Looking back, certain patterns tend to stand out. Once you’ve learned the pattern, you can start to see it from the front, recognizing it and avoiding it. I thought about this quite a bit as I listened to the Dirty John podcast. [Don’t worry, this post is spoiler-free]. How can such smart women be hoodwinked by a dishonest man? More to the point, how can we start to figure out what questions to ask so we can rule out the bad guys? Let’s make sure we know who we’re dealing with before we give our hearts away.
When I was young, I was in love with love. I used to write in my diary about boys I liked, boys I was dating, and the inevitable breakups. This was very fortunate because processing my seemingly endless heartache gradually led me to realize: I could have seen this coming. I won’t say I “should” have seen anything coming, because it’s not like I can fly back in time and give Past Me all the information that Today Me just figured out. It was enough for me that I realized there were red flags in people’s behavior, and that I could spot them pretty quickly after meeting someone.
Time after time, though, the root cause analysis of why I got my heart crushed was that: I bought his BS. A guy told me a story about himself, and I believed the story. Sometimes this story was the result of lack of insight on the guy’s part; he just didn’t have a very good understanding of his own motives or patterns of behavior. Other times, the story was a carefully crafted tool that an experienced manipulator used, with full knowledge that it worked better than the truth.
Let’s take my ex-husband as an example.
When we met, he was living with his mom. I was 21 and he was 24. I had been supporting myself since I was 18, so I had my opinions about this, but he had an explanation. He had just broken up with his live-in girlfriend because she had allegedly cheated on him with his best friend. There he was with nothing to his name but six boxes of possessions, two of which were fireworks. He basically had no friends, and this was explained by the bad breakup. To sum up, he had a job but no apartment, no car, no stuff, and no friends.
We moved in together two months after we started dating, and we were legally married several months after that. We eloped and didn’t tell our families.
When I look back, I ask myself, what the HECK was I thinking? I knew nothing about this guy, or rather, what I did know didn’t make a strong case for how great he was.
It wasn’t until later in the relationship that I gradually learned more about my new husband. I won’t go into it here, but all of it was troubling and none of it aligned with my personal values. Then he told me that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
(Not that there’s anything wrong with that, just that I now consider it an item of mandatory disclosure before signing a marriage contract, at minimum. It is fully unfair not to tell someone something this important about your life).
Let’s fast-forward to roughly ten years after our divorce. I sat next to a cute guy on a plane. We talked through the whole flight and then he gave me his email address. I was in a relationship at the time, but I stumbled across that email some time after the breakup. I wrote to him on a whim and we met up for a couple of dates.
This guy made some claims that had caught my attention. When we met on the plane, I told him I had just gotten my acceptance letter from Mensa. He said, “I used to be in Mensa.” Oh, really?! No way! He said his dad had him tested when he was a kid. Oh my gosh, what an astonishing coincidence. On one of our dates, he told me he was a real estate investor. I happen to know a bit about real estate investing myself, so I immediately asked, excited, “Can I see your business card?” He paused, patted his pocket, and said he didn’t have any on him. Something else weird came up. On our third date, he invited me to spend the night at a Motel 6. (IKR???) I thought, “I have my own apartment, and supposedly you do, too, so why not just invite me home or ask to stay at my place?” Not that I was anywhere even remotely in the vicinity of wanting to spend the night with this guy - it just made me wonder why he would pay for a cheap motel when he had somewhere better to go.
Or did he?
At this point in my life, I had an automatic screening process. As much as I really wanted to be in a relationship, as much as I might be physically attracted to a guy, I had a much stronger desire to know I was safe with someone. I was prospecting for certain specific information and I was not going to relax my guard until I had it.
When I look back at my first marriage, I want to slap my forehead. In fact I’m sure I have. Today Me would hear, Oh, you just had a bad breakup? And that would be enough information to pass for now. No rebound guys. If I heard that he was back living with his parents, even in our early twenties, I would have passed. Call me when you get your own place and we’ll talk.
When I look back at Motel 6 Guy, I’m proud of myself for getting out before I got emotionally hooked. I think of this guy as a “pathological liar” although he was probably just an opportunist. I’m sure he lied about being a real estate investor and even more sure that he lied about being a Mensan, partly because there’s a greater than 98% chance that he wasn’t. (By the numbers, only 2% of the population qualifies, and only about 10% of those who qualify are actual members). Why wouldn’t he invite me to his home? Could be any number of reasons, from being married or having a girlfriend, to being ashamed of where he lived, to being technically homeless. Essentially, he said a lot of things but didn’t verify any of his claims. Once I became suspicious of one thing, it cast the whole package in a different light.
What we expect from romance is the quick spark. We want to be swept off our feet. We believe in these strong waves of emotion. What I’ve come to prefer is a slow start that gradually builds into friendship. Trust and respect build slowly over time. I’ve been with my current husband for twelve years now. We were friends for about a year and a half, then dated for three years, and then got married. Slow love is the love I trust, a love for decades, not for drama.
Moms attended free at my martial arts school this month. Moms of active students, that is. When I heard the news, a laugh escaped me, which is dangerous because it could easily have resulted in my doing extra burpees. Kickboxing is very far down the list of things my mom is likely to do. Organize a blanket drive for the homeless? Sure. Give someone a ride to the airport? Gotcha covered. Roundhouse kick? Not so much her department. That’s probably true of most women of her generation, because there were a lot of things girls simply were not allowed to do back then. I’d love to have the opportunity to train with my mom and her sisters, to show them how fun it is and give them something they never had.
I’ve seen four sets of parent and child at my gym: two moms with daughters, one mom with a son, and one dad with a son. There are probably a lot more, but the kids’ classes are in the middle of the day and most parents go to the night classes. My guess would have been that a lot of dads would enroll their teen daughters, since my husband put my stepdaughter in tae kwan do.
The first parent I met was a mom who has two teenage sons enrolled in the school; it may have been their idea. One kid apparently has ADHD. I identify with that myself; I wish I’d discovered athletics when I was younger, because it’s such a huge help in taming that inner restlessness. This mom is very petite and very serious about training. She often goes to class twice a day. For her it seems to be a mixture of alone time, stress relief, walking her talk with her kids, sharing an experience with them, and maintaining her ability to show who’s boss. Outsized, outnumbered, out-testosteroned, she’s not going to let teenage boys intimidate her.
The second parent I met was a dad who brought his college-aged son to class. This dad is an advanced student, and he came to the beginner class for the occasion. The son was clearly very reluctant, overwhelmed by the warmup, and looking for any reason to escape. He left the room twice in an hour. It’s none of my business, of course, although what could possibly be more fun than judging other people’s parenting? But if this dad genuinely wanted his son to pursue martial arts, it didn’t seem to be working. Why? Maybe because Dad was in the room, observing and giving out instructions? Maybe because Dad isn’t exactly in peak physical condition? The truth is that what we do is extremely physically challenging even without an audience. Taking an attitude that “I can do it, it’s not so hard, what the heck is wrong with you?” doesn’t seem to work very well. [I could probably goad one of my brothers into training with me through this tactic, but not the other, and certainly nobody else].
The third parent I met was the mom of one of the instructors. Like the dad with his son, she came to the beginner class. The mom reminded me very strongly of my own mother: strikingly similar build, coloring, hairstyle, and gentle demeanor. She would do palm strikes with about the intensity you would use to make cookies or give a massage, pat pat. She smiled and laughed softly, nervous and out of her element, but willing. Clearly she was only there to show how proud she was of her daughter’s strength and hard work.
The fourth parent I met was a woman who works in the building. She brought her teen daughter, which I figured out because I could hear them arguing in the hallway while I was in the changing room. Stage mom with aspiring actress daughter decides that daughter is going to learn martial arts; daughter wants nothing to do with it but Mom always wins. The mom peered owlishly at us through the window through almost the entire class, her mouth so pinched that I almost laughed out loud. The daughter was like a Greek chorus, questioning and complaining about every single warmup and training exercise. She declined to tie back her long, thick hair, which was perhaps the only free individual choice she was ever allowed in her young life. She utterly refused to jump rope. I mean, she’s right, warmups suck and they’re uncomfortable and sweaty and they make you look dumb. They work, though! We don’t do it because we want to or because we enjoy it; we do it because we want the results.
Krav Maga is considered the world’s number-one deadliest martial art. Can I just say that it isn’t something to force, coax, goad, or compel someone else to study?
Many of the guests who come to class once or twice are never seen again. This is so far true of all of the guests I’ve described here. The reluctant son of the overbearing dad never came back; if I recall correctly, he didn’t actually finish his first class. The instructor’s proud mama never came back, but she has the distinction of a daughter with enough agency, initiative, grit, and self-discipline to not just train, but teach as well. The daughter of the stage mom never came back, and my guess is that an unconstructive rebellion will quickly arise within her. The only parent-child relationship I’ve seen endure at this school seems to be the one in which the sons asked to join, and the mom wholeheartedly jumped in with them. She has rapidly become one of the fittest and strongest humans I’ve ever seen.
I came to martial arts in midlife because I wanted something that would bring me humility and self-discipline. Probably any form or any school will deliver if these traits are the goal. Having been the step-parent of a teenager, my opinion is that these traits are challenging to inculcate in a child through any means other than personal example. Initiative is not developed by ordering a kid around. Agency is not developed by making decisions for a kid. Of course we want to raise kids who take total personal accountability, kids who are responsible and decisive, kids who are closers and finishers, kids who are doers and makers, kids who keep their commitments. Then we try to stuff these values into their spines by authoritarian methods, external input, and strict rule-setting. I grew into an independent, powerful individual partly through challenging my parents and giving them a lot of trouble!
One day, when my stepdaughter was a young teenager, we went to a party in a park. She wandered off without saying anything. When she came back, I pulled her aside and said she was free to go where she wanted, but she needed to take ten seconds to inform us first. What if someone threw her in a van? I wanted to teach her to escape at least a wrist hold. Let’s role-play: I’m the kidnapper and OOF! She simply punched me in the sternum and knocked the wind out of me. Point taken. Good girl. She’s been supporting herself for a few years now, ever since she was nineteen. When we want them to be independent and powerful, we have to allow independence and power, even when it’s uncomfortable.
It’s too late for my grandmother’s generation; they’re gone now. They had dress codes and they were legally barred from joining many male-only clubs, schools, and organizations. My mom’s generation was prevented from doing a lot of things, too, and even my generation couldn’t do such basic things as join a basketball team. What I do now, I often do with thoughts of my forebears, the ladies who weren’t allowed. I’d fight with my mom if I could, if she wanted to. Maybe it’s enough that I can, and that the next generation can, too.
Postponed decisions are the root cause of procrastination. Many of us who would never procrastinate on anything else will procrastinate about social engagements. One of the easiest ways to solve a problem of indecision is to waffle about it until the date has passed. Until this happens, there’s an open loop, a loose end that takes up at least part of our mental bandwidth. That feeling of nagging incompletion is really unpleasant. If it weren’t, the decision would be fast and easy to make, like the decision not to eat your least favorite vegetable. We get stuck in the doorway, unable to decide a Yes or a No. That’s where policy comes in.
Policy means two things. It means you never have to make a decision about that type of matter again. It also means you don’t have to put any thought into your response. It’s simply something you do, or something you don’t do.
It’s easy when you know how. For instance, you don’t donate money to causes that you don’t support, such as the rival political party. You also wouldn’t go to a random event rather than something important. If a tractor sale conflicts with my brother’s wedding, well, I guess I’m not buying a tractor that weekend.
There are clues here about how policy choices are made. It has to do with your personal values.
Your values are yours to decide. Not your relatives, not your friends, not your neighbors, not even your spouse. Other people may be shocked or disappointed, but they don’t have to wake up and be you every day. You do. You’re the only one who has to meet your own eyes in the mirror.
The reason this is important is that we have to decide how to spend our time. If we fritter away our time on anything that anyone ever asks us to do, then there won’t be any left to support our values. It’s not so much that most things are going to conflict with our values, as that it’s all the neutral penny-ante stuff that eats up our schedules. Weeks, months, years can go by, and we may never have found a minute for what we thought was so important.
Every minute I spend talking to a troll on the internet, every minute I spend reading anonymous comment threads, is a minute I’m not talking to my grandma. The time I spend with casual acquaintances is time that’s not available for my closest loved ones. I’m basically letting random people steal from the most important people in my life.
This is how policies are made. We decide which types of situations are always going to be a Yes, and which types are always going to be a No.
Graduations? Whose kids?
Birthday parties? Whose?
Festivals? Street fairs? Carnivals?
Karaoke night? Trivia night? Movie night?
Town hall meetings? School board meetings?
Helping someone move?
Visiting someone in the hospital?
Multi-level marketing “parties”?
Always means always. When it’s always Yes, this means this is a top-ranking event, and anything else that conflicts is going to be a No. I once got two wedding invitations for the same day, one for a close friend and the other for my younger brother. That was not a decision. It was policy. If it had been the close friend and a more casual friend, then that also would not have been a decision. There are only 52 weekends a year, and not everything gets to be a Yes.
Saying No to the casual or random stuff is the only way to say a full and complete Yes to the important stuff. We cherish our loved ones by being there for them, and that means the other seven billion people in the world will have to wait.
There are other ways to say Yes besides going somewhere in person. We can send a gift. We can call. We can send a card or a letter. We can send flowers. We can send a charitable donation in someone’s name. We can do a favor. We can offer another get-together on another day. If this truly is someone who values the friendship, it will work out.
Sometimes, we find that the relationship is more casual on that person’s end than we had realized. When this happens, it’s good. It’s a good sign when someone is willing to be honest and set clear boundaries. It helps us to relax and refocus our attention on our inner circle.
One quick and easy way to make a decision about social engagements is to consider how you found out about it. If the first you heard about it was through the mail, it’s probably a No. The people who are closest to you probably would have told you that they were getting married or having a baby shower before the invitations went out. Communication has changed so much over the past couple of decades that the old ways are more or less vestigial remnants at this point.
Here are some rough guidelines on how to start setting social policies:
“Everybody’s invited” social media invites: probably No
If it’s on a work night: probably No
If it involves out-of-state travel: probably No
If it’s in another city: depends on what, where, and when
If it’s a “buy stuff” party: definitely No
If it’s child-free: Yes, because I don’t have kids at home
Wine tasting: definitely No
Sportsball: definitely No
Restaurant: depends entirely on the menu
If it runs past midnight: No
Backpacking trip: probably Yes
Basically, if it’s not awesome it’s a No. On a scale of one to five, with five being awesome, the two- and three-star events are going to be a No. Pass. I’m not doing anybody any favors by reluctantly showing up and being a wallflower at an event that doesn’t enthuse me. I’ll make you soup when you’re sick, I’ll help you move, I’ll come to visit you in the hospital, but I’m not going to come over and order out of your catalog.
There are about eight people on my Always list, and another half-dozen on my Yes, If Possible list. They know who they are. In order to be totally available for my Always people, I have to cut other events. That means calendar time, and it also means money. My savings buffer includes enough for a round-trip plane ticket.
Until the day when we can make clones on demand and appear to be in two places at once, we have to make choices. Choosing Yes to too many things means that suddenly, there’s no money and no time for the big stuff. Say No more often to say Yes when you really mean it.
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.
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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.