Lessons Learned (So Far)

February 25, 2011

People who know I’m doing this experiment are always asking, How are things going? I have yet to come up with a good answer. Aside from the workplace gift-giving pickle, I haven’t run into any problems. I felt a little twinge when Channing and I drove past Ann Taylor on the way to the movie theater this weekend, but other than that, I haven’t missed shopping. So, maybe it would be best to focus on a few things I’ve learned these first eight weeks:

1. Making lasagna does not require aluminum foil (in fact, very few things do).

I made a pesto lasagna for a birthday celebration last weekend and baked it uncovered. Mark Bittman’s recipe from How to Cook Everything actually doesn’t call for covering the dish, and his suggested cooking time is super short—25 minutes at 400 degrees. The top layer of noodles was a touch dry, but no one complained because the lasagna was downright delicious. Isn’t anything with pesto?

Interesting note: I’m not using foil for much of anything right now, but I still feel the need to hoard it. When my colleagues and I went to Cosi for the boss’s birthday, I took the foil they wrapped my bread in home with me. It’s sitting under the sink with my one or two other foil scraps not in use. In fact, I keep reusing the same one piece (to store onion leftovers). It’s pretty worn out at this point and probably leaching all kinds of nasty things into my onions.

2. Pumpkin pie ice cream is awesome.

In my continuing effort not to waste food, I finally cut open one of the pumpkins I have had stored atop my fridge since November. The first half of it went into a roasted squash dish with beans, (local greenhouse) tomatoes, garlic, ginger, and onions. Despite the aromatics, the dish wasn’t that great, and the pumpkin in particular was bland. So, I decided I needed to bake the rest of it into submission, spice it up—and then turn it into ice cream. Best idea ever.

3. If I stay out of the stores, I don’t buy anything.

This lesson is a bit obvious, sure, but still worth noting. A couple weeks back, Channing and I were in Fairfax to see The Fighter at Cinema Arts. After the movie, we went across the street to the Record and Tape Exchange in hopes of exchanging some Christmas vinyl Channing had picked up from Freecycle last summer. The exchange was denied (the employee we spoke to had been forbidden from accepting Christmas music), but Channing decided he wanted to browse anyway. So, of course, I ended up browsing with him. It turns out, in addition to loads of used vinyl and CDs, the Record and Tape Exchange deals in DVDs, including full seasons of Gilmore Girls. If I were not hyperconscious of my spending at the moment, I would’ve dropped fifteen bucks on season 5—which then, after one or two views, would’ve sat on the shelf with my copy of season 3, collecting dust. (Hmm, maybe I should take season 3 to the Exchange.) I think it’s best for now to avoid temptation altogether and stay out of the stores.


A Library of Possibilities

February 20, 2011

“The public library is the only institution in American society whose purpose is to guard against the tyrannies of ignorance and conformity.” —Leonard Kniffel

Last night I made a couple recipes from a cookbook I borrowed from the library. A cookbook. From the library. Borrowing cookbooks is a great option for me because I am always looking for new recipes, and although thousands upon thousands of recipes are available on the Internet, I have much more faith in those that have not only been tested but also wrung through the editorial process.

I put the cookbook (Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s The Italian Country Table) on hold more than a week ago but wasn’t able to pick it up until Thursday, thanks in part to a 12 percent reduction in library hours in Fairfax County. Fiscal year 2010 saw a 15 percent reduction in the Fairfax County Public Libraries budget, including the reduction in hours, the elimination of dozens of staff and administration positions, and a 25 percent cut in the materials budget. The budget was reduced by an additional $2.7 million in fiscal year 2011. More staff positions were eliminated, meaning fewer librarians are available to help patrons. Plus, youth and adult programs were cut, the summer reading program was shortened, wait times for new materials have increased, and certain periodical subscriptions were not renewed.

Libraries across the country are facing similar financial troubles, and some municipalities are actually turning to the private sector for help. A company called Library Systems & Services (LSSI) has taken over the operation of 13 library systems in California, Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas to help them cut costs, mostly by laying off employees and cutting pensions. (Recently the city of Stockton, California, rejected LSSI’s bid to manage its public libraries in large part because of the citizens’ outcry against the company.)

Despite the last few troubling years, I don’t see libraries going the way of the dodo. In fact, 63 percent of adults in the United States have a library card, and library use is at an all-time high. Libraries aren’t simply repositories for books. They offer dozens of other materials, including audiobooks, magazines, newspapers, journals, DVDs, and even ebooks. They also provide free Internet access, computer software such as word processing and spreadsheet programs, and wi-fi, for those with laptops—not to mention a quiet space for research, reading, or reflection. Library staff organize book groups, literacy programs, summer reading programs for kids, delivery service for homebound senior citizens, and programs for the homeless, people with disabilities, and people who speak English as a second language. The staff librarians are perhaps any library’s greatest asset. These are people who can guide you through the huge amount of media the library makes available.

Two years ago, when we first stopped buying new things, Channing rediscovered the library, and he still makes regular trips there. Our public libraries are a hugely valuable resource, and (aside from a few measly tax dollars—an average of $34 per year per American) their use is free! You can find one near you here. Feel free to browse before you go; most public libraries have their own websites. The Fairfax County library system even has a free iPhone app. Take advantage.


Fairfax County Public Library FY2011 Budget, April 27, 2010.
Gordon Flagg, “LSSI Finds More Resistance to Its Library-Management Bids,” American Libraries, February 16, 2011.
Leonard Kniffel, “Libraries Now More Than Ever,” American Libraries, October 17, 2010.
Leonard Kniffel, “12 Ways Libraries Are Good for the Country,” American Libraries, December 21, 2010.
Kali Schumitz, “Fairfax County Libraries Feel, Try to Avoid Budget Pain,” Fairfax Times, February 2, 2010.
Kali Schumitz, “Shortened Library Hours Likely to Remain,” Fairfax Times, May 11, 2010.
Roberta A. Stevens, “Outsourcing: Turning a Negative into a Positive,” American Libraries, January 10, 2011.
David Streitfeld, “Anger as a Private Company Takes Over Libraries,” New York Times, September 26, 2010.


Bye-Bye, Valentine’s Bouquet

February 17, 2011

This Monday was the first Valentine’s Day in five years that I did not receive a bouquet of red roses. (And thank goodness—I’d prefer not to write another confession!) I have been dropping hints about the unhealthy side effects of cut flowers to Channing since we started dating, but until this year he opted to ignore me—and because I’m such a sucker for presents, I didn’t put my foot down.

To tell the truth, though, whenever I see a florist’s bouquet, I can’t help but think of the scenes in Maria Full of Grace of Maria removing thorns from roses in the Colombian greenhouse (you know—before she decides to become a drug mule). From what I’ve read about floriculture in the last few days, those scenes are fairly accurate: Colombian women and girls of all ages, low wages, long hours, lots of protective gear.

The protective gear is necessary because a huge assortment of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are sprayed on the flowers to keep them free of bugs and looking fresh during their long haul to U.S. markets. In fact, because flowers are not edible, when they reach the United States, they are inspected only for insects and other pests, not for chemical residues. So, there is not only incentive to douse the blooms in chemicals, but there is also leeway to use chemicals that are banned or severely restricted in the States.

Exposure to these chemicals, which include neurotoxins, immune and endocrine disruptors, and carcinogens, poses a significant health risk to floriculture workers. A couple different studies of the cut-flower industry have suggested that workers exposed to pesticides have higher rates of miscarriages, premature births, and babies with congenital defects. Other studies have shown that more than 60 percent of all workers suffer headaches, nausea, blurred vision, or fatigue, and that exposure to organophosphates increases their risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.

In addition, when these toxins find their way into surface and groundwater via runoff, they become a problem for the community at large. Given that as much as three gallons of water are necessary to produce a single rose bloom, waterways near floriculture operations are not only polluted, they are also severely depleted. This is the case in Bogotá, where streams, springs, and wetlands are disappearing.

The good news is a number of alternatives to conventionally grown flowers are becoming available. Fair Trade, VeriFlora, and Rainforest Alliance labels indicate flowers that were grown and harvested according to certain standards of sustainability and equity. (You can find out exactly what those standards are by visiting the programs’ websites.) If you can’t find an organic or otherwise certified bouquet in your local grocery store or florist, you can buy one online at Organic Bouquet. Or, if you’re looking for something grown locally, check out the options in your neighborhood on Local Harvest.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I will be forgoing fresh-cut flowers these six months. Lucky for me, though, I bought some pretty dried lilacs at the farmers market back in November, and they are still as lovely as ever. Those of you who grow flowers in the summer months might consider prolonging your enjoyment of the blooms by drying a few for the winter.

Finally, if you’re interested in doing some additional reading on this topic, here are a few informative articles:

  1. Sheryl Eisenberg, “Putting the Bloom Back,” This Green Life, March 2005.
  2. Roger Harris, “Think That Your Gift Is Pesticide-Free? Give Organic Flowers and It Will Be,” NaturalNews, May 10, 2008.
  3. John McQuaid, “The Secrets Behind Your Flowers,” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2011.
  4. Amy Stewart, “Pick Your Poison,” New York Times, May 14, 2006.
  5. David Tenenbaum, “Would a Rose Not Smell as Sweet?Environmental Health Perspectives 110, no. 5 (May 2002).
  6. Ginger Thompson, “Behind Roses’ Beauty, Poor and Ill Workers,” New York Times, February 13, 2003.
  7. Joby Warrick, “Pesticides and Cut Flowers,” National Wildlife Federation Green Living Archives, June 1, 2000.

Gift Giving Woes

February 13, 2011

I ran into some trouble with the experiment this past week—at work, of all places. My colleagues were planning a birthday celebration for our boss, and as is customary in our department, in addition to buying the birthday boy lunch, they wanted to decorate his cubical and give him a gift card. Clearly the gift card posed a problem for me.

In general, gift giving will not be difficult during these six months. I’m a big believer in giving homemade gifts and have a sizable stash of fabric scraps and pattern books. And for those who wouldn’t be pleased with a new apron, handbag, curtain, pillow cover, or set of place mats, I have the option of giving experiences. Over the last few years, I have become a fan of experience gifts, especially for people like my dad, who can never manage to write a Christmas list of more than five items (two of which are inevitably underwear and socks). I’ve taken people to Shakespeare plays downtown, to jazz concerts in the National Gallery of Art’s sculpture garden, and on tours of the National Arboretum. I’ve given tickets to concerts, baseball games, and beer fests, and gift certificates for cooking classes. And I’ve made dinners, picnics, and birthday cakes galore.

When Helene and Jim went the year without buying anything new, they organized a homemade gift exchange for their family in lieu of their usual Christmas extravaganza. Helene made use of the stash of yarn in her closet and knitted a scarf. One person made a birdhouse; others made jewelry; several baked cookies and cakes; one gave a painting; and one gave plant cuttings from the garden. I’ve heard Helene talk about the exchange a number of times; it was one of the most memorable experiences of that year. And it just goes to show that the possibilities for gifts abound outside of the shopping mall.

This week, though, I failed to come up with any viable alternatives. My boss is moving into a new house, and he’s in the process of cleaning, painting, repairing, and buying appliances. My colleagues wanted to give him a gift card to Home Depot, and the suggestions I offered—movie theater tickets, restaurant gift card, gift card to the driving range or batting cages—weren’t nearly as thoughtful or practical given the circumstances. So, I gave in. They bought the Home Depot gift card, and rather than contributing to that purchase, I put in extra toward lunch. (I also baked three kinds of chocolate chip cookies for the in-office celebration—yum!)

I’m pretty bummed about how this turned out. The birthday festivities ultimately went off without a hitch, but I compromised my principles and I feel like a total scrooge. The thing is I love birthdays, I love excuses to celebrate, and I love giving and receiving gifts. The experiment isn’t an exercise in stinginess or ungratefulness. If anything it is meant to teach us to be more considerate of and generous with the people in our lives—who in nearly every case bring us greater happiness and fulfillment than the stuff we own does. But although I can rationalize the Home Depot gift card purchase (as I did above) by saying it was the thoughtful, considerate choice in this scenario, the excuse still doesn’t sit right with me.

Clarification (2/14/11): Ultimately, I did not contribute to the gift card. This morning my colleagues and I totaled what was spent on the birthday celebration, including the costs of the lunch, the gift card, and (to my surprise) the cookies. I paid my share of the expenses out of pocket for cookie supplies and, in fact, will be partially reimbursed. This technicality makes me feel a little better—at least I have a clear conscience about sticking to the pledge. But it sure would’ve been nice if I had been able to come up with a good moving-related alternative to the big box store gift card.

Living More with Less

February 10, 2011

Melissa opened our Voluntary Simplicity meeting on Sunday with a three-minute meditation, a perfect way to transition from our lives’ hurry-scurry to a discussion about “living more with less.” For the last couple weeks, she has been meditating for fifteen minutes every day—most of us had trouble sitting quietly for three!

The discussion topic, “living more with less,” specifically meant living more with less stuff, a concept we are clearly interested in. Judy, our facilitator, opened the conversation with the question, Is the idea of living with less attractive to you or does it cause anxiety? For me, one month into the No Stuff Experiment, living with less is extremely attractive. I purged my closet and dresser of items I no longer wore or had multiples of the second week in January, and for the first time in months (or maybe years), I don’t feel lacking for clothes.

Perhaps this has something to do with what Barry Schwartz calls “the paradox of choice.” Essentially Schwartz argues that the overabundance of choices we face as American consumers has caused our happiness to decline, via paralysis in decision making, escalation of expectations, and shift of blame for imperfect outcomes to the consumer. (To hear his argument in detail, watch his TED talk.) Because I have eliminated the option of buying new clothes, I no longer find myself stressing over the number, quality, or style of items in my closet. I not only have to make do, but I find myself better appreciating what I have.

Others in the group have similarly found freedom in minimizing their stuff. Nan gave away most of her possessions when she moved from Virginia to Colorado in spring 2009. Being able to fit her life in her car has allowed her to visit friends all over the country, some for a week or two, some for a few months. Judy recently moved all of the furniture out of her living space so that she and her husband could install new flooring. She loved the openness of the space so much that she has moved very little back in.

Although none of us are ready to give up the variety of choices we currently have in the marketplace, we are hoping that Voluntary Simplicity will provide us a practical means of approaching the abundance. Again the word “deliberate” surfaced in our conversation. We talked about shopping in a more deliberate manner, taking inventory of what we have, thinking about a purchase before making it, and recognizing the true cost of material goods. (If you haven’t already, check out The Story of Stuff.) Early in our discussion, Mary pointed out that there are many ways to disengage from consumer culture. By the end of the meeting, we’d determined that there are many ways to engage thoughtfully as well.

Thanks to Helene, Judy, Mary, Melissa, Nan, and Sally for all the great ideas and stories they shared on Sunday. Many found their way into this post.

The Compact

February 5, 2011

While reading for our next Voluntary Simplicity meeting, I came across a link for the Compact, a group that embarked on an experiment nearly identical to ours in San Francisco in 2006. I had heard of the Compact before, but I hadn’t seen the blog (which you can find here). Like us, the Compacters were motivated to reduce their impact on the environment by eliminating unnecessary consumption of stuff. Thanks to significant media coverage of their twelve-month effort, offshoots of the Compact have surfaced all over the world (including in the D.C. metro area).

The rules of the Compact were slightly different from ours in that they allowed purchases of socks, underwear, plants and fresh-cut flowers (from local businesses only), and digital music. They also allowed purchases from local artisans (in moderation), primarily as gifts. A couple of us NSEers, knowing we had elected not to allow the purchase of new clothing of any kind during the experiment, replenished our underwear drawers in December. Regarding the plants, I’m a little bummed about not being able to join the flower CSA this summer, but I figure I know enough gardeners to track down some free seedlings, if I decide to attempt another shady deck garden in the spring. We are still debating a digital media exception, and I’ll share that story in another post.

I love the local artisan exception, though, and it made sense for the Compact, given the primary goal of the project: “To go beyond recycling in trying to counteract the negative global environmental and socioeconomic impacts of U.S. consumer culture, to resist global corporatism, and to support local businesses, farms, etc.” Active participation in a more sustainable local economy also ties in well with the environmental and cooperative motivations of our own experiment. Yet, I’m not suggesting we amend our rules to allow the purchase of hand-knit scarves or artisan ceramics. This is the No Stuff Experiment, after all. Our primary goals are to discern our needs from our wants, to reduce clutter in our lives, and to make personal choices that correlate with our environmentalist values.

With regard to what we can buy, though, thinking locally is key—or at least it has been important to me. Despite the plentiful big box and chain stores out here in the suburbs, we also have a good number of locally owned businesses, and even in the winter, we have opportunities to support local food artisans, like the pasta, bread, cheese, pickle, sausage, and wine vendors at the Fall Church farmers market. I have had no trouble avoiding chain restaurants (so far Channing has managed to keep his Chili’s cravings at bay), and tonight we’re planning a trip to an independently owned movie theater in Fairfax for a double feature of Best Picture nominees.

So, while it’s a bummer to learn I’m not the first to blog about not buying new stuff, it is exciting to find we are participants in a bona fide, if loosely organized global movement of folks not just buying locally but totally rethinking their participation in consumer culture. How inspiring!

January Savings

February 1, 2011

I have records of my spending for last year, so at the end of each month I will be able to compare what I spent in 2010 with what I have spent in 2011. Even with the experiment, I am still spending plenty of money―on rent, groceries, bills, gas, dining out, and miscellaneous entertainment. I made a few big purchases this month, including entry into my first triathlon, so I actually expected to have spent more than I did last January.

But, in fact, I spent 3% less and put 89% more in savings. My biggest savings (22%) was in the “miscellaneous” category, which, in addition to new stuff, includes race entries, the credit card bill, and random expenses of living such as cost of riding Metro. (Restaurants are not included in the miscellaneous category for reasons implied below.) My next biggest savings was on groceries (14%), thanks to my efforts to use up everything in my fridge, freezer, and pantry. Several weeks this month, I had an extra few bucks in my wallet by the time the Saturday farmers market rolled around because I wasn’t spending cash on anything other than food and I didn’t need to pick up extra groceries midweek. This meant I took less out of the ATM.

I would’ve seen a bigger dip in my spending had my restaurant bills for this month not been nearly 600% higher than they were last January (yikes!). In January 2010 I spent money on meals in two restaurants: dinner at fancy burger joint in the suburbs and light lunch at a café in D.C. Last month I paid for three really delicious, multicourse dinners replete with vino downtown. One of the dinners was a Christmas present for Channing―may I count that bill against December instead, pretty please?

Last January I spent almost $200 on items that are off-limits now, including yarn and fabric for crafting projects, toner for the printer, and a new pair of jeans. I’m guessing I would’ve bought more stuff, had I not had a large Christmas credit card bill to pay.

My credit card bill this January was significantly less because, thanks to a new job and a 15% increase in salary over last Christmas, I was able to pay for most presents out of pocket. Of course, I started that new job in March 2010 and spent a lot of money on office-appropriate clothes during the last couple weeks of February. Savings next month should be pretty sizable. Stay tuned.