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!

Selling Old Stuff

November 3, 2011

(Skip to “The Guides” at the end of the post for actual good advice about selling your used stuff online.)

I’ve been on a real purging binge since early October, particularly since Fall Cleaning Weekend. I read Elaine St. James’s Living the Simple Life and have since started Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez’s Your Money or Your Life (the 2008 revised edition). Both books just make me want to get rid of everything I own. Forget no new stuff. I am ready to part with all unessential stuff—new, old, what have you.

In this spirit, I decided a couple weeks ago that it was time to unload my tandem kayak once and for all. Since I have no experience with selling on eBay and the boat is too large to ship (economically, anyway), I opted to post an ad on Craigslist.

This wasn’t my first foray into the wilds of Craigslist sales. A few years ago I hawked kombucha starter kits on the site—until I saturated the market (after only two sales). Next I posted ads for a couple twin-size quilts that I hadn’t been able to sell at a garage sale. These ads generated only one response—from a woman who lived a couple hours away and was interested not in actually buying the quilts but in checking out their craftsmanship. I guess the photos and descriptions I posted didn’t make it clear the quilts were store-bought. Ugh.

At any rate, I didn’t have especially high hopes for my kayak ad. And, based on the Craigslist and eBay selling guides I’ve read in the last couple days, my ad didn’t exactly guarantee my chances for a great sale. I did only the minimal necessary research: i.e., I found the description of the kayak on the manufacturer’s website and I read one or two other ads in Craigslist’s boat sales section. I modeled the title of my ad on those of other ads; it included the make and model of the boat, the price, and the location.

Among the other boat listings I didn’t see any ads for comparable kayaks that I could base the price for my kayak on, but I already had a number in mind. While I was preparing for a garage sale a couple years ago, I read something that said you should price all items for sale at around 50 percent of their original cost. That’s more or less the rule of thumb I used. Seemed fair for a boat that is ten years old.

In my ad copy I expanded on the title, and using that write-up on the manufacturer’s website, I outlined the selling points of the boat. I didn’t include a photo, and it turns out I also wasn’t particularly thorough in my description. I forgot to mention the boat’s age and the disrepair of the rudder. But I think I hit the high notes, and I offered the buyer paddles, life jackets, and a cockpit cover at no extra charge.

I received a handful of responses the day the ad went up, but based on my previous Craigslist experiences, I decided to be picky about whom I replied to. Most of the e-mails I received were littered with misspellings, asked for information already addressed in the ad, or were from folks who lived more than an hour away. There was one guy who offered me only 40 percent of my asking price—as if! I wanted to deal with a buyer who was reliable and conscientious (a diamond in the rough in the Craigslist crowd?). I decided to sit on it a few days and kept my fingers crossed for a well-written inquiry.

In the last twenty-four hours of my ad’s seven-day lifespan, I received an e-mail from a woman interested in buying the kayak for her parents for their sixtieth birthdays. She asked if she could see the boat and suggested specific days and times that would be convenient for her to stop by. She even used capitals at the beginnings of sentences and periods at the ends! Overjoyed at this stroke of luck, I responded and set up an appointment to show off the merchandise.

So here’s where I really messed up: I failed to prepare the kayak for sale before my potential buyer came over. When we walked down to the lake, we found that the cockpit cover had come off in one of this summer’s crazy storms, and the boat was full of rainwater and who knows what else. I apologized and assured the woman that I would clean out the kayak if she decided to buy it.

And for whatever reason, she did decide to buy the thing. Amazing. She offered me a reasonable price, gave me a 50-percent deposit in cash to hold the boat, and had her brother come to pick it up (and bring the rest of the moola)—all within five days. It was a ridiculously easy transaction, and I’m a few hundred dollars richer because of it.

As I work through step 2 of the nine-step program outlined in Your Money or Your Life, I will be taking an inventory of my possessions and their worth. Depending on my findings, I could be spending a lot more time on Craigslist and maybe eBay in the next few months. And if so, I’ll start to play by the rules. Below you’ll find the most promising online selling guides I’ve found so far. Happy hawking!

The Guides

Lifehacker’s A Seller’s Guide to Craigslist 
Zen Habit’s A Minimalist’s Guide to eBay: The Least You Need to Know to Get Started
Man vs. Debt’s How I Paid Off $15,000 in 9 Months by Selling My “Stuff” on Ebay
Sell It Now—How to Make Hundreds of Dollars in 37 Minutes

One of biggest points of contention for the original participants in the No Stuff Experiment was whether or not digital media counts as stuff. Is a book I read on a Kindle or Nook or a song, TV show, or movie I play from my iTunes library a material good? And, perhaps more importantly, is digital media a sustainable alternative to print books, CDs, and DVDs?

I’m not much of a technology buff, but I’m also not opposed to the advance of technology. I appreciate the fancy electronic gadgets in my life and the ease they bring to certain mundane tasks. I love a good word processor, for example. The Internet allows me to conduct my rudimentary research for these blog posts from the comfort of my home. Etcetera, etcetera. Still, the whole new world of digital consumer goods is a little overwhelming to me, and so I’ll be tackling the issue piecemeal. Today, because ebooks are too big a part of my work life,* I’ll start with music.

It’s pretty clear that by purchasing music through iTunes, Amazon, or one of the streaming services that also offers downloads folks are avoiding the environmental costs of mining, manufacture, and distribution associated with CDs. CDs are made from various mined metals and petroleum-derived plastics that are processed, molded, stamped, sputtered, coated with lacquer, and printed with chemical dyes until they look like what you bring home from the music store or, since those are a dying retail breed, Target. The jewel cases CDs are sold in are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a controversial material made from some potentially carcinogenic chemicals as well as some decidedly carcinogenic ones. And here is the kicker: the EPA estimates that, after all this mining and processing, 100,000 pounds of these products become obsolete every month and millions of CDs are thrown away each year.

In addition to saving us the upfront costs of manufacturing and the hassle of eventually having to find a way to dispose of these things in an environmentally responsible manner, buying from a digital music service saves us the fossil fuel involved in transporting CDs from the manufacturer to the store to the home via plane, truck, rail, and car. I found one study on this particular topic, and it was written by a couple university professors for Microsoft and Intel. The study compared six scenarios of music delivery: (1) CD bought at retail store, (2) CD bought from e-tailer and delivered by truck, (3) CD bought from e-tailer and delivered by air, (4) album downloaded as MP3 or MP4 files and used digitally, (5) album downloaded as MP3 or MP4 files and burned to a CD, and (6) album downloaded as MP3 or MP4 files, burned to a CD, and stored in a jewel case. The researchers concluded, “Purchasing music digitally reduces the energy and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions associated with delivering music to customers by between 40 and 80 percent from the best-case physical CD delivery, depending on whether a customer then burns the files to CD or not. . . . This reduction is due to the elimination of CDs, CD packaging, and the physical delivery of CDs to the household.”

Technology has undoubtedly made a giant leap forward in the eco-friendliness of music delivery. And with cloud-based services, like Amazon’s Cloud Player, Google Music, and Apple’s iCloud, delivery is becoming even more streamlined. These services store single copies of songs in the cloud so that multiple users can access them without downloading individual files into their personal digital music libraries. The Guardian discusses the potential energy savings of this method here.**

Still, we haven’t covered a bunch of hidden energy costs: powering our personal computers, charging our digital music devices, and powering and maintaining music e-tailers and all those server farms. And these are just the few power sucks I can think of off the top of my head. This brings us back to those original questions.

uno.  Is digital music a material good? I’d be hard-pressed to argue that digital music is material—it’s not physical; I can’t touch it. But it is “manufactured and produced for sale” (Merriam-Webster’s definition of the noun good), and it can clutter up your iTunes library as quickly as CDs can fill your shelves. Channing and I have a shared iTunes library on our shared home computer. It contains what to my amateur eyes appears to be every Grateful Dead recording known to man. With shocking frequency, I encounter albums in the library that I’ve never heard before, either because the music is Channing’s or because I purchased something and then forgot about it (shame on me). Just the other day, Channing told me he’s always surprised what is and is not on his iPod, probably because he has just as hard a time navigating our vast collection as I do. Moral of the story: if it creates clutter, I’m going to consider it stuff. I think we were right in deciding that digital wares fall in the “nonessential stuff” category.

dos. Is digital music a sustainable alternative to CDs? It’s better, sure, but I don’t think it’s especially sustainable. At least not while we’re relying on fossil fuels as our primary energy sources. Refer back to those hidden energy costs. Sigh.

Hey, I love music, and I want everyone to feel free to buy digital music with a clear conscience. No impact is an admirable goal but a tough one at this stage of the game (for me, anyway). So all I’m asking is that next time you go on an iTunes shopping spree you make your purchasing decisions with a little more attention and care than I used when buying those albums I still haven’t listened to. Think not just about the monetary cost but the environmental costs as well, and then, once you’ve narrowed down your selections to those you just don’t want to live without, pat yourself on the back for not buying CDs.

*I work in book publishing.

**This article led me to several other articles about cloud computing. If you’re interested, the Guardian discusses the energy and climate change issues surrounding cloud computing here and here. Greenpeace updated its cloud energy data in April 2011, and you can find that report here.

Spring/Fall Cleaning Series, Part 2

On Wednesday, I finished Elaine St. James’s third book about simplifying, Living the Simple Life. Around the time I picked this book up from the library, I also scheduled my first—and, I hope, annual—Fall Cleaning Day: Monday, October 10. My office was closed for Columbus Day, and Channing was out of the house at work all day, so it seemed like a great time to finally tackle the paper, office supply, workout gear, and crafting station insanity that was our office (note the past tense!).

And, then, inspired by some tips from Living the Simple Life, I started my fall cleaning a day early.

Fall Cleaning Day Eve, October 9

The first clutter nooks I tackled were my closet and dresser. I had actually cleaned out both of these clothing and accessory receptacles in January, in an initial, short-lived burst of purging mania. (And I mean mania. When I declutter, I am quick and brutal, but only occasionally methodical. Generally, I toss items into the donate pile with wild abandon, and I never look back. I highly recommend this approach.) Since it had been only nine months since my last purging spree, I assumed these would be easy jobs—and I was right. I cleared the closet of spring and summer wear I hadn’t touched that season and pulled a twin-size duvet off the top shelf for Freecycling (neither Channing nor I had any idea why we had this duvet in the first place). Channing gave a dress I had worn only once to his colleague; I’m donating the rest of the stuff. Tip 1: If you haven’t used it in a year, toss it.

Cleaning out the dresser was a slightly more delicate task. Channing and I share a relatively small, hand-me-down dresser with eight wide drawers—four for him, four for me. Keeping my drawers less than overstuffed is an extremely difficult task for me, so I knew I needed to make some hard and fast decisions. Taking some advice from Ms. St. James’s book, I thought about what I really needed in terms the two categories of clothes I store in the dresser, i.e., running/biking clothes and lounge wear. I decided to get rid of all but two or three of each clothing item (three running tees, two long sleeve tees, two pairs of running tights, etc.), and then I tossed some extra worn-out t-shirts in the discard pile for good measure. Oh, I also finally parted with a couple slips and some jewelry that I’ve worn maybe once in the last eight years. Tip 2: Be honest about how many items you actually need.

My next project was our linen closet, which was bursting with towels we never use. The biggest clutter culprit was our ridiculously extensive collection of dish towels. Channing and I each entered our relationship with a decent supply of dish towels, and since 2008, when we moved in together, we’ve received at least one set of kitchen towels as a gift every Christmas. These towels were taking up an entire shelf of the linen closet and were threatening to encroach on a second shelf. Number of towels we actually use? Maybe a quarter of our supply. On this go-round I cut the collection in half. I will revisit the issue in the spring. Tip 3: Don’t worry about purging every single unessential thing on the first try. You can go back for a second round.

The linen closet also houses bath towels, hand towels, washcloths, beach towels, sheets, and assorted blankets. I kept all of the sheets because we have only one extra set. I also kept most of the blankets—all but one or two of them are Channing’s, and he wasn’t present to approve discards. Per a suggestion in Living the Simple Life, I kept four bath towel sets—one each for me and Channing plus two extras for guests or for us when we can’t do the laundry right away. And I donated or Freecycled all but two of the beach towels. Tip 4, from Living the Simple Life: Keep enough for everyone in the household plus two. This isn’t just a towel rule; it can be applied to any shared household item, for example, dishes and flatware.

Last, I tackled our understair storage. Or rather, I tackled the excess of reusable shopping bags we store under the stairs. I figure I rarely use more than five shopping bags in one outing, so I Freecycled all but seven of the bags (you know, just in case). This effectively cut our supply in half. Oh, then on a whim I grabbed the old newspaper and back issues of Outside magazine from under the coffee table. The newspaper went in the recycle bin, and the magazines went to my friend Sarah. Tip 5: Give your old stuff new life by giving it to a friend or neighbor.

All of this decluttering took about an hour.

Fall Cleaning Day, October 10

The big day arrived, and I started early, with what I knew would be the most difficult and time-consuming job of the day: the office storage closet. First, I pulled my magazine file off the shelf. This file holds copies of magazines my writing has been published in. Taking some advice from Channing, who has eliminated nearly all of his paper records in favor of digital record storage, I decided to scan my clippings from each issue and recycle the actual magazines.  Bye-bye, magazine file.  Tip 5: Making digital copies of paper files reduces physical clutter.

Next I started going through our junk drawer and office supplies. I donated our rubber-band ball to Channing’s office, I gave some craft paper to Sarah to use in her classroom, and I Freecycled some (empty) notebooks. I chucked a couple pens that were past their prime and generally reorganized our supply of printer paper, card stock, and envelopes. I discovered a new yellow ink cartridge and loaded it in the printer, so we can now print stuff again, and I gathered all of my empty old ink cartridges so that I can mail them to the recycler. Tip 6: You probably don’t need all the pens, rubber bands, and paperclips scattered around your house. Collect them and donate them to the supply closet at your work.

I found a huge box of cassette tapes that I had forgotten about in the closet. I’ve set it aside for PC Recycler’s next recycling event. I also found that exercise equipment I mentioned a couple weeks ago—and promptly Freecycled it. Tip 7: Looking for a place to recycle something unusual? Try Earth911.com.

I needed a break from the closet so I moved on to our bookshelves—not just those in the office, but those in our living room and kitchen too. (While I was in the kitchen, I pulled out my bamboo steam basket and posted it on Freecycle—wild abandon, I tell you.) I cleared three shopping bags worth of books off our various shelves, including a collection of Shakespeare paperbacks from my school days (I have a Shakespeare app on my iPad) and my three hardcover Harry Potters (5, 6, and 7).*  The three Harrys will go to the elementary school where Mom works. Sarah went through the other books and pulled out some for herself, plus The Outsiders for her middle school students. I donated the remainder to the library on Thursday. Tip 8: Parting with books is surprisingly easy. Ask yourself, when am I ever going to read this again? And then send those you opt to purge to a good home—this will make you feel better.

The living room bookshelves also hold Channing’s vinyl—which I didn’t touch—and our DVDs. I’m planning to take DVDs of Gilmore Girls, season 2, and the Dick Cavett Show to the Record and Tape Exchange in hopes of making a good trade. Channing is going to offer his Rolling Stones DVD to my dad. Tip 9: If there is an independent record store near you that makes trades, take advantage!

Finally, I tackled my paper files, which I had stored in a green crate the size of one standard file drawer. Most of the stuff in my files was so old I could just shred and recycle it. (I took out the paper recycling three times on Fall Cleaning Day.) Other items needed to be scanned for digital archiving. I did end up keeping a handful of paper records, like printouts of my tax forms from the last three years, but I am able to store what’s left in the magazine file, which is about a quarter of the size of the green crate. I not only had financial records, old leases, and car insurance invoices; I also found high school and college papers and a notebook from the Romanticism class I took in 1999—twelve years ago! I tossed it all. Good riddance. Tip 10: Whether you keep your personal files on paper or digitally, I’d recommend a clean sweep now to ensure everything’s up to date and to remove obsolete records; then do quick, regular maintenance sweeps every three to six months to keep the time you spend on your files to a minimum.

The work isn’t done—we still have all of Channing’s office crap to go through—but I’ve felt a lot lighter this week. Every small step toward eliminating clutter counts.

*Full disclosure: I will probably buy the complete set of Harry Potter ebooks when they are released next year. Is anyone else excited about Pottermore?

Test-Driving Cookbooks

October 13, 2011

One of my favorite new hobbies since starting the Experiment is checking out cookbooks from the library. At the beginning of the year, I gravitated toward specialty cookbooks, such as The Gluten-Free Gourmet and Super Natural Cooking, and borrowed them one at a time. Once I got the book home, I’d flip through it, page by page, and mark the most appealing recipes that highlighted seasonal ingredients. Then I’d incorporate as many of these recipes as possible into our meals for the three weeks before the due date. I experimented with different pizza crusts, innumerable preparations for beans, and two or three sweeteners for homemade ice cream (honey is by far the best). At the end of each three-week trial period, I logged the best dishes in my iPad recipe app before I returned the book to the library.

Once the CSA pickups started in June and I had specific vegetables in the fridge that needed to be cooked pronto, I had to change my strategy. These days, I borrow three cookbooks at a time, and I favor more encyclopedic volumes, like The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook (first the “new classics,” then the “original classics”) and Gourmet Today. These types of books are more likely to include recipes for unusual ingredients like celeriac and to have several ideas for dealing with hearty greens. (Am I the only one who’s become totally bored with chard sautéed with garlic and kale and white bean soups?)

Each week after I bring home my veggies, I scour the indexes of my borrowed cookbooks for inventive ways to prepare squash and eggplant and green beans and cabbage—or whatever it is that’s now in the refrigerator. Sure, I could conduct similar searches on Epicurious or Chow, but I prefer a better curated collection. A good cookbook is the product of years of meticulous writing, testing, and rewriting, and even the larger tomes have personality and a point of view. For example, I trust Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook at times I need a cake to come out perfectly on the first try.  I rely on The Art of Simple Food for good basic recipes for soups, meats, vegetables, and pastas that can easily be embellished. If I need practical advice, say, an appropriate herb substitution for mint, I turn to the Joy of Cooking.

Borrowing cookbooks from the library has introduced me to new chefs, home cooks, and palates. I’ve become more familiar with the best of the best without sacrificing my limited shelf space—which will become even more limited if Channing and I can find a used butcher’s block to put in the place of our kitchen bookcases. Some of the cookbook authors I’ve met via the library, like Ruth Reichl (Gourmet Today) and  Lynne Rossetto Kasper (The Italian Country Table), write recipes perfect for my cooking style, i.e., local, seasonal, American, often vegetarian, and occasionally adventurous. Others have been less helpful. I checked out Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef a few weeks ago because I dig his food philosophy. But not one of the recipes spoke to me—I could find very few of my CSA veggies in the index—and I ended up returning the book unused. I haven’t given up on Jamie, but now I know to try him in a different season (spring, perhaps?) and to pick up one of his more recently published titles.

So I guess you’re wondering how I’ll use this knowledge once the Experiment is over. Will I go on a cookbook-buying bender? I doubt it. I’ve stopped logging recipes from my library books in my iPad because it’s time-consuming and just adds to my digital clutter (hmm, topic for another post?). I figure these books and tons more will still be in the library next time I want them (assuming they aren’t burned). And besides, how can I make a lifetime commitment of shelf space to a new cookbook when I haven’t even started my way through the library’s Jacques Pepin collection or cracked the cover of Baking with Julia?

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?

Most of you—especially those of you with kids, I’d imagine—are familiar with the household calendar concept. The premise is this: one calendar, posted in a heavily trafficked area of the house, that lists all activities for every member of the household. Maybe it’s color coded. Maybe it includes chores. However it’s customized, the household calendar is powerful organizational tool. And yet, Channing and I didn’t have one until Tuesday.

Here’s the rub: The new hubs and I have felt especially popular since the wedding. We’ve been invited to what seems like a gazillion dinners, sporting events, concerts, and birthday parties over the past seven weeks. We went to the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello last Saturday and plan to hit the Frederick Oktoberfest next Saturday (I’m hoping Channing will don some authentic lederhosen so we can get in for free). We’ve got a Riesling tasting to attend and tickets to football and baseball games. We’re running a ten miler on Sunday. To be honest, I haven’t felt all that busy—our activities have been fun, spontaneous, and, to some extent, relaxing—but we’ve overbooked enough times lately that, when Channing suggested we keep a joint calendar, I was thrilled.

But where would we get a calendar? Our home printer was out of ink, and since we’re no longer on those pesky bulk mailing lists, we didn’t have any 2011 wall calendars lying around the house. And we certainly weren’t going to buy a new one. Plus, I wanted something we could view both at home and at work—so that ruled out the iCal on our home computer. At first I thought I would create something in Numbers and share it with Channing via my Dropbox. But then I remembered that Google has a free calendar product that Channing and I could each access from our separate Gmail accounts. Yep, the Google calendar seemed like a good idea—mostly because I wouldn’t have to spend too much time on setup.

So, like I said, I created our aptly named “Calendar of Fun” on Tuesday, and I have to say, it’s pretty fantastic. The calendar is private, so only the two of us can view it. I set it up so that we can both add and modify events, just as we could on a paper calendar. As an added bonus, there is a bit of extra room for a description of each event, so we can use the calendar to share websites for festival schedules or restaurant menus with each other. Although I haven’t explored the option yet, I think our Google calendar will sync with the iCal, both on our desktop and on my iPad. Isn’t technology amazing? (I’m guessing at least a handful of readers are using Google calendars or maybe some other fancy digital calendars I’m not aware of. Feel free to share any calendar-related tips in the comments.)

Remember back in March when I wrote that post about reevaluating my use of time? Well, this calendar is another tool I can use to ensure I’m making wise decisions about “extracurricular” activities. For example, Channing has requested that we limit our joint weekend activities to no more than two. There are some nuances to this number. Generally we’ll count only activities that take us outside the house, but in some cases—e.g., parties or dinners that require both planning and hosting responsibilities—in-house activities will count too. Channing wants to ensure he has plenty of time to relax, and I have to say, I appreciate this. He keeps my hyperplanning tendencies in check. Only recently have I discovered what some college friends meant when they declined dinner plans with the excuse, “We haven’t spent enough time in our room today.” Spending time at home on the weekends has become an absolute necessity. It keeps me centered and provides peace of mind so that my workweeks are not just bearable but enjoyable.

Limiting our planned activities also occasions the opportunity for spur-of-the-moment fun. I cancelled all of my plans the weekend after our wedding because I needed to take some time off-schedule. That weekend I relearned how enjoyable it is to have the freedom to accept a dinner invitation received only three or four hours in advance. I finished my first long run in three weeks, and I think I even cooked brunch (a rarity after a three-hour run on a Sunday morning).

To conclude, I’d like to add one item to everyone’s weekend calendar: September 24, National Punctuation Day! For a few simplicity-minded, punctuation-related celebration ideas, visit the official NPD website. (I’m hoping to celebrate my favorite grammar-related holiday with Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison at the National Book Festival.)