Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Anyone still out there?

To all the folks that used to follow this blog (if anyone still has me in their feed reader) - I am starting a new blog. Probably not so different from the old one. Still food, gardening, preparedness, thrifting, household craziness. Lots of new stuff to talk about.

Feel free to add me to your readers at: City Peasant

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Independence Challenge - July '09

Whew. Mom spent another week in the hospital after a string of "episodes" that culminated in what looked like a big TIA in the doorway of her doctor's office. After a lot of testing, they basically don't know what is wrong, but it's probably not more TIAs. It might just be the blood pressure meds they had her on after the first June TIA. She has a history of sensitivity to medication, and she hasn't had another episode since she stopped taking the Vasotec.

It did delay our move by two weeks - the landlord agreed to give us an extension. I was spending a lot of time at the hospital and we were not getting packed.

There is another factor influencing my preparedness - harder to wrap my head around. With DH gone at grad school, and my self-employment dissolved, I have no income while I care for Mom. I've had to apply for food stamps, Medical Assistance, and welfare. I don't like it, but it does help quite a bit. It's the first time I've had medical coverage since DD12 was born - I hardly know where to start.

We get $529/month in food stamps, far more than I expected - and far more than we spent on food with our own cash. But we don't eat like a lot of families do, and I have food storage. My mother technically does not live with us, but I also feed her from our food stamp budget. Several effects on our food patterns:
  • We eat in more variety. We can afford more than the cheapest protein. I can afford some fish, organic chicken, organic store-brand milk. We can afford more fresh fruit and vegetable variety. I can take advantage of seasonal sales on a more efficient scale. I can't be a spend-thrift, and we still eat a lot of rice, beans, oatmeal, eggs, and potatoes.

  • I can re-build our storage. I didn't have enough money to replenish what we were using, which was worrisome. Summer should be the time we stock up, not eat down.

  • We eat far less locally. Almost no vendors at the large farmer's markets take food stamp cards - none of the produce vendors. None of the orchards or producer markets take the cards at all. Not only are we unable to spend our food stamp largess locally, the local vendors are missing that whole market of clients. So, we cannot buy local milk, produce, meat, seeds, or baked goods (except the stuff that makes it into the grocery stores). We do shop at the most-locally-focused grocery stores, Weis and Redner's. I really miss the producer markets and the pick-your-own orchards.
It's been hard to get much done regarding the Independence Challenge. I've been trying to wait until we get fully moved and organized at Mom's house. But I did mange to get a few things done:

Planted: I bought a slicing tomato start on clearance and put it in a big pot on Mom's front walk. It's got a number of tomatoes. I am planting at least basil, cabbage, peas, and carrots for a fall garden.

Harvested: Mint for tea. My chocolate mint died over the winter, so the mint is my less-favorite spearmint. It dries poorly, I discovered last year - almost no flavor from dried leaves. We also used the dill from a small volunteer plant in the backyard. Mom has peppermint and apple teas in her yard, so I look forward to experimenting.

Preserved: Not so much. I hope to make pickles, pesto, and more jam in August.

Reduced Waste: Oh, not. The problem is my Mom's house. Her approach to reducing waste was to simply save it. And to bring in hundreds of cardboard boxes to organize it. And now years of paper, plastic, metal, cardboard, and glass must go, in one extended outpouring. We recycle as much as we can, with the municipal program and at various scrap buyers. We will also have yard sales, freecycling, and ebaying. But still, we have been putting out 16 large bags of trash each week, plus a bulk item.

We are have much stuff for the county's fall hazardous waste collection. Decades of expired medication, nail polish, mercury thermometers, old oil-based paint, batteries, pesticides, herbicides, anti-freeze and motor oil. I have a pick-up truckload of metal scrap, and am hiring someone hourly just to flatten cardboard for a truckload delivery.

On the positive side, Mom has an established composting area that we will expand. There are some elderly canned goods that we will eventually empty into the compost stream when I get more worms. Some, I will just flush or dump in the sink. For instance - she had a dozen cans of Hawaiian Punch from the 70s. Apparently, it can eat through metal, because the contents leaked from some of them. The rest must be full of dissolved metallic elements - I am dumping that into the sewer system.

We could compost some of her paper and cardboard, but not most of it - it would exceed the capacity of her 1/3-acre yard. We put out 20 bags of paper for the recycling pick-up this past Monday alone. I am looking for a place to take wood scrap - maybe a biomass generator. There are lots of wooden odds and ends that I won't burn in a home fireplace - painted, varnished, poly-coated, particle board, soft wood, etc. A biomass generator will have a scrubber stack.

We did a bunch of plumbing work - new hot water heater, new bathroom sink/faucet, toilet guts, and a pressure-reducing value. Mom's split-level was built in the 50's and the builder was cheap with plumbing and electrical work. My parents did almost nothing to improve on that. By simply adding a pressure-reducing value, we have already solved years of plumbing fixture abuse, wasted water, and wasted water-heating energy. We couldn't have a tankless heater without seriously upgrading her natural gas lines, so we just went with a more efficient heater.

Electrical work is next - new 200 amp service (she has a 60-amp fusebox), more lines for outlets in the basement, and GFI outlets for bath and kitchen. I need to be able to plug in my freezer safely. I realize now that Dad spent his whole garage workshop life using only an extension cord plugged into an outlet screwed into the ceiling fixture. WTF, Dad? He was not nearly as handy as I thought he was when I was a kid.

We are also planning a DIY kitchen upgrade that starts with stock base cabinets, surplus counter, and maybe a vintage cast iron sink. We need to stretch Mom's funds to cover as much renovation as we can, so we will do the kitchen in stages. I hope to post photos after we have done enough clean-up not to embarrass Mom. The girls are old enough to learn to use tools, and I have a lot of renovation experience. My hands are wrecked, but I can instruct and demo, and they can be the hands.

Preparation and Storage: I stocked a case of assorted canned beans, canned tomatoes, peanut butter, bulk popcorn and split peas we stored in juice bottles. These food stamp benefits will run out, maybe within 6 months, so I hope to do a lot more stocking by then.

I am still skimming Craigslist out of habit, and I saw a pressure canner go by. I just had to email, and I got it! Only used a few times, for $20. I am planning to start by canning some chicken stock as soon as we get settled.

We have also found more things at Mom's. Old comforters that can become window quilts, lots of fabric for quilting, Lots of kitchenware, even more canning jars. I will have to buy new rings and lids by the case. I also found a few older organic gardening books that I had intended to buy. Mom must have gotten them years ago, with good intentions, but never really grasped what "organic" meant, judging by the amount of commercial fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide in the garage. She saved a billion articles about using vinegar and baking soda, but still bought dozens of chemical cleaners. We will help her get back on the greener path.

Build Community Food Systems: No. But I am collecting ideas for future activism. My food stamp experience alone gives me ideas for things that need changing. If food stamps are our society's temporary family safety net, they need to be spendable in the local food economy, not shut people out of it.

Eat the Food: We were eating too much convenience food at first. We were working for 8-10 hours a day at Mom's house, and cooking just seemed impossible. But we have now fallen into better patterns. We make oatmeal, yogurt, and fruit for breakfast, then spend the mornings doing email and phone work, or packing at our old house. We have lunch, often soup and sandwiches, and leave to work at the house for 4-5 hours. Then we come home and make dinner. Mom usually naps at home with one of the girls in the evening, and I take the other one back to work at the house for another 2-3 hours, usually leaving around 9:30pm. I try to go to bed by 10:30, and get up at about 7:30.

Having Mom around does keep us on more of a schedule than usual. She has had a loss of appetite, so she doesn't ask for food, although she will eat and enjoy it if I bring it. I have to remember to feed her so she can take her medications on time (and not get loopy from lack of food). I'm not used to that - if the kids are hungry they either demand a meal or go rustle up their own food. We usually only ate dinner together. Now, I am preparing three meals a day.

I gave up making yogurt, for now, but we do make crockpots of soup, and often something else for sandwiches, like roast turkey or meatloaf. Dinner is usually some form of boneless chicken with vegetable, salad, or side dish. DD16 might make chicken curry with green beans over rice. Or I might make chicken Caesar salad. There is often fresh fruit at every meal. The four of us can go through most of a watermelon in a day, a whole cantaloupe or pineapple in one meal. Cereal, bananas, and leftovers fill in the gaps.

By my next Independence Challenge report, I hope to be able to say I have my new pantry set up, my kitchen renovation underway, and our composting expanded.

Monday, July 13, 2009

An Update from the Trenches

I've been quiet, blog-wise, for a long time, but busy "off screen."

This week, we are in the final push to move into Mom's house by July 21st (which is when we've told our landlord we will be out). The house is not quite ready, so I am a bit nervous about whether the plumber will have the essential work done in time. And by "ready" I mean just able to physically accommodate me, the girls, and our bare necessities. We need to be able to sleep, cook, use a bathroom, hook up a computer, have room to sit down. It will take many months for the house to be fully re-organized and repaired.

On top of her cognitive issues, Mom had a mini-stroke in June. She has recovered well, but now takes a lot more medications than she once did. Her license to drive has been taken, and her independence much reduced. It is a sad time for her. We now think she does not have Alzheimer's, but that she may have had a number of small strokes that were not recognized. That is both good and bad news. I feel even more sharply the urgency of writing down more of her stories.

Once we are moved in, I hope to start blogging again, as we begin to completely reorganize a house filled to the brim with stuff, some useful, some not. It raises interesting questions of what needs stocking up for an uncertain future, and how much is enough. My mother's OCD/hoarding tendencies made her stockpiling ritualistic and excessive, but her urges are very similar to the things we talk about wanting to accomplish with our Independence challenges and our various prepping activities.

Jars, for instance. We've recycled vast amounts of saved glass and plastic jars. Possibly thousands, in carloads to the township recycling center. We've kept the canning jars (maybe 150), freezer containers, the larger glass jars with intact lids. We've recycled the rest - too many different sizes, all with different lids. I want to have only 2-3 lid sizes to manage.

There are still dozens of jars of hardware to look through - many dating back to my father's workshop days - but he's been gone for 27 years. Some will end up with the metal scrap. There is a huge metal scrap pile in the backyard, along with a large wood scrap pile, and a mountain of cardboard to be flattened - all bound for various recycling destinations. Hundreds of cans of old oil-based paint and house/garden chemicals will go to a hazardous waste collection event in the fall. There are also many 4-5 gallon plastic food buckets with lids, round and square. My mom used them ineffectively, but I am keeping them for now - future food storage.

Some things were more of an artifact of her hoarding disorder. Onions skins, for instance. Bags, bottles, and boxes tucked in everywhere. Long ago (40 years?), she did a craft project that involved dying eggs with onions skins. She's been saving them since, wanting to do more of that, but not able to do anything at all in her disordered house. The phrase "disordered house" is so apt in this situation. Onion skins can be useful, but there is no danger we will run out, since we grow onions.

Lest it all seem grim, we have also found many interesting things, some of which will be blogged later. My teen daughters were fascinated by a pile of Seventeen magazines from the 70's. I kept some Boys Life to give to my brother. Funny lists I made when I was in 7th grade. My mother's wedding shoes. Negatives from my father's darkroom. Jars full of seashells from our beach trips. Things my father and grandfather brought back from WWII.

There are also useful things. Lots of tools, books, lumber, plastic sheeting, fire wood. The many buckets and canning jars. (Oddly, I never recall my mother canning - I think she stopped when I was very young). A vintage croquet set and other games. Clothing, sheets, towels. Envelopes, stationary, wrapping paper. Hundreds of gloves (another item of obsessive focus for Mom). No need to go to yard sales this year!

And... we have only done the very-densely-packed cellar, garage, hallway, part of the living room. We still have the rest of the LR, a dining room, most of the kitchen, 4 bedrooms, 2 attic spaces, an enclosed back porch, and a crawl space. There is a collapsing garden shed to be emptied and torn down. We've been putting out 8 bags of trash twice a week, plus bulk items, and trips to the recycling center. We already have a very large "yard sale" department growing in the garage.

We have been using a rented storage unit to pack up our old household until there is room at Mom's. We got rid of a lot of our own stuff. Mom's situation has lead us all to examine our own habits of acquisition and disposal. I wonder if DD16 will now ever keep anything she cannot make digital.

A few weeks ago, I did manage to make small batch of strawberry jelly at our house. Two pints plus a half-pint. Nothing like the 18-24 pints I had intended to make, as DD12 will only eat strawberry. But, better than nothing. I suspect I will be doing few of the things I really want to be doing, until the major sorting effort is done.

Much more to tell another day. We canceled most of our TV cable and are making media adaptations. DH is off at grad school, working hard in a completely different way. DD12 is adapting badly to the changes in our life and we are seeking family counseling with her. DD16 is making choices about how to do high school. We are all facing a possible move to a new city when DH comes out of grad school next fall.

What a whirlwind we live in, right now.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Independence Challenge - Year 2 - Week 2

I had a great Mother's Day. I picked up my Mom on Sunday morning and took her to my church for Flower Communion, which she enjoyed. Then we went home, where DD12 had made us brunch waffles from baking mix I made in advance, breakfast sausages from the market, orange juice, tea, a cut-up pineapple, giant strawberries for garnish, and a pan of brownies. Then we watched a movie together, the funny-but-forgettable Bedtime Stories with Adam Sandler.

Saturday, DH and I went out and saw Star Trek, followed by late lunch in a new Mexican place that we liked a lot, the Plaza Azteca near the Berkshire Mall. I had carnitas, and the roast pork was to-die-for.

DD12 gifted me a recipe book. She took down all the frequently-used recipes I had printed out and taped up on the cupboard doors, punched holes in them, and put them in a binder for me. She gave my mother some marigold starts they planted at school. DH gave me a bag of very good Australian licorice he got in Philadelphia at a stand in the Reading Terminal Market. We all gave my mom dark chocolate in various forms, her favorite.

DD16 sent me a Mother's Day greeting via Facebook, which included a coupon for 4 hours of yard work, or 3 hours of Attic Cleaning. Poor girl, I will be taking her up on that pretty quickly.

I feel deprived of gardening. My backyard is a mess. I've basically ignored it completely since last fall, not even doing a complete fall clean-up. But Mother Nature doesn't depend on human intervention, happily, and the perennials are coming up nicely. If I would just cut the grass, you should even see them. And I will do that, as soon as I remember to pick up the grass shears from the sharpening place - where I left them last fall. ~sigh~

Harvested: Nothing yet. The alley is full of shiny new plantain I could harvest for medical use, but I am restraining myself. Focus, focus, focus.

Preserved: Nothing. I made a big batch of whole wheat baking mix, but it got used pretty quickly.

Reduced Waste: I bought a watermelon - what was I thinking?! It's too early. They came from Texas. Not sweet at all. Composted most of it. That will teach me to ignore my "in season" rule.

I am trying to save my favorite 4-quart saucepan. I fell asleep a couple weeks ago, while applesauce was cooking on low. I woke up in my chair a few hours later, to the smell of burnt sugar. No smoke, but the blackened apples were carbonized to the pan bottom. I managed to chisel it out with a putty knife and a screwdriver, but there is still black stuff burned on after scouring with a Brillo pad and trying oven cleaner. I still want to save it, but I don't know what else to try. Anyone have suggestions?

There is massive paper and cardboard recycling. Sorting is going a little faster at Mom's, where generates lots of paper trash and empty boxes. We are also sorting here at home as we pack to move this summer. I put out 10 bags of paper recycling last week. I know I can shred and compost it, but I am not starting that until we get moved and I can set up a workable shredding station.

Prepped and Stored: The packing is getting us more organized and de-cluttered, which I think of as preparation. It's easier to evaluate what you really need to keep when you know you will have to move it to a storage unit, and then later move it again.

Community Food Systems: A family from church had a house fire, and the mom of the family recently had hand surgery. We are trying to pitch in with gluten-free meals for a family of three. I am making 2 quarts of curried split pea soup with ham. Interesting how many of my recipes involve gluten, when I start looking at them. I think I will ask if they like yogurt, too - I could make them some of that.

Eaten: We continue to eat from the freezer and pantry. I do buy dairy, cheese, bread, and produce each week, plus odds and ends like pretzels and crackers. That turkey last week made a lot of meals, but we are now sick of turkey. Turkey sandwiches, turkey curry, turkey and gravy with mashed, etc.

Last week, I took Mom to the doctor, to talk about her various issues. It was revealing. She had forgotten the things the doctor said last time, and lost two prescriptions. He also had the report from the pyschiatrist visit. She is going to have some testing to see if we can narrow down the source of her memory loss and confusion. I take her to get a lot of bloodwork today, and an MRI on Wednesday.

I feel a little bit of hope. If it is not Alzheimer's, there is a chance that she will continue on in her current pleasantly-vague condition, with the capacity to enjoy things, instead of descending more quickly into the less pleasant stages of dementia. Maybe there is time left for some happiness, after we clean up her house. We are going to start a new medication this coming week, Luvox, to see if it helps her anxiety and compulsive behaviors. Wish us luck.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Starting Year 2 of Independence Days Challange

I've been absent as a blogger for months. I am very occupied with the tasks of packing my house, helping my mother sort through her house, and coordinating our busy family shedule around our one-car lifestyle. For a few weeks, I was barely even cooking.

But I really want to keep feeling like I am still working toward Independence, even if I am mostly overwhelmed by current events in the family. I need to hang on to some little piece of sanity. The 10-11 months of solid IDC posting I did last year made me feel like I was really making progress.

So, inspired by Sharon's announcement of IDC Year 2, I am going to try to post an IDC update every Monday, even if it is piteously meager. Even if I don't have any photos. Here we go:

Planted: Nothing. Since we will probably leave this house with a month or 2, I didn't plant anything. I will clean up this yard, and move all my stuff to my mom's house, where we have yet to establish a veggie bed with real soil. I may be able to plant a fall/winter garden there. But the work on her house gets priority over everything else, so maybe no garden at all this year. At least perennial flowers are coming up on their own.

Harvested: Nothing. I do have a planter full of perennial garlic chives. For this growing season, I think I will use this "harvest" category to talk about locally-produced food.

Preserved: Nothing.

Reduced Waste: I get a negative score this week. I fridge disaster forced me throw away a lot of food. A thawing package of beef shin accidentally got hidden behind things on the top shelf, and leaked blood all over the produce. I had to throw it away and clean the fridge.

Prepped and Stored: We are getting more prepped in the sense that we are packing up labeled boxes of our possessions. I am getting less prepped because I am not buying new bulk, so that we don't have to move it this summer. I will re-stock after the move. We should have more pantry space at Mom's.

Community Food Systems: I still shop at the Farmer's Market and the local grocery that I have found to be most-local (Weis). I got eggs from a friend from chruch - they have more eggs than they can eat.

Eaten: We are definately eating out of storage. I am trying to thaw and eat everything from the freezer before we move. It saves me from having to do much grocery shopping right now. We had started eating too much convenience food when I started being at Mom's house a lot, but I spent this weekend stocking the fridge. I cooked up burrito filling, made curried split pea soup, thawed a chuck of ham we used in pasta, and roasted a turkey to make lots of leftovers. I just need to make yogurt tonight, and re-stock our veggies.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bloom Day - March 2009

Does anyone know what this little weed is?
Edit: Cardamine hirsuta (Early or Hairy Bittercress)

I did take these photos on the 15th. Just didn't get time to post them for the official Bloom Day.

There is not a whole lot happening here, yet. In my yard, some bulbs are pushing up, but only a weed is blooming!

I am happy to see that all the sedums I rooted last year are coming back. The Vera Jameson (at 10 o'clock in the photo) has loads of buds - I need to get that in a bigger pot.

Tulips are coming up in the grass.

And where I left them last year. Might be a Crown Imperial at the bottom.

Random daffodils near the rick path we built last year. If I had been sure I was staying at this house, I would have put in a lot more bulbs along the path. They would work out well with the herbs I will plant later in the season. Lots of basil grew here last year.

My Mom's yard has more going on.

Does anyone know what this purple flower is?
Edit: Unknown cultivar of Iris Cristata (Wood Iris)

Mom has always been more patient with bulbs than I am. One of many clumps of daffodils:

Crocuses and hyacinth:

Winter Aconite:

Happily, the goundhog looks like it has not yet stirred from the burrow. Leaves are still stuffed under her "decorative" boulder, as they have been all winter. Unless, there is a second burrow entrance they are using.

Monday Cooking Day

This quiche turned out particularly well.

I seem to be developing a pattern of going to market on Saturdays and doing weekly cooking on Mondays. Our weekends are often busy, moreso now that spring soccer started for DD12, so Monday seems to work as a day that I can hop back and forth from working at the computer to tending things in the kitchen.

This afternoon I baked off sweet potatoes to puree, white taters for home fries, and one of the last butternut squashes from the basement. I made pumpkin streusel muffins with the squash. I made bread pudding with stale rolls I got for $1 at the market. I also cooked off some bulk sausage and bacon ends, to use in quiche. I zested lemons, made fresh lemon juice, made hummus. I am thinking about try to make my own pita bread or some other flatbread. The recipes don't look too hard.

The muffins were from a super-healthy recipe with whole grain flour, egg whites, no fat, and skim milk. Kinda scary, so I used whole milk and whole eggs. They next batch needs more streusel, too. But DH and I thought they were pretty good! Especially with a dab of cream cheese. (I suck at fat-free.) I am eager to see how well they keep, and freeze.

I put the muffins in a Tupperware thing I got at a yard sale last summer, for the freezer, so we can just take out a few each day. I have a lot of ripe pears to use up, so ginger-pear bran muffins are next. I took a family survey about muffins, to see what everyone would eat. Everyone can agree on blueberry, and fortunately I have some summer-picked blueberries in the freezer. DH likes plain bran muffins, like his father made, so I need to do some experimenting with recipes. I hate scrubbing muffin pans. I want to use paper liners, but it seems wasteful to create that trash. Must be why I normally like making quiche bread loaves - loaf pans are easy to wash.

I didn't get apples peeled for sauce today, so that means we will all be peeling in front of the TV some other night this week. I think I have enough apples for 4 quarts this time.

I inventoried the leftovers in the fridge - DD15 is leaving a lot of half-eaten veggies in there. She is doing pretty well with her "no meat for Lent" commitment. I am not doing as well. I keep forgetting - I made rice with stock instead of water, so she couldn't use the same rice. I mixed the refried beans with the turkey taco meat, instead of keeping the the beans separate to share with her. Is it some sort of passive-aggressive resistance to vegetarianism? Hmm.

In other food news, DD12 is Eating Better, making progress like I haven't seen in years. I don't know if she had some sort of personal epiphany, or if a couple years if watching us eat has produced a change, but things are happening. Bread, for instance. For years, she would only eat commercial Italian style bread and the cheapest hot dog buns. Then we introduced her to a local Italian bakery, and she expanded into fresh Italian bread and Kaiser rolls. Never would she touch a whole grain bread product. But suddenly she asked to try a loaf of whole wheat Italian. Still commercial bread, but she crossed the whole grain Rubicon. She does also eat whole grain waffles we make ourselves, so I am feeling much better about her fiber intake.

She is also eating a lot of my homemade applesauce with, drinking Concord grape juice, and accepting chicken in more variety. She used to live on chicken nuggets, and likes the fried chicken legs at the farmer's market - but she will now also eat plain baked chicken.

Whew. She was so inflexible about what she would eat, down to specific brands. I was really worried she would have trouble as an adult. People have been saying, "She'll outgrow it" since she was 5, but she is heading for 13 now! Long ago, I said "I am not running a diner" and made her start to cook her own food, so I was neither forcing her to eat our food, nor "caving in" and making two different meals. I'm trying not to do the forced-eating stuff that my parents did, and which resulted in my own weird food dislikes. (The thought of green beans makes me queasy.)

But finally she seems to allowing herself to try some new stuff again, for whatever reason. Yay!