Watching, Reading, Doing

WatchingIndian Matchmaking on Netflix. I have mixed feelings about the cultural implications of the show, BUT … this was a satisfying, entertaining follow up to Netflix’s Dating Around. I loved both for the depth, layers, and variety they revealed about the people filmed. With the pandemic, its ensuing isolation, and the coming presidential election, the world feels unfriendly and divided to me. But I think Indian Matchmaking resonates because of the complexity and contradictions we see in the people being filmed; when you can see a little bit of yourself in the Dungeons and Dragons guy or the giggly 30-something, it lessens the distance some between me and … everyone else.

Also watching – Season 3 of West World and the weekly installments of HBO’s Perry Mason.

Also (secretly) watching – All the homeschool videos on Youtube. The planner in me needs our Plan B in place in case distance learning 2.0 is as anemic as it was the first go-round.

ReadingThe New Corner Office by Laura Vanderkam. Look, I’ll read whatever this woman writes. I love her books on time management; had I read her book, 168 hours: You have more time than you think before I had my second child, there’s a good chance I would have stayed working full time (and avoided a string of low-rent, soul-crushing part-time jobs that followed).

Doing – I spent a few days last week setting up a homeschool room for the coming distance learning school year. I cobbled the setup together with existing furniture, so nothing happening in there is Pinterest-worthy. Nonetheless, we’ve done a few test drives and I’m pleased with the workability of the results.

That’s an old ottoman (filled with stuffed animals) we’re using for a seat at the table. The command hook head phone storage has turned out be one of the more useful parts of the whole room.

I nearly didn’t add that old Ikea work table since it makes the room a little tight, but turns out that’s been a key part of the whole room. While I’m teaching one at the big desk, the other does independent work at their individual desk, and then we swap. So far, so good.

They mostly use that gray ottoman as a reading spot, though it’s also their stepping stool to reach the my-height-positioned wipe-off board.
Our “homeschool room” is technically the playroom, so the closet needed to accommodate toy storage along with learning materials. I have mixed feelings about that over-the-door organizer … great use of space, but we probably would have gotten the same organizational benefit from a basket of those toys all mixed together.

FIRE – How we got sucked into the cult

First, it was Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps.

Then, it was Mr. Money Mustache.

Dave + MMM = my world lit on fire. I was introduced to both shortly after my first child was born. I commuted two hours a day to work full-time in a beloved but stressful job. I missed my baby, whom I saw for about 30 minutes each day. But quitting was not an option: Between student loans and a self-employed husband (read: no health insurance), our expenses didn’t allow it.

More than that, while my job was a mostly fairy-dusted experience, I couldn’t envision myself doing that same thing for 30 more years. I felt like a hamster on a wheel, happily toiling away but nonetheless trapped.

Enter the concept of FIRE, or financial independence retire early. The concept is this: Save a high percentage of your income by living frugally and investing wisely, retire early, and pursue whatever it is that matters most to you, money-earning or otherwise.

The idea that life could be different was a big breath of fresh air. Suddenly there were options and possibilities. Those first years felt intoxicating, in large part because my husband bought in early, we made substantial progress, and I was learning all sorts of new skills in service of this new project.

That learning component is crucial because it’s a huge means of saving money. Things like cooking regularly and doing your own yard work comprise the cornerstones of the whole philosophy. So when it was time for my kids to get haircuts, I ordered the $7 pair on Amazon and started watching Youtube tutorials. That’s how we’ve done it for years now, and every single time I feel a rush of enjoyment that this one action has (1) saved us money and (2) given me a sense of accomplishment.

Naysayers are quick to rebuff this particular aspect of FIRE in particular. They don’t want to do their own yard work, for example, and want to hire someone to do it instead. Interestingly, this is exactly how FIRE has had the most impact on our lives: We weed out the financial expenses that don’t give us joy, and we keep the ones that do. Maybe your joy is coming home to a manicured lawn that you didn’t touch; great, you’ve spent your money wisely.

True enough though, most FIRE bloggers would encourage another line of inquiry before hiring the landscaping company, and I’ll state it like this: Are you really sure you want to give up the opportunity to work hard on something that matters to you? The answer may still be yes; proceed forward with confidence. I feel this way about painting; every single time I will pay someone to paint our hallway or kitchen when it needs to be done. But I appreciate that I’m giving up an opportunity to work hard and accomplish something.

Because at the end of the day, you have to spend your time somehow. Maybe you’re the person who’s regularly meeting up with friends, going on great camping trips, cooking new cuisines. But for a lot of us, that time I don’t spend spreading new bark dust is, in all honesty, probably going to be spent watching Netflix. And that, I can admit, isn’t doing my mental health, waist line, or bank account much good.

This is the shortest, assuredly unnecessary introduction to the topic that I can muster. Thankfully there are a whole lot of people speaking more elegantly to the process, with three coming immediately to mind:

FIRE might not be to everyone’s tastes or abilities. I can think of all sorts of life situations that wouldn’t allow this pursuit or make it a desirable one. But financial independence? Having more security in your bank account? That’s something I could push all day and all night as something I want everyone I love to have.

Planning – The new frenemy

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” That’s the line, right? The credo? The battle cry to wield our multi-colored pens and day planners?

I’ve always been a planner. And really, that’s served me pretty darn well in life. Planning ahead does all sorts of wonderful things, like saving you money and avoiding no-snack meltdowns with little kids.

I turned 40 recently, and I’m starting to feel like I have the beginnings of enough data points to start seeing trends in my life. I can see whole scores of things where, despite untold hours of planning, I’m not a whole lot closer to the end goal. Things like:

  • Changing my eating habits
  • Writing a novel
  • Not reaching 5pm every day wondering why dinner and the need for a family meal has, yet again, reappeared

And yet, I can also spot a fair number of goals achieved through no planning at all:

  • A regular exercise habit
  • Learning Spanish
  • Writing this blog

For those things, they all started with a seat-of-my-pants approach. For exercise, one night I decided that for the next 30 days, I’d move for an hour a day. I didn’t plan what I’d do. I didn’t think through the practicality of the goal. I just sent the intention and did it.

Likewise, with Spanish, I started doing DuoLingo for 5 minutes a night. Then I booked a tutoring class through iTalki. From there, the only “goal” I had was to spend the time each day.

I can think of all sorts of ways this spend-the-time don’t spend-it-planning approach manifests in my life. I’ve borrowed several books over the years about getting children into nature – the importance of it, the activities they can do. These are beautifully written books, and I want to take nothing away from that. But also true: My kids walked out the door this morning to spend time in a neighboring canyon with their dad. They do this regularly now because it’s part of their routine, to just go spend time down there. They don’t need my books. They don’t need me to plan activities. They need open ended time and some sturdy boots.

This is all obvious, of course. But a life theme I’ve noticed of course is that most of our *big* challenges have obvious solutions. We overcomplicate these problems with Google search mentalities. We know the answers: You eat more vegetables, you move, you save your money, you read to your kids, you make them do chores. What’s fascinating to me is why we make this all so much harder than it needs to be. Byproduct of being human, I suppose?

In the meantime, the take home around here is: Plan to spend time. That’s the whole of it.

Reading, Watching, Listening, Doing

This week’s happenings:

Reading

This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger – I’m 75% through with 3 days left on the library loan. This is a Great Depression era Huck Finn that starts out at an Indian Training School in Minnesota. A little slow to start, but it’s got good writing and a good story thus far.

Watching

Athlete A on Netflix – Engaging documentary about the US Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal from a few years ago. I’d love to hear more from gymnast Maggie Nichols as she matures – How do you move on from being so unfairly wronged by not only a predator like Larry Nassar but an organization that stole her Olympic aspirations just for reporting the abuse?

Listening

How the Light Gets in by Louise Penny – This is part of the much-loved Chief Inspector Gamache series, #9. It’s my first dip into this series, and it’s been a slow start for me: I’m currently at 8% on audiobook and struggling. BUT, with the reading podcast adoration and 4.44 rating on Goodreads, I’m determined to stick this one out.

Doing

Cleaning. Dodging mosquitoes to garden. Making early morning park runs. Making soft wraps.

The reading rut to end all reading ruts

Desperate times over here. I’ve hit a reading rut and cannot seem to claw my way out of it. Honest to God, hand to heart, this is a real source of negativity for me at the moment.

I haven’t always been a reader. I skated through high school and much of college taking in just enough of my assigned reading to fake-it-til-you-make-it on the tests. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

In undergrad, I took an African Politics class. One of the assigned readings was a book with the mouthful of a title of “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families” by Philip Gourevitch. It was a non-fiction account of the Rwandan civil war written in conversational style by a journalist. While it’s hard to draw a connection between the monstrously important content of the book and my reading habit, nonetheless here we are: Reading that style of work felt important and interesting to me, and from there I had my niche.

I would later move on to titles like Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden and Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol. I wasn’t moving quickly in my reading, but I had found a style that worked for me: Magazine-like writing telling an important story about humanity.

From there I transitioned to historical fiction with an occasional, cautious foray into the straight fiction section (A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving particularly carried me through some tough times).

And then a few years ago, I stumbled onto the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog and her infectious enthusiasm lit a fire in my reading life. I quickly realized that, like with most things, I enjoy onslaughts of something rather than a dribble. This as true with learning Spanish, starting an exercise habit, and learning how to cook. I grow the most when I’m drinking from the proverbial fire hydrant.

So it was that last year I read a record 65 books. No record as far as the Internet is concerned, I realize, but nonetheless an awesome year of thoughts, stories, and escapism. It was an epically good reading year by my historical standards, and a habit I desperately want to keep up.

But now … I’m not sure what the problem is. I’ve started and foregone a dozen or so books. Every time I do this, I’m reminded of The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah, which I nearly gave up at 40% complete and thank goodness I didn’t: It’s one of my all-time favorite books.

There’s no conclusion to this post, really. Just thoughts on a problem I don’t yet know how to solve. Wish me luck.

Chronic complainers and creativity naysayers

Haters gonna hate.

Wanted to shove some thoughts out into the universe:

  • Friend wrote a sci-fi book and you don’t like sci-fi? There is one and only one proper response: “What an accomplishment, wow.” Your dislike of sci-fi is not the star of this conversation and if you choose to make it the star, then you’ve just become the ass of the conversation as well.
  • The world and the people in it are deeply flawed; we can either sit here and talk about that ad nauseam, or selectively discuss those flaws but move on to more productive ground asap. The first approach? That just makes you (1) depressed or (2) a jerk or (3) both.
  • The world is not against you. The level of narcissism it takes to hold this belief is staggering. Are you white? Are you white and privileged? Are you white and don’t even see your privilege? This especially applies to you.

My dad once told me that, in his family, it was the effort that was celebrated. The trying to do something was what mattered. AMEN. Trying takes courage. Vulnerability is the price for creating and putting your creation out there.

The people who sit back, consume, create nothing, and criticize everything? Move along, nothing to see here.

Mr. Move It and Negativity Bias

Social distancing continues, but school ended this week, so the teachers put on a little car parade through our rural area. It was a sweet gesture and my kids were tickled to see the procession.

As we buckled up to leave, an older man in a silver sedan slowed next to our car. “You’re in a safety zone!” he yelled. In response to my assuredly puzzled expression, he persisted, face turning tomato red: “A SAFETY zone.” Still puzzled, with his blood pressure clearly skyrocketing, he screamed “Move it!” and floored his car through the nearby stop sign.

You’re going to have to trust me on something here: Whatever a safety zone is, I was not parked in one. How do I know? Common sense. People park here frequently, because it’s well off the roads. I was the last one to leave, but about 10 other families parked there as well. No prohibitive signs. And the fact that I had interacted with a county maintenance worker moments before who was not concerned about my somehow impeding the “safety” of that “zone.”

That out of the way, I can admit that I was horrified. Yelled at my a complete stranger? Whew. Not fun. And for a hot minute, my thought process went something like, “well that ruins that memory.” My vision of the event would, I was sure, forever include this screaming man rather than my kindergartener’s tentative-but-hopeful waves to her teacher, or the way my 2nd grader jumped up and down when the procession appeared over the hill.

And truly, I have personal precedent to back up that initial belief. The negativity bias is alive and real, regardless of how glass-half-full a person you might be. (For another take on the negativity bias in action, check out this post over on Sarah’s blog). I can think of several events that, while pleasant and happy in totality, were nonetheless marred in their memory by one disastrous moment.

So that was the ugh I felt driving away. A good memory, ruined.

But … I tried a little trick. And it was thanks to the offender himself, Mr. Move It. That term – “safety zone” – the more I ran that through my head, the funnier I thought it was. And whenever I think of funny, I think The Office and Parks and Recreation. And suddenly, in my mind, Mr. Move It became a character. He’d probably fit better into the cast of Parks and Rec, so that’s where I landed. Thinking through all the storylines of how Leslie Knope or Ann Perkins might respond to Mr. Move It, well that made the whole thing a whole lot more enjoyable an exercise.

Via Buzzfeed

And as the day wore on, I could laugh about it. Once I could laugh about it, it was easier to make the next leap to compassion. Because if my parking in what he perceived as a safety zone made him that mad, then what’s it like to be this guy when someone cuts in line in front of him? Or traffic is bad? Or the candidate he loathes gets elected president? It sucks to be that guy is what.

Turns out I couldn’t erase this guy from my memory of the parade. But I was able to make him a somewhat amusing supporting cast member. And that feels pretty consistent with what Leslie Knope would do, too.

On lapsed frugality

A few months ago, I happened upon this Dave Ramsey post:

Meh, didn’t register much at first. But the thought kept popping back in my head. Ordering on Amazon? There it was. Adding convenience foods to my grocery cart? Back again.

I haven’t (yet) written about our goals for early retirement (aka the FIRE movement), but my husband and I have been slowly, steadily working that direction for about eight years now. We’re not all that frugal, really, but we do have some basic tenets we’ve tried to follow:

  • Keep eating out to a minimum
  • Less frequent but intentional vacations, mostly local
  • Auto-deduct savings before the money hits our checking account

That said, if I’m being honest (and there are no readers here, so why not!), I fell off the frugal spending wagon some time ago. It was easy to turn a blind eye while we were a double-income family, but I quit my misery-inducing job back in December and our bank account numbers are a little more pronounced now. Still privileged, solid, satisfying numbers, but slightly diminished nonetheless.

Back to Dave Ramsey: Once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it. Once I realized that we had drifted, one purchase at a time, from our family’s core mission of freedom via financial independence, I felt … liberated. I see it, again. I see the immediate purpose, again. And I’m not sad about it.

So, how’re we going to get back on track over here? The end of that story remains to be seen, but for now, here’s what I’m doing:

  • Reviewing my zero sum budget spreadsheet.
  • Acknowledging that we’re spending a whole lot of money on individual subscriptions. I don’t yet know which of those, if any, will go. But I’ll be watching.
  • Seeing that our Amazon purchases are, truly, over the top. There are several purchases I’ve made within the past two months that I am already to put out for Goodwill. FOR REALS. Embarrassing.

Note that those are all observational goals. I’m growing here, people; I’ve turned 40 and realized that you gotta watch before you can plan to do. Let’s see how this goes.

Pruno in the kids’ bathroom + parenting book win

I’m not big on parenting books. They’re usually pretty dull and short on application to the tantrum/whining/no-chores-doing happening right now stage left.

The neon lights exception: Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne. My holy book of parenting, the premise is straightforward: Fewer things and scheduled activities, more literal space for growth and creativity.

To that list of one, I’ve found another all-star reference: How to be a Happier Parent by KJ Dell’Antonio. If the author’s name looks familiar, you’re a read of the Motherlode blog on NY Times, which she used to helm.

I love How to be a Happier Parent because it’s exactly what I want out of a parenting reference book: Long on practical, evidence-based advice and short on sweeping philosophical statements. When it comes to parenting advice, I’m not interested in theory; I want to know what has actually worked for other people, even if it ultimately doesn’t work for me.

It was clear this book would become a favorite when, in the midst of reading it, I was able to apply one of the central themes of the book: As parents, we are teaching our kids the skill they need to have to be successful adults. Sounds obvious, right? It totally is, in all moments except the one where we’re trying to figure out our next parenting move.

My opportunity to practice this idea came about a few mornings ago, when I was emptying the trash cans for garbage day. I decided to empty a little-used trash can in our hall bathroom when an unexpected glut of liquid tumbled out the top and onto the floor with a pile of miscellaneous detritus. Closer (disgusted) inspection revealed that the girls had (presumably) inadvertently generated their own batch of pruno with some clementine segments they had deposited in that can after an “at home spa” experience one sister created for the other.

Admittedly, my default reaction would have been: WTF. Whose terrible idea was this. You know better. Etc. Then I would have begrudgingly assisted in the clean up process, likely admonishing them along the way for not doing more proactive cleaning work.

New reaction: Girls, please come here. This is what happened and why. Here’s how you clean it up. Be sure to do X, Y, Z. When you’re done, put your cleaning supplies here and the garbage bags there. Done. I walk away. For the next hour, I hear negotiating, laughter, gagging, and spray bottle squirts. At the end of the hour (the full hour!), they emerge victorious. They seem … what’s that? … proud of their accomplishment. They have done it, almost entirely on their own, with my abbreviated instructions to guide them but otherwise no parental involvement.

Maybe more importantly, they have suffered the natural consequences of their actions rather than a tangentially related consequence I would have otherwise manufactured (what exactly is the connection between “no screen time for the rest of the day” and “unintentional alcohol brewing gone awry”? Not a whole lot, it turns out).

What I’m taking away from How to be a Happier Parent, among other lessons: We are the teachers. They need to learn how to be adults. They will mess up. This is not a reflection of you or them; it’s a reflection of lessons that need further reinforcement. Teach, stand back, let them succeed or fail. Whether these lessons will hold up to teenagers, who the heck knows, but for now, I’ll take this win.

Dear 20-year old Me

We’ve got a birthday to celebrate. In honor, some hopeful words of encouragement:

  1. You’ll get a chance to go to Scotland. You’ll have to spend every cent you won to do it. Go to Scotland.
  2. That German dude? He’s an idiot. When he compliments your maroon Brass Plum purse, expressing surprise that an American would own something so stylish, tell him his LaCoste shirt expired 20 years ago. Then, go get yourself a 2 Euro glass of red wine. By yourself.
  3. So yes, you did need to tone down the excessive display of opinions. Great, you’ve done it. Now stop there, before you go too far. You’ve got words to say; say them.
  4. Make peace with *a* path. It’s not about choosing one job. Decide if the hard road is truly your dream; consider what sacrifices that route will entail. Can you live with those sacrifices? We both know the answer is no. Pick a different dream, and let the other one go.
  5. If a doctor or three tells you that a pill is the only solution? Take the pill. It’s the only solution.
  6. There’s very little correlation between the amount you try and the actual results achieved. Try less. The trying is the problem, not the thing you’ve labeled as the problem. That might not be true for everyone, but hot damn it’s true for you.
  7. You know how “A Prayer for Owen Meany” got you through those first weeks in France? Lean into that. Books will hold your hand when there’s no one else readily available to do that.
  8. Buy the fancy jeans.