We have a soft spot for Las Vegas, NV. That was where my husband and I went for our first trip when we started dating. We’ve gone there for a few of our wedding anniversaries. (It’s also where “Las Vegans” live – a little plant-based humor for ya there). It’s a little mystifying to a lot of our friends, but I’ll see if I can make a good advertisement for what we like about it.
Vegas is whatever you want it to be. There’s something interesting going on day and night. On the Strip, you can find absolutely anything except books or clocks. Due to the constant tides of consumer demand, everything is constantly being rebuilt or remodeled. It’s glossy and glittery and glamorous. Some of the best performers in the world are there. You can watch the best show and eat the best meal and stay in the nicest room – in your price range, of course. Everyone is either on vacation or out for tips, so people are dressed to impress and on their best behavior. There’s a perfect photo op around every corner. Vegas is like a microcosm of the world, an amalgam of every major city, and a very broad cross-section of humanity makes it impossible not to fit in. Anything goes.
One balmy night, we decided to walk back to our hotel after a show. (It was David Copperfield, one of the wealthiest and hardest-working men in the world, his fortune and reputation built entirely from magic, thin air, and effort). We found ourselves in a back alley, a smelly netherworld between casinos. There was nothing back there but dumpsters and loading zones and locked doors and tired employees out for their smoke breaks. It was like a weird exploit between levels in a video game. We had to watch our footing.
Spend enough time in Las Vegas and you’ll see its seamy underbelly. People drunk off their asses, briskly rolled out of public view on wheelchairs pushed by stern security guards. Couples and friends having relationship-ending quarrels. Ill-advised quickie marriages. End-stage gambling addicts. A ceaseless confetti of pornographic trading cards blowing down the street. A thousand train wrecks waiting to happen.
Sad to say, we love it anyway.
There are two sides to social comparison. One is envy. We feel terrible when we look at other people and think they have it better than we do. We can feel that way when we watch these gorgeous dancers and acrobats in their sequined leotards and false eyelashes, rippling their muscles like so many jungle cats. We can feel that way when we see the difference between the ritzy hotel up the street and our discount room above the all-night construction site. We can feel that way when we see other tourists walk by in their schmanciest evening clothes, emanating the effluvium of prosperity from every pore.
The other side is pride. We feel pretty great when we’re able to compare ourselves favorably to others. It’s icky, but it’s true. When we hear people shouting at each other in the next room, we can feel relieved that we don’t feel the urge to act that way. When we see people staggering along completely trashed, we can feel a bit smug that there is no hangover in our future. We can remind ourselves of all the tawdry, nickel-slot temptations of this world, and how unappealing we find them.
In this world, there is always going to be someone staying in the high roller suite, and someone getting into a street brawl over nothing. Sometimes it’s the same person. It starts to make our own lot in life more desirable. We find our level. We know that almost everything we perceive around us is a façade, deliberately set out to deliver maximum positive impact in certain lighting and at certain angles. We’re shown what we want to see and denied access to the sticky, sketchy service corridors. We can safely assume that there is plenty going on in the basements and back rooms that we don’t want or need to know about. The only thing we know for sure isn’t an illusion is what we’ve brought with us in our own baggage.
NV is a nice place to visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there. That would take all the fun out of it.
If you’re reading this, you probably know exactly what I mean by “spoons” and why I’m talking about them. Try as we might, when we talk about chronic illness, we generally won’t reach an audience of well people. A healthy person in a generous mood may humor us for a few minutes, long enough to pick up the sense that being sick sucks. Let’s face it, though. A healthy person’s priority is never going to be dedicating hours of time to talking and thinking about illness. For all we know, their Charitable Listening quota was already extracted by a dozen other ill people earlier this week. We can take a moment to be glad for them. If we care about them, we wouldn’t wish our conditions on them. Well people are like fuzzy little ducklings. Aren’t they adorable?
Now I’ll pause and list off my chronic illness credentials. It’s like flashing a gang sign. If I were better at drawing, I’d make up hand signals for: fibromyalgia, thyroid disease, migraine, TMJ, carpal tunnel syndrome, vasovagal syncope, childhood-onset insomnia, bruxism, restless leg syndrome, confusional arousal, and pavor nocturnus. (Not a complete list). I had a cancer scare. I’ve swallowed radioactive iodine and been on beta blockers. I’ve had my thyroid scanned and had an EKG. I’ve had so many ultrasounds on so many body parts you’d think I could cash them in for a free baby. If I brought my parrot to appointments, she would definitely be able to say, “I don’t know what to tell you.”
The other thing my bird would be able to say is, “You don’t know what it’s like.” Chronic illness is something of a competitive sport. Quite frankly, none of my stuff “counts.” My four-day migraine is nothing compared to so-and-so who was hospitalized for migraine. My running around the house sleep-screaming and slapping myself until I bleed is mildly interesting, but at least I don’t need a CPAP. See what I mean? I have several friends who have fibromyalgia. Only one of them is actually willing to talk with me about it. The fact that I’m not symptomatic anymore makes me some kind of poseur.
A friend of mine wrote the other day that ‘healthy lifestyles’ are now an acceptable means of moral judgment. This makes me want to beat my head on the wall. So, you’re talking to someone who feels better than you do, and you don’t want to hear about it? WHAT IF THAT INFORMATION COULD HELP YOU FEEL BETTER? It's like we were both wrongfully convicted of a crime we didn't commit, and I'm offering you the business card of the lawyer who got me exonerated, and you respond as though I had just accused you of being a criminal after all.
The first thing about having a limited number of spoons is to FIGURE OUT HOW TO GET MORE SPOONS. Waiter, Table 12 needs some EXTRA SPOONS please. If I only have one spoon for the day, I’m going to use it to Google information on spoon acquisition. The next day, I’m going to put my spoon toward getting a second spoon.
The thing about chronic pain is that it’s a super power. Guess what? You have the ability to withstand extreme pain for incredibly long periods of time, AND LIVE TO TELL ABOUT IT. Heck yeah! Here is the order form for your cape and boots.
I married a big, strong, alpha male who began participating in team sports around age 4. He played football and hockey and he was actually a lumberjack. Basically my exact opposite in every way. What I found out about big strong athletic people is that they endure chronic pain, too, but they take it for granted and they don’t let it stop them. A game I play when I meet athletic people is to ask about their sports injuries, surgeries, and chronic pain areas. These lists often sound hauntingly familiar. I started to wonder if I had it in me to be an athlete as well.
Come to find out, I did. I ran my first marathon in October 2014, 16 years after being diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I couldn't walk the next day, but neither could anyone else who ran the course.
Recently an acquaintance asked if I would be willing to correspond with one of his clients who has fibromyalgia. We wrote back and forth several times. She said it was encouraging for her just to know that someone with FM could run a marathon. She wanted to pick my brain about how I got better, and she had tons of questions. Many pages into our correspondence, she mentioned that she spends a lot of time in a recliner. I hate recliners because they push my head and neck forward; I find them so uncomfortable and pain-triggering that I prefer to sit on the floor. I suggested that she reconsider the recliner and experiment with other chairs for a few weeks. I never heard from her again.
Whenever I hear about anyone being diagnosed with a chronic illness, I fret. Sometimes I cry. I can’t bear the thought, even if it’s someone I’ve never met. I want to come bursting through their wall with a flaming sword and defeat the foul demon that is ruining their life. I want to back up a dump truck full of spoons and start pouring them over the back fence. Spoons! Spoons for all! When I hear that there is no cure for something, I think, “Yet.” Surely we’re not going to lie back and… and… submit! We’re not going to let it win – that would be a travesty. Unfortunately, this is not the attitude that is preferred. We want sympathy. Trying to fix the problem is not considered sympathetic. From what I gather, suggesting that there is a way out of this thing is elitist, controlling, condescending, moralizing, and rude. Hey, saying I got better is not the same as saying I am better.
I got better by accident. Little by little, I stumbled across information and learned what my triggers were and how to avoid them. I learned how to adjust my sleep and activity level and food intake in a way that leads to better functionality. It turns out there are dozens of different inputs. It’s complicated, but not impossible. I still have occasional bad days. I’m never going to forget that spoons come in finite quantities. But I have enough to share now.
On the theme of quests, I have been reading a number of books about women who travel the world. This particular book is a memoir by Rita Golden Gelman. I listened to it on audio because I usually love books that are narrated by their authors. Gelman’s narration is fabulous, making it sound more like storytelling than reading a set text. Tales of a Female Nomad covers the years 1987-2001, though Gelman has continued to travel and write ever since.
At the beginning of the story, Gelman is married to a man who doesn’t share her travel bug. This seems to be a theme: Birding on Borrowed Time also describes a “mixed marriage” between a nomadic, quest-oriented woman and her homebody husband. Does the nomad’s path demand too high a price? Gelman writes openly about her sorrow and occasional loneliness, in between the fun of making new friendships all around the world.
There was one spot in the book that stood out for me, for reasons having nothing to do with world travel. Gelman describes meeting two other women in New Zealand for the first time: “Turns out that both Marian and Lisa were relieved when I stepped out of the car. They’d been afraid I would arrive young and svelte, in heels and makeup.” Okay, I don’t wear heels and makeup, and I’m not young anymore. But is this true? Is it true that non-svelte women don’t want to meet women who are? It seems terribly ironic that these women are more nervous about meeting someone thin than someone from another culture.
Gelman’s interest in cultural anthropology leads her to seek out opportunities to live among villagers, in non-tourist areas. She deliberately sets herself up in situations where she doesn’t speak the language. She works hard to become accepted by local people, to participate in festivals, cook, teach, and work with children. She avoids putting down permanent roots, testing her limits and avoiding the comfort zone.
I found it particularly interesting that Tales of a Female Nomad dealt frankly with financial matters. In the tradition of Jane Austen, am I right? Gelman has occasions when she doesn’t have quite enough pocket change to cover something. She explains how she pays her way with income from writing children’s books, and how most of her international living situations are much cheaper than living in the US. She does a convincing job of making the life of a permanent nomad look achievable.
I wanted to make up something that looked like a mathematical equation, but was actually nonsense. My husband is useful in these situations, because he’s an aerospace engineer, whereas there may be a chicken at a County Fair somewhere that has better math skills than I do. When it comes to generating nonsense, however, then babe, I got you covered! This is an example of how we divide the load and benefit from each other’s strengths. This is to be distinguished from the idea of “50/50.” Fifty-fifty is an F grade for both parties.
Living with someone else can be hard work. Heck, even sitting next to someone else on a plane for a few hours can be hard work! Marriage means you get each other at all your most annoying moments. Irritable moods and tooth-grinding and snoring and blanket-hogging and the flu and it goes on and on and on and on. In some ways, you can be like siblings to each other, or parents. Who gets the last scoop of ice cream? Whose job is it to clean up the dog barf this time? Who has to answer the door when the magazine saleschildren show up? It can be so easy to fall into scorekeeping and the desire for quid pro quo. I did this, you do that. This time it’s my turn. Tit for tat.
That’s the problem with the idea of 50/50. If you each plan to do only 50%, eventually there will be a shortfall. If you each do 49%, suddenly there’s a missing 2% gap. Try sleeping under a blanket with a 2% threadbare stripe down the middle. If either of you gets sick or starts being stressed out by life circumstances, suddenly the threadbare piece is 10%. Or 20%. Once it starts unraveling, it’s amazing how quickly it comes apart.
You didn’t wash the dishes, so I’m not taking out the trash, and now we can both resent each other in a dirty smelly house. Yay. You splurged on something I didn’t think you should buy, so now I’m going to splurge on something I want, and now we can both judge each other, be broke, and not have the money to go on vacation. You hurt my feelings, and I hurt your feelings, and neither of us is going to initiate sex until the other apologizes first, so now we can suffer in silence and watch our chemical attraction fizzle and die. According to my calculations, you are not pulling your weight; therefore, I’m going to hold back and teach you a lesson. When we split up, we can each make a bulletproof case that we were the wronged party, we were the good guy, and we were the one who was let down. We failed. We failed because 50% is an F.
Fortunately, my husband and I are both alphas. We are competitive and ambitious. Whatever it takes to get the A grade, we’re going to do it, we’re going to show our work, we’re going to turn it in early, and we’re going to ask for extra credit. This morning, do you know what he did? He’s such a punk. He made us toaster waffles and he took the burnt one! I told him it was my ancestral right; that it’s noblesse oblige for the alpha woman in the house to eat the burnt toast, but he wouldn’t give it to me. He scraped off the scorched bits in the sink and snarfed it. You see what I have to deal with? Sheesh!
We believe that everyone has to bring 100%. The performance review system at his work designates Needs Improvement, Meets Expectations, Exceeds Expectations, and Highly Regarded. Highly Regarded is almost never given out. Both of us would see “Meets Expectations” as a devastating indictment of laziness and disengagement. Basically, 100% is meeting expectations. It’s doing the daily. 100% is being honest and reliable and supportive and getting the scutwork accomplished. An “Exceeds” would have to be something above and beyond the boring quotidian stuff, like when he installs new windshield wiper blades on my auntie’s car. The reason we rate each other as “Highly Regarded” is that we both work to facilitate the other’s best self and most outrageous dreams. He helps me map out routes for my marathon training and I pack him treats for his motorcycle trips. It’s not just about counting on each other, or doing little nice things for each other; it’s trying to find out whether you can grant each other’s deepest wishes. It’s the EPIC STUFF.
Even as I am writing this, I am questioning whether what I bring to him is quite as awesome as what he brings to me. Whenever I figure out a way to exceed his expectations, for me, that’s the new “meets.”
The difference between 50/50 and 100/100 is easy to illustrate. Imagine each of you has a blanket. Fifty-fifty is when you both lie next to each other, huddled under your own personal blanket, and shiver all night rather than speak up. When you both put in the 100%, it’s like snuggling under both blankets. Even if one of you rolls over and drags off part of the covers, there’s still plenty of overlap to keep you warm until you can make the bed again the next day. That’s the point of marriage, after all: to keep each other warm in a cold world.
My default position was that I was not fat, I did not overeat, and I only ate health food. None of these beliefs were true, but I am an extremely stubborn person and I was not prepared to change my mind. I believed the same things that many women believe: that any discussion about weight was 100% about appearance; that the beauty myth was a tool of the oppressor; that my weight was nobody’s business but my own; that going to the gym was for ninnies; and that any limits on what I ate would automatically cause some kind of psychological damage.
Now that I’ve come out the other side of the weight loss process, I can spot patterns in my behavior and thought processes that were not evident to me at the time. My weight has ranged back and forth over a 35-lb continuum several times in the last 20 years. I never purposefully set out to gain or lose weight; it always “just happened” as a result of some change in my life, and usually I wouldn’t notice until someone said something (loss) or I had to buy new clothes (gain), and maybe not even then.
I had a cancer scare at age 23. A nodule developed on my thyroid gland that caused a constant tickle in my throat and made it impossible to speak when I was lying on my back. I had an actual goiter that is visible in photos. Around the same time, I had my first migraine and got diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Good times. In retrospect, I’m pretty certain the migraine and the FM are related to the thyroid disease, but that was the 90s and nobody suggested it at the time. The other thing I have noticed in retrospect is that my symptoms are directly tied to my weight and my activity level. The more weight I gain, the more often I have migraines and flare-ups, the worse the pain, and the longer it lasts. The more sedentary I am, the more weird symptoms I get, like developing a bald patch or being chilly when it’s 75 degrees out. I’ve always been in the “normal” range for thyroid hormones, but I can pull out test results from the extreme low end to near center range, and they chart well with my energy level and activity level during those time periods.
We had a weird year in 2013. Had to move four times in three different cities. I gained 17 pounds, because apparently I believe that putting things in my face helps handle stress, and my health collapsed. I was screaming and slapping myself in my sleep, migraines were happening every week, and I started having FM flare-ups for the first time in many years. Also, none of my pants would button. I knew that if I kept my weight under 135 (BMI of 23), I didn’t get migraines, so that was my weight goal. But in practice, that meant 135 was always my low weight and I was constantly slipping upward. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing that caused me to keep gaining weight. I was done and ready to change. But how?
We hit the New Year and I decided on “Do the Obvious” as my slogan for the year. This was a broad-spectrum strategy, and health and fitness were only part of the game board. It struck me that “the obvious” for weight loss would be to choose a target weight, rather than trying to stay below a maximum weight. So I Googled “healthy weight for 5’4” woman.” Every search result I found turned up the same weight of 120 pounds. Okay, I thought, I know I can easily gain a pound a day and keep it, so if I feel somehow “too thin” at 120 I’ll just eat more for a while. The worst-case scenario would be that I would spend a few days being a little scrawny.
The end result of the experiment was that I felt FREAKING AWESOME at 120. Awesome in a way I’d never felt before. The last time I was at that weight, I was 12 and two inches shorter, so I had no way of knowing. I gained back 8 lbs while I was training for my marathon, hit my highest weight in six months the morning after Marathon Day, and then had to quit running for 7 months. I lost the training weight while sitting around on the couch icing my ankle. What I learned was that “healthy weight for my height” feels about 10x better than “default weight I thought was normal.” I learned that diets do work if you’re ready to make a permanent change. I learned that maintaining a healthy weight is 1000x easier than trying to manage extreme fluctuations. I learned that exercise doesn’t really have any impact on weight loss. I learned that my past eating patterns were dysfunctional and made my life harder. I learned that size zero clothes are really hard to find, especially if you aren’t a teenage girl and don’t want to dress like one. I learned that being perceived as a “have” makes other women feel like they have the right to swear at you and give you dirty looks. I learned that my beliefs about lifestyle, health, fitness, and nutrition make me a heretic. But I’m a heretic who can do pull-ups and run a marathon, and I haven’t had a migraine in nearly two years.
We traded houses for the day.
I was happy you came to stay.
You woke up in my cozy bed
And I woke up in yours instead.
First into my bathroom gleaming
You stepped, and had a shower steaming.
Then your breakfast: time to eat!
The table’s clear, so have a seat.
You looked around in disbelief.
It must have looked as if a thief
Had stolen all my stuff, because
There was no clutter, dirt, or fuzz.
No laundry pile or paper file
No dishes stacked or stuff unpacked
And not a room that looked ransacked.
But I was at your place, meanwhile.
Don’t worry, there won’t be a scandal –
There’s nothing here that I can’t handle.
I started at the kitchen sink
Because I needed space to think.
With all the dishes there to scour
It took me nearly half an hour
But I felt glad that it was done.
At my house they’re washed one by one.
I started on the laundry next
And I confess, I felt perplexed.
The real work’s done by machine!
Clothes are easiest to get clean.
I kept it tumbling through the day
Wondering why it piled up that way.
While it ran, I took a broom
And knocked down cobwebs, room by room.
Ten minutes spent on doing that –
I wish that I had worn a hat –
And then I thought I’d try to dust.
But there was so much stuff, I’d bust
My hump before I got it all.
It kinda makes the place look small.
Before I got demoralized
I thought of how you’d look surprised
When you came home and saw my work.
That gave me back a bit of perk.
It was a lot of work to do,
This gift that I had planned for you,
Which I did because I wanted to.
Oh, how fast the hours flew.
I hauled the trash and cleaned the floors
Scrubbed the bathroom, and other chores
Like chiseling the microwave.
These are jobs I’d never save
To use up half my weekend. Geez!
Just what is this, burned-on cheese?
I looked up, and I saw with shock
That it was nearly six o’clock.
Time to put the dinner on.
All my mojo was nearly gone.
I thought how happy you would feel
To come home to a fresh, hot meal.
I heard you walk in through the doorway
And I started to turn your way.
“Hello, dear friend, how was your day?
I hope that you enjoyed your stay.”
But when I turned around, I saw
That there was tension in your jaw.
You didn’t like what I had done.
You thought that I was making fun
Of you and of your housekeeping.
You wished I hadn’t done a thing.
You felt so judged and persecuted.
You bawled me out, and I stood rooted
To the spot. My gift rejected,
I must admit, I felt dejected.
Can you tell me why on earth
You connect housework with self-worth?
It isn’t all that hard to do
As I had tried to show to you.
It’s easier to live my way
And do a little every day
Than let it pile up like that.
I feel like someone took a bat
And beat me with it, neck to knees.
Now I need some Advil, please.
What a yucky way to spend
Half the time of your weekend!
Forty minutes is all I spend
To clean my house from end to end.
It’s the only strategy
That can preserve my energy.
I guess we’re not friends any more
Since I dared to mop your floor.
Maybe when you taste my soup
It will help us to regroup.
I wanted just for you to find
Some relaxation, peace of mind,
And maybe get a brand new start.
I wish that for you, from my heart.
A dominatrix once told me that men are just like dogs. It made sense to me that someone who felt that way would wind up in her profession. She was a friend’s roommate, and I figured I might as well be civil and hear her out while I waited for my friend to get ready. Surprisingly, it turned out she had some valid points. I have asked several men about this and they tend to agree.
1. Know what you want.
2. Communicate clearly in a way he can understand.
3. Reinforce desired behavior.
Men hate having to try to read minds. Men hate mixed messages. Men hate double standards. (Substitute “people” or “employees” or “students” or “clients” or “children” and it works just as well). If the thing that is most important to you is punctuality, explain that you expect him to show up when he says he will, and be delighted when he does. If you’d prefer a picnic to an expensive restaurant, make sure he knows that. Be easy to please and he will please you. Be confusing or unfair and he probably won’t. We generally want to be with people who smile at us a lot and laugh at our jokes and want to spend time with us. Be that person.
Most of the time, my dog has no idea what I’m talking about. I know he’s always listening, though, because he can pick out any variation of the words run, go, walk, park, and cookie out of a sentence full of total gibberish. If I want him to provide security services while I go for a nighttime run, I don’t tell him about my feelings, I just ask, “Want to GO?” He always does. It’s not my dog’s job to provide for my every need and solve all my problems. It’s his job to be a dog and do dog things, and he does it well.
There is something else that dogs and men have in common, just like every other creature. They have particular likes, dislikes, and things that do not pertain to their interests. Here are Spike’s:
Likes: GO FOR A WALK. COOKIE. RUB BELLY. BALL.
Pet peeves: Fireworks, rain, package deliveries
Not Applicable: Onions, catnip, Rubik’s Cube
(Note that this list differs somewhat for cats or parrots. My bird hates belly rubs and does not seem to care about fireworks. I haven’t tried giving her a Rubik’s Cube yet).
What should stand out here is that all my dog’s favorite stuff in the world, the stuff that makes him wag his tail until his butt is about to fall off, is all really simple stuff. I can give him the best day of his life with almost no effort or expense. It’s also fun for me, which is why we keep him around.
The other thing that should stand out is that people have comparable lists. Here’s mine:
Likes: Privacy, plant-based food, books
Pet peeves: Anyone putting their fork in my food, naysaying, political arguments
N/A: sports, gaming, amusement parks
The secret to people is just as simple. Find out what their likes are and facilitate them as often as possible. Find out what their major pet peeves are and make sure not to do them. Don’t waste time or effort trying to impress them with things that are not relevant to their interests. Make sure you are clear and consistent about your own likes and dislikes, and be as easy to please as you’d like others to be. Give the belly rubs, or their equivalent, and you’ll have a best friend for life.
This is a discussion of two works: Why Not?: Fifteen Reasons to Live, a book by Ray Robertson, and Fifteen Reasons to Live, a documentary directed by Alan Zweig that was inspired by Robertson’s book.
The concept of making a list of reasons to continue living, rather than to commit suicide, is probably one of the most important ideas anyone has ever had. Suicide is a permanent solution to what may be temporary problems. The suicide rate is about double the murder rate globally. In the US, suicide kills more people than do car accidents. It certainly rates as one of the most pressing topics of philosophy.
Ray Robertson received a university education in philosophy. As it turns out, academia frowns on the study of wisdom literature (you know, like Marcus Aurelius or Lao Tzu or Seneca) and the idea of using philosophy to solve practical problems, such as whether to live. He wrote this book based on his personal battle with OCD, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
Now, I have to pause and say that one of the most interesting things about this book never makes it into the index. Robertson did a lot of research and stumbled across studies indicating that artificial sweeteners interfere with serotonin production, and caffeine depletes serotonin. He stopped drinking Diet Pepsi and started feeling better. STOP THE PRESS! If you ask me, we can take simple, straightforward actions like ditching diet soda and maybe get around to the philosophy at some later date.
I’m not sure whether reading Why Not? would do the job and convince someone to at least delay the most drastic act long enough to experience a perspective shift. It is a very literary, somewhat sarcastic, work. My tastes run more toward the optimistic and motivational, a tone that cynical people find annoying and unconvincing. Robertson says: “Fifteen reasons why one should live. Undoubtedly there are more; undoubtedly some of those I’ve chosen to celebrate in the following fifteen essays won’t resonate with every reader.” Seems legit.
What the heck. I’ll share mine. First, the best reason I could come up with not to commit suicide was that it is SERIOUSLY unfair to whomever has the misfortune to find the body. Nobody deserves that. Second, what if we really are here for some incredibly specific purpose, and we check out before the occasion comes up? If my life has no value to me, I should then be able to bear any amount of discomfort or inconvenience in being of value to some other person or cause. Dying, say, while rescuing a baby from a burning building is better than dying and just leaving a big mess. We can try to chalk up at least one major good deed.
Robertson’s list: Work. Love. Intoxication. Art. The material world. Individuality. Humor. Meaning. Friendship. Solitude. The critical mind. Praise. Duty. Home. Death.
My list: Love. Work. Duty. Curiosity. Beauty. Sex. Achievement. Music. Laughter. Possibility. Stubbornness. Adventure. Sensory delights, certainly not intoxicants, which I don’t appreciate, but fresh strawberries and hot baths, which I do. All the books I haven’t read yet. The brevity of life anyway. There is also that lurking suspicion that, if there is any kind of afterlife, suicides are categorized as cheaters.
Now to Zweig’s movie, Fifteen Reasons to Live. It’s short, at 84 minutes, and almost all of it is focused on interviews with people whose stories exemplify the fifteen reasons. Most of these stories probably could have been expanded into their own full-length pieces. I enjoyed it and thought it was well done.
The first time I heard the adage that “If you eat a frog first thing in the morning, nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day,” I was about 8. It was printed on a sign over someone’s desk. Adults will glance at things like this and forget them five minutes later. A little kid isn’t inured to this sort of thing yet. Every time I saw the sign, I wondered whether it would be expected of me to swallow frogs as an ordinary part of adult life. Why on earth would someone swallow a frog? Unless you’re a heron, it hardly seems necessary. If you did find yourself in the sort of scenario where frog-swallowing seemed like a good idea, surely once would be enough to prove your point? You would seriously consider taking a job that required it every day?
On the other hand, it didn’t seem that much worse than voluntarily drinking coffee. I mean, ew.
Life is full of odious tasks. Life is about 80% maintenance. Almost everything we do, from personal hygiene to commuting to working to shopping, is just stuff we can’t not do. The consequences get worse the longer we delay. It’s not that we enjoy waiting in line at the grocery store so much as that we do not enjoy opening an empty fridge. When it comes to routine daily tasks, I do prefer doing a little every day. That’s because I am obsessed with preserving my High Quality Leisure Time. Weekends are the time my husband and I can relax, which is easier in an orderly house, and do fun things, which is easier when there are no demands on your time. I’ll be hog-tied if I’m going to spend any of that HQLT doing housework. Errands are better for weekdays, too.
The trick is how to deal with the one-off tasks. The same task will be interesting for one person, unremarkable for another, and like pulling teeth for the third. There are some things nobody likes, like waiting at the DMV, because the time commitment is unpredictable and it’s hard to combine with other tasks. It’s like being in Limbo. All the other lost souls are swirling around and moaning and time has no meaning. Plus Muzak. At least we know we’re not alone… Sometimes, though, it’s impossible to explain why we find something aversive that wouldn’t bother someone else. We just… don’t wanna.
That’s where Ugh Day comes in. We’ve started to build up a long list of these aversive tasks we don’t want to do. Just knowing these things aren’t done casts a dark shadow. It makes it impossible to fully relax. We know it’s going to take massive willpower just to get started. The idea is to suck it up and just tackle as many of these annoying jobs as possible in one day. For instance, my husband and I both hate making phone calls. We can’t really trade each other for a different task because it’s impossible to say which of us hates it more. But once one is done, it’s easier to maintain momentum and go on to the next call than to hang up, knowing we’ll have to stoke the engine and get to full steam all over again. Just say, “Ugggghhhhh!” and get it over with.
Ugh Day is great for days when you’re really not feeling it. Everyone has this tendency to wait for motivation to come along. We think we’re going to be “in the mood” one day and we’ll “feel like it.” Seriously? If I ever feel that kind of transcendent high-energy quantum leap in mood, why would I waste it doing drudgery and scutwork? It makes more sense to me to use the lowest-energy days for doing low-energy jobs. If it’s the thing I hate the most, I’m not going to let it stain an otherwise good day, when I feel more like doing awesome things. I’m going to use the exhausted, headachy, moody, cruddy, bad-weather days. If it’s already going to be an Ugh Day, I can use the ugliest chores and the biggest bummers to help make the time pass. “If I can just get through this day… “ Then, when it’s all over, there’s the couch and the pajamas and the snuggly animal and maybe a hot bath. No frogs were swallowed.
Lately I’ve been working out my ideas about this concept that we are the average of the five people with whom we spend the most time. Talk about double-edged swords! Are you one of the Avengers or are you in a maximum-security prison? Or somewhere in the middle with people who do nothing but complain and gossip?
It seems like this might be viewed differently depending on whether someone has a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. The growth-mindset person thinks, “Let us go forth and be awesome together.” The fixed-mindset person thinks, “This is just how I am, and if you don’t like it, you must not be my real friend.” It’s a question of whether we believe we can control our attitudes, speech, and actions, or whether we believe our behavior is a natural aspect of our personality that is dictated by events.
Find five people who blame others, make excuses, create drama, vent and complain, or talk smack about everyone. That shouldn’t be too difficult. Now ask yourself how much time you give up to buying into negativity like this.
People can and do change. I’ve learned to recognize this sort of negativity in myself, and to work to stop it. One part of ending negativity is to get out of negative situations. Sometimes the answer is that a certain activity or group of people is just a poor fit. When I’m feeling negative about being involved with something, the other people involved are feeling it, too. It doesn’t do anyone any favors to keep torturing yourself (and them) by hanging around and wishing the circumstances would change. For instance, my first job was at a convenience store, and I hated it. I found a better job that paid more, and I loved it. There was no reason for me to keep working part-time at a minimum wage job, and I’m sure everyone who either worked or shopped there had forgotten I ever existed a week later.
A better way to end negativity is to create something positive. I couldn’t get that convenience store to give me a predictable schedule, a living wage, or a uniform that wasn’t orange. Each of those battles would have continued to this very day. What I could do was leave the situation entirely. I guess it’s probably obvious that I’m talking about business scenarios rather than talking about whether social scenarios should be disrupted, or whether to end friendships. There is no good way to say, “I’m not hanging out with you anymore because you are too negative for me and I don’t want you in my life.” There’s also no magical way to swap out your friends for a team of superheroes, especially once they’ve found out that you’re screening new recruits.
So the thing about the five people isn’t about them, it’s about you. Friends are a mirror. Friends are the people you count on to tell you the truth when nobody else will. Friends are the people who know you best, sometimes better than you know yourself. If you cultivate the sort of friendships that revolve around that kind of honesty, you’ll grow together and make each other better people. We also have to accept that it’s a give and take, and make an effort to be the giver more often than the taker.
What I’m working on is assembling five role models I don’t know in person, and probably never will.
Someone who is more compassionate than me
Someone who is smarter than me
Someone who is healthier than me
Someone who is braver than me
Someone who knows how to do something I want to learn to do
I’m relentless about self-improvement, partly because I feel like I started with a major deficit and I’m still trying to get to zero! It’s too much to expect for my friends to lead that kind of effort. High achievers don’t necessarily need or want someone like me calling them all the time. If I want to be a “better person” in terms of creative productivity or accomplishing goals, there is plenty of material for me to read about my selected role models. If I want to be a better person in terms of character and emotional presence, there is no reason to look further than the friends I already have.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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