Ryan Holiday has mastered the art of making the wisdom of antiquity sound and feel current. It’s incredible to think how many fantastic books he has already written, and even more so to think that they just keep leafing out of him like a fruit tree. Stillness is the Key to his writing prowess and your autumn reading list.
Stillness is hardly a hip, cutting-edge quality. It’s the missing piece we had no idea we were missing. One might think that in an age when apps and labor-saving appliances can do everything for us, we’d have copious leisure time that we could use to cultivate tranquility. Instead it seems that the faster we can go, the slower we feel we’re going.
I have a robot vacuum cleaner and a personal secretary in my pocket that can take dictation. Does this help me feel peace of mind? Laws, no. Why not, though?
Holiday has answers for this, timeless answers that paradoxically make even more sense now than they did in the past. (Isn’t it funny that a man who advocates for stillness goes through life with the name ‘Holiday’?) Take the time to pause and reflect. Take the time to remind yourself of your values and whether you are living up to yourself. Take care of yourself before you burn out.
At one point in the book, Holiday discusses having a higher power. I always thought it was funny that so many people get hung up on this, because to me it is a one hundred percent secular and rational concept. Most powers are higher than me, and I couldn’t be more grateful. When I get my teeth cleaned, my dental hygienist is my higher power. When I read a book, both the author and the publisher are higher powers, powers that do things I cannot do. I also don’t have to make the plants grow, take charge of gravity, or even remind myself to breathe when I’m asleep. Of course my puny human mind is not the highest power! Why would anyone think that, or want that?
Stillness is the Key to so many good things in life. Whatever you are missing, if you’re modern, it’s probably sleep, time for strategic thinking, and tranquility among everything else. This is a great companion, a book to carry around with you or keep next to your bed, a book to read when you could use a pause from the business of everyday life.
We sign up for endless activities and obligations, chase money and accomplishments, all with the naïve belief that at the end of it will be happiness.
Who is so certain that they’ll get another moment that they can confidently skip over this one?
Both egotistical and insecure people make their flaws central to their identity—either by covering them up or by brooding over them or externalizing them.
I wasn’t the one who brought it up. It’s true that I’m on a sleep quest this year, but it’s my own private thing. The topic of human hibernation came up in the context of weight loss. Someone was talking about how nice it would be to just go into a coma for six months and wake up at your goal weight. Then everyone got excited about the idea of sleeping for a year.
I mentioned Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and of course everyone wanted to read it, because for women the idea of sleeping for a year is the ultimate fantasy.
We were laughing pretty hard when a latecomer arrived, and we explained that we were talking about sleeping for a year. “Oh!” she said, “there’s a novel about that,” and we laughed even harder. “See? I didn’t make it up.”
We figured out the details: Go to sleep for a year. While you’re knocked out, have all your dental work done, get waxed, schedule a three-hour balayage session, design a full-body tattoo, whatever other boring or painful treatments you might want. Time it to miss all the election cycle news. (Maybe wake up just in time to vote).
Seriously, though. Assuming it were possible, what would it be like to sleep the year away?
Note that everyone in the discussion was a single woman, except for me, and, like everyone else, I don’t have kids. My stepdaughter is turning 25 and she’s been living on her own for years. I can easily understand why any parent with kids at home would be tired enough to want to sleep for a year, but it would be really hard to miss a year of their lives!
Being able to sleep for a year indicates that there are no four-alarm fires that you personally need to handle. Presumably even a surgeon or an EMT has days off when other people are on duty. Most of us aren’t literally responsible for life-or-death situations, we just cultivate our stress levels as if we are.
Does that feel true? Are our exhaustion, stress, and burnout levels really so chronically high that we might even be more tired than emergency room people?
First we have to imagine ourselves in a context in which none of our stress is helpful to society or to ourselves. We have to imagine that, yes, the world can go on without us if we roll over and fluff our pillows.
Then we have to imagine that waking up fully rested and restored would in fact deliver a better version of ourselves. That we could handle our daily routine again in good cheer, knowing we finally did not feel tired.
I know what I would do, if I did it. Assuming my husband was called away on some special mission to Mars and we couldn’t even communicate while he was gone, that I could sleep for a year and not hurt anyone’s feelings, I think I know what I would do.
I’d spend a day getting ready, cleaning out my fridge and putting all my bills on auto-pay. (Maybe I’d see if someone would stow my slumbering body on a little cot in their garage so I didn’t have to pay rent). Sleep for a year, no household chores or errands or cooking or laundry, right?
I’d get rid of all my clothes, assuming they wouldn’t fit the same when I woke up, and who would want that? Maybe keep one baggy sundress to wear to the store when I woke up to replenish my wardrobe.
I’d get rid of all my books, assuming that I’d be no more likely to read them a year from now than I have been so far. It’s not like there aren’t plenty more books out there for when I wake up.
I’d chuck any unread mail, knowing it wouldn’t be my problem a year from now. I don’t owe anyone any money. As long as someone else is taking my pets to the vet, and I’ve got my coma-appointments scheduled for dental work, et cetera, what is possibly coming in through snail mail that will concern me?
What the heck is actually on my to-do list? Does any of it truly need to get done? By me?
Hmm, what else is there?
I guess I’d have to tell people I wasn’t taking calls. Put a disclaimer in an auto-respond email message and change my voicemail. Hi, I’m sleeping until 2021, please don’t leave a message, try me again after I come out of hibernation.
What if this were a natural human biological process, like it is for bears and other animals? What if we all did it at different times? Nobody would be surprised or care that someone was busy pupating or whatever. “I can’t come to the phone right now. I’m emerging from my chrysalis.”
Imagine waking up. Imagine having simply gone to bed for a year, no loose ends and nothing to worry about. What would happen next?
This is a serious question. What would you do tomorrow if you felt fully rested, you had no incomplete tasks, and you understood that you had a clean slate and you could do whatever you wanted?
The truth is that we can basically do this for real any time we like. We are not indentured servants. We can always change jobs, move, consolidate our debts, and/or transform our bodies. We can cut off toxic, draining relationships and go on without them. We can do it all, and we don’t actually need to put ourselves in a coma to do it.
The funniest thing about the idea of sleeping for a year is that, partway into it, you’d start feeling rested enough to no longer feel an urgent need to sleep for a year. How long would that take? Eleven months? One month? Three nights?
It’s a good experiment. Set a bedtime alarm and go to bed at 9:00 pm for a few days. Try it out and see how it feels. Clear your schedule and nap all weekend. Maybe you won’t be tired any more, or maybe you’ll want to keep going for the gold medal and sleep for a year after all.
People often ask me if I eat wheat. This has been going on for, oh, fifteen years? It used to surprise me, because I’m vegan and most people agree that wheat is a plant. At the time, there weren’t many other commonly-known dietary restrictions and it seemed unusual to link my plant-based diet with something more medical in nature. Now, of course, everyone knows what gluten-free means, and it’s more obvious that we are natural allies. That’s why I often cook GF food for my friends.
It isn’t a big deal. I have empathy for the recently gluten-departed because I remember what it was like (and often still is like):
Spending an extra hour at the grocery store just to read ingredients
Going to parties where you can’t eat the food
...and then people keep asking you about it
Having to bring your own food to a gathering, only for others to nitpick it
Going out to dinner and finding nothing on the menu
Communicating with uninterested or actively hostile waitstaff
Getting food that still has something you can’t eat, no matter how carefully you explain
Feeling excluded and resented
Listening as other people put words in your mouth or question your motives
Being “told” you have an eating disorder by random uncredentialed bystanders
There are certainly other groups who feel excluded from social or business settings that involve food, and they know what I mean when I sum up the attitude:
“Eat bacon, eat pizza, drink beer, or get out.”
People are basically like, if you don’t eat the exact same foods that I do, I have no interest in being your friend. And I’m like, but what about sense of humor and taste in music??
Oh well, their loss.
When I meet people who have recently quit eating gluten, I know just what to do. Most of my diet is GF anyway, because almost all baked goods fall outside of the category of what I consider food for humans. I, too, feel cruddy after I eat ordinary foods like white bread or bagels or pizza crust. It’s basically glue. I don’t have a problem with gluten, I have a problem with industrial foods in general.
I don’t refuse to eat these things. It’s more like I walk on by and they don’t exist to me.
Other people may feel a similar feeling when they contemplate eating foods like black licorice, or pineapple on pizza, or soggy cornflakes, or whatever else they think is kinda gross and uninteresting. Baby food, there’s your example. I can watch other (small) people eating baby food all day and not mind, not feel like it applies to me or that I’m missing out. It just... isn’t for me.
Nobody minds if I don’t eat a dinner roll or a croissant or a bagel or a muffin or whatever. Nobody is required to eat anything off a buffet. Any host who pushes past a “no, thank you” to find out why a guest is not eating a specific thing is setting themselves up for an awkward moment. Nobody needs that.
Not that that stops them...
I mean, I AM an animal at the zoo, here for everyone’s third-degree pleasure, am I not?
I’ll never forget being invited for a holiday meal - a stranger who couldn’t afford to fly home - and having twelve people question me about my lifestyle as I resorted to eating the entree I had to cook for myself. Wouldn’t you all rather exchange book recommendations or play Never Did I Ever or something?
It’s a dynamic that always ends poorly. The interlocutor feels like they’re doing their best to engage and take an interest. The newly different, and probably quite hungry, person with the non-traditional culinary habit feels defensive and isolated. Everyone involved would be better off switching to another topic, yet for some reason they don’t. The one who would really like a nice hot meal that doesn’t make them ill, comes across as annoying, preachy, and socially “not a good cultural fit for this office.” The “normal” person comes off like a bully.
A bully with a cold table and a harsh home.
There, I said it.
I love to cook, and I love to cook for large groups. I will never stop bursting with pride when, inevitably, my potluck offering is cleared before anyone else’s dish - and sometimes before I can turn around with a serving spoon. I see it as a basic component of hospitality to offer a crowd-pleasing spread. I don’t see cooking gluten-free as any more complicated than anything else. In point of fact, there are all sorts of foods that are both vegan and gluten-free that anyone would eat, such as watermelon, corn on the cob, or bean dip.
Try as I might, I still get picky eaters. “Normal” people take zero accountability for how picky they can be. They will patently refuse to try any dish with a food they don’t like, sometimes even if they’ve never tasted it in their life. They’ll pick around something like sweet potato or escarole, and nobody ever gives them any flack for their demonstrably restrictive dietary habits.
We’re only in trouble if we do it for medical or philosophical reasons, or, really any other consistent purpose. The only socially acceptable reason not to eat something is because you just don’t like it and you think it’s icky.
Personally I think it’s my right as a consumer to eat or not eat whatever I choose, and it’s the right of any business in a free market to sell and serve it to me.
I also think it’s the right of my friends and acquaintances to eat or not eat, end of story. If they aren’t hungry, if they’re doing intermittent fasting, if they just had dental work done, if they’re embarrassed about their table manners, how can I care? If this is a person I want to feel welcome and comfortable, I’m going along with whatever they need.
This is why I’ll always accommodate my gluten-free friends. I have nearly thirty years of experience scrutinizing labels and reading the ingredients of the ingredients. I already know to use separate serving utensils and prep things on a clean cutting board. There are also plenty of convenience foods I can quickly throw in my cart or pop out of the freezer. It’s fun to watch my gluten-free friends’ faces light up when the realization dawns that they can trust me, they can enjoy a fine hot meal, and they can feel safe to come over and do it again another time. Gluten-free friends are grateful friends!
Have you ever had a bad houseguest? It’s okay, you can tell me.
I’ve had a bunch, because I’ve had a lot of roommates over the years, because we used to host a lot of Couchsurfers, and because we tend to like an open house. It helps to make a person patient and flexible. The more people who are around, the more likely that some of them are more demanding than others.
The one who left huge clumps of hair in the drain every day. The one who left their notifications on high volume and got pinged several times an hour, all night long. The one who basically ate everything in the fridge, freezer, and pantry. The one who rearranged the furniture while we were gone. The one who invited a bunch of people over, one of whom looked at me when I came home and asked, “Who are you?”
Um, I live here? And who are YOU?
We have to ask our stuff the same questions that we would ask of a bad houseguest.
What are you still doing here?
When are you planning to leave?
Am I your personal maid or were you ever planning to pitch in a little?
You wouldn’t believe the stuff I’ve seen, both in photos and in home visits. Piles of stuff covering half the bed, so the owner only has a little sliver to sleep on. Piles of stuff covering most of the couch. Piles of stuff blocking doorways, blocking the stairs.
If this were a person, we’d be inclined to say, “Excuse me but could you please MOVE?”
When it’s our stuff, it blends into the background, taking over the joint while we just make our own space smaller and try to ignore it.
Stuff doesn’t just hog the couch or bogart the dining room table. It leaves the kitchen and bathroom a mess, has no intention of cleaning up after itself in the laundry room, and furthermore, it’s taking over the garage.
Sometimes it even rents out a storage unit and starts billing you for it.
If stuff were a person, we’d be writing to advice columns about it. People all over the country would be reading it over coffee and dropping their jaws. Oh my gosh what next?? The nerve of some people! Then what did they do??
Stuff can be so outrageous that way.
It doesn’t earn its keep.
It never helps out around the house.
It has no intention of ever getting up off the couch.
It has no future plans or goals.
It will just sit there and let you do all the work, no problem.
It will expect you to step around it and it’s never going to move itself out of your way.
It doesn’t care if it sets a bad example for your kids.
It doesn’t care if it embarrasses you in front of your friends.
It doesn’t care if it gets into your photos and messes up your shots.
It’s happy to let you pay for all the household expenses, and it will never pitch in.
It’s never going to cook you dinner.
It’s never going to walk your dog.
It’s just going to make your life difficult until you finally decide to do something about it.
What’s going on in our heads when we tolerate an annoying situation? I can tell you what I’ve thought when I’ve had bad houseguests. “She’s having a tough time right now.” “It’s only for a few more days.” “Our dog loves them.” “Well, they didn’t set anything on fire.”
I had a supposed roommate when I was 19. He moved in, and not only did he never pay any rent, not one dollar, but he also ran up my long-distance phone bill and refused to pay it. I had a two-bedroom apartment, and the rent was about 80% of my income at the time. I couldn’t afford to carry both of us, nor should I have had to, since this guy was just a friend of a friend.
I felt bad for him, though, and I didn’t want to make my friend mad, and I believed all his stories about why he quit or got fired and all the interviews and new job opportunities he had coming up. It never crossed my mind to just say, “Pack your stuff,” and get a different roommate who would actually pay.
Finally my boyfriend got mad for me and took action for me. He even found me a replacement roommate, a friend of his who needed a place.
I had a typical young person’s passive attitude, not realizing that a lot of things were my responsibility because not long ago, “real adults” handled those things in my life. I focused on the stuff a teenager would focus on. It didn’t cross my mind that nobody else was in charge.
Sadly, a lot of “real adults” have the same attitude even when they are decades older than I was in those days. They don’t notice things in their situation or their environment because it hasn’t occurred to them that nobody else is in charge.
What things? Things like falling into debt, missing tax deadlines, leaking pipes, infestations of insects or rodents, mold, asymmetrical power dynamics, or, of course, piles of clutter.
What, you mean all that stuff is up to me to deal with?? What are you saying??
Taking full accountability can be very painful at first. It requires a perimeter check.
Going to the dentist after several years, checking bank balances and figuring out how much you owe to how many lenders, writing a list of overdue action items and understanding how much work it will be to dig out. Getting a bunch of bags and boxes and starting to haul clutter out the door. Setting boundaries with people, including those pesky bad roommates and houseguests.
It’s a good thing, though. Clarity about what to do is a huge part of finding motivation. What do I do next? This, this, and this. Clarity leads to solid boundaries, and boundaries lead to peace of mind.
Is your stuff being a bad houseguest? What are you going to do about it?
I finally tried flying on a Basic Economy fare. It was easier than I thought, but still I’d probably do it differently next time. Here’s what it was like.
I planned a last-minute trip with a friend. Because of the time of year and the location, not only was I able to fly on the same days that she did, I was even able to get on the same flights! This is particularly interesting because I booked my trip with reward points.
(The points came from my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and we flew United. This is relevant because apparently United is the strictest with the special rules of Basic Economy).
A regular fare was double the number of points as the Basic Economy fare, or an extra $200+ in cash. This matters to me, and in fact I felt excited that no-frills travel is so much cheaper. I’m an ideal candidate because:
I did my research before packing. I knew from travel scuttlebutt that airlines are strict about this type of fare, that not all carriers offer it, and that the rules vary and change over time. Any deviation was likely to cost me money and possibly also time.
I hate spending more money than I have to, but I also tend to cut my arrival time to the wire. I’m rarely in a situation when I can afford to add even fifteen or twenty minutes to my time cushion. In nearly forty years of flying, I’ve never missed a flight, and I don’t intend to start now.
Especially not due to my luggage, of all things!
My research indicated that under Basic Economy, I couldn’t choose my seat. I literally do not care. I’m that rare creature, a middle seat person, anyway.
I couldn’t choose to sit next to my travel partner(s). Eh. We planned to sleep on the way east, so it didn't matter. We are currently sitting side by side on the return trip, which either says something about boarding last or about the enduring niceness of American Midwesterners. Either way, this restriction doesn’t bother me much because when I’m traveling with someone, we’re already planning to be together on the trip. What’s a brief break when we’re likely napping, reading, or watching a movie anyway?
I wouldn’t get a meal. Eh. Again, I was planning to sleep one way, and we never get fed during the westward leg regardless. I know what types of food travel well.
Most importantly in the list of restrictions that made this fare half-price, my fare would not include any bags! No checked bag (yawn) and no carry-on either! I could bring one solitary personal item, smaller than the original dimensions that were allowed when this type of fare debuted.
If this personal item was too large, I would have to pay not only the $30 checked bag charge, but a $25 handling fee on top. Bags are routinely weighed and measured.
This part interested me. I texted my friend about it and she utterly did not believe me! We went back and forth over it for a while. I offered to pay the $30 to check one large suitcase that we could both share, and that settled the matter.
Under these conditions, paying to check a bag was a good deal.
I’m not in love with the idea of paying $60 round-trip for luggage, but it was significantly cheaper than paying the extra $200 for a regular economy ticket. It was also cheaper than buying new outfits and paying to ship them home.
Some friends, roommates, or siblings might split the cost, sharing the bag and each paying for one leg of the trip. I covered the whole thing, partly because it was mostly my stuff and partly because my friend was covering the rental car. Obviously a romantic couple is likely to be sharing expenses, or figuring out how to do so in a way that makes sense, which fighting over money does not.
The suitcase that I brought was the only piece of luggage that I own that was large enough to share. My husband bought it for a three-week work trip, and it physically holds his entire work wardrobe. It is comically vast and its geometry is such that it comes up to my waist. At its fullest, it weighed 45 pounds, only a bit less than the weight limit for one bag.
This is the main reason why I would avoid paying to check a bag the next time I fly Basic Economy. The bag itself was a monster, an annoying burden that had to be hauled on and off the shuttle twice and hoisted into the back of the rental vehicle.
Going any smaller raises the question of why I couldn’t just make it happen with the personal item.
The current dimensions of the Basic Economy personal item are those of a daypack, a typical school backpack for a high school or college student. I found that packing it too full and putting too much in the front pocket made it expand past the allowed dimensions. Risky!
Depending on the weather and the length of the trip, I’m quite sure I could make this type of bag work for, say, three days. Then I’d have to do laundry. I’d make it work by bringing only one pair of shoes and being very spare with my toiletries, electronics, and snacks. I probably would not pack workout clothes, although if the hotel had a pool I would cram in a swimsuit and flip flops.
Having access to half a large checked suitcase caused me to go a bit nuts. I brought hairstyling implements that I didn't use. I completely forgot sneakers, making my workout clothes pointless. I haven't counted how many points I cost myself for bringing things I didn't use (a personal game), but I believe I set a new record. Not my best showing.
This was a good exercise for me. Ultimately I met all the requirements of the restrictive Basic Economy fare, and saved over $140. That almost pays for a round trip to visit my family. It’s worth it. This was also a good exercise because it reminded me why I despise dragging big heavy bags around, and how distracting and confusing it can be to pack so many items that you lose track of what you do and don’t have.
In sum, I’m likely to be found in the near future, sitting in a middle seat, with my sparse and austere personal item at my feet, counting a thick wad of cash.
When is that book going to get read?
I’d really rather ask WHAT is that book you’re reading? To me it’s a mark of courtesy to hold up my book in public areas, so those who are interested can at least see the title. My husband has even learned to do this for me. When he travels on business, if he sees a woman around my age who looks like one of my book group buddies, he’ll text me the title of whatever she’s reading.
The most interesting books are getting read. Right now, today.
If it is so good that someone is carrying it around town and actively reading it rather than stroking their phone, something is going on. I need to know, What is that book??
On the other hand, if a book is sitting around, midway through a stack, with a bookmark poking out, then something is not going on. For whatever reason, that book lacked the mysterious something, the je ne sais quoi that I can’t describe and my autocorrect can’t spell.
In those cases, the question is, WHEN is that book ever going to get read?
Chances are, never.
There is nothing quite so aspirational as a bookshelf full of unread books.
It’s October and I’ve just gone through a purge of my active reading stack. I like to dedicate the month to spooky stuff, and anything I didn't finish in September is therefore getting pushed off at least a month.
This policy gives me a moment to ask, Would I choose this book again?
Now that I’ve had it sitting around for a week or more, if I haven’t felt compelled to drop everything and read it right away, would I choose it again? Am I feeling any kind of pressure to read it just because:
Someone else wants me to read it
My book club is reading it
I paid for it
I already read at least one volume of the series
I met the author
I’m a completist
Books feel like homework to me
I’m working from a list
I’m emotionally invested in the Sunk Cost Fallacy
I simply can’t bear to let go of books, from tractor manuals to travel guides from 2008
As an example, I have a developing friendship with a woman I think is awesome and very interesting. She invited me to her book group (yay!). They’re reading a hit novel (good) that is historical fiction (ugh) and representative of kinda pedestrian picks. Am I really willing to start reading books that don’t appeal to me for the sake of a cool chick I’d like to see more often?
(Here I remind myself that the first book group I joined read a lot of books I had loved, but the members never finished any of them and also never liked them).
If you come over to my apartment, you will see two types of books. One, my husband’s aerospace and robotics textbooks, and two, my books. I keep books that aren’t available in ebook or audiobook format, because I can’t get them any other way. Then I never read them because I actively hate reading paperbacks. Quite the quandary. There are novels I’ve had since before we got married, and I still can’t bear either to get rid of them or to break their little spines.
Am I going to feel any more in the mood to read them ten years from now than I am today?
One of the things I have noticed is that my favorite authors keep on publishing new books. I can pretty much guarantee that there will be at least 500 new books every year that will catch my attention. I already know I can’t read that many books, especially not if I have to factor in the reading list I already have. Choices have to be made.
At a certain point, you’re either into a book, or you’re not.
Gone With the Wind was the first one that really got me. I stayed up all night, three nights in a row, trying to finish it the summer I turned thirteen. I melted my book light! I cried at a few points and couldn’t get over the ending. At that age I would start a book and it was like climbing inside to live among the characters.
That’s a pretty high standard to set, but an interesting one. Aside from not having much sense of whether a book was problematic for some reason, what qualities made books so much more immersive? Was it just youth? Or were we more likely to grab something, dive into it immediately, and read according to whim rather than some kind of task list?
This is the direction I’m moving toward. I want to feel like:
within a twenty-minute window.
My husband literally does this. We go to the bookstore, he buys something, I write down a list of two dozen new titles, and we’re off. He’s finished his choice a week later and my picks are still on hold from the library.
I’m sometimes reading something four months after it initially caught my attention.
What I’m doing when I write down a list that long is pre-committing Future Me to at least two weeks’ reading material. It seems that in practice, I really only get around to reading maybe 10-20% of these picks. What am I doing?
When is that book going to be read? In the afterlife? That’s assuming I get to go to the sort of afterlife where I have eternity to read random novels.
I advocate doing a clean sweep and starting over. I advocate avoiding the remainder table or otherwise discounted books. I advocate buying your most anticipated books by your favorite authors as soon as they hit the shelf and then reading them while you’re still walking out of the store, maybe even bumping into a pole along the way.
When is that book getting read? Why do you ask? I’m already a hundred pages in.
No one will stop you, most of the time. This is one of life’s biggest secrets. No matter what you are doing, whether good, bad, or ugly, nobody will stop you. You’re free, like it or not.
Sure, people might sometimes try to interfere with you. Usually they only do it when you’re doing something positive and constructive, though. It helps to keep that in mind. It also helps to know that their ways of being your obstacle are pretty predictable.
Tantrums. Usually that’s the method of choice. Someone will bawl you out or get angry and start shouting or slamming things around.
Maybe they’ll give you the silent treatment or be passive-aggressive instead.
When someone behaves in such an immature and loud way, it’s never going to be for a good reason. Nobody throws a tantrum to convince someone to donate blood or get an early start on filing their taxes. Nobody throws a tantrum to convince someone to eat a taco or help themselves to another slice of pie. They throw tantrums to Get Their Way.
Why does someone care whether you do or don’t do something? Either because they think it will prevent them from getting something they want, or because they simply don’t like the thought of you doing it.
What are these things, these things you might want to do that someone else might not want you to do?
Have a successful friendship
Go back to school
Go on a trip somewhere
These are things I’ve found that other people will try to talk me out of. I’ve also found that I was able to do all of them, often more than once, and nothing bad happened. The tantrum-thrower eventually gets over it. Don’t expect them to ever admit that they were wrong, because it won’t happen, but do take note that you got away with it.
As much as people love to insert their opinions, there are other areas where they won’t. I’ve found myself in a couple of situations (going on a date, taking a roommate, moving into an apartment complex with a reputation, eating at Chipotle) where I would have appreciated knowing what my friends already knew. They only admit afterward that they didn't think what you were doing was such a wise idea.
This basically depends on whether you are talking to a group of people who freely share their opinion, or a group who generally choose to “stay out of it.”
There may also be something in there about whether you thought to solicit their specific individual opinion before or after the fact. Some will seek to punish you for your supposed lack of deference.
Yes, yes, you must run all your choices by me in advance. I am the arbiter of all decisions, group or individual.
What I’ve found is that if you simply don’t tell anyone your plans, you can pretty much do what you want all the time.
Often you can also avoid telling them after the fact.
There are two things I chose to do that seemed to arouse the ire and wrath of many of my friends and family like nothing else. Nobody had an opinion (with one exception) when I married my ex-husband. Everyone had an opinion when I 1. Chose to deliberately lose weight and 2. Took up distance running.
I was baffled by this at first. Then I found out that the furor only comes up when you're in the contemplation and beginning phases of something new. After you’re up and running on your own, they lose interest and find some other scandal to occupy themselves.
The next phase of realization set in when I discovered that I could do the exact same things, privately, and if I didn't tell anyone, then nobody had a comment.
Rearrange my furniture? Try a new recipe? Color my hair? Go to Morocco? Read a banned book? Fortunately, because we are a free people in a free country, I did it all. I did it all and nobody said a word because nobody knew.
Another secret to doing what you want and having nobody stop you is to move to a new area. If you have no track record there, nobody knows your backstory. If nobody knows your backstory, then nobody knows whether what you are doing is out of character or entirely consistent with your past behavior.
There is a dark side to this, of course. Pretty much nobody will stop you if you develop an addiction or embezzle money or engage in any other sort of risky behavior. You’ll only be stopped by the natural consequences of your actions, whether legal or merely predictably unfortunate.
You can go out and get a bad haircut or wear unflattering pants or start a project you’ll never finish. You can buy a ticket to a boring movie with a weak ending. You can hoard up your house or go three years without cleaning your bathroom. You can do a lot of stuff that isn’t really all that great an idea, and no one will stop you.
What this all means is that it’s up to you. Whether you love your life or shuffle through it in boredom and resentment is up to you. Whether you live out your dreams or cringe in avoidance of someone else’s disapproval is up to you. Whether you transform your body or go back to school or change careers is up to you. You have choices and you have the power to take action on them. No one will stop you. Let your path be dictated by your own insights, not your naysayers.
Every single time I tell anyone that I got a flu shot, they tell me that they don’t.
This has always struck me as a weird reaction. If I tell someone I watched a movie or read a book, I’m not saying “Now your turn.” If I say I like cauliflower, nobody is in danger that I’m going to load some florets into a slingshot and try to snap them into their mouth. Yet they’ll be sure to let me know: I hate cauliflower! It’s like some protective instinct.
Personally, if I were anti-vaxx, I wouldn’t tell anyone. To me it would be like admitting that I was deathly afraid of moths or something. Embarrassing, clearly something I should work on, not something I would expect to serve as a bonding conversational topic with other people.
My mom got us all vaccinated and got our booster shots on schedule every year. Our school district required it, for one thing. For another, her little cousin died of chicken pox when they were kids, and my mom never really got over it. The chicken pox vaccine wasn’t available in those days. In fact, it didn’t hit the market until a couple of years after I graduated from high school, about forty years too late for the girl who would have been my first cousin once removed.
My mom also lost a puppy to parvovirus, several years before the parvo vaccine was released.
These incidents are part of our family lore. In our family, epidemic disease kills, and vaccines are our best chance to protect ourselves.
Actually it’s not just our family, it’s this pesky thing called “reality.” The important thing, though, is that people are more convinced by anecdotes and emotionally rich personal stories than we are by anything else.
I used to avoid the flu shot, too, because I’m a big chicken-flavored coward and I would get needle reaction. (Scared, dizzy, and entirely psychosomatic). I might have gotten the flu shot for a $250 cash prize, but then again I probably wouldn’t have. For $1000, yeah. That would have gotten me in line. Then again, I might have made up an excuse and hustled back to my car.
One year, it all changed.
My husband got the flu shot at work. I “never got around to it.” (Bawk bawk bawk) Several weeks later, I got the flu and he did not. I was flat on my back for eight days while he whistled a happy tune and carried on with his regular schedule.
Luckily I am able to admit when I’ve been wrong. It’s because I get a lot of practice, because I’m wrong a lot. I had countless feverish hours to consider why I felt like a warmed-over kettle of bubonic plague and my husband was obviously fine. We slept in the same bed, ate the same meals, touched most of the same doorknobs. He was out and about, meeting and mixing with more people in public than I did, since I work at home. Statistically it would make sense that he might get sick and I might not. Yet there we were, one of us sweating and coughing and the other doing just fine.
I was decided. GET ME THAT FLU SHOT!
Several years later, we both get the flu shot every year. I have never had a reaction, just like I never did after any of my infant shots or childhood boosters, and neither has anyone else I have ever met. Not even our dog, who is legally required to get a rabies vaccine and wear a necklace at all times to prove it.
(Others might call it a “collar” with “tags” but he is a fashion-forward dog and he likes to wear clothes. Let him live).
In a sense, getting the flu shot is our privilege and our secret. We have access to high-quality First World health care. We can get flu shots within walking distance of our apartment, or at work, or stack them with routine errands. Not only do we not have to pay, we don’t even have to wait five minutes.
Meanwhile, infants and immune-compromised people can’t, and neither can millions of people in the developing world. There’s also the case of my dearly departed mother-in-law. She finally lost the battle with lymphoma after five remissions and sixteen years.
During chemo, cancer patients can’t get the flu shot. They’re also highly vulnerable to such things as the common cold.
If you ask me, anyone who refuses to get the flu shot should not be allowed to wear or display any cancer awareness swag. No pink ribbons, no nothing. “I’ll wear this cheap ribbon, and it won’t help you get better, but under no circumstances will I get a flu shot. Why would I actually do a literal physical thing that might protect you or help your chances? Empty symbolic gestures only.”
(I’m still mad that she’s gone. I miss her).
“Congratulations on your new baby. [cough cough]. Here’s a stuffed giraffe and an easily preventable yet highly contagious virus. Welcome to the world, little one [cough cough].”
I get the flu shot, and I’m proud of it, and I’d push my way to the front of the line if I had to. I’ll go after it with at least as much energy and effort as I would a first-class upgrade. That’s because it IS a first-class upgrade. The flu is not some kind of fast track to superior wisdom. It kills productivity and it also kills people, the helpless like elderly people, cancer patients, and little infants.
Little secret here? I’d rather I died from some kind of hypothetical tainted bad batch of vaccines than that someone else died, because they couldn’t get vaccinated and I simply refused. I’m a middle-aged person who never had kids. There are others with more potential, more responsibilities, more to contribute than I have. I’ll die someday, maybe not for another sixty years, but I’d rather go generously than go knowing I always gave into my anxieties and what I recognize as my boundless inner cowardice.
False choice, though. Millions of people get their shots, dutifully, like a good citizen should. And it’s fine. Certainly better than losing two weeks to the stupid flu and then staggering around trying to catch up on laundry.
I get the flu shot to prove a point. That point is that I’m a privileged elitist and I intend to stay that way. I’m willing to put my body on the line and walk my talk. I believe in herd immunity and I believe that the strong must protect the weak. I do it for myself, but I also do it for children, the elderly, and cancer patients. I’ll keep doing it, because it works, and I hope the rest of you join me.
It’s October First, and that means two things. One, I’m totally going to spend the entire month indulging in all things Halloween; and two, it’s time for third quarter check-in. I’ve been publishing my progress (or non-progress) on my annual goals and resolutions for a few years now, and I find that it keeps me feeling serious. At least it reminds me that I may have “decided to do something nine months ago and then promptly put it aside.
What has been going well? We moved! We found a new apartment that we absolutely love and ditched the old place. My recommendation, if you want to save tons of money by moving into a studio apartment, is to get one with no upstairs neighbors. Let’s see, what else? We went to Europe not once but twice this summer, once for my birthday and once for our TEN-YEAR WEDDING ANNIVERSARY. Our life now feels like a massive level-up compared to our lives six months ago.
What hasn’t been going well? We did three things this summer. One was travel (both) and the other two were moving (all four) and oral surgery (just me). There were almost no days over the last quarter when one of these things didn’t take up the entire schedule. It’s been pretty distracting. Our dog has been having a rough time, and it doesn’t feel like a coincidence that we happen to be quite close to his vet’s office.
Personal: My personal project is to submit a book proposal. I have not done this yet and the year is winding to a close. Time to make up my mind. Is this something I am really going to do, or am I always going to find reasons that it’s “not quite time” or “not quite good enough yet” for another million years?
Career: My career goal for the year was to complete the work for my Distinguished Toastmaster. I still have one more piece of paperwork to process on this. I knew I have until next June and I put it aside during the move. It embarrasses me that I could have had this finished back in May and it’s still in my desk.
Physical: My fitness resolution is to work on hip openers. Not only have I not been doing this all year, I feel like I haven’t done anything fitness-related at all. I’m at the heaviest I’ve been in twelve years, and struggling to break through a plateau. The energy I would like to feel about my energy level, strength, and agility is nowhere near where I want it to be right now. Which direction do I want my timeline to go in the next few months, up, down, or flat?
Home: My home project was to set up an outdoor writing area. We did this at the beginning of the year and I love(d) it. Since we’ve moved, I actually have access to an outdoor writing area with an ocean view and almost zero foot traffic. I just have yet to use it. Right now I’m writing with a keyboard on my lap and sitting in bed because the temperatures are getting cooler.
Couples: Our couples resolution is to do bulk meal prep. Now that we’re back in a proper kitchen, we’ve both been cooking from scratch every night. We had emptied the freezer in preparation for our move, and now we’re filling it up again.
Stop goal: My stop goal is to stop being sick and tired. Finally making progress here! I’ve been able to sleep SO much more in the new place and even take a nap a couple of times a week. I think I’ve also figured out my problem with constantly catching colds from last winter. My husband has picked up a cold twice in the past two months, and I’ve been able to escape with maybe 5-10% of the symptoms he has. Two differences: we switched roles with the intensive martial arts training, when he enrolled and I went on hiatus, and I started taking a zinc supplement that he doesn’t like to use. (It’s called Super Bio Veg and it’s expensive and tastes like bouillon cubes, but I swear by it). Our experiences this year have firmed up my conviction that over-training quickly starts to impact the immune system.
Lifestyle upgrades: My lifestyle upgrade resolution was to buy a new desktop computer. I finally did it. I also went out and got a wireless scanner. I’ve been slowly digitizing and culling our remaining paper files.
Do the Obvious: My “Do the Obvious” this year is to schedule everything in time blocks. This has been a really useful concept. I no longer feel like I “should be doing something” every single minute. I’ve been able to look at the clock and sign off in the evening. I’ve also been able to keep most of my projects going in spite of the move, travel, oral surgery, veterinary emergencies, etc. I’m realizing that I can do 95% of the stuff with 80% less of the stress by taking relaxation and downtime more seriously.
Metrics: It is not a coincidence that I quit logging HIIT exercises like burpees and push-ups and had to revert to logging my food intake. Playing with a more formal bullet journal/habit tracker for the rest of the year to see what happens.
Quest: This year it’s SleepQuest 2019. I started having night terrors again this year, which has been dreadful, and I even had them once in the new apartment. (Should have known better, but I went to bed two hours after eating dinner and I know I need to wait for three). My sleep is improving. Now I need to focus on my body mass and my workouts, two factors that I have successfully identified as key to my personal night terror episodes. More on this as I write about SleepQuest during Fourth Quarter.
Wish: My wish is to be signed by a literary agent. I actually talked to two of them at WDS and it was not unpromising. I had a follow-up call with one of them. Then our summer got a bit... vivid... and we’re only now settling in again. I’m one of those people who lowers themselves into the pool inch by inch, let’s put it that way.
Personal: Book proposal
Career: Distinguished Toastmaster - IN PROGRESS
Physical: Hip openers
Home: Outdoor writing area - SUCCESS
Couples: Meal prep - SUCCESS
Stop goal: Stop being sick and tired
Lifestyle upgrades: New desktop computer - SUCCESS
Do the Obvious: Schedule time blocks
Metrics: Sleep, fitness, reading, writing, speaking
Quest: Sleep Project: SleepQuest 2019
Wish: To be signed by a literary agent.
The thing about goals is that they’re often too small, too easy to reach. It takes something on a grander scale to be really exciting and worth chasing, and that’s the visionary scale of a dream. Just like goals, though, dreams may not be what we had imagined when once we actually make them real. As time goes by, we may not realize that what we really want is something entirely different.
That’s when it’s time to release an old, expired dream and start chasing a new one.
When I was a kid, like a lot of children, I wanted to be a veterinarian. It’s fun to say big words and impress adults. As I started to realize what veterinarians actually do, I changed my mind. All I could picture was having to give shots to puppies and kittens all day, and owie! Now, as a middle-aged person, I know a few vets, and the truth is that theirs is a very difficult and often sad profession. It’s been over thirty years since I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian, and I was okay with letting that dream go.
(But thank you ever so much to those of you who pursued it!)
Optimists like myself have a fairly easy time of it, recognizing and letting go of expired dreams. We’re future-facing, and we’re more interested in moving forward, toward something appealing. The reverse is true of a lot of people, those who lean toward melancholy and regret. Releasing an expired dream can feel achingly sad in these cases.
I have a dear old friend who is at the top of his profession. This is funny to me, because I’ve known him since he was a university student, filling his study area with towers of cola cans. He is literally working his dream job, the only thing he’s ever wanted to do with his life, and he’s wildly successful at it. He’s making more money than he could have imagined, living in his dream city, married and traveling the world. Yet he’s constantly wistful about his teens and twenties and in some ways feeling like life is passing him by.
Why? What could have been better than the outcome he got? Staying twenty forever, battling bad skin, being broke and not knowing how to cook?
As we get older, the past starts to put on this golden, hazy glow. We forget the bad parts and the rough edges. This really seems to start to kick in after we hit our sixties, and it’s part of why older people tend to be happier. We can see it in action if we compare the stories someone tells us with the version they were telling ten or twenty years ago. We can compare their notes with those of their friends and family who were there, we can compare it with photos, we can compare it with journals and letters and news headlines. Gee, that sure isn’t how you were telling it when it happened!
Come to think of it, *I* was there, and that’s not how I remember it either!
It’s probably for the best. Our shiny new versions of tawdry old events are part of what keeps us going.
Nostalgia isn’t a very good bargain, if you ask me. Why trade future visions for feeling like our best times are behind us? I know that isn’t true in my life. I wouldn’t even want to go back two months, much less two years or twenty years. I look better today than I did in old photos. My life is easier and better, and why? Because I’ve always chased my dreams and continued to dream bigger.
I live the life I do because I’m specific about what I want, and that motivates me to go out and get it.
The easiest of the expired dreams to let go is the dream of being with your old crush. One of the greatest things about social media is that it’s easy to find people and see how they’ve turned out. In my case, my crushes are now of an age to have grown vast wizard beards, which is awesome, but my husband can do that too.
Any single one of my old crushes would not result in the marriage that I have today, and that’s a thought that makes me feel small and panicky. Trade this for that? No thank you.
Dreams can be of any size or duration, just exactly like clouds. Is yours continent-spanning majestic size, or a house-sized bit of fluff? Is it going to drift away before you can grab it?
Here are some dreams that I’ve released, and why.
I used to dream of having an electric car, when they were new and uncommon. I’ve released that dream because I hate driving! My dream is not to have a car at all, and I’ve been living that out for nearly three years now.
I used to dream of being 5’10” - six inches taller than my adult height - and I’ve released that dream. Now I understand that my size is efficient for things I like to do, such as distance running and backpacking. It’s easier for someone of my size to do pull-ups and other body weight exercises, too.
Once upon a time, I dreamed of earning a degree in Classics. I released that in my senior year, when I changed majors, because I finally realized that nobody understood what it meant, and I got tired of explaining it. Also, it struck me that I could spend my time learning modern languages rather than Latin and Attic Greek. (I did come away with rather splendid Greek handwriting, though).
It’s interesting to picture myself as a tall woman driving around town in an electric vehicle and wielding a Classics degree. What am I doing? Am I a professor of antiquities? Hmm. A valid life, an intriguing dream, but... nah. I’ll take what I have today, thanks.
Aspirations usually show up in physical form, and they’re far more likely to manifest in small consumer items than in bigger things, like acceptance letters or class syllabuses. We buy little trinkets as placeholders for our wildest desires. I see this all the time, and in fact I can usually pinpoint someone’s expired aspirations within minutes of entering their home.
Foreign language dictionaries, unopened packages of art supplies, dusty fitness equipment, books with pristine spines, mute instruments, clothes that don’t fit... signs and relics of unlived personas, untouched fantasies, untested dreams.
These are objects of power, mind you. There is vast energy stored in these sigils, these artifacts of past dreams.
Let’s all agree to forgive ourselves for having lived our actual lives. Let’s let go of this idea that things might have been better if only we had been someone else. Imagine if everyone you loved was someone else instead: would anyone be left to love you? Love yourself the same way, just the way you are. Then box up your old aspirational clutter and offer it to someone else, someone for whom that dream still has bits of sparkle to explore.
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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