Thursday, February 26, 2015

Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make it Do or Do Without

For most of my life I have been financially conservative. I grew up believing that one only goes into debt for a home, your health, and an education. My goals were always to be able to pay my bills and educate my kids.

The few times I fell off the rails (think 5200 sq. ft. house with 5 fireplaces and a living room the size of a skating rink) have not had happy endings.  Those non ideal endings led to even more financial conservatism to keep our heads above water.  Eventually, being financially conservative (or frugal, or a tightwad or cheap, pick your term) became a life habit.

Oh, and each successive house since that one has been smaller and smaller.  And now, we are living in 242 square feet of space, about 20% of the space of that way too big house.  Much better for sleeping at night.

When there is a need for something (a need, not a want), I always try to think of how we can obtain what we need without breaking the bank.  This has, I admit, led to some "interesting" ways to solve problems.

Once, we had a baby blue carpet in our very large dining room (see above) that was stained and dirty looking no matter how many times it was cleaned.  After paying the heating bill for the house ($3600/year about 30 years ago) there wasn't enough wiggle room in the budget to pay for new carpet. (who am I kidding, there wasn't ANY wiggle room.)  So, I got creative with navy blue liquid dye and a toothbrush.  Many evenings and many hours later, after working the full strength dye into the fibers of the carpet with a toothbrush, we had a much better looking carpet that stood up to five years of use until we could finally put in a new floor.

Or, there was the small eating area off the kitchen of our Syracuse, NY house.  The linoleum floor was old, worn and ugly.  But we were poor grad students and replacing the floor was a no go.  Enter wood grained contact paper, scissors and a ruler to measure and work out air bubbles.  That "laminate" floor was washed many, many times over the next three years (we had two kids, ages 1 and 3 when we moved in, who ate in that room) and was just starting to fade when we moved out.

When we were first married and Mike was stationed in Spain I couldn't find a shower curtain that I liked and was willing to pay the cost for.  So, I bought several matching window valances (on clearance) and sewed them together to create a tiered shower curtain.  Unique at the time and nice if I do say so myself.

Over our almost 40 years of marriage Mike and I have lived in 9 houses.  In all of those houses I have bought flat sheets and transformed them into curtains for the windows in each room.  The only "store bought" curtains I have had were lace curtains for the living room of the above mentioned huge house that my Mom found for me on sale  ($100 for 8 pairs).  Those sale curtains moved with us to the next 2 houses and hung on my windows for over 13 years until they fell apart in the washer.  I think we got our money's worth.

When we were in grad school, both of us at the same time, our food budget was SMALL.  We did a happy dance when we discovered you could buy cracked eggs by the case at the local farmer's market for a much reduced price.  We would come home, take them out of the shell, mix the yolk and white with a fork and freeze in quantities of 2 or 4 egg equivalents.  Unless you were hungry for an egg sunny side up we were all set. Cheap protein.

We also ate a lot of potatoes (bought 50 pounds at a time from a potato farmer that lived in the same town as Mike's aunt), pasta, rice, and beans.  Produce was bought during the summer for rock bottom prices and canned and frozen for meals later in the year.  I also honed my bread baking skills since flour in 25 pound bags was much cheaper than bread in the store and my family liked it much more, too.

We didn't eat a vegetarian diet but I did develop quite a repertoire of low meat recipes and some non meat, too.  Most of them my family ate without complaint but not all.  Just ask them about my lentil burgers.  I still like them but I am a minority of one in my house.

To this day, I find it a fun challenge to see how low I can keep my food budget and still provide healthy and tasty meals.  I can still put three meals a day for two people on the table for about $50 a month and that includes healthier options like whole wheat pasta, brown rice, olive oil and such.  I love beating the system.

The joy of beating the system is also why I like shopping at thrift, charity and consignment shops.  I can afford better quality clothes, the classic clothes I favor, save lots of money and keep items out of the landfill all at the same time.  Recently I bought 2 skirts, 10 new tops (I am prone to stains that appear as a result of my less than neat cooking) and a sweater for under $25.  Love it!

We have only purchased one new car in our almost 40 years of marriage.  And, that car was the only lemon we have ever owned.  We set a limit and shop until we find a good one in our price range.  I have even been known to walk away from vehicles we loved when the salesman did not seem to understand that our limit was actually a limit.

One of the best things I ever learned going way back into the early 1990's, is that frugality and environmental issues overlap by about 90%.  That just reinforced (to DD1 and DD2's chagrin) my already fairly well honed frugal tendencies.  I could save money and save the planet at the same time.  Sweet!

I am afraid that my habits and my outlook are now so firmly entrenched that I couldn't live differently if I wanted to do so.  It's a game for me now.  And, even after all these years I still enjoy reading books, e books and blogs looking for new ideas or to be reminded of ideas that I once knew but had forgotten.  My thought is that Abe Lincoln is so tall since I keep stretching all those pennies his face is on.

But, don't fear.  I am not always so frugal.  What comes to mind are prom gowns, class rings, yearbooks, trips, swim teams, sailing lessons, tennis lessons, etc. all paid for without a qualm. Oh, and college educations for both daughters so they could start life without student loans.

Because you see, by penny pinching in other places there are dollars available to do things and buy things to make life more enjoyable and to create memories.  Yeah, all in all, I wouldn't change a thing.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Look into the English Home

Although in the last year and a half I have physically been in only a few British homes, because I have a love affair with magazines that I indulge when traveling, I have been in many more virtual English homes and I have discovered a few things:
  1. Most British homes are not open concept.  There are doors to close off basically every room in the house.  The reason:  It is then easier and cheaper to keep the space you are in warm.
  2. Insulating drapes are often hung just inside the door to block cold air from having a pathway into the room.  These could take the shape of traditional drapes or even a quilt or heavy blanket.  Result, a warmer room without a larger heating bill. We have a quilt at the bottom of the stairs from the cockpit to do the same thing on the boat.
  3. Almost all British homes are much smaller than a home in the U.S.  A blog I read this week said that about 500 to 1000 sq. ft. is the average.  Less to heat.  Less to clean.  Less to maintain.  Less to furnish.  A closer family dynamic since people cannot hide from each other.
  4. The British tend to have fewer " formal" areas in their homes.  They usually have kitchen and diners or what we would call eat in kitchens and their living rooms are more like our family rooms.  You can see why when you take into consideration the average square footage of their homes. They don't have room to have a formal living and dining room used only 2 or 3 times a year.  Their rooms, their spaces must earn their keep.
  5. Most of their furniture is multifunctional:   think storage ottomans; or smaller scale with a smaller footprint to fit the smaller sized rooms.
  6. Most homes have one or one and a half bathrooms.  Sharing the bathroom with other family members is the norm (as is the sharing of bedrooms with other children in the family). Their personal space needs are much diminished in comparison with the average U.S. resident.
  7. Their refrigerators are under the counter models as are their washers, which are usually located in the kitchen. And for many a dishwasher means a person standing at the sink and doing them by hand.
In this time of increasing interest lowering fuel bills, in minimalism, simplicity and decluttering we could definitely learn a thing or two from our "mother country".

The Water of Life

The distilling of whiskey, which means the water of life in Celtic,  began in Ireland in 1100's but there is no record of it in Scotland until 1400's.  Somehow it does not surprise me that the Irish were the ones that created whiskey.  As the saying goes, "God was afraid that the Irish would rule the world.  So he created liquor."

When we were recently in Scotland, we toured the Dewar's distillery that is located just three miles from the birth place of John Dewar, the founder of Dewar's. Aberfeldy has been the home of the Aberfeldy Distillery since 1898 and produces the largest malt whiskey component of Dewar's Blended Whisky.

Dewar's whiskey brand was created by John Dewar, Sr. in 1846 when he  pioneered the art of blending different single malt and single grain scotchs  to create a smoother tasting whiskey.

Dewar's expanded to become a global market leader by 1896. They also pioneered the art of marrying whiskeys in oak casks for several months after blending to become even smoother and to create several layers of flavor.

The Aberfeldy Distillery was founded by John Dewar & Sons, Ltd. in 1896, and opened in 1898. The distillery is located on the eastern outskirts of Aberfeldy, on the southern bank of the upper Tay.

Under the control of his two sons, John A. Dewar ,Jr., who took over the steering of the brand at age 24 in 1880, and Thomas "Tommy" Dewar,  known for his wit and advertising ability including creating film advertisements for the brand. 
Aberfeldy distillery relies on the fresh water from Pitilie Burn, which runs alongside the distillery. Aberfeldy is the only distillery in Scotland to use these waters. Aberfeldy  also uses only Scottish barley, yeast and water.  It is truly SCOTCH whiskey.

The demand for barley as a basic foodstuff during World War I led to the distillery being closed from 1917 to 1919.   World War II also caused barley supplies to be cut, and the distillery was again forced to shut down for part of the war.

Since the Scots are known for being financially savvy and not wasting anything, the mash, that is a byproduct of the distilling process, is turned into cow cake and the sugar water byproduct is turned into cow molasses to mix with grain for feed for cattle.  No waste and more profit.  Now that makes the Scots happy.

Oh, after our tasting, part of the tour, I can insure you that it tastes great, too.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Dolly Clare

Sometimes fictional characters can teach us a lot about how to look at life's ups and downs.

There is a British series of books dealing with life in a small village that was written by Dora Saint and whose major connecting character is Miss Read.  While she is a wonderful character, it was always Miss Clare that I was most drawn to.

Miss Clare grew up  and lived her life in genteel poverty.  She became a pupil teacher (non-certified, think Laura Ingalls) and worked as an infants teacher for over 40 years.  Her betrothed was a victim of WWI so she lived out her life without the family and children of her dreams.

Her bank account was never large but her life and heart were overflowing.

It is not about what you have, it is about how you approach and deal with what life throws at you.

Dolly Clare knew the value of family and friends.  She opened her heart and her life to those around her and reaped the rewards of "extended family", even when there were no blood ties.

Her students became the children she never had and she lavished upon them the care, concern and wisdom she had in abundance.

She gardened and preserved the fruits of that garden.  And all of those beautifully prepared jars of goodness meant that when she felt the desire to help others in need she had the wherewithal to do so.

She sewed, knit, crocheted, mended and cared for the items she owned.  Linen was darned, sweaters were knit, skirts and dresses were sewn and all were looked after to make sure they lasted and always looked new.

Furniture inherited from her family was reupholstered by her.  China was lovingly washed.  Silver was polished.  These were true family heirlooms and treasures.

The beauty to be found in nature for free soothed her troubles and gave strength when needed.

Life was faced with a smile, serenely, without self pity for what was not had but with thankfulness for what was.

When I grow up I want to live a life that mirrors Dolly Clare.  In doing so I hope it will make the world just a little bit better.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?

As some of you know, before starting our narrow boat adventure we got rid of A LOT of household stuff.  Dishes, furniture, decorative items, clothing, bedding, books, general stuff that just seems to accumulate over the years.  We started out with enough to full a four bedroom house with basement, attic and garage!  (Embarrassing to even admit.)

We would have cleared out even more but at the last moment we decided to not sell the house but instead to have someone live in it with our cats while we were gone.  She asked that some of the items remain so we stopped being the Salvation Army's best contributors.  Seriously, we had both been there so frequently that the workers recognized us and our cars. :-)

And now, we have been living quite comfortably in our 242 square feet for over a year.  So much of the things we thought were necessities we do not even miss.  (Although I have admitted to missing some kitchen items, etc. but basically either because they make things cheaper or faster or both.)

So now when I think of eventually moving back into our Erie house it is with a sense of trepidation.  Don't get me wrong, I love the house.  It has wood floors, great wood trim, great architectural details, fireplaces, etc.  All things that appeal to my aesthetics and feed my soul.  And, it even has a remodeled bathroom that I LOVE and only got to use for about six months!

However, what if I move back in and just start to fill all that space up again until the floors are groaning and the walls are bulging?  How to I maintain my new found love of minimalism in the face of all that space?

Having fewer items is freeing to my soul.  Fewer things makes cleaning easier and I am no love of the process of cleaning although I do like a clean and orderly house.  Fewer things leaves more time and money for enjoying life.  Fewer things is easier on our planet and lessens my carbon footprint.  I have the mantra down.

But I still worry.  Will I find myself recreating the house as it once was because in my head that is what it is supposed to be?  Can I teach this old lady new tricks? 

"Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat"

... was all he had to offer to the citizens of his country when he became Prime Minister in 1940.  But he and his country found the resolve, inspiration, confidence and endurance  to see Britain through its darkest hour.  He refused to give in when others said there was no hope.  And for that the world owes him an immense debt since the fate of England was essentially seen to be the fate of the world.

He served in the House of Commons for over 60 years, first as a Tory, then as a Liberal and finally as a Conservative.  His voice was one of the very few that opposed appeasement and warned about the need for Britain to rearm so as to be able to defend itself. He pushed for new ships and the development of new warfare systems such as tanks, radar and military aircraft.

He was to serve as Prime Minister twice, first from 1940-1945 and then again from 1951-1955, retiring when he was 80 years old.

He was there when citizens, using their private boats, helped to evacuate over 340,000 troops from Dunkirk over the English Chanel to safety so that they could fight again in defense of their island.

He, with all Londoners, endured the nightly bombing raids that made up the Battle of Britain and destroyed entire sections of the city .  He was later to say of the brave young pilots, so many of whom were to give their lives, and who fought night after night to keep the enemy at bay, that never in the course of history had "so much been owed by so many to so few."

As a young man he had trained as a soldier and was to always maintain the ability to think as one and the courage to respond to situations as one.  He toured the front lines, assessed situations, listened to the military leaders and the soldiers on the ground and worked indefatigably to maintain morale and preserve hope in a brighter tomorrow.

It has been 50 years since the country mourned his death in January 1955.  His was the only state funeral of a commoner in all of the 20th century.  As his funeral barge passed down the Thames the huge dock cranes lowered to half mast in his honor.

He was buried beside his parents in a church yard in sight of Blenheim Palace where he had been born 90 years before.  His grave is marked by a simple gravestone engraved only with the names and dates for his wife Clementine and himself:

                                                Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill

A great man who believed that the British nation had the heart of a lion and it was his job to give the roar.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Shrove Tuesday

The expression "Shrove Tuesday" comes from the word shrive, meaning "confess".
It is the day before Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of Lent. 
Shrove Tuesday, as with many holidays, was pagan in origin.  It marked the transition between the cold and darkness of winter and the fertility of spring. The most important part of Shrovetide week (the whole celebration of the arrival of spring lasted one week) was making and eating pancakes. The hot, round pancakes symbolized the sun and by eating pancakes the individual received the power, light and warmth of the sun.

Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day is exactly 47 days before Easter and is the last day Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of Lent. 

Pancakes are associated with the day preceding Lent because they were a way to use up rich foods such as eggs, milk, and sugar, before the fasting season of the 40 days of Lent.
On Pancake Day, "pancake races" are held in villages and towns across the United Kingdom.

The tradition is said to have originated in 1445 when a housewife, busy making pancakes, forgot the time until she heard the church bells ringing for a service. She raced out of the house to church while still carrying her frying pan and pancake, tossing it to prevent it from burning. 

The pancake race remains a relatively common festive tradition in the UK, especially England, even today. Participants with frying pans race through the streets tossing pancakes into the air and catching them in the pan while running.

The traditional pancakes are thin and crepe-like. Below is a common recipe for British Shrove Tuesday pancakes.  Give them a try topped with the English accompaniment of lemon and sugar.
  • 225g / 8 oz plain or all-purpose flour
  • Pinch salt
  • 2 large, fresh eggs
  • 600ml / 2½ cups milk
  • 2 tsp melted butter plus extra melted butter for cooking
  • Makes 12 pancakes

  • Sieve the flour into a large baking bowl, add the salt. Make a well in the center of the flour and add the eggs. Beat well until smooth and lump free.
  • Add half the milk and the 2 tsp of butter, beat well. Add the remaining milk and stir.
  • Leave the batter to rest for 15 minutes.
  • Lightly grease a pancake pan or frying pan with a little melted butter. Heat until very hot and add a ladleful of batter so it evenly and thinly coats the base of the pan. Cook until set and lightly golden.
  • Using a spatula or if you are really brave try tossing the pancake in the air,  and cook on the other side for approx 30 seconds.
  • Slip the pancake from the pan onto a warm plate. Cover the plate with a tea cloth and keep warm.. Continue as above until all the batter is used up.
  • To Serve

    On Pancake Day, pancakes are traditionally eaten sprinkled with sugar and a squeeze of lemon.


Saturday, February 14, 2015

A Special Valentine's Gift

Almost five years ago, for my birthday, I received a priceless gift from my DD2 and SIL, a picture of my soon to be born grandchild.

I immediately went into grandma mode and every little thing I found that I thought might be useful or cute or cuddly went onto my charge card.  Why?  Because you are filled with love of the child to be and of your child who is going to be a parent and you want to help.  And also, to be honest, because I  could not afford to do so when we were starting out and having our own children.  (A lot of those things ended up at thrift stores but hopefully other young mothers and their children benefited and that is a good thing. :-)

That Valentine's Day I received my second present when DD2 gave birth to our beloved grandson.  What an appropriate gift for that holiday of love. 

Since the birth of that wonderful baby I have had so much fun and felt so much joy just watching him grow and learn and become his own little person.  His voice inflections, his smile, his energy, his excitement are all so wonderful to see.

And, even better, I do not have to worry about making sure he learns this, or doesn't learn that; I don't have to worry and second guess if I am making the right decisions; I don't have to say No when I would rather say Yes; I don't have to be "The World's Meanest Mother" in the struggle to raise a child to become a successful, contributing and content member of society. The decisions of parenting, with all of the accompanying doubts, second guessing and worries, are no longer mine.  My job is to love, to enjoy, to share time and attention and to watch this little man turn into just that, a man.

And if how he is now is any indication, he will be a wonderful man.  One his parents can be proud of and his grandmother can brag about. :-)

So, Happy Birthday JHC !  You really have been a gift from God for this grandma.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Something Lost or Gained in Translation

A Britisher might say:  "There were 3 sleeping policeman in the road into town, a lollipop man stationed at the private school gate and a zebra crossing at the public school gate."
Translation into American:    There were 3 speed bumps, one crossing guard at the public school and a pedestrian crosswalk at the private school gate. (Yep, public schools here are actually what we think of as private schools.)

They might say: "In the children's on the first floor, left behind in the cot, was a dummy."
Translation:  The room is upstairs on our second floor, the cot is a crib and the dummy is a pacifier. (England has a ground floor, then a first floor, etc.)

They might say:  In the dark the goods train did not see the man struck, who has been identified by police only as Joe Bloggs.
Translation:  A freight train hit the unfortunate man and he is still a John Doe with no formal identification yet made.

We might say:  She wore pants and a vest to work.
They hear:  All she wore to work were her panties and an undershirt.  Now that is a casual Friday!

They might say:  He had on braces, a waistcoat, and trousers when he was out working in his garden.
Translation:  He had suspenders, a suit's vest and what we call pants on and he was working in his yard.

They might say:  The bank holiday was the day chosen for the draughts championship.
Translation:  It is a national holiday and a checkers championship.

They might say:  You are invited to a fancy dress ball.
Translation:  This is a costume ball.  Don't show up in a tux or tails unless it is part of your costume or your face will be red.

They might say:  Before the 1960's almost all women wore suspenders.  Now almost no one does.
Translation:  They wore garter belts to hold up their hose.

They might say:  He dropped his torch and fell and they had to take him to surgery and a plaster was applied to his injury.
Translation:  He dropped his flashlight, went to the doctor's office and they put on a band aid.

They might say:  We used up the rashers in a butty for lunch and with it we had jelly and fairy cakes as pudding.
Translation:  They had a bacon sandwich and jello followed by cupcakes for dessert.

They might say:  Make sure you skip that before having a kip.
Translation:  Throw it in the dumpster before going to sleep.

Now, isn't that all much clearer?

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Sawdust, Ice and Egg cartons

While we were away in Scotland some locals did some cutting and scavenging of fire wood on the same tree we had been working on.  They took the humongous pieces that never would have fit into our stove and they left behind the smaller branches that were just too small to be practical for them.  So yesterday Mike and I worked on cutting up those branches into appropriately sized "logs" for our little stove.

As usual, Mike used the chain saw.  As anyone who has known me for any length of time will tell you, my vision is "quirky".  It results in my trying to walk through doorways that are not where I think they are, light candles that are not  exactly where I am trying to light them, and other similar occurrences.  (And yes, I did drive for years but I am no longer driving so you can rest easy. :-) 

Since I like having all my fingers and toes and my oh so useful opposable thumbs it just seems prudent to stay away from a fast cutting chain saw.  The hand saw and I get along better.  And no, I have not yet cut myself but then there is always tomorrow. :-)  Thanks for asking.

The ice on the canal has had a few days to thicken since even during the recent days it was too cold for it to melt.  If you look out our kitchen area window you can see a dog's tennis ball and several pieces of wood laying on top of the ice.  Our guess is that the local lads like to "borrow" a log or two and give them a toss just to see if they will break through the ice.

It is not advisable to use your boat as an icebreaker unless there is no other choice.  It does a number on the paint and blacking.  But, we are on one side of the canal and the water point is on the other side.  Usually we would just move across the canal and fill our water tank but Mike did not want to do that if it could be avoided.

So, thinking back to his navy days and the process of replenishment at sea, he rigged a system of ropes that allowed him to get the hose from the water point to our boat.  Thank heavens we have a long hose!  And now we also have a full water tank available for laundry, showers and such.  My hero!

While he was busy rigging his ropes and hoses I was busy with sawdust, cardboard egg cartons and melted wax from thrift store candles.  By filling the egg compartments with sawdust, pouring melted wax on top of same, and letting it all harden we have created fire starters.  They are wonderful for in the morning when you want a fire and you want it NOW!  No muss, no fuss.

Don't we live such fascinating lives?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Some of the Little Things

The older I become (and I have decided it is OK to get older but I do not want to get old) the more I realize it is the little things that are important  to a good and rewarding life.  Little things such as:
  • the wonderful smell of wood smoke that has the ability to make you feel warmer just by smelling it
  • the little green spikes breaking the soil that let you know the spring flowers are on their way
  • the first little yellow forsythia flowers that tell you spring is surely just around the corner
  • the mornings that are getting lighter earlier and darker later, at last
  •  a day of sunshine after so many of rain and gloom
  • the friendly people who stop to talk and ask about our trip to Scotland and make suggestions for future trips
  • the dogs and kitty cats who may not know you but take the time to introduce themselves and become friends, if only for a little while
For these and other small gifts from God we must remember to always give thanks.  Without them life would be stark indeed.

Sunday, February 1, 2015


It is 12:30 am and I am peacefully sleeping until suddenly catapulted out of bed by the smoke detector.  As I propel myself through the dark boat towards the wood stove I am mentally taking stock of the whereabouts of our fire extinguisher, fire blanket and my large boxes of baking soda.

But once at the front of the boat, no emergency.  Flames are not licking out around the stove door.  Smoke is not spewing forth.  The logs are slowly burning down emitting what warmth remains in them to try and keep the boat from being too freezing when we get up.

False alarm.  But just to be sure, I open a window to make certain we have fresh air circulating through the boat.  Then back to bed.

.....1:15 and I am once again hurled out of bed by the call of the smoke alarm.  This time I am muttering as I move to the front of the boat where all is again serene.  What the heck?  I can't smell any more smoke than one usually smells when you have to open the door of a wood burner.  The fire looks more restful than I am at this moment.  So again, I open another window and go back to bed.

...1:45 and you guessed it.  The siren sound of the alarm blasts me out of bed once again.  This time I am not just muttering.  I am loudly telling the smoke alarm what I feel like doing to it and in no uncertain terms.  The fire in the stove is now just a bed of smoldering embers.  No threat here.  But, just to be sure I open what is probably our last closed window.  The boat is now as cold as the outside and the wind moves through it unobstructed.

I stagger back to my bed and, may God be praised, that is our last false alarm of the night.  Now, it might have something to do with the fact that I took the smoke detector and put it in the cockpit but whatever.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.

It was only much later that morning after a few cups of liquid caffeine that Mike and I decided what we think was actually happening.  Remember all those open windows and all that wind?  We think the wind was blowing the smoke from the chimney back into the boat and setting off the alarm.  Don't tell me God doesn't have a sense of humor.  We could almost hear him chuckling.