Category Archives: Potpourri

The Universe Wants Me to Eat Kefir

Do you ever get the idea that the universe is trying send you a message? When my friend Dan was considering a move to the Lone Star State he started to see Texas license plates everywhere, a little far from home where we lived in South Dakota. A tarot spread confirmed that a big change was coming, with the card of death routinely showing up in his Celtic cross.

Reading “the signs” can be tricky. Feeling out of sorts, are we trying to line up with our destiny? Or do we seek the blessing of a higher power to do what we simply want to do: Quit a job? Get a divorce? Become a Texan? Or do we just want to escape the limbo of chronic indecision? “If only the universe would tell me what to do!”

Brian isn’t one to mystify a spell of bad luck or a happy coincidence. I can’t imagine him looking for clues in the tarot, not even when he was 20, a good age for that kind of stuff when we’re dying to know how things turn out. Yet he will acknowledge “blue ice moments”. We were at Target the first time we noticed experiencing this cosmic connection. I thought of blue ice and then he appeared with an armload of it. It seemed so random, not like the times he brings milk home when we need it.

The last time I encountered a psychic I was with my mom in Times Square. For fun we paid five dollars to a palm reader who had set up shop next to a veteran selling fashion watches and “designer” handbags. Sonia told my mom – the mother of six grown kids – that she would give birth to lots of children. Looking deeply into her gypsy eyes, my mom invited Sonia to take another shot. She didn’t get the joke.

Guidance isn’t in the cards or in our palms, although it might be in the license plates we happen to notice. We’re swimming in guidance!

When I was working on a project distributing compost bins to neighbors, one of the participants randomly told me about the cure-all that is kefir and offered to give me starter grains. I had no idea what she was talking about, but trusted her testimony that this yogurt-like wonderfood was a pro-biotic that promoted digestive health. It was also a good source of protein, calcium, B vitamins and phosphorus, all essential for good health. While I was curious and had intended to accept the free “grains” needed to get a batch of kefir going, I never got around to it.

Months later in the dead of winter I was at my community garden tending to an experimental composting project (I’m not trying to suggest a compost connection here, but wouldn’t it be lovely!). There I met a man I took to be Vietnamese. The garden was on his rounds and he’d routinely stop by to ask about my project. One day for no particular reason he mentioned kefir. It was hard to catch everything he said, but I gathered he was extolling its health benefits. We exchanged email addresses and he sent me some information. While interested, again I dropped the ball.

Years later at a dinner party I could not turn down an offer of kefir grains as they were right there. I took them home and as directed “fed” my grains – actually a combination of bacteria and yeast – some milk and then proceeded to neglect them. Fortunately, the colony survived and I’ve since had a chance to incorporate kefir into my diet. As for the health benefits, I’m inclined to think that there might be something to it, although I don’t have enough experience to say what is real and what is hype. Does kefir promote a general sense of well-being? Two random strangers felt compelled to tell me that it does.

The universe might also dial us by scolding friend.

“I thought you were smarter than that!” Al said, taking a swig of coffee. We were having breakfast at Parka on East Lake Street, which was nice but perhaps a little too precious with its tiny sushi plates. A tablespoon of hash browns, no matter how perfectly seasoned or beautifully presented, is going to leave me hungry.

“You need to have a will!” Al apologized for being a downer, but I appreciated the push. Brian and I had been meaning to write our wills ever since we had heard about a case where a gay couple was operating under the assumption that having both of their names on the title of their jointly owned house would protect them from probate. It didn’t. We saw that article years ago.

The same week Al and I had breakfast, I uncharacteristically stopped on a channel where Suze Orman was preaching the gospel of personal finance. “You. Need. A. Will.” According to Suze, we also needed a medical power of attorney, a living revocable trust, and something else that slips my mind.

Fully informed now, I bolted upstairs where Brian was hunkered down with the cat and a book.

“Do you think it means anything?”

While Brian doesn’t believe that God was speaking through Suze Orman, he agreed that we need to get our wills in order tout suite. In the meantime, I’ll hope that our procrastination doesn’t bite us in the ass. Brian, on the other hand, isn’t worried. “I have faith that we’ll survive at least another week.”

Parting with the Bank

The consequences of subprime mortgages and credit default swaps were surfacing when we decided to buy a house. It was 2007 and a buyer’s market, which meant that we had to sift through a lot of overpriced shitboxes because the starry-eyed heirs to some of these pee-soaked rehabs hadn’t heard the news: The party was over. Anyone who could was waiting out the storm. We made two offers over nine months. It was exhausting.

In the meantime, I was working at the Minnesota House of Representatives where I was hearing from distressed constituents who were facing foreclosure. These cautionary tales and some unexpected advice would frame my approach as a first-time buyer, which was to get out of debt as soon as possible. I made a spreadsheet to help us with this goal and have since cleaned it up to share here (2007 Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet. Note: Downloading this .xlsx file may cause your anti-virus software to warn you.)

Why be aggressive about paying off our house?

One day at work as I waited for my turn for the microwave in a cramped but lobbyist-free zone, a co-worker told of feeling trapped by a house he could not sell. He was “underwater” and – on top of that painful reality – paying almost two hundred dollars a month in mortgage insurance. Mortgage insurance? What’s that? “Avoid it if you can”, he warned. “It’s a terrible feeling to hand over that kind of money and have nothing to show for it.” I had a lot to learn.

As it turns out, to avoid mortgage insurance – designed to protect the lender from loan defaults – the buyer must make a down payment of at least 20 percent. So that was it. I came home and announced that if we couldn’t afford to do that, we couldn’t afford it. While I might have been a little puffed up with resolve that I had no right to have, we managed to swing it.

Another random tidbit of information came from a friend who wasn’t convinced that we were buying at a good time. “Wait until the prices hit bottom. They’re still going down.” This otherwise sage advice lost out to our sanity that was being threatened by our neighbor, the dipshit. On the other hand, making one extra mortgage payment every year was something we could do. As any mortgage calculator will show, extra payments can significantly reduce the payback period of a loan, slashing the cost of interest by thousands. After playing with a few of these free calculators online, I found myself wanting my own spreadsheet that I could understand, customize and edit more easily. So, I made one and it has helped us stay on track with some simple financial goals.

By simple, I mean simple. “How fast can we pay off the house?” That was the question, not whether we’d come out ahead if we made other investments instead. You’ll have to go elsewhere for that advice. All I can say is that hearing about the unraveling of lives that started with a balloon payment, a rate adjustment or a late payment and referring the broken men and women at the center of these stories to Lutheran Social Services for last-ditch help with foreclosure prevention made an impression on me; I was driven more by a desire to part with the bank than what might be generally considered to be shrewd financial planning.

I recently shared my spreadsheet with a friend who – just like me – didn’t realize what a difference an extra fifty dollars towards the principle of a loan can make when paying down your debt. You’re welcome to download it here. Please be advised that I do not guarantee that there aren’t any mistakes in this spreadsheet. Disclaimer aside, maybe playing with some numbers will inspire you to set some goals and get out of debt sooner rather than later. And, of course, if you have any corrections, requests or suggestions regarding this spreadsheet, please let me know!

About the Spreadsheet

Download here – 2007 Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet. Note: Downloading this .xlsx file may cause your anti-virus software to warn you.

Input your Data
Enter your data (house price, down payment, interest rate, etc.) in the green cells. Other cells cannot be changed, but are calculated fields. If you want to unlock the spreadsheet to add some of your own calculations, let me know and I’ll give you the password.

Default Extra Payments
Enter the amount of the extra payments you plan to make on your mortgage every month (Column B, Line 15). As with other variables, you can try different numbers to see how it affects the financing costs and payback time. In the event that you have a change to your default extra payment any given month, you can indicate this in Column F next to the corresponding date in Column G. For example, if by default I am going to make an extra payment of $150, but for the month of February 2014, I can only do $50, I would enter that amount in the column next to February 2014. If there is no change to your default extra payment, leave Column G blank. Keep in mind that $0 is not blank. Instead it means that you are paying $0 as opposed to your default extra payment.

Lump Payment
The idea of a lump payment is that you might want to save money with the intention of putting it toward your mortgage someday, but want the security of having access to cash in the meantime. This could help you make your regular mortgage payments in the event of a layoff, for example. Otherwise, this money could be used to pay off the house when what you owe, which goes down every month, matches what you have saved, which goes up. I did not factor in an interest rate for your savings.

Summaries
There are three summaries you can see at a glance. One factors in your extra payments, another does not. This will make it easy for you to compare the two scenarios. Finally, there is a third summary that factors in your extra payments and a lump payment.

Kat's Cat Quilt

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Getting a handmade quilt for my birthday is a good reminder that at any given moment you never know when there’s a sweet little someone who’s holding you dear in her heart. On a day that I might have been feeling down, my niece could have been preparing her surprise, putting on the finishing touches, maybe those button eyes that I imagine she picked out with great consideration. She might have been stitching through the night to finish the quilt in time or driving through a famous Boise inversion to get it shipped before she headed off to the salon for a ten-hour day on her feet. Or, as I fell prey to the misconception that it’s a cruel world, she might have been choosing fabric that I would like or consulting with my mother – grandma who took a vow of secrecy – about a new sewing technique. She might have been having lunch with her mother – my sister, also sworn to secrecy – showing off her work, so excited to give me the first quilt she had ever made using “an actual pattern.” However it went, I do know that on Christmas day my niece decided to sew me a quilt. She had made one for her grandmother and could hear me in the background over the telephone gushing – actually she said I was squealing – over it. I was. But, I had no idea that my reactions were registering with anyone who might be taking note or scheming to totally floor me with their kindness two months down the road.

Cat Quilt

Cat Quilt

Cat Quilt

Cat Quilt

Cat Quilt

Cat Quilt

Fireplace Insert – Free (Taken – Thanks!)

As part of a fireplace repair, we are having the insert replaced with a more efficient, cleaner burning one. The old one will be recycled on February 20, unless someone else has a use for it.

Front: 44″ W, 30″ H, 24″ D. Vents with blower.

Opening: 26 3/4″ W, 14″ H

Vent on top controlled by lever on front.

Box: 26″ W, 25″ H, 12″ D

Sewing Paper

My uber creative niece expressed no surprise when I told her that I discovered you could sew on paper. I wanted to make money cards for Christmas and one morning between sleep and coffee, a solution drifted into my consciousness such that I understood the perfectness of using a light bulb to represent inspiration. It was exactly like that. Out of nowhere, “I could sew it!” Ding! By 4 a.m. I had confirmed my theory and was loving the results. Old news or not, I might as well have discovered fire.

Needing containers for my collection of cassette tapes that are awaiting digitization and inspired by first considering a grocery bag – a terrible idea as it would have been too deep to be useful – I remembered my experiment and came up with a shorter, more rigid bag that works great.

Container for cassette tapes.

Sized to maximize shelf space, a shorter bag means that I can easily see what’s inside.

How to Make a Custom Bag with a Grocery Bag

Supplies:

  • 2 grocery bags that are the same size
  • Ruler
  • Pencil
  • Stapler
  • Marker
  • Paper cutter wide enough for the bag; rotary cutter, mat, and straight edge; or scissors and a straight edge
  • Tracing wheel
  • Iron

Steps:

  1. Remove the handles of two grocery bags, being careful not to tear the bag or the handles. If you do accidentally tear anything, don’t worry about it. Set aside one of your bags and the handles you just removed for later use.
  2. Measure from the bottom of your grocery bag up to how deep you want your bag to be. Make a dot at this point with a marker (Dot #1). So, if you are making a bag that will be 5″ tall, you would measure 5″ from the bottom of the bag to Dot #1.

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    Measuring from the bottom of a grocery bag, mark how deep/tall you want your new bag to be.

  3. By measuring from the dot you just made (Dot #1) upwards to just short of the height of your bag, mark Dot #2. So, if you are making a bag that will be 5″ tall, Dot #2 will be a little less than 5″ above Dot #1.
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    A Sharpie marker works great for marking your dots.

  4. Cut off the top of the grocery bag at Dot #2, the top dot. Save the cut off piece for Step #6. I love my Swingline paper cutter for this job. A rotary cutter, a mat and a straight edge would also work. If you use scissors, draw a straight line around the bag before cutting.

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    I wasn’t sure if this paper cutter was going to be what I needed. So, far I haven’t run into any serious limitations for the types of things I am doing.

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    My paper cutter has different settings for cutting, creasing, perforating…

  5. Make a crease at Dot #1. I used the crease setting on my paper cutter to do this and it worked great. A smooth tracing wheel might also do the trick.
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    The crease will make folding the bag easier.

  6. If needed, trim the top of the grocery bag you cut off in Step #4 such that when it is inserted in the new bag you are making, it falls just below the crease made in Step #5. Insert this piece inside the bag, loosely lining up the sides and corners as shown.

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    Lining the inside of the bag with this extra scrap will make it sturdier. I turned my liner inside out, thinking that it would look nicer to show the pattern. However, this gets covered up, so skip that step.

  7. At the crease made in Step #5, fold the top of the bag down inside itself. This will cover up the liner you just inserted and hold it in place.
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    It’s starting to look like something!

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    There!

  8. Sew a hem along the top of the bag.
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    I wish fabric handled as easily as a grocery bag does! Different bags behave differently.

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    The bag will turn itself as you sew.

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    Voila! A low-cost way to practice sewing!

  9. To make the bag more rigid and look crisper, pinch the corners and sew them in place with a few stitches.
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    The bag works fine as is, but its sides are buldging a little.

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    Pinching the corners takes up the slack and gives the bag a neater look.

  10. Sew the handles you saved from Step #1 onto the bag as you like. You can use a temporary staple to hold them in place as you sew.
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    Almost done!

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    I’m loving how these are turning out!

  11. Fold your second grocery bag (handles removed) such that it is the size of its bottom. Trim off any extra paper that won’t easily fold and stay in place. Sew the folded bag around the edges to hold it together. Place the finished piece in the bottom of your new bag.
    xx

    The extra bottom will help hold the bag together.

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    The insert also hides rough edges.

  12. You can iron the bag if you want it to look a little crisper. Put a cloth between the iron and the paper.

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    The altered bag is amazingly strong. For example, it would take some effort to remove the handles.

How to Change a Habit

When someone is sending electric shocks to the hair follicles on your face, you’re apt to listen more than talk. I listened and learned about The Charge – Activating the 10 Human Drives that Make you Feel Alive.

Bev had good things to say about this latest recipe for success and while it made me cringe with its nauseatingly pat tagline, I bought a copy, taking cover under the notion that it would give us something to talk about. While it’s fair that a definitive list of life’s secrets might induce involuntary eye-rolling (I always wonder, “Why ten?”), there is no call for anyone’s tiresome skepticism here.

Upon finishing the book, I gave my copy to a friend who was in need of some insight as she navigated an unbearably dysfunctional job situation that was undermining the confidence of this otherwise competent and fabulous young woman. I thought about JoAnne a lot as I turned the pages.

It had something for me too. While The Charge is the reason why I took on some scary projects instead of lesser undertakings and while it reinvigorated – at least temporarily – the blind courage of my 20-something self who somehow ventured off to Brussels with little money, a copy of Let’s Go Europe and a plan that went as far as “Take the train to ‘Le Gare du Nord'” – I mostly liked it for its solid practical tips more than for its fleeting inspirational passages. For example, “When this, then that” can help you develop lasting good habits. The idea is to add an action onto a well-established routine, as opposed to trying to change a behavior without the benefit of context. It’s the difference between saying, “This year I’m going to eat better!” and saying, “From now on, when I finish dinner every day, then I am going to eat an apple.”

It’s not sexy, but we use the rule to keep the litter box clean. Since it’s in the basement, it could easily be out-of-sight-out-of-mind until there was a revolt. But we have forstalled an uprising by saying: “When we feed the cat in the morning, we then clean the litter box.”

The Charge is loaded with other – probably better examples of – tips that made it worth it to replace the copy that I gave to my friend. While my enthusiasm for it might have been a case of my being particularly receptive to its insights for whatever reason when I first picked it up, I suspect that the book will hold up nicely as a reference.

The Pleasure of Being Known

When I got home from the potluck, Brian had thai take-out waiting for me. I love those moments when you recognize that someone knows you. He knew that I would be too wrapped up in the meeting part of the potluck to bother getting a plate. He knew that the meeting would go well and that I would come home hungry.

Next Year I Will

If you have any extra seedlings, I would be happy to adopt them. I can use them because this year I was too swamped with… stuff… to get seeds started. Merriam Station Community Garden would also be happy to use them for their plant sale on May 4. They are raising money to pay for a water system… kind of important for a garden. I never tire of the miracle of watching a seed sprout. You might not be able to relive a first kiss or the first time you were allowed to take the car by yourself to pick up some milk, but watching a plant sprout, flower, fruit, die… feels brand new every time. Every single time. Next year. Next year I’m going to put those containers I collected to use. I won’t care about what’s pressing. I won’t care about deadlines. Now that I know the emptiness of skipping it, next year I’m going to fill up the place with trays and trays of plants for the garden.