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.

What Blogging Has Taught Me The Past (Almost) Six Years and the Future of “She Wears Dogtags”

An introverted adult who hates being in the spotlight started this blog.

A woman still figuring out what femininity looks like for her started this blog.

A daughter and sister with imperfect family relationships started this blog.

A wife and mother who does not believe households should be bound by gender roles started this blog.

A graduate student who never believed she’d go to grad school (or twice for that matter!) started this blog.

A war veteran who volunteered to serve twice overseas started this blog.

A Marine Corps veteran whose original adult career path plan did not include military service started this blog.

There are so many labels I can wear and that society expects me to wear as part of my life journey and then there are the paths I followed, this blog being one of those paths.

My blog is essentially a late entry Kindergarten student. Born on October 26th, 2014, it was born in my favorite month and I have no shame in stating it has become my second child and just like my actual child, I’ve learned so much about who I am in the process of shaping the development of this writing project.

To my newcomers, I hope you see this blog as a beautiful imperfect creation. I make plenty of mistakes, including being overly emotional in my writing. You’ll find entries sprinkled with four letter swear words. I have, as one professor mentioned during the progression of my graduate applied project, the penchant to take ‘bird walks’ and dear future friend, you’re in for a number of nature walks. I learn just as much by wandering as I do setting my feet down a specific path. With all of us spending more time in our home these days, I also feel the occasional wandering activity breaks up the constraint we feel tucked away in our respective residences.

Writing is a craft I am still perfecting and I hope you see every entry is designed to be a unique creation and reflection of my personal evolution. My first entry, The Project Begins, is probably a little painful to read but I was spilling with energy to unpack my military service experiences. By comparison, this past year I’ve confronted my money goals again and in the past few months expressed the way anxiety manifested itself as we deal with COVID-19 disrupting our way of life.

To my current readers, I owe you all a big apology. I discovered recently there were a significant amount of comments blocked as spam. This is a huge mistake for me and I recognize now I need to tinker with various features of this platform to tend properly to my readers moving forward. I am so sorry to anyone who felt I neglected the way this blog may have impacted your life or I should have expanded discussion on I was too certain matters. The downfall of this being a one woman show is I do not have a team reminding me this is still a business adventure and I must learn how to use the tools. One of my goals now is to make time each month to scout around WordPress more and figure out what all the buttons do and to look at least once weekly to capture any comments that might inadvertently be marked ‘spam’.

Captured in all my social awkwardness recently by my daughter

Becoming more competent with WordPress tools is not the only thing on my radar. I have two other things to mention about how I want to improvement engagement moving forward.

When I first started this project, I was pretty deadset against using ads. I will be using ads on the site moving forward. It does take up a good amount of my time to produce this content and after much reflection, I realize there are different ways I want to improve as a content creator and contribute to different organizations that are doing great things for veterans and persons in need. Relying solely on my 9-to-5 job finances as the only income stream to reach that objective will make this a much slower process than I care for, but I want to be upfront with everyone. At this point, I only feel comfortable permitting the ads on the website and not going the route of affiliate marketing. If ads work out as a supplementary source of income so I can serve you all better, I am willing to give it a try. If the ads don’t help much on the site, then I’ll trudge along at my current pace.

The other, perhaps more exciting news, is I am establishing a YouTube channel for She Wears Dogtags. My goal is to post my first video on or before August 1st. I hope the video messaging resonates with people who might not naturally seek a blog to read and/or those who would love to interpret various issues utilizing more of their senses. This past week, I had our daughter video me for the first time and now, I am in the process of editing that video. Will it be perfect? No. Am I scared to share this leg of my journey? Yes.

I believe we should embrace an attitude of lifelong learning. For this reason, I am willing to toss my story out there and my perspective on the world in order to continue serving others who are considering military service, who are currently serving, and those who now wear the title ‘veteran.’ Ideally, I also want to reach people who did not serve, perhaps never thought of serving but are curious about military service and life after one hangs up the uniform. I am an older veteran, having been out since 2007, and I recognize I will encounter people who likely will tell me I should get off my soapbox and let a newer veteran pick up this kind of mission. The thing is I want to be a resource because there are plenty of things that are generally consistent regardless of the era of service and with service being voluntary (at least in the United States) people who serve do not necessarily have family members who have faced a similar experience.

This is where I hope to come in. My journey is full of highs and lows. I am stepping up to this new mission with the same level of transparency I’ve developed over the years blogging. Things might be a little (or a lot) rough in the beginning, but you have my heart in this next phase as you do with my blog.

To better prepare for this journey, I am starting to listen to podcasts and YouTube videos for tips and tricks. I’ve already devoured a few episodes of “YouTube Creators Hub” on Spotify and some of Cathrin Manning’s YouTube videos. I feel eventually a weekly video is within my capabilities and I am accumulating a few sticky notes with ideas on how I want to organize the eventual content I will create. (Let’s just say a graduate degree in Social and Cultural Pedagogy and one in Public Administration did not prepare me to use WordPress, Instagram, Facebook, and now YouTube to speak the way I want to military service and society. I am seeking out educators now–and that’s not a bad thing!).

Before we end for the day, here’s how I hope to keep my social media diverse:

Instagram: Daily or most days of the week

YouTube: Weekly (eventually)

WordPress: Monthly

Facebook: Sporadically as I find what I’ve dubbed markers of service (usually vanity veteran or military branch license plates)

With these good things out on the table now, I want to close with a big thank you to everyone for dropping by. Your interest in my writing adventures–and future YouTube conversations–keeps me motivated when this path is anything but easy.

The Pandemic “Diet”: The Privilege of Food Storage and Life Outside Food Deserts

Grocery shopping is not what it used to be. I go in looking like a bank robber and come out with paid for merchandise. I avoid talking to strangers whereas I used to recommend things to people ALL THE TIME. I zip through the store, making as few unnecessary trips back down an aisle if I can help it, a far cry from my pre-pandemic meandering on the hunt for something new. Now, I’ll even toy with the idea, Do I really need it? Whatever ‘it’ is. Other times, I realize (mid aisle) that I was clearly walking down the wrong way when I notice taped arrows running the opposite direction from where my shopping cart was headed. As a foodie, I despise grocery shopping right now. Every time I go now I feel caught off guard by a new trend: an excess of emptied shelves, lines to receive a disinfected cart, sneeze shields, lost access to freely pack up bulk goods.

On June 19th it was mandated we wear face coverings in various establishments, with some exceptions like when out dining. Still, I see people of various ages strolling through grocery stores and places like Target without any sort of mask. It was reported Monday we have 2,196 new cases in Arizona with 3 additional deaths, and the grim totals aren’t great as KTAR News reports an overall total of 54,586 COVID-19 cases and 1,342 deaths. Our community has been incredibly slow to adopt more stringent matters to keep down the number COVID-19 cases with this recent change coming into effect on June 20th, compared to my family–as low risk persons–having our own commuter masks to wear regularly since May 9th. I know we were still slow in adopting the practice of wearing a mask in public, but we have made consistent efforts to practice social distancing. Some of this has been easier on us due to our work allowing for remote shifts, but just as important has been our ability to properly store and prep food.

In one of my last graduate classes, I had the opportunity to look at food assistance programs. Back in 2012, my family needed the support of SNAP after I sustained a long period of unemployment that drained our savings and as a recent collegiate graduate, I was ineligible for unemployment assistance. For my assignment, I focused on Arizona’s Restaurant Meals Program and (at the time) the piloting of EBT online purchases with companies like Amazon. I was curious at how the system can ease difficulties for those with a lack of transportation or mobility concerns, difficulty with food prep and storage, and those impacted by the presence of food deserts. Currently, 19 states now participate in the EBT online purchasing pilot (as of May 20, 2020) which I imagine has helped tremendously during the pandemic to reduce the risk for certain vulnerable populations.

The other side of the situation that I wanted to also reinforce was what it means to have proper food storage and prep resources. This issue, in some of the academic materials I reviewed, makes such a consequential difference in a person’s ability to consume a healthy diet. While these factors are not the only contributors, their significance should not be treated lightly. Perishable foods are costly and even when someone relies on a food pantry or food assistance programs, engages in food rescue, or utilizes a food co-op addressing proper food handling includes access to clean water, cold storage appliance(s) for some ingredients and leftovers, and typically some sort of cooking appliance (oven, microwave, or stove top). Food prep requires utensils, cutting boards, dinnerware, etc.

All of these things take up space and for many, space is yet another source of inequality in our societies.  I delayed this conversation about pandemic food purchasing because I felt it was more important to initially adapt to the situation at hand in March and April. As I waited, it was not hard to come across other conversations about pandemic spending both in the news and on people’s social media accounts. My original plan was to share my thoughts after Memorial Day, presenting a timely capture of spending. With the loss of George Floyd on the heels of other Black Americans lost to police brutality, I knew I had to sit back on this topic. The timing wasn’t right and while it make not be perfect, I do feel it is a better time to write.

My pandemic life started mid March. As a homeowner, I started the wave of changes differently than I would have in our starter home and quite differently than if we had faced this reality as apartment dwellers. Our current kitchen is approximately 135 square feet. Our starter home kitchen technically was larger due to being an eat-in kitchen, but our home upgrade came with numerous opportunities to live better. Our traditional garage arrangement now over the old tandem two car garage meant we had space–again that magic word–to purchase a second fridge and it is parked next to a chest freezer. (The fridge was initially purchased to house packages of chicken for Gregor; he was eating 3 and a half or so pounds of chicken a day.) And if we look even further back into our family history, our apartment kitchen was the least suited to allowing us to purchase an additional week or two of groceries to get by during the pandemic. The kitchen was probably between 50 and 75 square feet.

My May purchases (included below) do not encompass our entire eating or drinking habits for the month. Like months previous, we still purchased some restaurant meals  during busy weekday nights and/or as weekend indulgences. Starting in March, we started to adopt different grocery shopping habits, mostly out of necessity. Our meat consumption dramatically changed as meat was harder to come by and has less frequently been on sale. Since chicken for Gregor then became more expensive, we pulled back on our meat consumption to keep the budget more in check. Before and after the month, we had extra pantry and frozen food on hand and had bought some specialty items like the iberico sausages and the margarita ingredients for Memorial Day weekend. I also made a separate trip to Total Wine and More but since I did not keep the receipt, I did not feel it would be appropriate to just toss a number out there without providing context on the type of alcoholic purchases made.

To also reinforce my point about the privilege of middle class America, we are nowhere near hurting when it comes to cooking appliances, cookware, serve ware, or food storage containers. Our kitchen has an 1100 watt microwave, an oven, a gas cooktop, an InstaPot, a Belgian waffle iron, a four slot toaster, and a sous vide. Our collection of cookware reflects the fact we enjoy cooking. We have a beautiful enameled cast iron Dutch oven, a cast iron skillet, multiple pans and pots, and two sets of measuring cups and spoons. Cooling racks, muffin tins, roasting pans, a donut pan, baking sheets, and a jelly roll pan we use as a baking sheet can also be found tucked behind cabinet doors, plus we have various sizes of cake pans and cutting boards. Our silverware collection could accommodate approximately 16-20 dinner guests but we have half that in our array of cereal bowls, dinner bowls, dinner and side plates. The collection of drink ware is a bit of an embarrassing excess. Tall mason jars, short mason jars, coffee mugs, wine glasses, beer glasses, and plastic cups for life on-the-go. You would think more than three people live in this house.

But that’s why we need to have these conversations. Life during a pandemic varies dramatically. I do not feel guilt for my privilege but it is something I should acknowledge and remember when I complain about rising grocery costs, increased dishwashing, and the lack of items on store shelves. A big concern has been how much it will cost to keep my family fed, but that’s nothing when we consider the fact food insecurity is a rising concern for many.

Lastly, I want to reiterate how wildly different this shared month of grocery shopping is from what we purchased in March and April. The list, with the exclusion of items bought in anticipation of June only put us about $48 more than what I normally want the grocery store budget to be for any given month. I cannot say the same for March when we spent twice our normal budget.

May’s Purchases

Fresh/ Shelf Stable Produce

  • (1) bag organic gala apples (3lbs.)
  • (1) bag organic baby carrots (1lb.)
  • (1) large veggie platter with dip
  • (2) heads organic cauliflower
  • (2) containers organic strawberries (1 lb.)
  • (1) bag lemons (1.2 lbs.)
  • (2) organic leeks
  • (4) fruit cup packs, Del Monte 100% juice (4 cups per pack)
  • (2) green onions
  • (1) Sea Tangle Kelp Noodles (12 oz.)

Frozen Produce

  • (2) bags Ore-Ida Tator Tots (28 oz each)
  • (2) bags broccoli (likely 12 oz. bags)
  • (2) bags peas (likely 12 oz. bags)

Coffee

(1) bag, Stumpton whole bean (12 oz.)

Eggs/Dairy/Butter

  • (2) dozen eggs
  • (1) butterkase cheese (1/2 lb.)
  • (1) package Meyenberg goat milk butter (8 oz.)
  • (1) Chobani Flip yogurt, Peach
  • (7) Chobani yogurts
  • (1) Sargento colby jack sliced cheese
  • (1) 1/2 gallon oat milk
  • (1) Organic Valley low fat milk (1 quart)
  • (1) 4 oz. Organic Valley shredded Parmesan (4 oz.)
  • (1) wedge Parmesan (8 oz.)
  • (2) Montchevre goat cheese (4 oz.)
    • plain
    • honey

Prepared Meals/Meat/Meat Alternatives

  • (2) Against the Grain nut free pesto pizza (24 oz.)
  • (2) Against the Grain uncured pepperoni pizza (24 oz.)
  • (1) Teton Waters Ranch grass fed beef sausage (4 links)
  • (1) Fermin Iberico chourizo (7 oz.)
  • (1) Fermin Iberico salami (7 oz.)
  • (1) Columbus dry coppa
  • (1) Columbus prosciutto
  • (2) packages sliced bacon
  • (1) Organic Prairie ground chicken (12 oz.)
  • (2) 14 oz. Wildwood organic extra firm tofu
  • (2) packs Beyond Meat Beyond Burger patties (2 patties per container)

Bread/Pasta Products

  • (1) loaf Dave’s Killer bread, oats n’ blues
  • (1) Rudi’s sourdough bread loaf
  • (2) packages brioche slider rolls

Pantry/Spice Cabinet

  • (1) jar pickled garlic (12 oz.)
  • (1) jar minced ginger
  • (1) Saffron Road Lemongrass Basil simmer sauce packet (7 oz.)
  • (1) Frontera skiller sauce packet (8 oz.)
  • (1) Arrowhead Mills unbleached all-purpose flour (5 lb. bag)
  • (1) Natural Grocer’s Almond Flour (1 lb. bag)
  • (1) Ian’s Gluten Free breadcrumbs (7 oz.)
  • (1) Aleia’s Gluten Free Italian breadcrumbs (13 oz.)
  • (1) bottle organic dijon mustard
  • (1) St. Dalfour’s black raspberry fruit spread (10 oz.)

Desserts/Snacks

  • (1) Bluebell vanilla ice cream (1/2 gallon)
  • (2) Kroger Deluxe lime sherbert (1.5 quart)
  • (1) pint Dolcezza gelato, Mascarpone & Berries
  • (1) pint Dolcezza gelato, Stracciatella
  • (3) York Peppermint Patties
  • (1) package Oreos, original flavor
  • (1) package Oreos, tiramisu
  • (3) Alt Eco chocolate truffles
  • (1) large bag Lay’s Potato Chips
  • (2) large bags Mission tortilla chips

Beverages

  • (2) Pop & Bottle almond lattes (11 fl. oz)
  • (3) Ginger/Regular Sprite (2 Liters)
  • (2) Monster energy drink
  • (2) Califa Farms Ginger Limeade (48 fl. bottle)
  • (2) Rise Brewing Co. Nitro Cold Brew Coffee Oat Milk Mocha (7 fl. oz.)
  • (6) C2O flavored coconut waters (17.5 fl. oz)
  • (1) Smart Water, 1 Liter each (6 pack)
  • (1) single bottle Voss water
  • (1) 20 oz. Diet Pepsi
  • (3) 8 pack, 12 fl. oz. AHA Sparkling Water (apple + ginger)
  • (4) 8 pack, 12 fl. oz. AHA Sparkling Water (black cherry + coffee)
  • (4) 8 pack, 12 fl. oz. AHA Sparkling Water (citrus + green tea)
  • (3) 12 packs, Diet Sodas (root beer, Dr. Pepper, regular)
  • (4) 2 liters, Kroger seltzer waters
  • (4pk.) Izze Sparkling Juice

Alcoholic/Drink Ingredient

  • (2) Santa Cruz lime juice (16 oz.)
  • (1) container margarita salt
  • (1) organic tequila (750 ml.) ($17.99)
  • (1) Sam Adams Sam ’76 (6 pack)
  • (1) Blue Moon Light Sky (6 pack)
  • (1) Four Peaks green tea lager (6 pack)
  • (1) Absolut vodka soda raspberry and lemongrass (4 pack)  (NOT EVER BUYING AGAIN…so gross!)

Other

  • (2) bagged ice (20lbs. each)
  • (1) bag Solo cups ($6.49)

Gregor’s Dinners

  • (21) whole chickens, mostly free range as they were the easiest to find on a regular basis

Items Bought In Preparation for June (With Some Items Still Frozen and Available for Consumption in July)

  • (1) Lean Beef Brisket ($57.19, still frozen)
  • (1) Pork Shoulder, Picnic ($16.49, still frozen)
  • (1) Pork Shoulder, Picnic ($15.11, still frozen)
  • (2) Foster’s Fryer chickens ($18.20 total, still frozen)
  • (4) packages Foster’s Chicken Thighs (still frozen)
  • (2) packages Foster’s Drumsticks (still frozen)

 

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Pantry (1st Week of June 2020)

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Pantry (1st Week of June 2020)

 

NOTE:

The inconsistent ability to regularly obtain chicken has led to a significant change in our purchasing habits. Gregor started a raw chicken diet back in December and at roughly $8 per whole chicken, it is no longer sustainable to keep him on this healthier alternative to his past kibble diet.

We did find a pretty good quality kibble that is $3 cheaper per day over his raw diet. We dealt with a few days of a hunger strike, but he finally relented and is back to eating every day.

 

Storytelling Through Music

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Happy Sunday, everyone.

In nearly the month that has past since I last wrote, I’ve thought a lot about what it means to deal with some restrictions in my life and why I must also reflect on how the restrictions themselves are a temporary experience while the overall situation–the risk of COVID-19 infection–brings with it the possibility of permanent losses. Given my past experience serving in two different phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom and my job in the Marine Corps, I’ve felt more equipped than others for our present reality. When I look at the scope of death involved, I know I must moderate how much information I consume just like anyone should moderately consume high fat, high calorie foods. I know it’s bad for me to know too much. I am an empathetic person and it’s difficult knowing I cannot do much for others to keep them safe other than to stay home.

I also underestimated how much our home “confinement” would cause me to think about my way of life. I felt weird not shaking hands with people I met, like the day I met one of my neighbors for the first time. The Marine that I am, I felt like I was doing a disservice to the foundation of our newfound relationship to not have a proper handshake as part of our meeting. I also feel weird watching how much I cut back on interacting with people at the grocery store. Instead, I watch them with odd curiosity and sometimes, frustration. While I might normally chat with a mom as she apologizes for her small child cutting me off in front of some merchandise, I work on keeping a respectable distance for my safety and theirs. Or this past grocery shopping endeavor, I felt like criticizing two women–clearly friends–who were blocking the aisle with their carts and bodies as they chatted within a more intimate personal distance than the 6 feet we are requested to keep at this time. It would have been one thing if they accidentally broached the distance guidelines as I’ve watched it happen over and over again as shoppers do a little tango to get out of each other’s way, but I was pretty agitated they were blatantly disregarding the current social practice to visit with each other and more so, cutting off everyone else’s access to the grocery items with their lingering presence.

When these little frustrations start to creep in–or I feel I need to be more productive–I notice I seek out listening to music. Normally, I try to make good use of my work from home time and listen to several podcasts during the week. There are several that have helped me think more critically about my money habits and how to design our home so it serves us better without it also potentially being a regret later when it comes time to sell. Right now though, I don’t feel like I can listen to some of these podcasts with as much attentiveness as I’d like so instead, I focus on music.

In fact, I found it amusing today that the movie we watched, Trolls World Tour, brought up some of the same things I’ve been thinking about how music is often about expressing ourselves and where we come from. The idea is nothing new to me, but I did enjoy seeing it discussed in the movie. With our daughter close to turning ten years old, I do feel it is important for her to understand music is as faceted as other aspects of our society and differs greatly across societies.

Much of what I grew up listening to would not resonate with her, but that type of music brings me back to specific points of my childhood and my relationship with my siblings, parents, and friends. I also don’t feel l have anything that speaks to me about my first college experience, but so much that brings me back to certain parts of my Marine Corps career and my life the last few years. I’ve grown up more than I expected because I failed at numerous things and been rejected in a variety of personal connections. These things have taught me to find the people who make up my tribe and to accept what has felt as flaws at times are not flaws at all.

I am at a better place now with the uncertainty surrounding us because I think more about what I listen to during my day to feel empowered and educated. The music I am sharing today I intentionally split into female artists and male artists vocals. This decision was centered around attempting to view how women are accepted both in their work and their viewpoints. The sound was equally as important. There are times when I feel like listening to women who have gone through some of the same things as me gives me the courage to share my own voice on those matters.

I know you can upload audio to WordPress, but I don’t know the legal implications of sharing others’ music. Please don’t be disappointed that for this reason, I’ve taken the simple approach to provide an image of my playlists instead. I figure anyone who is interested can replicate it on whatever site they use to listen to music. 

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The male vocals, specific lyrics, and song titles are no less important. They are just important different reasons. Some of the songs have been favorites for a bit due to the energy being perfect for my workout routines or I want something to get me through what feels like a long workday. As well, like their female counterparts, men are in a position now in society to talk differently about their respective experiences and reflection on social issues. The latter issue I feel is best represented by the tone of their voices.

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As we continue to fight the fight from our homes or in our workspaces, I hope you find some music that resonates with you and if you’d like, feel free to share what you’re listening to during these days. I enjoy listening to the messages and voices of the storytellers.

~Cheryl

We Are All In This Crisis Together

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This snapshot shows a touch of the news last night.

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For the first time in my life, my fellow Americans and I are being asked to serve others by avoiding close contact. As “easy” as it sounds, many are ignoring this message.

Waking up and going to bed with the news right now is anything but pleasant. As a war veteran, I am not offended that many are comparing the current pandemic to a war. There are a lot of areas where the comparison is warranted and I wanted to discuss these today. We can only prepare so much for either situation as resources are always finite quantities and attitudes and preparation capabilities for either event vary greatly, resulting in disparities for different sides in their abilities to weather the situation.

For example, if we were faced with this crisis when we moved in our current home in January, the situation would have been monumentally more stressful. For those who interact with me both locally and via Instagram@she_wears_dogtags, I’ve previously shared how we were without a fridge the first week after our move. The new GE Cafe line fridge we purchased never worked. It was installed and never cooled down as a fridge should for proper food storage. During our week without a fridge, we were reliant on a chest freezer and pantry storage. We could not cook a large quantity of food because we were limited in our freezer storage and knew we would have to allow additional thaw time when pulling items from the chest freezer. The reality is though there are many people across the globe that do not have access to longterm food storage. Some are in this situation due to lack of housing and in other parts of the world smaller residences means one cannot accommodate full size appliances and pantry storage that are a frequent part of Western style living.

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Holiday Celebration 2004 at Camp Blue Diamond, Iraq (Photo Credit: Sgt. Nathan Estes)

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My Current Fridge Situation because a lot of the food we picked up recently is stored in the freezers, canned, or dry goods. The amount of alcohol in stock is a bit more than normal.

I think it is important to do a little compare/contrast between my first deployment and now to bring home the idea of the strain people are feeling currently.

I never feared going hungry on deployment and many people are worried now that there will not be enough food to cover their own needs. The purchasing power of the military equated to sufficient food for our service members and civilian contractors plus the Iraqis and third country nationals employed on base. We had breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight rations available to us. I may not have always had what I wanted available to me, but our chow hall had a diversity of protein sources, starches, fruits, and vegetables to hold us over. I could also shop at the PX trailer, picking up M&M’s, cookies, trail mix, and personal hygiene products.

People in the United States will be struggling, not only due to job loss or reduced hours, but also because this is what a number of stores look like right now.

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I have never seen the aisles empty like this, even preceding Thanksgiving or Christmas family gatherings.

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Oddly enough, even the feminine hygiene aisle was pretty ransacked. People are freaking out, leaving the most vulnerable in a worse off position.

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This was Target shortly before 4 p.m. today. The few shoppers who passed us in the aisles were respectful of each other, both in regard to selecting items from the shelves and maintaining personal distance.

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I wish practices like this started sooner in the crisis, but I feel with the lessons learned, better business practices will prevail in future situations.

I wanted to stick up for my generation for the moment though. I think it will take time–and we might never know–the true breakdown by ages of who decided to purchase in excess of their needs due to panic. Some might not want to reveal they hoarded all the toilet paper they could, while there are those coming to light who (horrifically) over purchased with the goal of profiteering off of others’ panic and/or true needs.

What I am hearing those are there are plenty of voices screaming that millennials are taking all the stuff on the shelves. Seriously?! There is not just one generation alone contributing to the mess we are seeing right now. It still blows my mind that in people’s frustrations, they are pointed fingers as this one age group without considering how each generation has a broad range of income diversity that leaves some with greater or less privilege to tend to their own needs in a crisis.

I also want to say my grocery shopping last Friday was pretty much a nightmare situation. I cannot remember when exactly we moved Gregor, our dog, from a kibble diet to a raw food diet, but there are times we grocery shop separately for his food and sometimes it is part of our regular grocery shopping trip. Knowing that raw food for him costs more, I have taken small steps here and there to reign in our weekly grocery shopping trips. From what we’ve learned from the news, I knew I had the responsibility to shop for roughly two weeks’ worth of groceries but the day before, my husband had a hard time finding meat on the shelves for Gregor. We had some things in our chest freezer, but my grocery shopping trip at Sprouts meant also keeping an eye out for chickens for Gregor. He eats approximately 3 and 1/2 lbs. of raw chicken and organs on a daily basis; his diet is balanced out with pork, fish, and sometimes eggs.

In sharing my grocery receipt–since Sprouts does not permit photography in its stores–please do not judge me. I want to highlight this is only approximately 2 weeks of groceries for us (and as I’m realizing a little bit more for snack bars!) and not even a full week of chicken for Gregor in case we can’t find anymore before our last grocery haul for him runs out. It cost us $345.04 for our area, so we’ll be more expensive than some parts of the country and significantly less expensive than other high cost areas. The bulk bins we normally shop for rice were nearly empty, but I still grabbed a few packages of less expensive pasta and I made sure to ask another customer if he needed a bag of rice before I grabbed the last two bags of jasmine rice I could find. Most of the bigger packages of cheaper chicken and beef were gone. It’s been roughly 5 years since I’ve purchased Cornish hens because they are $5.99 each, but I wanted to ensure we had a variety of protein and grabbed 3. I did not pick up any fresh fruit or vegetables, opting instead for frozen and canned items. Regarding cleaning products, I did not need much. I picked up some new sponges, a bag of laundry pods, and dish soap. I discovered that choice was a good decision when I saw the the decimated cleaning aisle at Target today. We still could not meet all our needs shopping in-person. Our situation required buying toilet paper online and after our box arrived, I learned the company, Reel, is now sold out like many other retailers.

It is still weird to see toilet paper completely gone from the shelves. I could find toilet paper  with few concerns on my 2004 deployment in our port-a-johns and shower trailers although a wonderful woman named Alice from Operation Sand Flea mailed out a package of Charmin for me, because it was something I asked for.

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Stepping a slight step away from the topic of food, when preparing for our meals on deployment, we also regularly practiced hand washing. Our service members would clear their weapons into weapons barrels, walking up in a relatively orderly line to hand washing stations and dispose of paper hand towels properly after washing our hands. I never imagined how often I’d hear the news inform people to wash their hands, but I’m loving the memes coming out left and right. We could all use a little extra humor in our lives right now.Screen Shot 2020-03-21 at 7.16.32 AM

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On the next compare/contrast, let’s talk about workspaces.

My work from home situation is not relatively new as it is for numerous Americans. I’ve worked from home most days for almost two years. In our old house, my desk was set up in our spare bedroom. In our current home, one desk is set up in our spare bedroom and this desk at the top of our staircase. I don’t mind that the arrangement is not fancy, although over time, I plan on spreading our remaining collection of books, collectibles, and photo albums into other more permanent spaces in our home. It’s just not a priority right now. As a sign of the times we are in right now, on the lower left of the bookcase is a small stack of books borrowed from the public library. Our local library is shutdown to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, so there has not been a need to renew my books currently.

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I recently finished this book and the author’s journey of subsisting on multiple forms of government assistance is something some Americans are also finding themselves in during this crisis.

Again, I am repeating things people who have followed my journey for years know about me. I am not saying these things to undermine how people feel in their current strife whether it’s temporarily having to switch toilet paper brands, paying more for groceries, or finding a tiny closet to work from home. I am writing because I want to add to the conversation.

I was prepared to work in an austere war environments and yet, I never expected something as odd and equally devastating as COVID-19 to upend our way of life in the States. This situation is putting a lot of strain on medical personnel who will and are facing traumatic situations like they have never known. Businesses are constrained in their operational capacities and many individuals are finding themselves at risk for job loss, severe illness, and perhaps, premature death. This is one area where our military members and veterans have an advantage because we can reassure others we will stand by each other and also perhaps feel additional stress because it brings up difficult parts of their past. For me, I got used to being in a persistently dangerous environment and I knew my time in Iraq was stressful for my family back in the States. Now, the situation is reversed, minus the combat zone.

I am not unique in the fact I have family members who are considered more vulnerable to COVID-19. Some are older and some have underlying health conditions. I will be sitting on the sidelines of this situation much like they were all years ago when I served in Iraq. They waited for news from me that I was in good health and in relatively good spirits and now I do the same every day. Not surprisingly, we are again mostly communicating over social media and over the phone. Instead of Myspace and using an AT&T phone center, I now touch base over Facebook, Instagram, text messages, and probably a day here soon, video chat using FaceTime. Social distancing does not mean isolation in the truest sense of the world. My family is not alone in this battle and I want to remind you, neither are you.