Apr 24, 2017

Finances & Retirement

I remember bragging at 24 I was retiring: "Goodbye Corporate America! I'm off to see the world as a perpetual backpacker!" (Four years later, I'm recounting this as an accountant back in suburban Michigan.) At that time, I was leaving to be a teacher in Japan, so the sentiment wasn't that I was going to stop working, but that I was going to stop doing unfulfilling work. Did I fulfill that goal?

So far, yes — though I'm working in an office again, I like my job: I have a great boss and a sustainable work environment that have made a great difference in my quality of life. It's where I need to be now, but not for the next three decades. It would be a dream to make writing my focus and career without the panic-inducing terror of becoming a starving artist. I've been thinking, how can I accomplish this?


Minty Fresh Finances


For years, I've been using Mint to track my finances. The web-based application is made by the same team that created Quickbooks and Turbotax. Mint is like a window that allows you to view (without manipulating) all your accounts and investments in one place. I primarily use the program for tracking short-term savings goals and monthly budgets.

As you close in on a budget, the tracking bar changes
 from green to yellow, and ultimately red if you go over.
My expenses are fairly basic: rent, food, gifts, car insurance, gas, internet, cell phone, chiropractor, utilities, short trips, and miscellany. The perfectionist in me never wants a "red" mark, so when a budget creeps too close to the limit, I readjust the budget higher. That way, every month is green! Certainly looks prettier, but it means I'm spending more than I intend to.

In the past, I've saved for specific goals (i.e. graduate university debt-free, travel around-the-world) that kept my spending tight and controlled. Without one, I feel lax about how much I spend, especially when it comes to indulgences like eating out.


Retiring Early = Possible?


I recently read an article by a World Domination Summit speaker about retiring in your 30s. Like, actual retiring. It got me thinking about financial freedom in a refreshing way:

  • It's time to trim the fat
I already adhere to the golden rule: spend less than you earn. I also avoid all debt like the plague. But I wouldn't get very far if I was constantly spending 90% of my earnings. I want to further reduce expenses and save all that I can.

I spent a full morning calculating my income and spending projections to discover a solid, real retirement amount to shoot for. Now with a specific goal in mind, I marched myself right into my Mint account and set my budgets back to 67% of my earnings.

I cringed as many of my budgets turned red, but that just means I'll have to give them extra focus next month. Saving 33% of my income is the best I can do for now, and will no doubt be challenging. For example, to keep my food budget from going over, I've got a lot more meal planning and cooking to do!

  • Investing in stock index funds
Here is where my fear and paranoia speak out: while I've been investing in mutual funds for several years, the recent direction of this country (and the world) scares me, so I'm reluctant to put more money into the market. I'm going to do more research into investing in stock index funds and then raking in dividends before I take action, because I can't shake the feeling the whole shabang is going to come tumbling down.

  • Focusing on what brings true happiness
I don't need that much money to be content. It comes down to how you use your time and resources. Enough of my laments that I don't have enough time! Too many frivolous hours have been sucked away by Facebook, YouTube, and mind-numbing drives to and from work while listening to crap on the radio. So I'm suspending my Facebook account indefinitely (third time's the charm), limiting my video surfing time, and downloading engaging Podcasts to listen to in the car.

The first wail of protest I hear is: "How will you keep in touch with anyone without Facebook?" I'm going old school with an address book, a stack of parchment paper, and a calligraphy pen. Writing letters is something that brings me a lot of happiness and feels more intimate. Besides, there's always LINE and texting for instant messages.

As for resources, there's a fantastic library in my city — it's about time I use it to dig into all those books I want to read. With high-speed internet at home, I can continue to Skype friends from around the world, too. Books and friends = real joy.


Let's see how this experiment goes, and how much of a difference it makes by year's end.



~ ~ ~

Mar 30, 2017

Rekindling

There's a lot of ground to cover between last post and this one; instead of reaching back into the past, I'm going to jump right into the present: my story, as it stands now, is one of a young woman living in a Michigan suburb home to a significant population of Japanese expats, working a great middle class job, and floating a few inches off the ground thanks to one very special reason: I'm sharing this story, this life, and all my love with the greatest man I know. I feel incredibly blessed everyday because we are together. Buck, you are truly the best.💗

~ ~ ~


Hidden inside the local hospital's cancer center is a yoga studio; circular glass walls surround an inner courtyard of air-cleansing plants, heated stone flooring that warms our bare feet, and suspended sculptures of colored glass that shine in the sunlight. At its center is a round pool with a floating lotus flower to remind us to be calm in both mind and body.

But I've discovered I'm not calm here. The usual objections don't apply — the cost is reasonable, the teacher knowledgable, the location just 4 miles from home, and the yoga-style easy to follow; yet a growing feeling of being unwelcome has taken root...

The evening class consists of half a dozen middle-aged women struggling with their weight. Their eyes skip over me as they enter class and they talk amongst themselves before we begin. At the last practice I tried to start an upbeat conversation with the woman beside me by talking about the coming of spring. She agreed in a few words, and left it there. I tried again several minutes later, commenting on how nice the courtyard looked with the raised pool. This time, she didn't reply at all. I felt rejection in her silence.

The teacher, a distant woman in her 60s, usually exchanges pleasantries with me, however during practice she consistently makes off-hand comments such as:

Move into this twist. It's difficult... well, for some of us.
This becomes harder when you get old, but you wouldn't know.
Who's in their 20s in this class again? Raise your hand? Oh yes, that's right.

During yoga, I noticed the woman next to me had a limited range of movement during certain bends. Despite my neck/spinal pain and post-work exhaustion, I was doing my best to follow my breath into the move myself when the teacher once again interrupted the flow of class to comment, "You're a 'bendy' so it's no problem for you, but we're older." I felt frustrated as the class's unwanted attention focused in on me.

At the end of the session, my neighbor finally acknowledged me with a half-joking, half-disgusted: "I try not to look at you during class. You're too bendy."

It clicked for me then... my youth is unwelcome here. When the teacher brings the class's attention towards me instead of the practice, I'm being separated from the others while they are being given an open invitation to envy me. Perhaps without being conscious of it, they see me as a youthful "everything comes easy to you" straw woman to size up their limitations to and feel jealous of. This feelings seeps into the very air, and has poisoned my experience.

I considered giving the message to namaste outta my way and continue practicing there, but have since changed my mind. It's not me, but my practice, that makes them feel this way... everyone wants to feel accepted just as they are, especially when their own inner critic keeps putting them down. It's not the right place for me, so I'm moving my practice to a more welcoming (and younger, more expensive, farther away) yoga sala. I understand their feelings of insecurity — I feel sheepish about practicing somewhere with experienced yogis who can do so much more than I can. But I want to watch them, to learn from them, and accept my limitations while at the same time striving to do better.

If courage is being brave despite fear, maybe contentment is being confident despite envy/insecurity. We're human, so fear and insecurity come up naturally within us, but if you dig into your deeper resources you don't have to give in to it.



~ ~ ~

Jul 1, 2015

A Month in Italy

Miss me? Since my last update, I've traveled through central Italy, spent 10 days with my sister, and then two weeks in Sweden with Laurén and friends. I feel as if I've been so busy out doing things, I haven't spent much time in front of the computer updating about it. This has also led to me being out of touch -- a weakness of my character I'm aware of and trying to become better at, at the least to assuage my conscience. And so, here I am!

After going to the World Expo in Milan, I intended to visit Venice. Little did I know that it's impossible to book accommodation in Venice last minute for a weekend. Even the camp sites were full. Instead, I spent a few days in the city of Parma, the home of parmesan cheese and prosciutto di Parma. During this time I lost my voice, saw a work by Da Vinci up close, became familiar with the uncomfortable treatment of women by Italian men, and had dinner with a Parisian passionate about language learning.

Once in Florence, I took an oil painting class as my "skill to learn in Italy." When I wasn't painting in the open-windowed studio loft, I explored the magnificent old city. One night I happened upon an English-speaking church that put on cultural performances in the evening. Thus I saw my first opera, Carmen.

Painting a blue-eyed Mona Lisa

The opera Carmen

SARAH VISITS

After Florence, I met up with my sister in Rome. From there we traveled by train, ferry, and bus to Napoli, the Isle of Capri, back up to Florence, Greve in Chianti, Pisa, and finally Rome again to take our respective flights. What an amazing whirlwind it was! My favorite memories from our time together were:

(1) Dinner inside the wine cellar of a Tuscan farmhouse that extended to 3 hours of talking and laughing over many gratis glasses of expensive wine and grappa that our waiter – who looked like Michael Bublé – served us. The stars that night over the Tuscan countryside were very clear and beautiful.

(2) Taking a walking tour from a hand-drawn map of Napoli by our hostel host, Giovanni. His passion for the city, combined with his wry sense of humor, put our fears of Napoli's purse-snatching reputation at ease. Thanks to him we saw beyond the scuzzy exterior and enjoyed a deeper look into Napoli's unique spirit.

(3) Climbing the Tower of Pisa, where every "round" of the stairs has gravity pulling you in a different direction. The view from the top of this crooked bell tower was incredible.

(4) The look on Sarah's face when she saw the Coliseum for the first time. Just a few hours after she'd landed, we were eating lunch and having a glass of wine just across the street from this ancient world wonder... and she couldn't believe it!

(5) Climbing up to the top of the cupola in St. Peter's Basilica cupola. The stairs were incredibly narrow, and tilted on an angle to follow the shape of the dome. The steps were worn and sunken from the millions and millions of those who, for centuries, have walked before us.

FOOD FARE

Italy's reputation for amazing food precedes itself, and it's well-earned. Here is a sampling of the many dishes I had the pleasure of tasting:

Home-cooked two-course Italian meal with my host Lia in Florence.


Prosciutto di Parma, handmade gnocchi with from-the-source parmesan cheese, oven-fired pizza, Florentine house red wine, flower-shaped gelato

Gelato, Tuscan salad, home-cooked meal, fresh-shaved beef sandwich

Handmade linguini, stuffed peppers, Napoli pizza (so good! Pope Francis ate here, too), Tuscan beef served in a wine cellar in Chianti, chocolate-brownie dessert, Chianti Classico wine

Roman eggplant, tiramisu and tea by the Spanish Steps, Tuscan farm salad, breakfast looking out over the Tuscan hillside, savory chicken and prosciutto

WHAT'S NEXT?

I've spent the last two weeks hanging out in Götborg, Sweden. Laurén, our new friends, and I celebrated midsommar, the summer solstice, at a small cabin along the sea. From here we ate pickled herring and Swedish meatballs as the sun lowered in the sky but never seemed to set. The nearly 24 hours of sunlight fills you with energy, as if midnight were mid-afternoon. That is, of course, when the rainclouds part so you can see the sun.

In no time I'll be boarding my next flight, this time to Berlin. There is only 5 weeks left on my Schengen visa for mainland Europe, and I intend to go through Germany, France, and Iceland with the time I have left. That, and a stint in the U.K. in-between. There's no denying it though, that this trip is quickly coming to it's close. Today begins the 10th month of this amazing journey... and I have come to the point where, instead of dreading the end, I am at peace with moving on to the new chapter when that time comes.


–––

May 31, 2015

The 2015 World Exposition

Welcome to the 2015 World Expo, or "around-the-world-in-80-minutes." Each attendant country has built it's own multi-million dollar pavilion down a long outdoor hall in Rho, just outside of Milano.

The theme this year is "feeding the planet, energy for life." The countries showcase their technology, culture, and innovations and how they relate to food and diet. How can we sustainably feed the future? Some countries hit the mark, while others I think mistranslated their invitation email.

Bouncing in Brazil

Brazil
 had a fun bouncing floor that was actually very hard to fall over on because of the sure-footed way the ropes were constructed. It was an entertaining, albeit unexplained, entrance to their showroom where you could learn about their culinary history. However, they didn't offer any sustainability solutions.

Refined Relish in Russia

Russia had a beautifully decorated pavilion with pictures of modern and traditional foods. They passed out free samples of an incredible (radish?) filled bun unlike anything I've tasted before. There was also an informative section on a product they developed to eliminate the poisons of pesticides on crops. They're presentation was very well done (as were other countries' explanations on how Russia damaged their ecosystems by rerouting rivers).

The Corridor of Countries

Belgium had one of the best presentations, I thought, because they introduced a device that operated a wheel of plants on top and a fish tank on the bottom. The ammonia excreted (and is poisonous to) the fish is converted into nitrates for the plants, which release nutrients back into the water for the fish – it's more effective than soil farming! It's called aquaponics.

Japan had the most popular pavilion, with a queue of 50 minutes just to get in! I unfortunately did not get to go inside, but I read that its presentation was related to trying to get its cultural diet recognized by UNESCO (France, for example, has this honor).

Colorful Corks in France

Then you had countries like Azerbijian who treated their pavilion like an advertisement for "Come visit our country! Win a trip to our country!" They had colored lights (half didn't work) that turned on when you put your hand over them. Wow...cool? What does this have to do with food and sustainability? Who cares, come visit our country!

In Ireland they had photos and movies of their beautiful green hills....and the exit. Um, did I miss something?

USA... I can't even. I can't even. They chose the most unhealthy, sallow-looking people on video to talk about how great the food is now that it's genetically modified. I would not want to eat whatever those people are eating.

Thailand was practically begging investors, "exploit me, exploit me!" They showed several videos of all of their undeveloped land and how you can grow many different kinds of crops there, and how everyone is a hard-working, white-toothed smiling farmer who loves to labor in the sun.

A Complex Core in Britain's "Beehive"

The fact is, our natural biodiversity of plants and animals are going extinct one by one. How do we feed the future when the world's population is already over 7 billion people and growing? What kind of future does our generation have to look forward to? The Slow Food Movement addressed these topics and called for action. We can all make a difference if we educate ourselves.


–––

May 25, 2015

Mementos: The Swiss Alps

A surprise blizzard greeted me when I arrived in Switzerland; big, clumpy flakes had covered Lauterbrunnen in half a foot of snow in hours. A map at the hostel showed a giant waterfall right in front of the village, but I couldn't see it due to the heavy fog.

Luckily, the next morning heralded clear blue skies. Not just one, but several waterfalls were in view cascading down both sides of the mountains that lined the Lauterbrunnen valley. I spent the majority of my time hiking through the area. I even felt like a 'real outdoorsman' when I filled up a water bottle straight from a crystal clear stream!

When I swallowed back my apprehensions and took the first gondola up and over the lip of the valley, the snow-dusted titans – the actual, live Swiss Alps! – were in view as far as you could see. Of course the photos can't do them justice, but I hope you can feel a sense of their incredible power and majesty. Enjoy!

View from Lauterbrunnen valley, facing south

View from Lauterbrunnen valley, facing north

View from Lauterbrunnen valley

Cascading Waterfall

View of Mürren from the gondola

Gondola heading towards Gimmelwald

The village of Mürren

An overhanging balcony over the mountain's edge in Mürren

Staubbach Falls

A beautiful day in Switzerland

Like Heidi, I spent a brief time among the Alps and a part of me will always long for them.



–––