Monday, March 29, 2004

Stepping Off the Consumerist Track

A couple of books which everyone from teens onward need to read before entering into our Society today:

1.Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin

2.The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn

3.The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley and William Danko

4.Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin

5.Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic by John De Graaf

De Graaf and Elgin approach the consumerism of our American society with a left-wing liberal stance while Amy Dacyczyn approaches it from a very pragmatic and conservative perspective. Joe Dominguez is probably somewhere in the middle in his approach, but more conservative than liberal. No matter what your ideology may be, these books carry the common thread that WE HAVE TOO MUCH STUFF cluttering our lives - that we have let ourselves become puppets in a game played by Marketers. Why do we need to upgrade the Microsoft Windows program every 2 years? Why do we need 100 television channels (all garbage)? Why do we need a 52" plasma-screen TV? Why do we need new clothes every year? Just a cursory review of one's values and a moment's thought will convince any reasonable person that he needs none of that garbage.

There is a very brief and trendy book written by Elizabeth Warren and her daughter (The Two-Income Trap...) which tries to enable the modern consumerist behavior of Americans by providing several lame excuses. In typical liberal fashion, the Warrens point the blame for such behavior on everybody and everything except on the perpetrators themselves. According to them, we have already done the best we can - shopping and overspending are all justified in the name of our own well-being. According to them Banks, large Corporations, and governments have led us ignorant pawns into debt traps - we must change the laws instead of our own behavior in order to help ourselves. This is all drivel - I'm certain anyone who decides to purchase something they can't afford realizes they are making a mistake. This type of over-spending is a disease, a pathological behavior, not an inevitable series of decisions made for justifiable reasons as the Warrens claim.

Of all these books, probably the most life-transforming book is Joe Dominguez's unfortunately & kitschily-titled book (Your Money or Your Life) - this books looks very much like one of those self-help-pop-psycho-babble financial-gurued-Ponzi-schemoid-looking rags and its appearance and title might be off-putting to people who believe themselves to be too good for this sort of advice. This book nevertheless distills in very concise and simple terms the essential philosophies and actions one must take to transform oneself from a mindless automaton who shops recreationally and spends his life energy away into a person living with common old-fashioned sense. Some of the advice in this book is a bit too simple, maybe too inflexible, but the essential points in the book are worth millions of dollars to anyone: that one must keep track of every penny one spends, that one must live with near-term and long-term financial goals in mind, that there is more to life than making money, that one must live with frugality and wisdom.

My favorite book of the above however is Amy Dacyczyn's Tightwad Gazette - her approach is so revolutionary and her example is so inspiring that this book has caused my wife and me to make spectacular changes in our lifestyle. Last year at this time, our typical day began with deciding where to eat for lunch - typically someplace like Quizno's subs where we gobbled down about $15 worth of fast-food with sodas. We'd then drive around our local mega-shopping conglomerations, touring Target, Dick's Sporting Goods, BJ's Warehouse, Best-Buy, Home-Depot, and maybe our local mega-mall as well. We might have a specific item we would consider purchasing such as a $600 set of All-Clad cookware and look at some prices at various places, but not buy them and so consider ourselves good shoppers. Yet we'd along the way pick up a stray $10 toy here, and some unnecessary $18 stationary items there, and maybe some baby clothes here, some toiletries there, etc. By the end of the day we'd rack up $50-$100 in meaningless purchases. After picking up our son from school, we'd discuss where to eat supper and typically dine at maybe an Italian restaurant where we'd ring up another $35 meal before heading home tired and inexplicably frustrated. Since reading those books above, and especially Amy Dacyczyn's books, we make our own meals (~98% of the time anyway), we have found an ALDI Foods store in Raleigh where we can purchase an all-generic high-quality super-cheap groceries. We've shopped alternatively at a bread outlet store. We've decided to forego our nearest Harris-Teeter (our erstwhile favorite high-priced grocery chain). Yes, we've put together a grocery "PriceBook" per Dacyczyn's advice (I had 5 - that's right FIVE - managers at one grocery store accost me angrily while I madly scribbled the price of almost every item on their shelves). My wife even went to a yardsale last weekend where she purchased a half-dozen outfits for our 2 year-old at 25cents each. These behaviors are unheard of for us - we were inveterate brand-name and label readers. Our favorite phrase used to be "you get what you pay for." But on further investigation and experimentation, we found that many of Dacyczyn's advice rang true - just as with most pharmaceuticals, many generic products perform just as well as their brand-name brethren costing much more. As an example a generic Aldi vanilla wafer costing less than half Nabisco's Nilla wafers taste just as good. A slice of 55cent per loaf honey-wheat bread taste just as good as Nature's Own Honey Wheat slice costing $2.39 per loaf! There are certain items where a specific flavor may be so imprinted into my chemoreceptor-memories such as Heinz's ketchup or Tabasco sauce, that a generic will not suffice. But these items are few. I've calculated that we could possibly cut into our monthly food bill by another 33-50% if we followed many of Dacyczyn's techniques (such as "shopping to stock your pantry" rather than shopping to fulfill certain meals). We used to spend about $1000 per month dining out on top of another $500-$600 on groceries. We were able to cut our monthly grocery and dining bill to $400-$500 thus far, and can project that we could eat happily and comfortably on between $250-$300 per month - Amy Dacyczyn would scoff at such numbers since she has fed her family of 8 on $180 per month. But for us, this is tremendous. I've placed an order for TVP (texturized vegetable protein) - a dry soybean by-product substitutable for meat in many dishes, cheaper than tofu and all meats. My local small health-food store is letting me have a 25lb bag of this stuff at 10% off their $1.09/lb price.

We went to the Wake County Libraries annual booksale last week - it was quite an extravaganza. There were literally hundreds of people lined up around the block waiting for the warehouse to open - camera crews from our local WRAL newsteam were there filming hundreds of tightwad nerds near-rioting over used books. Hardbacks were going for $4 each (no bargain), paperbacks for $1 each (ok deal) the first night. The weekend promised BOXFULS of books for $5 or bagfuls for $2. Needless to say, we got ourselves a buttload of books this weekend. We actually spent $25 total in books, but got a load of books - What Color is Your Parachute 2001 edition, Motley Fools' Investment Guide, The Frugal Gourmet, Betty Crocker's Cookbook, about a dozen children's books, several medical books, etc. including an entire set (I,II,III) of Amy Dacyczyn's Tightwad Gazette books! (we read from library copies and didn't have our own copy til now). We plan to eventually resell most of these books to our local used bookstores for credit or cash. Since we didn't really need any of these books, I guess this was a very consumerist thing to do and only added to our clutter and affluenza, but this was a hell of a good time and served as good entertainment as well.

My near-term goal is to participate in a yard-sale where we actually are selling our own stuff instead of buying other people's junk. We have so much junk in our house that I believe yard-salers would salivate over some of our stuff. According to the Millionaire Next Door book's research, physicians are horrendous spendthrifts and are almost always "Under Accumulators of Wealth" for many reasons enumerated in that book. The reason that most rings true is that we are expected to live in a certain lifestyle and behave and appear at a certain level toward our public and our patients. Just as Realtors must "look successful" in order to be successful, doctors must appear affluent and successful. As a result, as described in that book, a surgeon earning $700,000 a year, might have $300,000 in annual basal expenses and so after taxes end up with the "Big Hat, No Cattle" syndrome. Well, we are determined to break the mould - neither my wife nor I give a shit about what others think about us, including most of our patients honestly. Both my wife and I dress like we did when we were in college - typically in T-shirts and sneakers. We will honestly never purchase a luxury car. We will try to avoid cavorting with our physician friends and colleagues. In fact, we try to avoid letting anyone know we are physicians because we know that doctors get crapped on everywhere they go. For example, at a typical Medical Conference, our medical societies would tip us off that we will get cheap rates at the hotel if we tell them we are with them - of course when we fall for this sucker-bait, we are indeed offered the "Special Rate for Doctors Only" - gee thanks for the special deal guys! Physicians are one of the most likely to get audited by the IRS, we get one of the highest automobile insurance rates, we are the most likely to get sued (I've been sued already once and had to endure a grueling 2 week trial last year - more about this later), and this book shows us that physicians are one of the people least likely to become millionaires. Despite this, the public believes all doctors are rich and live like Orthopedic and Plastic surgeons to the Hollywood stars. After finally climbing out of debt 18 years after highschool, this poor physician couple (both primary care) are happy to be living paycheck to paycheck. Sure we could have done better had we lived frugally like Amy Dacyczyn, but we are surrounded by Affluenza-stricken, consumerist spend-thrifts, bad advisors, and most importantly, "the inner desire for More" within us which we kept caged within during our poor college years and medical-school years, through our overworked-yet-still-poor-as-hell residency years (while our friends who began work out of college were socking away thousands in their 401ks and making big bucks during the boom/bust cycle). The mantra of "delayed gratification" which keeps many student-physicians going through residencies and fellowships lasting decades will often lead to a burst of wild spending upon landing their first jobs. This self-destructive spending post-education often entrenches young doctors into the under-accumulator-of-wealth track - we are one of the thousands of examples. Upon careful calculation, I have determined that my wife and I will never be rich, but we also will never be destitute, and we are happy enough for that. My long-term goals: to stay married (never divorce), to reasonably fund my two babies' college education using the 529 college savings plan, to try to pay off my mortgage as soon as possible (before 14 years), to sock away as much into retirement as possible before I turn 60 years old - so as to generate an amount providing financial independence as defined by the late Joe Dominguez.

Monday, March 08, 2004

How to Make Banana Pudding, Sloppy-Tofu

First the Banana Pudding, a Southern staple dessert.
1.My wife separated the egg yolks from the egg whites, then beat the egg yolks,
and finally poured 3 cups of milk into the beaten yolks:

2.Combined 3-1/2 TBSP of all-purpose flour, 1-1/3 cups of sugar, a dash of salt in a deep pot, then
poured the above milk/egg mixture into this pot and cooked over medium heat stirring constantly til
smooth and thickened, this is your banana pudding base:

3.Then removed from heat and added 1 TSP of vanilla extract.

4.In a presentation dish/pot, you start your layering of Nilla wafers:

5.Add 2-4mm slices of bananas:

6.Pour some of the pudding base onto this, then start your second layer:

Pour more base and your ready for your final layer. You arrange some Nilla wafers
circumferentially and you're ready to whip up your egg whites into a meringue:

7.Gradually add 1/4 cup + 2TBSP of sugar slowly while beating your egg whites til foamy.
Add 1 TSP of vanilla and beat til blended:

8.Then spread your meringue over the custard and seal to edge of dish. Bake at 425F for 10 minutes.
Here's the resulting Banana Pudding:

9.Place this into your refrigerator to cool, and get ready to make some


I.This is easily done using Hunt's Manwich sauce. First get two blocks of extra firm tofu - like
Melissa's. Dice the tofu into 1/2cm bits or smaller:

II.Fry up for 10-15minutes after draining as
much water out as possible in a frying pan with some canola oil. You can tip the frying pan
slightly and spoon out as much of the water as possible during this frying also.
When the tofu bits are looking fried and less jiggly, you're ready for the Manwich sauce.

III.Pour on the Manwich sauce and mix into the tofu bits. (If you're not vegetarian, you can also
add scrambled egg bits, bits of chicken, turkey, or groundbeef, whatever).

IV.Stir and mix constantly in the Manwich sauce for about 4-5minutes, then let cool another 5 minutes.
While the Manwich mix is cooling, you can toast some buns and put a slice of cheese on the bottoms
(to hold in the Manwich sauce). Here's the final Manwich sauce vegetarian sloppy joe's - SLOPPY TOFU:

This tofu-Manwich meal with Banana pudding dessert takes maybe 1-2 hours to make depending on whether
it's just one or two people making it. It serves up to 4 Jethros. This might be the last recipe entry in my journal for a while. But here are some other plates we fix up for ourselves when we feel like it. The one I
was most tempted to do as my next "recipe" was the Inari Sushi dish which is very excellent and easy to make Japanese item:

You could fry up some Tempura with dipping sauce, some California-rolls to go with it all. It makes an
excellent dinner which all kids will eat once they try it.

Here are some other simple plates we fix for ourselves:

Pancakes and sausage (and scrambled eggs, hashbrowns in ketchup):

Tempura - vegetables lightly fried in batter served with tempura sauce and rice:

So this will probably be the last of these menu items on my weblog. But I hope you can see
how and why we don't need to go out to eat anymore.

Friday, March 05, 2004

Baked Ziti (and mashed potatoes)

Today we made baked ziti. Here are the ingredients:

This is a recipe I from from someplace I forgot. We've been making ziti this way since around 1997.
First you boil some filtered water - about 4-6qt, enough to cover all the ziti that comes in one of those 16oz boxes. At the same time, you can heat up the sauce on medium to low - avoid burning it, just roil it enough to kill off any remaining bacteria if present. You can also get your baking pan oiled up with olive oil, bring out some butter to soften:

Once the water gets boiling good, turn the heat down from high to about 7, pour in the ziti and let cook about 12 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid sticking on the bottom. Once the ziti is cooked, pour it into a collander (an absolutely necessary cooking item, even if you are a non-cook bachelor - I've had mine since I was in college). Turn your oven to 350F and set to bake for 19minutes.

Now to make the ziti sauce, throw about 1 tablespoons of butter onto the pot you just used to heat the ziti - set the heat to about 4. Pour about 2 cups of milk into the pot, add about a teaspoon of salt, break out the mozzarella cheese, and add about 1/2 of an 8oz packet of this into this concoction, allow to simmer until numerous small bubbles show on the top and all the cheese and butter is melted. Add the SECRET INGREDIENT: 3 good squirts of French's golden yellow mustard. Turn off the heat and allow to simmer about a minute or so with constant stirring. Add about 1/2 cup of cornmeal mix (or self-rising flour works ok too). Now add the cooked and drained ziti into this concoction carefully and stir and mix up and pour onto your baking plate:

Stir-up some more in this baking plate (pre-oiled) and ladle on some of your tomato sauce on top, then add the rest of the mozzarella from your packet and you're ready to put the plate into the oven:

Go ahead and put it in. Now let's make

Mashed Potatoes

This is SO easy to make. I'm going to make 6 servings of it here. You boil 2 cups of filtered water with 3 tablespoons of butter in it. As soon as it starts boiling well, turn off the stove, and add 2 cups of "instant mashed potato flakes" and 1/4 cup of milk:

You stir but not too vigorously and within seconds like magic you see mashed potatoes forming. All children like this stuff. You can also add this sidedish to the vegetable plate we made a couple days ago.
Within a few minutes the timer for the baked ziti will beep and it's time to set the table. So here's the final product:

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Vegetable Plate
Vegetable plate preparation, Southern-style, is very easy - we make some rice in our rice cooker, boil some frozen vegetables, boil some beans, make some Kraft's macaroni and cheese. Maybe add a casserole or banana pudding. This time, we fried up some Lite Spam to add meat to the meal.

But today we'll concentrate on how to make

Here are the ingredients:

1.First you crack 2 eggs into a bowl, add 1-2 cups of milk, 1/4 cup of vegetable shortening,

2.Add 2 cups of cornmeal:

Stir well, grease a baking dish (we're making cornbread muffin-style here), ladle the
cornbread mixture into the baking pans:

3.Set the oven to bake 425F, slide the stuff in and bake 12 minutes:

Here's the cornbread out of the oven:

And here's the final Southern-style vegetable plate meal:

This takes maybe 45 minutes to prepare and will feed 4 Jethros.

Vegetable Plate
Vegetable plate preparation, Southern-style, is very easy - we make some rice in our rice cooker, boil some frozen vegetables, boil some beans, make some Kraft's macaroni and cheese. Maybe add a casserole or banana pudding.

But today we'll concentrate on how to make

Here are the ingredients:

1.First you crack 2 eggs into a bowl, add 1-2 cups of milk, 1/4 cup of vegetable shortening,

2.Add 2 cups of cornmeal:

Stir well, grease a baking dish (we're making cornbread muffin-style here), ladle the
cornbread mixture into the baking pans:

3.Set the oven to bake 425F, slide the stuff in and bake 12 minutes:

Here's the cornbread out of the oven:

And here's the final Southern-style vegetable plate meal:

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Come Look Around Our House

I've introduced myself, but here's a look at our house in its current state, no clean-up or tidying done at all. When we expect guests to arrive, for instance, we'd tidy up the best we could to make our place look better. But I think it is more informative to see how we live and what our living spaces look like in a more typical scenario. You will find that there is a lot of clutter and garbage. I'd like to throw a lot of stuff away, especially toys, but both my wife and my son are tremendous pack-rats and trying to throw something out develops into major battles.

When you enter our house from the front door, the first thing you'd see would be our "formal dining room" to your right, which we are using as a lounge and piano practice room for Harrison and as my wife's office:

If you look to your left from the front door, you'll see our 75gallon aquarium in an oak cabinet (see about me in the link on the right sidebars and scroll down to see a shot of the tank) and our main library:

If you walk in, passing the first floor bathroom on your right,

you'll see our "family room"

and walking into the family room, then into the kitchen area, you'll see where we do most of our projects,
homework, and eat all our daily meals (our eating area):

If you look through the windows behind the dinette area you'll see our screened in balconywhich sits maybe 50 feet above ground. Our grill is on a landing at the top of the stairways coming down from this screened balcony.

Here's a look at the kitchen:

I might as well show you the insides of our refrigerator and freezer compartment::

Our garage entry is next to this refrigerator - the garage is boring to look at, just 2 Hondas and some storage gorilla racks in the back with our lawnmower, weeder, blower, camping equipment, strollers, variety of junk.

We enter our house about 80% of the time through this garage door. We've been keeping our garage door itself closed all the time due to a rash of reports in the local papers about teenage girls and boys sniffing around to steal stuff from our neighbor's garages.

Across from the garage door is our pantry. It's very cluttered with stuff, including lots of junkfood which we're trying to do better about avoiding. You won't be interested. Well, here's a look in case you are interested:

Walking back across the kitchen and family room to go upstairs, you'll note a door to the left of the stairs - this door leads down to our basement which is actually pretty impressive and large (about 1200 square feet).

We keep sports equipment, tools, ladders, large toys, old fish tanks, some books down there. I drilled and plumbed in a work sink down there.
Here's our SanteFe Dehumidifier which keeps our basement humidity at 41% or less throughout the year:

Here's our reverse osmosis - de-ionizer water filtration system which we use to make all our drinking and cooking water:

We hope to some day finish out the basement with heat/air, formal full bathroom, suspended ceiling with fluorescent lighting. We've estimated this will cost a minimum of $25k so we've put it off well into the future.

If you open up the basement door, you'll see our back porch:

And you might as well take a look out the backyard:

Get back in the basement and take a look at our old neglected bikes, not ridden for the past 6 years:

And take a look at the back of the basement where we've set-up a small makeshift tornado shelter - please note that this shelter is not likely to work well, but it at least it let's us have a place to go if a twister comes up the lane:

And across from the tornado area are some of my old fish tanks, a 75, a 55, a 30, and a 20gallon:

Let's go back up and out of the basement, then go left and up the stairs

Once upstairs, the first room to your right is my office:

You can see back down into the foyer through a little balcony area next to my office, but across from my office is the master bedroom:

Here's the closet:

Here's a glimpse of the master bath:

Here's airing our dirty laundry bin:

Leaving the master bedroom and walking left down the upstairs corridor, you'll see our little laundry room to your left down the corridor:

Here's our guest room. My parents, my wife's parents, my in-laws, my sister's family, friends of my wife, etc. have all stayed in this room. When you come over, you'll probably be staying here as well. It contains a little desk area, a closet, a couple of dressers, an old antique chair, a small rolling chair, and a 19" tv hooked up to cable and a couple of vcrs:

Here's the 2nd floor hall bath:

At the end of the corridor, here's my son's room:

Here's a look at his most recent mess of toys which he never cleans up:

Just for completeness, walk back down the corridor toward the stairs, and to your right, open up the door next to the master bedroom, walk up and take a look at our cluttered attic.