Life

2015 Year in Review

I enjoyed putting a review together last year so I figured I’d do it again for 2015. There’s quite a few things that don’t make it onto the blog as they happen.

January: Rang in the new year with my husband and in-laws. Attended a bowling fundraiser for Buffalo’s Women & Children’s Hospital. Went to a Sabres hockey game. Attended the Larkinville Ice Festival. Completed my third Whole30. Purchased a table for our dining room.

(Paul and I with friends at the Ice Festival)

Larkinville Ice Festival - Buffalo, NY

(Handsome husband at the bowling alley)

Husband bowling

February: Record low temps in Buffalo kept me inside most of the time, but I did get out to see a friend at RiverWorks (she was visiting from out of town) and I met Leah (a local book blogger) for coffee. I also visited seven locations on the Niagara Wine Trail in one day, and confessed to a childhood habit of removing books from the library without checking them out.

(There was a literal mountain of snow in our yard in February)

Snow in our yard

(Hanging out with lady friends at a winery)

Niagara Wine Trail

March: Drove out to see frozen Niagara Falls. Had plans to spend a long weekend in DC but my flight was canceled (due to a snowstorm in DC, not Buffalo). Had a new furnace installed in our house because the old one kept breaking down. Attended the Buffalo Home Show. Met my friend Jaclyn’s new son.

(Husband and in-laws at frozen Niagara Falls. It’s so frozen, you can’t see anything in the background!)

Frozen Niagara Falls

(Me and “Nugget”)

Zan and baby

April: Visited a friend’s lake house in Sunset Bay for Easter. Spent a Saturday morning checking out Horsefeathers Winter Market, Five Points Bakery, and West Side Bazaar. Toured the Buffalo Naval and Military Park. Received a bunch of feedback after admitting I didn’t know if I wanted to have a baby.

(Interior of Five Points Bakery)

Five Points Bakery

(One of the ships at the Naval and Military Park)

Buffalo Naval and Military Park

May: Had the roof replaced on our house. Enjoyed the cherry blossoms at the Buffalo History Museum. Hiked at Reinstein Woods. Traveled to DC for a long weekend, met up with a bunch of friends, and stayed overnight in Baltimore. Returned to the lake house in Sunset Bay for the second time. Drove to Virginia Beach for my sister Elissa’s wedding.

(Having a bit of fun at Reinstein Woods)

Me at Reinstein Woods

(Visiting the Baltimore Farmers’ Market with my friend Shannon)

Baltimore Farmers' Market

(It was a beautiful day for my sister’s wedding)

Wedding

June: Had central air installed in our house (we’d paid for it earlier in the year when we bought the furnace). Took a week off work over my 35th birthday and traveled to Newport Beach and Las Vegas. Sold one of our cars and became a one-car household. Saw Imagine Dragons in concert. My nephew Hudson was born. Wrote about conquering my eating disorder.

(The Mission at San Juan Capistrano)

Mission San Juan Capistrano

(Paul at The Venetian in Las Vegas)

Paul at Venetian

July: Saw Romeo & Juliet performed at Shakespeare in Delaware Park. Back to the lake house in Sunset Bay for Independence Day. Attended Taste of Buffalo for the second time. Atended my third City of Night in the Old First Ward (I didn’t like it nearly as much as the first two). Celebrated Paul’s birthday at 716 Food and Sport. Attended a Bisons baseball game. Flexed my minimalism skills and donated a bunch of stuff to charity.

(Straddling an alligator at Sunset Bay — no, I didn’t make this)

Sunset Bay, NY

(This is some of the stuff I donated)

IMG_20150724_175343959

August: Hiked at Devil’s Hole State Park. Checked out the Eden Corn Festival. Had trenches dug in our front yard so our basement would stop flooding during heavy rain. Hiked at Chestnut Ridge Park and viewed the Eternal Flame. Enjoyed food trucks at Larkin Square Food Truck Tuesday. Received our first Porter Farms CSA delivery (we signed up halfway through the season, but next year will participate for the entire thing). Enjoyed the art (and people-watching) at the Elmwood Arts Festival.

(View from the Devil’s Hole hike)

Devil's Hole

(Eternal Flame)

Eternal Flame, Chestnut Ridge Park

(Our front yard was all dug up when they installed the pipes to divert water from our basement)

Trenches

September: Traveled to Lockport, NY for the first time. Took my second trip of the year to DC, spending most of the weekend with two girlfriends. Embraced the Blue Zones and stopped eating meat (except seafood). Hosted my sister, brother-in-law, and then 3-month-old nephew Hudson at my house in Buffalo. Took them to a bunch of places that I love but don’t get to see nearly often enough.

(The Upside-Down Railroad Bridge in Lockport, NY)

Upside-Down Railroad Bridge, Lockport NY

(Me and Elissa)

Me and Liss

October: Watched a friend perform in the Buffalo Porchfest. Walked around picturesque Hoyt Lake. Attended the first half of TEDxBuffalo 2015 (I left during intermission…I didn’t find the speakers entertaining). Visited the Buffalo Zoo when my employer offered a free admission weekend.

(See? I told you Hoyt Lake is beautiful.)

Hoyt Lake

November: Drove to Virginia Beach for the second time. Took a long walk around Niawanda Park. Celebrated Thanksgiving with my husband’s family.

(We rode in my brother-in-law’s boat to each lunch at Dockside in Virginia Beach.)

Dockside restaurant

(Is there anything cuter than my nephew Hudson chilling with his Labradoodle?)

Hudson and Walter

December: Celebrated my two-year wedding anniversary with a five-mile walk and dinner at Merge. Hosted Paul’s parents for our annual Love Actually viewing. Watched football at Jaclyn‘s house. Celebrated Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve at my in-laws’ house.

(I was out for a walk one glorious Sunday afternoon in December when I encountered this breathtaking sunset.)

Sunset

What was your favorite event of 2015?

Books

Books Read in December 2015

I read 15 books in December, which brings my 2015 total to 137.

December was a difficult reading month for me. I started at least eight (!) books I didn’t finish (and those are the ones I remember; I think there may have been one or two more). To be fair, some of them were checked out from the library simply because they happened to be available — this happens more often with e-books and audiobooks because the selection isn’t as wide, so I end up checking them out just to have something to read, and then I don’t finish them. I do have a number of e-books on hold that I’m looking forward to.

For 2016, will I set a goal to read more books than I did this year? No. I feel no desire to surpass this number unless it ends up working out that way on its own. If I find something else to take up my time, that’s perfectly okay with me. I’ll always be reading; it just may not be as much as this colossal year.

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.

Recommended

steinem

1) My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem

Description: Steinem had an itinerant childhood. When she was a young girl, her father would pack the family in the car and drive cross-country searching for adventure and trying to make a living. The seeds were planted: Gloria realized that growing up didn’t have to mean settling down. And so began a lifetime of travel, of activism and leadership, of listening to people whose voices and ideas would inspire change and revolution.

I knew who Steinem was but I’d never read a book about her, or written by her, before this one. Other than the chapter on politics, I liked it a lot. What an impressive, hard working woman.

2) Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person, Shonda Rhimes

Description: She’s the creator and producer of some of the most groundbreaking shows on TV: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder. This memoir chronicles Shonda’s life before and after her Year of Yes, where she forced herself out of the house and onto the stage, appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live; giving a Dartmouth commencement speech; when she learned to say yes to her health; yes to play; when she learned to explore, empower, applaud, and love her truest self.

I recommend this book because it’s a fun read, but certain parts of it bugged me. In three separate chapters, Shonda recaps the ENTIRE text of speeches she gave — which just seems lazy. It’s comparable to a blogger getting a book deal and lifting too much text directly from their blog, rather than coming up with new material.

I also expected Shonda’s Year of Yes to be more specific, rather than doing things like “saying yes to losing weight” and “saying yes to accepting compliments rather than constantly deflecting them.” She’s an entertaining writer though, and I got through the book quickly.

Here’s what she said about her life before starting the Year of Yes: “The years and years of saying no were, for me, a quiet way to let go. A silent means of giving up. An easy withdrawal from the world, from light, from life. Saying no was a way to disappear. Saying no was my own slow form of suicide.”

3) French Twist: An American Mom’s Experiment in Parisian Parenting, Catherine Crawford

Description: Short of shipping her daughters off to Paris for invaluable early-life lessons, Crawford did the next best thing: she brought French-style parenting to Brooklyn. In the process, she discovered her kids could actually hold a thought silently for two minutes without interrupting adult conversation, and that she didn’t need to buy out half the toy store to make their birthdays special. While combining the best attributes of the approach français with what she saw as American qualities worth preserving, Crawford found a way to save her household and her sanity.

I’m not a parent, but I like to read about the French and their child-rearing methods (I also enjoyed Bringing Up Bébé). The author makes the point that the French are, of course, not perfect in their methods — she doesn’t believe in spanking her kids, for instance — but there are many things we can learn, and she sees a big difference in her two girls’ behavior when she does.

4) Everything That Remains: A Memoir by The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn

Description: Twenty-something, suit-clad, and upwardly mobile, Joshua thought he had everything anyone could ever want. Until he didn’t anymore. In the pursuit of looking for something more substantial than compulsory consumption, he jettisoned most of his material possessions, paid off loads of crippling debt, and walked away from his six-figure career. This is a story of what happened when one man decided to let go of everything and begin living more deliberately.

I’ve been reading The Minimalists for years — I really admire them (check out their recent post on Minimalist Gift-Giving for the holidays). They both gave up six-figure jobs to live more meaningfully and encourage others to simplify their lives. The book repeats a lot of what I already knew about them (having read their blog for so long), but I definitely encourage others to pick it up.

5) Bastards: A Memoir, Mary Anna King

Description: In the early 1980s, Mary Hall is growing up in poverty in Camden, New Jersey, with her older brother and parents who, in her words, were “great at making babies, but not so great at holding on to them.” After her father leaves the family, she is raised among a commune of mothers in a low-income housing complex. Then, no longer able to care for the only daughter she has left at home, Mary’s mother sends her to Oklahoma to live with her maternal grandparents, who have also been raising her younger sister. When Mary is legally adopted by her grandparents, the result is a family story like no other.

A woman has seven children and ends up giving six of them up for adoption. What. The. Hell. The kids find each other again later in life, and it’s both heartwarming and sad, but it was hard for me to get past the mother’s actions. She wasn’t on drugs, she wasn’t mentally handicapped. She was just lazy with her birth control. God, I wanted to slap her.

6) Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself, Amy Richards

Description: Richards addresses the anxiety over parenting that women face today, in a mix of memoir, interviews, historical analysis, and feminist insight. She covers everything from the truth about our biological clocks and the trends toward extending fertility, to parenting with nature and nurturing in mind, to our relationship with our own mothers, to what feminism’s relationship to motherhood is and always has been.

This book gave me some things to think about that I hadn’t considered before. I liked how the author shares her thoughts and worldview without judging other women’s choices.

Okay

7) Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath, Ted Koppel

Description: Imagine a blackout lasting not days, but weeks or months. Tens of millions of people are affected. For those without access to a generator, there is no running water, no sewage, no refrigeration or light. Food and medical supplies are dwindling. Banks no longer function, looting is widespread, and law and order are being tested as never before. With urgency and authority, one of our most renowned journalists examines a threat unique to our time and evaluates potential ways to prepare for a catastrophe that is all but inevitable.

I put this book on hold at the library after watching an interview with Koppel on CBS Sunday Morning. Although my pantry likely holds more items than someone who doesn’t cook at home regularly, I don’t buy food with the intention of stockpiling for a future doomsday. We don’t own a generator, or a grill, or any other way to heat food (unless you count a book of matches and some brush in our backyard we could set on fire), which means many of our perishables — quinoa, rice, bags of dried beans — wouldn’t do us any good without some way to prepare them.

If millions of people are without power for weeks or even months, that would be a big deal. Some people would have the resources to go somewhere the power still works, but many others wouldn’t. There would be rioting and looting. It would get ugly. Like Koppel, I do believe this scenario is a possibility and I’m also quite certain the government is not prepared to handle a disaster of this scale.

This book was helpful because I started thinking about ways I could be just a bit more prepared in case of an emergency. Other than that though, I didn’t find Koppel’s writing all that interesting. He does a lot of interviews (power company owners and operators, cybersecurity specialists) and most of them agree something could happen to our power grid, but nobody is taking ownership. I felt like a lot of the book was a repeat of that message, over and over.

8) One Second After, William Forstchen

Description: This is a story which can be all too terrifyingly real…a story in which one man struggles to save his family and his small North Carolina town after America loses a war. A war that will send America back to the Dark Ages. A war based upon a weapon, an Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP). A weapon that may already be in the hands of our enemies. This has been cited on the floor of Congress as a book all Americans should read, a realistic look at a weapon and its awesome power to destroy the entire United States, literally within one second.

I recommend this book if you want to know what life could be like if everyone loses electricity (basically, it would be really scary, and a bunch of people would die), but I can’t recommend it if you want a well-written story. I didn’t like the author’s writing style, I found the narration to be stilted, and most of the conversations (huge chunks of the book) took place around conference tables.

Also, I got the impression that the author wrote with a male audience in mind — he was fond of mentioning how “cute” he found this female or that (seriously, it was a lot). And if he referred to his dogs as “those fools” one more time, I was ready to throw the book across the room. Which would have been unfortunate since it was an e-book I was reading on my phone.

9) Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides

Description: This is the story of Calliope Stephanides and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City and the race riots of l967, before they move out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal.

I almost gave up on this several times, but I kept going back to it because the book got such great reviews (I hate when I do that). The tale of a hermaphrodite who doesn’t realize he’s a boy until age fourteen? I wanted it to be fascinating — and some parts of it were, but not enough. I found myself getting impatient with many aspects of the story.

10) Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally, Alisa Smith & J.B. MacKinnon

Description: Alisa and J.B. began to research the origins of the items which stocked the shelves of their local supermarket. They were shocked to discover that a typical ingredient in a North American meal travels roughly the distance between Boulder, Colorado, and New York City before it reaches the plate. They were trying to live more lightly on the planet; meanwhile, their diet was producing greenhouse gases and smog at an unparalleled rate. So they decided on an experiment: For one year they would eat only food produced within 100 miles of their Vancouver home.

I’m a sucker for books about year-long challenges. I’ve thought about doing one myself but I haven’t identified anything that I think would be worth doing for so long. I liked the idea of this book, and it was certainly challenging for the authors, but it annoys me when people give themselves so many exemptions from their rules.

In this instance, the authors said they would only eat foods acquired from a 100-mile radius from their home. However, they didn’t have to follow that rule if they were invited to a friend’s house, or if they went to a restaurant for a work meeting. They also didn’t have to follow the rule if they were traveling — which they did quite a lot.

(You may recall my annoyance with Year of No Sugar for the same reason. Too many exemptions. If you’re going to do something for a year, then do it. Don’t half-ass it.)

11) The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, Rinker Buck

Description: An epic account of traveling the length of the Oregon Trail the old-fashioned way—in a covered wagon with a team of mules, an audacious journey that hasn’t been attempted in a century. Traveling from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Baker City, Oregon, over the course of four months, Buck is accompanied by three cantankerous mules and his boisterous brother Nick. Along the way, they dodge thunderstorms in Nebraska, chase runaway mules across the Wyoming plains, scout more than 500 miles of nearly vanished trail on foot, cross the Rockies, and make desperate 50-mile forced marches for water.

I have a lot of admiration for what these two men did, but I wasn’t as entertained by it as I wanted to be (I started the book in early November and had to renew it several times before I finished it…I kept finding other things I wanted to read more). Oregon Trail history buffs would likely love it, as they intersperse their adventures with a bunch of trail history.

I did like the author’s reason for going on his journey: “The trail was my inebriate against depression, my hedge against boredom with life.” I fully approve of that.

12) The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

Description: The circus arrives without warning and is only open at night. Within the canvas tents is a unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. Behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose. Despite themselves, they tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands. True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved hang in the balance.

I almost abandoned this book several times because there was too much fantasy, which I’m not a fan of. (Magic is considered fantasy, right?) I stuck with it though, and gradually the characters started to make sense and I found myself more interested in the outcome.

My biggest complaint: it was sometimes difficult to keep the dates straight — the story jumps back and forth in time a lot. I listened to the audiobook so I couldn’t just flip pages around to orient myself like I could have with a physical book.

13) Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson

Description: This is a memoir about a life’s work to find happiness. It’s a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in an north England industrial town now changed beyond recognition; about the Universe as Cosmic Dustbin. It is the story of how a painful past, which Winterson thought she had written over and repainted, rose to haunt her later in life, sending her on a journey into madness and out again.

This is the memoir of someone who had a difficult upbringing but grew up to become a successful author. I found certain sections engaging, but other parts rambled and it was difficult to stay interested.

14) Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing, Reba Riley

Description: Reba’s 29th year was a terrible time to undertake a spiritual quest. But when untreatable chronic illness forced her to her knees on her birthday, Reba realized that even if she couldn’t fix her body, she might be able to heal her injured spirit. And so began a yearlong journey to recover from her whopping case of Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome by visiting thirty religions before her thirtieth birthday.

I’ve read quite a few books about religion (especially people who had it and later lost it), but I ended up liking the idea of this book more than the execution. Reba chose to visit 30 religions before her 30th birthday, but it was just too many. Randomly dropping into a church service doesn’t mean you’ve actually experienced it.

She also has an overly-cutesy writing style, which annoyed me (there were multiple references to her made-up word, “Godiverse”). During one particular church service, she made the mistake of saying she “threw up a little in my mouth.” (It was not due to sickness; it was because she wanted to express her disgust over something that happened.) That phrase is one of my biggest pet peeves and happened early in the book, so I was biased against her pretty much from the start.

15) Happily Ali After: And Other Fairly True Tales, Ali Wentworth

Description: Moved by a particularly inspirational tweet one day, Ali resolves to live by the pithy maxims she discovers in her feeds. What begins as a sort of self-help project quickly turns into something far grander as the tweets she once viewed with irony become filled with increasing metaphysical importance. It’s not long before Ali expands her self-improvement quest to include parenting, relationship, fitness, and dieting advice. The results are painfully clear: when it comes to self-help, sometimes you should leave it to the professionals.

Not that it really matters, but I felt like this book wasn’t as advertised. Some of the early chapters start out with inspirational quotes, but there is nothing but a passing mention of Twitter, and after the first section the quotes disappear completely. Ali is humorous, so that’s fine, but I did like her first memoir better than this one.

Minimalism

Why I Drive An Ugly Car

My car – a 2002 Honda Civic EX coupe – is ugly. While I would prefer the ugliness to be less pronounced, it’s over thirteen years old. It’s reliable, rarely needs repairs, the insurance is cheap, and since I bought it with cash over eight years ago I’ve never had a monthly payment.

IMG_20151129_113651002_HDR

(The hood damage was caused by tree branches falling on my car when it was parked on a street in DC.)

In addition to the hood damage, both bumpers are scratched due to years of parallel parking and the rear passenger side is dented (that damage was there when I purchased the car, it just became more pronounced over time and rust developed where it wasn’t before).

IMG_20151129_113703026

You don’t have to like my car. If I were to buy another used car right now, obviously I wouldn’t choose this one. But I don’t find it horrendous, and I’m not embarrassed to be seen with it. The advantages of keeping this car far outweigh the negatives.

For a lot of people, transportation expenses are a noticeable deduction from their paycheck. For my husband and me, vehicle expenditures are a very small part of our monthly spending. We recently pre-paid our car insurance for the next twelve months, which cost us a grand total of $444. Averaging that out to $37 per month, we pay way less than $100/month for insurance and gas. When we took the car in for a state inspection in October, the only thing it needed was an oil change.

We don’t plan to upgrade our vehicle until we have to: if repairs start to cost more than the car is worth, or if we need to make room for a car seat. Many years ago my sister drove a two-door vehicle with a child seat in the back; I know from experience that it isn’t easy or fun. As of right now though, we don’t have a pressing need for four doors.

When we do upgrade our car, it will be pre-owned and we’ll pay for it with cash. As my financial guru Mr. Money Mustache advises, never ever borrow money to buy a car.

Not only do my husband and I drive our car without embarrassment, it’s the only one we own. Earlier this year we got rid of our second vehicle and became a one-car household. (The car we sold was even older than the Civic and didn’t run nearly as well. When we were told repairs would exceed the car’s worth, it was the impetus we needed to get rid of it. We had barely driven it for the year leading up to its being sold, and I was more than ready to turn in the license plates and remove the car from our insurance policy.)

Becoming a one-car household took longer than it should have – I had been lobbying for it ever since Paul and I moved in together four years ago. We lived in DC back then and used Metro most of the time, and ever since moving to Buffalo in 2013 I’ve either walked or taken public transportation to work while he drives the car. Owning two cars just isn’t a necessity for us.

(Full disclosure: While my husband drives our Civic to work most of the time, his employer requires him to periodically visit other offices in New York state – he goes as far as Albany, which is four hours from Buffalo. When he travels long distances, most of the time he borrows one of his parents’ three cars, all of which are newer than ours. The Civic hasn’t given us any indication it wouldn’t make the trip, but when he’s on the road for a long period of time he feels more comfortable driving a newer vehicle. If it wasn’t for his parents’ generosity, it’s quite likely we would’ve had to replace the Civic by now.)

My husband and I appreciate our old, ugly car because it symbolizes a commitment to our financial goals. If we wanted a newer, prettier car, we’d go out and get one. We hang on to the one we have because we’d rather have our money in an investment account instead of sitting in our driveway.

It’s the same reason we eat most of our meals at home instead of frequenting restaurants. We don’t constantly upgrade our electronic devices. We don’t shop for pleasure; if we need something specific we go out and search for that particular item. When I go to Target, I have a list and don’t deviate from it (this doesn’t involve willpower; once you’re accustomed to following a list you no longer feel the need to browse aimlessly through aisles of clothing and home décor). We’re committed to reducing our expenses so we can use that money later, on things which actually make us happy.

I live this way because at some point in the future I’ll be road-tripping around the United States with only a loose itinerary. I’ll be living overseas. My time will be my own.

When that day arrives, I will be so, so glad my ugly car helped make those dreams possible.

[This post can also be read at BlogHer.]

 

Rockstar Finance

Books

Books Read in November 2015

I read 11 books in November, which brings my 2015 total to 122.

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.

Recommended

magic

1) Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert

Description: Gilbert digs deep into her own generative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity, along with insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration. She asks us to embrace our curiosity and let go of needless suffering. She shows us how to tackle what we most love, and how to face down what we most fear. She discusses the attitudes, approaches, and habits we need in order to live our most creative lives.

I’ve read several reviews from people who weren’t impressed with this book, but I liked it a lot. However, similar to what I said last month about The Art of Memoir, if you don’t have a creative goal in mind, you may not get as much out of this. Gilbert says that everyone is creative in their own way, but if you’re a hyper-focused businessperson you may not appreciate her insights on how to open yourself to the creative muse. (Hint: She thinks if you’re not open to receiving an idea, that idea will continue to go from person to person until someone grabs it and makes it their own.) Not the type of reading I normally go for, but in this particular instance, it worked for me.

2) The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert

Description: Spanning much of the 18th and 19th centuries, this novel follows the fortunes of the Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker — a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia. Born in 1800, Henry’s brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father’s money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma’s research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction — into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical.

I assumed I couldn’t possibly enjoy Gilbert’s fiction as much as her nonfiction, but when she briefly described this book in Big Magic, the premise sounded intriguing. Vivid writing; impeccably researched. I very much enjoyed this one.

3) Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, Elizabeth Gilbert

Description: Gilbert tells how she made the difficult choice to leave behind all the trappings of modern American success (marriage, house in the country, career) and find what she truly wanted from life. Setting out for a year to study three different aspects of her nature amid three different cultures, Gilbert explored the art of pleasure in Italy, the art of devotion in India, and a balance between the two on the Indonesian island of Bali.

Apparently I couldn’t read two Elizabeth Gilbert books without revisiting the book that made her famous. (I read it for the first time shortly after it came out, which was almost 10 years ago.) This time around I listened to the audiobook, which was great because Gilbert does the narration herself.

4) A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life, Brian Grazer

Description: For decades, film and TV producer Brian Grazer has scheduled a weekly “curiosity conversation” with an accomplished stranger. From scientists to spies, adventurers to business leaders, Grazer has met with anyone willing to answer his questions for a few hours. This is a homage to the power of inquisitiveness and the ways in which it deepens and improves us.

Wow. Grazer is such an interesting guy. You have to assume that at least some of his success over the years is a result of his massive amount of curiosity. Kind of makes you want to ask yourself, “Am I interesting enough that Brian Grazer (or any other total stranger) would want to have a Curiosity Conversation with me? If not, why not?”

5) Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, Jon Krakauer

Description: A bank of clouds was assembling on the not-so-distant horizon, but journalist/mountaineer Krakauer, standing on the summit of Mt. Everest, saw nothing that “suggested a murderous storm was bearing down.” He was wrong. The storm, which claimed five lives and left countless more — including Krakauer’s — in guilt-ridden disarray, provided the impetus for this book, Krakauer’s epic account of the May 1996 disaster.

This event may have occurred almost 20 years ago, but I was glued to this story. My only complaint was that it was sometimes hard to keep all the characters straight. There’s an index of names in the beginning, but since I was reading an e-book I couldn’t easily flip back and forth.

6) Wildflower, Drew Barrymore

Description: This a portrait of Drew’s life in stories as she looks back on the adventures, challenges, and incredible experiences of her earlier years. It includes tales of living on her own at 14, getting stuck in a gas station overhang on a cross country road trip, saying goodbye to her father in a way only he could have understood, and many more adventures and lessons that have led her to the successful, happy, and healthy place she is today.

Drew is not a great writer (She uses a lot of exclamation points! Often multiple times in the same paragraph!), but the stories are fun and I enjoyed reading them. She jumps back and forth in time to choose random stories from her life she wants to tell.

7) This Life is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone, Melissa Coleman

Description: Coleman delivers a luminous childhood memoir exploring the hope and struggle behind her family’s search for a sustainable lifestyle. She tells the true story of her upbringing on communes and sustainable farms along the rugged Maine coastline in the 1970’s, embedded within a moving, personal quest for truth that her experiences produced.

In the 70’s, a young couple moves to rural Maine and builds their own cabin in a quest for a simple life. Their life expands and gets much crazier, disaster strikes, things fall apart. Very interesting story.

8) Becoming Odyssa: Adventures on the Appalachian Trail, Jennifer Pharr Davis

Description: After graduating from college, Jennifer is drawn to the Appalachian Trail, a 2175-mile footpath that stretches from Georgia to Maine. Though her friends and family think she’s crazy, she sets out alone to hike the trail, hoping it will give her time to think about what she wants to do next. The next four months are the most physically and emotionally challenging of her life. With every step, Jennifer transitions from an over-confident college graduate to a student of the trail, braving situations she never imagined before her thru-hike.

I’ve thought for years that I’d like to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. How cool would that be? It’s one of the things I wish I’d done when I was younger, but I wouldn’t discount doing it when I’m older either. It would be difficult, yes, but isn’t that the point?

9) You Can Buy Happiness (and It’s Cheap): How One Woman Radically Simplified Her Life and How You Can Too, Tammy Strobel

Description: Tammy and her husband used to live a normal middle-class lifestyle: driving two cars, commuting long distances, and living well beyond their means. Now they are living the voluntary downsizing — or smart-sizing — dream. Strobel combines research on well-being with numerous real-world examples to offer practical inspiration. Her fresh take on our things, our work, and our relationships spells out micro-actions that anyone can take to step into a life that’s more conscious and connected, sustainable and sustaining, heartfelt, and happy.

I’ve read so much about minimalism and simple living over the past few years that I didn’t really discover any new information in this book, but I enjoyed reading it, and I’d recommend it to others who are interested in learning more. Even though I’ve sold and donated so much of my stuff already, books like this always make me re-think the possessions I still own and I start to mentally plan what I can get rid of next.

Okay

10) 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, Jen Hatmaker

Description: This is the true story of how Jen took seven months, identified seven areas of excess, and made seven simple choices to fight back against the modern-day diseases of greed, materialism, and overindulgence. Food. Clothes. Spending. Media. Possessions. Waste. Stress. She would spend thirty days on each topic, boiling it down to the number seven. Only eat seven foods, wear seven articles of clothing, and spend money in seven places. Eliminate use of seven media types, give away seven things each day for one month, adopt seven green habits, and observe “seven sacred pauses.”

I love books about personal challenges and I really enjoy reading about people who choose to live with less. Jen’s was an interesting concept and I enjoyed her story. The only downside is that, as a preacher’s wife and public speaker in the Christian women’s ministry, she talks about Jesus a LOT. Nothing against her religion, but there are a ton of Bible verses and “striving to live like Jesus” references in this book, which is way more than I prefer in my reading material (and my everyday life in general).

I did like how she inspired others to follow along with her (and even join in her efforts), and most especially how she declared a “mutiny against excess.”

11) All Over the Map, Laura Fraser

Description: On a trip to Oaxaca to celebrate her fortieth birthday, Laura confronts the unique trajectory of her life. Divorced and childless in her thirties, she has always found solace in the wanderlust that directed her heart, but now she wonders if her passion for travel (and short-lived romantic rendezvous) has deprived her of what she secretly wants most from life: a husband, a family, and a home.

I liked Laura Fraser, but her travel tales — which took place over a number of a years — felt a bit disjointed. I was never fully invested in her story. I prefer to read memoirs by people who choose a location and spend time immersing themselves in that place.

Books

Books Read in October 2015

I read 12 books in October, which brings my 2015 total to 111.

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.

Recommended

chinastudy

1) The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-term Health, Dr. T. Colin Campbell

Description: Campbell details the connection between nutrition and heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. The report also examines the source of nutritional confusion produced by powerful lobbies, government entities, and opportunistic scientists. Campbell cuts through the haze of misinformation and delivers an insightful message to anyone living with cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and those concerned with the effects of aging.

This book was published in 2006, a year before I gave up 5+ years of vegetarianism and went back to eating eat. Would I have started eating meat again if I’d read this book first? It’s impossible to say, but along with Eating Animals and The Blue Zones Solution, it’s given me a lot to think about.

2) Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition, Dr. T. Colin Campbell

Description: In The China Study, Campbell revolutionized the way we think about our food with the evidence that a whole food, plant-based diet is the healthiest way to eat. Now he explains the science behind that evidence, the ways our current scientific paradigm ignores the fascinating complexity of the human body, and why, if we have such overwhelming evidence that everything we think we know about nutrition is wrong, our eating habits haven’t changed.

Written by the same author who wrote The China Study, I found some of the material repetitive because he mentioned his previous studies quite a bit. (The books were written seven years apart and I just happened to read them in the same month…for most people this wouldn’t be a problem.) Very good information though. Even more so than in the first book, Campbell is pretty direct about naming names of people, corporations, and organizations which he says are more concerned with profits than disseminating correct information about health to the public.

3) The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters

Description: It is 1922 and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned; the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. In South London, in a large, silent house, life is about to be transformed as impoverished widow Mrs. Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers. With the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. Little do the Wrays know just how profoundly their new tenants will alter the course of Frances’s life — or, as passions mount and frustration gathers, how far reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.

This story wasn’t at all what I expected, but it ended up being the best audiobook I’ve listened to since I started up with them a few months ago.

4) The Dorito Effect: How All Food Is Becoming Junk Food—And What We Can Do About It, Mark Schatzker

Description: Since the late 1940s, we have been slowly leeching flavor out of the food we grow. Those perfectly round tomatoes that grace our supermarket aisles today are mostly water, and the big-breasted chickens on our dinner plates grow three times faster than they used to, leaving them dry and tasteless. Simultaneously, we have taken great leaps forward in technology, allowing us to produce in the lab the very flavors that are being lost on the farm. Thanks to this largely invisible epidemic, seemingly healthy food is becoming more like junk food: highly craveable but nutritionally empty.

This book was way better than I thought it would be. I was aware of the effects of flavor dilution (watery, tasteless tomatoes and chicken that has to be doctored with spices and sauces in order to be edible), but the history behind how the flavor loss happened — and the people who are currently working to fix it — was unexpectedly fascinating. Flavor dilution doesn’t just affect tomatoes and chicken; it affects pretty much all of the vegetables, grains, dairy, and meat we eat.

Schatzker also goes into the presence of “natural” and artificial ingredients in our foods, and how very ubiquitous they are. I’ve been scouring nutrition labels for years, but what I learned in this book makes me want to be even more vigilant going forward.

5) Inside the O’Briens, Lisa Genova

Description: Joe O’Brien is a 44-year-old police officer from the Irish Catholic neighborhood of Charlestown, Massachusetts. A devoted husband and proud father of four children in their twenties, Joe begins experiencing bouts of disorganized thinking, uncharacteristic temper outbursts, and strange, involuntary movements. He initially attributes these episodes to the stress of his job, but as these symptoms worsen, he agrees to see a neurologist and is handed a diagnosis that will change his and his family’s lives forever: Huntington’s disease.

This was written by the same author who wrote Still Alice (which is about a woman who develops early-onset Alzheimer’s). Both books included the pivotal scene where a parent tells their kids they have this awful genetic disease, and since it’s genetic there’s a chance the kids may have it, and (SPOILER) some of the kids always do end up having the gene. I resisted reading this book at first because I assumed there would be similarities between the two stories (and there are), but there were enough differences to set it apart.

6) The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr

Description: Anchored by excerpts from her favorite memoirs and anecdotes from fellow writers’ experience, it also lays bare Karr’s own process. As she breaks down the key elements of great literary memoir, she breaks open our concepts of memory and identity, and illuminates the cathartic power of reflecting on the past; anybody with an inner life or complicated history, whether writer or reader, will relate.

Karr said she wrote this book for the general reader, not just for people who want to write a memoir, but honestly I don’t know why you’d read a book on strategy if you weren’t interested in writing a memoir yourself one day. (Yes, I may be interested. No, it won’t be anytime soon.)

She goes a bit too in-depth at points describing her favorite memoirs and what the author did right (for instance, she loves Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, which isn’t something I’d be interested in reading myself).

I did find a fair amount of helpful information though, and I kept jotting down memories from my own life that I recalled while reading her book, so I’d recommend this book if you’re interested in the subject matter.

7) Eat to Live, Dr. Joel Fuhrman

Description: This is a book that will let you live longer, reduce your need for medications, and improve your health dramatically. It explains how and why eating the wrong foods causes toxic hunger and the desire to over consume calories; whereas a diet of high micronutrient quality causes true hunger which decreases the sensations leading to food cravings and overeating behaviors.

This book is geared toward people with a lot of weight to lose (and/or suffering from a chronic illness), but his tips would work for anyone. Having said that, Dr. Fuhrman is pretty hardcore about what he thinks people should eat (lots of raw salads) and how much they should weigh (if someone tells you that you’ve lost too much weight and are looking thin, you’re likely not thin enough for Dr. Fuhrman). He thinks most Americans eat a “perverted diet.”

Okay

8) Not That Kind of Girl, Lena Dunham

Description: Dunham illuminates the experiences that are part of making one’s way in the world: falling in love, feeling alone, being ten pounds overweight despite eating only health food, having to prove yourself in a room full of men twice your age, finding true love, and most of all, having the guts to believe that your story is one that deserves to be told.

I knew who Lena Dunham was because I’ve seen her name in various headlines over the years, but I’ve never watched her HBO show. I had heard good things about her memoir though, so I picked it up in audiobook format, read by the author. It’s a series of essays, several of which were interesting, some decidedly not so (in particular, there’s one soul-crushingly monotonous piece where she lists food she’s consumed and the estimated calorie count), but I’ve found that to be common in all the books of essays I’ve read.

9) Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari

Description: At some point, everyone embarks on a journey to find love. We meet people, date, get into and out of relationships, all with the hope of finding someone with whom we share a deep connection. This seems standard now, but it’s wildly different from what people did even just decades ago. Single people today have more romantic options than at any point in human history. So why are so many people frustrated?

Aziz Ansari talking about romance, dating, and relationships in our modern age: not a stretch, but I didn’t love it. Maybe because, being married, I wasn’t all that interested in the subject matter? Sometimes I pick things up because they’re popular with other people and I should really stop doing that.

10) Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again, Traci Mann

Description: A provocative expose of the dieting industry from one of the nation’s leading researchers in self-control and the psychology of weight loss. From her Health and Eating Laboratory at the University of Minnesota, Professor Traci Mann researches self-control and dieting. What she has discovered is groundbreaking: not only do diets not work, they often result in weight gain. We are losing the battle of the bulge because our bodies and brains are not hardwired to resist food—in fact, the very idea of it works against our biological imperative to survive.

Diets don’t work. Diet’s aren’t good for you. These are things we already know, but Dr. Mann has conducted many research studies (and analyzed countless others) to prove why this is the case. I didn’t really learn anything new though, and with all the reading I’ve been doing recently about the power of plant food, I found her advice (such as eating meals from smaller plates and bringing your lunch to work rather than going out) to be pretty tired.

11) Moody Bitches: The Truth About the Drugs You’re Taking, The Sleep You’re Missing, The Sex You’re Not Having, and What’s Really Making You Crazy, Julie Holland

Description: As women, we learn from an early age that our moods are a problem. Bitches are moody. To succeed in life, we are told, we must have it all under control. We have to tamp down our inherent shifts in favor of a more static way of being. But our bodies are wiser than we imagine. Moods are not an annoyance to be stuffed away. They are a finely-tuned feedback system that, if heeded, can tell us how best to manage our lives.

I came across this book on a library shelf. I picked it up hoping it would provide some insight on how to be less moody (I’m so very, very moody), but I felt it was more focused on explaining why moodiness in women is normal, and the many reasons why you shouldn’t mute your natural moodiness with prescription drugs.

Not Recommended

12) I’ll Have What She’s Having: My Adventures in Celebrity Dieting, Rebecca Harrington

Description: Elizabeth Taylor mixed cottage cheese and sour cream; Madonna subsisted on “sea vegetables;” and Marilyn Monroe drank raw eggs whipped with warm milk. Where there is a Hollywood starlet offering nutritional advice, there is a diet Harrington is willing to try.

I would have abandoned this book if it wasn’t so short (178 pages; I listened to the audio version). Just like I said with The Year of No Sugar, if you’re going to do something (and actually go through the trouble of writing a book about it), do it right. Harrington’s lackadaisical approach to her celebrity diet quest annoyed me. Some diets she followed for several weeks, others for just a few days. She didn’t follow the plans to the letter. She could have fleshed out the story with more details, but chose not to. The common theme: she eats a lot of gross food and she’s hungry most of the time.

Books

Books Read in September 2015

I read nine books in September, which brings my 2015 total to 99. (Only one away from 100! So close!)

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.

Highly Recommended

Foer

1) Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer

Description: Jonathan spent much of his teenage and college years oscillating between omnivore and vegetarian. But on the brink of fatherhood — facing the prospect of having to make dietary choices on a child’s behalf — his casual questioning took on an urgency. His quest for answers ultimately required him to visit factory farms in the middle of the night, dissect the emotional ingredients of meals from his childhood, and probe some of his most primal instincts about right and wrong.

After I finished reading this in e-book form, I immediately went to the library and checked out a physical copy for Paul. When he saw the title, he said, “I can’t read this. It will make me sad!” To which I responded, “Well, that’s exactly why you need to read it.”

Most people eat meat because they know very little (or nothing) about where it comes from. If you’re a meat-eater, the least you can do is educate yourself about how it arrives on your plate.

This guy is a very good writer and the book is incredibly powerful. There was nothing dense or boring about it. I even found myself wishing it was longer because I wanted to hear more of what he had to say.

Read this book. I wish I’d done so sooner.

Recommended

2) The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People, Dan Buettner

Description: In this groundbreaking book, Buettner reveals how to transform your health using smart eating and lifestyle habits gleaned from new research on the diets, eating habits, and lifestyle practices of the communities he’s identified as “Blue Zones”—those places with the world’s longest-lived, and thus healthiest, people, including locations such as Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California.

I’m a big fan of this book — I wrote an entire post about it.

3) Veganist, Kathy Freston

Description: Kathy wasn’t born a vegan. The bestselling author and renowned wellness expert grew up on chicken-fried steak and cheesy grits, and loved nothing more than BBQ ribs and vanilla milkshakes. Not until her thirties did she embrace the lifestyle of a veganist — someone who eats a plant-based diet not just for their own personal well-being, but for the whole web of benefits it brings to our ecosystem and beyond.

I feel like Freston repeats herself a bit too much, but she presents a lot of good information in a nonthreatening, conversational way. She makes a compelling argument for veganism, but I couldn’t help remembering how I felt when I read books about the Paleo eating plan – those arguments were very persuasive, too. Everyone thinks their particular healthy-eating plan is the right one. That being said, I’m moving away from my previous meat-heavy diet so reading about the advantages of a veggie-heavy plan is helpful.

4) The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo

Description: Japanese cleaning consultant Kondo takes tidying to a whole new level, promising that if you properly simplify and organize your home once, you’ll never have to do it again. Most methods advocate a room-by-room or little-by-little approach, which doom you to pick away at your piles of stuff forever. The KonMari Method, with its revolutionary category-by-category system, leads to lasting results.

I didn’t read this because I need to declutter – I’m satisfied with my current level of minimalism – but Kondo’s methods have been discussed a lot and I was interested to read it for myself. It turns out I already knew most of what she was going to say (the blog posts I read in advance were apparently very thorough), but I would definitely recommend this book to people who want to start the decluttering process.

I don’t agree with all of her recommendations (I’m never going to thank my clothes, or verbally greet my house when I arrive home), but the general principles are sound. I especially liked her focus on massive purging rather than organizing. That way of thinking is becoming more commonplace but there’s still a long way to go.

5) A House in Fez: Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco, Suzanna Clarke

Description: When Suzanna and her husband bought a dilapidated house in Fez, their friends thought they were mad. Located in a maze of donkey-trod alleyways, the house was beautiful but in desperate need of repair. While neither spoke Arabic, they were determined to restore the building to its original splendor using traditional craftsmen and handmade materials. So began the remarkable experience that veered between frustration, hilarity, and moments of pure exhilaration.

I’ve read a number of books about people who built or restored houses in countries like France, Spain, and Mexico, but this is the first one I’ve read about Morocco. It doesn’t appeal to me as a place I’d like to live, but the insight into life there is worth reading.

6) The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Description: Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother and is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his longing for his mother, he clings to the one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

I picked this up because I saw it won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It’s a good story, but it went on waaaaaaaay longer than it needed to (771 pages!). A lot could have been cut out and it wouldn’t have affected the story at all.

As I’ve said in the past, I really don’t like books written from a child (or teenager’s) perspective, and I’d say at least half this book was about Theo’s childhood (I assumed that wouldn’t be case; if I’d known in advance I probably wouldn’t have read it). There’s a lot of talk of drug use and general bad behavior, so even though Theo is originally a sympathetic character he becomes substantially less so as the story goes on.

Okay

7) The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton

Description: This 1913 novel tells the story of Undine Spragg, a Midwestern girl who attempts to ascend in New York City society.

I read this book due to my friend Jaclyn’s reading challenge. Unfortunately, I really didn’t care for it. It’s not bad enough to fall into the “Not Recommended” category, but it was impossible to like it when I didn’t care for ANY of the characters — they all annoyed me in one way or another. Although it seems silly to say this, the main character was such an awful person I wanted the story to be over so I could stop giving her more attention than she deserved.

8) Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight, M.E. Thomas

Description: Thomas takes readers on a journey into the mind of a sociopath, revealing what makes them tick and what that means for the rest of humanity. Drawn from Thomas’ own experiences; her popular blog, sociopathworld.com; and current and historical scientific literature, it reveals just how different – and yet often very similar – sociopaths are from the rest of the world.

A sociopathic Mormon? That isn’t what I expected. I guess sociopaths really are everywhere.

This book was interesting in certain aspects, but the (anonymous) author’s high level of egoism was extremely off-putting after the first chapter. It was like yes, I get it. You have an elevated view of yourself and you don’t feel remorse. You are good at your job as an attorney and you think your personality helps you succeed. I learned more about sociopathy than I knew before, but the author’s writing style quickly became annoying.

Not Recommended

9) The Tao of Martha: My Year of LIVING, or Why I’m Never Getting All That Glitter Off of the Dog, Jen Lancaster

Description: To smooth her admittedly rough edges, Jen is going to live her life according to the advice of Martha Stewart. By immersing herself in Martha’s media empire, Jen will embark on a yearlong quest to take herself, her house, and her husband to the next level.

I usually enjoy memoirs written by people who challenge themselves in some way, whether that means moving to a foreign country, learning a new skill, or making every recipe in a cookbook over the course of a year (à la Julie and Julia). That’s what I was looking for in this book, but I wasn’t impressed.

Following Martha’s advice (and actually learning something from it) was an afterthought in Lancaster’s story. She didn’t specify measurable goals in advance, her efforts through the year were lackluster, and she spent way too much time talking about her pets (of which I had absolutely no interest, and again, related in no way to her Martha experiment).

This book was disappointing – the subject matter could have been interesting, but the author didn’t deliver.

Food

Eating the Blue Zones

After reading an article in the New York Times — My Dinner With Longevity Expert Dan Buettner (No Kale Required) — I immediately put in a library request for the author’s book.

blue zones

You should know I’m not a fan of diet books. There are too many. Whether someone eats paleo or vegan, has no food allergies or requires gluten-free fare, or like most people they fall somewhere in between, it’s my belief that real food is the answer for everyone. Most (if not all) of the food we eat should be minimally processed, and if you buy something from a box or can, you should recognize the ingredients.

I like The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People because it’s not a “here’s how to lose weight” diet. The food recommendations are based on what centenarians – people who live to be 100 years old or more – eat. Attempting to discover how they live so long, National Geographic researchers focused on the five places in the world with the highest number of centenarians: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California.

I found this book at the right time because I’ve been looking for…I don’t know…something else. I’ve done the paleo thing off and on for years (I’ve completed three Whole30s since 2012), but that way of eating never felt sustainable for the long term. I’ve been eating a lot of meat, and I got to the point where I felt like I was eating too much of it.

Centenarians in the five Blue Zones don’t eat a lot of meat. Research has shown that it’s not vegans or meat eaters who live the longest, but pescetarians – those who mostly abstain from meat but add in seafood once in a while.

After discussing the Blue Zones research with Paul, we decided to make a joint effort to follow the guidelines (I cook pretty much all of our meals, so I wanted to make sure he was okay with the change). Luckily, I already enjoy most of the food that the Blue Zones recommends (except raw tomatoes…I’m 35 years old and I still won’t consume tomatoes unless they’re cooked). We just need to eat more of it, focusing on vegetables and beans instead of meat.

Some of the food I buy is organic, but I’m not militant about it. I’m just happy if I’m eating broccoli, carrots, and apples instead of Cool Ranch Doritos, no matter where they came from. (I haven’t actually consumed any Cool Ranch Doritos in the past fifteen years.) Paul and I actually prefer plain tortilla chips, but we’ve agreed to no longer keep them in the house since we tend to gravitate toward those for a snack instead of healthier options.

Unlike the rigid Whole30 – which has good reasons for being rigid – our new approach will be more flexible. If we eat at someone’s house and they’re serving something we don’t normally eat, like beef or chicken, we won’t turn it down (even centenarians in the Blue Zones eat small amounts of meat occasionally, in addition to seafood). However, you always have permission to turn down things you are opposed to consuming, like dessert if you abstain from sugar. Or Cool Ranch Doritos. Please don’t eat those.

Around the time I started reading the book, I heard from a neighbor that many people on the street we live on are members of the Porter Farms CSA, and they have a long-established delivery schedule in our area. I had put off joining a CSA because I thought the pick-up locations might be inconvenient, but what’s easier than fetching my CSA delivery just a few doors down from my house?

This particular CSA was halfway through its 20-week growing season before I joined, but at least I’ll have it for the next 10 weeks. One motivation for joining – other than the convenience of a recurring organic food delivery – is knowing it would force me to consume foods I never (or rarely) purchase myself.

That was certainly the case with my first delivery, which included a watermelon with yellow flesh, and peppers I’d never cooked with before (cubanelle, poblano).

Porter Farms CSA

Our second delivery included such things as bok choy (which I love but had never cooked with before), and kohlrabi (which was completely new to me).

And of course we get a lot of raw tomatoes. Four different types! I core and freeze them so I can use them for soups. I use canned tomatoes in soups quite often, so the addition of a raw tomato or two shouldn’t be recognizable.

Of course there are other aspects to becoming a centenarian than just the foods you eat, and the book addresses those factors as well, like meaningful relationships with others and regular exercise (especially long walks – I loved when Buettner pointed out that none of the centenarians are CrossFit athletes and they’ve likely never belonged to a gym).

These are the ten food guidelines spelled out in the Blue Zones recommendations:

1) Plant Slant: 95% of the food you eat should come from a plant or plant product. Favor beans, greens, yams and sweet potatoes, fruits, nuts, and seeds. The best longevity foods are leafy greens such as spinach, kale, beet and turnip tops, chard, and collards.

2) Retreat from meat: Consume meat no more than twice a week, sized no more than two ounces cooked. Avoid processed meats like hot dogs, luncheon meats, sausages, and bacon.

3) Fish is fine: Eat up to three ounces of fish daily.

4) Diminish dairy: This includes cow’s milk, cheese, cream, and butter.

5) Occasional eggs: No more than three per week.

6) Daily dose of beans: Eat at least half a cup of cooked beans daily.

7) Slash sugar: Consume no more than seven added teaspoons per day.

8) Snack on nuts: Eat two handfuls of nuts per day.

9) Sour on bread: Replace common bread with sourdough or 100% whole wheat bread. (Note: I still plan to eat gluten-free all/most of the time, so I won’t be adopting this one.)

10) Go whole: Eat foods that are recognizable for what they are.

Could you eat like centenarians in the Blue Zones do?

Books

Books Read in August 2015

I read 12 books in August, which brings my 2015 total to 90.

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.

Recommended

gringos

1) Gringos in Paradise: An American Couple Builds Their Retirement Dream House in a Seaside Village in Mexico, Barry Golson

Description: In 2004, Golson wrote an article about Mexican hot spots for retirees longing for a lifestyle they couldn’t afford in the United States. A year later, he and his wife Thia were taking part in the growing trend of retiring abroad. They sold their Manhattan apartment and moved to the surfing and fishing village of Sayulita on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Golson details the year he and Thia spent settling into their new life and planning and building their dream home. They engaged a Mexican architect, builder, and landscape designer who not only built their home but also changed their lives; encountered uproariously odd bureaucracy; and ultimately experienced a lifetime’s worth of education about the challenges and advantages of living in Mexico.

I really liked this book – it was entertaining and I enjoyed Golson’s perspective into how gringos interact with the locals (both positively and negatively), but I found his story to be a cautionary tale of what I would NOT do.

When Golson and his wife move to Sayulita, they decide to buy some land, build a brand new house from scratch (complete with pool and extensive landscaping), and outfit it with brand new Mexican-crafted furniture, dishes, decor, etc. While prices in Mexico are less expensive than in the U.S., by the end of the book (spoiler alert) Golson and his wife have spent pretty much all of their retirement savings and have to return to the U.S. to make more money…so they can afford to return to their house in Mexico.

This does not seem like the preferred scenario. If I was retiring in Mexico and needed to live on a fixed income in order to make it work, I’d rent. Golson and his wife appeared perfectly content renting a place while their house was being built, and freely admitted to all the headaches and fighting the house-building drama brought to their relationship. Was it worth it? He doesn’t say, but I know I’d rather be retired, doing whatever I want with my days, instead of owning a home in another country that I can’t afford to live in.

2) On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel, Tony Cohan

Description: When novelist Cohan and his artist wife visited central Mexico one winter they fell under the spell of a place where the pace of life is leisurely, the cobblestone streets and sun-splashed plazas are enchanting, and the sights and sounds of daily fiestas fill the air. Awakened to needs they didn’t know they had, they returned to California, sold their house, and cast off for a new life in San Miguel de Allende. This is Cohan’s memoir of how he and his wife absorb the town’s sensual ambiance, eventually find and refurbish a crumbling 250-year-old house, and become entwined in the endless drama of Mexican life.

Barry Golson (the author of the book mentioned above) credits Tony Cohan as his inspiration, but I liked Golson’s book better. This one is worth reading, though.

3) The French House: An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village That Restored Them All, Don Wallace

Description: Shortly after Don and Mindy Wallace move to Manhattan to jump-start their writing careers, they learn of a house for sale in a village they once visited on a tiny French island off the Brittany coast. Desperate for a life change, the Wallaces bravely (and impulsively) buy it almost sight unseen. What they find when they arrive is a ruin, and it isn’t long before their lives begin to resemble it—with hilarious and heartwarming results.

Don and his wife were super persistent – they experienced quite a bit of sweat, tears, and consternation before everything worked itself out. (Due to a lack of funds, it took EIGHT YEARS before their French summer house was renovated adequately enough to spend the night in it.)

As a woman who likes to picture herself in someone else’s shoes, I wish this had been written from a female perspective – whenever Don mentioned his wife, I found myself wondering what she was thinking at the time – but it’s definitely worth reading if you like this subject as much as I do.

4) I’ll Never Be French: Living in a Small Village in Brittany, Mark Greenside

Description: When Greenside – a native New Yorker living in California, political lefty, writer, and lifelong skeptic – is dragged by his girlfriend to a tiny village in Brittany at the westernmost edge of France, his life begins to change. With enormous affection for the Bretons, Greenside tells how he makes a life for himself in a country where he doesn’t speak the language or know how things are done.

Just like the owners of The French House (mentioned above), this guy purchased a house outside the U.S. when he had hardly any money to his name. What is up with these people?? At least it worked out for both of them. Lighthearted, amusing read.

5) An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude, Ann Vanderhoof

Description: Who hasn’t fantasized about quitting their job, saying goodbye to the rat race, and escaping to some exotic destination in search of sun, sand, and a different way of life? In the mid1990s, Ann and Steve were driven, forty-something professionals desperate for a break from their deadline-dominated, career-defined lives. So they rented out their house, moved onto a 42-foot sailboat, and set sail for the Caribbean on a two-year voyage of culinary and cultural discovery.

While I have no desire to sail a boat around the Caribbean for two years (just take me to another country and leave me there, please), Vanderhoof makes it seem appealing. I was especially jealous of her access to a plethora of cheap and abundant tropical fruit – hence the reference to an “embarrassment of mangoes” in the book’s title.

My favorite lines are near the end of the book when Ann admits her return home was bittersweet: “I know the last two years have to end, but I can’t bear the thought. I don’t want to just sink complacently back into our old existence. I’ve seen too clearly there’s more to life than that.”

6) The Heavy: A Mother, a Daughter, a Diet, Dara-Lynn Weiss

Description: When a doctor pronounced Weiss’s daughter obese at age seven, she knew she had to take action. But how could a woman with her own food and body issues successfully parent a little girl around the issue of obesity?

I remember reading about Weiss when her original article (which was published before she wrote this book) came out in Vogue. I never understood the resulting hostility and controversy – if your kid is overweight, shouldn’t you take action? Sure, Weiss’ methods aren’t what everyone would choose (she allowed processed food, fake sugar, and diet soda to stay within her daughter’s daily caloric needs) but everyone handles weight loss efforts differently.

While Weiss does come across as neurotic in more than one situation when a food decision is required, she also does a good job outlining the challenges involved in helping a young child lose weight in a country that doesn’t make it easy to do so.

7) We Are Called to Rise, Laura McBride

Description: An immigrant boy whose family is struggling to assimilate. A middle-aged housewife coping with an imploding marriage and a troubled son. A social worker at home in the darker corners of Las Vegas. A wounded soldier recovering from an injury he can’t remember getting. By the time we realize how these voices will connect, the impossible has already happened, and the lives of people from different backgrounds and experiences collide in a stunning coincidence.

It was hard for me to pinpoint what I liked best about this story, but I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Definitely worth reading.

8) The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why, Amanda Ripley

Description: Nine out of ten Americans live in places at significant risk of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorism, or other disasters. Some of us will have to make split-second choices to save ourselves and our families. How will we react? What will it feel like? Will we be heroes or victims? Will our upbringing, our gender, our personality – anything we’ve ever learned, thought, or dreamed of – ultimately matter?

Ripley is good at taking a potentially dry subject and turning it into an entertaining read. I went looking for more of her books after I read and enjoyed The Smartest Kids in the World earlier this year.

Okay

9) Pretty, Jillian Lauren

Description: Bebe is an ex-everything: ex-stripper, ex-Christian, ex-drug addict, ex-pretty girl. It’s been one year since the car accident that killed her boyfriend left her scarred and shaken. Flanked by an eccentric posse of friends, she is serving out a self-imposed sentence at a halfway house while trying to finish cosmetology school. Amid the rampant diagnoses, over-medication, compulsive eating, and acrylic nails of Los Angeles, Bebe looks for something to believe in before something knocks her off course again.

It pains me to put this in the Okay category, but it appears I like Jillian’s memoirs more so than her fiction.

10) Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff, Rosemary Mahoney

Description: Rosemary was determined to take a solo trip down the Egyptian Nile in a small boat, even though civil unrest and vexing local traditions conspired to create obstacles every step of the way. Egyptian women don’t row on the Nile, and tourists aren’t allowed to for safety’s sake. She endures extreme heat during the day, a terror of crocodiles while alone in her boat at night, while confronting deeply held beliefs and finding connections to past chroniclers of the Nile.

I liked the idea of this book, and I’m impressed with what Rosemary accomplished, but I found myself rushing to get through the second half. I liked reading about what she was physically doing more so than the extensive history lessons and exhaustive descriptions of the scenery.

11) Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, Sheri Fink

Description: Physician and reporter Fink reconstructs five days at Memorial Medical Center and draws the reader into the lives of those who struggled mightily to survive during Hurricane Katrina. After the floodwaters rose, the power failed, and the heat climbed, exhausted caregivers chose to designate certain patients last for rescue. Months later, several health professionals faced criminal allegations that they deliberately injected numerous patients with drugs to hasten their deaths.

While this was a well-written, thoroughly researched book, and it was a subject I didn’t previously know anything about, I would have preferred to read an article rather than an entire book. I didn’t care for the extensive back story of the hospital’s history, or the overly-detailed bios of the main characters.

12) Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World, Leigh Ann Henion

Description: Heartfelt and awe inspiring, this is a moving tale of physical grandeur and emotional transformation, a journey around the world that ultimately explores the depths of the human heart. A journalist and young mother, Henion combines her own conflicted but joyful experiences as a parent with a panoramic tour of the world’s most extraordinary natural wonders.

I wanted to like this more than I did. I love that Henion traveled all over the place, seeking out the wonders of natural phenomena rather than just visiting the same old tourist sites. I’ve never been a fan of nature writing though, so I guess I found the descriptions of what she saw a bit boring. I’d prefer to see those things in person (or look at a photo) rather than try to picture it from someone else’s written recollection.

I did like her assertions that having a small child at home shouldn’t stop you from traveling without them, and that – unlike what many people think – travelers aren’t some special breed of adventurer and they’re not necessarily any more privileged/wealthy than anyone else. If you really want to go somewhere, you’ll make it happen no matter what.

Books

Books Read in July 2015

I read 10 books in July, which brings my 2015 total to 78.

I read a few more books this month than I did in May and June, but I also had a larger number in the “Okay” category, which was disappointing.

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.

Recommended

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1) Everything You Ever Wanted, Jillian Lauren

Description: In her younger years, Jillian was a college dropout, a drug addict, and a concubine in the Prince of Brunei’s harem, an experience she immortalized in her bestselling memoir, Some Girls. In her 30s, Jillian’s most radical act was learning the steadying power of love when she and her rock star husband adopt an Ethiopian child with special needs. After Jillian loses a close friend to drugs, she herself is saved by her fierce love for her son as she fights to make him—and herself—feel safe and at home in the world.

I really enjoy Jillian’s writing. I read her first memoir (mentioned in the description above) last year, and even though this book was completely different – she’s gone from young international concubine to a married lady in her 30s – her personality and unique tone of voice continue to shine through. I follow Jillian on Instagram, where she regularly posts photos of her son Tariku, and it was really cool to learn how he became a part of their family.

2) Picnic in Provence: A Memoir with Recipes, Elizabeth Bard

Description: Ten years ago, Elizabeth followed a handsome Frenchman to a love nest in the heart of Paris. Now with a baby on the way, the couple takes a trip to the tiny Provencal village of Céreste. In less time than it takes to flip a crepe, Elizabeth and Gwendal decide to move to the French countryside. There they discover a land of blue skies, lavender fields and peaches that taste like sunshine. Seduced by the local ingredients, they begin a new adventure as culinary entrepreneurs, starting their own artisanal ice cream shop and experimenting with flavors like saffron, sheep’s milk yogurt and fruity olive oil.

I’m a sucker for a good story about an American who moves to France (I’ve read quite a few). I especially like reading about the differences between living in the U.S. versus France – differences in personalities, worldview, daily life – which Bard does a great job of describing.

This book starts out a little too perfect and sunshiney (“We own an apartment in Paris and now we’re packing up to move to a centuries-old house in Provence!”), but reality soon sets in and the story becomes easier to relate to. Bard feels guilty because she’s not happy all the time (she worries she may end up like her father, who was bipolar), and she also struggles to connect with her young son.

Another interesting aspect of the story: all the effort Bard and her husband put into research and development before opening an artisanal ice cream shop in their Provencal village. When I checked online, not only is their shop thriving, they’ve also opened a location in Paris since her book was published. I know where I’m going if I ever make it back to France!

3) Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, Geraldine Brooks

Description: When an infected bolt of cloth carries plague from London to an isolated village, housemaid Anna Frith emerges as an unlikely heroine and healer. Through Anna’s eyes we follow the fateful year of 1666, as she and her fellow villagers confront the spread of disease and superstition. As death reaches into every household and villagers turn from prayers to murderous witch-hunting, Anna must find the strength to confront the disintegration of her community.

Very good book, but watch out for descriptions of gross plague-related things if you’re squeamish. I almost put this in the Highly Recommended category, but I got impatient with certain aspects of the story so I downgraded it. I liked the last third of the book best. It didn’t end at all like I expected, which was a nice surprise.

4) Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, Steve Almond

Description: Almond details why, after 40 years as a fan, he can no longer watch the game he still loves. Using a synthesis of memoir, reportage, and cultural critique, he asks a series of provocative questions, including: Does our addiction to football foster a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia? What does it mean that our society has transmuted the intuitive physical joys of childhood into a billion-dollar industry? How did a sport that causes brain damage become such an important emblem for our institutions of higher learning?

You don’t have to know anything about football (I don’t) in order to follow this book. I actually checked it out from the library for my husband, but once I picked it up and started reading I didn’t want to put it down. I liked Almond’s description of how he went from football super-fan to critic, and while I felt some of his arguments were stronger than others, I learned many things I didn’t know before:

  • Whereas white males live to 78 years and African-American males live to approximately 70 years…professional football players in both the United States and Canada have life expectancies in the mid to late 50s. (Pg 38)
  • The NFL – unlike the NBA and Major League Baseball – was tax-exempt throughout most of its history. (This only changed a few months ago, after the book was published.) (Pg 81)
  • Forty-five percent of Division 1 [college] football players never graduate. (Pg 125)

Okay

5) Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, Gretchen Rubin

Description: Rubin’s follow-up to her happiness books is all about habits: how we make them, why we break them, and how we can improve them. That may not strike you as poolside fare, but the chatty writing, illuminating insights, and story-driven narrative make this guidebook anything but dry and boring – it’s also packed with relatable tales from Rubin’s life, which are easy to apply to your own.

I’m not a huge fan of Gretchen Rubin’s books. While she seems like a nice person and I enjoy the personal anecdotes she includes, her topics come off as very common-sense to me and I don’t get a lot out of them. This is not a shot at Gretchen; in fact, it’s the opposite – I think I would like her a lot in real life. I just don’t get much from her books because I’m like, “Well, yeah, that’s obvious…”

I felt the same with this book. Some of her research into habit forming was interesting, and I recognized myself in some of her descriptions (I’m a Questioner, and an Abstainer, and I never reward myself for following through with a habit), but there were no grand epiphanies and I didn’t take away anything actionable which will affect my life. (Here’s my friend Jaclyn’s review – she goes into much more detail than I just did.)

6) Bel Canto, Ann Patchett

Description: In an unnamed South American country, a world-renowned soprano sings at a birthday party in honor of a visiting Japanese industrial titan. Alas, in the opening sequence, a ragtag band of 18 terrorists enters the vice-presidential mansion through the air conditioning ducts. Their quarry is the president, who has unfortunately stayed home to watch a favorite soap opera. And thus, from the beginning, things go awry.

The day-to-day happenings inside a house where people are being held hostage (and mostly bored out of their minds) just wasn’t interesting to me. Also, the epilogue seemed like an afterthought; the story would have been better without it.

7) The Good Girl, Mary Kubica

Description: One night, Mia enters a bar to meet her on-again, off-again boyfriend. But when he doesn’t show, she leaves with an enigmatic stranger. At first Colin seems like a safe one-night stand, but following him home will turn out to be the worst mistake of Mia’s life. When Colin decides to hide Mia in a secluded cabin in rural Minnesota instead of delivering her to his employers, Mia’s mother, Eve, and detective Gabe will stop at nothing to find them. But no one could have predicted the emotional entanglements that eventually cause this family’s world to shatter.

I liked how the chapters switch between characters and also between time periods. Even though the author tells the story from both before and after the kidnapping occurred, it wasn’t difficult to keep things straight. As for the story itself, I was underwhelmed, and I didn’t find the twist at the end all that believable.

8) Day Four, Sarah Lotz

Description: Hundreds of pleasure-seekers stream aboard a cruise ship for five days of fun in the Caribbean. On the fourth day, disaster strikes: smoke roils out of the engine room and the ship is stranded in the Gulf of Mexico. Soon supplies run low, a virus plagues the ship, and there are rumors the cabins on the lower decks are haunted. Irritation escalates to panic, the crew loses control, factions form, and violent chaos erupts. When at last the ship is spotted drifting off the coast of Key West, the world’s press reports it empty. But the gloomy headlines may be covering up an even more disturbing reality.

I had high hopes for this story since I rated Lotz’s first book as Highly Recommended just a few months ago. This one was not nearly as good. Scenes that were supposed to come off as freaky or scary were anticlimactic. (I don’t normally like thrillers and wouldn’t have picked this up if I hadn’t liked The Three so much.)

9) Neverhome, Laird Hunt

Description: Because she was strong and her husband was not, Ash Thompson disguises herself as a man and goes off to fight in the Civil War in his place. This novel shines light on the hundreds of women who chose to fight in secret rather than stay home.

This is the first audiobook I’ve listened to in years. Ever since I bought a Fitbit I’ve been walking much more than I did in the past, and I was getting bored on my long walks. Music wasn’t cutting it, so I borrowed this mp3 from the library. It was read by Mary Stuart Masterson and her accent made the character come alive, but the story itself wasn’t great. If I had been reading a physical copy of the book I wouldn’t have finished it.

10) Angry Optimist: The Life and Times of Jon Stewart, Lisa Rogak

Description: Since his arrival at The Daily Show in 1999, Jon Stewart has become one of the major players in comedy as well as one of the most significant liberal voices in the media.

This was the second audiobook I listened to in July. I like Stewart, and I really like that he’s a public guy with a very private life. The story, however, wasn’t all that interesting. I need to do some research and pick some better audiobooks for August.

BlogHer, Minimalism

Why I Am a Minimalist

There’s something you should know about me: I consider minimalism to be a big part of my life.

I’m not the kind of minimalist who counts her possessions, but I’m aware of how much I own, and I regularly go through my belongings to get rid of stuff I no longer use or want.

Some people refer to this as simple living, due to minimalism’s reputation for stark white walls or people who live out of backpacks. I like the word minimalism, so I’m sticking with it.

I have definitely not mastered the process: I’ve held onto certain items way longer than I should have, just in case I might need them someday. I’ve started challenging this way of thinking though, and over the past few weeks I’ve made an effort to identify and get rid of stuff I rarely (or never) utilize.

The Minimalists have a recommendation for the just-in-case scenario: if the item you’re not sure you should give away costs less than $20 to replace, you should get rid of it. Odds are you won’t need it again, so if you do have to replace one or two things in the future in order to discard a bunch of stuff right now, it’s worth it. (Another thing to keep in mind: if you give something away that you rarely use and find you need it again later, you could very likely borrow it from a friend rather than buying a new one.)

One of the items I recently donated was a cupcake carrier which could transport up to 24 cupcakes at a time (I used to take them to family gatherings and friends’ parties on a regular basis). I haven’t made cupcakes in over three years, since before I went gluten-free. There was no need for this contraption to take up valuable kitchen cabinet space if I couldn’t fathom when I’d use it again. Out it went.

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(This is my collection of recently-donated items. The cupcake carrier is in the the lower left.)

I’m also much less likely to hold onto sentimental items. A few years ago I took all the photos I owned, scanned them to my computer, and threw away the physical copies. I don’t keep ticket stubs or other paraphernalia from events I attend; an entry in my calendar is sufficient to remember it.

I’m not completely unsentimental, though. I do own items which don’t serve an immediate purpose (several stuffed animals from childhood, high school yearbooks, mementos from foreign travel). Since these items don’t take up a lot of room and I have space to store them, I’m okay with holding onto a few keepsakes. If I need to get rid of them someday (like if I decide to drastically downsize my possessions and move to a foreign country), I would do so in a heartbeat.

I feel like I’ve been editing my possessions for years, but obviously I’ve had things coming in or I wouldn’t have anything left to get rid of. For example, I purchased a number of items from estate sales last year when my husband and I thought we might purchase this really cool old house which needed a ton of renovation. (We ended up purchasing a move-in ready house instead, which was half the square footage of the first, and may I just say…thank god. What a waste of space the larger house would have been for two people.)

I kept some of the estate sale items I bought, but the rest of them were donated (not the best use of my money, but at least none of it cost very much). I’ve since vowed to be more vigilant about what comes into our house, whether it’s something we purchase, or offered to us for free.

It helps that I don’t enjoy shopping. I never did a formal shopping ban – I had no reason to – but the amount of stuff I buy has markedly decreased over the years. Browsing clothing racks fills me with dread rather than anticipation. I rarely buy anything for myself, other than groceries, toiletry items, and household needs. While I do purchase certain things in bulk (toilet paper, hand soap, recurring food items), it’s always something I know we’ll use up, and buying a large supply means I won’t have to seek it out again for a while.

I really, really like not owning a lot of stuff. I’m not weighed down by my possessions. I’m not constantly hunting for new items to acquire. Although there have been times I’ve waffled over whether to keep something, once I’ve sold or given it away I’ve never felt a moment of regret. Once out of sight, it’s completely out of mind.

If my husband and I were asked to pack up next week and move thousands of miles away, we could do so with very little headache and drastically fewer boxes than many others in our situation (a child-free, middle-class, mid-30s couple who own a home).

Minimalism can also be applied to mental clutter – reducing stress and not overextending yourself. As an introvert, I’ve adopted strategies which are conducive to maintaining a minimalist approach in my daily life: My full-time job as an admin keeps stressful situations at bay 95% of the time. I don’t pack my schedule full of events. I don’t feel guilty refusing a request if I don’t want to do something. I read a lot of books.

For me, a minimalist lifestyle is about freedom. My husband and I would prefer to quit our full-time office jobs before reaching what most people consider a normal retirement age. The less stuff we buy, the more money we’ll have to contribute to our investment accounts.

It’s my hope that minimalism – along with our commitment to frugality – will help us meet our ultimate goal of financial independence. Obtaining financial independence will let us choose how we spend our time, pursue a wider range of hobbies and experiences, and provide more flexibility on where we live and how often we travel, instead of being chained to our current 5-day-a-week work schedule (and in my husband’s case, regular 10-12 hour workdays).

You may not focus on minimalism as much as I do, but I encourage everyone to think about what they own and honestly assess what is taking up too much space. I have a feeling you won’t regret it.

[This post is also published on BlogHer]