Monthly Archives: August 2012

My orange skirt will go to Africa

It’s the worst when your perfectly good rationalizations get popped like the over-inflated balloons they are.When I shelled out five bucks for an orange cotton skirt at a Brooklyn Industries sample sale, I told myself that I needed more skirts for the summer. Just a layer underneath that reason was the faith that I will manage my clothing supply properly. Inside the idea of “properly” is the belief that I shouldn’t own too much clothing and that I should be donating the excess to the less fortunate.

I grew up believing that having too much clothing is a problem because a) it means I might be shallow, b) it makes my room crowded and messy and c) it’s morally better to give away my clothing that I, in my selfish privilege, don’t even wear but keep around for kicks. The truth is, I loved shopping since I was a little kid. My room has been messy since I was a little kid. And my little sister was always a reliable repository for items I was only half willing to let go of.

But Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashionjust stuck a giant needle in my whole balloon. An excerpt of her book on Slate explains that we Americans donate so much clothing that one Salvation Army she visits in Brooklyn processes five tons of clothing. Every day. A tiny portion of that ends up in a thrift store. The rest gets shipped in gigundo squashed fabric bales to Africa, where guess what, it’s putting local textile makers out of business. And the more affluent African citizens become, and the more crap we send them, the less they want the dregs-of-the-barrel stuff we’re sending over there. Meaning they’re starting to want new H&M tops for $9.95 and our “donated” clothes might someday just end up in a landfill.

It’s a great skirt! For now . . .

One of Juliet Schor’s most memorable ideas in Plenitude (more on her book and ideas in this post) is what she calls “the aestheticization of everyday life.” Everyday life means that in the fall, you need a sweater. In the aestheticized version, you need a cute new sweater in the new hot color, and a pashmina scarf, and Uggs. And as clothing gets cheaper and cheaper, we can choose to go out with the old, in with the new with little hesitation. This is hard on our budgets, the environment (forget landfills, where’s all this stuff coming from?), and our fellow global citizens.

An article on Apartment Therapy referring to Cline’s book gives some great tips and links for recycling, reducing, and reusing your old clothes. My goal, as I grow up (maybe) and evolve (at a glacially slow pace) is to wean myself off of cheap clothing. No more letting a great price tag excuse me from really thinking about whether I need the thing in the first place and how long it’ll last. (Caveat: There’s a nasty ideological run-in here. Reading Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, I’m not sure I like the subtle restrictiveness that nice clothing imposes on women. Don’t get it dirty! Can’t run in those shoes. Don’t sweat in it – it’s silk!)

When I lived in Spain, I was told that Spanish women have very small, coordinated wardrobes. And damn if those women didn’t always look amazing. Of course, H&M came to that city the same year. But I still picture myself in the distant, ideal future as a classy woman happily living with a ten-hanger closet, a small dresser, and the ability to peel an orange with a knife.


On carrots, collectivity, and time management (part 1)

Once upon a time — back in college, in the early aughts — my friends and I made a weekly visit to the grocery store. We went to the closest one, a half mile from our apartment in Chicago, loaded bags with Cheerios and mac’n’cheese and pre-washed baby spinach and chicken breasts, and did the grocery-waddle home, speed walking with tiny steps and our arms dragging nearly to the ground, fingers turning a strangled white from the weight of the plastic bags. After those easy years, shopping seemed to get more difficult.

As my financial resources grew ever so slightly and the food and foodie movements began to grow and my attention turned from totally self-absorbed to slightly world-oriented, food shopping became difficult. Do I buy organic? Do I not buy carrots if there are only conventional carrots on a given day at a given store? Do I resign myself to eating fewer vegetables if they’re now more expensive? Should I skip the grocery run entirely if I forgot to carry spare tote bags with me?

A couple years into living in New York, I made two decisions. One was that I was tired of making myself the same meals over and over: pasta with tomato sauce, pasta with tuna and tomato sauce, pasta with bell peppers and onions, chicken, and salad. I realized that in the grocery store, my eyes really only registered a half-dozen produce items that they readily understood: red peppers, broccoli, carrots, lettuce, spinach, and tomatoes. What the hell were all those other things? Wait, wait, I see avocados! The second was that I was tired of spending my money on shitty food. The store near one apartment in Queens always had produce on the verge of going bad — I don’t think they moved enough stock to keep a fresh supply. Farmers markets and Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s were all completely out of the way.

So when I saw signs in the neighborhood I worked in for a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, I investigated, recruited some friends in the office (never did like to try new things alone), and signed us up. The way CSAs work is this: people invest in “shares” of a specific farm’s upcoming harvest, and they get their returns in produce, delivered regularly throughout the growing season. For farmers, this means more money earlier, less financial risk and instability, and the chance to connect with his customers. For folks like me, it means insanely fresh and delicious food at one hell of a price. If it’s a bad year, you get less for your money, but why should farmers have to take all that risk by themselves? They don’t control the weather, and they feed every one of us, which is kind of a big deal. I did the math and decided to go whole hog, buying a vegetable share, a fruit share, and a cheese share. It worked out to under $30 a week, and I thought that with a few extra bucks for bread, eggs, and milk, I’d actually be doing great budget-wise to get all this food through them.

Magical CSA lettuces.

Every single Wednesday after work we’d go pick up bags of food then divvy out the portions back in our office. We felt like celebrities walking back inside with overflowing bags. It’s hard to describe, but this food was just radiant. Think about the difference between a friend of yours that’s pretty good-looking and gorgeous celebrity. What is that? With people, I guess it’s usually plastic surgery, but with this food, it was just plain health and freshness. Coworkers would come admire at what we laid out on the kitchen table. I had fresh berries for breakfast every day, lettuce that didn’t even need dressing for me to swallow it and, to my dismay, more peaches than I could possibly eat. The thing is that these peaches were so damn good I didn’t really want to share them, and I greedily let far too many go bad in my refrigerator. Desperate, I looked for recipes to use them in and made incredible peach cupcakes with a recipe from Smitten Kitchen.

Smitten Kitchen's Peach CupcakesThe peachiest cupcakes ever thanks to Smitten Kitchen.

In addition to making me feel like a celebrity (eater) and a super do-gooder, the CSA taught me (well, forced me) to eat so many new foods, a gift for which I am profoundly grateful. A dear friend in Philadelphia agreed to join me in a one-new-food-a-week correspondence and eating experiment, which we recorded somewhat erratically in a joint blog called Dear Daikon, which we started right as I was considering the CSA. I recorded my experiments learning to cook vegetables I’d only ever eaten out before, if ever, like collard greens, fava beans, brussels sprouts, and leeks. My friends at work and I would talk veggies, too: “Have you used your beets yet? Do you know how to eat a kohlrabi?”

To anyone even remotely open to considering joining a CSA, I always say do it. If you can put out the money upfront, the value you get for your dollars is hard to beat, as is the delight in having heaps of gleaming food handed to you every week and getting to talk about it with fellow members, friends, and roommates. But I only spent four seasons — two summers and two winters — with my CSA. That’s a story I’ll tell in a future post.

Compost is gross. And beautiful.

I wake up on a hot summer morning and emerge from my bedroom. A sickly sweet smell greets me. Ah yes, it’s my food scraps again. They’ve been liquefying slowly, almost imperceptibly, for days, daring me to keep adding watery fruit bits or slimy flower stems to the festering science experiment I keep in a plastic grocery bag dangling on the outside of the cabinet door below my kitchen sink.

I notice some drips on the little floor mat beneath it, and scrounge up another plastic bag for reinforcement. I’ll have to take care of this pronto, but the first step is to get this out of here immediately, so I drop it outside my apartment door and light some incense to mask the stench. I make myself tea and fruit for breakfast.

One of my beautiful garden tomatoes turns out to be in worse shape than I thought, so I have to leave most of it sitting in sad pieces on the counter. I’ve learned to eat around the going-bad part, or the mess the bugs made, but I’ve also learned the hard way not to push my luck. It helps that I now know what I can compost. I grab my bag of rot from outside the door and add the tomato. Okay, I also throw in the half-dozen used teabags I’ve been stockpiling on the counter. (My roommate loves this.) Today must be a productive one, so I pack up my computer and head out, trying not to let the swinging the compost-bound bag at my side touch me.

The garden’s just down the street, but it’s hot, muggy, and mosquito-infested right now, so I skip weighing in the load I’m contributing to the compost bins. (We’re trying to track how much the garden composts.) I head straight for the bins and invert the bags. Something disgusting-looking always gets caught on the bag handles and won’t seem to let go, so there’s a good deal of shaking and weird arm gestures involved. Taking the cleaner outer bag as a kind of glove, I grab handfuls of “greens” and “browns” (fresh or dried out weeds and leaves, usually) from the other bins and cover the truly putrid deposit of moldy avocados, rotten tomatoes, egg shells, and hardened lemons I’ve left.

I enjoy a quick moment of pride and self-satisfaction, knowing I’ve pitched in for my garden community and diverted perfectly useful waste from a landfill. As I walk over to the garbage can to get these awful, empty wet plastic bags out of my life forever, some brownish liquid sneaks down my wrist.


My orange skirt and the idea of true wealth

Juliet Schor
Juliet Schor, author of Plenitude and this author’s intellectual crush.

The skirt I’m wearing right now troubles me. It’s bright and summery, but its flashiness is like a warning signal. I didn’t need it. I didn’t want to buy it, but it cost $10 and so I did. And that’s a behavior I’d like to change. As I write, my dresser drawers are overflowing but my income is limited, and I’ve got these monster ideas about my life and future and the whole entire planet floating around in my head. Here’s why:

When I worked at Freelancers Union, we had a little lunchtime “book” club to give us a chance to read and discuss ideas about transforming the economy and workforce. We read about parmesan-cheese cooperatives in Italy, union-built housing in New York, and communitarian politics in the UK. But Juliet Schor’s Plenitudespoke straight to me. And it spoke loudly.

In a nutshell, here’s what I heard: we Americans work really hard to earn money, and we spend a lot of that money to support a lifestyle that’s geared toward supporting our careers (an apartment close to work, dry cleaning, and frozen food).

All that spending — on Chinese takeout, gasoline, cable — takes a big toll on the environment. The more we screw up the planet with our consumption, the harder it’s going to be to keep up our super-productive economy. Basically, the planet can’t support our current pace of working and consuming. There’s a great but disturbing graph in the book with a simple rainbow-like curve representing how productivity and natural resources eventually both peter out to zero.

But after scaring the bejeezus out of you, what does Schor suggest? That we work less, earn less, and buy less. Now,  “work less” isn’t what it seems. She suggests diversifying your labor, much like you’d diversify financial investments. Instead of putting all your eggs in the full-time-job basket, where someone else pays you and you spend that money to provide for yourself, invest some of your labor in self-provisioning: entertain yourself with a hike, grow some of your own food, sew your own skirt. Invest, too, in social capital — friends and community both enrich your daily quality of life and give you greater stability.

The most exciting and transformative of her ideas, though (because I was already dreaming about the Four-Hour Workweek), is to move past the idea of sacrificing the things you love and stay enthralled to whatever indulgent, good-life pleasures that most of us say we’re working to achieve. Embrace an even purer kind of materialism. Lust after real luxuries like leather boots . . . just enjoy ecologically smart consumption by buying (fewer) expensive, high-quality, repairable boots and taking care of them, instead of bingeing on (loads of) cheap disposable treats. Are you cringing? I was at first. But ask yourself why. Can we separate real value from its false twins, status and fashion?

In other words, put down that Hershey’s kiss ’cause you’re going to have homemade red velvet cake tonight. And stop getting sucked into H&M’s seasonal sales — you’re saving up for one great cashmere sweater that’ll last you years.

Of course, millions are already experts on living with less. And some people earn so much per hour that they kind of overshoot and break the economic model. Lastly, I know my efforts will make less-than-no impact on the environment (I’ll get to that in a future post). But “plenitude” is about self-preservation as much as environmentalism, and if you suspect that our economy and planet are headed for rough — or rougher — times, it can’t hurt to get prepared.

I’m not thinking about stockpiling canned food and ammo, just about creating a life that . . . makes sense. I say this while wearing cheap clothes I snapped up from a recent sample sale. This is no how-to guide, no evangelical pitch. This is an experiment, and my already-pilling cotton skirt tells me it’s going to be a colorful one.