Thursday, November 03, 2016

Never Let You See Me Cry

I just woke up from a dream with real tears spilling from my eyes. I can't remember the last time that happened.

I dreamed I was out of town with friends, and we'd split up - half to eat and half to shop. I was the last to finish eating and suddenly realized everyone was gone. I started texting everyone, and one by one they told me they'd gone home. I realized I was alone, out of town, with no way of getting home, and everyone had left me.

In the dream, I was panicked, lonely, and afraid. I couldn't find anyone to help me get home. Then after what felt like an hour, I ran into all of my friends. They were laughing. It was all a prank. No one had left, but they thought it would be funny to trick me. I started crying, and they continued to laugh. "Stop being so dramatic!" they told me.

The last words of my dream before I woke up were mine: "Do you guys actually think I would let you see how vulnerable I am, if I weren't seriously upset? Do you think I'd let you see how abandoned and lonely I felt? Do you think I'd actually let you see me cry?"

I woke up, and fat tears were dripping down my cheeks.

I'm reading a book, Emotional Intellligence 2.0. It starts with giving you a code for an online quiz to assess your emotional intelligence. I'd say I'm very emotionally intelligent, so I was actually really annoyed when it scored me much lower than I expected. I read the reasons, and it came down to this: I am a great listener, a great communicator, I'm empathetic and socially aware, BUT. I don't talk about myself enough. I don't open up about my own feelings or weaknesses with others.

At first I thought, "Well, of course not! Communicating is about listening to others and understanding them, not talking about myself." But the more I read, the more I understood what it was saying. Communication is a two-way street. How can others trust me (particularly professionally) if they don't know me? If I don't open up to them while they open up to me, that's not effectual communication. That's not emotional intelligence, to hide your vulnerabilities and weaknesses and fears from the world. That's being a counselor, not a friend.

The part that confounded me at first was the online analysis that I don't share myself. I have this blog, right? I wrote a book about the most vulnerable time in my life, right? But truth is, that's my personal life, and it's also through a medium of written word. In my face-to-face interactions, I don't talk about myself. When someone asks me how I'm doing, I say great and immediately turn it back to them. Today, I spoke on the phone with a friend/work connection who asked how my new job is going. Though surely she wanted details, my response was, "I love it! So how are you?"

I can share myself through ink and paper, keyboards and screens, but not in real life. And this is doubly so when it comes to my professional life.

What I think was most telling about my dream was that the group of friends I was with were my work friends from my most recent job. The last words, "Do you think I'd actually let you see me cry?", speak volumes. I remember once, early on in that job, I was getting extremely overwhelmed, and one of my coworkers (someone I consider a friend) saw me and stopped to talk. The tears welled up in my eyes, my throat got tight, and I couldn't speak without the fear of losing it. I hated, HATED, him see me nearly break down and cry. I was humiliated, and even now my face burns at the memory. It was him that I said this to my dream.

I don't like showing weakness. I don't like asking for help. I want to help others, but I don't want them to help me. I listen to people all day long; I seem to have some kind of magnet for people to share stuff with me. And I love being there for them, listening to them, being a safe place for them to let it all out. But I don't share myself back, not intimately, not in real life beyond the computer screen. I don't want people at work knowing when I struggle or when I'm uncertain. I want to look amazing and self-assured at all times. I feel this is entirely justifiable! Of course I want my colleagues and those who report to me to see me as strong and competent. But do I do myself and everyone else around me a disservice by not being honest about what makes me vulnerable - what makes me just like everyone else?

This is something I am working on. I can be professional at work and still share myself to whatever the appropriate level is. (This is something I still can't figure out; maybe the book will help.) I need to be able to say on some days work is hard. Today was hard. Today I handled a three-child home fire fatality story. It was emotionally a very difficult day. I found myself at times wondering what I'm supposed to do here. I found myself at times wondering if I could really do this job. I had to push my personal emotions aside to get a job done, which I felt guilty about in return. I need to be able to admit this. I know I'm not the only person in the world to doubt herself or feel emotionally conflicted.

I definitely need to work on this with my friends. If I'm asked about myself, I need to talk a little about myself. Most people who genuinely care about me genuinely want to hear how I'm doing. It doesn't make me arrogant or narcissistic. It just makes me real. Human. Emotionally intelligent.

But vulnerability hurts, and I've learned to be ashamed of it.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

The Next President of the United States

It's one week before Election Day. This is the second presidential election I've ever voted in.

As a thirtysomething that sounds pretty bad. No, I didn't sit out the last two elections out of apathy or protest; I was simply living abroad and couldn't figure out how to get an absentee ballot sent to me in time. While the presidential campaigns start here a year well in advance, over in the UK, I didn't start thinking about US elections until nominees were picked and the news started to get relevant.

For the record, I was pro-Obama the second time. The first time, well, it was 2008 and I was eight months pregnant with my second kid, and I didn't even know it was an election year. So I kind of missed the climax of electing the first black president of the United States. But I was on the ball in 2012, ready to cheer my man back into the White House.

But if you think me not knowing the US was about to elect its first black president is shameful, let me admit this.

The only other presidential election I ever voted in was 2000 after I turned 18. I voted for George W. Bush. So there's that.

So anyway, here we are another four years later, and we're about to decide as a nation who will be our next leader. Yet unlike the past sixteen years, where the stakes were relatively low (Gore, Kerry, McCain, Romney - none of them terrible choices), this year the stakes seem ... relatively high.

I was an avid Bernie Sanders supporter. I made no mistake about that. I had a Sanders sign in my lawn and a magnet on my car. I wore a Sanders t-shirt and had Sanders buttons hanging from my rear-view mirror and on my desk at work. I'm a huge fan of the man; I was a fan even before he announced his bid for president.

But I was never a Clinton hater. I didn't like her much, but I didn't hate her. I still viewed her as the second best option across both debate stages (followed by John Kasich, Rand Paul and Jeb Bush, though it pains me to admit it). When she won the primary, I was disappointed but realistic.  At this point, we knew Trump was taking the Republican nomination, and the more he talked, the more I was convinced he was the least fit person across both debate stages to become president. (He had a few serious contenders though, on both sides of the aisle.)

I decided it was time to learn more about Hillary beyond what the media and Facebook had to say. I started reading her autobiography Living History (which I haven't actually finished). I started looking into what she's actually done in her career. And perhaps most importantly I faced up to some unrealized internal biases; basically I had to admit to myself that I was more sexist than I wanted to believe. Many of my complaints against Hillary could have been placed on any number of other politicians, but they weren't, because they were male. Males aren't "shrill", they don't have to be warm and approachable, they don't have to prove they can successfully juggle a family and a career, they can talk over each other and fight to be heard without being seen as rude or bitchy. In fact, many of the things I genuinely think are valid criticisms of Clinton turned out to be focused more on her than the actual criticisms. In other words, I view most politicians as people who lie, stretch the truth, cover things up, flip-flop, make bad decisions and then try to justify them. I'd say that about just about all of them (with the exception of Bernie). But when it came to Hillary, those things seemed bigger and more important than they seemed in relation to every other (male) politician I could think of. Internalized bias and sexism? Maybe so. Did I feel as against Bill as I did against Hillary? Actually, no. I love Bill. So why the disdain for his wife? That is far harder to admit than casting my first ballot for George W.

Now again, there are valid criticisms against Hillary. I'm not saying everything comes down to sexism, because it doesn't. Not everything. But I wonder why Hillary's emails are never far from the headlines while George W's and Colin Powell's continue to be virtually ignored? What causes such vitriol against Hillary and the things she's done, or been accused of, that doesn't reach beyond her to all the other people who have done or do the same things? Maybe the fact she's running for President, and they are not. Or maybe it's because she's been held to a higher standard her entire life, and certainly in this election, and the impossible standards she's held to only grow.

Compare that to Trump, however. Oddly enough, the standards from Trump just keep getting lower and lower. In the primary debates, Trump had a good night if all he did was make fun of another candidate's sweaty brow (and not an entire ethnic group).  Trump "debated well" if he managed to not mention the size of his penis more than once. As time went on, the standards Trump had to meet to have had a good day plummeted. If he went 24 hours without insulting a Gold Star family or suggesting a ban on an entire religious group or making a misogynist remark about a woman's looks or menstruation, he was doing well. We finally reached a stage where even a voice recording of him disparaging women and admitting sexual assault wasn't the last straw. Nothing sticks on Trump. Not like everything sticks on Clinton.

When you look at all the standards we hold across the two main parties, there is no equality. For one, we ask for perfection in high heels and a homemade pie made of rainbows, and for the other, we ask for 24 hours of no verbal diarrhea. When they both fail, we are less disappointed with the diarrhea. Because, well, we weren't really expecting much.

I'll admit one other thing: the media IS biased towards Clinton. I'm not blind. A post-debate panel on CNN will consist of two Trump supporters and eight "others". However, I kind of feel that when the stakes are this high and the candidates are this unbalanced, it's hard to be neutral. How can one be neutral over sexual assault, ethnic slurs and encouraged foreign espionage?

Now we're seven days away from Election Day. Without sounding dystopian, I'm nervous. Really nervous actually. I would have loved to see a President Sanders, but I'm actually pretty stoked over the idea of a President Clinton now. I'm excited for my son and daughters to witness the first woman elected as President of the United States. I don't think she'll do amazing things (though maybe I'm wrong), but I think she'll do good things. Still I'm nervous, really nervous, over the possibility that Trump might actually pull this off. I hate to negate everything by invoking Godwin's Law, but seriously - the parallels of fascism are frightening. A strong leader, who says out loud what the people are thinking but are afraid to say, comes along and promises greatness, promises to get rid of the problems (aka, people who look problematic), makes grandiose claims and bullies anyone who gets in his way. Strength right?

I don't usually talk about politics, but with the election so close, it's on the forefront of my mind. This will be my second presidential election, and it's a damn important one. I'll be casting my vote this week, for President, for Congress, for state legislature, for local officials and for state ballot initiatives. Then I'll sit back, biting my nails, as I watch history write itself before my own eyes.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

October Dress Project - A Leap Year

October is my favorite month. I love Autumn and pumpkins and Halloween and crisp air and fallen leaves and sweaters and the October Dress Project.

Only this year, I won't have that last part.

I have participated in the October Dress Project for the last four Octobers, and I had every intention of participating again this year. Then something big changed - I got offered a new job. I start my new job next week, Oct. 10.

And I am so super excited about my new job! And I'll talk about that in a minute! But for now, a little mourning over missing my favorite annual challenge. I really considered doing ODP again this year, but I just can't help feeling like wearing the same dress every day for my first three weeks at a new job would somehow leave a bad first impression...

I did look at dresses. I did try to find something that I could easily disguise from day to day. I considered toggling between two dresses even. And with two days to go, I even made a snap judgment and ordered a dress from Amazon, which arrived on Sept 29th. However, it was too small, and I had to return it. With no time left and a real concern about coming across as super weird at my new job, I decided to skip this year's ODP. A leap year, if you will.

I am sad.

But! I am happy! Because I am starting a new job, a new awesome job! I am going to be the Director of Communications for a very awesome humanitarian organization! (And even though finding out which organization that is ought to be extremely easy with a simple Google search, I do *try* to keep a few things in my life anonymous, at least here on my blog.) I am ridiculously excited about this new opportunity, and even though I'm sad to miss ODP this year and I'll be sad to leave "BANPO" ("Big Anonymous Non Profit Organization" which again could easily be searched for), I really cannot wait to open this new chapter in my life. Working for VAHO ("Very Awesome Humanitarian Organization") is an incredible opportunity, one that will lead to all kinds of personal and professional development for me. I get to help others AND do what I love, all at once. Can anyone ask for better?

So, there will be no dress pictures this October from me. Sad. Maybe, even though I'm now two days behind, I'll replace it with some other Fall-ish challenge. Ideas?

P.S. Half marathon update: I ran/walked (mostly walked) 4.5 miles today. Outdoor training is way harder than treadmill training. I might be the only human alive who prefers the treadmill. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Half Out of My Mind

A couple of weeks ago I did something kind of stupid. It was one of those things where someone talks you into doing something you know deep down is a stupid thing to do, but the person makes it sound so fun that you buy into the enthusiasm of the moment and just go for it. No thought, no consequences, JUST DO IT like Nike.

A younger me got caught up in these situations often, like throwing fireworks into the church campgrounds in Kilmacolm or mooning the security cameras in Yocum Hall or rolling the Anschutz' house even though Mr Anschutz was rumored to be the dad who would run you off his lawn pointing his rifle at you. It all seemed like a really good idea at the time.

This time, however, it wasn't my rambunctious friends convincing me to make wild, spontaneous, devil-may-care decisions. No, this time it was my dad.

I blame it all on him. As a kid, I desperately wanted his approval. As a teenager - well, we'll skip those years. As a college student, I wanted him to be proud of me. As an adult, I still can't shake the childish need to impress him. Maybe that's why I let him peer pressure me into this.

In his defense, I did start the conversation. It's been on my bucket list to run a race before I turn 35. My dad's a runner and a cyclist and has been nudging me to do a race with him for a couple of years. I brought the subject up, suggesting I might register for a 10k at some point.  But when he converted that to a number I could understand, and I realized that was only 6.2 miles, that just wasn't really any kind of a challenge. It would be too easy. I figured I could just about manage that now with zero training. So I let him talk up how great the Little Rock Half Marathon is, how great the trail is, how it's a perfect time of year to run. His enthusiasm began to rub off on me, and I began to think, "I can do this!"

And that's how he convinced me to sign up for a half marathon.

Half. Marathon. 13.1 miles.

What was I thinking?! I signed up to run a half marathon. I am not a runner! I do not enjoy running. I do not like to run. Why would I agree to run a half marathon?!

But I did. I signed up to run the race with my dad. I paid the registration fee. I ordered one of those water bottle packs that go around your waist and an armband thingie for my phone. I'm ready to go! Let's do this! I thought.

Until the next morning, when it dawned on me. I just paid money to put myself through utter, intense misery. 

I decided to ignore the nagging feeling that I'd gotten conned into doing something very stupid. I managed to ignore what I'd done until my dad texted me earlier this week to ask how my training was going. My response: ellipses. Training? Ha! The very thought of going for a run made me want to eat a donut and take a long nap on the couch with episodes of Gilmore Girls running in the background.

But the shaming worked. (Well played, Dad.) Dad's text, along with a little additional motivational shaming from my husband, pushed me to take the next step towards checking this item off my bucket list: begin training.

I decided tonight's the night. Wednesdays and Thursdays and one day on the weekend will be my training days. Tonight, after a 9 hour day at work, I came home, made a shepherd's pie from scratch (and by "shepherd", I just mean "cowherd" because beef is cheaper than lamb), helped the kids get into bed, and then I took off to the gym with my water bottle and Hamilton the Musical on my phone. My goal was to do four miles - whether I ran or walked, it didn't matter. Four miles.

I admit I did try to change my goal last minute ("How about four miles OR an hour, whichever comes first?"), but Scott gave me that shaming look again. Okay, fine. Four miles.

I got to the gym and started the treadmill. I almost chose one of the "performance" settings but rationalized that this being my first return to the gym after about two months, I'd better take it easy. I set a decent, cool pace and a flat trail and started jogging along to the genius rhymes of Lin-Manuel's account of our country's first Treasury Secretary.

I did my first mile in 15 minutes and five seconds. My second mile was complete before the 15 minute mark. Hey, I can do this! Two miles in under 30 minutes!

My third mile came in just over 15 minutes. But I was exhausted. My legs were burning. My lungs were aching. My stomach was threatening to hand me back my cowherd's pie. I slowed down but kept going. Four miles! I can do this! Almost there!

The last mile was painful, but I pushed through. If I'm honest, my secret goal was really to finish four miles in one hour. But as the hour ticked down to five minutes remaining, I knew I was unlikely to meet that goal. I picked up my pace, hoping to outrun the clock, but it was too much. I pulled my fourth mile in at 2 minutes and 10 seconds over an hour. I have never been so grateful for the cool down function on the treadmill in my life.

However, as I leaned over the handlebars gasping for breath and trying not to pass out in front of the hot, muscly guy running next to me, I realized that I just run almost a quarter of a half marathon. On my first night of training for a race that is still five months away. I can do this. I can do this!

#GymSelfie! Start of run - End of run ...

So at the end of the day, I still think I'd have preferred Dad talking me into going cow-tipping over running a half marathon, but maybe, just maybe, this will be okay too.

You better be proud of me when I cross that finish line, old man!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Bathos, Stolen Corpses and Rock n' Roll

One of the coolest, most interesting classes I took in college, the kind of class that colleges should offer more of, the kind of class that is quintessentially “college”, was Country and Folk Music Traditions. It was in the English curriculum, since we studied the lyrics as much as the history and the music itself, and was taught by a really hipster older guy professor, Dr Bob Cochran.  

Dr Cochran introduced us to all kinds of music I'd never have listened to myself, from the Carter Family to Merle Haggard to Gram Parsons. It is Gram Parsons though who's music and story has stuck with me all these years. 

He introduced us to Parsons by playing "Love Hurts" for us in class. His intent was to differentiate for us the difference between pathos and bathos.  (Pathos is the quality of evoking sympathy and sadness in someone. Bathos is when the attempt at pathos goes overboard into ludicrousy or gross sentimentalism.)  The class silently took in this song, a duet between Parsons and Emmylou Harris, whose voices blend together more beautifully than any two voices I've ever heard. When the song was over, the class sat silently, reverently. Dr Cochran laughed.

"I see you guys were taken in by that song. I was trying to show you bathos, but you all bought right in to the sentiment."

He may have forgotten that while he had all the wisdom of his 50 plus years, we were all still children living and breathing the raw truth that love hurts. 

The story of Gram Parsons is just as enticing as his music. Or maybe just the story of his death. His life was that of a typical 1960s rock star - nudie suits, tours, drugs. But his death - what a story!

He was found dead in his hotel room during a tour; the official report was drug overdose. Not uncommon. But his step-father, who had very little to do with him, requested that his body be returned to Louisiana, allegedly due to a family estate issue, and arranged a small funeral for him, excluding all of Gram's actual friends in the music industry. Gram had recently expressed wishes to be cremated when he died and have his ashes spread in Joshua Tree National Park, his favorite place on earth. So what did his loyal friends do?

They stole his dead body from the airport, of course, borrowed a hearse and drove Gram's coffin to Joshua Tree.  Unsure of how to actually cremate a body, they just poured gallons of gasoline on the coffin and lit a match, while drinking beer and sharing stories of their deceased friend. It didn't result in the small, funereal fire they expected, however, and the raging fireball resulted in a police chase. Gram's friends couldn't be arrested though, because there was no law on the books against stealing a dead body. They were fined for stealing a coffin, and that's about as much the law could muster against them. Gram's wishes were - sort of - granted.

That's friendship. That's rock n' roll. That's - bathos?

Yesterday in a coffee shop, I heard "Brass Buttons" playing in the background, another Parsons' tune that tows the line between pathos and bathos. It reminded me it's been too long since I listened to Grievous Angel, my favorite Gram Parsons album. That would be due to my CD snapping a few years ago in our move from Scotland to Arkansas. But Amazon Prime Music came to the rescue, and I was able to download Grievous Angel and listen to it three times in a row back to back. Honestly, could Emmlylou and Gram's voices weave any better?

(Apparently, Emmylou hated touring with Gram. Apparently, he was a bit of an asshole.)

Anyway, thank you, Starbucks, for reminding me of the fantastic rock fairy tale that is Gram Parsons, of the most interesting college class I've ever taken, and that love doesn't really hurt so bad in the end, once you find the good kind.

Monday, September 05, 2016

A Little Less Wise

Kitty cat healing therapy
September has sure gotten off to an interesting start. 

A couple of weeks ago, one of my wisdom teeth, which has been impacted for a while but not causing me any pain, starting hurting. Within days, the pain grew exponentially, and I knew it was time to get it taken out.

I arranged a consultation with the oral surgeon for Wednesday, August 31st.  They had me booked in for the extraction of all three wisdom teeth (I only have three), all of which needed to come out, for Friday, September 2nd. Thus began my Labor Day weekend.

Despite being extremely nervous about the procedure, all went well. I was put under general anesthetic and sent home after I awoke. I spent all day Friday dozing in and out on the armchair downstairs, watching Gilmore Girls on Netflix, with an ice pack wrapped around my head and bottles of tablets for pain and nausea. It was fun.  Thankfully, my dear friend Eugenie took all three of our kids from Friday after school until Sunday morning, which was the biggest favor I could have ever asked for! I was way too out of it to even really notice if the kids were there or not. I was in a Percocet stupor for two whole days.

Face packs are so hot right now.
However, by Saturday night, even though I was still away with the fairies and still in a fair bit of pain, I got picked up by a friend to go to book club. I simply did not want to miss book club. I slept on the couch most of the night surrounded by friends, and again, even though I felt pretty crappy, I couldn't have felt crappier in a better place than surrounded by people I love!

The kids came home Sunday, and I spent most of the day in bed.  I watched more Gilmore Girls last night and went to bed around 11 pm, hoping my pain meds from 8 would last me through the night.

Instead I woke up at 2:30 (appropriate) to more pain and had to redose. I've been in and out of consciousness and pain all day today (Monday). I'm concerned about my lower right side extraction might have developed a dry socket. I plan on calling the dentist in the morning if the pain there still hasn't subsided, which it seems to have little chance of doing at this point. Owwww.

What a fun way to spend Labor Day weekend, huh?!

Besides that, it kind of messed with my September Shopping Challenge. On the first day of September, I had to go back out to the grocery store to stock up on soft foods to get me through the first few days. (I've been living on mashed potatoes, ice cream and Campbell's soup all weekend.) Not to mention the walloping copay I had to pay to get the procedure done in the first place. It's probably a good thing I'm doing the shopping challenge after having to dish out that huge chunk of change unexpectedly!

A healthy diet of soft foods
So here I am, three teeth lighter and a little less wise.  And still in somewhat of a pain med fairyland. I just put a banana loaf in the oven, and I can't guarantee all the ingredients were applied in the correct proportions.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

September Shopping Challenge: Essential Prep

So for those of you who are joining me in the September Shopping Challenge for the first time, here are a few tips for getting started.

The key to success in this challenge is prep prep prep. It's essential that you plan ahead, budget and keep track of your spending.

When it comes to meals, menu planning is a must. We have in our kitchen four planning boards - meals, kids' schedules, parents' schedules ... and a fourth that has yet to find a real use but was needed to make the space look right. Chore schedules would probably make sense, if I'd just get around to it. This month, though, I've made the fourth board a shopping challenge record board.

A photo posted by Lori McFarlane (@lorimcfarlane) on

Usually I only plan meals for the two weeks of the pay period, but this month I went ahead and planned for all month. I included eat-out days, so they could be budgeted as well.  Using my scheduling board, I made sure that the meals I planned corresponded with our schedules. For instance, Lolly has soccer practice two days a week; those days, the dinners I've planned are quick and simple, so she can eat and be back out the door in time for practice.  I have book club on the 3rd, so I planned out an extra dish to bring along to that. Don't forget to plan for Labor Day weekend too - will you be going out? Barbecuing? Menu planning around your schedules is important.

A photo posted by Lori McFarlane (@lorimcfarlane) on

Then you need to plan your grocery list around your menu. I made my shopping list in the kitchen, going through each day and writing down what was on the menu and what ingredients I'd need for each thing. I also made sure I checked the fridge and the pantry in case I already had some of the ingredients or in case I thought I had some but didn't.  I also checked my household lists for "other" items I needed to buy.

A photo posted by Lori McFarlane (@lorimcfarlane) on

Finally, it's useful, if you have the time, to make sure everything on your list will fit into your grocery budget. For our family of five, our budget is $300 a fortnight for groceries. I know from experience that my grocery list is almost always going to fit into that budget, so I no longer write down the numbers, but I still write down the actual costs as I'm shopping so I can tally up before check-out, and if I've overspent, I can put some things back.  For those of you new to budgeting though, I recommend playing your own version of the supermarket game, if you have the time. I did all of this on Saturday while the kids played on their iPads and computers, so I could have enough time to really plan all this out. However, I know we don't all have tons of spare time to be super meticulous. If you have the time, though, the supermarket game is a great way to keep yourself from overspending or buying extra items while at the store.  Follow the link to read in detail, but a quick summary of the game is this:

1. Next to each item on the list, write down what you suspect each item will cost. (I round up to the nearest $0.50 or $1.)

2. Total it up so you know what you think you will end up spending. (If that total is over your budget limit, go back through and see what you can cut out.)

3. While at the store, write down how much the item actually cost. You can even grade yourself on how well you guessed by giving yourself a point for each item you either got exactly right and two points for each you spent less on. Take away a point for each item you spent more than your estimate. Take away another point for each item you buy that wasn't on your list. Give yourself no points but do not take away if that unplanned for item was a true necessity. (We all forget sometimes that we need butter or have run out of baking soda.)  Each item on your list started out as a single point, so at the end of the game, how close to your original list did you get, point-wise?

(I also write down each extra item I buy with its cost, so I can keep track of what I'm buying and where the extra expenses came from.)

4. When you check out, if you stayed under your budget, you win! If you went over, you didn't "lose" you just know how to estimate better next time. Tally up your points too and see how well you did. Did you estimate everything well? Did you underspend more often than you overspent?

A photo posted by Lori McFarlane (@lorimcfarlane) on

This is how I keep myself on budget with meals and groceries. This month, I'm also keeping a record of what I've spent in groceries and in my personal spending allowance. Seeing it in black and white (rather than in a bank account) somehow makes the money seem more real to me. I know using a checkbook transaction log is good, and I should really start doing that again, but I tend to use that only for  my checks. If you are already using a log, that is great! If you aren't logging anything at all, I'd suggest you find an easy way to do it. My log is just a sticky pad I keep in my car with a pen. As soon as I get in the car, I record what's on the receipt (or a rounded-up estimate if I've already managed to lose the receipt.) Whatever works for you. But I highly recommend logging your spending somewhere, somehow.

A photo posted by Lori McFarlane (@lorimcfarlane) on

Get planning, folks! September starts Thursday!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

September Shopping Challenge 2016

Hello, my name is Lori, and I'm a shopaholic.

I love shopping, any kind, anywhere. Grocery stores, big box stores, boutiques, bookstores, malls, Amazon. My sister-in-law even took me into a tractor store once, where I discovered how badly I wanted to buy a chicken coop. When I have had a stressful day, my therapy is retail therapy. It's a weakness, a flaw, a sin, but I am hopeless. Every pay period I vow to do better, then a new pair of shoes calls to me or Terry Gross reviews an author of a new book or Facebook tries to sell me a Bernie Sanders action figure. (I have almost bought that so many times.)

In 2013, I started the September Shopping Challenge to help me learn to curb my spending and control my budget. We had just moved back to America, Scott had just started his new job, and we were at the start of trying to rebuild our lives. We had no furniture, no car, no books or toys, just the suitcases-worth of belongings we'd brought over from Scotland. I started the challenge to help me manage spending in those early, stressful days.

I did the challenge again in 2014 as a refresher course in budgeting but skipped 2015. This year - 2016 - I am going to attempt the challenge again, because my shopaholic tendencies of late have been getting the better of me.

Each year, I come up with new SCC rules to help guide me through the month and to outline areas I need help with my habits.  They usually involve only going shopping once a week and making lists and sticking to pre-planned menus, schedules and budgets. Then I add any other rules or exceptions that I feel are needed to make the month successful.

You can read about the origination of the September Shopping Challenge, the first year executive summary, and the second year's game plan for a little more background. Here are some helpful lists. If after reading this, you think you'd like to join me in this challenge, leave a comment (with your blog if you plan to blog about it!) and we'll keep each other motivated.  How does that sound?! (Ridiculously fun, y'all, for real. We could start a Facebook group and everything.)

This year, I have outlined the following rules.

1. Grocery shopping. We get paid every other Thursday, so the weekend is usually the best time to get the shopping done; however, usually by Wednesday, our kids (and my husband) have managed to eat everything in the house, so waiting until Saturday is almost always impossible. So in September, I will allow myself two grocery days a fortnight: Thursday (or Friday) after work and then Saturday or Sunday.  The in-between week will have one grocery day allowed for picking up any necessities we're running low on - milk, cereal, bread. Not brownies. No, Lori, brownies do not count.

2. Budgeting. We have a pretty well organized budget as it is, but we always try to leave a cushion which ends up being treated as free play money, not the cushion it ought to be. This September, that cushion will be filled with fluff and will remain fluffy. (Cushions, fluff, you get the metaphor. Give me a break. It's 9:30 pm, and I'm tired.) Regarding the budget, I will also make one other adjustment which I hope will become a permanent one. Knowing that we have that cushion money, every paycheck before I've had time to sit down and pay the bills and allocate the funds to the appropriate accounts (we have several actual accounts, like we're a family business or something), I have a bad habit of doing a little pre-budget spending. That might be getting pizza for dinner that night, ordering a book from Amazon I've been dying to read or buying something new for the kids.  My goal for this month is to do that little bit of spending AFTER paying bills and allocating funds.  That way I have a better method of tracking which fund or account that money came from. Was it from my personal spending money? Grocery fund? It needs to come out of something other than the cushion fluff.

3. Spending money.  Now that Scott and I are both working, we pay ourselves an "allowance" that is totally our own business. Scott does with his spending money whatever he likes and I do the same. The only problem is, I put the grocery money in the same account as my spending money, which often means the two get hopelessly intertwined. Some weeks I end up using my fun money on groceries or kids' needs, and others I end up taking a little out of the grocery fund to cover something for myself. This month, I'm going to keep a transaction record to keep the two separate.

4. No spend days.  This is the hardest part for me. I like to spend money. I like to shop. If I need to get away from life, I like to go to the book store and wander the aisles for hours. (And it's humanly impossible to leave a book store without a book or four.)  Online shopping has made this even worse. Why, just today, I was at a Women In Networking luncheon where the speaker, Emily Reeves Dean, was talking about her book that she self-published, and me being a big supporter of local authors and self-publishers, ordered her book from Amazon. Just sitting there, sipping my iced tea, I spent $11.99. So through the month of September, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday will be firm No Spend Days.  Thursday or Friday and Saturday or Sunday will be grocery days, but only two of them, not three or four. The other two remaining days will be No Spend Days too.  If I want to spend my fun money, I will wait until one of the shopping days. The benefit of this is that I do not make tiny little purchases throughout the week that add up. If it's something I want badly, I'll still want it at the end of the week. If by the end of the week I don't want it anymore, then it wasn't worth buying to start with.

5. Exceptions. There will be one exception to all of this. Scott and I allow ourselves one evening a week to eat out unplanned.  This is usually on a day where work was exceptionally draining and neither of us want to cook. Lolly's soccer season starts back up in September too, so it might come on a night when we have soccer practice and did not get dinner beforehand. I will continue having this exception. It's needed for my well-being. It may fall on a No Spend Day, but that is okay, because this is the exception and comes out of one of our personal spending allowances. Either Scott will treat me or I'll treat him (and the kids, of course.)

So that's this year's September Shopping Challenge plan. Create your own plan or budget for the month and see what kind of savings you can make or good habits you can form! It'll be fun, I promise! (And by fun, I mean torture-but-worth-it-in-the-end.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Last First First Day of School

Last week, all three of my kids started school. Fifi went into fourth grade, Lolly into second, and little Baby Jaguar - not a baby anymore - started Pre-K.

All three kids went into the same school building at the same time for the first time. For two years they will all be in the same building for the only time in their lives. Fifi will head off to Middle School, and from then on they'll all be off doing different things for the rest of their childhoods.

I remember Fifi's first day of P1 (the equivalent of first grade). It was different than when she went into Nursery (two years equivalent to Pre-K and Kindergarten). She was starting all-day school in a uniform like a real pupil. I cried a little. It was a big deal.

I remember Lolly's first day of Kindergarten. She did NOT want to go to Kindergarten, but I managed to convince her to try at least one day of it. And of course she loved it. I didn't cry. I was happy to see her excited and willing to stay.

Last Monday, Jaguar started Pre-K. It is like Nursery but much more formal. He doesn't wear a uniform, but it's all day and we pack his lunch and he gets a folder that we have to sign each night. Because it's not Kindergarten I didn't think I'd be that emotional about it. But then he went into class the first day. There were tables and chairs and backpack hooks and a place to put his signed folder every morning, and I realized, this was it. This was Jaguar starting school. This was the beginning of the routine he'll follow for the next fourteen years. 

He was so grown up. He wasn't shy. He was impressed by the toys and the alphabet rug and the other kids. He hastily gave me a hug and a kiss, and then I was extraneous. I said a feeble goodbye to the teacher, and Scott put his arm around me, seeing the tears spring in my eyes.

It was my last very first first-day-of-school. From now on, this is our family's routine. Kids to school each morning until Fifi graduates high school. No extra daycare stops. For this year and next we'll drop them off at the same school each morning, but the following year, they will all split up again. Lolly and Jaguar will be in school together, until Lolly catches up with Fifi, just in time for Fifi to head off to Junior High. They will chase each other through the school system until college.

All three of my kids are in school now. Jaguar was only a baby yesterday. Come to think of it, they all were just babies.

"Nothing is as far away as one minute ago."

Time passes too fast.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Hate and Fear and Death and Anger

With all the hate and fear and death and anger in the world right now, I am finding it hard to breathe lightly. Deep in my gut I feel sickened and exhausted and helpless. The American political climate is volatile, at its eruption point. Fear is being shoveled down our throats, and animosity is poisoning our veins. People are being shot by police, and police are being shot in return. Racism is killing black people, and white people are fighting over who's fault that is. Transgender people are being harassed over bathrooms. Whole religions are taking the blame for the acts of a belligerent few. Personal freedoms of who to love or who to worship are being yanked from some to assuage others. From Baltimore to San Bernardino to Baton Rouge to Falcon Heights to Nice to Munich to Orlando to Dallas, people are being murdered on the regular, sometimes en masse and each time unprovoked.

I believe in optimism. I believe in goodness, and I believe in love. But the hurricane of hate and fear and death and anger twisting all around me is suffocating.  How can I possibly see an American future where racism is obliterated from the bottom to the top, and from the top to the bottom, when half the country still refuses to see it exists? How can I believe that love will conquer hate when hate has become so palatable and carefree that it is openly preached from podiums and pulpits? How can I teach my children to be the change they want to see in the world when the world doesn't want to be changed or even see a need for it?

I recognize that I am a middle-class, married-to-a-man white woman. I cannot pretend to understand the daily concerns and experiences of black people, Muslims, gay and transgender people, undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers or police officers. As an atheist and a woman, I can relate to certain levels of the discrimination but nothing comparable to those who are being threatened with banishment and deportation, who wake up wondering if they will be attacked in a bathroom today, who say "I love you" every time they leave the house in case it is the last time. I cannot relate to that enough to insist "I know what it's like". I don't.

I may not personally experience the hate and fear and anger and death meted upon so many of my fellow mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, but I see it. Not all of it, but I catch glimpses and glimmers. And they knock the breath out of me. Too often I am a silent observer. I am an observer who does not want to be silent but does not have the words or the platform to say anything or make a difference. I open my mouth to speak, but my own personal fear, my own survival instincts, catch the words in my throat and choke them out. My guilt and ignorance hold my frustration with the world's injustice against me, accusing me of being a part of the problem, and I am rendered silent again. Then I'm reminded that silence is a privilege, and I am hurled back into frustration.

I believe there is good in the world, and I believe in being the change I want to see in the world, but truth be told, both of these beliefs are ephemeral. They are American apple pies in the sky. They are nebulous puffy clouds that shade me from the glaring reality that I do not actually know if there really is good in the world, and I do not believe I can change anything.

This weekend I finished reading two books I've been working on for months. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay is a wonderful book, mixing humor and critical thought into multiple essays surrounding topics of oppression and inequality for women, for people of color, for people who are not thin, for anyone who does not fit the perfect standards American society holds us to. While I was able to laugh during some chapters, I had to pause and remember to breathe during others. I had to look square in the eye many truths about my perceptions as a white woman that I had not realized needed challenging. I was reminded that the inequality I face as a woman can be frustrating but not as frustrating as the challenges for women who heap inequality upon inequality. Inequality is not binary. The more disadvantages bestowed upon a person for his or her gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion, hometown, education level - the list goes on - the more discrimination a person is bound to suffer. Sexism isn't experienced by me the same way it is experienced by a black woman or a lesbian woman or a black lesbian woman. The book opened my eyes to the sexism experienced by all types of women, not just women who look like me. I too am a bad feminist.

I also finished Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I started this book back in February but only finished it today, because it was the hardest book I have ever read. Reading it was like loading concrete blocks onto my chest, one page after another. It is one thing to "know" that black parents have to teach their black sons and daughters how to behave extra good during certain encounters; it is an entirely different thing to read the intensely honest and intimate letter written by a father to his son about the struggle to preserve the black body from destruction. No other book I've read that openly or begrudgingly let me observe a black experience, not Disgruntled or God Help the Child or Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, though each of those affected me in profound ways, changed me the way this one did. The hate and anger and death and fear twisting all around us are real dangers to our brothers and sisters of color. Yet we continue to tell them they are either imagining things or they need to sort themselves out by themselves, as if we as a country and a history and a society never did a thing to cause this peril to their bodies.

I am crushed under the inevitability of all the hate and anger and death and fear in our world. It feels like change is not going to come. I do not know what to do about it or how to help. I cannot change the minds of those around me who refuse to see the problems. I am such a small, insignificant fish in a fathomless ocean.

I want to believe in optimism, goodness and love. I want to believe that I can be the change. I want to believe in the story of the starfish, that it matters to walk along the shore and throw starfish back into the ocean, one at a time. I need to believe that the small tangible things I do might matter in the long run - the donations to charities, the volunteer hours, the lessons taught to my children. So small though. Too small.

I also want to know more. I want to be educated in areas I know little or nothing about. I want to read books that tell me truths it hurts to hear.  I want to be challenged and humbled and pushed into action. I want to understand. I don't want to be silent, but I do want to listen. I want to implore others to listen. I want all of us to close our mouths, open our eyes and lean in close to hear what our Muslim neighbors, our gay and transgender neighbors, our black, Hispanic and Native American neighbors, our uniformed neighbors have to say about their experiences and believe them. No "but what about"s or "but I"s or "but you"s.

I want all this hate and death and anger and fear to stop. I know I cannot stop it. I know I cannot escape it. I cannot simply turn off the radio, shut down Facebook, walk away from conversations, and slip under my covers just to make myself more comfortable again. If my fellow mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters do not get the luxury of switching off the TV to find comfort, I will not exercise my ability to do so. I will never fully understand what it feels like to be the target of all this hate and fear and death and anger, but I will continue to face these every day with them. I will continue to immerse myself as much as I can into their worlds through books and relationships and news stories and causes. I will listen when I ought to listen and try to speak when I ought to speak. I will push myself to continue believing in goodness and love, for my children and for my world, however small my influence on it may be. I cannot, I must not let the hate and fear and death and anger win.