Mall Madness

one-dollarOver the holidays, I joined the extended family in a trip to the Jordan Creek Mall outside of Des Moines.  The excursion was primarily designed to let the kids let off some steam, to eat some famous local burgers, and to stretch our legs.  What I didn’t expect were many bigger reflections on consumerism.

A bit of background:  My mall-going days were concentrated in my youth and, to this day, retain a haze of teenage uncertainty and discomfort.  Pop culture told me that as teenage girl, I was supposed to count ‘shopping’ as a past time.  Shop ‘Til You Drop was a beloved after-school game show for my brother and me.  The Mall Madness board game was a particular favorite amongst my peers.  And for the entire decade of the 1990s, the mall was simply the cool place to hang out.  For me, however, anytime I went to the mall (or shopping more broadly), I felt like I was self-consciously playing a role.  Wasn’t I having fun buying earrings at Claire’s?  Didn’t I love trying on clothes all day and finding the perfect thing?  Wasn’t it great to arrive without any particular plan, but to treat yourself to something you didn’t know you wanted?  I know that many people enjoy shopping, but it was never fun for me – and it took me until my twenties to figure that out.

last-chanceAs I’ve grown up, I’ve designed a very different relationship with shopping.  Versus the in-person shopping of my youth, Liz and I live an Amazon-enabled life.  We assess and agree upon our need before buying each item.  We research the best item in each category, whether through a quick spot-check of Amazon reviews or more extensive online diligence.  And, we are quick to return items that don’t satisfy our needs, packing them up and shipping them back.  In short, there’s no such thing as an impulse purchase; it’s all overarchingly intentional.

The result of our narrow online shopping habits is that we exposed to the breadth of American consumerism.  My visit to the mall this holiday season took me out of my Amazon bubble and brought the broader landscape back into focus.  A few observations from my mall wanderings:

First, I was struck by the sheer volume of items for sale: iPhone cases, laser-cut cat images, Christmas ornaments, clothes, clothes, clothes!  So many things!  Who would buy all these things?  Where did they come from?  Who made them?  And where would they all go after they were used and loved?  The volume of merchandise for sale made me think about their lives before these shelves – the raw materials, the producers, their working conditions – and their existence after these shelves – the joy or utility these items might bring, the landfills and recycling centers where they might end up.  Receiving my single, intentionally-purchased item in a box on my doorstep focuses me on this sole item and my use alone; walking through the mall reminded me of the broader life cycle of this vast array of goods.

almost-everythingFurther, in the intra-holiday period, I was struck by the dominance of the deal.  Nearly every store had a sale:  65% off!  Buy one, get one!  Everything $1!  I could viscerally feel their allure; I too wanted to stock up on $3 Bath and Body Works soaps and $1 turtlenecks.  Thus, while I typically buy things with intention, my mall trip reminded me of how frequently we buy things by impulse.  It’s crazy how even when we’re trying hard to be thoughtful, it’s difficult to say no to an experience designed to maximize spending, regardless of need.

To be clear, living in the online shopping bubble does not make me immune from the negative sides of consumerism.  For every pair of jeans I buy online, there’s still an immense amount of textile waste generated.  And I’m certainly guilty of generating a pile of cardboard boxes nearly every week.  But my mall trip prompt me to reflect on the aspects of consumerism often hidden to us online shoppers – and to recommit to how I want to buy items:  In the face of all these things to buy, I want to purchase only quality items with responsible sourcing and a long usable life.  In the face of impulse buys, I want to be even more thoughtful about purchasing only the vital few items we need.

It’s good to look around once in a while.

Wishing you a wonderful New Year,
Meredith

Related media
Here’s a bonus clip re: the mall for all the “How I Met Your Mother Fans” out there.  It’s a fairly accurate representation of mall-going in the 90s.  Who doesn’t love Robin Sparkles?

And the trailer for a documentary entitled ‘Minimalism’ that channels how I’m thinking about consumerism.  Thanks to Alyson Madrigan for the tip.

entire-store

Empathy for Bridezillas

Liz and I continue to beaver away at wedding planning, tackling some new aspect of the event nearly every night. Our loft is filled with reply cards, flower vases, and various sizes of ribbon. Our inboxes alternate between guest questions about plus-ones and responses from a fantastic collection of vendors. Our calendars are filled with events like trial hairdos, venue walkthroughs, and just one more trip to Michael’s.

More than once I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the details. Which forks should we use? Will the cake be cut at 8:20PM or 8:35PM? Do I want blush or bronzer? While I value (and perhaps overvalue) the importance of nailing the details, it is certainly not my strength. Instead, I’m constantly surprised about the volume and specificity of the choices that need to be made. Wedding decisions are like matryoshka (Russian nesting dolls); you think you are seeing the entirety of the question, but then you open it up to find that there are infinite layers of decisions nestled within the high-level decision you just made.
wed_linensWhile all this planning stresses me out, Liz, on the other hand, brings an operational fluency to the whole process, grounded in her military background and healthcare expertise. I may be emotional about the fifteenth decision about flatware, but she has the capacity to see the overall vision and also manage the component decisions to achieve the plan. She is unsurprised by the level of planning needed and unfussed about making it happen.

In some way, I’m surprised that these decisions stress me out in the first place. True, I’m not naturally good at dealing with the details, so I may feel incapable. But I also would not be stressed if I didn’t think these decisions were important. Why does this endless parade of decisions matter to me?
wed_napkinOn some level, I believe the efforts we put into orchestrating a gorgeous event – from finding the right forks to arranging the tables – serve as a proxy for the love we’re giving to our guests. If we can control the event and get it all right, then people will enjoy themselves and know how much we love them. If I’m honest with myself, it’s like every other dinner party I’ve thrown in the past; if I make it perfect, all will go well. It’s a lot of pressure to put on picking flowers and candles and desserts; if they’re not exactly right, then people won’t feel loved and we won’t be okay.

Reflecting on my own control issues around our wedding has helped me empathize with the bridezilla trope in a new way. In addition to endless questions around event details, weddings confront us with questions around many of our core values: family, religion, community, beauty, self-worth, tradition, love, gender roles, commitment, and meaning. As the bride (or one of two brides), it’s easy to pretend to control over all those questions by controlling the details of the day. Society tells us that it is ‘our day’ and we can do whatever we like, so why not dictate all the details, avoid the most difficult questions, and ensure the logistics perfectly conform to our vision?

I’m trying to unplug my controlling tendencies here. I’m trying to dissociate the precise linen selection with the love that we have for our guests. I’m trying to I’m trying to channel a bit more of Liz’s capacity for making these decisions without becoming stressed. And I’m trying to not control the world in order to increase my own sense of comfort. It’s not easy to do this, particularly as each vendor comes with question after question about decisions that apparently matter. But my hope is that by letting go of a bit of my wedding, an even better, co-created celebration can grow up in its place.

With love,
Meredith
wed_vase

Does This Dehydrator Make Me Look Cheap?

I spend a lot of my time thinking and writing about intentionality, this idea of mindfully and choicefully directing one’s life.  The thinking goes something like this:  Our thoughts and our actions – and indeed our entire impact on the world – reflect our underlying beliefs and values, both conscious and unconscious.  And yet, many people (myself included) do not always bring mindful awareness and conscious choice to these things.

While I celebrate the idea of intentionality, I (like everyone) can be completely caught off-guard by the ways I unconsciously act and the values they reflect.  This week I surprised myself again.  My realization?

I am way more frugal than I ever knew.

Case in point is the first twelve hours after returning home from this week’s work trip to London.  I came home, caught up with Liz, spent time with the puppy, ate some Goat Hill pizza (our favorite local pizza joint), and then…started sorting through the refrigerator.  It’s not that I was particularly hungry or even particularly bored and looking for something to do.  Instead, I knew that there was a lot of food in the house when I left and I wanted to make sure we weren’t letting much of it go to waste.

To Liz’s credit, she is easily as frugal as me.  Once, when in charge of organizing date night, Liz signed us up for a class on running a “zero-waste kitchen.”  They taught pickling for extra vegetables, cheese-making to address your nearly-expired milk, and broth-making for everything else.  Whereas others may have thought this would be a slightly strange romatnic interlude, I absolutely loved it.  We even got to make our own sauerkraut.

This past week, she had focused on eating up leftovers from last week’s camping adventure and working through the freezer.  So, to her credit, there wasn’t much to do.  Nonetheless, I pulled out my favorite new fruaglity enabler:  our new dehydrator.

Not yet twenty-four hours later, my dehydrating adventures have been prolific:

Leftover camping potatoes turned into crunchy parmesan potato bites:

potatoes

Previously pickled okra, jalapenos, and leftover corn have become “Liz Mix”:liz mixAnd more on the way:  peppers and garlic, mushrooms, jalapenos, carrots, and Brussels sprouts:
trayDespite all the time I spend thinking about how I want to consciously embody my chosen values, every so often something creeps up upon me.  And this fit of kitchen management proves exactly that.  Surveying my piles of dehydrated food, I thought:  “Wow, this whole thing has made me really happy.  I am way more frugal than I ever thought.  And I embody that without really ever thinking about it.”

I’ll be reflecting about the values I live while munching on my potato bites.

The Values You Eat

Between the Wedding Diet and my more recent approach to counting calories, I’ve obviously been thinking a lot about food.  Part of the point of The Wedding Diet was bringing consciousness to certain foods and figuring out how I reacted to cutting each one out.  But as I’ve moved past that approach, I’ve started to think less narrowly (i.e., what happens when this one thing goes away?) and more broadly (i.e., what happens when I eat anything?).  Physically, emotionally, and otherwise, what life do I create as I ingest each bite?

A good friend told me that “food is the place where we develop and exert our integrity.”  This is not just integrity in the sense of following through on our commitments – our ability to stick to a diet or maintain our veganism over time.  Beyond that, our food choices also reflect our integrity of living in alignment with who we are and what we value.  I, for example, variously value health, convenience, appearance, social connection, cultural experience, tradition, sustainability, and frugality when I decide what to eat.  Not all of those values are reflected in this morning’s espresso or my mid-day fried rice (real-life menu choices for today), but my choices are the more-or-less successful reflection of a constellation of values I strive to honor.

I am what I eat – from the molecules that make up my food to the values which my food reflects.

And you are too.  You can imagine that we all eat from a veritable pu pu platter of values every day.

values we eat
But here’s the thing about values.  You can’t honor all of them all the time.  It’s tough to find the afternoon snack which is at the same time frugal, healthy, and communicates your sense of adventure.  So we make trade-offs.  We give up some things to accommodate others.

I know that I won’t always be the perfect reflection of my values.  But my hope is that I can keep on consciously choosing what I eat.  I’ve learned over the past months that I don’t live better by excluding sugar or including dairy.  I’ve learned that I eat best when I eat consciously – conscious of not only the basic gastronomical dimensions of what and how much, but also the why and the how.

And with that, I am finishing defrosting the ratatouille – the most tangible manifestation of my values of health, appearance, and frugality you’ll see from me all day.

What values do you aspire to eat?  What values did you eat today?

With love,
Meredith