Wednesday, October 28, 2015

cars, cars and more cars

Culture shock. That’s what’s going on in this woman right now. I had heard it was going to be different, but then again, difference is what makes exploring interesting. 

We have just finished our move from downtown Richmond VA to Tysons Corner VA, this past weekend. Richmond is a beautiful city with a historic downtown area, sporting an ancient State Capitol complex that graces downtown with gardens, statuary and a fountain. There are cobblestone streets nearby with tiny, unique restaurants, welcoming coffee shops, friendly bookstores, the James Center YMCA and my beautiful, restless James River.  All this was two blocks from our apartment. My awesome job was a mere 5 blocks uptown. Walk score: 82

I really haven't spent much time behind the wheel of a car since we sold our suburban house in 2009, and I didn't drive much then either. The grocery store was 2 blocks, my job was a 30-minute walk and the kids were able to walk to elementary, middle and high schools. Church was a 20-minute walk and Grandma’s house was not much further. I’m not a big fan of cars. I like walking. I really, really like walking.

Now we live at the intersection of two big roads. One of them is legendary: Interstate 495, the Capital Beltway. I can see it from my 12th floor window, a constant stream of moving lights. It’s entrance and exit ramps are part of the foundational infrastructure of this place. All lesser roads mere specks in it’s eye. The other road is an old town connector, State Route 7, Leesburg Pike, constructed in 1933, from cowpaths. Today it is 6 lanes of stop and go traffic with feeder lanes running parallel to it to allow access to all the gas stations and quickie marts that line it through Tysons Corner. Walk score: 49

Did I mention the malls? There are two here in this quadrant of the Corner. One grander than the other, with all the dead-end loading docks and circular routes around parking garages that mark commerce as we know it today. The outer ring of roadway below my window, between my apartment and the mall, is 7 lanes wide.

There are sidewalks. Lots and lots of decorative pavement connecting areas together, but only where it looks good. There are huge gaps in the functionality of that pedestrian thread. I looked at the 45-minute trek to the regional library today on the satellite view online and couldn't quite figure out how to navigate the journey across highway ramps on foot. 

I am not going to let this daunt me. I will walk this place. If it means climbing down embankments and going the long way around to get to the safe sidewalks, I will know this land from the ground up. I will explore it’s parking lots and trails. I will go North, East, South and West as far as my legs will carry me. 

This bus goes to "Layover". 

Sunday, October 11, 2015


We've been traveling for the past week. Now I have a big stack of receipts sitting on the table, waiting for me to type them into my October spreadsheet. For the past 4 or 5 years I've been tallying every single expense on vast monthly spreadsheets. In general, I enjoy having the data and understanding where the money goes. I ponder each category and muse on the budget and examine the comparisons from year to year. 

It's not the first time I've done this careful expense tracking. I learned at my father's knee. We would spend evenings reviewing the logs he kept and the 25-year budgets he made that got my sister and I through college and a comfortable retirement for him and my mother. When I moved out and my husband and I were saving for our first house, I started logging like I had been taught and saved like crazy to amass that first $10,000 we ever had.  

I know there are tools that do all this logging now. I tried some. I think I stopped using them because it was almost too easy. Using a tool that monitored my credit cards took away all the manual data entry which had allowed me the time to ruminate about why that particular $20 was spent. I felt I needed the counting. It's just like watching the calories on a diet. 

I find, with this particular stack of receipts, that I am tired. I think it's time to take a break from the obsessive counting and tallying. Does writing down an expense after it's been spent really change my behavior? Does knowing how much we lived on last year really help me? After all, at then end of the month, do I have more than I started with or not? Isn't that all I need to know?

Months and years can be very different from months and years in the past. Is it really necessary to know how much we spent on books in October of 2012? Is it any prediction of what I might spend on books this month? We're moving this month. That will stretch many of the budget categories out of whack. 

Is it a budget or an expense log? What is its purpose? Does it keep me on a track, or does it just make me a compulsive penny pincher? Is it worth my time? 

I know most of the planned expenses that are in the next 6-12 months. There are some trips, I need some dental work, the holidays are coming. Isn't that enough?  

I may just toss this stack of receipts away. Some were hotel rooms, some were meals - we slept and we ate - it's over. It's time to take a break from counting it all. That doesn't mean spending will get all out of control. It just means I might relax a bit about examining it, rehashing it and saving all the details.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

sentimental stories about stuff

I have a small Mason jar full of sentimental stuff that doesn't mean anything to anyone else. I have a box of sentimental stuff in my sister’s attic. I used to have a 3-bedroom house full of stuff. 

Mementos, souvenirs, memorabilia, cherished objects: these are hard for many people to give up when they attempt to clear their lives of extraneous things. Minimalists teach us that clutter drains our energy and keeps us from living our lives fully. We are to pare down our collection of objects to those that are useful in our daily lives and that give us joy (or, at least peace). But the things that evoke our memories are the hardest to part with. Even KonMari says to leave mementos for last, once you have done all the easy categories, like your sock drawer.

So, how do we approach downsizing our collection of sentimental objects? I offer the concept of stories to guide decisions of what to keep and what to purge. Each object we have in our homes is there because of a story: an event or relationship in our lives. These may be stories about a special someone, stories about places we have traveled, stories about transitions in our lives, stories about our family history. The stories are the connection between us and our stuff. But are all stories important? How do we decide if the story is reason enough to keep the object?

Stories about family history are important to preserve. Material things help solidify those stories. My father has a framed copy of the front page of the newspaper his great-grandfather ran during the Civil War, in the Georgia town that bore his name. The American Union was a Northern-leaning newspaper and our ancestor was burned in effigy for publishing it. This object has a strong story and is worth keeping for our family.

Sometimes objects we keep tell personal stories, but the stories generally aren't interesting to anyone else. When we were cleaning out my mother's sewing room, I found a dolly and all the clothes that she had made for me when I was small. My first instinct was to stow it in my keepsake box at my sister’s. Then I realized that I just wanted to remember the story of my mother making it and us playing together. It's not like I was going to forget my mother if I didn’t keep this one handmade toy. Out it went.

Handmade objects can be particularly difficult to let go of, but it gets easier with practice. Acknowledge the time, effort and love that went into the making of the object, then reflect on whether or not you need to keep it. Have you been saving it because you use it and like it or because someone made it for you? It is the thing or the story?

I used to feel guilty getting rid of things that loved ones made for me, but I realize that for me, keeping things just because someone made them is sometimes a heavier burden than the guilt of letting them go. I hope my loved ones understand. It doesn't mean that I don’t return their love. In fact, I’m feel I’m able to love people more without the material things in the way.

Understand the stories that are connected to the objects you own. Are those stories still valuable to you? Do you need the object to remind you of the story, or will the story stand on it’s own in your mind? Would a photo of the object be enough?  Would a short written piece along with the photo suffice? Break the connection between story and object. Just keep the story. Or keep something really small.

The stories in my treasure jar.