Category Archives: Life

Happy Friday + Randomness

moon-phase

Happy Friday! Sometimes don’t you wish you could pluck the moon and sun from the sky, put them into a container and take them out only when you need them? As I typed that it dawned on me that we use celestial movements as markers of the passage of time, but they aren’t time itself. I need a refresher course in the fourth dimension. The power to stop time…maybe in the future someone will figure out how to make it into an app.

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K: Look Mama! The froggies are breeding — that means they’re making babies. Just like you and Daddy did!*

*We finally had a successful discussion about the birds and the bees. As predicted, I was at my awkwardest, and she was completely grossed out.

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Abby-Sophia
You’re the giveaway winner!
Cute sock softies time

Have a wonderful weekend all!

Happy Friday + Randomness

shredded

Happy Friday! To all our lovely SVE participants, how’s your planning going? I’m currently trying to get a few other projects wrapped up, but am looking forward to diving in to gift-making and have outsized ambitions to ship a package out before the end of next week. Will it happen? We shall see…

One of the projects I finally checked off was tidying our monstrous paperwork. It was a bear, I tell you, but oh-so-necessary since I had to hunt down info for health insurance and found the state of our paperwork woefully inadequate. I shredded and shredded copious amounts of documents and old statements that are no longer relevant, and I filled our huge recycling bin to the brim. The relief I feel is HUGE. Plus I found old 401K accounts that we’d completely forgotten about. Not much in there, sadly, but it was like discovering a tiny bit of treasure. Joy.

Slowly but surely, my mind is getting a little less cluttered as I clear away the physical detritus.

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I made K a little hair accessory that she tried on yesterday. She turned to me and said, “Is it chic or so last week?”

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Have a delightful weekend, everyone! I’m delving into non-bloggable sewing and major book stuff (I know I don’t talk about it much mainly because I feel awkward about it, but I’ve been quietly working on my second book behind the scenes and deadlines are nipping at my feet). I may have to be extremely sparse for the next few weeks, but you know how I like to stick to my schedule so I’m playing it by ear.

I’m purging away
Finding sparks of joy each day
Odd, but rewarding*

*I keep running into more and more people who have read and loved The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying — I’m totally drinking the Kool-Aid, so fun!

Happy Friday + Randomness

city-waterfallI dated a Zen monk-in-training for a brief period when I lived in San Francisco. He was brilliant, hilarious, foul-mouthed yet eloquent and used phrases like “we are copacetic,” and I would tell him to knock it off with the pretension (and then I asked him what copacetic meant. It means “excellent”, in case you didn’t know either). We didn’t mesh as a couple, but I treasured the friendship, and I greatly admired his commitment to meditation. Like yoga, meditation is something I’ve tried and tried to do with little to no success. I remember how he rested his palm on my head once. “This brain,” he said, “it broods so much.”

I love to brood. Actually, no. If I were to get nit-picky, I love to mull since brood feels a little too negative to me. I use the end of the year and the beginning of the year and pretty much any time of the year as an excuse to ponder my life in all its glorious weirdness. My own kind of meditation involving a lot of writing, I suppose. I make list after list with all-caps titles like “LIFE GOALS” or “INTENTIONS FOR THIS YEAR” or “MONSTER TO-DO”. Take, for example, last year’s 2014 List. I had a grand old time thinking about that list. Executing it? Didn’t exactly nail it.

Out of a list of 14 so-called goals, I accomplished 3. Maybe 4 if I want to be generous. They were good ones though:

  • Met with at least one friend a week
  • Exercised at least 30 minutes every day
  • Did something creative for at least 30 minutes every day

And I’m bummed that I technically can’t include “didn’t buy any clothes for me or K for the entire year” because of those darn t-shirts and capri pants that I keep mentioning. But I still feel like it deserves an honorable mention.

I want to do a whole separate post about these three things I did accomplish because they truly revolutionized my life — and I don’t use the word revolutionized lightly. In fact, it’s made me realize how vital it is to prioritize relationships, health and creating. Even though focusing on them is common sense, I’m always tempted to cast them aside for other, less important factors. I’m well aware that I’m prone to hyperbole, but I kid you not, the quality of my life improved a millionfold in 2014.

And so I’m going to focus on those three categories this year. No specific list. No bullet points or excessive analysis of the how and why. Just: relationships, health and creating. I can already feel the need to expound bubbling up, so I’m going to stop here for today…

By the way, I took the photos of the waterfall a couple of weeks ago. It’s this little known hidden park in the gritty/urban Pioneer Square neighborhood in Seattle. Built on the site that used to house the first ever UPS headquarters, from the outside, it’s a concrete structure that looks unsexy and governmental. Once inside, you’re suddenly surrounded by foliage and engulfed by the roar of water cascading mightily down the rocky walls. Magical and completely unexpected.

city-waterfall2

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A couple of housekeeping notes:

1. Thank you for all the illustration requests from the Debt-Free Life giveaway! I am slowly organizing them all so I don’t end up sending the wrong illustrations out (e.g. there are multiple people with the same first name) and I am realizing that this may be a much longer-term project. I’m really looking forward to working on them and I appreciate your patience in advance!

2. We have had such an enthusiastic response to our second annual Secret Valentine Exchange! Excited emails have been zooming between Ute and me as the count keeps going up (60 and counting so far). It was such a delightful, non-traditional way of celebrating this holiday, we’re happy to be hosting it again!

It’s not too late yet
Join us for the SVE
Sign-ups end tonite

Have a wonderful weekend, friends!

2015-sve2

Happy Friday + Randomness

magicoftidying

Happy 2015! I’m keeping it short today for various reasons, one of which is that I’m quite sad that my mom returned to Los Angeles yesterday after a two-week visit, and I fear I might get overly maudlin.

Let’s focus on this book with the bold claim to change my life through tidying, yes? I’ve been burned by these types of claims before, so you can imagine my skepticism. I finished reading it a couple of days ago, and I have to say, I was completely charmed.

Marie Kondo is an organizing fanatic, and apparently started to clean and “tidy” from the age of 5. Now with decades of tidying experience under her belt, she’s become a lifestyle phenom in Japan. This slim volume can essentially be summarized in two sentences:

1. Only keep things that “spark joy”.

2. Express appreciation for everything, including things you decide to eliminate.

You wouldn’t think this would be revolutionary in any way, but I found myself incredibly motivated to start tidying in a way no other organizational book has prompted me. I’ve already donated 7 huge trash bags full of things that fail to spark joy. The game changer for me was the idea of letting go of items with thanks. e.g. “Thank you for showing me that I don’t like t-shirts with green zebra stripes (a delusional purchase years ago that I’ve never worn but kept since it’s a perfectly fine shirt from Anthro).” Or “Thank you for being useful in the past” for things that are decrepit and no longer functional but I’ve held onto out of habit. I can’t fully describe why expressing gratitude to inanimate objects made me feel so much better, and yes I felt silly, but it was really liberating.

This renewed vigor to get the house in order ties in nicely with my tolerations list, which I’d blatantly ignored the last few months of 2014. Ms. Kondo specifies a particular order for tidying, and so far I’ve tackled clothes and books and fabric (which is not on her list, but was something I desperately needed to do). I already feel about 100 pounds lighter and must get back to tidying my papers! It really is magic and I’m starting to feel like my life is definitely changing…I’ve even been thinking about applying this concept to people — how amazing would it be to surround ourselves with only people who spark joy? Difficult to execute, to be sure, but I can’t even begin to imagine how life-changing that would be. Serious food for thought.

Have a wonderful weekend, my friends!

Winter break is done
It is now twenty fifteen
Raring to start fresh*

Happy Friday + Randomness

2014-holiday-wrapup2

Happy Friday! I hope you all had a spectacular Christmas overflowing with lovely moments. Mine was almost perfect. A few days ago, I happened to be crowing to my mom and M that I hadn’t been sick much this year (well, I had my annual autumnal cough, but it was very minor), and boom, I caught a monster cold right after my proclamation, two days before Christmas. I wrapped presents in a feverish haze and though I’m feeling much better now, I will be careful about boasting about my health going forward.

K got everything she wanted: a karaoke machine, a remote control truck, art supplies and a pet frog. Actually, she got a promise note for a pet frog and we’ll be at the nearest Petco this weekend. She was also in seventh heaven since she got to spend the vast majority of Christmas with her beloved neighbor friends (we get together for brunch on Xmas day every year).

Despite our agreement not to get anything for each other, M and I of course didn’t keep our words. He presented me a generous gift card for one of my favorite stores, and I got him a bunch of bike accessories, the avid cyclist that he is.

And every year, I make a calendar for Ba-chan, and she particularly loved this year’s. I ordered this product from Artifact Uprising, and the quality is excellent. The little wooden clipboard is functional and stylish.

2014-holiday-wrapup

In the image above, I love the holiday card on the left from our friend Ann, and on the right is packaging for Anthro’s gift card. What’s interesting (only to me) is that a few years ago, I made cards that looked strikingly similar. Pie-in-the-sky goal for 2015: collaboration with Anthropologie.

So. Even though I was looking a little bleary and though I interspersed my sentences with sniffles and sneezes, it was one of the best Christmases ever. Family. Friends. Karaoke. What more can you ask for?

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Thank you for all the wonderful comments and emails for the Debt-Free Life series! I was blown away and re-read them all multiple times! I was incredibly inspired by the number of people who took action to harness their own financial situation, and also loved loved loved that women just starting out with their first credit cards found it to be a helpful cautionary tale. Being a living, breathing cautionary tale is sort of my specialty. It was just the ticket to shake me out of my blogging doldrums and I’m excited to try more new things in the coming months. I’ll be selecting winners and will email the recipients of the custom illustration this weekend – I’m still in holiday break mode and am trying to take things slowly.

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Just wanted to jot a quick note today to wish you all a merry post-Christmas weekend! I have some end-of-the-year posts in the works and will be back Monday.

I’m sorry, she said
I doubted your existence
Santa, please confirm*

*K left Santa the sweetest little letter thanking him for all he does for the kids in the world. The part that killed me went, “I’m sorry that I doubted your existence, but I want to know for sure…are you really real?” Santa dropped off a remote control yellow truck with this tag attached, and that, along with some youtube video a friend showed her validating his authenticity, sealed the deal.

 

A Debt-Free Life Finale + Custom Illustration Giveaway! [CLOSED]

moneystory-elephantEvicting the roommates was a swift affair once I called in the big guns. You’ll remember from last time that they had stopped paying rent and the situation was dire. M flew in from Seattle to “negotiate” (a punched hole in the wall was involved as I recall – the Czech girl’s boyfriend was the temperamental sort). I was cowering somewhere out of sight and didn’t witness the event. The couple left with a string of muttered Czech words trailing behind, cursing my name, I’m sure. Freed from thongs and mountainous cigarette ashes, I advertised for a new roommate, and a lovely woman who loved to clean moved in. Though we became friends and our apartment looked less destitute, by now, my whole experience in my beloved city seemed…wrong.

Yes, I loved my job working on the Pottery Barn catalog, and happily arranged photos of sofas and sconces into layouts. I sighed with contentment every morning as I entered the beautifully designed office space, and I delighted in pow-wowing about various shades of the hue du jour with the Color Manager (it’s true, there was actually someone with that job title and her main responsibility was to make sure the colors looked right in the catalog). But the pay left a lot to be desired, and the truth was that I really wasn’t the type to climb the corporate ladder.

As for my second job, I convinced myself that my moonlighting gig as a dispatcher for a community safety program was a good use of my time — it entailed recording activities in the downtown area while rovers/safety officers roamed the streets or “beats” to make sure that all was kosher. “Beat 1, report condition, over,” I would say authoritatively into a walkie talkie while sitting in a small office in downtown, and the walkie talkie would crackle, “All clear, over” or “Code 235, over” (translation: drunken homeless activity resulting in injury, call an ambulance asap). Etcetera. Food stamp dissemination days were raucous and dangerous. The pay, as you can imagine, was laughable.

All I seemed to do was work. And still, I was broke.

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When faced with debt, there are only three rational steps to take:

1. Reduce spending

2. Increase incoming funds

3. Both of the above

But if humans were rational creatures, none of us would be in debt or overweight or anorexic or in unhealthy relationships. We would all live in clutter-free homes and crime wouldn’t exist. Procrastination would be a myth and therapists would be obsolete. We are irrational beings, filled with emotional compulsions, habitual impulses, family values absorbed or scorned, social influences, primal needs and wants, the propensity to find justification — all these factors are viewed through the various filters that are like fun house mirrors. They warp and twist and distort the simple equation of rationality. It’s what makes us wholly fallible and profoundly creative.

I was doing my best at being rational and taking all the correct steps: I’d cut all the non-essential spending I could, worked two jobs, nixed my social life. Yet, I could constantly feel the familiar and tantalizing tug of “maybe if I buy that [insert some shiny object], I’ll feel better. I deserve a little something for working so hard.” The more I resisted, the stronger the irrational pull. It was only because of M and the astronomical guilt I felt about his generosity that I didn’t succumb. Okay, I did succumb once in a while. But rarely. Despite my efforts, though, I wasn’t making fast enough progress on my debt-reduction plan.

I hadn’t fooled anyone and I knew that the San Francisco life I originally tried to create was like visiting the Hollywood studios. The artfully constructed sets look great from the front and on the surface, but a quick peek would show you that there was nothing behind them — just the backside of the cheap plywood structure hastily erected and a tangle of messy wires. I’d dismantled my little land of make believe and it didn’t feel liberating at all. Just empty and sad. I needed to learn how to build real things. Solid, immutable, deeply valuable things.

It was time to leave San Francisco. M and I had been discussing the possibility of my joining him in Seattle and I figured that if I was avoiding all social contact in SF, I might as well move to a more affordable place where I knew no one save M, and earnestly work on getting rid of my debt. So in March of 2002, I said a solemn and defeated good-bye to the city of lights and headed to Seattle.

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I am going to fast forward here because I feel like I need to get to the point. The next phase was a lot of slogging through. So much happened, mostly bad, and M and I teetered on the edge of dissolution for many years. We lived together in one frightening apartment after another (I’ve since discovered that it’s his specialty to find scary living quarters, but they were cheap). With the dot com debacle, jobs were scarce and M had trouble finding work. I was lucky enough to interview at several good companies and worked an insane night shift position that paid the best out of my options. We had no car so I rode a bus across town at 11:30pm to basically babysit petulant workers unaccustomed to supervision, then I took two more buses after I slept a couple of hours to tutor rich high school kids in English literature. While working the night shift, I became friends with the grocery clerks at the Safeway down the street because I had nowhere else to go at 3am on my breaks. I was intrigued and inspired that my friends had saved up enough money to send their kids to college with their cashiering job, and seriously considered applying myself and punt the tutoring job. However, I was promoted to a daytime position after a year so I put the cashier idea to rest.

At this point, my income was over $60,000 and I was getting regular bonuses and raises each year. I covered all expenses as my repayment to M and that included rent, utilities, our phone bills, his gym membership and whatever he charged on his credit card. For two years, all I did was work and pay bills. By the middle of 2004, my student loans were paid off 5 years ahead of schedule. And in December of 2004, I opened my tracking notebook as I did every month, and I’d finally hit the magic number: $13,000. In one year and nine months, I paid M back in full — my $30,000 debt was gone. Two months later, M proposed.

moneystory-finale

 

I often wished for a magic bullet while I was in debt and in the back of my mind I thought that if I looked hard enough, I’d find it. I wanted to pay it all off without anyone knowing, while maintaining a stylish appearance. No magic bullet exists, of course. Yes, I was blessed by M’s magnanimous nature, and if it weren’t for him, I probably would have continued accruing more debt at the rate I was going. He’s the hero of this whole story. In accepting his money though, I’ve wondered if I ended up paying a greater price: M may never fully trust me with money. We’ve talked about this. And maybe he shouldn’t. Maybe it’s an important awareness for both of us to have — that I am prone to trying to keep up with the Joneses, that I tend to fill emptiness and insecurity with material acquisitions, that it’s easy for me to revel in the brief high of feeling like I belong because I have the right bag, the right pair of jeans, the right smart phone.

It’s now been 10 years since I paid that last bill, and we’ve remained debt-free. To get here, I’ve had to find ways to make more money, spend less, lather, rinse and repeat. But the two most important ingredients for me, I found, were accountability and removing myself from surroundings that triggered my spending. As long as I kept my debt shrouded in secret and continued to interact with people that I wanted to impress, I kept digging deeper holes for myself.

It’s been hard, this unmasking. I’ve spent many years thinking about how I let my spending get out of hand, and beyond the usual explanations of wanting to fit in or the lesson of learning how to accept myself, I needed to understand how to stay debt-free. To create practical new habits. We make conscious and sometimes embarrassing choices to this end. We rent a run-down townhouse that fits squarely in our budget and drive a jalopy that is a far cry from the Lexus I declared I’d cruise around in when I was fresh out of college. But we bought it with cash and it runs just fine. We don’t use credit cards. Ever. We have savings and never touch it. I choose my friends carefully. Most of all, I listen intently for that tantalizing call to pretend to be someone I’m not — it’s how I know I shouldn’t be in a particular situation or with a certain person.

I’ve realized over and over that whenever I act out of a need for external validation, my life starts to veer off in the wrong direction. It hasn’t been just the debt. My health suffered by staying in jobs that sounded impressive. There were many bad relationships based on dating guys who fit the “right” mold, the kind of boys other people would approve of that I didn’t actually connect with. I ardently believed I needed to be thin to be accepted, so I dieted like a maniac. And on and on and on. The debt, however, was one of my biggest lessons to date. It was easy to buy an image on credit, to borrow the illusion of happiness with the best of intentions to pay it back later when I hoped my projected image and happiness would have solidified into reality. Except it didn’t happen that way.

I have more to say, but my story is at its end. I think there are many, many ways to go about eliminating debt if that is something affecting your life. My way was unglamorous and filled with shame for many years, but only because I made it that way. I believe it can be done with dignity. I’m clearly not a personal finance expert so I don’t have answers, but I do know this: most of my possessions now are humble or secondhand or wonkily handmade, but I’ve never felt richer. I have my health. And my family. And good friends. And time to create. These, I believe, are the true currencies of a rich and happy life. One more thought: after ten debt-free years, I am finally learning how to build real things. Solid, immutable, deeply valuable things.

perspective

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And now for the Giveaway!! With 2015 rapidly approaching, perhaps some of you have New Year’s goals or resolutions in mind? I have a piece of paper stuck above my sewing machine with the word “gratitude” — I’ve long stopped consciously noticing it, but I find it to be a helpful reminder when my eyes occasionally focus on it. I also like the word “perspective”. I wonder if you would like a customized illustrated word of your own? Or maybe a cute animal or a portrait of your child(ren) wearing an outfit? Amber brought up the custom illustration idea and I thought it sounded like loads of fun.

I would love to offer 10 custom 5 x 7″-ish illustrations. They will be original watercolors on coldpressed paper. To enter, it’s a bit interview-esque, but I liked this question that my editor asked me recently: “What would you like to be doing in five years?” For me, I’d like to be working on another book or two and have my own studio where I’m cranking out beautiful clothes and fun illustrations and much-improved photography!

I will keep the giveaway open until Christmas and will announce the winner shortly after. I don’t need to mention that international folks are more than welcome by now, right? Good luck!

Thank you for reading
My tale of money matters
Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

P.S. My mama is in town and ’tis the holiday season, so I will take next Monday and Wednesday off. Merry, merry!

A Debt-Free Life Part 3

moneystory-part3

He went ballistic. Telling M about my debt was not going well. He started to do the frantic head-clutching move reserved for extreme stress and duress, and he looked at me like he’d never seen me before. I bawled.

“How much???” He practically keened and clutched his head some more.

And here, I have to confess that I shaved off a few thousand dollars because I was scared out of my wits, but then quickly admitted the real sum because at this point our future together seemed unlikely. What did I have to lose? By the time I told M about my financial burden, I’d managed to chisel down my credit card balance to $13,000 from $22,600 in 15 months and had started making my monthly grad school payments. My total debt came out to approximately $30,000. His eyes bulged.

Then, still protecting his head as if to ward off an oncoming asteroid, M did something unimaginable. He said, “I’ll help you.” Help? Keep in mind, this was a man who had just lost his business with the collapse of the dot com bubble and was sleeping on the floor of a minuscule apartment, surrounded by all the computer equipment from their defunct company. I couldn’t understand what he was saying.

He had some stock that he could sell, he told me. Not enough to cover all of my debt, but enough for the credit card amount. This was an act so outrageous and so unexpected, I absolutely refused. No. Nonononononono. I was even more ashamed — I couldn’t owe my boyfriend money! I can pay it off by myself in a few years, I insisted. But he wouldn’t take my refusal. He said he couldn’t be with me while I carried on wasting money through so much interest. Debt, in every way, made him crazy.

After much heated debate, we came to an agreement. I would accept his generosity, but I would pay him back every penny and make drastic changes to do so. I would let go of the last vestige of my mirage of living the covetable life: my dream apartment. My charming little studio with crown moldings and the claw foot tub in the stylish neighborhood of Russian Hill. My money-draining haven that I gripped onto because I didn’t want people to know how bad a shape I was in financially. Instead, I would move into M’s slightly cheaper and decidedly dilapidated apartment, and he and his business partner, by necessity, would move back to Seattle HQ to officially close up shop. The San Francisco expansion had failed. His whole business had failed.

Secretly, I was relieved that I wouldn’t be moving into Fight Club in Chinatown where roaches skittered ceaselessly and the bunkmates were all men – That was where M first lived when he arrived in town, but a few months after we started dating he had found an affordable rental in North Beach (affordable at least by SF standards though I can’t find the exact amount in any of my journals). He’d marginally upgraded to an alleyway flat that reeked of a blend of bolognese sauce and raw fish and lived with his business partner while shutting down his tech company.

moneystory-part3-2

It was a period of turmoil. M handed me a check for $13,000 and left San Francisco. I cut up my credit cards and paid them off, sold almost everything I owned which wasn’t much, really. A dresser. Some pots and pans. A friend agreed to store my iron daybed. I scrubbed clean my sweet studio I’d called home for three years, and moved into M’s dingy room with one tiny window, and became the warden of his computer equipment. Since I couldn’t afford to pay for the entire apartment by myself, we found a girl from the Czech Republic and her American boyfriend to settle into the other bedroom. I began a new and confusing chapter of frugal living.

Perhaps the word “grim” described the situation best. Or maybe “appalling”. I would often wake up in the middle of the night while sleeping on the tatami (bamboo) mat that M had randomly inherited from somewhere. My roommates fought at top volume in the wee hours, often following it up with wild and equally loud love-making. They ate my food in the fridge without ever acknowledging it, and in the bathroom, I was greeted by her leopard print and neon thong underwear strewn all over the place (this would explain my intense aversion to leopard print now). Food crusted the counter tops and floor and our place looked less like a human habitat and more like a guinea pig cage. A guinea pig cage with really dirty guinea pigs. They were both smokers, and somehow had difficulty with the concept of ashtrays, so I would step into mounds of ashes and cigarette butts every morning when I left for work. I’m pretty sure they dabbled in hard drugs too and their source of income was a mystery. We barely exchanged words except for my meek requests for cleaning help. I started to notice things disappearing: my scarf, a pair of shoes. And this was just the first month.

Meanwhile, I avoided my friends because I now lived in what was essentially squalor with two delinquents, still with significant debt, and I had a hard time wrapping my head around my new set of circumstances. How did I end up here?

Owing M money made me feel worse than the previously looming presence of anonymous creditors. This new fiscal arrangement introduced a weird dynamic between us, and living in different cities didn’t help. We hadn’t quite worked out the logistics of how I was going to pay him back (would the rent I’m paying count since I was subleasing from him? Do I send him monthly checks? Do I pay him back in one lump-sum? It made me dizzy), and he now viewed me as irresponsible with money. Rightly so, but that didn’t soften the blow. I could sense distrust on his part, and that hit me hardest. Even though we talked on the phone frequently, neither of us could spare the extra cash to visit each other. Long distance relationships are notoriously difficult to maintain, and we knew that.

And then my roommates stopped paying their rent.

To be continued….*

 

*Okay, I actually have the whole thing written out, but it is mega mega long, so I had to cut it off. Finale on Friday + a giveaway that’s a little different from my usual fare!

 

Thoughts + A Debt-Free Life aka Kicking the “Should”s

blocks

I have been feeling a little deflated about blogging lately. I’ve talked about this before, I know, and I’ve pondered whether I’ve become too predictable because I’m such a routine-lover. I can confidently say that I’m not dialing it in by any stretch and I still love sharing my creations and each comment still makes me feel giddy. But I’ve also been conflicted about what I’m doing (at what point is too many dresses for one child? Probably about 100 dresses ago) and haven’t been pouring myself into my posts as I did in the early days, when I was scared to hit the “publish” button each and every time. Scary can be a good sign.

Not that I think this should be a vehicle for bare-all confessions or be an extreme sport version of sewing blogging, but my approach seems to have gone from comfortably intimate coffee date to community center craft fair — you know, instead of that cozy feeling of sharing recent updates with a good friend over a hot beverage, I’ve been getting the sense that I’m manning an irrelevant booth where folks meander from a safe distance, vaguely noting my amateur paintings and handicrafts, scanning the room for something better elsewhere. Maybe that doesn’t make sense. I don’t know. I know it’s a useless way to think, and I guess it’s the old insecurity monster rearing its head…I’m not looking for assurances but am trying to identify this current state I’m experiencing.

So to shake myself out of this slumpy mood and externally-focused mentality, I am going to talk about a taboo topic today: money. It’s something that makes me cringe all over, and it always helps me focus when I write outside of my comfort zone. If you haven’t gathered by now, I am not a naturally frugal person — I never have been and probably never will be (reading this, my husband is clutching at his heart and gnawing at his already bitten-down-to-the-nubs nails). I’m obsessed with pretty, delightful objects. Clothes and shoes. Stationery. Art supplies. Fabric. Books. Organic, hand-plucked, truffle-infused, wildly expensive edible things. I love love love giving decadent gifts. M jokes that if he wants to know where I am at any given point in the day, he just needs to find the nearest overpriced, beautifully decorated coffee shop.

Despite this Achilles heel of spendthrift tendencies on my part, we live a debt-free life. Yes, zero debt. No mortgage, no car payments, no credit card balance, no school loans, nada. It was incredibly hard for me to get here and it most certainly wasn’t always this way.

I’ve been going down memory lane these past few days as I am wont to do at the end of the year, unearthing dozens and dozens of my old journals. I came across a ratty old notebook with “2003 + 2004 + 2005 budget” scrawled on the cover. In it, I had meticulously recorded every expense: utilities, student loans, credit card bills. So many credit card bills…

dollars

My parents never talked about money when I was growing up, but I knew that we didn’t have much for most of my childhood. When I was a kid, my dad ran a liquor store in downtown L.A. and business quickly boomed. We moved into a spacious white house in a tony part of town and I switched from an all-black school to one filled with blonde, blue-eyed children. But then, inexplicably and suddenly, everything went belly up. We lost the store, the house, the car, the apartment building my parents had invested in. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found out about all of this — at the time I was in the second grade and just couldn’t understand why we had to skidaddle to Japan in the middle of the school year. I completed my second grade in Japan and stayed at my Grandma’s house in Tokyo, where a metal tub sat on the ground in a structure that was similar to an outhouse. It was dark and terrifying in there. Hot water had to be manually poured into the tub if we wanted to take a bath, and most days we went to the public bath house. I can still recall the bustle of naked women and girls surrounding me, how I averted my eyes and felt out of place even though I looked like them. I missed America.

Eventually, my parents cobbled together some funds and we returned to the US, briefly settling into a tiny house in an area called Hawaiian Gardens, the smallest city in Los Angeles county, and then we moved again. And again. Because my family uprooted so frequently, I grew up observing the whole socioeconomic spectrum from scrappy, welfare families to multi-jillionaire Hollywood aristocracies. I could go on forever detailing the surreal worlds I saw, but what’s important is this: I learned that money was something no one talked about.

Though dollars and cents were never explicitly discussed, I knew that spending more than you earned was not an option in our household. That was antithetical to our industrious, Japanese work ethic. As soon as I turned 15, I immediately applied for a worker’s permit and looked for an after school job in earnest so I could finally buy all the on-trend clothes that I’d coveted for years. I blew through my meager paychecks with one shopping spree after another, and my mom looked on worriedly, meekly suggesting that I might want to try to save some of my earnings. Save? What for? I was a teenager! I was certain I’d be earning gobs of money when I was older.

**

In college, I knew a girl who amassed an astronomical amount of credit card debt as well as parking ticket fees. I recognized in her the same carpe diem attitude I had in spending my paychecks, except she was using borrowed money and this unsettled me. In my naivete, I couldn’t figure out how she was paying off her credit card bills at first. When I finally sussed out that she wasn’t even meeting the minimum payments, I was astounded. Why wasn’t she worried? She seemed so confident and together and appeared secure in the knowledge that everything would take care of itself; her closets overflowed with clothes and she proudly kitted her dorm room with a state-of-the-art microwave and mini-refrigerator.

**

“I’m going to own a Lexus before I’m 30,” I was horrified with myself as I mentally saw the words come out of my mouth like a cartoon bubble while I chatted with a co-worker. I was 22-years-old and was earning $24,000 a year at a marketing firm in Santa Monica, and I was trying desperately to impress the much older and much more sophisticated woman who was training me. I remember how she tucked her glossy highlighted hair behind one ear and looked at me askance without a word. My face burned. We were heading to an L.A. hotspot for a company lunch — the type of place frequented by A-list celebrities — and I was feeling inadequate surrounded by all the glitz and glamour. It seemed like the sort of thing I should say, but it sounded all wrong when actually verbalized.

It was around this time that I got my first credit card. And I started to worship the altar of “should”s. Oh, I should get a sleek haircut so I don’t look like I’m fourteen (I looked ridiculously young with my long hair, but after my haircut I discovered that I still looked ridiculously young, only my head resembled a mushroom). I should really buy a suit so my boss will take me seriously (I bought a red polyester pantsuit that made me appear like I’d raided Elvis Presley’s closet to play dress-up – not my best look. I returned it the next day when I saw my boss’s suppressed smirk). I didn’t, thankfully, buy a Lexus on credit, and at first, I was very cautious with my newly acquired purchasing power. I kept in mind the debt-ridden girl from college and smugly knew that I wouldn’t ever allow myself to go down that route. I paid off my balance each month and soon, hooked by the ease, I was using my credit card for everything and not just for special purchases as I had done in the beginning.

And then I utterly lost control.

 

To be continued….*

 

*That’s a good cliff-hanger, right? Look at me, trying something new! Stay tuned to find out how I got out of debt — not an easy task…

 

Happy Friday + Advent Randomness

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Happy Friday! Even though I’m sharing it today, I did, in fact, finish this Advent Calendar in the nick of time on November 30th, much to my relief. Compared to the last couple of years, it’s a more understated calendar, but I put a lot of thought into it. This year, I had some very specific rules for myself:

1. Construct the advent calendar out of what I already have on hand (the exception was the little gifts that are part of the calendar)

2. No candy or sweets

3. Include lots of books, because books are K’s favorite thing in the world

4. Must have an element of giving and not be just about receiving

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I had all these left over metal tins from a misguided idea to sell magnets many, many years ago and they’ve been sitting in our basement forever. I thought I was being all eco and brilliantly repurposing (and the tins can still be reused!), but M pointed out that it looks like the attack of Altoids.

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I printed numbers onto some copper paper from my infinite stash of pretty papers and used my circle punch and some twine and voila! Aided by the magic that is mounted foam tabs like these, we have a quick and dirty DIY Advent Calendar (okay, some of the tins have been falling off the wall and required reinforcement, but the initial effect was quite lovely). What makes this extra fun is that each tin contains a little note. On odd-numbered days, I included clues that lead K to a hidden little gift — a scavenger hunt! On even-numbered days, K is assigned a “giving” task (e.g. gather clothes to donate to her school’s Uganda program or make a video to send to Grandma and Grandpa), and she gets to choose a book from the “Advent basket”. The books are a combination of thrifted, bargain sales and a few new releases that I know she’ll flip over.

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Although I spent some serious time thinking up the whole project, the execution took about an hour (mostly because I haven’t wrapped all the little presents yet since I wait until the night before to hide them). The verdict: “Mama, I can tell you worked so hard on this. You’re so so awesome!!” She practically squeezed the life out of me and I nearly cried the ugly cry — she said it in such a heartfelt, appreciative way.

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The winner of the Sew Sweet Giveaway is Haylee, congrats! I always enjoy reading all the giveaway comments and now I’m hankering to learn multiple languages, take up woodworking, try my hand at spinning yarn!

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Countdown has begun
but the anticipation
is the best part, no?

Wishing you all a lovely weekend! K has her first ever piano recital tomorrow – very, very excited!

 

 

Monday Outfit: The Scarf Sweater (by Bachan)

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Good morning! We had such a lovely, lovely weekend filled with friends and good times, but alas, that meant I couldn’t squeeze in any sewing. However, the Guy Fawkes party alone was well-worth the sacrifice (I have a good friend who is a Brit), and I indulged in a little mulled wine and quite a few “Sticky Parkins”, which tasted a little like gingerbread. A cozy group of us bundled up in winter gear and gathered round a fire pit with techno colored flames. Fun, fun.

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So instead of a sewn project, today I’m sharing this clever little sweater that K’s wearing. My mom made this last winter, and it’s got its own built-in scarf, which I think is brilliant. She knitted it during her visit along with this other one I featured before, and you can see the similarity. At the time, this particular scarf sweater was much bigger than the one with the button, and now K is nearly outgrowing it.

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After last winter, my mom stopped producing her normally outrageous amount of knitted and sewn objects. In fact, when she came to visit this past summer, she didn’t make a thing. Sadly, this is because her eyesight has been steadily declining, and by October, her left eye was significantly compromised and her right eye was nearly blind.

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It turned out to be cataracts, and after a successful surgery last week, her vision is back to 20/30! She’s still recovering from the procedure, so we’re not sure if she’ll be able to make it out to Seattle this winter, but it’s looking promising.

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It’s been a wake-up call, bringing to the forefront the realities of aging parents. Surrounded by the youthful energy of K and her friends as I am every day, it’s easy to forget the other end of the spectrum. And it makes me treasure my mom and all of her creations that much more.

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The good news is that as part of a preliminary check to make sure she was fit for the surgery, she underwent a full physical exam — something she hadn’t done in 35 years! My mom is a big believer in natural healing and she’s avoided hospitals and doctors like the plague. Well, she must be doing things right, because her results were pretty stellar. When we see her next, I’m planning on grilling her to get her healthy living secrets. You better believe that I’ll be documenting her methodology.

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So for today, a little tribute to my amazing Mama. I hope there will be many, many more clever sweaters and handmade delights!

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