December 24th, 2014

Clothing Moratorium: December 24th, 2014

When I said every single day, I meant it.

Here we are: Christmas Eve.  We’re about to leave for my parents’ home, where we always enjoy Christmas dinner with my siblings and nephews.*  Because we are just that dedicated, I asked Mike “I have just enough time to either take a shower or do 5 Down before we go, which should I do?”

“Definitely 5 Down” Mike replied.

Wow, thought I, he is really into this project!

“Also, there is basically no hot water left.” he finished.

And there it is.

Today is a funny day to talk about this, but I was thinking about it today, so here goes. Back in September, I started reading Mr. Money Mustache (whom I’ve mentioned before).  His shtick is frugality (not cheapness, but genuine think-about-it-before-you-buy-it frugality).  Many of his suggestions were interesting to me and I consumed the entire blog in about 6 weeks.  I immediately instituted a one-week shopping freeze as we re-evaluated our purchasing habits.

It was apparent that having children precludes this from being a longer experiment, unlike the woman I read about in our local newspaper today who went for an entire year with buying nothing but groceries and prescriptions. Kids really do make this impossible.

However, in September, I put a personal moratorium on buying any article of clothing for myself for one year.  Interestingly, the only part of this that has given me pause is footwear.  I was unaware how attracted I am to shopping for shoes/boots.  I realize how stereotypically female that makes me sound, but surely I can be a stereotype in some regards, right?  The fascinating part about selecting one thing to ban oneself from is that it is manageable and easy, but it is also something that is surprising from time to time.  I love to drop in to Frenchy’s and look for vintage suits.  No can do.  My boss/friend Kate has been telling me about a fabulous vintage clothing shop named Daisy Roots I’d love to go to.  No can do.

But it’s also a relief.  It’s a break I’ve given myself and a good excuse to avoid getting something new just because.  I have no idea what I’ll do next summer when it’s wedding-attending season.  Perhaps I’ll have to bust out the sewing machine.

It has been a great experiment and it dovetails beautifully with this project.  It also makes me very cautious about 5-Downing my clothing: there is no room for error when there is a one way route for clothing.  Purging duds requires serious contemplation.

So now you know: there are other challenges afoot, and there is an excuse for me continuing to wear those ratty boots.

Day 54 Scorecard: 270 down, 1555 to go

* True story: I do not have a single niece…just 6 nephews.  Time to step up to the plate, brother Luke.

December 23rd, 2014

Book Review – Cheap: December 23rd, 2014

Just as I promised, I’m going to provide you with a book review, of sorts, on the book Cheap.

This book has a subtitle: The High Cost of Discount Culture.  This is a fairly accurate description of the topic of the book, but it’s also probably more cute than precise.  Do not get me wrong, though, Ellen Ruppel Shell is an excellent writer who takes her topic seriously and backs up her claims with research and investigation.

Some of the topics in this book are about things you already know: Wal-Mart sucks the lifeblood out of its employees, lowers everyone’s standards, puts every other local business out of business, and is, generally, the incarnation of evil.

Other topics, you probably do not know about (particularly if you’re like me and you try your best not to think about money too much). I found the chapter on pricing to be particularly engaging.  Although I’ve long thought about the sheer strangeness and seeming arbitrariness of how things are priced, I’ve never really educated myself about any of the reasons thereof.  I’d never really thought about the price tag as something that did not exist until someone invented it. They were just on everything and then they gradually disappeared with the introduction of the barcode (to the never-ending consternation of many folk).

Other things I’d never thought about: that someone invented the shopping mall concept.  The idea of stores along a building’s perimeter, with an open centre with escalators and elevators, apparently the guy who designed the first one hit on such a perfect concept, they’ve barely changed since.*

The whole concept was to lure shoppers in and trap them, all the better to subject them to an endless barrage of stuff.  And that stuff has become cheaper and cheaper as the world has become more easily transportable (shipping containers, Shell explains, “reduced theft, spoilage, delays, and over 90 percent of the cost” and thus, distance became immaterial).(p. 188)

Another interesting insight into how we are managed when we are shopping, was the introduction of the shopping cart into discount stores. Originally strictly for grocery stores, it did not go over well at first, but a canny discount store owner hired actors to use them, and the public was sold.  An interesting titbit to think about, next time you’re out shopping, is the effect of these handy devices: “Analysts estimate that shoppers buy one more item per visit when they have a shopping cart to put it in.” (p.38).  I thought of this when I went shopping a few nights ago, and I strode right past the shopping carts.  I have a terrible habit of going to the grocery store for one or two things and leaving with 20 things.  I should use this trick more often.

And then there is this: Shell talks about the fascinating phenomenon that, as human animals, are far more attuned to making sure we don’t lose something than we are on gaining anything.  It doesn’t matter whether we want the thing we’ve bought – we got a great deal – we didn’t lose at the game of getting a “great deal.”  This explains a lot, to me.

As for those “great deals,” Shell discusses the use of coupons and rebates.  Coupons are great and people use them…but they require a little effort.  More so, for rebates.  I have long thought (and it turns out I am right) that rebates are specifically designed not to be redeemed.  Shell devotes a longish section to the careful balance between making the rebate attractive enough to draw the customer in, without being so good that it’ll have an enormous redemption rate.  Generally, however, she writes that redemption rates “hover in the 5 to 10% range.” (p. 119).  Think about this.  This is insane.  Shell explains that we get the thrill of the good deal and we automatically see the purchase, in our mind’s eye, as being the price after rebate.  I have felt odd, I am not ashamed to admit, when I finally get that $3.59 cheque from a manufacturer (as I’ve done on more than one occasion) but dang it, someone has to make them put their money where their mouths are!

An interesting side effect of the cult of cheap is one that you probably have already noticed, even if you’ve not specifically noted it, and that is the lack of middle ground.  You can buy a cheap, flimsy, built-to-break item, or you can buy an expensive, sturdy, built-to-last item.  It’s terribly difficult to find something that is moderately priced, reasonably tough, and built to be repairable.  It’s become all or nothing.

There is a lot more to this book, I’ve barely skimmed the surface.  It’s certainly a fantastic way of forcing one’s mind to really probe into the rationale between how things can be priced less each year (Walmart “rollbacks” anyone?) and how things are priced in general.  It calls all sorts of assumptions and practises into question.  It will make you guiltily aware of the source of many of your things.

My only real beef with this book is that it puts too much onus on the “consumer” to be the solution. To be fair, this really is the target audience for her book, and it will make you squirm, but I would have appreciated a little more asperion-casting to be directed toward the giant evil corporations and their greasy, overpaid henchmen, but maybe that’s just me.

I bought this book second-hand, and it’s going on to my bookshelf, so if you want to borrow it, please feel free to drop by.

Day 53 Scorecard: 265 down, 1560 to go.

ps: today’s list was collected by Max, from Max’s room, and Max did the chalking, too.

* his name was Victor Gruen (né Grunbaum) and the first interior oriented shopping mall was Southdale, which appears to be still going strong.

December 22, 2014

Play-Doh: December 22nd, 2014

Mike stayed home with the kids while I worked today.  We’re so dedicated here, he helped the kids get 5Down going while I was not even here.  He even took a (grotesque) picture for your entertainment:



I think that bit on the left looks suspiciously tentacle-like.

It’s best if you don’t think about that too much.

Day 52 Scorecard: 260 down, 1565 to go

December 21, 2014

Cheap Toys: December 21st, 2014

You guys…I am ON to something here.  Suddenly, there is a reason when I announce I’m turfing crap from the kids’ rooms.  There is a method to my madness, a raison d’être. I told Clara, tonight, that I was taking 5 things out of her room, and she enthusiastically embraced the idea.  She was delighted with my choices, and happy to be “featured” tonight.

I think I’m going to plan to rotate through the children’s rooms for the next while, taking 5 things per day (with their permission and veto-power intact, of course: I’m trying to get rid of their junk, not their dignity and agency!).  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I came to this conclusion yesterday.

Why, you ask?

Well, yesterday, while Mike got all tuckered out doing his once-yearly shopping, the younger two kids and I scoured the (surfaces of) the house.  Often I avoid the children’s rooms because they are where the detritus of daily living goes to die.  Packages of all kinds (“I’m going to make something with it!!!”), re-purposed scraps of fabric (often “re-purposed” into slightly altered, but still scraps, of fabric), broken electronics (there is value to this…to a point), and tons and tons and tons of toys.

Right now I’m reading an excellent book called Cheap*, and I plan to write about it soon in this blog.  One of the key elements of this book is the terrible, but hidden, cost of all the cheap things with which we clutter our lives.  Children are often the biggest offenders, albeit as recipients of the crud, not as purchasers thereof.  My children are no different from most others.

It is terribly hard to avoid the allure of the big hunk of plastic, particularly when they are young.  There are few things more deeply rewarding to an adult than to see a child overwhelmed with joy over the thing they wanted so very much.

But that changes.  What was great last year is stale and boring this year.  Or this month.  Or even this week.  I feel like we’ve tossed our kids onto the giant instant gratification wheel of consumerism.  Of calling ourselves “consumers” rather than “citizens” or even just, simply, humans.  It’s not easy to step off the wheel…and we’re not doing it all at once, for sure.

There are glimmers of hope: the children are beginning to question their own stuff and the things we buy.  It’s such a huge mind-shift, especially if it is something you weren’t always able to do.  The thought of just wanting something and then going out and purchasing it would have boggled my mind 20 years ago, or 35 years ago. It’s incredibly seductive to just give in to the easy pleasure of going and getting whatever your heart desires.

But it turns out that heart desires can be addictive.  Soon you need more stuff to satisfy it.  You can’t keep it happy for very long.  The space between wanting and obtaining gets shorter and shorter.  Your shopping cart fills, your house fills, you become bloated and heavy and all around you is the waste, but you just want more.

Sound familiar?

It’s hard to recognize the path while we’re on it until we’re at breakneck speed.

So this is our attempt to plant our feet on the ground and recognize that a true heart’s desire needs to be earned, and it shouldn’t be transitory.

I’m not foolish, though, I know this is a goal and not one easily attained.  I can’t expect my children to be there if I’m not.  So 5 by 5, we’re getting there.  I hope.

Day 51 Scorecard: 255 down, 1570 to go.

* Which I bought second-hand, of course.

December 20, 2014

A Christmas Carol: December 20th, 2014

Just this morning, I was reminded of one of Max’s early Christmas lists.  Max (and Solomon, too) was a precocious talker and very verbose.  This may be difficult to believe for those of you who met him post age 5, but he really did talk and talk a lot.  It’s always interesting to have this insight into what a little bitty person thinks about the world, and Max was ready to fill me in lots of the time.  For instance, he once asked “why do I always have this yucky water in my mouth?”  “That’s saliva,” I said.  “Well it IS yucky water,” said Max.  True.

So when he was 2 1/2 Christmas was fast approaching, and I asked what he wanted.  He thought about it and provided me with a list: “a rocketship, an airplane, and a baby that cries.”  I loved the gender-freeness of his wants, and I endeavoured to fulfil his wishes. Interestingly, this list (in that order) was exactly what he said to anyone who asked him what he wanted that year.  He never wavered.

One thing you need to know about Max is that he was 3 months old when 911 happened.  That is relevant to this story, as the second item on the list was very, very hard to come by at that time.  No toys stores were selling toy airplanes.  Eventually, I located one at an airport, but I was very close to having a disappointed toddler.

The rocketship was procured at a standard toy store and I don’t remember it at all, but I know I got it.

The baby that cries was also relatively easy to locate, however, and I was very excited to see his reaction Christmas morning.

He was absolutely smitten with his “baby” and we, of course, asked him what he would name her.  Strangely, he did not even pause, but immediately said “her name is Carol.”  We thought this was a little too perfect, considering she was a Christmas gift and all.

Carol had a really great life with Max until he grew out of her.  At that point (when he was about 4) Carol was transformed into a bathtub toy.  And there she has stayed, for the next 9 years, and for 2 more children.

The heat of the bathwater, and the repeated fervent washings by 3 children were not always so kind to Carol.

I weep for all of humanity out of my faded, creepy, creepy eyes.

I weep for all of humanity out of my faded, creepy, creepy eyes.

As the years passed, Carol got creepier and creepier.  We would shudder to find her lying, face down, in the empty bathtub.

But she was loved and the protests were loud and passionate when we suggested Carol might be ready to go to the great bathtub in the sky.  She swam on, and on, and grew grosser and grosser.

I suspect her turns in the dishwasher (come on, people, I was desperate) no doubt did her no good.  Her once blue eyes turned an inhuman and spooky shade of purple.  Oh, Carol, you horror.

The ennui of it all: endless washing, washing, washing, never feeling clean.

The ennui of it all: endless washing, washing, washing, never feeling clean.

Did I mention that Carol had creepy proto-breasts?  This, I know, is something that can happen with newborn babies, but Carol can sit on her own, surely she is not meant to replicate a newborn?  I said replicate.  I know, I died a little inside, too.

So join me now, will you, in wishing Carol a fond farewell.  See, today I realized Clara had not scrubbed Carol in quite some time. Clara’s more fond of just lying in the bathtub nowadays, gazing upwards and humming.  Plus, she’ll soon be unable to stretch out fully in the bathtub, and I suspect she’s savouring these glory days.  Carol would just get in the way.

Bon voyage, Carol, you had a great run for a hunk of plastic.

Day 50 Scorecard: 250 down, 1575 to go


All Used Book Stores Are Not Created Equal: December 19th, 2014

Nearly two months in, I still find myself wondering, on an almost-daily basis, whether we’ll run out of things to “5 Down.”  But then I remember my books. I take comfort in the books.

Here is a conversation Mike and I had about books:

Me, “Are you going to take these books to X book-store?”

Mike, “Yes, eventually.”

Me, “Ack, fine, I will take them to Books Galore!”*

Mike, “That book-store is terrible!”

Me, “Why would you say that?  That book-store is the best!  I love it!  I buy and sell most of my books there!  Why do you think it is terrible?

Mike, “Well, the last time I went, they didn’t take any of my books, but when I go to X book-store, they take every book I give them!”

Me, “Right.  And have you ever bought a book at X book-store?”

Mike, “No!  They never have anything good.  Oh.  Right.”

There is a net gain when I go to Books Galore: I always return with fewer books than I took, but sometimes the margins are rather small. Tonight, I sold many books to them, and left with 3 books.  That is a good Friday night’s work, in my mind.

Day 49 Scorecard: 245 down, 1580 to go

* Which does not have a website, but it is in Coldbrook, Nova Scotia, and it is the best.

December 18/14

When Storage is the Problem, Not the Solution: December 18th, 2014

What do you say when you’ve taken your clothes off?  “I’m underweared!” (if you are my 6 year old daughter, at least).  But those are not the kind of drawers I am talking about, when I say I am getting rid of rainbow drawers.  They are not fancifully fun underwear of pride, rather, they are this:

Pride drawers

Pride drawers

I believe they are intended to be used for paper-stuff.  Likely designed for scrap-bookers.

I am not, nor have I ever been, a scrap-booker.  What I do is bake cakes. And I decided that this contraption would function excellently as a receptacle for cake-decorating accoutrements.  It really is great for icing tips and cookie/fondant cutters.  It is not, however, so good for things like leftover fondant, bags of coloured sugar, and Cake Release (which is, hands down, the greatest baking-related invention other than, maybe, the spring-form pan).  What is the difference, you ask?  Weight is the difference.

When these drawers are filled with heavy stuff they come off one of their runner-thingies (I have a background in engineering, can you tell?) and fall part-way into the drawer below.  Now ask me how aggravating this is.  That’s right, that flock of birds that just lifted off from that giant tree on your front lawn heard my response.

And now, gentle reader, I sense that you are thinking “gosh, if it does not function at all for the purpose for which she bought it, surely she must have realized this in short order, therefore, this set of drawers must be nearly new!”

Not so, friend, not so.

I have had this set of drawers for several years.  It is highly entertaining to watch as I am putting the finishing touches on a cake, only to realize I forgot the gold dust, rush headlong into the office and try to locate it (the drawers are labelled, but who has an entire category of “gold dust”?) while trying to open bent and twisted drawers.  If I were that kind of gal, many birthday attendees would have learned some new words.  Instead, we probably had some unwitting parents simply turn on their heels and exit before we could note their arrival. Years of fun.

And so, I put my thinking cap on a couple of nights ago.  “What,” thought I, “could possibly work better than this frustratingly frustrating tower of frustration?”  The answer was immediate and obvious: plastic shoe boxes.

I know, right?  I can’t believe it took me that long either.

Now I have a neat shelf of clear plastic boxes with lids on them.

And the moral of the story is: sometimes it is not the crap you need to get rid of, it is the storage container in which you have it.  Which is not to say that the boxes contain items that won’t be 5-downed in the near future.

Anyone want rainbow drawers? Other than my children, all 3 of whom have requested that they have it in their respective rooms.

Day 48 Scorecard: 240 down, 1585 to go