Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Life in All It's Complexities: A Review of Pixar's UP

I have been a steadfast fan of all things Pixar from Toy Story to The Incredibles all the way up through Wall-E, reveling in the witty humor, clever film making, and enthusiastic affirmations of life, love, and family, that each embodies.

Needless to say, I went in to UP with high expectations... but I certainly wasn't expecting to start sobbing two minutes after the film started rolling! Who thinks to cry in a kids' movie? And during a 5-minute nearly-silent intro at that? Certainly not me, I'm not that much of a softy... but if Wall-E proved anything, it proved that Pixar can skillfully convey emotion even when words are at a premium. If you've seen the preview of UP, you already know that the hero is a senior citizen of the very crabbiest variety, who ends up whisked off in lively, unlikely, airborne adventure to mysterious lands. But the film itself starts with that hero shown as a child of eight or nine, and rapidly takes us through the course of his life with hardly any words after the initial opening sequence. We meet the rapscallion childhood sweetheart who later becomes his beautiful wife, we see their hopes and dreams and daily struggles... We see them age, and we see him crippled with grief when he loses her. Then the movie I had been expecting from the preview finally began.

And by then I was crying copiously, bawling even. SHEESH! was my thought as the opening credits rolled.

Over the course of the following hour and a half, the film did indeed end up fulfilling my initial expectations of humor ("SQUIRREL!"), gorgeous, clever film making, and lively affirmations of life and hope, but it also reached a level of pathos I hadn't anticipated and left me more than a little emotionally drained. Similar to "real life," there were times in the movie when the poignant drastically outweighed the sweet, and where loneliness was the predominate emotion... yet even so there were adventures to be had, connections to be made, and people (or critters) to be helped. The film ended on that redemptive note, and I think it was meant to be a very happy close. But for me, and perhaps for other people of faith as well, even that didn't feel like enough. Viewers who believe in a greater purpose and a life after death may find that they leave the film feeling a little hollow, because there doesn't seem to be indications of either here. It is certainly true that life is fleeting, but the rapid opening montage and a sense of impending death throughout the film gives UP a heavy edge that prevents it from flying as high as it seems to have been intended.

For children, who are unlikely to pick up on any of these largely implied emotional and metaphysical issues, the film will be a happy-go-lucky romp in a magical land with a gruff but reassuring grandfather-presence to see them safely along the way. And for adults who are able to absorb the message "life is transitory" and translate it into "life is valuable," the film will be a Carpe Diem!! reminder to embrace life in all it's complexity. It is truly impressive that UP is able to reach both audiences so adeptly, but I would still add the caveat that it is better to be aware of the somewhat thorny underlying subtexts before viewing. As someone who can struggle with anxiety and depression, some of the themes were hard for me to digest with equanimity. Nevertheless, UP is a beautiful, moving film, and a balloon-ride well worth taking... one that will stay in your mind long after you leave the theater.

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Simplifying Life in the Kitchen: Handy Tools to Track Good Nutrition

Between the tighter budgets most people are on these days, the latest health and nutritional concerns, and organic considerations like the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen, there are probably a million things to juggle around in your head while making your shopping lists and getting ready to cook dinner.

I won't say I can make it simpler exactly, nor can I pop over to your house to help peel potatoes or clip coupons for you, but I can at least consolidate the tools to make it easier! In the coming week or two I'll be doing several posts highlighting my favorite food-related websites, and shortcuts to maximize each.

Part I: My favorite online tool for nutritional analysis
Part II: Handy sites for finding affordable local and organic options
Part III: Time-efficient resources for saving money on groceries

In the scope of life, nutritional choices that support health are a high priority, so an obvious first stop on this food-related expedition will be the nutritional tracking food pyramid site. It's a little labor intensive and less-than-cutting edge, sure, but this site tracks not only calories and fat intake, but everything else from calcium to potassium to fiber too. It even will show you a "nutritional balance" scale, to highlight whether your caloric intake is appropriate for your daily energy needs. There are plenty of other similar sites, but this is my favorite... partially because it's dated-ness provides some comedic relief in between the dreaded contemplations of calories and vitamins and fiber.

Try it out! Click on the link, go to "Pyramid Tracker" on the left sidebar, create an account and log in. Enter your best approximations of what you've eaten that day (sadly, the site doesn't understand the concept of a smoothie, so for things that aren't listed just try to break them down into their components... so in this case, strawberries and yogurt). Here's where you can make this easier on yourself for future entries -- once you find an item, say, "cereal," and it's something that you eat pretty regularly, go ahead and click "frequently used foods" and then "add". This way when you log back in next time, you can just go straight to your "frequently used" list for all your habitual food choices and not have to do as much searching. After a bit, it should look more or less like this:


When you're finished listing foods, click on "Select Quantity" and make your best guess as to how much of each you ate. At some point you might want to brush up on portion size comparisons like the ones here to make this a little easier. When you're finished, click on "Analyze" to see a break-down of suggested daily values for nearly all the possible vitamins and food groups, along with what you have consumed for each so far.

Once you've entered your food intake for the day, click on the "Physical Activity" link at the top of the page, toward the right. Do the condensed option, because the standard option is just ridiculously detailed... it expects you to enter every moment of your day, including the time you spend sleeping. Click around and enter any working out, walking, strenuous lifting, even the eight times up-and-down the steps doing laundry. Here's where it gets amusing, because the activity options include some pretty ludicrous stuff, including: "Standing, Casino Gambling," "Walking to and from an Outhouse," and "Butchering Animals." My best guess is that the system was originally derived from a very vintage source, but it still gives an accurate accounting of the calories expended by various activities so I figure it's all good.

After you've entered your physical activity for the day, click on the "Energy Balance" link next to "Physical Activity" and you can see how your daily food intake balances with your energy needs... It's pretty interesting, and a great visual!

Even if you can't spare the time to enter all that regularly (I certainly don't), the site is still an excellent way to occasionally double-check whether your nutritional bases are as covered as you think they are. Whether you end up patting yourself on the back or frowning at the display, it's still a great tool to have in your online garage! It works for me, and hopefully it might be handy for you too. :)

For other helpful Works For Me Wednesday posts, check out We're THAT Family for lots of intriguing options!

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Garden Update: A doomed forest of corn, some big mistakes, and cute lil baby veggies...

As you may recall from past posts, my boyfriend and I planted our first garden together in his backyard this spring. Neither of us completely knew what we were doing -- we planted the seedlings with a book akin to Gardening for Dummies in one hand and a shovel in the other -- but we figured it was on-the-job learning, and an adventure.

We've had mixed results out of this blind optimism, and I figure it's about time for an update.

1. The "garden", and the seedlings. Our little garden is more of a plot, so I don't want people picturing some sprawling, luscious movie-style garden (like the one you can currently find in the backyard of my awesome friend Dera at Casablanca)... originally the space of ground we dug up looked a little too much like a grave, and we doubled that into a rough square later after we realized we had bought too many plants. We planted an assortment of seedlings, including squash, zucchini, three different kinds of peppers, basil, and stevia. Here's where we made our first mistake though... when the book said, "plant squash and zucchini seedlings in mounds," we figured a little heap of dirt would count as a "mound" just fine. Word to the wise... it doesn't. If there are specific planting instructions, you should probably figure that they're there for a reason. In the case of squash and zucchini, it's because if there isn't enough air circulating around the plants, they'll come down with a very nice case of powdery mold. Oops. I battled the powdery mold quite successfully on the squash plants with a mixture of milk and baking soda (two of the natural remedies I found recommended online) but all of my zucchini died. Tragedy! The peppers are doing swimmingly, and we have several adorable baby squash growing up nicely too, so I'm quite excited about that. Our herbs are also thriving enthusiastically, so I'm making plans for Caprese salad and stevia-sweetened iced tea soon. Hurrah!

2. Our little forest of doomed corn. I sprouted some corn seeds on my kitchen counter and was ecstatic when they grew like a corn equivalent of Jack's beanstalk. Sadly for the little plants, this was right around the time that Atlanta was heating up into a city-sized oven and suddenly my boyfriend's backyard turned into one massive mosquito nest. I would go out to water the garden and come back with my legs covered with those little buggers' corpses, and 20 or so bites from the ones I hadn't managed to kill. The moral of the story... the corn is probably doomed. I admit it, we're too lazy to deal with the heat AND the mosquitoes, so our plants are probably just going to die out there on his back porch. Silent shame.


3. Our tomato saga. Originally I bought two tomato plants meaning to put them in homemade upside-down planters, but after the first attempt ended in dirt everywhere and a smashed seedling, I figured I would wait to try again. My main problem is that I don't have a good post / hook / tree / anything to hang it on, so if I don't figure out a good option for that soon I'm just going to go ahead and still the little guy in the ground, because he's done about all the growing he can in his little container. During a trip to Ace Hardware the other day to buy wire supports for our peppers we spotted a tomato plant for sale that already had two little tomatoes on it, and of course I couldn't resist buying that one too...!! He's already safely in the ground, and hopefully will do well in his new environment. Fingers crossed!


Observations and notes for future reference: I love growing things. I really like growing them from seeds too (fortunately, since that way is also a lot cheaper) so next season I'll definitely start my plants inside way early to have the fun of that and avoid buying seedlings. However, when planting things, I need to do research, and follow the instructions provided by that research. Also, it's good to do the digging wayy in advance, since when it gets hot I get lazy. I'll also probably try to ditch the digging all together next Spring, and go in with some other gardening friends to rent and share a tiller one Saturday and just avoid back-strain entirely.

Otherwise, I feel like our little garden has been a pretty decent success! I'm hoping to pick and cook some of the little squashes in a few days, so I'll be sure to report back how our home-grown vegetables taste... I'm nervous that they might have suffered from not having quite enough water, but we'll hope for the best and wait and see! Smile.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Free MP3 Madness! From Mates of State to Rachel Lampa, Sixpence None the Richer to Ravel (and some rap thrown in for good measure)

Enjoying the summer, but need a new soundtrack for the season?? Don't worry, I've got you covered, and you won't have to spend a cent!

We'll start out with another summer playlist of 22 tracks, this one offered by Nylon and including MP3 from Of Montreal and Phoenix, among a myriad of others. You can't pick and choose here so you might have to go weed out the ones you don't like later, but really who's going to complain about that?

Then, if you've been downloading Amazon's free tracks here and there but are a little tired of scrounging for them, swing by to check out this grandfather listing of the 800+ MP3s currently available! Fans of Christian contemporary music will be glad to see Jaci Valesquez, Barlow Girl, Big Daddy Weave, and Rachel Lampa, and even if you've been keeping up with the ones I've recommended along the way you're likely to find a couple you'd missed... I stumbled across a Mates of State track I had forgotten to download, and Death Cab for Cutie and Sixpence None the Richer are in there too... Lots of favorites!

Another find from that listing that I stumbled across and enjoyed enough to go download the rest of their album from eMusic (six tracks are free on Amazon, but the rest are pretty good too) is a rather obscure UK duo named Fitzsimon & Brogan. Apparently the two were members of a band called Pretty Blue Gun in the 90s, and are re-releasing some of that material now. Their sound is a fun, upbeat blast from the past, and they carry their 70s and 80s influences with pride. They made me think of ABBA, who I love with steadfast loyalty, so that made me happy. If it's up your alley, it's good stuff!

If you have an eMusic membership then don't forget about the 200+ tracks available for free there too... The ones that stood out to me this week are a little different than my usual fare, including instrumental (a beautiful Ravel track and a lush modern take on the piano ) and rap (an album called The Wages of Syntax). The last one is actually a whole sampler CD from the underground rap label Syntax... they happen to be pretty good, and they happen to be Christians. Give it a chance; it makes for a great change of pace, and you might be impressed.

I'm not too impressed with iTunes' offerings this week, but if you like Arrested Development, or zany, clever hilarity in general, swing by there to download the pilot episode in its entirety for free. They have several other comedy sketch type shows available for free download right now that I'm looking forward to checking out too. The shows are a bit of a jackpot in and of themselves, because whole episodes are rarely offered for free... And Arrested Development easily rates as one of my favorite comedy shows of all time, so don't miss out!

Lastly, don't forget that 3Hive and Fingertips both have "stream this page" options that basically give you a radio-style overview of all their newest downloads... love something, and it's yours! It's an easy way to stay up-to-date without going into overload.

Ok, that's the last of today's ration of free-and-legal tunes to see you through the week... let me know what you think of the tracks, or if you find anything good I've overlooked!

Breaking News!! The entirety of Regina Spektor's new album is currently streaming on MySpace. The album won't even be released until the 23rd, so get the full-length early preview here. Yes friends, that shiny shimmery stuff in the air is indeed audible gold. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Organization through Brutal Elimination, or: How to Defeat the Boogie Man in the Closet

"Organization" used to feel like a Boogie Man hiding in my closet. Some days I would be brave enough to whip him out of there, beat him into shape and make him take up proper hygiene. Other days, I would pretend not to notice that he existed at all, and would just keep hoping that the piles of papers and clothes I stacked nonchalantly outside the door would trap him, and he would never again emerge. But inevitably organization would emerge, wild and out of control, shrieking and knocking things over... and again I would be forced to admit that ignoring it in the first place had just caused myself all kinds of trouble.

It was especially bad because those tough, brave moments of hyper-organization were actually an expression of my need to structure reality when my life was chaotic, and weren't actually driven by any kind of discipline at all. So the instant the chaos faded, so did the organization. Plus, my home organizational system consisted of piles. A pile for the important papers, a pile for the things to be scrapbooked, a pile of books to be read, a pile of books to take back to the library, and so on. In a lot of cases the system worked fine, and it's actually typical of a lot of people with ADD, but piles are very easily knocked over... especially when the pile-maker is a klutz and owns two cats. The moment I stopped maintaining it, my "system" started to become "mess."

So for me, getting my life in order and keeping it that way requires desperate measures. It requires Brutal Organization, and nothing less.

I came to this conclusion after years of distress, lost papers, and wrinkled clothing, but it was specifically triggered after seven weeks studying abroad, living happily and even ecstatically, with only the very fewest of necessities. Clearly, most of the "stuff" filling my room at home wasn't as integral to daily life as I had thought it was. Shortly after I returned to the states, I took a week-long volunteer trip to post-Hurricane-Katrina New Orleans: a week spent gutting ruined, sodden houses and seeing just how easily the contents of those homes had become rubble. It was a perspective check in a big way, and I went home and completely emptied out my bathroom closet of every single forgotten half-empty bottle and expired prescription, and my closet of all the mis-sized, worn-out clothing that had been shoved to the back. It was cathartic and freeing, and as time past those experiences combined as the impetus that formed my philosophy of Brutal Organization.

The Brutal Organization Manifesto:

Part I: Many, if not most, of the possessions in the average American household are completely superfluous, and superfluous things only serve to weigh us down.

Part II: There should be nothing around you that isn't ridiculously utilitarian, personally meaningful, or somehow beautiful.

After you have grappled with and accepted both parts of the manifesto, Brutal Organization then requires that you go through the things you own and reevaluate each with stark honesty. Is it ridiculously useful? Did it use to be meaningful, but now you don't really care any more? Is it beautiful? Could something lovely serve in its place while being just as utilitarian? Is the item a duplicate of something you already have, and could someone else benefit from it instead? Do you use it often enough to make keeping it worth-while?

Brutal Organization becomes a lot easier when you start to view your possessions as tenants in your house. They pay their rent with service, whether it is opening a bottle, cleaning your clothes, making you smile, or helping you remember what is important... but they either need to constantly serve you in small ways, or occasionally in huge ones. Obviously, the serving platter or heaviest coat may only be pulled out a few times a year, but they're going to more than earn their keep. On the other hand, the sweater that you haven't worn in two seasons or that CD you didn't actually like are both way behind on paying their rent. Don't be a pushover landlord! Use Brutal Organization and put some smack down, and make some worthy charitable organization glow with delight over the resulting discarded "stuff."

Brutal Organization doesn't mean getting rid of your ties to the past, by any means -- in fact if you've been reading my posts for very long you're aware of the high importance I place on continuation and physical mementos -- but sometimes values just shift. You should never hang on to something just because you're in the habit of keeping it. It must fall within Part II of the manifesto. Brutal Organization also doesn't necessarily mean getting rid of something just because you haven't used in it a year or two, because it's very likely that you should have been using it during that time. Exercise equipment for example, or perfectly good shoes lying forgotten in the back of your closet, or the crockpot that could save you both time and money if you ever remembered to lug it out of the cabinet... These things don't need to be eliminated, they need to be used! Make a list of the ingredients laying forgotten in the cupboard and post it on your fridge; pile the unwatched DVDs on top of the TV; move the older clothes to the front of the closet and wear them in rotation. If it still doesn't get eaten, watched, worn, or otherwise utilized, or if you remember that there was a stain down the front of that jacket anyway, that's when it's time to be rid of it.

Many times beautiful things can also serve utilitarian purposes, or vice versa. Brutal Organization prompted me to get rid of the ugly green desk organizer I had been using, and substitute a thrift store vase and mug to hold my desk supplies in its place. In their former lives those two objects had been merely decorative, since the mug was cracked and the vase was too short and wide to hold flowers easily; in their new lives they were valued and productive. I was able to use old things in a new way that eliminated a superfluous object and made something lovely also utilitarian. I like my desk a great deal more for the change, and I've doubled my benefit from those items.

We live in a culture of advertising and materialism, and it's easy to forget what's important. Brutal Organization can allow you to appreciate and value what you have that much more, while making life a little simpler. In my experience, it makes for a worthwhile pursuit, and a happier individual. Brutal Organization works for me! And it can work for you too. :)

For many more Works for Me Wednesday posts, check out We're That Family for a wide variety of other fun and useful ideas.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Review of Hair-Raising Harper's Island... or, "Gruesome death stalks residents, as mystery unfolds..."

Harper's Island -- is any one else watching this one?? This new mystery/horror show probably qualifies as "just" a time filler, designed with plenty of gore and thrills to snag the passing channel-hopper... And since many loyal viewers are still surviving in a haze of homesickness for shows on sabbatical, Harper's Island might just be a decent little stand-in for a while. Sure, it's no Lost... but it is located on a freaky-ass island, with plenty of weird phenomenon taking place amidst mysterious fog... It's no Bones, but it does have plenty of Goo-Formally-Known-as-Human and dismembered corpses to offer, two of that show's particular specialties... Dollhouse it is not either, but there is the highly dominate theme of the forgotten, unknown past fighting to be reconciled with the present. A pretty good little cocktail of elements so far, yes?

Like I said, this show doesn't pull any punches in its quest to captivate viewers, and the more faint-hearted among my readers might justly wish to take warning of that fact. The pilot episode opens with the cheerful sight of a man strapped under a boat's propeller as it lies anchored in harbor, the breathing mask over his face postponing his death up to the very moment that the motor whirrs to dreadful life. Yes dear viewer, that would indeed qualify as a Harbinger of Things to Come.

But if you have a strong stomach, or a barf bag in hand, it is hugely entertaining, driven by a genre that has been going strong ever since Le Manoir Du Diable and Nosferatu first chilled the bones of flapper and farmer alike. And this show seems fully aware of the tools of the tradition, borrowing elements from the whole range of sources. The Gothic mansion, the serial killer, the spooky child with a link to the spirit world, the young woman tortured by a mysteriously tragic past, even the oblivious blond wandering out into the forest in search of her missing lapdog... all are tied neatly together here, along with a dozen or so others too. I'll admit I was cynical at first, laughing at the overwrought music and the sinister eye patch on the taxi driver... but by the second or third episode I was more than hooked. And thus far, the plot and narrative have been tidy and closely woven, unraveling slowly almost as a long, beautifully detailed film presented week by week. True, it's "slowly unraveling" amongst a catastrophic and quickly growing death count, but its pace is measured and detailed none the less. I, for one, am fascinated.

That isn't to say that there aren't moments when I realize full well that I'm being played. I recognize that it's awfully convenient for the disfigured deputy to be mistaken for the murderer, and to act like the murderer, and then to have the murderer's journal, but yet not be him... and then to die at the hand of the actual murderer mere moments after handing that journal over to the Sheriff. Yet, after the trauma Lost put poor mistreated Logic through over the last couple of seasons, you can't blame me for turning a blind eye at far less heinous abuses. And by and large, the show has been guilty of relatively few of them so far. It helps that most of the characters are decent actors... except for the majority of the silly little society girls. But then, I guess it's hard to show even potentially legitimate acting skills when you're impersonating a stock character rather than a real one, so I'm willing to cut them a little slack and gaze accusingly towards the writers on that one instead.

My current amusement, now that I'm caught up on all the existing episodes and am waiting enthusiastically for the new one this weekend, is trying to guess just who all will manage to survive the next five weeks of mayhem. It's a tough call, I can tell you, especially given the reckless abandon with which they have already disposed of so many seemingly pivotal characters. But I'm banking on Abby, Jimmy, Henry, Chloe and her Englishman, and little Madison. Abby because, duh, she's the heroine; Jimmy because somebody needs to be around at the end to make Abby happy; Henry because he's pure of heart and all that; Chloe and the Englishman because they have impressively good chemistry and provide what few moments of levity we have; and Madison because I don't think even the Harper's Island writers will be brave (/twisted) enough to kill off a little girl. The rest are all probably doomed. (duh Duh DUH!!!)

If you're watching, let me know who you think will survive! And if you're not, and typically enjoy a good little horror flick or two, be sure to hop the boat to Harper's Island! After your shattered nerves regroup, you'll really enjoy the ride.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Free (and legal!) MP3 Madness... Country, Indie, Jazz, Dar Williams... (yeah, we've pretty much got it all)

Yo, fellow music lovers! We've got a *ton* of free and legal tracks this week... so you can commence the excitement as of... now!

First off, see a showcase of today's hot new country artists, and download a track from each if you so desire, on the People magazine website. I'm not much of a country fan (read: not at all) but even I will admit that there's some fun stuff here... The third group, Gloriana, even vaguely reminds me of a more country Nickel Creek (It might have been the mention of the mandolin though... Plus, I reallllly just miss Nickel Creek). But I think #8, "Wal-Mart Flowers" is probably my favorite just based on cute factor alone...

And then we come to the summer mixes offered by Urban Outfitters.... Can we all just say, SHEESH! You'll find about 60 downloads here, far too many for me to go into indepth, so I'll just say to watch the deluge for tracks by St. Vincent, Au Revoir Simone, Phoenix, and Peter Bjorne and John. The one thing that might be frustrating here is that it looks like you have to download each playlist as a whole rather than downloading the individual tracks that you like, so you might end up temporarily a little swamped. One of those good problems to have though...

Sephora is also offering your choice of six downloads off of their Beauty Beat page... Use the code BEAUTYBEAT to access tracks from pop princesses like Colbie Caillat and Erin McCarley. (You can also find out what shade of make-up they use. If you had ever wondered about their make-up, I'm sure you'll find that part fascinating. But if you are fascinated, honey you need to go find a life.)

I'm excited about this next one... check out the music blog Muruch for a new Dar Williams download! I adore Dar, and daily aspire to be A Flinty Kind of Woman, so this new one is a must-have in my book- er, MP3 player. And if you have an eMusic subscription, you need to download that whole Honesty Room CD pronto... your ipod will be enriched because of it. You too can be A Flinty Kind of Woman!! Either way though, enjoy this new MP3 from her!

There's also some great free jazz tracks available on Amazon right now, both classic jazz from legends like Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie and others, as well as more contemporary "Urban Jazz" selections as well. (Thanks Frugal Dr. Mom!)

Lastly, if you happen to be loitering in the vicinity if iTunes, there's a catchy new alt rock download from the band The Ruse currently available as the Song of the Week, and the pilot episode of Royal Pains is free right now too. The Discovery Download for this week is a little weird though... it's a kid's music selection entitled "Seven is the New Fourteen." Any moms (or seven or fourteen year olds) who give it a listen should definitely let me know what they think of it...

So yeah, have fun! Happy listening...

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My Concrete Strategy for Eliminating Existential Crisis, or, Take that, Evil Life-Block!

Recently I posted discussing how certain types of existential crisis can manifest themselves as a feeling of "life-block" (akin to writers' block, only about EVERYTHING), and how I believe that the process of finding meaning and becoming a person of purpose rests a great deal on the "people" I have been and the things I have valued over time. It feels as though I have in some ways let myself become disoriented in my own life, so the logical thing seems to take stock of the guideposts and landscape markers that lie behind me, in order to journey with confidence from here.

However, in my last post I spoke vaguely of considering this as a process of "integrating" myself, in order to better determine my priorities and live out what I value... and especially given the context, words like "integrate" and "reorient" are hardly concrete. So I wanted to describe how I mean to do it, because if nothing else doing so will help keep me accountable to it. I started out by making a list -- brainstorming the things that had been important to me at each various stage of my life so far, and then drawing from that list the items I still do (or should) find meaningful, as well as the things I regret having let go. Some are silly, just meant as a reminder of good memories, and some serve a key role in anchoring my life and motivating me. After I had my list, I tried to think of actions and choices tying into each that will help move me towards regaining the purpose and perspective that they had provided. This is more or less what I ended up with.

5 "not lost, merely misplaced!" things that help me find direction:

1. My faith. I'm so embarrassed that I didn't mention this one in my original post, when I was talking about the "threads of continuity" running through my life... because this is (/should be) the most important. The oversight is a unhappy indicator of the place I'm at right now, having lost sight of many of my priorities... But to be all kinds of metaphorical, if I was a ship sailing over the high seas of life, my faith would be ballast, rudder, and engine, all three. I've let myself forget that, so it should come as no surprise I've been drifting. Right now I'm incredibly thankful for mercies that are new every morning. There are a myriad of concrete ways I can go about reintegrating my faith into my day-to-day life, but the first item on the agenda will probably be to get involved with a church that deliberately makes itself accessible to newcomers, and to start reading scripture myself again. Or maybe I'll cut a corner temporarily on that last one and download some "daily Bible" podcasts to listen to on the bus... hey, whatever it takes right?

2. Volunteering. Throughout college I volunteered pretty regularly, and the experiences meant a lot to me... but I was volunteering with friends usually, and when I lost the structure of college I let it slip away. Scheduling and general busy-ness make this one hard to get back into a routine. Plus, the last volunteer opportunity I was interested in required *three* letters of recommendation, and I don't think there are that many people in existence who think well enough of me to write a whole rec... err, just kidding. (But seriously!) Nevertheless, I should be able to find something, especially seeing as how I live in a big city with a lot of options. Volunteering always provided me with great perspective, as well as the chance to get outside of my own head and work towards concrete positive change, and I'm eager to regain both. You probably should avoid me for a few days... or I might hand you a pen and ask for a letter of recommendation. Just FYI there...

3. Writing. Obviously I still do this one, but it's lost a lot of the joy it used to bring me. It's been a while since I've been swept happily away in an imaginary world all my own. I started writing dozens of stories as a teenager and I don't think I ever finished any of them -- a fact that feels a little too endemic of my life as a whole. I'm now planning on rewriting some of those stories that I started so long ago... or at least slapping endings on to them. Maybe a few will evolve into coherent pieces, and maybe I will just enjoy the sense of resolution and completion; either way, I'm already looking forward to it. And I won't be labeling the documents with self-deprecatory titles like "A Pathetic Medieval Tale" anymore either. Hello, self-confidence! Meet my writing...

4. Books! This one was huge for me from the first moment Little Bitty Sarah learned to read, and I devoured books pretty much from that moment on until the middle of college... at which point the chore aspect of reading assignments and the demands of a burgeoning social life pretty much ended the hobby. I also developed along the way a somewhat highfalutin set of ideas about the kind of "intellectual" books I needed to be reading in my spare time... all of which factors conspired to keep me from ever loving reading again up until this point. But though books can be amazing tools for growth and learning, they are also allowed to just be a hobby sometimes... so for the first step towards recapturing my love for books, I'm going to let it simply be that. For now, this reader just wants to have fun! Note to whoever has the third book of the Twilight series checked out of the Atlanta library... can I bribe you to return it early??

5. Playing the piano. I had a love/hate relationship with this one while I was growing up, and definitely had to be forced to practice even the (highly minimal) 20 minutes each day, but I have to say that it was an amazing emotional vent for me. The distraction of focusing on something else, specifically something lovely and and ordered and harmonious, could ease away even the darkest of my adolescent moods. Anybody think it will work on PMS?? Somebody get me a piano, STAT!

Another key item on my list was journaling, so I will be making space on a shelf and lining up all my journals... starting with the purple one with the little lock that contains the lopsided writing of 8-year-old Sarah. Because, when it comes to remember the people I have been (the good, the bad, and the ugly) nothing can beat going back and reading my own words from the time. Journaling in the present also provides me with both perspective and emotional release as well, so that aspect is even more valuable. Other items from my list that serve more as a reminder of good memories and old loves than as motivators or guideposts include: Celtic music, thrift stores, fairy tales, embroidery and other crafts, and fun mail. I also plan to put together a couple of photo collages of random joyful moments, to remind me tangibly of how blessed I am.

For me at least, puzzling through the reasons for my existence and the direction my life should take tie a great deal into knowing who I am and where I come from. The day-to-day can be draining and distracting, and it helps to have solid reminders of the things I value, to give me confidence that there is meaning and worth in each day. There is meaning and worth, thank God! And surrounding myself with even these small things can ease the struggle to keep it "affirmed" in my head each day. That's my plan... and away we go! ;)

Note: I do want to make the distinction that an existential crisis is not the same thing as depression, anxiety disorders, etc, though at times they come hand-in-hand. Dealing with depression is a much more visceral, day-to-day survival kind of thing, and while questioning the meaning of life can be a component of that, the coping methods are decidedly different. That's a topic for a different post though -- here I meant to discuss strictly the philosophical issues of finding personal direction in the moments when uncertainty is its own problem, and not a by-product of depression. To someone struggling with depression this post would likely seem very useless, so I wanted to be sure to clarify.

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

My Quest for a Deeper Shade of Green... April/May Successes and Failures

My "green" goals for April/May were as follow:

1. Add potatoes to my list of organic switch-overs, joining spinach and apples. Goal met! This was probably the simplest goal of the month, as all it involved was buying a bag of organic potatoes and then making the victory sign as I walked out of the store. I've also continued to buy only non-chemically-treated spinach and apples, though what I really mean by that is that I haven't eaten apples much this month, since I haven't made it to the farmers market and they're too expensive for me at the grocery store. But oh well, I'll get on that soon. And since as a replacement I feasted for a couple of weeks on two pounds of gorgeous (and local!) organic strawberries, I think it's probably ok this time.

2. Buy and plant vegetable seedlings (and then keep them alive!) So far so good! Our baby squash, zucchini, peppers and herbs are all doing marvelously... too marvelously in fact. As you might recall, our method of tilling consisted of a shovel and aching muscles the next day (mostly belonging to my boyfriend, I'll be fair), so I will readily admit to the fact that we didn't break up enough ground for the number of plants we have. They are very, very crowded now... though still thriving.

3. Continue to cut down on the amount of paper goods used; purchase only recycled paper goods; do research on a frugal way of procuring cloth napkins. Done! I continue to purchase only recycled paper products (and got very excited when the penny item at Publix was Greenwise bath tissue...) and have gotten a lot better about not reaching for a paper towel when a dishrag will do just as well. I've also done some research on frugal sources for cloth napkins, and though there are some very pretty ones available on Etsy, I'll probably end up following Condo Blue's tutorial to make them myself. I'm actually kind of excited because I haven't used my sewing machine hardly at all in the year since I bought it, and this project should be a non-overwhelming segue back into it. I might even get fancy and add some embroidery, in the style of this vintage set... fun!

4. Use alternative transportation at least *four* times a week. Urg. Can we just skip this one? The humiliation I felt over my utter failure to reach this goal in the month of April was actually a big factor behind the two month gap in reporting... *sad face* But I'll make myself be honest now. In April, I used alternative transportation only 10 times... on average, 2.5 times a week. The more vindictive among my readers will be pleased to know that karma caught up with me one of those times that I surreptitiously drove instead of taking the shuttle, and socked me with a parking ticket for illegal parking. Last month I did do a little better again, and averaged a solid three times a week for alternative transportation, but still not up to par with the goal I had set originally. However the impact of my clean commutes is still adding up; according to the site I'm currently at 271 miles of vehicle travel eliminated, .14 tons of pollution kept out of the air, and $135 in savings, all since January. Not bad!

5. Always use canvas bags while shopping, except at the International Farmers Market (customers bringing in bags apparently makes them nervous) Welllll... "always" is sure a lot, isn't it? I did pretty well overall, but tended to forget when I went to the store with my boyfriend (since I keep my reusable bags in my car). Also, I acquired two cats since I set that goal, and now have an actual need for a certain number of plastic bags. I just switched to World's Best Litter though, and supposedly it's 100% flushable, so maybe I can shift towards bagless soon once again.

6. If adding any lamps in my new place, use only CFL light bulbs. I didn't add any lamps the last couple of months. So basically, this goal was easier to meet than #1... *pats self on back*

7. Find a new use for something that would otherwise be thrown away. To meet this goal, I used washed-out yogurt cups for little seedling planters in my (failed) attempt to start carrot seeds. I now know 1) that you can make much more effective and fully biodegradable planters out of old newspaper or out of cardboard toilet-paper rolls (thanks Urban Garden Hoe!), and 2) you have to plant carrot seeds straight into the ground due to the difficulty of transplanting and the sheer number of little plants requisite for any kind of harvest. Sigh. Yes, the carrot seedlings all died, and the yogurt cups ended up in the recycling bin after all, but the experiment was in good faith and counts as a goal met nonetheless. And next year I'll know!


New Green Goals for June:

1. Add carrots and strawberries to the list of pesticide-and-chemical-free produce I purchase (apples, spinach, and potatoes). Based on my habits of consumption and the updated Dirty Dozen, those two are logical additions and hopefully are seasonal now-ish, which will make it easier to get them locally.

2. Keep the garden alive! Investigate and utilize organic/frugal pesticides as needed. A question to my gardening friends out there... given that my plants are currently so crowded, should I go ahead and thin them out? Is overcrowding going to lead to more instances of disease, pests, etc? Is it too late to thin them out, and how should I best go about it without disrupting the ones I want to leave?

3. Using Condo Blues' tutorial, make cloth napkins and start using them regularly.

4. Use alternative transportation at least three times a week, and aim for four when possible. I think I'm going to let myself ease off on this one for a few months. I can have a hard time waking up in the morning and thus a hard time getting to the bus stop on time; it was starting to be a source of stress, and I think that's when I kind of gave up on it for a while in April. I'm going to lighten up a little here, especially since its starting to get hot and humid and I might choose to drive more just to make sure I'm work-presentable. For this month I'll continue to aim for three times a week, and then I'll reevaluate as necessary.

5. Help my dad find the easiest way to recycle a broken laptop. Anybody got ideas for this one? I haven't had much time for research, but if you know of any good electronics recycling methods let me know!

6. Consistently use canvas bags at the grocery store, CVS, etc. Leave canvas bags in the bf's car as well, for convenience.


7. Find a new use for something that would otherwise be thrown away.

That's all for now, and it's more then enough to keep me busy! What about you, any new environmentally-friendly goals or tips for the summer months? Send them my way, I'm all ears! ;)

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Monday, June 1, 2009

Friday Frivolity: It's harder to freak out when you're laughing...

Too much thinking. Recipe for surviving existential crisis: When all else fails, laugh!


That chick is totally not me. For one thing, her hair is the wrong color.


And finally...


I meant to post this on Friday, but obviously it didn't happen. Oh well, there's probably an even greater need for frivolity on Mondays... Ready the supersoakers, and have a good Monday y'all. ;)

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