Monday, August 25, 2008

The stuff of learning

The kids came home today with a big fundraising packet for the school. They're supposed to sell candy, jewelry, wrapping paper and the like to people we know, with the school getting a cut and the kids getting a small gift for each certain number of things they sell. Well, this is another in a long list of things we're against, and here's why:

  • We prefer to make our donations straight out. We just gave $30 to the school's library fund. This money will be used directly for the intended purpose. The school will only get a small percentage of the proceeds of the sales, with the private fundraising organization getting the lion's share.

  • We don't want to bug our friends and loved ones for this. At some point in the year there will be a food drive, or a crop walk, or something else that we may want to hit up our friends for. And we don't want to waste the strong-arming on wrapping paper.

  • But most of all, we don't want to encourage a focus on stuff. Buying stuff that we don't need and never knew we wanted is exactly what we're trying to encourage our kids to stand against.

DW1 was pretty upset about this, because I guess the guy who did the tap dance for this was very effective. She wanted to get the flying disk that's the "gift" for two sales. (Point 4: She should give charity because it's important to give charity, not because wants to get the flying disk. I wonder what the implications of this would be for PBS pledge drives?) We explained it to her, she didn't like it but I think she heard it. We may give her a couple of extra bucks for tzedakah in the next little bit, let her decide where to give it. It'll be interesting to see if she gives it to the school.

    Sunday, August 24, 2008

    This week's mealplan

    After making that baked burrito thing I wrote about last week, I realized that it would work with a couple of different variations - sauce or no sauce, beans or fake meat, rice inside or not, different kinds of veg. So we're going to try it another way this week - beans and rice, peppers, tomato and cheese, baked with sauce and some extra cheese on top.

    Tonight DW made a spinach and ricotta pie, which was quite good. I figure one day this week I'll make the Brooklyn Pad Thai, we haven't had that for a while. Then I'll figure out something to do with whatever I bring home from the farmers' market on Tuesday.

    And if I may wax lyrical for a moment: What a pleasure is a farmers' market in August! Tons of tomatoes, cukes, big, lovely zucchinis, melons. I saw okra last week, but didn't get any. This week I think I will. Gotta use what the earth gives us!

    A big(ger) ride

    I had to miss John B's group ride this morning because I had a Hebrew School teachers' meeting this morning. (Sunday morning leisure ends at Labor Day.) But I had a long ride of my own - from my house to Emanu-El (Central east of Woodlawn) for the meeting, then to an unveiling at the Hebrew Congregation's cemetery (21st and Oliver), and then back to Emanu-El's garage sale at the Holiday Inn on Rock and Kellogg. I guess it was about 10 miles or so. It was the longest I'd ridden since I got the bike. (Shorter than John's daily commute, just to keep it in perspective.)

    It was a pleasure to ride on a Sunday because, although I still used neighborhood streets as much as I could, when I found myself on 21st or Oliver or crossing Central to get back it was not nearly as spine-tingling as it can be during the week.

    I got on the bike path near Town Center East and Douglas but it seems to disappear into the morass of construction at Kellogg, where there doesn't seem to be any way to cross. I know the path continues south, but does anyone know how to pick it up south of Kellogg?

    Also, I discovered via surfing to cycling related sites one called Commute by Bike, which has a lot of good tips, especially for the beginner, on how to ride in traffic, how not to be smelly at work, and like that. There's also a link to a podcast on cycle commuting that you can download from Itunes. Apparently it's preliminary to a book on the subject that's going to be out this fall. I listened today while I was doing the shopping later in the afternoon and it was 20 minutes long and interesting enough. They spoke to people from Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where biking is well integrated into the life of the city. Their focus is on taking cycling back from the sports industry, and I can certainly agree with that. Definitely worth a look.

    Ad-free zone

    I've been getting intermittent email messages from people asking if I would help sell their products, either by putting an ad on the site or by writing a sponsored post. I'm not sure why someone would pay to get access to my 15 daily readers (Lean Green Mom gets hundreds) but after a modest amount of reflection I've decided I'm not really interested. I'm not always 100% sure what my message is, but I'm pretty sure it involves encouraging people not to buya lot of extra stuff. The people who are reaching out want my readers to buy stuff that's supposed to save them money, but it's still buying stuff. There are plenty of other sites that can point you to coupons or whatever.

    (Of course, this may just be my ironclad and dependable financial stupidity talking. I write book reviews periodically for Jewish Currents, and it takes a lot of time, and my pay from this rather threadbare outfit (financially speaking; the magazine is actually quite strong content-wise) is usually a salami from Katz's delicatessen. Now if they asked to advertise on my site, I might take them up on it!)

    Friday, August 22, 2008

    Don't call it dangerous

    A modest amount of controversy on Cycling in Wichita regarding whether and when to ride on the sidewalk. If you follow the links from the post, you'll see that it seems to be pretty acceptable behavior within certain parameters (riding in the right direction, walking across intersections, taking care of pedestrians). It's also legal in Wichita, I understand, except in a certain area downtown.

    The controversy is in the comments. I commented that just the other day I had to ride from my office at Woodlawn and Central to the Starbucks on Rock and Central for a meeting. There is no other way to get there than directly along Central, which is a four-lane road, no shoulder, with a 40 mph speed limit. I considered this dangerous, so I rode on the sidewalk. Coppercorn jumped all over my s**t saying that I shouldn't say it's dangerous, it's not, she does it all the time, and linking to a how-to ride in traffic page.

    Well, to each his or her own, I guess. I can't even imagine how I would move from riding in the right lane on Central across the 40 mph traffic to the left hand turn lanes at Rock to get to the Starbucks. I have chosen, and most of the people I have spoken to have chosen (even experienced bikers) to stay off the main roads, especially at rush hour peak times. For instance, I was able to take Tara home from my meeting, it parallels Rock between Central and Douglas and lets me out meters from the entrance to my street. But on the other hand, I do ride on Douglas during the morning rush, at least the 200 or so yards from Rock to the first entry point into the Rockwell neighborhood, which is the back way I take to work. It's a major road, but it's not Central.

    All I know is, if my wife found out that I was riding on Central at 5 in the afternoon a car wouldn't have to kill me, because she would.

    Tuesday, August 19, 2008

    Another quick and easy meal

    From the Vegetarian Times cookbook: a can of black beans, some chili powder and garlic, cooked for 10 minutes, mushed with a masher, spooned into tortillas with chopped tomato, onion and cheese, rolled and baked at 400 for 15 minutes. Easy-peasy, very tasty. Served with a side salad.

    Dinner and TV

    I want to recommend a book to you - it's called Dinner Diaries and it's by Betsy Block - she's the mother of two young kids and she's wondering, through all the noise and the conflicting information, about what to feed them. She devotes individual chapters to looking at nutritional needs and supplements, the plusses and minuses of eating fish, school lunches, local produce, etc. - a lot of what I talk about here and some of what I haven't gotten around to talking about yet. Her kids and her husband are all picky eaters in their own way so that complicates her task, which of course we can relate to as well. I was kind of annoyed at the amount of pork she relishes consuming - she's Jewish, and it seems to mean something to her, but kashrut is something she doesn't give a single thought to. But despite this, I do recommend the book.

    One thing in the category of what she talks about that I haven't much yet is advertising directed at children. There was a wonderful book on this subject a few years ago called Consuming Kids by Susan Linn. (She runs the Center for a Commercial-Free Childhood.) She describes and decries the big business that is advertising to children, in which psychologists and other professionals are hired and billions of dollars are spent to figure out exactly which buttons to push to train our little ones to develop brand loyalty, consumer "needs" and the talent to beg and nag for what they want. The best time to do all this is when the parents aren't around to explain or deny, which is why there is so much advertising in schools and on the internet these days, particularly on "free" sites. This has contributed mightily to the lack of exercise, the obesity, the unhealthy eating habits, not to mention the consumerism that have become part and parcel of childhood in American today.

    The reason I haven't felt the need to write too much about this is because we have an extremely restrictive television policy at home. Our kids basically watch TV twice a week - a movie on Saturday night, and then one show during the week. It's almost always a video, so we can avoid the advertising.

    It so happens that in the last couple of weeks, perhaps exhausted by the summer, I've been a little lax in this. We've watched a little more TV this week because the Olympics were on and I wanted them to see some of it, and then last week for some reason I let them watch a couple of things on Cartoon Network. I watched with them, and boy, did I see what we'd been "missing." Clothing, games, movies, but especially food food food - the ones that stood out were for sugar cereals and a kind of bottled water (it may be flavored, it wasn't clear) that comes in a pouch. Pouches, in case I need to say it, are the worst form of conveyance, because they are not recyclable or biodegradable, but there is no profit to be made from a glass of tap water.

    Can I just pause here for a radical moment and decry the fact that the worst things for you and for the environment are exactly the things that get the most advertising and the most attractive packaging in this society?

    Oh, boy. If there was anything that made me understand why we've made the choices that we've made, for ourselves and for our kids, it was this hour of commercial television. There is just so much that is wrong that can be fixed, or at least ameliorated, by the absence of TV. Sedentary? Bad eating habits? The "beggies"? Have trouble having dinner time conversation? The first answer is to lose the TV - or if not lose it, then severely restrict it. And no TV in the kids' rooms!

    This is only the first step, but it's the most major single step one can take.

    Sunday, August 10, 2008

    Bigger is badder

    Article in today's Times Style section on the tensions between cars and cycles, increasing now that numbers of cyclists are increasing due to the price of gas. For once, the Times is not completely focused on New York, so there's some use for us in Small City land.

    There may well be jerk bike riders, but most of the hostility, as is so often the case, comes from the people with more weaponry - in this case, more metal. Case in point, a recent Missouri case when a guy killed two riders just because he didn't want to yield, and was acquitted by a jury of vehicular manslaughter.

    It's comparable to the discussion about SUVs vs. smaller cars five years ago, when George Will said, why wouldn't I want to be in the bigger car? There's a sense in this country that people deserve what they get, whether that's being without work, or a home, or health insurance, and if it includes being splattered over the sidewalk, oh well...

    Saturday, August 9, 2008

    Breaking in the bikes

    We picked up the bikes from L&M (our local shop, really local, like walking distance to the house) before we left but it was so darn hot last week that we really couldn't bear to do any riding. But the weather broke while we were away and since we got back Thursday night and I had Friday off DK1 and I took the bikes to the main bike route along the Arkansas River near the museums downtown. (For those of you not from here, the river is pronounced like it's spelled.) DK wanted to go see the bodies exhibit at Exploration Place, but a quick look at the website showed it was expensive to get in ($2o for me, $18 for her) and we'd come home in part because we didn't want an additional day of admissions charges and meals out, so we had to back-burner that. I still hope to do it with her, maybe for her birthday.

    Anyway, we rode the path basically from Central to Harry, it's about 6 miles round trip. We'd never done it before so we ended up on the wrong side of the river and we had to walk our bikes across a bridge at one point, but the day was beautiful, the bikes worked really well, we had sandwiches that DW had made for us that we snacked on before turning back. We had a good conversation. We stopped for a minute at the museum also (the free part, we have a membership). It was fun! (And can I also mention here that the new seats were a very worthwhile investment!)

    It felt a little weird to drive the bikes to a place for a ride, but I would almost have to do that to any bike route at this point, especially if I have a kid with me. John B. linked to a place where you can commit to riding a certain number of miles instead of driving, and I plan to ride to work most days (Larry B from KMUW, who's an avid rider, helped me plan a good route for that), but I couldn't even really ride to the grocery store at this point because the only way there from here is along a 6 lane road. Yikes!

    But... this Friday ride was a very good start!

    Frugal family on the road - day 3

    We spent the morning at the b&b, having a wonderful breakfast prepared by our host, Sabra, and walking around the property and dressing up in the old clothes (DK2) and all the rest. At about 10 we left and drove the 15 minutes to Topeka's Gage Park Zoo. There we spent a lovely couple of hours looking at all the different kinds of animals there, with our special favorites being the apes and the hippos. They have an indoor rainforest with all kids of lovely birds walking around relatively free (beautiful plumage, in't it, squire?). We also are fans of lemurs because of Zoboomafoo and I like flamingos because I associate them with my grandparents (of blessed memory) in Florida.

    We spent another half hour or so playing at the playground there, then we had another picnic (cheese and bread for the little ones, leftover chinese food for us, total cost $0) and we also threw down for two rides on the historic carousel they have there in the park.

    Then we got in the car and drove over to the State Capitol, which is something DK1 had wanted to do. It's under pretty heavy repair right now, but we went in and took a look at the murals on the first and second floors, which recreate incidents in Kansas history. The most remarkable on is by John Steuart Curry, it represents the Bloody Kansas period and in the foreground is a larger-than-life John Brown, Bible in one hand and rifle in the other, looking pretty darn crazy.
    I asked the guide who was there, who explained the murals to us, if it is fair to say that Kansas is proud of Brown. She said as much blood as he shed, it's impossible to say "proud," exactly.

    (parenthetically: We happened to see the teardown of a press conference for Congresswoman Nancy Boyda, we liked that because she's a Democrat. Turn Kansas Blue, that's what I say.)

    This whole thing was pretty boring for the little kids although there was an elevator with an elevator operator which they found quite amusing. We walked around the block to look at a couple of statues on the Capitol grounds but then we got in the car and drove back to Wichita. The thing about going all day like we did all three of these days is that you really can't keep it up for long. We have downtime at home but I didn't want any on the road but it does wear one out.

    Total cost of the day: a tank of gas, $65. Entry to the zoo, $17 (a popular price). $6 for the carousel. A couple of ice coffees for the ride home, $4. Total cost of the trip, let's see, it took us about a tank and a quarter altogether, so $80 in gas, $170 for accommodations, about $120 for food, about $46 for attractions. So about $425 altogether, plus or minus.

    Now of course we're broke as broke can be until payday. But we had a good time!

    Friday, August 8, 2008

    Frugal family on the road - day 2

    We (rather, I) had originally intended to spend the morning in Lawrence and the afternoon in Topeka on day 2, but we liked Lawrence so much we decided to spend the whole day there, in part because we wanted to go to the pool that was closed yesterday and in part because we were sure the food options were going to be better in Lawrence than in Topeka.

    So bright and early (well, 9-ish) we checked out of the hotel. And get this - because the treadmill didn't work, and because the front desk clerk didn't know thing 1 about the town, and because ... well, I don't know what else, I'll have to ask DW, but she complained to the manager about a bunch of things and they ended up comping us the room! So we thought about staying another night there, but that was quickly vetoed because she hated the place. (Baymont Suites, but any other place of that ilk probably wouldn't have been any better.) So she said, you know how you always spend a little extra money to find an interesting place? Keep doing that. Yes, ma'am.

    We went to Clinton Lake - a man-made lake outside of Lawrence with a lot of trails and bikepaths and marinas and picnic areas and such. We found a little trail and off we went, for about an hour hike. I took the little ones back and DW and DK1 came back separately. The weather was about 10 degrees cooler than the previous day and the day was clear so it was really beautiful. Then the DKs played for a while on a playground right there, and we had another picnic, but it wasn't so cheap this time because we hadn't brought it from home this time but bought it at a health food store that morning - cheese, bread, a couple of salads, almost $30! Maybe we should go back to PB&J.

    After that we drove back downtown and swam at the pool for a couple of hours. (It cost $17 to get in, 4 each for us, 3 each for the kids.) I was throwing DK3 into this waterfall thing they had an he kept coming up and saying, Again! And the girls went down the slides, it was all a lot of fun, a great way to spend the afternoon.

    For dinner we went for Chinese food - we can get tofu and rice for DKs 2 and 3 and the rest of us had veggie entrees which were far more numerous and interesting than anything you can get in Wichita. (Veggie General Tso's chicken, etc.) About $45.

    So get this - because we hadn't paid for the hotel room the night before, I called a bed and breakfast I had seen listed in a couple of the tour books. It's called the Old Stone House, it's a 1850s era stone house just on the Lawrence side of Topeka and the books all said, "We cater to vegetarians." I called the guy and said, listen, we're here now, he was fine with it. $85 per night per room, we booked 2.

    The place has a lot of antiques and antique-looking decorations and DW was a little worried that the kids were going to break something but they were great. They did find a little trunk filled with old-timey clothing that fit them perfectly - they were so cute! It kept them quite busy. In the meantime I talked to the innkeeper, Alan, about politics and Kansas history - I think I need to find a book about Bloody Kansas, which I don't know much about. The rooms were comfortable, the landscape was beautiful, it was convenient, breakfast was much better than anything you would get in the White Flour Motel and the price was competitive compared with the Motel as well. So a good choice there.

    So we passed a pleasant evening. Cost for the day - lunch $30, dinner $45, swimming $17, B&B $170.

    Frugal family on the road - day 1

    Well, we're back from our sojourn to northeast Kansas. To recap, we talked about various vacation plans, but decided that the better part of financial valor would be a short trip to a nearby destination. And since we're new in Kansas, we figured we'd take a look around here some.

    I took a week off of work. On Monday we stayed in Wichita, going to Botanica, the local botanical gardens, with some senior friends from the community. We've always belonged to arboretums (arboreti?) wherever we've lived, but this was the first time we'd here. It was a lovely place, but the weather was darn hot, so we started early and didn't stay as long as we might have otherwise.

    Tuesday we drove to Lawrence. This is a town I've always heard a lot about, partially because of it's proximity to KC, and partially because many of the Jewish kids from here go to KU (there is no appreciable Jewish population at any of the other Kansas universities, including WSU). We drove straight to the campus, which was quiet for the last week before the students start coming back (and before football practice gets underway).

    We started off with a picnic near the Kansas Union building; we brought food from home, and I have a wonderful picnic basket that my mom bought for my birthday a couple of years ago, so we don't have to use plastic silverware and paper plates, and it all fits into a backpack. Then we went to the KU Natural History Museum, a four floor museum with a good, young-kid-friendly exhibit on bugs, and one DK1 (the almost 10 year old) liked about evolution which was quite interesting and comprehensible. (We could learn that humans didn't evolve from apes, but rather that humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor.) There was also a long hallway of fossils, particularly those found in Kansas. There were some live snakes and live fish, although the rest of the museum was rather heavy on the taxidermy, for my taste, including a ton of birds and a horse that was the sole survivor of Custer's Last Stand. The place had a suggested donation, but we're members of a science museum here so it's a cross-membership, so we gave a little money but not as much as suggested.

    By this time it was after 3 in the afternoon, so we went to check into the hotel. I usually try to find interesting or unique places to stay, as evidenced by our sojourn in Westport a couple of weeks ago, but this time I was determined to spend the least amount possible, so I booked us a room in a hotel on the highway, a place where you would expect football fans would stay when they come in for games. It had a pool and a gym, and that's usually enough for DW.

    In the travel literature we found a municipal pool that seemed interesting and fun, and as it was still in the high 90s we decided to spend some time there, only to get there to find that it was closed for the day for routine maintenance. So we played at the playground for a little while and then DW took the kids back to the hotel for a little while in the pool, and I walked around Massachusetts Street (the main drag) for an hour or so. (My wife is nice to me that way.)

    I wasn't planning on buying anything (famous last words) but one of the men's shops - the only men's shop, in fact, which carried clothing suitable for anyone over 22 - had an amazing sale (30% off their final markdowns) and I ended up buying a couple of summer shirts and a couple of fall/winter blazers for $70 each. I had worn my late blazers to the nub, to the point where DW was embarrassed to see me out in public in them, and believe me, it's a good price. (By comparison, Dillards has a sale this weekend, and the cheapest men's blazer is $150). So that was good, except I used the credit card.

    Then we went for dinner, to a local place called in fact Local Burger that serves sustainable, grass fed, locally produced hamburgers (beef, bison and elk) mostly. Local, sustainable and grassfed is usually kosher enough for me, but I was determined to go out for ice cream after so I didn't want to eat meat, and of course DW is a vegetarian, and the DKs mostly are, so she and I had veggie burgers and the kids had grilled cheese, except for DK1 who had a tuna salad that didn't fill her up so she ordered a grilled cheese too. Looking back, we probably should have gone here on a night when we didn't want ice cream, because the burgers looked good and DK3 will eat a hot dog now and again. So a bit of a missed opportunity there. About $35 for dinner, so it's not cheap, but sustainable food rarely is, as I never tire of pointing out.

    Then we went out for Ben & Jerry's, and back to the hotel, where the evening passed about as well as you would expect with 5 people (including three children under the age of 10) in a single hotel room.

    Cost for the day: a tank of gas, the makings for the picnic lunch (maybe $10), the dinner - and the clothes, but that's a different category.