty nonetheless. If color is really important, go with white vinegar. I might not have balsamic next time, so it will probably be different.

Instead of ketchup, cherry jam or preserves work well. Use more if you go with preserves because of the whole fruit. If color doesn't matter, try other tart fruit jams/preserves, like apricot or peach.

This particular recipe makes a lot, so I’ll be bagging up a good bit and freezing it.

I served it over some pork roast. Very yummy. I’d just as soon dispense with the bread coating on most sweet & sour dishes. Add in some rice and you’ve got a rounded out entrĂ©e. Enjoy.

It’s well within our abilities to live well despite the assault on the value of our dollars. It takes a little time, (about as long as the trip to and from our favorite Chinese take-out place) and some practice. But we CAN do it. I used to be afraid to make my own bread. There have been some colossal failures, believe me. But with practice and experience there have been some amazing successes as well. Homemade sweet & sour sauce is just the latest “try something new”.

Go ahead. Give it a try.

I dare you.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Wellness & Prevention

When I first wrote about this elsewhere a few years ago, few people had experienced what I was talking about. Now, a lot more people have run into this phenomenon as primary medical care changes over to “preventive” services. The following is a fictional account, but it bears resemblance to actual experiences.

A trip to the doctor’s office nowadays:

Doctor: “Hello, I’m Dr. Smith. How can I help you today?”

Patient: “Well, I’m here about my foot. As you can see, it’s swollen and black and blue. I tripped going up the stairs a few days ago, and it’s steadily gotten worse.”

Doctor leans over to look at the foot. Winces. “Uh-hmm." Straightens up and focuses on patient record. "I see here on your record that you’re a few months overdue for your annual PAP smear. Lets make sure you get scheduled for that before you leave.”

“Um, we’ll see. Now, about my foot…”

“Yes, it does look bad. Maybe you should elevate it.”

“I have been every chance I get.”

“I see here on your blood tests that your blood sugar is nearing the pre-pre-diabetic stage. We’ll need to schedule a series of tests to see if you might be a good candidate for medication.”

“You know, my foot really hurts.”

“Hmm, yes. Oh, I see here that you haven’t had a mammogram recently. Just tell the receptionist and she’ll get you set up for one.”

“Look. I’m having trouble working because I can barely put any pressure on my foot. I can’t even get my shoe on. I’m afraid that I might have broken something.”

Doctor shrugs. “Uh-hmm. Now, I’m concerned that your cholesterol numbers are little on the pre-high side. We’ll need to monitor them every month to see if you might be a good candidate for cholesterol medication. You don’t want to develop heart disease now, do you?”

“I came here to get help for my foot. It’s very painful. I’m getting really concerned. There’s a red streak going up my leg. I’m scared.”

Sighs. Rolls eyes. “We’re getting away from the disease treatment model. We’re a wellness organization now and we focus on finding diseases you don’t have yet.”

“So what about my foot?”

“We want patients to take responsibility for their health and realize that there are consequences for poor decisions. You really should be more careful, you know.”

“Do you mean to tell me that I can’t get treatment for illness and injury here anymore?”

“We believe that prevention is the very best health care. Make sure you see the receptionist about scheduling those tests on your way out, after you pay your bill. Nice talking to you. Goodbye.”

“But what about my foot?”

“Oh, and don’t forget that mammogram. You don’t want to get breast cancer, do you?”

Dr. Smith disappears.

“Hello? Anyone?”

Unspecified assistant-type arrives.

“Miss, we need you to leave so the next patient can come in. Do you have any questions before you leave?”

“Yes. Can you point me to the nearest Emergency Room?”

Monday, August 1, 2011

Politics As Usual

I did my very best to avoid the As the Stomach Turns/Debt Ceiling Follies headlining the DC Congress-theater this summer. I did not succeed. Everywhere I turned there was a new headline blaring the latest installment of Budget-Hostage Negotiations: 2011.

I didn’t agonize over “will they/won’t they?” I already knew the ending. The debt ceiling would be raised, just as it has been every year since it was “established”. I viewed it as history repeating itself. It reminded me of the “hold the budget hostage’ follies in the mid-1980’s, (and mid 1990's and...) when federal paychecks were delayed so they could be added to the next year’s budget instead of the current one. That clever accounting sleight of hand sure fooled everyone, right?

And then a really appalling realization hit me: I’ve been around long enough to see history repeating itself. I have been around long enough to conclude that things will never change. The players may change, but the nauseating show just goes on and on and on.

I used to believe that Congress was making progress in running this country. Now I don’t think they’ll ever fix anything. They’ll only make it worse.

I’ve come to appreciate the irony applied when naming new laws. I know that one (hypothetically) named “Widow & Orphan Assistance Act” would ultimately cut benefits to widows and orphans while increasing subsidies to life insurance companies. I know that one (hypothetically) named the “Automobile Safety Act’’ would have little impact on passenger safety while making sure that well-connected car makers are safe from competition. Wonderful, wonderful irony.

Whatever moniker they give a bill, I assume it achieves the opposite. Makes life simpler. That way I don’t get my hopes up.

I know I’m echoing almost any member of the populace who’s been paying the slightest bit of attention when I express my disgust with the latest show. Few of us have emerged from this travesty without a really bad taste in our mouths. It has been one of the most depressing episodes of As the Stomach Turns in recent history.

Beer, anyone?

Nah. I think this calls for Tequila.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Homemade Laundry Detergent: Wow

I mentioned in a previous post that I was planning to make my own laundry detergent, and that I would report on the results.

Results are very good. My blue jeans are bluer, whites are whiter, and other things are cleaner than they’ve been in a long, long time.

Big Plus: It doesn’t make me itch.

I’ve been using the special no dyes/no perfumes versions of laundry detergent for a few years now, as I found that most “regular” detergents make me itch or break out. They don’t seem to work as well as their more colorful or fragrant counterparts, but the trade-off was worth it. Now I don’t have to settle any more.

It started with some Internet research for recipes. While the proportions vary widely, the basic ingredients are the same:

Bar soap
Washing Soda

The majority of recipes call for mixing the ingredients with large amounts of water, but the powder version takes up a lot less space so I’m going with dry.

You can also add: Trisodium Phosphate, available in the paint section of any hardware store. It helps detergent rinse out of your clothes better, especially in hard water. You can also add about 1 teaspoon per load to store bought detergent to get clothes cleaner. (There are some that hold that phosphates are harmful to the environment, but there is little scientific evidence to support it.)

The proportion I settled on is: one part grated bar soap, two parts borax, and two parts washing soda. I used Fels-Naptha laundry soap ($0.97 at Walmart), 20 Mule Team Borax (about $3), and Arm & Hammer Washing Soda (about $3). Washing soda is sodium carbonate, as opposed to sodium bicarbonate, which is more commonly known as baking soda.

At first, I hand grated the bar soap. This takes a while and makes a mess. The soap is light and flies all over. Be sure to cover a large area with newspaper or something if you want to contain the mess.

Next, I mixed it with the powder ingredients. It doesn’t mix perfectly, so you’ll need to stir it every so often. If you look closely you'll see the darker yellow soap flakes not mixed uniformly with the white powders. Not to worry, it works anyway.

In my first attempt, I had a 1-3-3 proportion of soap-borax-washing soda. I concluded it might not have quite enough soap. Time to reformulate. I started out grating the bar soap by hand, but gave up and used my food processor. I broke the soap into small chunks using a sturdy serrated edge paring knife, and then put the chunks and some washing soda in the processor. It takes a good solid minute or two to grate the soap down, but that’s a lot less effort than hand grating, with finer results. It rinses out of the processor very easily.

Here is the recipe as it stands now:

1 bar Fels-Naptha Soap (makes about 1 cup grated). Ivory or Zote work too.
2 cups washing soda
2 cups borax
2/3 cup trisodium phosphate (TSP can be found for about $6 for 1 lb, $11 for 4 lbs.)

Use just 1 tablespoon per load of wash. Seriously! 1 tablespoon.

5 2/3 cups dry detergent can do about 90 loads. All for about $4. And it WORKS! Really, Really Well.

If you like fragrance, you can add essential oils or other fragrance bases. This works best in the liquid versions.

Something that is very clear from my research: the detergent companies tell us to use way, way too much detergent per load. That’s probably why it makes us itch and causes a host of other problems. Try using less and see how it comes out. You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised.

The directions on the box for borax and washing soda say to use ½ cup for a load of laundry, but that’s excessive. You don’t need that much. I guess if you have some stubborn stains, you could add a little more borax to a load, but there’s no need to go overboard. Both cleaners can be used around the house too.

Good Homemade Laundry Detergent Links:

or just look up "homemade laundry detergent" on the net.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Paycheck Blues

Yesterday I was looking at one of the government “jobs outlook” sites. I’m currently studying to be a crime analyst, and the outlook for the job is very good. (Yay!) Then I pulled up the salary statistics for the field, which had both national and local ranges. I then compared the city I live in to others in the state and around the nation.

Not only is pay in my city the lowest in the state, but it was also the lowest, by more than 20%, of all the other metropolitan areas around the country.

Average pay rates in my city are about 79% of the country’s average.

The cost of living here is about 96% of the country’s average.

That’s an appalling difference. Somebody’s making out like a bandit, and it isn’t me!

No wonder I feel like I’m not getting anywhere! Not only am I slogging on the treadmill, but it also has extra weights on it.

I’ve read a lot of articles that talk about the national average hourly pay, which is well above my current rate, and wonder what I’m doing wrong. I feel marginally better knowing that everyone else in the area is also being horribly underpaid.

Then I wonder why we put up with it.

When I finish my degree, I’m getting out of here!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

It would be so easy

Although I have posted some of my schemes to live well on a low income, it isn’t something I’d like to continue indefinitely. Low-income living has its drawbacks. It’s hard on your teeth and credit rating.

Toward the end of improving my income, I am working toward earning a bachelor degree. I generally like the classes and the material. However, each session takes a little more self-discipline than the last. There are times when the readings are boring and assignments are due, and I find myself saying:

“I am so not into this right now.”

I find myself thinking of other productive (or fun) things that I could be doing.

I am also beset by doubts. I wonder if I’m wasting my time and money pursuing a degree that may never lead to the sort of employment I seek. I get A’s and I’m on the Dean’s and President’s lists, but will it be enough? Will my age keep me from being considered for a good job? Will it all be a colossal exercise in futility that in the end only increases my student loan debt? (Not by a lot, the school is very reasonable.)

There is also the specter of needing to pull up stakes and move to another area of the country for a new job. The idea is both exciting and scary at the same time. It means leaving behind family and friends. It means leaving the known for the unknown. It means taking a big risk.

It would be so easy to just stay in the same job and the same place. Life is usually tolerable, and I know my way around really well. It would be so easy not to try to do better. I could consign my hopes and dreams to the realm of “unlikely anyway” and simply exist. I could pursue crafts and needlework projects to suit my artistic drive. I could try to find some marketable form for my creations, or not.

It would be so easy to just give up. It would be so simple to accept the position the work world seems to want me in, despite my experience and qualifications. It would be so easy to stop fighting and hoping for something better, only to be disappointed yet again.

It would be so easy to throw up my hands and say “never mind!” as young guys who dropped out half way into the first semester of the program I worked my tail off to finish, with honors, get offered well paid jobs in the field. (On the other hand, the same guys seem to be back to flipping burgers in less than two years, so maybe I’m not missing much.) It would be so easy to just quit trying.

It was easy to justify staying where I am, not-so-professionally, as I finished the task of raising my children. But I can no longer use that excuse. So I need to decide: do I want to remain in my marginally safe, tolerable, predictable existence, or do I try to achieve a new plane of existence? Well really, I know the answer. I want to move on. I want to pursue a better future. I sometimes despair that it will always remain beyond reach; that all my efforts will be in vain. I fear that I will be forever consigned to barely-getting-by.

But it would be so easy to stay there.

Despite the doubts and fears, I keep slogging on, determined to finish this degree. On the weekends when I’d far rather be doing anything but schoolwork, I still finish my work and do it well.

That means hope is still stronger.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Goose, goose, duck!

Here's my new purse!

Okay, it's not quite a purse yet. I'll post pictures of the finished crocheted product(s).

I like the bright colors for summer. The purse should be easy to find in the dark.

I make my own purses because I can get exactly what I want. The cost of the 4 balls of yarn is just $7.50.

Rosey and I went to the "old" Walmart the other day to find some black socks (and the yarn for my new purse). A flock of Canada geese has inhabited the parking lot for the last decade or so. There are a few retaining ponds, and the traffic at the store is fairly accommodating to wildlife. The birds are definitely herd animals. If one starts walking to the other side of the parking lot, most of the flock is sure to follow. There will be a long line of waddling geese traversing the lot. Traffic pretty much comes to a standstill. This is especially fun to watch when the babies are small and fuzzy.

On this last trip, my daughter noticed an flock member of a different feather, speckled brown ones to be exact. Happily pecking away at the ground along with the geese was one lone female mallard duck. She looks tiny next to the geese. Is she an honorary member of the flock or simply happily coexisting? Did they adopt her? Does she think she's a goose? Points to ponder.

Low Income Life Experiment

I'm embarking on an effort to make my own laundry detergent. It involves bar soap, washing soda, and borax. Some people like to dissolve the ingredients in water, others just use the mixture dry. I'm going to try dry first.

Evidently you can make dishwasher detergent with just the washing soda and borax.

We've noticed that since phosphates have been removed from dishwasher detergent, our stuff isn't getting very clean. I've tried adding trisodium phosphate,and it does okay, but we hit upon something better. We put the detergent in the uncovered soap well, then fill the covered one with plain old baking soda. Our dishes are now clean, clear, and shiny. The silverware is looking better too. This is a wonderfully inexpensive solution.

I'll let you know how the laundry comes out and what recipes work best.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Pewter Panther’s Brush With the System

He was sprung from the joint at 6:13 pm on Tuesday. Bail was set at $450. He’s scheduled to appear in 10 days. Staff took care of the financial details and met him for out-processing.

Boy, was he ever glad to see his staff.

He does not like that jailer-dude. At all.

Further indignity was visited upon him as staff tried to put him in the transport cage. He displayed his acrobatic prowess and grew three extra paws to lever against imprisonment. He was outnumbered. At least they took him away from the joint.

Forced to endure a ride in the car, he made sure staff was aware of his disapproval all the way home.

Later, staff cornered him and forced vile potion on him.

Buffy, a ginger tabby who is also his litter mate, is still hissing at him.

All in all, it’s good to be home.

Staff’s version of events

Our gray shorthair cat, Smokey Joe, a.k.a. the Pewter Panther, was acting weird and wouldn’t eat so we took him to the vet. They kept him overnight. They called late in the afternoon to say he could go home. He has to eat special food and take amoxicillin. He likes the special food and doesn’t mind the medicine mixed in. No more vile-potioning.

The folks at the vet office call him Grumpy Joe. He really gave them what for. Normally he is the friendliest, most sociable dude on the block. We call him the Doorman because he sits out front and greets everyone who comes by. People all over the neighborhood know Smokey. Even the mailman knows him. Everyone, from the little old ladies next door, to the big tough-looking guys down the street, stops to talk to him. The tough guys look around first to make sure no one is watching, and then they bend down to pet and talk to Smokey. When finished, they straighten up and resume the tough/cool stance. It’s fun to watch.

Smokey’s feeling pretty good but he hasn’t resumed his post yet. If he goes too many days without doorman duties the neighbors start asking if he’s okay. We live in that kind of neighborhood. I still marvel at our luck.

Of course, the bail money was originally slated for car maintenance, but I held off. I listened to that sixth sense that said I’d need the money for something else. Is it a Mom thing? Does it go with being broke most of the time? (Broke means you have a job but no money once the bills are paid. Po’ means no job and no money. Important distinction.)

It’s funny how things work out.

Ditch the parenting magazines.

One of my favorite gifts to give at baby showers is a big, thick beach towel. One with vivid colors and a busy design. It’s not traditional but it’s really quite practical. Aside from its obvious purpose, it has several other uses for new parents:

1. Babies love bold designs and bright colors. Beach towels are fun to look at.
2. They’re perfect for wrapping up wet, wiggly babies.
3. They make really warm blankets that are easy to wash.
4. They can stand in for mattress pads on those nights when the baby is sick.
5. They last a long time. As the child grows older the towel can take its normal place as a beach or pool accessory.

I also tell new parents not to read any of the parent magazines. Seriously. Don’t even look at them. Throw them away in between the mailbox and the house. No peeking. Send them to the guy who heats his house with junk mail. Pass right by them at the grocery store. Check out the tabloids with stories about the movie star's love child by Sasquatch or alien house cats in Peoria instead. Your time will be better spent.

Parent magazines are not designed to help us be better parents. They’re designed to make us feel inadequate. They chip away at any confidence we might have so we’re more prone to buy the many products advertised in between the articles detailing the hidden dangers posed by Velcro on bibs or the glue used in books made before 1981. (Fear sells. Just ask a politician.)

Being a parent is stressful enough. How can something that makes you even more stressed be helpful? How did parents manage to raise children without being informed of the danger posed to a child’s self esteem non-gender-neutral toys? How did any children ever survive to adulthood without the plethora of safety devices every toddler’s parent is supposed to install in their home or places said toddler might explore? How else would a parent know that everything they think and do is absolutely wrong? Parent magazines to the rescue! They’ll show you how to be the perfect parent!

Phooey!! Perfect is not an option.

Making sure you have all the newest-and-most-correct toys, tools, and devices won’t help you be a better, saner parent. Trying to keep up with the latest fads in child-rearing techniques won’t produce a problem-free child. Neither you nor your child will be perfect. You’re human beings. Perfect is not on the table.

Opt for happy instead.

Even if you’re one of those super-organized, highly energetic people, you’re not going to be able to do everything. Focus on you and your children, not whether the house looks like the set of Leave It to Beaver. Remember: Trying to live up to false standards set by people who have no skin in the game is a losing proposition. It just distracts us from what really matters.

I will confess that I’m no housekeeper. My place was always a mess (and still is). My kids were always clean and they wore clean clothes. They ate off clean plates and slept in clean beds. I figure that covers what’s really important. The rest you catch when you can.

So stock up on beach towels and throw out the parent magazines (or delete the bookmarks to the their sites). The towels are more useful and way more fun.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Teamwork Is Essential Part II

The traditional American family is the mother-father-children unit. It is considered the “norm”. In fact, less than half the family units in the country are two-parent households.

And yet, those families that are not traditional are considered “broken”. The reality is that “non-traditional” families are the norm.

Forming your family into a team is essential to surviving as a non-traditional family. There are a lot of social pressures out there to view single parent families as invalid, broken, or somehow lacking. You need not accept the labels.

I visited a local church once and attended the Sunday school class for “Single Parents”. The premise of the class was that single parents are poor quality parents who need constant help just to be mediocre. It also assumed that single parents would never achieve full quality levels. I haven’t been back. I was incensed by the automatic assumption that divorce had negated all of my parenting skills in one fell swoop (or that marriage somehow made poor parenting less of a problem).

Social pressure is why it is essential to build your family unit into a strong team. Schools have a tendency to treat children in non-traditional families differently than they treat kids from “traditional” ones. Kids themselves will make an issue of the difference in status between traditional/non-traditional families. It’s unfair. It’s not supposed to happen, it might not be politically correct, but it is an unfortunate reality of single parent life.

Don’t allow the social power brokers to marginalize you.

If you and your children feel like you’re members of a strong family unit that be depended on, you’ll be better equipped to resist the social negativity. Encourage your kids to help each other. (They will naturally anyway.) Design chore assignments as a team effort. Making beds is a lot easier when two people do it. Have one child hand dishes from the sink to another loading the dishwasher. Younger children can help sort laundry. They can put things in the dryer if someone taller takes it out of the washer. The point is to make each family member part of the process, which builds stronger bonds. Doing things together is what’s most important.

There are forces on the world who are constantly trying to undermine family cohesion. Tribe and family ties are some of the strongest on the planet. They have survived many different governments and economies. Families are the single biggest competitors for a laborer’s time. Family values are not compatible with the political and economic aims of people in power. There are many ways to isolate people from familial ties, technology being one of them. Single-family homes and a highly mobile workforce are isolating forces. Encouraging adult children to move out on their own by a certain age, regardless of economic stability, is another. The latter standard has been around for less than a century. It seems like the norm, but it isn’t.

Difficult economic times tend to emphasize the importance of family. When the chips are down, sometimes family is all you have. I know people who never thought they could live together peacefully are now managing to do so for survival. Individual autonomy takes a back seat. Avoiding conflicts and the need for “our own space” tends to fade in the face of survival challenges.

Being poor can strengthen families. If sharing is the only way that some things can be enjoyed, then sharing is what will happen. Having to share televisions and computers can lead to conflict, but it can also teach us how to work things out. Kids who know how to share will pool their resources, and maximize benefit for everyone. So don’t worry if you don’t have the standard number of devices in your home. The kids will survive and thrive. They’ll find cooperative ways to achieve their desires.

And load the kids in the car and go to the park for the afternoon. They’ll whine and complain, but that’s what kids do. It might be not be “cool” to have to hang out with siblings and parents. It might be lame to take hikes on nature trails and see ducklings, tadpoles, and turtles in the mud. Being caught having a picnic with your family by a classmate (who, by the way, is out with family too) might be embarrassing. But, the things your kids will remember are the hikes, the parks and the picnics, far more than when they were being “cool”.

Don’t be afraid to be a full-fledged family, even if certain social forces want to define you as otherwise. You and your kids have the right to a rich family life. You’re the coach and the captain, so making it happen is up to you.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Waiting to Download

One of the classes I’m taking right now is about geographic information systems. It’s necessary to download a trial version of ArcGIS software for this class. The file size is 3.75 Gb.

That’s GIGA bytes.

Even though my internet is theoretically supposed to have a 3.6 Mbps pipeline, after a few minutes of downloading at about 500Kbps, the speed dropped to around 70Kbps. That means 11 hours or so of downloading. All day long. I understand why the theory and practice don't coincide, but good grief!

Positive note: It wasn’t too long ago that it took all day to download 10 megabytes, only to have the server reset when you had 9.9 Mb downloaded.

As the evening approaches, so do thunderstorms. Severe ones. Luckily, Firefox has a download manager applet that allows you to pause a download, then resume whenever you like, even if you shut down the system in between sessions. You don’t have to start over. So when the storms got close, I paused the download, and turned off/disconnected the computer equipment. About 30 minutes later, the power went off. It didn’t come back on until after midnight.

Enter the Fur-People, a.k.a. Four-Footed Tyrants

As kids get older, they are out of the house doing their own thing a lot of the time. It should be a time of peace and non-interruption. Alas, it is not to be. I have two cats and a labra-beagle. They seem to think it is their bounden duty to take up the slack where my children have left off. They shower me with love, affection, and demands for attention when the kids aren’t around. I’ll never be lonely. Sigh.

They also live by routine. Rigid routine.

Which is why the ginger tabby was tapping me, the gray shorthair was saying “Ahem”, and the dog was shaking her collar and flapping her ears at 5:45 this morning to remind me that it was nearly breakfast time. They have no concept of the sanctity of weekend mornings.

But it worked out this morning. I fed the pets and started up the computer to finish downloading the software at high speed. So we are all happy campers. Tummies are full and the download is complete. Getting the software to recognize the authorization code the ArcGIS people sent me is another matter. One battle at a time.

That is not to say that once the feeding is done they leave me alone. They come get me at 8:30am because I really should be up by then, don't you think? My daughter gets until noon. Then she too is commanded to rise.

I thought I was in charge. I'm supposed to be. What happened?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Attitude is Everything

Every so often I come across a poster or magnet or some other decorative item that tells me that life is 10% what happens to you and 90% attitude. What is attitude? It comes down to how we respond, internally and externally, to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes” (Hamlet). Do we take a position of victimhood, or do we retrench, make new plans, and move forward by a different path?

First, it’s necessary to examine how we respond to obstacles internally. It’s easy to beat ourselves up over things that are, in truth, beyond our control. Learning to separate the things we can control from the things we can’t is key to changing our attitude. We can’t do much about another driver’s bad behavior when they cut us off in traffic, but we can change our response. We can ask:

“How could they do that to me?” (victimhood)

Or we can say:

“Geez, that was a lousy thing to do!”

We can acknowledge that the bad behavior is theirs, and then let it go. For some this may not seem to be an important distinction, but it is. It moves us from taking responsibility for what is not ours, to putting the responsibility where it belongs. It lifts a great weight from our shoulders.

As we learn to cast off that which is not our responsibility or in our control, we also have to learn to accept responsibility for that which we can control. Facing our own accountability can be humbling at first. It means we no longer get to blame others for things we are causing ourselves. But once we get it all straight, we have far greater power in our lives.

Once we have the internal processes working in the right direction, we can change what we do externally. We can take action that helps instead of hinders. In the case of the jerky driver, we can take steps to make sure we aren’t involved in a collision because of his or her driving, and feel good about it.

Let’s extend the driving analogy. Instead of focusing on what goes wrong as we drive through heavy traffic, we can celebrate what goes right. Appreciate several green lights in a row. Be thankful when someone lets you in to their lane. Even if most of the ride is frustrating, we can be grateful if we get to our destination in one piece. I know this can really have a positive effect on my frame of mind.

Now I’m not saying it’s always possible to be upbeat. Some days it seems like all I do is grit my teeth over one thing after another. Changing our attitude takes practice, and we’re not always going to get it right. My attitude is being constantly revised. Maybe I can start my life when I get the attitude thing straight?

But then, another part of a good attitude is forgiving ourselves for not being perfect. Life isn’t perfect, people aren’t perfect, and we shouldn’t expect ourselves to be perfect either.

Monday, June 6, 2011

On Worrying

Teamwork II is still a work in progress. Patience.

I used to be a championship worrier. I worried loyally, with dedication and diligence. I’d worry about bills that were a little late right up to the day I was able to pay them. In the early years following my divorce, there was plenty to worry about, and I excelled at it.

I think we somehow get the idea that worrying is a virtue, that we’re being true to our friends, relatives, and society if we worry when and how we’re supposed to worry. Rubbish.

So here’s the thing:

Worrying Doesn’t Change the Outcome.

It just makes the journey needlessly stressful. As time passed, I gradually realized that worrying didn’t help. The key is to turn worry into problem solving. I went from feeling helpless to feeling like I had the tools and means to work things out. I learned some coping strategies along the way.

Some things haven’t changed all that much. There are still too many bills and too little money. There are still hurdles presenting themselves every day. But I no longer worry about them. Bills that are due are listed in a spreadsheet then left alone until payday. I let them out of my mind until I can address them constructively.

What’s really better now is my attitude. The things that overwhelmed me in my 20’s no longer crush me. Even if I have less spending power than I did a few years ago, I’m much better at managing it now, and it feels like I’m a whole lot better off.

All of this took time and experience. Only a few people are so lucky as to have it all at a young age. The rest of us have to come to it the hard way.

Getting older has its perks.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Single Parenting: Teamwork is Essential Part I

It’s perfectly natural to want to shield your kids from the effects of divorce. There is a very strong inclination to try to maintain their lifestyle as much as possible. You want their lives to be the same as they were before separation.

Except it isn’t the same, and it never will be.

If you’re facing a significant decline in income, you need to set a workable budget as soon as possible. You may have to face the fact that lessons, soccer, and other activities may need to be curtailed or even eliminated. You may need to revamp your food strategy by cooking a lot more at home and passing right by Starbucks.

Most importantly, you need to sit down with your kids and have an honest discussion about the changes that need to be made. Talk about what’s possible and what isn’t. They’ll whine and complain about how it just isn’t fair, but that’s what kids do. They’ll adjust and thrive.

You may need to replace a teenager’s iPhone service with a pre-paid cell phone*. It isn’t as cool as an iPhone, but it gets the job done. You may have to do away with extended cable. Upgrading game systems when new ones come out may no longer be possible.
* Yes, I know you could do away with cell phones, but they are an absolutely essential communication tool for single parents. No guilt here.
This is also when you need to find your spine and reinforce it.

The good news is that you’ll all be fine without the extras. Really.

You also need to realize that you can’t do everything by yourself. You’ll drive yourself to exhaustion and insanity. This is where teamwork comes in.

You and Your Kids Must Form a Team

You are the coach and the captain. Your kids must become team members who help out and make things run smoothly. Trips to the grocery store must be a team effort. If they’re small, have them get lightweight, reachable items off the shelf and put them in the cart. Show them how to find things in the store. When they get older, you can send each of them to different parts of the store for different items. Have them help put items on the conveyor belt. Have them help put bags in the cart and load the car. They should help unload and put away groceries as well, within their abilities. They’ll whine and complain (at first) about how it just isn’t fair, but that’s what kids do. They’ll adjust and thrive.

And when they move out on their own, grocery shopping won’t be a big mystery.

Initially, forming a team takes some extra time and effort, but the results are well worth it. Remember that spine.

Because you really, really, can’t do everything by yourself.

More about team building in part II.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Used Book Stores & Other Great Inventions

There is a large used book/media store in our city that has been a favorite destination for years. They sell used books, cd’s, video tapes, dvd’s, and textbooks. They also carry game systems, ipods, and graphing calculators. It’s a really popular place. Most of my book collection comes from there. My kids have an impressive collection of movies, all purchased at this store for $1-$3 each. Game systems and a few ipods were purchased there too, at a large discount over new retail.

My kids don’t worry about the fact that they don’t have the newest and fastest. They just enjoy being able to have movies, game systems, and ipods.

We also have pre-paid cell phones (and no landline). One can be had for as little as $10/month (or less if you just want to carry one for emergencies).

Thrift stores are the favorite destination for fashion. Why pay $45 for a sweatshirt when you can find one gently used for $6? We’ve found some of our favorite clothes at thrift and consignment stores.

It is possible to live well on a small income. But you have to give a few things up.

Like “status”.

Or rather, the illusion of status.

You can’t buy all your clothes at the Gap. You won’t have the latest-most-up-to-date fashions. You won’t be able to keep up with your friends and neighbors. You may have to put up with a few snide comments about pre-paid cell phones. (As if paying 3 to 10 times more for the same basic service makes them superior.)

Soon, you’ll begin to realize that status doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as you thought it did. People aren’t paying as much attention as you think they are. If friends and associates are judging you on how much you spend, you may need to rethink your associations. Pleasing others who have no skin in the game is a losing proposition.

Which brings me to another point:

Pride Has No Nutritional Value

Status is related to pride. It’s something we achieve to stroke our pride. But you can’t put pride in a bowl and serve it for supper. Everyone will go away hungry.

So you have to let it go. I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s a multi-step process. Eventually you’ll begin to understand there is no need to be ashamed of not living up to an essentially false standard. You’ll discover inner resources you didn’t realize you had. You’ll start to really “get” that how you treat others is far more important than what you wear and drive.

Once you let go of the false gods of status, you’ll discover a whole new world. A far better one.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

There’s no such thing as an EX-Marine.

Once a Marine, always a Marine. There are no ex-Marines, only former Marines.

I am a former Marine. I joined the Marine Corps out of high school to play in the bands. I’m proud to claim the title.

I was in Platoon 2B, L Company, Women Recruit Training Command, Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, SC, for basic training. I arrived on October 18th, 1983, at oh-dark-thirty in the morning. By mid-morning I was burning up because I’d worn a turtleneck and an all-wool sweater. Luckily, I got to trade them in for camouflage utilities and combat boots by the late afternoon.

It was an experience. Nothing much like I’d expected. It was hard but never beyond my capabilities. You don’t think of basic training as a lot of time in classrooms, with notebooks and tests, but that’s what a lot of it was. Of course, there was the rifle range, physical training, marching, and all the great stuff that goes with boot camp. Every minute of every day (and night) was dedicated to training. No wasted time. Literally.

And, boy, did they ever emphasize “acting like ladies” all the time. Along with classes on rifles and gas masks, we had etiquette and poise classes and makeup classes. We were required to wear lipstick and eye shadow every day during basic training, mind our manners, sit up straight, and represent the Corps as ladies. We spent more time ironing our uniforms than we did cleaning our rifles. That isn’t the case now. Women go through the same training the men do from start to finish. No more checking for fresh lipstick.

You think I’m kidding. Not so. We really did have to wear makeup in basic training. The colors they gave us were atrocious. They really complimented the black cat-eye glasses. We were something to see.

I’ve been to some really cool places. I marched in the 1984 Tournament of Roses Parade. I lived in Hawaii for 3 years. I was stationed in southern California for 15 months. I liked it there. There is so much to do there.

I’ve learned not to bring it up when I first meet people. People won’t talk to me anymore if I mention being a former Marine. I wait until they get to know me first. A few HR people have accused me of lying about it. “You just don’t look like you could have been in the Marine Corps.” Do they think I faked the DD-214 (discharge papers)? Do they think you have to be 6 feet tall and built like an oak tree to be in the Corps?

Being a former Marine colors my attitudes. I have different concepts of professionalism and pride. I have more patience for some things but less for others. It’s an important part of who I am. The few, the proud, the Women Marines.

Semper Fi.

Check out for the history of women in the Marine Corps and other cool stuff.

About Me and the Reason for This Blog

"Life is what happens while you're making other plans."

I've been separated/divorced for 18 years now. I've remained single through that time. More on that later.
 A bit of history: My ex-husband left when the going got tough, telling me he "just wasn't having enough fun". At the time my kids were 9 months, 3 and 6 years old. They are now 19 (Rosie), 21 (Middy), and 24 (Dude). Dude had meningitis when he was 4, lost hearing in his right ear, and he has some speech difficulties. Rosie had a congenital heart defect that, luckily, was repaired and considered cured when she was 8 months old. Both of them spent a lot of their childhoods catching up from these big setbacks, but are doing pretty well now. Middy is married to a guy who loves her very much and she works really hard at two jobs.

As I slogged through the day-to-day of getting my kids through school and launched toward better futures, I dreamed of the days when I could start living my own life. You know, get a good, well-paid job that doesn't need to work around school hours, evenings to myself, the ability to put something away for retirement, and generally become the boss of my own life. Freedom from the constant needs and demands of others. The ability to make plans or do things on the spur of the moment.

That isn't to say that I/we haven't come a long way since 1993. When my ex first left, I had a minimal roof over my head, a $32/wk job, and child support of $70/wk. I confess, I was terrified at first. Efforts to find a job/affordable child care combination were not successful.
 My ex, of course, had it all planned out. I was to find someone who would watch the kids for $45/wk--he knew someone whose neighbor did that for them--and get a job at one of the manufacturing plants for $12/hr. He planned to be relieved of child support obligations within 6 months. Oh well...
We spent a few years on public assistance. It was a great help. Particularly fun were the nasty glares from cashiers when I handed them food stamps. Oh, the glory days. But now I live in a small rented house in a decent neighborhood and it's pretty nice. Rosey and Dude live with me while they attend local colleges. I work full time at a low-pay, dead-end job, but we don't need public assistance and we live pretty well. It isn't fancy but it's a vast improvement over other times.

But I figured I'd be doing better by now.

In the intervening years I've earned two associate's degrees and I'm working on my bachelor's. None of it seems to count. I really want to break out of the low-income bracket. Here's hoping the next degree makes a difference.

Anyway, I'll be posting on being a single mom, the challenges of a low-cost life, older kids, work, and whatever else comes up. I have a lot stored up.

I might as well do something while I wait for my real life to begin.