A Walk in the Woods

My last few Januaries have been dark.

I mean, January is always physically dark. The sun drags its feet in the morning, showing up late on the world stage without so much as an apology. Then it quietly exits stage left before dinner is even served, like a socially anxious person ducking out of a party to go home and curl up in bed.

January is dark by definition, and by design. But the last few Januaries, for me, have been dark-dark. “Dark night of the soul” dark. Dark like that Netflix show, Dark. (Fortunately, neither of my children have wandered into time portals via a mysterious dark cave in the woods. And I’m very grateful for that.)

My mental health ebbs hard and flows hard. The highs are usually quite high, while the lows are sometimes quite low. And December-into-January is usually the lowest ebb tide of the year.

But this year, December felt quite good. And January has felt, while not quite as good, at least manageably alright. (Although this week has been a bit iffy.) Assuming the last few days have been an anomaly, I have a partial theory why, overall, I’ve felt a bit sturdier than usual.

On each of the past 6 weekends, starting in early December, I have made it a priority to take a 2-3 hour solo hike. This is in addition to the hikes I try to take each week with my kids which, as any fellow hiking parent will attest, is a whole different experience. Hiking with kids is much slower, much noisier, and much less of a recharge (while still being refreshing on a different level).

Solo hiking is a different beast altogether. A quiet, peacefully grazing, non-predatory beast. A beast of un-burdening.

I am quite lucky to live 5 miles, 8 miles, and 11 miles away from three different Appalachian Trail crossings. Easy access to one of the most epic, historic trails ever blazed is an ever-rewarding perk of my rural central Pennsylvania existence.

The mighty Appalachian is a well-maintained, nicely contoured, rock-encrusted, densely wooded trail. It’s a sprawling corridor that lends itself to solitude and self-reflection. Two things which are, for a parent of young children, distant and faintly remembered pleasures. Heck, I think the last time either Dani or I had an uninterrupted thought at home was in June 2016 shortly before Greyson was born. (To be fair, we might have had one or two of them in 2017 while he took a nap.)

So the act of getting away from home, away from work, away from kids who demand my attention, and away from computer screens that fragment my thoughts, is a vital weekly ritual. Sometimes the only place where I can still hear my own still small voice is in the still, vast, voiceless woods.

There is a reassuring rhythm to the feel of my own footsteps on the winter-hardened wooded ground. That connection to the earth which I always maintain, courtesy of gravity, but never quite notice until I’m placing one foot in front of another on a trail.

Unlike when I walk down the uniformly carpeted hallway at work or the sturdy hardwood floor at home, no two steps on the forest floor are alike. Each one must be individually calibrated to account for rocks, roots, and constantly shifting terrain, each adjustment of my soles made subconsciously in a matter of milliseconds. It requires focus, but not the kind that furrows your brow. It’s more of a Zen thing.

I don’t truly know if my weekly solo hiking escape is what has kept me afloat during the sun-scarce days of December and January. But I’ll keep it up regardless. Because as parents, and as human beings generally, we need to recharge in solitude. And we need rituals of self-care in order to preserve our mental health.

For me, solo hiking is self-care. And the woods is my rejuvenating day spa.

If my body was a phone, nature would be my charger. And usually in January, with less time alone outside, my body battery hovers around a 25% charge. Sometimes it drops below 10%, where you start getting that red warning symbol. But this January, on the whole, I’ve been closer to 50%.

Which means my cup, while it doesn’t runneth over, is half full.

And until spring fills it up again, I’ll take that.

Gifford Pinchot State Park, 12/9/22 (not on a solo hike, but it conveys the general vibe)

How to Violently Procure Three Grand a Year

I have found that money is tricky to get your hands on, and when there’s inflation it’s even trickier to hold onto.

I have also found that it very rarely trickles down to you on its own. In that way, it seems to defy gravity. If only it resembled a waterfall more than we were promised it did in the ‘80s! Heck, I’d even settle for a stream that trickles down a few extra dollars a day.

But we, the resourceful proletariat, have the power to slow our inflation-hemorrhaging budgets to a manageable trickle. So here are 3 ways you can violently seize $3,000 (of your own money) each year.

To be clear, I very strongly repudiate resorting to actual violence to procure or preserve your money. But I have employed violent rhetoric because it makes being frugal seem way cooler. (Sorry, Mom.)

When it comes to groceries, beat the system to a pulp.

There is a food chain of grocery stores. And in most regions, there is one grocery outlet that feeds off all the mainstream grocery chains by purchasing their excess inventory. It could be considered the alpha predator of the food chain — even though on first glance, it may appear to be the bottom feeder.

If you can find this alpha grocery store in your area, you’ll save so much money as to basically have a 2nd job. But it’s the kind you don’t have to log hours for! Which I happen to consider the best kind of 2nd job (or 1st for that matter).

In our area, it’s BB’s Amish Grocery Outlet. Their prices are so staggeringly low as to have forever ruined us for the Giants and Wegmanses, and even the Aldis, of the world. I mean, who sells a bag of high-end chips for 75 cents or a box of cereal for a buck-50?

Amish people, that’s who.

So thank you, Amish people. Keep doing your thing.

Money we save per year: $1,200

Kill your overpriced cell phone provider.

We used to pay Verizon a whopping $127 a month for 2 lines. Now we pay Ting just $42 a month. Which amount seems preferable to you? Personally, I’m a big fan of the latter. But hey, that’s just me.

The mobile carrier monoliths — like Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, and others that pay celebrities millions of your dollars to plug their product — would love for you to think that $100 to $150 a month is a totally normal amount to pay for a cell phone plan (and that doesn’t even include the actual cell phone!).

But here’s the thing: It’s totally not normal. It’s highway robbery.

So don’t get robbed on the highway anymore. You deserve to keep that grand.

Money we save per year: $1,000

Kill your cable provider and play hard to get with the streaming platforms.

Traditional cable television is a giant, lumbering, nearly extinct woolly mammoth. And it’s the worst kind of woolly mammoth: The kind that charges you a hundred bucks a month to ride on its ancient back. In the era of streaming platforms galore, that exorbitant expense simply isn’t necessary anymore.

So kill your cable TV provider and just sign up for 2 or 3 (or heck, even 6) streaming platforms. Each one has an inventory as big as a small universe, so you’ll still have nearly infinite content to watch. But you’ll pay a mere 25% to 50% of what Xfinity or Verizon Fios or DirecTV charged you.

Then you can even take it a step further by toggling on-and-off with the streamers you can live without for part of the year. For instance, we subscribe to Netflix for 3-5 months a year, tops.

De-platform your streaming platform now and then. Don’t give them the luxury of brand loyalty. Toy with their emotions. Don’t be afraid to play hard to get.

I bet they’ll respect you more for it.

But even if not, at least you’ll have your self-respect.

(And I promise you’ll still have more to watch than you could binge in 8 lifetimes.)

Money we save per year: $800, admittedly a ballpark figure

So there’s three grand you can keep in your pocket.

What will you do with that three grand? Renovate your house? Get your loan or credit card paid off? Take one epic international family trip, or a few equally epic family road trips? Buy 2 tickets (or possibly just 1) to the Super Bowl?

You can pick a different thing every year!

Use your imagination.

A Treasury of Violeticisms & Greysonian Ruminations

For every 1 cute and/or strangely brilliant Greyson or Violet quote that I manage to record for posterity, there are 4 adorable profundities that give us a smile or a belly laugh but fall through the cracks, the specifics fading from memory. It’s a tall task to document the prolific output of our kids’ hyperverbal imagination while still living in the moment.

Nonetheless, I have combed through my Notes app to find some gems I managed to transcribe in the past 6 months. A delightfully disconnected pile of wonderful witticisms and weird wisdom.

Lately, Greyson’s quotable quotes tend to be oddly striking turns of phrase in the midst of stream-of-conscious poeticizing (other parts of which admittedly make very little sense). Whereas the Violeticisms are classic cute kid quotes. The kind that warm your heart with their sweet, goofy innocence.

Each of these little nuggets are witty or profound specifically because the kids had zero intention of aspiring to either quality.

Un-self-consciousness is a beautiful thing.

Violet, who hasn’t figured out pronouns yet: “Softy [a made-up cat] loves everything! Her loves herself and everyone everything in the world! And her loves the store named Kohl’s!”

Greyson, poeticizing:

When they migrate, they follow trails of dust.

And a little later:

Final world is walking behind us.

Violet: “I think Moksha [our cat] is the hungriest li’l girl ever in the whole wide world.”

Violet [about both of our cats]: “Her doesn’t really talk much! Like Caspian – Caspian talks a LOT!”

Me: “Why is Caspian such a rascal?”

Violet: “I don’t know…”

Me: “Should I ask him?”

Violet: “No, he can only meow and stuff!”

Greyson, poeticizing again:

Turtle in his favorite home

He has a shell that he can’t roam in

But he loves his favorite spot

Which is the pool he likes to go in

Me: “I will always hold your hand when we go across this busy road.”

Violet: “When we are grown-ups, can we go across the road on our own?”

Me: “Yes, definitely.”

Violet: “And we would have kids that couldn’t go across on their own!”

Me: *chokes on my own heart*

Greyson, who gets fairly minimal screen time, poeticizing again:

The screen is the water

that shows the reflection

of the trees and the sky

And also on the same subject:

The water

is like a refrain

that carries the words

Violet [looking at library DVDs]: “What’s the pig one?”

Me: “That’s a movie called Babe. It’s one of my favorite movies, but you guys aren’t quite old enough for it yet.”

Violet: “Are you big enough for it?”

Here is an album tracklist that Greyson made up, featuring 9 evocative (and oddly philosophical) song titles. The album, and the climactic final track, are called The Time Foretold. I can’t remember the band name, although I’d bet good money that it was ornithologically derived.

1. We Pierce Out the Window

2. Spaceness

3. We Were All Very True

4. Now I Am Right There (instrumental)

5. When Is It Going To Happen?

6. Some Are Making the Forests Gleam

7. We Are Coming to the Next World

8. All of Us

9. The Time Foretold

Violet: “My water is cold in my yummy yummy tummy!”

And once again, our ever-enthusiastic Violet, while we explored nature: “Look at all of these things out in the world that I’ve never seen before!”