February Recap/March Resolutions

A very good friend of mine gave me a wonderful gift yesterday, the best gift that I can remember receiving in some time: a deck of cards called the “Travel Anywhere Guide.” Each card has a prompt “for discovering the unexpected wherever your journey leads.”

The first card I drew says “look behind you, look above you, look underneath you. These are your surroundings.” Behind me is a window, that looks out onto a dark, wet Mission Hills. Above me is the ceiling of my apartment and a light fixture. Beneath me is the couch that we purchased from craigslist when we moved into this apartment, a little grayer than it was then. It feels good to take a look around and remember that whatever is going on in my head right now, I am physically here. I have a nice apartment (with electricity!) and comfortable furniture, in a neighborhood where I (most of the time) feel safe. Really, after that, the rest is details.

February flew by. I did not stop multi-tasking. I did not stop browsing the internet. I still need to stop multi-tasking, in large part because doing six things at once makes me feel hectic and stressed, whereas slowing down and doing one thing at a time makes me feel in control, but work hasn’t been cooperating. I think I’m better off replacing internet time than just quitting, but I also feel like this is a “small potatoes” goal compared to what I’m really trying to accomplish. Will spending less time on the internet make me happier? Probably. Will stressing out about how much time I spend on the internet make me happier? Certainly not. So, I’m letting go.

February was a good month, money-wise. I almost forgot how good until I was going back over my accounts today. I started a retirement account with Vanguard! I fully funded that retirement account for 2014! And I’m on track to fully fund this account in 2015! And pay off my car! That’s a lot of exclamation points, but I have a lot to be excited about. Things are happening.

I’m not expecting much to change in March financially. I’ve finally booked tickets to go to D.C. in April with my sister and my grandmother, so there will be a fair amount of extra spending related to this trip, but I’ve already set aside the money for it. Buying plane tickets for three people, leaving from three separate cities? No big deal. That felt really good. I’m excited to figure out where we’ll stay and what we’ll do when we’re there. I also realized tonight that my grandmother turns 88 at the end of April, which makes this whole trip seem more urgent. If not now, when?

I want to focus in March on the “what do I want to do with my life?” question I posed when I started this project. Lately, my work-life balance has been feeling off (or non-existent). I like my job, but it isn’t the end-all be-all of what I want to do with my life. I want to spend a little more time figuring out what that end-all be-all is (or at least, what my two year plan is right now) and I want to start working on it. I’ve found it really effective to keep a list of questions in my car to check in on my resolutions and priorities. Lately the list has been long, six questions, but this week I simplified it down to just one that I want to focus on:

Have you done one thing today to further your writing dreams? 

This is what I think that be-all end-all question might come down to (career-wise), at least, it is the piece of myself that keeps coming back to me and won’t let me go, so this month I’m going to make it a higher priority.

For my fun resolution, I just want to play with my new cards. It makes for good tweet inspiration, so if you’re on twitter, you should follow me @arecanter.

For family, it is my person’s birthday this month, so we have some fun things planned, and of course, getting ready and anticipating this trip in April.

You Do Not Have to Be Good

You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

It was good to read Mary Oliver‘s lines this evening (thanks, Mom). Even though they are wedged in a picture frame on my freezer door, sometimes I miss the words. They blend in to the white of the refrigerator and instead of reading them, I just glance at the bit of paper as I’m grabbing my lunch in the morning, walking away before I can remember “you do not have to be good.”

If I don’t even have to be good, that means I certainly don’t have to be perfect. It means that when I don’t have to treat every mistake I make (and I do make some) like it is a cardinal sin. A lost package, no matter how urgent, probably does not require the cat-o-nine-tails (I may have slightly overreacted to some work problems last week).

I don’t have to be good. I don’t have to be good in the strict, Puritanical, follow-the-rules way that comes so naturally to me, and I don’t have to be good at things, which also mostly comes naturally (and is devastating when it doesn’t). I don’t have to run a marathon or play on the A team. I don’t have to finish my reps. I don’t have to cut out carbs or eat cauliflower. I don’t have to go vegan. I don’t have to be good at sales or pretend that I want to get better at it because it is “good” for me. I don’t have to pretend to like every aspect of my job.

I just have to let the soft animal of my body love what it loves.

What I love right now:

  • my cat
  • getting up early to work out with November Project
  • the Dragon Noodles I made for dinner tonight (skipped the potatoes)
  • the thought of going to bed in a few minutes

Eat all the black beans

It all comes back to the little things, doesn’t it? I have been feeling a little off my budget lately, spending more than I should without much of a return on investment.

So it’s back to basics. Food and money are so tied for me. It is the first place I look for room to trim in my budget, probably because it is easier than transportation, more variable than rent or bills. I know that if worse came to worst, I have a big bag of rice tucked away, a security blanket of sorts.

I’d like to get back to spending levels from my “summer sequester” a few years back, the summer after I left the law office and was working as a camp counselor for Girl Scouts. In spite of the fact that I was earning next to nothing with no work guaranteed past the first week in August, it was a glorious summer. I spent absurdly little (in June of that summer, I spent less than $800, which to be fair, did not include rent) and lived well. I’d like to be as happy as I was that summer, and if I can’t be as happy as I was then, at least I’d like to be as frugal.

This week, I’ve only planned dinner meals. I eat leftovers for lunch, and oatmeal with raisins for breakfast, so dinner is all I ahve to worry about. For dinner tonight (and lunch tomorrow), I dug out the ends of three bags of beans and dumped them in the crockpot for chili.Scott will make chili and it will be a good meal for this grey-southern-California day.  The beans do not look delicious right now–the black beans have turned the chickpeas and the great northern beans a nauseating shade of grey, but I trust that when they are covered in tomatoes and chili powder, all will be well. At least, I hope so, because the beans have expanded enough, that I suspect I may not get to all of the meals listed below.

For Monday, I’ll make potatoes with kale from smitten kitchen. Potatoes are cheap, and the kale filling makes this meal feel decadent.

Tuesday is dragon noodles from Budget Bytes because it is light on ingredients, and I need to use up the cilantro. I’m subbing fettucine for lo mein noodles because I can never follow directions perfectly.

Wednesday is black bean salad, again to use up the cilantro. I’ll have to buy avocado still here because I hate buying it early. I will probably need to restock on black beans here as well. It’s too bad they don’t come in bags as large as my rice does. This is probably the meal I will skip if my chili is still around. They are too similar.

Thursday is potato fries and black bean burgers. I’m heavy on black beans this week because they are a cheap, delicious source of protein, and they can be repeated ad nauseum in infinite varieties.

Friday is an open day. Scott and I regularly end up going out to eat, so that might happen. Otherwise, I’m thinking pizza or burritos (with black beans of course).

Savings Started

Mischief Managed

For whatever reason, this title reminds me of the Harry Potter phrase “Mischief Managed” courtesy of Mssrs. Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs, but it is much truer to say my mischief has only just begun. As of this week, I have opened an IRA and I have back-funded it for all of 2014. As of now, I officially have $5,500 dedicated to my retirement. Every time I remember that fact, I get a little shiver of joy, so I should try to remember it much more often.

Having a retirement account, a real one, has been a goal of mine for several years, but it has always been pushed off until later dates. This year, I netted a significant tax reduction by starting and funding my IRA, which is what finally motivated me to do it. Keep more of my money and take care of a much needed responsibility at the same time? Yes, please IRS. My new goal, now that the IRA is in place, is to max it out again for 2015. And then… well, it is easy for me to get ahead of myself. It is enough for now, to just drop $500 in the account each month and watch it grow.

Other news: my reading reports have fallen off the wagon, as have my happiness goals. I am going to choose to blame The Happiness Myth by Jennifer Hecht, which has turned my notions about happiness on its head.  In a nutshell, the message of the book is that there are a lot of ways to be happy, and the ways that our culture currently subscribes to aren’t necessarily based on great evidence. it’s made me wonder if my constant measuring and striving is really making me happier, or if it is just a manifestation of America’s puritanical work ethic underpinnings. It was interesting to see how ideas about what makes us happy and what is “good” for us have changed over time, and of course, it follows then that what we believe now about happiness and what is “good” for us is probably not the pinnacle of human thought on the subject.

The most helpful idea in the book (for me right now) was the idea that not only is there more than one way to be happy, but there is more than one kind of happiness. Hecht talked about happiness as “good day happiness,” “euphoria,” and “good life happiness” and basically, she said all three were necessary to our overall sense of happiness. Good day happiness might be something like sleeping in and doing something enjoyable during the day (I think of the weekend), and maybe even getting a little something done. Euphoria are the big moment–the concert you were looking forward to, the party, the day you started your IRA (just me? are you surprised?). Good life happiness is longer term, and it doesn’t always feel happy (Gretchen Rubin also talks about this), but it brings a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction by working to overcome a challenge.

I liked Hecht’s style, and it was refreshing to read something that questioned most of the other books I’ve read (even though it still looked like your stereotypical happiness book with a big lollipop on the cover). I’m interested to read some of Hecht’s other books (nonfiction and poetry–a writer after my own heart!). I think I’ll look for Doubt: A History next.

In the meantime, I picked up Wishcraft and The Joys of Much Too Much from the library, both probably work/what do I want to do with my life? books. I’m laying off the “how do you have a good family books?” for awhile because they got repetitive. For fun this month, I read The Fellowship of the Ring and most of The Wizard of Oz, but I didn’t finish it because it turns out to be a kind of dumb book (Wicked is much better). I’m also poking around with In the Sanctuary of Women, but I haven’t gotten too deep into it yet.

Money and writing and lotto tickets and Ann Bauer

I have been buying lotto tickets for the last two weeks. Normally, I don’t buy tickets–just think about buying them and what I would do with the winnings–but the Powerball has been above $300 million lately and that’s such an absurd amount of money that I can’t help myself. I go down to Ibis Market on the corner and buy a ticket, and sometimes a six-pack of beer if I didn’t bring cash. Then I walk home and think about how idyllic my life would be if I won.

I’d write more, I tell myself first, because I’d quit my day job. I have a good job right now, the best I’ve had since college and the culmination of everything I used to think I wanted: midlevel at a tiny, tiny nonprofit devoted to women and girl’s rights around the world. But it’s still a full time job, and most of the time I’d rather be a stay-at-home-cat-mom and occasional scribbler.

I am not in a position like Ann Bauer, with a husband to sponsor my writing, at least not right now. My person is a PhD student with aspirations to be a professor, so maybe one day he’ll decide to “sponsor” my writing in exchange for free house cleaning and childcare, but that life feels as far away as the one in which I win the lottery.

And even if it did ever come, the lottery or the husband/sponsor, there would be guilt there too. I would miss the work, the feeling of earning my own paycheck, of contributing something to the greater good. I would worry about being a dilettante. I would miss work.

Sometimes I feel like a faker, at work and at writing. I am not as passionately driven by international development as I thought I was, and as my work-friends are, and at the same time, I am not dedicated enough to writing quit working and go back to school or freelance like my writing-friends do. I’m in the middle. I work because it pays the bills and it doesn’t make me want to stab my eyes out. Sometimes it even makes me happy. I write because I have to, even when it does make me want to stab my eyes out. Sometimes it even makes me happy.

Maybe one day, I’ll be in a place where I write and get paid enough for my writing to stay home with my cat. Maybe one day I’ll win the lotto and I’ll write from my yacht, or maybe one day I’ll be married to a professor who pays the bills. I think the best life would be the one in which I am content with the balance between my writing and my day job, which is probably the most realistic route. But it means giving up on the idea of being sponsored or saved by money. It means I have to learn to be content with the tradeoffs that are part of my life. I think I can learn to do that.

But just in case, my lotto numbers are 8, 21, 34, 48, 59 and 5. Wish me luck.

Why I have to stop multi-tasking

A couple days ago, I wrote a poem. Made a poem might be more accurate, since it was a newspaper black-out poem in the Austin Kleon style, and it was hard, particularly because his poems are so good and profound and mine that night was not.  It took a lot of focus and I was pretty grumpy while writing it. I was also cooking lentils in the kitchen, not two feet away from where I was sitting with newspapers scattered all over the table and a cat trying to burrow beneath my poem.

I put extra water on the lentils. I remembered from last time that lentils take an inordinate amount of time to cook (especially when you are hungry). I figured the pot would boil over before it would burn.

And then, you guessed it, in the middle of fighting with the cat over whether the sports section was for poetry or digging (poetry won), the lentils burned. I lifted the lid and smoke came out. I scalded the bottom of the pot and had to throw away the lentils and start over with the other pot. Scott’s been fighting to get it clean ever since.*

The lesson here is that even when something seems simple, don’t ignore it. Don’t leave it on autopilot because you think you know how lentils cook. Just cook the lentils. Save the poetry for after dinner when you aren’t hungry and grouchy. In retrospect, I should have swept the floor or done the dishes, stirring the lentils occasionally, paying attention to them, instead of burying myself in the New York Times.

I have always been a multitasker. One task has often been too easy, not enough of challenge. Add two or three or seven, and suddenly it seems exciting, but that is an illusion. When I multitask, I miss the moment. I miss the chance to smell the lentils before they burn, to take a second to stop doing-doing-doing all the time, and just breathe. Do something human. Make dinner. Relax.

Instead of multitasking, I want to be able to focus. I don’t want six browser windows open at the same time. I want to see the one thing in front of me, to really see it, and to enjoy it for what it is.

*I would do my part, but he’s home more.

January in Review

The first month of 2015 is gone. To be honest, it seemed like it took forever.

I am pleased to announce that I successfully completed my resolution to write a novel of 50,000 words this month, sliding in just under the wire yesterday afternoon. No one will ever read it, so don’t ask, but it was an accomplishment to complete it, sort of like climbing a fourteener: arduous at times, exhilarating at other times, and the time at the summit is too short. You come home feeling tired, happy, and a bit sore. I’m glad I did it. It even makes me think of what my next stab at fiction might be, sometime down the road.

And… what were my other January resolutions?

Oh right! Biking and dates. Well, I only biked about half as much as I said I would, which means I only biked to work twice in all of January, which is a little pathetic given my not-so-lofty ambitions starting out. On the plus side, I did bike two work two days which is better than no days, but it leaves room for improvement. This will be one of those ongoing, back burner resolutions until one day I write in to report that I’ve completed some massively awesome race and am going on to the tour de France (she said ambitiously, or maybe fiction writing has just carried over into other parts of my life).

Going on once a week dates was pretty fun, but as with biking, it was a little difficult to maintain the momentum each week. Last week we went dancing, which was fun and cheap, and I’d go again in a heartbeat. Other than that, we went out to eat a few times, and ordered a pizza and watched a movie. The things on my dating to-try list: rock climbing, touring the California Tower, and kayaking did not happen because 1) too expensive, 2) sold out, and 3) too cold right now, respectively, but I have hope for the future of all of these things.

Looking ahead to February, I am cutting back on my resolutions for the month. I’ve noticed that doing three a month means that I really only succeed at one, and only succeed averagely or terribly at the other two. So for February I’m cutting down to two resolutions, and focusing on productivity. For February I will:

  • Avoid multi-tasking
  • Spend less than 2 hours per day browsing the internet

I picked these resolutions because I think being happy is about being present, and I can’t really be present in whatever I’m doing if I’m trying to do six things at once. Secondly, much as I enjoy vegging out and reading the internet, I don’t think it contributes to my happiness in the same way that relaxing with a book or going for a walk does. I want to make sure that I’m using my time to take care of myself, not just mindlessly spending it.

On the money side of things, January was a good month. Have I mentioned how much I love “You Need A Budget”? I loooove it. If it was a person, I would marry it. It just makes tracking my spending so much easier and it produces all kinds of lovely charts and graphs–my heart just flutters at the sight!

Anyway, YNAB aside, January was a good month. I saved almost $1,500, though about half of that went to my taxes fund (which according to my tax guy is probably overfunded, which is good? We’ll see what happens with that soon). I paid off another $500 toward my car, which keeps me right on track to finish paying it this year.

Looking at areas for improvement though, I spent over $200 on eating out in January, about half my total food spending. I would love to see that number cut in half in February. It would actually be pretty great if I could see my total food spending cut in half, but we’ll see how that goes.

Currently reading: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
Up Next List: On Immunity by Eula Biss, rereading Wishcraft by Barbara Sher, maybe some Wizard of Oz? Now that I’m not writing a book, hopefully I’ll have some more time to read them.

What is fun?

It’s been four-ish months since my birthday and three-ish months since I figured out what I wanted to do with my 27th year on earth. I asked myself three questions, and while I don’t have any complete answers yet, I do have some words (not an exhaustive list), which is a step in the right direction.

The short version:
What makes a family? Connection
What do I want to do with my life? Work. At something.
What is fun and how do I have it? Spontaneous & low-pressure. I don’t understand these things either.

What makes a family? 

The word that comes to mind is connection. At least, this seems to be the thing that has been most satisfying about exploring family in the last three months. Connecting is at the root of my family resolutions–eating dinner together, going on adventures, kissing in the morning & at night. It’s about creating moments, daily and weekly, that bring us together.

What do I want to do with my life? (aka work?)

Trying to write a novel this month has been an interesting exploration of this. I’ve been attempting to write intensely for the past sixteen days, which is one of the things I’ve thought I might want to “do” (as though I can only pick one thing for the rest of forever–a false choice). It hasn’t turned out exactly as I’ve imagined. For one thing, writing fiction mostly makes me want to stab myself with a pen. Nothing is ever comes out as good as I want it to, which makes the whole process extremely frustrating for me. It’s also probably really healthy because forcing myself to work through that perfectionism (without resorting to stabbing) eventually leads to some halfway decent work sometimes. Having picked up an artist’s pencil for the first time in years recently, I’ve also learned that this perfectionism is not limited to writing. Blogging in a tiny corner of the internet doesn’t seem to bother it though.

On the + side, yes, I want more writing and more art in general in the rest of my life. So the word here is yes, and also, work. I realize that doesn’t necessarily answer the question I was trying to ask.

What is fun and how do I have it? 

This is the question I still haven’t found an answer to. Does asking this question suck the fun out of everything? I wonder if some people are just predisposed to have more fun. I find a fun thing to do and immediately figure out how to turn it into work instead. Today for example was full of fun things: art and writing and hanging out with friends discussing books, and I managed to get stressed out about getting off schedule for all the “fun” I was supposed to be having. Screen printing took longer than expected and didn’t go as planned, so I didn’t finish, which put me behind schedule for novel writing, and then I tried to squeeze in a grocery trip before book club and by the end, I’d turned what should have been an enjoyable Saturday into a failed to-do list.

I do have a couple of words about fun though, what I think it might be (not sure if I’ll ever get close enough to fun to prove it).

Fun is spontaneous. It doesn’t seem to work for me to plan out ahead of time what fun things I’m going to do next week because by the time next week actually rolls around, I might want to do something else instead, but then I’ve already committed to this not-fun-anymore-activity when I really just want to be at home reading or cleaning the bathroom (which is another reason why I haven’t figured out fun–cleaning the bathroom always has higher priority). But the times I think I’ve had the most fun have been when some unexpected opportunity has come up, and instead of sticking to my planned routine, I’ve seized the opportunity. Spontaneity.

Fun is low-pressure. I hate karaoke because singing in front of people, even drunken friends, is too much pressure. (I just realized that perfectionism may be impacting my ability to have fun as well as my ability to write without torturing myself–seems like a rather obvious ah-ha moment). And things are fun until there’s too much pressure associated with them. Book club is great fun until I have three homework assignments, albeit incredibly entertaining ones. Talking about feminism and movies and television and great books and random stuff online with friends is fun until I have to actually do something with our ideas, like make a website or share those ideas in a regular, coherent fashion. Derby is fun until I find myself doing more admin work than actually playing, and suddenly people expect way more of me not because of my skating but because I’m a semi-organized, easily-committed person. Then it actually starts to suck.

in fact, things seem to be fun for me until I get good enough at them that they’re actually something that I take seriously (or that others take seriously about me). So there seems to be this fun-line in which I have to be good enough at something to enjoy it (#perfectionism) but not so good at it that I’m expected to deliver results.

So I guess my new questions are, how do I become more spontaneous? And how do I keep fun things low-pressure so that they stay fun?