Monday, February 23, 2009

Welcome to 1932

In 1932, the phone never stops ringing. Everyone is reaching into the depths of their rolodexes trying to find new business. You hear the notes of desperation in their voices. "I'm not gonna lie," they say. "Things are slow right now."

In 1932, you've stopped picking up. You don't have any business to give and you're so tired of trying to say no in the face of dogged persistence.

In 1932, no one returns your calls, either. They have 25% budget cuts, too, and there's not enough money to go around.

In 1932, Linda's husband has been out of work for nine months. He used to do something related to research and IT. Now he thinks maybe he'll try being a personal trainer.

In 1932, you go to McDonald's and hear six people in a row order off the dollar menu. You are the only one ordering a "value" meal. Did it used to be like that?

In 1932, you forgot to sign a new lease several months ago but the landlord hasn't asked. Maybe as long as you keep paying rent he figures it's best not to rock the boat.

In 1932, R. is scared to ask for vacation. They'll say yes but what if they realize while he's gone that they don't need him? He's good at his job but he's only part time--easy to lay off.

In 1932, you print things up on the office printer. You make the copies yourself. You talk about new products to offer and you come up with ways to shave $50 off a $10,000 bill. You're letting all your professional memberships lapse. You try not to think about what will happen if everybody else does the same.

In 1932, your company is holding its annual meeting in Hawaii. It was planned 7 years ago, when it seemed more like 1925. Bad luck, that.

In 1932, you pray that no one will quit. If they quit they probably wouldn't be replaced and then you'd have to learn graphic design or how to sell ads. You especially hope the woman who sells ads won't quit. She works on commission. There's nothing you can do to help.

When you were little, one of your favorite things to play was to pretend that you were poor. In 1932, you pretend that harder than ever. You're still just pretending. It still isn't that bad. You read Material World and What the World Eats to remind yourself of how it could be. You ate oatmeal for breakfast and kasha for lunch and will have pumpkin pie and who-knows-what for dinner. There's chocolate in your bag and shoes in your desk drawer and clothes, so many clothes, in your closet. When you come home the bed is warm and your boyfriend is waiting for you. No, 1932 isn't bad at all.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

100 Things

A small but well-publicized number of people have attempted to whittle down their personal possessions to 100 items. By personal items they mean that if you live with someone else, you don't include the things you both use, like living room furniture or kitchen items. Also, most people doing this don't include books or, sometimes, DVDs, and count, for instance, a week's worth of underwear as one item. Even with these exceptions, 100 things is a *very* short list--a very minimal closet might include 5 pairs of shoes (sneakers, work shoes, hiking boots, flip flops or sandals, dress shoes) and you're already at 1/20 of your total items.

I know full well I could never do this; while I'm pretty minimal compared to your average American, I like having a decent selection of clothes, accessories, and art supplies around.

Still, I was inspired by this idea to see how minimal I could potentially be, so for one day I tracked all the items I used and came up with only 67. It was a weekend and I didn't leave the house except to go to the mailbox, so I presumably used more items around the house than usual. And I included non-personal items like the treadmill and the items I used for cooking (measuring cup, pot, fork, etc.). I forgot to include the stuff I used while sleeping (bed, quilt, sheets), but I did include the blanket I wrapped up in while watching a movie.

This really surprised me. Only 67 items? And this was on a day when I read/browsed through several books (which I counted) and changed my shirt a couple of times based on fluctuating temperature.

One thing I noticed was that my computer serves many purposes. Before the personal computer era, I might have used several more items for activities that I did on my computer (red pen and multiple reference books for editing, DVD/VHS player and tapes for watching a movie that I viewed online, paper and envelopes for correspondence).

I spent most of the day in my office. At the end of the day I put everything that I hadn't used into the closet to see how long it would take me to actually need those things. This was a couple of weeks ago and so far I've only taken out a few things (stamps, scotch tape, crayons. Yes, crayons).

I also decided to start putting a slip of paper in books as I read or refer to them. I'm not planning on getting rid of the ones I don't use, at least not yet, but it will be interesting to see how many of my books I use in a given period of time. If it's ridiculously low I may have to consider doing another book collection purge.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

In Which I Make Kasha Palatable

Tonight I tackled one of the biggest challenges on my weird foods list: kasha. I bought this one-pound bag of misery in the form of a grain product at my neighborhood Mexican/Polish/yuppie grocery store about a year and a half ago for reasons unknown.
Kasha is roasted buckwheat, which sounds innocent enough. I think I saw the word "buckwheat" and thought, "Hey, don't some people make buckwheat pancakes?" It probably sounded wholesome and vaguely Wild West-ish.

Well, for buckwheat pancakes you need buckwheat flour, not whole buckwheat groats, which were the type of kasha I bought. Still, Joy of Cooking called kasha "irresistible," so I tried one of the two recipes in the book, "Basic Cooked Kasha," which yielded something vaguely like brown rice only several times less appealing. I ate one serving and kept the rest of it in the fridge for a decent interval until I could justify throwing it out.

However, I still had half the bag of kasha left, and it lurked in the back of the cupboard like a portent of doom for over a year--until tonight.

The Joy of Cooking recipe used only beef stock and egg, leaving the essential flavor of the kasha basically pure and unadorned. Tonight I added a pound of ground beef, an entire onion, tomato sauce, and the strongest spices I could find that wouldn't clash terribly with the Slavic roastedness of the kasha. When it was finished, I sprinkled it with sharp cheddar to mask the taste even more.

It still tasted like brown rice, but it was good enough to save it from the trash heap. It made so much I'll be eating it for the next week.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

How Little We Use

After purging many of my books about two months ago, I have approximately 244 books. I'm cheating big time with that number; I'm not counting a collection of about 200 paperbacks, nor a stack of books that I haven't decided yet whether to keep or discard.

But for the sake of argument, let's say I own 244 books.

How much do I use each of those books? How much use would qualify as adequate use of the book in order to keep it? Rereading each of them within a certain amount of time--six months, one year, five years--seems artificial to me. Many of my books are nonfiction books that I won't ever read again cover to cover, and others are favorites that I may not read for several years, but will then read several times in quick succession. On the other hand, if I look up one recipe in a cookbook in a particular year, it may not be worth keeping around.

So let's try to judge my entire collection of books based on the amount of time I spend using it.
Say I used each one for an average of an hour a year. That's much less time than it takes to read a book, but since I've already read all of my books and many are nonfiction books that I would use to look up particular facts for a total of much less than one hour, it'll do for an average. If I used each book for one hour per year, I would be spending 244 hours using my books. That works out to a bit less than five hours per week.

Do I spend that much time using my books? Not even close. Do I even want to spend that much time using my books? No; in general, I prefer to spend most of my reading time reading books I haven't read before. And an hour per book per year is awfully low--if I used a piece of furniture one hour per year, or used my computer one hour per year, would I keep it around? No way.

Based on this, I would judge that my book collection is still too large.

Seems like I should be able to apply this to other things--kitchen appliances, clothes. Some of my clothes spend hundreds of hours on my body per year; others see less than 8 hours of use per year.

Or I could calculate the number of items of clothing I have by the amount of time I would have to spend wearing each in order to get adequate wear out of them.