40 isn’t what it used to be. It used to be a milestone that represented the end of youth. None of the biological factors involved in the scariness of 40 are tied to chronological age anymore. People over 40 are having babies and running marathons. Between breast implants, hair implants, and tooth bleaching, it can be hard to tell how old someone is. All that’s left for my fellow citizens of Los Angeles County is a way to get rid of liver spots, and we’re golden.
I’m freaking out over turning 40 today because it’s the turning of a decade. My odometer is rolling. I get wound up over New Year’s Eve in much the same way. Strategic review should happen on a regular basis; otherwise, all we get is entropy, happenstance, and unintentional outcomes. Very few excellent things happen by accident. They do – leave room for serendipity – but almost everything that is really awesome is the outcome of planning, focus, and concentrated effort. Most of it also takes significant time investment over the long term.
When I was 10, I thought sugar would solve all my problems. The only things I really wanted out of life were cartoons, pizza, privacy, and my own unicorn. I thought I was going to be an architect.
When I was 20, I thought romance would solve all my problems. The only things I really wanted out of life were true love, a more interesting job, and a better apartment. I thought I was going to teach ESL overseas.
When I was 30, I thought money would solve all my problems. The only things I really wanted out of life were financial independence and to go paperless. I thought I was going to be a civil servant.
Now I’m turning 40 and I know money will solve all my problems! I can have everything I ever wanted at age 10, and I basically do have everything I ever wanted at 20 and 30, except the financial independence part. I probably won’t be an architect, unless I build my own tiny house one day, but I could go and teach English or work as a civil servant next week if I like. I’ve reached a place where yearning and fantasizing about the future isn’t so much a mental escape as a possible to-do list.
One of the benefits of age is competence. As we get older and more experienced, we understand how to go about doing things. Problems that laid us flat when we were young are routine and obvious now. We know when to look for a better job, when to end relationships, when to go home and go to bed, when we’ve overdone it. We have resumes full of practical skills, from soothing a crying baby to hosting Thanksgiving to planning weddings. We have a solid sense of how long things take, how much they cost, and who is likely to show up.
The thing is that time is running out. The sands are pouring through the hourglass. At 40, we know there is a limited window of opportunity to do the things we “always wanted” that we thought we’d have a million years to do when we were young.
I always wanted to have flat abs. I’ve had flat abs since last year, and I admire them every morning.
I always wanted to have time to cook a hot breakfast every morning. Now I do.
I always wanted to have a newspaper column. I decided to write a blog instead.
I always wanted to run a marathon. I did.
I always wanted to learn a foreign language. Now I can mostly read the news in German and French.
I always wanted to be a birdwatcher. Of all things. Now I add a few birds to my life list every year.
I never particularly wanted to be a rock star or a model or a professional athlete. As it happens, I have sung in front of a crowd that held up their lighters for me and I once earned $80 as a plus-size runway model. Life is weird. Next thing I know, I’ll be getting paid to participate in a sporting event. The thing about planning is not so much to lock ourselves into a rigid sense of How Things Ought to Be, but simply to steer in a desirable direction. We want to leave room for the fascinating interludes that make for the best stories. What we don’t want to do is to let the years slip past, one day like the next, until our time is gone and it’s too late to do the things we always wanted to do.
We know neither the day nor the hour. I intend to make the most of the time I have before me anyway. I’m planning to see the Northern Lights, for starters. I want to look back on my 50th birthday and feel that the decade from 2015-2025 was at least as amazing as the one from 2005-2015.
One fine day, my husband took me out in a rowboat. It was a beautiful summer morning, and he rowed me all around the lake, into every stand of reeds my heart desired. I was on the hunt for the feral Mandarin Ducks that several birding websites claimed were there. We were relocating out of the area, and this was really our last chance to spot the birds. What I wish I’d known was that only one individual duck occasionally appeared on this lake, that we never would see him, and that we would have been better off spending more time saying goodbye to our friends.
That’s the thing about rowboats. You face backward while moving forward. That’s also the thing about life.
I’ve spent years of my life looking backward, processing events and relationships and trying to figure out how things could have gone differently. This has taught me a lot. In other ways, though, it’s like thinking of the snappy comeback the day after the conversation that needed it. That comeback isn’t going to make sense or be funny in any other context. If I was talking to a close friend, I could just drop everything and send it by text, and the laugh riot would continue. It’s when our feelings get hurt that we can’t let go, that we keep mentally trying to get the last word. Those are the past events that we dwell on, too.
I’m turning 40 tomorrow, and I’m using the time to do an extended life review and strategic planning session. It’s my time to shut the door on the past, like the time I burned the instant mashed potatoes, my divorce, some misguided wardrobe choices, and that night I lost $38 at the nickel slots. I can save a few Throwback Thursday moments (not as many as I’d like) and forgive Past Self for being so young and stubborn all the time. I wouldn’t be where I am without the choices I made, both good and ill, and I accept that. I’m pulling my rowboat up to shore and climbing out.
How do we travel forward facing into the future? Are we in a car driving up the freeway? Are we on a locomotive? A cruise liner? A sailboat? An airplane? A hot air balloon? A space shuttle? Either we choose it for ourselves, or we only figure it out in retrospect. Right now, I like the thought of a tandem bicycle, pedaling along on the scenic route, with a picnic hamper strapped on the back.
What I’m supposed to write is an exposé about how reaching major goals isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I’m supposed to feel nostalgic for Past Self. Maintenance is supposed to be this total pain in the neck that isn’t really worth it. I know it but I can’t write any of that. My experience is that life is easier in the “after” photo. The more I have succeeded in reaching goals and eliminating persistent problems, the more I have realized that the same skills can be applied in different areas of life, and that it is indeed worth every effort to do so.
This is most obvious when it comes to eliminating debt. When I graduated from college (a few months before the photo on the left was taken), I had two separate student loans, two maxed-out credit cards, an overdraft I didn’t even understand, and some small personal debts. Then I added a car loan. For the first several months, every time I would make a payment on my student loan, the balance would increase, and I would cry. There was a period of time when I had maybe $30 a month of discretionary income. That was my lever to try to get out from under the snowballing consumer debt. It felt like it would never end. I checked all my balances every day, picked up pennies off the sidewalk and deposited them in my checking account, read the entire personal finance section at the public library, and continued to do odd jobs cleaning houses and babysitting. Fortunately, I also continued to demonstrate hustle at my day job, and I got some raises and promotions. I’ve been free of consumer debt for several years now. I paid off my Perkins Loan six years early. I still owe $7000 on my main student loan, and I never stop thinking about it. Mainly, though, I enjoy swiping my debit card at the grocery store and knowing that the payment will go through. The freedom from constant financial stress is fabulous. I think my shoulders have dropped two inches. That would be a great before/after photo opportunity: ‘Before’ with the dark circles under the eyes and the forehead creases. ‘After’ with shoulders back and head held high.
Getting organized is another area where ‘after’ is so much better, I’m not even capable of going back to ‘before.’ I had chronic disorganization problems from grade school through my early 30s. I was late for everything. I lost stuff, including gloves, scarves, hats, wallets, day planners, my ID and debit cards, and even a library book once or twice. There was always a pile of unsorted, unopened mail on my desk, and probably more in my backpack. My closet was full of unfinished craft projects. I wouldn’t have considered it that way at the time, but I was unreliable. The struggle was real. I kept a fairly clean house, but the bureaucratic machinery of my life smelled like burning rubber and had springs flying out. It took a long time, and dozens of books on organization, but I finally learned how to manage the details. I sleep better. It seems counterintuitive, but I spent probably 5x as much mental strain worrying before I got organized than I do now. Does peace of mind show up in photos?
Controversially, the most dramatic change in my before/after photo would be the physical differences. I’ve lost 35 pounds from my top weight. I ran my first marathon about six weeks after I took the photo on the right. I look better as a fit person, even though I’m 10 years older. This is mostly because being heavy made me physically miserable. I had thyroid disease, chronic pain, and migraines, and my sleep disorder ran my life. My ‘after’ photo includes so many changes, from better posture to muscle, and I’ve traded from dark circles to having color in my face. Maintaining my food log every day takes about two minutes. Being overweight and ill took up about 98% of my time and attention. Maybe other people prefer being [choose favorite euphemism for excess adipose tissue], but their experience must not have included anything that was a part of my experience. Nobody goes around claiming that “Headachy girls are better than thin girls.” My before/after picture is about bummer/happy, exhausted/rested, cruddy/high energy.
If I made two lists, of Past Self’s typical daily actions and the stuff I do differently now, Past Self would freak. It would have looked terrifying and not fun. Past Self would most likely go off on a rant about what kind of crazy person would waste their life doing all that stuff. It wouldn’t have worked if I’d tried to make every single change all at once. What happened was that I would make a small change, it would work out well, and then later I would make another small change. Year after year, the effects of those small changes added up, giving me more time and energy to focus on other areas. I changed from broke, scatterbrained, and fatigued to solvent, productive, and fit. I still like to think of myself as the ‘before’ and wonder what the next ‘after’ will look like.
This week I’m writing about turning 40. There’s no way of knowing – I could die five minutes from now – but it always made sense to me to live as though I would reach an advanced age. (As I wrote those words, a bald gentleman walked in, shoulders back, combing his long white beard). I always thought the risk of spending part of today thinking about the future was a better value proposition than the risk of spending my future wishing I could rewrite the past.
How did we do?
Dear 80-Year-Old Me,
I’d give anything to know what you know. In fact, I guess I did. Now that I’m you, I’ve traded all my days and all my breaths to be where you are now. What does the future look like? Did our hair turn silver or white? Where are you? Do you sleep well? What are you reading? What model of phone do you have? Do they still call them phones? Did you ever figure out how to cook a decent mujadara?
Maybe it’s impertinent, but I really want to fire the Question Cannon at you full blast. I can feel your questions floating back to me. Naturally you want to know why I am making the choices I’m making. There are bound to be dozens of things you know I would do differently if I had the information you have. If only you could shout loud enough and I could hear you, down through the years! Half a lifetime lies between us, a long string tied between two paper cups. (Remember those?) You know us well enough to know I’m trying. I always try to think of you, and leave you the money and the muscle and the skills I think you could use the most.
Dear 80-Year-Old Me, I’m doing my best. I have a vision of you dying slowly in a recliner, letting our mind go blank in front of a TV set. That’s the scare tactic. We never wanted that. Did something happen to change your mind that I can’t foresee? I hope you’re laughing at these words in appreciation. We wanted to run a marathon before we turned 40, and we did that. We want/ed to run 50 miles for our 50th birthday, and I’m working on doing that, too. I’m trying to get you some good thick bones and some muscle while it’s still available for the getting. There are ladies your age who still have great posture and still go to the gym. Maybe you own a gym like that! Wouldn’t that be a kick?
Dear 80-Year-Old Me, have you seen the world? Did you go everywhere we planned to go? Are you fluent in various languages? Gosh, I hope so. Remember how we had this idea that learning languages would prevent cognitive decline? I certainly hope you’re having a good, hearty laugh at that, too. I’d love to hear your laugh.
Dear 80-Year-Old Me, who is our family now? Are we still married? (Ugh, maybe don’t answer that one). It’s weird for me to think that our nephews and niece might be grandparents in your time. In my time, we still have a huge family, and we don’t have much experience with loss yet. I’m trying my best to appreciate everyone who is here, and stay in touch, and love whom I can. I feel such sadness from you when I think how many funerals you’ve attended. That’s a message I can pick up loud and clear. Call more often, visit more often. I’ll try. I hope we get it right.
Dear 80-Year-Old Me, if I knew everything you were doing right now, I’d always know what to do. I’d know which opportunities were real and which were mere distractions. I could track down all the people we’re supposed to meet. I could write so many checklists. We decided a long time ago not to stand there staring into the headlights of fate, but to try to create a destiny and blaze a trail. I’ll make every mistake possible, and there’s nothing you can do from your vantage point to try to wave me away from some dead ends. I can promise you, though, that I’ll keep moving and working for us and building a life we can agree is interesting and worth living.
Dear 80-Year-Old Me, I love you so much. We’ve made a good team. It helps me every day to know you’re there waiting and watching over me and loving me from afar. In so many weird ways, it’s like you’re my grandmother, even though you’re really more of my grandchild. We’ve made each other who we are.
One last question: What file format are you reading this in?
Me/Us/You Little Whippersnapper
Technically, change is one of my super powers. Literacy is probably my favorite. As far as universal survival traits, though, the ability to adapt is highly desirable. Entropy is coming for us. We can’t make it stop, so we might as well get ready for it.
A common reaction to the concept of self-improvement is that it’s narcissistic. Another is that it’s only for losers. I guess everyone hatches from the egg with a pre-formed set of skills and characteristics, and only the lucky people get the good ones. The way I see it, there is always room for improvement somewhere. Look around any parking lot and you’ll quickly see evidence of this; many people could spare some time to learn to park between the lines. It’s like a coloring book, only much bigger, and you actually don’t want to “paint transfer” with your four-wheeled crayon. The thing is, we never realize that our little foibles impact other people just as much as theirs impact us.
Any attempt at self-improvement that deals with our annoying tendencies is a gift to humanity. One of my biggest flaws is my tendency to interrupt people. It’s a filthy habit. After years of effort, I’ve probably cut down to an amount that another person would consider a good starting point. I can’t puff up my ego about this self-improvement project, even if I ever manage to stop interrupting completely, because I never should have been doing it in the first place. Other examples of Remedial Self-Improvement are having a bad temper, being late, sticking chewed gum everywhere, and a thousand others that appear in any public discussion of pet peeves. Every human being is doing at least one annoying thing on a regular basis. If we collectively decide to spend 1% of our complaining time on correcting our own behaviors, we’ll change the world!
(The argument could be made that we’re already changing the world, since complaining about someone’s sloppy parking job is a vast improvement over our ancestors’ habit of challenging people to duels. Future post forthcoming).
Okay, I’m sure we can agree that at least some self-improvement is pragmatic, reality-based, and generally consistent with common sense. Let’s see how far we can take it from here.
Learning new skills is self-improvement. Whenever someone tells me, “Oh, I don’t cook,” I am totally baffled. Why would anyone not want to know how to cook? You can make all your favorite stuff exactly the way you like it. Naturally, the same people who “don’t cook” often tend to be the fussiest eaters, and the most critical as well. Meals cooked for them by others are never quite good enough. There is an easy solution to this. Suffer through a brief period of eating your own failures, and soon you’ll be somewhat competent, then good, then even better. That’s a metaphor. We don’t like eating our failures, as a rule, so we hold back from making any attempt at all, at anything. Having the attitude of continual self-improvement in all areas helps with this. We’re always beginners, at least at something. There’s no shame in it. Nobody was born an award-winning figure skater, because think of the skates. Yikes. Everything fabulous that we have ever enjoyed, from music to books to movies to the great view from a park, happened because someone else worked hard at developing a skill and putting it out into the world.
The most practical area of self-improvement is to get organized and build a solid foundation of effectiveness. It’s very hard work for a chronically disorganized person, such as myself, to learn to think like an organized person. But it ripples out forever. Nobody will ever know just how much you can contribute to the world – including you yourself – until you nail down how to manage your time, your stuff, your health, and your mental focus. The process of getting organized always benefits others, too.
Changing my mental outlook has been the most important for me. I’ve learned that my attitude of resistance to something is a very good sign that I need it. The more instinctual repugnance and rejection I feel, the stronger my emotional reaction, the more I have to pay attention. I have a long track record of unreasonable opinions, knee-jerk bad judgments, stubborn refusals to listen to advice, and blind foolishness. When I look back, I often want to grab my own shoulders and shake myself. Are those traits part of my personality, part of who I am? I’d like to think not, but any neutral outside observer might say yes. If they aren’t part of my personality, it should be no problem to bring awareness to them and try to change. If they are part of my personality, I then have the option of deciding that a personality is malleable, flexible, and designed for upgrades.
Life is part fate, part destiny. Fate is full of natural disasters, layoffs, politics, economics, wild animals, collisions, and the ramifications of other people’s behavior. Destiny is the part we create ourselves, and it’s built from both our actions and our inaction, both positive and negative. We can build a destiny out of addiction or denial or resistance or self-sabotage or anxiety or analysis paralysis or inertia. We can build a different sort of destiny out of focus and action and receptivity to new information. We have to change when confronted by the force of fate; stasis is not an option. Since we know we’ll have to change anyway, why not take the initiative and choose some positive changes?
Ari Meisel’s book Less Doing, More Living is my kind of thing. I could barely read it without getting so excited I had to stop and tell someone about whatever section I had just finished. It woke me up to a whole new level of productivity. When you get to a certain level of organization, where everything is automated and effortless, it raises the question of what you’re going to do with your time. What is the upper limit?
One thing about Ari Meisel is that he says he has cured himself of a supposedly incurable disease, Crohn’s disease in his case. Being so ill made him determined to do anything he could to reduce stress in his life. This reminds me of James Altucher. And of Dee Williams. It also reminds me of myself, of course! The details are different but that watershed moment is the same: the moment when we say, “There has got to be a better way to live” - and then find out what it is. It’s a hidden gift of having a health crisis. Maybe not everyone gets to be healthy anymore, but we can focus our attention on making the most of what we do still have.
So how about Less Doing? One of the core ideas of the book is that we should only be doing the things that only we can personally do. We can automate or outsource everything else. This is probably going to be very specific to any individual. For instance, I like to cook, and I shudder to think what it would cost to have someone else cook the same kind of healthy meals I can make for myself. Some of the tips are aimed at entrepreneurs, and wouldn’t work for the typical employee. The important thing, though, and what excited me so much about this book, is just how much we can outsource or automate. I learned that I can have documents scanned at a rate of 100 for $1, including books and magazines. I learned that virtual assistants are about 10% of the cost I would have guessed. I can pay $5 to have someone else make a phone call for me! Business calls are pretty much my least favorite thing in life, so this is awesome. Less Doing, More Living is a kind of index of a wide variety of services, almost none of which I knew existed.
Stop and think about what your life would be like if the majority of things that annoy you were no longer a problem. What would you do? What would change? I can speak from experience that it is phenomenal to say goodbye to a health problem; to never have to worry about losing weight again; to have a clean house every day; to never have to worry about procrastinating on cleaning out a storage unit or garage or junk drawer; to be debt-free; to live without a to-do list. What Ari Meisel is sharing is not some futurist fantasy; it’s all possible right now.
My husband and I started out as platonic friends. I thought I’d write about our experience of turning friendship into romance, and why I think it happened when it did.
When we met, we were both bitterly divorced. I was about to turn 30 and he had a 10-year-old and a shared custody agreement. Not only are neither of us terribly romantic people, but I had gone so far as to get down on my knees and pray to any entity listening that I would please never, ever, ever feel infatuated with anyone ever again. Our expectations were at zero. This is important because I believe our desire to be in love leads us to overlook all the wrong stuff. What we need is an accurate picture of the other person’s character and personality, and then the ability to accept minor flaws as endearing quirks. What we tend to have is a muddled mess of our aspirations, projections, and fantasies mixed with bits and pieces of reality.
Shortly after our casual work friendship began, I started dating someone. My work buddy/future husband had also been seeing someone, although I didn’t know about it because he never talked about her at work. This was another reason why we were able to become platonic friends. We weren’t even available. When our coworkers started gossiping about us, we thought it was funny, because there was totally nothing going on. We just liked hanging out and eating lunch together.
We bonded quickly because we have a similar sense of humor and we could quote a lot of the same movies. It also turns out that we are both great confidantes, the kind of people always giving someone else a shoulder to cry on. I helped him set communication boundaries with his ex. He gave me financial advice and helped explain why I was having so much trouble shifting gears in my car. (“It’s not binary.”) I helped him clutter-clear his garage. It wasn’t long before we knew virtually every major personal detail about each other’s lives. We learned that we could trust each other. We felt empathy for each other. We cheered each other on and gave each other advice. We cracked each other up. We left each other notes. Suddenly, we were on the phone every night. Somehow it crept from 20 minutes to 2-3 hours.
I was outraged when he told me he was having romantic feelings for me. I swore at him and raised my voice and accused him of all sorts of things. You see, I’ve had to have the “friend zone” conversation several times, and a couple of times it has ended what I thought was a perfectly good platonic friendship. I’m not a bakery and you’re not holding a ticket! This was a conversation that went on for at least a week. It seemed that no matter what happened, there we were, looking at each other and talking about it. He had become the background of my life.
He was right, of course. We’ve been best friends for 10 years. My prayer was granted, and I got the love of my life without an infatuation stage. But was it inevitable? Why did it take us roughly a year and a half to start dating? Why did we date for three years before he proposed?
I don’t think our friendship-to-marriage story was inevitable at all. For starters, if we had met at any earlier stage of our lives, it couldn’t have happened. Either I was too young or he was married with little kids. Second, I had gone on a couple of dates with an intriguing stranger I met on an airplane. If I had carried on with this person, our window of opportunity would have closed. (The guy turned out to be a dodgy character, which I found out on the third date when he shouted at me on the phone and then tried to convince me to go to a Super 8 with him on a coupon). But those are circumstantial. There are a few salient features of our friendship that I think are highly relevant to single people.
When we met, I was obese, broke, in debt, and sleeping on an air mattress in a rented room. He was in such a bad place over his recent divorce that it was basically the only thing he could talk about. None of these characteristics say “meet cute.” There aren’t a lot of rom-coms about two train wrecks who fall in love, although, heck, it is the human condition after all.
It turned out that my new work buddy/future husband had started a company tradition of holding an annual weight loss competition. He was down about 40 pounds from his top weight. They had me at “cash prize.” I wanted to eliminate my credit card debt and this looked like an enticing avenue. Between three of these contests, I won over $200 and succeeded in paying off my credit cards. So, suddenly I was free of consumer debt and a full four dress sizes smaller. Somewhere in there I got a promotion, a raise, and benefits. Then I moved from my shared house to my very own one-bedroom apartment. I wasn’t a train wreck anymore; I was starting to look like a fully functional mature adult. It probably isn’t a coincidence that the “romantic feelings” attached themselves to new apartment/size 6 me rather than air mattress/fat/broke me.
Then what changed? I had never had my very own apartment before, and I was loving it. I decorated it with new furniture and started learning to cook. I kept working at my debt-reduction plan and paid off one of my student loans six years early. I got a better job and another promotion and more raises. I rented my own tiny house and moved across town. We went on vacation to Hawaii and he proposed on the top of Diamond Head.
In a lot of ways, the progress of our relationship has been a series of “leveling up.” We’ve always liked each other and made each other laugh. We’ve always been honest and supportive to each other. We’ve always gravitated to each other and wanted to spend time together. We’ve always felt able to tell each other anything. The physical chemistry magically seemed to appear after we’d both lost 30 pounds. The emotional security grew over time, and it tracked closely with my career growth and financial security. The marriage came about when my little nest looked more attractive and homey than his. Whatever the mystical qualities are that cause the spark of love between two people, they weren’t all present for the first couple of years of our friendship. It makes me wonder whether it would have happened for us sooner if my life had been more together when we met.
I was hell-bent on improving my personal situation when we met. I would have continued to do so whether we had made friends or not, whether we had dated or not, whether we had gotten married or not. I knew after my nasty divorce that it was infinitely better to live alone than to be with someone who was anything other than a fantastic match. I paid off my debts because I took responsibility for my own financial security. I was ambitious about my career because I wanted to rise to a level that fully engaged all my abilities and attention. I got fit because I hated being chronically ill and I wanted to be strong and healthy. I learned to cook because I like to eat awesome dinners. I made myself a cozy home because I like it that way. It is the irony of independence that all the things I did for myself attracted a husband. We revel in fantasy and romance because we wish they would solve all our problems. Solving our own problems makes room for the fantasy and romance to come in.
My dog has very expressive eyebrows. Same with his ears. They perk up when I’m talking. If he suspects I’m talking about GOING to the PARK for a WALK his head starts to swivel sideways until it’s at about a 90 degree angle. “Are you a GOOD BOY?” He looks like he’s considering it, but really, he’s not sure. He’s less interested in philosophical questions than in COOKIE. Crustulum, ergo bonum. (Sorry, Spike only speaks Dog Latin)
Most of our worries exist only in the realm of fantasy. We may worry the appropriate amount, but generally about all the wrong things. These are things we can’t know and can’t do anything about, such as what other people think of us or what they are going to do. We lose power by spending all our energy thinking about things that are outside our sphere of influence.
Whether what other people are wearing can actually be defined as “pants”
Why other people are “idiots”
Why other people don’t think what I think
Why other people listen to such awful “music”
What other people think when they look at me
Explain these things to my dog. He’ll listen, at least for a while, after which he may just flop over and take a nap. I recommend taking a nap with him. Better prop a pillow or something over your face, though, in case he decides to start licking your ears, which he will.
These are things Spike can understand: The weather. (Hates rain, loves snow). Hunger and thirst. Bedtime. (Naps good, bedtime WHY NOW). Personal hygiene. (Bath time bad. Towel good. Toothbrush bad. Toothpaste good). Exercise (the more the better). Toys. (BALL!) Sharing and playtime. Jealousy and power dynamics. (Big dog, small dog?). Surgery. (Cool story, bro, now let me tell you about the time I got “tutored.”) Medication. (He has Addison’s disease, and he’s been taking pills so long that he seems to understand he needs them to feel good). Loneliness and friendship. Trust and suspicion. Personal boundaries (kinda). Dreams, good and bad. Scary loud sounds. Interesting smells. SQUIRREL.
The great thing about animals is that they accept you as you are. They may actually like you better if you’re smelly. They probably don’t care if you can’t sing (at least my parrot doesn’t) and they’re in no position to judge the aesthetic merit of your painting or pottery or poetry. They may not even care about the technical competence of your culinary skills. They don’t care if you screw up the punchline or have a bad hair day. You’re here, you have a lap; it’s all good.
Let’s have a sample discussion with Spike and Noelie.
“I need a shower.” Noelie: Can I go with you? Spike: I have a sudden urgent need to check something under the bed.
“It’s lunchtime.” Yes, lunchtime!
“I’m having a bad hair day.” Spike: You call that hair? Noelie: Sorry, what? I was kissing the mirror.
“Someone is wrong on the Internet.” ???
“Those people were mean to me.” Spike: That’s their pack, this is our pack. Noelie: You can chew on my wood block if you want.
Taxes. Politics. Worrying about becoming a bag lady. Mentally rehearsing conversations that haven’t happened and never will. Phantom reviews. Anything on the news that does not involve a natural disaster in progress at our house. “Forgetting” to eat. Staying up too late even when we’re tired. Clothing sizes. Fashion do’s and don’ts. Celebrity gossip. Catastrophizing. Impressing people. Bad memories from childhood. Explain these things to an animal. It’s comforting.
Clutter is complicated because not all of it is there for the same reasons. Some of it we keep because we don’t know what to do with it. Some of it we keep because it’s almost-but-not-quite what we really want. Some of it we keep because it ties us to the past and holds our memories. Some of it we keep because it got buried under everything else and we forgot it was there. Some of it we keep because it represents our aspirations for the future. Then there are the emotional placeholders.
Emotional placeholders are things we keep to represent dormant or dead relationships.
Photographs. Letters from people we don’t talk to or see anymore. Letters we wrote but never sent. Gifts we never gave. Entire boxes of unsent holiday cards or thank-you notes. Projects we started for someone but never finished. Possessions that belong to someone who isn’t in our life anymore. Sometimes, the people associated with these items have died, and getting rid of the item is like erasing the person. Just looking at these items or handling them brings up waves of emotions so strong that we feel we will be dragged out in an undertow of tears.
As often as not, the people associated with emotional placeholders are very much alive. We’re not always sure what happened. Old lovers. Former roommates. Best friends who somehow got away. Children who have cut us off, and maybe never even said goodbye. Estranged relatives, perhaps the entire familial branch.
We may think of these people every single day. We may have picked up the phone intending to call. We may have called or e-mailed or reached out on a regular basis for years. We may instead have failed somehow, keeping everything we wanted to say bottled up like so much souvenir sand. We tell ourselves that it’s the thought that counts. The love is there; isn’t that enough?
The truth is complicated. Unless they tell us, we can only guess what other people are thinking or why they do what they do. We may have been the cause of the problem. We may have been sitting on an apology that should have been delivered ages ago. It may have been our clutter that crowded someone out, and that’s perhaps the hardest. We can’t control other people’s thoughts or feelings or behavior. We can’t control the past. We can’t take back our words or actions, no matter how much we might wish we could.
There are two things we can do. We can recognize that no material object can ever take the place of a person. Things are not memories. Things are not feelings. We can learn to detach the emotion from the object. The other thing we can do is say what needs to be said.
I miss you.
I don’t know what to say.
I wish I had done things differently.
I just wanted you to know.
We came home from our anniversary weekend in Las Vegas, only to discover that our mailbox had been knocked over. There was mail in it, readily accessible to anyone who might walk by, since the lock was broken. There was no note and nobody out on the street. This is one of those annoyances that rates about a 3 out of 10: just interesting enough for a brief anecdote, but not worth throwing a fit. All we had to do was call the property manager and hope the mailbox could be replaced before the next mail delivery.
Maybe half an hour later, a knock sounded at the door. This turned out to be our new neighbor two doors down. He apologized for breaking the mailbox with their moving van, although he made sure to let us know his dad was the one driving. He looked tense, clearly bracing himself for a negative reaction. On the contrary, I was pleased. All I wanted to do was introduce myself and welcome him to the neighborhood. Here is my new neighbor, taking accountability in person and assuring us he will replace the mailbox. I’ve just found out that there is a finisher in the neighborhood. If a crisis ever comes down, we’re on his team. In any area prone to natural disasters (earthquakes, mudslides, wildfires, flash floods, riots), this is a big deal.
The new neighbor showed up the following day with a matching mailbox, as promised. (We priced them at about $200). He installed it himself and carried away the broken one. He asked for the keys, because his dad wanted to try to repair it. Over the next six months, the two men redid the stucco of their house, redid the landscaping, and apparently remodeled much of the interior. As far as an outsider can tell, they are indeed both finishers. The initial character assessment I formed after a five-minute first impression has held up.
Finishers are a sort of elite secret society. We recognize each other within minutes. We are willing to recruit and train anyone who wants to join, while recognizing that at least 50% of the population will never make the cut. Our slogans include: “I’m on it,” “It’s taken care of,” and “I got this.”
What are the qualifications of a finisher?
· Takes responsibility for self, dependents, possessions, etc. If we spill on you, if our dog attacks your dog, if we back into your car, if we break your chair, if our kid is rude, we do what it takes to make it right.
· Says ‘yes’ only when able to make a full commitment. Our word is our bond. If we say we’re going to be there, we’ll elbow-crawl if we have to. If something unavoidable happens to prevent it, we’ll make sure you are kept informed.
· Takes on projects only when they can realistically be carried out to completion in the near future or on a predictable timeline.
· Most finishers believe ‘on time’ is late, whether for appointments or deadlines.
· Pulls own weight and pays own way.
· Cleans up after self. Generally leaves an area or object in better shape than it started.
· Delivers what was expected, and goes above and beyond whenever possible.
· Plans ahead and shows up fully prepared.
· Takes as many steps as necessary, makes the calls, goes to the appointments, asks the questions, fills out the paperwork, relentlessly plugs away until total resolution has been attained.
· Detests the feeling of an unmet obligation.
· Feels intense satisfaction at resolving problems, repairing things, and completing projects.
What I want to tell you about finishers is that I didn’t even know they existed until I was nearly 30. I was temperamentally unreliable up to that point. I was chronically disorganized, virtually always late, destitute, couldn’t drive, and had a number of health issues that constantly left me a burden on other people. It never ceases to amaze me how many people were patiently willing to give me rides, feed me, pay me for odd jobs, or let me sleep on their couches. When I finally began to understand that everything about my lifestyle was a lifestyle, not just a very long series of unanticipated, unpreventable crises that rained on me out of a clear sky, I realized there were a lot of changes I could make. Needed to make.
The first thing I had to do was to make sure I never again became financially dependent on another person. I was going to get the best job I could, and I was going to excel at it, even if the only things I did were work, commute, and sleep. I was going to start being the person to pick up the check. I was going to learn to drive. (This took months of lessons, and failing the driving test twice, but I did it). Then I was going to be the person to offer rides and help people move. I also paid off all my consumer and personal debts.
The next thing I was going to do was to finish all the projects I had started that were piled up in my closet. This has not yet wound to a close, and it’s taken ten years. I’m still learning how far in advance I tend to commit myself to projects, books, articles, movies, etc., most of which I should realize will require more time than I have to give. In particular, I had to stop promising to make things for people, recognizing that I rarely followed through. Handmade gifts are not scrip for repaying social debts.
The toughest thing for me has been to stay in touch with people. I had a fifteen-year track record of unread email and unreturned voicemail. I’ve lost a lot of friends over the years because of this. It is really sad because I still think of these people and wish I hadn’t failed them. I didn’t understand that I was letting people down, and that they couldn’t read my mind (or heart) and figure out on their own that I cared about them. Where was the evidence?
Honestly, I’m still only an apprentice finisher. I’m lucky to know several who are great role models in this regard. It’s like getting a tour of the back rooms of a place like an air traffic control tower, where unseen hands make millions of urgently important decisions with serious consequences. These are the people who run the world. The rest of us couldn’t handle 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.
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