Sunday, June 28, 2009

Staying Informed

This past week's media frenzy has exhausted me. No less than three celebrity deaths, in addition to the end of a reality show marriage, and (another) political sex scandal have done nothing but make the circus louder. It's not like we're learning anything from the coverage. I've resolved to go on a "news diet"--another interesting idea from the Zen Habits blog.

Leo Babauta suggests that a good way to get rid of mental noise is to turn off the media and sources of chatter. He advocates giving up television, radio, newspapers, the internet and email for a week. I simply cannot stop with email, as staying employed contributes greatly to my happiness, but I have decided I'll give up as much of the other stuff as possible this week.

Television is pretty easy, as I don't watch much anyway, especially when my kids are not with me. Breaking away from news sights will be a little tougher, as I look daily at our local paper on-line, and generally have a run through at least the Wall Street Journal while I eat my lunch. I follow sports somewhat but am not a huge fan, so that won't be difficult.

Evenings will be harder, as I do love NPR and it's what I listen to while I cook dinner. I am trying to figure out if it's a show like The Splendid Table or RadioLab if it's cheating, and I think not. But all the pure news shows will have to go--which means I will have to set my Blackberry alarm and not be awakened by Morning Edition, as I have for over ten years. No radio in the car (and traffic alerts are always too little, too late anyway) and absolutely no magazine reading in the checkout line. I will do my best not to read the news updates that pop up on the little screen in the elevators in my building, although they do fill those awkward silences well.

I wonder what I will miss out on this week. There is some good reporting out there, but it's really hard to get to when all of that clutter is in the way, and, like junk food, it's the tabloid culture that's really hard to avoid. Sadly (or not) I don't think I will miss out on anything that will affect my life. I bought a new novel today, as since it's fiction and not current affairs I think I can justify it. For the moment, the house is awfully quiet. I hope by the end of the week my mind is a little more so, too.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Happiness is Now

In his excellent blog, Zen Habits, Leo Babuta has a post this week that boils happiness down to a single tenet: don't wait for it. In all of the reading and thinking I've done on the subject, the biggest obstacle to happiness is thinking of it as a future state: once we've found the spouse or had the baby or gotten the promotion, we'll finally, once and for all, be happy.

But of course life is filled with traffic jams, temper tantrums, burnt dinners and delivery people who don't show up. Like the inevitability of failure and disappointment, the people who find happiness learn to make peace with at least most of the bad stuff--I am a work in progress in this regard, to be sure--and to find ways to see the glass as half full.

Happy folks also are more prone to see opportunities for happiness, and don't deny themselves those chances because of the fear that can accompany seizing the day. Earlier in the week I figured out a way to get to Toronto for a long weekend. I lived there for seven years, and haven't been back in more than five. I sent out a few emails, and it turns out that more than a decade after I've left there are friendships so sturdy that a lot of people would still like to see me. Then I am going to visit my parents for a quick layover in Ottawa, as it's my mom's birthday.

I spent most of yesterday thinking about all the reasons why I shouldn't go--it's a lot of money to spend for a long weekend, I have to find someone to mind the pets, it will be a lot of traveling over four days. And yet one more reason: this is my first trip back to Toronto as a divorced person, and I have some really big and happy memories of exploring the city as a young married one. But I have never regretted spending money on travel, and this afternoon I am going to book my trip. Carpe diem.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Art of Non-Conformity

If you save $2 a day for three years, you can go anywhere you want in the world. The list of really big mistakes you can't recover from is really very short. Potential is good when you are fifteen years old; after that, you need to start doing something. You don't have to live your life the way other people expect you to.

All of these ideas and more can be found at The Art of Non-Conformity, which consistently blows my mind. I went through a brief granola phase--my former husband and I liked to brag that when we got married we had two backpacks and a 1971 VW bus (we were actually pretty well taken care of and both held down real jobs, but it made us feel like rebels)--but once I had children, I became pretty conventional. And I live in a really conservative town, where being just a little unconventional is way out there. So to someone who lives in Seattle or even Austin, I am way uptight.

But I digress. Chris Guillebeau is a former Peace Corps volunteer who believes, rather stridently, that we should all break out of our cubicle nation and see the world. Many moons ago, I ran off and planted trees and backpacked around Europe for a summer, and I thought it was great. But then really, it was time to grow up. And now sleeping in a hostel or in a traincar is most definitely not an adventure I'd care to relive.

Chris writes posts with titles like "A Brief Guide to World Domination" and "Why You Should Quit Your Job and Travel Around the World." Outrageous for the carpool set and yet, by the time I've read them, he has a point: we say we can't afford to travel to exotic places, but that's because we are spending our money on pedicures and satellite television. He's not saying people shouldn't do that--at least not if we don't mind being "mediocre"--but that we should get off auto-pilot and realize it's a choice.

One of my favorite posts is "How to Write Your Own Annual Review." It's a full evaluation of one's life and a template for a strategic plan for the next year. Although he suggests taking a full week to do it, going through the exercises on a Saturday afternoon is a good way to consider whether you are using your time in gratifying ways.

In a much more radical way than in Laura Rowley's Money and Happiness, he works to make us think outside our cubicle walls to what might be, if we have the courage to smile, nod and walk away from people who tell us what we "should" be doing. If I look in the back corner of the closet, I might be able to find that backpack and those Birkenstocks. But I think I'll keep my day job.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Money and Happiness

A few months back when we were watching the markets dropping precipitously, I was talking about investments with a friend who is in her fifties. She is one of those people who plans for the future and who is extremely mindful of how she spends her money. "You know," she said angrily, "those of us who tried to do what we were supposed to are the ones who've gotten burned. Now I wish my husband and I had just taken more trips."

I have a friend at the opposite end of the spectrum. Although he is raising a family and is a homeowner, by his own account he frequently just squeaks by on his earnings as an independent contractor. But he cares a lot more about freedom than he does about security, and his tastes don't run towards extravagance, so in the end he is just fine.

I fall somewhere in between. I feel incredibly grateful to have a well-paying, steady job with health insurance and a retirement plan. I save every month and stay out of debt. But I rent a house in a desirable neighborhood not just so my children can go to the schools they do, but also because I feel I belong here. A more wise choice financially might be to buy a house in a more affordable part of the city, but that wouldn't make me happy. I have a really nice car that I bought second-hand. I take short trips when I can find a good deal. And I buy and cook good food and drink decent wine. These are the things that make me happy, and I feel life is too short to deprive myself of things that give me genuine pleasure.

We all have vices, of course. I love clothes and really enjoy wearing them and, frankly, feeling like I look good. I am a ruthless sale shopper, but I still can't say that every piece of clothing I buy represents a "need." To keep myself honest about where my hard-earned salary is going, I've recently signed up for a service at www.mint.com It tracks all of my transactions and categorizes them, although I've discovered I frequently need to go in and re-classify some of my purchases so I have a clearer picture. But the pie charts make my spending patterns quite obvious. For example, I spend a lot more money on gas than I was willing to admit to myself. I'm hopeful knowing this will make me slow down on the highway. But that's another kind of discipline.

An absolutely great blog I've run across is Money and Happiness. Laura Rowley has written a book with the same title, and is a columnist for Newsweek on the topic. She has a good number of practical tips (mint.com was one I picked up from her) but my favorite posts are about determining our emotional beliefs as they relate to money. In one entitled "Six Steps to Financial Happiness" she exhorts readers who want a healthier relationship with money to: stop comparing ourselves to others; be grateful; to not make money our top priority; to take care of what she calls "essential psychological needs", by which she means a sense of control over our lives and a connection to friends and community; and finally, to help others. It's a refreshing departure from the acquisition-driven media all around us.

So what does it mean to be rich? We must take some steps. Find things we enjoy for their own sake, not just because they impress others. Do our best to plan for the future but understand that if we're trying to control things, it's futile: life doesn't often turn out the way we expect it to. Finally, don't forget the old saying--you can't take it with you.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Transitions

Earlier this month, I took my daughter to Austin, about three hours away, so she could attend a week-long academic camp held at the University of Texas. It had some stringent admissions standards and she was thrilled to be accepted. We arrived and had a short orientation at the dorm where the 40 middle school girls would be staying, and then we walked outside to say goodbye. Some parents hovered and were slightly tearful; my daughter, who has always been independent, gave me a look that pointed me to affect an air of non-chalance. So I gave her a quick hug, told her I loved her, and was on my way.

I really was fine. And then I drove up the ramp to Interstate 35, taking in a quick view of the sprawling UT campus. Tears sprang to my eyes. I'd just left my firstborn at college.

But not really, of course, and, as my mother would say, I gave myself a shake. Only the day before, a dear friend of mine had just watched her first and only graduate from high school and was preparing for her child to really leave the nest. We'd had a number of long talks about it, which helped me understand I am only just starting to let go.

Even so, it was one of those bittersweet moments, like when your child waves goodbye on the first day of kindergarten. Being a good parent, an old friend of mine once told me, is ultimately about doing yourself out of a job. That day my daughter entered a phase where she would need me a little less, so I guessed I was doing okay for the moment.

Even when transitions are happy (and let me be clear I was so proud of my daughter that day I thought I'd burst) they hurt. When we become a spouse, a parent, a stay-at-home parent, a resident in a new city, a divorced person, a retired person--each of these changes is profound and often really frightening. They cause us to wonder who we are now. Is the person we were before still in there, or is he or she gone forever?

One of the toughest tricks to leading a rich life is about navigating these transitions with one's identity in tact while still growing with these changes. That doesn't mean not feeling depressed or angry or so scared we'd rather not leave the house. What it does mean is not getting stuck in those feelings for good. I've not had my children leave home, experienced retirement, or, thankfully, the death of someone really close to me, so my experience and therefore my wisdom on this is limited. But I've gone through a few big shifts, including a number of moves that led me from small-town Ontario to Fort Worth, Texas. And I am still finding my place in the world three years after my divorce.

I have a few well-established habits that have helped me through all of these big transitions: long walks outdoors, a fondness for novels that transport me away from my present circumstances, a certain pleasure and ability in articulating how these changes have affected me. And I am blessed with a close, if small, family and numerous good friends from each phase of my life. And all I know from these experiences is that there is no way through it but through it. After a period of time--around two years for the big stuff--I wake up one day and everything doesn't feel upside down and unfamiliar. When I finally get to that day, I have a sense of pride in myself for being brave enough to keep putting one foot in front of the other, even if I didn't know what was down the road.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Rest


Today I started shopping for a new bed. I haven't actually gone to the store yet, because I am afraid I'll buy the first comfortable one I lie down on that doesn't cost seven thousand dollars. (In the course of my preliminary research, I've determined there are beds that really cost that much. I am not even going to go and lie on one, for fear I will not be able to live without it and will then not be able to sleep at night worrying about how much money I've spent on a bed.)

I am looking online and reading consumer reviews and getting an understanding of what to look for so I don't just try to get it over with quickly and then spend the next ten years living with a hasty decision.

Speed is the driving force in most of our lives. On his "slowness" blog--see sidebar--and his 2004 book, In Praise of Slowness, Carl Honore talks of speed as an addiction. His quibble isn't with speed itself--he enjoys high speed internet and the chance to fly across continents in a matter of hours as much as the next guy--but that our society glorifies it in all forms.

For most people who know me, the fact that I've even read this book is probably pretty funny. I walk, talk, think, and yes, drive fast. I absolutely hate wasting time, and am always wondering what's next. Yet I am aware that this part of my personality could easily send me to the cardiac unit if I am not careful. So I try, as much as I can, to build some quiet, slow moments into my life when I can. I schedule downtime for reading, for writing, for exercise, outside if possible. And I try to get enough sleep.

But gearing down isn't easy. Like most people, I am always connected to the office through technology. On top of that, I work for a huge professional services organization with offices all over the world. My Blackberry goes off at all hours of the day and night. So when I wander out into the kitchen at 3 am (a sadly common event) and I pick up the Blackberry, I am getting messages from colleagues finishing up their days in Tokyo and Sydney and others getting into their mornings in London and Munich. And then getting back to sleep is pretty much impossible.

So I am revisiting the slowness idea. It's akin to food: as a society, we are constantly busy but rarely fulfilled; we are overweight but undernourished. I work hard to organize my pantry so I can cook myself healthy meals most days, but the resting side of things seems to have gotten away on me, and I am resolved to find a way to not just sleeping, but really resting, so I can be more productive when I am up and running. So now I am going to publish this post, turn off my Blackberry, and take a few deep breaths. And then I'm going to sleep.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Aging Well

Three years ago, I felt ready for the AARP, even though I was only 39. I was in the middle of the end of a sixteen year marriage, and had two children I was terribly worried I was about to ruin. But one day near the end of the school year--we had transferred in that September--I noticed a sweet little house for rent across the street from what had now become my children's beloved house of learning.

It's a neighborhood established around the time of the Great Depression. The school's older parts were built by WPA programs, and, thankfully, there are still plenty of Craftsman-style touches, including ceramic fireplaces and a real icebox. My little house is 1200 square feet, big by many urban standards but a postage stamp by those of Texas. Still, its graceful lines called to me, and I got a couple of trusted friends to accompany me when I went to see it.

Both exclaimed, "oh, it's so pretty!" when we walked in, but it had been inhabited by students for a number of years and needed cleaning. A lot, as it turned out, but it's become a lovely spot of refuge, though the location straight across the street from the school has been a mixed blessing. I do enjoy the house and love the community, though, and have been happier here than any place I've ever lived.

One of the the greatest gifts in this community is my neighbor, Judy. When I moved in, I felt beaten down and thought my life might be over, or at least the good part. But Judy, who had raised four children, mostly on her own, showed me wonderful friendship and, as it turned out, reminded me of joy in our common interests: our kids, of course; but also, books, books, books; and food. Judy is not just a great parent (her children and their spouses are all exceptional people and raising wonderful children of their own) but an accomplished author who has found ways to weave what she loves into her reading. Her expertise--oh yes, along her journey she had the intellectual firepower and the will to earn a Ph.D--is Western Literature, and she has been for a number of years the publisher of a wonderful academic house, TCU Press, and has authored many books.

She is also an accomplished cook and a cookbook author, the latest of which is called Cooking My Way Through Life with Kids and Books. She is also a devoted blogger (see Judy's Stew on my sidebar) and has been very encouraging of my own efforts.

Did I mention Judy has crossed into her seventh decade? Given my sense of feeling ancient no less than three years ago---and yet now I feel younger than I did a decade ago--I have spent some time thinking about what it means to age well. She and others, like my parents, have given me a good example. I read quite a bit about this sort of thing, and will share more as time goes on, but when I see people who enjoy their lives into their eighth and sometimes ninth decades, it boils down to a few things.

First, stay curious. The people I admire and are often friends keep reading, talking, and, above all, are open to learning new things. Second, seek out as many thought-provoking people in your life as possible. The "older" people I know (although I've met "old" people who are twenty and "young" people who are eighty) have friends of all ages and types, and make sure to get out and spend time with them. Finally, take care of yourself, but don't be so uptight about it that you don't enjoy life. Walk, stretch, eat well and with people you love as often as possible. Have a glass of wine. Watch movies that make you laugh, cry, and think. Take naps without guilt, on the best sheets you can afford.

Judy and I enjoy good meals together on occasion (I always seem to find a way to get invited to her house, and should return the favor more often) and she and her family have generously welcomed me into their circle. She has many, many friends, and is a new convert to yoga. She writes every day, and we trade books all the time, although she outpaces me. Oh, and did I mention she still works full-time and is only gearing down now? Check out her blog. You'll learn how to cook, and more than a little about parenting well. The best part is that you'll meet a really, really interesting person. Which is your first step to aging well.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Alice Waters

I adore good food. There are a few restaurants I love (that's another post altogether) but most of the time I find myself considering what exactly it is I am eating. Like many, I think about how many calories might be in a meal, but more often these days I just wonder about the origins of the ingredients. And, as I become a more experienced cook, it occurs to me I could prepare something better at home for a lot less money.

Years ago, my mom took me to pick strawberries, something that was a novelty for me but that she'd spent many childhood hours working at. As a family, we went to an orchard to pick the most delicious apples (McIntosh) I have ever eaten. We kept the extras in the fridge in the basement and I remember coming home from school and their sweet, crisp smell and taste.

Although Dad was raised in town, Mom lived on a farm during her formative years. When I was a child, her stories were of hard work, but now I see she's taken away the gift of understanding of the superior taste of truly fresh food. Even now she will go to a particular country stand to get fresh corn, because she knows the owners and is certain they've picked that morning the corn they are selling. And when she and Dad winter in South Texas, she knows exactly which stinky shrimp stand will have the best prawns. Mom is, in modern terms, a locavore.

By far the most famous locavore is Alice Waters. I first read about her in Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, where Pollan characterizes Waters as much as a social force as she is a chef. And she is indeed evangelical about eating locally and seasonally. As earth-shattering as Pollan's book was for me, though, it's a bit of a downer if you aren't already really passionate about the subject of food. To really get a fun introduction to Waters and the movement she is a part of and for which she is arguably the prime mover, check out Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution.", by Thomas McNamee.

Chez Panisse is in Berkeley, California, opened in 1973. I visited that strange and unique town about a decade ago, long before I'd ever heard of Waters or her restaurant, and I have a vague recollection of my much more sophisticated hosts pointing it out, but I had no idea what they were talking about until a few years ago. In hindsight I kick myself.

Through exhaustive interviews with people who've been involved with the restaurant over the years, McNamee captures not just the beginnings of a social movement but all the craziness--during the first three years of Chez Panisse's operations, nearly $30,000 worth of wine went unaccounted for, and the torrid affairs amongst various employees makes for some salacious reading--of the restarant world.

McNamee interviewed exhaustively for the book, and his research reveals the founder as a diminutive woman with an iron will. Waters is a visionary, and, by all accounts, a piece of work. But almost everyone interviewed expressed admiration and a deep friendship with her, and she has changed the way many eat, at least "foodies" a term she has said she finds horriblye elitist. She is, true to her Berkeley roots, unapologetically egalitarian, and has worked tirelessly in recent years to popularize local farmer's markets as a way for everyone to eat well. Though painfully aware most Americans still eat plastic food every day, Waters remains determined, as she put it in a speech in 2004, to: "break down the wall of ignorance between farmers and eaters." Reading about her reminded me of some things I knew already, and also of how much I have to learn about good food.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Chasing Happiness


Happiness is most often defined as something we pursue, like a dog chasing a car. In a recent post on the NY Times blog Happy Days, the author Pico Iver writes, "If you are the kind of person who prefers freedom to security, who feels more comfortable in a small room than a large one and who finds that happiness comes from matching your wants to your needs, then running to stand still isn't where your joy lies."

I'm fascinated by people who mark their own path through the world, though I often wonder if it leads them to the elusive thing called happiness. In this post and future ones, I'll share some places I've come across interesting approaches to that pursuit. Like me, you probably won't feel an urge to run off and live a monastic life like Iver's--he doesn't have a car, television, bicycle, cell phone or computer, and lives in a two-room apartment in Kyoto, Japan--but you might see the patterns in your own days in a more objective light, and discover a sense of satisfaction in using your own time in more satisfying ways. Iver's post and others can be found under my Favorite Blogs sidebar under Happy Days.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Books Kids Love

Because books have played such a large role in my life, I've tried, like most parents, to instill in my children a love of the printed word. Although I've tried to limit television, video games (I still limit them to non-violent variety) I try to walk the line between keeping them from participating in the broader cultural conversation---even if it is about Joe Jonas and Taylor Swift--and having them become vapid Gossip Girl types. So there is a good bit of reading that's gone on, and over the years we've established some favorites.

First are Eric Carle's wonderful stories, best read in board books. Even ten years later, I can recite the narrative of the The Very Hungry Caterpillar word for word. It's one of the few that gets better rather than more tedious with repetition.

For those in the five to eight year-old set, my son suggested My Little Sister Ate One Hare, by Bill Grossman. It, too, has repetition, but with some off-kilter humor that generates belly laughs. And an ending that they will find hysterical.

Around the same age, try George and Martha, The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends. These are clever and charming stories, written nearly forty years ago, but with wisdom for parents and grandparents as well. There are some things we all need to be reminded of. Our favorite quote: "But Martha did not say 'I told you so.' Because that's not what friends are for." There are other quotes from some of the funnier stories that have become inside jokes in our family.

Finally, for those who have burned through all of Harry Potter, we like The Mysterious Benedict Society and its sequel novels. Trenton Lee Stewart is a graduate of the esteemed Iowa Writers' Workshop, and he combines a healthy skepticism of authority with some memorable characters with remarkable abilities in a story of children as spooks. None of it is predictable or stereotypical.

All can be purchase online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.com

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Travel

Travel is an essential element of a rewarding life. When I was seventeen, I went to Paris on a school trip, and it changed me forever. Because it was the dark ages, the entire French class travelled with only two chaperones--the French teacher and his delightful wife. Although we had many planned events, we were allowed to wander the city at various times during the day, and I, only child that I am, did so early in the mornings and found all sorts of lovely things.

The group of us was from a very small rural community in Eastern Ontario in Canada, so needless to say I was transfixed by absolutely everything. I was incredibly intimidated by the chic women, and loved watching the beautifully dressed children playing in the Tulleries. I watched thin young people in black turtlenecks walking purposefully towards the Sorbonne, arguing with one another along the way. I had no idea anyone lived like this.

One of my favorite blogs is the Sartorialist, a link to which you can find on the right sidebar. A wonderful photographer takes pictures of people who dress with deeply personal style (yet are not fashion models, at least not often) and live in New York, Paris, Milan and Sydney. Not as delicious as watching people from the window of a SoHo bistro, but fun when you are stuck in the flyover.

Other sources I enjoy are more practical. From the blog the Frugal Traveller on the NY Times website, I found www.dealbase.com, which is great for finding deals in the United States, and the blogger at The Art of Non-Conformity (see sidebar also) has made it a goal to travel the world--not just the first world, but all of it--before he is thirty, and has some great ideas about doing it on the cheap.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Re-Reading Is Remembering Who You Were


I've had a few books with me for a long time. Like twenty years. It was suggested to me once that keeping books around for a long time was a form of intellectual vanity. I'm certainly not a pack rat, so that is a reasonable charge. But even though I clean out my bookshelf every six months or so, there are a few books I can't imagine giving up, even though I bought them at second-hand stores a couple of decades ago and they are dog-eared from my own use and from that of the clearly foolish person who chose to give them up.

I don't keep these five or so to impress anyone. It's just that I need to re-read them every two or three years, not because I've forgotten how the story ends, but because my own reaction to them--different from before, sometimes subtly, sometimes markedly--gives me a sense of how I've grown. More importantly, it helps me remember the person I was long ago. When I bought my cherished copy of Democracy, by Joan Didion, I was in a musty bookshop in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on a hot and sleepy afternoon. The clerk was listening to the local NPR affiliate. I was with a boy I'd met in Brindisi, Italy. I had just married him, rather impetuously, and was navigating my way through a visit with my new mother-in-law. In retrospect, I am not sure if it was young love or the power of Didion's language that allowed me to get through that trip. But I still love the book.

Last week my friend Cathy sent me a link to an opinion piece about the joys of re-reading. I was rather sheepish about the fact that tears sprung to my eyes when I read it, but when I sent her a note of thanks, she confessed to rather welling up herself. That, and that she thought to send it, is one of the reasons our friendship has endured for more than a decade. The author's reading list is miles more impressive than mine, but the sentiments are the same.

Click below to see if you are reader at heart:

Thoughts on Re-Reading