Every New Year, someone I know will make a public commitment to start making smoothies every morning. Every time, I would do a facepalm. I always tell people that smoothies are too messy, expensive, and time-consuming to make a Resolution we can keep. Also, the main reason people seem to choose smoothies is that they think drinking juice has magical weight loss powers. Like every other possible habit, juicing works in certain contexts and fails in others. For my purposes, I can now say that green juice does work.
We eat a lot of vegetables in my household. While my husband and I have both always had admirably low cholesterol, we have also had trouble getting the "good" cholesterol known as HDL, or high density lipoproteins, high enough. I just had a standard lipid panel done, and my HDL had gone from 38 mg/dL (too low) to 50 (medium). What changed? The addition of several servings of green juice every week.
I only need one good reason to do something, just as I only need one good reason to quit doing something. I wanted to increase my HDL, and I started drinking green juice, and my HDL went up. Perfection. Now, I just need to get it up to 60.
Does juicing help with weight loss? I think the majority of the time, it definitely does not. The reason for that is that most people do not have any nutritional knowledge, which is not our fault, and thus we don't know how to evaluate our food intake as a whole. By the month or year rather than by the meal or individual item. We tend to believe that adding or subtracting a specific food or category of food is the answer, based on trends and product marketing, when there is no single food that has magical dietary or nutritional powers. Adding more calories to an excess weight issue is going to compound that issue. It's pretty easy to drink hundreds of calories in just a few minutes.
When juicing aids weight loss, it's because the juice replaces an entire meal.
My husband and I did a juicing program for a week, and we did lose weight. That's because we drank juice for breakfast and lunch, and ate only soup or salad or steamed vegetables for dinner. Sure, yes, following a strict meal replacement program like this will induce weight loss. Going back to a Standard American Diet afterward will inevitably lead to regaining that weight.
People think that "diets don't work" due to pop culture. Diets absolutely do work. What doesn't work is the idea that we can eat "normally" the rest of the time. What has to happen is that we have to fundamentally change everything we eat, permanently. We have to reevaluate what we think is normal. There are so many unhealthy, obesogenic aspects to American food culture that any one element is enough to cause steady weight gain all by itself.
Excessively large portions.
Snacking between meals.
High-fructose corn syrup.
Added sugars (glucose, sucrose, fructose, sugars, syrups).
Drinking our calories.
Catastrophically low proportions of dietary fiber.
Chronic malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency.
Eating for entertainment, identity, autonomy, and temporary mood repair.*
...and I think a certain portion of the blame goes directly to cheese.
What I've learned through my own weight loss journey is that adding more power vegetables, increasing my micronutrient intake, drinking significantly more water, and getting more sleep have all worked together to reduce my food cravings. Often, foods I used to crave taste bad to me now, especially salty foods like popcorn and corn chips.
How much more water? In my case, like triple. I almost never drank water before.
How much more sleep? In my case, about 50% more. I used to sleep 5-6 hours a night, and now I sleep 8-9.
How many more vegetables? In my case, about quadruple. Now we eat 2-4 cups of power vegetables with dinner every night, in addition to the green juice.
What do I mean by power vegetables? Mostly cruciferous vegetables. That specifically means broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, kale, and collard greens. We also eat a lot of chard, which is not cruciferous but is high in potassium.
Anything else, I refer to as "sprinkles" or "decorations." Lettuce, tomato, carrots, cucumbers, zucchini, peas, green beans, spinach, asparagus, artichokes, bell peppers... that stuff we just eat for fun. It doesn't "count." Corn is candy.
One of the things about juicing that works for some people is that it can help to disguise the taste and texture of power vegetables. If you gag on certain foods, it's going to be hard work to retrain yourself around flavor and mouthfeel, but it can be done. (I never hear people say that they love eating certain foods like ice cream or chocolate because "it's the texture;" it only comes up as an excuse to avoid eating foods that contain fiber and micronutrients). Anecdotally, all the picky eaters in my acquaintance weigh more than they want to weigh, and I think this is because they lean toward and away from predictable categories of foods. Toward soda, desserts, starches, fried foods, and dairy; away from fruits, vegetables, and all high-fiber whole foods that require real chewing. This hypothesis of mine is objectively testable.
Juicer or blender? We got a Vitamix blender because everything we put in it goes into the juice. That includes the kale stems, apple peels, flax seeds, or whatever else we want to throw in. Juicing spits the pulp out of the back, wasting most of the dietary fiber, creating less volume of juice, costing money, and making a ginormous, hideous mess. Cleaning a juicer is ten times harder than cleaning a blender, especially an expensive blender like the Vitamix that doesn't have a bunch of removable parts.
What goes in our juice?
Five leaves of kale
Two cups of ice cubes
1/2" chunk of ginger root, including peel
2 cups pre-made juice, either green or purple juice
We drink 32 ounces each most afternoons, splitting the pitcher between us. On weekends, that's what we have for lunch. Note that we don't try to fuss with it in the mornings. Too noisy, too messy, too time-consuming, too complicated. Instead it goes into a time slot when we are wide awake as well as hungry.
We'll keep making green juice, as we have done for the last several months, because it's not inconvenient and we've made it into a routine. The Vitamix sits on the counter because it's too tall for any of our kitchen cupboards. We go to the grocery store 2-3 days a week, because we don't have a car, and that makes it easy to keep buying fresh fruit and kale. Making the juice takes less than five minutes, including washing the produce. We can afford it. We like the taste. It has turned out to be a faster way to get an extra serving of a cruciferous vegetable than making a complicated lunch or doubling up at dinner. The fact that green juice has helped to increase our micronutrients and increase our HDL is now automatic to our daily routine. It's not a Resolution anymore, but a habit we can keep.
* I know exactly what I mean by this, but I realize it probably sounds esoteric and merits its own post
Some time ago, I wrote about not having a nightstand on my side of the bed. This generated a reader letter full of inquiries and guesses about my weird lifestyle, like how I "must not wear a watch." I am still laughing about this. I often forget how contrarian my domestic arrangements are. One of these strange choices is to never have a coffee table.
I HATE COFFEE TABLES. There, I said it. I also hate lamps and glass furniture. I mean, I'm sure all your lamps are gorgeous, but for my own home, I want nothing to do with floor lamps or table lamps. We actually have a piece of glass furniture right now, the stand for the TV, and it starts visibly collecting dust as I'm in the process of dusting it. If I weren't such a tightwad, I would have replaced it already. My main criterion for furniture and decor is its functionality. If it annoys me, it's toast.
What is the deal with coffee tables? I've stubbed my toe many times in my life, and I'm pretty sure it's been on the leg of a coffee table every time. They just sit there, taking over the center of the living room, lying in wait for my poor vulnerable bare feet. They're like alligators. I've also bruised my shin on them, and when I was about four years old, I tripped and smacked my head on one. All of these were different tables, which is proof that either there is a conspiracy or they come from the devil.
The other problem with coffee tables is that they are clutter magnets. The only time they get cleaned off is if, like, the in-laws are coming over or something. The rest of the time, they're generally buried under various food containers, mail, books, action figures, craft supplies, nail polish, pet toys, and who knows what else. Whatever we're interacting with during screen time, there it lands and there it stays.
When I got my own apartment for the first time in, what, twelve years? I refused to have a coffee table. My living room was really small, and it's not like I was missing anything. When I upgraded my couch a year later, I got... an ottoman! This to me is luxury. There's always somewhere big and foofy to put my feet up. If I have a lot of people over, it can be pulled aside and used as an extra chair. Because it has a squishy soft top, the only thing I'm ever tempted to leave on it is, at most, a book.
After I got married again, I merged households with my husband, my stepdaughter, and their dog. We added a second couch with its own ottoman. Years later, it turns out to be one of the dog's favorite cozy spots. He will stare at you soulfully, with his snoot in your lap, until you invite him up and spread a blanket over him. He will stretch out on the ottoman, hugging your leg, and fall asleep and start twitching his feet. You should try it sometime on a damp, chilly night.
Okay, we can all agree on the delights of the ottoman as a home furnishing. Can't we have them and still have coffee tables? Well, sure, why the heck not. If you want one, you go right ahead. Knock yourself out. I hope that doesn't literally happen when your coffee table jumps out at you with mutiny on its mind.
Where do we put our coffee, though? I dunno. My husband and stepdaughter and I all hate coffee, and we certainly don't give it to the dog. A rat terrier on caffeine is, besides being veterinary malpractice, an extremely alarming prospect. We'd have to hang a safety net over our balcony so he didn't bounce out. Three of the four bipeds drink tea. We just drink it at the table, or stand up and carry our empty teacups into the kitchen.
What do we do with all the other stuff that tends to wind up strewn all over most coffee tables? Let's see. We read our news digitally, so we don't have physical newspapers or magazines. We eat at the dining table, so we don't have plates or bowls to leave out in the living room, and we don't really eat snack foods. If I paint my nails, I do it sitting on the bathroom floor, partly because I can sit on the floor (and intend to retain the ability) and partly because I've been known to spill. When we work on craft projects, we have to put them away between sessions, because neither of our pets are at all trustworthy around these things. I distinctly recall spending twenty minutes gathering knitting yarn that Spike: Puppy Version carried out the dog door and wound around every bush and shrub in our yard. One of my birds actually flew off with a crochet hook. Come to think of it, the main reason we avoid clutter in our home is because almost everywhere is Pet Zone.
You know a bit about my living situation now. I don't have a coffee table or a nightstand or a floor lamp or a coffee maker or a recliner or holiday decorations or a wall clock, all because of reasons. I do have a robotic mop and a robotic vacuum cleaner and a battery-powered scrubber for my bathtub, also because of reasons. My home is my castle, the place where I spend the majority of my time, and also the line item where we spend the majority of our money. Look around your own home and consider whether you have all the attractions you want, and whether anything is there simply due to tradition and entropy.
If you haven't read anything by Brene' Brown yet, do yourself a favor and move any of her books to the top of your list. This book in particular should be mandatory assigned reading for everyone in the human race. The name says it all. I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't). This book explains so much about why even our most casual conversations can be so unsatisfying and irksome. We're all looking for connection, yet somehow deflecting it without realizing when and why. At the root is shame.
Feelings of shame, rejection, and self-loathing are so dark and awful that you'd think we could figure out how to quit inflicting them on ourselves and one another! In my work with hoarding and squalor, shame is a constant. My people are virtually crippled by shame in most areas of their lives, feeling totally inadequate in anything and everything, whether it's the appearance of their body, house, or car, their career and finances, punctuality, or really just their ability to create positive change for themselves. We are so good at shaming ourselves and internalizing messages that we are not good enough, that being rejected or shamed or criticized by other actual living people can create devastating psychic wounds.
One of the first concepts we learn in this book is the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy turns out to be a cheap and easy substitute for empathy, a simulacrum that is unpleasant both to give and to receive. Another common conversational ploy is when one person shares something emotionally important, and another person responds by trying to outdo that story. "You think you've got it bad... that's nothing." We wait until the other person is done talking so we can have our turn. There's a strain in our culture that shames any deep emotion at all with a great big GET OVER IT. We'll do just about anything to escape real empathetic connection.
The point of I Thought It Was Just Me is to learn to recognize that we are not alone, that the feelings of isolation and shame we carry are universal. Everyone feels this way sometimes. Brene' Brown's shame research has led to the purpose of teaching us how to reach out past our own dark, painful feelings and truly connect with one another. We can find the courage to practice this revolutionary kind of compassion.
'Husband' is a verb, meaning "to use resources economically." Strangely, the verb form of 'wive' means either "to marry" or "to supply with a wife." There has always been a double standard going on here, and there probably always will be, so we might as well run with it. I think of "wife" as a pretty specific job description. A wife is a useful person to have around the house. I think of this role in a positive way, and that's why I like the idea of being my own wife.
First of all, I made my first romantic commitment to myself. That is to remain true to myself until the end of time. No matter who else comes along, I'm going to be waking up to myself each morning. I could never give my heart to anyone who didn't match up with my values, anyone I didn't fully respect and admire. Why would I ever let myself down by settling for someone I had to make excuses for? It's my job to build my world, and I have to vouch for anyone I let in.
Second, I live with myself no matter whether I live alone or with several other people. No matter where I live, I am going to have to cook meals, wash dishes, scrub toilets, mop floors, wash windows, clean the lint trap, scour drains, clean the oven, knock down cobwebs, and ever so much more. Therefore, I accept that this is simply part of the fate of being human. If I were a badger, I'd be happy to dig a hole in the ground and live there and eat voles. If I were a puffin, I could live at sea. Alas, I have this human failing of wanting to live in a house with a roof and a floor, and I am sensitive to odors that might delight other creatures. Someone had better darn well be a wife around this joint, and I'm still waiting for the talking animals to show up, so it might as well be me. I lived alone for several years, and I really don't care that it takes 40 minutes a day to clean house.
I'm my own husband, too, if that means something as specific as 'wife' does. I have cleaned up dead vermin. I carry my own spiders outside. I can fix the toilet and unclog hairy drains. I have confronted scary unidentified sounds late at night. I've taken a few self-defense classes, and it's a good thing, because I have been attacked on the street more than once and had to get myself out of it. I have negotiated discounts on major purchases. I research my own investments for my retirement account. I have put on my own snow chains while nearly being blown off the road. When you live alone, you have to do all of the strenuous, dangerous, scary, and icky things yourself. It tends to lead to immense gratitude when someone else shows up and is willing to share some of that load.
My dad taught me how to pitch a tent, use a hatchet, identify and use every tool in the toolbox, troubleshoot technical problems, and avoid getting poison oak, all of which skills are useful to me today. My mom taught me how to clean house, make hospital bed corners, sew a button, iron shirt collars, write a resume, and bake a cake, all of which skills are useful to me today. I'm pretty sure both of my parents have all of the abilities listed, which were transferable across genders even then. I came from a practical, hands-on family and I grew up to have a lot of practical skills. I see no reason why I shouldn't be just as proud of my ability to can my own jam and pickles as I am proud of my ability to use shop tools and assemble furniture.
I draw the line at crocheting doilies, although I could do that, too.
There is a lot of resentment out there about traditional gender roles. I have a degree in history and I could teach a course on all the reasons why this makes sense. In my own personal life, I like to imagine what I think I would do if I were male, and then see if I want to do that thing, whatever it is. Often, the answer is that I would speak up more, take fewer things personally, or take up slightly more physical space. I don't think I would do less housework, probably because my husband, my dad, and my brothers all cook and clean house. Who wouldn't? When it comes down to it, almost all of our scutwork is done by labor-saving appliances. All we really have to do is to put away the clean dishes and laundry, and start the robots.
I like the romantic, starry-eyed vision of a "wife." I see this as a person whose job it is to create a sense of warm hospitality, to make an empty building into a home. When people do it in the workforce, they are known as restaurateurs, hoteliers, interior designers, caterers, event planners, and more. We see that this work can either be treated as drudgery or as a high art. It's my choice to see my kitchen as a playground that I share with my husband, and sometimes with family and friends who like to cook together. It's my choice to see my home as a place of refuge and pleasure, rather than a battleground of power struggles, resentment, and bickering. It's my choice to treat my home as a gift that I can offer to my friends. I felt this way when I was single, and it helped me to attract a mate who also appreciates a comfortable home. I am my own wife, and I'm his wife, too.
I'm standing in my kitchen, shaking and crying in my underwear. Why? I just woke up and I can't figure out how I got here. My poor husband has had to chase me down because I have this annoying tendency to run through the house screaming in my sleep. This has been going on for years and I have no idea what to do. Guilt crashes over me. I've woken up my life mate on a work night yet again. He doesn't deserve this. What is wrong with me? WHY THIS?
If you ever get caught up by worries late at night, believe me, I know what you mean.
Fortunately, I figured out that my problem was pavor nocturnus. Through diligent, meticulous tracking of every health variable I could think of, I learned that my problem was manageable mostly through timing when I eat. It's best if I don't eat within three hours of bedtime, and I try to avoid overeating at dinnertime. Running and intense, strenuous cardio, with a minimum duration of 45 minutes per session, also really helps. In nearly three and a half years, it's only happened twice. Another factor has to do with the things that tend to preoccupy me late at night.
My husband and I share certain alerts and reminders on our phones. One of them is a chime that comes up at 9 PM. It comes with a reminder that reads: "Moratorium on news or household business."
The reason for this is that if I start thinking about these topics after this time of night, I get completely wound around the axle. Usually I won't be able to fall asleep until 2 or 3 AM. Often I wind up thrashing and moaning in my sleep throughout the night, flailing my arms and reminding my husband yet again why we have this conversational boundary. Once my sleep starts to deteriorate, it rapidly declines. The worse it gets, the worse it gets. Without discipline, my stress levels make life very hard for both of us.
Why news? That should be somewhat obvious. Almost anything considered newsworthy is either alarming, dark, depressing, scary, bloody, explosive, or otherwise intellectually stimulating. If I want to read or discuss the news late at night, it needs to be restricted to tested topics that work for me. That includes tech news, medical innovations, good news, humor, and anything to do with cute or funny animals. Anything else, we're postponing until daylight. I'm a total news junkie and I trust myself not to miss anything. My awareness of it just needs to be restricted to the hours of 7 AM to 9 PM.
Why household business? I will get completely spun up about anything I can't handle immediately. Making phone calls, scheduling appointments, making travel arrangements, any kind of noisy cleaning or home repairs, all fall under the category of Can't Do at Night. I like to get things done as soon as they hit my to-do radar, especially if they can be done in under five minutes, so I can preserve my precious mental bandwidth. When I start thinking about stuff I need to do at a time when I can't move forward and get it done, for some reason, it eats me alive. I'm efficient enough that there's no reason to discuss this stuff after 9 PM. Assuredly, it can wait.
We're middle-aged empty nesters. It's pretty easy for us to maintain a rhythm in our daily life. At the end of the work day, we both do a total brain dump, sharing every interesting thing we heard, saw, or read all day. We text and email each other off and on all day, every day, sometimes even when we're sitting right next to each other. At dinner, we do our gratitude practice. We talk about future plans, travel, upcoming visits from friends, and projects we want to do. On Saturday, we have Status Meeting. That's when we deal with anything business-related, like moving money between accounts, booking tickets, or other annoying bureaucratic details of life. We basically never stop talking to each other. That's why we need this reminder to pop up that certain topics are now canceled until tomorrow.
Mental bandwidth is the entire key to feeling in control of your life. It's really stressful to feel burned out, confused, frantic, overwhelmed, and dissatisfied all the time. What we want is peace of mind. There can be no true peace of mind for a person who is chronically sleep deprived. Take it from me, the crazy girl crying in her nightgown because she can't figure out how she wound up four rooms away from where she went to sleep. Sleep is something you want in your life, the more the better!
How do we restore mental bandwidth and find that elusive peace of mind? A big part of it is feeling that we can trust our own mind to handle everything that needs to be handled. For this, I recommend what I call the "101 List." This is doing a brain dump on paper. Write down every last single minor tiny thing that you can think of that needs doing. Whether that's mailing a letter, scheduling an appointment, cleaning out your car, or oiling a squeaky hinge, write it all down. Keep this list, and continue to add anything else to it that pops into your mind later on. Over time, you can gradually learn to trust this list to retain everything you used to have to try to memorize. The other piece of this, besides just tracking all the details of your life, is to TAKE ACTION and get some of this stuff handled. I try to do at least one non-routine task every day to keep it from building up. Really, almost all of this stuff can be handled in under ten minutes, and some can be delegated. There's no reason to let it all clutter up our poor worried minds.
Another piece of mental bandwidth has to do with settling emotional conundrums. So much of our nightly tossing and turning has to do with upsetting events we can't seem to resolve. DO NOT DO THIS AT NIGHT. Try to figure it out during daylight hours, out of doors and in motion if you can do it. Everything seems a hundred times worse late at night. Why this is, I don't know, but it's true. Don't do that to yourself. Build some kind of routine where you are only chasing your own tail about dark emotional stuff while... going for a walk, listening to cheerful music, scrubbing the bathtub, or something else physical and constructive. It really helps.
There you have it. If you get worried at night, the reason is almost entirely because you worry AT NIGHT. Catch yourself in the act. Bring your attention to it. You're not alone; this is a near-universal problem. When you get in bed, think hypnotic words to yourself such as SLEEPY, DROWSY, COZY, CUDDLE, SNUGGLE. Right before bed, look at cute photos, maybe of sleepy baby animals. Fill your mind with things that make you smile. Sufficient unto the day is the bad news thereof. As your sleep quality improves, it becomes easier to relax and let go of the torments of worrying at night.
I'm a one-bag traveler. This only really matters when I travel, which is four or five times most years. On a daily basis, though, having only one bag is the absolute essence of minimalism. A single daily bag becomes a reliable tool for consolidating the gear and information that are most important in daily life. A single bag is vital to the holy grail that is Being Organized.
This doesn't necessarily mean that I OWN only one bag. It means all my DAILY STUFF is in one bag.
I currently have one work bag, two daytime purses, three evening purses, and a beach tote. This is because I haven't gotten around to getting rid of the two purses that are getting shabby after ten or so years. To me, having extra bags leads to guaranteed confusion, lost objects, and late departures. No bag ever made is pretty enough, or even useful enough, to make up for unnecessary hassle and irritation.
For local trips, I often just put my wallet and keys in my pocket, like a man, if I actually have pockets, because women's fashion is a conspiracy.
Ideally, my purse and work bag would be one and the same. In practice, I need a larger bag two days a week, and I don't like lugging it around more than I must. It's like when the rocket boosters separate from the space shuttle.
Purse: Wallet, phone, keys. Pen. Sunglasses. Lip balm. Tissues. Hair tie. Coin purse.
Work bag: Backup battery, adapters, and headphones. I carry sunblock and deodorant because of the climate where I live, and a small vial of Aleve because I'm superstitious. Mini emergency toothbrush, a wet wipe, and a stain treatment pen. Protein bar, and emergency sandwich if I'm flying. Folding grocery bag. Sweater. This is the maximum amount of paranoia gear I carry in my work bag, in addition to my tablet and phone. The most important object in this cavernously large bag is the EXTRA SPACE it provides for me to run errands.
I timed myself transferring items between bags. It took 57.71 seconds.
My husband commutes via bus, and he carries a backpack. It has his laptop and charger, glasses case, sunglasses, wallet, keys, phone, backup batteries and adaptor, headphones, and pen. Today, it also had a notebook, textbooks, and calculator because he's studying for a new professional certification. The most important feature of his backpack is the EXTRA SPACE it has for his lunch or a stop at the grocery store on the way home. I just asked him, "You don't have any receipts or anything in there?" He shook his head no, casually, like if I asked him if he ever debated what color of socks to wear with his outfit.
Parents whose kids are still at home will probably be thinking, "Easy for you, but we have kids." I know this because parents use this reply in every possible situation. The truth is that people who travel in packs have even more reason to organize and streamline their daily stuff. If you don't like dealing with tears in the morning, assuredly, your kids don't either. Checking kids' school bags and resupplying diaper bags in the evening prevents a lot of frustration before it has a chance to derail your family life.
Now that we've done the exposition, the key to Single Bag Theory is the strategic loading and unloading of the bag. The bag is Command Central. Since I don't need my wallet, keys, or sunglasses inside my home, they just stay in the bag. I never have to look for them. I know where the bag is because I always put it in the same spot when I get home. If I need to take something somewhere, like outgoing mail, I put it directly into the bag. This way I don't need a container or flat surface or special furniture; our apartment is so tiny that we don't have a foyer or hallway or mudroom or any of that. If we didn't have a system for our daily bags, then we would have a nonfunctional kitchen with counters covered in junk. That's just an objective fact.
Unloading the bag means making decisions. What am I carrying at the end of the day that is not strictly necessary to my next trip out the front door? Generally it is groceries or sundries I bought, receipts, mail, extra paper napkins, and the occasional piece of trash or recycling. Most of us carry receipts more out of habit or concern about identity theft than because we actually DO anything with the receipts. I try to avoid having receipts printed out at the check stand whenever possible. I do categorize my expenses in my finance app, but I only save the receipts with split expenses. This means that if I went to a restaurant, clothing store, bookstore, or other place with only one category of expense, I don't need the receipt for my purposes. If it's something expensive like electronics, I'll save it until I'm sure the item works properly. Most of our mail is junk mail, and almost everything that's left is outer and inner envelopes, brochures, and other useless inserts. We pay our bills electronically. Process and shred or recycle. Most of my trash sorting happens while I'm waiting at bus stops. When I check the contents of my bag at the end of every day, it only takes a quick glance and a few seconds to pull out anything weird or silly. I'm weird and silly enough without giving myself chiropractic problems lugging extra junk on my neck.
My smartphone takes the place of many of the items I used to carry. I no longer need a bulky paper day planner or address book or notebook or calculator. I no longer have tons of scraps of notes, phone numbers with no name on them, shopping lists, directions, or map printouts. I've developed the habit of setting alarms and time- and location-based reminders, because otherwise I know the fallibility of my ADHD mind. I need to be wondering about stuff like whether crows can be trained to pick up litter or whether there will ever be a wall-climbing scrubbing robot, not whether I've forgotten to order parrot kibble or where I put my keys. That's the point of all this, the point of Being Organized. We have more important things to do and more interesting things to think about than our daily stuff.
Having only a single bag has a magical way of making us more organized. Suddenly we know where our keys, phone, and glasses are. Suddenly we know where to look for our little scraps of notes. We start to be less late, and finally on time for things, because we can just sling the bag over one shoulder and go straight out the door. All the little rays of wandering attention we have aimed all over the place start to merge into a thick beam of focus. Having one bag can help us both look better and feel smarter, and what a magical bag that is!
Today is a major anniversary for me, and I'm stepping out of my normal schedule of blog topics to share about it. Don't worry, I rarely mention my lifestyle and I'm not planning to make a habit out of it. It turns out that other people generally think it's a bigger deal than I do. After 20 years as a vegan and 24 years as a vegetarian, it's just a part of my life, like a stack of t-shirts or a music playlist.
I eat the same way as everyone else. I eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. I've traveled to nine countries on four continents, and I ate meals there, too. I go to grocery stores and buy groceries. I put them in my fridge, freezer, and pantry. For some extremely weird reason, I have this pet omnivore who's willing to live with me and eat my cooking every day. (Not my dog, not my parrot, but my big ol' hairy ol' hockey-playing ex-logger of a husband). From my perspective, I'm a very ordinary suburban housewife who likes cooking. I made an extreme choice when I was 17, and now that I'm in my forties, it feels pretty conventional.
I look at it as a basic consumer choice. It's my right under capitalism to buy what I want, consume what I want, and not buy or consume what I don't want. Just like everyone else. Other people don't like kale or tofu, and they don't buy or eat those things. Good for you. Do what you want. I believe that the more groups there are with distinct preferences, the more markets are created for entrepreneurs to create their own brands, restaurants, clothing lines, shoes, hair dyes, tattoo ink, and all the rest. I don't smoke or vape, so that range of products is irrelevant to me, and I imagine vegan specialty products can be that way for non-vegans. Just ignore us and get back to your day.
Since I made the change at age 17, it's gotten easier. The range of clearly labeled plant-based products has expanded far beyond what I could have dreamed two decades ago. There are hundreds of vegan cookbooks, and they get better every year. I can now order food at most restaurants, many menus are marked with symbols, and most waiters are familiar with the ingredients of the dishes they are serving. If not, they're willing to check. The concept of alternative diets (including food sensitivities, Paleo, or whatever) has disrupted the food industry, to the irritation of some and the delight of others. That genie isn't going back in the bottle. Consumers deserve to know what it is that we're buying, and we want what we want. We're going to go where our desires are honored. Nobody is required to adapt to this; I'm perfectly willing to take my business elsewhere - and the party of 16 who are going out with me.
I don't expect people to accommodate me. I expect my friends and acquaintances to skirt the issue. I always bring emergency rations for myself when I go to a gathering. If I'm going to something like a book club where everyone else is eating together, I'll bring a microwave dinner and try to heat and eat it discreetly. Despite this, I am frequently met by a hostess at the door, announcing, "Sorry, I didn't make anything vegan for you." Um, thanks, I didn't expect you to? Whatsoever? Sorry to have completely ruined your evening by forcing you to make a spectacle of me at your doorstep.
On the other hand, I have several friends who have cooked incredible meals for me, bent over backwards to make sure I had something to eat, or even invented new recipes for baked goods and brought them to me. I will do anything for these people, because that, to me, is the most astounding and touching gift. You know who you are.
My husband still eats meat, as he has for his entire life. Now it's maybe once or twice a month instead of once or twice a meal. He doesn't eat dairy, because it makes him violently ill. It's funny that he and I have the same dietary arrangement - do not eat things with dairy in them - but his reason is accepted, while mine is considered annoying, even though accommodating one of us is just as much an imposition as accommodating the other. People have this firmly entrenched idea that having a nutrition-based or ideology-based diet is selfish, unfair to others, unrealistic, unhealthy, holier-than-thou, vapid, trendy, or whatever. You can demand your dressing on the side, no onions, extra ketchup, only this brand of cola but not that one, or any picky-pickle fussy requirements you may have, and you're fine. It's only allowed if you do it because It's The Texture or you just vehemently dislike the taste of something. Do it for health or ideology, and everyone hates you.
Do I lecture people? Yeah, I did when I was a teenager. I know people think I do now because I get that type of feedback from time to time. My husband is puzzled by this. We've known each other for a dozen years and are more or less inseparable in person and on social media. He's my reality check. What often happens is that someone will lecture me, while I stand there listening in bemusement, and then remember it as me hounding everyone else. A vegan is a symbol of something. What, exactly, I don't fully understand. The truth is that I don't give a flying fudge factory what other people eat. I don't want people jumping in and trying to go vegan for three weeks, with no idea whatsoever about nutrition or cooking or meal planning, and then blame the concept for their unsatisfying experience, rather than their poor execution of it. Don't do it; you'll just mess it up.
There are health aspects to this. An older roommate told me, when I was 18: "You'll find out what you're doing to your body." Mmhmm. I just had a full panel of lab work done a couple of weeks ago. I'll be 42 in July. What the heck, I'll list it off at the end of this post, because perhaps it will seem relevant to any readers in their forties or better.
It cracks me up a bit when a severely obese diabetic takes it upon themselves to lecture me about my health, or query Where Do I Get My Protein. Hey, do you want to compare blood work? Do you want to race for a mile? How about 15 miles? Do you want to make a list of random health complaints and see whose is longer? How many prescriptions are you on? Look at me. I've been taking this massive risk of eating a plant-based diet for 20-24 years (depending on whether you count four years as a lacto-ovo vegetarian or not). Anything it was going to "do to my body" it presumably will have done by now.
I look forward to my old age. I come from a long-lived family, where everyone seems to reach at least age 75. It will start getting fun as I enter my sixties. At that point, I predict that my health and fitness level will speak for themselves. Right now, I'm only beginning to reach a level of implicit credibility, where my age and experience on this path have diverged from the Standard American Lifestyle and the accompanying Standard American Results. In another twenty years, it will be pretty obvious "what I've done to my body."
Here are my latest lab test results, as of 5/2/2017. I'm not on any pharmaceuticals other than birth control.
Fasting glucose: 86 mg/dL
Cholesterol: 134 mg/dL
Triglyceride: 83 mg/dL
HDL: 50 mg/dL
LDL calculated: 67 mg/dL
Cholesterol/high density lipoprotein: 2.7
Cholesterol, non-HDL: 84 mg/dL
Sodium: 141 mEq/L
Potassium: 4.3 mEq/L
Chloride: 106 mEq/L
CO2: 27 mEq/L
Anion gap (NA - (CL + CO2)): 8 mEq/L
Creatinine: 0.80 mg/dL
Alanine Aminotransferase (ALT): 10 U/L
Thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH): 1.16 mcIU/mL
Free thyroxine (T4): 1.1 ng/dL
Blood pressure: 94/58 mmHg (a bit low, but that's my norm)
Resting pulse: 64
By this time of year, almost nobody is talking about New Year's Resolutions anymore. We still have more than half the year left, but usually we've already given up on ourselves. Caroline Arnold has a better idea in Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently. We can make the changes we really want to make by focusing on tinier, faster, easier steps.
It isn't always obvious how to go about breaking a big project or life change into smaller, more manageable pieces. If we had the idea, we'd be doing it, right? Small Move, Big Change has countless examples of microresolutions that real people have used. Simply reading them has a tendency to spark connections and clicks that make these changes seem easy and manageable. Because they are personal, they're memorable in a way that boilerplate advice often is not. The book covers such a huge range of topics that there is bound to be at least something transformative for everyone.
Arnold starts with sleep as the best area to start making microresolutions. I couldn't agree more. Most of our failure to have perfect "willpower" (a fantasy creature that only exists in storybooks) is due to tiredness. Too tired to even get ready for bed! As she picks apart her own issue with sleep procrastination, we can't help but compare her routine with our own. A busy, married working mom with a young child, Arnold's struggles are totally relatable.
Small Move, Big Change can help us get more sleep, save money, be on time, get organized, get fit, lose weight, and get better performance reviews at work. Best of all, there are ideas for how to transform relationships with our romantic partners, family, friends, bosses, and colleagues. We start to feel like maybe we can handle this pesky old Resolution thing after all. Small Move, Big Change is definitely a path in the direction of greater happiness.
The highest-order compliment I give is to designate someone as Useful. This means that the person is a worthy candidate for my zombie squad. It's a simple shorthand for a complex set of attributes. It's entirely possible that I don't meet my own standard for Usefulness.
The first component of being Useful is to be a strategic thinker. The Useful person sees problems before they become problems. This is why the Useful person tends to know when to open doors or grab the other end of a heavy object. A full-on Useless person, on the other hand, tends to spend a lot of time in exactly the wrong place. Useless people cause accidents and spills, and stuff tends to get broken around them due to their inattentiveness.
My dog is both Useful and Useless, which is allowed because he's an animal. He is Useful in that he's vigilant, he eliminates vermin, and he always lets me know if a package has been delivered. I have watched him crush a spider with his paw, note that it was still moving, and crush it some more until the job was done. He also has a habit of trying to walk between my feet, especially when I'm carrying groceries or a laundry basket. He has knocked me over. He likes to dig up fresh seedlings from the garden. When he was a puppy, he destroyed nearly a dozen pillows. All of these things are pretty darn Useless. He likes to sleep on my feet in the winter, though, and that's so Useful that it balances the accounts.
A Useful person tends to have interesting skills that I don't have. I am a gleaner of skills, and I will try to absorb these abilities as quickly as I can. Often, though, I'm weak in an area and will have little hope of mastering it in this lifetime. Orienteering is one example. I have trouble telling left from right and I have no innate sense of direction. It's Useful to me to have someone around who is good at these things. I can offer a skill that seems like it would be closely related, but isn't: I have an eerily photographic recall of where objects are stored. I can remember the location of every object in my house and most of the visible objects in every house where I have spent significant time. I have helped people find their keys and other possessions over the phone from 3000 miles away. This is Useful for my work as a professional organizer - I can still recall the positions of visible objects from a Level 3 hoard. I can't navigate but I can find all the stuff, and my husband is the opposite.
A Useful person is solution-oriented. This means the focus is always going to be on solving a problem and moving forward. A Useless person prefers to vent about problems, cultivate allies who have an opinion about problems, and create drama about problems, while the problem continues to fester. The two groups tend to have mutual antipathy. Sometimes solving a problem looks a lot like "judging" anyone who didn't contribute to the solution. Why, I don't know. In my roster of Useful people are a few people who are abrasive, occasionally annoying, yet I can appreciate that they will reliably solve problems and get things done.
A Useful person lets the results speak for themselves. Useful people are often very surprising. You might know them for years and never know that they have a bunch of Useful traits. I was rocked back on my heels one day when I was walking with a friend and he ran into someone he knew from an old job. Suddenly they started signing to each other in ASL. Never thought to mention it, huh? Having a set of skills builds confidence. You can go through your day having interesting conversations or kicking back and relaxing. It may not occur to you to mention the skill to people. Maybe years will go by and you won't need to demonstrate the skill. Suddenly, bam, Useful!
Useful people are altruistic. This is part of why I fell in love with my husband. He took night classes and became an Emergency Medical Responder, just because. Since then he's been first on the scene at a couple of traffic accidents. I've been with him on a couple of occasions when someone collapsed, at the coffee shop and on the bus, and it's awe-inspiring to see that shift into superhero mode. We are fortunate enough to have several friends who have been Useful when someone else was in trouble. It makes you love them all the more for the way they unselfishly come to someone's aid, and also because they've just demonstrated that they deserve a spot on the zombie squad.
My most Useful moment was probably late one evening, when my friend's car had broken down in a small town where everything had already closed for the day. He was trying to replace the fuel filter, and the single tiny nut that held it in place fell into the gravel. We were parked at an abandoned gas station. There were about forty million bits of stray hardware in that gravel: springs, washers, screws, paperclips, bottle caps, bits of alien spacecraft, you name it. Somehow, with the sun going down, I FOUND that nut. My freakishly keen eyesight and ability to pick objects out of undifferentiated piles became my superpower that night.
Sometimes we're Useful without realizing it. I was waiting at a crosswalk one day with about a dozen other people. Almost everyone jaywalked. I always wait for the light, because I don't trust automobile drivers at all, and I would hate to be blamed for being pasted by a car. When I crossed the street, the last remaining pedestrian spoke to me. He was an elderly man and his eye was running with fluid. He told me that he was partially blind and that he counted on people like me to help him know when it was safe to cross the street. I hadn't even noticed him until then. I can't take credit for it; all I can do is to proceed with others in mind. Try to be the person that Future Self will need in times of frailty.
I hope I'm Useful at least some of the time. I don't want to be a "consumer." I don't want to be a complainer or a whiner. I don't want to get in the way. I don't want to annoy people unintentionally. (If I do it, hopefully it's on purpose!). At least I can try to be neutral, offsetting the irritation of my very existence by the occasional helpful act. At best, I'd like to be the one people count on when they think, "Who would I want with me during the apocalypse?"
Glory days, they'll pass you by. My husband and I are middle-aged empty nesters now. He used to play football. Like the majority of former football players, he is not in the physical condition of a professional athlete, and neither are any of the other guys from his team. Even though my husband hasn't played football in many years, he still identifies as A Football Player in some ways, and A Hockey Player as well. I haven't ridden a bicycle so much as one wheel length in several years, yet I still identify as A Bicycle Commuter. It gets into you. The only trouble is when the image no longer matches the reality. The biggest pitfall of the athletic identity is when it masks the truth, convincing us that we still have something even as it is slipping away.
I ran a marathon. I ran a marathon in October 2014, which you probably already know, because I talk about it all the time. It was a defining moment in my life. Since then, I have barely run a cumulative four miles, although you'd never know it to hear me talk. I still plan to run "fifty for fifty," completing a fifty-mile ultra-marathon for my fiftieth birthday. That birthday is getting closer every day. I don't have a training plan. Right now, my plan looks like it will work out about as well as my 1997 plan to fit in my grandmother's wedding dress for my first wedding. I decided I would fit in the dress and made no further plans. Result: hire tailor to add five inches of panels to expand waistline of gown. I could very well have a waistline five inches wider by my fiftieth birthday. Perhaps much wider still. These things "happen" when there is no plan to avoid them.
Attempts at athletic prowess are worth it, if for no other reason than their ability to humble us and put our fragile egos in place. Learning the limitations of the body and enduring pain to expand those limits is an excellent spiritual battleground. Lo, we are but mortal. Almost any athletic discipline can burn the arrogance out of a person if it is strenuous enough. (An exception might be posing strenuously in front of a mirror). If you have ever worked a muscle to the point of failure, you know what I mean. You say, "Leg, I command thee, move forward." Leg replies, "Nuh-uh." You say, "Attend me now, lowly limb, move ye thence!" Leg says, "I ain't doing it." You realize that if you are going to step over this shower threshold, you are physically going to have to grasp your own thigh and lift your foot the extra inch needed. Experiencing muscle mutiny is a little taste of how things could be if we just start to slack off and quit trying. Use it or lose it.
What I've learned is that I'm only as good as the workout I've done within the last 24 hours. Not tomorrow's workout or last week's workout, and certainly not the workout I did three years ago. I'm guaranteed to think of myself as weighing my lowest weight (before breakfast, stark naked), eating my healthiest day of food choices ever, and having the most strength, speed, and visible muscle definition I ever had. I'm also likely to think of myself as having the best grasp of punctuation and the best potato salad recipe, although that last thought is simply objective fact. It's testable. It's testable in the same exact way that my strength, speed, agility, and body composition are testable. What I'm probably going to find when I test them will be hard for my conscious mind and my poor little ego to accept.
I tried to do a pull-up the other day in the gym. I compromised by doing lat pulls, because guess what? I couldn't pull up an inch, much less clear the bar. Any more. This is something I was good at when I was training for my first (and so far, only) adventure race. I'll probably also find that I can only run a mile without getting a stitch in my side and that I'm about 30% slower now. Of course, if I continue to do what I've been doing, and avoid testing my abilities, I can retain my athletic identity and continue to believe that I am in peak training condition.
Why do I even care? Can't I just continue to think of myself as intellectually superior and have total contempt and disdain for the athletes of the world, as I used to do? Well, no, not really, not any more. Now that I know how much discipline and sacrifice are involved, now that I know a little about everything that Spartan rigor has to offer, I can't help but respect the effort. Also, I have a firm personal conviction that my food intake, body composition, and physical conditioning are directly related to my past issues with thyroid disease, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, migraine, and night terrors. Why on EARTH would I want any of that back? Better the pain that I can control, better the pain that benefits me in greater strength, than the unpredictable pain that lays me flat and breaks my spirit.
I prefer my life when I can do functional things with less effort. Strength training makes it easier for me to carry laundry and groceries, to open jars and windows, to put my own luggage in the overhead bin. Running makes me mellow and cheerful. Overall physical fitness makes it easier to do the things I love to do, like travel to places with tons of stairs or high-elevation viewpoints. Fit Me is Fun Me.
My identity now is aligned more with self-honesty. Nobody cares but me. Not even my doctor cares all that much whether I suffer or overcome. Nobody else wakes up in my body or lives my life but me myself. Present Me and Future Me. I try to see myself less as "Athletic Person" than as "Person who recognizes weakness, strategizes, and works hard to make tomorrow better than today." Also, Person Who Eats Hills for Breakfast.
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.