Saturday, February 28, 2009

Less planning, more merriment

For me, the scariest aspect of the Lenten Experiment is not the frugality but the planning. I like to make things up as I go along. I don't like keeping records and figuring out the price of everything.

I'm solving the bookkeeping problem by keeping track of grocery purchases but not trying to price each meal, which would be impossibly complex.

And I've decided to solve the meal planning problem by reverting to my usual method of cooking: looking at what I already have or what is favorably priced in the grocery store, and then imagining what goes well together. I often do this as I cook, after I write my daily blogpost, so I'm going to stop appending "daily bread" summaries announcing what we are going to have for dinner. Heck, it's only 11:00 a.m. How do I know?

But I do want to keep track--what's an experiment without data?--so instead I'll post yesterday's menu, beginning tomorrow. (This approach has the added advantage of not giving Mr Neff or dinner guests advance information about dinner. I don't want to alarm anybody.)

Meanwhile, here's a report from the front. Janet and Ken Tkachuck, excellent cooks both, describe their first couple of days of intentionally frugal eating:
[We] are experimenting with the frugal menu plan but are not giving up meat or wine. The first night we had chicken legs sautéed with onions, sweet peppers, and zucchini and cilantro, on a bed of couscous. The meal came to $6.00, and with a $4.99 bottle, we stayed under budget. Our breakfasts and lunches, like yours, cost pennies. Last night was stir fry with vegetarian scallops, even cheaper. How we're going to work tonight into the scheme I'm not sure. We're sallying forth with our friend Don to a new cheap eats BYOB in Andersonville (Antica Pizzeria, featuring a wood burning pizza oven). ... We'll ask Tetzel to grant us an indulgence for this one night. Or amortize the extra cost over the next week. Cheating already.
No doubt Tetzel will approve, but then so will his archenemy Martin Luther, who wrote to a friend:
Whenever the devil pesters you with these thoughts, at once seek out the company of men, drink more, joke and jest, or engage in some other form of merriment. Sometimes it is necessary to drink a little more, play, jest, or even commit some sin in defiance and contempt of the devil in order not to give him an opportunity to make us scrupulous about trifles.
Amen, Dr. Luther.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Our daily bread - lunches

To follow up on yesterday's blog about our boring breakfasts, I shall briefly describe our repetitious lunches.

Mr Neff usually packs a sandwich--he's on a peanut-butter-and-jelly kick this year--and a tub of yogurt and fruit (grapes, an orange, or a pear). Sometimes lunch is ordered in so the staff can keep right on working. Pizza and outsized sub sandwiches are popular. And sometimes he goes to a restaurant. Favorite: India Palace's buffet.

Sometimes I lunch with other ladies either at home or in a restaurant, but most of the time I eat one of three meals at home: either a sandwich and a piece of fruit, or two slices of bread spread with peanut or almond butter and topped with applesauce, or a bowl of cereal and milk topped with berries. I sometimes finish with a handful of peanuts. And then I have a cup of tea.

Why do I feel like I'm on a talk show, divulging seedy secrets?

Hey, go ahead and laugh ... but these odd little breakfasts and lunches are providing us each with two or three servings of fruit, two or three servings of whole grains, a serving or two from the milk group, protein from nuts--and, equally important, we like them.

Really good whole wheat bread helps.

I've adapted a recipe from Mark Bittman's wonderful How to Cook Everything, though he would no longer recognize it and might even disown it:

In your food processor, bzzzz these ingredients for a few seconds to blend:
  • 1 lb (about 3.5 c) white whole wheat flour (you can get this at Trader Joe's: it's real whole wheat, but doesn't seem as serious)
  • 1.5 t active dry yeast
  • 2 t salt
  • 1/4 c brown sugar
  • 2-3 T butter
Through the feeder tube, add 10-11 oz warm tap water while food processor is spinning. You want the dough to form into a soft ball, still a little sticky, but able to be picked up if you oil your hands. If you can pick it up really easily with unoiled hands, you probably didn't add enough water and your bread will be hard. If it turns into a sloppy muck, you need to add more flour and slow down on the water next time.

Put a little olive or canola oil in a pottery bowl, take the dough out of the food processor, knead it 20-30 times, and put it in the bowl. Turn it so all the dough gets oiled. Cover the bowl with a damp dishtowel (run a clean one under hot water and then wring out all the water you can) and put it in a warm place to rise for two hours. If the day is cold, I turn on my oven for just a minute, then turn it off and let the bread rise in there.

When the bread has doubled, punch it down and then shape into a loaf (if you haven't done this before, you can either experiment or you can buy Bittman's fine book and learn how he does it) and put it in a 9 x 5 loaf pan (preferably metal and nonstick; butter it anyway and shake some corn meal on the bottom and sides, if you don't want to risk permanently embedding the bread in it). Cover the pan loosely with the dishtowel and let the dough rise again for an hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the bread for about 45 minutes. Immediately after baking, remove it from the pan (so it doesn't stick) and let it cool on a wire rack before slicing.

Once you've done this a couple of times, you'll be able to throw the dough together and start it rising in less than 10 minutes. If you want, you can cover it with plastic wrap instead of a towel and let it rise in the refrigerator overnight. Take it out when you get up, punch it down, let it rest and warm up for half an hour or so, and then shape it into a loaf and take it from there.

In an excellent loaf of home-made whole wheat bread, virtue and pleasure are one.

Daily bread Breakfast and lunch--the usual. Dinner--whole wheat spaghetti, tomato sauce, parmesan cheese, vegetarian meat balls, fresh spinach with olive oil and garlic and lemon juice, berries.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Our daily bread - breakfasts

Throughout Lent, I'll be posting recipes, menu summaries, and Notes from the Frugal Side. I'm not going to list every mouthful I take, though, because I would lose all my faithful readers. Suffice it to say that my breakfasts and lunches are nearly always repetitious, boring, nourishing, and--to me--satisfying. They will look like Lenten penance to some, but I always eat that way. It's easier than thinking, planning, confecting, and cleaning up after a varied meal.

Mr Neff and I place a very high value on eating dinner together, at the dining table, on a tablecloth or at least place mats, and no TV on. Dinner hour is a time to share and bond. It's as important now that we're empty-nesters as it was when the kids were at home. Without shared dinners, our primary means of communication would be e-mail. Which, as I've pointed out many times, is a very Protestant means of communication--all word, no real presence.

At breakfast, by contrast, if we show up in the kitchen at the same time, one of us apologizes.

My usual breakfast is a couple of tablespoons of ground flaxseed (cheap at Trader Joe's) mixed into 1/2 cup plain yogurt and topped with a sliced banana. When I'm feeling festive, I sprinkle lots of cinnamon on it all. I also drink a large mug of English breakfast tea with milk.

Mr Neff's usual breakfast is a smoothie. He used to make it in the blender, but now he has one of those little hand blender things that's lots harder to operate and therefore more amusing to the masculine mind, like driving a stick shift. Here's what he puts in his smoothie:
  • 8 ounces orange juice
  • 2 Tablespoons flaxseed
  • 1/3 cup raw oatmeal
  • 1/2 cup cottage cheese
  • 2 generous spoonfuls plain yogurt
  • 1 banana
  • 1/2 cup frozen fruit--berries, mango, whatever (cheap at Aldi)
David also drinks a large mug of coffee and milk.

He thinks that some mornings during Lent, he will instead have a bowl of oatmeal with milk and a banana.

Daily bread
Breakfast and lunch--the usual for me; Mr Neff had a business lunch. I'll reveal our typical lunch habits tomorrow.
Dinner--broiled salmon filets (cheap at Aldi), leftover sweet potatoes and onions, leftover brussels sprouts and pecans, frozen peas. Dessert will be blackberries (cheap at Trader Joe's).

Housekeeping hint
If your freezer needs cleaning but you can't bear to start, try turning an opened bag of frozen peas upside down on the top shelf and listening as the peas ping from shelf to shelf, some settling on each level, some streaming out the bottom onto the floor for little dogs to gather, some rolling under the refrigerator or back behind the shelves where mechanical parts grind away in darkness.

Hey, it worked for me.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday: The Lenten Experiment begins

Want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.

My plan
  • Get up at 5.45 for 6.30 Mass with imposition of ashes.
  • Come home, eat a light breakfast, and spend some time online with the Days of Deepening Friendship Lenten retreat by Vinita Hampton Wright.
  • Spend the rest of the morning attending an ongoing church history class at St. Michael parish.
  • Eat a light lunch (at my age I am not required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, as younger people are, and I figured I'd function better if fueled).
  • Try to stay calm and pleasant while explaining to a furnace repair company that they ripped me off last weekend and should really do something about it.
  • Blog. Include a Lenten reading or two from Scripture, reflect on my experience so far, log our daily bread.
  • Eat a light supper.
  • Read.
  • Got up at 3.00 with a serious headache. Showered, washed hair, ate a few bites of yogurt and flax seed, lost same repeatedly.
  • Though unaware that one of today's readings has to do with fasting, weeping, and mourning (Joel 2.12), did all three continuously for about five hours as headache went from bad to evil.
  • Spent rest of morning and early afternoon first at Danada Convenient Care and then at the ER at CDH. Noticed at one point that the piped-in music was "Rescue Me." Concurred.
  • After two doctors and several nurses examined me and I had a CBC, a CT scan, two anti-nausea drugs and two powerful narcotics, I no longer felt pain. I suspected, however, that I was living in a different galaxy.
  • CBC and CT scan were both normal. Was released mid afternoon with a diagnosis of "nonspecific headache: Your exam shows your headache does not have any specific cause."
  • Ate a light breakfast, drank tea, went to bed.
Mr Neff, aka Saint David, spent the day with and for me, driving me from place to place, answering medical and financial questions, picking up prescriptions, and just being here. On this Ash Wednesday we both felt very deeply that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

I am in love with that man.

Am hoping to be lively dust tomorrow. Notice I said hoping, not planning. "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God" (Matthew 4.7).

Daily bread

Breakfast--let's not go there.
Lunch--oatmeal, flaxseed, honey, plain yogurt, a few blueberries, tea with milk and honey
Dinner--Mr Neff is at a banquet (CTI has never figured out the liturgical calendar). I'm thinking a small bowl of oat squares and maybe some whole wheat bread with almond butter and applesauce. More tea.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What we're going to do, and why it's not especially noble

I'm so ready for spring, so unready for Lent. Who came up with this idea of giving up things, anyway?

But yes. We are going to do it--try, that is, to keep our food budget under $12/day, starting tomorrow.

We will serve wine, but only when sharing a meal with others. We will eat in restaurants as required--which means that Mr Neff will continue to do business occasionally over meals. And I will use some items that are already in the pantry--flour, sugar, oatmeal, tea, spices, etc.

However, since we are trying to approximate a food-stamp budget, I will report wine and restaurant expenditures on this blog. You may ridicule or shame me if they seem excessive. I may also note pantry-cheating, but I don't plan to "pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin" (Matthew 23.23). I figure that if I use January's flour in March, I'll probably be using March's flour in May, and it will all even out.

And I'm planning to forget the whole experiment for a week in March when we have a family reunion and celebrate our anniversary.

It won't be so bad, I tell myself. As I discovered last week, my normal food budget is depressingly close to my Lenten budget anyway; at least it was this month as I've been thinking about the Lenten Experiment. A few more beans, a little less wine, an absence of pignoli and almond butter--this is not suffering.

Last month I offered 10 reasons to try the $6/day food experiment. In rereading them, I'd like to take issue with #8: "You would like to show solidarity with the poor." I'm all for showing solidarity with the poor, but this experiment is not going to do it. "If you really want to know how it feels to be poor," said a friend of mine as we ate at a lovely Indian restaurant on Sunday, "first come clean my house for $2/hour, then clean three or four other houses, and then go home and try to cook a meal for your family for less than $12."

If I were poor, I wouldn't have time to cook meals from scratch, compare prices in different stores, clip coupons, collect recipes, or beg friends (that would be you) to give me ideas for thrifty meals.

If I were poor, another friend pointed out, there probably wouldn't be an Aldi's or a Trader Joe's in my neighborhood, let alone within walking distance. There might not even be a major grocery store nearby. I'd probably have to shop at convenience stores and small neighborhood shops, which often cost more than the chains and have much less variety to choose from.

If I were poor and uneducated, I might not realize what foods I need or what foods I should avoid. I might not be skilled at budgeting, and I wouldn't have a PC and Excel to help me keep track of expenses.

If I were poor, I probably wouldn't have all of the following: a large refrigerator with plenty of freezer space, a gas stove, a microwave oven, a dishwasher, a slow cooker, plenty of cupboards, and lots of pots and pans to make food storage and preparation easy. Nor would I have attractive plates, glasses, flatware, and tablecloths to make even the simplest fare seem like a feast.

Most of all, if I were poor, this would be no experiment. Cheap eats would be my life. No week off in March. No wine when friends gather (unless, of course, I took my daughter's suggestion and traded groceries for Mad Dog 20/20). No well-stocked pantry. No business lunches. No promise of release on Easter Sunday.

Eating cheaply for a few weeks will be a fine discipline. It will not be a sacrifice. If you join us for Lent or just for a week, let me know how it goes.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The frugal couple considers wine, part 4

Yesterday I went to Binny's and picked up the 2006 Vinos Sin Ley M4 Bullas that Roger recommended. Usual price, $11.99 to $15.99. Binny's sale price: $5.99. Not a beginner's wine--one blogger describes it as "a dark, bitter, catalonian anarchist"--but one with enough guts to stand up to red meat yet enough complexity to be enjoyed on its own.

Moral: It is possible to get a good house wine for $5.99 or less if you--or your friends--know where to find the bargains.

If, however, you are looking for something in the $6.99 to $9.99 range, here are a few suggestions from Estelle, LeAnn, Ron, and me. Note: Wine prices can vary by several dollars from store to store, and you may have to try several sources to find the under-$10 price. We're from the Chicago suburbs, but since these stores are chains, I'm assuming you can find similar deals just about everywhere in the U.S.

Clos du Bois Chardonnay, Costco
Clean Slate Riesling, Binny's, Sam's Wines
Monkey Bay Sauvignon Blanc, Binny's (now on sale for $8.99)

Folie à Deux "Menage à Trois" blend, SavWay, Binny's, Target
Columbia Crest Grand Estates Cabernet Sauvignon, Binny's (now on sale for $7.99)
Rex Goliath Cabernet Sauvignon, Binny's, Sam's Wines
Alamos Malbec, Fresh Market, Binny's, Sam's Wines
Tin Roof Merlot, Whole Foods, Sam's Wines
Bogle Petite Syrah, Costco, Fresh Market
Gnarly Head Zinfandel, Binny's, Sam's Wines

For the Wall Street Journal's wine writers, a budget wine's price ranges from $10 to $16, more or less. (Wall Street, it will be remembered, is in New York, where only 13.9% of metro area housing is affordable--up from 5.1% two years ago. Perhaps we define "budget" differently in Chicago.) If you're looking for wines in that price range, check out "Buying Wine on a Dime" by David Kesmodel, along with "Budget Wines," an annotated list of 25 under-$16 wines recommended by five experts.

The garage door just went up, and the dogs ran downstairs. Sounds like it's time to stop typing and start tasting.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Goody Two Shoes makes a troubling discovery

Being good is so depressing.

Several years ago my cardiologist, having determined that my heart is poorly constructed, told me,
The good news is, you don't smoke, so the situation isn't as bad as it could be.

The bad news is, you don't smoke, so there's nothing you can stop doing to make the situation better.

I felt like I feel when I read articles telling me I can look years younger! stop being tired! adequately fund my retirement!

Hey, I'm doing all the things they recommend and I still have baggy skin and graying hairs, still feel pooped by mid-afternoon, and still am convinced I'm going to spend my retirement selling apples on the street corner (as are you, my friends--so perhaps we can find a way to make it entertaining).

This all leads up to today's discovery about the Lenten Experiment.

As I mentioned in a previous post, grocery shopping has become an occasion of existential angst: today I can buy these blackberries, but next week they will be a luxury. And that quart of peppermint ice cream from Oberweis... such hedonistic extravagance will have to go underground until Easter.

On the other hand, after six frugal weeks I will perhaps be better equipped to deal with our reduced household budget.

With just a week until D (for Deprivation) Day, I decided I needed to know exactly how much I'm spending on food now. If I'm going to be frugal, I thought, I might as well define my goals. Will I need to cut expenses in half? By one-third? Maybe by only 10 percent?

I still have receipts for everything I've purchased during the last four weeks, so I hauled them out and totaled up food, wine, and restaurant expenses. According to the USDA's Thrifty Plan, we should be able to eat adequately for $342.60 a month. According to my simplified approach of $6/day per adult, we'd have had $336 to spend for that four-week period.

So what did we actually spend on food eaten at home? Drumroll . . . $336.14.

Doggone it, we're already eating on a food-stamp budget.
The good news is, it looks like we'll be enjoying Lent more than I thought possible.

The bad news is, now how are we going to save more money?

Well, we can cut back on wine. I didn't include that in my food total, and I think I won't tell you how much we spent. But some of it was for hostess gifts, and some of it was for Valentine's Day (we ate at home).

And we can cut back on meals out, which I also totaled separately . . . but there were only two.

And really, we can shop more carefully in other areas too--at least I hope we can--because I'd like to have guests more often, eat heartily and well, and still stay within the budget.

Anyone up for a potluck?

P.S. This just isn't possible. I think it's a case of the observer effect. All month I've been thinking about the Lenten Experiment, so I've been terribly aware of food prices. OK, so I've been good for four weeks. Does this mean I have only two weeks to go?

Monday, February 16, 2009

The frugal couple considers wine, part 3

I asked some of my oenophilic friends to suggest drinkable wines that cost $5.99 or less. One friend responded, "I don't think you can get wine for $5.99 that you would really enjoy drinking. I'm not being snobbish, it's just that things have gotten so expensive that my favorite cheap wines now cost real money."

Another friend referred me to this depressing little article, now three years old, about cheap wines from Trader Joe's, in which the author spent $43.23 on 12 bottles of wines and invited 12 friends to a tasting party. Apart from "the evening's surprise, ... Portugal's sparkling-white Espiral ($3.99)"--"one sip of the soft, subtle effervescence was enough to convert a soda- and carbonation-hating panelist"--most wines drew dismal if hilarious comments. For example,
Bull's Blood, aka Hungary's Egri Bikaver ($3.99). Dark red, with a peppery, wet-skunk finish, the Bull's Blood smells like the crabapple tree in grandma's backyard, one panelist offered. Others were less charitable. Real bull's blood is probably nicer. This is like bull's blood boiled with piss and vinegar.
I refuse to be intimidated. If a meal without wine is like a day without sunshine, most of us would have to slog through a lot of foggy, gloomy meals if we refused to buy cheap wine. I'm looking for enjoyable house wines, not nectar of the gods. I like the attitude of Ron from Illinois: "I must admit you are challenging my wine snobbery by asking for recommendations under $6. But I can do this."

Yes we can!

I'll post some recommendations today, and more as they come in. Please let me know your favorites, and I'll post them too.

1. "Think Spain," advises Dennis from Maryland. Roger from Illinois suggests going to Binny's web site and looking for Vinos Sin Ley, especially M4 Bullas ($5.99). According to Robert Parker's Wine Advocate, "The name Vinos Sin-Ley means 'wines without laws.' ... These cuvees are produced by an array of serious winemakers who wish to have their own personal projects apart from those of their employers and to not be bound by the various D.O. regulations." Roger adds, "This Spanish label has not been around very long but has produced many inexpensive--$6 - $12--bottles that are very tasty and often highly rated. The best values are often snatched up quickly and more likely to be found on the vendor's web site. Worth seeking."

2. "Try Caputo's," says Ken from Illinois. Billing itself as a cheese market, it also carries an interesting range of imported groceries, fresh baked goods, and wines at astounding prices. He swears he found a Fattoria Poggiopiano Chianti Classico 2001, which usually sells for $15.99 or more, for only $4.99 or $5.99, as well as a Rosade Furlane Colli Orientali del Friuli Pinot Grigio, hard to find in the U.S. at any price but running about £10 in the U.K., for perhaps a dollar more. "Caputo's is home to several more superbly priced, decent drinks, including a reasonable Dolcetto and a Rosso di Toscana," Ken writes.

3. Go for reliable cheap labels, many friends suggest. Some recommendations:
  • Trader Joe's Charles Schwab Chardonnay, $2.99 ("has won some decent awards")
  • Trader Joe's French Market Sauvignon Blanc, $4.99 ("slightly citrussy")
  • Trader Joe's Honey Moon Viognier, $5.99 ("goes well with Asian food")
  • Napa River Chardonnay, $5.99 ("quite good")
  • Jacob's Creek Chardonnay, $5.99 if you know where to look
  • Yellow Tail varietals, $4.99 - $5.99 ("uniformly drinkable")
4. Drink more whites. At the grocery store as in restaurants, white wines often cost less than reds for comparable quality. But if you want reds, you can always...

5. Watch for bargains... Trader Joe claims not to have sales, but they occasionally buy a winery's last few cases and sell the bottles for amazing prices. Or they promote something quirky like Oreana's Question Mark (pictured above), a spicy blend of syrah and cabernet sauvignon that belies its $5.99 price tag.

6. ... especially online. This morning I ordered six bottles of Roger's recommended Vinos Sin Ley M4 Bullas from Binny's website. It should be available for pickup tomorrow, no shipping charge. Binny's posts weekly specials, and this week one of our favorites, Gnarly Head Zinfandel, is $7.99 instead of the usual $8.99. Sam's Wine is featuring wines under $10.

7. Get a handsome carafe, like this one from Crate & Barrel ($19.95). Serve your favorite cheap house wine along with your favorite comfort food (pasta! stew! pizza!), and enjoy.

De gustibus non est disputandum.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The frugal couple considers wine, part 2

So, I'm asking myself, can I do the Lenten Experiment and still buy wine?
  • Maybe, since really poor people--even in America, even with food stamps--can't afford wine, I shouldn't buy any either.
  • Maybe I should allow myself to buy some wine if I can manage to include it in the $6/day per person food budget (and still eat a balanced diet, of course).
  • Maybe this experiment is about food, not wine--it's not about housing or clothing or medical care either, and I'm not cutting back on any of those--and I should buy wine if I feel like it.
A British friend commented, "At least we with more disposable income can buy fairly traded wine to give a better deal for the growers." A great idea, especially in Europe where a selection of such wines has been available in many supermarkets for at least five years.

It's considerably harder to do in the U.S., though the headline of a recent story in the Boston Herald proclaimed: Fair Trade Wine Now Available in US Stores. The stores in question are Whole Foods, Publix, Target, and Sam's Clubs, and each chain is said to carry one or two fair-trade wines. When I searched the wine racks at the local Whole Foods this afternoon, however, I didn't find any.

Why does wine need to be fairly traded, Mr Neff asked. Aren't California growers treating their staff kindly?

Probably "fair trade" doesn't apply to domestic wines: the label is usually applied to wines coming from South Africa, Chile, and Argentina. According to the Boston Herald article,
A Fair Trade Certified product means TransFair has determined that farmers got fair prices, workers got decent wages and the product was produced in an environmentally responsible manner.

Importers and retailers pay a premium - the wine premium is 10 cents per bottle - that is earmarked for community improvement, such as a new water system or educational scholarships.

Fair trade wine generally costs between $10 and $12 a bottle, a bit steep for the thrifty food plan. But noble.

I'm thinking I'll probably buy some wine during Lent, maybe for Sundays or for when we have guests. Potential guests, be warned: it will be inexpensive. I hope you'll enjoy it anyway. I've polled some knowledgeable friends and now have a short list of pretty good wines for $5.99 or less. I'll post the list soon. I'd welcome your recommendations!

Friday, February 13, 2009

The frugal couple considers wine, part 1

Ash Wednesday--the day we're going to start our Lenten Experiment of eating on a food-stamp budget--is less than two weeks away, and every trip to a grocery store has become a consciousness-raising experience.

If I really had only $12 a day to spend on food for two adults, would I have spent $3.49 on four small avocados? $2.99 for a box of blackberries? $2.49 for a bag of wild arugula? $3.49 for two organic zucchini?

Well, maybe. It would probably depend on what else was on the menu. The large russet potato for $1.17 wasn't bad. The $0.30 sweet potato was a steal. The pound of dried lentils cost only $1.15, and it lasted much longer than I expected--or even wanted.

Wine, however--even cheap(ish) wine--suddenly looks like a major budgetary commitment. A bottle of wine contains about five servings, so let's say our frugal couple is following AMA guidelines and making a bottle last two days. Total food budget for two people for two days: $24. Cost of La Loggia Barbera d'Alba at Trader Joe's (quite nice), $6.99: 29% of food budget. Oh dear.

Food stamps can't be used for alcohol, of course, so our frugal couple would have to buy wine out of the rest of their income. So let's see how much income they'd be able to spend if they qualified for the full food-stamp benefit in Illinois--which, by the way, is only $323 a month, or $11 a day, not the generous $12 a day we're allowing for this experiment (because the USDA thinks the frugal couple actually need more than $323 a month to eat healthfully).

Using this calculator, I described the pair as elderly (which, according to the government, means 60 or older--never mind that this hypothetical couple is still too young for Medicare), with a monthly rent of $500, taxes and insurance of $100, and medical expenses of $50.

In order to receive the full $323 benefit, the most our frugal couple can earn is $698 a month. Before taxes.

Do the math: after the listed expenses, the frugal couple has $48 to spend on transportation, clothing, utilities not included in the rent, telephone, household furnishings, supplementary food...

Looks like there's no three-buck Chuck for them. Not even on Valentine's Day.

I'm glad it isn't Ash Wednesday yet for us. I'm sad to think that it's always Ash Wednesday for so many people.
World Hunger Map (U.N. World Food Programme)
Hunger in the United States (Bread for the World)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Old dogs rule

I am thrilled that America's top dog is old.

Stump, the Sussex spaniel pictured at left, is 10 years old--the oldest dog ever to win Best in Show in the 133-year history of the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club dog show.

Stump, who won quite a few titles in his youth, retired five years ago after a serious illness. Last week his handler got a sudden inspiration and registered him for Westminster. The Associated Press story in today's Boston Herald begins:
Imagine Michael Jordan coming back to make one more jumper. Or John Elway returning to toss a final TD pass. Or Nolan Ryan reappearing to throw a farewell fastball.

That’s what happened in the dog show world.

Depending on who's counting, a 10-year-old dog could be anywhere between 50 and 70 in human years. According to this website, which takes a dog's size into consideration, Stump would be about 60.

Stump's story brings to mind something Auguste Renoir said about his fellow artist Edgar Degas:

If Degas had died at fifty, he would have been remembered as an excellent painter, no more. It is after his fiftieth year that his work broadens out and that he really becomes Degas.

My own old dogs, however, have their own favorite quotations:
Let sleeping dogs lie
They also serve who only stand and wait.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Doubt: what happened in the rectory

I think I know what happened behind the scenes in Doubt.

I know, I know. It's not supposed to matter: this is a film about doubt, for Pete's sake. It "isn’t about certainty, but ambiguity, that no man’s land between right and wrong, black and white" (Manohla Dargis, the New York Times); it's "not primarily a movie about a hot button topic but rather ... a comment on the potential futility in trying to impose moral clarity and unambiguous order on the murk of human motives and behavior" (Ray Greene,

Still, most of us don't leave the cinema debating the limits of moral clarity. We want to know what really happened in the rectory, and we wonder what Sister Aloysius doubted in the last scene. And because there seems to be no way of finding out, some of us feel just a tiny bit cheated. Richard Alleva, writing in Commonweal magazine, comments:
Ambiguity in drama and literature has had good press throughout the last century, and rightly so. If a novel, play, or movie is to reflect the depth and multifariousness of life, it’s bound to introduce uncertainties into plot and characterizations. But there is ambiguity and then there is ambiguity. There is the sort that points toward the underlying mysteries of existence, and there is the kind that results from the writer withholding basic information.

... You won’t be able to make up your mind about the priest, but that is simply because Shanley withholds decisive information about him, not because of richly layered characterization. What transpired in the rectory remains unseen and unknown.... The movie aims to instill doubt in the viewer and succeeds in doing so. But is Doubt’s doubt a truly disturbing emotion communicated by a probing work of art, or is it just the uncertainty we have to feel whenever we don’t have the facts of a case?

I agree with critics who liked the film because it shines a light on "the murk of human motives and behavior." I appreciate that it is not a mystery but a parable (the stage version is subtitled "A Parable"), and like all parables it reverses our expectations and leaves us with more questions than answers. Still, lover of whodunits that I am, I'm not satisfied to leave it undecided. Like Richard Alleva, I want to know what happened.

And now I think I do.

Warning: If you haven't seen Doubt yet, you'd better stop reading right now. You can always come back to this page later.

What Father did

Did Father Flynn molest Donald, or did he merely offer the boy friendship and protection? Throughout the first half of the film, we assume Donald is isolated because he is the first African-American student in this Irish-Italian school. Then we learn from his mother that the boy has suffered in school and at home because he is gay ("that way" is how she describes his orientation).

The filmmaker seems to be telling us that Father Flynn is also gay. There are the references to his impeccably groomed long fingernails, the pressed flowers in his missal, his joke about his not getting any girls to dance with him. I think Flynn looks at Donald and sees his younger, hurting self. I think he loves the boy and wants to protect him.

What goes on in the rectory? Maybe Flynn abused Donald. It's an easy conclusion to jump to, given the thousands of cases of priestly pedophilia uncovered over the last 50 years. But do Donald's reactions seem consistent with abuse? Does Donald's mother think the priest is harming her son? Would Father Flynn embrace the boy openly right after being accused of molesting him? Is Sister James's faith in Father Flynn just another sign of her naïveté? And why is there no evidence whatsoever that abuse has occurred?

Consider this possible alternate scenario: Flynn hears the boy's confession, whether sacramentally or casually made. He probably reassures Donald that it's OK to be gay. Maybe he encourages him in his stated wish to become a priest. He may even tell Donald that he himself is gay, promising to be there when he needs him.

Whatever happened between them, Donald has entrusted the priest with what, to this set of classmates, is still his secret. And Flynn is not about to betray Donald by telling Sister Aloysius what the boy said.

Once Sister goes on the warpath, Father Flynn is afraid. Not because she's right about his relationship with Donald, but because he doesn't want to lose his job yet another time. After all, there's some reason he didn't stay long at his previous parish assignments. Maybe his gay orientation became known. Maybe he was more outspoken about changes needed in the Church than his superiors wanted him to be. Maybe he knows that Roman hierarchs seem unable to distinguish between homosexuality and pedophilia and fears that Sister's charges will mean the end of, not only his job, but his vocation.

Flynn is afraid. He has secrets. But this does not mean he is guilty as charged.

Why Sister doubts

Viewers are puzzled not only about the priest's actions but also about Sister Aloysius's doubts. Why does this strong-willed woman suddenly confess to doubting? What are her doubts about?

Some think she is doubting Father Flynn's guilt. If so, this is a sudden, inexplicable shift that occurs mid-paragraph as she talks with Sister James, and there's no artistic or psychological reason for it.

Some think she is doubting God. Maybe, but God plays a very minor role in this drama.

I think the script is clear: from start to finish, Sister is utterly certain of the priest's guilt. She is simply not given to existential angst. What Sister doubts is not his guilt but the Church--which, in Roman Catholic terms, means the hierarchy.

Remember when she chides Sister James for tackling problems on her own when she should be referring them to the principal? Everyone reports to someone higher, she explains. The system is there; use it.

But by the end of the film, Sister Aloysius knows that the system is broken. She can't go to Father with her problems: he is the problem, or so she believes. She won't talk with the priest in his former parish, because she doesn't trust him to tell the truth. She eventually does go to Flynn's boss, the monsignor, but he predictably protects the priest. And when the bishop eventually moves Father Flynn to a different position, it is to a larger parish that also has a school.

Enough doubt to go around

Doubt was set in the last two months of 1964. Three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi that year. China detonated its first atomic bomb. The Vietnam war was escalating. Massive protests broke out at U.C. Berkeley. Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison for opposing Apartheid. Bob Dylan's protest songs were gaining a large audience. And the second Vatican council was in full swing, turning the Catholic church into something its older members barely recognized. Director John Patrick Shanley could not have chosen a more appropriate time for his parable.

I wish Meryl Streep, who is one of my favorite actors, had chosen to play Sister Aloysius with more restraint. Perhaps I'm willing to exonerate Father Flynn simply because Philip Seymour Hoffman played him with such subtlety and compassion. Sister A, by contrast, was a laughable caricature, when she could have been portrayed as a strong woman fighting for justice. This is a woman who, with only an inadequate, poorly trained staff, ran an inner-city elementary school whose graduates went on to good high schools. This is a woman who had the guts to stand up to the establishment on behalf of a gay black student. This is a woman who suspected child abuse decades before it would become the cause célèbre of journalists and lawyers.

Yes, I think she was mistaken. But she wasn't crazy.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Happiness: A History

In my small collection of happiness books, two have long been personal favorites: The Pursuit of Happiness by David G. Myers (1993) for its lucid explanations, and Adventures in Contentment by David Grayson (1916) for its soothing evocations.

Now I am adding a third title to my pantheon: Happiness: A History by Darrin M. McMahon, "a professor of history at Florida State University and a frequent contributor to publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Daedalus."

Selected by the New York Times as one of the 100 notable books of 2006, Happiness is an engaging survey of Western philosophy from Herodotus to today's bioethicists. To learn more about the book, you can't do better than Jim Holt's excellent review. Sample its opening lines:
The history of the idea of happiness can be neatly summarized in a series of bumper sticker equations: Happiness= Luck (Homeric), Happiness=Virtue (classical), Happiness=Heaven (medieval), Happiness=Pleasure (Enlightenment) and Happiness=A Warm Puppy (contemporary). Does that look like progress? Darrin McMahon doesn't think so.
A better woman than I might sit down and read Happiness straight through. Instead, I'm enjoying it in small bites each morning, reading 10 pages or so from one subhead to the next. A couple of days ago I learned that the word fun is "a relative novelty, introduced in English only in the late seventeeth century as a variation of the Middle English fon, meaning jester or fool" (199).

In the eighteenth century a truly radical philosophy developed, one that Lively Dust finds charming:
To dance, to sing, to enjoy our food, to revel in our bodies and the company of others--in short, to delight in a world of our own making--was not to defy God's will but to live as nature had intended. This was our earthly purpose.
Warm puppies are also pleasant.