Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Science Fiction...is Weird


Science fiction is such a weird genre. So weird. It's a whole spectrum of weirdness from Very Science to Very Fiction. I want to talk about a super-weird little corner I've been reading in recently, but in order for that to hit the way I'd like, I feel the need to give some context. Spoilers: more than half this post is going to be "context", and I stand by that decision.

Most of science fiction is a part of a family of genre fiction called speculative fiction. Regular fiction is imminently plausible. It follows the rules of the world as we know it; speculative fiction does not. Speculative fiction has dragons and magic and faster-than-light travel and monsters and demons and aliens.  

 Here have a graph:

It's a rough graph. I made it myself. Don't think too hard about it. The point is that there is more overlap between various genre fiction than you might imagine, and as you can see, there's a portion of science fiction that is not particularly speculative, and a part that's so speculative it becomes a little bit more fantasy or a little bit more horror or both. 

The bit of sci-fi that falls completely outside of speculative territory is fiction built completely on known science. It might be out of reach at the moment for various reasons, but it doesn't rely on discoveries that haven't been made yet. The Martian and Artemis, by Andy Weir are good examples of this. They both involve known planets with known technologies and known laws of physics, only a decade or two in the future. The first is about an astronaut stranded on Mars while NASA tries to rescue him, and the other is about a heist, but on the moon, with space gangsters. 

So that's the least weird end of the spectrum. Most sci-fi, though, relies on at least a couple bits of science we haven't reaaallly discovered yet. Only theorized about. Like hyperdrives and subspace, sentient life on other planets, and time travel. Hard sci-fi is the end of the genre that's really serious about making all the applied science super logical and all the theoretical science work...theoretically. A good example of this is To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini. There's no question it's speculative, but Paolini worked really hard to make it plausible. Same with the Illuminae series by Jay Kristoff and Aimee Kaufman. Very theoretical, but with each major element explained thoroughly and logically enough to make it feel like something that could actually happen. 

This is in contrast to something like a space opera, which is a story much more concerned with alien cultures and space battles, intergalactic politics, and weird extraterrestrial phenomena than actual science. This is considered soft sci-fi. We're definitely getting weirder. Examples include Star Wars, Star Trek, and a great number of Ray Bradbury's short stories.  

And theeennn there's the truly weird science fiction/space fantasy, like Escaping Exodus and its sequel Symbiosis, where you have space travel, but all the humans are just parasites living inside space whales. There's very little science involved, and most of it is just made up space whale anatomy, but it still manages to be really serious literature about how for a couple simple reasons, over a few generations a culture can grow up really sick and twisted and find it all not just normal but sacred. 

I'd put Dr. Who here on the spectrum too, if anyone was wondering, in the area where sci-fi, fantasy, and horror all overlap. Not every episode is all of those all the time, but the best ones are, I think. 

But Dr. Who is not even remotely as weird as sci-fi gets. We're finally to what I actually wanted to talk about, which is the science fiction that doesn't care about the science and doesn't care about the fiction. It just wants to mock itself, life, the universe, and everything.  It tends to get classified as science fiction comedy or comic science fiction, but I really wish there was a better subgenre label because it is so much more than just funny. It's savage social commentary and equal parts satire and full-on mocking. It's also one of the only places I've seen literary criticism so thoroughly built into story and such flagrant disregard of the fourth wall. 

The first book I ever read like this, and the most well-known is Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. This book takes how it doesn't take itself seriously very seriously, and if you don't know what I mean, the answer is 42. The trick is just figuring out what the question is. 

Then there's Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente. I didn't actually love this book, but it's still a great representative of the subgenre. Basically all the civilizations in the known universe got tired of fighting over who was sentient and who had rights, so they just decided to make everything a music competition. If you can't hack it in the competition, you probably aren't all that sentient, and Earth, as it turns out, is not all that sentient. I didn't love it, probably because I don't like my sentience being called into question. 


But not everything in this subgenre mocks all of sci-fi and life in general. John Scalzi's surprisingly serious book, Redshirts, pretty much exclusively mocks Star Trek, particularly the absurd mortality rate common to, usually nameless, characters wearing red shirts. It's really, really good. 

Speaking of Star Trek, you know how all the inner workings of Star Trek ships contain bio-neural gel packs? There was one particular episode of Star Trek Voyager called Learning Curve (Season 1, Episode 16), where the ship's systems begin to fail and someone runs onto the bridge and says (breathlessly) something like, "Captain, it's the gel packs.....they've caught a virus."

And in that moment all I wanted in all of life was to see an episode where everything on the ship is just going inexplicably haywire and the big reveal and cliffhanger leading into Part Two is a Red Shirt running onto the bridge yelling frantically, "CAPTAIN It's The Gel Packs *panting in shock and horror* They've Become SENTIENT."

Um anyways. The funniest, weirdest thing, I have found in science fiction, and to be honest, fiction in general is the Rex Niholo series by Robert Kroese. Narrated by a near-sentient android named SASHA, who can't have original thoughts, the story is one long joke at the expense of science fiction, literature in general, and you. Not you in general, you personally. If you read the books, the joke is on you. Here is the series, in publication order, in all its glory. 

First we have Starship Grifters, which, while its name is a parody of Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, doesn't actually mock any part of Starship Troopers as far as I'm concerned, except maybe this: The point of Starship Troopers is that even with space travel, aliens species, and all the technology you can imagine, war is exactly the same, and soldiers are exactly the same, and nothing but the scale and the details changes. Starship Grifters is that, but with con-artists, and one in particular: Rex Nihilo, the self-proclaimed, "greatest wheeler-dealer in the galaxy." 

Then you have Aye, Robot, in which Rex takes the concept of space piracy to a whole other level. It's title is of course a nod to I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (absolutely nothing like the Will Smith movie), which is possibly the only work of science fiction whose ideas on robot psychology Kroese treats with actual respect by mining and then repackaging them throughout the series.

And then we have the shockingly satisfying conclusion, The Wrath of Cons, which is of course named for the second Star Trek movie The Wrath of Khan, which I remember as a terrifying film involving ear worms that I have never ever had the nerve to watch in its entirety after accidently being exposed to it  at not an appropriate age. And no, I have absolutely no idea why Blogger refuses to let me justify this paragraph left. 

Oh you thought that was it? No, there's a prequel called Out of the Soylent Planet, which has nothing to do with the first book in C.S. Lewis' sublime space trilogy, which is arguably not sci-fi at all, but rather richly allegorical fantasy that happens to take place on first Mars, then Venus, only to spend the significantly-longer third book entirely on Earth. 

Out of the Soylent Planet, gets tired of making fun of sci-fi and takes a swing at dystopian fiction instead, and it's great. And that's literally every science fiction comedy I've read. If you know of others, please tell me, I'm one hundred percent down for it. 

What about you? Have you read any of these titles? Is there a part of the sci-fi spectrum that you especially enjoy? Any books I should add to my list? I've been trying to read more sci-fi across the spectrum, so I'm definitely open to suggestions. See you next week!

Up Next (probably, I might change my mind): Unfinished Business, Part the Second. 

Friday, April 2, 2021

Loud Books and an Advent Calendar Reading Challenge

Loud Books

Do you have anything in your house that just screams at you constantly? Not out loud, of course, but in your mind? A pile of mess begging for attention? A dirty carpet demanding a vacuuming? A sink full of dishes asking what's wrong with you? 

There's this old Japanese idea that everything in your house has something to say: sometimes it's positive, sometimes it's negative, sometimes it's motivating, and sometimes it's just reminding you of basic responsibility. The theory is that the quality and tenor of your home life are highly influenced by this silent noise. If you have a lot of things sending negative messages and not much that has anything nice to say, it can drag down your mood and dim that feeling of peace and security that ideally fills a home. 

An example of something that sends positive messages in my house is my book collection. I have shelves filled with some of my favorite books in the whole wide world, and just looking at them makes me happy. Mostly.

An example of something that sends negative messages in my house is my book collection. Really it's just the ones I haven't read and the ones I was intending to reread a year or two ago but didn't. It's not that each book calling out to be read is a negative thing. I like getting excited about reading a book. The problem is that right now too many are yelling too loudly, and it's not just the physical ones on my shelf, it's the ones on my audiobook wishlist too. The longer I've owned them or had them on my list, the louder they yell. The more series I have going at a time, the louder they yell, and so on.

You'd think I'd be thankful knowing that I'm not going to run out of quality entertainment anytime soon, but instead the cacophony of books and series, things my friends want me to read and things I'm dying to start but I won't be able to for months, just creates stress. Isn't that stupid?

It's the most first world of first world problems, really shameful if I think about it at all, but that doesn't change the fact that I need my stress levels to go down and they're not going to go down unless I zero out my TBR shelf and the old end of my lists as quickly as possible and find a way to start over and start purchasing/borrowing/ogling books at a much more manageable pace. 


The Advent Calendar Reading Challenge

Toward the end of February, I took note of which books were the loudest and which were causing the most stress, and I created a challenge for myself. I pulled out my Advent Calendar with its 24 little doors, each door corresponding to a day of the month of... March. I wrote loud book titles on 31 slips of paper, and assigned each to a door. Doors 1-8 doubled as March 25-31. And then I set myself some rules and some prizes. 

I had to open a door each day and start the book written there. I didn't have to finish it, but, in an effort not to fall behind, I did my best. When selecting the books, I went for a variety of genres and themes as well as a balance of audiobooks (majority) and physical books including a couple of Manga. The goal was to complete as many of the titles within the month as possible, with the prize being out of reach until the end. 

Here's how it went: I followed the rules. I planned the challenge far enough in advance that I had no idea which books where where in the calendar, so each day was a pleasant surprise. Audiobooks I generally finished within 12-36 hours of opening their door. Physical books took closer to a week apiece, but they were spread out, so it worked. I ended the month with only two books incomplete, so I call that win.

Did the yelling stop? No, because I had much more than 30 books yelling at me, but the yelling is significantly diminished, which is all I could hope for. I expect it'll be a couple more months until I've really got it under control and peaceful, but I'm really happy with how much the challenge pushed me to accomplish. Here are the some stats:

I finished the Death Note series (two volumes), the Shatter Me series (three books, two novellas), the Rex Nihilo series (three books, will talk about in an upcoming post), the Edge Chronicles (two books), and a couple more at one book apiece. I caught up on five more series that haven't been fully published yet including Gilead (Question for all of you who read and adored Gilead, did you go on to read Home, Lila, and Jack? If so what did you think? I need someone to talk to about this).

I also read five sequels, getting myself closer to finishing up some more series (can you tell I had waaaay too many series going?) and nine one-offs including a little nonfiction. I want to stress again here, if you ever do a challenge like this you will need the variety. Too much of the same theme, genre, tone, character type, format, book length, etc. is likely to burn you out. 

Anyway, I finished, and I got to open my prize yesterday (which I ordered mid-month and left in the boxes). The prize was books, which in hindsight was a bit counterproductive. It probably should have been candles. Or yarn. But I did pick books that wouldn't add to the negative noise: continuations of series I've already committed to, and a couple I read from the library that I knew I wanted to own. 

So that's it! A fun, productive reading month. What about you? Do you like having lots of unread books on your shelf? Do you do reading challenges or marathons? Do you get yourself into multiple series at once? Does it ever feel like drowning? Let me know!

Coming Up Next: Sci-fi that Parodies Itself: Rex Nihilo, Red Shirts and More


Sunday, March 21, 2021

11 Books that Intimidate Me

On January 2nd, I posted on this blog for the first time after a lonnng hiatus. In that post, I asked if there were any topics y'all were personally interested in seeing, and two of you made suggestions in the Facebook comments: Danielle and Philip. I took up Danielle's idea in the very next post, but I have conveniently ignored Philip's until now, and here's why:

Philip, essentially, challenged me to tell you what books (or types/genres of books) I find intimidating and why...and then read those books and tell you if that feeling was warranted. So I figured this was a two-post type of endeavor. In this one, I'll tell you about 11 books that intimidate me and why. And then, at some unspecified time I will *mumbles* read those books so I can report back. 

Here are the books:

1. The Final Empire, Mistborn #1 by Brandon Sanderson

I find this book intimidating for really basic and boring reasons. It's quite thick. It's the first in a trilogy of equally thick books. And then there's another trilogy. And then there's another series with even thicker books. And then a smattering of standalones and novellas, all set in the Cosmere univere. It's not that I'm worried I'm not going to like it. I'm fairly certain I'm going to love it, and I'm going to want to read it all, and it's going to take over my reading life, and I'm just not sure when I'm going to feel ready for that. 

2. The Wise Man's Fear, Kingkiller #2 by Patrick Rothfuss

I'm also intimidated by this one for basic and boring reasons. It's over 1000 pages. The first book in this series was so engaging, I found myself in constant anxiety for Kvothe, which is something that's difficult to sign up for again. I've seen mixed reviews for this one in particular, and the third in the series isn't out yet, though it's been years and years in the works. It feels like a lot of uncertainty to take on, and I've tried twice in the past year and gotten only about 20 pages further each time.

3. Artemis by Andy Weir

I really shouldn't find this book intimidating. It is not long. The text is a bit small, which I find unappealing, but that shouldn't matter, considering the fact that Andy Weir's first book, The Martian is one of my favorites of all time. And honestly, I think that's the problem. The Martian was such an incredible experience both times I read it, I feel as if I'm nearly guaranteed to be a least a little disappointed, which is just not the emotion I want going into a read. And it's probably a little more about the small type than I think it is. I hate small type. Makes me feel like I'm bogged down and not progressing through my book. 

4. Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

John Darnielle has written several books, and they all intimidate me fairly equally, but this one I actually took out of the library and then returned without reading a word. I read John's first book, Wolf in White Van, and Wolf in White Van, like The Martian, is one of my favorite books of all time, but I haven't read it twice. I've read it four times. It's incredible, and I honestly don't think a human can produce something that incredible more than once in a lifetime, so again, nearly guaranteed disappointment. Wolf in White Van was also a difficult story with heavy themes, and I have no reason to believe this one won't be too. I'm just scared of it, okay?

5. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina is a tragedy, and I struggle to accept tragedies. I struggle to accept heartbreak in my entertainment without the consolation of a happy ending. And it's not as if I don't know what I'm getting into with Tolstoy. It's one thing to read a book you know will break your heart, and it's another to read a book that will break your heart in a familiar sort of way. 

It took me a year to read War and Peace. I read it off and on and slowly, looking up a lot of the French as I went, and by the end I felt as if I really knew the characters, and I really knew the life they lived and the bad decisions they'd made and the things that happened to them that were out of their control. The whole thing was mundane and happy and sad and good and awful. It broke my heart in that mundane way that real life breaks your heart sometimes. I finished War and Peace eight years ago, and I still feel it this way, and War and Peace isn't even a tragedy. I truly don't know what an actual tragedy by Tolstoy would do to me.

But. Lemony Snicket makes a very big deal of Anna Karenina in A Series of Unfortunate Events #10: The Slippery Slope, which obviously means I must read it and soon if I wish to remain a respectable member of the VFD, on the right side of the schism, and all that.

6. The Plague by Albert Camus

In college there were many intimidating professors, but arguably none so intimidating as Dr. Mitchell. At PHC, one does not simply get sick and skip class. You e-mail your professor directly and inform them that you are at death's door. So when I caught the flu that was going around campus, I e-mailed Dr. Mitchell, subject line: The Plague. 

He responded informing me that he had been very excited before opening the e-mail, having assumed I had picked up Camus for a little light reading and now wished to discuss all the burning existential questions with which I had undoubtedly been left. Dr. Mitchell was significantly less pleased to find I was simply not coming to class and proceeded to inform me that I Should read the book, and No he would not be giving extra credit. It's been on my list ever since. 

This book looks. Delightful. I mean just look at it. The cover. The title. Yuck. But. I've been thinking lately that reading it now, in the context of COVID-19, could be particularly interesting. I just haven't talked myself into it yet. 

7. Recursion by Blake Crouch

I really like science fiction, but I don't read much of it, which is a phenomenon in my reading that I do not understand. Recursion caught my attention when it won the 2019 Goodreads award for science fiction. Here's a bit of the summary: 

"At once a relentless pageturner and an intricate science-fiction puzzlebox about time, identity, and memory, Recursion is a thriller as only Blake Crouch could imagine it—and his most ambitious, mind-boggling, irresistible work to date." 

So um. Yes. I think this sums up why hard sci-fi intimidates me. What if. I am not. Smart enough for it?

8. Annihilation, Southern Reach #1 by Jeff VanderMeer

I would be similarly worried I'm not smart enough for the Southern Reach trilogy, but I have heard rumors that no one completely understands this story, and that is its charm. I've heard it's very weird. I'm worried it might be too weird for me. Not that I don't like weird, but I don't tend to like weird that defies understanding. I don't tend to enjoy chaos. I have no actual idea if this story is chaotic because no one I know who's read it has been able to describe it to me, and that's intimidating

9. Patient Zero, Joe Ledger #1 by Jonathan Maberry

Oh dear. Okay. My boss keeps telling me I absolutely must read this book and then, you know, hopefully the entire Joe Ledger series. Every once in a while he checks in and asks me why I haven't read it yet, and the answer is: It Feels Like There's A Lot of Pressure Here For Me To Not Just Like This Book But Love It. 

I could be wrong, but I don't think I've read a single adult action novel in my life. I'm probably wrong, but I can't recall any at the moment. I honestly don't know if it's a genre I'm into. This one is about zombies, and I do love a good zombie story, so I'll probably love it. I'm sure I'll love it. I'm definitely telling my boss I loved it. 

10. Safety Maid: Nancy Rose by William Wire

I'm not sure if intimidated is the right way to describe how I feel about this book or if mildly horrified would be more accurate. Why do I own I book I feel this way about? Ummmm. Well you see. My sister and I have this tradition. We give each other one self-published book each Christmas, but not just any self-published book, and certainly not one we think will be GOOD. No. We look for something extraordinarily bad. Last year I gave Liz a book called Harry Styles and the New York Apocalypse, and she gave me an annotated edition of Belinda Blinked #1 (if you know, you know). This year I gave her a work of "nonfiction" on QAnon (and how it's totally true), and she gave me Safety Maid: Nancy Rose. Thanks, Liz. 

11. A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken, with letters from C.S. Lewis.

I have read this book before. A long time ago. I think I was 17. My memories of it are somehow connected with listening to Taylor Swift's album Fearless for the first time. It's a love story. A true one. One that C.S. Lewis was involved with both before and after Mrs. Vanauken died. 

I remember deciding that this was the absolute standard in Love and Marriage. If I couldn't have this, I didn't want anything. Preferably minus the premature death of my one true love. The story was equal parts euphoric and horribly sad, and I really want to reread it, but I really want to reread it the way I read it the first time. I don't want to read it differently. I'm hoping my real life experience of true love will validate/mature/increase my experience of the book as opposed to dimming it in any way. But I'm scared.

I am, if you haven't noticed, frequently demotivated by my fear. And that's unfortunate. There's a lot about my life that I think would be better if I weren't so scared all the time of so many things. So, Philip. I'm going to read these books. And it'll probably take a while, I'm not going to lie to you. And at some point. I will come back and talk about them again. And I'm hoping that post will be rather  victorious. 

Until then readers, tell me what you think. Have you read any of these? Think I'm being silly? Or are you scared of them too? What books intimidate you and why?

Up next: I Invented and Completed an Advent Calendar Reading Challenge. In March. 

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Cleaning House Postscript: Waste and Wishlists

 Hey friends! Thank you to everyone who stayed with me for the whole Cleaning House series. It's been really fun. That said, I'm excited to get back to bookish content next weekend, but there's just a couple things I want to share before we're quite done. There are two subjects I wanted to talk about in the series, but couldn't find a good way to fold them into any of the three parts. 

The first and biggest topic is Waste. I got rid of a lot of things on this little journey, and it naturally forced me to think a lot about waste: my own wastefulness, and waste in general. The second topic I want to hit is how I'm handling wants and needs as they arise now, in light of what I've been learning--using a Wishlist Hunger Games system in conjunction with my budget. 


Let me ask you a question: if you buy an item and then, at some later point, you throw it away before using it up or wearing it out, when was the waste committed? Was it A. When you threw it out or B. When you didn't use it before you threw it out or C. When you bought it. 

Throwing away things I paid for, when I know I've not gotten my money's worth out of them, hurts. That's something I feel pretty keenly, yet at the same time, I've been pretty vicious about getting rid of stuff that's just clogging and cluttering my house and life. How can I reconcile those two things?

Easily, and here's why. The answer is never A. Not unless you're throwing away something you consistently use that's not worn out that you will just have to buy over again. Which would be really silly. Not-rich people don't do that. No, you did not waste the thing when you threw it away, you threw it away because it was already wasted. 

The answer is B. or C., and it's usually not B. It's only B. if you bought something with an expiration date and then, even though you could have and would have used it,  you just didn't. Like when I buy special dairy-free cheese and then, in an attempt to savor it, use it so slowly that the last couple slices mold. That is stupid, and I need to stop doing that. Or you bought something for a purpose, but then something changed in your life like you moved to a place with no lawn and don't need your lawnmower anymore. 

Situations in which the waste is happening at point B. often require attention and thought and perhaps a giant spreadsheet like the one I made to deal with my grocery problem that I talked about last week, but ultimately they shouldn't be hard to fix...unless they're secretly situations where the waste is happening at point A., the point of purchase, when you buy and bring home something you have no business thinking you're going to use, at least not in that quantity. 

I could buy veggies from Costco and "save money" on the unit price, but Jon and I are only two people, one of whom is out of the house and unable to take food with him 50% of the time. If I buy a flat of tomatoes, I won't have avoidable waste happening between A. and C. I will have waste that was guaranteed from the moment of purchase.

And that is the case with most things we waste that aren't food and don't expire. When I buy clothing that doesn't fit quite right or doesn't match anything else in my closet or doesn't match my personality or doesn't match my actual lifestyle, that's a guaranteed waste from the moment of purchase. I probably don't know that at the time. I never buy something thinking: I'm going to throw this away in three months, but if, at point C. I take note of why the waste is happening and take note of the lesson, then I can start to avoid point A. completely. 

And when I do make mistakes, it's best if I admit it right away, instead of letting stuff sit and get old and dusty. The sooner I admit my error, the sooner I can donate it and add value to someone else's life who will be able to help the item fulfill its purpose. 

If you catch yourself saying things like: I know I never use this, but I just don't want to waste it, stop. You have wasted it! You've already wasted it. It's wasted. You're not going to fix that by keeping it around longer continually wasting not just it, but also your space. Let it go. Let the guilt of it go out of your life, and hopefully, someone somewhere will pick it up from the thrift shop you donated it to and give it a whole new life. They can unwaste it. You can't. Forgive yourself and move on. 


We all know impulse buying leads to waste: of both money and a majority of the things we impulse buy. This is not a secret. The commonly-given advice on the subject is to never buy an item you didn't already know you wanted walking into that store. 

"I've been wanting this," or "I've been looking for one of these," was my most common excuses for not-impulse-buying something. But then I'd get home and realize at some later point that, while I had been wanting that item, I had been wanting or needing something else more that I just didn't think about in the moment. This is a common problem for me in stores: all the visual input, combined with audio elements and all the humans around, compounded by the dampening effect of mask-wearing, creates confusion and overwhelm that commonly leads me to purchasing mistakes.  

So here's what I've found works for me: 
First, at the beginning of the month, I budget a certain amount to use for books, a certain amount to use for clothes, and a certain amount to use for other things. The budgeted amounts aren't the same every month, and sometimes I budget zero for clothes or books, it just depends.
Separately from my budget, I keep wishlists in each category: books, clothes, and other. 

Then I play Wishlist Hunger Games. 
Actually, I'm always playing Wishlist Hunger Games whether or not I have budget that month for that category. Here's how it goes: if I think of something I want, I put it on the list. And then I check the list frequently. I measure each thing against the other things on the list, and when I have a bit of money to spend on that list, only the things I want most or need most make the cut. 

So that works well in the way that you'd expect, but something else happens too, especially when I'm checking, updating, and evaluating my list often: things just naturally fall off or change. When I'm measuring several wants and needs against each other, each really comes into perspective. After not making the cut once or twice, sometimes I realize I don't really want that item after all. Or I want something similar but different that will add more value or serve more functions. 

This method is working really well for me. I know I'm pretty weird, so who knows if it would work for you, but if you try it, let me know! Or, if you have a different method, I'd love to hear about that too.

And that's it! Leave a comment on Waste or Wishlists or literally anything. I love to hear from you all. Up next: 

[TBD #] Books that Intimidate Me and Why

See you then!

Monday, March 8, 2021

Cleaning House Part Three: A Fridge and Pantry Overhaul and The Grocery Spreadsheet

When you move into a new house and into a new kitchen, you put all your kitchen things and pantry items in the drawers and cupboards you Think will work best. But of course you never know quite how something will work out until you try it, but at that point, inertia is not on your side. Things have a place. There is a status quo, and it takes time and energy to make changes.

When we moved into the Hillsboro house in early 2020, I did my best to put things in the best places, but I didn't get it right.  Did I fix it as soon as I started to note the friction in my kitchen flow? Nope. It took me a full year to finally get up the nerve to take every single thing out of the cabinets and try again. 

And honestly, it wasn't that hard. After a year of doing it wrong, it was pretty clear where each thing made sense to go. The harder part was space. I don't have as much kitchen space as I'd prefer. Pantry items compete for space with kitchen tools and implements, so for me, space comes at a premium and every item has got to pay its rent. It has to be useful more than once or twice a year, and it generally has to have more than one function unless that function is a super functional function. You know?

It took me a ridiculously long time to realize you can baste just as easily with a spoon as with a baster. In fact, there are very few kitchen tasks you really neeeeeed more than a fork, a spoon, and a sharp knife to accomplish. I'm not saying that's all I have in my kitchen. I do prefer using a whisk to a fork, but I did finally admit that a potato masher is just not worth the hassle. I prefer my potatoes creamed with a hand mixer anyway. It is a truth, not nearly acknowledged enough that a vast number of things advertised to make life easier really only make life more complicated. 

Here's what I had to remind myself (and if you think this is a repeat of some stuff I've said in previous posts, you're right): you don't have to keep something just because it was a gift. People constantly give mugs as gifts. You can get rid of the ones you don't use. It's okay. Me, I break mugs so regularly, that I almost never have to worry about this.

If you're not really into cooking, than having a a bazillion electric tools and schmancy implements doesn't make a lot of sense. And don't forget to get rid of things when a new, better thing makes the old one obsolete (I got rid of my slow cooker as soon as I got a pressure cooker with a slow cook setting, etc.). 

And above all: don't buy it or keep it if it only fits the person/cook you wish you were, not the cook you are or have any actual plan to become.

This goes for food too. How many of us buy aspirationally, thinking we're going to eat healthy if we just buy fresh veggies, but in reality, those veggies only come to our fridges to die?

And speaking of going to the fridge to die...

My main fridge problem, I discovered with the help of Youtube, was putting my veggies in the crisper drawers. They'd be out of sight, out of mind, and I'd just forget they were there. So instead of doing that, I put things in the crisper drawers that I'm never going to forget I have, like beer, and bought a couple clear, covered bins for veggies to sit eye-level in the fridge. Here's a link to those bins. They're specifically designed to extend veggie life, and nothing I put in those bins in the last few months has bypassed my mouth for the trash can. 

I also got a big egg holder bin with a cover so I can stack stuff on top of my eggs without squishing them. It's the best. I'm not for all sorts of bins and dividers in fridges and cupboards, but these couple items were Exactly what my little fridge needed to function optimally. There's a lot more space to see things and move them around now, thanks both to the reorganization and also to THE SPREADSHEET.

I had never even considered making a spreadsheet for groceries before both my mother-in-law and sister-in-law started talking about it over a holiday dinner. I grew up meal planning. We'd plan the meals and determine from the plan what groceries we needed for the week, but with Jon's crazy work schedule, meal planning just doesn't work for me anymore, and neither does shopping every week.

What works best in my house is shopping only a couple times a month (including once at Costco!) and keeping all the basics consistently on hand so that I can make any of our standard and favorite meals at anytime. 

The spreadsheet contains every single item I like to keep in the house, from ground beef to toilet paper, arranged by shelf-stability. The lists for more perishable items are shorter and more flexible. Most items on the sheet are specific like "jasmine rice" but others are broader to ensure variety like, "easy freezer meal" or "fish". I always keep Romaine lettuce, tomatoes and onions in the house because they all keep reasonably well and are quite versatile, but I won't buy another veggie unless I have a specific plan for it. The same goes for any other part of the spreadsheet. 

I can go outside of my spreadsheet all I want as long as I have a specific plan, and I often do, but that's the whole point. I don't have to have a plan. The spreadsheet ensures I will always have what I need in the house to make a wide variety of meals at any given time, but not so much of anything perishable that I ever have to throw stuff away. It also ensures that I don't get overwhelmed in the grocery store trying to make choices from the thousands and thousands of options. Wins all around.

Anyway, reader. That's what's been going on in my now highly-functional,  yet pedestrian kitchen. I am not even remotely confident this post will be helpful or even entertaining, so, as always, your feedback is much appreciated. 

Next Up: Cleaning House Postscript: Waste and Wishlists

and then back to bookish content. I've missed it. 

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Cleaning House, Part Two: My Minimal Wardrobe


Dear readers, it has been a couple weeks, but I'm back. As promised, today's post is about my wardrobe and how my recent venture into minimalism has changed the way I approach clothes. Now, I'm not going to, for one second, pretend I'm a stylish person who has it together when it comes to dressing. I'm not, and I don't. This post is just about where I was, where I am, and where I'm going with my closet.

As you know, all this started when I binge-watched Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on Netflix back in December. Her first step to tidying was taking all your clothing out of your closet, piling them up, asking yourself, "Does this spark joy?" and letting things go if they didn't. 

And that's where I ran into my first problem. Very little of my clothing sparked joy, and I quickly realized that if I threw away everything I felt nothing about, I'd have nothing to wear. I'd been dressing on autopilot every morning for years, leaning into safe pieces and colors and combinations, not interested in what anyone thought, least of all myself. I think the last time I worried even a little bit about what I wore was when I was going to PHC and working to comply with a pretty strict dress code and an unspoken professional standard, but as soon as I graduated, all that went out the window real fast. 

I'm not really into putting a lot of effort into dressing. Clothing is not a vector in which I've ever really felt comfortable "expressing myself," and the more I have tried in the past to dress well by some indefinable standard, the more stressed and insecure I've become about it. The thing is, I really value being able to roll out of bed, dress, and be on the road in 15 minutes flat, and I prefer to be both comfortable and nondescript both at work and around town. That's just who I am, and I'm not going to put myself down about it anymore.

On top of all that, I have a problem with stores. I get really anxious with all the bright lights and visual clutter and choices, and downright panicky inside dressing rooms. It's been common for me in the past to buy something that that didn't really work just because I'd tried on three things already, and I just needed it to be over. Let me know in the comments if this happens for you too. 

A couple years ago, I thought that I had solved my store problem by using Stich Fix, which, if you don't know, is one of those subscription services that ships five pieces to you a month (or however often), chosen by a stylist who's never seen or met you. And honestly that worked fine for a while. I really enjoyed the service, and I got quite a few good pieces through it. The problem was that it lulled me into even more passivity about my wardrobe than I was already in. The result was what I just described: a wardrobe full of things I felt literally nothing about because I put exactly no effort into deciding what I wanted, going out, and choosing them over other options. 

By the time I finished my many rounds of decluttering my home and life, I had still barely touched my wardrobe. I could see the problem. I could admit that there was a problem. But I couldn't name it and I certainly didn't see my way to solving it. Enter Youtube. The Youtube algorithm is lovely. It does a pretty stellar job of giving you not just more of the content you've already expressed interest in (by liking and subscribing) but also similar content you didn't even know you needed.

Along with all the minimalism content I was enjoying, Youtube started recommending me stuff about capsule wardrobes and Project 333. If you don't know, a capsule wardrobe is an intentionally smaller version of your closet. You take out a limited number of pieces and wear only those for the next season, or whatever period of time you choose. Project 333 is minimalist capsule wardrobe challenge to take only 33 pieces out of your wardrobe (not including underwear, activewear, sleepwear, and loungewear) and only wearing those pieces (including jewelry, shoes, bags, and outerwear) for 3 months. 

The point of capsule wardrobes and Project 333 is to simplify your life and force you to be intentional about choosing pieces of clothing that mix well together. No matter how many clothes we own, we only have room in our brains to process a limited number of pieces, so we either spend a lonnng time in the morning, stressing over a unique outfit, or we accidently default to a smaller portion of our wardrobes: our favorites and our basics. People who have a love and passion for fashion tend to have a little more room in their heads for this stuff, but I am not those people, and you probably aren't either. 

The idea of a capsule wardrobe really got me thinking. I didn't like the idea of setting aside some of my clothes for months, but I did like the idea of owning a limited number of pieces and forcing myself to be intentional enough about choosing those pieces that it would work. I watched a lot of Youtube videos about what kinds of pieces people were putting into their Project 333 capsules. How many pairs of jeans? How many tops? How many shoes? What colors? Exactly how mixable do the pieces need to be? And then I made a spreadsheet. 

My spreadsheet is still in flux as I'm still in the process of determining what exactly I do and do not need, but it currently has 45 items on it (not including underwear and accessories). It's not a list of every piece I own; it's a list of every type of piece I either own, or think I should own: 2 Pairs Dark Wash Jeans, 1 Pair Black Jeans, 1 Pair Light Wash Jeans, etc. It's a comprehensive list of specific categories I need to keep filled. If a category is filled, and I like the piece that's filling it, there's no reason I should purchase a piece of the same category just because I see it in a store and it's cute. Likewise, if I go to the store looking to fill the category of "light-colored cardigan" I don't get to leave the store with a dark-colored cardigan, no matter how tempting it might be. 

Annnnnnnnd this is where I stalled out again a couple weeks ago. I had my spreadsheet and I had my wardrobe paired down to just what I needed whether I liked what was there or not, but I just. didn't. know. how to move forward. I didn't want to start shopping only to make the same mistakes all over again. I realized I didn't even know what I liked when it came to clothing. It had been so long, and I had changed so much since I'd last made completely independent, non-autopilot choices on the subject. This is when I started reading The Curated Closet by Anuschka Rees. I had initially planned to skim it for tips and tricks, but ended up reading it closely and taking notes instead.

Rees talks a lot about personal style and what it actually means to be yourself in what you wear. The book contains many practical, active exercises to figure out what you want your closet to be, what you need it to be, and how to get there, which is 100%, all of the above, exactly what I needed, and I would recommend this book to literally anyone. Even male people. It's really good. 

It helped me finally realize that my Jeans, Top, Cardigan "uniform" is totally okay and actually super efficient as long as I like it (which I do), that my color palette is lacking because I got myself in a rut, but I can totally fix that, that the ratios of my wardrobe should match the ratios of my real life (30% Relaxed-Sporty, 60% Casual-Smart Casual, and 10% Business Casual-Special Occasion), and that it is both possible and very important to walk into a store with a very, Very specific list and not compromise on it at all. 

And so much more. Rees stresses the importance of doing the research on what you personally like and what you don't like, what works on your body and what doesn't, and what your personal, unique style is in one sentence. Mine is "cozy librarian with a secret double life (presumably as a spy)." She talks about how to judge the quality of garments, how to make the pieces of your wardrobe work together efficiently and how to identify and fix laundry bottlenecks. She talks about the difference between basics, key pieces, and statement pieces, and neutral colors, main colors, and accent colors, and above all, the difference between building a wardrobe for the person you wish you were with the life you wish you had and building one for you. The actual you. The one who has to wear it. 

So as you can see, reader, I've started on a journey here that's not even a little bit done, but I am so excited. I am way more excited about my little closet than I have been for years and way more confident than I ever was about what I like to wear and why. The big thing I keep coming back to is just the desire to have less, but make it work better. I'll keep you posted.

Thanks for reading. See you next week! Don't forget to leave a comment!