Day Twenty-Six: The Real Challenge

I’ve gone back to work. It’s been a while, I’ll say, and I’m finding it awkward to manage. It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I did more than pick up three or four things at the grocery store. My dining room table is covered with random things. My couch smells a little dog-y.

It’s time to remember the priorities: Eating well. Keeping things roughly in order. Enjoying my job. Exercising. Playing with the dog.

And time to let go of that other stuff: Making the perfect grocery list. Cleaning all of the things. Having dinner right on time. Doing all the laundry on the same day.

Day 20: Consuming Simplicity

Something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is buying one’s way to minimalism. Magazines want you to simplify your life by purchasing this New! Fantastic! organizational gimmick, or to (like I touched on in my last post) replace all of your current, inefficient belongings with new, simpler, better belongings.

Just take a look at, for instance, this set of images from Martha Stewart.

So beautiful! So simple! So expensive!

It isn’t too hard to resist Martha–after all, all but the most die-hard of her fans are often off-put by her excess–but the temptation is always there. When we think about organizing the closet, we think about buying boxes. When we think about cleaning out the pantry, we think about new canisters and bins. There are entire stores devoted to “helping” you with expensive closet racks and shelves.

The truth is, as we all know, that you can’t organize away too-muchness. Owning too many things is owning too many things, pretty boxes or no.

The trick to it is that sometimes those bins/boxes/shelves really are darned handy. My pantry wouldn’t work half so well without some under-shelf baskets. My spice cabinet is terrible even after an extra shelf, and really needs a door-mounted rack. It’s a line that needs constant policing for me, though. It’s easy to think that a box/shelf/label/cabinet can save you, when, at best, it can buy you a little time. But at what price?

Day Fourteen: Minimalizing

Today I cleaned out the closet. I always have issues cleaning out the closet. Not hoarding issues, or keeping things that are obviously useless, but there seem to be a lot of grey areas. Some of these are pretty typical “girl” stuff. Like, “Those pants are one size too big. But, until six months ago, I’d been wearing them for three years. Chances are that I’ll need them again.” Or, “This dress shows off my stomach pudge. Maybe I’ll do more crunches.” I think those things are hard-wired in to the process, because I’m not generally the kind of person who worries about the number on my pants tag. (Which would be crazy, because I have four different sizes of pants that all fit the same. For the record, I kept the slightly-too-big pants and got rid of the pudge dress.)

The real thing that I can’t get around is a psychological conflict that goes something like this: I admire minimalist closets. You know, like they show in those pictures from magazines, in articles like “Your 12 Wardrobe Essentials” or “Dress for Success with Eight Outfits.” Whenever I think, “Today is the Day! I’ll do the closet!” I’m hit with two realizations that stop me in my tracks.

First, I do not wear just one type of clothes. I have professional clothes that I wear, at this point in my life, only a few days a week. I have clothes to wear running errands. I have clothes to wear sitting on the couch with the dog. There’s a certain age where you can wear your business attire out to weekend lunch. I’m not there yet, nor am I going to wear a  cardigan and a silk blouse on a day that I don’t leave home. I’ve never had a knack for dressing things up/down.

More to the point (and this leads directly to point two): I already own these clothes, and most of them are really nice. Why would I get rid of really nice clothes, that I like and have uses for, just so I can own fewer clothes? At a certain point, too many clothes perpetuates itself forever. There’s a deadly trifecta of 1) buying quality clothes 2) being gentle on your clothes and 3) owning a lot of clothes. The combination means that nothing you buy ever wears out, so there is never a concrete reason to get rid of anything. Unfortunately it’s a state that sneaks up on a person.

So, maybe closet minimalism isn’t my natural state. I think I did fairly well, though, and I can always aspire. I’ve cut my clothes purchasing significantly back over the last two years, and I’m promising myself that I will watch what I’m wearing very carefully for the next little while. If I put something on and discover any kind of problem with it, from “this isn’t really a good color for me” to “these pants are really a little short,” it’s going. Life is too short to spend it frozen in closet indecision.

Day Eight: Weekend Recap

This weekend I was in the cooking zone. Pickles, yogurt, scones, cookies, granola bars, and a few other things. Plus the regular meals. Turns out, going to the farmers’ market (where on earth does that apostrophe go, anyway? Lots of people don’t bother. Multiple farmers at one market should be farmers’. But what about the market I used two cities ago, which was one farmer? Is this the reason we’ve dropped it?) was very inspirational. No wonder people go!

It also turns out that when you bake cookies for the first big work meeting of the new year, people are too busy watching their waist-lines to eat them. Their loss. My gingersnaps (really, Dorie Greenspan’s Gingerbread Crackles) are something.

Today I’ll confess that I’m watching mindless daytime TV, for the first time since I resolved otherwise. But the weather has been insane, and I need to keep the dog from fixating on it. I’m finding it . . . distracting. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to either the quiet or the noise.

Day Seven: Farmers Market and Pickles

It was high time to revisit the local market. We live within an easy walk, for goodness’ sake. Pickings were so slim with the summer drought that we stopped going. As we discovered yesterday, that’s all over now. Thanks to mild temperatures and insane amounts of sunshine, the farmers are growing everything they couldn’t in the summer, plus more. The usual winter squashes and greens made a lively appearance, to be sure, but there were more tomatoes than I saw all summer. We even bought a (sadly disappointing) basket of strawberries.

Our total take home was:
Swiss chard
Garlic
Turnips (don’t knock them until you’ve had tiny turnips sliced thin and sauteed in maple syrup)
Strawberries
Dill
Cucumbers
Eggs
Butternut Squash
and maybe another odd or end.

I was pretty pleased. I’m especially interested in the eggs. I’ve been buying humanely-raised supermarket eggs since we moved here, and I’m wondering how much difference there will be. I used to buy farmers market eggs just because I liked the egg guy, who was a young “tough guy” type that stood out in the market like you wouldn’t believe. I never paid particular attention to the quality of those eggs versus my store eggs.

Then I came home and turned those cucumbers into pickles. I’ve never made them before, but I was feeling pretty confident after the marmalade thing. I tasted the first one just now. They aren’t quite as dill-y as I like my pickles, but they’re darned good. I’m putting both the pickles and the marmalade on a list of potential homemade Christmas gifts for this year.

And if that weren’t enough, I also tried making my first yogurt. (Have I mentioned feeling inspired lately?) It’s not bad. And, again, easy enough to make. I was worried that I didn’t have a great way to keep it up to temperature, but I managed. Next time I’ll try to actually document the process. It is a little lumpy, probably because my starter yogurt was also lumpy. I’ll try a different brand in the future. You certainly can’t beat the price–$1.25 for a quart of milk, plus about that much for a container of fancy-ish yogurt yielded a whole quart. That’s 32 oz for $2.25. In individual cups, with the kind of yogurt we buy, 32 oz is more like $6-$7.

 

Day 5: The Day Off

Today I took the day off from my electronics. I didn’t mean to, really. But the wireless was weird all day and I forgot to watch even Martha Stewart, my one “daytime TV” indulgence. Instead, I read 250 pages of The Old Curiosity Shop (and if ever there were a way to scramble your brains, it is packing that much Dickens into 8 hours). I tidied up. I played with the dog. I had afternoon tea, with the most delicious orange to ever pass my lips. Seriously. I looked through a cookbook and noted some new recipes to try. I sorted out the memory card issue I was having with my camera. I went for a run, though I took my iPod for that.

I did check my e-mail a few times with my phone, but mostly I was disconnected. I survived just fine. Moreover, it was  really, really nice. The day stretched to an almost infinite length, wherein I got real stuff done. I found myself doing those things with more attention, too, when there was no TV in the background or simultaneous Twitter-checking. I’m sensing a very real commitment for the future.

Who knew?

Day Three: The Grocery Experiment

As a way to trim a little fluff from the budget, today I took a list of our typical groceries to all the neighborhood stores. We’re equidistant from three: a regular-old grocery, a Whole Foods, and one that’s something in between, with mostly Whole Foods level products. I had a gut feeling that we were probably not doing ourselves justice with the way we usually shop, and I wanted to check it out.

Two hours and three stores later, and there was no stunning moment of truth. Produce was much cheaper at the regular market, but the quality varied a lot. Some things were just as good, some things weren’t. My beloved brand of canned tomatoes are cheaper at Whole Foods. Flour is cheapest at the in-between store. Still, the total list price for buying the whole list at one store varies by $6, $3.00 of which is attributable to putting down (I think) the price for regular oatmeal at one store and organic at the next. If I were to run all over town, getting the cheapest items from each store, I could save $4-$7. These aren’t things that I need *all* of every week, so the savings would in fact be less.

I did leave off some obvious things that we can only get from one place or the other, and quite a few of our household staples weren’t available at the regular store. (For the record, I don’t cook meat, aside from the very occasional fish, which would probably have altered the results a good bit.) This is also leaving aside the point that easily turns Whole Foods into “Whole Paycheck”: where can you resist temptation? Is it a whole stack of processed cookies that gets you, or a bottle of top-notch vinegar? I’m an excellent by-the-list shopper.

And what, you might ask, does all this over-thinking and running around have to do with slower living? Quite simply, this: it isn’t worth beating myself up over. If I’m out of flour, and I’m not at the “right” store, I can just take a breath and let it go.

Day Two: Making Marmalade

I’ve been intrigued by canning things for a while. Little sauces and jellies and pickles, oh my. Not that I know how. My grandmother was a pro, but she brooked no interference from children. New Year’s fervor coupled with a drawer of grapefruit led me to this recipe from Nigella Lawson.

Combined with the practical tips from Sherri Brooks Vinton’s Put ‘Em Up and two trips for kitchen supplies (oops), the recipe yielded 8 tiny jars of marmalade. So cute! I almost don’t care that it tastes good. The stuff left in the pot tasted nice, and the jars sealed, so now the only question is whether it set properly.

I learned a few things from the marmalade. First, canning isn’t as intimidating as I expected. It is, however, more time consuming. I figured that beyond cooking the grapefruit forever, it wouldn’t take all that long. I was wrong. Also, even in my fairly well-stocked kitchen, anything besides jam may take some additional equipment. I’m not sure I have a pot big enough for a rack+pint jars+2″ of water.

I like to think that this is the beginning of things to come.