Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Spring Break--Having a Plan

This week is my spring break. The kids are in school, Hubby is gone on vacation, and so I have lots of hours in the house to myself. It. Is. Wonderful. But, unfortunately, I cannot just luxuriate in the silence or lie on the floor, staring at the ceiling in relaxed bliss. I can't even curl up on the couch with a book. No, I have stuff to get done, including two (out of three) batches of essays*, several sets of quizzes, and a chapter draft for the dissertation. Plus, there is all manner of housekeeping, gardening, and bill paying to which I should attend.

In order to get said stuff done, I figured I should have a plan, especially for the grading which I really want to ignore but cannot. Here is the basic plan that I came up with last Thursday:

  • Sunday evening: grade all quizzes
  • Monday during the day: grade paper revisions 
  • Each day, M-F: grade five essays from batch one during the day, and grade two essays from batch two each evening after the kids go to bed
  • Sunday at the end of break: the remainder

  • Do a lot each day

How has it been going, you ask? Well, it's Tuesday afternoon, and I have graded all of the quizzes but only two essays. Out of about 45 or 50. (Wow, typing those numbers just spooked me, big time.) And I wouldn't say I've done a lot for the PhD but rather a little, or maybe a medium amount.

What have I been doing instead of grading? Oh, I don't know--taking morning walks with the dog, cleaning out the pantry, tidying my environment, drinking tea, talking to the cat.

But unless I want to be totally screwed on Sunday, I better get busy with the grading. And if I want to have a decent chapter draft by Friday, I need to step up my game on that front, too.

I will happily accept any advice for how to milk this break for all its worth so that it seems both productive and vacation-like (rather than unproductive and not-so vacation-like).

*The third batch will just have to wait until next week.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Gender in the Simplicity Movement

Lately, I have been focusing on the concept of simplicity. It's not the first time I've gone down this road. It usually happens when I'm deep in the thickets of a semester, the house is out of control, and I'm feeling frazzled. During these times, simplicity is more of a fantasy than a philosophy.

But my recent attention has been more serious. Although I'll never be a true minimalist, I've have become more aggressive as I pare down the possessions in my house. Beyond the clutter, I'm trying to simplify in other ways, too.

But I've noticed something interesting as a I read more about/from this movement. Specifically, I've noticed that there are gender differences. With the men, it's often about having very few possessions, being physically healthy, and living with low expenses so they can follow their dreams. With the women, it's all about spending more quality time with their children and making organic food from scratch.

Granted, some of the male writers from the minimalist movement have children (Leo Babauta has six!), but, with the exception of Joshua Becker, not many well-known men in the simplicity movement seem to talk much about their kids. Even though Baubata has six kids, his blog posts don't focus on them very often.

The dichotomy struck me most when I was reading one of Joshua Field Milbourne's books. I read about "a day in the life of a minimalist"--an example of a "typical day" for Milbourne. One part of his day involved going out to a local cafe for a burrito. In fact, several parts of his day involved meals at restaurants. The rest of his day was spent writing, exercising, or hanging out with friends.

Yet, when I read about the simplicity movement for women, it doesn't always sound so simple, especially when it comes to food. In fact, some times it sounds like the same old backlash again moms. Now, perhaps this isn't really a male/female difference, but a kids/kidless difference. Still, I feel as if I need to be very careful that I'm not being snookered into feeling guilty about being a working mom who doesn't grow her own vegetables, raise her own chickens, and make pizza from scratch. I can't help but raise an eyebrow when simplicity writings for women seem to make dinner time so much more complicated.

All of this said, I've found two voices from this movement that I really like a lot. The first is Kim John Payne (with Lisa M. Ross) in Simplicity Parenting. I thought this book was wise, fairly well researched, and even well written (the latter, perhaps, thanks to Ross?). And Payne even suggests having repetitive, simple meal plans, so I didn't feel as if I was being attacked for imperfect nourishment or some other failing. In fact, from this book, I felt compelled to make changes not from a place of guilt or insufficiency, but merely for a greater chance to embrace the joy of parenting over the worry and guilt of parenting. Also, I truly believe that the actions he recommends will make better, happier lives for my children and for me.

I also really liked Notes from a Blue Bike by Tsh Oxenreider. Although she does want me to prepare local, organic food from scratch, she, for the most part, seems to be encouraging true simplicity and joy--not motherly perfection or guilt. Oxenreider's book is more memoir than instruction, and I was inspired by her stories to make further changes within our home and family.

What about you? Have you noticed gender differences in the voluntary simplicity movement? Do you have any books that have inspired you to simplify your life or increase the space for joy in your family?

(Sidenote: I enjoyed the audiobooks for both books.)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

I Want to Spend Time in My Closet

Can I tell you how great my closet it? I cleaned it out a few weeks ago--one of my first decluttering efforts--and it's fantastic. I have cleaned my closet many times in the past, of course, but this time I threw away or donated so much more than in the past. I wasn't totally ruthless, but close to it. I am the kind of person who wears the same clothes all the time, and I alternate between just a few pairs of shoes, so I just don't need that much.

The most significant change is that I got a sweater hanger. For the past ten years, I've been folding and stacking throwing and piling my sweaters on the shelf above the hanging rack. I am only 5' 2", and, therefore, I've spent the last 10 years with a mess of sweaters falling on my head and on the floor whenever I try to get a sweater down from the shelf. Now, the sweaters are in the sweater hanger, and the top shelf of the closet is reserved for storage of photos, mementos, and travel supplies.

The photo below is from the project in process, but it shows my awesome sweater hanger. Now that the project is complete, the floor of the closet has nothing but few pairs of shoes, and the top shelf has the items I mentioned above. The clothes on the right edge of the frame are my husbands. I also have a bureau for socks, skivvies, t-shirts, and tanks, but, otherwise, this is my wardrobe.

The closet is wonderful, and I know that it won't become a disaster again because I got rid of so much. I have finally learned a way I can organize: Have less stuff!

Now I've moved on to the desk in the study.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

To Scrivener or Not to Scrivener

About a year and a half ago, I bought my first Mac, and the first program I installed was Scrivener. Three friends (Amstr, Rachael, and Cleared for Flight) had raved about the program, and, being mid-stream in my PhD thesis, I figured I needed all the help I could get.

I spent last spring drafting a thesis chapter on Scrivener, and I recognized the benefits. Multiple times, I moved sections around, changing my mind about the order of the different sections. Scrivener made it easy to make those changes.

But now, for the past 10 months, I've been working on the same damn chapter, and I've had a terrible time. Although I don't want to blame Scrivener (or my use of it) for all of my woes and ineptitudes, I am throwing a little blame its way.

Here's the problem as I'm starting to understand it: Scrivener breaks my chapters up into chunks or subtopics, and, therefore, I tend to only think of the chapter in chunks or subtopics. As a result, I've had a harder time identifying the central argument of the chapter--the thread that will hold it all together.

This past weekend, the family gave me a one-night hotel pass, so I had many uninterrupted hours of work. This, in itself, was gloriously helpful, but I think what really led to a breakthrough was when I got out of Scrivener and started working in Word, when I started thinking about the chapter (and reading the chapter) as a unified thing. Granted, I had compiled my Scrivener files into Word plenty of times before, but then I kept going back into Scrivener to attempt further progress.

My conclusion? I need to write in Word. But this does not mean Scrivener won't be helpful. This weekend when I was writing in Word, I was mining from my Scrivener files, and I discovered how Scrivener might best work for me: it should be a holding and organizing place for my notes and research.

Maybe this is how everyone else is already using Scrivener. Maybe I was just doing it wrong from the get go. But I'm glad to have clarity as I move forward. As for actually writing up my chapters in Scrivener? I prefer not to.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Silver Lining of Leprechaun Traps

My daughter's only homework this week is to design and build a leprechaun trap. My first thought was, Gah. Not this again. It is due Friday, and she'll be working on it Monday-Thursday. One of her big wishes for the project is that she can build it with me. There are impediments to her wish. She is with other people M-Th afternoons (dad or grandma), and in the evenings when we all get home, I'm usually working on dinner. I do pick her up on Fridays from school, but she will have already turned it in by then.

I let her know that I could help her on some of the evenings, but that other people would have to help her, too. But last night, in my efforts to honor her wish, I left the dishes sitting on the countertops after dinner so that she and I could sit down together to consider the project (it was very difficult for me to ignore those dishes). It started with me just giving her moral support while she colored some of the designs on the trap panels. But then, she announced that she wanted to make a bean bag for the leprechaun to sit in when he fell into the trap. My first thought was Really? We have to make a bean bag now?

But earlier in the evening, she had also expressed a desire to work on a sewing project together sometime soon. So, regarding the bean bag, I said, "We could sew it if you want to."

Now, sometimes, I say things like this, and they turn into such time-consuming, poorly-planned ordeals that we have to bail on the whole shebang. But last night, we easily cut out some circles, and she sewed them together. She was thrilled by the transformation that happened when we turned the sewed circles right side out, exposing her nice (and somewhat circular) seams. Then, we stuffed the little bean bag with quinoa, and she stitched it closed. The project was done, bedtime wasn't too late, and I still had the kitchen cleaned by 9:30. I couldn't believe that we managed two fulfill two of her wishes: doing a sewing project and working on the leprechaun trap. It all felt so purposeful. But the best part was how proud she was of her little project. Seeing her touch and handle the bean bag, marveling that she made it, gave me great joy.

If it sounds like I'm patting myself on the back, that's because I am. I so rarely manage to accomplish something like this without it either devolving into something stressful and/or being left unfinished. And there were no tears from either of us! But mostly I'm just grateful that the dreaded school project actually turned into something valuable for us*.

*Granted, the trap isn't finished yet, so things could get bad, but I'm going to try to maintain optimism, basking in the glow of our first efforts.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Decider

This Saturday, it started to happen again. Any ideas I had about a schedule for the day began to get entirely hijacked. Around 11:00 a.m., I hadn't yet done much of anything except for try to figure out how we'd spend the day. Hubby had made a decision to do yard work, so that's what he did. I was navigating play date possibilities and competing schedules, none of which coincided with what I wanted to do for the day. As a result, I found myself frustrated and in tears (again! twice in one week!) on my bed.

And then it hit me: I can just decide.

So I got up, went back outside, sat on the bench and started putting on my shoes. "I'm going to the tide pools," I said. "I would love it someone wants to come with me. Oh, and anyone who stays home with Daddy won't be playing video games because it's a beautiful day. It's not a day for gaming."

Guess what? Both kids wanted to go. It took us a while to get out the door, but they were eager and never complained. We had a wonderful time, and I felt in control of myself as a person and of my parenting. Sometimes, in my effort to make my kids happy, I just offer too many choices. Perhaps those choices are not always good for them or for me. Sometimes, I just need to decide.

Below: a "gumboot chiten," sometimes known as the "wandering meatloaf"

Below: Beautiful purple sea urchins!

Below: a very large sea anemone all closed up (SO soft!)

Below: Hello, hermit crab!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


With kids, a job, and a PhD to finish, each day is a delicate balance, and I often find myself feeling pretty much the same way I do when I'm attempting tree pose while wearing my baggy pajama bottoms. It just doesn't work.

Lately, I've felt really out of balance. There have been many illnesses at Chez GEW. Strep throat (once for one kid*, twice for the other kid**), a serious case of viral tonsillitis, and various colds. Good or bad, I have not been sick yet***, but when the kids are sick, everything else stops. And these illnesses are never expected, of course, so they disrupt plans.

Granted, I am a parent, so I know my plans will be disrupted by my kids' needs. But lately, I have felt as if this is happening every day and, especially, every weekend. As a result, I find myself spinning in circles, sometimes literally (as I stand in the living room trying to figure out what to do next), not feeling productive (or good enough) at anything.

I had a bit of a breakdown on Monday. There were tears. I can't remember the last time this kind of distress caused tears. It felt weird. But the tears and the breakdown did help me realize that I'm just feeling very out of control and ineffective.

This probably won't last long, but I probably do need to try to figure out ways to either change or accept the circumstances--maybe a little bit of both--over the next couple of weeks in order to feel better. I'm still working on what that balance will be and how I'll go about it. Or maybe I just need to realize that balance is not the right metaphor. Maybe I'm on a teeter-totter that will always be heavier on one side than the other. Maybe I just need to make sure that, occasionally, I switch sides and that I avoid crashing hard one way or the other.

Note: This distress feels really silly and inconsequential when I think about a family in my community who just lost a teenage son to leukemia on Valentine's Day after he struggled with the illness for two years. I really can only barely imagine the stress and subsequent grief of such an experience.

*although the kid who has only had it once is worried that the second shoe will drop on him later this week (and since one usually gets it when the other does, his concerns are legit)
**at this point, we are wondering if someone is a carrier
***probably just jinxed myself

Friday, February 7, 2014

Something is Better than Nothing, Except for When It's Better to have Nothing

I have been paying attention to the Rule of Three, but I have been only partly successful. So far, I have walked at least three times per week (that is, if I take two walks in the next two days), and until this week, I've done about two hours per week on the PhD. But I've only done yoga about once a week. As for home-related projects? It's been a bit of a blur.

This week I had interruptions to my regular walking and PhD schedule, so now I need to do some make-up work over the next couple days. Doing things around the house is such a constant battle effort that it's hard to separate the productive projects from everyday management. I've made a couple of project lists, and I haven't done very well with them. But something is better than nothing, right?

Well, sometimes. Except when nothing is better--like an empty junk drawer or shelf with nothing on it.  To that end, I have decided to try to find at least one thing per day that I can give away or throw away. On Wednesday, I took 15 minutes to pull old clothes out of three drawers, and I ended up with one bag of clothes for Goodwill. Yesterday, I found some toys and books that I could donate to my daughter's class "store." I am hoping that these daily efforts will seem less overwhelming than a giant overhaul while still helping me make progress toward decluttering our home so that we can all be good stewards of what we have rather than collecting a bunch of stuff we can't manage.

Below is the bag of stuff I got rid of. It's not much, but it only took 15 minutes. I'm keeping the dog.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Rule of Three

I have really neglected the PhD thesis for the past few months. Other than a conference paper that was loosely connected to the chapter I'm working on, I've done very little work. I'm not sure what happened. I got out of the habit of getting up early to read and write (partly because of several months of often being up at night with an anxious son), and I think I let work and family squeeze out time on the thesis in general. The extra family time has been nice, but I don't like the idea that grading and general laziness have put me behind.

I tried to think of a crafting a New Year's Resolution that might do the trick, but I am skeptical of my ability to keep long lists of resolutions. Then I saw that my friend Rachael Herron chooses one particular word for the year: last year was now; this year is rest. I tried and tried to think of one word that would capture what I want for this year. I want typical things--to eat better food, to get rid of clutter, to spend less money, to work more on my thesis. I considered the word "purpose," but it seemed a bit vague.

So, instead, I'm taking a slightly different tack, and I'm focusing on a "rule of three." This rule establishes the following minimum guidelines. I might reach beyond these rules, but if I meet them, then I can be certain that, at the very least, I'm not totally ignoring my priorities. (I might add more "threes" later, but I don't want to overwhelm myself in the beginning).

  • Three walks per week
  • Three yoga sessions (of at least 20 minutes) per week (I do these at home with video classes)
  • Three hours on the thesis per week (this might seem pitifully small, but it's realistic and better than nothing)
  • Three house projects (other than regular maintenance) per month.
I would like to have a family goal in the list, too, but I'm not sure how to quantify that part.

So far this week, I have put in two walks, two yoga sessions, one hour on the thesis. I'm also 75% finished with one house project (rearranging the study so that my daughter's new keyboard can fit in the room).

We'll see how it goes.