October 2017


The picture is of a time when I actually used farro instead of lentils, but very similar look.

Happy Halloween! We’re big fans around here, always sitting out with a game or two on our front porch and some music to greet kids as they come around trick-or-treating. This year, though, it’s super chilly, so we needed a hearty (if blood-red!) dish to keep us warm and full… at least full enough not to eat all the candy!

One of my favorite ways to make lentils is to boil them in a tomato sauce. My favorite is to start with a can of basic tomato basil spaghetti sauce – simplest and cheapest you can get is fine. Then I add a few cups of homemade tomatoes, sliced up to make them cook faster. This gives some good homestyle chunkiness. I add a little bit of water if the whole mess looks too thick, and I then just follow the directions on the lentils as if the tomato sauce was water.

Make sure to add a little water if it gets too gooey too early; you want the lentils to cook fully rather than being tough or chewy.

The final product tastes like a spaghetti dish, especially if you put a little grated parmesan cheese on top, but has all the protein and fiber of lentils. I personally don’t see lentils as having much flavor, so it is a great way to make sure that you get your favorite hearty flavors (I’m a sucker for cheese and marinara on anything!) while also getting some good nutrients.

A big bowl of marinara lentils will also work great as leftovers for lunch tomorrow, and I like it with a salad, a piece of garlic bread, or some other addendum. For tonight though, it’s going to go great with a peanut butter pumpkin and a pile of mini crunch bars. 🙂


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One of my favorite writers is Leo Babauta, of Zen Habits fame. I recently read his piece on productivity and staying focused, and he used a term that I hadn’t used before: Most Important Task, or MIT.

I’ve always been pretty resistant to this kind of thinking, since one of my favorite methods of productivity is what I call the “snowball” – I do something fairly easy, and I ride the wave of my success by getting other, harder things done. However, the truth is quite the opposite: having an MIT selected, and focusing on it for a set amount of time seems to be the best way to start a day well and get going on something difficult.

So how do I identify MITs? I pick based on a few elements. The first one is time sensitivity; if it’s a small or large task, if it is the next thing that needs to be completed, that makes it super important. I tell my students all the time that “good enough and on time” is better than a hypothetical perfect thing that you will turn in late. Expectations go through the roof when you are late, and usually whatever was not ready at the deadline was still not ready after.

My next criteria is how it contributes to something difficult or important: with my writing work, I sometimes have harder assignments that are longer and more complex, as well as assignments that are about topics I really believe in rather than more generic content. I try to prioritize my meaningful, long-form work over my more day-to-day writing tasks; writing blog posts is sometimes my first MIT of the day. This goes for any kind of work, however; we all have those big-picture things that we know will take our strength and problem-solving. Tackling one of those face-on at the beginning of the day does wonders for the rest of the day’s productivity.

So here I am, saying what today’s MIT is: I’m writing a magazine article, and I need to get it finished so I can move on to other work. What’s yours, and how will you make sure you get it done first thing today? (Feel free to read up on Zen Habits for suggestions!)

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I had a pretty exciting day yesterday. For the first time ever, I have a baby nephew; my sister in law gave birth to a little dude and they are both doing really well! The baby is going to be spoiled, I can tell: neither her family, nor Husband’s family have ever had a member of the new generation. A bunch of grandparents were born yesterday. 🙂

There’s no babies on my side of the family either, so it really makes me feel like my cousins and I are entering a new time of life. For years, our families have been having adults-only kind of trips: rowdy camping trips where we all stay up late into the night telling stories by the fire, adventurous trips of all kinds. There will be a new domesticity for Husband’s brother’s family; while I’m sure they’ll still come out when we’re camping, they will also have to keep the little guy on a schedule. They’ll be pretty tired themselves just with keeping a little life alive.

Husband and I are pretty excited about being aunt and uncle; we want to take the little guy to the zoo and have him visit in the summers and of course, we’re going down to meet him. It also makes us think about the future though: someday, our married-no-kids lifestyle might change. It’s interesting to think how I can make all these big plans, thoughts for how my career and travel will go, but in the end, it will also be determined by the little lives around me, big and small. Some of them are people I already love, and some of them, like my new nephew, come into my life all of a sudden and are important to me without ever doing anything to earn it.

Just thinking about the next generation over here; don’t mind me and my musings. 🙂

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When I was recently in New York, it struck me how everything was just a little more expensive than I was used to. It made me think of a lovely night that Husband and I recently had in Cincinnati, a city far closer to home than New York and a bit less exciting, but nonetheless lovely.

There were a few ways in which Cincinnati was cheaper. Here are some of them:

  • Dinner and drinks: We were able to get a reasonable meal near the theater where we were seeing Wicked and half-priced drinks because it was happy hour. I love the vibe of some of the downtown restaurants of Cincinnati; while it is far from the size of New York, the market is pretty intense for restauranteurs nonetheless, and that keeps the quality high without sending everyone’s prices through the roof.
  • Parking: I was stunned that only two blocks from the theater there was a garage that charged only 3 dollars for the whole night of parking! In New York, I saw signs advertising things like “27 dollars for 6 hours!” as if it was a steal. Little things like this make us want to travel into the city more often.
  • Theater Tickets: Wicked, even the touring production, is never going to be an inexpensive night out. That being said, we were able to get super-close tickets that were off to the left of the theater for only 50 dollars each. Definitely not a frequent way to enjoy ourselves – free concerts and live music at restaurants is more our speed – but for a show we both were so excited to see, it wasn’t bad. Also, it’s nothing compared to the rumored 600 dollar tickets to see Hamilton! – as much as I’m sure it’s amazing, that would be past my level of entertainment spending for sure.

What do you do to make sure that evenings out or travel to cities isn’t too expensive for you? Any tips for other readers on making sure that they take advantage of all their cities have to offer without breaking the bank?

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In college, I developed a habit. Every time I went to a new large city, I’d try to find a free tourist map. Obviously, these maps are useful for finding your way around anyway, but they also became one of my most treasured souvenirs.

My map of NYC is nearly falling apart at the creases from having been folded and unfolded so many times. Each day after I got back from hiking around the sites and seeing the amazing landmarks of Manhattan, I’d take a black permanent marker and outline my route. This was before smart phones would do things like this for you on apps like Trackmywalk.

Now, I have a visual memory of everything I was able to do during the week I was there: the crazy detour we took through Tribeca on our way to Chinatown, wandering the city late at night after seeing the Blue Man Group, and obviously Central Park and Times Square. When I just try to think of the trip, my memories blur together, but when I look at the map, up on the wall of maps in my house, things come back to me as individual steps in the journey.

Some cities are only given a few lines of walking because I got the map on a day trip, but that still helps me remember simple days of visiting a brewery and a museum with someone I care about. Others are completely filled in: Madrid, in particular, got to the point where I’d criss-crossed almost every street in downtown over the 2 years that I lived there, and many of the streets of outlying neighborhoods as well.

I’d love to hear how you organize your travel memories so that you will remember them well; do you do anything with those free tourist maps after you are done with them? They aren’t as pretty as framed fancy map prints, but they certainly hold a lot of long-term memories for me.

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There are some telltale signs: I don’t grow pumpkins, but one sign is that there are roasted butternut squash seeds to be had and a pile of unused squashes in my fruit bowl. Another is that the tomato snarl – no longer can simply be called a “vine” – is so hopelessly interwoven that the fruits themselves require surgical excavation. The kale is full of bug-bitten holes, the basil is looking a little piqued…

It’s pretty close to first frost.

October has been a strange and warm month so far for the messy garden, but winter always catches up with us at our latitude. This morning was our first frozen wake-up, and this weekend we’re supposed to get our first snowflakes. I don’t love snow and I really don’t love winter, but there is something unmanageably cozy about first snowfall… I try to make something of it even when I don’t feel particularly “ready for the season.”

I know that this evening I’ll be spending some time ripping the tomato snarl out, hoping to pull any last tomatoes from under the pile of vines. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be trimming back all the perennials and making sure that the blueberries have plenty of pinestraw to last the winter. It’s like putting the garden down for a nap… just a really long one. The physical actions, with cold fingers in garden gloves, help me get used to the idea.

I’ve chosen a place to live where frost is possible for more than 6 months of the year, and so both my gardening and my heart need to be well bundled up for much of the year. The cold is one thing – I prefer summer clothing to piles and layers of parkas – but the darkness is pretty rough too. Lately, though, with waking so early and going to bed at 10 or 11, it is hardly surprising that it doesn’t feel so bad this year.

What do you to do to prepare your garden for winter? What about preparing your own mentality for the shift from summer’s sun to the chilly months?

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I know that pizza is far from the healthiest thing I could eat, but this past week, my friend J invited us over for make-your-own pizza night, and it was blissful. She has two little ones, a newborn and a 18-month-old, which added to the festiveness of the evening with friends.

We cleared off the kitchen table and cleaned it, then used it to create our pizza crusts from a heaping bowl of rising dough. I had fun spreading the dough out and making it into a big circle-ish thing. Then I added pizza sauce, red bell peppers, onions, and cheese. On top, I sprinkled italian seasoning and minced garlic and turkey pepperoni. For transferring the dough to the stone, I pulled out and folded the edges to seal in as much of the sauce as I could.

While I didn’t think my pizza would turn out particularly “professional,” something about the moving and the rising in the oven made it pretty near to picturesque after all the browning was done. The flavor was awesome and when I gave the little toddler, E, a small bit of dough to play with and make his own “pizza,” I was able to eat mine without him trying to put his hands in it. 🙂

This is my favorite way to ingest “unhealthy” calories: namely, with friends I like, while chatting and laughing at messes and catching up about our weeks. I spent the second half of the evening with the newborn snuggled onto me and asleep despite the commotion and the music playing, which meant my friend got a break for her arms and I got serious cute baby snuggles. Overall, pretty much the perfect experience of pizza night, and a great way to start my week.

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So, it was about the right time for me to start working on a new planner. Sure, it’s late October, not minutes before January, but a planning fiend often finds themselves thinking a couple of months in advance. For this reason, I did some research and settled on Blue Sky Planner, a nice medium sized one at 5×8 inches.

Blue Sky Planners stood out to me as having the things I like – nice clear monthly tabs, both weekly and monthly planning pages, and some space that can be co-opted for spontaneous lists and notes to self. They are also quite affordable, and after my splurge last year (well, Husband’s splurge), I thought I’d test myself out on something a little less costly.

This choice reflects something I’m realizing in more and more areas of my life: more costly doesn’t always equate to greater quality. I love my Get to Work Book, but after using it for a year, I realize that it is probably more useful for someone who is in a more project-based career than I am, and in a place where they need to prioritize differently each week. It’s a high quality product, for sure, but for my way of using planners – messily scrawl everything I need and everything I’ve committed to with very little regard for margins – it might not be my best choice long-term.

So I’m trying to do some intentional lifestyle reduction, what I see as the antidote to lifestyle creep. As it becomes possible for me to add more and nicer products and services into my life, I’m trying to intentionally scale back in other areas, reminding myself that at many times in my life, I was happy with a bent spiral notebook that had 14 pages of history notes in it; I didn’t even buy a planner specifically for each year! Occasionally and intentionally reining in my needs reminds me that it is a useful skill to be able to operate on a smaller budget, even if after next year I find myself desperately longing for another Get to Work Book or a different exciting planner. The experiment itself, I hope, will teach me more about what I need.

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I get a little nervous every time I have to plan a new class, but after I get through the nerves – will I be good at teaching this? will I come up with useful activities? How will I handle all the grading? – I then find myself getting really excited. Why? Because so much of what a teaching experience is involves planning, which you all know I love.

Right now, I’m planning a class on Magical Realism Literature. The hope is that while the students are reading these strange, surreal stories that I’ve picked out for them, they will learn a few other things along the way: tactics for successful discussion in classes, practical tips for writing successful essays, methods for reading deeply and pulling out the most important aspects of a text, and a general ability to think critically rather than just consuming media without comment.

In doing this, I have to plan so many things. I currently have a spreadsheet where I’m listing potential activities, potential readings, and potential assignments. I also throw in different discussion structures, since many first-year students at the college where I teach don’t love big group discussions, and since I know a few magical realist writers, I’m toying with the idea of bringing one to campus to speak.

I plan in a variety of ways; first I free-associate all the different authors and activities and assignments I might want to use, then I fit them into the “grid” of the semester; what would be good as an opening reading? What would work better as a long-middle-of-the-semester slog? What would reenergize students for the end of the semester? All of these considerations help me make sure that my schedule is balanced and that I also won’t get bored or run-down.

What are the things you have to plan that bring you joy in the planning? This is just one of mine, and it really makes me happy to see a course “structure” emerge out of what is just my tangled, messy love of magical realism and helping people write.

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I used to love credit cards: it seems so magical that, if I only spent what I could pay off each month, a credit card would give me a perk that was totally free – cash back, points for a rewards program, or other positives. Even signing up for the cards gave me bonuses, and because I didn’t carry a balance and I avoided cards with annual fees, I got something for what I saw as nothing.

My husband felt differently though. In our dating time together, we discussed extensively what he saw as the downsides of credit cards. He knew people who had been seduced into over-spending by having that card available to them, and he told me that credit card companies charge businesses a higher fee than debit card businesses do. I countered with points I had heard about fraud prevention being easier with a credit card than a debit card, and having a credit card was a great idea for short-term large purchases so that you could move money around and pay it off quickly.

When things settled out, I had two options. My husband didn’t mind me having a credit card, but it was a matter of principle for him to not have one himself. I decided, however, that if he wanted to take a stand against deceptive marketing that traps people with a lot of debt, I was okay with joining him! I waved to my 2% cash back as it went away, but I also noticed something: my cash back promise had made me more willing, even just a little, to spend money. Not having it actually made me avoid certain purchases, and even just one of those purchases was more value than all the cash back I’d ever received.

I also liked the idea of daring to be a little different in a monetary system that has caused so much stress, pressure, and pain for people. I have no problem with credit cards personally, and they are really useful, especially at times of life when unexpected expenses come up all of a sudden. However, for me and for my husband, it made sense to try something else, and so far… it’s really working for us.

Is there any money or finance choice you’ve made that you know is unpopular or uncommon, but which has turned out well for you? I’d love to hear your success stories, even if they are successes that are specifically about having credit cards and loving them!

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