Archive for the ‘on the road’ Category

Short-term vs. Long-term decision making

January 22, 2009

I have a confession to make. I broke my January challenge and bought a pair of dress pants.

Let me explain. My January travel was for a winter session course involving a gaggle of grad students collaborating with several federal agencies. As a student working with mid-level and senior members of federal, state or local agencies, it is critical to be as professional as possible. This includes wardrobe considerations.

None of the jobs I have ever held have required formal outfits. They haven’t even required business casual because it didn’t fit with the culture of the organizations. There was no interview for a Masters program. As a result, I have very few formal occasion outfits, and the few that I have tend to be a stretch and not properly formal.

Thus, after the first week of the program I could tell I was going to have to step it up a notch to just keep pace with the rest of my classmates. I mean, I still don’t have a suit, but at least I have a decent pair of pants now.

I did plan ahead by purchasing some items during the Thanksgiving and Christmas sales. I scoured the pants racks of several thrift shops, something I never do. I admit, though, that I hate finding pants, particularly dress pants, and through the years I’ve constantly put that one off and mentally prayed that the khakis I have on hand would be sufficient for the occasions that present themselves. Pants rarely fit well (hence various techniques to tweak them), and I’ve never invested enough time in shopping to find the one brand or style that I can passably wear. Frankly, the thought of spending an entire weekend hitting up every single store with business formal clothing is not appealing to me. Hence the procrastination that has stretched out for years.

Which is why, when I was standing in the dressing room in my last-ditch attempts to find something, anything passable, I kept screwing up my face in the mirroring and mumbling, “I HATE pants. Hate, hate, hate.” Unfortunately Ohio in January is too cold to wear anything besides pants, so I was trapped into a purchase that, realistically, will only help in the long run, if only to avoid further night-before-my-flight excursions to the shopping mall to find myself screwing up my face in the mirror, growing desperate and angry over the lack of any decent prospects.

As much as it hurt to falter in my January challenge, I made the conscious decision to do so for two reasons. One, I was running out of time, and when you need something in a hurry, thrift shops and eBay generally don’t cut it. Two, it is more important to maintain a professional appearance than to maintain the sanctity of the challenge. These will be my supervisors and colleagues once I graduate from this program. This January challenge is but one piece of a larger, yearlong challenge to myself.

Although the best life lessons are the ones learned from handling the consequences of our mistakes, in this instance the consequences would have farther-reaching consequences for my career and the relationships built during these two weeks. That is very different from living with a smelly sponge for a month (I was only joking, though it didn’t hurt that I was gone for two weeks in January). Either way, in the future you can be sure I won’t cut it that close in the future. The choice to break the challenge was a matter of balancing priorities, but I don’t anticipate any other big emergencies coming up for the rest of the month. Furthermore, I am already reaping the gains that the challenge intended to produce.

More on that in my next post.

On the road: eliminating temptation

January 17, 2009

Although being on the road holds its share of challenges for buying nothing new, it has several upsides as well.  First of all, I’m not tempted to buy all sorts of useless souvenirs that create great waves of buyers remorse every time I look at them back home.  It would be nice to have something for friends, but I may tweak this month’s rules to include postcards as a compromise option.  Most of my friends are far more excited at the prospect of a handwritten postcard or letter in the mail than by a t-shirt that reads, “My friend went to [insert tourist trap] and all they got me was this stupid shirt.”  They’d rather read about the tourist trap than advertise it on their clothing, and I don’t blame them.  Then again we trade letters on a semi-regular basis, so it may just be that birds of a feather flock together.

For these two weeks, at least, I’m participating in an intensive class that lasts 9-5 each day.  Our hotel is situated in a remote area; other than the conference center, the closest restaurants, convenience stores, and grocery stores are a mile away.  Suddenly placed in a vacuum of stores and the temptation to purchase goods, I don’t experience many urges to consume.

I’ve felt this contrast strongly when having dinner the past two nights.  The first night a group of us walked about a mile to the nearest cluster of restaurants.  On the way back we stopped into CVS, a national drugstore chain.  Faced with row after row of sale candy, snack-sized packaged foods, weekly specials and other non-essentials packaged as essentials, my fingers started wandering.  Dark chocolate-covered cashews are a healthy snack, right?  Oh look, but there’s the fig newtons.  And food isn’t part of my challenge, so picking up a couple preventative snacks is totally within the rules.  I mean, I’m really saving myself money aren’t I?  And look, everyone else is getting something, I can’t egg them on and then turn around and buy nothing.  It wouldn’t be right!

Like I said, rationalizing is a slippery slope.  (I did wind up with the fig newtons; paired with the bananas I brought from home, they make a decent stopgap breakfast option)  Last night, though, a group of us took a cab to a restaurant surrounded by shops that had already closed for the night.  When we emerged there was no temptation to buy anything because there simply were no options available to us.  It’s hard to spend money if there’s nobody around willing to take it.

Likewise, if you’re trying to steer your mind away from hyperconsumerism, the safest thing to do is to stay out of stores, stay out of the malls.  Stay away from any place you love to stop, even if there are sales going, even just to check if they still have the pants in your size.  Just like that mental laundry list of sweaters I’m planning to knit one day, if you wait long enough some items may just disappear off the list on their own accord.

Goal-setting and planning ahead

January 16, 2009

I’m starting to wish I’d planned this out a little better.  Don’t get me wrong; for the most part I’ve been able to anticipate what I might need in January and to arrange to have them on hand.  I live alone, so staying stocked on daily necessities like toilet paper isn’t too difficult.  Of course, the minute I returned to my apartment January 2nd I took one look at my sponge and realized I should get a new one for the spring semester, but the situation isn’t dire yet.  I’ll just, you know, let the dishes pile up for a month.

On the other hand, I’m going to be on the road for several weeks this month, and there are times when my fingers itch for something to do.  I love a good book as much as the next person, but there are times when it doesn’t quite hit the spot.  I’m a crafter, and small handcrafting projects usually fit the bill perfectly.  Embroidery, knitting, crocheting, hand sewing all fall under the category of light, portable, little equipment, and projects that can be worked for a few minutes or a few hours.  As a crafter whose love affair with knitting has warmed and cooled through the years, several months ago I decided I was done with knitting and donated all my yarn to a thrift shop.  I was going to simplify all areas of my life including my hobbies.  Unfortunately, the handcraft I now long for more than anything is knitting, and there is this small problem of a self-imposed ban on buying yarn until the month of February.

I admit I’ve been tempted to break the challenge for yarn.  “But its just yarn!  I don’t have to include hobby supplies on the banned list!” or “Well, spring is coming soon anyways, so unless I get a start on my knitting now nothing I wear will be usable for long.”  But just as with my pinging experience, I know this is a slippery slope to travel down, one little infraction becomes two, then three, and wipes out the entire spirit of the challenge.

This also holds several lessons for myself.  Keep a backup on hand just in case.  Improvise – I brought some embroidery instead, and am making do without a hoop and without a pattern to follow.  I never knew doodling with thread could be so much fun.  Test your impulses with a cooling off period.  We’ll see if I’m still hot on knitting the five billion projects in my queue once this month is over.  If not, well, I’ll have saved myself a bunch of half-started projects, not to mention balls of yarn falling out of bins all around the apartment that I eventually tire of and purge in the name of simplifying my life.  Some poor thrift shop loving yarn addict out there will just have to count on another source of yarn.