A spot of everyday privilege

Little Boy and I went for a drive this morning.  We were headed to the library that has Friday storytime, except it turned out that we were too early, so I kept driving to kill some time.  Eventually the road we were on led us to an area of new construction, where roofs were being finished and driveways were being laid for gorgeous (if somewhat closely spaced) suburban homes.

As I made a U-turn in front of what would eventually be the clubhouse for a fancy HOA, I thought, Gosh, I bet anyone who sees us thinks we’re real weirdos for meandering aimlessly out here. 

And then I realized: here I was, a white lady with a young family driving a shiny new crossover SUV in the suburbs on a weekday morning.  I am exactly the target demographic for these houses.  Anyone out there probably assumed I was scouting out a new home for my family.

That’s privilege, folks.

P.S.  We then went to storytime and all the parents were white moms and I felt like it was one of the most stereotypical things I’ve ever done but Little Boy had a good time and it got us both out of the house.

The exhaustion monster strikes again

I’m sick and tired of being, well, sick and tired.  Mostly tired.  It feels like I’m always tired, but the past few weeks have been particularly bad.  I keep crashing at school and just having to put my head on my desk and nap.  (Which I recognize is a huge privilege to be able to do, but it certainly doesn’t help me get my PhD done.)  There’s a mental fatigue, too: just thinking about what I need to do next can be overwhelmingly exhausting.

So, yeah, this is a post of complaining and self-pity.  Because I hate this state of fatigue.  Especially when it goes on and on and on and doesn’t seem to get any better and there’s no good reason for it.  It’s not my thyroid or anemia or a B12 deficiency or anything that shows up on a standard blood test.  I have a sneaking suspicion that it might be related to my antidepressants, which have a tendency to either put me to sleep or prevent me from getting rest, only I’m not quite sure which one it is this time.  And we are all still fighting the latest daycare-sourced cold.  Cold and flu season needs to hurry up and end!

Sigh.

*Wallows in self-pity for a bit longer.*

*Realizes she’s too tired to think of anything else to say.*

Got any fun stories to cheer me up?

I forgot how to have a relaxing Sunday morning

It’s been a rough weekend.  Little Boy brought home a stomach bug, which he then generously gave to me, who passed it on to his dad.  (At least there was some stagger so we had one semi-functioning adult at a time.)  There has been a lot of ugh, turn the TV on and just try to distract ourselves while we get through this.  Even feeling somewhat better, my appetite has been too low to give me any real energy, mental or physical.

Needless to say, I did not go for my usual Sunday run this morning.  I sat and ate breakfast, and drank a cup of tea, and tried to gather myself for the day.  I felt so tense, as though there was something I ought to be doing—but there wasn’t.  Little Boy was puttering around the kitchen mostly not getting into trouble.  There was no hurry, nothing planned.  There were chores to do—there are always chores to do—but they didn’t need doing right away.  So why was it so hard to relax?

Maybe running on both my weekend mornings is getting to me.  Maybe I need more breaks like this, so that I know how to deal with them when they arise.

Caught between too many words and too few

I made myself a promise, when I first started blogging, that I wouldn’t let myself get stressed if I didn’t write anything for a while.  Nevertheless, when days go by with posting, thoughts of the blog turn into a constant background process in my mind.  Do I have anything to say?

Life has been a stretch of ups and downs lately, with the downs hitting harder than the ups.  I tried a new brain med, which was great, then my psychiatrist upped the dose, which did not go swimmingly, so we backed off, which walloped my mood with the darkness of withdrawal.  Self-care has been the order of the day these last few weeks.

It doesn’t feel like I have much to say right now, no grand blog topics on which to opine.  I can speak of sofas and knitting needles, of novels and Netflix, and of the fluffy ball of purr currently sprawled on the desk next to my computer.  My powers of thought are worn out by the end of the day.  Nothing to say.

And yet somewhere beyond words, tucked away behind a wall of exhaustion, are a mess of thoughts and feelings, so many and so muddled that they can’t find their way to a coherent sentence on my tongue.  Things I want to say.  Things I’m afraid to say.  Things that I just don’t know.

Like how I’ve managed to fall into a side project at school, and it’s totally frustrating and aggravating and I don’t think I can live up to their expectations.  But I can’t back out now—they’re counting on me for the last pieces of a grant proposal that’s due in two weeks.

Like how I just sent my co-authors another draft of a paper for a much better project, but my mind was so numb by the end of the day that I’m worried I missed something important.

Like how the darkness tells me I will never finish my PhD, that I am too slow, that everything takes just far too long.

Like how staying at home with a toddler is so incredibly boring—there, I said it—but I feel like a terrible parent for just browsing social media while he plays with his blocks.  The “bad mother” thoughts are back in force (if they ever really went away); I think they hit hardest when he’s changing the fastest.  Do I talk to him enough?  Should we be singing more songs, playing more games?  Look at how much fun he has with his father.  What if I’m the lesser parent?

Like how the lunches need making, the kid needs bathed, and the clothes need putting away.  And how tomorrow I’ll have to get up and do it all over again.

Ten life lessons from skiing

Ski lift and snowy mountain.No, alas, I’m not skiing right now.  Time, money, and location have conspired to keep me from the slopes since Little Boy was born.  I’m thinking about it today because it’s Spring Break—whatever that means for a grad student—and Spring Break has often been, in the history of my life, a time for skiing.  I’m missing it pretty badly.

When you’re on the slopes, there’s a lot of time to get philosophical, and there are a lot of good lessons to be learned from a lifetime of skiing.  (Now if only I remembered to implement them everywhere…)

1. Learning a new skill takes time and practice.

Skiing is one of the few things in my life that I have been initially terrible at, but stuck with long enough to become really good.  Most things that I’m really good at now are things at which I had some base-level talent to start.  Definitely no base-level talents with sports, especially not sports that trigger my fear of heights.  But through some combination of familial pressure, personal pride, and just plain enjoying being out on the snow, I kept at it through the “sucking at it” stage, all the way through to the “can ski almost anything on the hill” stage.

2. You’ve got to face your fears.

See: fear of heights.  Also fear of smacking into trees.  You have to just take the plunge if you want to get better.

A rocky ski slope.

3. Focus on how far you’ve come, not how far you have left.

The first time I skied a black diamond run, every turn was terrifying.  When I paused, it was rather discouraging to see how much longer the run went on.  Until I turned around and realized that I’d made it quite a ways down the slope already; if I could make it that far, I knew I could manage the rest.

4. Never follow anyone blindly.

There’s a very specific backstory to this lesson: Once upon a time, I was trying to improve my control by directly following my little brother’s line.  Except my little brother decided to jump off a small cornice.  I wasn’t looking far enough ahead, and caught some rather unexpected air.

Snowy trees.

5. When you fall, get right back up…

Everyone falls in skiing, from the greenest beginner to the Olympians on TV.  (In one of the ski racing events at the 2014 Olympics, of the first 6 or so people to attempt the course in competition, only one made it down.)  Falling happens—and sometimes it can be pretty spectacular.  Everyone in my family has their favorite “fall stories,” whether it’s getting tangled up in the lift, skiing straight through a bush, or face-planting in deep snow.  Almost all of these are, in retrospect, quite funny.

6. …but if you fall hard, it’s OK to take a break.

Like if you catch an edge while trying to keep speed across a flat run-out and whack yourself in the head with your pole so hard that it cracks your helmet (true story), don’t feel bad about taking the afternoon off.  Similarly, if you find yourself falling noticeably more often than usual, you might want to think about resting up.  Sometimes pushing through it is unwise.

Looking up on a moguled ski slope.

7. There’s always going to be someone better than you.

I am a darn good skier, if I do say so myself.  I can tackle powder, moguls, even small jumps.  Almost anything on the hill.  But my little brother?  He can ski anything on the hill.  He’s skied Corbet’s Couloir, a run that the linked article helpfully describes as “America’s scariest ski slope.”  As I improve, so does he.  I will likely never catch up to him, and I’ve had to make my peace with that.

8. Don’t judge skill by appearance.

That same little brother?  He wears duct-taped snow pants, because they easily rip on race gates and he’d rather invest in new skis.  We both look absolutely awful in the lodge at lunchtime, with wind-reddened faces and helmet-smooshed hair.  Not that there’s anything wrong with fancy gear (and we do have some, it’s just less obvious), but it’s not a proxy for skill level.

Looking down across ski slopes and a snowy valley.

9. It’s OK to have different goals.

The first time I really encountered someone who was happy not advancing was on the slopes.  For as long as I remember, my mother has skied blue (intermediate) runs, making slow, careful turns in perfect formation.  She is entirely uninterested in joining the rest of the family on steeper, bumpier slopes, because she has found the thing that she enjoys.  As a kid, I couldn’t really understand this; as an adult, I believe I do.

10. Hand and toe warmers are amazing inventions.

OK, this one’s maybe not as widely applicable to life, but it is very, very true.

Status: steam-blocking

Now that I’ve gotten back into knitting and am feeling a bit more motivated to complete things, I’ve pulled some old projects out of hibernation and am working on the finishing touches.  That means weaving in ends (soooo tedious), sewing pieces of an afghan together (even more tedious), and blocking.  Blocking means coaxing your knit piece into its final shape and dimensions, using water or steam; it’s basically the process of making everything look nice at the end.

Two pictures of a knitting afghan square, before and after blocking.

The whole pinning and steaming procedure is a nicely meditative thing to do while Little Boy takes his afternoon nap.

My approach to budgeting: the electronic envelope system

In our house, I am the Keeper of the Budget.  In the beginning, we opted for a simple yet vague “spend less than you earn” approach.  As our bills became more complex, I moved our finances to a spreadsheet system.  We’re sort of middle middle class, neither lower nor upper: we have more than enough money in the bank to cover bills at any given time, but lack complicated income streams from investments and such.  The system we use works really well for us, and I’d like to share it with you today.

The Electronic Envelope System

One of the simplest forms of budgets is something called the envelope system.  At the beginning of the month, you take out the cash you plan to spend, and put it into physical envelopes for each category of expenses.  You might have an envelope marked “Groceries,” for instance, and another labelled “Movie Tickets.”  Throughout the month, you spend what’s in the envelope; when it’s gone, it’s gone.  If there’s money left in an envelope at the end of the month, you can carry it over for the next month or stash it away as extra savings.

That, in a nutshell, is how my budget works.  Except there are no literal envelopes involved.  My “envelopes” exist as columns in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, while all the money stays mingled in our checking accounts.  Every dollar is allocated to a specific future bill or group of expenses.  When we use up all the “Eating Out” money in a given month, it’s done—even if there’s plenty more money in the bank, there’s no money left in that “envelope.”  (OK, I do move money around in the spreadsheet sometimes.  Flexibility is a benefit of the electronic approach.)  Money left in an “envelope” at the end of the month carries over to the next month, so if, say, we don’t eat out much in March, we can go out a few extra times in April.

Categories of Expenses

To keep things organized, there are five groups of “envelopes” in our budget:

  1. Regular Monthly Bills.  These are bills that come due every month, and that are either the same amount of money each month or something fairly predictable.  Examples: rent, electricity, car payment, health insurance.
  2. Regular Non-Monthly Bills.  Bills that are predictable, but that don’t get paid every months.  For instance, I pay $400 every summer for my yearly campus parking permit.  Thus every month I put $400/12=$33.34 in the “Parking” “envelope.”  (In practice I round it up to $35, just in case the price goes up next year.)  Other examples: car registration, trash pickup (billed every 3 months here).
  3. Stuff We Buy Every Month.  This covers things I know we’ll pay for every month, although they won’t always add up to be exactly the same.  Examples: groceries, toiletry products, gas for the car.
  4. Stuff We Pay For Occasionally.  This covers all other groups of expenses, things that might cost a lot or a little in any given month.  Like furniture, or office supplies, or vet visits for our cat.  There’s also a “Miscellaneous” category for me and my husband that acts as our monthly “whatever you want to do” allowance.  Other examples: health care, clothes, gifts, toys for Little Boy.
  5. Savings.  No budget would be complete without savings.  This includes money that gets moved to our savings account, and money put into our retirement funds.

The Spreadsheet

Because I’m not physically taking cash out of an envelope, I need another way to keep track of how much money has been spent in each category.  That’s where the spreadsheet comes in.  Each “envelope”/expense category is one column, with a row for every day of the month.  Something gets spent that day, I enter it into the appropriate cell in the spreadsheet.  It does the rest of the math for me.

This might sound like a lot of work, but it really only amounts to an hour or so every two weeks.  I keep all our receipts, and check them against our bank accounts as I enter the numbers.  This method has the added bonus of quickly alerting me to any suspicious transactions on our accounts.

Since showing is better than telling, I’ve created a version of my spreadsheet on Google Docs, linked below.  The numbers are all fake, but the basic set-up is the same.  Notice the difference between “Savings” and “Net Cash”—there are dollars left in our bank accounts at the end of the month that are not savings, but monies allocated to specific budget “envelopes.”

We’ve saved a lot of money this way, enough that we were able to put a solid payment down on a new car last fall.  In a few years, we’ll have enough saved for a nice down payment on a house.  Interestingly, I’ve also found this approach frees me up to spend a little more on myself: when I know that there’s a certain amount of money available, I’m more comfortable spending it than when I was just trying to spend less than I earned.

Any questions?  How do you approach budgeting?

Choices

My advisor offered me an unexpected choice this week: stay another year as a PhD student.  To clarify, I’m already planning to graduate in a year or so; he means stay another year after that.  “Don’t worry about funding,” he said.  “And don’t worry about whether your committee thinks you ought to graduate by some arbitrary deadline.”

He made the offer because, in following an offshoot branch away from my main thesis topic, we’ve discovered something really cool.  Cool enough to generate interest from local press, and cool enough to keep me motivated through the hard times.  There’s more we could do here, but it would take more than one year.

I am torn.  On the one hand, this is a wonderfully kind offer.  I have always appreciated that my advisor—my current advisor, not the awful one with whom I started out—has never put pressure on me to go faster, and has always seemed genuinely excited by the science I could do.  In his offer, I heard, “You are doing good work and I’d like you to keep doing it.”

And the science is really very cool indeed.  Significantly more interesting, frankly, than the analysis remaining on my primary dissertation topic.  I care about it, and letting it go seems a terrible shame.

But.

But I’m ready to be finished with the PhD.  With a bit over a year to go and some writing progress being made, I can see the end.  Putting my completion date off another year feels a bit like pushing it out of reach.  The farther away that date gets, the harder it is to believe I can actually get there.

And despite my advisor’s reassurances, another year would make me a very slow finisher.  This is my Nth year as a PhD student, where N is a number between 5 and 10 and is also the typical time it takes for students to finish.  I am on track now to finish in N+1 years, which is not uncommon.  Half the students who started at the same time as me are staying for that (N+1)th year.  Another year would mean N+2.  Not unprecedented, but rare.  I’m not sure my ego can take that.

There are also many personal matters at play.  My closest friends are already starting to graduate and depart.  My husband is not terribly enthused about staying in this town for additional years, although he supports my choices either way.   The house we rent may not be available to us for that long, and I very much don’t want to move and then move again shortly after.

Finally, there’s the question of a second kid.  I can’t let the idea go—and I know that the best time for us would be shortly after finishing my PhD.  We’d like Little Boy and his hypothetical sibling to be no more than about 3 years apart, though; another year after next would be too long.  It’s not impossible that I could take a few-month hiatus from research to give birth and then come back for another year, but that would mean paying for two small children in daycare, and that’s not really affordable on my grad student salary.

I know which way the decision is going on this—no—but not without a little bit of heartache.

In case anyone’s wondering…

…I’m still here.  Just sick.  Again.  I’m not sure if this one came from daycare or from the grad student in the office next to mine, but it sucks.  A nasty cold, or maybe a mild flu.  Hard to tell.  I had lots of congestion at first, but now I’m just achy and chilly and utterly exhausted.  Little Boy, thank goodness, either already got over this or hasn’t had it yet; ditto for my husband.

OK, that’s enough self-pity for today.  Time for a cup of hot tea and another episode of Call the Midwife.  Hope you all are feeling better than I am.

Things I’ve been doing instead of blogging

• Sorting family photos and making gift calendars out of the best pictures of Little Boy.  His grandparents love these, and I love that they make my “what to get people for Christmas” decision-making that much shorter.

• Doing the rest of my Christmas shopping.  I have actually managed to complete this task with two whole weeks left ’til Christmas.  It helped that my family came to visit for Thanksgiving and we did most of the gift exchange on that side then.

• Thinking about getting back into knitting.  Not actually doing it, just thinking about it.

• Crossword puzzles.

• Preparing food for Little Boy’s lunches.  I made peas and beans and pumpkin and pears this weekend and thought we were all set for the week.  Mix and match with yogurt and applesauce and crackers and raisin bread and the nightly lunch-making would be easy-peasy.  But no—Little Boy decided that this was the week he was going to completely refuse to eat anything from a spoon, and so I had to scramble to find additional finger foods to pack for daycare.

• Reading Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.  I’m only halfway through the first chapter, but my reaction so far is SO MUCH YES.

• Watching TV because I actually want to, not because I can’t think of anything better to do.

• Mentally gearing up for my vaguely semi-annual thesis committee meeting, which was today.  It went… well, it was an almost-indescribable combination of “look at these super-cool results” and “I feel totally incapable of finishing this thesis.”  It was not terrible.