What can we do in the face of political despair?

It’s voting day in the US.

My state is due to elect, in a landslide, a governor so personally and politically disgusting that I can’t imagine how even his own party likes him.

The country is expected to elect, in various landslides, many people who are somewhat similar.

The reason? People don’t think. Or, more precisely, people are made not to think by the various forces in their lives. Sloppy journalism. Sensationalist, inaccurate Facebook shares. The ill-formed opinions of others, spread like wildfire. Who can blame them, really? Thinking about big issues is hard, unsatisfying, unsettling work. Thinking is uncomfortable, and our educational system hardly prepares us to handle it.

More importantly, though, people are afraid. They are afraid that there isn’t enough to go around. Afraid that the world will fall apart, if we don’t hold it together with all our might. Afraid of “the enemy,” without realizing that the enemy is a straw man, not an enemy at all.

It’s easy to despair. Most of my friends will spend the next two weeks reading (and obsessively posting to Facebook) about all of the “horrible” candidates that have been elected to various positions. We will expend our energy wailing and gnashing our teeth, fighting ferociously with our own friends and family.


Consider instead that the point is to better the world. Is delivering the perfect sarcastic rebuttal to Uncle Joe’s position on gun control worth  adding to the sum total of human unhappiness? I doubt it.

Don’t wallow in misery.

Do something instead. Think about your desired outcome for the world, and work toward that, even if only in your smallest personal actions.

Foster genuine kindness. Let people have a voice, even if you don’t like what they say. Align your own habits better with your values. Research and support ethical charitable organizations who can enact your values on a larger scale. Reconsider personal habits of consumption to make more room for others. Meditate on peace and love, and what those things really mean in this world. Be gentle with people who are so very afraid.


My Wardrobe Basics

I am thinking-aloud by keyboard here, so forgive my ramble-ness. It’s my blog.

As per yesterday’s post, the idea here is that your basic wardrobe is something that is replaced as needed, without counting toward a total number of items for the year.  My list turned into a slightly more fleshed-out wardrobe than the examples I’ve seen online. I think those are constructed more as “these items are the glue that holds together my fun clothes,” but aside from a few printed blouses I don’t buy a lot of fun clothes. 90% of my clothes are super-duper boring, and I’m okay with that. Maybe that’s what comes of being ten years (or more) older that the average person who discusses fashion online. That’s why, also, my list is somewhat longer. I know what I use and wear and would miss when it’s gone. (And in some cases have worn out and replaced multiples.)

With that preface, here’s my idea of wardrobe basics, not including my scruffy park/chores clothes:


Solid tank tops for layering.  I prefer wool for the ultimate summer–>winter wearability. Whatever color is flattering. I have a lot of these; more than I need. (Probably double digits, mostly leftover from our cold climate.) For the sheer sake of counting, I’ll say four would be a good minimum.

T-shirts. My perfect T-shirt is the Ibex “Sol” model, which they release in an irritatingly limited number every year. (I missed them this year, dammit.) Again, whatever colors are flattering. I don’t like black/white/grey t-shirts. When I inevitably have to darn the front, where my pants rub, they get rotated down to park/exercise clothes. I find that three “nice” t-shirts is plenty. I could probably get by on two.

Long Sleeve T’s are my winter layer of choice (and often winter shirt of choice). I have three now, which is adequate, plus one dressier.

Button up shirts for layering. My default for winter (ours are mild) and summer (brutally sunny) is a long sleeved shirt as a layer. A little vestige of the 90s that I cling to. Most frequently worn: chambray blue, white linen, and a subtle grey check. I have a few others, but I would say three (one winter weight, one summer weight, one between) is my minimum. I’m more comfortable with five or six, but you have to draw the line.

Navy cardigan. My most recent iteration of this is, sadly, on its way out. I’ve worn two of these to near-rags during the last ten years, which makes it a definite staple. Otherwise, I don’t buy sweaters; I knit them myself and really don’t need them in this climate.

My current employment status (I’m in an office 1-2 times a week) means I don’t need a huge stash of dressier shirts. Again, I’m feeling like three is the magic number here. Most worn: an emerald shell, a navy silk sleeveless, and a grey silk long sleeved.

I get significant wear from my black blazer, after I finally found a cut that didn’t make me look like I was playing dress up. If I ever see a non-black that I like as well, I’m snapping it up.

I feel like tops are the most likely place to expend “non-staple” purchasing dollars. My most beloved clothing item right now is a mint green embroidered blouse that fits in exactly zero of the categories above. With that in mind, these numbers could probably be trimmed a bit.

Tally up:

4 tanks

3 short-sleeve t-shirts

3 long-sleeve t-shirts

4 button up shirts

1 cardigan

3 dress shirts

1 blazer

Skirts and Dresses

I wear these more than pants, in part because whenever I gain/lose weight my pants stop fitting pretty rapidly. Pants are, therefore, a bad investment.

I keep two casual neutral-colored lightweight A-line skirts that go with 90% or more of my summer tops. I’m still working last year’s grey/navy pair. A few years ago I did black/petrol. No-thinking summer clothes. I would *like* to find a 4-seasons version next time I replace these (i.e., something that won’t look weird with tights), but I’ve not managed it so far.

Work skirts: I wear a pale grey wool flannel A-line and a black pencil year round. The wool flannel is probably dicey for summer, but I can’t be bothered. If it weren’t so flamingly hot here, I could probably combine these skirt categories, but I can’t.

Because dresses don’t have to go with anything in particular, mine are less boring than the rest of my clothes. I’ll call two per season staples (two serious summer sundresses, two fall/winter/office), but in practice I keep more. Too many more, usually.


2 casual skirts

2 dress skirts

4 dresses

Shorts and Pants

I don’t know. Last summer I bought two pairs of shorts. I wore them a lot, but it was literally the first time I’d owned shorts in the last ten years. Hardly makes them a staple. I’ve never liked jeans, even though I’ve always owned at least a pair or two, but the current trends are hilariously unflattering for me. I’d like to find a good non-denim replacement.

What I DO love is non-jeans pants with wide/wider legs. Current favorites: chambray blue, cream, black silk. Black silk doubles as work pants. Let’s say three pairs of pants, including that mythical denim replacement, because I don’t plan to replace the cream pair when they’re gone.


3 pair non-jean pants (This will go up if my office time increases.)


I don’t keep a lot of shoes, and need fewer than I have. A few years ago I realized I could own half the shoes if I just stopped buying brown clothes, which isn’t a good color on me anyway. Things I wear all the time: My totally boring black mid-heel pumps, a pair of pale leather wedge sandals, Birkenstocks (I know, I know. But it is so hot, and I need to walk, and these were the cutest flat sandals I could find without something between my toes.), summer weight/light colored ballet flats, winter-weight ballet flats, and black tall boots. Hiking boots, tennis shoes, and my bike shoes do not count.


6 pair.


Right now, I don’t need a lot. Raincoat, lightweight wool winter coat, and whatever heavy coat is still in my closet for traveling.


3. I could combine my raincoat and my lightweight coat into one trench, but they’re both really nice and I already own them.


Final number: 39. 

It’s vaguely tempting to box everything else up and see what happens.

Fashion, revisited

I did something quite uncharacteristic and fell down a Reddit rabbit hole this week.

Specifically, what they call “French Fashion” The principle here is that you buy five items of clothing per season, aside from basics, for a total of ten items per year. (Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter are grouped.) You, in the end, have a core wardrobe+a few things to freshen it up.

See threads HERE and HERE for more explanation. (excuse the caps. On my screen, my link text is visually identical to my non-link text, and I’m too cheap to pay the upgrade for my theme.)

The comments are a bizarre mix of comical and deeply useful, roughly in proportion to the age of the commenter. (IE, there seem to be a disproportionately high number of girls who have only yesterday stopped wearing leggings and Uggs every day, but there are also some legit grownups.) Worth reading with a large pinch of salt.

An acquaintance who shopped this way for years said it was actually exhausting–your basics get so much wear that you spend an inordinate amount of time replacing them, and good basics are in fact somewhat challenging to find. Still, its an interesting formula.

There are two critical terms that the threads seem deeply resistant to defining. The first is quality. Understandably, with so many of the respondents just leaving college, there’s a sense of “anything is better than GAP/Urban Outfitters.” If you want a more detailed discussion of quality, I like the series HERE. Look around for her “I have nothing to wear” flowchart while you’re there. Fascinating.

The more amorphous point of all this is what defines “basic.” I few enumerated lists I found suggest that things like white T-shirt dresses are awesome staples (this person obviously knows underwear secrets that I do not) and that no wardrobe is complete without denim shorts. Cutoffs, even. To which I say better you than me.

I’ve struggled a bit with defining (not to mention buying) basics, anyway, especially as I have gotten older and my hair is no longer gloriously, perfectly auburn. Read: I am, in classic redhead style, becoming a faded brunette with a hefty dose of grey in my early 30s. Mother nature giveth, and mother nature taketh away. This means my ability to wear black near my face is rapidly diminishing. (If I really loved black, I would wear it anyway, but I don’t.) In a perfect world, I would own grey and navy instead, but tell that to the people who manufacture women’s clothes.

I started writing out my list of basics here, but, man, I am verbose when I am writing-as-thinking. Come back for that half tomorrow.


Letting It Go

There are fifty books in a pile in my floor.

These aren’t just any books–they’re the books that used to be my identity. My whole world. Every anxiety. Every dream.

In short, my teaching materials and my dissertation research.

I wrote, by the way, a great dissertation, about a culturally relevant topic that I still care deeply about. I finished graduate school promptly on time, with the requisite checkboxes checked. If I’d done it ten years earlier, I would have a successful academic career now. But I didn’t, and I don’t. Honestly, I have very few regrets.

It’s taken me a long time to let go of this huge physical presence, though. How much of my past can I excise, without it being too much? Can I get rid of this stuff, without fracturing myself in some incurable way?

Today, the answer was finally YES.


Textiles that Mattered

Interrupting my regularly scheduled non-photographic musings to bring you Antique Dolly’s long lost clothes:

Antique doll's original (?) clothes

Antique Dolly belonged to an elderly relative, distant enough that I’m not sure how old Dolly really is. My father’s oldest sister, who is considerably older, married an older man. Dolly belonged to either his mother or his grandmother.

I’m not sure if these clothes are her originals. I’m honestly not even sure if her china torso, arms, and feet are attached to her original body. The clothes are mostly made by machine, but the mismatched lace trims–surely scraps from other projects–suggest it was done at home. The pleats were sewn into the fabric before it was cut to shape. The clothes go off and on with a very simple drawstring, so I doubt that Dolly had many suits. Given that she was wearing pantaloons, two petticoats, and a skirt, but only one layer of blouse, I suspect that a jacket was lost at some point. Her jaunty red ribbons are so tattered and fragile that I can’t tell how many there even are.

Dolly herself now wears a replica suit in pink satin, sewed by the aunt who passed the doll along to me.

Doll clothes

For a long time I couldn’t find the original clothes, but today an old decorative box on top of a bookshelf caught my eye, and there they were.

If sewing interests you at all, click through to my Flickr feed for many more details.

May Tracking

I mentioned last month that I’m keeping a closer eye on our recycling output (our trash is not minimal by zero-waste standards, but I’m comfortable with it) and our electrical usage. Here’s the update for May:

May 2014 electrical usage: 879 kWh.

May 2013 electrical usage: 823 kWh.

Average temperature for the month was exactly the same. Since last May we’ve purchased a small upright freezer, estimated to require 25-30 kWh of electricity per month. Even with that, though, it’s a small bump in the wrong direction.

Our recycling numbers did not drop from the March level, but they also didn’t increase. That’s nice, since our more active summer schedules can mean an uptick in food-in-boxes.


I’ve been compulsively reading this beautiful blog featuring Japanese folk textiles. Many of these items are mended on top of mending on top of mending–a legacy of rural poverty but also of a culture and an era that disliked waste. When you harvested, spun, wove, and died fibers yourself, fabric was a precious thing.

Economies around the world adopted mechanized spinning and weaving at different paces. In England middle- and upper-class women had completely outsourced making woven fabric by the mid-1830s (in pre-industrial England, weaving was usually sent to a skilled tradesman, but threads were spun at home.) Other European countries held on to skilled weaving a bit longer, especially in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Asia is sadly outside of my historical purview, for now. There are various hand spinning and weaving (or knitting) cultures that still exist today, although a culture would need to be quite remote to subsist on 100% locally hand-produced fabric.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried spinning, but it is not fast. A good hobby spinner with a wheel might turn out a few hundred yards of wool knitting yarn–which is much heavier than most weaving yarn–in a day. Wool is the easiest fiber to spin. Cotton spinning is considered too tedious and technical for most people who are spinning by choice. This article lays out some of the process of preparing and spinning linen fiber. Hemp and linen have the added bonus of being hard on your hands, at every stage. Knitting from a commercially prepared linen yarn leaves red gouges in my fingers; I can’t imagine spinning it. The spinning wheel is, by the way, a vast speed improvement over the older (but concurrently used, and still used by many indigenous fiber cultures) drop spindle.

And that’s one phase of fabric production. There’s a reason time is so commonly envisioned as a thread.

The fact that modern women in industrialized societies can live their entire lives without doing any part of fabric or clothing production is literally stunning when you put it in a historical context. We’ve picked it up as a hobby, of course, but for our entire clothed history, minus the last two hundred years, making and processing fabric was the primary job of almost every woman in clothes-wearing cultures.

Not only do we not make clothes, we don’t maintain them once we have them. Darning, patching, and mending are skills that are even rarer than spinning, knitting, and weaving. Many modern fabrics aren’t even really capable of being mended, and are in fact designed to be worn for only a short time. I’m looking at you, Lycra that looses its stretch after a year.

I’m not in a hurry to make all of my own clothes, don’t get me wrong. This is just food for thought in our culture that throws away prodigious quantities of textiles every year. If that shirt represented a month of your life, instead of $15, would you do something besides put it in the trash bin? Would you have bought it in the first place?

Circling the Mall

I had to take my car in for major repairs last week. This required driving my husband from the mechanic to his job, and then killing time all day until I could go pick him up. We didn’t know for several hours that the repairs were as extensive as they turned out to be, or I could have wound up somewhere besides an anonymous strip mall. As it was, I found myself needing to recreationally shop. The very largest of big-box stores were open before 9AM; nothing else was.

As I meandered the aisles of Big Box Store That Shall Remain Nameless, I was increasingly depressed. I didn’t need anything. I didn’t even want anything. Everything that I looked at on the shelf basically jumped up and down proclaiming itself to be junk. And not only junk, but junk made at high human and environmental cost. In the end, I bought a new LED lightbulb to replace our lone holdout incandescent and a tube of Arnica gel. I don’t know how much I needed either of those things, but it was just weird.

Afterwards, I sat in my car, drinking the coffee I’d brought from home. It was a delicate math–“How long can I sit here before parking lot security comes to get me?” When I felt like I was pushing the envelope, I went down to the next store. It turns out, there’s nowhere to sit in the suburbs.

Two days later I found myself at that glorious American Mecca, the Indoor Shopping Mall. It was Saturday, and we’d gotten delayed until the place was packed. We bought two things that could just as easily have been purchased online–a computer cable and a dress shirt for my husband–but the shirt needed to be tried on and it seemed silly to ship things that I could buy after a ten minute drive.

There was an element of pointless torture in all of this. At the same time, though, I think it’s valuable to not completely displace oneself from consumer culture. I could have ordered my lightbulb and my arnica gel and my computer cable from Amazon.com, and they would have been here in two days. I wouldn’t have needed to brave the horror that is a busy Apple store on a Saturday. It’s kidding yourself, though, to say that by purchasing things online you aren’t participating in the Saturday mall crush or helping to build that strip of suburban big-box stores. It’s just a secondary distancing from the uncomfortable parts.

I would never dare to suggest that you go to the mall regularly. After all, the danger of recreational shopping is that you buy things you don’t need, and one does value sanity. But, I think it’s a worthwhile insight to drop in from time to time.

And the other question:

The other thing that we should be asking ourselves, as people who are easily outraged by deforestation/extinction/the virtual enslavement of developing nations/the oppression of the poor in our own country:

How am I complicit in that? 

Because we are.

The Question That Haunts Me

It isn’t a big thing. There are big questions, of course, and small ones. But mostly, this one:

Why do we (I) often let ourselves (myself) live so far from our own values?

I know a family who considers themselves to be devout Christians. Church three times a week, homeschooling, all that. And the Dad drives a Mercedes Benz sports car. I want to jump up and down and scream–what do they even preach in your church?

But I don’t, because I do the same things. I justify my consumer excesses because, compared to a lot of women, they aren’t that bad. I haven’t bought a pair of shoes in a year. I never eat fast food. I rarely buy chocolate. I still buy, buy, buy, though, even while my ideologies lean toward the minimalist and the environmentally-conscious.

I’m not good at separating need from want about the small things. Do I need the fancy beeswax-infused alternative-plastic-wrap I ordered last week? How about the fourth kind of sunscreen I’ve tried this year? Stress-relieving bubble bath? A new blouse, because they were on sale and my nice clothes are getting old? That bottle of perfume that I’ve been eyeing for the last six months? A new tube of lipstick, in this season’s color?  The stuff I threw in with my hair product, to justify the price of shipping?

I think I need a new question for shopping. Need/want obviously doesn’t work well for me–I’m an over thinker; I can talk myself in and out of anything. How about Is this the way I want to live?