Lifestyles of the Destitute and Obscure

dazzling and interesting on a shoestring

Category Archives: getting smarter

When a Woman Like Me Turns 40

IMG_5439Post twin pregnancy and turning forty, I’m reevaluating the shape of my body—literally. My health is another issue with which I have very little issue. I am, alas in some respects, not the long, lithe and lean dancer that I used to be. Oh I suppose I could join CrossFit and dump my twenty year ban on beef, pork and lamb and go on the uber-trendy Paleo diet. I could work really hard to look really hard in my forty year-old skin. But the truth is: I don’t wanna.

DSC_0592I’ve got better things to spend my time on, like the growth of my children, the expansion of my world of knowledge and experience and the shape of my brain. I spent forty minutes the other morning going out for a run, which was nice but the muscle development in my legs was only a minor side benefit compared to the time spent outdoors in the fresh air and the audiobook I was engrossed in.

I run to keep my brain from short-circuiting and destroying itself, to keep my metabolism high enough to enjoy these scones in the morning and a glass of whiskey in the evening, to ready myself for a ten-day backpacking trek with my dad this summer, and to get my energy levels a fraction closer to that of my kids. A rear end that my husband still admires is a nice touch, too, but I secretly believe he loves me for my mind. I also spent an hour and a half the other night reading photographer Sally Mann’s memoir and drinking the aforementioned glass of whiskey. Screw the Dailey Method, I’m stretching out on the couch.

When I see middle-aged women who are thin and shaped like rails, I think that often times they look brittle. Aging skin doesn’t go over long and lean bodies in the same way. A hard body is just that—hard, sharp and uncomfortable.
When my children sit down in my lap, I want them to lean into the softness of my stomach where they were once housed rather than six-pack abs. My arms are toned into the perfect shape for hugs and my breasts have served their worthiest purpose and been declared perfectly adequate.

Is this ageing gracefully? I don’t know. I think that has more to do with the way I treat people and build relationships rather than the way I treat my skin or build my muscles. Do I worry about how I look? Oh sure. I’m a human being and a woman in the world. But I’m ready to shed my identity of pretty and young, long and lean. I’m not totally sure what my description is after this, though I hope not to disappear entirely. Too often, I think that happens when women have children and then creep toward middle age. I hope that people will see me for what I create and not just the creation of my children.


I dream that someday, fifty will be an age where women are seen as being regal and amazing lifetime creations. At seventy, she is beyond all value, because nothing is as cherished as a grandmother who is a treasure box of adventures, games, rhymes and memories. I will tell my grandchildren that I was once a lithe and lean dancer, but the beauty of the memory is the music, the dance and the swirling of silk and golden coins. This is what I want to hold dear, what I will deem amazing and magical—not the structure of my bones or the percentage of fat that clings to them. A well-shaped body is not what makes up a life. It is the body of memories that make a well-shaped life.

For more about my life and thoughts and other tidbits:
Running in the Rain and Enjoying Nature

Winter Picnic in Suburbia

Holiday Thank-you Notes


What I Learned This Summer

We were busy this summer.  Here are a few of the things we did:

ImageWe went to a couple summer camps and had a few camp-like days at home—including Stalactite Experiment week (inspired by this awesome magazine called Alphabet Glue), Insect Experiment week, featuring ladybugs and pill bugs (and the gorgeous and rare albino praying mantis below), and Flower Experiment week, which just included lots of coloring. Image

I taught a belly dance class and managed to wait precisely four days after the last class to break my pinkie toe.  And then I began class again in the fall just five weeks later, giving it just enough time to heal.  I learned what it feels like to break a bone—my first.  Like many things in life, it was painful, and then annoying, but I managed just fine and life went on as usual.  Which, I might add, is different then the morbidly popular ‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.’  Whatever it is could, however, leave you mangled, paralyzed or disfigured beyond recognition—let’s not go looking for pain in search of strength or toughness, okay people?  Pain will come to you as part of life—learn to cope and then move along with grace.
Anyhow, enough of the toe, and philosophies on pain.

I applied for yet another blogging job to add to these two and failed to get it due to technical issues that had nothing to do with my wit, charm, abilities or experience.  So fear not, we still have both feet firmly rooted in both poverty and obscurity and these blog posts will keep on coming.
ImageWe learned that it is better to use a hair clip than scissors to rid ourselves of that pesky lock of hair.  We learned to walk, and we learned that just because we’re not walking doesn’t mean we have hip dysplasia  (thank God!).
We grew a few things on our balcony garden, learned to love nasturtiums and hate aphids (ladybugs to the rescue!) and ate pesto, strawberries and parsley-riddled spreads thanks to our miniscule garden.
We learned how to do more on our bike than just ‘coast like toast’ and now use our pedals, and we learned to put a book down and return it to the library when it sucks… oh no, wait, I’m still learning how to do that.

ImageWe learned new musical exercises to gain manual dexterity and musical flexibility as well as going to a few shows with new friends and old.

This summer we lost a dear friend too quickly, though she had a good run at life and in the end, she wasn’t going to stick around and have people care for her.  She cared for others all her life, people and plants alike, and now she’s in a better place, tending a celestial garden and loving everyone there without judgment or fanfare.  Now we are learning how it is we explain death to someone not yet six years old.

We’re still learning how to drink out of a cup without sending it all down our chins, but at least we’ve decided to drink cow’s milk, which makes it easier on mama.
We’ve spent quality time with imaginary creatures, furry and hairy, including Babe, Mercy Watson, Elmo, Chester Cricket, and Bunnicula and enjoyed their company.  Thanks to the wide spacing of kids, some of them are on their second round of introductions and others will get reintroduced in a few years.

This summer was spent living and learning, and no doubt the fall will be full of more of the same.  Summer is a wonderful season, and we are enjoying this season of our lives.
Okay, class—tell me what you learned this summer.  Type your answer in the comments section below. 

Library Books for Summer

All hail the crazy, lazy days of summer—depending on your employment and child-rearing position in life.  What is summer for?  The beach?  Sure.  The movies?  Maaaaaybe.  But books?  Darn Tootin’!!  Here’s what’s currently trying not to accrue late fees on my library card:

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez— listening to this one as an audiobook; I multi-task my commutes and my runs with some literary interludes.

boyntonOne, two, three! by Sandra Boynton—You can’t go wrong with Sandra Boynton board books for kids, or calendars for adults.  Her quirky cats and dancing hippos can charm the socks off young and old.
This Little Chick by John Lawrence
Little Lion by Giovanni Caviezel
Only You by Robin Cruise—a sweet little surprise/love poem book.

For the bigger kid:
Ivy + Bean by Annie Barrows—if you’re not familiar with Ivy and her friend, Bean, you should be, especially if you have kids kindergarten through about grade 3.  Something modern and fun while your waiting for them to get old enough for Harry Potter.
Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White—Okay, this is cheating a little bit (we actually returned this book about a month ago) but this is the best, best, best book for beginning chapter read-alouds.  Yes, there’s Charlotte’s Web, but Trumpet of the Swan is even better.  It doesn’t get nearly enough coverage as its big sister, Charlotte, but it is every bit as quirky, clever, amusing, heartwarming and poignant (and all those other book-describing adjectives) if not more so.  Read it to your kids, or even just to yourself.
josephJoseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback—A great little story with fun illustrations and Jewish culture to boot—excellent.  I am not, however, the first to think so.  It won the Caldecott Medal.
Chu’s Day by Neil Gaiman

For future reference, because I know she’s a good writer, and I’ll need something for the big kid once she’s into grade school:
The Runaways by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Bringing up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting
by Pamela Drucker—It was time to read another view of parenting, though in truth, it’s a non-view kind of view.

3sistersAll these, because I was in a Gothic kind of mood, and I’m still hunting (not in the literal sense) for a taxidermy crow to grace the top of my bookcase.  Contact me if you have any leads.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen
The Annotated Brothers Grimm
The Three Incestuous Sisters by Audrey Niffenegger—an illustrated number, not so much for the children.

For research on writing prompts for the Iron Horse Women’s Writing Group (led by yours truly):
Naming the World: and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer
The Writer’s Idea Book by Jack Heffron
Virginia Woolf Writers’ Workshop: Seven Lessons to Inspire Great Writing by Danell Jones

And some others:
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury—Recommended by Uncle Jeremy.  I love Ray Bradbury and hope that I will be able to get to it soon, after all the homework’s done.
How To Behave So Your Preschooler Will, Too!  Sal Severe, MD – Because I liked the title.
It’s Twins!: Parent-to-Parent Advice from Infancy Through Adolescence by Susan M. Heim—Self-explanatory reasons.
Japanese Art by Joan Stanley-Baker—For a school project, sort of and because I couldn’t remember the names of the Buddhist temple guardians (Fudo).

Happy Summer!  Happy Reading!  And be sure to let me know what’s on your list. (So I can add it to mine when I’m done with this one.)

Toys on the Floor

Lovingly strewn about the decade-old rental carpet, now christened with baby spit-up and spilled bubble bath soap despite our best efforts to clean it and vacuum on a weekly basis, are toys, the occasional dirty sock, mommy’s water bottle, lengths of ribbon from heaven-knows-where, and books.  For babies, books are not just about their content (or their ‘aboutness’ as my Information Retrieval class professor might say—fyi, I’m in grad school for Librarian-ness) but about their physicality and their ability to fit in one’s mouth in a satisfactory manner.  In other words, babies chew on books.  So, therefore we have lots of bright colored books and board books, which get left on the floor once the desired amount of mastication has been achieved.

We have no changing table, because I think changing tables are bulky, dangerous and essentially useless.  Basically, they’re stupid.  Other than that, I have no opinion about them.  I can’t change a baby from the side very effectively—I need to stand at her feet to change her.  We change our babies on a plastic mat on the bed.  The folded mat and the package of wipes kick about on my desk, the bed and, here, the floor.

To keep a child still while changing their diaper (or nappy, as we say in our household) we need chewable toys—see aforementioned bit about board books.  So we provide organic cotton-stuffed vegetable toys that were a generous gift from a generous Auntie and Uncle.  Jemima Puddleduck was also a gift, though I don’t know which store she waddled from.

And that is how we live—clean but happily cluttered, with toys, art projects, laundry and babies strewn about the floor.

ABC board book by Matthew Porter

Ten Little Caterpillars written by Bill Martin, Jr., author of such classics as Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and illustrated by Lois Ehlert, who has written and illustrated half of the toddler favorites in our house, such as this one.

The adorable Veggie set, including string beans, mushroom and a carrot and tomato (not pictured here) come in a cute little wooden crate from Under the Nile, which also carries organic cotton baby clothes at extremely reasonable prices.  I cannot find the veggies on their site at the moment, but here’s a link to their other extremely cool toys.

Budget Solutions

‘Fail to plan and plan to fail,’ goes the saying that I saw on my friend’s fridge when I was in high school, and while I probably rolled my eyes and thought it was silly at the time, these days, it is a mantra I do my best to live by—just short of squeezing all the fun out of life.
When it comes to finances (a lot or a little of them) planning—aka a budget— is the best way to make sure that you end up with food on the table and don’t go bankrupt.  This goes for Ms. D and her family as well as AIG and Freddy Mac.

Thanks to library school, I was finally forced into really learning how to use Microsoft’s nifty little Excel program, which saves a lot of paper and pesky calculations.  If, like me, you’ve been a bit slow to familiarize yourself with Excel, there are a myriad of useful tutorials to bring you up to speed—or at least to a functional level.
Here are a couple options I used:

Using the Excel formulas, I can total up our income (one solid paycheck, one variable and any other randomness I can rake in) and then itemize our expenses, which remain fairly constant. Using our bank’s online checking and direct deposit of our major income certainly helps, too, because that way I know what’s coming in as well as what’s going out.
There are a few strategies I follow to help us keep from overspending, also known as losing track of what you’ve got.  It’s nothing fancy, but by planning and sticking to these parameters, we stay mostly out of debt and stretch our miniscule income to cover what we need.  For instance, I write as few checks as possible, and everyone else besides me, the CFO of the family, deals primarily in cash.  That’s the beauty of cash—you can see exactly what you’ve got, and once it’s gone, it’s gone.  All three of us (soon to be five) have cash allowances stashed in our own labeled envelopes to cover whatever our little heart desires, and in the case of my young child, doled out for anything from art supplies to underwear and presents for friends’ birthday parties.

Our methods are neither complex nor complicated, and I’m sure I could be more technical with my spreadsheets and penny-counting, but it’s quick and manageable and allows us a little fun.  It’s planning enough to keep us from failure, and as our income increases we’ll stick to our plan, so we continue to know where our money is going.

Do you know where your money’s going?  How do you keep track of it?

And furthermore, if you want to get your kids started on being budget and money savvy, check out this great blog post by Intentional Jane.

Books to Live By… part une

The following is a short, but ever-growing list of books that Ms. D feels belong on the shelves of Destitute and Obscure homes all over the world.  They are practical, savvy little tomes to use as a reference for life.  Of course, Ms. D feels that a wide array of fiction, non-fiction, illustrated children’s books and large, glossy art books also belong in the home; library books should be scattered about as useful and ever-changing decor as well.  But I leave those selections up to your own taste and discernment.  Feel free to make suggestions to making this list longer and more diverse.  All links here should take you to Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon– a one-of-a-kind, definitely NOT Amazon, used and new bookstore worth supporting if you order online.  Otherwise, please go to your local, lovable INDEPENDENT bookstore to fondle or order your own copies.  

Organic Housekeeping: In which the Nontoxic Avenger shows you how to improve your health and that of your family while you save time, money, and, perhaps, your sanity by Ellen Sandbeck
This is the best how-to housecleaning and organization book, um maybe EVER.  It sounds dull and exhaustive, but is entertaining as well as helpful, and does indeed cover everything as the lengthy subtitle suggests.  Sandbeck has done her research and applies it liberally throughout the book, giving you a whole new look at ‘clean’—the definition of which, (no) thanks to modern hyperactivity over bacteria and dirt is now more toxic than ever.  Good, old-fashioned vinegar and baking soda are her stand-bys and there’s nothing more cleansing than fresh air and sunshine, as your grandmother might say.  Sandbeck, as she notes in the beginning, did not write this book in order to make you commit your entire life to cleansing your home, but precisely so you could know how to do it quickly, efficiently and non-toxically so you can better do what you like to do best.  For her, it happens to be gardening, and she touches on a tidy and well-organized garden in this book as well.  She also happens to have a couple of gardening books out there, which are pretty nifty, too.

Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and EB White, illustrated by Maira Kalman
This is the quintessential little grammar book.  It was originally compiled by EB White’s (of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little fame) English professor at Cornell, back in the beginning of the 20th century and used in the teaching of his class.  But with a bit of White’s tinkering and now Kalman’s rich illustrations, it is a lovely bit of essential book with elements of many styles.  There are much tinier pocket-sized editions, too, but the illustrated one is fun—buy whichever suits your needs, funds and sense of whimsy.  Why a grammar book, you may wonder?  Because even if you are Destitute and Obscure, thou needest to speak and write correctly, lest thou endest up on the Maury Povich or Jerry Springer Shows.  When you send emails, thank-you notes and make phone calls to your in-laws, you really do need to use correct grammar and spelling. (I won’t mention the etiquette of texting—it is beyond etiquette in so many ways.)  Around these parts (aka our home) we may not have a lot of money, but we have plenty of love, grace, courtesy and manners—and those never, ever go out of style.  Really.

The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker
This one, as they say, is a must-have.  Really and truly, it is the basic housekeeper’s/cook’s Elements of Style and Bible (or spiritual- guiding tome).  It is what my tamale pie recipe is based on, and it tells me how to go about making pie crusts (the pate brise recipe is great for quiches and savory pies, by the way) and muffins.  I highly recommend getting a 1960’s or 70’s edition if you can, (maybe ask Grandma to put it in her will for you) because I don’t believe in the microwave and somewhere in the 80’s they changed my family’s favorite Peanut Butter Cookie recipe—not a good idea.  While some of the canapé recipes may be out-of-date (though just wait, they’ll come back in style in a couple of years—it seems everything does eventually) The Joy of Cooking is an essential guide (and really, you don’t need dozens of cookbooks) to all things baking and cooking—it tells one why and how to do certain things and helps one trouble-shoot with nifty little pictures.

Stay tuned for the next installment of ‘Books to Live By’ and look for a new Books and Reading section when all is said, read, done and reviewed.  Do let me know of the trusty books you have in your household that help you through your Destitution and Obscurity.
Ms. D

How the destitute go to school

Disclaimer: For those of you regular readers, please note that this post is part of a school assignment– yes, yours truly is going back to school to get her Masters of Library and Informational Science (MLIS) online.  That’s right, I can go to school, get a snazzy degree to be the next hot, local librarian and never have to leave the house.  Is that a good thing?  I’m not quite sure, but at least I don’t have to pay for the gas to get there.  So, read along as I discuss a couple groovy little lectures on TEAMWORK!!
There is no ‘i’ in team.  I remember reading a poster with this mantra some where in a work environment, and having a good giggle over its cheeziness, and then tossing the phrase about with my co-workers anytime we wanted to remind someone to hustle, buck up, shape up or generally laugh.  It may have been said mostly in jest, but there was a kernel of friendly nudging in there that, at the very least, boosted morale.
In Dr. Haycock’s lecture (I know, I giggled the first time I heard the name, too, but the guy is apparently a guru in the library world) he makes it very clear that doing team assignments is essential training for the workplace, and it’s more than just grinding through the assignment the professor gives you, trying to ignore the idiots who do nothing, grit your teeth and do all the work and hope for the best.  Unless you’re blogging in a vacuum (wait, is that me?) then you’re going to have to learn to work on a team.  Even parenting is learning how to work on a team.  And the way Dr. Haycock (in his charming Canuck accent) described the ground rules and consequences of setting up a team, it can be a lot like raising a child.
The other lecture by a Ms. Enid Irwin (and how can you not love a librarian named ‘Enid’?) said that many of her former students got internships and jobs because of their great teamwork skills learned through the program.  Here’s hoping I’m that gal.  Though I do wonder if maybe I’m the one she describes as having a bad attitude (as in how much I hated working in an all-female-gossipy-as-hell retail situation) or maybe I’m the clown Dr. Haycock describes– the one who’s always joking and trying to make people laugh because I feel it’s the only thing I have to contribute.  But what I really want to be– in school, in life– is the editor, the one with worthy skills to offer.  I also want to be that maternal encourager who checks in every now and then to see how the team is doing– are you hanging in there?  Have you got too much on your plate?  Is there something else you would like to offer?
And then Ms. Enid brings up the ‘p’ word– PLANNING.  Oh, boy.  I try, I plan, I control-freak, I meltdown.  But really, life takes planning, because it is like another famous workplace adage, ‘If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.’  (Or my mother’s favorite response to passive-agressive meltdowns– ‘Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.’  So take that.)  I bought a notebook today in hopes that I might be better organized, as organization is the cuddly buddy of planning.
So now, I shall sally forth, read what seems like 500 hours of reading for my other class, turn in this bloggy assignment and go on with my chipper attitude, my Destitute and Obscure skills of planning and organization (cause isn’t that what good style and frugality are all about?) and my Darwinian will to survive this next adventure called ‘graduate level education.’
Wish me luck, an extra 8 hours in the day, a well-behaved child and a generous helping of sanity!
I’M OFF TO SCHOOL!!!  (well, at least I’m gonna sit down here on the couch and open my laptop)
Ms. D

How the obscure utilize and love their local library

I have a college education.  I am poor.  These two descriptions didn’t use to exist together very often, but thanks to the new economy and a healthy dose of artistic temperament they fit together in my life quite neatly.  During my college years, I used to take pride in putting together funk-ily furnished apartments, dressing in thrift store finds (it was the 90’s after all) and reading all the beatnik-era classics I could get my hands on.
One of my favorite forms of decorating has been to find an old book case, cover it in some ethnic, vintage fabric, plop a trailing plant on top and then fill it with ALL my books and a few nifty albums.  It looks great, and it’s functional—where else would I put my hordes of books?  In stacks on the floor?
Heavens, no!
But these days, I certainly can’t buy all the books I want to read, even when they’re used books (a kind with a history), so that’s why my home away from home is the Public Library.
My county library rocks, and I’m not just saying that because I work there, um, as a volunteer.  Nor am I saying it because come fall, I will be starting my educational career to become the new hot librarian in my town (Ahem, that is a worthy aspiration, no?)
No, I’m saying it because I love to read, I love the services the public library provides for free, and because the best way to be less obscure, or even less stupid when you’re poor, is to read.
Read and learn and get yourself educated.

I, personally, am a card-carrying member of the Contra Costa County Library system— found easily at, as well as the physical edifices in Walnut Creek, Danville, El Cerrito, Antioch, Pittsburg, and all over Contra Costa County.  In the Bay Area, Alameda County has its own library system and Berkeley is an entity all unto itself—no surprise there.  I hear that the Rancho Cucamonga Library in So. Cal “rocks” as well.  That is, by the way, a direct quote—thanks, Aletha.
My favorite part about the library being online is that it can be a lot like shopping, only it won’t cost you a thing.  Unless of course you are naughty and don’t turn your books in on time.  The good news is that you can also renew online, which is super handy.  You can also pay your fines online and thus avoid that stern look from the librarian—you know the one, where she stares over the top of the glasses perched on her nose and hanging from a chain around her neck.  (I can’t wait to get me a pair of cat-eye glasses, complete with ornate chain—a graduation present when I finish school.)
Here’s how you to make it really work for you: if you know of a title or author, or movie title, (yes, they’ve got movies, too, and I only had to wait about two weeks for a copy of Eclipse to come in… but don’t tell anyone that I wasted two hours of my precious time watching it.  My time, but not my money.) just enter it into the search field, let the system work its magic and then, voila, you just enter in your library card number and your last name and tell them when and where you want to pick it up.  It couldn’t be easier, and it enables bibliophiles with kleptomaniacal tendencies to collect books, magazines, movies and cds (formerly know as books on tape) on all manner of subjects.
Currently checked out on my account:

  • Real Food for Mother and Baby by Nina Planck
  • the documentary, Grey Gardens
  • Mercy Watson to the Rescue by Kate DiCamillo (an illustrated children’s chapter book with a darling little pig on the cover—advanced research)
  • The Pebble First Guides to Songbirds and Horses
  • Dance Anatomy
  • The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, M.D.
  • The New Frugality by Chris Farrell
  • The Disciple Miracle by Dr. Linda Pearson
  • James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
  • Rechenka’s Eggs by Patricia Palacco.
  • Curious George by Margaret and H.A. Rey
  • Food, Inc.

All of which broaden my knowledge of various aspects of my life, Grey Gardens not withstanding, unless I plan to become a reclusive and eccentric old woman who feeds feral cats and raccoons.  At this rate, it could happen.
The other nifty thing about libraries is the free stuff and cool, free events.  I’ve picked up a few old tour books for free, a nifty decorating book for a mere dollar, and taken my child to the weekly kid’s story time (with the ever-so-patient and animated Mrs. B), and to see a Chinese New Year celebration.

Contra Costa also has free coupons available with a library card.
Your public library—you can’t beat the price or selection, for you or your child, and you can’t beat the cool people that work there.  Let me know how much you love your public library and your librarian.

Ciao and happy reading!

ps. I always love a good reading recommendation…