Thursday, June 26, 2008

Fun for Nothin' Challenge

I've been a fan of Meg McElwee's for a bit. Meg is a Montessori teacher who just came back to the States after a teaching assignment in Mexico. Her blog, formerly Montessori by Hand and now Sew Liberated, chronicled her life in Mexico, her interactions with the kids, and the ways that she integrated the Montessori philosophy into the classroom. Max is in a magnet Montessori school, so it was fun reading about the program from a teacher's perspective.

Meg also is a fabulous pattern designer. While I was on maternity leave, I made this baby carrier for Sylvia, which is now just awaiting her ability to hold up her head:

And I bought this pattern when I was feeling maternal but longing for the days when I would again have a waist; I plan to make it when the baby fat's off:

Meg just put out a Fun for Nothin' Challenge, asking families to chronicle the creative ways that they have fun with their kids without spending money. You can read about it, in her words, here or by clicking on the Fun for Nothin' icon at the side of my blog. The accompanying Flickr site already contains tons of pictures of kids doing what kids should be doing: running, playing, exploring, creating -- and all without licensed plastic toys or battery-powered handhelds. Check it out.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

One Man's Trash: Power Garage Saling

My parents were in last weekend. They live in Michigan, and Dad volunteered to come here and stain our deck. It hadn't been stained since... oh, the last time he offered to come and stain it. Since then, it's dealt with several blazing hot summers and a golf ball-sized hailstorm, so it was in need of a little TLC.

Here's something you should know about my mom: Since she's retired, she's become a crack garage saler. I mean crack. She and her best friend Gloria head out early on Thursday (the day most sales start, and the best day to scope out the good stuff) and don't return until late afternoon, often with whatever minivan they took out laden with unbelievable bargains. At the beginning of the season Mom will ask what we need, and next time I see her, she'll have it. My coffee carafe is stained and melted on one side? She's got a new one she found for $1. I think it would be cool to have a pedestal cake stand? She's got an unused one from Williams Sonoma for which she paid 50 cents. The boys and Sylvia are at least 50% clothed in garage sale finds: Ralph Lauren, Nordstrom, Baby Gap...

I don't garage sale as much as I'd like, but I love to go out when I can. And over the years I've picked up a few bargains: Unused black Doc Martens for $3.50. Shelby Foote's History of the Civil War for $2 per book. Vintage turquoise canisters that matched my (at the time) vintage turquoise kitchen. And the little wooden chairs for Sylvie that are still awaiting my gaining some painting prowess. So with Mom here on Saturday, I twisted her arm and begged her to head out with me, Tommy, and Sylvia. As you can imagine, with an infant and a toddler in tow, we didn't hit as many sales as she and Gloria typically do, but the kids were golden, and in about five sales, and spending about $32 between us, we picked up some gems.

The biggest coup, from my standpoint, was at the last sale. I'm slowly making Sylvia this hand-quilted wall hanging (from Last-Minute Quilted + Patchwork Gifts) to go over her crib:

I'd decided to get her a red gingham crib skirt to go with it, and found what I wanted at Pottery Barn Kids. But it was a bit rich for my blood -- $59 -- so I figured I'd make her one instead for about $12 or $15. I've been watching for sales on gingham, and I'd even purchased the Pottery Barn Kids matching lamp shade when it was on clearance. And guess what I found at the last garage sale? (I'm sure you're all on pins and needles.) Yep, the red gingham Pottery Barn Kids crib skirt. For $3. I also picked up a great Tommy Hilfiger bed skirt for when Sylvie is in a real bed, as it matched the twin-sized quilt I've envisioned making for her.

We passed up several bargains, including a hand-stitched vintage quilt for $25, vintage McCoy vases for $15, and a serving for eight including bakeware of Pfalzgraf pottery for $15.

Here's what we bought:

  • $7 A kids bike Mom is keeping for when the grandkids visit
  • $1.50 Three pieces of little boys' clothes, including like-new Levi's
  • $3 Crib skirt
  • $3 Bed skirt
  • $1 Four painted ceramic drawer pulls that will work with Sylvie's new dresser
  • $5 Handcrafted wooden box with forged iron handle made by a blacksmith in Door County, Wisconsin*
  • $3 Leather Coach purse (I just learned the style is "Station Bag"; who knew?)
  • $.15 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory card game that Tommy spotted
  • $1 Old Ptery (from Pee-Wee's Playhouse) wind-up toy
  • $1 Old-fashioned kaleidoscope that Mom bought Tommy
  • $2 Plastic dart board, in the box, that Mom bought Max
  • Free Vintage Santa candle that Tommy spotted and the homeowner threw in for free
* Note that I was on the fence about the handcrafted box, but when Tommy started doing the pee-pee dance and the homeowner immediately came over and offered up her bathroom, I bought the box.
As a testament to Mom's hard-driving bargain style, when Tommy, who loves the 20-year-old series Pee-Wee's Playhouse, saw the Ptery wind-up toy, I immediately snatched it up, knowing we wouldn't be seeing another any time soon. Mom saw the price and clucked her tongue, noting, "They're asking a dollar for it!" I forked over the dollar, without even trying to bargain, feeling a bit indulgent.
At this point, it looks like I'll be spending the weekend painting Sylvie's room a cream color, as the apple-green-with-purple-trim Phil painted the room six years ago isn't going to go with her new gingham digs. I'm a little sad to be spending all day Saturday in her room, though, because who knows what kind of bargains might be awaiting me?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Hunkering Down, with Recipe

Really. This Indiana monsoon weather can stop any time. Any time. After a huge storm completely flooded out many Indiana residents last weekend, including these poor folks in Franklin, Mother Nature whipped up something awful again Monday night.
I was at work when the sky went black and rain and heavy winds blasted out of nowhere. I contemplated picking the kids up early, but learned that the nastiness had already ripped through the part of town where they're in daycare, so waited out the storm and left at the usual time. On the way to pick them up, it was clear this was no normal Indiana rainstorm. Tree limbs were everywhere, and a tree had fallen on one of the apartment buildings behind their daycare center.

Driving the kids home, I noticed block after block out of power. Most traffic lights were down, and all of us rush-hour drivers had to relearn the art of taking turns at each intersection. I picked up McDonald's for the kids (so sue me), not knowing whether we'd have power, or even a house, when we got home. Two blocks from our house a huge tree, complete with its root system, had just toppled down, miraculously missing the house on the same lot. It looked like the hand of God had reached down and flicked it right over. Across the street from our house, a big tree had cracked in half and lay in the road.

Our house was powerless, but intact. The boys ate their happy meals; I fed Sylvia. Phil gathered up no-power supplies like flashlights and candles, and then drove my freezer supply of breastmilk to a friend's house who hadn't lost power. (This is the curse of breastfeeding; the first thing you think in any crisis is "What about the breastmilk???!!!")

As night fell, the realization of a TV-less night started dawning on Tommy and Max. I explained to Tommy that we didn't have any power, and he would say, "Well, then go get more power." Like I could pick it up at Target, along with some diapers. So I suggested we learned about a family who lived before TVs even existed, and pulled out my second-grade copy of Little House in the Big Woods. I love this book. I've probably read it five times as an adult.

We started reading about Laura and Mary and Pa and Ma preparing for a long winter: butchering, salting, smoking, braiding, harvesting. A few pages into it, Max was riveted. He would say things like, "Don't read any more! I have to go to the bathroom!" Then he'd come back and we'd continue on. The next morning, the house still powerless, he woke me up early to see if we could read more. We sat together and ate generic Mini-Wheats without milk and read, just like our forebears.

Today the electricity's back on, so in honor of campfire cooking, I made ranch beans in the slow cooker. These are protein-packed, relatively inexpensive, pretty yummy, and largely made from ingredients you likely have on hand.

Slow-Cooker Ranch Beans

1 pound ground hamburger
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 15-oz. cans baked beans
1 15-oz. can pinto beans, rinsed and drained
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. Worchestire sauce
1/4 cup catsup
1 Tbsp. prepared mustard

Brown the hamburger with the onion. Add this, as well as the rest of the ingredients, to a slow cooker, and cook on a low setting 8 to 10 hours. Enjoy after a long day hunting.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Poll: What to Do with a Windfall

Over Memorial Day weekend I was at my parents' house in Michigan for my niece's high school graduation. My parents still live in the house I grew up in: a little 1100-square foot 1950s ranch that back in the day had only one bathroom for the five of us to fight over. The house sits in a cute subdivision in which all of the streets carry nautical names: Embarcadero, Aquarina, Levee... It also has a subdivision beach sitting on a man-made lake. When I was a child, we lived at the beach every summer, and it's still an active, fun place for kids. This weekend included a Memorial Day parade; a "holiday egg hunt" that was actually a delayed Easter egg hunt, as Easter was too cold this year to have kids outside hunting up eggs; and various beach fun. During the egg hunt, I was approached to buy a raffle ticket for $1; I had a few bucks in my back pocket in case the kids wanted something from the concession stand -- known as the Wienie Shack when I was growing up. So I bought a ticket and forgot to ask what was being raffled.

That afternoon I got a call at my parents' house saying I'd won the raffle, which turned out to be half the money the raffle had taken in. Seeing as they'd sold $125 of tickets, I won a jackpot of $62.50. Phil suggested that this was about enough gas money to get us home -- actually, it was just under the $62.62 it took to fill our van for the return trip. But I reminded him that this little windfall was mine, and that I'd put the $1 I spent back into our joint money, but that left me with $61.50 all to myself. I've been ruminating for a week now on how to spend it. Here's what I've come up with:

The indulgent purchase. This likely would be a baby pouch from Wallababy that I covet but don't really need. One of the women in a breastfeeding support group I attended while on leave owns Wallababy, and the slings are adorable and handy. We have a Snugli, which is also handy if a little more cumbersome, so I don't really need the sling. But the $45 pouch price is now well within my extra cash.

The super-indulgent purchase. This would be something that I absolutely don't need, and that doesn't serve any real purpose except to make me happy. Like, say, a few bottles of wonderful wine to share with friends, or a little splurge at my favorite online window-shopping site,, where I can pick up fun fabric like Lil' Cowpokes to make a cute quilt for Sylvia:

Saving toward a big purchase. Back when we were moving to a Brooklyn apartment, we purchased a vintage Heywood Wakefield table and chairs, which served us well when our single friends were gathered around, eating sushi and drinking sake. Since we've started having kids, however, the table, which only comfortably seats four, has started feeling teetery and a little too delicate for our growing-family, heavy-use needs. I've been dreaming of a big, solid, distressed farm table with supports on all four corners and enough room to spread out crafts or serve a big potluck meal. So the $61.50 could be the seed money for a solid replacement table, which even after selling our Heywood Wakefield set, could cost several hundred dollars.

Investing. This is why I'm an amateur tightwad: Even though $61.50 could go far in the next several years if invested in stock or in one of the kids' 529s, I haven't gotten too excited about this option. But it's an option. And a good one. Probably the right one.

So a poll, which you might have noticed at the top of the page: If you came into a little windfall, how would you spend it? I'll leave this poll up until my birthday at the end of the month, at which time I'll take your advice to heart and see where my riches should go.