frugality

Travelling to the South, Part III

Read Part I here

Read Part II here

When you love to see new places but work in retail, you get pretty good at traveling on a shoestring budget. Most of what we eat and drink on our road trips is brought with us in a big cooler. But if someone recommends a particular shop or restaurant, we’ll usually include it as part of the general experience. A friend recommended a place in Austin called “Juan in a Million” for breakfast tacos.

Tangent: on last year’s road trip we fell head over heels in love with San Antonio. It’s still at the top of our list of potential places to move to after Luke turns 18. Shortly after we returned home from that trip, I went to r/SanAntonio and asked the locals what they loved or hated about living there. The responses immediately degenerated into a heated argument about where to get the best breakfast tacos. I’ve since learned that there’s a semi-friendly rivalry between Austin and San Antonio regarding which city has the best breakfast tacos. Breakfast tacos are apparently Serious Business in south Texas.

Driving from our hotel to Juan in a Million brought us through parts of the city that took some of the shine off of Luke’s wide-eyed wonder. They looked fine to me, but I spent a lot of my childhood and teenage years in downtown Riverside CA in the 1980s, which people tell me was a rough and dangerous time and place to be. To Luke’s eyes, the urban outskirts of downtown Austin looked slummy and unattractive. When we reached the charming Hispanic neighborhood where Juan in a Million is located and Luke said it looked “low-income and run-down,” I realized that my next duty as a parent is to broaden my kids’ horizons in a new direction. I’ve been so focused on trying to show them the shining best of what humanity can accomplish, I’ve neglected to teach them about the pleasures and realities of average inner-city life.

Juan in a Million is great. We were seated in a breezy screened patio that had been built onto the surrounding structures in a way that retained the outdoor vibe. Food and service were wonderful.

After breakfast we drove back to Zilker Park to pick up the trail loop where we had left off on Monday night. The drive took us through more areas of the city that Luke found lacking. I guess the “weird” aspects of Austin aren’t for everyone.

We parked near Barton Springs and walked downstream to connect with the hike-and-bike trail loop where Barton Creek flows into Lady Bird Lake.

Before long we came to Lou Neff Point with its pretty stone overlook.

We continued up the hike-and-bike trail, which gets less parky and more woodsy as you go.

You know those old prison movies where the rebellious hero inevitably ends up roasting in a metal box out in the hot sun? That’s what these metal restrooms reminded me of:

The trail crosses the river/lake at MoPac Expwy and circles back along the other bank.

We had planned to follow the trail at least back to Congress Ave before looping back to the car, but we got as far as the pedestrian bridge next to Lamar and kind of all decided at once that we had walked enough. It was getting hot again.

On the city side, the pedestrian bridge offers stairs for pedestrians and a spiral ramp for bicyclers. Of course we walked up the spiral.

The “power plant” fascinated Luke. He could tell at a glance that it didn’t seem to be in operation, and he wondered what sort of power it was generating and how.

As I write this blog post, I have googled info on the building and found that it is in fact no longer in operation as a power plant, that it is now a historical site and a multi-use structure. There you go, Luke.

The pedestrian bridge is lovely. The view from the top:

We crossed back over and returned to the car.

At that point we had to make a decision about whether to start the journey home ahead of commuter traffic, or commit to remaining in Austin until after the rush. We decided to stay.

Luke “collects” libraries, and the biggest one in Austin is at the University of Texas, so that was our next stop. Views of the University from the top of the parking garage…

…and the infamous clock tower viewed from near the library.

We were stopped at the entrance of the LBJ Presidential Library and told that it is only accessible by appointment and costs $10 per adult. Wtf? We asked if there were other, more visitor-friendly locations on campus and were directed to a small Texas history museum next door. If I had done more research before the trip, I would have learned that there are like a hundred libraries on that campus and almost all are free and open to the public. Thanks, unhelpful door guy! I’m going to be honest here, the few people we interacted with in Austin did not make a good first impression. The exception to that was some workers at Zilker Park who cheerfully called out to us as we were about to put money in the parking meters and told us that parking there is free on weekdays. I paid the good deed forward by stopping three other people from putting money in the park meters over the course of our three-day stay. In general, though, Austin seemed to be seriously lacking in the Texas friendliness that I’ve always liked so much.

Anyway, we wandered through the tiny museum and then gave up on the University and headed over to the flagship Whole Foods on Lamar. This is the original Whole Foods location, with corporate headquarters occupying the upper floors, a full-service restaurant inside the store and lots of special extras. I liked the living tapestry:

We wanted to explore the rooftop patio area, but the day was getting oppressively hot. It seemed like a good time to try that mochi stuff we’ve been seeing around lately. If you haven’t seen it, mochi is a Japanese dessert, basically balls of ice cream wrapped in a sweet rice dough. We picked out a bunch of different flavors and took them up to the roof.

My verdict: the ice cream is delicious, but I’m not a fan of the rice dough. It tastes raw and gluey to me. Loved the patio, though.

We still wanted to add an Austin library to Luke’s collection, so we googled “best library in Austin” and drove to the branch that was highest on most of the lists without being prohibitively far away.

All I can say is that this branch either paid to top those lists, or it offers services that go far beyond what is visible to the eye, or the reviewers are trolling en masse. It is a tiny, dreary, uninspiring library. Elizabeth found a place to sit with her laptop in the children’s section while Luke explored what little there was to see. She was immediately asked to leave the children’t section for being “too old to be in there.” Seriously, wtf?

No longer trusting reviews, we decided that the main central branch might be a safer bet. By then the commuter traffic was starting to get problematic, so we got to the central library as quickly as we could and settled in for the duration.

The central branch was…better, but that’s a low bar. Luke liked it because it’s four stories high and the third story is full of the informative non-fiction that he’s into. I found the decor (or lack thereof) to be depressingly drab and industrial. We all agreed that for whatever reason, Austinites do not love their public libraries and put no effort into making them cheerful or inviting.

We started the trek home when the library closed at 8pm. Getting home took over an hour longer than the drive down, because all of the traffic horror stories we had heard were rolled into one long stop-and-slow clusterfuck on I35 N.

We loved our visit to Austin, but ultimately decided that San Antonio is probably a better fit for us. Deciding factors include cost of living, traffic issues, a rather unfriendly social vibe and a straight up depressing library system.

Awesome breakfast tacos, though.

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Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Animals, environment, Family, food, frugality, Humor, kids, Life, Road trip, Travel, Weather | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

It’s Kind Of A Long Story

This post started out as a Facebook status update, but I kept wanting to add explanatory details until it ended up too long and unwieldy for my Timeline, so I’m moving it here.

It all started when Elizabeth accidentally left a charger at her dad’s house, and found herself with no way to awaken her comatose laptop for a few days.  Like most of us, Elizabeth is brilliant in some ways and clueless in others, and the desperation of being computerless led to…well, some poor choices.  She was cranky and difficult and just when I was ready to sell her to the gypsies it was discovered that one of her poorer choices was attempting to use the power adapter from the expensive Yamaha keyboard Luke got for Christmas to charge her laptop.  Clearly electronics is one of her “clueless” areas.  Anyway, this killed the adapter.  So now we had TWO nonfunctioning devices.

There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth over Luke’s blown-out adapter, and I was rattling off punishments and whatnot, and then it occurred to me that she’s not a toddler anymore and can actually fix these sorts of problems herself.  We went to Amazon.com, found a replacement adapter for about $13, she handed me the money from her savings without complaint, and the three of us considered the matter settled.  Yay for kids growing up and becoming responsible for the consequences of their poor choices.

Except!  You can’t just make a $13 order on Amazon.  I mean, you can, but then you don’t get free shipping, and who wants to pay for shipping if they don’t have to?  Besides, I had $42 worth of reward points from my Amazon Chase card on my account, just sitting there waiting to be spent.

My Chase card is a source of moral conflict for me.  I mean, Chase is evil, everyone knows that.  I know I should close my account with them.  But points!  Free stuff!   Delicious points worth yummy free stuff!  So, I keep my Chase card, and use if for everything I buy, and continue to feel morally conflicted about it.  Life is complicated.

So anyway, I ended up getting a car charger for my cell, which I’d been needing for a while now, but it wasn’t eligible for free shipping, so I had to keep shopping, and I ended up buying a pair of jeans.  I’d never done that online before because you never know how they’re going to fit, but these looked really cute so I took a chance.  I had to choose between “long” and “short,” so I picked “long” because lately I’ve been wearing shoes with higher heels when I’m out in public, and some of my jeans are too short to look right with heels.

When the jeans arrived I was thrilled with how well they fit and how cute they look, but — the legs were very much too long.  Luckily, thanks to Elizabeth’s interest in sewing, I thought nothing of sitting down and hemming them to the perfect length.  I even had the right color of gold thread that Levi’s uses, so it doesn’t look like a homemade job.

Which brings us back to my Facebook update: “I must remember to thank Elizabeth for getting me back into sewing.”

It’s just not the same without the details.

Categories: Family, frugality, kids, Life, Uncategorized | Tags: , | Leave a comment

One Down, Three To Go.

It didn’t take me long to break one of my four New Year’s resolutions; less than a month this time. This was my second year for this particular resolution: to stop buying shiny objects that I don’t really need.

What happened was, last week I found myself in a Walmart searching for an item that I hadn’t been able to find in any of my regular stores. Walmart is the DEVIL, people — you can’t go in there and come out with only one thing. Granted, most of the stuff I bought was technically on my list, I’d just been planning to get it elsewhere. But…I can’t pretend that the $5 Corpse Bride dvd is a necessity, it was simply too good a deal to pass up. Resolution blown.

Then when I got home and was putting away the day’s shopping, I couldn’t find the dvd anywhere. I was also missing a tube of lip balm. I’d bought both at Walmart. I realized that they must have been in their own bag together and I probably just hadn’t picked it up with the rest of the stuff at the checkout stand. D’OH! So not only did I blow one of my resolutions, I didn’t even have the dvd to show for it!

Yesterday I was off the hill again, so in the spirit of thoroughness I took my receipt to Walmart and explained to a girl in Customer Service what had happened. I wasn’t really expecting them to believe me, but to my surprise she pulled out a little box full of receipts, matched the date on mine to a copy that they’d kept, confirmed that I’d left the items at the bagging carousel, and said I could go pick out the dvd and lip balm again. This is, in my opinion, spectacular customer service. Way better than I would have expected from Walmart. Thumbs up, Evil Mega-Corporation!

So far so good on the other three resolutions. Further updates as events warrant.

Categories: frugality, Life | 4 Comments

He Can’t Eat What, Now?

A few weeks ago Luke was at the doctor getting a checkup and I asked them if he could be tested for food allergies. He doesn’t have any major symptoms, but he always seems to have dark circles under his eyes and a stuffy nose. So they did a blood test and the results came back positive for a ridiculous number of allergies. Wheat, corn, soy, peanuts, walnuts, sesame seeds, plums, scallops…clearly some massive dietary changes were in order. Toss in my dairy allergy and gluten intolerance and I was starting to wonder if we’d have to resort to cutting pictures of food out of cardboard and eating those.

In the summer it’s easier; we eat from the garden and orchard and life is good. But in the winter our diet tends to be grain-based, and we are running out of acceptable grains. Basically I need to organize a complete overhaul of our wintertime eating habits.

Not being able to eat bread is a fairly huge handicap. Over the past year I’ve gotten okay at making gluten-free bread, but I’m not crazy about it. It involves a lot of added starches and gums, which offends my whole-food inclinations, and it doesn’t keep well. I like my food to be simple, healthy and relatively undemanding. But man, do I miss bread. And pizza, and donuts.

One thing I don’t have to miss is pancakes and waffles, because I finally invented a GREAT recipe for those. Here’s something I’ve discovered about GF baking: the texture will be infinitely better if you add some kind of fresh fruit or vegetable to the batter/dough. The natural fibers are a surprisingly good substitute for gluten. If it’s not something you can add fruits or veggies to, try psyllium husks; similar effect with no noticeable flavor change. Here is my GF pancake/waffle recipe:

2 cups millet flour (sorghum flour would also work)
1 TBL psyllium husks
1 tsp aluminum-free baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 TBL oil (I use organic extra-virgin coconut oil)
1 banana, mashed
1 cup rice milk (any dairy or non-dairy milk would work)
1 TBL lemon juice
1 TBL sweetener (honey, agave nectar or maple syrup)
2 eggs, or 3 if you’re making waffles.

Yum!

But most of my baking is still a work in progress. Last October I was browsing through a catalogue and saw a mini-donut maker that works on the same principle as a waffle iron. “Wow, I’d love to have one of those!” I commented.

Luke and Elizabeth heard, and remembered, and mentioned it to my ex-laws, and there was a mini-donut maker under our tree this Christmas.

(Tangent: this is another one of those unexpected things that I’m not sure how to feel about. This is the first time since the divorce that I’ve received a “from the kids” gift financed by Steve or his parents. And it’s pretty much the first time I’ve EVER gotten a Christmas gift from Steve or his parents that was even remotely relevant to my interests. I love the donut maker. I appreciate the gesture, truly. It just feels…a little…baffling.)

Anyway, the nifty thing about the donut maker is that it seems to be able to bake any “quick bread” (ie, no yeast) batter perfectly. I’ve been experimenting with biscuits, mini-pizza crusts, etc, with good results. Sure, they’re all shaped like little donuts, but that’s fine.

The best part is how easy it is — the most time-consuming part is milling the flour. Whole organic millet is my current grain of choice; it makes a tasty, light, cakelike bread. In theory I like quinoa better, but for some reason it disagrees with my digestion. If you’re gluten-free but not milling your own flour, sorghum flour is also a very good choice.

Once the flour is milled, it’s just a matter of mixing the ingredients and pouring them a tablespoon at a time into the preheated donut receptacles. Each batch cooks in about three minutes. In no time at all you have a plateful of delicious donuts or biscuits or whatever the bread du jour is. And it doesn’t even matter that they’re only really good the first day, because tomorrow you can take a few minutes and make more! SWEET! It’s a great energy-saver, too. No heating up a big oven, no use of propane and only a few pennies’ worth of electricity.

So we’re still working on creating a new wintertime menu, but my new gadget has gotten us off to a great start. Bread is a wonderful tummy-filler, and now I can make it with only healthy, allergen-free ingredients! Yay for mini donut makers!

Of course, now I miss polenta. I don’t suppose there’s a corn-free substitute for that….

Categories: Christmas, Family, food, frugality, Gluten Free, Health, kids, Life, Nutrition | 4 Comments

Love, In Focus

For a good part of this past year I’ve been grumbling that I need reading glasses, and not actually doing anything about it. It usually slips my mind until the kids’ bedtime, when I read a chapter aloud from the Bible and find myself holding the book at arm’s length to focus on the tiny words. Or when I’m trying to read the microscopic list of ingredients on some container. It’s typical middle-age presbyopia; there’s no problem unless I’m trying to read fine print. Anyway, for some reason I just kept whinging about needing the glasses and never got around to buying them.

Guess what I found in my stocking on Christmas morning?

Elizabeth bought them for me. With her own money.

And to appreciate the significance of that, you have to understand that my sweet girl is, let us say, Not A Financially Generous Person. To my knowledge she has never spent her own personal money on anyone but herself before. This is a kid who can spot a penny on the ground fifty feet away, and will stop what she’s doing to go and pick it up. A kid who loves the annual Christmas Gift Shop at her school because it offers lots of inexpensive shinies for her to buy — for herself. True story: last year both kids ended up getting a lot of cash for Christmas from various relatives. We went on a shopping trip and Elizabeth had soon frittered away all her money on useless shiny objects. Luke, who had received everything he’d asked for for Christmas, came home without spending a dime; he just hadn’t seen anything that he wanted. And within a few days Elizabeth had wheedled him into spending all of HIS Christmas money on stuff for HER via Amazon.com.

Another true story: last week when we went to Riverside, I was feeling very budget-conscious because of all the money I’d spent on Christmas, so I packed a lunch for us to eat at the park and I told everyone to eat a good breakfast because I didn’t want to end up having to buy any food in the pricey Mission Inn area. Apparently both kids were having an off morning, because Luke neglected to eat any breakfast at all and Elizabeth neglected to put our lunch into the car (the one task I’d assigned to her). I was pretty exasperated when I found out, and not just with them. I realized that I’d fallen into a pattern of picking up the slack in these kinds of situations, rescuing Luke and Elizabeth from the consequences of their carelessness, smoothing things over, so they’d had no motivation to improve. Even then my impulse was to say, “It’s okay, we can get lunch at that sandwich place near the Inn.” Which we could, but that place is freaking expensive like all the other places to get decent food near the Inn, and I really and truly could not afford to drop thirty dollars on lunch that day. So what I said was, “We can go to that sandwich place near the Inn, and anyone who wants to eat can pay for their own food.” They both had this year’s Christmas money, so I don’t think I was being unreasonable. I paid for my lunch, Luke paid for his lunch, and Elizabeth….

Well, Elizabeth bought herself a cookie, because she could not bear the thought of spending her precious dollars on anything as mundane and transitory as food. (She had the last laugh though, because Luke’s lunch was too big for him to finish. She helpfully polished it off for him.)

This is not a girl who is lavishly charitable with her money, is what I’m saying.

But she went into an actual grownup store and spent a fair chunk of her beloved lucre on a lovely pair of reading glasses for me, so that I would have something in my stocking on Christmas morning. (And probably also so she wouldn’t have to keep listening to me grumbling about needing them, but still.)

This is one of the things I like best about Christmas: the way it inspires people to show their love in ways they normally might not. The happy surprises.

Happy Love Thursday, All. Here’s to the moments that help us see our loved ones…a little more clearly.

Categories: Christmas, Family, frugality, Humor, kids, Life, Love, Love Thursday | 4 Comments

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