Day Two Hundred and Five: Routine and Not-so

This week I switched coffee creamer. I decided to cut way back on the amount of dairy I eat, more as an experiment than anything else. This meant trading in my half-and-half for a non-dairy substitute. Right now, it’s coconut milk based. It tastes fine. I won’t be effusive in its praises, but it works. The problem is, it’s heavier than my coffee, and unless I stir it it sinks to the bottom of the cup. Stirring coffee, however, is something that I gave up ages ago, when one morning I woke up and found the thought of sugar in my coffee deeply disturbing. Now, I cannot remember to stir my coffee before I get as far away from the kitchen as possible. Looking at my woefully unstirred coffee has me thinking about routines.

I’m a creature of habit. Most people are, I dare say, and most of us experience a jolt of some kind when we vary from what we consider our normal routines. Sometimes this is a good thing. My automatic, completely thoughtless clipping of my seatbelt is great. Sometimes it isn’t. Most self-improvement resolutions either want to eject elements from a routine (say, smoking a cigarette after dinner, or watching too much TV) or to add something new (exercising, writing letters, going to the dentist). The problem is that the pure routine-ness of routine makes this incredibly difficult. Routines work for us because we don’t think about them, and change requires thought.

When I was in graduate school, I made a scheduling mistake that meant I needed to be on campus at 8am five days a week. I was struggling to get on my 7:20 bus. At the time coffee was giving me terrible headaches, but I couldn’t go cold-turkey on the caffeine. A few weeks into the semester I bought a teapot. And suddenly, I had a new routine. If I wanted time to make my tea and drink it from my favorite teacup, I needed to be awake earlier. And that was that. I was even able to switch to the earlier bus, getting out of the commuter crush and arriving to campus blissfully serene. Alas, waking up at 5:30 did not become a permanent part of my routine, but I did learn that I would rather have more time in the morning to do my own thing than more sleep. (Truth time: I have an envy that borders on loathing for people who naturally wake up early. Somehow I’m a morning person who struggles to get out of bed, making it very easy to sleep through my favorite part of the day.)

“Improving” a routine is often hard work. Without little mileposts of habit, it’s easy to feel adrift, and adding new elements feels invasive. The teapot example interests me, both because it’s one of the few times that I changed an entire routine almost instantly and because it hinged on a tangible object. To the extent that I can draw generalized wisdom from it, I suppose it’s an example of the fact that substitution (tea > sleep) is easier than creating new behavior out of the air. But mostly I’m just musing.


Day Two Hundred and Four: Sewing Misadventures

Part of the intention behind this blog was embracing a more DIY approach to things whenever I could. Combine that with my ethos as exposed in the last post, and sometimes you get a basket of mending.

I’ll confess here that my husband usually does the fine mending work. The kind of little pinholes and tiny tears that you get in knitted T-shirts and such are entirely his domain. I do heavier knits and anything that needs the sewing machine.

At the beginning of the summer, we bought a light cotton bedspread to replace our winter duvet. One of those woven numbers that your grandmother probably had. The first night it was on the bed, the dog chewed a hole in it. A ragged 1.5″ square hole, almost right in the middle. The patch on this thing could be no little thing, either, because the dog has a touch of OCD. Once he’s chewed something, it becomes irresistible. If one little ragged yarn edge showed, I might as well have not bothered.

Step one: extract patch material from a bottom corner of the spread.
Step two: laboriously hand-sew the patch on, through a thick fabric, while tucking under all the edges. (Bonus points for sewing through another piece of fabric and having to back up several stitches.)
Step three: Hand-overcast the edges.
Step four: Come down to the sewing machine. Re-sew the hem, which I can’t do very well because of my tiny, underpowered sewing machine. This means sewing a tiny hem to keep the edges from raveling then sewing a half-inch hem to match the rest of the blanket. The first time I sewed the second hem without folding the first one under. Add 15 minutes of seam ripping.
Step five: hand-sew the thick edges of the hem, where the machine won’t go. They look a little rough, but the job is done.
Step six: zig-zag stitch over the entire patch, to control the tangle of blanket threads on the back. A lot of these are still intact, so it makes more sense to keep them than to cut them.
Step seven: step back, and admire work. From an appropriate distance, it looks great.
Step eight: realize that my carefully crafted hem is on the opposite side of the blanket from my carefully crafted patch. All my beautiful work will never be visible at the same time. Instead, from one side you’ll see my lovely hem, complete with a sewed-down ragged mass of threads. From the other, you’ll see my really excellent patch, then my awkward hand-sewn, slightly crooked hem.

No wonder Americans don’t do more mending.

Day Two Hundred and Two: Buying “Green”

Last night I was flipping through a magazine that I’ll call green-lite. It’s a genre that I’m increasingly frustrated with. Article after article, page after page, suggested, either overtly or not, that all I needed for a more environmentally-conscious and stress-free life was to buy ALL NEW THINGS. Never was it suggested that, just maybe, since the environmental damage of my old items is already done, the best way to ameliorate that damage might be to use them until they actually need replacing.

I understand that purchasing things is an ethical morass. What to own/how many to own/what compromises are acceptable. I find it very difficult, though, to accept the idea of carte blanche to own unlimited things, as long as they’re “green.” Even more problematic is the fact that most of these items are more “green-washed” than actually eco-friendly.

I think the thing that frustrates me the most is that educated consumers have a battery of defense mechanisms to resist the tactics of, say, Vogue. In fact, I’m guessing that the average reader of this kind of “green” magazine is well-trained to spot photoshopped models and scoffs at the blatant consumerism of a Fendi bag. But, LOOK! Recycled shoes! Cute reusable shopping bags! A PVC-free yoga mat! What can possibly be wrong with buying that?!

Day One Hundred and Eighty-Nine: Consumables

Yesterday I watched one of those internet train wrecks, wherein an intelligent and articulate group of women devolved into shrieking children over the number of lipsticks one person should own. The question at the center of the debate seems fair enough: what is the line between owning too many things and not owning enough? Of course, that’s a question with a hundred individual variables. Financial considerations and tendencies toward/away from minimalism seem the most pertinent, but even those aren’t cut and dried.

Complex personal variables aside, one side of this argument fascinates me. It attracts my attention because it’s the same argument I see happening amongst knitters about how much yarn a person should own. The two sides here break down roughly into: “I buy only things I can use, and my goal is to use things up.” and “This is a collection, and it makes me happy. My goal is to surround myself with beautiful items.” The use-it-up side often expresses the idea that love is use. For them, loving a skein of yarn means turning it into a beautiful sweater you wear every chance you can, or wearing a lipstick so often that you use the entire tube. The it’s-a-collection side has a more purely emotional definition. Loving something, for them, means that its mere existence makes them happy.

For something that is exclusively collectible, this debate doesn’t exist. While doll collectors, for instance, might quibble about how much money it’s fair to spend, other collectors don’t object that one has more porcelain dolls than one can play with. That is, the definition-of-love debate doesn’t exist, or certainly not in the same way.

A second problem with collecting consumables, like yarn or makeup, is the very idea that they are consumable. Some people have/can let go of that entire idea, and some haven’t/won’t. I’ll switch my example to knitting, now, because this is more my area of expertise. I, personally, stopped buying yarn years ago, because I realized that for me the “yarn stash” felt more like a really long to-do list than a joyful source of inspiration. I bought things with a use in mind, and not putting it to that use in a timely manner was causing me anxiety. Yarn buying, for me, is not like buying a porcelain doll; it’s like buying a head of lettuce and then watching it rot in the crisper drawer. This kind of anxiety about not using things up adds a level of guilt that makes discussions of “collecting” very fraught. “I wish I hadn’t bought so many things, because I feel guilty that I don’t use them” very quickly turns outwards, to “I don’t think anyone ought to own so much,” which in the sandbox that is the internet gets reduced further to “you disgust me.”

We also have a much more sophisticated cultural pathology for collecting than for its opposite. The less-is-more side has a rhetorical advantage, given to them by everyone from Suze Orman to Hoarders. We are a culture of consumers, so we are hyper-attuned to consumption. When someone gets rid of everything they own to travel the world with exactly 100 items, very few people stop to question the psychological or practical utility. Owning 100,000 items seems to make one a “hoarder” much more quickly than owning 100 makes one obsessive-compulsive. (Which is far from the opposite of hoarding, but I think the lack of a clear vocabulary proves my point.) In fact, most people in my acquaintance have a mild kind of envy that those 100-items people can “let it all go and be free.”

The pat solution in these arguments is always offered as “do what makes you happy, and let other people do the same.” Which is both true and kind, but, as with all questions of “happiness,” it masks a cultural problem that is worth examining.

Day One Hundred and Eighty-Seven: A Blog Without Pictures

When I started writing here, I assumed that eventually I would start to post pictures. The initial posts didn’t really require them, but I imagined that I would get around to taking knitting pictures, or food pictures, or something. Instead, I’m finding it incredibly nice not to have the pressure. It also means that I don’t have any readers, but I don’t mind. I mostly come here to work through things in my own head.

I think that people put a lot of pressure on themselves. (I almost typed “women,” but I think men do it just as much, although often in different ways.) And in blogging, that pressure comes out in pictures. I’m not a great photographer, but I do okay. I don’t have a fancy camera, nor is that where I want to spend my money.

Far more importantly, I just don’t care about carefully curating my life into photo frames. My rental kitchen gets the job done, but it isn’t photogenic. I have a hideous patio. I do not have a house full of painstakingly-selected, charming furniture. One of my most prized knickknacks is Darth Tater (that’s Mr. Potato Head, in a Darth Vader outfit. I adore a pun turned visual.), who sits on the mantel. I neither have nor long for a yard full of children, attractive or otherwise.

I read a lot of domestic blogs with great pictures. If you’re here, you probably read them, too. And as primarily a reader I find them to be increasingly similar. See remarks above, re: charming thrift shop furniture, well-lit kitchens, quirky knickknacks, appropriately blurry pictures of sweet children. That is, I think that the aesthetic standard of the moment is corralling people into a certain way of framing themselves (literally) in their blogs. When you blog about your *life,* that’s a particularly insidious pattern, and one that makes me deeply uncomfortable.

I think I’ll stick to my not-quite-thousand words instead.