Priorities, Fear and Failing to Write

(When I talk about writing in this post, I mean fiction, not blog posts or journaling.)

Sometimes it feels like I waste all my free time. That's an exaggeration, but I do waste a fair amount of time. Just today, I wasted several hours aimlessly wandering the internet from blog to blog, and checking out the floor lamp options at various retailers and on Craigslist. Because, you know, lighting is important.

Davos, Switzerland - where I realized I wanted to be able to tell people I was writing. And almost died of embarrassment when Eric brought it up at dinner one night. This would be a beautiful place to die. Or to write. 

Davos, Switzerland - where I realized I wanted to be able to tell people I was writing. And almost died of embarrassment when Eric brought it up at dinner one night. This would be a beautiful place to die. Or to write. 

I've wrestled with this time-wasting problem a few times, most recently with The Productivity Project's help. I've added healthy habits to my routine, taken some time-wasters out, reduced my stress level at work, tracked how I spend every hour of the day... and yet I'm still not writing. 

Somewhere in The Productivity Project, the author, Chris Bailey, suggests listing your values and goals. Your goals should come from your values. In no particular order, what I value right now includes creativity, compassion, giving, solitude, nature and animals, close relationships, ideas, physical and mental health, art, literature, freedom, fairness, exposure to different cultures and places, trying new things... 

And my main goals right now are writing, reading, exercising, meditating, and staying in touch with friends and family. Some of my friends and family might think I'm failing to stay in touch, but as far as I'm concerned, I'm failing at just one thing - writing. 

I wouldn't say I'm blocked, but I can't quite figure out where to start. I tried re-reading some books about writing (which is not writing) and reading the draft of the novel I'd like to revise (also not writing). I've thought about starting something new, but I don't have a good idea (not writing). I've tried everything except actually writing, so maybe I am blocked. 

Everything worth doing takes effort. Way to go, Earth!

Everything worth doing takes effort. Way to go, Earth!

I used to think being blocked was kinda, well, ridiculous, but I didn't know what I was talking about. When I started writing sometime in the late '90's, I just didn't stop, until I really stopped about five years ago. I wrote nearly every day for years and it turns out that's the kind of writing practice that will keep you from getting blocked. I also worked during that time, but I didn't do much cleaning, cooking, or exercising. And I didn't even consider giving writing up in order to add in those other things. Life was fine. 

It wasn't until my stress level at work went way up with managing people that I gave up writing. If you've ever tried to write creatively (or do any other creative endeavor on a daily basis), you know it's not a stress-free activity, no matter how rewarding it is. So that stress plus work stress, without any healthy stress-reducing activities, made life really hard.

When I gave up my management position at work last April, I thought I'd just start writing again. Seemed logical. I stopped doing the thing that kept me from writing, so i should start writing again. 

That was five months ago. Very few words have been written. Perhaps I am blocked. 

At the time I quit writing, my routine went like this: Wake up and waste time on the internet while ingesting caffeine. Write a short draft in response to a writing prompt. Write part of whatever longer thing I was working on (I aimed for 2000 words a day). Revise older part of longer thing. Revise shorter things. Research writing markets. Send stuff out. Do administrative stuff (I had a website with links to my published works, a database of where I'd sent stories and when, a bio to update, cover letters, etc.)(everything has an administrative part and yes it is annoying). 

One of the very few cats we saw In Davos. 

One of the very few cats we saw In Davos. 

Most days I didn't get through half of that list before I had to go to work, but I think I had it right in terms of importance. Writing and revising first, submitting and admin last. 

So what's preventing me from taking up the old system? Fear of not having anything useful, like a novel I could try to publish, in a "reasonable" amount of time. Also, fear of having too much new material. This is a silly fear, but real. New material becomes material that needs to be revised. Revised material becomes work that needs to be submitted. Which needs to be tracked. And so on. 

But what I used to have was a system that worked. Writing from prompts may not sound like much, but it's a great way to defeat a blank page, and in the past, it yielded a surprising amount of usable stories. And by adding a couple thousand words a day, I completed quite a few short stories and full drafts of two novels. I did a lot of revising, which I found annoying, but so necessary. And I submitted quite a bit. And some of it got published. 

Cat art on the trail. 

Cat art on the trail. 

And I felt like I was writing.

My plan: I'm going to make writing, as in putting actual words on a blank page/screen, my priority. I'm going to use prompts and exercises to make it happen. Experience tells me that this will lead to other things. Maybe I won't have a revised novel at the end of this year, but that's okay. At the rate I'm going now, I'll never have one. So I might as well try something new. Or old. I might as well try what worked in the past. 

It seems obvious, but I think I didn't get the idea of being blocked simply because I never stopped writing, and I was able to keep writing because I didn't set high standards for what I wrote. There was so much writing, no one part of it mattered all that much. The prompts were just exercises, the first draft was just a first draft. Revision was going to sort out the good from the rest. It was a system that worked, given time. 

I'm going to give it time, start where I know I can start, and put the internet to good use - looking for a prompt to use tomorrow. 

PS - I have probably mentioned this before, but it's worth bringing up again. A counselor once told me that success doesn't come from a single plan - it comes from trying many things, and from being willing to try something new if the current approach isn't working out. I tried one thing and it didn't work, so now I'm going to try another. If that doesn't work, I'll try something else. I'm telling you about it because it keeps me accountable (now I have to actually try it), and I hope hearing about what I'm trying will encourage someone else to try a new approach to something that isn't working. Maybe even you. 

 

A Cat Named Ed

I'm going to start with the ending, because that is how I would want to read this post. Maybe it's the only way I can write it, too.

Ed earlier in July

Ed earlier in July

Our cat, Ed, died last Saturday, July 30, 2017, after being hit by a car. We took him to the emergency vet, but after looking at the x-rays and listening to our options, we made the decision to end his life. His injuries were serious. They would have required costly surgery to repair, that would not have been easy to recover from, and would have left him likely to develop arthritis. It was not easy. Four days later, it's still not easy. I think we made the right decision, but I will never know for certain. No matter how I rationalize it, I have doubts. 

If you're wondering how Ed got out, the answer is we let him out. We took a risk and lost. 

Ed came into our lives via the back steps, as an outside cat, a stray. This was 2010. He was a young kitten, somewhere in his first year. He sat out back and meowed, and meowed, and meowed. At the time, we had seven other cats and were certainly not looking to take on another. But this little cat wouldn't go away, despite the fact that other cats seemed to dislike him. Eric was also dead-set against letting him in, so I fed him out back (see picture below). I started calling him Ed. I came home from work one day and Eric told me the little cat had sat on his lap while he was hanging out in the back yard. Cha-ching!

Ed's first year with us. 

Ed's first year with us. 

We took Ed to our vet to get him neutered and get his shots, you know, so we could adopt him out to someone else, because like I said, we didn't need another cat. When I told this story in the past, I used to say, "Then he was a $300 cat, so we kept him." 

But it had nothing to do with the money. Ed was a sweet, affectionate cat. He loved people and he had chosen us. It must have been obvious to him that we would be suckers (anyone with seven cats is a sucker, trust me), but I don't think Ed would have had a difficult time getting any cat-lover to take him in. He was a sweetheart. 

Eric was there first. 

Eric was there first. 

Ed let me hold him on my shoulder like a baby. He"helped" us when we worked in the yard. Where we dug in to pull weeds, he dug in, too. In bed, he settled in between our two pillows and made certain his body touched both of us. He laid on the floor with his back legs out, frog-style, to cool off. He curled up on my shoulder when I  was on the couch reading and he nestled himself between Eric's thigh and the side of the chair when he could. 

He was cute as shit and I loved him. I know you're not supposed to have favorites with kids, but I think it's okay with cats. Ed was my favorite. 

It wasn't all cuddles and cuteness, of course. Ed was a rabbit killer, a bird killer and a mouse killer. We put collars with bells on him and he managed to lose them within 48 hours. He pooped in our garden and the neighbor's garden, and got into fights with other cats. His ears were all notched up by fighting when he was young, and up until his dying day, he had a scratched-up nose more often than not.

He had the most irritating meow of any cat I've known, a kind of grating, high-pitched yowl. When Ed meowed to go out, you wanted to let him out just to shut him up. If you didn't let him out, he continued meowing, paced, clawed at the curtains and the window. Meowed some more. Chased you down and meowed at you. Ed didn't ask, so much as demand. 

And boy, was he a cat who wanted to be outside. He came in to eat, then went right back out. He came in and cuddled, then went back out. All cats enjoy passing through the door, but Ed took this to an unprecedented level. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out. Over and over. None of our other cats had ever come close to anything like what Ed wanted. 

At one point, our over-sized garage door broke, kinda collapsed on itself, and because of the cost, we put off replacing it. The garage became a storage shed and we had an old cat tree out there, you know, just because. During that year, possums moved into the garage. One night, I went outside for something and a possum was on one shelf of the cat tree. Ed was on another. Just hanging out with his possum friend. 

Could I have kept Ed inside and should I have tried harder? Yes. Maybe. 

One of our other cats, Ben, was also a stray who showed up on the porch one cold winter. But Ben is nothing like how Ed was. Ben goes out occasionally, but he doesn't really seem to care about it. If I decided right now that Ben was never going out again, he might be a little annoyed once in a while, but he would accept it and move on. Ed was not like that. 

When Ed was "put to sleep," it really did seem like he was going to sleep. After the first syringe, he curled his head into my hand, as he might have done if he was sleeping on my lap and I was petting him. 

If you have pets, you've probably thought about what you might and might not do for them if they needed expensive veterinary care. Eric and I had discussed in the past what measures we'd go to to prolong a pet's life. When the cat I'd had since college, Bobo, developed chronic pulmonary disease, we took him to the vet regularly to have fluid drained off his lungs. That added up, but it made him comfortable. When our cat Leroy had a crystallization of his urethra, we paid for that treatment , which involved an overnight stay at the emergency vet. But when the vet at the emergency clinic told us Ed's surgery would run $4500, would require a long recovery, and wouldn't leave him the same, we knew right away the choice we would make. I don't know where the line is exactly, but we were in agreement that that wasn't something we wanted to do. 

Our house has french doors between the living room and the front bedroom, which we use both as a guest bedroom and an office. I'm typing this facing the french doors, and directly on the other side of the doors is our couch. Just a couple days before Ed died, he was standing on the back of the couch looking at me through the doors. He appeared impatient, as if he was wondering why I wouldn't just open the doors for him. I tried to tell him he needed to come around, but cats don't listen, so he just looked at me, all wide eyed and adorable. Eric was sitting behind me and he commented that Ed was the cutest cat. 

It's funny, because I think of Ed as a mostly white cat, but when I look at him in these pictures, I see a mostly brown cat. Ed was white on the bottom and brown-and-black speckled on top. His legs were white. His chest was white. His toes were black. I think I registered his coloring most often when he was walking toward me or laying on his back. 

The question I keep coming back to is this. Making the decision to end Ed's life made sense to me, but is it the decision Ed would have wanted us to make? Of course there's no way to know. My gut tells me the answer is yes. I don't think Ed would have been happy, and I'm not sure we would have been as happy with Ed. But it's the what-ifs that get me. 

Oh, Ed. The day he died, I spent eight hours repainting a room in our house, a project we'd already started. I needed to keep busy. The next day, I ran 4 miles, walked the dog twice, and cleaned the entire house. Everything I did, I thought, the last time I did this, Ed was alive. Or, if Ed was alive, he'd be here now. I didn't stop thinking about Ed. 

The third day, I noticed that the other cats seem calmer without Ed around. Although Ed lived here for seven years, the others never really accepted him. They were jerks then and they're bigger jerks now. I had to feed Ed in a different area because they wouldn't leave food for him. Ed was liable to get smacked down (literally) by any cat whose path he crossed when he was inside. That, I imagine, was part of the reason he wanted to be out so much. But he kept coming back. He wanted to be in, too. 

The night before Ed died, I came home from work about 11:30 pm, my usual time. Eric was already in bed, but when I told him I wanted to sit outside, enjoy the nice weather, and have a drink, he agreed to join me. Ed and another one of our cats, the part-Siamese Alfie, came out with us. Ed and Alfie got into a spat on the sidewalk by the parked cars and I went down and yelled at them. Alfie looked appropriately chastened. Ed continued the spat for a bit, then let it go. Eric and I sat down on the front porch. The next time we noticed Ed, he was in the yard across the street, in front of the neighbor's house, a yard he's been in many times. Another cat was there, one we hadn't seen before. It looked and sounded as if they might fight, but they ended up just kind of hanging out on the grass over there. That's how we left Ed that night, hanging out with a frenemy. 

Hanging out with me while I meditate.

Hanging out with me while I meditate.

The next morning, our neighbor woke us up, calling to tell us that Ed was howling in distress against a fence a few houses down.

Ed, what bad luck brought you to that point? I will never now what exactly happened, how his instincts on how to stay out of the way of cars failed him. After all, as a friend said, he was a "city cat."

Even city cats make mistakes, I guess. 

If you have a cat and your cat is not hell-bent on going outside, keep them inside. But if you have a cat like Ed, I understand why you'd let him out. Would Ed have eventually settled in if I'd never let him outside again? I don't know. The situation was complicated by the fact that we were letting some of our other cats outside, although none of them did (or does) want to be out as much as Ed did. I honestly believe Ed's happiest moments were when we were all outside, hanging out on the deck or gardening. If I went outside, Ed was there, ready to spend time together.

Once when he was young, Ed followed me all the way around the block. He took the path the mail carrier takes, across lawns and closer to the houses, rather than on the sidewalk, but he stayed near me. After that, if he started to follow, I took him back and threw him in the house, to keep him safe. 

Of course it was temporary. Keeping anyone, any pet, any thing, safe, is always temporary, or maybe an illusion altogether. But that doesn't mean it's not worth trying. 

The house is quieter, as the remaining cats (four now) don't care to go out nearly as much. Also they get along for the most part. They were united in their hatred of Ed, and they are showing no signs of needing to find a new target for those feelings. 

But I miss Ed. The last time I wrote a blog post, Ed was still alive. With every day that passes. though, there are fewer of those firsts. With time, the trauma and tragedy of that day fades, and happy memories gain hold. Pain yields to love. 

As much as I love the idea of Ed purring in the sun for eternity in some sort of pet heaven, I believe he'll best be remembered in memories, in pictures, and in these words. 

Thanks for reading about Ed. 

 

 

What I've Learned from Keeping a Capsule Wardrobe

In contrast to my last post, this one is about something that's working out well - the capsule wardrobe system. Or my version thereof. 

My week 44 challenge was to try a capsule wardrobe. Initial results were great, right up there with most of the decluttering-type challenges, about which I have zero regrets. As a matter of fact, making a new capsule is on my calendar every three months and I look forward to the task. Am I cool or what? 

Before (left) - so many shoes, no dresses, jeans must have all been in the wash, long-sleeve shirts not suitable for summer in St. Louis (far right is Eric's stuff). And after - less of everything except jeans and dresses (sorry, Eric, but the other curtain rod is so low!).

Before (left) - so many shoes, no dresses, jeans must have all been in the wash, long-sleeve shirts not suitable for summer in St. Louis (far right is Eric's stuff). And after - less of everything except jeans and dresses (sorry, Eric, but the other curtain rod is so low!).

Every three months I go through all my clothes, switch out things according the seasons, and get rid of pieces that no longer work for me. I don't adhere to a set number, but I'd say the total is generally under 40 items including shoes, outerwear and work clothes. 

When I started this, I incorrectly assumed that once a capsule was set, it wouldn't change over those three months. But things happen and new clothes come in. My mom gives me something that she doesn't want; I get a new t-shirt or something to workout in; I order something I've wanted; the weather changes and long sleeves are out of the question. So invariably, after three months, my closet needs to be cleaned out. 

I realize now that this repopulating of the closet is going to happen whether or not I go through everything four times a year, but if I follow through with that, it never gets that bad. 

After starting with someone else's rules, I've pretty much got my own at this point. They are as follows:

  1. Everything in the closet has to fit. Clothes that don't fit are pointless and frustrating.
  2. I have to like everything and want to wear it. All of it. (This is actually more difficult to accomplish than it sounds.) 
  3. There has to be at least one dress. I'm not necessarily a dress person, but occasions come up. 
  4. I have to have something I can wear out to a nice dinner that's not a dress.  
  5. And I have to have something I can wear to the store without feeling the slightest bit dressed up, but also without feeling like a bum.
  6. My shoe selection has to work with all the above. Likewise for bags. 

Although workout gear and lounge wear don't count toward the capsule, similar rules apply, but with a more general "enough but not too much" approach. I've been wearing two loose sundresses around the house this summer and that's about it, but I've got way more workout gear in rotation because I sweat a lot and have to wash each piece every time I wear it. 

You can find different rules on the internet. Or you can make your own. You'll have to decide for yourself if a system like this would work for you, but I'd definitely encourage you to try it. If it doesn't work out, you can right back to stuffing your closet full of everything you ever liked and might like in the future. 

It works for me because it gives me a set date to clear out my closet, think about what I have and what I need, and get rid of anything that doesn't work. It's all too easy to acquire a few things here and there, not be fully honest about them or truly not know how they're going to work out, and let them stay in the closet on wishful thinking. This last time, I got rid of a pair of linen shorts I liked more in theory than practice, a couple t-shirts that didn't fit quite right, some shoes that essentially served the same purpose as shoes I already had, a lot of around-the-house clothes I didn't especially like or need, and some workout clothes that weren't comfortable. It felt good. 

Because I've found a system I like, I hadn't done any research on capsule wardrobes since I wrote that original post. A quick search revealed some interesting reads from the last year or so. One of my favorite websites/guilty pleasures/okay-I'm-addicted, Apartment Therapy, has a three-part series about one of their writer's processes here. And I found a bunch of stuff about how for many people, it seems like capsule wardrobe = perfect wardrobe = shopping and spending money. I read about how the challenge comes down to owning up to the crappy quality of your clothes, how one writer made the switch from "capsule" to "curated," and then there's this guide to How to Build a Capsule Wardrobe that will Last a LIfetime. Hm. Probably not my lifetime.

Also, there's Everything You Need to Create Your Own Princess Kate Wardrobe. Here's what goes on in my mind when I read posts like this:  I like her style, but I will never need to dress like that. I wonder if we'd be friends if she knew me. Why on earth do I think I want to be friends with a celebrity? Do princesses even have time to read books and also is she technically a princess or just calling herself one? Stop thinking about Princess Kate already! Whew. Okay, let's move on... 

I saw a post on Reddit the other day, I think on r/frugal, from a frustrated person who'd read about how some minimalist blogger was upgrading everything in his capsule wardrobe each time he created a new one. The most recent "upgrades" included jeans that cost hundreds of dollars and a $500 coat. This person was pissed because he'd bought all his clothes at thrift stores and on sale for much, much less, yet achieved the same thing. 

Ed does not do upgrades. He's always been perfect, actually.

Ed does not do upgrades. He's always been perfect, actually.

My thoughts on this are two-fold. Yes, it can be good to spend more money on something you know you're likely to wear for years. On the other hand, we humans are always changing. We change our opinions, our habits, our jobs, our friends, even - god forbid - our style. There's a chance that guy's $500 coat might outlast his interest in wearing it, and that change might have nothing to do with styles changing, but with him changing. If you can afford to replace a $500 coat every few years, maybe it's worth taking that chance. Otherwise, stick with price points you can afford every few years. 

(I'm assuming we're all in the mindset of buying and wearing, not buying with the intention to resell. There is a resale market for designer clothes that one of my good friends participates in, which can make an "investment" piece retain value with proper care. That is way to much work for me. Deciding what to invest in, taking care of it... I just want to have something to wear to dinner with the in-laws that doesn't look like crap!)

In terms of what to upgrade, I'm somewhere in between, but much closer to the frugal guy. I don't think anything in my closet cost more than $100. But having fewer clothes has shown me what's worth spending on. I've had the same winter coat for three years and I still like it. It's probably worth paying someone to mend the holes in the pockets, so it's at the tailor's right now. I ruin all my white t-shirts within the season, so I should spend as little as possible on them. I get attached to cardigans and will wear them for a long time, so I can spend a little more. Anything I can't wear over a few size changes is probably not worth dropping a lot of money on. Except for bras; bras are worth more to me. It's not important to spend a lot on workout gear, but I'm more likely to work out if I have something functional and comfortable to wear, and in the summer, there has to be enough that I can wear something clean without doing laundry every single day. It turns out I'm flaky about shoes, so I shouldn't spend much on them. On the other hand, I have been known to keep purses until they fall apart. 

Would  a capsule wardrobe work for you? You'll have to try it yourself and see if you learn anything. Eric tried it. He hated it. He got frustrated when the weather changed and half of his clothes were in the attic. He brought them down, pared down enough that he could keep everything in one place. He had a lot more clothes than I would want to deal with, until he went through everything again last week and pared it back down, donating three bags of clothing and a couple pairs of shoes. He still has more in the closet than I do, but it's less than he's ever had before. Whether or not he'll be happy with it remains to be seen. 

What I've Learned: 

  • Having fewer clothes to choose from, and only having to choose from things that fit, are appropriate for the season, and go together is freeing. It takes less time and effort and is easier. 
  • Looking critically at what I have keeps me from getting bogged down in my own history. This applies to all decluttering - I recently realized my desk was filled with mailing supplies from a time when I regularly sent stories out to journals via snail mail. That is not what I do now, so I took all that stuff downstairs and put things I do use in my desk drawers. 
  • The process is most effective if I take everything out of the closet and only put back what I want to wear. It seems like this shouldn't be any different than taking out what I don't want, but it turns out there's a big difference between letting something stay (easy) and putting something back (harder). My eyes glide right over clothing I don't like, as if it were part of the fixtures, unless I physically remove it from the closet. 
  • Sometimes the urge to buy something new just goes away. Sometimes it means I've changed and how I want to present myself is changing. And sometimes I just want to shop, but if what I want overlaps with something I already have, I know I need to wait out the urge.
  • I enjoy the process of clearing out things that don't work for me and this process gets easier every time, as I learn more and more about what works for me. 
  • It's especially nice to get rid of underthings that don't fit, are old, or that don't feel good to wear. Often other people don't see these things and it's easy to force ourselves to keep wearing them (see PS about bras). 

I hope you'll consider trying a capsule wardrobe, or at least putting anything that doesn't fit or is out-of-season in a place away from what you're wearing now. 

PS for Bra Wearers

At some point since my first capsule, I discovered a sub-Reddit called "A Bra that Fits." I lurked for a while, reading about the struggles people have with this, lamenting my own and wondering if it was really that bad. Then I finally took my measurements and plugged them into the bra size calculator. I took my new sizes (quite different from my old sizes) and ordered a bunch of bras from places that offer free shipping both ways (mostly Nordstrom and Amazon). And I finally found a bra that fit! I still take my bra off as soon as I get home and I prefer to go without when I'm at home, but my bras are no longer uncomfortable. The straps stay on my shoulders and my boobs aren't being squished into unnatural shapes when I don't want them to be. Sometimes I forget I have them on. Craziness. If you wear a bra and you haven't gone through this process, I highly recommend giving it a try.

 

 

Fridge Cleaning Round Two

One of the first challenges I undertook was to clean the kitchen, including the fridge. Although the kitchen as a whole has stayed fairly clean and organized, and Eric has even helped me go through the cabinets since the first purge/cleaning, I feel like the fridge is nearly always out of control. 

Homeless macaroni salad :(

Homeless macaroni salad :(

Last week, I had three bowls of macaroni salad sitting on the counter because they didn't fit in the fridge. You know it's bad when you can't cram three bowls in somewhere. Sigh. 

So it was time to clean the fridge. 

Since my last post, we replaced the old secondhand Sub-Zero with a new fridge, a side-by-side stainless behemoth. It's big. It holds a lot of stuff. Eric had to take the door off to get it into the house. It's cold inside. 

Stainless steel, however, sucks, because it means not only is the inside difficult to keep clean, but so is the outside. Every little fingerprint and drip shows, and getting them off requires special cleaning products. And I'm the only one who cleans it. Poor me...

Anyhow, that's the least of my problems. I know the best plan of attack would be to buy no more food than we can eat in a week, clean the fridge weekly, and have plenty of open space at all times, enough even for guest's beer and leftovers.

In practice, I find that nearly impossible. Working in a grocery store means I buy a little bit every day, and since we don't eat a lot of meals together, we don't do any meal planning. Sometimes we make things we don't really like all that much and just leave them in the refrigerator, hoping they'll disappear. 

When I cleaned out the fridge, I found several things that fit that category, and much more. 

I suspect there is a correlation between overly full fridges and food waste. I put a bunch of stuff on the compost pile and down the garbage disposal. Unfortunately, a few things went straight into the trash, too. 

Some stuff just needed to be in a different container. We had a tiki cocktail party a few weeks ago that involved lots of homemade syrups and juices, and those just needed to be put in better containers for longer storage. Eric had a cup of kimchi in a half-gallon Ball jar. 

And then the general organization of the fridge was shit. I could have sworn that I wrote about organizing the fridge with baskets, but I can't find any such references anywhere. Somewhere I read about using plastic baskets in the freezer to help keep things organized. I did this and it worked so well, I tried it in the fridge, too. We have four plastic bins that each hold a different category of thing (our categories are sweet things, Asian cooking things, cheese & "meat" things, and pickled things). If everything stays where it's supposed to, it's easy to find what you need. I highly recommend the basket system. We bought ours for a few dollars each at Big Lots. The ones with handles are best because they have straight sides. The white one looks bigger, but it's more difficult to handle.

Besides the tiki party, we hopped on the craft cocktail cart in a more general way, so the fridge had cocktail ingredients in multiple places. Everything except eggs was in multiple places (good job, eggs). 

I decided to take everything out and clean the fridge one shelf at a time. If I learned nothing else from Marie Kondo's The Magic Art of Tidying Up, I now know to take everything out and start with a clean, empty space. I left all the jarred things on the counter until the end. I took everything out of the door. Then I decided what should go back in and where. 

The new fridge, before and after. It's rather difficult to get a good picture of this one, because the door closes automatically. 

The new fridge, before and after. It's rather difficult to get a good picture of this one, because the door closes automatically. 

And for reference, the old fridge before and after. The door stayed open on this one, sometimes for a long, long time. It's worth noting the eggs didn't move during this cleaning, either. :)

And for reference, the old fridge before and after. The door stayed open on this one, sometimes for a long, long time. It's worth noting the eggs didn't move during this cleaning, either. :)

It seems that one of my favorite things to add to the fridge is beverages. There are many, many beverages in our refrigerator, most without alcohol (which is probably why they're still there). It also became clear that Eric has not been following the organizational bin system at all. I found black bean paste in the sweet things bin. Wow. (I say that like I know what black bean paste tastes like, which I do not. For all I know it could be sweet.)

Overall, though, it was just messy. I married some condiments, got rid of old jars of things, and combined like types of things on the same shelf. And I cleaned as I went. Afterward, my labor was rewarded when I was able to get the macaroni salad in with room to spare. I'm also happy to report that we ate all the macaroni salad and didn't waste a bit of it. 

Some things I've learned from all the cleaning and decluttering I've done: 

  • Whatever the space you're trying to clean/declutter, take everything out, clean the space, and decide what you want to put back in. It's nearly impossible to tell if you really need to keep something while it's still in place. 
  • If you're on the fence, get rid of it. If it's going to be difficult to replace, take a picture of it. And then get rid of it. I've regretted tossing so few things that I can't actually think of one right now. 
  • If your lifestyle changes and suddenly you find yourself with 40 cocktail ingredients you need to store, redo your organization to accommodate your new interests. 
  • Despite what Marie Kondo says in the book, I find I have to keep going back over things. Maybe if nothing about my life ever changed, I could put everything in a place and have it work out forever, but things change all the time. And sometimes in changing, they get messy again. It's fixable. 
  • Don't buy stainless steel appliances. It's a trap. 

Bonus Update!

In case you've been wondering how the under-the-sink cleaning project held up, I got a picture of that, too, for comparison. I didn't do any sort of straightening or cleaning for the after pic. That's really what it looks like. 

Not too bad...

Not too bad...

The tension rod failed, so I don't recommend that for bottles. But you could use it for the dish rag, as my mom does. She finds that more convenient than leaving a wet heap in the sink, apparently. Otherwise, once again the baskets have worked out just fine, despite a slight color change (maybe just a lighting change?). 

You can see the stainless steel cleaning product right up front next to the bag of baking soda. And it appears my taste in cleaning products is completely different now, for whatever that's worth. 

This was definitely a project worth undertaking. 

Two Year Update - My Current Relationship with Makeup

In March of 2015, I challenged myself to go a week without makeup. At that time, I was wearing makeup every day, sometimes even while exercising. I was no longer comfortable leaving the house without it. Going without was tough at first, but by the end of the week, my makeup habit was broken. For the next year or so, I went without makeup more often than I wore it. 

Then a backslide of sorts started. I gained some weight, had surgery, transferred to a new store where I had contact with more people overall - and suddenly one day, I realized I didn't want to go to work without putting on makeup. 

Although it sounds easy to just stop, and technically it is, there can be a transition period, like I had the first time I stopped, where all the people I know had to adjust to my new look. As my friend Paula pointed out in "A Makeup Artist on Makeup," what's expected has to do with what you've been doing. I don't have to wear makeup to work, but when I did and then I stopped, it makes sense people would notice. And some did. 

But this time around, no one noticed or, if they did, they didn't say anything. I can think of a number of things that might explain this.

  • Since I'm no longer a manager, fewer people are looking at me. I find I'm actually talking more, having conversations while I work, but there are fewer times when I'm doing nothing but talking to someone. As a manager, I had to drop what I was doing and listen to many customer and employee concerns. As an employee, now I am expected to work while I talk, which is fine.
  • Since I'm no longer a manager, I'm a lot happier at work, and happiness looks good on everyone.
  • It's almost summer, the pool is up, and I've been going running outside, so I've got a bit of a tan.
  • Everyone is still paying a lot of attention (and compliments) to my glasses. I've worn makeup only twice since I got them, once to go out to dinner and once to work. When I wore it to work, there was no reason other than I just felt like it. 
Ed decided the makeup drawer would be a good place to take a nap - while I was in the middle of putting on makeup. 

Ed decided the makeup drawer would be a good place to take a nap - while I was in the middle of putting on makeup. 

And that's how I'd like it to be - I wear makeup when I feel like it. I will continue to wear makeup on occasions when I want to look my best, such as going out, or for occasions when I think it might benefit me, such as doctor's appointments. And I'm sure I'll wear it to work sometimes, to the store, wherever, but only when I feel like it. (Hopefully I'll never again wear it to exercise.) 

As a side note, by wearing less makeup, I've saved some money, since most of it lasts at least a year. I find myself replacing my mascara before it runs out, but otherwise, things seem to be lasting just fine (here's a calendar for how long makeup should last, in case you're curious). On the other hand, I do less experimenting with makeup, so I find what I wear gets more and more routine. I tossed around the idea of trying to do some sort of capsule makeup thing, like the capsule wardrobe, but I don't think it will work since makeup doesn't last as long as clothing. I do have two shades of foundation, for pale months and tan months, and I buy waterproof mascara in the summer and regular for the winter, but that's about it. 

I feel like I'm back where I want to be with how I feel with and without makeup, but it hasn't been easy to stay there over the last two years. I guess if I've learned nothing else from all the challenges I undertook, it's that few things are a smooth progression from start to "end," and there really isn't an end, because life goes on and changes over time. What seems important to me now is figuring out how I want to feel (which in this case is "not like I have to wear makeup every day") and noticing when I'm somewhere else. 

Meditation and Seeing

Me, glasses, no makeup. 

Me, glasses, no makeup. 

Today, at age 44, I got my first pair of prescription glasses. They have progressive lenses and make me feel like I have motion sickness when I walk. My depth perception is off. I knocked them off my face while opening the closet door in the bathroom.

On the other hand, I see a lot more clearly when I'm standing still, especially far away, but also at middle distances. Gone is the somewhat fuzzy, romantic view of the world I had previously. Everything is sharp and clear. Sometimes this is good (I can more easily identify the birds in the yard) and sometimes less good (our cat-scratched couch looks a bit worse than I thought it did). Also I saw some dirt I've never seen before. Someone really ought to dust the baseboards. 

I'll get used to all this. I wear sunglasses almost every time I leave the house, so I'm already used to having glasses on my face. I read that the motion-sickness part will go away and I'll adapt to looking through the lenses. As a bonus, I think some part of my brain remembers being able to see this well and is like, "sweet, I'm 20 years old again!" Being able to see better = feeling younger = amazing!

How does this relate to meditation? First, I got something I didn't realize I needed (glasses, a meditation practice). The new thing felt strange at first (wobbling around, sitting on the floor doing nothing). The new thing made it possible for me to see/feel things I hadn't before, both good and bad (birds and dirt, patience and sadness). And finally the new thing promises to be more and more useful as time goes by. 

If you asked me which of the habits I've built into my life I least want to give up, I would choose meditation. I'd choose it over exercising, journaling, eating right - even decluttering. Meditation does so much for me - keeps anxiety and depression at bay, leaves me peaceful and happy, and generally makes everything else in life a little bit easier. Meditation makes it easier to make better decisions and see things generally more as they are, and less how I want them to be or think they should be. Just like the glasses. 

Except that I have no idea how meditation works. I don't know that anyone knows (here's a good article about that). But it sure seems to be helping. 

Today I meditated for an hour. I changed positions after 45 minutes because my left leg was numb. I forgot to follow my breath so, so many times, like most of the times. I was sweaty for part of the time, sad for no reason for a little bit, felt nearly weightless for a while, sad again, and then my back itched. At one point my left elbow hurt like someone had stabbed it. And I felt calm and peaceful when it was over. And life is not any different right now than it was before. The only sure way I know I've made progress is because when I first started, I could barely sit still for five minutes, and a few months ago my leg would have been numb well before 45 minutes had passed (I've read that the numbness is a nervous-system thing and gets better with time, which makes no sense to me, but okay). Despite this lack of evidence of change, though, things have changed. Somehow this process leads to good things. 

In his book Mindfulness in Plain English, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana describes meditation's effect on the brain with the analogy of letting the mud settle in a pond. If you keep stirring around (thinking), the mud never settles and you can't see what's there. But as the mud settles and the water clears, it's easier to see what's present. Thoughts are busy work for your brain. Stop thinking for a second and the real work can begin. At least, that's how I'm thinking of it now. 

Extend this to your enemies in order to release yourself from their negativity. 

Extend this to your enemies in order to release yourself from their negativity. 

He also says that beginning meditaters often think they'll quickly have the answers to everything in life, but what they end up with is a better way to take out the trash. One day you realize you're in the wrong job and you make a change. Later you realize the couch would be better on the other side of the room. Suddenly that coworker you couldn't stand doesn't bother you at all and it feels freeing. Who knows what's coming next? Maybe a way to get someone else to clean the baseboards. 

I never know what I'm going to get, or even if I can attribute what I get to meditation, but meditation makes me feel clear-headed and allows me to avoid getting caught up in my thoughts and feelings. Everything passes - emotions, physical conditions, thoughts. Everything. In some ways, meditation is watching things come and go, without following along. It's nice to not feel like I need to react to every temporary condition that comes along. Wait and it passes. Not only that, but once it's past, it will probably seem unimportant. 

In the first year of this blog, I attempted meditation and mindfulness four times: Week 9 - Let's Meditate, Week 27 - Mindfulness, Week 31 - Oprah & Deepak 21-day Meditation Experience, and Week 46 - (another) Meditation Experience. Although I got something out of every one of those weeks, nothing stuck with me. 

A year and a half after that last attempt, I had my Aruba Anxiety Experience (which sounds like a bad cruise ship shore excursion), as I talked about in my post On Failure and Change. That was last September. I've meditated all but three days since then. According to the Insight Timer app I use, I've meditated on 279 days, for 143 hours and 55 minutes altogether. Sometimes that seems like a lot, and other times it feels like hardly anything. I'm still very much a beginner, but I've come a long way from where I was a couple years ago. 

Bonus bunny feet, courtesy of my friend Hilary's bunny Miriam.

Bonus bunny feet, courtesy of my friend Hilary's bunny Miriam.

I still have anxiety sometimes. I try to observe it, let it run its course, but not react to it. For example, I have a long-standing fear of accidentally burning down the house (thanks a lot, elementary-school Fire Department presentations) and a history of returning home to double check that I turned everything off. Once when I was in college, I made the decision to move after I dreamed my apartment building burned down. I've mostly stopped having these worries, but yesterday I was pretty thoroughly convinced I'd left the gas stove burning when I went to work. Despite my previous experience, which tells me those convictions are always, always wrong, I really wanted to go home and check. But I didn't. I just felt that way for a while, then I forgot about it. When I returned home, the burner was off. As I knew it would be, even while I was worrying it was not. 

Will I ever be enlightened? Probably not. But if I continue to feel better at the rate I'm going now, I think I'll be content in my life, even rather happy and satisfied. I've still got so much to learn. Right now I'm reading books, and at some point I'd like to go on a meditation retreat. I haven't settled on a method. I've used guided meditations sporadically and found them useful at times (especially if I can't find a quiet space), but I prefer to just sit and follow my breath. I have no idea what I'm doing, but it seems to be working all the same. 

What I'm trying to say is that if I'm getting as much benefit out of meditation at this point, so close to the beginning, you should try it, too. It's not easy, but it's not exactly difficult, either. There are no tests. You don't have to remember anything. But the benefits! 

It'll be just like getting your first pair of glasses. 

 

New Challenge: Improve the Quality of My Sleep

Sleeping more soundly. Sounds great, doesn't it? I don't know about you, but I loooove sleep. However despite spending a lot of time in bed, I don't wake up refreshed, ready to hop out of bed and tackle the day, and that's how I'd like to feel. So I've been doing some research on what I can do to improve the quality of my sleep.

A lot of things can affect how we sleep, from the physical conditions of the room and bed to what we eat or drink to when we exercise. Here's where things stand now for me, good and bad.

Someone could probably take a good picture of a black room - not me - but this should give you a decent idea of what we've got. Small, dark and cave-like. 

Someone could probably take a good picture of a black room - not me - but this should give you a decent idea of what we've got. Small, dark and cave-like. 

Things I think I'm already doing okay with:

  • I track my sleep with my Fitbit and a a couple weeks ago, I switched from a One, which tracks arm movement only, to an Alta HR, which tracks heart rate and uses that information to (presumably) track sleep stages more accurately (or at least generate more data!). 
  • Our bed is comfortable, with a good mattress, pillows and sheets. 
  • The bedroom is dark (black walls and blackout drapes at the windows) and cool (window AC unit set to 62 degrees).
  • We use this "noise machine" to generate white noise while we sleep, which minimizes sounds that would wake me up. 
  • I sleep with an eye mask, so I can't tell if Eric is looking at his phone. 
  • We never let the dog sleep in the bed, and usually ban the cats as well, except for Alfie, who is a champion sleeper and doesn't move at all once he's settled in. 
  • I exercise 4-6 days a week and my job is physically active, so I'm usually tired when I go to bed. 

 

Things that don't help, but that I can't or won't change:

  • I work evenings and don't get home until 11:30 pm, so I am rarely or never in bed before midnight.
  • I sleep in as late as I feel the need, since I'd rather not use an alarm clock, so the time I get up varies. 
  • I would point out that my husband sleeps flat on his back in the middle of the bed, but he'll only get irritated and deny it, and I don't have photographic proof, so forget I said anything. 
  • I drink caffeinated tea and sometimes coffee, always in the morning and sometimes into early afternoon.
Guess who never has any trouble sleeping? These fuckers. 

Guess who never has any trouble sleeping? These fuckers. 

Here's what I can improve on:

  • Stop looking at my phone before I go to sleep. 
  • Eat less right before I go to sleep.
  • Cut back on alcohol. 

I tend to average around 8 hours of sleep. Some weeks the average is just over; others just under. But I'm in bed between 9 and 10 hours when I don't have to set an alarm. I spend over an hour of my time in bed awake, which, according to Fitbit, is less than the average user my age (44), but that average certainly includes people with children, no noise machine, sleep apnea, chronic pain, dogs in bed, etc. I can't help but think I should be doing better than the average there. 

I spend more than the average in the light sleep stage, and way less than the average in both deep and REM sleep. 

My goal is increase the amount of deep sleep I get. Googling that netted me a few sales pitches for sleep devices, supplements and drugs (that I don't want to try) and lots of articles essentially repeating the same advice about dark rooms, cool temperatures and comfortable beds, as well as warnings about taking too seriously the data provided by fitness trackers (which I am choosing to ignore). However, I will say that if I felt great when I woke up every morning, I wouldn't be looking into what I can do to change how I sleep, regardless of what my sleep record said.

Starting tonight, I'm going to make this my routine: 

  1. Plug my phone and set any necessary alarms as soon as I get home from work, and don't look at my phone again until morning.
  2. Eat a banana (two if I'm really hungry?), drink a glass of water, and take calcium (long story, but I have to take supplemental calcium twice a day or my extremities go numb and sometimes I get muscle cramps).
  3. Brush teeth, wash face, change clothes.
  4. Get in bed and read anything that's not on the phone. I usually read on my Kindle Paperwhite and at this point I refuse to even look into whether or not the light it emits could be disturbing my sleep. 

And I'll report back in a week or two. Hopefully better rested. 

 

Introversion and Energy Levels

I'm an introvert (an INFP on the Myers-Briggs test). I can spend pretty much endless hours alone, or nearly alone, without getting bored or wanting company. But I do like to have relationships with friends and family, and relationships require spending time together. And I like to go out and try new things. But those activities take energy and I have to spend time recovering afterward. If I'm recovering, I do not have the energy it takes to write. 

Hazel did not know what to do when Ed turned the tables and ate her food, instead of the other way around. 

Hazel did not know what to do when Ed turned the tables and ate her food, instead of the other way around. 

One of the things I've noticed as I've been tracking how I spend my time is that my energy levels vary quite a bit depending on what I do, and the activities that leave me the most drained are social ones. More so than working out or going to work (although my work involves "socialness" with co-workers and customers, I don't find it as draining) (actually that is only true now that I'm no longer managing - when I was managing it was the most draining thing I did). No matter how much fun I have hanging out, it drains me, rather than energizing me. 

On the week I made social plans on both of the days I had off work, I had a difficult time getting any writing done. This past weekend we had a party at our house and I didn't get anything else done, not even my regular maintenance-type stuff, including meditation, for several days. Although the party was only one day, party-related things took up several days (cleaning leading up to the party and resting after). All this adds up to not very much writing getting done, and although I had fun with those social things, I don't feel like I'm doing what I need to do. 

A introverted friend told me she sets a limit for social activities - one per week. If she already has something on her calendar, she declines all other invitations. I love this idea. My instincts tell me it will work for me. I won't find one social activity a week to be too much. I worry that I'll end up seeing each friend or family member only once a year, but I think I'm going to give this a try and see how it goes. 

Another idea I had, although I am not confident it will work out in practice, is to try to schedule social activities as late in the day as possible, so when I'm out of energy, it's time for bed, and hopefully I will have done my creative work beforehand. Even if I can't make that always work out, it's something to aim for whenever possible. 

I've still got a few days of tracking to do to hit three solid weeks, but I think I've already got my three big takeaways:

  1. My job takes up a lot of hours and there's nothing I can do about that right now. 
  2. Maintenance activities were taking up more time than they needed (and I improved that as soon as I realized what was going on). 
  3. I need time to recoup from social activities and should plan accordingly. 

I haven't mapped out my energy levels with the level of detail the worksheet from The Productivity Project requires, and honestly I don't think there's much point since how I use my time at work is outside of my control and work takes up many hours most days. But I'm glad I paid attention to how my various activities affected my energy levels.

Nothing earth-shattering here, but all these little things should help move me closer to my goal of having more time to write. I also love the idea of having considered how I spend my time, and spending it on activities I chose, rather than whatever came along.

The Productivity Project and How I'm Finding Time for Writing

Last week I mentioned that I was reading a book on productivity, despite having some aversion to the word "productivity." As it turned out, I got a lot out of it!

The book is The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention and Energy by Chris Bailey. 

Chris Bailey started by writing a blog (not entirely dissimilar to my own), called a "A Year of Productivity," which he started after he graduated from business school, before he took on a job. Over the course of one year, he researched and tried many productivity hacks, then he wrote the book, focusing on the ones he found most helpful. You can find a list of his experiments here

I listened to the audio version of his book, in my car and while walking the dog (aka times I couldn't write things down). I'd like to get a paper copy so I can do all the exercises he suggests, but in the meantime I printed off some resources from the website. He has a 26-week program, but I didn't think it was detailed enough, nor did it correspond closely enough with the exercises I wanted to do from the book (probably a good move, considering the goal is to sell the book - Bailey doesn't have any outside advertising on his website). There's also a sheet for tracking your energy level, which I tried to use but failed (he recommends giving up both caffeine and alcohol for that experiment - thanks but no!).

I even tried an app he recommends called Aging Booth. The idea is that if you have an inkling what Future You looks like, Present You will do more to help Future You out. So now that I have an idea what Future Anne looks like, I'm ... horrified. Maybe the results are better if you're in your twenties and seeing Future You in your sixities, but Future Me looks like she has one foot in the grave. 

And then there's the time log, for tracking how you spend your time every day, which I love

Time Logs

Basically, it's a three page, week-long grid in 30-minute increments. I've been doing it for a week and a half. I've got a few question marks on there, but for the most part, I've been pretty good about filling in what I did each half hour. I intend to keep this up for three weeks. 

Within a few days, I discovered that I spend a ton of time on maintenance-type activities. All good things, and a vast improvement over how I used to spend my time. A year ago, my morning routine involved drinking tea for several hours while I read email, updated my financial tracking software, and perused the internet. I improved on that by resuming some journaling (morning pages), a task that theoretically takes 30 minutes, but when you add in making tea, feeding the animals, letting the dog out, etc., can easily stretch to an hour. Then I added dog walks (30-40 minutes) and working out three times a week (up to 90 minutes).  And finally I added meditation, which I was doing for up to an hour a day. 

All good things, but put together, along with getting ready for work, this routine could take up to 5 hours! When I realized that, I started looking for places to cut back. I gave my morning tea and journaling routine a 30-minute limit, regardless of how many pages I had written. I scaled my workout back just a bit (same exercises, but fewer sets). I decided 45 minutes of meditation was good enough. 

Those few changes, coupled with more awareness in general of how I spend my time, freed up enough minutes for me to add a little bit of time every day for reading and working on my fiction. Success!

Routines

My meyer lemon tree has at least 8 lemons-to-be on it! All that watering is worth it :)

My meyer lemon tree has at least 8 lemons-to-be on it! All that watering is worth it :)

Bailey also advocates for routines. He recommends dumping all household maintenance on one day, including cleaning and errands, as well as establishing a bedtime routine that is conducive to good sleep. 

I've been working on my evening routine. I'm trying to drink a full glass of water when I get home (I usually work evenings, so I'm getting home in time to go to bed at midnight - my home-from-work routine is also my bedtime routine), wash my face and change my clothes. I would like to stop looking at my phone once I'm home from work, but I find it more difficult to stop doing something than I do to add a new habit in. 

I'm also trying to limit most cleaning to one day. It's not like I was doing a lot of cleaning to begin with, but I was doing it whenever I felt like it (hahaha!). For now, I'm experimenting with putting cleaning on the calendar and doing it for a couple of hours that day. Otherwise, all I'm doing on other days is stuff that has to be done - watering plants and washing dishes. 

End Goal

One of the first things Bailey talks about in the book is establishing why you want to be more productive. And maybe this is where my aversion to productivity comes in - I don't like the idea of getting more done, just to get more done. 

Alfie does not believe in "getting things done." 

Alfie does not believe in "getting things done." 

But I do like the idea of getting the things I need to do done in a timely manner,  and cutting out time-wasters (I'm looking at you, Reddit) so I can do more of the things I like to do, such as reading books and writing.

It's a matter of getting more of the right things done. Journaling, exercising and meditating are all important for my mental and physical health. Having a relatively clean house makes me feel more comfortable. I want and need to spend time with Eric and friends, and that pesky job thing sucks up a lot of time. So that means I need to carve out time for reading and writing from what's left. 

Results

It takes me a couple hours to write a blog post like this from start to finish, including pictures. I'm doing that once a week on a day I have off from work. So far, so good. 

The nice thing about reading is that I can do it in any reclaimed bit of time, no matter how small. It's perfect before bed, when I can separate myself from my phone. It's even good when I'm beat and don't feel like anything other than crashing on the couch. 

Working on fiction is where I really want to be more productive, if you interpret productivity as use of time, rather than output. I added "Creative Work" to my habit tracker (HabitBull, in case you're curious - I have the paid version and I love it) and I'm counting everything from reading about writing, to talking about my idea, to writing notes and working on the plot. Every week I'm marking a few more days as successful. 

I've got a long way to go, but I already feel better about how I'm using the time I freed up when I stopped being a manager at work. I'm not as frustrated by how much time I'm NOT spending writing, and I'm more optimistic that I will use found time well. 

Bonus Interesting Website

A shout-out to Wait But Why, the only blog I spent hours reading over the last year, for the post 100 Blocks A Day, which is also about looking at what you do with your time in a day. His idea is that if you sleep 7 or 8 hours a night, you're left with approximately 1000 minutes of time. That works out to 100 10-minute blocks. He too has a printable sheet. I did this once, wanted to do it again, but didn't. It turns out 30 minute blocks are much easier to monitor than 10-minute blocks. Wait But Why also has your whole life in weeks, if you're curious about that. 

On Poetry, the Past, the Present

There are a couple posts I want to write -

1)  Trail reviews for the hiking Eric and I did in Trinidad, and...

2)  a post about the productivity book I'm reading (Hahahaha - part of my brain just cracks up every time I hear the word "productivity") and...

3) other things?

What is it? I'm pretty sure it's a goddamn poem waiting to be recognized...

What is it? I'm pretty sure it's a goddamn poem waiting to be recognized...

But what I really want to talk about are the effects of that year of blogging I did. 

I've mentioned that I want to do some follow-up posts, share how the things I started have held up, but what my attention keeps going back to are the posts that have gotten hits in the months when I wasn't maintaining the blog.

What was happening when I wasn't looking? Isn't that essentially all that's ever interesting? What do your loved ones do when you're not together? What's your subconscious doing when you're not looking? What's happening on your blog when you're not writing? What is going on on the other side of the wall right now?

My guess during those months would have been NOTHING. Who reads a blog no one updates? Search engines, that's who. So on what pages did those search engine hits land? Pages about poems and running. And, occasionally, decluttering and zero waste. 

I gave the running page a title that I thought would appeal to search engines: How to Make a Half-Marathon Training Plan. If you've run a half-marathon and you're anything like me, you probably googled that at some point. So, pretty much that's cheating. Likewise with decluttering and zero waste. I didn't try to make them come up in searches, but they're popular topics and I'm sure some people (even occasionally me) go beyond the first page of the results their searches dredge up. 

That leaves us with the poem results, consistently toward the top of the list. I don't remember where exactly, but I recall thinking my week 5 "read a poem every day and write about it" challenge was one of my least popular - in terms of page clicks, comments, everything. But it was also one that got a lot of responses from readers via email, usually to recommend favorite poems I might consider writing about. We are poetry readers in hiding, it seems. 

Two notable things came from this phenomena, besides illuminating the disparity between my immediate reaction to poetry week and the long-term results:

1) My most popular post is the one about Bring on the Goddamn Cat. Is this poem assigned in classes? Are people searching for the words so they can read it at weddings? Who knows, but it gets hits, regardless of how thoroughly I ignore the blog.  

2) One of the poets, Michael Broder, actually commented on my post about his poem, Last Night. Which is pretty fucking neat. It makes me want to get his latest book of poetry and read and comment on every poem in the book. But we all know I don't have that sort of ... dedication? Follow through? Focus? 

Fuck this broom

Fuck this broom

3) Yeah no. I committed to two. Two is all. 

Time. Time is the thing I am lacking. In an ideal world, I could spend half the day writing and half the day reading. Plus some exercise and meditation. In reality, I work, and not at any of those things. Work sucks up a lot of time (work sucks... hahahah). Even when you don't have to think about work in your non-working hours. Time is time, limited and non-renewable. 

Okay, so no time for that. But also consider this. Basically, I know next to nothing about poetry. I am in no position to read/review poems, individually or in collections. I am not especially well-read in poetry. I'm not an expert on form. All I can bring to poetry is a willingness to hear, see, relate. When I re-read what I wrote about those poems, it seems pretty vapid. 

And maybe that's enough. 

I once had an ill-advised (no one advised it; I found it on my own, and it paid only in free tickets, which is actually pretty great) career as a theater reviewer, despite my best resume points being "at various times dated and/or lived with people actively involved in theater." And once I did props for a show. And I took an acting class, after college, as an actual adult, which, in retrospect, seems pretty damn crazy.

To give you a better idea, after I'd written a review or two, I called a friend to clarify exactly what it was that the director did, because an editor wanted me to talk more about that and I had no idea. 

I could not define the role of a theater director. 

And I was reviewing theater. 

Sorry, world. Sometimes you think you have impostor syndrome but then it turns out you are actually not the real thing. 

However, many of the people involved in the shows I reviewed genuinely seemed to like my reviews. I tended to talk more about what I liked than what I didn't. I talked about what worked, or the effect of various choices (ahem, not the director's choices), without judgement. My personal stake in the theater world was nothing. I had nothing to lose, nothing to gain, like much of the paying audience. I like theater and actors and sets and lighting and all that shit. I like the magic! I appreciate all the hard work that goes into creating that magic. Even if I don't understand who the wizard is, or what she does. 

I wrote reviews for people like me. 

But poetry? 

Basket case.

Basket case.

The first time I went to a writing conference, Anne Lamott was the key speaker. I wanted to see her speak, but I had no idea what else went on at a writing conference. Turns out you sign up for workshops and lectures and stuff. 

Two things from that conference stick with me today: 

1) I was jealous of the poets. At some point, the poets in the room were asked to stand up. They were very much the minority and and I, a lousy fiction writer, was so envious. I wanted to stand up when they called the poets. Now that I'm older, I see a mixed blessing type thing.

2) I live in a no-man's-land when it comes to lunch. There just aren't many people I want to have lunch with, but I also don't like to have lunch alone. If you've ever been an introvert trying to find that one person in the room with whom you'd really like to dine ... okay, also if you've ever played the lottery. You get it. 

But THEN WHAT???

But THEN WHAT???

3 :)

So, if your expectations were that no one was reading your blog, then you find out that people were reading your blog, and the main thing they wanted to read about was poetry, which you thought had been a failure, but perhaps as it turns out was not, but regardless you know next to nothing about, THEN WHAT?

You write about poetry? You sort of internet stalk Michael Broder? You find a way to make Bring on the Goddamn Cat a way of life? 

You address it like this. A post few will read. No one will press "like," and fewer still will comment. Who the fuck knows. You write a post addressing the phenomena, insert a few cat pictures, go back to whatever it was you wanted to write about before and hope for the best. But some part of you still wants to know - THEN WHAT?

Bring on the goddamn cat. 

 

Writing: What I'm Working On

I thought I'd write about meditation and my mental health today, but it turns out I'm not feeling it. Instead I'd like to write about writing fiction. If I'm using the blog to write about my process, maybe it will encourage me to, you know, have a process. To actually write.

Writing fiction was probably the most important thing that fell away while I attempted to manage people at work. That and my mental health. Maybe they go together, writing and mental health, wherever they go. I could draw more connections there... Suffice to say I'm glad this isn't a blog about management styles.

What if this was the first time in ten years this yellow iris had bloomed? True story!

What if this was the first time in ten years this yellow iris had bloomed? True story!

In the past, I've always been kind of secretive about my writing process. Once I had something written, I shared my drafts, took feedback, and made revisions, but the path that leads to a share-able draft is long. There are so many ways to develop a story. I've tried writing from prompts, writing with a form or length in mind, writing from a character, writing from a "what if?" question, plotting, outlining, etc. But somewhere along the line, I got the idea that those processes should be explored alone, or with a book about writing, but certainly not in public. Also, I thought that ideas for stories should be kept to myself. If I was thinking about writing a prose poem about cats and raccoons, I wouldn't tell anyone, because if I did, I might never write it.

I have no idea where this taboo against talking came from, but I kept my ideas and process to myself. I guess my fear was that if I told the story verbally, I wouldn't feel compelled to write it. I think that warning is probably in a writing book somewhere. 

As it turns out, I can talk about a story all day long and I just get more and more excited about it. Sometimes the idea gets better. And I'm not very good at telling stories out-loud. I leave out important details. I forget what I've said and haven't said, and err on the side of saying less, which tends to leave people confused. Now that I think about it, trying to tell someone about my story ideas probably just reinforces my need to write it, so I can tell it correctly. 

So I've got this idea for a novel. It came from a dream, which is another thing you're not supposed to do, take ideas from your dreams, but I've had some success in the past with that approach. It helps that I like surreal tales, magical realism, fantasy of a sort (Murakami and David Mitchell fantasy, not high fantasy). Dream-like tales. 

This picture could illustrate the story I didn't write about getting drunk on Easter. 

This picture could illustrate the story I didn't write about getting drunk on Easter. 

In his book On Writing, Stephen King comments that he likes hanging out with other writers because they don't ask him where he gets his ideas, because they understand. Ideas come out of nowhere. In the shower, while you're looking for your lost keys, when you're shopping. Some of mine come from dreams. 

When I stopped writing, story ideas continued to come to me for a while, then they stopped. I found them frustrating when I wasn't writing, and the feeling was probably mutual. During this period I wasn't making any special effort to remember my dreams, either. Then last year, I tried to go back to writing morning pages (a journaling practice from Julia Cameron's book, The Artist's Way), as a way to write something, to clear my mind, whatever. But it wasn't working. I wasn't motivated to write them and I didn't do it. Then my counselor mentioned that she had started keeping a dream journal, and that idea clicked with me. If I remembered my dreams when I woke up, I wrote them down. And once I started writing, it was easier to keep going. 

Dreams are like story ideas in that the more you do with them, the more there seem to be, or at least the more I seem to remember them. So in this current period of dream-remembering, at the very beginning of thinking about writing fiction again, I had a dream that seemed like a potentially interesting story idea. It came with a great main character, a fun setting, and a conflict that I have no trouble imagining as part of a larger plot. 

So far I have a couple pages of notes and ideas, but what I've decided to work on first is the plot. I've written every short story I've ever written without a plot, letting it develop as I went, then revising to make it better, but when I tried that with a novel in the past, it didn't work so well. I know other writers do it, but I felt like the novels I tried to construct that way ended up without a good structure, like I'd hung wallpaper before plastering the walls. 

I'm in the process of rereading all the writing books I have that deal with plot, taking notes, and thinking about how I might apply what I'm reading to the story I want to tell. I hope to end up with a solid plot outline, then I'll flesh out my characters and settings, write a good (hopefully) beginning and go from there. I want to avoid the types of rewrites where I have to go back and change something about a character because it doesn't work with a later plot point. Right now, it seems like a lot of my novel-writing problems in the past have been caused by plot failures. Developing the plot first might help, no? 

That's where I am this week, reading books about writing, thinking about plot, talking a little about my story idea, taking notes and planning. I realize I didn't share my idea in this blog post. I guess I'm not quite there yet. 

The End

PS - While searching for a link to The Artist's Way, which I haven't read since the mid-90's, I realized there's quite a bit more religion, spirituality and capital-U Universe in Julia Cameron's work than I remember. I mention this because I honestly don't remember those parts at all, and this book really does deserve credit for helping me figure out that I wanted to be a writer. I guess I took what I found useful and ignored the rest. I should do more of that.

On Failure and Change

It's been just over a year and seven-and-a-half months since my last post. Sure, I've thought about the blog. I've thought about writing posts to update you on the staying power of the various challenges, posts explaining what I've been doing, posts of all sorts, but nothing made it into type. As is the case with most things, I had a variety of reasons/excuses - stress from work, frustrations with responses to my posts and/or challenges, major surgery and corresponding recovery, fewer ideas that seemed good enough to write about, a house full of cats, etc. Yet I continued to pay the annual fee to keep the site up if, for nothing else, than to showcase the logo my amazing friend Sam made for the blog (thanks, Sam!). 

So no blogging, and pretty much no writing at all, for over a year. Much frustration stemming from my job. I started seeing a counselor at some point. I had surgery about a year ago (a hysterectomy necessary because of fibroids; very glad I did it). Toward the end of my recovery, I decided to start lifting weights so I wouldn't be completely worn out by work, and I haven't stopped, which means I've been lifting weights for 13 months, which is definitely some kind of personal record.

So that was good. But still - so much anxiety and stress coming from work! I was actually looking forward to a major surgery because it meant time off work! Then I was really looking forward to our September vacation in Aruba because it would be more time off work! Work sucked!

Not our dog. 

Not our dog. 

And Aruba was awesome. We explored the small island, swam, drank island beer and ate locally caught snapper. I sat on the beach and read book after book. It was ideal. Except I was still plagued by anxiety. One day, I became convinced that our dog, Hazel, had bitten someone and no one was telling us because they didn't want to ruin our vacation. I had no reason to think this. Then I started thinking about tsunamis and wondering if Aruba could withstand one, and then terrorist attacks... Wow, I thought, I have got to talk to my counselor about my anxiety when I get back, because I am ruining an otherwise perfect vacation with paranoid thoughts. What is the matter with me?

I was also between books at that moment. I'd brought my Kindle, loaded with books I wanted to read, books I'd seen on sale that looked interesting, books I think I should read and will burden myself and my Kindle with forever, unless I actually read them. What I didn't have, though, was a reading plan, so anything was up for grabs. I'd read The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, The Girls by Emma Cline, and Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola.

Hmm. In retrospect, maybe it's no surprise I experienced some real-life anxiety after reading those three back-to-back. Nazi Germany, murder and alcoholism, anyone?

At any rate, I decided the next book I read was going to be something I knew nothing about. I didn't remember purchasing it or why, but I liked the title a lot. The book I opened next was 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help that Actually Works -- A True Story by Dan Harris. I read it in two days and it turned out to be largely about how Harris nearly lost his career because of panic attacks, then discovered meditation and everything was okay, better than okay, maybe even kinda great. Life could be great. That was the message I took from Harris's book.

Sure, I've sucked at meditation in the past, but I had to do something. Back in our hotel room that evening, I downloaded the app Harris recommended, Insight Timer, and started meditating. That was September 5, 2016. I've only missed one day since then (a story for another time). Some days my meditation is stupidly short, but the habit is still there. Other days, I can sit for over an hour. Shortly after I started, I saw a recommendation on Reddit for another book, The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa (aka John Yates), a guide to the stages of meditation. I used that for a while, then tried some guided meditations, and now I'm back to The Mind Illuminated method, because it seems to work better for me. 

Almost immediately after I started meditating, my anxiety began to subside. I started building on the good habits I already had in place, adding journaling and better food to my routine, but I was still getting a lot of stress from work. It began to seem to me that I was merely coping with my situation, and I would continue to be coping until I made a bigger change. Making a bad situation somewhat more bearable wasn't exactly what I had in mind, as it turned out. 

But it's difficult to make a job change, so I kept putting it off, until I finally found the nudge I needed. It took the form of an otherwise benign bit of workplace feedback shared by a friend (thanks, Dave!). I talked to Dave in the morning, went in to work a few hours later as scheduled, and told my boss I wanted to step down, stop managing people, and get on with my life. 

If you're reading this, that particular bit of news probably comes as a surprise because I haven't told very many people. I told Eric (yes, after the fact), Dave, and a few friends I thought would understand because they had a good idea what my job was like. I didn't want to discuss it, I didn't want opinions on my decision. I was committed to doing it. But when you tell people you've decided to step down at work, giving up both responsibility and money, that's seen as the kind of failure you want to avoid, but to me it was something to be celebrated and I wasn't willing to mourn the death of my career with anyone. I'd bought back my freedom from anxiety, worth it to me at pretty much any price, and it was celebration time! 

(Two things: First, my experience managing people is exactly that, my experience, and says nothing about the position, the company, or anything other than me and my experience managing people. Some people love it and that's great. They can manage me. Two, I've further rationalized this sort-of secrecy by telling myself it'd be different if I'd changed companies or something. Then I would have told everyone. But maybe not. I still don't really want to talk about it, other than to people who know what my job was like for me, and how easy and stress-free the position I'm in now is by comparison. Also, look! I'm writing! Definite proof of a positive change.)

So there I am these last few weeks, freed from my job stress, happy and excited and full of energy and optimism about the future, and trying to decide what to do next. My ideas gradually shifted from money-making ideas, sped up toward creative ideas, then slammed right into writing ideas, where they are stuck like they'll never move again. 

(I am also entertaining ideas of doing sketches of the cats, but that seems more like a hobby we don't really need to go into that much, but if I get to be any good at it, maybe I'll post them here.)

And that is how I found myself reading someone else's blog post, "10 books that will make you a better writer (and why)" by Shaunta Grimes. In her list, I found a book that sounded appealing and had a low price (I'm trying to be more frugal now that I'm making less money) called Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon. 

52smallchallengeslogo

I read that one in two days, although it's much shorter than 10% Happier, so not really all that impressive. Still, it was what I needed. It helped me get a grasp on what to do next, but perhaps most importantly it helped me realize that what happened next didn't have to be something BIG. I don't have to decide between starting to write a new novel or revising the one I was last working on. I don't have to write a publishable essay about my work transition. I can just, you know, make a little blog post about the shit that's happened. No one reads the blog anyhow. It's a safe place. With a neat logo. 

This isn't going to be a true resurrection of 52 Small Challenges as it was, in that I'm not going to challenge myself with something new every week. I would like to share my current challenges weekly, as in what I'm working on, and update you on some of the previous challenges I undertook, because you really need to see how the laundry room ultimately turned out, and I know you want to hear about the food waste disasters we've had recently. Or whatever. 

I also want to try new things and talk about them, but maybe not on a schedule. I might even share some fiction, if I get to that point. Basically, I want to use the blog to talk about what I'm doing, how it's going, and hopefully hear what you think. Maybe my posts will be dull, maybe they'll be more interesting, but no matter what I think they'll be more true to who I am than what I was writing before. 

There you have it - 19 months of failure, change, progress, and a more hopeful future. And a picture of a cat. 

Lulu Was. Not. Happy. about that time when we had to replace the bathroom sink. 

Lulu Was. Not. Happy. about that time when we had to replace the bathroom sink. 

 

 

Third Friday: Food Waste Friday

I truly wasted a few things, although not on purpose: 

A bowl of fish curry (we ate three out of four) and a plate of haupia (a Hawaiian dessert made from coconut milk). I tried, but failed, to consume those things. I made the haupia for a party, but forgot to serve it. Then it turned out to be too much to eat after. 

Also, two and a half hard taco shells, left over from the same party. These started out in a bowl on the counter with a bunch more, which someone ate, but  these few were left behind. 

I composted one tortilla that was starting to get a spot of mold, and put the rest in the refrigerator, where they should have been the entire time. Turned out I should have put them in the freezer, because when I went to eat them, they had iffy spots, so I composted all of them. 

When I was baking oatmeal, I found one completely dehydrated hot dog bun in the baking supplies basket. Weird, right? You can tell it has preservatives - despite being sealed in a plastic bag, it doesn't have a bit of mold. 

Small bits of salads we didn't eat, the dried hot dog bun, and two-and-a-half taco shells that went to waste. 

Small bits of salads we didn't eat, the dried hot dog bun, and two-and-a-half taco shells that went to waste. 

But I saved some things, too. We combined a bunch of leftover bits of cooked meat (two sausage patties, a hamburger patty, some taco meat) with a pound of ground beef to make what I'm calling country fried steak. We breaded it with breadcrumbs made from stale bits of bread I've been collecting in the freezer. It tasted really good, but it's hard to fault anything breaded, fried and covered in gravy. 

I managed to salvage quite a bit of fruit that started to turn, including half an avocado, by adding it to smoothies. And I froze a bunch of fresh-squeezed juice we had leftover from the cocktail party into ice cube trays, which I then bagged up and put in the freezer. I've already added some pineapple cubes to smoothies, and it's nice to know we have "fresh" lemon and lime juice at hand, no juicing required. :)

For me, the most interesting part of trying to not waste food (besides reducing our grocery bill), is figuring out ways to preserve/save/use food that I previously would have thrown away. In the past, I would have never frozen juice or added a brown avocado half to a smoothie. Or combined meat bits into something else. I would have thrown it all away. 

It feels better to not waste food. 

Zero Waste Week - Conclusions

1. Leaving the house leads to waste. I ended up with a cardboard carryout food container when I went out to breakfast with a friend, and straight carryout waste when Eric went to Steak 'N' Shake (don't ask - weak moment). And every time I bought anything anywhere, I ended up with something - at the very least, a receipt. 

2. Minimalism and reuse combined sometimes leads to conflict. If I truly want to avoid things like shopping bags, carryout containers for leftovers, etc., I need to carry more stuff with me. Right now, all I carry in my purse is my wallet, phone, small travel-size hair brush, a couple ponytail holders, lip gloss, eye drops, and some ibuprofen. It's easy enough to add a bag, but if I want to take my own leftovers containers, I either need to carry a larger bag or buy something collapsible. 

3. Frugal grocery shopping and zero waste likewise lead to conflict. At least right now they do. I've got a fairly frugal shopping routine figured out that doesn't take a lot of time, but it's not waste-free by a long shot. None of the stores near my house sell in bulk, so I haven't even checked prices on the things we buy. I'll have to do some research and see what I can come up with. 

4. Ordering over the internet leads to lots of waste. I can only reuse so much cardboard, and that's not very much, actually. 

5. Just thinking about waste can make a difference. I find I'm less likely to take something I don't need. And the more I get used to whatever I'm doing, the more I'm able to do. Small steps add up. 

Reusable sample cup! 

Reusable sample cup! 

6. Sample cups aren't necessary if you carry your own. My friend Margie gave me this little guy, which I'm carrying in my purse. She said she got it at the Dollar Store (6 for $1, maybe?). Certainly not expensive, and much more reusable than paper cups. 

7. Like many other things, it's difficult to make your spouse generate less waste. Eric did a good job for a while not bringing home plastic bags, but he returned this morning with one from Home Depot. With one thing inside the bag. 

Have you tried to reuse more? If you have, what have you learned? 

Week 2.1 Household - Zero Waste Week

2.2 Wednesday Run & Food v. Exercise

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, the neighborhood, the neighborhood - remember that song???

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, the neighborhood, the neighborhood - remember that song???

This morning, I took the dog out for a quick run before work. The weather this last week or so has been great. The picture doesn't do justice to the beauty of the morning, because the sky was a little hazy and the trees have begun to turn, so you'll just have to trust me. It's really nice out. 

Today was day two of 2-and-1. One thing I love about this slow progression to continuous running is that it never really feels all that difficult. Who can't run one minute? And every week it's just one more minute. No big deal. 

That's the feeling I want to learn to keep about running all the time, not just in the beginning. That it's easy

Another thing I've been noticing is that after I do these easy runs, when I come home I want a smoothie. When I'm training for a long race, I want chocolate cake. Seriously, I ate a lot of chocolate cake back when I was training for marathons. Ask Eric. There were regular grocery store runs for chocolate cake. 

Well, last night I read this Lifehacker article: If You Find Joy in Exercise, You're Less Likely to Look for Joy in Food. Basically, a study found that when people enjoyed the workout they did, they were more likely to choose a healthy snack, while people who didn't enjoy their exercise were more likely to choose chocolate cake (well, that's what I'd choose!). 

Just another reason to keep the running enjoyable and not get all competitive with myself...

Here's what the dog looked like after running today. Notice that she barely made it inside the door before collapsing on the floor. Poor Hazel! Hahahaha...

2.2 New Exercise Challenge: Running

When I run in my neighborhood, this is the view in the final stretch. 

When I run in my neighborhood, this is the view in the final stretch. 

While I've been doing some sort of running for much of the life of this blog (including a 15K last December!), lately I've been walking and hiking instead. Which is fine, except that I've also been regaining a few (15?) of the pounds I lost last year.

The main difference in my lifestyle is the lack of running. I'm still tracking my calories, eating like I usually do (sometimes good, sometimes awful), not drinking any more or less - and when I'm running, it doesn't seem to matter. I was slowly losing weight and keeping it off. But when I'm not running? The other things I'm doing aren't enough. 

My first goal with taking up running again is to stop gaining and hopefully start losing again. While I lost enough weight to get myself out the "obese" category and back into merely "overweight," I was nowhere near my goal weight. 

My second goal with this running program is to learn how to have a sustainable running program. Here's what usually happens: I decide to start running. I think 30 minutes three times a week would be great, and I work up to that. Then I decide to I want to run a race or go faster, so I start making my workouts longer and/or more difficult. Then I decide I need a longer race, and I add more running days. Maybe I make it to my race, or improve my speed, or get the fourth or fifth day of running in, or maybe I don't. But no matter what, running becomes much more difficult, isn't any fun anymore, and I stop doing it. 

This time, I want to keep my routine at a maintenance level, something that's not too difficult, not too challenging, and see if I can't make it stick that way. Maybe I should start calling it a "jogging program," so I don't think I'm doing anything all that great. Just jogging. 

My Current Routine

I'm in my third week of resuming running, which means that I'm running two minutes, walking one, for twenty minutes, then walking ten minutes after that. The first week I ran one, walked two, then I did one and one. Each "week" is really three exercise sessions, however it works out. I think week two lasted a little over a week, but week three is moving along quickly. I'm trying to not pay too much attention to it, other than to make sure I get out there every other day or so. 

The Challenge of Making Habits

If I learned nothing else in doing a year of week-long challenges, it was that making anything into a habit is a LOT more difficult than making it happen for seven days. 

Not that there's no value in trying something for a week, because there is. I did things I didn't think I could do, knowing I only had to keep it up for a week. A week can make breaking down longer tasks much easier, such as decluttering a house, because it forces you to look at the parts, rather than the whole. A week is good for trying something out, not knowing how you'll take to it. 

But building a habit is something different, and it's something I want to focus on with this second year of challenges.

Every time the category of exercise comes around, I'm going to decide what to do based on how my three-times-a-week, 30-minute running routine is going. If I'm doing that, then great - I'll keep it up. I might challenge myself to do my runs in different locations, or something fun along those lines, but I won't increase the intensity or time, and I'm not signing up for any races.

If I'm not doing it, or doing more, then I'm going to challenge myself to get back to it, whether that means starting or resuming, or dialing it back. 

Which makes this a....

Year-Long Challenge

My first exercise challenge of the second year kicks off a year-long challenge of maintaining a a small,  not-too-tough running routine. I'm pretty sure I've had years in the past when I ran all year, but most years, I run for a while then quit completely. I want to see if I can make it last for the next twelve months. 

I might try this with other challenge categories, too. Meditation came to mind right away as something that I'd like to find a way to make a habit. But for now, I'm going to focus on running and not get too far ahead of myself. :) 

Do you have anything you've tried, or done in the past, that you struggle with making a habit? Or have you succeeded? Do you have any advice on how to keep a habit going? I'd love to hear it!

Week 2.2 Exercise - Running

Second Friday Frugal Successes and Failures

Honestly, I haven't been keeping track of frugal activities all month. Usually I rely on recent memory (ha!) for this post, so I guess I'm going to have to start writing down things as the month goes along. 

The Costs of Throwing a Party

Here's a post-within-another-post about having a party:

Party fridge says help yourself!

Party fridge says help yourself!

We bought a mini-fridge for the basement bar in the days before our latest party. When I cleaned up the bar area last month, I really believed a mini-fridge would make it awesome. We had a "found" fridge a while back, but it didn't seal or cool worth a damn, so I'd been looking at new ones. Then we went to Costco and they had one, fridge-only which is exactly what we wanted, for $150. So we bought it. Then we drove it home in my Civic, which is a two-door (note to self: always take a four-door to Costco if you have options). It barely fit in the front passenger seat and I rode in the back, which was weird, but fine. We filled the mini-fridge with things we thought we might need for the party, such as beer and soda, and most of it is still there.

It turns out, based on how the party went, that what the bar really needs is a sink with a drain, not a fridge. I'm  not saying you can't get that at Costco, but it's probably not a plug-and-play thing like the fridge was. 

Also, when we cleaned up after the party, we had more booze than we started out with, or so it seems. Our party was centered around rum cocktails and while we drained a couple handles of Bacardi, we somehow acquired a jug of Jim Beam (or maybe we bought it and I forgot?), a bottle of vodka, some brandy, and several bottles of wine. Also, I ate leftovers from the party for over a week. 

All said and done, we spent $320 on food and beverages for the party, but ended up with lots of leftovers. We had a great tim and hopefully so did our guests! In the end, I'd have to say throwing the kind of party where you truly host a bunch of people at your house (as opposed to asking everyone to bring something) isn't all that frugal, but it is fun, and you end up with some surprise freebies in the alcohol department. 

I also bought more solar LED lights for the back deck. I just LOVE those things. Frugal cause they're solar, not frugal because no one really needs them. Except maybe me. And I bought two strands that aren't even solar. Don't tell anyone. 

Electricity

After I read this Frugalwoods post - Why Buying a Chest Freezer is Saving us Serious Money - I convinced Eric to dig out our Kill-a-Watt meter and attach it to a couple things I was curious about. 

One was the pool, which I've been curious about the entire four years we've had it, but maybe not all that curious. At the very least, in no hurry to get bad news. More about this in another post, though. 

The other unknown was the refrigerator. We are using an old Sub-Zero, secondhand to us, that we bought for $200. We got it in March of 2012. In July of 2012, we spent $1000 on a new compressor for the freezer. It's been great ever since, except for the breaking of the ice maker, which happened earlier this year. It still works fine, although it shows some wear and tear. And it's huge. It holds so much stuff, the excess holding power is starting to feel like an issue, now that I'm trying to minimize food waste. 

According to Kill-a-Watt, that fridge uses just shy of $300 of electricity a year. A new, slightly smaller, fridge would use less than $100, possibly closer to $70. But three hundred bucks?!? That's a lot of electricity. 

Eric did some calculations and concluded that a new fridge could pay for itself in a little over five years, maybe six. So we're probably getting a new fridge. We're trying to get the best deal, but also trying to get as many credit card points as possible in the process. Right now, we're leaning toward buying gift cards at OfficeMax/Depot with Chase Ink, then using those to buy through the AAdvantage shopping portal. If you have to make a big purchase, you might as well make it pay off any way you can, right? 

Food

I've hardly spent anything on food this month, thanks to party leftovers, but Eric bought stuff to make kimchi. We've been making large batches of things and sometimes we eat all, but other times we do not. I think I'm going to start freezing the things we don't eat after seven days. I fear the frozen meals will die in the freezer, but maybe not. It's better than letting things go to waste in the fridge. 

Clothes

I bought two sweaters, new-with-tags, at the thrift store. 

Through a series of mis-shipments, I ended up with a new pair of men's running shoes for free. I ordered a pair of women's running shoes from Zappos and they sent me a pair of men's (same style and size). I did a return and reordered (shipping is always free both ways with Zappos - awesome, right?). The second pair came - same thing. Men's shoes, same style and size. So I emailed and a customer service representative put another order in at no charge to me and told me I could do whatever I wanted with the second pair of unwanted shoes. How cool is that? They're a half-size too big for Eric, but I think I should be able to sell them for close to what they're worth, considering they're brand new. 

Zero Waste, Day 3 - On Buying Used

Yesterday, I went clothing shopping at a resale store instead of a "new" store. I found two sweaters I liked, with the tags still on (which I'll recycle, I guess). The sweaters are for my fall capsule. I was ready to build my fall capsule on September 1, but then I realized I shouldn't do it until the end of the month. Also, it's still hot outside. No way am I going out in a sweater right now. But I'm ready for fall!

Another blog I follow is documenting what she already reuses, kind of like I did on the first day. Here's Mrs. M's Curiosity Cabinenet's post, Reuse Cottage Garden Style, all about what she reuses in her garden. 

I considered doing something similar, going through the various areas of my life and documenting what we reuse (in addition to what I already mentioned), but instead I thought I'd talk about how we end up with new stuff. 

30 Days of Non-Consumable Stuff I Bought

The way you don't end up with new stuff is by trying to find what you need second-hand. Thrift stores, estate sales, garage sales, Ebay, Craigslist and the alleys are all good places to look for second-hand versions of things However, rarely is it possible to decide, for example, that you need a black-and-white t-shirt to round out your summer wardrobe capsule, then go to the thrift store, Ebay and Craigslist, and find exactly what you need. Usually doesn't happen. 

She's not the only one wondering why I bought her a costume.

She's not the only one wondering why I bought her a costume.

Over the last month, here are some of the things I've bought new, and whether I think I could have gotten them used (thus helping someone else reuse their stuff, in a sense): 

  • Halloween costume for the dog - Obviously, I should have skipped this, but she looks super-cute, if a little miserable, as a sheep. I need to exchange it for a smaller size, however, which is something I couldn't have done if I'd bought it used. The dog would have definitely been happier had this purchase not happened. 
  • Various phone things (car charger for Eric's car, long cord for my bedside charger and dash mount for my car) - I guess people resell or donate these, but taking the time to find good ones seems like something I don't have time for. Also, we'll use these until they die. 
  • Car air- and oil filters for Eric's car - Can't buy those used, but you can save money doing the work yourself. 
  • Caulk for the house - Likewise, used = gone; less expensive than hiring someone. 
  • Air mattress - Replacing our hole-filled old mattress, which can't be repaired. Can it be reused? I wonder... Perhaps as a tarp? 
  • Running shoes - Buying used defeats the purpose, unless I could find someone reselling my style and size very slightly used, which I couldn't. 
  • Small fridge, ice bucket, and ice scoop - all purchased new before our recent party. All could have been purchased (or found) used if I had started looking in a timely manner. The completely new small fridge is Energy Star certified, for whatever that's worth. On the other hand, there were four ice buckets at the thrift store yesterday. 
  • Vent-less range hood for the stove - We probably should have at least looked at the Re-Store (Habitat for Humanity's resale shop for household stuff) before purchasing, but I ordered it while coughing my head off as Eric seared some sort of spice-encrusted meat. I was stressed, I tell you. 
  • Large glass jar for homemade laundry detergent - Probably because they're breakable, I have never had great luck find large jars secondhand. Small ones, yes. Larger than a quart - no. 
  • Memory foam topper for the bed - Our previous one was four years old and no longer serving its purpose (which is keeping us comfy and from feeling each other's every movement). Buying used would defeat the purpose of having a new one. We were able to reuse the old one as a topper for the air mattress, but it's not easy to store, so I don't see that lasting. 
  • New flipflops - Old ones broke. I probably could have found used ones, but I thought I needed new ones fast. At the time, I didn't think it was fall. Now I think it's fall, but I'll be ready for next summer!
  • Decorative string lights for the backyard - I'll be the first to admit, I have a problem. I love these things! They don't last, but they're pretty. 
  • Replacement glass mirror for the bathroom medicine cabinet - Better to replace one part than the entire cabinet, right?

I think that's all we bought, other than consumables (and my two thrifted sweaters). It feels like a lot! I've gotten used to buying less over the last year, so anytime I am buying something pretty much every week, I feel like I'm buying a lot. 

Downsides to Thrifting

If you keep looking, most of the time you'll eventually find what you need. But it will take time, both in the sense that you might not find it immediately, and also in the sense that you will spend time looking. 

For some shopping, this doesn't matter at all. I've wanted a pastry mat and pastry cutter for a while, but haven't found one second-hand. I haven't bought one new, either, because it's not urgent and I suspect I'll find one used - eventually. When my immersion blender broke, I put off buying one for quite a while, then lucked across one identical to my old one at the thrift store. 

But some things I don't trust buying used, including a lot of electronics. I'm going to buy a new laptop sometime later this year (or maybe next year - picking out a replacement is proving almost more stressful than using the old one). Also on my desk if a photo scanner - several years old now, but purchased new then. I wanted it for a specific project and I wanted to make sure I got a good one, so I purchased it new. When I get a new phone, I'll get a completely new one. I bought a used one once, when the camera on my old phone stopped working, and the "new" used one had almost all the same problems the one I'd broken had, yet I was out a couple additional hundred dollars. Unlike with cars, I think the premium you pay for a new phone is worth the expense.  

Another downside I see is that going shopping, even if it's for used stuff, opens the door for more impulse buys. If I were going to stores for the new things I buy, I'd have the same problem, but I get almost everything I buy new online, where I find it pretty easy to stay focused. 

The downside to shopping online is shipping costs (even if you don't pay them, they're there, in the form of transportation's toll on the environment) and packaging, which is often excessive and not reusable. 

My Recommendations for Shopping: 

  1. Keep a running list of things you need. If it's not something you'll use often, see if you can borrow it from someone you know. If you don't need it immediately and it can be purchases used, wait until you find a used one. 
  2. Go to the thrift stores periodically, but not all the time. Look for the things you need and ignore the rest. Likewise with estate and garage sales. 
  3. Ebay can be good for very specific clothing and shoe needs, and probably a lot more, but I don't use it much. Craigslist can be good for all kinds of things, if you don't mind spending the time it takes to find what you need, connect with the seller, and meet up. 
  4. When buying new, try to buy for life. Research what you buy, figure out what will fulfill your needs and last as long as possible, within reason. Keep the budget in mind, too. Sometimes the middle ground ends up being the best deal. When you've decided on a specific product, do a broad internet search to look for the best deal, and when you've chosen a retailer, search again for coupon codes.
  5. See if you can go without. One thing minimizing and decluttering has taught me is that I don't need quite as much stuff as I thought I did. Now I'm particularly leery whenever I think I need some sort of organizational item. If you  have to buy stuff to keep your other stuff organized, take a good luck at what you're keeping. 

I know what you're thinking now - that was a lot of words to support one cute dog picture! As a reward for making it all the way through, here's another: 

It's tough being a sheep-dog. 

It's tough being a sheep-dog. 

Zero Waste Week: Day 2

On Tuesday, I had jury duty. I get called every two years like clockwork (which I gather is not uncommon in the city of St. Louis - once you've been called, they keep bringing you in). They give you a ridiculously long lunch, too. We were dismissed at 11:30 am and didn't have to be back until 1:15 pm. In the past, I've eaten out on jury duty days, but yesterday morning I packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a can of soda for lunch. I didn't take a water bottle (what was I thinking?), which would have been both useful and less wasteful than the can of soda. I think my caffeine addiction leads me to do weird things. :)

There are a couple blocks of city park across from the Civil Courts building, so I was able to sit at a picnic table and eat. I took my plastic bag home for washing and put the empty can in recycling. 

We were dismissed early in the afternoon, so I got home before Eric. Eric had made a big batch of pulled pork that morning, so I made some macaroni and cheese to go along with it (for me - Eric can't eat dairy). I used a mix, which is something I've been doing lately for quick meals for just me, but I realized yesterday that it's not the least wasteful meal in the world. There's a cardboard box, which could be recycled, but also the foil-lined packet the cheese mix comes in, which cannot be recycled. Oops. Anyhow, it'd be less wasteful, and probably healthier, to make macaroni and cheese from scratch.

I was pleased to see that the badges jurors wear, which displayed our numbers, are reusable. The badge is printed on the summons (and I hope they recycle those). You just tear it out and insert it into the badge holder. They were very serious about getting the plastic badge holders back, too. 

Photo of the old arch grounds, as seen from Illinois, looking west. 

Photo of the old arch grounds, as seen from Illinois, looking west. 

What I didn't do yesterday that I should have was take pictures. After lunch, I even walked down toward the old courthouse and the arch, where they're completely redoing the grounds to make the park extend over the highway to the river. I think I must have been in shock or something. What used to be a rolling green lawn is now a big construction mess. The arch is still there, of course, but it rises up out of a mess of dirty, construction equipment, and supplies. The new project is called CityArchRiver. You can read all about it on the website. 

And here's what they have in mind, looking east from the city.

And here's what they have in mind, looking east from the city.