Friday, May 29, 2020

In Light of Recent Events

I stand against anti-Black racism and police violence. In this, Asian-Americans from communities like mine (Taiwanese-Americans in the Bay Area who have generally attained substantial economic privilege) have a unique and particular responsibility to take action against the anti-Black racism that can be pervasive in their communities. I have donated to the Minnesota Freedom Fund in support of the protestors in Minneapolis and St. Paul. 

I can recommend a few books that focus on American legal history and the lasting effects of slavery and segregation that continue to be felt in our society today. They can serve as a starting point in becoming educated about the importance of combatting racism: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson; The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander; Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates; and The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. This is not a comprehensive list of resources, but a suggestion of possible places to begin in order to understand the historical context. 

For me personally, during my time in law school, I also found The Chosen by Jerome Karabel to be highly influential, given that my particular subset of the Asian-American community has a certain... preoccupation with affirmative action and a misplaced belief that it is a form of racism against us. (Gaining a fuller understanding of why that belief was wrong through learning the history of affirmative action was a crucial piece of my personal anti-racism education, though I'm not sure it'd be quite as important to someone from a different background.) 

Monday, May 25, 2020

Link List: Stuck at Home

I haven't done one of these "link list" posts in nearly six months!

This photograph, like others I've shared recently, was taken in more normal times. It's the red snapper with sea mustard pot at ON, which specializes in Korean-style hot pot dishes. I desperately yearn for the day we're finally able to safely eat in at restaurants again.

1. // Refinery29 recently posted a biglaw attorney money diary from someone who appears to be a seventh-year associate and who, based on her stated age, likely went straight from college to law school. Biglaw attorney money diaries probably aren't that interesting to anyone but me, but I can't get enough of them. 

Out of all the biglaw-ish money diaries over the years, this recent one and this 2018 one are the only ones I've thought especially representative of typical law school student loan repayment experiences. Many of the other biglaw diaries are from younger diarists who either claimed to have unusually generous law school scholarships (sizable scholarships like my 1/3 cost of attendance one are not uncommon, but true full-rides are rare) or who apparently finished paying off their loans within two or three years after law school. (Paying off a typical post-law school student loan balance - $160,000 on the low end - in that quick a timeframe is difficult, even for the especially frugal biglaw associate. Four to five years is more common amongst my peers.) This diarist reports that, at 32, she has fully paid off her law school loans, though their household is still paying off her spouse's student loans. 

What isn't as typical here is that the diarist normally lives in NYC (in a one-bedroom for $4,250/month, which is a fair bit more than K and I pay, but isn't too unusual for a one-bedroom in a newer "luxury" building), but has rented a house in the Connecticut suburbs to socially distance in. Based on my experience, that's an outlier choice for a NYC biglaw associate, whether they have a child or not. The only associates I know who left NYC due to COVID-19 - like this diarist, they generally departed well before March 12, more than a week before New York officially shut down - all moved in with their parents. Biglaw attorneys are well-compensated, but not enough to comfortably pay rent for two separate homes simultaneously over several months! 

2. // Apartment Therapy's YouTube channel has a series of videos touring various apartments and other small homes, many of them in NYC. I particularly loved this tour of Ashley Ford's (iSmashFizzle on Twitter) apartment in Brooklyn. She's so cool! And they're such a sweet, absolutely adorable couple.

A lot of the older videos in the series don't quite show the entire living space, particularly for the slightly larger homes. Many kitchens and bathrooms are omitted, or only a small slice of them are shown. But it's still interesting to look at the wide range of decor styles.

3. // I enjoyed the recent NPR Planet Money podcast episode, "J.Screwed" (hah!), about the J.Crew bankruptcy. They focus on the Jenna Lyons period at J.Crew, noting that the brand's profile and "cool factor" rose significantly after Michelle Obama wore J.Crew on The Tonight Show in 2008. That pretty much lines up exactly with when I first became aware of the brand. I found that late 2000s and early 2010s J.Crew aesthetic completely irresistible and super aspirational when I was in college.

I confess, although much of my attorney work experience is focused on complex commercial transactions, I don't actually understand this story very well. I gather that the relevant business story begins with a leveraged buyout of J.Crew by a private equity firm back in 2011, something to that effect, but that's about it. (Attorneys are trained not to claim claim a full understanding of anything until they've analyzed the relevant contracts and other documents, which are typically voluminous and dense reading when it comes to complex commercial matters.)

4. // I also enjoyed Anne Helen Petersen's recent piece about the potential impact of COVID-19 economic disruptions on American consumer culture and about the role of consumer spending in the American economy at large.

Part of why I'm so attached to Marie Kondo's first book is that I credit it with being the primary factor that allowed me to reevaluate my personal relationship with consumerism. I had many other influences in that "journey," but in the end, the biggest single thing that made the change stick was using KonMari method to see that, no, I never again want to accumulate so much stuff I didn't even actually want, or even particularly like, in the first place. This paragraph from Petersen's recent article is a pretty accurate description of how I used to acquire things unthinkingly:
We’re trained to buy often, buy cheap, and buy a lot. And I’m not just talking about food, which everyone has to acquire in some capacity, or clothes. I mean all the other small purchases of daily life: a new face lotion, a houseplant holder, a wine glass name trinket, an office supply organizer, a vegetable spiralizer, a cute set of hand towels, a pair of nicer sunglasses, a pair of sports sunglasses, a pair of throwaway sunglasses. The stuff, in other words, that you don’t even know that you want until it somehow finds its way to your cart at Target or T.J. Maxx.
Up through 2015, I was definitely no stranger to the random T.J.Maxx knickknacks that somehow got added to the shopping basket, in addition to the towels or cutting board I was actually looking for.

And that's it for today's link list post. Have you been reading any particularly good online articles or watching any interesting YouTube videos recently? 

Monday, May 18, 2020

Social Distancing Life Lately: 10 Weeks

Beef shank tomato noodle soup from a local company, Eat Nomz. They sell frozen soups, with noodles on the side,  for ~$10 to $12/serving, roughly the price of my Sweetgreen lunches. They ship by courier within Manhattan and also ship soups (but no noodles) to a few nearby states. We tried pork and lotus root, beef shank tomato, and brisket radish, and enjoyed all three. I first heard about them years ago from Eva Chen.

How are you doing? Has your state or local government started lifting COVID-19 restrictions? I hope that you and your families are well. K and I are doing just fine, and our families continue to be in good health. Starting next month, I might start feeling nervous about potential salary cuts or furloughs at my workplace, because it's becoming clear that we probably can't return to "business as usual" anytime this summer. Still, I've been extremely fortunate that I've yet to see any disruptions to my job security or income.

This month, I made $350 in total donations to the Food Bank for New York City and World Central Kitchen. I plan to continue making some donations until NYC is fully reopened, or until I see large disruptions to my income (whichever comes first). Though as I start getting nervous about possible salary cuts or furloughs and whether I need to further adjust my money management to account for that, I might no longer commit to donating the same amount every month.

I also expect to start shopping less. After a handful of impulsive "last hurrah" purchases between when I drafted my previous monthly shopping post (a few days ahead of posting) and the first week of May - including an additional Elizabeth Suzann item when they announced the closing of this iteration of the company - I've been much better about not shopping. It's hard for me to absolutely guarantee I'll stay away, given the sheer number of unpredictable mood swings I've had about all kinds of things during this time of fairly strict social distancing. But I seem to be getting to a point where online window-shopping is no longer able to make me feel better - even temporarily - about the pandemic, the way it used to. 

Reopening in New York

New York has laid out a fairly detailed phased reopening plan. A few regions of the state have hit the metrics required to begin Phase One of reopening, but NYC is - unsurprisingly - not among them. Phase One only allows limited industries to reopen: construction, manufacturing, wholesale, and select retail for curbside pickup. (Though I should note that "essential" construction - including several residential construction projects in my neighborhood - had previously remained open under the On PAUSE shutdown orders.) 

Professional services, including legal services, are not slated for partial reopening until Phase Two, so the absolute earliest I could start returning to the office - likely on a limited basis - is probably late June. (Though honestly, I'd be surprised if NYC was allowed to proceed to Phase Two by then.) Any initial reopening would not be a full one, it would involve many precautions and new policies to facilitate social distancing, likely including having a large percentage of the workforce working from home at any given time. Anecdotally, many biglaw firms in NYC have given employees indications that the firms don't expect a significant number of attorneys and staff to return to the office anytime this summer.

Monday, May 11, 2020

About the Alison Roman Thing...


By now you've probably heard that Alison Roman recently did an interview where she said some rather unkind things about Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo. Among other things, Chrissy Teigen was originally going to be an executive producer on a television show that Roman had signed on to do. (No official word yet on whether recent events have put an end to that.)

About Chrissy Teigen, Roman had this to say:
Like, what Chrissy Teigen has done is so crazy to me. She had a successful cookbook. And then it was like: Boom, line at Target. Boom, now she has an Instagram page that has over a million followers where it’s just, like, people running a content farm for her. That horrifies me and it’s not something that I ever want to do. I don’t aspire to that. But like, who’s laughing now? Because she’s making a ton of fucking money.
Roman's tone was quite vicious as to Marie Kondo, who isn't even a direct competitor to Roman in the food writing and cooking space, which makes this turn even more bizarre to me: 
Like the idea that when Marie Kondo decided to capitalize on her fame and make stuff that you can buy, that is completely antithetical to everything she’s ever taught you… I’m like, damn, bitch, you fucking just sold out immediately! Someone’s like “you should make stuff,” and she’s like, “okay, slap my name on it, I don’t give a shit!”  
That’s the thing — you don’t need a ton of equipment in your kitchen to make great food. “For the low, low price of $19.99, please to buy my cutting board!” Like, no. Find the stuff that you love and buy it. Support businesses and makers. It feels greedy. Unless something just simply didn’t exist that I wish existed, but that would make an inventor, which I’m not. 
There's been some confusion about the "please to buy" wording and why it was there. It was also briefly edited out of the interview by the publisher, but then replaced (see the editor's note at the end of the interview). Roman herself indicated it was not a typo, and claims it was an inside joke about a cookbook titled Please to the Table. 

This is all happening, by the way, in the context of an interview where Roman promotes an upcoming product tie-in that she herself is doing: 
I have a collaboration coming out with [the cookware startup] Material, a capsule collection. It’s limited edition, a few tools that I designed that are based on tools that I use that aren’t in production anywhere — vintage spoons and very specific things that are one-offs that I found at antique markets that they have made for me.
So, you know, on top of all the other issues, there's a distinct lack of self-awareness. And by the way, this is what Roman said when Gwyneth Paltrow's "Goop" brand was brought up by the interviewer in the same interview:
And I do sort of have ambitions to figure out how to channel everything into a site. But I’m really sensitive to oversaturation, again. And does the world need another Goop? It also requires so much money that I would have to take from people that I don’t know. 
Oh and Roman says that she singled out Teigen and Kondo, and not any male chef with a mega-brand and various licensed products (despite the existence of the likes of Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, and so on) because: 
I didn't "slam" them, but I don't think that anyone should be impervious to critique re: capitalism. I didn't mention any men because there aren't any doing anything I find comparable, so

So yeah, big yikes all around. I found this Twitter thread to be the most complete accounting of why I found Alison Roman's interview so upsetting and why racism is likely at least part of why she singled out Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo, as opposed to someone like Ree Drummond or Rachael Ray.

This incident has also inspired discussions about larger issues with some of Roman's recipes and how she approaches ingredients and recipe inspirations from non-Western cultures. I thought this article did a good job explaining that angle. 

Longtime readers might know that I'm kind of a die-hard Marie Kondo fan, all the way back to January 2015. As such a huge fan, I naturally get quite upset about wrongheaded and racist criticisms of Kondo and her ideas. Remember that hullaballoo last year right after her Netflix show premiered, which included the extraordinarily spurious claim that she apparently wanted all of humanity to limit themselves to the ownership of 30 books at the absolute maximum? (That particular claim had no basis in her actual writing or anything she actually said on her Netflix show.) Around that time, there were also instances of rather explicit racism and xenophobia in some of the criticisms of Kondo's show.

There are so many things wrong with what Alison Roman said about Marie Kondo that it's difficult to know where to start unpacking it all. That I was able to learn about and become interested in Marie Kondo's first book all the way back in January 2015, after reading a New York Times profile of her that had been published way back in October 2014, certainly shows that the growth of Kondo's brand did not happen overnight. (This was years before her Netflix show eventually debuted in January 2019, and before "The Shop at KonMari" opened on her website in November 2019.) Roman's accusation that Kondo "[expletive redacted] just sold out immediately" clearly has no basis.

Plus, it's really quite obvious that, whatever else one might feel about it, the official Marie Kondo shop offers an extremely curated set of products. Given the current selection at the shop, it's probably also clear that there will likely never be a $19.99 cutting board sold there. (A carefully-selected $199 cutting board might be more consistent with the kitchen products currently stocked.)

ETA 5/12/20: Approximately 14 hours after I published this post, Alison Roman issued a new apology on Twitter and Instagram, addressing both Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo, unlike her initial attempt at an apology on Friday night, which only addressed Teigen (and only after it became clear that Teigen was one of the executive producers for Roman's upcoming show). I believe this apology meets a minimum bar of professionalism that was not apparent in Roman's initial reactions on Friday. The new apology is also close to comprehensive in that it at least tries to address how (1) she chose to call out two Asian women in a space filled with white women and white men with larger, more longstanding product lines and (2) her use of ingredients and inspirations from non-Western cultures. A cynical person's interpretation would be that while Roman professed to not have a "communications person" before, she's almost certainly working with one now.

It's hard for me to accept this apology as particularly sincere, given how unprofessional Roman's initial handling of this situation was, but well, I had never actually bought anything of hers before - only watched some of her YouTube videos and used her cookie recipe from online - and I will probably not be buying anything of hers in the foreseeable future. The real test is whether she changes her behavior going forward. 

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Blog Thoughts, Year Five

via Unsplash

Now here's a post that's several months late! Invincible Summer is now over five years old. As in past years, I continue to be deeply grateful to all of you for reading here, and for everyone who chimes in to discussions with me in the comments section. Writing here continues to be a delight, though in recent months, I have not had much time or energy for it, with all that was going on at the office. And with COVID-19 and the resulting worldwide shutdowns, it's become particularly difficult to know what to say here, especially because this blog is really mostly about shopping, something entirely unimportant in light of everything that's happening. 

Today's post will be considerably more succinct than my typical "blogiversary" post. (See my posts for previous years here.) It's really just a report on last year's blog-related income, and an update on how my blog-related income is likely to look in the months going forward. Spoiler alert, the numbers I'm talking about will not be especially large, and will probably continue to shrink in the foreseeable future, now that I'm updating the blog much less often than before.

Before jumping in to the numbers, a quick note about taxes. As far as I can tell when inputting the relevant numbers into Turbotax each year, I pay my marginal tax rate of more than ~40% on my blog-related income, which I continue to report on a Schedule C-EZ. To date, I still have not made enough from this blog in one year from any single source to receive any 1099s for blog-related income. (This is not to be taken as legal advice about the tax implications of blog-related income.)

Please follow the link below for a detailed 2019 blog income reportThank you again for your support of Invincible Summer all this time!

Monday, May 4, 2020

Social Distancing Life Lately: Eight Weeks

Another photograph from a very different time.

How are you and your loved ones doing? This marks our household's eighth week of fairly strict social distancing. We, and our families, continue to be in good health. K and I have actually shifted to leaving our apartment building only once every three weeks for a big grocery run, though this is only possible because we supplement with some kind of grocery delivery order towards the end of the second week. That delivery tends to include at least some items we can't get at Trader Joe's, as well as some additional fresh produce. (We tip well whenever we use a delivery service, of course.)

We continue to be extremely fortunate, with the ability to work entirely from home, at least until the New York "On PAUSE" order lifts, and no disruptions to our income as of yet. (I would not bet money on the shutdown order lifting for NYC until May 31 or later.) While things remain stable for me in terms of work and income, I'll continue to make at least $350 in total charitable donations this month, mostly to the Food Bank for New York City and World Central Kitchen

Budgeting Lessons  

As Luxe observed on Instagram, one unintended side effect of the COVID-19 shutdowns is that, with restaurant outings and travel basically completely off the table - among many other discretionary things - one might be in a position to examine what one's bare-bones budget could look like. That's certainly been true for our household. 

Back before all the shutdowns started, K and I basically only ever cooked two to three meals a week at home, everything else was done via takeout, including all our weekday lunches at work (I was an excellent and loyal customer of Sweetgreen, let's just say), or via restaurant delivery whenever we weren't going out to eat. I've long been very sheepish about our dining practices - it was an incredibly expensive lifestyle - but while we were both spending so many hours at the office working our biglaw (and in my case, biglaw-ish) jobs, things simply were not going to change. 

Naturally, our food spending has now dropped precipitously. Going by the past two months, around $580/month in groceries will feed our household of two comfortably while the "On PAUSE" shutdown order remains in effect and we're cooking every meal at home. If our primary neighborhood grocery store wasn't a Trader Joe's - one of the more affordable grocery chains in the city - our monthly food budget would probably be significantly higher.

On this budget, we are definitely not eating frugally: We have one meal containing meat or fish most days; we eat a fair bit of packaged snacks and frozen foods; I like more expensive fruit such as berries; and it also includes indulgences here and there, such as some fancy cheese and charcuterie. Under more ordinary conditions, I could probably also get that number down a bit further by utilizing delivery services less often and having access to Chinese grocery stores that require public transit to get to.

The other major category where our spending's been cut significantly is travel, both for vacations and also for routine use of public transit (a 30-day unlimited-use NYC Metrocard, which covers the subway and public buses, currently costs $127; many workplaces offer a benefit where employees can obtain theirs using pre-tax dollars) and cabs or ride-share services. We were originally planning to go on vacation to Japan and Taiwan in the first half of April, but hadn't yet incurred any of the costs, except for airfare. After getting our full refund from EVA Airways, which was fairly painless, that's an entire set of significant expenses that have now been postponed indefinitely.

As you can probably guess, one category of personal discretionary spending that has definitely not gone down for me is shopping for clothing and accessories. I'm quite sheepish about this. I do, at least, consider any purchase I make in this period to be effectively final sale. I will not be troubling anyone with returns and return shipments during this time.