Friday, December 30, 2011

The Best Monsters of 2011

Okay, it's a little self-indulgent, and kind of like when your favorite sit-com cheats you out of a new episode by making one that's a big, cheesy compliation of old episodes, but I couldn't resist putting together a list of my favorite posts from 2011. I'm also including some photos, because you guys seem to like those.

Favorite travel posts: Unplugged; Ten Things I Learned in Haiti

Mural,Dublin, Ireland

Favorite post about spending money: The Grocery Envelope

Favorite post about getting rid of monsters in the closets: Gretchen Rubin and the Ten Minute Tidy Up

Best work-related post: Arguing with Crazy People

Cedar Key, Florida

The post where I patted myself on the back: Accomplishment

Best (only?) exercise-related post: Running like a Penguin

The little prince
Most popular post that I almost didn't publish: Thoughts on Church

Most popular photos: A Very Clutterella Halloween

My favorite post that almost no one read: Doing Things that Make Me Nervous

High Springs, Florida

Best cooking post: My New Favorite Cookbook

My favorite "best of" post on someone else's blog: The Amateur Gourmet- 2011 Highlights

Impromptu pasta dish
So long for this year, KISS (keep it simple stupid), lets make 2012 the best year ever! You know, since the world will be ending in December and all...

Gratuitous cute kid/kitty photo

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


What I don't understand is how, after five days of intense holiday cooking, the inside of my refrigerator still looks like this. The only possible explanation is that some ninjas came by in the middle of the night and added food while we were sleeping.

I have given myself a personal challenge to eat or give away as much of this food as possible before it goes bad.

The problem with leftovers is that you get sick of eating the same things over and over. What I am trying to do is use the ingredients but change the flavors to make them seem like something new. We had a big roast beef for Christmas dinner, with green beans on the side. Tonight I made those ingredients as a beef stir fry with Mollie Katzen's dramatically seared green beans and whole wheat noodles. I bought my parents the tiniest (and saltiest) ham ever to make on Christmas Day while I was at work, but the three of us managed to eat only about half. The rest might go into a big pot of black eyed peas for New Year's Day.

Luckily, I work in a department that's infested with locusts- anything you leave on the break room table is eaten within hours. I took some of the Christmas Eve leftovers to work with me on Christmas Day, so the thigh-enlarging treats are mostly taken care of. A half bag of pretzels and some dill dip are coming to work with me tomorrow.

I'm also making use of my freezer- three servings of beef stew are plenty for one week, but the rest will be great on cold January and February nights. My parents brought me some excellent pecans, and the leftovers will go in there for future baking.

Now I just need a suggestion for what to do with a quart or so of unsweetened soy milk. I don't want to drink it, but maybe there is some sort of household purpose for it?

The cool part of hosting Christmas is that EVERYONE who comes over brings wine. I have 9 bottles on the wine rack and in the fridge, plus some champagne. I also have a bunch of Sam Adams Winter Ale and a few Yeunglings, so Happy New Year to me! I won't need to buy wine for at least two weeks.

We had a really great Christmas here. My mom spoiled the pets as usual (I'm pretty sure this is an indication of what will happen with my future children).

Oscar really loved his new squeaky toys:

The cats got some new toys with feathers on them, which they really loved. But they both seemed to love the wrapping paper best of all. Isabelle helped me wrap:

And Leo stalked my parents' feet under the boxes:

So long for now, KISS (keep it simple stupid), and please, tell me what to do with the soy milk!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

My Favorite Free Stuff

Are you a little holiday overstretched this month? I'm okay right now, but on Wednesday I'm making the official "visitors coming to stay, big holiday meals to prepare" grocery trip, that's going to be rough on my bank account.

I'm also getting ready for my Dave Ramsey style year of the gazelle, which will mean trimming my budget down as much as possible so that I can pay off my second mortgage, save a real emergency fund, and pay cash for some much needed home improvements.

With that in mind, I give you a list of my favorite things that don't cost a dime.

The Public Library: I used to buy a lot of books. When I started decluttering the house, I found out that I bought a lot of books that I only read once. Sometimes I traded them back and forth with my parents, but for the most part I bought a book, read it over three or four days, set it on the shelf, and eventually got rid of it. And repeat. Now I get most of my books from the library. It saves me some cash and prevents some of the clutter. I occasionally purchase a book if I really want to read it and the library doesn't have it, but honestly there are enough titles there to keep me entertained for a lifetime or three.

Pandora: Beth gets the credit for introducing me to this service. You create a station based on an artist or genre that you like, and it tailors the music to your preferences. You get a certain number of hours of free music each month (I'm not sure what the number is but I have never exceeded it). What I love is that it helps me discover new artists and lets me explore music from folks I am already familiar with. You have to listen to a few commercials if you don't pay for a subscription, but they aren't excessive. And anyway, maybe the nice Pandora folks are trying to hint that I need some laser hair removal.

Hulu: I gave up my television this year, and is helping me keep up with The Office and Modern Family FOR FREE on my laptop. Like Pandora, you get some extra services if you subscribe, but if you are a big cheapskate like me the basic, free service is plenty.

Running: Okay, technically you have to buy some sneakers, but it's free after that. I told you a little bit about my foray into the world of running Penguin-style back in August. I have kept it up, running about 2-3 times a week since then (mostly). I ran my first 5K in October and my second a few weeks ago. What I love about running is that I don't have to have a membership, I don't have to drive anywhere, and I don't have to follow anyone else's schedule. I did pay something to run the 5Ks, but really you could just go run on your own and never pay a dime. If you need some help getting started, here's a free training plan for beginning runners. And if you need a little motivation, here is a blog post from a chick who just finished her first marathon, and also quit her job to travel around the world. I can't claim accomplishments of this magnitude, but my pants fit better.

Walking the dog: Also a technicality here-the dog itself isn't free.  But the walking of the dog is like free therapy and a free personal trainer all wrapped up in a furry little package. I have said it before, and I will say it again: taking a long walk can cure boredom, writer's block, unsolvable problems, and vitamin D deficiency. And a dog is unlike a treadmill, in that he is too wiggly to hang clothes on and has to be walked or he will poop on your floor. If that isn't motivation, I don't know what is.

Can you guys out there in the peanut gallery recommend any other free services that you love? Because, seriously, this gazelle thing is going to be tough.

So long for now, KISS (keep it simple stupid), and try some free things now and then. Your overindulgent holiday wallet will thank you.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

My New Favorite Cookbook

I'm really enjoying my weekly CSA bag, and I got an early Christmas present that's helping me use all of the delicious vegetables: my aunt bought me a copy of Marc Bittman's Kitchen Express. In my opinion, it is an essential companion to a weekly bag of seasonal produce.

I have already tried (and loved) these recipes:
Arugula and Proscuitto Pasta with Goat Cheese
Salmon and Sweet Potato with Coconut Curry Sauce (I added eggplant)
Quick Lemon Upside-Down Cheesecake (yum!)

And these are some recipes I can't wait to try:
Lemony Red Lentil Soup with Cilantro
Pasta Gratinee with Cabbage
Flatbread Pizza with Figs, Goat Cheese, and Balsamic
Figs in a Blanket
Aztec Hot Chocolate
Quick Cassoulet

I already know and love Marc Bittman from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, which is the cookbook I had been using most often until now. Bittman has a penchant for fresh ingredients and simple flavors that I love. He also makes his recipes super flexible, and generally includes a list of variations for each dish. I always picture him standing in my kitchen, kindly saying, "Don't run back to the store because you forgot the shallots, just mince an onion instead!"

I told you about my love of all things Bittman in an earlier post, and included a link to this list of 101 easy recipies. Kitchen Express is written in a similar format. It includes 404 dishes that can be made in 20 minutes or less (for real). It's organized by season, so the vegetables you're likely to get in the fall are usually in the fall section. I live in Florida, so I'm still in "fall," but I will probably get to winter sometime next month.

I have to admit that I haven't been completely successful in using the entire bag before it goes bad. I tossed a bunch of turnips two weeks in a row because they got mushy before I decided what to do with them. I also found that I don't really like radishes, and almost didn't pick any up this week, but the lady at the stand told me to try sauteing them with butter and garlic instead of eating them raw. So I'll let you know how that goes.

So long for now, KISS (keep it simple stupid), and please send me some suggestions for what to do with turnips!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Ten Things I Learned in Haiti (and some photos)

My favorite Haiti photo- looking out toward Fort Gary (at the top of the tall mountain)
1. Sometimes the poorest people are the most generous.

2. You can diagnose and treat patients without labs or radiology, but you have to use your hands, your brain, and your ears to do it.

3. There is a whole community of incredible people who give up their lives in America to live in some of the poorest parts of the world, simply because their faith has called them to do so.

4. Haiti is the ugliest and most beautiful place I have ever seen.

5. You should let a girl push the giant cart of untaxed medications through airport security, because the guy who looks like he might have some money is sure to get stopped.

6. Ten people can share an 800 square foot living space, and they will either become very close or ready to kill each other. Or probably both.

7. If the goat keeps you awake all night, he tastes extra delicious when you have him for lunch the next day.

8. Roosters don't just crow at dawn.

9. By the end of the trip I was ready to eat the rooster too.

10. If you go to Haiti, the greatest danger is that you will fall in love and want to come back again and again.

Wade, George, and Scott ready to hit the road

A Port au Prince drive through
Sunrise in Sankeyum
Our waiting area at 6am
Setting up for surgery on the dining room table

There are lots more photos posted on my Flickr account if you want to take a look.

So long for now, KISS (keep it simple stupid), and try stepping out of your comfort zone now and then- you'll be amazed at what can happen!


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Gretchen Rubin and the Ten Minute Tidy Up

Tomas Carrillo- Flickr
My desk does not look like this
Have you checked out The Happiness Project yet? A few years ago, Gretchen Rubin decided to spend a year working on being happier. The book that resulted is a very worthwhile read and a New York Times best seller. The blog of the same name offers tons of tips for leading a happier, less stressed, more fulfilling life.

One of the recurrent themes in The Happiness Project (book and blog) is "outer order contributes to inner calm." If you look around the blog, there are tons of posts about getting neat and organized. This one is my favorite- it gives some great ideas for getting rid of clutter in small steps. It goes right along with my belief that doing one little thing is much less intimidating than trying to take on a huge project. And look, Gretchen and I agree that making your bed is totally worth the effort!

A suggestion presented often on The Happiness Project is to observe a five minute "evening tidy up" before going to bed each night. You push the chairs under the table, pick things up off the floor, stack up books, etc. It's supposed to create a soothing bedtime ritual and make your mornings a little better.

I don't practice the evening tidy up per se, but I do like to make sure that the kitchen is clean- dishes in dishwasher, counter tops clean, trash taken out- just before I go to bed. On the occasions that I skip it and leave a pan soaking in the sink overnight, its just a big bummer to have to deal with in the morning.

What I have been doing is a ten minute tidy up in the mornings when I'm off. The problem with having some weekdays off is that I'm at home when everyone else is at work. It's great to get errands done when things are less crowded, but sometimes I get myself in trouble with so much unstructured time. Given the choice between going out to pick up the dry cleaning and staying in my pj's to watch Office reruns on my laptop...well, let's just say that the dry cleaning hangs out at the store a little longer than it should.

When I find myself feeling overwhelmed with the chores that need to get done, I am making myself do a ten-minute tidy up. Five minutes is just enough time to get started, but I can accomplish a lot in ten minutes. I set the timer on my phone and work until it goes off. It seems like once I get though the ten minutes and feel like I have accomplished something (like locating my dining room table under the junk mail), I'm more motivated to get my day started.

I also agree with Gretchen's statement that tidy areas tend to stay tidy, and messy areas tend to get messier.  I notice that when I make my bed regularly, my whole bedroom stays neater, but when I slack off things tend to collect on the dressers and floor. I'm hoping that the ten minute tidy up will help my problem areas (dining room table, extra bedroom) get cleaner and stay cleaner.

Do you have any quick clean up rituals that keep your house (and you) from falling apart?

So long for now, KISS (keep it simple stupid), and try a little tidy up- see if you like it too.

Cooking from the CSA Bag

Swallowtail Farm, Alachua, Florida
Okay, first of all I have to give some props to my friend Beth. You remember Beth, right? About 30% of the things I'm doing to live better come from Beth to start with, only she doesn't have a blog, so you don't hear it from her. I am especially inspired by her quest to eat fresher, cleaner, locally grown produce and meats.

Several months ago Beth mentioned that she was splitting a CSA (community supported agriculture) share with some friends. I hadn't really heard about CSA before, but apparently they're everywhere. What happens is that you pay a certain amount up front to the farm, and then every week you get a big bag of in season produce. You get to support a small scale farm and eat veggies that were in the ground a few days ago. Win-win!

I saw an add for the Swallowtail Farm CSA at the our new co-op. I found someone to share with (thanks Joanna!), signed up, and picked up my first bag of veggies, herbs, and flowers on Sunday! I got arugula, sweet potato greens, radishes, a tiny eggplant, some jalapenos, and a gigantic sweet potato. I also got some basil, Greek oregano, a sprig of rosemary, and a small bunch of flowers. I bought an organic tomato and some garlic at the store, and a dozen local, free range eggs from a vendor.

Sunday I made a salad with the arugula, sliced radishes, half of the tomato and a carrot. I mixed up some of Alton Brown's delicious honey mustard to dress the salad (just honey, Dijon mustard, and rice vinegar).

Last night I wanted something simple after a long work day, so I made some whole wheat pasta, sauteed the rest of the tomato in a little olive oil, and mixed it with the pasta, some Italian seasoned salt, and chopped fresh basil.

Sweet potato greens (which I had not tried before)are similar to collard greens in texture, but with a sweeter, more delicate flavor. I am following Marc Bittman's recipe- I steamed them for ten minutes, shocked them, and tonight I plan to saute them in butter and serve them with a chopped hard boiled egg on top.  I might also try to cook the eggplant with the garlic and oregano.

I tried to eat the rest of the radishes with some butter and sea salt,as suggested on but I just really don't like them. Also, as a cautionary tale, they dry out pretty quickly if you stick them loose in the fridge.

Friday I'm leaving for Haiti. I think the sweet potato will be fine in the fridge until I come back. I would normally use the jalapenos in some beans and rice, but I think that we are eating beans and rice pretty much every day in Haiti, so that's probably not a good idea. Anyone have any suggestions for the jalapenos?

I am hoping that the CSA bag will help me eat more vegetables and also encourage me to try new things (like sweet potato greens). Has anyone else done a CSA share before? What was your favorite part?

So long for now, KISS (keep it simple stupid), and if someone offers you some sweet potato greens, say yes!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

COW: World Bicycle Relief

Today, Robin Politowicz is doing the Florida Ironman in Panama Beach. An Ironman is a pretty impressive undertaking on its own, but what's even better is that she's doing it to raise money and awareness for an awesome organization (and this week's COW): World Bicycle Relief. Robin's fundraising page is here.

World Bicycle Relief is providing aid to Africa by giving bicycles to students, health care workers, and other individuals who need to travel long distances with heavy loads.

I did some checking on this organization, and I was really impressed with what I found. The bicycles are specially constructed to withstand use over rough terrain. Individuals receiving bicycles get some training in basic bike maintenance and a small repair kit and pump. Even the most rugged bicycles need occasional maintenance, so World Bicycle Relief trains one local mechanic for every 90 bikes distributed. This creates an opportunity for a small business.  The bikes are distributed to local leaders, who give out bikes in the community based on need. Seventy percent of the bicycles are given to girls so that they can travel to school quickly and safely.

This program meets my two criteria for an excellent aid organization: the program is designed to be sustainable (well built bikes, local mechanics) and solicits input from local people (in distribution of the bikes).

In 2010, World Bicycle Relief ranked 12th on Barron's List of Effective Charities. This NY Times article explains the impact a bicycle can have on a person's life in Africa.  This article discusses the construction of the bikes and the importance of durability.

I love my bike: it's an alternative source of transportation and a leisure and fitness item. In Africa, a bike can mean getting to school on time, getting health care workers to hard to reach places, and getting goods to places where they could not be carried on foot.

If you are as impressed and inspired by this organization and I am, please consider supporting Robin with a donation. She is probably in the middle of a 112 mile bike ride right now!

So long for now, KISS (keep it simple stupid), and thanks to Robin for raising awareness of this great organization!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Halloween Costume Recap

Halloween only comes once a year, so please indulge me for one more post, and then we can move on to something else! I was feeling a little self-centered posting a bunch of photos of myself the other day, so I thought I would give you a recap of some of my favorite costumes from this year:

Susie, Kirsten, Carissa, and Beth: The World 'O Hurt Roller Derby Girls with Ref Steve. Susie gets extra credit for owning this photo.

Richie uses Halloween as an excuse to wear a dress and rock some high heels. He usually has enormous breasts, but this year they didn't fit into the costume. He has a lion, scarecrow straw in his hair, and some oil for the Tin Man.

I am very sad to admit that this Snooki might be better than mine. Also she has Pauly D as an accessory

That dude was wearing blue body paint and a loincloth. A+ for commitment. I intended to get a full shot of him but he started talking about my porcelain features and I got a little distracted.

Our host Michael as The Joker and Louis as Batman

Zoe and Aaron as Holmes and Watson. I love the couples costumes! I hope they don't mind that I stole this off of Facebook.

Shu-Ping as Karl Lagerfield. Also stolen from Facebook

This one gets the award for best family costume: Scott wanted to be He-Man, so Sarah played along and dressed as the Sorceress of the Castle Greyscull

Thanks for sticking around! So long for now, KISS (keep it simple stupid), and get ready because Christmas season is starting today!

PS: If I "borrowed" your image from Facebook and you want me to take it down, let me know.

That's What Friends Are For!

Here's what I found while looking through some photos from previous Halloweens:

Melissa and Beth, 2008

(Missed the 2009 party- stupid work weekends!)

Melissa and Beth 2010

Melissa and Beth 2011

I'm pretty sure there's a 2007 photo somewhere too, but it might be an actual snapshot. Beth, if you have it send it my way!

I LOVE HALLOWEEN! A big thanks to Michael, our annual Giant Halloween Extravaganza Host.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Very Clutterella Halloween

Chelsea Market, New York City

I post very few "tips" on this blog, mainly because I'm not that crafty or creative, but I am making an exception for one of my favorite days of the year: Halloween!

This post is about using things you already have (with a few small purchases) to make a great Halloween costume. No matter how much I swear I'll begin planning early, I always find myself two days away from a Halloween party with no idea what I'm going to wear. I love dressing up, I love easy costumes, and I dread the world's worst Halloween question: "What are you supposed to be?" Here are some of my recent costumes:

That's right: It's ILLEGAL to look this good!

This year I'm dressing as a Greek goddess. I cheated a little bit, because I went to a party a few years ago where I wore a toga, and I recycled the fabric. Last time I wore a full length toga, but it was really hot and hard to walk in (nice to have some toga life lessons under my belt). This year I cut the fabric down and went with a short toga. Since I already had the fabric, all I needed to buy was some wide gold ribbon for a belt, and some narrow, braided ribbon to make my headband. I also bought some dark purple eye shadow for a smoky eye and a little body glitter (not at all authentic but fun for Halloween). I wore all of the "gold" costume jewelry I own and my Sofft gladiator sandals. I realize that gladiators were Roman and I'm claiming to be Greek, but I don't think anyone will call me out on it. I spent about $15 total.

For me, Halloween is an excuse to wear things I would never dare to wear otherwise- miniskirts, cinched up boobs, and orange tan, anyone?

Last year I dressed as Snooki from Jersey Shore. This costume required buying a few more things, and I probably spent as much as I would have for a packaged costume, but no one else at the parties had on the same outfit. I already had the white mini skirt and push up bra. I bought the top and earrings at WalMart, the shoes at Target, a bump-it, and a big bottle of Sally Hansen Airbrush legs in dark. I was afraid to use actual self tanner, because I didn't want to be orange for a week, so the Airbrush legs spray was a great solution- I got the perfect dark orange tan, and it washed right off. The shoes are really cute and I still wear them sometimes, if I'm not planning to do much walking. I think you often sacrifice comfort when you buy a discount shoe.

Two years ago I spent around $65 on a 1960's style Star Trek dress, which I planned to wear with my tall black boots, black liquid eyeliner, and a sleek ponytail. Unfortunately, the dress looked terrible and I refused to wear it. Nor could I return it- that will be the last time I purchase a packaged costume. They cost a lot and look really cheap.

I needed a last minute costume, so I searched through my closet and came up with this Geisha outfit. I had the short, kimono-style robe and patent strappy sandals already. I added a wide red sash as an OBI.  I applied lipstick to the center of my mouth, lined my eyes in black, pulled my hair into a tight bun and added one of those little curly hairpieces. I did not put chopsticks in my hair. The look was much sexier than that unflattering polyester dress.

I later found out that the fold of my robe is backwards and indicates that I am dead. Oops.

On an interesting side note, my Geisha costume is not okay with the We're a Culture Not a Costume folks. I completely agree that it is not okay to dress as an Arabian person with a bomb strapped to you (I also object to pregnant nun, but that's a story for another day). I just really wonder where the line it. Is dressing in lederhosen okay? If so, how is that different than dressing as a Geisha? I intended no judgement with my costume, I just thought it was a fun and sexy look that I wanted to imitate. Was I representing Italian American culture in a negative way by dressing as Snooki last year? Or is that okay because she is already representing her culture in a certain way? I truly don't want to offend anyone, but I just wonder where the line really is. Discuss?

Random Halloween Memory: I attended a party where Riff Raff and Dr. Frankfurter made daiquiris with 151. This is the last photo I managed to take before losing the ability to operate my camera,

So long for now, KISS (keep it simple stupid), and if you are in a last minute Halloween panic, check your closet for some great costume components. Just no bomb-carrying Arabs or pregnant nuns, OK?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

COW: What If? foundation

Alejandro Groenwold- Flickr

Earlier this week I told you about my new Charity of the Week (COW) plan- where I tell you about a great organization that I'm supporting with a small donation. If you feel inspired to contribute too, I will give you a link to make a donation. If not, wait until you see one that really speaks to you. Or, send me a suggestion!

This week's COW is the What If? foundation.

In preparaton for my Haiti trip (I'm leaving in two weeks!)  I read a really wonderful and inspiring book called On That Day Everybody Ate by Margaret Trost. Mrs. Trost traveled to Port-au-Prince in 1999 on a mission trip. She met a Catholic priest named Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste, who shared his vision of a program to provide nutritious meals for the children of the Tiplas Kazo neighborhood. Mrs. Trost was both deeply disturbed by the extreme poverty she encountered, and deeply inspired by the hopefulness of Fr. Gerry.

Many Christians would return from a trip like that with committment to donate more to help world poverty or to waste less food at home or to pray more intensely for those who lacked basic necessities. Instead, Mrs. Trost decided to help Fr. Gerry's dream become a reality and started collecting money to fund a food program. She eventually started an organization called the What If? foundation.

The organization has grown over the past 11 years from a once a week lunch program feeding 200-500 children to a five day per week program feeding around 800 children and 200 adults. There is also a scholarship program to assist with school tuition, a summer camp, and an after school program.

When I read the book, I was really excited to see that the programs were organized and run mainly by the Haitian people. Initially Mrs. Trost provided the funding and the rest was up to Fr. Gerry and some members of his congregation. Food for the meals is purchased from local farmers and the organizaton began a Hatian Rice initiative in 2010 (Most of the rice consumed in Haiti is imported from the US because subsidies make it cheaper than Hatian grown rice. This eventually put many Hatian rice producers out of business). Through these practices, the programs help the entire community, not just those who come for meals or attend the after school program.

I could keep writing about the incredible impact of this organization, but instead I will refer you to the photo gallery on the foundation's website. I dare you to look at the photos and not find a few dollars to support this cause.

So long for now, KISS (keep it simple stupid), and let me know what you think about my very first COW!

Sunday, October 23, 2011


I'm still thinking a lot about my too many choices post from a few weeks ago. I have the desire to make a difference, I have a little income that can be spared, but I want to make sure that I'm giving in a meaningful way.

When I'm really thinking about something, it seems like God sends me the answer if I pay attention.  First, my Twitter feed featured an article about the fundraising efforts of Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts candidate for the U.S. Senate. The article stated that she raised over $3 million for her campaign against incumbent Scott Brown, with 96% of donations less than $100. The story was an inspiring reminder of the power of lots of people doing a little.

A few days later, I found a new blog called Giving2.0 that encourages readers to give more meaningfully, rather than just giving more money. My only disclaimer about this site is that if you tend to get a little overwhelmed by choices, to the point that you do nothing rather than make a decision (like I occasionally do), be careful not to get too bogged down in research and "strategic giving." It is much better to do something than to do nothing.

Our sermon series in church this fall is "Love God, Love Others, Change the World."  Today, part of the message was this: if you make more than $30,000 per year, you are richer than 95% of the people in the world.

I started thinking some more about  this post on Giving2.0. The suggestions to identify causes that you feel passionate about, and to create networks of collaborative giving- recruiting your friends and family to support the same causes- really spoke to me.

So that's where you come in! Every week I am going to identify a Charity of the Week (COW), to which I will make a small donation. The organization may be local, national, or international, secular or religious. I will tell you a little about the organization and give you a link to its website. If the cause is something that you feel inspired to support, send a few dollars. If you feel that your donation money could be better spent somewhere else, wait for the next COW (or, even better, send me a suggestion).

I already have this week's COW all picked out. But you have to wait a few days to find out what it is!

By the way, this idea was partly inspired by the book Do One Nice Thing by Debbie Tenzer. This lady decided that she needed a pick-me-up to help her through Mondays. Instead of scheduling a weekly pedicure or a girls' night out, she planned to do something nice for someone else every Monday.  She started a website to help spread ideas about nice things that can be done. Eventually she wrote a book of suggestions for her fellow "niceaholics." It was such a great idea that I don't feel bad at all about stealing it and modifying it for my own purposes.

While you're waiting for the reveal of the first COW, I would love it if you leave a comment about ways in which you have been inspired to help others. The more I read about the giving and helping efforts of my friends, the more geared up I get.

So long for now, KISS (keep it simple stupid), and stay tuned for this week's COW!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Back to Basics

I love this image but it makes my brain hurt a little

I got rid of a lot more stuff this week.

I ended up with some unexpected free time. The plan was to visit my grandparents this past week, but I caught a cold (thanks to some co-workers who don't call in sick when they should) and I had to cancel my trip. I felt bad, but it would have been worse to give my 79 year-old Mamaw a respiratory infection that turned into pneumonia. Respiratory infections and the elderly do not mix- trust your friend the nurse on this!

I don't have any big projects going on right now, except that I'm supposed to be brushing up on my French before I go to Haiti next month. I'll bet you can guess how well that's going. The drive for linguistic excellence is lacking, but I did have some de-cluttering motivation. I really blame Josh Millburn of The Minimalists for this.  He posted some photos of his loft (shown below), along with a list of his possessions on his blog.

Here is what really hit home for me- Josh says he didn't have to straighten up before taking this photo. Can you imagine if your house always looked like this? Wow.

What I am finding is that having too much stuff makes it harder to clean the house. Storage containers pushed into the corners create a space suitable for dust bunnies and pet hair tumbleweeds. Too many books on the bookshelf make it harder to dust. Clothes all over the place have to be picked up before I can vacuum.

I am nowhere near owning 288 things, and I don't expect to get there anytime soon. What I am proud of this week is that I sorted through the four large trunks of childhood toys and books and condensed it down to three trunks. More importantly, I found a place to put them that is not the corner of my bedroom. I was able to easily vacuum behind that area for the first time in a long time.

Recently I have been making a clutter triage pile in the spare bedroom. This is where things go after I pick them up, realize they don't serve a useful purpose in the house, and decide to get rid of them. I took the contents of that pile to the thrift store on Wednesday, but there are already new things in it. For example, today I reached for a colander and realized that I have two. Why would I ever need two colanders? The dinky plastic one went into the pile and the nice blue enamel one stays and can double as a fruit bowl.

I started this blog and decluttering project 14 months ago. The purpose has evolved from a desire to have cleaner closets into an attempt to live a more simple, purposeful life. But when I look back at my first post, I still see the validity of my original desire to own only things I love, and to have a suitable place to put them.

I still have a long way to go. Most of my living area is clean and organized, but there are still a few monster-infested places in the house- especially the guest room. I always have to shift piles of stuff into my bedroom when I have guests. The "clutter triage" pile is really convenient, except that Isabelle the Curiosity Never Hurt Anyone Cat likes to knock everything onto the floor and lie on it. I have a huge desk in there, which I rarely never use for scholarly pursuits and which is always covered with things I hastily shifted off of the dining room table when someone was coming over.

Despite my messy guest room, I get a little closer every week. The combination of getting rid of lots of things and not buying that many new ones is simple math that will have to catch up with me one day.

So long for now, KISS (keep it simple stupid), and try having a clutter triage pile. Just don't forget to take it to the thrift store now and then.

PS: I know that talking about Steve Jobs is so in it's out right now, but check out this image tweeted by @zen_habits. "All you needed was a cup of tea, a light, and your stereo, and that's what I had." So maybe I don't really need and iPad like I thought I did...

Monday, October 3, 2011

Too Many Choices

Nora Kann Fliegen- Flikr

So here's what I am having a hard time with right now: which awesome causes deserve to get my money? Is it better to pick one or two and give them a lot, or spread small amounts all over the place? Do hungry kids in the horn of Africa need help more, or suffering dogs in puppy mills, or wounded war veterans?

When I worked for Nationwide Insurance, there was an option to give a designated amount of money to The United Way. Nationwide matched the donation, so you basically doubled your investment. It was a great way to give a relatively large amount of money painlessly. It was a no brainer for me- I contributed every year.

The VA has a similar option, with one BIG difference: there are literally hundreds of charities to pick from. I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, but for the past two years I have become paralyzed by the number of choices. The deadline passes each year without my selection, so no money gets donated.

I have a similar problem with mail solicitations. I think that St. Jude's Hospital is a great cause that deserves my money, but so is NPR, and the UF Alumni Association, and Heifer International, and a hundred others. I get a few requests each week and I just can't seem to pick who needs to money most. On top of that my amazing church is always trying to help some organization or another, and I volunteer at a clinic that serves homeless people and could always use a donation.

I read a pretty good book a few years ago that kind of explains this: The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. It's about how the huge number of options available to us can make it more difficult to make a decision. Schwartz writes about the concept of "optimizers:" people who want so badly to make the perfect decision that they get stuck, and don't make a decision at all. In general I think that I'm a decisive person, but when it comes to giving financial gifts I get a little overwhelmed. I have the same problem with home improvement projects, but that's a topic for another post.

This whole getting stuck doing things exactly right is not unique: Devon from Answering Oliver writes about almost not graduating high school because of "perfection paralysis." J.D. Roth writes that the perfect is the enemy of the good on Get Rich Slowly. Schwartz tells us that this indecisiveness is the natural consequence of a culture oversaturated with choices. But the bottom line is that if I don't make a choice, I'm not helping anyone.

I have made some inroads on this problem. I signed up to sponsor a child through Child Fund International. I am making automatic monthly donations to the Humane Society. And this year, when it comes time to pick a charity to donate to at the VA, I have already decided on a charity and an amount.

My point (and I do have one) is that if you don't make a decision, if you do nothing, you aren't helping anyone. So put perfection aside and make a choice already. Now that I have picked some charities to sponsor, I feel relieved that the decision is made, rather than worried that I made the wrong choice.

So long for now, KISS (keep it simple stupid), and make a decision- you'll be glad you did!

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Grocery Envelope

A big pot of peasant food: French style cabbage soup

I have a new favorite blog: Get Rich Slowly, about all things personal finance.

A few days ago, this post, about a rivalry between Anthony Bourdain and Paula Deen, really got me thinking. The short version is this- Bourdain criticized Deen for encouraging an already overweight America to eat fried food smothered in butter, cheese, and gravy. The counter-argument was that Bourdain is a food elitist, with no understanding about cooking for a family on a limited budget. Bourdain responded that many of the most beloved dishes in the world are peasant food- made and eaten by generations of hard working poor people.

April Dykman, who wrote the post, challenges the notion that cooking healthy requires spending more. As I am getting more budget conscious, I am asking myself the same question. Obviously, I pay a premium for organic veggies and dairy products. Lean meats are more costly than fatty cuts. Fresh produce costs more than canned.

On the other hand, you can save some money if you're smart about it.  Skipping the processed food is pretty obvious (although I admit I eat a lot of Lean Cuisines). Ditto takeout. I have been saving a little on groceries by eating less meat, thanks mostly to my cooking bible, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, by Marc Bittman. I was also inspired by The Amateur Gourmet's post on shopping for a week's worth of meals rather than buying ingredients recipe by recipe. And I hate to admit this, but I had to make a personal goal of throwing away less rotten produce from the fridge. My eyes are bigger than my stomach at the grocery store, and I am re- learning the amounts I really need to buy.

Even though I am trying to spend less overall, I am not making big cuts to my food budget. I'm planning to save by eating out less and drinking less alcohol, but the grocery envelope is staying pretty fat. Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than people in any other developed country in the world. Living on limited means is a reality for many people, but if you're not spending money on delicious, healthy food, what are you spending it on? Isn't it worth buying less stuff, so that you can sit down to a satisfying meal at the end of the day?

Anyway, I will refer you to my cooking hero, Marc Bittman, for some advice on cooking easy, quick meals: this article features 101 recipes for simple meals that are ready in 10 minutes or less. Most of them are concocted from pantry staples, and others just require a quick stop at the store for a couple of fresh ingredients.

I want to be just like Marc Bittman when I grow up
If you noticed that this post is just a big compilation of stuff other people wrote, I hope you don't mind too much. I'm still feeling a little uninspired and having trouble finding anything original to write about. Maybe you can tell me about things you are doing to eat well on a budget?

Until next time, KISS (keep it simple stupid), and try making some easy meals at home, without gravy, with veggies, and with maybe just a modest amount of butter!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Wardrobe Triage

From Stuff No One Told Me ( by Alex Noriega
I have been in a bit of a rut lately, with nothing exciting to share. Alex Noriega must be feeling the same way, because he posted the cartoon above. I always feel better about being disinclined to get anything done when I look around and see all three pets sound asleep and looking pretty pleased about it.

I wanted to get something done today, so I did a tiny bit of decluttering work on my wardrobe. Today is laundry day, which I think is a great time to get rid of clothes. There is a famous expression that describes me perfectly- "Most women wear 20% of their clothes 80% of the time." Waiting until laundry day means that the clothes I wear most often are in the hamper and I can look critically at what's left over and decide if I really need it.

The big lesson I learned this year is that you don't need as many of anything as you think. I changed bra sizes and I survived for months with five bras. I only have four pairs of jeans: two for every day, one dressy pair, and one white pair. I only need enough scrubs to make it through 7 work days (two weeks for me), and none of my co-workers cares if I wear the same sets over and over.

I also learned (from my pal Isaac Mizrahi) that it's worth it to invest in your clothing purchases, and you can accomplish it by buying fewer items of better quality.  I used to be very reluctant to spend more than about $40 for any one article of clothing, but after I read How to Have Style I really revised that opinion. I love my Marc by Marc Jacobs sunglasses, I can dance in my Sofft gladiator sandals all night without blisters, and my inc maxi dress totally turns heads.

Honestly, I still own more clothes than I need, and I still spend most of my days in overly casual mode. Thank goodness I live in literally the most casual place on the planet, so it kind of works. But in case you were looking for some advice, here are my favorite wardrobe resources:

Style on a Shoestring: Develop your Cents of Style and Look Like a Million Without Spending a Fortune by Andy Paige.  If you are looking for a primer on creating a wardrobe, this book is fantastic. It contains tons of great information about shopping, fit, and how to look great every day.

Scaling Down: Living Large in a Smaller Space by Marj Decker and Judi Culbertson. This is not a wardrobe book, but it does give some tips on deciding what to keep and what to toss from your closet. It also introduces the concept of "clutter triage," in which you walk through your house, pick up everything you can easily part with, and get rid of it. I triage my closet every few months (including today), and I always find things I can live without.

Wardrobe Oxygen, a blog by Alison Gary. I am personally attracted to this site because Allie and I have similar body proportions, which means I could theoretically just copy her outfits. She lives in the D.C. area, so we probably wouldn't run into each other. I particularly like this post because it can help you identify wardrobe gaps.

Thanks to some of these resources and a little effort, I am always able to close my dresser drawers and I have more hangers than articles of clothing in my closet. I am not the best dressed girl in the room, but I am never the worst dressed either (I think). I am happy to be appropriate for the occasion, not trapped in my college wear, and not living under the impression that I am a size smaller than I actually am.

So long for now, KISS (keep it simple stupid), and if you are looking for a small accomplishment, try clearing some of those monsters out of your closet!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dave Ramsey and the Envelopes

I finally decided that every financial adviser on the planet is right and I should be living with a budget.

John McNab- Flickr

It all started with this article about a guy who aggressively paid off a huge amount of debt in one year. I was intrigued by the article, but when I read the comments I found out that this is actually Dave Ramsey's "debt snowball" approach (although the article doesn't mention Dave at all).

I read a little more about Dave- I feel like we are on a first name basis already- and picked up his book The Total Financial Makeover from the library.

This plan is totally common sense, but it takes a huge commitment. Dave describes it as a need for "gazelle like intensity." You basically whittle your finances down to the lowest possible level, sell what you can, and possibly pick up a second job to help you achieve your goal. He includes tons of success stories- Four person households making $46,000 per year and somehow eliminating $60,000 in debt in 20 months. The common feature in the testimonials is the sense of peace that comes from getting out of debt. No job is completely recession proof right now- imagine facing a layoff in your present financial state. Now imagine it if your only debt was your mortgage and you had a six month emergency fund...

Bottom line is that I really want to Ramsey my debt, but I am not ready to do it right this minute. My finances are good not great- I live on less than I earn, don't have any credit card debt, I have some decent retirement savings, and a small emergency fund. On the other hand, I am upside down on my mortgage and I drive an 8-year old Hyundai with very little set aside for my next car. I am living on the assumption that I won't be laid off from my job, but Dave reminds me that if something happened and I became unemployed, my household would lose 100% of its income. Save for a rainy day, he says. It will rain.

So I'm not ready for gazelle-like intensity. Yet. This is the year of big travel, but I suspect 2012 will be the year of the gazelle. Meanwhile, I'm setting the framework. I have already learned not to buy so much crap. I'm pretty good at saving in advance for big purchases.  I recently started a cash diet to help me spend less. Now I have to learn how to stick to a budget.

I told you recently that I don't want to have to log everything I spend into a spreadsheet- I really hate the idea of receipts all over the place. The Dave solution is much easier- budget the amount of money needed for groceries, entertainment, pet food (a big expense in my house), etc. and put the cash into envelopes. When your dining out envelope is empty, you eat in. When your purchases envelope is empty you don't buy anything else. My grocery envelope is almost empty, and I am looking through the freezer and pantry to stretch it until Friday.

Dave warns us that as soon as we resolve to eliminate debt, there will be a test. On Tuesday, as part of a trifecta of terrible events, my car's alternator died. I spent over $400 to replace it. My plan has been to establish a sizable down payment before I buy my next car, but I started thinking about how much easier it would be to have a car that doesn't make me nervous. Instead, I fixed the alternator and got my head around the idea that an occasional big repair is still cheaper than a new(er) car. Dave says, "If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else." So I'll just have to get one of those bumper stickers that says, "Don't laugh, it's paid for," and make sure my cell phone is always charged.

So long for now, KISS (keep it simple stupid), and maybe check out some Dave at your local library!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Blessing in Disguise

"Persevere!" A mural in Nassau, The Bahamas
Today I'm reminding myself that big disappointments often turn out to be blessings in the long run.

When I was working in Cubeville, there was always a push for us to develop a long-term career plan. I explored some of my options, thought about what I was good at, and decided that I wanted to get into training and performance improvement.

This wasn't a whim. I had some experience in training new staff. I had been given the opportunity to train a team of associates on a new process. Working as an underwriter, I considered teaching insurance agency staff how to write better product to be a big part of my job. I had a business portfolio full of job aids and training documents I created to help sales staff in my district and my coworkers.

I think I did everything right, or pretty close. I put a development plan in action, my boss helped me find a mentor working in training, and I got involved in some activities to increase my experience. I had great performance reviews every year.

But I couldn't get hired.

I was really, really frustrated. I had worked hard toward a specific goal and I still couldn't achieve it. I also had some signs that a member of my senior management was working against me to keep me on her team (I don't think this was paranoia). I started to resent my job. I felt trapped in a boring rut.

Then the economy took a big turn for the worse.

I watched as the new training jobs started to disappear. Then, because new employees weren't being hired, training staff were the first people to be laid off. Employees who had worked for the company for 20 years or more were losing their jobs.

I learned that when times get tough, staff who teach (rather than "produce") have the easiest jobs to eliminate.

That was when I began thinking about what I really wanted to do with the rest of my working life. I did a lot of soul searching. For the first time in a long time I prayed for guidance. And I ended up in Nursing. Needless to say I love my new field and I feel like I have found my true calling.

What was a professionally frustrating time ended up being a blessing in disguise. If I had been hired into a training job, I probably would have loved it, and would have been laid off soon after. I wouldn't have been able to find a similar job in another industry because no one else was hiring training staff either.

This week I found out that a job I applied for and that I really wanted has been filled. I wasn't even interviewed. It was tough news to get, and I'm pretty disappointed.

I talked to a friend today who will be peripherally involved with the unit where I applied to work. He told me that he thinks the whole thing might be a disaster at first, and that maybe not getting the job will be a blessing in disguise. Hearing that reminded me of the time when I felt trapped in a job that I didn't like anymore. I had no idea at that moment, but God had other plans for me, and I just had to get frustrated enough to take some drastic action.

This time I'm not sure that drastic action will be necessary, but I was glad for the reminder that a larger plan seems to exist.  Sometimes you need a few roadblocks to put you on the right route.

So long for now, KISS (keep it simple stupid) and try to believe that it all works out in the long run.
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