Recently I wrote about viewing my body as a gift to my mate. That is only one of many possible metaphorical constructs; it’s meaningful to me, but perhaps not quite at the same level as something a bit more practical. My body is a vehicle. It is the way my consciousness gets from place to place. Everything about the way I experience the world happens through my body. I can choose whether to put my focus on driving a high-end luxury vehicle, a commuter car, or an old beater.
I didn’t learn to drive until I was 29. My first driving lesson put me off the idea. Other teenagers seemed to see driving as this form of freedom. They couldn’t wait to learn to drive so they could go anywhere they wanted. Not me. I’ll take the bus, thanks. When I finally submitted to peer pressure and took driving lessons, I failed my driving test twice. (Once for running a red light and once for driving on the wrong side of the road). I did finally pass, but after a couple of years I sold my car and went back to my bicycle. Driving sucks! It’s partly because I feel this way that I stay fairly fit, because I’ll walk 3-5 miles without thinking twice about it. My body is a vehicle in the most literal sense.
People seem to identify with their cars. If we get into a fender bender, we say, “He hit me!” rather than “His car hit my car!” A person who drives a truck or motorcycle may have very strong feelings about how that compares to driving a sedan. A lot of people have a dream car, in the same way that they might have a dream house or dream wedding. Notice how the car gets decorated after a wedding, with ‘JUST MARRIED’ on the windows, as though the car had gotten married too. We put stickers on the rear windshield, showing how many kids or pets are in the family. Some use bumper stickers to express their politics or personal philosophy. A car is often an extension of the home; we eat meals in it, do homework in it, take naps in it, fight in it, dance in it, put on makeup in it, etc. We may be more aware of the metrics of our car (mileage, age, price, gas in tank) than we are alert to the metrics of our actual bodies (blood pressure, fasting glucose, percent body fat, etc). We may feel more immediate concern about damage to our cars (door dings, cracked windshields, torn upholstery) than we do about that other kind of body damage (diabetes, heart disease, etc).
This weekend, I went backpacking. It made me reminisce about my first trip, when I was bone-tired after only two miles, and convinced at three that we must have passed our camp, which waited at the six-mile mark. The next day, we drove home, and by the time we pulled up to our driveway, I could barely walk. I mean, barely. I was shuffling a couple inches at a time because my legs were all locked up. That twelve-mile hike hit me almost as hard as my marathon a couple of years later. I’m older now, and I hadn’t really worked out all year, but a longer hike with significantly more elevation gain seemed fairly easy. My base fitness level is higher. I have more upper body and core strength, my posture is better, my legs are stronger, I’m leaner, I weigh less, and I have better cardio endurance. That means I’ve grown more blood vessels and expanded my lung capacity, among other things. I traded in my old jalopy for a four-wheel-drive sport model. It likes to go off-road and get muddy.
Backpacking has a lot in common with foot races. The longer the distance, the older the age range is skewed. In a 5k or on a one-mile loop, you’ll see a lot of families with strollers. As the distance and technical difficulty of the trail increase, the heads get grayer and the kids get left at home. This weekend, I did not see a single child, and perhaps no one younger than college-aged. We did see plenty of retirees, though. In my experience, I can often pass people half my age, while being passed by people twice my age! Two factors are leisure time and spare income. If you take a gander at the outrageous calves of these hiking seniors, though, it’s obvious that decades of experience give them the advantage. They are lean, mean, hiking machines. I can choose to be a little depressed that a 60-year-old is passing my 40-year-old self on a steep hill, or to be cheered that I’ll be fitter in 20 years than I am today. It’s a bit like parking next to an older person with a fancy luxury car; we assume they saved for it and they’re probably earning more at that stage of their career. Persistence pays off.
My fitness journey has taught me that the state of my physical vehicle has much to do with my mindset and my emotions. I have a comfier ride at 40 than I did at 20. Life is easier as a fit person. My body can also carry me to much more interesting places. The ability to climb to a lake at 5500 feet that can’t be accessed by automobile is a nice feature. I have some mileage on me: about 3500 miles by bicycle, a few thousand running, about 100 hiking, and who knows how many miles walking. Hopefully I’ll put on many more miles over the next 30-40 years. Leaving my body to sit on the couch is exactly like parking a classic car in a garage and padlocking the doors. This vehicle demands to be taken out and driven through the countryside.
I went backpacking this weekend, for the first time in two years, and it gave me ample opportunity to think about minimalism, fitness, frugality, and other such preoccupations. How do we spend our time? Do we engage in our favorite activities as often as we do other, less interesting things? How often do we see our favorite people? What stops us? What proportion of our possessions relate to our passions?
Seeing an old friend who lives far away is one of life’s greatest treasures. Almost everyone I love lives at least a few hundred miles away, many of them at least a thousand. Anyone who is reading this who has friends in the same city, please pause for a moment and feel grateful. I am so jelly you can put me on toast and then drop me on the floor, and my dog will think it is his birthday. We need to focus more on seeing each other face to face and being together without electronic intervention. We forget what it’s like to be part of a group of humans who are making eye contact, speaking to one another, and sharing an experience, live, in real time.
They say we get more value out of experiences than things. I suspect that a fairly large segment of the population would not agree, because many of us spend more time interacting with our stuff than we do going out and acquiring worthwhile experiences. Almost everyone has an interest in something such as travel, painting, building a treehouse, or playing a musical instrument. Sadly, many of us just quit these activities at some point, if we ever attempt them at all. Decades will pass without a single dance step or sketch or song. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of internal meter that chimes to remind us: “It has now been two years since you last engaged in one of your top three favorite things.” Where does the time go?
The nice thing about the passing of time is that sometimes Present Self is doing much better than Past Self was. I put on my pack and realized that I had to cinch the waist belt tighter. That surprised me. Then I remembered that the last time I went hiking, I was at least 20 pounds heavier. I also hadn’t run my marathon yet. I wore the souvenir shirt from my marathon on the hike, and got to meet two other women who ran the same race! I have only recently started working out again, so it was delightful to discover that my ankle is finally fully healed. Even after spending nearly a year sitting around feeling sorry for myself, I still had a high enough fitness level to hike 14 miles and handle a 4000’ elevation gain. There truly are no physical objects as valuable as that sense of pride and accomplishment. There are no material items that can compare in any way to the beauty and richness of the natural world in its wild state.
As for stuff, well, there is a base level of stuff required for survival. Add a layer on top of that for comfort, and another layer for luxury. Backpacking can be quite instructive as to what gear falls into which category. Spend a night outdoors in below-freezing temperatures, and remember how utterly amazing your mattress and pillow and sheets and blankets are. Spend a weekend wearing only the clothing options you can carry on your back, and develop an entirely new perspective on the extensive wardrobe in your closet. Tear a hole in your shoe and understand the nuanced difference between a tightwad and a skinflint. (A tightwad gets the full lifetime out of a pair of shoes; a skinflint wears them an additional year after that). Lose your lip balm and realize it may be the single most important possession you have ever had.
I gained some XP just from observing the other adventurers in my party. I take a lot of pride in my pack, and my ability to carry my own tent, stove, pots, water pump, first aid kit, etc. I had this idea that I was doing fairly well, considering my relatively small size and proportionally small backpack. My friends’ packs were noticeably smaller than mine, and I wondered, were they forgetting anything? Then we set up camp. Out came: a chair, a shovel, a bear canister, a lantern, a stuffed teddy bear, a foot pump, a camera tripod… What was next, I wondered, a kayak? WHERE ON EARTH WERE THEY PUTTING EVERYTHING? It was like Mary Poppins and her carpet bag. It turns out that technology has come a long way when it comes to lightweight gear, performance fabrics, compression sacks, and other such marvels. What I have is the camping equivalent of one of those foot-long cellular phones with an antenna. I have been driving a metaphorical Yugo. After replacing my blown-out trail shoes, my next task is to reallocate part of my budget from my out-of-control cookbook habit to something that is more valuable to me, namely, my physical ability to haul camping gear up a hill.
Minimalism is all about making sure our attention matches our intention. We should be spending the majority of our time with the people we care about the most, doing the things that are most important to us. Our possessions and personal environment should support that focus. We need space for our friends, just like we need space for privacy and projects, yet our stuff can often spread until stuff is all there is. Backpacking is my personal way of reminding myself what my real priorities are. I come home to my husband, my critters, and my big fluffy pillow, and appreciate our home and our life together all the more.
My parrot is more of a ‘sound effects’ bird than a talker. I often think, though, that if she ever added a phrase to her repertoire (other than “Hi Noelie”), it would either be “I’ve tried everything,” “It’s the texture,” or “You don’t know what it’s like.” (How do you know I don’t know what it’s like?) There is a glaring loophole in the idea that one has “tried everything.” The statement is like a bumper sticker for a certain mindset.
The loophole behind “I’ve tried everything” is that whatever I was doing before is the behavior package that created the problem. That means it’s defunct. Whatever I do wind up doing, I know going in that I’m going to have to say goodbye to my current comfort zone. If I’m dating someone who refuses to stop cheating on me, it doesn’t matter what I try, I just need to kick his happy little butt to the curb. If I’m trying to quit smoking, the base issue is that I started in the first place. If I’m struggling to lose weight, my default settings are where the extra weight came from. “I’ve tried everything” implies that I’m behaving in precisely the same way as everyone else, and getting different results, because I am a special snowflake.
(I used to work with a heavy smoker who had cancer and a stroke, and would pontificate about how these conditions were 100% genetic. Then he died of a heart attack. The gods, they are so cruel).
A Google search on “I’ve tried everything” turns up:
Let’s do the sleep one. Having dealt with pavor nocturnus for years, and beat it, I have a certain amount of credibility. Sleep issues are complicated. Changing one input is never enough. I’ve become a “morning person” who wakes up at 7:30 AM on weekends, I sleep 8 hours a night, and I haven’t had night terrors in a year. It feels better than you would even imagine. However. It took years. It didn’t all happen at once. Now that I sleep so beautifully, the greatest luxury in life (followed only by having sound digestion), I can easily recognize a very long list of inputs that have the potential to disrupt my sleep. (Alcohol, caffeine, eating too much, eating too late at night, paprika, red pepper flakes, curry, drinking any liquid after 8 PM, napping, looking at my phone screen late at night…) In the past, I would attribute my insomnia to bright light coming in the window, or loud noises, or genetics. Now, I can fall asleep even when there are bright lights or loud noises. My sleep habits were so stochastic that it was really hard for me to suss out any patterns. It turned out that they started to resolve themselves as a bonus effect of making other changes. My insomnia and parasomnias (bruxism, restless leg syndrome, confusional arousal, etc) were probably the result of nutritional (magnesium) deficiency, compounded by chronic sleep deprivation. I married a man who is a comically sound sleeper, an early bird, and a lifelong athlete. His sleep habits worked for him, and I got them by osmosis.
Me: Belief in genetic legacy of insomnia. Reading in bed. “Catching up” on sleep by sleeping late on weekends and napping whenever I could. Sugary snacks at bedtime (identified to be the prime trigger for my night terrors). Sedentary habits. Coping with exhaustion by drinking caffeinated soda or green tea. Chronically dehydrated and didn’t know it.
My husband: Upholder from family with early bedtime (9 PM; I am not kidding). Athlete. Wakes up at same time every day and bounces out of bed. Goes to bed, turns out the light, and falls asleep. Has pillow-arrangement system to prevent snoring, which I agree seems to work. It transpires that he taught himself, around the age of 6, some kind of Jedi mind trick to make himself fall asleep and program his dreams.
I had “tried everything” to fix my sleep problem (except going to a sleep lab – herp de derp!). In college, I went to the health center with a tote bag of sleep interventions and dumped them all out on the exam table. Earplugs, an eye mask, a white noise generator, various herbal supplements, chamomile tea, lavender-scented everything, melatonin, subliminal CDs, bath salts (the bath kind)… I was even taking a yoga class. The doctor said, “Wow, you must be really frustrated!” She referred me to the school psychiatrist, to make sure I didn’t have a brain tumor or something. He prescribed both Sonata and Ambien, neither of which worked for me. Fixing my nutrition, exercising, drinking enough water, quitting soda, changing my schedule, and learning to trust in my natural ability to sleep were what did work.
(Note: I do use melatonin regularly now. I take 5 mg every night. It took several months before it started working, and I have found significant variation in quality between brands. My mistake when I first tried it was in turning to it on isolated nights, after tossing and turning for hours. I now take it at 8:30 PM, after experimentation to figure out when it would kick in. Too early and it doesn’t work. The obvious skeptical response would be, What if melatonin is the relevant input and the rest doesn’t matter? I would respond, Try it for three months. If it works, great! If it doesn’t work, add in the other inputs, all of which have additional benefits to offer).
“I’ve tried everything” – except living an overall healthier lifestyle, modeling the behaviors of a successful sleeper, or consulting sleep experts.
“I’ve tried everything” – except being consistent and keeping records over a significant period of time.
“I’ve tried everything and still can’t poop.” Have you tried keeping a meticulous food diary for several months and tracking your water, fiber, and micronutrient intake? Do you even know the RDA for dietary fiber for your age and gender? Do you eat vegetables? Or are you looking at this as an isolated incident?
“I’ve tried everything and can’t quit smoking.” Did you go to a doctor and ask to be put on nicotine replacement therapy? Are you hanging around with other smokers every day? Are you still shopping at stores that sell cigarettes?
“I’ve tried everything and can’t lose weight.” I’ve been told by multiple people, “It is physically impossible for me to lose weight.” Oh? Did you get that in writing from a medical professional? Did you ask for a second opinion? I had thyroid disease and fibromyalgia and I lost weight. If I had it to do over again, I would ask to be referred to a nutritionist and put on a medically supervised diet. I don’t know anyone who has done this. I hesitate to mention this, but I follow a plant-based diet, and when people say “I’ve tried everything,” they generally have not tried that. Most have not tried keeping a food log, either. I resisted tracking what I ate for years, because it was the worst, most annoying thing I could imagine. As it turned out, the food log quickly revealed all my ineffective eating patterns, of which there were several. It’s hard to argue with greater self-awareness, metrics, and the scientific method.
Name a problem, and there will be a large segment of the population that does not experience that problem. Whatever those people are doing, it works for them. The secret is to figure out the parameters of that range of effective behaviors, and then imitate it completely. If you made a Venn diagram of my sleep habits and my husband’s, the only overlap would be that we both slept in a bed. The more my circle started overlapping his, the better we both slept, since he no longer has to chase me through the house after I wake him up sleep-screaming. People with retirement savings have a predictable set of behaviors; people with well-trained dogs have a predicable set of behaviors; people who are punctual have a predictable set of behaviors. People who are lean and fit have a predictable set of behaviors. People with clean, organized homes… You get the idea. “I’ve tried everything” except make a radical and systemic change to a completely different paradigm. “I’ve tried everything” except whatever it is that actually works.
The target audience for this book is young people who are trying to choose a career. I read it as a 40-year-old, and I definitely think anyone would benefit from exploring it. In some ways, young people are under less pressure, because they are universally expected to be inexperienced, broke, and undecided. As the years go by, we are supposed to present this bulwark of competence and have everything all figured out. Underneath that veneer are the not-up-to-code wiring of Impostor Syndrome, fear of imminent mortality, and overextended financial commitments. We’ve tried various things, none of which were as fulfilling or interesting as we had hoped, and we’re pretty much convinced that we just have to deal with boredom and frustration for a living. That’s where Roadmap comes in.
The book is based on a public television series called Roadtrip Nation. The developers were a group of recent college grads who didn’t know what to do with their lives. They set out in an RV to interview various people who had created interesting jobs for themselves. These interviews in themselves were enlightening, because it had never really occurred to me that any of these roles existed.
Roadmap is a workbook. It has all sorts of exercises to help readers figure out their interests and abilities. It’s a tool for inspiring divergent thinking, which does not come naturally to everyone. What naysayers always do, (and it’s every family’s job to naysay young people in this manner), is to quickly stamp out any indication that a young person is engaging in possibility thinking. The Only Way You Can Ever Be Safe Is To Always Do Exactly The Same As Everyone Else Has Always Done. If you set out to do something different, YOU WILL BE PROMPTLY DEVOURED BY WILD BEASTS. It is known. The tragic thing is that there is no money to be made in any job where the role is to be obedient and follow instructions. Those responsibilities mean the role can be filled by anyone who will show up. That includes robots, and if they haven’t shown up yet, they’re on their way.
The real money (power, security, influence, passion) comes from offering something unique. That makes you irreplaceable. The FAT WADS OF CASH come from inventing things that never existed, such as the Internet, the smartphone, or Angry Birds. I heard a comment the other day about how silly it would be to get a degree in poetry. I said, “Oh, poetry, like Eminem and Ice T. A kid should be so lucky as to write poetry for a living!” Naysayers always have a lot of contempt for what in reality can be extremely lucrative. Underwater basket weaving? I could sell that show in Vegas.
The trick is in trying to create something from nothing. When I graduated from high school, there was no World Wide Web. There was no Google, no Wikipedia, no social media, no texting, no apps, no YouTube, no Amazon, no Netflix, no Redbox, no iRobot, no drones, no GoPro, no Kickstarter or GoFundMe or Etsy or eBay or PayPal. Entire musical genres exist now that didn’t then. There was no Zumba and no CrossFit. There was no Segway or Wii and there were no wheelies or light-up shoes. Every single one of these things (except, debatably, Wikipedia) has created tons of jobs. They also appear to be thriving. It takes a vast amount of confidence and courage to set out and create in the face of naysaying; garden-variety lack of confidence is plenty for most people. A book like Roadmap could be the catalyst for a lot of people who only need to see a little proof that something new is always possible.
The ritual began under a full moon. We dressed in our finest evening clothes. I wore a white brocade evening gown with rhinestone straps, silver strappy heels, and vintage earrings. He wore a suit and tie. We walked out onto the back lawn, feeling the tingle of anticipation. The glow of city lights shone far in the distance, nothing but evergreen treetops filling the valley in between. We took deep breaths and began to shout. “COME ON, MONEY!” We jumped up and down. We waved our arms, as if beckoning a child to jump into a swimming pool. “MONEY! HERE I AM! I’M READY!” When we felt we had made our point, we went back inside and drank some champagne.
There were two realities that night. One was the surface reality, in which two elegantly dressed people enjoyed a million-dollar view from a 3800-square-foot house while drinking glasses of bubbly. The other was the secret reality, in which both parties were drowning in debt and no income was coming in. The evening gown and the earrings came from Goodwill, and the “Champagne” was really sparkling wine from Costco. A decade later, one party is doing quite well and the other, probably not quite so well. This is a story about scarcity and abundance, fantasy and reality.
Mine is a Cinderella story. I was a poor kid. I didn’t get to college until my late 20s, and I cleaned a lot of houses to work my way through. When I met my current husband, I was wearing thrift store clothes and sleeping on a patched air mattress in a rented room. He fell for me the day I threw a shoe at him, hitting him in the sternum quite soundly. He carried me away to live comfortably in the suburbs. I’ve gone to bed hungry plenty of times, cried myself to sleep over bills I couldn’t pay, and walked several miles at a stretch when I couldn’t swing a $1.50 bus ticket. I’ve also slept in five-star hotels, dined in Zagat-rated restaurants, and flown business class. (Not first class, not yet anyway). I’ve seen enough of the world to know that the sense of scarcity or abundance, fear or magnanimity, has little to do with actual material resources. Plenty of rich people are freaked about money all the time, and plenty of happy people have little or no money to speak of.
Money is awesome, though, I can tell you that. I freaking love money and I can’t wait to get more of it. It is SO USEFUL. I want lots of it and I hope you get a lot, too. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Why is that? They say love of money is the root of all evil. I disagree. I think selfishness is the root of most evil. Money can make people act weird, but when there’s plenty to go around, well, it’s relaxing. My dog and my parrot are good friends because they both have always had plenty to eat. A couple of days of empty bowls and it would all be over. That will never be a problem, though. They don’t have to worry about having enough to eat because I don’t have to worry about the price of pet food. That’s because when it comes down to it, they really need very little to keep going. At our house, the priority is on being together. Pet food is an incidental and relatively trivial line item.
Scarcity is constant fear and anxiety. I used to dream about plates of steaming hot food when I was a little girl. Usually it was breakfast: scrambled eggs, toast with jam, sausage, and hash browns, with a glass of orange juice on the side. The dream would be so vivid I could smell it. I would startle awake, terrified I was going to jostle the plate and spill everything. No such plate ever appeared. Hunger gnaws at the mind at least as much as the belly. It took me decades to start shaking loose that fear of missing meals or not getting enough to eat. It also took me years to be able to swipe my debit card at the grocery store without cringing, thinking the payment would not be approved, even when I knew full well that I had plenty of money in the bank. I still hide cash in various places, for what reason I’m not sure. I was afraid to sign the lease on my first apartment, fearing I would get laid off and be stuck for months with no income. I was just as afraid when I signed the lease on my first house, for the same reason. It never happened. That sense of dread about bad financial outcomes has never helped me to get better jobs, earn more money, or enjoy life.
It is far easier to earn more than it is to save more. There is no upper income limit, but even the most frugal person can only cut back to zero dollars. I know how it’s done; I could start living on the barter system tomorrow, if I liked. There are a lot of people who would be delighted to trade me room and board for my housekeeping services alone; that was true even before I learned to cook. Why stop there, though? I have a lot more to offer than my ability to sew buttons, scrub bathtubs, and entertain young children. These are not negligible offerings to the world; the trouble comes when poverty makes them feel like a burden instead of a love gift. Poverty destroys focus. Scarcity generates more scarcity; it spreads like mold. Abundance spreads like light, from the first flickering candle to the bright glare of full sun.
The best things in life are free. It’s a cliché because it’s 100% true. Hugs, laughter, nature, creating artwork, conversation, being with friends and loved ones, dancing, singing – none of that stuff costs a nickel. Whether we allow ourselves to enjoy any of it depends entirely on attitude.
Abundance is the secure knowledge that there is plenty and more on its way. The abundance mentality focuses on getting maximum value out of experiences and things. This by no means requires diamonds or grand pianos or yachts. It just requires appreciation and gratitude. The other things are available, though, and they are legitimate. Grand pianos are made to be played. Yachts create a lot of jobs. Diamonds? Okay, there are a lot of political ramifications around diamonds (and I don’t own any, and never have). But it doesn’t have to be that way; there is no practical reason why diamonds can’t be gotten ethically through fair trade. True abundance includes the ready sense that everyone in the world could indeed have access to food, education, sanitation, and basic human rights. As a starting point.
The point of the “COME ON, MONEY!” ritual was to embrace a sense of possibility. Money is simply energy. It’s a symbol. It’s a convenient way to transfer value. It is inherently neutral. I’m ready to be a billionaire; I’d be darned good at it. I would get rolling on philanthropic projects the very second day, after I filled a claw-foot bathtub with $100 bills and had my picture taken in it. I’d start with homelessness in my region and move on to literacy programs after that. Come to think of it, I don’t need a billion dollars to do those things, but you already knew that, right? Abundance is about knowing what to do with prosperity when it shows up. Outrageous dreams – do you have them? What are they? Do they indeed cost actual cash dollars, or could they come true the moment the wish was formed?
Money is a shortcut. It solves problems quickly that can also be solved slowly through other means. Money is a tool. It gets things done. Money is leverage. It creates scenarios that enable the creation of other scenarios. We don’t need money to make great things happen. It really helps, though, to change our perceptions of what money is and what it does. It helps us learn possibility thinking, even when all we have previously known was naysaying and scarcity. This world was made for us to use and enjoy, and we were made for this world to use and enjoy as well. We are here for our own specific purposes, none of which can be fulfilled when we remain stuck in anxiety and blocked energy.
New Year’s Resolutions do not seem to work for most people. I have a lot of theories about this, which I will most likely share at the New Year. For now, let’s focus on today, which happens to be the autumnal equinox. Fall reminds many people of going back to school, a time to get new clothes, a new haircut, and new school supplies. It is a time of nostalgia, driven by the sound of crunching leaves and the scent of freshly sharpened pencils. We are burned out by the summer heat, enjoying the rain and cooler weather, and ready to turn inward as we head indoors for pumpkin spice everything and hot soup.
Every animal prepares for winter. “Winter is coming!” (Well, someone had to say it). Traditional people would take this time to repair the roof, lay aside firewood, make warm clothes, and generally make sure they, their families, and their animals had a good chance of surviving extreme cold and lack of fresh food.
Modern people are fortunate to be able to avoid almost all of these concerns. Technology allows us to live each day as the day before. We no longer have a built-in rhythm to inspire regular life review. The benefits of strategic planning may have escaped us entirely.
Two of the most important factors in a happy life are living in reality and minimizing downsides. Any positive feelings based on a misunderstanding or denial of reality are destined to end in tears. High-risk behavior similarly tends to end badly. Periodically, we need to pause and examine the way we are conducting our lives, checking to make sure that our assumptions are being borne out. Are our actions delivering the results we had anticipated? Given the current trend line, is the destination actually where we had planned to arrive?
My favorite tool for life review is called a life wheel. I have been unable to discover the name of the person who first introduced this concept, but at this point, iterations are everywhere. Feel free to rename the categories to whatever feels the best for you. The idea is to rate your own satisfaction with each category on a scale of 1 to 10. Connect the dots, making a shape. This allows for a quick visualization of any imbalances or “living small.” In an ideal world, my shape would fill the circle of the life wheel completely, with 10 out of 10 in each category. In reality, what I tend to get is more like a jagged, deflated Beachball. Since this is based on my own evaluation of my own life choices, it is a little easier for me to accept the obvious message that there are areas where I could be doing better.
Health. Sleep, nutrition, hydration, physical fitness, mental and emotional well-being.
Finances. Income, savings, and investments.
Work. Creative output, contribution, career growth, and whatever you do to make money.
Romance. Loving someone, or making space in your heart and life to do so.
Family/friends. Being emotionally available for those you love the most.
Community. Volunteering, being a good citizen and neighbor.
Personal environment. Hearth, home, and anywhere you choose to spend your time.
Personal growth. Education, inner work, personal development, philosophy, spiritual growth, forgiveness, etc.
Many life wheels substitute the category of community for hobbies or recreation. I do not include a category for hobbies or recreation, because I believe almost everyone turns to this area as a default activity. Most of us are never going to forget to have fun. We are much more likely to burn through all of our free time in entertainment and downtime than we are to do strategic review or keep up on all of our responsibilities. There is nothing wrong with spending a certain amount of time screwing off, playing games, staring at the wall, reading, or what have you. There is something wrong with neglecting our health, neglecting to save for our old age, abdicating our responsibilities, or procrastinating on serious legal, medical, or financial issues. Problems are a sign that we should be doing something differently.
I will now share some of my goals for each category, making my own life an example of how this process can be done.
Health: I have two backpacking trips planned this season. This is a big deal, because I have been out of commission most of this year due to my ankle injury. Recovery has been agonizingly slow and disappointing. I finally feel ready to tackle something that for me is a physical treat. Starting to be able to do real workouts again.
Finances. Focusing on paying off my student loan early. Due to precisely this kind of strategic planning, I have no consumer debt and my credit score is over 800.
Work. I have an absurd amount of projects in the pipeline right now. My weakest area is in executing and moving these projects to completion. This is when I look at how little is left of 2015, and anticipate how I am going to feel on New Year’s Eve when I look at the list of things I have not finished. Can I make the “Done” List longer than the “Not Done” list?
Romance. Perhaps what I’m best at. If you knew him the way I do, you’d love him too.
Family/friends. It is still hard for me to live so far away from almost everyone I care about. The backpacking trips and Thanksgiving should be great opportunities for me to spend more time with important people in my life.
Community. Coaching, and going to Mensa events.
Personal environment: I am starting to downsize again, with an eye toward hopefully buying a house next year. This will be my 28th move in my adult life, and I know it is easier when there is less stuff to move and unpack. I have made almost no progress in culling my book collection, the way I had planned to do at the beginning of the year.
Personal growth: Working on this block I seem to have about earning money from my creative output. Upgrading my foreign language study to include foreign-language media such as podcasts and TV shows. Reminding myself that I was going to study anatomy and geography this year.
This season, I am experimenting with a new practice. I am working on scrum as a work technique. This involves making a complete list of every project I have in mind, and scheduling progress in two-week sprints. This looks like a more effective way to make sure I make progress on all of my goals, rather than waiting for the turn of the year as I have done since I was nine years old. More on scrum later.
That’s my autumn 2015. What does yours look like?
I’ve shopped at plenty of yard sales in my time. I’ve also climbed in a few dumpsters. I’ve been to the Goodwill bulk bins more than once. I’ve been the recipient of at least a hundred pounds of hand-me-down clothing. I’ve bought and sold various things at flea markets. All this is to say that I’m no stranger to used clothing, and I’m an old hand at haggling over bargains. But I’ve said goodbye to all that.
Yard sales are probably the least efficient possible method of buying and selling anything. What bargain-hunters want are tools, electronics, sporting equipment, and valuable antiques. They’ll show up and knock at your door at 6 AM looking for those things unless you post a sign telling them not to. No early vultures! Er, birds. What most people try to sell at yard sales are clothes, kitchen stuff, old housewares, decorations, toys, and books. Sellers want close to the purchase price, and buyers want to pay the same 15 cents they would have paid in 1979. Buyers will try to offer you $3 for your dining table, or walk into your garage trying to buy the motorcycle or shop tools you use every day. The chance that a random passerby will fit in the clothes on offer, or be interested in specific old books, is very small.
The last time we held a yard sale, it felt like a necessity. We’d relocated to a new city with only two weeks’ notice, and while our rental house was freshly remodeled, it was a lot smaller than our old place. After unpacking, we had a lot of furniture and housewares that just wouldn’t fit. We were down the street from a huge flea market, so we figured we’d try to make some money. The result was that we sat in the driveway from breakfast time through dinner and made about $100.
What is the value of a summer Saturday? How much is it worth for two newlyweds to have a free day together, with no chores or obligations? What would we have paid for a day spent floating down the river in inner tubes, napping together, or having a picnic at the city park? We traded that time for about $5 an hour apiece. It would have been a better use of our time to go work at KFC for the day. It was hotter than the hinges of hell, and my favorite scissors accidentally got donated, and no fun was had.
What I’ve come to believe is that every material object has a useful lifespan. What I pay is the price of having it for the duration that I need it. I’ll throw away a pair of socks when the heels are worn through (and I probably should do it sooner). I’ll eat a banana and compost the peel. Stuff comes and goes. Why should I be more attached to books or clothes than I am to food, soap, sponges, or anything else that gets used up? Almost anything can be recycled, repaired, resold, or donated after I’m done with it. It can have another useful lifespan for another person, or in another form. If it sits in my house unused, I’m locking away its value. Sometimes the remainder of its usefulness is squandered because I couldn’t let go of it. It could have gone to someone else, but I clung to it until it expired, went out of style, or got all musty and funky. “Saving” things often means preventing them from truly being saved.
Frugality is an important, valuable skill. More people could have a better quality of life if we all worked harder to make the most out of our money and possessions. Landfills would be a lot smaller, for one thing. The hungry could be fed quite easily on what our culture wastes. We have to remember, though, that our time is also valuable. When we focus on scarcity, on trying to squeeze every last penny out of our old spatulas, we become blind to the possibilities of abundance. What else could we be doing with our time and space? A classic example of this is paying $1200 a year for a storage unit, when everything in it could be replaced with brand-new versions for less. Often, there is virtually no resale value for anything in these units. (I’ve cleaned out storage units that were full of stained mattresses, rusted-out and expired canned food, boxes of moldy paperbacks and damp, unopened junk mail, old phone books, obsolete electronics, and ruined old clothes). Multiply this times however many millions of storage units there are now. Where are our priorities?
Our time here on this earth is so precious. There may come a day when I would happily trade my right arm for one more summer Saturday with my husband, like the day we wasted trying to sell a few bar stools and an extra set of silverware. Shutting down that thought… What if we had just donated everything and created free space in the garage to make and sell $100 of something? What if we had shrugged it off and volunteered to serve at the soup kitchen that day instead? The $100 we made could have vanished in a month, on a cable subscription or a storage unit or a few trips to the movie theater or a bunch of soda, chips, and cookies.
Yard sales make me sad, partly because they bring out the greedy, stingy side of humanity, but mostly because I know most of the shoppers are genuinely hard up. I know because I lived that life and I’ve been that person. It’s just as much a waste of time for them, because transportation is harder and their leisure time is so much more valuable. You can earn a lot more from a side gig than you can save by scraping the barrel and hunting for the biggest bargains. The hardest part of escaping poverty is learning to think like a prosperous person, and yardsaling is simply not the best way to do that. That’s why I always donate stuff when it’s outlived its usefulness to me, now.
After our sad, wasted yard sale day in the biscuit-baking heat, we dropped off the ¾ of the stuff that didn’t get sold at the Goodwill. Weeks later, we learned we were being transferred again, and we had two weeks’ notice to move across country. Even more of our stuff was going to have to go – or so we thought. At the last minute, my husband managed to find a new job in our state. This eventually led to a promotion and a raise, and a lot of overtime and business travel, and our precious free time together became even more precious than before. It’s brought us closer together and reminded us that our relationship is important, while our possessions are trivial. We’ll never waste another hour at a yard sale again.
When I was 7, I tried to teach myself to read two books at once, one for each eye. After about an hour of experimentation, I decided it was too hard for little kids and that I’d have to try again when I was an adult. It took a university course in neurolinguistics before I fully let go of that dream. Speed reading apps are a reasonable facsimile.
Note: This review was inspired by my indignation toward the ReadQuick app, toward which I feel the gamut of emotions of a jilted lover. I had a crush on you from afar, I fell in love with you the moment we met, we spent all that time together… and now you want to limit my access behind a pay wall? I paid $10 for you! (Okay, the emotions of a jilted lover plus those of a thwarted skinflint).
Let’s start with ReadQuick as the baseline for speed reading apps. Basically, the app allows you to load news articles and read them more quickly by showing only one word at a time. The technical term for how many words appear on-screen at a time is ‘fixations.’ (Seems legit… ) ReadQuick can bookmark articles, and it can also draw from other bookmarking services such as Pocket and Instapaper. I use it with Pocket. I’ve found that certain articles in my Pocket Queue will not appear in my ReadQuick queue, generally if they start with a large illustration. Some articles would begin at a random place in the middle, or stop at the first page, due to either illustrations or formatting. At least 90% of my reading material was unaffected by these problems. I liked that each article in the queue showed a reading time based on my current reading speed. It’s currently set at 610 words per minute, triple the average unassisted reading pace. I was able to train upward by 10-wpm increments. It would sometimes crash after I had finished a long article, but the new revision seems to have fixed that. The new revision appears to allow increased fixations, but I’m still having a fit of pique about having to pay another $10 for a $10 app, so I can’t confirm it.
When I first got the app, I was frustrated that it would not accommodate books due to DRM issues. Now that I’ve read a few thousand news articles on it, I no longer think it would suit my style to read fiction on it. There are a lot of typographic conventions, such conversational formatting and mid-chapter section breaks, that would seem to affect comprehension. I like speed-reading best for keeping up on the news. I prefer to have the gist of many stories so that I have time to delve into a greater proportion of long-form reportage.
Accelerator (formerly known as Velocity) is the next app I tried. At $2.99, it’s a lot cheaper than ReadQuick. The reading experience is virtually indistinguishable if the two are set on the same speed and background. They each have features that the other doesn’t, so I’ll compare them.
· Same: Black/white, white/black, and sepia themes, just like iBooks and Kindle. Set speed up to 1000 words per minute. Read from Instapaper, Pocket, and Readability. Archive articles after reading. Both apps are stumped by slide shows. Neither app allows sorting the queue with oldest first.
· Different: ReadQuick reads from Feedly and Evernote; Accelerator reads from the web. ReadQuick queue shows reading time and whether article is finished; Accelerator only shows this from reading view. ReadQuick allows deletion as well as archiving. ReadQuick allows web view; Accelerator allows plain text view.
Accelerator is my new default news reader. I do miss a few features from ReadQuick. My favorite feature was the icon that shows how long each article will take to read. Accelerator also neglects to show the source of the original article. The best of both worlds would be an app that combined everything from both apps. It would allow a web view as well as a plain text view; it would show the source of each article and how long it would take to read. Maybe it would also cost $12.98. Eh, no app is perfect. The reading experience itself is the key feature, and that is fully optimized in my opinion.
Acceleread is a different sort of enterprise altogether. It’s designed to train people to read faster and with better comprehension. I took a reading speed test of traditionally formatted text, and it gave me 400 words per minute with 100% comprehension. It comes with some pre-copyright novels, of which I had already read 17 out of 20. As far as I can tell, Acceleread is designed to read DRM-free books, not news articles, so it is a different use case. I tested it out, though. It wants to orient sideways. It allows multiple lines as well as multiple fixations per line. This does seem to be the best way to train for comprehension as well as speed, and it also seems to be a better transition to traditional text on paper. I’m talking myself into giving it a try for fiction, but I’ll have to find something DRM-free that I really want to read.
Sprint is a free iOS app based on Spritz. There are several iterations, including one for PDFs and one for ePub books, called ReadMe!. I about fainted when I saw that. It’s great, but as far as I can tell it does not support my library’s ePub catalog. The Spritz-based style is distinctive, with a logo, user name, reading speed, and playback buttons prominently displayed at all times. Speed tops out at 1000 wpm and can be adjusted in 25-wpm increments. Back to the Sprint app. It can read websites, which is a different use case from Accelerator or ReadQuick. Sprint does not work on everything. I logged into my Pocket account and was not able to Sprint anything. I couldn’t speed-read my own website, though that is probably a good thing, as you really need to pontificate on my magisterial writing skills to get the most out of my scintillating wit and iconoclastic observations. Sprint would be a good supplement for Accelerator, as their draw may be mutually exclusive for a lot of web content.
What I really want is a configurable auto-scroll setting on e-book readers that support DRM content. Kindle and iBooks, I am looking at you. When I buy a book, I should be able to read it in any format I like. I want auto-scroll and I want a ceiling projection display. My old Palm PDA from the year 2000 had an app with auto-scroll, and I could buy e-books from Barnes & Noble with it. Why can’t I have this on my phone? WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY!
Should we speed-read, though? A million new books were published in English last year. The average dedicated reader can enjoy 3000 books in a lifetime. It would be magnificent if we could somehow double this, or triple it, and still get the same comprehension and leisure value, in the same way that we can double the number of cats in a lap. I speed-read, and I also read e-books and print at normal speed. I listen to audio books, sometimes at 1.5 or 2x speed. I listen to podcasts as well. Like most people, when introduced to a new medium of information processing, I add it to my repertoire and continue using all the same formats I used before. Speed-reading is fantastic for skimming through a large volume of ephemera, like the news, though perhaps less so for assessing whether something is suitable for a research project. It would be pointless for poetry or plays or children’s literature or graphic novels. Woe betide anyone who tries to speed-read while learning a foreign language. In short, I adore it, because it suits my temperament, but I don’t think it’s for everyone and I definitely don’t think it’s for everything.
Adam Braun’s book really got to me. There are a lot of things to love about it. The most obvious, of course, is that it is about his foundation, Pencils of Promise, which has built over 300 schools in the developing world. This type of work is so inherently interesting that I would have read an article about it in a dry academic journal.
Braun explains his thought process, his emotions, and his mistakes in detail. He paints a very mixed portrait of himself. On one hand, he’s a passionately driven man who walked away from a lucrative job to build a charity. On the other hand, he’s a hard-drinking party boy who flakes off at work, dresses inappropriately, and makes painfully embarrassing gaffes. He works hard to show that he is in fact an ordinary person. Sharing the emotional as well as practical highs and lows of the project is a compelling level of honesty.
This is the story of how a random passing thought becomes reality. Braun shares the birth of his idea, when he met a little boy and asked what he would want if he could have anything in the world. The kid asked for… a pencil. And Braun gave him one. It really was that simple. The Promise of a Pencil is about following an idea and growing it over time. It’s about fighting naysayers. It’s about convincing others of the clarity of a vision so that they are invested in making it into concrete reality. In the right hands, it might serve as inspiration to other charitable ventures.
The romantic version of abdication is that of Edward VIII giving up his throne to be with Wallis Simpson. I mean, gosh! What a woman! What an affair! They even got to keep the fame, the fortune, and the servants! But they were Nazi sympathizers, so phooey on them. Let’s talk about garden variety abdication, the kind that ordinary people do every day.
Abdicating responsibility is refusing to fulfill an obligation or uphold a duty. These duties and obligations generally fall under the category of ‘adulting.’ People who live alone can ditch on many of these obligations without too much trouble, because nobody else will be bothered by their squalid living conditions, save for the rare occasions when a visitor drops by. When we live with other people, abdicating domestic tasks becomes a burden and infringes on their rights.
An example of abdication comes from a woman I met who was married, with a grade school-aged son and a new baby. She complained that she had to change all the diapers, “because if either of them do it they’ll puke.” I shared this story with my husband, who raised his daughter and stepson and has changed many diapers. He said, “Do it on the bathroom floor then and lean over and puke into the toilet! Get over it!” I’ve changed hundreds of diapers and I agree. You learn to fight your gag reflex until eventually it stops kicking in. Maybe a sibling doesn’t need to be expected to help with infant care, but a parent does. Children are 90% exhausting, messy, thankless, and expensive, with the occasional adorable moment thrown in. It’s not fair to expect the other parent to take on more than a fair share of the work.
Abdicating takes many forms. I’ve met people who admit to utterly refusing to drive, cook, do laundry, get a job, get a better job, go to bed at the same time as their spouse, stop doing a behavior that they know full well drives their spouse up the wall, stop letching after other people, be honest, follow a budget, pick up after themselves, and all sorts of other things. I’ve even heard multiple examples of couples in their 30s in a power struggle over one partner’s personal hygiene. It goes beyond failing to be kind or loving or considerate. There’s a strong element of prolonged adolescence (or toddlerhood). The fight for absolute autonomy and personal sovereignty continues to the point of satire. “You’re not the boss of me!” Right. Nobody is. That’s the problem.
What we fail to understand when we abdicate our responsibilities is that this behavior is self-limiting. If we do it on the job, it leads inevitably to being first on the layoff list. If we do it in our romantic relationships, we don’t always realize that this behavior only works in the context of the current relationship. Most people won’t put up with this sort of BS. If our current partner ever snaps and develops some backbone, we may very well find ourselves alone and undateable. If our roommates throw us out, we may find that we can’t keep a roof over our heads either.
Maturity and competence are their own rewards. Maintaining a power struggle gets tiresome. Why die on this particular hill? Why not assert personal autonomy by creating art or rising on the career ladder? “I don’t have to” doesn’t lead to nearly as many interesting places as “I can do this and watch what else.” Or “I can love you better than anyone else can.”
Sometimes the pendulum of give and take swings temporarily much farther in one direction. One of us gets the flu and the other doesn’t. One of us has a sports injury. One of us is laid off and depressed. One of us is working statutorily absurd amounts of overtime. One of us is in a bad place emotionally and turning inward instead of outward. It’s a natural human reaction to become increasingly selfish when under any kind of stress, pressure, or drama. We start listening to the cartoon shoulder-devil that justifies our behavior when we’re lazy, rude, mean, or trying to build a rational case for an irrational double standard. We also have the option to choose patience and to wait out our partner’s neglect or snits or tantrums from time to time. We can troubleshoot and try to figure out how to defuse the power struggles that inevitably come up. We can step up and say, “HEY! This is not cool. It’s time to snap out of it.” We can listen hard and try to be a good friend, even when they least seem to deserve one. One way or the other, we can turn toward each other and find a way through it together. Everyone has a rough patch from time to time. Maybe we just need a nap and a snack and a hug.
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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