Monthly Archives: February 2012

Thrift. Again.

February's grocery receipts

I’m almost afraid, superstitiously, to bring this subject up. Last fall, I was just starting to try to keep track of Where The Money Goes and blog about it, when my mother was suddenly hospitalized.

Ah well. You can’t stay keyed up to cope with a crisis forever. It’s too exhausting. So, here on the extra day of February, a week into Lent, I’m going to make another try at figuring out if there’s any padding to trim from our food budget.

That’s harder to judge than you might think. I totaled up what I spent on groceries in February, leaving out nonfood stuff and things I bought to donate to the food bank, and it comes to about $390. Is that good or bad? Well, I consulted the USDA monthly estimates on what it “should” cost families of different sizes and resources to provide a month worth of meals, and I’m still not sure.

On the one hand, there are two people living here, me and my husband. So that means I should use the “Family of 2” estimates, right? Well, not so fast. Paul rarely eats lunch at home; on his teaching days, he has lunch in the faculty cafeteria, and this semester he squeezes in Wednesday dinner there, too, before teaching his evening class. So I should decrease our estimate to take that into account.

Well, yes – but what about the times our son comes over for dinner? On a typical week, we have three people, two of them grown men, dining here several nights. Gotta increase our estimate. So we should spend less than the USDA two-person estimate on food, and also we should spend more.

My plan – and I hope it doesn’t get interrupted again – is use March as the test sample. Starting tomorrow, I’ll be keeping records of who eats which meals here, and probably of what we eat. By the end of the month, I ought to learn that (a) we’re wildly extravagant or (b) we’re thriftier than the thriftiest mommy-blogger on the Internet or (c) we’re nuthin’ unusual.

186 cookbooks, and nearly all of them are good

It’s rare for a cookbook to bring me to tears. Tonight, one did.

I decided to try Lamb Do Piaza from “One-Dish Meals of Asia” by Jennifer Brennan. Brennan explains helpfully that “do piaza” translates to English as “two onions”, or perhaps “twice as much onions” (as meat).

In any case, onions are one of the major ingredients. You need to cut some thin slices to fry until they’re nice and brown for a garnish at the end; but mostly you need to chop, and chop, and chop. And yes, you will cry about it. The onion fumes will get you.

Starting to brown the onion slices

Once you get done chopping, though, it’s surprisingly simple. Cook the chopped onions for a while until they’re thoroughly soft – I kept them on low heat with a lid on the pan, and they still nearly scorched. (But almost-and-not-quite scorched is tasty.) Then brown the meat, cook a couple of cloves of garlic and a few peppercorns and whole cloves* briefly, add a little salt and water, and let it stew for most of an hour. Check from time to time and add more water; it will try to burn.

* (Use whole spices here – they keep their flavor during the long, slow cooking in a way that ground pepper and cloves can’t.)

Yogurt, browned onions, tomatoes

When the meat’s tender, add a little tomato sauce and cook another fifteen minutes or so. Then garnish it with some yogurt – I used whole milk Greek yogurt – and the browned onion rings (remember them? You made them back at the beginning of this recipe) and some chopped raw tomato. (I used grape tomatoes. It is February, after all, and they come closer to tasting really tomatoey than anything else I can get right now.)

The garnishes make for an unusually pretty stew, and they also lift the taste from Pretty Good Ordinary Stew to Delicious!! Meal. So I wound up with tears of pleasure, mixed with tears of frustration.

Because I don’t think I can get rid of this cookbook either. And I’m not sure if that’s really great or maddening.

Point of view

What you see depends on where you’re standing. But you knew that, right?

I’m fascinated – like many other people – by the Heian period, a thousand years ago in Japan, partly because it’s so strange, so remote from life as I live it.

Now, it was a terrible time and place to be poor. (When has it ever been fun to be poor?) But if you were a member of the nobility, especially if you spent your time at the capital in the Imperial court, your life revolved around elegance, fashion, style. Women took great care with their clothing – layers and layers of multicolored robes chosen for seasonally suitable themes. Their greatest pride was their long, long hair, as long as they were tall. Men and women alike put hours of thought into perfumes and poetry to help them succeed in their love lives. One of the world’s great novels, the Tale of Genji, came from the Heian court; so did one of the liveliest books of trivia ever written, the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Elegance and beauty were everywhere.

And it was a world of grimy, sickly people. Both in the Tale of Genji and in historical fact, people died shockingly young. (Sei Shonagon thought she was old at thirty.) One reason for perfume was that various taboos kept people from bathing very often; Sei Shonagon tells us how amusing it is to see people’s clothing move as the fleas underneath jump around. (Not that anybody, anywhere a thousand years ago was able to come near the levels of health and cleanliness that we take for granted.) If we could be suddenly transported into that world, we would probably be horrified.

It must have been a little like a lifetime in high school, too. Nothing mattered more, it seems, than who you were in love with, what clique you belonged to, and how fashionable your clothes were. (Probably that’s because the average age was so pitifully young.)

And yet, it remains endlessly fascinating, this shadowy world of women swathed in layer on layer of carefully matched silks, peeping out from behind screens to glimpse their strutting menfolk perform elegant dances, brooding over the perfect wording of a poem to send as a reply to their latest admirer or to show their wonder at the season’s beauties.

(Images are from the Tokugawa Art Museum’s Handscroll of the Tale of Genji, on Wikimedia Commons. The scroll was painted around 1030 A.D. – when the Genji was a new story, written only about thirty years earlier – and is in the public domain because of age.)

Weekly Photo Challenge: Indulge, take 2

You know, I would feel very indulged if I could spend time every day looking at sights like this…or this…or this.

Maybe, come spring, I should spend some time (well. A lot of time.) tweaking my little corner of the planet so that anyone who wanders past can feel similarly refreshed.

(Oh, yes, I am definitely going to the Philadelphia Flower Show – just the other side of the Delaware River – week after next…)

Weekly Photo Challenge: Indulge

There are a lot of ways to picture this week’s Photo Challenge.

I’m going with this bee happily indulging herself with wisteria nectar. (The photo was taken in my mother’s back yard in April, 2006.)

Scorched earth? (52 books / 52 weeks)

Review – Wormwood Forest,
a natural history of Chernobyl,
by Mary Mycio

A keeper? Oddly, I don’t think so

If you’re over 35, you probably remember. The first vague news stories about high radiation detected in Sweden; the realization that something had gone horribly wrong somewhere in the Soviet Union; eventually, the terrifying story of how a nuclear reactor not far from the Ukrainian city of Kiev had exploded, showering the surrounding area with killer radiation. Among other aftereffects, the disaster at Chernobyl helped to bring down the Soviet system, quickly followed by the fall of Communist governments all over eastern Europe.

That was over twenty-five years ago, back in 1986. What sort of wasteland surrounds the evacuated, still-radioactive section of Ukraine and Belarus by this time? Is it a moonscape of crumbling buildings and skeletal dead trees, where no living thing walks except the handful of people who keep tabs on the sealed reactor core?

Well, no. It’s radioactive, yes. Not a safe place to raise a family (though apparently some aging Belorussians have refused to abandon their homes, and still live there). Full of towns slowly falling into ruin. But far from dead.

Instead, human withdrawal has turned the area around the Chernobyl nuclear plant into an unintended wildlife refuge, green and teeming with animals of all sorts. Mary Mycio tells us how local experts showed her around the abandoned flourishing new forests (an unnerving experience punctuated by dosimeter checks; but without radiation detectors, only the strangely misshapen pine trees would show that something’s very wrong.)

Wormwood Forest has a surprising story to tell, one that’s well worth reading. I’m glad I read it; if I didn’t have a space problem, I would keep it; but I don’t think I’ll need to come back to it. Out it goes – but if you come across a copy, this little book is worth your time.

First day of spring. Now.

I took this picture five minutes ago.

Spring’s here.

What IS a pack rat to do?

Add a table, chair, and shoe holders here? How?


One of my projects this year is to get rid of all the stuff in my house that we don’t use – sometimes because we can’t find it – and find ways that make sense to store the rest. And looking good would be nice, but let’s not boldly go too far from the household comfort zone.

Of course, one category of stuff I’ve bought far too often is books of advice on becoming organized. None of these books solved the problem; but is that the authors’ fault, or mine?

A reasonable guess would be that I’m more to blame than the people who write advice books. So I decided to take the first one I could find and spend a month doing everything it tells me to do. (FWIW, my source of decluttering wisdom turned out to be What’s a (dis)Organized Person to Do? by Stacey Platt. I’d call it a fairly typical specimen of this kind of book.)

The first chapter – “General Principles” – sounds promising. Alas, it’s only eight pages long, with lots of white space. Worse, Platt makes several good points but doesn’t seem to realize that some of us need advice on HOW to apply them. I especially like “Live within your space means”, but! I’ve been overspending my space (a Kindle’s nice, but I could still use a Tardis) for many years. I need someone to explain how to efficiently clear away the mountains of stuff – but I already know I can’t swallow the ruthless “just throw it out, you shouldn’t want it” approach that a friend tried to make me use.

(No, I’m not out of control enough to be entertainingly pilloried on one of those TV shows about hoarders. Just far enough out of control to make life way too complicated.)

Well, never mind. I’m going to follow the room by room advice if it kills me, and by the last page my home will be a showplace. Right?

Not so fast. Platt starts with the entryway, and wants us to organize that area with prettily matching hangers in the coat closet, a table or shelf to hold keys, cell phone, mail, and more, “containers for hats, scarves, and gloves; boot and shoe storage; a place to sit.” Suuure. I’ve got fifteen inches / thirty-eight centimeters of free space next to my front door. That’s not going to hold all that extra furniture.

And the four and a half feet (135 cm) wide floor space in my kitchen isn’t going to hold a butcher-block island and the kitchen table she suggests either. What was all that about living within your space budget?

I don’t mean to jump on Platt, or not very hard. Her book is typical of the genre. On the other hand, I’m not about to rush out and buy a bigger house so I can follow her advice.

I guess I’m on my own. 😦

Poking a nose out of my comfort zone

Noses are hard

One of my projects for this year is to learn to draw. And that means that somehow, sometime, I need to figure out how to draw noses.

Think about it. Eyes are fairly easy – they’ve got eyelashes, which are usually dark like a pencil line, to outline them, and the iris and pupil are nice and dark too. Lips aren’t too hard either, since there’s a noticeable boundary between the lips and the rest of the face that justifies using an outline to show the mouth.

But noses? In profile they’re no big deal, but head-on they blend right into the rest of the face! You can’t show the shape without making it look like your subject’s nose is on sideways. Or can you??

Well, artists can. I’ve tried to draw noses by using what I can figure out on my own, and the results look like nothing from this planet. So why not steal techniques from people who know what they’re doing?

I sat down with a book of drawings by Ingres – if you look hard enough in this house, you can find a book about just about anything – and copied Ingres noses for a while. Not as good as his, but much much better than I’ve been able to figure out by myself.

Then I tried drawing noses from photos.

Ingres was really, really good. (Surprise.)

I’ll need to spend a lot more time working on this. (Surprise.) But really, bad as these are, they’re the most convincing noses I ever drew.

52 books / 52 weeks – The Lark and the Wren

Review: The Lark and the Wren,
by Mercedes Lackey

A keeper? On the whole, yes

(This has got to stop. One point, for me, of tackling various reading challenges was to identify books I don’t really want. But now that I’m finally looking at my TBRs, it turns out that most of them are too good to dispose of. What’s a packrat to do?)

Almost 500 pages of the roving – picaresque, if you want to be English-majorish – adventures of Rune, aka Lark, and the friends she eventually makes along the way; and almost every page is interesting. It’s not a perfect book, of course, but it’s packed full of enjoyable moments. Rune knows what she wants at any given part of the story and goes after it – what she wants changes appropriately as she learns more about her world and the likely consequences of her choices, and especially as she matures and learns more about herself. (The main action of the story takes Rune from just barely 14 to 18 or 19.) But it’s not just the story of Rune growing up. It’s the story of Tonno who would have been a musician if only he had the talent, of Amber who made a satisfactory life in a hard world, of Stara who snatched at everything she wanted and lost her grip on it, of Gwydain who disappeared, of gypsies and judges and elves and lost heirs.

So, what’s wrong? Well, if it matters (and maybe it doesn’t), Lackey sort of ignores all the standard advice on how to construct a plot: start with a little problem for your main character, solve that problem in a way that leads to a worse problem, lather, rinse, repeat, till by the end it looks impossible for your character to find any sort of solution. In many ways, this book reads as if it might have started as a series of short stories – Rune is faced by a problem that makes it impossible to go on with her life as it is, and finds a way to leave and take up a new life. Her worst problem, being trapped in a tiny village with an abusive mother and serious danger of gang rape, comes at the very beginning of the story, and she escapes by taking what may be her biggest risk – playing a concert for a murderous ghost. That’s the end of that set of problems. After that, on the whole* her life gets better and better (and good for her).

* (Well, there is the incident about halfway through that leaves her with bruises on bruises and a broken arm. But, through no action on Rune’s part, this leads directly to being quasi-adopted by the nicest people she ever meets and having all her dreams come true.)

Are there worse flaws? Most of the characters, with just one notable exception, are either Good People or Bad People. Even if they have what are usually considered flaws, the people Rune likes have Hearts Of Gold every time. However, what I really disliked was the Fantasyland dialect – “Na, na, Rune. That’s not sensible, lass. Nobody can have that….Leastwise, no musicker.” I don’t like dialect anyhow, except in tiny doses – and this is especially annoying, because everybody Rune grew up with talks like this, and she talks standard English.

What I really liked, what sold me on the book finally, was the very last episode (the last sixty pages), with the most complex person in the whole story and an unexpected twist in the problem and in its resolution. Ending on a high note always helps!