Annual Christmas Present Panic: Balancing Thoughtful Gifts with My Budget

On November 1st I felt the annual panic. Lighted wreaths appeared on the telephone polls outside the wine shop. Target’s Christmas light selection appeared behind the newly discounted candy. We are moments away from hearing the Nutcracker theme on the speakers in every mall, post office and dentist office.

What does this all mean? As a overly zealous planner, it means I need to know what I’m doing for Christmas gifts. Every year I try to balance three key issues:

  1. The Budget- I don’t have a large budget for Christmas gifts, but I love elaborate gifts. There is no logical reason for this but I am always concerned about my gift “not being enough”. Nor can I resist purchasing “the perfect gift” when I come across it.
  2. Homemade- Trying to keep my budget low goes hand in hand with making homemade gifts. The problem with homemade gifts is unless you’re especially gifted (get it?!) you may find that yourself staying up late at night working on overly intricate hand-embroidered items or making gifts that you’re not sure anyone actually wants.
  3. Materialism- Why are we stressing ourselves out over gifts when there are so many people who don’t have anything? Do you actually need anything this Christmas? Are the gifts you’re giving contributing to the closets of the one you love or are they things they will appreciate? There is so much excess in our country. I don’t have any desire to contribute to it more than I already do.

I truly love to give gifts. I don’t always succeed in giving personal, thoughtful gifts but I always try and I like the process. None of this would bother me if I didn’t.

This year (as I do every year) I’ll be doing my best to only give homemade/handmade, local gifts or immaterial gifts. We’ll see if I can do it! I’ll be sharing ideas for you to do the same if it appeals to you. Here’s last year’s Christmas gifts if you need some ideas to get you started!

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Lessons From the Garden

1. Starting the day with productivity instead of a snooze is a recipe for success. I’ve been getting up early before work, pouring a cup of tea, turning on some easy wake up tunes, and putting on my gardening gloves. With the heatwave (it’s called summer) and the humidity (my welcome back to the South) it’s the only time I’m willing to weed and work out there. Regardless it sets the tone for my day. I feel happier and kinder when I start the day surrounded by the beautiful things we’ve worked so hard to grow. To date we’ve eaten spinach, peas, arugula, two tomatoes (the squirrels ate two beautiful ones too), a beet and there’s a zucchini in my refrigerator that I’m about to cook up.

Oh look a delicious treat.

Oh look a delicious treat.

A delicious treat for squirrels apparently

A delicious treat for squirrels apparently

2. I am a very small part of a very big world. Even in my 15 x 15 little garden plot I don’t have a very firm grasp of what occurs nor a lot of control. If I did the spinach, peas and potatoes wouldn’t have disappeared. Our pea vines have yellowed, wilting from the heat. Our spinach supposedly drowned. Our potatoes have slowly vanished from nematodes. Constantly in life I am reminded that most of the time I am seeing only a very small picture of the world. I have to work hard to understand my garden and I have to work hard to understand why so many tough things are happening in the world right now. I don’t think I’ll ever figure out either.

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3. I think a lot about my grandmother when I’m out in the garden. I am told that she spent a lot of time in her yard working on her plants. I’m sure she never grew vegetables because she was a terrible cook but I imagine if we knew each other now we would enjoy talking about it. I started wearing garden gloves recently to keep dirt out from under my fingernails. My dad told me that my grandmother drank gelatin to strengthen her nails. It’s such a small thing but I think of her when I wear my gloves. I never met her. I’ve heard a lot of things about her, positive and negative, but I would have really liked to know her. Gardening is one of those things that just makes me feel more connected. 

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4. It’s a process. The peas withered from the heat but I can try again in the fall or earlier next spring. Next time we plant potatoes we’ll know to take action earlier. We have learned and we can try again. There’s no one and done.

Success!

Success!

My So-Called “Living Simply” Lifestyle

First of all, are you aware that there is a playlist on Songza called “Angela Chase’s So-Called Playlist”? Be still my heart. If we have anything in common you might enjoy it. Or music from Daria. Just a suggestion.

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So, over the last year or so I’ve been trying to reduce the number of chemicals and processed stuff in my life. If I can make the ingredients in my life more simple, more real, then I love it all the more. Examples of my life changes:

  • I make my own laundry detergent now. It’s surprisingly effective! I make in bulk and store in a five gallon bucket. I keep a smaller portion in a beer growler that I disperse to each laundry load. Making detergent is incredibly easy and it lasts forever. Try it yourself.
  • Making granola bars. Recipe can be found here.
  • Making my own bread. We’ve stopped buying bread. Making bread takes time but very little effort. I find it incredibly satisfying to make and I can try different recipes every week.
  • Making my own deodorant– fail. It gave me a rash. I’ve been told to cut back on the baking soda and to use apple cider vinegar to prep my skin before applying. I’m going to try this in the future but I’m not up to at this point.
  • I’m trying to make my own kombucha again. My Dr. Pepper consumption has greatly increased since my world has lacked kombucha.
  • We’ve started a backyard garden plot. We’ve got potatoes, carrots, beets, spinach, and arugula seeds trying to grow right now!

All of it is a money saver but that’s not really what it’s all about.

  • I want to be more local. It bothers me that my food and household goods come from all over the world. It’s not great for the environment. It’s not great for the local producers I’d like to support. The farmers market begins next weekend and I will be there will bells on.
  • I watched a documentary about our use of plastic and its effect on the oceans. It was disturbing. I’m become overly aware of how much plastic there is in our lives. I want to limit it. I want to make things in bulk and try to eliminate all the throw-away plastic in my life.
  • We brew our own beer! This is particularly fun because I do very little to create the beer. I’m mainly a taster.
  • I just want to eliminate excess. Why do we have so much stuff? Then again, when you have to buy multiple items to make one thing it seems counterproductive.
  • It’s really satisfying. I get a lot of pride out of making my own bread. I love snacking on my own granola bars. Watching our little seeds sprout is fun. I want to eat my own beets!

The down side? It’s time consuming. It doesn’t always come out the way I want. These national suppliers have really got their formulas worked out. For instance, my store bought deodorant does not give me a rash. But it cost me very little to try. So what’s the harm?

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Are there things you do to live more simply?

DIY Deodorant- Not Quite…

In an effort to get away from anti-perspirants I thought I’d make my own deodorant. I found a simple recipe on Greatist that seemed pretty easy to create. It smells great and looks fantastic.

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I can’t get it out of the jar. When I filled the old deodorant container I wound it down too far and now it won’t roll up. I also filled a small half-pint mason jar with the rest but it’s too hard to get out. I’m keeping both in the bathroom now as it’s warmer and I’m hoping it will work better. Otherwise I’m going to have to microwave every morning. That’s a little unrealistic.

If you want to try it yourself here’s the ingredients.

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Melt the coconut oil and then mix it all up! Supposedly, it’ll be a success. The jury’s still out.

DIY Fail- If at first you don’t succeed..

Okay, it’s not a total fail but I don’t qualify it as a success. Here’s how the story goes…

I love kombucha and Austin (to me, anyways) is a little kombucha mecca. You can buy it at most convenience stores, there’s a variety of local brewers, you can get it on tap at the farmer’s market or even some gas stations. It’s still an expensive drink to love but when you buy it in a growler, it’s not so bad.

Wilmington is not a kombucha mecca (as far as I can tell). Most of the varieties I’ve seen here are the standards and they don’t come on tap or in larger quantities. So I wanted to make my own. I ordered a Scoby online from Amazon and a bought a large glass jar from Target and researched kombucha recipes until I found one that seemed simple and easy. Live Simply seemed to have a very simple and easy to follow recipe online. I really like this blog/site but it didn’t have the tips that I needed as a first timer.

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You don’t need much to create Kombucha!

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I had to use a random assortment of jars. Here we’ve got a blueberry bottle, strawberry basil, pineapple and plain.

Well, in reality I shouldn’t do enough research. My first batch came out weak and not carbonated. Here’s the steps I followed from Live Simply and what I would have done differently.

1. Bring 12 cups, 3 quarts, of water to a boil. Add in 1 cup of sugar and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add in 5 tea bags. Allow the tea to steep for about 5 minutes and remove the bags . Allow the tea to completely cool.

– Let’s up the steep time. I’m an intense tea person. 5 bags for 5 minutes is practically what I drink in the morning. I also learned with my additional research just how important it is that you allow the tea to cool. The tea should not even be warm. I’m afraid my tea may have been lukewarm when I made my first batch.

2. Once cooled, pour the sweet tea mixture in a gallon-size jar. Place your SCOBY inside the jar with 1/2- 1 cup Kombucha. Cover the jar with a cheesecloth and rubber-band. Store in a warm, dark place for at least 6 days up to 28-30 days. The longer your SCOBY and tea ferment the less sweet and more sour the tea will taste.

-Live Simply’s blogger, Kristin, only ferments for seven days so I thought I would do the same. Other sites suggest that you start tasting the tea after 5-7 days until it tastes the way you want it. I’ve got a second batch going right now that’s going to sit for at least two weeks. I like my kombucha tart.

3. Remove the SCOBY and any babies (these will grow from the original SCOBY and will typically be as large as the opening of the jar) from the Kombucha and reserve 1 cup of Kombucha liquid with the SCOBY in a bowl.

-My tea did not have a baby SCOBY which I didn’t even think about at first. I didn’t know that it’s an important sign of success to have a baby SCOBY. I’ve looked up possibilities as to why I don’t have one :

  • I washed my tea container with anti-bacterial soap. This is a no-no apparently.
  • Maybe my tea was too warm when I put in the SCOBY.
  • It can take a SCOBY a couple batches to really get going. I’m really hoping this is the case because otherwise I may have killed my SCOBY.

4. Now, it’s time to add flavor. I chose to flavor mine with strawberries. I used 3 diced strawberries per bottle of Kombucha. In a another bottle, I added 1 cup of mango juice. Be creative, the possibilities are endless. Pour the Kombucha in each bottle. A funnel is a handy tool for pouring. You don’t want to waste any of that precious Kombucha. Seal your bottles and leave the Kombucha on the counter for two more days. This is called the second ferment. During this time the tea and flavor will infuse together creating a delicious, fizzy beverage. After two days, you can refrigerate your tea and start drinking.

-What I didn’t know with step 4 (but looking back I really should have known) was that you have to leave about an inch headspace at the top for the carbonation to occur. Since we’ve recently bottled two batches of beer you’d think I would have thought of this.

Don’t worry, I haven’t given up! My second batch is fermenting as we speak and I have… well, not high hopes but hopes at lease that this will be a bigger success.

I’m a Vegetarian from Virginia

Well, that’s not true at all. I’m from North Carolina. Last night I ate chicken. I eat meat almost every day. Regardless of that at my last job everyone was under the impression that I was a vegetarian. Even though I brought in smoked salmon to share. Even though I made turkey sandwiches for the Thanksgiving potluck. I rode my bike to work and I don’t wear a lot of makeup. Therefore I am a vegetarian. This is how these ideas begin, at least in Texas.

Now I’m making my reputation worse (I don’t think worse is the right word) by making my own laundry detergent and granola bars. I’m even hoping to make my own soap, shampoo and deodorant. Those DIY adventures to come!

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This week I made granola bars via ohsheglows.com.  Here is her awesome recipe:

Ingredients:

  • 1.5 cups mashed ripe banana (about 3 medium/large bananas)
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 cups rolled oats (use certified gluten-free if necessary)
  • 1/2-3/4 cup dried cherries, chopped (I used 3/4 cup)
  • 1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
  • 1/2 cup sunflower seeds
  • 1/2 cup pepita seeds (shelled pumpkin seeds)
  • 1/2 cup sliced almonds
  • 1/4 cup hulled hemp seeds
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon (I could not find any cinnamon in my cabinets, but it didn’t stop me)
  • 1/4 teaspoon pink Himalayan salt or fine grain sea salt, or to taste

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Lightly grease a large rectangular baking dish (approx. 8.5″ x 12.5″) and line with a piece of parchment paper so the bars are easier to lift out. (Used foil instead and an incorrect sized dish- no big deal)
  2. In a large bowl, mash the banana until smooth. Stir in the vanilla.
  3. Place the rolled oats into a food processor (or blender on the lowest speed) and pulse until the oats are coarsely chopped (but still with lots of texture). Stir oats into the banana mixture.
  4. Chop the walnuts and cherries and stir these and the rest of the ingredients into the banana-oat mixture until thoroughly combined.
  5. Spoon mixture into prepared dish. Press down until compacted and smooth out with hands until even. Use a pastry roller to smooth out if desired.
  6. Bake for 23-27 minutes (I baked for 27 mins.) until firm and lightly golden along the edge. Place dish on a cooling rack for 10 minutes then carefully slide a knife to loosen the ends and lift out. Place granola slab on a cooling rack for 10 minutes and then into the freezer for another 10 mins.
  7. Slice into bars once they are cool.

I used her suggestion of wrapping the bars individually in parchment and taping them with Scotch tape, placing them in a Ziploc and freezing them. Taping is not a great idea. Parchment is made so that nothing will stick to it. She wrapped hers in twine and I would probably do that next time.

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The bars aren’t sweet but it didn’t stop me from eating 3 as soon as they came out of the oven. I might put a little honey in next time though. In the meantime, delish!

Nostalgia Epidemic

At Thanksgiving I heard one of my friends mention something that I have been thinking about a lot lately. The idea that our generation was born with nostalgia for things we never experienced. This is something that I have often thought about. We dream of being born in other decades. We try to recreate pasts we were never apart of.

When I was a child and obsessed with reading all the American Girl books and the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, I wanted badly to a pioneer woman. Every day I put in my hair in two long braided pigtails and for Christmas I was ecstatic when I received the American Girls cookbook where I would learn how to make old fashioned recipes that maybe Kirsten or Felicity had made. In the fall my mother and I made strawberry jam to enter in the Dixie Classic County Fair (honorable mention- hell yeah!). Soon though I learned about the 1960s. Flower Power has very popular at Limited Too at the time and I had grown up on my parents Oldies music. I spent all my time listening to 93.1 Golden Oldies music and making posters that said Make Love Not War. My sister hated this. This stayed with me all through high school. I wanted to be a part of the sexual revolution and burn my bra! (Not really, bras are expensive! I didn’t wear one for several years though as a protest. This was not a popular decision in my family. ) I wanted to move to San Francisco and live in Haight-Ashbury. I dreamed of listening to great musicians and writing beatnik poetry.

It's hard to be cooler than Patti Smith.

It’s hard to be cooler than Patti Smith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a sentiment that I’ve seen repeated in many of my friends. We ignore the fact that sexual harassment and discrimination was rampant back then. We ignore the prejudices we ourselves would have had back then. Maybe it would have fun and maybe all the 1960s freedom and love would have terrified my suburban ass.

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And yet, even today’s styles are nostalgic for the past. We also see fashion trends that repeat (if you wore it the first time, you don’t get it to do it the second time around) but so quickly and intensely? The whole hipster thing? I’ve seen the book cover, “Dad was the Original Hipster.” Oh no, my friend. Dad wasn’t the original hipster. You just dress like your dad. Like your weird, embarrassing (and probably cool, no offense Dad!) father and you don’t even have kids yet. Everywhere in Austin are styles of yesteryear. Boys wearing tight jeans, short shorts, mustaches and flannel are as common as rainbow sandals and popped up polos are in the Carolinas. Girls wearing high-waisted bell bottoms, ’90s army jackets, combat boots, and midriff tops surround me in every bar and ’40s style swimsuits are just as likely to be spotted as too-tiny string bikinis. And I love it! Many of things live in my closet too. But it’s a little strange right? Fashion didn’t always look to the past for inspiration.

 

Please note I searched really hard for hipster fashion that didn't resemble things I wear... Impossible. Damn, hypocrisy!

Please note I searched really hard for hipster fashion that didn’t resemble things I wear… Impossible. Damn, hypocrisy!

And it’s not just fashion. This idea of DIY, eating local, eating homemade foods that haven’t been processed is also a grasp at the past. Canning is the newest hobby. Everyone’s growing gardens as if Uncle Sam asked them too. This is also fantastic! I haven’t managed to kill my lemon tree, basil or chive plant and I find that pretty victorious. I love using things I’ve grown myself, but it all comes back to this idea that we’ve gotten too far away from our roots and we’re trying to find our way back. When did that happen? We repaint old furniture. I have a record collection and drink out of mason jars. I shop at vintage stores. Older is better. The more history you can associate with the object, the more success.

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There’s also a nostalgia for times that have barely even passed. In addition to learning about the “21 things that Miley Cyrus and her bleached eyebrows look like”, on Buzzfeed.com you can also read about things like 31 Items of Clothing ’00s Teens Will Never Wear Again, 30 Signs You Were a Teenager in the Early 2000s, 29 Signs You’re Stuck in the ’90s,  and 25 Important Style Tips Rayanne Graff from “My So-Called Life” Taught You. I mean, really?And that’s barely a blip on the radar of all the blast from the past sort of stuff they have. And people love it! I read these too.

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Is it because we grew up with people always referring to better times? Things just aren’t like they used to be and all that? Is it because our generation is so wrapped up in technology and careers that we find ourselves searching for things that will tie us to something real? Or is this just the way it’s always been?