What if there's no such thing as the perfect coffee maker?
Sometimes I feel like when I gave up diet culture, I just put all those feelings into my home. This captures why that is so well.
I find optimization culture fascinating because it does NOT resonate with me very much. I am extremely a "good enough" sort of person (maybe to a fault?) and do not feel that I am skilled at decorating, organizing, etc. I've been trying ever since the pandemic to actually have a cute Zoom background and I still sort of don't! It's like a language I just don't speak. But I live with two people who are more attuned to optimization culture, which makes it very hard to just, like, buy a rug or a coffee maker or whatever. I recently just BOUGHT A CONSUMER GOOD that I had not researched AT ALL, and my husband joked, "How will you know if it was the best one??" and I said, "I don't actually care if it is!"
Ten years ago, we bought a modest house built the 60s on 8 fallow acres in a short sale. We did not remodel it. We put a new coat of paint on the inside, called it done, and started planting an orchard and flower field on the outside. We do not have the latest coffee maker. We do not have gray vinyl floors. We do not have a cold plunge.
Instead, we built a thriving ecosystem. We grow 5 tons of food a year. I wake up to birdsong. There are jack rabbits and wild turkeys wandering around my front yard right now. I see dozens of my neighbors here every week. My house is filled with flowers. All that, for less than the cost of the average home remodel :)
We bought our 120+ yo farmhouse in 2004 at an auction “as-is” the day after first learning it existed. We moved in 30 days later and now, 19 years (and 3 kids and 4 dogs) later have made almost no aesthetic improvements. We have fixed things that needed fixing (and replaced the septic system, added an outdoor wood burner and are replacing the roof this summer) and added a window to a windowless wall and doors to several doorless rooms, but we still have 6 kinds of fake wood paneling and walls with 8 layers of wallpaper, and 5 kinds of flooring on the first floor and one teeny tiny bathroom for 5 of us. No one who has ever visited our home understands our complete lack of desire to update things or make it more aesthetically pleasing (to them). But we feel that our money is better spent on things we need and experiences and paying down debt and just living. Our house is our home and it’s quirky and unique and we have our gorgeous land and solitude and so many people don’t understand why that’s enough for us. You perfectly described why most home-based social media makes me feel horrible and why I avoid reading almost anything about home renovations - it makes me feel like I’m not enough because I’m okay leaving things the way they are. Thank you for this piece.
Needed this post AHP! I've been doing a lot of work in therapy around the concept of optimization, or rather resisting the need to be optimizing every aspect of my life, all the time; and feel so seen coming across posts like this or a recent interview with Jenny Odell in which she argues that our obsession with time-management is stripping ups with humanity. Here's a gift link to the NYT interview if anyone's interested in reading it: https://shorturl.at/eowFJ
The concept of Swedish Death Cleaning only came across my radar within the past week, but there was a quote from the article that I'm already trying to apply to life (oops, optimization again): '"We have this Swedish word, lagom, which means just the right amount, and it’s deeply rooted in our culture,' said [Ella] Engström. 'But Americans, you love your stuff, and you have something for every season! Someone has made you think you need those things.'"
And agree with Engström and Dr. Kathleen Waller, we can live with so much less, and with less, each of those items becomes more precious.
I wish I could attribute the quote, but I forgot. It said "perfection is the inability to sit with discomfort".
A therapist picked up on a word I used a lot. Curate. It's my version of optimization. I thought it was because I valued beauty in general. But then I learned all the ways my brain is constantly trying to fix things. And spend money I may or may not want to spend fixing things I feel like I can gain control over. What helps is to ask what's actually going on that I can't control. I have partner with long Covid and my dog died. I have 110 yr old house that has endless repairs. I'm aging. No curating my way out of those things despite what my brain tells me.
A few years ago, before she moved into assisted living, I was at my Grandma's house a few years after buying my own. She's the wealthiest person I'm related to. And she had cracked plaster. And it took nothing away from how the house made me feel. I just try and go back to that moment when I look at my cracked plaster or windows that need to be restored. Her house held all the magic of my childhood. And then I think of all the ways mine is magical too.
After working from home and a year on maternity leave, I returned to the outside world feeling like all my clothes were out of style. I started following capsule wardrobe influencers on IG and Like to know and I became obsessed with optimizing my wardrobe. But after a while, all the influencers start to look the same. They buy the same stuff, their style their hair in the same way, their houses all look the same. It’s so boring! A capsule wardrobe is a scam! It’s not simple, you have to buy new stuff every season…it’s insane watching how many outfits these influencers have. It’s the opposite of minimalism.
A few years ago, while working as a nanny, I noticed that one of the parents had ordered several different versions of the same thing. When I asked her about it she said that she wanted to find the “best” one. I was baffled. I’d never considered spending hours researching the “best” anything. Mostly because I’ve never been in the economic position to have the best anything. Two years later I was working again as a nanny, this time with a well paying full-time job (that eventually almost killed me), and I fell into the same trap. It was the first time in my adult life that I was making a middle-class income and I bought so many “best” things.
Two years later I moved across the country for a PhD program. Because I’d recently had back surgery (from an injury sustained at that nanny job) I couldn’t drive, and because of the surgery itself and the financial repercussions (I’d quit nannying to try being a freelancer). I ended up taking two suitcases with me and sending sever boxes. Most of that stuff? I sold what I could and the rest got donated. Thousands of dollars worth of the best stuff.
Now I am again below the poverty line. I think about that stuff sometimes. The Staub cocotte, the fancy coffee maker, my fancy spices and “best” mattress and pillows and teas and, of course, so many books. Whenever I think I need something I think about that stuff. I think about the money I spent on it and what else I could have done with that money. Honestly, it’s a hard thing to think about. But it’s important for me because when I think about it I am reminded that I am just fine without it. My kitchen stuff is basically all secondhand; my coffeemaker is cheap; and the nicest thing I have is my mattress. I own very little stuff and I am just fine. I still have a junk drawer.
Being poor forces me to consider every purchase. I am privileged enough to know that my poverty is (after much much work) temporary, but I never want to stop considering the impact of my purchases- on the environment but also on me. What does it mean to think that owning the best thing says anything about me at all? Growing up poor made me think that having fancy things said something about me, and I used to long for them. I wanted nice clothes and items that screamed “class.” Now I know in my bones that my shitty old car and cheap clothes are just “car” and “clothes,” and anyone adding or subtracting my or someone else’s humanity from those items has a lot of work to do, as I have had a lot of work to do.
I know this okayness with what many would consider mediocre things isn’t a permanent state for me, bc I live in consumer culture and it’s insidious. Lately I’ve been remembering a moment in 1999, when I was 19 and saw a middle-aged woman driving a dirty old car, singing joyfully to a song she was listening to. I had the thought then: “why is she so happy when she clearly doesn’t have a lot of money.” Now I’m that femme presenting person with a shitty car singing (not always joyfully) along with songs. Sometimes I feel judged negatively and I always remember that woman and how naive and superficial I was for thinking that, but also how I feared being poor my whole life.
I guess what I’m saying is that Wirecutter can shove their burr grinder because my Kirkland pre-ground coffee does the job, and I know what good coffee tastes like. I should have paid off some of my student loans with the money I spent on really “good” coffee...
This is one of my favorite AHP columns of all time, and that's saying something. I'd love to know whether people outside the U.S. are as focused on optimization, or if this is specific to America? David Brooks said in "On Paradise Road" that the fundamental trait of Americans is that we're aspirational. Regardless of our race, ethnicity, political beliefs, length of tenure in this country, etc., we all share a belief that something better is possible with our coffeemakers, yes, but also our homes, our jobs, our marriages, our kids, and everything else. Brooks calls this "the Paradise Spell" - the belief that a glorious destiny awaits us if we can just work hard enough or figure out the right path. He says this notion is built into the very foundation of America. The white Europeans who first settled here did so b/c they believed things would be better here. This same belief drove white westward expansion and continues to drive Americans to move more often than people in just about any other country.
I've noticed when I've worked with Europeans that many of them will make statements along the lines of, "We've always done things this way. Why would we change?" Now I work for a Chinese company, and although they are very fast to cycle through product changes, they do not understand Americans' optimization mindset. We American employees are constantly pushing back against policies and procedures that seem inefficient or pointless, and we usually get an answer akin to, "B/c I said so." One Chinese coworker said, "Americans think everything should make them happy. But we do not have time to change everything." I know he meant "happy" in the sense of "everything should work like Americans think it should" ... but I also think there's a deeper, more existential truth in what he said. After all, the end goal of all this optimization is happiness, right?
It's funny, I actually just ~optimized~ my coffee setup, haha. Previously I had the coffee, tea, hot cocoa mix, honey and splenda, etc. in a cabinet at the end of the kitchen, coffee grinder at the other far end, all my coffee-making implements scattered throughout the kitchen with no real home. I moved everything onto the same shelf next to where the coffee grinder is plugged in, and now my pourover, moka pot, and french press all live right next to the beans, the grinder, and the splenda. It's honestly made a really big difference for me! Everything is right where it needs to be, I'm not going back and forth multiple times... just streamlined it all. It is making me very content.
But! I really appreciate this post generally, because there is such a tendency to want to optimize, and while there are some things (like the coffee setup, and like getting new chairs that are actually comfortable to sit on, not making do with the old ones just because they were free even though they sucked) that are worth improving, the ceaseless drive to OPTIMIZE just fuels dissatisfaction. It's like an internalized planned obsolescence – we get tired of something, or the novelty wears off, or we just feel like It Could Be Better, Though... and then some corporate entity gets yet more our dollars.
Once again AHP turns a specific feeling I have regularly into the exact words necessary to describe it!
My in-laws lived for 40 years in Minnetonka, MN in a house they didn’t build, but bought shortly after it was built (in 1978). It was still new and fashionable when they bought it. My MIL is what you would call “cheap” but, as the years go on, I now recognize that she merely rejects consumerism as a core value. I remember the first time I stepped inside their home in 2004 - a full 26 years after the home was built. It was beautiful! It was so “dated” and “70s” but you hardly noticed! Save for “new” appliances purchased in the mid-90s, the house was original with its faux brick tiled entry way, Kelly green plush carpet in the upstairs hall and formal front room, the dark oak floors and kitchen cabinets and the old barn board paneling on the living room walls. My in laws never changed the interior, but they were immaculate homeowners, and they house was so nice! I think about that a lot when I consider the exhaustion I feel about interior design trends. Why should I spend $200k on a new kitchen just to have it declared “dated” in 10 years and have to do it all over again? It is madness!
I feel like covid made this so much worse, too, not only because of isolation and boredom, but also because we were essentially abandoned to DYI our own survival. Some people ate horse paste and I renovated a house. I am not sure who is happier.
This bit made me put down my (pour over) coffee:
“Instead of looking around my living space with gratitude for the soft comfort I’ve built for myself, inflected with my peculiar tastes and preferences, I see lack. And that dissatisfaction becomes a sort of lingering fog, dampening my experience of the world.”
This was me this morning. I woke up with an item for my grocery list, and ten minutes later, I found myself scrolling through new reading chairs for my office that I don’t really need but “wouldn’t a reading nook be so cozy? Everyone loves a cozy reading nook.” Even though I’ve already created one in my living room, and then, a new thought popped into my brain: while am at it, shouldn’t I redo my entire wall and fill it with cool travel photos that show on Zooms that I’m smart and sophisticated, instead of the canvas print of a blue door that my mom bought me at Hobby Lobby when I was a new college grad because I was broke and, at the time, I thought an old blue European door would make me look cool and sophisticated? Now, this nice gift from my mom looks like something from a generic Airbnb, not the interesting Zoom fodder so many have perfected over the last few years. (PS: as you could probably tell, I don’t get much of a spark from decorating, lol)
It’s so insidious how this lack creeps into our days. I woke up wanting pickled jalapeños on my grocery list, now I’m worried what colleagues will think of my generic Hobby Lobby Zoom background on the Sunday of a holiday weekend.
Now I am nestled into my (original) reading nook, under a cozy blanket my sister bought for me, candle lit and coffee in hand. Of course, sinking into *this* feeling feels much better.
I've been working on dumping every trace of "there is one right way to live and I must find it" for years, brought on by realizing in therapy that a decade after leaving the Catholic Church I was subconsciously looking for a replacement rulebook to tell me how to live.
There has never been one right way for humans to live. We have been on this planet for so long and have lived in so many different ways and the deceit of the current paradigm is that humans are all supposed to live the same way but it is not true.
It's easier to ditch material optimization and renovation culture when you grew up in a big family with no money, but harder to resist parenting and other abstract life optimization when that family was Catholic.
I used to think I was really organized. But recently I’ve realized that I put a lot of effort into learning about organizing as a special interest to stay ahead of my ADHD and that this was my response as an autistic person to fixate on a topic to avoid the trauma of falling at another social expectation. I have never been able to stick with one organizational method for very long because my ADHD get bored so I always figured that it just wasn’t “the best way.” Instead, what I’m learning is that instead of either considering myself a failure or trying to focus on optimization, it fine to recognize that I need variety and just keep switching it up every 3 months. The method doesn’t have to be “perfect” just new and good enough.
The remodelling that really gets to me is kitchens. I see people replacing white kitchens with slightly different white kitchens at such crazy expense. It seems that people aren't replacing kitchens now because they look specifically dated, it's because they don't look new (a subtle distinction, I think). It's totally impossible for your kitchen to look always on trend and seems to me totally bonkers that people are spending 40k+ to replace kitchens at shockingly swift intervals just to remain current...and for what?
I am moving to a new (to us, it was built in 1965) house in 3 weeks. The kitchen is new-ish and great space "but" it has wooden flat panel cupboards and I'm surprised how many people have suggested I can paint them white, etc. I like the response of "That's not important to me".