Monday, December 28, 2015

Favorite books of 2015

I've always been a big reader.  There are pictures of me from middle school in which I'd climbed a tree to sit there by myself, enjoying a good book.  I was the kid who would stay up until the wee hours of the morning because I just couldn't put my book down.  One more chapter!  Wait, did I say one more?  I can't put it down yet, I have to find out what happens!  There's only 100 pages left, how long could that take?
Years ago, one of my brothers asked me how many books I read in a year, and I couldn't give him an answer beyond, "Um, lots?"  So at the suggestion of a friend, I started keeping a reading log.  I had to make rules for myself, of course.  If I get 3/4 of the way through a book, does that still count?  Nope.  I have to finish the book.  At times it has deterred me from not finishing a terrible book, but at other times it's caused me to think, "Is this worth going on my reading list?  No," and putting down a terrible book.
Initially I was making spaces for months as well as the year.  But what if I read most of an 800-page book in one month, and finished the last 50 pages in another, which month do I count that in?  I later decided that doing it by month was a silly system and stopped.
For the longest time the list was on my computer, but after a sudden reformat during which HusbandX lost several files, including my entire reading list, I now keep it as a hard copy, an old journal which I never actually used as a journal.  It's fun to be able to look back on my lists, to see what I was interested at various points.  It's not always highbrow stuff--I can go from books on environment and literary theory to a series of trashy romances faster than you'd believe.  But it's still fun.
When I was younger, it was almost absurdly easy for me to read 100+ books in a year.  I was actually disappointed the first year my list was under 100.  Pesky college, getting in the way.  Soon enough I had to make a goal for myself, so that my favorite hobby wouldn't fall to the wayside as I added the demands of my romantic partner, a full-time job, various classes, my musical pursuits, friends, a baby, and all of the other things which can overwhelm a person.  Reading is my escape, my time for myself.  Really, it's one of the few things which I do completely selfishly, and I don't feel any guilt about it.  So my goal is always at least 52 books in a year.  One book a week is, I feel, not a bad goal.  A few times I've just barely scraped out those books, but most years I scream past it.  This year I've read well over 80 books.  Unemployment, it turns out, is good for my reading list.  But there will always be books I read and love, and others which are just sort of silly escapism, or ones that are worthwhile but not ones that I love.
Here's my list of favorite books from 2015, in no particular order.  Please note that not all of them are books written or published in 2015, just what I've read this past year.*

1. "Parenting Without Borders", Christine Gross-Loh - This book was fascinating because, as you can probably tell, it talks about parenting from around the world.  I really liked it because the author talked about a lot of things which people in other countries do well but also the things which American parents do really well.  So many parenting books are basically "you're constantly failing your children, all of you terrible American parents--everyone else can do better but you will always fail!"  This one didn't place a value judgment on a lot of ideas, but did list pros and cons for various attitudes and methods.  It was truly interesting, and I think I partly liked it because of the research validating much of the stuff HusbandX and I do with the Munchkin, like not picking her up every time she falls and encouraging her to do stuff for herself.  What parent doesn't like a little validation from time to time?  It did give us some new ideas and concepts, however, and helps me to relax when I feel like I'm asking too much of her.

2. "First Frost", Sarah Addison Allen - This is the second book in a series and if you haven't read anything by her, do.  Her entire canon is just brilliant.  She writes magical realism, so it's not wizardry or fantasy, but a sort of enhanced reality.  She managed to write, in just a few paragraphs, a beautiful love story about a character whose special gift is that she gives people objects.  She doesn't know why, but she gets an itch to give people things and the person always discovers later on that the object was useful.  I won't tell the romance here, but suffice it to say that three paragraphs had me crying like I did for the first few minutes of "Up".  Because it's beautiful, and three paragraphs was a better freaking love story than "Twilight" could ever dream of being.  (I might still be a little bitter that such trash became so popular, and that that's the love story a generation of girls will grow up idolizing.)  Even better, the part that moved me so much?  That's just for a secondary character.  Just think how good the rest of the book was too.  And all of hers are like that.

3. "The Big Fat Surprise", Nina Teicholz - Basically the premise is that everything you've been told about eating fat is WRONG.  I started researching fat a bit more when I was nursing the Munchkin, because why are we always told fat is so bad if breastmilk has so much of it, and if the brain is made of fat?  Oh, it's necessary for proper brain development in infants?  OK.  Wait, then why would it suddenly become bad when you hit age two?  Oh, you mean it was mostly politics and skewed research which tells us it's so terrible?  Um....

A few of my favorite books from this year.
4. "Code Name Verity", Elizabeth Wein - My best friend gave this one to me for my birthday.  It's about two (female) best friends during WWII, one a spy and the other a pilot.  The first half is from the perspective of one and the second half from the other.  It was brilliant, but I warn you that it is NOT a happy book, so if that's what you're looking for, stay away.  However, it was worth every second I spent reading it.

5. "Shadow and Bone" series, Leigh Bardugo - The first one in this series was the other part of my birthday present, because it turns out that my best friend knows me pretty well now that we've spent well over half of our lives as friends.  Also, she's a middle school English teacher so she knows lots of fun literary people and all of the best YA books out there, so she's fantastic at picking books out.  Whenever I need something new to read, she's the one I turn to.
This one's a fun fantasy book, set in a world unlike most.  It's sort of Russian-feeling, and as L. pointed out to me, it's great because just when you think you know what's going to happen or what trope is being used, it changes on you.  I finished reading the first book and biked out the next morning to get the others, then was crushed when the third book was sold out in hardback and I had to wait one whole week for the paperback one to come out.  That was frustrating.  The author's got a new book which L. loaned to me, and it's my current read.

6. "The Birth House", Ami McKay - This is a book that ends well, but don't read it unless you want to be seriously pissed off about how women's health and knowledge has been treated over the years.  It's a novel, but it contains a lot of historical truths about women being pushed aside, particularly in matters of our own health.  It was really good, though.

7. "The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks", E. Lockhart - Another YA, this book was fun from cover to cover, about a girl who's pushed aside by an all-male secret society at her private boarding school and how she ends up manipulating them all into doing pranks at her bidding as she slowly comes to realize that she's smarter and cleverer than any of the boys around her, but they don't notice because she's a girl.  I especially loved that, in the end, she doesn't end up with any boy, and realizes that it's OK until she finds a boy who's intelligent enough to match her.  I found this one in my neighborhood's "Little Free Library", and I'm amazed someone gave it away unless they're far more altruistic than I am and wanted to share it with the world.

8. "Why Not Me?", Mindy Kaling - I read both of her books recently and they were funny and witty but what I appreciated the most about them were the startling moments of insightful truths which came out, from how we treat women's bodies in the media to how to give a good compliment.  She ends this book with a chapter about self-confidence which is probably one of the best things I've read on the subject.  "...[T]he scary thing I have noticed is that some people really feel uncomfortable around women who don't hate themselves.  ...I get worried that telling girls how difficult it is to be confident implies a tacit expectation that girls won't be able to do it."  Damn.

9. "Farm City", Novella Carpenter - This was actually a hilarious account of someone becoming an urban farmer in Oakland on an abandoned lot next to her apartment building.  Unlike most books in this category (of which I've read a lot) it's not so much a guide as it is an adventure tale.  And instead of focusing on the delicious fruits and vegetables, talking about the amazing dishes she created, she talks about many of the downsides (halitosis when she decided to eat only from her garden for a month) and focuses on the animals she raised.  She doesn't make it sound appealing, talking about all of the dumpster diving she and her SO did to feed their pigs.  It was really fun to read about and, in many ways, gives a more realistic idea of urban farming than the blogs and books which rhapsodize about how beautiful and wonderful it all is.  She concludes that all of her efforts were worthwhile, but there are some things she would do over, and many which she started with too much optimism, such as the pigs.

10. "Furiously Happy", Jenny Lawson - Confession, as of writing this, I still haven't finished reading this book.  However, that's because her books are so laugh-out-loud funny that HusbandX and I read them aloud together.  Well, really it's me reading aloud, but the point is that we do it together.  This one is less funny than her first, "Let's Pretend This Never Happened", but that's OK because it's more about her struggles with mental illness.  Still, the fact that I can say I've been laughing out loud while reading a book about mental illness is pretty telling.  I love her wit and her style, and she makes me wish I was at least half as crazy as she is, because then I'd have way more random fun in my life.  Midnight cat rodeos involving taxidermy?  I could get behind that.

I just realized that all of the books I listed were by women.  I promise, I do read books read by men, and I love many of them!  It just so happens that this year, all of my favorites were by women.
Also, I'm always up for book recommendations, so if you have lovely books which you think I should read please feel free to tell me!  I'll add them to my ever-growing list of books to read.
Happy reading!

*Please also note that I have not included any of the baby books I've read to my daughter.  I'm not going to put "Goodnight Moon" on my reading list nearly every day, even though it's a classic for a reason.  And you don't really need to hear about "Olivia and the Fairy Princesses" or "Stand Tall Molly Lou Melon", even though they're awesome.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Saying goodbye, again

One of my brothers is going to circumnavigate the globe by bicycle.  This is not the first time he's done something like this.  Years ago, after a series of unfortunate life events, he decided to check out and go explore the world by bicycle, flying to Iceland, then to England and making his way almost exclusively by bicycle down to and through Africa.
This time, his plan is to fly to Lisbon, Portugal, then bike to Labrador, Canada.  Sounds crazy, right?  But if anyone can do it my brother can, and he might be the only one to do so (by bike, at least).  I am less worried about his safety than I would be if he hadn't done his previous trip.  I do still worry about freak accidents which might happen, but he is strong and fit and smart and kind, so I worry less about people or even about the weather he will encounter in the year and a half in which he's planning to be gone.  I trust that he will find amazing and helpful people along this journey, as he did on his last one.  People who want to help him, who feed and shelter him because they can and they want to help a total stranger.  We tend to hear only the bad stories, the ones of people who were thrown in jail in a foreign country or captured by pirates or terrorists.  I think of the man in Germany who gave my brother a place to stay, just because they were both cyclists and this guy wanted to hear more about his trip.  I think of the people who shared food with him, or gave him directions, or who just wished him well.  No matter what we hear, those people far outnumber the people who are dangerous, even in dangerous places.
I had to wonder, then, if I'm less worried about his safety this time, why is it hitting me harder to say goodbye?  Why does this seem more wrenching?  It wasn't until last night that I realized why: last time he left, I was not around myself.  I was living in Fairbanks, far away from him.  I knew that I wouldn't see him when I came home for Christmas that year, but other than that it didn't affect me much.  Sending an email he'd read in France isn't much different from sending one he'd read in Seattle.
This time, I'm used to having my brother around once more.  We go for bike rides with him, he comes over for dinner and football on Sundays.  We hang out, because we're not just siblings.  We are friends.  The realization that I've finally gotten my brother back in my life on a regular basis makes it that much harder to say goodbye.  Even knowing that I can text and email whenever I want doesn't help much with this parting.  I am going to miss my brother a crazy amount.
I get to go visit him at some point, probably October.  Either in Mongolia or Russia, he will need someone to bring him a fat tire bicycle and some warmer winter gear.  I volunteered to do so, and I'm looking forward to the adventure.  I am already planning the care package I will bring to him.  At the moment it is: butter, peanut butter, coconut oil, chocolate bars, and one Mountain Dew.  They're heavy items, but they will help him survive the cold and bring a little taste of home to him, making MREs in the wilderness a bit more pleasant.
Dravis, as he prefers to call himself online, is the sibling I'm closest to.  I feel the need to clarify that I don't love him more than the others, but Dravis and I do seem to just get each other, while my eldest and younger brothers understand each other better.  Perhaps being the middle children helped create a bond?  I don't know.  But we are all friends and thankfully, we're all together for the holiday right now.  We got a big family picture, and I'm sure we'll get another when Dravis comes home to show the changes (which will hopefully mostly be in the little ones).  We get to hang out and talk and laugh as siblings do, playing games and teasing each other, playing with the two daughters/nieces.
We had a going away ice cream social last night with many friends.  I was glad to see that so many people managed to come out, despite the holiday and family obligations.  I know a few people really, really wanted to be there but couldn't because they were out of town, but the crowd was still quite large.  It was a fun party, the kind of sendoff you want for someone special in your life going on to a new adventure.
Tonight is the last night of family togetherness for quite some time.  One brother goes home tomorrow, and Dravis leaves on Tuesday.  I know this won't be the last time we're together, but it is momentous and special.  This time together will end up being one of those memories I turn back to when I'm feeling down, when I'm missing my brother.  And then I will send him an email, and remind myself how small the world is.  He is never that far from me, even if it feels like he is.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Christmas magic on a budget

I am a firm believer in the magic of Christmas.  It has always been my favorite time of year, with some of my favorite music, foods, movies, and traditions.  And this year is set to be one of the best years in a long, long time.  You know why?  My daughter is now two.  That means that she's finally old enough to appreciate the holidays.  Last year she thought things were interesting, but confusing.  The year before, she was a six-week-old lump of baby human who cried when someone other than me held her, or if I put her down for any reason whatsoever.  (Or so it seemed in my sleep-deprived haze.)  This year, though, she realizes that things are different.  She loved Thanksgiving--watching the meal prep all afternoon and taking in the excitement of all of the adults.  She recognized the fancy silverware and platters, the tablecloth and just the specialness of the day.  She does not, of course, understand why we do all these things, but she's enjoying them nonetheless.
I want Christmas to be as magical for her as it always was for me, but at the same time I want to do it in a healthy way.  Because she's so young we don't let her watch too much TV or movies (and she'd be totally bored by some of our favorites anyway--White Christmas? that's a bit much for a toddler), we usually don't give her a lot of sugar so making cookies all the time is out, and I've always felt that Christmas presents, in some ways, get in the way of the Christmas fun.  After all, how many people stress out over gifts, finding just the perfect thing and paying for it all?  That's not fun!  That's not magical!  That's turning Christmas into one giant to-do list and chore.  (We'll give gifts, I'm just not stressing out about it.)
I found an idea online a few years ago, before we even had a kid, that I really liked, so I wanted to implement it this year.  It's a very simple idea to create a magical season without overloading a kid.  It is this: come up with one fun holiday activity each day.  Just one.  Now, some days we'll have more, because some things aren't up to me.  I don't know when we'll get a tree, and putting up the decorations is at my parents' discretion since it is, after all, their house.  But I came up with some simple things for us to do as a family (both including and excluding the extended family) to help celebrate the season.  Things we don't normally do, or let the Munchkin do.  I drew up a plan on my calendar, which can change as things do, but it gives me an idea every day for something fun to do, something just a little bit extraordinary.

1. Lights
My kiddo loves lights.  I mean LOVES them.  We go to the store and she's getting my attention to point up at the boring, industrial lights.  We regularly find her asleep in her bed, clutching her nightlight because she's been exploring it before falling asleep.  So we knew that the Christmas lights would be a big hit, and they are.  The day after Thanksgiving we put up the first string of lights in the dining room, blinking ones.  When darkness fell my dad and I brought her in there and I plugged them in.  The look on her face was priceless.  On Sunday, we put up more lights while she was napping and, this time with the whole extended family gathered to see her reaction, we turned them on.  She laughed with joy and spent an afternoon pointing at the bulbs to have us tell her what colors they are.  (Pro tip: it's an excellent way to teach kids their colors, and I didn't even think of that until she started showing interest in that aspect of it.  We've been quizzing her, "Can you point to a green one?  What about a red light?")
Aside from our own decorations, however, there are also the lights in the neighborhood.  Twice a week I have it scheduled to go for a walk in the neighborhood to go look at the lights.  This combines two of her favorite things: walking (or any kind of being active) and lights, so it's a huge win.  We bundle up and head out after dark, which is a treat in and of itself, and go wandering to see what we can see.  Already there are quite a few houses completely done up for the holidays, and there will be more as Christmas draws nearer.

2. Special drinks
We've never let the Munchkin have hot chocolate before yesterday.  Crazy, right?  But it's never been necessary or advisable for her to have that much sugar, and she's had a dairy allergy which has made stuff like that a bit complicated.  Well, she's growing out of the allergy so we can relax a bit now.  Once or twice a week I have on the calendar a fun drink: hot chocolate, hot apple cider, and eggnog.  And we go all out on these.  We have cider from the apples we pressed sitting in the freezer, waiting until the whole family is together for Christmas.  Until then, we're making do with cider from the store and mulling it ourselves.
For the hot cocoa, HusbandX has an excellent recipe for Mexican hot chocolate that's rich and warming and delicious, without actually being overwhelmingly sugary.  As he told me earlier today while making it, if we're going to have hot cocoa on the list as a special treat, we might as well make sure it really is special.

Helping Daddy make hot chocolate

The last on the list is eggnog.  We found a brand which actually makes really good 'nog.  I can taste actual nutmeg, not whatever chemical crap they have in the other stuff which sort of tastes like nutmeg.  And at some point we will pull out my grandfather's recipe for eggnog and make the real stuff.  NOM.
All of these things are also tied into physical activities.  After all, hot cocoa and hot apple cider are best consumed after coming in all rosy-cheeked from the chilly outdoors, and the eggnog necessitates a (bike) trip to the store.  So it's not just the drinks themselves, but the fun time spent playing outdoors which makes these days special.

3. The mall
You know what else my kid has never done?  She's never been to the mall.  Not only do I tend to avoid them, but it turns out that there's really nothing truly mall-like in Fairbanks.  I mean, there is a mall, but it's more like a strip mall.  Nothing special, and I couldn't even name what stores are in it because I think I only went there once, and didn't buy anything.
We have precisely one trip planned to the mall.  We will try to get a picture with Santa (I love the ones where kids are crying--it's cruel and hilarious), look around for gifts, and probably play on the big kids' toy they have.  (If they still have it?)  Since my kid loves activity and people watching, this will be fun and exciting, and way stimulating which is why it's only on the list once.
My family also has a tradition we call the Truffle Run.  According to family lore, there was a shopping trip with my older brothers when they were very young during which they were very good even as they got super, super tired.  As a treat, my parents bought everyone a fancy chocolate.  After that it became a yearly treat.  As a kid, I'd always pester my parents about when we'd go on the Truffle Run, and we'll carry on this tradition with the Munchkin.  Maybe not the pestering, hopefully, but the buying of chocolates.

4. Cookies!
OK, I'm not the Grinch.  Just because we don't let her have that much sugar doesn't mean I'm going to Scrooge her out of eating any Christmas cookies.  And, she loves helping in the kitchen.  So on the list once each week I have a cookie date.  Chocolate thumbprints (the recipe for which my grandmother typed up), sugar cookies, peanut butter blossoms, spritz cookies!  Yum.

5. Movies
Just like with the cookies, I think this is perfectly fine in moderation.  Twice a week I've got Christmas movies.  Not that she'll probably watch the entire movie--her average is about half an hour at a time.  So while the movie is on the list twice each week they'll probably get parceled out when she's got the afternoon lull for a few days, meaning she'll be ready to start the new movie the day it's listed.  I'm looking forward to introducing her to The Muppet Christmas Carol, The Grinch, and The Nutcracker.  (The ballet version with Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov which my grandparents taped for me when I was a toddler.  I think she'll enjoy dancing along with that one, just as I did.)

6. Candles
I don't know what it is about candles, but they make things so very special.  My parents have always had an advent wreath on the table for the season, with candles (three purple and one pink) and this year the Munchkin got to light the candle the first night (with lots of help from me).  She was fascinated with the candle, waving her hands around and excitedly grabbing my attention to show me that when she did so, the flame wavered.  Every time!  My little scientist.  She was so enthralled.

7. Music
This always has to be a big part of Christmas.  It just sets the tone for the whole season.  Which sucks if you hate it, but I love it.  The Munchkin does too.  This isn't an activity I have on the calendar, but playing Christmas music and dancing with her is something fun we can do, which might not be special in and of itself but, again, adds to the magic of the season.  It's completely free if we make the music ourselves, too, and I sure could use a bit of practice on my violin.

In addition to all of these things, I've been planning a few other tricks.  We might do one special trip to either somewhere in Seattle or out to Leavenworth for an afternoon, just to mix things up.  And since my busy little girl loves to get into things I'm hoping to make a felt Christmas tree so that she can play with the ornaments on it all she wants and, cross your fingers, leave the real tree alone.  (Ha!)  We're busily coming up with ideas for what we'll get her for Christmas, and it won't be a toy.  I think that the experience of Christmas, as a whole, is far more important and memorable than what we receive, so whatever we do get her will last far beyond Christmas day.
These are just a few ideas for cheap or free ways to enjoy the holidays with a small human, but they're also fun and special for the adults.  We're not stressing out about making this the perfect Christmas, or about making every second of every day magical.  That would be ridiculous, and completely counter-productive.  The point is to have fun, not to make ourselves and everyone else crazy, or to out-do anyone else.
The walk we went on as a family on Sunday was great, with the grandparents and uncles joining us.  With HusbandX's family due to arrive in town (yay!!!) a bit nearer to Christmas, I'm looking forward to including them in all of these activities too, making even grander and more fun memories.  Who needs to spend mountains of money to have a fantastic holiday?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

In Thanks

I love Thanksgiving.  I didn't when I was younger.  I loved getting out of school and eating all the good food but other than that it seemed like kind of a letdown, particularly when compared to Christmas.  It was sort of Christmas's annoying step-sibling, too full of football (which I didn't care about) and too much waiting to suit me.

But now?  Now, it has become one of my favorite holidays.  It's still not quite up there with Christmas (the lights! the cookies! the music!--yes, I'm one of those sick people who loves Christmas music) but it's safe to say that Thanksgiving is my second favorite holiday.  Which is why I'm so disturbed that it gets shunted aside and ignored all the damn time.  War on Christmas, you say?  NO.  There's a war on freaking Thanksgiving, which has now become not a national day of thanks so much as a prelude to Black Friday.  That has become the true holiday for this weekend, and it's a shame.  One company has even started the hashtag "Thanksgetting".  BASTARDS.  Way to take a wonderful holiday and try to make it about the complete opposite thing.
Now, to be clear, I'm not necessarily opposed to Black Friday.  Fine, I understand they have great deals on stuff.  I don't participate myself, but I can see the appeal.  HOWEVER, when people are being trampled and even dying in search of deals, when Black Friday is encroaching on Thanksgiving so that many, many people who have to work those stores can't even enjoy the time with family, and when we forget the very meaning of the holiday we're celebrating because we're too busy scoping out "deals", that pisses me off.  Stop forgetting Thanksgiving!  Stop treating it as a day that means nothing but turkey!  It is a day to be thankful, and frankly I don't know a single person (including myself) who a) couldn't use a little more gratitude in their life and b) doesn't have a metric shitfuckton to be thankful for.
There are so many articles about how this country is turning into a bunch of narcissists, and research backs them up.  And yet, we ignore the one holiday which grounds us, which reminds us of all we have and all we should be thankful for.  It is the antidote to narcissism but it is constantly, conveniently, shunted aside.  Why should we be thankful when there's just one more thing to buy?  Then we'll be happy and give thanks, right?  After we splurge and treat ourselves.  Hmm, maybe after the post-splurge treat?  Because you'll need another treat after so bravely facing off against all those other shoppers and getting the best deals.  You've earned a reward!  Ugh, but we still can't be thankful because then you have to wrap all those gifts, and distribute them, and make cards and...when does it end, precisely?  And how is this adding any joy to the holidays?  Perhaps, and I might be crazy here, but just maybe some of the crazy amounts of stress most people say they feel around the holidays could be mitigated if they actually took a few moments to slow down and be thankful.
I do realize that for our economy to run, particularly in the way it's currently set up, people need to buy things and money needs to be spent.  However, can we please instill a little sanity back into this picture and concede that perhaps for one fucking day, our economy will be just fine if people take a moment to look around at what they already have and be happy about it?
There's been a lot for me to complain about lately.  I'm frustrated and, often, unhappy with where my life is right at this exact moment.  I want things too!  I want to travel, I want a home of my own, I want I want I want I want.  The litany of all the things I don't have goes through my head daily, like an annoyingly whiny younger sister who just won't shut up.  What has helped the most is simply to take a deep breath and remind myself of all that I have, which is more than most of the world can boast of.  Sure, there are frustrations to be dealt with, and realizing that others have it worse off is not meant to diminish my own hardships--just because others have it worse doesn't mean my stress and frustration aren't legitimate or worthy.  But it does add some perspective, so instead of grousing about what's wrong with my life, I find myself more thankful for what I do have instead.  And when I do that, it makes me happier overall.  I stop getting annoyed by the petty, small things because they just don't matter.

Today, I will be celebrating with some of the things I love the most: time with friends and family.  Good food and the preparation of it will, of course, be a big part of that.  I already took my daughter to the park, but we'll go outside to play again when she's up from her nap.  We'll listen to some music, watch some football (which I don't mind so much now), maybe play a game, and at the end of the night I'll go for a bike ride with family and friends. Sounds like a pretty perfect day, and not one second of it will be spent thinking about all the things I don't have.
I wish the same joy to you today, and all through the coming holiday season.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Two years ago today was absolutely not the best day of my life.  It was, frankly, one of the scariest days of my life, preceded by one of the most painful days I've ever experienced.  (24 hours of back labor is no picnic.)  My daughter's birth was not the exciting, beautiful experience I'd hoped for.  Being wheeled into emergency surgery, meeting HusbandX's eyes as he was stopped outside of the surgery room because there wasn't time for him to scrub down, and thinking, "Please, please don't let either of us die," as the anesthesia putting me to sleep washed through me, was an experience I could do without.  And I did come close to dying, scary close.
But two years ago today is also the day I became a mother.  Some might say that I became a mother earlier, when she was conceived, but it never felt like it to me.  Not until she was in my arms.  And despite how awful her birth was, when HusbandX handed her to me, that was definitely one of the best moments of my life.  A thick shock of dark hair, chubby cheeks, plump little pink lips, and stormy blue/gray eyes.  I didn't even bother to count her fingers and toes, I already knew that she was exactly what I'd been waiting for.  It's so amazing to hold a tiny, perfect little human and to realize that you made her.  All my hard work, everything I'd been through to bring her into the world, became worth it.
Two years later, she still is.  I don't say that lightly.  My girl is a challenge.  She's stubborn like her parents--nobody's pushover, and she never will be, thank goodness--and clever, which means she can get herself into trouble really well, and she has a penchant for it.  In fact, I often think that her biggest fault is that she uses her cleverness in devious, trouble-making ways most of the time.  It drives me crazy!  Could she, for once, be easy on her parents?  From what I've seen, no.  If we have one easy day with her, it's followed by a week or more of tear-your-hair-out stressful, want-to-leave-this-kid-at-the-fire-station days.  She has made me cry, and not with joy, more than I ever expected.  Most recently it was when we traveled together and I was actually crying and begging her to fall asleep at 11:00 at night.  She saw my tears and apparently decided that she'd given me enough of a mental breakdown for the day, because she finally stopped laughing at me and fell asleep for not nearly long enough.
She has earned the nickname Monster.
So, she's not easy.  But she is funny, and loving, and happy, and smart.  She loves giving hugs and kisses (and she's finally learned to purse her lips for kisses, rather than open her mouth like she's trying to swallow your face).  She has such a happy laugh, and she loves animals enough to wave at them.  Squirrels in the park, spiders, it doesn't matter.  She'll wave and say, "Hi!" to them.  She brings me books that she wants to read and snuggles into my lap to hear them.  She loves to roar and climb and jump.  She's healthy, and that is a blessing that many parents don't get.
And sometimes, she breaks the rules but it's more funny than irritating.  She can finally open the door to her room so one morning I woke up with her patting me and gently calling, "Mama!"  When I opened my eyes she cheerfully shoved a sugar-encrusted pacifier in my face and declared "Tookie!"  ["Cookie"]  It turns out that she'd woken up before anyone else and, instead of waking us, went downstairs and discovered the sugar bowl on the counter.
She's ahead of the curve and has been throwing epic toddler tantrums for months.  Some of them are annoying, but quite a few have been hilarious to watch.  (Mostly it depends on how much sleep I've gotten.)
She's started picking her own outfits.
And she loves wearing my shoes.

Despite the many, many things she does that aggravate me, she's an easy kid to love.  I am constantly amazed at how fierce she is, in the best way, when she's going after a goal.  If she falls, she gets right back up again.  I'd like to think that HusbandX and I fostered that in her, and maybe we did our part, but much of it is inborn determination.  So on days when she's being difficult, I can remind myself that, no matter how trying she is right now as a toddler (and was as a baby), she will be an amazing adult.  She will be the kind of adult who Gets Shit Done, no matter what.  (I just hope that we can direct her more toward Nobel Peace Prize or Climbing Mount Everest, rather than Ultimate Mob Boss or Dangerous Hacker, in her life's ambitions.)
Two years, though.  Two.  All at once it feels like forever and a very, very short amount of time.  I marvel at how quickly she changes, and how rapidly time has progressed, even though at times it's felt like I've been a parent for so much longer than two years.  But she's still changing month to month, and that is one of my favorite parts of being a mom.  Every month she becomes a little more capable, a little stronger and faster and more independent.  It is awesome, in the dictionary sense of the word, to watch that progression.
I am very far from a perfect parent.  I know I yell at her too much, and lose my temper when she's doing the thing I just put her in time-out for doing.  Twice.  Gah!  In addition, I'm around this all. day.  Every day.  Of course it's going to wear on my temper.  But that's no excuse.  I need to cultivate more patience, particularly now.  Things are so up in the air and her life has changed so drastically in the last six months.  It's tough for the adults here, how much harder is it for a child who doesn't understand all of the changes and the new challenges being asked of her?  She needs to listen better, but I need to use a nicer tone of voice so that she wants to listen.  This is something we'll need to work on together.
There are times when I look at her and it just washes over me, the realization that she's really my kid.  I am that lucky.  I tell her nearly every day, and particularly on our bad days, that she is my favorite baby.  Of all the little kids in the world, I'm glad she's mine.  Even when she's being a tiny tyrant.
Manhattan Beach.  I had fun showing her
that the waves in the ocean come to us
if we're just a little patient.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Minimalist traveling with a toddler

There aren't many things I go minimalist on.  I get too sucked into the "but I might need that!" mentality, or caught up by sentiment (though that is getting less the older I get).  However, I do hate to travel with more than I need.  In some cases, this has led me to travel with less than I need (don't ask what I packed for our honeymoon--I was thinking "autumn in Alaska" but we went to "end of summer in Italy" and roasted myself), which isn't ideal either.  But I'm getting better at knowing what I really need for myself, and what I don't.
However, adding a child into the mix makes it a whole new ball game.  The Munchkin and I are in Pasadena visiting my brother, his wife, and their sweet baby girl.  You'll notice, HusbandX is missing from this.  He's at home, still working on, well, getting work.  So I've traveled alone.  With a toddler.  Clearly, I have gone mad.  I wanted to do this now, though, both because I'm super excited about my niece (yay!), and because the Munchkin is still a free lap baby for another couple of weeks, until her second birthday.  A free traveler?  Yes please.  Combined with the insanely low airfares ($76 each way!) this was hard to pass up.
Lest you think that I've basically discovered free travel, the Munchkin and I are staying in a hotel, which is not cheap in this area.  Even after trying my BIL's girlfriends' super-secret discount passcode for hotels (she works at a hotel), it was still not as cheap as I'd hoped for.  On the other hand, we're only a few blocks away from my brother's place, so we can walk.  So we didn't need to rent a car.  Yay!
Then we got here and...crap, how am I going to get there without a car?  The plan was that my brother would pick us up from the airport.  That's a fairly normal plan, right?  Hardly seems worth coming up with a backup.
Until it becomes necessary by exploding tires and life and such.  I had to get myself and the Munchkin and all of our stuff (including the car seat--never forget the car seat) to Pasadena from LAX.  WITH NO BIKE AS A BACKUP!!!  Nightmare.  After talking it over with my brother, we took the lovely FlyAway shuttle bus ($8) to Union Station downtown.  Since there weren't two seats together in one row, my thoroughly travel-weary toddler had to sit on my lap AGAIN.  And protest by slumping into a puddle in the aisle while squealing at me.  Multiple times.
After we made it downtown, that's where I had to pay (with toddler trying to run amok), then grab our luggage and go through about 1/4 mile of underground (or more?) to get to another kiosk to pay for the metro train ($2.75), then back up one flight (we took the elevator) to the train station, where the toddler promptly tried to run over to the edge to see what this new place was all about, at which point I abandoned our stuff to the mercy of whatever thieves LA had on offer at that particular time, to grab my child away from eminent danger and explain to her that she'd scared me very much.  She ignored me in favor of waving hello to the pigeons.
All of this is really to say that I am so happy I've learned to travel lightly.  If I'd had a lot of stuff, this wouldn't have been possible.  I'd have had to take the more expensive shuttle, or break down and rent a car.  As it was, it was barely doable.  And I'm patting myself on the back for having the foresight to look up lightweight car seats when we were researching them (it's 11 lbs.) as well as compact ones (for our small car).  If it had been a bigger car seat, that would have been the tipping point, because even our small one was bulky, heavy, and generally a pain in the ass when being carted around manually rather than strapped into a vehicle.
 But other than the car seat?  Damn, I did a great job.  We're here for four days and the Munchkin is potty training so we have both diapers (for sleeping times) and underwear (ALL the underwear, in case of accidents) so there's more stuff than we will have when she's totally done potty training.  (Please, please let that be soon....)  And still, I managed to fit it all into one rolling carry-on, plus a laptop bag full of entertainment stuff (including, you guessed it, my laptop).  Other than that, I have one soft baby carrier (our Ergo), which doesn't really have storage but was probably the best thing I brought because she couldn't run away when she was strapped to my chest, and I didn't have to juggle her as well as luggage and a car seat in my hands.
How did I pack so light?  The first thing I did was figure out what I would need in terms of clothing.  If it had just been me, I could have packed for myself in the laptop bag.  Two outfits, enough clean underwear for each day, a small bag of toiletries, and my entertainment.  With a frequently sticky and messy toddler, I needed more though.  But how much more?  It turns out, not much.  I made sure my clothes go together and packed: one pair of capris (it's LA, after all), three shirts, and clean underwear.  I wore my skirt, a tank top, and a light sweater (just in case), and packed one extra pair of pants just in case.  (Mostly, just in case the toddler has a potty accident while on my lap.  She did that to HusbandX once, peeing herself so bad that she peed his pants as well.  And that was with a diaper on her.)  I also threw in some pajamas.
For the Munchkin, there were wet bags (for used diapers), cloth diapers, covers, and the inserts to make them extra absorbent overnight.  One comfort blankie, her Sleep Soldier, the ever-important Bunny, two pairs of jammies (in case of an awful nighttime potty accident), three shirts, two dresses, and one pair of leggings (which technically goes with the dresses, but could also match with any of the shirts).  Once again, extra clothes just in case.  But I really did come up with the very worst I could think of and decided that, really, we don't need a whole boatload of clothes just in case, and that I can always take stuff to a laundromat if needed.

Poor Bunny was stuffed into the Barf Bag by the Munchkin.

I went minimal with my own toiletries, so they fit into about a sandwich-baggie-sized bag I have, plus toothbrushes and hair brush.
All of this fit into one rolling suitcase with lots of room to spare.  I didn't even have to utilize the zipper expansion.  It helps that toddler clothes fold up so small, and that I have a small toddler.  (She's just growing into 2T clothes.)  But really, I know plenty of adults who can't make it away for a weekend with less than a full suitcase for themselves.  And this is me, planning with the Worst Case Scenario: Toddler Edition in mind.  I fully expect to go home and think to myself, "Well that was stupid to pack.  We never used it!"
A few books for her, two books for me, the laptop and cable, one reusable water bottle each, and we were all set.  (Plus wallet and phone and all of that, but lip balm doesn't exactly add tons to the weight and size of the bag I carried.)  Considering how today ended up, I am very thankful that I packed light, because now, despite the unexpected adventure, I feel like it was overall a pretty good day.  I won't lie and say this wasn't a hassle to deal with, but it could have been SO much worse.
We made it to Pasadena, where my brother picked us up (car all fixed) and had a lovely evening together filled with chili and UFOs.  Getting to see the Munchkin give her baby cousin a kiss made any and all efforts to get down here Totally Worth It.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Navigating the ethics of Stuff

Recently I read the book "The Zero Waste Home".  It's an author-signed copy which I got for free from my local Buy Nothing Group (which I contact through Facebook).  I will, of course, loan it to friends and eventually give it away (free) when I'm done with it, in accordance with both the book's and the Buy Nothing Group's ethics.  (And my own ethics, come to think of it.)  I've read the author's blog for several years now and really appreciate the idea but find putting it all into practice a bit trickier than she makes it seem.  Focusing on garbage is great!  It's wonderful to reduce our need for stuff and its packaging, both for our own pocketbooks (the packaging you buy is a built-in-cost to the product--it's not free) and for the environment.  But there are so many other issues, from cost to how far something is shipped to how it's produced, that focusing solely on the wasteful packaging can seem both too reductionist and missing the larger picture.  Ideally, we wouldn't have to choose between the factors of cost, waste, and pollution, but we do.
For instance, is it more environmentally friendly to focus on the packaging, or the chemicals used to make the product--should I buy a non-toxic face lotion in a plastic jar, or one with questionable chemicals in a glass jar?  Is it better to use toilet paper, for which millions of trees are harvested annually, or to use a bidet, which uses precious clean water in a time when much of the west coast is suffering from drought?  Do I choose the local organic product in a plastic bag, worrying about the effect of pesticides on the environment and the health of farming communities, not to mention the shipping pollution from out-of region, or do I reach for the non-organic in bulk, worrying about the garbage?
I really like the Buy Nothing Group because it's cost effective, someone else has discarded the packaging, and it's getting usable goods out of the waste stream so that others can use them.  Wins all around!  But not everything can be gotten through that group, and it doesn't solve the front-end problem of wasteful packaging.  Just because I'm not throwing it away doesn't mean someone else isn't.  Too, even though it's local, some of the pickup sites are too far away to reasonably bike to*, or the objects someone could potentially collect are too big to carry home on a bike, even with a trailer (which most people, even most cyclists, don't have).  So there is still some waste involved, from simply the driving.**
I have been trying, for a long time, to reduce our waste.  I don't think it's realistic to think that we'll ever completely rid ourselves of it, for a variety of reasons.  I actually wrote to the author of this blog/book years ago, saying that one of my biggest sources of garbage was actually from hunted moose meat in our freezer.  HusbandX's family hunts moose--it's an Alaskan thing; very tasty meat--and to best keep it, it gets wrapped in plastic cling wrap, then butcher paper, then frozen.  I asked the author how she would handle 2000 lbs of meat in a Zero Waste way and was surprised that she actually wrote back to me, although she said that she really didn't have any ideas for me.  It was so far outside her experience that she didn't have any ideas (besides going vegetarian--no!), which made me happy I hadn't mentioned all of the vacuum-sealed salmon I also had in the freezer.
I was not about to give up free, nutritious, environmentally sound*** meat just to meet some goal of not being wasteful.
This doesn't mean that we haven't tried to reduce our waste, though.  We have.  In our apartment in Fairbanks, even without a compost system of any kind and no curbside recycling****, we generally only filled one bag of trash about every week-and-a-half to two weeks.  Focusing on reducing our trash had a hugely beneficial impact on our finances, in many different ways.

1. We really identified our needs.  We reduced the number of products we brought into the house and searched for bulk items whenever possible, many of which are cheaper than their packaged counter-parts.  Does HusbandX need a bag of Jelly Bellies?  No.  On the rare occasions he really, really wanted them, we could buy some from the bulk bins.  After a while, he even stopped wanting them unless they were right in front of him at an event.
The other benefit of this is that I was able to take only what we would need and use, thus reducing our waste on the other end.  If we only need two carrots for the week, a whole bag of them might go bad and that would be wasteful in all ways.

2. We reduced our need for the products we were still buying.  I started first by reducing the amount of laundry detergent we used for a load.  After all, who puts the lines on the scooper but the company trying to sell it to you?  Do you really need that much detergent, or is that what they're telling you to use because you'll end up needing to buy more of their product?  After experimenting, I settled on using a bit less than half of the recommended detergent and have never had an issue with our clothes smelling bad.  Even our cloth diapers, which reek when they go into the wash, smell pretty fresh when they come out.
I've since done this with pretty much everything I use regularly, from hand soap to toilet paper to dishwasher detergent to toothpaste.  There has been no reduction in my cleanliness and I don't need to buy these products (and their associated packaging) nearly as often.  Reducing my toothpaste merely reduced how much was spit out, not how well it scrubbed my teeth.  Reducing my toilet paper use, being conscious about how much I was pulling off the roll rather than thoughtlessly pulling off a bunch, takes basically zero time to implement and has significantly reduced how much toilet paper we use up.
This idea even extended to other areas.  I used to put sugar in my tea.  Not much, maybe half a teaspoon per mug, but it seemed so necessary.  Then one day I was at the store buying sugar and thinking, "We sure do go through a lot of sugar, and it's expensive.  Where does it all go?"  I love sweets but HusbandX doesn't so I rarely bake them.  (I don't want to eat an entire batch of cookies by myself!)  So why did it seem like I was buying tons of sugar?  I thought about my tea, and how much I drink, and how much cumulative sugar that was over a week and had my "Ah-ha...uh-oh..." moment.  I decided to cut sugar out of my tea for one week and see how I felt.  By the following Saturday, my "cheat day" on this plan, any amount of sugar in my tea was just too much.  I haven't put sugar in my tea since, nor have I missed it as I thought I would.

3. We got rid of most paper products.  This was a huge one.  I never saw a need to buy paper napkins, as my parents do, so that wasn't a concern, and we never bought disposable cutlery or plates and bowls.  But it was surprisingly easy to do away with paper towels, even with pets.  We simply kept a bin for rags handy.  The only reason we've had paper towels in our house for the last five years or so is because our parents would come to visit and buy some, because "we were out".  *Sigh*  No matter how many times we pointed them to the rag bin, they never quite got that not having paper towels was a choice.  Even the dirtiest messes can be cleaned up with rags because they can either be laundered or thrown away.  I don't feel bad about tossing a rag that used to be a shirt or a sock because it's had two useful incarnations.
I also stopped using paper sheets to create lists.  I'd been using scraps of paper, mostly from work which were in the discard/recycle bin.  But I was also using notecards that I had leftover from college.  A smart phone or an iPod was an easy replacement for that system, however.  No need to buy and keep track of pens and pencils, either.

4. We stopped buying cleaners.  Other than dish soap and laundry detergent, castile soap, vinegar, baking soda, and water became the cleaners I used.  They're fantastic, and dirt cheap.

5. I stopped wearing makeup almost entirely.  This was partly for the cost savings, partly out of laziness (not wanting to research brands that were both cheap and non-toxic; plus, I'm not a morning person and didn't like the time it took), and in part because HusbandX actually prefers me this way.  I've quietly asked quite a few other guys about it and most say that they definitely prefer their wives and girlfriends sans makeup.  So ladies, do you actually like wearing makeup, or do you feel that it's something you have to do?
I respect your choice if you like wearing makeup for yourself.  I get that--it's fun to dress up and make yourself look different!  One of the chapters I appreciated best in this book had ideas for Zero Waste makeup, and I'll probably implement some of them on special occasions.  But again, this is an area in which you can reduce your dependence on an outside product without losing the value of it.  Anyone who wears makeup has favorite items and brands.  Why buy 19 shades of eye shadow if you really only use three?  New products can seem fun and exciting, but they can be bad for your skin and hair, so sticking with what works well for you can often be the best route to take.  Buying a new face lotion is way less exciting if it makes your skin break out, and new makeup is less fun if it gives you a rash.

6. I garden as much as possible, because it's cheap, tastes amazing, is environmentally sound, and doesn't have any packaging.  And it's fun!  One of the things I'm most excited about for our move to Seattle is that it's opened up so many new things for me to grow.  Fruit trees!  Nuts!  Different varieties of vegetables and fruits!  I am so, so excited for this.  Can you tell?
If gardening isn't your thing, that's fine too.  The farmer's market is fantastic for things which you can't or won't grow yourself, and despite their reputation for being expensive I've found them to be quite reasonable.  I've even gotten some really amazing deals at the farmer's market.  40 lbs of peaches for $35?  YES PLEASE.

7. We embraced small space living.  This isn't a reduction in waste in terms of tangible garbage so much as it is in resources.  We didn't have to heat our home as much, or light and decorate a lot of space which no one uses.
I used to be impressed with large homes until I actually saw how people lived in them and realized that there were rooms which were basically never used.  Why have a formal dining room if you're only ever going to use it for Christmas dinner?  In the same vein, I've decided that I don't want "formal" dishes because it would be silly to store them for the few times each year when we'd take them out.  (We might end up with actual silver flatware, however--through inheritances, my parents have three sets.)
A small home can feel quite spacious if it's laid out well.  More than anything else, that's what HusbandX and I will be looking for when we eventually house hunt.  We lived quite well in a 20x25 foot cabin (plus half loft) with no running water for six months.  By comparison, the size of even a smaller home in the Seattle area (which will have indoor plumbing!) will seem positively cavernous.

8. Finally, I came to terms with the waste I do create.  I'm not perfect, no one is.  There are trade-offs.  I realized that the organic flour from the bulk bin which I'd been buying was actually way more expensive than pretty much any other option.  When I thought about the fact that flour comes in paper bags, which are recyclable or compostable, I decided that buying it in bags wasn't a terrible choice.  I did still look around for the cheapest option and found that the local feed store had organic flour in 50 lb bags for far cheaper than the smaller grocery store bags, and realized that it would be less wasteful in the end to have one large bag than 20 small ones.
The garbage I most want to reduce or, ideally, eliminate is plastic waste, for so many reasons which you've probably already heard a million times.  (Bad for the environment, both in creating them and in their disposal.  The chemicals can leach into the product I'm actually buying and is harmful to humans.  Most of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made of bits of plastic, which kills and maims animals.  And on....)  And I am still trying to reduce my dependence on glass, metal, and paper products.  But using those can sometimes be the better choice, and I'm fine with that.

We have some hobbies and aspects to our life which are going to create waste.  Among other things, we have a cat, and I still can't figure out what's truly the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of his waste.  And I'm not in this alone.  HusbandX clearly has a say in how our family operates, and I'm not going to freak out about it if he does or buys something which creates a bit of garbage.  He thinks about garbage and waste more too now, but he's not going to become uber-strict about it either.
And then there's the Munchkin.  We do so much that reduces the waste inherent in having created a new person.  Should we also deny her a balloon once in a while, which makes her so happy, just because it will end up in a landfill?
I think the most important part of this is learning the lesson of intentional living.  So many people do things just because everyone around them does the same things.  I don't want to.  It's not that I want to rebel against what everyone else does for the sake of rebelling (I got over that in my teenage years, thankfully) but I do want to live the life I want.  I don't want to live someone else's ideal life.  That's no way to be happy.  If I can save money and be a bit more environmentally responsible while increasing my happiness, that's a great perk.

*If it was just me, with no toddler to worry about, I could happily spend a couple of hours biking.  Much harder with the little one around, though.  And naps are less of a certainty now, making planning our days a little bit trickier.

**We did drive to pick up the Zero Waste book, but we tied it into a trip in which we were headed that direction anyway, to visit with HusbandX's aunt.

***Hunted meat is, I think, probably the most ethical meat there is.  No antibiotics or strange feeds, the animal lived the life it was meant to, and if everything goes properly its death was quick.  Plus, I think that most people are less likely to take their meat for granted when they had a part in killing or processing it.
Feel free to disagree with me on any of these points.

****I saved most of our recycling in the garage and carted it off to the recycling center about once every two months.  Even so, there really wasn't any plastic recycling to speak of, so we heavily focused on reducing our plastic products.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The worst part of unemployment

When we planned to move down to the Seattle area, HusbandX and I thought about our future job situation a lot.  Would I work or would I stay home with the Munchkin?  What kinds of jobs would HusbandX be applying for?
But the one thing we really didn't expect was just how long it was going to take to find even one job.  Perhaps we were being naive or idealistic, but we sort of assumed that at least one of us would be employed within about three months.  After all, the tech sector is booming!  They need more programmers!  (The first sentence in the article is actually, "As any tech company can tell you, there's a major shortage of engineers in the U.S., particularly computer programmers.")  And we were told over and over, "Yep, this is the place to be if you've got a degree in computer science."  (That would be HusbandX, not me.)  Well, we're not seeing any evidence of these promising statements yet.
Over the summer, HusbandX applied for so. many. jobs.  Well over 100, and heard back from maybe 1% of those jobs.  Mostly rejections.  He had precisely one interview, with a government agency, and he came back from the interview saying, "Even if they offer me a job, I don't want it."  He had some good reasons for saying so, so I agreed with him.  Don't worry, though, they didn't offer it to him!  Apparently they felt the same way he did.  ("Even if he wants the job, I don't think he'd fit in here.")
Now, however, we're entering our fifth month without employment.  Our expenses are small, thanks to the fact that we're staying with family, and our savings were fairly high due to our own natural prudence and then in anticipation of our move, but we do still have expenses.  And the stress levels of living here are going up.  It's hard not to have your own space, especially for people as independent as we are.

We've kept ourselves plenty busy over the summer, so much so that we've occasionally joked that we don't know how we'd fit jobs into our busy lifestyle.  But really, we're trying to mask the pall that unemployment has cast over us.  You see, the worst part of unemployment is simply the fact that it affects everything else.  We can't make long-term plans because we don't know what our situation will be like in the next month, let alone two or three months or next year.
We have so many goals that we want to accomplish, but every single one of them is on hold until we have jobs.  We can't look for a home of our own because, even if we had enough savings for one (we don't, yet) who would give a mortgage to two unemployed people?  We want to pay off HusbandX's student loans from his first degree, and we are paying more than the minimum payment every month even through this period of unemployment, but it would still take us roughly five years at this rate to pay it all off.  I want to knock it out in a year or less if possible, so that we don't have it hanging over our heads any more.  Plus, paying it off earlier would mean paying less overall since we wouldn't have to pay as much interest.  I'm all for that.  (And every time I think about the fact that we don't have credit card debt in addition to those student loans, I thank our parents for showing us money management when we were younger.  Those student loans are the only debt we've ever had, so we pay our credit cards every month and we paid cash for our car.)
We have other goals, of course, but those are the two biggest for now.
I am a planner.  It's driving me crazy that I can't plan for our current situation.  Will we be unemployed for another five months, or will we (as I've been told can happen) suddenly both be employed within a couple of weeks of each other, and soon?  We have vague plans, such as what to do with the money once we have some coming in (if I get a job, after our living expenses, half of my net pay will go to paying off those student loans and the other half will bulk our savings for a house) but the when is still driving me crazy.  If it seems like I'm an uber-fit exercise maniac, it's really just because it helps me deal with stress and get out of the house.  Even so, HusbandX and I have started to get small physical manifestations of our stress.  (If you see a zit on my chin, I've been freaking out about something.)
Things are starting to look up.  I don't want to jinx it, but I did have one interview yesterday that I'm incredibly excited about.  HusbandX is starting to hear back from people a bit more, including some programming proficiency tests that he's taken, but just getting to this point has been nerve-wracking and tiresome because of the long wait.  It's irritating to know that your whole life is on hold waiting for one opportunity, and the people who provide that opportunity really don't care about your life at all.  You're just one more person who might or might not be what they need, and if you're not then it's not even worth their time to write back and say, "No thanks."
All we can do now is continue working toward employment, and we have wonderful friends who've been giving us tips and sending us job openings they hear about.  It's been immeasurably helpful, as has the support from friends and former coworkers back in Fairbanks.  I know how lucky we are to have so many people looking out for us, and I know that realistically, four months is not a terribly long time to be unemployed.  From friends' former job searches I know that six months or more is not even that long.  But it's hard to wait.
On top of the job search, we're trying to set things in place so that when we do have jobs, we're not scrambling to fit them in.  From a plan about childcare to possible commuting ideas to things as simple as making sure we have plans for easy lunches every day that we can grab on the way out the door, we're trying to ensure that when we do have jobs we can get to work on our family's goals immediately.
For now however, we just have to keep waiting.  And waiting.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The hobby agreement

After we moved in with my parents, it quickly became apparent to both HusbandX and me that we really needed something to do with each other, to talk about.  With no jobs, and in a house with so many other people with a variety of competing needs, we were spending less and less time together.  And when we did spend time together, it always felt like it ended in an argument.
We both knew we needed something to foster communication, togetherness, and common interests, but didn't really know what.  We have separate hobbies--I read (so much) and he plays video games.  In our own home, we'd spend that time in the same room, doing our own thing but free to talk to each other if something caught our interest.  This is how I ended up reading Let's Pretend This Never Happened (by Jenny Lawson) aloud, because I was so tired of going back to read the part that made me laugh out loud that it was just easier to read the whole book to him.  This was, hands down, one of the most fun things HusbandX and I have ever done together.
Here, though, we don't have the luxury to do things like this as much.  Someone's always around, or interrupting, or we're just so darn sick of being around people that we don't want to speak to anyone.  (Even extroverts need alone time!)  We get some time from our Thursday night bike rides that is completely ours, but an hour or so a week is just not enough time for a couple to devote to each other.
So we came up with a simple bargain: we would each take on the other's hobbies.  At least once every six months, I would play a video game and he would read two books.  Naturally, they had to be games he'd played and books I'd read, so that we could discuss them.  We came up with lists of what we thought the other person would really enjoy, and a few special agreements within the grand bargain.  For instance, the Hunger Games series is a very quick read, so he would read all three in exchange for me playing Portal.
Over our bike camping weekend, HusbandX brought Ender's Game to read, and we discussed the book as he went along.  He enjoyed it, as I'd known he would, and we both enjoyed the discussions we had.
Unfortunately, fulfilling my end of the bargain hasn't been so easy.  I picked BioShock Infinite as my first game, but it turns out that my computer isn't good enough to handle the graphics.  The second game we tried ended the same way.  Now, I'm onto my third pick of game (Mass Effect), and my least favorite style of game: a console.  I hate the controls because I always end up in a corner staring at the sky and shouting at the screen, "I don't know what's going on!" as I furiously button-mash.  Yeah, there are reasons I don't usually play video games.
I will persist, however, because this is important to me.  I hate the console, but it's right next to HusbandX's computer so I get to spend that time with him.  Usually he's laughing at me, but that's ok too.**
This, of course, isn't the only thing we've done to get back on track with each other.  Aside from the bike camping, we've also spent all that time picking and processing the food people have given us this year.  Spending a few hours with your spouse while chopping and pressing apples might not be high up on anyone's list of most romantic moments, but it turns out that it's a great way to connect.  My brother found where we can stream "Whose Line Is It Anyway", and we watch those as we work to preserve food for the winter.  Laughing with your spouse can be one of the best balms for any marriage.  Now, all we need to do is say, "Butterstick!" and at least one of us laughs.
We've worked on getting out for more bike rides, just the two of us.  When we run errands the Munchkin is there, which is awesome (she sings while we ride) but isn't quite the same as being alone with your partner.  There are topics we discuss on our bike rides with just each other that we never seem to broach when even the toddler is around: fears, stresses, highlights of the day or week, discussing ideas for our future or what we'd like to have happen in the next year.
So we're beginning the autumn in a far better state than we were over the summer.  Perhaps the heat had something to do with our tempers, and I know the stress of unemployment has taken its toll, but whatever the cause I'm glad we're out of marital discord.  Even better, Jenny Lawson has another book that just came out.  Thanks to the Munchkin, I think my read-aloud skills are brushed up enough for the coming challenge.

**UPDATE: HusbandX managed to get this on the computer instead, so now I'm button-mashing on the computer hooked up to the TV in the office.  Still next to HusbandX so we get to spend the time together and he gets to laugh at me when I accidentally discharge my weapon and then squeak.  Which I apparently do a lot.  Even so, the computer works so much better for me than the console.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Biking while female

Last week, while biking an errand with the Munchkin, I realized that I'd committed a cardinal sin: that of not changing into more appropriate bike attire before leaving the house.  That is to say, my boobs were totally hanging out because the cut of my top, perfectly modest and acceptable while I'm upright, hangs down and flashes the world while I'm biking.  And I have, as my husband would put it, "huge tracts of land".
When I realized what was going on, honestly, my first thought was, "Meh."  So what?  It's not like I could change it.  And even if I could, they're just boobs.  I mean, they're my boobs and as huge a fan as I am of the Free The Nipple movement, I'm not actually going to start parading my bare breasts around.  (I did that enough, by accident, when I was nursing the Munchkin.)  But they were encased in a bra which nicely covered up most of the good stuff, so I don't really care if anyone saw what was left.
However, I do care that there are men out there who will take the presence of my boobs the wrong way.  Men who will feel free to honk and holler and generally feel it's their Solemn Duty to remind me that I am a woman in the public sphere.  I was saved from that on this particular occasion by virtue of having the Munchkin with me (I assume--even with the term MILF floating around, hitting on A Mom that way just isn't done; have some respect, dude! she's got a kid!), but when she's not with me, I am fair game.  For being female.  Worse, a female on a bike.  So dangerous!  So sweaty and dirty and unladylike!
On a recent Thursday night ride my friend Em was wearing a dress that was low-cut but fitted to her chest like a bra or swimsuit, so she wasn't showing any more than I had been from my normal t-shirt.  But because they were out there, some guy yelled to her, "Nice boobs!"  She didn't have time to yell it then but she later said that her favorite comeback for that is, "Disappointing dick!"  That has gotten men to call her a bitch, because apparently it's ok for them to degrade her, but if she turns it around and gives them the same treatment, that's just bitchy behavior.  Legit.
How sad is it that this has happened to her so many times that she's got a go-to comeback?  The guys who do this can't even be bothered to be creative with their derogatory behavior.
This is an issue which, like so many others, men don't have to think about.  I don't think it's wrong that they don't have to, but I do think it's wrong that it's something which women are forced to confront.  I polled the ladies of my Thursday night group, asking if they change their shirt before riding, in consideration of their boobs.  One said that she'd turned a tank top around when she was younger, so that the higher side was in front, and another said that she sometimes considers how the guy she's seeing (who's part of the group) will view her attire (as in, will he think it's sexy? rather than, will he think it's too immodest?), but everyone else said they'd just stopped caring.  The consensus was that there's no winning.  The pervs will manage to make you feel like you're under-dressed even if you're wearing a turtleneck.
Talk to just about any cyclist and you can get a list of abuse they've been subjected to from drivers: stuff thrown at them, people cussing at them, driving dangerously near/around them, and the always popular, "Get off the road!" yelled at them.  Talk to any female cyclist about what was the most memorable abuse that they received while on a bike and most of them will start listing the creepy things that guys have done: slowing down to stare at your butt (and shouting to let you know what they're doing), creative (and not-so-creative) catcalling, men conspicuously staring at your boobs, and otherwise letting you know that you're a female who is on a bike, but really shouldn't be.  Because females, yo.
Unfortunately, it's not just random street men who do this.  It's the biking industry itself, as well as the culture of men who have decided that women are Inferior Beings and shouldn't ride bikes.  That's messed up, and I cannot say it enough.  I realize that women are underrepresented in biking, as they are in video games and so many other venues.  But all of these venues have in common the fact that they make women uncomfortable and do everything they can to marginalize and de-value women.  Again, that's really messed up.  Worse, in my experience, men who do their utmost to push women aside are also those most likely to complain about being "friend-zoned", or that women just don't appreciate them.  These are the men who will complain that "there's not enough ass" in the biking world, but any woman who doesn't want to be just a piece of ass is a bitch and should GTFO.
Infuriating does not begin to describe how this feels.
Ironically, studies done on this topic show that it's men of lower social status, and therefore less likely to "get the girl", who are the most likely to display anger toward women.  So in their efforts to make themselves seem more manly and of higher status (i.e., putting women down) they actually make themselves less desirable to women.  I would laugh if it wasn't so facepalm-y.
I really wish that I could make those men understand that women don't do a damn thing for their viewing pleasure.  Biking, running, walking the dog, and all the other outdoor activities which set us up as prime targets for catcalling: not one of these is done so that a man might notice us.  We're just trying to live our lives.  Why is that so hard to understand?  Men are accorded that freedom, when will women get to just be people?
In my bike group, we have some awesome and wonderfully self-aware men.  But even in a group like ours, where women usually feel safe, there have been incidents.  Women have had their pictures taken while swimming (in underwear or skinny-dipping) over the summer, without their permission.  At least one woman was groped at one of the giant events--that man was quietly asked not to return.  Even just last night, on a normal (not themed) ride, with about 80 (?) people, while stopped at a light, a woman rolled down her window to ask, "Hey, what's going on?"  As some of us were trying to explain that we were just out riding for fun, because it's Thursday, one of the guys kept telling her that she was hot and should join us.  "Can I have your number?  And then I can call you about next week?  Because you're hot."  She ignored him, as women usually do with such asinine behavior, so I finally decided to speak up.  After all, having other women not speak up when we see or hear such things is part of the problem.
Probably, my heavy use of sarcasm wasn't the greatest approach.  "Well done, dude, I'm sure that made her feel so welcome.  It's not like it was creepy at all."  And on.  It was rather gratifying to have two other women pipe up.  "Seconded."  "Yep, that was creepy."  He asked to speak with us at the next big stop and did so.  It was hard because he was defensive over his actions, explaining that she was hot (I'm not sure why that makes his actions better?) and he was trying to do it in a funny, not creepy, way.  Funny.  That's what it was to him.  How do you explain to someone with that mindset that their actions aren't funny to the person on the receiving end?  In the very brief time I had with him I pointed out that he knows nothing about her--she could have been going home to her husband or boyfriend, or to her kids.  And even beyond that, no woman sits in her car thinking, "God, I wish some guy would hit on me at the next light!"  I didn't get to ask, did he really expect her to say, "Oh my gosh, you want my number?  Sure!  Here!"  Has that approach ever worked, in the history of ever, for a man?  It's like honking at women walking by.  What do men expect, that the woman will chase down their car to give that guy their number?  Women don't feel flattered by that attention, it's unnerving.  Funny is not a descriptor that comes up at all for women discussing these types of events.

The Munchkin's bike.

So I've been ruminating on all of these issues and then thought about how I want to raise my daughter to be a cyclist, despite the hardships and the stigma.  Despite the message that she will get, many times from many different people, that she is a lesser being because she's a female.  There will be a day when, in all seriousness, she tells me that there's something she can't do because she's a girl.  I know she will, because that was a message I internalized when I was younger too.
I talked with HusbandX about potentially banning the phrase "just a girl" in our house (except in the excellent case of the No Doubt song) because she's going to hear it so many other places that I don't want her to have to hear it at home, even in jest.  Because hearing it as a joke is tiring as well.  There are very few other things I absolutely will not allow her to say, but putting herself down and limiting herself based on her gender will not fly.  There are things that she won't be able to do, or won't do as well, because of her biology, but she'll never find out what her actual limits are if she's told to not even bother trying because she's female.
It makes me proud when people remark on how capable she is, how strong.  When she was first born I told her all the time how cute she is.  I kept thinking, gah!  I'm turning into one of those people who does nothing but compliment little girls on their looks!  But as she grew older, as she actually developed strength and started doing noteworthy things, my remarks about her looks have faded to being rare, and so have HusbandX's.  Now we tell her that we're proud of how strong she is, of how hard she works, and we encourage her to try things, to do better.  Even at her age, though, not everyone does.  We get surprised comments at the park about how strong she is, how brave, with the implied (if not explicit) addendum "for a girl".  It sucks that I need to shield her from that attitude even now, when she's not even 2.
People tell me how boys are different from girls because "they're just so much wilder" and I think, "You haven't met my girl, then."  Are boys really so much different, or are they just given more license to run and play?  Because "boys will be boys".
The Munchkin is small, and since neither of her parents is tall, she likely will be small for the rest of her life.  She will get extra crap for it, and be considered an easier target for those who seek to make her feel like less than a human being.  Ask me how I know.  She's going to need to know that she's capable and strong, no matter what other people try to tell her.  I hope we can build a foundation of inner strength so that she feels free to be feminine, but knows that she's so much more than "just a girl".

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


Autumn is, and always has been, my favorite time of year.  It's glorious.  Around the beginning of August, I started feeling hardcore homesick for Fairbanks and all of the lovely colors I knew would start arriving there soon, not to mention the cooler weather.  I've been roasting here all summer!  But now, finally, it's Seattle's turn.  Surprisingly, this rainy town hasn't quite lived up to its reputation.  Sure, there's been rain.  Even epic rain, the kind that makes you say, "Hmm, I don't think I actually want to bike out in this weather."  (That was Thursday night, before our ride.  The rain stopped while we sat in the car and chatted on the phone with HusbandX's brother, and didn't come back, in lighter form, until we were nearly back at the car.)  It rained quite heavily last night, but the Munchkin woke me up to an absolutely lovely morning, with evidence of the rain still everywhere but no clouds in sight.  We enjoyed the morning by putting her on her balance bike (she's almost big enough for it now!) and after, heading to the park, where we both splashed in puddles.

My attempt, last autumn, to take a cute Pinterest-like picture
of the Munchkin with a pumpkin.  FAIL.

The cooler temperatures have, of course, been incredibly welcome for we poor cool-weather cravers.  In addition, grilling over the summer is nice, but many of my favorite foods (squashes, apples, root vegetables!) all come into season at this time of year, when it's cool enough to want to cook and eat them.  I'm still enjoying a few last nectarines from the farmer's market, but the transition to All Things Apple is one I'm enjoying.  A glass of sweet cider from the apples we pressed, apples with cheese as my lunch, or mulled apple cider (again, from our own cider!) for dessert...bliss.

What does any of this have to do with frugality, the purported purpose of this blog?  Many things.

1) Autumn means a lack of heating and/or air conditioning.  Yep, turn those bad boys off to save some serious dough.  Daytime temperatures are still heating up the house, but opening a window to take advantage of the breeze actually works, which it didn't when the temps were over 90.
Whenever I've had to pay for climate control, my roommate (or spouse) and I have made a game to see how long into autumn we could go without turning on the heat.  When HusbandX and I lived in our dry cabin, heating fuel was massively expensive.  I remember it being $1200 for 500 gallons (I think), which is not much fuel in Fairbanks but is a lot of cash for a student who's working two summer jobs to save up enough for living costs over the winter.  So we decided to see if we could push off needing any heat until it snowed, which happened in late September that year.  When it did snow I said, "Aw, come on, I bet we could make it even longer!"  HusbandX, the killjoy, vetoed that plan.
Even after we turned on the heat, we made it a game to see how low we could comfortably keep it.  It wasn't uncommon to catch me reading while bundled up, including a hat and gloves.*  Autumn, however, is that lovely time of year where those extreme measures aren't needed.  So enjoy it!

2) Now is the time to stock up on whatever fruits and vegetables you can.  As I said above, many of them are in season, so not only are they at their tastiest, they're also at their cheapest.  Or free.  My annual summer stocking-up of fruit is winding down (in addition to all of the preserves, nearly half of our chest freezer is filled with blueberries, cherries, peaches, and blackberries) but vegetables and apples are still going strong.  Thankfully, many of them won't need much in the way of preservation.  Winter squashes should stay good for quite some time if left in a cool, dry place, as will onions, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and apples.
Since we haven't eaten many of these autumn foods over the summer, they're also unique to our palates right now and provide the diversity we crave.  Instead of feeling like we're always eating the same old things, and changing it up by going out to different places, we change our eating habits and ingredients based on the season.  This ensures that we're never bored with our own cooking so going out is a special treat and one reserved strictly for seeing people we haven't been around for a long time, such as out-of-town relatives.

3) It's the season of baking.  All that stuff you didn't want to make over the summer lest you heat up your abode?  Now's the time to start DIYing again.  Bread, cookies if you're so inclined, muffins, and anything else your heart desires.  Buying these things is, generally, so much more expensive than doing it yourself, and they don't take a huge amount of time.  Plus, it's fun to bake stuff.  Kids, especially, enjoy helping.  Ask me how I know, just please don't ask why there's flour all over the counter still.
This season is also when we haul out the slow cooker to make our meals for us, saving time (a necessity, always), money (by not ordering out or making more expensive stuff--slow cooking can make even cheap cuts of meat tender and delicious), and energy (they use very little of it).  The anticipation of dinner hovers in the air all day as it cooks, and when we finally sit down to the meal it's with the desire to savor it and enjoy it to the fullest, as we've enjoyed its scent all day.

4) Autumn is the cheapest season for exercise.  After all, who wants to be stuck inside on a treadmill or stair master when it's not blazing hot or cold enough to require gloves and a hat outside?  It's sunny and warm, but not too warm, so get out and enjoy it!  Go for walks and bike rides with friends or alone, take your kid to the park without fearing burns from the playground equipment, go hiking and camping and backpacking.  I know, the allure of all your favorite TV shows coming back is tempting, but you can watch them on DVD later when it's too hot or cold to move.  For now, do yourself a favor and get outside for some fresh air.
In Fairbanks, I always knew that this time of year was my last chance at sun.  In many ways, it's the same down here.  Instead of the sun always being down, though, it'll be hidden behind clouds for much of the winter.  Either way, you don't realize how much you miss the sun until it's suddenly never there.  When the Munchkin was born, in late November, I did my best to sleep when she slept, which meant that a few times I slept through the sunlight.  I ended up crying when I realized what had happened, and it was hard to keep myself from becoming depressed.  After the first couple of times, I decided that I wouldn't nap, no matter how tired I was, unless the sun was down, because it was too important to me to get that tiny bit of daylight.  This is a lesson I want to carry forward here, since sunlight will be no less important to my peace of mind than it was in Alaska.  Getting outside to walk the dog is far cheaper, and healthier, than investing in a Happy Light.

5) It's also the best season to curl up with a good (library) book and a mug of tea (or coffee, or cider, or....)  I know, I just told you to get outside!  But no one's going to do that all day every day, so when I do have down time, I usually spend it with a good book and a mug of tea.  Library books are worlds cheaper than paying for cable, and they don't cost any electricity like running a TV does.
A book, a sunny living room, and cat or dog cuddles is, to me, the perfect way to spend the Munchkin's nap time.

6) Enjoy slowing down.  Every season has its own pace, and summer's has always been rather frenetic and manic to me.  There are always things going on, people to see, stuff to do that you can't do later on.  I enjoy the whirlwind, but by the time autumn comes around I'm thankful for the small respites that come my way.  Even when we hang out with friends now it's not so much about doing things as it is about seeing each other and catching up.  We had two game nights with various friends this past weekend and not only did people show up who wouldn't have had the time over the summer (due to the other million things going on), but even the way people interacted was a bit slower, a bit calmer.  We took more time to really catch up.

I hope you're enjoying the season as much as I am!

*It might sound miserable, but I think back on our time living in that cabin fondly, and I know that part of it is because of, not despite, the hardships we endured.