We used to worry about money a lot, but we don’t anymore, because we have a simple strategy. It comes in three pieces, and it works. Anyone can learn it. It goes like this:
When I was younger my eyes used to glaze over when I read lists like that. I didn’t want to have to think about anything with an acronym. I didn’t want to learn new technology. I figured I would think about it when I was older.
Now I AM older and I’m feeling pretty smug that Young Me read so many personal finance books and made the effort to learn these concepts.
It takes about 15 minutes to fill out the paperwork to max out your payroll deductions and put them in a 401(k) or equivalent. You literally only have to do it once per job. That’s the first step, and after those 15 minutes then you never have to think about it again.
The third step, living on less money than you earn, can be tricky. It can be hard to believe it can be done. It sometimes means making radical lifestyle changes, and those can be emotional and hard to explain to other people. Following the plan itself, though, becomes automatic.
It’s the second step, setting up an IRA and putting money in it every year, that trips people up. I knew what it was and how to do it, and I never bothered to get around to it until a few years into my second marriage. When I think back to all the tens of thousands of dollars I would have if I hadn’t procrastinated on this, it makes me want to slap myself.
The reason it’s so easy to procrastinate is that there isn’t an HR person to walk you through it. Nobody sends you an email reminder. You have to find a bank and set up a brand-new account. You have to decide which of two types of account work for you. Then you have to get the money together and remember to deposit it before the deadline every year.
In practice you can do it in an hour, set up a reminder on your phone in one minute, and then spend ten minutes a year moving the money.
It’s not the time, it’s the mental bandwidth.
Now that I know how to do this stuff, and I’ve seen it work, it seems simple and easy. In fact most people I know put more thought, focus, and attention into following the plot of complicated prestige television than I do into investing. It’s just that hump of studying up and learning how something works, especially if nobody you know does it or talks about it.
Setting up an investment account is free. You don’t have to keep putting money in it; you can skip a year if you have to. You can also catch up and do the previous year. You don’t have to have the maximum amount, either. Even if you only have a dollar to put in one year, that’s better than nothing.
This is a conversation I had with my husband when we first met, when we were just work buddies. He was complaining about his expensive divorce, child support, and alimony, and he said he couldn’t even afford to invest in his retirement plan.
“What??” I bawled him out. “You make three times as much as me and I’m maxed out. You’re trying to tell me you can’t even save one percent? I don’t believe you.”
(This is actually why we are married today, because he respects my frugality and I always tell it like it is).
He told me later that he went in to HR and filed the papers. He immediately maxed out his retirement contribution and, of course, it was fine. He could afford it after all. Emotionally, he had just been feeling the divorce drama. Mine had come and gone five years earlier, so I recognized it.
The thing is, there’s no such thing as CAN’T AFFORD. You’ll never be as young again as you are today. One day, Older You is going to have some kind of problem that only Younger You can solve, because Older You won’t be able to work or earn more money. The emergency you have in the future is going to be harder to solve than any problem you have today. Almost definitely.
You can never allow yourself to believe that it’s impossible. You can never give in to the idea that you can’t even find a penny on the street once a year. (A guy at the next table in my cafe literally dropped a penny on the floor AS I WROTE THAT and he still hasn’t picked it up. It’s the second penny I’ve seen on a floor today).
The main advantage of being poor (or thinking you are) is that you know how to live with a low overhead. That means you understand austerity, that you can emotionally handle spending as little as possible on things like rent, transportation, healthcare, heat, and food.
The disadvantage of being poor is that scarcity mindset prevents us from having better ideas about how to earn more money.
I did my husband the favor of snapping him out of his divorce blues and convincing him to start investing toward his retirement again. That paid off for me because now his financial future is also mine... He returned the favor to me, many times over, by painstakingly teaching me how to replace my scarcity mindset with abundance mentality.
None of the rules that worked for my life when I was poor, a broke student, an entry-level career person, none of those rules make any sense in my life as a comfortably established married person.
Another way to express that there are three parts to a financial plan is like this:
Feel that your anxiety and dejection about money is an emotional state, not reality. Understand that the only difference between you and a rich person is that they know things you don’t. Figure out what it takes to kick yourself, to make yourself do things. How do you get yourself to make phone calls or log in to websites or drive to a bank? How do you set up reminders for yourself to do things by a certain date? How do you inspire yourself to learn things you don’t already know? What do you do when you realize you need help; do you ask someone?
Everyone has a financial plan. For most people that is, “Don’t think about it right now.” Please reward yourself by using your imagination, your creativity, and your intelligence to come up with a more interesting plan. Maybe part of that could be setting up an account for your IRA, even if you don’t have any money to put in it quite yet.
Ultralearning is the concept of “deep, aggressive self-education,” according to author Scott Young. It is the idea that it is possible to learn far more, more quickly, through a self-designed program than it is in a formal educational program. Young is making his point, over and over again, by creating and documenting his own ultralearning projects. It’s a form of stunt journalism. This book is a comprehensive manual for learning how to ultralearn.
Probably what is most interesting about ultralearning, besides the fact that it is going to turn education and professional credentials permanently upside down, is that it can be applied to any project. One of the steps is to figure out your own curriculum. That could obviously be applied to any subject from automotive repair to applying false eyelashes (which actually sounds more complicated to me).
Young includes examples from other ultralearners, to give a sense of the scope and power of this process. Roger Craig built an ultralearning project and won $77,000 on the game show Jeopardy!. Eric Barone learned to code and created a video game called Stardew Valley that sold over three million copies. Young himself completed his own MIT Challenge, launching a series of ultralearning projects that may never end!
There is a debate surrounding ultralearning, namely whether a self-study project can actually get you anywhere in the “real world.” Ahem. The inside of your own mind is a part of the real world and always will be. Education matters even if nobody but you ever finds out about it. Ultralearning includes examples of individuals who used ultralearning projects to earn university degrees, pass exams, get promotions, earn official language learning certificates, and attain other credentials. It is certainly not limited to the autodidact.
This is why ultralearning is about to change everything.
Employers are constantly complaining that they can’t find qualified employees, partly because they now expect to hire everyone pre-trained, when 50 years ago more than 90% of training was done on the job. At the same time, almost nobody can afford vocational training, much less a full university education or post-graduate work. The system is failing everyone and driving over a trillion dollars in debt. For what?
Ultralearning is a chance for someone like me, from a blue-collar family, to rise up and outcompete a complacent kid from an upper-middle-class background. Almost nothing beats grit. Grit combined with internet access and the strategies and methodology of ultralearning, that’s what will change the world.
Being an ultralearner doesn’t imply that everything one learns has to be done in the most aggressive and dramatic fashion possible.
You know when you’re procrastinating, so just get started.
We always have our reasons for doing what we do, and those reasons can change. While sometimes our situations and perspectives change, that may not always be a reason to change what we’re doing, too! Anything can continue to be a good idea despite whatever else is going on.
Weirdly, we’re more likely to hang onto our negative constants, like a toxic relationship, than we are to keep up our better habits. We believe in dark circumstances in a way that we don’t believe in good fortune.
The talented person who stays in a dead-end job out of total inertia, resisting the effort involved in a resume update
The former smoker who always starts up again under stress, as though an extremely expensive habit like that is going to help somehow
The family living in a run-down rental for years, never quite getting around to calling the landlord for routine maintenance issues
We probably don’t talk enough about the emotional reality behind positive change. Cynical people don’t want to hear it because they want everything to stay down at their frequency. Skeptics don’t believe it. Positivity always sounds like someone is selling something.
One of the most convincing testimonials I ever heard came from a friend who had all his teeth pulled to get dentures. He said he never realized how much chronic pain he was in from the inflammation of his infected teeth until they were gone. Sure, his mouth was sore for a while, but his entire body felt better. He said if he’d known what a relief it would be, he would have dealt with it sooner.
His original reason for finally seeing the dentist was to move past this cosmetic issue that was holding him back. He became a true believer when this massive amount of hidden pain left his body.
I originally went back to school because I kept seeing job listings for which I was qualified in every way except that they required a bachelor’s degree. I sat down with a calculator and estimated the monthly payments on my inevitable student loans, realized I could afford them even if I never got a better-paying job, and enrolled. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I understood how much advanced education had changed me. I felt that college taught me how to think, how to research an idea, and how to write in ways that would not have arisen from my previous life.
It paid for itself in the first year, of course, but that was beside the point. I was no longer the same person I had been.
We make decisions because they seem like a good idea at the time, because they seem like the obvious next step, or because “everyone’s doing it.” We don’t usually make decisions thinking: Yes, it is time to transform completely.
When I took my first pink collar office job, all I could think about was the money. Suddenly I was earning triple what I did at the convenience store where I worked the summer after high school. I had no idea that the years of boredom and drudgery would turn me into an efficiency machine. It never occurred to me that I would develop a solid foundation of skills that would benefit me no matter what else I did.
This summer I met a kid, a teenager. He was being homeschooled, and he was going around asking everyone what was the most useful thing they learned in high school. Calculus, said my husband the aerospace engineer. Typing, said I. My typing teacher was the bitterest, most sarcastic and pointlessly mean woman I have ever met in life. She would stand against the wall with her arms crossed over her chest and rant about how naive and lazy we all were. That class was terrible. I just wanted to get through it so I could type letters to my boyfriend. Now I type 100 words per minute and it’s possibly the only skill I learned in high school that I use every day.
Two adults in that conversation said they had never learned to touch-type, and they wished they had. It’s not too late, I said, you can get typing games where you shoot zombies or whatever. Ah, but how many people in their thirties through fifties are really going to set aside three weeks to do something that mundane?
Come on. When I started marathon training, I had to relearn how to tie my shoes.
If you think that’s bad, I’ve known at least three men who had to relearn how to WALK after one catastrophic accident or another.
We’re so, so poor at testing our limits. Everyone has a limit somewhere, but how many of us ever test them out? Have you ever worked a muscle to failure, where you send the mental command to move and your muscle does not respond? It’s tiring, but you can indeed move again the next day. We could all be pushing ourselves so hard and finding out what we’re really made of, but we don’t want to. We’d rather live in our comfy little incubators, snuggling under the heat lamp.
The first time I got on an elliptical trainer at a gym, I’d never seen one before and I just wanted to know what it did. My friends invited me. The next time, I got in a row with them and we pedaled our way on our gossip machines. I moved, I went back to school, I changed gyms. The elliptical became my homework machine, the place I did my reading for history. Then it was the “avoid my ex” machine. Now it’s the place I read the news, and also the place I reset my mood. I keep finding elliptical machines with different programming and different strides, different views and different background music, because although my reasons change, the habit continues to serve.
Our reasons may change for things we do, like journaling, saving money, or staying married. Often our positive habits get cast aside, just because we changed schedules or relocated. It can take five minutes to discard years of what supported and nurtured us, just like bad habits can seem to pop up out of nowhere. Every now and then, it’s good to take stock of what we’re doing, compare it to what we were doing at different points in our lives, and remind ourselves of what works and what doesn’t. No matter what situations we might find ourselves in today, our reasons can change and so can we.
Spending time with a group of people that includes a 40-year spread of ages is so revealing. We were talking about where we were in 2010 and where we see ourselves in 2030. One person said, “Ten years ago, I was fourteen?”
Thank goodness, I thought, I’ll never have to go through my teens or twenties again. My skin alone!
On the other hand, the most senior member of the group was a bit discomfited by the topic. That happens when you perceive yourself to be closer to the end of your life than the beginning, and at sixty-plus that’s statistically true.
(Although such a long way to a 114th birthday, which is possible though still newsworthy).
Younger people tend to be very focused on how they look and whether other people think they are good-looking. Probably because they’ve spent their entire lives being photographed. Middle-aged and elderly people tend to be more accepting, or at least philosophical, about their appearance. It can be relaxing. Older people always think you look young and refreshed.
My experience with becoming middle-aged has been great. My body has been and looked a lot of ways over the years, enough that I know change is not just possible but inevitable.
The trick is that we can conduct body transformation willfully. We can choose to transform our bodies in so many ways.
For some reason, our culture seems to revolve around this suspicion that OTHER PEOPLE ARE STARING and that everyone is J U D G I N G.
OMG who cares
Ride mass transit long enough and you will soon feel like one of the best-looking people of world history. Visit a hospice, or just a nursing home. Just be glad at your relative healthfulness for once.
The trick is to turn inward. Direct your attention away from the external and ask yourself what you think of yourself on the inside. How does it feel to be you, to stand up and walk around as you?
If it looks culturally beautiful but feels physically terrible, then forget about it.
Look at all the paintings of medieval women with high round foreheads, no eyebrows, and big swaying pregnant-looking bellies. That’s what they found attractive. Shave your hairline up to the top of the head, hawt! Then put on a tall pointy hat.
Our century of stiletto heels is one day going to look just as ridiculous. Why did all those people limp around bow-legged, grimacing in pain? Why did they carry their shoes and walk barefoot down the sidewalk on festive occasions? What did they wear for warm outer layers? You can’t convince me they just stood in line shivering in the rain. The archaeological record must simply be missing some key garments.
This is how I feel about whatever supposed social pressure about how my body is supposed to look: Get back to me after you’ve read my monograph.
I read “body acceptance” and “body positivity” now all the time, and what I understand it to mean is “be big enough.” I don’t feel that it literally means “be proud, strong, and muddy.” I truly don’t feel that it means “thin and small is okay too.” I haven’t felt that it includes me or other women like me.
That’s okay, though, because I don’t honestly care that much!
I don’t care because I’ve felt my own body transformations over the years. I have lived a body that is different from one year to the next, sometimes by accident, sometimes through intense bouts of purpose. There is no way I’m going to trade my strong body for a weaker version just because it’s trendy.
Twenty years ago, I wore a clothing size that was six to eight sizes bigger than I wear today. Weirdly, my body weight is only about ten pounds lower. That’s because I dropped about forty pounds of body fat and built about thirty pounds of muscle.
It sounds hard to believe. I should probably dig up some old photos and spreadsheets for documentation. Again, though, it’s my body to live in and inhabit, and my body is not an object for society to critique. It’s my home.
In my early twenties, I was ill. I went to a lot of doctors who did not have a lot of answers. I felt tired and ill all the time. I fainted at the grocery store a couple times. I saw black spots when I walked up a flight of stairs. For a young woman, I felt like an old woman, one who clutched railings.
Now I’m in my forties, old enough to be the mother of my younger self. I feel like I could pick up Younger Me and carry her up the stairs. Maybe not a fireman’s carry but certainly a piggyback.
Younger Me would have been angry and hurt to feel so judged by Today Me. Get up, get up, I want to tell her. Don’t quit! There is still time for you!
I look how I look, she thought, just like I do today. At the time, though, she believed in a fixed body. That how we look is a million percent genetic. That the head of anyone who thinks differently should simply explode, because nothing is stronger than my internal rebellion or determination of my identity, of what counts as me.
It turns out that that same resistant feeling was exactly what I needed to propel me up a lot of hills, along thousands of miles, through hundreds of burpees and all the rest. My rage at anyone who dared tell me about my body or criticize my personal autonomy, that was the fire that consumed Young Me. Stubborn, I found myself a warrior of sorts.
When I was young, I felt just as judged as any other young woman. As an adult, I find it hilarious to walk around covered in mud, or carrying my kali stick. Men, even very very large men, get very squirmy and nervous when they find out I do martial arts. “Just don’t attack me and you’ll be fine,” I say, which usually makes it worse.
Posture is what makes the change. A vertical posture says a lot. A comfortable stance says more. I reside in a strong body and I can use it to do some pretty surprising things. Ten years ago, none of that was true, because I hadn’t yet seized ownership of my identity as a midlife athlete. Today, I feel that I will be stronger at sixty than I was at thirty. I know it will be true because I know how to make decisions and I know how it is done.
After reading his newsletter for years, I got the chance to meet Scott Young this year at World Domination Summit. Hearing him speak got me even more fired up about reading his new book Ultralearning than I had been before. I want to do my own ultralearning project, and I’m taking his advice by planning it first.
Like most people with internet access, I tend to be a dilettante. Dipping in here and there on demand is one of the best things in life. I swear the main reason the internet was invented was to share video proof of cross-species animal interactions. Hardly an evening goes by that my husband and I aren’t leaning our heads together and going “WHOA!!!” I never expected to learn so much about capybaras in my adult life. Probably a lot of us have accidentally found ourselves serious students of... something. Slip-and-fall safety hazard analysis? Lip-syncing techniques? Fashion photography? Real-time descriptive linguistics?
(I used to joke with my parents in middle school that I was “doing my social studies homework” when I was on the phone).
All our internet time has gone to something. Somehow we’ve all adapted along the way. We’re using haptic technology, understanding skeuomorphic icons, picking up new slang, figuring out ways to send each other files that were totally unimaginable twenty years ago, and I know because I can distinctly remember how much I struggled with each of these developments. If I’d set out with a serious plan, thinking “Me learn tek now,” I’m sure I would have wound up on the floor reading graphic novels instead. (Which, if you’re into it, also has a certain onboarding process).
We’re able to do it easily when we think it’s fun, when we don’t think of it as “studying” in the first place. Just like when my husband taught me his method of making a seven-layer dip earlier this year. All I could think about was 1. Why I never knew, through fourteen years of friendship, that he could make this seven-layer dip and 2. How great it would be to have seven-layer dip on demand.
Everything should be like that. It should always feel that obvious just exactly why we would want to learn something new. How great it will be! AHA!
Scott Young himself has picked some really impressive ultralearning projects, which is of course why we care to read his book. First he put himself through a self-taught version of MIT. Then he learned four languages in a year. Then he learned to draw portraits. Then he wrote a book, got it published, and it became a bestseller. Nice! He’s still quite a young guy, so all we can do is to stand back and wonder what he’ll take on next. Building his own house? Becoming a master chef or a chess grandmaster? Black belt in Kung Fu?
This raises the question, if I think all of these projects are cool, would I want to do them myself?
It is a very special moment when it dawns on you that, if something is at all humanly possible, then YOU YOURSELF could learn to do that thing.
For instance, when I started “running” and almost blacked out after one block in my neighborhood, I wasn’t thinking about it. But a couple of years later I was: If millions of people have run a marathon, that’s... 26.2 miles? If millions of people have done it, then I bet I can.” And I did.
I’ve rarely been so happy and excited as the day I first got a hula hoop to spin, except for the day I finally did a headstand a few years later.
Stupid Human Tricks. Those are my forte. I couldn’t do any of this stuff as a little child, but as a middle-aged woman I’m 1. Stubborn enough, 2. Smart enough not to pull this stuff when my mom is watching, and 3. Covered by excellent health insurance. If I want to spend my forties trying to finally do the splits then that is my prerogative.
I’m thinking about an ultralearning project for 2020, and the first place my head goes is toward circus tricks, stunts, and stage magic. Here I thought I would be focusing on academics.
Whatever I choose, once I’ve made a public commitment then I know I will take it extremely seriously. This is, after all, how I generate content for my blog. Otherwise it would be literally nothing but photos of my pets, a list of books I read while lounging around with my pets, and perhaps sandwiches I ate in full view of aforementioned pets.
I like to spend the entire month of December in planning and review. This is because I can’t stand Christmas music and I try not to go out in public until it feels safe. Over the past decades, my New Year’s planning ritual has taken on a life of its own. It helps me to feel like I am living intentionally, finding time to do interesting things, and making sure I have something to show for my time on this planet. It puts a clearly defined timeline with regular reporting dates on my calendar.
Goals that I have chosen in the past tend to expand into three-year projects. I haven’t really gone out of my way in the past to set public three-year goals, mostly because I never feel that I’m making a three-year commitment when I start. It’s just that as I start to delve in, I start to get more and more curious about the subject, and the more curious I am, the more I learn, and the more I learn, the more interesting it gets. Three-year blocks of my life keep passing, one after another. If I’m going to get three years older regardless, I may as well have spent that time learning something that fascinates me.
The question is, how about you? What would you like to learn?
It literally just hit me, with one month to go. We’re not coming up on a new year, we’re coming up on a new decade!
A bit poleaxed by this.
How did this happen? Where did the time go? Am I going to be feeling this same way ten years from now, when I am... *gulp*... 54?
Here I had just been worrying whether I would finish all my resolutions for 2019, and suddenly I’m snapped into a whole next-level perspective.
I spent my twenties being broke, big-time broke, but I somehow managed to finish out that decade of my life with a college degree and a driver’s license. (And a divorce but who’s counting)
Then I spent most of my thirties with my husband. That was an extremely dramatic change from the previous decade of my life. In fact it is helping with this time-shock that I am feeling right now, to think of when he entered my life and the fantastic contrast between His Time and any Time Before. We often say, “I can barely remember what it was like before you came along,” (to our phones) and it feels very true.
Now let’s compare 2009 to 2019.
Um... what else?
2009 was the year I got married again. There probably won’t be as dramatic a change in my life again, unless we get a grandkid (?) or until we retire. That part of things feels solved. For someone who is single, I would say, don’t worry. I hope you always feel that being single is better than being with the wrong person, or being with someone for the wrong reasons. Marriage is either the best thing to ever happen to you, or the worst...
I continue to not own a home. I’ve never bought a house or owned property, and I wonder if I ever will. We’ve moved [counting] eight times since 2009! We’ve also traveled to nine countries together. That part is starting to feel pretty standard. For those who have lived in only one home in the past decade, take a moment to consider that in the context of someone who moves a lot.
Not only do we not own a home, we also don’t own a vehicle. I sold my car shortly after we started dating, and my husband’s pickup died somewhere past 200,000 miles. Then we had a compact car for a while, but it was recalled and we elected not to replace it. That’s something to consider in a ten-year context as well: your main form of transportation.
Ten years ago, I still had a student loan, we were paying for our wedding, and my husband was still paying both alimony and child support. Fast forward to today and we’re debt-free, living in a completely different financial world. (Saving half your income will do that). Ten years is an ideal block of time to consider your finances. Are you on track to be free of any financial burdens that you have today?
Or, realistically, are you going to continue to spend beyond your means, like most people, and find any thoughts of money and debt scary or depressing?
(There’s still time)
Ten years ago, we lived in a suburban house that was roughly 1800 square feet. We had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a yard, and a two-car garage with loft storage. We had two couches and two dining tables. Now we live in a 650-square-foot apartment. We’ve been sub-900-square-feet for the past five years, tiny house territory. We got rid of easily 80% of everything we owned, possibly more like 90%. While it seems weird to imagine having all that stuff again, and I strongly doubt we ever will, we will probably expand into a bit bigger home again within the next decade, more for the yard and a possible guest room than anything else. Also because tiny homes are harder to find!
Ten years ago, my husband was at the same job he’d held for the previous ten years and he thought he would be there at least until his kid finished high school. We had no inkling whatsoever of the direction his career would go only two years later. He’s been sent around the world and he’s working on his fourth patent. He went from a shared cubicle quad to a private office with a door. Me? I went from a basic secretarial role to whatever the heck you call what I do these days. International woman of mystery. Ten years can be a very, very long time on a career trajectory.
Ten years ago, I was unfit, a lifelong non-athlete, homebody, and shy person. Somehow in the past decade I’ve run a marathon, become a Distinguished Toastmaster, self-published a book, visited four continents, climbed a rope, done standup comedy, jumped over open flames, and otherwise completely shocked myself.
I’ve also been bit by a fire ant and gotten into the stinging nettles, sing Hey for a life of adventure...
In 1999, I wore a size 14. In 2009 I wore a size six. In 2019 I wear a size two. Twenty years ago I was a chronically ill, overweight young woman with a brunette pixie cut. Now, weirdly, I am a thin middle-aged lady with long blonde hair, boxing gloves, and a collection of adventure race medals. I look like a completely different person, I have a different name, I live 1000 miles away from where I started, and the only thing I really have in common with myself is my reading habit. Who am I??
Ten years ago, we had our pets, Spike and Noelle, and we were afraid to leave them alone in a room together for even ten seconds. Today, not only is it amazing and a little tearjerking to think they are both still here, but their decade of friendship is something beautiful to behold. He finally let her snuggle him for a couple of minutes the other day, fluffy breast puffed up against his side. We never had anything to be afraid of, other than the day they say goodbye. Whatever else ever happens in our lives together, we’ve had eleven years of the Spike and Noelie Show; we’ve loved them always. Heaven will be the two of them napping side by side forevermore.
Ten years ago, and certainly twenty years ago, I could not have imagined anything about my life today. Not where I lived how I look or my social life or how I spend my time, certainly not the technical innovations that are an ordinary part of my day. Only the love in my heart for my man, my little animals, and my family, that’s all I seem to carry.
What will happen in the next ten years? Where will we be and what will we be doing? Who will still be here and who will not? Will we have said everything we should have said to them? Will we do everything we’ve intended to do, or will we do more, or will we squander the days and years? We’ll burn through them one way or another, so let us burn through them lovingly and with all our hearts.
We continue our tradition of buying nothing and going nowhere the day after Thanksgiving. It’s going well. Three of us are bundled up in blankets on the couch, and Noelie is sunning herself by the window. Time has no meaning for us today. We’re simply relaxing and doing whatever we want.
Apparently the alternative is to get up early, drive around town, and fight other people for bargains?
We went shopping together on this supposed Black Friday once when we were dating. As we idled in traffic at an intersection, we saw something remarkable: One man kneeling on another man’s chest, hands on his throat, while a few bystanders stood there. Our attention was drawn because two pickup trucks were pulled up to the curb, one at a slant, doors hanging open. A road rage incident.
Ahh, the holiday spirit in action!
We did not feel that adding another truck and more people would bring any clarity to this situation. Instead we drove on, making up new lyrics to It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
“...and punching your neighbor and drinking some beeeeeerrrr...”
Since then, we’ve let go of not just shopping on Black Friday, but owning a vehicle and driving as well. Hanging out at home for Buy Nothing Day has spoiled us.
Bargains are not bargains. Usually a sale or a coupon is the retail price of something, artificially inflated and then “dropped” to make it look cheaper. Sometimes it’s a functionally obsolete item, shunted to the side to make room for the new version that’s about to fill the shelves. It’s never a bargain if it leads to months or years of credit card debt. We know this, right?
Whatever we buy, we add sales tax, and then we multiply by the interest rate that we are paying on credit. Then we subtract that from our post-tax paycheck. The quick version of this is to estimate that we have to earn two dollars for every dollar we spend. That is no bargain.
The pressure is off in my family. We agreed that instead of exchanging gifts, we would put that budget toward visiting each other. We also sponsor a family, bringing them gifts and groceries, keeping them in sheets and towels and that sort of thing. Our family holiday spirit revolves around games rather than piles of packages.
I just challenged my mom to online Scrabble. Do you think she’ll play me?
Shopping is hard for a minimalist. Not that we’re no good at buying things, just that it’s hard for others to shop for us. This is especially true if they’ve seen our apartment.
Nice, thank you for the lovely gift, now where in tarnation are we going to put it??
This is why, when we get a package, it usually consists of a parrot toy and a bag of dog treats. These are things that are guaranteed to get used, and they also have some fun value.
Part of why we’re staying home today is that our dog’s days are numbered. He supposedly had only a few weeks to live as of Thanksgiving 2018, yet somehow, magically, he is still here and having a pretty good day. We are in the existentially fraught situation where we literally have to compare a “bargain” to a snuggle day at home with him.
That’s technically true for everyone, but we forget.
And it’s not just true for our pets, either.
I think of all the times I’ve been out shopping with someone, and we come home tense and tired after fighting traffic, bad weather, long lines, and slow walkers. We’re seduced by an endless stream of marketing material into thinking that buying things will be jolly and spiritually fulfilling. Then we go out and try to do it and discover that the process is hollow and exhausting.
While we were in line, were we getting what we came for? Love and togetherness?
Does the shopping and the debt really translate into caring and affection?
Is this what happiness feels like? Joy and delight?
Honestly I don’t think all of us know the difference. We’re going for dopamine instead of oxytocin. Shopping expeditions are sometimes the only way that families and friends know how to relate to each other, the only way to have a good time.
This is part of where compulsive acquisition comes from. My hoarders may be out shopping with family multiple times a week. Part of the habit is justified by stocking up on gifts, gifts that may pile up for years without actually being given to the intended recipient. There’s always a special pile of gifts received and still in the original wrapping. Sometimes they have the year written on the tag so you can see how far back they go.
That’s where our bargains go, sometimes. They go into a hoarded pile on someone’s dining table or into their closet. All that shopping and wrapping, for what?
This is why it’s so hard for me to find an exchange of gifts very interesting. I can’t help but see all this stuff in the context of thrift stores, yard sales, and hoarding. What was the exciting gift of one holiday season will inevitably be shabby a few years later. The constant churning of consumer preference creates, as part of its nature, tackiness and unwearable colors and dated fashions that cause us to burst into laughter. They were all desirable one year and a complete joke not long after.
That could actually make a fun party idea! Everyone show up wearing a thrift store outfit from an earlier era and wrap up a white elephant gift from a different decade. Throw a potluck using all the dusty kitchen appliances from the back of the cabinet. Make a game out of identifying weird unitaskers, the single-use gadgets that fill so many drawers and closets. Then see if anyone will be willing to take it off your hands.
That sounds like work to me right now, though. I’m going to continue lounging around in my pajamas until noon and then see how much cranberry sauce I can fit in my lunch. This is Slack Friday, after all, and I’m not convinced I’m slacking hard enough.
I was picking up my library holds when the librarian noticed that I had some vegan cookbooks. “I have some vegans and vegetarians coming over for Thanksgiving,” she told me. I didn’t know what to make of her; she had a somewhat dour expression and spoke slowly. “It’s such a relief,” she continued, “I hate having to cook a turkey!” It was the first time I saw her smile.
While there are undoubtedly at least a few relieved cooks and hosts out there, many of us may be alarmed or annoyed that an alternative guest is coming. A refusenik! An ingrate! Like we don’t have enough to do. What a burden, how rude and selfish and unfair.
As if everyone else around the table wasn’t holding out an empty plate, expecting to be fed like so many gaping chicks in a nest.
We tolerate picky eaters as long as they only make horrid faces, call everything ICKY and YUCKY and GROSS, and rant at length about The Texture and every other detail of a perfectly fine meal. It’s fine if you’re merely picky; that’s a personality trait. But if you choose to do it on purpose!
Like from a food sensitivity!
Geez man, just choke it down and go to the hospital later. That’s what I’d do.
We’re alienated by each other’s demands around the table. We don’t see our own needs or preferences in that light, those of us who refuse to eat, let’s see, what have I heard from supposed omnivores?
Any kind of sauce
Anything with a speck in it, like whole-grain pasta
Anything that touches something from another part of the plate
Raw carrots, although cooked are fine
Onions, only raw or only cooked
Soup, any kind, or just chunky soup, or just a bisque
Individually: eggplant, mushrooms, squash, cabbage, pumpkin, cauliflower, sweet potato, et cetera
I’ve cooked for groups including all kinds of sensitivities and weird preferences, and weird preferences masked as sensitivities. From my perspective, everyone has at least one food that they absolutely will not eat, under any circumstances. No sense blaming anyone for it. We have a historically unprecedented access to a vast array of foods from every region on the earth, from every culture, with spices that used to cost a king’s ransom.
Salt! Black pepper! Lemons! Oranges! Cinnamon! Saffron even!
The fact that we feel perfectly free to reject food, shove it around the plate, leave it to be scraped into the trash, is an extravagance of abundance. We aren’t fighting each other over the last withered turnip and that is magnificent.
BTW if you’ve never tried turnips, you totally should. They’re fantastic, much nicer than ordinary potatoes, especially baked in the oven.
Anyway. In this year of grace two thousand nineteen, there is no way that any holiday table is going to have a standard set of completely standard diets. Someone is going to have a special need, and those of us who like to cook and play the host are going to have to learn how to accommodate it. Consider it next-level hospitality, an opportunity to experiment.
How do we manage? How do we avoid putting our friends in to anaphylaxis or violating their spiritual principles?
The first thing is that there must be no trickery. We must agree not to lie to anyone about what is or is not in a dish. That is against the concept of free will.
I admit that I did this once, when I was making the pies and everyone else was running errands and the cat jumped on the table and started licking the pie crust. I chased him off, but I couldn’t remember which pie he had his face in, and there was no time to make another one and the store was already closed for the day. I figured the heat of the oven would destroy any cat germs in the pie, shrugged, and carried on like it hadn’t happened. Everyone ate the pie and nobody got ill. It was years before I confessed.
If you don’t think someone should trick you into eating cat-lick pie, then don’t trick other people about their food either.
Second thing: avoid cross-contamination. Each dish gets its own serving utensil. Each pot and pan has its own ladle or its own flipper or whatever.
Next, a lot of dishes can be made in such a way that a taboo ingredient can be left out for one serving, then added in for everyone else. Shredded cheese, butter, or breadcrumbs are a few examples. My mom used to save a raw carrot for me when she made candied carrots, and the same with the yams from the candied yams. (Not raw but not covered in brown sugar and marshmallows, either). It’s a simple yet unforgettable gesture of love, an act of service as well as a gift.
As a cook and a foodie, I love to experiment with new recipes. I tend to favor the exotic, with complicated spice blends and fruity sauces and tons of condiments. I married a man who likes foods to be simple. Why make wasabi mashed potatoes when you can just have regular mashed potatoes? It remains hard for me to fathom, but most people gravitate to the simple and unadorned, the exact foods that I find bland, boring, and sometimes completely inedible. I’ve learned to keep the sauces in a bowl, to leave most of my sides predictable and standard. This is also the way to make it easy for guests with special needs to know what they can and can’t put on their plate.
Interestingly, most standard dishes can easily be made both vegan and gluten-free. (Salads, potatoes, certain grains, all side vegetables, drinks, some desserts). I’ve done plenty of five-course meals that are corn-free, yeast-free, canola-free, or whatever the need is for that day. It’s only hard when we feel martyred, that it is not fair for this person to “refuse” to shut up and eat what everyone else is eating. When we see it as a chance to be magnanimous, to lavish generosity on someone, to show that ours is a welcoming home, well then, it turns out not to be such a big deal.
Ultimately, it can be the most hospitable just to allow our guests with special needs to bring their own food. We can set aside a clean dish and a clean serving utensil. We can lay it out and label it in such a way that it isn’t accidentally consumed by those who can eat everything. We can smooth the process and carry on with the party, making it a non-issue.
The social problem of incompatible diets is not going to go away. If anything, this is the tip of the iceberg. More people are going to get laboratory testing and find out that they shouldn’t be eating certain specific things. Next it might be our own turn. As hosts and cooks, we may as well start adapting now, knowing we are learning vital skills that our own families and closest friends may need. We can show ourselves to be generous and hospitable, our homes warm and welcoming, our tables the places to be. We can laugh it off and everyone can have a good time.
I caved. I looked at too many fridge pinups and I ordered some fridge organizers. For years I’ve thought this was one of the dumbest interior design trends of the century, a frivolous waste of time. Really, who is looking in our refrigerators besides the people who live here?
Then I realized that I’m the only one who always knows where everything is, and that I could automate away the necessity of giving fridge directions to anyone. Where is the margarine? Why, it’s on the top shelf behind the chard, of course!
In honor of Thanksgiving, I thought I would redo our fridge as a nice little surprise for my husband. As an engineer he finds this sort of thing more compelling than I do.
November and December are the months when I try to plan meals around what we already have on hand. A lot of the jars that find their way into our fridge come without expiration dates. If I don’t write the date of purchase on them, which I rarely do, then I am unlikely to remember how long they’ve been in there. Having an almost entirely empty fridge on New Year’s Eve means that at least nothing is older than a year.
I work with hoarding and squalor, and I’ve helped to clean out fridges where scary things came out. “Do you want some hummus from 2005?,” I text my husband, and he replies in a way that I can’t share here. There are often jars and bottles seven years old or more.
Separated salad dressings. Runny mustards. Olives with suspicious films floating on top. Crispy soy sauce. White celery and brown lettuce. Rare and special shades of aqua and pink and orange.
My people don’t believe in germ theory, but I do. I can’t help but make the connection between their invariably poor health and the fact that almost all the food hoard in their kitchens is old, old and expired, old and expired and often leaking. They haven’t eaten it yet and they never intend to, but they’ll never get rid of it. They need a sort of barricade as the wallpaper to their lives. Once it’s in place they can safely ignore it.
If you are alive right now, I tell them, then you have always had absolutely everything you needed. QED. You made it. You survived.
We all try to argue against this but we can’t. We have survived as well as or better than the sparrows in the parking lot. We’re still here. If we’ve managed to do it without having to open our stores of expired food, then we don’t need them. If we’ve managed it without opening our various boxes of clutter, then we don’t need them either.
But my anxiety! What am I supposed to do with that?
Live with it, I suppose?
I have a jar, my fairy jar. In it is the sum total of all the pennies and other coins I’ve picked up in the past 15 years. There’s about $200 in there now. I used to struggle with wanting to keep a lot of extra food in my pantry, but now I just keep the fairy jar. I know if an endless series of crises came to our home, and all our savings disappeared, and we had both been out of work for months, I know we could open the jar and use the contents to buy a carload of fine groceries.
24/7. There are groceries available near me every minute of the day, even on holidays.
I don’t have to keep a bulging pantry any more. It’s okay for my fridge to be empty sometimes. Every time that has happened, I’ve been able to go out and fill it back up.
Well, every time in the past 15 years, anyway...
This is part of what bothers me about the expired food hoards that I keep finding, home after home. A month or two before the expiration date, that household could have donated all of those packaged nonperishables to a food pantry. They could have been distributed and eaten by people who really don’t have enough to get by. I’ve been there myself and I know that even a single can of soup can make a difference.
Instead they will eventually, inevitably, get thrown out. I’ve had to throw out rusty food cans and dissolving cardboard food packages lots of times, when we’re clearing out storage units or space clearing unusable kitchens. Such a waste.
This is why I’ve finally given in to the trend of extreme fridge organization. It’s a simple way to avoid wasting food.
Most households have pretty scary fridges. Perfectly lovely restaurant leftovers wind up getting thrown out instead of becoming someone’s nice lunch. Expensive condiments spoil and get rinsed down the sink. Households like mine wind up with two open jars of capers, three mustards, and five salad dressings.
Then, when it comes time for any holiday, but especially Thanksgiving, we can’t find anywhere to put the leftovers. It adds another layer of hard labor to what could have been fairly straightforward.
I’m cheating this year, like I did for the last two. I ordered a meal with all the sides from a restaurant. All we have to do is pick up two paper bags, empty them into the fridge, and then heat them up on Thursday when we’re ready to eat. I can picture just what this looks like, and I know how much space we’ll need.
The truth is that all our meals are really this predictable. We eat pretty much the same dozen meals over and over again, and the portions are pretty much the same every time. This is why our refrigerators could easily be as orderly as anything else in our lives.
Why have an appliance in our homes that is reliably full of dubious food and bad smells? Why have to dig around and hunt for stuff when we want it? Why not take a little time and find some fridge freedom for ourselves?
She claims it really happened.
Our friend is from Thailand, and she went home to spend some time with her grandma. During her visit, they went to a temple in Chiang Mai where wishes are granted. It works like this. You make a sincere wish and bring an elaborate floral arrangement to the temple. Then the goddess grants your wish.
She won’t tell us what her wish was, but she says it came true.
I tried to guess, without actually probing her privacy. Let’s see. She’s already finished school and she’s working at her dream job in her dream career. She was currently on what looked like a pretty incredible and fun vacation. She still has her youth and her health. What could she wish for? True love? A home of her own? A wedding? Ooooh, I hope it’s a wedding!
We’ve been a bit fixated on this ever since. Not whether our sweet-natured young friend is going to get married and have a baby, nah. The wish-granting thing!
What if there really WAS a place where you could go and make a wish that you knew 100% would come true?
What would you wish for?
Obviously two people of means who enjoy world travel are going to have to go to this particular temple, just to see it in person. Just like if we went to Ireland I would feel compelled to kiss the Blarney Stone. What if… what if it worked??
Or what if almost all wishes were really pretty mundane and easy to make come true?
What if most of us are simply in a conflicted state, where we both want something and want not to have it at the same time?
I honestly think this is the problem, and there are countless do-want/don’t-want situations.
Take grad school for example. Most people probably do not wish to enroll in graduate school and study for a master’s degree. I’m a little obsessed with the idea. I’m also sure that if I did go, I would graduate, and I would have a strong chance at magna cum laude. So why don’t I do it?
Three reasons. 1. I wouldn’t choose anything that would lead directly to a job, so it wouldn’t pay for itself, and that’s quite a lot of debt. 2. There are at least three separate and distinct fields that interest me, and I still can’t make up my mind which one I would choose. 3. I haven’t been in a math class since early 1993, and I believe I would have to do a year of remedial mathematics just to pass the GRE.
Therefore, I don’t wish my wish.
I guess I sorta wish that grad school was free, that I was a math whiz, or that I could talk my way in without having to pass calculus. Those are neat wishes that I know are not as realistic as Paying What It Costs or Doing What It Actually Takes.
I don’t need there to be a special wish-granting temple to go to grad school. I would just need to make a decision and then spend some time with some math tutorials.
What are some other common conflicts that stop us from making a heartfelt wish?
A new job! I can’t count how many people I know who actively hate their current job yet have no plans to look for a new one. As much as they would prefer to work somewhere else, they:
Don’t want to update their resume
Don’t want to spend even five minutes thinking about work while they are at home
Don’t want to buy an interview outfit at their current size
Are close enough to retirement that it feels like less work to stay put
Don’t want to spend months applying for jobs or trying to schedule secret interviews
The more we know about the specific process of making our wish come true, the less we want to move forward and do it! Every wish touches on some other area where we would need a fresh new wish. It’s like shampooing your carpet only to feel like you need a new couch.
Dating is another example. I know a lot of single people who could easily be in a relationship. They’re fun and they basically have their lives together. There’s always something, though. One of my friends doesn’t really want to meet someone because it would mean moving and she just loves her apartment too much. Another is so afraid she might meet a serial killer that she doesn’t want to go on a date. Alas, the love of your life is indeed going to be a total stranger the first time you meet… I think the biggest destroyer of incipient new love, though, is poor body image. Don’t look at me, I’m not ready to be loved yet.
Not yet! Not yet! Don’t grant my wish yet!
Because I need to be photo-ready, because I want to rehearse my acceptance speech first, because I haven’t figured out precisely what I want down to the carpet tacks. Because I guess I don’t really want anything different after all.
Take your wish and stuff it in a garbage sack and haul it out back to the dumpster, because I don’t want a wish!
Maybe we’ve spent too long listening to the naysayers. Maybe we’re one internet search and ten minutes away from finding out that our true wish is much easier and cheaper than we had believed, just like I found out that my dream desktop computer cost less than half what I thought it would. Maybe our wishes are planted so deeply inside of us that there is nothing we can do to stop them. Maybe our wishes will be granted so quickly that we find ourselves on our knees weeping big sloppy tears.
All right then. If you knew you’d get your wish, what would you wish for?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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