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

Reflecting on a Financial Win One Year Later: Selling My First Home

“Are you ready?”

She asked me the question. I feel it’s important to share given that so many women do not own homes outright in their own name. This decision was an important one my husband and I made together years ago. We wanted to move beyond years of renting into home ownership and the transition was possible because I purchased the home solely in my name. His student debt had become a challenge to this transition much like I had to overcome unemployment and build a solid two years of consistent employment for banks to even give me a chance.

A few short minutes ago my husband and I finished initialing and signing our future on a new property, one that I would visit after relinquishing my claim to the old home. I had already said goodbye, cleaning the house as best I could. I had some regrets about the aging carpet upstairs that held onto years of pet grim and the unfortunate team that had installed the new carpet downstairs a few weeks prior but overall I was ready. Selling the home would pay off the home loan and we were walking away with a profit.

Our girl, Salem, in our patio backyard April 2017 before we upgraded the space with artificial turf (and later, fresh paint).

For once, it seemed like I had the right timing for a financial goal.

After paying the commissions for the real estate agents, our profit exceeded my yearly income. The gamble to ignore some of Dave Ramsey’s financial advice paid off.

This is the time for a disclaimer. I am not sharing my story as financial advice for someone else to follow. I lack the financial certifications to guide someone to make her (or his) financial choices. Instead I am sharing my experiences to demonstrate how a life choice paid off and to inspire others to look critically at financial resources as a combination of tools to succeed.

One of the best ways to have this discussion is to take a step back and talk to you about the last rental we lived in before we took the leap into first time home ownership.

I was still repairing my employment history in 2015 when this home sold for $174,000. I would not have two stable years of employment under my belt again until October of that year so lenders wouldn’t look at me as financially capable for home ownership purposes. The monthly housing allowance I received as a veteran using Chapter 33 Post-9/11 benefits to pay for my graduate degree could not count as income which would have helped. Instead of having the freedom to apply the $1,461 monthly housing allowance to a mortgage, I was using it to pay $1,270.62 to the property management company utilized by the home investor.

Like other renters, we knew our rent price was not stable and home prices were also increasing. I had started looking at homes in Arizona in 2011 and here are some that I previously shared on another blog of mine.

We missed out on some really good contenders September 2011 due to how the housing bubble burst in Arizona such as the following:

We missed the mark in home buying in 2011-2012 due to not properly planning our move to Arizona and also not having a network that clued us in on how to best transition out of the Marine Corps for my husband. Granted, as I say this, I also think how best to transition from college graduate to newly hired employee. Reflecting back on our experiences, it would have been wise as well to cast a wider net than choosing Arizona specifically. When my husband turned away an unappealing offer from the Marine Corps for his next tour of duty, we were stuck in Wyoming a year longer than expected.

The time could have been better utilized. I think my concerns about getting out of debt were really in the way of viewing the situation with fresh eyes. We knew California was unaffordable, as was Rhode Island where my family lives, and we aren’t fans of the cold so Arizona seemed a reasonable place to land. I opted out of pursuing a career with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the place I interned, because signing a mobility agreement wasn’t as enticing after the Marine Corps landed us in Wyoming. (Still, I love my friends. I don’t like Wyoming.) When I plotted a different career path, I should have considered other federal agencies that offered me something similar to the enjoyment I felt during my internship in places with as reasonable a cost of living as was available in Arizona around the time of our move in 2012.

Can you tell I am still trying to forgive myself for not being a better planner?

Other things have fallen into place though so I’ll get back on track with today’s conversation.

This home that sold for $174,000, our old rental, was a source of inspiration to get off our butts and start figuring out what financial advice worked (and didn’t work) for our unique circumstances. At the time, it was as close to my budget minded “dream home”. It has a beautiful pie-shaped lot, perhaps the largest in the community, granite counters in the kitchen, and a guest bedroom downstairs. We rented it knowing very well there was probably no chance it would be back on the market for years. Just hazarding a guess here, but if the pandemic had not happened, I think it would still be owned by the investor.

As we came closer to a year in our rental, we began investigating our home opportunities. A handful of options quickly dwindled to almost none. A 1990’s home with a shared driveway in Gilbert’s Western Skies neighborhood fell off our list of potentials as did a townhouse in The Gardens and a one bedroom and a den described quite falsely as a two bedroom home in the Lakes at Annecy community which had a lakefront view. For me, Dave Ramsey’s teachings were the place to start, to understand I needed a budget. I had to tune out his voice and others that stated you should only buy property with cash or if you hold a mortgage it should be a fifteen year mortgage or you should only buy a house when you have no debt or (insert a small debt threshold here). We don’t live in as high a rent cost area as parts of New York City or the San Francisco area, but Gilbert was quickly becoming unaffordable and rising rent costs along with stagnant wages meant revisiting my views on money. I had to learn what others learned much earlier and that is that “Personal finance is personal.” Today, I even listened to a podcaster who stated something to the effect “You are a ‘You’ expert.” as a way to express why we shouldn’t let how others direct their financial wellbeing direct how we budget our money. If you want to listen to her guidance, check out Frugal Debt Free Life. The podcast episode is Episode 16: How to not feel like crap about your money.

To become a first time homeowner, I leveraged a situation that is not replicable to all persons at a time when I did not understand I was the “You” expert in my life. Here’s how it worked out. I used a VA home loan with zero down, trusting in what I saw in the market, our years removed from the 2008 recession. We still had closing costs to contend with, but each homeowner will have some things that will be their responsibility and some things that are the seller’s responsibility. Case in point, when I sold our home last year, the commissions came out of my pocket. Our home expenditure (excluding HOA) dropped from our rental price of $1,270.62 to a mortgage of $903.07. Not all Gilbert neighborhoods have HOA’s, but most do and we paid a separate additional $80 monthly for community maintenance and a handful of events. The scrimping for closing costs and movers was worth it. Knowing we had planned to stay in the area for a handful of years made it worth it to build more breathing room in our budget using our option of home ownership versus renting. Using our prior rental neighborhood for comparison since I cannot use the home as it is not currently on the market, our rent could have skyrocketed up to the $1,750 to $1,960 some 1400 to 1600 square ft. homes are renting for here in January. By comparison, even with some adjustments to our mortgage payment, our last mortgage payment for the first home was only $959.99.

Home ownership does not work well for all persons, so I am not here to preach it works for everyone. For us, over 44 months of mortgage payments put us in the ballpark of $39,735.08 to $42,239.56. I am using a range because I do not want to track all past payments to show where the mortgage payment increased. Even if the investor would have kept our monthly rate the same as our 2017 rate and we stayed in that rental, he would have received $55,907.28 minus the monthly expense for the property management costs over the same 44 time period. Why make that guy rich? Realistically, rent probably increased at least two times over the last few years putting additional money in his pocket plus the bulk of the $95,000 difference from the purchase price and sale last year during the pandemic.

Originally, I wanted to share the earlier parts of my story with the ChooseFi podcast and it was fortuitous I discovered our old rental sold helping to better flesh out my financial story comparing home ownership to renting in America. Last year, I sent in a short video to be part of their “The Real Households of FI.” When I wasn’t selected, I was let down but as the pandemic dragged on, I felt some relief. There was so much baggage from my deployment that made the pandemic more stressful I would have not presented my situation in the best way as a growing experience. I am taking more of a slow FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) approach like Michelle Jackson from michelleismoneyhungry but still listening to the ChooseFi hosts, Brad and Jonathan, reminds me people start on so many different levels and my advantages and disadvantages are not as unique as I once thought they were.

In the past few weeks, I’ve felt incredibly compelled to open up about my feelings on home ownership and the rent crisis going on in the United States. As unsteady as some homeowners have it during the pandemic, most are still starting off in a better spot than renters who are paying a higher cost for their accommodations prior to any job loss or reduction which leaves them more vulnerable. My past experience with unemployment after college, resulting in making me ineligible for unemployment compensation, and my second bout of unemployment in 2013 when Arizona was so far behind on unemployment compensation I was unpaid my three months of job searching are contributing factors to why I started to think “No Thank You.” to some of the gazelle intensity behind Dave Ramsey’s teaching and his generalized view on when individuals are best prepared to step into a new identity as homeowner.

Reflecting back, Dave Ramsey had a financial safety net in the form of bankruptcy although he does not call it that, but this choice allowed him to start over. My path to rebuild my financial wellbeing looked different but it was still challenging and humbling. I would not call my choices stupid as he so often calls consumption, to include his own, because there is so much learning that occurs in our lifetime. I did not grow up seeing employment as something precarious for most of my childhood until my dad was medically separated from the Navy. Instead, I saw civilian employment as steady because my mom worked for the same medical professionals our entire time in southern California and I saw the military as a precarious opportunity due to my dad’s experience. I was unaware if family friends lost their jobs and our neighborhood was never flooded with home foreclosures and short sales like what I witnessed in 2008. My parents taught me college would be an avenue to greater success and therefore I tackled that objective for a year before the Marine Corps, a little during, and completed two of my four degrees when life smacked me in the face in 2012.

I was left to burn through our modest savings during my 2012 unemployment before I was worthy of governmental assistance in the form of SNAP. The team also offered to help me with my unemployment problem were surprised when I indicated I didn’t need help with the job search process; I knew how to do that, but all told I applied for 89 jobs from what I can recall. The hunt, I could do; securing the interview and the job offer was where I was struggling. Almost no one was looking at me. (For all that work, I only ever landed three interview prospects and one job offer.) When confronted with my second stint of unemployment, I choose to empty out roughly six months of Arizona State Retirement contributions because my family could not wait for some money to come in when the state would make unemployment available to me and I had not yet rebuilt our emergency fund. I cannot even tell you what the amount of money from my 2013 retirement contributions would look like today if I had the ability back then to file for unemployment to stay afloat than to take out my money and pay a penalty tax on it.

SNAP was the springboard to reduce some burdens in my family life, but ultimately it took using my veteran benefits to return my family back to middle class. I started with my small portion of Chapter 30 Montgomery GI Bill, something like 13 days, which include the equivalent remaining portion of the Marine Corps College Fund and additional money by paying into the Buy-Up program. Exhausting my CH 30 benefits opened the door to use the 12 months of Post-9/11 GI Bill available to me for which I was rated at 100%. The housing allowance attached to this benefit is something I’ve discussed at length in the past so I won’t go into those details again. Just run a search for Chapter 33 and you’ll find I’m pretty transparent about the financial breakdown. This second step, being paid to attend school, helped further provide breathing room in my budget and that security along with hitting the right window of more recent employment history opened the most recent door to success: home ownership.

With all my struggles, it has been painful to watch our nation’s politicians bicker throughout 2020 and dole out $600 most recently to individuals as part of the stimulus package to provide relief as we continue to cope with the pandemic. I know for many people $600 is less than their monthly rent/mortgage or childcare costs, a topic I hope to speak on a bit more soon. Likely, it is also barely enough for a month’s worth of groceries depending on how many mouths you’re feeding and if anyone has food allergies, certain allergen free goods are more expensive, not allowing those families to extend their grocery dollars as far as others. As I’ve seen our different levels of government struggle to get our nation as safely as possible through the pandemic, I have become more convinced we did the right thing by ignoring many of Dave Ramsey’s teachings. I am not entirely confident if we had needed financial support it would have been made available to us given the high demand we’ve seen this past year and listening to my past was more important than listening to someone who accessed different tools in his time of need.

By flattening his concept of Baby Steps and consolidating Step 1 ($1,000 emergency fund) and Step 3 (the fully funded emergency fund) as our first priority for 2020 after the home sale, we put ourselves into a better situation when the pandemic started to affect our lives in March last year. Groceries started to become more expensive. For a little while, I picked up what I could just because I did not know when the shelves would be stocked again and that often meant picking up more expensive brands because bulk items were no longer available.

I also have no guilt about not tackling our debt with gazelle like intensity. Seriously, when the world feels like it’s failing apart and any one of us is a higher risk of dying, do I really want my family to remember me as ferociously attacking debt my last year of life? No. I maintained progress on certain debts and instead of using the debt snowball as we do look to reduce debt in our lives, I am comfortable taking the debt avalanche approach instead. Goodbye Baby Step 2. With the pause on student loan debt, I used the space in my budget at times to extend aid to friends in need who experienced a death in their family, an unexpected loss of housing, three family members coming down with COVID at the same time, and also increased how much I tipped for service at my favorite restaurants who were dealt a hard blow by the pandemic capacity restrictions placed on them.

I won’t go down the list through the remaining steps but they all lead to Step 7: Build Wealth and Give.

Selling my former home last year was a vital step in wealth building, but it is not a tool everyone needs to succeed. There are so many ways to diversify one’s income sources and I am happy to share how this avenue worked out for me. The other part of my success is affording the same opportunity to others. I can lift up my community in different ways than governmental support can. Using my experiences and understanding the difficult road to home ownership, I took it upon myself to think critically about the future owner of my former residence.

A veteran sold her home to me in 2016 and as a veteran, I also selected another veteran in 2020 who intended to occupy the property. In my opinion, I feel our community is overrun with investors. In fact, the woman who sold my first house to me turned down an investor for the same reasons I did. Neither of us wanted the house to fall into an investor’s hands knowing the struggle it took to rebuild our finances after experiencing difficult circumstances. The prospective investor who provided the first offer on our home had no emotional attachment to the property and provided a significantly lower offer. He was offering something in the ballpark of $30,000 less than list price. His incentive to make his offer appealing was a quick closing for us. Instead, I waited. Another scary decision but one I do not regret. I knew someone would love what we tried to do to make the builder grade property better. And he showed up.

This single dad with two kids. He didn’t need to show up with the best offer, but he did.

My old home found its next family and I entered 2020 with more financial security than my family has experienced in years. Like back to 2006-2007, dual income no kids, but even better.

This home sale was a big deal and I am glad I finally found the courage to speak out about what it means to me. It is a financial win I finally feel like I can celebrate.

Home for the Holidays

The fireplace crackles. A beautiful, comforting sound. One that calls back childhood spent staring at well wrapped gifts and sitting up close to a Christmas tree, inhaling its fresh cut scent. The light casts a glow that does not extend too far, but I do not mind. The bustle of our household, one human child and two fuzzy ones engaged in full play mood, has sent me into crazy panic mood worrying someone will get hurt, knock down the tree, damage presents, or all of the above. To sit and gaze at the mesmerizing fire removes a sense of worry after the condensed and busy work week. There is no danger of leaving the fireplace unattended.

Let me present to you the 2020 Arendelle Castle Yule Log.

Apparently, this is Disney’s second foray with an Arendelle Castle Yule Log. We missed out last year while at my parents’ house but that’s ok.

This one looks great in our new home!

We are like many families spending the Christmas holiday clustered in our respective home. This year we’ve kept our social gatherings to a minimum and mostly hang out only with people we know regularly wear masks due to the nature of their work environment and who are willing to abide by the mask mandates that have become a regular part of life this year. Also, like numerous friends, I am not entirely upset to be staying home for the holiday. 2020 has layered on the stress. To unwind a little more by sleeping in my own bed, avoiding long lines in airports and on the roads, and eating my preferred meals and desserts sounds pretty appealing after the months and months of disruption to our routine.

To those who do not share my view, I respect your feelings on the matter. I realize not everyone wants to get through the end of the year by yet more “alone” time, away from friends and/or family. Many people want to be out shopping late, attending festivals and holiday parties, and soaking in all the nuanced ways one can celebrate the holiday season. I am choosing to state Christmas to reflect my own beliefs and holiday seasons to respect many others who celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Boxing Day. I do my best to state “Happy Holidays” to people as we come upon days off from work unless someone has wished me a Christmas greeting first and then I recognize him or her in the same manner. My understanding that this holiday season looks very different from others is also why I did not mark this post “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas.”

Instead, I want to focus on expressing gratitude for everyone who comes to visit my blog and for the good fortunes I’ve received this year that have allowed my husband and I to provide presents for friends, family, and one stranger this year plus some donations to a few key people. Bringing joy and relief to others has made me feel like I am doing my part to care for the many communities I belong to in a way that respects them and also protects my own resources should this year toss a few extra difficulties our way.

For anyone who is not used to spending Christmas in your own home away from a throng of friends and family, I hope my words bring comfort. I’ve spent a few holidays away serving in Iraq. I’ve spent a few holidays away due to being broke. I’ve spent a few holidays away due to conflicting time commitments. The pain of these moments hurt and you are allowed to be frustrated, maybe angry, sad, or even bitter. At the same time though, you can also recognize the situation as an opportunity for personal growth. Do you have some books you’ve been meaning to open that you wouldn’t have wanted to read on a plane crowded with strangers? How about that online fitness class that will allow you to build strength without you feeling self-conscious around strangers in the gym? Not that we need to finish out the year being ultra productive but sometimes around this time of year it can be hard to fit in time for one’s interests and hobbies when everyone else is asking us to attend holiday parties or we are expected to meet obligatory family gatherings. This year you don’t have that problem, so indulge in filling your cup and tending to your own self-care needs!

Our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day have some tokens of our normal celebrations and then some ways of recognizing we are just a party of three this year (plus the fuzzy kids). Tonight, I am making a sheet pan dinner although it is called a tray bake as I pulled it from the BBC Food site. I originally doubled the recipe when we offered our home to a few friends but things did not work out and so we are enjoying the creamy chicken, bean, and leek tray bake tonight and enjoying leftovers this weekend. Tomorrow is where I really pared things down and reduced the prep and cook time for my part. We will be enjoying a smoked duck and pairing it with the potato, celery root, and pear gratin recipe I found in Clean Eating magazine. I am finding great comfort this year in purchasing frozen dinner rolls. I love bread and rolls, but I had zero interest this Christmas in making a recipe that required hours of my time. We also picked up a key lime pie for tonight and a yule log for tomorrow from The Great Gadsby Bakery here in Gilbert. Their website is currently being updated so I recommend also checking out their Instagram.

For anyone still struggling with a dessert idea and you do not have the option to purchase from a bakery and maybe lack the desire, the time, or resources to make a yule log of your own, I have you covered. One of my favorite desserts from years back was when I made the chocolate biscuit cake Prince William had as his groom’s cake. The cake is incredibly decadent, easy to make, and can be made gluten free. I used the Schar brand gluten free shortbread cookies when I made the cake but now I know where I can find tea biscuit cookies if I want to make this cake for someone who does not have issues with gluten. Here are some photos of my creation from a few years back. We popped our leftover slices in the freezer and I would gladly make the cake again next time I have a large gathering and most, if not all, are serious chocolate lovers.

So as I close out this entry, I wish you all good things as 2020 comes to an end and I look forward to catching up with you again in January.

Free Mail. Or Something Like That.

Think for a second on how many different ways you can communicate with your family (or friends) this year. Hell, even your boss? Do you use MicrosoftTeams or Zoom? How’s remote work working for you?

Do you call friends? Is your dad on Facebook? I bet even your aunt has an Instagram account. And does anyone have a MySpace account anymore?

The means with which we communicate to those we care most about are not small matters at all. They seem small but they are more significant than we often think about as we tend to daily responsibilities. I’ve been using the internet since I was roughly 12 years old; if I had kept one of my childhood diaries, I believe I was in the sixth grade when dial up was a thing for us. My daughter will never know the dreadful sound to open AOL and for the internet to fail repeatedly. (Ok, I lied. She encountered that this year with the internet going down due to more people using the internet for remote work and online schooling courtesy of the pandemic.) She also does not have to fight with three other sisters for a 20 minute turn to check out what’s new online. Life has a funny way of evolving that may frustrate us in the immediate moment and then, years later, we kind of laugh about it or get blank stares from younger generations who will never experience what we did.

Last night I had the opportunity to listen to a virtual event that I wish to share with you and how it relates to my messages here about military service and society. Our speaker, Lisa Silvestri, talked about her project “Telling War” and I noticed so much between what she uncovered with veterans and service members that I similarly shared through my own efforts. Many of my own contributions, initially, were more raw and it’s only in the more recent past I’ve felt I could better articulate the learning process that occurred as a part of serving and also leaving the Marine Corps for other career and educational prospects. She wrote Friended at the Front: Social Media in the American War Zone and after last night’s event, trust me, I will be picking up a copy to further enhance my own studies of post-9/11 war experiences.

When I began writing this blog years ago, and this is still true, I felt the space for veteran voices was a difficult ground to tread. Originally, I did not plan to write so much of my own story. I did not want to be that vulnerable although I was ok with seeking a personal education about others’ experiences and overlaying that reporting (i.e. news stories and interviews, viral images, etc.) with peer reviewed sources and books I might pick up at Barnes and Noble.

Last night, hunched over my laptop listening over Zoom, I was introduced to a concept I am not sure I’ve heard before: information ecosystem.

I like looking at how people behave in their environment(s) and to learn about how environments differ and somehow I either never HEARD of information ecosystem before or I did not LISTEN when the idea cropped up in any one of the many in-person and online classrooms I’ve been in over the years. We all participate in information ecosystems though and some of the ways we participate are more our choice than choices forced upon us.

My parents brought a personal computer into our home when I was young but as an adult, I could have decided that choice did not suit my lifestyle. Many of the communities I’ve lived in provide computers for public access. The move from using public computers for my work, school, or personal communication purposes to communicating over a personal computer was a value decision. I was wasting too much of my time waiting for public institutions to open and then waiting in line to use a computer for a very small fraction of time, typically a 30 minute limit.

Many people would value the savings generated by using someone else’s computer, internet, and printer services over bearing those costs, but not me. I want to spend more time in my own space tending to my commitments and interests than being at the mercy of other people. This choice is also a matter of privilege. I have the discretionary money to purchase a laptop and internet. Plenty of Americans are not so lucky and this issue is highly visible as our nation struggles now with providing quality education remotely during the pandemic to families who cannot afford some or all of the tools necessary to learn online.

I cannot solve that problem with my blog but I do think it is important to remind people that this issue is still a problem months into the pandemic.

My information ecosystem and the ones discussed in last night’s event are not closed systems. Lisa was correct last night when she talked about how much individuals struggling with interpersonal communication right now due to the pandemic could learn from how deployed service members get through/got through their deployments. The communication tools we used in the past and the present offer different lenses on historical events and personal experiences and we have more tools at our disposal to get through the upcoming holidays if we need to celebrate them physically distanced.

My family and friends were privy to a lot of my sentiments on my first and second tour in Iraq based on my regular entries on MySpace, but each tour came with the additional privileged experience of free mail. I learned today that this program has been in existence since 1986, two years after my birth. Less expedient than social media, one might wonder why I still wrote letters by hand. I think it has to do with the way it feels to open a mailbox. The way it brings back being a kid when the mailbox is full of unexpected messages, not bills. Paper feels differently than seeing an icon on a screen. Paper is different on the eyes than how computer text looks. Paper allows you to see a person through his or her handwriting when you cannot touch that person. I have no record of the total letters I wrote home during my first deployment but I checked in on those kept from my second. I sent 41 unique pieces of correspondence to my husband and three cards.

So what kind of things could the average American learn from our veterans and deployed military members to share with loved ones today across the globe or the country as the pandemic continues to shape the way we live? Nothing is too small to talk about. If it catches your eye or brings a certain emotion to the forefront, talk about those things. Someone might really appreciate knowing they aren’t alone in their struggles or they may be reminded of a time you shared together and it gives them hope for what lies ahead for the future. Have fun and throw your heart out there and breathe a little.

I’ve missed three Thanksgivings, two Christmases, two New Year’s Eve’s, one Valentine’s Day, one birthday, his birthday and my first wedding anniversary due to my or my husband’s deployed status or our military responsibilities stateside. There are other times I’ve missed seeing family back in Rhode Island due to lack of funds or other time commitments. None of it was ideal, but I missed out on a lot less than all the other years where things went right and I could be with my loved ones.

You are stronger than you think, but you are not alone in all this mess.

Stay safe.

A Season of Self-Care

It looks like I know what I’m doing, but honestly, don’t expect to find yoga advice from me.

Yeah, September is (almost) over.

For all you newbies, October is my FAVORITE month of the year. There is always something special about entering this time of year and with the crazy mess that is 2020, I need my beautiful favorite month more than anything.

I love the cooler weather that moves in and the way the best drinks (Not looking at you, pumpkin spice.) become available. October is that treat we all deserve. We get to bundle up in cozy clothes and holiday gift shopping is not yet on our doorstep unless we want it. Mother Nature gives us bursts of warm colors and the prettiest scenery to capture.

I’ve kept going back and forth this year over my disdain for the flurry of content people are sharing saying we should be productive this year and then when I settle down into doing less, I’ve felt incredibly lazy. I am the kind of person who knows how to do more so I do more. Compared to last year when I was finishing up my second (and last) graduate degree, this year feels like I’m wasting away my days.

I know this isn’t true, but it is hard for me to slow down.

With this slowing down life, I have tried to indulge in some self-care.

September was a pretty good month for cleaning our personal space. With our floors being done, we had an excuse to downsize and rearrange our furniture. Living and working together has shown some of the inefficiencies in how we set up our home. I previously showed off a little reveal on Instagram of how our space is shaping up but this closet is a little special, too. Our spare bedroom office was a catchall space and that issue needed addressing. I am much happier now that it is home to seasonal clothing and a number of items from our Marine Corps careers plus it made sense to take my wedding dress out of the master bedroom closet and re-home it here.

My oddest self-care project is probably the pantry. I organize and then it gets disorganized with our next big grocery shopping trip. Not everything needs an OXO container but I am onboard with picking up a few more to make finding snacks a whole lot easier. We also tend to have pasta, dried beans, small bags of rice, and quinoa floating around in here, too, so those items also need better organization.

I am also back to accepting dairy products are not my friend. This reality is probably the best facet of self-care I’ve been working on lately. Lactase tablets only help so much; I must accept the fact my body feels terrible from heavy whipping cream, milk, a variety of cheeses, and butter. Now that I am back on track with reducing dairy in my life, I am back to feeling better again. I probably won’t accept a completely dairy-free life as it makes dining out challenging, but I am being more mindful about my food choices.

Now, I won’t say I am forgoing all treats.

I recently picked up a copy of Thrive magazine from the Natural Grocer’s and came across a recipe for chocolate chunk hazelnut blondies. Given what I had in my pantry, I altered the recipe a little with simple replacements (i.e. almond meal replaced the hazelnut meal). I omitted the toasted hazelnuts. We cut our batch into 9 servings which made each blondie about 453 calories. These are delicious. The recipe is available from Crumb & Caramel.

I do plan on making a few substitutions in order to bring down the overall calorie count for those days where I want a treat but a 453 calorie treat is not what I am looking for. If it works, it works.

Self-care isn’t about doing things perfectly.

Pandemic Life: Crossing The Six Month Mark

To mourn our traditional way of movement might seem silly because I previously experienced limited movement over two tours in Iraq, totaling fourteen months of my life. I have more tools to keep in touch with family members and friends now, but it still often feels like the barriers are a lot more tangible than they truly are. We’ve all become a bit busier in different ways that we are unavailable to each other; I might be juggling a loss of post-work “me” time with my daughter still attending school virtually while a family member or friend is struggling with additional work due to staff shortages and it is not hard to come across people who have lost job opportunities or had them postponed due to the pandemic. To say we are all getting reacquainted with our identities (work, self, partner, etc.) is probably not an understatement.

Life and the way we live has changed. I am acknowledging more this is a season of waiting I wasn’t expected I’d experience or that it would last so long and it isn’t over yet. I guess it is important to state this pandemic is showing me I cannot hop from one goal to another all the time because there will be some roadblocks I cannot move (or move easily). Waiting, for me, is a significant source of frustration. When I see that something should take X unit of time, I wonder why it takes longer for me than my peers. To say I feel gipped would not be too far out of line. Society presents this idea that hard work equates to success, but I know too often that is not the case. This pandemic is just another way this statement/belief reveals itself to be untrue.

There are so many good businesses and people harmed by not only the health crisis but its economic effects. To follow the death toll of this crisis brings up a lot of the same stress I felt on shift on my first tour in Iraq when I was nearly helpless to prevent the injury and death of my fellow service members. Knowing this about myself, I have taken a different approach to ingesting the news since March and what I share with others.

I’ve accepted seasons of waiting suck. I am in a position again where a big vacation dream had to be pushed back. This time it was due less to financial constraints and more based on the fact different states have imposed quarantine restraints as a means to slow and reduce the spread of COVID-19. I am not angry that such strict measures are in place. I am just really tired and a true vacation would hit the spot. In the interest of being transparent, yes, I have some grief over this lost vacation. A trip to Hawaii has been on our radar for years and it is hard to feel like it will come true one day.

Remembering the privileges I enjoy has been a huge part of coping well during the pandemic. Grocery shopping has been a bit of a nightmare with the amount of uncertainty that originally surrounded the experience, but we can put almost anything into our cart without worry. That’s not something I could say last year when my husband was finishing law school and I was finishing grad school. Additionally, in spite of not feeling that way with some stark empty shelves at various stores, we are still surrounded by an abundance of food stuffs. It is a privilege to have an array of options, even if not all of those options were what you were originally seeking. For us, this means buying different cuts of meat or meat alternatives.

Education is also a click away for me and for many others just like me. I enjoy learning and it is a good way for me to deal positively with a lot of uncertainty. To indulge in my love of cooking and baking means I am making time in my day to take healthy breaks away from news consumption, too. As well, eating at home often means the tendency to consume healthier meals than when we go out to eat. Speaking about the subject of balancing dining at home versus dining out, the issue of social distancing has really impacted how I see the businesses we frequent. Some are downright awful at practicing social distancing. Those are easy ones to avoid when we spot them. We know we do not owe anyone our business and so we pay more attention to how well an establishment protects the health of its employees and the extension of care shown to customers. This has meant cutting back on dining out. We are starting to enjoy our dining out experiences more because the places with strong social distancing practices do provide a more positive atmosphere.

This past week I’ve felt a little more cooped up than normal, but I am excited to share we have some great things coming in our future. Some things are more of our same routines. I continue to find new items at the grocery store and exciting recipes which livens up our home routine. As I’ve been doing, I will keep sharing those things on Instagram. We are also heading into September and I know once we start to have a drop in temperatures, even if we are still above 100 degrees, I can start focusing on weightlifting in the garage again. With the current 110-115 degrees, I am not as motivated to sweat it out in the garage. Soon enough, we’ll also have the bulk of the upstairs flooring repaired and replaced. Safety is a big priority for me and it has been challenging knowing despite how new the house is, there are so sagging, soft, and creaky spots that need attention. I will share the results of that journey as well.

Oh, and before I forget, I will also add a bit more to my memoir. We haven’t talked about that journey in a bit, but it is still a valuable goal for me. I have three days off while the floors are being done to make some more progress. The team will be here for a total of six days but I wanted to conserve some PTO for later this year. A recent trip to Barnes & Noble inspired me to see this memoir belongs more to the personal growth/self-help/inspiration than the military section which is what I have been feeling is true this past year. With this realization, I think finishing the first draft will be monumentally easier than I was expecting. There are some things I’ve wanted to include and I wasn’t entirely sure if those insights were relevant. This decision means cutting out certain pieces I’ve already added, but I know my friends and family love me. Nothing I’ve shared so far has caused anyone to stop supporting me and with the recent cleanup of my Instagram–I guess a story for another day–I feel I am finding the bulk of persons are the right audience for this next leg of my writing journey, too.

Find beauty in every day, even the challenging ones.