June 28, 2017

Sunny pessimist or what’s the other thing?

Fortune cookie wisdomOver lunch with friends, my fortune cookie said: you will never need to worry about a steady income.

What’s your first reaction?
A) SCORE
B) Why, will I be too dead to worry?

My second fortune cookie said: You will always take on the hardest possible tasks in life.

That’s not a fortune, that’s a character indictment. So judgmental.

My third fortune cookie: You will live many years in material comfort.

Could they be the last years? I am happy to keep working to earn my way while I’m relatively young, it’d be nice not to have the “many years” dry up before I do.

It’s possible that I take fortune cookies far too seriously. It’s not at all possible that I eat too many fortune cookies per meal.

Ok, but big picture, here.

I’m not a risk-taker. I make highly conservative decisions at the best of times because I’ve known some of the worst times. Since I was 18, no job could be considered on the merits alone: challenges, opportunity, compensation. They had to be weighed with respect to the kind of sacrifices it would require from me, the impact they would have on my quality of life after I subtracted the time and energy required to do the job well.

Chatting with a friend who came to chronic pain late in life this week, they’re becoming burdened with the same uncertainty and reluctant awareness of their startling new physical and mental limitations. They’re taking steps back from intriguing job offers that they would have leapt at ten years before, declining opportunities that sound amazing and challenging with the queasy awareness that it’s amazing but very likely just too much for the new them.

Being a saver is definitely me, but it’s hard to tell whether I would always have been this conservative if a chronic pain disease hadn’t taken over my life. It’s also hard to tell if I can train myself to see past my limitations to find opportunities that won’t seriously negatively impact our lives even as they expand our horizons. Do such opportunities exist? I don’t know, but the first step is asking the question, right?

:: Are you an optimist or pessimist, a saver or spender? Do you save anything for the return trip, or do you put all your energy into your outbound journey, like the guys in Gattaca?

June 21, 2017

Life talk: Simplicity and routines

I recently visited an overwhelmed friend to help with her laundry and play sounding board. Over towels and bath sheets, she confided in me. She and her spouse had been arguing over everything, she said, stressed by bad decisions, work, kids, work, kids, more stressful decisions. You name it, it was a fight.

In my world, most fights can be resolved by taking a deep breath and letting it out, several times, then figuring out what’s really getting your goat and dealing with that.

Sometimes it takes several hours, or even days, for both parties to cool down and start resolving the issue. That’s fine. What I don’t have time for is endless rounds of fighting over the same thing when the real issue at hand tends to boil down to both partners need to be respectful and/or considerate and/or more direct in some way that they’re not currently being.

That’s a simplification of course, but in general, that’s been a common theme among friends who complain about their marriages. There’s a big difference between complaining about a tricky situation in your marriage, and consistently complaining about the quality of your marriage.

In any case, I’m not a marriage counselor and I don’t offer advice unless asked. What I will do is help with the mountain range of laundry.

Y’all. 

89 pairs and 6 stray socks, later? I was ready to fight someone. Leaving aside who needs this many pairs of socks? Leaving aside, also, “who needs 15 different sock styles??”, for the first time, my favorite task felt like an awful chore and no wonder. I wasted 45 minutes of brainpower on socks. I felt like climbing atop that mountain of socks and bellowing: take it all away! Simply your laundry, simplify your life, save your brain!

Reduce decision fatigue, stop wasting brain function on unimportant decisions. Make routines, give your brain the space it needs to be creative and productive.

I keep seeing this message.

Why is this at all a surprise? My best writing thoughts come to me in the shower, or when I’m laying in bed trying not to think. If I’m hung up on a work problem, the dishes get washed or the table gets picked up. In my better days, I’d go for a run. Now, Seamus gets an extra walk to shake the cobwebs. The mundane stroll through the neighborhood clears my assumptions or moves them aside so I can see the solution. Daydreaming and meandering is good for our problem solving. 

The key to success is clear, isn’t it? Set routines! Set them for everything!

As a newish mom, I’ve lost the luxury of deciding that starting right now, like in my single and driven days, that from now on, I get up at 5 am, shower, work out, write write write, work work work, eat, work some more. Exhaustion would destroy whatever brain cells I had left, even if I wasn’t dealing with a baby that insisted on changing zir sleep/non-sleep routine every time I relaxed.

But I’m not doomed to suffer, ambition-free and listless, until JuggerBaby becomes a fully actualized human. I’m not doomed because I’m not a martyr, nor am I stupid.

I am going to set myself up for brain freedom and success by minimizing the mental and physical clutter. As much as I quirk an eyebrow at quoting Thoreau’s “Simplify, simplify” for the sheer weight of privilege behind the fact that he could easily simplify by choice (and see Cait’s post on the privileges of choosing to be a minimalist), it does apply here.

Begone, home clutter!

Streamline the closet.

Good-bye to my weird organization system of past jobs. Professional clothes were once separated from lounging / casual clothes to prevent me from sleepily wearing a geeky tee and jeans to the business casual office. Now that it’s all casual, all the shirts /pants / sweaters are now reunited, organized by color, so that I can see everything at once. That’s step one. Step two is making sure that only the ideal wardrobe lives in my closet.

The goal: Mornings, I can grab a clean top, add pants, and voila! Dressed!

Subcategory: Color matching: weeding out most colors. I don’t want to think about whether this clashes with that. Well, not that I do much now but let’s never waste another synapse firing on that again.

Baskets, baskets, everywhere!

Between the dog meds to accompany meals, needing to walk Seamus and JB together, JuggerBaby trying to steal the dog’s leash, phones, keys, and poo bags, and and and … we have instituted a Basket Rule. Everything has a basket. No need to wonder where Thing is, it’s in the Thing Basket. Done.

Subcategory: Nix the (unnecessary) containers. We are battling my love of containers, great and small, and cutting the clutter. Less clutter = less to clean! Win win.

Make gifts easy (and the same)

I found myself asking Twitter for birthday suggestions for a three year old boy and what a load of brainspace that burned! I fell down a black hole of looking at action figures, educational toys, and costumes. Then a friend reminded me, duh, I give money and I give books. Done!

Same with wedding invitations. We have to travel almost every wedding to some remote place that is half impossible to get to without driving for hours and spending serious cash. There’s a trend for child-free events, and we can’t leave JuggerBaby in anyone’s care over a weekend, so we’re declining most invitations. Before JuggerBaby, we couldn’t fit in more than 2 weddings per year, and now it’s even less than that. I send a lovely Nidhi Chandani Everyday Love Art card with a check. Done.

Begone, professional clutter!

Ease up on the side hustle

I have a tendency to take on way more projects in the chase for extra income than there are hours in the day, or energy points in the universe. Instead of flailing about with 20 different projects, doing them all badly, I’ve made it a point to give myself a specific window of time to test out side money projects, and then permission to just stop if it doesn’t pan out, like with mTurk.

A project needs to slot in organically with my life now, and grow organically with the efforts that I put in, because I’m not about to replace my professional job with its many perks with a job that takes even more out of me than I can give, and jeopardize the balance of the rest of my life.

Delegate appropriately, then Back Off!

My bones were made in my professional career by taking on everything in the workplace, big or small, and knocking home runs out of the park with all of them.

There comes a time, especially when you’re managing a staff, to hand stuff over and only monitor progress, not do it all myself.  I’ve been managing staff for over ten years now, and it’s still hard to fight the tendency to just quickly do something simple because I know it like the back of my hand with the intention of “helping”, but instead wasting my valuable time, and getting in my team’s way.

What else can I do?

I’m evaluating what I do as I go along, without spending vast stretches of time that I don’t have mulling it over, testing my theories and changing on the fly so the list above is just a start. This ignores the social capital aspects of our lives where we choose to spend time with our loved ones for fun and support.

There are definitely more ways to streamline how we do life and work, and I’d love to hear what you do in your lives.

:: How do you juggle your responsibilities? What’s essential and non-essential?

June 12, 2017

I tried to do it ALL: here’s what happened 

Enduring a year of epic financial storms
On the one hand, I am Superwoman.

I handle my full time job like the pro that I am. My family is fed, hygienic, healthy, and mostly happy – though Seamus would submit to you that my refusal to share carnitas tacos is inhumane and unacceptable. My hobby (writing here) is still fun after nearly 11 years. My friends are wonderful people and I gladly support them through health, home, and career crises on a sometimes daily basis. Without a doubt, I’ve knocked the money thing out of the park on a regular basis – I save expansively, spend moderately, invest bravely, and generate odds and ends income creatively.

I remain Seamus’s most dedicated groomer and vet tech, I tend to his medications, food, and all nursing care so that he’s had the best six months of allergy-related symptoms of his life.

On a good day, one would assume I had it all together in a neat little package with a bow on top. When things are normal, it’s true – my default mode is set to awesome with a few dashes of slobby.

I had to check three times yesterday if my pants were on and buttoned before I left the house. After the backwards pajamas the night before, that shouldn’t have been such a close call. I’ve gone five days in a row without brushing or combing my hair – the blessings of short hair! If there wasn’t a mirror in the hallway, those three times I remembered to brush this mop would have been exactly zero. This isn’t really new territory for me – after a few years of working mostly remotely, I’ve reached an unprecedented level of non-concern about my dress because the only thing that matters at work right now is that I am awesome. Which I am.

But. 

With the new home in the picture, all the prep work with our (fantastic!!) general contractor has driven me to distraction. Literally.

I’m burning the candle at both ends. I’m doing my usual: daycare dropoff/pickup days, cooking dinner (PiC cooks breakfast and packs lunches, I make dinner), managing our regular money stuff.

Pile on organizing the new mortgage, setting up the new utilities, reviewing and revising our  labor and materials budgeting, contract writing and review, preliminary design, and discovery of more things wrong with the place. We intended to make the kitchen functional and update a bathroom. That leaking tube means we definitely have dry rot in the framing. After several hours of site visits and digging deeper, the remodel has turned into a major gut and rebuild problem. I won’t even get into the thousand moving parts that the GC and I are keeping in motion aside just to get a contract organized, from the almost routine surprise discoveries as we get to explore the space further in limited spurts.

But what else do we have behind Door #3, Vanna? We have summer! Summer, which is the absolute worst for Seamus’s allergies. I’ve changed his medication, his diet, his exercise routine, everything. It’s done wonders. But nothing we’ve come up with has been able to ward off the summer allergy attack – so once a year, for three months, I have to clean, salve and wrap his feet 2-3 times a day to keep the hot spots under control and the skin from tearing.

Y’all. The wall? It’s been hit. My entire being has gone through the wall like the Kool-aid man and fallen over.

I’ve gotten TONS done in a short period. The price was my sanity and health. My body tried to quit!

It’s one thing for me to forget what’s going on with the wardrobe. It’s another thing to pull out of the driveway and take a puzzled Seamus to daycare instead of to the vet. And it’s entirely another when I drive to a nearby shop to pick up a few things, but start walking home because I had forgotten that I’d driven!  That was both funny and, in hindsight, a bit alarming.

My gastrointestinal system went full Dark Side for a week, constant pain and threat of vomiting kept me up nights. Digesting food was no longer a job for THIS body. All major joints were creaking fit to challenge the Tin Man, my fingers were moonlighting for sausage commercials. Taking calls for an hour took all the breath out of me, I had to sit for three hours just to stop breathing shallowly. My ribs hurt when I did that silly breathing thing.

A friend prodded me: time to ask for help (stupid!). Even after more than a decade of being together, I still don’t remember to ask PiC for help! He’s Right There.

I texted him and confessed it was time. He’d been pressing me to do a little less but couldn’t tell what he could take off my plate without getting bitten. He gladly offered up some chores he would take over and I picked a few.

Now the trick is actually letting go of them. One finger at a time!

  • PiC has started makin more design decisions on the house, solo.
  • I’ve negotiated a new lower rate for a year with Comcast. I can worry about finding a better replacement for them next year, not now.
  • We have a $200 credit with Munchery that I’ve hoarded for months. Expensive though they have gotten, it’s time to just use the credit so I’m not cooking 3 times a week. We can get 2 or 3 more deliveries over the next few months so it’s time to strategically deploy that money already spent.

It’s taking a long while to repair the fatigue caused by the many days of unremitting pain but I am already seeing a little bit of improvement, and best of all, I don’t have to avoid food anymore!

We’re keeping our eye on the ball, this is going to get worse before it gets better and we have a lot of work ahead of us still.

Speaking of the work, initial rough quotes for the now MAJOR renovations are right around what I was expecting which is to say: $$GULP. It’s a good thing the past five years have been centered around building  whopping loads of savings held in CDs and some stock options. Ideally the stock options would have been exercised over a year ago but having failed to be psychic, we’re going to have to take the short term capital gains hit to access that cash. Drat that lack of a third eye!

:: What are your favorite ways to reduce stress when work or home issues blow up?

June 7, 2017

Life talk: maximizing time

I have to 5 to-do lists on Trello, 3 calendars for work and home scheduling, a paper planner, and countless spreadsheets for every financial decision we make.

Am I the most organized, productive person on the West Coast, ticking items off one list after another?

Nope.

That used to be true. But these days, the massive system just keeps me on top of things rather than several steps behind.

In today’s reality, my subconscious brain makes the call on what I’m going to get done regardless of the priority or urgency. I can make myself focus on the urgent deadlines but if I just sit back and let my whims steer the ship, you’ll see that it basically chooses decisions to make that I am capable of making based solely on my ability / energy no matter how bizarre it might seem.

This weekend was all errands: food shopping, more food shopping, setting up our Costco membership. Many miles were walked.

So many miles.

After dropping JuggerBaby off in zir crib for a nap, I crawled into bed and pulled out my phone for some research. Instead of dealing with house-hunting stuff, I researched holiday cards and picked the design that we’ll use this year. Mental note – still need to confirm that it’s cheaper to order 75 cards from Costco than to stitch together “10 free cards!” offers from Tiny Prints and Shutterfly, paying mostly for shipping and an additional 30 cards.

Sometimes I wonder why we spend time and money on holiday cards but then I remember that it’s important to PiC, so we do it. Mostly I do it. I don’t mind, it’s part of my money-related control freak thing, but it does take energy.

It’s not even June yet but house-hunting requires 10 units of energy and I only had 2, so a 2-unit of energy item, holiday cards, was served up on my mental board.  This way I’m usually always getting something done even if it makes no sense.

This morning I couldn’t get out of bed without sixteen body parts twanging and sending up alarms so I’m taking a half day to rest. But before collapsing, I had started the rice cooker and slow cooker, so I’m “cooking” dinner even while I’m laid out, unable to lift my arms.

Would that I were always so well prepared.

:: How do you save yourself on tough days? 

April 3, 2017

At the intersection of money, happiness, and fulfillment

Happiness, joy, and fulfillment(With thanks to Ms. Steward for putting into words the title of this post I’ve been ruminating on.)

We’ve been talking about happiness a lot in this area of the interwebs.

Recently, Mrs. BITA discussed happiness portfolios which I LOVE.  I assiduously tend mine, nurturing the connections to my loved ones every bit as much as I do our investment portfolio.

Much as I desperately want to, I can’t control everything, or pretend that happiness is an easily attained Zen state.

I can’t wish away pain, I can’t just decide not to be first trimester pregnancy-level tired.

I can choose other things, though. I can choose to support friends and chosen family during tough times, to celebrate with them during good times. Life can be a collection of these shared moments.

Then, Ms. Steward talked about the connection we make between our income and our self worth.

For me, coming from survival economics, it’s been a journey from needing money above all else, to knowing that it plays a critical role in our lives, but money is only one of many components of comfort and happiness. It’s natural that my self worth is linked to my income and net worth. There aren’t many tangible ways to measure success and money is one of them, naturally, because that’s usually how you see it celebrated when you achieve successes at work. If you do really well for yourself, typically, you can make a case for yourself to earn more money, because you’re worth more. That was the cornerstone on which I built my career. The mentality fed my fire to over-achieve, to build success on success.

That has evolved, though. Two Christmases ago, I reflected on our contentment. It was almost puzzling to realize that I truly was content. It didn’t seem possible, but here we are, two years later and I still am content.

Obviously that doesn’t mean life is perfect. It gets bumpy when you negotiate conflicting, deeply-ingrained beliefs, it stays bumpy when I still have tension over what my next career steps will be.

Thankfully, we learned the art of compromise and that gives us the flexibility to let go of a stressor, step back, and reassess, or to know that our partner will help us if we need a hand. That’s not something we could buy. It was a knowledge earned after putting in the hours into our relationship, developing trust in the scorched earth of my heart, by showing up, repeatedly, reliably, over and over, day after day. I could have bought a whole lot of therapy, I could have made PiC try to buy his way in, but we took the harder, more austere route – the one without easy credit card swipes, but much more meaning.

Don’t get me wrong, a surprise flower and donut will always put a smile on my face. The gift of actual gifts is not to be scorned! Hanging from a hook on the necklace holder he picked and put up for me is a deeply cherished sterling silver necklace from an early anniversary. They both mean a lot to me.

But as Maggie discussed, I don’t look outside myself for validation, to form the basis for my joy. Not anymore. My acts of service are rooted in what I expect of myself, though they be for others. My sense of achievement draws from my professional and personal accomplishments, but it’s no longer rooted in the salary I draw.

Penny touched on how difficult it is to move away from that mentality, and I won’t lie – it was the work of many years, and years of solid earning – to make it.

Sometimes it puts me in a hard place. If I can only feel fulfillment, that savory-sweet new fulfillment, when I do something that I consider worthwhile, it can be a long dry spell between flashes. External fulfillment is a much quicker fix. Swiping my card for a beautiful sweater on sale gives me something tangible to hold and enjoy. It ticks the same pleasure center in my brain that achieving a desired goal does. It shouldn’t, but it does, and I know it does. So once in a while, once in a long while, I take that shortcut.

I save rigorously so that I can afford it but that’s a zero-sum game and I know that fact even better. Spending isn’t the answer. It can be once in a while, and it’s no sin, but it’s a cheap mini Snickers compared to the decadent luxurious chocolate mousse of closing a long project successfully. No sweater will beat that sense of satisfaction of saving thousands by refinancing. It’ll tide me over but it doesn’t fill my well.

Right now, in general big picture terms, life is pretty good. Zoom in a little closer and there are a lot of empty spaces to be filled in, question marks to be replaced with answers, and it’s incredibly uncomfortable when everything is in flux, but they’re not in a dire state.

My life pie chart is best when balanced between my family, working productively, and nurturing friendships.

I draw joy, grow happiness, and achieve fulfillment by working to earn money, enjoying my family, nurturing friendships that I’ve built over the past two decades. I deepen the strength of our family and our relationships and that pays back dividends in love and support.

And here’s the other side of my happiness truth: happiness isn’t solely a personal choice.

It can be an attitude but unlike some, I have not yet reached the state of nirvana. My happiness can be impacted by the actions of others that increase or decrease demands on me. With chronic pain dogging me, it’s impacted by how my pain fluctuates, daily, hourly. It’s impacted by whether my contributions to the pie are matched by those I engage with or if it’s just all me doing the heavy lifting for a while.

It’s important to recognize that in this, just like most things in life, we only have so much control over. Without that acceptance, or acknowledgement of what can unbalance our happiness, how can we hope to rebalance it?

:: How do you seek long term happiness? What brings a smile to your face on a gloomy day?


*Part of Financially Savvy Saturdays on brokeGIRLrich.*

This website and its content are copyright of A Gai Shan Life  | © A Gai Shan Life 2017. All rights reserved.

Site design by 801red