Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Further Fun and Frugality Reading

                As much fun as running for city council would have been (not!), it would definitely have reduced the time I could devote to reading. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately.
                Charles Finch has written an addictive mystery series featuring Charles Lennox, a Victorian detective and, well, if I tell you much more, I’d have to issue a spoiler alert. I found a couple of these in great shape for cheap at an estate sale just off Ward Parkway (the really nice part of Ward Parkway). I started one, and these things are like crack. There are several of them, and I’ve read them all. He just came out with a prequel this year, The Woman in the Water, and that would be a good one to start with. The library has them all.

                On one of my trips to get rid of stuff at Half Price Books, I happened on Melanie Benjamin’s The Swans of Fifth Avenue. For me, the danger of going to Half Price Books is it’s difficult to come out empty-handed. This book is about Truman Capote and his famous 1975 expose in Esquire in which he betrayed just about every confidence he’d ever been told by his cadre of “swans,” the very wealthy wives of very wealthy men who populated the upper east side of Midcentury Manhattan. The swans include Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman (who has been the subject of at least a couple of tell-all books and who died while serving as our Ambassador to France), Slim Hawks Hayward Keith (who lost a husband to Pamela), Marella Agnelli (who landed a husband Pamela couldn’t wrestle to the altar), Gloria Guinness, and Babe Paley, wife of Bill, who started CBS. The book is told more or less from Babe Paley’s perspective, and it’s a sad tale. For having so much money and property at their disposal, these people didn’t seem to enjoy their lives. In fact, if we were to meet them (or someone like them), I suspect we’d be bored in no time. I know I would. There’s only so much planning and attending parties I can stand. Nevertheless, if you’d like a good read about Midcentury Manhattan and how Truman Capote manipulated, betrayed, and slandered his friends, enemies, and acquaintances, this is a good place to start. The book is technically fiction, but it is well-researched. It will also make you considerably less envious of the One Percent.

                And that brings me to the very enjoyable The Art of Frugal Hedonism, by Annie Raser-Rowland and Adam Grubb, a couple of Australians with a great sense of humor. I found out about this book from the New Dream Organization ( The Johnson County Library has it. Alas, the Kansas City Library does not. I’m not dissing the Kansas City Library. Cosby Kemper is doing a great job, but let’s face it. Our city government has decided to short our schools and libraries and give us a two-mile streetcar and a bunch of luxury apartments downtown. Our tax dollars at work. Thankfully, we can borrow materials from the Johnson County libraries at no cost. The book is wide-ranging and addresses some issues we need to think about including “fake frugal,” which they define as “cheap disposable, or crummy things that quickly need replacing,” leading to our spending more money and having trash to dispose of. They go on to include cheap food in this category because of its low nutrition value and our tendency to waste cheap food, which I’ll talk more about later. They discuss stress and how our society puts a premium on “keeping busy.” On a personal note, whenever someone asks if I’m keeping busy, I’ll answer, “Not if I can help it,” “Am I supposed to?” or “Why? Is there a law?” The authors have discovered a way to earn less, work less, and live more. Their research indicates that, up until the Industrial Revolution, “work” was indeed a four-letter word. In 1783 Josiah Wedgwood issued an eleventh commandment: “Thou shalt not be idle.” Frankly it seems modern society is willing to honor that one more that the other ten. There is so much in this short book. I read the chapter on the burden of choice just after I was at a mainstream grocery store and a man complained to me about having so many choices when all he wanted was juice. I usually shop Aldi because of their prices and their limited choice. They advise having less house and considering sharing when possible. The house I’m in and really like is one I bought after moving from the house I thought would be my retirement house. That house had a shared drive. I’d advise that you never buy a house with a shared drive. There are too many people in this world who are insane, and you might just wind up some as your neighbors. Trust me on this one. You will be happier if you don’t have to depend on getting into and out of your garage if you don’t have to share a driveway with insane people. Plus you can fix the drive when it needs fixing and not have to get anyone’s agreement. They advise buying a house and not renovating it. I can agree here up to a point. To spend a lot of money on new bathrooms, given how little time we spend in them, has always seemed questionable to me. My 1927 house came with a small dysfunctional kitchen next to a small and rarely used breakfast room. After living here eleven years and being frustrated doing major cooking in a minor kitchen, I threw in the towel and had the wall between the two rooms taken out and a new kitchen I designed put in. I used Lowes’ cabinets and Formica countertops. That was nine years ago, and I have never regretted spending one cent of the money I spent on that kitchen. The authors bravely enter landmine territory and advise you to think very carefully about whether to have children (they don’t). They advise giving yourself a break and going a little crazy once in a while. Somewhere in the book, and I just couldn’t find it again easily while I was writing this, they described someone who was rigid and judgmental all the time as the kind of person who would being low-fat cottage cheese to a potluck., and that brings me to… .

                Just Eat It,” a documentary by Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustmeyer. I watched this on Kanopy, the library’s free streaming service. The film describes how much of our food production and consumption goes to waste. To demonstrate, the cohabiting Canadian producers vow to live only on discarded food for six months. As it turns out, they wound up with an excess of food. They were giving it away. And it still piled up. Grant Baldwin is seen in the end chowing down on a 32-ounce container of yogurt—one of hundreds. He gained ten pounds in the six months they spent doing this documentary. Jenny Rustmeyer would be very difficult to take in other than small doses. She has one of those fingernails-on-chalkboard voices that I can imagine could come from someone who would take discarded low-fat cottage cheese to a potluck, and she begins complaining right off the bat. I was asking myself, “Well, did anyone make you take this on?” In one scene she is at a grocery store asking if she could buy some produce that is being discarded. She’s directed to a bin where food that has just been taken off the shelf is. The food is on its way to a garbage bin. She screeches, “You know what? I’m not even going to ask for a discount.” I guess her goal is to meet her self-imposed discarded-food-for-six-months rule, but I hereby officially revoke her frugal card. I don’t know how committed these folks are to each other, but Grant Baldwin—what’s wrong with you? Don’t you have ears? Anyway, on the one hand, the film makes its point, but on the other hand, a lot of the salvaged food would fall under the category of fake frugality. Lots of processed stuff. Lots of empty calories. The message could be summed up in three words: Stop wasting food.

                And Jenny and Grant, please consider a book next time. It’s easier on the ears.

© 2018 Larry Roth

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