Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Mission, should I choose to accept it...

It's been a while since I've posted to this blog, but I have a good excuse! I have a two-month-old who LOVES his mommy and can't seem to be around me enough. It's flattering, if exhausting, but I miss writing. Hopefully, within the next few months, we'll get onto some kind of nap schedule that allows me to do it some more. Baby steps. Literally.

I'm writing this because I want some accountability to do something that's way out of my comfort zone. First of all, I'm sad to say that I haven't seen "Grandpa" in months, and I hope hope hope that means he got into a long-term shelter or even that he was able to get off of the streets and into a permanent living situation.

The other day, I thought fondly and sadly of him when I saw another (unfamiliar) older guy walking around with his face pretty beat up: puffy (new) black eye with cuts and bruises, forehead bruise, face scratched up. I made it a point to make eye contact and say, "Hi." I wonder what caused the fight, and if it were reciprocal.

We love living near the UT campus and downtown, and homelessness and "feral people" are things we see every day. Still, we have a roof and doors and we are so far removed from it.

There is a gentleman who we've seen ever since we lived here, and he looks like a healthy and reasonably mentally sound person. I don't know where he sleeps, but he spends several hours of each day in the same place: a parking garage stairwell. It's right at the corner of Martin Luther King and Nueces, in the building that houses a dry cleaner and a Subway. It's where we climbed to the roof to watch fireworks last New Year's Eve.

But he doesn't just while away the hours staring off into space or talking to his invisible dog. No. This guy... crochets. He is always crocheting when I see him sitting there. The last time I saw him, it was a small white square using very fine yarn. I've seen him do longer pieces with bulkier stuff. I've never seen something as recognizable as, say, a sweater or anything... and here is where I'm challenging myself:

I want to ask him what he's making. I want to engage him. He is my neighbor. I see him at least twice a week, which is a lot more often than I see the people who live next door (which is about 5 times this whole year, although on Halloween the girl did offer to help me with the baby if I ever needed it... bless her).

As I was thinking about this, and in the middle of writing this blog post, yesterday, I saw him walking down our sidewalk, in front of our house. I was nursing at the time and while I don't mind nursing in the public that is our front porch, it's not the time I want to initially introduce myself to a potential friend. Besides, he seemed to be on his way somewhere. He has his backpack, and he has a crafting bag. I've seen him up Guadalupe a mile or so, too. But he's always around. And I want to know his story.

Maybe it's stupid that I have to put it out here and make it a "thing." My introvert husband just naturally connects with people. I wish that were the case with me, but it's not. So I'm asking you: In early 2015, ask me if I've talked with this gentleman. I hope I can tell you something more about him.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Review: Citrus Lane, Month 3

I can't believe we're already 1/4 of the way through our year-long Citrus Lane subscription! And this month, we actually have a baby go to with the box! So here's what we received this month...

Mal yawns, only because he can't see this awesome stuff. (Yes, I know: "Do not use on elevated surface." I was standing there the whole time.)

First, there is a soft book called "Where I Live." Question: Why do soft books have crunchy paper in them now? Do babies not like turning quiet soft pages? Anyhoo, I do like the teether fish that goes into the pond with his baby. It's really cute. I think Mal will enjoy this when he's a little more fine-motor-developed.

A bell rattle! Only for use on special occasions or to bribe the kid to do something.

Doughnut rattle. Makes actual rattle noises. James tried it this morning and said it doesn't taste great. Adorable, though!

Rash ointment, put in a drawstring bag so... we'd feel better about getting two tablespoon-sized samples? Whatever.

Also, the box had these No-Shave November punch-outs on it... but they're pink, so it also covers breast cancer awareness. Umm. Again. Whatever. You're supposed to post pictures of your kids sporting the mustaches. And if you buy a gift subscription for a friend, Citrus Lane will donate $20 to breast cancer research. I don't know that I love any of my friends that much. :) I'd just write a check and make the donation myself.

To review... this is what came in (and on) the box this time. I'm again a lot more pleased with this stuff than I was the first month's box. Can't wait until next time!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Review: Citrus Lane, Month 2

Well, this is awkward. I'm on my second month of Citrus Lane and still no baby. Oh well! It's always fun getting packages in the mail.

This month, the offerings were financially superior to the ones last month. One by one, we have...

The first thing is this long-sleeved body suit from the Tea Collection. This alone is "worth" (meaning, on the website they charge) more than the $17 I paid for the box. Of course, this one is probably a clearance item, but it's still useful. It also includes a coupon for $25 off, but I'm not too likely to use it, since it's $25 off of a $50 sale, which would be about two onesies. Since we have more clothes than we know what to do with, the coupon is going to expire before I'd actually need anything... So if anyone needs anything, message me and I'll send you the coupon!

Dish soap and a coupon. Mehh, but I'll use it, of course. Better than a kick in the butt!

One full ounce of zinc oxide diaper ointment! And, guess what? Another coupon! I guess that's the point. Give me a taste so I'll buy some more of their stuff. It looks like it's worth about $4 per ounce.

This Hape rainbow "rattle" retails for about $13, and it's made of wood, string, and painted with nontoxic paint. James got a little caught up in playing with it this afternoon. He might not share with the baby.

So... all together, this month's haul had both a retail value and a value perceived to me to be more than $17. Averaging it with last month's box, I'd say I'm slightly ahead of the game so far.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Clearview Sudbury School

In reading some articles about "unschooling," I came across blog posts on Psychology Today's website written by Peter Gray. Through those, I came upon a list of "alternative" schools in the Austin area, and was specifically drawn to the Clearview Sudbury School, a democratic school just a few miles away.

I checked out Dr. Gray's book "Free to Learn" from the library, and James read some of it before I had to turn it back in. By the time I was finished, I was sold on the Sudbury School model, and James was extremely interested. For this reason, even though my 12-year-old (almost 13) is not interested in going to school, James and I attended an open house/information session at the school a couple of weekends ago.

Alternative Education in Action from Clearview Sudbury on Vimeo.

We really liked the campus, and absolutely adore the learning model. The way I see it, it is everything we remember loving about school (recess, lunch, hanging out with friends) and none of the bull.

For instance: When I was in high school, the last semester of my senior year, it was compulsory for me to take physical education. Well, it was 1990 and my hair (especially the bangs) took at least an hour to dry and fix after a shower, so I wasn't about get icky enough to need to clean up because I had about 12 minutes to change and get to my next class when we were finished. Instead, I'd either stand on the volleyball court and do nothing or I'd just sit on the bleachers. At some point, it hit me that I was wasting my time, and I asked the coach permission to go to the lab and work on my computer science project. She told me that if I didn't stay for class, I'd get an incomplete grade. So my choices were: Show up, don't participate, waste an hour, and get an A; or do something productive that I wanted to do and end up with a C as a final PE grade (and who gets a C in PE? Answer: I did).

The Sudbury model is based on the idea that given the time and resources and left to their own devices, students (in this case, particularly, kids) will learn what they need to know. Yes, including how to read and how to math and all of those things that are necessary to live a functional life in our society.

There is a lot of information to be gleaned on the Sudbury Valley School's YouTube channel, including interviews with graduates and some insight into what goes on in the school on a daily basis. The channel is for the original Sudbury school, but the methods are pretty uniform across the board.

The schools are democratic, meaning that every attendee and staff member gets exactly one vote on items concerning the school, such as which rules to implement, and how to spend money, and which staff to keep on board for the next school year (that's right; each staff is hired for one year and has to be approved by a majority of votes to be kept on).

There are no compulsory studies, though staff will facilitate and/or arrange for classes based on student request and interest. What is mandatory, however, is participation in the daily (as needed, which is typically every day) Judicial Committee meeting. This is where complaints and issues are addressed and consequences are decided upon by the entirety of the school. If an older student wanted to use the kitchen but a younger student hadn't cleaned up his/her mess and did not respond to the older student's request to clean it, then they both show up to present their sides of the matter and the committee hands down a decision.

There is also a weekly school meeting which can be attended by all students and staff that decides things like what insurance to buy, where to appropriate funds, and more intense matters referred by the Judicial Committee (like whether or not to suspend a student).

The students are not separated by age. They're not separated at all, except as they choose. Unless requested by the student, they're never formally evaluated. In other words, there's no comparison to what is considered normative for, say, all 12-year-olds. They're not expected to learn/perform for tests/teachers. They're expected to be responsible for themselves, to make decisions, and to live with the ramifications of those decisions.

After the tour, we were given some paperwork and a wonderful little book called "Like Water" by Mark McCaig. The book is a collection of stories, poems, and essays about Fairhaven, a Sudbury model school in Maryland.

My favorite handout we received was this delightful comparison of the Sudbury model to Montessori, Waldorf, unschooling, etc: "Okay, so you're sort of like..."  One of the contrasts to homeschooling that it contained really struck me: "Children and parents have complex relationships and interdependencies which make it harder for children to discover true independence within the family. In the environment of a Sudbury school, children face direct personal responsibility for their actions, without the emotional baggage that family-based accountability can sometimes carry. In addition, children are more able to develop some important social skills in a democratic school — the ability to tolerate diversity of opinion, to speak out against inappropriate behavior, and to develop and carry out group projects, for example."

My favorite chapter from the book was a stream-of-consciousness piece celebrating ten years of the Fairhaven school, and containing the longest and most beautiful run-on sentences I've ever read, reproduced entirely here:

"When the school's neighbor who owns the soybean field across the stream told me a nudist colony used to occupy this hilltop campus, I thought, of course it did. Freedom runs deep here at Fairhaven -- nowadays people can go barefoot, but not naked; people can talk about sex and drugs and rock and roll, but not do them; well, except for the rock and roll, and I'm cool with that, just ask Robert, or Matt, but some days I feel like Uncle Billy in 'It's a Wonderful Life,' and I've dropped 8 grand in mean old Mr. Potter's lap and he's just waiting for the bank to shut us down, then five o'clock rolls around and we're still here, and little Sunshine and I have just buried her dragonfly after trying to revive it in the sun, and she's asked it to say hello to her cat Lucky, in heaven, and aside from the dragonfly, at day's end nobody's hurt - well, not too bad - and nobody's sued us, and they all do learn to read, and much more, actually, our students are ethical, bright, shining gifts to the world, just talk to them, because now they're coming back to visit as grown-ups, with shoes on their feet, though they might kick them off when they're here, and, like I said, it's five o'clock and my colleagues and I are dancing around the office like George Bailey and Uncle Billy after the bank run and we're holding up our two dollar bills and kissing them cause we're still open, dammit, and the next morning we'll be here and the morning after that and the morning after that and now I'm unlocking the door and it hits me that it's been ten years of dollar bill dances and pristine openings just like the very first morning, ten years of holding miracle water in our hands, water that never disappears, cool water that's clear but if you drink you taste the clay and the greensand, you taste the salt and maybe just the slightest hint, I swear to you, of chocolate.
"So I'm leaning on a porch rail explaining to Ricky that only dictators erect solid gold statues to themselves, therefore, no, I won't be supporting his motion at School Meeting, when I smell the sugar cookies baking and two girls run by saying the Kitchen Corp's taking IOUs and lord almighty what's that sound? It's the echo of billions of footsteps taken in liberty, and I know it's over a billion because Diana has counted hers today and she pokes her head out from the back seat of the red coupe on the way home and says one thousand, five hundred sixty-seven, and I know we'll extrapolate Monday. That's when I decide, Sunshine, that the ghost of Lucky the cat must sometimes leave heaven to join the ghosts of nudists prowling this very campus, that Lucky must rub up against our legs, keeping us open these ten years, and it has never mattered what they do, just that they do it, from Alex's juggling to Chloe's drumming, and you've never seen people who stand so straight up, so true, as these students, never perfect, always perfectly who they are, and that, my friends, is what I'm talking about, this is what we're celebrating, this little haven of big ideas, this is what I appreciate, all of you who've trusted us, who have trusted your children, all you students who have believed in yourselves, you barefooters who will soon commence your tenth season of chasing windblown leaves, yellow and red, who create for me all these days of wide-eyed amazement, and, yes, rock and roll, who spark these incandescent mornings, you brave pioneers who have given me this daily buzz of ten thousand dragonfly moments."

Who wouldn't want that? I mean, I'd love it for me, but since I'm not the demographic, I'd adore it for my daughter.

Here in Austin, the Clearview campus is actually at a church, and located strategically next to a park. It is also across the (very busy) street from Mueller Park and everything new that's being built over there, like the Thinkery (children's museum), a food trailer park, and a bunch of shops. Parents can elect to permit their kids closed campus, extended campus (which includes the parking lot and the adjacent park) or open campus permissions. One of the staff said that lots of students use the open campus option to walk to Starbucks during the day.

In fact, the house that James and I looked at (the one that's still pre-market, marked below with a green oval) is just as convenient to the campus as Mueller.

If you're ready for more information, there are four upcoming opportunities to attend informational meetings; two this month, and two in October. Also, you can contact the school to schedule a visitation day. More is available on their website (click below).

Even if it turns out that my daughter never wants to attend school here, I'm pretty sure we'll end up enrolling the soon-to-arrive kidlet as soon as that's an option. I'm so glad I stumbled upon this information and so grateful to know such a place exists. Check it out!

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Denizens

Wednesday night when I got home from buying groceries, it was about 8:30 and had just gotten dark. There was quite a bit of foot traffic on the street, and as I was making my second trip to haul bags from the rear of the van to the porch, a blind guy was walking past. He was on the street instead of the sidewalk (which is probably a good idea given how much the trees have grown over the sidewalks this summer) and called to me, asking if I could help him find Chick-fil-A.

I said, "Yes. You're almost there. See -- ehh, feel this curb on your right? It's about to end, and you just turn right there into the alley--"

"Just walk with me, can you? I'm blind."

Um. Okay. Sure.

James had come out to get some bags and I thought he saw me walk around the corner, but apparently he hadn't.

The guy both apologized for bugging me but kept up a very petulant manner, telling me that he was trying to find the School for the Blind and saying that since Chick-fil-A is "a Christian institution," he was hoping someone there could help him.

He tried to veer toward the restaurant through the Taco Cabana parking lot, but there are both curbs and a waist-high rail you have to climb over (or under, but he was more than 6 feet tall) to take that "short cut."

I told him it would be better to walk further down the alley before turning, and he complained, "How much further is it?"

"It's no further. It's just easier."

Meanwhile, I noticed that Carol, who had darted out the door when I'd left to go to the grocery store, was following me, meowing maybe angrily or worriedly about both how far I was walking away from the house and how far she was having to venture from the house.

"My cat's following us. Can you hear her?" I laughed.

"Are there people standing around outside?"

"Yes. The whole restaurant is outside. They don't have an indoor dining area."

"Are there any employees outside?"

I looked. There weren't. There are typically employees outside during the lunch rush, taking orders before the cars get to the official order speaker. I guess it goes faster that way, because it gives the kitchen more time to prepare the food, although it seems like it would have made more sense just to put the order speakers another 25-30 feet closer to the front of the building.

"But there are people out there?"


Finally we were close enough that I said, "You can just turn left here and walk up that ramp, and you'll be there." I was mildly concerned that he was going to insist I go further, but he didn't. He walked away without saying anything else.

On the way back to the house, I looked for Carol but she had disappeared. I remembered that James had had an encounter several months ago with a man who said he was looking for the School for the Blind. The man told James he could custom-build shoes and asked James' shoe size, promising to craft him a pair of super comfy shoes to bring him later. James ended up driving him somewhere, and don't worry: that's not something I, as a woman, would likely do, especially when it's dark outside and I've already been fantasizing about visiting the little girl's room for like 20 minutes.

Anyway, I was thinking about the encounters we've had here with locals, both transient and more permanent. When you read heart-warming stories about people's interactions with the homeless or orphans or the emotionally needy, they usually have a story arc or some point. Our experience with the interesting assortment of characters with whom we've come into contact here tend to be fleeting. There are only three or four people we see on a regular basis.

The first is "Grandpa," who lives in the crawl space of an attorney's office a couple of blocks away. The first time I noticed him, I was waiting inside Taco Cabana for a 12-pack of their breakfast tacos (because I had a coupon, of course). He came into the restaurant, got a complimentary cup of water, and sat in the main dining room to watch television. He looked "normal," like my dad, except appeared a little scattered and the bottom of the leg of his pants looked like he might have stepped in a creek at some point. His face was also a little scabbed up.

I watched him drink the water, then go back and get more water, some lemon slices, some lime slices, and sugar, then go back to the table to make lemonade. At that point, I started praying he'd stay long enough for me to get my food. When I did, I went over to him and offered him one of each of the 4 varieties of breakfast tacos, which he gladly accepted.

Speaking of Taco Cabana, I have to give them a shout-out because I see homeless and transient people in there all of the time. The McDonald's across the street has signs posted on their windows about how dine-in visits are to be limited to half an hour, a policy I am certain is designed to keep these same people from camping out in the climate control. However, Taco Cabana doesn't seem bothered by them. I've seen people wander in with cups from other restaurants and fill them up at the soda fountain, in full view of the employees, and no one gives them a hard time. Right on, Taco Cabana!

Since first seeing him, we've taken Grandpa food at "his" house (on the weekends, he hangs out more on the porch), kept food on hand to give him when he makes his morning walk-by, and have seen him several places in the neighborhood. He tends to get up and walk from the attorney's office toward campus every morning, and I don't know what he does all day, but he has an apparent schedule.

There are times that he's very "present" and will engage in light conversation, and there are times when he seems very out of it... and those times, he usually looks rougher, too, like he was in some kind of altercation or fall.

Also, one time he called to me when I was riding my bike past the office and asked me to come over there. In that moment, I didn't feel moved to detour, so I told him I'd be back in an hour and would check on him then (after I'd had James join me). When I returned, he'd moved along to somewhere else, so I never found out what he wanted.

Another person we see a lot is this guy whose hair is longer than James' and is all matted into one thick, long dreadlock. I'm not sure where he usually crashes, but he seems very strong, fit, and one of those people who has probably actually selected homelessness as a lifestyle. He is always visiting with people, and doesn't usually have the affect of someone with the same mental disconnects that present themselves so often with...

Crazy Guy. This morning, I mentioned that I haven't seen (read: heard) him in several months. James said he has seen him recently, but that he likely moved on a bit and doesn't stay in the alley behind our house anymore. We used to start every morning with a chorus of him hollering swears out back, but that hasn't happened in some time. It's funny, because we'd also see him very frequently on the sidewalk out front or walking past the Taco Cabana, and when he is in his right mind, he's extremely personable. He will ask how you're doing, and always follows it up with a "Jesus loves you." He also seems mildly offended if you acknowledge that too passively. He insists, "He does. He really does. I'm serious. Think about it and believe it."

There is also a very thin older woman (not to be confused with "Grandma," the lady who walks with her walker past our house several times a week; she actually has a residence here in the area, but I love to see someone of her age and perceived impaired ability getting exercise so regularly) who seems to have some connection to our house. The first time she walked by when I was out on the porch, she'd turned to look at the house. I explained that we'd just moved in, and when she realized there was someone outside and talking to her, she mumbled nervously, apologized, and walked away.

One night, well after bedtime, we were awakened by someone on the porch. I couldn't see out very well, but James could and said it was her. I don't know whether she'd knocked on the door or had dropped something or had moved a chair, but she was sitting down until we looked out and started making noise, then she disappeared around the corner.

One morning just as I got out of the shower, there was a light knock on the front door. It took me a few moments to put on my bath robe and make it to the window, but at that point, she was walking away. She very often stops as she's walking by, and looks at the house, and in the windows, as though she knows someone here or is looking for something.

We have been told by people who have been in the area a long time that this house, especially the giant front porch, was used regularly by homeless people in the months that it was vacant. Maybe this was "her" house just like the attorney's office is Grandpa's house.

Besides those "regulars," we occasionally have the chance to talk to people who are wandering by and just seem to need an ear.

Once, I came home from church on Sunday, and James was siting out on the front steps talking to a man who, during the conversation, pulled out a small notebook with schematics for some kind of deep-space propulsion system he'd designed. He said he was trying to make his way to Boston College to meet with a professor there to show him the plans. He explained how it would work, but that totally went over my head.

Another time, before I moved into the Nuthaus, James met a couple expecting a baby. Since I was getting ready to move out of the RV, he had me call them to see about maybe giving them the RV. After I met Kenneth and Vanessa (and her brother, and their dog) and spoke to them, it became clear that owning a $20,000 mobile home would probably have been more overwhelming to them than a blessing. They'd have to qualify for the rental space where I was parked, and he'd just started a job. Then if something happened that they couldn't pay rent, they'd have to move the RV or lose it. Then there's the insurance. We ended up referring them to Mobile Loaves and Fishes, since they know what they're doing, and I think MLF referred them to LifeWorks, which specializes in helping young families.

Then there was the morning when I was getting ready, actually, to go see the attorney whose office is also Grandpa's house when there was a knock at the door. I opened it, and there was a man standing there who said, "I'm sorry. I... this is going to sound weird, but I just feel like I'm supposed to be here. Does that sound weird?" I told him it did sound a little weird, and asked him how I could help him.

"Do you need anything?" I asked.

"I need a lot of things. Need to get off of drugs. Need a job. Any ideas?

I told him about the ReWork Project, and he asked for the contact information. I was going to write it down for him, but he asked if I had an Android charger so he could get his phone back online. It happens that James has an Android, so I got the charger and said I was getting ready to go out for the morning so he could only have about 15 minutes. I plugged his phone in, he put in the ReWork contact info (to date, I don't believe he's contacted them), and promptly fell asleep on the couch.

When it was time for him to go, I was a little nervous about leaving the house with his knowing I was going, but several minutes later when I did start up the road, he was again asleep on a neighboring porch, a house that was vacant at the time.

One night when I was making dinner, James was on the front porch reading, a lady walked by and started talking to him. Here's a thing I love about my husband: He closed his book, stood up from his chair, and went and sat on the steps so she would know she had his full attention.

I asked Daphne to go tell James that it was time to eat, but she didn't want to interrupt the conversation. I went out to get him, and he invited me over to hear the woman's story. She told me that she was really worried because there were a bunch of "bad guys" down at that house, "You know, the purple one? The one that McDonald's owns?" (Nope and nope.) She said that they were talking about getting lighter fluid and setting some guy on fire. She said they wanted to get arrested because one of them wanted to get into the jail because that's where their intended victim was. She said they had also threatened to stab someone else, and that "they have one of those things you do yard work with, you know that you break up the dirt with the blade? A hoe. They're going to do a Southern-style attack."

She was extremely agitated and said, "I just don't want no one to get hurt. Can you call the police for me? I'd do it myself, but they have my phone."

Of course, I wasn't going to call the police on her behalf, but it occurred to me:

"There's a fire station right there. If you're worried about someone committing arson, they'd be interested to know."

James, too, encouraged her to walk over and she got even more agitated and said, "No, but. Thanks. Thanks for... I have to..." and she wondered off. I could see in James' eyes his hurt for her and frustration about not being able to *do* anything... but we can't. Not in a "big picture" way, anyway. I think the best we can do is to try to be good neighbors during the times we have those opportunities.

P.S. This morning, James said it was kind of funny that we know some of the homeless people better than we know our actual next-door-rental-neighbor. It's true. When he got home yesterday, I happened to be outside seeing a friend off, and while I recognized his car as the one that's always parked in the drive, I thought, "Is *that* what that guy looks like?" I think I have been imagining the previous renter, and honestly have no idea when this guy moved in. James and I had noticed that there are fewer arguments than there used to be.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Nutella Brownies... Three Ways, 'Cause That's How I Roll

A couple of weeks ago, I'd bought this giant thing of hazelnut cocoa spread at Randall's because it was on clearance.

Last night, I had this idea that I'd make brownies out of it, so I "googled" "Nutella Brownies." I found a few recipes, including a regular brownie-type recipe that included Nutella at the end, and then another recipe that said, "Easiest 3-ingredient Nutella Brownie." I anticipate it including brownie mix, but it didn't. Instead, it was Nutella, eggs, and flour. Beyond that, there was a TWO-ingredient brownie recipe, and it was just Nutella and eggs.

None of the recipes was exceptionally difficult, but I wondered whether the two- or three-ingredients versions were good enough to hold up to a genuine brownie. I'd read that Nutella (and, I'm assuming, knock-offs like this one) have as much sugar as cake frosting, so it stood to reason in my bean that we didn't need to add sugar to make the brownies tasty.

Solely in the interest of science, I decided to prepare all three recipes today. You can find the recipes here:

I did halve the recipes, and I made them all in loaf pans, so each brownie would have a side and a middle, for comparison's sake.

Here are the results:

1. Nutella Brownies

Multi-tasking with the multi-ingredient recipe. I've been binge-watching season five of "Drop Dead Diva" since I have a month-long Netflix free trial.

A pretty standard brownie recipe, and after it's mixed, we just add in the hazelnut cocoa spread.

Ready for the oven!

The first batch as it came out of the oven. Looks pretty delicious, doesn't it?

2. Two-Ingredient Nutella Brownies

Blurry photo of the two ingredients. When they were mixed up, they looked like this. Very runny!

It went from being really runny to super spongy.

3. Three-Ingredient Nutella Brownies

Just eggs, flour, and hazelnut cocoa spread.

It was super thick.

It came out pretty bready.

The multi-ingredient brownies were obviously more voluminous, as they had about the same amount of Nutella and then the other stuff on top of it.

This meant that the brownies on the left were undercooked, despite the fact that I cooked them as long as I was supposed to cook the full recipe. I think this has to do with my oven, because potatoes take years to cook. I wanted to compare cutaways, so I only used the edges, as those, at least, were all the way done.

Super gooey brownie deliciousness with the full-out recipe. It was definitely our favorite. Daphne agreed, not knowing which was which.

Daphne thought the two-ingredient brownies were super spongy, but they tasted good. This was my second favorite recipe, and in a bind, I'd certainly use it because it's very, very easy.

The three-ingredient brownies turned out super cakey. I don't like cakey brownies. These would probably be great with peanut butter on top, as the flour cut through some of the sugar and made these thick enough to stand up to spreading peanut butter on them.

Since the batch of "real" brownies was still raw inside, I used my delightful cake transfer metal to put it back into the pan and nuked it for five minutes. It ended up looking like this:

Still fudge-y. I will definitely make these brownies again. They are delicious.

The second-place contender. Dense and tasty and spongy.

Now that I think on it, these could be delicious with 4 ingredients, to include peanut butter chips. Or white chocolate chips. Since the brownies aren't too sweet, the white chip would be balanced out.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Review: Citrus Lane, Initial Box

For some time, I'd thought it might be neat to subscribe to Citrus Lane and get fun little toys and books and products every month for a year. I decided finally to do it because I had another serendipitous happening that I believe now is a programmed "thing" I plan to exploit again in the future:

Just like when I ordered the Graze box, I'd actually filled out most of the subscription information, but stopped because I don't actually know my baby's birth date yet. When I was in the process of subscribing, I had a coupon code for 50% off of the first month, which was a good enough deal.

But after I backed out without completing the form, I received an email offering the first entire box for free. That did it! I signed up.

My annual membership parses out to $17.17 per month, and I plan to review these every month so we can all see whether, over time, the deliveries are worth it.

Today, I received my first box!

First thing you should know: After I subscribed, I started receiving an annoying number of emails encouraging me to add stuff to my order, no extra shipping. I ignored those. The one thing I did like was that I was able to personalize a bit. There was going to be a stuffed animal-type thing in the box, and there were three from which to choose. I picked the one I liked the best and just automatically send everything else from Citrus Lane into my trash. (I do pause a lot every time they offer 20% off and free shipping of their Strider bikes, but they do that often enough that I'm convinced they'll have another special next year when I can actually use it.)

Tissue papered!

Here is what was in the box (cat not included):

Monkey chime ball, lotion, paper mobile, glass baby food containers, and a 25% off code on a babysitter from Sorry, sitters, but not my newborn. Not gonna happen.

Is this worth $17? Not to me. But I'm willing to see how it averages out over time.

The monkey is very cute, and the chime it makes is soft and soothing. One wing is crinkly, which means Daphne's cat will fall in love with it.

The baby food containers seem like a weird choice for someone who is still pregnant. I can see sending them the 4th month or so, but then again, other customers might not have the same lack-of-storage concerns that I do.

The paper owl mobile is cute enough, and I was able to use it in a corner I felt was otherwise pretty bland.

Still far enough away from the bed that the baby can't mess with it.

One thing everyone seems to want to give you when you're pregnant is lotion, like I or the baby are at risk of being scaly train wrecks. However, I like that this is mild, and the "aromatic cherry butter" smell is rather delicious, without being overpowering or perfume-y.

Although I wasn't hugely thrilled about how much packaging this was, Rudy was pretty excited about it. Glad we have a good recycling program here in Austin and that we can now recycle corrugated cardboard.

Stay tuned for the second box next month!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Austin Real Estate

We love our little lot here in the middle of the action. The only negative: because it's owned by someone else, we are not masters of our own destiny here. Well, and it's expensive. When our lease renewed in July, we were granted an increase of "only" 10% instead of the apparently typical 20% because we're such good tenants.

We'd love to buy a house in this ZIP code, but here's why we can't...

Yep, those are the only six properties for sale in this ZIP right now, and the cheapest one is $450,000. For a 1300-ish square foot condo.

We're not in the market to buy right this second, but I like to keep an eye open, both to have an idea of what's "out there," and on the slim chance that the most perfect, amazing fit opened up, we might be persuaded to jump on it.

There are lots of reasons not to move right now, but the two biggest are: 1) Our lease just renewed, and I prefer not to break leases (though I would for the perfect opportunity). 2) I'm about to have a baby. I did move when my daughter was 2 months old, and again when she was 8 months old, and I don't recommend it. Very stressful.

Also, my mother-in-law is visiting in a month or so, and we got her a hotel really close to our house. Plus, we have a vacation planned for late this winter, and I'd love to get that paid for and enjoy it before we have to think about the financial stuff related to moving. Plus, you know, the actual moving.

There are lots of reasons I don't necessarily care to own a home again (I've owned three and it's been hit-or-miss as to the financial benefit): 1) It's an anchor. 2) If you need to sell, you're at the market's whim. 3) Maintenance is expensive. 4) Property taxes are expensive, and mean you never actually own your home.

Anyway, we have looked at three properties in the past three or four months, because they were in areas we liked and were good deals, or the houses looked really neat (a lot of the houses on the market are absolute dogs, because it's a seller's market and they know they can get away with it). Twice, we have dealt with Realtors and once directly with the homeowner. We much preferred dealing with the homeowner, and I'll tell you why, in case you're a real estate agent and want to know what we're thinking after we interact with you.

The first house was one that was gorgeous online, but up close and in person needed a LOT of work. I mean, like $50,000 just to make it livable, and it was already at the top end of what we can afford. But I got in touch with an agent and said that we wanted to see the house, and made an appointment. When we got there, I realized that I'd left my phone at home but it didn't seem like a big deal. We knew that there were a lot of showings that day, so we just walked around the yard as there were already people inside the house.

We waited until about 10 minutes after we were supposed to meet the agent, and could already tell from walking around that the entire fence needed to be replaced; it was dangerous. We went ahead and walked into the house and realized it was a mobile home. That's not a deal-breaker, but the asking price was typical for a standard permanent home. The floor was rolling, and what we'd thought was maybe stained concrete (from the pictures) turned out to be old linoleum that had been painted white. The hall had drywall work that needed to be done, and they'd patched it to look "cool" using old newspapers. It was just a mess.

After about half an hour, we left because we knew we didn't want the house and because the real estate agent who'd been showing the house said she had to leave and lock up. I felt kind of bad about not meeting the agent, but he hadn't shown up, so it must not have been too important to him.

When we got home, there was a message waiting for me on my cell phone. It was the agent, and I called him back. He asked, "Was that you in the purple van?" Um, yes. He had watched us walk around the property and hadn't bothered to get out of his car because he figured if he called me, he'd see me answer the phone. That seemed crazy to me. How could you not just say, "Excuse me, are you...?" or even, "May I help you?" when people are walking unaccompanied around a property you have an appointment to show?

But to make matters worse, he said, "I had a whole list of properties in that area that I wanted to show you." So I told him the truth: We were not really in house-hunting mode, that most of the houses in that area did not appeal to us, and that the reason we wanted to see that house is that we liked THAT house. It spoke to us in pictures, even though the reality didn't turn out to be the same. It had been painted bright yellow with orange trim, and the living room was purple with wood accents. It was just quirky and "different" but they'd managed to weed out the icky stuff in the sales material.

He wanted to send us some emails, anyway, even though I told him it would probably be wasting his time as we weren't actually in the market to buy a house in general. Sure enough, everything he sent was inappropriate. So after we signed our lease renewal, I was able to tell him we'd committed to another year and he could stop sending us emails.

I have been a Realtor before. I was fortunate enough that I was a property manager and my pay wasn't dependent on sales or even rentals. I might have gotten a hundred bucks or so if I showed a house that was eventually leased, but it wasn't enough that I felt like I had a huge stake in whether or not someone rented the home I'd showed them. So I understand only in theory what living on commission means. Still, when someone tells you what they want (a particular property) and don't want (any old other property), it seems like you could avoid wasting your time by listening to them.

Here's the deal about me: I know my own mind. I will not add an ear of hot buttered corn on the cob to my order at KFC just because the lady at the drive-through suggests it (which is why I would not suggest it when I was in high school, and I got consistently poor reviews during my six-week employment). I can look through listings myself and know what might fit and what definitely won't. You can't plug in "3 bedrooms, 2 baths, good walk score" and automatically come up with properties that are going to fit my family. I can weed them all out and call you and if you would like to take time out of your schedule to show us exactly one house, then that's great. If not, I'm totally okay with being told, "No, I'm sorry. I only show houses to clients who have signed a contract" or whatever.

This last weekend, it was worse.

We went to an open house at a house in a neighborhood I have no idea why I even saw the house. I guess I was just trolling around James' work. The area does not excite us at all. It has a pretty restrictive HOA, which James HATES. But we actually liked the house quite a lot. The problem was the Realtor hosting the open house. She would not leave us alone. She was asking us every sales question in the book:

"What is to you the best feature of this house?"

"What is one negative feature of this house?"

"Can you imagine yourself here?"

When James found out about the HOA, he basically stated that was a deal-breaker, and she practically chastised him. She said, "Sometimes, we have to make sacrifices when we find a home we like." James said, "Honestly, I'd prefer to sacrifice the home than my ability to have chickens if I want." She said, "Well, sometimes we have to make compromises."

Then she started asking other questions. "So, you don't want an HOA, but you do like three bedrooms? Can I get your email address and send you some other listings in this area?"

We told her flat out that we were not interested in that area; we had only been interested in that house in particular. She said, "I understand. But if I can find out what you are looking for, I do concierge. I don't sent out automatic listings. I weed through them and only send you the best ones."

Ugh. So we told her we were not in a position to move right now and gave her the practically impossible parameters we were looking for here in town. She said that where we were looking was more expensive than we are willing to spend, but that one house we really liked that is currently not on the market as it's being renovated... the one where we dealt with the owner directly? It's right at the top of our spending budget and it's in an ideal area... AND I FOUND IT MYSELF.

After we left, we talked about it and its proximity to James' work plus the house itself really appealed to both of us. We actually made an appointment to go see it again, privately, with a different agent. I explained to him that the host had turned on the sales when we were there (a family came in and just wanted a flyer, but she said she'd be with them in a moment, and they got tired of waiting for her to finish talking to us so they left empty-handed).

Anyway, we realized as we talked last night and this morning that there is some paperwork we can't get until after the first of the year, so we won't be in a position to buy until 2015 (frankly, it's a load off, as far as I'm concerned).

Today, I received an email from the lady who hosted the open house we attended yesterday. I wrote her back to tell her that we weren't going to be able to buy for a few months, and she responded that she understood, "In a meantime I'd like to ask you for giving my information to your family, friends or neighbors. Probably somebody close to you is looking for a home to buy, sell or lease."

Um. No. I like my family and friends and don't want to refer someone who is getting on my nerves. It would be funny to give her card to the neighbors we know best, all of whom are homeless. But I respect them too much, as well.

Basically, if you're a real estate agent, I get it if you don't have time to show me one property. Just tell me. And I'll be honest and up front about where we are in the process. I don't want to waste your time OR mine, so if you can trust me that I know my mind and what I want and where we are in the process, I think we can avoid annoyances and frustration.

Besides, right now Austin is truly a seller's market. I'd think they could chill the heck out a little bit.

For what it's worth, I will say that if we do need to involve a real estate agent in the future, I will definitely use Redfin. Their agents are salaried and get a commission based on customer service feedback, not sales. Here's their listing and reviews of Austin agents.