There is no new black

I am not an efficient person by nature. I’ve had to work at developing habits to keep myself from flailing through life like a giant gnat at a picnic. One of my oldest tricks is only wearing black or things that match with black. This is easy enough because black is slimming, black is sophisticated, and black endures with great resilience my tendency to drop food on myself  (though toothpaste remains a daily danger).
Also, I am a clothes hound. I blame my parents. Growing up as the oldest of four children, my always-broke folks decked me out in hand-me-downs and thrift-store specials, which did nothing to distract from my grandmotherly plastic glasses and pre-adolescent acne. Then they sent me to private schools. In retrospect, I was incredibly lucky to travel and attend such good schools at a young age, when I obviously had no idea what was good for me. But at 14 years old, I was entirely convinced that the right clothes would solve all my social problems.

Thanks Lara604!

I was finally able to put my hypothesis to the test in college, when I first had a cute little body and access to a credit card. I lost the braces and the glasses and traded in my dad’s old collared shirts for summer dresses. People reacted so differently toward me that it made me uncomfortable. I was being noticed, acknowledged, invited out, and even hit on. The superficial changes had happened so fast that I was confident I was still the same nerdy young woman that I had always been, only now everyone smiled at me because I was showing some cleavage.
I eventually got over my self-righteousness and timidity, however, and learned to enjoy the attention, which was positive reinforcement for being overly concerned with the superficial. Since then, it’s been hard for me not to keep my closets bursting with new clothes
Thankfully, beyond my initial collegiate credit card outburst (parenting tip: don’t raise your kids up with an allowance so small they can’t afford a movie ticket, then give them your credit card when they move out: they may pay themselves retroactively for all those nights spend washing your dishes and cleaning your bathroom), I have some natural inclinations that keep me in check. It’s hard for me to spend more than $20 on any one piece of clothing (thanks, Mom!) and clothes that fit well and feel well-made trump designer brands. Beyond that, I only go for black.

black and white and awesome

This has made my life way simpler because my seasonable clothes all go well together, I only have one of each type of shoe, I typically own only own all-purpose purse or belt at a time, and I don’t spend time looking for missing socks. When I walk into a store, I don’t get distracted by every item I see: if it doesn’t go with black, it goes back on the rack.  And what started off as a project to simplify my life by minimizing options has had the unintended consequence of making it look like I am (almost) always put together, professional, and adult-like, but I still get to mix funky patterns or add bold accessories without making a production of it. Also, it’s easy to throw a black cardigan over something fitting or low-cut while you’re at the office then lose it when you’re on your way to happy hour. Black never stops being awesome, so no matter how much you look or feel like a bear in the morning, you’ll at least be as cute and well-dressed as a panda.

Thanks col&tasha!

Dorothy Perkins black long sleeve cardigan
$29 –

Oasis leopard print shirt
$20 –

Jane Norman flared pants
£30 –

Oasis flat shoes
$20 –

Lauren Conrad high heel shoes
$42 –

Black handbag
£9 –

TopShop plastic jewelry
£3.50 –

Oval earrings
$10 –

Tulle Clothing sheer shawl
$35 –

Getting the new year off to a healthy start

As Christmas crept closer and closer last year, more and more plates of cookies found their way to the office. And as my schedule got more and more hectic with moving and holiday travel, I was cooking at home less and less. By the last week of December, I was unabashedly committed to eating office Christmas cookies for both first and second breakfast.
Thanks LizMarie_AK!

And with that came more coffee, more restaurant meals, and more drinks to spread the good cheer. I had Christmas dinner with my family, Christmas dinner with my boyfriend, and a third Christmas dinner with his family, featuring a vat of delicious fondue and an array of sauces that would have put Martha Stewart to shame. By the time January rolled around, I was begging for vegetables and brown rice.
Then I remembered a recipe from The Kitchn that I love for it’s flexibility and simplicity. It’s so dynamic that they refer to it as a “template”. Just choose a grain, a protein (they option for vegetarian choices like tempeh or tofu), vegetables, garnishes and a sauce. If your kitchen is anything like mine, you already have all the ingredients you need to make a delicious, simple, and very healthy meal. Add some flax seed or psyllium husks and it becomes downright cleansing. 
From The Kitchn
My at-work option is an even simpler variation of the same recipe: I cook up a pile of brown rice before the week starts and refrigerate lunch-sized portions in individual containers. Then I just grab a container and a bag of frozen veggies on my way to work in the morning. At lunch time, I microwave some of the veggies on top of the rice and then give them a good dousing with low-sodium soy sauce. Asian-style dressings are also delicious, but the soy sauce doesn’t even need to be refrigerated. It hardly takes any time at all to prepare, especially the day you’re going to eat it, and it’s healthy, filling, and really cheap. 
And since I’m eating healthier, I’ve taken to drinking my coffee with cream or low-fat milk, but no sugar. A good afternoon “snack” in the office is one of my favorite concoctions: one part apple-cider vinegar (a tablespoon or less) and two parts blackstrap molasses mixed with warm or cold water. It’s so flavorful that it curbs my cravings for sweet pastries at 3:00 in the afternoon. By the bye, it’s also a good substitute for sugary, additive-laden sports drinks, as is coconut water.
I get Bragg apple cider vinegar at the grocery store.

Be careful with this drink, though, because the cleansing benefits can sneak up on you!
I also have to make sure I drink lots of water every day because my intake of coffee, soda and alcohol got a little out of hand during all those Christmas celebrations. 
I’ve always wanted to do a proper, lengthy cleanse like the Master Cleanse with its tasty lemonade (also great for hangovers, anyway), but by the time I’ve skipped lunch on the first day, I’ve started panicking on a level that I can’t reason with. For me, a slower, gentler recalibration (think French Women Don’t Get Fat) has always been a more sustainable solution when I have to get rid of a few dozen second helpings. 
And lest I sound like calorie-counting boomerang dieter, I’d like to explain here that I’m not. Eating too much in general and too much sugar in particular makes me feel like crap, and once I’ve opened that Pandora’s box, I have to be intentional about slowly decreasing my sugar intake. I already love vegetables – raw, steamed, roasted, boiled, or mashed – so it’s usually just a matter of making sure I only have one cup of coffee a day and I don’t spend the eight hours a day I’m at my desk eating handfuls of chocolate and spicy potato chips.
Only now all I can think about are those delicious chips…

My favorite superstitions

I’m an educated, reasonable person. I’d even call myself logical on a good day. But I have a few pet superstitions that I regularly milk for all their powers of entertainment and comfort.
Thanks FDWR!
  • Astrology. This is probably my biggest indulgence, but it’s pure vanity. I don’t know much about anyone else’s star sign except my own, Gemini. And Capricorn, because I’ve dated enough Capricorn men to know they are not the men for me. And Sagittarius, because I am supposed to be compatible with them and that seems to hold true. (And yes, that’s probably because I am weirdly and irrationally warmly predisposed toward anyone once I find out that he or she is a Sagittarius. Because I am compatible with Sagittarius. Do you see the circle here?)
  • Knocking on wood. I am a compulsive wood-knocker. If there is any talk of worst-case scenarios going on around me, I am driven to find a suitable surface to rap. Real wood is often in short supply these days, but particle board, brick, plastic, or a silly friend’s head also work for me.
  • Feng shui. I know just enough about feng shui, or Chinese interior decorating, to be dangerous. Like enough to rearrange my furniture so that I can see the front door while I’m sitting on the sofa and to want to keep goldfish so they will bring my prosperity. I don’t even have goldfish right now, but if I did, that would be why.
  • Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). This is just natural or herbal medicine theory in China, or what we would call a kind of alternative medicine in the West. And I am all about mint tea and echinacea, so I am not about to poo poo TCM here. Only I don’t know much about it except that women shouldn’t drink cold beverages. Oddly enough, I’ve always disliked cold drinks: I even microwave my orange juice to room temperature. Thus, I felt very comfortable being served tepid-to-hot water all across Greater China. I’ve gotten into arguments with male friends about it, but lady friends, listen: next time your time of the month is approaching, stop drinking cold things (and caffeine) and I think you will notice a real difference. 
Thanks Bludgeoner86!
  • The healing powers of Coca-Cola. You won’t often catch me shilling for big business, but I think Coke is magical, in very small quantities. Warm, flat Coke is my go-to remedy for a hangover and tiny sips of the same are good for general nausea and vomiting. And I have yet to try it, but I read recently that people in Hong Kong used to boil Coke with ginger and lemon as a remedy for colds. I would never advocate drinking it regularly or in large quantities, but it always makes me feel better when I’m sick. You can also use it to clean your car tires.
  • St. Anthony’s prayer. This is a vestige of my lax Catholic upbringing, but when I’ve really lost my keys or my phone or a shoe, I’ll recite St. Anthony’s prayer as it was taught me as a child: 
Dear St. Anthony, please come down. 
Something’s lost that can’t be found.
           And I always find it, cross my heart.
  • Birth order theory. Birth order theory has served me well in figuring out everybody else’s problems: “She’s immature because she’s the youngest daughter;” “He has issues because he was a middle child;” or “He’s selfish because he’s an only child.” But I’ve met so many “exceptions to the rule” and had so many people react with surprise when I tell them that I’m the oldest of four that I don’t think it’s a much more accurate way to gauge someone’s character than knowing their star sign. Still, for a long time I held out hope for a Sagittarius who was the youngest child in his family.
So that’s a survey of the random ideas that help me get along. What’s the weirdest thing that you rely on to get you through the day?

10 steps for a less stressful move

Since I returned to the US in September 2010, I’ve moved six times. This includes the first six months I was half living out of my car and half crashing with the big-hearted friends and family members that would take me in. But even before that, I moved once every year or two for my whole life. As a result, not only do I have some skills when it comes to packing up and relocating, but I’ve also come to enjoy it.

Thanks joebeone!
I’ve said I was a sucker for a fresh start, and I mean it. Moving to a new country or just a new house is a great excuse to dispose of all the junk that I accumulate as soon as I stand still. Tiny gifts and party favors, impulse purchases and underused appliances, half-empty bottles of shampoo and excess Christmas decorations clog my living space until I feel like I’m living in a Goodwill showroom. Freeing myself of this life-clogging detritus makes me mentally lighter. 

But the other side of the story is the weeks of packing up stuff I don’t need and living like a vagabond who hasn’t figured out how to pack light. The actual hoisting and schlepping of heavy boxes is also outside my skill set. That I am not a strong person doesn’t matter when the heaviest thing I carry is a purse full of books. But when it comes to packing and the work of actually moving, I am at a distinct disadvantage. And more than anything else, moving can be psychologically and emotionally trying when your haven from the concrete jungle has become an unfamiliar wasteland of boxes and newspaper shreds.

So in order to minimize the stress and maximize the excitement, here’s what I do when I have to move across town:

1. Get boxes for free. Cardboard boxes can be surprisingly pricey at local packing stores or the post office. If you have a few weeks left before the big day, talk to managers at your local restaurants and stores about getting clean, dry boxes to pack your stuff. Show up early in the morning or late at night when there aren’t so many customers who need attention and they’ll be happy to give you whatever they would otherwise toss out back. And if you’re going to enlist friends to help you, get as many boxes as possible. Friends don’t like friends who try to move their apartment grocery bag by grocery bag. Trust me…

Thanks, lynch!

2. Get a Sharpie. There is nothing like this ubiquitous marker for labeling boxes.  And while I’m on it…

3. Label your boxes. Pretty straightforward advice, but if you skip this step (maybe because you forgot to get a Sharpie), you’re looking at a few more days of “now that we’ve found the lava lamps, where the hell is all the silverware?” In my experience, unpacking takes even longer than packing, but you’ll be able to prioritize better if you know what’s in the boxes without even opening them.

4. Pack early and often. I have the attention span of coked-up ferret, so spending six hours on a Saturday PACKING ALL THE THINGS is not an option. As soon as I get my hands on some boxes, I start packing up all my beloved books, my out-of-season clothes, my decorative items and the kitchen appliances that I use least. I end up living in what looks like Legoland for longer than is strictly necessary, but I get a lot of peace of mind from packing everything in a deliberate and organized fashion.  Also, I’m often surprised what I can do without in the weeks leading up to a move: probably 75% of what I own makes my life a little bit more comfortable, but it isn’t necessary. Bonus: When I realize how little I need to keep myself warm and fed, I’m motivated to spend less for at least a few weeks.

5. Hold all your calls. During the week or two that my life feels most disheveled, I drop the obligations and hobbies that I can afford to skip. That might mean I miss a few days running or don’t write as much as I planned to every day, but it keeps me feeling like I’m on top of everything. And staying calm and collected during the move helps me get back on schedule faster once it’s all over.

6. Get creative with packing materials. When I was a kid, it seemed like there were always newspapers on hand to use for packing fragile items. But who owns newspapers anymore? I grab up the free local papers as I see them, but my most plentiful packing material is actually plastic bags. I usually have two or three bags full of bags hiding under my sink: They work really well for wrapping breakables and as filler for not-quite-full boxes of odd-shaped items.

Thanks Jos Dielis!

7. Clean ahead and behind. A decent landlord will make sure your new place is good shape before you move in, but if that’s not the case, get over there and clean it up before you bring any of your stuff inside. Keep in mind, however, that you’ll probably have to clean your old place before you turn in your keys, too. Don’t pack up all the Comet and Windex before your old place is sparkling!

8. Put an empty box in every room when you think you’re almost done. No matter how many times I move, it always surprises me to see how much “not that much left” can be. Just assume you’re going to need some extra boxes and keep them on hand for those last crazy hours when you’re trying to get out of there. Trying to move a bunch of loose odds and ends is tedious and a good way to break things.

9. Call for reinforcements.  Good friends will help you move for beer and pizza, but you need to give them a few weeks’ advance notice. Be a good friend yourself and have most everything packed and ready to go before they show up. The real angels will stay a little later and help you clean, too, but be mentally prepared to have to do the dirty work yourself. If you won’t be able to rally the troops, research some moving companies ahead of time. Get quotes from a few different companies, but make sure they’re binding not-to-exceed estimates so the guy with the clipboard doesn’t have the opportunity to become an extortionist. Take pictures of any valuable items so you have a record of their existence and their condition. Get insurance if it makes you feel more comfortable.

10. Unpack as fast as possible. It’s stressful for us human animals to have all our creature comforts wrapped in cardboard. The sooner you turn your new place into a home, the sooner you’ll be able to get back into the swing of things.

Hey! After I drafted this, I came across these neat tips on for reusing packing peanuts. 

Some thoughts on being 30

On my 25th birthday, a pair of 30-something co-workers teased me that this was the end: once I crossed that threshold, I was never going to be young and fresh again and the magnitude of that transition would force me to straighten up and conduct myself like an adult. And by adult, I think they meant cranky teetotaler who spends her weekends alone watching Friends on DVDs.
In response, I partied like I was turning 21 and woke up hours late for work. I had made such a fuss about my own birthday that no one didn’t know why I was late or why my eyes were puffy and bloodshot and I was wearing what looked like gym clothes. I was pretty embarrassed to still be doing the walk of shame at 25, but at least a small part of me felt victorious – I had held adulthood at bay for another year and proved to everyone that I was still young and fun. I refused to let an arbitrary number determine how I acted or how the world reacted to me.
But eventually, I just got tired of it. I felt the call of the civilized world. Having enough money to go on vacation? Better than paying for a round for the bar. Sleeping peacefully because I have health insurance? More relaxing than drowning my problems in beer. I just grew up, on my own and in my own time.
But as my thirtieth birthday approached, new party poopers emerged (some of them younger than me!) to pester me with questions like, “Are you ready for this?” “Do you feel old?” “Do you know your mom had four kids by the time she was 30?” “Are you going to get cats?”

Thanks jimmiehomeschoolmom!
I tried to muster up an appropriate amount of worry and regret, but it just wasn’t there. In fact, I realized I knew how to work hard, how to motivate myself, and how to wake up most mornings feeling good about myself. I have so much more practical life experience and my knowledge of my favorite subjects continues to deepen. Why would I want to be a twenty-something again?
Having crossed that threshold, I enjoy people automatically taking me a little bit more seriously because I’m in my thirties and not in my twenties. I like knowing I can apply all the life lessons of my first three decades to whatever will come my way in next thirty years. I have a job that looks a lot like a career and a car and a nice place to live. I go on day trips and I have an exercise regimen.
And I did party on my thirtieth birthday. I carried on like I was 21 all over again. Maybe that’s how I’ll pass every birthday. But on most nights, I do my own thing. I go for a run, or I volunteer to teach English, or I meet with my Chinese tutor. I like to watch documentaries in the local theater and wake up early on Saturdays to go to the farmer’s market. When I’m at home home, I make cheese platters or Chinese food and then I read or watch some TV.

I am a responsible adult.
With every passing year, I am more certain about what I like and what I don’t like. I don’t need to try everything to find out what works for me. The open-mindedness and liberality of my twenties was great, but the constant insecurity and uneasiness was a high price to pay. I used to go crazy feeling like I had to indulge every interest of mine. Within the past year, I narrowed it down to the three that I think will help me live the life I want: writing, running, and studying Chinese. Everything else has been demoted to a distraction.
I love my life. I feel calm and confident. I don’t second-guess myself. I don’t feel obligated to be open to every experience and every invitation. I don’t feel guilty for being ambitious and hard-working. It’s easier to keep negative people out of my life because I know what I can do without them.
But it does sting a little every time I pull out my ID and the waiter says, “No, that’s okay. I don’t need to see it.”

My New Year’s resolutions

This is a follow-up to my magnum opus on setting and meeting your goals wherein I don’t necessarily follow my own advice.

Here are my resolutions for 2012:

1. Don’t buy any new clothes. Period. I don’t even want to phrase this in a positive way because I really want to lay the smack down on my inner clothes fiend. Maybe I can break this rule in an emergency, but then it had better be like “I lost my luggage in a foreign country AND some wayward youths stole the pants I was wearing.” I have more clothes right now than I have ever had in my life and I work in an office where people regularly fail to keep their shoes on. Impulse purchases are killing my budget and the only person who notices what I am wearing is my colorblind friend
2. Borrow books from the library once a week. I have a library card and a Nook, but I compulsively buy books from Amazon and the local book fair like a madwoman. I can’t even keep up with me. It’s become another budget decimator, but why buy the book when you can get the text for free?

Credit: Free images from

3. Finish two creative non-fiction pieces per month. I have been getting up to write at 5 a.m. off and on for a few months now. I’ve started a couple of pieces and really enjoyed the activity, but I need to focus on finishing them because I want to get published. I don’t think “getting published” is a realistic goal, however, because I can’t guarantee it and I can’t put a deadline on it.
4. Study Chinese. I want to spend 15 minutes a day writing on Skritter and 15 minutes a day reviewing flashcards on my phone using Anki. This won’t be hard to do because I already spend a lot of random time (waiting in line, waiting for meetings to start, hanging out in the bathroom) studying. Also, I can take the HSK (a standardized test for people learning Chinese) 4 in March and prepare for the HSK 5 in October. I would also like to watch more Chinese TV and Chinese movies, which should be easy because I already feel like I watch too much TV as it is: I’ll just transition to watching Chinese stuff, and the guilt will be alleviated AND I’ll be studying my second favorite language.
5. Cook at home more often. I especially want to cook more of the stuff that can be frozen and eaten later, like curries and stir fries. This will allow me to have more control over my diet and I’ll be able to save money by not eating out so much. Cooking at home also requires me to actually go home after work, which will give me more of the downtime that I need to commit to my other creative projects.

Credit: Free photos from

6. Get to work at 8 a.m. every morning and write a to-do list as soon as I get there. I really like my job, but I get distracted every morning by writing, Facebook, the pile of dishes from the night before, and my hair. I have been cruising in at just before 9 for the past few weeks, and it’s not entirely kosher. Furthermore, my attention drifts when I haven’t been specifically tasked with something, so I’ll transition from completing whatever was due that day to reading Slate and Toothpaste for Dinner. A solid to-do list keeps me on track and even helps me feel better. If I come home knowing I worked for eight hours and got a lot done, I feel a lot better than I do on those days when I feel like I spent my day keeping my desk chair warm.
7. Run a half-marathon in April. I’ve been running pretty regularly since June, and I think I can be ready for a half-marathon in April without too much trouble. It was a happy accident that I started running just to get some exercise and found out that I liked it. I almost feel like I’m cheating by putting this on my list because I’m so confident I’m going to do it and in about 2h10m, which is a good pace for me. I can’t wait to be able to cross it off the list when I’m done and then I’ll add another big race for the fall to keep me going.

I also want to post on this blog daily, but for a long time I’ve been committed to my favorite three labors of love and those are running, writing, and studying Chinese. If the blog distracts me too much from them or work, I will not hesitate to give it a swift kick in the ass.

5 ways to make resolutions you can keep

The sun has already set on the first day of the new year and I have yet to get out of my pajamas. Thankfully, tomorrow is a new day and a day off.

Credit: Free photos from

I’ve always been a sucker for a fresh start. As a student, the blank, smooth pages of a new homework journal made my heart race. “This is the semester I will write down all my assignments! I will do all my homework, ace all my classes, and come home to proud parents in the arms of adoring classmates!” I once got disproportionately excited about the life-transforming potential of a new toothbrush. Birthdays were also opportunities to recreate myself, and better still, mine is in the summer. That meant I could cocoon myself away from my peers for three months and return as someone shiny and new in the fall.

Of course, then, I’ve always loved making New Year’s resolutions and drafting long, important lists about the fantastic changes I am going to make in my life. It doesn’t take a degree in psychology, however, to realize that loving the opportunity for a fresh start and wanting to make positive changes in your life aren’t guarantees that you’ll see them through. Making decisions is easy enough. Making things happen is very much like work.

But, I’m 30 now, not 12, and in the years in between, I’ve learned a few things about getting stuff done. Here are the things that I keep in mind now when I want to make and reach a goal. I’ll use one of my own New Year’s resolutions as an example:

1. Keep it positive!
“Run more often” is a much nicer thing to say to your delicate self than “Stop going to happy hour.”
2. Set SMART goals.
At work, our HR people force us to watch PowerPoint presentations about setting SMART goals, or specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely goals. Boooor-ing. But, the thing is, it works (it’s the PowerPoint presentations that are tedious and irrelevant). “Running more often” is nice, but at some point, your intelligent self is going to wonder just why the hell you are out there in the dark and cold while everyone else is watching The Big Bang Theory. I found out about a half-marathon in April and I know I’ll have to run through the winter to get ready for it. I know I’ll have to run 13.1 miles and I think about 10 minutes a mile is a good time for me. I know I can fit about three long runs a week into my schedule. So instead of “running more often”, I know I have to “run three times a week, at least seven miles each time, at a pace of at least 10 minutes per mile in order to run the entirety of a half-marathon at the end of April.” Boom. Now you’re going places.
3. Do it with other people.
What isn’t more fun with a friend? I’ve corralled at least three people into participating in this race in April. It’s motivating to know that on the big day, I’ll be running alongside friends. Also, I really don’t want to embarrass myself in front of people I respect.
4. Incentivize it!
For me, bragging rights are the ultimate form of motivation. On days when it’s cold and I don’t want to run, I imagine those few slack minutes before the meeting starts, when someone casually asks me, “What did you this weekend?” And I get to say, “I, uh, ran a half-marathon” and shyly study my shoes. And then she asks me a dozen questions about it and she tells me how she always wanted to do that, but it was too difficult, and I shrug like it was no big deal and try to change the topic, but not before two or three other people have overheard and are now maneuvering to sit closer to me, just to bask in the glow of my ambition and determination. I am fierce and they will know it. But maybe that’s just me. You might just want a new scarf or an indulgent bubble bath. The most important thing is making sure that it doesn’t undermine your other goals: for example, don’t give yourself something pricey as a reward for saving money.
5. Break it down as small as you need to.
Have you ever gotten completely overwhelmed at the thought of cleaning your entire house? You know those times when it seems like it’s going to be such an awful and arduous task that you just don’t start? I used to get myself so worked up about giant research papers and strenuous workout plans that I felt hobbled before I even took the first step. I would wait until I had hours and hours free on my schedule before starting on a big project only to find out that I needed hours more just to prepare to get it done. I finally realized that I got a lot more done doing 15 minutes of work when I had 15 minutes free, or if I told myself I had to write just one page before I went out, than if I tried to finish it all in one go. It’s something like the difference between tackling an NFL linebacker and tackling Bambi when he was just a little fawn and couldn’t walk very well.

These are the tips, tricks and techniques I’ve acquired over the past 30 years to help me check things off my to-do lists. Making goals you can meet, then meeting them, then developing a taste for that sense of accomplishment are really satisfying.

Good luck to all of us who have bravely entered 2012 with a calculated list of things we want to expect from ourselves over the next 365 days!