Tuesday, February 25, 2014

I need a new...

A few years ago, a colleague and I were chatting at work and he mentioned he needed a new bedroom set. At that time, my husband and I were in the final phase of planning for an early retirement, having set the kids on their feet with only minor education loans and good employment prospects. I was wishing I had back all the cash I had spent on things like bedroom sets that I was about to sell at a garage sale so we could downsize. This colleague was single, in his early 30s. How could he "need" a new bedroom set? What was wrong with what he had? He spent most of his waking hours at work anyway. What real value would it add to his life? 

It really got me wondering how often we use this phrase "I need a new..." without really thinking about it? We're used to thinking in terms of buying new things. Advertising and social norms have taught us that well. Of course, you need a new bedroom set. Just look at all the shelter magazines showing you beautiful bedrooms. Yours is crap. 

Leaving aside the obvious difference between the words "need" and "want", let's focus on the word "new". There are two really good reasons not to buy new things. One is environmental. We have this wonderful planet that provides very well for our basic needs. Just look how many of there are alive today. Unfortunately, we've been using up the bounty a bit too fast and causing a wee bit of damage. I couldn't tell it any better than The Story of Stuff. So, not buying something new is better for the planet.

The other good reason is to practice cost avoidance. There are several good sources of information about learning to spend less and conserving your financial resources. One of my favorites is Mr. Money Mustache, who preaches about how anyone can learn to spend less and still continue to live well. So, not buying new means we can conserve our financial resources to spend them on the things we have already defined as priorities in our lives: for instance, beer.

I understand these two good reasons for not buying new things. I've been reading about minimalism for years now and thought I had internalized a lifestyle of simplicity. I remember my mother always used the phrase "make do" instead of "need a new". Then there are the 6 Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, repair, and rot. We already downsized our possessions to a pretty small pile of useful, practical things and are on track for financial goals. I thought I was doing pretty well on that path. Then the other day I caught myself. 

I was looking at the ugly wooden soap holder for a bottle of liquid soap that is no longer made in that shape. It was hanging on the bathroom wall with a plastic cup for toothbrushes attached to it with screw-in cup hooks.  I said to myself, "This is crap, I need a new one." Whoa!! Let's back up here. What we had in place was functional, the soap bottle (which I just keep filling because it's the right shape) and the toothbrushes weren't just lying on the counter. It was ugly, but we'd been living with that ugly for two years. What would really be improved if I went out and spent money on a new one? 

Time to put all this minimalism/sustainability/simplicity stuff I've been reading into practice.  I started looking online for ideas for toothbrush and soap storage that didn't require consuming new parts. Could I find something used? There are cool stores all over the country, like Sustainable Warehouse in Charleston SC, that stock pieces of reclaimed houses and stores for those builders and DIYers that want to stretch their dollars and walk a little more lightly on the earth.

Could I make something out of things we already had or I could get for free? I was already leaning towards using leftover peanut butter jars (we have those in abundance) and some kind of shelf to hold them. Turns out I found parts to make two different kinds of shelf arrangements. One we had all the parts for and the other required two hose clamps I bought at Sailor's Exchange for $2.

Now we have "new" soap and toothbrush holders. I have more practice in my attempt to re-wire my brain to avoid using that phrase and to avoid buying new things. Practice, practice, practice.

Friday, February 21, 2014

how to downsize your house in 4 easy steps

(this is for JL, who will be helping a close relative with this process soon)

Moving from a long-inhabited home into a smaller living space can be challenging. Challenge, however, helps us grow. Moving is a chance to reinvent yourself, to carry only the things you want to use in your new life. By divesting ourselves of decades of accumulated stuff, we emerge lighter and fresher.

It can still be a daunting task. Many people approach it by starting to sort boxes of things they have in basements and back closets. That can be very time-consuming and emotionally draining. Instead, when we did this, we started from what we wanted to keep, not what to get rid of. 

Here's how to start:

1.  Pack for a month-long vacation.
     a. Pick all your favorite clothes (you know, the ones that fit comfortably and don't have too many        holes and stains) and one or two special going-out outfits. Two is plenty. You can only wear one outfit at time anyway. 
     b. If you need seasonal clothes, throw in some sweaters, hats, mittens, boots and the like. The important point is to pick only the things you actually need. This will probably amount to about 1/4 of your clothes if you are the average American. 
     c. Assemble the other things you use every day. For me that is my electronic reading/writing devices. Bring things that you would take on a trip and can't do without.

2.  Assemble some housewares.
     a. Open the linen closet, slowly... Quickly reach in and grab two sets of sheets, a blanket and two pillows per bed and 2 towels and wash cloths per person. Close the door. Ok, maybe grab a beach towel.
     b. Get some boxes and start loading your kitchen items in order of how often they are used. Stop when you have three or four boxes. Seriously, two or three pots or pans are sufficient.
     c. Identify the minimal set of furniture you will need in your new, smaller space. When my father moved from his 3-bedroom house to one room in my sister's house, he took a comfy chair to read in, a small rug that Mom braided, a bed, dresser, lamp, night stand and desk. Done. 

3.  Evaluate your hobbies. 
     a. Tools and supplies are expensive to replace if you cut too deeply here. Pack up only the tools and supplies for hobbies that you actually currently pursue or plan to devote serious time to in your new life. It may seem excessive that I have two sewing machines, but I use them both, often.

4.  Sell or donate or throw away ALL the rest of the stuff. 
     a. Holiday decorations, special occasion serving dishes, karate trophies, knick-knacks, memorabilia, books you haven't opened since 1965, collections of paper dolls. Pitch. Them. Pitch. Them. All. 
      b. Here I will make the exception for family historical documents. It certainly shaped who I am to be able to sit with my parents and look at photos of my great-grandparents as babies, read the obituaries and birth notices of generations before me and hear their stories. These things are priceless and every effort should be made to preserve them.

Once settled into your new space, you will find you don't miss all the stuff you got rid of. You'll be busy exploring your new area, making new friends and finding new things to do in your community.

Attachment to objects is fleeting. After one of our yard sales, my husband remarked that seeing some of his stuff on the table marked $1 made him think about the objects in a new way. They weren't special at all. They were just stuff. 

Once the stuff is gone from your life, you can move on beyond the ties that bound you to it. You're lighter and more flexible. You can grow. You can enjoy the people and activities that really matter to you.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

personal energy use

Given that we are producing more carbon than the planet can cope with, how do we change our energy use so we can continue to survive?

Think about your existence: your personal space and bodily needs, your physical relationship with your environment. Are you cold? Are you hungry? Do you need to go somewhere? How do you get warm? How do you feed yourself? How do you get from one place to another? Basically, how do you rely on external energy?

We all need external energy in some form. The hard part is to think about how we get it, how much we use and how we could try to use less. I like to think about personal energy use in terms of my body and how I directly interact with the energy sources I consume. Do I really need to turn the heat on? How can I feed myself with low energy impact? Can I use my food calories to walk or bike to where I need to go? 

These are the basic use cases, temperature, calories and transportation. What about all the other ways we use energy in our lives? In this era of fossil fuel overuse and climate change, how many of us really look at our personal energy use that goes beyond the basics? In 2012, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer was 10,837 kWh, an average of 903 kilowatthours per month. How much external energy do you consume for entertainment, convenience and infrastructure maintenance? 

In the US, most of us have our basic needs met and wind up with a few hours each day that are not devoted to hunting for food and seeking shelter. Our ancestors chopped down a few trees and told stories around a campfire. We harvest fossil fuel, build huge distribution networks, hire professional story tellers and pipe the stories through the entertainment industry to a piece of equipment that requires external energy in our living rooms. This is only one way that we use external energy sources seeking entertainment. 

Think of just about any popular form of entertainment and focus for a moment on how much energy goes into making that happen. An extreme example I can think of is purchasing a specially made all terrain vehicle, putting it up on a special use trailer, hitching it to another vehicle and driving it to a remote location and tooling around on it all day. Contrast the external energy requirement of having fun on an ATV with of that of opening your front door and taking a walk. How many people consciously think about the energy use that goes into their entertainment choices? We take it for granted that we have the right to use external energy for our entertainment. Do we? 

We also feel we have a right to use external energy for convenience. Look around the average US kitchen. It's packed full of electrical appliances that "make our lives easier". See the average energy use of kitchen appliances. We buy dishwashers, stand mixers and three different kinds of appliances to make smoothies. Washing, stirring and chopping actually can be done by hand, using those internal energy calories we just  set by with that big breakfast we ate. We even buy electrical appliances to dry our hair. Last I checked, exposure to air will do the job in time. Our clothes will dry, too, even without a machine. I could make a long list of examples of convenience appliances we don't think twice about purchasing (what energy was required for its manufacturing?) and using every day. A garage door opener? Really?

A similar category to convenience is infrastructure maintenance. Out for my morning walk, I often see folks out with the leaf blower cleaning off their driveways. I can't figure out how to categorize this kind of external energy use, because if it was a simple convenience tool, it would be replacing the broom. However, I doubt any of these guys would have been out every day with their brooms in the first place. The mere existence of a leaf blower allows the bar to be raised on clean driveways. So, I made up the infrastructure maintenance category to include pressure washers, lawn mowers, weed eaters, vacuum cleaners, and huge refrigerators owned by a household of two that are only half full. These are the things that use external energy to maintain our shelter and transportation choices that are already dependent on external energy. Don't get me started on plug-in air fresheners. I don't even know how to categorize those.

So, back to our basic relationship with energy. Up to a point, we can put on a sweater when we're cold instead of turning on the heat. We can eat food that doesn't require long times to cook, or eat our leftovers cold once in awhile. We can bike or walk on our errands that are close by. We can also take a long hard look at our choices in entertainment, convenience and infrastructure maintenance to see where we can reduce the amount of external energy we use. Take a walk, learn to play an musical instrument, have your spouse/partner/friend/roommate read aloud to you while washing the dishes (my personal favorite!), mix up those cookies with a wooden spoon, buy a rotary lawn mower and for goodness sake, let a few leaves stay on your driveway once in awhile.

Our coffee and tea appliances

Friday, February 14, 2014

five kinds of rice

overindulgence --> moment of reckoning --> reorientation

This is about food. We all need food, every day, some of us just love it more than others. Some of us might, in fact, collect it, like others collect Christmas decorations and shoes. I enjoy just about every aspect of food, learning about it, growing it (back in the day, on a small scale), chopping it up, and buying it. Especially buying it.

Due to a small food preparation and storage area, I'm already pretty sensitive to how much I buy, but I usually keep that space pretty full. It's full of staples and odd bits of ingredients that are required for special recipes. I love reading cookbooks and trying new recipes, so I have an excuse to have a variety of ingredients on hand. However, there are only two of us eating all this food I keep buying. Food doesn't keep forever and I was starting to realize some items had been pretty much permanent residents on the pantry shelves. Yeah, I had five kinds of rice and twelve kinds of beans. Really?

We recently visited the homes of our grown children. I opened their pantries. I wasn't snooping, I was helping get dinner on the the table. There was space on their shelves. Airy, open space. Nothing was dusty in the back corner. There were no rusty cans with foreign language labels on them. There was just food, basic food that they were using to make basic meals. And not all that much of it.

In Zero Waste HomeBea Johnson makes the case that all that extra food sitting in your pantry can add up to a complicated wasteful mess. She expresses a lack of concern about having the "right" ingredient. She says, in her post on meal planning, they have in their pantry "one jar of a "rotating" grain: for example, when we finish rice, we'll get couscous." What?! They don't have five kinds of rice?

In Stone Soup, Jules Clancy, already the expert at making five-ingredient meals, opens her pantry cupboards to show how she keeps out the clutter to focus on basic ingredients to prepare fast and healthy meals. I've made some of her recipes. They're good. Five ingredients are plenty.  Read her book, 5 Ingredients 10 Minutes to learn more.

Here's how I roll now.

Inventory - know what's in the pantry
Categorize - is the item for baking? Is it item for sauce? What role does that ingredient play?
Identify the outliers - is this ingredient really something I need? 
Reduce - use up all the ingredients identified as unnecessary in step 3. It may mean meals based on black-eyed peas for awhile...
Streamline - resupply only the staples. Keep a grocery list on my mobile. Stick to it.
Exceptions - there is always room for special ingredients. The trick is to use them up in a reasonable amount of time. When some special sauce at the Farmer's market just has to come home in the basket, use it. Use it all. Soon.

So, now I'm going to open up that bag of Macadamia nuts I bought last Fall and make chocolate chunk cookies until the bag is empty. Then, when they are gone, just use walnuts. We'll live.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

cargo pants and a t-shirt

Like many American women, I've been obsessed with clothes since I was little. Dresses are like candy to me. I sewed doll clothes, my own clothes, relished the box of hand-me-downs from my cousin, and spent hours with fashion magazines and catalogs. Finding the perfect dress for a social occasion was like setting out on a treasure-seeking adventure. My closet was clean, organized and treated like a shrine. Ok, so maybe I'm more obsessed than the average American woman. 

After the nest emptied out, we moved from the burbs to a downtown area fat with bars and restaurants. I indulged the dress obsession on eBay and the local consignment shops so I could look good going out. The time and expense I invested in my wardrobe was considerable. It became a major hobby.

When we were downsizing the household goods, I started reading blogs on minimalism. It was easy to divest of the dishes and furniture, but my clothing collection was sacred. I didn't want to apply the concepts of minimalism to fashion. Collecting clothes was super fun. It was the one thing I was still allowing myself to accumulate. I wasn't ready to give it up. I felt, somehow, that my identity was intricately tied to the brands and styles I wore. And I wasn't ready to give up the feeling I have when I'm wearing a pretty dress, that twirling, sweet feeling of, well, a dress!

Minimalism catches hold, though, and I started reading more. I read Project 333 and counted my items of clothing (66 for all seasons, I still have a ways to go). I watched the TED talk on the Uniform Project. I read Overdressed about the cheap fashion industry and the effects of our massive consumption of clothing on our planet and factory workers. I read about cotton production and pesticides and water use.  The reality of my fashion addiction was too big for me to ignore anymore.

I'm on my journey now. I've pledged to buy no new clothes in 2014. The herd continues to be culled. Clothes that are of questionable necessity go in a purgatory bag for a few months.  If I haven't pulled them out, the bag gets donated. There are still a couple of dresses in a garment bag for those special occasions, but these days I'm following my husband's lead. 

Every day he puts on a relatively clean pair of cargo pants and pulls the next t-shirt off the shelf.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

free. citrus.

We were soaking up some free wifi at the local marina when someone walked past and said "Free citrus, come help yourself." Mrs. Greedy-Guts was up seconds later following the man with the box, begging a bag from the marina store and loading up. He said his neighbor, five miles up the road, couldn't use all the fruit his trees produced. So here were two big boxes of grapefruit and oranges fresh off the trees. And free to boot! 

Fresh fruit is something Americans don't get enough of. The grocery stores may be crammed full of beautiful-looking produce, but it isn't generally anything near fresh. Our tomatoes (and many other fruits) are picked green and chemically ripened (read Tomatoland to find out more). Most of the fruit is grown in other countries and shipped long distances to show up in our large chain markets. Fruit is bred to be a consistent size and to resist bruising during shipping. Taste and vitamin content aren't considerations in the industrialized plant breeding process.

Fresh really matters in food storage. Last fall I purchased a bushel of sweet potatoes directly from a farm in VA (for a mere $13). After some experimentation, I settled into four recipes we liked: African Yam, Black Bean Chili, Spicy Oven Fries, and the basic mashed with butter. We finished up the potatoes in January. The potatoes lasted perfectly well for four months stored in canvas bags with nary a bad one. They were delicious! After finishing them, we started in on the butternut squashes purchased the same day. Try keeping a supermarket sweet potato for four months in a canvas bag. 

So, thanks, neighbor! We really appreciate the shared bounty from your trees. The first grapefruit we devoured was heavenly! Looking forward to the rest of the bag.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

one foot in front of the other

Just starting this as a writing exercise. Just walking around, looking around.