Monday, January 13, 2020

Change of Plans (Maybe)

Natori Flora (affiliate link)

This time last year, I was all ready to go ahead and start consulting with plastic surgeons regarding certain plans I'd made. I'd been setting aside cash for months by then - in anticipation of how unlikely it was that my health insurance would ever deign to cover the procedure - and I believed I had enough to cover the full cost, separate from and on top of my robust six-month emergency fund and without disrupting my other savings and investment plans. 

My overall financial situation back then, in January 2019, was admittedly not as healthy as it could be. It was only more recently, right before December, that my student loan balance dropped to five figures for the first time, just barely. And my net worth was still negative back in January last year, I didn't hit "net worth zero" until April. At the time, I didn't think this was reason enough to change my plans. In any case, if I were to move forward now, or in the foreseeable future, I'm currently in a much stronger financial position than I was a year ago.

What actually made me change my mind about surgery last January wasn't my still-substantial student loan balance, nor the obvious fact that the expense would deplete a significant percentage of my savings and assets. Instead, I got spooked by the downturn in the markets, and then by the US government shutdown. Almost my entire practice is in the federal courts, which could have eventually run out of money to stay fully open, though that ultimately did not come to pass.

Immediately afterwards, there were some unexpected events in some of my cases, and things never really quieted down again at the office for the rest of the year. (Though I also never got back on pace to bill anywhere close to 3,000 hours for the year after that extremely hectic period last January, for which I'm very thankful!) And in the end, I think a subconscious part of me is also more scared of undergoing general anesthesia and surgery - and the associated risks of complications, however small - than I originally thought. I never ended up feeling much eagerness to actually take concrete steps to start looking for a surgeon.

And now, a year on, the larger context for my decision-making is significantly changed. As time passes, I get closer to the point when I'd ideally like to have children. I think this particular decision looks very different if one doesn't plan to get pregnant in the next four or more years, versus if it's looking like a possibility in the more immediate future.

These days, I may also be thinking more critically about how much longer I expect to, or will choose to, work in the private sector. I've never planned to be in biglaw or biglaw-ish for my entire career, but I'd previously been a lot more open-minded and flexible about staying in the industry for a fairly long time. I never had a specific end date in mind, in the past, but these days, I may be more inclined to thinking about one. One's financial picture changes significantly, in that case.

Anyway, even if I was eager to move forward with the procedure right now, I wouldn't be able to any time in the next few months. My work schedule in the near future definitely doesn't have enough room for me to take even a few days off to recover afterwards.

I suppose it's clear that I've had a lot on my mind, recently. One surprising - but somewhat positive - side effect of being so busy at the office is that I've somehow still managed to find a lot of time to read for fun, probably in part because it's a more effective escape from thinking about work-related stress than blogging or watching TV. I've read quite a few enjoyable books recently, including Circe, by Madeline Miller, and The Trespasser, by Tana French (affiliate links). I hope that everyone is having a good start to 2020!

Monday, December 30, 2019

My Favorite Books of 2019


2019 was a year of fits and starts when it came to my reading habits. I didn't have the greatest luck when it came to picking books. And anytime I selected too many relative duds in a row, or otherwise went too long without a book I enjoyed in hand, I started losing momentum with my reading habit very quickly. 

Perhaps because of all the work-related stress this year, I also felt like I was generally a far more fickle and picky reader in 2019 than I typically was in the past. I'd get into these strange moods, where books I would normally enjoy - some of them by longtime favorite authors, such as Guy Gavriel Kay - just weren't clicking with me. These days, I'm quite ruthless about dropping books I don't like and moving on to the next. Out of the 39 books I tried to read this year, I dropped and ultimately did not finish eight, most of them in the last quarter of the year, when things got truly hectic at the office and then stayed that way. 

My strange, capricious moods when it came to books may also have made me more receptive to works that many readers might find polarizing or odd. This is mostly seen with some of my "honorable mentions" for the year. A lot of those novels start with a fascinating premise, but even if I enjoyed the books greatly, I can acknowledge that there may be issues with the execution. 

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But with my main list of favorite books for the year, I can vouch for their excellence to any reader, or at least, to any reader interested in the relevant genres. As you'll see, my list is dominated by memoirs, which occupy two-thirds of the spots. (And in past years, my most enthusiastic book recommendations have generally been for other memoirs, including for Educated by Tara Westover and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Clearly, I have a favorite genre!) A lot of my favorites for 2019 won't come as a real surprise, as I generally can't help but recommend good books shortly after I first read them. So I've already sung the praises of most of these works in other blog entries here this year. 

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung: This was a lovely, understated book, one that nonetheless packs a huge punch because of the difficult family experiences that the author describes with great sensitivity and empathy. Through her experiences as a transracial adoptee and growing up in a predominantly white town, Nicole Chung also has some sharp, insightful things to say about race in the USA. 

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant: I'm traditionally a huge sci-fi/fantasy fan, but haven't been reading as much from that genre in recent years. Seanan McGuire's series under her Mira Grant nom de plume are always delightfully creative, and they have a good sense of humor. This book is my favorite single volume yet from any of her Mira Grant series. Before reading this book, it had been a long time since I wanted to stay up hours past my usual bedtime to finish a book, because the story was so exciting and fully swept me up, and I really needed to know what would happen next. If you're a fan of sci-fi/fantasy, I highly recommend this book.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman: I really enjoyed this novel, and found it charming and quite original. In the titular Eleanor Oliphant, Gail Honeyman created one of the most vivid, sharply-drawn, and intriguing characters I've encountered in any book in years. And I like that it has an uplifting, positive ending, one that Eleanor works hard for.

The Unwinding of the Miracle by Julie Yip-Williams: I first learned about this book from Kathy. It's an extremely powerful memoir. Julie Yip-Williams writes in such a direct and honest way.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah: I'm quite a few years late to the party when it comes to reading and recommending this book. It's as great as everyone says it is. Trevor Noah has an incredible life story, and an incredible writer's voice. I didn't want this book to end, and if Trevor Noah ever publishes another memoir covering other periods of his life, I would buy it immediately. This book was that good!

Heavy by Kiese Laymon: I think I waited for this one longer than I've ever waited for any other ebook from the New York Public Library ("NYPL"), more than six months.* And it was absolutely worth the wait. Out of all the memoirs on my list, this is by far the most unflinching, the most unrelenting, and the most challenging, particularly when it comes to discussing racism in the US.

And now for those "honorable mentions," of novels I greatly enjoyed, but that I can't recommend quite as wholeheartedly: The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, and The Farm by Joanne Ramos. I found The Incendiaries delightfully strange and surreal, but I'm not sure that mine is an entirely accurate reading of the novel, since my experience of it seems inconsistent with a lot of reviews out there. As for My Year of Rest and Relaxation and The Farm, they're very different books, but they're similar in that they both started with an intriguing, creative premise, but there were significant issues with execution. Both novels also happen to have weak endings that sort of just fizzle out. The Farm, in particular, is a book that might not be what readers expect based on the summary. It starts with an idea that could easily go in a more dystopian, Handmaid's Tale-esque direction, but ends up being a sometimes-clumsy novel focused more on class inequality than anything else, without really examining the many other themes implicated by the novel's premise.

What were your favorite books that you read this year? How's the ebook selection at your local library? (The NYPL's is pretty good, but there are also a number of popular works that they never end up buying as ebooks.) What's the longest you've ever been on the library waiting list for a popular book, whether hard copy or ebook?

* Admittedly, this isn't the most accurate measure of a book's popularity, since the NYPL doesn't order the same number of ebook copies for every hyper-popular or well-reviewed book. Most similarly popular books have much larger orders. The entire NYPL system only has 11 ebook copies of Heavy, but typically has at least 30 to 40 copies of other popular ebooks, and sometimes a lot more than that. (I'm also aware that libraries may not be able to immediately buy ebook copies of every bestseller. There are also many hyper-popular bestsellers that the NYPL doesn't own any ebook copies of.) 

Thursday, December 26, 2019

December 2019 Shopping Reflections


As expected, I made a few Black Friday sale orders for myself this year, some of which I kept. In fact, all of this month's purchases came from Black Friday (or Cyber Monday) sales. After that, I didn't really do any more browsing or shopping in December. As I've mentioned during other hectic periods at the office, there's a level of busy that causes stress-shopping, and then there are other levels of busy beyond that, where I don't have any energy left for shopping, or for browsing online shops. 

Next year, I think I'll stop being quite as rigid about keeping track of my shopping wish list on Pinterest. It's been a useful and fun tool for me, and I'll continue to use it in a similar way in 2020, albeit more casually. I don't think I want to feel like I need to commit to having pinned every single thing I eventually buy to the board for at last a few days - or preferably several weeks or months - before I actually order it. In the end, I just don't particularly enjoy having strict rules for myself! Flexibility, within reasonable limits, is key.

After all these years of blogging about my shopping decisions and then spending a year utilizing this more regimented method of tracking my shopping list, I feel like I now know my tastes and preferences very well, enough that I don't need to go to any special effort of planning out my purchases in order to make reasonably good shopping decisions. I know what I like, I can reliably predict what I'll wear frequently, and I also have a pretty good sense of a lot of things that definitely won't work for me because I'll find them annoying or too far out of my comfort zone.

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I'll continue to blog about my monthly shopping, of course. I enjoy using this blog as a shopping diary, and I like being able to look back at my monthly shopping budget posts to analyze how my habits have changed over the years.

Fashion - (TOTAL: $738.58)
  • Mansur Gavriel Large Tote, black/ballerina - $489.94* - Longtime readers may recall there was a time I was about to purchase this exact item as a splurge-y new work tote. But after seeing it in person, I decided to get the Coach Rogue in dark denim instead (long sold out, limited colors available). The Mansur Gavriel vegetable-tanned leather is unusual, it's quite stiff and can feel a bit plastic-y, and some say it feels a bit cheap or low-quality as a result. (I've also read that there may be issues with how some of their bags are constructed.) Despite these arguable problems, I've remained fond of the idea of the Mansur Gavriel large tote in vegetable-tanned leather, precisely because it is so stiff and structured. I like very large tote bags, but because I'm on the shorter, curvier side - I'm barely 5'3'' - big bags tend to overwhelm my frame. I personally find that a more structured bag - like this tote - can look less awkwardly oversized on me than the same-sized bag in a more slouchy or floppy leather (say, the Cuyana classic tote, or even the Cuyana structured tote). Still, at full price, this bag didn't feel like a good value. Then I saw it on sale at SSENSE during Black Friday, and the rest was history, even though the discount was ultimately fairly modest. 
  • Alighieri "Flashback" Earrings, gold - $161.14* - (sold out, available in silver) This was a more impulsive purchase than the tote - which was, admittedly, still a bit impulsive - because I didn't have any history of considering this specific item. As longtime readers know, I'm almost absurdly fond of Rosh Mahtani's work with her jewelry brand Alighieri. I already own three necklaces (including the Jaja and the Initial Spark) and a pair of earrings, and I still have a few of her other designs on my long-term wishlist, all of them necklaces. So these earrings were definitely not part of my plans, at least until I saw them in SSENSE's Black Friday sale section and ordered them along with the Mansur Gavriel tote. 
  • Naadam Cashmere Tracksuit Jogger, timber - $87.50 - I mentioned this purchase in another recent post. Earlier this fall/winter season, I'd been thinking about a pair of cashmere sweatpants - so that I could feel fancy, even if they're not necessarily more practical or warm than other sweatpants - but never seriously enough to add anything from that genre to my Pinterest shopping list. Well, these happened to be one of the items discounted 50% off during Naadam's Cyber Monday sale, and I ended up being unable to resist. I do enjoy these very much so far, and I find them comfortable enough to wear as pajamas. (My skin's never been prone to itching from wearing wool or cashmere.) I've been wearing these frequently for a few weeks, and there has been a moderate amount of pilling, but that's expected for cashmere. 
*Indicates that price includes sales tax. 

For each of this month's purchases, I was able to stack fairly generous Jewel cash-back rebates on top of the Black Friday discounts, for a total of nearly $34.00 back. As usual, I don't factor cash-back rebates into my accounting of my total shopping-related spending in these posts, since I won't actually receive the money until several weeks or months down the line. (If you're interested in trying out Jewel as a first-time customer, please feel free to use my referral link to sign up: We'll both get an extra $5 after your first purchase.)

And yes, I must admit that these Black Friday/Cyber Monday purchases were all on the impulsive side. None of the items I'd been looking at and planning for more seriously, and in the longer term, were really on sale during Black Friday this year. I guess it's consistent with my experience in past years, that Black Friday isn't generally an especially good time for fashion-related shopping: The more basic, staple fall-winter items that I've been eyeing for a while usually won't be on sale until after Christmas. I'm definitely a bit sheepish about how impulsive all of this month's buying decisions ultimately were, though I've been putting each item to fairly extensive use so far.

I hope that everyone has been having a good holiday season! Although things were busy for me at the office right up until the day before Christmas Eve, I've also been able to spend a lot of time relaxing with my mom and my sister, who visited me for the holidays here in NYC. We saw Moulin Rouge on Broadway, which was an extremely fun show. Best wishes to you all for the start of 2020!

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Apartment Life Updates

Back when we first moved in...

Here are a few small things that have been happening recently to make my limited free time at home in our apartment a bit more enjoyable, in between my busy days - and nights, and some weekends - at the office this month:

Apartment Cleaning

Over the years, I've spent lots of time thinking about whether to finally, finally hire someone to come clean our apartment. Our living space isn't large, and there simply aren't that many surfaces to clean. When K and I work together on one of our "big cleans," we're mostly satisfied with the fruits of somewhere between two and three hours of labor from each of us. There are times when maybe two hours of work from just one of us is adequate to get our home mostly in shape to be seen by guests. It wasn't until this year - when both of us were simultaneously "billing significantly more than 2,000 hours a year"* busy at the office for the majority of the year - that K and I finally decided it was time. 

And even though we made that decision in September, we didn't actually get around to calling the company we were interested in hiring until late November. We had our first appointment with someone from Si Se Puede this month, and she did an excellent, very thorough job. Their price for cleaning our one-bedroom apartment was $120, but because it had admittedly been a very long time since K or I last did a "big clean" (and also because we aren't very good at it), the work took a little over six hours. We tipped $60. 

The New Trash Can

One of the only areas in which I think I can be considered particularly "frugal" by any real standard is in the area of furniture, small appliances, and other items for the home. Back when I cooked almost every meal for myself in school, I was perfectly satisfied with a fairly bare-bones set of items for the kitchen. These days, our household can go an incredibly long time before replacing fairly mundane and inexpensive items, such as cutting boards or oven mitts.

Note that I don't actually think of these practices as a good thing. The amount of money saved, if any, is extraordinarily small, especially when compared to things we regularly splurge on, such as rent and food. Plus, it's clearly not a good idea from a kitchen safety standpoint to wait on replacing noticeably warped cutting boards, or oven mitts where the protective silicone layer is... starting to peel off. It's just an illustration of our personal quirks and preferences. I get a bit of decision paralysis when trying to identify something like the most functional and "best" new cutting board or oven mitt to buy.

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Our old kitchen trash can, from back when K was in school, had not been working well for over a year. The lid wouldn't open fully anymore, and it was a pain to empty out. I do find trash cans to be a fairly expensive genre of item, and that was one of the factors leading us to delay in purchasing a replacement. Well, after struggling to empty the trash can for more than a year, we finally made the decision to buy a replacement, opting for a 30 liter rectangular step trash can from Simplehuman. And I must say, I'd almost describe it as life-changing, to finally have a trash can that is easy to empty and opens and closes smoothly, after struggling with our old one for so long. We should have done this much sooner!

Lounging Clothes

One of my Black Friday or Cyber Monday sale purchases this year was a pair of Naadam cashmere tracksuit joggers in the brown-gray neutral "timber" shade. It was an arguably impulsive purchase: I'd been browsing other online shops for cashmere sweatpants and joggers a few times this winter, but I hadn't been serious enough about the idea to add any such items to my Pinterest shopping wishlist. The very substantial 50% off discount for Cyber Monday was probably a big factor in my decision to buy. (During Cyber Monday, the joggers were final sale, so it was a risky buying decision.)

I've really been enjoying these joggers. Since the package arrived, I've worn them practically every evening to lounge around the house and as pajamas. I wouldn't necessarily say that cashmere sweatpants are especially practical, as I think other sweatpants are arguably more comfortable (no risk of the itch factor some get with wool or cashmere) and potentially warmer (the fabric on the Naadam cashmere joggers isn't especially thick, though I think it's a reasonable medium-weight). I also can't yet speak for how these will hold up with frequent wear and/or after washing. There's been a little pilling so far, mostly in the thigh area, but that's expected for the material, and it hasn't been too noticeable or extreme. But I've been enjoying them, and I find them comforting in this busy period at work where I don't get as much time to relax at home as I would like! 

* He'll have billed a little over 2,400 for 2019, mainly due to a trial. I'll likely come in right around 2,100 hours, which isn't at all extreme by biglaw standards, but is still substantial enough to make for a fairly busy year. Plus, my workflow was a bit less steady and predictable than his, so I had several weeks-long periods where I was on track for 2,400 hours or more