01 July 2011

We've Moved!

Announcing my new website location!

Last February when I was at Pantheacon, I went to several Hindu and Pagan interfaith panel discussions. Mihir Meghani, M.D., co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation participated in the discussions and had many insights, but one of the statistics he shared stuck with me. He mentioned that, after the Jewish community, the Hindu community was the most prosperous religious minority in the United States.

I suspect there are several reasons the Hindu community is so economically vital: focus on higher education, careers in high-paying jobs, living with extended family to reduce costs. etc. Pagans seem to generally share some of those values, but do not tend to share in the prosperity.

With recent events: Patrick McCollum's defeat in his recent lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections, the wrongful termination suit of Carole Smith, the Haiti and Japan disasters; it has become increasingly apparent that the Pagan community needs to be able to offer more than energy and prayers. The Pagan community needs to be as economically prosperous as other religious minorities because it costs money to defend our civil rights and to offer aid to those for whom we feel solidarity and compassion.

It is with this aim in mind - to support and promote the financial growth of the Pagan Community that I have started the Pagan Chamber of Commerce Project. Members of the PCOCP will have the opportunity to have their business listed in a public Directory. In the future, they will also receive a newsletter focused on business practices and financial literacy. Depending upon the success of the PCOCP, I may elect to mediate a pagan business discussion at Pantheacon 2012.

My blog, in addition to the Pagan Chamber of Commerce Project have moved to a new site. I am continuing to write about health, money and sustainable living, in addition to the occasional miscellaneous topic. You will recognize old posts that have been edited or rewritten.

The new site is still under construction, but it's nearly finished and there aren't any sharp nails or loose pieces of wood lying about to flummox a new reader. Without further ado...

08 June 2011

A New Home for Liberation

It seems I have jumped into the very deep end of the pool. I am in the process of building a new home for my blog and some other projects I am very excited about. This means I'm having to take a crash course in PHP, CSS and HTML. The new site will be up and running shortly; it will be much easier to read and better looking too!

I will be posting the new website information as soon as there is content. Thanks for your patience!

03 June 2011

Changes, They are a comin'

I'm very excited (and nervous) about some upcoming changes and additional projects. More news to come...

16 May 2011

Money: The American Dream

"There is a reason education sucks and it's the same reason it will never, ever, ever be fixed. It's never going to get any better; don't look for it, be happy with what you got because the owners of this country don't want that. I'm talking about the real owners now. The real owners, the big, wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions.
Forget the politicians; the politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don't! You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land, they own and control the corporations, they've long since bought and paid for the senate, the congress, the state houses, the city halls. They got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear. They've got you by the balls!
They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying to get what they want. Well, we know what they want; they want more for themselves and less for everybody else. But I'll tell you what they don't want. They don't want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don't want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They're not interested in that - that doesn't help them. That's against their interests. That's right! They don't want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table to figure out how badly they're getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard thirty fucking years ago. They don't want that!
You know what they want? They want obedient workers. Obedient workers; people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork and just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it. And now, they're coming for your social security money. They want your fucking retirement money - they want it back. So they can give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street.
And you know something? They'll get it. They'll get it all from you sooner or later because they own this fucking place. It's a big club and you ain't in it! You and I are not in the big club! 
By the way, it's the same big fucking club they use to beat you over the head with all day long when they tell you what to believe. All day long, beating you over the head with their media telling you what to believe, what to think, and what to buy.
The table is tilted folks. The game is rigged. And nobody seems to notice, nobody seems to care. Good, honest, hard-working people - white collars, blue collars - it doesn't matter what color shirt you have on. Good, honest, hard-working people continue - these are people of modest means - continue to elect these rich cocksuckers who don't give a fuck about them. They don't give a fuck about you! They don't give a fuck about you, they don't care about you! At all! At all! At all!
Nobody seems to notice, nobody seems to care; that's what the owners count on - the fact that Americans will probably remain willfully ignorant of the big red, white and blue dick that's being jammed up their assholes every day. Because the owners of this country know the truth - it's called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it." - George Carlin, Living is Worth Losing (2005)

George Carlin beautifully and succinctly sums up what I've thought for years. The table is tilted, folks - but to mention it in polite company will likely earn you social pariah status; written off as a conspiracy theorist in need of a thicker tinfoil hat.

The seeds of these sweeping changes were sown when I was just a child. It was in 1979 that President Jimmy Carter addressed the nation, condemning the growing problem of consumerism, the worship of money, and the powerful pull of greed at the expense of relationships and community.

This vilification of self-indulgence paved the way for a charismatic, former movie star to win the next election. Soon, American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) was dismantled; cheating many loyal employees out of their pot of gold at the end of a long career - their retirement funds, pensions, and other benefits evaporated as the corporate monolith emerged, championing shareholders' profits over the good of the customers and employees.

I was a high school student when the Iran-Contra-gate scandal hit. I could hardly believe my ears that claiming to not remember major events won Oliver North his exoneration. Surely the attorneys had done their research, hadn't they? Were there no documents, memos, orders or files to divulge who authorized and profited from these breaches? It was then that my faith in my government and justice was irreparably destroyed. It was then I decided I was going to live my life differently to maximize both my flexibility and my freedom.

The LifeScript is a term I have picked up in my travels along the digital highways of the web. The term LifeScript refers to a sort of commonly held ideal lifestyle and path which one's life should take. The current Script seems to go something like this: be a good student and score high on tests to get into a respected college or university; graduate from college with a 4+ year degree in something that will get you a job in a cubicle; get married to someone of your race, religion and background; buy a house; have 2+ children; get into debt by buying things to fill your house, new cars, new clothes, vacations; stay trapped in your job so you can continue to pay your debts; after slavishly giving everything to your children, send them to college; retire; die.

There never seemed to be anything particularly rewarding about living the LifeScript. It seemed, as George Carlin points out, an ingenious way to create obedient workers. To draw from his stand-up, the owners of this country use their media to scare people out of the cities and away from their neighbors and communities. Whether they use violence, racism, crime or other unwholesome features of a particular place matters not - the results are the same. Americans are buying bigger and bigger homes and filling them with every convenience and luxury they can buy. Big screen tvs, DVD collections, video games, exercise equipment, multiple refrigerators and a freezer in the garage - all stocked with food, toys and gadgets and comforts and indulgences. Americans are so burned out from their long days at the office and their long commute home that they justify stockpiling their homes so that they never have to leave and come in contact with the big, scary, unpredictable world.

I was the first person in my family in many generations to get a college degree. Many family members, my parents included, had started college, but had run out of funds before they could complete their studies and graduate. Because of this, my family was naturally suspicious of college and the general sentiment was that university was for rich kids.

In high school, I prepared as if I were going to attend college. I wanted to have the option, should I ever settle on a major course of study. I went to a public high school during the day, and attended community college classes at night. By the time I graduated, I was pretty burned out on school, so I decided to work for awhile instead of heading off to university like all my classmates.

Looking back, those years of hard work were some of my most enjoyable. I still feel ambivalent about college, despite having a degree. I enjoyed college and loved my classes. I majored in something practical- accounting, but I can't say it has guaranteed employment, nor has it been particularly fulfilling or enjoyable. On one hand, I want to believe that getting a good education that is more than just the reading, writing and arithmetic, makes people more interesting and more humane. I think people should be exposed to art, music, wood shop, chemistry, literature and history. On the other hand, modern Americans seem to be so divorced from the infrastructure that makes their life comfortable (street lights, paved roads, indoor plumbing, etc.), and so often lack basic skills that they must throw money at problems rather than resolve it themselves. The average American seems so ill-equipped to deal with leaking toilets, broken fan belts and clogged drains, that they are forced to pay someone else (who may or may not be particularly skilled themselves) to make the repairs. On and on the endless loop continues; now that person has to work more hours to pay for the repairs they had to pay someone else to complete. Maybe more practical or life-skills classes should be required?

Both Mike Rowe in his address to the senate commerce committee, and the bloggers over at The Simple Dollar decry the smug, self-congratulatory sentiment that a "good job" is one that is done in a 6 x 6 cubicle. My religious community certainly seems to value academics and intellectuals above all other vocations. The irony of my mistrust of government is that it is local and state governments that build and maintain the infrastructures we so love. The local governments are the ones who employ the people who do the dirty, hard work of treating our waste water, paving our roads, maintaining dams, levees, bridges and public schools. It wouldn't surprise me in the least to learn that corporate owners were lining the pockets of the politicians of Minnesota (and other places) hellbent on busting unions and disenfranchising public employees. I imagine there are a long line of corporations out there just salivating at contracts for all these newly outsourced public works.

The owners, they want it all.

11 May 2011

Money, Health & Environment: The Automobile

If there is one area of environmental activism which makes me feel guilty and indignant all at once, it is car ownership. Switching from cars to bicycles is the classic example of the Green Triangle (which I cited in my inaugural post). By making the switch, you save money (gas, insurance, maintenance, registration, etc. are eliminated), you improve your health (cardiovascular exercise which can also be therapeutic for knee joints), and you improve the environment (reduce emissions, reduce smog, reduce noise pollution, etc.).

This is about where my indignant side kicks in. The conversation in my head is likely to start with, "There is no way my little compact car creates as much pollution as industry and manufacturing! Deciding to ride a bike instead is just a drop in the bucket which makes little to no difference at all!" Especially when I add in all the other pro-environment actions I take (ride my bike for errands around town, grow my own food, collect gray-water for the garden, recycle, bring my own bags, embrace zero-population growth ideals, try to eat vegetarian, buy only cruelty-free cosmetics and toiletries, line-dry laundry, have a no-tech day once a week, etc.), I feel downright justified in having and enjoying a car.

However, The Urban Country bicycle blog recently wrote about how the average American spends approximately two hours of their workday, every day, paying for their automobile. In other words, we spend about 12 weeks (an entire summer vacation!) or $11,000 each year to own and operate a motor vehicle. Given that time is more important to me than money, those are figures that give me pause.

The truth is, I love cars (and motorcycles)! I take great pleasure in driving - it is something I truly enjoy. My family only took road-trip vacations; I didn't board my first airplane until age 21. I didn't make it to Disney Mickey Rat Land until the ripe old age of 14 (yes, we drove to Anaheim).  Some hot summer nights, we would just go out and cruise - talking, listening to music and perhaps stop for an icy treat at Merlino's.

I also enjoy working on cars - so much so, I hope to turn it into a career in the future. I like racing cars and everything about being at a racetrack makes me feel electrified, happy and alive. I like looking at cars, talking about cars, learning about cars - let's just call it a lifetime passion and leave it at that.

I must have been about ten years old when my father gave me my first bicycle. After spending my childhood as a country kid, I was fascinated and a little frightened by the busy, neat, Euclidian city streets I then found myself. When I first learned to ride that bicycle, and I learned to navigate those numbered and lettered streets, I was so excited by the prospect of being able to ride almost anywhere I would need to go. Gemco, the little store where I bought salted, dried plums, my friends' homes, school, girl scout meetings, my orthodontist. Sure, I could walk there before, and I did; but now I could get there so much faster. I could escape.

When I got my first driver's license at 16 years old, suddenly my world - and range - grew exponentially. I didn't dare do it, but I was often tempted to jump on I-80 and not stop until I saw the ocean. When I finally had my own car, I took advantage of that freedom as often as I could.

The ease of purchasing my first airline ticket surprised me; once again, my range expanded to include nearly the entire globe. However, as much as I love to fly and as much as I adore the ease and speed of flying to a destination, it is too much like public transportation for me to love it as much as driving.

On the road, I can take detours and stop to get a closer look at things which catch my attention. In my car, I can listen to music, even during takeoff. I don't have to worry about fellow passengers elbowing me (except for exciting rounds of Slug Bug) and I have ultimate control over what snacks are on the menu.

So dear reader, in the end, I won't be giving up my car. Though the equivalent of three months' vacation is tempting (as is the cash savings), I enjoy my direct access to independent transportation too much. I will continue to save money, my health and the environment in a bunch of other ways, but you'll only pry the steering wheel out of my hands when I'm either dead, or the DMV revokes my license - whichever comes first.

06 May 2011

Money, Health & Environment: A Preview of Future Posts

I love days like today, where instead of writer's block, I have too many ideas! Today is a smorgasbord of things I've been thinking about.

I recently saw a book review in the personal finance genre called Money and Marriage by Matt Bell. The author points out that the current paradigm is to think about how to spend the money that comes into our lives, which in his opinion leads us into debt. The common priorities for our paychecks goes as follows: spend > debt payments > other bills > savings and/or investments > and if there is anything left over - charity (or in his case, because he is Christian, tithe).
He asks an interesting question: what if we reversed those priorities? As Pagans, we don't have the practice of tithing, but what if we started with a set dollar amount or percentage of our revenue to give to charities, foundations or causes which we support? What if next, we paid ourselves by putting a set amount ($ or %) into our savings accounts and/or retirement accounts? What if we paid our obligations: mortgage or rent, utilities, insurance, food and clothing before we started thinking of the stuff we wanted to buy? I imagine we would be much more financially secure and healthy as a community if we took a closer look at re-tooling our priorities around our money.

I've been thinking a great deal about a follow up to my Pagans & Careers post a few weeks ago. A few things occur to me, which are rather difficult to unpack. While many of our traditions focus on the "country dweller" aspect of Paganism, mostly by honoring the agricultural cycles, most of us are still very much urban people. It seems also, that despite our general tenacity in holding the agricultural cycles dear, the ancient cultures we draw from were almost always urban in many respects. I know many Pagan computer geeks, librarians, and paralegals and exactly zero Pagan farmers.
Also, as a whole, Pagans seem to be an intellectual bunch who live in their heads much of the time. Professionally, they seem to deal with organizing, managing and disseminating information in one way or another. As I was considering "faiths that take care of their own", I realized that the Pagan community is not in a position to do this, primarily because we lack diversity in our career choices. We seem to lack a lot of life skills - can you change the oil on your car? Can you repair a leaking toilet? Can you grow tomatoes? Can you patch a hole in drywall? Change the belt on your vacuum cleaner?
Would your first choice be a Pagan business? We often only associate occult bookstores, artists, authors or musicians as being specifically Pagan businesses - but what about a Pagan dentist? beautician? tax preparer? convenience store owner? Would you patronize their business? What if it cost slightly more?

Consider developing financial goals and policies for yourself. Is it more important to be motivated by price (the cheapest item)? or do you perhaps consider the following:
Supports Pagan business?
Cruelty Free?
Fair Trade?
Union shop or made?
Supports other causes (cancer research, developing countries, women, etc.)?

Likewise, would you avoid or boycott products and services from companies which:
Have a history of discrimination?
Treat their employees unfairly?
Have a history as being polluters?
Support legislation or candidates/representatives who promote policies anathema to your values?

One of my favorite exercises in the book, Your Money or Your Life is the spending analysis. After you have tracked your expenses for at least a month, assign your expenses to broad categories: Housing, Food, Auto, etc. Once you assign your monthly expenditures to their proper categories, it becomes easier to see if your spending is in alignment with your values and policies. Furthermore, it makes it much easier to make more conscious decisions in the future. This is best done in an excel spreadsheet. I have found it to be useful not only in saving money by eliminating unconscious spending, but also as a way to plan out career or lifestyle changes.

Nearly every Pagan I run into lists "occult store owner" or "author/BNP" as their dream job. I hope I can interview some Pagans who run these types of businesses in the near future to find out just how easy or difficult being a business owner can be. Are you a Pagan business owner? Please email me if you would be interested in answering questions about business!

"Food is the most widely abused anti-anxiety drug in America, and exercise is the most potent yet underutilized antidepressant." -Bill Phillips

 I worry sometimes that though as a community we are committed to spiritual growth, even when results are slow, but we go for the quick fix when it comes to our bodies. I love that we aren't afraid of pleasure the way other cultures and faiths are, but I sure wish we could see exercise as part of our spiritual practice.

Please stop saving the "good stuff" for special occasions. Use it now, or sell it/give it away to someone who will. You can always use the cash - especially if its simply sitting in an interest bearing account earning you more money.

Some people have committed to buying nothing for several months, or even a year. They make exceptions for things like toiletries, medication and food; but for everything else, they use what they have or borrow what they need (or do without). How long can you go without buying stuff?

If you rent storage space and you're not leaving for two years with the Peace Corps in Africa, you have too much stuff. Downsize! Sell it, toss it or give it away. Feel how much lighter, peaceful and happy you can be!

Don't stress out and spend so much on your next dinner party. Have a themed potluck! Ask guests to bring appetizers, beverages, desserts, salads, soups or side dishes. You make the entree. Everyone gets to show off their cooking skills and share. For an added bonus, invite everyone to practice yoga or tai chi or [insert activity here] together before the meal.

03 May 2011

Merry Beltane!

Merry Beltane - tis the hinge of summer!

As the weather warms, I find myself drawn away from this computer and into the sunny outdoors. I was suffering from some technical difficulties last week, and though they seem to have been cleared up, I will be changing my writing schedule to twice a week. Posts will likely be on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but there may be some variation to accommodate more complex articles.

26 April 2011

Health: Relationships and Social Obligations

In our formative years, we are subject to relationships with people we did not consciously choose. We are at the mercy of our families or guardians. Eventually, other relationships develop: teachers, babysitters, friends of our parents or guardians, etc. When we finally make it to school, we have autonomy for the first time in choosing our friends from amongst our peers. 

What criterion did we use to choose those first friends? Did we have interests in common? Did we share a similar sense of humor, cultural background or socio-economic status? Or did the people we count as friends simply make us feel good?

Soon, our relationships begin to grow more complex. The onset of puberty seems to mark a significant increase in confusing and often conflicting feelings about our friends, our families and other people in our lives. Many of our expectations become unspoken assumptions and we find ourselves crushed emotionally when others don't seem to share our sense of how relationships should work. We find ourselves having to negotiate our emerging sense of self, our values and our boundaries with what we were taught at home versus our own experiences.

As we enter adulthood, some of us may create families of our own along with an assortment of other kinds of relationships. We now have co-workers and colleagues, managers, landlords, financial advisors, and the strange, impersonal relationship with companies and service providers.

The issue that all these relationships have in common, regardless of the particular stage of life we are in, is the balance of power and obligation. When we are children, we have little, if any power over the people in our lives. We are subject to the authority of our parents, guardians, and eventually, other adults such as teachers and coaches. One of the beautiful freedoms of reaching the age of majority is that we can exercise much more personal agency in the choosing of people in our lives; but it can also be frightening to realize that degree of responsibility in choosing relationships wisely.

The overculture teaches us that some relationships remain sacrosanct, even when there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Adult children are still shamed if they decline to remain in contact with a parent who is abusive. Frequently, being a "good" family member means coming to all holiday and family events bearing gifts, in spite of travel costs or other factors. Being a "good" friend often means supporting or giving lip service to behaviors you find self-destructive or offensive. Similarly, being a "good" family member means biting one's tongue when elderly relatives make sexist, homophobic, racist  or otherwise offensive comments or jokes.

Why do we feel obligated to continue these relationships? What are we getting out of tolerating the intolerable? Why do we continue to subject ourselves to people who make us heart sick?

The root of the problem is, I believe, fear. We fear being seen as ungrateful to our families of origin. We fear being seen as judgmental, self-righteous or arrogant. We fear loneliness. It takes great courage to stand up for yourself and eliminate destructive relationships. 

Ask yourself if you feel energized, inspired and loved by your friends and your family. Do you feel supported? Do you look forward to seeing them? If your relationships make you feel tired, drained or taken advantage of, you need to reconsider the relationship. In some cases, the relationship can be renegotiated - but it requires the other person or persons being open to changing the balance of power. Other relationships are best culled.

The people in your life - especially the people you choose to surround yourself with - won't be perfect, but they should make you feel good. They should share your core values and support your efforts to live your best life and make the most out of opportunities. They should foster an atmosphere of mutual caring, consideration and self-improvment. Life is complicated enough - your relationships should be a port in the storm, not another drama with which to deal.

Imagine how much less stressed out you would be if you spent your holidays doing what you really wanted to do and with people you really wanted for company. How much more full would your wallet and bank account be if you ceased buying gifts out of obligation and instead, gave gifts because it brought you joy to give someone you loved something they would cherish? How much more relaxing would your holidays be if you didn't have to drive or fly for hours? How much happier would you be if you spent your time socializing with people who "got" you? Whom you weren't merely tolerating out of obligation?

Spend some time thinking about the relationships in your life and notice how your body feels when you consider the people in your life. Does your chest constrict? Do you feel panicked or tired? Do you feel happy, or anticipatory, or do you feel anxious? The feelings typical of stress: quickened heartbeat, tightness, especially in the chest, anxiety, fatigue, shortness or shallowness of breath - are all indicators that the relationship to that person should be reconsidered. Be courageous - choose to surround yourself with quality people!

22 April 2011

Happy Earth Day!

Use today to make a resolution for the next year - something to benefit the earth. Bonus points if it saves you money, and/or improves your health too!

20 April 2011

Money & Environment: Doing It Yourself

Creating solutions to everyday problems can be extremely gratifying. Making things yourself can also save money and reduce negative impact on the earth. Here are some things to consider when thinking of doing it yourself:

Do you have the tools to complete your project?
Some projects require special tools, or a complement of common tools that may be out of reach for the urban Pagan apartment-dweller. Are the tools' usefulness transferable to other projects? If the tools are particularly expensive or cumbersome, it might not be worth the cost to do-it-yourself. Also consider that you might be able to borrow or rent tools to complete your activity. For really expensive tools, consider a place like TechShop for professional tools.

Are the materials more costly than purchasing the finished project?
In some cases, buying the materials can be more expensive than purchasing the finished product. It isn't unusual to spend more at the fabric store for all the necessities to sew clothing than it is to buy it off the rack. If your aim is to save money, sometimes it is cheaper to buy the finished item.

Is it labor intensive or does it require specialized skills?
Many Pagans fantasize about making their own ritual knife or sword. However, blade making is a skill that requires lots of practice to develop. If you're committed to learning a highly technical skill, there is no reason why you couldn't go for it - only you know your own time constraints.
This is also where knowing your Real Salary can come in handy - is it worth your time to make something yourself? For instance, unless you're a hardcore foodie, making your own tortillas is a labor-intensive undertaking that probably won't give you the returns on investment of time that spending a few bucks at the local mercado would.

Is quality important?
In some cases, it will be really important that your finished project is of high quality. If you make a piece of furniture for instance, it will need to bear the weight of a human adult reasonably well. If you are building your own greenhouse, you'll want the windows to be well supported. If you make your own pottery, you'll want to make sure your glazes are lead-free and safe for food.

Are aesthetics important to you?
In many situations, unless you're willing to put in hours and hours of practice, your hand-made objects will look handmade. In other situations, function is more important than form. I have created some objects that are lamentably obvious in their hand-crafted appearance. If you prioritize the looks of an object, and you don't have the skills under your belt, it might be better to just buy it.

SF Bay Area folks - The Makers' Faire is coming!!! May 21 & 22 Lots of exhibits and presentations to inspire DIY projects - check it out.

18 April 2011

Environment: Ancestral Home

I love vampire novels for a variety of reasons, some of which are probably deserving of their own blog post. My current obsession are the Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris. The heroine, Sookie Stackhouse is a lovable, down-to-earth character whose more virtuous personality traits keep her both in and out of trouble.

Within the pages of several of the books, the house that Sookie inherited from her grandmother is described in detail. It's an old farmhouse - in continuous possession of the Stackhouses for over 160 years. It was built by one of her ancestors (a great-great-great-great grandfather?) and added to over the decades by subsequent family members.

In one paragraph, Sookie describes her bedroom as she gets ready to retire for the evening. As she climbs into her grandmother's former bed, she discusses how her linens were embroidered by a great-aunt, her quilt sewn and an afgan knitted by other female forebears. She says very poignantly that though she lives alone, she goes to bed each night surrounded by her ancestors.

Part of me longs for that kind of connection to my family. I have a few heirlooms that have been bestowed upon me by grandmothers, aunts and my parents, but I could hardly say that I'm surrounded by things once used and loved by my ancestors. The ability to continue to maintain and use items that have been in the family for generations would be in many ways, the ultimate way to reduce your carbon footprint.

The other part of me finds that kind of connection to the past to be stifling and oppressive. I would feel obligated to preserve these everyday objects and turn my home into a museum instead of a comfortable sanctuary for myself. The few precious things I do have are carefully packed away and not used for fear that they may be broken or compromised in some way.

How do you maintain your connection to your ancestors? Do you still use your great-grandmother's potato ricer? A shawl crocheted by an aunt? Your mother's pyrex dishes with the blue flowers? Your great-grandfather's tools? Your grandfather's pocket watch? or has everything in your home been purchased new (or new-to-you)?

15 April 2011

Environment: Paper Clutter

Today, I am going through stacks and stacks of papers collected over the years: tax returns, old receipts, manuals for appliances I sold or donated ages ago, term papers, college essays, old invoices... I find that clearing out the paper clutter is much easier than the "stuff" crammed into our bursting-at-the-seams houses and storage units simply because I don't have any emotional attachment to an old Starbucks receipt.

Here are some ideas for knowing what to keep, what to shred, what to toss and what you should try to find in digital format...

1. Financial Paperwork

  • I have used Quicken for so long that I'm not sure I know how to use the old-fashioned check registers any longer.  Switch to Quicken or other reputable personal financial organizing software. Be sure to backup your data frequently.
  • Go green, stop paper waste (and the higher risk of identity theft) by switching to e-Statements from your bank or credit union.
  • Continue on the green fiscal policy and switch your monthly bills to e-Statements.
  • Pay bills online.
  • Save tax returns for up to 7 years; shred the old ones.
  • Use your personal finance software to create budgets, or import the data into Excel for more data manipulation options.

2. Manuals & Receipts
When I buy something, particularly if it is an electrical appliance, I keep the receipt. If I can find the owner's manual online, I will download the file (often a .pdf file) to my computer for future reference and then recycle the paper manual. If I can't find a digital version of the owner's manual, I attach the receipt for the item to the front cover and keep it in a special file. If anything goes wrong, I have all the information I need at my fingertips.

Recently, I had to exchange a slow cooker I purchased on sale at Williams-Sonoma many years ago. When I brought it in, the ladies at the cash register were surprised to see it, but they could only offer me a fraction of what I paid for it as store credit without the receipt. Not to be daunted, I produced the receipt which was shockingly almost 8 years old. I received store credit equal to the full amount of my purchase price. Moral of the story - it does pay to hang on to some paperwork!

3. School Papers: Essays, Term Papers and Theses
Unless there are particularly significant messages written on returned papers, digitize these papers and toss 'em. I have a grand total of one paper I wrote in a creative writing class; the professor wrote me a particularly ironic and amusing note without ever realizing that he was doing so. I save it to remind myself that I can paint some detailed pictures with words.

4. Old Invoices, Receipts
If it's paid, toss it. Unless the receipt is for a serviceable or uniquely valuable item, toss it.

5. Reference Materials
Chances are, this is the first time you've looked at this stuff in years. Equally probable - it's likely the last time you'll look at it in years. We get so much information with the ease of the internet - recycle old reference materials after scanning and saving the useful bits.

Be ruthless! The shredder is your friend!

13 April 2011

Money, Health & Environment: Perfectionism

Something I heard growing up was the old saying, "Don't bother to do it if you're just going to do it half-assed!" I'm sure most of us have heard something similar, as I'm sure we all struggle with the perfectionism that it suggests. Perfectionism is paralyzing - creating layers of excuses as to why we can't do something we profess to desire.

I first really noticed my perfectionism when I started to practice yoga. I delayed taking my first class because I wanted to make sure I had all the "right" stuff: the best yoga mat, the cutest clothes, the most unique bag and all the other goodies: straps, blocks and blankets. Then I spent hours reading about different styles of yoga, the history of the practice and the philosophy. I told myself that I was being smart by being so well-prepared; in reality, I was just stalling. Then it became an issue of having enough money; I wanted to take the beginner's track at the Yoga Journal conference in San Francisco (which, as wonderful as it is, it is very pricey) - another stall on the path. I had convinced myself that everything had to be "perfect" before I could practice - amazingly, I finally did begin.

I soon realized that this perfectionism spilled over into many other areas of my life. If I couldn't pay off a debt in one fell swoop, I would give up, thinking that it was no use trying since I couldn't do it "perfectly". If I tried a new hobby or wanted to learn a new skill, I would quickly stop my efforts if once again, I failed to have miraculous and prodigious talent.

Recently, I've been seeing several reviews for a book titled Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. The premise of the book, and several other recent titles, is that really successful people are not child prodigies or natural talents. Rather, successful people committed to practice regularly - hours and hours of practice over several years - to become extraordinary experts. Even in the face of adversity and rejection, their commitment to practice has made them triumphant.

Today, I've accepted that maybe I'll never be able to lift my body into urdhva dhanurasana, but I don't need to wait for the perfect yoga mat or to be able to afford unlimited classes with the "best' teachers. I only need my commitment to continue daily practice and seek the wisdom of my Self.

I still struggle with my perfectionism, which is really a fear of failure taken to extreme denial - but I find I recognize it sooner and can battle it better. Some questions I ask myself: How is your ego being challenged? Why do you fear failure? Do you think other people will laugh at you if you fail? Will they lose respect for you? We use perfectionism as a way to never do anything or take risks. I have found that most people are too wrapped up in their own experience to even notice that you are taking personal risks and courting failure. The truth is, you will fail. Probably many times. It's not the end of the world and is essential to our learning process. Why is failure so scary to you? What is really at stake if you should fail? What does it cost you if you never try?

Are you a perfectionist? What are you putting off until the conditions are "perfect"? What have you denied yourself in the name of being better prepared, ready for or well-researched?

11 April 2011

Environment: Home Decor

Beauty is important to me, essential even. I find beauty to be nourishment for my soul, yet my aesthetics are rather eclectic. I love the intricate, nature-inspired work of art nouveau and the rich, detailed pieces of Waterhouse and other Neoclassicists and Pre-Raphaelites. I also love the stark beauty of desert landscapes and the postminimalists. One of my favorite artists as a teen was Patrick Nagel; his extreme stylism and streamlined images evoke ancient Egyptian art.

My tastes, especially in home decoration, lean sharply toward the clean lines and uncluttered minimalism of Scandinavian design. I abhor tchotchkes and knick-knacks. I seldom decorate for the holidays. I favor live plants over cut flowers. Despite the lack of decoration, I have left an indelible mark on my surroundings. Somehow, my home is deeply personalized and beautiful.

I have a close girlfriend who is a wonderful decorator. Her home is always beautiful - it is filled with beautiful things. During various holidays, her home is always festive and decorated with items associated with that particular time of the year. She enjoys bringing out the decorations she's collected over the years and everyone who visits her home enjoys seeing them.

I tend to think of decorating, especially for holidays, as a big hassle. Everything has to be drug out of the garage, closet or attic, organized, put out and hung up and after a few weeks, the process is repeated in reverse. I find no joy in the prospect of decorating, so I don't bother. Perhaps I'm too practical or utilitarian for decorating to be a part of my household affairs. Others however, love to decorate and happily spend hours putting colored lights, ornaments, flowers, ribbons, and other decorative items around their home, arranged just so to showcase their delights.

08 April 2011

Money: Getting Our Attention

Many years ago, an acquaintance of mine - a Ceremonial Magician - said to me that our Gods have many methods of gaining our attention; the most popular way was to 'mess with our money'. Over the years, I have heard similar statements from other Pagans of varying paths. The bottom line is - if our Gods are unhappy with us, they will cut off our allowance like a punishing parent.

This doesn't sit well with me. Why would I spend my time developing a relationship with deity who would vindictively harm my financial well-being if I had somehow offended her or him?

My first problem with the idea of financial punishment is that it is petty. I can conceive of no way to reconcile what I know of the divine with this characterization of mean-spirited spitefulness. My Gods have been a source of comfort, beauty, wisdom and protection. I can't imagine them toying with my cash flow to make a point.

The second problem I have with this train of thought is that it isn't effective communication. If our Gods are trying to get our attention or change behavior, jeopardizing one's ability to eat and keep a roof over their heads isn't going to elicit stronger feelings or behaviors of a spiritual nature. If anything, it keeps people scrambling to meet their needs for survival and tied up with bureaucracy. I can't think of a worse way to get someone's attention.

Perhaps I am naive, but even Aristotle recognized that "happiness seems to require a modicum of external prosperity." I can't think of an ancient culture that did not have a God or Goddess of prosperity and wealth. I like to think that the divine wants us to prosper, to have the things we need; then we are free to have leisure and contemplate the cosmos and our place in it and our relationship to the Gods.

06 April 2011

Money: Pagans, Careers & Finances (Part 1)

Money remains a taboo subject of discussion in our culture. Most of us would rather discuss politics, religion or even sex than reveal our thoughts and personal practices around our finances. Good or bad, our finances are tightly bound up with our identities and feelings of worth - to expose our financial affairs is to open ourselves to scrutiny: our habits, our vices, our weaknesses and strengths, our status. Although they are separate issues, our self-esteem and our net worth seem to be inextricably linked.

In the first few weeks of business school, as all of us eager and idealistic students got to know each other, it was clear that many of us had altruistic aims. Many of my colleagues worked for non-profit organizations and were hoping to not only further their careers with an MBA, they hoped to promote the ideals of their organizations.

My first professor noted our general liberality and idealism with an indulgent smile. He told us all that we should be aware that as our careers progressed, and the more money and assets we collected, our views would likely become more conservative. It struck me as grim and cynical, but I suppose most people can afford to be idealistic and liberal when they don't have much to lose.

When I look around the Pagan community, I notice that many of us don't seem to be interested in the traditionally lucrative career paths, favoring instead the humanities and arts. Although we seem to be lifelong learners, few of us are able to transfer these skills into money-making opportunities. When I read the results of the first Pagan census, I noticed that the computer sciences were among the most popular career choices, followed closely by nursing and social work. There were very few attorneys and accountants and no physicians.

Perhaps, as my professor suggested, we Pagans are afraid that affluence will cost us our ideals and maybe even our values. We seem to be both suspicious and envious of those who prosper. We possibly assume that the prosperous among us are less devout, less connected to the community or have maybe even sacrificed spiritual attainment on the altar of financial security. Do we fear the loss of leisure time to a demanding career? Or maybe the increased scrutiny of outsiders correlated to enhanced job titles and salaries?

I'd love to hear from my Pagan readers - have you foregone a promotion or a more lucrative career track in favor of your spirituality? How would you characterize your relationship to money? Do you feel you have enough? or can you barely make ends meet?

04 April 2011

Money: Debt

I admit it, I despise debt. Some financial advisors say that some kinds of debts are better than others, and that may be true. Regardless of the character of debt, I still hate it. Whether you have credit card debt, a mortgage, or student loans - you are still tied much more firmly to a job you may hate, just so you can make your payments. Becoming debt-free gives you so much more freedom and latitude to explore options previously unavailable to you.

Other authors, bloggers and financial advisors have all said what there is to say about getting out of debt. I recommend any of the following sources for strategies for getting out of debt:

Your Money or Your Life
Dave Ramsey's Financial Makeover
Man vs. Debt
Get Rich Slowly

I follow a combination of the advice from the aforementioned sources. In short:

  • Sell everything that isn't essential. Use the proceeds to pay down your debt.
  • Prioritize your debts; usually by the highest interest rate, but some debts may have other terms that might make them higher priority. 
  • Throw as much money as possible at the priority debt, while maintaining minimum payments to your other debts. When one debt is eliminated, continue this process until they are all paid off.
  • Get a second job. Take odd jobs. Whatever it takes to increase your cash to use toward paying down your debts.
  • Eliminate all your "extras" - no more stops at the cafe, no more meals out, no more movies. Nothing. Nada. Use every cent you can towards paying off your debts.
  • Cut costs in other areas to free up funds to throw at your debts. No one needs cable television - you are paying to be advertised to! Turn off lights, lower the thermostat, dry your clothes on a line or rack, drive less - anything to reduce your expenses and save money.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Yes, life will suck for awhile. Temporary suckage is far better than a lifetime of enslavement to credit cards, loans, mortgages and personal debts. Like Dave Ramsey says, "Live like no one else, so you can live like no one else."
  • Eliminate temptations and surround yourself with support. Some people aren't going to be happy that you are no longer going out to lunch, going to happy hour, or doing other things that cost money. Stop catalog mailings - you don't need the temptation to whip out the credit card and spend money you don't have!
  • Don't go to the mall and avoid window shopping - envy develops when you are bombarded with things you can't have or afford to buy. 

Good luck! Getting out of debt is hard work, but it absolutely essential if you want a life of financial independence and peace of mind.

Quick note to my readers: I'm going to devote this entire week to discussing money. However, on Wednesday, I'm going to get away from the technical (I think I might be boring you all!) and spend some more time on the issues around money and the Pagan community. While I think these technical items need to be taught and addressed, I want to build a Pagan-specific framework for discussing money and our values around finances.

01 April 2011

Health: Yoga, Embodiment and Avidya

Misapprehension leads to errors in comprehension of the character, origin, and effects of the objects perceived. False identity results when we regard mental activity as the very source of perception. Excessive attachment is based on the assumption that it will contribute to everlasting happiness. Unreasonable dislikes are usually the result of painful experiences in the past connected with particular objects and situations. Insecurity is the inborn feeling of anxiety for what is to come. It affects both the ignorant and the wise.

-Patanjali's Yoga Sutra 2:5-9
(translation by TKV Desikachar)

With a nod to the Theosophical movement and the works of Aleister Crowley, modern Pagans have been influenced by the philosophy and spirituality of the East (well...since I'm in California, wouldn't that make it the West?). Many of our spiritual practices come from Hinduism and Buddhism - meditation, chanting (mantra) and breathing techniques (pranayama). Yoga has also become a staple in Pagan practice as it provides a unique opportunity to align body, breath, mind and spirit.

The yoga sutras speak of a human affliction - avidya. The Sanskrit word vidya means wisdom, or the deep knowledge of the True Self gained through practice and experience. The prefix a modifies the word to mean lacking or without. The word avidya then points to an ignorance of the True Self.

False identity can also present itself as a denial of identity. Many of us are very attached to the notion that we are not our bodies. Recognition of one's mortality can cause deep anxiety so we tend to identify with our personality or spirit in an attempt to only embrace the eternal. Unfortunately, we miss the second half of the equation: we are not only our bodies, but our bodies are part of the whole of ourselves.

Some mistakenly believe that you cannot be spiritual and be embodied simultaneously. Astral travel, pathworking, and trance are all various methods to cast the consciousness out into the world, but when our work is done, we return to a functioning, breathing body. Our body is still part of our spiritual experiences, no matter how hard we try to ignore or minimize it.

Some are so addicted to the feelings of happiness that the body can provide - the taste of sweet wine, a lover's touch, the earthy-sweet melt of chocolate, the soar of emotion when viewing inspiring art and the pull to dance to great music. The temptation is to continue to experience only these pleasurable physical feelings to the neglect of what the body may need. For others, perhaps their bodies were a source of shame. Maybe they were uncoordinated or ridiculed for their appearance. Maybe they experienced pain, injury or illness in such a way as to believe they had been betrayed by their body. Dissociation is a reasonable response to these experiences and we frequently cover or numb these unwanted sensations with a variety of drugs.

The first sutra of the second chapter (of the yoga sutra) tells us: The practice of Yoga must reduce both physical and mental impurities. It must develop our capacity for self-examination and help us to understand that, in the final analysis, we are not the masters of everything we do.

Is this not the aim of the magician? The alchemist? Inscribed above a doorway to the temple of Apollo at Delphi was the phrase temet nosce - know thyself. We cannot truly know the whole of ourselves without integrating our bodies and fully inhabiting them. How many of us can truly listen to our own body? How many are so familiar with their physicality that they can accurately interpret their body's signals? While we long to commune with the divine, we must also ground deeply and be fully embodied - only then will we have the proper relationship to ourselves and knowledge of the True Self possible.

30 March 2011

Environment: Home as Temple

We've all heard the old saying, "Your body is your temple." As a Pagan, my home is also my temple, as it has been for countless other Pagans through the ages.

In ancient Rome, the home was the primary place of worship. There were temples - both state run, like the temple of Vesta and the domicile of her virgins; and also the temples of the various cults from around the empire. However, daily worship was conducted in the home: before the lararium and in the kitchens of every residence.

The ladies of the household were responsible for ensuring the fire was always burning in honor of Vesta. The male head of household honored the spirit of the family - the genius. A variety of other household gods were honored: the lares were the family ancestors, but later (for patrician families) included patron deities. Penates were protectors of the household, especially the pantry or larder. There were spirits of the door, the door hinges, the threshold, the land or location, and more. Daily rituals honored the gods, the household and family spirits with prayer, offerings of food, wine, oil, milk, salt and water.

These rituals are not much different than those in the thousands of Hindu households in India. Daily devotion and ritual, or puja, are performed to honor the family's patron deities and ask for their blessings, protection and guidance.

The home is also the primary place of worship for modern Pagans. When the earliest covens, circles and study groups were forming in the 1960's, 70's, 80's and 90's, they were almost exclusively held in the living room of one of the members. Few of us have the resources - either personally or communally to provide for a separate and independent temple or place of worship. Even were we to develop the resources to build temples for Pagan worship, our structures are much different from those of the monotheisms as we are all clergy: there are no parishioners or congregants in Pagan religion.

Most people, if the organization and home economics experts are to be believed, rush around for an hour trying to hide messes and make common areas look presentable before company arrives.  Even I have assisted in many a frenzied cleaning spree hours before a ritual, sabbat or other religious event was to occur in someone's home.

A few things happened however, to make me rethink how I was managing my household. I quickly came to the conclusion that I was not being respectful of my home, my belongings or myself - especially myself. We seldom entertained at home when I was growing up, and when we did, I never felt comfortable having people in the house. I never felt relaxed and fretted constantly about my guests' comfort. Plus, by the time I was done helping my mother and siblings scrub the entire house before our friends arrived, I was too tired to really enjoy their company.

So even though I still retain a certain discomfort with having people over, my household is home to many cultures and many deities. There are the Gods of my heritage, the Gods of my partner's heritage, and the Gods that call to me. Additionally, there are the household Gods, our beloved ancestors, the spirits of the land and the little people. Why was it okay to have a home in disarray if people weren't coming over? I already had a house full of Gods and Goddesses - didn't they deserve to be shown the same deference and respect I would show to human guests?

I had read many blogs, sites and books on home organization and cleaning. It wasn't until I found the FlyLady that I was truly blessed with a program that works. I went all in and cleaned my home, ceiling to floor in a little less than two weeks.

Part of the reason it took me so little time was because for about five years previously, we had been making a concerted effort to declutter our home. We had sold, given away or thrown out hundreds of things by then - so all I really had to do was whip out the all-purpose cleaner and get to work.

I treat housework as though it were a sacrament, a sacred ritual of purification. I crank up inspiring music that I can sing along with and sometimes dance to, I use cleaning products with oils consecrated to particular purposes mixed in. My cleaning tools are consecrated - my vacuum cleaner, duster, mop, and especially my broom are all tools in the art of magical housekeeping. I talk to my ancestors, commune with my favorite household Goddess, Hestia. I offer up my sweat in joyous dedication - how blessed I am to have a home to clean!

When I set house wards, I'm not just putting lipstick on a pig - the house is both physically and spiritually clean. Energy flows better and it is more abundant. I find I am no longer wasting time on distractions - focus is more easily achieved. And when I am done, and my home sparkles, I can light candles for my ancestors and for my Gods and feel proud to offer them hospitality in our home. And when beloved coven members come to the house to meet, I can spend my energy preparing a pot of tea and fully participate in our conversation.

28 March 2011

Money: Calculating Your Real Salary

In my favorite book on personal finance, Your Money or Your Life, authors Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin spend an entire chapter discussing the calculation of one's real salary - information that is later used to better inform choices around spending, saving and budgeting. At its heart, calculating your real salary is a cost/benefit analysis.

First, Calculate Your Time
Depending upon your job description, industry, title and company structure, the time you devote to your job can vary widely. Additionally, if you are a salaried employee, it can be even more difficult to determine how much time you actually put in when you are expected to check emails frequently or come in on weekends or holidays.
If you are in management, or in a profession that regularly requires you to do additional work at home, check email/blackberry after hours and/or work on weekends or holidays, it is best to record your hours like you record your expenses as described here.

Example: For the sake of simplicity, let's say you earn a salary (after taxes and deductions) of $52,000 annually. Since there are 52 weeks in a year, you make $1,000 a week. If you work 40 hours a week, you earn $25 an hour.

But wait, there's more...

How much time do you spend getting ready in the morning? This extra time may be negligible if you don't dress any differently at work than you do on the weekends, but for many people, getting ready for work takes longer than their routine on the weekends or when they're on vacation. Add this time to your work hours.

How long is your commute? Do you stop to pick up breakfast or donuts and bagels for the office on your way to work? Add this time to your work hours.

How long is your lunch or dinner break? Even though you aren't officially "on the clock" you are still either at your job site, or nearby - often with colleagues or clients. Add this time to your work hours.

Example (continued): Earlier, we calculated that your work week was 40 hours. However, let's say you spend an extra half hour getting ready in the morning. This adds 2 1/2 hours to your work week. If your commute is 1/2 hour one-way from your home to your work, this adds another five hours to your week (provided you work five 8-hour shifts per week). Let's say you also take an hour lunch break everyday, adding another five hours to your work week. Now your work week is 52 1/2 hours instead of just 40, bringing your hourly earnings to approximately $19.05.

Next, Calculate Your Work-Related Expenses
Consider the old adage, "It takes money to make money" and you'll understand this next section. There are things you must buy in order to maintain your job: gas money or public transportation passes; special clothing, meals, continuing professional education and more. This is where tracking your expenses over several months comes in handy...

Transportation: You have to put gas in your car to commute to work, but don't forget to include other car-related expenses such as insurance, registration and maintenance. Don't forget to include your car payment if you don't own your vehicle outright. This is easier for a car or truck that is used exclusively for work, but you can estimate the percentage of use of your vehicle for work-related travel for an all-purpose car.
If instead you use public transportation, multiply the cost of a monthly pass by 12 months and then divide by 52 weeks to find the weekly amount. (Example: A monthly pass costs $40 x 12 = $480 annually. $480/52 = $9.23 per week.)

Appearance & Clothing: Do you wear suits and ties to work? Do you require a uniform? Maybe coveralls or work boots or other special clothing that you don't normally wear outside of work? Don't forget any special grooming, accessories or cosmetics that you need to look appropriate for your job, but wouldn't normally wear during your personal time. Don't forget to include dry cleaning costs. Refer to your expense log to determine an average for annual clothing expenses and divide by 52 to calculate a weekly cost.

Meals & Snacks: Do you eat out for lunch? Do you stop by your favorite cafe on your break? Do you buy your lunch at the company cafeteria? Don't include meals with clients or colleagues that you are reimbursed for through an expense report.

Other Job-Related Expenses: Did you buy a briefcase or bag for your laptop that you were not reimbursed for? Do you take classes, exams or re-certification workshops that you pay out-of-pocket? Do you belong to professional organizations, networks or clubs? Do you subscribe to industry-specific periodicals, journals or other media to enhance your job skills? What about tools, reference materials or supplies that enhance your ability to do your job? If you travel for work and must use a personal credit card for airfare, hotels and meals which are later reimbursed through an expense report, don't forget to include any interest or other fees that you pay while you are waiting for your expense check.

Example (Continued):

Transportation Expenses (weekly):
Gas - $40
Insurance - $15
Registration - $3
Maintenance - $18
Total: $76

Appearance & Clothing (weekly):
Clothing: $20
Dry Cleaning: $15
Total: $35

Meals & Snacks (weekly):
Coffee Drinks: $25
Lunch: $50
Total: $75

Total Expenses (weekly): $186

Your Real Weekly Salary:

Base Weekly Salary: $1,000
(Less: Weekly Expenses) -$186
Real Weekly Salary: $814

Hours Worked per Week: 52.5 hours
Real Hourly Salary: $ 15.50

This means that for every 15 minutes of your life, you are earning $3.88. Is that latte or smoothie worth fifteen minutes of your life? Is cable television worth three hours of your life? Some other things to think about...

  • Do you enjoy your work?
  • For the amount of work that you do, and the level of education you have, years of experience, etc., is your Real Hourly Salary a fair wage?
  • Do you find yourself having to "self-medicate" to relieve the stress of your work? (i.e. drinks after work, other mind-numbing activity to decompress, etc.)
  • Do you find yourself living for the weekend? your next vacation? retirement?

Next week, I will discuss a couple of things including using your expense log and your Real Salary to make some informed decisions for your spending and some strategies for getting out of debt.

25 March 2011

Health: Some Thoughts on Weight

I've been troubled for a few weeks; my first post about excess weight and health didn't really go the way I had hoped. I stepped on some land mines, was confronted with some of my assumptions, and felt as though I expressed myself poorly; but I hope to move forward and do better. I knew this was a difficult, challenging and touchy topic, but I don't want to be afraid to discuss something so important.

1. Health is a Spectrum
I see health as a spectrum - on one side, you have optimum health; on the other, disease. Hopefully, everyone is making choices that point toward the optimum health side of the spectrum. Where an individual falls on this spectrum is in many ways subjective and it is comprised of several different factors. Depending on your age, family history and personal history, some markers may include blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, TSH levels, estrogen or testosterone levels, quality of sleep, blood cell counts, oxygen levels or body fat percentage. The significance of these markers will be different for everyone and only you (and your doctor) know your body well enough to determine which factors are of most concern for you.

2. The Biosphere Loves Diversity
Bodies come in many different shapes, sizes, and colors. Not everyone can be a size 2, nor does everyone want to be a size 2. The supermodels don't even really look like that - their photographs are so heavily photoshopped that no human could ever look like the "people" on the covers of the various magazines. Hell, even if Barbie was on crack cocaine, she couldn't be that thin and disproportionate. There is no magic dress size; there is only the appropriate size for you. If you don't think beauty comes in every size, take a look at this.

3. There are Many Roads to Rome
I've been reading about alternative and integrative medicine long enough to know that everyone's health plan needs to be customized. Some need more vegetables, some need more sleep, some need to supplement their diet with various herbs and vitamins. Some people respond to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), others do better with Ayurveda, and yet others do best with western medical protocols. Everyone is different - listen to your body.

4. The System is Rigged
Getting healthy and staying healthy is hard work. Corporate America is sabotaging you, as are your health insurance actuaries. There are "food" companies out there who spend millions of dollars making their "food" as tasty and addictive as possible. Then they spend millions more on studying your psychology so they can successfully market this cheap, nasty "food" to you. It is inescapable - junk food is everywhere and it is very, very, very hard to run from its siren song. From the heavily subsidized crops like corn and sugar to the dollar menus, it can sometimes feel like choosing between the lesser of two evils. Don't hate on yourself because you succumbed to the corporate machine. Just do better next time. If you need some aversion therapy, try reading this or this. The movie was too hard for me to watch, and I had to turn it off mid-way through. Though, the movie "Supersize Me" was frightening and entertaining all at the same time.

5. The Metrics are Skewed
I used to think that the BMI was wonderful. Now not so much thanks to this and this. In a nutshell, BMI is a nice way to determine obesity in large populations, but not in individuals. It has been suggested that the insurance industry loves the BMI to justify charging you (and your employers) higher premiums. Use the waist-to-hip ratio instead.

6. Overcoming Inertia Sucks
I enjoy runner's high and that light and clear feeling you get after a long vinyasa yoga class. I actually like kicking the crap out of a heavy bag and the feel of the wind in my hair as I fly down a mountain on my bike or snowboard. If I actually enjoy these things, why is it so hard to get motivated to go do them? Like everyone else, I've had long periods of time where I consistently went to the gym or to yoga class or went out for a run. Then something happened: a minor injury, work travel, out of town guests - something always seemed to get me out of my routine. Boy howdy is it hard to get back on track!
I've also been on my various healthy eating kicks where I swear I'm going to make every meal from scratch. A few weeks go by - I stew beans and vegetables, make salads five times a week, make everything vegan or gluten-free or macrobiotic or whatever. But then, all my enthusiasm just gets deflated and I find myself choosing between ordering a pizza or going out for pho.
The best advice that I can offer (and that I try to take myself) is don't let anything derail you. Do less or go with less intensity, but don't let off the gas. Inertia can take weeks, even months to overcome if you let it settle in around you.

7. But Let's Not Bullshit Ourselves
I am a typical American - I am fat. I started gaining weight in college. Now, most people would say that it's common to gain the freshman 15 - since it's your first time away from home and so on. Only, I had lived on my own for nearly a decade when I started university (I was a late bloomer). At one point, I actually wished aloud that I had a malfunctioning thyroid or that something was wrong with me so that I would have an excuse for being fat. But that's all it was - an excuse. Do I really need to talk about how screwed up it was that I was wishing disease on myself to justify my obesity?
No, there was nothing wrong with my TSH levels or anything else. I had simply let myself go. This is not to say that there aren't people out there who have real medical problems that cause them to gain weight. There are a variety of reasons people gain weight and not all of them are because they are doing something "wrong". But in my case, I was fat because I was sitting on my ass (studying) and drinking way too many mochas with extra whip. I suspect a lot of people are like me - they are fat because they aren't exercising enough and they have a crazy sweet tooth.
When it's been cold and rainy (like it has been lately), or I'm in the middle of reading a really good book, the last thing I want to do is strap on some running shoes and go burn off last night's dinner. But, I also know that if I had not been getting regular exercise and eating healthier foods that I wouldn't have been able to get through the public ritual I ran last week. I celebrated Ostara outdoors, in the cold wind and rain and I'm not sick! Last month, I got through four full days (and nights) of Pantheacon and I didn't get sick. This was only possible because I've been taking better care of myself. As a priestess of the Gods I serve, I am committed to maintain a strong body so that I might continue to do greater work. What great work could you do if your body was stronger?

23 March 2011

Environment: Container Gardening

The Spring Equinox was last weekend - indicating the allotted time to plant our garden.

I spent the first seven years of my life on a small farm. My mother maintained a sizable vegetable garden and had many creative (and sometimes labor intensive) methods for preserving, storing and using our bounty. She made pickles - both sweet and dill - from our cucumbers. She canned lots of other veggies, and even made her own tomato sauce, paste and stewed tomatoes that we enjoyed year-round. She was an avid proponent of organic gardening long before grocery stores put a "9" in front of the SKU number for produce.

Organic produce can be quite costly and I thought I could grow my own at a significant savings. Additionally, because we rent the home we live in, we didn't want to make any costly or semi-permanent changes to the landscaping. To resolve this dilemma, we explored container gardening.

My mom, the ultimate green thumb, told me about the Earth Box and recommended it as an ideal solution for container gardening. She mentioned seeing them for the first time at a home & garden show and bought several to share with my grandparents. That first year, they picked over 10 pounds of tomatoes from their plants.

I like container gardening because I can control all the variables: soil, water, fertilizer. Also, with the design of the Earth Box, I don't have to worry about weeding, though occasionally, I do need to put out snail and slug bait (that is safe & non-toxic to other animals). Set-up is quick and easy; you can have an entire box planted in about ten minutes.

We have since gone on to add dwarf citrus trees in large pots and potatoes, peppers and salad greens in grow bags. I now have lemons, limes and oranges almost year round. The potato plants yielded enough yukon gold tubers to last almost two months.

Not only do I get to enjoy fresh produce, I draw all kinds of lovely critters to my yard. Hummingbirds are here daily, sampling from the lemon blossoms while bees buzz around the tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash and the flowers I plant to draw them in.

We also maintain an Aerogarden indoors for culinary and medicinal herbs. This year, we planted cilantro, chives, basil, calendula, lemon balm and dill. I cook a lot of both middle eastern and Thai food, so between the cilantro, dill, basil and kaffir limes, I stay pretty well stocked.

This year, we decided to add water barrels to our garden. Summers in Silicon Valley can be very warm and it's easy to lose thirsty vegetables like cucumbers if you don't keep them watered. In an effort to save on our water bill this year, we took advantage of the rainy season by collecting it in large barrels. We were able to acquire two large barrels from a friend and make our own rain barrels. If money is no object, you can buy some lovely ceramic rain barrels like the ones here, but we were trying to save money, not get featured in Sunset magazine.

The benefits are multifaceted and I recommend that even apartment dwellers take up container gardening. It makes your patio, yard or balcony beautiful; it relieves stress to play in the dirt and it saves money by providing delicious, organic produce that is as locally grown as you can get. It puts you directly in touch with Nature and the agricultural cycles which we, as Pagans, celebrate. Last but not least, it's really fun and satisfying to enjoy that which you have sown.

21 March 2011

Money: Making Decisions About Spending

Have you ever thought about what motivates you to spend your money? What drives you to choose a certain brand or option over another? Is it something you've always bought? Do you always look for whatever is cheapest or on sale? Have you had a good experience with that particular item? Did a friend or relative recommend it to you? Does your purchase benefit an organization or cause you support?

In order to make decisions about how we spend our money, we need to be conscious of our values. There are no right or wrong answers - just an opportunity to develop a greater awareness around how we spend our money.

Over the next month (or longer), I recommend writing down every cent that comes into or out of your life. You can use a small notebook, a smartphone app, sticky notes or whatever appeals to you to write down every penny you spend and every penny you receive. This exercise will yield lots of useful information for future calculations.

One thing to keep in mind is consistency is very important. At first, you may notice that you alter your spending habits because you don't want to have to write it down. You may want to procrastinate - you tell yourself you'll write everything down at the end of the day. Don't wait! Write everything down as soon as money comes into or out of your life. Don't round numbers up or down - write down the exact amount. The longer you can maintain this exercise - the more accurate the information will be because it provides more longitudinal information.

To clarify, the water company invoices me every other month. I also pre-pay my auto insurance six months in advance (to take advantage of discounts). If I only wrote down my expenditures and income for one month, it will give me a very skewed picture of what my average expenses and revenues are and make it more difficult to create a workable budget or calculate and plan for other financial concerns. Gathering detailed data over multiple months generates more accurate data.

Next week, I will discuss how we can organize this data into useful information such as creating a budget, calculating our real wage and aligning our values with how we use our money. For now, just write down everything you spend or receive/earn without judgment. No shame, no blame - detach from any emotions you are feeling and just write it down as objectively as you can.

18 March 2011

Just a Quick Note Today...

I'm preparing for a public Ostara ritual tomorrow with South Bay Circles and don't have time for a more in-depth post. 

Meanwhile, the Pagan community is raising funds for the work Doctors Without Borders (Medicins Sans Frontieres) is doing in Japan. So far, they have raised over $20,000 and are hoping to donate at least $30,000. I urge everyone to support this effort; you can make a donation here.

16 March 2011

Environment: Home Fires

The devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan are weighing heavy in my thoughts today. It's difficult to come up with something pithy or even useful when there is so many homeless and injured across the ocean from me.

I am reminded of goddesses of the hearth and home - the centers of daily worship in Pagan practice. I am fond of Hestia, the original lady of the house who kept the homefires burning. But tonight, I light a candle for Fuchi, the Japanese goddess of fire and for Sanpo Kojin, Japanese god of the hearth. May the Japanese people find warmth and the comfort of good food tonight.

So mote it be!

14 March 2011

Money: Emergency Funds

Everyone has unexpected expenses which crop up - car repairs, sick pets, appliances or plumbing that malfunctions and so on. As Dave Ramsey, a popular Christian financial planner says, it isn't a matter of if these crises will happen, but when. Unfortunately, most people seem ill prepared to deal with life's curveballs and they find themselves deeper in debt to solve these problems.

Ramsey recommends starting with an emergency fund of $1,000 if you are in debt, but this number may be higher depending upon your location, number of dependents and so forth. I've read that the average unexpected expense is $700 - enough to blow anyone's budget and create a debt cycle that is difficult to pay off.

Emergency Funds for Debtors
I will tackle the issue of debt in a forthcoming blog, but for our purposes, credit obligations include credit cards, debt consolidation loans, personal loans, car notes, student loans (less than $30,000) and all other types of debt excluding mortgages.

If you have any of these types of obligations, you are in debt and need to throw all your resources towards saving up a minimum of $1,000. Once that money has been set aside for emergencies, do not touch it unless you have an unexpected crisis. Should an emergency occur while you are working towards paying off debt, use your emergency fund to pay for the crisis. Do not use credit cards to solve your problems - they just create a deeper pit for you to crawl out of. Once crisis has been resolved, divert your resources to building the emergency fund back to $1,000.

Emergency Funds for the Debt-Free
If you are already debt-free, or once you satisfy all your credit obligations (except your mortgage), you can now focus on saving up the rest of your emergency funds. Minimally, you should set aside three months of living expenses and ideally six months or more. Depending upon the size of your mortgage payment (if you have one), you should be able to save up the remaining emergency funds fairly quickly now that you are no longer in debt.

How much is enough?
Money, like food, provides for some emotional needs. Depending upon a variety of factors, some will desire a bigger cushion of emergency funds than others. Calculate your living expenses for a month - don't forget to include:

  • Rent or Mortgage
  • Insurance (Home, Auto, Medical/Dental, Life, etc.)
  • Utilities (Water, Power, Waste, etc.)
  • Phone
  • Groceries (don't forget your pet food!)
  • Incidentals (gas, public transportation fare, household supplies, etc.)

Some people feel secure if they have three months of expenses saved, others want to have a year of living expenses put aside, plus an extra cushion. There are no correct answers - it only depends on your personal circumstances. When calculating how much is enough for you (and your family) consider:

  • the age of your vehicle(s)
  • pending major home repairs
  • age and health of pets
  • age and health of dependents
  • insurance deductibles
  • age and condition of major appliances

Where do I keep it?
You want your emergency funds to be liquid - or in other words, easily accessible. While it is acceptable to leave the greater portion of your emergency funds in an interest-bearing savings account, ideally you can stash $500 - $1,000 in cash in a fire-proof safe. By having cash on hand, you will have funds available to pay for emergencies even when the banks are closed. Be sure to have a variety of denominations to use - not everyone accepts bills larger than $20.

11 March 2011

Health: Emergency Preparedness

In the late hours of yesterday evening, I learned that Japan had suffered a massive earthquake and hundreds, perhaps thousands were dead or injured. Tsunami warnings covered the greater Pacific Rim: Philippines, the Marianas, Hawaii, Guam and the west coast from Alaska through Canada on down to Mexico. My prayers and thoughts are with the Japanese people as they struggle to rescue the injured and bury their dead.

I thought this would be an appropriate time to review some ways to be better prepared for emergencies of all kinds - in effect protecting the health of ourselves, our pets and our families. Every region has its own typical natural disasters; I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, so earthquakes are our concern.

Adults should be vaccinated for the following diseases:
  • HPV (for individuals 26 and younger)
  • Meningococcal (for college students who live in dorms or other dormitory-style housing situations)
  • MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) if there is no evidence of immunity
  • Td Booster (tetanus and diphtheria) every ten years
  • Varicella (chickenpox) if no evidence of immunity
Basic Emergency Preparedness
I recommend purchasing a thin loose-leaf binder, thick page protectors and some 8.5 x 11 paper for this organizational project. Because of the extremely personal information to be contained in this binder, it should be easy to grab in an emergency, but not something easily accessed by anyone other than responsible household members.

Your first page should be a "You are Here!"directory:
  • Home Address
  • Names and all phone numbers (clearly labeled: cell, work, etc.) of all members of the household
  • Directions to your home
  • Names, addresses, directions and phone numbers for:
    • Physicians of every household member (clearly labeled)
    • Dentists of every household member (clearly labeled)
    • Veterinarian
    • Emergency Room
    • Urgent Care Clinic
    • Emergency Veterinarian (if your regular vet isn't a 24/7 clinic)
  • Local Police Department Non-Emergency phone number
  • Sheriff's Department Non-Emergency phone number
  • Poison Control
  • Wildlife/Animal Control
  • Local Fire Department
  • Water Department
  • Power/Utilities Company
  • Roadside Assistance or Auto Clubs (ex: AAA)
  • Insurance Agent and Claim Hotline (include policy numbers)
  • Telephone Company
You will want to include other important information such as social security numbers, medical insurance group or account numbers, insurance policy numbers, vehicle information (license and VIN numbers). Other information which may be helpful to have on hand include:
  • Contact information for nearest relatives
  • Pet vaccination records
  • Auto Mechanic
  • Contact information for neighbors or closest friends
  • Optometrist
  • List of medications
  • Credit Card numbers and expiration dates (don't forget the security code on back just in case!)
Fire-proof Safe
I believe everyone should have a fireproof safe. The following items should be kept in the safe:
  • Birth Certificates
  • Passports
  • Social Security Cards
  • Other legal documents: adoption papers, marriage/divorce papers, immigration documents, green cards, etc.
  • CD or USB drive backup of important computer files and financial information
  • Deeds
  • Titles to Vehicles
  • Spare keys to autos, house(s), and other locks
  • Emergency Cash (in a variety of bills)
  • Other Valuables (jewelry, coins, etc.)
Other Household Emergency Procedures
Know where and how to turn off the following items:
  • Hot Water Heater
  • Gas Main
  • Master Circuit Breaker
  • Water Main
You should keep fire extinguishers near:
  • Fireplace(s)
  • Stove
  • Barbeque
In a pinch, a box of baking soda will put out a grease fire on the stove.

Disaster Essentials
Years ago, we purchased some medium-sized trunks with wheels that are ideal for storing emergency gear. I've seen appropriate storage options at most of the discount and big-box stores. Your "trunk of relief" should contain the following:
  • Two (or more) gallons of drinking water
  • Food (ease of access and preparation - think energy bars, meal replacement shakes, instant soups, etc.)
  • Powdered sports drinks (You are under stress - you will need the electrolytes and minerals these provide. Try to find a low sugar version)
  • Pet food
  • Small bowls and cups (I like the collapsable silicone versions of these made for campers and hikers - they are lightweight and easy to pack)
  • Leashes for your pets
  • Rain Gear
  • Blankets
  • First Aid kit & pain relievers
  • Feminine hygiene products, tissues and toilet paper
  • Small ziploc bag of travel size toiletries
  • Flashlight
  • Duct tape, rope & batteries
  • Radio & Cell phones
  • Change of clothes and accessories (hats, boots, gloves, etc.)
  • Medications
  • Cash, ID and Emergency Binder
  • Pocket or utility knife
  • Deck of Cards or other portable games
If you are forced to evacuate, this box of emergency essentials should keep you and your family fairly comfortable and safe - even if you must stay the night in your vehicle. Also, try to keep your pets with you - they are at terrible risk if you have to leave them behind. Keep in mind, most shelters will not accept pets, even if they are in crates. You may also want to take a firearm with you (provided you have one and know how to use it).

Auto Safety Preparedness
A crisis is not the time to discover your spare tire is flat or that your windshield wipers are cracked. Keep your car in good repair - get regular oil changes, keep your tires inflated to the manufacturer's specs, check your battery for corrosion and replace it every five years, rotate your tires every 3-5,000 miles and replace them when the tread wears thin. Know where your car jack is and make sure you know how to use it. I like to keep a portable power pack in my car (like this one: http://www.duracellpower.com/portable-power/power-packs/powerpack-300.aspx) since it has an air compressor, enough power to jump start my car and plug-ins for phone rechargers.

Be safe out there everyone, and if you can, please donate to the Red Cross to help the people of Japan impacted by this terrible earthquake.

Addendum: Magical Tools & Other Valuables
Sometimes, I forget to add things that are specific to Pagans. I suppose that it is so ingrained, that I figure it goes without saying...

If you must evacuate your home, I recommend taking the following items with you:

  • Book of Shadows or other journals, books or oathbound materials
  • Cords (if your path uses them)
  • Athame or ritual knife
  • Other magical tools: wands, pentacles, chalices
  • Divination tools: tarot cards, runes, pendulums, yarrow sticks or coins, etc.
  • Images, statuary or other items critical to your practice

I have a medium-sized wooden trunk that can be easily locked and will protect my tools for travel. I also enjoy scrapbooking as a past time - it makes grabbing irreplaceable family photos much easier. Family photos will be especially important if honoring ancestors is a part of your practice.

09 March 2011

Environment: Letting Go of Stuff

It seems redundant to write that I love my stuff - but I do. I don't have much stuff anymore (it's taken years of dedicated culling to get to this point), but the stuff I have is useful and brings me joy or makes my life easier.

There was a time however, when I was much more impulsive about buying things. I used to collect beanie babies; though I have the good sense to be embarrassed by it now, I was crazy about those little bean bag stuffed animals. In retrospect, though they were cute, I really enjoyed the rush of locating obscure toy shops and finding beanies I did not yet have - especially if I got a "good deal". Soon, I had added Barbies and Star Wars action figures to the things I collected and spent a great deal of money.

I lived in a tiny apartment in San Francisco back then and had no room to display the fruits of my ceaseless searching and purchasing. Every one of my beanie babies were carefully packed away in hard-sided plastic boxes after gently placing a plastic protector over the heart-shaped Ty tag. Barbies and action figures were, in collectors-speak "mint in box" and stored similarly in large plastic bins. All of these bins were stacked neatly in the closet, from floor to ceiling.

One day, it was like a bolt of lightning struck me. Suddenly, it felt like the walls were closing in and I felt suffocated by the amount of stuff I had. The sheer amount of plastic I had was appalling enough! I put an ad on Craigslist and had a "garage sale" in the lobby of my old-fashioned apartment building. I sold all the barbies and action figures and several of the beanies too. I unloaded books, kitchen items, clothing - all kinds of things. At the end of the day, I ended up taking the remaining beanies and walking up the four flights of stairs to give them to a neighbor whose daughter loved them. Although I made a few bucks from my sale that day, in reality, I had lost hundreds of dollars. Maybe even thousands...

I know from experience how traumatic it can feel to even consider selling or donating stuff that one has accumulated over the years. We feel guilty donating or selling gifts received, we feel ashamed and perhaps cheated if we get rid of collections or impulse purchases, we worry that we will waste money if we relinquish tools, household items or decorations - even if we haven't used them in years. We ask ourselves, "What if we need them again?" Some of us even may feel as though we will lose status if we shed items that might be useful to others, especially if we take pride in being the person with all the stuff.

The easiest way I have come to tackle clutter and excess is to start by picking one room at a time. There is no rush, we didn't fill our homes and cars with stuff in a day. I bring two big boxes or garbage bags; one is 'Stay' and one is 'Go'. Sometimes I will set a timer for 15-20 minutes and move as quickly as I can, tossing items into one of the boxes. When the timer goes off, I take the box or bag of 'Stay' items and put its contents neatly away.

The 'Go' box is further divided into three piles: donate, sell or trash. The trash is usually the easiest to dispose of and I take that out to the large bin outside immediately. The pile for donation goes into a box or bag and is taken out to my car for delivery to a donation station. I like Goodwill the best because they provide jobs for handicapped and underprivileged individuals - don't forget to take a receipt for your tax return - especially if you itemize deductions.

The sell pile is the most tricky; large or fragile items that would be costly or difficult to ship usually go on Craigslist. Items with a higher monetary value end up on eBay, while more specialized items may go on internet forums or bulletin boards with a classifieds section. Once in awhile, if I have a Saturday to kill, I'll have a yard sale.

The lightness I feel after de-cluttering a room is difficult to describe, but it can build momentum so that eventually the entire house is free of unused, broken or outdated stuff. An obvious benefit is that it is far easier and faster to clean and maintain my home.