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.
Coming from a minimalist nomad, it may sound strange to advocate for domestic contentment. Aren't you all about getting rid of your stuff in favor of traveling the world? Well, yes and no. Minimalism is about focusing on whatever is most important to you and jettisoning anything that gets in the way of that. Not everyone likes traveling. Most people do, however, have a taste for mundane delights that is not being fully realized in their day-to-day. Domestic contentment is within reach of anyone at any budget.
When I was a kid in grade school, I read the story of the Greek philosopher Diogenes. He was known for living in a barrel in the marketplace, aside from his reputation as a wise man. Alexander the Great came to visit him and wanted to give him a gift, as much to demonstrate his own largesse as because this guy obviously could have used a pillow or blanket or something. He asked Diogenes if he wanted anything. Diogenes replied, basically, "Yeah, move over, you're blocking my sun." This made a huge impression on me as a child, and I spent a lot of time wondering about the drawing of the philosopher in the barrel, wondering what he ate and that sort of thing. These days, we would call Diogenes "homeless."
Whether someone can feel happiness and contentment while living on the margins of society probably depends as much on the society as on that particular individual.
It's not about the possessions or the dwelling, though. What makes the difference between absolute penury and contentment is access to a support network. Health care, physical safety, money, secure banking, food, bathing and laundry facilities, a soft warm bed, entertainment, and a social network of friends and family. Someone with access to all of that could probably live pretty cheerfully in a hotel with wi-fi, and be content with little more than a shower kit, a week's worth of clothes, and a smartphone.
Some of us only really wear a week's worth of clothes, anyway, because none of our other stuff fits right now, or the rest is waiting in front of the washing machine.
This is where we start to touch on the LACK of domestic contentment.
What I see in my work is that most people have a perpetual backlog of chores. There are dirty dishes in and around the sink at least 80% of the time. Likewise, there is almost always spoiled food in the fridge. There is always at least one load of laundry waiting to be washed or folded or put away, and often as many as ten. The bathroom is almost always grimy, the carpet is almost never vacuumed, the floors are almost always sticky, and there is almost always a full bag of trash waiting to be taken out. What the household feels about this state of affairs can most likely not be described as 'contentment.' Words that come to mind might be: frustration, resentment, despair, anger, depression, guilt, shame, blame, annoyance, or confusion.
This total lack of domestic contentment can and does lead to divorce. It's tough on kids. It can consume years that could otherwise have been pretty nice. Who wants to waste years or decades being chronically irritated almost every day?
My contention is that it's not housework in itself that causes this constant level of background annoyance. Rather, there is no vision of how good things could be and what domestic contentment actually feels like.
There's also the matter of... the stuff. Clutter causes housework to take 40% longer. Everything has to be moved out of the way to clean around it, under it, or behind it. Every single item in the house gathers dust or needs to be washed at some point. The more stuff there is, the harder it is to clean up, even if it's cute or valuable or it gets used every day. Crowded equals high maintenance.
What tends to happen is a gradual feeling of defeat. The more crowded and cluttered the house, the harder it is to keep it clean and stay on top of everything, the less often it gets done, the worse it gets, and the harder it is to get it to look clean at all. We resign ourselves to it. After a while, olfactory fatigue sets in, and we can't even smell it. Somewhere along that continuum, it's far easier and more pleasant to stay away, and any excuse to be out shopping or running errands starts to look attractive. Contentment can only be found elsewhere.
There's a close link between this pattern and a reliance on takeout food, pizza delivery, restaurants, convenience foods, or eating cereal for dinner. Who wants to cook in this kitchen??
A well-run kitchen is central to domestic contentment. After I finally learned to cook, I wondered what I had been thinking. Why would anyone not want to know how to cook? You can cook all your favorite stuff exactly the way you like it, anytime you want. I make a lot of stuff I would never be able to get in a restaurant - anywhere, not just in my neighborhood. I'd rather eat my own cooking than what I could get in about 3/4 of restaurants. If you've ever had a greasy or disappointing meal out, you know what I mean. A functional kitchen makes it possible to experiment and constantly improve your culinary skills, and that pays off in better and better meals. It's also cheaper and healthier.
I take notes on various recipes, quoting the compliments my husband or family members or guests make about the food. It's encouraging.
As much as we love travel, my husband and I would really rather be home than just about anywhere else. It's where our pets are. Our bed is more comfortable than any other bed. We have everything we need, we know where it is, and we have the space to use it. Thanks to our practice of minimalism, cleaning house takes very little effort. Laundry and dishes aren't that big a deal when they get dealt with every day: about five minutes per meal for dishwashing, five minutes per day to put away clean dishes, five minutes to run the washer and dryer, and ten or fifteen minutes to fold and put away laundry. It's hardly worth thinking about. The rest of the time, we're working on projects, playing with our pets, walking around the neighborhood, or lounging around talking. Our apartment is tiny, but it's big enough to do all of that.
Start by thinking of your default emotional state and whether you like it that way. Imagine how you'd prefer to feel. Contentment is not the same as elation, bliss, ecstasy, or hysterical laughter; it's sustainable and lower-maintenance. It's a feeling of "yeah, I dig this." Gaining a base level of contentment is often as simple as removing any obstacles between you and it. Remove any irritants and annoyances, resolve any backlog of tasks that lead to power struggles or a drain on mental bandwidth. Then sit back, smile, and sigh. How much more do you need?
Airline incidents are the trend du jour. Now that almost everyone has a cell phone camera, all of this stuff is going to be documented and posted online almost instantaneously. Just as soon as it's started, the backlash will begin. Disputes will be disputed. These incidents are part of our larger cultural conversation (debate? battle?) over the boundaries around customer service and appropriate public behavior. This latest debacle over a birthday cake in the overhead bin is simply one example.
The story as it stood at time of writing was that a family brought a birthday cake on board their flight. Then they had an altercation with the flight crew, details under argument. The entire planeload of passengers was forced to disembark and reboard, and the family with the cake was rebooked on a different flight.
Right here is where I step in. I started flying alone when I was seven years old, and I've lost count of how many times I've flown in the 35 years since. Many of those flights have involved a box or zip-lock bag full of Voodoo Donuts. Have you ever tried to bring a frosted or glazed pastry onto a plane? Do you know what happens? The frosting melts all over the darn place. I don't know whether it's the heat, the humidity, the pressure, the oxygen mix, the altitude, or what. Now, when we're talking donuts, I don't particularly care how cosmetic they are when I land. They're going into my freezer, where I will eat them in little half-teaspoon smears if I have to. I haven't had much luck with sandwiches or other foods I've packed for myself, either. Airplane cabins are not great places for the culinary arts.
A birthday cake, though? I mean... they're so... fragile. Special occasion and all. I'm having trouble even imagining how an intact cake made it to the airport in the first place, much less down the gangplank, much less into an overhead bin. File under: ACCIDENTS WAITING TO HAPPEN. I don't recall a cake-smashing scene in the movie Airplane, but if they do a remake, there should be. It writes itself. Plane hits turbulence, luggage starts smashing into the locks of the overhead bins, suitcases fly out, cake lands on someone. Someone stands up to get their medication out of their carry-on, accidentally shoves their entire hand into the cake instead. Flight attendant tired of someone's attitude grabs cake and smears it all over them.
Now I totally want to see this movie: Cakes on a Plane. Starring Samuel L. Jackson as an FBI agent and Melissa McCarthy as the cake.
Let's dive a little deeper. What happened? I watched the video provided by the family of the disputed cake. Telegenic as they are, I have questions. Anyone who has worked in customer service would have questions.
Supposedly there wasn't an issue with bringing a cake on the flight; the passengers put it in a bin reserved for safety equipment. The problems began when anything other than "Yes, sir or madam, I will certainly remove this cake and put it under my seat immediately, my mistake, so sorry for the inconvenience" came out of anyone's mouth. It's completely, totally implausible that rapid compliance would lead to the expensive and extreme choice by the flight crew to summon police and reboard the entire flight. How does this make any sense? What employee would arbitrarily bring that amount of paperwork on themselves? Why would other crew members back them up, rather than trying to mediate? Something just doesn't add up.
Flying is cheap and easy now, despite the trauma of TSA screening. Nobody has died on an American-certified flight since 2009, with the exception of a pilot who died during landing back in March. Did you catch that? Flying is so routine now that a plane landed safely even when one of the pilots became deathly ill during the landing. Flying has started to feel a lot like riding a bus - a bus with waiters. As a result, we tend to forget that flight attendants are highly trained safety professionals. A flight attendant bringing you a drink is roughly equivalent to Steven Seagal as the chef in Under Siege.
We have to listen to them.
We have to listen to flight attendants, not just because it's the law, but because it's their job to maintain the safety of every person on the flight, including themselves. They have training that we don't. Their training includes what is safe to stow where, and what kind of racket distracts the pilots, and other technical reasons why certain behaviors and activities are a bad idea in flight. We're supposed to put our tray tables up so we don't get impaled, and also so access isn't blocked if the plane has to be evacuated. We're supposed to stow all our extra junk so it doesn't go airborne during an emergency. Imagine 150 books, laptops, and briefcases flying through the air and then smacking everyone in the face at high speed. This stuff is serious. Flying is so safe today because the aviation industry has recorded, analyzed, and learned from previous disasters and fatalities.
They have their reasons.
The other reason we have to listen to flight attendants is that they have the power. When any kind of significant altercation or fight happens, the flight is likely to be delayed or canceled. That means that any disruptive passenger, right or wrong, now holds the power to ruin the travel arrangements of every single other passenger. YOU want to stow your cake in a choice spot, which may seem perfectly reasonable, until the result is that ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-FIVE PEOPLE on the plane with you now have to rearrange their whole life. It better be worth it, is all I'm saying.
What kind of situation merits the disruption of 185 fellow passengers? I'm going to go with: true emergencies. Nothing less. I'm never going to blame someone for having a major health crisis on a flight, unless of course they knew full well that they suffered a health condition likely to go into crisis mode while airborne. As an example, I was on a flight once that was delayed because a passenger had a condition that resulted in uncontrollable bursts of screaming. So, so not kidding. She was in the middle of the plane, while I was sitting near the front, and I was able to overhear the conversation of the flight crew (as well as the occasional shrieks from the passenger). There is no way this would not have been distracting to the pilots. One of the flight attendants said she was unwilling to enter a situation in which the flight would have to be diverted and grounded at an alternate airport, like a previous flight she had crewed. They agreed together that the screaming woman would have to disembark before takeoff. The woman apologetically cooperated, and the rest of us went on our merry way, half an hour behind schedule. I wish her well.
If someone with an 'uncontrollable screaming' problem can be that cooperative, why can't the rest of us?
Not everyone should travel via airplane. This excludes the category of medevac, obviously. Flying is stressful in every way: physically, mentally, emotionally, pastry-ly. Not everyone is up to it. Not every situation is appropriate for a flight. A German flight attendant once made me put away the nice red cabbage I was eating because it was "stinky." (Blush) Just because an airline employee embarrasses us, annoys us, hurts our feelings, or disappoints our expectations does not mean we are in the right. We should probably try to think of air travel as more like space travel than like ordering drinks at Starbucks.
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.