Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Grass Does Look a Bit Greener

Envy is a funny thing. Well, not funny ha-ha, but you know what I mean. We used to live upstate, in a rather depressed area. I was working as an elementary school teacher, and in that area, it was very common for people to either not work at all, or work at sporadic, low-paying jobs. The major industry in the area had left quite a few years ago, and people either left to find other work, or stayed and tried to make the best of things. Therefore, as a teacher, I had one of the higher-paying careers in the area (thus making all of us teachers beloved by the community, obviously...).

Fast forward a few years, and we moved down to Westchester. The Professor began teaching college, and I stayed home with the kids. It's a really good life. My kids are wonderful, I have a great husband, we live in a lovely area by the water, the schools can't be beat, we have enough to eat, we own an apartment that we like, we're able to save for retirement and the kids' college, etc. If I could stay in my own house with my own family, things would be fine. Because going outside around here invariably causes problems.

Just after we moved here, I was driving to the store, and got a bit lost (a very common occurrence for me, I'm afraid). I ended up on some back streets and was stunned at the size and grandeur of the homes. We're not talking just nice houses here. These are absolutely beautiful places to live (admittedly they're on postage stamp-sized pieces of land, as land is at a premium here). When I finally found my way home, my first question to The Professor was, "So when did we become the bottom-feeders?" We live very close to New York City, so the vast majority of people in this area are either lawyers (you can't throw a stick around here without hitting at least one lawyer, which is certainly never suggested, for fear of lawsuits) or in the financial industry. The amount of wealth floating around is staggering. My children have playdates in some of these homes, and I admit to being somewhat embarrassed to have their children over to my 4-story walk-up apartment (although the kids are always fascinated to visit an apartment house and climb the stairs - always fun to see how the other half lives, I guess.)

These feelings are my problem, not anyone else's. I think it's wonderful that people are able to have these things, most of which I'm not even interested in having. I am not one who spends her life trying to keep up with The Joneses. However, it's hard to keep plugging along trying to save money on tuna fish in a place where wealth and conspicuous consumption are so very conspicuous.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Dinner and a Show

We went to Costco this weekend. For most people, this probably just involves picking up some (enormous) groceries and going about your business. Not so at Chez Necessity. As I've mentioned, my children think Costco is an absolute wonderland. (I've decided that if one sets the excitement bar very low, it's easy to impress one's children...)

A trip to Costco is a carefully orchestrated affair, and when said trip is announced, there is very often cheering (again, that low bar really comes in handy). We begin with lunch. Costco sells the world's biggest hot dogs (I know, not healthy, but we don't eat meat at home, so it's an occasional aberration) plus a drink (with refill) for $1.50. Quite the excellent deal. I used to be able to make it even better by talking the kids into splitting a hot dog, but they're getting bigger and more opinionated these days, so I've thrown caution to the wind and gone for the whole $3.00. The Professor and I make do with pizza.

During lunch, I amuse myself by people watching. I am endlessly fascinated by what people put in their carts, and what these items might say about their lives. Like the guy that had 48 rolls of paper towels (almost every single cart had a giant package of paper towels). Who's making that big mess? Or the person with 6 steaks and a giant bag of potato chips. Party? Just a standard Saturday at home? I also invariably see at least 3 people buying the world's largest television sets. Not only does this make me wonder how big these people really need their tv characters to be, but also how big must their car be to haul that monster home?

Lunch is followed by a trip to the samples counters. This is the other real draw for my kids. They love being able to get little cups of food on toothpicks, and usually there are several things that they enjoy (we went one day at dinner time, and there were NO SAMPLES. You cannot imagine the horror; obviously, this error has not been repeated).

Then, finally, as an afterthought, the groceries are purchased. Costco is one of those places that has really good deals on certain things, and bad deals on others. If you know your prices and can avoid temptation ("Wow, I really do need 4 pounds of pita chips...") you can do well there. And where else can all of this fun be had in one place for such a reasonable outlay of cash?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Mmmm Mmmm Good

I found a recipe floating around the internet last week, and even though I usually print out recipes and put them in the pile of nothingness and forget about them until I can't stuff anything else into the space above my cookbook shelf, I actually made it right away. Now, this is probably because anything with a combination of potatoes and cream cheese will catch my interest right quick. It's supposed to be a knock-off of the potato soup at Panera Breads (I've never had it there, so I can't comment on that aspect) and the original recipe was:

1/4 cup minced onion
4 cups peeled and diced potatoes
4 cups broth
8 oz. stick of cream cheese
salt and pepper

Intriguing, isn't it? Unfortunately, if I want to continue fitting into my pants, I decided that I would need to modify it a little bit, so I came up with:

1/2 cup finely minced onion
3 cloves minced garlic (I thought it could use a little more flavor)
6 cups peeled and diced potatoes
6 cups broth (I used vegetable)
4 oz. cream cheese (now I'm trying to plan something for the other half of the bar...oh the possibilities!)
salt and pepper

Saute the onion and garlic in a little olive oil; add the potatoes and broth and cook until potatoes are tender. The original recipe had you mash some of the potatoes here, but you really had to stir to melt the cream cheese, and the whole thing got mashed in the process. If you want chunks of potatoes, I would pull some out before mixing in the cream cheese. Add the cream cheese (cut it up in chunks first) with the heat on low and stir until melted. This was easier said than done, and I finally got out my whisk and stirred rather intensely to make it melt. If I do it again, I might melt the cream cheese separately and add it in. Add salt and pepper to taste.

It was YUMMY, even though the kids complained quite a bit. I have to say, I never can predict how foods will go over with them - they love mashed potatoes, and how different is this, really (except of course, for the addition of cream cheese, and how can that possibly do anything but make something more delicious)? Apparently very different, and a cause for quite a few uncalled-for faces at the table. I made it slightly more palatable to them by sprinkling it with a little shredded cheddar cheese, and making biscuits (Oh, a spoonful of biscuit makes the potato soup go down...).

Easy, quick and tasty. My favorite kind of cooking.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


When I'm teaching flute lessons, the kids go into my room and watch tv. One half hour later, I discovered this:

This is how they felt The Professor's dresser should be decorated (my house isn't crooked, by the way, but I think my children, the photographers, are). These little creatures are referred to by Big Trouble lovingly as "bobblyheads," and here's a close-up of their work:

I especially enjoyed the poor rabbits who got their ears jammed into the keyholes. Oh well, idle hands....

Monday, September 15, 2008

There's Something in the Air...

Well, I guess there was, but we couldn't see them. This weekend we went to the Hawk Watching Festival at the Audubon Society in Greenwich, CT. I was expecting a little display for hawk watchers, and maybe a couple of crafts for the kids. Imagine my surprise when we had to park several fields away from the site in overflow parking - who knew everyone was interested in hawk migration?

Apparently this time of year, thousands of hawks are migrating, and they are tracking up to 1,000 a day. Unfortunately, because of the cloud cover (nice for us because it wasn't too hot) you couldn't see any of them. We didn't mind, but I did feel for all of those poor souls with their giant cameras and bird watching equipment.

We saw a wonderful demonstration on birds of prey (he didn't let them fly, as there was also a tent exhibiting rabbits...), which included all kinds of birds (some of whom chomped down some mice for our enjoyment) and a few reptiles thrown in for good measure. A good time was had by all (except, probably, the mice).

They also had a fabulous face (or arm) painting area, and the kids were thrilled to get painted up; Miss Serious was especially glad that glitter was involved - she is, after all, all about the sparkly. The women who did the painting were absolutely amazing, and took time with each kid; this meant that we waited on line for quite a while, but everyone agreed that the end result was worth the wait.

The kids also got to play games, make crafts, decorate a cookie, and each got prizes at the end. The best part about all of this was that it was included in admission! I've become so weary of attending events, paying admission, and then all the activities are extra. I feel nickel-and-dimed to death everywhere I go, and am forced to become the mean mommy who keeps saying no all the time. What a pleasure to not have to do any of that!

Imagine our surprise, when the next morning, we saw this on the top of our building:
Nature is a wonderful thing, especially when it comes right to you! I wonder if all the bird watchers at the Audubon would be jealous?

Friday, September 12, 2008

Knowledge Can Be Expensive

I've been watching the grocery budget here at Chez Necessity continue to climb. We are a family of four, and we don't eat meat (but do eat fish). I used to be able to feed everyone for about $240 a month. Lately, my head hurts when I go onto my Quicken file, because our monthly bill has climbed to about $340 a month. Some of this can be blamed on the rising cost of food. I especially enjoy the price increases that the food companies think are hidden, such as the shrinking package size. Just irritating (but then, I am easily irritated).

The other reason for the vast increase in our grocery bill is reading. Yes, reading. If I (and The Professor) would stop reading I think we would be rich as kings. I used to be very leery of the organic food movement (I used to live up by Woodstock, and the people on this bandwagon were a bit too crunchy granola for me), but after reading again and again what the use of pesticides, antibiotics and the like is doing to our food, ourselves, and our environment, we have begun switching to more and more organic products. Milk was my final holdout, because it's so pricey, but I finally gave in this summer.

The other issue is one of fair trade practices. I am not one who spends huge amounts of time scrutinizing the labor practices around the world, so it's always a shock to me when I learn about what goes on. We started buying Fair Trade coffee last year, after The Professor showed me some information about the treatment of the farmers and workers who harvest coffee. This effectively doubled the price we pay for coffee. It's also not so easy to find, but lo and behold, when I was in Costco this week, I picked up this:

The thing to look for (which I never would have notice before) is the little Fair Trade symbol:

Luckily for those of us who are unable to remember things from one minute to the next, this symbol is used for all products that have been certified Fair Trade. This certification basically means that the company adheres to the standards set up by the organization (fair prices for workers, sustainability, no slave labor practices, etc.). For more specifics, Wikipedia has a comprehensive article here.

Now I see that my bills will be going up again, because I've been reading this:

It's an interesting (but painful) read which chronicles the history of chocolate and chocolate production. I am now in the section on the labor practices, and they are horrific. Who knew that such a tasty luxury item in this country is made with a raw product produced in part by slave labor, including children. Unfortunately, it's much easier to find fair trade coffee than fair trade chocolate, as I've discovered from hunting online for the last hour, but I'll keep at it.

They say ignorance is bliss, but unfortunately the bliss only applies to those who are ignorant, not to those on the other side of the coin.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Many Lives of Yarn

Yarn is a wonderful thing. Add it to a couple of sticks, and voila! You have something you can wear (or, as is often the case in my house, take apart and try again). Such was the case with the Berroco Ultra Alpaca I bought on sale last year.

I first attempted a cardigan, which became known as the tiny sweater:

It then turned into something close to its original form:

With the addition of Andean Silk from Knitpicks (lovely yarn, by the way), and the Seamless Yoke Sweater pattern from Elizabeth Zimmermann, it gained a new life as:

(Photo by Big Trouble, Inc. - Copyright 2008 )

I have a feeling it will be much happier this way. This is the first Elizabeth Zimmermann pattern I have done, and I have to say, I have come to understand why she has such a devoted following. She's so no-nonsense and down to earth, and everything she does just makes sense. She's come up with all these simple, intuitive ways to avoid many of the problems that I often have (like gaping holes where I turn short rows), and I loved the flexibility of this pattern.

Now I just have to wait for it to stop being hot and humid outside, and we'll be good to go.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

That Time of Year Again!

Well, it's September, and school has begun again. When I was teaching, I really hated September, which seemed to mock me the whole summer. It always used to make me crazy when people (non-teaching type people) would say how great it must be to have nothing to do for 3 months (where everyone gets 3 months from, I have no idea, as I always worked until July and began at the end of August). It always used to take me the month of July to recover from the year (the end of the year can suck the life out of you like nobody's business) and then August would come and I would wonder where the time went. Now, I'm not complaining - summers off is a FABULOUS deal, but you end up paying for it during the year. Nothing in life is free, I'm afraid.

Since I've been home with the kids, summer has been a really wonderful time; everyone around here sends their children to camp. These are not working mothers sending the kids to camp that I'm talking about; these are at-home moms, some with live-in help, mind you. Around March the mom conversations go something like this:

Them: "So where are you sending the kids to camp this year?"
Me: "Oh, we're not. We'll be home with them."
Them: After a horrified glance, as if they just saw me yank off one of my children's arms, "Oh, now nice," followed by a quick walk away to a different, more appropriate, mother.

Having already had many of these conversations, complete with the horrified looks, about preschool, I've become pretty comfortable with them. The Professor, however, not so much so. He took Miss Serious to a birthday party in March several years ago. When he came home, he immediately pulled me aside and asked, "Are we supposed to be sending them to camp?"

So, after our camp-less, and clearly inferior summer, Miss Serious is in second grade this year, and Big Trouble is beginning Kindergarten. They had orientation and met their teachers yesterday, and today was the official day one. They both really like school, so the first day back is greeted with much excitement 'round these parts. Here's Big Trouble trudging grumpily to school:

And here they are, backpacks in hand, ready to learn:

They both insisted on rolling backpacks, because you know at this age how heavy that single folder of papers can get...

Good luck Miss Serious and Big Trouble. You always make us so proud.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

'Til Death Do Us Part

After some sleep and the joy of not having to sit in the car for 7 hours, my brain is now able to string a few coherent thoughts together. We spent a lovely weekend in Rochester where my brother got married. The wedding was charming, and we all enjoyed ourselves, especially the children. At one point in the evening, Miss Serious, while cutting a serious rug on the dance floor announced, "I could do this all night!"

Sadly, I could not, and after two looooong trips in the car and two nights spent sharing a hotel bed with one of my children (who are both incapable of sleeping in any sort of normal way, and are totally unaware of the concept of personal space), I was absolutely thrilled to fall blissfully into my own bed.

Unfortunately, I was not to stay there long. In the wee hours of the night, Big Trouble uttered my most favorite sentence in the whole world, "Mommy, I just threw up in my bed."

It's hard to be the mommy at times like these, because all you want to do is shout, "Oh crap!" but instead you need to nurture the poor little soul who is crying and distressed. And then you need to clean up the bed.

Now, I've cleaned up A LOT of vomit in my time, I think more than the average person. We've had a dog for about 11 years who has knocked over and eaten a lot of garbage, and my children, as previously discussed have about the best gag reflex I have ever seen. So I'm not new to vomit. When I say that this was the most revolting of all, I know of which I speak.

After all the cleanup, I finally fell asleep 3 hours later; the next morning the kids were bouncing around, just as full of energy as ever, and even though I had about 9 cups of coffee, I was barely able to function.

I was thinking during the wedding how young and fresh-faced the married couple looked, and when I think about it, I used to look that way too. I can't imagine what's brought about the change.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Hypermiling Update

Hello all. The Professor here, guest-blogging again for Mother Necessity. After our drive home from Rochester yesterday, MN needed a little time to gather her thoughts about what to blog next. Plus, she wanted sleep so it would be coherent. So, here I am with our latest hypermiling news.

We drove Tiny Shiny over the Catskills and through the woods to my brother-in-law's wedding this past weekend. (Congrats and love to the bride and groom!) It's 332 miles one-way to the Rochester suburb of Victor, NY - a long trip no matter how you cut it. Pretty countryside along the way, as you can see.

Tiny Shiny performed like a champ. Even with two packed suitcases, one full garment bag, and heaven knows how many little bags of snacks, books, CDs, and other road trip survival gear tucked in the trunk and under the little feet in the back seats, we got a whopping 39.29 MPG on the ride up. But that pales in comparison to the new Tiny Shiny record of 41.97 MPG on the ride home! (MN says I should round it up to 42.) That's a solid 27% above the EPA's estimated 33 MPG highway for the 2007 Elantra.

Cruise control on the flats, coasting down mountains, keeping the accelerator level going up hills for lower RPM, trying to keep it under 60 MPH, avoiding stops and starts... It all added up to going back and forth to upstate NY on just under two tanks of gas. Color me impressed.