Frugalize me

It all started at Walmart.

I was in the check-out line, watching the woman ahead of me buy household cleaners, cereal, a few kids' outfits, and several pots of flowers. As each item beeped along the scanner, she shook her head. Then she held up a bottle of ketchup and waved it at the cashier.

"You know what I came here to buy? Ketchup," she said. "And now I've spent $180. It happens every time."

I know the feeling. It's happened to me, too. All too often I float through the grocery store, tossing a few odds and ends into my cart, and suddenly face a too-high bill at the end. It's easy to spend, much harder to... not spend.


I promise there's a writing connection here, but first, let's talk about budgets. Because budgets don't work for me. They're kind of like diets. Something about the word 'diet' makes me go into a ravenous, haven't-eaten-in-months mode. I must eat three pieces of cake because I may not get any more every again. I must polish off an entire bacon cheeseburger because a diet means I'm supposed to stay away. You get the idea.

Budgeting is similar. Cutting back on expenses? Then I better buy that new pair of shoes or that extra bottle of shampoo NOW.

So I was more than pleased when a friend shared the Frugalwoods method with me. These guys have a popular blog that outlines a perspective on money that feels completely counter-cultural and absolutely good. Check it out for yourself, but my quick overview is that they're all about financial independence and simple living. What has been neat for me to learn is how they've experienced LOTS of benefits from this lifestyle besides the extra dollar bills. A few include: simpler, more joyful lives; being true to who they are; more deeply experiencing gratitude.

I've been trying out their method for a few months and get what they're talking about. For instance, if I resolve to try not to buy any clothes for a year, I'm suddenly very grateful for the clothes I do have. A white t-shirt and worn jeans combo that looks cute nearly brings me to tears of gratitude.

And I'm also seeing, as Mrs. Frugalwoods writes about, a new ability to embrace imperfection. If I can't buy any clothes for a year, then there will be times when the clothes I do have feel imperfect, and I'm just going to have to deal. But instead of feeling like I'm just 'dealing,' I actually feel a bit of lightness, of relief - my purpose in life isn't to spend hours online scouring sites for the perfect new white t-shirt. I have other things I want to do. (Now some of you might enjoy shopping, and so that example may not work for you. But for me, it works since I've never enjoyed shopping. At all. Even for a minute.)

And that leads me to writing. As I've already mentioned, I'm in this exciting stage of having a book that is actually going to be published. Before the year is out, in fact. And while I'm enjoying every step of the process (like seeing the cover, and actual sample pages - EEK!), there's a bit of me that worries. What if it's not good enough? What if I could've made it better? What if it isn't perfect?


Cue the lesson on imperfection. Because of course it's not perfect. Nothing ever is. Famous authors, like Ann Patchett, talk about this, too. How it's impossible to get the beautiful story that's bouncing around your head down onto the page.

But that's okay. It can still be really good. And I can still learn and work and write and move along this path.

So there you have it. How saving money helped me embrace imperfection, which is helping me keep going along this writing path. To be honest, I wasn't even sure what the connection was before I started writing this. And even though this post is far from perfect, it had a purpose for me... and I have to think that's good enough.



STEM Spotlight: Cloud Support Engineer

I'm thrilled to welcome my very first blog guest - and even better that it's my own sister. Karen is a Linux Cloud Support Engineer at Amazon Web Services, a subsidiary of Amazon (ever heard of them?) and spends her days coding her way around various projects. Check out what got her into computers below.

This is the first in a series of blog interviews I hope to do with people in science, tech, engineering and math (STEM). If you would like to be spotlighted or know anyone who might be interested, let me know!

1. Describe what you do: Currently, I maintain an Amazon Web Services database, as well as an internal website I developed that provides data analytics to help make decisions on where to improve and focus efforts. Creating the website was a big accomplishment for me because I wrote it in the language Ruby on Rails, which I had never used before. I also write scripts in Bash, Ruby and Python (all good languages to learn if you want to get into tech) for automating tasks.


2. How and why did you get into this field? This sounds silly, but watching Angelina Jolie in the 1995 movie Hackers inspired me to get into technology. It was eye-opening at the time to see how much of an impact computers have on our society. Computers give everyone – including people who were born into difficult circumstances – the chance to teach themselves all kinds of skills, including technology, and even become billionaires and/or make great discoveries and contributions to science in the process.   

3. Describe an interesting application of your field: There’s a Linux-based operating system for phones and tablets (NetHunter) that lets people do pen-testing (or ethical hacking) from their mobile devices. It’s much more discrete. Occasionally when I see someone glued to an android phone or tablet, I wonder if they might be using NetHunter to test out some ethical or not so ethical hacking techniques.

4. What’s your typical workday like? Nerf gun wars, petting cute dogs people bring into work, coding my website, crashing my website and breaking my computer. I also go to meetings and resolve issue tickets. And I code a lot. Sometimes I code all day, then when I get home, I code some more. It gets addictive when you’re trying to get something to work. 

5. Do you have any favorite scientists, engineers, programmers? Linus Torvalds is awesome. He wrote an entire operating system kernel that became the Linux Kernel at the age of 21. He’s a great example of someone who changed technology at a young age using computers along with his knowledge, innovation and persistence. (And also became a multi-millionaire.) I love that he made his operating system, Linux, open source so anyone could view it and contribute to it. I think open source is cool since it’s customizable, very powerful and usually free. It fosters innovation and allows people to share ideas. Everyone can learn from it and be inspired by it. Just like anyone can read a copy of one of Shakespeare’s plays and get inspired.

  Code. It can be like... art.

Code. It can be like... art.

6. What’s an equation or discovery that you really love, and why? Compassion is a form of intelligence. This is important to remember with the development of artificially intelligent machines. Just because you create something with artificial intelligence, there’s no guarantee it’s going to be compassionate. The movie “Transcendent Man”gets to that idea, that if we create machines that are billions of times smarter than us, they might see us as mosquitoes and wipe us all out. 

And quantum physics is exciting and interesting to me because it makes no distinction between past present and future, which has some fascinating implications. For instance, if it’s true, it means everything is happening at once, that time is a human construct. 

7. Any favorite quotes, movies or books? Quote: "The map is not the territory." Movie: Cloud Atlas. Book: anything by Ursula le Guin

8. How has your working computers helped you with a "real life" problem? Before I got into technology, I was scared to fix anything - from a remote control, to a computer, to the dishwasher - because I was worried that I'd break it. Now, working in this field, I see that everyone ends up breaking things. That's just part of the process, and a lot of times, that's the most powerful way to learn. And, if you never try, you'll never fix anything. So that's helped me try.


A frog's life

Frogs live all over the world: from rainforests to deserts, and from the suburbs to the Arctic Circle. Which means they have to withstand some pretty cold and pretty hot weather.


And that brings us to two cool things frogs can do: they can hibernate through the cold, or estivate (go dormant) through the heat.

In hibernation, a frog finds a safe place to hangout all winter, then its metabolism slows dramatically. A land frog might dig a burrow to get below the frost line or crawl into a crevice and cover itself with dead leaves. A water frog might sink to the bottom of a pond and partially immerse itself in mud, but not too much to cut off all the oxygen soaking through its skin from that H2O.

Some frogs can survive being frozen: though ice crystals may form under their skin or in their body cavities, they've lowered the freezing point of cells in important organs by pumping in extra glucose so those don't turn to ice (sorry, Elsa, they have you beat on this one). The frog no longer breathes, its heart no longer beats; and yet, as soon as it warms up, it comes back to life. 

  I don't know if these green tree frogs are hibernating but they look cool. Photo by  judygva  on  

I don't know if these green tree frogs are hibernating but they look cool. Photo by judygva on 

In super hot areas, some frogs estivate, which is similar to hibernation. They burrow into the soil and go dormant, shedding several layers of skin over the months that follow. These layers of skin form a tight barrier around the frog, keeping moisture from evaporating. Only the frog's nostrils are exposed to air, allowing it to breathe.

In addition to these special skills, frogs can drink and breathe through their skin, have tongues that attach at the front of their mouths, and have teeth. Some are nearly see-through, some can almost fly, and one type has enough poison in its skin to kill 10 to 20 men.

So, yeah, frogs are pretty interesting. I might just have to start another blog category about them. 




Photo of tree frogs by judygva on | other photos from


Chatter, click, bite: my teeth

Calcified for strength, longer-lasting than bone. These bits of me are the strongest I have to offer.

My teeth. Twenty-eight in all. (Three of the wisest were lost to the dentist that year after high school; one never appeared.) Iceberg-esque, much of each tooth hides under the surface, roots stretching down to attach to the jawbone. Not bone, but super-strength enamel that covers bone-like dentine that surrounds an inner soft spot for nourishing blood vessels and feeling nerves. Everything is softer on the inside. 


Those pioneers of my mouth - baby teeth - are long gone, beginning to let go at age five and continuing the exodus until I was nearly a teenager, their roots resorbed by my ever-efficient body as the main teeth - permanent aka deciduous - appeared.

Incisors at the front, their chisel-shaped edge that bites and holds. They are my touchy-feely teeth, sensitive enough to identify objects in the mouth with a nibble. Next, the pointed canines, which cut into meat and plastic-wrapped packages. And then the hard-working premolars and molars, their pitted cusps perfectly arranged to grind, to crush.


Teeth are different for every animal: horses have up to 44. Elephant tusks are just extra-long incisors that help with digging. Sharks grow a new set every two weeks. Snake teeth, or fangs, don't chew, but rather  capture prey (and sometimes inject venom). Rodent teeth grow without ceasing.

Paleontologists love teeth for their ability to identify creatures; apparently dentists love them, too.

I'm rather partial to mine. So tonight after I brush them, warding off the warring bacteria trying to turn my last bits of dessert into destructive acids, I will pop in a mouth guard, my best attempt at keeping the worries of life from grinding down the very structures that nourish me.





My real name

If you've been reading this blog at all over the past year (Hi, Mom, and sis), then you know I've been writing under something of a pseudonym. S.N. Bacon.

It's actually my maiden name (Susan Nicole Bacon, though I was nearly Eve Nicole Bacon according to my parents). But, since I go by my married name, it provided a bit of 'anonymity.' And I've liked having that separation between my real life and writing life. It's given me a chance to dip my toes in the social media circus, and figure out what I'd actually like to present about myself to the real world. After all, one photo or quirky line never seems to capture the complexities of everyday life. For instance, if I post a pretty picture of the mountains, you may think my entire life is spent out in the woods, enjoying the views, when really it's spent slogging children around and digging through mounds of laundry and shifting between projects for a few different jobs.

But my reticence in the social realm is changing. Because my publisher (yes, I have a publisher! Woo-hoo! Full story later) moved up the publication date of my book and we have to make final decisions about my author name NOW and guess what? S.N. Bacon wasn't their favorite.


Part of it is because of the initials. And also the fact that the last name is a breakfast food. I get that breakfast food last names trip people up, even though Bacon has been a wonderful name throughout history, considering Sir Francis, Henry, Kevin and all.

So thus began the search for a new name. Replacing the "S.N." with "Susan" still has the iron skillet-sizzling issue. Nicole Cunningham could work, though I'd probably never answer to 'Nicole' if someone called me that at a book signing (and please, please come to book signings if I have one near you - I'll bring fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, I promise). And Susan Cunning is just weird.

That left me with Susan Cunningham. And after a bit more thought, that's what I've decided to go with. 


Because as much as I'd like to tuck my personal life away in a drawer and keep it separate from my new 'authorly' life, that's just not an option in this day and age. (Don't you love using 'in this day and age' - it makes me feel very mature.) It doesn't mean that I'm going to share everything about myself (though I will admit I had a mango smoothie, peanut butter toast and fudge icing for breakfast; also, that I love rain). But, I want to be authentic. And using my real name seems like the best way to start.

I hope I don't regret it. I am rather partial to the Bacon last name, and I thought S.N. Bacon looked pretty cool. But, Susan Cunningham I am. And thus, Susan Cunningham I shall write under.

At the end of the day, you probably don't even care. But for me, using my real name means the wall I was trying to build between my private and public self crumbles a bit. And the door is open to letting you see who I am. So here it goes. I hope you enjoy.




For the love of plants

Alice Eastwood was a self-taught botanist who published more than 310 science articles, authored 395 scientific names for land plants, and once risked her life to save her plant collection.

  Alice Eastwood, circa 1910

Alice Eastwood, circa 1910

Granted, these weren't just any plants - these were type specimens: an example of a species that clearly shows that species' defining features. And there were around 1,500 of them.

But still, she risked everything to save her work.

It was 1906 in San Francisco. Early in the morning on April 18, the massive earthquake struck, resulting in widespread fires that consumed hundreds of city blocks and destroyed thousands of buildings. A small group of staff and curators with the California Academy of Sciences worked to save what they could. For Eastwood, who was procurator and head of the Biology Department, that meant entering the burning building, climbing to the sixth floor on a metal railing, and saving her type specimens. The feat was possible not just because of her bravery, but because she had used an ingenious new method to store her specimens: she had segregated the type specimens from the rest of the collection.

She still lost years of work, years of effort in the fire. But afterwards, she wrote a letter in Science that said:

"My own destroyed work I do not lament, for it was a joy to me while I did it, and I can still have the same joy in starting it again."

I can't help but think that her perspective applies, in a small way, to writing. We can spend hours crafting and cutting and writing and revising a piece that never makes it past our own computer screen. It may not be destroyed by a fire, but it's abandoned to languish in a series of 1s and 0s, or possibly in a stack of papers stuffed into a closet. 

And yet, if we have Eastwood's perspective - that though a piece may be lost, it gave us joy while we did it - well, that changes everything.

It's especially motivating for me as I consider the six books I've written over the past eight years, all of which may never see the light of day. Joy in the process, joy in creating - there's value in that alone.

And by the way, after that fire, Eastwood kept collecting. By 1942, her collection hit more than 300,000 samples... three times the number of specimens that had been lost. 


  Alice Eastwood may have seen views like this as she led Arthur Russel Wallace up Grays Peak.

Alice Eastwood may have seen views like this as she led Arthur Russel Wallace up Grays Peak.


It happens.

The door flings open. Basement stairs creak. A bear rustles. A cell phone


And your brain is on alert. 

Nerve signals are carried from brain to adrenal medulla, which sits prim and proper above the kidney, just waiting to be called into action.


It releases adrenaline, the heavy lifter for extreme pleasure and life-threatening danger. Stress.

First task: make sure energy is at the ready. Nudge the liver and skeletal muscles into breaking down glycogen, encourage fat cells to let go of fatty acids. Sugar and fats now circulate in the blood, ready to be used.

Reappropriation of resources, at its finest.

Mastermind of blood flow changes (with noradrenaline’s help), it makes sure some blood vessels are squeezed while others are opened, rerouting entire rivers so that blood is shunted from skin, digestive organs, kidneys,

and flows freely to the heart, the brain, skeletal muscles.

The heart beats faster. Faster. Faster.

Bronchioles in lungs dilate, pulling in more oxygen.

Faster and more. Faster and more.

Knees knock. Hands shake. Sweat beads.

You are ready.

Within minutes of its release, adrenaline and noradrenaline have primed your body

to react.


Fight off the bear.

Deal with the mortgage.

Answer that text.

As soon as the stress lessens, release of the hormone-neurotransmitter halts. Blood pathways and heart beats return to normal.

But the memory does not disappear. Adrenaline has a way of strengthening long-term memory, making stressful events sit solid in your brain,

your heart.

Still, for the moment, you can catch your breath

and go ahead and answer that text

or just put your phone away.

How I got my agent (aka, goal of 40 rejections)

Exciting news: my first book is scheduled to be published this December. A fitting time, as it has been a decade since I began to write books.

I have a number of books (cough, six) hidden away in the drawers of my computer's memory. Most will probably never see the light of day. But all helped me learn to write.


But... more on that later. Because today, I want to answer the question of how I got an agent.

Before I had an agent, it seemed like a necessary but IMPOSSIBLE goal. I knew the statistics: that agents received thousands of queries each month, sometimes each day. And I had built up my own share of rejections. For previous books, I would query a half-dozen agents. Each time I pressed send, I felt a rush of hope. That hope would last anywhere from a few hours to months, until said agent responded and I learned that he or she was not "the one." 

It made me wonder whether my writing was even agent-worthy. For all I knew, my writing should stay hidden on my computer/in my closet.

But then two things happened. First, a writer friend sat me down and told me the truth of the matter, that finding an agent would take an immense amount of hard work. A full six months of focused time. "Treat it as a job," she said. I grimaced, not excited to take on yet another job, but I took her words to heart and made finding an agent a top priority.

And then, I read an article somewhere - an SCBWI magazine, I think - that suggested a totally new approach. Instead of making it my goal to find an agent, the article suggested making a goal of getting rejected by agents 40 times.

It seemed almost laughable at first. But it was a powerful way to turn the agent hunt on its head. Each time a rejection came in, I could give a small fist-pump - after all, I was getting closer to my goal of 40 rejections. So what if they didn't want my book? I had a goal to meet, and they were helping me along the way.

Slowly but surely, the rejections piled up. A few times, I considered giving up. After all, the book really might be terrible. But I remembered my goal and kept my eyes on the prize: a grand 40 rejections in one year! Bragging rights for sure.

  Me e-signing my first book deal. Hooray!

Me e-signing my first book deal. Hooray!

And then, something incredible happened. Somewhere around rejection number 35, an agent called. Actually called. I had long since given up on hoping that out-of-town numbers were agents calling, and since I was at my day job, I let it go to voicemail. When I finally listened to the message, I felt the disbelief rise through my chest. An actual agent wanted to represent my book.

It felt like a miracle. And in a way, it was. Something that happened against the odds. Though that year-long goal of being rejected had made my odds just a little bit better.

So to all of the aspiring writers out there: keep writing, keep working, and set some totally achievable goals. You never know when your goal might get sidetracked in a really good way. 


Sleeping trees and spring buds

Spring where I live means muddy trails, gray skies, spring snowstorms and (maybe) a few patches of green grass. It also means tree buds, which caught my attention this year. 

Except, in an effort to learn about tree buds, I found out that the buds have actually been around since the fall, when trees have their last big hurrah of growth and prepare for winter. A good reminder for me that sometimes I only notice what I'm looking for.


The whole experience made me wonder how trees can survive winter: sub-zero temperatures, feet of snow, blizzard conditions, with no warm cave or burrow to escape to.

It turns out trees actually enter into a dormant period over winter. Before winter, they make a growth regulator called abscisic acid (ABA) that halts their growth. Some trees dehydrate their cells, pushing water out of the cell and into the spaces between: there, it can freeze without damaging the cell. Other trees beef up the number of minerals, hormones and other solutes in their cells, lowering the freezing point to prevent freezing. That still isn't always enough, as evidenced by trees that crack or "explode" in frigid temperatures. But those efforts get most trees through the long, cold winter months.


Now back to the tree buds. Cut one open, and you'll see tiny leaves, ready to grow as soon as days lengthen and temperatures warm. 

I love that, how a bud contains everything needed for broad, green leaves, just waiting for conditions to be right. And it reminds me of how writing sometimes feels. Like something is there under the surface, not quite ready to appear. Creativity, like creation, is cyclical. Periods of intense growth and productivity are followed by periods of... nothing.

In writing, I love the first draft part the most, when thousands of words are hammered out and cloudy ideas slowly take shape. Revision is harder for me (though sticker charts help). But the hardest is when I have no writing to do. My creativity seems spent and no new ideas are prodding me on. Books are out to editors, waiting for revisions to return. And I muddle through the days, thankful for my part-time jobs, wondering whether I'll ever write another creative word again.

That's when I need to remember that there's a rhythm to creating. There are seasons - winters followed by springs, ups followed by downs. Even trees rest through winter. And maybe those dismally unproductive periods are actually necessary to prepare for the next spurt of growth. After all, the buds of the next project are likely there, just waiting for spring.




Images from Pixabay/Creative Commons

Goodbye winter (and notes on duck feet)

Days are longer, the sun is brighter and the snow is slowly melting away. But I can't help remembering how a few weeks ago, on a bleak, frigid February afternoon, I watched a group of ducks paddling along the icy river through town.


The ducks were surrounded by snowy banks and sections of thick ice. And as my own breath came out in crystalline puffs, I wondered how they stayed warm. I wasn't worried about their bodies - yes, the air was frigid, but they have down coats for that. I was more curious about their thinly webbed feet that were submerged in the icy water. 

After a bit of research, here's what I learned.

Ducks have a counter-current heat exchange system: the warm oxygenated blood flowing to their feet passes close by the cold, waste-carrying blood returning to the heart. It's a finely webbed system of arteries and veins that allows the birds to efficiently recapture heat. Since the blood in their feet is already cooler, they don't lose as much heat to cold water. All to say they're not wasting too much energy keeping their feet warm.


But their feet are still chilly: the blood that circulates through is just warm enough to prevent frostbite. And that's surprisingly okay with these birds. Their legs and feet are mostly free of soft tissue. Even the muscles that operate the foot are higher up in the leg, connected to the foot bones by long tendons. So their feet don't need much warm blood. And if they get too chilled, the ducks can pulse extra blood to the foot through valves in leg arteries, providing the needed warmth and preventing frostbite.

Believe it or not, this whole system is also helpful in warm weather. Birds can forage in water hotter than their body temperature as the counter-current exchange keeps their feet cool. This also explains why the Great Flamingo, which has very complicated branching in its arteries and veins, stands on one foot: it's limiting its exposure to heat through its feet. This same system is found in the flippers of whales and sea turtles, as well as some reptiles. 


So the next time you stand at an icy pond and watch ducks paddling along, there's no need to cringe and shiver and worry why those little feet don't turn into icicles. Instead, you can tuck your hands in your pockets, watch your breath cloud in front of you, and marvel once again at intricacy of nature.



photos from Creative Commons/Pixabay