It chilled my blood. I wouldn’t have wanted to witness a conversation like that anywhere, much less the middle of a casino immediately after leaving a comedy club. I saw it, though, and I had to look over my shoulder to see if it was time to intervene.
He was a big man, maybe mid-30s. She was much smaller, shorter than me anyway, and a bit younger. He grabbed her by the collar and pulled her forward, growling, “A man deserves respect!” She hung her head and lowered her eyes. When I looked back over my shoulder, he had hooked his arm through hers and was pinning her against his side, leading her away. She still had that downcast, sad face.
One look. If she had so much as glanced up. If she had winced, or looked around, or made eye contact with me. Any slightest gesture or expression. I would have stepped forward. I didn’t know him, but I’ve seen plenty of men like him, and he only scared me to the point that I thought she might need help.
Oh, honey. Please don’t. Please don’t ever waste a single second on a man who is mean to you. Please don’t let someone lecture you like that. Please know that nothing you could ever do would deserve the scowl on that man’s face. You can walk away. You can go tonight. You can cancel your bank cards, replace your driver’s license, get new keys made, and just leave it all. There’s nothing in your hotel room that you need, and that especially includes the weak, insecure, domineering man who is trying to scare you into submission tonight.
I don’t know what’s going on between them. I’ll probably never see either of them again. I’m not implying that he might be hitting her (he might) or that he might be an incipient killer (though he might) or that they might have kids at home (which is also true). All I know is that I saw a big man being mean and using his physical size to intimidate someone, and it seemed to be working. That’s enough.
You never need a reason or an excuse to leave someone. You don’t owe anyone a second chance. You can go. You can go on a whim. You can go because the weather changed. You can go because you just want to be alone for a while. You can certainly go if someone you expected to be kind to you quit being kind. I hope you go if someone is being a jerk to you.
Enough said. Let’s talk about respect. What deserves respect?
Nobody deserves respect. A person deserves civility. Civility is a gift. Respect is earned. Respect is earned through behavior, a pattern of behavior over time. The moment someone makes a scene and tries to demand respect, he’s lost the game. It’s a petty concern of weak people.
I have a lot of respect for several men. I like male energy. There are so many ways a man can show himself worthy of respect that do not involve menacing anyone. Let me share a few examples.
I respect my dad. He and my mom have been married for 41 years. He helped raise me and my two brothers, and he was always there. He was there at our births. He took us camping starting when we were toddlers. He taught us to troubleshoot, to be frugal, to use tools, to be kind to animals, to respect nature. I listened when he taught my brothers that only a complete loser would ever rape a woman or take advantage of someone who was drunk. His sons and grandsons grew to be men who like smart, independent women.
I respect my husband. That’s why I married him. I’ve had the opportunity to see him deeply involved in his aerospace engineering work. I’ve watched him manage, lead, and mentor people. I respect his parenting skills, and I know he’s the reason that he and his daughter can make calculus jokes and converse in mathematical formulae far over my head. I was there when he instantly spotted a lost toddler at the county fair, dropped to his knee, and asked “Are you looking for your mommy?” before I even realized anything was wrong. I was also there to watch him defuse a fight between two drunk men in a restaurant. My husband is a powerful man, a mature man with gravitas. He will also sit on the floor and play trucks with little kids.
Thinking of other men in my circle, each deserves respect for reasons that don’t necessarily apply to the others. Some are teachers, some can install a new roof or rewire a room, some are first responders, some are natural mediators. There is no single formula for extracting respect from others. A few respectable traits are reliability, self-discipline, accountability, and the ability to balance strength with wisdom. Lack of emotional intelligence will inevitably lead to self-limiting behaviors and damaged reputations.
I was at the gym one evening after work, chugging away on the treadmill, when I noticed something funny happening on the stretching mats. A woman was straddling a man on the mat, pinning his arms down, and pretending to head-butt him repeatedly in the forehead. He was shaking with silent laughter. She sat up, and I saw, to my great surprise, that the man was the new guy at my work! They have been married for many years. That one moment predisposed me to like the guy. It seemed like he was a friendly person with a good sense of humor. That turned out to be true. He also turned out to be universally well regarded for his expertise, productivity, and communication skills. He’s in that tiny category of people who are impossible to dislike. This is one way to earn respect without trying to extort it.
It’s not necessary to be likeable to be worthy of respect. We can appreciate the dependability of a person who may not have a ‘fun’ setting. However, it is hard to respect someone who has even rare moments of belligerence, rage, or lost self-control. Respect, like so many things, has a lot to do with limiting the downsides. We want someone who is a known quantity. We want to be able to vouch for someone who will behave predictably well. A reputation that takes decades to build can be destroyed in one five-second outburst. “A man deserves respect” when he manages to refrain from degrading himself by nasty behavior, no matter what else he does the rest of the time.
I read Barry Yourgrau’s book in one sitting. Technically, I listened to it, and I didn’t sit much at all. I did my housework for the day and walked 8 miles. I also started organizing and sorting through some stuff, because it’s impossible to fall into a story like this without becoming uncomfortably aware of any mess in one’s own environment. Mess is destined to become a classic in the field.
Yourgrau writes about how his girlfriend of 15 years gives him an ultimatum to clean up his apartment, after he refuses to let her in one day. She and her mother nag him that he needs to clean up and invite them over for dinner. It takes nearly two years. This is so interesting for so many reasons!
Yourgrau goes into fastidious detail about the roots of his attachment to stuff. He interviews experts in the field. He pins various people down on how they would categorize his problem. He begins with classic procrastination, unable to make himself do so much as sort mail or run a vacuum cleaner. What seems to spark action is when he conceives the idea of turning it into research and writing a book.
The book distinguishes between ‘clutterers’ and hoarders, based on the clutterer’s ability to let go of things and the hoarder’s extreme reluctance. In my own work, I would say that there are more gradations than that. I would go so far as to say that disorganization and squalor are the default for humans, and that cleanliness and order only come about as the result of deliberate training. What we now see as ‘mess’ is purely a cultural standard; most people throughout history probably had dirt under their nails and slept in the same room with livestock. Only in the modern era can we afford enough paper, books, and clothes to fill up our homes.
This is a fascinating book, and it includes a surprising mystery that I won’t spoil here. I do have a string of random observations about Yourgrau’s story. First, he shares a memory of his mom packing drinks for him in a repurposed Dettol bottle. Um, that’s a cleanser? I felt really, really sad that this seemed to be a fond childhood memory. Perhaps some of the roots of the desire to hang on to empty packaging and bags sprout from a taught familial appreciation for this sort of frugality. I sure hope they’re good at rinsing things.
Another thing I noticed was that Yourgrau uses his girlfriend’s iPad throughout his research project. He starts documenting his process through photographs. He and another clutterer have a discussion about how stuff works as a sort of mental tracking system, that seeing objects helps them remember things. This is a huge insight. Paper, books, articles, and notebooks tend to be one of the biggest issues for my people. The iPad seems to help Yourgrau to get his head around the project. It’s almost like it’s a vacuum cleaner of data. I had a similar experience when I got my iPhone 4S and gradually started feeling able to leave the house without a book in my hand. My work is paper-free now, and I’m gradually recording and tracking my old paper notes.
Mess is an account of how a highly intelligent and educated person explores his irrational side. He walks us through his thought process and his research, in between bouts of hauling trash and scrubbing at scary stains. It has its hilarious moments. Yourgrau does a beautiful job of portraying himself as stubborn, crabby, capable of grudging yet gradual change. I rooted for him and I found his process totally realistic.
It’s been 15 years since my divorce. I haven’t seen hide or hair of my ex-husband in over a decade. I have no idea if he’s remarried or relocated. I am 99% certain he doesn’t have children, and I’m fairly sure I would somehow have found out if he was no longer wandering this mortal coil. If I wanted to get in touch with him, for some strange and unimaginable reason, I could probably contact his parents. Other than that, he could be on the moon for all I know. Which sorta makes it hard for me to thank him for completely ruining my life.
I married too young. I married the wrong person, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons. There was no way that was going to work. I was also on the rebound. I needed to prove to myself that someone wanted me, that I was worth marrying, that being a wife was something I was good at. There was a strong attraction in the material comforts of combining two incomes and one apartment. He was a terrific cook. He always did at least his share of the housework. Shoot, why not get married? Just because I was only 22 and he was diagnosed bipolar – what could possibly go wrong?
Knowing what I know now, we would never have been married. We would never have lived together. We would never have gone on a date. None of that would have happened, because I would have recognized his constant criticism and contempt for what they were in the span of a five-minute conversation. “My, how rude. Oh, I see: that was no accident. You are not just ‘being rude.’ You are in fact a congenitally rude individual.” At the time, I thought his snarky comments were 1. Funny and 2. A sign that he was smarter than me. Whenever he would disparage me, I would perk right up and assume that he must know something I didn’t know. He had mystical powers of character judgment. I learned to accept his occasional cruelty as something I deserved.
I don’t blame him anymore for what happened. He was just being himself. When he asked for the divorce, he admitted that he had manipulated me and misrepresented himself because he wanted to be with me. He told me not to take it personally, that he was still attracted to me and still wanted to date. He just didn’t want to be married anymore. This seems hilarious to me now. I mean, truly hilarious. I really can’t take it personally, because he would have been himself and behaved the same way no matter who he dated or married. It was his nature. I could have recognized him for who he was. I chose to ignore and rationalize certain things because I was naïve and foolish and I believed I could control things that cannot be controlled. (Examples: other people’s inherent character; other people’s feelings; how other people see you).
I met my current husband a few weeks before my 30th birthday. Therefore, I spent the entire decade of my 30s in his orbit. Other than a few lame dates and a short-term relationship that ended badly, almost all my dating history belongs to my teens and 20s. This gives an interesting perspective. Through the miracle of social media, I can look back at old flames and also-rans and see how they turned out. High school reunions are also great for this. Once you’ve seen how a couple hundred people have aged over a couple of decades, a certain clarity settles in. Patterns you couldn’t recognize in your youth start to stand out. Who has anger management issues? Who can’t commit? Who has a substance abuse problem? Who is already working on a fourth marriage? I’m lucky to be on good terms with some sweet gentlemen who would have been mutually assured disasters if we had tried to stay together in the long term. Some of those breakups were… painful. After enough time had passed, we could drop all that and just be the platonic friends we should have been all along.
See, I don’t want anyone to suffer, no matter how badly he crushed my heart. For one thing, my current marriage is awesome. The not-quite relationships had to end before I could be free to meet my husband. I don’t waste any time begrudging life to my exes. What they’re doing these days has little or nothing to do with what I’m doing. What they did back in the 90s or early 2000s served to teach me everything I know about romantic partnerships. Most importantly, I learned what I didn’t want, what to avoid, what questions to ask, which chemical reactions meant danger rather than compatibility. I learned that a surprising proportion of standard behaviors and attitudes belong to someone’s age and stage of life, rather than pure personality.
Even if I did continue to carry a boiling resentment toward someone who broke my heart in the past, I would still want him to be successful. That’s ego talking. It redounds on my reputation if I can say that someone I used to date is doing well. “Ah, yes, he’s a doctor and a lawyer who just got a billion-dollar valuation on his new company.” It doesn’t reflect as well if I’m still so bitter that I go off on a rant whenever his name comes up. If he was so awful, what’s wrong with me that I dated him? Shouldn’t I just be relieved that it’s over now, and go back to focusing on other things?
I’ve been cheated on and lied to. My secrets have been betrayed. I’ve dated people who have stolen from me, both possessions and money. I’ve been left for the younger blonde and I’ve been left by someone who then dated my friend. Whatever. Now I’m street-smart. I see all that stuff as a set of vital life lessons. I’ve even been able to build some friendships out of the rubble. I’m not mad. Walk in peace, my friends. Wherever my ex-husband is, I hope he’s happy. I hope he’s taking care of himself. I’m grateful he let me go so completely. No strings. If we ever run into each other again, I’ll wave and maybe say hello. I hope he got as much out of our terminal abomination of a marriage as I did. That was all a millennium ago, and it feels like it.
Neologisms and catchphrases spread faster now that we have the Internet. One that I see a lot is “adulting.” Another is the phrase “my body wants.” It’s usually followed by something such as “frosting.” The idea that the body has its own internal wisdom and that it sends us clear signals is a very interesting concept that may or may not be true or helpful. For instance, sometimes my hand wants to rise up and slap the stupid out of someone, but it seems like a bad idea to let my hand become autonomous.
I’ve been working on public speaking this year, and it’s one of the hardest things I have ever done. When I get up to the podium, my legs start to shake. It’s like I’m standing in rapidly rising floodwaters. First my legs shake, then I feel it in my belly, then my hands shake, then my voice shakes. It took me three tries to make it longer than 60 seconds. I can stay on a mechanical bull longer than I can give a speech. My body wants to run away. In any other situation, I’m fearless. I can give the same speech standing at the same level as my audience; I can take over the dance floor; I have no qualms about being nude in public; I’ve marched in parades and sung karaoke. What’s different about a podium? My brain says ‘nothing’ but my thighs disagree. Whatever my body supposedly thinks it wants, here, it’s not going to win.
I have another automatic physiological response when I get mad. I can feel the stress hormones flooding my body. If I am forced to talk under these circumstances, my chest and throat constrict and I can’t seem to breathe until the whole paragraph comes out. So frustrating. I can’t bear the thought of raising my voice to someone in anger. What I wind up doing is turning on my heel and walking off at a rapid pace. I’ve done it barefoot in the rain. I’ve done it without latching the door behind me. After burning up pavement for three or four miles, I’ll feel settled enough to head back and have a rational discussion. Or not. Not everything is up for discussion. Fortunately, I don’t get mad very often. I’m experienced enough to know that when I feel that physically angry response, I will wind up saying things that are not my final opinion, and I can’t take them back. My body seems to want a fight. Again, why should I let my amygdala run my life?
There are so many things my body wants to do that are not in my best interest. Many of them are facial expressions. Eye rolls. Facepalms. Blatantly staring at someone. Coughing or sneezing without raising my elbow. Inappropriate scratching. Much of etiquette involves learning the protocol of controlling our body language, facial expressions, and biological functions. My body wants to act like the primate I am, even during my wedding ceremony or such. Too bad, body. Cowboy up. Or maybe cowboy down a little more?
Feelings are called ‘feelings’ because we feel them in our bodies. It’s instantaneous. First we feel it in our bodies, and then we interpret the physiological response with our minds. For instance, a rush of adrenalin is interpreted as anxiety by some people, and exhilaration for others. Much of that feeling comes from a previously poured foundation of storytelling. We believe things we have been told, or we explain things to ourselves, that set our responses. The story my brothers tell themselves about skydiving is completely different than the story I tell myself. The story I tell myself about my body image is different than the story that most people tell themselves. Someone in my acquaintance recently trolled me about supposedly not finishing kindergarten until I was 8. He might have felt such an insult to the bone; I just laughed, because I had already been tagged in the 99th percentile by that age. He couldn’t hurt my feelings because I knew he was wrong about me, and if he were as smart as he thought he was, he wouldn’t want to go there.
Going back to the issue of body image, I hardly know where to start. Nothing about the current discussion about body image makes any sense to me whatsoever. It plays like this: “I’m perfect just the way I am. Any hint that body fat is anything other than superior and sexy is body shaming. I need to preserve my self-esteem by not knowing how much I weigh or reading any preachy articles from medical journals.” From where I’m sitting, anyone with real body pride would not feel that hit of perceived shaming. Just like I didn’t care when someone implied that I was stupid, I don’t care what others think of my physical appearance. That’s good, because being a size zero is anathema right now, even for marathon runners like me. I know my body does what I want it to do. I’m functionally fit enough to run uphill carrying 1/3 of my body weight. All my health metrics (fasting glucose, blood pressure, cholesterol, percent body fat) are in the healthy range. I’ve overcome some serious health issues, so I know what being sick feels like, but I seem to be getting healthier as I age. For most people, it’s the reverse. People in their 20s and 30s can protest all they want about how healthy they might feel, but it starts to ring false when we start hitting our 40s and 50s and relying on prescription drugs to get by.
The body wants 8-9 hours of sleep a night. We sleep-procrastinate; many of us get by on 5-6 hours. The body wants copious hydration. We think water tastes bad. The body wants insoluble fiber. Americans eat half or less of the recommended amount. The body wants a set quota of micronutrients every day. Less than 2% of Americans eat the recommended amount of potassium, and that’s just one non-negotiable biological requirement on the list. The body wants natural daylight. We sit indoors under artificial light. The body wants movement. We sit and sit until we develop chronic neck and shoulder pain, back pain, and the kind of droopy posture that makes us ache day and night. The body wants all sorts of things that we never give it.
When we say “my body wants,” we’re almost always talking about cravings for unhealthy foods. “Hey, I want curly fries, and I’m salivating. I guess my body knows what it wants.” I’ve never seen anyone use this phrase when referring to catching up on sleep, doing lat pulls, or eating cruciferous vegetables. It seems to be a type of bravado or cutesy talk, like when we use the phrase, “don’t judge :-)”. We want to bond over how we do things that are a bad idea and don’t do things that are a good idea. Anything else is a socially problematic, nerdy, preachy, holier-than-thou, wet blanket breach of etiquette.
Food cravings are not an indicator of nutritional deficiency. If they were, we’d crave healthier options. Chances are that we’re truly craving something else, but we’re too detached from what is natural for the human body to realize what we’re missing. We mask the unsettled feeling with artefacts of modern living, like chocolate, caffeine, or electronic distractions. We don’t make all the possible connections when we get ill, and generally we don’t think illness has anything to do with our unnatural, Space Age eating, sleeping, and activity patterns.
Tuning in to what the body wants involves questioning our default responses. If my body really wants those curly fries, why do I always get indigestion and a headache after I eat them? If I’m really giving my body what it wants, what is my explanation for my health problems? Why does my body not seem to want the amount of water, sleep, and healthy foods that decades of research and longitudinal studies indicate it should? What would happen if I started with the assumption that mainstream research is accurate, and behaved accordingly? This can be radical. When I made the decision to Do the Obvious and make a sincere effort to follow mainstream advice, dozens of things clicked into place at once. Suddenly I was sleeping and moving more, and I quit taking anti-inflammatories all the time because I didn’t need them. This is why I question the idea of giving my body “what it wants.” It took me nearly 40 years to get a useful understanding of what that was.
One day I got a call from a distressed woman. I worked in social services, and there was certainly nothing new about this. Distressed people called me every day, sometimes in tears, and I enjoyed being able to help them as much as I could. This particular caller wanted to ask about someone else, though. She believed that her sister-in-law really needed to clean her house. She did not believe her nieces and nephews were in danger; she just thought the house was too messy. She wanted to know if there was a way to anonymously report them and have someone from the County make her clean up. She especially did not want the sister-in-law to know that she was the one who made the call. I heard her out and tried tactfully to explain that this was really none of her business. If she had already offered to help clean up and had been rejected, and the kids were fine, then she was simply going to have to accept the situation.
That’s about the size of it. You can keep as much clutter as you want; you can keep every item you’ve ever owned in your entire lifetime, including old newspapers and napkins. If you wish to live in squalor, that is your choice, and you are free to do so. Most likely, nobody will ever come for you. Nobody will make you throw anything away. Nobody will force you to clean anything that you do not want to clean. You can have as large a laundry pile as you like. You can stack up dirty dishes by the crate load. You never have to clean your floors, or your bathroom. You never have to wash your windows. You don’t even have to take out your trash. You are welcome to live with mold and vermin if you like. It’s a free country.
I take an interest in these matters. So far, I have only known four people to be evicted due to hoarding or squalor. I have only known one family to lose their kids over their housekeeping, and that was only for a few weeks. If you are not a renter and you don’t have any kids, then as far as I can tell, there really are no limits. You’ll only have a problem if you hoard in your front yard where it bothers your neighbors, and they report you to the relevant authorities.
It seems that one of the reasons why my people live in sub-optimal personal environments is that they are working hard to demonstrate autonomy. In the precise way that heavy people are enraged by perceived body shaming, my people are outraged by the perceived demands of society. They believe that the only options are a sterile, obsessive compulsive, bleak, ascetic box, or the way they are living right now. There is a sort of straw-man phantasm of a drill instructor floating around in the collective unconscious, probably modeled after Martha Stewart, who will only be satisfied when all females of Earth spend at least 19 hours a day scrubbing floors on their hands and knees.
As for me, I have robots for that.
The first thing I notice in my clients’ homes is the shame. They apologize. They don’t have people over very often. Curtains are kept closed, sometimes in select rooms, and sometimes throughout the house. Certain doors are almost never opened. I’ve never met anyone who was proud of a mess, and I’ve never known anyone who created one intentionally. It just happens, due to a lack of systems, and the core assumption is that making a change will require a vast amount of work. It can feel very disempowering. Usually, the house is just one of several areas of life that are not going as well as they could be. It adds to the overwhelming sense of wrongness. Career troubles, money troubles, car troubles, family troubles, health troubles – nothing is working right now, and you expect me to wax my floors too?! [Nota bene: Nobody expects you to wax your floors].
The interesting thing about this is that my people will tend to turn away any help that is offered, just when it seems they could use it the most. Someone like the nosy sister-in-law who called me is probably genuinely willing to come over and clean the house from top to bottom. Many people almost have to physically restrain their mothers from coming over and doing it for them, regardless of age. It is almost universal for my people to delay necessary home repairs because they don’t want anyone to see the house in its current state. Human nature is to isolate ourselves when we are in trouble. Guilt and shame calcify into anger and defensiveness. Anxiety and depression also tend to cause us to isolate ourselves. Accepting help feels like humiliation. In some ways, a messy house can be a defense mechanism, creating a nest that simultaneously drives away interfering outsiders. It’s a place we can crawl into when we need to hide from the world.
We can move out of the polarized tug-of-war between disorder and obsessive tidiness. Just as anorexia and obesity are not the only options for a body, hyper-cleaning and squalor are not the only options for a house. As a fit person, I appreciate the strength of my body. As an artist, I appreciate having a comfortable and orderly environment for my work. I never worry about being judged by others; not about these things, anyway. I don’t feel criticized or forced or obligated to manage my household routine, any more than I do about my workouts. I have chosen the way that I want to live, and I know what to do to make it happen. It is easier to be fit, and it is easier to live in an organized home. The key is to ask ourselves what we actually DO want. Is it this? Is this intentional? Is this life something that we have freely chosen? Given a chance, would we do it again the same way? We are free to experiment and make changes, as we are free to return to the previous way if we do decide that we like it better. Let’s try to imagine how we would live if we never concerned ourselves with the opinions of others.
Writing a resume has got to be one of the most hated tasks in the world. The last few times I’ve applied for a job, my husband (then boyfriend) basically had to tie me to a chair until I was done. On at least two of these occasions, I wound up getting the job, partly due to his willingness to go out and get me takeout Chinese food and crack the whip over me, literally not letting me up when I tried to procrastinate and let deadlines elapse. I have the same problem many people do, and perhaps nearly all women. We are stymied when we have to say positive things about ourselves, and we don’t feel like our skills really count for much.
This is a confidence issue. I’ve read that men will apply for a job when they have roughly 70% of the skills requested, assuming they will stretch into the role if they work hard. Meanwhile, women are hesitant to apply for jobs unless we are absolutely sure we are at least 100% qualified. I’ve known many ladies to hedge themselves, not wanting to include things they’ve done only for a short while or on only a few occasions. We’ll only include software if we could teach a class on it. We don’t include skills we use in volunteer work. We feel like we’re going to be graded. We see it as an integrity issue; applying for a job when we aren’t already expert at every one of its functions is seen as a kind of cheating.
Here’s the deal. As long as we represent ourselves accurately, it’s up to the employer whom to hire. The employer needs to hire the person who is the best fit for the job. If that’s you, and you made a very meek, falsely modest accounting of yourself, the employer will wind up hiring the second-best choice. That’s wrong. If you’re the one who is going to show up every day, work the hardest, learn the most, and do the best job, it’s not fair to pretend otherwise.
One day I marched into a temp agency and filled out their application. I had made up my mind that I was going to push harder to promote myself and negotiate for better pay. I had practiced and rehearsed and steeled myself. I said, “I can’t accept any positions that pay less than $X per hour.” The rep replied, “We don’t have any positions that pay that low.” I started at $2 an hour higher than I had dreamed possible, and had another $3/hour raise several months later. It makes me wonder what would have happened if I’d started out asking for 20% more. In my mind, I had to scramble to get hired as an office assistant, even though I typed 90+ wpm and I had a bachelor’s degree and over a decade of experience. With another decade’s perspective, I can see that I should have been aiming for office manager, or at least executive secretary. The recruitment email I get from LinkedIn has been very illuminating.
It’s not just in the business world that we tend to sell ourselves short. We settle for unfulfilling relationships with ungrateful or unkind or emotionally withholding partners who take us for granted. We take on more than our fair share of the scutwork. We don’t speak up for ourselves. We generally hold back, giving up on our music or our art. We let years go by without following our dreams. Nobody is going to come along and “discover” us and advertise our good qualities. We have to do it ourselves. It’s not selfish or narcissistic; it’s our duty to be our best selves. The world needs more people like us. Pushing the limit on our comfort zones is just the start. We need to be pushing the limit on our education and skills and contributions as well.
Do not read this if you have a problem with profanity. I mean, don’t read the book, but also, definitely don’t read this post. I am pro-fanity (a joke I stole from Mike Pesca of The Gist), and if you’ve met me in person, you probably know how much I love to swear. I generally don’t do it in print, but today I’m going for it, because I’m working on taking more risks. You’ve been warned. Cursing to commence immediately.
The honey badger doesn’t give a shit. My husband and I talked about what animal doesn’t give a fuck. I think it’s the camel. The actual camel, not the enthusiastic one from TV commercials. Camel will just spit on you and go back to not giving a fuck. Which is rude, and gross, but… camels. Don’t pretend you didn’t know camels do that.
Now, back to the book. Sarah Knight’s book is styled as a parody of Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It’s a real book, though, and it barely references Kondo, other than offering a NotSorry Method. (Rhymes with KonMari…) There is some very helpful practical philosophy in here. The idea is to detach from social comparison, insincerity, and people-pleasing. It’s minimalist. Do what is truly important to you, focus on the people you truly care about, and don’t worry if other people have issues with that. This would be a good book club pairing with Brad Blanton’s book, Radical Honesty, and if your book club actually goes for that, please Skype me in.
My husband and I had a conversation regarding things about which we give no fucks. It was refreshing. Call it a trust-building exercise. We don’t give any fucks about coffee tables, reality television, manicures, tattoos, cruise ships, or whether Twinkies continue to be a thing. I found out that he actually kind of does give a fuck about convertibles and ferrets. Who knew?
Meanwhile, there are all sorts of things I really want to quit giving a fuck about, but haven’t managed yet, such as missionaries coming to my door, despite the sign I hung on our gate that says “No religious inquiries, no exceptions.” That may be the ultimate example of giving too many fucks: invading other people’s privacy to talk to them about their most deeply personal spiritual beliefs. Do I know you?
It is a huge mystery the way that certain people seem to give fucks about things that don’t really have anything to do with them. For instance, I don’t care what other people eat, but they think I do, because I’m a vegan. So I get these regular manifestos and speeches from people, a propos of nothing, about why they believe they are entitled to eat meat, as though I’m some kind of omnivore confession booth. Hashtag zero fucks. As the book says, “I do me, you do you.” Another example is a conversation that happens to me at least once a month, that goes roughly like this:
Person: Have you seen that one commercial that goes like this? [description]
Me: Sorry, I don’t watch TV.
Person: [continues to describe TV commercial, then remembers conversation as me bragging and droning on about how I don’t watch TV]
Person: Did you see that episode of whatever show? Because I totally was not caring when you already told me you’re not into TV.
Person: [describes episode, evidently having literally no other possible topics of conversation]
I am really, really, really supposed to give a fuck about TV. Comcast shows up at my door about once a year to sell me cable, and when I tell them no thanks, they make fun of me. Our internet provider called to try to upsell us on cable, and when I said I didn’t watch TV, the caller said, and I quote, “That’s crazy!” So yeah. The moment you quit giving a fuck, you start to find out how much time other people spend giving metric assloads of fucks about how other people, even total strangers, spend their time.
There is one glaring problem with not giving a fuck: it alienates and confuses people. I don’t give a fuck about beer, wine, bacon, coffee, superhero movies, fantasy sports, scrapbooking, stand mixers, other people’s grammar or spelling, or a large number of other things. This means I don’t have much in common with a lot of people. I do give a fuck about a separate list of things that most other people don’t seem to. I’ve had to learn to quit giving quite so much of a fuck about not necessarily winning any popularity contests. I have tried pretending to care about things, and I just can’t fake it well enough to convince anyone. Oh well.
The good news is that I can confirm it’s true. Not giving a fuck can be really liberating. I quit giving a fuck about commuting to a day job, owning a house, not being able to have children, or intimidating people by being thin and having a clean house. I don’t give any fucks whatsoever about my ex-husband. I don’t wear makeup or heels, I don’t do my nails, and I started “going gray naturally” when I was 17. Guess what? My fuck bucket is empty. It does tend to free up a lot of time for the things that interest me.
Do you believe that a book can change your life? It’s a question along the same lines as whether you believe in love at first sight. If you do, you may find it happening to you; if you don’t, it’s hard to say. Books have changed my life over and over again. Sometimes, a simple article or blog post will. It happened tonight. Chris Guillebeau wrote a post entitled, “Taking Risks” is Not the Same as “Doing Hard Things.” I read it and found myself on the brink of tears, with chills running through my entire body. It hit me so hard that I’m still processing three hours later. This post will be a bit of real-time practical philosophy in action.
As a quick summary of a short, highly readable article, the main points are:
This hit me like a ton of bricks. I spend a lot of time and effort doing hard things for the sake of doing hard things. Essentially, if I am confronted with a weakness in myself, I want to dig it out, like removing an eye from a potato. I felt that I was physically cowardly and weak, so I pushed myself, doing longer and longer races and backpacking trips, jumping over flames, climbing ropes, crawling under barbed wire… because I’m too scared to donate blood. I tried once, but I fainted when they pricked my finger, and they asked me not to come back “for several years.” (Now I’m under the acceptable weight limit to be a blood donor, and that makes me feel both relieved and guilty, like I’ve gotten away with something unsavory). I know I am weak, but knowing that helps drive me in the direction of self-discipline, grit, and determination. Just because my legs are shaking doesn’t mean I get to quit.
Does it get me anywhere, though?
It seems that my biggest stumbling block in life right now is my reluctance to publish. I have a 95% complete novel, and when I say “complete,” I mean that I even have the book cover and the material for the book trailer video. I have about 75% of a project that I know will sell, with clear direction on how to finish it. I have an entire index card file full of dozens of viable project ideas. Whenever I get close to where all I have to do is open the gate and swat one of these projects on the hind end, I withdraw and work on something else. As I read the article I’m gushing over, it seemed to me that fear of risk was the missing piece. I was perfectly willing to do the hard work of writing, rewriting, editing, rewriting, and editing again. I reached the point years ago when critique started to feel useful and worth seeking out. Something is going on that doesn’t have to do with difficulty. Fear of entering new territory?
I turned to my husband and told him about this idea of risk versus doing hard things. Then I read him the article. We had a discussion about risk and hard things – and this is where the tide turns, because the conversation went in a very unexpected direction. The person who knows me best did not agree with how I categorized the things I did. In short, he sees risk in places where I see difficulty, and vice versa. This confounded me somewhat.
He put running my marathon in the risk category. In all my training, that never crossed my mind. I knew the course was covered by hundreds of volunteers and safety professionals, I knew the route, and I knew I was getting over the finish line even if I had to elbow-crawl until midnight. I just thought it was hard. Not even extremely hard. Physically difficult, yes, but mentally, emotionally? Nah.
I put my public speaking project in the risk category. He said, “How is that a risk?” I gave him fish face. Completely poleaxed. I realized he was right. I was in a place specifically designed for nervous beginners to develop skill and confidence. The room could not possibly be more supportive or friendly. Yet, in spite of the welcome audience, I am still physically shaking every time I get up to speak. I have done karaoke with no problem; I’m an extrovert, and I don’t mind being in the spotlight. (I don’t seek it out, but… ) There is something about being behind a podium that activates my fight or flight system in a bad way. The first time I managed to speak for longer than sixty seconds, I could barely walk afterward. My legs almost collapsed under me. I can run for 26 miles and carry a 42-pound backpack. My thighs are strong. The only thing that makes sense is that I’d be relieved when my speech was over – but I find myself still shaking five minutes later. My husband and I both agree that public speaking is difficult for me. Is he right that it isn’t risky? Are we interpreting risk in different ways? Or does he underrate it simply because public speaking isn’t a big deal to him?
I learned something funny from our conversation. Apparently my habit of walking alone late at night feels very risky to him. Good to know. It made me think that many of the activities I categorize as ‘difficult’ actually have a level of physical risk that doesn’t faze me at all. The marathon, the adventure race, traveling alone, walking around major urban centers alone at night, hiking into the back country for days out of cell phone range… Maybe I have it backward? Maybe I have no problem with risky things, and what I perceive as risk is really something entirely different?
We agree that there is a certain measure of risk in making my writing public. I have some very controversial views about a very emotional topic, and I often feel I’m on the edge of igniting a viral hate ray in my direction. We also agree that I have virtually no tolerance for financial risk. Largely, though, it seems that he defines risk in either a financial or physical sense. Emotional risk is a different territory.
Is there a bright line for risk? There are obviously situations anyone would agree are risky, such as trying to rescue someone from a burning building or to mediate a domestic dispute. On the other end of the scale, someone might feel real risk in asking someone for a date or applying for a job. (I just did the latter, and when I used it as an example of a risk I had taken, my husband thought it was not risky but difficult, and I couldn’t even figure out why he would think it was difficult. It’s really just writing a letter). Risk involves the possibility of loss. Loss of life and limb, certainly, that would count as risky. Loss of money? Yup. Loss of face? Risk of public humiliation? So much of the time, we fear humiliation, only to find that whatever we were planning to do barely registered on anyone else’s radar. We can really do almost anything, and much of the time, nobody else will care, or even notice. We don’t need permission.
I think there are two things going on, at least in my case. First, anything that stretches my self-image or boundaries tends to set off warning bells. I only want to do things that feel natural, that I can easily imagine myself doing. Second, there is the problem of The Resistance, as defined by Steven Pressfield. The Resistance seems able to attach itself to specific tasks or projects, even when I’ve done virtually identical things many times before. Under scrutiny, many things that feel risky turn out to be little more than mirages. Where is the risk in applying for a job? Where is the risk in speaking for one minute to a receptive audience? Where is the risk in publishing a book? Why are these things so frightening?
Why am I more afraid of publishing than I am of walking around alone at night? That doesn’t even make sense.
FEAR MEANS GO. I read that somewhere recently, and I felt it as a shameful burn. It’s so much more comfortable to suppress those spooky feelings and let opportunities pass by unexplored. I’ve managed to spend a great deal of time, energy, and focus doing things that are perceived as difficult, partly to prove a point to myself and others. I want to be seen as someone who does not back away from challenge. In some ways, that works very well as a diversion. Look over here, not over there. Ignore that whole part about how busy I am not doing the most obvious thing, because it makes me nervous.
Is risk all about our personal evaluation of risk? Are there levels? Is it like pain, in the sense that what one person can easily tolerate would shatter someone else? If certain things that seem risky to others feel easy to us, are we better off exploiting that advantage, or pushing harder on our personal weak points?
I’m not done stewing over this. It feels like the conundrum of a lifetime. It seems to demand a chart. For now, I’m going to move my focus away from ‘hard things’ to ‘hardEST things’ and expect more tangible results from myself.
This post is in response to a reader question. If there are two things I love in this world, they are 1. Questions and 2. Vegetables, so if you are wondering about anything, please feel free to contact me and ask away! While not everyone has a history of being picky or disliking vegetables, I do, so that’s the angle I’m taking. If I could do it, anyone can.
I used to be a picky eater. My family ate certain common vegetables, and I was excused from eating the ones I didn’t like. I would eat canned peas, canned green beans, canned beets, creamed corn, and salad. The rest of the family ate artichokes, asparagus, baked zucchini, frozen broccoli, and yams – while I complained and made rude comments from the sidelines. That’s pretty much it. I had never heard of many of the vegetables I eat now, much less seen, tasted, or liked them. The first time I got my CSA farm box and it contained kale, collard greens, and chard – I had to Google pictures of them to figure out which was which!
I made a decision. I got married and became the insta-mom of a teenage girl. I decided that now that I had a family of my own, it was time to step up and learn to cook. I wish I’d done it sooner because my cooking rocks. Vegetables are like a secret form of ritual magic that only the elite know about.
I put vegetables into two categories now: Power Veg and “decorations.” Most, but not all, power vegetables are cruciferous. We try to eat at least two cups of Power Veg a day, and unlimited amounts of the colorful confetti kind.
Power Vegetables: Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, bok choy, Romanesco, chard, collard greens, beets and their greens, turnips and their greens, Brussels sprouts, arugula, radishes, spinach, rapini, Chinese broccoli, mustard greens, broccolini, kohlrabi, and, yes, kale. (If you “hate” kale, try chard instead). Horseradish and sauerkraut are two ways to eat cruciferous vegetables without necessarily realizing you’re doing it. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams also fall under our “two cups a day” rule.
Sprinkles: Lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers, green beans, snow peas, onions, shallots, green onions, leeks, mushrooms, edamame, basil, mint, cucumber, zucchini, water chestnuts, baby corn, bamboo shoots, artichokes, asparagus, okra, eggplant, fennel, carrot tops, parsley, cilantro (yeah, yeah, shut up), celery, celeriac or celery root, jicama, various seaweeds (nori, dulse, wakame, etc), and any other edible plant we haven’t tried yet.
The first strategy is to EAT MORE OF WHAT YOU ALREADY KNOW YOU LIKE. If you don’t like cauliflower but you do like broccoli, or vice versa, that’s fine. Just plan on eating larger quantities of it, more often. Give yourself points for the vegetables you are eating. Use them as a bridge: try a new recipe with vegetables you like, and maybe include one you’ve never had before.
The big weight loss/healthy diet battle seems to be portrayed as SATURATED FAT vs. BREAD. Nobody talks about vegetables because nobody wants to eat them. We don’t really eat either saturated fat or bread, and we’ve lost 100 pounds between us. That’s because vegetables are loaded with micronutrients and fiber. Since we quadrupled our vegetable consumption, it has been two years since I had a migraine or night terrors. I no longer have the dark circles under my eyes that I had all through my 20s. Eating more vegetables has a lot of surprising side benefits. One of the main ones is that with repeated exposure, they start tasting not horrible, then fine, then great… and then you find yourselves standing side by side, jaws hanging open, staring at a two-gallon vat of steamed kale and wondering if the deli will sell you the whole thing. It happened to us.
Anyway, here are some specific strategies that worked to get a picky eater like me to start loving vegetables.
PEER PRESSURE. Many of the things I forced myself to try were based on not embarrassing myself in front of a cute guy, or a friend’s family.
NEW CUISINES. Trying something that has been cooked by an experienced chef can change your world. It was through Thai, Lebanese, Indian, and Ethiopian food that I first learned how delicious certain vegetables can be.
DIFFERENT FORMAT. It turns out that I didn’t do well with vegetables as plain side dishes. I like them better when they are mixed with a bunch of other stuff, broths, sauces, and lots of garlic, herbs, and spices. Other people may be the exact opposite. It also turns out that I don’t care for canned or frozen vegetables. Some things I prefer raw or cooked, while other people in my family are the reverse. For example, my mom likes raw onion and I like it cooked.
TIME COMMITMENT. Eating more fresh produce means more time washing and chopping – unless it doesn’t. We sometimes buy bagged salad. (I actually hate making salad, although I’ll spend 3x as long making a soup, but my husband enjoys making big salads). Often we just cut up a head of broccoli and microwave it for 4 minutes. The goal is to GET THOSE VEGETABLES. It doesn’t matter as much whether they are organic or not, home-grown or not, fresh or frozen or not, in the same way that you are better off drinking contaminated water in the wilderness than dying of dehydration. You can buy packages of pre-washed, pre-chopped vegetable mixes and quickly turn them into a stir fry, soup, or side dish, until The Hunger comes upon you and you find yourself actually wanting to do it yourself.
NEW RECIPES. I’m really into cookbooks and recipe apps. I will sometimes spend 2 hours making something special, like eggplant rollatini, but that’s only about 5% of the time. We have a 30-minute rule. We alternate cooking and cleaning up, and my husband prefers familiarity to novelty, so the new recipe testing is my bailiwick. Every now and then, I’ll hit upon a quick recipe that appeals to him, and it enters his repertoire.
ADD A VEG. One thing we do when we don’t feel like cooking is to simply make canned soup and stuff in a bunch of a green vegetable. Usually it’s Costco black bean soup with a bag of collard greens. (Keep pushing the greens around with a wooden spoon until they shrink down and turn emerald green; at that point, the soup is hot). With experimentation, we’ve found that certain soups go better with certain greens. White beans with kale, minestrone with chard, black beans or black-eyed peas with collard greens. Weirdly, most recipes don’t seem to contain any power vegetables, and some entire cookbooks (and Paula Dean’s website) have barely any. We’ve started to think that a plate or bowl looks wrong when there’s nothing green there. So we shrug and put some in.
WASHING IT DOWN. There are a lot of old-fashioned frugality strategies that were common in the past, but unheard-of now. Food cost about 35% of a family’s income when my parents were children. Now it’s under 15%. We can afford to throw away food; that is an extremely recent and unprecedented historical phenomenon. Separate children’s menus are another innovation that seems to be code for “fiber- and vitamin-free, yet expensive.” For the uninitiated, “wash it down” means to take a big gulp of milk or other fluid and use it to swallow an unappetizing food bolus without tasting it. You have my permission to do this with soda, if that’s what it takes to get you eating vegetables, but only for the first 3-6 months. Don’t let the Halo Effect of eating a healthy food lull you into a false sense of security about also eating extremely unhealthy foods and empty calories. This is about a transition from a lame, nutritionally poor, D- or F-grade diet to a top-caliber, gold star healthy diet. We’re adding, with the goal of eventually replacing. Eat a potato instead of bread, eat cabbage instead of rice, eat squash instead of macaroni and cheese. Give it time, though. Taste preferences begin in utero; the flavor orientations of decades don’t change overnight.
“FOR HATERS.” I never ate Brussels sprouts until I was an adult, because my mom hated them. Now everyone in the family eats them. The reason is that I got some in the farm box for Thanksgiving, shrugged, and decided to cook them. I Googled “Brussels sprouts for haters” and tried two of the recipes that came up. IT WORKED. As a general rule, always ask someone who really, really loves a particular vegetable to cook it for you their way, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel alone in your own kitchen.
THE ANDI SCALE. Do you like games? Do you like high scores? Take a gander at this: https://www.drfuhrman.com/library/andi-food-scores.aspx
BUT HOW DO YOU COOK IT? We didn’t like everything we tried on the first few occasions, but we ate it anyway. About 10% of the new recipes I try are either boring or yucky. We didn’t like collard greens at first, until I finally discovered a recipe that involves sautéing them in olive oil, garlic, and ¼ tsp maple syrup. After a few tries, our palates had adjusted, and the syrup started tasting bad. Now we’re trying to learn to like mustard greens (NOT FOR AMATEURS) and I’ve been adding a single leaf to a batch of other greens. It, um, well, it stands out. The last time I did it, I added some Tabasco sauce, liquid smoke, and soy sauce, and it was good. I write notes in pencil in my cookbooks, and I have a rating system for every recipe I try. I put the code on the top corner of the page, where I can see them as I flip through the book.
FRUIT. If you don’t like fruit, it’s probably because you only encounter yucky fruit. Fruit bowls usually make me sad. Mealy apples, unripe oranges that are impossible to peel, watery unripe melon, mushy grapes, leopard bananas… No, thank you. I eat fruit every day, but I give sad fruit a pass every time. Grocery stores at specific locations get A, B, or C grade produce. I didn’t really eat fruit until I moved down the street from a co-op store that sold Grade A fruit. (Stores don’t exactly advertise this, but if you see fruit flies and gnats hanging around, that’s not the right store). I usually don’t like things with a fruit filling, like Pop Tarts, cereal bars, or jam, either. I only drink juice on rare occasions, for instance, if we’re traveling and there are few breakfast options I find acceptable. However, given the choice between two items that are the same, except that one includes fruit, I’ll take the fruity one. (Examples: Special K with red berries, salad with pears). My packet oatmeal has dried blueberries. Our main sources of fruit are our CSA farm box subscription (always ripe and in season) and the citrus trees in our back yard. One of our favorite activities as a couple is to find a fruit we’ve never had before, take it home, and figure out how to eat it. Last time, it was dragon fruit, and it was really good.
Taste preferences are not permanent. They are one of the hardest things to change, but change they can. Taste buds renew themselves every two years. That’s part of why toddlers are super-picky but may grow up to like things they rejected at first. The older we get, the less sensitive our taste buds are, which is great, because it enables us to enjoy more foods. I still sometimes have to make myself eat something, usually cooked zucchini or raw tomato, because of texture and temperature factors. I do it because intellectually, I am convinced that these foods are good for me. If a vegetable is there, I eat it until it’s gone. That’s the rule. See vegetable, eat it. See dessert, set limits. The result of this strategy has been that I have lost 35 pounds, I sleep 8-9 hours a night, I no longer get migraines or night terrors, my skin looks great, and I am the strongest and fittest I have ever been. Doing what comes naturally did not work well for me. Following my taste preferences was a disaster that made me fat and ill. I forced myself to learn to eat things I didn’t like, and eventually I started to like them. Research indicates it takes about 17 exposures to a new flavor to adapt to it. In my experience, most things didn’t take that long – I’ll eat almost anything in a peanut sauce or a coconut curry!
Only about 4% of Americans eat the recommended amount of vegetables, fruits, and micronutrients. That explains everything to me. As far as I have seen, there are no studies that show any downside to eating cruciferous vegetables. They’re acceptable in every brand-name diet plan. Why not play around a little and give vegetables a try?
Once upon a time, there was a woman who had her own sewing room. She had married her high school sweetheart, and both were talented artists who loved to Make things. Then they had children. The oldest daughter is sixteen. For her entire lifetime, her bedroom closet has been full of her mother’s sewing things. She has never truly had a private space to call her own.
Once upon a time, there was a woman who had her own sewing room, complete with a walk-in closet for fabric. Her house was adorable, a decorator’s paradise. You couldn’t tell when the fabric closet got filled. You couldn’t tell when the sewing room itself got filled. You could only tell when the guest room got filled if you were invited upstairs. At some point, you weren’t invited over anymore. Nobody was. She would have been Pinterest royalty, if Pinterest existed in those days. Now? Well, let’s not talk about that. Let’s just say she doesn’t have a sewing room where she lives now.
A sewing room is the ultimate fantasy of many people. It’s a bottom-up fantasy, a whimsical solution to the pressing problem of Where Do I Put All This Fabric and Stuff? A top-down fantasy would be more along the lines of What is My Ultimate Fantasy? or, If I Had Only One Wish, What Would It Be? I once wanted a sewing room of my own, but I don’t any longer. Let’s unpack this.
I can do pretty much everything. I can knit and crochet. I can draft patterns. I can do various stitches by hand. I still have an antique industrial sewing machine, which I use on vanishingly rare occasions. I can make hats and shoes and socks and mittens that fit. I can do tablet weaving. I can quilt and do cross stitch. I can use a pressure canner. I can use shop tools. I have personally assembled most of the furniture in the house, cut my treadmill desk, made the wall hangings and pot holders and afghans and the beaded lamp, and even put together some of the sequined fruit in my collection. I made all my brother’s drapes. Many of my friends and family members have, at one time or another, had at least one object I made for them. It used to be a huge part of my life. My grandmother once pointed out that she never saw me just sit; if I was sitting, I was working on a project. (That is still true, but the projects are usually ink-based now). If anyone could have used a sewing room, surely it was I.
I quit making stuff. Well, more accurately, about ten years ago, I decided to “get caught up” and finish every project I had ever started. After that, I was going to use up all the fabric and materials I had stored. When I was at Fabric and Yarn Zero, the plan was to reevaluate and check out how it felt. Plan A was to conceive of a project, plan it, schedule a day to start working on it, and then go out and acquire the materials when I knew I would be able to complete it in a reasonable time period. That day has not yet come. I am still working on the last project, something I began over ten years ago. I still have fabric that I bought farther back along the timeline than that. I have gotten rid of all the knitting and crochet stuff, the table loom, the inkle loom, the lace bobbins, and one of the sewing machines. There are various other notions and supplies that I still have, even though I know I haven’t touched the stuff in at least the last two houses we have lived in, even though I write about clutter every day.
Why? Why do we feel the need to keep SO MANY YEARS’ WORTH OF STUFF?
It just might come in handy. Some felt I had bought to make a new hat got cut up and used to fix the motor in the freezer. One of the first rules of clutter is that, soon after I get rid of something, a situation will arise in which I can imagine having used the thing, reinforcing my desire to keep everything even when I have so much I can’t find anything and have to make do without it. (A cluttered sentence for you there).
Why else do we keep years’ worth of materials?
They are full of bright and shiny POTENTIAL. We remember how much they cost, and it makes us nauseated to think of wasting that money. (Sunk cost fallacy). We get really excited when we look at them. We know we’ll use them as soon as we find other things that go with them well enough to complete the project. We’re afraid that the next time we go to look at materials, suddenly they will all be less attractive than what we bought last time, in spite of the fact that we find everything more attractive each time we go. We see it as our lone vice. We prefer shopping and starting projects to organizing, cleaning up, and completing projects. We feel like we’ve ruined something, and we don’t want to try to fix it, but we also don’t want to throw it away, so we put it aside and start something else. Someone gave it to us, and paradoxically, it’s usually harder to get rid of things we got for free than things we bought. We’ve never thought about it, and we have no idea how many person-hours of labor each bolt or skein represents. We feel guilty about throwing away scraps. (We’ll keep “cabbage” but we won’t eat real cabbage). We have compulsive acquisition issues.
A sewing room can represent many things, above and beyond its value as a workstation. Truth be told, many people with functional sewing rooms (or offices) hate working in them, because they are isolated and dimly lit or because the work table faces the wall. The work gets carried out to the couch or dining table or living room floor. A sewing room generally serves as a Room of Requirement. It’s a parallel to the Man Cave. Many suburban couples have a garage and at least one spare bedroom. The garage becomes a wanna-be fantasy shop space, choking with boxes and scattered junk. The spare bedroom becomes a wanna-be sewing room, similarly choked with fabric and yarn and holiday decorations and unopened moving boxes. The sewing room represents conspicuous leisure, conspicuous consumption, a temple to potential artistry, a symbol of female power (similar to handbags and unwearable shoes), the desire for privacy and High Quality Leisure Time, a yearning for respect of our boundaries and our competence, a dream of order and beauty throughout the home, a pocket existing outside of time where we can enter a flow state.
My husband and I share an office. We each have our own desk. There is space to spread out a sewing project, if we wanted, but there isn’t space to leave anything out for long. In our 728-square-foot house, there simply isn’t room to have a closet or a stack of bins full of fabric or yarn. It would feel cramped and keep us from getting anything else done. That is a small price to pay for being able to afford to live in our dream neighborhood, where my husband can walk to work every day. If we want to look at carefully folded shelves of different fabrics or mounds of yarn, we can go to the craft store. I don’t need a special room to feel like I have plenty of privacy, leisure, or respect for my personal space.
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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.