A Word About Birds

November 8, 2011 § 2 Comments

 It doesn’t take much to get me rhapsodizing about birds. In fact, on my last birthday one of George’s gifts to me was one hour over dinner where I could talk about birds uninterrupted. That I’ve held off blogging about birds until this point is an uncharacteristic show of restraint on my part.
Anna’s Hummingbird

At the beginning this avian love affair was all about me. I had a Type A need to locate, identify and categorize every bird I saw. I read books about birds. I went to all the birding hot spots I could find. I watched DVDs and nature shows to learn everything I could about my fine feathered friends. (I still do.)

 I also loved birding because it was something I could do any time, anywhere. I loved how I could spot a bird, pause, and experience a moment in time where I wasn’t running around like – to use a bird-inspired expression – a chicken with its head cut off. Birding continually brought me into the moment. I cherished those brief glimpses of nature throughout my hectic day. (I still do.)
Birding has served me well. But the relationship has changed. Over time my birding has made me aware of how connected I am to nature, and how it’s my turn to give back to the birds that bring me so much joy.
This weekend I read a wonderful Grist.org interview with author Jonathan Franzen (Freedom, The Corrections, et. al.). Franzen is heavily involved with bird conservation, and through this work he has discovered that a love of birds requires a deeper environmental commitment. As the interviewer paraphrased, once you love something “whether it’s a warbler or a woman”  it is on you to protect the world in which it thrives.
Franzen replies, “The thing about birds is, they’re everywhere, so if you care about them as a group, that pretty much ties into the oceans, the atmosphere, climate change, energy, all of that stuff.”
I don’t think I had made this connection before, although I do know that my commitment to environmental protection has increased tenfold in the years I have been tromping through the woods and waters in search of birds for my life list. His comment rings true for me. Once I connected the dots —  that the birds I love swim in the waters where we dump our trash and sewage, fly through the air that my car pollutes and build their nests in the trees that were cut down to build the housing tract where I live — I had the heartbreaking epiphany that I am not only responsible for minimizing impact on the environment, but I am also responsible for actively working to conserve the environment. For the birds.

My favorite bird, the American White Pelican.

It’s not enough for me to pull the car or bike over and stare in wonder as a flock of American white pelicans soars overhead. It’s not enough for me to nod at the Anna’s hummingbird that buzzes my ear. It’s not enough to set millet out for the enormously fat California towhees that make a mess of my patio every morning. I must do something real for them. I can’t wait for someone else to keep the world safe for our most delicate inhabitants. If it is true love – and it is – it is my duty to protect them.
So that’s why I pick up trash on the trails. It’s why I bike or walk when I can. It’s why I refuse, reuse and recycle. It’s why I use environmentally safe cleaning products in my home. It’s why I purchase organic, local produce. It’s why I patronize businesses that share my environmental values. It’s why I give money to the local and national organizations that are working to save the wetlands, scrub up birds who have been slathered in oil, and rescue baby birds who have been orphaned and raptors that have been hit by trucks.

The unassuming, adorable, greagarious California Tohwee. Definitely in my Top Ten.

As I feather my own nest every day, I let my thoughts fly to the birds. They truly are my inspiration for this little life of less. And it is with a grateful heart that I thank them for encouraging me to find even more ways to serve them.
What inspires you?

A Few Simple Pleasures

August 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

Americans are at a distinct disadvantage when trying to break our addiction to consumerism. Our belief that our usefulness to society extends only as far as our ability to purchase things is so deeply held that our own government refers to us as “consumers” not “citizens.” (Or worse, “employees.” But without being an employee, you’ll never be an acceptable consumer, so basically those are two connected thoughts.)

I’ve made a conscious effort to re-program my belief that owning certain things will make me happy. Even so, I still get a bit giddy when I think about getting those new barstools I’ve been ogling for over a year now. But I have made serious strides over the past few years to learn about the simple things in life that make me happy without spending money on stuff.

Here’s just a brief sampling of some of the things I’ve discovered:

  • The public library is the greatest place on the planet
  • Picnics at my local botanical garden, Quarryhill
  • Hiking the trails at our local state and regional parks
  • Birding
  • Yoga DVDs
  • Kettlebell workouts
  • Riding my bike with no particular destination
  • Walking anywhere
  • Cooking meals from scratch
  • Meal planning to ensure that none of the ingredients I buy are wasted
  • Re-reading my favorite books
  • De-cluttering my closets
  • Growing my own vegetables in our local community garden (my Anaheim Chiles are amazing!)
  • Free concerts on the town green
By focusing my attention on simpler things, I’ve found ways to fill my soul without emptying my wallet.  (I’ve watched my savings grow as well!) I’m happier, healthier and I don’t have closets full of junk I’ll never use or wear. I’ve become so much more than just a consumer, and my world has become a much happier place.
What simple things do you enjoy?


July 21, 2011 § 12 Comments

We’ve become a nation of outsourcers. Not only are we sending our jobs and manufacturing overseas (a company in my backyard just shuttered its doors and sent its manufacturing to China, laying off 40 people in the process), but in our own lives we are beholden to a cadre of “experts” to help us manage the smallest details.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, in no small part to the excellent e-book by Jacob Lund Fisker, “Early Retirement Extreme.” He proposes that we should become “Renaissance [Wo]men” rather than “Wage Slaves” in order to take back control of our lives so that we can ultimately be free.

What he means by “Renaissance [Wo]man” is a person who not only can generate income from a variety of useful sources, but also someone who can manage the little disturbances that come up in daily life without having to call in an expert. A Renaissance [Wo]man knows how to fix the plumbing, repair the bike, change the oil, mend a hole-y sweater…  Renaissance [Wo]men have a diverse array of talents.

A “Wage Slave,” according to Fisker, is someone who is completely dependent on job income for everything. They specialize in one area of expertise, their career, and leave the rest to others. The garden is weeded by a gardener. The roof is repaired by a contractor. The clothes aren’t even mended, rather replaced at the boutique down the street. You get the picture.

I’ve fallen somewhere in the middle. I’ve always had a job, and it has gotten even more specialized over the years. Right now I actually just do ONE thing for the company I work for, and absolutely nothing else. However, in my personal life I have, for many years, been slowly discovering the things I can rely on myself for – and the list increases every week. My job may be specialized, but my life skills are varied and ever-changing.

Things I currently insource:


I’m a vegetarian and a foodie. This is a tough combo. Even though I live in an area where people are pretty enlightened when it comes to food, many restaurants still have very limited vegetarian selections. I’ve realized that if I want to eat in the decadent manner to which I had become accustomed when I was a carnivore, I have to take matters into my own hands. I’ve read, studied, practiced and learned everything I can about vegetarian cooking, unique ingredients, unusual spices… I’ve made my own granola (it’s so good and so much cheaper than store bought), soups, sauces, salads, hummus… Some have been complete failures, but for the most part I eat like a queen because I was willing to learn how to do it myself. (I’m converting to vegan at this point and it is a LOT of work – I’ll post on that later…) Next, I’ll be making my own tahini. I also just signed up for our community garden – no more outsourced, garlic, potatoes, beets, herbs or onions for me. I’ll be growing my own.


I had a team (a team!) of housekeepers for years, but now I clean my own house. I keep it manageable by eliminating clutter wherever possible. I just made my own laundry detergent (click here for a really solid post on this at exconsumer, which was inspired by this one at thesimpledollar). I make my own cleaning products using baking soda and vinegar. I don’t buy plastic bags to store things. Instead, I re-use jars that had things in them that I have already used. I never purchase plastic utensils or paper napkins – I just take my silverware and wash it when we get home. I recently made my own toothpaste, giving me one more way to save money and eliminate unnecessary packaging. (George is SO not on board with this one…)


I gave up organized entertainment long ago, and I was recently reminded why. After paying $60 for two of us to get into an aquarium we were unable to even see anything because of the crowds. That’s just one example. I haven’t set foot in a mall in years because I don’t outsource my amusement to retail outlets. Aquariums, zoos, amusement parks, putt-putt places – all of these are out. For fun, we hike, bike, play Killer Bunnies, read, cook, identify birds, spend time with friends, nap and listen to music. We attend free concerts. One exception I’ll always make: Art museums. I love me some art.


I understand the need for joining a gym or hiring a trainer if you A) live in a region where you’re snowed in for several months and you like to have a warm place to work out or B) you have a particularly dicey weight, health or medical issue that requires some assistance by a pro. I’m lucky in that I live in a region where I can be outside pretty much every day and I can walk. Walking regularly combined with biking, hiking, kayaking and all those other things I naturally love to do, have helped me remain fit while I kept the money I would have spent on a gym in my wallet instead. I even do yoga workouts at home with a pretty decent library of DVDs (you can also check these out from the public library.) Basically, I’ve always insourced my exercise – and you can, too!


I reject the notion that I NEED a car.  Cars are dangerous, expensive and dirty. Car culture is making us fat and unhealthy, and it is destroying the environment. The only reason I still have a car at all is so that I can get to the coast for hiking and to get to the corporate office when I need to. I’d be more than happy to rent a car every time I need to go a long distance, but I’m not on my own so I must compromise. But we CAN reduce our use even more. At this point, the kids can either walk or bike to school, and there’s no single destination in my hometown that can’t be reached by foot or bike. I avoid the car whenever possible, thereby insourcing my ability to move around.


I never hire painters. George and I do most of our home repairs and updates including tiling, appliance hookups and small plumbing jobs (George installed our cork floors himself, saving us thousands of dollars.)

Things that I could – and maybe should — insource, but haven’t yet:


I need my feet to look sweet in the summer because I’m always in flip-flops. But why can’t I do it myself? I bet I can.


Although George already cuts the kids’ hair, I can’t seem to talk him into learning to cut mine. This will probably never happen (and probably shouldn’t).

Auto repairs:

I don’t know anything about my car or how to fix it. Right now the shocks need to be fixed and the quote was nearly $500. I don’t even know where to begin to learn how to fix a car.

Bike Repairs:

Ditto above. Fortunately we haven’t needed to do too much, but there’s a bike shop a block away so it’s hard not to just pop in.


I don’t know how to make my own clothes. But I do know how to mend things, so that’s a start at least.

Products we use:

I don’t churn my own butter or make my own mustard. I don’t know how to make hairspray or dryer sheets. I don’t know how to make miso or vinegar or press my own olives for oil. Are these things I can learn, or should I learn to live without?

By learning to insource, you not only take back control from marketers who have made you believe that you need their products in order to be happy, but you also save gobs of money.

One small example: We used to buy delicious hummus every week from “The Hummus Guy” at our farmer’s market. It cost $7 and came in a plastic tub. I now make my own with bulk beans and herbs and it costs us about 75 cents for the same amount. It takes more time, but it’s fresher and cheaper. And what better way could I be spending my time, really?

What products/services could you insource?

The Vancouver Protocol

July 12, 2011 § 3 Comments


If my experience last week in Vancouver is any indication, it’s safe to say that my days of carefree traveling are behind me.

I don’t mean to imply that the trip wasn’t fantastic – it absolutely was. George and I left the country without the kids for a week and we were like giddy teenagers on spring break. We visited museums, gardens, parks and shops. We ate like Roman emperors. We idly walked for hours to take in the breathtaking scenery with no particular place to go. Vancouver is a gorgeous place with some of the nicest people on Earth. Our visit there was a much-needed break from our everyday existence and we relished every moment.
But I also realized that I’m just not as flexible as I once was when it comes to being on the road. And this is ok because I have channeled my revelations into a plan to keep me a happy traveler in the future. Here’s what I learned:
George and I are both minimalist packers and always have been. That means that we don’t throw our backs out when running to catch a bus, but it also means that by the end of the week – and after hand washing items in the hotel sink – that we felt and looked pretty grimy. This was ok with me in my twenties, but now that I’m nearly forty, I like to look like I do actually belong at the hotel and not the hostel down the street.
It’s fatiguing to not have your own space to make food. I usually prefer to stay in condos or houses for this reason, but on this budget-friendly trip we utilized airline miles for free hotel stays. Finding decent morning coffee at a reasonable price was a daily struggle. I got really frustrated with standing in line for substandard, overpriced sandwiches. Sometimes you just want to whip up a PB&J and be on your way. This wasn’t really possible for us this time, and I felt the repercussions. I was always thinking about where our next meal was coming from and how much it was going to cost. (We don’t eat any fast food for health and moral reasons, so swinging by McDonald’s wasn’t going to work, even though you could find one readily.)
I like my bed. The hotels we stayed in had very plush mattresses, but even so… There’s something about coming home to your own little bed that just makes life so sweet.
I hate rental cars. I hate driving, period. I hate car culture. But I really hate rental cars. They are expensive, you have to park them, and the one we had was really just a glorified golf cart.  We only used it to get in and out of the country and the rest of the time it just sat there. Ugh. Bad planning!
No matter how you budget, plan and scheme, there are always hidden costs to traveling. George needed to work every day while we were away. That’ll be $14.95 a day for internet access. (Honestly, what hotel doesn’t have free internet? That’d be ours.) Parking the rental car at the hotel? $36 a day, please. Want simple oatmeal for breakfast? It’s a bargain at $10.50.
George and I discussed these minor grievances – they were minor given the wonderful time we actually had – and came up with what we call:
 The Vancouver Protocol: A Ratified Approach to Successful Travel
1.     The perfect vacation is four days or less. We tried to really stretch this one because we weren’t sure when we were going to get the chance to go again, so we made it eight days. By the end we were really ready to come home. We want our future vacays to leave us wanting more, not leave us exhausted.
2.     When possible, stay in a home or apartment, or a hotel with kitchen amenities and keep snacks on hand. Or, book a B&B that offers food in the morning so that the first hour of the day isn’t fraught with trying to locate reasonably-priced sustenance.
3.     Pack minimally, but reasonably. You always need more toothpaste than you think you do. You don’t want to spend your time trying to find a drugstore for something you could have easily packed. Plus, it’s ok to pack 10 pairs of undies. You don’t want to spend every evening rinsing out your skivvies and hoping they are dry by morning. Both of these things happened to me.
4.     Do not rent a car. This means only going to places that are walk-able or bike-able. Or finding a beautiful beach spot and not leaving for any reason. This is going to be key for my future travel happiness. I just can’t stand being in a car for more than about 20 minutes.
5.     Check out your credit card rules before leaving the country. My, were we surprised when our credit card charged us a transaction fee for every single purchase in Canada. There goes an extra $100  added to our total trip cost.
6.     Clean the house thoroughly before leaving. One of the happiest moments of the trip was coming home to an impeccably tidy space.
There are more on this list, but they probably run more specific to us than you care to know. Things about what airport we need to fly out of (there’s one right down the street, but it’s limited in where it goes…), where we’ll book the dog for his overnights, etc.
The other thing that this trip did for me was that it gave me a whole new appreciation for where I live and the life I’ve created here. My life is pretty orderly, sane and workable. I know where to find things. My space is organized. My work is satisfying. My family is healthy, funny, easygoing and weird. My community is beautiful and the people are kind. I loved Vancouver, and I hope to go back someday. But I belong here. And that’s just fine with me.

What We’re Reading: The Book of Idle Pleasures

June 8, 2011 § 2 Comments

I’ve long been a fan of the writings of Tom Hodgkinson and his crew at The Idler. His philosophy (and practical tips) about releasing yourself from the chokehold of modern life by embracing a low key existence struck a chord with me when I discovered his book “The Freedom Manifesto” over five years ago.

My recent weekend of totally transcendent boredom encouraged me to retrieve “The Book of Idle Pleasures,” (eds. Dan Kiernan and Tom Hodgkinson), from my shelf.  It’s filled with insightful reflections on the things we do for no particular reason other than enjoyment like Procrastinating, Leaning on Gates, Whistling, Looking at Maps, Doodling and so much more. Just flipping through its pages instantly relaxes me.

One of my favorite passages is the one on “Throwing a Caper”:

Just out of pure joy of being in the world, sometimes you want to leap into the air and click you feet together like the tumblers, troubadours and jongleurs of old. Throwing a caper is a pointless act and should be indulged for that reason.”

I also love the one entitled “Building a House of Cards”:

Wholly without use, the house of cards is fragile, difficult and supremely satisfying. It is like building your own little cathedral on the kitchen table. And a mere breath or the lightest brush of the sleeve can bring the whole lot crashing down, reminding us of the temporary nature of man’s earthly creations and the vanity of human wishes.”

If I wasn’t so busy idling, I would engage my Type A personality in a worldwide campaign to have “The Book of Idle Pleasures” placed alongside the Gideon Bible in every hotel room.

Check it out from your local library. You may discover a whole new world of relaxing ways to idle away your summer.

What’s your favorite idle pastime?

In Praise of Boredom

June 6, 2011 § 5 Comments


With my full time job(s), housekeeping, meal planning, cooking, shopping, child entertainment and time-consuming hobbies, I can honestly say I haven’t been bored in about 15 years.
I haven’t been bored, but I have been frazzled, frantic, anxious, overwhelmed and exhausted.
I believe that when we work ourselves up to such a degree, we begin to thrive on the adrenaline, much like drug addicts need to keep using in order to feel “normal.” My overwrought state of continual activity had become an addiction for me, and when I wasn’t in motion I felt listless, confused and worried.
What should I be doing? What project needs to be completed? What work task can I tackle, review or revise? What am I forgetting?
My situation had gotten so bad that for years I confused relaxation with sadness. I had to keep moving or I would believe I was actually sad.
(That’s sad…)
On the heels of a massive six-month-long de-clutter where I eliminated close to 60% of our household possessions, whipped our finances into shape and organized my work so that it was utterly efficient, came a June weekend where it poured down rain.
This is significant because I live in Northern California where it simply does not rain a drop starting in May and lasting through November. Every summer weekend is a celebration of sunshine and perfect temperatures. Everyone’s outside hiking, picnicking, kayaking or whatever other outdoor adventures you can imagine. And if you’re not going, going, going, you feel like you’re missing out. Or at least I do.
As the rain came down sideways (thereby eliminating the possibility that we’ll leave the house for any reason), I looked around at my clutter-free house. I considered the stack of work that’s mostly done. I marveled at my full refrigerator. I didn’t have anything to do. I drummed my fingers on the counter and tried to understand this strange feeling. I was – dare I say it – bored!
This was unprecedented! In Type-A fashion, I took action immediately. I grabbed a novel I’ve been wanting to read, and then I sat down on the couch and read it. For two solid days I sat on my sofa and read. Sure, I threw a load of laundry in, and whipped up a delicious pasta dish with George and watched The Simpsons with the kids. But for the most part I was just sort of bored.
And it was bliss.
When was the last time you let your boredom be your bliss?

Got a Case of the Mondays? Here’s a Little Minimalist Humor.

May 16, 2011 § 1 Comment

When de-cluttering, decompressing, deciding, designing and all the other details that come along with building a minimalist life, it’s easy to lose sight of how funny just all this stuff actually is.

When I get the I-don’t-shop-anymore blues, I love to pop over to Molly Erdman’s catalogliving.net to see what shenanigans Gary and Elaine are up to. Molly pulls photos from popular catalogs and captions them in a way that just makes catalog photo styling seem a lot less good. I mean, have you actually looked at some of this stuff? Thank goodness Molly Erdman does, because she is making me laugh on a daily basis.

Although it obstructed the view, the time had finally come for Gary and Elaine to install a fence to combat pillow erosion.

And if I really need a chuckle after a long, hard day of planning my next junk drawer cleanse , I watch this video created by the minimalist blogger Don Swanberg at getoffthiswheel.com. I think I might be a little late to the viral party on this one, but I don’t care — it’s hilarious.

And finally, here’s a little girl who has embraced recycling in a manner that’s all her own. Ok. I don’t know if we can really call it recycling, or minimalist for that matter (except her outfit is pretty minimal…), but this made me laugh so hard I nearly peed my pants.

What’s making you laugh these days?

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