Sunday, September 27, 2009

Reflections on an epic yard sale

The good news for us is that PEOPLE LIKE OUR STUFF. Sorry for yelling, but they liked it so much that that they bought almost all of it at our yard sale yesterday. We were selling like crazy from 8-12. It was the best yard sales EVER (yelling again) because we had tons of good items that actually worked or were purchased within the past five years. You could have set up a whole house and remodeled it too with what we were were selling. And our prices were nice and low, so everything was flying.

My favorite part? The FREE section. That's right. Give the yard sale people of the world what they really want: free stuff. The free stuff helps them to feel like they are really getting a bargain and makes them more likely to buy something. They've done studies on this. I kid. This might not be true at all. In fact, it might be that giving away free stuff makes people want the stuff that's for sale for even less money. Either way, I don't care because it is really, really fun to give away free stuff. People just can't believe that you would give something away that you could charge a whole two dollars for.

Throughout the morning, I would select priced items that just weren't moving and bring them over into the free section (understand here, my end game was to get rid of everything by the end of the day). Items priced for $1 in the for sale area weren't even getting a glance from passers by, but you put them in the free section and watch out! They were all over it.

One of the best moments was when two ladies who had already talked me down to $2 for a designer jacket (because $5 was far too much), were walking back to their cars. I yelled out, "Ladies, more free stuff!" holding up the fresh load of items in my hands. Without hesitation or any thought at all, they abruptly did an about-face then made a b-line for the free section. Nice!

One of the things I found amazing was the power of a dollar (or three, for that matter). It can make all the difference between someone wanting or not wanting to buy an item. I was reminded by my husband that it's not about the price at all, it's about the thrill of the negotiation. The conversation the jacket lady had when she got home went something like this, "Man, did I get a bargain. She had it marked at $5 and I got her down to $2!"

I really meant to put up a "No Haggle Zone" sign, but the early birds descended at 8 a.m. (start time was 9) and it threw me off entirely. My husband came up at 8 as we were getting ready to set up, and told me we had customers. I certainly wasn't pleased that people were already there. I think my reaction was fueled by the fact that I was running on a week of very little sleep. Come to find out the two ladies in the garage could hear me when I said, "I should have included a 'no early birds' line in the ad." They actually helped us set up, so it worked in my favor.

While I didn't get the sign up, I did manage to put my foot down with a few hagglers. And on other occasions, as the day went on, I gave in. I told one woman who got me to come down one dollar on a $3 item to "make sure to spend that extra dollar wisely." She promised he would.

For all my sudo-complaining, it was a super fun day. The weather was phenomenal and Ryan and I had a blast answer questions, chatting away and selling our stuff. Our background music was the rough cut of my band's upcoming CD. This resulted in adding more than a dozen new people to my email list. Nice by-product.

By 2 p.m. we only had a limited number of items left. For some reason the small kitchen appliances weren't selling. Ryan's theory was that people had their own unnecessary kitchen appliances that they never use, so why buy more. I didn't think that usually stopped yard-salers from doing their thing, but maybe he was right.

We rounded up the rejects and put them all on one table (photo). We didn't sell any of these things. I finally just gave the ice cream maker away to someone who bought our grill. Seemed like a good combo.

We ended the sale by packing up the leftover items and driving them to Good Will in Worcester. This gave us the perfect excuse to eat the Chicken Ceasar Pizza at the Corner Grille.

Our summation of the day? It was an absolute success. Besides the fact that we made $1,000 (by selling thousands of dollars worth of stuff) we got to have some excellent conversations with our patrons. Many asked why we were moving and where. We got to tell our story and, like usual, people had positive responses to what we are doing. "Good for you!" and "Good luck!" Some seemed to wish they could do they same or said that they planned to.

Ryan and I compared notes on the day as we drove home from Worcester. We agreed that it feels so good to shed so much of our stuff. We are feeling great about the choices we're making and the direction we're going. We're glad that we bought the house and are grateful for the five amazing years we had in Groton and everything we learned being homeowners. Ryan says he sees the experience as a right of passage, of sorts. He got to put all the things his dad taught him into practice and realized that he is really very handy and can do just about anything that is required to fix a house up. Lucky for me.

One thing we are learning about ourselves is that we like experiences a bunch. We love to try something, learn from it and walk away with the experience of it under our belts. With that said, I don't think this next phase of our live is just about a new experience. Part of it is--living in an urban setting--but the part about simplifying life, that's something that we want to last through a lifetime of experiences.

P.S. To see some of the stuff we sold, check out the Moving from Groton blog.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Can a simple life also be a busy one?

In my day job (and sometimes night job) I am a marketer for a software company. I’m one of three people on the marketing team and most days, my job feels anything but simple. There are so many moving pieces. So many things I’m trying to keep up with.

This sounds a bit like my life outside of work as well. Case in point: A few days ago, I was telling my VP of HR about my new blog, which included mentioning the title. I quickly moved on to tell her that I had two shows (with my band) coming up that weekend and the following week I would be in the studio two weeknights working on a CD. She knows that I’m also in the process of selling my house and moving and is very aware of the work I’m doing at the company.

She started laughing. And it only took me a few seconds to figure out why. She saw the irony: I’m writing a blog about simplifying life and yet I have so much going on (including writing my blog!). My life can sound pretty complicated when I talk about everything I’m doing.

How does all this activity fit with my goal to simplify? Good question. I’m naturally a person who can do a lot at the same time. I’ve always gotten comments from others about the amount of things I take on. And I’ve typically been able to recognize when I was doing too much. Emotional breakdowns can be very telling. That's a joke (kind of).

Here’s a thought: Maybe simplicity in life doesn’t mean doing as little as possible, but instead, making sure you are choosing to do what’s most important to you.

I don’t have children and that’s a big part of why I have the time to pursue the things I do.  But even so, I find that there is always one more thing that “has” to be done.  Last night I told my husband, “I just need to write a few emails” and promised we would watch a show together. But two hours later, I was still on the computer because I’d discovered about 10 other things that I really “had” to do. Fortunately he was fast asleep on the couch so no harm done there. Phew!

Am I trying to do too much? Probably. Maybe all those super stressful dreams I’m having should be an indicator. I suppose that just because we can handle a lot doesn’t mean it’s good for us to do so, huh? We have to be careful not to unknowingly burn ourselves out in the process.

BUT (and that’s a big but) part of sucking the marrow out of life (which I want to do) is getting involved in life. Making things happen.  It feels good to make things happen, doesn’t it?  I love all of the activities I’m currently involved in (my family, my work, my band, my blog, etc.) and am looking forward to some I recently committed to (being the co-chair of a marketing committee and  helping a friend start a book club for professional women).  Will I run myself ragged trying to do all of these great things? I certainly hope not. As I write this tonight, I’m thinking that slowing down just a little might be a good idea.

I’m putting a lot on this upcoming move (let’s hope it actually happens!). I’m counting on the simplicity that apartment living brings and the fact that I will get almost eight hours back per week (wow!) with my almost non-existent commute. It will be easy for me to use that time up with everything I listed above. My challenge is to figure out how to make sure to save a little time to do one very important thing on occasion: absolutely nothing.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A love letter to Groton, Massachuetts: Part I

Did you see the film Lost in Translation? I heard it described as Sophia Coppola's love letter to Tokyo. This blog post is the first half of my love letter to Groton, Massachusetts, the town that I've called home for the past five years. I'm getting ready to sell half my stuff and transition to urban living in a few weeks. Part of simplifying my life is saying goodbye to a place I love. I'm a little reflective these days, so bear with me. : )

If you know me, you know that I love Groton. This love affair started years ago, long before I was a resident. As a college student at Northeastern University in Boston, I would, once a year, take a pilgrimage with a number of my friends to a restaurant called Parker's Maple Barn in Mason, New Hampshire (just over the Mass border). Parker's (as we call it) is housed in a rustic barn with exposed beams and woodburning stoves. It's very cozy. You are greeted at the front door by a large wooden American Indiana holding a sign that tells you to wait to be seated. They serve up big plates of breakfast (they do dinner to, but I've only been for morning fare). Their most famous breakfast dish is the Parker's Special which consists of enough food to feed a family of eight. The next step down in the Mini Parker which could feed a family of four. A little humor here, but the portions are HUGE.

As you can imagine, this place was like a dream for young college students living in the city. The large portions were certainly a big part of the draw, but there was so much more to it. It was an escape from our crowded, action-packed urban life, a chance to get out in nature (real nature, not the Boston Common). And it was a perfect excuse for a road trip that took you through beautiful countryside scenes and quaint New England towns, the quaintest being Groton.

I remember riding through Groton thinking that it seemed so perfect. It was such a beautiful little town, and so well preserved. It was as if it were set back in time. No flashy signs (they are all wooden), no bright lights, and all the houses and buildings on Main Street are antique. I remember thinking, "Who lives in this town?" It seemed so far away from the "real" world of Boston. At that time, an hour commute into the city was impossible to fathom.

I need to put a little "aside" in here (per Shakespeare) and mention that when I was 15 my family moved to New England from Alabama. We lived in Bedford for a year and then moved to Concord. Concord was my first true love here in Massachusetts and I still love it dearly. I'm a bit Concord obsessed, but as an adult, Concord was not a town I could afford to live in. Groton, in some ways started as a replacement for Concord, but I grew to love it in a different way and saw it as a better place to live. It's more pristine, more open, less crowded and more peaceful. It's like a hidden gem. There is that small detail that it's a bit remote, but you get used to that. Back to the story!

Through the years, after college, I continued the tradition of going to Parker's. I would go with my family, with my after-college friends and also with my husband (once I had one). When we took the scenic route, which can be skipped if you are in a hurry, we would once again go through Groton. I remember one time when Ryan and I were coming back from enjoying our Mini Parker breakfasts, we decided to take Route 40 out of Groton center. The green sign promised that the road would bring us to Lowell and we were living near there at the time. We had no sense of how this road would get us to Lowell, but decided to be adventurous (daring, I know!).

View Larger Map

Route 40 is a curvy road that meanders through Groton, then Westford, then Chelmsford and finally reaches Lowell. As we drove, we didn't think we were ever going to get to Lowell, but it didn't matter. What a great ride! The piece of Route 40 that goes through Groton is beautiful. The scenery is really lovely. It was well worth what felt like a never-ending ride (30 minutes).

About a year later, Ryan and I started thinking about buying our first house. We had never talked about Groton as a place to buy, but I think it was in the back of both of our minds. I came home from work one night and Ryan was beside himself with excitement. He wanted me to look at the photos of a little house he'd found online. I did and I loved it. It was in Groton.

We jumped in the car on that early summer evening and raced against time to get to the house before the sun went down. We planned to trespass and check out this home that we were starting to envision as our own (we are very imaginative, which has its pros and cons - but mostly pros).We got there with only a few minutes of daylight left and circled the house, looking in windows and liking what we saw. In subsequent trips to Groton we grew more and more attached to the home (Bad! I know you are suppose to leave emotions out of it, but buying a house is ALL about emotions) and to the town.

Long story short, the house had a wicked mold problem in the crawlspace that money couldn't even fix to the point of confidence. Also, there was a threat of extreme flooding due to some new construction near by. It broke Ryan's heart when we received the news. I'm not kidding. In his mind, we were already living there (he's the more imaginative of the two of us). So, it was back to square one. (One little note here. A couple did buy the house and the next season the backyard completely flooded. The local newspaper ran a picture of it. We were so glad we didn't act on emotion).

We continued our search and expanded to surrounding towns, but we had a special place in our hearts for Groton. It had already done a number on us. After a few weeks, we found a house in Groton that had some potential. It was a split entry. Ewww. Not at all what we were looking for. It was seriously outdated and would require a ton of cosmetic work. But it had the most beautiful backyard. The yard itself was perfect and beyond it was a meadow. And for a split, it was actually a very nice looking house. One of the best ones I've seen.

We decided to go for it and after the usual back and forth, we purchases the house. For the first month, we didn't live in the house, but worked on it every day and every night. We ripped up floors, we got rid of four layers of wallpaper, we painted every inch of the house including all trim and cabinets, and over time, after moving in, we (meaning Ryan) laid tile, ripped down and replaced walls, and did all kinds of other things to make our house a great place to live. We were proud of ourselves and the house (and still are!).

So what does our house have to do with loving Groton? It's all tied together really. It was one big wonderful experience. We loved this town. We loved our piece of it. We wanted to make it the best it could be (on a budget). We've enjoyed every minute of our lives in this place.

As I sit at my kitchen table now, I hear the brook that runs through the backyard, the birds chirping, various insects adding their contribution and the light sound of the chimes on my back porch blowing in the gentle breeze. The sun is shinning, and out of all windows I can see green and trees. This is mostly what I love about Groton. Nature. It's all around you. It's the most calming thing I know.

I know that I'm going to miss my life here when we are gone. But we weren't ready to settle here for the rest of our lives. We have other things we want to do. Other plans in our minds' eyes. One day, I have no doubt, that we will settle in again in a beautiful place that we will connect with just as much as we do Groton.

In my next post, I will continue writing about Groton. It will be a useful post. You will actually be able to use it as a guide if you decide to come for a day trip. And make sure to visit Parker's when you are up this way.

Okay, now off to cleaning and packing! The bank is coming tomorrow to decide what our home is really worth and if they will give our buyers the money to make it their own. Fingers crossed! I always have to keep that imagination at bay (dreaming of loft living right now) because until we close on the house, there's always the chance that we might not be going anywhere.

Credit for Groton Photo: Dave Hill

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Stuff is like lobster

Labor Day just passed us by. When I spoke with friends about what they did, I got a little jealous. They were at the lake or the beach, kicking back, relaxing (you get the picture). What was I doing on Labor Day? I was laboring. Ryan and I spent the day sorting through all of our stuff. Categories included: Recycle, Throw Away (stuff that can't be recycled and no one in the world would want it), Sell, Give Away and Keep. So much stuff!

One of my projects was going through boxes of photos that I've been carrying around with me for years. Thank goodness for digital cameras! I can't believe how many pictures I used to have developed in the olden days. My mission: to make choices about which photos to keep and scan and which to toss.

It went something like this:
  • Pictures of friend's babies from five years ago: out.
  • Christmas photos of friends and their families: out (sorry guys!).
  • Any picture taken during my fat years (1999-2001): out.
  • Endless photos of scenery with no people: out.
  • Misc photos of friends in misc poses (all extremely tasteful, of course): out.
  • The best current photos of friends and family: in.
  • Older photos of friends and family: in.
  • The best photos of me: in.
You really have to be ruthless. Ryan and I decided we would be with everything. We want to take as little as possible with us when we move. Even sentimental stuff is going bye-bye. I like this idea -- if you want to remember something, take a pictures (digital). Something I read once challenged the idea that memories have to be attached to things. You always have your memories with or without things (until you get dimentia, that is).

Moving beyond photos, we went through almost every closet, every draw, and the garage. In the end, we have a garage full of stuff that we are shedding. Our yard sale will be the week before the move. We are selling the items that can fetch $2 (big money at a yard sale) and up and the rest we are giving away.

I'm envisioning the sign, "Hundreds of items for free!" I'm sure this will result in tons of traffic, but will it be quality? The big question you ask when putting on a yard sale (right).The problem with the "free" strategy is that people will come with the cheapest mindset possible and will expect to get a lawn mower for $.50. Hmmm...I need to think about this one a little more.

Our yard sale will be the magnitude of a two or three family one because we are getting rid of half our stuff. Ladders, TVs, couches, tables, chairs, weights, ice cream maker, toaster, volleyball net, dress up clothes (don't ask), photo albums, snowblower, lawnmower, Ryan's "my little pony collection" (just seeing if you are still paying attention), I mean, Ryan's diver gear...the list is endless. (If you are interested in any of our stuff, just let me know. You will get the generous friends and family discount ; )

It's a very cool feeling to shed stuff. It really is similar to losing weight. Your like, "I can see my feet again!"
Some our stuff, we bought just five years ago when we moved into the house, but I'm okay with that. Sometimes you have to experience one thing to figure out that you want something different.

Bye bye, stuff! You've been great, but really you are a little like lobster, overrated. I'm just as happy with a tuna melt.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Trying urban living for a change

It's time for a little urban living for the Black family. That's right, we are moving to the big city. No, not Boston. We are moving to Lowell. I'm smiling as a I write this because so many people have asked, "Why Lowell?" They just can't understand why we would move there.

In the words of the recent PR campaign for this very city, "There's a lot to like about Lowell!" It's really true. Ryan and I are more than an hour away from Boston right now and during the past five years have found Lowell to be a great option when we were looking for food and live music. They made so many great changes in the city starting with inviting artists in and turning many of the old mills into lofts or office space.

Here are some of the things we like about Lowell: Good restaurants (Life Alive, Mambo Grill, Blue Taleh, Centro to name a few), great outdoor seating (that can rival Newbury!), mom and pop coffee shops (Cafe Paradiso, Brewed Awakenings) a stellar concert series in the summer, the Lowell Folk Festival, the film collaborative, the Merrimack River, and more.

Perhaps the best part of living in Lowell will be what it will do to our commutes. If all goes as planned, I will have a five minute walk to work (no more driving!) and Ryan's commute will be knocked down to 15 minutes. Sweet!

We have a deposit down on a new loft apartment that overlooks the river. It's on the fourth floor and is a corner unit, so there are lots of BIG windows. The ceilings are 18 feet which will help to make the place feel bigger than it is (1,000 square feet). And did I mention that my work is a five minute walk away? Uh, huh. That's right. I'm doing a little dance right now.

It is going to be different for us. I will miss our beautiful piece of land here in the country. I'm listening to the crickets as I write this. No more big back yard (although there is a great park right outside our door that leads to a river walk that goes for miles). And no more back deck to chillax on.

I've never lived in an apartment complex that feels like a hotel. All those doors on the same floor. Thank goodness that they double soundproofed the walls at this place. I've heard bad reports about thin walls in these old mill buildings.

We are very excited about the new place. We are still in limbo until that financing for the buyers comes through. There's always that chance that we won't be going anywhere, but in the meantime we are purging (that's what my next post will be about) and spending a lot of time in Lowell getting ready for the change we hope to make in less than a month.

Trading Down

A few years back a book called Trading Up came out. I was taking a marketing class at the time, and while it was not required reading for the course, the professor suggested it as a "must-read." I have to admit that I did not read the book, but the title and the description always stuck with me.

The basic premise is that more and more people want luxury these days. And with more disposable income, (this was written before the current financial crisis) they are willing to spend more for perceived luxury. I certainly have seen this to be true for myself.

But today's economy has had its impact on all of us. In fact, it's the kind of economy that makes even the biggest spenders question their habits. It was the sudden and extreme drop in the stock market last fall that got me thinking more about simplicity. And it was the bad news that's been on the radio during my morning commute ever since, that has reinforced that this is the right way to go.

But it's really become more than that. Even if the economy were in tip-top condition, my mindset would stay the same. It goes to show that hard economic times can help us push the "reset button" and get in touch with some better ways of living our lives.

Borrowing the language of the book I mentioned above, I think that what my husband and I are doing now is "trading down."

We decided this past year that we wanted to sell our house. We didn't want to be slaves to a mortgage in such a challenging economy and we wanted to, once again, experience the flexibility of renting. Owning a house is a real time and money drain (although we thoroughly enjoyed it and will most likely own again). In addition to our full-time professions, we both have passions we are pursuing. For him, it's writing and for me, music. Renting would mean more time to do both.

Also, the opportunity to save money was very attractive. With the house, we have the mortgage (which is way more than we would ever pay for rent and very little of it is building equity) and then add to that the money we've put into the house over the past five years. We would continue to improve the house if we lived in it longer, so that would mean more money.

And then there is that little thing called freedom. At this point in our lives, we want to be free and flexibile to do what we want and/or need to, when we want and/or need to. To do this, we have to have a lot more saved that we do right now.

That desire for freedom is a big part of what motivates us to make our lives more simple. When you own a lot of things, you can be owned by those things. They can weigh you down.

One thing I haven't mentioned (but you probably know or have figured out) is that we don't have kids. This makes it really easy to make these kinds of choices. I'm sure it is more complicated when you have children, but I've heard plenty of stories that tell me anyone can simplify.

Our thinking is that we will rent for a few years and save as much as possible. We do have the idea of owning again, but we are talking about building a "green" house. That's the other piece of this equation-going green.

If I wrote this post well, it should communicate that there is not just one single thing that is motivating us to make this life change, but a perfect storm of things. I'm grateful for this storm, because it's helping us to make changes that we believe will result in a better quality of life in the years to come.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Setting the stage: Why I am blogging about simplicity

Wow, I can't believe I'm really sitting down to write this blog. I've been wanting to do this for at least six months and am finally making it happen. The truth is, I have several ideas for blogs. One would be a good career move - writing about what I do for a living - marketing. But right now, I have a burning desire to write about this new adventure that my husband and I are embarking on. We are simplifying our lives.

If you've started a blog recently, then you know what I learned today. Pretty much every good URL is taken. You really have to get creative to find one that conveys your message and doesn't sound stupid or isn't too hard for someone to remember. My plan was to name this blog "The Pickle Jar" (I will share why in a later post) but, nope! That was taken. So was just plain old "Pickle Jar." I could have gotten "A Pickle Jar" but for some reason I didn't like that as much AND I don't want others to confuse my blog with someone else.

After much rejection, I finally was able to come up with a name that I liked. One that really fits what this blog is all about. And one that doesn't sound stupid (at least, I don't think it does). Shooting for Simple.

One thing I know for sure is that in this quest for simplicity, I don't ever want to claim to have the answers, to know the right way, or to be perfect in my pursuit. In fact, I can think of a blog post that I will write at some point about my indulgences. These are some perfectly wasteful behaviors that don't fit at all with being simple. "Shooting for" says that I may be shooting for simplicity, but I'm most certainly not always going to hit the target.

My father is a minister. He was all my life. And I grew up steeped in Christianity. One thing I learned early on is the definition of that scary word "sin." It's not as scary as it sounds. It means "to miss the mark." Like, you shoot at a bulls eye and you miss it. That's like me and simplicity. While I will certainly hit the mark most of the time, there are times I will miss it, whether purposely or accidentally.

I think of my blog title as a bit of a disclaimer. For those super-duper-radical-simple-livers out there who may read this blog - just know that I'm doing my best, but will probably never do as well as you do. But you will remain my inspiration! : )

What do I want to accomplish with this blog? I want to chronicle the shift that my husband and I are making in our lives. We've made some pretty big decisions that involve getting rid of half our stuff, selling our house, renting again, and looking for ways to conserve. We have future plans that I will write about someday on this blog. Bottom line is, we want to live simply and responsibly. We want to buy what we need and use what we have and recycle (all the ways possible) what we no longer need. We also want to take care of the people around us and give of our time and ourselves in this way.

I'm writing this blog so I can process what we are doing and keep a record of it and so I can invite others to take the journey with us. Even if it's vicariously, we would love to have you along for the ride.