Saturday, February 28, 2015

Bucket List: Photographing the Slot Canyon

Something I didn't realize at 16 (when I made my first bucket list) was that life dreams change (sometimes drastically) over time. At 16, one of the first items on my bucket list was to travel to every country in the world. Now, at 28, I realize that that dream is, besides being a bit impractical, not even very desirable to me anymore. I've realized that, while I do love to travel, I don't exactly want to travel in places that are dangerous or where I would have a hard time getting around, either due to a major language barrier or to a lack of stability in the country. Sure, I still would love to travel to many places in the world -- Greece, Ireland, Spain, Eastern Canada, New Zealand -- but I'm totally okay with the idea of not traveling to others.

My dreams have changed even since making a more recent bucket list about 18 months ago. Not only did I take "blogging for profit" off of my list (see the post here), but I've also added several things since getting to experience more of life and realizing what things would truly make me happy to work toward.

One thing that's opened up a lot of new dreams is photography--while I don't know if I'll ever take my photography business to a full-time job, I do know that I love it enough to keep trying to constantly improve my abilities. And one thing I've wanted to do ever since I first laid eyes on photos of such was to photograph a slot canyon.

Lucky for me, our December trip to Kanab opened up a perfect opportunity--after two days of volunteering at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, we took off on the third day toward Arizona's famous Antelope Canyon, a mere 70-minute (or so) drive from where we were, to see the sights and take advantage of the incredible opportunity to improve our photography skills.

After doing some research on the slot canyon tours (for those who don't know, you have to go through the canyon with a guide), I decided that the professional photography tour would be the one to go on, even though it meant shelling out quite a bit more (and even though we had to get special permission because we only had one camera between the two of us, when each person on the tour is supposed to have his/her own).

After a bit of a mix-up in which we somehow got placed on the wrong bus heading out to the canyon (which resulted in one of the bumpiest and scariest drives in the back of a truck of my life), we were united with the right group and met our Native American tour guide and the four other people who would be on the tour with us.

At first, I was a bit afraid we wouldn't be treated as well as the others because we only had the one camera between us and we also hadn't brought our tripod (both a major no-no with the tour group). But even though our guide was initially very skeptical of how successful we would be without a tripod, he showered us with plenty of attention and tips, and we were able to get some pretty dang good shots just by stabilizing the camera against a wall and taking pictures that way.

 A couple things to know if you're touring the slot canyons--

* If you just pay for the regular one-hour tour, you will have hardly any time to take pictures. Basically, you will be shuffled through like cattle, and many of your pictures might have other people in them because of the confined space.

* The slot canyons are quite a bit colder inside than the temperature outside (imagine that you're entering a cave--that's the temperature difference). Although I was fine with a light jacket and no gloves outside the caves, I sure wish I would have brought them for when we were inside.

* Even though our tour was listed as being for "professional" photographers, as long as you have a DSLR and a tripod, they'll let you in (and even on the tripod, they're obviously willing to be a little lenient if it's during a slow season). So don't be intimidated--just sign up and try it out!

* The slot canyons are quite dark inside, so if you're trying to get the best-quality pictures you can, you'd probably want to bring a speed light and bounce its flash off the ceiling/walls.

* Even though we went in what was considered a "slower" season (in December), there were still a LOT of people inside the slot canyon. If crowds stress you out, or if you're determined to get the best photos you can, try and book at a non-busy time in the season (aka, not during the summer or over a major holiday break). Not only will you be able to feel a little less rushed, but you're much less likely to get other pedestrians in your photo, like so:

* Even though they let both Matt and I come on the tour (with just the one camera between us), I wish we each could have had our own camera. While it worked fine for us to switch off every few minutes, we would have been a lot less rushed in trying to get the shots we wanted if we'd each had our own. If I were to do this again (and still owned just one DSLR camera), I would totally rent a second camera so we each had one.

* If you do decide to go on the professional photography tour, make sure you at least know the basics of operating your camera in Manual mode and that you know how to quickly adjust your tripod. Basically, you have very little time to get the shots you want (even with the longer tour), so the better you know your equipment, the better your shots will be.

And that's all for the tips! Basically, this experience just confirmed to me that I need to try out landscape photography a lot more than I have.

Now the real question is--which one of these am I going to enlarge and hang up on our empty bedroom walls?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Where I'm At On My Road to Simplicity

Although it's been awhile since I blogged about my minimalism/simplicity journey, don't let that fool you--

It's still as much on my mind as it ever was.

Here's the problem with where I'm currently at though---I've realized that when you're about to have a baby, you suddenly acquire a LOT more stuff. Like, a disproportionate amount of stuff compared to the size of the tiny human that will soon be entering your realm.

I remarked to Matt (right as we were going off to register for the baby) that it seemed to me that registering for all this stuff seemed kind of superfluous--I mean, didn't babies just need somewhere to sleep, something to eat (and something to eat it with), clothes to wear (including diapers), a toy or two, and some good picture books? I didn't understand how on earth we were going to be able to create a whole registry just from those things.

Apparently I was wrong.

Apparently nowadays, raising a baby is a lot more complicated than you think---apparently I need nursing pads and Boppy covers and Diaper Genies and tiny hangers. And don't forget the diaper bag, swaddle blankets, carseat cover, infant thermometer, Pack & Play, baby carrier, and car window shade. (And that's not even getting into any of the "cutesy" stuff--coordinated bedsheets, artwork for the nursery, and those impossibly soft little stuffed animals you just want to rub your cheek against all day long.)

Basically, I'm quickly discovering that it "requires" a lot to raise a tiny human in today's modern world. Or at least the marketers and a large majority of the population try to convince you it does.

This accumulation of an enormous amount of stuff in a small amount of time is making my brain panic a bit--here I've spent the last two-plus years trying to pare down our possessions as much as possible, only to be acquiring what seems to be hundreds of new items in the space of a few short months. (Don't get me wrong--I'm incredibly grateful for the generosity of so many that will allow us to provide so well for our baby girl at very little expense to ourselves. It's just a bit overwhelming for the minimalist in me, is all.)

Currently, I'm trying to strip down our apartment to the essentials and most-loved possessions of mine and Matt's, and I'll let the baby stuff rest until I know what's really necessary and what's not.  I'm still not as ruthless with my own possessions as I'd like to be, but I've come a long way over the past 27 months. And, judging by the small-ness of our apartment and the ever-growing mountain of pink things, I will have to learn to get even more ruthless, and pronto.

Guess the next several years will be pretty crucial in answering the question--is it possible to be an aspiring minimalist while raising young children?

Monday, February 9, 2015

February Focus: Step It Up

I never made it official here on the blog, but the way I'm doing new year's resolutions this year is to pick a different thing to focus on each month. That way, I won't be torn into a million different directions like I usually am with resolutions, but at the same time I'll be accountable for some progress in at least one major area of my life.

In January, my focus was all about finances (which is why we completed the spending freeze).

In February, my focus is all about moving more.

Since my first bout of nausea when I was six or seven weeks pregnant, I had basically stopped all exercise of almost any kind. I went from running faithfully three times a week to doing not much of anything at all. At first, I could blame the morning sickness. Then, when I hit the fourth month (and the start of the holidays), I could blame my busy-ness. After about five months, I could easily blame my lack of movement on my ever-increasing size and the fact that any extra movement seemed to make me sore.

But since my gestational diabetes scare, I determined that I needed to start incorporating some movement back into my life, even if it was just light.

Here was my plan:

- obtain a pedometer
- try to clock at least 10,000 steps a day

And that was it. Easy-peasy.

Now that I have said pedometer (thanks to my sister) and am now a week into tracking steps, I am quickly re-thinking my plan.

Before I started tracking steps, I was under the impression that because I'm on my feet almost the entire day at work, I was probably already close to getting 10,000 steps a day anyway (or that I'd only be maybe a couple thousand steps short).


Even on days like today, when I'm walking a TON at work, I still usually clock only 5,000 - 6,000 steps at my job max (and there are lots of days I don't even hit 4,000). Basically, this  has meant that I've started taking 30-40 minute walks every day after I get home to try and make up the difference.

I still have never hit 10,000 steps (and only hit 9,000 steps today actually, as evidenced by the picture above).

So here's my revised plan after having tried this for a week:

*This week, I will hit 8,000 steps at least 6 days.
*Next week (the 3rd week of the month), I will hit 9,000 steps at least 5 of the days.
*The last week, I will hit 10,000 steps at least 5 of the days.

I'm hoping that if I gradually build up my step count, my body will respond more positively and I won't feel so overwhelmed by it all (as I kind of started feeling about two days into the goal).

Have you ever used a pedometer or Fitbit or other step-tracking device? What are your strategies for getting in enough steps each day?

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Strawberry Shortcake + Anticipation of the Future

Today my Sunday schedule was totally thrown off (thanks to my calling, or volunteer work, at my church). Instead of attending choir practice in the morning and church for 3 hours in the afternoon, I went to church meetings from 9-12 and spent the afternoon at home while my husband was attending our regular meetings (plus the additional meetings he has for his calling).

Basically, the fact that I had a lot more alone time than normal (and the fact that I took out a friend's puppy for a very long walk in the spring sunshine) meant that I had a LOT of time to think today.

People keep asking me all the time about what our plans are for after the baby comes.

I wish I had an answer for them.

The truth is, we have no idea where we'll be in a year--we're still waiting to hear back from the rest of the PT schools Matt applied to (all of the schools that we have heard back from have been in the negative so far), which means that we can't very well go ahead and make any other definite plans as of yet. As for having a backup plan, it doesn't get much easier--because of the way the retirement works through the Utah public education system, I want to teach one year more for sure before staying at home with our kids (if that will be an option for me at that point), but we don't know if we'll be staying here in the same place (which means that I'll be staying at my same school), or if we'll be moving down to Bountiful and living in the basement of one of our parents' houses for a year while we figure things out and get help with childcare while I teach down there.

Matt will obviously be working wherever we end up, unless he's in PT school somewhere.

So basically, we have those 3 options as of now, and it doesn't seem like we'll know for sure until at least April or May, which is a little scary time-wise, considering that we'll already be adjusting to being new parents then (and probably won't want the added stress of trying to figure out what the heck we're doing for the next 12 months).

So basically, I've been thinking a lot about the future and trying to reassure myself that it will all work out somehow (because it always does).

I've also been thinking about our baby girl--what she'll be like, how I'll react to being a mother for the first time, how hard it will be (and if it will be as hard as everyone says it is).

I wonder how quickly we'll adjust to being a family of 3, and if I'll sometimes miss it just being the two of us. I wonder if the second I become a mother, this deep-down instinct and love will just kick in, and I'll wonder why we waited so long to make this leap into parenthood. I'm terrified that that instinct WON'T kick in, and that, while I absolutely know I'll love our baby girl fiercely (because I already do), I'll wonder why we didn't wait until I felt more "ready."

It's scary putting these thoughts out there because I feel like every other woman I know seems to be much more "dialed in" to the idea of being a parent than I am--every other woman seems to just fall gracefully into that role of being the selfless caregiver, and I hope (and pray) that maybe--just maybe--I might be able to become "one of those women" myself.

And soon.

So I have these worries sometimes about the future, and what kind of mom I'll be.

But then I'll have a quiet afternoon to myself, like today, where I creamed together butter and sugar for a shortcake and sliced strawberries and measured out flour, and I discover that I'm excited to teach these things to our little girl--that I'm excited to teach her to measure out the dry ingredients carefully (like my own mom taught me) and to let the strawberries glaze together with the sugar for at least a good half hour before serving them over the finished shortcake. I'm excited to take her on walks (as so many parents took their kids out on walks today due to the sun) and point out the puppies passing by, as so many parents pointed out the puppy I was walking today to their own daughters.

And as I went to a meeting tonight for the young women as part of my church calling, I got excited to think that someday, I'd be explaining what it means to be a young woman of God to our own little girl, and that she would grow up one day to be as poised and radiant and self-assured as the young women I met tonight were.

And you know what?

It's in the moments like those that all the fear DOES go away, and I am reassured that no matter where we are, I will be prepared for whatever comes next.

And that on days when it seems like I self-reflect until I explode, there will always be strawberry shortcake.

And that things will all be okay.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Final Report: January's Spending Freeze

January has come and gone, quicker than almost any other January has ever passed for me, it seems. Usually, January seems to be a gloomy month that drags and drags, but this year, I was pleasantly surprised that I got through it without too much doom and gloom. (The lack of snow and all this winter sunshine definitely contributed, I'm sure.)

When we started our spending freeze at the beginning of the month, every day without excess spending seemed like a victory, especially because I quickly realized how mindless much of our spending had gotten. We had been making impulse purchases and going out to eat so often that those things quickly became our "norm," so the first couple weeks going without, we definitely felt some withdrawal pains. More than once, I caught myself giving a little sigh as I thought of us being stuck at home yet again because we couldn't spend money.

My attitude was quite a bit better by the end.

For starters, once I started seeing some concrete numbers on how much money we were saving as the month went on, I was more motivated to keep going.

A couple statistics from the month--

For the year leading up to the spending freeze, we typically spent about $120/month on restaurants and an additional $25/month on what I consider "fast food" (which included actual fast food, my lunches bought from the hospital, and my favorite guilty pleasure--hot chocolate from 7-11).

Therefore, most months, we easily spent around $150 eating outside of the home.

In January, we spent $19.88 (which was from the one night we did go out to a restaurant because we had a gift certificate, and the $19.88 was largely due to the tip we gave and the small amount we went over the gift card for).

That's a cool savings of $130 in just one month.

Of course, the savings came at a price--it meant that I had to be vigilant about meal planning and making dinner most every night, even when I was tired and would much rather opt for a $5 pizza or a night out. It meant that I always had to plan ahead to make sure I'd have leftovers to bring for lunch the next day. But considering that if we saved even $90 a month on eating out every month, we'd save over $1000 over the course of the year...

It's worth it.

Another statistic--

In an average month, Matt and I were spending about $30 on books and/or DVDs. If you factored in that we usually went to go see a movie about once a month, that was an additional $16 or so.

In January, we spent $18.23 (and only because Matt forgot he had pre-ordered a book---otherwise, we would have spent nothing).

Even with the slip-up, it's still a savings of over $25.

But here's one of the hardest categories for me---clothing. Especially with me being pregnant (and constantly outgrowing things), it's all too easy to rationalize that "just two or three" more maternity things wouldn't be too big of a deal. When I actually sat down to face the numbers, it turns out that I had spent $130 each month on average on clothing over the last 12 months.


So January found me rearranging my closet so that I could easily access what still fit, and I was determined to try and get a handle on this clothing problem. And I lasted *almost* the whole month without buying anything. However, I did end up using a gift card from Christmas to buy some clothes, but I was smart about it---because the free shipping only came if you spent $50, I made sure I waited to use the card until I had a decent amount of rewards as well as a really good discount.

When all was said and done, I ended up getting over $60 worth of clothing for a mere $5.93, which I feel pretty darn proud of.

(Although the second my paycheck came in on  January 30th--which was the official last day for the spending freeze--I did go out and purchase myself a couple new bras because I just couldn't take the discomfort anymore).

Savings for the last 30 days on clothing: $124

It should come as no surprise then, after seeing these statistics, that Matt and I put more than $750 in savings over the course of the month (and this coming from a girl who was pretty convinced that we were living on a pretty tight budget as it was and that we just weren't making enough money to save very much every month). 

Now, I don't expect to be able to live this way all the time---it's not super feasible that we'll often have a month like we did last month when it comes to putting a freeze on pretty much all our discretionary spending. However, I did realize that we definitely need to rein it in from where it was, and you know what hit me particularly hard? When we had a set limit on what we could spend/not spend, I found that I appreciated those few times when we did allow ourselves a little money to spend (like when we went out to eat, or when I ordered the clothes) that I enjoyed and appreciated it exponentially more than I normally did. Before, it was such a normal part of our life that it no longer felt like the special treat it should.

Now, after five weeks of closely watching every penny, I feel like every dollar spent towards fun and leisure is fully enjoyed because it truly is a "treat" again instead of a regular occurrence. Another discovery is that we became a little more creative about spending time together and that when we did "go out," it, once again, felt like a luxury and made the evening that much more enjoyable.

Going into the rest of the year now, I'm hoping this adjusted mindset will stick. My goal is to save at least $500 a month from now until at least July (because I'll still for sure be getting a paycheck up until then, since we don't know what will be happening with my work schedule for sure yet after baby comes).

I finally feel like we're truly on track to getting a "real" emergency savings fund in place now instead of just the "baby" one we've had for so long.

So, all in all, I'm feeling pretty darn proud of myself for the progress we made in January. And now onto February's big goal....(which I'll post about sometime this week...)

If you happen to be considering a spending freeze, I highly encourage it--even if it's just for a week, it's a good way to reset your brain so that you really do understand how much of your money goes toward unnecessary purchases each month. And of course, if you try it, I'd love to hear about it!

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