This is a seriously rotten picture of me, but I’d just finished a half-marathon and didn’t have time to grab my visor to cover up.  Oh well–what are ya gonna do? Besides, my friend Keri looks beautiful as always, and every woman knows that if you can’t be hot yourself, just get some hot friends.  (I’m a little too good at this.  In fact, if you’re reading this post, chances are:  you are hot.)

Aside from the disagreeable photo-op, this was such a perfect day.  Crisp, cool weather, bright blue sky, beautiful run along the Columbia.  Reminded me of all the things I love about living in the Tri-Cities.  I felt great on the run, only getting a little beat around mile nine–but we can’t take all the fun out of it, can we?  After my last half-marathon, which I ran with an injured foot, this race felt like a dream. I even shaved 13 minutes off my previous finish time!  (Yes, I had an injured foot last time, but I’m still giving myself full points for improvement.)  Crossing the finish line, I felt happy and high.

I came home and Megan asked me hopefully, “Mom, did you win first place?”  I told her no, not quite.  She said, “That’s okay” and hugged me.  I think she thought I must have come in second or third, and thus was being generous with her praise.  It was the best part of my already great morning.

Keri was so fun to train with.  It’s a special kind of friend who’ll meet you at 4:45 a.m. to run eleven miles on a Friday morning before going home and getting the kids ready for school.  We would get grumpy the night before, just dreading the long run,  but after waking up and getting a few miles into it, we’d remember why we make ourselves go.  Nothing feels so good as the blood pumping ferociously through your veins while you run through the cool air toward the orange and pink sunrise.  Very zen.

My husband came to cheer me on and take this awful pic.  Thanks, honey–I always appreciate your support.  And thanks, Keri, for doing this with me.  This was my last big hurdle before leaving for our trip, and I’m feelin’ kinda saucy.  Life is good when your half-marathon is behind you and Hawaii’s straight ahead!

I Can and Do (or, It’s a Strainer not a Splitter)

“Victorian Strainer, ” to be precise.  And it’s killer:

This shiny little treasure was acquired by my two friends, Brenda and Jen, and I early yesterday morning, when we realized in a desperate moment that the strainer we thought we’d be able to borrow to can applesauce–yes, applesauce–was suddenly unavailable.  (Victorian Strainers are not easy to come by.  Believe me.)  So in a flash of inspiration, my two galpals made a frantic run to TruValue Hardware in search of the elusive tool.  Happily, they found it…but with an accompanying price tag of eighty-five dollars.  Would you believe we didn’t blink before purchasing it?  Good thing there were three of us to split the bill.  We quickly constructed a verbal contract according to which we each now own 33.3% of our very own Victorian Strainer, and will divide usage of said strainer accordingly.  Storage is to be determined, although Brenda is currently in the lead because her garage is cleaner than my front room.  See, everybody…my husband’s not the only one with business partners and backroom deals.  So he develops properties and engineers dams?  Big deal.  I can my own applesauce.

I’ve never canned  applesauce before today.  I’ve never actually canned anything before today, excluding a brief flirtation with pickled asparagus that my darling friend Cara was kind enough to show (do for) me a few years ago.  I’ve never felt the remotest desire to can food before because, let’s face it:  there’s-a-global-economy-out-there-fueled-by-WalMart-and-you-can-get-a-case-of-peaches-for-less-than-the-cost-of-five-mason-jars-and-I’ve-got-manis-and-pedis-to-attend-to-and-I’m-nobody’s-fool.  If developing countries are being exploited by a corrupt Western food industry, my preserving twelve jars of peaches every fall isn’t going to do a flaming thing to stop it.  So, when the question of canning comes up every autumn, I invariably use the measuring stick by which I determine all my major life decisions, also known in some circles as My Personal Policy for Living:

Do Whatever’s Easiest

This obviously does not include canning.

But something has felt different this fall.  I don’t know if it’s because summer whizzed by so quickly or I’m losing my faculties living with my parents, but the word canning just seems to be crackling in air like a fallen maple leaf crunching underfoot.  I read about it on the blogs.  I hear whispers of it in the halls at church.  I catch snatches of hushed conversations about food preservation at important meetings, in spacious libraries, at fine restaurants, in upscale movie theaters.  Everywhere I turn, news of the fresh crop of peaches, pears, and apples is thrown in my face as though Mother Earth has a whipped up a guilt pie and I am standing in the booth at the school carnival.

And so today, my friends, I canned and I did.  It was fun.  It was messy.  It was actually quite simple, because I had two wicked-canning friends to guide me:  Hall of Famer Jen (the woman could can your thumbs if you asked her to) and Rookie of the Year Brenda, who has only recently started canning but is an absolute diva at all things domestic.  Me, well,  I did a really good job cutting apples into fourths and then cranking the handle of the adorable Vicky S. clockwise.  (Not to brag, but I’m a really good cutter. I got four pieces out of each apple almost every time.  Serious.)

We had approximately nineteen young children underfoot while we worked, which added to the quaint white-trashiness of the entire experience.  The house was loud and warm and smelled headily of cooked apples, which hopefully made up for the disaster that ensued. (Sorry, Brenda.)  We thought we’d be done by noon yesterday, which of course meant that we were still working at five last night and spent four more hours finishing up today.

I came home last night a little high, feeling rather saucy from my day in the kitchen, spent exactly like my grandmother’s autumn days must have been spent in her own kitchen so many years ago.  Except that she had to pick the fruit from her own orchard.   Andshe had a tiny kitchen with no convenient appliances. Andshe had ten children who actually needed the food, which might kind of take the fun out of things.  And she had no Vicky S., which would really take the fun out of things.  But other than that, my day of canning was just like taking a step back to 1942.  In fact, Inow consider canning that applesauce as much of a milestone along my journey to womanhood as having a baby without an epidural.  Except that I’ve never had a baby without an epidural. (Have you ever had a baby without an epidural?  If so, please post below and tell me why, when you can just can fruit and get the same respect?)

So on our evening walk last night, I jauntily recounted the day’s adventures to my husband who, after asking me how many jars of applesauce I’d be taking home, flatly responded:  “That’s not much for two days of work.  In two days you could make enough money to buy like 600 jars of applesauce.”  I looked at him defiantly, wanting to shout, “Oh really?  Checked my salary lately, have ya??”  But every Dr. Laura show I’ve ever heard crept into my mind and I decided to take the high road.

I sighed and patiently explained to this ignoramus my husband that while the initial cost of jars, lids, bowls, and other equipment, such as the Victorian Strainer, may be steep, the long-term savings of canning far outweighs…

“What’s a Virginia Splitter?” he asked, interrupting me.

Victorian Strainer.” I calmy replied.  “You can’t do applesauce without one.  The three of us went in on it; it was twenty-five bucks each.”  (Okay, almost thirty–but I’ve never been a stickler for money details.)

“Whoa–seventy-five bucks for a Virginia Splitter?”

“A Victorian Strainer, not a ‘Virginia Splitter.’  Where did you even get that?”

“Whatever.  So now you’re in it another twenty-five bucks for the Splitter?” (Srainer!)  “Explain the reasoning to me again?  You did it just for fun?”

“Fun?  Yeah right!  It’s hard work.” (At this point he didn’t need to know it was fun; I was building a case.)  “It’s what women have done since forever, and I wanted to learn how to do it.  It will taste so much better and be healthier for the kids…, ”  My mind raced.  What other virtues could I throw into this? “Oh, and I think once you own all the jars and stuff, it really is cheaper, and also I love the idea of taking advantage of all that wonderful fruit every fall…”  My husband just shook his head.

“Come on, Jen.  You did it for fun.  There is no other reason to can in the year 2010.  We have children in third-world countries doing it for us, cranking out a can for a nickel every two seconds.”  I could see his point.  It is a great time to be alive on the planet.  He went on.

“It was a nice day to be with your friends, and  I’m glad you had fun, even though you did lose your shirt on that Virginia Splitter.”  I looked at him blankly.  Did he still  think we were talking about logging instead of canning?  For the duration of our walk, I made a private game out of trying to get Derrick to say “Virginia Splitter” as many times as I could.  I got up to five before he began to suspect something sinister.

We made our way home as I anticipated the scene that would follow after sharing my labor of love with my family.  Oh, the nutrients they would receive from those fresh Washington apples!  Oh, the love my children would feel, crafted out of their mother’s own bare hands.  The memories we would make, talking and laughing over Mother Nature’s rich bounty.  The Robert Frost poems that would fill up the cracks of our family psyche like the smell of burning wood on a deep autumn’s day.  How I would savor every bit of it, knowing my hours of hard work were well-served.

“Hey kids!  How about some warm, homemade applesauce?” I greeted them with bright eyes and a hopeful smile.

No response.

“Kids?  Applesauce?  I made it just for you…”  Still nothing from the girls, but Ethan did lift his head off the couch where he was watching HSM3.

“No thanks, Mom.  I don’t like applesauce.  Can I have a fruit snack?”  At least he was polite about it.

It was then I realized: I had no idea if my family liked applesauce.  I don’t think we’ve ever really eaten applesauce, come to think of it.  I probably should have factored that information into my rendezvous with Vicky S.

It’s now been two days since I wrote this post, and I’m suddenly aware that I haven’t even unloaded the applesauce from my minivan yet.  I’m not sure why.

Seems like a lot of work.

I love you, Cliff R.

That was the name of the tall, dark, devastatingly handsome young cashier who baptized me into the waters of couponing at Albertsons a mere four hours ago.  Any of my three faithful readers who may have known me when I was younger, thinner, and much cooler may be surprised to learn that, three kids and ten pounds later, it has indeed come to this:  I now not only clip and use coupons, I proudly use that word in the singular as a straight up verb.

A few weeks ago I attended a free “coupon class” in my neighborhood, wherein many of my good friends and I sat on couches and floors, mesmerized by the silky promises of a shiny young mother who spends roughly four dollars a week on groceries.   In spite of the thick index charts and multiple logarithms necessary to understand the process of saving money, we were all smitten by her presentation and gleefully subscribed to multitudes of Sunday papers, within whose deep, heavy folds the coveted coupon books hide.

And so began my neighborhood’s–and my personal–obsession with couponing.  It’s kindofbutnotreally easy, kindofbutnotreallyfun, and you get to feel smart and virtuous as you smugly scan your coupons while the poor shmuck behind you pays full price.  I’d say if I added up the hours I spent finding, organizing and shuffling coupons, then divided those hours by the money I saved, I’d come up with a personal salary of at least $2.50 an hour. Can’t you see why I do it?  That’s the highest income I’ve grossed in over eleven years.

Think of the ‘ole frog-in-the-boiling-water adage: the frog doesn’t know it’s boiling to death because the water’s heating up gradually.  So it’s been with my steady decline into Dorkiness.  It started with a young marriage to an engineer (social suicide, obviously), followed by a well-intentioned but sorely misguided haircut, which then led directly to three kids, a minivan, and moving back to my small (sworn off forever) hometown.  Add to that the heavy influence of local stay-at-home-mom friends/church friends/PTA friends/kids’ friends’ moms’ friends and all of my mother’s old friends, and you have the Perfect Storm of Geekiness brewing with no George Clooney to save me from myself.

The upside?
a) Saving a lot of money.  (I guess.)
b) Meeting men like Cliff R., whom I’ve decided is my (other) soulmate.  (I think we’re allowed at least two.)
c)  I now get to use words like freebies and doublers and coupon fraud. My husband laughed out loud the first time he heard me talk about Coupon Fraud.  I personally don’t see what’s so funny about Coupon Fraud.  It’s real.  It’s out there.  I’m telling you.

The downside?
a)  Logarithms.
b)  Feeling flustered and hurried in front of the other customers at the checkout line–people I used to feel quite attractive around by comparison.  (I shop at Wal-Mart.  Draw your own conclusions.)
c)  So far, I’ve mostly just amassed outrageous quantities of cold cereal, all of which are the kind I never used to buy for my kids (think 13 grams of sugar per serving.)  But I’m getting each box for a dollar, so the fact that we now have cereal for dinner four nights a week somehow makes sense.
d)  Our paper carrier, whoever he/she is, is incapable of delivering the Sunday papers to my home.  So far I have gotten one Sunday paper on a Monday, and one Tuesday paper on a Tuesday.  That’s it.  Whoever the carrier is, he/she simply cannot get it right.  I’ve called.  I’ve been polite.  I’ve made two trips to the downtown office to pick up the papers myself.  And still, this Sunday: no papers.  He. She. Cannot. Do. It.

Enough grumbling.  Let’s get back to Cliff R.

Oh, ladies, he was dreamy.  Think Jude Law in a grocer’s apron.  And so polite.  He kept saying, “Oh, I just need your Albies card again really quick.”  Albies–could you die with how adorable that is?  And I kept falling all over myself, apologizing for the fifteen “doublers” I was using, in addition to the twenty original coupons (I’m not kidding), and he just smiled suavely and said, “Oh, no problem–we just want to keep everyone happy.”  I’m pretty sure he winked at me when he said this.  And then he apologized profusely when he accidently overcharged me 50 cents on two boxes of pasta, but I just smiled prettily and said, “Oh, don’t worry about it…that will be my little tip to Albies for how patient you’ve been with me tonight.”  I batted my eyelashes and shrugged really cute-like when I said this, hoping he’d see how young these gestures made me look.  The height of the drama came when, because of his obviously powerful position, he pulled his own little gold key out of his apron pocket to unlock the register, not needing to call any managers over for the usual “coupon overriding” nonsense.  He just smiled confidently and worked that till like it was nobody’s business.  It was awesome

And here’s the kicker, my three faithfuls:  Albies was out of a few things because of the massive sale, so Cliff R. had to write down my name and number so he could call me directly when they got the products in.  I will then return to the store and meet him at a predetermined destination for our second rendezvous.  I’m considering it an official first date, and I think Derrick is really happy for me.  (I mean, I think he would be if he knew about it.)  And now the only thing I need is wardrobe advice from you all.  Would you go funky-casual or over-the-top glam?  And should I be embarrassed that the products I’ll be collecting from my beloved Cliff R. are toilet paper and Fruit Loops?