Friday, December 31, 2010

Salmon loaf

Here's some of what's been happening:
  • My husband and D put together a model plane that he got as a Christmas present and D had a chance to fly his glider outside. Thanks Aunt K and Uncle J! C likes the model plane too, by the way--she and her dad are working on a large paper model of a Piper Cub. She had a smaller one hanging from the ceiling of her bedroom in Washington, DC as a preschooler, but it was crushed during our move to Texas.
  • My husband successfully polished some very scuffed shoes with a homemade attachment on an electric drill. There's a version of the method here at Instructables, "How to polish your shoes like an absolute psycho."
  • Tonight's dinner was salmon loaf. I slightly changed the recipe here, although on second thought, this longer version looks better. I saw a couple versions with Saltine crackers as the filler, which I found off-putting. Google's suggestion was to do a search for a recipe using oatmeal, which sounded like a good idea, so I looked for recipes with oatmeal as the filler. I made the first recipe, changing the cream of celery soup to reduced sodium chicken broth. I offered a variety of different condiments (pepper, sweet and sour chili sauce, lemon soy sauce and ketchup). I would have liked to serve lemon wedges with the salmon loaf, but we were all out. I was definitely concerned that the kids weren't going to like it, but both asked for seconds. I think the kids have been getting more adventurous over the Christmas break, which is very nice. We have five more dinners left until the cafeterias open.

Sweet potato latkes

Here's some of what's been happening:
  • As expected, although fun, Wii Sports Resort is pretty passive and unathletic compared to Wii Fit and Wii Sport. My husband's method of dealing with this is to set the manual treadmill up in the living room and do Wii Sports Resort activities while moving on the treadmill.
  • C bought a paleontology kit from the children's museum store and has successfully dug out a tiny megatherium model (that's a gigantic prehistoric ground sloth). She also bought a very pretty amethyst point.
  • C has finished her Kumon Grade 2 Addition workbook.
  • For dinner last night we had sweet potato latkes (with choice of either maple syrup or powdered sugar) and ham. C liked them, but D expressed disappointment. He was obviously expecting something more pancake-y, rather than a food item closely related to the hash brown.
  • D is thinking of storing his wallet under his dragons.
  • This morning, we woke up to baking bread. My husband put it in last night. It's a very effective half-whole wheat French bread. It has a nice heft without being dry.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tofu fried rice

Here's some of what's been happening:
  • My husband took our car to a new mechanic's to inquire about some brake squeakiness. They said there was nothing wrong, cleaned it up a bit, and charged nothing. Diogenes, hang up your lamp!
  • C has been multiplying fractions and has just gotten to dividing fractions, which she says is easy. She still has some trouble with remembering to simplify fractions.
  • My husband took the kids to the children's museum. Awaiting their return, I threw together some fried rice for dinner. It looked regrettably like a dog's breakfast with all the beige ingredients and the microwaved veggies, but the kids liked it very much, which is very unusual with dinners involving tofu. Here's what went into it: a box of firm tofu, soy ginger sauce, leftover curry sauce from yesterday's Thai meatballs, brown rice from a couple of days ago, a microwaved bag of mixed Asian veggies, and three fried eggs. That made a very full pan. I set the table with lemon wedges, green onion slices, some cilantro, unsalted peanuts, sriracha chili (untouched) and Vietnamese sweet and sour chili sauce. The tofu fried rice was very tolerable with all of those garnishes and the sweet and sour chili sauce and somehow tasted vaguely like pad thai, despite the lack of bean sprouts or noodles. That's another dinner down, with only two more to go for December.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Johnny Tremain

Here's some of what's happening:
  • C finished reading Johnny Tremain.
  • This morning, we met two neighbor families at the zoo. It was a grey, sporadically wet morning, but we covered a lot of ground. I'm told that the toddler next door is now the proud owner of a tarantula, a Christmas gift.
  • For dinner we had an adapted version of the "meatballs in panaeng curry sauce" from Nancie McDermott's Quick & Easy Thai (which really is). My husband tweaked it a bit, subtracting the salt (we find that curry paste is plenty salty), substituting ground turkey for ground beef and adding fresh ginger root and leftover sweet potatoes from last night. I served it with leftover brown rice and microwaved frozen broccoli. The kids loved it and asked for seconds and thirds. I'm not quite as excited about it. It is very easy, though, which is worth something.
  • For bedtime snack, I was getting ready to make brownies from a mix when one of the kids (C?) suggested we top it with peppermint. I had a dish of broken candy canes on the table, so I set the kids up with a cutting board, a rolling pin, and a mortar and pestle. Ultimately, the mortar and pestle turned out to be the right tool for the job. It produced fragments of peppermint candy cane of exactly the right size. The kids and I sprinkled them over the pan of unbaked brownie and I put the brownies in to bake. During the baking process, the candy cane bits mostly melted away, but the resulting brownies are festive and subtly minty. I'm happy with it.
  • We've still got nearly a week to go until the college gym, Starbucks, and the cafeterias reopen. Live by the college, die by the college.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Post-Christmas

Here's some of what's happening:
  • We held back one Wii game for today. The past few days, the kids have had free rein with their new Wii games and I'm afraid tomorrow is when we start cutting back to refamiliarize them with the material world. After mid-afternoon snack today, we informed C that she needed to do 30 minutes of reading to qualify for more screen time. There was a lot of wailing in response to that, but eventually C settled down to listen to E. Nesbit's House of Arden.
  • C has been enjoying the Connect Four set that we got her for Christmas. I've played a couple of games with her, appreciating the simplicity of the rules (it's like a big game of tic-tac-toe). The game was heavily advertised on TV when I was a wee thing, so it's nice to have a chance to finally handle a set. I'm thinking of buying several more sets and having it be our January game for our board game club at school. It's a significant investment in money and space (we have quite a number of other games in multiple copies for the club), but we can keep reusing the games every year as long as we are running the board game club, and then donate the excess sets at some later point.
  • For Christmas Eve and Christmas dinners, I've been setting the table with all of the lanterns that I've acquired over the years (a Christmas penguin, a little house that you can put aromatic oils in, one painted glass tea light holder from D and two tissue paper stained glass lanterns from school). I somehow didn't put out a nativity set this year, but I pulled out C's advent wreath from kindergarten CCD (it has pipe cleaner wicks for candles that you turn up to signify them being lit--I have a somewhat morbid fear of actual open flames at home). For decorations, we've also got our Christmas tree and the traditional display of Christmas cards.
  • C has read the first two Black Stallion books over break. C really locks onto books she is interested in reading, but between books, it's very hard to interest her in a new one. Both kids are also hostile to the idea of going to the library (although I think C's position has softened quite a bit toward the school library and she is reading a lot at school). In C's case, that's because she wants to actually own the books. I'm certainly open to buying her books, but I'd first like her to demonstrate that she actually likes them. What my husband and I tend to do is to provide concierge service for library books. We got to the libraries by ourselves and select a pile that we think will be of interest. This is particularly crucial to do during long school breaks. D hasn't quite learned to read yet and is in an anti-book phase, but I managed to persuade him to let me read him some of Where the Sidewalk Ends this afternoon when he was complaining of nothing to do.
  • It was 27 degrees first thing this morning and it's 38 degrees this evening. That's cold for here.
  • We went to the college Catholic chaplaincy for Mass this morning. There are a number of other families that we know there (from school and as former neighbors), which is nice. There were some recycled stuffed animals under the Christmas tree there, and the pastor invited children to take one. D got a big mama kangaroo with baby joey, which is the one I had my eye on. C already got a panda a week or so ago.
  • For lunch my husband made whole wheat pancakes with coconut milk. It was from a mix, he just added the whole wheat, eggs, and coconut milk. We're out of cow's milk.
  • I've finished my preliminary study of Anupy Singla's The Indian Slow Cooker: 50 Healthy, Easy, Authentic Recipes. I was marking the recipes that seemed most promising (tasty, not too much trouble, don't require special ordering too many spices). I really like the idea of combining the slow cooker and Indian cooking and quite a number of recipes sound really good, but I confess that on the whole, I would prefer that somebody cook them for me instead. I have made a list of items to order online or look for in the big city: Patak sauces (not in the book, just being realistic here), garam masala, fenugreek seeds, cardamon pods, cardamon seeds and dried methi seeds. Aside from the cardamon seeds, I have only the faintest idea of what most of these things are. I'm backburnering this project, although as a long time fan of kheer (rice pudding with cardamon often found in Indian lunch buffets), I'd like to get my hands on some cardamon seeds.
  • My husband and I finished watching Ekipazh (Air Crew) last night. It's a Soviet movie, part family drama, part action thriller, about three heroic Aeroflot pilots. Not Oscar material, but I liked it. The depiction of a late 1970s bachelor pad is worth the price of admission.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Day

Here's some of what's happening:
  • D built a block Stonehenge.
  • C is enjoying Wii Sports Resort.
  • After lunch, my husband took the kids hiking in the big city park while I walked around that early 20th century neighborhood near downtown, making Christmas phone calls and looking at houses. The house that recently listed for $165k has a SOLD sign out front. The houses in the neighborhood that I like are now either $180k or $200k. I'm hoping that in a few weeks, we'll have some new listings in the same price range as the house that sold.
  • For dinner, we had ham, sweet potatoes and brown rice.
  • My husband made an apple pie after our walks, based on this recipe. He used Pillsbury crust and replaced the cider vinegar with more lemon juice. Furthermore, he used surplus crust to cut out little Christmas trees with stars and applied those to the top of the pie. Very cute! I used some surplus apple filling from the pie recipe to make a small apple crisp. I sprayed a mini-loaf pan with PAM, placed the apple filling in the pan, and then added a topping that I created using two packets of instant cinnamon oatmeal and some softened butter. We each had a very small portion of that after dinner, and now everybody's waiting impatiently for the pie.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve

Here's some of what's happening:
  • We've just started watching Julie & Julia tonight. As expected, the Julia Child segments set in Paris are fun, while the Julie-in-NYC segments drag.
  • We made a last-minute grocery trip this morning at a better HEB. There were huge displays of tamale accoutrements, it being that time of year. I saw sugar cane for sale and got a stick. It's a bit dangerous to crack open with a knife, but it's very yummy to chew the sugar cane pulp.
  • The kids cleaned up the living room, my husband brought in the tree, we all decorated the tree (our collection of ornaments grows without any effort at all on my part), my husband and I wrapped gifts, the kids did much of the vacuuming in the living room (a real treat for them!) and then they carried in the gifts from the bedroom.
  • For Christmas Eve dinner, we had baked catfish cooked in a soy ginger sauce (plus tarragon, I believe). The fish was surprisingly subtle and mild. We also had brown rice, broccoli and corn on the cob. For dessert, we had a bread pudding with cranberries, plus some mini brownies that D chose at the store.
  • C was very pleased and effusive about all of her gifts. D was less vocal, but he spent the evening building a castle with his new multicolored block set. (C has one that she doesn't use, but I think she finds it so aesthetically pleasing that she doesn't want to part with it.) We have a number of different gifts of the video game sort that will hopefully get us through the part of the holiday where nothing's open and everybody's hibernating.
  • C is reading The Black Stallion.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

$5 tree

Here's some of what's happening:
  • We had a double playdate with two families this morning.
  • My husband got us a last minute tree from Walmart for $5.
  • Yesterday was C's first ice-skating experience.
  • We've been eating the cookie house and then rebuilding it with available materials. Today was the second renovation.
  • C made a cardboard box boat, drew eyes on it and added a battering ram. I'm told that this was typical of ancient Greek ships. C tells me that when she tries to strike other ships with the battering ram, it breaks off, so it's now purely decorative.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Ice skating and grocery shopping

Today we made a trip to the glittering metropolis (i.e. Dallas). The four of us drove to the Galleria and my husband and the kids enjoyed ice skating round the giant Christmas tree. They spent about two hours on the ice. There were lots of falls (I think this was C's second try at ice skating and D's first), but eventually the kids were skating. I helped put on skates, took pictures (mainly of blurred figures waving their arms around) and then went to check out Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma and the housewares at Macy's, returning in time to collect the children so my husband could enjoy some solitary skating. I'm regretfully deciding that for basic furniture, Pottery Barn isn't better enough than IKEA to justify paying more. However, for more advanced pieces (I like this a lot--it's a sort of china hutch/bookcase/desk), there are certain items that have no IKEA equivalent. I also liked several china patterns I saw at Macy's. This was my first chance to have a good look in person at Fiestaware. I'm afraid that I like the idea of Fiestaware much more than the reality (it always looks fantastic in artfully chosen color selections in photo shoots). For what you get, it seems really expensive, but maybe someday the right place setting will come along and I'll change my mind...I also liked some white-on-white dishes, I almost like Spode's Blue Italian (maybe something more purely floral in blue and white instead?), I like Villeroy & Boch's Twist Alea (multi-colored and springy, but prettier and more sophisticated than it looks in the photo) as well as Villeroy & Boch's Switch 3 (a set of mix and match patterned dishes in blues and greens). In general, Villeroy & Boch make some nice stuff. It's expensive, but it looks expensive, which is important. I need to get a house before I can think seriously about this stuff, because I'm pretty sure my house will tell me what pattern to go with. The house may say, "Fiestaware!" and Fiestaware it will be.

After the Galleria, we had a long circuitous search for Hong Kong Market, which is a large Asian grocery near DFW airport that we've been to once before. I had forgotten the peculiar nature of the DFW area. That whole area is like a black hole. There was a 30 minute period during which the GPS informed us (the whole time) that we were 15 minutes away from our destination. Finally, after much persistence, we arrived there. We shopped (there was a sign near the live tilapia and catfish tanks, warning patrons to ask for assistance), went to McDonald's for dinner and play, and then headed home. Here's what I bought (it was $43, which I think is super):
  • sweet and sour chili sauce
  • 10 cans lowfat coconut milk
  • panang curry paste
  • red curry paste
  • masman curry paste
  • 2 bags shrimp chips (unfortunately cheese flavored--I didn't notice that)
  • lemon soy sauce
  • lime soy sauce
  • coconut Love Notes (tube cookies like Pepperidge Farm Pirouettes)
  • 2 bars jasmine Bee & Flower soap
  • 2 bars rose Bee & Flower soap
  • lemon grass (a bit sad looking)
  • sesame seeds
  • 5 lbs. Thai jasmine rice
  • 2 tubs firm tofu
Now, to survive 2+ more weeks of no cafeteria.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

82 degrees

Here's some of what's been happening:
  • Our high was something like 82 degrees today.
  • My husband sold a Russian watch of mine on ebay.
  • The kids rebuilt their cookie house today, this time with an Oreo roof. I helped myself to some of the cookies as they were working. D said indignantly, "Mom, you're eating our materials."
  • C is enjoying subtracting fractions. She says she enjoys the challenge (???!!!). In a few pages, the workbook (Kumon Grade 6 Fractions) turns to multiplying fractions. I've told her that that will be much easier.

Slow Cooker Massaman Curry

Tonight's dinner was a variation on a slow cooker massaman curry recipe I found here (a UK/British site). Seeing that this is a beef and potato curry, it is a natural for the slow cooker. I made alterations with a free hand and had everything plugged in an cooking by 11:52 AM this morning. I had a general idea of making massaman curry and had beef and potatoes on hand, but there was an initial flurry of confusion this morning when I started looking at recipes and realized that 1) the stew meat I had was too tough to just cook briefly on the stove top 2) the first slow cooker recipe I found was for 8 hours, which was much too long, especially since I needed to run to the store and buy a few more items. I finally found a slow cooker recipe with a 4-6 hour cook time, which was ideal, namely the one I linked to above. It has a relatively short ingredient list and the ingredients themselves are fairly common. There are several metric measurements, but it wasn't that bad. Here are the alterations I made:
  • I added lots of potatoes.
  • I added nearly twice as much beef as suggested.
  • After a petition from one of my diners, I omitted the garlic.
  • I used two cans of coconut milk, not just one.
  • I replaced the curry powder in the recipe with massaman curry paste.
  • I used chicken broth, not beef.
  • I cooked some sticky white rice in my rice cooker and served it with the curry.
  • I cut up cilantro and we all garnished our curry with it.
  • We ate after the curry had slow-cooked for 5 hours.
My alterations led to exactly enough curry (I want to call it stew, for some reason!) to fill the slow cooker. We ate some of it at dinner and I'm hoping to get a few more meals out of it. Here are a few thoughts on how it turned out:
  • Without being actually sugary, it was pretty sweet. Was that the lack of garlic?
  • I used little red potatoes. After 5 hours of cooking, they were still firm and waxy. A starchier potato next time?
  • The beef was slightly tough, although that might improve tomorrow.
  • I could have added more curry paste. As it was, I was concerned about accidentally oversalting, which turned out not to be a problem.
  • My husband suggests adding ginger.
  • Next time, maybe serve it with carrots?
All in all, it was a very successful. I think this would make an excellent company dinner.

Cookie jenga

Here's some of what's been happening:
  • C broke her camera, again. My husband fixed it, again. He also finished the leaves yesterday, a task which consumed much of the day.
  • My husband and I finished watching Infidel (2010), the feel-good British movie about a taxi driver of very relaxed Muslim piety who has a mid-life crisis when he discovers that he was adopted and that his birth parents were Jewish. Mahmoud is also in the awkward position that his son wants to marry the step-daughter of a radical cleric. Hilarity ensues. There are a number of plot issues (what happened to Mahmoud's birth mother? Why was Mahmoud adopted, and why to a Muslim family? Isn't the adoption set-up quite contrary to Islamic practice?), but the actor who plays Mahmoud is 110% believable in the role, and the family relationships and comedy is very good.
  • C was critiquing a picture D drew. "Are you sure you didn't forget something? Like noses?"
  • Yesterday, the kids and I went grocery shopping for the supplies to make a gingerbread house. We got chocolate wafer cookies, cream cheese frosting, apple fig bars, HEB knock-off Oreos, gumdrops, and gingerbread men. At home, I appointed C chief engineer and told D was her helper. They set to work, using their 1950s reprint Better Homes and Gardens Jr Cook Book. C's design rejected the idea of building walls with individual wafer cookies, since last year's experience suggested that that was too unstable a design. Instead (using very moderate amounts of frosting as adhesive and decoration here and there), they built a solid stack of wafer cookies, topped it with Oreos, created a roof from apple fig bars, added an apple fig bar door, stuck gingerbread men to sides of the house with frosting and built a gum drop fence. When we started eating it, it inevitably turned into a game of cookie Jenga as members of the family started bypassing the apple fig bar roof and trying to pull out more desirable cookies from below.
  • My husband and the kids have been watching Botany of Desire. They've seen the segments on apples and tulips and are starting the one on potatoes. My husband has decided to skip the marijuana segment.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Horse show

Here's some of what's happening:
  • This afternoon after church, C and I went to the horse show at the ranch where she does therapeutic riding. There were 11 kids riding today, divided into two different groups. C rode in a group of 6. The horses ranged from small Ponies of America (like C rides) to full-sized horses and the kids ranged from smaller than C to early teens. There were two events: pleasure riding (a demonstration of gaits and commands) and a trail ride. For those not in the know (like me, before this afternoon), a trail ride does not actually involve a trail. Instead, they set up a short series of artificial barriers: some poles on the ground to walk carefully through (all the horses managed that very well), a trot, walking between two bariers (the horses nearly all balked at this one) and finally a barrel to walk around a couple of times. At the end, the rider has to nod to the judge. Volunteers trotted alongside the horses on to make sure kids didn't fall off and each child had a volunteer holding a lead rope on the horse. C's volunteer assured her that she was keeping the lead rope slack, so that everybody could see that C was doing all of the work herself, rather than just being led around by the volunteer. C got 4th place (out of 6) for her pleasure riding, but thanks (I think) mostly to the fact that her pony didn't balk at walking between barriers, she got 1st place in the trail ride. I heard one spectator say (of a boy who was having trouble getting his horse to walk between the barriers), "He's doing the right stuff. The horse is being cantankerous." The ribbons are nicely extravagant and will undoubtedly be treasured.
  • Between events, the announcer shared information about the history of the ranch, various volunteers, donors and horses. She said that one of the newer horses knows how to untie his rope and they think that he has taught his fellow horses the same trick.
  • Tonight was our first cooked dinner of the break. As usual, everybody starts falling apart 30-45 minutes before dinner is ready. (I need to remember this next time and put out some snacks.) My husband (with help from me) made a sort of quasi-Chinese stir fry, with chicken, black bean sauce, grated ginger root, powdered ginger, canned bamboo shoots, canned slices of water chestnut, microwaved pre-cut stir fry veggies and sesame seeds. We served it with Botan's New Crop Calrose Rice, which is a sticky white rice. I do not really approve of frozen stir fry veggie mixes (the different items require different cooking times, so they shouldn't all go in at the same time), but the results were tolerable. The only problem is that this everything-but-the-kitchen sink recipe is pretty expensive when you count up all the stuff that goes into it. I expect that it cost at least $14, and quite possibly more like $15 or $16, which brings it within range of the cost of Chinese delivery, a chastening thought.
  • On the bright side, we are eating down our pantry. (I had had the black bean sauce and the Calrose rice for a long, long time.) We also need to eat our spring roll wrappers and rice noodles, as well as all of the sauces I've had for more than a year.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Ebay/Craigslist/Goodwill

Here's some of what's been happening:
  • Last night we had a look at our Ebay/Craigslist/Goodwill box. My husband listed a Little People nativity set on Ebay (we ultimately netted $12, which was an unexpected windfall), we're still trying to sell a watch on Ebay, we successfully disposed of a plastic toddler picnic table on Craigslist (free), and I've got a medium-sized bag of stuff for Goodwill.
  • This morning my husband took the kids to C's riding lesson and then the final train project at Lowes. They made the engine today. I think the kids are probably worn out from these busy Saturday mornings, but we've got a long break ahead of us.
  • The last cafeteria closed today. It reopens in about three weeks. We had dinner at Pei Wei tonight, which will hopefully prove inspiring.
  • My husband took our carpet cleaner and shampooed the dining room, halls, and the busiest part of the living room. He pre-treated carpet spots and then used 3/4 of a teaspoon of laundry detergent in the carpet cleaner (that's slightly more than recommended). We still have some persistent shadows here and there, but it's basically clean.
  • My husband is working on our dining room chairs. This dry weather has them coming apart yet again. Between old glue, poorly placed staples and some engineering issues, there's usually one of them that needs some TLC.

Friday, December 17, 2010

C as a reindeer

Here's some of what's been happening:
  • I gave C one of her presents early (a lavender Wrangler cowboy shirt with horses and subtle silver accents) because her class had a free dress day at school today. I ordered a size 8/10. It turned out to be just a size 8, which is the size that C has almost grown out of. C likes the shirt and is planning on wearing it for the upcoming horse show (it will have to be under a coat). I foresee that I will 1) have to launder this one very carefully 2) I will probably have to order a replacement soon. That said, she likes it! The kids have also been very appreciative when I tell them grandparents will be paying for camps and riding lessons.
  • The kids brought home piles of loot from school today: fancy pencils, a snowman cupcake, candy, a Christmas themed picture frame magnet with D's picture, candy canes, Christmas tree ornaments, etc. The best Christmas tree ornament was one where C's face was inserted into a frame with a reindeer head. It's so cute! I'm usually hostile to craft store stuff (mountains of multi-colored foam crud to make stuff nobody wants), but both the picture frame magnet and the reindeer Christmas tree ornament are fantastic.
  • My husband and D finished making a very cute little sailboat, a miniature version of the one that the kids made at the commune/cult craft fair. It has been painted and it now has a sail made from a white t-shirt from my craft supply drawer (I keep some discarded textiles around, just in case). There had been trouble with the custody of the big sail boat--it had spent a long time (years, even) in C's room, and D just recently had it for a week or so. D's suggestion is that each of them should have one boat, and that they should switch boats periodically. That is a good idea, although I suspect C will prefer to have both boats at once.
  • Not to put too fine a point on it, but spontaneity is totally overrated.
  • We've finished watching all four seasons of My Name is Earl, not my proudest achievement, but it really is very good TV.

227

C was just speculating that 227 is a prime number (she had a complicated explanation for her conjecture that I didn't entirely follow). I looked it up and by George, it is!

Christmas parties

Here's some of what's been happening:
  • Last night, C performed in the school Christmas program (a huge multilingual pageant/Christmas concert in which all thirteen grades had one or two numbers), while D stayed home with his dad and a cough.
  • I was up way past midnight last night, but all of the Christmas cards got done! My husband mailed them this morning, so we're basically set for the next week, until it's time to get and decorate a tree and wrap presents.
  • This morning, I made brief visits to the kids' Christmas parties at school. At the kindergarten party, one of the moms (who had discovered a treasure trove in the office) was enjoying what she described as "alcohol-covered chocolate!" The kindergarten class was visited by a Santa Claus with a real beard and a pronounced Texan accent.
  • "Where are you going?" one of the dads (who was just arriving) asked me as I slipped out of the school door a few minutes ago.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Half a day

Here's some of what's happening:
  • The kids have each done a project where you take an unneeded CD, coat it with black paint (my husband did that part), wait for it to dry, then scratch patterns into the paint, revealing the iridescent CD surface. C etched in penguins and a border made of holly leaves. It's going to be a Christmas tree ornament. I suppose you could also use red or green paint. There are some really pretty examples here, on the Instructable website.
  • I finally got my long-awaited copy of Anupy Singla's new cookbook The Indian Slow Cooker. I'm not saying exactly that I am expecting this book to change my life (for one, I'm concerned that it may require a lot of non-locally available spices). However, I think this is a very important advance in culinary science, and I applaud Singla. I've gotten really magical results from just adding biryani paste to black beans in a slow cooker, so I'm very hopeful.
  • My husband says, "Unfortunately, I fear that doing things yourself is trendy." I replied, "You'll just have to suffer through it."
  • I was listening to a caller on the Dave Ramsey show from last week. She had a 19% car loan, which has to be a US record.
  • We got some very nice Christmas checks (thank you, grandmas and grandpas!). So far, my husband and I have decided to spend the money on 1) spring riding lessons for C 2) zoo camp for both kids 3) Red Cross swim lessons for both kids 4) some clothing and 5) travel fund. Today Lands End had a very good sale going and I got three pairs of jeans for C, three pairs of uniform pants, a horse t-shirt and a pair of dress shoes for D all for $109, including tax and free shipping.
  • The spring is looking good for babysitting hours. My primary client needs three hours a week in the spring (up from two) and the woman that I turned down a full-time position is open to having me work for her one day a week and be a back-up sitter. I may be giving the new client a tour next week.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

All Your Worth

My next review is of Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi's personal finance guide All Your Worth: The Ulimate Lifetime Money Plan. This is not a pink book. It's a sort of how-to follow-up to Warren and Tyagi's classic The Two Income Trap. It's been a while since I read this one, but as I recall, Warren and Tyagi recommend a 50/30/20 budget, in which 50% of income goes to unavoidable expenses, 30% goes to stuff that can be cut out in a pinch, and 20% goes to savings. The value of this system is that in case of financial crisis (disability, lost job, etc.), it becomes very simple to pare family expenses down exactly 50%. The tricky part, though, is figuring out what belongs in the 50% category and what belongs in the 30% category. I've personally never really spent a lot of time worrying about the details, since we are doing Dave Ramsey's Baby Steps (currently on 3b--saving for house downpayment). I'll do a post later with quotes and comments.

Hot (broke) Messes

I have a little pile of books that I've been meaning to review. Given that I am procrastinating on doing my Christmas cards, now seems like a good time. The first book is Nancy Trejos's Hot (broke) Messes: How to Have Your Latte and Drink It Too. I got this one in Baltimore at the Johns Hopkins Barnes & Noble and enjoyed it (quite appropriately) with a sandwich and mocha. It also served me well on the flight back home to Texas. So, just for that, I'm in Ms. Trejos's debt. This book is in the genre of pink-covered personal finance books for women (a now crowded market niche), so be warned if that isn't your thing. The book is part how-to, part confessional how-not-to as Trejos tells the tale of how she grew up in a thrifty, hard-working immigrant family, got into Georgetown University, embraced the spending patterns of "Jane Hoya," got a series of better and better paying jobs in journalism, but managed to spend her salary (and much, much more) on clothes, travel, boyfriends, a $375k one-bedroom condo purchased with a boyfriend, dining, drinks out, gifts to friends, etc. She hits bottom when she realizes that (yet again) she, a personal finance writer, is asking for money from her blue-collar parents. Trejos eventually starts clawing her way out of the hole she has dug for herself and learns to combine a nice lifestyle with provision for the future. While I would quibble at some of the choices she continues to make (we lived in DC, too, and my whole family of four could dine out in style on what she spends for drinks), the fact that she continues to have a nice lifestyle actually makes her book a more appealing point of entry for her target audience. A lot of personal finance writers and personalities will have you mixing up your own detergent, turning the thermostat down to 60 degrees and using cloth diapers, but not everybody in financial peril is going to find that an appealing vision. It's good to have an alternative for those who aren't ready for all of that, but would like to do something. This would make a very good gift for a young female graduate or young professional (maybe with a Starbucks gift card?). Here are some tid bits from the book:
  • I wasn't thinking about the future. I was barely thinking about the present.
  • I grew up in Queens with immigrant parents. How did I become this Sancerre-drinking, foie gras-eating crazy girl?
  • Trejos has an entire chapter devoted to economizing on beauty products. My current winter regimen is just Eucerin at night and Olay SPF 15 during the day, but Trejos's "You're so vain" chapter seems like an excellent reference for getting a good value.

Final week

Here's some of what's happening:
  • The kids (especially D) are getting to be very good climbers. My husband took them to the climbing wall a few days ago and they went very high (although not to the top). The grippy shoes that the climbing area issues to climbers are very helpful. There is some talk at home of assembling an 8-foot climbing wall, although we would get the most use out of it if we lived further away from the college climbing wall. I've also been looking at commercial jungle gyms, but I'm not sure it's worthwhile since we can just go to the nice parks (locally, we have fewer playgrounds than in metro DC, but the ones we do have are bigger and more spectacular). We're thinking.
  • Lately the local stores have only been stocking canned pumpkin during the holidays. I even talked to an HEB manager, but they were unmovable. Pumpkin muffins are a year-round staple for us, so this is a problem. So now that canned pumpkin is in season (!), I have been buying 10 cans every time I go to the store. I now have Glenn Beck-esque quantities of this crucial staple.
  • I finally broke down and bought some Christmas-themed HEB reusable bags (I couldn't find an internet image, but they're quite pretty). The plan is to use them as gift bags at our family Christmas celebration (we have a lot of unwrapped gifts that came in the mail) and then put them to work as grocery bags. For $1.99, it's a pretty good deal.
  • D says, "I think slow motion looks really awesome."
  • I got a babysitting inquiry yesterday that I regretfully turned down after consulting with my husband. It was for full-time babysitting for an infant from late March to August. I told the mother I wouldn't be able to do full-time, but I would be able to do one day a week ($8 an hour), plus occasional hours ($11 an hour). The problem was 1) I'd be wiped out by the time my kids got home and 2) I didn't feel like I could realistically charge more than $200 a week, which is not very interesting on an hourly basis, particularly not after taxes. 3) Also, now that I think of it, we may be moving some time this spring or summer.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Weekend

Here's some of what we've been doing:
  • My husband and I got a sitter last night (my Russian tutor) and went to a departmental party with whiskey sour punch and a lovely potluck dinner, followed by dessert, coffee and carols in the neighboring house.
  • C went to her horse riding class, as usual. I got to see her trot, which she does very well.
  • At Lowes, the kids built the passenger car for the three-piece train set. Next week is the train engine, which will be even more complicated. C bought a Christmas cactus and D got a poinsettia with their own money.
  • We went to Walmart to shop for a gift for the nursing home resident that C has been assigned for Christmas. We got her socks and some chocolates, as per our instructions.
  • C is working on a book report for school. Theoretically, she has read the book. In practice, she was unclear about the characters, the plot, etc. I got her to review the book today. Tomorrow, hopefully, she'll write her report.
  • My husband did a star party this evening, but was back early thanks to low turnout and the nice dark winter evening.
  • The kids and my husband are enjoying listening to the Librivox audiobook version of Swiss Family Robinson. My husband especially enjoys the technical bits.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Winding down

Here's some of what's been happening:
  • My husband is done with teaching his class (although there's still grading and meetings) and the kids will be done with school in just over a week.
  • The kids are enjoying their new bikes very much. C has a brand new purple Sea Star from Walmart and D has C's old bike (his colorblindness keeps him from noticing exactly how girly a bike it is).
  • My husband replaced a tail light on the car (we'd finally realized what the rapidly blinking turn signal was trying to tell us). He also switched out some of the light bulbs in the car for red LEDs, which are much more astronomy-friendly than conventional bulbs. During the process, he found a Taurus (!!!) forum online. He came across the following gem on the forum: "There's always another Taurus for $500."
  • I've been exploring non-IKEA furniture options in town. Yesterday, I googlemapped all of the furniture and antique stores downtown and then went for a 30+ block walk while waiting for school to get out. I saw the high end and the low end and the middle, and I'm starting to see that with enough patience, you can eventually get very nice items. As with buying a house, patience is the thing.
  • Today, my husband drove me to the fancy new strip mall. I checked out Ashley furniture (a big vanilla store with a large selection). I liked this thing, which is a kid's loft bed with drawers and cubbies. I also like this, which is a combination bunkbed/desk/dresser type thing. I admire the spatial economy of this sort of thing, but wonder about safety, since I myself once got a concussion from jumping off the top of a bunkbed. I also visited Pier 1, for the first time in (quite possibly) decades. I like their papasans and their gold brocade chair cushions (I wouldn't normally go for fancy fabrics in upholstered furniture, but this is a chair cushion--it's not a lifelong commitment). Unfortunately, based on my study of their furniture at the back of the store, Pier 1 veneers do not wear very well. I think you'd be a lot better off just going with IKEA stuff, as much as it pains me to say this. Our last furniture store visit this morning was to an unpainted furniture place that I've been wanting to visit for some time. You can get the stuff unfinished or you can have them finish it for you and they also refinish antiques. The designs are very simple, but it's solid wood, the prices are very reasonable, and you have a very good idea of what's underneath the finish. I was very partial to a small secretary desk, a china hutch, and their dining room tables at the unpainted furniture place. I've seen some very pretty pictures of brightly painted china hutches in my cottage living books, and depending on what our next home looks like, I'm more than inclined to get an unpainted china hutch and have them paint it cobalt blue for me. (How does that work with gold brocade chair cushions? I'm not totally sure.)
  • It's been a longtime ambition of mine to replace our dining room table. However, in this area, as in others connected to furniture, my ideas have been evolving. We got our dining room set long ago in Pittsburgh from the former residents of our first apartment. For $200, we got a table (solid legs, particle board-with-veneer top), six chairs and a window AC unit. That was 12 years ago. Over the years, the dining set and I have become estranged. The set was too dark with too ornate spindle legs and chair backs, the particle board table top started to erode and one by one the glue holding the chairs together started to fail. For a while, my husband was constantly gluing and screwing the chairs back together. However, as time has gone by, I have realized a few things. 1) I wasn't nice enough to the chairs. Did I have to set my coffee cup on the chair seat and spill my Coke and tea on it? Also, would it have killed me to use some Pledge from time to time? 2) On formal occasions, nobody will see the table top under a tablecloth. 3) New chairs are REALLY expensive. 4) Chair cushions! 5) On reflection, the thing that I dislike most about our dining room is not the table and chairs. It's the much-abused beige landlord carpet that the kids have been mushing cereal and chocolate cake crumbs into for the past three years. 6) The chairs aren't falling apart anymore. To sum it up, the table and I should try to be grownups and work on our relationship.

Monday, December 6, 2010

New bike

I saw my Russian tutor this morning. I've been some years with really no Russian practice, but I'm trying to get back in gear. I have some vague ideas of either doing Russian tutoring myself or working at an archive on campus. The economics of this are that I pay $20 a week to work with my tutor for an hour, which is mainly paid for by me babysitting two hours a week at $11 an hour for a total of $22, with some friction due to taxes. I happened to have Air Crew (Ekipazh) from Netflix, so we watched a few minutes of that.

This evening we were out running errands after dinner. C's new bike (her St. Nicholas's gift) arrived at Walmart and we discovered (belatedly) that we are in charge of filling D's class's snack bucket for the week. My husband went to do that stuff and dropped me and the kids off at Barnes & Noble. I got Christmas cards, C shopped with her ample savings and D played at the train table and looked wistfully at Thomas stuff. After a hipster dad (guessing here--I'm not an expert on hipsters) and kids left the train area, I got the chair. Nearby (perhaps left by the hipster dad) was a copy of Christian Lander's Whiter Shades of Pale: The Stuff White People Like, Coast to Coast, From Seattle's Sweaters to Maine's Microbrews. Reader, I picked it up and I was hooked. I put it down, but somehow later, I found myself trekking back through the store to the children's section to find and buy the book. Weeks ago I had decided not to buy the book, feeling that Lander had probably mined the vein to exhaustion with his landmark Stuff White People Like: The Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions. Oh, how wrong I was. For a sample, here's Lander explaining what happens when a white person (meaning an upper middle class lemming) meets a white person of the opposite sex with a foreign accent. "Within minutes of meeting this foreign individual, most white people will have at least one fantasy involving a scenario where they can say, "Well, we have dual citizenship, so we're thinking of raising the children in Europe."" You all may not appreciate this as much as I do, but really, you couldn't hit me closer to home with military-grade GPS.

We got home late and put D to bed. C stayed up a bit later and was working on her new bike with her dad. Unfortunately, we need a new crescent wrench to assemble the bike, so it's going to take a while to get it put together.

Camel and bundt cakes

Two things:
  • C has $21 or so in her giving box. I talked her last night about what she'd like to give. She wants to save up and buy a camel from heifer.org. That will cost $850.
  • On the way to church yesterday, I had a thought. What about making yesterday's cranberry orange ginger muffin batter, but putting it into a mini bundt pan, adding icing, and doing them as an individual Christmas treat? If anybody calls on me to do any Christmas baking, it's a definite possibility. (The mini bundt pan I linked to is rather expensive, but I see that it's US made.)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Pit bulls and wine coolers

This afternoon, I had the chance to cover just about every street in the nice neighborhood near downtown that is my second choice (after the small faculty neighborhood near campus). It took me about 90 minutes. I did a couple of sketchier streets, too. My favorite was the street where the homeowner had a pit bull bumpersticker on their SUV, a pit bull flag flying, and a small pit bull statue on the front porch (it didn't say "pit bull" anywhere, but that's my best guess). A couple doors down, a neighbor had a box from a 12-bottle wine cooler out on the curb. I also saw a couple of demo jobs in progress, on that street and elsewhere.

Skip if you don't like real estate

Every so often, I make up a list of the houses for sale in that nice neighborhood near downtown. Here's a current list (there's quite a spread, depending on size, location, and detachment from reality of owner):
  • $900k 6BR/3BA
  • $475k 4BR/4BA (just reduced by $25k)
  • $465k 5BR/4BA
  • $305k 3BR/3BA (recently reduced by $10k)
  • $250k 3BR/3BA (large, bland but comfortable 1950s house)
  • $250k 3BR/3BA (just reduced from $280k, large, pretty colonial, very good location)
  • $200k 3BR/2BA (just reduced from $238k, very pretty)
  • $195k 3BR/3BA (big, pretty, poor location, realtor says it always smells like pizza--probably backs to a pizzeria)
  • $180k 3BR/4BA (early 20th century Spanish colonial, so so location, possible structural problems)
  • $180k 3BR/2BA (very pretty renovated 1950s home, so so location)
  • $180k 4BR/2BA (cute, OK location, we offered $120k, got turned down)
  • $165k 3BR/2BA (smallish, pretty interior, so so exterior, decent location)
  • $105k 3BR/2BA (cute, but has serious foundation issues)
  • $98k 3BR/2BA (new listing, cute photos, too soon to say)
I'm expecting some more new listings in a couple of months. Just looking at my list, there are 14 houses and an $800k spread, but 6 of those houses are priced between $165k and $200k. That's very promising.

Saturday

Here's some of what happened yesterday:
  • We had big plans for Saturday, so D and I accompanied my husband and C to C's horse riding lesson out in the country. It's a group lesson, and the kids are getting ready for a horse show just before Christmas. My husband was grading papers, I had a chance to watch C ride (I am not a trained equestrian, but C's posture looks really good to me). D was a bit bored, but we eventually found the office with the puzzles and toy horses.
  • After that, we went directly to Lowes, where we rendezvoused with a family of friends (the older sister a classmate of C, the younger brother a classmate of D). Saturday's project was a caboose, which is destined to be part of a train consisting of a caboose, a train car, and a locomotive. My husband and the kids have done many Lowes projects, but this was my first outing, and it was really overwhelming. First of all, there were dozens of little carpenters all hammering hellishly around a table, secondly, I am not spatially gifted, and thirdly, it was genuinely a very difficult project. The caboose kits consisted of several blocks of wood, several very small and easily broken thin pieces of wood, four easily broken wheels, decals to put on the caboose and lots of nails in various sizes. Every so often, the Lowes lady in charge had to break up a kit in order to provide spare parts after some small component accidentally got hammered into pieces (the wheels being both essential and particularly vulnerable). The final product was very cute (the kids had a choice of either a Christmas/elf-themed caboose or a horse-themed caboose). D took some from each set of decals and combined both Christmas and horses in his final product. I think the big girls (both 3rd graders) did very well in reading their blueprints, although we had our share of broken pieces. As always, the kids got a badge to go on their Lowes apron.
  • The kids and I spent the early afternoon with the friends we met at Lowes. They've recently moved out to the far suburbs and this was our first chance to see their new house. It's actually not that far from campus or school time-wise, but the location does require getting on and off I-35, which is not for the faint of heart. While my city and country driving has been improving over the nearly 2.5 years I've had my driver's license, I haven't had either the need or the desire to tackle I-35 yet. It's on my eventual to do list (someday I could go to IKEA or the mall by myself!), but I think it is probably wiser not to make I-35 a twice-daily feature of our daily routine.
  • Yesterday afternoon (and well after dark), my husband was working on the leaves. I eventually joined him, and after herculean effort, he cleared nearly all of the front yard and we cleared the front sidewalks and driveway and the part of the street that was covered with our leaves. Unfortunately, once the front yard was cleared (with a combination of running the lawnmower over it and using the leaf blower), it was revealed to be at least 50% dirt, the other 50% being weeds (or what I like to refer to as "hardy drought-resistant native ground cover"). It's going to be a long winter with dirt for a front yard, but at least the leaves are nearly gone from that area. There was so much dirt in the drifts of leaf fragments on the sidewalk and street that we decided not to bag it up, but to haul it by wagon to the compost area in the back of the house and hope it eventually does the right thing. (If we have a home of our own with a similar leaf issue, I plan to keep a large rotating compost barrel to deal with it.) The neighboring yard (for an empty house) looks very similar after the university maintenance ran a mower over it, so it's not just us. Anyway, by the end of last night's ordeal, we both agreed that we need a professional crew to help us out next time (it's not unusual in these parts to see a dozen or so big leaf bags out on the curb waiting for the garbage truck). We haven't done the back yard yet and there are still some more leaves waiting to fall. My attitude toward yard help is evolving, but I think it would be nice to get help at least once a year for the leaves, since it's such a huge job.
  • I wasn't expecting any real estate developments between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but there are some. A very pretty colonial in the nice neighborhood near downtown just from $280k to $250k. That's way out of our range, but I still appreciate the drop. Likewise, a new listing just plummeted from $238k to $200k.

Cranberry orange ginger muffins

My husband and I reworked this cranberry orange muffin recipe, with the following changes:
  • We had both dried cranberries and fresh cranberries on hand, but were unsure which to use in the recipe. My husband compromised by taking our dried cranberries, adding cranberry orange juice, and then microwaving them 1 minute.
  • My husband substituted whole wheat flour and some corn meal for about half of the flour in the recipe. Both of those ingredients produce somewhat drier muffins with more crunch.
  • We were slightly short of orange juice, so my husband topped it off with cranberry orange juice.
  • Lastly (and very importantly), my husband grated some frozen ginger root into the batter.
The resulting muffins are surprisingly sweet, considering the ingredients, although I suppose that using just fresh cranberries instead would cut that down a bit. The of us had quite a few last night, the kids had some at breakfast, and I'm not sure that I will have any available to send to school for C's snack tomorrow. That is what I told C when she asked for two muffins for snack tomorrow, one for her, one for a friend.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Dominoes and chess

Here's some of what's been happening:
  • We had board game club after school today. We had eight children (including our two), ranging from kindergarten to 4th grade. The big weekly school email bulletin is HUGE and our announcement there generated only one reply. I hustled a bit and sent out an email to C's class and made some personal invitations, with some success. The kids played dominoes at first, and then some moved on to building step pyramids with dominoes and others moved on to chess.
  • C recited part of "I wandered lonely as a cloud" to me this evening at bedtime.
  • C had me correct 8 pages of her Kumon fraction workbook tonight. Her work was somewhat glitchy, particularly with regard to remembering to reduce her answers. She is able to understand and fix all of her mistakes, but 1) she's not reducing automatically and 2) she isn't looking at her answers and checking them to see if they make sense. She is showing more work now, which is good, because these problems require a lot of working memory, and you can reduce errors by writing more down. On the other hand, I think fraction work is very helpful for mastering multiplication and division.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Virgil

Here's some of what's been happening:
  • I was walking back from Starbucks today when I heard one Asian college girl say (very enthusiastically) to another Asian college girl: "I love Virgil!"
  • Without socks, D can climb right up the doorframe and touch the top of the doorway.
  • D was pointing out this evening that since our atoms don't come into contact, we never do really touch. (I have recently revised my ideas about D's future career. Previously, I thought he should be either a doctor or a priest, but I think I need to add physicist to the list.)
  • After a rough patch where she was having to redo a lot of problems, C is now successfully adding fractions with differing denominators (although her answers sometimes require further reducing). C is now well into the Kumon Grade 6 Fractions workbook. There is an additional benefit in that fractions work also provides practice with addition, multiplication and division.
  • Tonight was the night of the big open air Christmas party on campus, with a petting zoo, pony rides, a live Nativity (with an actual camel), carriage rides, skating on artificial ice (proceeds benefitting charity), hot chocolate, music, photo ops, and members of a campus secret society in fake beards selling t-shirts.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Christmas vortex

We've jumped into the Christmas vortex. So far, the photobooks and nearly all individual gifts for kids are ordered. There are still three gifts to order (a bigger bike for C and gifts for my two nephews) and there's some gift wrapping and mailing ahead, but the biggest thing left is the Christmas cards. My husband and I each send out about twenty. We need to revise our Christmas card list, choose and print a kid photo to include, write the cards and stamp, address and mail the cards (including a number headed overseas). It's not necessarily so hard (especially with both kids in school), but it needs to start now.

In other news, the 2100 sq. ft. 4BR/2.5BA near campus with the pretty sunroom is under contract...to somebody else. Boo hoo. We still have about 18 months to find something else that we like. Although it seems unlikely that we will be able to get a house in that neighborhood in our price range, the nice early 20th century neighborhood near downtown is starting to have a number of listings in the mid to high-100s that I like a lot. We would probably need a second car, though, if we lived there, and we would certainly need to drive more.

I have to mention that the kids went to the dentist this week. For some time, I've been saying that in these parts, everybody except the dentist who deals with the kids seems to hand out candy. Well, I have to take that back. When we were at the dentist's office, the kids got coupons for free shaved ice.