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Stop worrying about the last cake plate and go

When I moved to Edinburgh, I went poking around the charity shops in Stockbridge and I found these retro cake plates. I don’t remember how much they were, probably like £2 for all of them. I loooooved them. I still do. They are MY cake plates. And I make and eat and serve a whole lot of cake.

They really are the best cake plates.

They really are the best cake plates.

So about a year ago when I was doing some hardcore kitchen cleaning and extraneous-crap-purging, I looked at my stack of plates and saw 5 where I thought there should be 6. But I couldn’t remember. I went back and forth between being ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN there had been 6 and believing that actually there were only ever 5 and I’d debated over buying them at all for that reason. And as there is no one who could confirm either, this non-issue took over my brain for a whole friggin’ day.

Until I had this moment where I was like, ‘OH MY GOD, KATE, IT DOES NOT EVEN MATTER, and this is also solid proof YOU NEED TO GET OUT OF HERE’.

The first tipping point. It’s always something weird.

How on earth do some plates make you understand why you need to go take a trip?

I’ve said before that I am not all about getting rid of all one’s earthly possessions because I LIKE stuff, and I like MY stuff. But that was the moment when I realised I need to not be completely attached to it. Why was I freaking out about the existence of a 6th cake plate when what I really wanted was to NOT be tied down to shit. CAKE PLATES. I will not be tied to cake plates. Who can ride a bunch of trains across half the northern hemisphere if they’re worried about cake plates? Eeeeeesh.

So I think about these plates every time I’m in prep mode. Particularly today when I was setting up my Crashplan account to try out the service. My computer is easily the single most expensive thing I will be carrying with me, but I want to make sure I’m not too attached. It’s a nice thing. But the computer itself isn’t the important thing, it’s what’s on it. With a proper backup system, the very real possibility of theft or massive damage isn’t really a thing I need to freak out about. It would be annoying as hell, sure, but it’s not my life.

This is also how I’m trying to look at every single thing I take with me. I’ve got a lot of specific and sometimes pricey gear to make living out of a very small bag easier, but if it all disappears, I don’t want to feel all panicky or distracted. The main thing I’m concerned about is my health and personal safety. As long as I can keep that in good standing, I’d like to think I’ll be able to handle losing some stuff. No big attachments.

The prep that goes into creating that attitude reveals what you feel is important REAL FAST though, because setting up backups and figuring out insurance and all that is boring and time-consuming. And I am not about to spend hours of my life backing up or insuring shit I wouldn’t miss.

(There is also a tangent in my head here about how we’ve gone past the point where we can have a zombie/flu/rage/blackout/nuclear apocalypse situation and still have concrete memories to carry around in the rebuilding, because now everyone keeps their life in the cloud and there are no hard copies to be in pockets and backpacks getting worn out with love and nostalgia in the big bad post-apocalypse world. This makes me look at my Kindle with consternation. It also makes me want to print pictures. I’m a little strange.)

As for the plates, in the big clear-out, they stay. Of course they do. But if another one is missing when they come out of storage, I’m not gonna spend a whole day wondering about it. (Ain’t nobody got time for that when they have to brag-post 3 months of pictures on the interweb.)

Trello

The best system of any kind is the one you actually use. In which case, the best system of any kind for me will always be on paper. I can’t seem to stick to any kind of technological thing with any regularity. Except maybe email, but no one else seems to love email as much as I do (except maybe Strong Bad?), so that’s kind of futile.

However! In terms of organisational apps, the one I have been coming back to, at least when I remember to, is Trello. I do love it. It’s super simple and it lets you drag and drop things around. I have it on my phone and in a perpetually open tab in Firefox on my computer, and it syncs automatically. You can have as many boards with as many lists as you want. And if I would just stop scribbling a million little post-it lists and get a bit more disciplined about dropping everything into Trello, I’d probably be way less scatterbrained than I am.

It’s kind of like a digital version of the massive post-it calendar I made, just for lists. I think that’s why I like it – for a digital thing, it’s fairly tactile. I did give up on using it for everyday stuff because I ended up writing things on paper or the back of my hand anyway. (Old habits die hard. I will always write on my hand because IT WORKS.) But a few weeks ago I realised I wasn’t really maintaining a Big List of crap to do for this trip properly, so I created a new board and I’ve been trying to dump everything on it that pops into my brain and haunts me with the threat that I’ll forget to do it and ruin EVERYTHING.

That’s maybe a little dramatic, but there are a lot of things that could be fairly major that either aren’t as immediately obvious as visas and tickets or aren’t as everyday as food and soap. For example, the thing that prompted me to start the list properly was the fact that I am allergic to shellfish and I am going to southeast Asia. I don’t know HOW allergic to shellfish I am because ever since having a fairly unpleasant reaction when I was younger, I just don’t eat it. And I carry benadryl everywhere, but I’ve never been tested or gotten an epi-pen or anything.

This is not something that worries me in my normal life because it’s pretty easy to avoid and I’m also able to communicate that it’s an issue. But if I consumed a bunch of crustaceans by mistake in the course of my travels, I have no idea if I’d have a way bigger reaction that I did when I was a kid or none at all. I don’t want to find out the hard way. SO. I kept randomly thinking, ‘Oh, I should probably get that checked out, you know, soon.’ Then I’d forget about it again. Then I’d remember a few weeks later and worry about it. And forget again because I didn’t write it down.

So now it’s written down. I just have to DO something about it. But at least it’s on the list.

I’m thinking I might take some time to do some sorting of this list while I’m sitting on my delightful train trip in the States next week. It’s entirely possible I’ll just start out the window listening to podcasts the whole time instead, but I should probably crack the whip a little. I’ve got about 6 months to go here, and that’s a long time, but it’s also not a long time.

I don’t think I’ll EVER have the list of things to do completely under control, and that’s probably fine, but I do want to make sure I at least cover the important stuff. Like, if I have rough plans for ‘this is what I’ll do if my computer gets stolen’ and ‘this is what I’ll do if I get incredibly sick’, at least if it happens I’ll have thought about it when I wasn’t in the middle of a crisis.

ANYWAY. If you love a list like I love a list, Trello is pretty great. So check it out.

How the Kindle won me over

Kindle and David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks

Living in harmony.

Kind of like Harry Potter, I avoided the Kindle for a long, long time.

I like ACTUAL books. I like the design of them, the smell of them, the weight of them. I like real print and typefaces. I like giving my books to other people when I think they’ll love the story or a character. I like how my copy of Franny and Zooey has embarrassingly high-school-me comments in the margins. I like finding OTHER people’s ridiculous comments in the margins in used books. I like dog-eared pages and coffee stains.

You get none of these things on a Kindle.

I also like the idea of not going digital on every last thing. But as I continuously learn Every Single Day, I do NOT need to be all-or-nothing on anything in life. And that includes my position on e-ink.

And so, also like Harry Potter, I was won over suddenly and wholeheartedly by the Kindle. Without betraying my beloved books.

Before I get to exactly how, here’s a related truth about my life:

I am early. For EVERYTHING. EVER.

ALL. THE. TIME.

This not only drives me crazy, it drives OTHER people crazy (just ask my sister). Seriously, even when I attempt to be on time or fashionably late, I fail. There’s something in my makeup that won’t allow any kind of casual disregard for time. So I often find myself sitting around waiting for the start of something. Usually on my own. And that’s fine, but I found that ever since I got a (blasted/wonderful) iPhone, I was defaulting to dicking around on Facebook or some other useless, pointless endeavour to waste time and not have to feel awkward about my place in the world. And I HATE that.

And here’s another related truth:

Since I graduated college (I KNOW THAT WAS AGES AGO, SHUT UP), I haven’t read nearly as much as I’d like to. I used to read SO MUCH. But then, as you may know, the reading load for an English/Drama double major is pretty full-on, and I spent 4 years reading reading reading. Usually stuff that was great and worth it and engaging. But with a life full of extracurriculars and college-level drinking, much as I wanted to be reading all that stuff, there’s something about the pressure of HAVING to that adds a bit of extra exhaustion. So when I graduated, my reading dipped off for a few years. I was recovering. And while it’s gone back up in the past few years, it’s nowhere near the level I’d prefer. There’s just so much shit going on in life that it’s easy to resort to the computer or the TV  at the end of the day and forget how great a really good story is. Greater, definitely, than most things on the interweb or Netflix.

So, back to what got me to give the Kindle a go. I’d been hearing how great it was from so many people for well over a year. But then one day, I was sitting at the pub with my friend Kristina and she was talking about how her mother insisted she’d be a Kindle convert so much that she straight up bought her one to prove it. And, formerly being a holder of similar opinions to myself on the subject, she was shocked when her mother’s plan worked. And then she said the magic words: since she got the thing she’d read so much more than she normally does.

I went home and ordered one. Pretty much right away.

And I’m so glad I did. It’s so small and light that it’s now one of my default items in my bag, so I can ALWAYS read. Instead of defaulting to my phone. And as a result of even that alone, I too have read more in the past few months than I have in the past two YEARS. I bought it in July, and I’ve read 7 full books on the Kindle alone since then. (Including The Goldfinch, which is LONG.) I also read a good chunk of the SNP’s white paper on Scottish independence, which I probably wouldn’t have managed if it hadn’t been on me all the time. And I have chosen many, many adventures in To Be or Not To Be, Ryan North’s choose your own adventure Hamlet book.

All this without abandoning my love of actual books. I now just save the book-buying for special stuff. I got David Mitchell’s new book in hardcover. And Randall Munroe’s What If?

Randall Munroe's What If?

I could never deny myself a cover like this.

But now I can also take multiple books on holiday without worrying if I’m going to get bored of one or how much space or weight they’ll take up. And the battery lasts foreeeeevvverrrrr. It’s fantastic.

So, I can now wholeheartedly recommend getting a Kindle if you’re the reading kind. The basic ones are dirt cheap, and you’ll never have an excuse to waste your life on Facebook again. That’s probably the true win.

Memory foam headphone tips

Headphones with red tips.

My current trusty earbuds with red Comply Foam tips.

I am incredibly particular about my headphones. This is in no small part because of how heavily used they are when I travel. I am a fidgety person by nature and if I’m even the least bit uncomfortable, I will fidget EVEN MORE. To the point where a small, solvable discomfort turns into a massive pain in the ass that I feel trapped by. Maybe that’s dramatic.

I will put it another way: If my headphones are bothering me, I can easily have a claustrophobic fit. That can turn a travel day downhill real fast. On the other hand, if I want to keep my sanity on a long travel day, I NEED to be able to plug myself in for certain stretches of time. Particularly in airports and on long-range public transportation.

So, I learned early that headphones were one of the things I really had to nail when it came to the perfect gear. If my ears are happy, I am happy.

One of the first things I ever did to deal with this issue was get an airline adapter so that I could use whatever I damn well pleased in those double-jack seatback plugs. Luckily those are now, largely, gone. (I stopped carrying the adapter ‘just in case’ about 3 years ago.) But the headphones airlines give you are still rubbish.

I can’t wear over-ear style headphones, no matter the size. Big or small, they drive me nuts. I’m sure the sound quality is better and yada yada yada, but if I have them on for more than about 5 minutes, I freak right the eff out. They are uncomfortable in at least 3 different ways, and I have a threshold for ZERO different ways. So it’s in-ear headphones for me, always.

The main benefit of this is that they don’t take up any space. They also keep me from spending loads on them. You can easily spend over £100 on a pair of fancy earbuds, but it seems moronic to spend more than £20-£30 on something that is so easily lost or crushed or tugged out of commission.

So, my perfect pair is something with decent sound and replaceable tips and NO bloody remote or mic on the wire (getting increasingly hard to find). Currently that’s a pair of Sennheiser CX 160. I think they were £20. But what makes them amazing, what makes ANY pair of earbuds wearable for me, and what this post is really about, is memory foam earpieces.

Pretty much all earbuds you get now come with a few sizes of rubber earpieces. They are  a waste of time. Toss them. About 8 years ago, I bought a cheap pair of JVC earbuds in the airport and they had the option of memory foam earpieces along with the rubber ones. I tried them and I have since never used anything else.

For a while, that was hard. I would save the earpieces for longer than was probably hygienically wise. I’d switch them from an old pair of headphones to a new one. When that particular JVC headphone disappeared from the market after my third pair, I used my leftover earpieces for 2 YEARS until I found another brand doing memory foam. Yes. That is disgusting.

I searched a few years ago online for a place to order just the earpieces, but didn’t have a lot of luck, so I muddled through for another wee while. But recently I checked the interweb again and found what I’d been looking for all these years: Comply Foam headphone tips.

Comply makes various different types of memory foam earpiece, and they make them to fit all different brands of headphone. So you go to their site, tell them what make and model your headphones are, and they point you at the right size. You can then choose the type of earpiece you want and the in-ear size (and in some cases, colour). I went with the T-500 isolation tips in medium.

One of my favourite things about memory foam, aside from how comfortable it is to wear all day, is how well it blocks outside sound. It’s so effective at this that you don’t have to turn your volume up nearly as loud as you normally would in order to hear properly, both out in the world and on an airplane. I remember the first time I used memory foam earpieces on a plane and anything louder than the first notch on the volume control was suddenly too much. The background noise on a plane is so hard to cut through, so I was super impressed with my cheap-o little JVC earbuds. I felt like I’d uncovered some massive secret answer to life. And it had cost me less than $15! Plus, keeping your volume down can only be better for your eardrums.

Comply tips are about $15 for three pairs, and I think that’s a great deal. Now I can buy any headphones I want, regardless of what earpieces they come with, and I can make them perfect with the tips I choose. That to me is well worth the extra cost, even if shipping to the UK is a bit high. Also, I can now toss my earpieces when they get manky instead of hanging onto them for as long as possible. That has to be better for my ears.

The tips fit my headphones pretty tightly, so it was a little difficult to get them on, but that’s probably good because they also seem to stay put once they’re in place. And the foam itself is pretty high quality. It’s a lot nicer than the tips that came with my old cheap headphones. And they fit my ear so perfectly I can barely feel my actual headphones. I can wear them for a long, long time with no fidget fits or feeling claustrophobic. That is a gear WIN.

 

Trail Wallet app review

I have never been a hard-line budget person. I always know what’s in my bank account (and what’s not) and I have a sense of how much things should cost and what is reasonable, so I just try to stick to what seems like a sensible amount to be spending. But ‘sensible’ is nebulous, and given my goals of a travel-based future in combination with my current credit card debt, I figured I should probably make more of an effort to track my spending, particularly while traveling. Being a little more hardcore about it will not only give me a very clear idea of where my money goes, but also of what I end up spending on that I might have avoided had I been better prepared.

There are a handful of travel budget apps out there. I chose to try Trail Wallet after I saw recommendations on a fair few of my usual travel blog haunts. I had also recently started reading the blog of the team from whence it came (Erin and Simon’s Never Ending Voyage) which I think is great. And I love that they built an app for fellow travelers as a source of income for their own life of travel. RESPECT.

Trail Wallet overview screen.

Trail Wallet overview screen.

Trail Wallet’s got a clean interface, and it’s intuitive to the point where I found my way around in about 30 seconds. This was particularly good as I’d forgotten to download it ahead of my trip and ended up hastily sorting it out around midnight after getting to Helsinki. I was tired. It was still easy.

The overview screen is very clear and it’s useful to be able to switch between currencies with a simple tap. I think the ability to see my totals in multiple currencies so often also helps me get a sense of the exchange rates much faster, which is the thing that teaches my brain what are good and bad prices locally without having to calculate back to pounds in my head all the time.

It’s also very fast and simple to add new entries, and you can go in later and add more detail to the notes if you want to. The categories are customisable, including the colours used to code them (attention to detail. NICE TOUCH). You can then look at your spending breakdown by category (nifty pie chart included) or by day. The by day breakdown is where you can get back into individual entries. The only thing I really wish you could also do is get into the same kind of list via the category breakdown. They do say there will be a big update soon so I’m hoping this will be included.

Trail Wallet category breakdown.

Trail Wallet category breakdown.

The other thing I wanted to mention was the budget comments on the overview screen. I didn’t actually set a trip budget for Finland because I just… didn’t. The app displays congratulatory or cautionary comments depending on how far over or under your budget you are. I was spending quite a lot of money but I had no limit set, so when I kept getting things like ‘Hope it was worth it…’ and ‘Over budget. No cookie for you.’ I was laughing, but I was also like, JUDGEY APP IS JUDGING ME. I like the comments, because I like when tech has it’s own personality, but I did find myself being all ‘Shut up, app, I’m not over budget because there is no budget, GEEEEEEZ’. However, maybe pointing out that I was spending a lot was no bad thing. You gotta stay in check in a variety of ways. I guess I just want to know what the default daily budget line is that makes it start telling me to watch my wallet.

This brings me to the way I feel about travel budgeting in general. While I don’t usually properly track things, I am hyperaware of how much money I’m spending all the time. In face, I often over-estimate what I’m spending on a daily basis and then exist in a near constant state of freakout about it. This really can’t be healthy and I wish I could cool it a little. I mean, of course it’s good to control your outgoings and of COURSE it’s good to be aware of your own financials, but life is about living. Sometimes I wish I could forget the money for two seconds and just realise that what I’m spending it on is likely worthwhile, as I decided to spend it on that in the first place and I have good judgement when it comes to my own enjoyment.

Yes, you gotta pay for everything, but I also believe that money is easier to make than memories (think I heard that first on Yes and Yes) and if you don’t go ride a rebellious elephant early in the morning after a big night out in Zambia just because of what it costs, you are probably gonna regret that. I know I would have. $80 is a day or two’s worth of smacking computer keys for me, end even if I had to do a bit more of that to make up for it, riding an elephant is worth so much more to me than the cash I paid for it.

I wish I would have had this app for Africa, because frightening as the final figure probably would be, I really would like to see how much I spent in total on that trip. You can’t put a price on happiness, but sometimes you can see how much getting there costs.

In any case, I am a fan of the Trail Wallet app and I’m looking forward to see what surprises the next big update holds. I think an app built by people who are living the lifestyle of the audience it’s aimed at can only be a good thing. And they seem to take constructive feedback from that audience, so I have a lot of confidence that the work going into improving it is well-aimed.

I have also just now decided that I’m going to use it to track my usual spending for September, and I AM going to set a budget based on what I should be sticking to to help reach my financial goals. I’ve got no travel planned in September so it should hopefully be a good control experiment. I’ll check in with the results at the end of the month.

Digital downsizing

Facepalming at my computer

DOWNSIZING. This is pretty much how I feel about the process.

I decided almost immediately when I started this whole shift to the travellin’ lifestyle that one of my first moves would be to get my digital life in order once and for all. I still find it ridiculous that a digital life is even a thing, but I think that’s my resistance to becoming completely consumed by technology rather than my resistance to reality.

I’m a reasonably organised person, but somehow in all the years I’ve lived my life on computers, I’ve failed to have a proper, consistent system for keeping all my digital crap in order. Moving your digital life around is unlike moving your physical life around in that you don’t really see all the stuff you’re taking with you, no matter how big or unruly it gets. If you’re anything like me, when you get a new computer, you just chuck everything from the old one onto the new one and never really pay a great deal of attention to what’s in all those boxes. They just come with you because they’re there. At least when you move house, you’re motivated to get rid of some of your old shit so you’ve got less to lug up and down stairs and shove into closets.

So this time, I’ve declared, will be different. This time I’m going to clean out my digital past and try to be as ruthless with it as I’m trying to be with the clear-out of my physical stuff. The first milestone on this particular adventure will be upgrading/downsizing to a Macbook Air (wooo, new toy!). I’m currently on a nearly 3-year-old 13″ Macbook Pro. It’s in fantastic shape, but the smaller and lighter I go, the better. And this computer has 500GB of space on it where the Air I’ve currently got my eye on has about half that. So I’m immediately being forced to chuck some things out.

Rumour has it that Apple will be releasing new Macbook Airs in September when they’re meant to announce all manner of other new gadgets, so I’m waiting to see if that will bring a higher capacity 11″ than the 256GB you can get now, but I also think that maybe it’ll be good to be confined to less. Because much like all the extra crap sitting around my house just because it has space to be there, I don’t actually USE most of the files taking up all that space on my computer. I’m only using about 242GB of my current space, but that’s too close to the line I’m shooting for, so I’ve already started the process of cleaning out.

Not surprisingly, the majority of that space is music (97GB) and photos (52GB). The hardest things to get rid of.

So the first thing I attacked was my image folder. I started with around 57GB of photos, and I didn’t really get rid of much in terms of unique content. Most of what I cleaned out consisted of:

  • Doubles and triples of the same files
  • Random images saved from the interweb in college for now-forgotten reasons
  • Album art
  • Vast selections of AIM user icons
  • Alternate versions of the same picture
  • Bad pictures of food

It took HOURS to do this. And it was, in some ways, a pain. But it was also just as nice as when I did the same purge on my physical box of photos in my parents’ basement last year, in that I got to look through 10-15 years of photos and memories from all different points and places in my life. And it’s nice to be reminded of what you have and where you’ve been and people you don’t see anymore.

I won’t be getting rid of most of the rest of what I have because I think it’s great to be able to look through your own history like that. Particularly as a way to combat homesickness or general travel fatigue. It’s built-in therapy. As well as an instant storytelling aid for people you meet along the way. So once the actual chaff was chucked, I was happy that I’d pared it down as much as necessary.

The music is the next thing to attack, and that’s a little less straightforward. The 97GB I have now is AFTER clearing the doubles generated by moving my collection between computers. It’s so easy to justify keeping everything because it’s only taking up digital space. But I’m willing to bet I’ve never even listened to about 10-15% of what I’ve got on iTunes at all. This comes from the massive amount of music I got from other people over the Washington College network. Things that I grabbed just because they seemed like ‘good things to have’. Quite a lot of Beatles and Zeppelin for example. I love the Beatles, but I don’t really like Led Zeppelin enough to own nearly their entire catalogue. And there’s a lot of other stuff in there that I like well enough, but just never, ever listen to and probably never will. Half of it is probably a digital rip of the CD I once had and sold or gave away because I knew I wasn’t going to listen to it. So why is it SO HARD to delete the files?

Thanks to Spotify, I can listen to most any of this stuff whenever I want without having it on my own computer, but for some reason it’s still hard to shake my stubbornness about not having it MYSELF. I think this is because I’m one of those people who still buys CDs (and the occasional collectable vinyl release) because I really value the idea of having a proper music collection, at the very least of your favourites. No matter how ruthless I get about purging my earthly possessions, music is important.

I think some of the experience of having music is lost when it all only exists digitally. I still love putting in a physical album and listening to the whole thing. I like album artwork and liner notes and knowing who helped the band out and seeing flippant comments and inside jokes among the credits. I like the deliberate effort of physically going to the shelf and choosing the thing you want to hear at that very moment. And if I ever need to put my stuff in storage, a good bit of what’s there will be the music I refuse to get rid of. My CD collection isn’t nearly as big as it once was when I was a student with nothing but disposable income and space in my parents’ house, but I still have the stuff I really love, and I still buy releases by my favourite bands. I always will.

Despite all this, I know I need to cut back on the digital front. I also know I’ll never miss the stuff I do decide to delete because I don’t miss it now. I barely know it’s there. No one can give equal attention to over 21 days worth of music, and according to iTunes, that’s what I’m currently sitting on. So, as a first goal, I will set 70GB as a target. I should really get rid of more, but hopefully once I get to 70GB, I’ll be on a roll and it’ll be easy to keep going. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Outside photos and music lies a whole mess of other files I need to whip into shape with a proper filing system, but that’s a story for another post.