Sunday, May 29, 2016

How to Pack a Perfect Suitcase

It's a thing of beauty.
You know how everybody has one really weird skill that they have totally mastered? Mine is packing a suitcase. It's not that I'm a constant traveler or anything; it's just that I have deeply studied the topic and perfected my technique, because...well, I like being organized in all things I guess.

I read a book about 10 years ago called "Smart Packing for Today's Traveler" that got me started on this road to Unbelievable Packing Cleverness. Since then, I've whittled it down to a science.

The suitcase I'm featuring here is a Samsonite Hardside Fiero 24-inch Spinner, but I can pack almost this much stuff in their hardside 20-inch spinner. After years of trying different types of suitcases, I am now utterly devoted to hardside luggage. It's feather-light, has more cavity space (Samsonite's suitcases are basically ALL cavity space,) and can stand up to being tossed, loaded, and stacked on flights like a pro.

However, my packing tips will work in softside luggage as well, so no worries if that is what you have.

First, Figure Out Your Travel Outfit

You need to figure out your travel outfit before you pack so that you'll know what jeans, shoes, and sweater/jacket you're taking on your trip, and you can plan the rest of your wardrobe accordingly. (I usually try to wear jeans and my bulkiest shoes so I don't have to pack them.) I tend to avoid flips or sandals if I'm flying, because I don't like to have cold feet in over-airconditioned planes or airports. So if the weather's warm, I usually wear tennis shoes; if it's cold weather, Uggs.

I also always take a cardigan or hoodie, even in summer. Something warm but not too bulky so I can stuff it in my carryon if need be.

First Layer in the Suitcase, Clothing Side

First layer
First layer in the bottom of your suitcase is for rolled-up socks, underwear, belts, irregularly shaped items (like my bathing suit in this pic,) and shoes. You line these things up between the bracing supports in the bottom of the suitcase to cut down on wasted space. I like to wrap each shoe in a separate plastic bag because it's easier to fit separate shoes in the suitcase than a pair bagged together. (I bag my shoes like this because it grosses me out to have the soles of my shoes touching my clean clothes, but you might not have that phobia.)

Second Layer, Clothing Side

Second layer
In this 24-inch spinner, I have plenty of room for my big comfy slippers (separately bagged and stacked on top of my other shoes,) my foldable yoga mat, a shopping tote, and my back care items (a trochanter belt and a neck roll for exercises.) These items form the second layer. The idea is to get your things as level as possible for your clothing layers. Anything you're taking with you that isn't clothes is a candidate for this layer (extra hats, purses, notebooks, etc.) I've also stuffed some extra empty plastic bags around the edges here--those are for dirty laundry or whatever else I might need a bag for.

(BTW, I probably wouldn't have room for the slippers and the back care stuff in my 20-inch spinner, but I have packed the yoga mat in it before.)

Clothing Layer

Pants part 1

Okay, so you take your pants--jeans, joggers, leggings, or whatever--and fold them in half longways, then line up the waistbands with the top edge of the suitcase and drape them over the other edge as in the above photo. You may only be able to do one pair each way rather than having two side by side, but that's fine.
Pants part 2
Then you take another pair of pants (or two pair as above) and lay them the opposite way, with waistband(s) lined up with bottom edge, legs draped over the top edge as in this photo.
Rolled tees and tops, started
Now you're going to roll all of your other clothing and place it like so, on top of the pants. T-shirts, hoodies, pajamas, etc. go here. The neater you roll your things, the less wrinkled they will be when you arrive. (I wasn't that careful in this packing session because I'm going to Huntington Beach for another Healing Vacation, and I'm mostly just lounging around in yoga wear while I'm there.)

When you finish, your rolled clothes will look something like this:
Now you take the legs of your pants and lay them over the rolled clothes. This arrangement keeps pants more free of wrinkles than any other packing method I know of, unless you roll with an old-school hanging bag. You don't, do you???

Now your clothes side should look like this:
Pants folded over the rolled tees and tops

Toiletries and Self-Care Items

I need a lot of Self-Care stuff.
On the other (zippered netting) side of my Samsonite hardside spinners, I am able to pack an enormous amount of toiletries, vitamins, supplements, makeup and hair things, etc. I have a huge collection of Esteé Lauder gift cosmetic bags of all different shapes and sizes, and I fit them more or less like a Tetris puzzle on this side of my suitcase. (The big orange one actually holds my Waterpik unit and electric toothbrush, believe it or not.) I also use gallon-size Ziplocs for certain items, just depending upon what I can fit where.

So That's It

All strapped in and zipped up, your Samsonite would look like this. Ahh, the perfection! The organization! The feeling like you're ready for anything!

Now in case you're wondering what goes in my carryon bag (if you're nosy like me)--here is a hot insider's pic:
I hate my driver's license photo. They have a new rule in Colorado that you can't smile. I'm not kidding.
In my new Dooney & Bourke bag that I bought because it's just the right size for my laptop, I have my already-seasoned instant oatmeal (airport breakfast=hot cup of water with lid from Starbucks and the contents of this baggie); my laptop and charger, extra flash drive, phone charger, and headphones; my Caribbean Jewel-themed business cards; my wallet; tissues, glasses, and my see-through bag of lip stuff, ibuprofen, hair bands, mints, hand sanitizer, mascara, and lotion.

So there you go! Perfectly packed, à la Jayla.

I'm basically Travel Barbie.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Easy Vegan Greek Pasta with Broccoli, Tomatoes, and Olives

Broccoli, Tomatoes, and Olives with fresh herbs - yum!

This is one of my favorite go-to easy dinners when I don't have much inspiration or time to cook. It's vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free, and loaded with veggies and herbs. It goes together in about 30 minutes, and is satisfying and delicious.

I invented this recipe one night when I had a huge bag of broccoli from Costco and needed inspiration for what to do with it, and I've made it regularly ever since.

Greek Pasta with Broccoli, Tomatoes, and Olives

(Vegan, Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free)

2 cups to 2.5 cups brown rice penne or ziti (I use Trader Joes's Organic Brown Rice Pasta)
1 TBS olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
4 sprigs fresh thyme or 3/4 tsp dried (or a little of both)
1/2 tsp dried oregano
Sprinkle of red pepper flakes
4 cups broccoli florets
1 large ripe tomato, chopped
6-8 sliced black olives
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup chopped mixed parsley and oregano

Cook pasta according to package directions. While it's cooking, sauté the onions and garlic in olive oil for 5-7 minutes, until translucent (and beginning to brown on the edges if desired.) Toss in the fresh thyme sprigs (I often just use the whole sprig, then pick it out later, but you can de-stem it and chop the little leaves if you have time) and the dried oregano. Sauté for a minute or two, then add the broccoli and red pepper flakes. Sauté the broccoli, stirring to coat it with the spices and flavors, then lid the pan for 3 minutes to steam it a bit. If it seems too dry, you can add a tiny bit of water to keep it from sticking. Uncover and add the chopped tomato and olives. Sauté until the tomatoes begin to break down and become a little saucy. Salt and pepper to taste, and then toss with the pasta, top with the fresh herbs, and serve.

Makes 2 large servings.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

How To Teach Yourself Spanish

Have you ever wished you were fluent in Spanish? You know, to make yourself more marketable in the work place, impress your friends, be able to communicate with the locals when you travel, or just for the sheer joy of becoming bilingual?

My day job is high school Spanish teacher, and I constantly get this question: "what's the best way to learn Spanish [without taking classes]?" Well, I have good news for you. It doesn't require much (if any) money to teach yourself fluent Spanish, but it does take a bit of a time commitment. I became fluent in one year, almost accidentally. Allow me to explain.

I took two years of high school Spanish, like you probably did as well. When I started college, it had been two years since my last Spanish class, and I barely remembered anything. (Nor did I really care at that point--I was an English major, intent upon making a living by writing.) My contact with Spanish had been fun in high school, but definitely not life-changing, and I'd never been able to carry on a conversation with an actual Spanish speaker, even when the textbook Spanish was still fresh in my mind after my sophomore year in high school.

During college, I dated a guy who was Puerto Rican, fluent in both Spanish and English. At his apartment one night, I discovered "Univision," a U.S.-based TV channel whose target audience is Latinos living in the U.S. They air soap operas ("telenovelas," literally "TV novels,") produced in Spanish-speaking countries, and I was fascinated by them. I tried to see if I could understand anything, asked my boyfriend for a bit of translation here and there, and then back at my own place, I tuned my TV set to Univision and started watching a Venezuelan soap opera just out of sheer curiosity.

Within a couple of episodes, I was hooked. I wanted to try to figure out what everyone was saying just for the fun of it; plus, I wanted to know who these attractive people were and what all the drama was about. I started watching that soap every night--it was called Pobre Diabla, with the Venezuelan actress Jeannette Rodriguez in the lead role. She was captivating. I loved her hair and makeup. And her love interest, Ariel (played by Uruguayan actor Osvaldo Laport,) had me going ga-ga.

When Pobre Diabla ended a couple of months later, I started watching the soap that took its evening prime time slot, El Desprecio, another Venezuelan soap. That one lasted about nine months, so between the two, I had been watching soaps every weeknight for about a year.

My understanding of what was going on increased gradually night after night, until eventually I felt I was understanding a good 80-85% of what was being said. With my new interest in learning Spanish, I decided to add a Spanish minor to my English degree, and went to the Foreign Language department at my university to take the Spanish placement test so I could enroll in their program.

I was hoping to maybe skip level 1 and test into level 2 Spanish, but the placement test (to my utter shock) put me in third-year college Spanish. I was told that the lowest level class I was allowed to take was "Advanced Spanish Composition," and I panicked. "I don't speak Spanish," I told the lab assistant who scored my exam. "Well," he said, "according to this test, you're fluent. You made a 100%." My jaw dropped. The test hadn't been easy, and I'd mostly gone with what sounded right in my head. I certainly didn't feel as though I was acing it as I answered the questions.

So, I went to the first day of "Advanced Spanish Composition" with fear and trembling. I felt like a fraud, and soon everyone would know it, because I did not speak Spanish. The professor came in, a native of Colombia, and began introducing herself in Spanish, then went over the basics of the course.

A bit of relief washed over me. I could understand her pretty darn well.

Then she said (in Spanish,) "Okay, let's go around the room and introduce ourselves, say why we're in this class. You first," she said to the person sitting in front of me. My heart raced, my palms started sweating, and I gulped as my classmate introduced herself in Spanish.

Then it was my turn. I opened my mouth. Spanish came out. I was freaking dumbfounded.

I had sat there watching my nightly TV while eating dinner, slowly but steadily becoming fluent in Spanish.

So here's what you do if you want to replicate my results.

The Steps to Teaching Yourself Spanish

1. Get on Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, or some other streaming service and find yourself a telenovela. If you're on a strict budget and can't afford those services, you can also find telenovelas on Youtube, but the quality, completeness, and selection will be sketchier. You can also use a TV antennae to pick up Univision (and a few other Spanish channels in some areas.) The only downside to watching it this way is that you'll need to be there every weeknight at the same time to watch. Back in the day, that worked well for me because I ran the same routine pretty much every weeknight, of eating dinner in front of the TV at 6:00.

On your streaming service, you should be able to read the description of each telenovela in English so that you can pick one that sounds interesting. If your streaming service doesn't have a description in English, look up the telenovela's title online. Almost all popular soaps have Wikipedia pages in English.

If you need some ideas for good telenovelas, here are some of my all-time favorites:

La fea más bella (an Ugly Betty-inspired story with the talented Angelica Vale and Jaime Camil)
Yo amo a Juan Querendon (with the hilarious, talented, hot Eduardo Santamarina in the lead in a sort of redneck-in-the-big-city role.)
Un gancho al corazón (with the drool-worthy Sebastian Rulli. OMG. Just Google him.)
Al diablo con los guapos (Crazy, funny, annoying, with plenty of twists and turns. Poor girl/rich guy plot, very common in Latino soaps.)
Abismo de pasión (dark, kind of scary, completely captivating.)

You want to go for a Mexican telenovela rather than a Venezuelan or Spanish one (from Spain.) They are higher quality, with better budgets and some truly talented acting, plus the main reason: Mexicans are easier to understand. They enunciate better and speak slower than Spaniards or Venezuelans.

2. Set aside some time each night to watch, starting with episode 1. That's all you have to do, is watch. No subtitles. Let your ear train itself to understand the Spanish without the distraction of reading subtitles. Making/eating dinner while watching is fine, and that way you can multitask.

3. Figure out people's names. This should happen relatively quickly. You'll probably figure out the main characters' names in the first episode. Once you have names down, you'll be able to separate those words from the rest of the sentences, and you'll have at least some starting point for understanding what's going on, for who's talking about whom.

4. Figure out the relationship connections, who is whose mom, child, girlfriend, spouse. Some of this will be obvious in the first episode, where they will spend some time setting up the plot. For that reason, the first episode is crucial. Try not to jump into the middle of a telenovela if you can help it (may be hard to avoid if you're watching it with the TV antennae option.)

5. At some point, you'll probably want to start looking up recurring words. I remember when the word "empresa" started jumping out at me during a soap. "Empresa" this and "empresa" that. (It means company, as in, a business.) When a word you don't know starts getting repeated enough that you notice it, it's a key word to the plot of that soap opera, and you can look it up (but don't distract yourself by trying to look up every word you hear, please! Just let the Spanish come to you, somewhat passively for the most part.) 

Speaking of which, I recommend getting a Spanish dictionary app on your phone. I like Word Magic, which I paid $7.99 for a few years ago (but I think there is a free version as well?) It will pronounce words for you and has several features I use constantly.

6. Give it some time. At first, most of what you hear will sound like gobbledy-gook except for names and a few high school Spanish phrases like "Hola. ¿Cómo estás?" but be patient and hang in there. Words will start coming to you one by one, as if through a narrow tube of understanding. For me, that imaginary word-tube was narrow for about 6 months, but then it widened suddenly, at some point during El desprecio (my second soap.) When it widens and you start understanding whole chunks of conversations, it's really, really cool. Soon after that, you'll notice that you just understood an entire scene or two. And eventually, you'll be understanding a good 80-85% of what goes on. Keep watching, and that percentage will continue to rise.

Spanish movies, radio, or individual TV shows that aren't in a series do not work the same way. The magic of the telenovela is that it's a long series with the same characters, it's visual, and it's very repetitive. A dramatic event will happen, and then the key players will go and tell other people what just happened for a few more scenes. So you'll get present and past tenses, as well as future, conditional, and subjunctive, everything in context so you can acquire the language rather than study rules and then forget them. To me, it's the closest thing to being able to go spend time in a Spanish-speaking country to learn the language.

So that's it. No notes, no textbooks, no homework. Just good, juicy soap opera watching. I was able to get a minor in Spanish with only three Spanish classes in college--Advanced Composition, Advanced Conversation, and a Spanish Lit class. I turned that minor into a career that pays the bills while I write novels on the side.

Not a bad return for the 1 year investment of watching Spanish TV.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Healing Foods: Simple Vegan Quinoa Tabbouleh

Red, juicy, ripe tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, dark green parsley, and chewy quinoa...what's not to like? If you're looking for a filling vegan lunch that's packed with healing superfoods, simple quinoa tabbouleh is a great way to go.

If my quinoa is pre-cooked and ready for me in the fridge, this lunch takes me about 7-8 minutes to chop and put together. Then, I seal the container inside a gallon ziploc, throw it in my work bag, and I'm set for the day.

Here's the recipe.


(Vegan, Gluten-free, Sugar-free--1 serving)

1/2 - 3/4 cup quinoa (white or red--red is more fibrous and nutty-tasting if you're in the mood for that)
1 ripe tomato, chopped
1/2 cucumber, peeled if desired and chopped
1 green onion, sliced (or 1 TBS minced red onion)
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
2 tsp flaxseed oil (or olive oil)
2 tsp fresh lemon juice

Toss all ingredients. Can eat immediately, or chill for a couple of hours. In my cooler mountain climate, it rests in my book bag all morning until lunch (without refrigeration) just fine.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

How To Organize a Small Closet

I live in a small cottage-style house with small closets to match. My master bedroom closet is 6'3" wide and 2 feet deep and has those *awesome* sliding doors that you constantly have to move left or right to do anything.

Nevertheless, I make this closet work, because I have to. It probably helps that I am a Purger with wannabe-minimalist tendencies. I have the one thing in, one thing out rule, plus at least twice a year I relentlessly go through all my shoes and clothes looking for things to donate to charity. I like to keep my clothes and shoes pared down to only what I really wear because I think it makes it so much easier to get dressed in the morning. (For more about how I started that habit and why, read my post on "The Book That Changed My Wardrobe Life.")

In this closet, I store 15 pairs of pants, 11 jackets/cardigans, 2 dresses and 45 tops. I also store 2 pairs of tall boots, 3 pairs of calf-high boots, 1 pair of ankle boots, plus 15 pairs of other shoes; my yoga blocks and a 6-pound dumbbell; my hot roller set (because my bathroom's so tiny there's no room for them in there;) my iron, spray starch, and ironing board; 8 belts, 11 scarves and wraps, 3 purses and 2 hats, 4 suitcases, my laundry hamper, and a small "junk" basket. (I keep sweaters, undergarments, socks, and workout wear in my dresser.)

This is how I make it all fit:


To get a really organized closet, first off, you need some shoe organizers. I bought two 15-pair shoe organizers something like this 12-pair one for $49 from The Container Store (I got mine at Bed Bath & Beyond, but they don't seem to carry that exact type anymore.) I would avoid the hanging shoe bags that take up valuable rod space; what you need is one with a hard shelf-top that you can store things on.

I turned one of these shoe organizers on its end so that I could fit my clothes hamper next to it on the left side of my closet, under my pants.

All my calf boots go in front of the shoe organizers, and my tall boots are to the left of the hamper against the left wall of the closet. (Speaking of the hamper, it's a $15 mesh dorm-room one with two compartments that folds up, is very light weight, and flexible so I can squeeze it in and out of the very small space it has to live inside.)


My closet has that open wire-type top shelf that nothing sits on very well. That's where I put all my suitcases, my small junk basket, my hats, and two of my extra purses. (I store a fancy clutch in one of the shoe dividers below my hanging pants.)

I have a small ironing board with a hanger-hook (like this $14 one from JC Penney) that I use to divide off my pants from the rest of my clothes. You can see it in the above pic--it's bright teal-colored, almost hidden by an orange t-shirt.

My belts are loosely rolled up and stored in the green basket in the photo below, on top of one of the shoe organizers, along with my iron and hot roller set. Again, I avoid those hanging belt organizers because I think it's hard to find the belt I want, and I don't want to take up rod space with it. With this little green basket, I can pull it out, find the belt I want, and put it back in the closet in a matter of seconds.

Full view of the right side of my closet


I have a pretty simple clothing organization system: tops on the right, pants on the left, scarves in the middle. I tend to keep my two dresses (not a huge dress person, obviously...) all the way to the right, with jackets next to them, then my other tops. I've tried organizing tops by color, but what tends to make the most sense for me is just to group them by type--long sleeve/dressy, sleeveless/dressy, long sleeve tees, short sleeve tees. And sometimes there's some intermingling of the types, but since I try to keep them weeded down to the minimum, I can usually find what I want to wear pretty easily.

Full view of the left side of my closet
So that's pretty much it! I find it fairly easy to keep everything basically in its place in there, and I can find what I need without much trouble other than swinging those damn sliding doors back and forth, back and forth. Oh well. It burns calories, right??

Sunday, May 1, 2016

How To Use Daily Affirmations to Turn Your Life Around

I've been saying one form or another of affirmations since I was in my 20's. Normally these would be statements I'd written on a piece of paper and read aloud to myself or said in the mirror Stuart Smalley style. I've kept lists of affirmations in my journal, on a bulletin board, on the fridge, taped to the bathroom mirror, and sometimes tucked into my wallet.

Problem was, it used to be hard for me to keep up an affirmation routine for more than a few days at a time, because of distractions, discouragement, or just forgetting to say them completely for weeks or months at a time. I needed to find a way to easily and effortlessly incorporate them into my daily life, and this is how I did it.


I recorded mine with the "Voice Memo" app on my iPhone. I have 4 recordings on my phone right now: one for emotional encouragement, one for anxiety, and one for physical healing, as well as a set of "I am" affirmations (I am healthy, I am energetic, I am thankful, I am calm, etc.) In the Voice Memo app, you simply click on the big red button, record yourself reading your affirmations, then hit the red button again to stop or pause. Hit "Done" when you're finished, and it will allow you to name the recording (e.g., "Encouragement.")


You want to find a time when you don't have to put much thought (if any) into something else. I'm a huge fan of multitasking, so I usually listen to my affirmations while I'm doing my 15-minute home yoga routine or while I'm getting ready in the morning. Listening to the recording rather than having to read the affirmations aloud frees me up to simply meditate and let it "soak in." You could also listen to them in your car, or simply rest, close your eyes, and visualize while you listen.


I turned my career completely around over the course of a summer by recording some affirmations onto a CD and listening to it every time I was in my car, including for hours and hours on a road trip that summer. I'm a high school teacher, and at the time, the job was thoroughly eating my lunch. I was deeply exhausted, depressed, and anxious about it almost every day, even though I constantly worked to improve my lesson plans, my organization skills, and my confidence. When I wrote my script for the CD, I made it completely over the top. I said things like, "This job has become so easy I can hardly believe it," and "I come home every day revitalized and relaxed." I knew that if the things I was saying on the CD actually came true, it would be a miracle.

Long story short--when school started in the Fall, things were so different it was incredible, even though I didn't feel I had done much to change myself or my teaching style. And every school year since, the affirmations on that CD have become more and more reality, to the point I can truly say the job is easy for me now.


For my "I am" statements, I simply made a list of 25 things I want to be. You can find lists and images of "I am" statements and daily affirmations by doing a quick Google Search on "daily affirmations." I also like bible verses as affirmations, and you can find lists of verses that address specific needs by searching "bible verses for healing," etc. online.

Once you get your list or lists, you're ready to record your voice memos. This is for no one but you, so you don't have to get it perfect or be self-conscious. Then, figure out when you can play it back to yourself every day and start doing it. Set yourself a phone alert or calendar event if you find you can't remember to play the recordings.

And that's it! This does not have to be a huge project, and the results can be amazing. I've overcome episodes of depression and anxiety, changed my eating habits and slimmed down, healed myself of sickness, and changed the dynamic of hurtful relationships with the help of affirmations.

How have daily affirmations changed something specific in YOUR life?

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