The most common interview question that artists are asked is where they get their ideas. To a creative person, this is a hilariously absurd question. It’s more a question of, how do you suppress the constant stream of ideas when you need to concentrate on something specific? Everyone has this innate ability. Not everyone recognizes it or knows how to tune in to it. This question of where ideas come from is a perfectly fair and reasonable question to ask. Good luck, though, finding someone who will give it the sincere answer that it deserves.
“There are no stupid questions,” says a friend of ours, “only stupid people.” I respond, in the immortal words of Weird Al Yankovic, “Dare to be stupid.” The place of not knowing is the place of emptiness. When we allow ourselves to be empty, there is room for stuff. What stuff? Who knows? Why not keep it empty and see whether anything eventually burbles up?
The place of emptiness feels like boredom. That’s important. Be bored! Be bored for a few minutes! Boredom leads the mind to wander. THAT is where the ideas start to pop into existence. What if? Why does? Who would? How would someone? Where is? When did?
Idea generation is our natural state. All tiny kids are really, really good at this. They will color pictures in whatever colors strike their fancy – until they are taught that “the sky isn’t purple,” etc. Sure it is, sometimes! Sometimes it’s white, gray, pink, orange, brown, black, yellow, and even green. Trees are purple too, sometimes, and I’ve walked under many a jacaranda in my neighborhood. As we get older, we’re taught standard unfunny jokes about spurious college majors such as Underwater Basket Weaving. Seriously, have you ever been to Las Vegas? Have you ever watched a viral video? If someone actually could weave a basket underwater, I would want to watch. Not much competition there. The other one is poetry. You should be so lucky if your kid grows up to be a poet, like Eminem or Jay-Z. You know who has a bachelor’s degree in English? Stephen King. Our kid is studying artificial intelligence. The career she’ll wind up with doesn’t quite exist yet, but it’ll be ready by the time she graduates. If she’d felt limited by what we were doing at her age, she’d be either a logger or a data entry clerk. With the benefit of hindsight, we see that creative inspiration actually extends to the boring, mundane business world. Inspiration and innovation, art and inventions, are the same.
Inspiration needs somewhere to go. It happens all by itself, unless we block it. The first way we block it is by telling ourselves stories about how impractical and useless our ideas are. What’s the worst thing that could happen if I have a useless idea? Nothing. It’s just a figment of my imagination. I have useless ideas every day. Often, they morph into useful ideas after I’ve had time to mull them over. Sometimes my useless ideas make me laugh until I snort. Sometimes a useless idea, like a dream I had about a non-functional riding reel mower, turns into a funny drawing. The key is to make a nonjudgmental space for ideas, in the same way we put out bird feeders even though they sometimes attract squirrels.
Good ideas come from the same place as bad ideas. We just have to unpack a bunch of the bad ideas so we can see them. If we stop when we generate a bad idea, we miss the opportunity for the good idea to spring forth. We cultivate an attitude of curious detachment. We are lying on our backs on a grassy hill, watching cumulus clouds and trading observations about what they look like. I see a swan, you see a Viking longship, we’re both right, and a moment later the wind kicks up and we see something else. We allow ideas to come forward, releasing the expectation that they will amount to something or be suitable for a specific purpose.
The grassy hill is a place where none of us spend much time. That’s because we pack our schedules past the breaking point. Sleep deprivation is the norm for 70% of us. If you are not sleeping enough, you are not going to have a steady stream of inspiration and interesting ideas. You’re turning off the flow of dreams, both the sleeping and the waking kind. Lots of famous people have had career-defining inspirations while sound asleep, and many of them took naps every day. When every moment is full of tasks, conversations, distractions, and passive entertainment, not much else can fit in.
A shower radio is a toy I’ve always found appealing, and I could have one tomorrow if I wanted. They keep coming out with more features at lower prices. I’ve made the decision, though, to avoid that sort of thing. The shower is reliably the place where I come up with the best ideas and most helpful insights. It may have something to do with lathering my hair. It may be that I’m not completely awake yet and I haven’t dived into the day’s work. It may simply be that it’s a block of time when I’m not reading or listening to anything. Maybe if I spent an hour sitting in silence and staring at the wall, I’d have more ideas. Maybe I’ll try it. I wonder what would happen…?
Getting out of default mode is a big help. Making a practice of trying new activities, constantly learning as much as possible, meeting new people, tasting new foods, listening to new kinds of music, and imagining oneself in various different lives are all potential ways to stretch the mind and make a little space for new ideas to come in. Unfortunately, the human condition is such that our default mode tends to consist of being annoyed with people, being annoyed by events, having hurt feelings, gossiping about what other people are doing, worrying what others think about us, complaining, reliving bad memories, and imagining negative future possibilities. There may be ways to get interesting ideas out of those activities, and if I spend some time on it, maybe I’ll think of some. Mostly, though, they’re static drowning out the pure chord of inspiration.
Ideas can work together like wheels on a kaleidoscope. Just as we can combine worry + any category of life, we can combine idea + idea and see what happens. Let’s do some common negative examples. Can you think of a way to worry about money? How about your family members? Different worry for each person? Great job! Can you worry about transportation? How about illness or injury? Lots of ideas there? Awesome! Can you worry about the economy, world affairs, and what various leaders might do? Mmhmm, I thought so. Nice work. See, everyone is creative, we’re just taught to focus it only on approved channels. Let’s take that amazing gift and try it out in some other ways. Imagine a person whom you know, just the first person who comes to mind. Now mentally rotate through other people you know and think about whether the first person knows the second person. If not, what do you think would happen if they met? This is one of my favorite games, and I’ve used it to introduce various people who have become friends. I see that two of my friends who live in different states both do the same type of workout. I see another friend make a joke that reminds me of someone else’s sense of humor. What starts as a random thought turns into a new friendship in the world. In the same way that strangers can become friends, random ideas can become friends, too.
We tend to rate other people’s ideas higher than our own. What comes naturally to us doesn’t seem special. Where artists have the advantage is that they focus on the idea’s desire to enter the world. The idea desires to be expressed. It is a seed that wants to sprout. We understand that we are not skilled at judging which of our projects will succeed and which will be duds. It’s not our job to criticize, it’s our job to execute. It’s our job to complete projects and release them. It’s our job to have ideas, allow them to be what they are, and record them in some manner. Usually we have to do this in private, because the natural predator of an idea is a fearsome animal known as the naysayer. They are venomous and their bites can kill. Naysayers are only big enough to bring down ideas when they are young and small. We foster them in safety until they are developed enough to stand on their own, causing the naysayer to slink away and skulk in the underbrush.
Inspiration builds on itself. The more time and space we allow for it, the more it happens. We start to trust the process and recognize the feeling. We learn to pause and take notes, because ideas that fluttered in so graciously will eventually fade and disappear. The notes begin to accumulate. It doesn’t take long before we realize that we have more ideas than we could ever use, and that they’ll keep on coming. Ideas are like pennies in the street, just as easy to find and just as easy to undervalue.
So you’ve made the decision. You’re going to get fit. Congratulations! I’m impressed, but not as much as your own Future Self is. Working out is rough for the first three weeks or so, but if you push through the bad part, you’ll be on your way to an easier life. The magic really starts to happen when you loosen up the kinks in your neck and back and figure out where your muscles are.
I want to share some insider secrets. For the first 30 years of my life, I would have spit on the idea of any kind of workout. I started out as a bookworm with less than zero interest in any form of physical activity. I was the proverbial “last kid picked” for every game (that describes approximately one in 30 of us, if there was one in every class) and I had the caricature of the world’s worst, meanest, most out of shape gym teacher. He singled me out and ridiculed me for five solid minutes in class one day. It’s sad, but true, that PE nightmares cause many of us to opt out of exercise for the rest of our lives. Don’t let rude, incompetent teachers or other childhood bullies determine your choices. They’re just Dementors at this point.
One of the main reasons that 40% of Americans do no form of regular exercise is that we have no idea how many different kinds of workouts there are. We’re forced to try a few things in grade school, they don’t suit us, and we quit the minute we can. Personally, I am never going to play dodgeball again. Exactly NONE of the disciplines that have brought such passion to my life were ever introduced to me in school. I love ballroom dance, backpacking, adventure races (like mud runs), yoga, the elliptical, and cycling. I really enjoyed taking self-defense classes. When we ran in class, we had to run in a pack; I didn’t discover my inner marathoner until I was able to run at my own woefully slow pace. There are a bunch of things I “hate” or find too annoying to do. I can’t stand running on a treadmill; I can’t stand holding a water bottle while I run; I suck at step aerobics; the downward dog pose in yoga makes my hand go numb; working with a trainer makes me want to run right out the door. I quit my last gym because they kept playing Katy Perry. Most workouts are not going to satisfy me or hold my interest. Different gyms have different atmospheres, and some will suit one individual while others will not. Keep sampling and asking fit friends to give you a tour of their favorite workout until you find something that clicks for you.
The gym is not your only option. It’s pretty common for people to feel afraid to go to a gym because we don’t want to be stared at. Look. When you walk in the door of the gym, and you see fit people, you’re only seeing them in one frame of their movie. What you won’t know unless you ask is that many of us were motivated by illness, injury, or weight issues. Every gym is full of cancer survivors, former fat kids, the elderly, people recovering from car collisions or surgery, and more. When those of us who weren’t always fit see a non-athlete walk in the door, we cheer. We’re rooting for you. Often we see ourselves in you. If you don’t want people to judge you for your appearance, don’t do it to athletes either. Be open to new friendships and ask us what we can teach you.
The first thing to know is that doing at least two completely different sports or types of workout reduces your chances of injury by 50%. Cross-training means more than working to be good at more than one thing at a time. It means balancing the load on different physical systems. That reduces the chances of strain and overuse. I learned this the hard way, when I over-trained for my marathon and wound up with tendonitis in my ankle. Think long-term and be good to yourself. Start with two-thirds of what you think you can do and work upward from there.
Types of exercise are like the branches of a tree. When you start from zero, you’re at the root, and you work your way up the trunk for a while before choosing a branch. The trunk is general fitness. When you are functionally fit, you are prepared to pursue any type of activity. At that point, it’s time to consider whether you simply want to maintain that functional fitness level, or if you’re curious about more specialized types of challenge. It’s like getting your general education requirements out of the way before choosing a major. The workout you would do to be in a soccer league is different than the workout you would do as a triathlete, although there’s no reason you couldn’t do both.
If you’re working out to lose weight, I want to tell you something that I wish someone had told me. You’re not going to lose weight at the gym. Weight is not lost at the gym, it’s lost with your fork. Exercise alone will not reduce your body weight. Have I rephrased that enough ways? I am an extremely stubborn person, and I refused to believe that the way I ate had anything to do with my percentage of body fat. I refused to believe it until after I succeeded at losing weight by keeping a food log, and then regained a big chunk of it while training for a marathon. It is a hundred thousand times easier to lose weight by changing the way you eat than it is to try to burn it off at the gym. For me, I have to run 38 miles to burn one pound of body fat. Who knows, though? Maybe you’re right and your metabolism is better than mine. Good luck.
Different exercise routines will give different results. It’s good to spend at least a little time on all of them. Here is a brief rundown:
Weight training is the fastest way to get results. It will give you visible muscle definition. I did circuit training (at Curves) and I lost 17 inches the first month, 3 inches of fat off each arm alone! Weight training helps build bone density, which is extremely important for women as we age. Weight training makes you feel powerful and gives you the ability to lift heavy objects, open windows, and do basic chores more easily. There are some risks, though. If you’re not careful, you can hurt yourself. Work with a spotter and be receptive to input. If a more experienced person at your gym comes up to you and offers advice, please don’t be annoyed, offended, or defensive. That person will probably only interrupt you out of concern that you are going to injure yourself. There is also a protocol at every gym, a form of manners that you can quickly learn. I recommend working with free weights rather than machines; I have a tiny frame, and a couple of the machines tend to mess me up because they’re not built for my personal architecture.
Cardio is the fastest way to improve your mood. I speak from experience when I say that nothing fights depression as well as a good cardio workout. Bicycling and swimming are really good options for people with joint pain, although remember to mix it up and rotate between other activities if that’s an issue. Some kinds of cardio endurance training have additional side benefits. Running has the advantage of being an impact sport, which helps build bone density in a way that swimming does not. Spending a day or two on each (swimming, running, and cycling) can lead you to a sprint-distance triathlon in just a few months of training.
Endurance cardio is different than anaerobic cardio. Let me put it this way. Even when I was running 6 miles a day, my stepdaughter’s Wii Fit dance game kicked my butt. I could run for 90 minutes but be wiped out by 2.5 minutes of fast dancing. HIIT (high intensity interval training, like a “boot camp”) and team sports are other ways to build this particular super power.
Flexibility and balance are important parts of functional fitness. Here we’re looking at yoga, Pilates, and other stretching and balancing disciplines. What I want to tell you about yoga is that yoga is not for sissies. The first time I did Bikram yoga (the original “hot yoga,” done in a steamy 90 F room), I could barely get out of bed for the next three days. It’s best to start with just a few minutes of the simplest stretches and gradually build from there. A lot of people do nothing more than a “Sun Salutation” every day, and their yoga quota is done in under three minutes.
Twirling is my little secret. You know when Maria is singing “The Sound of Music” and spinning around with her arms flung out? It is so much fun. The first time I did it, my dog got really excited and started jumping around and I found myself giggling like a kid. The other advantage is that it’s good for the vestibular system. It helps us balance. This is a great idea for anyone, but it’s even more valuable for those of us over 40, because as we get older, the risk of a fall is scarier and has worse consequences. I twirl every day and I hope I’ll still be twirling when I’m 85. First I twirl as fast as I can in one direction, and then I stop for a few seconds and turn around and twirl the other way. Try it! You know you want to!
I work out now because it feels more comfortable for me than sitting. If I sit too long, my neck and shoulders lock up. If I can’t work out for more than a couple of days, my restless leg syndrome comes back to haunt me. I understand why my dog barks at the door and points to his leash when he wants to go for a walk. My legs want to MOVE. I take the stairs two at a time, and if I see a high curb, I try to balance on it. I march in place while I brush my teeth to get in my hip flexor exercise. I feel a strong need to stretch when my calves get too tight. There is no reason to believe that sitting 12 or more hours a day is natural for the human body. I’m still just as much of a bookworm as I’ve always been; I just do more of my reading through audio books or during my workout. I have a tablet clamp on my elliptical, and I used shop tools to make a shelf for my treadmill. I sometimes play podcasts while doing yoga. I have a friend who plays video games while riding his recumbent bike. The only “rules” are those imposed by the biological requirements of the human body, such as the fact that our knees are not designed to bend backward.
Not everything will work for everyone. There will always be a ‘home’ for everyone, a type of physical exertion that leads to a deep-seated craving. It can take a while to find it and personalize it. Like most sensitive, creative people, I responded badly to traditionally macho alpha-male styles of coaching. Introverts and shy people balk at the military style in the same way we balk at team activities, group classes, hyper-enthusiastic music and cheering, and feeling too visible. What we should be doing is choosing our own paths, and then demonstrating them to others of our kind, like I am doing now.
Coat closets are rare in California. Since I moved into my own place here in 2006, I have lived in 7 different homes, 5 of which did not have a coat closet. I grew up in Oregon, however, and my husband is from Mt. Shasta, so we keep heavy winter gear for family visits. Where do we put these coats that we only really need for two months of the year? What about all the other stuff that tends to be stored in a coat closet, when we have one? That includes the dog’s leash and other paraphernalia, our luggage, mops and brooms, the earthquake water, Roomba accessories, and canvas shopping bags. Our coat closet conundrum is one example of the way that home infrastructure does not always match the material needs of the inhabitants. It’s also an example of the way that we insist on putting stuff in particular places in our home, regardless of whether there is space for it all.
We just moved into a 728 square foot house that is 53% of the size of our old house. Part of the space that was cut from our accustomed living area includes the aforementioned coat closet, a bedroom, about 2/3 of a linen closet, half a bedroom closet, a pantry, and a walk-in storage closet off the garage that had considerable built-in shelving. We also accidentally destroyed a cabinet that used to hold all our office, art, and sewing supplies. It was really challenging to find places for the last 10% of our stuff and make our office a usable room.
We’ve been traveling back in time. When we first moved in together, I had been living in a 900 square foot “granny unit” built in 2001 that would technically qualify as a mini-house. Our newlywed house was built in 1988, had 1544 square feet, and came with a walk-in closet in the master bedroom, an astounding amount of kitchen storage, two living rooms, a cavernous garage, and, of course, a coat closet. The next house was 1056 square feet, freshly remodeled but built in 1972. Then we spent a few weeks in temporary housing that was part of an apartment complex. After that, we moved into the 1346 square foot, 1961 house where we lived last. Our current house was built in 1939. The closet rod in our bedroom measures 40 inches. This closet could have hidden behind some clothes in the walk-in closet of our newlywed house, and we wouldn’t have noticed it was there. We’ve learned a lot about what distinguishes homes of different decades, and how what is considered standard changes over the years.
As a newlywed couple, we combined two complete households’ worth of furniture, housewares, and linens. The 1988 house was so big, and had so much built-in storage, that we were able to keep both our couches, both our dining tables, and enough pans and utensils for 3-4 kitchens. We never really had to negotiate about downsizing anything. Four years later, we moved to another city, and the new house was 1/3 smaller. If the move had gone the other direction, starting in the 1972 house, we probably wouldn’t have chosen such a large house. We would have been used to the smaller space, and we would have wondered what anyone would do with an “extra” 500 square feet. If we were looking at buying a new home built in 2015, well, the median is around 2400 square feet! That’s more than 3x bigger than what was, judging by the 5-mile radius around our new house, absolutely ordinary in the 1920s and 1930s. Believe it or not, maybe 20% of the houses around us are smaller than ours.
We moved into our new bedroom, and I felt proud that I could fit all my clothes and my hanging shoe racks on a 40” closet rod, 4 inches shorter than my half of the previous closet. What’s missing? My husband’s clothes. They’re all in the office closet, because he often wakes up at 5:30 AM and considerately leaves the room to get dressed. In 1939, our “office” would almost certainly have been a children’s bedroom, and there might have been 2-3 kids in there! (In the late 50s, my mom shared her bedroom with two of her four siblings). My hubby and I would have fit our entire wardrobes on that 40” closet rod, including our coats, because that’s all the clothing we would have had. The shelf where I keep my sweaters and pajamas probably would have held our hatboxes, a suitcase, and perhaps a box of old letters from our courting days. We would not have had our current California King mattress, because they date to the 1960s, so there would have been room for another dresser that we don’t have, or perhaps a vanity table.
What else would have been in our 1939 house, if we were 1939 people? We would have had a radio cabinet in the living room, probably with a built-in turntable. We would each have had an easy chair, and next to mine would have been a workbasket for my knitting. Every night, I would darn socks, sew buttons, or work on a sweater or blanket while we listened to The Benny Goodman Show. I might have a sewing machine set up in the corner, or I might have my clothes made by a local seamstress, who would come over and hem them right on my body. We would not have had a dishwasher, clothes dryer, or microwave, so more of my time would have been spent hanging our clothes out to dry, ironing, washing dishes, and cooking. I’d be spending upward of 30 hours a week on domestic tasks, instead of six. 1939 happens to be the year that my maternal grandparents were married, so I have built this narrative from family photos and oral history, as well as a certain amount of web research.
Part of why we modern folk have a clutter crisis on our hands is that we have easy access to uncountable masses of cheap consumer goods. We have more leisure time than middle class suburbanites could ever have imagined a few generations ago, because machines do all our domestic labor. (Most time use statistics compare today with the 1970’s, which presents us as wage slaves [true] rather than presenting our grandparents as slaves to housework and food preparation). We want to know where we’re supposed to put all our collectibles, fabric hoards, laundry piles, DVDs, CDs, software, electronics, charging cables, shopping bags full of items with the tags still on, and other things that didn’t exist when our homes were built. We would never have been able to afford to buy these things in such volumes in the past. In 1974, my mom got a pocket calculator for a high school graduation gift. It would have cost about $150, or over $700 in 2015 money, for an item that now costs $3, fits on a keychain, and has more functions – IF you don’t just use an app on your phone. A few months ago, my teenage nephew sent out a group text of his Christmas wish list, including a Go Pro, a tablet computer, a PlayStation 4, and a TV for his room. Quod erat demonstrandum.
What are the 2015 items we’re having trouble storing in our 1939 house? The eBay stack. My extra ergonomic keyboard. A handy place to charge our two tablets, three smartphones, my Bluetooth headset, my Apple Watch, and my laptop. A half-gallon plastic bucket of Spike’s racquetballs. Some board games. A dry erase board. My husband’s Arduino workbench. We have plenty of room for our kitchen wares, tools, books, and clothes – things that we would have used in 1939 – but the modern stuff doesn’t seem to fit quite as well.
It seems that on a society-wide level, our material goods ballooned from the 1980s through the 2000s, and are now starting to contract again. One example is the boom box I bought in the late 90s. It played CDs and cassettes, neither of which category I own any longer, and it was bigger than my gym bag. Its place has been taken by my phone. My clock radio from the same era suffered the same fate, as did my answering machine. What happens is that we hand our obsolete items down, either to younger relatives, yard sale patrons, or Goodwill customers. Eventually, even the poorest households will wind up with things that were expensive and state-of-the-art a couple decades earlier. In 1939, the year our current rental house was built, apartment dwellers would have had one bathroom per floor that they shared with other tenants, while rural people would still have used outhouses. Almost everything on the house rental market is 20-50 years old, meaning what used to be curb-appeal innovations gradually become standard, even for broke people. Thrift stores are full of items of every description that were top of the line a decade or more in the past. Eventually, our more minimal lifestyles will trickle down *cough* and having a house crammed with clutter will seem as weird as it actually is.
Minimalism is a stylish luxury commodity in the same way that having a lean, toned Pilates body is. In the past, only the wealthiest of the upper crust could afford to be fat or to have possessions beyond ordinary functional housewares. Most people through most of history did not own a second outfit. Now it’s flipped the other way, and our poor people are the ones who carry the extra weight and the housefuls of extra stuff. Conspicuous non-consumption of particular goods and foods marks the elite. I’ve been talking a lot about my new neighborhood, because we’re so excited to be here, and part of the reason is that it’s a safe, well-manicured (read: expensive) oasis. Most of our new tiny-house neighbors also seem to be quite house-proud. We can brag about how far we are below 1000 square feet, rather than how far we are above 3000 (or 10,000, not all that far down the road from us). Gradually, social comparison will pull more and more people toward a more minimalist lifestyle, in the same aspirational manner that more people have quit smoking, adopted healthier diets, taken up yoga practices, and joined book clubs. More and more of us will show off the way our capsule wardrobes fit so neatly in our vintage closets, just like we would have shown off our increasingly tiny phones a decade ago.
We’ll still have to figure out where to put our winter coats, though.
Advice about dating tends to be completely different when it’s coming from single, dating, married, or cohabiting people. I’m a married person, and both my husband and I had radically different values than our exes when it came to money. Everything I have to say about money comes from the perspective of someone who learned some very painful, very expensive lessons the hard way. I hope others can learn from my experience and finish the game with both love and money, instead of neither.
Money isn’t everything. That’s true, but it’s nice to find out for yourself. Being broke and in debt automatically restricts your pool of available partners. Broke, but debt-free, is an improvement that expands your options. Earning your own money in a job you enjoy and providing your own financial comfort puts you in a strong position. I have been in all three of those places. The money isn’t the only difference. The anxiety, dread, and stress of being broke and in debt can make it seem like you have an entirely different personality than the true self underneath. “Seriously stressed out” is not on anyone’s checklist of dream character traits in a love interest. The first boundary to set is an absolute limit on how close to the wire you will allow yourself to get. That shouldn’t be an amount of debt and it shouldn’t be zero. Your first boundary should be a warning signal that you’re getting close to your buffer and that it’s time to strategize.
An interlude: Boundaries are metaphors. Any boundary you set says “This is okay and that is not okay.” You have such boundaries for filling your gas tank, deciding whether you’re too sick to go in to work, or assessing whether a container of leftovers is too funky to eat. Set similar boundaries around money and around what kind of treatment you will accept from other people. Nobody but you can say what is okay or not okay for you and your life.
Money brings down more possible loves than anything else. It makes us fight. The divorce rate is high. We need to do whatever we can to give our love a chance. That means we have to agree on how to manage money, or at least how to talk about money. We also have to find a way to love each other without involving money any more than is necessary. One way to do that is to base our free time around things that don’t have a price tag, like laughing, talking, napping, and loads of sex. Another way is to earn equally, contribute equally, and keep all your bank accounts separate. Two people sharing expenses, strategizing and earning together, can live much more comfortably and become much wealthier as a team than they can apart. What this means is that money can either destroy us or exalt us.
I know a lot of highly eligible single men, many of whom are defeated perma-bachelors. One of the lovely things about men is that they will give straight answers to sincere questions. My habit of asking these questions is part of why my husband and I are together today. It’s also why I have some long-term platonic male friends who let me pick their brains. There are a lot of men out there who would love to settle down and raise a family, but they’ve kept meeting women who are deep in debt and have no retirement savings. Every decade you reach past age 40 makes this a bigger and bigger issue. To be with someone that broke, you’d have to double your retirement savings to cover both of you, and then you’d have to come up with an additional percentage to beat down your new partner’s debt so it doesn’t consume your nest egg. That might work, if you’re ambitious and you feel like she’s worth it, except that the prospective lady tends to come with a pattern of spending that is not sustainable. Expecting to wander through life whistling a happy tune while someone else follows behind you, paying for everything, is an exact parallel to being expected to cook and clean for a sloppy ingrate.
Women need to pay more attention to our financial well-being and retirement because we tend to outlive men. Even if we do marry well, plan well, and save a lot, we may live so much longer than we anticipated that the money runs out. It happened to one of my grandmothers and I’m watching it happen to the other right now. One was married; the other has been divorced since the 70s. We have to worry more about money, not because we might outlive the men we counted on to be the earners, but simply because we can anticipate being alive for at least five years longer than men. Perhaps we’ll live 15 or 30 years longer than we ever guessed we would.
I’ve said plenty about earning your own money, avoiding debt, and being responsible for paying your own way and providing for your own well-being. Now I’m going to get specific about setting boundaries with new loves.
Be responsible for yourself. Find out your FICO score and learn what you can do to improve it. Check your credit report for errors; they’re nearly universal and they’re free to fix. Just because it wasn’t your fault doesn’t mean it’s not your problem. If you have accounts in collection, steel yourself, pull up your socks, and call them to make arrangements. If you haven’t filed your taxes or you owe the IRS, call them to make arrangements. If you’re in debt, sit down with all your account statements and find out how much. Learn how to negotiate payment plans and better interest rates. Take a look at your earnings vs. expenses and make adjustments. If you have problems with compulsive acquisition, gambling, substance abuse, or just letting yourself get vague about money, work on it. Ask for help. Get it together now, because it’ll only be harder to try to get it together later.
Have your own bank accounts and keep them private. There is no reason why you ever need to expose your assets to another adult, whether you live together or are married or whatever. Of course, there shouldn’t be a double standard; don’t expect access to your partner’s finances. If you want a higher standard of living, go out and get a promotion. Have your own checking account, your own savings, your own 401(k), your own IRA, and your own secret stash of small bills for your go bag. If someone finds out the PIN on your debit or credit card, take it down to the bank and have it changed, cancel the card, or cancel the account. Do the same with your passwords on your Amazon, PayPal, or any other account someone else could use to buy things. If you wouldn’t tolerate it in a coworker, roommate, sibling, or your own child (and you shouldn’t), don’t tolerate it in a partner. What I’m talking about is stealing, and it’s surprising how many women stay with selfish partners who steal from them. I forgave my ex for spending our house fund behind my back, only for him to turn around and divorce me a few months later. If I hadn’t kept my own bank accounts, he’d have burned through my personal savings as well as our common account.
Educate yourself. After my divorce, I went to the public library and methodically read through every personal finance book on the shelf for the next several years. I followed two personal finance columnists online. When the crash of 2008 came, I broke even. (Actually I earned a quarter of a percent). My casual conversations with my work buddy about paying off my student loan led to the friendship that became my marriage. I asked him once what made him want to marry me, and he surprised me very much by saying, “Your frugality.” I educated myself about finance and cooking, rather than the supposedly feminine arts of hair, makeup, manicures, fashion, and shoes. That tradeoff is the reason I had a retirement account instead of credit card debt when I remarried. It’s also why I’m married to someone who values my intelligence and independence more than my appearance. We met right before my 30th birthday, and obviously I wasn’t going to look 30 forever.
Promote yourself to management. Chances are that you’re the smarter one when it comes to money. You might have more natural aptitude for balancing bank statements, tracking details, doing research, and intuitively sensing when you’re getting close to your budget. Samurai wore clothes without pockets because it was considered beneath their dignity to handle money; their wives did it. Imagine a samurai having to ask, “Honey, will you buy me some sword polish?” My mom is an accountant, and she taught me that being one penny off is a sign of a larger discrepancy. You can’t just throw a penny into a jar and move on; you have to do root cause analysis and find out where the accounts didn’t balance. Scrutiny is a super-power.
Observe your partner dispassionately. Passion can happen after you know who you’re dealing with. The excitement and infatuation of a new love interest are the opposite of how enduring married love works. You have to have trust and respect, and those are grown, slowly, like an oak tree. You don’t start with the oak and then whittle chunks of bark off it when you find out something unnerving about your partner. You start out with a tender little sapling and coax it upward with sunlight, water, and time. Sometimes you find out that oak sapling isn’t an oak at all, but a weed of some kind. Perhaps stinging nettle. Or poison oak.
You want to ask yourself, “What kind of person is this?” If it was a Pokemon, you’d want to identify it before trying to catch it. What is this person’s style? What kind of music does he like? Is he adventurous or comfort-loving? Is he a Stoic or a hedonist? Is he ambitious or relaxed? Is he curious or argumentative? Does he have old friends? New friends? No friends? Among all the other things you’re trying to learn about this new friend, a major one is how he deals with money. Does he have piles of unopened bills sticking out everywhere, such as on the floor of his car? Does he have roommates? Do they like him? Does he go out or party a lot? Does he insist on picking up the check, even when you suspect he can’t afford it? Is he detail-oriented? Does he throw coins around, on the coffee table or a shelf? Does he have cards declined? Do you know much about how he grew up, in what kind of neighborhood, whether his parents are still together? Will he open up to you, or does he get defensive or stonewall you when you try to talk to him? Are you easy to talk to?
People change as they get older. This is something that really shows up when you go to your 20th high school reunion. You see some of your old friends and acquaintances in responsible, successful careers, and remember how goofy they were when they were 14 or 15. A lot of the problems we get into with money are young people’s mistakes. We can spend ourselves into years of strain and heartache in just a few months. It’s the same with dating. We can get involved with someone, only to find after a horrible breakup that we’re in a totally different universe than we were two or three years earlier. We go in pink-cheeked and trusting as a little woodland creature, and we come out hollow-eyed, broke, fat, and unable to ever fully let go with anyone new. That’s why it’s better to set the financial boundaries before we give our hearts away. We can wait a little while, pass up a few lost causes, and hold out for someone who is equally aware, focused, and planning for a better future. Maybe that future will be a shared one.
The premise of Matt Kepnes’s book is that taking a year off to travel the world can actually cost less than staying at home and living an ordinary life. If that has your attention the way I did mine, buy this book. It’s a quick and fascinating read, but it also cites so many sources that it earns its keep as a reference.
I thought I knew a lot about the travel industry until I read Chapter 5. I started flying alone at age 7, and my dad has worked for a regional airline since I was 9. There were a couple of points about looking for discount flights that I had never heard before. Mr. Kepnes, I salute you.
One of the strengths of the book lies in the How to Travel the World part of the title. Kepnes has a way of simplifying what can be very complicated topics. It’s obvious that he knows his material. He’s probably saved my family at least a couple hundred dollars in unnecessary rail passes just from a first reading. I kept saying to myself, “AHA!”
The other great strength comes through in the $50 a Day part. The book opens with the revolutionary concept that living the travel dream can be cheaper than feeling trapped in boring old Mundania. Anyone who lives in an expensive place like San Francisco or Manhattan will intuitively sense that this can be true. Living on the road means no utility or cable bills. You have to eat meals no matter where you live. Car payments and insurance can instead pay for train tickets. As long as at least part of a year-long (or longer) round-the-world adventure is spent in inexpensive parts of the world, the higher prices of more expensive places like Paris and London average out to that fabled $50 a day. It’s hard to break through the received wisdom that “travel is expensive” until you see it broken down by someone who has refuted it.
Chapter 4, “What to Do with Your Stuff,” gets a grand total of four pages. You can’t take it with you, so just sell it all and use the proceeds to fund extra time overseas. This is the key difference between doers such as Kepnes, and fantasizers like the rest of us. We can’t make ourselves step back and see our possessions as anchors or shackles. We can’t truly believe that we ourselves could have such a life. When we see the steps laid out, and we understand how many people have done what we wish we could do, it becomes harder to explain what we’re waiting for.
Travel can be such a transformative experience that one comes home ready for a complete career change. I have known people to spend a year overseas, only to come home and make more money based on what they have learned during their trip. One of my friends found a place in the hospitality industry. Others have come home with language fluency that helped them find better positions in business or education. Sometimes, they go into business for themselves. Kepnes himself became a travel writer, and thank goodness for that. Feeling broke, trapped, and bored is as good a reason as any to take off and seek your fortune elsewhere. Why not?
It wasn’t intentional. I wasn’t on a Fact-Finding Mission. I wasn’t doing an experiment. I wasn’t even mad. It just turned out that I fell off Facebook for a while. Every now and then, I would realize I hadn’t logged in for a while, and I would think, “Gee, I should probably get around to that.” I figured my automatic blog posts would keep people informed that I was still alive and well. (Before I got a smartphone, I used to get the occasional email asking, “Are you still alive?”).
I’m kind of a hermit.
Anyway, I figured I would share a few observations about the experience before logging in again.
Logging in was starting to feel like a chore. It’s the best way to get updates about almost every person I know. I live at least a five-hour drive from almost every friend and family member in my world, and I don’t have much of a social life outside of Facebook. Even then, it felt like work. It’s so hard to find the signal in the noise. It’s so hard to avoid seeing or reading things that leave me feeling unsettled, sad, irritated, disappointed, or wounded. Much of this negative emotional burden comes from “friends of friends” being belligerent and rude to each other in someone else’s thread. Very few people in my acquaintance make any attempt to moderate their threads. This makes Facebook barely one rung better than “reading the comments” in any forum that allows anonymous posts.
My typical Facebook experience has been about 50% politics, 25% memes I’ve already seen, 1% rants about game requests (FAR more of these than I see of actual game requests), 1% spoilers of movies and books, and 3% pictures of meat. The remaining 20%, when I can find it, includes pictures of my friends, personal updates, and other things I actually want to see.
What finally put me over the top was when I started seeing “holiday” stuff the day after Halloween. I hadn’t even seen what I was looking for, pictures of my friends and their children in their Halloween costumes, before I was bombarded with Christmas stuff. Militant decorators wear me out. As of February 6, there were still Christmas decorations displayed at two houses in my neighborhood. Two weeks of Christmas is too much for me. Can we agree that over three months is a tad excessive?
During the four months I wasn’t on Facebook, a lot happened. We moved. We packed and unpacked. We scoured two houses from stem to stern. I went out of town five times for at least three days. I took on new coaching clients. I wrote and published some new coaching programs. I posted a couple hundred pages on this blog. We planned out our New Year’s Resolutions. I joined Toastmasters. I went to some Mensa dinners. I read over 80 books. We watched Making a Murderer, which added time to my sabbatical, because I knew there would be spoilers on Facebook, just like I got hit with a major Walking Dead spoiler last time I logged in.
What changed? More people started texting me more often, which is awesome. I posted some things on my blog that made me nervous, not worrying about any comments that people might make. Facebook tends to make me abjectly paranoid about negative comments, even though they rarely happen. I loathe arguing or anything most people would construe as debate. What I’m looking for is a feeling of connection, warmth, and affection. Occasionally, I’m looking for sympathy. What I often get from Facebook is a sense of being corrected, scolded, rebuked, lectured, chastised, or privilege-shamed. That never happens via text or Skype. It certainly doesn’t happen when I meet people face to face.
I’ve decided to put more of my focus on leaving the house and meeting people in person. I want to try to put down roots here, in this new city where I’ve lived for barely three months. I was already limiting my screen time on Facebook to a certain number of minutes a day, and that little bit was a bit too much. I realize that I need to hide the feeds of a few more specific individuals and avoid reading threads on a few more specific topics. I’d like to know what my friends are up to, but unfortunately, a lot of the time that seems to be “posting about things that make me angry.”
My decision is to start going on an official sabbatical from Halloween through New Year’s Day. (I might start sooner in 2016, since this is an election year, for what should be obvious reasons). It’s been productive and relaxing for me. I doubt anyone even really noticed I was gone. My information page has my URL. My phone number hasn’t changed in the last 7 years, and my email has been the same since the 90s. I’m on Twitter. I’m easy to find by every other means. My social networking obligations are covered. The difference is that I will announce the break and change my profile picture, on the off chance that anyone is looking for me.
Now, I’m going to break off writing this post, log in, and see what’s actually in my feed. I don’t have Messenger on my phone, and I have notifications turned off, so I really have no idea.
The first thing I find is that I’ve missed seeing an inquiry from the estranged relative of a close friend. It is bloodcurdlingly creepy. Look, if anyone tells me “I am avoiding contact with Person X,” I respect that. There doesn’t have to be abuse or weirdness involved. It’s none of my business what happened one way or the other. It’s in the same category as calling people by the name they use to introduce themselves. If someone shakes my hand and says, “Hi, I’m Galaktikon-91,” I’ll be careful to use that moniker as stated. That being said, if there is an allegation of misconduct, I’ll assume it’s true. I’ll especially assume it’s true if I’ve known one party for several years and have never met the other party. If the only thing I know about someone is that my friend refuses to speak to them, why would I want to talk to that person? Facebook, you did this to me. Thanks so much for giving creepers an avenue to creep me out. Now there is an electronic door in my world with a giant sign reading ‘DRAMA’ in red lights.
The next thing I notice is that, yet again, Facebook has been redesigned. I can’t figure out how to do anything. As usual, I’m sure I’ll get used to it just in time to have it change all over again.
I can only see notifications from the past month. Whatever came up before that, I missed out.
Focusing only on notifications is a different experience entirely from scrolling through my feed. I only see things if I’ve been tagged in them or if someone has taken the time to post them to my wall. That means it’s 98% lovely. Funny stuff, cute stuff, photos of my friends’ smiling faces. THIS is what I want out of Facebook. THIS is why I have to figure out how to recalibrate so that it works the way I want the tool to work. I don’t come here to be agitated by hostility, aggression, contempt, and disgust. I come here to think about my friends and what they’re up to. I want to see mundane details of their daily lives. I emphatically do not want to know what anyone in my acquaintance thinks about politics or current events. Why ruin it? Let’s talk about… gardening, and soup recipes, and planning some camping trips. And how to teach my dog to jump rope.
I read the news, probably more than I should. I try to get my news from aggregators and international sources, so I’m sure to see a balance of what’s important on a global scale. I need to learn things from people who know more than I do. That means journalists, academics, and other credentialed professionals, not my peers. We can’t even agree on commonly accepted sources. We find streams of ‘facts’ that support our ideological positions (myself included) and talk past each other, until sometimes we can’t be friends anymore. I see it as a lose-lose proposition. No upside, extreme downside. In our culture we can’t even talk about phones or operating systems or Marvel vs. DC without getting into arguments.
Okay, scrolling through my feed, there is a lot of political stuff, just as much as I remembered. The other thing I’m seeing much more of than I would like is that a large number of my friends seem to be sick, hospitalized, and recovering from or preparing for surgery. Facebook is definitely the place we go when we don’t feel good. I know I personally have probably never missed an opportunity to post when I had a migraine or a night terror episode. This is just what I’m talking about – the search for connection and sympathy. This is the kind of ‘Facebook bummer’ I’m willing to handle.
There is one post from someone who has perpetually been in the same situation, at least half a dozen times in the last few years. It’s like Groundhog Day. I can’t even believe this person is right back in the same spot again. Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t all cartoon characters being drawn by a giant comedic hand…
I can’t tell if anyone noticed that I was gone, or not. The truth is that I’m just one person among dozens or hundreds in the acquaintance pool of anyone I know. They all have other things to worry about besides whatever I’m doing. It isn’t about me. It’s about how much information I want regarding my friends’ lives, and how often I reach out and talk to them. I missed saying Happy Birthday and “I hope you feel better” to a lot of people. I’m ready to make a fresh start. I’ll try to hide the noise and turn up the volume on the harmony.
Calorie counting doesn’t work, they tell you. It worked for me, but only because I am a CSI-minded person. If I get weird data, I keep researching and experimenting. I’m married to an aerospace engineer who is willing to humor me with the occasional statistical model. He’s taught me to think about emotional topics like weight loss in a more numbers-based, scientific way. One of the first precepts of this rational model is that when we record data, our instruments need to be reliable. This is where it gets interesting.
I started to notice that I had synced multiple apps to my food log, and it was logging redundant data from the same workouts. I would go on one walk, but I would get separate totals from my Apple Watch and from RunKeeper. I already knew not to trust the alleged calories burned from my workouts, so I tend to disregard those numbers. It took a while for any kind of insight to arise from this.
Then it hit me. People need to know. The number of calories burned that shows up on any kind of fitness equipment can be about as reality-based as the dollars that show up on a hospital bill. In other words, not very.
I set up an experiment. I worked out on my ancient, consignment-store treadmill for half an hour. I tracked it as an Indoor Walk on my Watch. I took photographs of the treadmill data. I logged the manual data into RunKeeper. Then I compared the three results.
Treadmill: 31:32 minutes, 2.081 miles, 361 calories.
RunKeeper: 31:32 minutes, 2.08 miles, 149 calories.
Apple Watch: 31 minutes, 1.86 miles, 163 calories.
Let me summarize. This is me, walking on the treadmill in my garage, and getting three sets of data for the same workout.
Just to make things clear as mud, here’s a fourth data point. MyFitnessPal says that walking 31 minutes at 4 mph burns 143 calories. (I have to set the treadmill at 4.0 mph in order to get my heart rate up enough to impress The Overlord).
I walk a lot, so I have more data points to add. A week or so earlier, I happened to take a walk outside that lasted 33:46 minutes. That includes waiting at the occasional crosswalk, walking uphill, wind conditions, and other variables such as non-workout clothes. It is, however, more reflective of my typical walking workout. RunKeeper says that 34-minute walk of 1.91 miles burned 137 calories. Apple Watch gives 31:12 minutes, 1.88 miles, and 103 calories for that same walk.
You want the truth? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH! Or, maybe you can, but GOOD LUCK KNOWING WHAT THE TRUTH IS!
Okay, I think I have that out of my system. It’s actually more straightforward than it looks.
Compare my indoor and outdoor walks again. What I’m trying to do on the treadmill is to get my heartrate up enough to qualify as ‘exercise.’ Whatever it is about walking on the treadmill compared to walking on the sidewalk, I have to work much harder to get that digital green wheel moving. That’s why there’s roughly a 60-calorie difference in data generated by the same device for the same exercise (“walking”) over the same block of time. (It isn’t the same exercise, not really).
Metrics are just numbers. They only mean anything when we put them into a particular context. The standard model is to want to ‘check the box’ by showing up and doing at least some form of workout, and then, in the face of suboptimal results, being able to claim, ‘I’ve tried everything.’ We’ve only tried everything when we’ve full-on interrogated those data until someone alerts Amnesty International. TELL ME WHAT YOU KNOW!
The most important thing I learned, in two years of tracking every metric I could think of, is that weight loss is both complex and complicated. We have to standardize our behavior patterns as much as we can, at least for a defined time period, so the trend lines start to emerge. I didn’t get the results I wanted for the first six weeks, but I was highly rigorous in my tracking, and I had a partner to do peer review of my results. I learned that if I ate approximately the same amounts of food at the same times of day, it became much easier to tease out the salient points. I learned that, at least on my tiny frame, exercise makes no discernible impact on whether I lose or gain weight. It’s completely about what I eat. If I knew I stood a chance of burning off a special treat, I would definitely do it, because I enjoy moving my body. There are at least a dozen types of workout that I like to do. I could just install a clamp on my elliptical to hold a quart of Soy Dream and tuck a napkin into my collar. Good times.
What I’ve learned is that the subjective elements are more important than the objective factors. I have the same tendency everyone else does, to overestimate the duration, intensity, and frequency of my workouts. I have the same tendency of everyone else in the world to underestimate how much I eat and how often. I have the universal tendency of treating my own Future Self like a poison enemy, sabotaging her life and expecting her to solve problems I’ve created for her. “Hey, Future Self! Have fun burning off this entire box of Thin Mints! Hahahaha! Oh, and by the way, I’m spending our retirement money on books!” What I don’t have is a tendency to care that much about body shaming. My physical appearance is largely irrelevant to me, and I don’t give a [FIG] how “the media” thinks I’m “supposed” to look. I’ve had a worse time getting flak from people since I lost my weight than in all the years I was fat, combined. I don’t care because being strong, fit, and healthy is worth more than not having other women glare at me and occasionally call me rude names. Subjectively, I like being lean more than I care about fitting in.
Objectively, I believe it is possible to maintain a lean physique, and I have the knowledge to do it. This is another way in which my subjective experience of life differs from the majority of Americans.
I work out because after about the 45-minute mark, I feel physically ecstatic. I’m sitting in my pajamas right now, writing this with my hair still damp from the shower. The feeling of resting after a hard workout, a hot shower, and a hot meal is one of the best feelings in life. I was in a mopey mood earlier today, having been woken up by a thunderstorm, but even a half hour of walking was enough to shake off that sad feeling. I know I’ll sleep better tonight.
I eat clean and plan predictable, micronutrient-based meals because my quality of life suffers when I don’t. For me, what came naturally to me, eating what I “felt like” eating and what tasted good, led to dreadful results. Excess body fat was one relatively minor symptom of a larger problem. While I was no longer having issues with thyroid disease, migraine and night terrors were still regular crises for me, and after a certain weight, my fibromyalgia symptoms started to come back as well. Carefully tracking my health metrics helped me figure out which behavior patterns affected my health issues, and which didn’t seem to make an impact. While it may be correlation that both my migraines and my night terrors disappeared two years ago, when I finally got to my goal weight and quadrupled my vegetable consumption, correlation is good enough for me. I’ve finally arrived at a system I can live with.
That’s what it all comes down to. We’re searching for livable systems. Life is complicated enough, and it’s hard to make sense out of conflicting information from our friends, media reports, advertisements from the weight loss industry, and the kind of contrarian stuff written by bloggers like me. Collecting contradictory data from various fitness apps and equipment is not helpful. What is helpful is to take the long view, be as aware of our behaviors and attitudes as possible, and keep on trying to build better experimental models for our own lives.
The core premise of minimalism is that we get the most out of life when we focus only on the essential. Whatever is most important to us, most reflective of our values and preferences, should get the most attention. We should spend time with the people we love the most. Anything else can safely be cut away. This leaves us the time and space we need to live our purpose. Radical exclusion is key to this process. This means making a formal decision to stop doing anything that is a waste of time, stop spending time with people who pull us away from our focus, and get rid of anything that clutters up our living space.
Radical exclusion makes life much simpler. That’s the point. The word ‘priority’ originally came in the singular; it did not have a plural form because it means “something more important than other things that should be dealt with first.” Multiple things cannot be done “first.” It’s our prime job in life to find our purpose and make a unique contribution to the world. Anything else is just a distraction.
I’m fortunate that I understand my purpose, and I’m good at something I enjoy that is also valuable to other people. In fact, it’s hard for me to believe that something so fun and inspiring can actually turn a profit. I’m a life coach. I get direct feedback every day that I am improving the lives of specific people whom I find endearing and fascinating. I also write, because I am continually bubbling over with words that need to be bailed out before they sink my boat. My workday is conducted digitally. I can work from my phone or any computer. I think I could even do most of it from my watch, though so far I use it only for notifications. I don’t particularly need an office, a file cabinet, or even a desk. This is by design; it enables me to travel as much as I like without disrupting my work routine. What did I exclude? I excluded a standard M-F/8-5 schedule, the need to sit in a specific chair all day, a commute, ownership of my own automobile, timecards, vacation requests, meetings, most email, and most importantly, a boss. I work but I don’t have a job. The only drawback to this is that I work more or less from the moment I wake up to shortly before bedtime. On the other hand, it’s because my work is what I enjoy the most.
I’ve excluded stuff. Stuff in general. My husband and I were forced to relocate a few times in quick succession, and this began a strategic plan around relocation and career growth over the long term. We understood that I needed to find something location-independent, because we couldn’t afford to pass up opportunities in his field and neither of us wanted to be supported solely by my secretarial income. While we have been offered the (decidedly mixed) blessing of professional movers, movers don’t unpack, and it’s a lot of work to turn a stack of boxes into a home. We agreed to conduct most of our life digitally, and to treat our furniture and housewares as expendable. We have a running thought experiment of imagining which things we would take with us if we relocated to another continent. (None of the furniture or appliances; mostly just our pets, some of the electronics, a few personal items, and some select textbooks).
We’ve excluded debt. I paid off my consumer debt before we started dating. We had a few years of financial transition after his divorce, which happened only a little over a year before we met. We both feel extremely uncomfortable with a credit card balance or a savings cushion below a specific dollar amount. Most of the year, we stay at home, doing things that don’t cost money. When we go on vacation, we know we can splurge, because we’re so frugal the majority of the time. We also keep a weather eye on our finances and discuss our account balances every week.
Both of us have struggled with our weight, and I have overcome a lengthy, boring list of chronic health problems. As a result, we have excluded entire categories of foods and restaurants. It’s easier to abstain than to moderate. Many things we used to eat now look, sound, and smell disgusting, and we can’t believe we used to eat them. I have never eaten a meal at the Cheesecake Factory, Outback Steakhouse, Claim Jumper, or a long list of others. We don’t eat fast food. We don’t drink soda, alcohol, or coffee. Neither of us eat dairy products. We don’t eat junk food and we don’t keep chips, crackers, cookies, or desserts in the house. It isn’t worth it. Nothing tastes as good as not getting migraines. We’ve lost 100 pounds between us, and neither of us wants any of it back.
We’ve excluded a lot of media and entertainment. This is mostly because we both default to work mode, and there is no point trying to concentrate on passive media consumption when we’re fixated on finishing a project. There is also a procrastination hazard built into certain forms of entertainment. For instance, my laptop came loaded with a mah jongg game. It was a great game. It was so great that I deleted it. We haven’t had pay cable through our entire marriage, and we don’t get TV reception. We both limit our social media use, because we both find that more than a certain amount guarantees something will seriously annoy us. We don’t go to bars because we don’t drink; we rarely go out late because we prefer sleeping. (We’re getting older. *shrug*) Entertainment is best when you can lean back and fully appreciate it. So much of it is disappointing and does not live up to the hype. We have found ourselves saying, “Well, that was two hours of my life I’ll never get back.” Rather than passive entertainment, we prefer recreation and peak experiences, like travel and camping.
The toughest thing for me is excluding reading material. I’ve been focusing on reframing my reading for two years, with the goal of reading every unread book in the house and then starting from zero. I have not come anywhere near reaching this goal. The problem is that I don’t want to accept the finite limit of material I can read in a day or week. I want it to be at least 500% higher. In my mind, everything on my list is highly important, informational, and of the best quality, so how can I let it go? One step I have taken is to be aware of bookmarking articles, and try not to select more than I can finish that day. This, however, has done nothing to make a dent in my backlog. I’ve also taken to writing down the title of any book I want to read, rather than immediately putting it on hold at the library or downloading it on my phone. That list stood at 297 last year, and it should probably be higher because I cheated several months back and transferred a bunch of titles to a separate list. It indicates that I’ve been in the habit of committing myself to read two or three years’ worth of books each year, meaning I will never catch up unless I grow another couple of heads.
Radical exclusion of people is extremely controversial and highly personal. What I mean by it is not to spend time with casual acquaintances, strangers, or Internet trolls that would be better spent with close friends or family members. Every minute I spend in “Someone Is Wrong on the Internet” Land is a minute taken from, say, my grandma. Filter, curate, use privacy settings, and stop feeling obligated to engage with belligerent people, no matter how long you’ve known them. One suggestion is to make a list of the people in your life to whom you would volunteer to donate an organ, and make sure you are in contact with them as often as possible, even if just to say hello and ask about their day. There are over seven billion people living in the world today, and we can’t be equally available to all of them, nor would they want us to be.
The foundation of radical exclusion is to get back to first principles. What do we absolutely need? Who is on our zombie apocalypse squad? What do we need to be healthy, happy, and productive? What would we take if we found out we were moving to another continent next month? If we knew we had only five years to live, what would we do with our time each day? What legacy do we want to leave when our time is gone? Will we wish we had spent more time staring at a screen?
In celebration of the first year of the Dealing With Stuff blog, I am pleased to announce a free weekly e-mail newsletter. *cue applause* Those of you who wish I would post on weekends will now have something extra to read on Saturdays. Plus: a cartoon!
The newsletter will include links to the previous week’s posts. Some of my readers have let me know that they don’t always see my cross-posts to Facebook. Subscribing to the newsletter is an easy way to get around that. I enjoy Mark Zuckerberg’s reading suggestions, but I prefer a list of books rather than an algorithm determining what I do or don’t see in my feed.
I will experiment with additional content as I play around with the possibilities. One thing I have always wanted to do is to write an advice column. Another thing I would like to do is to accept anonymous photos of readers’ most stubborn clutter spots and offer suggestions. If you would like to be included, drop me a line. Otherwise, I’ll be forced to fill that space with photos of my pets. I might do that anyway.
In the interest of full disclosure, the newsletter will be a way of announcing new projects. I will be releasing a series of mini e-books expanding on many of the topics I cover on the blog. Along with the series of links to the week’s posts, there will occasionally be a marketing blurb. I promise never to spam anyone or send anything other than the weekly newsletter. I would never in a billion million years ever sell my subscription list or disclose names. You can always unsubscribe. Hopefully you’ll find it at least mildly interesting.
Thank you, dear readers, for everything.
Do you remember this story? The one about the couple who met on OkCupid and took off on a three-week trip with no luggage? As, like, their first date? Part of my mind never stopped spinning over this idea. When I heard Clara Bensen was writing a book about the experience, I knew I would want to read it, even if it turned out to sound like it had been ghostwritten by a drunken Cosmopolitan stringer. No worries. Bensen writes beautifully, so much so that we can be sure she’ll write another book one day.
No Baggage is, on one level, a travelogue. The author and her new boyfriend use Couchsurfing.com to find places to stay in various cities across seven countries. He likes to document and photograph the few possessions they carry, noting what got lost and what they added along the journey. Apparently sample-size tubes of toothpaste are harder to come by than one might guess. For anyone who is enchanted with the idea of simply locking the front door and heading off for the sunset, this is a very practical guide.
On another level, the love story really shines. Jeff Wilson must now rank as one of the quirkiest, most charismatic male love interests in print. If this had been a novel, we might not have believed in him. He has kind of a Where’s Waldo? thing going on, with red pants, a stripy sweater, and black-framed glasses. One thing that can be said about traveling with only the clothes on your back: it works really well if you want to adapt your story into a cartoon or graphic novel. I would definitely buy that book.
On yet another level, Bensen writes eloquently about her personal demons. It is staggering to contemplate her courage, not just in jumping into this affair and this wacky adventure, but in sharing the most personal details about her struggles with anxiety. She goes right out the door without so much as a bottle of sunblock or a pocket handkerchief. I can’t even leave on an overnight without at least an emergency sandwich.
(I do have to throw it out there, though; I couldn’t help but read the story through my own peculiar perspective, and wonder if the root of her issue may have been nutritional rather than emotional or mental).
Love is for everyone. Adventure, though, may be for the young. Part of me wanted to tag along on the next No Baggage trip. The other part contemplated how high-maintenance I can be as a traveler, with my fussy sleep problems and my inflexible diet, not to mention how quickly I turn into a walking biohazard if I can’t bathe every day. The last time we decided to “wing it,” I wound up crying into an empty peanut butter jar on a bus somewhere in the south of Iceland. It’s funny. I’m a one-bag traveler, but my one bag seems equivalent to dragging an entire PODS unit by a bungee cord compared to the No Baggage schema.
This is a really beautiful book. I loved it SO MUCH. I highly recommend it, for minimalists, for armchair travelers, and for people who believe in reckless love.
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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