people are weird

Today, in addition to the usual complement of discarded soda cans, sports drink bottles, and plastic grocery bags wound determinedly around cacti, I came across some more unusual discarded items on my walk.  Namely, a seat belt from a car, various pieces of drywall, a lone sneaker, and a big piece of twisted sheet metal.  I left the sheet metal where it was, for lack of any better ideas.  

Why any of that wound up along a random trail, I'll never know.  People are weird. 

I also found two golf balls, and those I kept.  They'll be put to good use for self-foot-massagey-acupressure purposes.

In other news, it's an obnoxiously beautiful day today.  Happy Thursday!


today I love...

...this exquisite summary of social dance culture.  It's partially a tutorial in etiquette, a topic that I happen to find fascinating and quite diverting, but that some feel is rather dry.  More importantly, it seeks to define the more elusive qualities that define the happiest, most in-demand, and best social dancers (hint: it's not extensive training or the ability to execute complicated steps). 

If I ever am in a position to teach social dance again, I think this treatise shall be required reading prior to the first lesson.  Delightful!


the final frontier

If you had one room to live in, what would it look like?

I don't claim to know what mine would be yet, but it's a useful thought experiment to keep in mind as I continue along my decluttering journey.  There are many benefits to living with less stuff.  Today I want to talk about one in particular, one very near and dear to my heart as a person in possession of two X chromosomes: clothing.

Some of my favorite memories are from traveling.  When I go somewhere, whether it's for a weekend or a month, I'm pretty stubborn about taking as little stuff as possible.  Of course, when I was younger, that was not at all the case.  I recall going to see my extended family over the holidays for about three weeks by myself when I was six or seven (complete with excessively friendly flight attendants and an enormous orange tag around my neck that said who I belonged to) and bringing one of those enormous bags that would probably be over the airlines' weight limit these days. 

What on earth did a six-year-old need with fifty pounds of clothes? 

Granted, at that age I certainly wasn't the one who had to schlep all that around.  That's what grown-ups were for.

This behavior continued for many years thereafter.  In order to go anywhere I seemed to think that I needed absolutely everything that might possibly be useful in any contingency.  Then, of course, if I wanted a particular thing I would have to dive through the huge pile of stuff for several minutes in order to find it.  It was really only a few years ago that I realized the foolishness of this.  It finally dawned on me that if you carry less stuff you become much more mobile, experience less travel frustration, and can even find your stuff when you look for it!  And as yet another bonus, the airlines never get a chance to misplace your things (an unfortunate situation that I've thankfully never had to go through, but I've seen it seriously mess up trips) if you only need a carry-on. 

Now I do things like travel in Europe for two weeks with only an undersize carry-on and a large purse.  I obsessively read packing tips, think for weeks about which outfits to bring to maximize versatility, and drool over nifty travel gadgets.  On our Europe trip last year, Mr. Geek had to put up with me stringing an elastic clothesline across the bathrooms of various bed and breakfasts and washing out clothes in the evenings.  Of course, that was the least of our adventures, but those stories are for another time.

With less stuff it was easy to hop on and off of trains, wander the streets of London (except when his bag's wheel broke... that was a bad day), and fit easily into the sometimes tiny bedrooms at our assorted stopping places.  I also felt like much less conspicuously American, which is a plus when overseas.  I didn't really have to worry about my stuff; aside from the nightly sink laundry, everything pretty much took care of itself.   I didn't even really have to think about what to wear each day, because there just weren't that many options.  Going hiking?  Then it'll be my comfy navy zip-off slacks and my breathable purple top, maybe with the navy cardigan on top in case it gets chilly.  Going out to eat?  Guess I'm wearing my little black dress.  Everything goes with everything else, everything fits perfectly, and everything is the best of its category due to having been so selective in the packing process.

I love clothing, especially in unexpected styles.  I like having a variety of 'looks,' and being able to dress appropriately for any eventuality.  However, there is something about the simplicity of knowing that every single thing available to put on is my favorite, and never having to hunt for anything.  It's interesting that I generally gravitate toward the same items when packing for a trip, but it's not too surprising.  What go with me are things that I love wearing, are in great condition, fit perfectly, and can fit in a myriad of situations.  Starting with the go-to travel pieces would be a terrific way to begin building a well-curated wardrobe in general.  A knee-length black synthetic A-line skirt, for instance, may be the single most versatile piece of clothing I own (unfortunately my best one was recently ruined by a hotel washing machine, so I'm currently scouting for a new one).  It can be dressed up with a sparkly top, thrown over hiking pants to add a layer and a bit of respectability, paired with a button-up for business casual, or worn as a super-comfy bottom when lounging around reading.  Hence, one of those will always have a place in my travel bag.

That says something.  While I'm certainly not going to get rid of all but one of my skirts, it might be a good idea to go through and assign them all a number that quantifies their versatility.  Can it be worn both formally and casually?  Would it work in a business setting?  Is it comfy?  Does it go with the shoes I wear most often?  Do I have multiple tops that pair nicely with it?  It gets one point for each context it works in.   Penalties apply if I haven't worn the thing at least twice in the past year. 

I would propose that about half of my skirts would only score a 1 or a 2 on this scale.  If I got rid of those, I would have more space on my skirt shelf and be able to see the ones I *do* want to wear more easily. 

I've deteriorated into talking about specifics, like skirts.  Let's back up a little.

Why would one want fewer things?  More stuff is the American Dream, after all!

As a culture, we seem to have a bad habit of extrapolating things inappropriately.  If one pill is good for me, surely taking two of them will be better.  This cookie says 'low-fat' on the package, so I'll be healthier if I eat the whole package.  People need stuff to survive, so more stuff will make me happier.

Studies have shown that material wealth and possessions do, in fact, increase happiness.  That is, if you happen to be desperately poor and lacking in the basic necessities of life.  After a threshold, which turns out to be shockingly low, more possessions have absolutely no effect on happiness.  A third car, a slightly bigger flatscreen TV, or a seventh designer handbag will not make you happy or content.  What does correlate with happiness after that threshold is people.  Relationships.  Social circles.  Having close friends and getting to really connect with them.  Not stuff.

The United States is way up there in term of per-capita affluence, but we're also leading the parade when it comes to depression.  I suspect that the logical fallacy of more stuff == happiness is a big part of the widespread discontent in this country.

Enough.  I want to get off that particular train, stop being a good little consumer, and figure out what actually works for me.  I want to create space in my life to do what I really want to do and to connect with people I love.  I want to be able to pick up and move across the country if an amazingly stellar opportunity crops up, without feeling terrified at the prospect of moving all my crap.   I want the things I own to stop owning me

Whether that means having one skirt or ten is yet to be determined.

This turned up on my RSS feed this afternoon.  Beautiful stuff.


a tale of two lamps

rickety lamp is rickety

As part of my mission to declutter, I'm spending March purging things I have sentimental but useless attachments to. 

This lamp has stood next to my bed for years. Okay, so it's really wobbly and top-heavy and I nearly knock it over all the time.  Okay, so the leaves are kind of sharp and not fun to run into with a searching hand in the dark.  Okay, so it's too tall for my bedside table and so is kind of glare-y.  Okay, so it tends to randomly blink on and off occasionally, and the lightbulb mysteriously unscrews itself.

Wait, why do I have this again?

Meanwhile, this little beauty was rescued years ago from my grandmother's farmhouse's attic.  It's a darling little porcelain lamp that my auntie had by her bedside when she was little.  Its wiring was completely shot, of course (it was the old fabric-wrapped stuff, and was very frayed and worn), but a few months ago I picked up a lamp re-wiring kit and Mr. Geek was kind enough to take it upon himself to rewire the thing.  So it's now fully functional, but has been sitting dejectedly amongst the clutter on my dresser, serving no purpose at all.  Unfortunately, it does lack for a shade.

cute little bit of history

There's an obvious solution to my problem.   Moving the shade from the rickety lamp to the porcelain one seems to work out pretty well...

And voila!  New bedside lamp that's sturdy, cute, and non glare-y.  Plus, it put the family heirloom lamp to a real use!  The tall rickety lamp goes into my box to donate to Goodwill.  Maybe it'll worm its way into someone else's heart.  


revelations and revolutions

A few months ago, I found myself frustrated and angry without really knowing why.  I felt stifled, over-structured, and like I couldn't do anything.  Being human, this led to immediate lashing out about something apparently trivial.  I snippishly and passive-aggressively complained to Mr. Geek that I'd been wanting to play DDR (dance dance revolution, a video game that involves a lot of jumping around) for months and never got to.

He just looked at me and asked, quite simply, 'what's stopping you?'

I then proceeded to sit there and do what was probably an extremely good guppie impersonation.  I opened and closed my mouth repeatedly as my brain took a leave of absence for what must have been several whole minutes (while being laughed at, of course.  In retrospect, it was quite funny).

What was stopping me? 

My brain had shut down because there was no reason.  No good one, anyway, and his question had cut right to the heart of that.  I knew what I wanted to do, I had the means to do it, and yet I was standing in my own way while inventing worthless excuses that allowed me to be frustrated and unhappy.

How messed up is that?  Who in their right mind would want to be unhappy?

This is a fairly trivial example about a video game, but the general point illuminated by the silly situation is relevant to pretty much everything.

I suspect that if we would only get out of our own way, we'd be able to accomplish so much more than we think we're capable of.


things are looking up

I've been noticing recently that I tend to stare at the ground when walking.  It's a viable strategy when, say, navigating a river-rock path across boiling lava, but it seems a bit silly when walking down a nice and level office hallway.  It keeps me from seeing what's around me, messes with my posture, and I'm sure it contributes to an introverted, unapproachable demeanor.  So I have a new project: look up!

I applied this when going for my walk yesterday, in which I took the second half of lunch hour and took off along a random path.  I never really thought before about how fortunate I am that my workplace is kind of in the middle of nowhere, since it results in lots of dirt paths all over the place, mostly carved out by 4-wheelers.  Once I'd spent about 15 minutes walking and occasionally jogging, I took some time to really stretch (one of my favorite activities ever, as a dance nerd).  Being off by myself and surrounded only by plant life, I didn't have to worry about whether I looked silly or anything; scrub doesn't judge. 

Anyway, as I walked along I kept feeling my gaze pulled downward, and kept lifting it back up.  How much more pleasant it is to see the clear blue sky rather than the dirt at my feet!


when RSS attacks

As you may know, I'm sort of on a mission to be more active in general.  Leading a sedentary lifestyle is suboptimal, and I need to be creative to thwart that outcome of having a desk job.  When I was still in school I would bike everywhere, be in dance classes/rehearsals all the time, take martial arts, and walk a lot.  In short, I was a pretty active chica despite pursuing rather cerebral disciplines full-time and working part-time. 

Side note: when you're in college, you wistfully long for the day when you'll get to come home from work and not have homework hanging over you, so your free time will be genuinely free.  Think of all the things you can accomplish!  Write the next Great American Novel!  Become a trapeze artist!  Teach yourself to speak Russian!

It's a filthy lie.  As it turns out, there is a huge difference between spending your day darting between classes, taking breaks, going for walks, catching up with people between classes, and poking at your homework, and spending all day at work.  All day.  No random 1-hour breaks because that's how you schedule works out.  Nope.  It's more of a time suck than one would think.  Add on top of that a ridiculous commute time by living in the wrong city... it's suboptimal. 

Anyway, I went from being really quite active to getting some serious secretary spread.  I sit on my butt for my drive, then all day at work, and then in the evenings we'll eat dinner and watch an episode of something on Netflix or play a video game.  The other day my bottom was actually sore from all the sitting.  How can you have a more ridiculous first-world-problem than that?

I know that I have less energy now because I don't use it.  I know that I don't sleep well when I'm sedentary.  I know I'm not nearly as healthy as I should be.

However, change is hard.  And the perfect is the enemy of the good.  Oh sure, I'll get more active.  I just need to adjust my schedule, and wait for the weather to clear up, and wait until I actually feel like it, and organize the fridge first.  Nope, I'm not avoiding it or anything. 

Fortunately, Mr. Geek reads this, and for some reason he took me seriously.  He's been hauling out the DDR pads and we've been jumping around on 'em nearly every evening that's not already taken up by dance lessons.  Yay for kicking my butt and being more active!  But it still doesn't help my personal activation energy problem. 

I have a number of assorted blogs that show up on my RSS reader, most of them related to life improvement (plus a few sartorial-minded ones.  What?  I'm a girl).  When I get a chance and need a brief break from whatever I'm doing, I'll poke through some of the new entries. 

Yesterday, this showed up. 

Ouch.  Boy, does that one hit a nerve.  To my credit, I did have the thought that I should really act on that, and go do something right now. 

But I didn't.  I challenged myself, and the challenge fell flat. 


I'm tired of that blog.  It's a little too poignant.  Let's see what someone else has to say. 

Gah!  The universe is conspiring against my laziness inertia!

So I did it.  I got up from my computer, walked outside, and went for a walk.  I stretched my legs and rested my eyeballs by looking at plants and sky instead of a glowing screen for a bit.  There's a little dirt path that runs parallel to and a bit back from the road to my workplace, so I meandered along that, though I was annoyed at all the random detritus that had been discarded into the brush along the path.  I checked my watch, and simply walked for 8 minutes or so, and then turned around.  On the way back, I picked up some of the litter that I came across, and was fortunate to find a full-size potato chip bag that I then used to stuff other garbage into.  I have a habit of picking up trash I walk across.  A few years ago, Mr. Geek and I went on an epic hike in the mountains (it wound up being more epic than originally intended, admittedly; maps are good) and by the time we emerged, his backpack was stuffed to the brim with beer cans we'd found along the side of the otherwise beautiful trail.  People are disgusting sometimes. 

To return to the topic at hand, it felt good!  15 minutes of walking, and I could feel my lungs working better, my eyes relaxing, and that curious popping sensation in my thigh muscles that says I've worked them.  I returned to my desk, and the rest of the day went much more quickly than usual.  That evening, I had much more energy than I would have expected, and stayed up a bit later due to simply not being exhausted. 

A tiny change, but a big result.  I think I like this. 

Have you had to overcome your own activation energy to reach a goal?  Did baby steps help on the way?  I'd love to hear about it.


a message

a sweet hello

As part of my mission to declutter, I'm spending March purging things I have sentimental but useless attachments to. 

Some good friends of mine sent me this cute little message thingie after I moved to a different state, with a picture of the three of us.  Originally, when you pressed 'play,' it would play a recording of my friend saying hi.  However, the recording mechanism has long been busted, so it's kind of silly to keep it around.

The picture goes into my box of things to make into a scrapbook someday, and the frame goes into the trash.  This is getting easier.  Next!


february in finances

In my ongoing financial makeover, February had some upsides and some downsides.

In the 'upside' corner, we have a massive proportion (59%) of income going directly to debt reduction!  This really took a whack at my consumer debt balance, and will help attain my debt freedom goal that much sooner.  After all, paying it off sooner leads to the balance being lower sooner, which in turn results in paying less total interest, which is a total win.

Now for the challenger.

In the 'downside' corner, I got a bit overzealous with debt payments.  I paid the amount planned for in my debt snowball spreadsheet, and then a few days later I threw a couple hundred more on there for good measure.  Then I looked at the total balance, and hey, it's only a few hundred over an even thousand mark, so I should just knock it down to there.  Round numbers are nice.

Unfortunately, that resulted in an overall debt payment that was more than I should have bitten off.  My total savings (defined as the difference between income and spending) was, drumroll please...

... -7%.

Yes, that's a negative.  I violated the Master Equation Okay, so it was in order to pay off debt, which is certainly better than overspending myself in order to buy overpriced and unneeded new shoes, or buying stuff on Amazon.  Still, it's suboptimal.

As a result, I'll be going on a little bit of a debt-repayment fast for a month, and for March I will pay ONLY the amount indicated by my snowball.  No more.  There certainly is virtue in throwing every possible penny at the problem, but that only pertains to real pennies.  Not the ones that deplete the modest cushion I keep in my checking account.  This getting-into-financial-shape project involves not only killing off all my debt, but also becoming intimately acquainted with the meaning of 'affordability.'  Affordability means having the money, not needing it for anything else, and only spending consciously.  Unconscious spending is what leads to maxed out credit cards.  Despite the fact that my overspending was 'for a good cause,' it still doesn't help me learn good money management skills.  So there will be no whimsical extra payments for me, at least until I can build that cushion back up.

While the other categories were certainly dwarfed by the debt pie-slice, they're worth looking at as well. 

My mission to reduce the grocery budget took a nosedive, and I spent even more on food in February than I did in January.  Too many Costco trips, and too little planning for sales.  We are getting better at planning out the week's meals, though (more on that soon).  The household category also got hit a little harder than usual this month.  A part on the grill needed replacing, and spring is the best time to do that, prior to the grilling season hitting.  We also needed a new baby gate to keep the dog off the stairs.  The previous one was a $15 pine-and-plastic number, and between us accidentally kicking it when climbing over and the cat launching herself off of it (hopefully someday she'll learn to go over, not just on), it was thoroughly dead.  It was literally held together with zip strips for the last month or so, but ultimately it gave up completely.  I decided to 'splurge' and buy an actually decent one that is made of metal and can swing open.   I figure that otherwise I would have been replacing it every six months or so, and those $15 expenditures add up (not to mention the nuisance of having to go shopping all the time).  Sometimes spending more money is actually a bargain

Next up is the personal category.  A while ago, my mother sent me an extremely generous gift: two beautiful rings that she didn't wear any more.  One, set with an oversize amethyst, was her engagement ring, and the other is a large heart-shaped zirconia.  Both are gorgeous.  Unfortunately, both were also yellow gold, which goes with nothing I own.  In my ongoing quest to minimize my jewelry collection (I now own five pairs of earrings. FIVE!), it makes sense to have everything go with everything else.  So the majority of the 'personal' category this month was spent to have the rings re-plated in white gold, and one sized to fit better.  It wasn't cheap, but I got to patronize a jeweler I adore, and added two stunning pieces to my much-less-crowded jewelry box.

The main other expenditure was at Goodwill on my birthday weekend, when my good friend took me thrift shopping in order to get me out of the house while Mr. Geek put together my surprise party.  Suffice it to say that there were absurdly many layers of subterfuge involved, and it was indeed quite surprising.  But as for the shopping trip, I acquired a number of well-fitting, professional blazers for work, and a gorgeous pinstripe skirt suit that was promptly worn (after Dryel-ing) for a presentation the following Monday.  Oh, and a few super-shiny gowns that might get to come out later in our ballroom dancing career.  It was my birthday; I refuse to regret that purchase.

Coming in a distant fourth, transportation costs were up a bit from last month, but with gas prices what they are that is hardly surprising.  In any case, transit costs seem to be the least of my worries, despite the crazy commute.

That's where I stand financially, dear blogosphere.  Here's hoping I'll be able to report a positive (or at least non-negative, for crying out loud) savings number next month!



As part of my mission to declutter, I'm spending March purging things I have sentimental but useless attachments to.

For my first post regarding letting go of sentimental (but functionally useless) items, I decided to tackle a rather difficult one.  My first area of attack is the extremely cluttered top of my dresser, and first to go are dried flowers.

I have a deep and abiding love of roses, and a nearly compulsive tendency to dry and keep all roses I get.  Ever.  Like, in my whole life.


I hang them upside down until dry, and then put them... somewhere.  Unfortunately, I'm running out of somewheres, and the darn things do take up space.  And collect dust.  And shed little crumbly bits of vegetation all over the carpet.  The picture above shows some of them in a red vase, but I have far too many in my room as well.  The bunch of flowers laying down in the picture have been doing just that: laying down on my dresser, hiding behind some other stuff and not even really visible.  How is this doing anyone any good?

The Jones Soda jar was a shared moment between myself and a very good friend, and the purple and green Mardi Gras necklaces in them symbolic of our favorite colors.  I love you, girl, but I don't need a Jones Soda bottle to tell me so. 

When I was little, I participated in a lot of theatre.  I would sing and dance up on stage with lots of other children with mediocre talent, and I had a great time.  At every single one of those shows, my mom would give me a single rose.  I loved those.  The little hexagonal jar contains the petals from every single rose she gave me after a performance (can you tell I can be a little obsessive sometimes?).   However, it's really the memories that matter, and her thoughtfulness in doing that in the first place.  The roses symbolized personal achievement and parental affection, but they don't really serve a purpose in their undead zombie-petal state in a box.  It's about the memories. 

So the flowers are getting thrown away.  I got lots of enjoyment from them when they were fresh, and I have enough dried flowers in my decor right now, thanks.  The bottle is being temporarily repurposed to hold my masquerade mask, and the petal box will be used to hold buttons or something in my craft room.  The Mardi Gras beads are getting added to the bin of random things to hand out to kiddies on Halloween.  And as for the petals... those are getting set free and crumbled to enrich the garden soil.  Thank you for being there all those times, mom.



"Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." --William Morris  


Most of us, here in 'civilization,' have far too much of it.  It's so easy to accumulate, even if you're not a shopaholic.  Gifts, souvenirs, things that might be useful one day, clothing.  Thingamajigs that were on such a good sale, you bought three just in case.

But now there are far too many things, and the piles are so deep that you can't even find *one* thingamajig, much less your two extras.  Perhaps the house is even fairly clean and organized, but there is just physically too much stuff in the way.  You get frustrated when you need to find something, because the space seems too full and you keep knocking things over.  You find yourself needing to spend an obscene amount of time cleaning, repairing, putting away, and dealing with your stuff.  That's time that could have been spent on something a lot more fun!  Imagine how much time, effort, and money you've spent just to box up, move, and unbox all your superfluous items over time.

That's how I feel.  It takes me too long to get dressed in the morning, because I just have too many options. It's not even possible to walk through most of the office/craft room, because of my huge boxes of fabric, and the last time I sewed something was probably 2006.  We keep saying we need a bigger kitchen because our stuff doesn't all fit in the cupboards, and I've given up on my once cherished notion of clear counters with no perma-clutter.  Dusting is a pain in the neck because of all the knick-nacks.

I can't help feeling that life would be less stressful if we weren't always having to move stuff around to find what we're looking for.   That means (dun dun DUUUUUN) getting rid of stuff.   Not everything, but just the junk that's in the way.  I want to clear the quantity, to make space for the quality.  Remove everything that isn't spectacular.

Until recently, I owned a truly ridiculous quantity of pretty costume jewelry.  It was literally impossible to close the lid on my jewelry box, and if I wanted to wear a necklace it was usually so entangled with all the other ones that I would give up and just not bother.  I had probably hundreds of pairs of earrings, and couldn't wear any at all due to my ears' recent manifestation of obnoxiously good taste.  I went through and purged about 75% of the necklaces and bracelets, and got rid of all but my three favorite pairs of earrings.  Those I paid an annoying amount of money to put new (gold) earwires on.  Now everything in my box is untangled, usable, and easily visible.  I've actually started wearing and enjoying my jewelry again, since I can find the piece I'm looking for.  As a plus, I brought the big bag of castoff jewelry to a friend's party, and everyone had a grand time going through it and choosing new treasures to add to her own collection.  I call that win-win!  I want that great feeling in more areas of my life.

Today I came across a fabulous new term: joy-to-stuff ratio.  This perfectly describes what I want to do in this decluttering endeavor: reduce the denominator in that expression.  I'm sure I'll set missions for myself in the future that focus on increasing the numerator, but one thing at a time.  Ultimately, it's all about maximizing one's own joy-to-stuff ratio.

There are three main barriers to getting rid of superfluous stuff, as I see it:

  1. Laziness.  This one's pretty straightforward to circumvent.  This is not to say that it's easy; just simple.  Self-ass-kicking is involved.
  2. But-what-if-I-need-it-someday syndrome.  This requires relaxing a bit.  The world won't end if I suddenly become a seamstress and only have one bin of fabric instead of four.  If I take up professional kazoo-playing, I'll go out and buy a damn kazoo.  The universe has a way of working out, especially for those of us who enjoy thrift shopping and yard saling.  I don't need to hang on to anything that's not awesome for me to have right now. 
  3. Sentimentality.  But my great-step-aunt-seven-times-removed gave me that moldy afghan!  I can't possibly get rid of it, or I'll be haunted by guilt for the rest of my life!

It's this last one that I want to take a stab at tackling right now.  Living a life of guilt is no fun, so I'm going to give myself permission to actually feel good about clearing space in my life, even if it means no longer hanging on to sentimental (but useless) items.  This is challenging.  So I'm going to periodically write a post about some sentimental item that I'm ready to allow to leave my life.  The memories are not the items, I won't lose the memory of that special person just because I no longer have a particular bit of clutter to dust, and there are no happy-memory police who will show up on my doorstep and ticket me for getting rid of a gift from a loved one.  I'm going to explore the memories here, which are really what's important, and then allow the items to go on their way.  Here goes!



My topics seem to be going in a few different directions these days.  Today you will be subjected to a treatise on nutrition. 

Fat.   The saturated kind, even (a phrase that doesn’t really make a lot of sense for common usage, but more on that later). 

Does it make you salivate, or cringe in horror?   We’ve been told over an over by what should be very reputable sources that consuming fats will make us have higher cholesterol levels, die of heart attacks, and (worst of all) gain weight.  Every doctor, every FDA recommendation pyramid, and every yahoo answers post on the topic tells us to avoid this so-called evil food category.  But we know two things:

  1.  Our grandmothers all cooked things in lard and butter, drank and gave their children full-fat milk, and probably didn’t carefully trim all the skin off their chicken, and
  2. Despite the widespread ‘conventional wisdom’ regarding nutrition, the world is becoming increasingly sick, with growing rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc. etc. etc.

I’m totally not trying to draw any real conclusions from the numbered items above.  They constitute a correlation only, and are of course merely a tiny snippet of the overall picture.  But bear with me here.

Why are we told, with monotonous consistency, that saturated fats are bad, and polyunsaturated fats are good (it seems they can’t quite make up their minds on monounsaturated fats, but generally follow the simplistic principle that more double bonds makes for a healthier lipid)?  As alluded to above, your grandparents (or maybe great-grandparents, depending on you family’s breeding rates) didn’t know this ‘wisdom,’ and did just fine, thank you.  They made and ate tasty food, and didn’t all fall over at the age of 20 from clogged arteries and too much cholesterol, or else you wouldn’t be here.  When did this change happen?

a semantic side note

I love language.  I love that there can be such marvelously specific and precise ways to say things, and hate it when people think that ‘pretty’ means exactly the same thing as ‘resplendent,’ because it doesn’t.  Many synonyms are not, in fact.   However, a true synonym should be treated as such, and then you should just bloody use the easier one. 

I appreciate precise scientific lingo as much as the next girl, especially when the alternative is ambiguous or has a different meaning, but what’s the deal with running around always talking about ‘saturated fats’ vs. ‘unsaturated fats’?  There’s a bijective map from those phrases to the much easier to deal with words ‘fat’ and ‘oil.’  If a lipid is saturated, it is solid at standard room temperature (think about animal fats and coconut oil), and unsaturated ones are liquid at room temp (olive oil, canola oil, really any plant-based oils other than coconut).  The converse is also true, in that solid edible lipids are saturated, and liquid ones are unsaturated.  This has to do with the physical shape consequences of the molecular structure of the different types of molecules.  Saturated lipids hold as many hydrogen molecules as they possibly can, and have no double bonds, and are consequently very linear, and can sit very nicely next to each other.  A pound of dried spaghetti can fit into a very small volume, since each noodle can snuggle right up to the other noodles.  Thus, we get a denser material with a high melting point.  Each unsaturation point creates a double bond between adjoining carbons to use up those extra electrons floating around, and makes a kind of kink in the molecule.  A pound of fusilli will take up a lot more space than the spaghetti, because the noodles don’t fit very well together, and so it’s a less-dense material that will have a lower melting point.

So anyway, why bother with the long versions outside of scientific journals or biology textbooks?  Is it to lend a sciency vibe to the pseudoscientific claptrap that nutritionists put out there?  What gives?

On that note, using a ‘calorie’ as a unit of food measurement is problematic at best.  The word calorie has a real definition, in that it is the energy required to raise the temperature of one mL of water one degree Celsius.  That’s a pretty clear definition.  Okay, so that must be what they’re talking about, right?  What are you so upset about, Miss Geekypants? 

They’re not using that definition.  The ‘calorie’ on the nutrition label for that soda can in your hand is NOT the same calorie used in chemistry lab.  Nope.  The one on the nutrition label is one thousand times larger.  It’s a kilocalorie, and occasionally, especially in older literature, it is capitalized to Calorie in order to at least give a passing nod to the definition conflict.  But usually it’s used quite cavalierly in a form that is a direct namespace collision.  This ticks me off.  This isn’t even going in to the fact that attributing an estimated energy-you-would-theoretically-get-from-this-food-after-thorough-and-perfect-metabolism, and then treating that number as scripture, is total crap.  Everyone’s metabolism is unique (yes, you are a special snowflake), and there are just too many variables to contend with to have much confidence in a single numeric value. 

/deep breath

…okay, I’m back.  Sorry about that. 


So why is it that our grandmothers knew that food was food, but our mothers were suddenly sold a worldview in which foods were either SUPER DUPER AMAZING AND THE CURE TO EVERYTHING or evil toxic things to be avoided?  In particular, what happened to the thousands of years of cultural cuisine development surrounding the concept of cooking things in fat, which is a great source of energy and is needed by the body?

Profit.  That’s why. 

Around the turn of the century, two fellows named William Procter and James Gamble had a company, and that company owned cottonseed oil factories but couldn’t figure out what to do with all the surplus oil, since these newfangled electric light thingies were putting a damper on the candlemaking business.  Then a chemist by the name of E.C. Kayser figured out how to take that useless oil and, through a process called hydrogenation, done in a lab, make it look and behave an awful lot like what cooks were accustomed to working with.  That is, he took this industrial material and made it (through the miracle of modern chemistry) seem like food. 

On a side note, saturation pretty much eliminates the potential for oxidation, resulting in a shelf-stable material.  Unsaturated ones, on the other hand, have a definite tendency toward rancidity.  So the development of the hydrogenation process made it possible to not only make this pesky superfluous product look like something people might be willing to actually consume, but also transformed it from a product with spoilage problems into a more stable one.  It’s pretty nifty, from an engineering standpoint. 

Then a massive advertising campaign was undertaken, in which lard was painted as dirty and tainted, while this new product (called Crisco) was purity and goodness itself. 

The hydrogenated cottonseed oil was not sold because it was actually healthy, because it filled an empty niche, nor because it tasted better.  The shortening phenomenon happened because of clever marketing and a need to dispose of a waste product.  But this was only the beginning!


Okay, fine, so companies wanted to sell their oil.  Their advertising tactics were kind of slimy, but they always are.  But ultimately it was a good thing, right?  I mean, veggie oil is better for us.  The heart doctors all know that. 

Nope.   One, doctors receive astonishingly little nutrition education. So while I’ll certainly trust one when she tells me that I’ve gone and broken my pisiform, I’m not going to just swallow her lecture on what kind of food I should be putting into my own body.  Two, the studies that led to the development of the so-called heart healthy diet were exceptionally flawed. 

In the 1950’s, some extremely sketchy correlations were drawn from extremely incomplete data by scientist Ancel Keys and then used to assert that animal fats caused heart disease.   Oh no!  Whatever will we do?  Oh hey, we’ve already conveniently convinced people that our processed-in-a-lab profit-making hydrogenated cottonseed oil is good for them.  Maybe that can be used to our advantage. 

Additionally the seed oil industry at large was in trouble around the end of WWII, since petroleum was supplanting their materials in manufacturing processes.  Keys’ inconclusive, faulty studies caused dollar signs to appear in the oil companies’ eyes.

Suddenly the industry could claim that is polyunsaturated oils were not only suitable for consumption, but also actually healthy!  Despite having been shown to increase heart disease and cancer, these substances were touted as ‘heart-healthy,’ and the so-called Prudent Diet  was born.  This diet emphasized corn oil, margarine, starches, and chicken.  Sure, the people on the diet study had slightly lower cholesterol, but they had drastically higher rates of heart disease.  This study was in 1957, people!

Even before 1980, there were lots of researchers who had made it clear that not only are the highly-promoted oils not healthy, but actually encourage cancer, heart disease, mitochondrial damage, hypothyroidism, and immunosuppression!  In fact, their immunosuppression effect was quite handy in the 1960’s for preventing rejection of grafts!

Today, if your doctor was to recommend a diet, especially if you have any sort of vascular condition, what would it look like?  Low fat (and only polyunsaturated when used at all), low to no salt (don’t even get me started on this one.  It’s a rant for another time), lots of starch, and a small amount of super lean protein.  Okay, so it's boring.  I could live with that, if it actually helped.  But it doesn't seem to.  You need fat, and you need variety.  People probably would never have started using ‘vegetable’ oils (have you ever looked at the ingredient list on that bottle of oil with all the pictures of zucchinis and tomatoes on the front?  I promise you it has only one: soybean oil) instead of all fats if it had not been for the combination of extremely faulty science, clever marketing, fear tactics, and a culture that’s focused on finding miracle nutrition solutions instead of just eating real food. 

Some people have done extremely well by eating grain-free, high-fat diets (just look at the Primal folks).  But then, some people do well on an Italian diet.  Or an Asian diet, or a salmon-cauliflower-rutabaga diet, for all I know.  People are different, their metabolisms are different, and no advice is universal.  Except for this: the Standard American Diet (SAD) of highly processed industrial waste is not good for anyone.  Eat food that actually makes you feel good, for crying out loud!

the punchline

So what, I should eat pork rinds covered in bacon for breakfast every day now?  You’re saying that’ll be good for me?

Not at all.  I’m just saying that as a culture we’ve been quite thoroughly duped by the agriculture-industrial-advertising complex into believing a bunch of crap about what we’re supposed to be eating, and it (along with our penchant for crummy fast food) is taking quite a toll on our health.  I’m saying don’t listen to the nutritionists.  I’m saying that no food is evil, but all things are good in moderation.   I’m saying that the ‘low-fat,’ artificially sweetened cookie you got from the health food store is not food.  I’m saying to not trust your own formative nutritional training, which may have come from television, fast food joints, or a well-meaning parent who was unfortunately fooled by the prevailing parenting advice and was trying to do the right thing.  I’m saying to eat food

Now pardon me while I go stir-fry some veggies in tasty lard.