When the Material World Catches Up

When you’ve just spent the week caring for an ailing, post-knee-surgery spouse who can’t walk, drive, or pick up your cranky preschooler –

When your kid has had 2 bad colds and a scary-high 24 hour fever in the past 10 days –

When your 4-day-a-week office job suddenly requires 8 days just to get your to-do-by-tomorrow list done –

– the best course of behaviour is to get really, really sick. Try fighting it at first. “It’s just a cold!” you croak merrily, blowing horrifying amounts of snot into your environmentally-sound but actually quite disgusting handkerchief as your Kleenex-loving colleagues look on, eyes blinking with disgust. Then show up at work for two desperate days to Power Through The Work, staring with your tiny, bloodshot eyes out of your painfully congested, balloon-sized head punctured by sinus headache-pins at the tiny, tiny words on the computer screen.

And then, suddenly, you’re done. The charade is over. You’re hot and prickly with cold all at the same time; you’re shivering; your tongue feels strange; you’ve definitely got a fever yourself (damn you, child!) – and it’s all you can do to wait 5 more minutes before climbing into bed after keeping your one last commitment: to write on your still-very-new blog once a week. Tick! And now, to bed.

See you on the other side, friends. Until then, keep it semi-material, and don’t forget to wash your hands.

Posted in What is the Semi-Material World, anyway? | Leave a comment

In Praise of Maximalist Cooking (or, Why I’m Not a Minimalist Cook)

My best friend’s husband AK, a talented photographer by trade, is a fantastic (and self-taught) cook. This man seduced me away from 14 years of vegetarianism with a perfect filet mignon (don’t worry, vegetarians – I’m still 99% veg with the occasional steak-break). He makes his own puff pastry and sauerkraut (who does that?). In fact, everything he makes is delicious – but he does have one teeny little issue.

AK is a slow cook. Like, really slow. Watching him meticulously arrange rosettes of smoked salmon and feathers of dill on hors d’oeuvres makes me twitch with impatience, and a dinner invitation for 7pm usually means that food will be on the table by 9. Truthfully, as the parent of an overtired preschooler usually home for bed by 8, this used to stress me out. But over time, I’ve relaxed into the flow of AK’s slow, slow food preparation. The kids run around, in role as jungle cats at the beach. There’s a baguette, some cheese, some wine, some interpretive dance, some catching up and laughter. Sure, dinner is slow to appear. But the tradeoff is that I get to share a great meal with close friends and eat something delicious, prepared with love.

If you’ve cruised the Internet in search of fodder for simplifying/minimalist thought, you’ve probably come across a few sites dedicated in part to “minimalist” cooking and food preparation. The proposed formula? Minimal number of ingredients + minimal prep time = less stress, more time for “what’s important.” Simplicity incarnate, right? Maybe so. But something rankles me about this equation.

I should clarify: I’m definitely not against satisfying, healthy meals that can be made in 10 minutes or less with a small number of ingredients. (As a working parent, I make and eat a lot of food that falls into both of these categories.) I also don’t disagree with Meg Wolfe’s assertion that cooking more simply can help reduce the self-imposed pressure to perform in the kitchen and subvert societal expectations that we need to entertain like mini Martha Stewarts. But I also feel strongly that preparing food – whether it’s toast with peanut butter or an elaborate feast that took 3 days to make – IS the “what’s important” in life. Not only is cooking one of most natural things you can do to care for yourself and  your loved ones, but it’s also just fundamental to the collective human experience. Framing the experience of food preparation as something to be done quickly, to be got over with, feels akin to calorie-counting – that is, it reduces the pleasures of the table to units consumed, units used – the very antithesis of healthy, balanced eating.

Not only that, but taking time to make a good meal can be really enjoyable. If I’ve had a particularly crappy day, coming home and spending half an hour chopping, measuring, sauteeing, and stirring ingredients for soup will melt away the stresses of my day. (Tip: toasting and then grinding spices with a mortar and pestle takes about 3 minutes and makes whatever you’re making taste much, much better.) Gathering slightly unusual ingredients for a special meal, perusing a complicated recipe and trying (valiantly!) to make something extravagant or exotic to impose on friends and family can be a lot of fun, too.

Accordingly, I have a modest proposal. Instead of fretting about keeping our time-counts down, or cooking with (god forbid!) lots of ingredients, let’s celebrate maximalist cooking instead: cooking that isn’t afraid to be messy, abundant, complex, and fun. Let’s dig deep into making food that takes time; that might require patience and attention to detail; that allows us to play in the kitchen while hanging out with our kids and community; and that, oh yeah, might just end up tasting pretty great. What could be more important?

I promise, you’ll still be a minimalist in the morning.

PS: If you’re interested in moving towards a healthier, traditional, and more sustainable diet, you might be interested in the Slow Food movement. From the Slow Food International website:

“Slow Food was founded in 1989 to counter the rise of fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.”

Highly recommended.

PPS: Another good read – on par with most books by food guru Michael Pollan –  is Mark Bittman’s Food Matters. (Even thought his food column is called “The Minimalist,” I won’t hold it against him.) His highly entertaining New York Times article archive can be found here.

Posted in Consumables | 4 Comments

News flash!

Hey there, friends: tomorrow I’m guest posting on The Project 333 blog! Please swing by and check out my (possibly) life-changing insights on the dangers of January sales. You can find them here.

Posted in What is the Semi-Material World, anyway? | Leave a comment

Object Love: Cast-Iron Frying Pan

Hi there. My name is Lisa, and I have a crush on my cast-iron frying pan.

No photo can capture the beauty that is the pan.

Is that bad? It’s probably bad. How can an aspiring minimalist admit such a thing? It was expensive, for one thing. It’s super-heavy. I have another frying pan that was given to me and the hubbo for our wedding, a perfectly nice high-end frying pan that I’m totally indifferent to. And Ms. Cast-Iron doesn’t fit into a backpack. (If I quit my job tomorrow, I’d have to put my pan into storage to go travelling and live a location-independent life – oh, the horror!) Man, that pan is messing up my minimalist cred, and this blog post has barely begun.

But I won’t deny that certain objects instill in me- persist in instilling in me – a kind of fluttery feeling. A sweet spreading flush. A feeling – yes, it’s true – of complete consumer satisfaction. As I travel (slowly, slowly) towards a state of less stuff in many areas of my life, I can admit that certain objets still hold me completely in their thrall. One such object is the aforementioned cast-iron frying pan.

During a recent critical assessment of the Kitchen Situation here at Casa Semi-Material (verdict: way, way too many dishes), I made a list of the crucial components of my daily kitchen life. We do quite a bit of cooking, and I quietly took note of the most used equipment over the course of about two weeks. The list that emerged was as follows:

1. blender

2. chef’s knife

3. paring knife

4. large cutting board

5. large mixing bowl

6. medium-sized mixing bowl

7. large stainless steel copper-bottomed pot

8. stainless steel colander

9. silicone spatula

10. the cast-iron pan

Sure, there were other items that passed through my hands to make our breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, and I haven’t included utensils or plates or cups, obviously – but these were the most-used items, and I’ve decided that in my leave-the-house-in-an-emergency, forlornly-towing-my-possessions-in-a-wagon fantasy, these would be the 10 items I’d grab. However, the item that gives me most bang for my kitchen-buck, plus the fluttery feeling, is the cast iron pan, hands-down.

Why? Well, if I’m being completely honest, this is why:

Because it’s French. I’m a sucker for well-made French cookware. Curse you, Le Creuset!

Because it cooks everything perfectly: sauces, burgers, frittatas, cornbread, spices, curry. (Well, maybe it doesn’t fry eggs very well. If I’m forced to admit it.)

Because it’s environmentally sound: it will last forever and never emit toxic fumes from overheating. And it won’t end up in a landfill: there are cast-iron pans out there in the world, I hear, generations old and still going strong. If I have my way, my son will be cooking stuff in that pan for years after I’ve moved onto mush.

Because it is beautiful, and it gives me the pleasure that beautiful, useful, timeless objects give us when they are regularly appreciated, used, and well cared-for. Did I mention that the pan in question is fire-engine red? Yep. It’s a beaut.

So I put it to you: is there anything you own that gives you the fluttery feeling, without guilt or pause, minimalist compulsions be damned?

PS: In a synchronistic turn of events, Miss Minimalist has started a feature on her blog called 100 Things which features items she owns and loves, plus her rationale for choosing to include them in her life. Her current post is about her love for her handbag – cute!

Posted in Object Love | 3 Comments

On Minimalism and Death (or, Where Will Your Stuff Go When You Go?)

Last Friday, I went to a funeral. My two-doors-down neighbour Antonio was 70ish years old, and he passed away from a heart attack very suddenly after shoveling the early morning snow. It was a shock. He was a lovely man, and despite the language barrier between us (he spoke mostly Portuguese, and I speak, OK, none), we got along well. He and his wife bought my son a little outfit – sweet overalls and a matching cap – when my son was born; he would regularly take the little girls who lived next door into his lush backyard – again, in spite of the language barrier – and very gently, through gestures and nods, show them how to plant seeds and tend to the slow-opening roses and curling grape arbor. In short, he was a good person, and I could tell from the largeish crowd of Portuguese women and men at the funeral service that he was well-loved and respected in the community.

As I sat huddled in my parka at the back of the freezing-cold church and the funeral mass went on, I started thinking about what we leave behind. I’ve read stories on several simplifying/minimalist blogs about people who had to contend with other people’s messes – or entire houses stuffed from a lifetime of buying – after their loved one(s) had passed away. Many of these anecdotes are presented as cautionary tales: “Don’t make others deal with all your crap after you die! The fact that this person/household left behind so much crap is crazy! In the end, what was the point of holding onto all that stuff?” etc. etc.

I don’t think many of us would argue with the aphorism that you can’t take it with you. Whatever you believe about this life, the afterlife or lack thereof, most people would agree that you can’t pack your iPhone or favourite boots for the trip to the other side. And why would you want to? Your physical body is no more, and so is your relationship to all that stuff you owned before you passed away. And while it’s definitely true that who you are amounts to a lot more than the material goods you live with, I would argue that some of the stuff you leave behind after you die might be more valuable than hassle to those who cared about you.

I’ll give you an example. My memories of my maternal grandparents are patchy. We never lived in the same city; I saw them maybe once a year as a child and less and less as I got older. But for years after my grandfather died, I wore his way-too-big pajamas and bathrobe because they smelled like him. And I still own several handkerchiefs, bags, and silk scarves that belonged to my Nana, because they have a quality of grace and elegance that I associate strongly with her. These physical traces helped me hold onto my grandparents once I could no longer count on their physical presence; they provided me with solace and something material that connected me to them in a very visceral way. Now, I’m not saying that everything our loved ones leave behind is useful, evocative, or even worth considering (elastic band balls, anyone?) – but I am saying that sometimes, a few physical reminders of a person can go a long way towards keeping them alive in our minds and our hearts – maybe for just a little while longer.

So, I’m interested: where do you see your stuff going when you go? Or maybe a better question is: what will your stuff mean to others when you go? When those that loved you can no longer count on your physical presence, what will they hold onto in your absence? And what do you want to leave behind?

Rest in peace, Antonio. You will be missed.

Posted in Morbid Meanderings | Leave a comment

On Project 333, part 1 (or, How Am I Going to Look Good This Winter?)

Project 333 is the well-dressed brainchild of Courtney Carver, whose blog Be More With Less provides a consistently thoughtful and compassionate take on living a life with less stuff and greater fulfilment. When I first read about Project 333 in the early fall, I’d missed the start date and wasn’t up for jumping in midway through the project. Plus, I wasn’t ready. And I was afraid. And I have so many nice clothes. And did I mention I wasn’t ready? Three months and several garbage bags of donations later, I felt ready to take it on, and so my first run at life with only 33 things to wear began on December 26, 2010.

For those of you who don’t know what it’s about, Project 333 is a challenge to wear nothing but 33 items of clothing – including all accessories and outerwear – for 3 whole months. Courtney’s rationale was as follows (or you can read the whole post here):

For me, the purpose of dressing with less is twofold. First and very simply, I want to live with less, and second, I have used clothing to express my creativity, and tell a story about who I am. Now, I am ready to tell the story myself. If my clothing is simple and more of a canvas, then I can shine instead of my patent leather shoes. (I don’t really wear patent leather shoes).

For me, the appeal of Project 333 is to simplify my wardrobe for three reasons:

1. to create more time in the morning to hang out with my kid before we go off to daycare and work,

2. to eliminate the confused, sleepy standing-in-front-of-closet-in-underwear time, and

3. to see what it feels like to invest much less energy in my clothing choices.

But I can’t deny that I am one of those women. I LOVE fashion and style, and unlike Ms. Carver, I favour the idea of using clothing as a way to express my creativity, to “tell a story about who I am.” From tattoos to mausoleums to teacups to horse blankets, humans cross-culturally demonstrate what I think of as the decorative impulse – the desire to embellish, to add layers of visual meaning to objects beyond their strictly utilitarian purpose. And I am no exception. Part of my occasional ambivalence about the minimalist movement (if it can be called that – more on that another day) is the implication made by some that decorative/pretty = unnecessary = constraining to one’s personal freedom. Au contraire, friends! I ask: why let a great vintage 1970s polyester dress stand in the way of your personal freedom? It’s really cheap (if you get it at the right place), environmentally impeccable (unless you light it on fire), and says you are hot and foxy! What could be bad?

Anyway. None of this is to say that we need closets full of shitty, cheaply-made clothes, impulse buys, and things we don’t wear. Project 333, ho!

I must say that so far, the project’s impact on my day to day life has been positive. I’ve got fewer choices in the morning – hence more time to play with the kid, less closet-staring-in-underwear time, more time freed up for breakfasty things. Check, check, check. But how does it feel to resist my impulse to embellish, to throw on something silly or fun or (god forbid!) slightly frivolous? When I first began pulling out the things I would need for my three months in minimalist clothing-land, I tried to balance my usual desire for cute/quirky/funny/sexy items with 1., the coldest part of winter in Toronto, and 2., my 4-day-a-week office job. I wanted to wear less stuff, yet still look cute. And like myself. Would it be possible?

The short answer, so far, is yes – but like many other participants, I’m leaning really heavily on black and solid colours. Plain, well-cut things. And sadly, mostly items that just don’t have the zap-POW! of the perfect ’70s polyester frock.

And how will I feel about this by the end of March? Stay tuned.

Posted in Fashion | Leave a comment


…blast off!  Well, hi there. Have you come to the right place? Are you comfy? Are your glasses on? Shoes off? Pillow adjusted? Tie loosened? I have no idea. However, I do know that this is the inaugural post on Semi-Material World, and I’m glad you’re here.

So. What’s it all about? The short answer is in the tagline: thoughtful perspectives on our relationship with stuff. But the longer answer deserves a bit more elaboration.

To set the stage: it’s the very end of 2010, and I spent a lot of time over the past six-or-so months seeking out and absorbing all the books, blogs, and news I could on topics such as minimalist living, decluttering, “simple” parenting (ha), job-hacking, vagabonding, outsourcing, debt reduction, work revisioning, and the active pursuit of dreams. For me it was a case of connecting with exactly the right ideas at the right time, and the more I read, the more I experienced a succession of those rare, everything’s-slipping-into-place “aha!” moments that felt like – well, everything was slipping into place. Then I started making changes. I cut my personal expenses, cleared a huge amount of physical clutter, paid off debt, and started working less to spend more time with my kid. In part, Semi-Material World will document this continuing journey in 2011 and my ongoing inquiry into the role of stuff in my own life.

But here’s the other thing. The more I’ve read, the more I’ve been thinking deeply and critically about the minimalist movement, as well as some of the murkier, perhaps not-quite-so-clear-cut issues around consumerism and ownership. In a nutshell, I’m thinking about both the negative and positive aspects of consuming, buying, keeping things, and living with all of our myriad kinds of “stuff” in an almost-inescapably material world. So, the blog will investigate some of these questions as well, and hopefully initiate some open and honest dialogue with others who have similar things on their minds.

As I wind along this messy (cluttered?) road towards my own conclusions, I’ll share thoughts on a range of topics connected with minimalism, consumption, lifestyle, and yeah, our relationship with our stuff. I hope you’ll join me in the conversation.


Posted in What is the Semi-Material World, anyway? | 2 Comments