Hunger Doesn't Stop After Christmas

Excuse me, it's Sunday and I'm going to take a little time to Sermonize.

I don't know about where you live, but here it's cold. Bitterly cold. 

And we have homeless people - many of them families with young children. 

We have several programs for the homeless in our community, both for food and temporary shelter and round about November and December, every time I turn around it seems there is a food or clothing drive for the food pantry and the shelter.

This is a good thing.

But now it's January and the time of year that the eyes of the public tend to stray from such drives. Especially with the crisis of Haiti to take up the media's attention.

Don't get me wrong - I am in no way suggesting that we should not be reaching out to the Haiti earthquake victims in their time of such great need - I am just reminding you that you probably have many many people who need your compassion as well in your own back yard. 

We are regular contributers to our local food pantry. For years, my oldest son used to have  a carnival in our yard for all our friends and neighbors. He started it when he was 5 with the express purpose of donating the proceeds to the pantry. (I think he got the idea when I told him how, in my childhood, we were always having carnivals for MS) Anyway, every year, he and John would build a contraption for the carnival - there was a complicated "sucker push"  (I can't remember how that one worked exactly), a skeeball, a sponge throw (with a face cut out for the willing victim) among others, as well as a variety of games. 

By the time we shelled out the $ for all the prizes and game materials, I think we were usually about $75 in the hole, but that was beside the point. The neighborhood turned out and had a good time and the pride my son took in taking the proceeds to the pantry was immeasurable.

We stopped the carnivals when he was about 14, I think, and took to just sending a check every November and food to all the church and school drives. And we felt we were doing our part.

But something was missing. That engagement  our kids got from doing something themselves was lacking.

So, a couple of weeks ago, while Alex was still back from college, I took all three kids down to the local grocery store, gave them each a set amount and a calculator, and challenged them to see how much food for the pantry they could each buy. To the winner would go a homemade apple pie. (My kids kill for these pies).

It was interesting to see the choices they made - and how much they've learned from me over the years when it comes to stretching a dollar. While the oldest, had the largest number of items by far - 158 - the youngest easily made the most nutritious choices and the middle one probably won the most points for food homeless kids would like most to eat. Because I set the prize on the amount of food, the oldest won - but I may have to rethink my definition of winning for next time and include healthfulness.

I devised a system where, each kid got their own cart and, as they checked their groceries through and they were bagged, I took a sharpie and put their intitials on the bag so we would be able to compare it all later. I also used the grocery receipts. 

My mother, who was visiting, also got into the act and bought 25 can openers to donate. I would never have thought of this, but she works regularly at the pantry in her town and she said they never have enough can openers.

It was a terrific experience. Not only did my kids get into it, but, as we hit the checkout the employees got really into it. The next time I came in shopping, several people came up to me to ask who won :-)

The thing that astonished me as we did this, was the real amount of food we were able to amass for roughly what I would pay for two weeks of my regular grocery budget. The kids dropped off 399 items in over 70 bags. My van was full to overflowing.

So I'm asking you today to take a little time and remember those in your community who need your help. I know that, in our area, the job losses have more than tripled the number of folks who are using our food bank and related services. 

If you have old coats, gloves and mittens, and you live in a cold climate, take a minute to drop those items off at the appropriate collection site. If you can see your way clear, pick up 10 extra items when you buy groceries and set them aside for a monthly drop off to your local food pantry.

And, if you happen to be a cartoonist, find out if your local shelter needs any artwork for their fundraiser. John currently does not sell original strips but he has donated some to charitable organizations.

Hunger knows no holiday - it doesn't disappear after Christmas.

Knitters Laugh

As a knitter, I found this particularly funny. Why didn't I think of this when my kids were small?

The ipad - I WANT ONE!

I do not have an iphone. I refuse to buy one until they drop the whole "you have to use AT&T" thing. It's not that I have anything against AT&T per se, it's that I have this perverse Welsh/Scots/Irish streak in me that goes against the grain. I don't like being told who I can or cannot do business with. Besides, isn't competition at the heart of our entire economic system? When Apple elected to make the iphone exclusive to one carrier they lost little old perverse me.

So instead, last year I bought John an itouch for his birthday. He loves it. It's almost as good as having an iphone - runs all the apps etc. - you just can't call anyone on it. (No big deal - we have perfectly fine cell phones for that.) And it's wifi capabilities are limited because - again, we don't use AT&T. But he didn't need it to be a phone. I got it for him because he was the only family member not to have an ipod and I wanted him to have one. That, and all the other cool things it could do, including all the calendar/organizer/phonebook type stuff he likes to use it for. 

And because all that touch screen technology is just WAY COOL.

I remember watching the demo when Steve Jobs first trotted out the iphone and thinking - "Man, that is the coolest thing I have ever seen. I'ts gonna change everything!"  And I was right.

Well now I've seen the roll out for the ipad and, make no mistake, this is also going to change everything. Anyone who doesn't think this is a game changer for the publishing industry is missing the boat. 

Take a look at the images they are displaying on this thing in their ads. Notice anything? 

Newspapers, people!

They are actively showing this device with newspapers on it. 

This tablet is going to be huge for newspapers, magazines, and I think most especially comic books and all other graphic content that is not currently well served by the kindle. 

I have never warmed up to any of the other ereaders - especially the kindle. Too small a screen, too clunky, too limited. 

One of my favorite inventions of the last few years is the changing orientation screen. My digital camera even has one and I adore it.

So adding the orientation thingy and the touch screen thingy and the big full color screen thingy has definitely gotten my attention. 

Plus, the ipad will be not only an ereader - it will be a movie screen, an ipod, an internet browser, - heck - I'm sure at some point they'll figure out how to have it make my dinner and walk the dog.

Some folks are complaining that it doesn't have a camera and you can't use it to replace a cintiq. I could care less. I don't need it to be those things. That's what my camera and my laptop are for. (Not to mention the fact that every cell phone camera I've ever had was was a piece of #$%)

I always wait until new technology is out and debugged/price slashed for a while before I take the leap.

I don't know about this time.

I think John better hide the checkbook for a while.

John's Art

John has posted some of his non-Edison art over on the lab notes. I'm hoping he'll continue posting these kinds of things and also find time to get back to creating more non-comic art. He has such a gift. If you have comments on his art, please leave them here as the lab notes have no comment function.

Why I Won't Fly

I am currently engaged in a boycott of the airline industry.

There are several reasons for this.

First, the practical.

I have charted the routes and done the math, and for virtually any trip I could take that would require 10 hours driving or less, flying is no longer automatically faster. 

Checking in at the airport at least three hours before one's flight is scheduled to leave is now standard. To this we must add:

45-90 minutes (in my case) to get to the airport, depending on traffic and which airport.

30 minutes average needed to navigate long term parking and get into the terminal.

20-40 minutes the plane will possibly be delayed past it's posted departure before I can board. 

30-120 minutes I can expect to spend sitting on the tarmac waiting for permission to take off. 

30 minutes on the other end I can expect to wait to claim any checked luggage. And goodness knows how long I may have to take if the airline has lost my luggage (which they have managed to do 3 of the last 5 times I flew).

I haven't factored in the duration of the flight and I'm already at five and a half to eight and a half hours.

Now the money:

$100-$450 for a domestic (nonstop) round trip ticket most places in the US within 10 hours driving distance of my home.

$40-$150 plus for travel once I arrive - rental car, cabs, subway (assuming I have places to be other than the hotel). This fee varies greatly, of course,  depending on rental agency, type of car, number of cabs etc.

$25-$50 for checked luggage now on most domestic carriers.

$20-$40 for food and beverages on the plane and in the terminal if you don't pack your own. Even if you pack your own snacks, you're out of luck on drinks once you pass through security and gone are the days when airlines fed you complimentary meals on flights. And good luck not paying $3 for a 12 oz soda that would cost you 45 cents in any grocery store or, at most, $1.25 at a typical non airport fast food joint.

Total: $150-$540 ish

When I plan the same trip by car, I come up with $50-$135 for gas, depending on how far I'm driving, the type of car and the gas mileage it gets and the price of gas in various localities. Add $20 to eat at a fast food spot along the way (or simply stock up the car with cheaper groceries). 

So much for the practical reasons.

Now some personal ones:

Like most people, I am fed to the teeth with the new security restrictions, courtesy of every whacko on the planet who wants to blow me up along with his shoes, underwear, whatever. I'm not blaming the TSA for this - I'm blaming the whackos. It doesn't matter. The upshot is that I have to spend a tremendous amount of time trying to find little bitty bottles of every toiletry article I own, I have to submit to pat downs so intimate I should be married to the TSA agent, and  I have to worry about my electronic items being either stolen by other passengers while on the security belt (I kid you not) or messed up through radiation/manhandling etc..

None of the security stuff is the fault of the airline. I know that. That's not why I'm boycotting them, it's why I hate flying.

Here's why I'm boycotting them. 

They don't like me. 

They don't like you either.

They don't like any of us. 

They see us as cattle to be prodded through their little profit making machine and have lost sight of us as consumers. 

Many of the planes are old and filthy. The staff have been downsized to the point that they are all crabby and tired from working too many shifts. (And dealing with too many disgruntled, irate passengers).

The seats get smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller.

They offer a seemingly good fare, only to carve back their profit margin by nickel and diming us to death over meals, bag fees and the like. 

They pretend the flight is "on time" well past the point that we all know the fog has all the flights grounded until further notice. 

And, willy nilly, they just cancel flights all over the place with no concern over what that will do to our plans.

I'm tired of giving money to an industry that values my customer satisfaction so little.

They think they don't need me. That there will be plenty of other suckers (ahem, customers) to take my place. 

They could be right.

But not if you join me.

Jean's Jazz

I will be appearing Feb 18th at the Racine Theater Guild as a featured performer for the Jean's Jazz concert series. Further details here.

What To Do With Your Old Bluejeans

My oldest son left for college this year. This resulted in our observance of the ritual known as "The Giving Up Of The Room". A ritual observed in households all across America - you oldest children know what I'm talking about. As an oldest child myself, I remember well the months of clearing through crap and the sound of my sister taking possession of my room with whoops of glee.  I don't think the ink was dry on my college acceptance letter before she began hatching her plans for the takeover. This summer, our house was no exception. Son #2 spent months regaling son #1 with his grand visions for his new space.

The part of the ritual I was not familiar with is the role of the mom, or as I came to see myself, "she who must clean up the mess and figure out what to keep in storage, what to send to Goodwill, and what to pitch".

Which brings us to the blue jeans.  Lots of blue jeans. Years of blue jeans.

Blue jeans that were too small to wear anymore as well as too crappy to give to Goodwill. And somehow, there were too many to throw away. Looking at the enormous pile, I felt a surge of guilt at the thought of adding that much bulk to a landfill.

So I started looking around the internet. I knew I remembered hearing about companies making insulation or something out of old blue jeans and, sure enough, I found a lot of sites that claimed to accept old blue jeans for recycling. 

I say "claimed" because every site I found said something to the effect "Don't send us anymore blue jeans - we're full!!!!!"

Which isn't all that surprising if you think about it. Take a look around you the next time you are out in public anywhere. There are a lot of people wearing blue jeans. They're practically a national uniform.

So now what?!

Well, it just so happened, I had a book checked out of the library at that time called "Eco-craft" that had a suggestion for making a rug out of old sweaters. I thought, "Why not a rug out of blue jeans?".

So here I offer you, for anyone who is interested in a useful thing to do with old blue jeans, my journey to a rug. 

This rug is knit using garter stitch (the very simplest knitting stitch) on size 15 needles with a long plastic extension in the middle so you can handle the width.

So, to start, you have to take apart the jeans. I found it best to take off the pockets first. You'll need a good strong seam ripper. 

Next, comes deconstructing the legs. Most jeans have extra thick reinforced double stitched seams everywhere so the best thing I found was to just cut the jeans up and skip trying to undo the seams. This will leave you with a "jean skeleton" that looks like this:

and jean pieces that look like this:

I experimented with a couple different ways of cutting and finally settled on a spiral starting from the outside edge of each piece. This gives the longest possible piece for knitting up later. Don't make the piece too thick (it will be difficult to handle) or too thin (due to the way denim frays, pieces that are too thin will eventually separate and break, making a hole in the rug).

When you've finished cutting, wind it into a ball like this.

Once you have all your jeans cut up and wound into balls, decide how wide you want the rug to be and cast on as many stitches as you need for that width. Then just knit back and forth in garter stitch until the rug is as long as you want it to be. (Or you run out of material :-)).

As you get to the end of each ball of "yarn" you'll need to add the new ball. I found the best method was to sort of overlap about 6-8 inches of the tails (so that you are briefly knitting two strands at once) rather than tying the strips in knots. The knots had a tendency to show and also to make bumps in the rug. Some of them also frayed and fell apart.  Once the rug is finished, you can trim down any of the overlapped bits that are sticking out.  

Good luck - here's to keeping old clothes out of landfills. I think I may try this with other old clothes I don't know what to do with.

How To Lose Weight

So, it's January, swimsuit season is only 5 months away and everyone wants to lose weight. Like most people I have tried a lot of diets over the years with varying degrees of success. But now I have the answer. The diet I am about to lay out for you is guaranteed to promote permanent weight loss.

Everything you will eat on this diet can be grown and harvested locally and sustainably. Free Range, Organic, Cage Free, Vegan, Pesticide Free, you name it.

Before I share this tremendous weight loss secret with you, let me explain how I came to embrace this new lifestyle regimen. 

First, my husband read "Fast Food Nation" (Eric Schlosser) and watched "Supersize Me" (Morgan Spurlock) . This pretty much knocked out all fast food and put high fructose corn syrup on our radar. Next came "The Botony of Desire" (Michael Pollan). Exit potatoes and most other vegetables and fruit - too many pesticides and too little biodiversity. Follow that with the movies "King Corn" (Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis) and "Food Inc."  (Robert Kenner and Eric Schlosser) and the books "The End Of Oil" (Paul Roberts) and "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (Michael Pollan).  

By the time we finished those, we were off all meat and fish (animal cruelty issues, hormones and antibiotics, ecoli, mercury), couldn't, in good conscience, eat anything that had been transported more than 30 miles (petroleum issues), couldn't eat anything packaged in plastic (again petroleum issues - as well as that giant garbage patch in the ocean), and couldn't eat wheat, soy, or corn (agribusiness abuses and allergies). 

That last one will really get you. Get a list of all the things wheat, corn and soy can be turned into (Ascorbic Acid, Malt Extract, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Mono-Diglyceride to name a few) and then go to the supermarket and read labels. If you can find a single prepackaged product that contains none of these ingredients let me know. I couldn't.

So what are we left with? What miracle food have I discovered that the responsible, educated consumer can eat?


Yep, twigs. 

That's my new diet - "Twigatarian"

Readily available, cheap (free), full of fiber, humane.

And I promise you'll lose plenty of weight. 

DISCLAIMER: The above commentary is for satirical purposes only and should not be construed as a medically sound diet.

All joking aside, I now have enough information about my food choices that I can no longer turn a blind eye to what I eat. I don't like vegetables enough to jump into being a vegetarian (so there's no way on earth I would make it as a vegan) but I may wind up going that route. I am currently not in an economic bracket that allows me to eat only organic, sustainable, local, grass fed etc., etc. But I am going to do my best this year to reward companies with best practices and deny the abusers the benefit of pocketing my hard earned dollar. Of all the books and movies I listed above, "Food Inc." actually gave me some hope that consumers can make a difference if they take the time and energy to do so.

While I really don't condone a diet of twigs, I do suggest you take a minute and check out the websites I linked to - maybe it will make a difference.

My Tribe

I have driven a lot of cars. Since getting my license, I have owned, or leased 18 different vehicles. 

The first, compliments of my parents, was a Chevy Vega liberally covered with duct tape. I would like to state for the record that the duct tape was to cover rust and was not, I repeat not, holding the car together. The Vega came to a quick end when I was the fourth car in a six car chain reaction accident. Not surprisingly, the other vehicles (big honking Buicks and pick up trucks) came away with minor scratches and dents while my poor little Vega bled all its radiator fluid out onto the rain slicked pavement. 

The first car I actually owned outright was a 72 Dodge Polara station wagon. It had a 400 cubic inch, V8 engine, ran on leaded gas, and could truly reach the 120 mph top speed indicated on the speedometer. (Don't ask how I know this.) It was a garage mechanic's dream. I bought it with 92,000 miles on it - drove it to 160,000 and replaced the exhaust system 3 times, the brakes twice, the transmission once, the water pump the alternator and the battery once, and had the radiator plugged I don't know how many times. I don't think I ever had the carburator rebuilt, but I remember frequently getting out to take off the cover to the air filter so that I could jam a ball point pen into the butterfly valve to get the car to start. I finally sold it to a scrap yard when I was afraid the frame was going to break in half if I drove too fast over the railroad tracks. 

Then came a series of used station wagons. (I have to transport harps, remember.) The last was a Ford Taurus wagon with about 60,000 miles on it that actually almost killed me when, at 65 mph, some bolts sheered off and the flywheel broke loose and ricocheted around the engine. I was able to maneuver to the side of the road and walk to a gas station for help but I was really shaken.  It later turned out that those bolts were under a recall. This car would verify the axiom "never buy the first model year". 

At this point, I decided to look into leasing something off the showroom floor. I thought perhaps all my trials and tribulations came from buying used. I needed something reliable and I was also eligible for a tax break on the lease, since the car would be for my business. 

Thus began the parade of Taurus's (Tauri?) and Dodge Caravans. Each of these was nice and I felt much safer but, honestly, I was so glad to turn them in after 36,000 miles. In my book, you should be able to drive a car at least that many miles without much more maintenance than oil and filter changes and the usual weatherizing that comes with midwestern winters. And these cars were needing major repairs by the second year. Probably the most fun was the Caravan which, suddenly - at 10:00 at night - on the Chicago Skyway- driving through Gary, Indiana - would no longer go any faster than 40 miles per hour. Loooooong trip home to Wisconsin -biiiiiiig cell phone bill as I talked to John the whole way in case the van actually broke down altogether.  It turned out to be a faulty speed sensor. So much for the reliability of buying new.

So, as I said before, I have driven a lot of cars. A lot of American cars.  (A total of 14 of them) I mention this because I would like to make it clear that I think we gave the American auto industry plenty of chances to impress us and provide us with vehicles that were within our budget and would last longer than our loan agreement.

In 1995 we bought, for all non-harp related driving, our first Japanese car. A red Civic hatchback that got 43 miles per gallon. We test drove everything in its class - Ford Fiesta, Toyota Tercel, even the Geo Metro. (Remember those?) The Civic won hands down. The power of the engine and the gas mileage coupled with the Consumer Reports findings on reliability were too good to ignore. We not only drove it out from under the five years of payments, we drove it four more years beyond that and would probably be driving it still if an uninsured, distracted driver hadn't plowed into John doing 45 mph on a 25 mph residential street and totaled it. 

With the insurance money for the Honda (another plus - they hold their value really well) we were able to get a used Toyota Celica GT that was oh so fun to drive and had those retractable headlights. That took some getting used to - I felt like I was driving a muppet with big eyebrows when those lights came up out of the hood. But it was cute and had power and handled great and got decent mileage. Then, again we were hit. This time it was me driving and the other driver ran a stop sign and nearly took my front end off. 

This time the insurance money was  a little less so we wound up with a 1990 Toyota Camry wagon. A little bit of rust but ran well and was practical. I was still leasing vehicles but finally decided to bite the bullet, take on the 6 years of payments and buy something in which I could carry the harp and the entire family. So, in 2005, I opted for a Honda Odyssey bringing our Japanese car count to 4 in 14 years. Much better investment for us and a great vehicle.

Which brings us to (choir singing) THE MAZDA 3

This year the  Toyota reached the point that it really shouldn't be driven  anywhere that someone else in the family can't easily go and pick you up. And forget taking it out of town. So we needed something that John could drive further than 20 miles away when I'm hogging the Van for harp jobs. Again, we did tons of research and John test drove everything comparable. 

Until he drove the Mazda 3.

His search was over.

We have never driven a car like this.
A sportscar in an economy car's body, it is SO MUCH FUN!  

And it handles like a dream, makes it up our ice covered driveway with no sliding,  gets great gas mileage, and  didn't cost a fortune.

I may never drive any other car again.

For the first time in my life I understand brand loyalty. I find myself looking around at other cars on the road and when I see another Mazda I feel a kinship. I know that I will instantly bond with any and all Mazda owners when I encounter them at cocktail parties, sporting events, high school band concerts - whatever.

I have found my tribe. 

The tribe of the Mazda. 

Pastis in Doonesbury?

I know Zip is a regular character in Doonesbury but today it really struck me how much he looks like Stephan Pastis. Coincidence? I dunno.....

*****Read about  Trudeau and Pastis on the USO tour here.