Sunday, April 29, 2007

Please don't be like me

I thought about calling this entry “messy is beautiful” and I just couldn’t do it.

I am very neat.

Believe me when I tell you this is more a characteristic than a quality, more a compulsion than a virtue. I don’t strive for order. It’s not that I’m disciplined or that I have a system. It’s just that I can’t live any other way.

The busier I am, the more I need to line things up (and I don’t mean metaphorically). In a world of people who tend to shop when they need a boost, I tend to de-clutter for an equivalent fix of relief.

I mention this because my friend Amy asked me to write an entry with tips around how to let things go. After a few weeks of thinking about it, I realize I have no idea what to say. It would be like telling someone with blue eyes how I keep mine brown.

My inbox is always clean. As I read my email, I delete whatever does not require action. I seldom file things. I throw out whatever I suspect I won’t remember that I have. (If you don’t remember owning it, that is equal to not having it – ergo, toss.)

Does this sometimes lead me to beg a co-worker to resend me that document? Certainly. Like I said, I don’t do any of this because I find merit in it or because I choose to.

My desk looks like no one works there because any stack of paper would be to me like a poke in the eye would be to you. (You’d find it hard to concentrate if someone was poking you in the eye.)

My house doesn’t have anything in it that I don’t find either useful or beautiful. I keep in my closet empty shopping bags, where I toss something the minute I realize I’m not going to wear it.

I feel that considering that a thing has sentimental value is somewhat of an oxymoron (with very few exceptions, such as certain autographed books.) My friend Cat correctly accuses me of having a "Hyper-Zen drive to divest myself of all material possessions.”

If Luca has a pile of something around the house (socks, papers, magazines), I explain to him that I feel as if it were piled on my chest. It’s not that I’m being tidy. It’s that I need to not suffocate.

Creating order out of chaos is not something I’d ever consider a chore. It clears my head. I do it for fun. Doing laundry is instant gratification. Taking something rumpled, stained and smelly and turning it into something fresh, fluffy and neatly stacked is my idea of heaven.

I plan my Saturdays and Sundays the same way I plan for weekdays. I keep a calendar and a to-do list, even if one of the items on it is often “nap”.

Please don’t be like me. We each need to pursue whatever makes our life a pleasure to live it. If you are messy, embrace it. Disorganization can be healthy. I’ve read that “the costs of maintaining order are often overlooked. That time could be spent doing more enjoyable things.”

Go do your own definition of an enjoyable thing while I meticulously schedule mine. Where I’ll be sure to include arranging my spice rack in alphabetical order.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

In honor of Earth Day

In honor of Earth day, we would like to share what we are doing to help preserve resources. We (Luca and Dushka) are posting the same blog entry so feel free to comment on either one.

We still have so much to do. We'd love to hear from you - what you're doing, or what you think we should be doing that you don't see below.

If we're not putting something to good use, we make sure someone does. We mail our shoes to Soles4Souls, give our clothes to those in need, and Luca sends our CD's to Lala. If we've already read a book we pass it on.

We recycle paper, plastic, batteries and glass.

For the past several months, we only use cloth napkins, not paper.

Every time we get a catalog, Dushka emails the company and asks them to stop. This requires constant maintenance.

We are members of GreenDimes, who help get you off mailing lists.

Cleaning and cleaning products
We use biodegradable, Earth friendly detergent for our clothes and for our dishes. We use half the amount of product recommended in the package's directions.

We don't use any harsh cleaning products (we use Mrs. Meyer's or Caldrea.)

We almost never go to the dry cleaner (unless it's a suit and there is no choice.) About two years ago, Dushka saw the pile of wire hangers and plastic bags and vowed to wash and iron Luca’s shirts herself. She also washes at home anything that doesn’t say “Dry Clean Only”. When we do go to the dry cleaners, we return the wire hangers.

At our house
We have a programmable thermostat that keeps our house at 65° F degrees in the evenings and in the mornings and 62° F for the rest of the day and during the night. If we're chilly, we wear a sweater.

We don't own air conditioning - it's not necessary where we live.

Our toilet paper and tissue is made from 100% recycled material.

We've replaced some of our light bulbs, but not all. Working on it (some shapes are difficult to find).

We change our furnace filter every three months. (This is another new one - who knew a house had furnace filters?)

Our TV is nine years old and we've decided not to buy a new one until this one completely breaks down. It's actually working great. (Plus, it was the first big ticket item we got together.)

Recently, our Tivo wasn't working. Our first impulse was to buy a new one. Luca instead bought a new hard disk and fixed it. (Added bonus: pride and gloating rights.)

We unplug anything that’s not in use. Did you know that if the toaster or the cell phone recharger is plugged in, even if it’s off, it’s still using 40% of the energy it needs when it’s on? We just learned that this Friday so now we go around unplugging things (except Tivo, of course.)

The energy that we do use, we’re offsetting through Renewable Choice.

This is a big concern, particularly after seeing the news about a possible drought. We need to do more to conserve it, so pass along any tips.

We only turn on the sprinkler system when it hasn't rained for more than a week. (More often if it's really hot, which seldom happens.) Most of the plants in our yard are drought resistant.

We only use water-saving shower heads. You can’t really tell the difference.

We try to make our showers shorter. Greenpeace suggests choosing a short song and singing it. When the song’s over, so should the shower. At our house, there is definite room for improvement (both on the length of the shower and the singing.)

We also want to put a bucket in our shower to collect the water that comes down before it gets hot - we could use it to flush the toilet or water our plants.

We have a Britta filter so we never buy bottled water (this is one of the most recent things we've done and the water tastes great.)

We only run the dishwasher or washing machine when it's full.

Not buying what we're not using
We think twice before buying something. Do we really, really want/need this?

We're thinking that this December we won't send Holiday Cards. It's so much paper, ink, distribution costs.

We've recently canceled a few magazine subscriptions we can see online, and reduced our Netflix from three movies to one. It was getting to be too much of an effort to keep up anyway.

We turn down shopping bags. We use our own canvas bags, which we keep in the trunk of our car. Luca is a near fanatic about this.

We're not vegetarian, but eat very little red meat (less than once a month.) This is more of an effort for Luca, who's more of a carnivore.

We buy organic and local whenever possible. (We’ve been eating a lot of strawberries lately.)

Travel and commute
We drive to work together 99% of the time.

Since we have to use a car to go to work, we decided to buy carbon offsets with TerraPass.

We plant trees when we travel by plane, for business or leisure.

OK. Your turn - tell us what you do.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Go crazy

I don’t want to give the impression that this is my idea. I read it in a book by Martha Beck: She suggests that we all have at least one W.I.G. (Wildly Improbable Goal).

This shouldn’t be like “I want to get promoted”, but rather along the lines of “I want my own island”. Something completely out there. Something not in the realm of what’s immediately possible.

I find this exercise tremendously fun. Daydreaming is free, it’s not fattening, and it floods me with happiness inducing, endorphin-like substances. But perhaps more interestingly, it serves a purpose.

Starting out by calling something “wildly improbable” frees you from anything that might be tying down your imagination. Hence, it becomes a window into your truest desires. For example, if you said, “I want to be the King of the World” it might take more than a career change. But, maybe it allows you to see, for the first time, how much you love politics, or a position of leadership (or diamond encrusted gold crowns).

If you can’t visualize what you really want, there is no way to ever get there. In other words, a W.I.G. is the missing link between “absolutely impossible” and “not likely, but, how close can I get and how much fun can I have trying to get there?” If I want to write a book, and currently consider that “wildly improbable”, I might decide to break it down into pieces I can manage, and write two pages a day. “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step”, said Lao Tzu. But a first step in what direction? Moving through life without a Wildly Improbable goal or two or six is like navigating without a compass. It’s tactics without a strategy. It's your time, ticking away.

Your Wildly Improbable Goal needs to be as un-generic as possible. “Winning the lottery”, for example, doesn’t count (plus you lose points for being completely un-original.)

What would count is what you’d do if you won. “I would open a restaurant”, or “I’d quit my job and go live in Tanzania”. “I’d buy my mother a new house”. It can’t be something you could easily accomplish in a year or two, either. Think bigger. It’s just a wish. Make it whatever – whatever - you want.

Do you feel it’s big enough, wild enough, and improbable enough?

O.K. Now, do tell. What is your Wildly Improbable Goal?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Reading less

After I read a book I write the title in a notebook I keep with me at all times. This highly satisfying habit brings together two of my many compulsions: list making and notebook bearing.

This is how I noticed with dismay that this year I haven’t been reading nearly as much as I usually do.

I know exactly why: I read the newspaper every day (San Jose Mercury News, New York times, and news reports online throughout the day), and receive a ridiculous amount of magazines I force myself to go through (Time, Newsweek, Wired, Oprah, Real Simple, Sunset, to name a few).

I have my own blog and have discovered many others I like to read (see column on the right). Not to mention my subscription to Netflix, through which I watch at least two movies a week; and my out-of-the-closet television habit.

By the time I get to bed, I read two pages of whatever is on my nightstand and fall asleep.

The fact that I’m sleeping better lately plays a role too. This unexpected, somewhat mystifying absence of insomnia is not helping further my reading at all.

Also, I used to listen to audio books during my commute, which was cut in half due to a job change about a year and a half ago. This otherwise fortunate occurrence had a huge impact on our audio book burn rate.

Most recently, instead of listening to audio books in the car, Luca and I listen to music. Either that or one of us is on an important conference call, making it impossible for the other to do anything else (even cracking the window open causes the one on the call to make violent jerky movements with his hands – and by “his”, you might be able to infer that I don’t mean mine.)

The consequences of all this are evident in my notes: I read five books in January, two books in February, and two books in March. Before February, the last time I only read two books in a month was December 2001.

I guess something has to go. Should I suspend a few magazine subscriptions? Sacrifice a television show or two? Sleep less? Should I read a few pages of a book over breakfast instead of the newspaper?

So little time, so much entertainment.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Imperfectly Bilingual

When I was born (in Mexico City), my mother spoke to me in English and my father (and the general population) spoke to me in Spanish. By the time I learned to talk, I did so in both. To this day, if my father and mother are both in front of me, I will speak in Spanish to one and English to the other, which often means I switch mid-sentence. I don't realize I'm doing it.

And yet I am here to tell you there is no such thing as being "perfectly bilingual".

What my brain does is it compartamentalizes (under the circumstances, I sure hope that's a word). I count in Spanish, then translate into English. If I think of my father or brothers or sisters or certain friends or my country, I think in Spanish. If I think of work or other friends or my Mom or a Hollywood movie, a book or my current life, I think in English. My point is that swiftly moving from one to the other - even at the speed of thought - is not the same as thinking in both.

I went to college in Mexico, and for several years authored a column in Spanish in El Universal Newspaper, in the cultural section. I wrote about whatever I wanted, with no impositions, so it was more pleasure than work.

I came to the U.S. about nine years ago, and began for the first time to work in English, to use it steadily throughout the day. The transition from living in Spanish to living in English was not as easy as people who know about my upbringing would assume.

I realized, to my mild surprise, that I could write in English for work, but I couldn't write for pleasure. I mean, technically I could. But it wasn't what came naturally. That column had given me years of practice in Spanish - but I had never done it in English. The fact is, one language is for certain things, and the other for others, and my brain keeps it that way. Language is not task-transferable just because you speak more than one.

I decided to write this blog, among other things, to force me to write for pleasure in English. The first blog entries were difficult for me, stilted, and I worked hard to make sure they didn't have the feel of a text originally intended for Spanish that had then been translated. It's become easier. Writing and language are like any other muscle. You exercise and gradually it becomes less of an effort.

If I were to be completely honest, when I write in Spanish I feel the result is a better reflection of what I'm trying to get across. In Spanish, something inside of me comes through in a way that perpetually evades me in English. Luca, who knows me well and reads everything I write, and to whom I've written dozens of letters, sees it too. I find this terribly frustrating - like you feel when you can't find your keys.

My texts in English have an unintended precision, a tone that is somehow clipped, pragmatic, at least when I compare it to the way it looked when it was still in my head. My texts in Spanish are always prose, but more poetic, softer around the edges, spirals instead of squares, ultraviolet. They come through me, not from me. In English I know, even when I pose it as a question. In Spanish I wonder, even when I try to make it a statement. My Spanish is for a love letter. My English is for a teacher.

I'm telling you all this because a few people have lovingly suggested that I sometimes write blog entries in Spanish. My first thought was - I must! But after careful consideration I've grown somewhat adverse to the idea, for two reasons: one, because this blog has a purpose, and I would be straying from it. Two because I'd be effectively misplacing the cardinal rule I work by. Know your audience. Don't shut your audience out.

The only time I've written in Spanish in this blog was to express a tearing, possibly unrequited love for my country. I felt writing it in Spanish was intrinsic to the story. If it becomes pertinent to do so again, I will - but I probably won't be doing it with any regularity. Estimados amigos: If you are among those who wish I would write in Spanish, I am so very grateful for the suggestion. I hope you generously resolve to continue reading this blog anyway.