materialism and minimalism

In my last post, I made a tangential remark about how conscious minimalism is a kind of materialism and I wanted to elaborate on that further.

First, I wanted to make the distinction between conscious minimalism and inherent minimalism, terminology that I'm making up as I go.  Inherent minimalism is when someone doesn't really like possessions at all and they are a minimalist without even thinking about it.  Folks who are inherent minimalists don't buy into consumer culture naturally, tend not to care about ownership, and focus almost exclusively on non-tangibles: their work, philosophy, religion, etc..  Their possessions are replaceable.  There aren't a lot of pure inherent minimalists, but what I'm really doing is describing one end of the spectrum.

At the other end, we have conscious minimalists.  They are very aware of their possessions and desires to own things, but want to curb those desires; they have probably accepted consumer culture to some degree and are trying to reject it.  They want to only have what they need and plan out what that is and why.  They see minimalism as a type of aesthetic or a desirable way of living and have to work hard to achieve it.  They are materialists because they think about and put value on physical objects.  Their possessions might be hard to replace because they have specific, planned functions or emotional ties.

In general, I'm more on the side of an conscious minimalist, but have shifted a little toward inherent minimalism at times.  I think both have their value.  On the one hand, it's really liberating to be totally free not only from excessive ownership, but the desire to own things at all.  On the other, materialism leads to a deeper appreciation of objects and their functions, which in turn leads to appreciation of our surroundings and peers.  If I don't appreciate the materialism of the meal that has been placed in front of me, it's a lot harder to appreciate the work that has gone into preparing it and the beauty of the preparation process.  We need both: the physical grounding and the elevation of mind.


bang for your buck, decision fatigue, and getting what you want

It's snowing like crazy right now, and already starting to accumulate, which is odd because it hasn't accumulated more than an inch of snow here in October since the Civil War. N is prancing about like a delighted little demon child. But I'm not here to talk about the weather.

I went to the local artisan quilt store yesterday because I was in the area anyway and knew that they were having a sale. A bit ago, I purchased a lovely alphabet quilt pattern with all sorts of animal on it, which requires a million different colors in small swatches, so I figured that this would be a good time to stock up of bits and piece for that quilt. I spent an hour in the store comparing this to that, and trying to figure out how much I should buy. At one point, I had sixty dollars of fat quarters in my arms, intending to buy them all. But then I decided that I was being ridiculous and that I should only get what I really loved and would regret not buying for that quilt. I cut the number down to a third, checked out, and left quickly--I was tired of making decisions.

I hit the grocery store immediately afterward, and when I got home, I made a to-do list then took a nap and didn't really do anything on my list until after dinner. School has been depleting me of late, and this was my first chance to relax in a while.

That whole experience got me thinking: I had infinite time and energy, what decisions would I make when it comes to consumption? How do I train myself to make good decisions always? The answer is in the last line of the previously linked article: "The best decision makers," Baumeister says, "are the ones who know when not to trust themselves."

My default used to be purchase something over leaving it behind, but now I've reversed that, and I think that that's a good policy for everyone.  It's the state of no change, and decisions can be made later.  Return policies complicate things, of course, as do annoyingly overwhelming salespeople, to whom I've fallen victim a few times.  

And then there's the need to keep glucose levels appropriately high for good decision-making.  Making decisions aside, I know I'm happier in general when I adopt a hummingbird diet, as my mom calls it: eating tiny portions near constantly.  Part of me wonders if there could be a system where a credit card charge would require a glucose check of its owner in addition to a signature.   I doubt that the credit cards or the retailers would want that, though.

In the end, list-making works best for me.  I make a list when I'm capable of making good decisions and then I need to make fewer choices at the store, as long as I stick to the list.  Knowing the product brands in advance is really nice too, which can usually be done online, even for grocery stores.  Part of the reason the quilt store was so exhausting was that my list looked like "1/2 yard of a variety of green fabrics for alligators, newts, and turtles," which requires in-store decision making.  It would be the equivalent of saying "spices for roast chicken" or "a few veggies for stir-fry" instead of "rosemary, thyme" or "carrots, bell peppers, mushrooms."

 Then there's the question of how much to get of any given item, be it fabric, food, or any other "consumable"--something you'll use up eventually.  I could buy a full yard fo green fabric, but will I actually ever use it?  How about getting my toilet paper in bulk?  Getting the most per dollar is important, but it's not always clear what to do.  Say you need one unit of product A and that goes for  $1.  You could also get 10 units of product A for $8.  Well, if you're going to use all ten units eventually and you have both the budget leeway and the storage space, then 10/$8 makes more sense.  Toilet paper, for instance would be an example of this type of product.  But if you might only ever use 5 units of product A and the rest will just sit there, then it's best to only buy what you need.  For me, lots of green fabric would fall into this category.  I'd use some of it, probably even more than the original 1 unit I needed, but probably not all of it.  If I only used 5 units, I would have really paid $8/5 units, which would be more than the $1/1 unit.

It's this second category of item that is really tricky, since you don't know how much you're going to use in advance.  For me, I error on the side of buying only the smallest unit that I need, or $1/1 unit in the case above.  Even if I have to go back and buy more of the product later, it's worth it to spending a little extra to only have exactly what I need at any given time.  When I choose not to buy in bulk, I think of the extra cost as a minimization fee--I'm willing to pay a little more so I don't have to worry about a lot of stuff.

I'm not always the wisest consumer, but I feel like I'm getting better.  In some ways I am a materialist in that I think about physical objects and how they impact our lives; I had the realization recently that conscious minimalism is a kind of materialism.  That's not to say that material things are more important than non-material things--quite the reverse in my opinion--but that material things are important, that they have value, and they are worth thought.  Unnecessary consumption seems a little vulgar, though I am certainly guilty of it.  But I'm walking down a tangent line.

The end point: make good decisions by eating well and making up your mind in advance when you can.  This can work for more than just being a consumer and is actually part of the GTD system in a way; sometimes it's easier to do something than to think or make plans about doing it.


where am i?

The expression "life is breezy" seems funny to me right now, since everything has been such a whirlwind this past week+.  I'm going to resist the urge to take the long, spiring rabbit hole down wind-life metaphor way, as tempting as it might be.  I'm exhausted and prone to laugh at ridiculously mundane things right now.

I've been taking grad work possibly too seriously, going in to the office every night for a week straight.  N finally called me on it, and I've discovered that not working all the time has done wonders for my stress levels, at least after the poster presentation and paper submission were done.

And then there's been church, which is all sorts of fun.  It doesn't really stress me out, except when there are conflicts of priorities.  Do we really need a seating chart for the primary program?  Apparently so.  But do we need to adjust a party's dinner menu to be inclusive of people with alternate diets?  Not unless I point it out, and even then, there's resistance.  It's no fun (and really tiring) to almost always be the outlying opinion.

Add it all up and I feel the need to establish my limits and priorities, to get a high level view of my life.  How do I get way up there, though?  Maybe the wind will carry me...  Okay, I really need something right now.  Maybe a tall glass of water.  Oh, and some chocolate cake.  Priority number one found.



1)  I've heard the saying "the best camera is the one that's with you" on several photography blogs, ofttimes defending the use of the iphone for serious photography.  My camera is a Canon G10, hefty enough to think twice about carrying it around with me everywhere, but still a point-and-shoot.  I was lusting after some DLSR cameras recently when I realized that if I don't take my G10 with me everywhere, why would I take something that was bigger?  Thinking that made me realize that I miss so many opportunities for photography all the time.  Last week there was an amazing praying mantis that looked like it was doing yoga on abandoned bicycle hangle.  Did I have my camera?  No.  After that, I've had two photo-worthy sightings right after leaving my apartment.  Tromp, tromp, tromp, back up three flights of stairs, grumbling "the best camera is the one that's with you."  So now I've been lugging the G10 everywhere.  Wallet, cellphone, keys, notebook, pencil, novel, camera.  My list of daily staples grows long.

2) I learned a new word today: heteroscedasticity.  I've been muttering it constantly even since, since it's a beast to pronounce.

3) An experiment in the kitchen: 6 links of sausage, one poblano pepper, an apple, a handful of spinach, and feta cheese tossed with whole-wheat penne.  Spicy and satisfying.