Thursday, October 5, 2017

When life hands you...bananas?

I have a confession to make: I hate bananas. Really, hate them. Which is such a shame, because they're filling and nutritious, and cheap. They're the cheapest fruit out there, at least that I've seen. But, alas, I hate the slimy things. The taste, the texture, the whole package.

Except, that is, in one form. Banana bread. Not just any banana bread, either. I found a recipe a while ago for blueberry-oatmeal banana bread. I tried it, loved it, then tweaked it just a bit. I lowered the sugar content (totally unnecessary to have a full cup of sugar in it!), upped the baking powder while dropping the baking soda entirely, and voila. An amazing, easy, and cheap recipe. It's so quick and nutritious that I relied on it more than I care to say after the Munchkin was born, particularly after I went back to work. Since I breastfed her, I felt like I was constantly hungry, but having two thick slices of this, with butter, and two scrambled eggs for breakfast each morning kept me full until lunch. And I lost the baby weight, one of the big goals of pretty much any postpartum mom.*

Nowadays, I'm using it more because it's super, super convenient. It's also fun to make with the kiddo, and I don't feel guilty about feeding it to her since it's got so many healthy ingredients. Whenever we've got some bananas about to go bad or a few in the freezer which should be eaten up. It saves more than just bad bananas, too, since you can use either fresh or frozen blueberries. If you've got some berries about to turn, throw them in the freezer until you want to make this.

Food waste is a big deal on so many levels--budgetary, environmental, even social justice. After all, it's true that there are plenty of people out there who are starving. Even kids at your local school might be needing free breakfast and lunch and the rest of us just casually toss away food. We are not by any means perfect in this regard, so I'm not trying to point fingers or get holier-than-thou. However, it is something we work hard at. It's something we've decided is important enough to actively fighting against in our house  and still, sometimes things get tossed in the garbage. A few small steps--freezing food when we can for later use, using scraps or otherwise "waste" food, and planning our meals ahead--save us so much time, money, and effort. They might not save the world, but we can all do our part.

If you're like me and don't really like bananas, or you've got some serious budget constraints, you can also sometimes purchase bananas from the store which are about to go bad. One of our nearest grocery stores has a section for fruit that's about to turn (mostly bananas) that they sell for cheap. Sometimes, when I know I'll have time to use them right away, I'll get enough of them to make at least one batch of this banana bread.

Blueberry Oatmeal Banana Bread

3 large over-ripe bananas
1 egg
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp nutmeg (optional)
1 cup oats
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 tsp baking powder
Blueberries, approximately 1 cup

Mix the wet ingredients, then toss the dry ingredients in and combine. Lastly, add the blueberries. Bake in a loaf pan at 375 for 45 minutes. Due to the berries and high moisture content, unless you're going to eat it all in about a day and a half I suggest storing it in the fridge.

Alternatively, bake in muffin tins (I grease the sides so I don't have to waste all those paper cups) for about 30 minutes at 375. These are fantastic to take on the go if you're rushed in the mornings, and they can be frozen. If you don't feel like you'll get through an entire loaf before it goes bad, make it into muffins and freeze most of them. Even if you don't remember to pull them out until the morning of, they reheat beautifully in either a microwave or a toaster oven. It's also way easy to pack them in a child's lunchbox if you thaw them out the night before. I do this as the Munchkin's "treat". Much better than a granola bar or something equally sugary.

A few suggestions for alterations:

I've used blackberries instead of blueberries and that was fantastic too. I bet raspberries would work well also.

Since I know a lot of friends and family are gluten-free, eating Paleo/keto, or just trying to cut down on carbs, I haven't tried alternative flours with any success. My one foray into using coconut flour didn't turn out well. I'd never used it before and didn't realize that you can't do a 1/1 conversion between wheat flour and coconut flour, so I ended up with a chalky mess, even after adding a bunch of water. The Munchkin and I had a few bites, then I threw it out. Fail. Maybe someone with more experience baking with alternative flours would be able to make it work, though.

This recipe is also really easy to make vegan by substituting 1 flax "egg" (1 Tbsp ground flax + 1 Tbsp water) instead.

When I was breastfeeding, I struggled with low supply for a long time so I made a lot of lactation cookies. I didn't like how much sugar I was consuming, however, so I started looking for alternatives. I realized that this was a perfect recipe to convert. Each time I made it I added 1 Tbsp of flax, 1 Tbsp of nutritional yeast, and enough liquid or oil (coconut oil, butter, milk, water, depending on what I had available or felt like adding) to give it the proper consistency. It helped me out so much.

Pardon the totally not Pinterest-worthy picture. I snapped
this one morning just before doing the preschool
drop-off and rushing to work.

*Don't judge us, it's for so many reasons beyond being thin, such as being yourself again or not having your joints hurt, or feeling sexy and pretty again, or just wanting to be fit and healthy for yourself or your kid. Losing the baby weight is important.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Our house

It's been well over three months since we officially moved our stuff into our new house (although we are still only spending weekends there for the foreseeable future, as we work to get my mom settled and deal with my dad's estate) and it's still a bit of a wreck. In a good way, if you can believe that.

Our house has felt like our home since the first day we spent in it. We woke up after the first night and there was no strangeness, no questioning of where we were. Even the Munchkin seemed all right with it. Success! But, there's a lot of work that needs to go into really making your own home, even when you know you've found the right place.

Can you guess where the china
hutch was?
I've seen advice not to do any work on a house right after you move in and, frankly, I'm calling BS. That might be just great for some houses and people, but not for us. Not for this house. We don't have any major remodels planned but there were details we went into the offer knowing we would change immediately. The more we stay there, the more we realize it's been a great decision not to wait. The sellers did some very nice work in the house (like the bathroom tile), but they also did some rather shoddy work as well. It's the shoddy work we're trying to change.

We're not starting with anything major, just some paint. Painting the walls before we get completely settled is one thing we agreed on. If we waited, it would just be more of a hassle because we'd have to move furniture around, take pictures off the walls, etc. Best to it while we still have very little furniture to be moved, and nothing on the walls. It's also summer right now and we wanted to take advantage of being able to open windows and have the walls dry quickly. One of our friends, who has a background in design, offered to help us and that's been a major boon since I'm not supposed to paint while pregnant. (I'm actually kind of bummed about that. I like painting!)

One of my favorite changes so far is that we let the Munchkin pick out the color she wanted in her room, so that she would feel ownership over it. She hasn't gotten to experience that over the last two years in my parents' house, with us constantly having to tell her, "That's not yours, please don't play with it." It's important to us that she feel like this room is really hers, somewhere she can be comfortable, and it's working. She likes to tell people all about her new room, with its purple and blue stripes, and the pictures we're going to hang on the walls. She has a bedroom set that belonged to my grandfather when he was a little boy, so there's a bit of family history too. She even plays quietly in her room occasionally!

I won't detail everything we've done or will be doing, because that's boring. As we've gone along, though, it's made me realize how much I loathe shitty DIY. I respect DIY, it's obviously something we also do, but if you're going to do something then you should do it properly. Don't cut corners. Either you or someone else will just have to re-do it later on down the road and that's such a waste of both time and effort.
"I'm sure I'll hit the stud at some point."
- Person who drilled here, probably

On the other hand, if they'd done a good job then this house likely would have been out of reach for us. It's amazing how many people can't look past a bad coat of paint to the possibilities underneath. We decided that our house was a good deal because so much of the major work has already been done. There are new windows, for the most part, and carpet was torn up to reveal the original wood floors beneath. These are just two examples of the many things that were done well in our house, and they're far more expensive and more work than a few coats of paint.

We have a few more projects slowly getting done or on the list. One of my amazing and wonderful brothers volunteered to take the popcorn off the two ceilings which had it. This is another task that I can't do, because the popcorn possibly contained asbestos. My brother has to wear a breathing mask and he's been going at times when the Munchkin and I wouldn't be around to breathe the dust. I'm so grateful for all the work he's putting into our home, which he's basically doing just because he's a really nice guy.

Making a house into a home you're proud of doesn't require a ton of money, just some careful thought and planning. We have bigger plans for later on, things to make the house suit us even better or to make it more efficient. For instance, one project for this fall is to put more insulation in the attic, where it's rather thin. I imagine we'll also go around with a thermal detector to figure out where to do air sealing work. Eventually, we want to get a programmable thermostat, and we've already begun replacing some lights with LEDs. These are not particularly costly fixes and they'll pay us back in the long term. Anything more major can wait until our lives aren't quite so stressful and busy. (That time will come, right?)

I managed to get porch, hammock
trees, and paw prints all in one.
Lest you think our house is all work and no play, one of the first things we do each weekend is set up our hammock in what is quickly becoming one of my favorite spots. The porch was a feature I liked but not one I set a priority on when we were looking at the house. Now, however, it's where we spend a good portion of each weekend, relaxing. Though our street gets a fair amount of traffic our porch seems like an oasis of greenery and calm. And to make it truly ours, the dog stepped in a tray of paint and left her paw prints all over.

The secret way we frugalized buying a house in Seattle

The one feature of our house that not everyone knows is that it has an apartment in the basement. There's a second kitchen, and two large rooms (plus bathroom) that can be easily separated from the rest of the house and rented out. A mother-in-law apartment like this was something that we had thought of when we were talking over house features we wanted in our home. It was a feature that ended up on the "would be nice but not necessary" list, in part because we figured that finding a house in our price range that included one was a bit of a pipe dream. Nope!

Our goal in life is not to become landlords. We're not going to start buying up properties to rent out. However, having this area to help offset the cost of our mortgage somewhat will be quite nice. I had originally thought that, should a family member need it, it would be nice to be able to offer a place to stay that had some separation. (My full thought was that if my dad needed it after my mom passed away, it would offer him independence but would also keep him close. Obviously, that's no longer a concern.)

I also like the efficiency aspect to it, since our house would be far too large for our needs without it. The same day we looked at this house we saw another one that was similar, it just didn't have the apartment. We really liked that house too and talked about putting an offer on it, but we would have been paying just as much mortgage-wise on that house, without being able to get any money via rent.

We won't be charging maximum rent for the space, since it's more important that we have a friend in there, someone we can trust, someone we get along with, rather than squeezing every penny we can out of a stranger. We had a few people in mind and, luckily, the first friend we talked to was excited about it. I won't talk about him much, if at all, for his own privacy, but we've met a few times to talk about expectations and this sounds like this will work out well for all of us. He gets to pay less in rent and we get not only a little bit of money to help offset the cost of our mortgage but also someone we can trust.

He hasn't moved in yet, because the apartment has the other ceiling with popcorn. We want to get that taken care of before he moves in so that we don't have to upset his life to take care of it later on, or make him live with asbestos. I'm genuinely excited to have him move in, however, and a bit anxious to move forward with this. We haven't gotten to see this particular friend nearly as much as we would like to since we moved down here. We have set up boundaries so that we won't be hanging out with each other constantly, but it will be nice to at least say hi in passing and to easily hang out when we all feel like it.

We are also going to be renting out a room to my brother. Well, "renting". He needs to go finish his epic around the world bike tour, but when he comes home we've promised him a room. We're working out a deal where, for at least a few months, he lives here free in exchange for some childcare. This would allow him time to get some personal projects and other things done, and it would help us out of a bind.( The Munchkin's preschool hours don't quite fit with my work hours.) We'll see how things shake out, but I'm also excited to have my brother with us. We get along quite well so I'm not worried that we'll cause a family rift or anything. And, my daughter thinks the world of her uncles. Having one of them around full time, which she's used to at this point, will help ease the upcoming transitions.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

It wasn't supposed to happen like this

Before we moved into our new house, I briefly started some cutesy little post about the move, minus the details, and was super excited to finish it up. In the end, though, what happened was neither cutesy nor fun nor happy, so naturally that's not what I'm posting.

When I was in high school I had a dream that my dad was dead. Not that he'd died in my dream, but that he'd been dead for many years at that point and I was still sad, going over memories and wishing I could see him again. That morning, my dad actually came to make sure I was waking up for school (I was notoriously bad about that) and, as soon as I saw him, I burst into tears. This was, I know, a little unsettling for him. I was just so relieved to realize that he wasn't gone. I hugged him close and couldn't tell him why I'd cried that morning until years later. Thinking of it always brought back the feeling of grief I'd felt in my dream.

I would give quite a lot to be woken up like that again, and to know I have many more years with my dad.

Despite my dad's heart attack a little over three years ago, no one was worried about him. I mean, I knew that one of these days he'd have another heart attack and that that one, or maybe the next one, would manage to kill him. But that was supposed to be years in the future. As sad and horrible as it is to admit, we've all been so busy worrying about my mom's health and preparing for her (sooner rather than later) death that to say we were completely blindsided by my dad's sudden passing is quite an understatement.

To have it happen the day that we were supposed to move made it doubly hard. It was supposed to be a happy day. He was so excited for us! He was going to finally see our house that weekend, and he kept saying how proud of us he was. He knew how long and hard we've been working toward this goal, and our combined dedication and perseverance was a trait he was not shy about praising.

No one thought anything of it when he slept in. He was always a night owl, and usually slept in quite late on weekends. He'd also had what we thought was a cold the day before. The kiddo and I had been sick the week before and his symptoms seemed to match up so we weren't concerned. Only, that day he wasn't sleeping in. I'm not sure I'll ever forget my brother running downstairs yelling, "Call 911, Dad is cold!" I ran upstairs to see for myself while calling emergency services and could see immediately that there was no helping him.

Instead of using my vacation time to work on setting up our house I used it instead to plan my dad's funeral, to make arrangements for what to do with his body and to contact as many friends and family as I could think of. As if that wasn't enough, there's always my mother's care to think of and, as the mom of a very demanding toddler, I had to focus on my child as well. There were details that I was sorting through and problems I was taking care of all day long. I couldn't grieve, I didn't have time for that. There were others who needed me more than I needed time to myself.

The worst moment of it all was walking into the funeral. I don't know about you, but whenever I'd thought about my parents one day, hopefully far in the future, dying, I had never thought about that detail. There would be a funeral, sure, but my mind glossed over it. However, when it hits you that you are really, truly saying goodbye to someone you love that much, it's overwhelming. I lost what composure I had immediately.

Which, really, is a good thing. If I could remain stoic through my dad's funeral then he wouldn't have meant all that much to me. But he did. He was a wonderful man and a great father and I'm so, so lucky that he was my dad.

I have some small comforts. He died very peacefully in his sleep, and from appearances he didn't even know what was happening. I also had pretty much the best last words to my dad: "Love you." Casually tossed over my shoulder as we left to go see friends for a barbecue, I didn't know that that would be the last thing I ever said to him. But if I had to choose, that's what I would say to him all over again.

We didn't get to spend a night in our own house for two weeks after the day of the move. Thanks to our amazing friends and HusbandX's hard work, most of it had gotten done that day anyway while I made calls and dealt with the details of death. Moving was, in the end, not a happy but a practical decision. After all, having our things cluttering up my parents' house could only make whatever else needed to be done even more difficult. And I cannot thank our friends enough for all that they did: taking the kiddo away so that she could have a somewhat normal day and we could focus on what needed to get done. Moving our things and even supplying us with toilet paper and some (nonperishable) groceries. Checking in to see in what ways they could help. My gratitude for being surrounded by such amazing people is beyond words.

I've gotten through the weeks somehow. This has been, without a doubt, the most difficult period of my life. There are so many things that I need to attend to, and all of them crucial, that I've been constantly overwhelmed. The hardest part has been dealing with the Munchkin's feelings on top of my own. She's having a hard time with this, but so am I. I just don't get the luxury of behaving like a three-year-old. So I've dealt with the move, I've dealt with living in two places, I've helped my mom as best I can, I've worked with my brothers on my dad's estate and everything that needs to be done after someone dies, I've gone back to work, and I've dealt with the needs and emotions of a demanding child all at the same time. And I've been harboring a secret.

You see, before we even closed on our house I took a pregnancy test. It was positive, the way I'd expected it to be. This was as planned as these things ever can be, considering what a crapshoot fertility can be. You start trying and basically cross your fingers, never knowing if it will take five weeks or five years. Well, we got lucky and ended up on the five weeks end of the spectrum. I found out I was pregnant, we closed on our house, and then my dad died all in the space of about three weeks. To say that it was difficult to handle all of that at once is to severely understate things.

I never got to tell my dad and that really, really sucks. At first I was having a hard time finding any happiness in this baby I wanted so much, because it instantly became just one more thing I have to deal with. Between all of my other responsibilities I didn't have time to think of myself, but I also didn't have the luxury not to think about myself either. So instead of being a joy this was just one more thing I have to take care of.

Luckily, the first trimester has been pretty easy on me. No nausea to speak of, only mild food aversions (except for that one week, when I didn't even want water because it was totally abhorrent), and exhaustion. But would I be this exhausted anyway? One of the aspects that's been the hardest is that I don't know what's caused by grief and what by raging pregnancy hormones. Do I suddenly want to cry because I'm still sad, or because my hormones are going wild again?

This all sounds really bleak. It's not the way I wanted or intended to tell the world about this, because a baby should be a happy thing. And it is really is. I've had two appointments now and I'm just starting to round out so it's a visual thing rather than a list of nasty symptoms. I've heard the heartbeat and that was indescribably beautiful. As my grief is becoming less acute (though not fading, never fading) and things are getting checked off the to-do list I am able to relax and be happy. I'm building another human being! That's pretty incredible when I stop to think about it.

I also have to take a moment to thank both my husband and my brothers. HusbandX, of course, knew shortly after I did. He was always there with gentle reminders that taking care of myself was okay too, to step in and handle things when I just couldn't. My brothers did the same. I feel rather bad for the way I blurted it out to them, in the midst of cleaning the bathroom together the day after my dad's death. I didn't really plan it but I realized that they needed to know. We were talking about things that we needed to do, particularly with regards to our mom, and they needed to know what I'm capable of and what I'm not. Since then they've also all been quietly checking in on me, taking care of me. They've entertained the Munchkin when I needed a nap, pre-checked meals with me to make sure it was something I could stomach. Not a day goes by when I don't realize just how lucky I am to have all of them.

Dealing with death and new life together has been confusing and added to my sense of overwhelm. My feelings about this baby are so tied up in my grief. I keep going back to the knowledge that I didn't get to tell my dad and that hurts more than anything else. Of all the people he loved in the world he loved us, his family, the most. It's something I've always known and I hope I can make my own children feel as cherished. My dad is the parent I most wanted to emulate, with his patience and generosity, and I'm not even nearly there yet. What will I do without his guidance?

The very act of telling people about this, seeing the genuine pleasure that others get from hearing our good news, has been making me happier. Fairly soon, I'll start to feel the baby move and it will seem more real to me.
My dad and my daughter, playing on the beach together.
And I will tell it all about the grandfather it will never get to meet. I am now the keeper of my dad's memory and I'll do my best to keep him present in our lives.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Frugality is not the same as greed

If you look at how frugality is portrayed in the media and by acquaintances, it's easy to get the idea that anyone who's frugal is a money-grubbing tightwad, watching every penny with squinty intensity. This can give the impression that anyone who's frugal is not generous, and that they're downright greedy.

In fact, the opposite is often true. Those who are the most frugal are, frequently, the most generous with their extra funds. Since people who are frugal are also the ones who end up with extra funds to donate (examples here and here, although there are many more that I could cite) it can be fairly stated that greed is not the ultimate driver of frugality. My brother is one of the most tightfisted people I know, who can, as an aunt put it, "make every penny squeal". But that's only with himself. With other people he is absurdly generous.
Enjoying this sunset was totally free, and I even
got to share it with lots of friends.

Being frugal allows people to be generous with their money when and as they see fit because those of us who watch our pennies know where our values lie. We spend only on the things which matter to us, and which will lead to a good life. We're buying a house, a very expensive "investment" (we don't view it as an investment, but as our home), because it will help us live the life we want. It's something we were willing to shell out a rather lavish amount of money on and go into debt for, knowing that it will bring our family happiness and stability for many years to come. We've made plenty of trade-offs to be able to afford this, but the things we didn't spend on are things that we don't get joy out of, and which won't make us as happy as our house will. New clothes, haircuts, meals at restaurants, makeup, and fancy coffees are all things that we value less, so we've (mostly) cut them from our lives. It hasn't decreased our happiness at all. On the contrary, by saving for our big goals and making them come true we've vastly increased our happiness. We are able to do the things that matter the most to us.

I'm not going to reiterate the tired advice that buying lattes every day will completely ruin your budget. If you derive true enjoyment from your daily Starbucks cappuccino or by wearing fancy new shoes, by all means keep indulging. But, perhaps look at other areas of your budget which might not bring you as much joy and cut those things out whenever possible. The point of this is to live your best life, not someone else's. If you want to spend lavishly on travel while eating rice and beans at home to afford it, that's awesome.

Frugality is also not about pushing off for tomorrow the things you want to do today. I have daily evidence of the folly of that. My parents wanted to travel. My dad, in particular, had dreams of traveling the world together after they retired. In the treadmill of work and raising four kids, however, they pushed it off. There were short trips to Mexico and various places around the U.S., mostly to visit family, but the big trips that they wanted to do got pushed off. Even after we, their children, were out of the house they pushed it off. After all, they weren't far from retirement.

And then. My mom was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. She didn't get to retire in a blaze of glory but by being laid off, then being too confused to work a retail job she'd taken for the holidays. Immediately their world became smaller. They have taken a few notable trips--to England, to Israel--but for the most part the dreams of travel were crushed. When even a trip to the grocery store is difficult and fraught with confusion, international trips are out of the question.

Seeing this every single day, seeing how much my parents have been forced to give up first because they were sacrificing in the name of family and second by circumstance, has made me think very long and hard about what I want from my own life. The only real conclusion that I've come to is that I don't want to push off my dreams for some unknown future. Some people use that same unknown future as a reason to spend all their money now. I'm using it as a reason to save even as I live for the now. It's been the biggest driver of removing the unnecessary from my life so that I can be as happy as possible for every minute that I have.

I not only have my mother's illness in the back of my head, but I also have my own daughter watching me. When we embarked on the epic task of parenting the one thing we absolutely knew for certain was that we didn't want to be just weekend parents. We wanted to spend real time with our kid through all stages of life. If I die young, my daughter is not going to fondly remember the stuff I've bought frivolously. She's going to remember the time we've spent together, and that is the best gift I can give to both of us. Saving money and living on a much lower budget than we can afford is allowing me to spend this time with my daughter. Working part-time is not an option that every parent has and I'm very lucky that I can do it, but I can also do it because we've worked so hard to put ourselves in this position. I can work part time to create memories with my daughter, or we could buy a second car. I can spend afternoons at the playground watching her build new skills or I could sit in a cubicle to afford trips to the movies and the nail salon each weekend.
I get to spend my afternoons with these two
troublemakers, and it's pretty damn awesome.

Even for people who are not parents, there's a lot of happiness to be found in not relying on a job. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn't do more when I had a truly terrible boss. My former fantastic boss had retired and someone new took over. She made my life hell, and that's not an exaggeration. She honestly did all that she could to deliberately make my life miserable. However, I didn't feel like I could quit for various reasons. I did all that I could within the system--talking with management, bringing HR complaints and even a Title IX complaint--but I still felt that I needed that job. Pregnant and the sole breadwinner for the family, I hunkered down and quietly accepted that that was my lot in life. I would have given anything to tell that woman exactly what she could do to herself and where she could go, but I didn't. I didn't think I could. I eventually changed my job situation by getting a new job (that I loved, and was sad to leave when we moved!) but that period in my life still makes me angry for a variety of reasons, the biggest being simply my remembered helplessness.

How many other people are stuck in jobs they hate because they need the paycheck? And how much better would the world be if they weren't limited by money? How many people could change the world for the better if they didn't have to sit in their cubicle every day? Even just being personally happy would be a positive influence because people tend to be nicer when they're happy. Not everyone needs to have their name in the media as a hero to have an impact on the world, sometimes just being happy will do. Letting go of other people's expectations of what your life should be like, and what you should spend your money on, is as good a place to start as any.

I actually get mad when people use this image of frugality as a reason to be greedy, to hoard their pennies. That's missing the entire point. Being frugal is about being you to the best of your ability, without money getting in the way, and to only spend on the things that will make you happier or a better person. That's it! Your budget won't be the same as anyone else's, and it shouldn't be. When you know what will make you happy then it's easy to lower your spending, set and stick to a budget, and think about a time when you could actually have enough money and not need any more, which would mean that you're free to give away the rest as you see fit.

HusbandX and I are still working on our version of The Good Life, and how much money is enough. Our expenses are still evolving and we're still hashing out things we'd like to do. In the meantime, however, we're enjoying ourselves and we're not worrying about money, because we've set things up in such a way that we don't need to. Being able to enjoy our lives without stressing over money has been one of the best gifts we've given each other.

Friday, May 5, 2017

The Good

My last post feels like kind of a downer. You might think that I've been depressed (and I have, just not Depressed) or that I've been wallowing in anger since November. Some days yes, but for the most part no. I've just been living my life, with a few extra reminders about being kinder.

Some really, really good things have happened in these last few months too. HusbandX started a job back in December, one he enjoys and is happy in. Since my brother was home for a few months at Christmas, we were able to hire him as childcare for us when we were both at work. We've been so, so lucky that for childcare so far we've only ever had to rely on friends and family. That will change in the fall when our Munchkin starts preschool. We found an amazing outdoor preschool that I applied for back in the fall and we found out over the winter that she's in! She'll get to spend her mornings playing with other kids in the woods, and I could not think of a more perfect setting for my child. I know she'll learn a lot and have fun doing it.

So, now HusbandX and I both have jobs that we are happy with. In some ways it's been an odd adjustment. Double employment? What's that? But after hunting around for so long, it's nice to know that HusbandX found something that suits him so well. Having met his coworkers at their Christmas party (in January), they're nice people. The work they're doing is interesting and engaging, and HusbandX is just so much happier than he had been. It's nice to have purpose again.

Since he has a job, in February we started working on our next big thing. We began searching for a house. Waaay back we'd written down a list of our wants and needs for a living situation. Since I'm a planner and a dreamer, I have huge notes dedicated to features I want in my future yard and garden. We already knew what neighborhoods in the city we could afford, which coincidentally happened to be the same neighborhoods where many of our home-owning friends live. We narrowed it down to one area to look in, figured out how far out of that area we wouldn't compromise about even for an amazing house, worked out a budget we were comfortable with, and started our search.

We didn't expect it to be all kittens and roses, thank goodness. It started off slow. Many friends had told us to look at as many houses as we could stand to. It would give us an idea of what's available, what are good prices, what things are actually selling for, and would refine our ideas of what we want in a house. It did all of those things. And let me tell you, the Seattle real estate market is bonkers. There are tiny houses with frankly dangerous issues (broken retaining walls, cracked foundations, outdated electrical systems) that smell of cat pee and they're going for half a million dollars, or close enough. What. The. Fuck. We looked at so many houses with features that made us say, "Wut?" and a few that we outright laughed at. Outrageous house, outrageous price. But they sold. In less than two weeks a house, even a miserable and downright awful house, would be sold. What?

One day I sent HusbandX a link to a listing and said, "Maybe this is a possibility?" It was a $14million dollar penthouse with a view of the Space Needle. We had fun looking at the pictures and joking about, "Well, I would buy it but that kitchen is tasteless," or "the bathroom needs some work, you can't even fit an entire football team in that tub!"

We found one house we really liked in the first month of looking and put in an offer, but someone else got it. We found another house we liked less but which would suit us well enough and put in another offer the next month. Now that someone else has it, I'm thankful for that.

Then...oh boy. We found The One. A house that had all of our Needs, and pretty much all of our Wants. Bigger than I'd initially thought we'd go for but well worth it. The yard and garden match some of my dreams amazingly well, but there's still opportunity to make them just the way I want. Walking around, this place felt like Home.

We did a pre-inspection and that confirmed what we'd already known: this was a great house. There was one major/minor issue that I had some small reservations about. Not enough to deter us but enough to make me slightly less excited about paying so much money for a house only to then lay out even more money to fix this. Then it turned out the seller was having it fixed anyway, which frankly doubled my excitement as it meant that pretty much all of the issues in the house were purely cosmetic, or at least could be put off for a while.

The other houses we'd put offers on had both had many more offers at the same time. I know one had at least six other offers. This one, however, only had one competing offer. HusbandX worried. "Do other people know something that we don't?" I held onto the pre-inspection in my mind as proof that we weren't going for a lemon.

That there were only two offers worked to our advantage. In the end, we're getting a house and lot of a rather large size for the city, close to amenities and close enough to work to bike, close to a bus line. And we're getting it for less than we would have expected. It's rather incredible. I feel so, so lucky.

We're working our way through the loan process right now. For those of you who haven't bought houses, finding the right house and getting an offer accepted is just the start of the stressful process. The bank required tons of paperwork, some of which we had on hand and some of which we needed to contact others about. For about two weeks, every day I was scanning and uploading and searching and signing documents. It was chaos. HusbandX joked, "I thought the stool sample was a little much." It really felt as if they asked for everything just short of a virgin sacrifice.

In the midst of all of this, my part-time job asked me to work longer hours, so I've had more full days in the last month than I've had short ones. I got a small raise at the end of March, too. That's good news for our house fund, but the extra work has added a whole new level of craziness that had me sucking down chamomile tea to calm down. I slept horribly for a few nights, worried about paperwork or that the bank would randomly deny our loan. Ugh.

But now, things are almost over. The appraisal went through just fine. We're still getting the funds together, as about half of what we had was in an investment account, so the thought that it won't get here in time is my final worry. It's mild, however, not the kind of worry that causes my thumb to randomly start twitching for an entire day. (True story.)
These two helped me chill out. At least,
when they weren't causing further sleep
disruptions they did.

It's nice to finally relax. It's nice to feel like this house might actually become ours, although I'm still not going to count on that until closing day. Even then, I think I'll have a hard time taking in that we own a home. When does it begin to feel real?

There are so many reasons we decided to buy a house. There are online calculators out there about whether it's better to rent or to buy, monetarily. We didn't even care (although I think that in this area, it's pretty much a wash) because there were so many other reasons we wanted a home of our own. Among them, we're tired of crappy landlords and worse neighbors. Seriously, we've only ever had one truly good landlord, and we always seem to be stuck with awful neighbors.

I wanted to finally, finally have a garden space that I could do whatever I wanted to. Keep backyard chickens? Maybe! I don't have to seek permission from anyone to plant things, and I know that if I plant a fruit tree or berry bush then I'll be around to harvest it too.

We also will get to remodel our environment to suit us. There were plenty of houses I saw which were nice, but they were someone else's conception of what a nice house should be. The house we're buying has just enough work that needs to be done that we can make it to suit ourselves and our needs.

That includes making it more environmentally friendly. Of course, one of the most environmentally friendly options is just to not buy more crap that needs to get manufactured while throwing out other stuff that will sit in a landfill for who knows how long. And I get that. But even things like increasing the R-value of the attic insulation is exciting to me. How pathetic is that? And that's my point. We're becoming homeowners because this stuff is exciting and fun for us. If it's not making you squee, just a little, to think about it, then renting is a far better idea. Not everyone has the inclination to look up Youtube videos about plumbing, or the desire to refinish cabinets, or to paint walls, or build a patio, or whatever the latest DIY project for a home is. (And I'm not kidding myself--there's always one more project that can be done when you own a home.) We do care about and enjoy these things, so that's what we're going to do.

Saturday, April 29, 2017


I haven't written. I mean really, I haven't written much of anything since early November. I'd like to say there are a variety of reasons, like the weather has sucked or because I've been too busy. Both of those things are true, but they're not why I haven't written anything. I've just been too upset and depressed about the state of the world to arrange my thoughts in any coherent fashion beyond anger. And really, that's not what anyone needs. That won't make the world a better place. So I've stayed quiet.

This is unusual for me. I am, and always have been, a bit of a loudmouth. Quite possibly too full of opinions for my own good, I'm not a quiet person. If I am, it's because I'm thinking about things. There is no "off" in my head, no peaceful quiet place that I go to. My head is full of chatter and so is the rest of me. I like to write not because I think my opinions are so unique but because there are so many people who share my thoughts but aren't able to articulate them, or not in the same way.

I am what could politely be described as "progressive", politically. "Dirty hippie" might also work. 😊 This is not because I'm surrounded by like-minded people (if nothing else, living in Alaska fixed that right up) but through thoughtful inner searching and talking with people who are not like me. It's been very popular since the election to say that "we lost" because "we're in liberal bubbles". No. We all lost because of fake news is profitable, and because there are people in the world who want to profit off of our communal loss. There would be no fake news without a hefty profit margin, and I don't think the advertisers we can see are the ones profiting most heavily.

The nature of human civilization is progress. There are small steps backward, but in general the trend is to move forward, to better ourselves, to move beyond what we have been. I am not trying to say that human nature is any fundamentally different than it has been since before written records, but it's obvious to anyone that we've moved on from what we were. That we've changed and that in that changing we've shaped the world as it now is. Progress.

On the other hand, conservatives want to keep the world as it is or even move it backwards in some basic ways. That is in the very definition of the word "conservative". It takes a very rosy view of the past, ignoring the realities that life has been a difficult, dirty struggle for most of humanity for as long as there has been humanity. It's also a misguided philosophy because it assumes that we can, as a society, stagnate. We can retain things as they are and everything will work out!

Again, that's not how the world works. That we will move forward should always, always be implicit. Progress will happen whether we all have to be dragged kicking and screaming into our collective future or whether we work together to ensure a more equitable, fruitful, people-centered future. I want to help shape that conversation. Really, I think that's what we all want, deep down. To argue against that, to claim that things are fine as they are or were better in the past so we should go back to that ideal is just dumb. It is never going to happen, and you wouldn't want it to if it did. Help shape the future instead of looking to the past for all the answers, because the latter is a quick way to get humans nowhere fast. Learn lessons from the past, but work to move forward. We can always make the world a better place.

Hearing the voice of progress be so gleefully drowned out by sore "winners"* and crack-pots has been, frankly, heartbreaking. What do you say in the face of such fundamental stupidity? You can't argue with a fool, as is being proven every single day to anyone paying the least amount of attention to the news.

So I've been quiet in the face of all of this, and yet I haven't. I've used some of the time I would have otherwise spent on this blog writing to my elected officials instead. I've even tried calling a few times, and despite how much I love to talk I do not enjoy talking to strangers over the phone. I've been working quietly to support friends who are getting involved in politics, trying to support friends and family who are in vulnerable groups--the people who are Not Like Me but who've helped shape my worldview and from whom I've learned so much about the varied, wonderful human experience. The fact that some of them, maybe even many of them, are in a position to lose the rights and supports that they should be able to take for granted is infuriating and terrifying. I'm honestly scared of the people who think that this is all right, who go along with it or even actively support it. Seriously, what is wrong with you?

All of this is also driving home my enormous privilege. HusbandX and I have the means for insulating our family from many troubles. Not all of them of course (no one can escape climate change) but many of the ones that are so scary won't actually affect us. I won't have to walk into a bathroom with a picture that doesn't represent me because someone else decided that I'm some sort of dangerous abomination. My marriage is never in danger of being de-legitimized. If the schools suck, well, we have the means and education to home school our kid.

But it's always in my mind that others, including people we like and respect and love, don't have those options. Some of them don't feel that they can speak up on their own behalf, because drawing attention to yourself can be dangerous. (If you don't believe me, talk to a Muslim or an LGBTQ military person.) How could I look at these people I respect so much and not work to give them the same level of safety and security that I have? How does it not hurt some people to think of hurting others in such basic and cruel ways?

I'm still working on how I can fight back in both large and small ways. The hardest part is that I feel like this is such a multi-faceted battle we're fighting. Do I focus on climate change or LGBTQ rights? Muslim rights, Black Lives Matter, women's rights, or healthcare access for all? They're all important, as are many others. How do I work on all of them? Do I just pick one pet cause, and if so how do I choose when they're all crucial? Are small pieces okay, or do only larger actions matter? It's enough to make me want to go hide in a book. And I have done that. In doing so, I came across this:

"Progress is the mode of man. The general life of the human race is called Progress. Progress marches on; it makes the great human and terrestrial journey toward the celestial divine; it has its halts where it rallies the belated flock; it has its pauses where it meditates, in sight of some splendid Canaan suddenly unveiling its horizon; it has its nights when it sleeps; and it is one of the bitter anxieties of the thinker to see the shadow over the human soul, and to feel progress asleep in the darkness, without being able to awaken it."
                                                     -Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

It turns out that Victor Hugo was wrestling with some of the same thoughts and anxieties that I was, over a hundred years ago. As I said before, human nature has not changed despite the massive changes in society and technology. It was oddly comforting to read that, to know that this has come about before and will almost certainly come around again. This period will be uncomfortable. I see bad things looming in our future, and I know I'm not the only one. However, humanity has survived these dark times in the past and we will again. We will find a way to thrive, to find moments of peace and joy despite everything around us. That's what we do.

So, that's become part of how I'm fighting back. I can't change what others do, but I can work to spread happiness in my own little sphere. I decided that the best way to start changing the world in the way I want was to simply be kinder to everyone. Patience is not my strong suit, and while I can generally be dubbed cheerful it's not always easy to remember that I should be as cheerful around strangers as I am with those I know. The cashier or the bus driver are as deserving of a smile and genuine thanks as anyone else who helps me. It's not much, but it fits with my ethos of making the world a better place. Even if all I've done is offered a smile, it's a start.

*Seriously, no one won this election. All of humanity lost.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

A Humbling Ten Years

We are about to hit a new marker here. The beginning of February will mark ten years that HusbandX and I have been a couple. This is especially remarkable as 2016 seems to have been the year for long-term relationships to fall apart. I don't have any facts or national statistics to back me up, just anecdotes, but I suspect that a number of factors have made 2016 especially hard, and many people have manifested that in either stress on their relationship or a realization that now is the time to end a relationship that doesn't make them happy.
Over this past year, we've seen over a dozen relationships (of 3+ years) fall apart among our friends and family. If I had to guess, I might even say it's more than 20 couples. In one year! Several more marriages and relationships are on the verge of falling apart, or going through a rocky patch. It's rough to witness. No matter if it ends up being a good thing in the end, it's always painful during the process.
When we saw the most recent public announcement of imminent divorce, I turned to HusbandX and said, "I wonder how many people are surprised that we're still going?" He laughed, mostly because we're quite certain that there are people out there who are surprised that we're still happily married. Two awkward misfits like us, how do we manage to make it work when so many (objectively) better people can't make their relationships work? (Don't worry, we're baffled by it too.)
I'm clearly not an expert in relationships. I don't want to tell anyone else to do with theirs, (well, except for the people sending in Postsecrets talking about knowingly, willfully marrying the wrong person--those are just sad; don't do it!) but I've had quite a bit of time to think about why our relationship is so long-lasting. Since I've been writing romance, I've also made a little study of what makes a relationship good. After all, I can't write effective romance if I don't know what makes a romance worth reading about!
I know that part of what has enabled our relationship is luck. We were just plain lucky to meet each other when and how we did, that we were each receptive to the other's feelings, that neither of us was in a different relationship when we met, and that we had the support of our families. (Don't discount that, ever. If your families aren't supportive because they don't like the other person's skin tone or gender or personality, you have a much harder road ahead of you than we did. I salute you for persevering.) But, not all of it is luck either. So here are the ways we've tested and strengthened our relationship.

We subjected ourselves to hardship

When I was younger, my best friend and I went on a road trip. The car broke down and we were stuck for two nights in this crappy little town in Oregon. Then we spent the next week (two weeks?) no more than two feet away from each other for almost every waking moment. Yet, we were still friends at the end of it! When we decided to move in together, that experience really helped. For one, we knew that we could go through less than ideal circumstances and still remain content with each other. We also knew each other and ourselves better after that experience, and we knew from it that we would be a good fit as roommates.
Years later, when HusbandX and I moved in together, I thought about that. We'd already traveled to and with each other, just short trips, so I was somewhat confident that we'd be able to live together. However, our first living situations were challenges in and of themselves. The first place we moved into was huge, but we had eight other roommates. There were personality conflicts and far too little privacy. That didn't last for more than a summer, but that was all right. HusbandX and I hadn't had any real conflicts with each other so we counted it a success.
Ice fog at about -55F.
I actually used an outhouse in weather like this.
After that, however, came an even bigger challenge. We didn't have much money, so we moved into a cabin without running water. It was the right price, but we were both a little nervous. We'd have to use an outhouse in the cold Alaskan winter, and we'd have to haul our own water. We'd have to do every single dish by hand. Even worse, we had to pay for heating oil and it was hideously expensive that year. $1200, and we weren't sure it would last a full six months! We made a pact not to turn on the heat until after it snowed and we did it without too much grumbling. (Turns out, in that respect I'm hardier than he is!) We even managed to figure out a system of getting the dishes washed without killing each other. (Seriously impressive.) We let the cold and the inefficient cabin bring us closer together, literally and figuratively. We even used trips to the outhouse in the cold as a source of jokes and banter that drew us closer together.
This was not the type of hardship we'd endure for the rest of our lives, and we knew that. But facing these challenges without falling apart was important. We still refer to those days, usually with a laugh. It was a hardship, but it's also a time we remember fondly. I knew then that if we could survive six months in that cabin and come out the other side still friends, still in love, we'd make it through anything. And we have! The early lessons on how to treat each other well despite tough circumstances has served us well.

We show our appreciation

We really don't do dates. Every once in a while, sure. But most of the time if we're going to get out (and away from the kiddo) we're going to do stuff with friends, like our weekly bike ride. Instead of having a dedicated date night, we show our love and appreciation for each other in much smaller but more frequent ways. We make each other tea or coffee and almost always put it in cheesy, flirty mugs my parents have. (One says 'I'd walk a million miles for one of your smiles'. I mean really cheesy.) When HusbandX gets up with the kiddo on weekends (it happens occasionally) he makes pancakes with her and they bring some up so I can have breakfast in bed.
How could I not marry this?
We make sure to thank each other frequently. These small acts of kindness toward one's spouse or partner frequently, in my observations, fall by the wayside as people get more comfortable with each other, so it's been a conscious effort to continue doing so. We also make our thanks more genuine by making them specific. "Thank you for taking care of X chore earlier." "Thank you for making dinner tonight."
We're not perfect, there have been plenty of times when we get snippy with each other or just flat out ignore the nice things we do for each other. We can even be downright mean and cruel to one another. These nice things fall by the wayside, especially when we get busy. Then we have a conversation, generally with one side expressing feelings of under-appreciation and the other pointing out the ways that appreciation has been shown but ignored. Then we both redouble our efforts to both show appreciation and to acknowledge it. Because acknowledging it is just as important. It's nice to know that when you've done something the other person knows what you did for them. It's not selfishness, it's human nature.

We purposely do stuff together, even the things we don't do together

We're not super compatible in that we do everything together. We have many of the same interests, such as cooking and biking, but we have plenty of things we do separately too. HusbandX got into weight lifting when I was pregnant and discovered that he loves it, so he's kept it up. Me, I don't like doing any particular exercise regimen because I get bored with it. But HusbandX's gym has occasional "bring a friend for free" days and sometimes I'll even go with him.
We have our hobby agreement, where we trade hobbies. He reads a book from a list I gave him, so that we can talk about it, and I play a video game from a list he gave me. (I still need to finish playing Portal....) Most of the time, though, we do our own hobbies. We just do them in the same room. When I laugh at something in my current book I can tell him, and he'll tell me about silly things that happen in his games or with the friends he talks to while he plays them. It's togetherness for introverts.

We prioritize sex

Eww, TMI! I know! But this one is so crucial. When I was in Russia my brother said, "I don't want any details, but it occurred to me that it must be kind of tough for you guys to have, uh, alone time at Mom and Dad's. I mean, you have a kid so that already makes it tougher." Yeah, it does. But this is an aspect of our relationship that's critical to our happiness with each other. I've had a few friends mention that things get rough between them and their partners when they don't have sex often enough.
The hotel room we booked for the first stop on our
honeymoon was less conducive to honeymooning
than one would expect.
A while I ago I found an app to track my period (since I am NOT one of those lucky women who's super stable and can name the day it's going to start every single month) and realized that it can track other things as well, like migraines So I started tracking how often we have sex. I can now say with certainty about what our monthly average is, and that if we drop below a certain number we're almost certain to have a huge fight. If we drop below a certain average across a couple of weeks, we'll be grumpy and snappish with each other. I've told HusbandX about my informal research and he, too, has started noticing some of the same things. It's become something we now think of first when we're getting irritated with the other person. Have we made enough time for this recently, and could that be the cause of the irritation?
Every couple's numbers are going to be different, which is why personal tracking of such a thing (if you're interested in that) can be beneficial. You never know what you'll discover about your relationship with a little data.

We're frugal

This seems like kind of a weird one to put on the list, and originally I was going to say that we're on the same page about money. After all, finances are one of the biggest things that people fight about, so if you're on the same page with your partner then you should be fine. But, if you're both spendthrifts and constantly in debt because of it then you're not going to be really happy either, as you'll have that hanging over your heads. So, being good with money is one way that we've fostered our relationship.
As with anything else we're not always on the same page. But we are often enough, and we check in with each other frequently enough, that it's okay. It might seem silly to others that I text him, "Hey, can I buy a book?" (The answer is pretty much always yes, because he doesn't get texts from me like that very often. Go libraries!) We check in with each other for almost every purchase (aside from groceries) and warn each other if we're going to be spending out of our norm. We're not really asking permission, but a heads-up is really nice. The last time I texted about buying a book, I didn't get a response so I bought the book anyway. He got the text when I reached home and said, "Yes, you can buy the book," knowing perfectly well that I already had.
Some couples don't want to check in with each other that much and set up monthly spending allowances for each party. However you want to do it is fine, the important part is that it's a system decided on together and that it's one both people can agree to. The point is to avoid future arguments about money, not to cause recurring ones.
This also helps because we both know that we have our long-term goals in mind. Neither of us buys that much because we have some really big goals for this coming year. Being on the same page for the large financial goals is absolutely critical for any couple. We know where we stand, so the few minor purchases we make aren't going to throw us off our big plans. The fact that we both know that helps prevent us from getting annoyed when either of us spends a little bit.

We agreed on the big things before ever getting married

The fact that we got married wasn't done in the heat of the moment, at the height of our love. And the very fact that we're married is because we carefully vetted each other beforehand. In fact, I considered dating to be more like a job interview than anything else. 
The big issues are going to be different for everyone, but for the most part you want to agree on things like having kids. I've seen a few posts on places such as Reddit like, "My wife wants kids and I don't. We never really had this convo before we got married, so this is a bit of a surprise to me." WHY WOULDN'T YOU TALK ABOUT THAT BEFORE GETTING MARRIED? I don't mean that everyone needs to agree on every aspect of parenting--or any other big topic--before getting married, but it seems like much more of a big deal if one party wants kids and the other doesn't, as opposed to wanting two kids vs. three. It's kind of a big deal and something you should talk about with a prospective partner. No matter how much in love with them you are, you need to figure out what your deal breakers are and stick to them.
Our party animal.
I've told HusbandX several times that if he hadn't wanted kids at all then I wouldn't have married him. He was surprised, but that was one of my deal breakers. Another one was pets, which seems funny but it's actually a big deal for a lot of people. If you have three cats you adore and a potential partner who hates cats, are you really compatible for the long term? I was so nervous for HusbandX to meet my dog because he "doesn't like small dogs". He loves her, though, so no worries there. If he'd hated my dog, we'd have had some serious problems. I suspect that if I'd hated cats, it would also have caused problems.
There are others, but I won't get into every single one of them. They'll be different for every person and couple, but it's important to recognize what they are. Some things can be negotiated as life goes on, but the big things should be agreed on from the start.

We recognize the cycles of a relationship

We're not going to constantly be doe-eyed with little cartoon hearts popping up all around us. There will be times when we have to work harder at being attractive for or attracted to our partner. Conversely, there will be times when it feels like being married is the easiest thing in the world. We take advantage of those times and work hard at consciously choosing each other when we're in a low point. This is the nature of the beast, to have ups and downs. It's easy to compare us after ten years to the way we were in the first year and think that things are just not as good as they were. But, we're more comfortable with each other than we were, and in many ways our relationship is better. It's easy to lose sight of that, though, when we're not getting the same hormonal highs from each other that we did in the beginning.

Of course, all of this is predicated on trust and honesty. None of this is going to salvage a toxic or downright abusive relationship, and if you can't trust your partner then you need to get away from them immediately. But with one glaring exception, pretty much all of the relationships I've seen or heard of crumbling this year are between two good people who really like each other and just, for whatever reason, can't make it work.
I don't know why or how I was so lucky to meet HusbandX. Not that I always feel lucky. Sometimes I think that my life would have been so much easier if I'd married someone who isn't as strong-willed as I am, someone I could manipulate or dominate, someone who would let me have my way. It's clearly the best way! I suspect HusbandX has had similar thoughts about me too, and for some people that probably is the right choice. But for me, if I hadn't married someone with as much personality as I have then I wouldn't have been able to respect him. Being equals isn't always easy because there are plenty of times when we clash, but that's okay because trust and respect underlie everything else. It helps us to keep functioning as a team even when things are tough.
I look forward to the next ten years with HusbandX, and trust that they'll be even better than the last ten have been. That's saying something, because he still brings joy to my life every single day and I wouldn't be the person I am without him.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The books of 2016

It's time once again to talk about my favorite books of the past year. Books are one of my favorite frugal hobbies. I get most of mine as ebooks through the library, or by borrowing them from friends and family. However, I have quite a large collection of books I own (pared down regularly, but still huge) and I pull from them regularly to reread. I'm one of those weird people who loves everything about books, from the tactile pleasure of turning pages to the smell to the beautiful covers. I love staring at my collection of books and remembering fondly the stories, characters, and hours I've spent with them.

HusbandX, on the other hand, looks at my books with a hint of resignation and a wordless reminder that we're not going to get a larger house just to have space to stash books. He enjoys books, but not in the same way.

This past year, my total books read was just over 80. I write this with humility, because while it seems like a lot it's because this is what I devote a large amount of time to. I don't watch much TV or many movies, I haven't knitted much at all, I'm not a gamer, and there are times when I've used it as an anti-social crutch. (No I don't want to go out, I'd rather finish my book!) Paring this many books down to a few favorites might seem tough, but every year has its stand-outs.

1. I started my year with Urban Cycling, by Madi Carlson. The author happens to be a friend of mine, and a complete badass when it comes to biking. After reading her book I can say that she's as warm and personable on the page as she is in person.
This book is on my list not because I'm friends with the author, but because I learned a lot from it. Madi makes cycling for transportation in the city seem realistic and doable, even for families. She knows what she's talking about, having two kids and no car herself.
In addition to philosophy about biking and discussions about the pros and cons of various bikes and bike components, she also has advice about basic bike maintenance. I don't know much, but I have become a pro at greasing my chain since reading the book. Even HusbandX asked for some advice after I read it!
Highly recommended for beginners in particular, but all cyclists or anyone thinking of starting to bike can get something from it. I did, and I've been a cyclist for most of my life.

2. Curtsies and Conspiracies, by Gail Carriger, is the hilarious start to a young adult Steampunk series. She's got books in the same world written for adults which I have yet to read but they're on my list. If they're anything as witty as this series--and I'm told they are--then I'll spend many more delightful hours reading about Victorian morals clashing ridiculously with espionage work.

3. Better than Before, by Gretchen Rubin, is a book about research into and the author's attempts at creating good habits. The premise is that by figuring out how one responds to influence (are you someone who must keep a promise when it's made, or someone who chafes at promises, or someone who only responds to outside pressure?) then you can figure out ways to motivate yourself to create better habits and, thus, a better you. She also documents various things that throw a wrench in all of this, such as sudden sparks of inspiration, or whatever you want to call it, that lead to a big change. As I was reading the book I talked with a friend about it and she said, "Oh! I had that, and now I floss every day. I can't even tell you why, I just woke up one morning and decided to floss. I haven't missed a morning since then."
I found it very fascinating to think about how and why we form habits, and have definitely been using this knowledge in my life. I find that it can be rather freeing, as knowing what I want my habits to be shows me what matters the most to me. Then it's easy enough to cut the rest free from my life and focus on the things I value.
The books I didn't borrow from the library or
from friends and family.

4. The Dark Days Club, by Alison Goodman, is another young adult page-turner. It might seem similar to the Gail Carriger series, as it's another Victorian fantasy, but while the Carriger books are light-hearted and funny this was definitely a bit darker. Not sad and not scary, but definitely not one I settled down with to laugh.
I'm excited for the second book to come out. I think the author can do a lot more with it, now that the fantasy world has been set up, and the plot will move forward faster.

5. The "Legend" series by Marie Lu started rather slow. The first book was good but nothing special. Still, it was a series and people have raved about it so I figured I'd read the others. Oh boy. The second book was really good and the third was amazing. I really wasn't sure what direction it was going to go in and that's a very exciting thing. So many books are predictable and rote that finding one where I see many possibilities for resolution but don't know which one is coming is genuinely thrilling. I don't want to say any more because I don't want to spoil anything.
If you enjoyed the Hunger Games series at all, you'll love these too.

6. The Hands-On Home" by Erica Strauss, is seriously the best book I've read about housekeeping and gardening. I've loved her blog for many years and was super excited when she published her book. She's such an approachable author that sometimes it feels like I'm having tea with a friend rather than reading a book. She's got everything from cleaning recipes to cocktail recipes in this book, and it's all neatly categorized. Even though I read it through the library I plan to buy a copy because it will be very handy to use as a reference.

7. The YA book The Wrath and the Dawn, by Renee Ahdieh, and its sequel are a duology retelling of Scheherezade. When I saw the books I was intrigued, because how on earth was she going to make the prince any sort of notaterribleperson? She made it work and kept me reading until the last page of the second book was done. Even then, the next book I read suffered by comparison. This was another one where I rushed out to buy the book in a fever of impatience to read it. Then I had to order it and wait two whole days. Injustice!

8. The Pride of Lions and its sequel, The Blood of Roses, by Marsha Canham are two of my favorite romances. Don't let the genre throw you off, they're actually great novels. I've read these books probably half a dozen times over the years and they're still great. Set during the Scottish uprising in 1745, it's a clash between two people of different temperaments and warring nationalities. What I love the most about them is how much the characters change over the course of the two books. Honestly, they have more genuine character development than most books of any genre do. Added to that, it's clear the author actually did research about the time period. I won't say it's completely historically accurate (romance is, in the end, fantasy--readers don't want to hear much about scabies and syphilis) but it's close enough.

9. The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan, showed me just how much of the Great Depression was left out in my high school US history class. It was very sobering, and it made me really grateful for the times we live in.

10. Me Before You was made into a movie, which I watched on one of my flights to Russia. It was a really good adaptation, but as usual the book is better. It has so much more nuance, which is a good thing when it's about such a complex issue. If you haven't read the book or seen the movie, read the book. Then watch the movie. The actors did a wonderful job, and I read the book with their voices and faces in my head because of that. But definitely, read the book.

11. Ender's Shadow, by Orson Scott Card, was as good as my brother promised it would be. I read Ender's Game a couple of years ago and it is, of course, a great book. Ender's Shadow adds so much to it, though. It's the same story but from Bean's perspective. If you haven't read either of them, read both. They're well worth your time.

12. Sustained, by Emma Chase, was a romance novel that actually had me laughing out loud. When I was going over my reading list to determine which books I'd put on this list, this one made me grin with remembrance. I loved this one, and for as much as I love the genre I'm pretty particular about my romance novels. I've read enough bad ones to adore the keepers, and this is among the latter.

We'll be reading these books for years to come.
As a bonus, I'm going to put in our favorite children's books of the year. The Munchkin has gotten so many, but our new favorites are definitely Rosie Revere, Engineer, and Ada Twist, Scientist. I've gotten choked up reading those (remembering what it's like to have a grownup laugh at you, for instance) and I can't say for sure, but I think HusbandX might have gotten a little teary the first time he read them to our girl too. They have wonderful messages about perseverance and failure, but also about curiosity and the joys of discovering, questioning, and creating. I've noticed a huge uptick in the question, "Why?" since we got these for Christmas.

In addition to both of the protagonists being female, I also love that Ada is not white. We need more good books with diversity in them and we need to read them to all kids, not just minority kids. These books are a win on all counts.

As always, feel free to let me know some of your favorite books of the past year. I'm always on the lookout for more to add to my (massively, insanely huge) to-read list.

Happy reading!