Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Steering toward the brink: understanding what it means to get gas.

Gas prices are going up, and like anyone who needs to spend money to make money, I'm beginning to feel the annoying tug on my wallet. There was an additional wrinkle that became apparent just yesterday.

But we'll get to that in a minute.

I do have a 'real job' aside from this bloggy world I create in my free time, and what's most wonderful about what I do for a living is that I work from home most of the time.

I'm not expecting anyone to remember the following:

I telecommute every Monday, I work at my job site every Tuesday, I work remotely every Wednesday, I'm off every Thursday, I work from home every other Friday and I work on-site every other weekend.

Compelling, I know.

I love working from home. No long commute, no Business Casual, only a marginal sense of spinning on the wheel in the cage, no burning gas and wasting time. When I work from home.

So imagine the crusty coating of ennui I developed when I heard that the magical technology I require to hook into my job from home blew some hard-to-replace gasket over the weekend. I was told yesterday that I won't be able to work from home for +/- a freaking month!

Really? A month? We're swirling deep in the river of technology where I work, and it will take them a month for this magical part to be delivered and installed? How are they delivering this new technology? By pony? Burro? Pigeon?

What's the bottom line, you ask?

I'll need to be physically present at my job until this issue is resolved.

I know what it means. Say goodbye to the ease of working from home for a few weeks. Plan what I'll wear when I go into work. Pack a lunch. Fill my gas tank.

That's the part that really hurts.

Because idling in traffic for the 1.75 hours it takes me to drive to and home from my job means I'm burning gas.

And gas is getting very expensive.

We've all heard about it. We all pay the price, literally. And that pain at the pump isn't going away any time soon.

Gas is expected to cost $4 or so a gallon within the next few months.

I know I'm oversimplifying the big Why, but these higher prices can essentially be attributed to the fact that we all just can't get along.

We're told all the time, by so many sources, in so many contexts. Like a fresh romance, playing a pinball game or the paying to fill up the tank, we know from the start that our good times are predicated on limited resources.

But we Must Drive.

When I go to work, I go alone. I kvetch about filling up my car with overpriced fuel, I bitch about having to be physically present at my job.

What a whiner I am.

From a global perspective, most people don't have the luxury of even owning a car. A crap-ton of people don't have a job. So I know I'm lucky, on so many levels.

But gas prices do affect me, especially now, what with this crazy presence I'm required to provide at my 'real job', at least for the next month or so.

I've just scratched the surface when it comes to how gas prices affect how we tend to operate.

Let's not forget - those big trucks that deliver food that fill the shelves at our grocery stores require gas.

And gas prices will affect food prices.

That's for later.

For now, I know I'll need to drive to my job on Friday.

And I used to be able to phone it in.

Getting gas has never seemed to matter more.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cents and Sensibility preview: laying the groundwork.

Early yesterday morning, after the sun came up and before the wind blew in from the north, I did a bit of work in the backyard.

I eventually found my way to the desolate moonscape that we refer to as the Garden Area.

My family has big plans for growth this summer, in the garden area as well as in the curly world of our furtile interior landscapes.

Starting with the planting of our garden in early May, we'll lay the groundwork for an idea that's been germinating in my noggin, which I'm affectionately calling Cents and Sensibility.

Essentially, we're going to see how long we can go without spending any money (with the exception of requisite bills, of course).

I have a familial buy-in for this project, which is nothing less than essential.

So our Cents and Sensibility will go something like this:

We'll do a bit of planning.

We'll do a bit of shopping, and we'll take an inventory of what we have. We won't go all Mormon Food Storage Post Nuclear Survivalist-ish. We'll just get things we know we'll need.

We'll fill the car(s) up with gas.

We'll put some cash in pocket. Not too much. Maybe 20 bucks a piece.

And then we'll see where we land. We'll see how long we can go, just with what we have.

When will we succumb to the need to twirl outside our comfort zone?

What will we feel we really need?

How long can we go before we start to really feel we have to have that thing we really feel we really need?

And why are we waiting until May/June to start this experiment?

Because the weather will be nice.

School will be out for the summer.

Gas prices are expected to skyrocket.

Gas prices affect food prices. So the price of food will go up, too.

The garden will lose its current look of dry and dusty desolation, and we'll be munching on our own fresh stuff this summer.

I'll lay a bit of the groundwork for this project between now and when we start, but my hypothesis is simple.

I want our Cents and Sensibility project to be spent paying attention to when, what and especially why we buy what we buy.

I want to see this experiment as an exercise in living well, abundantly and creatively, just with what we have.

I'll be writing about what we discover, every day starting June 1. Between now and then, I'll visit this topic on occasion, just to grease the skids with a smattering of detail before we hit the ground running.

Not unlike the Free Time experiment I tackled in January, I'm confident that the Cents and Sensibility project will be eye-opening.

And like my fallow garden, the next few months are ripe with great expectations.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Crown me: Affordable dental emergencies can be a piece of cake.

Anyone who's spent any measurable amount of time with me knows that I have a general aversion to dentists. I'm sure the dentist I had when I was a kid is currently laughing it up with other despots and tyrants, deep in the crusty recesses of hell.

Just like lovers and mailmen, I've had very good dentists and very bad dentists. So imagine my glee at having found the Best Dentist in the Universe!

He throws off the combination vibe of favorite grandpa/highly skilled craftsman. Unlike many dentists half his age, my dentist doesn't do anything to my teeth that doesn't actually need to be done. No unnecessary root canal that will pay for his kid's summer camp. No whimsical crown to pay off his boat.

Having started practicing his dental magic the year I was born, my only fear of this particular wizard is that I will outlive him.

And his microscope-encrusted crown deserves a bit of polish after last week's dental episode.

Logan made a tasty pie-within-a-cake treat for my sister's birthday last week.

After a delicious dinner, the presentation of gifts and a denouement filled with gratitude and relaxation, it was cake time!

I had one bite of this crazy-fabulous pie/cake concoction, and I felt something oddly incongruous in my mouth.

At first, I thought it was some kind of cultural cake totem Logan included in celebration of my sister's birthday. Some jewel or prize he'd added to his recipe. Because 15-year-olds sometimes do that kind of thing.

Closer inspection made it clear that one of my teeth had popped right out of its comfy spot in my head.

Very disconcerting.

I think I stole a bit of my sister's birthday thunder when it was realized that I'd just lost a tooth.

First thing the next morning, I called my fabulous dentist. I knew when I called that he only works two days a week. Part of me wants to believe he's taking those other five days to energize himself, simply to stay alive long enough to see me through the remainder of my dental requirements.

My left brain knows he's getting his just desserts, living a full life that doesn't involve the dank, dubious interiors of other people's mouths.

Regardless of how he spends his time off, I was lucky enough to get an appointment with him the very next day.

I arrived with my tooth in a baggie.

I was assuming the worst.

In my world, 'the worst' would have involved a painful procedure, followed by a bill that was even more painful.

But that's not what happened.

Sure, it was no cake walk.

But 90 minutes later, my old crown had been cleaned out, drilled in and screwed back to where it belonged. Ah, Camelot.

After effusive thanks, it was time to pay the bill. I was expecting I'd have to dip into my emergency reserves, such as they are.

I took the long walk, armed only with my new tooth, and was presented with the grand total, of 90.60. My dental insurance will capture the rest.

Having opened wide to my share of dental shysters, I felt somewhat vindicated. And I definitely felt better without having that gaping hole in my mouth.

My crown had found purchase once again, without putting me in beggar's prison.

I felt like a queen.

Let them eat cake.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Let's eat, on the cheap. Family style.

There was a time, not that long ago, when families routinely gathered around the dinner table. Typically, world-weary Father would come home after a long day at the office. Lovely Mother would have spent part of her day planning and preparing a tasty meat-and-potatoes meal, because that was her job. Each night, the family would gather. Plates were filled with home cooked delights. Conversation ensued.

Like explaining how to use a rotary phone to a teenager, this tender portrait of Life During Mealtime a few decades ago bears little resemblance to what most of us experience here in the busy-busy world-weary present.

The majority of moms work outside the home. Add a dash of divorce, inflation, expensive gas and the proliferation of fast food, and it would seem that a relaxing dinner with the family is almost impossible.

And if you believe that, there's someone I'd like you to meet.

You can vaguely see Barb in the reflection of her microwave.

Barb shifts every paradigm our culture has come to accept when it comes to feeding a family healthy food on the cheap.

Her personal shift started after she had kids. 

Baby food is expensive. And like most of us, Barb and her husband aren't rolling in money. 

So she started making her kids' baby food herself.

It didn't take long before she integrated this culinary creativity into the rest of her world. She cooks breakfast, lunch and dinner at home, and her kids have never eaten a school lunch. Barb and her family rarely eat out, and when they do, they avoid the chains. Instead, they opt for restaurants that are local. 

She and her husband go shopping once a month, at Costco. They hit the grocery store very occasionally in between, just to pick up milk and fresh stuff. 

Influenced by documentaries the likes of Food, Inc. and Eating, Barb's opting for organics, despite the added cost.

Chicken is a case in point. Two Coleman organic chickens cost $20 at Costco. That's ten bucks a bird.

Barb explained how she makes one $10 chicken stretch for three nights of dinners.

Sorry for the stretching chicken imagery. But get this:

Dinner #1: Barb puts the bird in the crock pot with a melange of items - potatoes, carrots, spices, et cetera.

Dinner #2: Leftovers from Dinner #1 are used to create a tasty batch of enchiladas or quesadillas, for example.

Dinner #3: Whatever remains from Dinner #2 is tossed into a zesty salad.

Sure, there are ancillary ingredients. Maybe tortillas and other condiment-y items on Night #2; lettuce and other dee-lish add-ons for Night #3. 

So let's break it down.

A $10 chicken. A staple for three nights. That's 3.33 per night. Each night of tasty chicken goodness feeds four people (granted, two of these people are wee), so that breaks down to 83 cents per person per dinner.

Sure, there are extra items Barb uses to make each dinner extra-savory. Even so, she's not dusting each dish with a layer of saffron. She's using pizza dough she makes herself, perhaps. Maybe she makes a focaccia. Barb's creative. As you can see from the cookbook that sits on her microwave, she's organized when it comes to recipes. And she knows what she's doing. 

She makes her own pesto, salad dressing, croutons, granola. Her granola is absolutely delicious.

"You show me a family who eats the way we do," she said.

Barb has every reason to be proud. 

Because she gets it. Barb and her family never go without. They create abundance. 

They have a garden in the summer, and they freeze whatever they don't consume. This is one of two enviable beds, each of which is nicely tucked with potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, squash, lettuce, strawberries, herbs, so much more, every summer. 

Being this vigilant may not suit everyone. Just like any skill that becomes a personal art form, Barb's method takes commitment.

And in Barb's case, her culinary tableau is decorated very joyously, effortlessly and colorfully, because she sees all the good tastiness that comes from her efforts.

Barb does have a 'real job', but she has more time than money. So she can spend her extra moments creating a succulent, passionate, enviable lifestyle.

Providing healthy food choices for a family of four on a tight budget is very possible. Barb's proven it.

Let's look at the facts.

According to the USDA, feeding a family of four cost 462.40 per month in 2000. In 2010, that monthly cost rose to 625.90.

Barb and her family eat very healthy, tasty food. And on average they spend $350-$400 a month.

Just by spending a bit of time.

These are murky financial times for a whole lot of people. But Barb sees the silver lining. She mentioned that "maybe the one good thing to come out of the economic downturn is that people will learn to live abundantly with less."

She and her family are proving that enjoying tasty home made meals surrounded by family and friends is very possible, simply by making it a priority. 

See that glass half-empty or half-full. World-weary becomes energizing when you add a dash of effort and a smattering of creativity.

And Barb's proving that the pot becomes sweetened when it's shared.