Living Life Comfortably When Things Get Expensive

Taking a breather from writing is not always easy for me. I guilt myself, perhaps a bit too much, over my unpaid hobby when I neglect it. Some days, it is hard to step away guilt free because there is a lot of joy I find in writing, but the realist in me also understands I don’t make money off the activity the way full time bloggers and influencers do from their social media presence. Quite often, I do need to step away from my blog to have more time for my family and my responsibilities as a person who works outside the home. My personality and lack of tech savvy skills are also not a good match for the world of full time blogging and the uncertainty that comes from an irregular income contingent on bringing in sponsors, having ads, and what not. I guess from here on out I want to be honest that my writing will be more sporadic. I enjoy writing as a craft and if it’s going to continue as an unpaid hobby, I need to guilt trip myself less about it.

That all being said, the last few months have been a great time to reflect on where my life is at and the goals I have down the line. Watching our world unfold in a terrible way due to things like the ongoing war in Ukraine and the school shooting in Uvalde have only made me want to retreat a little bit more, using my goals as a way to stay grounded. I must also remember terrible things going on this world does not mean I cannot find joy in the many positive things also going on at the same time. So finding joy in a time of uncertainty is something I continue to strive to find in my daily life. A big part of finding joy in uncertainty is having a financial cushion.

My Path to FI

I make the statement “My Path to FI” but it really represents an intent to bring my entire family to financial independence. I choose to say “my” rather than “ours” because I am the sole author of this blog. I do speak of our financial situation as a package deal though because we are a two-income household and we will continue on that path. Being disciplined along the way though requires finding inspiration and I thought I’d shared today some of the spaces where I am finding inspiration to stay motivated as the pandemic has made grocery shopping, dining out, and home improvement materials more expensive.

I started to follow @kayelle.daily on Instagram somewhat recently to see her progress as a six-figure single income household during her mortgage payoff and while she describes herself as “work optional” based on her husband’s job, I understand that type of journey is not right for me. I can jump onboard with the idea of paying down the mortgage, but I don’t want to stay at home full time as a mother. When I first found this account on Instagram, I will admit I was a bit overwhelmed. Her page was beautiful, but I was looking for an explanation of how she got to where she is today.

After scouting further back into her past posts, I found the explanation I was looking for to understand how her mortgage pay off journey became a realistic goal. Once I saw where her journey actually began, I felt better about keeping her on my list of inspiration sources. I’ve been that person making $32,500 to roughly $43,000 in the past and being underemployed was cramping my ability to get closer to larger financial goals. When my family also stopped paying for childcare, we also grew the space between our income and expenses, too. (It still bothers me though that it is more expensive in my State to pay for infant childcare compared to sending a young adult to a four year public university.)

Now, I’ll be upfront, I won’t embrace the gazelle intensity quite as much. Having found both How to Money and ChooseFI some time ago, I feel comfortable moving away from Dave Ramsey’s teachings and towards a path that feels sustainable. A big part of wanting to blend a combination of competing financial goals (i.e. paying towards retirement while at the same time throwing extra money towards the mortgage and saving for vacations) is that I see more and more how uncertain our lifespans are. If I were to be a person who doesn’t get to reach her goal of living to be 100, I don’t want to be remembered as a miser for the years I worked towards financial freedom. Approaching financial goals from a mindset of financial scarcity has been stressful at times, and I don’t want to be in that boat again. My family would have missed out on making better memories for the sake of paying down some bills. I would not trade the time we spent at Disneyland and San Francisco last year for other financial goals. The pandemic really wore us all down and the ability to go out and explore the world a little more helped ease the stress we’ve experienced since March 2020.

On other hand, because I want to live a happy life when I’m in my 80’s, 90’s, and hopefully live to see 100, I cannot live now like money can always be earned. I have no idea how many working years I’ll get, so it is prudent to get the mortgage paid off before retirement. A mortgage is a pretty stable payment to make in many ways and as the rent continues to grow in our area, I don’t want to become a renter again. My favorite neighborhood in Gilbert, Agritopia, has easily become one of these least affordable neighborhoods and I could not imagine as I age, living on more of a fixed income, having less choice regarding where I can live. When I’m older, I may need more freedom to make modifications to my living situation so I can age in place and the freedom of being mortgage-free will make it possible to put in upgrades of my liking. I think if we could build our home with some universal design upgrades in mind, our home will be both aesthetically pleasing while better serving everyone who lives or visits our home for the years we call it ours.

Knowing that Arizona also does not offer all the things that speak to my soul, I am glad we are both on board with making travel a priority which is the last thing I want to touch on today. We already have an out-of-state trip planned for the spring (something to share in more detail post trip). Saving up for the adventure is important since flights, hotel rooms, and a rental car will eat up most of the travel budget. Our plan to visit with friends there requires some extra pre-planning to ensure our adventures factor in weather issues (unlike the mistakes we made on our San Francisco trip!) as most places have less consistent weather in the spring compared to our slice of Arizona. I am also hunting around for restaurants with a greater balance of dairy-free entrees and desserts for me and options my family will enjoy that won’t require them to sacrifice on my behalf.

More to follow as always. I hope to catch up again in late August or September.

~Cheryl

Not Selling Can Make Sense in a Sellers Housing Market: Here’s Why

For awhile now, I’ve watched the housing market escalate like crazy. My weekend hobby to look at model homes is probably where I first started to notice this tend aside from occasionally listening to podcasts that discussed our nation’s growing crisis with affordable housing and a sharp increase in homelessness in places like Los Angeles. One neighborhood, in particular, in our local area jumped in model home prices from $330,000 for a sub-2,000 sq. ft. floor plan in January 2020 to $483,900 in September of last year. By last month, the same exact floor plan, was marketed for $535,900. As a second time homeowner, I did look into whether now would be the time to sell our current home. The opportunity to look at downsizing a little, but not as small as our first sub 1,300 sq. ft. homes, was tempting.

The appraisal came in at a good amount: $524,000. It was less than what sites like Redfin and Zillow provided as estimates, and I am sure it would have been a bit higher than what sites like Open Door would provide as their goal to shortly re market the house to someone else for a profit. The rise in current home prices was an opportunity to look more clearly not only at our needs, but our wants. Could we afford a smaller space with at least the same size yard or larger that was ideally no older than our current residence? One of the best places we decided to start our search was checking out smaller new builds that offered condos. I know condos don’t seem all that popular in Arizona, but I would not mind one if it came with more than just a patio. It irks me that home builders pack multi family homes in such a way as to afford next to nothing for private outdoor gatherings. Despite this issue, we went ahead and look at local offerings.

Not all were condos, but the time spent traipsing through new builds gave us an opportunity to look at housing in a critical way we have not always done in the past. (Me, especially, since I fall in love with a lot of home upgrades.) We were/are settled into a home that works for our family and budget; we could window shop for windows and other housing amenities without feeling any pressure that housing options would dry up on us like they had in years prior when we competed with other buyers toting cash offers for resale homes when our housing budget was tighter and the supply of homes with a first time budget was even lower.

One of my favorite options was the Sapphire Plan condo from Lennar Homes at their Echelon at Treviso community. The 4 bed/3 bath condo built in Chandler, Arizona is in a cute community, but the $478,990 cost for a condo that lacks a yard immediately put it out of consideration. We have two dogs and they require outdoor space for our convenience and piece of mind that requires little to no supervision and both dogs could easily jump over the low walls separating each unit’s patio from each other. In spite of the lack of yard space, I think the builder did a great job in providing driveways; I do not recall if all units had a full size driveway but it is rather typical here for builders to short change condo owners on a driveway and instead utilize community parking for their needs. It makes having guests over a bit of a challenge as we found when we lived in a small home that was built along those same lines of forgoing driveways to pack in more houses.

Something like this could have worked, but it is important to do a cost benefit analysis.

Our situation would look like this:

$524,000 home sale

-$31,440 (to provide a 6% real estate commision)

-remaining home loan

Home Profit

-$4,000 (moving costs, full pack and moving services, roughly)

“True” Home Profit

Using a new build home provides a sort of “best estimate” of reduced moving costs by looking into a home with all the things we generally want. This condo community includes the fridge, gas oven, dishwasher, and microwave. Standard as well are quartz and granite countertops. A new build comes with PEX plumbing and a tankless water heater, options we would not have with some older resale home options. Still, we have dogs, and carpet with animals can get pretty gross. To be as comfortable as we are based on our current home, we would lose some of the remaining home profits to upgrade the floors in a new build so as to avoid carpets all together.

And this was our “best case scenario” based on some reduction in square footage and a reduction in outdoor space in order to find an “affordable” new build. We would still have to acquire a new mortgage, but something like the $478k new build condo is more appealing than what we’re seeing for similarly sized new build homes. Right now, Lennar’s Belrose community in Gilbert has a sub 2,000 sq. ft home listed for $529,990 and one of the cheapest models in their Chandler community, Asher Pointe, is $581,990. Neither option would allow us to capitalize on the fact our home’s value has increased based on increased housing demand over the pandemic. (There are other home builders currently producing similar homes, but I wanted to still with the Lennar brand for comparison purposes.)

If we wanted to revert back to looking at resale homes, a sub $500,000 home presents some interesting offerings. There is a home located at 242 S. Dobson Rd. in Chandler, built in 1975. It is a 3 bedroom, one bath residence with a carport that was listed back in late February for $430,000 and the Zillow price is now $424,000. The 7,361 sq. foot lot is really its selling point. The home could be torn down to the studs by a buyer with the right budget and a real amazing home crafted in its place.

A quick peek at Zillow for a Gilbert, AZ search for a sub $500,000 residence only produces 23 agent listings and 9 other listings as of today. Eight of the latter properties are in the foreclosure process. One condo is in The Gardens neighborhood, shown below.

Here is the unit we once considered for our first home that is located in The Gardens:

We were more familiar with the neighborhood back in 2016 when we were interested in offering $162,000 for a different unit. The condo would not have been an ideal fit in large part due to the fact there is no outdoor space at all attached to the unit. impossibly tight budget, $162,000, matched the tightness of the space. The unit is a 2 bed, 2 bath unit totaling 1,188 square feet. I have to chuckle a bit about how much the old owner was firm about not budging on the price. It was listed for $164,900 and after our offer was not taken, she sold it for less than offering at $159,000. The property was last listed as a rental home in 2019 from what I found on realtor.com.

Looking at a similarly priced home to the current The Gardens condo for sale at $410,000, Gilbert also has this home on the market. This one is a bit older than the condo, but the 1998 home instead has a lot size over 6,000 feet for just $15,000 more than the condo. These are the kinds of comparisons confronting us as we went back and forth on whether or not to sell our current home because the sizable profit we could have made was tempting.

What is not tempting is looking at the involved risks that outweigh the benefits. It is hard to gauge how well maintained homes are by just looking at what’s produced by a home inspection. There are things you can find out down the road and items do just reach the end of their lifespans. Roofs need repairing, pools require resurfacing, A/C units fail, and water heaters will eventually need replacement. The ages of properties most in line with our desired budget are coming up on their replacement/repair windows for various large ticket items like a roof or the A/C. If we ever looked at a condo or other multi family housing situations more seriously, I also have the Surfside condo collapse last year that killed 98 persons informing my decision making process. I think I would need a lot more information about the building’s maintenance history before purchasing anything in a high rise building.

As we settle into the place we now intend to call home for awhile, I am interested in what improvements make sense from an aesthetic and financial standpoint. Interior home improvements do not garner a lot of the same return on investment as outdoor improvements. We can protect our earned equity by being mindful in our choices and doing the work ourselves when it makes sense. Things like electric improvements, such as the canned lighting we want to put into the living room one day, will be the job for an electrician. These photos are a little peek at what we’ve currently done to bring extra functionality into our combined living room/dining area without breaking the bank.

Acrylic shelves are from CB2. They are normally just under $25 a piece for the 24″ segment.
The raw metal shelf (in the middle photo) and the raw metal ledges for our home bar project in progress come from DIY Cartel. 48″ shelves will set you back just under $100 a piece and the 48″ floating ledges are just under $90 a piece.

When Job Transitions Pay Off. Hint: It Takes Longer than You (Might) Think.

For months now, I wanted to share my efforts to leave behind higher education in search of a better paying position. Seeing my career stagnate over the years, I grew frustrated watching others step into their dream careers. My joy for their success has always been genuine as there is space in this world for all of us to succeed, but I started to struggle with seeing my dreams fall apart. Investing the effort to obtain two undergraduate degrees and two graduate degrees felt like a waste while I watched the pandemic start to unfold for us here in the United States in early 2020. All the unsettled feelings I had when I transitioned from the Marine Corps in 2007 and was kicked by the Great Recession in 2008 crept in over and over again.

Leaving a reasonably well paying job in 2007 was risky. I don’t want anyone to get the idea that leaving the workforce to enter college pays off right away. For some, it does. For me, it didn’t. I endured multiple periods of unemployment for my decision to step away from the Marine Corps at the time that I did. The first one in 2007 was four months long, the next (post-college 2012) lasted from graduation in May until February 2013 and from late July 2013 until Arizona State University hired me in late October that year. The amount of stress I carry regarding job hunting is deeply rooted in my past experiences. Each ding to my finances was a reminder I could try my damndest to succeed, but I was not the master of my journey. I am just a small fish learning to swim in new waters.

I was not prepared for how deep the water would be when I jumped into planning my career choices. Wanting something and preparing for its eventual arrival was not enough. I only knew the route to get there, but I did not understand how complicated our society is and how it trickles down into job environments. My goal to serve in the federal government was short-sighted because I did not look at the overall vision of my life and I originally underestimated how complicated the hiring process can be, especially at the federal level. Reflecting back, I should have been more confident that the hardship we endured at the earliest part of our marriage, delivered through two back-to-back deployments, was a lesson we could survive a second, albeit smaller, separation if my career choice necessitated a nationwide job search.

Instead, I was incredibly skittish to make that leap and so I took a very narrow view of where I would job hunt. Restricting my job hunt also limited my chances of federal employment, and Arizona, being attractive to a lot of other veterans, upped my competition. With everything taking too long to come to fruition, I first on boarded with a county level government and when that was not a proper fit, I navigated into higher education to find myself again. Ahead of the pandemic, I knew I no longer wanted to stay within the confines of higher education. To see again that I was giving myself a limited environment in which to see professional growth matched with limited financial growth, I made a pretty big career decision.

I relinquished a lot of control and opted to let recruiters find my resume on USAJobs.gov. This decision meant giving up my idea of sticking with serving veterans as my longterm career choice. I was open to almost any agency. The few I was not onboard with are based on my values conflicting with how those organizational units are run today and the ones I was most on board with had to have a criminal justice and/or social justice component to the day-to-day responsibilities of the position I would accept. I was unwilling to accept a position that would grossly underpay me. I accepted that my hard work to obtain two Master’s degrees meant I would no longer explore something that would serve only as a lateral move. I made one lateral move from Arizona State University to Grand Canyon University, one that I ultimately disliked, and I would not put myself through that experience a second time.

To better highlight my career challenges, I felt it was best to show it from a financial standpoint. I wanted to share one of my highest earning months in the Marine Corps against the rate I received for my ending hourly salaries at ASU and GCU. Can you see now why it felt for a while my graduate degrees (and hell, the undergrad ones, too) felt like a waste of time?!

The emotional frustration I experienced while waiting for my salary to match my educational efforts was significantly lifted last year when I was offered my current position. My new position has aspects meeting both my desire to have a criminal justice/social justice serving purpose and I received a 5-figure pay increase. I am surrounded by a pretty great team that has provided me a wealth of formal and informal tools to understand the nature of what I am getting into and we get along well even when we are talking shop. The commute is reasonable so I don’t lose an excess amount of family time and I’ll still have some WFH time in my new position. After all these years, I feel like I am back on track with my career objective.

Feeling this way, I thought it would be good to talk about employment as a large umbrella of benefits. There is a lot of negative talk about people shifting jobs during the pandemic and I don’t think it’s a bad thing. For individuals to leave jobs they’ve outgrown, where they are underpaid or under appreciated is a good thing. It forces HR to revisit job announcements to ensure things accurately reflect today’s job responsibilities. Employers are also in a position where they finally have to own up to the fact they are underpaying people and demanding more from their workforce. Just today, I saw that the restaurant we visited, Five Guys, is hiring for $18.50 an hour. Over our Christmas holiday in San Francisco, an In-and-Out restaurant’s sign read they were hiring for $20 an hour. I think Taco Bell is even hiring at $15 an hour. As we see living wages coming into existence, there is an opportunity to reduce economic disparity. I don’t know how much impact we’ll have at higher education institutions based on the fact they also offer a tuition waiver/reimbursement depending on their policies. When I last looked, ASU was offering $40,000 for the position I left. Back when I was hired in 2013, my annual rate was just over $32,500. By comparison, I was hired at $38,000 (the high starting rate) with GCU and their posting late last year was still $38,000.

With my employment struggles, I think another thing job seekers need to consider is what their employer is willing to match for retirement contributions and when the employee is fully vested. Currently, ASU and employees under the Arizona State Retirement System equally contribute 12.41% to an employee’s retirement. I left under the 5-year window needed to be fully vested with ASU’s contributions so all those were taken away from me when I left the employer. GCU’s contributions were significantly less. From my 2020 data, I received $0.40 employer contributions based on 3% of eligible employee contributions. This is why I have more funds from my ASU contributions for a shorter period of work than what I walked away with from my GCU position. Rolling into my new job, the federal agency automatically contributes 1%, I contribute 5%, and the agency matches another 4%. I have more to explore about how I want to add additional funds to my retirement contributions, but I’ve already made the decision to pull my other funds to rollover to my new retirement account. I feel more comfortable having everything all located together.

The last thing I think it’s worth discussing today is what a future employer’s leave and sick time is available along with their holiday schedule (or if the organization offers another benefit of interest like support for artificial reproductive technology, adoption, or pet health insurance). One of the biggest disappointments for me moving from ASU to GCU is that GCU does not honor Veterans Day with a day off for employees. I always took a PTO day so I could be with my family and while the school took that day away to celebrate other moments in line with their Christian values, it has never set well with me they took this liberty. Along with the leave and sick time available, it is valuable for employees and prospective employees to know the maximum amount they can carry over into the next fiscal year. The last thing you want to experience is losing time you’ve earned. I’ve been there. It’s a bit part of why I used up as much leave time as I could before switching jobs. Not all employers are required to pay out unused leave based on their individual State laws, so do your research. Your job is not the most important part of your identity and your labor isn’t free. Get what you deserve so you can take care of who you are today and the person you’ll be in retirement.

Wishing you all the best.

~Cheryl

Thanksgiving Weekend Recap

I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving this year. My family and I kept to a small celebration at home, not due to the pandemic still going on, but because it is something we favored this year. After watching all the recent travel issues though, impacted in one way or another due to the pandemic and misbehaving travelers on airlines, I don’t feel bad about it one bit. Most of our plans turned out exactly as intended, some things turned out better, and what didn’t work out all that well reminded us that sometimes we just need to follow our instincts.

Given that small celebrations don’t seem to receive much coverage in conversation, I am happy to share a small feast is still worth throwing in all the labor and going all out on meal preparation. I don’t know where the idea came from that if you’re only having a small gathering that it is in someway less special. Maybe things felt that way last year because people couldn’t connect in-person, but it is about the connections with the people who celebrate with you and not the total number of attendees that is important. I remember when I lost my mom the first year of doing holidays without her was incredibly rough. The memories of each holiday from the year prior crept back in my mind and our first Thanksgiving without her felt really empty.

Our society shies away from grief a lot, but it seems to be more present surrounding big holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Ads and shows are loaded with messages that everyone gets together. When our table was one short, it was bittersweet but I’ve noticed how the holidays became more meaningful afterwards. I became better at sorting through family conflict that arises when there are too many people trying to navigate in the same small spaces and instead saw the best my family had to offer.

I became more aware that our home gatherings were never disingenuous. It was typical that everyone brought something and that reality is something I still love knowing my family does, even when they gather and I’m not present. As a childhood fan of Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce, I could almost always recall that it would be sliced and fanned out on a platter for our family dinners. Deviled eggs, a family favorite, were kept pretty simple as were the mashed potatoes. I don’t think any of the dinner rolls that ended up paired with our annual holidays were homemade, but we liked them all the same. My family photographed our get-togethers with a different technology over the years: disposable cameras covered the events until they were replaced by digital cameras and later, when members started breaking out cellphones with camera features. As a result, some family photos weren’t all that great some years, but we’ve seen an improvement due to the fact we can now delete the bad copies and hold onto the ones that best represent our time together. We may have staged our homes to show off to loved ones, but nothing was staged like it is often now to create enviable social media content. My childhood was instead filled with more basic things like silly paper decorations, my parents breaking out the good dishes which they forced us kids to wash and dry by hand at the end of the meal, and cramming ourselves into the kitchen, dining room, or living room to talk to one another.

The tough thing for me as an adult now when I go to gatherings is I don’t want to see people breaking out their phones to avoid hanging out with other people. In those moments, I would happily prefer those individuals just stayed at their own homes than ruin what should be a fun time to connect. I think it’s one thing if we break out our phones to take a photo with each other or to highlight something neat someone made or a place that he or she visited. I feel it’s another thing entirely if you’re over there in the corner checking out the score for a sports game or scrolling through sites like Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok. I try to be the person that if my phone comes out, I take the photo that I want and then I put my phone away. As such during our recent Friendsgiving adventure, I did not carry my phone at all. The dress I wore did not have pockets, so I stowed the phone away in my purse although I could have carted that thing around in my hand the entire time. There was only one moment that I wanted to bring out my phone and it was to share a jewelry company I found on Instagram that I wanted to share with another female guest. Instead, I shared the profile with our friend after the event so she could share it with this person.

For our family Thanksgiving, I think the only thing I truly wish I did differently was to compile a list of the meal’s cost. The modest size of our family does not translate necessarily into a cheaper dinner and I don’t want to give the false impression that our Thanksgiving Day menu was cheap. It wasn’t, but then again, I spaced out the purchases so I did not have a tally to bring this all together in a cut and dry way for my audience.

My goal was never to share our family dinner that way and I only thought about it as we began meal preparation. Instead, I wanted this post to be a good follow up to my last message that holidays are not the time to meal shame others for what is on or not on their plate. We did not engage in any daily calorie counting this entire weekend. I had my daughter draft a menu so she could contribute more in line with her interests as she sometimes gets bored cooking and baking with me with some of the tasks being more challenging for her. She decided, on her own, to annotate what was dairy free with one asterisk and put in two to denote items with two asterisks. For an 11 year old, she had a lot of fun putting this together for us.

FOOD

I took this photo at a local Fry’s Food Stores after Thanksgiving, but it was a good way to be more transparent about the cost of our dinner. At $3.99 per pound, the ducks are a more expensive holiday poultry option than what most people spend on a turkey this time of year. Right now, Fry’s Food Stores is showing a Butterball Premium Whole Frozen Turkey (16-20lbs.) to be $0.99 per pound. Whether that is the same price it was before Thanksgiving, I don’t know. Turkey is not something we really enjoy in this house and we do not like eating Thanksgiving leftovers for a week, so the duck suited us nicely.

Next year, we may consider trying a Heritage turkey to see if it tastes much better than the Butterball brand ones.

Our choice to have a bacon and egg soup for lunch is something I am happy we opted to go with during our day. We baked the green bean bites in our countertop oven on its air fryer seating and ate them as an appetizer while we pulled the soup together. (The recipe hails from homemakershabitat and we tailored it to our tastes by adding Trader Joe’s Mushroom & Company Multipurpose Umami seasoning blend and soy sauce.)
We ate our dinner rather late in the day (totally unplanned); we got caught up in a conversation with some neighbors and were trying to kindly leave the conversation to get lunch made. The husband and wife are retirees and it can be a bit hard to try to curtail our conversations so we can get back to other things we have going on that day. The recipe to cook the duck was simple enough to follow, but I’ll do more research next time to dial back the cook time. The duck ended up cooked throughout, and I would prefer it turned out medium-rare like you can get at a restaurant. The sauce, on the other hand, ended up being a good surprise. I’ve only started to like olives recently and I used green olives to make Food52’s feta brine martini shortly before Thanksgiving and had leftover olives to use, which resulted in choosing the duck recipe from Food and Wine. The duck recipe is probably something I think even less experienced home cooks would feel confident with and the sauce and stock weren’t hard to make either. I think I could even make some modifications to the recipe so there could be a simplified version to make and serve over mashed potatoes during a busy week.
The no churn bourbon ice cream I made with plant-based ingredients turned out to have a wonderful flavor, but it is not true ice cream texture. (Will not make again.) As I scooped it up, parts of the ice cream broke into chunks rather than be pulled along with the scooper. My husband did not seem to mind our ugly ice cream and it was perfect over the apple and frangipane tart courtesy of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Samin Nosrat has the recipe as a fruit galette on her site, CiaoSamin. We are personally fans of a galette style dessert as opposed to a tart since it’s a bit more informal in appearance (great for less skilled bakers) and easier to whip together than trying to carefully move tart dough into a baking dish. I used lactose free milk to brush the dough instead of heavy whipping cream, so fair warning, we had to tent ours with parchment to prevent overbrowning earlier than the recipe indicates in the book. The website also makes the dessert differently by waiting to put sugar on the fruit.

The cranberry pie did not turn out as well as the other things and I used the recipe from Baked by an Introvert. It is my fault for testing out a different pie idea than following the recipe so same problem as my ice cream endeavor! The store bought pie shell was not deep enough to hold all 6 cups of slightly cooked cranberry filling and the pecan crust got a bit overdone, although not burnt. Next year, I’d like to make my own deep dish Oreo cookie crust and I would consider baking the filling a lot on the stovetop and putting the pie into the oven for a shorter time period. Our oven seems to run a little hot so for the earlier part of the bake, some of the cranberries got a little scorched on top. Since the pie recipe intends to create a jammy consistency, I don’t know that there would be much harm in cooking it more like a cranberry sauce on the stovetop and finishing it in the oven for a short time period to bond the filling and pie crust.

DRINKS

I am a bit of a bourbon and whiskey fan, so it wasn’t hard to select two drink recipes for Thanksgiving that use these flavors as their main base. The Hot Toddy with charred oranges recipe from Country Living was perfect. Honey is a predominant ingredient after the one and a half cups bourbon, so pick a good one. We used Heavenly Organics 100% Organic Raw White Honey and the floral flavor comes through nicely. (Zero compensation regarding this statement, by the way. It’s just a good product.)

The Hot Toddy satisfied our drink wants for Thanksgiving Day, so we actually opted to make the gingerbread manhattans the day after. The sugar company’s website uses Rosso vermouth, which I did not have, so I used Extra Dry vermouth and gin is not something in my pantry. I replaced it with brandy and the drink still turned out well. Not as good as the hot toddy, but that is only because I prefer if I’m the one making cocktails that I don’t need to make them individually.

ENTERTAINMENT

While other Americans caught up on football for Thanksgiving, this weekend we opted for some Thanksgiving themed episodes of favorite shows to honor the occasion.

*Gilmore Girls “A Deep Fried Korean Thanksgiving” (One of our favorite episodes and this show is my favorite. We built our bacon wrapped sausage and pancake bundles as our replica of what Luke makes for Rory before she heads off to Yale.)

*Friends “The One Where Ross Got High” (Rachel’s trifle mishap is always worth rewatching.)

*Brooklyn Nine-Nine “Two Turkeys” (Parentsgiving. Enough said.)

Aside from far too tv time, we did take walks around our neighborhood and the Eastmark area to get out of the house a bit. The weather was great and I’m always up for looking to see what new homes might be cropping up elsewhere. Their Steadfast Farm and the surrounding area is really looking like it wants to compete with Agritopia’s little host of restaurants and farm down the line. There is certainly space for it to expand a bit more than what’s available in Agritopia and hopefully they do not suffer the same fate as Agritopia’s Epicenter that took forever to be built. In my opinion, most of the delays sounded like they were based on people’s disdainful remarks about mixed used development as a number of home owners scoffed at Gilbert growing its apartment offerings rather than issues like labor or material shortages being a factor. These apartments, by the way, aren’t cheap although for many it offers a solid roof over their heads when it is easy to be priced out of the housing market right now or deal with being financially unable to qualify for a mortgage. The smallest available square footage is is a studio coming in at 504 feet up to 1,590 square feet for their 3 bedroom, 3 bath unit. According to Apartment Finder, the smaller units are in the ballpark of $1,623 up to $4,890 for the larger ones. I think my fellow community members should keep in mind how crazy it is that someone cannot qualify for a mortgage as a younger person or someone rebounding from past financial issues, but he or she makes a sufficient salary to afford a luxury apartment with more amenities than some homes in this area. Food for thought.

Other than our foray around Eastmark on two separate occasions, I am happy to report we kept the weekend pretty simple. We don’t often go out shopping in-person for Black Friday or Small Business Saturday, either. A few drinks at Starbucks made up the most of our weekend in-person spending, which was nice. I love the Chestnut Praline Latte and an obligatory holiday cup photo is a must, I guess. I have liked some holiday designs more in the past few years, but I don’t get too wrapped up in these things. You won’t see me trying to get each version that comes out. I am happy enough (and so is my wallet) with a good cup of black coffee from home and I will cart it around in my Yeti Rambler Mug when we go out somewhere.

Our only real unplanned weekend outing was to pop into the mall to check out Atomic Comics. Black Friday weekend sales are usually why I avoid the mall this time of year, but I felt the comic book store was one of the least hectic parts of the mall we could visit. From what I gathered ahead of time from our Community Impact newsletter the business closed in 2011 and only recently opened a new location. Given my family’s interests in anime and manga along with a few other things, I thought they’d enjoy going there for a visit and I’d join along for the fun. I was most interested in finding out what collectibles and clothing items they might stock. Walking through the space, I kept thinking of the guys from “Big Bang Theory” and their days spent at Stewart’s comic book store. Thankfully, this one didn’t have a creepy guy behind the counter; all the staff members we encountered were quite respectful to us and the other customers. The store is still coming together, but I would ask prospective customers to not let the soft opening deter them from visiting. My favorite thing to check out was the large collection of Funko Pop! items. The Wall-e and Eve ones plus the one of Stitch are the ones I liked best, but they had a little bit of everything to include one of John Oliver. (Note: I opted out of taking photographs in the store out of respect to my fellow patrons, so sorry I cannot show off the wall of Funko Pops to you all today.)

With yesterday being the start of Chanukah, I felt this display from the mall was also worth sharing today. I don’t have too many friends who celebrate, but I don’t want their holiday to get glossed over between all the attention that Thanksgiving, shortly followed by Black Friday sales, and the jumpstart of Christmas shopping gets in our society. It is only in more recent years that I’ve started to see more recognition in our area for this holiday and it’s hard to know if it’s just that I wasn’t out and about when the decor showed up in our local area or if our community was behind the times in getting displays and decor items here. I want to live in an area that respects all beliefs and I know I am lucky to live in a time where more beliefs are celebrated and respected than when my parents, grandparents, and great grandparents grew up.

In our world that is so vast and in this season where we should be giving thanks, talking about what brings us joy, and discussing our traditions and favorite past times, I hope everyone can open their hearts to different ways of being and experiencing life. This past year has been a difficult one and as our global community has lost many members, it would be encouraging to hold fast to the positive lessons we learned growing up and to share our cultures, faith, and languages in ways that brings people together, rather than divides them as we start to close out the year.

“Menorah is the Hebrew word for lamp, and specifically refers to the seven-branched candelabrum that was used in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Thus, a hanukkiah, or Hanukkah menorah, is a type of menorah; every hanukkiah is a menorah, but not every menorah is a hanukkiah.” (Courtesy of My Jewish Learning)

Not Letting Food Be the Enemy During the Holidays

This Thursday, we will face one of the biggest, if not, the biggest, food oriented holiday here in the United States, so I open today’s post with some caution. This blog entry is not for everyone. I cannot understand the trauma faced by all persons who have suffered through anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, or orthorexia or the difficulties faced by family members and friends supporting a person through their condition or recovery or who have lost a loved one to these conditions. I am only touching on the surface of eating disorders, but I recognize my limitations as a non-medical professional. The first two are conditions I knew of growing up, both through portrayals in media like one (I’m fairly certain it was on Lifetime) movie I recall where the mother uncovers jars of vomit in her daughter’s closet or news media coverage of models and actresses struggling with their body weight.

My teenage years did not provide the wisdom to understand underlying mental health issues are the root of eating disorders. If friends personally struggled with any of these conditions, I was unaware. Lost in my own world as an introvert, I felt awkward in my own 5’2″ shell and couldn’t see others who appeared more confident in their skin dealing with any issue similar to my own feelings regarding my body. I left high school weighing 103 lbs., a weight I likely would have hovered around, with or without my short-lived career in track and cross country. I did not throw myself too hard into my sports participation, so I never tracked my weight at home. I knew my weight because I had to go in for sports physicals and for every person who called me “lucky” for being little, they did not see how uncomfortable I felt being tiny. My former boyfriends or prospective interests were interested in busty girls, not me. Being so small, I felt guys did not find me all that attractive. Regarding how people talk about body types, too, I’d rather people describe me as having a slim or slight-frame body type, rather than boyish but I get most people (sadly) gravitate towards boyish. It’s one of those terms that has gotten under my skin because it implies unattractiveness as a woman in a society that changes its opinion every few years about what features (and their prominence or diminished appearance) makes for an attractive woman.

This, photo, taken with my stepmom and sisters taken shortly after arriving home after graduating Marine Corps recruit training, does not show what kind of life I was in for when I signed up to become a Marine. Recruit training was just the start of a life changed by food options and access to those choices and the focus on my body weight wasn’t too far behind. I was something like 108lbs. -115lbs. when I joined and my weight, like that of other female recruits, was checked on a regular basis. During training, I’d write home and grumble about limitations with our food selection. Throughout my childhood, I was allowed Little Debbie treats, plenty of candy during Halloween, and was free to take seconds at dinner. Recruit training was jarring in the fact the chow hall line was the only regular option for food save for Drill Instructor approved care packages from home. Families could send in Nature Valley crunchy granola bars. Maybe they allowed us Clif bars, but those don’t stick out in my mind all that much. I started to notice that I noticed food more based on how we received our meals and what wasn’t an option. When our platoon went to the rifle range, we received diet trays. If you’ve ever seen a Lean Cuisine meal, it’s pretty damn close to those, complete with the heat sealed package but without the exterior colorful box with your nutrition details. It was not uncommon for us to be punished when recruits took cookies from the rifle range chow hall or for team punishment to come down when someone swiped a peanut butter package and the package remnants were discovered by the drill instructors.

I get the demands on drill instructors’ time are great. With all the Marine Corps knowledge to drill in and building physical strength, a lot must be accomplished with the limited weeks of recruit training. Reflecting back, I think I would have benefitted greatly during recruit training from a nutrition course built for athletes than seeing us punished when recruits stole food. We have our entire lives where we need to maintain our bodies and honestly, it’s a bit tough to navigate when a huge life change occurs, such as leaving behind a bit more of a sedentary life for something like the Marine Corps, or where I am at now with some digestive health issues that complicate my day-to-day choices. (I know I still have a tendency to see myself in light of the boundaries the Marine Corps placed on my weight and what’s acceptable.)

Navigating a world where it’s a sort of jumps on and off again from hard discipline to relaxing environment did not create the best foundation either to grow into my adult self. The constant extremes bear extra attention in conversation. While a lot of our food choices were made for us at recruit training, on our Senior Sunday outing we could go out and procure almost anything we wanted. A lot of us overindulged in snacks and paid for it with stomachaches and scoldings from our drill instructors. Post-recruit training, I went home until I had to report in to Marine Corps Combat Training. I did not eat all that healthy at home or for that month of training. I often resorted to eating junk food to stay awake during nighttime fire watch assignments. When I later arrived at MOS school the female sergeant would call our pre-packaged snacks like Hostess cupcakes “fat pills” and a part of me lost respect for our service branch.

Guilting service members over their food choices does not necessarily equate to them making more of the choices you want them to make and/or it may not be appropriate at all for you to push them in that direction. Using these numbers from 2016, as a 5’2″ woman, I could weigh between 104 and 142 pounds. If, during my service I stayed within these parameters–and I did–my leadership should not care that I want a cupcake after my lunch. On the other hand, if my weight fell outside these standards and my leadership wanted to help me get my weight back on track, it would be considerate to not break out the cupcakes and the right mentor or coach to build a sustainable eating plan geared towards individual needs. (This is why I am more a fan of knowing food portions in relation to the human hand or common object than breaking out a food scale. Most people are familiar with the size of a deck of cards or making a fist and they won’t need to meal prep as much which requires proper food storage and a lot more tracking that can exacerbate existing food insecurities.)

I felt this subject would be best to share today because you never know what someone is going through as we head into the holidays.

After my first tour in Iraq, one of my earliest weigh-ins was incredibly awkward. My Staff Sergeant was shocked that I weighed about 108 lbs. because my pre-deployment weigh-in was something in the ballpark of 120-125 lbs. and as the only woman on the team, it was easy to feel more visible in the worst way possible. To steal a line from Britney Spears living in American society comes with a feeling of always being “She’s too big, now she’s too thin” and body weight management in the Marine Corps is not all that different.

In the photo below, I wasn’t heavier because I wasn’t going through something and coping with the situation through my eating habits. I was roughly five to ten pounds heavier than when I joined my Marine Corps unit only a few months prior to when this photo was taken. Back then, I often ate out at restaurants over the weekend instead of the chow hall and restaurants serve larger portions. Had I lived in my own place instead of the barracks, I may have gone out less and/or taken leftovers home. It’s kind of hard to do in a barracks room where food storage is limited. That building was essentially studio apartments throughout with private bathrooms but no kitchens, making most barracks Marines and sailors dependent on the chow hall for the bulk of their meals.

Returning 17 pounds lighter–and after being gone seven months–was not indicative of the problems my supervisor likely thought it was, but I understand that this situation is not true of all people. I was going through a lot after returning from Iraq, dealing with undiagnosed health challenges, financial issues, and strained relationships with my family and in my dating life. I was in an age group that is often overrepresented when it comes to eating disorders and as a woman, I am more likely to deal with this issue than my male counterparts.

(2005 at my barracks in Camp Margarita on Camp Pendleton)

My dramatic weight loss was not through any real effort. I make this statement as a positive and to also reinforce the fact I do not encourage others to lose weight. If they have health conditions that can improve by adopting a more physically active life or making some dietary modifications, I will absolutely support those goals. Overall though, I try not to comment when people talk about weight loss situations because I do not want to misread a situation and inadvertently encourage someone to adopt a lifestyle that is actually doing harm to their person. The weight loss I sustained was not needed but happened somewhat organically.

Not that I think the weight came off consistently a little at a time, but it’s good to be realistic about what happened. 17 pounds dropped over seven months is just under 2.5lbs. lost per month. Different reputable resources will and do indicate it can be safe for persons to lose 1-2 pounds per week, making my weight transformation less dramatic. I did little more than moved more and ate less. My tour in Iraq left me in the position to walk almost everywhere, unless I used a unit vehicle to grab the mail, and I had limited time to sit around to eat. Back in the States, I could hang out with my former boyfriend at a restaurant for really as long as we wanted to order something and commander a table. Working 12 hour shifts in Iraq meant there was too little time to invest in a meal as a leisure activity: a 30 minute lunch was divided up into walking to the chow hall, standing in line, and quickly consuming whatever was available before walking back to work. I could enjoy snacking in my off time because we had a small store where we could purchase pre-packaged snacks and I’d get care packages, but I did not snack the way I kind of do now during the pandemic.

The season we are in now where holidays follow each other in quick succession puts us in a prime position to talk a lot about food, eating habits, and expectations (both to contribute to gatherings and expectations on what should or should not be on someone’s plate). As a parent, I am just as guilty of putting a little of everything on my daughter’s plate as my parents were before me. We learn that we should encourage our kids to “try everything” and to diminish fickle eating habits and it is a process to unlearn these things. I think some of what I’ve experienced has taught me to constantly revisit my attitudes regarding meals and eating in group settings because I want my daughter to see a variety of food choices as the norm.

I start with what I know about my daughter. She tends to like all the protein sources we do and loves about every style of bread, pasta, or rice we make. Fruits and vegetables can be problematic, but to encourage balance and avoid arguments, my goal is we have one or the other with meals. I am not a fan of being the parent who “hides” nutrient rich foods like fruits and vegetables into meal as much as it’s something I explored when my daughter was younger. Now, it’s easier if we focus on fruits and vegetables that complement our protein and starch choices. As an example, a recent dinner for us was baked chicken, seasoned simply with salt and pepper, and it was served with diced roasted butternut squash that had been tossed in turmeric and coconut oil with a touch of salt and sumac.

As we roll into this week preparing for, avoiding holiday prep until the last minute, or letting someone else take charge on the holiday meal, please know I encourage you all to have fun and to know eating is a part of sustaining our beings. Most of us did not grow up with the best lessons in how to approach eating as both an activity our body needs for proper maintenance and as a societal bonding activity with our fellow humans. Knowing this about ourselves, we should be kind with our words and not rush judgement for what others put (or leave off of) their plates and we should give ourselves grace for our food choices, too.

Speaking about what we see others bring to their tables and what we bring to ours, I figured it might help to talk about the recent Friendsgiving I attended. I haven’t been to too many in my life. The first was during my time at Florida Southern College and the home I went to already had Christmas trees, one with traditional ornaments and one that was geared solely towards the family’s beloved football team. The meal stands out a lot less than the group of people and I’ve felt that way for my subsequent gatherings. During the event, I am often surprised by people’s culinary talents and I’m equally appreciative of something someone picked up from the store because it shows their willingness to make the day a community experience, but as time passes, there are few food items that my brain recalls as a spectacular dish I miss.

My gall bladder issue and lactose intolerance now make some meal related events like Friendsgiving and Thanksgiving feel like a less dangerous version of Russian roulette and I am learning how to reduce the stress around meals where I don’t plan the entire menu. For this past Saturday’s Friendsgiving, I brought items that were dairy free or made with lactose free dairy milk. I also brought a bag of Unreal dark chocolate covered peanuts as my dessert so I could avoid asking people what was in the pies. Another option I utilized was to bring an easy side dish, a container of no sugar added apple sauce. Would I have loved something like mashed potatoes or green bean casserole? Yes, until my stomach hurt tremendously and then I would have wanted to go home, killing our outing. No one guilted me for bringing some things that made my dietary situation easier.

I stuck to safe options for dinner and I’d recommend the same for anyone else in a similar position. The protein source was easy as there were smoked meats and I shied away from the turkey in case butter was used in the basting. I had a bit of cornbread and palmier cookies (things I brought), some macaroni salad (only after checking the label), and the apple sauce from home. Later, I split a dinner roll (one I made) with my husband and I grabbed a handful of my Unreal chocolates before also enjoying one of the Trader Joe’s mint peppermint meringues (another thing from home) and losing the rest to my daughter who also wanted them. My situation has also taught me to think more about others’ needs as well; everything I brought was labeled with the ingredients so if they needed or wanted to know the ingredients, fellow guests did not need to hunt me down to inquire.

Our actual Thanksgiving meal later this week will not be entirely dairy free, but it will be dairy minimal. Thanks to not hosting this year, I felt less compelled to build a traditional holiday meal. We are having pork sausages wrapped in pancakes and tied with bacon. This is a nod to the episode of “Gilmore Girls” where Luke makes this treat for Rory the day she heads off to Yale. I also found a recipe for a bacon egg drop soup to replace a more traditional side while still adding a vegetable into our meal and there is a fun sourdough bread recipe shaped like a turkey I am dying to make that would be a great complement to the soup. We have a duck in lieu of a turkey; it’s a much more enjoyable form of poultry in my opinion and worth the extra money. There will be a homemade cranberry sauce. Recipe TBD. I am most delighted though to make progress on the desserts ahead of Thursday. Today I am tackling a whisky ice cream, replacing the dairy milk with plant-based alternatives. Tomorrow I am making the apple and frangipane tart dough (this is my dairy dessert to consume in moderation) and will complete the dessert assembly and baking Wednesday. If time permits, I can make the cranberry pie Wednesday as well and having found Diamond brand pecan pie crusts a little while ago, I now have a non-pastry and non-dairy pie shell for that treat to kick it up a notch.

In closing out today’s blog, I’d love to learn about what others like to make this time of year, even if the dishes aren’t for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Here’s what I wore for our recent Friendsgiving. After all we’ve dealt with during the pandemic, it was fun to dress up a little again.

Pandemic Vacation: The Food, The Hotel, The Beach, and Oh Yes, Disneyland

On our way out of town, we nicked a butterfly with our car. Poor thing. I saw it fluttering towards our windshield and unlike other bugs that become an array of ugly splatters, my heart felt bad for this little creature. We watched its body careen towards the car and after the collision it fluttered off over the vehicle. Not my ideal way to start a vacation. I feel it’s a bit terrible to strike one of your favorite creatures any time, but it can put a damper on the start of a vacation.

A few miles later, I tried to forget the injured/deceased butterfly. His or her journey amid the pandemic was certainly easier than it has been to be human during the upheaval the world has seen since December 2019 and in our neck of the woods March 2020.

Armed with plenty of bottled waters, energy drinks, canned sparkling waters, Earth Balance vegan crackers (my Cheez-It replacement), Ritz crackers, and an assortment of protein bars, we limited our need to depend on fast food establishments and/or convenient, but way overpriced, gas station options for our road snack needs. The food and drinks we brought were not necessarily cheaper than these other options, but certainly healthier. Our planning, just as importantly, allowed us to make good timing from our home in Arizona to Anaheim, California, our home away from home for this particular vacation.

For our last Disneyland visit, we stayed at Disney’s Paradise Pier, but this time, we stayed at the Westin Anaheim Resort.

The mirror lighting was perfect for a selfie or two. This is a zero makeup look after a six hour car ride!

Switching gears from our planned Maui vacation to a quick vacation away in California was pretty easy, given the fact Disneyland allowed us to reuse tickets we purchased pre-pandemic for an April 2020 trip. The company’s generosity cannot be understated though as we reached the end of the yearlong extension earlier in the year and thought we’d have to repurchase tickets entirely to make the trip. Given our limited timeframe in California, Disneyland really was the purpose of our vacation, but we snuck in a few other outings. I was adamant about going to the beach, for one, and I wanted to try out a handful of restaurants I selected before the trip, most of which we ultimately did not make time to visit as we focused heavily on being in the park. My goal to visit El Matador State Beach was replaced by a visit to Leo Carrillo Dog Beach after our plans were dashed by a weekend triathlon I did not know would be going on as it was not listed on the state beach’s website.

We lucked out that the beach was pretty empty. It provided us the perfect circumstance to get in a lot of beautiful photographs and really enjoy the beach without many distractions. We did not get the chance to soak in some sun, which I do not mind, but it was quite chilly. It was only 61 degrees when we arrived at the beach with a daily high for Malibu of 66. The cooler temperature influenced the timing of our departure from the beach more so than when more people came out. The handful of people that started to show up were mostly surfers, so we all had the experience we wanted without intruding on each other’s privacy and/or enjoyment.

I think the only thing that could have made this ocean visit better was if we had found a sand dollar or two. My paternal grandfather used to collect them and I thought it would be nice if we could find one to be a little something to honor him. We departed the beach with one broken shell with a beautiful iridescent interior we wanted and lots and lots of sand we did not. On our way back to Anaheim from Malibu we stopped into Cholada Thai. From what I read pre-visit, other people weren’t wrong that it can be easy to miss. We missed it on our way into Malibu and used our navigation system to locate the restaurant before leaving the city. The dining room was rather small–not a disappointment to me either during the pandemic–but the owners left the windows open so the ocean breeze enveloped us and its location left us with a still decent ocean view.

There are times when we travel that I wish I was a travel show host. Seeing all the different options on the menu made it hard to decide and it would have been nice if someone else would foot the bill for some extra options. I’m far too indecisive. We shared the golden bags as our appetizer; these are filled with ground chicken and shrimp. The fried catfish dish my husband ordered was amazing, but rather spicy and the size and quality of the pork fried rice our daughter ordered was better than any other place I’ve ordered the dish. I’ve never cared much for papaya, but I went ahead and ordered the papaya salad as another way of preparation to hopefully overcome my aversion to the fruit. The green papaya, from this experience, is more enjoyable than when enjoying the fully ripened fruit. Before the trip, the only way I found I really liked papaya was when it is dried but it’s always bothered me how hard it can be to find it dried and not covered in sugar.

The influence of the pandemic was not hard to miss during our travels. I wish I could have snapped a better photo of Pepperdine University for you all. It was striking to see all the flags still up to honor the victims of the 9/11 attacks. Per the school’s website the flags were to be up for public viewing from September 9th to September 25th and visiting Malibu on the 26th, we just had serendipitous timing to view this beautiful memorial before the school took down their display.

I recognize there is so much more I could say about this trip and there will not be enough said about the state of the state of California. The last visit we had to California was in 2017 and a lot has changed since then. When we started to plan, I listened to a few podcasts on travel/life within LA County to better understand how the pandemic and California’s unhoused persons crisis could impact our visit. There has been a sharp increase in homelessness in LA and we only bore small witness to the problem, having seen a tent encampment up along the freeway and lots of debris in small scattered areas up the freeway as evidence people previously had been residing in those areas.

Additionally, California just experienced an oil spill off Huntington Beach, a beach we could have visited a lot more easily during our trip as it’s closer to Disneyland than is Malibu. When we were by the ocean, we were blessed with beautiful pristine shoreline and birds soaring around us in small clusters, except for those that looked along the shoreline for food. It was beautiful and yet this tragedy is not so far removed from our visit. Again, a simple matter of timing. I love the ocean and many ocean creatures are often among my favorite animals. It burdens me to think what the scale of the roughly 126,000 gallons of oil spilled into the ocean will cost us in animal life.

This tragedy is why I was starting to second guess sharing my recent trip with you all.

I did not want to come off as insensitive sharing what had been a joyful reprieve from the cloister of pandemic life. My reason for sharing the trip remains the same. Travel is one of the largest nonessential forms of spending for many individuals and it helps to have a more representative idea of the experience than what social media influencers portray because so many rely on sponsors and ads to pay for their experiences. I just have a normal job, working in higher education. Instead of a 9-to-5, it is a 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. kind of life. I was happy to escape from it for a bit, because the pandemic created sudden changes in policies that impact my students using VA education benefits. I’ve kept up with the pace, but before this trip the last getaway my family had was in December 2019. We were overdue for a break.

My planning for the trip mostly balanced out. I won’t share the full details of costs to better respect my family’s discretionary spending decisions, but going to Disneyland is not entirely cheap. I can see why some people paid for annual passes in previous years and others are buying into Disneyland’s new Magic Key Pass. Right now, if you do not have a Magic Key Pass, tickets are as high as $104 for a single day to as low as $72 a day if you go for 5 days, costing you a total of $360 per person. By comparison, from Disneyland’s website an Enchanted Key Pass for a person 3 years and older is $649 per year up to $1,399 per year for the more exclusive Dream Key Pass. The company also has different rates for Southern California and Californian residents that requires a sign in for more info. We were not onboard with shelling out extra money to opt-in for an annual pass, but for many individuals and families, Disneyland is such a regular part of their lives it could represent a significant cost savings even if it is more upfront to afford such a leisure experience.

My planning went astray in regards to parking and being prepared to pay for extra fees. I forgot to ask my husband who made the travel arrangements if the hotel charged for parking. It does. In fact, it’s $35 a day whether you use the valet or self-park. We paid $175 for five days for our car to essentially have its own vacation. This amount can usually be used for groceries and/or dining out in our local area. That was a bummer to pay for, but now I know better. For another short–extremely short–trip we are considering later this year, we will likely Uber in that local area or walk around than pay the parking fee, which is even higher than this Anaheim resort. Regarding fees, we paid Anaheim City Tax, the ATID (Anaheim Tourist Improvement District) Assessment, and CA Tourism for a total of $6.02 per day. The total of $30.10 is more representative of what my family spends for a meal from Chic-Fil-A, but again, some families don’t have $30.10 lying around. I know I have the privilege to reduce one dining out experience from our budget in order to cover this unexpected trip cost.

My family and I were treated quite well by the staff at the Westin and in turn, we treated the staff well. We were courteous guests, wearing disposable masks properly without complaint to protect the health of others. My husband and I are fully vaccinated, but we often wear our masks in solidarity with our daughter who cannot yet be vaccinated. The hotel does permit vaccinated persons to go unmask in their building, for those who are interested in knowing their options. I would recommend anyone considering traveling during the pandemic to do their research. There are some restrictions, like how Disneyland mandates masking in indoor settings, but not outdoors, and some places have returned to limited indoor dining capacities as another means to reign in/end the pandemic. Do your research. It also never hurts to just bring extra disposable masks in case rules change during your trip!

The food at Westin’s Tangerine Room was pretty great, but I think photos really do it more justice than I can with my writing.

Hamachi Cuido (The harissa puree is harissa, piquillo peppers, lime juice, and vegetable stock.)
Braised Short Rib
Lemon Souffle Tart shared by my husband and daughter.
I opted for the seasonal fruit sorbet as I forgot to bring my lactase enzyme tablets to dinner.

And, finally, for the Disneyland fans. There is just too much wonderfulness that is Disney.

I am only interested in showing off Galaxy’s Edge as far as attractions are concerned. It was what I was waiting to see when we planned this trip last year, and it did not disappoint.

Let’s go shopping!
Milk Stand (Whether you get blue or green milk, it’s $7.99 per drink. Delicious, but pricey for a non-alcoholic drink. I loved mine though.)
The blue and green milks aren’t super big either, so you must really decide if it’s worth the price. For me, it was.
Smuggler’s Run (We were ran through really quickly, so there wasn’t a lot of time to visit this area of the attraction. We did manage to get on the ride two of the three days we were in the park.)
Oga’s Cantina
Ronto Roasters
Ronto-less Garden Wrap $12.99 (plant-based sausage, spicy kimchi slaw, sweet pickled cucumber, and Plant-based Gochujang spread for the filling)
Galaxy’s Edge is an extremely immersive experience. The park has a lot of sounds in this area that really help transform it to a different world, but the most impressive is the jet aircraft sound. It is easy to still look up and expect to see aircraft overhead as you are in this area of the park.
Savi’s Workshop (Here is where you can build a custom-ish lightsaber! Your lightsaber costs $219.99, so if you book an appointment, do show up. If you “no show,” Disneyland will still charge you the full price.)
Rise of the Resistance was my favorite part of the park trip. We went on the ride two of the three days, and only opted out of our third virtual queue on our last day because it kept getting pushed back and we were pretty tired at that point.
If you want to scan some QR codes during your Galaxy’s Edge trip, you can do so using the Play Disney app under the “Star Wars: Datapad” experience.
Just our kiddo and I soaking in the glory of Galaxy’s Edge. And if anyone complains you bring too much stuff into the park, as we overheard one grouchy old lady do, ignore them. If Disney is ok with what you bring in and you’re ok with carting it around, then it’s all good.

And while I indicated I would only be talking about Galaxy’s Edge, I do have one non Star Wars experience to share today. From my limited experiences with Splash Mountain, I’ve found people either love the five-story drop at the end or they don’t. Any idea how I feel?

Vacation Planning During a Pandemic

It’s been a little shy of two years since we had a real vacation; you know, something longer than a weekend.

December 2019.

We visited my family in Rhode Island. It was miserably cold out for me, but lovely to see my family.

This year, we had a mini vacation to the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain. As part of the weekend trip, we went to feed some ostriches (don’t recommend holding onto the food for these guys), sheep, goats, rabbits, ducks, and rainbow lorikeets at Rooster Cogburn’s Ostrich Ranch before heading further south to the hotel, barely north of Tucson., We were also slated to venture out to Maui, but the governor of Hawaii essentially begged people not to go. I get it. With the pandemic, the hospitals are getting overwhelmed and from a parent’s perspective, our daughter’s unvaccinated status made things more stressful the closer we got to this event coming up. We recouped most of our money though when making our cancellations save for the travel insurance–and I’m sure we’ll find a way to use up our flights in the next year. (If the pandemic continues to rage on, who knows what adventures might be open to us then. Visiting the west coast or east coast is fine by me; I just want to be by an ocean again.)

Coming up with our alternative vacation this year meant repurposing last year’s plans. The goal last year was to take our daughter to Disneyland again. Disney shut down shortly before our plans came to fruition as the pandemic wrecked havoc everywhere, so the tickets went on hold. A year passed. California residents were allowed back into Disneyland, with capacity limitations, on April 30th. All us other outsiders had to wait until June 15th and I really did not see us visiting the park this year. I thought with our ticket extension window closing the company would not honor our tickets, but they did. My husband dealt with a customer service internet chat queue being open for something like 26 hours I think he said, but that’s ok. Our only out-of-pocket cost for the tickets is related to our daughter’s age difference.

Planning has been fun, bringing some hope of relaxation that’s been greatly missing in our lives. I am soaking it in as much as we can pre-trip, too. Are we watching episodes of “Behind the Attraction” on Disney+? Yes. Did we (somewhat recently) watch “Jungle Cruise”? Yes. Have I started listening to a few Disney-themed podcasts to get through the work day? Yes. Did we add some new apps to our phones? Yes. Scoured blogs (at least me) for meal planning ideas? Yes.

What I didn’t realize when we started switching our vacation plans for the year was how much of an advantage frequent Disneyland fans have over the rest of us. They just know that things were getting busier with the limited capacity. Nearly all the lunch and dinner reservation spots were taken. We broke down and set up an alert with Mousewatcher.com , but I am not sure we’d be as eager to plop down some extra money in a normal year so we could get alerts about some restaurants of interests to us. If things work out, they work out. Right now, we’ve missed out on three alerts due to other events happening at the same time, but we have some more time on our hands pre-trip to obtain a dining reservation or we can always check in when we get to the park to see where things are at.

An exciting thing for me to learn is Disneyland (and Disney World) have more plant-based options now. Years ago, I would not have changed, but after repeated bouts of digestive issues from lactose intolerance and gall bladder issues, I am probably as happy (at least) as some vegans who go to visit the parks. The company set up a leaf option on their menus to denote what items are strictly plant-based (no animal meat, dairy, eggs, or honey). I don’t expect as many choices at Disneyland as would naturally be available at the larger Disney World, but it’s a start to keep these issues in check.

Last time, we enjoyed some lovely “Lost Treasures” lemon beignets–and my friends, those are not dairy free. Will I likely partake in beignets again. Yes, yes, I will. (I’m bringing a lot of lactase enzyme tablets with me so I can enjoy dairy laden treats and I’ll work to avoid dairy in my entrees to keep things in check.) I have been intentional though about my health in planning this trip. Disneyland has fruit carts so we can pick up mango slices or pineapple spears–or other assorted fruit–that make up for the fact we won’t have our normal weekly grocery shopping choices. The park does allow people to bring in some of their own food, but staying in a hotel limits our food storage capabilities. Eating healthier is not necessarily more expensive than grabbing junk food in the park and either option saves us trips to the grocery store, leaving us more time in the park.

Lemon beignets..these are addicting.

In fact, it is pretty easy to check on prices for comparison pre-visit; it’s not the best price for fruit, but it’s also not the best price for chips. Snack away on your choosing though. The occasional bag of chips is no worse for you than skipping an serving a fruit occasionally is bad for your health either. (I’ll be eating beignets at least one time during the trip, so not judging at all.)

If anyone’s been to Disneyland recently and has some fun tip to make the visit easier, I’m all ears.

p.s. We’re bringing a healthy amount of disposable masks to the park. I’m not onboard with paying more for Disney-inspired masks in (or just outside) of the park due to poor planning. Yours truly needs souvenir money for other things.

Pandemic Office: Remote-ish Life

We are nearing the year and a half mark of full-time remote WFH and I am still up in the air about how to decorate my home office.

Like many people, there are the makings of luring people back into the traditional office space for my organization and also, like many people, there is still the reality of balancing my remote time with our child’s virtual learning environment needs. The end result is my spare bedroom is masquerading as a home office since we did not move forward with planning a second child and this space is still having an identity crisis.

On a daily basis, I am absolutely grateful to have an at-home workspace. The spartan space is still preferable for me as an introvert. For months now, I’ve verified debt situations for my employer and it’s easier to do when I’m not crowded around a bunch of other people who are on the phone for the bulk of their work. I need quiet one does not often find in a cubicle farm.

Being “stuck” at home has its moments of being a godsend. I feel more proficient at my work, because I encounter less interruptions. I feel more alert because I do not “arrive” at the office rundown from the stress and annoyance of commuting. My budget also appreciates the reduced spending in transportation the days I did drive and more formal clothing (those days I did dress up). I am more ‘me’ being at home the amount of time I have been.

Now that I am back to the reality life will at some point be a blend of in-person and remote work, I am trying to find what parts of each I want to cater to and the amount of uncertainty around both presents a challenge.

I’ve never cared all that much to decorate my in-person work environment. Most of the times, I realize I just need to find a better way to keep my papers and daily work more organized. Typically, I use a legal pad to run through some of the math calculations I do and then I have a team Excel spreadsheet so everyone knows how overpayments are looking. If I learn to do some forecasting, like I showed my boss last week, it would help if I learn to schedule days on when to look and see if my accounting counterpart might have some ideas on how to help me better understand the process. Debts aren’t something I really ever expected to learn at my job, but the Department of Veterans Affairs changed their tuition overpayment policy January 5th of this year. The Isakson and Roe Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020 made it so tuition overpayments are no longer a student responsibility, but a school responsibility and it has been a bit of a rocky road watching the VA figure out the debt letter process and quality controlling their debt letters.

Something I think might help bring some calm to my work life is a planner. Last year didn’t make much sense to use one. Our perpetual Groundhog Day lifestyle necessitated few reminders, mostly just to pay bills on time. For my work life, I use my Outlook calendar a little, but I always like a tangible product best. My feeling on this matter is that a lot of my enjoyment of tangible paper products is rooted in childhood. I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s and I think I was probably 5th or 6th grade when we finally got AOL and learned to use computers more. School shopping was a big adventure to start anew and I had to use a weekly/monthly planner when I started at Coronado Middle School. While I’ve lapsed at regularly using such a product, I still feel joy in having one available. In previous jobs, I’ve learned though there is such as thing as “too much” in an organizer. I had a beautiful leather bound one with spots for business cards, telephone contacts, weekly, daily, and monthly organizing, and notes. It was too bulky and the lines to record info too small for my preferences.

This slim design one from Day Designer is rather nice, but I’m wondering now if it’s going out-of-style as few were left available at my local Target when I dropped in the other day. Honestly, I just want something somewhat flexible to organize my life without feeling like I have to over-organize my life.

Regarding creating a cozy home office, I feel less challenged. The bigger thing at the moment is waiting to slowly craft the office of my dreams that also functions as a good hangout space for our daughter. She loves more bohemian girly girl things, regardless of the maintenance associated with the product, whereas I like to look for items that are more durable and/or muted so they can function in any room.

Rug courtesy of Anthropologie

A few things I hope to add to liven up the walls (Both are Target finds.)

Office shelving will be a solution to tackle at some point, if we do not decide to bring our small Crate&Barrel bookcase back upstairs. That thing has survived several moves and is still not showing too many signs of wear, although it might be kind of nice to give it an upgrade and paint it a vivid color.

Before we tackle more of the fun stuff though, I am in need of a drafting chair. I bought a sit stand desk from workfromhomedesks last year and the metal countertop height stool I am using does not give enough support. I will research a few different websites to find something that will work. This area is one of the hardest design choices for me because I don’t want something that feels too much like the traditional office, but I recognize I cannot throw just any chair in here. I sit in this space more than any other room in the house and therefore solid back support is a must. I am just that old where function over style is more important!

More to follow another day.

-Cheryl

A Year Later: A Veteran’s View of the Pandemic

For months now, I’ve thought about what I would say when we rolled up to our one year pandemic anniversary. We are now almost two weeks beyond that date, but I still feel it’s important to share my perspective. I could write about more about it, but photos best capture the experience.

(Some photos are from my Instagram and photos I previously only shared with friends and family, and a few things are beautiful sentiments shared from others’ Instagram accounts. Last but not least, these are not necessarily in order.)

Nico’s is no longer. Now we have Copper 48. (Gilbert, Arizona)
Show me your books.
Cruise the Zoo (2020)
Home Gym (our newest equipment purchases)
Toilet paper crisis…who knew that would ever be a thing?!
Can we keep the more cautious food handling practices including face masks for restaurant food prep post COVID?
I started off the pandemic with perhaps too much alcohol, and over time, I’ve pared things down a bit. Quality over quantity.
This was one of the tamest displays of dark humor floating around Halloween. Others decorated with mask wearing skeletons.
There was a LOT of Christmas joy for many, leaving others with almost none.
Our year ended on a pretty positive note, adding a little bundle of fluff. He is almost 50lbs. now. German Shepherd mix, possibly part Malinois. LOTS of trouble, and an insane amount of daily cuteness.
O.H.S.O. (One of our few March 2021 outings, this trip was almost a year to the day for our pandemic anniversary.)
I was pretty used to working from home pre-pandemic, and working in some pretty casual attire. I had the opposite problem of some and really worked to add a few dressy items to my wardrobe, excluding the FRIENDS sweater. It was a lovely Christmas gift from our daughter.

Clearly, I don’t go out much other than to get food.

~Cheryl

Reaching Towards Financial Goals with Imperfect Foods and Strategic Food Shopping

This is not a sponsored post. There are no affiliate links. I am merely an American citizen who, like everyone else, needs to buy food every once and awhile to survive in a world turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic and my attitudes have changed a lot about my love affair with grocery shopping since my first pandemic food shopping adventure March 13th, 2020 (yes, Friday the 13th!!!). Imperfect Foods was not exactly on my mind as our grocery shopping needs had to be covered by multiple retailers when supplies were limited because they did not start operations in our area I believe until late last year. I was aware of the organization prior to the pandemic and I forgot to check on the status of their future openings due to the amount of stress I was under at the time until I received one of their mailers. We even kept it on the fridge while we thought about whether we’d want to give them a try.

That might sound weird but our adventures with reducing food waste and grocery costs has not always been great.

I tried Bountiful Baskets when we lived in Wyoming. While I loved saving on produce with Bountiful Baskets because things were oddly pretty much the same to buy at the local grocery store as what we had been spending in southern California, the delivery structure with BB was certainly a struggle. Since volunteers coordinate pulling items off the truck and distributing things in everyone’s grocery containers (usually laundry baskets) I found it hard to volunteer with a young child I had to bring with me. The other thing that bothered me was not having a say in the produce I received. It was simply discussed we should gift any item we did not want to someone who did. This works for the occasional piece of produce but on countless occasions I would receive spinach bundles that were incredibly difficult to rinse fully of dirt which is a big reason I tend to buy baby spinach leaves or frozen spinach instead. I sort of feared Imperfect Foods would be a slightly different take on Bountiful Baskets.

My fears were unfounded. The brand allows you to subscribe and skip weeks as needed. They will craft a cart based off of some initial selections you make, and you modify the cart from there to remove or increase quantities. You can indicate items you never or always want in your cart. As good as that all sounds, I am most happy with the fact I am not told to just suck it up if something ends up in my cart I don’t want, like the moldy shallot that accidentally ended up in one of my boxes. I emailed the customer care team right after the box was delivered, provided a snapshot of the item, tossed it in the trash, and waited for follow up. I received a generic confirmation email about my message but the next morning one of the team members responded and let me know I’d be credited for the purchase that went awry. Awesome.

The fact Imperfect Foods delivers is a godsend. Grocery shopping typically takes me about an hour and a half plus whatever amount of time it takes to get to and from the store(s). I love saving on my drive time and I am usually only spending an hour of my time now—mostly because I do linger on my purchasing decisions. I could probably grocery shop online in 30 minutes or less if I wanted to be decisive from the get go. As parents still coping with virtual learning it’s just great that we can recoup some leisure time during our week. Thirty or so minutes might not sound like much but I’ve lost about five or so hours of personal quiet time in my week; those thirty minutes mean a lot to me. The delivery also reduces the amount of plastic waste we introduce into our home and then back into the environment.

I bought a little too much produce the first week. The only thing that ended up going to waste the first week though was the jalapeños, our fault not the company’s. We tried to air fry them and cooked them a little too long. I am also not used to buying fresh coconut so I lost a good portion of the coconut chunks when I opened the package again this week and saw they did not look good. Next time, I’ll just purchase this with a recipe in mind.

Same photo I shared with Imperfect Foods to get reimbursed for the only bad purchase I’ve experienced to date.

The strawberries have been one of our best purchases with Imperfect Foods. Normally, a container of strawberries from a local store might last 3-4 days before they start to spoil on us. I actually kept forgetting to get back to our second container of strawberries from Imperfect Foods, not eating them until we already had them in the fridge for a week. We only lost a few that were starting to soften too much for our preferences and due to the fact I no longer have a blender, I decided not to freeze them.

When we made the choice to start cutting back on traditional grocery shopping, I was a bit worried about what I would miss with grocery shopping: the discovery of new products. A month is too small a case study to say Imperfect Foods will always have a new product for me to try out but as you can see, I was able to find a variety of things some of us likely cannot find at a Fry’s, Trader Joe’s, Costco, or Sprouts. Sure some are a bit more pricey. I was not looking for deals in those areas when I started investigating Imperfect Foods but rather looking to find more affordable produce without having to go to H Mart as often which has some of the best produce prices I’ve found locally. I do love H Mart but it is out of the way for us and I’d like to go there when I know we need bulk items like rice.

This is where it is important to talk about us being more strategic with grocery shopping. I had to give up wandering a bit more. When I wander, I spend more and when I spend more, I reduce our Hawaii budget. Not good. My goal this past month has been to roughly spend $118.75 per week on grocery items. I certainly did not end up with a perfect month. I forgot we needed to order more coffee and I did cave in to our daughter wanting Girl Scout cookies to support her best friend. My estimate on what our Valentine’s Day dinner and dessert ingredients would cost was wrong due to not finding smaller portions of the meat for our Outlander Kitchen bridies. And for anyone judging me for hitting up Whole Foods that has been dubbed “Whole Paycheck” by some people, please keep walking by. We picked up some things that span this month and the next–like my vegan chocolate cake I cannot wait to dig into on Monday!

I knew ahead of time a budget this lean was a huge trial and error endeavor. We’ve upped our intake of sparkling water as we’ve chosen to reduce alcohol consumption and I’ve never been a big soda fan. The water we normally pick up as opposed to the Liquid Death is below $4 for a total of 12 cans (12 oz. each), cheaper than the beers we would previously purchase around this time of year. The Liquid Death water costs $14.99 for a 12 pack (16.9 oz each). It will be a learning process to figure out how much sparkling water we like to keep on hand. Working from home, we’ve also increased our coffee intake. Purchasing directly from Stumpton is cheaper than buying smaller bags where we can find them and in a few months I’ll figure out how far the 5lb. bags actually take us.

While I’ve chosen mostly to outline personal benefits of trimming back our food budget, it is important to recognize there are a lot of larger benefits to an organization like Imperfect Foods. The concept of reducing food waste is a great cause on its own and Imperfect Foods is holding itself to treating its workers better than what we see currently with some large brand grocers. A quick look at their website and there are some transparent numbers. A customer care associate in Tucson, Arizona has a starting pay of $15 an hour whereas the employees who deliver groceries to people’s homes show between $17-$22 an hour based on locality and warehouse associates are $15 to $17 an hour. Fry’s Food is one of the brands under Kroger and it is hard as a working parent to just forgo dropping by one of the most convenient food retailers, but you can go to Kroger’s website and see the grocery clerk and retail clerk postings are not transparent about pay per hour, even a range based on experience. The Kroger brand is also making a poor impression on me due to their choice to close stores over additional pay. To take some of my purchasing power away from supporting them to support a better organization is an added bonus to reducing food waste and trimming my food budget. I also appreciate the food delivery/set up as an option for our most vulnerable. Imperfect Foods is not set up for EBT at this time but the company offers reduced food boxes (Yeah!!) to those that need them and I feel the delivery is all around a great option. Not everyone has access to a vehicle, is medically able to drive, and/or has the mobility to make it around a grocery store, even those that offer some scooter carts.

It’s been a great personal challenge for me this month to check out the company and whether you agree or disagree with me on the brand and its competitors, I welcome honest and respectful feedback. Again, just keep in mind, I received no compensation for my thoughts. I heard good things about the company and went out on a limb to try them as my primary grocery store for the month and it meet/exceeded some expectations that I will continue using them as our primary store unless other things arise that change my opinion.

-Cheryl