September 2017

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The weather here has finally taken a chilly turn – not cold, but no longer easy bare-legs weather. So we are throwing our last community event of the summer: a simple picnic in the park. We’ve realized that you need a few things to make a community picnic work.

  1. Free food: While potlucks work with people you know, if you want strangers to come out, lure them with free food. We’re serving burgers and dogs, as well as chips, cookies, and salad greens. Simple, but filling and easy to store if we don’t get the numbers we’re hoping for. Our last picnic had 45 people, but we wanted both that one and this one to reach 100, so we ended up with a lot of leftover food last time!
  2. Music and games: Music is good for masking over any quiet that comes from low attendance or people still getting to know each other, and games mean that there is a specific thing to talk about instead of just immediately getting into serious talks about the state of the neighborhoods’ roads. We’re bringing bean bag toss, a silly frisbee game called Bottle Bash, and a giant Jenga set, since kids and adults alike can play those.
  3. Plan for rain: We are set for clear skies, but we’ve reserved two shelters at the park just in case we get any sprinkles, so people should be able to gather and chat under the covered area if we got bad rain. It’s terrible to do a lot of publicity and then have to change a date. Speaking of which…
  4. Publicize, but definitely invite one person at a time too: People respond to being personally invited, so we tend to get far better results when we speak to people than when we post on social media or put flyers on doors.

With any luck, this will make your next community picnic a good time for all as well – got any picnicking tips for the rest of us?

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There are a lot of tools that help folks with their finances, and this Friday, I want to tell you about the one that has made mine (and a zillion other people’s) better, easier, and more logical. Mint.com is a resource that, once you get to know its quirks, makes taking a big-picture view of your money choices a snap.

I started with Mint.com because of Husband – he liked the idea of linking all the accounts in one place so that they would be easily visible and we could make sure we understood where we were, financially. I was a little weirded out about giving all my passwords and usernames to a software, but in the end, the time it saves is worth the risks involved; while there are hacks every few days it seems, Mint has a very strong motivation to keep your information secure, because they would lose their whole premise if they lost your info!

When Mint compiles a dashboard of financial accounts for you, it allows you to see how much debt you have, how many assets you have, even a Zillow estimate of your home’s value, and get a pretty up-to-date net worth. It allows you to plot trends, make goals, and set budgets. My budgets were set automatically based on our typical spending over a few month period, but I still check them periodically because it helps me rein in certain areas of spending when the month starts feeling kind of spendy.

What is most valuable to me about Mint.com is that it gives me cold numbers that show that we are progressing toward our financial goals. Most of us like to save in theory but get out of hand when we have to give something up in order to save. Seeing the progress we are making is what definitely makes me willing to pass on expensive coffee drinks, new clothes, or a more expensive holiday destination. It’s not without its confusing elements, but Mint is worth the time it takes to explore and take charge of it.

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This weekend has confirmed for me a lot of things: we have casual, good friends here in town, and there is plenty to do with time here, and there are still so many more good projects to be a part of as the town builds itself into a great place to live. I’ve never felt more connected here, more like we’re getting something done by being a part of this community.

And at the same time, all I can think about are other places. I think about Madrid, where I was able to build a community from pretty much no connections to my past life, where I loved and cared for people who were also far from home and where people who grew up in another culture cared for and loved me. I think about my husband’s home town, sitting on my in-laws back porch by the bear-proof bird feeder and the way that spot makes me feel when it is early morning and I’m still in pajamas. I think about how so much family has clustered there, how they bend over backwards to help each other but also just to enjoy each other, to sit around campfires together.

It is so strange to be torn between good options – for so much of my life, I’ve thought that none of the places could be home, except maybe my college town, and now many places remind me how home they have been to me. I don’t know what the future holds or where we might go, but I know that this place has grown on me in the two years we’ve been here – our two year anniversary with the house is this week. I also know that the meaning of nearby family has grown on me, and the meaning of city life and excitement and Spanish and their deep loyalty to those they love… it has all grown on me.

My maps never were very tidy, but these days in particular, I feel like the star for where I am is so entwined with the stars for where I have been. “You are here.” But also “Your heart is here” and “Your mind is here” and “Your friends are there” and “your family is over there.” What a map, and what a life choice it is to be a person in one place.

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One of my friends, E, recently started working at a store that sells make-up and other beauty essentials. Her pictures online after starting to work there have been gorgeous – not only are all the tubes and compacts adorable, but her face looks so sophisticated, exciting; if I saw her for the first time from across a room, I’d want to talk to her! Besides the fact that she’s also my friend and I like talking to my friends.

I have such a strange relationship with make-up – my mother never wore it, but I knew about it through my pre-teen and teenage years. At summer camps and college, I’d borrow a lip color or an eye shadow, but I didn’t own my own; I eventually bought a lipstick, a mascara… until I had my own bare-bones collection.

It makes sense, though, that my collection stayed small for a long time, because I wore it only on special occasions, or perhaps the first day of class. It wasn’t until I moved to Spain, where bold lip colors and a perfect eye were so standard that I felt weirder without them than with them. For those two years, I spent most days wearing at least a little make-up. It was the only time when there were people in my life who had never seen me without make-up but who were close friends.

When I returned to the States, there were more people who went natural-look, and I got lazy – I was in a long-distance relationship, which is uniquely good for making you think you don’t need make-up to impress anyone and you don’t need make-up to look good for a particular person. I found myself pulling it out only occasionally when there was a party or a poetry reading, but usually nothing.

I thought, when I got my first full-time job, that I’d wear make-up; I was younger than most of my colleagues, and I was working with college students, and make-up would have been a good way to make myself look older than them. I even found a bunch of great promo codes and splurged on an order from Benefit (love their products, even if I neglect them!). It didn’t last though – I’m confident that I can do my job with or without eyeliner. I wear it for big days, and when my husband and I go on dates, but not otherwise.

Part of me thinks that my love of make-up is wasteful, since I don’t follow through and wear it, and part of me thinks that being obsessed with making my face into a canvas is a little wasteful anyway; I could spend money a different way, and the environment probably wouldn’t mind if we didn’t make a bunch of face products from our natural resources.

How do you feel about make-up? Does it complicate your life or give your life a little sparkle? I find it can go either way for me, but one thing is for sure: I don’t think women should feel the pressure to wear it, even if they are having a zit day! Being who you are is an important thing, and unless make-up is part of what you want to be wearing, it should be very optional.

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I don’t know what it is about Sundays, but I often wake up unsure and worried on Sunday mornings. If Saturday has been eventful, I’m worried I’ll be less busy and productive, and if it was a lazy Saturday, I’ll feel even more slothful. I’ve learned though, that the first thing that I can do that will take me into a good Sunday is going downstairs, mixing yeast and water, flour and a little butter, and making a loaf of bread.

Something about the smell of bread rising makes me feel like I’m really in the home life: I’m making something hearty to feed the man I love and to nourish myself, and it’s a core ingredient to which will be added vegetables and fruits, meats and cheese. It feels like my most basic building block: if I can make bread in my chemistry lab called a kitchen, I can tackle a Sunday.

Life has been pretty good for a while now – I’ve been out of the hubbub of planning a wedding, and Husband and I have settled into a rhythm of keeping our home at a level of clean that we like. We have all the furniture we need and are actually trying to keep an eye out for things we can get rid of so our house doesn’t become a never-ending pile of the broken things we don’t need any more; we go to the gym for cycling class and we go to work at the local food pantry after work, and we meet friends at local outdoor concerts and we travel to see those we miss and love in other places. I have no reason to be dissatisfied at all.

This isn’t enough, though, to make a melancholy mood leave; I cannot always just will sadness out of my life just because there’s no reason for it to be there. Instead, I’ve found that the physical labor of life works the sadness out of my muscles, like coffee chases away sleepiness. Kneading a yielding blob of dough, punching it down and watching it crust over in the oven: these things get me there. I hope you have something that works for you the same way.

If you would like a great bread recipe that requires no kneading to boot, try out this one and see what you think.

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I have a lot of lists going all the time, but most weeks on either Sunday or Monday I try to make a master list that helps me see the week in my head. There will be all kinds of things listed, but within the list there are a few categories:

  • Specifics that need done today, maybe tomorrow: I always have my best understanding of what I’m trying to get done today, with a few bigger things that might take till the next day. Fill in as many specifics as possible.
  • An outline of big events and needs for all the other days of the week: If I have appointments, or evening engagements, or meetings with friends during the week, those make the list because they will need to be on my mind as I flesh out better lists all week.
  • Concerns: Sometimes, I put things on my to-do list to remind me to do things like “be brave” when boldness is necessary to the tasks I’ve got, or “find rest” when I’m in the middle of a cold and still trying to get things done. Similarly, I flag tasks that I am dreading, because if I get those done quickly, it will really motivate me for the rest of the day.
  • Aspirational goals: I don’t just put one achievable list together; it makes Husband crazy when he sees all the things I hope to get done each day, because he thinks I cannot possibly do it and I’ll be disappointed or overwhelmed. He’s not totally wrong, but I also think life is too short to aim small, and I’m happy to have a few things undone at the end of the week if I still feel like I stretched myself.
  • Rollover goals: Similarly, I bring some hopes and dreams from last week into my new week’s list, where I can get them done and feel even more triumphant because something had been following me around for a while.

How do you organize weekly lists? I am, as you can imagine, pretty messy about it and always interested in learning.

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This summer, Husband and I have been somewhat concerned with how our neighbors feel about each other – most look with suspicion on everyone in the area, and since so many people work away from home, they don’t get a chance to figure out who all the regulars in our area are. We’ve tried to combat this in two ways – taking more walks in the neighborhood, and giving out bags of welcome gifts.

The welcome gifts in each bag cost less than 5 dollars – we made some cute home to-do lists, bought tiny citronella candles (for the buggy nights in our backyards), got a bottle of water and a packet of seeds, and added all the recent flyers of local events we could find. Whenever someone told us or we noticed that we had a new neighbor, we’d go over to their house and leave this simple gift on the doorstep, with a note tied on to explain who we were and that we were just glad they were in our neighborhood.

So far, we’ve gotten close to 15 of them distributed, because the neighborhood is large and dense and has a lot of houses selling or getting rented recently. Still, there is more we could do, and we’re going to do so – it seems like such a simple, inexpensive thing to remind people that the whole neighborhood isn’t out to get them: most likely the neighbors are just like them, busy and a little stressed but mostly good folks who want to be safe themselves and, in some cases, provide a safe home for children.

Do you have ways that you reach out to new neighbors to help them see that the neighborhood is a good and safe place? How do you deal with negative comments between neighbors and avoid letting it get to you?

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Husband and I have conceived of a lot of ways to make sure we don’t spend too much each month. We are making all our payments, and we are saving some, so it can be tempting to think that whatever is left we can just spend till it is gone – but we’d love to live well within our means, since you never know how long both of us will keep our current jobs.

To do this, though, we don’t want to completely cut money-related fun from our lives. So we’ve been making a lot of decisions based on 3 questions that I think most of us could stand to use, even if you have more than enough money in the bank.

Does this bring me closer to people I care about? What I’ve realized is that many of the things I consider spending money on are things that I could easily exchange for other ways to be happy – going for walks, cooking at home, watching movies we already have in the collection, working in my garden. What I do want to spend money on, though, are fun (or just novel!) experiences with friends and family. I wouldn’t spend 40 dollars on a ticket to an amusement park by myself, but I try to let go of the purse strings when it only applies to me.

Will this be a momentary or lasting part of my life? I see grabbing fast food on my way home from work as a momentary pleasure – nothing wrong with it, but the investment value is so much lower than a copy of a book I loved, or a yoga class that will give me new moves I can try at home. For things that are more likely to be momentary pleasures, I tend to try to use coupons or shop secondhand (not for fast food, haha), because I know I don’t mind scrimping a little on the temporary things.

Is this the time, or can I sit on the idea for a couple weeks? Most of the time, anything that isn’t needed right this minute for an urgent purchase is a good thing for me to think on for 2 weeks. Often, the caprice of wanting to buy a new thing will pass in 2 weeks, and if it doesn’t, I’ve usually thought of a zillion other good reasons to buy it, which makes me more confident. Not to mention, 2 weeks is long enough to figure out where the cheapest place to get it is, and what discounts might apply.

So you see, I don’t really deny myself per se, but I try to prioritize, and I’m always thinking about whether I’d prefer to save that much money or spend it on this thing. After all, it is a zero-sum game, and I want to think about the alternatives to making these choices. It has served me well so far, though I can always afford to be more prudent. I think we are all in that boat.

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wine

I have had a few years of sampling wines, and let me tell you: the grocery store aisles are getting old for me. I know that I can make a special trip to the specialty wine store miles and miles away, and I do once in a while, but I don’t drink a ton of wine, I just like trying something new when I do. So when I got a flyer about Bright Cellars, I was tempted to try it out.

This is a subscription service, and I’m sure many of you have already heard all the ideas about subscription services: why bother with a service that sends these things to you when you could get them yourself at a store? I do agree that many items can more easily be purchased individually, but wine is an exception, in my mind, because of a dreaded problem I call, “the one bottle problem.”

When you only buy one bottle at the grocery store, it’s helpful in the fact that, most likely, you’ll make the wine last, you’ll drink it for a special occasion, and your bill will be friendly. However, that does mean that you never have a selection to choose from, so even if you are consuming 4 bottles of wine a month, you only ever get to pick from one bottle at any given time – so whether you are eating fish tacos or steak, you are always at the mercy of whatever bottle looked good.

Bright Cellar solves the problem by delivering your monthly ration of wine all at once, and you get to pick from those 4 bottles – sure, you could also buy 4 bottles at once at the grocery store, but I tend to get decision fatigue trying to make a decision about just one bottle, much less 4. I like getting the package and being able to choose from among my concierge-picked selections all month.

If you want to investigate further, check out Bright Cellars – when you order a subscription, you get to rate each bottle you try which makes it fun to evaluate with a friend or family member after each glass. Husband and I like that you can bias your box toward red or white wine or let the concierge surprise you instead.

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I think that it is often a sign of life being pretty good for people if they see themselves as mostly in control of what happens to them. This can backfire for many, because when the unexpected happens, they aren’t just disappointed by the effects of a challenge, they are also aghast: THEY are in control, THEY are never caught offguard. It can shift someone’s entire worldview.

Why would I know all this? I’m this person. With my to-do lists and my plans and my future dreams, I’m the girl who thinks she’s in control and who loses her mind when something makes her feel trapped.

In the context of marriage, Husband and I have been talking about this. After all, there are many things we have to decide together now, and some of those decisions don’t go my way. What I’m realizing lately is the title of this post, and it has been so helpful: We have options inside this trap.

I fixate on being trapped, on finding ways to get free or get my way. Truth is though: it’s all a trap. If I get out of this one, there will be others. Here, trap just means inescapable realities – I have to go to work, I have to get medical attention, I have to fulfill my promises in my marriage, my family, and my friendships. But that’s just the thing: these traps are also the things that make our lives so meaningful. I’m not actually happy when I’m free; I’ve had times in life where there were no obligations, no people who needed or wanted things from me. It’s not really a goal worth striving for.

Not only are we never really out of the trap, the trap is also usually more than just one option. We have things we can do within them: if something turns out to be wrong, or not what we need, we can mitigate it.

I know this is all incredibly vague, but lately, I’ve just been grappling with how many things are now decided in my life: marriage, home and place of residence, work trajectory, and much of my future, it seems. But I have to remember that all of those things are just plans: some of them will change, some will grow and become things I could never dream of. There are options in here, even on this fairly defined railway track.

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