I have a dirty little secret. I love self-help books. Particularly motivational books. And most especially, Tony Robbins books! It had been a long 20 years since he had published a book, so when I saw Money: Master the Game, I about fell out of my chair. I knew I had to read it. Now I know that everyone should read it.
I feel a personal connection to Tony Robbins. His work changed my life. We both came from humble origins, so I trust that he worked for what he has. (Also true of Suze Orman, another hero of mine). People often say, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” To me, it is a more interesting question to say, “If you are so rich, are you smarter than me, and if not, how did you do it?” This is the premise of modeling, something extremely important that I learned from Robbins’ earlier books. Find out what a successful person does, and then copy it. Whether that’s learning to be a great bowler, public speaker, musician, or money manager, there’s always someone more experienced who is getting better results. Our job is to find those people and learn from their examples.
Part of Money: Master the Game is about the nitty-gritty, specific details of investing. Part of it is about clarifying our financial goals, how much we need and want, and how to maintain focus. Part of it is about the maddeningly corrupt aspects of the finance industry, and why wealthy people would take the time to share what they know with ordinary folks. There are a few sections that only apply to “qualified investors” who have at least $1 million to invest, or a $200,000 salary, and I know most of us will choke with laughter about that. Most of the book is sound advice for regular people.
The personal finance section of the public library was a huge help for me. I read everything I could find on the subject, for years, and some of the advice directly contradicted some of the other advice. Some of it must have stuck, though, because I broke even in 2008. (Actually I was up about a quarter of a percent). I nodded along through much of this book. The advice here is very similar to what I was fortunate enough to have put into practice. I would summarize it as, Always keep Future Self in mind, and minimize potential losses. If you only read one personal finance book in your life, this would be a great choice.
FoMO is the Fear of Missing Out. If you didn’t already know this, did you have a flash of concern that new acronyms are emerging outside of your awareness? That’s how I felt. I had this idea that cool people are talking about interesting things on some fascinating website I don’t know about, and I’m getting more uncool with every passing minute. Soon there’ll be another meme that I don’t understand, and I’ll have to Google it. The culture is leaving me behind! When I was younger, I used to worry about parties I was missing; now it’s acronyms. That’s FoMO.
FoMO can get us into a lot of trouble. It’s the root cause of sleep procrastination, as we postpone going to bed and buy more screen time with chronic exhaustion. FoMO causes us to mess around with our phones when we should be concentrating on our friends and family members who are actually in the room. That’s sad. FoMO also causes us to mess around with our phones when we should be concentrating on our jobs, or driving our vehicles, and that’s scary. Advertisers use FoMO to wear down our willpower so we’ll spend money, as though this sale is the last sale and that stuff is the last cool stuff we’ll ever see. We don’t realize that our fear of missing out on one thing actually does cause us to miss out on other things. Sleep, money, peace of mind, true emotional connections, profoundly fascinating conversations, deeper levels of mental focus, time for fitness and organization, creative inspiration… We trade it all for fleeting moments of curiosity or envy or distraction.
FoMO is thought to revolve around social engagement. That’s one piece of what I’m calling food FoMO. Research indicates that people eat more in larger groups. There are a variety of factors involved here, but clearly one of them is that celebrations involve tastier food. Those of us who love to cook also often tend to be “food pushers.” I’m totally guilty of this. I watch plates with hawk-like intensity, noting exactly which people skipped which dishes, who took seconds, what vanished the fastest, and what got scraped after dinner. Social pressure can make it virtually impossible to eat sensibly, especially for people with the Obliger tendency. FoMO comes into play most strongly with desserts. I’ve noticed that when I make multiple desserts, almost everyone takes servings of all of them. Including me. That’s why I had to stop doing it. I realized I really didn’t need to serve two cakes, a pie, two types of cookies, and two flavors of frozen dessert at a dinner for six. I was using get-togethers as an excuse to indulge and follow a different set of guidelines than I do on an ordinary day.
The other aspect of food FoMO is the near-universal belief that “I can’t deprive myself.” What, never? We’re going to feel deprived if a single piece of dessert gets past us one day? We’re going to chase after every crumb of every muffin like a pigeon in a parking lot? If we ever find ourselves in a commercial bakery, we’re going to sit at the end of the conveyor belt and let cookies fall into our mouths until our esophaguses rupture? We have to let go of this deprivation thing.
I live next to a grocery store that is open from 6 AM to midnight, seven days a week. Across the street from that store is a 24-hour convenience store. I have a fridge, freezer, pantry, and small vegetable garden. I’m surrounded by food every second of the day. I’m virtually guaranteed to be asleep between midnight and 6 AM, so there is never a time when I couldn’t just run out the door and be eating a package of Birthday Cake Oreos five minutes later. There is no missing out – not for me. It’s much more important to me to worry about the billion people who are missing out: chronically malnourished or dying of hunger. For the last couple of years, I’ve taken the $1 a day I used to spend on soda, and auto-paid to sponsor a student in Zambia. I keep her picture stored in my phone. It really helps me to keep perspective when I’m contemplating eating a stale brownie bite or some other mediocre, ubiquitous wad of empty calories.
I just got back from my third trip out of town in six weeks. First, there was my nephew’s high school graduation. Then, we went on vacation with my stepdaughter and mother-in-law for a week and a half. Two weeks ago, we took off for my birthday. Today I weigh .1 pound less than I did on June 3, the day I got to my parents’ house for the family visit. My weigh-in was precisely the same on the day we came back from Canada as it was the morning we left. This no longer freaks me out. It’s not a random coincidence. When I was obese, I didn’t keep a food log, and my eating patterns were completely stochastic. Now, it’s fairly predictable, because I eat basically the same volume of food each day no matter what’s on offer. I’ve successfully wrestled down my problem with food FoMO. At every given meal, I’m eating what is in front of me, while literally millions of other meals are being eaten by other people all around the world. (The other several billion are in different time zones). There are servings in restaurants that are probably 2-3x more delicious than what I’m having. That’s okay. It’s okay because what I’m eating is perfectly adequate, my own cooking gets better every year, and in my opinion, restaurants are getting better every year too. Future Self is going to get to eat and cook some truly terrific stuff.
My 10th grade American History professor handed me back a paper with red ink scrawled across half the first page. “Be Specific,” it read, except the B and the S were at 48-point scale and the other letters were at 12-point. “BS.” If I recall correctly, this was the first (and last) D paper of my entire academic career. It got my attention, as a good critique should, and made me focus harder, as a good writer should. I hadn’t intentionally written BS; I was just trying to complete the assignment, and I didn’t have a solid idea of what the expectations looked like at the AP level.
See how this is a metaphor for life!
I liked being an A student. I’m a front-row-center person. I always wanted extra credit and I kept my pencils sharp. The trouble is, once we get out of school, there are few areas where waiting for instructions and following them carefully will get you anywhere. Following instructions will most likely keep you out of jail, but it won’t get you a promotion, start a business, make any art of any kind whatsoever, build a romance, or make your dreams come true.
What are your dreams, anyway?
Dreams are vague. In dreams, one person can turn into someone else, and it doesn’t even seem weird. Objects can suddenly appear and disappear. We can walk from one room into another, when in reality those two rooms are 3000 miles apart. Usually, when we wake up, we can’t remember what we dreamed, and the details melt into thin air even as we try to remember them. Most nights, we won’t remember dreaming at all. Don’t let this happen to your real-life dreams!
I’m a fairly accomplished knitter. I can follow complicated patterns and I’ve made hats, scarves, socks, slippers, and complicated children’s toys. Any time I opened my knitting bag, someone would always say, “I always wanted to learn to knit.” I would always offer to teach anyone who asked. I would say, “Pick out something you want to make, and I’ll help you.” A few people went as far as learning to cast on. I think one of my students finished a scarf. In reality, people like the idea of knowing how to knit, or the picture of concentration and industry, but only in the abstract. Most people can learn from a book or a video if they really want. Once it’s time to get specific, they don’t seem to want it after all.
This is a great thing, actually. Eliminating lackluster options off our bucket lists is an essential step to being specific. For instance, there are approximately 6500 languages spoken in the world, so obviously anyone who wants to “learn a foreign language” will do best to eliminate 6499 of them and focus on starting with just one. Anyone who wants to “travel the world” is going to have to start by standing in just one square foot and traveling in one direction. Want to “start a business”? So do lots of people. Doing what? Where’s your business plan? Want to “write a book”? About what? Paper isn’t all that expensive – where’s your outline? How many drafts have you done so far?
I had the dream of running a marathon. It turns out it isn’t that big a deal. Millions of people do it every year, all over the world, in every season and every terrain. I trained for about six months and ran about an hour a day three days a week, plus four hours on Fridays, following a training schedule I got out of a book. It took me about half an hour to look up nearby marathons and choose one. Signing up took about 15 minutes. The marathon itself is basically putting one foot in front of another and following the course arrows until you get to the end. See, those are the specifics. Now if you want to run a marathon, and you aren’t currently making specific plans or training, you can focus on why, rather than how. Stretch, hydrate, get a proper shoe fitting, get a lot of sleep, and don’t over-train. See you at the finish line.
The barriers to entry for most dreams are really pretty low. I self-published a book, and I didn’t have to talk to anyone or ask for permission. I just wrote it and designed a cover and uploaded it. I operate my own website, and I put up new material at 9 AM PST every business day. Nobody came to my house and explained what I should do or what it should look like. I got specific and made those decisions myself. I do my own illustrations. I decided my art was art, whether anyone else agrees or not, and I work at it and display it and people look at it sometimes. Again, there wasn’t a committee that came by and juried it and gave me an art license. The terrain is not marked off with barbed wire. There are no guards at the border. Nobody checks your bag for illicit fruit. Just do what you want. When you’re creating your dreams, the materials are free and there are no rules. You just get specific and choose something.
Clutter gets in the way. That’s why it’s called clutter. It doesn’t matter what it is, whether it’s uncut diamonds on the stairs or a bathtub full of mink coats. If there is too much of something or if it prevents something from being done effectively, it’s clutter. One of the many problems with clutter is that it lowers our situational awareness.
When I lived in Portland, I had this great umbrella with a shoulder strap. I would ride the bus with my giant backpack and this umbrella and whatever I was juggling in my hands. One morning, I sat down, and the guy behind me said, “HEY! You nearly poked my eye out!” I hadn’t realized that I had effectively created a backward-facing spear that had just menaced everyone sitting on the aisle. I apologized and felt abjectly horrible for the next 20 minutes. What if I really had poked him in the eye?
For many years, I routinely carried about 15 pounds of stuff with me everywhere I went. I also had chiropractic issues (go figure). Now I could go on a weekend backpacking expedition with that kind of weight. I don’t even remember what-all was in my bag in those days, just that picking it up would make me go OOF! It was even worse when I traveled. I had this huge purple suitcase that was big enough for me to fit in. Once I was trying to drag it up the steps of the light-rail train, and a man stepped out to help me. He said, “That’s a big bag for such a little girl!” I was over 30 and it embarrassed me so much that I went out and bought a smaller suitcase. I never gave a thought to the way that my giant bags displaced other people’s stuff and infringed on common areas. It’s probable that I also missed occasions when my bag swung into someone or pressed against someone’s body or belongings.
I work with squalor, hoarding, and compulsive acquisition. My people are frequently gobsmacked by the sort of stuff we find in their homes. Rodent droppings. Wet, black mold covering the wall next to a child’s bed. Dead mice. Live mice. Insect infestations. Dry rot. Water leaks. Mysterious carpet stains. That’s just stuff relating to the house itself. We also tend to find collections notices, expired checks, and other urgent paperwork. The clutter disguises all these things. “I had no idea” is one of the main rallying cries. “When did this happen?” is another. “Oh, no!” is the most common.
Clutter fades into the background. The longer we live with it, the less able we are to see it. We accustom ourselves to shuffling through piles and picking our steps through our little goat paths. We forget what we have until it’s held up to view. We don’t realize what outsiders might notice right away: that it’s creating a fire hazard, that it’s a safety risk and we might fall on it, that it’s obviously affecting our breathing. I’ve known no fewer than four people who were evicted for hoarding, some more than once, and they simply can’t see that it’s a problem.
Not everyone is in such an extreme situation, although for some people, it’s progressive and will continue to get worse over time. Most of us are simply dealing with a little clutter here and there: on the kitchen counters, on the dining table, on the desk, on the coffee table, on the bathroom counter… Well, okay, on every possible flat surface. Once we look around, we start to see it for what it is. We leave stuff spread out hither and yon for Future Self to deal with later. It’s already started to impact our situational awareness.
I wake up every day to an organized home. In fact, every time I finish a major space clearing job I go home and clear something else in my own house! The benefit is that when I walk from room to room, anything out of place sends a clear signal. I know I’m not forgetting anything. My husband and I can send each other messages by leaving something on the dining table, such as a little gift, a note, or something that needs to be carried out the door. If there is a spider in the house, we can find it and take it outside. The day a pipe burst on the water heater, it got noticed right away. Emergencies can happen without turning into epic disasters. Our situational awareness is high. Clutter makes everything in life more difficult. Minimalism makes it easier.
[Note: I had to stage the above photo out of my recycle bin].
Let me start by saying that it’s impossible to not like my mother-in-law. Anyone who has ever met her would agree. She’s a cheerful, upbeat person with a ton of interests, and everywhere she goes, there are friends stopping to say hello. She runs the food bank, a clothing drive, and a fledgling soup kitchen. She’s back in spin class after her third bout with lymphoma. I can’t even say she’s my role model because she’s so far out of my league. And that’s without being able to offer you a taste of one of her homemade pies, with cherries off her own tree. In short, she’s awesome.
The “Dirty Deeds” to which I refer are a regular activity of her local chapter of the weight loss group, TOPS. (Taking Off Pounds Sensibly). She’s been in the group for over 40 years, having maintained her goal weight about as long as I’ve been alive. We were sitting together once while she folded a basket of laundry, and I saw that her leotard had a couple of small holes in it. I offered to mend it for her, and she said, “Oh no. No, I like it that way.” It turned out she’d been wearing it to weigh in every week for over 35 years, and those tiny holes were a badge of honor.
Back to the Dirty Deeds. The idea is that whoever wins that week’s weigh-in gets to pick a challenge for the other members of the group. There are various challenges that come and go. Dirty Deeds are procrastinated, aversive tasks. (I refer to them as a “secret shame.”) Everyone in the group who takes the challenge shares what the Dirty Deed was, and how they felt when it got done. It might be something like clearing out a closet, making a challenging phone call, or going to a dreaded medical appointment. The Dirty Deed is different for everyone, but everyone understands that feeling of I DON’T WANNA! They can laugh together over how these things have a way of getting to us, and what a sense of relief there is in tackling them at last. The support of the group makes it easier to face the Dirty Deed, and the deadline of the next week’s meeting helps, too.
I asked my MIL about sharing this story, and she said that was fine. I’ll take the opportunity to share more of her advice, something that was incredibly helpful to me. It was right before I took up distance running, when I was still battling my weight. My MIL had noticed that I was obsessed with my new hula hoop. She told me that she had put on some weight after having her two sons, and that when she joined TOPS, she realized that exercise was just like any other chore. You just get it done every day and move on to the next thing. It made such perfect sense to me. She had to have put in some serious thought to know what to say without making me feel defensive or criticized. It’s hard to argue with a cancer survivor who still has a high activity level and a 40-year track record of goal maintenance.
As a side note, TOPS has been around since 1948. The central idea is to learn how to eat sensibly under all conditions, whether at a party, a restaurant, or a backyard barbecue. They have a big binder of strategies, like how to make it through a buffet table and still stay on track. There are no celebrity endorsements or shakes or supplements or packaged meals. Basically, it’s closer to a book club than a weight loss “cash cow.” My MIL’s local chapter is tiny due to lack of advertising, though one would think that 40 years of success would be a compelling testimonial. She’s an Upholder, but it’s an ideal structure for Obligers. If you’re still on a weight loss journey, it’s worth looking into.
The personal is political, we’ve been told, and I felt the truth of that as I began reading The Confidence Code. All of these issues I’ve had in my life, that I thought were peculiar to me, turn out to be nearly universal among women! Things I saw as my own individual failings and weaknesses are really just manifestations of the same lack of confidence that other women routinely experience. HOLY SMOKE. This changes everything.
The authors, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, are TV news anchors. They’re drop-dead gorgeous, famous, and if I saw them walking down the street with their husbands and children, I’m sure they’d look like the sort of adorable families one sees in picture frame inserts. They’ve got it made, right? From their writing, it sounds like they still spend equally as much time fretting and lying awake in bed at night as I do. Could it be that there really is no level of achievement or perfection that allows us to finally feel “done”?
One of the most fascinating and enlightening parts of the book, for me, was the section on “Confidence Cousins.” It distinguishes between confidence, self-esteem, optimism, self-compassion, and self-efficacy. This took a lot of the mystery out of the idea. It seems that we all have varying amounts of each of these qualities. Personally, I am high in optimism and self-efficacy, pretty great at self-compassion, reasonable with self-esteem, but pretty shaky in confidence. I’ve always told myself that I’m just sensibly evaluating risk, or taking my time to do something, when really I’m avoiding situations where my confidence is low. It took until the 10,000th visit to my blog before I started to relax about trolls and hate mail – but only because there have been zero of either. I can’t help but wonder how many things I would have done differently if I’d been a man instead.
One of the threads of the book is that there are genetic and biological sources for why our temperaments are the way they are, but that our tendencies can be influenced. We can teach girls to be more confident, and we can teach ourselves to be more confident, too. We start by recognizing when we are psyching ourselves out and holding ourselves back from doing things outside our comfort level.
There are at least three journeys I could use for specific examples of what I want to talk about today. I could tell you about how I beat poverty, or how I beat chronic illness, or how I beat chronic disorganization. Now I’m free of consumer debt, free of chronic pain and fatigue, and well organized. It’s all very inspirational. (At least I think so). The truth is that the specifics don’t really matter because the work involved is the same. We crawl out of a hole only to realize that we still have to climb the hill.
In a hole. We know we’re in a hole. We know we’re in a hole because we feel constricted on every side and we can’t see the horizon. We feel that resources are scarce or non-existent. We feel alone. We are in the dark. We are uncomfortable. We cry out, hoping someone can hear us. We have no way of knowing whether there is anyone else in the same situation. How many holes might there be? We don’t know how deep the hole is. We don’t know how to get out. We usually don’t even know how we came to be in this hole in the first place. It’s all very unfair and confusing. At the same time, it’s familiar. Crawling out of the hole raises a lot of unsettling questions.
Climbing out of the hole. Can it be done? How do we go about it? We don’t have the proper tools! We don’t have any training! We don’t know anyone else who has done it! O but it’s hard. Dirty. Sweaty. Several times we try to climb out and slide back in, scraped and grubby and demoralized. There is gravel embedded in our knees and grime under our nails. Climbing out of this hole is like punching our way out of a coffin. Nothing we have ever done is as hard as this. It is beyond the pale. It cannot be borne. Can’t we just slide back down and lick our wounds for a while?
Out of the hole. We find ourselves on solid ground. We’ve bled for this moment. We’ve positively ruined our manicures. The air is fresh but the light is too bright. Where is the brass band? Where is the ticker tape parade? We look around but everyone we see appears to have spent the night in some place that was not a damp underground burrow. There is nothing here at the rim of the hole in the ground from which we have so recently emerged.
The hill. Off in the distance we see the hill. It’s as blue as an old tattoo. From our current vantage point we have no way of knowing how high it is or how many miles away it might be. We don’t have a map or navigational tools of any kind. It’s invisible at night. We can only do our reckoning in broad daylight. We keep putting one foot in front of the other, never taking our eyes off it.
Climbing the hill. As it turns out, climbing the hill isn’t so hard. In fact, it’s nothing compared to crawling out of that nasty old hole. Walking and walking has toughened us up and corrected our hunched posture. We’ve accrued the strength that is needed. We are well acquainted with terrain of every sort. We keep going. We reach the summit. We can’t believe the view. We can’t even see the hole anymore, even though we know just where to look.
One of my resolutions for the year has been to change my relationship to books. I’ve been a compulsive reader since age 7, when it occurred to me that I could read twice as much if I read a different book with each eye. It took a few hours before I decided that was too hard for little kids, and that maybe I could give it another go when I grew up. Unfortunately, I seem to have continued believing I could eventually double my reading volume at some future point. There are unread books in almost every room of my house. There are also unread books, both print and audio, on my phone and my laptop. That’s not counting my podcast queue or all the articles I’ve bookmarked in various apps. After six months of focus, I think I’ve finally started to get a handle on how to manage this problem.
The reason it’s a problem is that I feel frantic about trying to “catch up.” I’m ingesting as much media as I can fit into a day already. I have slightly less time than I did when I was single, which is a good thing, because hanging out with my husband is more fun than reading. (Anything less would have been a non-starter). I also have less time to read because I’m writing, which is another good thing. Sometimes I find myself working at bedtime, when I’ve already finished my quota for the day. Writing is more interesting than reading, but it doesn’t displace my desire to read other people’s stuff. I just want more hours in the day.
I was supposed to finish reading all the library books in the house by the end of January, and then read through everything in the house that I hadn’t read yet. I have totally failed at this. The stack of books I meant to read “one day” is still taller than me. The problem is that I keep putting “must-read” books on hold. I’m making choices based on their desirability at the time, not my ability to sustainably make use of them. This is the precise reason I used to have a weight problem. I finally learned that I could only eat a set amount of food in a week, no matter how many cakes and pies and donuts and cookies caught my attention. It turns out that there is also a predetermined quantity I can read, and it’s only about 20% of the amount I add to my list.
What I’ve realized is that there are going to be more fantastic options every year. My favorite authors will keep writing new material. I’ll keep discovering new writers that I like, and they will keep writing, too. There will still be everything on my To Be Read list, and it’ll grow exponentially. Meanwhile, there will still be hundreds of articles every day, dozens of blogs and podcasts, and just as many movies and “must watch” TV shows as there ever were. There will never be any “catching up.” There’s no reason to feel a sense of scarcity; on the contrary. Just like I have learned to trust that I can buy cookies any time I want, so I don’t have to eat every visible cookie in this moment, I can learn to trust that I will never run out of interesting things to read. I don’t need to keep my house full of hundreds of books, when I can and do buy them in 10 seconds using my fingerprint. The future is going to be much more about curating and blocking content than about finding it.
Once upon a time, I met a guy through a dating service. I liked his ad, and I wrote to him, and he wrote back, and we agreed to meet. He told me that he was in the process of moving to a new apartment in a new city. The part that arrested my attention was that he had an event scheduled for the following weekend. He had posted an ad on Craigslist announcing that he would be giving away every single object in his apartment, for free: first come, first served.
Can you imagine?
He wanted to start out in the new place with a clean slate. He figured he would move the things he absolutely needed, like his bed and his work clothes, and let everything else go. If he realized he really did need something he had given away, he would just replace it. This seemed doable because basically all the stuff that got left behind was in the $1-$10 range.
Envelopes. Old paperback books. Throw pillows. Old towels. Kitchen utensils. Magazines. End tables. Who knows what? People would come in and poke their heads through the door and ask whether it was really true, that everything they saw was really available to take away, no strings attached. Then they would tiptoe around. They would walk out the door with an assortment of random objects piled up to their chins. At the end of the weekend, the whole place was picked clean.
I heard about all this over the phone, and I was captivated. Clearly this was a man after my own heart. I have moved from one state to another with everything I owned in the back seat of a compact car. I’m obsessed with minimalism and fresh starts. How cool was this??
The aftermath of the experiment was funny. Among the “must-have” objects was a very large collection of books and an entire closet full of obsolete computer equipment. Among the Left Behind was… all the writing implements. This guy gave away ALL HIS SHARPIES. I mean, how do you organize a move without a big black marker to label the boxes?
The relationship fizzled, clearly because I was destined to meet and marry Mr. Awesome Pants instead. No Sharpies Guy was more whimsical and idealistic, whereas I am more pragmatic and analytical and hyper-organized, despite my collection of rainbow-striped socks and my habit of showering with my parrot. I am a fun person, I swear, no matter what they tell you!
The “Everything Must Go” experiment is a great mental exercise. We don’t necessarily have to carry it out, but we can play around with the idea. What would we absolutely keep? What would be more expensive to ship than to replace at the destination? What could we get rid of this weekend that we would never miss? What would definitely make our lives easier if we finally bought one? Are there dumb things we keep in place of smart things we ought to have? What do we truly need?
This weekend, we went to San Diego to celebrate my 40th birthday. It’s a short road trip for us. We were just out of town two weeks earlier, so I used the recent “lessons learned” to upgrade and streamline my travel prep.
The idea is to avoid predictable hassles. We’ve found that it doesn’t matter how awesome the destination or how perfect the weather when a crisis happens. Several minor crises can be worse than one major one. (At least a major crisis makes for a good story, but nobody wants to hear the continuing saga of petty complaints).
Here is a partial list of preventable hassles from previous trips:
Funny how I’ve never once forgotten to bring abundant reading material, but every other important daily item has been left behind at some point! Everything but ID is replaceable; it’s just a question of how much time gets wasted going to a department store or pharmacy to buy stuff you already have.
The basic elements of an automated vacation are: planning; consolidating and sharing information; supplies; transport; maintaining base of operations. We used to use a clipboard and a 4-page printed checklist. Now we have smartphones! We still use checklists, but now we have the added options of automatic reminders, GPS, and instant 10-day weather forecasts (for what they're worth).
1. Plan the trip. My husband books the transportation and lodging and calls the bank. I take care of the pet sitting, planning activities and meals, and making sure the house is ready.
2. Information management. We just started using TripAdvisor, TripIt, and TripList. We also found out we can pay the house sitter with the Square Cash app. We have all the confirmation numbers, member numbers, phone numbers, bank balances, maps, hours of operation, URLs, etc. loaded and ready to use.
3. Supplies. TripList checks the weather and our itinerary and suggests what we’ll need to bring. We both have capsule wardrobes and we can both fit everything in a single carry-on bag. We’ve developed a systematic perimeter check of the house and hotel rooms.
4. Transport. In the last year, my husband has been around the world, and we’ve been in or on cars, shuttles, buses, light rail, ferries, airplanes, ships, trains, and moving walkways. Between us we’ve been on at least 12 separate trips. It helps to be versatile in terms of bag size and shape, device chargers, outerwear, footwear, and snacks.
5. Base of operations. It is really sad and exhausting to come home to a dirty, disorganized house with a long list of urgent things that need to get done. It takes some of the shine off the trip. My entire housekeeping routine is built around having weekends free. We leave a clean house and come home to a clean house. All we have to do is to run a load of laundry on Monday, as usual, and buy groceries on Monday night, as usual, leaving more time to post photos!
It sounds simple, and it is, but it bears little resemblance to how either of us used to live. I once packed 7 pairs of shoes and I used to bring a separate piece of luggage just for books. Now I can pick up my one little bag and run up a flight of stairs. Sometimes I have to. My light rail car was once delayed due to a presidential motorcade, and by the time I got to the airport, I had under 10 minutes to board my flight! I made it to the gate on time, panting, grateful for my commitment to distance running - only to discover that my flight had been delayed by 45 minutes. Presidential motorcades - is there an app for that?
I wrote this post on Thursday, before our trip. (Usually I write 3-4 weeks in advance, and then edit and schedule 2 weeks out). Everything actually did go according to plan - at first. We had everything we needed. Every place we wanted to go actually existed at the recorded location. We were a few minutes ahead of schedule for every single event. THEN, on Day Two, the edge of a tropical storm blasted down on us for three hours, exquisitely timed for the entire duration of the Pride Parade. We were soaked to the skin, my teeth were chattering, and that was the end of the rest of that day's agenda. The good news is that the dreadful weather galvanized both the crowd and the parade participants. It was more memorable, and possibly more fun, than it would have been on an ordinary sunny day (like the last 40 years' worth of parade days). Also, I got hugged by a cop.
The moral is that planning does still work. Everything we were able to predict worked out perfectly. We did get to have fun, we did have all the stuff and information we needed, and we did come home to a clean house. Nobody could have predicted the thunder or the lightning or the heaviest rain I have personally ever seen. In truth, a few days of rain during our prolonged drought was the best possible birthday gift I could have received. Our memories of this weekend will be of how hard we laughed as we got drenched, rather than the pointless frustration we could have endured through our own poor planning.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.