I‘m not a swimmer, but this book made me want to be. Dara Torres writes engagingly of training for her Olympic comeback at age 41, interspersing workout details with stories about her personal life. I was stunned by all the stuff she had going on at the time, and this made me take a hard look at my own routines. This is one of the great things about memoir and biography; we can imagine the mindset of a famous person because we can relate to the ordinary parts of life behind the scenes.
I was never an athlete. Last picked for every team, et cetera. It wasn’t until I was 35 that it really ever occurred to me to do anything physical on purpose. Earlier, I would have been alienated by hearing about someone else’s workouts. Now, I hear something like “700 sit-ups a day” and I have more of a sense of what that means. Torres’s descriptions of exercising and training at an elite level give a vivid sense of what it is like to spend that amount of time in a pool, how much precision goes into even very small motions repeated tens of thousands of times, what it’s like to live in the body of an Olympic medalist. How much of it is focus and desire, and how much of it is repeating the same activities over and over and over again? How much is passion, and how much is willingness to tolerate boredom?
The lens into the mind of a singularly focused, ambitious, driven person is really interesting. It’s even more interesting to consider that Torres’s comeback came during what was probably one of the worst, most stressful periods of her life. Without too many spoilers, she endured grief, personal loss, and multiple surgeries, and had a major crisis going on during the Olympics. She also started swimming again while pregnant at 39, so the comeback arc included pregnancy, childbirth, and raising her daughter to toddlerhood. Any ONE of these events would have qualified as a good-enough reason to avoid training. Anyone would have understood that she had a lot to deal with. She did it anyway.
Dara Torres proves it’s true that Age is Just a Number. Indeed.
“Fifty for fifty” is my thing. I’ve been saying I want to run a 50-mile ultramarathon for my fiftieth birthday. It sounded somewhat implausible to me in my late thirties. People like Dara Torres are showing more and more that the human body has more potential than we’ve ever realized. We have no idea what our limits are. Probably one day in the future, being younger than forty will be seen as a disadvantage for an aspiring young athlete. If I ever do a triathlon, I’ll be looking at pictures of Dara Torres for inspiration.
“...the real reason most of us fear middle age is that middle age is when we give up on ourselves.”
“If she didn’t have to be old at 70, I certainly wasn’t going to be old at 32.”
“When I was young, I was a natural athlete, but undisciplined.”
“I’d told the reporter, “If I look at it realistically, I can’t do the times I did when I was 33.” I’d been wrong.”`
Everyone has some kind of checklist for deciding whether to date someone. Sometimes, granted, that checklist isn’t very long. Sometimes it’s just, “Did they ask me out?” I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s only one trait that really, truly matters. Without it, no relationship has a chance. With it, nearly anything is tolerable. The trait is kindness.
I tell all my students, “Only date people who are nice to you.”
Unfortunately, in the short term, it’s possible to be hoodwinked by a skilled manipulator who is deliberately faking you out with superficial charm. This is why it can be more helpful to watch for the person to show kindness to someone else.
There are four types of undesirable lover. One, the narcissist. That’s estimated at about six percent of the population. Narcissism is a personality disorder, and it’s considered more or less untreatable, mostly because narcissists don’t think anything is wrong with them. Two, the sociopath, at about three to five percent of the population. Three, ordinary selfish people, and four, ordinary people who resort to violence. No idea how many of those there are out there. Kindness is nice on its own, and I think it’s also a fairly reliable way to weed out all of these four types of people who will inevitably be mean.
Mean to us, mean to our kids, mean to our friends, mean to our neighbors, mean to our pets, mean to our parents, mean to random passersby - it doesn’t really matter. Any or all of those scenarios are drama that we don’t need.
I once had a boyfriend who picked up my earring off a table and crushed it out of shape. It was pointless and unprovoked. Looking back, I wish I had broken up with him on the spot, because it wasn’t the last time he did something dumb and mean. Looking back, I’m also hard pressed to think of a single time when he did something nice for anyone. It’s an interesting exercise. What are some nice things that my ex did, and what are some mean things?
Part of what made me want to be friends with my current husband was that he would leave little uplifting notes on my desk. I still have a couple of them in my wallet a dozen years later. I saw him stand up for other people and do sweet things for his kid. I started to trust him. I’ve seen him help lost kids and stroke victims, break up a fight, tie heavy furniture onto a girl’s car in the IKEA parking lot, help various people get jobs and promotions, and one day he even saved a couple of little frogs from dying of dehydration. Once an Eagle Scout, always an Eagle Scout, what can I say?
As I was writing this, he popped out the door with the bag of laundry that I had planned to wash later this evening. He has this habit of sneaking off to do my chores. What’s worse, if there’s burnt toast he always takes it. I find myself having to bend over backward sometimes to keep up with him.
The thing about kindness is that it’s hard to fake because most of the opportunities are not obvious. Well, they’re obvious to a kind-hearted person. If you make it your mission to hold the door for people, always try to make eye contact and smile at everyone you pass by, and get a laugh out of every business transaction, you recognize those moments. Not everyone notices, though, when someone at work could use a pep talk, or when a tiny kid gets separated from her mom, or when someone is struggling with a heavy load. You can always label an act of kindness after the fact, but you can’t always see them coming in advance.
There are romantic gestures that don’t necessarily count as kindness. For instance, I once had a boyfriend who would ride his bike seven miles across town to see me. This was impressive, but more of an act of valor than anything else. Mix tapes, well, I don’t know if people make those too often any more, but there’s a big difference between whether they represent the giver’s taste or the recipient’s. I would be seriously surprised if someone were able to put together a playlist of music fitting my tastes or bring me a book relevant to my interests that I hadn’t already read. Gifts and photos are also usually more revealing of the giver.
One of the main reasons I fell for my ex-husband was that he cooked for me. He really was a fantastic cook! As it turned out, he just preferred his own cooking (understandably) and refused to eat mine (even more understandably). What I interpreted as kindness turned out, in our relationship, to be a power play. He had learned that if he made all the meals, he could walk away from a kitchen disaster that someone else would have to clean up every night. That’s not necessarily a big deal, but his constant insults, criticism, and mind games were. If I had been as good a cook back then as I am now, I wouldn’t have fallen for a few great dinners. I would have looked further. I wouldn’t have written off a few early, telltale incidents of rudeness as “not a big deal.” I could have saved both of us from those three wretched years.
People tend to outgrow early selfishness as we age. The drama and bad habits we may have exhibited in one relationship are lessons we can learn so that we don’t carry them forward into the next match. This is part of why we shouldn’t reward unkindness, selfishness, cruelty, or mistreatment. Sometimes people need a little time on their own to work things out, and other times, maybe they never will.
Kindness is an upward spiral. It ripples outward, touching everyone who experiences it, even second-hand. The uplift we get from these altruistic acts can be enough to inspire us to do kind deeds for others. We learn to trust each other and we seek to impress each other. It gets easier and easier to be generous and rely on the expectation of mutual sweetness. That’s where long-term love resides.
The strangest thing just happened to me. I was reading someone else’s book, when this insight spontaneously dropped in my mind. I snapped to attention. THAT’S IT! All these bits and pieces of family lore sprang into context. I realized that part of why I was able to fully recover from chronic pain and fatigue was that I’ve deeply internalized a series of family legends about healing and trauma. Maybe the reason other people haven’t had the same experience is that it hasn’t occurred to them that they can?
First, there’s my story. I was diagnosed with a thyroid nodule when I was 23. I was supposed to get a needle biopsy, but I procrastinated for over a year. When I finally went in, I was lying on a gurney in a paper gown, being prepped for the surgery, and the ultrasound revealed that the nodule was gone. Surgery was canceled and they sent me home.
Then, there’s my brother’s story. His spine was fractured in three places in a terrifying construction accident. He was left to lie contorted over his tool bag in the mud because they were afraid to move him. He’s training for his first marathon this year, and right now his mile time is sub-seven minutes.
Then, there’s my auntie’s story. (Paternal branch). She was diagnosed with fourth-degree liver failure and given six months to live. That was the year 2000. Still here in 2018.
Then there’s my grandfather’s story. (Maternal branch). He got mumps and was told it had made him sterile. Thus, his fourth and fifth children came as something of a surprise. If the doctors were right in Granddad’s case, I wouldn’t be here and neither would my mom.
There are probably more, if I do some interviews, but these are the family legends that popped into mind when I had my startling epiphany.
So what gives? Does getting mumps turn your grandchildren into superheroes, or what?
I’m not sure what. I have some guesses, though.
Note that each of the four stories I shared involves a different category physical problem. Endocrine dysfunction, skeletal injury, organ failure, infectious illness. There are also two separate genetic lines involved; my auntie has no blood relation to my grandfather of legend. If there are any unifying biological themes here, I have no idea what they might be.
Doctors tend to be pragmatists. It’s the nature of their work. Generally, what works for most people most of the time is close enough to truth to get the job done. Most people are functional, at least on a basic level, and human longevity is double what it was two hundred years ago, so there’s a lot they’re doing right.
There are some glaring, epic flaws in Western medical training. The first is that healthy and well people don’t come back. Feedback comes from the persistently unhealthy, those who didn’t get better and are still having trouble. Where are the data on all the people who got better? Second, the process of earning a medical degree is so contrary to physical well-being that it’s a wonder anyone survives. Chronic sleep deprivation, stress, overwork, and burnout are core requirements of the curriculum. Third, doctors are not taught nutrition! We have a fix-what’s-broken perspective rather than a maintain-and-improve perspective.
Would a doctor recognize what a healthy and thriving person was doing right? Enough to teach it to other patients?
I can tell you what I did that I believe reversed my thyroid disease. While I was busy procrastinating and not wanting to find out whether I had cancer, I began a very strenuous exercise program. I went from zero to riding my bicycle at least fifteen miles a day, on hilly terrain that required every one of my 21 gears. I got so strong that I could pick up my bike, rest it on my shoulder, and dash up a flight of stairs without thinking about it.
My brother swears by yoga. He was in great shape when he broke his back; it’s possible that if he hadn’t been so lean he might not have survived his accident. He’s also been a vegetarian for like twenty years (just saying).
As for my auntie and my granddad, I have no idea. I’m not sure whether they would have had any guesses either. It wouldn’t be wrong to list the character trait of stubbornness here.
Intuitively, I think part of what’s going on is whether we believe in a story, and how that belief influences our behavior. There can also be a huge gulf between what the doctor actually said and how the patient INTERPRETS what the doctor said. I have heard more than one person tell me, quote, “I physically can’t lose weight” based on what a doctor supposedly said, and I bet a shiny copper penny that no doctor has ever said that to anyone, ever, at any time. I also don’t think that medical professionals use the word “incurable,” but we tend to hear that a lot, too. For some reason, a lot of people positively adore talking about illness, disease, surgery, prescriptions, accidents, trauma, and negative outcomes. What this variety of person does with otherwise sound medical information, who can say?
So. One person goes to the doctor with [HEALTH PROBLEM] and eventually recovers. Another person goes to the (same) doctor with [IDENTICAL HEALTH PROBLEM], comes home believing in the problem, and never gets better. Does the second person’s complete package of behavior match the first person’s complete package of behavior? Why are we not studying this?
What I do differently than other people is to introduce myself to doctors as a health-oriented person. I tell them I’m a marathon runner and that I “want to get back in action” or something similar. I tell them that “I try to be as proactive about my health as possible.” Then they look at my labs and realize that my blood work backs me up. While I have the opportunity, I ask as many questions as possible. For instance, I cut my sclera last year, and when I went in to the optometrist, I asked her about this hypothesis that people could gradually correct their vision mechanically by spending more time outdoors and looking at different distances. She said sure, that sounded plausible. I’m one of the only people in my family who has never needed glasses, so I take this to confirm my bias toward exercise and outdoor pursuits. Since I tend to believe that I am entitled to perfect health, I work to attract information that supports my belief - and ignore anything that contradicts it.
Oh, yeah, and my eye healed, too. 20/80 back to 20/20 in two weeks.
Who knows what the future will bring? Maybe I’ll wind up a victim of spontaneous human combustion. Maybe I’ll sprout antlers or turn purple. Who knows? In the meantime, I’m in enviable shape for a middle-aged American woman. I have every intention of living to be 111. I see no reason to change my mind and start adopting negative, pessimistic views about illness and injury. A doctor told me once, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it,” and that’s medical advice I actually trust.
On the biggest clutter-clearing jobs, there is one category of stuff that takes more time than everything else put together. In this category, a single item can burn up an hour of time. A single grocery sack could represent weeks of work. This category is where people tend to get lost, and that’s why I advise them to wait and save it for last. That category: The Flats.
The Flats are flat things. Original, right?
What is it about the Flats? What makes them so much harder to sort?
The Flats include:
Coupons, expired and current
Articles to read
Old to-do lists
Procrastinated social obligations
Papers representing anxiety, dread, guilt, shame, and grief
You can see how it works. An entire truckload of construction debris or yard waste can be hauled off with a single decision. The trunk of a car can be filled with old blankets and linens for the pet hospital in, oh, half an hour. A decision to free up kitchen space by donating all the plastics could be executed in half a day. Vast volumes of bulk clutter can be virtually waved away. The Flats, though, they take concentration. Concentration and focus.
What’s worse, the Flats can take emotional energy in a way and at a level that physical objects may not.
Physical clutter is often aspirational. Stuff represents imaginary versions of ourselves that we haven’t yet lived out. Maybe we never will. We pile up things like foreign language workbooks, exercise equipment, art supplies, musical instruments, and clothes with the tags still on. We acquire them because we’re enchanted by the possibilities they represent. Getting rid of aspirational items feels like killing that potential, erasing those potential future selves before they’ve had a real chance.
The Flats, though, usually represent the past rather than the future.
Photographs, artwork, school papers, journals, and other keepsakes represent our history, our legacy, our memories, and often our relationships. That’s why it can be hard to discard things like wedding invitations, even after that once-happy couple has divorced and remarried other people. We tend to feel obligated to preserve what feel like archival records.
I have a degree in history and I can tell you, you don’t have an obligation to save anything if you don’t want to. If we were required to archive every piece of official-looking paperwork for every person who ever lived, much less every lock of hair, baby tooth, tiny shoe, or piece of children’s art, there wouldn’t be enough buildings on the planet to house it all. What makes records special is their uniqueness. When everything is special, then nothing is.
I can also tell you, as a person, that it’s better to live an interesting life than to mull over old records of things that have already happened. That’s my opinion. I’d be horrified if my grade school artwork or even my college papers wound up being the most interesting manifestations of my lifetime here on earth. I’d be equally horrified if I had nothing better to do in my old age than to pore over that musty, mildewed old junk.
‘Nostalgia’ means ‘sickness.’ Sickness for home. People used to believe that one could die of it.
Not all the Flats consist of sentimental papers, though. The warnings there are to avoid getting lost in it, to know what a huge time suck it can be when memory-laden papers catch your attention. The other variety of the Flats are those that represent more of a cognitive load.
Most of my clients are chronically disorganized. They often think they are hoarders because their stuff has tended to pile up. Once they decide that it’s time to get a handle on it, though, it turns out that they don’t hoard at all. They’re quickly able to decide to get rid of absolute truckloads of stuff, and they don’t tend to be emotionally attached to much of anything. Where they get into trouble is in mentally processing their bureaucratic papers. That’s why 80% of the Flats belonging to my chronically disorganized people are junk mail and other expired stuff.
What I do when we sit down to work is to set expectations. I say, “I will never throw away any of your stuff. That’s your decision to make. The only things I’ll throw away are candy wrappers or dirty napkins, and you can check the bag before it goes out. I’m just here to sort.” Then we start going through sacks of mail. It’s easy for me, just like it’s easy for anyone to sort someone else’s stuff. No decisions! Almost everything is unopened mail. I whip through it and sort by the logos on the envelopes. Coupon circulars go in one pile, newspapers in another, magazines in another. There’s usually a distinct pile for invitations, another for photos, another for receipts, and another for business cards. While I sort, my client suddenly realizes that most of this stuff is irrelevant, redundant, or obsolete.
We once sorted TEN YEARS of old papers in two days, ending by setting up an entire filing system that fit in two drawers. One of the drawers was filled with printer paper, envelopes, and other office supplies.
The thing is, if this client with ten years’ worth of unsorted paper tried to do it alone, it could have taken months or years.
My recommendations are twofold:
If your issue with the Flats is one of mental focus, maybe see how much you can “get organized” digitally first. I don’t have a paperwork problem because we pay our bills and do our taxes electronically. We spend about two minutes sorting our mail every day. In this millennium, there’s no need to have disorganized drifts of papers.
If, on the other hand, your issue with the Flats is one of unprocessed emotion, be gentle with yourself. Recognize that if you let it, this kind of sorting job can go on for years. Maybe what you need is just to buy some acid-free archival boxes or albums and put everything away neatly. You aren’t required to read through it all. Don’t bother unless you feel it will be meaningful or constructive for you. If the Flats are one piece of a larger organizing and space clearing job, I exhort you, save them for last.
Zero savings. I keep reading about it everywhere and it’s infecting my mind. Where does the money go? How can people possibly have not one single dollar tucked away somewhere? I have a jar with over $80 in it, because I’m a scrounge, just from coins I’ve picked up in the street in the last twelve years. (Mostly pennies!) Then I remind myself that most people do not make a mental or emotional connection between “savings” and their spending habits. We don’t even think of our “spending habits” as spending habits, just as “trying to live my life.” When I work with photos or do home visits with my clutter clients, I look around and think, even at a dollar per item, there’s a lot of money sunk into this room.
When I don’t have any savings, then my personal belongings represent my net worth.
Um, unless I have debt. Then I have clutter and a negative net worth.
Before we go on, I’ll state the obvious: Financial net worth is not the same as spiritual net worth or social net worth. All we’re talking about today is money. Although, as long as we’re on the topic, when we don’t save any money then we are counting on other people to fill in for us, bail us out of trouble, and perhaps support us in frail old age. What will we do if we find out that they had the same plan as us, to count on us for material support the exact same way we were counting on them? We tend to fill our homes and lives with clutter when we cut ourselves off socially and isolate ourselves emotionally. That’s part of why any discussion of the emotional, spiritual, and social inevitably includes the financial.
Back to the clutter. Where did it come from?
The extremely frugal of us will be chuckling and remembering all the stuff we’ve brought home for free. The chronically disorganized will be looking around and noticing how much of the clutter consists of junk mail, newspapers, recycling, and other stuff that... well, it didn’t cost anything but we don’t think it’s all that valuable, either. In both cases, we might do well to ask ourselves if we could lower our rent by using less space. We can also ask whether we could earn more by diverting our scrounging, bargain-hunting energy toward more lucrative side hustles or training for a higher-paid career.
The rest of us can ask, did this cost more than a dollar? A used book, a shirt, a throw pillow, a pen, a can of soup? I still shop at thrift stores, and the price range in my area is now $3-8 for most items. Anyone with a good memory for the lineage of their bargains may be able to bump up that estimate and say, Yes, everything in this room cost at least three bucks, or whatever that number might be.
It could be an interesting exercise to go around with a notepad and write down estimates for the larger items. Roughly how much was the couch, the TV, the bed? It could also be interesting to do an estimate for one small area, such as “everything in the fridge” or “everything on the floor of my car.”
There’s something about the number 55 that comes up often in my work. Fifty-five coffee mugs, fifty-five t-shirts on the floor, fifty-five mechanical pencils. At a dollar each, we can say, “Okay, that’s $55.” Did I actually need each and every one of them? If all my shirts are in layers on the bedroom floor, and I’ve been washing the same basket of other clothes for the last several weeks, then is it possible I could have saved that $55? If I had, would I then have an envelope of money and a clear surface in my home?
Or does any cash on hand “burn a hole in my pocket”? Does a bare surface make me feel a little stir-crazy? Do I spend money quickly or surround myself with stuff because it’s emotionally more comfortable and familiar?
The trouble with clutter is that it fades into the background. We’re so used to it that we forget it’s there. More, we have trouble imagining anything else. How would life be different if I never had to clean this up again? How would life be different if I actually had an emergency savings account? How would life be different if that savings built up over years, and I started trusting its presence?
The other problem with clutter is that it generally doesn’t have any resale value. Many of my people are so emotionally attached to the sunk value of their stuff that they’ll hang onto boxes and piles of it for years, hoping to “get something for it” at the yard sale they’ll never have. Then they finally do put a yard sale together, spend twelve hours a day sitting out in the hot sun, and fail to sell 80% of it. This is a mistake that derives naturally from scarcity mindset. Abundance mindset says, donate it all to charity, spend the weekend napping and going to the park, and think of a different way to come up with $300. My husband and I once wasted a beautiful summer weekend trying to make $100 at a yard sale, and this year we just offset our expenses $600 a month by moving. The new place is thirty square feet smaller, which is less than the size of a ping pong table.
In an emergency, could we get everything out? I think not. I have two pets, and if a natural disaster happened, I’d really have my hands full just collecting them and getting them safely out the door. In my area, the main risks are tsunami, earthquake, wildfire, flash flood, and mudslide. Years ago, I decided that I would never allow myself to get my heart broken by feeling like my stuff was “ruined” or that I’d “lost everything.” If I’m alive, my loved ones are alive, and my pets are alive, then I have lost nothing. I feel much better having an emergency plan, a go bag, physical fitness, insurance, and emergency savings than I think I would if my apartment were full of a bunch of material objects, no matter how awesome they might be.
We keep clutter because we’re overly concerned with the value of things. We’re caught up in the aspirational feelings that we will Definitely Use This Someday. We believe that objects represent our memories and our heritage, and that without the objects we’d forget our past. Many of us believe that our stuff is our personality, so much that we even use the term ‘conversation piece.’ When we feel poor and that life is difficult, we hang onto our stuff because we believe it’s the best we’ll ever have. Imagine how different it would be to instead feel financial comfort, to feel that the future will be more interesting than the past ever was, that we are changing and growing and contributing all the time, that tomorrow will be easier. Imagine how it would be to feel less “this thing is worth something” and more “I am worthy.”
The Financial Diet sets itself apart from other beginner’s guides to personal finance. Almost every book in this category is full of textbook advice on how to set up different types of accounts and how to allocate investments. This can be very intimidating. The Financial Diet focuses more on the mindset and emotional realities of getting a handle on your money. This makes it a great starting point for anyone who feels overwhelmed by numbers.
When I first decided to learn about finance, I had no idea where to start. It seemed like every book on the shelf was written by and for people in their forties, people who owned a house and a car and had college degrees and careers. I couldn’t figure out how to get from where I was, a broke office temp with no credit, to where I wanted to be. Wherever that was? Because I had no idea when I was in my early twenties where I would eventually wind up. I just knew I hated being poor. I very much would have appreciated a book like The Financial Diet, with its profiles of various successful women and its casual language.
Another way that this book sets itself apart is that it devotes a section to domestic skills. There are even recipes for traditional comfort food. From the perspective of someone who has gradually climbed the ladder, this is really important. It’s hard to keep to a budget without a sense of domestic contentment and a desire to spend most of your time hanging out at home. The advice here on how to cook, do home repairs, and shop for bargains is pretty solid.
The specific financial advice dealing with actual dollar amounts and actual types of accounts is solid as well. Seeing a selection of budgets from different people with different lifestyles is much more helpful than the abstract percentages and worksheets that fill most budgeting books. I found the checklists and journaling prompts to be insightful and thought-provoking, even for someone whose finances are already organized.
The Financial Diet is not, and does not claim to be, the only personal finance book anyone could need. The subtitle spells out that this is for total beginners. Speaking for myself, I really appreciated how it addressed class privilege, imposter syndrome, and the challenge of transforming from a clueless young person to a professional adult with a career. I would recommend it to any beginner with a good sense of humor. Come to think of it, this book would make a good graduation gift.
“Learning basic skills like how to install a shelf... has done more for me financially than any raise on a biweekly paycheck.”
“I know from personal experience that the more control I got over my financial life, the more I realized that I am not my mistakes - and neither are you.”
“Your Majesty” wouldn’t be good enough for me as a title, not if I were the queen of the world. I’d have to come up with something new, something more impressive, something that hadn’t been used already for mere queens of countries or empires. “Most Supreme Awesomeness,” maybe. I’d figure it out. I’d figure it out just as soon as I figured out what it meant to be the queen of the entire world and what good it would ever do me.
The first thing I think, when I think of great fame, is the burden. In fact, I think along these lines every time I see a picture of Kate Middleton. Bless her heart. Lovely as a flower. She always seems to be perfectly dressed, but then she’d have to be, wouldn’t she? A duchess! She’s even expected to look perfect mere hours after giving birth. Every single thing she does, says, or wears is a headline. Walking perfection every minute, or else. Does she ever get any time to herself? Can she have any secrets? Does she have a confidante whom she can trust absolutely? I don’t know much about her, but I do know she doesn’t get to go to the convenience store in pajama bottoms and Ugg boots.
Not that I do, either, but it’s nice to know I have that freedom.
I have some major advantages. An ordinary life is one of those secret blessings that people don’t appreciate until something changes. I have something that no amount of money can buy, something that every celebrity would envy: total obscurity. That means privacy. There are no photographers following me around. Nobody puts me in a headline. Nobody comes up asking me for selfies or autographs. If I want to read a book, I sit down and read it, because that’s what you can do when the world isn’t knocking on your door. For what it’s worth, I’m certainly the queen of my own world.
The fantasy seems to be one of adulation. Awash in compliments. People waiting on you hand and foot, bringing you things, trying harder if the first attempt didn’t impress you. Nobody contradicts you - nobody dares! Total leisure and indolence, nothing but sleeping on satin sheets, lolling about in a bubble bath, trying on flattering outfits and indulging in elaborate beauty rituals. Oh, yes, youth and beauty, with an edge of power and fierce intelligence. Queen of the world, that’s not nearly the same as princess of the world, is it? ‘Princess’ implies sweet innocence. The queen of the world would have to be on the razor’s edge of villainy, am I right? The femininity seems to drain out of this image of female power, because what makes us feminine is our yielding, nurturing, patience, and putting others first.
Oh, no no no! That’s not right at all. As queen of the world, all I would want is to be universally beloved, my populace entranced with how incredible I am. I would rule with a wave and a smile, like Glinda the Good Witch. There would be no critics and no skeptics! I would never have to resolve global issues like political conflict, natural disasters, or epidemics. Easy and perfect, all the praise and none of the effort or responsibility.
Hmm, no, that’s not right either.
It’s just not for me. As it turns out, wearing heavy stuff on my head gives me migraine. There isn’t a crown or diadem or tiara in the world that I could wear for long.
I wouldn’t want to be queen of the world. So many reasons! Constantly surrounded by a security detail, never able to go anywhere alone, never being able to relax my guard and just be myself. If I had the hiccups everyone would hear about it. On stage all the time. Expected to make appearances and give my blessing to this and that, even if I’d never heard of it the day before. It’s too much of a price to pay for the fantasy of never being criticized or contradicted, never having a naysayer or a frenemy. Actually I think that the queen of the world would have almost entirely frenemies.
The life of obscurity is the life for me. It’s the life of freedom. Accepting that only a handful of people in the world will be my true friends is plenty. As long as there’s one! Better a faithful friend to one than some kind of celebrity idol to a million.
Any power that I have comes from a few predictable sources. Power in my physical form, a power that I can feel as I move my limbs. Power in living my values and knowing I am consistent in myself. Power in my love and friendship. Power in keeping my word. Power in knowledge. Power in being debt-free and beholden to no one. Power in financial security. Power in my abilities, the skills I continue to learn. Power in my sphere of influence, which expands as I build my reputation and add to my contributions.
I have power when I speak for what is right. I have power when I can stand up for someone else. I have power when I put effort toward causes that are important to me. I have power when I keep someone’s secret, when I demonstrate that I am trustworthy and reliable. I have the ultimate power of loving words and deeds. With this power, I can transform my personal environment, and this can ripple outward and affect those around me.
I can’t be the queen of the world, nor would I want to be. I can be the queen of my own world, though. I can be the queen of one man’s world, my husband’s. If I am to wear this crown, may I be wise and merciful, benevolent and splendid. And may I retain my awe-inspiring obscurity.
I’m closing in on my first martial arts promotion. I knew virtually nothing about martial arts when I signed up in January; all I knew was that I wanted more humility and self-discipline, and that martial arts would probably be a good way to make that happen. I was so raw and new that I didn’t even know the school offered kickboxing. I signed up for classes and walked out the door with a bag of gear I couldn’t name and didn’t know how to put on. This is a reflection on what I’ve learned in four months.
First, we wear colored belts to show which level we’ve reached. The color systems vary depending on the discipline. Every ten classes, we get a stripe, which at my school is symbolized by a strip of black tape. Right now, I have a yellow belt with two stripes for Krav Maga and a white belt with two stripes for Muay Thai. This system is not traditional but it is convenient.
I’ve participated in one promotion. Students are encouraged to show up and do the workout to support those who are testing up a level, and also so we know what we’re in for. The result of this is that daisy-fresh novices like myself are doing a hundred squats with blue belts who’ve been training for years. This four-hour workout stands out as one of the toughest physical challenges of my life, right up there with hiking Hrafntinnusker, a sweat lodge ceremony, and running my marathon. Certainly it was harder than the Warrior Dash. I bonked for the first time in years. I was so tired afterward that my hands were shaking and I had to fight to tie my shoes.
Working out with people who have been training longer is a sort of emotional bridge. It can be demotivating when you feel like you can’t keep up, or if you mistakenly attribute the results of their extra months or years of training to “genetics.” I almost ran out of the room at one point, and if I hadn’t had my arms linked with two other people, I probably would have. (I made a dumb mistake and called out the wrong number, and 50-60 people had to do extra squats to pay for my error). Fortunately the woman between me and the door is a legend in our school, possibly a decade older than me and an excellent peer role model. I’ll get to train with her after I reach advanced level. I doubt she has any idea what an example she is to newer students.
That’s the motivating part of working out in a group. If you have a growth mindset and you believe that each workout brings you one step closer to group level, it helps you to push harder. One more coat of shellac on the jar. One more drop in the bucket. Water can drill through solid rock, drop by drop.
When I showed up for my first class, it had never really crossed my mind that there would be this thing called a “warmup.” We usually start with “tens,” which is a set of ten pushups, ten sit-ups, and ten jump squats. (Um, what’s a jump squat?) I thought I was in pretty good shape, for anyone, not just for a bookish middle-aged lady. Then I discovered that I couldn’t really do a sit-up. I had to grab hold of my thigh to pull myself up. Demoralized, embarrassed, and stubborn as all get-out. This is what humility is supposed to feel like, my cupcake, so get back down there and finish your set.
Fast forward four months. Now I can do twenty push-ups and holding a plank for sixty seconds just feels like a nice calf stretch. I can do fifteen burpees. I can trot up three flights of stairs in the Metro in one minute. I can do a roundhouse kick. The stuff I can do now is starting to feel like superpowers, like the day young Spider-Man wakes up and realizes he’s not ordinary any more.
Perhaps more interesting, I’m going through some wild physical changes. I can see my tricep bulge while my arm is at rest. When I assume fighting stance, my trapezius muscles make a pretty intimidating bulge. My quadriceps are starting to pop again like they did when I was a bicycle commuter. My husband says he can see my lats. I’ve gained as much as twelve pounds since I started training, but weirdly, my clothes still fit. (It’s not all muscle but some of it has to be). Most importantly for my life, my pain threshold is much higher.
Things that should hurt don’t really anymore. It’s hard to express how major this is for someone with a history of fibromyalgia and migraine. I’ve punched myself in the eye and had the pads smack me in the mouth and nose. I’ve throat-tagged myself by falling onto my own fist. I’ve kicked someone else’s toenail and cut myself, and then a couple days later I kicked a pad, cracked my toenail, and drew blood. Fortunately I’ve managed not to bleed on the mat. I generally have bruises or minor scrapes in various states of healing on every limb.
I opened a pickle jar with my bare hands for the first time in my life. I was so excited I texted my husband, who was possibly even more thrilled than I was.
Learning to fight has changed a lot about my mindset. On the one hand, I find myself automatically sizing up everyone who passes by, and I’m a little more flinchy when people stand behind me. On the other hand, I get a lot more out of fighting scenes in action films, and I have a new confidence. A drunk guy catcalled me from where he sat on the curb as I walked by, and I just rolled my eyes, thinking, “You have no idea who you’re dealing with.”
I nearly quit after my first few weeks in martial arts classes. I felt so unfit and weak and breathless and clumsy and uncoordinated, I genuinely felt like my presence was unfairly holding other students back. My teachers and fellow students were so encouraging, though, that I reminded myself why I was there. HUMILITY AND SELF-DISCIPLINE, not confidence or pride, although those feelings are starting to surface. I stuck around and started to be captivated by the forms.
Speaking as a distance runner and endurance athlete, martial arts is a completely different type of physical challenge. I don’t get the mood elevating or analgesic effects of running. Usually I don’t even get the “good workout” tingle afterward. The mental challenge, though, makes martial arts far more interesting. It’s a much better all-around workout. At least at this stage of my training, I haven’t incurred any overuse injuries. When I ran an 8k three months into training, I set a personal best, and it’s obviously been paying off in stronger glutes, quads, core, and hip flexors. I plan to add running back into my routine as soon as I can physically handle it, because I miss it, but this is something I can see doing indefinitely.
There are students at my martial arts academy ranging in age from four to seventy-eight. I remind myself of this every time we do an exercise that is outside my current abilities. I’m in exactly the right place, which is right here and right now. I’ll never be younger than I am today, and at least my skeleton is fully grown. The work I do today as a clumsy beginner is another drop in the bucket, work that will inevitably lead me forward to my next stripes.
We’re sharing a table at a conference. Breakfast is being served. We haven’t met before, but I know immediately that he’s one of mine. I know because he’s a bag-spreader. He has more personal belongings arrayed around him than I’ve brought with me on long international flights. At a table meant to seat eight, where there aren’t enough spots for all the attendees to eat their meals, he’s taking up a quarter of the table, and that’s only because my husband has nudged some of his stuff away from his plate.
Bag-spreader, bag-spreader, what’s in your bag?
Nobody knows. I find out later that, in addition to all the stuff he has spread around him at the table, he has two additional bags stashed on the extra chairs off to the side of the room.
What’s in front of him?
A smartphone. A tablet with a keyboard. A Moleskine notebook. A composition book. A stack of catalogs, not relevant to the conference. Two separate glasses cases. A pen. A protein bar. The folder of conference materials. Index cards.
Some people might be annoyed at this excess, for excess it surely was. Across the table, I was able to find it amusing and interesting. That’s because I study material culture through history. This tableau is a solid representation of the challenge of straddling two or three eras: the 19th Century desire to keep archival records and commonplace books, the 20th Century habit of taking paper notes at meetings, and the nascent 21st Century practice of using portable “smart” electronic devices. A generation or two further down, it will feel more natural and obvious to rely on the electronics alone and see all that paper as unwieldy and inefficient.
To my guy, Mr. Bag-Spreader, all that paper must feel like a good idea. Why? What is he thinking?
I’d ask him, but we’re on a tight agenda today. Besides, he hasn’t introduced himself or spoken to anyone at our table. He’s taken it upon himself to move other people’s belongings as well. It seems clear that he really wants the whole table to himself and he’s made annoyed faces at those encroaching on him.
Sorry, bud, this is a common area! We paid to be here, too. We have to share.
Why can’t you just keep all your stuff in your bag and put it by your feet or hang it off the back of your chair? You could take items out one at a time as you need them, and put them back in when you’re not actively using them. I mean, that’s what I’m doing.
Back to what’s going on with the bag-spreading. Why a Moleskine AND a composition book AND index cards? Even excluding the two electronic devices? My guess is that he’s using index cards because he doesn’t want to mess up his nice expensive (bright yellow) Moleskine. But he wants to have it out because he’s referencing earlier notes? Or he just likes looking at it? Or he doesn’t even realize that this particular object is extraneous to purpose? I’m also guessing that the composition book is part of a different project, perhaps notes from his home club’s meetings. The catalogs are in case he gets bored.
I used to be like this. I was a bag-spreader myself. I would bag-spread in class, on the bus, on airplanes, at restaurants. I didn’t realize that I was being selfish and unfair to others around me. I didn’t realize that I was spending far more time than other people in interacting with objects, playing with my personal possessions, distracting myself from whatever was going on. It was most likely a way to sublimate my desire to just stay home, a way of comforting myself with familiar belongings and marking my territory. I guess. I can’t say I had much insight into it at the time.
It’s pretty common for bag-spreaders to drag multiple bags everywhere. I kinda still do this, at least one day a week. I have to go straight from kickboxing to one of my weekly Toastmasters meetings, so I have my gym bag with my boxing gloves and shin guards, and then I have my work bag with my tablet, pen, workbook, sunglasses, wallet, etc.
That’s what gets us into trouble with the bag-spreading. Our stuff expands to fill the bag available, and then it becomes background stuff, and then we stop having enough space to carry all the other stuff we want to bring with us.
Right now I have an explanation for everything in my bag, but I can guarantee that there are things in it that would make someone else laugh. (Library cards for three distinct libraries?). Sun block. Wallet. Keys. Lotion. Lip balm. Tissues. Headache tablets. Microfiber screen cleaner cloth. Backup battery with two types of charger cables. Dental floss. Phone and tablet. Paper day planner, for which I cannot defend myself. Right now there’s a trophy and a cowbell, and hopefully I remember to take them out. It’s true that I could have gone out the door with half this stuff and made it through the day.
The heuristic behind bag-spreading is to bring as much as possible, just in case. In case of what? I have no idea, which is what “just in case” means! This is the opposite of minimalism. The minimalist heuristic is to try to bring nothing at all, and add only that which is truly necessary. Anything more is an encumbrance.
More to carry, more chronic neck pain and shoulder pain and back pain. More to lose, more to have stolen. More to spill on, more to stain and fold and spindle and mutilate. More to detract from your fashionable ensemble and general poise. More to spoil photographs. More to trip people or bump into them. More to spread over twice as much space as you’re legitimately entitled to. Or three times. One man, three chairs?
What if everyone brought three bags everywhere? Where would they all go? Would every hallway and every room have to have a wall of cubbyholes? Would every bus need an overhead rack and every plane have room for only half as many passengers?
There were three reasons why I finally learned to quit bag-spreading. One, working with chronically disorganized people and hoarders put it into context. Two, my career ambitions demanded a more polished appearance. Three, I got a smartphone and realized that almost everything I carried could be digitized. I had a fear of boredom as much as anything else. I learned to trust that my phone wouldn’t start bulging or weighing more if I put more books, magazines, news articles, podcasts, or music on it. Oh, and then I became a distance runner and learned that I could leave my house with nothing more than my phone, headphones, and keys.
Bag-spreading can come from a desire to feel resourceful and prepared for every occasion. It can come from a desire to look polished and have backup hygiene and beauty supplies on demand. It can come from a fear of boredom. It can come from simple habit. It can come from distraction and lack of focus. Look at it as a behavior pattern, and observe how many other people indulge in it. Look again and wonder how the majority of people seem to be able to get through the day without bag-spreading. It can be done!
Money is a paradox. The more you have, the more you get, and the easier it is to get more and more. The less you have, the easier it is to lose everything and the harder it is to get any opportunities. I figured this out when I had a temp job at a (very very famous) bank, and one set of elevators stopped at the sixteenth floor, where the other set started. What a metaphor! I knew I was stuck in the lower-floor elevator and I had no idea how to cross over and get to the upper suites. All I knew was that it was there and I wanted inside.
I guess as a temp, it was even a better metaphor, because really I was in the metaphorical service elevator that ran back and forth from the lobby to the basement.
Looking back, it’s really easy for me to make a list of about a hundred things that were holding me back. I had no idea that I was doing anything wrong, and nobody was going to tell me, either. That’s the hardest thing about trying to change your socioeconomic status. Blue-collar people are very direct because we value authenticity. We’ll tell you to your face if you’re making a mistake, and we expect you to do the same for us. Don’t go talking to other people if you have a problem with me. Just come straight to me.
Middle-class and upper-middle-class people do not share this value of directness. It’s not that they just expect everyone to “know better.” They genuinely do not believe that their social code is something to be learned or taught. They believe this because they acquired it, in the same way that babies acquire language and the ability to eat with a fork, or chopsticks, or flatbread, or whatever is standard in their home. Learning the secret code when you didn’t acquire it as a child is exactly like a cultural exchange, where people dress and eat and sit and greet each other differently and you’ll never be 100% fluent in the language.
The trick to switching from one financial elevator to the other is in looking the part. The trouble with this is that it can feel like being forced into something inauthentic, into being something you’re not. This is repugnant to many people. We value self-expression, being able to dress and speak naturally. The only way this can lead into the “other” elevator is through the arts, sports, business success - essentially buying your way in rather than ascending through the traditional professional ranks.
Probably there’s a lot more money to be made that way, by taking the initiative and creating your own career. Unfortunately, it requires a great deal more work.
This is what I’ve learned on my mission.
When I was poor, the “budget” version always cost more. A single bus ticket costs more than one day’s worth of a monthly pass. The small package costs more per ounce or unit than the large package. The cheap apartment costs the most to heat and it has the longest commute. The beater car gets lower mileage and costs more in maintenance. I could never afford the “good enough” version of anything, anything I needed to pass the threshold, whether that was a haircut, an interview outfit, or a university degree.
As I’ve become more comfortable, I’ve noticed that the more you rise in status, the more people are constantly giving you free stuff. Free cookies! Upgrades! A suite instead of a room, a suite with a view, a suite with a view in the penthouse tower. Free desserts or appetizers! Reward points! More upgrades, upgrades to business class! Personal shoppers! Hot towels! Just every darn thing. Celebrities get even more, from gala outfits to cars, because everyone wants that face and that name associated with their brand.
It’s crazy-making. Where were all these freebies when I actually needed them???
I learned slowly although I studied hard. It was easy for me to learn the mannerisms and speech patterns, hard for me to learn to avoid taboo topics and speak in the secret code of tact and allusion. It was easy for me to exhibit the work ethic, hard for me to show up reliably due to transportation issues. There was nothing easy for me in learning the style guide, how to “pass” the clothing, grooming, cosmetic, and hair styling meters. I doubt I’ll ever get that right, which is why I always take the advice of my husband, personal shopper, stylist, or whoever. Just... have me not stand out or look weird.
This is the reason that college was so important for me. Having the degree unlocked certain doors, because there are many jobs only open to people with at least a bachelor’s. More importantly, attending university was like a foreign exchange program for me. I had the chance to surround myself with people who knew the code. Some of them were kind enough to carefully explain certain rules. Reading thousands of novels helped, too.
I look back at myself, age twenty, stuck in the short elevator, and I cringe a bit. Wrong haircut! Wrong clothes! Wrong shoes! Talking about unprofessional topics! Missing cue after hint after clue! I wish I’d had a fairy godmother to come along and tell me everything I needed to change. If I had, though, it would have hurt my feelings and I would have resented it. I needed to learn things the hard way, as usual, because I needed to understand why. Why is this dumb rule a rule?
‘Cause why, that’s why. Games have rules. If I wanted to switch financial elevators, I needed to follow those rules, or ultimately break them. I either needed to do the things that the other elevator riders do, or I needed to learn the rules to the other game, the entrepreneurial game. If I didn’t or couldn’t do either, then I was doomed to the short elevator. Nobody in the upper elevator would have even noticed me or realized I was there.
When I was broke, I did a lot of scutwork; took orders from incompetent, disorganized managers; and dealt with uncouth customers. As I earned promotions and title bumps and pay increases, the work got easier, the managers got smarter, and the customers became nicer. It’s not just the money that’s better, it’s everything about the nature of work. Figuring out how to switch financial elevators has a way of elevating all sorts of things.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.