Was It Worth It?

March 21, 2012

Wrapping Up, Part 3

“I wonder whether cutting back my personal consumption will do anything more than make me feel better. Is not buying part of the solution—to anything?” Judith Levine, Not Buying It

“You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” William Blake

I spent some time last week scanning through my posts from 2011—which, with the engagement, wedding, and trip to France, turned out to be a pretty big year for me. In addition to all that fun stuff, I learned a ton. I learned about the outrageous quantity of pesticides sprayed on imported cut flowers. I learned where to find used stuff in my community. I learned how to be a courteous bike commuter. I learned about the growing, mining, and manufacturing involved not just in food, toiletry, and cleaning supply production, but also in packaging, clothing, electronics, furniture, and media production. I discovered new ways to avoid food waste. I rediscovered my interest in writing. I evaluated my use of time, set new priorities, created a calendar, and stuck to my savings plan. And all because of the No Stuff Experiment.

Above I quote from Judith Levine’s book, Not Buying It: “Is not buying part of the solution—to anything?” I’d say, yes, it is. For me, the No Stuff Experiment was a solution to consumer apathy. It was at times a wake-up call (like when I researched cotton farming), at times a refresher lesson (the cleaning product post). It forced me to take a hard look at my values and priorities and to make choices accordingly. Yes, I cheated here and there, and yes, the NSE rules were more lax than are rules for other shopping fasts. As a discerning reader, you are free to fault me for the flaws of my experiment.

And, yet, in spite of those flaws I came away with some important life lessons:

I can’t force my lifestyle onto other people—nor should I. Although, by the end of the year, I was alone in my commitment to the rules of the Experiment, I did this thing with the help and support of many of my closest friends and family. And I think it wore on some of them. I know it wore on Channing. I probably asked a little too much of him in the beginning. I asked not only that he not buy me gifts but also that he not by anything new for our shared home. I told him we couldn’t buy firewood for warming the living room on cold winter nights (remember when we used to have those?); I told him he couldn’t buy me roses for Valentine’s Day; I told him we couldn’t get a new couch. He was displeased but bore with me—for the first few months, anyway. Then the whole engagement thing happened.

Well, eventually, I stopped reminding/nagging Channing (and everyone else) about the Experiment. Shoving the responsibility of respecting my wacky rules onto others just started to seem rude and generally made me unhappy. I rediscovered that the best way to influence others is not with force but with information. Although ultimately none of the readers I’ve spoken to are interested in doing their own shopping fast, every one of them has found tidbits on the blog that convinced them to change one or two tiny aspects of their lives—or that at least made them think about their own consumer choices. That’s pretty huge.

I have way, way, way too much stuff. In December I borrowed a book from Melissa titled Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston. This book is full of practical advice, a lot of which I’ve heard elsewhere, and yet it completely rebooted my thinking about clutter. About halfway through Kingston’s book, I realized I had a lot more decluttering to do, and I made this known to Channing. He said, “Haven’t we gotten rid of a lot of stuff already?” Yeah, we have. But…

Think for a moment about all the stuff in your house that you haven’t touched in a month or three months or six months or a whole year. Channing and I have tons of stuff like this—including stuff we haven’t even thought about since we moved in, in 2010: the plastic utensils collected from takeout orders in a kitchen drawer, the extra cheese grater, the serving trays we never use, all the pens and rubber bands in the office (you know, the office I just cleared out in October), the gigantic box of memorabilia from my trip to Australia in 2001—2001!

I know the husband and I won’t get around to clearing this stuff out anytime soon. And you know what?  That’s OK. I am happy, though, that thanks to the Experiment I have become aware of the abundance available to me in my own home. This awareness has made trips to stores like Target, Michael’s, and Office Depot a lot less frequent.

It’s my life. Based on the conversations I had with my Voluntary Simplicity group, I don’t think I’m alone in occasionally feeling like I have no control over how I spend my time. It used to be that when professional, social, and personal commitments piled up, I would either get angry or break down. But these days it’s easier to take a step back and examine why I’m overbooked (the Google calendar helps with this too). Which activities do I want to continue, and which are no longer aligned with my priorities and values?

At the start of this year, I had planned to tackle two major projects: train for a half Ironman and expand my freelance editing business. I quickly realized that spending ten or fifteen hours training every week would not allow much time for the editing business. I am still working a full-time job, after all. So, I had to make a decision about which activity was more important to me. The No Stuff Experiment prepared me to do just that. (For more about the time issue, see my earlier posts in this category.)

I will do this again. OK, so I successfully completed the No Stuff Experiment when I had few responsibilities outside of putting in eight hours at the office every day and paying some bills. What would this thing look like if I were a bit older, lived in a different city or a bigger house, had a kid or two? What would I learn if I gave up the restaurant meals, movie tickets, and consignment shopping in addition to new nonessential material goods? The No Stuff Experiment is something I want to come back to every few years, like a detox or cleanse program for my inner consumer. I’ll have to tweak the rules to accommodate lesson #1 above, of course, but I’m sure I can come up with some new guidelines that will similarly stimulate creativity, problem-solving skills, and self-reflection. Seems like a useful tool for the future me.

Thanks, everyone, for your attention and patience these last fifteen months. I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as I did. I’m looking forward to starting my new blog project, The Rosy Skillet, in the fall of 2012, and I hope you all will join me there. I may also post on No Stuff Experiment every now and again as I come across new information about consumption, clutter, and stuff.

Wrapping Up, Part 1

The No Stuff Experiment officially ended when I purchased a crepe pan on January 3, 2012. My new pan, a 10.2-inch De Buyer, is awesome and has already seen good use. So far, I’ve tested two of the four crepe recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, as well as two of the numerous crepe filling ideas therein. And once I tire of crepes—which, let’s face it, probably won’t happen—I can use the pan for omelets, frittatas, pancakes, and the like.

Other than the crepe pan, which I bought in a flurry of post-vacation excitement, my purchases have been pretty tame. I bought underwear, socks, and hose to replace the pairs I wore out (or destroyed) in 2011. The new socks, in particular, brought me joy I didn’t expect; walking to work on that little extra cushion where bare threads used to be is downright delightful. I bought parchment paper to make halibut en papillote, and when I couldn’t find a suitable reusable alternative, I caved and bought (organic) cotton balls. (Happily, this’ll be the last time for the cotton balls; a little additional Internet hunting unearthed this alternative.)

And, finally, I’ve been buying gear for triathlon training. I have registered for two triathlons in Reston this summer, and so, earlier this month, I borrowed The Triathlete’s Training Bible from the library (along with A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen—a great cookbook). I had already been planning to replace my running shoes, which I buy every six months, and my swimsuit, which is wearing uncomfortably thin in the gluteal region. But, inspired by the advice in the Training Bible, I also invested in a couple of multisport extras: a reflective vest for running and biking in the dark early morning hours and a pair of fins to make swimming drills more bearable (for both me and my lane-mates).

Now that I write it all out, this seems like a lot of shopping. And all I can say in my defense is, thanks to the Experiment, I am a more thoughtful consumer than I once was. For one, I’ve stopped carrying my credit card, and based on the advice in Your Money or Your Life, I’ve ditched my budget in favor of a careful record of daily expenses. If I don’t have money for a purchase in my bank account, I don’t buy it. So, for example, I won’t be buying that $1,000+ power meter the Training Bible recommends unless I can find a heavily discounted used version on Craigslist and a local bike mechanic to install it on the cheap.

For two, I shop with a list—a meticulously edited list of immediate needs based on what I now know I prefer not to live without—and more importantly, I stick to it. The list keeps me from going into a store for hose and coming out with hose plus three new shirts, a sweater, and a pair of pants. Impulsive shopping has been a problem for me in the past—and given the crepe pan purchase, I’m thinking it might still be. However, I’m not as drawn to the fashion on store racks these days, especially after successfully and happily spending twelve days in France cycling through the same three or four outfits, so I think I’ll be better this year about keeping impulses in check.

For three, when I shop, I look for more sustainable or equitable options for each item on my list. This means buying or borrowing used goods whenever possible; buying recycled, repurposed, reusable, local, fair trade, and/or organic, if used isn’t an option; and buying industrial new as a last resort. Duh.

But enough about shopping, buying, and spending money and resources. Let’s talk about what I’m planning to continue going without:

Aluminum foil, plastic baggies, and plastic wrap. I’m done with this stuff—or at least, I’m going to avoid investing my hard-earned money in it. Without my asking, my mom decided to start setting aside aluminum foil scraps for me, and over the year, I also collected a few scraps of my own from takeout meals and the like. I use the scraps on the rare occasions when I can’t find a foil alternative, and this works for me. It’s enough.

Next time I run out of plastic baggies—which should be a few months away, thanks to the small donation Mom gave me over the holidays—I will replace them with Lunchskins. I’m not sure these reusable bags will help with December’s cookie-freezing dilemma, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

On the plastic wrap front, I recently received a pair of silicone lids from some family friends that have greatly reduced my need for the stuff. I actually use the lids far more often than I ever used plastic wrap; they are extremely handy.

Oh, and as an aside, we still have a few kitchen trash bags in the box from June, and I’m hoping to keep our trash bag use to a minimum again this year.

Physical books, DVDs, and CDs. I haven’t bought a CD in a few years, thanks primarily to iTunes—and now Pandora and Amazon and all the other online music purveyors. My home VHS and DVD libraries have never been that big, but starting this year, if for some reason I want to own a movie, I plan to download it. No big deal.

The more difficult transition in the physical media category will be to ebooks. My husband and I were both English majors; he studied linguistics for ten years and I found a career in book publishing. Clearly we are big readers and even bigger book lovers. But, at the end of last year, both Channing and I decided it was time to embrace a book-lite lifestyle. I put a handful of free ebooks on my iPad for the trip to France, and after Channing finished the second installment of Twilight (his new favorite book series) our last night in Nice, I passed the iPad to him. He was halfway through Jane Eyre by the time we landed at Dulles.

So I think we are ready for the ebooks. I know we’re ready to unload more of our current library. Since we’ve returned from overseas, we’ve emptied an entire bookcase and sold our discards to the local used bookshop for a cool $50 (thanks for the tip, Sarah!). Now we’re only one bookcase shy of freeing up kitchen space for a butcher’s block and some much-needed counter space.

Pouf bath sponges. I had to toss my pouf early in 2011 because it was falling apart and grody. I have since been using a washcloth—and wondering why I ever switched to poufs in the first place. I can throw my washcloth in the laundry every week so it’s always clean, and I probably won’t have to replace it for years. Poufs, in contrast, lose their shape after only a few showers and need to be replaced every few months. It’s a no-brainer.

New furniture. Of the items on this short list, this one is sure to be the toughest. Finding new furniture that suits both my husband and me is a chore; finding used furniture that we both like will probably be close to impossible. Still, Channing’s agreed to shop used first for the several items on our furniture wish list. We’re looking to buy a butcher’s block, couch, coffee table, and dining room table. If you have any leads, let me know.

More wrap-up posts to come…

On Thursday Channing and I leave for our vacation on the French Riviera. I’ll be continuing the No Stuff Experiment there—only food and wine expenses for this traveler*—and then I’ll write a series of two or three wrap-up posts in January. For now, let me leave you with a handful of year-end tidbits that didn’t quite make the cut for full-length blog posts.

First, I must confess that I did a little pre-vacation clothes shopping—at consignment shops, of course. In mid-October, Channing announced that he would not be wearing jeans while we were overseas; I looked at my wardrobe the next day and panicked. (For the record, I think this ridiculous proclamation had everything to do with our recent viewing of the first four seasons of Mad Men, an AMC series with an extremely well-dressed cast. Oh, the dangers of television: it can turn keeping up with the Joneses into keeping up with a fictional 1960s advertising genius and his numerous pocket handkerchiefs.) I had been meaning to hit the used clothing circuit in hopes of picking up a few basics that would help me streamline my wardrobe, so now I decided to look for pieces that I could wear for both work and vacation (think comfortable clothes in neutral colors). Long story short, I spent some time at Chic Envy, the new consignment boutique at Fairfax Corner, and then made the rounds at the vintage shops in Alexandria. I ended up with a couple skirts, a cocktail dress (for office holiday parties and Christmas and New Year’s Eve dinners), and a couple blazers to dress up slacks or jeans.**

Second, to continue my kitchen disposables saga, earlier this month I ran out of plastic wrap and freezer bags. These are two disposables I don’t use a ton of unless I’m displaying baked goods on platters (rather than storing them in Pyrex), transporting food to parties on platters, or freezing stuff (in this case, cookies). The plastic wrap problem isn’t too dire. We have a roll of Glad Press’n Seal under the sink that I’ve been using as a plastic wrap alternative—although the stuff kind of freaks me out. Glad’s website says the seal is made with “the primary [FDA-approved] ingredients typically found in chewing gum” and assures customers that Glad products do not contain phthalates or BPA. I remain skeptical and avoid letting food in contact with the sticky side of the wrap. Oh, I’ve also been reusing the last couple pieces of regular plastic wrap like crazy. And when those scraps aren’t big enough and the Press’n Seal won’t do, I find creative solutions: I took cookies to the office potluck in a shirt box lined with festive tissue paper. Party guests took home cookies in gift bags from our stash from holidays past.

The freezer bags were more of a problem. I wanted to freeze a several dozen cookies over the course of the month and didn’t have enough Pyrex containers to hold them all. So, I took a few bags from Mom’s gigantic resealable bag stash. The woman has an entire kitchen drawer devoted to Ziplocs of various sizes and weights, plus another shelf full of them in the basement. As grateful as I am for Mom’s stockpile (the cookies froze beautifully), it seems a little excessive, no?

Third, I started a post on Freeganism last month, but I haven’t been able to finish it—in part because I wanted to go on a dumpster dive and write about the experience. I keep checking out the dumpsters behind Whole Foods whenever I’m at Plaza America, and there appears to be loads of good stuff out there, but I can’t bring myself to start rummaging. For one thing, all the dumpster-diving tip websites suggest wearing rubber gloves, which I do not own and cannot buy. For another, they suggest going at night with a buddy, and I have been unable to convince Channing that helping me dig through trash is an activity worth his time.

In any case, the primary reason the Freeganism post has not seen the light of day is I can’t write it without making Freegans sound like moochers or freeloaders. They aren’t moochers; they’re resourceful. Freeganism is exciting, terrifying, daring, and maybe a little bit gross. You can read up on Freegans and their philosophy here, here, and here.

Finally, I have started to brainstorm my next blog project, The Rosy Skillet. It’ll be about good meals and the stories they inspire (and how to host a dinner party for sixteen when you have only eight plates in the cupboard). I hope to have the first installment written by March 2012.

Happy holidays, everyone! Thanks so much for reading my musings this year!

*Plus plane and train tickets and hotel stays, but we’ve paid for that stuff already.

**For every item I added to my wardrobe during those trips, I put at least one item (and often two or three) in the donate pile.

Checking In

November 18, 2011

Although I haven’t been writing much lately, I have been thinking a lot about the No Stuff Experiment. This year has been full of what-does-it-all-mean moments. What am I actually getting out of this shopping fast? Am I happier or more productive or more conscientious? (Is being happier, productive, and conscientious inherently good?) Has this endeavor been worth it?

As you might gather from the nature of these questions, my motivation has been waning of late. I’m still anxious to simplify, to limit the number of advertisements I see and the amount of crap I bring into my home or office, but my “I can’t; I’m not buying anything” excuse is starting to feel less enthusiastic and more like a burden.

In the last six weeks or so, I’ve ripped a couple pairs of hose and broken the handle off my flat iron. The flat iron still works because none of the internal wires/cords were severed (in fact, these cords are what’s keeping the handle attached to the iron), and so I’ve continued use it, though this requires a little finesse. But if I were buying things, I would replace both the hose and the flat iron—and I probably will replace them next year—which, when I think about it long enough, inevitably leads me to the question, If I’m just going to replace them anyway, why not do it today? Hence my dwindling enthusiasm.

But yesterday afternoon I came across a Matt Taibbi editorial about Occupy Wall Street in the November 24 issue of Rolling Stone that, despite its clichéd title (but who am I to judge?), reminded me why I wanted to do this thing to begin with. Here’s the relevant text:

Occupy Wall Street was always about something much bigger than a movement against big banks and modern finance. It’s about providing a forum for people to show how tired they are not just of Wall Street, but everything. This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become. . . .

There was a lot of snickering in media circles, even by me, when I heard the protesters talking about how Liberty Square was offering a model for a new society, with free food and health care and so on. Obviously, a bunch of kids taking donations and giving away free food is not a long-term model for a new economic system.

But now, I get it. People want to go someplace for at least five minutes where no one is trying to bleed you or sell you something. It may not be a real model for anything, but it’s at least a place where people are free to dream of some other way for human beings to get along, beyond auctioned ‘democracy,’ tyrannical commerce and the bottom line.

OK, clearly this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Although shopping fasts seem to be more and more popular these days, the No Stuff Experiment is currently a one-woman operation with limited press coverage and influence—even among my own family and friends. Plus, I don’t necessarily agree with everything Mr. Taibbi (who seems very angry in general) has written in his piece.

Still, just as OWS is about more than big banks and modern finance, this shopping fast is about more than limiting consumption. I jumped at the chance to join Melissa in not buying new stuff because I was anxious to step out of my comfort zone, which, to paraphrase Jane Adler in It’s Complicated, wasn’t actually all that comforting. I wanted, for six months (and now one year), to make for myself a place where I was “free to dream of some other way for human beings to get along.” I wanted to do something different, make some sacrifices, find inspiration, and improve my life in some meaningful way.

Even though the No Stuff Experiment isn’t a sustainable lifestyle for me (nor is it as easy as I expected it to be), I have satisfied most of these initial wants. This exercise has forever changed the way I interact with money, the marketplace, aluminum foil, and even the people around me for the better. Over the last ten months, I’ve significantly reduced not just my level of consumption but, more importantly, my desire to consume. Note I wrote “reduced” and not “eliminated.” I still want things, stuff, crap, but at the same time, I’m cognizant of and grateful for the plenitude already around me. My monthly expenses are down, my deposits in savings are up, I’ve paid off all debt and stayed debt-free, and I’ve convinced Channing that rushing into a thirty-year mortgage is not worth it (he actually came to this conclusion on his own, but I think it was my influence).

So, since it’s that time of year, I think I’ll take a weeklong vacation from beating myself up about the Experiment’s relevancy and meaning. Instead, I’ll focus on my rekindled appreciation for the people, experiences, and comforts of my life.

Happy Thanksgiving!

A Gym-Free Life

September 29, 2011

Yesterday morning I got caught outside in a mini thunderstorm. At 6:30, when I left the house for my five-mile run, it was super humid—a funky fall humidity that has been lingering for days—but it wasn’t raining. About five minutes into my run I noticed a flash of lightning. It was dark out and the flash crept up on me from behind. It was bizarre, but I couldn’t hear thunder. I figured I’d just keep going and see what happened.

For the next three or four miles, nothing happened at all. I saw a few more distant lightning flashes and heard grumbles of thunder, but there was no rain to speak of and certainly no apparent danger. The sun finally started to rise, and I could see breaks in the clouds. I thought I’d make it home before the rain blew in.

I didn’t. When I had just about a mile left to go, the heavens decided to open—big, heavy, soaking drops. You know the kind I mean. By the time I made it home, I was drenched from head to foot and happy about it.

Since I quit my gym membership four years ago, I’ve learned to love the rain. I run in fog and in drizzle, both warm and chilly, and I’ve been stuck in my share of downpours. And you know what? I haven’t melted yet. I also haven’t gotten pneumonia or, for that matter, any other weather-related illness. Sure, some of those rainy runs haven’t been all that pleasant, but for the most part, I like a good mid-run rain. It makes life interesting—and it makes a warm post-run shower all the more rewarding.

I can give you a laundry list of good reasons to quit your gym—learning to love the weather isn’t the only benefit of gym-free living. Energy usage is a big reason to quit. Gyms are pumped full of cool air at all hours, even when no classes are scheduled and only one or two people are around to use the weights and cardio equipment—machines that require plenty of energy themselves.  Add to that your drive to and from the place, and your annual gym-related fossil fuel usage can get pretty steep.

Time is another good reason. How much time do you spend driving to and from the gym? Packing a bag for the gym? Filling your water bottles? Wouldn’t you rather use that time to exercise (or sleep a few extra minutes)?

Money is the reason I left. In 2007 I was trying to pay down some debt and cut several unnecessary expenses. The gym was first among them. By that time I was running outside more and more often, and using the gym only once or twice a week for cross- and strength-training workouts. I spent the amount of a month’s gym membership on some basic equipment—a couple free weights, an exercise ball, resistance bands—and then I called it quits.

Money is also the primary reason I haven’t returned. I can’t imagine shelling out eighty bucks a month for a gym with an indoor pool when I can use the pool at the community center for $2 a visit (or Reston’s outdoor pools for $15 a summer!).  I do pay to go to a yoga studio these days, but while I was pinching pennies, I did hourlong workouts that I found for free online.

Oh, and all that exercise equipment I bought was not worth the money. Lunges, squats, sit-ups, and push-ups do the trick and require no financial expenditure. What has been worth the cost to me is the weather-appropriate gear, the headlamp, and the bicycle. But all of these things are optional (and have cost me less than the four years of gym membership would have).

I guess what I’m trying to say is you do not need a lot of stuff to get in a good workout. Nor do you need a big air-conditioned room full of equipment or shouting instructors. In living gym-free, I have found that exercise is one of those things that is most beneficial—for body and mind—when you’re doing something you love at minimal cost. I like to do yoga at home in my pajamas early in the morning, when it’s still dark outside. A walk or bike ride with a friend is pretty much always a good idea. And certain three-plus-hour long runs count among the most gratifying experiences I’ve had in the last few years (nonrunners will have to trust me on this one).*

I quit my gym in the middle of training for my third marathon, and I was very nervous about it. Could I cross-train without the elliptical? Could I strength-train without the weight machines? I could, and I did. For one thing, I started swimming again. For another, I discovered the miracle of free yoga. But, most important, I learned to love the weather—not just the sun and the perfect 60-, 70-, and 80-degree days, but also the rain, the snow, the cold, the ice, the blistering heat, and Virginia’s swampy humidity (OK, I’m still working on that last one).

*Not interested in a typical American workout? Here’s an alternative. Green gyms aren’t prevalent in the United States yet, but now seems like as good a time as any to start one, right?

Exception to the Rules

April 22, 2011

When do I make an exception to NSE rules?

When the stuff comes with the promise of lifelong companionship.

This weekend, diamond ring in hand, Channing asked me to marry him, and despite his flagrant violation of my no-gifts pledge,* I said yes, ring and all.

The ring is pretty and sparkly, and I love it. Still, I feel conflicted—but not about breaking the rules. I read chapter 1 of The Story of Stuff only a few weeks ago and learned all about the processes of extracting rocks and metals from the earth. The gold mined for my ring—just my one little ring—likely created twenty tons of hazardous waste. And the diamond was likely mined in an open pit—that is, a huge swath of land cleared of trees and inhabitants and layers of earth until the ore is exposed. Processing the ore involved enormous amounts of water and chemicals, as well as workers potentially laboring under oppressive conditions.

The bit of good news about the diamond is Channing bought it from a company that actually has ethical sourcing information on its website. The company, Blue Nile, adheres to the Kimberley Process, an international initiative to stop the flow of rough diamonds used by rebel groups to finance wars against legitimate governments in places such as Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, the Congo, and Zimbabwe. The bad news is the Kimberley Process, which has been around for eleven years, is probably not 100 percent effective, especially when it comes to cracking down on human rights abuses at diamond mines. Also, the Kimberley Process certification system is flawed. Several of the initiative’s African member-states have weak internal controls and cannot accurately track the origin of their diamonds. Yet those diamonds may enter circulation with conflict-free certification.

I talked to Channing about all this on Wednesday and asked him what to write. He said, “Write that you’re conflicted, but you’re going to keep it.” Well, of course I’ll keep it. It is the most meaningful thing I own. Channing spent a lot of time picking out the rock and the setting and arranging covert deliveries and pickups. I’ve never been so surprised by a gift in my life. A week later, I am still in shock. The ring is special to me, and I will treasure it. (And, by the way, I’m pretty darn excited about getting married to this guy. He is the most accepting and generous person I know, and he never fails to amuse me.)

I’m telling myself that my diamond came from one of the conflict-free countries that supplies Blue Nile—maybe Australia or Canada—so that I worry only about the environmental damage it caused. Also, I will definitely make careful decisions about jewelry in the future. We do have the issue of wedding bands to confront.

On that note, let me say we’ve already started brainstorming a “low-stuff” wedding celebration: consignment shop wedding (sun)dress, locally grown food, no registry, no gifts, etc. I should have a lot to write about in the next few months.

*Shortly after he presented the ring, Channing said something like, “It isn’t an heirloom and I didn’t get it at a pawn shop, so you have definitely broken the rules.”

Getting Creative

April 8, 2011

When the group of us did this experiment for three months in 2009, one of the participants shared a story about how she avoided buying a new personal calendar for the year. She created her own—using a spiral notebook she had on hand, some printed calendar templates, and a gluestick.

At the time, I didn’t have any similar stories to share—expanding one’s wardrobe by hemming pants and reaffixing buttons isn’t particularly creative. But in the last month or so, I’ve encountered a couple obstacles that required improvisation.

First was that knit-in-the-round project I mentioned in an earlier post. Like I said, it was my first knit-in-the-round—a handbag—and so I didn’t have any stitch markers (for those who don’t knit, these are little plastic rings that mark the beginning of rounds or where a stitch change is needed in a row). I put off the project for several weeks—it was supposed to be a Christmas present and was already well overdue. I thought I would eventually ask a knitting friend to borrow a handful of markers (I needed four). But when I kept forgetting to ask, I realized I had to just dive in and figure it out as I went. I considered using safety pins, but the needles I was using were too big, and the pins wouldn’t fit around them. At the end of my first row in the round and desperate for a solution, I reread the description of stitch markers in my copy of The Chicks with Sticks Guide to Knitting: “…they basically serve the same purpose as tying a string around your finger to remind you to do something.” Hello, lightbulb! I could tie scraps of yarn in contrasting colors around my needles to mark the corners of the bag pattern. This simple solution worked just fine, and the bag came out beautifully.

I encountered another obstacle when I visited my fabric pile to find material for an apron I wanted to make for a friend for her birthday. I discovered that, although I have a ton of fabric in a variety of styles, colors, and patterns, I don’t have much of any one thing. I thumbed through my pattern books until I found what was basically the smallest possible apron (that wasn’t for kids, anyway). The pattern called for one yard of fabric, but after examining the pattern pieces I decided I could do it with less. I dug up two coordinating fat quarters that screamed “birthday girl” to me and (as Tim Gunn might say) made it work—by eliminating a couple frivolous aspects of the design. Oh, I also had to make do with the thread I had on hand, which didn’t quite match (but brought an extra touch of whimsy to the thing). In my unbiased opinion, the finished apron was perfect, and the great thing about it is, although it’s small, it has one huge pocket, which should come in handy for my friend, mother of a small kiddo and pie baker extraordinaire.

With only three (or maybe nine—who’s with me?) months to go, I’m starting to think about life after the experiment. I’m hoping to make a habit of looking for these kinds of simple solutions before I go out on a whim and purchase what seems like a necessity. Becoming a more conscientious consumer is what the No Stuff Experiment is about, after all. Why buy something new when I already have what I need at my fingertips? Finding purpose (or re-purpose) for the scraps, the trash, and the clutter has so far been the most fulfilling aspect of this endeavor for me.