Thursday, November 29, 2012

Thanksgiving Part 3

I am thankful for:
  1. Wildlife. It is amazing how much wildlife we see even in the middle of Austin. Our apartments are on the Barton Creek greenbelt so I’ve seen raccoons, a coyote, a coral snake, and a possum.
  2. Volunteer Opportunities. I have been so rewarded by volunteering walking shelter dogs and mentoring. Both can be a challenge, but are worth it. Dog shelters are incredibly smelly and loud places (no matter how well run) and the dogs can be unpredictable. Mentoring kids from various backgrounds is hard because it is difficult to measure progress and sometimes the kids seem indifferent. Both are worth it!
  3. A Supportive Spouse. It is amazing to have a spouse that is positive. I believe everything works out as it should, but sometimes it helps to have someone remind you.
  4. Pasta. I love Italian food and there is nothing quite so wonderful as homemade pasta and pasta sauce.
  5. Air Travel. I have some flight anxiety (mainly related to inclement weather while flying).  However, without air travel my opportunities would be greatly diminished. Plus seeing the earth from the air is a map maker’s dream come true!
  6. Abundance. I have never lacked anything in my life. I’ve always had choices of food and clothes. I’ve always had access to medical care. I’ve always had a nice clean, safe place to live. I am blessed.
  7. Scotch. A good single malt scotch is a pleasure to enjoy on a cold winter night (I hardly touch it during the warmer months). While I have not noticed striking differences between a good $15 bottle of wine and the pricier bottles, quality aged scotch is worth the money.
  8. Air Conditioning. I think most businesses could stand to run the AC much less or at a higher temperature, but I would not want to do without air conditioning during Texas summers. During the day I could tolerate it, but it is so hard to get a good night’s rest when you are hot and sticky.
  9. Visual media. I am going to lump photography, art, and film all together in this category. These arts enrich my life in many ways. Visual media can be inspiring, thought provoking, beautiful, or just plain entertaining. Through visual media I have gained knowledge and insight that the written word alone could never convey.
  10. Coffee. A cup of coffee in the morning is a great way to start the day. I prefer black, unflavored, medium to dark roast (half decaf/half caffeinated).

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Cat Harness

Yesterday I bought a cat harness. Why would I buy a cat harness? First off, I've heard they are useful for car trips with your cat. Secondly, my cat has seemed interested in going outside and he really doesn't get as much exercise in the small apartment as he did running around the house.

He was not thrilled with the harness being on at first, but he got used to it quickly. We went out for a brief test walk. He sniffed around some in a grassy area and walked along a rock ledge.

I was most surprised that he was willing to walk up the stairs of his own volition (especially since they are open stairs). He remembered where our apartment was and how to get back and bounded right up the stairs to our door.

So far, I'm pleased. Here is a link to the manufacturer website: I picked mine up at Target for $7, but they only had medium size. I had to cut and re-sew the body harness because it was a bit too tight due to the material looped through the adjusters. It is nylon so I was able to seal the cut with a lighter to prevent fraying and I used heavy duty fishing rod thread which seemed to work well. PetCo also sells them, but they also only carry medium size in stores.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Thanksgiving Part 2

I am thankful for:

  1. An awesome job. I love my job. I love my co-workers. It took me awhile to realize not everyone loves what they do. If you don't love what you do, find something else. There is something out there that everyone loves to do and that will make you enough money to live comfortably.
  2. Access to great music. Between YouTube, what I own, and Pandora, I have enough amazing music to enjoy for a lifetime. Plus it is exciting to think what new musicians and types of music will emerge in the future.
  3. Opportunities. I am surrounded by myriad opportunities to learn new things and try new things. The internet is a great tool to seek out these opportunities and learn things for free.
  4. Family. I do not have the closest knit family, but they are all special in their own way. I also get along with all of them. I had a conversation about fighting with parents at work recently and could not recall fighting with mine since they were making me learn my multiplication tables in 2nd grade. Perhaps I did and have forgotten, but we certainly haven't fought since I've been an adult. All my family has the foresight to let other parts of the family live their own life without trying to dictate their ideas and beliefs.
  5. Pets. Pets bring life into a home. I can not imagine living in a home without them. I've been without a pet for awhile when our dog passed away and when my previous cat moved in with the neighbors. Coming home to a house without a pet seems a little lonely. All my pets have always greeted me at the door which makes a pleasant welcome home.
  6. Pork. I love food in general, but roasted pulled pork, carnitas, and bacon are near the top of my list. So are duck, goat, and venison. We eat a fair amount of vegetarian dishes which I enjoy, but nothing beats a well prepared meat dish.
  7. Wine. Along with those delicious fatty meats you need some wine. A glass of wine with dinner is a great way to end the day. Red wine has a lot of health benefits and it makes every meal a little more civilized. We even take wine camping (and yes they make decent wines in collapsible bags specifically for backpacking - perhaps the best discovery at the Amtrak station/farmer's market in Tuscon).
  8. Good health. I love biking to work and being active outdoors. I thank God I have always been healthy enough to enjoy outdoor activities.
  9. Washers and Dryers. Most modern conveniences I could live without, but the automatic washer and dryer are not one of them. Occasionally I have had to wash a few clothes by hand. It is a pain and very hard to get them thoroughly rinsed and not stiff when dry.
  10. Travel options. I have personally met people who have not traveled more than 50 miles from their home. I can not even imagine such limitations. My parents sacrificed to pay to send me to Australia and New Zealand when I was in high school. Since then I have traveled to 7 other countries and around our own country a fair bit.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Thanksgiving Part 1

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. I love the food! I love seeing family I don't see very often. I love thinking about what I have to be thankful for.

Even as a kid I liked Thanksgiving better than Christmas. My mom and I rode the train from Kansas to Illinois every year at Thanksgiving to visit her mom. To this day train travel is my all time favorite mode of travel. I love traveling by trains, watching trains, the sound of trains, the rocking motion of trains. Also, my mom's mom cooks every bit as good as my mom and I loved everything she made. I loved visiting a small town and being able to walk from one end of town to the other.

When I got married, we went to my brother-in-law's house for a few years to celebrate. One year we didn't celebrate with family (I can't remember the circumstances) and instead ate turkey sandwiches while kayaking around Canyon Lake. It was windy and chilly, but we were the only ones out on the whole silent lake so it was a special memory.

After we bought a house, we hosted Thanksgiving for several years. I loved all the cooking and having everyone over. I loved having my in-laws stay for several days after and eating delicious leftovers for days in a row.

We recently sold the house, so things will be different now. Regardless of where we celebrate, I think this will always remain my favorite holiday. I love to eat and especially love all the traditional foods. I also love the attitude of thankfulness. I think that is why Christmas never wins out for me. Thanksgiving is just about eating well and being content with your life and family, whereas Christmas is laden with so many other obligations. The older I get, the more I try to make Christmas like Thanksgiving. Nothing you can buy can make you as happy as what you already have.

This month I will post things I am thankful for.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


I made firestarters today. I'm hoping for a camping trip this Fall while the weather is nice. They cost 99 cents to make a dozen (they would probably be free if you have little kids).

You need:
  • dryer lint
  • a paper egg carton
  • a tin can with the label removed (I used a large tomato can)
  • broken crayons with the labels removed (I bought a bag of used crayons at Savers for 99 cents)
Stuff the egg carton compartments full of lint.
Dump all your broken crayons in the tin can and put in a pan of water and bring to a gentle boil. Lower heat and shake can until all crayons are melted.
Slowly pour the hot wax into each compartment of the egg carton completely covering the lint.
Cut apart each compartment and store in a ziploc bag. Set under your kindling and light the egg carton paper when ready to use.

A variation of this craft uses paper cupcake wrappers, old unscented candles, and wood shavings (fill wrappers with shavings and pour melted wax over). I didn't have those items on hand or I would have made both and evaluated which was better. In girl scouts, we made wax paper tubes stuffed with lint. They burned way too quick to effectively start a fire if your kindling was less than ideal or slightly damp. The wax firestarters we've bought at the park stores have never failed to start a fire, so I'm hoping these will have similar results.

Saturday, September 29, 2012


I used to have a garden at our house. It was rather extensive at one point and then we scaled back. We did raised beds to the side, raised in-ground beds that took up most of the yard, and raised store-bought beds. I thought I had pictures of the first two variations, but apparently they have gone by the wayside. I enjoyed our vegetable gardens and my extensive native plant garden. I really enjoyed all the birds and wildlife. However, I do not miss the yard work and trying to keep plants alive in a drought.
Our former yard
Our balcony
I have been trying to do some gardening on our balcony at the apartment.  I forget what the plant in the blue pot is called. It stands up well to neglect and has pretty little blue flowers. The "window box" style planter has done fabulously. It has a sage and silver pony foot. I made it from a gift basket my mom gave me that I lined with a heavy duty trash bag with holes poked in the bottom. It is attached with zip ties. The basil (not pictured) I moved from our front porch is also doing well.

Basket planter a couple of weeks after planting
Basket planter
My experimental yellow herb containers (recycled soda bottles) are so-so. They are technically sub-irrigated planters. The top is cut off and inverted in the bottom to create a water well and a piece of felt acts as a wick. The seeds were very slow to start. So far only the cilantro and climbing spinach look like they might make it (and even then they are puny). I was also trying to grow oregano and lemongrass. I will give the yellow containers another two weeks and if they haven't become more successful, I am replacing them with another large basket planter.
Sub-irrigated herb planters (and an aloe and rosemary)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


If you are in Austin and love duck, go to First China BBQ in the Chinatown Center. Do not order off their highly Americanized lunch menu. If you open up the menu they have several roast meats served with rice for the same price as the lunch specials. I've had the duck on several occasions and it is amazing. Duck skin and fat is uniquely delicious. Other restaurants price duck like it is some rare and precious meat. Here it is $6.50 for a decent sized portion.

After you eat, go over to the giant Asian supermarket. It smells awful, but has really well priced Asian goodies. The junk food aisles alone are worth the trip. I love exotic foods. Hence while I still try to buy clothes and other wares made in America, I refuse to apply this to food products.

Awhile back we visited a Hindu temple in Houston. I really enjoyed it, but was shocked to learn that certain Hindu sects do not eat onions or garlic. We met a man at the on-site restaurant that had never had onions or garlic in his 40+ years. That blew my mind! I eat onions or garlic with nearly every meal I make at home. I love sauteed onions dearly. I try to understand people who restrict their diet because of religious or moral reasons, but I can never quite wrap my mind around it. I love meat. I love the commonly forbidden pork. I love wine and other alcohol. I fiercely love onions and garlic. One day I may discover I am in fact the unenlightened one, but until then I will enjoy all the glorious foods and beverages this world has to offer.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


The sweet joys of apartment living! No, seriously! You don’t really appreciate apartment living until you have owned a house. Going back to an apartment after owning a house is like living a vacation. You wake up on Saturday and no longer have to tackle yard work. When the AC isn’t working, you just call the maintenance number. You don’t have to care about how much something will cost to fix or what exactly is wrong with it. There is much less space to clean (assuming most apartments are smaller than most houses). We have the added benefit of living within walking distance to the grocery store, several restaurants, a pharmacy, and a bookstore. There are also two pools and a work out facility on site, plus trail access to a large green belt.

There is a lot of pressure in our society to own a home. I talked in a previous post about how owning a home is not always a great investment these days. It can be if you get lucky, but it can just as easily result in a net loss. Plus, even once it is paid off you are still stuck paying property taxes and paying for repairs. I am not anti home ownership; I just recommend taking a critical look at that path. Just because you can afford a house doesn’t mean you should buy it. Just because you can afford a larger place doesn’t mean you should move.

In other news, I recently made a baby mobile for a co-worker (mostly because he bugged me to make him one for 3 months after seeing a mobile I made for another co-worker's birthday). He is also into the buy domestic movement and told me about trying to find a crib that was made in the US. I had guessed he ended up with one made by the Amish and sure enough he did. It was pricey, but is solid wood and there are no worries about paint or sealant chemicals or unsafe parts.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Bike Commuting

In my decade of working life I have never lived closer than 20 miles to work. I started out over 40 miles away with my first job while living in San Marcos. Now I live about 3 miles away from my office. I can get there in 10 minutes! So what do I do? I go and make my commute almost as long as when I was 20 miles away by deciding to commute by bike.

First I had to get a bike. I had a nice bike when I was in college back in San Marcos which was stolen off our front porch (they cut the chain). Then, I had my niece’s old bike which had brake issues so I intentionally left it unlocked at work to be stolen/taken. I followed that up with my co-worker’s daughter’s old bike. That bike got me to and from college classes at ACC for 2 years. It was removed after sitting idle for several years locked up at work. I was not heartbroken because it was nothing fancy and pretty well worn out (starting to rust). So, I was bike-less as of last weekend and really wanted to get started on bike commuting before I got completely spoiled by a 10 minute drive. Most cheap bikes from big box stores are foreign made. They also seem to be worth about what you paid for them. Bike shops in Austin are very proud of their merchandise and both their new and used stock are priced such that you understand why they offer payment plans. Ultimately, I found a bike for $30 on Craig’s List. The bike seemed practically new and was just what I needed. I took a safety buddy to pick it up and have been bike commuting since then.

First off, I am pretty happy with the whole bike commuting experience. I can get exercise and save money while fulfilling a need. Here are some of my suggestions if you want to get into bike commuting. Although I’ve only been bike commuting a grand total of 3 days, I have quite a bit of experience with urban bike riding from my college days.

1)      If you live within 5 miles of work and can get there without getting on a highway or major thoroughfare, give bike commuting some consideration.

2)      Buy a cheap used bike to start out. You can always upgrade later. First off, a cheap bike will probably be a tougher workout since they aren’t built for speed. Second, it will be less of a target for theft. Third, it will be easier to tune up yourself. Cheap equals simple and simple is good when you are starting out.

3)      Take it easy. Don’t try to get there quickly. It is not a race. Don’t be embarrassed to get off and walk up a steep hill (there is one hill toward the end of my ride home that I so far refuse to ride up).

4)      Take a route through neighborhoods. It seems safer. People drive slower, are looking for obstacles like kids, dogs, and bikes. They are also probably less likely to be texting and driving as there are too many obstacles such as parked cars, speed bumps, and traffic calming islands to take their eyes off the road.

5)      Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Slow down at intersections and parking lot entrances/exits even if you technically have the right of way. Cars might not see you, so make sure you see them.

6)      Wear a helmet (duh!).

7)      All locks can be cut, so just get a decent steel u-lock and save your money:

Sunday, July 15, 2012


Sometimes free doesn't mean free.

The Kohls near us routinely sends out $10 gift cards. Unlike other stores where you have to buy a certain amount to get the free money, this is $10 with no strings attached. You can walk in and walk out with a $7 tank top by just giving them the mailer card. In the past I have used the cards to get shorts, a skirt, and tank tops for nothing (or pocket change). This weekend I had another $10 card so we walked over to Kohls after eating yogurt <aside> if you are in Kyle, check out Chill Out frozen yogurt; really nice owners and good yogurt</aside>. I looked around and couldn't find anything that wasn't cheaply made and/or manufactured overseas. My husband also looked, but when he wasn't thrilled with anything we both decided that there was no point in getting something we didn't absolutely love.

It can be a challenge to pass up free stuff. It doesn't seem like that long ago when buying a new pair of shorts or a new shirt was a big deal to me. It was special because I had limited funds so I carefully picked out what I most liked in the price range I could afford. Back in high school or when I was in college the first go round, free stuff was like found money.

Even with a stable income, it is still hard to pass up free or almost free stuff when it is new and looks nice. I make sure to ask myself:
  • Do I absolutely love it? If not, why bother?
  • Am I willing to pay to house this item? The less stuff you have the smaller the space you can live in.
  • Is it an item that will either last a long time and/or an item that will be desirable to someone else used? For example, solid wood furniture will last a long time and will be much easier to find a new home for if you no longer need it than cheap particle board furniture. These days cheap clothes are no longer in demand. Most thrift outlets and charities have more clothing than they know what to do with. Check out this article or Google "disposable fashion" for statistics and analysis: 
  • What am I supporting by taking this item? By accepting a "free gift" that was produced under poor conditions and shipped around the world, you are letting the giver know you are okay with that. This obviously applies more to promotional items where the giver will just continue to order more of the same item than it does to accepting your friends or neighbors used clothes/housewares. And it certainly never should apply to actual presents given to you!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Some things I love that are uniquely American (the North American continent, not specifically our little portion):
  • sweet corn
  • chipotle peppers
  • yucca
  • prairie dogs
  • bighorn sheep
  • blueberries
  • sunflowers
  • avocado
  • bison
We've exported some of these, but they all originated right here on our beautiful continent. I am not always the most patriotic about our country since politics and arbitrary lines are tedious, but I love this geographic region and think a shared pride between all human beings on our continent is far better than isolated, nationalistic tendencies.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Getting Ready to Sell

We are about to sell our house (it will be listed tomorrow!). That is easier said than done. Unless you keep your house looking like an excerpt from "House Beautiful", it is a massive undertaking. We have kept our house fairly well tended to and clean, but the idea of someone looking in all your cabinets and closets and scrutinizing your baseboards and corners really kicks things up a notch. You can certainly sell "as is", but you take a huge price hit (based on what I've heard). So we have been cleaning, and painting, and packing for some time now. Here is what I've learned:
  • In all the years prior to selling, don't buy anything you don't really need. The less you have, the better your life will be. No, really. Trust me. I have gotten rid of so many things I now wish we'd never bought.
  • Use Home Depot boxes and U-Haul tape. I've tried lots of brands of both and those are the best.
  • Going to the dump is fun! If you have anything broken or defunct, load it all up and take it out there at once. It is only $35 for a full pickup truck load and it is lots of fun tipping stuff into a pit. Just make sure you cover your load to save an extra $20 charge.
  • Give things away. I was too lazy to try to sell our stuff so we have been giving it away for free. It has been immensely satisfying. I don't think the amount of money I could have made would have equaled the happiness we have brought to others or the needs we have met.
  • Start decluterring 2 and a half months in advance and cleaning/repairing a month and a half in advance. Leave the last few weeks for prepping/staging.
  • Be ruthless. If you don't love it, get rid of it.
  • Don't paint cabinets. It is not worth it. Even if they clash with the other decor, just deal with it.
  • You will get an amazing workout. Expect to lose weight and experience lots of muscle soreness. Also, expect to get very little sleep the last few weeks before you list the house. Set a date to take pictures with your Realtor and then just pretend you are getting ready for finals in college and tell yourself it will all be over soon.
  • Put your environmentalist tendencies aside. You will be dumping water on the lawn to keep the grass green. You will eventually break down and eat sandwiches every day off of paper plates because the thought of doing dishes while keeping the house constantly looking like no one actually lives there is overwhelming.
  • Go ahead and pack all hobby related items. You will have no free time.
And for some comic relief now that we are done: Be sure and check out "The House That Loves Paint" (among many other funny ones).

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Minimalist Packing

I really enjoy the concept of minimalist packing. It keeps you from feeling weighed down when you travel. It frees up time and mental energy. When you return home, there is not a mountain a laundry to do.

There are lots of resources on the web, but here is my take on traveling light from my last week long trip:

From upper left, clockwise: shorts and shirt, shorts and shirt for pajamas (but could be worn to go for a walk/exercise), flip flops, grey leggings, snack bars, a magazine and notebook and my Kindle, chargers (phone, Kindle, camera battery, and headphones), shoes, comb, Tide to-go, 3 pairs socks, 4 pair underwear, swimsuit, jacket. Not pictured are deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste, face cream, sunscreen, and camera. All of this fit neatly in my small backpack with room to spare. I wore a lightweight dress which was my primary clothing except when hiking or sleeping (or swimming, obviously!). You can buy "travel dresses" from REI or various websites, but you can save a ton of money by locating one with similar properties at the thrift store or Ross. A good dress for travel should be lightweight, a dark color, a conservative cut (so it works at a variety of places), and a high percentage of synthetic fibers (except nothing strecthy). Most synthetic fibers will dry much quicker than natural fibers. Just think of the shorts and skirts that dry the fastest when doing laundry at home and try to find a dress (or pants/shirt if you are a guy) in a similar material. Quick dry is important because then you can wash them in the sink, hang them up, and have them be dry within in a day.

My husband and I did a similar minimalist packing experiment when we went to Ecuador. That time we did invest in REI pants. That was the best clothing investment ever. After the trip, I wore those pants to do hundreds of hours of field work in rough conditions. They held up beautifully and are only just now getting too worn out to travel with (unfortunately, I snagged myself climbing over a wire fence and got concrete adhesive on them).

Thursday, May 24, 2012


I went to Los Angeles and back twice within two weeks. Once by train and once by plane. That was fascinating because you realize just how different the perspective is between the modes of transportation. The train gives you a sense of the vast distance. However, since it was a clear day and I had a window seat, the plane gives a sense just how much the great American desert was shaped by water. I love flying over the southwest US! The terrain is utterly breathtaking from the air. I still prefer the train, though. Air travel never leaves me feeling relaxed and happy like train travel does.

If you find yourself in LA, here are some recommendations:
  1. Eat at a restaurant called Lemonade: Healthy, fresh, and utterly delicious. I would also recommend Cha Cha Chicken in Santa Monica and Poquito Mas in Burbank.
  2. Hike in Griffith Park. It is not strenuous hiking, but make sure you bring good sneakers and water.
  3. Avoid the 405. The stories are true. It is a tedious nightmare even at non-rush hour times. The other freeways were no worse than Austin at rush hour and the city streets are surprisingly easy to navigate.
  4. Expect people to run red lights and then honk at you for being a careful driver. Those folks are a bit impatient. However, they do let you over if you have your signal on.
  5. Talk to people. While I love Texas and her people dearly, I think LA residents may give Texans a run for their money in terms of friendliness.
  6. Stay at Safari Inn in Burbank ( or Vagabond Inn in Pasadena ( I was particularly pleased with Vagabond Inn seeing as it was the nicest $70 hotel I've stayed at anywhere in the US. Clean, secured hallway at night, free parking, free wireless, free breakfast, and walking distance to lots of restaurants.
  7. Visit the Cal-Tech campus if you are in Pasadena. It may not be worth a trip on its own if you are on the opposite side of town, but it is a beautiful campus. Also, if you peek in the windows as you walk around you get to see labs that the rest of us can only dream of playing in.
  8. Don't listen to the reviews for Corner Cottage in Burbank. The breakfast burritos aren't really all that. It was fun to watch them make them in mass, but pretty much any breakfast burrito I've got in Austin has been better.
  9. LA is cheap to visit. Hotels are reasonable, food is cheap, activities and entertainment are often free. I'd always heard it was expensive, but aside from real estate, it is very reasonable.
  10. Use the Metro Rail. It is easy to use and quite efficient. I went from the airport to Pasadena which involves transferring to 4 different lines. Even with the transfers it was easy and fast. The trains run frequently and there is enough to do within walking distance of the stops that there is really no need to rent a car if you are just going to LA for fun.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


We took the train to and from Los Angeles this past week. It was awesome! I love trains, so I may be a little biased. If you have never taken a long trip by train, you should try it at least once. Here are some tips:
  • Book a roomette if you are making an overnight trip. They are great. During the day you have two chairs facing one another and at night they convert to bunk beds (surprisingly comfortable beds at that). There is a shower and three bathrooms in each sleeper car. All of your meals are included. You have plenty of privacy when you want it and your own temperature controls. Coach looked pretty rough by comparison. I used to travel coach on Amtrak as a kid, but never overnight. It did not look fun.
  • The dining car food is pretty good. They feed you plenty, so leave the snacks at home. I would bring a large water bottle and consider refilling it or buying a new one at the stops. I was more thirsty than usual and the bottles of water they give you are tiny and disappear pretty quick (our sleeper car attendant started rationing them). There is perfectly drinkable tap water, but the way it is pressurized means that more water ends up on you and the floor than in a cup or water bottle (and regular sized bottles won't fit under the spigot).
  • Get out and walk around at the "smoke stops". It feels good to stretch your legs. Don't stray too far because they will leave you. We heard stories from our attendant about near death experiences of people clinging to the side of a moving train. The station at Tuscon is great both inside and out, so definitely check that out if you stop there.
  • You don't need to bring much to do. You get three meals a day where you sit with other people and chat (it is mandatory to share tables at meals). It was fun to meet new people from all walks of life. We met a reporter, a professor, a lead dealer, a freelance writer, and a copper mine blast technician. They were all nice and I really enjoyed learning about their professions, where they were from, and where they were going. I finished one book, but other than that enjoyed the scenery and talking.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Birth Control

Kids: I love them! I enjoy meeting other people's kids. I wish there were more kids in the family to play with at holiday gatherings. However, there are so many wonderful things about not having kids. Young people out there, think long and hard before you decide to have children. Take responsible steps to ensure you only have children when you want to.

Lots of people talk about how wonderful having kids is. Some people even get incredibly upset when they can't have kids. Let me point out but a few of the great things about not having kids:

  1. You have a lot more free time.
  2. You have more money to do fun things.
  3. You can watch dark comedies whenever you want.
  4. You can wake up and go to bed whenever you feel like it (within the constraints of your job).
  5. If you don't feel like cooking, you can have wine and cheese for dinner.
  6. You can have a smaller house.
  7. You can have 2-seater vehicles.
  8. You have much less responsibility.
  9. You have much less stress.
  10. You feel bad when you neglect your cat, but they can't send you to jail for it.
  11. Your house stays cleaner.
  12. You can be alone with your thoughts on a regular basis.
  13. Your carbon footprint is smaller (if that matters to you).
  14. You are not contributing to overpopulation (if you think that is an issue).
  15. You don't have to deal with anyone until after you've had coffee.
  16. You have less laundry.
  17. You never have to deal with head lice.
  18. You never have to deal with morning sickness (or other unspeakable horrors of pregnancy).
  19. If you are married, there is much less to argue about.
  20. You get to choose how you want to make the world a better place with the time and money that would have gone into raising children (not all reasons are selfish!).
This isn't an anti-kid rant. This is just some encouragement to find happiness in yourself first. Children can't complete you (neither can a spouse). You will only be truly content when you can be happy with yourself.

Whatever choice you make on this issue, just make sure it is your choice. You can find happiness on either path.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


We are going through the process of getting our house ready to sell. This was the first house we ever owned. Here are some reflections and advice for those young folk who may be pondering purchasing a house:

  1. The house you live in is not a very good investment. You might get lucky and buy when the market is down and sell when it is up, but not many people are that lucky. Also, owning a house requires a lot of money in maintenance, upkeep, and upgrades. Real estate investing is a great way to make money, but I would recommend doing so with homes/land that are not your primary residence.

  2. Never, ever buy a house in the suburbs. It sounds like a good idea, but I don't know of anyone who doesn't want to live either closer in to town or farther away in the country after living in suburbia for a few years. Suburbs are soul-sucking. You have to drive to do anything and you are still surrounded by people and their annoying chihuahuas.

  3. Get one less bedroom than you think you need. There is no reason to have a guest bedroom. With the money you save on less square footage (in the price of the house, taxes, heating/cooling, and upkeep) you can put your family up in a nice hotel when they come to visit.

  4. Don't buy stuff to fill your space. It is hard to have a lot of empty space when you first purchase a home. Learn to love the empty space. Acquire decorations from your travels and create art that pleases you. Save for furniture you really want and only get enough for you and those who live with you to use. Get rid of seldom used or unwanted items periodically.

  5. Check the maximum height of foundation shrubs. If it is taller than your window sills, dig them up and plant them on the edge of of your property. Otherwise you will be stuck pruning shrubs every two weeks during growing season to keep them from blocking out the sunlight. You will also get a lot of blisters.

  6. Plant trees and shrubs within the first year or two of owning the property. Pick the ideal locations based on what they will look like full grown. The faster you get them in the ground, the better the chance you will get to enjoy their shade and beauty instead of the next owner.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


I have been doing our taxes by hand for several years. Our federal income taxes are fairly straightforward. Aside from itemizing deductions, we are pretty textbook: normal jobs, own one house, typical investments. However, I am surprised that we always seem to owe money especially when we give away 10% of our income to a non-profit. In a way I guess it is a blessing to make enough to be in a position to owe money. Also, we own a lot less house than we could technically afford, so I'm sure the smaller property taxes and mortgage interest are a big part of why others who make similar money seem to always get a refund. That and the fact that when it comes to taxes children are little cash cows!

This year I took the plunge and purchased TurboTax Deluxe software to see if perhaps I was missing something. It turned out to be worth the $30 investment. Using TurboTax I reduced the amount we owed by $733. I had missed a reduction in income from stock losses (one company we had invested in went belly up so the stock was worthless) and a deduction from the sales tax we paid when we bought a car with cash last year.

For previous years, I doubt the software would have been worthwhile. This year it paid off. Overall, I would say that it is worth the money to buy tax software if you feel like you might be overpaying. Worst case, you are only out $30 (less if you choose TaxAct or H&R Block software).

Even without the financial benefit, it was nice to not have to read through the 1040 instructions and fill out the bizarre forms to calculate things like what amount of tuition I could deduct. Those forms are maddening (multiply by a percentage, subtract row 3 from 5, take the lesser of row 6 and 7, if row 4b is more than $80,000 use form X, and so on)!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


I had an eye exam back in January. My vision has been fine, but my glasses are two and a half years old and pretty well shot (I wear them every waking hour). The prescription changed only slightly. My eye exam was on a work day, so I came straight back to work without buying glasses. The following week I went to the mall to shop for frames. I was really disappointed. None were made in the US. None were particularly special. All were pretty pricey (I’ve noticed that the plastic frames that used to be the economy frames are now popular and cost as much as the metal frames). So, I decided to purchase online.

I had never purchased glasses online. I was extremely trepidatious. Part of my concern is due to my dislike of the hassle of returning products. I have a few co-workers who regularly purchase glasses online, but I think their prescription is weaker and therefore easier to fill.

I discovered there are two US manufacturers of a complete line of eyeglasses:
A few others manufacturer a few frames or non-prescription sunglasses domestically.

I ordered one pair of sunglasses and one pair of regular glasses. They cost a lot more than Zenni Optical or other online discount sources. It remains to be seen if they are worth the cost. I have only ever purchased high quality frames. They last about 2 years of regular use with lots of outdoor activities. My current frames are technically still perfectly fine. I have never had loose screws or other problems. They are only “worn out” in terms of surface scratches.
The expression kind of captures my uncertainty

But, I am digging the shades!

I am still up in the air about the regular glasses. The nose bridge extends into my field of vision and is about to drive me batty. Glasses are Shuron Regis I and shades are Shuron Freeway.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


I haven't blogged recently because I really haven't bought anything lately. And it had been so long since I bought anything that I "fell off the wagon" so to speak when I finally did purchase something. I purchased a labeler (for filing) upon the recommendation of this book: The labeler was made in China and the tapes are made in Japan. Oh well, one lapse is no reason to abandon the experiment.

The lapse does bring to mind the time in 9th grade when we were breeding fruit flies for our biology class. We had 2 strains and after they had babies, we had to gas them to make them sluggish and then separate them by type. My partner and I forgot them at school over a holiday weekend. Needless to say they were a giant mess of interbred flies. Pretty much killed the intended genetic outcome. However, we still made a good grade because we went into great detail about the havoc our lapse wreaked on the experiment, which ultimately involved more research than just determining which traits were recessive and dominant. Point being, I'm sure this experiment will turn out fine. The lapse is already a good reminder to think before I buy. And whilst lamenting my failure I discovered that I could have gotten a seldom used one just for the asking!

It remains to be seen if my labeler is a success or failure (and how well the book's methods work).

Thursday, March 8, 2012


School lunches are an interesting topic that hits both on the buying local issue and buying better products issue. If you have kids in school, I would advise eating a tray lunch with them from time to time. You may be surprised.

I have fond memories of school lunches. I was the weird kid who loved them. I bought school lunches all the way up through high school. While mentoring this past year I have bought a school lunch every Tuesday. The adult lunch is the exact same as what the kids are eating. Let me just tell you that they are not the same as I remember!

Austin school lunches are technically pretty healthy. They are low fat and there are lots of whole grains, fresh fruit, and vegetables. Sounds good, but in practice it falls apart. The vegetables are usually mushy beyond belief so they don't get eaten. The main dishes use very little real meat and seem to rely heavily on soy blends. They are often carb heavy and seem to consist of lots of packaged, processed foods. There are plenty of refined sugars in sugar-added milks and yogurts.

At the school I mentor at 90% of the kids get federally funded free lunch. That means you and I are paying for these lunches. I would rather pay more to ensure kids get real meat and local, fresh produce. I would rather pay more to have cooks prepare the food from scratch at the cafeteria. In the long run it would mean lower health care costs by showing kids how good real, healthy foods can be.

Sadly, I don’t think many of them get much better at home. I have a voyeuristic habit of checking out what other people are buying at the grocery store while waiting in the checkout line. Every week there are people with kids in tow buying poor quality food. I’ve seen families load up on nothing but white bread, baloney, ramen noodles, and sugary cereal. If there were no additives these people would all have scurvy!

Grocery bills are our second biggest expense (behind the mortgage). It is worth every penny to buy better food. This includes eating out. We all have to eat so we should make it an enjoyable experience! I'm all for budgeting, but living in an affordable house with affordable vehicles and few expensive habits means you can eat what you want when you want and enjoy to the fullest one of life's most basic pleasures.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


In a recent conversation with a coworker lamenting the lack of Spring Break for adults, I started thinking about how nice it would be if everything shut down for awhile. I was reminded of a trip to the Netherlands several years back...
My husband and I went to the Netherlands a couple of times for his work. I had the entire day to myself while he worked. I got to see a lot of the country during that time. They have amazing public transportation and are flat enough that you can easily walk or bike long distances. If you ever get a chance you should go. Just make sure you venture out of Amsterdam to see the rest of the country (it is much less touristy).

The first time we went was in the dead of winter. They are much further North than the continental US and have very short days in the winter (and amazingly long, glorious summer days). On one occasion I was dropped off at some city for the day and I was to meet my husband and his coworker back at a certain location for dinner later on. I went all over town and had a great time. I came back to the commercial area where I was supposed to meet them just as it got dark. All of the shops were already closing. This was around 4:30pm. It was pretty close to freezing outside and my plan to browse until they arrived was thwarted. It was an unpleasant hour waiting for them.

I found out the hard way that most of the shops and counter service eateries close before dinner time and only the restaurants are open at night. It was terribly inconvenient at that moment, but overall that idea was refreshing. After work you have a little bit of time to swing by the grocer before they close. Once it is nighttime you can go out to eat or to a bar, but that is it. You are somewhat compelled to relax!

Now, I have complained many a time about stores closing too early. I work a later schedule, so I have a hard time finding anything but grocery stores or Wal-Mart/Target open after work. If I stop and think about it, though, I am inclined to admit that shopping after work is seldom an enjoyable or profitable experience. It is usually something I don't want to do anyway. Even if it is a needed item I am purchasing, I am not likely to make good decisions at that point.

Part of buying better stuff is being somewhat thoughtful about purchases. As I weed through our stuff and get rid of a lot of sheer junk we have accumulated, I realize we could have saved a lot of money not buying this stuff in the first place. The desire to cut back on possessions combined with my endeavor to buy only American made products has curtailed my purchasing. This past weekend I tried to find a picture frame for my diploma. I went to three stores and when I couldn't find one not made overseas I ended up re-purposing a seldom seen frame in our guest bedroom. Turns out I wouldn't have needed to spend the money or add to our possessions after all.

Although I don't think we will ever see a Spring Break for all of us, maybe we could be more accepting of shorter business hours. Seems like it would be healthier for all of us. I have to say that the Dutch are far fitter and more attractive than Americans. A little extra non-commercial leisure time might do us all good.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


Recently I have read several articles on whether a college education is worth the cost. I will wholeheartedly agree that tuition has been increasing at a rather impressive rate. Having been around universities a lot, I think part of the problem is that universities spend money like it is burning a hole in their pocket. They are always under construction and a lot of that construction is re-doing perfectly sound buildings. I'm not too worried about it, though. Eventually they will raise prices enough that enrollment will drop because students can't justify the cost. Then the universities will cut costs and reduce prices. In the interim, more high school students may choose to start a career first. I imagine some will discover that they wouldn't have needed college anyway.

That being said, I am all for higher education. I don't think college is for everyone, but lifetime learning certainly is. I for one really like structured learning. While I enjoy reading, there is something about the collaboration and exchange that college courses offer that is stimulating. I also like the feedback of being graded on my work.

I just received my Master of Engineering diploma in the mail today. Was it worth the cost? I would say yes. It will pay for itself in about 2 years. Even if I hadn't seen any financial benefit and all I walked away with was the knowledge and experience, I think it still was worthwhile. It cost as much as a car, but I can't think of anything else I would have wanted to purchase more.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Every year on Valentine's Day I get my co-workers the little cardboard valentines that are marketed for school kids. Those little valentines bring back memories of being a kid and putting a decorated sack or shoe box out to collect cards and candies from your classmates.

It was pretty easy to find valentines made in America. Finding candy made in the USA is getting harder, though. That is a little worrisome to me because of the occasionally lax food safety standards in China and Mexico where a lot of the big name companies are manufacturing their candies (Wonka Brand and Hershey's). Plus the older I get, the more I realize that candy is one area that is definitely worth the splurge. Don't bother with a cheap candy bar when you can get the fair-trade dark chocolate bar instead. Chocolate should have flavor! That being said, I have a nostalgic streak for cheap non-chocolate candies. For my co-workers I went with the Sweethearts conversation hearts made by NECCO. I like the fact that the label says they are "lovingly made in the USA". That just conjures up the image of their competitor as a grumpy old man scowling and grumbling about those stupid kids whilst making candy.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


About 6 months ago I rediscovered Dr. Bronner's liquid soap. Those of you who do primitive camping or affiliate with hippie culture know all about this soap. I used to use it in college, but somewhere along the way stopped buying it. I am not really sure why. It has numerous excellent features:

  • Certified Fair Trade
  • Organic
  • 100% post-consumer recycled material bottle
  • Made in USA
  • Gentle soap that smells awesome
It costs about $7 for a 16 ounce bottle. That seems pricey compared to other liquid soaps, but I've found it lasts a lot longer. The peppermint scent has always been my favorite. It smells good, feels tingly, and leaves the bathroom smelling great.

For those of you who haven't used the soap, a very interesting part of the experience is Dr. Bronner's philosophies that are written on the label. The story of Dr. Bronner's life and philosophies is difficult to sum up here. If you have the time, check out "Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox" on Netflix: <aside> I recently watched it along with another, even better, more life changing documentary, "Which Way Home": If you have Netflix, it is definitely a good use of your time to watch "Which Way Home". It is one of the best "walk a mile in someone else's shoes" type films I have ever seen. <end aside>

Dr. Bronner was either eccentric or insane depending on who you talk to. However, his philosophies are worth reading. He espoused a brotherhood of man religion where we are all one worshipping the same God. Even if you are not of a religious nature at all, some of his points just make sense for living your life in general. Here are just a few of his statements from what he calls the "Moral ABCs":

  • "1st: If I am not for me, who am I?"
  • "2nd: Yet if I am only for me, what am I? Nothing!"
  • "3rd: If not now, when?..."
  • "5th: Whatever unites mankind is better than whatever divides us!..."
  • "7th: Each swallow works hard to be perfect pilot – provider – builder – trainer – teacher – lover – mate, no half-true hate! So, each day like a bird, perfect thyself first! Have courage and smile my friend. Think and act 10 years ahead! And the man without fault? He's dead! Do one thing at a time, work hard! Get done!..."
And it goes on and on. There are a lot of words for a soap label! I have left out the zanier parts, but even with the parts that don't make sense, there are some good points. He advocates hard work and cleanliness throughout and sharing what you know with those around you. So if you are tired of fake-smelling soaps with weird ingredients, embrace your hippie side!

Thursday, February 9, 2012


Whilst researching American manufacturers I came across a nicely done video for a company named Tellason: In the video they allude to not washing the jeans for a better wear pattern. I assumed they meant not pre-washing them as most jeans companies do to make their denim soft. Nope. Check out their website care section: They mean just don’t wash your jeans! Gross! How could you stand it?

Apparently this is not an isolated concept. This article was very interesting: In summary, they asked people to wear a pair of jeans for 3 months without washing them. The results: the jeans weren’t that bad afterward! Stains wore off and they never got that smelly.

Now I don’t think I’m quite ready to stop washing my clothes, but maybe part of being sustainable is evaluating when something really needs to be washed.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


I have been a clothing cheapskate since high school. Back in high school it made some sense. I never had a “real” job and just picked up baby-sitting and pet-sitting opportunities from people I knew in my neighborhood. If I recall correctly, I would make $60 at most on a really good week and I put most of it in my college savings (thankfully I had no car to put money into). I bought my own clothes in high school so I did most of my shopping at Ross, thrift stores and the sale rack of Target. If I couldn’t get a shirt for less than $5 or pants for $10, I just wasn’t interested.

This extreme thriftiness has held over until today. You would think that inflation alone would make this impossible, but it is not! Those same three stores as well as sales at the outlet mall make it completely possible to still clothe yourself fairly nicely for $15 or less.

This weekend my challenge was to buy onesies for a work baby shower. My co-worker remembered that at a previous baby shower, they decorated by hanging a variety of onesies from a clothesline. It was cute and practical. Instead of throwing away the decorations, they go home with the new mom to be stained by the baby and then thrown away. You can buy onesies for around $2 each just about everywhere (even the grocery store), but every single one I looked at was made in Asia (as a side note Carter appears to have a majority share of the onesie market).

So I looked online for made in the USA onesies. Most were $15 a piece! I was appalled! That is a ton of money for such a tiny garment that won’t get worn very much. But then I had an epiphany of sorts. What if I was paying one of my friends who knows how to sew to make a onesie? $15 to $20 doesn’t seem so unreasonable anymore. Once you factor in material, snaps, thread, work time and transportation, it is a miracle they can sell them for $2 at all (and leave room for corporate profit). Guess who is getting the short end of the stick? Those who make them and those that make the raw materials. That is a big part of my motivation for trying not to be such a cheapskate.

Now I still won’t pay $15 a pop for what are essentially decorations. I’m planning to drop by American Apparel because, according to the web, they occasionally have good sales on their onesies. While AA’s quality is specious, for a onesie that will be rapidly stained and outgrown, I’m ok with that.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


My first challenge came today. The little girl I mentor through the Seedling program is turning 9 on Friday. We are allowed to get our mentees small gifts (around $5) for their birthdays and Christmas (if they celebrate it).

I stopped at Target on the way to work with the plan of getting her some metallic color gel pens. Every gel pen I looked at was manufactured overseas. I ended up getting her Bic's version of the Sharpie that comes in nice teal and pink colors and was made in the USA. They are permanent markers, so hopefully she heeded my stern warning to not get them on her clothes or let her little brother get a hold of them (otherwise, a parent is out there cursing my name). I also wanted to get her a nice notebook, but again they were pretty much all made in China, so I ended up with Target's US made multi-color notecards. On the way out I saw the display for cute 8-packs of Crayola (also made in the US) although I thought she might be getting too old for crayons. It turned out that she was most excited about the crayons, so in retrospect I am glad I couldn't get the gel pens I set out to buy.

Not too big of a challenge, but it was fun in a way to have to read the backs of the packages and do some searching. I am an indecisive shopper to begin with, so it makes it easier when there is only one option in a category.

Also, I highly recommend that you try mentoring if it sounds interesting. I have found it to be fun and rewarding (albeit a little unstructured).

Sunday, January 29, 2012


As a starting point I decided to inventory the clothes in our closet and determine where they were made. Perhaps I could pinpoint some favorite brands that were made close to home. The results are shown in this map:

Interestingly, of those 14 items made in the USA:
  • 13 are over 5 years old
  • 5 are over 15 years old
  • 1 has the Ladies Garment Workers Union logo on the label (it was my Grandma's and is about 40 years old and I still wear it)
  • 5 were purchased at a thrift store
  • Sadly, none are from Target which is my favorite clothes store

Saturday, January 28, 2012

No More Junk

Now that I am through with school I've noticed I have more time to ponder things that drive me nuts. One of these is the sheer amount of crap a lot of people buy. We have been cleaning our house one closet and drawer at a time and it is astonishing how much poorly made junk we have purchased.

For the next year I plan to only buy quality items made in the USA. No more cheap junk. No more not-so-cheap items that were made on the other side of the globe and shipped here. The goal is to look a little harder for quality items that were made as close to home as possible in a humane work environment.

I am not quite ready to commit to extending this to food items. I really like South American wine and chocolate, European cheese, Mediterranean olive oil and coffee/tea.

As a note of comparison, the things on me and around me right now:
  • jeans - made in Colombia
  • shirt - made in Mexico
  • tank top - made in Cambodia
  • underwear - made in Cambodia
  • shoes - made in China
  • coffee mug - made in China
  • computer - made in Mexico
  • cell phone - could not determine country of origin
  • lip balm - made in China

Let's see how this goes. This may be a bit of a challenge!