Friday, January 28, 2011

Valentine exchange

You like getting mail, right? And you don't want to abandon a perfectly good holiday to cynical commercialism, right?

Here's your chance! I'm organizing a valentine exchange. If you'd like to participate, email me your name and mailing address at juliawise07 (at) by February 1st. I'll email you the addresses of four people to send valentines to by February 7th.

Personally, I feel Valentine's Day is a prime opportunity for the use of construction paper. But if you're not feeling crafty, you could buy some valentines. Or send your favorite poem, or a mix CD, or something else. Yes! It will be fun!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Live it up

The professor of my social welfare policy class assigned us to spend a week living on the amount you can get from food stamps. In the mainland US it’s $200 a month for a single person, $367 for a couple. The purpose of the assignment is to show us how difficult it is, and my classmates seemed duly worried.

I’ve been irked about food ever since last week, when someone I know complained that Toby Ord’s plan to give away a million pounds during his lifetime sounded very dreary “living on beans and rice and never going to a movie.” I plead guilty to not paying for movies — though in a college town there are more free screenings and performances than I could possibly see. The beans and rice is definitely a myth.

Jeff and I average $170 a month on groceries for the two of us – less than half what we would get for food stamps. Including meals out, candy, tea, and other nonessentials, we average $215 a month.

So here is my primer on cheap eating. There are lots of sites out there with advice, but they're mostly aimed at stay-at-home moms of large families. This is aimed at someone with less time and less ability to get around - i.e. working people without cars or a lot of freezer space.

Note that the focus here is only on cheap, tasty, and reasonably healthy, not ethical. If you have an opinion on the ethical food vs. cheap food dilemma, I'm happy to hear it.

Love food
If you don't like cooking, of course you’ll eat out more. Get interested in food. Read food blogs. Check out cookbooks from the library. Try making new things.

Read unit prices
Please tell me you knew this already.

Get equipped
A $10 slow-cooker from a thrift store will make your life easier. A pressure cooker will, too, though they’re harder to find used. If you find an old one it will probably need a new rubber valve, which only costs a few dollars. I also love my used breadmaker. A hot loaf or batch of pizza dough when I come home from work? Yes, please.

Go easy on the meat
Use plant foods (whole grains, legumes) as staples and meat as supplements.

Shop where poor people shop
Unfortunately, this is often the corner store. I don’t mean that. Tofu is expensive at ritzy stores, but not in Chinatown. Check out ethnic grocery stores. Check out the international aisle in the regular supermarket – Goya usually sells beans and seasonings cheaper than American companies.

Pack your lunches
Make too much for dinner. Pack leftovers and refrigerate or freeze them. Do this at night, not in the morning when you’re rushing. If you don’t have containers, look in other people’s recycling bins for takeout containers.

Plan for snacks
You don't have to totally change your life. If you know you’re going to get a soda or candy bar from the vending machine at 3 pm, buy them at the store and bring one with you each day. One, so you don't eat them all.

Invest in seasonings
Or your food will be boring and you won’t want to eat it. For savory cooking, I wouldn’t be without:
Lemon juice
Vinegar (in a big jug to use for cleaning as well as cooking)
Olive oil
Broth powder or paste (for grains and soups)
Parmesan (the good kind in a wedge, not dust in a can. This is not cheap, but it is essential to my culinary happiness.)
Hot sauce / chili paste / something else spicy

Know your grocery store
Mine sells dried cranberries both in the raisin aisle and the produce area, and the ones in raisinland are cheaper. They also have a shelf in the back where they sell dented containers at a markdown.

Comfort food is important
I don’t skimp on ice cream.

Here’s a recipe to start you off. This made enough for two dinner servings and three lunches.
Asian beef and vegetables
1 lb. quick-cooking meat like London broil or pork chops (or tofu)
2 cups uncooked brown rice
½ head cabbage
1 carrot

½ cup soy sauce
¼ cup vinegar or lemon juice
¼ cup sugar
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon minced garlic
dash red pepper or other spiciness

Combine the marinade ingredients and put the meat in. Use a plastic bag or a small container so the marinade coats the meat. Refrigerate it and let it sit overnight (or 15 minutes, or whatever you have).

Put the rice on to cook.

Put a skillet on medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, take the meat out of the marinade and cook it 3-4 minutes on each side. Remove from pan.

Pour the marinade into the pan (remember, it has raw meat juice in it) and bring to a simmer. If you want to thicken it, dissolve a teaspoon of cornstarch in a little water and simmer that with the marinade.

Slice the cabbage thinly. Microwave in a dish two minutes (or until it’s as tender as you want). Grate the carrot and add to the cabbage.

Cut the meat into pieces and toss with the vegetables. Serve over the rice with the marinade as sauce.

Time: 50 minutes, less if you use white rice.
Cost: I’m assuming you start with some things (ginger, garlic, sugar). If you buy a cabbage, a pound of carrots, a bottle of soy sauce, a pound of rice, and a pound of meat, that’s $12 at my local grocery. You have almost a bottle of soy sauce, half a cabbage, and some carrots left over.
Yield: two dinners, three lunches (if you eat a little more than us)
Cost per serving: $2.40

Not boring! Not expensive!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Left behind

I heard a radio program of songs from the Vietnam era, both for and against the war. I was surprised at how many of them focused on women and children. The pro-war songs paint them as the ones who must be protected, and the anti-war ones paint them as the victims who have to go on living after their men are killed.

This trope has been going on for a long time. (We can also see the universal constant that all soldiers are called Johnny.)

During the Civil War Patrick Gilmore wrote When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" for his sister, who was awaiting the return of her fiancé. He promises
The village lads and lassies say
With roses they will strew the way,
And we'll all feel gay
When Johnny comes marching home.

But an older version of the song comes from Ireland, where they've been resisting English drafts for quite some time. They didn't have a name for post-traumatic stress, but clearly they knew it when they saw it.
Where are your eyes that looked so mild,
When my poor heart you first beguiled?
Why did you run from me and the child?
Johnny, I hardly knew ye.

150 years later, John Prine described the homecoming of another veteran:
There's a hole in Daddy's arm
Where all the money goes.

"Traveling Soldier" is probably the most famous of the girlfriend-waiting-for-soldier songs.
Crying all alone under the stands
Was a piccolo player in the marching band
And one name read but nobody really cared
But a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair.

The remarkable thing about this type of song is that both pro- and anti-war people love them. The disagreement is on whether the death was necessary, and the songs usually don't address that. One ambiguous song is "Warrior", which describes a woman burying her man and planning for their son's life as a soldier. With lines like "We must kill more people," I think it had to be meant ironically. Then again, Bob Hope had them perform it for troops, so somebody must have missed the irony.

My favorite of the songs was recorded by a Motown girl band, Martha and the Vandellas. It rejects the "they're fighting for you" rhetoric.
I was under the dryer when the telegram came:
'Private John C. Miller was shot down in Vietnam.'
And they say that I should be proud; he was fightin' for me
They say that I should be proud, those too blind to see
But he wasn't fightin' for me, my Johnny didn't have to die for me.

One great songwriter of a different era expressed the same message in prose. Julia Ward Howe wrote the fiery pro-war "Battle Hymn of the Republic", but recanted after seeing the carnage of the Civil War. In her Mother's Day proclamation of 1870, she framed war as a women's issue.
"Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

Two projects

Blessed with a snow day, I decided to do something about the pile of magazines on the bathroom floor.

I retrieved a pizza box from the neighbors' recycling, cut and stapled it into the size I wanted, and stapled white paper over it. Then I punched two holes in the back with a nail, took a section of wire coat hanger, and threaded it through the holes. I bent the wire up over the edge toilet tank, replaced the lid, and it was done.

But what is that lid? Why is it wooden?

Last summer, Jeff cut a new lid to the toilet tank. (The original plan was to drill a hole in a normal ceramic lid, but ceramic doesn't drill so much as shatter.) It has a corner missing, and bits of wood glued on underneath to keep it from sliding around. He also adjusted the float in the tank so it stops filling after about one gallon, leaving about a gallon's worth of empty space before the overflow pipe.

When we're waiting for the water to heat up before a shower, we catch the cold water in a milk jug with the top cut off. Then we pour the water into the toilet tank, via the missing corner on the wooden lid. If the tank is already full, the jug just waits until it's needed.

I think we've about halved the amount of water our toilet uses. Water is plentiful in our region, but it still takes resources to purify and transport that water that's going down the drain.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Whose life?

The news is telling us that a second person has died in Arizona after being denied an organ transplant. With a budget shortfall, the state cut $1.4 million from its transplant program. All I can think is - that much money and only two people died?

We all hate to put a dollar value on lives. But we do it all the time. If I had $1.4 million, I have some ideas about where we could save more lives.

If you want to keep the money in the United States, how about the Boston homeless shelter that had standing room only for 500 people seeking shelter from last week's snow? How about the people who sleep on the street because there is no room for them in existing shelters? Homeless people routinely die from exposure to the elements, violence, or illnesses they catch in overcrowded shelters with inadequate washing facilities.

Whose life do we value? Whose death do we read about in the news?

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Comfort and joy

On the day after Christmas, my cousin invited me to a local evangelical church. I went with her, since I had never been to one. My cousin is the only serious Christian in that branch of the family, and this was a seriously Christian place. (Praise music - whoa.)

I found the whole experience unsettling, and I finally realized what it was: there were no extras. Christmas was mentioned in the sermon, but other than that it might have been any Sunday of the year. There was no Christmas music. No decorations. The scriptural reading wasn't even about the slaughter of the Holy Innocents (that traditional day-after-Christmas downer). It was just 90 minutes of praising Jesus, with coffee afterwards.

I'm not a believer, but I crave religion. The church has developed a lot of pageantry over the years, and I love it. The saints, angels, and a cast of other characters. The seasons of the church calendar, patterning the year. The music. The sensual stimulation: architecture, the taste of the bread and wine, the scent of candles and incense (depending on how high church you get). The sense of drama: the crack of the wafer held above the priest's head for all to see, or the extinguishing of candles to leave the congregation in total darkness at Tenebrae. It's satisfying in the way Greek myth and fairy tales are satisfying. Folk traditions stay around because people crave them. Revels has figured this out.

Why, I wondered, is this stuff so important to me? And then I remembered stereotype threat: women and racial minorities do better on tests if they hear or write affirmations about themselves before the test, and worse if they're told that their group does poorly at such tests. It's subconscious - you don't need to believe what you're told in order for it to affect your performance. Just hearing it is enough.

I used to attend Quaker meeting with a woman who started many of her messages with, "The story I tell myself is . . ." She could acknowledge her religious beliefs as stories, yet still find them deeply meaningful. Even though I don't literally believe what I'm told, it helps me to hear the stories. Tradition says that the universe is ordered. It says our actions are meaningful. It says there is someone looking out for us. Some part of me needs to hear that, touch that, taste that.