Monday, June 17, 2019

Reading and Shopping Life Lately

To my slight sorrow, it turns out that I also spoke a little too soon about my streak of good luck with picking out books to read. Although I loved Celeste Ng's first novel, Everything I Never Told You, I ended up finding her second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, extremely tedious. It's a "did not finish" or "DNF" for me, after I got through ~40% of the book. 

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Close to half of Little Fires Everywhere, at least in the portions I read, is told from the perspective of high school-aged characters, which is just not my cup of tea. It seems that, as a reader, I quite enjoy reading about the foibles and inner thoughts of college-aged characters (for example, in Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot, and more recently, in R.O. Kwon's The Incendiaries, both of which I may have enjoyed a lot more than most other readers typically do), who generally also seem very young, and sometimes also immature or foolish, to my eyes (I also cringe to look back at some of things I said or did at that age). For whatever reason, I simply can't muster up the same enthusiasm for reading about actual teenagers. 

Plus, I just really personally dislike one of the main characters (the one Reese Witherspoon will play in the forthcoming television adaptation), who seems to be the type of person who considers themselves very progressive, charitable, and well-meaning, but is actually very... let's just say... non-intersectional in their thinking, with tons of implicit biases about people from different backgrounds, both as a matter of race and class. Actually, that Celeste Ng is able to get into this character's head and write her in a way that inspires such a visceral reaction in me probably is a testament to the strength of her writing skills. Unfortunately, it also means that I just can't enjoy this book. 

I've now moved on to Preet Bharara's Doing Justice, which I just received from the library after waiting a few weeks for my turn, and it's a great book so far. Though if I had to pick just one recent, well-known memoir written by an attorney that I think everyone should read, I'd still recommend Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy first, as I think the lessons imparted by Just Mercy are of truly unique importance in explaining some of the problems facing the US today.  

As for my recent shopping life, It's been around a week and a half since I received my Elizabeth Suzann Georgia dress in mid-weight linen and matching Asawa belt in the mail, and I really love them so far! I should note that the mid-weight linen is not a perfect summer fabric for NYC, as it starts to feel a little heavy for my tastes when the temperature climbs past mid-70s Fahrenheit, given typical summer humidity levels. But with the heavier linen, the dress has a lovely shape when its belted, the fabric has just the right amount of stiffness and structure. I find the design of the Asawa belt fairly unique and clever. More on these items in a few weeks, once I've had a bit longer to test them out.

I've had very little luck with all my other recent shopping, alas, even with all the sales that have been going on. I decided to order that APC Clare Dress (also on sale here) that caught my eye a few months back, now that it's been discounted from $325 to ~$227 most places. (I ordered mine directly from APC.) The cotton-linen blend fabric has a nice texture, it felt light and breezy for summer while still being substantial enough that it wouldn't be a problem that the dress is unlined. I ordered the 38 and it seemed to be the right size for me. Unfortunately, I was also correct that the design and shape of the dress, with the extra volume around the chest and shoulders, wouldn't fit me well. (Plus, I expect my proportions in that area to change significantly in a few months.) I should also note that the vaguely faux-wrap looking v-neck actually worked a lot better on me than expected. I worried it would be so open on me that I'd need a camisole underneath, or that the neckline would look distorted because I'm so much bustier than all the models, but I didn't actually have either problem. The dress would, unsurprisingly, probably better suit someone who is a little taller, it's a midi-length dress on me. Though if the design had fit me better through the chest and shoulders, I would have been totally fine with the off-the-rack length. 

I also ordered the APC Odette bag in burgundy (sold out, only black remains) and the Alexis trench (also on sale here) to try, but neither item suited my tastes. With the Odette bag, I should have known better, that I love the look of, but generally wouldn't like actually using, very structured bags made of stiffer leather, the exact same issue I had with the famous APC half-moon bag I've also ordered and returned previously. With the Alexis, I actually really liked the way it fit on me, also in a size 38. It had a sleeker look than I get with my Everlane Classic Trench (discontinued, current version), in part because it's a thicker, sturdier fabric, with a full lining. Alas, I didn't like the color on me, it's a darker, more tan beige than my Everlane coat. I'm also not sure the thicker cotton fabric would suit NYC weather patterns either, it might be too heavy. Who knew it was so difficult to find the right beige color? Before I bought the Everlane trench, I recall trying on at least two or three other coats, rejecting them in part because they were in shades of beige that just didn't flatter my skin tone. 

How has your shopping or reading life been going recently? Anyone else have the same difficulty with finding the right shade of beige or camel when shopping for coats or other clothes? 

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Latte Factor Revisited, Small Lower-Waste Moves, etc.

Photo from a recent weekend visit with K to Felix Roasting Co., on one of the rare occasions when I add a pastry to my coffee order. I couldn't resist the Instagram-friendly matcha croissant from Supermoon Bakehouse!

Turns out I spoke too soon about not buying as many lattes and flat whites this year. It seems that certain types of busy periods at the office, depending on the kind of tasks I'm doing, can increase my cravings for those small indulgences. All these fluctuations in my fancy espresso (or matcha) drink consumption habits these past few years, combined with how I carefully track every expense by individual transaction in YNAB (so I know, down to the penny, how much I actually spend at coffee shops each month, and exactly how often I go), give me what I think is an unusually specific level of insight into all those "latte factor" discussions that just won't go away.

With the ~12-15% tip I typically give at coffee shops, each of my flat whites, lattes, or matcha lattes cost ~$5/each, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less, depending on my exact order and which shop I'm visiting. In an "ideal" month, where I'm happy with how often I'm indulging and feel like I'm using the drinks as a slightly special treat rather than, er, an unthinking habit I'm getting a bit dependent on, I'm visiting a coffee shop around ~2x/week and spending ~$42/month. (Keeping in mind that between Starbucks rewards, redeeming all my Drop cash-back for Starbucks gift cards, and "get one free for every 10 or 11 purchases" loyalty cards at my smaller, local coffee shops, I'm generally getting ~1-3 free drinks a month.) So ~$42/month is my "happy medium" baseline number. 

In a more typical "not so good" month in the past, I'd generally be visiting coffee shops around ~3-4x/week, and spending more like ~$62/month. That's when I start feeling like "okay, I'm maybe starting to buy these espresso or matcha drinks more out of habit than actual enjoyment," which is not my favorite thing. Whenever I've fussed about indulging in too many lattes in the past, that's generally what was happening. 

This month has been a more unusually indulgent one, where my average is looking more like 4-5x/week, resembling that "visits Starbucks every workday" stereotype that most people who think the "latte factor" is a real thing like to talk about and deride. I think it's because I'm a bit more caffeine-addicted than usual, want my dose earlier in the morning, and the office coffee isn't hitting the spot quite as much. This is a slightly new phenomenon for me, and maybe I'll cut down on it sharply in short order by regularly making homemade cold brew again, so I'm not quite sure yet what this month's actual spend will be, but if things kept up, it'd likely be ~$85/month~$43/month more than my "happy place" baseline.

That's getting to a fairly significant amount of added spending for the month if it's going to be a recurring issue, but the conditions of contemporary American life are also such that this extra $43/month might not mean much. Given recent changes with how my insurance company covers my choice of contraception (which is also an important, even essential, part of my acne-fighting regime), the price for me now holds steady at a monthly co-pay of $39 and change (or, more specifically, that's per 28-day supply). And because the pharmaceutical companies, health insurance companies, and  pharmacy benefits managers ("PBMs") all act in ways that have resulted in upward hikes to the price of acne-oriented and other dermatology prescriptions, I also now have two other medications with $75 copays per 3-month supply. Oh joy! So the extra spend from when I feel like I'm way overindulging at coffee shops by going every workday covers my contraception each month with less than enough for another latte left over. That's significant, but I can't see how it apparently turns into a life-changing number each year for most localities in the US.

And I still don't quite know how my bank gets its number for $100/month savings by "turn[ing] your latte into something grande" and saving all your coffee shop spend in a high-interest savings account instead, as going every workday doesn't get me that close to $100 a month. Maybe adding in a pastry once a week would get me there, but it's the rare coffee shop that stocks pastries that are particularly tasty (I'm admittedly very picky, as I ultimately prefer savory foods to sweet). I suppose I might also be a bit above average in my ability to turn my frequent purchases into free drinks through loyalty cards, Drop cash-back, and Starbucks Rewards.

Friday, June 7, 2019

On Free-Cycling and My (Really Slow) Minimalist(ish) Journey

When we first moved in to our current apartment...

Despite all my years of closet decluttering, both via KonMari method and otherwise, I've never tried reselling any of my unwanted clothes or shoes by listing items individually on eBay, Poshmark, or what have you. I'm sheepish about this too, because I know full well that there are many reasons to try reselling, from both the frugality perspective (potentially recouping part of the cost is a good thing, even if, in many instances, one's used things don't have much value) and the minimalist-ish perspective (among many other things, from a waste reduction standpoint, it seems logically sound that the best chance for an unwanted item to have a meaningful second life is by reselling it directly to a buyer who specifically wants it, rather than donating it for a highly uncertain outcome).

Regardless of all the reasons why I really should make more of an effort to resell my many items that are still in reasonably good condition, but won't get any further use in my hands, it's simply not possible for me to routinely find the time or energy for high-effort resale attempts. If, in my current line of work, I can't even reliably make time to cook a Hello Fresh meal (~20 minutes of active work and ~20 minutes of passive waiting time in most instances), I won't be finding the time to continuously keep re-listing my (not particularly exciting or desirable) items on eBay.

Plus, as someone who is semi-regularly in the secondhand market to buy the kind of clothing I'd have available for resale (mostly Ann Taylor or J.Crew-type items I barely ended up wearing), I'm well aware of how little my used things are worth, even when in excellent condition (which isn't a given; I generally tried to wear them for a while, and not all of them laundered well). If I wouldn't buy these pieces used for much more than, say, ~$35/dress, I could hardly list them for more. It just wouldn't sit right with me, I always roll my eyes so hard when I see eBay listings for unrealistic or unreasonable prices. To be blunt, the amount of money we're talking about (especially after factoring in how poor the chances are for actually reselling many of my rather unexciting things) simply isn't likely to be worth my time or energy to actively list individual items for resale.

And the things I'd want to sell generally are far less desirable or interesting than the very specific items I've previously been in the market to buy. The market for the type of run-of-the-mill, dime-a-dozen secondhand clothes and accessories I'd have to offer is oversaturated and competitive, both from other individual sellers and from ThredUp. Furthermore, given the near-constant 30% to 40%-off reductions on new merchandise and the more aggressive discounts on sale merchandise available at the stores in question (Loft, Ann Taylor, J.Crew, etc.), I'd even be competing with the retailers themselves! Incidentally, that's what makes me roll my eyes at some of those eBay listings, when people try to sell their used things for more than similar new items are going for in the stores right now. The stores even have the added advantage of mostly free shipping.

Those low prices and constant sales are, of course, symptoms of undesirable trends. These are all brands that are undeniably fast fashion in their manufacturing practices (seen partially in their frequent drops of large volumes of new products), and ones that have likely been undertaking ever-increasing cost-cutting measures (based on comparisons of the traits of current merchandise to those of typical offerings in years past), likely due to their generally well-publicized financial woes. The low prices are not, in any way, something to aspire towards. But, well, that's the market my listings would be competing in, if I made them.

The result is that things have only been leaving my closet in other ways these past few years. Even though I try to be as responsible or as ethical as I can when sending off my unwanted things, I'm very realistic and aware about how imperfect my efforts are: 
  1. My best items that I think would suit my sister are saved for her. Because I know her tastes well, the things I send her way are generally put to good use for a long time after. Some of them even become staples in her wardrobe, which is a particularly gratifying outcome. (This is one of the many reasons why having a close-in-age sister is a wonderful thing.) If I had any friends who had remotely similar tastes in clothing and accessories, that'd be another place for my nicest, but underutilized, things to go. 
  2. Over the years, I've sent many items to ThredUp. Back when it was easy to track how my things were selling, they even tended to do well! That being said, payouts for my items, mostly a mix from Ann Taylor, Loft, and H&M-type retailers, were never great for what they accepted (which was ~50% of what I sent over the years), maybe ~$4/item max, mostly less. Though frankly, I was so thrilled at how easy it was that I did not care. ThredUp's intake and payout policies have changed in the many years since I started reselling, so I'd expect significantly lower payouts now. I also have doubts about whether their business model will work long-term (if they've cut payouts significantly since they started, and are also pricing many items too high to sell, those can't be good signs) or whether they're actually better for the environment by significantly reducing waste (they started making and selling new items, which is bizarre), so I'm not sure I would continue with them as a reseller now. And anything they don't accept likely ends up in the same type of donation or textile recycling situation as item 4 on my list. 
  3. This hasn't fully played out yet, but for some of my potentially more valuable used things that my sister wouldn't like, I recently dropped them off at a TheRealReal physical store for consignment. Previously, these items had languished for years on my list for possible future higher-effort resale. Most of them I already knew I wanted to resell before I even started this blog, and I certainly haven't worn or used them since, which means they've been sitting around collecting dust for a half-decade or longer!
  4. Everything else has been going to the donation and textile recycling collection points closest to wherever I've lived in NYC. And yes, I'm painfully aware that donation is generally not a route to used clothes being put to good use by someone else, due to the extreme volume of donations constantly being made in the US. But I may be at a loss for a better solution for what remains after I've exhausted the other options. 
  5. For the relatively few things that are in such poor condition that I know they truly have no chance of being a usable donation (like, say, the Wolford tights I shredded by accident), I do put them in the trash. Obviously, there's nothing redeeming about this, but I'm not sure I see another solution. 
Would you believe that I haven't even gotten to the main point of this entry yet? What I actually wanted to discuss today is another method I've added to the mix in recent months, though, as I'll explain, it's had little real success: free-cycling.

I last engaged in a significant bout of free-cycling when I moved out of student housing after law school, in order to send off furniture, kitchen items, and other home goods that would be made redundant when I moved in with K. I loved free-cycling back then, and a university campus is certainly an ideal place to do it. Other students took practically everything I listed, and I was pretty sure they'd happily and enthusiastically put all my things to good use, given how restrictive students' budgets often are. It felt like a great thing to do, to give away as much as I could!

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Maui Trip 2019: Maui Chef's Table and Mama's Fish House

A scallop dish, the second to last savory course from our dinner at Maui Chef's Table. I think this might have been the best single dish I've ever had! (And I've been to some really nice places in NYC, mostly for work...) Sadly, I'm not a great talent when it comes to food photography (or iPhone photography in general), so my photos don't do justice to the food.

As promised, here is my second and last post about our recent family trip to Maui, focusing on some of the delicious food that my mom, my sister, and I got to try. 

In actuality, I'm normally not an extremely food-focused traveler: I greatly appreciate and value good food, of course, and particularly enjoy having tasty street food or hawker center food on my trips, but my travel plans generally don't prioritize food. We often don't have many specific restaurants we want to try, for instance. K and I will generally do one fancy meal on our longer trips (for example, I booked him a birthday lunch at Tin Lung Heen at the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong a few years back), but that's about it. On this vacation though, some of our plans focused very much on food. Specifically, I booked reservations for us at two of the most popular fine dining attractions in Maui: We did the Maui Chef's Table, a once-a-week (usually Saturdays) tasting menu and fine dining experience and we also went to Mama's Fish House, a well-known local restaurant. 

First up, a few details about food expenses generally when traveling to Maui. As I mentioned in my last post, restaurants tend to be quite expensive, maybe a little more than I'm used to, even in NYC (~$15/meal at fast casual places and closer to ~$25/entree at nicer sit-down places seemed typical for Maui), at least in the tourist-focused areas we frequented (Lahaina, the Kaanapali Beach area, etc.). It's probably the first destination where I felt strongly that it would be a good idea to get a hotel room, suite, or other lodging with a kitchenette, and to rely in significant part on cooking food from grocery stores for at least a few meals, particularly breakfasts. There was a large Safeway in Lahaina that we stopped at a few times, and there's also a Costco near the airport that many tourists go to before driving out to where they're staying. 

That's not to say the restaurant food is a bad value! I enjoyed pretty much everything we had, whether from a fast casual place or a slightly fancier sit-down place. (More fast casual-leaning places we liked included Joey's Kitchen in the Whaler's Village shopping center food court and Ono Kau Kau.) It's just that the prices on the menus give such sticker shock, even to people used to very HCOL areas like NYC or the Bay Area, that one can't help but start thinking about ways to save on food costs during any future trips. Grocery stores and Costco in Hawaii also have really good poke, by the way, good enough that it'll ruin you for ever eating that dish again anywhere else in the world. (One of my favorite comic artists on Instagram, @dami_lee, recently made this exact observation in one of her comics.) 

Please follow the link below to read about our experiences at Maui Chef's Table and Mama's Fish House, both of which we greatly enjoyed.