A Gym-Free Life

September 29, 2011

Yesterday morning I got caught outside in a mini thunderstorm. At 6:30, when I left the house for my five-mile run, it was super humid—a funky fall humidity that has been lingering for days—but it wasn’t raining. About five minutes into my run I noticed a flash of lightning. It was dark out and the flash crept up on me from behind. It was bizarre, but I couldn’t hear thunder. I figured I’d just keep going and see what happened.

For the next three or four miles, nothing happened at all. I saw a few more distant lightning flashes and heard grumbles of thunder, but there was no rain to speak of and certainly no apparent danger. The sun finally started to rise, and I could see breaks in the clouds. I thought I’d make it home before the rain blew in.

I didn’t. When I had just about a mile left to go, the heavens decided to open—big, heavy, soaking drops. You know the kind I mean. By the time I made it home, I was drenched from head to foot and happy about it.

Since I quit my gym membership four years ago, I’ve learned to love the rain. I run in fog and in drizzle, both warm and chilly, and I’ve been stuck in my share of downpours. And you know what? I haven’t melted yet. I also haven’t gotten pneumonia or, for that matter, any other weather-related illness. Sure, some of those rainy runs haven’t been all that pleasant, but for the most part, I like a good mid-run rain. It makes life interesting—and it makes a warm post-run shower all the more rewarding.

I can give you a laundry list of good reasons to quit your gym—learning to love the weather isn’t the only benefit of gym-free living. Energy usage is a big reason to quit. Gyms are pumped full of cool air at all hours, even when no classes are scheduled and only one or two people are around to use the weights and cardio equipment—machines that require plenty of energy themselves.  Add to that your drive to and from the place, and your annual gym-related fossil fuel usage can get pretty steep.

Time is another good reason. How much time do you spend driving to and from the gym? Packing a bag for the gym? Filling your water bottles? Wouldn’t you rather use that time to exercise (or sleep a few extra minutes)?

Money is the reason I left. In 2007 I was trying to pay down some debt and cut several unnecessary expenses. The gym was first among them. By that time I was running outside more and more often, and using the gym only once or twice a week for cross- and strength-training workouts. I spent the amount of a month’s gym membership on some basic equipment—a couple free weights, an exercise ball, resistance bands—and then I called it quits.

Money is also the primary reason I haven’t returned. I can’t imagine shelling out eighty bucks a month for a gym with an indoor pool when I can use the pool at the community center for $2 a visit (or Reston’s outdoor pools for $15 a summer!).  I do pay to go to a yoga studio these days, but while I was pinching pennies, I did hourlong workouts that I found for free online.

Oh, and all that exercise equipment I bought was not worth the money. Lunges, squats, sit-ups, and push-ups do the trick and require no financial expenditure. What has been worth the cost to me is the weather-appropriate gear, the headlamp, and the bicycle. But all of these things are optional (and have cost me less than the four years of gym membership would have).

I guess what I’m trying to say is you do not need a lot of stuff to get in a good workout. Nor do you need a big air-conditioned room full of equipment or shouting instructors. In living gym-free, I have found that exercise is one of those things that is most beneficial—for body and mind—when you’re doing something you love at minimal cost. I like to do yoga at home in my pajamas early in the morning, when it’s still dark outside. A walk or bike ride with a friend is pretty much always a good idea. And certain three-plus-hour long runs count among the most gratifying experiences I’ve had in the last few years (nonrunners will have to trust me on this one).*

I quit my gym in the middle of training for my third marathon, and I was very nervous about it. Could I cross-train without the elliptical? Could I strength-train without the weight machines? I could, and I did. For one thing, I started swimming again. For another, I discovered the miracle of free yoga. But, most important, I learned to love the weather—not just the sun and the perfect 60-, 70-, and 80-degree days, but also the rain, the snow, the cold, the ice, the blistering heat, and Virginia’s swampy humidity (OK, I’m still working on that last one).

*Not interested in a typical American workout? Here’s an alternative. Green gyms aren’t prevalent in the United States yet, but now seems like as good a time as any to start one, right?

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Most of you—especially those of you with kids, I’d imagine—are familiar with the household calendar concept. The premise is this: one calendar, posted in a heavily trafficked area of the house, that lists all activities for every member of the household. Maybe it’s color coded. Maybe it includes chores. However it’s customized, the household calendar is powerful organizational tool. And yet, Channing and I didn’t have one until Tuesday.

Here’s the rub: The new hubs and I have felt especially popular since the wedding. We’ve been invited to what seems like a gazillion dinners, sporting events, concerts, and birthday parties over the past seven weeks. We went to the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello last Saturday and plan to hit the Frederick Oktoberfest next Saturday (I’m hoping Channing will don some authentic lederhosen so we can get in for free). We’ve got a Riesling tasting to attend and tickets to football and baseball games. We’re running a ten miler on Sunday. To be honest, I haven’t felt all that busy—our activities have been fun, spontaneous, and, to some extent, relaxing—but we’ve overbooked enough times lately that, when Channing suggested we keep a joint calendar, I was thrilled.

But where would we get a calendar? Our home printer was out of ink, and since we’re no longer on those pesky bulk mailing lists, we didn’t have any 2011 wall calendars lying around the house. And we certainly weren’t going to buy a new one. Plus, I wanted something we could view both at home and at work—so that ruled out the iCal on our home computer. At first I thought I would create something in Numbers and share it with Channing via my Dropbox. But then I remembered that Google has a free calendar product that Channing and I could each access from our separate Gmail accounts. Yep, the Google calendar seemed like a good idea—mostly because I wouldn’t have to spend too much time on setup.

So, like I said, I created our aptly named “Calendar of Fun” on Tuesday, and I have to say, it’s pretty fantastic. The calendar is private, so only the two of us can view it. I set it up so that we can both add and modify events, just as we could on a paper calendar. As an added bonus, there is a bit of extra room for a description of each event, so we can use the calendar to share websites for festival schedules or restaurant menus with each other. Although I haven’t explored the option yet, I think our Google calendar will sync with the iCal, both on our desktop and on my iPad. Isn’t technology amazing? (I’m guessing at least a handful of readers are using Google calendars or maybe some other fancy digital calendars I’m not aware of. Feel free to share any calendar-related tips in the comments.)

Remember back in March when I wrote that post about reevaluating my use of time? Well, this calendar is another tool I can use to ensure I’m making wise decisions about “extracurricular” activities. For example, Channing has requested that we limit our joint weekend activities to no more than two. There are some nuances to this number. Generally we’ll count only activities that take us outside the house, but in some cases—e.g., parties or dinners that require both planning and hosting responsibilities—in-house activities will count too. Channing wants to ensure he has plenty of time to relax, and I have to say, I appreciate this. He keeps my hyperplanning tendencies in check. Only recently have I discovered what some college friends meant when they declined dinner plans with the excuse, “We haven’t spent enough time in our room today.” Spending time at home on the weekends has become an absolute necessity. It keeps me centered and provides peace of mind so that my workweeks are not just bearable but enjoyable.

Limiting our planned activities also occasions the opportunity for spur-of-the-moment fun. I cancelled all of my plans the weekend after our wedding because I needed to take some time off-schedule. That weekend I relearned how enjoyable it is to have the freedom to accept a dinner invitation received only three or four hours in advance. I finished my first long run in three weeks, and I think I even cooked brunch (a rarity after a three-hour run on a Sunday morning).

To conclude, I’d like to add one item to everyone’s weekend calendar: September 24, National Punctuation Day! For a few simplicity-minded, punctuation-related celebration ideas, visit the official NPD website. (I’m hoping to celebrate my favorite grammar-related holiday with Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison at the National Book Festival.)

Cultivating Resiliency

September 21, 2011

A couple weeks ago Bernice, one of the women in our Voluntary Simplicity group, passed along an idea for a new group: the resilience circle. Chuck Collins, director of the Institute for Policy Studies Program on Inequality and the Common Good, and his team developed the concept of the resilience circle—or common security club—in response to the economic crash of 2008. Since 2009 circles have sprouted in more than twenty-five cities across the United States using the resources posted on the Resilience Circle Network’s website.

So, what are resilience circles? They are groups of ten to twenty people with a threefold purpose: (1) to learn about the global economy and what caused the recession; (2) to build relationships based on mutual respect and aid; and (3) to promote social action and local policy that will provide long-term economic security for community members. The Resilience Circle Network has designed a seven-session curriculum to start groups on their way. During these first few meetings, participants learn about and discuss topics such as sources of economic security, debt and overconsumption, the concept of mutual aid, the influence of ecological crises on the consumer economy, the power of corporations, and the efficacy of social action. The network website suggests readings by the likes of Juliet Schor and David Korten and homework assignments that include watching The Story of Stuff, talking to relatives who survived tough economic times, and digging up recipes to share.

The beauty of the resilience circle, though, is not in the highfalutin Web-learnin’ of economic and political theory. Rather it is the emphasis on mutual aid and the fostering of a supportive community. The curriculum for the first seven group meetings includes and encourages practical application of ideas discussed in the readings. The best example of this is Activity 2 in Session 5: offerings of gifts and needs. One by one, participants explain what they can offer to the group (e.g., expertise in sewing, tomatoes from their garden, organizing services) and what they need (e.g., school supplies, cooking lessons, a knitting circle). Everyone is encouraged to make connections and start exchanging.

Are you having trouble getting enough food for the family on the table seven nights a week? Your resilience circle can organize bulk food purchases to reduce individual expenses, or members can share responsibility for making weekday meals for the group. Does your bathtub need caulking? Do you need to weatherize your home? Your resilience circle can probably help. And, in fact, resilience circles across the country have thought up some pretty special ideas. One group hired two teachers to create a low-cost summer day camp for the members’ kids. Another helped a member launch her own business as a professional organizer.

The resilience circle concept relies on a handful of assumptions. You can find a complete list on the website; I’d like to dwell for a moment on just one: “There is tremendous untapped creativity, energy, and talent in our communities. We have the tools we need to make a transition to a new economy: the knowledge, technology, and guiding examples.” The efficiency of this idea—that we can use an existing surplus of creativity, energy, and talent, plus knowledge and technology we already have, to solve our present problems—is what makes resilience circles so appealing to me. You can see this efficiency in the offerings of gifts and needs activity, in the cost savings in the bulk buying example, and in the brilliant summer camp idea.

And, if I’m interpreting this assumption correctly, the folks behind the Resilience Circle Network believe the best way to tap into available talent, energy, and knowledge is to talk to your neighbors.  Why aren’t we doing this already?*

OK, OK. I know building a community of support is tougher than it sounds. For one thing, Americans are generally opposed to asking for help. For another, we want compensation for our offerings. The no-buying group I was part of in 2009, for example, struggled with the concept of doing favors for one another without direct payment of an equivalent good or service. I think many of us were afraid not only that we’d be taken advantage of but also that we wouldn’t know when to say no to requests for help. The Resilience Circle Network provides information about establishing time banks or local currency to address these worries, but perhaps it is more important to begin the group by building a foundation of respect and trust (and, in fact, many of the activities in the initial sessions are geared toward creating these bonds). It is also important, of course, to remember that a support group should be a blessing, a convenience, not a full-time job.

*Some communities are actually founded on this concept. Would a reader who lives in Blueberry Hill like to write a guest post on the benefits of cohousing? Jim? Helene? Bernice?

Wedding Wrap-Up, Part 2

September 16, 2011

Casual Dress. Local Food. Good Times.

When our event designer saw the venue for our wedding celebration, he said, “I feel like I’m at summer camp.” I know this is not the mood everyone wants to set for their wedding reception, but for us, it was perfect.

We chose the Walker Nature Center as the venue for our party primarily because it felt like Reston—nestled in trees off Glade Drive and walking distance from our house. It also reflects our values. According to its website, the center’s mission is “to foster good environmental stewardship through the use of direct experiences and interpretive media. The center enhances people’s awareness, knowledge, appreciation, and enjoyment of the environment.” Right on!

The Nature House, which opened in November 2009, is a LEED Gold–certified building with a ground-source geothermal heat pump system for heating and cooling, regionally and sustainably harvested cypress siding, and low-flow and dual-flow plumbing fixtures. The porch posts are made from wood salvaged from a nearby construction site and the flooring is natural marmoleum and recycled carpet. We rented not only the multipurpose room in the Nature House but also the picnic pavilion just outside. Guests were able to walk outdoors to enjoy the landscaping (primarily native plants), the trees, a few raindrops now and again, and of course, the second bar.

That bar and the bar in the multipurpose room were stocked and manned by Main Event Caterers, who provided what was by all accounts a downright delicious buffet of food and beverage.* Our event designer, Spencer, won us over with his attention to detail and some freaking amazing chocolate truffles. Because Spencer knew highlighting regional meat and produce was important to me, he included a list of local sources in his initial menu proposal. We had meat from Polyface, dairy from Trickling Springs Creamery, and produce from Virginia Green Grocer, to name only a few on the list. We also had some delectable short-smoked salmon (served with peach chutney—oh my!), which, though not locally caught, came from a sustainable source—or at least a source more environmentally responsible than unregulated ocean aquaculture.

But it wasn’t the menu that set Main Event apart—in fact, our second-choice caterer also proposed a mouth-watering menu full of local foods. Rather it was their commitment to doing business in an eco-friendly way. Main Event Caterers purchases electricity from Dominion Power, but offsets their usage by purchasing an equal amount of energy from a wind farm. This energy is then funneled to the electric grid to reduce reliance on unsustainable power sources. Over the past few years, the company has reduced its landfilled waste by 70 percent by recycling plastics, aluminum, glass, and cardboard; composting food waste; and using only biodegradable, compostable disposables made with corn, palm, balsa, and bagasse. Most recently, the catering company installed a water purification and filtration system that allows them to bottle their own still and sparkling water in handsome, reusable glass vessels, so they no longer rely on water from plastic bottles. Heck, even Main Event’s website is hosted by a green web-hosting company, AISO.

As a sort-of side note, I’ll mention one of the biggest perks of working with Spencer and Main Event. Two or three weeks before the party date, I approached Spencer with a request that the bars serve only craft beers, not just because they generally taste better than the domestic standards but also because I would feel better supporting, say, Starr Hill than, say, Budweiser. Neither Channing nor I had any specific beers in mind when I made this request, so Spencer took it upon himself to consult Main Event’s beverage director. The two of them came up with a fantastic idea. Main Event had in storage a whole variety of cases and half cases of microbrews that other parties had requested. For the same price it would have cost us to serve their usual trio (one domestic, one import, one craft), we could serve a grab bag of eight to ten different varieties of beer. Make use of leftovers and offer our friends and family more options? Yes, please! (Of course, I drank bellinis all night—but, hey, it was August and peach season is only so long.)

For dessert we had fresh-baked blueberry, cherry, and peach pies from Albemarle Baking Company, thanks to my generous friend Nan. And then there was the cake: three tiers of greatness brought to us by Buzz Bakery. Buzz is a member of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group (NRG), which, for the benefit of the locals out there, includes Vermilion, Rustico, Tallula, and Evening Star Café, among others. Last fall NRG launched the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture at Woodlawn Plantation in Alexandria. The center’s programs include an educational farm, a wholesale local food outlet, a mobile market, and the D.C. Farm to School Network, all with the mission to “improve the health of our community, the viability of local farmers, and preserve our environment for future generations by combining education about healthy food and its sources with better logistical connections between local farmers and the urban and suburban core of the region.” Clearly Buzz is part of a happy, well-meaning family.

Buzz itself doesn’t claim to use local or sustainable ingredients, but they do have “reverence for great ingredients, a passion for careful baking, and a steadfast dedication to serving only the freshest items.” Hear, hear! Our cake coordinator, Dawn, insisted on seasonally inspired tiers, which was obviously fine with me. I chose lemon cake filled with lemon curd, almond cake filled with cherry curd, and vanilla cake with both lemon and cherry. The whole thing was covered in buttercream and studded with fresh, organic flowers (the same flowers I picked up from Potomac Vegetable Farms). Stunning.

And that, my friends, ends the story of our low-stuff wedding. It goes to show you can get hitched in style without fancy dresses and multiple fittings, pricey photographers, florists, DJs, inspiration notebooks, wedding websites, gift registries, bridesmaids and groomsmen, save-the-date cards, reply cards, place cards, tents, programs, limousines, rehearsals, churches, speeches, and jordan almonds. I know this kind of casual affair does not appeal to everyone, and that’s OK by me (I like formal events as much as anyone else does). Still, I think a traditional wedding could take some environmentally minded cues from our more simple celebration. The focus of our event was on what was most important to us: gathering our family and friends, all together in one place at one time, to celebrate the start of our new life together.

*And I mean seriously delicious. We have a ton of positive feedback about the food. Thank you so much, Main Event!

Wedding Wrap-Up, Part 1

September 14, 2011

Exceptions (Or, One Month of Justifying Purchases with “It’s for the Wedding”; Or, Enjoying an Influx of Generosity)

Aside from the occasional rain shower on party day, Wedding Weekend 2011 went off without a hitch. The ceremony was short, sweet, and included a surprise guest—Channing’s brother Chip (we thought he was flying in from Austin later that evening). Our first dinner as newlyweds, at the Restaurant at Patowmack Farm four hours after the ceremony, was pretty darn amazing. On Friday we had brunch with Channing’s family, caught up on some in-theater movie viewing, and attended a cookout with my family. And then, of course, there was the party—but I’ll cover that in part 2.

First, the exceptions: I’ve already confessed to buying the wedding band and the invitations. I’m hoping to avoid buying thank-you cards. Channing claims he has “seventeen thousand” notecards lying around here somewhere. If he doesn’t, I think we’ll create our own thank-you postcards with the card stock I have among my crafting supplies.

Despite my new aunt-in-law’s generous offer of fresh lilies and black-eyed Susans from her garden, I ended up buying a few organic bouquets from Potomac Vegetable Farms. Actually, Channing bought my wedding-day bouquet from the PVF farm stand when he went to pick up our CSA share for the week, and I picked up flowers for the party at the PVF booth at the Reston farmers market on Saturday morning. Talk about convenient! Plus, my cousin Paige, an expert florist, did our flower arranging, using vases my parents had stored in their garage.

Among the unexpected exceptions were a pair of bridal flip-flops, a gift from my friend Nan. My witness, Sarah, took some great photos of Channing and me on our wedding day, and I had a couple shots printed to display at the party (in frames from my personal collection). I bought four bottles of citronella spray to help party guests fend off mosquitoes (my dad also rented fans for this purpose). And, last but certainly not least (on the guilt-o-meter, I mean), I purchased some makeup.

Makeup! I wear very little makeup, and in December, when Helene, Melissa, and I met to set the rules for the Experiment, I was adamant about not including makeup on the essential toiletries list. But then, after receiving some generous gift certificates from the new in-laws, I found myself in the Red Door Spa for a facial. After the facial, I was offered a complimentary makeup refresher, during which their in-house makeup expert convinced me (with very little prodding, I might add) to buy some eye shadow along with some “primer” for my eyelids. Who knew they had such a thing? I’m such a sucker.

Then there were the gifts. As I’ve mentioned before, Channing and I decided not to register, even though people had us convinced that not registering would prompt a deluge of unwanted stuff from our well-meaning wedding guests. Happily for me, these people were wrong. In fact, very few of our wedding gifts fell into the “stuff” category. I received some (awesome) bike gear and the greatest pair of sunglasses ever, and together Channing and I accepted a few household items, like a photo album and a glass cake stand and dome. Oh, we also received a super sleek and handy compost pail, which is going to cut down our food waste so much that I hate to even list it among the “stuff.” And that’s pretty much it.

In the “redeemable for stuff” category, we received a couple gift cards for Target and Crate and Barrel. I figured we could just hold off on using them until 2012, maybe after we’ve moved into whatever house we end up purchasing. Channing disagreed. He ran out to Target without me a couple Fridays ago because he thought we desperately needed a copy of It’s Complicated on DVD for the home library. (It turns out he was right—we’ve already watched it twice.)

The majority of the gifts we received were generous donations to the Kimmelhorn Townhouse Fund (thank you!). Some folks gave food or beverage gifts, donations in our names to charitable organizations, and movie theater passes. And, lastly, there were the homemade gems: a homegrown garlic bulb (yum!), a photo on canvas, and a mini antique chest of drawers filled with date ideas, quotes, and cash for our first year of marriage. I love the creativity.

We’re pretty lucky to have such loving, caring, munificent friends and family. I certainly did not expect this outpouring of generosity. I was actually naive enough to think people would forgo the gift-giving custom; I did, after all, tell more than one guest that I wasn’t interested in gifts. To be frank, I was overwhelmed—in a good way, of course. And I appreciate everyone coming here to celebrate with us so very much. More about the celebration—and the food, bev, and venue in particular—to come on Friday.

Finally, for the record, despite the abovementioned brazen violations of the original rules of the No Stuff Experiment and despite my husband’s best efforts to dissuade me, I have been sticking to my guns since August 7. For Mom’s birthday last month, the two of us went to the movies and out for ice cream cones. I sated my back-to-school clothes shopping urge with an impromptu stop at a new consignment shop in Fairfax. I’ve become so dependent on the surprise and excitement of my weekly CSA share that I braved flooded parking lots and highways and three hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic in an attempt to reach the farm last Thursday (the farm, by the way, is about five miles from my house and office). I’m still commuting on foot and by bike as often as possible, and since the wedding, I’ve been appreciating the quiet and fun that just happen when my mind and schedule are open.