Escape the All or Nothing Trap


Goldilocks thoroughly explored the porridge options.

It seems silly, but when weighing choices I often have to remind myself to look for a central position. Why is that? So much that we experience and absorb every day falls into what I call the All or Nothing Trap.

I suspect that All or Nothing school activities are not unique to our area. Our experience is that the schedule of most activities prevents students from trying more things at an age when they should be exploring many interests – because in another 10 years, they will have graduated from college and will be following their chosen career paths. Experiencing different opportunities in their teens would facilitate that career choice by showing them what they enjoy as well as some of the choices that they can select. There are many career paths outside of the default, but many students never learn of them until they are deep into the major they have already selected. Statistics I’ve seen for 4-year college graduation rates, and even 6-year graduation rates, are quite low. I wonder how much this might change if more students chose a major that was a good fit, the first time.

All-consuming careers push many people into exploring voluntary simplicity or early retirement (or at least fantasizing about it). For over a decade, I worked in jobs that consumed all my energy and brainpower most days. The last position was so extreme that I felt like a shell of a person, even unable to unwind on weekends that seemed to revolve around preparing for the coming workweek. I often talk with people in whom I recognize that same career exhaustion; it is clearly sustainable for some. We weren’t ready for early retirement, but I also needed a new path. It is more difficult to get a position in a new career path than in a proven one, but it was worth the time and effort. I enjoy my current job very much – and I also enjoy being able to spend more time with my family and friends and pursue my hobbies.

Our society demonstrates the all-or-nothing trap in other areas, too. Politics, anyone? The enmity shown between the parties, and the lack of will to collaborate or cooperate even on topics that should be easy for everyone to support, is reprehensible. Or how about the topic of health and nutrition? There will always be some new diet or supplement with its devotees and detractors; this is evident in comparing today’s magazine articles and ads to those of the late 1800s.

It is a small thing, but just remembering that there might be an alternative to All or Nothing removes some pressure, opens a door, and invites creative thinking.

Toasty English Muffins for a Snowy Day

Happy Cat on the laundry in the basket on the chair in the sunshine!

Travel for much of February has been inadvisable to impossible. When another snow-ice-snow sandwich was promised for Saturday, I decided that we would begin the day with a leisurely breakfast, and started dough for English muffins on Friday night.

I began with a recipe from my mom’s 1980 Fanny Farmer Cookbook, which, despite its cover declaration of complete revision, has a lot of recipes that appear to be from a bygone era.  I combined instructions from the Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book, and of course added some whole grain flour. Finally, I gave the dough an overnight refrigerator rise, making it much more convenient for breakfast as well as more flavorful.

I cut all breads like this into squares; it saves time and eliminates the need to re-roll dough.

IMG_1628English Muffins
1 c milk, scalded

½ c water
1 t salt
1 t sugar
1 T butter
¾ tsp yeast
1.5 c whole wheat flour
1.5 c unbleached flour

The night before you’d like an English muffin breakfast: Mix milk, water, salt, sugar, and butter, and cool to below 110F. Add the yeast and half the flour, and beat batter thoroughly. Beat in remaining flour; the mixture will be something between a thick batter and a soft dough. Cover loosely and let rise a couple of hours. Mix a little more, cover, and refrigerate overnight.

In the morning, about 2 hours before you’d like to eat, remove the dough from the refrigerator. Stir it down and add more flour if needed to make it stick to itself more than your hands. On a well-floured surface, pat out the dough into a rectangle about ½ inch thick, and then cut with a dinner knife into approximately 3-inch squares. Place the squares on an oiled baking sheet and cover with a second baking sheet. Let rise 60-90 minutes, until increased in size at least 50%.

Heat a large stovetop or electric skillet to medium/300 degrees. Quickly, slide a thin, sturdy spatula under a muffin and add it to the skillet; fill the skillet with about ½ inch space between the muffins. Cover and cook for 5 minutes, then turn (reduce heat if muffins are browning too quickly). Repeat this until the muffins have cooked twice on each side for a total of 20 minutes.

Remove to a cooling rack and add the next batch of muffins to the skillet. With a fork, pierce along all edges of each muffin so that it will split easily. Split and toast.

Thrifty Thursday – The Grocery Budget

Photo by Liz West, cc-by-2.0.

I don’t always monitor all expenses, but I periodically track for a few months to see how close we’re adhering to our budget. Groceries are one area where there is some flexibility in the monthly budget, but with the numerous decisions made in a week’s shopping and cooking, it’s easy to exceed intended expenditures. After reviewing the past two months of spending, I found that our grocery spending is slightly less than half of the USDA thrifty food plan estimate for our family, even in the winter when we don’t have free garden produce. A year ago, before Mari became a vegetarian, we were exactly at the half-of-thrifty mark. I was so startled by this that I’ve checked it twice. I guess I should look elsewhere for places to save in our budget.  Every week I ask Thom and Mari if there’s anything they’d like in the coming week’s meals, and it’s usually the same things, with no unusual grocery purchases.

Our grocery routines appear to be working for us. They are
1. Buying in season and shopping the deals. I buy groceries primarily at Aldi and Costco, with periodic trips to Fresh Thyme, Trader Joe’s, the Asian markets, and the food coop, depending on what we need, averaging 2 stores/week.
2. Pantry and freezer. I never worry about running out of groceries in a snowstorm. And very rarely will I stop at a store to get one ingredient. Fewer trips generally result in less spending.
3. Near zero food waste. I freeze leftovers in meal-sized portions, and many of them become my workday lunches. I cook a lot of produce without seasoning so that it can be refrigerated or frozen until I’m ready to add it to other meals (and season then).
4. Cooking everything. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, every day. It is the routine now and it makes a meal out far more special than when Thom and I ate out most weekdays in our early years together. And it should be a special event, because a decent restaurant meal for 3 costs as much as a week’s groceries.
5. No soda or junk food. If we want dessert, we make it. Our usual snacks are fruit, popcorn, homemade bread, or homemade trail mix. I think that my great-grandmothers would recognize all the foods in my pantry, aside from the large array of spices for foods of the world.  (Except the broccoli.  My dad tells me that he never saw broccoli when he was a kid.)

February’s Conversation, in which we talk trash… reduction

Photo: NASA

Ilse: When I was a kid, we lived in a suburban development at the edge of the woods.  My parents taught me to rake the autumn leaves onto an old sheet, gather the corners, and haul them either to the garden or into the woods.   Our next-door neighbors collected their leaves in trash bags and left them on the road for the garbage truck. My dad was incensed by this waste and, ignoring the mortification of his teenaged daughter, gathered these bags of compost-in-waiting, dumped them on our garden, and reused the trash bags.

What I’m getting at is, I’ve been learning waste reduction for a long time.

So, ladies: this month’s questions.

What inspires your waste reduction efforts?

Stephanie: I know I should say something altruistic, but the truth is, my primary reason is that it’s expensive to pay for trash removal for 9 people. Other factors affect it too. I have always intrinsically disliked wastefulness. I think that’s somewhat ingrained in the culture in our part of the upper Midwest. The dominant groups that settled this area, Germans and Scandinavians, tend to place a high value on efficiency, and waste is inefficient.

Kelli:  Three prongs here:  1) the forever-ness of plastic trash in particular, 2) the savings up front, as Stephanie mentioned, on the collection end, and 3) the challenge of it.

Ilse: I learned many low-waste habits from my efficient and thrifty grandparents.  As an engineering student, I learned how many materials are made, and the amount of energy that goes into making aluminum cans or glass bottles is staggering. The idea of using something once and having it forever occupy space in a landfill horrifies me.

What are the areas of low-hanging fruit?  That is, the 80% of results for 20% of effort or cost?

Stephanie: Getting my kids to quit breaking things would be a good start, but that’s more than 20% effort. LOL. Honestly, composting is a big one. In the summer I was pretty good about it, but the compost pile is out by my garden, which is about an acre and a half from my house, and kind of a trudge in the snow, and when it’s dark when I leave and when I get home, it’s harder to do. I need to start snow blowing a path to it, or even start a second compost pile closer to the house. The other one is food waste. I need to figure out how to better tackle food waste.

Kelli: I notice quite a bit more convenience food wrapping in the garbage can lately, particularly for precut and frozen fruits and veg.  I wonder where I can buy some more in bulk, or cut our own fruits and veggies. But I also know that it all comes with a tradeoff – while I can buy whole fruits and veg and cut them myself, I also have neck pain that is triggered by looking down at the countertop, and when I buy them bagged/frozen, I eat a lot more of them.  So will I be sacrificing healthy eating for the savings in plastic? I need to work on this thought. How can I have both? How can I involve my hubby in the chopping, for example? Also, would I need a salad spinner to accomplish it? Another area that would help a lot is to finish up potty training my youngest. She is close, and if we really did a dedicated push we could get her most of the way there.

Ilse: I agree, Kelli, that frozen vegetables are a huge time saver!  Some recycling places do accept those bags. What I’ve been working on recently is reducing non-recyclable packaging, large and small.  Given the choice between a doodad that comes in that awful hard plastic packaging and a cardboard box, I’ll choose the box, or, if an option, no package.  On the small end, I drink a lot of tea. I’m avoiding brands of tea that use plastic or foil wrappers.

What will you never do, even though it would reduce your household waste?

Stephanie: They will pry my toilet paper from my cold, dead hands. LOL. Also, ordering from Amazon. Holy packaging, Batman, but I’m a working mom who lives in a rural area, and delivery is my best friend.

Kelli: The only thing, I think, is cloth diapers.  We did it for a long time. We are done with it. I can’t think of anything else that’s off the table, though there are lots of things I am not currently doing.  Maybe I would not do one of those total bans on buying new items. Too stressful right now.

Also, would I really give up my car, even though we’re in a station in life where really, truly we could do it and it not be a huge hardship?  We live in a city well-provisioned with transit, rife with Ubers and Lyfts, and my son and I can walk 2 blocks to work/school and groceries as well as about 8 blocks to a pharmacy, ATM, several restaurants . . . we have everything we need within 2 miles at the most.  My husband needs a car to get to his suburban job, and my daughter’s daycare is not easy to get to on transit, so we’d have one vehicle for sure, yet we maintain and drive two vehicles.

Ilse: I love visiting places where I don’t need a car at all, but I don’t see us moving to the city anytime soon, and the transit options for my commute double the time.  And although we did cloth diapers, I’m with Stephanie on the TP.

What will you do this month to create new waste reduction routines?

Stephanie: I’m going to find a spot closer to the house for a winter compost pile. I’m also going to work on using leftovers for my lunches. I did that for a while, but my containers went missing, and I stopped.

Kelli: I think we will work on the potty training.

Ilse: Toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes, dental floss containers, and deodorant holders are almost never marked for recycling, but I found a place to take them and will start a bin in the garage to store the empties until it’s convenient to drop them off.  I’m also going to look into cat litter options… last time I explored the alternatives was about 10 years ago, so maybe something better (and acceptable to our cats) has come along.

Everyone’s Thinking about Time

File:Analemmatic (Human Sundial).png
Human sundial by Douglas Hunt, the English Wikipedia,  I’m adding this to my garden next year!

We’ve written before about trying to maximize our time and efficiency. Isn’t that what everyone wants, really – more time for what one wants to do? But then the minutes are frittered away here and there, and another day is gone without all priorities accomplished. As much as I’ve focused on this in my own life, I am still guilty of losing minutes to my cell phone, reading too much news, or, my number one mechanism for losing both time and sleep, worrying.

Technology was supposed to make our lives easier, right? Well, I think it has backfired. Wired and wireless everything make some tasks so easy that we can just sit around and doodle on the phone, even sometimes fooling ourselves into thinking that we’re getting work done. Gadgets do a lot of things, but none of them actually cook dinner, walk the dog, or think for me. You know, the essentials. And that’s good, because I want to keep doing those things, even though some days the words in my head are, Seriously? Didn’t I just feed you guys, last night?

What smartphones have done is show everyone how much time we all have to waste. Because whether or not we think we have time to burn, it’s happening. And I think that has sparked a lot of interest in returning to mindful use of time. Recently I’ve seen this topic discussed on several blogs:

The Beginning of a Digital Revolution, Cal Newport.  I found Newport’s Deep Work to be full of practical suggestions for improving my usage of time, and look forward to reading Digital Minimalism.  I am definitely ready for a digital revolution!

Thinking Time at My Simpler Life, Beth Dargis. Emulate Leonardo da Vinci by adding “thinking time” to your schedule to make room for brainstorming and planning.

Thoughts on Time, Weekend Reading, Gena at The Full Helping. To slow the passage of time, practice mindfulness as often as possible; do what you’re doing.

How to Slow Down Time and Live Longer. Mr. Money Mustache discusses learnings from neuroscientist David Eagleman’s books: to maximize time, prioritize novelty and importance.

I’m still reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits and thinking about ways to make my days 1% more efficient.   This week’s change has been the extra 3 minutes of chore time per day.  Mari has chosen to get hers all done in one evening, but I like just having one more small thing to do after finishing dinner: I feel productive and I still get to sit down and read with my cats.