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One thing that helps me keep it together (especially now)

These are challenging times for everyone, and much harder for some. Whatever your circumstances, it’s more difficult than ever to keep the day-to-day details of life moving forward.

I did not arrive on this planet as a well-organized person, but I’ve learned some tricks along the way that help me keep everything together, and the one thing that has never failed me in stressful times is

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Career advice at an Elton John concert

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the kinds of things I want to accomplish in my work and in my life. I’ve felt a little lost and a lot discouraged. But, as usual, the answer was there all along. I just had to listen for it.

“Don’t Let The Sun Go Down on Me” just came on Spotify and I remembered when my husband and I saw Elton John on his farewell tour last year. We had to fight hours of traffic to get there. We had paid a lot for the tickets. Two women seated behind us were talking loudly non-stop. There was a giant screen on the stage showing videos during every song that kept distracting me from the actual performance. The band’s music was too loud and drowning out Elton’s voice, and because he is advancing in years, he mostly just sat at the piano. I was feeling grumpy and disappointed and angry with myself for not enjoying the moment.

BUT THEN.

Elton sang “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down on Me”. It was mostly piano and the band played softly. I could hear his voice, and it was STILL GOOD. And I remembered all the times in the early 90s when the live version with George Michael would come on the radio while my family was in our white Honda driving to Fresno, and I was young and I didn’t know so much disappointment or despair and no one had broken my heart yet. And that feeling of connection to the past and the present flooded through my body like happiness and warmth. And for a moment, I felt like I was the right person in the right moment and I belonged so completely and truly in the world. And those ladies behind me were quiet and I sang that song SO LOUD.

And when it was done, I told my husband that those few minutes had made the whole thing worth it. And I was content.

I want to work, I want to create, I want to LIVE in pursuit of those moments. And I want to help others experience them too, in whatever way I can, whether it’s writing something that conjures a memory or emotion, or creating something seemingly mundane that makes someone’s life better and gives them the space and clarity and freedom to have their own Elton John moment. What else is there really, in the end? Not much for me.

What about you?

– Jenna

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The promise of spring

It was 78 degrees in Los Angeles today, a brief little pocket of summer in January. I opened all the windows, took down the last of the holiday decorations, soaked up the sunshine with my dog and picked avocados from our tree for the neighbors.

I think Hemingway described these kinds of days best:

“When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits.”

– Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

I try to remember to document these days in some small way, these days with no problems except where to be happiest. They are all the sweeter for being fleeting. You can’t go looking for them. You just have to notice when they arrive, and live them as best as you can.

– Jenna

 

 

 

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My favorite (realistic) ways to prep for Thanksgiving

Hey there! I’m no lifestyle expert, and I stumble as much as the next gal with keeping it all together, but I love to help people solve problems, and I love to share things I’ve learned. So, if you enjoy this kind of “how-to” and find it helpful, please let me know in the comments and I’ll keep them coming!

Thanksgiving is two weeks away! Are you ready? Are you not ready? Are you still focused on eating your way through the Halloween candy backlog and can’t really handle anything else right now, thanks very much?!

If you’re anything like me, it’s prime time for falling down the ol’ internet rabbit hole, gazing at perfect Thanksgiving meals and decorated tables on Pinterest, Instagram and wherever else they peddle those beautiful dreams of exquisite Thanksgivings you will never have.

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Real Simple Magazine describes this Thanksgiving tablescape as “easy to pull off.” But I calculated that the table settings alone would cost over $600. 😳

BUT WAIT! There is another kind of amazing Thanksgiving you can have. It is a Thanksgiving where you are relatively calm and relatively prepared and can still add a little pizazz to the festivities in order to fully enjoy the holiday.

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Humpty Dumpty keeping his Fall goals attainable. Artwork by Rachel Greenberg.

Let’s break Thanksgiving preparations down into three categories:

  • House prep
  • Food prep
  • Fun stuff

House Prep

Now is not the time to start a full-house, top-to-bottom deep clean. Save that fantasy for January (when it will be equally unrealistic, but much less time sensitive). You have a finite amount of energy for the holidays, so conserve as much as you can! Just hit the hotspots, and don’t save it until the last minute before guests arrive and you are still in your sweats. Do it earlier than you think you need to. You can always go back for a quick touch-up.

  • Give the guest bathroom a good scrub and put out fresh towels and a scented candle or plug-in (this is my all-time favorite holiday scent!)
  • Purge the fridge of old stuff and give it a good wipe down before you do your food shopping
  • Clear off your kitchen counters
  • Sweep/mop/vacuum your floors

Seriously, don’t go on a manic cleaning binge. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You will wear yourself out. You will wake up on Thanksgiving morning with tight hamstrings and a bad attitude and you will have nowhere to hide. I might know this from experience.

Food prep

Don’t over-oven

Another thing experience has taught me is that the quickest way to a Turkey Day meltdown is trying to cook everything in one day. Don’t try to be the superhero that perfectly synchronizes five hot side dishes at different cooking temperatures. You will not succeed. Potatoes will be lukewarm and tempers will be hot.

If you feel like reheating is cheating, it is not (although, dang, that’s a catchy phrase). Reheating means you are being strategic and realistic. Why these qualities are applauded in the business world and frowned upon in the kitchen beats the hell outta me. Gordon Ramsay’s philosophy of avoiding “Chef Mike” at all costs may apply to restaurants, but restaurant patrons (unlike Thanksgiving guests) rarely wander into the kitchen obliquely offering help, asking for the Wifi password and telling the chef to “just relax and enjoy the day.”

Shop smart

I love/hate doing Thanksgiving grocery shopping. I start out strong and brave and feeling virtuous, and then about 20 minutes in I lose steam and things can go south pretty quickly. One thing that helps is to have a clear plan of attack. If you don’t already have a good system to keep track of your shopping lists, might I humbly suggest the Wunderlist app? You can change the order of items on your list, share the list with others, and check things off as you go with a very satisfying *ding.*

wunderlist
Make sure to include emergency staples on your list, like chocolate and gin.

Make a simple schedule

Even though you will have trusty Chef Mike by your side on this most thankful of days, you’ll probably still need to plan out the timing for your oven, since certain dishes (like turkey and stuffing) don’t fare too well on your sous-chef’s glass turntable. But fear not, you shall have a plan, and you shall write it down! I made a printable to help! Here’s an example:

ThanksgivingMealPlan
What happened to the pie column you say? Well, what are you thinking baking a pie on the day of Thanksgiving? Are you crazy? Bake it at least one day before, you maniac. Or just buy one at the store…I mean, who are we, Julia Child?

You can download the Thanksgiving Meal Plan blank template here. First, write in your specific dishes in the top of each column. Then, write in your time increments in the far left column, from when you’ll start cooking to when you’ll serve dinner. I used 30 minute increments in the above example, but you can use 15 minutes or 1 hour, whatever works for you. Finally, block out the times when you’ll be cooking or reheating each item.

Is it nerdy to have a spreadsheet for cooking Thanksgiving? Absolutely. Will it will make it much easier to keep track of what you’re cooking and when? Damn straight it will.

Stock up!

I love to stock up on inexpensive items that make my life simpler and tasks more pleasant. And there’s no better time than before the holidays! Here are some items you might want to stock up on:

The Fun Stuff

For me, the best part of hosting Thanksgiving is thinking about fun decorations and festive little touches! Here are my favorites:

Go green

Instead of getting a big expensive flower centerpiece, get several inexpensive bunches of greenery filler from the supermarket and fill vases, glasses or mason jars with it and put them all over the house for an instant perk up. Greenery lasts much longer than flowers do, so you can prep them well in advance and enjoy them long after the guest are gone.

Assorted-eucalyptus-bunch-350_1e08f0ed

Printables!

There are hundreds of sites with free fall and Thanksgiving printables on Pinterest, in lots of different styles. Just do a search!

If you want something a little fancier, or that doubles as a fun activity, there are lots of inexpensive printables you can buy for anywhere from $3-$10 and print yourself. Some of my favorites are from The House That Lars Built and Etsy.

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To give your printables a more polished look, print them on cardstock instead of regular paper. If you can’t sneak a few pieces from your office copy room (I won’t tell!), you can buy it online or at an office supply store. I also like to put printables in small wood frames and group them together with the greenery. Add a few candles or tea lights and you’ve got simple, elegant decorations that feel substantial, without a bunch of fuss.

I would suggest steering clear of anything that contains the phrase “pumpkin spice” or “happy fall y’all.” They know what they did.

Games

If your guests like to play games (other than the kind where they don’t RSVP and then show up with extra mouths to feed), you can put out some decks of playing cards, Uno, or the forever classic Yahtzee to play after your meal. Nothing steers familial tension and one-upmanship away from politics and religion and into more neutral territory than a game that involves literal score cards.

Let everyone DJ

To have a diverse music selection that everyone can contribute to, you can make a collaborative playlist on Spotify. Send the link to your friends and family in advance, and they can add the songs they want to hear, either before or on Thanksgiving. Then all you have to do is launch the Spotify app and hit play! If you want to avoid the commercials, you can sign up for their free three-month Spotify Premium trial and enjoy it for the whole holiday season before deciding if you want to keep it or cancel in February.

Share the WiFi

Speaking of apps, my last tip is to write your WiFi password down on a piece of paper and post it where everyone will congregate. It will be much appreciated and you can get on with other things, like remembering to take that weird plastic bag of gizzards out of the turkey carcass before you roast it. I mean, why do they keep putting that in there when they know that 99% of us forget to take it out??

Finally, Enjoy Yourself!

I hope some of these ideas might be helpful for planning a fun Thanksgiving with enough time and energy left over for you to truly enjoy the holiday. You deserve to have as much fun as your guests! Let me know how it goes, and if you have some other helpful tips, tell us about them in the comments!

See you on the other side my friends!

– Jenna

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Start again…again

I’ve taken a long break from the blog, partly because I second guess everything that I want to write. Is anyone interested in reading it? Hasn’t everything important already been said by someone else? I stop myself before I finish because I think it won’t be perfect.

I think this is a hurdle for a lot of people. And I think the only trick for this situation is to start again. And then again. And keep starting again as many times as it takes, which is…maybe forever?

But there is another consideration that I often forget.

Sure, I haven’t been posting anything. But I’ve had lots of ideas, written scraps and scribbles of future posts, taken in new experiences and information, and basically been marinating in the good stuff that eventually ends up here.

As the saying goes, to everything there is a season. Whether it’s the weather, the decades of a life, or, in my case, a personal creative endeavor.

There is so much to be done, even if it’s all been done before, spectacularly. There is no later, more perfect moment. So soak it all in, and then start again.

– Jenna

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America’s first female mapmaker

The Paris Review recently published an article on Emma Willard, America’s first female mapmaker and all-around badass.

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Emma Willard

From the article:

Willard is well-known to historians of the early republic as a pioneering educator, the founder of what is now called the Emma Willard School, in Troy, New York. But she was also a versatile writer, publisher and, yes, mapmaker. She used every tool available to teach young readers (and especially young women) how to see history in creative new ways. If the available textbooks were tedious (and they were), she would write better ones. If they lacked illustrations, she would provide them. If maps would help, so be it: she would fill in that gap as well. She worked with engravers and printers to get it done. She was finding her way forward in a male-dominated world, with no map to guide her. So she made one herself.

And yes, while still in her twenties, she opened a school for girls in her own home, so that young women could get an education comparable to that of their own brothers. From the school website (which is still in operation some 200 years later!):

She pioneered girls’ education, taking it from focusing on “the charms of youth and beauty” to intellectually stimulating and rigorous courses in mathematics, geography, history, science, and philosophy.

My favorite of her illustrations is this this “‘map of time’ [used] to convey to students the interdependence and totality of human history”:

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It feels like a 200-year precursor to Reebee Garofalo’s Genealogy of Pop/Rock Music chart, made recently famous (or recently re-famous?) by Edward Tufte:

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An excerpt of Genealogy of Pop/Rock music by Reebee Garofalo, seemingly an ode to Willard’s work.

The sheer depth of information she presents in her illustrations is astounding…

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There is nothing more satisfying and hopeful to me than someone striving for clarity and context and working hard to give it to those around her. And to help other women rise up with her along the way? What a lovely and inspiring life to lead.

– Jenna

 

 

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The magical worlds of Chris Van Allsburg

Yesterday I mentioned how much I love buying used books from Thriftbooks. One of the best things about the site is being able to search for old books that I loved as a child.

One of my favorite author-illustrators from childhood is Chris Van Allsburg. You probably remember some of his most famous books, Jumanji and The Polar Express. Many of his books have been adapted into movies (some successfully, some not). But the worlds that he builds in his gorgeous, dramatic and striking illustrations are breathtaking.

Part of the magic of Van Allsburg’s illustrations, which often include children, is the scale. He takes the reader right into the middle of a scene…

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from Jumanji

Or pulls so far back that we feel like we’re peeking into the world in miniature….

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from Jumanji

As a child these books fueled my imagination and my sense of wonder…

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from The Garden of Abdul Gasazi

And brought a feeling of extraordinary to the ordinary. They still do!

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from Zathura

Do you have a favorite author from childhood? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

– Jenna

 

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The delight of used books

I love books! I love reading them, I love buying them, I love talking about them. I love the idea of them. I love the SMELL of them.

But I don’t want to spend an outrageous amount of money on them.

In addition to checking out library books (both physical books and ebooks), and buying select new books from authors that I love and want to support, there is a third category of books that I regularly indulge in: used books.

Used books are great. You can find out of print titles, versions of a beloved book that you read as a child, or older editions of books with better looking covers. Best of all, they are CHEAP. And buying used books keeps them out of a landfill!

One great online source for used books is Thriftbooks. They have a huge variety of books, sorted by year and edition, in a wide range of genres. They ship from locations all over the country, and if you spend $10 in one purchase you get free shipping ($10 can sometimes buy you THREE used books! Amazing.

This is not an ad, I just love Thriftbooks. A lot,

thriftbooks

I’ll show you some of the great books I’ve bought from Thriftbooks tomorrow, so stay tuned!

– Jenna

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A plethora of personality probes

I’m a sucker for a useful (or even just fun) personality test. If you enjoyed the Creative Type test I shared a while back, here are a few of my other favorites:


The Four Tendencies

This is a personality theory developed by one of my favorite authors and podcasters, Gretchen Rubin. It is a very broad framework, but can be really useful in helping you change your habits by working WITH your personality type instead of against it. From Rubin’s website:

We all face two kinds of expectations—outer expectations (meet work deadlines, answer a request from a friend) and inner expectations (keep a New Year’s resolution, start meditating). Our response to expectations determines our “Tendency”—that is, whether we fit into the category of Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel.

Knowing our Tendency can help us set up situations in the ways that make it more likely that we’ll achieve our aims. We can make better decisions, meet deadlines, meet our promises to ourselves, suffer less stress, and engage more deeply with others.

Take the Four Tendencies quiz here


16 Personalities (Meyers-Briggs)

With 16 possible types, this personality framework gets much more specific than a lot of others, and some people consider this typing to be the most informative, detailed and the most fun. It’s definitely my favorite quiz, and there is so much information to find out there once you know your specific type. (I’m an INFJ!)

Take the Meyers-Briggs test here


Enneagram

The Enneagram has 9 types. I took a one-unit course on the personality framework when I was in college and it was the quiz that piqued my interest in personality tests as a whole. Because it appears to be based on archetypal personalities, it is easy to quickly learn about and be able to identify the types.

Many enneagram companies charge to take the quiz, but you can find a free test at 9types.com.

The Enneagram Institute has some of the best information I’ve found on the types.


Psychobook

This is basically a coffee table book about the kooky history of personality tests, and includes just-for fun quizzes to take based on those old assessments, like ink blots, word association and even doodle completions.

tests
An image from Psychobook

The New Yorker sums it up well:

“Psychobook comprises an eclectic assortment of tests from the early twentieth century to the present, along with new artworks and whimsical questionnaires inspired by the originals. It’s not immediately clear why this book exists, but it would probably look great in a therapist’s waiting room.”

There is also a companion website for the book that has some additional multimedia quizzes you might enjoy.

What do you think, would you take any of these quizzes? I’d love to hear some of your results in the comments!

– Jenna