of mice and moles

Hidee-ho, fellow inmates! 

Today we have an urgent task ahead of us, which is raising the fence between the garden and rest of the yard. My hens have learned how to fly over and have torn up several vegetable beds in the past week or so. Really annoying, as I watched my English peas, baby collards, sprouting turnips and carrots get scratched into oblivion. I could trim the feathers on one wing of each hen, if I could catch them, but I can usually catch just two of the four (Poppy and Rosie like to be petted). The other ones (Violet, Bluebell) seem to loathe the touch of human hands and will really run fast. So the fence has to go up a few more feet. Then I can replant. But I’ve lost 3 weeks of warm sunshine, quite annoying. (The hen at the window there is Poppy — chief instigatrix.)

We had a very tasty tomato pasta sauce last night, half made with green tomatoes (I added a little sugar to make up the sweetness). Squirrels are running rampant in the yard, and pulling tomatoes off the vine before they’re ripe. I have rescued some of these vegies and threw them into the pot yesterday. I was calling it Stoplight Pasta Sauce, for the red, yellow and green tomatoes. I rather like that. Consider it trademarked.

There’s a small pile of cucumbers, zucchini and apples (thanks, Annie and Stew) on the counter, awaiting processing. I think I’ll shred the zucchini, pickle the cucumbers and dry the apples. I pulled out the last of the green beans, and was enjoying watching my fall crop of green beans come up, anticipating some fresh baby beans.

But in the last week we have had a visitor — a mole, who has eaten off the taproot of several sunflowers and half the luscious bean plants. It is like watching a disease spread — these beautiful healthy plants here, and then next to them, wilted, dying plants. Really sad. I put some mouse bait way down the hole and then covered it back up so that no one on the surface could get near it. The carnage seems to have stopped — I think. This tells me that the other boxes will need mesh/chicken wire put down before I plant anything else.

More life in the food chain – the other day I saw my cat playing with a mouse in the back yard (in the photo she is inside the coop, sniffing around). Not my favorite sight, but part of the circle of life, I know. But my cat is afraid of the chickens, who are pretty beastly. They don’t know that Fifi is Queen of all She surveys. I let the chickens run loose in the yard — as long as they stay out of the garden. Anyhoo, one of them scared Fifi away from her mouse, and then the blood-fest began. One hen grabbed the mouse and then there was a crazy free-for-all of grabbing the mouse from each other and tearing it apart. It was pretty grisly. I knew intellectually that chickens were good mousers, but seeing it with my own eyes — sheesh. I think I’d have preferred death by cat than death by chickens.

We’re getting 2-4 eggs a day and I am getting another hen in the next few weeks from a local gal; transitioning in a new hen will be interesting. The garden is still giving about 2 cups of yellow grape tomatoes per day, 1 zucchini, one small head of lettuce (enough for a day’s worth of sandwiches, or a salad if I save it up), and 3-4 medium to large tomatoes. I am ready to start freezing whole tomatoes; this year we were finishing the last frozen tomatoes in June, just as the new crops were getting ready to pop. I have beets, lettuce, peas (if they survive the chickens), beans (if they survive the mole), onions and peppers still growing, and also a few more spaghetti squash still on the vine. I have 3 spaghetti squashes in the house demanding attention — I will bake, then freeze the strands.

Fifi, Queen of all She Surveys

On the job front, I am now officially off disability after a year, and now just unemployed — or underemployed. I am picking up freelance work every week or so and can continue to build that up. Not sure exactly what is on the horizon, but it won’t be full time newspaper work. That hardly exists anymore and it is really poorly paid. Newspaper reporters were the lowest paid white collar workers in America, but now you can hardly find a full-timer around. Most papers have cut their staff, then rehired them as independent contractors, without benefits. It’s a terrible decline in the industry. That being said, I have no interest in chasing firetrucks and politicians anymore, either. So I’m back to reviewing theater (a terrific perk because I get to see live shows for free — usually 2 tix for me are free), writing short bits for regional magazines, and possibly doing some theatre PR. These things I can do from home and also tend my garden, flock and family (not in that order).

We are still enjoying our German exchange student, Fabienne, whose presence brings us great joy, and I signed us up for another student when this one leaves in January. I look forward to continuing that trend. One more person is no trouble at all, and she is eager to be here. That makes it very pleasant indeed.

Coupon Update
Coupon and grocery-wise, we are doing fabulously. I think I finally figured out the trick of coupons. I have a friend who gives me coupons — a 6-inch stack of them about once a month (thanks, Laurel!). This is interesting to sort through, because I have to wade through sometimes 3-year-old coupons, but the end result has been good. I am not one to buy crap food just because there is a coupon. I buy “whole” food — pasta, milk, cheese, etc. Occasionally canned food or a hair-care product (and only with a coupon!). And I NEVER buy cleaning products, scented candles, frozen dinners or Koolaid, which is what I see most often in cutting coupons.

My strategy is to read the sale papers of all 3 grocery stores (Safeway, Lucky and Nob Hill-Raley’s) plus CVS/Longs. I look for who has what on sale, and then I match that to the coupons I already have, sometimes multiples of coupons, and then I shop at 1-3 stores, using a detailed list and hardly ever deviating from it. My results are that I’m spending about $75 to $125 a week to feed 6 people, but I’m saving as much as 35-50% on what I buy. So I’m bringing home a crazy amount of fabulous food for what I’m spending — and “unaffordable” stuff like California-grown olive oil, good bread, organic chicken, nice cheeses, etc. Because we live on an island, about 6 miles x 1 mile, nothing is very far away, and I drive just one day a week. I do all my errands on one day and end up driving about 10-12 miles total. All the savings have been earning me 10 cents off at the pump at 2 stores, another really fabu savings.

More money stuff: By squeezing every penny and meticulously tracking all expenses, I have managed to get us in the best shape financially we’ve been, ever. Money is tight — but — we are on top of bills, paying off depressingly old stuff like back taxes and legal bills from our divorces (9 years ago! Ugh!). Within 3 months, I will have 3-4 more bills paid off and am refinancing my daughter’s school loans to make them more manageable. We are almost to the point where we can start reinvesting in Mr Husband’s 401K, which has a company match, and building up savings and The Boy’s college fund. Almost there. I can see it just down the road. That’s a nice place to be. Very nice, after several years of single parenting (both of us) and then catching up from those difficult days.

Other than that, I’m starting to consider keeping bees, and otherwise still writing and sewing and knitting and thinking about what’s next in the great adventure of life. Enjoy this blessed autumn (sniffs deeply and appreciatively at fall’s crisp air).

the halfway mark

Just past the halfway mark in the month of June, and halfway through the June Food Stamp Challenge. Yesterday was our payday, so I paid bills and wrangled with a couple of items. If I was a food stamp recipient, I would be glad of the extra money coming in, but either way, I’m really annoyed about the money going out, too.

To wit: Our health insurance company sent me a letter saying that if I switched to their mail-order prescription service, my co-pay would decrease by 1/3. I would pay $20 for a three-month supply of Medicine A. At pharmacies, I pay $10 a month. OK, sounds good. I signed up, sent in my order for two meds and waited for the package to arrive. Then I saw the bank charge — for $90. What? Should have been $40 for three-month supplies of Medicines A and B. Maybe they’d sent it FedEx or something…?

The package arrived yesterday, and while one med was charged for $20, the other was $70 — more than double what I would have paid. I spent the (considerable) time on the phone calling the mail-order company, arguing and persuading, but it’s illegal to send back medications, they say, so I’m stuck. I do have the right to appeal the charges, and so I did that through member services (another lengthy phone call), and it came down to this: Medicine A was a generic, but medicine B was not, though I can request it for next time, but I’m hosed this time. Can’t return it, contest it, or do without it. That’s how my appeal went. So there’s $50 I did not mean to spend, and though I was playing by the rules (as set down by my oh-so-caring health insurance), still, got the short end of the stick! Irksome, but luckily for our real-life budget, won’t kill us.

However, in the world of the Food Stamp Budget, a hit of $50 — especially when we’d been led to believe by an institution we depend on and need, that it was a deep discount program (and it will be, 3 months from now, grrr) — this could have huge consequences. Because although food stamps pay for food, it doesn’t cover toothpaste, soap, medication, pet food, shoelaces, needles and thread, stain remover, gasoline, vet bills, telephone bills, bus money, late fees, postage, parking meters and more. Some of those things are necessary. Some are expendable. But $50 could make the difference between buying medicine or not. Having toothpaste or not. Having enough money for a bus pass. Not having a quarter for the parking meter, and risk getting a $45 — or $75 — or $125 parking ticket that we then cannot pay.

Which reminds me of another hot item at out house — pet food. One of our cats (Norma Jean, photo — how could you resist that sweet face?) has this ongoing issue with skin itchies — scratching, hair loss, dandruff, etc. It breaks my heart to have her itching like crazy. She seemed to live in utter misery. Turns out she’s allergic to the cheap cat food — the 20 lbs for $10 Brand-X kind. Bummer — now she is supposed to eat only canned food or the twice-as-costly no-filler-meat-only kind of kibble that  you can get only at the pet food store. Budget buster in the extreme. No way could a person do this on food stamps or a low income — even though food stamps don’t buy pet food. The amount of money that is suddenly demanded by our cat’s special diet — eek. The “good” food is $15 for 5 lbs of kibble, and has to be supplemented with canned food — at about 50 cents a can per day.

Should poor people be allowed to own pets? That money has to come from somewhere, and no, it’s not the government — but should poor folks be spending cash on “good” pet food if they can’t afford to buy their own groceries? If you start down this path, the question of who gets to own pets, and should income be a factor in pet ownership, arises…another slippery slope when you consider how important for companionship, love, comfort, stress relief, shared exercise, or protection a dog or cat can offer. Hmmm. Another shadow on the horizon of what it is to be poor or struggling (unemployed, disabled, elderly, single parent, working poor, low income).

Thursday Menu
Breakfast: Julia: cereal, milk, coffee. Austin: last night’s spaghetti; Ana: yogurt; Simone: fruit (?); Patrick: oatmeal, hardboiled egg, green tea.
Lunch: Simone: leftovers and snacks (?); Ana: homemade calzone*, carrot/celery sticks; Patrick: salad; Julia: spaghetti, toasted leftover hot dog bun.
Snack: grapefruit slices, nectarine, hot tea with milk and sugar.
Dinner: Soup**, French bread and butter (bread: free; butter: $1.29 a pound with coupon/sale. 4 cents/tablespoon = about 2 cents per person). Cost of dinner: estimate $1 total for cup of dried beans, macaroni and leftover vegetables.

*Yes, I made an attempt at homemade Hot Pockets — using half of the homemade pizza dough and some leftover pizza sauce, I chopped some mushrooms and grated cheese and baked 4 homemade calzones. They are wrapped in the freezer and I await Ana’s review of how they taste. Sorry, no photo.

**Soup happens about once a week or so at Casa Tracey. The odds and ends of onion, celery, carrots, and other veggies go into a bag or a Tupperware and stay in the fridge until soup time. The soup costs virtually nothing to make, since it is all odds and ends. I don’t buy anything special for the making of soup. A cupful of noodles or rice adds bulk; leftover meat would go in, but we have no meat at present. Sometimes I save bones from several dinners in a bag in th freezer — even chicken bones from take-out hot wings can be thrown into a soup base. Boil the bones and then remove them before adding spices and veggies. A cupful of cooked beans is also nice to add protein. Today I’m boiling up some dried kidney beans for a three-bean salad for this weekend, and some of those beans will end up in the soup, literally. 🙂

yeah, well, so it’s Monday.

So what has occurred since last time I posted? The Tax Man. We’ll leave it at that.
Meanwhile, we spent the weekend digging up dirt (not on the neighbors, but for the garden). Planted more strawberries (8 new plants), and one new artichoke. Next spring will be crazy with plants. Will we still be here? At the current rate of attrition of children-leaving-the-nest, one wonders. We’ve been thinking about how long to stay in this dreamhouse as the nestlings fly away. A 5-BR house was perfect when we moved in in 2006. Now there is one empty bedroom, an office, and the other two girls make noises like they might go live their lives elsewhere. How many offices and sewing rooms can a family use? Thus, when we get down to one Boychild and two adults, we shall have to reconside the living space. The garden and chickens will come along or stay behind, and we’ll see when that day comes.

The tomatoes are in bloom, and I will not pinch any more blossoms to promote growth. I want some fresh tomatoes, dammit. Celery is lush; so are sage, parsley, oregano and even the straggly basil has perked up. Onions are green and prospering. Beets are popping up, as is the rocket (aka arugula). I planted a plotful of mustard greens, which I found growing rogue at an empty house last week. The mustard will feed the chickens or mix into salad greens, but solo, is too bitter for me, raw or cooked. The corn is doing nothing — not a single sprout yet, and it’s been at least 2 weeks, if not 3. All of the squashes/pumpkins/cukes are sprouting second and third sets of leaves, and I think, barring hailstorms and slug-hordes, they’ll all be fine.

Just now I have pegged out a line of sheets and pajamas to dry. They are flapping in the breeze. Yesterday the cats got fed canned cat food twice (Mr,.Husband and then me, not knowing that anyone else would do the morning job). Today there is no canned food left, so I am cooking up a batch of cat food. They also have kibble, which they eat only as a snack. It isn’t real food to my fussy little stinkers.

Tasty Treat
Cat food = the carcass of a chicken plus an extra scoop of gizzards and hearts (on sale, frozen), stewed with carrot, some salmon oil and kelp (vitamin tablets), and later, a whole egg (shell, too) and a cupful of either oatmeal or brown rice. Cook together till the bones are mushy-soft, then puree in the blender with a scoopful of plain yogurt, cottage cheese or powdered milk. It is more nutritious (organic) than canned, and actually cheaper, with no recycling or trash (I reuse plastic tubs to refrigerate/freeze it). This batch will make the equivalent of about a month’s canned food (1/4 cup per day per cat). I could also add spinach or another mild green. I don’t have any spinach on hand, though. I don’t give them pork or beef as a rule, and I once tried cooking a fish variety but it was too nasty to cook a fish’s head for several hours. The bulging eyeballs made me ill. Plus, boiled fish = stinky house. So chicken is our only flavor.

Note: The kids love the smell of this cat-food soup when they think it is our dinner. When I say it’s cat food, they gross out. It is the same stuff, either way, and just smells like chicken stock cooking — kinda chickeny with a little herb scent. It’s perfectly edible, without the bones or eggshells.

Speaking of chickens, but in a different way altogether — we finished raccoon-proofing the henhouse, and the girls slept in their coop last night for the first time. They got freaked out when night fell and were cheeping and crying for some time. They have never been outside at night. It was sad to listen to them, but I had to do the mommy thing and let them cry it out. Eventually they nestled down and shut up. And this morning, they are all safe. Yesterday Patrick spent most of the day drilling and sawing and screwing in hinges and locks. The new door, made of salvaged plywood and a piece of the Ikea dresser we cannabilized, features 2 locks and 2 hinges, with 2 carrabiner hooks to keep the locks closed. The hinges and hasps required a trip to the hardware store but we had the hooks already. Glad to have that task out of the way, and no longer have to shuttle the chicks back and forth to the garage at night, have 2 cages to clean, etc. I am very grateful for that reduction.

Today’s chorelist also includes ironing a few more shirts out of the mountain of ironing. Bills to pay. Clean off the dining room table, which has become my downstairs desk. Cookies? Maybe snickerdoodles. Dishes, some kind of dinner for 5, same as it ever was.

Feels like as good a time as any to say I am glad to be alive. Not a very exciting life, but a good one. Peace out, y’all.

tick tock: happy thoughts

Waiting for Mr. Glass-fixin Guy to show up. Tick tock. In the meantime, here’s a short list of happy things:

1. The gardenia brought to me by my daughter Ana. Sweet scent fills the room. It was a birthday gift that truly has kept on giving.


2. Bought seeds for the garden yesterday. Mostly American Seed Co., not the world’s greatest seeds, but they do the job. I grow them organically. We eat them for months. I like my garden. Seeds = spring.

3. Ophelia, aka Fifi. What’s not to love? She rules my heart.

4. Hair salon appointment today. Walk in like a mouse, walk out like a babe. Again, I ask you: What’s not to love? (No photo available of mouse or babe, sorry.)
5. That satisfying feeling of paying bills, of saving a little money for a rainy day, of cooking good food, and of living well without completely raping and pillaging Planet Earth. Maybe counting piles of gold is your thing. Not mine. I’d rather count the tomatoes off the vine, the finches on the fence, and sunny days so I can hang my laundry out to dry in the breeze.
Simple life? I wish it were more so. One day at a time.

Saving the planet, and my soul

OK, just kidding about the soul. I know just where it is, and it’s doing fine. But the planet…In other words, how I Compacted this weekend —-

Picked up CSA box. Supporting local farmers, local produce stand, yeah! 100-mile diet, yeah! Vegetarianism, yeah!

Made cat food in the Crockpot. Cats eat healthy product, yeah!

Cooked pinto beans in another Crockpot (a broken one that I got from Freecycle — the crock handle is broken at the edge but it works just fine, no leaks, just hard to grab when it’s very hot).Beans for Monday’s dinner, and to take to work. Yeah!

Boiled CSA potatoes for vegetarian daughter to eat. She uses potatoes or rice or tortillas as a base and adds a strange assortment of cheeses, peppers, veggies, sauces, etc. on top. No two meals are the same. But she loved the potatoes I cooked last week. Pre-cooked meals — yeah!

Found 4 black bananas in the freezer (the best kind for baking) and made a double batch of banana muffins. Half went into the freezer, 1/4 got eaten Saturday night by voracious cloud of locust-like teens, and the rest are for breakfast this week.

Crumbled a bunch of leftover stale cookies and toasted the crumbs, saved in the freezer for making parfait, sprinkling onto ice cream, etc. No food waste: yeah!

Made a couple of gallons of sun tea in various gallon jars, various flavors. Two teabags per gallon costs, hmm, hardly nothing, and no sugar added means this is a healthful drink at very low cost per gallon or per glass. Yeah!

And outside of the kitchen, I…

Did cold-water wash and hung out 4 loads to dry. Yeah!

Changed 3 more lightbulbs to CFLs. (Thought I had done them all, but nope!) Yeah!

Sent out some PR info for an upcoming event via Facebook: no paper waste, no trees died, no cost: yeah!

Did some yardwork to prep for early spring planting in the garden: free veggies? yeah!

Smashed a bunch of cans that I’m saving to get me to my $10K savings challenge. I think I have almost $1 worth. And cleaned up the street! Yeah!

Found 21 cents: Yeah!

Printed out The Boy’s birthday invites for next Saturday’s 11th bday party: 11 pieces of paper, very little per-page cost, and no money spent on printed invites. The party will include a bunch of young boys shooting each other with Nerf guns for 5 hours, so I am going to visit my mom and talk about quilts for the day next Saturday. Quality time with Mom, no Nerf headaches = no ibuprofin, simple fun at party and NO goodie bags either. Yeah!

Grocery shopping today with own bags (yeah), didn’t buy any crap (yeah), bought several bulk foods, got prepped for the week, and got bacon made from happy pigs for the carnivores of the family, from the butcher, wrapped in paper, no plastic. Yeah!

Worked on my knitting projects while Mr Husband entertained a dozen of his close friends with the Superbowl… All of this Compacting maybe possibly makes up for the fact that Mr Husband put a TV in every room, including the bathroom and on top of the stove, so that his friends wouldn’t miss a single second of the game. A friend brought a leftover-keg of beer that we enjoyed (reusable cups! No bottle waste! No cans! returnable keg! No beer waste! Yeah!) but the food was generally not-good-4-U. Like, pass the KFC and no thanks on your homemade pickles. Oh, well.

As Scarlett O’Hara said, tomorrow is another day.