Monday, November 26, 2012

Simplifying isn't that simple

[cue music] It's the most ludicrous time of the year....

A friend of mine, in an invitation to his mid-December game party, did a pretty good job of summing up the frenzy that marks the "holiday season" for most Americans:
It is Christmas shopping season.  The shoppers are at the mall in droves, screaming their car horns at the pedestrians to make them hurry and free up a parking space.  The housewives are clobbering each other in fights over this year's incarnation of the Beanie Baby.  People are yelling at each other for wishing them a "Happy Holiday" instead of a "Merry Christmas" (or vice versa).  People are putting up enormous Santa balloons in their yards, bigger than my house, and somehow believing they look cute.  What could possibly be more insane than the way people behave at this time of year?
Of course, there are, as always, those who oppose the relentless commercialism of the holiday. Some of these are religious Christians trying to refocus the holiday on its spiritual meaning; others are environmentalists who want to reduce the waste associated with the holiday; and still others are cash-strapped folks looking for ways to have something left in their wallets when the New Year rolls around. The most recent "InBalance" newsletter from the Center for the New American Dream contained the group's annual exhortation from to "Simplify the Holidays," with a list of 15 ideas for cutting back on the number and cost of gifts, reducing paper waste, and finding more meaningful ways to celebrate. And last week's mail brought a copy of the Green American featuring the headline "Go Green for the Holidays," with articles on:
  • how to throw a Fair Trade house party. This is like a Tupperware party, only with handwoven baskets, jewelry, woolens and other items that are perfect for the holidays because no one actually needs them.
  • how to "green" holiday traditions like the Yule log (get a clean-burning Duraflame or Java-Log instead) and gift wrapping (choose reusable bags, fabric scraps, or newspaper comics).
  • whether a live or a synthetic tree is more eco-friendly. (Spoiler: decorating an outdoor tree or a live, potted tree is better than either.)
  • 6 "really terrible" gift ideas, including PVC plastic toys and anything wrapped in that incredibly annoying clamshell plastic that's all but impossible to get open and, once open, goes straight into the trash.
  • green gifts and traditions, like giving secondhand gifts, giving gifts of homemade food or body-care products, or "giving the gift of time" by extending invitations to friends and family.
In principle, I agree with all of these ideas. But when I think about putting them into practice, I always come up against some kind of roadblock. For example, I'd love to reduce packaging waste by wrapping gifts in fabric or reusable bags—but knowing the way Christmas Day tends to go down at my in-laws' house, I'm sure this theoretically sustainable packaging would just end up being tossed in the trash with all the rest of the wrappings. (We are already bucking the trend by saving the paper from our own presents so that the intact parts can be reused next year—much to the amusement of the rest of the family.)

Buying secondhand gifts is another idea I love in principle, as it's not only cheaper but reduces waste and energy use as well. In practice, though, I can never seem to get more than about 30 percent of our gifts this way. This year, as Thanksgiving approached, I thought we were in pretty good shape gift-wise; our yard-sale, book-sale, and Freecycle finds had yielded at least one secondhand gift for nearly everyone on Brian's side of the family, so I figured we'd just have to fill in with a few new items for my family members. But then reality kicked in. The gift lists submitted to us by the family members we hadn't yet shopped for were highly specific, and none of the items on them could be found secondhand. Moreover, most of the small items we'd already acquired ended up being deemed too small to be given as the sole gift, so we had to buy more stuff even for the folks I thought were already covered. Thus, within the past couple of weeks, both the number of presents and the total spent have nearly doubled.

Part of the problem is the sheer volume of gifts. This bothers me not just because of the expense—in fact, I honestly think it's not even primarily because of the expense—but because the more presents you give or receive, the less attention you can pay to any one of them. I would much rather receive only one present that's the right present, the one present that's just what I wanted (or better yet, just what I never knew I wanted until I saw it), than a dozen presents that are just okay—chosen by a dozen people, or half a dozen, who clearly picked them out because they had to get me something. And I would, all cost considerations aside, much rather give one present and have it be noticed and appreciated than give a dozen and have them be glanced at and tossed aside in the rush to get through the two-hour-long Rite of Opening.

Wouldn't it be nice, I mused to Brian one night, if we could just decide to give only presents that we truly believed the recipient would really, really love? And if we didn't happen to find a present that a given person would really love, we could just not give one, and know that there would be no hard feelings? Wouldn't it be great not have to worry about just finding something for every single person on our list? (You might think the easiest way to cut down on the shopping, and the associated worrying, would be to reduce the size of the list itself—but even if gift-giving were limited to the immediate family, that would still include 20 people: me, my husband, our parents, our siblings, their spouses, and their kids. And some of those people have birthdays in December as well, increasing the total number of presents still more.)

Alas, I fear this idea is no more than a pipe dream. Like reusable wrappings, the practice of giving presents selectively would probably be too foreign to the Christmastime culture of the family. Those who didn't get something would probably notice, and would probably feel hurt. And I guess, when all's said and done, it's better to put up with a bit of pre-holiday stress than to have hurt feelings at Christmastime. I just wish that there were some way to avoid both.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sins of the Frugal

Bless me, frugal friends, for I have sinned.

This Monday, I went to Target and I... I... [sobs] I paid full price for everything.

Actually, I don't feel as bad as all that about it. Everything we bought was something that we definitely needed: some long johns for me, socks for Brian, and a bag of coffee. None of these is an item that we were very likely to find secondhand, and the prices for all of them were reasonable. It's conceivable that we might have been able to find all three for less online, but we might have had to pay for shipping and would definitely have had to wait for them to arrive, rather than being able to use them right away.

So this was not what most people would consider a wild, heedless shopping spree. In fact, it's exactly what most people would consider a perfectly normal, routine shopping trip...which is precisely what makes it so unusual for us. Because we almost never buy anything, aside from groceries and other consumables, without carefully researching it first: comparing prices, looking for sales, and finally making our purchase only when we feel pretty sure we've found the best deal. So when I waltz casually into a big box store and just toss the things I need in my basket and swipe my card and walk out again, I feel like I've just done something terribly reckless—perhaps even a little bit wicked.

All of which, I guess, is simply proof of how close I live to what Amy Dacyczyn (all hail the Frugal Zealot) called "the edge of the great abyss of skinflintian compulsion." And that's okay—it's good that I make it my normal practice to be mindful about spending, and I don't make a habit of running out to the store every other night for something that, upon further consideration, I might be able to do without. I just need to remind myself every once in a while to stay on the sane side of the line.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Blessings large and small

It's once again that time of year when we reflect, in between bites of turkey and cranberries, on all the things we have to be thankful for. This year, I obviously have one really big cause for gratitude in the fact that Brian and I got off so lightly from "Superstorm" Sandy. More than 100 Americans died as a result of this storm; hundreds of homes were destroyed; here in our own town, many residents were without power for a week in the middle of a cold snap. Here, we were without power for less than 48 hours; our only losses were a pint of milk (which might actually have been still drinkable, but we didn't risk it) and a crotchety old inkjet printer that was on its last legs anyway. No question, we got off cheap.

Yet it occurred to me, as I was taking a shower the other day, that there are a powerful lot of much smaller blessings that it's easy to overlook because we're so used to them. I can take a hot shower every single day if I want to, and dry off with the biggest, fluffiest towel IKEA has to offer. That's a luxury that even the richest of the rich couldn't have imagined just a few hundred years ago, and that would be beyond the dreams of millions of the world's people even today. Yet most days, I don't even pause to think about how lucky I am to be able to enjoy it.

So this year, my Thanksgiving list is going to focus on the little things—the small blessings it's all too easy to take for granted. By focusing my attention on them for this one day, maybe I can help myself be more aware of them on every other day. So....

I'm thankful that simply by flipping a switch, we can have more than enough light to read, cook, play, and (if necessary) work long past sundown.

I'm thankful that, no matter how much I complain about being cold in my office even with four layers of clothing on, I do actually have the option of turning up the heat if I really need to.

I'm thankful that we not only have plenty of food to eat, but plenty of delicious food to eat every day of the week. (Recent meals include pasta a la Caprese, made with the last of our tomato crop, and homemade chicken pot pie, made with humanely raised chicken.)

I'm thankful that Brian's job provides us with good health insurance at an affordable cost.

I'm thankful that we have the biggest library in history—which is also the world's biggest shopping mall, movie theaterroad atlas, news source, and a veritable gold mine of bizarre facts and other diversions—at our fingertips.

I'm thankful that we have enough money to feel no guilt about discarding a pint of so-called chocolate-peppermint coffee creamer, a "seasonal item" that I was initially thrilled to find for a buck fifty at the Aldi, only to discover upon tasting it that I could discern no trace of either chocolate or peppermint in the flavor and the mouthfeel was a bit like melted Crisco. (And I'm positively gleeful that I was able to replace it, today, with a pint of Bailey's coffee creamer—normally $2.59 at the Stop & Shop, on sale this week for $1.50, a mere 50 cents with my dollar-off coupon, and 45 cents after deducting a nickel for our reusable shopping bag.)

I'm thankful that, with Thanksgiving still four days away, we already have most of our holiday shopping done, and thus will have no need to go anywhere near a mall on Black Friday.

I'm thankful that it's still warm enough out this weekend to hang one more (possibly last) load of laundry on the line—and that when it's no longer warm enough, or when it just isn't convenient, I can simply toss it all in the dryer instead.

And I'm thankful that, with so many things to be thankful for, there are probably hundreds more that I just can't think of right now.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Conservation of Yard Waste

Sometimes I wonder if I've discovered a previously unknown law of physics: the Conservation of Yard Waste.

As you may recall, back in September we finally took down our massive, overgrown forsythia hedge, leaving us with a massive pile of brush to be disposed of:

Our first attempt to deal with this pile came to a premature halt when our new little chipper started literally pulling itself to pieces with the effort. But we eventually repaired the cracked housing with some putty and wrapped the whole thing up in duct tape, and over the course of several hours, we managed to reduce all the leaves and small branches in the pile to a surprisingly small quantity of mulch:

At that point, any grand notions we'd had about using this tiny chipper to convert all our yard waste into a sufficient mass of mulch to cover our garden paths pretty much flew like a little bird out the window. And more frustrating still, after all that work, the forsythia carcasses still hadn't disappeared; they'd just been stripped down to a pile of branches and trunks too large to fit into the chipper, which would have to be bundled up to be hauled away by the borough.

So, last weekend, we finally got around to tackling them, and over the course of an hour or so, we managed to reduce that fairly large pile to a smaller pile of nice, tidy bundles:

Now, it might seem as if, at this point, we had actually succeeded in reducing the total volume of yard waste. But no sooner had we completed this task than we turned to another urgent outdoor job: stripping down our garden beds to prepare them for winter. Any hopes we might have had of harvesting a few more tomatoes or peppers before winter set in were pretty much crushed under the weight of last week's early snowfall, leaving us with withered carcasses of tomato vines and pepper plants that had to be pulled out so they wouldn't rot in the garden (and possibly drop seeds that would send up a bunch of volunteer plants next spring in all the wrong places). So we spent another hour or so snipping and untangling and pulling, and by the time we were done, we were left with a brand new pile of yard waste about as big as the one we'd had to start with:

So no sooner do we finish dealing with one massive pile of branches than we turn around and produce a new pile, which we'll have to leave to dry out for another week before we can start turning it into mulch. Hence my theory: no matter how much work we put into our yard, the total volume of waste in it awaiting disposal remains the same. The work we put into the system is, apparently, expended in converting the contents of the pile from one substance to another; the size of the pile itself remains constant.

Perhaps we'd better alter our landscaping plan to accommodate a waste pile (of fixed size but varying composition) and turn it into some sort of a feature. Of course, I thought that was what we were doing when we first built our compost bin—but it's beginning to look like we'll need a second bin just to accommodate all the material waiting to be transferred to the first bin.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Reckless extravagance

As you may remember, in my October 16 post I speculated about what Brian and I might decide to do with our extra money once we have our mortgage paid off. One of my suggestions was that we might start to "buy the good orange juice, the stuff that's not from concentrate, even when it's not on sale." When I mentioned this idea to Brian, however, he was unenthusiastic. His position was that, no matter how much money we had, the good OJ still wouldn't be worth paying full price for, since he's the primary drinker of OJ in our household and he doesn't like it all that much better than the frozen stuff. At first this response made me nervous: was he going to consider all "unnecessary" expenses unjustified? But he assured me that his problem wasn't with the idea of spending more, just with spending more on orange juice. So that got me wondering: what's an example of something that we both would be willing to pay more for?

This week provided me with a perfect example. A little background: Brian and I have, for many years, been loyal users of Swheat Scoop cat litter. I even wrote an article in its praise on Associated Content. But a few months ago, we brought home a bag of Swheat Scoop and found that, for some reason, it just wasn't clumping the way it used to. No matter how carefully we scooped, the clumps would inevitably break apart and ammonia-soaked fragments would slip through the scoop and back into the box. As a result, the box developed a strong odor in weeks instead of months—sometimes in as little as one week—and the litter had to be completely replaced. At first we thought the problem was the unusually humid weather; then we wondered if maybe that one bag of litter was just a dud. But when the next bag we bought was no better, we concluded that the manufacturers of Swheat Scoop must have changed their formula somehow (possibly so that they could sell the original product as a new "multi-cat formula"). So we decided to take advantage of a rebate offer on World's Best Cat Litter and see if that was any better.

Well, it was—decidedly better. The clumps were so much firmer that scooping the cat box, which had become a major proceeding, was suddenly the work of a minute or two. On top of that, the new litter didn't track quite as much. The only drawback was that while Swheat Scoop cost about 67 cents per pound at PetSmart, World's Best was $1.12 per pound. Of course, it may work out to be cheaper in the long run, since we won't have to change out the litter nearly as often as with the new, wussier Swheat Scoop. But I wondered whether, before making up our minds to switch to World's Best, we should try the multi-cat version of Swheat Scoop, which cost only 72 cents a pound, and see whether it was adequate. Well, just imagine my surprise to hear my husband, who's an even tighter wad than I am, respond, "No, I really like this litter now." Yep—after using World's Best for just a few days, he wasn't willing to go back to Swheat Scoop—even the multi-cat version, which is most likely identical to the old Swheat Scoop that we found perfectly acceptable for years. Not even at a difference of 40 cents a pound.

At the time, I was quite tickled to see my prudent husband throwing caution to the wind in this way. But of course, his burst of reckless extravagance needs to be kept in perspective. Back when we were using the original Swheat Scoop, we went through maybe three 40-pound bags of it per year. So if we used the same amount of the new multi-cat Swheat Scoop, we'd be paying about 92 dollars a year (with tax) for cat litter. Substituting World's Best (assuming we use it up at roughly the same rate) bumps up the total cost to 144 dollars a year. So that's an extra 52 bucks per year, or a dollar per week. Whooo, we're going crazy out here! Spending money like it's going out of style!

So there you have it: an example of a product that we're willing to pay more for simply because it's better. And now I'm off to the farmers' market in pursuit of a second example: orchard-fresh apples. (At $6 a basket, or about $2 a pound, these are definitely pricier than the bagged apples at the supermarket—but the supermarket doesn't have Winesaps and Macouns. We may have to settle for Empire apples from the Empire State during the long winter months, but so long as the real jewels of fall are available, we're not going to pass them up.)

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Deny *this*

So, for those who haven't heard: the whole mid-Atlantic region, still struggling to recover from Sandy, was just hit with a "nor-easter" that knocked out still more power lines and delayed the repairs that were in progress. And, at least around here, dumped around four inches of snow on the ground. In November. Early November.

Snow does a lot more damage when it falls while there are still leaves on the trees. Instead of passing through the branches, it weighs them down until they break. It crushes smaller plants that haven't yet gone dormant for the winter. It's harder to shovel because there are damp leaves underneath that have to be cleared along with the snow. And because the daytime temperatures are well above freezing, what's left on the sidewalks melts during the day and freezes again at night, turning into slick ice that's much more hazardous to walk on than the snow itself.

So I'd just like to ask this one question of all the climate change deniers: do you claim that it's NORMAL to see this kind of snowfall in New Jersey in early November? And if so, why is our local vegetation so ill-adapted to deal with it?

Of course, they could just respond that, hey, this is just one freak storm, no evidence of a pattern—but that argument looks a tad weaker given that we were also hit with heavy snow around the end of October last year. Okay, maybe two data points don't make a pattern either, but two years in a row of shoveling snow around Halloween is enough to make me start wondering whether this is going to be the new normal, and what we need to do to prepare for it in future years. For instance, we're in the process of making changes to the landscaping in our yard; should our criteria for choosing new plants include the ability to survive early snowstorms? Should we avoid planting anything to replace the hedge that we removed in the front yard, on the grounds that having that area unobstructed makes it easier to clear snow off the sidewalks? Should we rip out all the shrubs in front of the house so that it will be easier to pile show into that area? (Almost certainly yes to that one, since the shrubs are way too big for the house anyway.) Should we take down the cinder-block wall that boxes in the front yard and replace it with something lower that would be easier to throw snow over?

I'm not sure yet how to answer these questions, but I find it incredibly frustrating that even as I ask them—even as the East Coast reels from the one-two punch of a massive post-tropical storm followed by what in the past would have been a freak snowstorm—some people are still responding to the warnings of the entire scientific community about global warming by, basically, putting their fingers in their ears and singing, "La la la, I can't hear you!"

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Lessons from Sandy

Well, I guess that'll learn me not to try to outguess the weather service. SuperStorm Sandy, as they are now calling it, did in fact turn out to be a storm of unprecedented proportions, and we were very lucky here to escape the full brunt of it. We lost power for less than 48 hours: it went out on Monday evening, just as the Muppets on our DVD were singing, "It's time to play the music! It's time to light the lights!", and came back on Wednesday evening just after we were preparing to go visit a friend in a neighboring town who still had power. Everything else—our water, gas, and landline phone—continued to work normally. A lot of trees fell in our area, but none got anywhere near our house; the biggest thing to come down in our back yard was our neighbor's porch swing, which somehow managed to blow clean over the fence, and it didn't land on anything important. And while the wind did blow away one of our recycling bins and the lid from our trash can (even though it was tied down), we managed to retrieve them without incident.

So just how well did our preparations for the storm work out? Well, food-wise, we did pretty well. I was able to make my breakfast cocoa from powdered milk, and Brian toasted me some bread over the stove burner with tongs. Throughout the two-day period, he kept diving into the fridge to retrieve leftovers so we could eat them while they were still good, and he also transferred frozen items from the freezer to the fridge to keep it as cold in there as possible. The bit of ice cream we had in the freezer did melt after 24 hours, but it was still cold enough to eat (or, more accurately, drink). When the power came back on last night, nearly everything in the fridge was still cold. The only thing we actually had to discard was a pint of milk—and even that might have been okay, but we figured better safe than sorry. (In fact, we actually got some free food on account of the storm, because on Wednesday the cafĂ© near Brian's office started giving away all its ice cream rather than let it melt.)

Keeping warm also wasn't too big a problem. With the power out, our heating system didn't work, but as it was only October, the temperature in the house never fell much below 60. We wore lots of layers and piled on the blankets at night. We also made a brief trip out to Brian's workplace on Tuesday (just long enough to check our work and personal e-mails, deal with the urgent ones, and reassure friends and family that we were okay). The building was on backup power, but the heat was running, so we were able to warm ourselves up for a few minutes. (We considered prolonging the trip by stopping at a bookstore or a Starbucks, but none was open, though there were a few businesses in the area that had power and were running as usual.) On Wednesday, we went in to his office for the whole day, and since I was dressed for an unheated house, I actually came close to being too warm. But I do worry a little about how we'd fare if we had to deal with a storm of similar magnitude in the wintertime. An unheated house is manageable when the outside temperature never drops below freezing, but on a January day when it never gets above freezing, I'm not sure just how cold it might get in here.

The biggest problem, as it turned out, was keeping ourselves occupied. It was too cold for a walk to be enjoyable, and since all the local businesses were closed, we couldn't exactly walk to anyplace and warm up once we got there. I thought we'd be in good shape with so many books and board games, but  the problem is that all these diversions require light. And in the wake of a hurricane, there isn't much of that even during the day. We could still read and play games with the curtains wide open, but once it got dark, we discovered that candles—even five or six of them at a time—just don't throw off that much illumination. We were able to play cribbage by candlelight, but reading aloud proved too difficult because either my body or the book itself kept blocking the light. So the one thing we'd probably find most useful for getting ourselves through future storms (and we can probably assume that there will be more of them in future) is a battery-powered lantern.

Throughout the storm, I kept thinking that we really shouldn't have anything to complain about. After all, a hundred years ago, most people lived like this all the time—no Internet, no TV, perhaps even no electric lights or refrigeration—and they managed just fine. But at some point it occurred to me that a hundred years ago, there was an infrastructure in place to support life without electricity. Houses either had forced-water heating or stoves and fireplaces to keep them warm; ice was delivered right to your home to keep your food cold; rooms had gas or oil lamps in them to read by. Sure, it's still possible in the modern world to build a life around these old-fashioned conveniences, but it takes a special effort and, in most cases, a lot of expense. For most of us, modern equivalents—like battery-powered flashlights and chemical hand warmers—make more sense as emergency backups. (Actually, ever since we saw an SUV parked in a driveway with the engine running and an extension cord hooked up to it—presumably connected to a pump in the basement—Brian has been toying with the idea of buying an inverter that could be hooked up to our car battery as an emergency generator.)

It's easy to romanticize the olden days, when people lived more simply. But it's also easy to remember that people back then didn't live as long, and in many cases, didn't live as fully. If I could choose to live in any time period in history, I honestly don't think I'd be willing to live in any time other than the present day, because I'd just be giving up too much. A hundred years ago, I wouldn't have the right to vote; seventy-five years ago, I wouldn't be able to fight off an infection with antibiotics; a mere twenty-five years ago, during my own lifetime, I wouldn't have access to the most massive library the world has ever seen, all at the touch of a button. And I'd much rather have to plan ahead to figure out how to do without such modern luxuries in an emergency than live without them every single day.