29 October 2015

The Enemy of Good

After the 2015 Episcopal Church's General Convention I wrote about how "perfect" can be the enemy of "good" and how the desire to cover everything in one project, build, or legislative action can kill a good idea.

Over the past month, I have had a different experience with the same idea. I've been sick with bronchitis.  Not just feeling a bit rundown, but the stuck on the couch, moving a little as possible to keep from coughing, sleeping whenever I can, blues. 

October is usually my favorite month of the year. It marks the return of my favorite season, fall, and my all time favorite holiday: Halloween. October is my birth month and, while I have very ambivalent feelings about my birthday, I love dressing up for Halloween. My mother made me endless tin-foil crowns and even though sewing wasn't her thing, made me an awesome pink bunny costume when I was around 6 (I kept the hood-with-ears until my costuming loving nieces came along). Now I make my own costumes and go to our local science fiction convention just to have a place to wear them at and show them off.

When I was in my twenties, a friend brought a piñata he made to my impromptu birthday. It looked like an avocado and was still damp with green paint when he arrived. We ran a line from our second floor balcony to an evergreen tree and had a grand time taking whacks at it. That piñata was the start of a household tradition that we have kept nearly every year since. The household Halloween costume party & potluck has survived a move to Texas, several years in a rental house, and now 18 years in our current house. It became even more fun when our son arrived and by his second year was participating by designing his own costumes. 

Our parties* always have a theme and we design invitations, decorate the house, and make games that reflect that theme. All of which (in addition to the costumes) takes time. As the stay-at-home mom, I usually have the most time (though I am the least skilled of the three adults) so a lot of the underlying work is my responsibility. I always look forward to doing it-- the process of making things can be frustrating by it is also fun.

Being sick for the past month has put a serious crimp in my plans to Get Party Projects Done. My housemate got the the invitations designed and copied before she had to leave on a business trip-- but to do any good they would need to be mailed.

This is a long way to get to my point, but on Sunday, still hacking and coughing (but starting to feel better thanks to antibiotics), I worked my way slowly through the process of creating the address labels, folding & sealing the invitations, and affixing the stamps. Normally, I love finding the most efficient way of doing things. I will batch process and time test myself just for the fun of it. I like putting labels on straight and am not above sorting mail by zip code in advance of it going out (a left over-habit from doing church and non-profit mailings). This time, just sitting up and doing one invitation at a time was work.

This time it wasn't "perfect is the enemy of good" it was "doing anything was better than nothing". I realized that, with my health the way it was, there was no way I could do things the way I usually did. Even though I could see the prospect of being well on the horizon, I wasn't well yet. My choice this time was between done slowly and somewhat sloppily or not done at all. I not only let go of perfect (which honestly I've never been that into) but I let go of my expectation of being able to do the job a certain way within a certain time frame.

I'm not sure where this leaves me. Since getting the invitations in the mail, I've managed to hem my husband's costume and figure out what needs to be done on mine. I haven't started the piñata or on decorating the inside of the house and I'm still lying on the couch most of the day.

I think it all comes back to that first, imperfect piñata that my friend made on a whim for my birthday. It was slightly soggy from not having quite enough time to dry. It was a strange green color because that was what he had in the house when he realized a piñata could use a coat of paint to liven it up a bit. It squished when we hit it with the stick, but we still had a grand time getting at the candy inside. We enjoyed the process of the piñata and the idea of the piñata. It was delightful because of it's imperfections rather than in-spite of them. It was a symbol of thoughtfulness and caring, of creativity and spontaneity and, above all, of the impulse to make art that is at the heart of many of our friendships.

So this year, I'm giving myself permission to find a way forward that lets me have fun with the energy I have. I really am feeling a lot better, but I am going to hold on to the fact that I got the invitations out; that my friends have the amazing ability to create fun out of tissue paper, paint and imagination; and that the joy comes as much from the process as from the final product. 

There is little that is less permanent than a purpose-built piñata and it gives joy (and a little cussin') in both its creation and destruction.

Our basement T.A.R.D.I.S
* We learned the hard way not to skip our party if we can help it. Two years ago we canceled our Halloween party because our stove caught fire. We decided that meant it was time to finally remodel our 40 year old kitchen. So we built a storage cabinet in our laundry room so our it could be our temporary kitchen. We were constitutionally unable to just paint it white. Our son looked at it and said that the new cabinet looked like a T.A.R.D.I.S. Two weeks later we had a bright blue police call box, complete with flashing light (but so far no sound effects), in our laundry room. Apparently, trompe-l'œil manifests spontaneously at our house if we don't channel it into a party.

This essay was originally published at the Episcopal Cafe: Speaking to the Soul on 28 October 2015.

22 October 2015

Who Are Your Angels?

February before last we were in the midst of a major down-to-the-studs remodel of our kitchen when an two angels appeared to me.

It had been a busy few months. We had striped the kitchen to the studs and had various contractors in to do the framing, electrical and plumbing. We'd been using our laundry room as the kitchen and cooking on a hot plate since the beginning of January.

My husband left on a business trip while the plumbing was being finalized. My son came down with a mysterious pain in his abdomen the day the pluming was finally done and turned back on for good. We ended up going
An Angel at Work
into urgent care and finding out that it was something that would pass on its own, but it was still scary and exhausting.

The next afternoon the sewer backed up into the downstairs bathroom. Luckily we noticed it before it flooded the house and were able to turn off the water. Unluckily that meant we had no running water.

The plumber came out and did the usual things with snakes and chemicals. After several hours of work he determined he couldn't reach the clog from inside the house. We would need get the plans from the water department for where the sewer line ran in order to install a clean-out that would allow him to reach the clog.

At 1:00 am he finished cleaning up and left promising to return with plan.

The next day we got the plans and he started the process of jackhammering our back patio and digging a 4 foot deep pit so he could cut the sewer line and get to the clog.

My husband returned from his business trip tired and worn out. We had no running water and no prospect of it for at least the next 24 hours. A few hours after he got home he started to feel ill and was concerned he might be having the symptoms of a heart attack. I don't remember if we ended up calling 911 or just taking him to urgent care. I do remember freaking out on the inside while trying to hold it together.

It turned out that my husband had a combination of the flu and dehydration and needed rest and to drink a lot of water. He suggested that he should go stay in a hotel, but I didn't like the idea of him being alone with no one to check on him should he take a turn for the worse. 

It was then that my first angel appeared in the form of a good friend to who let my husband come and stay with her while he was recovering. This allowed him to drink (and pee!) as much as he wanted without it being a huge chore. She set him on her sofa with a giant pitcher of water and he was able to rest and recuperate.

I was able to focus my attention on the remodeling work and on making sure the plumber had everything he needed to fix our plumbing. He worked steadily for several days. He dug a pit, excavated the pipe, used a nifty camera to find the source of the clog, removed it and hooked everything back up better than it had been before.

He did all this cheerfully and with certainty that everything would come out right in the end. It was bitterly cold for our part of the world and he worked away without complaint. Best of all, he cleaned up after himself.

It wasn't until he packed up and headed out that I realized that he was my second angel. Even though he was a stranger to me, he had been a clam and reassuring presence in my time of need. He was a physical manifestation of 'fear not' and he brought me the joy of functioning pluming.

Above all my two angels gave me hope in a time when I felt overwhelmed and completely out of my depth. They brought me through crisis and into calm and out of fear into joy. 

My husband, son, and plumbing all recovered and our kitchen was finally done in June.

The memory of my ordinary angels has stayed with me. I suspect that neither of them know they were my angels, but they couldn't have been more heaven sent if they had had wings and a halo.


This essay was originally published at the Episcopal Cafe: Speaking to the Soul on 20 October 2015.

19 October 2015

Facing Mortality: Final Expenses

If you watch enough late night TV you see ads for insurance to cover your 'final expenses' of outstanding credit card bills and funeral expenses. I'm not sold on the idea of paying an insurance company to help cover such expenses. However those commercials help point out something that I wasn't really conscious of until my housemate's mother passed away:  that no matter how small an estate you leave behind there will be expenses in dealing with your bodily remains and announcing your passing to your friends and family.

At a bare minimum your body will need to be buried or cremated and an announcement of some sort should go out to friends and family (and creditors) to let them know that you've shuffled off this mortal coil. Much like a wedding, funeral prices start low if you opt for the basics (cremation, a short obituary, and a potluck at local hall may run less than $2000.00) and go up from there into the stratosphere if desired. A fancy funeral with casket, viewing, procession to the cemetery, your own plot and headstone can easily start at $10,000 and go up from there. 

The Federal Trade Commission has a handy Funeral Costs and Pricing Checklist that gives an overview of some of the rules funeral homes must follow when selling you goods and services.

My housemate's mother had prepaid for cremation and an urn and had those papers with her will. That is a good option if you are settled and don't plan on moving, or if you choose a plan that can move with you. It was one less thing my housemate had to worry about immediately after her mother died (when she was exhausted from several weeks of hospital vigil).

At the very least, take the time to think about what you would like to have when you die. You won't be there for it, but if you do the planning now, while you are alert and alive, your family and friends can be confident that the are doing what you would have wanted and it removes the stress of having to make to decisions when they are the most vulnerable.

So here's a basic after death planning checklist to get you thinking about what you want.

1. I want to be: 

donated to science / cremated / buried / other (please specify)

If donated, I want to go to:
local teaching hospital / anyone who will have me on short notice / specific medical issue (specify below & arrange in advance)

If donation doesn't work out, I want to be buried / cremated.

If cremated I want: 
to be interred in a columbarium / interred in a plot / kept on a shelf / scattered

If buried I want: 
basic casket / mid-line casket / the works casket and all the trimmings

If other, I want:

In general my religious beliefs require the following in the handling of my mortal remains: 

If my remains are interred, I want the following on my marker (i.e.: name, birth & death date, quote): 

2. I want my funeral to be: 

a community potluck / a religious service / at a funeral home / a poetry slam / a music jam / other specified below

3. I belong to the following organizations that would like to participate in my funeral: 

4. I belong to the following religious organization and would like to use its funeral / burial rites: 

5. I want the following music at my service / gathering: 

6. Please don't play the following at my service / gathering:

7. I want the following read at my service / gathering: 

8. Please don't read the following at my service / gathering:

9. I want my funeral expenses to be paid out of                                            (name account). I have budgeted $                    for this. If my plans exceed my savings you have my permission to adjust my funeral plans accordingly. 

10. I have / have not purchased a pre-paid funeral plan. My plan is with: 

11. I want my obituary published in the following papers / websites:

12. I would like the following organizations to be notified of my death: 

13. I want flowers / gifts in lieu of flowers. If gifts, then to the following organizations: 

14. One last thing:

As you fill out this checklist, have a web browser open and do some basic serching on the cost of the things you would like. Just get a rough idea so that you have and idea of a cost range. That will give you a budget to save towards (and let you decide if your would rather have a live band at your memorial service or a top of the line casket).

At a minimum think about saving $2000.00 for your final expenses. If you have an emergency fund, your funeral expenses can form the basis of that fund.  Death is the final emergency we will all have after all.

Anything you can do now, from making a will, to noting down that you will come back and haunt anyone who plays "Wind Beneath My Wings" at your service, will help your family and friends send you off in style you would like. The less they have to guess what you would want the easier it will be for them. Knowing you set aside money for your funeral is a final gift you can give your them in a time when they will be missing you.

16 October 2015

Savings Stretch Goals

Usually I write about costuming or faith formation, but I like to write about what I am thinking about and currently that is budgeting and saving. My son is getting old enough that he and I have had several conversations about how to make a budget so I thought I would write up my system.

The system I use is frequently called the bucket system. I happened to come up with it on my own and just found out this week that it had a name. In the bucket system you have one pot for each type of regular expense. You treat each bucket just like a bill and pay it monthly.

In my case the buckets are virtual. I have one savings account for each category. My credit union lets me have as many different savings accounts under one checking account as I desire and does not charge extra for this.

When I pay my bills, I put a set amount into each bucket. Some of my current buckets are: monthly expenses, allowance, emergency savings, auto savings, health savings, Christmas savings, tax savings, education savings, and house savings.

Monthly expenses: this money goes in my checking account and includes rent, utilities, medications, pet expenses, insurance premiums, and food money for the month. (Note: I don't leave the paycheck in the checking account.)

Allowance: this is my discretionary spending money for the month. I can spend it on coffee or crafting supples or gifts or anything I like as long as I don't go over the monthly amount. I can also save it to buy larger things that I want.

Emergency Savings: my emergency fund is an unemployment or catastrophic disaster cushion. My goal is to have between 3-6 months of living expenses saved at any one time. It is helpful to make some rules about what this can be used for. In my case, if the roof caved in we could break into this account, but if we want a new TV we need to save for it with other money. It takes a long time to save up a disaster fund so it should only be broken into when all other funds have been exhausted. I tend to convert this into certificates of deposit so it is harder to get to on a whim.

Auto Savings: this is our savings toward a major payment on a car. We currently own a car but eventually it will need to be replaced. If we can save a small amount for 10-15 years we will have a substantial down payment on our next car. This savings is not intended to pay for normal repairs or maintenance. Putting $50 a month away for 10 years adds up to $6000.00-- which is a decent down payment on a new car and will save us loan costs in the future.

Health Savings: we put aside a bit of money each month so that when medical copays, medications, and other health expenses that aren't covered by insurance crop up we have funds to pay them. We figured this amount out by going back over our bills from a previous year, adding up our costs plus a bit for inflation, and divided by 12 for a monthly amount. I like to think of it as pre-paying for medical expenses.

Christmas Savings: we like getting folks gifts for Christmas. Even if we buy inexpensive gifts, it adds up. So we figured out how much we spent in a given year, divided by 12 and now we have cash to pay for gifts or money to donate when we are ready to shop. Having a set amount to spend also keeps us from going too crazy at Christmas and we avoid having a big bill to pay off in January. I want to point out that we are still spending the same amount on Christmas that we did before we started this account, we are just saving up for it instead of putting it on a credit card and earning interest on the money instead of paying interest on a credit card loan.

Tax Savings: we got in the habit of putting some of each paycheck away in a tax savings account over 20 years ago when my husband was a contract worker and we were responsible for all of our own tax withholding. Even when we switched to regular jobs where the employer withheld money for taxes we found it useful to put 5% of our paycheck into a tax savings account. Then if we owed money to the IRS in April we could use that savings to pay it off. If we didn't owe on our taxes then the money we saved became a bonus that we paid to ourselves. We could spend it on anything we liked-- travel, furniture, or just move it to our emergency fund and speed that goal along. Note: if you work freelance and are responsible for paying all your own taxes, we found a good rule of thumb is to put 40% of the gross freelance check in the tax account.

House savings major: We own (or share with the bank) our house. Houses need regular upkeep. In our case, we knew we wanted to remodel the kitchen. We put a set amount away for over 15 years and when our oven finally burned out we were able to combine this savings with a home equity loan and afford a much more major remodel than we had originally thought. Now that this major expenses is done (and we already took care of the bathrooms) I may turn this account into a travel savings bucket.

House savings minor: this is for annual expenses of house upkeep-- things like minor roof repair, furnace service, window cleaning, plumbing emergencies, & other professional goods and services that a house needs on a semi-regular basis.

Education savings: We are putting money aside for our son's college. We started when he was little so have had some compound interest on our side. In just a few years we will start spending out of this account.

The keys to the bucket system are:
1. Don't leave all your money in your checking account.
2. Treat your savings goals like bills, pay them monthly (and have a set budget that you refer to when paying those 'bills').
3. Have a separate bucket for each saving goal-- it keeps you from accidentally double-spending your money.
4. Be consistent, as long as you have a steady income, pay into your buckets.
5. Have clear categories and rules for yourself (and anyone sharing your accounts) for when the money from each category can be used.
6. Use credit cards with discipline. Pay them off at the end of the month and don't buy something on credit without first checking where you will pull the money from to pay it off.
7. When you reach your goal spend the money you saved and enjoy it!

Here is my budget priority for figuring out how to save.

Living Expenses These are the things that let you keep your living situation stable: rent, utilities, food, chronic medications, health insurance, transit (bus or car/insurance/gas) funds an allowance for daily expenses that let you have a little fun. It can be helpful to look carefully at your living expenses and figure out what could be cut if needed and what the bare minimum you need to keep the lights on is-- that amount forms the basis of your emergency fund.

Tax savings This can be a gateway to getting better at savings. If you put money away until tax time and then luck out and don't need to give it to the IRS you have an instant bonus! This is really the way we started saving and realizing that locking in a set amount and declaring it untouchable until a goal or deadline had passed made it much easier to keep from spending the savings that was accruing.

Emergency fund This is your cushion should something drastic like a job loss or major crisis hit you. It is recommended to have between 3-12 months worth regular expenses (which is why it can be good to figure out what your bare bones cost of living are). So if you need $2000.00 a month to cover the basics then the goal is to save between $6,000-$24,000. If you can afford to put $200.00 per month away then you will meet the lower goal in 2.5 years and, if no emergency has happened you can just keep adding until you have an amount that works for you. Generally the more difficult it is for you to find work (due to education, specialization, or other factors) the larger your emergency fund should be. Another way to think of it is that if you can put 8% of your paycheck in your emergency fund then every year you save will give you a month of emergency fund money. This is a good place to put all or most of any bonuses, overtime, windfalls, or any extra money you wind up until you are at your minimum savings goal. The faster this grows the more you contribute to your own stability.

Other buckets Divide up what is left into your buckets and then pay that set amount in every month. Even if it is only $5.00 a month, it adds up. Some ideas for other buckets include short term goals like saving for a new bicycle or medium term goal like saving for a trip to France, and long term goals like saving for a house or for retirement. Back when we were renters, we set up a bucket that was 'downpayment money'.

The bucket system can encourage you to look at what you need as a minimum to stay in your home and then lets you add stretch goals to your life. So if you get a raise or a better paying job or an additional income you can decide where to save that additional money instead of just spending more of it without realizing it.

You can add new buckets, increase your amount of saving for your current buckets, or even give yourself a raise in your allowance, but the key is that you do it deliberately-- that you choose what to do with your money. When one bucket is full you can take the money you were paying into it and add it to a different bucket. If you don't want 10 accounts each getting $10.00 a month, then fill one bucket at a time, or one short-term and one long-term bucket (but keep a list of all the buckets that you want to fill eventually and when one fills up, start the next one).

I can't stress enough the importance of both giving yourself an allowance and treating your savings goals as bills. An allowance that is in a separate account from your savings keeps you from spending your hard-won savings accidentally. Treating savings goals like bills gets you in the habit of taking your own goals just as seriously as the folks at the water company take getting your money. Labeling the buckets with your goals can help you stop yourself from spending money you have 'sitting around' because you have given that money a long-term purpose. You can choose to spend it, but you'll know up front that it will take you that much longer to reach your goal if you do. If you are sharing accounts with someone, an allowance keeps you both from spending into your joint funds or from one of you accidentally spending the rent money.

You can use the bucket system with kids to help them learn about savings and budgeting. You can make physical buckets out of jars, envelopes, bottles, or piggy banks and decorate and label them with the names of kid's goals. So if they want to save for a game, a book, fuzzy socks, or crafting supplies, or an IRA they can label a jar, figure out how much they need to save for how long and then can watch as the jars fill over time. (And you can introduce the concept of matching funds if you want to give them added incentive to save.) When they are old enough to have an account at a bank or credit union, they can take their physical buckets and turn them into virtual ones.

This system grows with you. When we first started out we were living hand-to-mouth and we made a slightly more than our living expenses*. That money went into our only bucket, our emergency fund. (And for a while it felt like every time we got $300.00 saved we would have an emergency that would wipe it out and we'd start over.) Now we have many buckets and they are helping us during a transition to being self-employed, something that would be a lot more stressful than it is given that we did not get to dictate the timing of the employment move.

If you don't already have a system for budgeting and saving money, try the bucket system. If saving sounds like a drag, think of it as controlled release spending. You'll get to spend the money eventually and it's pretty fun (and much less stressful) to be able to do something like shop for Christmas gifts and not have outstanding bill to pay off come January.

*"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery." ~Mr Micawber in "Bleak House" by Charles Dickens

08 October 2015


I grew up in a small town in Wyoming. About the only thing it had going for it from my perspective was the amazing Carnegie library downtown. It was a multipurpose space-- library with books, space for small concerts, host to various children's activities (especially in the summer).

I loved the weekly treks to the library. My mom would load us in the car and I would gleefully (with the enthusiastic assistance of the children's librarian) fill my bag with the 20 books allowed and return home to devour them. The library and the church were the two most important buildings during my childhood.

School, not so much (for many reasons, the most ironic being I was already a fluent reader when I started first grade but my teacher insisted I had to 'learn' her way).

I loved the library because the adults there shared my passion for books and never told me I had to like certain books or that I shouldn't read above my grade level or put any limit on me other than a total book limit and the instruction to take care of the books. The library was my first experience in the idea of a shared community resource that everyone can use but that everyone should do their part to take care of. I still remember taking a deep breath of book scented air every time we walked through the doors.

I loved church for a similar reason. I don't remember a time when I wasn't a full communicant in the church. I was recruited to be an acolyte when I was 9 and served (with a brief hiatus because the new priest didn't believe in acolytes - my first protest letter was written to him) until I left for college. It was the other place in my life were I felt affirmed as a person, where I was actively recruited to develop leadership skills, and where I was encouraged in my participation in the church.

As an adult, my relationship with both institutions has changed. We have a library just up the street from us, but most of my interactions with it are via it's website. I hop on-line, look up the book or audio that I want and frequently end up downloading the content to read on my computer, or listen to through their audiobook app. I go in person to pay fines and to pick up books from the on hold shelf (which I check out at a self-service kiosk). I rarely interact in person with a librarian. As for church, I burned out years ago on having a relationship with a specific congregation for many reasons, some of which I have written about before in detail. However, I still interact with the church on-line. I write reflections, I read the lectionary, I meditate on the nature of god, forgiveness, good and evil, death, the nature of prayer, and the afterlife.

A part of me mourns the loss of my childhood intimacy with both libraries and churches. It was wonderful being surrounded by people who believed in my potential and who actively encouraged me to become who I am today.

Upon reflection, I think it is just a normal function of growing up. It is the job of adults and children's librarians to focus on the development of children; to surround them with love and teach them the tools to be able to function in the adult world (where, if we are lucky in our health, we will spend most of our lives); and to give them a safe space to practice for adult-hood.

When I was a fledging adult, I wanted nothing more than to free myself from the oversight of adults-- I wanted to be an adult. I was excited to be out in the world and ready to leave the restrictions of childhood behind.

Now that I am a full-time adult, with a fledging of my own, I can only hope that I did my part of the job in this cycle. I poured my love and energy into his school. I helped his teachers, encouraged his interests, and taught him as much as I could about being a functioning adult. Now he teases me about starting college, getting his drivers license, and leaving home. We have a two more years but he is starting to pull free-- which is as it should be
It just occasionally makes me yearn for the kindly librarian filling my bag with books or the priest walking me through how to serve as an acolyte.

I am haunted by the smell of stacks of books and the scent of burning beeswax.

And I realize that there are worse ghosts to have.


This essay was originally published at the Episcopal Cafe: Speaking to the Soul on 08 October 2015.