Looking ahead

I was standing in a garage at the Blue Swallow Motel with a paintbrush in my hand one bright afternoon in April when the managing editor of the local paper dropped by to talk about the mural I was working on. When he found out I was a professional journalist, he mentioned he was planning to retire soon.

One might, at this point, question why I am posting this from Cape Girardeau and not from Tucumcari.

The answer: I’d have had to take a 30 percent pay cut, and the income just wouldn’t have been enough to cover two car loans, two mortgages and the $5,000 transmission bill we’d gotten stuck with last winter. We live pretty frugally, but I know from experience that moving cross-country is an expensive proposition when you already have an existing mortgage.

A few weeks after we got home from Tucumcari, I picked up a book called Possum Living, which is about a young woman and her father who spent several years living without any sort of regular income. I loved it, partly because it validated my long-held belief that a sensible financial plan depends more on eliminating expenses than amassing wealth, and partly because it inspired me: If I paid off our debts, I could afford to move without undue stress.

I did some quick math and realized the best way to accomplish that goal would be to stop eating meals out.

In the span of five years, we’d eaten the equivalent of a new Volvo. If I took the money we were spending in restaurants and applied it to my credit-card bill, we could pay off the transmission by spring. With that paid off, we could use the newly freed-up money to pay off the car — then roll that money into the mortgage. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, we could be debt-free by Oct. 15, 2021, at which point we could start shopping for land in New Mexico to build the tiny house of our dreams.

Since early August, we’ve sent about $1,850 to the credit-card company. Every time I cook at home, I write down what that meal would have cost at a restaurant, and once a week, Ron sends the credit-card company the money we didn’t spend on dinner. It adds up fast: We’re averaging about $100 a week, and I expect that to go up in April, when our cellphone contracts will expire and we can switch to cheaper phones with cheaper plans.

I’m also losing weight (I’ve dropped 20 lbs. since July) and generating less trash via paper wrappers and cardboard boxes, which is better for the environment.

If we keep going at this rate, we should be debt-free in 2,119 days. Go, us!

Emily

Who knows where the time goes?

“Before the winter fire
I’ll still be dreaming;
I do not count the time.”

— Sandy Denny

Ten years ago, trying to cope with the onset of winter and the quiet depression that seems to settle over me with the first frost and stay until the first baseball player reports to spring training, I decided to set up a blog where I could record whatever nature happened to be doing in my yard every day. I thought winter might seem more tolerable if I spent a few minutes in the garden every day, looking for signs of life.

A decade later, I’m still looking, and although there have been some periods of extended silence here while I worked on other projects, I keep coming back. In many ways, this blog has become a kind of touchstone in a life prone to sudden changes and unexpected adventures.

I can’t begin to list everything that’s happened, but it’s probably worth mentioning that since I set up this site one cold, clear night in Red Fork — a cup of Red Zinger at hand, a rat terrier curled up on the floor beside me, and visions of spring dancing in my head in lieu of the more seasonally appropriate sugarplums — I have lost twin nieces; gained two nephews and two nieces; lost and regained a career; spent four years teaching sophomore English, a job that nearly killed me the first time I tried it but probably saved me the second; lost Scout; gained Riggy, Walter and Lil Miss; painted an artcar; learned to play guitar (badly); moved 450 miles; gleefully turned 40; and last but certainly not least, written and published my first novel.

A decade later, it’s a cool, rainy night in Cape Girardeau as I sit at my desk 450 miles from Red Fork, a cup of Wild Berry Zinger at hand, a different rat terrier curled up on the floor beside me, and dreams of spring still dancing in my head. The details are different; the essence is the same.

“I have,” Sandy Denny once said, “no thought of leaving.”

Emily

Tee Pee Curios mural

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All in a day’s work. This was about four or five hours into the project. Love, love, love how that turquoise note turned out.

As promised a couple of weeks ago, here are photos from the mural I completed in October on the east side of Tee Pee Curios in Tucumcari, New Mexico. I still can’t get over how fast and easy that neon technique is.

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All done; just waiting for the scaffold to come down.
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Detail shot.
koko2
Gar wanted a mural that would catch the eye of passers-by. Even on a cloudy afternoon, I think this pops out nicely.
souvenirs
I picked up a souvenir while I was in town. This great hoodie came from the Dollar General store in Tucumcari. I have matching sweatpants I bought on the same trip. I wear them all the time.

Spending a couple of weeks in Tucumcari this year has confirmed some things for us. First, it showed us we’re definitely on the right track with our long-term goal, which is to build a tiny house in northeastern New Mexico and retire there. The people in that area seem really nice, and the town is just about perfect in terms of size and proximity to larger cities and wilderness areas.

Second, the enthusiastic responses I’ve gotten to my murals have shown me this might make a nice cottage industry, so after New Year’s, I’m planning to take out an ad in the service directory part of the paper and see if I can rustle up a few mural-painting gigs in Southeast Missouri or Southern Illinois. Even small projects would bring in a nice chunk of extra income to save toward the tiny house of my dreams.

It’s good to have a long-term goal and a specific plan for reaching it. Even if something happens to throw us off-track, there’s never a down side to retiring debts as quickly as possible, learning new skills, or saving money for things you really need.

One day in the not-too-distant future, I’ll share our six-year plan for paying off our debts and putting ourselves in a position to make our very specific dreams come true. It’s a pretty good to-do list, even if you’re not planning to build a micro-house in the high desert.

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Kitchen composter

As we work toward our long-term goal of building a tiny house someday, I’ve turned our small-but-not-tiny house into a sort of de facto laboratory for experimenting with products and tools that conserve space while increasing convenience. I’m blogging the ones that work here, in case anybody else is looking for ways to save space and time.

Over the years, I’ve tried several strategies for collecting compostable materials as we generate them in the kitchen.

I started with my mom’s tried-and-true approach: Keep an old ice-cream tub on the kitchen counter and throw peelings and cores  into it as you work. It’s not pretty, but it worked fine when I was a kid, and Mom and Dad were cooking for a family of five and sending a kid out to the compost pile with a full tub of scraps every day. It doesn’t work so well in a household with only two people in it, as the tub takes the better end of a week to fill up, during which time it will start to smell pretty raunchy.

To reduce the odor problem, I tried keeping kitchen scraps in a half-gallon Mason jar. The jar took up a smaller footprint on the counter, but it also had a smaller mouth (making it hard to scrape things into); depending on what was inside, it could look pretty gross; and while the lid sealed in odors well, it also encouraged anaerobic bacteria growth, which made opening it extremely unpleasant after a day or two.

I finally resigned myself to daily trips to the compost bin (which ultimately resulted in a lot of perfectly good scraps going down the garbage disposal during crummy weather), but one evening at work, when I was killing time after deadline, I stumbled across the Kitchen Compost Caddy on Amazon.

I really need to pay more attention to what's in the crisper. Throwing strawberries in the compost bin is just depressing.
I really need to pay more attention to what’s in the crisper. Throwing strawberries in the compost bin is just depressing.

It’s expensive (I gave nearly $60 for mine with shipping), but it’s really well designed, and I’ve used it a lot more than I expected. I like it because it doesn’t take up any space on my counter; the filter keeps it from smelling weird; and it has a little metal gizmo on it that holds the lid open while you scrape plates and stuff into it.

If it makes you feel better about the price, you can think of it as a steampunk garbage disposal.

I take ours out about once a week and empty it into the big compost bin at the same time I change the litter in the quail pen (thus striking a nice carbon-nitrogen balance in the pile) and hose it out while I’m refilling their big water dispenser.

Emily

P.S.: Nobody’s paying me or giving me free products to get me to endorse anything. I just posted this review because I bought this thing and liked it and thought somebody else might, too.

Vegetarian Friday: Stuffed breadsticks

You thought I’d never post another recipe, didn’t you?

Wrong.

Well, sort of wrong. This is basically just sticking three prefabbed products together, so I’m not sure it counts as a legit recipe, but it’s a good snack, appetizer or lunch option that’s relatively high in protein, so I’m posting it anyway. I trust you’ll approve once you try it.

Ingredients:
1 can crescent rolls (reduced-fat is fine)
4 pieces of string cheese
1/2 c. of your favorite marinara sauce (we like Viviano’s store brand)

Step 1: Unwrap each piece of string cheese and cut it in half.

Step 2: Wrap each piece of string cheese in a crescent roll, like this:

Lay the cheese on top of the widest part of the crescent roll.
Lay the cheese on top of the widest part of the crescent roll.
Fold the corners over so they cover the ends of the cheese.
Fold the corners over so they cover the ends of the cheese.
Roll the rest of the dough around the cheese and mash down the seams to seal them.
Roll the rest of the dough around the cheese and mash down the seams to seal them.

Step 3: Bake according to the directions on the crescent-roll package.

Following the baking instructions on the crescent-roll can. I spritzed mine with olive oil when they came out of the oven to make them look pretty for the picture, but you don't have to.
Serve with your favorite marinara sauce for dipping. 

Step 4: Serve with warm marinara sauce for dipping. I spritzed mine with olive oil when they came out of the oven so they’d look pretty for the picture, but that step is totally optional. You could sprinkle them with Parmesan and Italian seasoning if you wanted to add more flavor, but I think they’re just fine plain.

If you’re a full-time vegetarian, be sure to read the label on the crescent rolls; some brands may contain animal fat.

I made a batch of these the other night to try to use up some of the string cheese I bought at Costco before it expires. I’ve got enough cheese left for another batch, so we’ll probably have some next week. They make a quick lunch, and they bake just fine in the toaster oven if you don’t want to heat up the whole oven just for a snack.

Emily

Lil Miss

As I mentioned the other day, we have a new baby at our house.

Well, not exactly a baby. She’s four and a half. But she’s tiny. And cute. And ridiculous.

Meet Lillian the Chihuahua, commonly known as “Lil Miss.” (Yes, Ron named her after the desk clerk in my novel, which you totally need to order if you haven’t already.) Lil also answers to “Get Your Face Out of the Cat’s Bowl.”

I’m pretty sure Lil is judging me.

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We are not amused.
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“Seriously, human? SERIOUSLY? Again with the cellphone? What is WRONG with you?”
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She is definitely judging me. And I have been weighed in the balance and found wanting, my friends.

Shady expressions notwithstanding, Lil is a sweet little dog, and she’s a quick study — I don’t think she’d ever been on a leash in her life when we got her, and she had a total meltdown the first time I put one on her, but less than 24 hours later, she had the hang of it and walked around the block just fine. She also had to learn about crunchy dog food (which she loves) and having her teeth brushed (which she hates so much she cries like a newborn baby and squawks like a crow every time Ron tries to do it).

I have no idea why I waited 35 years between Chihuahuas. They’re great entertainment, and marvelously portable: Lil went to work with me in a little sherpa bag for a couple of hours on Thanksgiving and just sat quietly on my lap while I designed pages.

In other news, the house looks terrific since I whipped it into shape so I could take pictures of it to send to Lloyd Kahn, the author of Tiny Homes, who is now working on a book about small homes. I’ll post some pictures one day soon.

Emily

Quail update

As promised, here is the update on my quail project. As those of you who have been around here for a while know, I’ve kept quail off and on for two years now, with varied results.

Based on my experience, quail have three major drawbacks that make me hate the city’s anti-chicken ordinance with the fury of ten thousand Africanized honeybees:

1. Coturnix quail chicks are incredibly stupid, which makes them difficult and frustrating to raise.

2. In addition to being tiny, quail eggs have very thin shells and very thick membranes, which makes them difficult to crack without breaking yolks and getting flecks of shell in your breakfast.

3. Coturnix quail are messy and will waste more food than they eat. I spent an outrageous amount of money on feed and bedding last year after my poor little stupid birds threw their food all over their pen instead of eating it.

I solved the first problem by purchasing adult birds from an ol’ boy out near Little Grassy Lake who raises quail for hunters to use in training bird dogs. Babies are cute and fuzzy, but adults are the only way to go if you don’t want to drive yourself crazy.

I solved the second problem by ordering a pair of quail-egg scissors from Amazon.com. No more broken yolks, and no more eggshell in my sandwiches. Best eight bucks I ever spent.

That little blade just guillotines the end of the egg right off. Handiest gadget in my kitchen, to be honest.
That little blade just guillotines the end of the egg right off. Handiest gadget in my kitchen, to be honest.
The scissors make a nice, clean cut so you can dump the egg right out into the frying pan.
The scissors make a nice, clean cut so you can dump the egg right out into the frying pan.

The third problem took a bit of research, but I was delighted beyond belief to find the solution on YouTube:

If you’re considering quail, buy yourself a cheap soldering iron and a 99-cent plastic shoebox and make this little feeder. The whole project will pay for itself in less than two weeks. (I already had a soldering iron in the garage, so my feeder paid for itself in about a day.) My birds went from wasting a cup (or more) of feed a day to maybe a teaspoon.

I live too far from Wisconsin to buy this guy the beer I owe him for sharing this design, so I’ll do the next best thing and send some traffic to his website, Homesteading Ways. Seriously — go check it out. He and his wife have some good stuff on there.

Emily