Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Year of Less Consumption: Report #2


It turns out that in the wintertime I crave two things: carbohydrates and unnecessary purchases.  Nothing brightens a dull winter day like a trip to Target to pick up some miscellaneous items like clothing, accessories, or household decorations. 

I gave into temptation the other day when Bill and I went to Target without Nathan.  It seemed like a special occasion because we were alone, and I felt like buying something to commemorate the occasion.  I can talk a big game about less consumption, but I still crave that high that comes from new acquisitions (and carbs).

That day I bought:
  • Some pajama bottoms: They are so fun and bright and winter-fighting!  I swore I would not buy pajamas, since I'm getting by just fine with my old standard pants and free giveaway t-shirts, and it's not like anybody ever sees them, but it's just ... I just ... I get so sick of the usual pajama bottoms over and over and over again.  It's not even like I change my general pajama wardrobe seasonally like I do with my daytime clothes (Nathan's term); I just wear the same pajamas year-round. 
  • Two pairs of socks: Again, fun and bright!  And my other socks were mostly getting thin and/or holey, so I guess it was okay to buy more.  Each pair was on sale for $1.50, too.
  • Pens: They're PaperMate InkJoy, which promises to make writing "effortless."  I imagine the Great American Novel will just pour out of me, now that writing is so effortless, and then I can easily justify the purchase of a $5 pack of pens.  But seriously, I swore I wouldn't buy pens anymore.  I have plenty of pens, both ones I paid for and ones I got free.  But, as you know, I'm a bit picky about my pen choices, and all the ones I had were irritating to me.  You can't be making grocery lists and conducting other important business with irritating pens, right?  
A few days later, I gave into my shoe urge and bought myself some knock-off Toms at Payless.  (They're the Airwalk kind that also gives a pair of shoes to a third-world country whenever you buy a pair.)

Then, while at the grocery store, I bought these flowers:

Aaand ... these flowers:

And it's not like I'm saying that any of this constitutes extravagance.  It's just that I'm disturbed by this strong urge I have to still buy stuff.  I truly didn't need any of the above-mentioned items.  A real minimalist would have been able to find 6 other ways to use something she already had before buying new stuff.  

I know, I know, these things take time.

Meanwhile, I'm going strong in the reusable department.  I'm rocking the cloth napkins, and I'm getting more and more comfortable with dishtowels as a substitute for paper towels (in most situations).  I have been saving the paper sleeves from Starbucks cups, and I saved the plastic sheaths that the flowers came in.  Also, I am almost exclusively using cloth shopping bags, even at non-grocery stores, which I still find a tiny bit embarrassing.  Leia says pish-posh:

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Kitchen Manager

If I was kind of rich and could afford to hire one household helper, I think it would be a Kitchen Manager.  I'm not sure if that's a real job, but I'd make it one. 

I see a necessity for this position because I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time just managing the details of my kitchen.  And I'm not suggesting that I'm super organized in there or anything.  My spice rack isn't alphabetized, nor are my canned goods--the only thing in my kitchen that's alphabetized is the contact list in my cell phone.  I don't routinely go in and purge expired foods.  I think there are containers of baby food in my pantry that expired in 2008. 

No, what I'm saying is that I find it incredibly time-consuming just to ensure that, at a very basic level, we all have food to eat, clean dishes on which to eat it, clean cookware in which to cook it, a clear horizontal surface on which to place it, and a vaguely sanitized eating environment. 

Here is what I think would be in the Kitchen Manager's job description:
  • Basic Decluttering: Throw away/recycle random food, mail, containers, and garbage left on kitchen counter and/or table; Put toys, socks, coats, and any other non-kitchen items back where they belong
  • Grocery Procurement: Plan meals, make grocery lists, scour store ads, clip coupons, go to the grocery store, carry in groceries, put away groceries, throw out expired food items in fridge to make room for new groceries
  • Food preparation: Cut up fruits and vegetables and put in containers for easy access; Prepare all meals; Be on call for all food-related requests (e.g. snacks, drinks, random husband request for pie)
  • Dishwashing: Load all dishes in dishwasher; Hand-wash items that don't fit in dishwasher; Unload dishwasher; Keep counter/sink clear of dirty dishes
  • Administrative Help: Since the kitchen is the catch-all location for all important mail and paperwork, the Kitchen Manager needs to perform some light administrative assistant duties:  File paperwork according to priority and bring it to the attention of the employer; Make a note of important dates on Google calendar; Put important papers up on fridge or bulletin board
  • Basic Everyday Maintenance: Take out trash; Wipe down all counters/table; Sweep 3x a week
  • Deep Cleaning: Once a week: Wash floor on hands and knees; Clean inside of microwave; Clean sink
Now, I fully acknowledge that as a stay-at-home mom, it would be unnecessary for me to hire household help.  In this hypothetical, I imagine that if I were wealthy enough to hire a Kitchen Manager, I'd have come into money via some form of lucrative employment, which would take up enough time that it would necessitate outsourcing some household duties.  Or else I would have won the lottery, in which case most of my time would be spent attempting to prevent my life from becoming a total train wreck, if the TV show The Lottery Changed My Life is at all accurate.  

However, I will say, back in the confines of real, non-hypothetical life, that I am frustrated by how much time I spend just keeping my kitchen in a barely-decent state.  Often I find that by the time I get through my daily kitchen work, I have run out of time/energy/motivation to do any other household chores.  And a few times a week I find myself overwhelmed to a nearly debilitating level by how unfit my kitchen has become in just a matter of hours

So, as soon as I come into money, I will be hiring a Kitchen Manager.  Know anybody qualified? 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Nathan Appreciation Week

This is Nathan:

He is exactly 4 years and 11 months old, weighs 40 pounds, and is 45 inches tall.

And recently it occurred to me that this tiny little person is the human embodiment of the following major issues in my own life:
  •  An all-consuming, unconditional love for him, which comes with the resulting all-consuming fear of any danger ever befalling him.
  • Coming into my life and changing everything, from big things like my career and relationships to little things like the type of restaurants I go to.  
  • Expectations that he will always behave perfectly, demonstrate good manners, and perform well academically, because failure to do so would reflect poorly on me as a mother.  
  • Pressures to feel him the right foods, not expose him to certain chemicals, and not poison him with too much screen-based media.  
  • A constant questioning of my worth and abilities as a mother, and as a human being overall.  
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that these issues are ever overtly articulated in our household.  It's not as though I say, "Good morning Nathan, what would you like to do today?  I know what I'm NOT going to be doing: going to a paying job, because I found it impossible to juggle full-time work with motherhood.  So instead I'll be sitting here all day, judging my worth to society based on your behavior.  Do you want waffles or toast for breakfast?"  

Still, I think too often I fail to see him as a simple kid, rather than the embodiment of all the choices I have ever made in my life, past, present, and future.  Like, the other day when he got in trouble at school, I immediately blamed myself.  I thought of how much of a failure I was with discipline and sleep schedules and nutrition.  I remembered back to my days as a teacher, and recalled that I sucked at discipline then, too.  Geez, I have pretty much sucked at every job I've ever had, I thought. 

Now, clearly I have some major issues when it comes to being overly critical of myself.  But those are my issues, and I shouldn't transfer/project/whatever them onto my child.  He is just a little boy, a boy who misbehaves sometimes because he is a child, and human

So, in an attempt to slightly lessen the number of complexes I'm giving my child, I declared this past week Nathan Appreciation Week.

It is important to note that, while I did want Nathan Appreciation Week to have an overall positive connotation, appreciation isn't always exactly synonymous with liking.  I mean, don't get me wrong, of course I like the kid, I mean geez.  But I don't like dealing with him 100% of the time, and Nathan Appreciation Week was not about getting to a point where I like dealing with him 100% of the time.  After all, there are many things I appreciate that I don't always like: Weight Watchers, spin classes, exercise in general, modern household appliances, antidepressants--just to name a few.

So while part of Nathan Appreciation Week was about showing the boy some love, part of it was just taking some time to slow down and figure out what makes him tick.  (I mean, I did that to the best of my abilities.  Nobody can figure out why kids do what they do some of the time.)

Oh and also, I didn't tell him about Nathan Appreciation Week, because I figured he would misconstrue the concept of appreciation and throw it back in my face when, say, I was telling him he couldn't stay up later to play a video game.  I didn't even tell Bill about Nathan Appreciation Week, or anybody else until now.

A key feature of the week was that I made Nathan a simple little smiley face/sad face chart to take to school so he could get a daily behavior report from his teachers.  Each day the teachers had to circle either a smiley face or sad face for two categories: Self-Control and Following Directions.  The chart included associated Threats and Bribes (I mean, Consequences and Incentives): a single sad face meant time out and a TV ban for that day, and an entire week of smiley faces meant he would earn a super cool Imaginext dinosaur toy.

Well, the boy's school behavior was stellar all week.  And I told him next week he could work toward an Imaginext ninja toy, but after that we have to put away the big guns because I can't afford to be bribing my kid to the tune of $40 a week.

Anyway, I think maybe getting a lot of positive reinforcement about his school behavior put him in an overall good mood at home.  I also figured out that his negative school behavior seemed to be tied to sleeping in our bed at night.  I usually let him fall asleep in our bed (although this week he went to bed on his own in his own room two whole times), and sometimes I am too tired myself to move him to his own bed and I just let him sleep with us.  The family bed is trouble for all involved parties.  I think we all get woken up several times a night, and while the adults can kind of keep it under control despite tiredness the next day, Nathan is much grouchier.  I have not definitively proven the correlation between sleeping in our bed and negative behavior the following day, but I will say that the only night he slept in our bed was Wednesday, and Thursday was the only day he was completely intolerable to be around.

See, these observations are all part of appreciating him.

I've also observed that what he really wants me to do, more than anything, is pay attention to him.  I do think the amount of attention we give our children is yet another one of those tricky balance issues: You want to show you love them, but you want them to be independent, too.  Kids should learn to entertain themselves!  Oh, but they grow up so fast; spend as much time with them as you can!  If you don't read to him/interact with him/do some early academic development activities with him, he won't keep up with his peers on standardized tests!  OMG I just want to drink my coffee and look at Facebook in peace!

Anyway, as I said, he really just wants me to play with him.  I, on the other hand, consider myself a good mother if I arrange all kinds of fun activities/outings for him.  While he's not opposed to fun activities/outings, he really just wants me to stay home and play with him.

So, on Sunday while he was at his class, I bought a book called Science in the Kitchen.  (Shannon Ford Rule of Parenting #1: It's always good to throw money at the problem.)  Then on Monday after preschool, we did a few experiments from the book.  We learned that you can make oil and water mix by putting dishwashing soap in it.  (Seriously, I never knew that.) 

Then he mixed a bunch of other stuff together and made a big fat mess.  But (*clenches teeth*) that's okay because we had fun, and it's all about appreciating him and his interests, right?  RIGHT?

Now, there's only so much at-home time I can stand, so I decided to make Tuesday our outing day.  At this point I think one "big ticket outing" (term I made up) per week is about what we can handle, and Tuesdays are our emptiest days.

This past Tuesday's outing was to somewhere we'd never been before, an indoor playground called Little Monkey Bizness.  The place had always looked interesting to me, but I had shied away from it because it's about 30 minutes away.  Instead, I have been choosing closer indoor play destinations, like McDonald's and mall playgrounds.  But you should only eat McDonald's occasionally, and the mall usually involves excess spending.  Plus, really, Little Monkey Bizness was only about 5 minutes more driving time than the good mall, and when you factor in parking it's probably about a wash. 

Also Little Monkey Bizness was really low-key for me (parents can just sit in the coffee bar area and take advantage of free Wi-Fi), the parking was super convenient, and the place was clean and wholesome and didn't involve greasy food and/or the deforestation of the rainforest.  Also I consider $6.50 (normally $7.50 but I had a coupon) a really good deal for 3 hours of solid, energy-burning playtime. 

Here are some photos:

 I think in this one, the boy actually does look like a caged monkey.  

 This one cracked me up because he was playing with some other kids and yelled, "Get him!  He's the one you're after!"  I have no idea what media-based entity he learned that from.  

Also, the place had an art room.  Most of the drawings on that paper are stencil-based. 
Wednesday Nathan was buoyed by another good report from school, and then we just hung out and did errands and went to the gym.  

As I said, Thursday was a rough day.  As I also said, I think maybe he was grouchy because of a rough night's sleep in our bed the previous night.  But I also wonder if maybe Thursdays are just rough in general, like because he's just starting to feel the strain of the week.  Whatever the reason, I made the decision that Nathan was not suitable to attend library drop-in story hour, although we did have to slog through the rest of the day going to the gym and to Nathan's not-optional-because-it's-too-expensive science class.  

Again, sometimes liking and appreciating do not overlap.  

On Friday I went to Nathan's preschool to help with their cooking project.  We had a little talk in advance about how Just because your mom is there, doesn't mean you can start acting all weird.  

Here is what I "appreciated" about Nathan at school:
  • He does not like any activity that involves singing or accompanying hand motions.
  • He likes to chime in a lot and say "That's not real!" (about events in songs or stories).
  • He likes to play alone mostly, but flits in and out of groups during recess, the same as all the other kids.
The "cooking" project of the day was hot chocolate.

With candy cane, cookies, and Hershey's Kiss on the side.  SUGAR!

After school it was time to go to Target and purchase the hard-earned Behavior Chart Dinosaur.  We also got to take advantage of the tiny warm-up in weather and go to the park.  Then I made two pies, and Nathan helped me make a tiny individual cherry one just for him.  

I should also note that it was on Friday when I realized that I, personally, was starting to lose it.  I was so tired of meeting Nathan's near-constant needs that I felt like if I heard the word Mom (stretched out so it's a whiny five syllables: "Mo-o-o-aww-umh"), I was gonna punch a hole through the wall.

And then on Saturday we went to family swim at the gym!  I consider family swim to be a near-perfect winter activity.  It burns off a lot of energy.  It's super exciting to children.  It's close-by and doesn't involve any sort of major production.  It's free with the price of my gym membership.  And the post-swim shower substitutes for a bath that day!  

Also, I think maybe family swim might be the perfect combination of the fun outing I want and the constant maternal attention Nathan wants.  I have to pay attention to him the whole time, what with him being in water and all. 

The hyper-vigilance required for pool-based activities makes it hard to take pictures, but I quickly snapped a couple right at the beginning when nobody else was there and the lifeguard could focus on Nathan.  

All in all, I think Nathan Appreciation Week was a really positive experience.  It was really good to step back and observe him, and to realize that, when I detatch him from my issues, he's really just being a kid.  Every little thing he does, good or bad, may not be as high-stakes as I make it out to be.  He's just being a kid. 

I realize now that when I was a teacher, I had a hard time accepting kids' misbehavior as kids just being kids, too.  Every kid who misbehaved was another poor reflection on me, and was likely to get me in trouble with the parents and/or the principal, not to mention a major setback in my efforts to get them to perform well on The Test.  I wasn't conditioned to see kids as just being kids, with individual moods and personality quirks.  I needed them to behave, all of them, at all times.  

I'd like to think that now that I'm a parent and I'm just responsible for one child, I'd be able to step back and get to know that child more on an individual level.  And while of course I do think I know that kid pretty well, I still think there's a lot of pressure to get every kid to meet the same benchmarks and milestones at the same time.  

And it would be fun to say I'm going to go all rogue and ignore societal expectations, to just say my kid will get there when he gets there, but I also believe we have to conform to the norms and expectations of the particular place and time in which we live.  If the local public school system says he should be meeting Benchmarks X, Y, and Z at such-and-such a point in time, I will worry if and when he is not. 

Still, I do think it's important to take a step back sometimes and re-examine the way I think.  It's good to slow down and observe, and appreciate, my kid.  I'll never be able to observe him completely objectively, but I think Nathan Appreciation Week helped me curtail my subjectivity at least to the point that every reaction I have to his behavior is not filtered through all my own weird emotional issues.  And I think that small step is something to appreciate. 

Let's Be Honest

The second I clicked Publish Post on my last post, I immediately began to feel uneasy.  I had shared specific details about Nathan's behavioral issues, and about the teachers' comments, and about my concerns.

I agonized over Do I really want this on the Internet? for all of three minutes before I knew I had to go back and revise the post to prevent an entire afternoon of further negative feelings.

I don't know what it was that made me uncomfortable.  I've always prided myself on being 100% honest, because I believe that it is only through honesty that we can help each other feel less alone.  Was it not the whole I understand, me too, I'm not the only one phenomenon that made mom blogs such a revolution in the first place?  Isn't it a complete violation of unofficial mom blog principles to cover up the negative stuff and present an online image of a perfect life? 

And yet, as mom blogs have come of age, a huge number of bloggers have questioned the ethics of oversharing with the Internet.  Is this the online record I want to leave for my child?  How will my child feel if he finds out I didn't always like being a parent?  What will people think of me as a parent if I admit to some of these parental shortcomings? 

These are obviously important questions, ones that bloggers have asked a thousand times over in their respective posts, and ones that I have asked myself.  Certainly there is a danger in oversharing on the Internet. 

But, is there also danger in undersharing?  Do mom bloggers do other moms a disservice when they aren't completely honest about the realities of their lives? 

And it seems like, just based on my gut feeling here, most of the mom blogs out there now consist of glossy accounts of glowing family memories, attempts to hide the realities of everyday life with a pretty veneer.  Mom blogs have become less of a diary and more of a scrapbook. 

Which, look, I GET.  We're now aware that anything we put on the Internet is permanent, and nobody wants her family's permanent record to be a bunch of stories about tantrums and messy houses.  Further, there are a whole slew of topics we can't discuss because they might offend people we know in real life--friends, relatives, spouses, coworkers, and, as they get older, children themselves.  And there are some Big Issues that people understandably don't want online, issues like divorce or serious medical problems.  Plus some of your day-to-day frustrations are sort of too boring to post online anyway. 

In the end, what are you left with to blog about?  Fun Photos of My Family Outings, and Cute Things My Kid Said.  And even though you know your life isn't perfect, your online record certainly makes it look that way. 

This issue of a public versus private face certainly isn't a new one--obviously people have been hiding parts of their lives from the public since the beginning of time--but I think it is becoming a more serious concern as more and more of our interactions are online, and as we have such increased access to the inner-workings of other people's lives.  Between Facebook, blogs, and all the other social networks, we have this false perception that we have complete access to the inner-workings of everybody's lives, and don't their lives look a lot better than ours?  And so it's not surprising that a recent study found a correlation between number of hours spent on Facebook and negative feelings about one's own life. 

Now, I should remind you of what you learned in that introductory social science class in college: Correlation does not imply causation.  It could be that people who spend more time online are just sadder and lonelier to begin with.  Still, I think everybody, regardless of overall emotional state, is getting more a much larger quotient of human interaction online, and we tend to falsely perceive that we now have complete access to the inner-workings of other people's lives.

But, of course, we don't.  We're all putting up a front.  And it can be harder to remember that with mom blogs, perhaps because they started out as such a tell-all, completely honest medium.  Even the names of mom blogs suggest that they're giving it to you straight, names like Terrible Mommy or The Dark Side of Motherhood, which suggest both an honesty and a flawed humanity.  (Note: To the best of my knowledge, those names are fictional.  I didn't want to use the names of real blogs because I didn't want to suggest that I had a problem with any particular blog.)

But, as previously discussed, there are many reasons why we can't tell the whole story.  Still, I think we owe it to one another to be honest when we can.  Like so many other issues in life, the issue of oversharing versus undersharing is one where we have the difficult task of striking a perfect balance.  And that fine line between the two is one we will always struggle to walk.  

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Here I Am

Yesterday my brother informed me that people have been asking when I was going to write another blog post.  Now, by people, I'm sure he meant himself and maybe two other relatives.  It's not the like the whole world is crying out for more Same Old Shannon.

But nonetheless, I have been absent.  And I feel kind of bad about that. 

I don't have a good reason for my lack of posts, other than just that I can't seem to fall into a good groove of post frequency now that I'm not shooting for a post every single day. 

Or I find myself wanting, or needing, to write a post about a serious topic, something like Depression or Failed Motherhood.  But that's in the heat of emotions, and when the strong feelings dissipate, I think about writing the post anyway and I'm just not feeling it. 

So maybe I need an easy gateway post to get me back into the swing of things.  How about some random updates?  Good?

Well, it's the third week of January, and we've been busy with a bevy of activities that I signed us up for in an attempt to combat Winter Madness (term from 30 Rock). 

First up each week is a class I signed Nathan up for, which I'm embarrassed to admit is through a place called The Center for Gifted.  I feel obnoxious suggesting that my kid is such a genius that he belongs in such a place.  I have no idea if the child is gifted.  Sometimes he shows some intelligence, but then at other times I have to think back to his in utero ultrasound to remember that he does, in fact, have a brain in his head. 

But anyway, the classes at The Center for Gifted sounded sort of cool.  For Nathan's age there is Science Spies, which he is totally into, and then he also has to take the partner class, Tales From Around the World.  (They go together, surprisingly, because the teachers coordinate to create lessons where the math/science activities tie in to fairy tales.  This session they're focusing on different variations of The Gingerbread Man.)  The other thing is that the classes for older kids sound super cool, like Lego Robotics and Experiments with Toys, and once you've gotten your teacher recommendation (umm, yeah), you're part of the Center for life and don't have to go through the application process (which I'm making sound way more serious/daunting than it actually was) ever again. 

We've had one week with The Center for Gifted, and so far I love it.  They're all super positive there, and I thought they did a good job creating fun, challenging lessons.

But also!  The Center for Gifted holds its classes at various rented elementary schools, and our closest one is almost 30 minutes away.  It would be a waste to drive home in between the drop-off and pick-up, which means that every Sunday afternoon I have two full hours to sit at a nearby Starbucks with my two BFFs, Kindle and Laptop.  (Also, side note: The people at The Center for Gifted actually sent an informational email suggesting that you might want to research coffee shops, libraries, and restaurants near the school so you'd have a place to go during the classes.  I guess they don't think the parents are gifted enough themselves to have thought of this brilliant suggestion.)

Except!  The Center for Gifted runs parent seminars during some of the sessions, and you're "strongly encouraged to attend."  I feel kind of guilty not going, but these seminars are really cutting into my Starbucks time.  Also, and I feel even guiltier admitting this, but I just can't deal with any more parenting "suggestions" at the moment.  I'm really trying to focus on Nathan's behavior, and since that's not what any of the seminars is about, it seems like too much other stuff to stress out about when it comes to my parenting.  Also I figure some of the tips will be aimed toward older kids anyway.  And, on the one hand, I paid all this money for the classes, and I should take advantage of whatever extra help comes my way as part of the package.  But, on the other hand, I paid these people a lot of money, and I can do whatever the hell I want.     

So that's Sunday.  Monday, Wednesday, and Friday Nathan goes to his preschool, which is Not Going Well. I don't want to get into it, but Nathan's been acting up at school, I feel bad about my parenting, I think I'm a failure, this is all my fault, blah blah blah Shame Spiral.

We're going to try to combat the whole thing with a simple daily behavior report from Nathan's teachers, along with the good old parenting classics, Threats and Bribes.  But honestly I just feel so troubled about all this, and powerless, and, of course, responsible.  I want to be one of those moms who just thinks everything her kid does is awesome, and everything she does is awesome, and can't stop bragging about how much her kid loves school and loves learning and is so smart and all that.  And instead I just end up feeling like a daily failure.

Whew, that got dark for a minute.

I'm wondering if part of the problem is that Nathan is too over-involved, because we also have him in story hour at the library and in a little class at this local place called World of Enrichment.  Throw in our normal weekly activities like the gym and errands, plus a few special things like playdates, birthday parties, or day trips, and he is probably getting too tired and over-stimulated.  But, on the other hand, it's the dead of winter, and we don't need a bunch of boring days stuck at home doing nothing, either.  Again I find myself struggling to find the right balance.

As for my own personal activities, I'm working on training for the gym's indoor triathlon.  This year I decided to take the training class, which meets every Saturday morning at the unreasonable hour of 7:00 a.m.  I was pleased to find out that the other participants in the class weren't triathlon superstars, though, and are just regular people with their own fitness strengths and weaknesses.  I'm the only person in the class who is sucky at running and okay at swimming, which I'm going to tell myself is an asset.  Because, the thing is, I am probably more familiar with running than these other people are with swimming.  After all, nobody ever has to swim to catch a bus.

Oh, and I hate to brag about myself, but since I've spent the better part of this post beating myself up, I think it's okay if I mention that I am the Women's 30-35 swimming record-holder for the gym's indoor triathlon, based on my performance at last year's triathlon.

Anyway, the triathlon training teacher gives us three totally reasonable "homework" workouts you're supposed to do throughout the week, and I'm still meeting with Trainer Jill, so that about sums up my life on the Fitness Front.  The workouts make me totally hungry, and I make irresponsible food choices, so I am not doing so well on the Weight Watchers Front. 

On the Professional Front, such as it is, I made my first foray into professional acting.  I got paid to star as the mom of a depressed teenager for a psychology training video.  In the final scene (spoiler alert!) I reveal that I'm also depressed, which was actually harder to pull off than you might think.  But it was totally fun being in that video, and it made me look forward to acting again this spring in the community theater production of Jack and the Beanstalk.  (I mean, assuming they cast me after the audition.  Which they generally do automatically if you're over the age of 15.) 

Also this week I am going to get paid to participate in a market research study about kitchen products.

Bill and I spent my hard-earned money on a fancy dinner out last night with our friends, and on the accompanying babysitter.  It was so fun to be going out on Saturday night like the cool people do, and to sit through a dinner that lasted more than 30 minutes. 

And I'm reading a YA book called Divergent, which is another book about a dystopian futuristic society.  But the difference with this one is that it takes place in a run-down version of Chicago, whereupon Navy Pier is boarded up and abandoned.  Which is something I wish would happen with Navy Pier in the present day.

That reminds me of somebody who hates Navy Pier a lot, my friend Katie!  Remember how Katie and I call each other "G" or "G-Money"?  So ... we made up a theme for our mutual birthday celebration next week ... Macaroni and G's!  (Hidden side theme: wine.)

So that's what's going on in my life.  Kind of a mixed bag, a lot of ups and downs.  Also known as January.  Also known as Life.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Year of Less Consumption: Report #1

I have no idea how frequently I'll be posting these updates, and I'm sorry if they aren't that interesting.  I just think putting updates on the Internet will help hold me accountable to my reduced-consumption goals, and maybe (?) some other people can get some ideas, too.  And I'll try to put pictures in to break up the monotony here. 


So far I think Year of Less Consumption is going pretty well.  I'm still sticking with it 15 days into the year, which is pretty good by New Year's Resolution standards. 

Let me break this update up by the Year of Less Consumption Guiding Principles. 

Principle 1: Choose reusable over disposable whenever reasonable and/or tolerable. 

Well, first off, I am learning there are many practices that are more reasonable/tolerable than I previously thought.  For example, I had previously shied away from any practice that generated additional laundry, such as using cloth napkins, dishtowels/rags instead of paper towels, or a cloth bag for my sweaty gym clothes.  But it turns out that, since I'm already doing a large load of laundry every single day anyway, it's not that big of a deal to throw in a few flimsy cloth napkins. 

I'd also like to say that a surprising BFF in my quest for reusable-ness has been the dishwasher.  It turns out you can use the dishwasher to wash a lot of stuff that you might otherwise consider disgusting enough to throw out.  For example, I disinfected our travel toothbrushes and their travel toothbrush containers so they would be ready for another trip.  I ran a gloppy hand soap dispenser through the dishwasher on the top rack so it would be clean enough to refill instead of replace.  And I've washed all manner of commercial food containers (plastic containers for yogurt, sour cream, and lunch meat; various jars) to use as storage for leftovers, which has also helped me cut back on Ziploc bag usage. 

I've also established a plastic storage container for different little odds and ends that I can use for gift wrapping.  This is a picture of my first gift wrapped with items from the gift wrap box:

The bag is a paper bag they put wine bottles in at Target.  The string is DIY baker's twine made using this tutorial, although I could only find nylon thread so it came out ugly.  I made the Angry Birds gift tag by cutting up the birthday party invitation, and I punched the tiny hole with a hole-punch I bought secondhand at an estate sale.  Also, as part of my commitment to emphasize experiences over material goods, the gift itself is a McDonald's gift card.  (It was for a 5-year-old.)  It wasn't the most cutely-wrapped gift at the party, but damn if that thing didn't pack an eco-friendly power punch! 

Principle 2: Consumable goods are not restricted, but choice of product should emphasize frugality and eco-friendliness. 

I don't really have that much to say about this one, since it pretty much just covers stuff I was already doing before.  So, yes, we have continued to buy food and toiletries, and we have tried to buy the big container over several smaller ones, as well as to buy stuff using coupons and/or on sale.  Boring.

Principle 3: Second-hand is preferred.  

So, it turns out that, despite all my talk about less consumption, I still have a really strong desire to buy stuff.  I don't want to make an attempt to totally squelch that desire because, as I've said before, I much prefer rewarding myself with stuff over rewarding myself with food.  But, keeping in mind the Second-hand is preferred principle, I have decided to reward myself with second-hand stuff whenever possible. 

Enter ... estate sales!  I get weekly emails about estate sales in my area.  Most of them start on Fridays, which is good because Nathan now goes to school on Fridays, and so I have some time to myself.

The fun thing about shopping at estate sales is that you get an interesting experience in addition to some fun acquisitions.  Like, first of all, the thrill of the hunt is always fun, and it's also fun to score some great deals, but I also find that estate sales are like little miniature museums. 

Like, this past Friday I went to two estate sales, and I found interesting relics at both.  At the first one I found two little books of old Disney World attraction tickets, leftover from the era where you needed a separate ticket for each ride, rather than the all-inclusive general admission tickets they have been selling since approximately 1983.  Also they had a little booklet called "Souvenir of Our Wedding," which was a little fill-in keepsake with the bride/groom's names, the date, and location.  What I found curious about that (other than the fact that nobody in the family wanted it) was that it was filled out in pencil.  Was a person's wedding not occasion enough to use ink?  Did they only use pencil when they figured the marriage wouldn't last?

That house also had a copy of every Christmas card the family sent out since the 1960s, carefully labeled with the year, and a box of letters dating back to the 1950s.

The second house had some old toys, and I learned that Barbie's little sister Skipper had a friend named Scooter in the 1960s.

Want to see what I bought?

This purse, which I call my "old lady purse" and actually smells like old lady perfume inside:

This gorgeous, never-been-used embroidered tablecloth, which had an old-ish looking price tag of $75 that was pinned on with a straight pin (I'd say it was from the mid-80s if I had to guess) and I got in a set with matching napkins for $4. 

The flowers were birthday gifts from Nathan (left) and Bill (right).

Close-up of the detail: 

Like I said, the tablecloth came with matching napkins, pictured here with the assortment of other napkins I picked up between the two estate sales: 

Again, it's an eco-friendly power punch, because not only do cloth napkins constitute reusable goods, but I got them secondhand!  The light pink linen ones need to be ironed, but, well, I think we all know I'm not going to do that.  

Also, the second estate sale was a goldmine for the Department 56 Snow Village miniatures that my mom collects.  

I got her an ice cream parlor:

An airport:

And a Christmas Cadillac:

I don't even collect these things, but damn if that isn't the cutest thing I ever saw.

(Also, in the interests of accuracy, I should note that I went back on Saturday for half-price day at the estate sale and scored her an awesome miniature streetcar that runs on a track, still sealed in the package.  Again, I don't even collect these things, but that score was really exciting for me.)  

I don't know how I feel about going to estate sales and acquiring more belongings that I really don't need, because I kind of feel like I'm not exactly in the spirit of Year of Less Consumption.  But I did say secondhand was okay, and technically I'm not contributing anything extra to a landfill, or to the air pollution/unfair labor practices from the manufacture of these products.  

Principle 4: Emphasize experiences over material goods.  

I have already talked about our experience at Discover the Dinosaurs, as well as my experience getting purple hair.  Another experience we had was ice skating:
Which. Nathan. Hated.  He wall-surfed around 1.5 times, screaming and crying almost the whole time.  Note the look of mild terror on his face in this picture, and how his reflection somehow looks ten times more terrified.  Oh well, I didn't say all of our experiences had to be good experiences.  And at least he enjoyed drinking hot chocolate after the "skating."

Given our limited success with ice skating, I didn't hold out high hopes for our second winter recreational activity, sledding.  But the boy LOVED IT. 

The final Year of Less Consumption Guiding Principle, All of the above should be followed according to individual comfort level, is kind of too boring to discuss.  You don't really care about the ever-evolving list of activities with which I am comfortable.  Also, I don't really want to get into this topic because I will end up ragging on some members of my household, who don't really seem to be all that comfortable with any of this stuff. 

So I guess that's it for now. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Purple Streak

It's my birthday. 

Thirty-four, for those who were wondering.

This being the Year of Less Consumption, I decided to get a non-material birthday present for myself: A streak of purple in my hair! 

Here's a close-up I took with my cell phone in my car, right after I got the streak:

In the top photo, my hair has some weird stuff going on, because I had just been out frolicking in something else I got for my birthday: An awesome snowstorm! 

I've made it clear that I love a good snow, in the proper time and place.  And I think January is the proper time and place for a beautiful snowfall.  I was able to enjoy a gorgeous, peaceful snow falling steadily throughout my birthday. 

But back to the purple streak.  It's not on the top layer of hair, it's underneath, and so far not one person has commented on it.  No problem, though, because the streak is for me!  I think it's a metaphor for my overall self.  And I know everybody's sick of the whole "this is a metaphor for life" thing, but it's my birthday, so please indulge me. 

See, I think, on the outside, I'm just your standard boring Midwest Suburban Housewife, just doing laundry and making dinner and complaining about the monotony of life along with all the other suburban housewives at the park.  But then, if you look a little closer ... bam! ... I have a subtle streak of something interesting.  I write what I like to think of as an occasionally humorous blog, I act in plays, and I push myself to train for athletic events for which I am not at all qualified.  It is those little interesting tidbits that constitute the purple streak in the otherwise fairly dull brown haircut of my life. 

So that got me thinking: Why not do more to bring out my inner purple streak?  Now, again, in case this wasn't totally obvious already, let me be clear that I am talking about the metaphorical purple streak; I'm not gonna go all Katy Perry and make my whole head techni-colored.  But, I mean, why not emphasize my inner purple streak?  I'm not suggesting I'll spend more time on recreational hobbies, I'm just saying that why not focus on making the good things I do a bigger part of how I view life and myself as a whole? 

And you know, I wanted to come up with a silly rhyming or alliterative theme to go with my birthday, the way I did with Thirty-Three: The Place to Be.  But the only word that kept popping in my head as a rhyme for thirty-four was more, and every dumb slogan containing more sounded grossly suggestive. 

So, instead of rhyming, my slogan for 34 is going to be Embrace Your Inner Purple Streak.  To celebrate, I got decked out in purple:

And then we shoveled the driveway:

After shoveling, we played for a little while outside.  Now, I don't use the word precious very often, but, I mean COME ON:

Snow angel action shot!

And here's what my purple self looks like after 90 minutes in a snowstorm:

The other thing I'm getting for my birthday is the return of 30 Rock!  It was really nice of Tina Fey to get me that birthday gift, don't you think? 

So, in honor of my birthday and 30 Rock, I'll end with a 30 Rock quote from Jack Donaghy:
"My mouth tastes like purple."

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Something's Gotta Give

I'm reading a book called Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half, written by a couple who has been dubbed by Good Morning America as "America's Cheapest Family."

I'm only one chapter in, but I can already tell that, like most how-to/self-help books, this one is a combination of:

(a) Ideas that are totally obvious, which you have thought of and are already doing.  ("Plan out meals and then make a grocery list of items you need.")
(b) Ideas that you could never realistically implement.  ("Only go to the grocery store once a month.")
(c) Ideas that you could actually use, at least in some adapted form.  ("Make a list of everything you have before planning meals, to give you an idea of what to make."  ed note: I mean, I probably wouldn't inventory the entire spice rack, but I think it makes sense to remind myself of what's in the back of the freezer.)

But my point is not to summarize or review this book, at least not at this time.  My point is to discuss an over-arching concern I have as I go through this book, a concern which I think is becoming a metaphor for other life situations as well: 

Something's gotta give. 

See, as I go through this book, I realize that America's Cheapest Family is not at all similar to my own family.  ACF has 5 children, which seem to range in age from about 13 to 26.  (All seem to be living at home, which presents a fairly obvious money-saving measure: Kick the twenty-somethings out.)  Nobody seems to be picky in the slightest.  (There is a section about how to handle picky eaters, but in the example he states that two of his children at first did not like grapefruit.  That's your picky eater?  Dude, nobody likes grapefruit.)  As with most big families, the parents present a this is what I'm making, take it or leave it attitude.  And there don't seem to be any real specific dietary concerns.  I mean, they do serve a balanced diet (as in, they aren't advocating ramen or mac 'n cheese just because they're the cheapest things you can eat), but their meal plans aren't guided by anybody's specific dietary restrictions like weight loss, vegetarian, gluten-free, organic, low-fat, or low-cholesterol. 

In my family, on the other hand, I'm on Weight Watchers, Bill is somewhat picky and emphasizes low cholesterol, and Nathan doesn't really like anything.  Additionally, we don't have the kind of whole-family buy-in that ACF has: The commitment to everybody being available/willing to eat whatever is provided three meals a day, every single day.  Sometimes unforeseen situations arise that derail our well-laid plans for a home-cooked meal, and we end up eating take-out.  And those situations often involve good, wholesome reasons, reasons like work or exhausted from the gym or stayed too long at the library. 

The point is, flexibility and convenience sometimes need to be the priorities.  And, as I said, in our family, dietary concerns are priorities.  And there is still definitely room to implement cost-cutting measures and still achieve these priorities, but not always.  Because, sometimes, something's gotta give. 

I will list just one example here: pre-cut green beans in a bag.  I'm pretty sure that any Frugalista worth her (half-price, bought-with-double-coupons) salt would never buy pre-cut vegetables.  Pre-cut vegetables cost about twice as much as the ones you have to wash and cut yourself.  But, if you're a member of a family where green beans meet everybody's dietary needs, and are one of the three vegetables everybody likes, aren't you going to do everything it takes to make sure green beans get used and served, rather than rotting in the bottom of the fridge because you are too lazy/tired to prepare them? 

Because, sometimes, something's gotta give. 

So, although I will continue to read the book and look for suggestions that apply to my own life, I want to be mindful of the fact that I don't want to sacrifice nutrition for the sake of monetary savings. 

The odd thing is that I got the book as a Kindle e-book from the library, which was a format that I decided would probably be a casualty of my "something's gotta give" attitude.  See, in a year where I'm trying to use less and eat less, reading an e-book is the perfect non-edible, non-consuming reward for myself.  For obvious reasons related to ease and convenience, I prefer the Kindle format to a hard copy of a book.  Last year I committed to getting my e-books from the library, for financial reasons.  However, the library e-book system is incredibly limited and frustrating, and if I relied on it solely for my reading material, I'd be without a book to read a lot of the time.  And since reading is an easy, wholesome, enjoyable activity that fits in with my other priorities about not consuming material goods or excess food, I decided that I just couldn't worry about the whole buying books issue, because something's gotta give. 

Now, here's where the whole something's gotta give thing applies to the rest of my life.  See, yesterday, I was lying around reading the grocery savings book, and a crushing, all-consuming guilt washed over me.  I'm such a loser, lying around reading in the middle of the day.  I should be doing something meaningful with my time. 

That was at about 2:30 in the afternoon, after a morning that had been kind of a downer for me.  After getting Nathan out the door to his new M/W/F preschool class (same school, different days), I went to Weight Watchers.  I expected a big loss, and I had only lost 0.4 lb.  That set off a chain of self-loathing, which couldn't be cured by the endorphins from a run/walk on the treadmill at the gym after Weight Watchers.  Then, after a quick tear through Target to get some groceries, I picked up Nathan, made lunch, blah, blah, blah.  All that I was staring down for the afternoon was a bunch of household chores, and I couldn't see the point.  And after that, there would be the not-at-all-gratifying chore of cooking for my picky family ... and then Nathan's bedtime, which is going worse than ever. 

Now, I realize all of these situations are what the Internets might call first-world problems or white people problems, or non-problems.  But I was in a big funk over them, and feeling guilty about my lack of productivity, and generally just in a big fat ball of bad.  Then it occurred to me that:

1. I was exhausted because I was training for a triathlon.
2. I had restricted myself from any sort of activity where I would be eating or purchasing material goods, which are noble goals. 
3. Cleaning and doing laundry and putting up with my picky eaters doesn't exactly make me a saint, but I should recognize that it constitutes a fair amount of effort. 

The point is, I think when you're trying to juggle health goals and environmental goals and monetary goals, and find leisure activities that you can do despite all these goals and while caring for a family, reading is an obvious choice, and I shouldn't feel guilty about it.  Because something's gotta give. 

Now, what I'd really like to give up is the all-consuming guilt about how little I feel I contribute to society.  But for now, maybe I'll focus on giving up the guilt about reading in the middle of the day.  Baby steps. 

Sunday, January 8, 2012

We Discovered the Dinosaurs!

As part of the Year of Less Consumption final Guiding Principle, Emphasize experiences over material goods, I took my boy on a fun adventure yesterday to see a traveling show called Discover the Dinosaurs.  

During the 45-minute drive to Discover the Dinosaurs, I gave Nathan a talk about Emphasizing experiences over material goods, which went something like:

Me: Okay, before we go, I want to tell you that we can spend money to do fun things, but we aren't going to buy a toy, Okay?  Because we just had Christmas, and you got a lot of toys, and we don't need any more, Okay?  We only have one earth, and too much stuff is bad for our earth, and we won't have anywhere to live if we destroy the earth owning too many things, Okay?

Nathan: Stop saying 'Okay.'

Okay, so we got there, and we paid $13 for our parking experience, and then another $25 for our tickets to the dinosaur experience.  And we were off on our Jurassic Journey:

The base ticket price got you in to see several animatronic dinosaur displays, like this one that my kid just looks thrilled about:

Some of the displays were interactive.  Kids love pushing buttons:

After approximately 5 minutes of button-pushing and admiring things that were included with our ticket price, Nathan spotted a bouncy castle!  He had to go there! 

The bouncy castle required an additional fee!

And it was one of those things where the "additional fee" attractions could only be paid for with tickets, which had to be purchased at a separate booth, in the hopes that using this other currency would distract people from how much the attractions actually cost, seeing as none of us could possibly perform the complicated calculations required to figure out, If tickets cost $2 each, and this ride costs 3 tickets, the actual monetary cost of the attraction is ... Well, hell if I know, Who am I, Albert Freakin' Einstein? 

Also, the line for the bouncy castle was 45 minutes long.  But I just joined the line of other overwhelmed, overstimulated kids and defeated parents, because it's winter in Chicago and what are you gonna do?

My kid in the bouncy castle:

Next we forked over another 3 tickets to do a "panning for gems" activity.  Even though anybody who grew up in California ("The Golden State") knows from the 4th grade unit on the Gold Rush that this device is actually not a pan but a sluice box:

We saw these guys for no additional fee:

Next, it was off to the mines:

Now, when you have just forked over $6 so your kid can put on a plastic hard hat sprayed with generic Lysol, enter a box with a vinyl curtain made to look like a mine, and pull 10 cents worth of polished rocks out of stucco holes, you realize you have abandoned all the ideals of your pre-parenting life, whatever those ideals were. 

Next Nathan and some other children made a stunning discovery of a nearly-intact dinosaur skeleton:

This was a photo op where you could climb inside the dinosaur's mouth.  We waited in a 10-minute line for this photo op, but when we got up there Nathan said he was too afraid to go inside the mouth.  So he stood next to it:

We used our last 3 tickets to ride the T-Rex, which I think was a highlight:

Here's the video version:

The next few shots were taken at the little playground where you could sit on cartoon-y dinosaurs:

Then we touched some dinosaur heads and whatnot:

Nathan sitting on velociraptor, made the famous in Jurassic Park:

I made him take a picture in front of my favorite dinosaur, the stegosaurus:

And a parting shot with the T-Rex:

All jokes about overpriced-ness aside, it was a fun day and a nice change of pace for a winter afternoon.  Nathan cooperated with the Emphasize experiences over material goods principle like a champ, and didn't even ask for a toy from one of the many booths and stands set up to sell material goods.  And so, even though I was $65 poorer at the end of the day, I left feeling proud that Year of Less Consumption was off to a roaring start.