Friday, June 27, 2008

The poverty diet

For a sociology assignment, I am spending five full days in a row on a poverty diet, meaning I have just $4.25/day to spend on food. This is, apparently, $1.25 more per day than the official poverty food spending amount of $3.00/day.

I thought it would be hard, I thought I'd be starving, but actually, it isn't all that hard to eat well on $4.25/day. I considered putting my entire family on the poverty diet, since that would make the shopping simpler, but decided I didn't want to deal with the complaints. I saved my receipts from the grocery store, and made notes of the prices of things that I didn't need to buy, but had in stock in my house so I could calculate what they cost.

My biggest concern was feeding my addiction to caffeine. I knew that if it came down to a choice between food and coffee, I would have to choose the coffee, but it hasn't come to that. It turns out that a cup of tea with two splenda packets costs $0.13. A cup of coffee (made at home) with a mix of milk & half & half plus three splenda packets costs $0.32. I made pizza from scratch for dinner one night, and discovered that each piece costs $0.36. That's with organic flour, too. I used free-range, locally-raised, grass-fed beef ($5/pound) to make a Moroccan beef dish, that, because the beef was stretched with rice and other ingredients, came to $1.25/serving. Last night's spicy beans and rice cost $0.91/serving. That's with organic beans.

Breakfast on day one cost $0.80. It consisted of one egg ($0.28), 1/2 serving oatmeal ($0.06) made with 1/4 cup milk ($0.06) and one teaspoon sugar ($.02) plus 1/16 of a cantaloupe ($0.25) plus the tea-with-splenda ($0.13).

The key is portion control. I can't have second helpings of anything and I can't afford desserts or sweets or between-meal snacks. I'm not starving, but after some meals, I do feel somewhat unsatisfied, but it's nothing I can't handle. Calories for the day range between 1000 and 1300 which is a tiny bit less than what is ideal for my size, but who was ever harmed by eating *slightly* fewer calories than they need? I suppose a large man or a teenager would be hurting from this diet a lot more than I am.

Another key is knowing how to cook. If I had to buy a prepared pizza crust rather than making one from scratch, my pizza would have been a lot more expensive. Not everybody likes oatmeal, but it is much cheaper and more filling than cold cereal. And that's plain old oatmeal, not the instant packets, which are disgusting, anyway.

Equally important, drinking water with meals rather than some other kind of beverage (tap water) but that's something I have always done. Also, you need to eat whole foods, not convenience foods.

I have two days left on the poverty diet. I hope I don't sound too smug. I can see that without good shopping skills, cooking skills, or organization, living on $4.25/day could be very difficult. If I had to be at work all day, I'd have to give up my mid-morning coffee break because I couldn't afford to buy it, although I suppose I could pack myself a small thermos. Lunch would have to be brown bag, which is something I would do anyway. In nearly three years of working at UVA, I never once bought a meal in the cafeteria, although the food there is so unappetizing, it wasn't much of a sacrifice to do without it.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The way we live now

I just finished reading Do the Windows Open, a collection of stories by Julie Hecht, who truly understands the trials of modern American life: the awfulness of florescent lighting and stuffed animals; the despair one feels when Easter decorations start to appear in stores. The narrator, who is never named, shares many of my own neuroses. I'm just like her, only not a macrobiotic vegetarian. The consumption of meat does not offend me. Or does it? Actually, meat-eating does offend me when it's people at Disneyland eating entire fried turkey legs. Isn't it bad enough to be at Disneyland without having to see people eating giant fried turkey legs? I could make an entire casserole out of a turkey leg.

I once had a relative named Auntie. That is the only name I knew for her. She was my grandfather's aunt, and died before I was born. One day my grandfather shook his head and said, “Auntie just wasn't made for the modern world.” I feel the same way about myself, which is why I enjoyed Do the Windows Open so much, whose narrator, like me, can't do many of the things that modern people take for granted or even find pleasant or desirable.

I realized there are many, many things I “can't” do. I can't drink tea out of inferior-quality porcelain. I can't make left turns onto busy streets. I can't shop on Saturdays and I can't shop at Sears on any day. I can't use a drive-through window. I can't live in a house built after 1940. Once, I lived in a house that was built in 1967. I lived in it for eleven years and it crushed my spirit. I can't live in a suburb. I lived in a suburb once. It coincided with living in the 1967 house. It was a dreadful experience, but it taught me a valuable lesson: it is perilous to raise one's children in the suburbs. And yet, there are people who believe that the suburbs are the ideal, indeed the only, place to raise one's children.

I can't shop for electronics and I can't be in the presence of too much mass-produced clothing at one time. I can't go to amusement parks on hot summer days. I can't watch children's sports. I can't drink water out of anything but glass, indeed, I can't drink anything out of plastic.
I can't squeeze in front of people to get to a seat in the middle of the row in a crowded theater. This eccentricity got me kicked out of the Walker Upper Elementary school moving up ceremony this year. I arrived late and the only seats were way up in the balcony, in the middle of rows which were guarded by very large people who all gave me hostile looks as I groped my way through the dark, looking for a seat. So I stood in the wide, deep recess between the balconies--I really took up almost no space at all--but some man, a fire marshal or something, told me I couldn't stand there. I explained about not being able to squeeze past large, hostile people, but he clearly thought I was being irrational, so I had to sit on an ottoman in the vestibule for a while until I could steal an aisle seat from one of the many people who exited the building during the middle of the ceremony.

Obviously, I can do any of these things, but doing them comes with such a profound sense of despair that I try to avoid them at all costs. I even pack my own tea cup when I am traveling, so that my lips need never touch Corelle and I will make a right turn and find a place to turn around rather than try to make an impossible left turn. I am always somewhat in awe of people who attempt the impossible left turn, and yet also slightly contemptuous.

If you find the modern world is hard and you can't understand the things other people do, then you will probably like Julie Hecht's stories and her delightfully neurotic narrator.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Mysteries of American regional English

My poll revealed that most of my readers say "lightning bug" rather than "firefly." The weird thing is, a lot of the people who say "lightning bug" come from more or less the same region of the country that I do, and I say "firefly." I'm grew up in Buffalo, NY for those of you who don't know. I asked Jon, who grew up a few blocks from me, and he says firefly too. I'm trying to remember my childhood summers in Vermont and Canada, but I don't recall thinking the kids I knew there used a different word than I did, and I do recall the fireflies were a frequent topic of discussion due to some kids' trick of killing them and wiping the phosphorescence on their arms in order to glow in the dark. I never did that.

The regional differences in American English are interesting to me. I like the southernisms I hear down here in Virginia. Like being told to "have a good evening" at ten o'clock in the morning. Or hearing a shopping cart called a "buggy," hearing trousers referred to as "britches," people saying they "about fell out," exclaiming "great day" when they are surprised, and mothers referring to their children as "brother" and "sister."

Why do parking garages, even brand-new parking garages, always smell like urine? The big new garage near UVA, next to the Studio Art Shop smells like a toilet already and it just opened.

That is all I have for today.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Breaking social mores

It's midterms already. I am taking one course this semester--sociology--which is easy, and yet I resent it. I am still so traumatized from two semesters of nursing school, I don't want to do any work at all. Still, an entire week's assignment will be to read a single chapter in the text (about 30 pages, with many graphs and illustrations) and post once in the discussion board. Compared to nursing school, in which a single week included 16 hours of patient care in the hospital, a three hour lecture, a quiz, twelve hours of writing pathophysiology papers, drug analysis and care plans, plus reading assignments sometimes topping two hundred pages a week--and all that for just one class-- I have it easy over the summer.

So this week is the midterm. There is also a "writing assignment" looming. We have three choices for the writing assignment:
1. Watch some movie--can't remember which one, this option is the least interesting to me--and write about it.
2. Live for five days on the poverty food allowance of $4.50/day and then write about the experience.
3. Break a social more, three times for three "victims." Record the reaction of your victims and write about the experience.

I will probably end up doing option number two, but number three is intriguing too. I imagine myself flossing my teeth on the bus, say. Or, I could walk around with the back of my skirt tucked into my underwear. I could approach complete strangers and ask them how much they earn, yearly. I could roll down my car window at stoplights and talk to the people in the car next to me about random things. Have they read any good books lately? What are they planning to cook for dinner? I could hang around outside downtown restaurants and ask people if I could sample what they are eating. I could wear my hair in two little-girl pigtails with big pink bows.

If you had to break a social more and your goal was to make the biggest impact and get the biggest reaction from your victims without getting arrested, what would you do?

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Remember how Jerry Seinfeld would say “Newman!” and make an angry face whenever he was foiled by his evil mailman neighbor? My sister and I do the same thing, only we say, “Martha!” referring, of course, to Martha Stewart the woman responsible for raising the bar to unattainable levels for all things in the domestic arena.

Example: the hardwood floor.

Long ago, Americans lived in houses they built themselves, mainly of wood. Floors were almost universally made of wood, and early housewives probably gave as much thought to their floors as they did to their fingernails, ie very little. They noticed when they were dirty, cleaned them, and then forgot about them. After many years, wood floor went out of fashion. Wood has an annoying tendency to be very dusty. And hard and cold. And it is easily damaged. Wall-to-wall carpet was introduced , which was warm and soft, and which absorbed dust, rather than allowing it to float freely about. You could quickly vacuum and then go on your way. And yet, carpet came with problems too, mainly that people tend to spill things on it, and then it gets stained, and if you don't clean spills thoroughly and immediately, they may start to smell, and soon a wall-to-wall carpet is a giant sump of germs and dust mites.

So wall-to-wall became distinctly down market and hardwood enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. But somewhere between the time of wall-to-wall carpeting's rise to popularity and its downfall, Martha Stewart came into power and now, cleaning a hardwood floor has become as complicated as rocket science. Everybody—everybody!--has an opinion on how best to clean hardwood floors, and not only is everybody's opinion different, everybody says that everybody's else's methods will lead to that fate worse than death: dull floors.

I used to wash my hardwood floors fairly often but then I went to nursing school and gave up cleaning, and so as of yesterday, they hadn't been cleaned since October. I used warm water to which I'd added a little dish soap and a generous dollop of white vinegar, and you know what? This turns out to be the formula Martha recommends too, although she specifies “plant based dish soap.” Whatever.

It was a pain in the ass because my entire house is hardwood, and as I mopped, I reflected on medieval times and how the custom was to throw a big pile of rushes on the floor and every six months, or even once a year, rake them out along with the food scrapes and dog crap and whatever else had accumulated, and replace them with new rushes, and I thought that method had the great advantage of convenience, although dog crap on the floor wouldn't be very nice at all. Still, when your kids overfilled their cereal bowls and left a trail of cheerios and milk drops from the kitchen to the couch in front of the TV, you could shrug and say, “Meh, I'll just rake it out in April.” And by April, you could be dead of the plague, so who has time to worry about floors? But we don't get the plague anymore. We have Martha.

Speaking of hardwood, my mother-in-law is trying to sell her house. She has been trying to sell it since February. It is an unusual house, in that it is a tiny piece of Hollywood in Buffalo, NY. It is the second-kitschiest house in Buffalo, the first-kitschiest being a reproduction of a medieval castle, which happens to be on the very same street as my mother-in-law's house. It was built sometime in the 1920s or '30s by a man who wanted an exact copy of Norma Shearer's house. Norma Shearer was a movie star of the 1920s and '30s.

This is Norma Shearer:

This was her house:

My mother-in-law's house, it turns out, is not an exact copy, but it is close. My in-laws raised a family of seven children in that house, for nearly forty years, and it worked great for them, but it is really not a good family house. The only people I can imagine wanting to buy it now would be a gay male couple. I mean, there's a fountain in the living room, for fuck's sake. I can't believe that my mother-in-law's Realtor can't see this and rustle up a gay couple, but perhaps there is a shortage of gay couples in the housing market in Buffalo.

Anyway, the Realtor has been telling my mother-in-law that she ought to replace the wall-to-wall carpet in the bedrooms and upstairs hall, and Jon and I are nearly apoplectic in our efforts to talk her out of this idea. Old wall to wall carpet says, “There's great hardwood under here.” New wall to wall carpet says, “There's something crappy under here that the owner is trying to hide.” Jon and I are telling her to get rid of the carpets, buff the floors a bit and throw down some area rugs to hide the bits that look dull. My mother-in-law's Realtor must be more than a little dim. Maybe Martha should start helping people market their houses.

Anybody want to move to Buffalo and live in kitschy reproduction movie star house?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Mystery solved + pool ettiquette

Jon and I went to a wedding a couple of weeks ago, and when we got home, there was a somewhat hectic vibe in my bedroom. The room looked much as it had when we'd left the house, although my bedside lamp was moved to the left by a few inches, and a few things were out of place, but generally what struck me was a feeling that there had been a lot of activity in my room while we'd been gone. I asked the kids what they'd been up to, but they all said, "Oh, no, we didn't go into your room."

Then I found these pictures on Drama Queen's camera:

We joined a pool club, something I've been thinking of doing for years. Charlottesville has decent public pools, but they are so crowded during the day, it's ridiculous. I was sick of arranging my whole life around when the Washington Park Pool was likely to be less crowded. I was also sick of driving all the way over there, only to be turned away because someone had just pooped in the pool. I also didn't like having to park my towels on scorching concrete, because even when the pool was less crowded, there were almost never seats under the umbrellas. So we joined a pool and it is good.

I am still trying to figure out the whole scene at this pool, which is very kid-oriented. I'm observing the customs of the pool mothers, and it seems that the thing to do, if you want a relaxing time in the pool, is have a fairly young child who wants to swim in the 4' pool, so that you can float lazily around on a noodle and pretend you are "supervising" your small child, when actually you are enjoying yourself. My kids don't want to swim in the 4' pool. They want the big pool and they are too old to have their mom hovering around them, yet it seems that it isn't done for mothers to float lazily in the 4' pool if they are unaccompanied by a small child. The other option is to swim laps in the big pool, but I *hate* swimming for exercise. Hate, hate, hate it.

A couple of years ago, Washington Park pool was open at 6:00am every day, and in a moment of insanity, I decided try swimming instead of running. I have virtually no upper body strength, and after something like six laps my arms were so weak I could hardly lift myself out of the pool.

Back when I did crew, our coach arranged swimming practice in the winter so we could stay in shape when we couldn't be out on the water. Co-ed swimming practice, with mixed-sex teams for relay races, and a more sadistic training regimen does not exist, believe me. I think I have PTSD from that experience.

So anyway, I hate swimming for exercise, and frankly, I don't like parading around in front of people wearing a bathing suit, although all the other mothers look pretty much the same as me, but still. What I've ended up doing is pleading with Mr. McP to hang out with me so I can get in the water and swim about for a bit and cool off and then go back to my book.

Monday, June 02, 2008

In which I post many photos of my bathroom redo

Major demolition.

Old walls. This picture was taken after the demolition had been turned into a new space. We raised the roof on the back of the house, so what you're seeing here is the old wall, with that horizontal seam showing where the old ceiling used to be, and new drywall above. We ran beadboard up to the level of the seam so we wouldn't have to finish it with drywall mud.

New walls.

Old shower.

Old shower--specifically, the rot we found behind it.

New shower.

Old floor.

New floor.

Old Sink.

The pipes left behind after tearing out the sink made a handy toilet paper holder. For two years.

New Sink.

Old door.

We used an old sheet for a door for at least a year.

New door.
We hung it from a barn track.
I know this is not to everyone's taste--the guys at Better Living thought we were crazy for using a barn track for a bathroom. I love it. We found this door in our basement. It's the original back door to the house. Jon scraped off all the peeling paint and we frosted the glass, for privacy. This door is our stand against the mass-produced conventionality of modern house building.

This is what replaced the demolished area shown in the first picture. (It had been an unfinished porch.)

We are finally, finally almost done with this project. All that remains is a little trim. For the first time in two years, we have two fully functioning bathrooms. It seems like unimaginable luxury to take a shower in a clean space, with a real door, to have two toilets, to have two sinks downstairs.