Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Next Big Thing

Most of us are constantly looking ahead, instead of paying attention to what's right in front of us. How many times have you scheduled a trip or an event because you "need something to look forward to?" How often do you count down the minutes until 5pm? How often do you skim past most posts on social media, only pausing to comment or like on big announcements - the wedding, the baby, the new job?

In fact, you may have seen the title of this post paired with the image above, and felt a small thrill of anticipation. Is this post an announcement? A reveal? Am I about to embark on a new adventure and turn my world upside down?

Sorry to burst your bubble, but the answer is: none of the above. There are no big changes on the horizon. I am not on the cusp of a cosmic shift. Everything is fine; I'm just chugging along. And even though things are mostly good, steady and fulfilling, I still feel a twinge of wistfulness, a tiny voice whispering "But what's next?" in my ear.  

I started thinking about this phenomenon when I followed the Boston Marathon earlier this week. Watching Desi Linden cross the finish line to win first place, 11 years after she first ran the race, made me cry at my desk. (To be fair, I cry easy.) The cold, the pouring rain, the fact that her winning time was not even her fastest, the way she hung back for a teammate and still finished first. What a race! What an accomplishment! What a Big Thing!  

If my first response to the Boston Marathon was tears, the second was jealousy. I, too, wanted to do something big. Not run a marathon, exactly (though I am not opposed to taking on 26.2 again one day), but something exciting and impressive, that required hard work and sacrifice. It's been a while since I've set a big, scary goal and worked for it. (Not counting novel-writing, which is a goal so big and so time-consuming that it's just part of the fabric of my life, a fear I live with and write through nearly every day, and nothing, at this point, out of the ordinary, which I guess is a pretty Big Thing when you think about it, but I digress.)

I'm not sure what my next challenge will be. There are some things I've been meaning to try, some directions I'd like to push myself in. Lately I'm drawn to physical challenges. This past winter, I started focusing on speed during my runs, and set a new half-marathon PR. I've been lifting weights at the YMCA, watching tiny new muscles grow. I've been eating more protein. I'm not sure if these changes will lead to a new Big Thing, or if I'll simply enjoy feeling stronger in my body. I suspect not everything I do needs to be a Big Thing, that really I only need one thing at a time. All I have to do is figure out what it will be, and how big. 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

A Simple Trick For Building Better Habits

(I'm going to ignore the fact that I went two months without writing a blog post. I blame a combination of work, novel-writing, and the coldest Wilmington winter ever. In other words: life.) 

There's nothing I love more than a good habit. This proclivity isn't because I'm smack in the middle of my 30s, either. Even in my wild youth, I always made my bed first thing every the morning. Always buckled my seat belt as soon as I got in the car. Always washed my bowl when I was done eating.

Of course, I have bad habits, too; nobody is perfect. One habit that I've touched on a bit was drinking a glass of wine (or three...) at the end of the day. In my "Best Budget Wins of 2017" post, I mentioned that I'd cut down on my drinking, which was better for my wallet and my health. This habit was especially hard to break, because relaxing on the couch with a delicious beverage had become routine. Not only that, I enjoyed it! What I did not enjoy, however, were the slow mornings, the extra calories, and the fact that alcohol was such an integral part of my day. (Coffee, on the other hand, is a totally acceptable crutch.)

So, I decided to cut back and it was not nearly as hard as I feared! Here's how I did it, in three simple steps.

1. Set a measurable goal. 

"Drink less" is a great idea, but it's not specific enough to work as a goal. After all, less is relative. It would be easy to rationalize that two drinks on a Tuesday night is less than three, or one bottle of wine on a Saturday is less than two. Yes, I'd be drinking less, but the benefits at that point are negligible. Plus, I know myself. I am very disciplined - until I start drinking. One sip and all bets are off. So for me, the best route was to skip drinking entirely. I started with two evenings a week, and I could choose any evenings I wanted. At the beginning of the week, I'd look at my calendar, see what was going on, and identify ahead of time which days were best for not drinking. Book club was out, obviously. But a night when I had a run scheduled after work was perfect.

2. Find a healthier replacement. 

One thing I discovered was that it wasn't so much the glass of wine I loved, but the ritual of a special drink at the end of the day. Settling onto my couch between my dog and my husband, especially during the cold winter months, while sipping something delicious and shouting out the answers to Jeopardy! is, for me, the height of relaxation. So I knew it was important to find a replacement beverage that would scratch that same itch. I'm not a fan of La Croix or seltzer, so I asked for an electric kettle for Christmas and bought myself a bunch of herbal teas. And wouldn't you know it - holding a hot cup of tea is way cozier than a bottle of cold beer. 

3. Keep track of your progress. 

This is my favorite part. I love tracking things - I have more spreadsheets than I care to admit, tracking all sorts of mundane-to-anyone-but-me facts and figures. After trying out a few different apps, I downloaded HabitShare (available via Google Play and iTunes) and it's awesome. You create a habit, set a goal for how often you want to accomplish said habit, and then start tracking. Keeping track is simple - a green dot means you did it, red means you missed, and gray is a skip. Here are two screenshots of my booze-free progress for February and March:

My twice-a-week goal ended up feeling so good that I upped it to three times a week at the beginning of 2018. Most weeks, however, I actually hit four. As a bonus, I've also found that when I do drink, I imbibe less overall. For example, I drank four days in a row this past week, but I only had one beverage each time. So a total of four drinks for a whole week - not bad, especially compared to what I was mindlessly drinking out of habit just a few months ago.

I like HabitShare so much that I now have a bunch of things I'm tracking - a daily writing goal, a goal for workouts, a reading goal, etc. When I lie in bed at the end of the day, it feels great to go through my habits and check off the ones I accomplished. Some days are better than others, which is why I like looking at the month as a whole - it keeps things in perspective and helps me see how my habits are building over time and affecting one another. The less I drink, for example, the more I run and write and read. A fair trade, I'd say.

Do you have any tricks for tracking habits or creating good routines? I'd love to hear them! 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Budget-Friendly Benefits of a Depth Year

A few weeks ago I came across a new-to-me blog, Raptitude, thanks to a post titled "Go Deeper, Not Wider." The thesis is that humans are flighty creatures who love novelty. To combat this tendency, the author, David Cain, suggests a "Depth Year," in which you turn away from new experiences and possessions, and instead "find the value in what you already own or what you’ve already started." Instead of becoming a Jill-of-all-trades or spreading yourself thin, you commit to one passion or pursuit and go as deep as you can.

I liked this idea immediately. It echoes a lot of what I said in my 2018 Resolutions post, which boiled down to doing more, going further, digging deeper. I decided to make the Depth Year my unofficial theme for the next twelve months. If you're still searching for a goal or focus for the coming year, give it try - especially if any of your goals are financial.

Because the Depth Year is essentially another way to embrace frugality and live within our means. You choose to give up new possessions in favor of what you already have and learn to appreciate what you already own. There are plenty of examples of ways to do this in the original blog post, and there's even a Facebook group devoted to the endeavor where folks share what deep things they're pursuing.

As for me, my two Depth Year activities shouldn't come as a surprise. Finish all my writing projects (but mostly the novel) and get better at running. Both of these things take time, but not money. I have my fingers and my legs, and I don't need much else. Plus, the time I spent on these pursuits is time I'm not spending on things that cost money. I achieve my goals and preserve my budget - what could better?

Writing is pretty self-explanatory, so I won't focus on that right now. Instead, I'll talk a bit about running.

I started running in 2010, after my roller derby league fell apart. It was a fun and healthy way to kill time, and I found I really enjoyed long distances - especially the time to unplug and think. (I never run with music or podcasts or books on tape - running is one of the few times in my life that I am not actively consuming something.) I got so into running that I even completed two full marathons - Austin (in 4:45) and Houston (in 4:20).

Then I moved to North Carolina. I still run and continue to race an annual half marathon, but I don't really train or challenge myself. As a result, I haven't gotten faster - for the last few years, each half marathon I've run has actually been slower than the last.

This year, as part of my exercise in Depth, I'm actually trying. My yearly half marathon is on March 17th, and I'd like to run it in 1:55, which would be a new PR by a cool minute and a half. To that end, I've committed to running three times a week - a tempo run, a speed workout, and a long, slow run. While I like other workouts and am often distracted by shiny, new things like spin, yoga, and kettlebell, I'm putting running first until the race is over. I'm focusing, and committing, and going deeper. Or longer, as the case may be.

So far, it seems to be working. Each Sunday I add a mile to my long run, and each week, despite the increased distance, my overall pace-per-mile is slightly faster. This morning I headed out early, in an effort to beat the rain. I ran a misty 8 miles at a 9:32 pace, and my legs feel fine. Just three weeks ago, I could barely walk after 6 miles at 9:47. Progress is happening, step by step. The trick, I've learned, is to keep going.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

2018 Goals: A Bridge

Despite being a person that loves goals and resolutions and new beginnings, I did not set any expectations for 2017. No blog post laying out a detailed plan for the new year, no single word to serve as my guiding mantra, no resolutions for improving myself day by day. Looking back, it makes sense. The end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 were rough. Obama left office, my dog died, and my husband resigned from his job, and that was just the first three months! Getting through the day was challenging enough, never mind self-improvement.

This year, I'm feeling a bit more optimistic. While the political climate has been as bad as I feared, I'm now better equipped to resist and fight for change. We may be surviving on one income, but we've stuck to our budget and managed to live within our shrunken means. Writing is still a long, slow process, but progress is happening, even when I can't see it.

Maybe it's a consequence of social media and seeing everyone's highlight reel, but the last few New Year's Eves have been melancholy. At the close of each year, I've looked back and thought, "That was okay. Not great, not exciting, not really notable. Just okay." I would tell myself the past year was one of growth, of laying down the foundation, of making room. But you can only use that reasoning so many times before it starts to sound like an excuse. And so, to ensure that on the eve of 2019, I can look back with pride at all I've accomplished, I'm getting back to my roots. I'm setting goals for next year, and I'm choosing a word to guide me.

photo credit


The word I've chosen for 2018 is "bridge." Both a noun and a verb, a bridge is a structure carrying a path or road over a depression or obstacle. It's a time, place, or means of connection or transition. And finally, it's a passage connecting two sections of something - to bridge a gap, to carry forward.

For me, bridge will serve as a reminder that life is always in transition and that we're constantly moving, growing, and changing. I hope it will encourage me to trust the foundation I've laid and to follow risker paths - to try harder in all things and take the higher road. Despite some upheaval, my life has felt fairly stable for some time. It's time to build a bridge that will take me to the next stage.

Another reminder of my word-of-the-year are the literal bridges that lead to and from Wilmington. We are a city surrounded by water on all sides - ocean to the east, river to the west. I cross bridges regularly, and in 2018 I hope each one is a tiny burst of encouragement.

That said, here are some more specific goals I will attempt to bridge this year. 

Art & Writing 

I've been working on both a novel and a collection of short stories for years. In 2018, I want to finish both of these projects and sell one of them. I also want to write more flash fiction, read more nonfiction, and pitch more essays and articles. More, more, more. To accomplish these things, I'll do the following:

  • Write every day for at least 30 minutes. 
  • Pitch one essay or article a month. 
  • Write four new short stories to round out my collection. 
  • Write ten new flash fictions. 
  • Read 36 books. 
  • Spend a long weekend on a DIY writing retreat. 

Health & Fitness 

Health, too, has been pretty stagnant. All my runs are the same average speed. I've been attending the same kettlebell class for six years (!). My skin is beginning to show its age. All the habits that once worked just fine are no longer cutting it. I'm 35, and if I want to age gracefully, I need to try a little harder, mentally and physically. Here are some ways I will do that:

  • Set a new half marathon PR. 
  • Build more muscles. 
  • Substitute herbal tea for wine/beer three times a week.
  • Stick to my simple skin care regime. 
  • Do one new-to-me thing a month.

Money & Debt  

Over the last two years I've become a budgeting guru, so much so that it's no longer a challenge - it's just the way I live. Which means it's time to up my personal finance game and take things to the next level - especially if I ever want to retire. Some things I will attempt this year to make the transition easier:

  • Continue to rock my budget and live within my means.
  • Pay off Nathan's truck. ($650 to go.) 
  • Pay off my car. ($4,000 to go.) 
  • Save $500 per month ($6K total).
  • Learn how to invest. 

This probably seems like way too much to do all at once, but that's the thing - I'm not doing it all at once. A year is a pretty long time, with plenty of opportunities to try, fail, and try again. At the end of twelve months I want to feel proud of what I've accomplished, how far I've traveled, and all the bridges I built to help carry me forward. 

Here's to a productive, happy, and healthy 2018. Let's make it a good one, okay? 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Best Books I Read in 2017

Another year of reading in the books! (Get it? In THE BOOKS?) As always, I was humbled and dazzled by the books I managed to read this year - there were so many good ones, most of them heartbreaking in one way or another. (I'm a sucker for tragedies.) I'm also beginning to see patterns in my reading, and how the writers with whom I choose to spend my time reflects what I'm doing or thinking or struggling with at any given moment.

This year, I read my most diverse range of authors yet, which was wonderful and necessary - especially during a year so rife with political tragedies and systemic inequalities. Many of the books helped me see the world in a new light, or expanded my view of an issue, or showed me something about myself I'd previously ignored. While other areas of my life felt stagnant (another post for another time) I grew more as a reader this year than in any other. For that I am grateful, and I have the following books to thank.

The Best Books I Read in 2017

Total books read in 2017: 29

Gender breakdown: 
Female: 19
Male: 8
Anthologies: 2

Diversity breakdown:
White: 15
POC: 13
Anthologies: 1

Genre breakdown:
Novels: 16
Memoir/CNF: 10
Short story collections: 3

Month I read the most books: 
August and November (4 each)

Month I read the least books:
October (1)

Most fun I had while reading:
All the Lives I Want, Alana Massey. (A collection of essays about famous people the author has never actually met. Not the best book, but definitely fun in a surreal and sometimes sad way.)

Most overrated book/disappointing ending:
I'm Thinking of Ending Things, Ian Reid. (A book club pick that everyone hated. We chose it based on its great reviews, and it did NOT live up.)

Best family drama: 
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng. (She's basically the queen of family dramas, and consequently the writer I most aspire to be like.)

Prettiest prose: 
Imagine Me Gone, Adam Hazlett. (Gorgeous writing, but every page was a fresh wave of grief. Proceed with caution.)

Best book club pick: 
White Tears, Hari Kunzru. (Some people in book club hated this novel, others loved it. No one was in the middle. For the record, I loved it.)

Best book by a friend: 
Felt in the Jaw, Kristen Arnett. (Stories about lesbians in Florida, and that's all you need to know.)

Most engrossing book: 
Stay With Me, Ayobami Adebayo. (A doomed marriage. Tragic offspring. Magic misconstrued. And it all takes place in Nigeria, which is one of my favorite settings. Couldn't put it down.)

Most epic book: 
Pachinko, Min Jin Lee. (This book covers about 80 years and five generations, and Lee manages this task beautifully.)

Most disturbing book: 
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado. (There are images from this book I will never forget, and that's good. I don't want to forget them. "The Husband Stitch," especially, is a masterpiece.)

Best book of 2017: 
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng. (We're all shocked, I know.)

The full list of books I read in 2017, in order: 

The Wangs Vs. the Wold, Jade Chang
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli
A Thin Bright Line, Lucy Bledsoe
Commonwealth, Ann Patchett
The Red Parts, Maggie Nelson
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
White Tears, Hari Kunzru
The Small Backs of Children, Lidia Yukanvitch
Hourglass, Dani Shaprio
The Idiot, Elif Batuman
Scratch: Collected Essays, Manjula Martin
The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen
All Grown Up, Jami Attenberg
Imagine Me Gone, Adam Hazlett
Hunger, Roxane Gay
A Beautiful, Terrible Thing, Jennifer Wait
The War of Art, Steven Pressfield
Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson
All the Lives I Want, Alana Massey
Felt in the Jaw, Kristen Arnett
I'm Thinking of Ending Things, Ian Reid
The Fire This Time, Jessamyn Ward
American War, Omar El Akkad
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jessamyn Ward
Stay With Me, Ayobami Adebayo
The Futilitarians, Anne Gisleson
Pachinko, Min Jin Lee
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado

See also: 
The Best Books I Read in 2016