Sunday, December 29, 2013

Why I Don't Automate Bill Pay

This year has been crazy with our budget. We've had joint finances for over eight years, but this is the first time we have ever had dual incomes! Our annual pull isn't that much different, but steady paychecks that we can rely on is a whole new world. One thing that hasn't changed is how I pay our bills. 

I don't use automatic bill pay.

The reason stems back to how our finances used to be - totally unpredictable. Mike's GI payments for school never showed up with any consistency and neither did his drill checks.  Each had about a week buffer for when they would nonchalantly appear in checking (and that was the months when they showed up at all ...). My income was steady at least, but it wasn't enough to handle all of our bills each pay period and leave us with enough leftover for groceries.  

I simply never had the confidence that we'd have enough money in our account when a bill was scheduled to withdraw. I was more worried about overdraft penalties than late fees!

Even though our income is more steady now, Mike's paychecks still come in irregularly. He gets paid somewhere around the 10th and 25th, but there's no pattern I can discern. December was the 24th and 10th, both Tuesdays. November was the 28th (Thursday) and 8th (Friday). October was the 25th (Friday) and 10th (Thursday). Nonsense, I tell you! And obviously still too risky for automatic payments.

Even if this wasn't the case, I like being hands-on with our finances far too much to cede control to a computer program. It's not a mistrust in technology or companies to handle my payments for me - I simply want to be the one to initiate the process.

I even pay all of our bills online, but I do so by hand. I log into each account, review the charges, determine the payment, print off the receipt and statement, and file away the hard copies. I suppose this is an "ancient" way to deal with bills. I could be simplifying our bills by automating the process and saving transactions as PDFs. 

But I like the accountability of paying bills individually. It forces me to interact with each and every paycheck, debt, and expense line. There is something quite valuable in monitoring money going in and out. It makes you confront your economic reality and take ownership of every aspect of your finances.

That's the problem with automatic bill pay - it comes with the risk of going on autopilot with your money. If you're not keeping tabs on things, the approach can be very passive. And that's the furthest thing I want to be with our budget.

To be fair, I'm not knocking those who use automatic payments. It can be a really useful tool if you need regulated discipline, you're forgetful about bills, or you don't want to worry about late fees. This article from the Washington Post gives a nice overview of the pros and cons. If Mike was the one doing finances, oh man, I would automate everything! Love him dearly, but his memory is not up to the task ...

In fact, we have several bills that we were required to have automated: car loan, internet, water, Netflix, and a payment for disability insurance (picks up where my company's coverage leaves off, if you're curious).

By and large, I don't mind these. The car and internet bills come out the first of the month. This is good because both of those are necessities and having them yanked would be a major disruption. The car loan sends a paper statement so we can see our progress and the internet bill is fixed. Netflix is also static and comes out routinely, as is the $10 insurance payment.   

The water bill is the one that drives me nuts. First of all, it comes every two months. It's our only bill that doesn't come in every month. Secondly, our city only offers two payment methods: check or automatic withdrawal. I'm not mailing a check that takes a week to cash! 

The one that really gets me is the due date is somewhere around the 28th. It's always right before payday when our account is nearly empty. On months the water comes in, I have to remember when I'm paying bills on the 15th to make sure we leave a buffer in checking for that darn water payment. Sigh ...

Everything else - student loans, electricity/gas, phone, and credit cards - are all done by logging in online. Rent is another story, but we pay two months at a time and by check. 

I even have a hard copy of our monthly expenses that I work off of. Every account we have, whether it's active or not, is listed here. Bills are divided up by whether they come out the 1st or 15th of month. It also includes payment averages for variable bills and a blank space to note what they actually were. I also leave some lines for irregular items, like medical bills that pop up periodically. 

Screenshot of our monthly expense sheet
It's a super simple Word doc. It's not even a budget in any sense, just more of an overview of all of our obligations. Nonetheless, it helps to have those ballparks outlined so we always have an idea of what we're up against. And even though my financial brain farts are pretty rare, the printout also ensures that I don't overlook any accounts. 

I suppose I could joke and say that paying bills by hand comes down to control issues, but why wouldn't you want to be in the driver's seat when it comes to your hard-earned money? I've found this method really works for us and it's one I can't see abandoning anytime soon.

How do you manage bill payments?  

Sunday, December 8, 2013

My First Grain-Free Thanksgiving

Most days, my food allergies are manageable. There's a regularity to what we eat, how I prepare for business trips, and navigate going out to eat. Staying safe while consuming food is not something that I have to battle anymore, just calmly prepare for and execute.   

Until the holidays arrive.  

For anyone with food sensitivities, the holidays can wear down even the most seasoned allergy warrior. No matter how much you try to normalize your restrictions, you will run into your limitations in full force. Every family gathering, holiday party, company potluck, and even meals while traveling can be a mine field for contamination. 
Freedom from Want by Norman Rockwell
For some, there's also a twinge of longing when surrounded by foods that are off limits. The regret doesn't come from a superficial craving for a frosted sugar cookie, but a desire to take part in family traditions. But if you have to forgo certain foods, there's a little piece of your heritage that you're missing out on.  

For me, my aunt's peanut brittle, my mom's recipe for Red Velvet Cake that we had at our wedding, and my family's Pennsylvania Dutch sugar cookies (flavored with almond extract) that will only be tastes in my memory.

But this is not a sob story about food and the holidays. This is about rising to the challenge of food allergies and turning compromises into yummy substitutes. This is showing people that no matter what is off limits in your diet, there's a wealth of beautiful, wholesome food that will tickle the taste buds and delight the senses.   

This is an ode to creating new memories.

William Lockhart Made the First Thanksgiving 1621 by Jean Leone Gerome Ferris
Last Thanksgiving, I was on my way to cutting out gluten. I had scaled back greatly but was still indulging in small quantities of wheat here and there. In fact, Thanksgiving was my deadline for going gluten-free. I was going to enjoy one last meal without hesitation and make the final plunge from there. 

Now that I'm well into eating not only gluten-free, but grain-free, I saw that Thanksgiving this year was going to be complicated if we went anywhere. Wheat would be easy to avoid, but figuring out if corn had gotten into anything?  Almost impossible unless I made the meal myself. Sending a family member a long list of "can't haves" and then quizzing them on every brand and ingredient that went into each and every dish? Couldn't stomach the idea.  

So we decided to stay rooted at home and were joined by my parents. Thus began a few weeks of exploring recipes and a few trial runs before settling on the final menu.

I've actually never seen a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving ...
I feel very fortunate that grain-free eating actually makes a traditional Thanksgiving meal impossible. I didn't have to mess with trying to adapt stuffing, rolls, pie crust, or gravy. I cannot imagine the stress of those trying to force rice, coconut, and almond flours into something that bakes and tastes like their traditional counterparts. For me, the challenge was to have a multi-course meal that fit everyone's tastes.

We started off with a cheese and fruit tray, filled with smoked gouda and Edam cheese (courtesy of Aldi's for $2.99 a brick) and grapes, clementines, and chopped apples that my mom supplied. 

Taking a page from Mike's Thanksgivings growing up, we did a brined turkey. It surprises me how many people have never tried this before! You simply give the turkey a bath in a salt and water solution for a few days (Alton Brown explains the process in an easy way to understand).

You can add a million flavors to brines, such as sugars (regular or juice), citrus peels, fresh herbs, and whole spices. We kept things simple and did one cup of salt, one cup of white sugar, and enough water to cover our 12lb turkey. Our bird hung out in the bath for a day and a half and was drained over night (which did produce the crispy, golden skin as promised but mostly on the top). Didn't even bother to stuff the cavity with anything either.

Don't let his face fool you, Mike is excited for turkey!

To complement the star dish, I made an apple-cherry salad.  This recipe is so simple and it's in our regular meal rotation (I'm on onion hater, so we skipped the red onions). I offered dried cranberries or cherries, shredded parmesan (which came from a block that I grated myself), green apples (though any kind will do), and used a mustard made from apple cider vinegar in the dressing. It's an excellent mix of zippy, sweet, and salt.

In the background, loaf of a bread from a local bakery for the normal folks.  
You can't have Thanksgiving without an appearance from potatoes, so I made a gratin (I kind of threw mine together, but this is a close version). I used half and half, a touch of leftover evaporated milk from pie (see below), and threw some extra parmesan on top at the end. It came out well, but took longer than expected.  Should have realized that most gratins bake at 400 degrees and I put mine in the last hour of the turkey, which was at 325. I also used red potatoes instead of Russets, which apparently have a longer cook time (difference in starch levels, perhaps?).

I also made my first homemade cranberry sauce. I, like many others, grew up on the canned stuff but never cared for it.  Mike grew up with cranberry relish or chutney and I was converted the first time I tried his mom's. I decided to give a plain sauce a whirl and could not believe how stupidly easy it was to make. I consulted several recipes and found that the cranberry to water + sugar ratio varies wildly.  

So I did 12oz of fresh cranberry (a whole whopping $1 at Aldi's), a cup of water, 1/2 cup of white sugar, and the peel of a whole orange. Bring to a boil and let simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. That's it! Most of the berries will burst on their own, leaving lots of juice to thicken the sauce and little chunks for variation. Look at the beautiful color! Next time I'd like to add a touch more sugar and maybe some cinnamon sticks. 

If everyone wasn't stuffed by then, I also made sure there were two dessert options. I love pumpkin pie and it's ridiculously easy to make pumpkin custard. You can take any pumpkin pie recipe and simply make it without the crust - no other changes!  

I made this maple-cinnamon one and use evaporated milk instead of regular. We used fresh pumpkin puree that we made ourselves (you can roast whole pumpkins and then blend the innards using this method). I also got heavy cream, threw a little maple syrup in it, and made real whipped cream to dollop on top.

Because there must be at least two dessert options, I also made a flourless chocolate cake. My mom and I are chocoholics and Mike has a Gollum-esque penchant for chocolate desserts, particularly cake. This recipe is super easy to make and is basically sugar, chocolate, cocoa powder, and eggs (I skipped the ganache). I replaced maple syrup for vanilla to achieve a comparable background flavor and skipped the liquor in the recipe for fresh squeezed orange juice (the other end use for the whole orange - waste not want not!).    

All in all, we had a delightful, low-fuss Thanksgiving. I estimate the meal was around $35. Aside from the turkey, nothing was really a premium ingredient. By comparison, a traditional meal (so not gluten free) for 10 people is around $50, according to the Farm Bureau.  

We used the HyVee coupon for buy a ham, get a turkey free, spending $23 on almost 30 pounds of meat (the ham is being donated to the food bank).  

Turkey (12lbs).........$11.50 (with HyVee coupon)
Apples....................$3 (but only used 2 from a 5lb bag)
Gruyere..................$3 (only used half block)
Edam.....................$3 (same)
Baker's chocolate..$2.50
Bread loaf..............$2
Heavy cream.........$1.50
Miscellaneous........$1 (for all the butter, spices, sugar, maple syrup, eggs, oil olive)

I think we did a good job with keeping costs low without sacrificing quality. Mike and I also had a manageable amount of leftovers for two additional meals. I'm pretty sure we could feed two additional people for the same price, though there would be no leftovers in that case. 
Spot the cat
What did you eat for Thanksgiving this year?

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Month of Movies - October Edition

Hello! <waves> My name is Jennie and I'm a cinephile. Hi Jennie!

I am a tried and true movie enthusiastic. It is one of my simple pleasures, like a good book, a cup of tea, a long hot shower. Films have always fascinated me and a good narrative can satisfy the soul and leave you nourished.

My taste in movies is about as varied as they come. To be honest, the only genres I discriminate against are horror, Westerns, and war movies. When I'm in the mood to be entertained, I look for thrillers, adventure, fantasy, science fiction, action, and comedy. I'm not afraid of a good period piece nor subtitles. I'll try any film that's experimental or independent in nature, even if I only end up appreciating the director's intent to do something different. I am a sap for older movies of any kind and I routinely pay attention to Oscar buzz.

That being said, movies can be an expensive habit. They're definitely an optional expense, filed away under "luxury," yet life is too short to feel deprived. I also have to consider that I earn income from this love when I teach film courses. I can genuinely say it's good professional development to watch movies! :) 

With that in mind, I try to balance my adoration of the silver screen with a few frugal rules:
  • We rarely go to the theater. That used to make me a little sad, but anymore, there's little I need to see immediately when it's released. It helps that even matinee prices for two people will run us $15!  If I'm considering a trip to the cinema, I always ask is it necessary to see this film on the big screen? Will I lose part of the viewing experience if I watch it at home on a display it wasn't originally sized for? Generally the answer is no, and accordingly, the only film we've seen in the theater this year is We're the Millers (which was hilarious and worth every penny!). However, Catching Fire, the second Hunger Games movie, is going to be released soon. This is definitely a movie I want to see in the theater, on a big screen, surrounded by other people.

  • We have the premium Netflix plan and I don't care. Yes, I pay $20 a month to get streaming and two-at-a-time DVDs, but we generally watch enough to make it worth it. I love that I can easily find older films, documentaries, foreign movies, and independent flicks that you can't find anywhere else. Plus, when I'm teaching, it's invaluable to make sure I have my movie for class in hand reliably!

  • Redbox is a devilish option. It looks so cheap, right, at $1.30 a movie, but you always have to do the math of how many DVDs you've grabbed and how many nights you'll keep them. I have way overpaid on Redbox before because I simply forgot to return them or I didn't feel like making the extra trip to the grocery store to take them back <forehead smack>. If I'm going to be tempted by The Box, I make sure to commit to one DVD at a time and for only one night.

  • Family Video is thankfully on the other side of town for us.  I literally have to go out of my way to rent there (and return), so it's easier to avoid. Doesn't mean that I don't splurge there once in a while. I do love the feeling of going into a store and physically perusing the selections, but I always make sure to factor in the hidden costs of gas and my time to go there.

October was a good month for movie watching. It helps that the temperatures are falling and our weekend schedules have slowed down.  Here's what we saw:

Disney Memories (Netflix)

Thank you Netflix for finally getting Disney to cave and make their movies available! Growing up in the 90s, I was a Disney junkie and was enthralled with their animation. I LOVE that there are films I can now watch that I haven't seen in years! 

<does the happy dance>

We often watch a kid's movie when A) one of us is feeling under the weather or B) after a stressful day. Atlantis (2001) was fun to watch because I hadn't seen it since it came out and Mike barely remembered it. The plot wasn't amazing, but the ensemble characters were funny and both of us were impressed with the animation. I wonder if the CGI was so advanced at the time that people didn't know how to appreciate it.

Treasure Planet (2002) neither one of us had seen, and let me tell you, I was blown away! How is this not a Disney favorite?!  Clever way to adapt Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, excellent voice acting, and a solid story. The split between traditional animation and CGI is so well done, this film does not look like it was made a decade ago.

Mulan (1998) was one I watched on my own. I remember even my high school self was enamored of the more feminist portrayal of a Disney heroine and my appreciation hasn't waned. Eddie Murphy as the dragon Mushu is still priceless.

The Emporer's New Groove (2000) is hands down one of my favorite Disney films and when Mike confessed he'd never seen it, well, I had to remedy that! Seriously, this movie has only gotten funnier over time. We were busting up as if we were at a comedy show. The story and characters are super quirkier. If you need to be put in a good mood, put this one on!

Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring (Redbox)

Remember what I said about experimental movies? Perhaps because I've seen so many films, it's easy for me to predict plots and even lines if a story has been done before. I'm not trying to be picky or snobbish, but it does take a little to impress me anymore, particularly when there's such a dearth of originality in the studio system at present.

Spring Breakers is a crazy film. First of all, I have no idea how they got a R rating. There are so many close ups of boobs, crotch shots, sex scenes, course language, and violence. If you can't take the objectification of the female body, swearing, and video game-esque crime sprees, avoid this. 

I, however, was mesmerized by the whole thing (despite even my discomfort with the level of nudity and I have a pretty high tolerance for graphic content. Hello male gaze!). It's not a story I've ever seen before and the style of cinematography ensures you can't look away.  

James Franco, who plays an islander thug, is utterly transformed in this role. His performance had me hooked, otherwise I might have turned this off. He's not an actor I normally care for (and maybe I'm jealous because he's so frickin' smart), but he certainly is a tour de force and it's none the clear than in this film.

In the same vein of young kids gone wild, I gave The Bling Ring a try. The premise sounded interesting: based on the true story of teens who robbed celebrities. What I forgot is that this is a Sofia Coppola film and I absolutely detest her work. I would love to support a female director, but her movies bore me to death. Lost in Translation I turned off and I had to sit through Marie Antoinette in the theater but it tried my patience sorely. 

The Bling Ring was no different. It's like you're a fly on the wall, but you're not party to anything actually interesting. I abandoned this within 20 minutes. That being said, Emma Watson was terrific as a Valley Girl.Too bad all of the characters were played so convincingly that their shallowness drove me away! Ah, the perils of good acting ...

Identity Thief (Redbox)

I've been wanting to see this film since it came out! I skipped it in the theaters and patiently waited as it was always rented out at Redbox for months on end. It was just the type of goofball comedy that I enjoy, with plenty of physical humor, hijinks theatrics, and over-the-top characters. Melissa McCartney is hilarious and I've enjoyed watching her ever since she stole the show in Bridesmaids (in fact, she was the only part of that film I liked).  Jason Bateman is also a great straight man in any comedy (loved Horrible Bosses!).

There's nothing intelligent about this film, it has its slow and dramatic moments like any other modern comedy, but it is fun and lighthearted. I also really liked the resolution, which I won't spoil for you, but only say that it took the high road another film would have skipped.

K-9 (VHS)

That's right, we not only have VHS tapes still, but a working player! Judge me if you want, but I bought a ton of great movies in early college out of the $5 Walmart bin and see no reason to spend more money to upgrade them. Once the VHS player kicks the bucket, that might be a different story, haha.

Anyways, it's insane this movie was made in 1989 -- makes me feel old! I watched it often with my dad growing up, but Mike hadn't seen it. It's still a cute story and we had some good laughs, though the look is very dated. And when you're in the right mood, you can't go wrong with an animal movie.  Maybe we'll find Homeward Bound or Turner & Hooch next ;)

I Was a Male Bride (Netflix)

Taking a step into the past (1949 to be specific), we watched this great Howard Hawks film one Saturday morning. Older movies, even ones in a fiction setting, are still a look into our past. This movie is definitely a romantic comedy, but we still were chuckling.  

Cary Grant is also one of my favorite actors. I will watch anything with him in it. Even his trademark accent is played for laughs in this film -- he's supposed to be a French officer and there's zero attempt to sound Parisian!

The General (The Englert Theater)

Oh boy, let me tell you what a treat this was! I went way over our entertainment budget for this, but sometimes you've got to splurge. It also helped it was around our (dating) anniversary and we needed a special night out. I will admit we spent $45 on tickets, but while it makes me cringe slightly, I keep reminding myself this is what we save money for, so we can make memories without worrying about the budget. 

The Englert Theater is a real theater house in Iowa City, some 25 miles south of us. They have an amazing roster of acts that come through, but I've honestly only been there to see movies! What they offer is a unique experience you can't replicate anywhere else -- a movie showing accompanied by a live performance of its score!

A few years back, I had the supreme pleasure of watching The Wizard of Oz accompanied by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony. I was enraptured by the whole thing as live music elevates the whole viewing experience beyond anything you could imagine (it was also a sold-out crowd, which was really cool too).  

It also can't be stressed enough that you need to see some of these classic films on a properly-sized screen. I've only ever seen The Wizard of Oz on a home television set, but put it on a two-story screen and you understand why Technicolor was such an amazing advancement! Anyways, ever since then I've had my eye out for similar opportunities.

Last year, while Mike was deployed, I watched Alloy Orchestra perform its own score for Metropolis (1927), a German silent-era film that I'd never seen but is always referred to as being a seminal work. Wow oh wow, was it ever a great performance! Alloy is a three-man ensemble and they truly have a knack for capturing the mood of a film using a host of traditional instruments and unlikely objects. You need to check these guys out!

So when I saw that Alloy was coming back to play along with The General (1926), I knew I had to drag Mike along with me. I'd also never seen a Buster Keaton film before, and as a film teacher, I thought it was a good excuse to education myself :)

While not as impressive as the Metropolis performance, The General was still a great accompaniment (to be fair, completely different styles of movies and thus scores). Keaton is truly all he is heralded as - a comedic genius whose stunt work will make your jaw drop. I can't wait to explore more of his films!

Check out what we watched in November!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Welcoming Fall with Open Arms

It's 8am, I'm in the last stages of a cold that has moved to a sore throat, the weather is sunny but barely 50 degrees, a steaming cup of chai tea with honey sits to my right, I'm wrapped in a bathrobe, the windows are cracked open, and you can hear the geese honking overhead.

It's officially fall.

To be honest, I was none too thrilled with the first signs of autumn this year.  Maybe I didn't get enough of summer this year, particularly with the erratic weather.  Maybe it's because we did very little of the traditional activities or trips you associate with summer fun.  Or that work got so busy that I looked down at my to-do list and when I'd finally made some headway, a whole season had past. 

Maybe I just dread the winter months that will follow, lol.

This summer was a season of change for us.  I think I'm still playing catch up with life, huffing and puffing like an out-of-shape runner, gasping, "wait for me!"

In July, Mike got a huge promotion at work.  He was made a program coordinator and is now in charge of three consumers and the staff who takes care of them.  The new title included a pay raise ($12.25 an hour with overtime) and a slew of responsibilities.  For the consumers, Mike coordinates medical care, therapy, job transportation, finances, supplies and groceries, contact with their guardians and state case workers, and a mountain of paperwork related to DHS, Medicare, and Social Security.  For his staff, he manages scheduling, payroll, training, and corrective measures (of which there have been a lot). 

They knew what they were doing when they handed one of their worst performing programs (organization-wise, not the consumers) to a ex-military man.  Mike finally feels like he has righted a listing ship and is back on course.  At least his deck hands are mostly on board.  Mostly.

For us, it's meant changes in schedules.  Mike works some evenings and typically has his weekends free now.  But because care goes on 24/7 at his house, his phone is a mess of text messages and calls at random hours.  And he also has the dreaded on-call week every two months. 

Finances too have been more complicated as Mike gets reimbursed for not only mileage, but random expenses his program incurs (which makes budgeting rather tricky - how I am supposed to anticipate when his house runs short on toilet paper because someone forget to get it when grocery shopping???).  Then there's how overtime makes his paychecks flux and he has the weirdest, most inconvenient pay dates I've ever seen (somewhere between the 10-13th and maybe the 24-26th).  It's driving me nuts!  

Another change was Mike's honorable discharge from the military.  As of the end of June, he peacefully parted ways with the Iowa Air National Guard for a break and returned to being a full civilian - the first time in 12 years.  No more drill every month, no chances of deployment, no more uniforms hogging up the laundry basket, no combat boots ready to trip over, no trying to hunt down troops that need to do paperwork.  The haircut remains :) 

Life for me has been interesting.  Work was exceedingly busy this summer, as our issues are a little thicker at this time of the year, all of my special projects (award programs) came full circle, and the magazine is playing around with some new initiatives that require extra attention.  We were also short staffed for a while as we filled an open position, which demanded a slightly higher workload from everyone and then my time on the hiring committee.  Luckily we found the right person and are moving forward.

I also had the opportunity to teach a new-to-me course this summer: Critical Thinking.  It is one of the weirdest courses I've ever taught.  It has vague learning objectives like "define problems" or "distinguish between fact and opinion."  Seriously.  With such a wide path to walk, it was difficult to construct a coherent course and create meaningful activities (especially with a textbook I absolutely detested).  

So I ended up with a class that was a mixture of comp, public speaking, rhetoric, philosophy, ethics, and research methods.  My seven students were gracious and a real blessing because they were pretty active across the board.  It's definitely a course I would teach again, but I always forget how much time and energy it takes the first round to figure everything out, create the class content, and experiment every week.  

My health continues to be a matter of consistent vigilance.  On the one hand, I can report that virtually all of the symptoms I had been experiencing before going grain-free have dissipated.  I've also lost 50 pounds.  Yes, you read that right, 50 pounds.  I made it through most of the summer with baggy shirts and pants safety pinned to fit.  But alas, I have donated so many clothes this year.  I am literally to the point where I must purchase new underwear and bras.  It's a good thing, but it's expensive.  I didn't budget to replace my ENTIRE wardrobe this year.  I have been making it work with a few Kohls trips and trying to go to Goodwill when possible.  

As much as this progress makes me happy and relieved, it also is very demanding.  To safeguard against contamination is a daily trial.  To cook ALL of my own food requires hours of my time and energy.  No matter how tiring my day has been, I must go to my kitchen and work to eat every evening.  I know it's the right thing, and most days it's manageable, but the days it's not, it can be very overwhelming.  I know it will get easier as I go on, but Year One of the Great Diet Change is still in progress. 

So what did we do this summer for fun?
  • We went to the state fair for the first time in years.  I found fruit on a stick and Mike ate a fried brownie.  
  • We had a blast watching two good friends get married to each other.
  • We were regulars at the downtown CR Farmer's Market, which is dangerously stocked with great vendors.
  • We've been biking a good many times and hit up some new trail sections.
  • By a stroke of good fortune, we bought a new (to us) car.
  • We spent a weekend on the banks of the Mississippi with friends.
  • We've instituted game nights and SkipBo, Dabble, Cribbage, and Scattergories are played routinely. 
  • We had a big German-themed birthday party for Mike's 30th birthday, complete with brats, ham, baked potato bar, and, because I love him so much, lots of blue cheese, pickled herring, and sauerkraut. 

When I think about my initial disdain for fall appearing, I think it's because I'm mourning a summer that was a little too turbulent for my tastes. It's the classic story of too much work and not enough of play.

But I've already noticed that the cooler temperatures and earlier sunsets have prompted a slower pace for both us.  And this I welcome with open arms.  I'm ready to roast vegetables and meats without having to turn on the air conditioning.  I'm ready to load up the bed with extra quilts.  I'm ready for walks in crunchy leaves and wrapping up in a warm coat.  

I'm ready for some relaxation. 

What's your favorite thing about fall?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat's Jewel Box by Madeleine Albright (review)

While America doesn't have any crown jewels and our politicians may wear a token flag pin when it suits them, jewelry can nonetheless be used as a form of communication.  Madeleine Albright found that a well-chosen pin could say volumes as she navigated the delicate international waters as the Secretary of State from 1997-2001. Her book, Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat's Jewel Box, is a quick look at her colorful and symbolic collection of brooches and pins.

More of an illustrated memoir than autobiography, this coffee table book offers some fantastic recollections from Albright's adventures and beautiful photos of her pins.  This formidable lady has hundreds, if not thousands, of pins!  What started as an alternative to wearing necklaces turned into her signature style as a diplomat (this is a brief photo tour that gives you a taste of her collection). It was fascinating to read how much thought she put into the message her jewelry could communicate -- a sun for hopeful negotiations, doves for peace, spiders for a touch of deviousness.

What impresses me about Albright's collection is that on the whole, her brooches are inexpensive.  They're culled from estate sales, gift shops, antique stores, and bargain boutiques.  Most of the pricy pieces (real gemstones, precious metals) were given as gifts by foreign dignitaries, but mostly they're the kind of pins that you can find without breaking your wallet.  I'm sure the collection as a whole is now deemed priceless by the Smithsonian, but individually, her pins are affordable and accessible. 

I love the swallow pin!
Contrary to my own personal style, Albright also doesn't take her pins seriously.  I was struck by the playfulness of her pieces -- seahorses, beetles, kangaroos, turtles, crabs, shooting stars, a flying saucer.  They display a whimsy that is fun and joyful.  Of course, she has a host of stern-looking eagles and even a rocket launcher to counter, but the point of wear what you like is still well taken. 

I picked up this book up from the library because I love pins.  Some women expect diamonds and gold as gifts, an expensive engagement ring, or a pretty bauble on every birthday.  You'll find none of this with me.  What I relish is a beautiful antique pin.   

It started with my great-grandmother Nellie Bell.  She passed away when I was in grade school, so my memories of her are pretty limited.  I'm not even clear on how this pin found its way to me, only that I've loved it since the moment I laid eyes on it. 

Includes matching clip-on earrings
As a kid, I never dreamed of wearing this pin.  Pins were cheesy and old-fashioned, so not cool.  Nonetheless, this flower pin stayed in my jewelry box until I had the good sense to wear it on a whim during my first year of teaching.  Suddenly, a plain black shirt had elegance and people would stop to compliment me on my exquisite pin.  I mean, when you get an 18-year-old student to say you have a pretty pin, you're on to something.   

Since then, I've slowly added to my pin collection.  These have been found exclusively at antique stores or flea markets by myself and others who are excellent gift givers.  None are over $20.  I prefer organic shapes and flowers in rhinestones or basic metals.  I shy away from anything that might be deemed as cheesy, which is far too easy to stray into when combing through drawers of junk jewelry.  

The middle pin Mike got me for Christmas this past year (doesn't he have good taste!) and the blue rhinestone one a coworker found for me.  The rest I've snagged from antique stores.

The pin on the left is one of my favorites - a friend found it for $3 and I wear it all the time.
My latest addition.  Need to find a way to turn the earrings into pins without ruining the original setting.

As I was digging through my jewelry box to take these pictures, it dawned on me that I had a "secondary" collection of pins from my college days: 
  • Starting my freshman year, I was a member of Tau Beta Sigma, a greek service organization for band, and wore my membership pin on many occasions.  
  • I wore a yellow ribbon pin on my marching band uniform in support of Mike, much to the silent chagrin of my director.
  • My marching band hat also had a pin that was a replica of the university seal, which was given to me when I graduated as a senior.  
  • I later joined an English honor society (Sigma Tau Delta) and added another pin.  
 These I all wore on my stole when I graduated with my masters
And if Mike wouldn't kill me for taking a picture of them, I would love to show you all of the military ribbons he's earned over the years.  But alas, Captain America doesn't want any recognition for his military service, poo on him. (HEY! I signed up before 9/11/01. That means I was one of the last actual volunteers before everyone got all 'I want to deploy and blow up a foreign country' and decided that joining the Air Force was better than going to college. It was a job and I did it. :P)

Much like Albright, I find that even my very small collection is made special by the stories and personal connections.  There's a certain history associated with each piece that doesn't come with the clearance sale necklace from a department store.  They also spark conversation because pins are still an unusual fashion accessory when traveling for business, going to work, or out on a date. 

Albright was in office through my junior and high school years, and in truth, I know very little about her or her achievements.  While I wished Read My Pins had more to actually read, it was a great introduction to a piece of political Americana.  Her collection is now at the Czech National Museum, which I drive by every day.  I can't wait to see these pins in person!

Do you have any special pieces of jewelry?  Do you collect anything?       

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Why Avoiding Corn is a Nightmare

I would never in a million years wish a corn sensitivity or allergy on anyone.

Out of all of the foods that make me sick, corn is the hardest to safeguard against.  It's easy to avoid whole corn, tortilla products, cornmeal, and the likes because you can see with your own two eyes that something has corn in it.  Cornstarch, dextrose (once you know it's a corn product), and high fructose corn syrup are easy to spot as long as you have access to an ingredient list.  

But its corn derivatives that are called by a different name or foods you'd never think would have a corn byproduct in them that are the hardest to track down.  This list from the Gluten Free Society is the most comprehensive I've seen about corn products - please read so you can understand just how easily it can hide in our food.  

And why being vigilent for corn contamination is driving me nuts. 

Before my diet change, we were always good about buying whole food products.  My rule was if I couldn't pronounce it or I wouldn't add it to a dish while cooking it at home, it shouldn't be in my food at all.  I certainly don't have decyl polyglucose or BHT sitting in my spice rack, do you? 

But what was a simple rule before is now a matter of my health and quality of life.  Even "micro" amounts of corn products can cause stomach distress, a runny nose, and a slew of sneezing spells.  And feeling a touch under the weather affects my outlook, mood, and productivity.  My right and desire for a healthy life outweigh anything my taste buds have to say.
The problem is that corn byproducts are everywhere - they lurk in innocent-looking food, keep good company with organic products, and commit foul deeds under another name.  It's a Where's Waldo every time I eat.  

I basically need to assume that corn is in a food until I confirm otherwise. 

This journey has really been eye opening.  Recent surprises that had me doing a double take:
  • White vinegar - Most people are startled to learn vinegar is fermented from corn.  It's not like there's a vinegar tree you tap.  Just think of how many condiments use vinegar: barbeque sauces, ketchup, mustard, hot sauce, sweet and sour sauce, and salad dressings.  I never cared for pickles or sauerkraut, but those are swimming in corn too.  
  • Spice mixes - Lawry's, Cavenders, McCormick blends, and those packets of taco or ranch seasoning generally have cornstarch or dextrose in them.  Example: I love lemon pepper seasoning and had been using Cavenders on a weekly basis.  I only last week turned over the container and found to my horror three corn products in the ingredients list: cornstarch, dextrose, and hydrolyzed corn soy protein - ack!   
  • Virtually any medication, including vitamins - It's probably a good thing that I'm not a fan of pills in the first place, but even a simple capsule of Vitamin D or an aspirin will have cornstarch or corn oil.  Dextrose is also a key ingredient in saline IV drips.  Those vitamins added to your dairy products?  They can be sourced or bonded with corn and there's no way of knowing (other than to hound the company).
  • Shredded cheese - Most brands use cornstarch for anti-caking.  I was short on time the other day, grabbed a bag of shredded cheese, and got halfway across the store before I thought to check "just in case" and there it was, listed right after cheese.  Another example of how you have to question everything.
  • Pop - Even if a pop is made of real cane sugar, like those expensive ones in the natural foods section, it can still contain corn from citric acid and caramel coloring.  Goodbye Sierra Mist and Pepsi/Coke in glass bottles. 
  • Processed meats - Since I can't eat sandwiches anymore, this one doesn't affect me too much, but many deli meats have corn syrup or caramel coloring.  Yeah, that "honey" ham?  That's corn syrup.  Some inferior brands of bacon will have caramel coloring added to them as well.        
  • Whipped cream - The chemical concoction known as Cool Whip aside, even a brand that uses real cream (like Reddi-wip) has corn syrup in it.  If I want whipped cream, I'd better make it myself.  
  • Candy - If it's not solid chocolate, it's a no.  I can manage a plain Hershey's bar, but hard candies, boxed chocolates, and all other candy bars are off limits, largely due to corn syrup or invert sugar.  I miss M&Ms.       
  • Broth (chicken, beef, vegetable) - Doesn't matter whether it's Swanson's, Rachel Ray, Emeril, Aldi's, or one from the organic section, virtually all of them have dextrose, cornstarch, or monosodium glutamate. 
  • Vanilla - Vanilla bean alone is corn-free, but vanilla extract is typically 35% alcohol.  Grain alcohol.  Get the picture? 
These are just a few of the many ingredients that are utterly common in an American diet yet I now have to watch out for.  Before a fork or spoon goes to my mouth, I've researched, googled, examined menus and ingredients lists, double checked ingredients lists (product formulas can change), and emailed companies or restaurants to make sure that what I'm eating is free of corn.   

There is not a day that goes by that I don't have to think about the safety of my food.  

The hardest thing is that I'm still testing just how far my corn sensitivity goes.  I know for sure cornstarch, caramel coloring, and dextrose definitely produce a reactionBut I haven't cleared white vinegar yet.  I don't know if taking an aspirin does anything.  Or if potatoes fried in corn oil are a problem.  I'm hoping I can keep vanilla too, but I don't know for sure.  Do I need to worry about packaging and plastics made out of corn?  The wax on my fruit?  Corn in my toothpaste?  

The questions are endless.  It's one big science experiment as I subject myself, intentionally or by accident, to small amounts of corn products waiting for a reaction that may or may not develop.      

To be honest, all of this has changed my attitude about food.  At present, a lot of the joy has been lost because I have to expend so much energy and time making sure I don't get sick from food.     

There is not a single meal that I don't prepare from scratch and by hand.  It sounds so lovely, right?  Until you begin to count up the hours I spend grocery shopping, menu planning, cooking, and cleaning each and every day.  Let's not forget that I have a full-time job.  While I enjoy my kitchen, some nights I long for the easy out - the frozen pizza, the bowl of fried rice, the rotisserie chicken - but they're not an option. 

Going out to eat used to be one of my favorite activities; now it verges on stressful and depressing if I can't confirm what's in a dish.  The number of restaurants I can eat at is dismal - take out every fast food, chain, pizza, Mexican, and sandwich shop in sight.  The simple act of wanting ice cream sets off a research session to see what might be available.   Traveling requires me to vet restaurants well in advance.  There is no spontaneity with swinging into a new place.  At this rate, I almost need a smartphone for all the research I need to do.  

Potlucks and birthday treats at work?  Forget about it.  Going into someone else's home and having to inflict them with my diet?  Terrifying.  Even weddings are a problem.  We've got one coming up soon and I've had to email the bride to be put in touch with catering to see what I can eat.  I'm a problem guest now.

And let's not even broach the subject of GMOs, organic food, and sustainably produced meat.  It's important, it's on my to-do list, but I Can't. Handle. One. More. Thing.  I am overloaded with this diet change already and the thought of having to make more switches is not something I can deal with at this point.  

Right now, I fully recognize that I'm in a transitional period.  I'm only a matter of months into this diet change and I'm still adjusting, figuring out my strategy, and finding a new normal.  But when I think about how I must eat, words like rigid, anxious, endless, restrictive, limiting, and extreme come to mind. 

I myself have many questions - is this a corn allergy or intolerance?  Is there a genetic thing at play here?  Is this the result of being born in the 80s and growing up in a chemical bath?  The consequences of pesticide/fertilizer use and genetic modification?  I had a dreadful bout of illness from a virus in 2005 - is that the culprit?  Or have I always had this and the symptoms just manifested differently or worsened over time?    

I think one of the biggest issues with a grain-free lifestyle is how isolating it can be.  Particularly since I don't have an "official" test from the medical community to document my intolerance, some people can be dismissive.  Few people understand it, and some are even threatened by it.  Particularly with living in the Midwest and smack dab in the middle of the Corn Belt, what I'm doing is also very counterculture.  Trust me, I'm not out to take away your corn on the cob or your bowl of pasta. 

That being said, I know what I'm doing for my health is the best decision.  Every time I can push myself harder when I exercise, every pound I lose, every day that I don't have a stomach ache or sinus weirdness, every compliment I receive, every encouraging Facebook comment fuels me to tough this out.  It's your understanding and kindness that are helping me to sail through this adjustment period buoyed by support.  

New waters ahead.  There is no going back.