Frugal Is a Lie

Yes, it is an awful lot of work to can tomatoes.

Yes, it is an awful lot of work to can tomatoes.

I’m canning. Canning everything in sight, actually. Somehow, in the process of doing all this work, I live under the illusion that I’m saving money. It’s a lie.

It’s a lie I refuse to confront as I swim up to my chin in tomatoes, wash, and get ready to switch modes to apples. Somehow, returning to the arts of my grandparents seems the right thing to do–modern-day victory gardens, quasi-homesteading, shopping at the farm, foraging, DIY sewing projects, making cheese from scratch…living a simpler life.

But is it cheaper? Am I really the baroness of frugal that I pretend to be?

“Did you ever calculate how much you got from your garden and how much it cost?” asked my husband earlier in the season.

“No,” I said. I left it at that. The real answer is “No, because I’d have to confront the truth, which is ridiculously stupid.” I read “The $64 Tomato” just like every other wanna be urban homesteader. Then, I was ready to move to the country.

Frugal was easier in some respects when we lived in the city. There were coupons. The stores were four feet away in any direction. I got a ton of stuff free–I don’t think I paid for toothpaste for four years, and I just used the last bar of soap from my double-coupon-match-the-sales-free-soap-victory-extravaganza a very long time ago.

What? You want me to calculate the value of my time and add it into the equation, then tell you how much I saved?

Back then, it wasn’t much, because it was the height of the Recession. The world was crashing. I had time, but cash was at a premium. Matching the coupons, running around to the sales, keeping track of all the cluttery nonsense… it was effort, but it paid off in the end. It was a part-time job, to be sure. I got paid in free toothpaste and ten-cent shampoo. Money would’ve been more convenient.

I ended up with bags of free stuff. I brought the extras to the shelters. I enjoyed getting resources where they need to be. But I’m done with that clutter. Living out in the sticks, I’m not near a bunch of drug stores that let me run around matching sales. Cows don’t take coupons. I do it differently now. Use less, waste less, get better stuff.

My coupon life has come to an end. I think I’m I still frugal. I’ve worn that like a badge of honor. I hope I don’t have to give it up…to admit I’m more bohemian boutiquey than frugal after all. Maybe even a frugal poser. This is getting worse by the minute.

Let’s think. First, I buy the mason jars. I give stuff away. Then, I buy more jars. To make my jams and apple butter this year, I used fair-trade organic vegan sugar, local B-Grade maple, and local honey. Not frugal. The opposite of frugal. What I lack in frugal, I make up for in taste, I rationalize. But can I still qualify for frugal status? It means a lot to me. I’ll run the math.

Today, I’m canning tomatoes. I got 60 pounds for $25. If I pay myself $10/hour for this arduous kitchen task, that’s $80–a pittance for someone of my talent. I could be making at least $12.50 at the fast-food joint in town, and I wouldn’t even have to can the tomatoes–I’d just open last year’s vaccuum-sealed packs.

Back to the math. Running the stove for about 4 hours–a pound of propane is a bit over $6. That’s $24. The mason jars are around $7/case. The total cost of today’s project–approximately eight hours of my life (small pots mean two batches)–for a grand total of $136. I made 12 pints of sauce. That’s roughly $11.33/pint if I don’t factor in the actual cost of my time or the opportunity cost of my having done something else.

Frugal is not frugal. It’s a lie. But it is quirky, and I’m a pretty darned good cook. I’ll cut costs somewhere else.

Please return my mason jars.

On to the apples…


Why Study History?

I found the following question on Quora. I had to answer.

Why do schools teach history instead of something more practical? When and why did the governments across the world decide to add history as a subject And why does it have to be history instead of some other social science like political science or sociology?

For me, I can’t separate those areas to begin with–I never know where dividing line between the disciplines start and finish. In real life nothing lives in isolation. Neither should it in my teaching.

This was my answer:

Yesterday, a student posed a question. It was a good question about a (insert random country here) location about which no student cared. I said, “That’s a good question.”

I told a few stories, and posed a few questions for them to discuss. We made some analogies that ranged from a fight in the cafeteria, to a broken treaty between the State of Connecticut and the Mashantucket Pequots, Japanese internment camps in America, the present-day situation in Israel, decolonization in the world and the effects of hegemony on various immigration patterns… by the time we wove the tale, we had discussed several seemingly unrelated places over a period of a couple thousand years, integrating some key themes and players.

We touched upon things. We related things, we analyzed some questions. Before class ended, I’d sketched graphs and charts on the board–even one had a limit on it, which I introduced as such. “Stick with me…this is college math…what does this mean?”

The subject of what we should teach–which subjects are the most practical–is an important one. It’s not what is taught, it’s how it’s taught and with what goal. History, done well, integrates with all other subjects, sparks curiosity, and helps students to research, analyze, posit, predict, solve, and speak out.

As an undergrad, one of the greatest lessons I learned was from a conversation with Dr. Larry Hudson–a British professor of American history of African descent. His take on the American Revolution was certainly not the one I’d heard in every American textbook–could history be…open to interpretation? That’s no small realization for an 18-year-old. Call that historiography, or research analysis… it’s all in what you do with it.

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 5.52.10 AMThe second valuable lesson I learned was from a mentor in grad school, Dr. Bob Cvornyek. He researched everything from chain gangs to labor to…baseball. When I tell students “I know a man who gets paid to write about baseball,” it’s a whole new game. History becomes something that motivates them. “You can study anything as long as you back it up.”

Through history they learn to integrate material, conduct and present research, identify quality sources, create, debate… any number of skills you’d be grateful to have in a quality employee, successful entrepreneur, or even interesting person on the street.

History, done well, isn’t about dead guys. It’s really the key to life.



When’s School Start, Anyway? Notes from The Bad Mom Files

Screen Shot 2013-09-03 at 5.55.52 AMWe were all ready to go. We had our five outfits picked out for the week–sure, Labor Day was Monday so there were only four days, but you never know when you’ll need an extra outfit. The boy doesn’t suffer change well–most weeks we need five outfits, so we started by preparing things in groups of five right away.

We picked out four pencils and sharpened them. Two were yellow, one said “You’re cool,” and the last one was red–his favorite color–and had his name. The principal sent a supply list at the end of kindergarten, requesting two glue sticks, two pencils a month, crayons for September and the middle of the year, and a few other first-grade weapons of mass destruction.

“Pick an eraser, buddy.” It was the last thing to be packed into the red pencil case. There was an old-school pink trapezoid eraser and several Cat in the Hat fancy ones that didn’t look like they’d erase very well.

“Can I have two?”

“Sure, you planning on making a lot of mistakes?” The question went unanswered.

“How bout three?” That’s the way he negotiates. He’s pretty good.

“Okay, three. No more! You have to carry all this stuff.”

“Mommy, I need a new lunch box,” he said.

Screen Shot 2013-09-03 at 5.57.33 AM“You don’t. It’s fine.” I’m not the kind of mom who buys crap because it’s September. I buy things when they are needed. Or more embarrassing yet for his impending little future–I make them. Who doesn’t want recyclable wraps for their sandwiches?

“LOOK!” There was, indeed, the tiniest point where the ribbing had separated from the corner. “I need a PackIt. Regular lunches only keep your lunch cold for two hours. The PackIt keeps it cold for ten hours. That’s five times longer than a regular lunch box. By lunchtime my milk could spoil! That’s not healthy. I need that.” I have given birth to an infomercial.

“This will be fine for tomorrow.”

Except that there is no school “tomorrow.” The phone rang. Robo call. “Hello, this is the principal calling to tell you how excited we are to see your first grader on Wednesday.” The message was to indicate that the regular teacher was ill and there would be a substitute on the first day. That was a kind message. But Wednesday?  School starts after Labor Day. “After Labor Day” is Tuesday.

I’m a bad mom. I never even checked. Nor did my husband. This is his home town, for God’s sake. I thought he inherently knew.  I called Declan’s friend’s mom. The phone–it’s a real phone–was busy.

I remembered my friend, Google. “School’s Wednesday, dummy.” Thanks Google.

Screen Shot 2013-09-03 at 6.00.05 AMWednesday. Now, what to tell The Boy. At least we were tipped off so he wasn’t standing out there in the rain with his little pencil case waiting for the bus that never came. That’s what happened last year at the old school when the kindergarten bus forgot him and the lady at the front desk of the school was really mean.

“Hey, GREAT NEWS!” The “great news” approach never fails. “Turns out you have an extra day of summer tomorrow. School starts Wednesday.”

“Yooo HOOOOOOO!” he said. “I can play dinosaurs and watch Netflix.”  Yesirree, you can. That’ll help you start the school year off right.

But in the mean time, I need to pay more attention. There are going to be a lot of forms, fliers, and signup dates flooding my life. On paper. I’m going to have to scan them and set alarms to avoid missing all the good stuff.

At least this year I won’t get yelled at by the school for packing a chocolate chip cookie. I really like this school. I think he’s going to have a good first grade, even if it’s one day late.



[images: Declan’s closet (the horror!),, and]

Work Less. Smile.

“I don’t know if I can do this anymore,” she said. “I can’t teach first graders to sit for 180 days. I don’t even have time for my own kids.”

Do you feel this way?

Here’s two from my playbook: “I just corrected two hundred fifty packets and didn’t cook dinner.” And, “I’ll play in five minutes. I just have to finish this.”

Teaching has the highest burnout of all careers. Higher than emergency responders and doctors.

It’s hard. We set expectations for ourselves. The system sets expectations, too. Kids expect instant results–ironic, because they don’t always give me their stuff instantly. I’ve set a high bar—one I could easily meet if I agreed to work 24 hours a day.

The problem is, I no longer do. I’m learning this lesson slowly, but surely.

In a prior career, I worked hard. It wasn’t my job. I ended up doing a lot of translating. I’ll say “translating,” but what I mean is communicating. I hack through languages with all the skill and fluency of someone moving to the United States barely speaking English.  I love languages, so, I give people my respect, and in the process I can usually solve the issue.

Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 7.47.58 AM“Hello, may I help you?” I answered my phone, hearing a synchronized slam two cubes over, indicating someone blind-transferred the call to me. It was really their call.

“Hola. Necesito hablar con alguien…” I took the call, helped, and moved on.

Problem was, once the floodgates opened, it happened more and more.  I took calls in every language–some I spoke, most I didn’t.

These were the days before Google translate. I’d call the AT&T center.  A translator would conference in the parties, calls ranging from $2–$4/minute. First, I had to be able to identify the language. I was working with dialects of Spanish, Mandarin vs. Cantonese, Cape Verdian, Portuguese, Italian, Vietnamese, Thai, Cape Verdean, Cambodian, Ukrainian, Albanian, Armenian, Romanian, Polish, Laotian, Hindi, Gujarati, and once in a while Japanese. Recognizing the cadence, rhythm, and indicators of a languages, the ethnicity of the last name–that’s doable for me. The hard part–telling people to hang on for the translator. In their language.

All of this takes time and skill.

Meanwhile, my own stack of work….growing…morphing into a monster I couldn’t control….cascading off my desk…threatening to crush my very existence.

“Send the call to Casey, she speaks…”


My work wasn’t getting done but I was “being a team player.” This happens in teaching.

While taking others’ calls, I’d ask for help. “If Joe Smith calls, ask him…” Instead, I’d return to a pile of pink message slips. I was doing two jobs. I wasn’t getting help.

I decided to ask for a raise, bringing the logsheet of the calls I’d taken, showing the value of the services I provided.

“I’ve saved you tons of cash. Let’s split the difference.” Even “the difference” was a lot.

Laughter. Serious laughter. Comedy Central laughter. Watching Comedy Central while drunk laughter.

“Nice one, Casey. No. Get back to work.”

“Okay, but I’m no longer providing this service. I need to focus on my work.”

From that point on, I “wasn’t a team player.”

Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 7.44.34 AMThis happens in teaching. We overextend. We want to help for the good of the school–to be a team player. We do too much. We join committees, sponsor clubs, we never say “no” when asked to contribute, whether it’s in terms of time, talent, or treasure.

“It’s just one night.” The problem is the nights, meetings, planning sessions, after school trainings, and things add up. Sure, it’s going to be a great training session–I really want to participate. But the choice becomes two hours every day after school for a week or seeing my own boy. In the past, I’d chosen work because it was important, even though it was on my time. This year, I choose my family, hobbies, and me.

That’s not a bad thing. That’s the part that has to sink in for the majority of dedicated teachers.

Teachers overextend. Families feel neglected, relationships suffer, we get sick. A day can’t be 30 hours in it no matter how much coffee we drink.  When we cut back to “realistic” and “human,” we feel we’re not doing our best. This Lifehacker article, “Don’t Be A Work Hero,” got me thinking. Read it. Ruminate.

I decided to be human this year. I chose to do one thing for school this year–something I love, tech.

This decision feels pretty good. I notice a difference in mindset already. And by the end of the year, I hope my students, family, and friends will, too.


[images: and]

If Ecclesiastes Saw My Car or Freezer…

“To everything, there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” This is one of the most famous of all Biblical quotes, where the book of Ecclesiastes smacks us down and tells us to be patient. It also calls procrastinators to the carpet.

“Come on, it’s the season,” it means to say. “Get off your ass and (in the words of Larry the Cable Guy) ‘Get r done!'”

There are several arduous tasks that fall into this category, such as cleaning the freezer and car. There used to be systems for these things–a car was something that couldn’t go undetailed for very long, and a freezer got cleaned seasonally. Sometimes, I find as I get older and I wake up wondering where the time went, there are tasks that get away from me for years at a time.

I make my doctor’s appointments at the beginning of the summer. I am a teacher–there are two schools of thought on this. First is “Sick day!” where you make the appointment strategically so as to blow off a day of work and enjoy the rest of the day. I never do that. I make them at the beginning of the summer. That enables me to remember to make them once a year.

I dialed the phone. “I think it’s that time to see you again,” I say, smiling. You can always hear a smile on the other end of the phone.

“It’s been three years.” I didn’t hear a smile.

It got me thinking. What else has missed its season? I walked around the house and yard looking for things that had missed their season. The car was definitely one–the greatest offender. I am sure I haven’t detailed it since we moved–nearly a year, and before that since we did the build out to sell the last house. There was wood and doors and hardware from Home Depot in that car a mile high. There might’ve been an employee in the back still loading stuff stuck behind the recyclable bags.

BC (before children) all cars got detailed on a regular basis, from the 89 Toyota to the VWs to the cult-classic-for-about-as-long-as-Boy-George Saturns. Going longer than a month or two is the human equivalent of the kid in college who never takes a shower. I have never once paid a person to detail my car. I do it perfectly–only I omit the spray that makes me gag, and if anyone ever comes near me with a car tree, I’ll hate them for life. My cars were pristine. No procrastination involved.

“Um, but it’s an 89 Camry…” I know. A classic!

See how many household food items you can identify.

See how many household food items you can identify.

After Children, many layers of sludge appear in a car, such that you have to shovel out the seat to give rides. Forester Gump still had hay in it from garden-planting farm-rading mulching season. Not good. A job that had surely seen its season pass once or twice. But the freezer was worse–I actually remember when I picked the blackberries and made that chocolate-blackberry ganache–a few years ago. I haven’t bought a frozen vegetable since I can remember, yet the blocks and frozen-hard bags sat there waiting for a prize-fighter with a black eye, because I certainly can’t remember if that meat in a freezer bag, unlabeled and unloved was, at one time, a steak.

“Everything must go.” It’s garbage night, and out it went. Now, there will be room for my once-a-month-style cooking for the beginning of the school year. You make a ton of stuff, freeze it in Foodsaver bags in lunch-sized portions, and chuck it in the lunch bag at 6AM mid-run out the door. Lasagna and casserole for a year. Or until you forget it and have to clean out the freezer again.

declan vaccuums carI detailed the Subaru with my step-daughter. Car owner and soon-to-be-car-owner bonding. She manned the vacuum. I taught that cars are a pain in the ass. Soon, the residue of Home Depot, the farm hay and the six-year old’s sludge were properly extrapolated. It felt like a new car, except for lack of new car smell. It smells like bike tires and hay. There’s no changing that.

So, now Forester Gump is clean and I know that Jeffrey Dahmer didn’t hide any dinner in my freezer. The season for these tasks is complete.

Now’s the season to enjoy the last few days of not having to keep a proper schedule, pretending I’ll still accomplish The List this summer. After that, it’s game on, off to the races to meet new and old students. Before I know it, I’ll be writing about the holidays, the end of the year, and next summer will be upon us, a new List of Things I Mean to Accomplish (but won’t because I’ll relax instead) freshly minted,  calling for me to obey each item in its season.

Do It My Way! (No Apples for You!)

Declan's tree

Declan’s tree

I am coloring with Declan. We are making trees. I start to make my usual tree, which will emerge with owls, a couple of flowers, a graveyard off in the distance, and maybe a kid fishing by a stream. The kid might even fall in. I never finish the picture. I never finish any picture because I am a mom, and it’s not allowed. It’s why I like sumi-e–the Japanese style that looks unfinished to the Western eye. I can’t practice sumi-e with a six-year old around. Permanent ink attracts six-year olds like when I try to do yoga or take a shower or anything that requires a modicum of modesty or meditation. Permanent ink is a disaster.

He starts a kid-style apple tree sans apples. He looks at me and screams.

“Mommy!” he says, “You can’t do it like that!”

“This is my tree,” I say.

“That’s the WRONG tree!” He is adamant. I protest.

“How can there be a wrong tree? We each can draw the tree from our imagination,” I explain.

“Your imagination is WRONG.” Funny, I’ve often been told that. “You must do it MY WAY.”  He hands me the crayon. “Do it like THIS!” He proceeds to instruct me as to the correct way to shape and form the tree. Even the coloring process has a method and direction.

My tree

My tree

“You CAN’T go around with the crayon in circles.” I have been shading the tree quickly. “You have to go back and forth like this, HARD!”

Kid, you’re starting to remind me of standardized test prep.

“Put the sky in here.” I pick out a pretty light blue.

“No! Not like that, like this.” His sky is a different blue, and goes back and forth along the top edge of the paper. I take the right blue and do it correctly. Soon, he discovers my paper is portrait, not landscape.

“Ohhh!! Mommy, you’ll never be able to make a tree. You’ll have to do it again!” Maybe he’s not like test prep at all–you only get one shot there.

My tree makes me a renegade. The world may judge me. I hope not harshly.

“Mommy, do it like THIS!” he corrects a finer point of my bark-coloring technique. I obey. I pick up the red crayon.

“What are you DOING?” He is concerned I might step off the beaten path into creativity again.

“I’m making mine an apple tree.” The red crayon in my hand heads for the paper.

“NO! There are NO apples in this picture.” No pie, no apple sauce, no jelly…

“There are no apples in your picture, but I’m putting them in mine.” He snatches the red crayon and places it back in the box. Instantly. He glowers. No apples. It has been decided.

We are done. My tree looks exactly the same as his tree. He smiles.

I want to tell him this is just the style of teaching from which I flee–in my class, you can put apples, oranges, or key limes on your tree. But key limes don’t grow here, you say? Just wait two years…global warming. I fear he won’t listen. And he has stolen my red crayon.

Alas, there are no apples on my tree today, but there are a few on my counter, and I’m hungry. I eat one. I’ll put the art aside…for awhile.

Blueberries and Pickles–No, I’m Not Pregnant

Rocky Point Blueberry Farm, Warwick, RI

Rocky Point Blueberry Farm, Warwick, RI

Last week, I picked blueberries in the rain. It wasn’t that pleasant. I was cold. When I reached into the bush, water shook from the leaves, soaking me to the bone. I got colder and wetter. I started to frown. There was one drop of rain on my glasses I couldn’t get off. When I wiped it on my wet shirt, I smeared both lenses until I couldn’t see the blueberries. And I had a migraine. Annoying.

I thought about homesteading. How I planted my garden, how my husband chopped the wood, how we try to get off the grid. How the stuff we can’t do–produce eggs or meat–we get from the farm around the corner. About how close I am to getting rid of boxes, store jars, and tin cans. As I sat in the middle of rainy blueberries wishing the weather would clear, I thought, “A couple hundred years ago, I wouldn’t have had a choice to make homesteading my…(dare I say)…hobby.”
Not picking very fast. Pioneers didn't check email while farmingI never thought of homesteading as a hobby. It’s a good activity–I started out intending to save money, produce better quality food, and maybe stop global warming, prevent a few small nations from blowing each other up, or attain enlightenment. It doesn’t save money. Farming is expensive and I give stuff away.  Friends visit and remind me they like my peach salsa.
“Homesteading” is cool, though. What people once mocked me for, comparing me to their grandmother, is now chic, hip, and in. I’ve never been any of those things–I’m enjoying my fifteen minutes of fame.
But whining about wet blueberries–weak. I could never be a real homesteader on the prairie…I felt somewhat disingenuous. The pioneers didn’t have an option. They would’ve picked blueberries in the rain. And been grateful. The work would’ve been there every day. No one’s great-grandmother in Oklahoma would have skipped a day because of a weather, a lunch date, or a migraine.
Because if they did, they would have died. I watch homesteading shows on the Discovery Channel. The Alaska ones are cool–no one comes to their rescue. “Excuse me Stop & Shop Peapod…can you deliver?” I think not. Conversely, I watched a few shows where modern families pretended they were pioneers–shows where people dress up and cry after the first few days. The Alaska people never cry. I have to toughen up and be more like them. Today, In the true spirit of Alaska, I’m weeding my garden and making pickles again because I killed my last crock of kosher dills.
“HOW did you ruin pickles??” asked my friend of Russian Jewish descent. No Russian ever ruins food–that might be the last vegetable you’d see until the reincarnation of Lenin. And a Jew ruining a Kosher Dill? Heresy. Doesn’t happen.
“I didn’t weight them down. The top ones molded.” I asked around, “Can I eat them anyway?” I was so looking forward to them–I’d just eat one off the bottom. My husband said no, it’d kill me. I rationalized that cheese is mold, and the life insurance is paid up…would the pioneers scrape off the mold? They wouldn’t have had mold to begin with. Because if they did, they’d have starved.
Prairie women. My heroes.

Prairie women. My heroes.

I googled in case everyone was wrong. Google said, “Don’t eat it, moron, you’ll die.” Not trusting Google is sort of like not trusting Jesus or the threat stated in a chain letter. I tossed the pickles.

I’d be a crappy homesteader. I didn’t pick enough blueberries–too busy finishing off a text conversation and dictating ideas into Siri. Pioneers wouldn’t have stood for such behavior. And I killed the pickles. I’d have eaten them anyway because Google wouldn’t have been there to save me. I must drink some imported french-roast coffee and contemplate ways to improve.
The weather cleared midway through picking.  I remembered why I love it. I go deep into the middle of the bush, where lazy people don’t pick. Then, I crawl under the bushes, where no one goes, either, except the grandmothers who are serious about their homesteading, and little, tiny kids.
When I’m  looking under the bushes, I see an entirely different view. Seeing the berries under the leaves where no one goes reminds me of teaching. The berries at the top shine for the world. They hog all the sunshine, tasting nice and sweet. But when you climb in and under the bush, you see the berries the world forgot. They’re there, clumped together waiting for someone to pick them. I like those best–they’re bigger and sweeter because they were left alone to grow at their own pace. They leap into the bucket with excitement ready to become part of something great. This reminds me of my students, the ones who get left behind by traditional academics and need someone to peel back the branches and leaves to let them see the sunlight, too. But when they do, it is always magic.
Maybe I’m a bad pioneer and homesteader, but thinking about the blueberries this way, I decide I’m a pretty good teacher.
I smile. And I pick one more bucket before it’s time to go home.
[image 3:]