I’ll give you my version of the Four Noble Truths in a nutshell.
I was lucky. Enough parts of my life fell apart at the same time that I figured it had to be more than coincidence. I must have been basing my world on some false principles or incorrect ideas. I spent hours every day writing in my journal, going back over what went wrong, figuring out my contribution to my own problems, and imagining something better.
What went wrong? I developed a very painful repetitive stress injury that left me unable to do buttons or hold a cup. So that sucked. (Nearly two decades later, I still drop things a lot and hold my teacup in my left hand; the positive is that I can write and use chopsticks with either hand now). The painful RSI led to losing my job with the non-profit that I loved. That in turn led to my first husband asking for a divorce. That led to his opening a letter from the IRS, addressed to me, and withholding it until after the deadline had passed, just to mess with me. In rapid succession, I wound up in constant pain, with no money, no marriage, a pending workers comp lawsuit (apart from the two separate issues of the IRS thing and the divorce), and friends who were “choosing not to take sides.” The physical therapy burned holes in my skin. My fibromyalgia had nothing to do with any of this, but it was still a daily issue. Let’s just say that I had a lot to work on.
What I decided, in the hundreds of pages of intensive journaling I did during this period, was that I needed to change what I could. I needed to be as accountable as possible, and I needed to be WIDE OPEN to feedback and constructive criticism. Any clues I could get from anyone else, I needed to hear them, I needed to take them in, and I needed to keep them coming. I wasn’t doing too well by letting my ego and my sense of cleverness run things.
The other thing I needed to do was to be organized and persistent. Now, I would call that being a CLOSER. Always Be Closing. My journaling shifted to a running recap of issues I was trying to resolve and actions I had taken toward resolving them. My first success was with the IRS issue. Someone else’s income had been reported under my social security number, and I had a tax bill for over $8000 for money I hadn’t earned. I was so scared to make that call, because the letter my ex had kept said that I hadn’t contested the claim in time. I picked up the phone, explained why I hadn’t called sooner, and found that the agent was completely gracious. “This happens all the time.” (!!!) I was able to track down the W-2 of the person who actually had earned that higher salary and mail in a copy, and my case was closed. (What I would have done if this hadn’t been a coworker, who was willing to share her personal financial information, still is not clear to me). The downside of inaction would have been so bad that I knew I had to move forward.
During the course of my recovery from the disaster of my divorce, I learned something important. When you have to get up, you can. My pain from fibromyalgia was so bad at that time that I sometimes needed help to sit up in bed in the morning. Or I thought I did. When there’s nobody around to help, it’s surprising what you find out you can do. I learned that my pain was worst first thing in the morning, and that once I got up and started moving around, it was easier. I was eating barely enough to get by, and I lost 30 pounds in a few months. My pain went away for a few years. This should have been my first clue that excess body weight made my pain worse, but of course I ignored it and regained the weight as soon as I could afford to.
I kept up the habit of journaling whenever my stress level hit a certain point. I used my journals to work through the process of applying to the university. I used my journals to figure out additional ways to earn money. I used my journals to work out a schedule to pay off my consumer debt. I used my journals to work through a few romantic relationships, figuring out what worked and what didn’t work. I checked out dozens of self-help books from the public library and meticulously worked through all the exercises. I was trying to get to the bottom of why my life had quit working and what I was doing that other people weren’t, or vice versa.
Gradually, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t start with my default as the baseline. I had to figure out a universal baseline and plan my behavior around that, even if it had nothing to do with the way I wanted to behave. Perhaps especially if the universal baseline had nothing to do with what I was doing. I figured there was a way to find a suitable career and advance in it. I figured there was a way to plan a budget. I figured there was a healthy way of eating and exercising. I figured there was a way to get to know someone and build a relationship without any of the misunderstandings of my first marriage. I decided I would learn what successful people did and copy them. If it worked for them, it might work for me, and if not, well, what I was doing on my own wasn’t working, either. I would keep researching and experimenting until I found an answer I could live with.
I was right about the accountability. That’s probably the single most important piece of advice I could give anyone. No matter what, it’s up to us to handle what comes our way, no matter whose fault it was. The IRS bill wasn’t my fault, but it was still my problem. Whatever caused my divorce, it was still mine to process and use for information. For whatever reason I developed fibromyalgia (spraining my back in an accident), it was my problem to try to manage. Nobody else could do it for me.
I was right about getting organized. It’s valuable in its own right. When my life was at its hardest, at least I had some semblance of a plan. Sometimes I would just make up things to try. In those days before Google, we had to figure out more for ourselves. It was harder but it taught me to be more resourceful and inventive. It also taught me that mental clarity is high on the list of great traits.
I was right that you can get up even when you think you can’t. I learned a deep and mystical secret, which is that grit and fortitude are there for the asking. Navy SEAL training teaches that most people quit when they’re at 40% of their physical capacity. I think I’ve made it to about 80% of what I can do. Anyone who suffers chronic pain, if you’re reading this, HEY, you’re not dead yet. You’re not even unconscious. You’re not even dizzy, or you wouldn’t be reading. You have more in you than you think you do. The SAME PAIN that we feel in a chair or on a bed, we can tolerate in other ways and other situations. Trying to rest and endure only leads to more pain, to another day just like the first. What I learned from training for a marathon is that DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) is pretty much exactly the same intensity as fibromyalgia pain. The pain I have endured in physical therapy was slightly worse than any pain I’ve ever pushed through at the gym. I bought myself my current level of strength and fitness by using the pain tolerance I developed through being chronically ill. I stopped feeling trapped by learned helplessness. I stopped reading the articles that talked about how difficult fibromyalgia is to treat. I tried telling my current doctor about my success story, and she told me I must have been misdiagnosed, because “people with fibromyalgia don’t get better.” That’s why nobody knows we can get better – because when we walk in and share our experience, the medical establishment ignores us. They used to tell me it wasn’t a real disease, until pharmaceuticals were developed to treat it, and now they say it’s real but there’s no cure. I say differently.
I beat poverty. I beat chronic pain and fatigue and became a marathon runner. I beat thyroid disease and (unintentionally, cluelessly) shrank my own thyroid nodule. I beat obesity. I beat pavor nocturnus. I beat migraine. I beat divorce and found love again; despite the odds, we’ve been together more than three times as long as my first marriage lasted. I beat the IRS. I beat the market and broke even in the crash of 2008. I could easily still be broke, single, fat, and in pain every day. Nothing was going to fall from the sky and make me better. Dissatisfaction meditation helped me figure out tiny pieces of my problems and take baby steps forward. I tried to make my life 1% better as often as I could. Where I am now, it’s hard to find anything to feel dissatisfied about. It gets better. It gets better, but only when we imagine how it can be better.
I was a girl baby. I weighed 7 pounds, 7 ounces. I grew up to have two brothers, six boy cousins, and four uncles, but no sisters or girl cousins. The different standards for physical activities considered appropriate for either a boy or a girl, but usually not both, were always abundantly clear to me. I always preferred “boy” things like climbing trees, walking the top of a fence, digging holes, and trying to learn bike tricks. My mom told me once to get down from a tree because I was wearing a dress. The concern was that people would see up my skirt. “All the boys are up here with me,” I called down.
Around that same age, I found a women’s magazine on the coffee table. It was the sort of magazine that orders you to LOSE TEN POUNDS BY SUMMER! right next to BEST CAKE RECIPES! I flipped through it, and something beautiful caught my eye. It was an article on yoga poses. I didn’t understand what that meant, although I could read, but I did really like the outfits and the lighting. The yoginis were dressed in pale pink leotards. They reminded me of ballerinas. Oh, so pretty! I promptly got down on the carpet and started trying to copy what I saw. One pose involved lying on your belly and reaching back for your feet. Then you would arch and pull your legs upward. I was at that age when you’re basically made of rubber, and I probably could have accomplished dozens of postures without even feeling the stretch. My mommy saw me, though, and it scared her. “Be careful! You’ll hurt your back!” I got a stern lecture on not attempting stuff like that unless I knew what I was doing, and that it was for grownups.
That was hardly the last time I was told to be careful. More of these lectures have come my way since adulthood than in childhood, from friends, family, colleagues, and complete strangers.
BE CAREFUL about walking in that neighborhood.
BE CAREFUL about traveling alone.
BE CAREFUL about leaving your house after dark.
BE CAREFUL about strength training or you’ll strain yourself or get too bulky.
BE CAREFUL about exercising at all or it will make you obsessive.
BE CAREFUL about weight loss because you’ll lose your mind and become an anorexic.
BE CAREFUL about being too competitive or you’ll lose friends.
BE CAREFUL BE CAREFUL BE CAREFUL BE CAREFUL BE CAREFUL
Shifting gears for a moment, let me talk a bit about the men in my life. My husband: swim team, football team, hockey team, armored combat, motorcyclist. Nobody told him to BE CAREFUL even after all the times he got knocked unconscious. Nobody told him to BE CAREFUL even when he sharpened his chainsaw while working as a logger. Nobody told him to BE CAREFUL even after dropping his bike in traffic. My brothers: fell out of a tree, fell down a flight of stairs, broke an arm before kindergarten (and promptly used the cast to hit another boy), umpteen car accidents, spinal fracture from a construction accident. Nobody tells them to BE CAREFUL. All three of them have made public decisions to lose weight, lost it, and kept it off, all without anyone telling them to BE CAREFUL or implying they would have some kind of emotional breakdown.
I do what I want. That’s important to me. My non-negotiable need in life is total freedom to come and go as I please and investigate anything that ignites my curiosity. I’ve always been that way. Fortunately, I met a man who likes this trait in me. It keeps me interesting and it tends to result in a firm, active body. I’ve traveled to nine countries on four continents so far; I’ve run a marathon; I’ve hiked over 30 miles in three days. Without a minimum quota of trail time, I’m tense, irritable, and bored. I have the demonstrated capacity to go places by myself, pack my own gear, pitch my own tent, light my own fires, and use my own first aid kit. I can tie my shoes and make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, too!
I’m a rational being, like most other humans. It burns me up every time someone else infantilizes me and expresses a belief that I’m emotionally fragile, weak, or incompetent. I know my own mind. I know the limitations of my own body, too. I beat chronic pain and fatigue, thyroid disease, migraine, obesity, and a parasomnia disorder to get where I am. Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I’m the last person to voluntarily endanger myself or cause myself unnecessary pain or suffering. My lifetime quota of illness was met in my early 20s. That’s part of my motivation: to make it up to myself. I’m making up for lost time and building a better body to take me into my golden years. Maybe people will be less likely to tell me to BE CAREFUL when I’m 80 if I have bigger muscles than they do.
I found a note tucked into the slats of the picket fence around our front yard. A film production company wanted to advise our neighborhood that they would be filming on Saturday. They politely explained that extra crew trucks and vehicles would be using our street parking, and provided a permission slip for us to check off. There was contact information for the film company and the relevant city office. Essentially, we were being informed that this was happening, like it or not, and they had the legal right to be here. The next morning, a surfer-looking guy knocked on my door and asked for the form. I signed it and gave it to him.
We have no reason to be concerned about our house being in a movie. We also have no concerns about street parking. We only have one vehicle, and there’s room for at least two in our driveway. We rent this house. The two owners of our house live next door, and they send a yard service once a week. It comes out of our rent. That’s standard in suburban SoCal. This is all a roundabout way of explaining that we don’t identify with the way our house looks from the street. It’s fine; it’s a nice place to live, but we don’t expect it to reflect our personalities or anything. I’d be surprised if we still live here in four years.
It made me think, though. I work with hoarding, squalor, and chronic disorganization. Most of my people would freak if they knew someone might capture their house or yard on film. The idea that someone would knock on the front door and potentially see inside the house for a moment would be a very creepy thought. Picturing their home displayed on a big screen in front of a national audience would be depressing and overwhelming.
There’s one like it in every neighborhood, and often more than one. Sometimes when I walk around my ambit I wish I could leave a business card in the mailbox. I know my crowd, though, and such a gesture would more likely catalyze a shame spiral than anything productive. “People can see! They are JUDGING ME!” It’s hard not to notice that some houses are different, even if they don’t have a feature like a waist-high wall of rubber tubs of clutter under a tarp. Nothing about one of these yards actually says “home.” All that shows is lack of love, neglect, trouble, or even danger.
It’s not a judgment on the occupants if the house doesn’t look so great from the outside. Passersby are generally going to guess that someone elderly, ill, or financially strained lives there. Maybe they just moved in and are working through a long list of repairs and remodeling before they tackle the landscaping. Who knows? New roofs are expensive. Painting an exterior is a lot of work. The drought (here at least) is affecting everyone, and there’s a wait list for lawn removal and drought-tolerant landscaping. The nearest neighbors may impatiently be waiting for a makeover on the least-attractive house in the neighborhood, but nobody else really cares. They’ll only notice after something starts happening to make it prettier.
When the tubs and piles and stacks start showing up, then people do start judging. It’s one thing if the bags are going out to the street and getting hauled away on a regular basis. It’s another thing if a dead couch or recliner or mattress or television suddenly appears on the curb and sits there for weeks or months. Every single person who sees something like that there on the second day starts muttering, “It only costs $20 to drop that off at the dump.”
The nightmare is really on the other side of the door. Almost everyone who lives in a troubled house would fix it, if only it were that easy. We don’t always know what to do. We often have some kind of mobility or health issue that makes the physical aspects of space clearing too difficult to do alone. Usually the financial situation does not allow for repairs, remodeling, or hiring people to help. In every case, we’re in such a bad emotional space that we can’t even imagine what “better” or “good” would feel like. My people try hard, but when I assign them a visualization exercise about a perfect day or a fantasy outcome, they can’t do it. They don’t have a dream of something better, and trying to come up with one is one of the hardest things I ask of them. That’s why having their house in a movie would be a horror scenario, not a romantic comedy.
Everything is simple at my house. It’s only 728 square feet, but we downsized until we fit. There’s a tiny front porch, and we brought out two of the metal patio chairs from the back. We had a couple of decorative pots, and we spent a few dollars on rosemary and lavender. Then we really went nuts and bought a rosebush for $16. That’s it. We sit out there sometimes and watch our dog roll on his back in the grass. We bring out the parrot and watch as she learns to climb the steps all by herself. (That’s tough when you’re only nine inches tall). The only maintenance we have to do is to bring in the mail and NOT ADD any physical objects. As a result, if our house appears fleetingly in someone’s movie, it’ll be nothing more than a smooth backdrop. Nobody would ever remember seeing it. That’s a good thing. If my home is going to be in a movie, I’d prefer that the house and yard be the least interesting part of it.
I just learned a new business term, and that is the phrase “bias toward action.” It refers to a decision to take action quickly even in the face of insufficient information. This trait is also the secret behind how to beat procrastination. We have a tendency to overthink everything. We hesitate to take action, sometimes because we just don’t want to DO THE THING, but also because we make simple tasks part of some incredibly convoluted mental contraptions. We mull things over and wait for optimal conditions. What we rarely do is to simply GET UP and DO SOMETHING.
What to do? Where to start? It doesn’t matter. Take any action that will move you closer to any goal.
What’s important is what not to do:
Sitting. Sitting is to be avoided. Sitting is bad for the human body in many ways.
Ruminating. Make a rule that if you want to ruminate, you have to multi-task and do it while you complete a task of some kind. Worry only when putting away laundry. Stew over what that person said while cleaning the floor. Criticize yourself only while packing lunch.
Q4 activities. Quadrant 4 is anything defined as neither urgent nor important. Many of us spend most of our time in Q4, staring at screens or pages. Q4 includes any form of passive entertainment and all the weird non-actions we create that we think fit into some kind of loophole.
Once you eliminate an attractive nuisance, a seductive time-waster and brain drain, it is no longer available to distract you. It creates a void that becomes very boring. One very effective anti-procrastination technique is to stop allowing yourself to do anything at all other than the project you’re supposed to be doing. You can work on it or you can stand there and stare at the wall. B.O.R.I.N.G..
Procrastination is about “temporary mood repair.” Thinking about DOING THE THING makes us feel bad, and we let ourselves off the hook so that we can get away from that bad feeling. I don’t want to! I don’t have to. Yay. This “giving in to feel good” reinforces itself. We reward ourselves for exactly the behavior that we think we’re trying to eliminate. It’s like giving your dog a cookie for biting you. Future Self gets screwed over once again. We push off our duties over and over, creating significantly worse pain, stress, and dread for ourselves to experience slightly further down the timeline.
JUST GET IT OVER WITH ALREADY!
Let’s talk more about the bias for action, because it is ripe for skepticism. How is taking any random action going to help move me forward?
Let’s say all I do is pace around in circles. How is that going to help? It will help by getting your blood circulating, for one thing. Sedentary behavior is physically and mentally draining. Pacing around the room for more than a few minutes also starts to seem a bit ridiculous. Once you’re up and moving, a lot of small, easy tasks start to feel less aversive. Put items away. Take out the trash. Clean out the fridge. Hang up some clothes. Basic chores start to get done. This creates a sense of momentum and a more organized space. More importantly, it restores mental bandwidth.
Taking any action at all is very positive when you focus on completing anything that can be done in under five minutes. This includes most household chores, informational phone calls, and email responses. I can scrub a bathtub in five minutes. What can you do?
The five-minute exercise can be a real eye-opener when you work with an actual stopwatch. A timer is fine, too, although the two are really different sorts of exercises. Timers are good for playing Beat the Clock and racing to see how much you can get done. Stopwatches are good for finding out how very little time most tasks take. I despise making customer service phone calls, but I’ve found that most take under two minutes. I just remind myself of this fact, take a breath, and start dialing. It takes me longer to brush my teeth than it does to get an annoying phone call out of the way.
Hustle is what I call it. My goal is to create a sense of momentum from when I get up through the end of the workday. Action instead of decision points. Routine instead of decision points. Habit instead of decision points. I only needed to make one decision about working out every day. I only needed to make one commitment to eat micronutrient-rich foods and avoid eating junk food. I only needed to make one decision to put my health first and have a realistic bedtime. I stay “organized” by having a set routine that includes cleaning one room each weekday. All I have to do is get up and start working my way through my reminders as they come up in my phone. When I’m already dressed, wearing shoes, and physically moving around, it’s no big deal to add in one more chore. Many things, like putting a dirty dish in the dishwasher or tossing junk mail, take under 10 seconds.
The trouble comes in when I’m contemplating a more complex project, such as writing my book. It isn’t always obvious what to do. That’s where I start. I get out a piece of paper and start rapidly free-writing all my stuck points. What questions do I need to resolve? What research do I think I need to do? What parts am I worried need to sound more realistic? What do I think doesn’t work? What am I trying to accomplish with this section? Then I branch out and brainstorm as many possible solutions to a particular, fine-grained question as I can. I’ll make a mind map or a flowchart or a timeline or a diagram or a map. Usually, an answer emerges that seems like it should have been obvious – but wasn’t.
The two most commonly procrastinated tasks are planning for retirement and dealing with health problems. I once met a man who turned out to have had an untreated hernia for three years. Imagine the pain. The greatest mystery in life is how we manage to carry on with our burdens while avoiding action that would relieve the misery. I think it’s because we don’t always know what to do next, and there are no clear signals to show the way. If PAIN isn’t enough of a sign, what would be? The man with the hernia could have done anything at all. He could have simply groaned and leaned against a wall, and someone probably would have come over and asked, “Buddy, are you okay?” He could have asked anyone he knew, “Have you ever had a feeling like a gopher was gnawing its way through your entrails?” He didn’t have to know what a hernia was, or how it was treated. He just had to do something: ask a question, go to a doctor, hail a cab. Even a reference librarian would have helped him.
I’ve done a lot of things since I started forcing myself to work through feelings of resistance, reluctance, and distaste. I realized that I was annoying myself and that the results I was getting were not anything I would want. When I first took action, I had no idea where it would lead. I never knew what would work or not work. I just kept doing and trying and experimenting. When I started running, I only planned to be able to run 2.25 miles by the end of the year. I did it in six weeks. I didn’t plan to shrink my thyroid nodule through strenuous activity; I was simply procrastinating on getting the biopsy and working out my terror through exercise. I rode around town shouting, “F.U., thyroid gland! YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO ME!” I guess it worked. When I realized it had been several months since my last night terror episode, I chalked it up to my running routine. It took several months more before I realized the key factor was actually whether I ate too late at night. Blood sugar, not exercise. I quadrupled my cruciferous vegetable consumption, not realizing that it would cure my migraines. Micronutrients, who’d have thought it? I hurl myself full force into a new habit, experiment with it, and generally get unanticipated positive results. Not knowing what I’m doing keeps me keenly interested in the process. I stick with the behavior long enough to figure out what it does, and that tends to sell me on why it’s a good idea.
Overthinking is a tendency I still have. I’ve learned, though, to start with the action and indulge in the mental exploration afterward. When I started running, I couldn’t make it around the block. I started reading books of running lore before I could run a mile. By the time I ran my marathon four years later, I was informally coaching my friends. It’s been the same with my explorations of nutrition, motivation, habit formation, personal finance, and everything else. I start from the place of DUH and fill that void with experimental action, research, and writing. Not knowing how to do something is ideal for the curious and the adventurous.
Build the bridge while you’re crossing it. Unless you’re the first person on Mars, whatever it is you’re trying to do has been done by someone else. That means it can be done. Millions of people have run a marathon, and every single one of them started out as a baby who couldn’t even roll over in bed. I’ve been passed by octogenarians, blind people, and a para-athlete with a colostomy bag. Maybe that isn’t such a great anecdote to support how running has worked out for me. It does give me something to aim for. How can I run as fast as that 80-year-old man? What does he do that I’m not doing? It goes to show the benefits of maintaining momentum.
Acknowledge that you don’t want to do something, state why, and then do it anyway. Do something. Do anything. You already know that the brain rut you’re in is not fun, not productive, and not sexy. Procrastination is like always walking down a dark back alley full of trash bags. Surely you’d rather go the other way, the well-lit main street? Maybe you find yourself at the alley entrance again. Simply pause and think, “I smell garbage,” and use the reminder of ickiness to turn away and stay on the main street.
Recognize the resistance. Notice the feeling of I DON’T WANNA. Catch yourself when you settle back into your familiar nest and prepare to pretend that time does not exist. Pick up the phone and call Future Self, see what’s up. Maybe hold the Future Phone a few inches away from your ear first. Have a heart. Show some compassion for Future You. Get it done, whatever it is. Dive in and do it.
Just get started.
This is basically a pro-junk book, in the sense that Alison Stewart treats junk as an interesting subject. It is, of course. Nobody would collect clutter otherwise. Junk is a sympathetic and funny look at what is increasingly becoming a major part of American culture.
The book begins with Stewart’s quest to clear out her parents’ basement. She has the help of her sister and a friend. Still, it takes them eight months. This includes a mutual agreement not to even glance at any photographs, but put them aside for later. The project introduces her to the world of junk haulers and professional organizers.
Apparently, the need for organizers and junk haulers still provokes skepticism in many people. All I can say to that is that they must have only well-organized friends. My work over the past twenty years leads me to estimate that at least 20% of the population in the US has trouble with chronic disorganization, Stage One hoarding, squalor, or all of the above. This was probably not the case earlier in our nation’s history, as people had to make their own material goods and repair, reuse, or do without. Now, we are constantly surrounded by junk mail and cheap consumer goods.
Stewart explores these issues, even including an interview with the man who sent the first spam email. Anything described as ‘junk’ has a place in the book, including space junk. I learned that ‘junk’ began as a nautical term for worn-out rope, giving the word a connotation of stuff that is not only useless, but worse than useless, as trying to make it last longer can be dangerous and destructive.
Minimalism and tiny homes make their appearance. A couple of people who are profiled live a minimalist lifestyle in tiny homes. There is also a tiny home community for people who are transitioning away from homelessness. Junk hauling plays a large role in the continuing function of this community. It is interesting how some of the people whom Stewart profiles wind up absorbing some of the junk they haul, while the work causes others to shy away from it and cut back on material things in their lives. (I fall into the latter camp, getting rid of more stuff every time I do a job).
Junk is a really intriguing, sometimes funny book. It includes discussions about all the clutter-related reality TV shows, from Antiques Roadshow to Pawn Stars to Hoarders. Stewart interviews various professional junk haulers, showing how many of these businesses are owned by or employ veterans or the formerly homeless. She shows how much of the hauled junk is reused, donated, and given a new life. She interviews the founder of Freecycle and explores an organization called Repair Café, something that caught my attention and made me look for one in my own area. Maybe I’ll make an appearance some Saturday and help people mend some old clothes. It’s a bit of a paradox, but valuing our old things enough to repair and care for them may be the only solution to the never-ending tidal wave of stuff that we send to the landfill every day.
I caught them in the very act. I didn’t realize what was going on at first. I had walked over to my tent, and there was a weird pile of jackets or something nearby. As I brought the lantern closer, I saw that it was a backpack. MY backpack. Oh, and there were two fuzzy little forest denizens, complete with masks and striped prison uniforms. Bushy-tailed, bubble-butt raccoons. They had dragged my pack out from under the rain fly of my tent. It was twelve feet away when I found it. Were they taking it somewhere, or were they just ransacking my rucksack right there? How did they move it? Did they work together, walking on their hind legs, and dragging it with their paws? I laughed and shook my head as I picked it up and zipped it inside my tent.
The first time I was taken on a camping trip, I was two years old. I know it is the nature of wild creatures to spend every waking moment looking for food. I know a single peanut is enough to inspire an animal as tiny as a shrew to nibble through hundreds of dollars of tents, packs, or clothes. Who can blame them? They aren’t exactly going to find primate-style snack food growing on a tree. It’s basic food discipline to consolidate anything edible and lock it carefully away from questing teeth. Especially in bear country. The only things in my backpack that night were: clothespins, a freshly washed stocking cap and gloves, a roll of Tenacious Tape, and the stuff bags for my gear, none of which had ever contained food. Either some food residue had dripped somewhere onto my pack or the scent of the packaged food I had carried had somehow permeated it. Otherwise, it was simply a crime of opportunity, and the raccoons knew an unattended pack was worth a peek.
The second night, my friend looked out the window of her tent and happened to interrupt another crime in progress. “There’s a raccoon scratching at your tent!” She shouted at it and it slunk away. We went back to our board game. When I went to bed, I saw that I had left my door unzipped. Actually I hadn’t. There was an eight-inch tear across and a four-inch tear down, creating a hole big enough to pop my head through. I had exactly enough Tenacious Tape on the roll to tape it shut. This was annoying, but interesting; never before had I ever heard of a raccoon ripping open a tent. This tent was five years old and had paid for itself on our first trip. If the hole couldn’t be repaired, at least it would make a good story.
The third night, the moon was full. I was sound asleep, having added a little sports tape from the first aid kit to the gradually spreading tear and eliminated the mosquito that had made the most of the opportunity. I heard a panting, snuffling sound outside that made me think of a bloodhound. I rolled over and opened my eyes. There was another pair of eyes looking back at me! A raccoon had crept under the rain fly and was peering at me through the mesh door! I shouted at it, waking up my friends and making them think I was having night terrors. Possibly Tourette’s Syndrome. 2:43 AM.
If we’d stayed any longer, I’m sure I would have found it wearing my pajamas and reading my Byron Katie. “I moved your bookmark, hope you don’t mind. Incidentally, do you have any peanuts?”
As I was taking the tent down the next morning, a fire ant crawled up my pants and bit me on the knee. I didn’t realize what had happened at first; I felt a pinch and thought I had strained my knee from hiking. Then I thought something was biting me. I shook something out of my pants that I thought was a spider. The burning pain intensified. My friend explained that those two-toned ants with the reddish-brown heads were indeed fire ants. As in: "F this, kill them with fire!"
If I’d left my pack where I had it stored on the first night, the fire ants would quite likely have spent two days infiltrating it. I wouldn’t have had the faintest idea when I picked it up, as I have done dozens of times before.
When something happens to me, is it really to me? Is it about me at all? Or is it simply a reflection of the nature of another being?
What does this series of incidents tell me about the way the world works? Should I feel like a victim? Should I accept the lesson and move on? Should I enjoy the opportunity to collect a funny story? Or is it possible that I can search for gratitude? Unintentionally, those pesky masked varmints may well have saved me from a nasty experience with real malefactors.
Maybe I should ultimately blame myself for obliviously setting myself up for trouble. I have lived in the region for well over a decade, and I probably should have learned to recognize fire ants by now. It was a relatively gentle introduction; I got a single bite that quit hurting about two hours later. Next time I’ll know what to look for, just as I do with stinging nettle, one of nature's many other ways of being really confusing and probably unfair.
I’ll go backpacking again. I’ll meet more animals as I vacation in their home. I’ll see chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, foxes, lizards, snakes, mountain goats, skunks, turtles, birds, and insects, just as I have before. I’ll learn about the way they live and I’ll do my best to respect their customs. I’ll become more aware and more focused in my behaviors. When I eventually meet a bear, I’ll remember its smaller cousin the raccoon, and I’ll hope I’m as prepared as possible.
I’ll give my pack a good scrubbing first.
Out of ten days, I spent eight traveling and backpacking. Apparently this is a thing I do now. I just got back on Sunday. It is still really weird to me that I have gone from needing help to get out of bed in the morning, to hiking into mountain goat zone with a backpack. Both felt natural at the time. When did I turn into this bushwhacking, rock-clambering person?
On the first trip, I was the eldest of six in our group. This is both strange and not-strange. Almost every single one of the dozens of people we saw on the trail was under 30. Usually, though, backpackers tend to skew a bit older. On weekdays you get retirees. Most endurance sports include more older than younger people due to the cash flow issues. Mature people can afford the equipment, the gas, and the permit fees. We also tend to be better organized, mostly because we have more control over our schedules. Getting a group of half a dozen people to arrive at the same place at the same time can be pretty complicated, especially if most or all of them work unpredictable shifts.
We were fortunate enough to win the permit lottery and hike into the Enchantments, the same route that we did back in September. This proved to be an interesting experiment. We were able to add mileage and camp at a higher elevation, and then do a day hike yet further up the mountain. 5500 feet! It made me want to repeat the Portland Marathon (knowing I would be virtually guaranteed to run a PR). All told, we hiked fourteen miles round-trip, and ten of that while wearing packs. I’m not sure exactly how much my pack weighed, because I crammed more stuff into it after the “official” weigh-in, not wanting my husband to know just how much I was planning to carry. It was at least 40 pounds though.
Why would a 122-pound, small-framed person such as myself want to carry a 40-pound backpack 5000 feet up a mountain? This is the crossroads of minimalism and endurance training. On the one hand, I want to carry as little as possible just to prove to myself that I can do it. On the other hand, I want to carry as much as possible just to prove to myself that I can do it. Here lies a real conundrum. The truth is that I don’t really feel the weight, and I feel like I will wind up carrying more than that if/when I graduate to longer trips. I’d really like to hike the Triple Crown one day, and it seems like being able to carry seven days’ worth of supplies would make that more likely.
Minimalism can often involve quite a lot of stuff. For a backpacker, I’m on the middling-to-absurd end. For a suburbanite, I’m on the extreme end. What have I got in there? I don’t tolerate cold at all well, so most of the heavy gear consists of bedding and clothing. There’s the sleeping bag, air mattress, space blanket, and inflatable pillow. There are the three jackets, the base layer, the hat and gloves and buff and package of hand warmers. I put them on at night and I still sit there shivering; I go to bed at 9 PM more because I’m cold than because I’m tired. There’s the water and the first aid kit, because really. There’s the inflatable solar lantern and the folding chair for luxury. Then there’s the cookpot, the stove, the fuel, and the food. Here is where I can cut weight easily: I tend to bring boil-in-a-bag meals rather than dehydrated food. I’m perfectly capable of dehydrating my own backpacking meals, and I have done so, but it’s so much more work that it seems worth it to just haul a heavy pack. If I cut five pounds of food or gear, I’d almost certainly add back five pounds of gear I don’t usually carry, such as a machete or another base layer. If only I had a 3D printer that could make things out of squashed mosquitos.
The second trip was less physically taxing, but I’ll include it for comedic purposes. A raccoon tore my tent. I got some mosquito bites, and I finally had my beloved Therapik with me, but as soon as I pushed the button I found that the 9V battery had died. The batteries in my head lamp had also gone flat. I packed for cold weather again, only to find that it was over 80 degrees every day, and I hadn’t brought any shorts, swimsuit, or sunblock. I still have never used the sunhat I bought at Goodwill years ago for this purpose, and I have the sunburned ears to prove it. I didn’t bring quarters for the shower. We went to this park specifically in hope of seeing a condor, hiked five miles to the preferred viewing area, and saw nary a one. Just as I was taking down the tent on the way home, a fire ant crawled up my pants and bit my knee. Like it couldn’t wait ten more minutes for me to leave.
It turns out that the outdoor life has toughened me up considerably. I can now state that stinging nettle and fire ant bites rate about the same, as the pain is worse from the fire ant but it only lasts about half as long. I’m (almost) grateful that these things happened, because I was able to endure without setting off a migraine or a fibromyalgia flare-up. I used to be a frail little flower indeed. Now, I’m tougher than just about anyone. Maybe one day I’ll feel that I’ve proved my point and I can convince myself to pack a lighter bag.
This is the halfway point of the year. It’s interesting that it happened to coincide with a full moon; I like it when the milestones I choose throughout the year seem especially significant for any reason. It makes doing regular life reviews seem more like a celebration and less like boring homework.
I have a slide on the lock screen of my laptop with a list of my goals for the year on a pretty backdrop. I’ve grayed out the ones I have completed. Others are in progress, but I leave them on the list so that I will be reminded to keep at them.
How am I doing?
The first resolution, my Most Obvious Thing, is to earn more money and expand my coaching business. That’s been at a plateau, probably because I spent about half of second quarter traveling. I did, however, decide to start coaching weight loss as well as my other areas. I have a new client and we’re both really excited. Now that I’ve maintained my own weight loss for over two years, I feel like I have some credibility and that I actually know what I’m talking about. When she makes her goal I’m going to run down the street crying and laughing at the same time!
My second goal was to join Toastmasters and become a competent public speaker. This is going better than expected. I did my second speech and won the Best Speaker ribbon for that meeting! I had three shifts in my thinking that have really helped. The first was that if you’re nervous, you’re thinking about yourself, rather than your listeners or the importance of your topic. I started focusing more on how my audience would be glad to know what I was about to tell them, which they were, so much so that they lined up after my speech to ask questions. Then they asked more the following week! The second thing was that I thought over my speaking experiences from the past. I realized that I have taught classes without any nervousness whatsoever. I decided to think of myself as “teaching” instead of “speaking.” The third thing was that I learned that 90% of Americans self-identify as shy. This made me feel that shyness is like being stuck in traffic or waiting in line: something that almost everyone feels all the time. I’m speaking again this week and I feel okay about it.
My next resolution was to work on cross-training. I have been making real progress in yoga, and it feels like punishment when I’m not able to do my routine for some reason. I did a 14-mile hike to 5500 feet in elevation, and carried a 40+ pound pack for ten miles of that. I finally got the 400% badge on my Watch, and satisfied the Overlord. (Technically I did 500%, but there’s no badge for that). Now I’ve increased my daily movement goal. I haven’t joined the gym yet, mainly because I knew I would be gone for much of June, but partly because my darn toenail still hasn’t grown back enough yet. It will happen eventually. My mainstay for the past 18 months has been walking 3-6 miles a day.
I had a goal to order business cards. I did. It only took me maybe an hour to look at design templates, choose about a dozen, and then narrow it down to the one that worked the best. It’s fun to give them out. It was nowhere near the huge deal I had made it out to be, and now I look back and wish I had done it sooner.
I had a goal to do a newsletter for this blog. I did, and I put out issues for a couple of months. Response was tepid at best, and I’ve discontinued it. I had read that email newsletters are becoming passé, and I should have paid attention to that advice.
I had a goal to do a language exchange. When we were in Spain, I spoke with people in Spanish every day for two weeks. I managed a couple of tiny exchanges in German while we were there, and I said ‘hello’ to a few French people in both Spain and France. This experience has changed everything about how I think about language study! What a traveler needs to know in terms of vocabulary is wildly different from what someone would use in casual conversation with a new friend. Also, I’ve realized that I need to spend at least twice as much effort on listening comprehension as I do on speaking.
I had a goal to make a new friend. I still don’t have a “lunch buddy” kind of a friend in this city, where I have only lived a few months. But I am getting out at least once a week, and there are now about two dozen people who greet me by name. Joining clubs is a great way to meet people, after all. I also made a new camping friend on one of my hiking trips, although that group of friends lives two states away. Progress is progress!
We had a ‘couples goal’ to eat outside when it was nice enough. We have done this, and we’ve spent a lot of time sitting on the front porch. It was a limited window of opportunity, apparently. As I write, it’s 109 degrees at 6:30 PM. One more reminder to make the best of opportunities each day, because there are usually fewer than we realize…
I made a ‘stop goal’ of not freaking out when I go through TSA secondary screening. So far this year, I’ve flown more than usual but I’ve only been through secondary screening once. That was in Germany, so technically not TSA. Something about experiencing secondary search in a foreign country clicked something into place for me. I understood that I was a foreigner there, and that my “trusted traveler” status doesn’t matter in over 190 countries. I think I’m over it.
I also have a ‘stop goal’ of not beating myself up physically on furniture, door frames, etc. I’m pleased to report that I’m starting to do better on this! I’ve spent a total of three full weeks in a tent or on the trail this quarter. I’ve managed not to get a sunburn, skin my knee, or cut myself. I did get bit by a fire ant last weekend though.
Something great happened. As usually happens at some point during the year, I had a victory that I never thought to put on my list of resolutions. I haven’t taken melatonin in five days, and I’m sleeping really well! I relied on it for about five years, and went through many nights when I forgot to take it (or ran out) and couldn’t sleep for hours. I thought it would be a part of my life forever. It will take some thought while I analyze this and try to figure out what worked. It probably has something to do with better nutrition (specifically dietary magnesium as opposed to supplements), spending a lot of time in natural daylight, and wearing myself out physically to the point that I was just bone-tired by bedtime. Regardless, it is a huge deal for me to feel like I can sleep naturally.
At the halfway point of the year, I feel like the goals I set for myself have been really good choices. Releasing myself from my issues with public speaking, security screening, and beating myself up on stationary objects has been life-changing. I’m sleeping well and I really like yoga. I’m feeling more competent in languages, travel, speaking, and the business world. Most of all, it feels like the better I do in these areas, the more interesting my life will be. This is why I make resolutions and goals, after all.
Confusiasm is the state of launching into something when you have no idea what you’re doing, but you’re excited and ready to try anyway. It’s a state that can only be reached through a total commitment of purpose. There is no way to feel this emotion by thinking about it, reading about it, or watching someone else do it. It’s not knowledge and it’s not observation. It’s the difference between reading a romance novel and leaning over to kiss your crush for the first time. It’s the difference between buying a cookbook and tasting the first forkful.
I’d say it’s the difference between knowing that labor will hurt, and actually giving birth, but I’ve never been pregnant so I’ll leave that to the experts.
I suspect there’s some confusiasm involved in SCUBA diving, skydiving, or downhill skiing, but I’m too afraid to find out.
What I am doing with confusiasm is writing a novel and learning public speaking. I did it earlier in the year when we applied the wing-it method to our trip to Spain. I did it five years ago when I had the startling desire to start running and couldn’t make it around the block without seeing spots.
Most people arrive at confusiasm when they bring home an exciting new piece of electronics. Hopefully that’s not the only time we feel it!
We overthink things. When I first decided I wanted to be a life coach, I figured I should wait at least ten years, because I figured I needed to be a millionaire bodybuilder with a full fashion makeover first. Seriously not kidding. “IT WORKED FOR ME!” It turns out that all I had to do was to pass an exam (with a 58% acceptance rate, granted) and talk with one person at a time. What’s the best way to coach this person? Only one way to find out, and that’s to start by listening. The question is whether I can sustain the feeling of breathless anticipation and make it known with every interaction.
We underthink things. I didn’t go back to school until I was 24 because I assumed I couldn’t afford it and I had no idea what to do. It hadn’t happened automatically so it must not be for the likes of me. I passed the school where I spent my freshman year hundreds of times. It had a huge campus map outside. I could easily have wandered into the admissions office and asked, “How do I become a college student?” It would have saved me thousands of dollars, because the same education continued to get increasingly more expensive with every year I waited. It would have earned me tens of thousands of dollars, because I was getting precisely nowhere on my own without the degree. I let doing the daily get away with me.
I could have had a PhD by the time I finally got my bachelor’s degree. That’s okay, though, because I still don’t have one now and over 40% of people who start a doctoral program don’t finish. On the list of things I have terminally procrastinated, at least “defend my thesis” isn’t on there. Maybe I’ll go back when I’m 70 so I have something to do.
If there’s one thing that must be done in the spirit of confusiasm, it’s aging. I make a lot of decisions by imagining the worst possible outcome and steering away from that. Often I set out to do the exact opposite. Sometimes I imagine what a particular negative role model would do. “Okay, obviously don’t do that.” I know I don’t want to be the kind of elderly person who sits in a chair complaining, watching TV all day, thinking and talking about nothing but health problems, and looking back at the only life I had to live with bitterness, grudges, and regret. What’s the opposite of that? Being strong, being able to sit on the floor and get up again, taking care of my health as proactively as the sheer cutting edge of nutrition and medical science can teach, forgiving effusively, doing magnificently fascinating things, and being a world-class listener. What does that even look like? Who else is doing it? Who’s going to be my role model? I don’t know yet, but it seems like a pretty good game to try to find out. Confusiastically.
YES!!! THIS BOOK!!!
If you are frustrated with your body, if you have poor body image, if you hate exercise and hate the gym, and especially if you’re procrastinating going to the doctor because you don’t want another lecture, then this is the book for you. Michelle Segar gets it. THIS is the book everyone should be reading in phys ed and in medical school. It talks about the difference in mindset between those of us who feel locked in struggle with our own bodies, and those of us who thrive on exercise.
I’m a marathon runner who used to have fibromyalgia, thyroid disease, and migraines. I also used to be obese. If anyone understands the complicated combination of negative attitudes toward physical fitness, I am that person. Segar understands that the missing key is how we feel about the very idea of moving our bodies. When we think it’s a chore, that we “should” do it, that we’ll be lectured if we don’t, or that it feels physically awful, then there’s no way we’ll do it. That’s deeply sad if moving differently is the only way to release ourselves from chronic pain, stress, and/or depression.
Recovery and healing count toward ‘physical activity’ too. Speaking from experience, physical therapy can be an exhausting workout. For some of us, we have as far to go from minus 1000 to zero, as others do to go from wherever they are to a marathon. I can also speak from experience when I say that zero feels like a victory when you finally get there.
No Sweat starts with what to do when exercise feels like failure and humiliation. What do you do when you’ve already made so many commitments you weren’t able to keep? How do you trust yourself to make more, when you’ll probably just let yourself down again? Segar cites a study saying that those whose motivations to exercise included “weight loss” and “better health” spent the least amount of time exercising, up to 32% less time than people with other fitness goals. We’re not able to think about the long-term future in any meaningful way, and if we want to succeed, we have to frame it in a way that feels like immediate gratification. For instance, my main reason to exercise every day is that I feel like a broken box of dry noodles before my workout, and then afterward, I feel like Mary Lou Retton on a sugar high. That only became my motivation several months after I started, though. The first several weeks didn’t feel good at all! I just believed that eventually it would, and I kept going long enough to prove it.
“It’s time to stop choosing the wrong reasons for exercising,” says Segar. Emphasis hers. This is just from the first chapter of the book, and it gets better from there. She is absolutely right. For some strange reason, everyone seems totally obsessed with body image issues right now. That doesn’t click with me. Whatever I look like, deal with it; it’s none of my business what other people think of my appearance. What works for me is to tune into how it feels to live inside my body every day. That used to be a place of constant pain and confusion. Once I learned to change my body composition and my postural alignment, once I fixed my nutrition and my sleep issues, I learned to tap into the natural analgesic (pain-relieving) effects of exercise. Instead of pain, I had a glowing, energized, pain-free feeling that lasted for hours each day. It changed my life. My motivation won’t be the top one for everyone, but everyone can have something. Whether that’s time for some private headspace, the resurrection of a buried passion like dance or yoga, a way to exorcise anger like kickboxing, or something else, reading No Sweat can probably help you find it.
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.