Friday, September 30, 2011

One Week In

I have officially survived my first week (albeit a two-day week) as a graduate student. I am exhausted, a bit overwhelmed, terribly excited by my course material and the awesome like-minded people I am meeting, and am feeling like I am caught up in some kind of whirlwind. I already feel like I really ended up where I'm supposed to be, going on the career path that is perfect for me, and I am so looking forward to absorbing everything I can in this field.

And to continue with the whirlwind feeling, Matt and I decided at last minute to drive to Walla Walla, Washington this weekend for his five year reunion at Whitman College. We'll be pulling out of here just as the sun is coming up tomorrow, and coming back Sunday evening, but I'm glad I finally get to see the place where he spent his college years, and we're both looking forward to spending time with a great group of friends. With that, I'm signing off for a few days, and hoping to get some of my (huge amount) of reading for class done on the road....those flat boring stretches of freeway in north central Oregon are good for that, at least!

Hope you all have a delightful weekend and are as happy to see October as I am!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Look at the Pocketbook

This post yesterday was a very timely one for me, and a good reminder that life is enriched by how you spend your time, not your money. I start school tomorrow, and intend to spend the next two years (maybe longer) earning my Master of Public Health (MPH). That means a certain amount of student loans, although I am going to keep it to the smallest amount of debt possible. But I'm starting out on close to nothing, and today signifies a pretty big change in how Matt and I will be spending our money. We've been prioritizing our spending in a different way this summer (I'll get to that below), but from here on in, we'll be living extremely frugally.

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When we arrived home from New Zealand at the end of May, we didn't have a whole lot of money, but the experience we got for our money was more than worth it. We came home expecting to be able to find jobs for the summer, and then hopefully ongoing ones, in particular a part-time one for me while I attended school. Things haven't exactly gone that way. We came home into some of the highest unemployment rates Oregon (and the rest of the U.S.) has ever seen. These days, our college educations mean very little, and Matt was happy to find work for ten weeks as a kayak instructor, while I took the first thing that came to me, a temporary data entry job. I started that job at the beginning of July, then got pneumonia two weeks in, then after two more weeks of work developed a repetitive stress injury from using only a mouse (no keyboard) for hours on end, and had to quit. I was not eligible for unemployment benefits. Since returning from NZ, I have only worked for one month. The summer hasn't really gone as planned (although it's been a good one!). We each had to spend $120 to fend off our respective bouts of pneumonia. Neither of us can afford health insurance. I've been searching for a job since mid-August, and have only found three positions to apply to. I won't be able to work more than 20 hours per week while I'm a (full time) student and stay sane, and I'm also limited geographically, because we don't live centrally and I commute by bike and public transit. Luckily this week the school year started, and through PSU I've suddenly found four great positions to apply to, so hopefully something will come through soon. Matt is job searching again too, while trying to change career paths; it's a very hard time to try and transition out of one field and into another. He is getting unemployment benefits, though.

We're certainly not going to founder; I have student loans that will cover all my tuition and living expenses (just barely) and Matt has savings from this summer and some inheritance that we can call on if absolutely necessary. Still, some regular income wouldn't go amiss.

One of the reasons things are so tight now is because when we first moved into our house, we made the decision to spend up front on some things that would enable us to continue on in the lifestyle we wanted. I don't regret that we did this, but it's kind of biting us in the ass right now, financially. There are a lot of things we could have gone without that give us more satisfaction in the long run, and take out some stresses that could have created larger problems later. We spent $300 on a brand new mattress, and don't regret it one bit; we are sleeping better than we have in the last year and have far fewer aches and pains that we used to. We bought a snazzy food processor and are in love with it; it saves us so much time in cooking, which is so valuable as we go into a period of our lives when we'll be on different schedules (my classes are all in the evenings) and our time together is limited. I bought a rear rack and pannier bag for my bike, so I don't have to carry everything in a backpack. We could have continued sleeping on our old futon, tossing and turning and waking every morning with sore backs and necks. We could have decided to forgo the food processor and taken the time to do that work by hand. I could have carried all my textbooks on my back, ending every ride with a backache. We'd rather spend the money up front to be comfortable and happy, frankly.

And there are some benefits to both of us being unemployed at the same time. We got so much done around the house and garden. We completed all the projects we wanted to finish before I got sucked into school. We got to spend a lot of time together before my schedule gets busy again. We had time to fill up the freezer with ready-to-cook foods and made sure the "pantry" was well stocked so we wouldn't have to think about shopping for awhile. I had time to scout out my new bike route to downtown and research the cheapest options for obtaining my textbooks (I'm renting them, for a grand total of $90 for Fall Term. They would have cost me about $370 new).

 Our "pantry" in the basement. The plastic bin and trashcan are full of bulk foods: rice, oats, beans, potatoes, etc.

Our freezer is packed full of good quality meat, fish, containers of beans, lentils, and stock, veggies and berries, herbs and baked goods (and ice cream...)

Ultimately I am happy when I reflect on where our money has gone. There are certainly some "wants" thrown in there with the needs, but I'm happy with our choices. From here on out, there are very few major expenses that we anticipate in the next year, and we have set ourselves up to live the way we want, and not feel that we are depriving ourselves of anything. Truly, we spend so much less than most of those around us. Our everyday expenses are incredibly low. Rent is our biggest cost (we are currently looking for a new roommate, so it's a little more expensive this month. John's friends from Alabama all moved up last week and they got a house together, so we are back to just the two of us until we find another roomie). The only things we regularly buy from the supermarket are milk, cheese and free range eggs, and we can get those very reasonably at Trader Joe's. In just a couple months, eggs will no longer be something we buy at the store. Everything else we buy in bulk and have stored away in the kitchen or basement. I can't remember the last time we went out for food.

However, I know we have it great compared to so many people in these times of financial turmoil. And I know we are not alone; there are so many people, particularly in our age and education bracket, setting out in life, who are coming up against big barriers to paying for further education or for a house or property, or who are laid off or have a medical emergency while uninsured. By tightening our belts, making instead of buying, changing our standards a little and saving a few dollars here and a few cents there, we'll get to where we're going. It will take longer and be a little harder than we imagined, but we'll get there.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Rainbow Veggies

This is what my garden basket looked like two evenings ago:

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I love bright colors in any form, but somehow they're extra special when they come from the garden. The cabbage was one that was getting some weird mold all over the outside leaves and not growing anymore, so I went ahead and picked it. Then there are tomatoes, basil, a pimento pepper and scarlet runner beans.

I adore the way the runner beans look when they're growing, and how they attract hummingbirds to our yard, but check out how they look when you shell them:

Neon pink beans!

When the bean pods are large, but still good and green, you can shell them and cook up the beans easily, and they are so very tasty. I hadn't tried cooking fresh shelled beans before so I didn't do very many, but man, were they good! I just boiled them for about two minutes, then drained and salted them. This is what they look like after cooking:

We'll eat a few more fresh, but the rest will be dried and shelled for use in soups this winter, and some saved for planting next year. On advice from my mom, I'll just let the pods dry on the vine as long as the weather allows it, then pick them and let them dry in a basket somewhere warm and dry (upstairs in the garret!) until they are extra dry and rattle in the pods. The dried beans are huge, and spotted black and purple.

With all the veggies above, this was our dinner on Wednesday:

Simple pasta tossed with all the veggies and herbs and some garlic and olive oil, and the beans mixed in, and braised cabbage (which is a fancy way of saying I fried it in a bunch of butter). There's absolutely nothing like fresh young purple cabbage- it's so sweet! My other favorite way to cook it is to steam it in milk. What are your favorite veggies this time of year? 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Stocking Up, and Fruit Trees

I've spent some time this week stocking up the freezer with beans, veggies, cake and other goodies to help make quick meals once I'm in school. It's rapidly becoming clear that we will need another freezer once we start having rabbit meat around, because our current freezer, though sizable for a fridge-top one, is now jam-packed!
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We regularly cook up big batches of pinto beans, black beans and kidney beans, so we always have some in the freezer. I really love plain beans with salt, I don't need to make them anything fancy, so these will make good back-up lunches with some rice. My good friend Lydia taught me the trick (which she learned from her Salvadoran mother-in-law) of cooking a whole onion with the beans, which gives them a really nice smooth flavor. Yum.

We made a run to Costco and WinCo this week to stock up on some bulk groceries before I start school. At Costco we found big trays of fresh farmed Tilapia (which is at the top of the safe and sustainable seafood list) at a good price, and also bought a huge fresh Alaskan Coho salmon fillet, also on the list. At home, we split the Tilapia up into two-serving batches and put those in individual bags in the freezer, now a good five meals' worth in there. I cut up the salmon into small sections and we froze those as well, four dinners' worth from that one fillet!

We are getting about a million cherry tomatoes every day, which are great for fresh use in salads and pastas and salsas, so I gathered up the larger tomatoes and made a batch of roasted passata-style sauce for the freezer. I wasn't keen on canning tomatoes, so I spent some time online looking for recipes for frozen tomato sauce, this one is a total gem. It's super easy; just cut the tops off the tomatoes, and place them open-end down in a baking pan. Pile on a bunch of fresh herbs (rosemary, basil, oregano) and several whole cloves of garlic, dress liberally with olive oil and sprinkle on some sea salt. Bake for 1 hour at 400F. Let cool, then you can just lift the tomato skins off, and remove the woody herb stems. Puree it all in a food processor, and freeze!

I went one step further and added a sliced fresh bell pepper from the garden, because I love the flavor of roasted pepper.

This smelled so amazing while it was cooking, that it was really hard not to eat it all right away! I look forward to making more, because this batch only yielded a pint of sauce, but it tastes so delectable that I love the idea of putting it away for some gloomy winter night when we need a good stout taste of summer. Added bonus, everything in this sauce, apart from the olive oil, garlic and salt, is from our garden. Next year, the garlic will be our own too!

Matt has been working hard this week at making the fruit trees happier. He borrowed his dad's long-handled pruner and cut back the neighbor's cedar hedge which was overhanging our fence by six or more feet in places. I hadn't realized just how far it was coming over our apple trees until he cut it away. This is what that side of the yard looked like the day we moved in:

Everything was so green back in June!

And this is what it looks like now, between Dad's pruning of the fruit trees and Matt's pruning of the cedars:
It looks a bit desolate, especially with the brown lawn, but we already feel better, because there is so much more light in the yard and it's clear the fruit trees are happier now. They are getting more sun, and also can now get the benefit of rain. When it rained last week, we noticed that the cedar branches were preventing the rain from getting anywhere near the apples' roots.

We got a grand total of six Asian pears from the tree on the right, but they are perfect and so delicious!

My cousin told me that a big hailstorm hit Portland early this spring when her Asian pear tree was blooming, so maybe that explains our lack of a crop this year. Hopefully we'll get lots more next summer.

What are you enjoying from your garden right now?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

One Year: Pieces of New Zealand

One year ago, on a rainy afternoon very much like this one, Matt and I flew out of Portland and began our Big New Zealand Adventure. A year later and nearly four months after returning home (!!), I still can't conjure up the words to express the profound change that our time in New Zealand wrought on us as individuals and as a couple. These days, the thought most frequently on my brain is Damn, we were gone a long time! I can't believe we left an entire year ago and were away as long as we were. Here's what I do know: New Zealand will always be with us, in one form or another. We think about it every day, and do a lot of reminiscing and occasionally have moments of heart-ache when a far away memory comes rushing back with no warning. A few weeks ago, out of nowhere, the image popped into my head, clear as day, of a particular stretch of the coastal highway driving east into Opotiki, where enormous and beautiful Pohutukawa trees create a long tunnel of green over the road, with the blue-green Bay of Plenty sparkling in the gaps between the branches. It took my breath away the first time I saw it, and it took my breath away to remember it, almost a year later. Sometimes I catch a scent on the air, unidentifiable, but which speaks to me of our long New Zealand summer. Occasionally I can almost feel the heat of the southern sun or the scorching sand of a black Taranaki beach. Once in awhile, a news item from New Zealand comes up on the BBC, and the accents take me straight back.
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Aside from the emotions, every once in awhile a simple material craving pops up. I would kill for a good Flat White. Or some Superwines (the best tea biscuits I have ever had). I'll settle for Hershey's, but it's got nothing on a Cadbury's Dairy Milk. I miss the weight of dollar and two-dollar coins, and bank notes in more than one color. I miss the accents, the regularly sunny smiles, "She'll be right" and "Good on ya."

The phrases we use when people ask us what our time in New Zealand was like are insufficient. "It was amazing" and "It was incredible" only go a fraction of the way towards the meaning of our trip. How to you describe something that spanned eight months and every emotion in the book? The struggles, the joys, the surprises, the loneliness and homesickness, the freedom, the moments of paradise, the friendships, the disappointments and the things that absolutely blew our minds.

And here we are, a year down the road, more happy and confident in our relationship than we've ever been, settled at home in Portland, in the house of our dreams, with a big garden and chickens, plans for the future, no desire to move or travel anytime soon, and me about to embark on my second round of higher education. Right now we wouldn't trade this for anything, but we are both so infinitely glad that we took the opportunity to live abroad and travel and face the challenges of that experience. Across New Zealand are plants we planted, things we built and animals we helped raise. And the gumboots we bought last September in a little town on the Bay of Plenty now live by our back door here in Oregon. New Zealand is here with us, and we are still there.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Windfall Pie

We've had the first apple pie of the season! Apples have been falling from our trees when they're not quite ripe, and we collected enough to actually do something with, so Thursday evening Matt started sorting through them. About a third of them weren't usable due to worms and strange brown coloring on the apple flesh, hopefully next year when we're here and maintaining the trees all season, we'll get a better crop.
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In our house, apple pie is an acceptable substitute for any meal. Life just gets better when you have apple pie for breakfast:
 (Yesterday morning, with hashbrowns and coffee). 

It's raining this morning. And I'm talking proper rain: steady, gray rain falling from an evenly pearl gray sky, the kind of rain we haven't had here in three months. The kind that makes a soft swishing sound on the roof and ground as it falls, which my ears identify from my pillow, before my eyes are even open. The chickens are confused (they haven't experienced rain before), but I'm wearing a fleece and wool socks today, and I finally feel like a true Portlander again. It's good to be home.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Here and There

The days since we got home from Port Townsend have been pretty ordinary, filled with running some errands around town one day, staying home and spending all morning in the garden the next. Every day is different, yet tied together by our everyday activities: watering the garden, washing the dishes, cleaning out the henhouse and giving the hens fresh straw and shavings, taking them treats of watermelon and corn on the cob. Matt took these great photos of the ladies a few days ago, when I harvested the last broccoli florets and pulled up the plants. I put them in the yard for the chickens, who adore broccoli leaves. They all came racing across the yard immediately and thought they had died and gone to heaven!
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One very exciting thing happened, unexpectedly, yesterday morning. We were awoken by a phone call from the animal enforcement officer from the Multnomah County Health Department, saying he was at our front door and were we home so he could inspect our chicken and rabbit setup before issuing us an animal permit. Needless to say, we scrambled out of bed just as fast as we could, ran out to meet him, and brought him into the side yard, with our nerves jangling from the complete lack of notice (although, in retrospect, completely reasonable: they want to see how we are keeping our animals every day, not just when we are expecting an inspection!). We didn't need to worry though, because he was immediately impressed by our chicken coop and said it was clear that we knew what we were doing. When Matt showed him where the rabbits would be, in the carport, he immediately said that was fine, and it looked like a great setup. We asked about the potential for expanding to more animals than we had listed on the permit application (4 of each), and he said he would grant us a permit for up to 7 chickens (the maximum our coop could hold) and a dozen rabbits, but not to worry if we went slightly over on the number of rabbits, due to fluctuations in litter size. We should receive the permit in the next couple of days, and were told that we would never see an enforcement officer again unless somebody complained to the county. Wow!

Matt and I spent a good deal of time on the yard and garden two days ago, finishing our chicken-proofing (creating cages around the bottoms of the fruit trees to keep the chickens from scratching at the trees and the mulch they so love to spread around) and working on our fruit some more- pruning out a few more limbs from the apple trees and cutting back the gooseberry bush and the raspberries.

 The (extremely prickly) gooseberry has been cut way back and is now wired to the fence, well out of the way of the path!

After consulting with my parents (who have grown raspberries for as long as I can remember), I cut out all the canes that are not currently bearing. We have twice-bearing raspberries, they bear once in July and again in September. The canes that are bearing right now are the ones that will have berries on them next July, but the rest are spent, so out they go. Much less of a jungle now!

I'm almost prepared to say we're finally completely moved in, after we picked up our bed frame yesterday from the friends who kept it while we were in New Zealand. It's a gorgeous old brass frame from Matt's grandmother's house. Matt's father gave it to us a couple months before we went to NZ, and it was too big for our storage unit, so we lent it to friends. Now, with this beautiful old-fashioned frame and our new mattress set, we are sleeping like royalty!

Our bedroom is very small, and is now almost entirely filled by bed! To make room for the frame, we removed the wooden accordion-fold doors from our closet and pushed the dresser right up against the end of the closet. This photo shows exactly how much space remains for me to slip through to my side of the bed: 
 Cozy! But what are bedrooms for if not beds?

Without doors on the closet, we put up a tension rod and this curtain that was bestowed on us by Matt's mom. It doesn't quite cover the whole thing, but it will do until we get a second one!

Less than two weeks now until I start school. I've been spending a lot of time signing forms and setting up my accounts in order for my loans to be disbursed next week, investigating where I can get my textbooks on the cheap, and buying a few school supplies. Yesterday while Matt and I were out running errands, we stopped at the PSU campus for about 45 minutes, and walked around to find the buildings where my classes are. I've been through the campus a million times (it's right in the heart of downtown Portland), but didn't know one building from another. Now at least I'm a little bit oriented and won't get lost on my first day! It's funny that at age 27 I feel like I did on my first day of public school at age 8. Well, maybe a little more confident :) And truly excited- I can't wait to be a student again, even though I hardly know what to expect in so many ways.

Monday, September 12, 2011

At the Wooden Boat Festival

We spent the weekend in beautiful Port Townsend, Washington, at the town's annual Wooden Boat Festival. Matt is a born sailor, currently without a boat, and I am quickly learning to love sailing and to appreciate the beauty of sailboats and the joy of being on the water. It was a beautiful weekend, filled with these nautical works of art, good friends, and lots of sunshine.

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