The “wing-it method” is what we call taking off on a trip with no plans. We did this on our trip to Spain last year. Landed in Barcelona with no transportation, no lodging, no food, no propane for our camp stove, no reservations for anything, no recommendations, not even any friends, acquaintances, or internet contacts. There was a stressful ten minutes while we figured out how to take a bus to the nearest campsite, but other than that, we were able to navigate a foreign country with our novice command of the language for two weeks. We didn’t even get deported. This ability to tolerate being in the Place of Uncertainty for even brief periods is vital to enjoying travel when things keep going wrong. Like our vacation.
It started with the first leg of our flight. We boarded the plane, only to find out that there was a mechanical failure with the de-icing equipment on the wing. We sat out there on the tarmac for an hour while it was repaired. This was actually pretty great! I like it when they discover these issues on the ground, the nice hard ground, and fix them without making us all get out. The same thing happened once when my plane ran over a screw and got a flat tire. Our only plans for the rest of the night were to get groceries for our camping trip, and we were still able to do that before the store closed.
The next issue was getting a campsite. We went to the Grand Tetons to see the eclipse in its totality. They don’t take reservations unless there’s a group of at least six people, so we were winging it. I had done the research and I figured we could always get a backcountry permit if they were out of campsites. WELL! We got up there, every single campsite for FORTY MILES was full, and ‘backcountry’ does not mean what I thought it meant. I understood it to mean that you could just find a spot and throw down your tent, which may or may not be true in other countries or in National Forests, but emphatically is not true in a National Park in the US. Especially not in grizzly bear territory. We had a literal taxi waiting for us (topic for another post) while we tried to figure out what to do. It turned out there was a miscommunication of terminology and that we were eligible for a ‘hiker/biker’ spot because we didn’t bring a car. It also turned out that campsite checkout happens at 11 AM, and a few spots freed up while we were standing there trying not to hyperventilate. We got our spot and tipped the cabbie an extra $20 for waiting.
Then we walked up to our campsite, threw our packs down, and a mosquito bit me right on the caboose before I even had time to put on bug spray.
We spent a week camping, a last night in Jackson WY, and then flew home for one night, before turning right around and going to Las Vegas for our wedding anniversary. At some point we’ll have a personal relationship with all the Lyft drivers who are willing to go to the airport.
We were physically in the jetway, lined up and ready to board, when the pilot came bustling out. He came back again about two minutes later. Then he came out again. OUR PLANE HAD BEEN STRUCK BY LIGHTNING and the flight was canceled. In 35 years as an air traveler, I have never had to do this, but we all turned our conga line around and walked back out of the gangplank. We wound up being delayed four hours. This is by no means uncommon, and it’s hardly our longest delay, but it sucks when the flight was only 45 minutes and it’s possible to drive a car to your destination faster than the next plane could arrive. I’m never sure, but: is that irony?
The hardest part for me of having a flight delay is that there are rarely food options in an airport terminal that are acceptable to me. LAX in particular is trapped in the 80s. You can get anything you want as long as it’s pizza or a burger, coffee or beer. Honestly it’s easier for me to find food in a mall food court. We were scheduled to land in Las Vegas at 5:30 PM, meaning we could have checked into our hotel and had dinner on our normal schedule. Instead we landed at 9:30 and wound up eating at 11. What would have been “dinner and a show” was swallowed up by a long evening in our home airport terminal. But hey! At least it’s Vegas, where dinner at 11 is not much of an ask.
That weekend, every single time I tried to book a show, it was already sold out. We did have some nice dinners, though.
Travel is a luxury. We have to remind ourselves of that, even when all the logistics are going wrong. Either it’s fun or it’s a story. When you’re traveling with someone you like, you have time to chill out and enjoy each other’s company. Sometimes lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of time. Sometimes, when things go wrong, you even get $200 in future flight vouchers out of it. We wing it because it keeps things interesting, and also because so much of the time, winging it is the only option.
I drag the bathroom scale into the kitchen. No way am I going to fit if I try to stand on it where it normally waits, tucked in a corner. I tap it with my boot. I’m impatient to step on and see how high the number is today. I gasp with incredulity. One hundred and eighty-one pounds! I’ve never had a weigh-in this high in my entire life! I call out to my husband; I have to tell him right away. This is what it’s like to feel proud and excited about a high weigh-in.
I may have cheated a little. It’s possible that I have chosen to weigh myself at the end of the day, after a large dinner, fully dressed, and wearing my new mountaineering bots. Oh, and maybe my fully packed expedition backpack.
Once upon a time, I was obese and chronically ill. The idea that I might one day look forward to climbing a mountainside while carrying forty or fifty pounds of equipment would have been more than a cruel joke; it would have been inconceivable.
Now I’m actually a little disappointed to weigh less than I thought I would. I want to show off my Herculean strength with impressive numbers indicating how heavy a pack I can carry. Since I’m traveling with my husband instead of my various backpacking friends, he insists on carrying the tent, the mess kit, the stove, and the first aid kit. Just because he’s twice my size he thinks he should hog all the cool stuff.
Once upon a time, I used to carry a thirty-five pound backpack everywhere I went. It was me. It was myself I had to carry. Every step I took, every stair I climbed, every minute of the day, I had to do it under the strain of this extra weight.
In fact, due to my body composition, what I had was probably at least fifty pounds of fat, some of which made way for at least fifteen pounds of muscle.
I’m strong now and I love it. I can put on my pack, pick up my husband’s with one arm, and walk across camp with ninety pounds of gear. My knees don’t even hurt.
We’re getting older now, as is everyone, and we like it when we see other backpackers a generation older than us. They’re our role models. We realize anew on every trip that if we want to continue to do this into our eighties or better, we can’t quit. We can’t ever quit.
When I’m thirty-five or forty or fifty pounds overweight these days, it’s my luggage. It’s a giant black canvas duffel bag filled with a backpack, two-man tent, sleeping bag, air mattress, pillow, space blanket, four changes of clothes, two sets of thermal underwear, three jackets, solar charger, gloves, hat, scarf, towel, pocket knife, head lamp, lantern, stove, mess kit, water filter, trekking poles, and even a folding chair. In other words, cool stuff I chose carefully, stuff I wouldn’t want to leave behind. That’s the difference. I got fat by accident and I didn’t enjoy it. My metaphorical backpack is one I felt stuck with. My actual backpack I can take off or put on whenever I want.
I just got back from my fifth trip this summer, and the fourth flight this month. Even though I have various systems in place, I still feel really keyed up every time I pack for a trip. I can choose to interpret this keyed-up feeling as excitement, or as anxiety, and either way, the result will be that I'm physically restless and looking for things to do to keep me busy. Distance running is always a great way to dump that excess adrenalin. With time constraints, another way to do it is to make packing into a game.
What's the game? PACK... THAT... BAG!
How do you score?
Bring everything you need: 100 points
Fit everything you need in carry-on baggage only: 100 points
Fit all your carry-ons under the seat in front of you: 100 points
Get to your destination at the time your travel partners wanted to get there: 100 points
Add one point for every minute you were early.
Subtract 1000 points per travel companion for being the reason you missed your flight.
Subtract 100 points for each bag you need someone else to carry.
Subtract another 100 points for each bag you need someone else to lift into the overhead bin.
Subtract 100 points per bag for exceeding the airline's weight allowance.
Subtract one point for each item you brought that you did not use on the trip.
Add one point for every item you forgot that did not significantly affect your trip.
Subtract one point for every item you purchase or add during your trip.
Subtract 10 points for each item you tried to smuggle into someone else's bag.
Subtract 10 points for any item that leaked or got damaged due to your poor packing job.
Subtract 10 points for each item that you lose or leave behind.
Let's do a run-through, using a real trip that I really went on before I learned to pack like a minimalist. I was going to New Zealand for three weeks. I would be staying with a family in their home, where I would have access to a washer and dryer. I packed 18 changes of clothes and 7 pairs of shoes.
I started with two suitcases. The handle snapped off of one, so I repacked almost all of the contents into one bag. In the airport parking lot, the handle snapped off the other bag! When I checked it, it was overweight, and it got slapped with a huge sticker. It evidently popped open at some point, because when I retrieved it from the luggage carousel, half my bra was hanging out... Score so far: -120 points for overweight bag and two damaged suitcases.
During the trip, I bought souvenirs: a gift for my mom, a gift for my roommate, two dozen postcards, and several items for myself, including books. I kept every plane ticket, brochure, receipt, plastic shopping bag, and even food packaging as memorabilia. The postcards would not count, since I didn't technically bring them home, but I'm guessing I had at least -50 points from all that.
I gained so much weight during the three weeks that I couldn't button my pants on the trip home. How many points is that??
Now, I'll compare these decidedly amateurish results with my most recent trip.
Fit everything in carry-on baggage, under the seat in front of me: 200 points
Brought everything I needed: 100 points
Got to airport when hubby wanted to be there: 100 points
Brought items I didn’t wear: -6 points
Total: 394 points
In comparison, my hubby forgot he had a wrench in his carryon bag, earning a free bonus secondary search from TSA, which is its own punishment and thus has no negative point value. He also bought six items, so we have a matching -6 points for extra stuff.
Total: 194 points
He’s doing better, though; the first time we went on vacation together, he brought an entire duffel bag full of shoes. Men and their shoes, I tell ya.
Overpacking stems from 1. Lack of systems 2. Anxiety 3. Inexperience and 4. Indecision. Systems that are well designed can defeat anxiety, inexperience, and indecision. Build the system around these pain points. If you trust your car to run when you fill the gas tank, if you trust your refrigerator to keep your food fresh, if you trust your grocery store to stock food, you can also learn to trust that you put the right things in your suitcase. Try to have a sense of humor about this.
The worst-case scenario if you under-pack is that you will arrive at a social event wearing inappropriate clothing. Either you're underdressed, overdressed, stained, torn, smelly, or mismatched in some way. Self-consciousness makes this scenario humiliating and awkward for all concerned. A sense of humor and adventure can make the identical scenario hilarious and endearing. For instance, I once arrived at a party wearing an animal nose and white gloves, like a cartoon character, only to find out after I walked in the door that everyone else had changed their minds about this theme. Cry or laugh? Be a cautionary tale or walk with your head held high like the legend that you are? All the best characters have animal noses.
What do you really need to pack in a suitcase? Clothing, toiletries, medication and/or medical devices, a snack, enough entertainment for the duration of travel, small bills and coins, and chargers for all your devices. How complicated is that? Not very.
How many days is the trip? One outfit per day, plus extra socks and underwear just in case. If you're traveling for more than four days, just go to the laundromat or use the hotel laundry facilities.
How many hours of travel will there be? Divide reading, viewing, and listening material by number of hours. Double it if you need a security blanket. Personally, I can read about 50 pages an hour, 30 for dense technical material and up to 100 for YA or pot-boiler suspense fiction. Thus, a 4-hour flight with an hour of gate time is just barely enough time for me to read through a typical 250-page book. I used to bring a book per day plus two for a buffer, and it took about 15 years to finally admit to myself that this was unnecessary.
Stop worrying so much about the STUFF you plan to bring, and start focusing more on the EXPERIENCES you are going to have. Who are you going to be with? Where are you going? What are you going to see? What will you learn? What is different (and better) than your neighborhood? What will you do? You can play with your clothes and accessories and books and suitcases and handbags at home. You can worry about whatever you want back at home. For this brief window of time, you're GOING SOMEWHERE! Make the most of it. Keep reminding yourself of why you're on this trip. Do it often enough, and you may even be able to make it ten minutes without thinking about your physical belongings. That's what I call winning the game.
“Laughing all the way to the bank” is an expression I learned from my parents. They are intensely frugal people. When I was a kid, they would say this quite a bit, but mainly in reference to other people. People who had figured out a really easy or very lucrative way to make money were laughing all the way to the bank. It was an ironic, grudgingly admiring comment. I would picture someone grinning, walking down the street in a pinstripe suit, holding a wad of hundred-dollar bills and fanning through them while chortling with glee.
Not such a bad image, is it?
(It’s even funnier if it’s a woman)
The fascinating thing about this concept of people who were laughing all the way to the bank was that it was so contrary to everything else my parents taught me about money. They taught me about the value of Hard Work. They taught me that if you can’t pay in cash, then you can’t afford it. They taught me that credit cards are extremely dangerous. Every time I got in trouble for being disobedient at school, they would tag-team the “when they say JUMP, you say HOW HIGH?” lecture. “If you don’t follow orders, you get fired, and then you don’t get a paycheck, and then you don’t eat!” My parents took money extremely seriously. I don’t recall them laughing on the way to the bank, even one time.
I’m proud of my folks, and justifiably. They’ve been married for nearly 45 years now, never divorced, never married to anyone but each other. They took turns working to put each other through school, got jobs in their chosen professions, and they have indeed worked very, very hard. Their credit scores are off the charts and they’re really good savers.
The thing is, though, that hard work is only one authentic, effective way to make money.
I won $15 in a coloring contest once. That probably sounds like a dumb example. I also won $500 worth of prizes in a costume contest. I’ve won a package of Red Vines, a case of root beer, a $50 gift certificate to a book store, and a bunch of other stuff. I’ve learned that I have a pretty strong intuition about what kinds of contests and raffles I can win, and if I’m interested in the prize, I might.
I have a jar with about $66 in it, all from coins and cash that I found on the ground. Most of it was pennies. Granted, that’s 12 years’ worth of pennies, but I did not work hard for them. Most people won’t pick up a penny, but most people would pick up sixty dollars!
This attitude that winning is easy extends to other areas. Negotiation is one. I once asked for 10% off a furniture purchase, since I was paying in cash, and they agreed to discount me $16. (It was worth more in 1996). I moved into my first apartment without having to pay a deposit. A couple of years ago, we moved out of a rental house and the property managers tried to charge me $150 in cleaning fees. Now, see here! Nobody cleans like me. I wrote them a sternly-worded letter with half a dozen photos attached, and they sent me a full refund the next day. I simply expect that it’s worth my time to ask. I’m friendly, low-maintenance, and easy to please, and I’m a generous tipper. Who wouldn’t want to incentivize my business? Everyone could use more customers like me.
I like to speculate in the stock market. Well, kinda. But I did pick something recently that increased 300% in a year. I wasn’t even expecting it to start making money until the second year! I’ve doubled my money on a few picks. I remember very clearly that fifteen years ago, I didn’t even have forty bucks in my retirement account, and the day I hit three figures I was pretty excited. Woohoo! I can retire for… one entire day! Don’t spend it all in one place, honey. It never ceases to surprise and amaze me that I can earn money just by putting it in a special account and being good at trend analysis. That history degree may pay off one of these days…
Careful readers may have noticed a pattern here. I started with dumb, silly little ways to make tiny amounts of money. Then the payoff started picking up a bit.
I used to work in social services. My entire job was processing paperwork so that people could get a subsidy on their power bill. I helped elderly widows, families with handicapped kids, even a woman on an iron lung who was about to get her power cut off right before a four-day weekend. Sometimes they sent thank-you notes or candy. Sometimes they called in tears, saying how grateful they were. I felt like a fairy with a magic wand. There was really nothing hard about that job at all. I knew that my work mattered to people. A couple of times, it’s possible my work was actually a matter of life or death. The faster I typed, the faster the checks went out. Working your values is more than fun, it’s addictive.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of laughing all the way to the bank. What if it were possible to make a living off hilarity? For instance, I start laughing if I even see or think about Steve Martin. He doesn’t even have to do anything; he can just stand there. I hope he makes tons of money and spends it on all his favorite stuff any time he wants. He deserves it. When I think of all my favorite authors and musicians and actors, I want them to do well. I want them to feel happy and proud. I want them to be in a good mood so they work on more projects that I can enjoy. (George R. R. Martin! Hi there! Would you be perhaps needing any fan letters or pizza deliveries? Anything I can do for ya?).
What if, though, what if this was also true for me?
What if I could contribute to the world in such a way that people rooted for my success? What if society generally agreed that I deserved my compensation, even at a high level?
I’m playing with this idea. What if I made things that were fun to make, and people had fun buying and interacting with them, and then I had fun spending the money? What if people paid for stuff because they wanted to endorse it and encourage more of the same? What if financial transactions really meant Yes Please?
What if I, too, got to laugh all the way to the bank?
“Yeah, but we have kids.” So many parents believe that their children limit what they can do that I’m always super-excited to be able to share examples of other parents whose kids are thriving while they do whatever it is. Tsh Oxenreider gives us an epic vision of alternative parenting in which kids can be At Home in the World.
The Oxenreiders decided to take off and travel the world for nine months, an entire school year. At the time, their kids were 9, 6, and 4. One of them is on the autism spectrum. If you can think of a more compelling case for the contention that “if they can do it, anyone can,” I’d love to hear about it! While this poetic travelogue includes plenty of gory details about the kids complaining, leaving their stuff behind on like every possible mode of transportation, and inconveniently barfing, overall it seems nearly as manageable as any local road trip. Kids adjust. That was the point of the trip: to teach the kids about the world. The earlier they could learn to travel and adapt to changing circumstances, the more interesting their lives would be.
How did they do it? They SOLD THEIR HOUSE and put their stuff in a storage locker. During this round-the-world trip, the Oxenreiders were technically homeless, which was sort of the point. They had to try to find internet in some pretty obscure places in order to run their business affairs. They home-schooled the kids, who had to try to do their homework anywhere and everywhere. They stayed on a strict budget, often staying with internet friends. They walked a lot and ate as frugally as they could manage. There is enough budget detail here to make it plausible that families of limited means could still pull off a feat like this. The technical details are present, yet not the main focus of the story.
A memorable detail for me was the story of the Westbrook Effect. A family demonstrates intense hospitality to the Oxenreiders, picking them up from the airport and rolling out the red carpet for them in every way they can. The Oxenreiders are overwhelmed, protesting that they shouldn’t go to so much trouble. They explain that they are paying forward hospitality they themselves received, and that after experiencing the Westbrook Effect, they determined to do it themselves whenever they had guests. This is an idea that deserves to be spread, and it’s a fine argument in itself for reading At Home in the World.
Oxenreider writes beautifully. Her glory is in the fine, quotidian details of what makes each city unique. There is a stillness in the flurry. Reading her accounts of the homes where her family roosts so briefly makes it feel impossible not to travel, not to throw caution to the winds and book the tickets tomorrow. At Home in the World is a meditation on how to balance a sense of home with an unquenchable wanderlust. As such, it has much to offer both homebodies and inveterate wanderers.
Our anniversary is coming up. As a matter of fact, we’re partying it up in Vegas right now! (Don’t worry; I wrote and posted this in advance. We are actually having fun). Eight years married, eleven years as a couple. For two previously divorced people, we sure do seem to like this whole marriage business. What I would share about our experience is that love does not come from fate. It’s not genetic and it’s not chemical. Romance is a behavior.
Every now and then one or another of my single girlfriends would ask me how I did it. Maybe it was my imagination, but I always sensed a tinge of disbelief in there. How could an odd duck such as yourself marry a fellow who, in certain lights, looks a bit like Cary Grant? How could a person who was such a trainwreck throughout her twenties somehow wind up comfortably ensconced in the suburbs? Fair enough. I grant that these are legitimate questions.
The first thing is that I have a high capacity for platonic friendships with men. I have two brothers and six male cousins. I have several enduring decades-long friendships with men, and I’m still on good terms with almost every man I’ve ever dated, even briefly. When I met the man who became my second husband, I had no romantic aspirations toward him. He was just a guy at my work. A friendly, funny man with a tendency to befriend the office assistants, janitors, baristas, delivery drivers, and various other people who crossed his path, myself included. To him, I was one of many cheerful people in his day who were usually good for a chat or a wisecrack. Looking back, it’s possible either of us could have wound up with one of a dozen other people in our orbit, the various loose social connections we had that could have turned into something more. Moral: be generically friendly.
The second thing is that I had this competitive attitude toward being a girlfriend, and, even more so, a wife. I guess in my mind ‘girlfriend’ is like being an undergrad and ‘wife’ is like the master’s degree. I wanted whoever I dated to pause now and then, thinking that he couldn’t believe his luck. This always had to do with things I did rather than who I was. Granted, I’m funny and smart, but I was no swimsuit model. I also couldn’t cook. I wanted to make sure I got A’s in everything else. When he opens the car door for you, lean over and unlock the door on his side. Be ready to go when he shows up. Compliment him and tell him what you like about him. Stuff like that.
This probably sounds very retrograde. Instructions from another time? Really, I figure I should do everything for the person I’m dating that I would do for a family member or close friend, plus a little extra. The small considerate things, probably still nowhere near the affection I lavish on my fluffy little parrot. The goal is to give what you wish to receive. Teach your expectations. Show through your words and actions how you prefer to be treated. Motivate your partner to go to great lengths to please you, trying to outdo all the fabulous things you do for him. (Or her, or… ).
A lot of unhappy people, many of them painfully single and alone, seem to have a lot of weird ideas about how the other party is supposed to behave in a relationship. First off, the chosen love is supposed to materialize out of thin air, conveniently showing up without disrupting your routine. (Single people have a way of only going to places where they already know everyone). Then, the new suitor is supposed to exceed you in every way: better looking, nicer, funnier, richer, better educated, and also more patient and tolerant. Better than this, this suitor is supposed to knee-walk after you, longing for your attention, trying to read your mind with the sole goal of showering you with gifts and affection of every variety. Yet it must never rub you the wrong way, seem mawkish, or make your friends nervous. This is how you feel so certain that you never meet the right guys, because it never feels magical and you never get an owl from Hogwarts telling you that this is The One. Surely there would be fireworks?
I think what people are missing is that you have to pick someone you like. Just… someone you like! Someone who makes you laugh, someone you think is interesting to talk to, someone who obviously likes to talk to you too. This is what you’re going to be doing if you decide to grow old together. Pick someone you’ll still want when he goes bald, grows hair out of his ears, and gets liver spots. Someone who will still want you when you can be described the same way. There are untold numbers of strong marriages out there that will never be made, because a couple of people who are friendly together never looked at each other in “that way.”
When my now-husband told me he was having romantic feelings toward me, I was mad. We fought about it for weeks. (That should have told us something). Why would he want to mess up a perfectly good friendship? I started to realize that I needed to give him a chance when it struck me just how distraught I was at the thought of no longer having him for a friend. I understood that I would always wonder what he was doing. He was already the first person I wanted to tell whenever anything noteworthy happened, like if I opened a new tub of margarine and it looked like there was a face on top. Who would I talk to if he wasn’t there anymore?
He told me, “I’ve already seen your nice side.”
I looked at him incredulously. “No, you haven’t!” As my platonic friend, he had no idea. I save all the extras for the man in my life.
I spend the entire year looking out for gifts that will delight him on his birthday or our anniversary or Valentine’s Day. I cook his favorite meals. I do nice things for his dog. I learn the likes and dislikes of his relatives. I make friends with his friends. I remember details that matter to him, like the names of his teammates at work or technical terminology. I scratch his back. I have a sort of mental receptor that tracks key data, like his pet peeves and favorite bands. Anything I can think of that would make his life easier or more interesting, if it’s within my abilities, I will do. It’s a challenge in the same way that my workouts are a challenge, or my financial goals are a challenge. I want him to feel well taken care of.
The result of all this is that my husband carries me around on a little satin cushion. He has gone to incredible, astonishing lengths to impress me. One night he went out on my running route and cleaned up some roadkill that had been bothering me, and it wasn’t even our street. He changed my auntie’s wiper blades, helped my mom with her resume, and built my niece a dollhouse. He trims my parrot’s nails. He makes me breakfast. When I come home, he usually meets me at the door with a green smoothie. I mean, this guy is incredible. Secret pro tip, though? He didn’t start out that way.
Romance is a behavior. It’s a commitment to make the other person happier every year that you are together. You can’t “make” someone happy if they aren’t already happy inside, but you can totally do myriad acts of inspired kindness that get their attention. This works on anyone: friends, neighbors, colleagues, strangers on the street. It works best of all if you can do it incrementally, adding little niceties and treats day after day after day. Once you start, you realize that you are also romancing yourself.
Flattering as it is to think that body image must be my main reason for working out, that isn’t even on my top ten list. However I look is nothing more than an inescapable side effect of the other things I do. The main reason I work out is that when I stop, even for a day, I feel gimpy and crooked.
Top Ten List of Reasons to Work Out:
10. Getting charged rent for apartment gym and too cheap not to use it
9. Compare myself to fit people 10-50 years older than me
8. Maintain ability to sit on the floor and get back up again
7. Can run up and down stairs during power failures
6. Opportunity to catch up on magazine reading
5. Almost all clothes sold in my size actually fit me
4. Maintain necessary fitness level to go backpacking
3. Save money by owning only one size of clothing
2. Chance to burn off occasional pancakes, cookies, etc.
1. Skip a day and get a kink in my neck.
Being fit is really convenient. It’s worth it just for the annoying problems it eliminates. I took a “rest day” on Saturday and spent the whole day feeling like someone rolled me down a flight of stairs. After my workout the next day, I felt so much better, especially in my neck and shoulder, that my “rest day” was more like a “pest day.”
I’ve had problems with my neck since I was 9 years old. I woke up one morning and couldn’t move my head, and my mom took me to the doctor. A stiff neck could have been a sign of serious problems, and I feel fortunate that I didn’t have any of them. I just slept crooked. This has been a perpetual problem in my life, exacerbated by carrying heavy school bags, commuter bags, and luggage. When I took up running, I was extremely surprised and elated to discover that the thousands of micro-movements from swinging my arms had somehow finally loosened up this stiff neck of mine. Walking helps, too, although it seems to take more miles to reach the necessary amount.
I hurt my ankle in 2014, and I had to quit running for long enough that my neck has started to seize up again. Now I’m back on the elliptical trainer. I’m getting ready to get back on the road again. It’s only been a couple of weeks, but already I’m feeling the difference between workout days and sedentary days.
Loosening tight muscles and extending range of motion are reliable ways I’ve found to make my neck feel better. Another thing that I get from working out is the analgesic, or pain-killing, effect. The first time I felt a runner’s high was the first time I had felt completely pain-free in a dozen years. A radiant, glowing sort of euphoria spread through my entire body. Nothing hurt. Nothing! Nothing hurt anywhere! If it had only happened once I would have thought it was a miracle. It turned out, though, that I could get this beautiful feeling on demand.
It hits me at about the 45-minute mark of very strenuous exercise. I don’t get it from walking. It comes from running at a particular pace, including steep hill climbs and stairs. The analgesic effect tends to last for 2-3 hours after the end of my workout.
I found that running longer distances, starting at the four- to six-mile mark, would give me three or four hours a day of being completely pain-free. It wasn’t just that, though. Swinging my arms thousands of times was loosening my tight neck and shoulders. Running for at least 45 minutes was giving me a few pain-free hours. Running was also improving my posture. The importance of this can hardly be overstated. My weak upper body had my shoulders rolled forward from years of typing and doing data entry all day. New muscle strength helped me to become more upright in my posture even when I was sitting around. The difference shows up clearly in photos.
Running changed my body in other ways, too. I had better posture and more muscle. I had these 3-4 pain-free hours. My neck and shoulders were loosening up. I started to sleep better. I got more restful sleep and I started sleeping longer without waking up. I learned also that I never had an episode of night terrors on a day that I went for a run. As long as I ran at least once every three days, I was protected.
Other things in my life changed. Being pain-free makes every single thing in life look different. I generally started having more energy and being more fun to be around. Sometimes I would run up in the hills and start bellowing random songs or making up song lyrics. Everything seemed funnier. At the worst of my chronic pain problems, my daily mood was probably about a 3 out of 10. As a runner, my daily mood was more like a 9! Everything seemed awesome. I would already be planning my next run while I was still running my current route.
Then it caught up with me. My stupid refusal to spend even five minutes a day stretching, after four years, had resulted in some tight muscles and an overuse injury. I continued to train on it, because I’m stubborn, and because if you keep your exercise-induced analgesia going long enough, you don’t feel the pain you should be feeling when you push your body too hard. It wasn’t until sharp pains started waking me up in the middle of the night that I knew I had to recuperate. The realization of how dumb and self-destructive I had been added to the overall mopey feeling of not being able to run.
Even though my only real exercise in the past two years has been walking 3-8 miles a day, and the occasional yoga session, I’ve kept many of the physical changes that I earned through those years of hard endurance workouts. My posture is still better. My pain threshold feels like a thousand times higher. I haven’t had a migraine in over three years. I’ve only had night terrors twice in that time period. I can still fall asleep a few minutes after going to bed and sleep a full night without melatonin. My body composition still includes more muscle, less fat, and a lower body weight. I still wear the same clothing size I wore when I ran my marathon. I haven’t managed to keep the looser muscles in my neck and shoulders, though. The message for me is still the same: work out or be crooked.
Happiness. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Happiness comes in many varieties, not all of which have names, and it’s a fun exercise to try to catalog the nameless flavors. The satisfaction of a stretch so deep that it stretches itself. The smugness of giving a proper scratch or belly rub to an animal that rolls around in uncontrollable bliss. The delight of running into an old friend in an unexpected location. A happy life may include moments like this, but it’s domestic contentment that is the bedrock.
Let’s distinguish a little further. A life of purpose and meaning may not feel like a “happy” one. Passion is another driving force that may make life interesting, yet not “happy” necessarily. Challenge, that’s yet another theme that may not particularly lead to happiness. Happiness isn’t everything! When we set about seeking something that we feel is missing, we have various paths before us. Happiness is one of those paths, one among several that may bring a sense of having lived a life worth living.
The first obstacle to domestic contentment is being bored at the thought of domestic contentment.
It’s not for everyone. I’m a restless person. When I’m at home, I want to travel, and when I travel, I still want to be somewhere else the next day. Still, what my husband and I have worked out as our own custom blend of domestic contentment is something portable. We have our routines even when we’re on the road. We have a gift for gratitude and satisfaction, noticing what there is to like about any situation, even though it might be annoying in one way or another. Hopefully the annoying stuff can be turned into a funny story. Then, inevitably, we miss our own big comfy bed and our pets, the only aspects of domestic contentment that we can’t fit in a suitcase.
We can deal with annoying circumstances on the road because we know we’ll be leaving them behind. At home, if there’s an annoying circumstance, we’re going to deal with it directly. Obstacles to domestic contentment are to be considered as a high priority. It’s the little things that are actually the big things, because once they’re multiplied by the hundreds and thousands of moments they occupy, they can be seen as the huge problems they really are.
Take a dripping faucet. Maybe, on a scale of one to a thousand, each drip is a one. Ah, but how many drips? If each drip is one point, and the unnecessary increase in your water bill is one point per dollar per month, and any stain or mineral deposit in the sink is several more points, it adds up. Then multiply by every single other minor annoyance.
Domestic contentment is basically just the feeling that you like being at home. When you walk in the door, you feel relieved. You open up like a flower in the rain. It’s your place, where you can do what you want and make your own rules. Home is the place where you don’t have to wear pants. Play the music that you want, eat the meals that you want when you want them, arrange your stuff in whatever way works for you, sleep peacefully as much as you need, think and plan and strategize and dream up great new things to do. Home is your secret superhero cave.
Or, at least, it could be. Probably should be.
My people don’t experience domestic contentment. When I explain that home should be a place where you sigh happily when you walk in the door, they always look surprised, like this had genuinely never occurred to them before. It’s simple, but it’s only simple if it isn’t complicated.
The simple version: I woke up when I had had enough sleep (it was 7:30). I had breakfast with my pets and read the news. I went to the gym and worked out. I showered, walked the dog, and caught the bus. On the way home, I stopped at the store and then caught the bus again. When I got home, I walked the dog again, started laundry, and vacuumed. Then my husband came home and we talked for an hour before dinner. Simple! Uncomplicated!
The complicated version: Wake up to a blaring alarm, exhausted, hit snooze as many times as you can get away with. Try to get dressed and realize that half of what you want to wear is in the laundry. Too late to eat anything for breakfast. Run out the door and get to work late because you had to stop for gas/coffee/couldn’t find a parking spot. Come home exhausted and flop on the couch. Eat whatever. Watch TV/check social media. Stay up too late even though you’re so tired, because that’s your only private time. Repeat. Add in extra complications like lost objects, constantly forgetting things, quarreling with housemates over chores and money, and a constant background of piles of unsorted papers, dirty dishes, and dirty laundry. Complicated! Frustrating! Annoying!
Domestic contentment might seem boring, but at least it isn’t the chronic disappointment and chaos of domestic DIScontent.
All it takes is one obstacle, one persistent problem, to have a perpetual state of domestic discontent. Usually, though, there are several, and most people have all of them. Why? Because tolerating one persistent problem is the same attitude that leads to tolerating any and all persistent problems. Feeling that you don’t have the power or agency to make changes. Defining yourself by your lowest points, your weakest moments, or your least inspiring character traits (which comes from thinking they are your personality rather than a pattern of behavior). Not knowing what to do or how to do it. Lacking examples of serenity or tranquility. Fixating on things outside of your sphere of influence. Any or all of these attitudes can create a lifetime of discontent built on obstacles that could feasibly have been removed.
Want some obstacles? They’re free! Help yourself to as many as you want.
Aggrieved entitlement. If there is one happiness strangler, it is this, the feeling that something should have been yours and was somehow taken from you. You have the right to something you are not getting, such as an inheritance or someone else to cook for you, wash your dishes, and scrub your toilet.
Resentment and grudges. You keep a tally of all the ways people have offended or disappointed you. You hate that you’re expected to do stuff that benefits others. (There’s probably a more resentful way to put that. Let me try again. Ahem. DO I HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING AROUND HERE??)
Failed perfectionism. If I can’t do it exactly right, I’m doing nothing. If you were such a supposed perfectionist, wouldn’t you care more about your visible results? [*wink*]
Social comparison. Actually, social comparison works great if you compare downstairs, but it’s a human failing to always compare ourselves to people who look like they have it better. Compare yourself to a medieval peasant in a hut and suddenly your life doesn’t look so bad.
Complaining. Having a legitimate complaint means one thing. It means it’s time to DO SOMETHING. Handle it. Set boundaries. Have whatever confrontations are necessary. Complaining merely dissipates the energy you need to resolve the situation, exhausting you (and your patient friend) and leaving you with the exact same problem you started out with.
Lack of systems. No strategy, no policies, no plans, no improvement.
Oh, and the practical stuff. Debt, clutter, lifestyle-related health issues. These problems feel complicated, and they are, but the solutions are simple. Earn more money, cut your expenses, open and sort all your mail immediately, get rid of every single object that gets in your way, pack your lunch, cook your own dinner, and go to bed a little earlier. See, that’s not so complicated.
Domestic contentment is its own reward. It also advertises itself. When your cooking skills are good enough, you want to eat your own cooking all the time. When you make your home cozy, you want to be there, enjoying your own personal brand of comfort. When you’re with your favorite people and animals, you want to hang out with them all the time. Whatever it takes to nourish yourself, give yourself a satisfying personal environment, and create supportive relationships, do those things, and remove anything that gets in the way.
Cinderella never really fit in. She got her prince, but he liked her best when she was either singing or silent. She didn’t catch all the references and cultural allusions at state dinners. Graceful as she was, she never really nailed the protocol. Sometimes, when they were alone, she’d get moody and start reminiscing about her past, and though he tried to be sympathetic at first, it started to wear on him. It seemed that no matter what he said, no matter how many dazzling gowns and jewels he bought her, no matter how many servants she had to wait on her hand and foot, he could never really dispel her melancholy. He caught her chatting with a scullery maid one afternoon. She didn’t really have any friends in the palace. Cinderella, lovely, lonely, and bored.
Crossing socioeconomic boundaries, in either direction, is an under-explored emotional challenge. Oh, sure, there are always plenty of stories about people who formerly had money or nice homes, only to have the rug pulled out from under them after a financial setback. What we’re missing are the stories of those of us who have risen past our original level. Nobody tells us that it can be confusing or that we may have negative feelings about it.
Survivor guilt is a real thing. It holds us back. We feel guilty if we are more financially successful than our parents, if we go farther in school, if we wind up living in a nicer home. This can come from external sources as well, if siblings or extended family start calling and dropping by with their hands outstretched.
For the record, my brothers are both extremely hardworking, and neither of them has asked for a nickel since maybe the age of eight. Our parents did a stellar job of raising frugal, industrious kids. One of my main drivers toward success is the desire to compete with my brothers, who have in fact mocked me and laughed until they fell over sideways when I was underemployed and struggling. “Do you want a ride in the WAAAAAmbulance? How about a whaaaaburger and French cries?” Everyone should be so lucky.
Seriously, familial attitudes about money go bone deep. Most of us probably aren’t even aware of the messages we carry around about how money works, how the economy supposedly works, and what exactly constitutes a work ethic. The same is true about what marriage means, how to raise kids, how to eat, how to clean house, what are acceptable house rules for Monopoly, whether a gentleman may wear a short-sleeved button-down shirt to a wedding, and a million other things.
Scarcity mindset clamps on like the claws of a crab dragging another crab back into the crab pot. Have you seen this? A dog will help another dog get through a hole in the fence, but crabs will unite to drag a brave escapee back into the bucket. If you know what I mean by this, then you know what I mean.
It’s hard to go back to the old neighborhood. Everything looks so small and shabby. Then it gets into you. It gets in like an evil fog, that feeling of how things used to be, and then you have to go home and look at your new life with old eyes, the perspective of everyone else in your old stomping grounds.
I was at the DMV one day, coincidentally the same one where I got my first provisional driver’s permit (first of three). For some reason, someone in line said something positive about Californians, and the guy behind me in line said, “Yeah, but they’re arrogant though.” This was a mind-bending moment for me. I felt recognition and total sympathy with what the guy was saying, while also instantly judging his clothes, his personal hygiene, and his teeth. Arrogance is what happens when your car runs reliably, you can afford to go to the dentist, and none of your clothes or shoes have holes in them. I mean, yes, there is arrogance in that, and even as I say it, I feel the heartlessness of it. Having everything in your life work correctly without constant obstacles could be the baseline for everyone in the world, but instead, it’s pretty much upper-middle-class. (Middle class is the same thing, only with debt and no retirement savings).
I remember. Every appliance and piece of plumbing has a chip or a dent or a malfunction, or all three. Nothing matches. Everything is broken down. If it isn’t melted, scratched, or crooked, it’s held together with duct tape or JB Weld. You just keep your head down and make do the best you can. Eat it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.
Being the crab who crawls out of the crab pot isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. (See what I did there). You feel bad for the other crabs. You’re also outside of the crab pot, alone, with no crab friends to drag you down all the time.
The thing is, whatever compassion and guilt we may feel for anyone who gets left behind, sabotaging our own success won’t help them. Succeeding is what helps them. First off, we stop being the one who needs to be bailed out all the time. It’s worth doing anything that means you aren’t someone else’s problem. We set an example. We develop connections that we can exploit for the benefit of anyone we can help, which middle-class people do as easily as breathing. They call it “networking.” We take point, going ahead down the trail and figuring out how things work in this alien land called Notbrokeistan.
Class means two things: how much money we have, and what values we carry. It’s started changing recently, but most Americans will describe themselves as middle class, whether they earn $20,000 a year or $200,000. I believe this means that most of us mean “I value having a family and a house and a Puritan work ethic.” It’s funny that as I’ve risen up the ladder, I’ve started to see home ownership as a liability and credit as a useful tool, both attitudes that completely mystify almost everyone I know. I never saw myself as middle class when I was poor, so it wasn’t all that difficult to shake off what I always saw as a distinct package of ideas. I see upper-middle-class and upper-class ideas about money as other distinct packages, and poverty ideas, too. They come in sets.
Do you know what’s true about poor people? Poor-poor and homeless-poor? They’re much friendlier than everyone else. They know each other and they stop to say hello. Homeless people keep track of each other and look out for one another. This is part of what makes it difficult to climb out of the crab pot. You “think you’re too good for us” all of a sudden while also never quite figuring out the shibboleths and unwritten rules of the next level.
It’s your duty to rise as high as you can go, and do you know why? Because otherwise you’re taking someone else’s spot. The spot you are in right now IS the highest spot that someone else can reach, at least for now. The minute you jump for the next highest branch, they put out a Help Wanted sign and your successor reaches a hand up. The minute you give notice to your landlord that you’re moving out, they put out a Vacancy sign and the next tenant puts on their happy playlist and starts packing, ready to leave their old place, for which someone else is also waiting. So get out of the way already.
I saw Jeff Goins live in an academy at World Domination Summit, and he gave out copies of Real Artists Don’t Starve to all of the attendees. The list price of the hardcover was almost as much as the ticket price for the academy, making this an act of radical generosity. Either that, or it was a savvy marketing tool, as the book includes a flyer for… wait, what?? What was I just saying? I just looked at the website for Goins’s Tribe Conference and when I saw the lineup of speakers, I sort of lost my mind. Some of my totally favorite writers and artists will be there. Ryan Holiday, Leo Babauta, Marsha Shandur, Jon Acuff, Jonathan Fields, Tsh Oxenreider, I have the worst case of FoMO ever right now. I’m cross-scheduled or I would definitely be finagling to go to this event. Anyway, I started out with a review of Real Artists Don’t Starve, and that’s no time to be distracted thinking of all the successful, prosperous artists whose work I enjoy so much.
One of the main points of this book is that we don’t make art to make money, we make money to make art. The Starving Artist rejects money with a passionate hostility. (In fact, this doesn’t apply only to artists, but to most people with a scarcity mindset). The Thriving Artist understands that money allows for the creation of larger-scale projects. Pause for a moment and think of your favorite musicians, actors, writers, cartoonists, and other artists whom you admire. If they’re financially successful, why are they still working? Obviously it’s because making their art is the most interesting thing they can possibly think of to do with their time. The money means better equipment, higher quality supplies, bigger venues, more elaborate costumes, better sound systems, and the ability to reach a larger audience. We’re fans. This is what we want from our most beloved artists, right? Then why would we deny it to ourselves? We have to accept that it’s fair to bring in money in proportion to the value that we put out in the world.
Art is love. This is why we’re transfixed by it. It’s an outpouring of talent and skill and passion that could never be duplicated by anyone else. It is well and just that the creators of masterpieces, those who have dedicated their lives to their art, should accept as much as we want to give them. For some reason, though, we hesitate to think of ourselves in this context. Oh, sure, my favorite musician should be rich so she can go on tour and come to my city. But me? Sell out? Never.
My husband is an aerospace engineer. We’ve learned from each other that engineering and writing have everything in common: the continual urge to create, the equal need to edit and edit again, the frustration of hovering right at the edge of an insight and having no idea exactly when the missing thought wave will arrive. There are two differences. One, engineers actively seek out extremely critical peer review. Two, nobody ever asks an engineer to do anything for free. We’re pretty sure it never even crosses people’s minds. “Will you design this motor drive for me? It would be good exposure!”
Why isn’t it absurd to ask artists to work for free? Why?
Real Artists Don’t Starve. This is a terrific book by a man who knows whereof he speaks. If he gets his way, we’ll all start respecting our own work, thereby bringing dignity to the profession of working artist. I can’t recommend it enough. Now I need to go back to fantasizing about being at the Tribe Conference… sigh…
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.